Friday, July 28, 2017

May 1940

Refugees in Belgium, May 1940 (Source)
So, continuing (after a bit of a pause for other stuff) with the Dunkirk theme (the movie of course, not the town) I thought it might be worthwhile to cover a few things. The context of Operation Dynamo (which was the code name for the evacuation) and some of the events leading up to the evacuation and why the evacuation was necessary. And yes, I will be interjecting some of my own opinions on the matter and some of those opinions may upset/annoy any French or Russian readers. (If we actually have any of those, I mean The Chant gets hits from those two countries, but never any comments. Just sayin'...)

Now we need to go back to World War I, everything which followed the Armistice of 1918 (on the 11th of November of that year, there's a reason the British Commonwealth calls that day Armistice Day, even if we do not. (Opinion Alert: I prefer the to call it Armistice Day and I "celebrate" that day much the same way as the Commonwealth does, as a day of mournful remembrance. I'm a veteran, I don't need a "Veteran's Day" to remind me of that, nor to be celebrated. The retirement check is all the thanks I need. But I digress...)

Let's go back in time, shall we? World War I is over, the British and the French decide that "it's all Germany's fault" as the Austro-Hungarian Empire is no more, they are defunct, if they hadn't nailed them to the perch...

Oops, reverted to my default Monty Python mode, it happens.


Germany gets all the blame for World War I. No more airplanes, no tanks, and your army can only be 100,000 guys and none of that "bring in reservists every six months" crap like you pulled after the French kicked your Prussian butts in 1806. (Yeah, I'll enlighten you on that score. Someday. POCIR.)

Shortly after all that, the Depression hits and things suck for everybody in the civilized world. (FWIW, things have always sucked in the uncivilized world. Life there is nasty, brutish, and short. Hobbes wrote that, the philosopher, not the tiger.)

Long story short, the Germans are pissed at their government, so they elect Hitler to be in charge. Sort of. In actuality, the German political system of the late 20s, early 30s was sort of like the French and sort of like the British. They had a president who was the head of state (like the president in France and the Queen in the UK) and a chancellor (like the premier in France and the prime minister in the UK. Follow me so far?) who was the head of government.

There was an election, Hitler's party, the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Workers Party, the NSDAP, or Nazis, for short) won a plurality (not a majority) of the vote. The party with the largest vote total should get to have it's party leader be the chancellor. Hitler, of course, was the leader of the Nazi Party. But there were a number of people who thought that that would be a bad idea to have this guy, who had a lot of thugs in his party, be the chancellor of Germany. The very same office held by the great Otto von Bismarck!

Now the president of Germany at that time was Paul von Hindenburg, an old general. He was getting a bit senile and he really didn't like Hitler, a former corporal. But a lot of folks convinced the old guy that they could "control" Hitler. Go ahead, make him chancellor they said, it'll be fine, they said.


Paul von Hindenburg
(And yes, the airship that blew up in New Jersey was named after him.)

Hitler is appointed Chancellor, Hitler gets to be in charge, there's another election (which the Nazis forced) and now the Nazis pretty much own the whole shooting match. Hindenburg dies, Hitler manages to abolish the office of president and has himself appointed Führer und Reichskanzler, the Leader and Chancellor of the Realm. In other words, Germany now belongs to Hitler. He is the boss.

Yes, I have skipped a lot of details here. The German tank school in the Soviet Union which ended before Hitler had fully seized the reins of government springs immediately to mind. Let's jump ahead, here's a timeline of the events leading up to the evacuation of Dunkirk and afterwards to the end of the Battle of Britain -
While the Poles were fighting bravely against the Germans, the Russians stabbed them in the back. (Hey Vladimir, should they have put that in the movie Dunkirk?) Meanwhile the British and the French watched from their positions along the Rhine and did what?

Pretty much nothing. So much for Britain "guaranteeing" Poland's independence. Of course, the British Army was small, especially when compared to those of the Germans and the French. There was realistically nothing the British could do as an independent force. So what about the French?

France was still exhausted by World War I, her government, her people, and her army had no desire to see another bloodletting on the scale of 1914 - 1918, which was fought (in Europe) primarily on French soil. But the French had also learned all the wrong lessons from World War I.

The aircraft?

The French high command saw little use for it except as an auxiliary to the ground forces.

The tank?

A good thing to support infantry with, so their tanks, while they had better guns in general than the Germans, tended to be ponderous, slow. Much like the British tanks of the period. While the Germans were forming armored and motorized divisions, the French assigned their tanks in "penny packets" to support the infantry.

