South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 13 May 2010 was our chairman, Mr Johan van den Berg, whose topic was The Fall of France, 10 May to 25 June 1940.This was a most appropriate choice as the 70th anniversary of the German breakthrough in the West had taken place three days earlier. He explained that the anniversary was a very sensitive issue in France as the defeat in 1940 meant that Germany would recover Alsace and Lorraine which it had gained in 1870 and again lost in 1918.

Our speaker pointed out that the German conquest of France in 1940 has been hailed - inter alia -as "the most successful campaign in history", "the easiest victory ever", "the defeat that should never have been". Clearly, militarily speaking, the biggest result for the least effort - ever. Had the French lived up to their military reputation and repulsed the German invasion, the outcome of the Second World War would beyond a doubt, [have] been vastly different!

He explained that the harsh Treaty of Versailles in 1918 was the catalyst for the Second World War and reiterated Gen Jan Smuts' fateful words of warning. The French continued to rely upon the fixed defence strategy of the First World War while the Germans, who had lost the war, took the new tactics and the new weapons technology to heart. During the First World War, they had used captured enemy tanks but without much success. Their first home-designed tanks were light tanks, with the first medium tanks coming into service in 1939, and no heavy tanks at all in 1940!

In the winter manoeuvres of 1923-24, Lt-Col von Brauchitsch had studied the possibilities provided by the use of motorised troops operating in conjunction with aircraft. Maj Heinz Guderian, influenced by the writings of Martel and J F C Fuller, and to a lesser extent by those of Basil Liddel-Hart, became convinced that tanks used with motorised troops would be the decisive operational weapon but he faced opposition from more conservative officers. In France, Col Charles de Gaulle was one of the very few forward-thinking officers who favoured tank warfare.

Did the Allies have fore-knowledge of the coming breakthrough? YES! There were spies in the German Wehrmacht who had knowledge of the exact date and place of the attacks to take place on 10 May 1940. Had they compared the state of the technology and tactics used by the two sides? NO! Were they aware that the German Army was inferior in both numbers of troops and tanks to the French even if allowing for the smallish British force? YES!

Statistics on the strengths of the opposing armies vary considerably. The French military historian, Benoit-Mechin, quotes Paul Reynaud as putting French strength at 100 divisions compared with 190 German divisions. Liddel-Hart set the German army at 98 (52 active) divisions and the French at 110 (65 active) divisions.

Churchill rather grandly described the French army as "the best trained and faithful mobile force in Europe" but in 1939 there were only 3 battalions of Char B tanks, a very solidly-constructed AFV with thick armour, but a poorly-designed vehicle with a one-man turret! Their best tank was the Somua, fast and for its time well-armed - a cross between the PzKpfw III and PzKpfw IV of the Germans. The largest percentage of tanks in both armies were light tanks. France had more tanks than Germany and quite a number bigger and better than the German tanks. They were, however, deployed in penny-packets all along the frontline with only three armoured divisions active (a fourth was hurriedly mobilised after 10 May - lack of proper training and gunnery skills spelled doom for many a French tank crew). The Germans concentrated all their tanks in ten Panzer divisions which also included motorised infantry and artillery and which were further supported by attached motorised infantry regiments and two independent motorised infantry divisions in support.

J F C Fuller has described the morale of the French Army as "fantastically bad" and that of the German Army as "fantastically good". The French thought that the new war would be a repetition of the First World War's highly attritional trench warfare and therefore based their defensive doctrine on static warfare, in which vast subterranean bunker complexes built along the border with Germany and Luxembourg, thought to be impenetrable, played a major role. Of France's total armed strength of 94 divisions no fewer than 26 divisions manned the Maginot Line! The French also neglected to built up a modern air force - not only was the air force at loggerheads with the army and therefore a total lack of co-ordination, but their large army which was viewed as one of the strongest in the world, was totally unsuitable for modern, ie mobile warfare! The perfect recipe for disaster! This was further exacerbated by the fact that there were other very important deficiencies in the weapons used by the French - such as obsolete artillery, preponderately dating from WWI, still horse-drawn, as well as inadequate anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons.

Our speaker then discussed the standard of training existing in the German army. The Versailles Treaty allowed Germany only 100 000 troops with no air force. The C-in-C, Genl von Seeckt, believed that the regular army of his country should be a "small, well-trained, professional, active and highly mechanised, mobile force". To this end he ensured that his army consisting entirely of volunteers, was trained to the extent that each soldier/officer was able to command and function two to three levels above his current rank; e.g. a lieutenant should be able to effectively take over a major's post, either administratively or in combat, at a moment's notice. The French politicians and soldiers, however, still believed in large armies - the manpower needed to feed the attritional mills of static, linear warfare as exemplified by the First World War.

