Last week, I wrote a teaser about the 1940 campaign. For most military historians, the German victory in France remains a kind of gold standard: a rapid, decisive, and relatively bloodless victory that smashed the French army and drove the British from the continent in a humiliating evacuation that was without parallel in modern times. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) survived, but only by abandoning all of its vehicles and equipment and carrying out a hasty evacuation from Dunkirk. Even the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, had to remind his countrymen that wars were not won through successful evacuations. He got that right.
Even this great German victory was not without problems, however. No military operation works perfectly. The great German philosopher of war, Karl von Clausewitz, summed it up nicely. “Everything in war is very simple,” he wrote, “but the simplest thing is difficult.” His point, which no student of history can dispute, is that war always seems simple in theory. We are here; they are there; we need to go there. But how to get “there” is the problem.
Consider an airborne plan in the 1940 campaign, the one that had German paratroopers (Fallschirmjägern) landing on targets in Belgium, the small towns of Nives and Witry (hence the “Niwi” landing). The point was to seize crucial crossroads in the Ardennes Forest in order to smooth the passage of the great German armored offensive through Belgium, unhinge the local defenses and clear a path to the Meuse River. The faster the Panzers reached the Meuse, the more likely it was that the French defenders would be surprised and unprepared, and the greater the chances of a breakthrough in this sector.
The plan seemed logical enough. One reinforced company of paratroopers would land at Nives to support the advance of the 2nd Panzer Division. Another one would land at Witry in the attack sector of the 1st Panzer Division. But the operation itself turned into a classic embodiment of what the U.S. military would call a SNAFU (“situation normal all fouled up,” although “fouled” really isn’t the word). Everything that could go wrong in the Niwi operation did go wrong. The landing lacked sufficient transport aircraft, and so the Luftwaffe’s commander, Hermann Göring, hit on the bright idea of using Fi 156 liaison aircraft (the famous Fieseler Storch) to carry his paratroopers forward. The Storch could carry only two men in addition to the pilot, however. With 400 men in the initial landings, a landing supported by a handful of transport planes had suddenly grown into 100 aircraft flying in two waves, with a round trip of two hours each. Clausewitz would no doubt have shaken his head and chuckled. A simple idea had become a monster.
The Germans went forward anyway, as modern military establishments tend to do. Once a plan has taken weeks or months or years to work out, few commanders will simply abandon it. The Storchs took off early on the morning of May 10th, 1940, flying low to avoid detection and antiaircraft. The northern group almost immediately flew off course due to navigation errors and small arms fire from the ground, and most of the southern group flew into a random fog bank. When it emerged into the clear, it spotted a large flight of Storchs. Breathing more easily now, it fell into formation behind them, without realizing that they were the main body of the northern group.
When all was said and done, the northern group arrived well over strength, but nowhere near Nives, and the southern group at Witry landed with precisely five planes—nine men in all. The former group had a relatively easy time, spreading out and driving back the Belgian forces in this sector. The Witry force, by contrast, spent the day in a relative panic, with its commander later writing that he felt like a “highwayman” as he and his tiny band did their best to block the road from Neufchâteau to Witry. They were a small enough force that they could have been arrested. Somehow they managed to survive, however, and they still held the road by the end of the day.
On the surface, the Niwi landing is a classic example of a battle against the odds. A bold action on one side can always paralyze a hesitant enemy. Everyone recognizes the advantage of acting decisively, and the history of World War II is filled with similar heroic exploits.
But let us go one level deeper. As the Panzers crossed the border into Belgium—a gambit that required an immediate breakthrough of light Belgian defenses and a rapid passage of the Ardennes–they ran into unexpectedly tough resistance. The German 1st Motorcycle Battalion motored into the village of Bodange and suddenly came under heavy fire from a series of elevated positions. The Germans had to go to ground, call in heavy weapons fire, and eventually summon their field artillery. Only then were they able to get forward, but even so, they had lost a full day of their scheduled advance.
It wasn’t until later that they found out why. Early on the morning of May 10th, the Belgian high command sent orders to that tiny force at Bodange to retreat if attacked. The orders never arrived, however. The Belgians didn’t know it, but a small enemy force had cut their communications links to the rear: nine German paratroopers occupying the road from Neufchâteau to Witry. Since those brave Belgian boys never got their orders to withdraw, they stood and fought, and they almost disrupted the German plan altogether.
Consider it: a plan of one million men, nearly ruined because of nine misplaced paratroopers. Like Clausewitz wrote a century earlier, none of this is as simple as it looks.