On Friday, 1 September 1939, the German armies invaded Poland. On Sunday, the 3rd, the British government declared war on Germany, in fulfilment of the guarantee it had earlier given to Poland. Six hours later the French government, more reluctantly, followed the British lead.
Within less than a month Poland had been overrun. Within nine months most of Western Europe had been submerged by the spreading flood of war.
Could Poland have held out longer?
Could France and Britain have done more than they did to take the German pressure off Poland?
On the face of figures of armed strength, as now known, the answer to both questions would, at first sight, seem to be “yes.”
The German army was far from being ready for war in 1939. The Poles and French together had the equivalent of 150 divisions, including thirty five reserve divisions, and from which some had to be kept for French overseas commitments, against the German total of ninety-eight divisions, of which thirty-six were in an untrained state. Out of the forty divisions which the Germans left to defend their western frontier, only four were active divisions, fully trained and equipped. But Hitler’s strategy had placed France in a situation where she could only relieve pressure on Poland by developing a quick attack – a form of action for which her army was unfitted. Her old-fashioned mobilisation plan was slow in producing the required weight of forces, and her offensive plans dependent on a mass of heavy artillery which was not ready until the sixteenth day. By that time the Polish Army’s resistance was collapsing.
Poland was badly handicapped by her strange strategic situation – the country being placed like a “tongue” between Germany’s jaws, and Poland strategy made the situation worse by placing the bulk of her forces near the tip of the tongue. Moreover, these forces were out of date in equipment and ideas, still placing faith in a large mass of horsed cavalry – which proved helpless against the German tanks.
The Germans at that time had only six armoured and four mechanised divisions ready, but thanks to General Guderian’s enthusiasm, and Hitler’s backing, they had gone farther than any other army in adopting the new idea of high-speed mechanised warfare that had been conceived twenty years earlier by the British pioneers of this new kind and tempo of action. The Germans had also developed a much stronger air force than any of the other countries whereas not only the Poles, but the French also were badly lacking in air power, even to support and cover their armies.
Thus Poland saw the first triumphant demonstration of the new Blitzkrieg technique by the Germans, while the Western allies of Poland were still in the process of preparing for war on customary lines. On 17 September the Red Army advanced across Poland’s eastern frontier, a blow in the back that sealed her fate, as she had scarcely any troops left to oppose this second invasion.
The rapid overrunning of Poland was followed by a six months’ lull – christened the “Phoney War” by onlookers who were deceived by the surface appearance of calm. A truer name would have been the “Winter of Illusion.” For the leaders as well as the public in the Western countries spent the time in framing fanciful plans for attacking Germany’s flanks – and talked about them all too openly,
In reality, there was no prospect of France and Britain ever being able, alone, to develop the strength required to overcome Germany. Their best hope, now that Germany and Russia faced each other on a common border, was that friction would develop between these two mutually distrustful confederates, and draw Hitler’s explosive force eastward instead, instead of westward. That happened a year later, and might well have happened earlier if the Western Allies had not been impatient – as is the way of democracies.
Their loud and threatening talk of attacking Germany’s flanks spurred Hitler to forestall them. His first stroke was to occupy Norway. The captured records of his conferences show that until early in 1940, he still considered “the maintenance of Norway’s neutrality to be the best course” for Germany, but that in February he came to the conclusion that “the English intend to land there, and I want to be there before them.” A small German invading force arrived there on 9 April, upsetting the British plans for gaining control of that neutral area – and captured the chief ports while the Norwegian’s attention was absorbed by the British naval advance into Norwegian waters.
Hitler’s next stroke was against England and France and the Low Countries on 10 May. He had started to prepare the previous autumn when the Allies rejected the peace offer he had made after defeating Poland – feeling that to knock out France offered the best chance of making Britain agree to peace. But bad weather and doubts of his generals had caused repeated postponements from November onwards (1939). Then on 10 January a German officer who was flying to Bonn with papers about the plan missed his way in a snowstorm and landed in Belgium. This miscarriage caused the offensive to be put off until May, and it was radically recast meanwhile.That turned out very unfortunately for the Allies, and temporarily very lucky for Hitler, while changing the whole outlook for the war.
For the old plan, with the main advance going through the canal-lined area of central Belgium, would in fact have led to a head-on collision with the best part of the Franco-British forces, and so would probably have ended in failure – shaking Hitler’s prestige. But the new plans suggested by Manstein took the Allies completely by surprise and threw them off their balance, with disastrous results. For while they were pushing forward into Belgium, to meet the Germans’ opening assault there and in Holland, the mass of the German tanks – seven panzer divisions – drove through the hilly and wooded Ardennes, which the Allied High Command considered impassable to tanks. Crossing the Meuse with little opposition, they broke through the weak hinge of the Allied front, and then swept on westward to the Channel coast behind the back of the Allies’ armies in Belgium, cutting their communications. This decided the issue – before the bulk of the German infantry had even come into action. The British army barely managed to escape by sea from Dunkirk. The Belgians and a large part of the French were forced to surrender. The consequences were irreparable. For when the Germans struck southward, the week after Dunkirk, the remaining French armies proved incapable of withstanding them.
Yet never was a world-shaking disaster more easily preventable. The panzer thrust could have been stopped long before reaching the Channel by a concentrated counterstroke with similar forces. But the French though having more and better tanks than their enemy, had strung them out in small packets in the 1918 way.
The thrust could have been stopped earlier, on the Meuse if the French had not rushed into Belgium leaving their hinge so weak, or had moved reserves there sooner. But the French Command had not only regarded the Ardennes as impassable to tanks but reckoned that any attack on the Meuse would be a set-piece assault in the 1918 style, and would take nearly a week to prepare after arrival there, thus allowing the French ample time to bring up reserves. But the panzer forces reached the river early on 13 May and stormed the crossing that afternoon. A “tank time” pace of action bowled over an out of date “slow motion.”
But the Blitzkrieg pace was only possible because the Allied leaders had not grasped the new technique, and so did not know how to counter it. The thrust could have been stopped before it even reached the Meuse if the approaches had been well covered with minefields. It could have been stopped even if the mines were lacking – by the simple expedient of felling the trees along the forest roads which led to the Meuse. The loss of time in clearing them would have been fatal to the German chances.*
*A French friend of mine, then in charge of a sector on the Meuse, begged the High Command for permission to do this, but was told that the roads must be kept clear for the advance of the French cavalry. These cavalry duly pushed into the Ardennes but came out more rapidly and routed, with the German tanks on their heels.
After the fall of France, there was a popular tendency to ascribe it to the poor state of French morale, and to assume that the fall was inevitable. That is a fallacy, a case of “putting the cart before the horse.” The collapse of French morale only occurred after the military breakthrough- which could so easily have been prevented. By 1942 all armies had learned how to check the Blitzkrieg attack – but a lot would have been saved if they had learned before the war.