Eclipse of Europe

Brian Bond

  • End of the Affair: The Collapse of the Anglo-French Alliance 1939-40 by Eleanor Gates
    Allen and Unwin, 630 pp, £15.00, February 1982, ISBN 0 04 940063 0
  • The Strategy of Phoney War: Britain, Sweden and the Iron Ore Question 1939-1940 by Thomas Munch-Petersen
    Militärhistoriska Forlaget, 296 pp, £8.00, October 1981, ISBN 91 85266 17 5

When a marriage disintegrates in mutual misunderstanding and recrimination, it is no good looking to either partner – or to their families – for a complete and objective explanation. The analogy with sovereign states is, of course, far from exact, and anyway historians are trained to surmount nationalist bias. Nevertheless British and French historians of the tragic termination of their countries’ ‘affair’ in 1940 have in practice found it extremely difficult to write dispassionately, and even harder to interpret controversies sympathetically from the other’s viewpoint. Some French historians, and especially surviving participants after 1945 such as Reynaud, Gamelin and Weygand, have pointed to Britain’s tardy and meagre contribution to the land battle, her refusal to send all-out air reinforcement at a critical time and her precipitate withdrawal from the Continent. The British have been equally inclined to overtook their own shortcomings in placing responsibility for defeat at the door of their allies. Both have also tended – like a quarrelling couple turning against a well-meaning third party – to place excessive blame for their military collapse on the luckless Belgian Army and its royal commander-in-chief.

It is therefore not surprising that some of the most thorough and objective accounts of the Allied defeat, and of French internecine strife under Vichy and the Nazi occupation, have come from transatlantic scholars such as John C. Cairns, Philip Bankwitz, Telford Taylor and Robert O. Paxton. Eleanor M. Gates might modestly disclaim inclusion in such distinguished company. But she has produced a splendid book which is both instructive and moving. She is not much interested in the military operations per se, but excels in her description of personalities and of their relationships at moments of high drama. A gallery of perceptive pen-portraits includes notable sketches of Reynaud and his mistress Madame de Portes, of Weygand, Mandel and Spears. Her concern with the dramatic element is evident in the organisation of the book as a five-act tragedy. While scrupulously respecting historical evidence (which is somewhat obsessively documented), and never indulging in ‘faction’, she brings out very well that the leading personalities were consciously performing in a drama whose outcome they could not foresee.

Though the ‘affair’ between Britain and France dated back to the entente of 1904 and the successful, if far from harmonious alliance of 1914-1918, the military agreement belatedly accepted by Britain in 1939 was to be aptly described as ‘the sickly heir of twenty years of mutual suspicion and hesitation’. On the credit side there was the pre-war establishment of a Supreme War Council, far-reaching economic co-operation, and broad agreement on their respective contributions to what was expected to be a long, attritional war. Against this, however, there was no joint-staff organisation; a complicated command structure just about adequate for a static war; and a communications network barely adequate even in peace conditions. A French staff officer likened Gamelin’s headquarters to a submarine without a periscope. On the political plane, there was no deep accord or understanding of the other’s problems. War aims, which the author inelegantly calls ‘a can of worms’, were never agreed. Nor was there ever a common policy on the strategic and tactical employment of air power. Only in March 1940 did the partners formally undertake not to seek a separate peace, which in itself suggests that in both countries there were politicians who might still contemplate negotiating terms with Hitler.

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