Saturday, November 2, 2013

WWII Myths – German tank strength in the Battle of France 1940

In May-June 1940 Germany shocked the world by defeating the combined forces of France, Britain, Holland and Belgium in the Battle of France.

At the time no one expected that the French forces would be defeated in such a short campaign. During the interwar period the French Army was thought to be the best trained and equipped force in Europe. On the other hand Germany had only started to rearm in the 1930’s.
The sudden collapse of France led to a search for the reasons of this strange defeat. There was no shortage of excuses. Every part of France’s defense strategy came under attack, from the old Generals of WWI that tried to control the battle from the rear to the funds wasted building the Maginot line.

General Gamelin who commanded the French forces told Churchill that the defeat was due to: ‘Inferiority of numbers, inferiority of equipment, inferiority of method’.
Was that true? Considering the role played by the German Panzer divisions in cutting off the northern part of the front it is important to have a look at their strength.

Did the Germans have more tanks than the Franco-British Alliance?
According to Panzertruppen vol1, p120-121 the German Panzer divisions used in the Battle of France had the following strength on May 10 1940:

Div
Regt
Pz I
Pz II
Pz III
Pz IV
Pz 35
Pz 38
Pz Bef
Sum
1 Pz Div
1,2
52
98
58
40
8
256
2 Pz Div
3,4
45
115
58
32
16
266
3 Pz Div
5,6
117
129
42
26
27
341
4 Pz Div
35,36
135
105
40
24
10
314
5 Pz Div
31,15
97
120
52
32
26
327
6 Pz Div
11
60
31
118
14
223
7 Pz Div
25
34
68
24
91
8
225
8 Pz Div
10
58
23
116
15
212
9 Pz Div
33
30
54
41
16
12
153
10 Pz Div
7,8
44
113
58
32
18
265
Total
554
920
349
280
118
207
154
2,582

The same source gives the following losses at the end of the battle in page 141:

 
Pz I
Pz II
Pz III
Pz IV
Pz 35
Pz 38
Pz Bef
Sum
 
 
May
142
194
110
77
45
43
38
649
June
40
46
25
20
17
11
31
190
Total
182
240
135
97
62
54
69
839

How did the German tank strength compare with the Allies? According to The Blitzkrieg Legend: The 1940 Campaign in the West, p37-38 the French Army had in the Northeastern Front 3.254 tanks, the British Expeditionary Corps had 310 plus 330 in transit from the UK, the Dutch Army had 40 armored vehicles and the Belgian Army roughly 270. Total for the Allies came to 4.204.

So in the field of tanks the Germans were definitely outnumbered. If we look at tank types it’s easy to see that they were also outgunned. Their main vehicles were the Panzer I and Panzer II. The first had only two machineguns and the second a 20mm gun. Against Allied tanks equipped with guns of 37mm caliber and over they were cannon fodder.

The German victory was not due to a numerical or qualitative superiority in armored vehicles. Instead it had to do with the way they used their armored forces, grouping them together, supporting them with ample airpower and providing them with dedicated infantry, anti-tank, artillery and communication units.

7 comments:

  1. Yes correct, there is an interesting passage in Erwin Rommel's papers (Memoirs) during his campaign in France where he noted that once on the offensive he found pretty useful that his troops opened fire during the attack with everything regardless of the caliber and the accuracy. The mere firepower demo would normally cause French to surrender or be routed.

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  2. Much has been made of the French "spreading their tanks out". I think this has done a lot to mislead the casual history buff. In reality, the MBT's (tanks capable of destroying enemy armor in tank battles) totaled about 840 Heavy Char B1 and Medium Somuas and 1100 H39 light tanks with decent armor and a long 37mm gun. These were all kept concentrated in the Four DLM and Four DCR mechanized and armored divisions. The thousands of small light slow poorly armed one man turret tanks like the Renault R35 and H35 were the ones spread out in penny packets among the infantry divisions, and scattered in small numbers in French cavalry DLC's. These would not have been very effective when used against medium armor anyway, and they did serve to "stiffen" resistance by infantry divisions, even in small numbers. When they were being attacked by Germany infantry w/o the support of tanks, French infantry would become nearly impregnable to attack by infantry alone. This meant German armor would also have to be doled out to infantry to give them much "punch" against dug in Infantry along the line. The French possessed at least double the number of battle tanks capable of taking on other tanks, vs the Germans, and about half of these were vastly superior models in terms of armor and firepower. The other half were roughly equal to German tanks except in mobility, turret crew size, and radios.

