METZ, FRANCE From this ancient fortress city, allow me, a former instructor of military history, to address three particularly misleading myths still lingering from World War II:
First: France’s army did not simply surrender or run away in 1940, as ignorant American conservatives claim.
The German blitzkrieg that smote France on May-June, 1940 was a major historical revolution in warfare. It combined rapidly-moving armor and mobile infantry, precision dive bombing, flexible logistical support, and new, high technologies in C3 command, control and communications. In 1940, Germany led the world in technology: 75% of all technical books were then written in German.
France’s armies and generals, trained to re-fight World War I, were overwhelmed by lightening warfare. France was then still an agricultural society. Blitzkrieg was designed to strike an enemy’s brain rather than body, paralyzing his ability to manage large forces or fight. The Germans called it their `silver bullet.’
France still relied on couriers to deliver messages. French commander Gen. Gamelin, did not even have a telephone in his HQ outside Paris.
Britain’s well-trained expeditionary force in France was beaten just as quickly as the French, and saved itself only by fleeing across the Channel.
No army in the world at that time could have withstood Germany’s blitzkrieg, planned by the brilliant Erich von Manstein, and led by Heinz Guderian and Erwin Rommel: three of modern history’s greatest generals
They were also incredibly lucky. One bomb on a German bridge over the Meuse, or one traffic jam in the Ardennes forest could have meant the difference between victory and defeat. The French had temporarily moved some of their weakest reserve units just into the sector the Germans struck. It was, as Wellington said after Waterloo, a damned close run thing.
Germany’s new, fluid tactics shattered France’s armies. They were unable to reform their lines in spite of often fierce resistance. The fast-moving German panzers were constantly behind them. Retreat under fire is the most difficult and perilous of all military operations. After six weeks, and a stab in the back by Mussolini’s Italy, France’s armies had disintegrated.
France lost 217,000 dead and 400,000 wounded in combat. At least France did not suffer the 2 million dead it lost in World War I. Germany losses: 46,000 killed in action, 121,000 wounded, and 1,000 aircraft. By comparison, the US, British and Canadians lost only 10,000 dead and wounded at D-Day.
Second myth: the forts of France’s Maginot Line were not tactically outflanked. The Germans struck NW of the Line’s end, through the Belgian/French Ardennes Forest, a route anticipated by the French Army which held war games there in 1939. The immobile French field army failed, not the Maginot Line.
The uncompleted Line was too costly, tied down too many men, and came to symbolize France’s defensive attitude. But it fulfilled its mission to defend France’s vital coal and steel industries in Lorraine.
The Line was also designed to channel any German attack through either Belgium or Switzerland.
The crews of the unconquered Maginot forts held out until the end. Those who mock France for building forts that were supposedly `outflanked’ should know the `impregnable’ modern US fortifications at Manila, and Britain’s Fortress Singapore, were both taken from the rear by the Japanese Army.
Third myth: the US, Britain and Canada defeated Germany. Not true.
The 66th anniversary of the Soviet victory in WWII just passed, totally ignored in the west. We must salute the valor of Russia’s dauntless soldiers and pilots who, like German soldiers, fought magnificently, albeit for criminal regimes.
World War II in Europe was not won at D-Day. Germany’s army and air force were already broken on the Eastern Front’s titanic battles.
The numbers speak for themselves. The Soviets destroyed 75-80% of all German divisions 4 million soldiers - and most of the Luftwaffe. Russia lost at least 14 million soldiers and a similar number of civilians.
The Red Army destroyed 507 Axis divisions. On the Western Front after D-Day, the Allies destroyed 176 weak German divisions.
When the Allies landed in Normandy, they met battered German forces with no air cover, crippled by lack of fuel and supplies.
Had the invading Allies encountered the 1940’s Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe, the outcome may well have been different.