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The French Maginot Line from World War II stands as one of the great symbols of shortsightedness, Myopic Architecture, stupidity, ostrich-like response to threat, and just general fail. The French built the most advanced system of fortifications that the world had ever seen—and, in the popular imagination, just sat there in their fortifications while the Germans did a huge Dungeon Bypass by invading indirectly through Belgium.
This story is, however, a case of Fanon as applied to history. In real fact, the goals of the Maginot Line were this:
- Force the Germans not to attack there. The French really very much preferred to fight the Germans in Belgium instead of France.
- The Maginot Line meant that the French could defend their German border with a much smaller number of troops. This meant that a lot of soldiers would be freed up for the real fight up in Belgium. And France really needed this: they had lost so many younger men in World War I that it turned out to be a "lost generation" that produced much fewer children, and thus, they really needed economy of manpower.
So the French expected the Germans to bypass the Maginot Line through Belgium. The Germans knew this too, they both knew that the other side knew, and this is what the Germans did, to nobody's surprise. So what happened? Why did the French lose so badly?
Well, for the purpose of this analysis, you can divide Belgium into two regions:
- The northern plains, where the majority of the population lives. This is excellent tank country, and has very good roads—important for supply and logistics.
- The Ardennes Forest, south of the northern plains and north of the Maginot Line. The Ardennes isn't just a forest: its a rugged, hilly, wooded country with a few bad roads and cliffs. This is not good tank country, and attacking through there would be a logistical nightmare.
The French high command expected that the Germans would attack through the northern Belgian plains, because this is the non-insane plan. They were also aware that the Germans were really good at tank warfare, so to use that advantage they'd have to go through the north. In comparison, they thought that launching a major attack through the Ardennes was simply impossible.
So what did the Germans do in the Battle of France? They launched a feint attack up in the northern plains to distract the French and play to their expectations, and in the meantime they secretly sent their main force through the Ardennes. The French and British responded by sending nearly all of their best forces to the northern plains of Belgium to establish a defensive line there, while the Ardennes region further south was defended by some of the worst French forces. So the Germans' best forces fought the French's worst, broke through easily, and trapped the bulk of the Allied armies up in Belgium. The Allies' only hope at that point would have been to use some reserves to counterattack the German spearhead, but they had sent too many forces to Belgium and failed to keep enough reserves back in France, and they were mentally thrown by the unexpected developments and failed to react promptly and in an organized fashion. So the Germans managed to cut the supply lines to the best French and British units, and defeat them dramatically and quickly.
One curious fact was that the Germans originally planned to do exactly what the French expected: attack through northern Belgium. However, neither Hitler nor any of the generals was enthusiastic about this plan; in addition, at one point, the Belgians captured a German officer who had a copy of a draft of this plan. Legendary German General Erich von Manstein, with the help of the also legendary Heinz Guderian (not a General yet at that point) came up with this Ardennes attack plan. The top German planner, General Halder, disliked this idea at first, but Hitler had independently suggested something similar early on, and Halder gradually came to prefer a version of the Ardennes plan over the northern plains plan. Most of the German generals thought this was nuts.
The Ardennes plan was indeed very risky; if the Allies had clued up earlier about it, the Germans would not just suffered a terrible defeat, but they would have looked incredibly stupid. People would be asking today how could the Germans have been so stupid to think that they could successfully launch a major mechanized attack through such terrible terrain and bad roads. And in fact, the German attack force's movement through the Ardennes was a logistical nightmare; it caused the largest traffic jam the world had ever seen to that date, and for a few days the Germans would have been sitting ducks to Allied air attacks. General Halder chose it because, in spite of the risk, it offered a chance of victory, whereas they knew that the northern Belgian attack didn't. (It's also worth mentioning that Halder disagreed with the war against France and Britain, had been plotting against Hitler, and would have probably preferred a quick loss against the Allies than a protracted losing war against them.)
But the Allies didn't figure it out in time. The historical record shows that they received many clues of the true German plan, yet either they failed to connect the dots or they dismissed them as misinformation. For example, in the heat of the first couple of days, the French Generalissimo Gamelin was told about a German force moving through in the Ardennes, and he concluded that this was a secondary attack meant to distract him from the main attack up north. The opposite from what was happening!
A complicating factor that effected the French and British strategy was the loss of the Belgian fortress of Eben Emael. If attacking across the Franco-German border would have been extraordinarily difficult, a direct assault on Eben Emael was insane. It was, at the time, the toughest nut in the world to crack, and its position was designed to further restrict German movement, designed to serve as an anchor for the planned Franco-British defensive position. The only problem was that no one considered the possibility that anyone would be crazy enough to try and land a small force of glider troops on top of the fortress. Which, of course, the Germans did, which allowed them to capture the fortress, forcing the British and French to scramble to reform a new defensive line. These glider troops (they didn't use parachutes) used an honest-to-God secret weapon, the shaped charge explosive, to blow up the artillery turrets.
Alert readers will notice that we haven't said a word about the Maginot Line for many paragraphs at this point. So let's get back to that. Was the Maginot Line a stupid idea that completely failed? No, it wasn't; it was a reasonable idea that did exactly what it was intended to do (force the Germans to attack through Belgium; free up soldiers to counter that attack). Was it a good idea? That is a much harder question. It is possible that the French would have done better if they'd spent more of their resources on other things like better mechanized forces, better intelligence analysis, better training, etc.; but this doesn't mean necessarily that they shouldn't have built a Maginot Line, but rather that they could have spent less on it, and more on other things. However, it's important to remember that, historically, even with the strategic choices they made the Allies had serious chances of winning the Battle of France in the early days, and of not losing so badly even after the initial surprise. They also arguably could have won the war if they'd invaded Germany in 1939 instead of waiting for the Germans to attack.
So the Maginot Line played an important role in the Fall of France, but not a dominant one.
Fun historical fact: you'd think that, after the Allies were defeated catastrophically by a surprise German attack through the Ardennes, they'd never fall for the same trick again, right? Well, that's only half right: in the Battle of the Bulge, four and a half years later, the Germans managed to trick the Americans and launch a major suprise attack through the Ardennes, which the Americans considered a quiet region of the front and thus had sent weakened divisions there to recover. In this case, however, the outnumbered, outgunned Americans put up strong resistance, and unlike the French in 1940, General Patton figured out immediately what the Germans were up to and diverted his Third Army toward the action right away, thus winning the battle, which the French and British also could have if they'd replied in the same way.
Also note: attacking throught the Ardennes had already been used by the Germans, in World War I and had had the similar effect of a surprise attack...