Remember the trenches and the extensive fortifications of World War I?

The French most certainly did. They poured lots of money into a string of fortifications known as the Maginot Line.

Yup, the Germans went around it. In all fairness, northern France has some very poor soil for fortifications this massive, a lot of them would have sunken into the mud when the heavy rains came. The Ardennes did look pretty iffy to drive tanks through as well. I mean the Americans in 1944 viewed it the same way, "can't drive tanks through there!"

Well, you can but the logistics are a bear. Narrow roads, hills, and forests. It's easy enough to drive a bunch of tanks through. But add in all the trucks, troops, and supplies that need to travel with those tanks and you have a big potential problem on your hands.

Traffic jams of that very nature stalled and eventually stymied the German attack in December of 1944. But May of 1940 was a totally different beast. Fine weather and little resistance and before you know it, the German armor was at, and then over the Meuse.

The German tank generals wanted to drive on to the English Channel and cut off the British and French armies in Belgium and...


Yes, Belgium.

For the Brits and the French expected a replay of Word War I: Germans invade Belgium and then sweep into France. So they figured they would advance into Belgium and meet the Germans forward, away from the French border.

Now if some German generals had had their way, that's exactly what would have happened. But there were a number of modern thinking German generals and Hitler actually listened to them. So here's a map of what happened -

Fall Gelb* (Source)
Blue lines advancing into Belgium, which the Belgians weren't all that thrilled with at first, see the red lines advancing through your rear areas, fouling your logistics and cutting off your combat units from their bases of supply? Yeah, those are the Germans, using tanks and aircraft, spoiling your lovely little plan.

Most folks think the German Army in World War II was fully motorized, with lots and lots of tanks. A common, and very false, perception. What the Germans did was concentrate them and use them in ways that most of the enemies they faced hadn't really considered. Their armored divisions (Panzerdivisionen) were a well-balanced mix of tanks, motorized infantry, artillery, engineers, and logistical units. They could move fast and they did, what's more, the Panzer generals knew how to use them.

So in late May, 400,000 Allied troops found themselves behind the German lines along the Channel coast in the vicinity of, you guessed it, Dunkirk.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The British view of the evacuation -

The German view -

The French view -

War is Hell.

* Fall Gelb - Case Yellow, the invasion of the Low Countries, Luxembourg, and France.


  1. When we think things are bad today, it's worth looking back at real bad times.

    The thing that puzzles (and sometimes enrages) me is the human propensity to say, "ah, but that won't happen to us!"

    1. And those were terrible times, millions died, were uprooted from their homes, many lost all of their earthly possessions. Can that happen here? You betcha!

      Eternal vigilance is a necessity.

  2. Learned quite a lot here today.

    1. I try to make things educational and interesting.

      Sometimes I succeed.


  3. I think the french are still exhausted from WWI.

    1. In truth they're still exhausted from the Napoleonic Wars as well, 1,700,000 French (from within the pre-1792 borders, i.e. Old France) died in the Napoleonic Wars. Something like 1,737,800 died in WWI. More deaths in WWI from a larger population but still, you can't lose that many people and not lose some of the nation's vitality.

  4. Nice synopsis! And I agree with SoCal Pir8, you can't exterminate that many young men without having dire effect on your population for many generations to come.

  5. The bulk of the German forces were not only non-mechanized, they relied almost exclusivley on horses. Horses, horses, and more horses. And it would stay that way throughout the war, unfortunately for the poor beasties. (Something like 80% of German units were entirely dependent on horse-drawn logistics, and the feetsies of the Schütze Arsch.)

    1. Exactly right. Most WWII armies relied still on the infantry marching up from the railheads with all their supplies, artillery, and the like drawn by horses. Not much different from our own experience in 1861-1865 with the exception of course of the weapons being far more lethal.

      It was the same for many Russian units until they started receiving American trucks in quantity.

      The U.S. Army in Europe, with some exceptions, was highly motorized if not fully motorized. (In Italy much use was made of mules, there's places even a Jeep can't go but a mule can.)

      The British and their Commonwealth allies were also highly motorized.

    2. Yes, mules for the Alps - and sometimes bears! (Wojtek!)

    3. Mustn't forget Wojtek!

      Relative of yours I'm guessing.


  6. The Germans also used advanced equipment to get ahead of their armored spearpoints. The use of Glider and Paratroopers to seize key positions, like the Belgium fortress of Eben Emael and key personnel like a royal family. Shock and Awe ain't exclusively an American thang.

    I can't imagine what it would be like to be moving towards the front, after being woken in the middle of the night, to go fight the evil 'Huns' and then find out they were 40 klicks behind you. Especially in an area where horse-drawn transport was still common.

