Supplement: The Planning and Conduct of the German Campaign
The military operations by which German conquered Holland in five days, Belgium in eighteen and France, supported by Great Britain, in forty-six, fell short of complete success in that they failed to prevent the withdrawal of over half a million men to fight another day. German military apologists, meditating in captivity after their conspicuous victories of 1940 had been eclipse by their still more notable defeats of later years, have attributed the success of 1940 to professional skill and its partial failure to the amateur interference of Adolf Hitler. Contemporary German documents to not confirm this simple explanation of events, and as they provide more certain evidence of where responsibility lay then memories likely to be weakened by subsequent strain, the conclusions reached in these notes are drawn wholly from contemporary notes now in the Allies’ possession. These show that part of the credit for success belongs to the amateur, though most of it to the professionals; and that responsibility for the element of failure rests mainly on professional soldiers, in so far as it was not due to the fighting qualities and skill of the Allies.
By concentrating for the offensive larger and better furnished forces than France and Great Britain could muster at that time, German ensured some initial success, but the spectacular pace at which three countries were conquered, while partly due to this preponderance of German forces, owed much to good planning and to the skill with which their operations were conducted. On these two matters the following notes supplement what has been described in the preceding chapters.
The chief German protagonists and the positions they filled in the chain of command are shown in Appendix III.
Brauchitsch, the Commander-in-Chief of the German Army, was an ambitious regular soldier who had played a leading part in the rebuilding of the army. He owed his position to Hitler, and his sense of duty and obligation mad him accept his master’s orders; but his professional integrity impelled him to advocate firmly any military course which he deemed to be right and he resented the Führer’s interference in matters which he regarded as his own responsibility. There were times during this campaign when his temper was sorely tried, for Hitler was apt on occasion to pay less attention to his advice than to that of his subordinate commander. Rundstedt.
There is not much evidence by which to measure the importance
of the part played by his Chief of Staff, Halder. He was a hardworking and efficient staff officer but entries in his personal diary are coloured not only by dislike and distrust of Hitler, buy by cynical and sneering references to Brauchitsch, to whom as Chief of Staff he owed complete loyalty. Some of the opinions expressed display poor judgement and after the war his contradictory statements show him to be an unreliable witness. But notes which he mad at the time are likely to be accurate if not unbiased.
Rundstedt, the commander of Army Group A, was one of the ablest soldiers in the German Army. He too had played an important part in the army’s reconstruction and although he had little sympathy with Nazi leaders he gave them support and he was more successful than Brauchitsch in his personal relations with Hitler. In this he was helped by having done well in Poland, and, as will be seen, by holding independent views on the plan and conduct of the campaign in France and Flanders to which Hitler was sympathetic while Brauchitsch was not.
Bock, the second army group commander principally concerned in the northern campaign, was a less distinguished soldier than either Brauchitsch or Rundstedt. Like them he was a Prussian and a regular soldier, but his rise had been due to zeal and industry rather than to natural talent, and there is nothing very striking in his handling of Army Group B. The British Expeditionary Force was not concerned in the operations of Army Group C.
And over them all was Hitler with, as his instrument, the High Command of the Armed Forces (OKW) under Keitel. Hitler needs no description here. Of his military talent this campaign shows little beyond a natural aptitude to appreciate strategy and to realise the importance of timing. He initiated little and when he interfered with the conduct of the campaign it was only to support Rundstedt rather than Brauchitsch. He was anxious to appear to the German people and to the world as a great military leader, architect of the victory of German arms, and his only rival for such military honour could be the Commander-in-Chief of the Army; he had no similar reason to be jealous of Rundstedt.
In military matters the head of OKW was little more than a secretary to Hitler. Keitel was a regular solider who had served through the First World War without distinction. But afterwards, when the professional soldiers of the Army offered a hard core of resistance to Nazi Party domination, Keitel had proved a welcome soft spot, applauding Nazi leaders and openly adoring the Führer. He was given appointments of some political importance in the High Command and throughout his subsequent career he was completely subservient to Hitler, who found him a useful tool. He was a competent pianist and politically shrewd, but he had no claim to be
taken seriously as a soldier. The Army nicknamed him ‘Lakeitel’—’the little lackey’.
Jodl, Chief of the Operations Staff at OKW, also a Hitler’s man, was a better soldier than Keitel but in the operations of this campaign OKW played no significant part. Their orders were merely OKH decisions dressed up so as to appear as ‘the Führer’s orders’, except when they similarly endorsed the orders or followed the advice of Rundstedt.
