If you have any interest in World War Two at all, you probably know the story of France, 1940, by heart: “With astounding speed the Germans overwhelm a numerically superior, better equipped Allied host using a brilliant, unexpected thrust through the Ardennes forest and their newly developed style of warfare called Blitzkrieg…” That is roughly how I understood it, too, until Arras Counter-Attack: 1940 (Pen and Sword Books, 2018), a new book by Royal Army veteran and Sandhurst lecturer Tim Saunders, brought me to an entirely new depth on the subject, on both the strategic and tactical levels.
Saunders begins the story of Arras with an overview of the strategic situation faced in the West during the first half of 1940. Most enlightening to me was the notion that the German high command never expected the campaign in the West to go as well as it did. The “Sickle Cut” from the Meuse to the coast was indeed intended to entrap a large part of the French army and BEF against the Channel, but as Saunders tells it, that was expected to be only the opening phase, not a coup de grâce. Once the Low Countries had been defeated and the Allied armies on the Dyle Line isolated, the original plan went, the Wehrmacht would then — over some extended period of replenishment — gear up for Part Two, the drive south to finish France off. As we know, the campaign unfolded much more precipitously than that, resulting in an Allied defeat that was apparently as much of a surprise to the Germans as it was to the French and the British.
What accounted for the speed of the German victory? Before reading this book, I might have said it was due to the widespread employment of the Germans’ Blitzkrieg tactics, carefully developed and disseminated to Wehrmacht units during the interwar period. The fast breakouts of German armor into the Allied rear, supported by the aerial artillery of the Stuka squadrons, all of it coordinated by a superior radio communications net wielded by commanders at the front — the essential elements of Blitzkrieg — did “shock and awe” Allied troops, but what I did not fully realize was the extent to which even German commanders outside the Panzerwaffe remained unschooled in and even suspicious of such tactics. The Panzer commanders were constantly being told to slow down or stop so that they would not become overextended. In fact, of course, the panzers did get overextended, and that was the juncture at which Arras became a battlefield, as the British attempted to disrupt the German advance with an armored flank attack of their own.
Although I definitely appreciated Mr. Saunders’ concise delivery of such larger insights, much of this campaign-level knowledge is probably already known to many of you buffs who might be reading this book review — but it is in his hour-by-hour analysis of Arras, as he places the famous-but-relatively-brief battle under the microscope, that Mr. Saunders makes a uniquely valuable contribution to the literature on 1940. Making ample use of eyewitness accounts from war diaries on both sides, and with a wealth of maps and photos in support, Arras Counter-Attack: 1940 follows developments from the British assembly areas and start lines to their high-water marks and Rommel’s improvised defense and riposte, achieving an immediacy that must convey to readers something very close to “what it was really like” on that day nearly 80 years ago.
In Mr. Saunders’ narrative, the fog of war feels very real. We see mistaken appreciations of the situation, the disconnect between orders and actual capabilities, and the restricted vision of soldiers on the ground. The psychological effect of Stukas’ screaming attack runs is reflected in individual accounts — but so is the relative speed with which British troops came to realize that the dive bombers’ “bark was worse than their bite.” The power of tanks against infantry in 1940 is undeniable. British armor at Arras was able to brush German infantry aside or prompt them to surrender just as much as German armor did elsewhere to Allied troops, as shown in this excerpt:
Sergeant Strickland aboard his Mk I tank…, returning to a point near the village of Écurie to the north of Arras for replenishment of ammunition and repairs to his tank, encountered enemy infantry. He drove them into what proved to be a cul-de-sac, where they took cover in a barn. He put several bursts of machine-gun fire through the door and demanded loudly that they come out. To his surprise up to fifty fully-armed German infantrymen threw down their weapons and surrendered to him, little knowing that Strickland was now out of ammunition (110).
Despite such discrete successes, the British lacked one essential element of Blitzkrieg, which comes clear in the analysis: the coordination of all arms timed into one overwhelming moment of attack. In the British assault, infantry and tanks were far apart. Although RAF bombers were active in the area, they could not be called down onto precise tree lines where German artillery had set up to stop the tanks. Mr. Saunders highlights the efficacy of the German radio net in this regard. As he points out, it would be more than two years down the road before the Allies would master the intricacies of combined-arms warfare.
Arras Counter-Attack: 1940 is a valuable resource for those who appreciate an immersive experience of military history. If, like me, you have never had to face actual combat, you may find that this book offers a well-researched and supported window into the experience. If you have experienced war first-hand, you will probably recognize much in the stories of these soldiers from decades ago. Either way, Mr. Saunders has produced an excellent one-volume visit to France, 1940.