Note: This is, again, a very different sort of "Battles" post. The engagement it discusses never occurred; the events of March 1936 are typically discussed in the diplomatic and policy histories of the pre-WW2 period because although the Rhineland Crisis was about armed force and where it was and could be applied the actual "engagement" was between the various governments and diplomats. The military aspects of the event are usually addressed, if at all, only cursorily. And it is that I wish to explore in this post. What WERE the military positions of the two main parties in this conflict, France and Germany? Could there have, in fact, been a fight over Hitler's first gamble? And, if so, what might have that battle wrought? While based on what I can discover about the actual dispositions and plans of the armed forces on both sides, this is, then, a counterfactual, a battle that was never fought and whose lessons we cannot learn.
But are there, perhaps, lessons to be learned from that non-battle? WHY was it never fought? What were the reasons the two armies never met that spring of 1936, and were they primarily military, or political, or economic? And are there lessons to be learned from those reasons?
Given that most students of the period consider that the events of 1936 were critical in the rise of Nazi Germany that led to the Second World War, I thought that an examination of this event was a worthy entry in the "decisive battles" series.
Forces Engaged: Deutsches Reich (Germany) - forces actively engaged in the military operation - code named Operation "Winter Crossing"; Unternehmen Winterübung - of 7 MAR 1936 consisted of a total of 19 battalions of regular infantry supported by 156 cannon in 13 units (from battery to battalion size) as well as a small air support element.
Of this force, itself numbering probably no more than about 15,000 infantry and 5,000 artillerymen, three infantry battalions (probably about a total of between 2,000 and 3,000 infantrymen) actually crossed the river Rhine and proceeded to the international border:
2nd Battalion, 39th Infantry to Aachen on the Belgian border,
1st Battalion, 38th Infantry to Trier on the border with Luxemburg, and
either II/38th Infantry or II/17th Infantry to Saarbrucken along the border with France.
Elements of the Leibstandarte SS (Adolf Hitler) infantry are reported to have accompanied the Heer element that deployed to Saarbrucken.
However, the German plans called for the "activation" of additional forces in place. The Landespolizei, the equivalent of U.S. State Police forces, was nationalized and incorporated into what eventually became four German regular infantry divisions; the overall number of Landespolizei is estimated to have been about 14,000.
Paramilitary forces also included Nazi organizations such as the Sturmabteilungen or SA, the Nationalsozialistische Kraftfahrkorps (or NSKK),
the "Labor Corps" (or RAD - the Nazis loved them some acronyms...) as well even older members of the Hitlerjugend. Even then, this grab-bag of odds-and-Nazi-sods would probably have not numbered more than several thousand. But these jobbersons loomed large in the minds of the French Army commanders, as we will see.
So the actual maneuver forces available had there been a battle for the Rhineland totaled approximately 36,500 all arms (but nearly two-thirds of that total consisted of poorly armed and trained policemen), 156 cannon (typically 105mm and 150mm fieldpieces) and a small unit of light bombers and fighters and about 500 Luftwaffe troops. But, as we'll see in a bit, the larger German operations plan included a much broader depth of support and was genuinely designed for warfighting. The popular accounts describe the Rhineland force as token; this was not the case, and the German Army would have been able, and planned, to fight if challenged.
République Française (Third French Republic) - Perhaps the most shocking part of the whole Rhineland business is that on 7 MAR 1936 the French Army, 340,000 strong on paper (to Germany's roughly 300,000), had no substantial maneuver forces available for a countermove to push the Germans back out of the Rhineland.
You're probably aware, at least in outline, of the course of military strategy in France (towards Germany, at any rate) between the wars. The losses of the First World War had sickened both the Army and the nation. The public had little enthusiasm for fighting, and a series of political and economic moves, such as reducing conscript service to just a single year (begun in 1928) had reduced both overall Army strength as well as the troops available for maneuver warfare.
I have been unable to find an order of battle for the French Army in 1936, but in 1939 (when the threat of war with Germany was was much more obvious) France had only 20 regular infantry divisions. Of these seven had been "motorized" infantry divisions (1ere, 3eme, 5eme, 9eme, 12eme, 15eme, and 25eme Division d'Infantrie Motorisée or DIM) since 1935.
The remainder of the regular infantry divisions (Divisions d'Infantrie or DI) were leg infantry units - I'm guessing probably less then 13 and possibly as few as 6 or 7 in '36 - that included 3 mountain infantry divisions (27eme, 29eme, 31ere Division d'Infantrie Alpins) which were effectively permanently stationed along the Alps on the southern German and Italian borders.
A total of about two divisions (increased to five by 1939) worth of troops were spread along the Maginot fortifications in penny packets. The Régiments d'Infantrie Fortresse or RIF were effectively immobile strategically; any movement beyond the French border would have to be on foot, and they had not trained at maneuvering in the field.
The remaining infantry was divided into regulars posted to the colonies overseas, colonial troops, and reserves; both were effectively unavailable without general mobilization.
