Military history

THE SIX WEEKS’ WAR: MAY 10–JUNE 25, 1940

For the Dutch it was a five-day war, and indeed in that brief period the fate of Belgium, France and the British Expeditionary Force was sealed. For the Germans everything went according to the book, or even better than the book, in the unfolding both of strategy and of tactics. Their success exceeded the fondest hopes of Hitler. His generals were confounded by the lightning rapidity and the extent of their own victories. As for the Allied leaders, they were quickly paralyzed by developments they had not faintly expected and could not—in the utter confusion that ensued—comprehend.

Winston Churchill himself, who had taken over as Prime Minister on the first day of battle, was dumfounded. He was awakened at half past seven on the morning of May 15 by a telephone call from Premier Paul Reynaud in Paris, who told him in an excited voice, “We have been defeated! We are beaten!” Churchill refused to believe it. The great French Army vanquished in a week? It was impossible. “I did not comprehend,” he wrote later, “the violence of the revolution effected since the last war by the incursion of a mass of fast-moving armor.”6

Tanks—seven divisions of them concentrated at one point, the weakest position in the Western defenses, for the big breakthrough—that was what did it. That and the Stuka dive bombers and the parachutists and the airborne troops who landed far behind the Allied lines or on the top of their seemingly impregnable forts and wrought havoc.

And yet we who were in Berlin wondered why these German tactics should have come as such a shattering surprise to the Allied leaders. Had not Hitler’s troops demonstrated their effectiveness in the campaign against Poland? There the great breakthroughs which had surrounded or destroyed the Polish armies within a week had been achieved by the massing of armor after the Stukas had softened up resistance. Parachutists and airborne troops had not done well in Poland even on the very limited scale with which they were used; they had failed to capture intact the key bridges. But in Norway, a month before the onslaught in the West, they had been prodigious, capturing Oslo and all the airfields, and reinforcing the isolated small groups that had been landed by sea at StavangerBergenTrondheim and Narvik and thereby enabling them to hold out. Hadn’t the Allied commanders studied these campaigns and learned then-lessons?

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