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11-08-2015, 18:46

Fighting Forces at the Start of the War

In September 1939, the combined populations of Britain and Fiance were much larger than Germany's. Their economic resources, their gold reserves and the potential resources of their empires were greater as well, although Germany had already swallowed up Austria and the Sudeten Germans. But the Reich was superior in active fighting forces, even if the Polish army was counted with the opposite camp and Italy was discounted because she had not yet declared war -she had declared herself 'non-belligerent', a new diplomatic category. Although the Germans had a slight edge in submarines -they had 57 - the Royal Navy and the French fleet were unrivaled masters of the seas, and their position was strengthened by delays in the German navy's construction programme. Land forces were also fairly balanced. The British had only just revived compulsory military service and had only four divisions to send to France, but the French could assemble almost as many units as the Wehrmacht along their northern and eastern borders where the decisive battles seemed most likely to be fought, despite having to keep a number of units posted in Tunisia and in the Alps. France was further protected by the Maginot Line between the Rhine and Sedan. The French army was still living off its victory in the First World War. It had won world renown, particularly in Germany, but it was not a modern army. Its leaders were old and stubbornly conservative. Industrial resources were inadequate, and rearmament was further hampered by imprudent attempts to bolster the franc. As a result, although the French had as many tanks as the Germans, most ol them were out of date. Moreover, the French command refused to concentrate them in armoured divisions as some ol the more lucid officers, notably Colonel de Gaulle, had proposed. Only one 'armoured division' was created, and the rest of the tanks were dispersed among many divisions. The two camps were especially unequal in air power. France and Britain had only 3,000 planes against the Luftwaffe's 4,000. Only a portion of the British air force was available for dispatch to Fiance. The Royal Air Force had efficient fighter planes, but it was short of bombers, and the French had even fewer. The German war machine was also subject to breakdown. The German population were orderly but unenthusiastic about taking up arms, despite their regimentation and Goebbels' propaganda. Germany had central Europe at her disposal, but she was critically short of iron and still shorter of petrol and rubber. Italy's friendly neutrality and, more particularly, the pact with Soviet Russia probably gave Germany the chance to replenish stocks. But it would have been unwise for Germany to embark on a long war. Hitler's strategy incorporated a clear-sighted understanding of these liabilities. First he would wipe out Poland. If France and Great Britain would not accept the accomplished fact, as he hoped, he would attack France before she had the chance to rearm. His plans were laid. The Wehrmacht would cross the Belgian plains as they had done in 1914. French and British leaders knew how grimly deficient their armaments were. Although they had not yet set up an organization to oversee a unified war effort, they could rely on a fair degree of mutual understanding. They agreed to play for time in which to mobilize their full resources2 and therefore remained on the defensive. Operations were confined to blockading Germany. A neutral block to frustrate German ambitions was assembled and an aerial offensive launched - of pamphlets. Bombing seemed too risky, since the Allies could not prevent Lufttoaffe reprisals which might seriously impede French rearmament, and the Germans were within easy striking range of the main industrial regions of northern France and Lorraine. This strategy was not inspired by solid determination. A number of English and a larger number of French leaders de plored the declaration of war, and hoped to avoid active fighting. The majority ol Frenchmen, vividly remembering the slaughters oi 1914-1918, recoiled from the prospect of renewing them. The English population generally, who occupied a less vulnerable position, presented a bolder front. The attitude which both countries first adopted towards the war undermined their willingness to fulfil their obligations towards Poland.