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WW2: The Belgian question

© Final Sword Productions LLC 2009

 

 

France and Belgium finished WW2 as allies of a sort. The alliance lasted through the Ruhr Occupation http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occupation_of_the_Ruhr after which the two began to drift apart. On the French side the failure of the Ruhr Occupation led to a retreat into a fantasy world where both military policy and diplomacy became increasingly self-referential and increasingly detached from the actual military and economic facts of inter-war Europe. France produced a military geared to what the French voters would approve and what one clique of generals thought prudent to do with the resources provided. The intersection of French unwillingness to endure long periods of peacetime military service and the particular lessons of WW1 that the methodical battle school of thought distilled from WW1 was an army that could not do much of anything for the first fifteen days of mobilization and then first needed extensive training to create cohesive units. It was a large army of somewhat trained reservists poured into formations on M Day with no prior cohesion as trained manned units. The reservists could do whatever basic drill was taught in their year of service [eventually extended to 18 months and finally nearer to the war to two years but one year for a large segment]. Doughty’s Seeds of Disaster is the best single volume on this.

The Belgian problem went back to the formation problem of the Belgian state. It was a Flemish majority state whose Francophone minority had most of the money, the monarchy and most of the officer corps. Its Francophone capital was a French island in the Flemish region. The Flemish in turn felt they had been slaughtered like sheep in WW1 by officers who refused to even learn basic Flemish to talk to their privates. The combination of the politics of all this and the destruction Belgium endured in WW1 left Belgium with a small poorly equipped military and an electorate more interested in internal squabbles than in facing up to the threat Hitler posed to them.

In OTL Belgium responded to the reoccupation of the Ruhr by dumping the French alliance and adopting armed neutrality as a policy. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Remilitarization_of_the_Rhineland#Belgium . This doubled the size of their army on mobilization at the price of ending the arrangements whereby the French could deploy on Belgian soil prior to Belgium being invaded.

Now it is quite unlikely that either Belgium or France could have avoided this. Neither was noted in this era for wise policy. However presume the French could have been bothered to pay attention, there was a window where a different result could have been obtained. The French parliament appropriated for four hundred million francs to fortify the Belgian border as an extension of the Maginot Line in 1934 [not the same scale of forts but fortification]. The French army saw little utility in this [the terrain did not favor such works and the French war plan was to move into Belgium anyway] so in the end little was done. However what if France had offered to spend the money to fortify the Belgian northern and eastern borders instead of the French. It would have created a political firestorm in Belgium. However it also would have meant a mass of public works construction jobs in depressed Flanders. The lure of the jobs might well have been sufficient had France maintained the attention span to finesse the project.

The key point isn’t the fortifications per se. A Franco-Belgian Siegfried Line [a bunch of block houses and dragon’s teeth] wouldn’t have been a major military obstacle. The big difference is that on mobilization the French Army Group that in OTL deployed on the Belgian border would have deployed in Belgium on the German and Dutch borders. The Belgian army would have had on-going staff talks with the French and assumed its place in the battle line [I am assuming that the rearmament the Belgians financed themselves is instead financed via a loan floated in London and Paris with Allied government backing so the same size Belgian army as in OTL happens].

This removes the chaos of a meeting engagement in Belgium that preoccupied the French and British in OTL. All the troops are in their battle positions when Hitler attacks except the French 7th Army which is lined up to move into Holland in support of the Dutch [Breda Option]. The historic sickle stroke through the Ardennes is no longer a possibility. There is a continuous line of prepared troops all along this front and the combination of poor terrain and an abysmal road net militate against it.

So far it looks as if everything is breaking for the Allies. Life is strange. The German attack will see all the panzer divisions, all the best German infantry divisions and the entire German air force committed to a frontal push from Leige to the Zeider Zee. The French will fight better than in OTL [methodical battle works much better from prepared positions]. The British and Belgians will fight as well as they did and they both fought well. The Dutch will implode.

