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The French and British Armies

LAURENCE REES: Why did the French and British Armies perform so abysmally in May 1940?

ROBERT CITINO: I guess the easiest thing in the world, and the simplistic answer to your question, would be that these were armies who had won the last war and saw very little reason to change their doctrine or approach. The Germans, on the other hand, had lost the last war and so had a lot of reasons to discard what they’d been doing and search for new solutions. I think that while that is a simplistic answer, it is still a partial answer, but once again I would say that Frederick the Great back in the 18th Century laid out Prussian tactical doctrine in a pithy sense: the Prussian army always attacks. He had a standing order for his cavalry forces that they must always get their charge in first and not wait to be charged by the enemy. That notion of a kind of bulldog level of aggression coupled with a rapidity of manoeuvre had been a German tradition for a good long time. I’m not sure it had ever really been a British tradition, it had arguably been a French tradition during the reign of the great Napoleon, but certainly not in other periods in times of French history.

So once again rather than the simplistic notion of the Germans rejecting what had gone before, they certainly rejected trench warfare in World War One and tried to find solutions to counter it, but what they were really trying to do was restore a very old way of war. They succeeded in doing that and in some sense for that brief moment they found themselves with a kind of tactical battlefield superiority to the British and French. Now that did not lead to a happy ending. It led to a reasonably happy ending in 1940 but a sense of tactical and operational superiority simply leads you onto more and more campaigns. If you feel no danger from any enemy army in the continent you do the craziest things. You invade Russia for example.

LAURENCE REES: But many of Hitler’s generals were extremely apprehensive about dealing with the French and the British. Why were they proved so wrong?

ROBERT CITINO: That’s a good question. I guess I would draw some distinctions between just who was confident and who wasn’t. I think the higher you went in the staff the more you tended to see dangers in this operation. I think there was a reasonable amount of confidence on the level of the field commander. I’m thinking for example of a Guderian or a Manstein who went from the staff into the field, he designed the 1940 campaign and then would have one of the great field command careers of the Eastern Front from 1942 on. But having said that I think there’s a certain sense in which you’re right.  When Hitler wound up at war with literally the rest of the world over the invasion of Poland - or at least Britain and France and their Empires backing them - there was a sense amongst many in the staff that this was a war that was unwinnable. In other words there was a war against maritime powers with vast overseas Empires and the Germans had no navy at all. I think out of that came a kind of approach that said, impressive operations that are brought to a very rapid conclusion will have such a demoralising impact on our enemies, particularly the Western alliance, that at some point they’ll be forced to sue for peace.

I spoke a little earlier about my view that the campaign in France was not a campaign by the German Army, but a campaign by a very, very small portion of the German Army, a handful of divisions that were armoured and mechanized, and really exhibited the characteristics of a large scale raid of old. Now the French and partially the British reacted to that raid by collapsing, and certainly the success of that raid was greater than any one of the staff, or Hitler himself, could possibly have imagined (I am speaking of the drive through the Ardennes and the crossing of the Meuse at Sedan).  At the same time, though, many of the field officers believed in it from the beginning, and here, again, I’m referencing Heinz Guderian who, a few short weeks before the crossing at the Meuse when he’d done it for real, had played out a war game of the scenario, and he felt that it would catch the French by surprise and probably put them in a position in which they would be unable to react very quickly. Now it’s rare that the plan and the war game works out so perfectly in the field but it was one of those times in 1940.

LAURENCE REES: Why was this particular plan the final one?

ROBERT CITINO: There had been a plan that Hitler then rejected and turned to a new one. The Germans conquered Poland in September 1939 and they were still in the aftermath of that, in the early weeks of October, and Hitler demanded a plan from the staff almost immediately for the turn to the west. In other words there wasn’t going to be a phoney war, there wasn’t going to be this long winter in which nothing happened between the two armies on the front except dropping leaflets on each other. Now the staff came forward with a plan and also came forward with a number of objections. It was simply too early. The army showed serious deficiencies in Poland, there were examples of indiscipline and some panic under fire. Hitler flew into one of his patented rages which might have been a reflection of genuine anger, or might have been playacting, in which he immediately demanded from his officers the exact name of the places where these scenes of indiscipline had taken place and where these moments of panic had been and where there was poor ground coordination and so on and so forth.

Now the staff were unable to really produce those, and they were clearly trying to drag their feet. They came forward with one plan after another and Hitler ordered it into play and almost always it was cancelled at the last moment by the weather. Now the original plans would have looked very much like a recapitulation of the Schlieffen Plan in 1914, in other words a relatively weak left wing with a relatively strong right wing that would have passed somewhere through Belgium and come down into Northern France near the Channel coast. In other words a reprise of a play that had a bad opening in 1914, and many officers saw no reason to repeat. One of the staff officers attached to a Corps in the German Army, Eric von Manstein, came up with a radically different plan and that was for the relatively weak right wing but major armoured forces to the left or the south.

Now a look at the map will tell you that those major armoured forces were headed into some of the worst tank country in Europe: the Ardennes Forest. It was a tangled growth of winding trails, steep river banks and small bodies of water that would have to be crossed almost several times a day. So a very difficult situation. And for that reason many of the staff rejected it, but Manstein was sure that it would at least restore the element of surprise. Now he then stepped out of acceptable behaviour for a German General Staff Officer by proselytizing for this plan with anyone who would listen. Moltke once said that staff officers should be faceless, anonymous, they should serve for the greater glory of their commander and take the blame when things go wrong. Manstein was literally buttonholing people in the hall and he finally buttonholed the big one and that was Adolf Hitler at a luncheon called for Corps commanders and their staffs. Hitler liked it. It was unconventional and was the last thing in the world his staff would come up with, and it seemed both mad but flecked with genius at the same time. And I suppose Hitler read that plan and recognised much of himself in it, and for that reason almost immediately forced that plan on the army.

It certainly wasn’t without a fight and the officers maintained that it was going to be risky up to the end. What had happened in the meantime between the first iteration of the Schlieffen Plan, the version 2.0, and now the new Manstein plan, was that a German aircraft had gone down in neutral Belgium and the crew had been interned. Much of the paperwork for the original plan had come into Belgian hands and Hitler suspected it was now into the hands of French military intelligence as well. The entire staff knew that a radically different approach was needed and that argued in favour of this new Manstein plan.

LAURENCE REES: So to that extent one can give credit to Hitler for this change of plan?

ROBERT CITINO: I don’t think there’s any doubt that early in the war one can say that some of Hitler’s decisions were just unconventional enough to be effective. I think we all recognise the beauty of thinking outside the box or outside the envelope, there’s a number of different metaphors for this today, the corporate world tries to encourage it. And certainly Hitler thought outside the box on a number of occasions. Now he developed as a result a wholly unjustified faith in his own military genius and made a number of perfectly horrendous decisions in 1941 and for the rest of the war. If at one point his decisions were unconventional, by some point in the war they became unprofessional, and arguably defective, but certainly that was the not the case in 1940. And again I think this was a crucial moment in the relationship between Hitler and his High Command, the Staff, because they had been proven wrong, they had dragged their feet, Hitler had claimed it would work, they had said no it wouldn’t, and then of course it did.