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The Blitzkrieg Legend: The 1940 Campaign in the West

by Karl-Heinz Frieser, with John T. Greenwood; Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Md., 2005, $47.50.

Case Yellow, the victorious German campaign in Western Europe in 1940, continues to fascinate historians, and frankly it should. Even today, an operational summary like this can stir the blood: the German feint from the north acting as a “matador’s cloak”; the bold panzer thrust through the forbidding Ardennes forest, courtesy of General Erich von Manstein; the Allied drive to the Dyle River in Belgium and Breda in the Netherlands, a pair of truly brilliant operational maneuvers—for the wrong side; General Heinz Guderian’s breakthrough at Sedan, equaled by Maj. Gen. Hermann Hoth at Monthermé and Brig. Gen. Erwin Rommel at Dinant; the high-speed panzer drive to the English Channel and the consequent encirclement of an entire Allied force in Belgium; and Adolf Hitler’s often-explained but still inexplicable order to halt his forces before Dunkirk and the subsequent heroic British evacuation of its troops from the shore. Twentieth-century warfare does not get any more dramatic than this.

It isn’t just historians who feel the pull. The campaign (Fall Gelb in German) has also gripped the attention of military planners in virtually all present-day armies. Indeed, the current American way of war—featuring small, elite forces in high-tempo operations designed to “get inside the decision cycle” of a slower-moving opponent—is based more than anything on the improbable success of Case Yellow. Operation Iraqi Freedom, in particular, followed this pattern, right down to the extremely problematic aftermath. Case Yellow, in other words, was truly a conquest for the ages.

When this book was first released in Germany in 1995 under the title Blitzkrieg-Legende: Der Westfeldzug 1940, it caused a sensation among those of us who study the Wehrmacht for a living. Not only was it a detailed and comprehensive study of this most successful of modern military endeavors, but also it staked out some bold, even startling, revisionist terrain that called into question all received wisdom about Case Yellow. Hardly the inevitable victory of a blitzkrieg-oriented army, Karl-Heinz Frieser’s vision of the 1940 campaign was instead filled with chance and contingency and the fog of war on both sides. It wasn’t simply a victory of German armor—virtually all of which was vastly inferior to that of the Allies—but rather a victory for superior doctrine. Frieser moved the discussion from hardware factors to areas of software: planning, command and control, logistics and information. Finally, the author was not just a garden-variety historian but a Bundeswehr officer-scholar publishing under the auspices of the official Military History Research Institute in Potsdam. He had access to the complete documentary record, stored in archives with which he was intimately familiar. Rather than being just another official history, it was a case of the right man writing the right book at the right time.

Now, more than 10 years later, the good folks at the Naval Institute Press have done us the favor of releasing Frieser’s path-breaking work in English. This new translation by John T. Greenwood will delight most American readers. Buffs and wargamers will love the detailed orders of battle and the incredible maps (which are identical to those in the original book, and are still in German); scholars will find themselves applauding a man who knows his way around the primary sources. General readers, however, may well blench at the 353 pages of dense text and a further 80 pages of endnotes, and they will no doubt look elsewhere for their Case Yellow fix (probably to Alistair Horne’s To Lose a Battle, still the most readable narrative of the campaign).

In a way, that’s too bad. There are a great many points here that deserve to be more widely disseminated. Frieser, for example, does not think the German army planned Case Yellow as a blitzkrieg at all. With good reason, most German staff officers had great respect for the armies of the Western allies: The last time they had faced these adversaries they became immersed in four years of bloodshed—a grinding war of attrition that Germany eventually lost. Most of them expected a replay. In fact, they were dumbfounded that Hitler had dragged the Third Reich into a war in 1939, a conflict for which it was far less ready than it had been in 1914.

The rapid and comparatively bloodless victory in early 1940 was as shocking to the Germans as it was to the Allied commanders, and it cried out for a plausible explanation. The result was the onomatopoeic term blitzkrieg (lightning war), a supposedly new method of war-making developed in secret by the Germans (and often attributed to the military “genius” of Hitler). As Frieser points out, the term was hardly ever used in Germany, and certainly not used in any precise or doctrinal sense. It simply sounded good—at first to outsiders, and eventually to Germans alike. Blitzkrieg was, in effect, an ex post facto construction, but one of such power that it would eventually come to blind the Germans themselves to what had happened in 1940.

