Military historians love to emphasize the planning process. They like to talk about “perfect plans,” showing how the genius of the great commander can manifest itself even before the shooting starts. A good plan, we argue, can overwhelm the enemy, leading to quick victory and avoiding high casualties. We all know that war is horrible, and we all like to think that a perfect plan can bring things to a conclusion before the fighting becomes too unpleasant or bloody.
Exhibit A in this civilized view of warfare is the German operational plan for the invasion of France and the Low Countries in 1940. Fall Gelb, they called it: “Case Yellow.” I’ve spent a lifetime talking, teaching, and writing about it, and I will never tire of it.
How do you defeat a hostile coalition that outnumbers you? Maybe you launch a feint into central Belgium by Army Group B, while your main thrust (Army Group A) actually sends all of your Panzers through the forbidding and densely forested terrain of the Ardennes. The enemy won’t be expecting this, because the Ardennes is impassable to tanks and supposedly “impregnable.” He swallows your feint whole, rushing north to meet it with his entire strength. As a result, your southern drive through the Ardennes encounters only reserve formations, second line troops, and old men. You smash them, and the next thing you know, your Panzers are cutting clear across the rear of the Allied armies fighting north in Belgium. You reach the English Channel, slicing their lines of communications to ribbons, and cutting them off from supply. Oh sure, some of the enemy manages to evacuate from Dunkirk. Disappointing, yes, but not so much when you realize that they only escaped by abandoning all their tanks and equipment. Even allowing for the failure at Dunkirk, you have just won one of the most decisive victories in all of military history.
I am no more immune to this portrait than anyone who studies the war. But as I have come to analyze Case Yellow more carefully and to know it more intimately, I have been forced to acknowledge a number of ideas that were first put into print by the great Prussian philosopher of war, Karl von Clausewitz. A career of warfighting in the Napoleonic wars had left Sir Karl feeling pretty jaundiced about the notion of a perfect plan. He’d seen enough supposedly foolproof plans that failed, enough “brilliant” commanders claiming to have the solution, enough of the random events that screwed up even the best planned military operation. Downed bridges. Weather blowing up suddenly: storms, blizzards, fog. Messengers carrying important dispatches who got sick, or got lost, or whose horse pulled up lame. Regiments that didn’t get their orders, who were supposed to march in sequence and who instead showed up simultaneously at a crossroads claiming precedence on the one route forward. Clausewitz wasn’t all that impressed with anything claiming to be a perfect plan. He knew that war is not chess. Here are the profound words of the great sage himself, taken from his book Vom Kriege (“On War“), published in the 1830s:
Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war…. Friction is the only concept that more or less corresponds to the factors that distinguish real war from war on paper.
Nota bene: “Real war” is different from “war on paper.” The actual campaign rarely, if ever, mirrors the campaign plan. And, we might add, it rarely resembles the precisely conceived and perfectly executed plan that the military historian likes to portray in his books. Sitting in your study decades later, Napoleon or Moltke or Schlieffen or Patton might look like idiots, and it is easy to spot their “errors.” Clausewitz reminds us that none of this is as easy as it looks, and that we should be careful before we call any general a moron.
But, we might ask, what about 1940? Wasn’t this an example of military genius on one side wiping up the floor with a hapless adversary? Wasn’t this the ultimate chess game, with the Germans being the masters and the French the novices? Wasn’t Case Yellow the perfect campaign?
The answer to that question is, “no.” No operational plan is perfect. Treating war as chess is a mistake, if only because in chess, no one is shooting at you. In war, even if you succeed, you should be humble and hesitate to claim any sort of omniscience. Even in the 1940 campaign, a lot of things went wrong for the Germans. What we usually see as a pushover contained its share of problems, mistakes, and SNAFUs.
Imagine being a German paratrooper, a Fallschirmjäger. Part of the German army’s elite. Smart. Aggressive. Focused rigorously on the mission. A model soldier. On the eve of the great offensive in the west, you and 400 of your comrades are preparing for an airdrop into the Ardennes, to drop into the rear of the defenders and pave the way for the great Panzer drive. Your objectives: the villages of Nives and Witry.
No army in the 20th century had better troops. And no army wasted them on a more senseless mission.
Tune in next time.