Friday, October 4, 2013

Objective: France 1940

Blitzkrieg from the Ardennes

German armor in the Ardennes

With the defeat of Poland in September 1939, Hitler turned immediately to the problem of his western border and hostilities with both Britain and France.  Hitler’s strategy had always been for Germany’s eventual expansion into the vast open spaces of the Soviet Union, particularly the grain and mineral rich region of the Ukraine.  Then, too, there was southern-most Russia, rich in oil, along the Caspian Sea.  All this treasure was out of reach so long as Germany feared having to do battle on two fronts – Russia in the east and the allied forces of Britain and France to the west.

Hitler needed a plan that would quickly eliminate England and France’s military threat before proceeding with an invasion of Russia.  In October 1939 the German Military High Command proposed an offensive that was much like the Schlieffen Plan Germany used in 1914.  Even if this assault through the low countries of Belgium and Holland and continuing into northern France proved successful, it would not provide the quick, decisive victory Hitler needed.  The Allied armies would be pushed back but not destroyed.  Germany simply did not have the resources available to it to successfully prosecute a prolonged war of attrition.  The take-over of Austria and Czechoslovakia had been bloodless.  Victory in Poland had been swift.  Hitler’s plan to dominate Europe involved first isolating one’s adversary from their natural allies before dispatching them in short order.  His non-aggression pact with Stalin allowed him to safely focus on the west, but now his generals were charged with the daunting challenge of designing an offensive that could quickly defeat an opponent of equal size and strength.

General Erich von Manstein brought Hitler a plan that intrigued him with its boldness.  There would once again be swift movement by German forces into both Belgium and Holland but it would be a feint, drawing the best of the British and French forces forward to prearranged defensive positions along the rivers Dyle and Meuse in Belgium.  The intended knockout punch would be delivered to the southeast, along a lightly defended line facing the dense Ardennes forest.  French commanders were convinced this region of wilderness and rugged terrain was a natural barrier that would block a large enemy assault.    

There was complacency in the disposition of troops in the area around the French town of Sedan.  They were mostly lightly armed infantry, often older in age, and not of the caliber a commander would rely upon for a critical mission.  When the freight train of panzer divisions broke suddenly from the Ardennes forest these soldiers held their ground but they barely slowed the irresistible force of massed tank attack coordinated with the precision bombing of German Stukas diving from above.  This was a new form of warfare.  It emphasized armor, speed and a narrow focus of attack. 

Despite having defensive positions along the Meuse River French lines were breached in multiple locations by the following morning.  German armor, led by Heinz Guderian, penetrated deep into the open countryside, enveloping the opposing forces, spreading confusion and causing a paralysis of indecision among the French high command.  The assault, spearheaded by seven German panzer divisions, would rapidly make their way west toward the French coast.  The allied military response was unable to blunt the drive.  Soon the finest of the French army, as well as the entire British Expeditionary Force, found themselves surrounded, cutoff from reinforcement and supplies. 

France would hold out a few more weeks but the issue had been resolved within the space of ten days.  Britain’s escape at Dunkirk would one day prove disastrous for the Third Reich in ways a triumphant Germany could not now imagine.  For the present there was only gloom in London and Washington.  Democracy had been extinguished in Europe.  The great western cities of Paris, Berlin, Rome, Prague and Vienna were all under the oppressive rule of fascist dictators – men having only contempt for the free exchange of thought.  At the time they seemed invincible.  But among the defeated there were those strong of heart that knew this had been only the opening round.

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