This book by Bevin Alexander has a subtitle, “How Three Generals Unleashed Blitzkrieg Upon the World,” and is an excellent book for people interested in military history. The three generals were Erich von Manstein, Heinz Guderian, and Erwin Rommel, and they developed a military strategy that opposed that of the German high command and Hitler. My simplistic summary is that they refused to fight battles on a wide front. They led with concentrated panzer attacks against the widely-spread “penny packets” of French tanks. They almost always outpaced the infantry divisions that followed. They refused to slow the assault to allow consolidation of the flanks, which the high command believed would be vulnerable to counterattack. The conventional thinking was that the French army, which was “…the most formidable and best-equipped army in Europe…” with their British, Holland, and Belgian allies would pinch in from the sides and capture the tanks and soldiers in the deep penetration. The remarkable outcome was that the massive French army mostly just surrendered at the shock of how quickly the center of their front had been destroyed by Nazi fire power. The Luftwaffe supported the attacks with old and slow Stuka dive bombers that could precisely target French tanks or other forces that stood in the way. Static warfare that had been the norm throughout World War I was replaced by “maneuver warfare,” or Blitzkrieg.
The book portrays how the German generals continually successfully implemented their concentrated assaults and refused to acknowledge orders from the high command to stop and allow the supporting troops to catch up. Overall military organization is also described as being valuable to the Germans and paralyzing to the French. German commanders believed they should lead from the front where they could quickly recognize situations presented by opposing forces and terrain and make immediate adjustments. French units couldn’t deviate from existing orders without written orders, which often took days to be prepared and delivered. The German commanders also had the admiration and support of their soldiers, which resulted in achieving sometimes incredible results. Rommel was said to insist on being in the first vehicle going forward in an assault. Once he insisted on standing on the middle of a bridge important to a planned attack that was under bombardment by British bombers. He wanted it known how valuable the bridge was to German plans and risked his life to demonstrate it.
There are isolated examples of individual French bravery that sometimes temporarily thwarted the German progress. However, most of the French simply surrendered in the absence of front line leadership and the spectacle of German might. There are many photographs of specific subjects and actions and are a highlight of the book. I think my favorite is on page 190. It is of a French unit that has surrendered marching in front of a German honor guard. The French are led by a dog and, presumably, the officers. The marching soldiers following are just beginning to turn a corner to the street leading in front of the Germans. The soldiers are carrying their rifles with bayonets fixed! The book comments that the French soldiers often were not disarmed, but occasionally some nervous Germans made the soldiers throw their rifles under the treads of the panzers.
A major theme is that the German military handed Hitler the ability to have complete domination of all Europe and beyond with their defeat of France, Belgium, and Holland and the eviction of the British from the continent in six short weeks. Hitler “…put the brakes on the advance. At precisely the moment when German forces were about to seize the port of Dunkirk, Hitler ordered the tanks to stop and allowed the entire British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to escape.” This was described as the “…single most devastating military mistake in modern times.” Hitler passed on the chance to capture almost all of the professional British army along with nearly all the top commanders. His actions were brought on by a counterattack by British forces against Germans at the city of Arras in northern France. Rommel led his forces against the disorganized counterattacking forces, but one flank of the Germans came under heavy bombardment that created chaos in the German infantry. The British tank attack was “…handicapped by little infantry support, less artillery support, and no air support.” The result was another tactical defeat of the British but “…stunned the German high command, most especially Adolf Hitler, because it played directly into his fear of a flank attack.”
There were half million Allies “…cut off in the giant cauldron in Belgium and northern France. Their only hope was to retreat to the English Channel, form a defensive perimeter, and hope for evacuation by sea. Heinz Guderian’s panzers were on the coast and faced little opposition to stop the Allies from completing the rescue. The German high command ordered one panzer division to stop and be held in reserve, which blunted the plans to seize Calais, Boulogne, and Dunkirk. The left wing of the German army was ordered to stop and forbidden to advance. There are historical arguments whether Hitler himself ordered the stop. The book concludes it did not originate with him, but he endorsed it against emotional protests from divisional and corps commanders. Thus the British were able to put into effect “Operation Dynamo,” which resulted in every sea worthy craft that could be found being used to travel back and forth across the English Channel to extract trapped soldiers. The Luftwaffe bombed the area for five days, but the bombs mostly buried themselves in soft sand on impact, which deadened the explosions.
A French officer who made it to the coast and was taken to England on a ship named the Royal Daffodil. He made the touching comment, “All things, as we shipped away, seemed to be in a conspiracy to accentuate the overwhelming and purely selfish feeling of relief which filled my mind as I thought of the prisoners’ fate which I had so narrowly escaped.”
The evacuation had the advantage of good weather and the fact that Dunkirk was near for British air cover and at the limit of range for the Luftwaffe. Not everyone made it to England. There were 243 of the 861 craft used in the operation that were sunk. A total of 370,000 soldiers made it to England. There were 247,000 English and 123,000 French, most of which were transported back to unoccupied France. Half a million, including the Belgians, surrendered. The British lost all their vehicles and gear, and the only defense remaining was the RAF and Royal Navy.
The theories of why Hitler made the militarily disastrous decision that allowed Dunkirk included that he wanted the good will to reach an accommodation with the English, even though allowing the British to escape was the opposite way of gaining a peace agreement. Another theory was that the military thought the ground on Flanders was too marshy for the panzers, which wasn’t true. The most commonly accepted theory was, to put it delicately for the German high command, that Hitler made a stupid decision.
Page 233 has an interesting discussion of how Stalin collected the spoils of his pact with the Germans. “On June 14, the day that Paris fell, the Soviet government of Joseph Stalin commenced collecting its spoils…It issued an ultimatum to Lithuania and, over the next few days to Latvia and Estonia, and quickly annexed these Baltic states. A few days later it demanded cession by Romania of Bessarabia (Moldova) and northern Bukovina. There was nothing anyone could do to save these regions from Soviet tyranny.” This makes me wonder what FDR was thinking when he acted as if he believed he could trust “Uncle Joe.”