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Chapter Seven.

Comparing the Fight in France with that in White Russia in June and July 1941

In the French campaign (1940), a blitzkrieg analogous to the opening stage of the Russian campaign, the actions and results help to understand Barbarossa. The Germans won the battle of France when spearheads of the main concentration of their tank force crossed the Meuse River near Sedan on the afternoon of 13 May 1940. It would be a long time before the French would ask for an armistice on 17 June 1940. There would be weeks during which the Germans would exploit the Schweipunkt drive in the West. The essence of a modern blitzkrieg is such, however, that when the Germans crossed the Meuse with advanced elements of their mobile divisions, they had edged the threshold of victory. The German campaigns of 1939-1941 were not so much lighting wars as they were instant victories. An amazing characteristic of the six weeks' war-the tide often given to the French campaign- not so much that it lasted for only six weeks but that the Germans won it in only four days.

Conditions Leading to Victory in Blitzkriegs

Debate on whether four days is the exact time in which the Germans won is less Important than understanding the following logic Extraordinarily early in the French blitz, the Germans created circumstances that amounted to irreversible dislocation of the Allied armies and impending victory. What conditions did the Germans create in the French campaign, and how do they compare with those in Barbarossa? First, the Germans had the initiative in the blitz and concentrated their attack along a single axis of advance selected by them as decisive in the campaign-an important element in war. The Germans planned (optimistically) to encircle and destroy the French 1st Army Group (which included the British Expeditionary Force) by driving through its extreme eastern flank on its advance into Belgium. They would attempt this by suturing it off from the rest of France with an advance to the English Channel, then completing the encirclement by seizing the channel ports behind it. Success would lead to the destruction of the French, Belgian, and Dutch armies and the concomitant political collapse of the associated states.

In 1940, however, the western front included Belgium and the Netherlands and was so large and well-manned by Allied armies, which substantially outnumbered the Germans in personnel and tanks, that the Germans were forced to fight a two-stage campaign.{1} First, they encircled the French 1st Army Group, then paused and drove across the Somme River to defeat the French and British forces holding the defenses north of Paris. Notwithstanding the complex and spacious nature of the French campaign, the Germans had achieved a "set of conditions" by 13 May that ensured victory, culminating in the armistice of 22 June 1940.

How similar were the conditions on the evening of 13 May 1940 and those in the Soviet Union in the middle of July 1941? The essential conditions that caused French defeat by 13 May 1940 were movement, time, space, physical damage, and psychological equilibrium. These words describe the quick German victory in France and are useful to gauge German success in the Soviet Union in the analogous opening battle. In France, by 13 May the German 12th Army had quickly moved deep into French strategic space with the striking power to inflict mortal casualties and damage on opposing French forces. It disturbed the psychological equilibrium of both the French high command and the French combat soldier, and reduced their capability to survive under continued attack. The term psychological equilibrium conveys the idea that the French opposite the German Schwerpunkt army were thrown off balance psychologically by the unexpected pace of the Germans and the accompanying casualties and damage. The French command lost its capability to react to German moves, and French troops were overwhelmed by the same movement and the devastating effects of a formidable array of German weapons. As the German 12th Army exploded into the rear of the French 1st Army Group, now well forward in Belgium, the Allied high command on the western front and the Allied field armies were similarly thrown off balance and began to disintegrate.

The Potential for German Defeat in France, 1940

The Germans won the French campaign but they were not preordained to win any more than they were preordained to lose the Russian campaign. Even as the French began to disintegrate, the Germans offered them opportunities to halt the German advance and win a stalemate in Belgium and northern France. The Schwerpunkt of the German 12th Army attack in the west was Panzer Group von Kleist, whose first wave was the 19th Panzer Corps. Although this panzer corps was followed by another panzer corps and a motorized infantry corps, it was the German unit whose success or failure would govern the success or failure of Germany in the battle of France. Franz Halder on 13 May 1940 brought the situation neatly into perspective:

