December 1940. It is cold and the weather is filthy. A small damaged German plane tries an emergency landing in Belgian territory. Three young Belgian soldiers sight it, mount their bicycles and reach the flat space where the plane has landed. One of the passengers – a German officer – is burning some documents. He is stopped just in time. Into a suitcase the three Belgian soldiers find papers and maps, diagrams and names, figures and tables . The chance has put into their hands, even if a little bit scorched , Fall Gelb, The Yellow Case, the whole German plan for the invasion of France.
Schlieffen, Schlieffen ueber alles.
The German Army is brand-new. In particular under the tactical and strategic point of view . Hans von Seeckt has done a good job and has turned the hundred thousand men of the post-Versailles German Army into the cadres of the future German mass Army. He has given those men esprit the corps, new ideas, tempting prospects. After Hitler’s rise to power( 1933) , in Germany the militaries are more and more important. They are allured and wheedled, listened and adulated by the Nazis. But they remain prudent. They know that in the Nazi “pot” something serious is brewing. Something very important: to restore to Germany the lost prestige. But they have no intention to overdo. Time and prudence seem to be their key words. Not all are enthusiastic about Nazism and Nazis, even if everyone seems to play along with one and the others.
Amidst the militaries, there are different attitudes: some are enthusiastic , some are sceptical, some are careerists , some are men of integrity. Hitler is aware of it. And he is able to put the ones against the others, threatening the compactness of the caste. He neutralizes Blomberg and Fritsch ; he takes power away from Beck, guilty to have spoken aloud his perplexities about the eventual military intervention against Czechoslovakia ; he appoints Keitel — nothing more than a faithful sycophant — as chief of OKW( OberKommando der Wehrmacht) , the High Command of the German Armed Forces; he controls Brauchitsch, the Commander in Chief of the Army, lending him the money of which he needs for divorcing; he makes fail a military plot by going to the Munich Conference ( 1938) and breaking the bank without firing a shot, taking off, for this reason, to the plotters the pretext for the rebellion ( the armed intervention in Czechoslovakia, thwarted by the most part of the militaries).
Munich is not the first Hitler’s political gamble; it won’t be the last one. In a continuous crescendo he had occupied the Rhur, rejected the treaty of Versailles, re-built the German armed forces, militarized the Rhineland , annexed Austria, chosen the Army getting rid of the SA ( Sturmabteilungen) — those Browns Shirts to whom so much he owed — invaded Poland. The troops are doting for him, the inflation belongs to the past, for the common people he is a godsend. But at the highest military level, many senior officers are critical. They fear that Hitler can take the thing too far, they think he is bluffing. And they remain distrustful.
When the Fuehrer asks them to plan the invasion of France, many of them are sized with anxiety. There is no reason for worrying, Hitler says: at the moment Russia is allied with us and we do not risk to be attacked on two fronts; our heavy industry works at full speed; our armed forces are at the top. When will we have such another moment? When will the next train arrive? No fear of the French Army or of the Maginot Line: we have, rather, to plan how to use in the best possible way the big power of our army, of our air force, of our armoured tanks.
Thus, the dutiful militaries get to work. Grumbling because of the umpteenth gamble of their “Supreme Guide”, they prepare a re-edition — adjusted downwards — of the old Schlieffen Plan, included the “marching wing” and the invasion of Belgium and Holland. Objective? Conquering as much French territory as possible and occupying the French ports on the Channel ( can someone foresee the next Hitler’s move? And if it was the invasion of England? It is better to be prepared…).
The Chief of Staff, General Franz Halder — a “genial bureaucrat”, as has been defined — once prepared the plan , proceeds with more than a caution. Hitler, on the contrary, is in a hurry and wants to attack in winter. In winter? Of course not, Halder replies: waiting for the spring and summer is better. And thus, between a delay and a waiting of spring and summer, a small German plane makes an emergency landing in Belgium and delivers to the French the plans of the attack. The French strengthen his defensive deploy to face the German “marching wing”. Come forward, we are waiting for you now! Or do you want to crash in vain against our Maginot Line or to lose your way in the forests of Ardennes?
