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The Chieftain's Hatch: Truth as We Know It: Reprise


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The_Chieftain #1 Posted Sep 29 2017 - 22:55

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Many moons ago, actually close to seventy, I put up an articleafter reading Harry Yeide’s “Fighting Patton.” I observed that I like books which generally ignore already extant works, and start digging afresh. Although I do tend to learn new stuff every time I read a book, five years later I have encountered a highly intriguing work which has motivated me enough to write a reprise to the original. The Ardennes offensive in 1940 is generally considered to be a masterful operation, well planned and executed. Now, I'm not so sure.

 

The book in question is “The Blitzkrieg Legend” by Col. Dr. Karl-Heinz Frieser. He is (or at least was when the book was printed in 2012, and it’s amazing it took me this long to find it) the head of the Department of World Wars I and II in the German Army’s Military History Research Institute. This means that he is in a position to do some very good research in the original language from the German side of things. It was actually originally written in the mid 1990s, it just took a while for it to get translated into English.

 

It covers the assault into France in 1940, primarily from the German side, but he spent a fair bit of time in the French archives. Both are sources which are relatively under-reported in the English language literature. The book is a bit dry, but damn, I’m glad I’ve read it.

 

There are several commonly held beliefs which he addresses, some more squarely than others. I must admit, I was under the spell of many of them before reading the German side.

They vary from the basic such as “Blitzkrieg is a concept” (which, granted, has been getting some visibility recently), or “Germany believed it could only fight short conflicts”, through more complicated matters such as “The French did not cover the Ardennes” or “German generals operated within broad guidance”.

 

Sometimes the distinction is trivial. The commonly held belief is that after the Mechelen Incident, when a German officer was captured in Belgium with the German invasion plans, the Germans believed their plan to be compromised and so shifted South. In reality, it appears that the Germans were already considering it, and when the French and British started to activate their plans in response to the document capture, the German intelligence services were taking a good look at what the Allies intended to do, and so they themselves went with a plan which took into account the observed Allied response.

 

There are also some totally new (to me) insights. For example, the Germans were confused by a stubborn Belgian defense of a town called Bodange. It turned out that someone had the great idea of doing an air insertion of troops some way behind Bodange. That in itself, (Operation Niwi) was a bizarre idea of transporting 400 PanzerGrenadiers in Fieseler Storchs (Two troops per aircraft), to intercept reserves heading for the front. Suffice to say, not only was the operation a bit of a mess with misdirected airplanes, by cutting off the Belgian line of retreat all it did was force the Belgian troops to fight harder to survive in the position they found themselves, and thus delay the German advance instead of hastening it. The book also goes into great depth on the question of “Just whose idea was it to do the Ardennes plan, anyway?”

meusecross.jpg

 "Joyriding  in canoes on the Meuse is forbidden" - Balck to Guderian, 13 May 1940

 

The big take-away from reading the book, though, is that the Germans got really, really lucky, the French managed to lose the fight they could have won, and the level of outright insubordination and disobedience by the German senior officers to higher orders goes beyond what I might consider reasonable “Auftragstaktik”: Operating within general guidance in support of the higher goal. Indeed, and I may be cynical, I don’t think a modern military staff could have pulled it off.

 

The German story is one of confused, intermingled units, near misses, and lucky breaks. You know that trope in the movies where “Sorry, you’re breaking up, I can’t hear you giving me an express instruction…” happens and the hero saves the day? Well, Rommel did exactly that. To quote the author, “It is thus striking to note that Rommel simply could not be reached, of all times, during the phases when he did not want to be stopped by his superiors under any circumstances.” He wasn’t alone, a number of other Generals outright disobeyed direct orders. Well, they do say that ‘fortune favors the bold’, although one can also note that ‘that’s no way to run a railroad.’ It opens up interesting philosophical questions as to how much leeway to encourage subordinates to have. The author also believes that Rommel, in the interest of self-aggrandisation, deliberately exaggerated the size of the Arras attack to make himself look better. This then caused the panic at German higher headquarters which resulted in reining in the Panzer units, and possibly allowing for the Dunkirk evacuation.

 

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"Dangit. Our airplanes can see us ignoring orders. Curse our air superiority."