The Planning of the Campaign
The decision, taken on completion of the war against Poland, to attack the Allies (with whom German was at war) and Holland and Belgium (whose neutrality German was pledged to respect) was unquestionably Hitler’s; the German Army General Staff and the leading generals were opposed at that date to the opening of a German offensive against the Allies. They argued that it would in the end pay better to wait till the Allies took the offensive. From a purely military point of view, however, the German offensive when it opened proved to be well timed; in this case the amateur appreciated the military situation rightly while the profession soldiers misread it.
On September the 27th, 1939, Warsaw having fallen, Hitler announced his decision to attack in the west, and a directive ordering preparations for the new offensive was issued on October the 9th. The plan of attack—Plan Yellow—was prepared by the Army General Staff and was issued on October the 19th. There is no contemporary evidence to suggest that Hitler was concerned in its preparation. This first version of Plan Yellow stated that the attack would be made on the northern wing of the western front through Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg. Its aim would be ‘to defeat as strong a portion as possible of the French and Allied Armies’ and ‘to win as much as possible of Holland, Belgium and Northern France as a base offering great possibilities for air and sea warfare against England and also as a wide protective area in front of the Ruhr’.1(2) After this statement of the general intention, however, the order dealt only with operations against Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg by which the northern frontier of France would be reached; the shape of subsequent operations was not indicated.
The sketch maps (page 342) reproduce, first, a plan of the projected operations issued with this order. It will be seen that the main objective of the initial attack was to secure central Belgium. There the forces of three armies composing Army Group B were to be concentrated north and south of Brussels so that the Army Group
would be in a position to continue the attack westwards without delay. In the second phase of the attack the armoured and motorised divisions were to be massed on the northern flank for a thrust directed on Ghent and Bruges.
But on October the 25th the Commander-in-Chief of the Army (Brauchitsch) and his Chief of Staff (Halder) were summoned by Hitler to discuss the coming operations. Jodl noted at the time that in the course of the discussion Halder ‘wanted to concentrate all armoured formations in the direction of Ghent in order to have a strong flank to carry out encirclement’; but that Hitler said he had ‘originally wanted to use all forces south of Liége’2(3) with the idea of a breakthrough in the direction of Reims and Amiens. After a second meeting Hitler said he would think the matter over and give his decision on October the 28th. He is reported by Jodl as having said on the 26th that, while an attack north of Liége should aim at ‘the Belgian fortress,’ a concentration south of Liége should break through in a western direction and destroy the Anglo-French Armies. On the 28th Brauchitsch and Halder were given his decision. The most important task, they were told, was to defeat great parts of the Anglo-French Armies and as a secondary consequence to seize the Belgian–French coast; there should therefore be forces disposed to break through both to the north and south of Liége, with a group of armoured divisions in each attacking force.(4)
On the following day a revised plan was accordingly issued giving effect to Hitler’s instructions. In this second versions of Plan Yellow the intention was ‘to engage and defeat as strong a portion of the French and Allied Armies as possible in Northern France and Belgium, thereby creating favourable conditions for the continuation of the war against England and France on land and in the air’.3(5) This was the plan of offensive which the Allies anticipated (page 44). The main attack was to be mad by Bock’s Army Group B whose Sixth Army would strike westwards through Belgium, north of Liége, while his Fourth Army also attacked westwards but to the south of Liége. On the left or Army Group B, Rundstedt’s Army Group A was to defend the exposed southern flank of Bock’s advancing armies and farther south a third, Army Group C, under Leeb, would make feint attacks on the Maginot Line to pin down the French divisions there. One hundred and two German divisions were to be used. For Bock’s frontal attack forty-three divisions were allotted, including nine armoured and four motorised; for flank defence Rundstedt was given twenty-two infantry divisions and no armour; on the frontier to
the south Leeb was to have eighteen infantry divisions; nineteen divisions were to be held in General Reserve. And since the main emphasis of the attack was no longer to be on the extreme north wing, the attack on Holland was omitted, though the ‘Maastricht appendix’ would be crossed in the advance on Belgium to the north of Liége. The map issued with this second version of Plan Yellow is also reproduced (page 343). It will be seen that the armoured and motorised divisions were no longer to be concentrated in a single thrust in the north, but were to be divided into two forces striking westwards from central Belgium.