And the Ardennes , indeed, are in the thoughts of a German brilliant officer, General Erich von Manstein. And since a long time. According to him, making revive the Schlieffen Plan is a huge silly thing: it has failed one time, it can fail again. All the more so as the French are waiting for this move. And, then, why not changing the entire game? Why not bringing the “Sichelschnitt, ( literally :“scythe sweep”) from south to north and not vice versa? It could be a winning move. But how can we go out from the Ardennes? It is possible, says the “wizard” of the armoured tanks, General Guderian. And thus, if it possible, why not do it? We send the “marching wing” as a bait in Belgium and in Holland, we get out of the Ardennes with all our forces and split them intwo columns: the first heads for northwards for encircling the enemy left wing; the latter heads for southwards, behind the Maginot Line and finishes the job. But for the prudent generals of the Staff, that plan sounds blasphemous. And thus, when they receive it, they hide it into a drawer.
And there it would have remained for a long time. But an unexpected event happens. Halder and Brauchitsch want to get Manstein — and his “absurd” and “impossible” plan — out of their way. They use an elegant way to do it: they promote Manstein to commander of an Army Corps. Once received his appointment, Manstein, according to the usual procedure, presents himself to Hitler in Berlin. In Berlin he meets Colonel Schmundt, chief of Fuehrer’s Staff, and with him Manstein speaks about his own plan. Hitler receives Manstein, listens to him, asks explications about the plan, brings some modifications ( according to him it is better to bring the blows separately, not in the same time), approves the plan and imposes it to Halder. The fate has determined the new Fall Gelb, the new Yellow Case, the sentence to death for the France in arms. ( Here a map of Plan Mainstein).
The German Junkers curse and are worried. Also Hitler seems worried. About the realisation of the plan? No: he is worried about the safety of the Queen of Holland, Wilhelmina . He writes to the Wehrmacht’s officers: woe to hurt a single hair of her head or of a member of her family. Remember this…
On May 10th , the dancing opens. Halder keeps his fingers crossed and prays the God of the War for victory; von Bock with the “marching wing” enters Belgium and Holland; lieutenant Witzig with eighty paratroopers lands with the gliders on the Belgian fort of Eben-Emael and in a couple of hours conquers it; the Anglo- French, according to the script, advance against von Bock making spring the German trap. The Guderian’s and von Kleist’s tanks go out from Ardennes, overwhelm the makeshift French defences, unleash the panic, spread on the plain behind the Meuse, turn northwest and push against the von Bock’s anvil the best allied troops, cutting in two the whole allied deployment.
The battle of France in May-June 1940 is in this move. The rest — forcing to surrender the troops around Paris, neutralizing the Maginot Line — is only a consequence. Without their formidable left wing, cut in two by the German armoured forces, the Allies can not offer any resistance to the enemy.( Here an animated map of the battle. Source: BBC)
In the plains beyond the Meuse the panzers are running. And, with them, the legends, too. A German armoured division ( the Seventh) seems to be everywhere at once. One day it is sighted at Dinant, the next day at eighty kilometres ahead. When the second phase of Fall Gelb will begin , that division will be the first which will reach the Seine River. It is commanded by a young General awarded — irony of the fate — a medal with a French name – Pour le Mérite – gained during the WWI on the Italian mountains around Caporetto( today Kobarid). His name is Erwin Rommel.
However, at the beginning , not all had worked well. In addition to the difficulties of the terrain, the German commanders had had to face the critics of the officers of the Staff. Are you going slowly? And what have we told you? If the allied aircraft arrive, can they make you mincemeat? It is your problem, we have warned you. Do you risk to offer the flank to the foe? You should have listened to us, avoiding every attack through the Ardennes. The virus contaminates even von Rundstedt. He knows Gamelin ( the commander in chief of the French Army) personally and knows his ideas. Why does not he counterattack? he wonders. This is not his attitude. Is it perhaps a damned trap? The traps have nothing to do with the attitude of the French army: Gamelin does not counterattack because he is in a complete and utter confusion. And with him, the whole allied army.
And Hitler? If all his generals are tense and restless, he is tense and restless a little bit more. He does not think any more about the safety of Queen Wilhelmina, but of the safety of the flank — in his opinion, uncovered — of the von Rundstedt’s armies. And if the French become aware of it and infiltrate through that hole? We risk to finish as von Kluk on the Marne in 1914, he bursts. It is necessary to change the plan and to order von Bock to move forward for becoming the hammer and not the anvil. Changing the rules when the game is running is very dangerous, some tell him. Hitler bursts a little bit, then he becomes calmer. Guderian and von Kleist continue to advance and push the Allies towards a French village very close to the Belgian border: Dunkirk.
