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While doing some research on France's defeat in 1940, I saw that some harshly criticize the French Commander-in-Chief Gamelin and blame him for its speedy downfall (of course there isn't only one factor, and no person can be entirely blamed for France's defeat, but some feel that disaster could've easily been prevented had there been a good and competent commander, and that Gamelin cannot be vindicated). They blame him for viewing the Ardennes as impenetrable and for sitting and "awaiting events" even when he was aware of German action (and even knew the date of their attack).

Furthermore, the German lines were extremely thin while they were pouring through the gap in the French lines; Gamelin should have done something to break their lines, and they blame him for sitting idle.

In hindsight it is easy blame commanders and generals for not seeing the obvious, but I want to know the truth: was Gamelin really such a terrible commander—meaning that an able commander would've (easily) been able to prevent disaster—or were there other reasons why France fell so swiftly, and Gamelin cannot entirely be blamed for its defeat?

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    I think this is too broad and opinion-based as written. No single factor is to blame for a defeat as great as the Battle of France. Maybe cut it down to focus on some aspect of Gamelin's command? – Schwern Dec 31 '17 at 5:05
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    @Bach Thank you. I'm not sure how to answer this without it turning into a "what if" answer. What if instead of being inactive during the Polish campaign the French had pushed the Saar Offensive and discovered the thin German lines? What if they had reacted more swiftly to Rommel's flanking maneuver and cut him off? What if we go back further? Gamelin was made head of the General Staff in 1932, what if a more forward thinking commander was put in place instead and reorganized the French army to be more nimble? – Schwern Dec 31 '17 at 16:38
  • Why the downvote? – Bach Jan 1 '18 at 20:53
  • @Bach: I implemented some edits; please revert the ones you disagree with. – gktscrk Jun 25 at 15:33
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The choices of Generals absolutely matter, the way the Germans reorganized their plan on the bases of Mannstein's suggestions allowed the German to win the battle. But on the other side of the same coin the choices by Gamelin is the reason the French lost the battle.

Nature of Battle

While it is true that in WW2 a general couldn't conduct most of the battle during the battle itself, that had been true for a long time. Once a battle starts what matters most is how you set up your army to fight the battle. And Gamelin was most responsible for that.

Even so, during the Battle itself there were a lot of things the Top generals could do, about reorganizing and redeploying the troops. We saw this many times both in WW1 and WW2. Gamelin was very slow in responding, slow in realizing where the gravity of battle was going and slow in realizing what the plan of the enemy was.

Lessons from WW1

If there is a single lesson from WW1 its that you can plug holes in your line with your strategic reserve. It is incredibly difficult for the enemy to exploit a breakthrough because you can deploy your reserves faster and getting resources through the break in the line is difficult.

Now the exploitation of a breakthrough can be faster because of tanks and planes, but we should also remember that tanks don't run of fairy dust, and that if you penetrate deeper, you need to protect an even longer flanks to keep the supplies from coming through.

One of the single most surprising things about the Battle of France is that for some reason, after all that was learn in WW1 and how successful the strategic reserve was, for some reason there was non in the Battle of France.

Just for some history, in WW1 Foch became allied commander and successfully used the Strategic reserve to counter-attack a German breakthrough attempt at the Marne, and that is what started the 100 days of success that ended WW1.

The Strategic Reserve

So, now the question is, where was the strategic reserve after Guderian and Rommel penetrated across the river? Specially Guderian in Sadan. Why was there no counter-attack by the Strategic Reserve to hold this fundamentally important point?

If you actually look at the French battle plan a few month before the battle started, there was such a reserve force. It was the by far most important part of that Strategic Reserve was 7th French Army and it contained a number of pretty good formations.

  • 21st Infantry Division
  • 60th Infantry Division
  • 68th Infantry Division
  • 1st Light Mechanized Division (like a German Panzer division)
  • 25th Motorized Division
  • 9th Motorized Division

The French had a good plan initially, the Dyle plan made a lot of sense. You have the Maginot line, then you have the Meuse river, then you have the Dyle Plan to have a good defensive line all the way through Belgium to the coast, and then you have the British/French Navy from there. And you have one of your best most mobile armies, 7th French Army behind the lines to quickly plug any hole in the line. Just in case the Germans break through or attack in a place where you have weak forces, like, hint hint the Meuse defenses.

