17th May 1940

Stories from A Blunted Sickle
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Pdf27
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17th May 1940

Post by Pdf27 »

Gamelin's counter-attack orders of the 15th finally reach the northern and southern reserve groups in the early morning. Having received a warning order a few days previously, the southern group is largely ready to move. Indeed, the first reconnaissance detachments leave by mid-afternoon and reach Verdun by nightfall. The majority of the force will not be able to depart before the morning of the 18th however, and some parts (particularly the Artillery) may not be on the road before the 20th.

1st Army got no warning order from General Gamelin, but containing the best troops in France (and being mostly a regular formation) their reactions are rather faster than those of 5th Army. Additionally, General Blanchard had been watching developments across the front and had given his commanders a warning order on his own initiative to be prepared to move in support of the forces at Sedan if required. There is some delay while orders of march, road allocations and the like are arranged (their destination isn't what they expected), but the first units should be on the road at dawn on the 18th.

Meanwhile, the German Panzers have reached the line Montmirail-Charly sur Marne by midday, and are within 50km of Paris. However, the 4e Division Cuirassée under Colonel de Gaulle then launches a counter-attack on the German spearhead around Charly sur Marne. While the Char B1 tanks are able to cause the leading Panzers to retreat (and are largely immune to the German anti-tank guns), they are unable to advance very far due to a lack of infantry and artillery support, as well as Stuka attacks. By the end of the day they have withdrawn to their start-line for the loss of 23 tanks, mostly disabled and destroyed by their crews in the retreat.

In Holland, the first serious attempt is made to attack the Grebbeline. Some attempts had been made as early as the 12th, but the additional troops and artillery withdrawn from the Peel-Raam line caused the attacks to be beaten off. With the failure of the airborne invasion, it is evident that Holland can only be taken by land. With heavy artillery support, 207th Infantry Division and SS-brigade Der Führer attack and take the Dutch outpost line at Grebbeberg by the end of the day.

Further south, the German Fallschirmjägers start their evacuation under the cover of darkness that evening. The lightly wounded and small parties of volunteers are used to cover the Dordrecht bridges and the Dutch perimeter at Willemsdorp, and a heavy artillery bombardment from around Moerdijk is used to convince the Dutch that another counterattack is in progress. Student meanwhile evacuates his troops to the eastern side of the island around Kop van t'Land, using white mine tape to guide them through the woods where necessary. There they are met by inflatable rubber boats paddled by assault pioneers from the other bank, who ferry the airborne forces across the river during the night. By dawn (when the crossing becomes untenable), 4,326 German troops will have been evacuated of the 15,000 originally committed to the airborne invasion of Holland. The remaining 2,000 or so troops on Dordrecht (mainly wounded) then surrender to the Dutch forces.
War is less costly than servitude. The choice is always between Verdun and Dachau. - Jean Dutourd
Belushi TD
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Re: 17th May 1940

Post by Belushi TD »

Historically, whyinhell did it take two days to get the orders to the southern forces? I understand that I'm used to this day and age, when you pick up the phone, but still, a courier should have been able to reach them in 12 hours at most, shouldn't they have?

Belushi TD
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Pdf27
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Re: 17th May 1940

Post by Pdf27 »

I’ll go into it on more depth tomorrow if I get the time, but it’s pretty fundamental to why the French lost. Getting the orders there in two days is astonishingly fast (borderline unrealistic) for them. There are very severe and deep-rooted socio-political causes for this.
War is less costly than servitude. The choice is always between Verdun and Dachau. - Jean Dutourd
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Pdf27
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Re: 17th May 1940

Post by Pdf27 »

OK, can't be bothered to do a long answer or go into the books, but here's the potted version:
  1. The Left in France were absolutely convinced that given half a chance the Army would murder the lot of them. In 1936 there was a procession of 600,000 people to the Communard's Wall in Paris, led by among others Léon Blum (who was just about to become Prime Minister) - remembering the repression of the Paris Commune in 1871 and the massacres of leftists by the Army afterwards. Given the way Petain governed when in power, it's hard to say that they were very wrong.
  2. The upshot of this is that it was a political necessity that the French army should remain a short-service conscript force with the bare minimum of professionals. That's what got De Gaulle in trouble between the wars with his book by the way - not the content about building an armour-heavy force which they were doing anyway, but the suggestion of adopting a professional army. That pretty much got him blacklisted until 1940.
  3. You then have the problem of how to control very complex operations (combined arms with infantry, tanks, artillery, etc. is a lot of work to coordinate) with a tiny cadre of professional officers and a ton of reservists. The French solution to this drew heavily on their experience in WW1 - methodical battle. This played to the French strengths and mitigated some of their weaknesses, in that it could be done with a relatively small Staff and took advantage of the lavish firepower they had.
  4. The problems with it are equally obvious however - you've got a handful of officers creating detailed plans, which everybody else follows to the letter. If those plans aren't available, by and large the rest of the army can't execute anything else - and the nature of the coordination required by methodical battle means that your staff are used to taking a lot of prep time. Typically, it would be 8 days of staff work for 2 days of fighting.
  5. French communications were pretty much garbage - despatch riders rather than telephone or radio were the norm. That extended even to the highest levels - there wasn't even a single telephone line between the headquarters of Gamelin and Georges (his deputy) which were separated by 30km or so - all communications were by motorcycle despatch rider.
So essentially you end up with a sclerotic system which is designed to fight a slow, ponderous battle while wielding extremely powerful but slow-moving weapons. Any directive from the command is turned into detailed operational orders and typed up before being distributed by despatch rider. In the environment of 1940, this was catastrophic - orders from GQG were always based on out-of-date information, turned into detailed orders which relied on forces which didn't exist any more, and were then sent out by despatch riders who were unable to find the recipients since the headquarters had moved. Frankly, it's remarkable that many French forces did as well as they did - they adapted astonishingly quickly and within weeks were giving the Germans serious problems. By that point, of course, it was far too late and the only option was an armistice.
War is less costly than servitude. The choice is always between Verdun and Dachau. - Jean Dutourd
Bernard Woolley
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Re: 17th May 1940

Post by Bernard Woolley »

Even by the standards of technology in 1918, French C&C in 1940 was awful. I can't imagine Foch tolerating such a sclerotic set up.
Nik_SpeakerToCats
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Re: 17th May 1940

Post by Nik_SpeakerToCats »

Eerie echoes of the current Russian C&C situation in Ukraine, where local initiatives are stymied by excessive top-down control...
Belushi TD
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Re: 17th May 1940

Post by Belushi TD »

So the French intentionally hamstrung their army to the point that they effectively committed national suicide....

And this is in actuality, rather than in fiction.... Its remarkably hard to believe that these things happened. As they say, Fiction has to make sense. Reality doesn't.

Thanks for the potted version. Don't feel any need to present the full up version, as this answered my question, and I'm pretty damn sure you've far better things to do...

Thanks again!

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Pdf27
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Re: 17th May 1940

Post by Pdf27 »

Belushi TD wrote: Tue Dec 27, 2022 7:05 pmSo the French intentionally hamstrung their army to the point that they effectively committed national suicide....
It wasn't an intentional hamstringing - they believed that given the combination of equipment, doctrine and manpower the system they had was good enough. Very few people indeed understood what the Heer could now do - and I include most of the Heer leadership in that.
War is less costly than servitude. The choice is always between Verdun and Dachau. - Jean Dutourd
Eaglenine2
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Re: 17th May 1940

Post by Eaglenine2 »

National politics prevented a large regular army and limit drafted time. And the bulk of the wartime forces are reservist so doctrine can't change much.
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