And at this point something unexpected happens. On May 24th , from Berlin a peremptory order arrives: stop. Stop? The generals at the front are enraged. Are you off your head? We are facing disorganized and demoralized forces and, instead of being hot on the heels of the enemy, we stop. Does it make sense? Von Brauchitsch, inundated by requests, confirms: nothing to do, you must stop. Then, informally, he confides to Guderian he has hoped, till the last, in an insubordination. As von François did at Tannenberg in 1914, when his insubordination had decided that battle.
The Guderian’s coronary arteries are under pressure while, motionless and powerless, he sees the British Expeditionary Corps digging trenches and at sea the first boats appearing. Does the Luftwaffe have to finish the job? Guderian curses. But if their bombs are unable to scratch the fortresses built by Vauban, while we could sweep all away in a moment!
Strange decision, in truth. Daughter of a too fast success, on one hand and — perhaps — of a political calculation on the other hand. Von Rundstedt is making pressure in order to stop and to give breath to his troops. The advance is too fast, at Arras there has been an allied counterattack, Gamelin can have a surprise, the right flank seems to be uncovered, the risk of wasting everything is huge. Hitler holds the same position on the issue and, thus, the advance is stopped.
Why have I issued that order? you are asking me. Firstly: to prevent that our panzers got bogged down in the quagmires of Flanders; secondly to gather our forces in sight of an attack to Paris and, thirdly, to prevent eventual allied counterattacks. Someone whispers: he has taken that decision in order to do Great Britain a service, in order to “soften” her in sight of future negotiations of peace. Had not he, some days before, in private, sung the praises of England, pillar of the western civility? Had not he , perhaps, resolved the question of the Colonies by a revealing “ the tropical climate is unsuitable to Germans”? Others say: he was already thinking about the reckoning with the Soviet Union and about the conquest of the “ living space” at East and wanted, before unleashing the invasion, to neutralize the Great Britain by hook.
Anyway, those three days of stop are bitterness for the Germans, but they are a real godsend for the Allies. The Luftwaffe flies not very much and badly, the RAF is aggressive , the Channel is filled with every kind of boats — pleasure-boats, warships, small and big boats — and three hundred thousand allied soldiers — French included — leave France and land in England.
Not the riflemen deployed at Calais. They remain, “ very hard rock” against which the German “scythe” breaks. Words of Winston Churchill, British prime Minister and master of the words meant for effect. Have the riflemen of Calais prevented with their resistance the closing of the pocket? A German General will say after the end of the war. “ I know only this: if Hitler had not stopped us, there would have been no Calais.
“Very hard rock”, sir Winston? Or, rather, useless sacrifice?
The dancing begins again on June 5th, second stage of the plan. Eliminated the allied left wing, the second German “Scythe Blow “ begins. Neutralizing the rest of the French Army is its goal. And while the armoured German divisions reach the Seine river ( von Bock), close every way of escape ( von Kleist, von Reichenau) and outflank the Maginot Line ( von Leeb), Mussolini declares war to France( June, 10th ).
How do the Germans react against the Mussolini’s intervention ? Very, very well, in truth:“ This story seems to me a huge cheat. I have told clearly I do not want that my name be implicated in this story( Halder). “ At first they were too coward for engaging, now they are in a hurry to participate to the sharing of the spoils(Hitler).
Directed by the new commander in chief, General Maxime Weigand, the French fight with bravery ( around the Aisne River, but also against the Italians, in particular against the Italians…). At Lille, when they surrender, they receive the honours of the arms by the Germans. But they can not do miracles. The centres of resistance — the “hedgehogs” – wanted by Wiegand can oppose to the German panzers only the bravery of the single soldiers and nothing else; there is no plan; everywhere confusion and chaos are reigning; the government is ready to fall; a political coup by the Left is feared.
The elder Marshal Pétain, glory of the WWI, appointed Prime Minister, is deeply worried. He fears political disturbances and social riots in France. And he fears them perhaps more than he fears the Germans. “ I have asked the foe, from soldier to soldier, if he is willing to try a solution to make cease the hostilities.” The foe accepts, but in his own way. Hitler had outlined a dance step when he had known the success of the whole operation. Now, taken again his self control, he expects to sign the armistice at Compiégne and in the same railway carriage where it was signed in 1918. When everything is ready, he enters, listens to the preamble, then he goes away.
