Why did the BEF fail to stem the German Advance in 1940?
In 1940 the German army was advancing at a steady rate into Belgium and France that was supposed to be halted by the presence of the British Expeditionary Force along with various other allied forces. Although near equal in numbers the German forces pushed the BEF westward whilst suffering few casualties in the process. There are a number of reasons that affected the outcome of this event, of which will be discussed and analysed in detail in this essay. Some of the main factors include poor tactical doctrine, lack of equipment, quality of equipment, and the struggle to handle the oppositions offensive. The casualty rate for BEF soldiers in this campaign were about 16.6%. This number shows the true extent of the poor performance, especially when you consider that the casualty rate in the First World War was about 17%, something of which the British Army were keen to not repeat. Historians have long debated as to what was the key factor behind the BEF and its enormous failure in 1940, and there are varying opinions. David French and Philip Warner supports the idea that the British Army’s failure in adapting and creating an effective tactical doctrine led to the defeat, with French stating that “The Germans did not win a bloodless victory in France. But nor did they outfight the BEF. Instead they outthought and outmanoeuvred it.” Warner along with Alistair Horne have written about the campaign suggesting that it was more the fact of the failure to effectively use the RAF in a cooperative and operative manner that sealed the BEF’s fate. On the other hand Mark Connelly, Walter Miller and David Fraser argue that it was the poor communication and command structure that was ineffective in battle that stopped the BEF stemming the German advance. It is a definite fact that no single factor can be blamed for the BEF failure, although this essay will attempt to analyse and decide what was perhaps the most significant issue. Often said to be the most influential factor in the BEFs failure to stem the German advance is the lack of an updated tactic doctrine. The struggle and stalemate that dominated in the trenches throughout the Great War was ignored and the Government failed to adapt tactics suitable for a Second World War in Europe. The mental attitude that was still adopted by the British was one that Britain as an island was safe because, the notoriously strong navy would protect it; an ignorant and outdated mentality. It can be seen in the Army Training Memorandum number 4A, issued in December 1931, that insisted the army’s first training priority was imperial policing, its second was minor expeditions, then major expeditions, and preparing for a great national war came last – clearly a wrong path to follow at the time. What the British officers failed to understand was the tempo and ferociousness that the Germans would bring to the battle. They made the wrong decision that the way to stop the German advance was to simply have a deep defensive front that would just absorb the attack. Refusing to be the aggressors the BEF and French forces alike, were sheltered behind the illusory safety of a great and expensive system of frontier fortifications at a time when more flexible and opportunistic strategies would thrive. This line of defence was spread out to such an extent that they would be in a significantly weaker position. It has been noted that each battalion was required to hold an average of over 12,000 yards. This defence strategy meant that each battalion could offer little, if any help to each other, especially when the forces had a significantly poor communication system that was easily destroyable. The failure to collaborate was not only within the British army, but also with between the British and French forces. It was not a plausible strategy for the BEF to set up such wide defences when the German panzer divisions would be able to quickly and...
Bibliography: 1. M.M. Evans, The Fall of France Act with Daring, Osprey Military Publishing, 2002
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7. Hew Strachan, Big Wars and Small Wars: The British Army and the lessons of the War in the Twentieth Century, Routledge, 2006
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[ 15 ]. M.M. Evans, The Fall of France Act with Daring, Osprey Military Publishing, 2002, p. 11.
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