Wednesday, March 25, 2015

French Armour Doctrine

FCM-36 light infantry tank

In France the problem was not so much equipment as tactical doctrines governing its use. As victors in World War I, French military leaders did not feel the need to change doctrines in the way that the Germans did. Senior French commanders of the 1920s and 1930s had learned their trade in World War I and did not understand the implication of changes in military technology for tactics and strategy. The French high command rejected outright the new theories of armor warfare and continued to view tanks in World War I terms as mere can openers in support of infantry. Besides, the French hoped to offset inferior numbers (in 1939, 40 million Frenchmen to 60 million Germans) by putting their faith in the defensive and artillery, as exemplified by the expression “stingy with blood, extravagant with steel.”

The French high command also rejected the notion of entire divisions of tanks. Some forward-thinking French officers, most notably Lieutenant Colonel Charles de Gaulle, argued for change. De Gaulle, who had been several times wounded and then captured, had spent much of the war in German prisoner-of-war camps, which perhaps helped allow him the reflection and detachment that others lacked. De Gaulle advocated a larger professional force formed on speed and maneuverability centered on armor divisions with organic artillery, motorized infantry, and air support. There is no indication that anyone on the French Army Council showed more than a passing interest in de Gaulle’s important book on armored warfare, Vers l’armée de metier (1934, translated into English as The Army of the Future). In all three of World War I’s victor states—Britain, France, and the United States—military nonconformity was discouraged. The U.S. Army’s two-division Armored Force was created only in July 1940, after the defeat of France.

The French, regarded by many observers as having the most powerful army in Europe, in fact lacked the ability to employ their military strength promptly and to good advantage. It was primarily a failure of doctrine rather than any equipment shortcomings that did in the French. The French Army divided control of its tanks between the infantry and cavalry. Infantry commanders saw the tanks solely as a means of infantry support; the cavalry regarded them chiefly in a reconnaissance role. Another consequence of this division was a multiplicity of designs.

Following the declaration of war, the French were slow to mobilize, and in the two weeks it required them to call up reservists and bring artillery from storage, it became clear that Poland was already collapsing. Even so, a vigorous French thrust would have carried to the Rhine with tremendous consequences for the course of the war, as the German strategic plan committed the vast bulk of German strength, some 60 divisions, to Poland and left only a weak force to hold the Rhineland. The latter numbered only 40 divisions (36 of which were untrained), with no tanks, little artillery, and few aircraft. The French moved belatedly and timidly and, after securing a few villages, withdrew the few divisions committed to the effort. Senior French and British commanders had rejected the new theories of high-speed armor warfare. They persisted in viewing tanks as operating in support of infantry, to be spread over the front in small packets rather than being massed in entire divisions.

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