This is what should have happened. The German main attack towards the Southern sector, the French are slow to realize this because the Dyle Plans assumes the German attack would happen at Gambloux in Belgium. The German establish a few bridge heads over the Meuse mainly at Sedan. Good thing we have the 7th reserve army with some of the best troops, go to Sedan and throw them back over it or at least make sure they can't break out from the bridgeheads.

Then you redeploy some of your other good troops and other new formed formations behind them. You redirect air resources to that sector and bomb the river crossing continually to make it difficult for the Germans to actually launch a massive break out operation from there.

The Germans were incredibly resource constrained and simply didn't have the resources for large scale offensive after large scale offensive. Without the breakthrough at Sedan and the drive to the channel. The Germans would have not been able to surround all the best Allied forces, and with every day, the material superiority of the Allies would have been bigger and bigger.

The war would have turned into something more like we saw in 1944/1945 and the German could not win such a war.

Gamelin's Huge Mistake

So then the question is, why did that not happen? Where was 7th Army that was supposed to be the reserve? Well, Gamelin had decided, and it was his decision, that instead of having reserve forces he would send them to the Netherlands. The reasons he gave for this both at the time and historically make basically very little sense. Linking up with the totally unprepared and overwhelmed Dutch army was a pipe-dream and the idea that the Germans could use a island hoping campaign along the Belgium cost to get around his defensive line was so ridiculously delusional that it boggles the mind.

This was known as the 'Breda Variant' of the Dyle Plan. Breda being a place in Southern Netherlands where they hoped to connect with the Dutch army. In Gamelin mind this would add manpower to the battle line, because apparently wars are fought on spreadsheets where you automatically win when you have more divisions. No matter that these Dutch division were totally useless both in military terms and for the defense of France. That Netherlands would collapse was clear as soon as the Germans decided to invade it.

So instead of having some of your best and most mobile forces to counterattack Sedan when the Germans were still struggling to control the bridgeheads and were in a tough position. The only thing the French had was the leftovers in the Strategic Reserve that consisted of some of the worst divisions in the French army and some divisions that were not even fully equipped. Unsurprisingly they couldn't stand against the prime divisions of German army. So bad were these that the German front line generals totally lost respect for the French army and convinced them that they would not be able to mount a serious counterattack at their flanks.

When Churchill asked Gamelin to deploy the Strategic reserve, Gamelin told him 'There is none'. Well, Gamelin had sent them 500km away driving in the wrong direction and the most important moments of the war they were driving towards the Netherlands and then back down again without ever doing much fighting.

Its not like this is only a post-WW2 critic, Generals like General Georges had opposed the Breda variant specifically because they understood that if the Germans would break through in the Southern sector, there would be nothing opposing them. The Breda variant was seen a huge gamble even back then and it was the worst kind of gamble, huge downside, little upside. Literally all the best French and British troops would be in Belgium and the reserve army would drive through Belgium in attempt to get to the Netherlands leaving non of the Best allied troops anywhere near the German center of attack i.e. Schwerpunkt.

The German were successful, because their best divisions could drive from Meuse river all the way to the coast without any significant counterattack. If you look at how much panic there was to 'halt' the attack just because of the tiny counter-attack at the Somme. Or even before that the German command tried to stop the Panzers, but the Front line commanders saw that there was nothing in front of them. Think about what a Army sized counter attack would have done when the Panzer divisions were just starting to cross the river.

The French were trying to form up additional troops including tank divisions in the region during the German attacks, but because the Germans had no oppositions, they often overran those positions before the French forces were gathered. Had the 7th Army been there, the French would have had enough time to form or redeploy additional units behind the 7th Army and stop encirclement. The Dyle Plan would have worked and the Allies would have a powerful defensive line from Antwerp to the Swiss boarder.