Revolutionary upheaval and unrest were the hallmarks of the inter-war period - the Russian Civil War, the communist Spartacist Revolt in Germany which was crushed in 1919, Bela Kun, the Communist leader in Hungary, who attacked Rumania in Transylvania, wars in the Far East and South America and lastly, the Spanish Revolution in 1934 and the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39. This revolutionary spirit sweeping the world had an opposite effect on Germany and France: the Germans had to desperately defend their borders against neighbouring countries who coveted German land at the very moment of a Germany left prostrate and defenceless - to counter this the volunteer corps' known as the Freikorps, defended the border lands and served as an excellent training ground for leadership and tactics put to good stead by the Wehrmacht of the future. The French Third Republic, on the other hand, whose predecessors were founded on revolutionary turmoil, suffered from the revolutionary spirit then sweeping the continent, and in fact, the world.

Our speaker traced the turbulent history of France with its many governments, the role of Paul Reynaud and the First World War president Poincaré, the "spirit of Verdun" in 1918 vs the "spirit of the Paris Communards" in 1871 - reactionary vs revolutionary - and the role of the communists in France. After 1927, the French felt that the Belgian defences should be an extension of the Maginot Line and that French forces should reinforce the Belgians in time of war. But by 1937 Belgium decided to be neutral. Service in the Maginot Line was at best unpleasant, boring and monotonous. It was soon found that the dark and clammy concrete structures were at best detrimental to the Garrison troops' health, either physically or psychologically and quite often the off-duty troops were housed in barracks outside the forts and only ventured inside when on duty.

When war came, the French called up one man in eight of the reservists. This was done without considering whether the soldier had a key role to play in the economy, and whose presence in the factory, on the farm or other key employment was of more use to the war effort. Production ground to a halt and these key workers were urgently demobilised and sent back to their civilian activities. This had a demoralising effect on the men remaining behind and they became rebellious, with alcohol misue becoming a universal problem. The attitude of the men called up was "oh hell not again" and they did not go to war willingly.

Contrary to the Germans' belief and reliance on communications as an integral part of warfare, technology was not considered as important in the French Army - Genl Gamelin's Headquarters, for instance, had no radio and only ONE telephone!! Orders were distributed by motor-cycle dispatch riders. It was time-consuming and resulted in the events overtaking the plans, as the German general Guderian stressed the key of mobile warfare is to keep advancing in order to keep the enemy off-balance. So it came about that the Allies were continually caught flat-footed - their counter-measures did not materialise due to the fact that the Allied reaction were lagging at least two days behind any action the German armoured commanders chose to perform.

Great Britain had relied on her large Navy for its defence and both Air force and Army had been sadly neglected between the wars. Conscription had been brought into use only five months prior to the outbreak of war. Unlike the French, only one in forty-eight men were called up and key men were exempted. Only a small force of some six regular divisions were sent to France followed by some Territorial divisions later. There was very little armour and that mostly light tanks. British troops were better paid than the French, which also caused resentment and further demoralised the latter.

The German plans originally called for a 1914-style campaign (called the "Schlieffen" Plan), which almost succeeded but failed due to logistical constraints - lack of mobility. The 1939 version was but a variant of the 1914 plan, was amended 5 times and postponed no less than 29 times! The delays were mainly attributable to bad weather (coldest winter in 50 years) and the capture of vital planning documents by the Allies when a Luftwaffe plane crashed-landed in Belgium. Realisation that the original plan will again have resulted in a linear defensive war and a stalemate due to the lack of mobility of the German Army, prompted Genl von Manstein to propose a daring new plan - audacious in concept and execution - called Sichelschnitt (Sickle Stroke). This involved a drive through the forests of the Ardennes with the mobilised part of their forces, advancing westwards towards the channel to isolate the main Allied forces in Belgium from their supply bases and then swinging north to destroy the more mobile French armies and the BEF which were preparing to move into Belgium. War games in 1939 had proved that this was possible. Holland would be taken out as a sideline operation. This plan was opposed by the traditionalists and conformists, such Genls Halder and von Brauchitsch, but, when he got to hear of it, strongly supported by Hitler.