 

The French couldn’t have tried harder to lose the battle if they wanted to. The men usually fought hard, but their generalship… well... that left a lot to be desired. This is generally known, but the level of incompetence as shown in the book is astounding. The misconception is that the French did not plan to cover the Ardennes, but they did. As soon as the operation kicked off, the French 1st, 4th and 5th Light Cavalry Divisions were the first to cross into the Ardennes, to be a delaying force covering the more significant French forces. If the Germans got to the Meuse, there were scores of fortifications, most of which did their job. Unfortunately, it seems that there was no co-ordination with the Belgians, resulting in a gap between the Belgian withdrawl and the French arrival... which the Germans gleefully took advantage of. As the book says, both Belgium and France thought the other country was responsible for the overall defense. What isn’t a misconception is that the French took forever to understand (or perhaps accept.. shades of June 1944) what was happening, and again took forever to actually do anything about it. The timelines almost defy belief. The Germans, it seems, didn’t bother themselves with things like “The Military Decisionmaking Process”, the Generals seem to have just made a judgement call on the spot and said “Go thataway”. MDMP is a really big thing in the US military today.  At Sedan itself, the initiative and daring of three men, named Korthals, von Coubiere and Rubarth, a staff sergeant and two 1LTs, were the  reason the Germans had such success. On the smallest of decisions and the most humble of shoulders falls the weight of history.

 

blockhouse.jpg

Cunningly disguised blockhouse

That the structure of the French system, the “Methodical battle” was outdated remains true, but even at that, there were opportunities which went by. An “Attack at once” order at 8am would take hours to get to the front line, the units might start moving by 6pm, by which point they’d go a few miles and it would get dark. By the time they made it to the actual attack, again and again they ended up attacking places only just reinforced by the Germans. A fascinating counterfactual might be “What if the Germans went up against a French military which followed its doctrine but wasn’t incompetent about doing so”? Impossible to say, of course, but I would love to see it wargamed out.

 

avesnes.jpg

"Yes, I know we have 4cm of armor, but nobody seems to have told the German 37s..." (Town of Avenses)

 

Of course, one should never confine oneself to just one or two books on a significant subject like this. For example, Robert Higham’s “Unflinching Zeal: The Air Battles over France” provides a little more context to Frieser’s observations on the disparity between theoretical and actual numbers of French aircraft involved, whilst something like Julian Thompson’s Dunkirk book goes into the Arras incident in a fair bit of depth. Perspective and viewpoint are fascinating filters.

 

In any case, the upshot from this article is to encourage you that if you are interested in the subject matter, don’t confine yourself just to the ‘approachable’ popular works, or ‘what you know from the Internet’; be willing to dig into some of the dryer materials. Some of the results may well surprise you.



HeavyCalibre #2 Posted Sep 30 2017 - 19:48

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As always, extremely interesting reading from The_Chieftain, thanks for taking the time to bring this to light! It just shows how war is often times just pure luck, happenstance, or bad luck depending on what side you're on.

josekase #3 Posted Sep 30 2017 - 19:54

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wow a mi me encanto este tema ya que siempre me ah interesado el tema de las guerras

 

PD: pordrian agregar los comics como en el juego de android tambien me gustaban arto <3

 



o4kill #4 Posted Sep 30 2017 - 20:12

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Fascinating, thank you for sharing this Chieftain!

 

Are there any other books based largely on French or German sources (and thus presenting information not commonly found in American libraries) you would recommend?



_Nygard_ #5 Posted Sep 30 2017 - 20:52

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Thank you for the good read.

da_Rock002 #6 Posted Sep 30 2017 - 21:01

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Excellent recon intel, Chieftain.

Turns out it's even in Kendal format.


 

https://www.amazon.com/Blitzkrieg-Legend-Karl-Heinz-Frieser-ebook/dp/B00C0JJ096/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1506801486&sr=8-1&keywords=the+blitzkrieg+legend

 

 

 

Thanks for the info.

 


Edited by da_Rock002, Sep 30 2017 - 21:02.


FrozenKemp #7 Posted Sep 30 2017 - 22:00

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That is fascinating and makes me want to read it a great deal!

 

The long delay between orders and execution reminds me (sorry, this is a segue) of the failure of the British cavalry in WW1 at Cambrai.  After the infantry and tanks had success, the horse cavalry were supposed to exploit this - attack where the Germans didn't have trenches - finally!  But the cavalry general INSISTED that none of his units units advance without his express orders and he was based on a chateau several miles behind the lines.  So again, there were multi-hour delays in communication so the cavalry were never able to do anything. 