    Now, what would France have been like with better generals than De Gaulle? What if they had had more "Patton" and less "MacArthur," would they have been able to get their collective stuff together and at least resist better? Hmmm. Talk about a good topic for some speculative fiction.

    1. Eben Emael wasn't as critical as the German pre-war planners thought it to be. I've been there. It's buried in the side of a hill and really only covers about a 100-degree sector to its front. If that much. The Germans could have avoided the fort entirely, just like the Maginot Line.

      Seizing royal families won't win a war. Especially if it's a small country like Belgium or the Netherlands. By themselves they could not hope to resist the Germans. There were a number of really neat parachute and glider operations by the Germans which were, in hindsight, a complete waste of time and energy. Not to mention lives.

      While the German airborne troops were very good, the Germans sucked at vertical envelopment. Crete finally convinced them of that. (There was a German airborne operation in the Battle of the Bulge, completely ineffective, too small, poorly dropped, and poorly planned.)

      De Gaulle was actually a very good general, but personally something of an asshole (he has few fans in the English speaking world because of his behavior as leader of the Free French and his abysmal attitude towards NATO). The French high command was loaded with generals who expected to re-fight WWI. they were short of anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns, not because they didn't have them (there were warehouses chock full of those guns awaiting shipment to foreign buyers) but because they didn't want them. More De Gaulles, not less, might have helped France but it would have been too little, too late. The French armed forces were not well led at the higher levels, they didn't even rely on radios or phones but on couriers in some instances!

      For a very good look at the events of May 1940, I highly recommend Len Deighton's Blitzkrieg. An outstanding history of the time. (He didn't just write fiction.)

      The French would have had to start getting their act together in the 20s. But why would they? After all they won World War I, and most victorious armies don't feel any compelling reason to change. The generals always think that the next war will be just like the last. And they're usually wrong.

      Damn, I like the way you look at things Andrew, never a dull moment!

    2. I played Avalon Hill's "Air Assault on Crete" (a really good tactical/strategic board game) and was always amazed at how hard airborne operations could go sour. The game mechanics had a randomizer regarding the landing of paratroops that made making a precise assault very difficult. (Not to mention the Germans jumping without their weapons in many cases, and having to find their weapon pods to get armed up.) Oh, sure, they won(ish) but the loss rates of paratroopers was very noticeable from that game. Man, I wish Avalon Hill was still in business.

      So, yeah, shock value was much more important than actual war value for the use of the sky troopies. Though they tried.

      So, Professor, when are you gonna give us your version of the Phony War? Hitler as a chess-grandmaster, against that timid rabbit Chamberlain? Why France and England didn't strike Germany when they had the chance? Would love to hear your take on that whole stupidity.

    3. Ah yes, Avalon Hill. I grew up playing their games, still have all of them. I should have spotted the fact that you're an old school grognard by your comments.

      One thing you have to say about the fallschirmjäger is that they were tough sonsabitches. Like most paratroopers really, gotta be tough to jump out of a perfectly good airplane, then fight a battle once you've landed.

      The Sitzkrieg would make a good topic for a post. I shall keep that in mind.

    4. Hmmm. You have made me re-evaluate De Gaulle. All I ever really remember of him is what ex-NATO serving officers said within range of my hearing and all of his stuff post WWII.

      Not quite the ass-monkey of Montgomery or MacArthur, but... he's French!!

    5. Hhmm, I had to pull this comment out of the spam filter, did you say something to upset Blogger, it's very fickle you know?

      Anyhoo, yeah, in the English speaking world we remember De Gaulle for his Free French arrogance and his post WWII antics. Then again, when he "demands" that a French unit liberate Paris, when they were a bit player at that stage, I would have told him to "stuff it, shouldn't have lost it in the first place old boy." But he did know the French people and his "antics" were a great salve to French pride. After all, the common French citizen wasn't the culprit in 1940. Their leaders failed them miserably.

      Which is what happens when you put too much trust in politicians!

    6. Glad you mentioned radios: they were really the "secret weapon" of the Wehrmacht early on. The British and French had more and often better tanks--the SOMUA S35, for instance--than the Germans (I think more than half were Pzkpfw Is and IIs), but the Germans had a radio in every tank, so even if they had a setback, they were able to react before the Allies could take full advantage.

      Today we call it being inside the enemy's decision cycle. In those days it was "one step ahead of the other guy.

    7. Indeed!

      Guderian, one of the fathers of the Panzerwaffe, had served with a radio unit in the First World War, he knew the value of good comms.