    French LEADERSHIP was what went wrong. Gross incompetence on various levels, a terrible plan, meddling by politicians, combined with poor placement of low quality reserve infantry in a key sector, led to the quick defeat. France also possessed a good number of fully motorized infantry divisions (at least 6 in the north) giving them more mobile divisions than the Germans possessed (about 18 to 14), the advantage of being on defense, having most of the line in prepared positions, rivers to funnel German armor into specific zones, and a superiority in Artillery actually able to bear on the combat zones. Then add in another ten British fully motorized infantry divisions, an armored brigade, and their bountiful and powerful modern artillery, and the German victory should never have happened. As it was they quickly lost about 1/3 of their combat power in about 6 weeks with low production of replacements. Any competent plan and leadership by the Allies would have stalled Germany then and there.

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  3. Okay folks, Let's get the facts straight. FROM 1936 TO 1945. German technology was so far ahead of every country, it wasn't even funny. The world won because they outnumbered Germany. Plain and simple fact. When at the end of the war, Russia and America fought over the German scientists. Explain that .....half the military and space technologies since then for the US and Russia came from Germany. ......duh! !!

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    Replies
    1. "German technology was so far ahead of every country, it wasn't even funny."

      Completely wrong. Only German advantages were in the fields of radar and rocket technology. Other than that, the famed German technological advantage was nonexistent. Fact is, Germans were simply better at *applying* the technology they had, but technology by itself was not any more advanced than that of Western Allies.

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  4. One of the often overlooked aspects of the defeat, as far as tank design was concerned, was the demographic disparity with the Germans in the 1930s, which imposed specifications to compensate the lack of crews by using reduced crews (3 vs 4 on German tanks) and crucially, tasking the crew commander in his single-man turret to scan the horizon, gave directions to the driver, spot targets and even load and fire the gun and/or machine gun as well as communicate with other tanks without radio or intercom. In many engagements with the feared B1* the Germans not only knew the weak spots of these, they used at their advantage their excellent communication to coordinate themselves and just outmaneuver each individual tank.
    *For that matter google about the B1 bis "Eure" that in the village of Stonne single-handily destroyed 11 Panzer IIIs, 2 Panzer IVs and 2 Pak 37 antitank guns, and retired safely but covered with 140 rounds impacts.
    Indeed the German MBT of the day, the Panzer III, was given a 37mm gun colloquially called "door knocker" by the allies while themselves fielded 40 (British Matilda) and 47 mm guns (B1, S35, Belgian T13). The Panzer IV short barrel 75mm was ill-adapted for tanks to tank engagements. The British Matildas were no short of armour too, and an attack at Amiens was stopped by Rommel using 88mm in an AT role.

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  5. To add to your point DB, the Germans actually had a crew of 5 in the PZ III & IV. The French tanks were designed to support infantry in slow moving attacks against fixed positions, and in that scenario the 3 man crew was workable. However, they couldn't cope with the speed and tactics employed by the Panzer Divisions.

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    Replies
    1. Under their believe that the best strategy to defeat a german invasion by taking and building a line of defence from Numor the antwerp and fight from fixed positins the french plan until murch 1940 was not a bad plan (in their defence thinking) but after Gamelin add the "breda vrient" to the plan he in fact left the french forces without any excellent army group of divisions that can react to a german surprise in the battlefield.
      that is why many french generals who were confident with the plan didnt like the "breda vrient".
      But nonetheless plan D proved too difficult to the french forces to be done due to Belgium's neutrality, and the german success in capture fort EBEN Emal so quickly forced the french the send the DLM's the a match they didnt want to be in.
      if the breda vrient was not added to the plan, the French 7 army could reach sedan before the greman ware able to cross it.. but intead france had to watch them crossing the river without interaption

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