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Case Red: The Collapse of France - The Most Holistic Work about the Fall of France

Updated on June 28, 2020

History is often a reflection of what we want to see in it, which reflects our biases and desires. It isn't unsurprising that the Fall of France is an event which has a host of competing narratives, because it is such a pivotal moment in world history, and it is one where so many different threads, reasons, developments, can be identified which support any view on the battle. French decadence, political squabbling, and defeatism, poor morale, lack of airpower, poor doctrine, equipment shortages, insufficient training, incompetence of the French high command, the obsolescence of fixed fortifications - any of these can be taken as themes and elements can be shown in the Battle itself. This is what makes Robert Forczyk's Case Red: The Collapse of France such an excellent book on the subject, since it is an impressively holistic study of the Battle of France, which firmly establishes reasons for German tactical and operational superiority over the French, and which skillfully knits together these above factors into a cohesive explanation of the Battle of France. It lacks some of the flair of books such as Alistair Horne's To Lose a Battle but it makes up for this with its complete history of the Battle of France, one which stretches, unlike many other books in the military sphere, up until the final shots of the Fall of France.

The introduction to Case Red covers historiographic views of the French army and the Battle of France, from praise of the French army in the Interwar to the sudden volte-face following its catastrophic defeat, and an overview of some of the crucial works covering the subject. While these are quite numerous, it notes that there is a large gap in the Battle of France during Fall Rot, which leaves many elements little covered, and that the operations of the French army often are ground-centric and don't sufficiently integrate the air side of operations. From this, it goes on to look qt the various explanations advanced about the Fall of France, showing how each one of them on its own is either insufficient or doesn't quite sum up what the French actually did, and then proposes that the real causes of French failure lie in insufficient defensive firepower, focus on coalition warfare, emphasis on prestige projects, and the British failure to provide appropriate support to France.

France was allied with Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and friendly with Romania and Yugoslavia, but one by one its allies peeled away or were crushed
France was allied with Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and friendly with Romania and Yugoslavia, but one by one its allies peeled away or were crushed

Chapter 1, "The Path to Disaster, 1918-1939" is an overview of France's military and diplomatic strategy to attempt to contain Germany, and some of its shortcomings, such as Belgium's constant unreliability and the difficulties of integrating it into the French defense scheme. Both Britain and France had their attention and finances diverted by the cost and burden of defending their massive colonial empires, which led to major naval expenditures by the French which they could ill afford. French efforts to modernize their military were slow and halting, and there was little operational innovation and only small improvements in mobility, with the only significant change being building the Maginot line. New weapons and aircraft were built in the 1930s, but not in the numbers needed. British modernization efforts were equally poorly done, and without a firm idea of what to do with their military and how to integrate it into national policy. Germany was much more innovative although with its own deficiencies in equipment and with ruthlessly revanchist leadership under Hitler poured huge funds into building up an aggressive and modern army to defeat the French, which they put to good use in a variety of diplomatic triumphs from the Rhineland to Munich. Ultimately the French, and even more the British, found themselves utterly impotent in being able to help Poland in 1939, which was crushed without interference.

Chapter 2, "A Shadow of Doubt," looks at operations in 1939, as the Germans devoted the majority of their army to destroy Poland, while leaving behind enough infantry and air units to cover their border fortifications with France. Although the Poles fought valiantly, the Germans overwhelmed them despite occasional losses and severe casualties in tanks, while French mobilization was too slow and initial units too shaky to contemplate offensive action against Germany. The French attack in the Saar went poorly, although the French did gain some slight combat experience, but ultimately achieved nothing. British assistance to France was slight and most British aircraft were held back in Britain, while the British Expeditionary Force was poorly equipped and trained. French planning settled on the idea of an extensive deployment into Belgium, and aid to the Dutch, both reliant on extensive deployment of their mobile and armored forces. German planning meanwhile, after an initially poor frontal attack strategy, arrived at the ultimate idea of Fall Gelb, with a decisive push through the Ardennes to cut off Allied troops in a Belgian pocket. Both sides worked hard to build equipment and improve their forces for the upcoming battle.The final part notes the disposition of forces between the two sides.

