Case Red: The Collapse of France
by Robert Forczyk
This new book from Osprey, Case Red: The Collapse of France, is quite simply the best military history book I read in 2017.
Many of us who build models are not merely tank nerds, we also love military history. Gather a group of tank modelers, and you can often have a pretty high-level, knowledgeable conversation about many historical subjects.
This is a high quality hard cover, 6.4 X 9.6 ", 464 pages, with lots of maps but few photos. I loved the crimson cover with the diving Stuka that pretty much screams "blitzkrieg". I don't usually comment on book covers but this one is really well done. The author, Robert Forczyk was a career US Army armor officer who has already written extensively about WW2 combined-arms operations, and who holds a PhD in International relations - so this is not his first rodeo. The author's combination of both the academic background and the practical muddy-boots experience really shows in the quality of this book.
The book is organized roughly into three parts: a lengthy introduction (described below), an account of 'Case Yellow', and then the meat of the book, an account of 'Case Red'.
Let me start with the introduction, which deserves to be further developed into a book on its own (and which I hope Forczyk will do). Most people who have a reasonable familiarity with the 1940 French campaign probably have a few settled ideas: that the French doctrine was outmoded; that the French Army's morale and esprit de corps was poor; that France wasted resources on the Maginot Line; and that the initial German drive from the border to Dunkirk (say roughly from May 10 1940 to the first week of June) was the entire campaign.
Forczyk uses the long introduction as a terrific essay that sets the stage for a new understanding of the campaign. He takes apart many of the popular myths with some very thorough research, and provides deep additional information on the state of the Allied armies, the drain on the French military budget, and morale factors on both sides of the line. I was fascinated by his argument regarding the cost of the Maginot Line. Yes, it was a huge investment, and that money could have been better used in other ways. However, the French navy spent many times that amount on a state-of-the-art hardened base in North Africa, along with a number of useless capital ships that, in the author's words, "deterred no one". So, those who blame "excessive spending on fortifications" as a cause of French defeat are missing the much larger drain on French resources caused by wasteful naval spending.
The morale argument is also of interest. France was deeply divided politically in the interwar period, as was Germany. Forczyk correctly argues that those who point to morale or 'political' problems in the French army usual ignore the significant morale/political problem affecting the German army. There are several aspects of this issue. Morale amongst the rank and file of the French army is generally believed to be poor, yet, Forczyk shows that many French units fought very hard. The WW2 US Army often used (and misused) casualty reports as a measure of how hard a unit had fought; too light casualties were sometimes interpreted as "not trying". Forczyk uses this "casualties equals effort" notion and shows that some French units suffered very heavy casualties in some pretty stout defensive operations. At worst, the French army had uneven morale with many hard-fighting units and others not as much. He contrasts this with the British forces that, in comparison, hardly fought at all. I think there is much more to be said regarding the French air force that is not dealt with here, but their lack of activity remains a puzzle. It is as if the army, navy and air force each fought a separate war with separate priorities.
A second aspect of the morale issue is the disloyalty of the senior officer corps, and here Forczyk is on solid ground indeed. A portion of the German officer corps was so opposed to the war plans of the Hitler regime that they leaked them to the enemy. There is no corollary to this kind of treason on the Allied side. Again then, those who argue "poor morale" as a basis for French defeat must address the morale of senior German officers also.
The author's argument regarding French doctrine is much more nuanced, as you would expect. The German combination of mission-type orders (auftragstaktik) and maneuver warfare (begungskrieg) were labeled "blitzkrieg" by the popular press, and it seemed like a new era of warfare. There is no doubt that the technology of aircraft and tanks remade warfare, but, the fundamentals of German and French doctrine were in place many years before. French methodical battle was not a backward, WW1-style of tactics as it is frequently stereotyped. French tactical doctrine envisioned very close coordination of armor and infantry; an emphasis on the power of artillery; and the usage of combined-arms formations within armored divisions. As far as it goes, that sounds a lot like the winning Allied armies of 1944-45. Forczyk argues that is was not the French doctrine that was flowed, but that French training and readiness were abysmal compared to German. This is the same conclusion that can be drawn about the Red Army of 1941.