My estimate of the situation; In the area north of Namur we are now confronted with a completed enemy buildup comprising approximately 24 British and French and about 15 Belgian divisions. Against these forces [39 divisions] we can put up a total of 21.... South of Namur [i.e.. around Sedan on the Meuse] we are faced with a weaker enemy, about half our strength. Outcome of the Meuse drive will decide if, when. and where we would be able to take advantage of the superiority.{2}

The 19th Panzer Corps and neighboring 15th began the Meuse drive.{3} They carried German hopes for a decisive success in the west on their sturdy shoulders. The German advance, like the advance in Barbarossa, was finely tuned and required forward movement along the Schwerpunkt axis of advance. That movement was necessary to keep the immediate enemy off balance and to drive into strategic space while destroying the opposing field armies. The 19th Panzer Corps moved great distances in a decisive direction with striking power to destroy the enemy forces in its path-thrown off balance by the advancing tank forces. In the German blitz it was anathema to let the opposition regain its psychological equilibrium and build up a coherent front. In retrospect, it is amazing that several levels of German command issued orders to 19th Panzer Corps, which, had they had not been overmled immediately by the corps commander, would have slowed and probably paralyzed forward movement.

Guderian received orders on the following days that could have had fatal consequences in the battle of France. During the evening of 10 May 1940, the headquarters of Panzer Group von Kleist ordered the 10th Panzer Division, one-third the strength of 19th Panzer Corps, to move south to counter the threat of French cavalry imagined to be moving north from Longwy. Had the order been executed, Guderiaris panzer corps would have advanced in divergent directions, with the mass of the corps weakened for the attack across the Meuse and possibly even halted to meet the threat from the south. It is difficult to believe that the attack across the Meuse, foreseen for 13 May 1940, would have taken place. As the hours ticked by, the French would be presented an increasing opportunity to discover the strength and purpose of the great German motorized force heading for the Meuse, but still to the east of it. In this hypothesized alternate past, the Germans might not have crossed the Meuse for days, or possibly a week or two later, against a physically reinforced and psychologically prepared enemy.

The Germans Attempt to Throw Away Victory In the French Campaign:

The Pre-Dunkirk Orders to Halt on 15 and 17 May 1941

On 15 and 17 May 1940, after the Meuse crossing, Guderiaris Panzer corps received orders to halt. These orders had potentially graver consequences than Hitler's later, better-known, and inadequately explained order to halt short of Dunkirk. Guderian sensed accurately and-though the word does not convey the importance of the consequence-fatefully that the Schwerpunkt force would never reach the channel and the offensive in the west would fail. In both cases largely alone, but with his prestige as architect of the armored force and its successful advance across the Meuse, Guderian kept the advance going and headed in the right direction. He fought more difficult battles with commanders above him in his own army than with the Belgian, French, and British field armies, probably a special characteristic of blitzkrieg-style operations. Although the data are limited and skewed-only two halt orders and another by the nervous military dilettante Adolf Hitler-they are weighty historical documents, important for under standing what makes a blitzkrieg stop or go. The higher in the chain of command and the farther from the front, the more likely the decision-maker would be to withdraw from the original daring purpose and deep drives of a blitz because of the diminished likelihood he would be in contact with the armored spearheads and sense the real possibilities in the battle.

In General der Kavallerie Ewald von Kleist's decision to halt on 15 May 1940, he appears to have been more concerned with securing the bridgehead across the Meuse than winning the war against France by continuing the drive to the channel coast. Kleist, who was not with the leading troops, was out of touch with the far-reaching dimensions of the rapid German victory developing with Guderiaris tanks and motorized infantry. At the front of the armored wedge, Guderian, his subordinate commanders, and the combat soldiers sensed the impending collapse of the enemy and the necessity to keep him off balance. Kleist could not allow the French to regain psychological equilibrium enough to match the Initiative, press, and quick reaction characterizing the forward movement of the German motorized force. His order to halt and defend the Meuse bridgehead was tantamount to breaking the pattern of initiative, press, and quick reaction of the Germans and presenting the French an opportunity of matchless operational magnanimity to stabilize their front. The French had lost the war on the Continent by the evening of 15 May 1940. Kleist by his single, discrete decision offered them the opportunity to rise from operational death and pack forces around Germans held in the Meuse bridgehead.