France in 1936 had four cavalry divisions (1ere, 2eme, and 3eme Division d'Cavalrie) and a single Division Legere Motorisée or "Light Motorized Division" and eventually a "Light Mechanized Division" or Division Legere Mecanique) that at the time was assigned to 4th Cavalry Division because it was not a true armored unit. The DLM was a motorized unit manned by dragons portees or lorried infantry.
The French armored force of '36 was a fucking disaster.
Individually both the French tankers and their tanks (the Char B1 was one of the better AFVs of the interwar period) were fairly capable. But the overall French tank force was a shambles. In 1934 37 out of a total of 40 bataillon de char de combat were still equipped with the old WWI Renault FT-17. But, worse, the French armor hadn't learned the lessons of Spain or paid heed to the doctrines of Fuller and Guderian (and their own pundits Estienne and de Gaulle) about the employment of tanks en masse.
To give you an idea, when Germany finally attacked in May, 1940 France had about 3,000 various AFVs, about equal to the number of tanks in the ten German armored divisions. But of that total less than 1,000 were grouped on the 7 Division Cuirassée de Réserve (DCR, genuine armored divisions) and DLMs. The remaining 2,000-odd tanks were spread out all over fucking hell in all kind of units of battalion and even company size.
French artillery - as you might expect for the arm that the French Army believed had effectively won the last war - was still formidable. This included, just as an example of a standard infantry division; two artillery regiments; a régiment d'artillerie divisionnaire or RAD, consisting of 24 x 75mm howitzers in three battalions and a régiment d'artillerie lourde divisionnaire (RALD) of 24 x 155mm cannon in two battalions, two Batterie Divisionaire Anti-Aérienne (BDAA, the divisional AA battery consisting of 6x 25mm antiaircraft guns) and two Batterie Divisionaire Anti-Char (BDAC, consisting of 8x 47mm Model 1937 or 75mm Model 1897/33 antitank guns)
By 1940 France also had a total of 21 non-divisional artillery regiments with cannon ranging from 75mm to 280mm, two independent artillery companies and a superheavy (railway gun) artillery regiment. In 1940 the French Army had roughly 10,000 field artillery pieces of all calibers in all units. The totals for 1936 would have been smaller but still, this is a powerful artillery force.
So on paper the French Army still looked like the best in Europe.
However, even assuming that France had been willing to push a force into the Rhineland - and we'll see why that was problematic at best - it would have taken several weeks to assemble and move this force to the border. The force strength would probably have been no more than even with that of the German Army units on the east side of the Rhine; assume that it would have included 1ere DLM, at least one of the DCs, and 2-4 DI. That force would have consisted of between 30,000-40,000 all arms and included probably 40-60 tanks, 100-200 artillery pieces of all calibers, and a token air support contingent.
But no such force existed, and we'll talk about the why of that after talking about the resources available to the researcher interested in the military aspects of the Rhineland Campaign.
The Sources: Let me start by saying that if you are interested in the Rhineland Crisis itself there are a large number of very good references. My work is largely based on three published sources;
The first and most useful was J.T. Emmerson's 1977 work The Rhineland Crisis 7 March 1936 A Study in Multilateral Diplomacy. This was difficult to track down, having been out of print since 1977, and is almost exclusively focused (as the title states) on the diplomatic aspects of the crisis. Still, perhaps the most complete work on the subject published since the opening of the French government archives in the mid-Seventies. Earlier works such as Shirer's lack these primary sources and suffer from that lack.
The two other works gave additional details of the two main contestants. Jean-Baptiste Duroselle's 2004 France and the Nazi Threat, The Collapse of French Diplomacy 1932-1939 provided a valuable look at the western side of the border, while Gerhard Weinberg's 1970 work The Foreign Policy of Hitler's Germany was useful in getting over to the German side of the hill.
I tried to track down a third that was highly recommended: Robert Young's 1970 work In Command of France: French Foreign Policy and Military planning, 1933-1940 but was unable to in the time available for me preceding this post. Something for another day, perhaps.
On the Web several sources proved valuable.
For the French Army of the late Thirties (as it entered the Battle of France) David Lehmann's French Armament 1939-1940 proved an invaluable resource to late pre-War French Army organization and equipment. I could find very little on the Army of 1936, and the Lehmann work provided at least a way to make an intelligent guesstimate to French Army strengths and order of battle.
I was able to unearth two rather worthwhile sources for French Army policy and politics of the Thirties;
Elizabeth Keir's 1996 Culture and French Military Doctrine Before World War II, found here in PDF format, and
The French Army in the Interwar Period, a 2009 paper from Baltic Security and Defence Review v. 11 Issue 2 by Igors Rajevs. Both these provided useful insights into the information available to the French Army high command (Grand Quartier General, or GQG) in 1936 that led to the decisionmaking of the Army Chief, Gamelin, and his co-equals of the Navy and Air Force.