The only flaw I can see in the opening section is perhaps the lack of appreciation of France's full strategic situation and how the Maginot Line affected that. The line was an economy-of-force measure for France, but proved to be an even better economy-of-force measure for the Germans, who could safely mass their forces north of the line knowing the French would not attack along the line. It thus gave huge advantage to the Germans. Second, the Line sent a strong diplomatic signal that France had a fundamentally defensive strategy and this prevented France from attracting the powerful allies it needed. French diplomacy sought allies who would defend France, without offering much in return.
I feel it's a little unjust of me as a reviewer to label the opening section of this book a "lengthy introduction" when in fact it is an extended chapter on France's strategic situation; a myth-demolition exercise; and an analysis of the two major armies. It is perhaps slightly flawed only in that it lacks a convincing explanation for the absence of the French air force in the campaign. The rest is outstanding. Honestly I hope Forczyk will expand this section into a new book and include a better look at the air force.
The second section of the book is a summary of Case Yellow, which is the part of the French campaign from May 10, when the invasion was launched, to about the time of the Dunkirk evacuation in early June. During this period the Germans not only broke through the French tactical zone but were able to drive mechanized corps deep into the Allied operational depths, achieving a strategic result that stunned the world. This portion of the book is interesting, although the lack of maps makes some of it difficult to follow. It is really setting the stage for the main story here, which is Case Red. This section is excellent, and while I was reading it, the only negative aspect was the lack of maps. I suspect Forczyk left them out because, again, this isn't his main story. This section probably could have been slightly shorter. That is not a criticism of his writing, which is consistently excellent. But the section is necessary only as a detailed introduction of Case Red.
A Renault R35 infantry tank in a dramatic photo.
Beginning in the third section, the author really digs into the 'Case Red' phase of the campaign. it is often forgotten that the evacuation at Dunkirk and the rout of the northern group of allied armies was not the end of the campaign. France still had substantial forces in the field, and now they had a little experience fighting the Wehrmacht. The French air force actually increased its strength during the campaign, although its effect on the fighting was limited.
Throughout the Case Red phase, the British forces were 'fighting with one eye over their shoulder', looking for their own line of evacuation at least as much as they were fighting the Germans. Forczyk makes the argument that France was let down by its ally - an idea that is contrary to myth in the English-speaking world, but for which he makes a convincing argument for the May-June 1940 period.
Forczyk also makes an excellent, and eye-opening, argument that the French political leadership was much more determined than the army itself, and that it should have relieved the senior army commanders for their lack of will to fight. This is of course the opposite of what we often believe about the campaign but the author makes a very strong case. With the exception of a few right-wing politicians such as the elderly Petain, who were perfectly happy to work with the Germans, the French political leadership actually showed more determination than their top soldiers and let themselves be served very poorly by them. This at the very time when French soldiers were fighting hard - Forczyk tells the story of an artillery unit that took over 80% casualties in the defense of a position before being overrun.
It is ironic that the French defensive preparations for Case Red were designed around 'hedgehog' defensive positions designed to stop mechanized attacks roughly along the line of the Somme, yet the initial German attack was done via old-school infantry infiltration tactics. Their tactical breakthrough was thus made easier by the French being prepared for the wrong type of attack.
Once a breakthrough happened, Forczyk tells the sad story of the disarray at the top amongst the French leadership.
The entire 'Case Red' section is accompanied by numerous maps, making it relatively easy to follow the development of events.
Pros: Exceptionally well-written; clearly argued; very readable. Very well organized. The introduction could be an excellent book on its own if expanded. Excellent insight into British army and air force actions in the campaign; excellent analysis of the state of the French army. The intelligent, detailed, and well-written section on Case Red operations is a treasure for students of this campaign.
Cons: Lack of detailed maps for Case Yellow; passes over the Maginot Line economy-of-force opportunity; a little weak on the French air force.
Frankly this should become the new 'standard' work on the French campaign. In the future, one will not be conversant in the campaign without being familiar with Forczyk's work. This is a home run.
Highly Recommended for Beginner to Advanced builders; Must Have for students of the 1940 campaign. Should become a new 'standard' work.
Thanks goes out to Osprey Publishing for this review kit.
Reviewed by Danny Egan
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