The defeat and conquest of France by Nazi Germany in 1940 remains one of the most difficult to understand campaigns of World War II. The fall of France was an epic disaster for the Allied cause and completely unexpected at the time, making it a fascinating campaign to study. Unfortunately, it ranks relatively low in the interest of most popular WWII historical study which tends to focus on the Eastern Front or the American involvement in the war. For the most part people assign France’s defeat to low morale, obsolete doctrines, and an over-reliance on the Maginot line. The realities are not only more complex, they also diverge significantly from this common understanding. France had one of the largest, most modern, and most powerful armies in the world in 1940. The combined forces of Britain and France were equal or superior to the opposing German forces in every category; tanks, planes, guns, men. How, then, was France defeated in a matter of a few weeks? The analysis is no easy task, but Ernest May is up to it.
Strange Victory does not spend its pages describing the actual conflict as it played out; this is relegated to only a small portion at the end of the book. Instead, the book carries forward two alternating narratives, one looking at the German high command and intelligence and the other their French and British counterparts. He begins this narrative around 1936 when Germany moved to re-militarize the Rhineland, Hitler’s first truly aggressive action in the international sphere, and carries it forward through the various major events along the way; the Anschluss, the Munich Conference crisis, and the early stages of the war itself. Prof. May is a master at describing this complex narrative from the perspective of intelligence. What did each side know at each point, and how did they know it? How was their strategic direction changed by this knowledge or lack of knowledge?
On the German side, the conflict between Hitler and his generals is brought to vivid life; few people understand just how tenuous Hitler’s hold was on the army in the late 1930s, with the army at several points considering removing him from power due to his reckless moves. Hitler’s political genius and his ability to read the situation of opposing politicians allowed him to recognize some of the inherent weaknesses of the democracies he was facing off against, but he failed to read a critical shift in mood leading to a war with the West that no one in Germany wanted. Epic clashes between Hitler and his generals on how best to defeat France followed, with Hitler’s planned invasion of Western Europe being delayed again and again. However, this created an environment where the Germans were constantly re-designing their plans and wargaming them to attempt to predict the outcome. More importantly, these wargames themselves allowed German intelligence officers to play the part of the Western Allies and attempt to apply assumptions about their unique strengths and weaknesses. As a result, the German offensive plan that evolved represented Germany’s best hope for a decisive victory but even then the German generals carrying it out gave it a 90% chance of failure.
On the Allied side, May works very hard to re-create for the reader the immense confidence the Allies felt about their strategic situation in early 1940. A German offensive around the Maginot line was not only expected, the entire Allied military strategy hinged on it; a completely defensive mindset in which victory would be accomplished with the fewest casualties incurred dominated the political mindset. Thus, early opportunities in both 1938 and 1939 to act against Germany and swiftly obtain victory were squandered repeatedly. Here you see all the weaknesses of democracies at war in their most glaring light. The political bickering between parties, the French military overplaying German strength to try to obtain more funding, and the agonizingly slow decision-making process at every level. France had a very centralized and incredibly powerful intelligence apparatus, but failed to exploit it by relying on preconceived notions of what the German strategy would be. Ultimately, and most cripplingly, France and Britain proved unable to shake these preconceptions even as building evidence indicated that the Germans might launch an unorthodox offensive through the Ardennes and even in the first few days after the offensive actually began.
May goes out of his way to make abundantly clear his view that the Allied defeat was one of intelligence and planning, and rules out any other factors including morale, doctrine, equipment, or tactical performance. When pitted against each other in equal combat as they were briefly in Belgium, the 1st line mobile forces of both armies proved equal to each other and provided a brief view of how Germany would have been defeated in a conventional campaign as the Allies expected. In reality the German plan was a Hail Mary, an offensive launched on a shoe-string with a low probability chance of success. The German victory was a result of a plan that also benefited from a fortunate chain of events, thus deceiving both sides as to it’s nature and leading to the myth of German military superiority which persists to this day. Hitler’s level of involvement allowed him to take a significant portion of the credit for the victory, established his dominance over the military, and led to his obsession with his own military genius that would lead to terrible future strategic decisions and Germany’s crushing defeats later in the war.
The book is well written and the narrative flows smoothly, but the depth is significant. This book is not a light read and I would recommend it only for those who are intensely interested in understanding the campaign from a new and interesting perspective. However, I would view this book as nearly indispensable, not just in understanding what happened in May 1940 but also in understanding the mindsets of the German and Allied leadership from the 1930s up to that point. The pulling aside of the intelligence curtain and looking at the campaign from the perspective of the officers planning for it months and years in advance is a fantastic lesson in real life military conflicts; I would love to see this same level of study done on many other campaigns in this war and others.
Where the book is weakest is in the statistics and numbers involved; May tends to fall back on a lot of anecdotes and statistics without context, which he uses in particular to drive certain points about the performance of the French army. Some of these assertions have been challenged in online reviews and certainly I would not consider the book to be a standalone reference to the campaign.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough as an addition to the library of any serious WWII scholar.
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