by Ernest R. May
New York: Hill and Wang, 2000. Pp. 594.
maps, appendices, bibliography, index. $30. ISBN:0-8090-8906-8
Certainly if there has been one campaign of World War II where the "conventional wisdom" has had a remarkably long shelf life, it is the 1940 campaign, when the German Wehrmacht stunned the world by overrunning France in a remarkably short time. The conventional wisdom has long held that the root of France's defeat lay in moral sphere. A dispirited French Army, lacking confidence in itself and its leaders, was rapidly overwhelmed by the German Army, honed to a fine edge after its easy victory in Poland. The tone for this school of thought was certainly set by the great French medievalist Marc Bloch in his classic posthumous work, Strange Defeat. Although this view has been revised somewhat through the work of scholars such as Robert Doughty, Eugenia Kiesling, and Martin Alexander, to name a few, the moral school has enjoys a strong degree of support to this day. May now challenges this school of thought in this book.
May traces the story of France's fall from Hitler's ascent to power to the conclusion of the decisive battles of May 1940 that culminated in the British evacuation from Dunkirk. In the course of his examination, May challenges a number of long accepted notions about the campaign. The most notable of these is what contemporaneous documents indicate about the mood of the French government and high command during the period 1939-1940. Contrary to popular accounts, May shows that at the time, the French had almost unlimited confidence in the ability of the subsequently much maligned Maurice Gamelin. The French fully expected to emerge from the war victorious, confident that the German economy would collapse under the strain of any kind of prolonged war,
clinched by a successful offensive after a proper period of mobilization and preparation. May also gives a fair amount of credit for the German victory to Hitler, arguing that he had a much better instinctive under-standing of the weaknesses of the Anglo-French, as opposed to his much less confident generals. There is also a great deal of excellent detail about both the French and German intelligence services, the information they collected and how each side used it. May concludes with a very useful chapter on what policymakers today can bring away from this event.
The book has its share of flaws. There are some details that struck this reviewer as simply counter-factual. May, for example, claims that Benito Mussolini spoke "incomprehensible" German, which is certainly contrary to what almost every expert on the Duce says, as well as to contemporaneous evidence. While May does provide a good discussion of the events of May 1940 and how at times sheer dumb luck played to the Germans' advantage, he overlooks the superiority of German divisional organization, which played a crucial role. While May is very good on French doctrine, he gives entirely too much credit to Heinz Guderian as the progenitor of German doctrine.
Finally, some of May's conclusions run counter to his narrative. In his final chapter, for example, he says that policymakers need to discount the input from so-called "area experts." Yet, in his analysis of why the Germans won, May gives great credit to Col. Ulrich Liss, who played the Allied side in the war games run by the General Staff to test the so-called "Manstein Plan." Liss was correctly gauged what the Allied reaction would be precisely because he was an expert, having spent years mastering both British and French doctrinal publications. For the modern military commander, however, this once again points out the need for good "Red Cell" play in map exercises.
These flaws notwithstanding, this well-researched and well-written book marks a major contribution to the literature on World War II. It will remain the standard work on the campaign for a long time to come.