Thus by Hitler’s direction the original staff plan to aim at encirclement of the Allied northern flank had been changed to one for a frontal attack on either side of Liége. but Hitler had originally wanted to use all forces south of Liége and the compromise embodied in the new Plan Yellow did not wholly satisfy him. For on the day after the revised plan was issued Jodl noted in his diary ‘Führer comes with a new idea about having an armoured and motorised division attack Sedan via Arlon’.4(6)
A much more radical ‘new idea’ was put forward independently by Rundstedt on the following day. He had returned from Poland to take command of Army Group A on the western front just when the plan of October the 29th was issued. He was not only opposed to any attack at this date, but he thought the revised version of Plan Yellow a bad plan. On October the 31st he wrote two letters to Brauchitsch; one was a reasoned argument to show that ‘the operation planned cannot have any decisive effect on the war’5(7) and that therefore the Allies should be allowed to attack first. The second letter criticised in detail the plan that had been issued. The success of the operation, he wrote, depended on the annihilation of all enemy forces north of the Somme. The enemy had to be cut off from the Somme, not merely pushed back there by a frontal attack. Therefore ‘the main effort of the whole operation … must be on the southern wing.’6(8) ‘The danger point on one hand, but on the other the chance of great success …’ was with Army Group A.7(9)
It was hardly likely that Brauchitsch would at once accept this further and still more fundamental alteration of a plan which had already been changed once to meet Hitler’s wishes. He discussed the matter with Rundstedt and the latter’s Chief of Staff (Manstein) at a meeting on November the 3rd, and after ‘initially rejecting’ Rundstedt’s proposals8(10) finally promised to allot an armoured division
to Army Group A—probably he had learned of Hitler’s ‘new idea’ of an attack through Sedan. On the 5th orders were issued for the offensive to begin but these were cancelled two days later.
There is no evidence that Hitler was told anything of Rundstedt’s revolutionary proposals, but on November the 10th Jodl noted in his diary that the Commander-in-Chief, Brauchitsch, proposed to allot to Army Group A one armoured division, one motorised division and one motorised regiment and that the Führer regarded this force as in his opinion ‘too weak’ for an attack through Sedan.9(11) accordingly next day an order was issued: ‘The Führer has now decreed: on the southern wing … a third group of mobile troops will be formed and will advance in the direction of Sedan …’10(12) A third edition of Plan Yellow was accordingly issued on November the 15th. In this Guderian’s XIX Corps of two armoured divisions, one motorised division and two motorised regiments was allotted to Army Group A ‘to gain by surprise the west bank of the Meuse at and south-east of Sedan, and thus establish favourable conditions for further operations.’11(13) There was, however, no fundamental change of the overall plan for a main frontal attack through the Belgian plan. Brauchitsch was unmoved by Rundstedt’s arguments and there is no evidence that they had as yet been reported to Hitler. But Hitler had been cogitating on the possibilities which might open from an attack through Sedan and a further directive was issued on November the 20th which said that, while land operations would be on the basis of Plan Yellow, ‘all possible preparations will be made to facilitate a quick shift of the main weight of attack from Army Group B to Army Group A in case greater and more rapid successes are scored there … which seems likely with he present distribution of enemy forces.’12(14)
Rundstedt, however, was not satisfied, and on November the 21st he and his Chief of Staff attended a conference of army group and army commanders with the Commander-in-Chief. Manstein had prepared a memorandum on the probable course of operations of Army Group A showing that if Bock’s forces were drawn northwards in their advance, as seemed likely, Army Group A could not both defend the southern flank against the expected French counterattack from the south and continue the advance westwards unless its forces were strengthened by the addition of another army. But Brauchitsch remained unconvinced and Plan Yellow was not changed.
On November the 27th Rundstedt and two of his subordinate commanders attended a conference with Hitler at which Rundstedt emphasised the need for a strong southern wing, but there is no evidence that his view received particular attention, though Jodl noted afterwards that Hitler wanted two divisions from OKH reserve to be added to the reserve of Army Group A, their place in OKH reserve being taken by two divisions from the reserve of Army Group B. On the 30th Rundstedt wrote another vigorous letter to Brauchitsch, renewing his request for an additional army. He argued that the armoured corps which he had now been allotted only increased his need for further forces, since it would create an opening which, without an additional army, he would be unable to exploit. In reply he was told that Brauchitsch agreed in the main, but the weight of attack must be focused after the initial assault had shown where it could be placed most effectively.
Manstein then wrote to Halder, again arguing that the main weight of German operations must be on the southern wing, and six days later he was told that Brauchitsch proposed shortly to discuss the question again with Rundstedt. As a basis for the discussion Manstein prepared a revised plan for the conduct of the western offensive, providing in Army Group A not only the armoured corps which had been allotted but the additional army for which Rundstedt was asking. The meeting was held on December the 22nd, but apparently nothing resulted.
On December the 28th a directive was issued ordering the opening of the offensive in the middle of January, subject to weather. The Führer would decide where the weight of the attack was to be concentrated when it was seen where initial success was greatest: nothing was to be done which would compromise his freedom to decide where the main emphasis should then be placed. On this, Rundstedt sent a long memorandum to the Commander-in-Chief for submission to Hitler. In it he argued most ably his concept of the forthcoming campaign which required emphasis to be placed on the left from the outset.