Several striking generalizations can be made about action, immediate effects, and outcome in blitzes by comparing the openings of the French and Russian campaigns. The current Interpretation of the Second World War points out long-term, underlying reasons why the French lost the war in the west. These have come to include weak morale, a defeatist attitude in broad segments of the population, the defensive orientation of the armed forces as exemplified by the Maginot Line, and a relatively weak armaments effort compared with that of the German army. Writers similarly highlight the grand political and economic reasons why Germany lost its war in the east; the weakness of Germany's alliance partners, an ongoing war with Britain, and the marginal output of German industry in an extended two-front war.

The courses of the actual campaigns, however, do not support generalizations that any long-term or "underlying" factors were predominant in the German victory in France, or defeat in Russia. The British and French governments and Adolf Hitler were determined to continue their political policies by means of war-the realm of uncertainty and chance, in which the outcome depends on the armed violence and chance of battle. If no peacetime factor existed that can be shown to have doomed the Allies to defeat- and none can-then it follows that they were defeated according to the battles comprising the war. Rejecting the immediate postwar caricature of French defeat, I generalize that the French were defeated not because of some special political and social degeneracy acquired and matured in the interwar period but for the clear and cogent reason that they lost the battle of France.

Kleist's order to halt the Schwerpunkt force of the German advance in the west on 15 May 1940 supports a view that the Germans could have lost the battle of France by not breaking through to the channel. Inexplicably divorced from the necessity to push west, Kleist defended his order in heated argument with his subordinate, Guderian. He would agree to continue the advance for only another twenty-four hours to acquire sufficient space in the Meuse bridgehead for the following infantry corps of the remainder of the 12th Army. Had this order continued in effect, it would have slowed the pace of the battle, and the new pace could have been slow enough to allow a confused Allied command to recover and smother the German advance with slow-moving but tough-fighting infantry and tank forces. Kleist did not rescind his order, and on 17 May 1940, face to face and rather dramatically, ordered Guderian to halt. That order, however, originated with Hitler, who neared nervous collapse over perceived but unfounded danger south of the Schwerpunkt, and who raged and screamed{4} into the next day against continuing operations westward. Even in the restricted battle area of northwestern France and Belgium, the Germans could have lost enough momentum in only a few days to have let victory in the west slip away. Victory would have been lost, not because of special resistance by the Allied armed forces, Allied population strengths, or superior war production or numbers, but because the German command did not finish off the Allied armies when it could do so early in the battle.

Similarities Between the Opening Battles of the French and Russian Campaigns:

Early German Attempts to Throw Away Victory In Barbarossa

In the Soviet Union in July 1941 the Germans faced a set of conditions analogous to those in France the year before. The fact that events developed in a strikingly similar pattern is not difficult to believe because the same Germans seized the initiative and fought battles similar to those in the offensive in France. In Barbarossa, both Hitler and the army high command agreed that the Soviet forces in Byelorussia would have to be destroyed as far west as possible to prevent their escape behind the Dvina and Dnieper rivers and the consequent buildup of a coherent Soviet front on the Smolensk land bridge, blocking the way to Moscow. As it was necessary in the French blitz to reach the channel coast and cut off and destroy the Allied forces in the lowlands, so it was necessary in Barbarossa to capture Smolensk quickly to prevent escape of the Soviet forces eastward and development of an effective resistance behind the Dnieper and Dvina rivers, centered on Smolensk. In France, after destroying the encircled Allied forces in the lowlands, the Germans intended to regroup on the Somme River and strike south on both sides of Paris. In the Soviet Union, after destroying Soviet forces to the west of Smolensk, the German army planned to regroup and strike east toward Moscow.

