We have detected that you are using an older version of Internet Explorer and to have access to all the features on this site, you will need to update your browser to Internet Explorer 8. Alternatively, download Mozilla Firefox or Chrome.

Germany’s new form of war

LAURENCE REES: So a myth has grown up, that what Germany had developed was a totally new form of warfare based on massive mechanised forces, and that to that extent this victory over France in 1940 was inevitable because the Germans were actually doing something wholly new in the history of warfare. Is that a comprehensive myth?

ADAM TOOZE: I do think it is. I think it would be very interesting to know how it becomes concocted in the aftermath. There’s some interesting reports in the Swiss press which were explaining everything in terms of the German command of a novel technology and the Swiss censors have to remind the journalists that maybe this was actually something rather to do more with German heroism or the skill of German arms. There’s that reductive interpretation of what’s going on in terms of technologies already beginning to circulate in the summer of 1940, and to contemporaries it’s obvious that something else has actually happened. It’s a complete myth because the Germans have fewer tanks and tanks of lesser quality than the French and the British do at this point, they have a bare superiority in the air but largely because they’ve chosen to concentrate again, at astonishingly high risk, the full force of the Luftwaffe on the original assault.

The actual execution of the Blitzkrieg is largely the application of classical principles of warfare distilled by German military theorists from the Napoleonic experience. As we now know, the actual struggle at the points of initial contact in places like Sedan is largely led by infantry and artillery in quite a conventional way: infantry and artillery, which are being handled in a dynamic, forward thinking and highly mobile way, with essentially conventional weapons. Furthermore this is not backed up by any long range military planning, so the army plan I referred to earlier, the army plan of 1936, assigns a higher percentage of Germany military expenditure to defensive emplacements and the German equivalent of the Maginot Line, than it does to the build-up of mobile armoured units.

LAURENCE REES: So we're also wrong in seeing the armaments spend as a coherent strategy towards this Blitzkrieg end?

ADAM TOOZE: Yes, the Germans are a far less motorised army, for instance, than the British army. The British Expeditionary Corps is entirely motorised. And when the Germans actually discovered the detritus of the retreating British army at Dunkirk they were completely overwhelmed by the extraordinary depth of British motorisation and the number of trucks the British had just abandoned by the side of the road. Furthermore, if we look in closer focus at the first months of the war, the extraordinary thing is that the programmes that Hitler prioritises in the initial months of the war are not an increased speed of build-up for the tank arm but, in fact, a huge ammunitions programme which is designed to avoid the munitions crisis which had crippled the German offensive in the autumn of 1914. So he’s an infantryman of the First World War, and well remembers the crisis of German ammunition supply which had allegedly bogged down the German army in the first phase of World War One. And that’s the Fuehrer challenge of December 1939, not to increase production of tanks but to triple the production of ammunition in the next six months. So the kind of war that Hitler even at that point seems to envision is a slogging match to the Channel, very reminiscent of World War One, rather than the dashing scythe blow across northern France which actually wins the day the following May.

LAURENCE REES: Therefore, we should see the victory in May 1940 as even more extraordinary than we previously did, because it relied on brilliant generalship?

ADAM TOOZE: It’s a military event, absolutely. It has to be interpreted as something that is decided ultimately by military leadership on the one side and the uncanny élan of the German troops who displayed truly remarkable fighting capacity in that offensive, the extraordinary marching achievements by the infantry, continuous fighting over days and days and days, essentially without sleep, and on the other hand the remarkable incapacity of the British and the French military leaderships to respond with the necessary speed to the German offensive. And I think something that historians struggle to come to terms with is essentially the contingency and the sense of alternative possibilities that that opens up. This isn’t an event which looks as though it’s predetermined by long histories of either France or Britain or Germany over the preceding decade.

LAURENCE REES: And maybe if that Germany army officer hadn’t been shot down, and the original plans for the German offensive not captured, then maybe Hitler would have gone with that original plan and that would have been it?

ADAM TOOZE: Absolutely, that is what his armaments programme is geared towards. I mean, the slogging match to the Channel is the early draft of the German offensive plan which itself was only about six months old, because frankly, the German army didn’t care to think about the necessity of launching an offensive in the West, because it wasn’t something which they thought had any probability of success at all. So, rather reluctantly, they draft that plan which then Hitler tries to underpin with a huge ammunitions programme. And then in the early weeks of 1940 something comes in from the side which is much higher risk, which is why the OKH had slapped it down previously, but promises a much higher probability of dramatic success. In fact, it’s the only one which fulfils the basic German criterion of achieving a decision on the battlefield.