The overall aim, he said, should be ‘to bring about a decision in land warfare, to annihilate the Allied forces on land and in the air, to eliminate the continental sword of the English and then, as a second step, to attack England herself by air and sea’.13(15) He rejected the ‘partial’ aim, to defeat the Allies in Belgium and northern France and to occupy the Belgian coastline, as disproportionate to the political strain of an assault on three neutral states and to the military risks taken by the army and air force. It would be equivalent to a renunciation of the attempt to bring the war to a speedy end,
for this could only be expected if there were a possibility of attacking England decisively after land and air victory in France. The decisive blow against England—i.e. the assault of her Atlantic supply line—would be facilitated only by the occupation of the whole French coastline. From these contentions he went on to argue that the strategy of Plan Yellow would lead to a frontal deadlock on the Somme if not before. However, Brauchitsch refused to submit the memorandum to Hitler; a final decision about the focal point of the attack rested, he said, with the Führer and would be made in accordance with his [Brauchitsch’s] suggestions.
Hitler now ordered that the offensive should start on January the 17th. It was realised that the forced landing of a German aeroplane in Belgium on January the 10th (page 32) had given the Allies valuable information on Plan Yellow, but although this created much ado and had various reactions, the plan as previously issued was not changed. Subsequently, however, the offensive was again postponed on account of the weather. A fourth edition of Plan Yellow was issued on January the 30th, and notwithstanding the aeroplane incident it did not differ in material respects from the previous version.
Rundstedt and Manstein continued to press their views and Brauchitsch to refuse their requests, though they secured some additional artillery for Army Group A.
On February the 13th Jodl noted in his diary that after studying a detailed survey of troops dispositions Hitler reopened the question of where the main weight of attack should be placed. ‘He says’, wrote Jodl, ‘most of the gun-armed tanks have been expended on places which are not decisive. The armoured divisions with the Fourth Army can do little in areas where there are obstructions and fortifications. They will come to a standstill at the Meuse, if not before, and will have to be withdrawn. Their absence will then be felt by Sixteenth or Twelfth Army. They should be concentrated in the direction of Sedan, where the enemy does not expect our main thrust. The documents carried by the aircraft which mad the [forced] landing have still further confirmed their opinion (the enemy’s) that our only concern is to occupy the Channel coastline of Holland and Belgium.’14(16)
Jodl then handed over to the Führer ‘a summarised report showing the practicability of placing the main emphasis of attack south of the Liége–Namur line and pointing to the Sedan route as ‘a tactical secret path’ where surprise might be effected.15(17) That afternoon
Jodl discussed the question with Brauchitsch’s staff and communicated the Führer’s ideas to them’.
On February the 7th and again on the 14th war games were played at which Halder was present. Both pointed to the probability that additional forces would be needed to sustain and follow up an attack in the Sedan area. Whether news of the war game on the 7th had reached Hitler before he made the statement attributed to him by Jodl on the 13th is not known.
About this time Manstein was appointed to command an infantry corps and on February the 17th, before taking up his new command, he and others dined with Hitler. Manstein used the opportunity after dinner to expound the views of Army Group A on the conduct of the projected offensive and he recorded shortly afterwards that Hitler agreed with the news he had expressed. It seems possible that this was the first exposition of Rundstedt’s proposal to alter the whole plan of campaign by placing the main striking power on the left wing, for Brauchitsch had consistently refused to adopt it or report Rundstedt’s view to the Führer. Whether Brauchitsch learned of what had occurred after the dinner is not known, but on the following day (18th) he and Halder reported to Hitler their intention to shift the boundary between Army Group B and Army Group A and to employ stronger armoured forces in front of the latter and Hitler approved the proposed change. On the 22nd Halder held conferences at OKH to discuss the fifth and final version of Plan Yellow; it was then issued on the 24th. In it Rundstedt got all, and more than all, that he had asked for. The whole weight of the attack was transferred to the left wing. Hitler, too, was at last satisfied. The plan is shown on page 343.
Credit for the final version of Plan Yellow was subsequently claimed by Hitler, by the General Staff, and by Manstein. To the writer it seems that the chief credit should go to Rundstedt, though how much he owed to his Chief of Staff (Manstein) cannot be known. Hitler sensed from the first the importance of striking south of Liége and felt rather fumblingly that an attack through the Ardennes by Sedan might have results which would necessitate a change of the main centre of effort in subsequent operations; but contemporary evidence shows that Hitler did not see, as Rundstedt did, that from the outset the main weight of attack should be delivered there. It was his dissatisfaction with the earlier plans which led to their amendment and it is to his credit that he was not content till the final and more imaginative version was produced.
