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Strange Victory: Hitler's Conquest of France Paperback – Bargain Price, October 3, 2001
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'A splendid revisionist work...A truly international study in European diplomatic and military history...May's description of the military campaigning of 1940 is superb.' - Paul Kennedy, Los Angeles Times Book Review; 'A beautifully written narrative, rendered in deft prose and in riveting and fascinating detail, Strange Victory will become a classic.' - Wm. Roger Louis, Kerr Professor at the University of Texas at Austin; 'A broad-shouldered, cogent, powerfully argued revisionist study of the battle of France of 1940.' - Richard Bernstein, The New York Times Review --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
About the Author
Emest R May, the distinguished diplomatic historian, is Professor of History at Harvard University and the author of eighteen books. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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The Fall of France in 1940 was, perhaps, the ultimate Black Swan event - it was just inconceivable, yet after the event myth-making on both sides depicted it as inevitable. The combination of French embarrassment with its Vichy regime, British embarrassment at being so roundly defeated, meant it was easier to describe German military brilliance rather than allied ineptitude. So the value of this book is in trying to piece together what made it happen. And it does this brilliantly, on the strategic level, the sympathy in Britain with German reaction to the harshness of the Versailles dismemberment of the country, France and Britain's absolute abhorrence of returning to land warfare in Europe and Hitler's willingness to gamble on the allied powers reluctance all facilitated Hitlers expansionism up to 1938.
May shows that public opinion in Britain and France led the governments in their desire to stop Hitler, but that the Prime Ministers in both countries still used every lever to try to avert the land war. The overall story is well known, what was new to me was the detail about the German and French power structure and personalities. Which is well drawn.
On the military/tactical side the detail is even more fascinating. Its pretty clear that even up to the 15th May 1940, five days after the invasion of France, there was no English, French or German general or politician who could conceive of an overall German victory. In their minds they felt that a German attack could be contained and that a counterattack would either bog down the Germans in a war they didn't have the resources for, or it might actual take the war into the Rhineland and destroy the German state. The major surprise for me was that this was the view of most of the German generals also. The French, assuming victory in the long run, wanted the land war to fought on Belgian soil, and wanted the British to contribute more troops and airpower than the British felt was wise. There is a very detailed description of the German war games, their superior tactical intelligence and their shrewd estimates of how the French, once deployed, would be slow to redeploy out of Belgium. The book is clear that if the Allies had attacked Germany in the west, while the Germans were invading Poland, that even Germany estimates indicated, a German defeat. This reluctance to invade Germany, was feed by French military overconfidence and Political caution.
The actual attack plan evolved after many revisions - Hitler ordered and postponed the attack on France, Belgium and the Netherlands about twenty times (by my count), and with each postponement came times for revisions. So even though the Allies, and in particular the Dutch, had very clear information about German invasion plans, in the end the plans changed so many times that the Allies grew bewildered and made their plans according to their own views of what should happen.
On 10th May 1940 the Germans feinted an invasion of the Low Countries, drawing the major parts of the British and French forces into Belgium, then launched a massive armoured invasion through the Belgian Ardennes forest, hitting weakening French forces, whose orders were never more than to defend while awaiting reinforcements. The German advance was so quick, that these reinforcements never arrived. However May states that the battles which did occur were never overwhelming German victories, and that the famed Blitzkrieg was more to do with fast deployment by attackers, unsettling defenders and not allowing them to regroup, rather than a devastating blow.
The fall back to Dunkirk seems to have been caused by Allied disorganisation as much as German power. The stalling of the German forces outside Dunkirk, resulting in the evacuation rather than capture of 300,000 allied troops seems to have been a result of fear on behalf of the Germans (von Runstedt in particular) that the German forces were overextended and needed to regroup to meet a counterattack.
One complaint I have is the absence of description about the British military. I would have welcome as thorough and overview of the British military, as of the French, in particular what became of them after Dunkirk. May is very clear how perilous, strategically and tactically, the overwhelming German victory in France actually was. In the end it seems a warning to democracies about temerity in using force, for it Germany had even been halted in France in 1940, it is likely that the Holocaust would not have happened, and that the Hitler Regime would have been overthrown by its own military.
I like May's analysis of key political figures on both sides. His assertions about them and how events were affected by them are interesting, but are they the last word? Personalities seem to have played a part in the German victory, but so did factors like allied public opinion and military command structure. I find most interesting May's assertion that Germany was on the ropes both politically and economically and that decisive allied action may have turned the tide against the Germans before they made their move.
I have read a lot of the reviews of this book and some readers strongly attack May's thesis and his methodology. Though I am widely read on the subject of WW II, I don't claim to be an expert. To me, no one book is the last word on any subject. So I will incorporate what I have learned in Strange Victory with what I already know and with what I will learn in future readings and perhaps be able to form a stronger opinion of the facts at that time.
I recommend this interesting book to anyone interested in this crucial period of world history. In Strange Victory, Ernest May gives the reader plenty to think about.
A couple criticisms accounting for the four stars rather than five: the author's writing style put me regularly to sleep, either that or the excessive detail, and I'm still not convinced by the explanation for the "pause" that allowed so many soldiers and so much equipment to escape via Dunkirk. The author's reasoning is good it's just that there seems to me there must be a more cogent explanation somewhere. Very good otherwise.