  7. One of the German's strengths was cohesive units; keeping men from the same village, area, etc. together. No repel-depot for them until late in the war.

    The closest the US came to that was some National Guard units. Strange, given the experiences of the Civil War.

    1. Their training was also excellent. Their troops were taught to think (odd for a totalitarian society, but true). NCOs could, and did, step up to lead platoons, companies, even battalions when their officers went down. The men in the ranks could move up and take over in combat if needed.

      Too many other nations would stop and do nothing with no officers and NCOs in the picture. Ours included.

  8. Thanks for the post. I will make several observations: One: That was as good a summary of that subject as I recall reading. Two: Your commenters make a number of very cogent points. Three: I echo the wish about Avalon Hill, I have some, but not all, of them ( and, alas, no one with whom to play them ). Four: For shame OAFS, you know as well as I that this statement ( "perfectly good airplane" ) is untrue. The operative word being ' perfectly '. Five: I think that Andrew should start his own blog. I would visit it as assiduously as I do this site.

    Late to the Ball

    1. SO LttB, let me address your points one by one. ;)
      One - thank you!
      Two - we have some excellent commenters in these parts
      Three - No opponents, true. Now I don't have the time either.
      Four - Yeah, yeah, I knew as soon as I typed that that I would be taken to task for it. But I define "perfectly good" as quite capable of landing and being re-used. Most are ya know.
      Five - I'll second that motion, but be careful Andrew, this blogging thing is addictive!

    2. I stupidly put my 'childish things' away and got rid of all of my Avalon Hill stuff (plus, I was kinda pissed at them when, after spending bazillion bucks on the 'Squad Leader' system, they then and pulled a TSR and introduced 2nd Edition, which basically kept the mapboards only. Bastards, just got married and you want me to spend what to replace that which I already have?)

      And now, that I am, er, retired, shall we say, I find that I want to play Squad Leader again, but, again, I don't have the thousands of buckos required to get skin in that game again. I want to jump into it whole hog, and get all the modules and maps and counters and pieces parts and, and, and My Precious...

      So I go on line and look at the pretty pictures and download some, ur, um, 'free' manuals to read and dream.

      As to me very own blog, well, hmmmm. So much easier to lurk on other peoples' sites and let you all inspire me.

      And, to be brutally honest, the 'issues' I have kinda don't lend themselves to consistent blogging. Witness my record of commenting on this site. Kinda idiot-savantish about certain narrow subjects. So I live vicariously through this and other sites, and toss my comments when I can.

      And commenting on blogging is addictive, so that right there scratches the itch, and I don't have to worry about 'need to blog' and 'blogitis.' Got enough things in my life to obsess over.

      But maybe, now, darned it, what the heck have you people put in my head. Get it out, GET IT OUT!!!!

    3. Andrew:

      What you need to get out of your head ( and on to some medium which the rest of us, or at least me ), can access.


    4. Andrew - Ah yes, Squad Leader, I have the originals, we played a lot of that overseas. Then there I was, in Omaha years later, after the 2nd Edition thingee occurred. Saw it in a hobby shop (remember those?), bought the manual and the first couple of modules. Had no time to play, had no money to spare. Like you, I was just a bit miffed. When they went under, I really think it was partially due to dumb marketing decisions. Sigh...

      Don't worry about the blogging thing, you can always comment, at length, in these environs. I don't mind, in fact, I like BIG comments. Gives me something to do, y'all make me think sometimes, so I like it, even if it makes my head hurt.


    5. Paul - troublemaker...

      But I like, and encourage, that sort of thing around here.


    6. LttB, PL?, BZQULXLE...

      If you have Advanced Squad Leader (the one with the binder rulebook) you can always play VASL on the combonculator with other people all over the place. You need the modules and counters, as it is kinda like playing chess by mail, supposedly.

      AH's "Gettysburg" has got to be the 2nd best way of getting a real grip on how the battle went. 1st would be going to GB.

      "Tobruk" with it's insane armor hit/armor penetration rules really got me into ballistics and armor placement. But.. what a long playing game.

      "Starship Troopers" just rocked. Just like the book, and very fast paced (for an AH game).

      Why, oh why, did I ever get rid of my games? (banging head against wall...)

    7. And... I looked at Blogger, will keep you up to date on this strange addiction...

    8. Tobruk held the same fascination for me. The Missus Herself who played it with me, once, called it "Yahtzee with tanks."

    9. And do keep us posted.

      Just don't stand too close to the flames, it is most addictive. (And shoot me an email should you have questions, oldafsarge AT gmail DOT com.)