Another rather interesting online source for the French Army of the Thirties is behind the registration wall at JSTOR: The French Army, 1936 a scan of the article written by GEN René Tournès for Foreign Affairs Vol. 14, No. 3 (Apr., 1936). It is interesting primarily as an artifact of the spirit of the French Army of the times. Tournès, whose position in the French Army at the time he published this essay I cannot determine, grossly inflates the size and competence of the army of Nazi Germany:
"...by the end of 1935 the German General Staff had created ten army corps, consisting of twenty-four infantry divisions, three mechanized divisions, two divisions of cavalry, a total of around 480,000 men. To these must be added other regular forces (Landespoleizei, Schutzstaffeln)...plus the 200,000 men in the "Labor Service." By the end of 1936...Germany will then have a peacetime army...of 700,000 men of whom 260,000 will be professional soldiers."Tournès contrasts this with poor Marianne's measly little 340,000 or so regulars and so makes the case for a general mobilization if war with Germany appeared imminent. Kind of sad, isn't it, knowing as we do that actual German strengths were barely that of the French regular army and those incompletely trained and led.
His attitude was not an isolated one in the French Army of 1936...
Another worthwhile source of information on the technical and tactical capabilities of the opposing forces is James Corum's 1994 paper A Clash of Military Cultures: German and French Approaches to Technology Between the World Wars found here in pdf format.
The bulk of the websites outside those mentioned above are all rather similar to the Wiki entry; fairly comprehensive regarding the diplomatic and political events of the Crisis with little if any information on the military actions of the campaign.
The Campaign: The "campaign" that led to the events of 7 MAR 1936 really began at Versailles in 1919. There the European Allies resolved to force a victor's peace on the Weimar government of Germany even though that government was not the one that had been in place when the war began. Along with instilling a deep resentment in the minds of many Germans the Treaty instilled a harsh physical reminder of defeat; the western portion of Germany was to be demilitarized; no German soldier or other military object (such as barracks, ranges, training areas, or fortifications) was permitted in the area that comprised the borderlands with France, Belgium, and Luxemburg.
This area consisted of all of German territory west of the Rhine; all of the Länder (states) of Saarland and Rheinland-Pfalz as well as parts of Nordrhein-Westfalen. The forbidden area also extended 60 kilometers east of the Rhine, into parts of the states of Hessen and more of Nordrhein-Westfalen.
The portion of the Treaty that did this was Articles 42 and 43 of Part 3, Section 3. Article 42 prohibited Germany from fortifying this area, while Article 43 stated that "...the maintenance and the assembly of armed forces...and military manoevers of any kind, as well as the upkeep of all permanent works of mobilization, are...forbidden."
France was also determined to extract payment for her war dead and the destruction of northeastern France and demanded and received a fifteen year occupation of much of this portion of western Germany, as well as the largest of the occupation zones that were established in the Rhineland and set to run from 1920 to 1935.
The British, Belgian, and American forces were also part of the occupying armies. These nations had little interest in putting the boot in, hung around just long enough to pull a fairly half-hearted shift, and were gone from the Rhineland by the mid Twenties.
But the French were serious; the dead of Verdun and the ruined lands around Toul, Belfort, and Nancy assured that.
Not only did they remain in their occupation zone well into the Twenties but when Germany defaulted on her Versailles reparations France (and Belgium) sent their occupation troops further into Germany to seize the industrial heart of their old enemy. The occupation of the Ruhrgebeit lasted from 1923 to 1925 and further irked the German people, rubbed their military weakness into the face of the Weimar government, and provided lovely propaganda for the hard-Right parties of the Reichstag as well as the fascist brawlers of the German street.
By the mid Twenties, though. even France was tiring of the aggravation and expense of the Occupation. At Locarno, Switzerland, four former Allied Powers - France, Great Britain, Italy, and Belgium - agreed with Germany on a group of measures principally intended to reduce the tension between France and Germany.
As part of this so-called Locarno Treaty the signatories reaffirmed Articles 42 and 43, and required that a breach of peace (for at Locarno Germany, France, and Belgium also agreed not to attack or invade one another, a stipulation that had not been a formal part of Versailles) be submitted to the League of Nations as well as contested by the other Locarno nations.
The French occupation then ended five years early, in the summer of 1930.
The Occupation had satisfied no one, not even the French public. Little as they liked or trusted the Germans, the harshness of the Poincaré government's policies (especially the extension of the Occupation into the Ruhr) and the resulting shift in much of Europe's opinion from France towards the "poor battered" Germans had exhausted the patience of the French electorate; Poincaré "the War" (la Guerre) was defeated in 1924.
Emmerson (1977) makes a good point about the Rhineland issue; "It was in the demilitarized zone that the Rhine pact (that is, the Locarno Treaty) was weakest, since, in the eyes of everyone but Paris, the prohibitions contained in articles 42-43 were not taken as seriously as the sections preserving the territorial integrity of France, Belgium, and Germany. The French, however, insisted in treating the demilitarization provisions as essential to their security." So the Rhineland was, in fact, a wedge between the former Allies ; seen as crucial to France but negotiable, even trivial, to the others.