Brauchitsch, having produced the original plan and having had it amended by Hitler, obstructed every proposal for its further and more radical alteration; but it seems probably that the arguments of
Rundstedt and Manstein and the results of the war games in February had convinced him that it would probably have to be changed once operations started, for he had admitted that the main centre of effort might then have to be switched to the left. When he learnt that Hitler had reopened the question and had expressed dissatisfaction with existing dispositions, he decided to amend the plan so as the put the main weight of the attack in the south from the outset. It is significant that when he reached that position and knew that a redisposition of forces with that aim would have Hitler’s approval, he went further than Rundstedt had been bold enough to propose and much further than was provided for in the detailed plan put forward by Manstein in November. As told in Chapter III (page 44) the plan of campaign was radically altered. Two armies (the Fourth and the Second) and most (and eventually all) of the armoured were taken from Bock and given to Rundstedt. The main attack was now to be made by Army Group A and the Allied armies in the north were to be cut off and surrounded, not merely pushed back. Thus, while the strategic concept was that which had first been advocated by Rundstedt, the plan in which it was expressed was drawn up by the OKH General Staff. The final dispositions are shown on the adjoining sketch map.
The Conduct of Operations
Notable features of the German campaign were the initial use of airborne troops to get behind an enemy’s defence; the use of air forces to assist an army in attack; and the use of armoured divisions in strength to exploit a breach in the enemy’s front. The potentialities of all these measures had been recognised in British Service circles, but divergences of opinion on their merits and application had not been resolved, for financial stringency had denied the means for their development. German usage was well ahead of British (or French) practice at this date.
In the German conduct of operations the first point to note is the measure of surprise that was achieved when their offensive, which had long been expected by the Allies, opened on May the 10th. In both November and January when the attack was ordered the Allies were promptly ‘alerted’ some days before it was timed to begin: in May they were not. Why was this? In the original version of Plan Yellow six days were allowed for the approach-march and final concentration of attacking formations; the offensive was to open on the seventh day. In both November and January the Allies had been warned by the preparatory movement forward of the enemy’s troops that an attack was impending.(18) The final version of Plan Yellow
allowed for no such preliminary moves. They had indeed become unnecessary, for on each of the previous occasions formations had begun moving forward before the order for the offensive was cancelled, and when it was cancelled the troops remained in the positions they had already reached. Thus of the six days’ movement originally planned three had taken place. Moreover the fact that the Allies had ordered the ‘alert’ in November and again in January became known to the German Command and showed them that better disguise of their intentions and greater security were imperative if the Allies were not to be warned of an impending attack. In adjusting dispositions to the final plan, therefore, any necessary closing up was effected gradually, so that well before the offensive was ordered the attacking troops were already within easy striking distance of the frontier, as is shown on the adjacent map.(19) When the code word ‘Yellow’ was issued about midday on May the 9th they could attack at daybreak on the 10th, without further large-scale movements to forewarn the Allies.(20) This time the Allies’ ‘alert’ was only ordered after the enemy attack had begun.
There is nothing particularly significant in the thoroughness of the German organisation: it was more than matched by the Allies in later and larger campaigns. The chief technical innovation was a new reliance on air transport, not only for airborne troops in the opening days but for other purposes throughout the campaign. Advanced armoured formations were regularly supplied with fuel by air and as early as May the 16th a diary notes that the establishment of a forward ‘repair ship base’ had been initiated and ‘two thousand skilled workers are being brought in by plane’.16(21) The Allies were not thinking in such terms in May 1940.
In the opening phase of the campaign, German operations went according to plan and little need be added to what has already been told. There were at times delays in road movements caused by Allied bombing and resulting congestion. There were delays in bridge-building from the same cause and with a similar result. And there was controversy about orders to anti-aircraft formations under Luftwaffe control which got in the army’s way. But these were all minor affairs which had little or no effect on operations.
Three decisions taken in the course of the campaign in the north had a marked influence on subsequent operations. The first was Bock’s decision to attack the right of the Belgian front where it joined up with the left of the British front. As told on page 101, his decision was at variance with orders he had received to put the main weight of his attack in the south. The resulting action was described sourly by Halder as a ‘private battle in the area of Audenarde, which
will probably cause losses without a return of operational advantage’.17(22) In fact it broke the Belgian front and ultimately resulted in the Belgian surrender.
The second significant decision was Rundstedt’s decision on may the 23rd to close up his armour on the Canal front before continuing the attack. The third was the closely related order that tanks should not be used to attack Dunkirk.
The significance of these decisions has been magnified by German generals since the war, for they have seen in them a plausible explanation of why the British Expeditionary Force and a part of the French First Army were ‘allowed’ to escape. Then, by asserting that the decisions were solely Hitler’s, they excuse themselves from failure to stop evacuation and lay all blame on him. Whether the amateur Hitler or the professional soldiers were responsible does not matter to anyone but the German generals who survive. What is important is whether the orders in question did in fact ‘allow’ the evacuation from Dunkirk, and if so whether a course which would have prevented it was open to the German Army. To understand the German conduct of operations it is necessary to put our after-knowledge out of mind and to see how the situation appeared at the time to the various German commanders.