    10. I was all over the Panzer Blitz series. Didn't care as much for Squad Leader. Still have one or two games; the rest were lost during a home remodeling a couple years ago, when a new plumbing connection failed and flooded several floors and the garage. Long before that I'd shifted to the SSI Panzer General computer games. Same hex map and game piece logic, but you can play solo against the computer. Got me through 3 month "deployment" as a civilian tech sailing from Bahrain back to San Diego, when the company laptop wasn't high powered enough to play the first person shooter I'd bought specifically for the trip.


    11. Panzer Blitz, another old favorite which saw a lot of use on Okinawa.

  9. One correction to the timetable -on September 27th, only Warsaw surrendered. Hel peninsula garrison held out until 2nd of Ocober, and last armies in the field held out until October the 5th. Poland as a state never did surrender, formed a government in exile and underground state at home. Only after the war as new communist-dominated Poland emerged the exile state stopped being recognized by Western Allies...
    In September 39 Germans have made enormous gamble by putting every panzer, and most of the aviation on the offensive versus Poland and leaving paltry 20 divisions of reserve quality guarding the Rhine. Had someone like De Gaulle been in command in France, the war would be over in 2 weeks.
    In 1940, the dash to the sea was another huge gamble. German flanks were wide open, and had there been some better situational awareness on side of Aliied command, an early Stalingrad could happen. Even "too little too late" counterattack by Brits at Arras forced Rommel to personally commandeer 88mm guns to stop Matildas.
    Had French not folded completely mid_june the fight could have gone quite different, Germans were running so low on artillery ammo that supplies were estimated to last 2 more weeks at best.

    1. You're absolutely right Paweł. Warsaw surrendered, the government did set up in Britain and many Poles fled to take up arms against the Nazis elsewhere. Apologies. (And the Polish government in exile should have been recognized, the one the Soviets set up was fraudulent. Leftists in both Britain and the U.S.A. must ever be held responsible for that travesty!)

      Concur on the situation in the West in '39. Absolutely agree that a De Gaulle in Paris would have seen the French Army on the Rhine and beyond in short order. Jerk though he might have been, he was a fighter.

      The use of the 88s at Arras, while true, was not the "stroke of genius" by Rommel which some have claimed. After all, the guns were supplied with anti-tank rounds and had been used in Spain by the Condor Legion where its usefulness as an anti-tank gun became well known throughout the Wehrmacht. But the Matildas were a nasty surprise, too bad for us that they were so damned slow!

      Agree that things could have gone quite differently.

  10. After having watched the films included in this post, I wish ( among other things ) that I understood more German. I only understood one word in a hundred, if that many. Thanks again for this post.


    1. I felt a bit guilty at posting that, I understood most of it, though mein deutsch has atrophied over the years, I can still understand a lot, just don't speak it as well as I used to. Schade...

      But the footage was stuff I hadn't seen before, so...

  11. Sir:

    You are an excellent example of point two in my earlier rant. Thank you.

    Paul L. Quandt

  12. To eliminate any doubt, my 1510 hrs comment was directed to Pawel Kasperek.


    1. Paweł is very knowledgeable of his European history, as a Pole he should be. They have lived (and suffered through) the things we've only read about.

      You do know that Paweł is "Paul" in Polish, right?


    2. "You do know that Paweł is "Paul" in Polish, right?"

      I suspected that that was the case. I'm nearly always happy to meet another Paul, even if only virtually.


  13. One of your best Sarge. The time you spent on this post, and your ability to look at the War holistically (not a word I like much but sometimes it just fits), is clearly evident. Thanks for the Education!

    So many examples of how things could have turned out differently. Guess that is why Newt makes so much money on his alternate WWII history books.

    1. I really like Newt's books, especially his Civil War series.

      Man can tell a story!

      Oh, and thanks, I really appreciate such compliments, though now I have to go out and buy new hats.



    2. This Newt of whom you write, would that be the former Speaker of the House of Representatives?

      Paul L. Quandt

      P.S. I feel certain that Mrs. OAFS will take care of the hat size issue.

      Me ducking and running away.


    3. It is that Newt of whom we speak.

      And yes, she is good at deflating my ego. Someone has to!

  14. In a previous episode I offered a link to John Ringo's fundraising page. Due to ' stuff happening ', I was unable to do so earlier; however ( dramatic pause ) and without further ado, here it is:


  15. Oh, forgot to mention, in that first image the Belgian General hugging the tree is really rockin' the camouflage smock...


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Can't be nice, go somewhere else...

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