Clearly, the Machtergreifung of 1933 changed the tenor of Franco-German relations. The new Chancellor had repeatedly railed against the iniquities of Versailles and insisted on the return of the territories separated from Germany under that treaty, such as the Sudetenland and the Polish Corridor (and the Rhineland).
But Hitler "...repeatedly reaffirmed his intention of keeping the terms of that treaty (Locarno) and within Germany insisted that such preliminary steps...toward remilitarizing the Rhineland be kept secret and to a minimum." (Weinberg, 1970). In 1933 and 1934 the German Army and Air Force were still too small and the newly raised Army units not trained enough to risk open warfare. Tensions over the Rhineland were slow to rise.
But we know now - and French observers of the time suspected - that by 1935 Hitler was beginning to get itchy about the Rhineland insult.
A large part of the timing of the German chancellor's impatience was due to the Franco-Soviet "Mutual Assistance" Treaty signed in May 1935.
This agreement, in large part designed by French Foreign Minister Louis Barthou as a means of responding to and defending against Germany in the wake of Hitler's open rejection of the military restrictions of Versailles in 1934, pledged the Soviet Union and France to "...immediately lend each other reciprocal aid and assistance." in case of attack.
In the sort of blowback that this kind of thing often provokes the pact, instead of making France more secure, had the effect of irking many of the other Locarno powers. Although it was worded so as to respect the Locarno agreement the intent was obviously to provide a two-front war to encircle Germany in the case of a blowup with France. And the USSR was still very much an anathema to the western European powers such as Italy and Britain. While not resulting in an open rupture between France and either of the other two nations, the Soviet pact was another irritant between them.
Late in 1935 French intelligence sources were reporting that they believed that some sort of German move in the Rhineland was inevitable. In December 1935 Hitler met with the British ambassador (on a different matter) and stated publicly that the Rhineland should be fully part of the Reich.
So the stage was set; a resurgent Germany led by a man whose public credibility rested on regaining the pieces of Germany lost to Versailles facing a France riven by political disunity, still harrowed by the First World War, and battered (as we'll see) by economic troubles. France's allies, particularly Great Britain, had little enthusiasm for war over the demilitarized zone. And the one organization with the brief to maintain that zone, the French Army, was a deeply troubled outfit whose leaders had a very skewed picture of their German adversary as well as internal issues that almost overwhelmed the external threat.
The Plans: Germany - Emmerson states that seven potential means of remilitarizing the Rhineland were available to the Hitler government in March 1936:
"The first three involved a simple announcement renouncing the Locarno treaty...But these were apparently not considered, presumably because they were only half-measures. Another alternative would have involved piecemeal occupation, executed through a series of minor infringements, until de facto remilitarization would have been achieved. But this would have taken time and carried a high risk of detection...One widely cited misconception about the German plan is that the token nature of the force meant that it was expected to flee immediately had the French Army moved against it. This notion is a critical part of the "Rhineland story", largely because Hitler claimed it was true.
It would, however, have been possible to declare that the 14,000 men of the Landespolizei within the zone had been incorporated into the army, thus creating a fait accompli without having moved a single soldier. One can only speculate, but it seems in keeping with Hitler's character that this was precisely the reason why this alternative was not followed. He wanted people to see fighters over Köln cathedral and to hear the Rhine bridges reverberate with the sound of marching columns...Soldiers would make any forceful French reaction a matter for the entire German nation, including, especially, the generals...
The remaining alternatives were either to march in with sufficient strength to put up a determined defence or to employ only a token force in the operation. Even though Hitler professed to believe that the opposition would not react forcefully, he obviously did not wish to risk frightening the French people...(or) to given (French premier) Flandrin an obvious legal right to immediate retaliation."
Hitler is quoted as saying "The forty-eight hours after the march into the Rhineland were the most nerve-racking in my life. If the French had then marched into the Rhineland we would have had to withdraw with our tails between our legs, for the military resources at our disposal would have been wholly inadequate for even a moderate resistance."
Frankly, this seems to me like Hitler trying to impress someone with his steely nerve and his political acumen. In fact, when he made the statement to Austrian chancellor von Schuschnigg in February 1938, he put it differently; "If France had marched then we would have had to withdraw, perhaps about 60 kilometers; even then we would have held them."
The documentary record supports the conclusion that the Rhineland force was not as feeble as usually described. The withdrawal orders (issued as contingency plans during the OPORD briefings on 2-3 MAR 1936) included instructions for the three advance battalions to execute not a retreat but a retrograde maneuver to prepared positions where they were instructed to fight a delaying action. The overall operation commander, GEN Blomberg, instructed the force that actions in response to an Allied incursion should be
"...in accordance with Aufmarsch Rot, dated July 10, 1935. which was defined as a 'general order for concentration and battle.' It envisioned a fighting retreat to the Roer-Rhine-Black Forest line, where the army was expected to hold the enemy advance (den feindlichen Vormarsch aufzuhalten) and, according to 1934 instructions, compel the enemy to abandon its war aims (zum Aufgeben seines Kreigszieles)." (Emmerson, 1977)Emmerson (1977) also notes that the small Rhineland force was allotted a substantial backup: 4 Armeekorps of 13 infantry divisions that included all of the 3-division armored force and sizable artillery support.
