|British and French troops evacuated from Dunkirk arrive at Dover.|
In the west, Britain and France, especially the latter, expected a replay of the First World War. So they planned accordingly. When the time was ripe, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) with French armies alongside, would advance into neutral Belgium to meet the Germans as far from France as possible.
Along the Franco-German border the Allies expected nothing to happen. The Germans could not penetrate the Maginot Line, a mighty string of fortifications stretching from around the area where France, Belgium, and Luxembourg meet, down to the Swiss border. Most of the Franco-Belgian border was weakly fortified, if at all. The war would be fought forward, in Belgium, whether the Belgians cared or not.
The original German plan was a virtual repeat of the WWI Schlieffen Plan. The German Army would sweep into neutral Belgium, also cutting across part of the neutral Netherlands, and sweep from the north into France and onto Paris. But this time the Germans had tanks, lots of tanks, concentrated into purpose-built armored divisions.
The British and French also had tanks, actually more tanks than the Germans, many of which were, in some ways, better than the German panzers. The British tanks were heavy, nearly impervious machines, designed to provide close support to the infantry. They weren't very fast, but they were tough. However, they weren't concentrated, they were, as some British armored experts moaned, spread in "penny packets" along the entire front.
The French had been operating the same way, but some in the French Army, perhaps remembering the massed heavy cavalry of Napoléon, were making noise enough that the French high command, preparing for a remake of Verdun and the Miracle of the Marne, grew tired of their carping and decided to let them build up one or two armored divisions, similar to what the Germans had. Bear in mind, the Germans, in the spring of 1940, had ten armored divisions. They also had learned from their experience in Poland how to use those divisions in cooperation with air and infantry.
A staff officer bearing the German Air Force's plans for supporting the attack into Belgium, in violation of standing orders, was flying across Belgium when his aircraft was forced down. Now the plans, which Hitler had disagreed with but as he was still unsure of himself, didn't oppose, had to be changed. General Erich von Manstein had been working on an alternate plan, he showed it to Hitler, it was immediately approved.
While the German Army would make it look like they were replaying WWI, in reality a large portion of their armored forces were held just east of the forested area stretching along the borders of Belgium, Germany, and Luxembourg. The Ardennes.
Everyone assumed that the forests, hills, and gullies of the Ardennes would prove too difficult for armored forces. So the area was weakly held. (Much like it was in December 1944.)
In May, the Germans launched their offensive. According to plan, the BEF and the French marched into Belgium, when they were too far forward and too heavily engaged, the panzers rolled into the Ardennes and overcame the light resistance there. Soon they had crossed the Meuse River. A panicked Hitler, worried that the armor was too thin and unsupported wanted to halt the tanks. He was convinced to let them drive on. A bulge was forming.
|The German advance until noon, 16 May 1940.|
Truth be told, the French were disorganized and demoralized practically as the first German grunt stepped across the German border onto foreign soil. They remembered all too well the blood bath of WWI. They were done.
As the Germans pushed towards the English Channel, nearly 400,000 British and French soldiers found themselves surrounded near the French coastal town of Dunkirk. What happened there was a miracle. Yes, it was a defeat but the entire BEF, essentially the only army Britain had in Europe, could have been trapped and completely destroyed.
France was falling, without the BEF, Britain would have been doomed. But the Germans hesitated, they halted the armor, Hitler turned to der Dicke*, Hermann Goering, the head of the Luftwaffe, who boasted that the Air Force alone could destroy the Allied troops trapped along the coast.
It was not to be.
This summer, there is a movie coming out covering the events at Dunkirk starring some of my favorite actors - Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, and Kenneth Branagh. I have to see this film. And I will.
Oh yes, it has Spitfires. This film looks accurate and excellent.
I can hardly wait...
* "The Fat Man" - Goering's nickname in some circles