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.

Meanwhile, in the autumn of 1939, Gamelin secured approval for his plan to advance the Allied left wing into Belgium and southern Holland in the event of a German attack on those countries – an operation which had more to be said for it at that time than in the changed circumstances of May 1940. The British tamely accepted French plans which they were subsequently to blame for the disaster. Moreover, few British officers expressed any doubts about the efficiency and fighting spirit of the French Army, though many were to claim wisdom after the event.

Before this supreme test occurred, however, there took place what Miss Gates refers to in passing as ‘the dress rehearsal in Norway’. This complicated and bizarre diversion from the main theatre is the subject of Dr Munch–Petersen’s study. His topic is well-defined and thoroughly researched, and his book is dispassionate in tone and trenchant in its conclusions. In September 1939 Northern Europe did not feature prominently in Anglo-French strategic calculations, though their excessive reliance upon a naval blockade of Germany aroused interest in Germany’s considerable dependence on the shipment of iron ore from Sweden. From the outset, Churchill favoured naval operations in the Baltic, but there seemed no possibility of diverting the iron ore trade, let alone capturing it at source. What transformed the situation was Russia’s attack on Finland and the latter’s gallant resistance, which prompted calls for military support in the west. From December 1939 Britain and France prepared to intervene militarily in Scandinavia – nominally to aid the Finns, but with designs on the Swedish ore fields. As Dr Munch-Petersen sardonically observes, though the economic position was unchanged, Swedish iron ore was suddenly viewed as decisive to the outcome of the war and was elevated from obscurity to a major issue for the War Cabinet. Military intervention in Scandinavia was favoured for other reasons too. It would help to satisfy French and neutral opinion in favour of aiding Finland; counter frustration at the lack of active operations against Germany; and perhaps divert German forces away from the Western Front. Ironside unwisely confided to his diary his conviction that the Germans were inept at improvisation and could only manage one campaign in 1940.

Fortunately Norway and Sweden frustrated all the Allies’ tortuous and hare-brained schemes by refusing to invite them in. Nor did the Finns issue the anticipated appeal before they were forced to make peace with Russia in mid-March. Thereafter the War Cabinet revived consideration of the project, long-favoured by Churchill, of mining Norwegian territorial waters in the hope of provoking a German response which would in turn justify overt intervention. From this careful analysis, it seems that interference with the ore shipments was now a secondary issue: there was more concern to restore Allied prestige at home and abroad after the failure to do anything to save Finland. Contrary to expectations, the German response was swift and ruthless. The Allies found themselves responding to a German initiative in circumstances for which they were deplorably unprepared. Dr Munch-Petersen passes over the details of the Allies’ first humiliating defeat by Germany to note that Sweden was obliged to adjust to German hegemony, and in particular to accept the latter’s demands for transit facilities. Ironically, with Germany’s occupation of Alsace and Lorraine, the Allied assumption that she was critically dependent on Swedish iron ore lost much of its validity.

When the German offensive in the west began on 10 May it shattered a mood of growing complacency among the Allies that the storm had been weathered. In the event, as Miss Gates shows in her ‘first act’ covering the period 10 May-4 June, Anglo-French solidarity proved remarkably brittle. On 16 May, with the depressing odour of burning documents in the courtyard outside, Reynaud told Churchill that France was beaten. Churchill refused to believe it. As early as 18 May, Lord Gort, disturbed by the lack of orders from his French superiors, sent his personal kit home, and the next day, when the Panzer advance cut the British line of communications, Gort’s chief of staff, Henry Pownall, telephoned the War Office to suggest that the preliminary preparations be made in case it proved necessary to evacuate the BEF. Churchill and Ironside were reluctant to accept this course and continued to order Gort to break out southward until the general decided on his own initiative to make for the Channel ports on 25 May. Miss Gates underlines the additional muddles and misunderstandings caused by Churchill’s and Weygand’s attempts to control operations from a distance. She carefully examines the numerous controversies between the armies in the days preceding Dunkirk, but without taking sides. Gort made some attempt to contribute to the so-called Weygand Plan to cut through the Panzer corridor, but it is doubtful if he ever had any faith in it. Weygand emerges badly from these pages: he was quick to charge the BEF with desertion after the action at Arras on 21 May, misled his government about the progress of his southern armies, and kept his own subordinates in the dark for three days after he had learnt officially that the BEF was embarking. Neither Gort nor Weygand bothered to keep their Belgian ally properly informed of their movements, yet they expressed outrage when King Leopold was forced to capitulate on the night of 27 May. Miss Gates adopts the view advanced by Telford Taylor and the present reviewer that the Belgians throughout were more sinned against than sinning. Apart from the need for a scapegoat, there was no justification whatever for Reynaud’s bitter accusations that the Belgians had betrayed their allies by surrendering without warning.