The German leaders not unreasonably believed that if the Anglo-French forces in the north could be finally contained, their surrender or destruction must inevitably follow. They knew that while encirclement was being achieved some evacuation was going on from Ostend and Dunkirk, but in view of what the Luftwaffe could also make these two evacuation ports unusable. That would put an end to evacuation—for the German leaders no more thought that large-scale evacuation could be effected from the beaches than did our own Admiralty and War Office at that time. The important task which remained to the German Army was, therefore, to complete the close encirclement of the Allies with their backs, not to a wall, but to the sea which would serve as well. There were differences of opinion as to how this should be done.
Rundstedt did not consider, on the night of the 23rd, that there was any longer great urgency. The Allies were caught. The Army Group Diary records his opinion that in the north the end was now only a matter of days. What seemed to him to be important was to consolidate his own positions, for he had now five armies extended over a huge area with widely separated fronts to safeguard. French divisions were reported to be moving up against his long southern flank, to the defence of which some twenty-four of his own divisions were already
committed. On his northern flank three divisions were engaged against the French First Army and five against the Arras salient. The high ground north of Arras (the Lorette Heights and the Vimy Ridge), which had been so long fought for in the First World War and to which such importance was attached, was still in enemy hands. In the west the British were landing fresh troops at Boulogne and Calais and two of his divisions were committed at these places. Three of his divisions were approaching the Canal Line and their advanced formations had reached it at Aire that evening, but the line appeared to be defended and it might well prove a difficult obstacle to cross in force. Moreover British columns were reported moving towards it which might be intending a counterattack on this flank. His armoured divisions were widely dispersed—the 9th near the Somme, the 2nd and 10th at Boulogne and Calais, the 1st fronting Gravelines and the 6th and 8th opposite Aire and the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 7th near Arras. They had already suffered heavily (page 151) and moreover would soon be needed for the coming offensive southwards. OKH had ordered Army Group A to ‘wheel with the mobile forces across the line Béthune–St Omer–Calais’, but it seemed to Rundstedt that, while clearing up the situation at Arras, Calais and Boulogne and making the defence of the Somme flank secure, it would be wise to close up to the Canal Line but not at present to cross it.18(23) Bock’s armies on the eastern front—at one point they were only forty miles way—should drive the Allies back till they were caught between two fires. In Halder’s phrase Rundstedt’s troops were to provide the anvil and Bock’s the hammer.
Rundstedt’s views were crystallised in a talk (on May the 23rd) with Kluge, the commander of the Fourth Army, who said that ‘the troops would be glad if they could close up tomorrow’.19(24) He proposed to allow this and Rundstedt agreed. The Fourth Army War Diary subsequently records that Fourth Army ‘will, in the main, halt tomorrow in accordance with Colonel-General von Rundstedt’s order’. This entry is timed 6.10 p.m. on May the 23rd.20(25)
Meanwhile, Bock’s main interest was centred on Belgium and the change to make a breach between the Belgian and British Armies. He reckoned that he would get better results from that than from an attempt to fight the British in their position on the fortified French frontier. If he could effect and exploit a breach through Belgium and turn the British flank the British would be forced to withdraw from the frontier defences and he could separate them from Ostend—which the Germans regarded as offering the best facilities for evacuation.
Thus while Rundstedt was ready to provide the anvil Bock was not at this time in any hurry to play the part of hammer.
The position as Brauchitsch saw it is shown on the reproduction of the OKH situation may for May the 24th which is enclosed at the end of this volume, though it must be remembered that the positions of the Allied troops (which have been added) were not marked on the original. Comparison with German formation maps and diaries proves that the OKH map was inaccurate in some respects but that is unimportant—it shows what Brauchitsch believed to be the true position. It was in that belief that he took two decisions. The first was that the encircling attacks should proceed without pause; the second was that they should all be directed by a single commander. He ordered that at 8 p.m. on the 24th Rundstedt’s Fourth Army, which contained all the armour and was attacking the British and French forces from the south and west, should come under the command of Army Group B, which was already attacking British and French Army Group B, which was already attacking British, French and Belgian forces from the east. Bock would then command all the forces encircling the Allied armies in northern France and Belgium.
Halder, Brauchitsch’s Chief of Staff, thought this order would lead to trouble. His diary shows that he rated his own reputation for sagacity more than his duty of loyalty to his chief, for he noted ‘operation order … goes out without my signature, to signify my disapproval of the order and its timing’.21(26) Rundstedt, too, thought the transfer a mistake but he dutifully issued the necessary orders for its implementation.
