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Finally, A book with Fresh Content about the 1940 French Campaign
on February 23, 2010
Although there have been a number of good books written about the German attack on France in 1940, traditional historiography has been skewed toward just the first three weeks of the campaign and emphasizing the German breakthrough at Sedan, the dash to the sea and the Allied evacuation from Dunkirk. Most accounts mention the role played by the French Maginot Line in shaping the German breakthrough plan, but rarely discuss what the Maginot Line troops were doing during the actual campaign. Indeed, the follow-up German invasion of metropolitan France (Fall Rot or Plan Red) and the final three weeks of the campaign are usually absent entirely or skimmed over quickly in standard accounts. However, Marc Romanych's Maginot Line 1940 not only fills both these gaps admirably but it succeeds in presenting fresh content about the German efforts to reduce the Maginot Line. Whereas most accounts suggest that little happened around the Maginot Line while the Germans were overrunning the rest of France, Romanych details seven different German operations to reduce and capture various sections of the line. This book is well-researched and put together with an eye for detail that makes it particularly useful for specialist readers.
Maginot Line 1940 begins with a brief overview of the German invasion plan (Fall Gelb or Plan Yellow), the brief French offensive into the Saar in 1939 and a campaign chronology, followed by the usual sections on opposing commanders, forces and plans. These opening sections are decent, but a bit brief, except for the 3-page order of battle. One good point that the author makes in these sections is that despite the fact that the Maginot Line was created to guard the French border with Germany and thereby allow the French Army to reduce the number of troops committed to static defensive roles, they violated this intent by deploying almost half their divisions to support the Maginot Line. Clearly some of these divisions could have been bettered employed in the general reserve.
The campaign narrative proper begins with the opening German moves through the Ardennes and the breakthrough at Sedan, but the author does not belabor material that has been well-trodden in standard accounts. It is with the German capture of Fort La Ferte, the western end of the Maginot Line, that the author finds his groove. He discusses how the Germans massed over 250 guns against the fort and spent two days reducing its outer defenses until it was finally captured. This was the first Maginot Line fort captured and the author notes that the French high command was stunned that it had fallen so quickly. From this point on, the author discusses the capture of the Maubeuge fortifications and then moves from west to east down the Maginot Line, detailing the German operations that occurred in the final two weeks of the war to reduce the line. As it turns out, there was quite a lot of fighting around the Maginot Line but the Germans only captured 10 of 58 major defensive works before the Armistice. There is a great deal of detail in his narrative and the tactical dynamic tends to be similar for most of these operations: French interval troops withdraw leaving the Maginot Line forts isolated, German troops move in, pound the forts with point-blank fire from 88-mm flack guns then assault with artillery and engineers. Rinse and repeat. This tactical dynamic and the author's recounting of it does get a bit repetitive, particularly since there are no first-person accounts included. On the other hand, much of this information has not appeared in English before so think of it as a helpful dose of medicine. One of the few disappointments I had about the author's research was that the analysis in the Aftermath section seemed incomplete, particularly in regard to casualties. Given that Paris had already fallen by the time that many of these operations were occurring and an armistice was imminent, the question is not asked whether these later attacks on the Maginot Line really contributed to the defeat of France and were the casualties suffered worth what was gained. Some of the German attacks just before the armistice seemed a bit gratuitous and it begs the question who was ordering these attacks.
Maginot Line 1940 has a total of five 2-D maps (overview of the campaign, 10 May - 25 June 1940; overrun of the Ardennes defenses, 12-16 May 1940; Battle for the Mauberge fortifications, 12-27 May 1940; envelopment of the Metz region, 10-21 June 1940; attacks in Alsace, 15-21 June 1940) and three 3-D BEV maps (Battle for Fort La Ferte, 16-19 May 1940; infantry attack on Fortress Fermont, 21 June 1940; Operation Tiger, 14-16 June 1940; assault across the Rhine near Kunheim, 15 June 1940) that do an admirable job of supporting the campaign narrative. Simply put, the maps are superb. The three battle scenes by artist John Whitte (the assault on Fort La Ferte, 18 May 1940; the end of Fort Kerfent, 21 June 1940; the fight for casemate Oberroedern-Nord, 20 June 1940) are also very nice but all are from the German perspective. The B/W photos are also very good and most have not appeared elsewhere in English sources. One of the few shortcomings in this volume is the bibliography, which is rather anemic with only five works cited, including one other Osprey volume. Although the author clearly used German archival records at NARA, he did not list any or provide the specific URLs of some of the Maginot Line-related Internet websites that he mentions in the text. Overall, this volume is not only an excellent addition to Osprey's Campaign series but a serious piece of historical research in its own right.