Chapter 3, "The Center Cannot Hold," concerns itself with the initial German attack, as bombers hit the Allied air forces and key targets, parachutists struck into Belgium and seized key Belgian fortifications while less successfully attacking the Netherlands, German troops advanced into both countries, and the German armored push began in the center in the Ardennes. In all sectors German success was remarkably, with only occasional blemishes such as being checked by French DLMs at Hannut in central Belgium. Fragile French reserve infantry divisions broke in the Ardennes under a German armored-infantry assault supported by massive quantities of aircraft which the Allied air forces were ill equipped to resist, and German troops broke out into the French rear areas after defeating ill conducted French armored counter-attacks, while in the North furious battles raged in Belgium and fixed Allied troops there.

When German tanks reached the English channel and shortly thereafter enough infantry troops were brought up to protect the newly won land, the fate of France was sealed.
When German tanks reached the English channel and shortly thereafter enough infantry troops were brought up to protect the newly won land, the fate of France was sealed.

Things only would get worse for the Allies in Chapter 4, "To the Sea", where despite local Allied successes such as an excellent defense at Rethel by de Tassaigny, the Germans cut through the Allied rear almost without resistance to the sea, facing only limited attacks that ultimately failed despite promising initial success, such as those by De Gaulle and the Franco-British at Arras. French units were too slow to respond successfully and destroy bridges and slow down the Germans. The replacement of the French high commander Gamelin by Weygand brought no improvement to the French situation. German troops attacked so quickly that even their high command was nervous about it and tried to strain them in, but to no avail. The Germans reached the sea and would spend the next week mopping up the pocket, with the Belgian army collapsing and the Allies trying to evacuate their units by sea. On the Somme things were quieter, but this was bad for the Allies - their confused and small attempts at counter-attacking to retake German bridgeheads over the river proved futile. It was at this time that the first indications of cracking French determination in the war began to be felt, as well as increasing tensions between the British and French. Weygand was determined to hold the Somme line, despite the bridgeheads the Germans had, voicing the idea that a withdrawal would lead to the Maginot line being outflanked. Not all was dark for the Allies, with increasing French war production, shifts of division from other fronts, and the promise of a second British Expeditionary Force - but the French needed time, and the Germans began quickly to prepare to push south, to deny them this.

Allied counter-attacks are the subject of chapter 5, in "Failure at Abbeville", as the French and British launched large armored and infantry attacks at Abbeville to attempt to push the Germans across the Seine, with British attacks failing catastrophically but French attacks under De Gaulle coming close to breaking the German positions - but not quite succeeding, being halted by heavy German anti-tank fire and a stout defense despite their best efforts.

The Weygand line showed the French could fight, but by this stage they were horrifically outmatched by the Germans.
The Weygand line showed the French could fight, but by this stage they were horrifically outmatched by the Germans.

It was the Germans' turn next, the subject of chapter 6, "The Weygand Line", as the Germans attacked across the new French line along the Seine-Aisne, where French troops were roughly numerically equal and had a higher proportion of good quality troops - but lacked a real river line to anchor them, and the Germans had massively greater reserves. British refusal to provide fighters to help the French placed further strain on the alliance, and the Germans launched a number of deep strikes over France, not achieving much but showing that even the airspace over Paris could not be defended. French troops fought valiantly, in some cases even checking German attacks, but without forces needed to establish real defense in depth against tank attacks and facing infiltration attacks by infantry, and under superior enemy firepower and air attack, they collapsed. Attempts to evacuate troops along the coast ran into greater difficulty than at Dunkirk.

"Decision on the Aisne," as is titled chapter 7 sees the French decisions beginning to finalize, as Weygand rejected fighting in Paris itself, preferring to defend in front of the city. Further heavy German attacks drove the French from the Aisne, despite some limited French defensive successes, and the French situation developed into a full blown retreat on the 10-11 of June, and Paris was declared an open city. The French were increasingly being drawn to the prospect of an armistice, and were increasingly distrustful of the English.

