The Inter-War French Army and The Maginot Line

"This is not peace. This is an armistice for twenty years [how right you were!]." ~ Foch on the Treaty of Versailles.

Winston Churchill in 1933 exclaimed to the British Parliament, "Thank God for the French Army!" Without a doubt, coming off the spectacle of the victory parade in 1919 on Quatorz Juillet it was easy to believe the French Army was the superlative instrument of the First World War. But all was not well, and just as the great marshalls like Foch and Joffre withered and died, so did the premiere military force in Europe.

Internal Political Struggle
The problem was twofold, the first being the internal strife in the French government. Between 1936 and 1939 there were a total of eighteen separate governments in France, in what Allistair Horne describes as "a game of musical chairs, with the pace becoming giddier and giddier until Hitler's panzers stopped the music." With respect to the Western nations, France was the one most affected by the rise of Bolshevism, its own revolutionary history (both of 1793 and the Commune of 1871) conspiring to breed a very large Socialist left. Through the 1920s and 30s this Left was at loggerheads with that of the militaristic Right (which the socialists described in hyperbole as Fascists) and their mindset of the glory of France.

Fragmentation of French Politics
The unifying force (described as the Union Sacree) in French politics up to the Treaty of Versailles was the recovery of province of Alsace Lorraine, lost to Germany in 1871. The treaty of Versailles gauranteed its return, and by most accounts the French victory (and they did consider they had won the war almost by themselves) restored the honour and glory of France lost to Moltke's Prussians. Once these grievances were removed, there came disastrous splits in the parliament leading to a loss of confidence in all government institutions (what a suprise that the French would not trust in authority!). The Left, in particular,would not support re-armament of any sort through the mid 1930s. The French Army thus had to make due with the transport and doctrine of 1918 to fight a 1940 Germany.

The Lasting Impact of Verdun
The second problem was the deep memories of the war, especially that of the Battle of Verdun. The fact was France could not survive another Verdun, having lost the most men per capita of any nation except little Serbia during the war. They took the lessons of Verdun in the wrong way, developing the strategic doctrine of maintaining a "continuous front", as well as developing a strong line of underground forts that they had believed saved Verdun from the Kaiser's hordes. The fruit of this train of thought was thus born as The Maginot Line.

It is impossible to exagerrate the impact of Verdun upon the French Army in 1940. The general staff was made primarily of veterans of WWI, with then army commanders now commanding corps, battallion commanders now commanding divisions, and company commanders now in charge of battallions. The majority of these officers were fed through the meatgrinder at Verdun, but drew the wrong conclusion. In stark contrast to the German Verdun experience (for example Von Rundstedt who believed the attrition and frontal attacks were no way to win a war), Gamelin now supreme Allied commander still believed in the doctrine of the continuous front and fortification. 

Outdated Military Doctrine
It can be said that the everyone in the western world (excluding the Germans) believed they would jump right back in their trenches they had left in 1918. They had not had the experience of the Eastern front, where the mobility of the fighting would profoundly influence German military thought. The French high command composed of old veterans of the Great War; as Allistair Horne points out "Where then are the young men, with the young ideas?"

Much critized for their lack of doctrinal foresight, it is clear to us now that even had the French wished to engage in a battle of maneuver they were decisively limited in ability. The Maginot Line, originally intended to delay or deter German attacks through attrition, quickly took on a mythical status of a shield which would make up for the lack of French manpower. The actual cost of the Maginot, especially its maintenance made it nearly impossible to provide funding for modernization of the army (which the French hoped would come from German reparations).

It became increasingly clear the French could no longer afford the casualties of WWI, and this became even clearer when Germany annexed Austria and Czechloslovakia. The French population of 42 million now faced a combined German nation of 76. Nor did they possess enough strategic reserves between the Belgium frontier (where the Maginot line was never extended) and the manpower needs of the Maginot in Alsace-Lorraine. Their air force was wholly inadequate in terms of numbers, equipment and command. Nor did they possess the necessary mechanization, or flexibility of supply transport that the Luftwaffe and the Heer relied on.

