Six Weeks That Changed the 20th Century; Sixty Years Ago Next Week, Hitler Conquered France in One of the Greatest Military Triumphs Ever. Ironically, as a Top Historian Points out, It Also Sowed the Seeds of His Downfall .
Byline: ALISTAIR HORNE
MAY 1940, was one of those months British holidaymakers dream about - and talk about every half-century. The sunshine and peerless blue skies seemed to go on for ever.
As a schoolboy at Stowe, I remember the fields full of waist-high cow parsley.
But, to the pilots of Britain's woefully outnumbered fighter squadrons, it was grimly known as 'Goering's Weather'.
Several only recently graduated from Stowe would not survive that exquisitely beautiful summer.
On the night of May 9, Hitler, with remarkable self-assurance, proclaimed to his assembled generals: 'Gentlemen, you are about to witness the most famous victory in history.' Most of his audience, having fought through 1914-18, were sceptical and nervous.
Like some oriental despot, the Fuhrer gave a gold watch to his chief meteorologist for predicting good weather for the following day, May 10.
He deserved it: 'Goering's Weather,' essential to the success of Blitzkrieg in the West - was to continue virtually without a break over the next three critical weeks.
That same night, in the Eifel Mountains that border on Belgium, General Erwin Rommel, 48 years old and commanding the newly formed Seventh Panzer Division, dashed off a note to his wife: 'Dearest Lu, 'We're packing up at last. Let's hope not in vain. You'll get all the news for the next few days from the papers. Don't worry yourself. Everything will go all right.' All over western Germany there were similar scenes of rapid 'packing up,' and the writing of last letters. Undisturbed by Allied planes, the waiting columns stretched back 50 miles east of the Rhine.
At dawn the following morning Rom-mel's Panzers and 72 German divisions hurled themselves forward, into the three neutral nations of Luxembourg, Belgium and Holland. An astonishing gamble had been embarked upon, which - in six short weeks - would lead to one of the most remarkable victories in military history, and the fall of France.
PLAN Yellow, as the German plan was originally called, had been postponed many times since the previous autumn.
Most recently major redrafting had been required after details had fallen into Allied hands when a Wehrmacht staff officer had made a forced landing in Belgium; though French intelligence had dismissed this windfall as a plant.
In its convent-like GHQ at Vin-cennes, on the outskirts of Paris, General Maurice Gamelin's French General Staff had been expecting Hitler's offensive for eight months.
Yet, like rabbits transfixed by a snake, during the 'Phoney War' they had taken no pre-emptive measures of any consequence.
France herself was debilitated by communism, and internal divisions.
Britain, unprepared, had been unable to do much more than provide Lord Gort's BEF (British Expeditionary Force) of nine divisions, to supplement France's 94 (of mixed value). There were only a handful of Hurricane fighter squadrons.
As redrafted, the German strategy was largely the work of a military genius, General Erich von Manstein. He converted what had been an unimaginative blueprint to one of inspired daring. Called Sichelschnitt, or literally 'the cut of a sickle,' it involved an advance into northern Belgium and Holland which would, however, merely act like a 'matador's cloak'.
Distracted by it, the BEF and the cream of the French Army in the north would be drawn eastwards into Belgium. But the main blow was to be delivered elsewhere.
It would strike just north of where the Maginot Line - the vast network of underground forts - ended through the rugged and densely forested country of the Ardennes, which the French General staff were known to consider impassable and therefore covered with only inferior forces. This audacious plan was supported enthusiastically by Hitler, who was mistrustful of the conservatism of his generals.
If successful, the breakthrough would then burst out into the flat plains of northern France, its objective the Channel coast. …