At this point Hitler comes into the picture. Visiting Rundstedt on the 24th he learned of the ‘halt and close up’ order which Rundstedt had given eighteen hours before and of Brauchitsch’s order for the transfer of command. After listening to the army group commanders’ views and without waiting to ascertain the views of the Commander-in-Chief, Hitler endorsed Rundstedt’s order and countermanded the order of Brauchitsch.
Jodl, who accompanied Hitler and was present at the meeting with Rundstedt, entered in his notes: ‘He [Hitler] is very happy about the measures of the Army Group, which fit in entirely with his ideas. He learns to his surprise that OKH without informing the Führer and the High Command of the Armed Forces [OKW] has subordinated the Fourth Army and a number of divisions to its rear to Army Group B. Führer is very much displeased and thinks this arrangement is a mistake not only from a military but also from a psychological point of view. Commander-in-Chief [Brauchitsch] is ordered to report and the order shifting the dividing line is rescinded …’22(27)
Brauchitsch’s meeting with Hitler was, according to Halder, ‘again
a very unpleasant interview’—which is hardly surprising. Halder (who was not present at Hitler’s meeting with Rundstedt) says of the halt, ordered by Rundstedt on the 23rd: ‘The left wing, consisting of armoured and motorised forces, which has no enemy before it, will thus be stopped dead in its tracks by the direct orders of the Führer!’23(28)
Thus the four military leaders, namely the Commander-in-Chief, his Chief of Staff and the two army group commanders concerned each had a different opinion as to how operations should be continued. Hitler back Rundstedt and the outcome is known. What would have happened if Rundstedt had advocated a different policy or if Hitler had supported his Commander-in-Chief can only be matters for speculation, but the more carefully the position is studied the less certain it appears that whatever the Germans had done the result would have been very different. For the action taken on this and the next two days does not of itself explain the German failure to prevent evacuation.
Very early on the 25th OKH issued an order authorising the armour to cross the Canal Line but Rundstedt ignored it (pages 150–151). Later in the morning Brauchitsch saw Hitler. Jodl’s note of the meeting is: ‘In the morning Commander-in-Chief arrives and asks permission for a thrust by the armoured and motorised divisions from the high ground Vimy–St Omer–Gravelines to the flat terrain to the west [clearly he meant the east]. The Führer is opposed to this but leaves the decision to Army Group A. The latter decline, for the time being, since the tanks are to rest to be ready for tasks in the south.’24(29) So the halt continued on the 25th and 26th by Rundstedt’s decision.
It was Hitler who intervened on the 26th to order a resumption of the attack. Halder recorded that following a telephone message to the effect that Hitler authorised an advance by the left wing Brauchitsch was summoned to Hitler’s headquarters. Of this meeting Jodl noted ‘In the morning the Führer sends for the Commander-in-Chief, Army. 18th and 6th Armies are making only slow progress and II Corps in the south is meeting very stiff resistance. The Führer therefore agrees to a forward thrust from the west by armoured groups and infantry divisions in the direction Tournai–Cassel–Dunkirk. …’25(30)
Hitler’s responsibility in connection with the halt has been completely misrepresented. He did not initiate it on the 24th, for Rundstedt had ordered it on the 23rd: Hitler merely endorsed it. He did not maintain it on the 25th and 26th for he had specifically left Rundstedt to decide on the next move. But he was personally responsible
for terminating the halt and for the order to resume the attack on the 27th.
There is in the War Diaries much more evidence than can be quoted here of the considerations which determined Rundstedt’s action. In view of the vulnerability of his own flanks on May the 23rd, he was seriously worried by information which he read as indicating that the Allies were preparing to counterattack from north and south. On the morning of the 24th he told Hitler, in effect, that he was strengthening his north-western flank by closing his divisions up to the canal and holding them there, where they would be in ‘favourable defensive positions’ to meet any Allied attack;(31) at the same time infantry divisions were being brought forward with all speed to take over the defence of the lower Somme. The Second Army was being moved up as a tactical reserve but he would not be able to feel that his southern flank was secure before the 26th. When the 26th came he was not only satisfied with his own dispositions but convinced that an Allied counterattack need no longer be expected. He therefore went forward to discuss with Kluge the resumption of the advance: he was with Kluge when he learnt by telephone that Hitler had already authorised the crossing of the Canal Line.(32) There is nowhere in any of the diaries even the faintest suggestion that Rundstedt was dissatisfied with this or with Hitler’s previous action. Indeed it is impossible to imagine that he could be, since his own policy had been so fully endorsed and his armoured divisions had secured time for maintenance.
