The relationship between the UK and France during the inter-war years is hugely interesting – but as far as I’m aware it’s only really written about in terms of the political dealings with the Germans and Italians, appeasement, adjusting Versailles etc. What I’ve not seen is a more detailed focus on just what was going on between the two at a military level.
As ever it’s so easy to bring hindsight into any look back at what happened, but of course that is totally pointless and so that needs to be separated out. The two countries are usually viewed as being joined at the hip during that period – which of course was far from the case – and that decisions were made jointly with a common purpose and a common goal.
But the simple fact is, the French and British were far from being joined at the hip, there’s was a marriage of convenience, of two empires whose golden ages had past them by, of two countries that each thought of the other as the natural enemy, that had fought each other over hundreds of years with the result that there was a lot of mis-trust if not downright hostility.
As the First World War had shown – the two countries needed each other but, for the reasons given above, had no wish to admit to that fact. And while on the one hand needing each other, they were also countries in their own right looking out for themselves – and of course a government’s first duty is to look after its people. It seems too often forgotten that it was France’s responsibility to defend France (her army and air force), just as it was the UK’s job to defend her empire (the navy).
Both countries had suffered enormously in WWI; both had lost their wealth and an awful lot of young men - either dead or disabled physically or mentally. The great depression and the rise of other industrial nations meant a new financial reality for both; money for the military was scarce, and the experiences of WWI meant that any thought of another war was abhorrent.
So both Britain and France, not unnaturally, pursued a defence policy that suited themselves – as a continental power France needed an army, and as an island and an imperial power with vast overseas responsibilities the UK needed a navy. But of course threats evolve over time – no one has a crystal ball. The French decided that defence was the key and built the Maginot Line. The British continued with their tiny peacetime army – no more really than a glorified imperial police force while trying (and failing) to keep the Royal Navy as up to date as possible.
As the threat from Germany developed in the 30’s – and particularly after Munich - I’d love to know what conversations were had between the French and British about what each would be bringing to the party should war break out. Now of course we know what happened and so – with hindsight - the obvious point to make is that Britain should have provided a bigger army to assist the French. And frankly we (French and British) all wish they had. But those who say that need to look at situation at the time. The UK’s primary need was for a powerful Royal Navy – and we know now that despite having on paper the largest navy quantitatively in 1939, qualitatively it was in big trouble – and WWII would go to show just how big its problems were.
The size of Britain’s professional army should not have been a surprise to the French. I can only assume (but aren’t confident) that there were detailed discussions between the general staffs about what would constitute the BEF, what aircraft could be made available prior to the actual declarations of war. Equally the condition of the French army and what it was capable of offensively and defensively should have been known to the British.
In the end France was defeated. When someone loses the natural reaction is to seek reasons for that happening – and its always useful to have someone else to blame – for France it was convenient to blame ‘perfidious Albion’ for not providing enough aircraft or troops, for pulling out too quickly or for being happy to fight to the last Frenchman etc etc. But let’s be clear here. The French were responsible for the defence of France. Yes they could expect assistance from the British, but that assistance was limited. That should have been known. The BEF were subordinate to the French – this was France’s show, their country being defended and their responsibility. The plan for the defence of France was Gamelin’s. The plan was a total disaster. There is so much that can be written about Gamelin and his failures but only one needs to be mentioned here. So keen were the French to keep the war away from French soil that they came up with the Breda variant. Why was that a disaster? Well because when the Germans broke through across the Meuse, the strategic reserve which should have been in place to counter, was rushing toward Holland…… As the German armoured forces rushed over the Meuse and then headed north there was nothing to stop them.
Removing hindsight, even the Germans had absolutely no idea that Case Yellow could pan out as it did. The Germans original goal was to take territory in Holland and Belgium from which it could wage aerial war against the UK. With the French centre collapsing like a house of cards, the British (rightly as it turned out) could not afford to lose aircraft and pilots for what appeared pretty early to be a hopeless situation. One can argue about the size of the BEF, but rightly or wrongly, this was Britain’s only professional army (save a couple of divisions in the Middle East and India (sort of)) and its defeat would mean the defeat of Britain. Given this, how was Gort supposed to react to the situation unfolding; the Germans had broken through the French lines at Sedan after less than a week, they were now rushing up toward the coast and the French were seemingly unable to stop them – and moreover not making much in the way of attempts to do so. So the only army the British had was about to be surrounded. I don’t think the decision to evacuate can be criticised in such circumstances. The same arguments apply to the 2nd BEF – particularly as Forzyck makes the point that Weygand stuffed up the defence when the Germans launched phase II (although I have a little more sympathy for Weygand given the mess he inherited).
This isn’t some anti-French rant (when it comes to mucking up in WWII the French hardly had a monopoly on that, and the British were to endure their own embarrassing failures). At the end of the day I feel very sorry for the ordinary Frenchmen and women in WWII (though not the likes of Petain, Darlan and co). The French wanted war no more than the British, but found themselves at war because, like Britain, ultimately they tried to do the right thing. Many Frenchmen (and their colonial troops) fought bravely and fought well. But the army leadership was woeful.
The French were unlucky that they bordered Germany (while the UK had a big moat around her) but at the end of the day Case Yellow and Case Red was about France, the defence of France and that was the responsibility of the French. To blame Britain – anyone - is natural in such circumstances (this was after all a calamitous defeat) but that doesn’t make it right. Gort and Brooke pulling out rather than risking the only army Britain had for no good purpose was NOT the reason the Germans defeated France.
This wasn’t some stupid game whereby Petain only decided to take his ball back and stop playing because they thought the British had let France down. The French could have continued the fight from North Africa, because if fighting the Nazi’s was right in September 1939 then it was still right in June 1940. They chose not to – they chose to sign an armistice with the Nazi’s (whether Britain under Halifax would have done so is thankfully something we’ll never know). Forzyck wrote: If Brooke had simply obeyed orders, the 52nd (Lowland) Division and the Beauman Division would probably have been lost, but the willingness of France to stay in the war would have been increased. Sorry but that imo is fantasy.
My GBP £0.02
< Message edited by warspite1 -- 10/23/2019 5:49:50 AM >
England expects that every man will do his duty. Horatio Nelson October 1805