The nail in the coffin was not its terribly ostracized and frittering command and control system (to which an order received was a 'great basis for discussion') , nor the outdated tactical doctrine or political equivocation. There was an inexplicable weakness among the French army, exacerbated by long nights of boredom during the "Phoney War" (Sitzkrieg) and the constant barrage of Communist/Nazi propaganda. The rallying cry was no longer "To Berlin!" but rather "Lets get this over with". Discipline was in a terrible state, with men taking their own leave for the weekend and returning on Sunday or Monday; many men would not even salute their officers.

Gone was the need for revenge from 1871, and gone was the glorious victory spirit of 1919. It seemed to them as if it may be possible by refusing to fight they would ensure the survival of France's institutions and more importantly what little remained of her menfolk. Thus was the plight of the French army in 1940, already defeated long before the actual war began.


To Lose a Battle: The Battle of France 1940 by Aillistair Horne
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer


A-10 Warthog Friendly Fire Incident

First my apologies for my abscense over the past week, I have been bedridden with a sinus infection for the majority of the week. I haven't had much time for research or to finish reading the recent NSA publication regarding Pearl Harbor. But to tide you over until my next post (sometime this weekend) I found something interesting today during my more lucid hours.

On 28 March 2003 during the Invasion of Iraq, a so called "blue on blue" (friendly fire) incident occured involving ground attack A-10 Warthogs and British FV107 Scimitar vehicles. The two American A-10 pilots, having received assurances there were no friendlies in the area from the FAC (forward air controller), proceeded to engage a convoy of what they perceived to be Iraqi flatbed trucks. 

In actuality, those trucks were British FV107 Scimitars operating in the area. The element wingman engaged the targets with GAU 30mm cannons, which are capable of destroying even the most heavily armoured tanks in the world through top attack. The incident resulted in five wounded and one British soldier KIA.

Wikisource has a transcript, and both the audio and video recordings of the incident. 

Note just how long it takes to go through proper channels. The American FAC took nearly two minutes to relay that there were friendly vehicles operating in the area, and shortly thereafter ordered an abort of the attack. Unfortunetly by this time the A-10 had already made two strafing runs on the target. This was likely cutting corners, as the official channel which had to go from British ground personnel, to their commanders, to TWINACT, then the AWACS above the battlefield took nearly six minutes. 

The system, however inefficient for this sort of thing, has improved dramatically since WWII. Similar incidents during the war usually saw allied troops taking friendly fire from aircraft until their guns were dry, and rarely was the mistake known to the pilots until they returned to base.

A friend of mine, the former Abrams commander mentioned in my previous posts, experienced this first hand in a live fire exercise with an A-10. The A-10 passed overhead and engaged a target, with the 30mm shells falling directly on top of his humvee. By the time the information was relayed to the pilot to abort, he had already made three passes and their humvee was completely torn apart by the falling shells.

The Satan's Cross is a truly deadly instrument, inspiring fear in its enemies, and sometimes its own troops.



It's been a week since I have made a post on the blog; I have been busy with midterms and various projects. I should have some freetime on wednesday during which I am going to post something about a recent study from the NSA which regards Japanese chatter before Pearl Harbor.

I hesitate to enter into a long discussion about whether or not the authorities knew about PH in advance, so I will let you read the documentation for yourself. I'll post a link to the pdf files as well as a brief synopsis.

As of late I have been doing enormous amounts of research (several hours per day) on the initial rise of the Reich during the early 1930s. I will attempt to boil down the key points during the time, and possibly include a summary text. My next few planned posts will hopefully include:

  • The Nazi Party and their "State within a state"
  • The key events and points which led to the rise of the Third Reich
  • Some background - including the monarchy, Weimar Republic, influence of Junkers and Hindenburg. Also will touch on the myth and legend of Frederick the Great.


Tank Duel: Follow Up

One of my great pleasures from this blog is to receive comments, especially those that lead to excellent scholarly discussion. On my recent post I received a comment from David Wilma.

"I suspect (I have not studied the issue) that tank development since WWII has been based on both mission and the likely opponents. Smaller nations (except Israel) do not do tank development so they take what the market offers. And these procurement actions are not always based on good science, i.e., corruption and politics. 

