Blitzkrieg: Myth, Reality and Hitler’s Lightning War—France 1940, by Lloyd Clark, Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 2016, $27
Even though the bad guys won, everyone agrees that Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s May 10, 1940, invasion of France was a brilliant operation, carried out with German efficiency and blessed by good weather, luck and a distracted enemy. British historian Clark begins by emphasizing it was a conventional offensive led by infantry—not, as often described, a signature German blitzkrieg.
In recounting the run-up to the invasion, the author reminds readers that almost none of Hitler’s career military leaders liked him. They had opposed his march into the Rhineland in 1936, the Austrian Anschluss in 1938, his eagerness for war with Czechoslovakia and his invasion of Poland in 1939. In return the Führer openly held them in disdain, and by 1940 the commanders had been burned too often to stand up to him.
Still, they remained unhappy with his order to attack France. The Wehrmacht was still a work in progress, and everyone knew France’s army was the world’s best. No less mired in the past than France, Germany’s high command proposed attacking through Belgium. After throwing his usual tantrum, Hitler reminded them France had handled that pretty well in 1914. It took several more tantrums before they produced a suitably imaginative plan.
It was not a slam dunk. Though Germany threw its army and the entire Luftwaffe at the main Allied force in Belgium, it pushed back the defenders only after some difficulty. To the south, when German troops emerged from the Ardennes on May 13, they were extraordinarily vulnerable. While the Allied air force remained preoccupied 100 miles away, inferior French forces still managed to inflict heavy casualties as the Germans forced their way across the Meuse. French commander General Maurice Gamelin should have responded more quickly, but Clark insists communications from local units failed to identify the thrust as Germany’s major effort. By the time Gamelin realized his mistake, no response he could have mounted would have made a difference.
The bulk of Clark’s narrative is a minute-by-minute, blow-by-blow account of the fighting from May 9 until Vichy Marshall Philippe Pétain took office and signed an armistice on June 22. Readers depressed by the outcome can console themselves with a good read and by remembering that Hitler’s victory in France fed the Führer’s exaggerated confidence in his military acumen and his suicidal taste for risky operations.