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Success of the German Army

LAURENCE REES: But nonetheless, although you are saying that we shouldn’t necessarily think of the German Army as this massively mechanised army, they still won the most extraordinary victory in May 1940 over France.

GEOFFREY WAWRO: Well, what’s really extraordinary is that it was almost accidental. Remember the original plan worked up by Franz Halder’s General Staff was to reprise the Schlieffen Plan, and they had this big right hook through the Netherlands and Belgium that would sweep down and collide with the French and British armies, and fight a reprise in the Battle of the Marne. And Hitler looked at this plan and thought it was appalling, and asked Halder to amend it, and there’s all sorts of theories as to why that happened: was the German Army trying to discourage the Fuehrer from going ahead with this war and expanding this war? Did they think that he was pulling them into an unwinable situation? But whatever the reason, Hitler said there had to be something better. And then there was this cabal of armoured aficionados, Rundstedt, Manstein, Guderian, who all saw a real opportunity in the invasion of France to demonstrate the utility of the Panzer weapon and the superiority of mechanised tactics. And so they devised this means by which the main blow would come from army group A, coming through the Ardennes, and army group B, the one that would be passing through the Low Countries, would be subordinated to a holding operation.

The Panzers of army group A would slice through the Ardennes and then make this race West to cut off a large fraction of the French Army, and the entire British Army, and then annihilate it. But the risks were tremendous. You’re talking about seven armoured divisions against this large French Army and this large British Army racing to the coast, exposing a flank 300 kilometres long with no supporting infantry behind them; a tremendous risk. But the German Generals, Manstein, Rundstedt and Guderian were confident that the shock and awe of that kind of approach would so disable the French and the British that they’d win.

LAURENCE REES: And they did.

GEOFFREY WAWRO: And they did.