This picture explains it all:

10 May  16 May Battle of Belgium

Breda is all the way at the top of the map.

The 7th French Army, nowhere near where the German troops are for the most part, especially not the main German Force.

Look at what is opposing the breakout of the Germans from the Meuse.

This is simply an utterly idiotic battle plan, Gamelin is personally responsible for ordering the 7th Army to Breda and that is what lost the Battle of France.

Sources

For the Winston Churchill quote:

  • 'Their Finest Hour' By Winston Churchill
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    @gktscrk Hope this improves it – nickik Jun 25 at 15:15
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I'll take the question to mean "could any contemporary Allied commander have taken over from Gamelin in 1940 and won the Battle Of France?" Anything else is too broad or drifts into fantasy. The question is still very broad, so I'll focus on one aspect: the mechanized maneuver warfare which was the real German "secret weapon".

Could any contemporary Allied commander have taken over from Gamelin in 1940 and adapted to the mechanized maneuver warfare being used by the Germans?

No, Because WWII Was Different Than All Before It.

My question is pretty straightforward! Was the battle against France won because the Germans were so well organized and used superior tactics that France didn't really stand a chance (unless they would've had a brilliant commander like Napoleon or Hannibal of course) or because the French were so poorly prepared and had a weak leadership?

This comment by the OP (since edited, still useful) is illustrative, particularly the part about having Napoleon or Hannibal in charge. Commanding an army in 1940 was not like commanding one in 1918 which was not like commanding one in the Napoleonic era which was certainly not like being a commander in Hannibal's time. While the very basics remain the same, 1940s warfare was conducted at a pace and scale that would have made Napoleon give up and crawl back into his tent. In fact, several actual early WWII commanders did just that! Hannibal, who never commanded more than 50,000 men, would have no grasp of a modern military staff nor communications; he might have made an excellent company or even division commander with training. The Allied armies in the Battle of France numbered over 3 million and spanned hundreds of miles.

Prior to WWII, warfare was still centered around the Set Piece or Pitched Battle. This is a battle conducted at a time and place by two well defined units with well defined lines and commanders have a pretty clear strategic understanding of the entire battlefield. Emphasis on well defined. While not always planned, sometimes it comes out of a meeting engagement such as the Battle of Gettysburg, they have a fairly clear and limited scope. Everything from Cannae to Waterloo to the Somme has this basic shape. Napoleon, after some technological catch up, would have done well in the trenches of WWI.

The Spring Offensive at the very end of WWI introduced modern large-scale maneuver warfare. While maneuver and deception has always featured prominently in warfare, primarily flanking maneuvers, it was always on a tactical level of individual battles and carefully controlled. Now this idea is applied to all levels of the battle, from individual small unit tactics to large scale maneuvers.

Mechanized Maneuver Warfare

Rather than destroying the enemy in a series of pitched battles, maneuver warfare seeks to keep the enemy always off balance and confused. Rather than attacking the enemy's defenses, it circumvents them and instead aims at logistical and command structures to remove the enemy's ability to fight in a coordinated fashion. The divided defenders can then be mopped up by concentrated attacks which achieve surprise and local superiority despite having overall inferior numbers.

This cannot be achieved overnight. It requires sweeping reforms from top to bottom: from top commanders to sergeants to individual soldier's training and equipment. It requires extensive use of mobile radios (still not widely available in 1940) and new communication and command techniques. It requires having a significant portion of your army mechanized and concentrated to act as a fast reaction force to both exploit opportunities and plug holes.

The Germans Had Experience, The Allies Did Not.

While most major militaries entering WWII had their own theories of large scale maneuver warfare, Soviet Deep Battle or the British Experimental Mechanized Force, they had little operational experience and understanding of how it would work in practice. A new Allied commander showing up in 1940 or even 1939 would have scant time to adapt their existing army of 3 million in the field to conduct maneuver warfare. This was an army mostly prepared and trained to fight WWI over again. They didn't have the equipment, the men and commanders did not have the training, nor even the schools necessary to conduct the training, nor the designs and factories to produce the equipment to conduct mechanized maneuver warfare.

