The story of this dramatic campaign, in which German conquered three countries in six weeks, contains within it the story of a small British force which though compelled to fall back with its Allies under the pressure of the enemy’s stronger forces never lost its cohesion or ability to fight; when its final overthrow seemed certain it was withdrawn to England, there to lick its wounds and prepare to fight again.
It was too small a force to affect the final issue of a campaign in which German brought to battle 136 divisions, France over 100, Belgium 22 and the British Expeditionary Force only 14. Yet the part which it played in the northern phase of the campaign was an essential one, for it held a key position in the Allies’ main front, and held it to the end. Its fighting withdrawal to the coast, while two groups of German armies attacked from east and west, was a notable military achievement. The following chapters tell how this was done, but there was one contributing factor which cannot easily be brought out in the telling and therefore should be mentioned here.
Before the war the Army had been so reduced in numbers that an unusually large proportion of its officers knew each other personally. The British Expeditionary Force was thus commanded and staffed for the most part by regular solders who had not only been trained for their work but had come to know and trust each other. They were not, therefore, greatly put out when, in the course of the withdrawal, normal procedure was interrupted by events and reliance on individuals took the place of orthodox administration. Amid confusion they were not confounded. A cement of mutual confidence strengthened the whole Expeditionary Force and helped it to withstand the appalling shock it had to suffer.
In addition to the intrinsic interest of the story, the student of military history will find in its indications that new methods would distinguish the Second World War from the First. This campaign was the overture, in which the sounded themes to be developed throughout the war. The use of airborne troops to seize in advance positions of tactical importance; of massed formations of tanks rapidly to exploit a breach; of wireless to control a quickly moving battle; of air forces to assist ground troops in attack and for the transport of men and supplies; of mechanical transport and specially designed vehicles (the British Universal Carrier was an early example)—all these are illustrated, for the first time or on a new scale, in operations which involved British forces.
This volume deals only with the history of British operations in France and Flanders between the outbreak of war in September the
3rd, 1939, and the fall of France in June, 1940. It describes and discusses these as fully as is possible in a book of the size prescribed; it only describes those of Allied and enemy forces in so far as they affected the conduct of British operations. As, however, the British Expeditionary Force served under the orders of the French High Command, the bearing of the orders and actions of the High Command is considered more fully.
The amount of contemporary material available to a military historian is, today, truly appalling. Every unit and every formation keeps a day-to-day record of its doings and of all important telegrams, messages and orders received and issued. There are also innumerable returns and statistical record of its doings and of all important telegrams, messages and orders received and issued. There are also innumerable returns and statistical records of each branch of the Services and many minutes of meetings and conferences on every level. Our Allies have a similar body of information in regard to their own operations, and for this campaign there is also a comprehensive collection of the enemy’s contemporary records and documents. It would take a lifetime to study all this information; the historian can but select the more important, and since this history might be thought to mirror an official view it will be well to indicate the material on which this account is based and to state that I have had complete freedom in its use.
The Historical Sections of the three Services have all compiled detailed, factual and carefully checked narratives of day-to-day events from the War Diaries and other contemporary records. These have been used as the basis for the account of operations but I have gone behind them to the original records where this was necessary to reach a clear understanding of what happened or to appreciate what was of chief significance.
The principal commanders have all written dispatches, most of which have since been published. These have been studied as giving their authors; considered views of what happened, in so far as they knew the relevant facts.
A number of personal diaries and reports, written at the time, have been generously made available and, with many regimental histories, have been useful in showing how actions and events affected those engaged at various levels. In a book which is intended to give a broad survey of the campaign there is unfortunately little room for these detailed accounts, though they are rich in human interest; only one or two extracts have been quoted to serve as illustrations.
The minutes and papers of the Chiefs of Staff Committee and its sub-committees and the other high-level documents have been examined but only decisions and orders which were conveyed to commanders in the field and therefore directly affected operations have been specifically taken into account.
The most authoritative published accounts of our Allies’ operations
have been used, after consultation with the official Historical Sections of the French and Belgian Armies. Both have also most kindly supplied all additional information for which they have been asked.
German War Diaries and other contemporary documents captured from the enemy, including those subsequently produced at the Nuremberg trials, have been used, and enough are available to explain enemy operations. The post-war statements, published memoirs and studies of generals and others who occupied positions of responsibility at the time have also been carefully considered; but where there is a conflict of evidence between such post-war recollections and writings and contemporary records the evidence of the latter has been accepted. ‘History, to be above evasion or dispute, must stand on documents, not on opinions.’1 For the convenience of readers, quotations from French and German sources have been given in English, but since ‘everything suffers from translation except a bishop’2 the original texts are given in Appendix II.
All the ground in France and Belgium over which the British Expeditionary Force fought has been examined on the spot, in order to see how far physical conditions explain the course of operations; and a few photographs are reproduced to give the reader who does not know the country some conception of the waterways and coasts which figure prominently in the story. Similarly portraits of the principal commanders are included to supplement what is said of them in the text. Where the names of individuals are mentioned, orders and the decorations have been omitted for the sake of brevity and the rank they had at the time is given; many subsequently rose to higher rank and greater fame.
The names of regiments, squadrons and ships have been given where this would not confuse the broad picture, but it is impossible to mention all in so small a book. Equally it is not possible to do full justice to the services which sustained the fighting forces. The forces in action were only there by virtue of work which cannot be brought within the focus of this volume. A list of the principal British forces employed with some notes on their organisation and equipment is given in Appendix I.
Many have helped me in the preparation of this book by information, advice or comment. In would first thank the Historical Sections of the three Services and in particular Rear-Admiral R. M. Bellairs and Commander Lloyd Owen; Brigadier H. B. Latham and Lieutenant-Colonel H. F. Joslen; and Mr. J. C. Nerney. Mr Brian Melland, Mr R. R. A. Wheatley and Squadron Leader L. A. Jackets have given me invaluable help in the translation and study of enemy documents.
I must also thank the many officers of all three Services who have been kind enough to read and comment on the manuscript from their personal experience in the campaign. It is impossible here to mention all by name, but I am most grateful to them.
The Imperial War Museum kindly supplied many of the photographs reproduced. The portrait of Air Marshal Barratt was painted for the National Collection by the Late R. C. Dugdale, RA. The photograph of General Weygand is from the collection of the Press Portrait Bureau.
All the maps have been specially drawn under the direction of Colonel T. M. Penney, most of them by Mr D. K. Purle. General maps fold out to the left so that they may be referred to while several chapters are being read. Situation maps are usually at the end of the chapter in which the day’s actions are described and fold out to the right. Places, roads and railways which are not mentioned in the text have for the most part been omitted. While this makes for clarity it is liable to give a false impression of the country. A full-scale map would show far more numerous villages and towns, linked in a network of communications by road, rail and waterways.
Finally, I would acknowledge with gratitude the continuous help I have had from Professor J. R. M. Butler. I am, of course, solely responsible for any mistake of fact or inference.