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Ask MHQ: Could France Have Stopped the Nazis?

By Robert A. Doughty
8/7/2018 • MHQ Magazine

Q: If the Germans had gone with their first plan rather than the revised thrust through the Ardennes in 1940, could the French forces have stopped them, given the relative strengths of both sides?

John Looby

Manchester, England

A: After the defeat of Poland, the Germans completed four “deployment directives,” or operations plans, for a campaign in the West. Although the last one of these resulted in the Germans’ sending their main attack through eastern Belgium and the Ardennes and gaining a brilliant victory, the first one was an unimaginative replay of the 1914 campaign and aimed for little more than a victory at the operational level, without a strategic decision.

With Army Group B on the German right making the main effort, the first plan called for three field armies to advance on both sides of Brussels toward Bruges and march toward the Belgian coast near Dunkirk. This version of the plan, as well as the next two, placed the main part of the German army face to face with the main part of the French and British armies.

Had the Germans made their main effort on their right, they would have experienced a longer campaign and paid a higher price, but they ultimately would have achieved victory.

Their combat experience and greater mobility provided them important advantages, as did their ability to concentrate air power. In the actual May-June 1940 campaign, the Germans demonstrated better leadership and stronger tactical skills than the French, and these advantages would have benefited the Germans significantly even if the main attack had not gone through the Ardennes.

The Germans also had the initiative and the opportunity to exploit vulnerable boundaries between the BEF and the French, much as they had done in the March 1918 offensive.

As for the Allies, General Maurice Gamelin placed his most modern and capable forces on his left, and the Allies would have offered a more coherent defense and stronger effort than what the Germans actually encountered around Sedan and along the Meuse. Yet Gamelin demonstrated none of the qualities that had enabled General Joseph Joffre to gain the “miracle” of the Marne.

A much bloodier and more difficult campaign than what actually transpired would have affected the remainder of the war. Without a stunning, quick victory, Adolf Hitler may have been more cautious and less confident of his ability to defeat the Soviet Union, thereby leading him to prepare his armed forces more adequately for an invasion of Russia or even to pursue another option. Either result likely would have produced a very different twentieth century than the one we know.

 

Originally published in the Winter 2008 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here

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