So a question would be what is the likely outcome of both and individual encounter between an M-60 and a T-72, and larger battles. Is the M-60 necessarily second best? How would the M-60 units prevail?

I remember reading about the 1968 war in which Israeli tanks overpowered Egyptian(?) tanks because the Soviet-supplied hardware lacked air conditioning. I'm sure there were other factors, but the crew with the most on the ball has a great advantage. "
I thought my response was lengthy enough to warrant a new post as a follow up rather than as a comment response. For the 2nd paragraph of the question I was forced to speak with a good friend of mine, a former M1A2 commander to find the answer.

The Soviets have always adopted the principle of more and cheaper.. Even down to their steel sabot ammunition. We scoff at this in the U.S. but it has been the fundamental core doctrine for their armed forces since even before WWI. It led directly to the development of the A-10 Warthog (Satan’s Cross as the Russians call it) and the Apache. The Soviets during the Cold War had more tanks than we had infantry platoons.. Quite scary when you think about it.


Strategic Fit

What fits for the Soviets does not fit for smaller countries usually, because they field a very small army. Sweden is a good example, they went a completely different direction in tank design. One of their recently retired tanks (Stridsvagn 103)* is a fixed gun that has a breakthrough suspension that allows them to elevate the front of the tank (over snowbanks and what not). Because it is designed to fight in the snow and in large forests they didn’t feel like they needed a rotating turret. Put that in any other country and you have a possible disaster. The Israelis developed the Merkeva tank, which is an excellent tank but again it is designed for desert warfare. It is inadequate when placed in any other role.

M60 vs T-72

The T-72 has the advantage of a superior gun, superior penetration and superior range- the 125mm gun vs the M60’s 105mm. The T-72 also had superior armour protection, and a very low silhouette. The M60’s advantages were its fire control system, and rate of fire. But overall the T-72 is the superior tank and will be victorious in the majority of fights. The T-72 was really not of the same generation, and a better match for the M60 would be something around the T-64 series. The U.S. did not really leap ahead in tank design until the development of the M1 Abrams, of which the T-80 is essentially a copy (and which also doubled the price of the average Soviet tank). Since the T-80 the Soviets/Russians have made mostly cosmetic improvements on their tanks; Jane's Defense calls them "same whore, new lipstick".

The System

When you are fighting satellite nations or countries that import the Soviet designs, one important consideration is that the Soviets designed the T-72 to fill a niche in what my friend the Abrams commander describes as a system of legos. The T-72 is designed to operate with ZSU-23s for low level air defense, followed by BMP2s carrying infantry, BRDM-4s for scouting with anti-tank missiles, and all followed up by the tracked MTLB with platoon sized detachments. In the air the Soviets field the SU-24 for air superiority and the SU-25 "Frogfoot" for close air support. Once you remove any piece of this system it starts to collapse, so importing nations not only have to possess all the equipment but train their soldiers in replicating the Soviet system.

David also asks how well the Russians have been able to maintain their level of training and readiness with this system. It is an irony of the post-communist era that the Russians have maintained one of the largest armies in the world - but they cannot really afford to send it anywhere. The war in Afghanistan was like our war in Vietnam, and had major impacts on the morale and thinking of the modern Russian military. Above all there is simply very little money available for improvements upon old equipment and expansions in training programs, and the former Soviet lego system has already become obsolete on the modern battlefield. 

My thanks to William Wallcoen for his insights that helped shape my response.

* Thanks to Parab from Battleground Europe forums; he has informed me that Sweden has recently retired the 103 tank and has adopted the Leopard.


Tank Duel: Modern vs WWII

German Leopard II

Comparing the modern MBT (main battle tank) and that of a tank from the second world war is similar to comparing the Porsche to the Model T. Tank design and doctrine has changed so much since WWII that to many tankers of the period our MBTs would seem quite foreign.

In WWII each army had subdivisions of tanks, usually into Infantry Support (normal tanks like the Sherman and Panzer IV), Tank Destroyers (Stug or M10 series) or Self Propelled Guns (Wespe, Priest). The first and the last groups are still very much alive in today's military but the role of tank destroyer has essentially dropped out. Why you ask?