For most Frenchmen the British decision to re-embark the BEF marked the virtual end of the alliance. As Admiral Darlan wrote scornfully to his wife, ‘the British lion seems to grow wings when it’s a matter of getting back to the sea.’ Genuine misunderstandings exacerbated this understandable resentment on the part of the French. Senior French naval officers attended a conference at Dover on 27 May when it was agreed that the Allies should pool shipping resources during the evacuation, yet the French were slow to assemble shipping and never devised a proper system for evacuating their troops. Three days passed before Gort was ordered to embark an equal number of Frenchmen, and this was easier said than done. On 31 May Weygand was furious to learn that the British had so far embarked 150,000 troops but only 15,000 Frenchmen. In Miss Gates’s words, the French ‘had resisted the whole idea of evacuation from the beginning, but then having accepted it, felt cheated out of an equal share’. Worse still, the French felt that they had borne the brunt of the fighting to cover an evacuation from which they could not expect to benefit. There was a further turn of the screw when even Churchill’s emotional promise to provide the rearguard was unfulfilled: not, as the French understandably believed at the time, through deliberate deception, but because General Alexander was unaware of the Premier’s undertaking and used his discretion to save as many British troops as possible.

Meanwhile, before it was clear that the bulk of the surrounded troops would be rescued, the French Government made its first attempt to secure release from the commitment not to seek a separate peace. On his visit to London, Reynaud failed to put this question directly but conveyed the impression that France might soon have to stop fighting. The War Cabinet discussed this alarming prospect intensively for several days under the innocuous heading ‘A Certain Eventuality’. Even Churchill seemed to waver momentarily, but successfully rallied his colleagues to the line that Britain could not be a party to any inquiries about a negotiated peace. British aloofness was justified when a French overture to Mussolini to act as mediator was brusquely rejected.

British and French differences were nowhere more acutely focused than on the issue of air support to the land battle. The French demanded with increasing vehemence that British fighter squadrons should be despatched to France, but Air Chief Marshal Dowding quickly decided, after 148 British aircraft were lost in the first week, that adequate reserves must be preserved for his decisive battle over England. The Air Ministry supported him. Churchill’s generous impulses were stifled by his air advisers, and when, on 11 June, Weygand’s reiterated demands reached a climax, the Prime Minister made it plain that Britain must give priority to her own salvation. As Spears protested undiplomatically at the time and as this account confirms, the French were not making anywhere near full use of their own aircraft. After the armistice France still had over two thousand first-line aircraft in the unoccupied zone and North Africa. On the other hand, the British could have afforded to be more generous had they realised the wastage rate sustained by the Luftwaffe.

From 12 June Weygand campaigned openly for an armistice and covertly for the overthrow of the Republic. In her immensely detailed account of the tortuous manoeuvres over the next four days Miss Gates finds her tragic hero in Reynaud as he vainly tried to rally his government against the defeatism of Pétain and Weygand. Yet, as she shows clearly, Reynaud contributed substantially to his own downfall. He failed to bring Churchill before the French Cabinet on 13 June, and, more astonishingly, failed to inform his colleagues of the crucial British precondition for permitting the French to inquire about the terms of an armistice – namely, that the French Fleet must first sail to British ports. Strangely, the British Government also failed to ensure that this proviso was communicated to all the French ministers. While there was no prospect of the French agreeing to this stipulation, British insistence would at least have deprived the defeatists of the comforting notion that they had been released from their obligations. Instead both governments seem to have been distracted by the incredible proposal of Anglo-French Union.

Having failed to make its position clear before the French signed an armistice on 22 June, the British Government was henceforth adamant on the issue of the French fleet. No terms were acceptable which left the slightest chance that the fleet could fall under German control. Neither side could give way, and in any case there was a general expectation on the part of the Vichy Government that Britain could not hold out for long. The tragedy reached its climax with the British attack on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir. As a naval action this was far from perfect, since several warships escaped and sought refuge at Toulon. It provoked enduring enmity in the Vichy navy and was a propaganda gift to the Anglo-phobes. Churchill, however, remained convinced that it was justified for the impression it made on the Americans. As he told the editor of the Manchester Guardian, W. P. Crozier, in March 1941, the Americans then realised we would do anything rather than go down: ‘He was at this moment looking straight towards the fire with me on his right hand a few feet away, and he turned suddenly towards me, looked straight at me, and said with what was an almost savage glare – “and we will! We will do anything.”’

Miss Gates does not include this quotation but she does speculate, in her somewhat repetitive afterword, on what might have happened to Churchill had his stirring rhetoric failed to prevail. He was fortunate to be able to link the survival of Britain with the survival of freedom, decency and democratic institutions elsewhere. The book ends with a cold douche of transatlantic realism. Neither French resignation nor British defiance was rewarded as their leaders in 1940 had reasonably expected: both nations were ‘submerged in the overall eclipse of Europe that was the principal result of World War Two’.