I can't emphasize how significant this is in reconsidering the Rhineland Crisis. We will talk about this at length when we get to the actual conduct of the second week of March 1936.
France - The French plans for a move against the German actions would have been organized around their war plan of the time, Plan D bis. This plan, in effect since 15 APR 1935, "...called for three series of "precautionary" measures allowing deployment of the "covering units" (the French Army's mobile reserve) in 23 days." (Duroselle, 2004). But it is worth noting that these measures were almost completely defensive.
- A "Simple Alert" called the regular Army to their marshaling areas (and fully manned the Maginot Line).
- A "Reinforced Alert" called up the reservists in the units along the threatened border, about 35,000 troops all arms.
- A "Security" level mobilization included activation and deployment of the entire Regular Army and a large (120,000) reserve activation, and
- "Reinforced Security" - Full mobilization, which activated the entire Army, at least 1.2 million to as many as 3 million troops.
The French Army in 1936 reflected the deep division in French society and French politics in 1936. The regular Army was considered loyal to, and a military arm, of the Right (ranging from Monarchists to the conservative factions aligned around the Catholic Church to outright fascists of the Le Pen variety). And the longer a Frenchman served the more (at least the conservatives believed) he was likely to place his loyalty to his Army above his civilian counterparts.
"A soldier who has served (with the Regular Army) for one year...has not learned to obey;"said the conservative deputy de Choiseul,
"his character has not been subjugated, his will has not been broken; he has not yet become what makes an army strong: passive obedience." (Keir, 1995)
Reserves were considered to be more likely to owe their political allegiance to the Left.
Schemes to increase the size of the Regulars were usually derided and often defeated by the leftist factions in government. The French Left, the socialists and communists as well as the left-leaning factions of the social democratic parties, saw the regulars as potential jackboots and internal oppressors for the French Right. This was reflected in measures such as the reduction in conscript service from two years to one. The idea was that a less-trained reservist was a less-stormtrooper-sort of reservist, one less likely to shoot down strikers or leftist revolutionaries as they had in 1848 and 1871.
"Public duty (in a professional soldier) is replaced by hierarchical obedience."said the socialist minister Leon Blum in 1934,
"National solidarity is replaced by professional solidarity."The GQG, however, considered that offensive maneuvering was too difficult technically and tactically for one-year reservists or almost all reservists for that matter.
One of the main reasons that the 1934 de Gaulle blueprint for Army modernization was so explosive is that the future President proposed that his armored force would be manned entirely by regulars. Vers l'Armée de Métier (Towards the Army of the Future) called for 100,000 long-service regulars to serve in a mobile army similar to those advocated by Fuller and later by Guderian and Manstein; it was widely ignored. When introduced as a military concept to the national assembly in 1937 it was roundly defeated. The Left and Right in France were poisonously opposed; no modernization of the Army could occur without a complete change in the political chemistry of the nation. And the Army itself was battered this way and that by the poisonous politics of Left and Right. Safety, if there was any to be had, lay in sticking to what the Army knew, what had worked the last time that France was united by war.
So the French Army of 1936 was still, perhaps of all the European armed forces, the most similar to its First World War tactical image. The magic words were Battaille Conduite; "Methodical Battle" and the tactical manual was Petain's 1921 Provisional Instructions for the Tactical Employment of Larger Units.
This set of instructions emphasized linear defense and slow, deliberate attack supported by ponderous artillery preparation;
"The infantry would move forward by short bounds of 5 kilometers or so, under massive artillery support, and at that point, the advance would halt in accordance with specific phase lines, so that the artillery could deploy forward, and the battle could be rejoined, on successive days. Within the carefully coordinated circumstances of a set-piece offensive, battle would involve all Arms to assist the infantry: "The infantry is charged with the principal mission in combat. Preceded, protected, and accompanied by artillery fire, aided where possible by tanks and aviation, it conquers, occupies, organizes, and holds the terrain."So the purely military obstacles to French offensive response to Hitler's Rhineland move - completely absent any other considerations - were considerable.
Mobilization was slow and expensive. Once mobilized, the troop units couldn't move faster than the walking pace of a man or a horse other than by rail.
And it had been years since any French unit had exercised offensive maneuvers in the open field.
This was the army that would have to carry out the will of the French government if it decided to fight over the Rhineland.
The Engagement: While records indicate that Hitler was discussing moving troop units across the Rhine as early as January or February 1936 the operational security of both the Reichskanzleri and OKW was excellent. Planning for Unternehmen Winterübung was kept to the minimum needed to prepare the orders which were issued on 2 MAR 1936 with the date for crossing the line of departure still undetermined; in fact, the date of 7 MAR would not be settled until the preceding Thursday. Although the French Deuxième Bureau had rumors and hints of rumors no hard intelligence escaped.
