A leading British historian delivers a new history of Germany’s 1940 invasion of France.
Hitler’s invasion was a daring operation in which troops pierced the seemingly impassible Ardennes Forest and shattered the Allied army. This is the traditional account, and, according to Clark (Modern War Studies and Contemporary Military History/Univ. of Buckingham; The Battle of the Tanks: Kursk, 1943, 2011, etc.), that’s pretty much what happened. Without a doubt, it was spectacular, and the author writes a masterly account teeming with vivid personalities and the usual mixture of heroism, incompetence, and luck. Clark emphasizes that Germany’s high command was as unimaginative as France’s. When Hitler’s generals proposed invading through Belgium, he objected, stressing that it hadn’t worked in 1914. Furthermore, France expected it. It took more rejections before a few adventurous generals produced the plan that caught his fancy. However, it was not a given that it would succeed. On May 10, 1940, an army attacked the Low Countries, preoccupying the main Allied force. When German troops emerged from the Ardennes three days later, they faced the Meuse River, a substantial barrier. Had the Allies rushed reinforcements at that moment, the outcome might have been different. As it was, Wehrmacht forces poured across and raced to the Channel, cutting off the main Allied army. The remainder retreated for a month until Marshal Pétain took office and, overcoming modest opposition, requested an armistice. Clark maintains that this was not a blitzkrieg—i.e., a massive attack spearheaded by tanks—but an extremely risky traditional operation, carried out energetically and significantly aided by chance, weather, and an inflexible enemy.
It’s a dismal piece of history, well told and familiar, but Clark provides plenty of juicy details and a mildly controversial reinterpretation.