The French doctrine of defence was based on static warfare in which strong lines of fortifications formed the main line of defence - the Maginot Line which swallowed the major part of the French military's budget in the 1930. It stretched from the Swiss Border to Montmédy, where the French / Belgian / Luxembourg border joined. From Montmédy to the North Sea along Belgian Border there were no stationary defences due to the French respecting Belgian neutrality and the fact that the high water table made the subsoil unstable and unsuitable for concrete emplacements. In addition, Northern France is heavily industrialised and the French did not want a repetition of the destruction these industrial areas suffered during the 1914-18 conflict. To counter this, in case Belgium's sovereignty were compromised by an attack by Germany, French defensive plans made provision for an advance by their best divisions northwards into Belgium to form a continuous defensive line form the French to the Dutch border. When Belgium declared their neutrality in the late 1930's, France had to adapt their defensive plan in case Belgian neutrality was being compromised. With Britain also declaring war on Germany in 1939, the French amended the plan for a joint French/British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to advance from the French border into Belgium to prepared positions along the Dyle River - hence PLAN "D". This defensive line would block the only passable (and traditional) route of advance - up to 1940, that was.

After the attritional warfare of the First World War, the Germans thought long and hard to avoid falling into the same trap again. They took the lessons to heart and developed a novel form of mobile warfare with integrated arms, combining mobile armoured, artillery and infantry forces, operating in close conjunction with dedicated aerial support, skillfully orchestrated through superior leadership from the front and excellent radio communications. This form of warfare, delivering overwhelming fire-power and force at a localised position on the enmy's front, became known as Blitzkrieg ("Lightning War") well-suited to the Germans inferior numbers in man-power and equipoment (except air power) in 1940. In the 1939 campaign in Poland a variation of the Schlieffen Plan was utilised to great effect in which mobility was the key to the victory. The Allies took note - but did not take the revolution in the art of warfare to heart!

To out-manoeuvre and out-think the Allies in the West, the German Army finally adopted the so-called Sichelschnitt or "Sickle-cut Plan" which was a variation on the original Schlieffen Plan in that it led the Allies think that the Schwerpunkt or main point of attack, will be the traditional invasion route into Belgium via the Gembloux gap, the only surface suitable for massed, mobile warfare, or, at least, so the Allies thought. According to the Sichelschnitt or "Sickle-cut Plan", this was a feint to lure the Allies to advance well into Belgium, leaving their rear and flank exposed to surprise attack, which their traditionalist conservative military thinking thought impossible.

Deception in warfare is one of the basic tenets of military strategy. Our speaker most graphically compared this feint through the previously-thought impassable Ardennes, to a matador's cloak, which distracted the bull's attention long enough from the matador's real intention, for the latter to deliver the fatal blow that would incapacitate or kill the bull. Such was the intention with Von Manstein's Sichelschnitt Plan - namely to deal the enemy a fatal blow in the flank while its full attention is focused on the feint to the north in Belgium, while the decision lay with the real Schwerpunkt of attack across the Meuse. To this end, the German concentrated a tenth of their total military might, namely seven of its ten armoured divisions and the only two fully-motorised infantry divisions, as well as the greatest preponderance of premium fighting divisions in the Army Group of the legendary Generaloberst Gerd von Rundstedt. Col Gen von Rundstedt had actually been recalled from retirement to take up weapons again - one of the few of the "old guard" who fought right through the Second World War - but with his professional reputation intact!

On 10 May 1940, the Blitzkrieg started. Holland was invaded and soon surrendered. The French and the BEF advanced into Belgium. The Franco-Belgian border was ineffectively fortified and defended by second-rate troops and reservists unable to resist the overwhelming assault as the Panzers unexpectedly erupted from the supposedly impassable Ardennes forests. The Belgian defences along the German border were overwhelmed within two days - the supposedly impregnable Fort Eben-Emael falling to a very daring glider attack (covered by our speaker in a previous talk focusing on the invasion of the lowlands during May 1940). In the south the centre of the French front was broken and the Panzers swiftly moved to cross the main rivers such as the Meuse at Sedan. German air superiority was the decisive factor in the rapid advance that followed. The Panzers reached the sea in the space of a week and then advanced up the coast capturing Calais and Boulogne and with the intent to capture the remnants of the retreating Allied armies heading for the French port of Dunkirk. The BEF and a large number of French were evacuated in haste from Dunkirk to England - the story of Dunkirk is well known. The men were mostly saved but all vehicles and heavy equipment were lost. The 51st Highland Division was captured at St Valery but Genl Marshall-Cornwall succeeded in saving a huge tonnage of supplies and many troops - both British and Polish - who embarked at Cherbourg and other Atlantic ports.