It is not so much that gun design has changed - in fact it really hasn't changed much in the last hundred years. It is still a rifled barrel (or smoothbore in case of the Leopard and Abrams) that is designed to withstand a controlled explosion and hurl a projectile. They have only gotten bigger. But they are not much bigger than the larger anti-tank guns or artillery of the period; so what is the big difference?

The difference is the ammunition they fire. Towards the end of WWII the British especially began to experiment with something called sabot rounds, which are projectiles loaded into oversized shells and fired at hyper velocities. Discarding sabot involves a smaller projectile loaded inside the round, the shell of which strips away from the internal package as it leaves the barrel. You can think of it as wrapping up a pencil and shooting it out of a shotgun - the wrapping comes off but all that energy is still behind that pencil pushing it extremely fast.

The 17 pounder in particular was tested with sabot, which proved to be somewhat of a failure due to the fact it would literally just skip off the Panzer V Panther's armour. The early sabot rounds were very small and most importantly short. They later realized that the longer (lengthwise) a sabot round was the less likely it was to deflect off armour (this led to the development of what is known as the long rod penetrator).


The armour protection of the tank has drastically changed over time. In WWII the convention was to use steel or even rolled homogenous steel (RHA), typically anywhere between 30-100mm thick. Better guns and penetrators forced tank designers to adapt, adding more armour and introducing the concept of sloped armour. Sloped armour will either cause an incoming round to skip off the surface, or force it to penetrate a larger effective armour value than the tank actually has due to trigonometry. 

In the 1980s we saw the first uses of what is known as composite armour like CHOBAM, most of which is still secret. It is known, however, that it uses several different layers of material including steel, aluminum, ceramics and possibly even depleted uranium. The sandwiching of these layers makes the effectiveness of the armour much greater than an equal amount of steel RHA. Reactive armour has also been developed, which allows the armour to literally react and defeat both kinetic energy penetrators and chemical-based explosives. The Russian T series in particular has incorporated explosive reactive armour, which can potentially defeat some incoming sabot rounds.

In modern tanks we have seen the effective armour value rise to enormous levels that would have left a WWII tank stuck in the mud. The M1A2 Abrams has effective armour values of over 900mm on the turret and 600 on the hull against kinetic energy penetrations, and over 1200 against HEAT(high explosive anti-tank) rounds. The Russian T-80 has anywhere from 280-800mm of effective armour on the turret, and 750 on the glacis of the hull. Compare this to the Russian T-34 which was put into service in 1941, which had only about 90mm of effective armour.


The newer sabot rounds fired by the M1A2 can penetrate over 600mm of armour at 2,000 meters. This is easily capable of slicing through the front armour of the Russian T-72s we saw during Desert Storm. If push came to shove, the U.S. could field its depleted uranium sabots capable of even more penetration. The typical Soviet sabot from its 125mm gun (mounted on the T-72 and T-80) has similar penetration of 600-650mm at 2,000 meters. An interesting note is that the Russians (as per their long standing doctrine) prefer to use cheaper steel sabots because they reduce costs. Oddly enough they also carry more muzzle velocity than typical U.S. sabots and are similar in penetration.

Tiger vs Abrams

Recently I was asked if any WWII gun would be capable of defeating the armour of a MBT, and the answer is no. Even at point blank range to the flank of a modern tank the rounds would not penetrate, even the mighty 88mm L71 mounted on the Tiger II tank. Even spalling damage would not be possible, as the MBTs have built in spall liners for the crew cabin that prevents shrapnel kills from partial penetration. The only possible penetration would be in very small vulnerable areas like the turret ring, and even that would probably only cause partial penetration if at all.

A WWII era tank would never even make it to point blank range with a MBT. Most likely the modern MBT would spot it first through its series of electronic visual aids, and score a first round kill at extremely long range. The computerization of modern tanks is simply astounding; the Leopard II tank in particular has a fully integrated virtual map of the world outside the tank that it uses to coordinate with other members of its platoon and to mark enemy targets. New technology is in prototype stage which will detect the origin of incoming rounds and plot a counterfire solution before the enemy has a chance to reload.