Much as with the later attack on Pearl Harbor, the date for the operation was set to fall on a weekend when the news cycle would be at its slowest and most of the Allied governments home for the weekend. The actual movement was covered by an intense screen of diplomatic smoke; Hitler's address to the Reichstag was full of the usual pledges of peace and goodwill, and the German ambassadors to London and Paris assured their hosts that the move was purely administrative, a mere rectification of an overstep of the Versailles protocols.
The actual scheme of maneuver was simple; the three battalions marched across the Rhine bridges (the tale that they were shipped back east to march across again appears to be later embroidery) and presumably then boarded troop trains for their frontier destinations. The remainder of the force simply advanced into the east bank exclusion zone, fell out and had a nice C-ration (or the German equivalent) lunch.
The entire operation was designed to minimize the actual warlike elements. It was a movement, not a maneuver. Once in place even the small forward elements did nothing of any real military value; they simple took a break in place and waited.
For all that the German forces now settling in, either behind the Rhine for the majority or in their advanced positions for the troopers of the three battalions sent to the borders, had plans and instructions to fight the memory of the destructive power of the Allied artillery, tanks, and waves of infantry must have made the German commanders nervous. Hitler, who was surer than anyone in Germany that his roll of the iron die would win, himself had some nervous moments. The two most dangerous enemy courses of action would have been; first and less hazardous a countermove by French troops into the Rhineland but, second and worse, a joint ultimatum from the Allied Powers backed with a general mobilization. Would the French move and, if they did, would the British and Belgians join them?
Could the French Army have moved?
Certainly some ministers in the French government had considered quick reaction. A February Quai d'Orsay (French Foreign Ministry) memo read, in part; "It is appropriate to see which precautions or responses should be prepared in the very short term, should Germany take any initiative to unilaterally breach the status of the demilititerized zone. It is up to the Minister of War to make recommendations." (Duroselle, 2004)
This very question was raised in a meeting at the Ministry of War on 7 FEB; Premier Flandrin raised the issue of countermeasures but the service chiefs in attendance made no response. The answer, such as it was, came in the form of a letter from GQG dated 12 FEB and signed by Maurin, the Minister of War, which included a recommendation of "reducing the number of measures now planned to a minimum...in order to avoid offering any real excuse for a conflict." (Duroselle, 2004)
This was not because the Rhineland issue was considered trivial or negotiable; Gamelin, the Army Chief of Staff, stated on 19 FEB that maintaining the demilititerized zone was critical until the classes of 1916-1919 passed through the conscription intake; at least 1940-42.
(One factor that affected French military policy in the late Thirties was the strength of the "classes" - 18- and 19-year-olds eligible for conscription - affected by the World War. As you can imagine, between 1915 and 1918 a vast number of Frenchmen were coming and going to war and not ça-va ça-vient, as they might have said; going to bed with madame to make another generation of French soldiers. The wartime classes were the smallest in France since the beginning of the 20th Century, and the relatively weak intakes of 1935-1940 were a consideration no French commander could completely ignore.)
But a number of other issues complicated French response to the German actions.
1. The French Army had a vastly inflated measure of German rearmament. The Tournès article I quoted in the sources gives you the idea. This was not the fault of the intel weenies at the Deuxième Bureau; their estimates in the archives are pretty much spot-on; a mixed bag of about 480,000 all arms with a severe officer shortage - less than 13,000 in 1935. The intel guys had taken a hard look at all the other uniformed Nazi types - the SA, NSKK, RAD - and concluded they were fairly worthless.
But Gamelin's office added all these odds-and-sods into the Winterübung troop totals. That meant that any French reaction force would be facing not 60,000 troops (Gamelin's estimate of the regular German Army formations in the Rhineland on 11 MAR) but almost a quarter of a million; 235,000 and not as a bunch of odd bodies, galvanized cops, and Nazi coalheavers but actual formed and trained troops.
2. From this first error came the second; that any French response might mean a general war with Germany, and that for a general war France would need to mobilize; general mobilization as she had in 1914. Gamelin and the War Minister insisted on full mobilization as the only answer - the grossly inflated troop numbers go a long way to explaining their reasoning.
3. And full mobilization would be fiscally disastrous; 30 million francs per day was GQG's estimate. And this at a time when France was in the midst of a fiscal crisis largely of it's own making.
When many of the Western powers had left the gold standard when it became obvious that it was sinking economies in the Depression France had adhered to it. Meanwhile a new round of economic depression in the middle Thirties had sunk the franc, and without massive bailouts devaluation was likely. The Wiki entry had a fairly good summary of the problems:
"Because France was on the verge of elections scheduled for the spring of 1936, devaluation of the franc, which was viewed as abhorrent by large sections of French public opinion, was rejected by the caretaker government of Premier Albert Sarraut as politically unacceptable. Investor fears of a war with Germany were not conducive to raising the necessary loans to stabilize the franc: the German remilitarization of the Rhineland, by sparking fears of war, worsened the French economic crisis by causing a massive cash flow out of France as worried investors shifted their savings towards what was felt to be safer foreign markets. On March 18, 1936 Wilfrid Baumgartner, the director of the Mouvement général des fonds...reported to the government that France for all intents and purposes was bankrupt. Only by desperate arm-twisting from the major French financial institutions did Baumgartner manage to obtain enough in the way of short-term loans to prevent France from defaulting on her debts and keeping the value of the franc from sliding too far, in March 1936. Given the financial crisis, the French government feared that there were insufficient funds to cover the costs of mobilization, and that a full-blown war scare caused by mobilization would only exacerbate the financial crisis."So the GQG was unprepared to even present a plan of operations to counter Winterübung; the Flandrin government would get no help from its service chiefs when it needed it most.