Pockets of resistance in northern France were liquidated and, in a masterly display of excellent staff work, the German army faced south and once more attacked. Paris fell and the entire Atlantic coastline was taken. In the East the German armies reached the Swiss border and on the 22nd of June an armistice was signed between the French and The Germans at Compiegne, the same spot and in the same railway saloon car in which Germany signed the armistice in 1918. On the 24th an armistice was signed between the French and Italians, who had invaded France with great fanfare on the 10th of June, which was even more humiliating to the French than the Franco-German armistice, as the Italian advance could rather have been measured in metres than in kilometres! The existing French government under the leadership of the hero of Verdun, Marshal Philippe Pétain, formed the Vichy Government, which was left in control of the rump of France to the south.

The French army's performance was variable - some units fought with considerable courage and determination if not very skillfully, while others just melted away. Accounts of futile bravery and of blatant cowardice stood shoulder-to shoulder. An example of the former is the brave but futile resistance offered by the staff and the Cadets of the Officer Academy at Saumur, a singular event that some observers claimed to be the act that saved the honour of France! On the German side the armoured and motorised divisions steam-rollered ahead with their flanks protected by the ever-watchful Luftwaffe. The ordinary infantry divisions with their horse-drawn transport followed on foot taking on the task of flank protection. Their job also included mopping up any pockets of resistance bypassed by the Panzers. The German success was attributable to the excellent co-operation between the German army and air force, underpinned by thorough staff work, both operational and logistical.

After the usual question and answer session, the Treasurer thanked our Chairman for a well researched and interesting talk.



The Annual general meeting took place on 13 May 2010, before the lecture. The following were elected to the Committee for 2010:

Chairman - Johan van den Berg
Vice Chairman - Vacant
Secretary - Ray Hattingh
Treasurer - Bob Buser
Members - Derek O'Riley, Tony Gordon and Mac Bisset.

Our monthly NEWSLETTER is very much a team effort: Cdr Mac Bisset and Bob Buser act as scribes, producing the newsletter. Johan van den Berg is responsible for the final compilation, proofreading and editing, as well as the electronic distribution, while Ray Hattingh sees to the administration of the mailing lists, the reproduction of the hard copies and their distribution.

Cape Town subscriptions remain at R60. Messrs Horwath Karro Zeller have been re-appointed as our auditors for 2010.



A Mr, Miss or Mrs M C Clark deposited a subscription of R60 to our bank account during May. We have no application form from this person and are thus unable to send out a newsletter. If any member knows this person please contact the secretary or Treasurer.

About 70% of the subscriptions have been paid for which we thank you. If you have not yet paid, please let us have your remittance as soon as possible - thank you.



THURSDAY, 10 JUNE 2010: H M Steamer Birkenhead, its sinking and the questions that remain unanswered
Our speaker will be fellow-member, Mr Alan Mountain, well-known author, historian and in heritage circles. The illustrated talk will deal with the controversy that surrounded the construction of the Birkenhead and the reasons for her presence in Cape waters in 1852; the foundering and sinking of the ship on a perfect, windless night and the institutionalisation of the Birkenhead tradition which requires that women and children must be saved first in a maritime disaster; the conundrum that surrounds the cause of the disaster; and lastly the riddle as to what happened to its cargo of gold and silver.

THURSDAY, 8 JULY 2010: Standby! - South African Air Force Search and Rescue Missions and Operations during Peacetime
Our speaker will be fellow-member, Brig Gen Dick Lord, well-known author of books on his experiences in the S.A.A.F. during the protracted Border/Angolan War of 1967 to 1989. Gen Lord will recount his experiences on post-Border War air rescue missions as described in a previous book, called Fire, Flood and Ice, which has recently been re-issued - fully revised and expanded - under the title STANDBY! Gen Lord will present an illustrated talk on the topic, which also includes some of the new additions to his previous book, such as the remarkable rescue of all 581 people from the ill-fated liner Oceanos, for which the author was mentioned in dispatches for his role as commander of the rescue operation. Also new are accounts of S.A.A.F. rescues during the devastating floods of 2000 in Mozambique, as well as the S.A.A.F.'s crucial role in assisting the IEC during the national elections of 1994.

BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Scribe
Phone: Home: (evenings) 021-689-1639
Office: (mornings) 021-689-9771

Phone: 021-592-1279
OR 021-531-6781
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South African Military History Society /