"Disintegration." The simple title of chapter 8. French troops again had some successful actions against the Germans, but they were running low on formations and troops, and attempts to reconstitute divisions from the shattered formations rescued from Dunkirk amounted to nothing in light of weapon shortages. The Germans entered Paris, and the second BEF arrived but was quickly withdrawn, not on higher orders, but under the decision of its commander, Alan Brooke, a final straw that shattered any French confidence in the British. Its withdrawal was poorly conducted and resulted in once more, the destruction or loss of vast amounts of equipment, and the deaths of thousands of men in ships sunk by the Luftwaffe such as the troop ship Lancastria which went down with over three thousand men dying. French troops tried to retreat to the Loire, and some units even managed to hold a continuous front, but the French air force dissolved and the German rate of advance was stunningly fast. The French cabinet opted for their choice - and began to open negotiations for an armistice under the decision of the former general Pétain. Only Charles de Gaulle would succeed in fleeing to Britain, to rally small elements to join the Free French and to continue the fight. Simultaneously German attacks against the Maginot line, stripped of its defending soldiers as they were sent elsewhere, succeeded if at bloody cost in the Saar, although never taking the main positions along the northern front.

Italian attacks in the Alps did not go well against prepared French defenders
Italian attacks in the Alps did not go well against prepared French defenders

The Germans were not the only ones to add to France's misery during this moment, as the Italians attacked on June 10th, shown in "Mussolini's Gamble," chapter 9. Mussolini wished to gain part of the plunder and prizes from the defeat of France and what he presumed was the victory of Germany in the war, and ordered a hurried offensive against the French in the alps - which failed with heavy casualties against French soldiers in defensive terrain and with good fortifications. The French navy launched some inconsequential bombardments of Italian coastal cities, and the Italians bombed French cities in return, killing hundreds, but failing to achieve any operational significance. Against the Germans things continued to go south, as French unit cohesion unraveled and what could be evacuated by the British was, including many Poles who left to continue the fight. Harsh armistice terms were imposed on the French which was signed on the 22nd even as fighting went on between the Germans and French as the Germans pushed through the Rhone to put pressure on the French against the Italians - with an armistice with the Italians arriving on the 25th, much more lenient.

"Occupation," Chapter 10, shows a cruel fate for France as the Germans enforced harsh laws and occupied France, and the French were forced to pay huge reparations and deal with a massive refugee crisis. The French army had taken heavy casualties 13% of its forces, far more than the Belgians or Dutch who had only taken 3%, and 1.5 million French soldiers were marched off into captivity. The new Vichy regime's authority was reinforced by an unprovoked British attack on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir, killing more than a thousand French sailors and further embittering the French against Britain. The Third Reich was reinforced and was prepared to march again to further aggressive campaigns. Much of the chapter looks at the decisions made by individual officers, with Guderian who so decisively pushed the German panzers forward, Brooke who withdraw the BEF without orders and made the French surrender inevitable, and Weygand who prevented the French from fighting on overseas and shortened the battle by several months in his poor operational choices, and what alternatives could have been, such as a French Rhineland intervention back in 1936 or what might have happened if the French fought on from North Africa. It blames the French defeat on the poor operational plan of the French, lack of firepower, and the minuscule assistance given by the British. The French were defeated - but this was not unique as the Americans and British too would face humiliating set backs at the beginning of the war, and in the end the French retrieved much of their honor in their heroic defense at Bir Hakeim which saved British forces in Africa, and would return to France as part of the Allied armies of 1944 and set the stage for the renewal of democracy in France.

With so much having been written about the Battle of France, it might be questioned whether there is any need for another work on the subject. Forczyk himself lists a host of books at the beginning, many of which are of excellent quality, such as Alistair Horne's To Lose a Battle or Robert A. Doughty's The Seeds of Disaster and The Breaking Point. What makes Forczyk's book special is that unlike any other book, it is a truly all-inclusive work about the Fall of France from the French perspective. Horne's book covers Fall Gelb, the initial operations in France, in incredible detail and moving prose, but has little about the military actions which transpired after German tanks reached the Channel and drove the French and British armies into exile, viewing it as mostly a mopping up operation. Doughty's books on the subject either only concern the lead-up to war as in his The Seeds of Disaster or the specific operations around Sedan, in The Breaking Point. By contrast, Forczyk doesn't stop just at the beginning of June, but also covers the battles around the Aisne and the Some as the Germans struck south, and the doleful political collapse in France as French generals politicians sought to profit from the collapse of the Third Republic to establish their own idea of France and her destiny.

