“The fog of war” is a clichéd phrase that’s supposed to account for all the confusion that obscures what’s happening on a battlefield. It sometimes helps one side or the other, but mostly it just seems to make figuring out what happened that much more difficult after the fact. During the Campaign in France 1940, both sides made surprising mistakes about the other, usually because of poor communications, lack of adequate training but often out of human error. For example, even Churchill claimed the Germans had beaten the French and British because of their preponderance of “heavy” tanks— actually, the Wehrmacht had no heavy tanks, and very few of the Pz. IIIs and Pz. IVs— mostly Pz. IIs, along with Pz. 38(t)s acquired when Germany annexed Czechoslovakia.
The Germans weren’t immune to exaggeration: soldiers claimed the Char B1 bis was a monstrous “60 ton” heavy tank— while much more heavily-armored than German tanks of the time period, the Char B1 was only 28 tons.
That same fog seems to have descended on both sides when it came time to write the history of the campaign: the Wehrmacht’s apologists were only too happy to perpetuate the myth about the superiority of German armaments, while the French have been content in some instances to let the world think they were beaten by better tanks, not by being out-soldiered.
Military historian Steven Zaloga has waded into this black hole in an attempt to find out just how good (or bad) the main tank of both sides was. Zaloga is well-known for writing readable, accessible scholarly books about all matter of military subjects, and his latest is called Panzer IV vs Char B1 Bis: France 1940. The book compares the two major battle tanks of the French and Germans almost rivet for rivet, but also tries to sort out the various myths about the battle for France. The French collapse is still considered one of the most spectacular defeats ever, and is often compared to disasters like the Austrian rout at Wagram.
It’s also an extremely useful book for modelers, since it puts the spotlight on the Panzer IV and Char B1 Bis tanks, offering a ton of useful information, diagrams and photos.
The soft-cover book is comprised of 80 pages, most with a single B&W photo to illustrate the text. Several computer-generated color images are also included, specifically the interiors of the two tanks, and one of a French tank commander blazing his way through a swath of Panzer IVs.
Humans, especially young men, love one-on-one fights, whether pugilists in the ring or on the battlefield. We will endlessly debate which sports hero is the best, and "Ali vs. Lewis" or "Wellington vs. Napoleon" comparisons are the stuff of pubs, bars, talk radio and Internet chat rooms. The same sort of one-on-one evaluations consume discussions about the equipment of warfare, too, so it’s not surprising that Osprey has put out a series of “X tank vs. Y tank” books, this being the latest.
The problem, though, is that comparing tanks is always challenging: what are the measures of success? For example, the armor of the French Char B1 bis was 60mm, far thicker than anything the German tanks had, and too thick for their most-common anti-tank gun (the PAK 37mm) to penetrate. Yet the design of the Char B1 was a throwback to the French tanks of WWI, and was both slow and prone to breakdown. The Panzer IV, on the other hand, was more maneuverable and faster, yet its “cigar butt” 75mm gun had a low muzzle velocity which rendered it unsuitable as a tank killer. Soon after the French campaign, the Germans would cram a superior high muzzle velocity 75mm long barrel gun into the Pz. IV’s cramped turret, creating a very battle tank that became the armored workhorse of the Wehrmacht. The Char B1 bis had a more-powerful main gun than the Panzer IV, but it was lodged in the body like tanks of the First World War, making it hard to aim. Other drawbacks like a too-small crew and spotty radio communications doomed it to the scrapheap of history.
It’s small wonder, though, that both sides misunderstood what was about to happen to them on the battlefield. Zaloga points out that even the Germans lacked any experience with tank-to-tank battles, which were in the future prior to June 1940. This leads him to the conclusion that, far more damaging to France’s efforts to repulse the German invasion was its lack of training and a faulty doctrine. Even with a better main battle tank, the French simply weren’t prepared for what was about to hit them. While German doctrine gave wide latitude to individual commanders, allowing them to adjust to the tactical situation at-hand, French junior officers were hobbled by a high command that wanted to have almost minute-by-minute control without having the communications network to control the events and participants on the battlefield. The results were that when their tanks blunted the German onslaught, the field commanders were unable to build on those successes. Logistical problems were also better-handled by the Germans than the French, though it must be pointed out the latter was faced with roads clogged by refugees and retreating units.
While all that might sound very dry, Zaloga makes the story interesting and accessible by concentrating on perhaps the fiercest tank battle of the campaign around the town of Stonne. While mostly forgotten today by all but French armor buffs and historians, German veterans of the battle often compared it in ferocity to Stalingrad. Zaloga lays out the action, showing how the French had the superior materiel, but lacked the training, experience and doctrine to exploit their advantage.
So why would this book interest modelers?
The technical details and interior drawings are excellent, but will be useful primarily to the scratch-builder or those few builders who install interiors. More important in my estimation is the understanding the book gives us of the vehicles and their performance, as well as how they were employed by their respective armies. Building tanks without that understanding seems to me pointless, much like fabricating a model of the Great Pyramid at Giza without asking why it was constructed, who did the work, and what it was for.
The book combines details about the tanks modelers crave with a fascinating tale of two armies poised for a conflict neither fully imagined clearly. The Germans had rolled over Poland, but were now facing the largest army in Western Europe, along with its British allies. They were at a numerical disadvantage in the number of tanks, and had never gone head-to-head with an armored enemy. The French expected the Germans to dust off the Schlieffen Plan from World War I and attack through Belgium; when the invasion came through the Ardennes— and on wheels— the French had few mobile reserves to blunt its thrust and were quickly defeated.
As the victors, the Germans could mask their mistakes. The French had to live with a variety of excuses, none of which hit the mark. This book helps to clear away some of that "fog of war."
Thanks to Osprey Publications for this review copy. Be sure to say your heard about it on Armorama when purchasing.
Highs: One of the better accounts of the Campaign in France in 1940. Good interior diagrams of the tanks.Lows: Focuses primarily on the battle of Stonne with little about other tank engagements.Verdict: Recommended. Gives a real understanding of how the tanks were fought.