The worst-case was even less probable; Great Britain was not having any part of a war with Germany over the Rhineland.
The British public was largely indifferent to the Rhineland and where it was not it rather favored the Germans; Bernard Shaw remarked that it was like Britain reoccupying Portsmouth. In meetings with Premier Flandrin between 11 and 12 MAR Foreign Minister Eden not only refused military action but opposed economic sanctions as well. The Baldwin government stated officially that the economic wherewithal and the public support for war were both lacking.
Belgium had withdrawn from it's secret 1920 military assistance pact with France, as coincidence would have it, on 6 MAR. This secret agreement allowed French troops passage through Belgium as needed as well as Belgian assistance during wartime. The day before the German move into the Rhineland the Belgians retreated into "true" neutrality and cancelled the 1920 agreement.
Italy, the other Locarno partner, was still pissed off about French and British opposition to it's war in Abyssinia and would do nothing; indeed, French troops would be needed on the border with Italy.
Tensions remained high for about two weeks; from 10 to 19 MAR the telegrams and speeches flew about; Hitler threatening and reassuring, Flandrin blustering, Baldwin placating.
It is supposedly during the period 11-13 MAR that the German military, led by the War Minister von Blomberg, got a case of nervous-in-the-service and went to Hitler in a panic insisting he withdraw the troops - at least the three outfits west of the Rhine. This is supposed to be where Hitler refused, and is supposed to be the source of his later distrust of and contempt for the officer corps of the Army outside his personal favorites.
However I can find little documentary support for this. Instead, Emmerson (1977) suggests that the breach came later, in 1937 or '38, and that the Reichskanzler and his generals appeared to have been well satisfied with each other from March 1936 until the following year. Indeed; this researcher suggests that the overall effect of the success of Winterübung was to increase the respect felt by the soldiers for their civilian Leader's geopolitical skills.
On the other side of the border, the politicians and soldiers were not getting along so well.
Premier Flandrin discussed a naval blockade of Bremen and Hamburg, landing marines in the Heligoland, and seizing German ships at sea. The French Navy, still stronger than Germany's at that point, replied that those operations "were as adventurous as that were unproductive." due to issues with security and lack of cooperation from the British. (Duroselle, 2004)
The French Air Force - which was also at that time stronger than the Luftwaffe - refused to consider air attacks without general mobilization because of the vulnerability of Paris to counterattack. All three of the French armed services, one by one, refused to consider the possibility of a fight. Too risky of a general war that French might not win, too expensive, too costly against a German military that the French Army considered much more dangerous that it truly was.
No French troops would leave their barracks. Unternehmen Winterübung had succeeded.
The Outcome: Decisive German strategic victory.
The Impact: We know the impact; Hitler and his coterie were strengthened, the Allied powers discouraged. "Appeasement" became the watchword, and Nazi German aggression continued unchecked until September 1939 when the other European powers could no retreat no further.
Still, it is worth considering the counterfactuals.
The French military might have moved against the German forces in the Rhineland; it is possible that, as many writers and historians have since claimed, that Hitler would have panicked, retreated, lost face and then the election later in March of 1936 and been tossed out onto the junkpile of history.
However, even had the political and economic hurdles the French countermove been overcome, I think it's worth considering that such military move might not have been successful.
What Might a French Countermove Have Looked Like? Let's imagine that, somehow, Flandrin rams through a cabinet motion to send troops into the Rhineland, and the Assembly approves it on 10 MAR 1936. Gamelin obeys, unhappily; ordering one of his senior commanders - Charles Huntziger, say - to assemble a Groupe Mobile to push into the southern part of the Rhineland from Lorraine while the rest of the Army mobilizes in expectation of general war.
It takes nearly two weeks for Huntziger to assemble Second Army, composed of 1ere DLM, 2eme DC, two DIMs (3eme and 5eme) and three DI, and move forward to the line of departure Thionville-Sarreguemines-Bitche. The Air Force provides the 1re Division Aérienne with two Groupements de Bombardement (about 40-50 Amiot 143 light bombers) covered by the 66 SPAD-510s of Groupement de Chasse 21 flying out of airbases around Metz and Nancy. Second Army crosses the international border on 22 MAR 1936; 15 DI demonstrates before Saarbrücken while 1ere DLM and 3eme DIM attack northeast from Thionville and 2eme DC, 5eme DIM, and 7eme DI attack north from the LD Sarreguemines-Bitche.