This broader focus than the normal book on the Fall of France doesn't take away from the individual detail and impressive degree of cohesiveness that is found in the book and its description of battles and operations throughout the Fall of France. It does an excellent job providing plenty of descriptions of military operations through, and in doing so it describes very well why the French lost or why they succeeded, and demonstrates its point of the French army still having plenty of fighting spirit in it from the actions of individual French units which performed well, showing that the French army wasn't simply the wreck of spiritless troops which withered on the vine once communications grew difficult and the operational tempo exceeded their expectation.There are plenty of examples of how French units, when given good commanders like Charles de Gaulle or Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, could fight with initiative and elan against the Germans. It links operations in the air and the fighting operations by the Armée de l'Air in a cohesive way into this structure, showing the impact of German and French tactical air power and fighters on the battlefield, and consistently gives a good understanding of the state of troops involved.

A good collection of photographs and a large number of maps add further value to the work, with good captions and map guides which enable further understanding and comprehension.

The Canon de 75 mle. 1897 is an excellent example of some of the deficiencies of the French army - while available in vast numbers from WW1, its lack of range and firepower compared to modern light howitzers gave Germans the firepower advantage.
The Canon de 75 mle. 1897 is an excellent example of some of the deficiencies of the French army - while available in vast numbers from WW1, its lack of range and firepower compared to modern light howitzers gave Germans the firepower advantage.

While it is difficult to match the artistic prose and impressive elegance which was found in Alistair Horne's To Lose a Battle, Case Red is energetically written, clear, and cogent, and argues its point well - that the French were let down by the horrifically insufficient and ill-coordinated aid from their British ally, their own reliance upon collective security instead of looking after their own defense first and foremost (most importantly shown by Belgium), and their insufficient development of the bread and butter items of an army - better rifles, machine guns, medium artillery, anti-aircraft guns, anti-tank guns (where French designs were very advanced but needed greater numbers), medium tanks, and motorizing French combat engineers. Instead the French placed their focus on new and very high tech, very sophisticated weapons such as the Char B tank or the costly new Richelieu battleships, and spent too much time designing and perfecting weapons instead of placing them into mass production. The factor of insufficient firepower available to the French on a tactical level is something which explains the poor performance of French units in meeting engagements with the Germans, and is often ignored in other books which do not make note of the inferior numbers of mortars, infantry guns, and lesser quality of French machine guns as compared to equivalent German units.

Of course, the French had compensating factors concerning this limited amount of firepower which as directly integrated into their units, such as their massive quantities of heavy artillery which still existed from WW1, and which the Germans had no real counters to. This could have been talked about at greater length in the book, at least to mention that one of the reasons for why the French didn't deploy it was the extensive set up times and the lack of positional warfare involved - although Forczyk does briefly mention it and is puzzled by the lack of seconding this heavy artillery to the static French lines built up along the Somme and Aisne. Furthermore while Forczyk notes that French divisions were handicapped by having 75mm guns while German divisions had 105mm guns, what about the 155mm guns - which French divisions had twice as many of, with 24 to 12? I also find some of Forczyk's conclusions about the fate of French armies if the French had fought on from North Africa unlikely, as I think that it is far more likely that French North Africa and the French navy in conjunction with the British could have squeezed out the Italians from North Africa and accelerated the end of the war by perhaps 6 months - instead of being a hindrance to the Allied case, as Forcyzk writes. Finally to me it seems that there is a discord between Forcyzk simultaneously portraying Gamelin as taking a hands off approach to management of operations, and yet simultaneously he often being referred to in the book for various operations, showing that he was present much more than this.

Case Red is a truly excellent book about the Fall of France which shows in clear terms that it sensible thesis about why the French collapsed makes sense, and which shows the real tragedy and consequences of the French collapse, as well as the futile heroism of French soldiers. For a look into the Battle of France in a cohesive way which integrates together diverse views on the battle and wisely proposes its own reasons alongside them, it deserves much praise. An excellent work to get for anyone interested in learning more about France's struggle in 1940.

5 stars for Case Red: The Collapse of France

© 2020 Ryan C Thomas

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