German Major General Erwin Rommel (centre) is pictured at a map briefing with his officers during the campaign to take France. Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1972-045-08 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
This article is an edited transcript of World War Two: A Forgotten Narrative with James Holland on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 22 November 2015. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.
Germany’s success in the early stages of World War Two really stems from the bizarre collapse of the French Army in a very short period in the late spring and early summer of 1940. And, to be fair, German Army commander Gerd von Rundstedt and Hitler’s very clever “sickle cut” (as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill described the German manoeuvre through Allied defences in the Ardennes) idea was brilliant.
But it was two or three weeks’ of brilliance that lengthened the war by four years.
Part German brilliance, part Allied failing?
The Nazis’ amazing victory in France and the West against the Low Countries was 50% German brilliance and 50% French failing. There was the mother of all traffic jams in the Ardennes. The whole forward plan for the German Army’s 16 mechanised divisions – which formed just a fraction of the total 135 divisions that invaded in 1940 – was total, total gridlock.
And Allied reconnaissance aircraft went over, saw it, reported back, and just went, “That can’t be true”, and ignored it.
Had the combined bombing efforts of the French army of the air and the British Royal Air Force taken those Germans divisions out then it would have all been over.
You get the impression that the entire German offensive was clinging to victory by its fingertips. Had it not gone right, World War Two wouldn’t be remembered as the sort of titanic genocidal struggle that we now remember it as. Indeed, Germany would have been defeated there and then.
And the vast majority of the senior commanders in the Wehrmacht thought it was going to be a massive failure.
General Franz Halder, the chief of staff of the German Army, was the main architect of the Ardennes plan. He was a late convert but realised that the only chance the Germans had of winning was to do it that way.
If they went the traditional route, they weren’t going to win in France; it would be too long an attrition, too drawn-out.
But if they went the radical way of going through the Ardennes then there was a chance of winning – not a very high one, but at least it gave them a chance. And actually, as it turned out, it proved to be an incredibly extraordinary victory where just everything went pretty much right for the Germans as much as they also went horribly wrong for the French.