Politically correct historical myths to the contrary, the myth of the efficiency of the German Blitzkrieg in WWII died not in the winter of 1942 in the plains west of Moscow but in the mild comfortable spring of 1940 in central Belgium, a few miles from the town of Gembloux. On May 12–14 there the French Cavalry Corps (the name for the French armor division) met two (the 3rd and the 4th) Panzer division in an open field. A relatively small force of only 239 French tanks without tactical air cover engaged 674 German Panzers supported by 500 tactical bombers and 500 Messerschmidt fighters. The French objective was simple: Slow down the German offensive until the French infantry divisions marching into Belgium take and fortify positions at the Gap of Gembloux, according to the Dyle Plan. The Dyle Plan turned out to be a strategic failure: It did not expect that the main force of the German invasion will attack through the Ardennes in the South to reach Sedan. That may have been the reason for the quick defeat of France.
But what happened at Gembloux wasn’t expected at all by the German High Command. And it could have been France’s chance.
Within several hours on May 12th, the French Cavalry Corps, vastly outnumbered and pounded from the air, was able to stop the German advance. Fewer than 100 French tanks were destroyed versus 160 German Panzers. The Germans soon discovered that their best tank, the Panzer IV, was no match for the French Somua S35. At the beginning of the war S35 was in fact the best tank on all battlefields of the war, with superior armor and armament. The effective range of the German Panzers against the French was less than 200 meters, while a French S35 could destroy a Panzer III or IV at 600-700 meters. Besides, even from a very close distance the German guns couldn’t produce more than a few dents in the strong armor of the Somua; by the end of the day on May 13 most of the surviving Somuas were hit 15-20 times, some more than 40 times, without any serious damage to the tanks or the crews. In the first all tank battle of the war, the German confidence in the Panzers was shattered badly.
The Panzers were stopped, and they had to wait for the arrival of the German infantry. Two days later, when the attack against the French positions at the Gap of Gembloux was launched, there were even more surprises for the Germans. The French infantry, far from being dispirited and unprepared, proved to be a serious obstacle to the German advance. Outnumbered three to one on the ground, and bombed around the clock from the air, the Moroccan Division held its ground for several more days. Of the attacking German regiments some were completely wiped out, most of the rest lost about 30% of their officers. So serious was the French victory that the Germans expected the French to move south and cut off the main German advance. The time the heroic French won at Gembloux allowed for the regrouping of the Belgian forces in the north, and the British Expeditionary Force in the rear. The significance of this French victory is underestimated today but at the time it was serious enough to make Hitler give orders to move his headquarters close to the front lines, something he would only do when he expected the war to last longer than expected.
We in America like to think of the French military as an ill-equipped, low-morale, incompetent, cowardly bunch. Such an assessment is very far from the truth. To the contrary, the French were excellent soldiers on the battlefield. Heinz Guderian who fought the French in two world wars, characterizes the French soldier as “tough and brave,” and holds him in great esteem. At Gembloux, the soldiers and the officers of the Cavalry Corps and the Moroccan Division confirmed Guderian’s assessment of them. In May 1940, despite the German successes in the first couple of weeks, the Germans were still very far from their victory.
It was the French government and the French General Staff that saved the day for the Germans. On that same May 13, while the Cavalry Corps were beating back the German advance, the mood in the French General Staff was “fear, tears, and panic,” according to a witness. The French generals on that day were not debating how to organize their forces more effectively; they were discussing how to convince their own government to capitulate. In the next several days the French government – to a large degree influenced by the German propaganda communiques – was entirely pessimistic of the outcome of the war. That pessimism spread, and soon Winston Churchill was giving his own generals orders to evacuate. The Netherlands, whose territory was only partially invaded – more than 80 per cent of the Dutch troops, those in Fortress Holland – never saw battle – capitulated after a few bombs dropped on Rotterdam. Belgium capitulated soon thereafter. Large numbers of British and French troops evacuated through Dunkirk. And the Germans were unopposed.
France, Belgium, and the Netherlands together had a population of 56 million. Together with Britain, they could have stopped the German invasion, and the history of the World War II would have been different. But they didn’t.
The French leadership had an operational eschatology – expectations of the future – about the coming war. According to that eschatology, the last days of France would start when the Germans invade. Not much could be done, except for a few troops to escape through Dunkirk, and hopefully expect help from the United States, three and a half – or may be four – years later.