The Dutch did not lack for courage [see Rotterdam in OTL]. What they lacked were numbers, training and equipment. They did as well as they did in OTL because they actually outnumbered their invaders. This time they get blitzed with a panzer corps and two German armies. In OTL the French 7th Army essentially drove in a circle, arriving at Breda in time for the Dutch surrender. Here the only fully motorized French army is overrun on a meeting engagement. The faster German OODA loop[ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OODA] , better mechanized doctrine and total air superiority kill off a French army in 72 hours.

What follows is more like the June Asine battles in OTL. With only one narrow sector to throw air strength into the Germans attrit the Allies even worse than they did in OTL. Again the Germans had better doctrine and far better air-ground cooperation. So give them two weeks to lever the tri-national army group off the Belgian frontiers and back to Brussels. The more mobile the battle the worse the Allies do – the OODA loop and doctrine again. Also there is no reason to think the three top French generals will do any better at coordinating with each other [or with their Belgian and British allies] than they did in OTL. I doubt the Allies will lose any armies after the 7th but they will keep bleeding regiments and divisions as the combination of panzer corps and storm tactics gobble up exposed units.

So after six weeks of the campaign the Allies are driven out of Belgium [you can roll dice on whether the Belgian king surrenders his army or leads it into exile – the story goes the same way either way]. They are back on the Franco-Belgian frontier. However a key divergence now comes – the BEF is in the center of the line around Tournai and Mons instead of driven back to the Channel ports. Dunkirk happened in OTL in part owing to geography. Gort did not have to precisely run away to position his troops for evacuation. Here that is exactly what he would have had to do and exactly what Churchill would never allow.

By now Weygand will have replaced Gamelin. He will be able to point out that removing the BEF will mean French capitulation. Churchill will have an impossible dilemma. He can throw in the towel or make the Battle of Britain a fight in France. So the 2nd BEF that in OTL was mostly for show now drains the UK of every formed unit as month by month the Allies are driven from the border to the Somme-Aisne and by late August to before Paris and the lower Seine. In turn Churchill will not be able to hold fighter command back to protect the UK. The need to provide air cover for the Empire’s only field army will mean draining the UK of modern fighter squadrons for the fighting in France.

In OTL the French simply did not bleed the Germans the way the Soviets did in Barbarossa. Most popular histories attribute that to French lack of will to fight. That was true of a few B reserve divisions [older men, no regular cadre, desperately short of heavy weapons or modern anything] on the Meuse. It was not true of the French army as a whole. When engaged they fought well by platoons and companies and poorly by corps and armies. Their command system simply wasn’t suited for modern war even compared to their army of 1916-18 [as usual the French has distilled all the wrong lessons from studying that war]. But for the limited times the French were seriously engaged they fought hard and well. However most of the time there simply wasn’t much fighting as the Germans moved into a vacuum created by the collapse of French Ninth and Second armies on the Meuse. Here it was been four months of near continuous battle as the Germans lever the front from Antwerp and Liege to Paris and LeHavre.

So the final battle for France would have seen three armies [German, French and British] all worn down by massive casualties and continuous combat. The Allies would be in somewhat better shape for equipment than the Germans [their rearmament programs including massive US purchases were slated to be coming on stream in the summer of 1940]. However the air attrition would have still left the Germans with command in the air over the battlefield and the strength for one more push. The push would probably have levered the Allies out of Paris which in turn would force the French to abandon the Maginot line so as to shorten the front.

There is a chance France would quit after losing Paris. It is what they did in our 1940. However here the French army would still be intact and the British still clearly fighting on their side. So presume a late October pause on the line of the Loire and Lyons. London has been hit with a few air raids but in the main the Germans cannot spare the air strength from the real battle.

So we have three armies in a state of exhaustion in the autumn rains. The obvious question is now what. The logical answer is a peace conference. Might have happened. There were enough of the Munich circle still in the French and British cabinets. However both Churchill and Reynaud were hard war men and it was not at all clear the West had lost. If they fight on into 1941 the odds grow good that Stalin will backstab Hitler. So while many thing are possible here the most likely result is the Soviet army on the Elbe or Wesser by mid-1943 and an Iron Curtain west of the one most familiar to us. Instead of Stettin to Trieste perhaps Bremen to Trieste. Germany disappears from the map of Europe because France pays for Flemish workers to pour concrete.

 

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