METZ, FRANCE - In this ancient fortress city on the Mosel River that stands guard on the traditional invasion route into France, one is surrounded by the ghosts of great wars past -- and the often cruel myths that still linger.
As a former instructor of military history and specialist in France's 20th century wars, let me address four particularly annoying and misleading myths:
First, France's army did not simply surrender or run away in 1940, as ignorant American know-nothing conservatives claim.
The German Blitz that smote France on May-June, 1940, scattering its armies like leaves before a storm, was a major historical revolution in warfare. Blitzkrieg combined rapidly-moving armor and mobile infantry, precision dive bombing, flexible logistical support, and new high technologies in C3 -- command, control and communications. In 1940, Germany led the world in technology: 75% of all technical books were then written in German.
France's armies and generals, trained to re-fight World War I, were overwhelmed by lightening warfare. France was then still a largely agricultural society. Blitzkrieg -- now adopted by all major modern armed forces -- was designed to strike an enemy's brain rather than body, paralyzing his ability to manage large forces or to fight. The Germans called it their 'silver bullet.'
Indeed it was. France still relied on couriers to deliver vital information. Germany was the world's leader in mobile radio communications. Amazingly, the French commander-in-chief, Gen. Gamelin, did not even have a telephone in his HQ outside Paris.
Britain's well-trained expeditionary force in France was beaten just as quickly and thoroughly as the French, and saved itself only by abandoning its French allies and fleeing across the Channel.
No army in the world at that time could have withstood Germany's blitzkrieg, planned by the brilliant Erich von Manstein, and led by the audacious Heinz Guderian, and Erwin Rommel -- three of modern history's greatest generals.
They were also incredibly lucky. Just one bomb on a German bridge over the Meuse, or one impassable traffic jam in the Ardennes forest could have meant the difference between victory and defeat. The French had temporarily moved some of their weakest reserve units just into the sector the Germans struck. It was, as Wellington said after Waterloo, a damned close run thing.
Germany's new, fluid tactics shattered France's armies. They were unable to reform their lines in spite of often fierce resistance. The fast-moving German panzers were constantly behind them. Retreat under fire is the most difficult and perilous of all military operations. After six weeks, and a stab in the back by Mussolini's Italy, France's armies had disintegrated.
France lost 217,000 dead and 400,000 wounded in combat. Compare that to America's loss of 416,000 dead during four years of war in the Pacific and Europe. At least France did not suffer the 2 million dead it lost in World War I. Germany losses: 46,000 killed in action, 121,000 wounded, and 1,000 aircraft. By comparison, the US, British and Canadians lost some 10,000 dead and wounded at D-Day.
Second, the forts of France's Maginot Line were not tactically outflanked, as myth has it. The Germans struck NW of the Line's end, through the Belgian/French Ardennes Forest, a route anticipated by the French Army which held war games there in 1939. The immobile French field army failed, not the Maginot Line.
The Line, which was never completed, was too costly, tied down too many men, and came to symbolize France's defensive attitude. But the Great Wall of France fulfilled its designated mission of defending France's vital coal and steel industries of Alsace and Lorraine.
The Line was also designed to channel any German attack through either Belgium or Switzerland.
The Germans concluded an attack on the Maginot Line would be too costly, and opted for a different route -- through Belgium.
The high water table of Flanders, and France's aversion to building forts behind its Belgian ally, left the Franco-Belgian border with only scanty fixed defenses.
Ironically, after the German breakthrough at Sedan on the Meuse, a French corps held in reserve to cover this vital sector moved east to the Stenay Gap to protect the Maginot Line's left flank, opening the way for Guderian's panzers to fan out to the NW behind French lines.
The second largest amphibious operation in Western Europe during WWII was the totally forgotten German crossing under fire of the Rhine in June,1940.
The crews of the unconquered Maginot forts held out until the armistice. Those who mock France for building forts that were supposedly 'outflanked' should know the 'impregnable' modern US fortifications at Manila, and Britain's Fortress Singapore, were both taken from the rear by the Imperial Japanese Army. Germany's much vaunted `Westwall' and coastal defenses fared no better.
Third -- Germany's Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe were crushed well before D-Day. In commemorating the war, we must remember to salute the courage and valor of Russia's dauntless soldiers and pilots who, like German soldiers, fought magnificently albeit for criminal regimes. World War II in Europe was not won just at D-Day, as popular myth has it. Germany's army and air force were broken on the Eastern Front's titanic battles.
Russia just celebrated the 66th anniversary of victory in World War II, a commemoration almost totally ignored in the west.
The numbers speak for themselves. The Soviets destroyed 75-80% of all German divisions -- 4 million soldiers -- and most of the Luftwaffe. Russia lost at least 14 million soldiers and a similar number of civilians.
The Red Army destroyed 507 Axis divisions. On the Western Front after D-Day, the Allies destroyed 176 badly under-strength German divisions.
When the Allies landed in Normandy, they met battered German forces with no air cover, crippled by lack of fuel and supplies, unable to move in daytime. Even so, the Germans fought like tigers. Had the invading US, British and Canadians encountered the 1940's Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe, the outcome may well have been different.
Fourth -- World War II was not a good and evil struggle between 'western democracies' and 'totalitarian powers,' as we are still wrongly taught.
It was a world conflict over land and resources pitting the British Empire which controlled 25% of the entire globe, the French Empire, Dutch Empire, and Belgian Empire, and, later, the US imperium (Philippines, Pacific possessions, Central America), against the Italian and Japanese empires. The Soviet Union was an empire unto itself.
In 1939, the only major powers without colonies -- that were not imperial powers -- were Germany (who lost her few colonies in World War I) and China. Once the war ended, Britain and Holland, who complained mightily about the evils of Nazi occupation, scrambled to reoccupy their former colonies, some of which had declared independence.
One can hardly call this a crusade for freedom. Liberation for the white people of German-occupied Europe, certainly. But not for the peoples of Africa and Asia. However, in the end, the war did set in motion forces that would eventually spell the end of colonialism. The collapse of the British Empire, which Winston Churchill had vowed to defend at all costs, opened the way to worldwide decolonization.
We should not forget all this.
Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2011