Edited by FrozenKemp, Sep 30 2017 - 22:00.


YANKEE137 #8 Posted Sep 30 2017 - 22:55

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The French in 1940 had a large, technologically sophisticated military that managed to collapse in just a few weeks of combat. A cautionary tale for all time. 

What other times has something like this happened? The Egyptians in 1967? The South Vietnamese in 1975? The Iraqis in 1990?

 


Edited by YANKEE137, Sep 30 2017 - 22:57.


Omega_Weapon #9 Posted Sep 30 2017 - 23:34

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View PostYANKEE137, on Sep 30 2017 - 16:55, said:

The French in 1940 had a large, technologically sophisticated military that managed to collapse in just a few weeks of combat. A cautionary tale for all time. 

What other times has something like this happened? The Egyptians in 1967? The South Vietnamese in 1975? The Iraqis in 1990?

 

 

​I guess one sided blow outs are not just a World of Tanks issue. They can be seen in real world history as well.

stalkervision #10 Posted Oct 01 2017 - 00:34

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on little things like this wars turn. Yes, it would be fascinating to war game this out the way of your hypothesis. Very good counter analysis of the set in stone beliefs.



Dunfalach #11 Posted Oct 01 2017 - 05:33

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Very good read!

HideousHog #12 Posted Oct 01 2017 - 12:06

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Chieftain, off topic, but if you haven't already, you might enjoy Christopher Clark's The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. HarperCollins. (2013).

Edited by HideousHog, Oct 01 2017 - 12:08.


_Sasquatch_ #13 Posted Oct 01 2017 - 18:34

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Thank you for the great info and interesting read.

jones1968 #14 Posted Oct 01 2017 - 22:37

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Gold

 



Tracer001 #15 Posted Oct 01 2017 - 23:40

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I'd be careful of using this book as a source for any arguments personally.  I had a guy on a wargaming forum use this book to discredit Blitzkrieg and upon reading the entire book  I realized what others have said, this book was revisionist history and it was full of wrong assumptions.  Don't forget that lightning war was not only a German design.  Sevchin of the USSR back in 1927 I believe was the father of this strategy.  He labelled it I believe Deep Battle and Deep Operation.  Had Stalin not murdered his officer corp his better generals could have done much to stall the German advance.  When you consider tactics of WWI anything slightly mobile and using air force can be considered blitzkrieg.

Dunfalach #16 Posted Oct 02 2017 - 02:06

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View PostTracer001, on Oct 01 2017 - 17:40, said:

I'd be careful of using this book as a source for any arguments personally.  I had a guy on a wargaming forum use this book to discredit Blitzkrieg and upon reading the entire book  I realized what others have said, this book was revisionist history and it was full of wrong assumptions.  Don't forget that lightning war was not only a German design.  Sevchin of the USSR back in 1927 I believe was the father of this strategy.  He labelled it I believe Deep Battle and Deep Operation.  Had Stalin not murdered his officer corp his better generals could have done much to stall the German advance.  When you consider tactics of WWI anything slightly mobile and using air force can be considered blitzkrieg.

 

Actually, the Germans themselves didn't necessarily claim to have invented the lightning war. They openly drew inspiration for their combined arms units from British thinkers, among others. But the Germans were the first to commit to it on a big scale and use it effectively. The thought had been introduced in most of the major nations of the pre-war period, but the Germans committed to it where other nations were still puttering around with it as a debated idea. Which seems in many cases to have been a mixture of institutional sluggishness (fueled in part by argument over whom should control what inside the various militaries) and a lack of real will to plan for and more importantly invest money for a future major conflict while nations were still weary from the last one.

The_Chieftain #17 Posted Oct 02 2017 - 05:59

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View PostTracer001, on Oct 01 2017 - 22:40, said:

I'd be careful of using this book as a source for any arguments personally.  I had a guy on a wargaming forum use this book to discredit Blitzkrieg and upon reading the entire book  I realized what others have said, this book was revisionist history and it was full of wrong assumptions.  Don't forget that lightning war was not only a German design.  Sevchin of the USSR back in 1927 I believe was the father of this strategy.  He labelled it I believe Deep Battle and Deep Operation.  Had Stalin not murdered his officer corp his better generals could have done much to stall the German advance.  When you consider tactics of WWI anything slightly mobile and using air force can be considered blitzkrieg.