In the French campaign, from 15 to 18 May 1940, the Germans came close to paralyzing their own movement and never reaching the channel. In the battle of Russia, Guderian received an order to halt similar to that from Kleist in the earlier campaign. On 1 July 1941, Generalfeldmarschall Gunther von Kluge, commanding the 4th Panzer Army, into which Panzer Group 2 had just been placed, ordered Guderian to halt his movement to the Dnieper River to ensure tight lines of encirclement around Soviet forces trapped just west of Minsk. Because part of Guderian's 17th Panzer Division continued toward the Dnieper on 1 July 1941 under previous orders, Kluge called Guderian to his headquarters early on the morning of 2 July 1941 and berated him for not halting that movement. The next day, 3 July 1941, the last important Soviet forces surrendered in the Bialystok pocket, and the remnants in the Minsk pocket were tightly encircled and rapidly breaking up. By 3 July, Guderian had resumed his advance to the Dnieper and by 7 July was up against its right (west) bank with the Panzer Group.

Now, history repeated itself in several essential aspects. Hitler allowed his attention to become riveted by the Bialystok pocket, and, although he had ordered an ultra-quick thrust to Smolensk to destroy even greater forces and exploit that into a more complete victory over the Soviets, he attempted to hold back the leading edges of the Schwerpunkt. Similarly, in France on 17 May 1940. Hitler drew back from the possible consequences of the enormous success of the Schwerpunkt far to the west of Sedan and ordered it to stop because he feared it would jeopardize the half-success of the Meuse bridgehead. In France. Hitler saw danger in the success of Guderian's 19th Panzer Corps, overestimating the strength of the French and their capability to crush the Meuse bridgehead by an attack into the southern flank of the German 12th Army. With little operational nerve. Hitler accepted securing the bridgehead as an end in itself, rather than as a means to destroying the Allied forces in Belgium. The Meuse bridgehead became an obsession of Hitler's for several crucial days-days that could have turned into weeks, acceptance of half-success in the opening battle, and loss of the following campaign.

There is a similar pattern in Barbarossa. Still, the campaign developed successfully because of the operational nerve of enough German military commanders to maintain the momentum of two panzer groups fast enough and far enough to defeat the Soviet Union. Curiously, opposing the existing interpretation that Hitler grossly underestimated the strength of the Soviet Union, Hitler substantially overestimated the Soviet armed forces in 1941 at virtually the only place that counted in the opening battle-opposite German Army Group Center. In the opening stages of Barbarossa, on 25 June 1941. Hitler badgered the high command of the army, questioning whether Army Group Center was already operating too deeply into the Soviet Union.{5} He demanded the two panzer groups be halted and turned around to ensure destruction of the Soviet forces trapped near and east of Bialystok. Like the case of the Meuse bridgehead. Hitler fixed his attention on the Bialystok pocket and nervously attempted to pace the whole campaign in Russia to his fears about the destruction of the Soviet forces there. From a day earlier, on 24 June, through about 5 July, Hitler exorbitantly underestimated the capabilities of Army Group Center to continue a full-blooded offensive toward Moscow while simultaneously destroying the Soviet forces in the Bialystok and Minsk Kesseln.