But II/38th Infantry has already vacated its positions around Saarbrücken having mined the roads and destroyed every bridge they can reach. Stay-behind teams of fanatic Nazis from SS-LAH overwatch roadblocks of felled trees and ditches, sniping and delaying the French columns. Squads of Landespolizei fight delaying actions at every small village between the border and Heusweiler.
It takes eight days for Second Army, advancing behind immense artillery preparations, to reach the phase line Heusweiler-Freidrichsthal. 1ere DLM has taken nearly 8% casualties, mostly from mines and snipers, and there has already been an incident of combat refusal in 15 DI, where a battalion of regulars stopped at the outskirts of Saarbrücken and refused to move forward until artillery had reduced the buildings of the southwestern suburbs to rubble.
The newsreels are aflame with German film of winsome blonde frauleins and loveable grannies fleeing the brutal French barrages and Rhenish farms and towns in ruins. The British and Italians have protested and have stated that they will accuse France as the aggressor before the League in Geneva.
Two weeks later the left wing of Second Army is battering at Trier, where the full regiment of 38th Infantry has a fortified position, while the center and right have barely advanced as far as Idar-Oberstein and Kaiserslauten where they are meeting the lead elements of III Armeekorps. German artillery, rushed forward over the bridges at Mainz and Worms is taking a heavy toll of French infantry, while in the air the small Luftwaffe has effectively fought the 1ere Division Aérienne to a standstill, its He-51 fighters more than a match for the SPADs and devastating to the Amiot bombers; no French raiders have managed to reach either the Moselle or Rhine bridges where the I and III Armeekorps have established defensive positons, the former south of the Moselle and latter west of the Rhine.
When the League demands an armistice on 16 APR the Flandrin government is more than ready to agree.
Would This Have Been Likely? The German Army of 1936 was a good little force based on the professional Reichswehr, it would have been fighting on the defensive and its defensive plans were based on a solid tactical scheme. The French Army, on the other hand, was still locked into the Methodical Battle. Advance would have been slow, and, what's more, extremely destructive. I consider the possibility that a French advance from the southwest might well have stalled as described above quite likely, bogged down between German delaying actions and French tactics; at least as likely as an outright German defeat.
Remember; the Germans didn't have to win per se; they simply had not-to-lose long enough to make the countermove too painful for the French. The costs in obloquy, blood, and treasure might have been heavier than the French public would have been willing to pay; it might have been the Flandrin government, rather than the Hitler government, which fell as a result of a French countermove into the Rhineland.
But the reality is that the Allied nations most concerned; Great Britain, France, and (to an extent) Belgium were not prepared to fight for what they considered no more than a negotiating point. Hitler was not yet seen as...well, Hitler; he was still looked on as just another fascist politician, a German Franco or Mussolini. The horrors of the death camps, of the slave labor factories, and of the sonderkommandos were years in the future.
Emmerson (1977) sums up his view of the lessons of the Rhineland Crisis;
1. A nation that intends to play a role in the world outside its own borders must have a military capability commensurate with its ambitions. France and Britain had allowed that capability to degrade and found that when they needed it it was not available.
(I would go further than that. A nation's defense rests, like a three-legged stool, equally on sound intelligence soundly interpreted, a military that is both capable and tailored to the geopolitical needs of the nation, and a political leadership both clear-sighted and wise - at least wise enough to look at both intelligence and armed force with a realistic appraisal of the strengths and limitations of both.2. Governments in democracies cannot afford ignorant or, worse, misled and deluded publics. "Uneducated opinion cannot easily or rapidly be changed unless the people can see the reasons clearly for themselves..." (Emmerson, 1977) and, as we ourselves have seen, in a rapidly changing and complex world and one in which governments themselves increasingly use their servile "news media" to obscure and mislead the public rather than to clarify matters for it this clarity can be difficult or impossible to find and ignorance a Sisyphean task to reduce.
France in 1936 suffered from problems in all three; the intelligence was there but was not believed by Gamelin; the Army was both tactically immobile and operationally confused, and the politicians were unaware of both the issues with the intelligence and the failings of the Army. And that is discounting the political dysfunction between Left and Right that would continue up to the fall of the Third Republic.
I could be blatant here and draw a detailed parallel between this crisis and the United States in 2003, but I assume that you are intelligent to draw it yourself.)
How many U.S. citizens still think that Saddam was behind 9/11?
3. A nation whose economy is not fundamentally sound - and whose economic levers will not be used - cannot long endure as a power. By returning to the gold standard in the midst of the Great Depression France effectively hamstrung herself and that weakness was reflected in her inability to respond decisively to Winterübung. Whether incapacitated by fiscal bureaucrats or by larcenous banksters, a polity that can't respond to economic hardships also cannot respond to political troubles.
Despite the lack of combat, the "battle" for the Rhineland action was a crucial step towards the coming war. Without the leverage of the demilitarized zone the last check on Germany power crafted by Versailles was removed. Though few people in the Europe of the time, the sound of the boots across the Rhine bridges in 1936 was the distant thunder of the storm three years to come.