 

Mmm. The book is well regarded by the US Army's Command and General Staff College. I'm not entirely sure who's arguing what, here. Frieser argues that the idea of "Blitzkrieg" wasn't even in existence in 1940 as far as the Germans were concerned, but he does not argue, that I can recall, that the ideas of combined arms warfare were not originally created elsewhere. Let me go back and have another read of the relevant section.

 

In any case, the meat of the book is based on the operational histories of the units in question, they are not really open to revisionism.



Shrike58 #18 Posted Oct 02 2017 - 16:29

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I read Freiser's book awhile back and have also read most of the English language coverage on the campaign. Another thing that makes one go "hmmm" is having just finished Norman Ohler's "Blitzed," which among other things, deals with how the German military was handing out amphetamines like candy for this campaign and one has to wonder whether part of the shock of Arras was that the panzer troopers were crashing off being on a drug-induced high for too long. Granted that there's a sensational marketing campaign behind this book, the source material looks very sober. Ohler knew he was going to shake some trees and seems to have gone to appropriate lengths to get his ducks in a row.

Edited by Shrike58, Oct 02 2017 - 16:31.


Ie_Shima #19 Posted Oct 02 2017 - 19:28

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View PostYANKEE137, on Sep 30 2017 - 22:55, said:

The French in 1940 had a large, technologically sophisticated military that managed to collapse in just a few weeks of combat. A cautionary tale for all time. 

What other times has something like this happened? The Egyptians in 1967? The South Vietnamese in 1975? The Iraqis in 1990?

 

 

​It can be claimed that the French in 1940 were very different to your other sources.  France's situation was the classic 'lions led by sheep', where individual units fought brilliant tactical battles, and often halted German advances, but their general corps was woefully incapable of providing the orders and leadership that their troops needed.  But you must remember that this was a battle fought by two modern, western nations.  Nations who were at the forefront of any technological invention and stratagem available to the world.  The engagements were fought between skilled and trained troops (For the most part.  I am aware that France did have many conscripts in their army.)  France could even be considered to have the better equipped army. 

 

This deviates greatly from the Six-Day War, where Egypt was woefully outnumbered and outflanked by the Israelis.  Egypt had a total of 150,000 troops compared to Israel's 260,000, and counted on the Israelis to use the roads in Sinai, and were completely surprised when they attacked through the desert.  Not to mention that the IDF was far better trained and equipped than the Egyptians, who were the most modern of the three Arab nations, the others being Jordan and Syria.  

 

The South Vietnamese, despite having one of the most modern armies in the region, had very poor troops and leadership, and suffered from an incredible amount of support for the Viet Minh among the local populace.  It would have been like if France had Tiger Is and Me-262s, but its troops were incapable of reading and writing, in many cases never having even seen cars before, its general staff were all political officers playing the black market, and one in every three French civilians was a Nazi.  

 

Iraq was very well equipped and trained, for a country that was facing other middle eastern nations.  But then it went up against nearly every modern nation on Earth, and got smashed by better trained, better equipped and more technologically advanced troops.  Its troops simply were unable to fight back against the UN coalition, and collapsed into ruin.  It was like Italy taking over Ethiopia in the 30's: a modern nation going up against a third-world power. 



The_Chieftain #20 Posted Oct 02 2017 - 20:51

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View PostDunfalach, on Oct 02 2017 - 01:06, said:

 

Actually, the Germans themselves didn't necessarily claim to have invented the lightning war. They openly drew inspiration for their combined arms units from British thinkers, among others. 

 

OK, re-reading the book again, I think I know where this confusion is.

 

There are two meanings of 'Blitzrkieg'. We, in the English-speaking world, tend to view it at the operational and tactical level. The intense use of multiple arms in order to quickly break through and then emphasise a war of maneuver. In this, Frieser traces such tactics to WW1, and he's not really wrong. The other meaning, though, is at the operational/strategic level, where the objective is to have a war which is over and done very quickly. The lightning war in this context refers not to the maneuver or use of arms, but the fact that it is decided quickly. This was not the expectation of the German planners in 1940 and Frieser claims this led to the retro-active appelation of the phrase to the German operations after the fact.






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