In contrast, the Wehrmacht learned their lesson from WWI and had rebuilt their army, commanders, soldiers, and equipment around the concept of maneuver warfare. They gained experience from the Spanish Civil War, and unlike the Soviets, made the correct conclusions giving them several years to prepare.

The Occupation of Austria and Occupation of Czechoslovakia, while they involved no fighting, gave the German army valuable, practical information about large scale deployment and movement of their armies. Mundane but very important issues of maintenance, supply, and communication could be worked out in reality, not just on an exercise. How do you deal with mechanical failures? Traffic jams? How do you get food and fuel and ammo to an army constantly on the move? How well do radios actually work in the field? How well do air and ground forces coordinate?

By the time of the Invasion of Poland, the German army had years to prepare and two large scale real maneuvers to work things out. Even though Poland was, in some ways, a walk over it revealed more problems.

Fortunately, the Allies gave Germany six months to work them all out, recover, and reorganize. The German army that invaded France was now one well tested in the field, and perhaps the only major army in the world at the time with extensive experience in mechanized maneuver warfare. While the Allies had none.

The Saar Offensive, The Best Opportunity To Change History.

To a WWI commander sitting behind your defenses waiting for the enemy to attack is good policy. To a WWI commander, the well-prepared defender always has the advantage: chop up the enemy as they try to bludgeon their way through your lines.

To a modern commander, an army with superior numbers sitting for months behind their defenses waiting to be attacked is madness. It gives the attacker time to prepare logistically, build roads, build rail lines, build up supplies, repair, refit, and reorganize. It gives them time to gather intelligence, probe defenses, and form an accurate map of the enemy's unchanging positions. The attacker can then attack at the time and place of their own choosing.

This is exactly what happened after the invasion of Poland: the Sitzkrieg or Phoney War. Six months of the Allies doing almost nothing while the Germans recovered and prepared. But it didn't have to be that way.

The one place a more vigorous Allied commander could have made a difference was in the Saar Offensive. When Germany invaded Poland, it committed the overwhelming bulk of its forces; its western border with France was very thinly defended. It was another bluff that paid off.

A vigorous Allied offensive in the West in September 1939 could have called that bluff and left Germany in a very awkward position suddenly fighting a two-front war. They would have had to scale back or even halt their invasion of Poland and strip units to defend against and repel a French attack. The French could have pierced the Siegfried line before Germany could bring in sufficient reinforcements, they'd be fighting on German soil behind German static defenses, exactly what they wanted to do.

Meanwhile, the Poles were no slouches and could have held back a diminished German army. In reality their fate was sealed by a Soviet offensive from the east, the Soviets invaded seeing easy pickings and gaining a buffer zone against continued German expansion; even then the Soviets waited until mid-September when they had formally ended their undeclared war with Japan and felt their eastern front was secured.

If the Saar Offensive actually happened, and happened quickly enough, the Soviets may have hesitated further in invading Poland waiting to see how Germany would fare. A Germany distracted by extensive war in the West was not a great threat to the Soviets, and without the German army taking apart the Poles the Soviets would actually have to fight in Poland.

Italy would be unlikely to intervene, like the Soviets in Poland they only declared war on France after it was clear the battle had been won.

Germany would now find itself in serious trouble with its military stretched thin, its aura of invincibility punctured, its fair-weather allies hesitating, and the long-term deficiencies of its military in conducting a prolonged war made clear. There would have been no invasion of Norway, Denmark, nor the Low Countries meaning no forward bases for the U-Boat campaign nor bombing Britain.

While it's entirely possible the German army would have still defeated the invading Allied army, it would have to do so on its own soil rather than deep in French territory. It would then have to return to finishing off Poland before striking at France. Rather than victory in eight weeks, this might have turned into the longer, slower paced battle the Allies prepared for.