But if Case Yellow was not a blitzkrieg, then what was it? Here Frieser made his most important contribution. Viewed strategically, the Germans lost World War II on September 1, 1939, the day they invaded Poland and brought down the wrath of the Western powers, with their domination of the seas and their vast, resource-rich overseas empires. That certainly was the opinion of most German staff officers, and not even the rapid victory in Poland did much to improve their mood on that point. There was no plan for conflict with Britain and France, and the long-term prospects seemed hopeless. The operational plan for 1940, then, really was something new: a go-for-broke gamble, a staking of the entire fate of the nation on the play of one card—the panzer thrust through the Ardennes. It was more than an operational plan, however; it was “the substitute for a strategic solution that the political leadership had failed to develop.” As such, Case Yellow went well beyond daring into the realm of recklessness. It was foolhardy, and even a decent performance by the Allies should have stopped it cold.

As Frieser shows chapter and verse, that’s exactly what did not happen. The Germans triumphed, not through faster tanks or better aircraft but through superior command and control. German orders were typically acted upon within minutes, while it rarely took the French less than two or three days to do anything. This was the result of several different factors. The German army had done a great deal of hard work in the interwar period on the military use of radios, and had at least 12 times the number of trained radio operators as the French.

Repeatedly in this book one sees the payoff in terms of rapid transmission of information and orders. Likewise, the operational-level German officer corps had the collective aggression of an attack dog, and it tended to lead from the front (führen nach Vorn). As a result, it could spot opportunities (and dangers) and react more rapidly to sudden changes on the battlefield. Contrast this to the sad story of General Maxime Weygand taking over command of the French army and installing himself in his new headquarters in Castle Briare. There was only one telephone in the castle, and every day from noon to 2 p.m. the switchboard girl took her lunch break.

But German superiority went deeper than that, into the realm of a flexible system of command that dated back at least to the days of the elder General Helmuth von Moltke. It had long been the German tradition to see war as the province of uncertainty. “No plan,” Moltke once wrote, “survives contact with the enemy’s main body.” An army on campaign had to be ready for anything, not hamstrung by rigid orders. His solution came to be known as Auftragstaktik— the commander devised a mission (Auftrag), explained it in a short, crisp order, and then left the method of achieving it to the officer on the spot. This too is a theme that Frieser returns to repeatedly. German field commanders strained at the leashes, and more often than not snapped them altogether, as in Guderian’s reconnaissance in force out of the Sedan bridgehead or Rommel’s incredible raid on Avesnes. The latter saw the commander of the “Ghost Division” deliberately turn off his radios (to avoid recall by higher echelon) during a nighttime armored joyride. He was with his lead elements as they drove into and through bivouacked elements of the French 5th Motorized Division, with its vehicles “lined up like targets in a shooting gallery”—a truly apocalyptic, made-forcinema moment.

In dispelling myths of the German blitzkrieg in 1940, however, Frieser is not immune to stretching the truth himself. The modern military buzzword “nonlinearity” makes far more of an appearance here than it should. The great panzer lunge did indeed dispense with traditional concepts such as “front” and “flanks,” and yet Frieser also admits that the Germans never fully sealed off the pocket of Allied troops in Belgium—hundreds of thousands escaped it, and they weren’t all British. As any student of the war in the Soviet Union knows, this would be a constant problem for the Germans. In the course of that long conflict, the Wehrmacht hardly ever sealed off the encirclements it formed. Perhaps a bit of old-fashioned “linearity” is not a bad idea from time to time.

Likewise, Frieser paints a portrait of an omniscient Guderian, an intuitive Manstein and a clichéd “conservatives vs. progressives” approach that is by now badly dated in the literature. So too is the “smart generals vs. stupid Führer” schema he uses in the discussion of the halt order before Dunkirk. Hitler’s decision in this case was inane, yes, but the General Staff of the Army and field commanders alike made their share in the course of the war. Frieser even has Polish lancers charging German tanks in 1939—the myth that will not die.

Some of this is to be expected. The book is 10 years old, after all, and would have benefited from the findings of more recent research, especially Geoff Megargee’s demolition of the German General Staff’s infallibility in his 2000 book Inside Hitler’s High Command. I must admit, I laughed out loud upon reading Frieser’s description of the “extraordinary, perfectly functioning machinery” of the General Staff. Even a cursory knowledge of Prussian-German wars should give one pause about indulging in too much hero worship.

But some of the problems go beyond time lag. Frieser denies the existence of any sort of blitzkrieg strategy, to be sure, and he consigns the notion of a German “blitz” economy (purportedly geared to fight a series of short, sharp wars) to the dustbin of history where it belongs. In the course of this book, however, he describes a dramatic campaign based on daring, surprise and the ruthless commitment of all resources from the outset. It moved at top speed, destroying much of the Allied host it faced, and it confused and bewildered those parts of it that it did not destroy. I don’t know—it kind of sounds like blitzkrieg to me.


Originally published in the November 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here