Had Hitler successfully halted the two panzer groups of Army Group Center on 25 June 1941 and manned lines of encirclement around the Bialystok pocket. Army Group Center might not have reached Minsk, let alone Smolensk, Vyasma, and Moscow in the battle for Russia. At this early crucial juncture in the battle, and the earlier the better in a genuine blitz, OKH had the courage on 30 June 1941 to order the combat units to advance to the Dnieper and Dvina rivers. The OKH could keep the battle moving on blitz schedule because of the superior combat performance of the German infantry divisions, the mobility and striking power of the mobile divisions, and the aggressive personalities of Guderian (Panzer Group 2) and Hoth (Panzer Group 3). The infantry divisions (horse-drawn and on foot) marched all the way to the area around Minsk, encircling two great pockets of Russians, extracting a significant percentage of the 324,000 prisoners taken, and crushing organized resistance in the second pocket west of Minsk by 7 July 1941. The mobile divisions (tanks, three-quarter tracks, and trucks) linked up south of Minsk on 27 June, setting the initial outer, loose lines encircling a force of some 500,000 Soviet army and air force personnel while severely disrupting command, control, and communications across the Soviet Special Western Military District. The aggressive and self-confident Guderian and Hoth continued the drive to the east, placing mobile forces of Panzer Group 2 against the Dnieper at Rogachev on 2 July 1941, and Panzer Group 3 on the Dvina near Polock the next day.

These details translate into the stunning debacle of Soviet armed forces and the Soviet state, which were on the brink of collapse on 3 July 1941. Politically, Hitler had ordered a war against the Soviet Union, beginning with a great surprise attack and ending in a lightning campaign. Masterfully, the army concentrated its forces. achieved surprise, and executed the opening Schwerpunkt drive to the Dnieper and Dvina rivers so well as to fatally disrupt Soviet forces opposite Army Group Center and fast enough to prevent Soviet mobilization of its full manpower and war production. In 1945, the Soviet Union would have eleven million men in its armed forces and produce tanks, aircraft, and artillery at an enormous yearly rate. In contrast, on 3 July 1941 the Germans were moving into the Soviet Union at a pace so fast that the fabled "inexhaustible" resources of manpower and the enormous productive capacities of the Soviet Union counted for little. The Germans had forced a blitz on the Soviet Union, and, in a blitz, the battle-winning capabilities of the present are decisive-not the promise of manpower and war production at some future date.

Influenced by the German loss of the Russian campaign, writers have researched and identified factors contributing to the German defeat rather than factors that, in the successful beginning of a blitz, could have led to German victory. The Germans lost the war after reaching the decisive turning point in the brief period from 22 June to 13 August 1941. At that time they had an overwhelming chance of winning, but later, as their strategic situation deteriorated, they had virtually none. Factors presented by the conventional wisdom to account for the German defeat include the time-honored numbers and stubborn toughness of the Russian soldier, and Russian space, winter, and mud. More modern factors include the fanatic, determined leadership of the Soviet Communists, their organizational abilities, and the resources and productive capacities of the Soviet state. All these factors contributed to the insuperable difficulties of fighting a long war in Russia in the painfully drawn-out, anticlimactic period from August 1941 to May 1945, but none contributed conclusively to the Germans' winning or losing the opening blitz.

The period from 22 June to 3 July 1941 highlights that generalization, for in that brief time the Germans achieved such great success with Army Group Center and the other armies on the wings of the advance that they established the immediate preconditions to defeat the Soviet armed forces. By doing so in approximately twelve days, the Germans largely negated the factors presented by the conventional wisdom as reasons for their defeat. Had the Germans continued the pace and destructiveness of their advance after 3 July 1941 (which they did), Russian numbers could not be decisive because they would never be brought to bear. The Russian winter would count for little because the Germans would be in Moscow at the end of August, and Russian mud would be reduced to subcritical proportions because the Germans would control the dense, higher-quality rail and road network radiating from Moscow and be fighting outflanked Soviet forces at Leningrad and in the Ukraine in relatively mud-free September weather.

The Soviet productive capacities similarly would count for little because the blitz would have caused irreversible damage to the Soviet armed forces. Meanwhile, the occupation of strategic terrain, as exemplified by the Moscow-Gorki space and Leningrad and the Ukraine, would doom effective Soviet resistance. Concerning the different, more immediate factors of stubborn tenacity of the Russian soldier and the organizational determination of the Communist party, the German field armies decisively overwhelmed the best the Soviets and the Russians could offer on the road to Moscow between 22 June and 3 July 1941. This schedule could be projected into defeat of the Soviet Union by the end of August 1941.