And also the French delegates would want to go away, in particular when they know the German conditions: occupation of Paris and of the northern France, demilitarization of the navy, only one hundred thousand men in the army, no restitution of war prisoners, payment of the occupation charges. But Pétain is inflexible and orders to sign the armistice.
A German officer will comment: “ The battle of France is over. It has lasted twenty-six years.”
Marc Bloch, Strange defeat, Norton, 1999.
Karl-Heinz Frieser, The blitzkrieg legend: the 1940 Campaign in the West, Naval Institute Press, 2005
Alistair Horne, To lose a battle: France 1940, Penguin, 2007
Donald and Petie Klaudrup, Wine and War, Random House, 2002
Philip Warner, The battle for France, Cassel PLC, 1990
Once risen to power ( January 1933), Hitler appointed General Werner von Blomberg minister of War and, some time later, General Werner von Fritsch Chief of the Army. In the militaries circles those appointments stirred up opposite reactions: Blomberg was opposed by the most part of the senior officers till from the beginning; Fritsch, on the contrary, was welcome with favour. Blomberg was an old- fashioned soldier, but too young ( fifty-four years old) for a so important office and perhaps even too inexperienced to be appreciated by those who had more solid credentials and a greater length of service; Fritsch was a qualified officer, esteemed and faithful to his own profession and to army at the point to do of one and the other the sole reason of his life.
Blomberg felt the hostility of the most part of the members of the military circle and was compelled to assume an ambiguous attitude, gaining the nickname of “ Rubber Lion” and linking himself more and more with Hitler. Fritsch, on the contrary, continued to put the German army on the top of his thoughts, working soul and hearth, for keeping it away from the policy and for strengthening it. Blomberg, as minister, controlled also the OKW , the High Command of Armed Forces( Oberkommando der Wehrmacht), i.e. the organism appointed to coordinate the political and administrative job of the Army, of the Navy and of the newborn Luftwaffe, the German air force under the command of Hermann Goering. Fritsch, as Commander in Chief of the army, had a say not only inside the OKH, the High Command of the Army( Oberkommando des Heeres), but also inside the General Staff, instituted in 1935, despite the prohibition sanctioned by the Treaty of Versailles. Both Blomberg and Fritsch were prudent men, eager for restoring to Germany the lost prestige. They were not completely hostile to the Nazism, but they were ready to criticize the Hitler’s policy, or to raise doubts — the first, very seldom; the latter almost always and clearly.
When Blomberg announced his wedding with a typewriting of his office, Hitler, unlike the militaries, received with favour this news and took part as best man. According to him, that wedding was the finest example of “ democratic” osmosis between the social classes of the new Germany.
Some time after, Hitler found on his writing desk a top secret dossier. He opened it and astounded: Frau Blomberg, when she was young, had been a prostitute! He felt befooled, flied into rage, deposed Blomberg and ordered that his name were deleted from the militaries ranks and yearbook. The other Generals, almost all hostile to Blomberg, remained indifferent, so indifferent to make arise the suspicion that they were involved in that issue. But this time, the jealousies of the Generals were not in cause: Henrich Himmler himself had ordered that the dossier were prepared. He fed the secret hope to replace gradually the Wehrmacht’s soldiers with the faithful Waffen SS. ( After the war, the Americans will tell that plan was a premeditated plan till from the beginning. According to them, Himmler himself had introduced the future Lady Blomberg in the office of the minister in order to fulfil his own plan).
After Blomberg, was the turn of Fritsch, accused to be homosexual. In reality, it was a case of homonymy. Fritsch rejected the accusations, but Himmler presented a witness and the Commander in Chief of the Army was forced to resign. This time, however, the militaries did not remain indifferent and through their most prestigious rep, General Gerdt von Rundstedt, remonstrated. A military inquiry commission was appointed; Himmler tried to soften it, but in vain; the witness portrayed ( he will pay with his life..) and von Fritsch was acquitted. But he could not be reinstated in his office, because Hitler had already appointed General Walter Brauchitsch. (Von Fritsch came back to his regiment of which he was honorary colonel and fell in combat, in 1939, killed by a Polish sniper) . For the military circle it was a bad blow; for Hitler and Himmler a success: the first, through the faithful sycophant Keitel, had the control, de facto, of the armed forces; the latter increased his own power and his influence at “court”.