The people that make the best Leopard II tankers are those who were very good at video games when they were children. This is the trend that will continue in the forseeable future as tanks are modernized worldwide. The German Leopard II is widely considered the finest and most modern tank in the world (its gun is also the same as the M1A2 Abrams, and was made by the same company that built the Panzer V Panther's Gun in WWII). The M1A2 is beginning to get a little long in the tooth, and efforts are underway to design a new U.S. MBT. 

My own personal conversations with a M1A2 commander led to a funny analogy. While playing a favourite game of mine, I was commanding a Panzer IIc built in the late 1930s. I complained about how the commanders view on the turret spinning around made me slightly dizzy. He remarked to me "Then you will never be a tank commander, because the view is pretty much like a video game". Whatever the next generation of tank, it seems it will be more familiar to the XBox generation rather than that of the Greatest generation.


Submit an Idea or Post

This is, of course, an interactive community. I cannot always think of the best topics to write about day after day, and I am looking forward to receiving suggestions and requests from my readers. If you want to see a particular topic addressed, if I don't know about it I will spend a moderate amount of time on the research and make a post. If you think you can get me to write your term paper for you, however, you are mistaken.

I am also interested in receiving submissions, a sort of guest-blogger system I suppose. If I receive a submission from someone that is a well-written topical piece with proper references I will add it as a post. Of course you will receive full credit as the author, and I will add any links to it you wish (good marketing for your blog as well perhaps). The purpose being to enhance the content of the site for my readers and perhaps to add a different perspective.

Submission Guidelines:
  • Delivered to me via e-mail (morriso_chas@bentley.edu).
  • Document format, preferably Word, RTF or Open Office formats. As long as it is not badly formatted requiring lots of editing.
  • Proper references. I do not expect a page full of endnotes but if you make extravagant claims or have numerous figures then please do a short works cited section at the bottom.
  • Your name, and preferably a short bio about yourself and any links you want to add.
  • No More than 1000 words (unless you want to post an exerpt)
  • Proper grammar, spellchecking. The usual.
  • Topically related to history. Does not have to be military history or WWII persay. But preferably is.
  • Plagarism - Obviously don't. I WILL check google and turnitin.com's database and I will discover if you did not write this piece.
I can give you no gaurantees that I will post this, but I do gaurantee I will read your submission and respond to you either way. I may want to hold the post for a few weeks if I have other things waiting to be released.

Do not feel daunted by the list of requirements; I will gladly accept just about any piece in good faith even just to read it. While this may not be the grandest stage in the world I do have a good number of dedicated visitors daily as well as a good following from academia. This blog is syndicated on about ten different RSS feed services and distributed all over the world electronically.

I reserve the right to do basic editing of spelling, grammar and any major faults. If you have added something that I find questionable or biased I may ask you to remove it before I post the piece. You can publish the piece to anywhere you wish and retain exclusive rights, though I retain the right to keep it on this blog and distribute it through my feeds and network of websites.

I look forward to your submissions or ideas.


All Statistics Are Lies

Mark Twain once said "There are liars, damned liars, and statisticians." As historians we tend to argue over the small points, of whether this statistic is correct, and how we interpret populations and subsets of figures. We find statistics to support our own assertions and dig no deeper than is necessary. But as we say in accounting, are these figures really material to the investigation?

I, for one, try to step away from filling my arguments with numerous statistics and endless volumes of endnotes and focus on a more logical approach. Communicating most effectively begins when we relate to the common logic of the human mind, and approach the discussion with confidence and recognize the human need for empathy. 

Most of my assertions are backed up by anecdotal forms of history, stories of real people that allows the average person to identify with the times, be it twenty or two-thousand years ago. When you form that connection with the reader then history becomes real, and it transcends the inherently dry nature of the subject. Through proper communication techniques you can make even the most boring subjects seem alive to your audience.

There are times when statistics are warranted or even necessary, but an argument based on statistics and inference is like a house of cards - if any are found to be erroneous or tendentious it can possibly negate the entire trust you try to establish with your audience. Focus on  forming a logical order that is hard if not impossible to refute, and try to bring history alive to a new generation.