That operational eschatology trumped the heroism and the skill of the French soldiers and officers. France, Belgium, and the Netherlands lost the war, and it brought unspeakable misery to whole populations for the next four years.
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The best summary of the eschatology of the Swiss political and military leaders was given by a Swiss army captain to the Kaiser of Germany when the latter asked him what the quarter of a million Swiss citizens’ militia would do if invaded by a half million German regular army.
“Shoot twice and go home,” was the laconic reply of the highlander.
Both men knew what that meant. The German army at the time trained its soldiers to shoot at 100 meters. Any target practice beyond 100 meters was considered exceptional marksmanship. The Swiss routinely practiced at their shooting festivals at 300 meters, with their army rifles, which the Swiss men kept in their homes, clean and loaded and ready to use. In case of an attack, in order to take position to open fire, the German soldiers would have to cross the zone between 300 meters distance and 100 meters distance from the Swiss positions: enough time for the Swiss comfortably to shoot, reload, and shoot again. And go home. The Swiss knew their own strengths, and they couldn’t be intimidated by the enemy’s numbers. Any invader would be defeated, and that was as inevitable as the sunrise the next day.
That unshakable faith in their superiority, the optimism about the future of Switzerland was cultivated over the centuries after in 1291 representatives of the three mountain cantons Uri, Schweiz, and Unterwalden met on the Rütli Meadow to create the free confederation of people who refuse to live under any dictatorship. Since then, the Swiss peasants have invariably defeated much stronger armies of knights and professional soldiers sent against then. In remarkable feats of courage and tenacity, sometimes outnumbered 15 or 20 to one, the Swiss proved to the world that there was no way their land would fall in foreign hands. Over the years, tyrants and dictators learned the lesson: Don’t touch Switzerland. The Kaiser’s bluff was empty, and he knew it, and the Swiss captain knew it too. When the Great War started, all the participants – more populous than Switzerland – preferred to honor her neutrality.
The expectations of the future, the eschatology of the Swiss, were always positive, optimistic. The land was theirs, given by God, and they were obligated to dress it and keep it. It wasn’t the most fertile land in the world, it didn’t boast numberless resources, it had rugged mountains and precipices and narrow valleys . . . but it was theirs and theirs it would remain. For centuries Switzerland would remain the poorest of its neighbors because of the hardness of its terrain. As late as 1940, most Swiss citizens were living in much poorer conditions than their neighbors in France or Germany. But poor or not, they would remain free.
In 1940, after France fell to the Wehrmacht, the Chief Commander of the Swiss army, General Henri Guisan, assembled his officers on the same Rütli Meadow where 650 years earlier the Swiss Confederation was founded. His address told the Swiss officers what they already knew in their very being as Swiss citizens and soldiers: Switzerland would never surrender. In case of invasion, all announcements of surrender must be considered enemy propaganda, and every Swiss soldier must continue the fight to the last cartridge, and then use the bayonet.
In 1940 the whole population of the small Alpine republic numbered a little over 4 million, with an army of about 400,000, armed mainly with rifles and mountain artillery, and limited number of fighter planes. The Wehrmacht had 6.6 million men, thousands of heavy artillery, tanks, and tactical and strategic bombers in the air. Between 1939 and 1944 the German High Command developed six plans for invasion of Switzerland, that “stinking little state” as Josef Göbbels called it. Hitler never dared take action. He knew that unlike France, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and others who believed in inevitable defeat, the Swiss believed in victory against all odds. Hitler knew that you don’t conquer a people who don’t believe in being conquered.
As a result, Switzerland remained an island of freedom during the war. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were saved, and hundreds of American pilots whose planes were shot over Germany. Hitler never got control of the mountain passes and this impeded the movement of German troops when Italy was invaded by the Allies. In France, the belief in inevitable defeat produced defeat; in Switzerland, the belief in inevitable victory kept evil at bay.
Like my friend Ben House says in his book, Punic Wars and Culture Wars, “Victory is often matter of not having a culture of defeat.”
In other words, eschatology matters.
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For this article, I am grateful for the work of two men and great historians, who worked hard and had the courage to bust modern politically correct myths in the name of preserving historical truth for the future generations: John Mosier (The Blitzkrieg Myth: How Hitler and the Allies Misread the Strategic Realities of World War II), and Stephen Halbrook (Target Switzerland: Swiss Armed Neutrality in World War II).