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  • +1. Your answer was very helpful. Lots of food for thought, and your perspective on what happened during ww2 is very interesting and novel indeed, I have always thought that there was some deeper reason why Germany was so successful in the beginning of the war, but according to your explanation everything makes sense. Thanks again. – Bach Dec 31 '17 at 20:36
  • @Bach You're welcome. If you like this sort of analysis, I'd suggest Military History Visualized. – Schwern Dec 31 '17 at 21:23
  • You are assuming no Tannenberg in the west. I don't think that is a foregone conclusion, given the ineptitude with which the Allies waged the first phase of the Battle of France. Also, this completely ignores the demographic facts that led the French to the conclusion that only defense had a chance of winning - that their inter-war birthrate was less than half that of Germany, and both countries knew that. – Pieter Geerkens Jan 1 '18 at 5:11
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    @PieterGeerkens Could you explain what you mean by Tannenberg in the West? I assume you mean the WWI Battle of Tannenberg where the Germans destroyed a Russian attack and stabilized the East. Would this be the Germans destroying my proposed French advance in Sept 1939? Possible, but out of scope. Or would this be a more able French commander destroying the German attack, possibly Rommel's overextended panzers? Also possible. I forgot to mention cutting off Rommel as the other place a better commander could make a difference. As for demographics, I'm not sure I understand your point. – Schwern Jan 2 '18 at 19:48
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    @nickik 1918 introduced the doctrine of fire and movement, but it was still leg infantry advancing with small arms against fixed positions. The pace was still very slow. What was missing was widespread mechanization, armor, radio, and tactical air with the staff, doctrine, and experience to rapidly process it all. For example, Operation Michael took 2 weeks to advance 40 miles-- and it failed. In the same time in WW2 the Dutch surrendered, the Belgians were making a last stand, the Meuse Line had collapsed, the Germans reached the Channel, and the Allied armies were surrounded. – Schwern Jun 25 at 17:18
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There are plenty of oddities about the fall of France. Getting a real in depth answer runs into a important problem, a lot of records were destroyed and key people that would of had answers were executed by the Nazis. So at first the main news about what had happenned came from German propaganda reels. Sure there those who got out but they only knew what they personally had seen. Which made for a very incomplete picture. The Vichy regime carried out the Riom Trials to try and fix blame but the trial got cut short when it backfired. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Riom_Trial When the war was over there was whole problem that certain questions really would open up a hornets nest. So people really did not like to talk about certain things. During the occupation appearing anti-German was a good way of getting shot. The nazi were quick to execute people. Its not like worse comes to worse you would know just ask those who joined French resistance what had happenned. The resistance operated in small groups and any list of members being fround upon. There was a few times some tried making list which would end up falling into the wrong hands resulting in executions of everyone on the list. Here are some odd details of events. There is La_Cagoule which was plotting the overthrow of the goverment of France. They had been stopped and were in jail, only to be released when the war started. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Cagoule

Checking into Petain background gives reason to worry to. In 1936 Pétain had told the Italian Ambassador to France that "England has always been France's most implacable enemy"; he went on to say that France had "two hereditary enemies", namely Germany and Britain, with the latter being easily the more dangerous of the two; and he wanted a Franco-German-Italian alliance that would partition the British Empire, an event that Pétain claimed would solve all of the economic problems caused by the Great Depression." Pétain fame as a war hero largely came from his own ability to promote himself. He is known as the hero of Verdun. The German goals in that battle were to bleed out the French army to prepare way for a later victory. In a later battle when Germany was getting close to the victory over France they were aiming for the tied was turned after Pétain was removed from command. Also considering his constance affection for Germany which he made apparent often enough and his tendancy to have plenty of wounded French troops executed for suspicion of avoiding combat he really should not have a hero reputation. His reputation should of been of one to be wary of. Plenty of Petain contemporaries were wary of him. Just not enough in the right places.

Another interesting detail is sabotage took out part of France's records on where there military equipment was stored. This of course made a mess of mobilization. There was also a issue of false orders issued to troops and false intel on the location of German forces. I surmise Gamelin was a bad commander but not the really bad commander that he was made out to be. To be a good commander it helps to be able to deal with misdirection, bad intel, untrustworthy politicians, and sabotage.

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