In regard to the further order that the armour should not be used in close fighting for Dunkirk, it only followed the general instructions for the use of armoured divisions laid down with great firmness by Hitler before the campaign opened. ‘The tank arm must be used for operations for which it is best suited. Under no circumstances must the tanks be permitted to become entangled in the endless confusion of rows of houses in Belgian towns.’26(33) There is no good reason to suppose that tanks could have been used with much advantage at Dunkirk. The exposed nature of the surrounding country, the congestion of buildings at each approach, its protection by water ways, flooding and organised defence made it a very unsuitable place for attack by tanks. It is noteworthy that at the time neither Guderian nor Kleist when they saw the position at close quarters thought that tanks should be used to attack Dunkirk (page 208).
In any case the orders under discussion did not alone account for the German failure to stop evacuation; the true explanation is much more complicated. In the first place it was due to the fighting qualities
of the Allied armies and the skill of British leadership and organisation. On the German side it was due a number of factors, namely:
1. The inability of the German armies, after the breakthrough on the Meuse, to pierce anywhere the Allies’ defence north of the breach, or to attack in such strength as to prevent them from carrying out their planned withdrawals.
2. Rundstedt’s failure to take the Arras salient until it was evacuated on the 24th, to secure the high ground between Arras and the La Bassée Canal till the 25th, to break the Canal Line there before withdrawal to the coast was ordered on the 26th, to exploit the Aire bridgehead during that time or thereafter seriously to interfere with our planned movements.
3. Bock’s in ability to exploit the gap on the British left when the Belgian front was broken.
4. The mistake of the High Command in thinking that Ostend was our most important evacuation port, so that it was bombed more heavily than Dunkirk till after the Belgian surrender.
5. Failure of the Luftwaffe, in face of Royal Air Force opposition, to prevent the Royal Navy from using Dunkirk and the beaches for large-scale evacuation.
6. And finally the German Army’s failure to reduce the Dunkirk bridgehead before the whole of the British forces there and most of the French forces had been evacuated.
All these combined to explain the German failure to prevent ‘Dunkirk’, though they leave Germany a large balance of success as the general result of the campaign. Neither the orders of Hitler nor those of anyone else ‘allowed’ the British Expeditionary Force and much of the French First Army to escape. The plain truth is that the German Army and Air Force did their utmost to prevent it but failed. It was a failure of the professional soldiers and the Army High Command, but it was much a failure of the fighting troops as it was of the generals. It was not due to any orders initiated by Hitler. The only significance of his small part in the northern phase of operations was his support of Rundstedt as against Brauchitsch. How far that was due to military and how far to political considerations cannot be determined.
In this history of British operations little need be added to what has already been told of the subsequent German offensive southwards, which opened on June the 5th and ended with the surrender of the French Army on June the 25th. What is chiefly noteworthy is the speed with which the German divisions were regrouped and reconditioned, the ability with which a second large a complicated operation was planned and carried through, and the fact that full advantage was taken of their superiority of numbers in order to overwhelm quickly their weaker opponents.
Germany won her land victories primarily by the skilful use of armoured and motorised divisions. The campaign demonstrated vividly the change which armour and mechanised transport had effected in modern warfare. These two, supported by aircraft, completely altered the pace of operations. More than that, they made anything like the long-continued static warfare of 1914–18 practically impossible. No widely extended front can be made so strong that it cannot be breached somewhere, but so long as the exploitation of a breach depended on infantry advancing at foot pace, with the supporting artillery horse-drawn, it was possible for the defence to reform behind the breach before penetration had gone too far. There is no similar possibility when a large armoured force can advance through a breach and in one day penetrate for a depth of 50 miles, with motor-borne infantry keeping pace with it. All then must depend on the strength of reserves for prompt counterattack.
The Germans massed their armour in order to exploit a breach, to penetrate and overrun rearward areas, and to seize places of tactical importance for motorised infantry to hold till slower-moving infantry divisions could occupy them. The tank is essentially a weapon of attack or counterattack and, in either case, to be fully effective must be concentrated in appropriate weight and accompanied by sufficient infantry. Too many of the Allied tanks were misused in support of static defences or were expended on counterattacks in ‘penny packets’, and too often infantry support was inadequate.
A notable characteristic of German operations was the effective cooperation between land and air forces. The material damage done by their dive-bombers was not great and was chiefly sustained by troops whose discipline was not of a high order; but the ease with which aircraft were called into cooperation, the speed with which they could give rapidly advancing land forces a useful substitute for artillery support, and the fact that, even if they killed few, they shook the nerve of many, made the German Air Force a valuable partner in land operations.
In the whole campaign the German casualties were 156,556 and they lost much material.(34) Against these losses must be set the great amount of Allied material captured. In the countries they conquered for the time being, they gained resources of manpower, material and territory which helped them to continue and extend the war till the forces against them so grew in strength that the German Army, in its turn, was not only beaten but destroyed.