The body under the rug

When I was a senior in high school, I wrote a little essay in which I noted that things had gone too easily for the Western allies after the first couple of  years of WWII.  We often surprised them, they seldom surprised us. I’ve never seen an example of a historian saying that before 1974, when the facts about Ultra started to come out. There were people – Germans – that noticed in WWII.  They figured that there was some kind of intelligence  leak, but they couldn’t figure out what it was. The guys running their machine cryptography assured them that it was unbreakable.

I think that there were some historians that didn’t mention it because they knew all about it – people like Samuel Eliot Morison. But most historians didn’t have that WWII experience, weren’t read in, and they never saw it ( I’m open to correction on this).

Why the hell could I see this when they couldn’t?

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106 Responses to The body under the rug

  1. Steve Sailer says:

    I noticed one paragraph in ultra-insider Samuel Eliot Morison’s History of the US Navy in World War II from the 1960s that, read with hindsight, sounds like he was hinting that it was almost as if somebody was reading the German codes.

    It’s in the one volume summary, but I forget where.

  2. Steve Sailer says:

    It would seem like a good history dissertation topic: who knew about Bletchley Park before 1974? How was a project with 10,000 people working on it, right on the main road between Oxford and Cambridge, kept a secret for so long? Did this vast conspiracy ever attract any conspiracy theorist interest or are conspiracy theorists never interested in true conspiracies? Did the KGB know in 1955?

    • HenryScrope says:

      The ring of five traitors told their handlers while it was still ongoing I believe, relevant info was sent to Stalin by Churchill but Philby et al were giving away the shop to the Kremlin anyway.

    • gcochran9 says:

      The KGB knew all along. Malcolm Muggeridge had hinted about it print, and Gustave Bernard had written a big book about it in French in 1973, which nobody in the Anglosphere ( or Germany) had read.

    • Anonymous says:

      Who’s this “we” Kimosabe? Your lot didn’t actually join in until the later years of the war when things were going “more easily”.
      That aside: I grew up not far from Bletchely Park and as kids we played in the buildings. Folk only realized that something odd was up until the council tried to knock the buildings down and couldnt: They were all bomb-proofed. I knew a lot of people who worked there and didnt know exactly what was going on. Something important, sure, but exactly what? Probably fairly few people knew. You can go there and talk to people who worked there–there are still some left.

      • gcochran9 says:

        The US put in more troops and did more fighting (and dying) than the Brits, as well as financing most of the British effort. Then, took out the Japanese without much help from Blighty.

        Nor do I think that things were that easy in Normandy in 1944, or over Germany.

        Yes, ‘we’.

        • Stephen says:

          Looking at a reputable and unbiased (and USAian) source, the National WW 2 Museum:
          US deaths, 418,500
          UK deaths, 450,700.

          I suppose you could argue that, since the US sat out he first years of the war in peace, the US had a higher death rate per unit time once they were forced to join in, but that’s not quite the same as saying they did more of the dying.

          And if you look at it in terms of death rate per unit time per unit population …

          • JP says:

            Let’s hope no Russians come along and remind folks of the obvious.

            • Toddy Cat says:

              The obvious being “having as your war leader the only man who ever trusted Hitler is a terrible mistake”…

            • Stephen says:

              If they do, I would remind them that many German planes bombing the UK were running on Russian fuel until Stalin realised that Hitler was not actually his friend.

          • syonredux says:

            “Looking at a reputable and unbiased (and USAian) source, the National WW 2 Museum:
            US deaths, 418,500
            UK deaths, 450,700.”

            Interesting. The WIKIPEDIA article on World War II casualties gives the British total (all military related deaths) as 383,700, vs 407,300 for the USA.

            Here are the figures from Matthew White’s Necrometrics site:

            United Kingdom
            Keegan: 244,000
            Britannica: 264,443 (incl. missing)
            Davies: 264,443
            Small & Singer: 270,000
            HarperCollins: 271,311
            Urlanis: 290,000
            Ellis: 305,800
            Eckhardt: 350,000
            Compton’s: 353,652 (British Empire)
            Info. Please: 357,116 (all causes)
            Clodfelter: 403,195 incl…
            264,443 KIA

            United States of America
            Keegan: 292,000
            HarperCollins: 292,100
            Britannica: 292,131 (not incl. 115,187 non-battle)
            Compton’s: 293,986
            Urlanis: 300,000
            Info. Please: 291,557 KIA + 113,842 other causes = 405,399
            DoD: 291,557 KIA + 113,842 other = 405,399
            Ellis: 405,400
            Encarta: 292,131 KIA + 115,187 other causes = 407,318
            Wallechinsky: 292,131 KIA + 115,187 other = 407,318
            Eckhardt: 408,000
            Small & Singer: 408,300

            • Stephen says:

              Interesting. Possible explanation for differences: National WW2 Museum site includes civilian dead, who were just as dead as military.

              • snorlaxwp says:

                I’d say the more likely explanation is that some sources are counting colonial (e.g. Indian) military dead while others are only counting British military dead.

        • Frau Katze says:

          Roosevelt was clearly sympathetic to the UK and helped in every way possible without actually joining the war.

          (There were also a few American men who crossed the border to Canada so they could join the war. My father, who was in the air force in WW2 described it. They were called the “Eagle Squadron”.)

        • Brits or the US is nitpicking, given that the Germans where fending them both off with half a hand for most of the war.

    • Johanne Olsen says:

      I remember Ron Unz wrote a 15,000-word thing about it on his ARPANET page in 1971, and he still had it online in the 1980s on his UNZ WORLD Gopher site.

      It probably would have attracted more attention at the time, but it was overshadowed by another ARPANET piece of his that went viral, an expose of the faked Apollo 11 landing.

    • Johanne Olsen says:

      This may be an appropriate place to plug “Enigma,” a nice little mystery by one of Steve’s favorite writers, Robert Harris.

      From the NY Times review:

      The setting for “Enigma” is in a sense familiar to many Britons; since the secret life of Bletchley Park was revealed 20 years ago,innumerable newspaper articles and several nonfiction books have recounted the role played by the motley gang of anonymous decoders in winning the war.

      Mr. Harris’s inspiration, however, was simply to recognize the fictional possibilities in a story. “I loved the idea of a code breaker as detective, of a man searching out for meaning in what appears to be random and chaotic,” he said in an interview at his home here. “This is the heart of all mysteries.”

      He interviewed many people who worked at Bletchley Park in the early 1940’s. And, most challenging, he had to wrestle with complex mathematics to explain how the codes were broken.

      The drab, ultra-secretive war front at Bletchley, he discovered, had as many as 6,000 employees in 1943, but the elite comprised an eccentric band of British and refugee intellectuals, aided by young women carefully picked from upper-class British families.

  3. tautology5628 says:

    My working theory is that they dont actually know much and the stuff they know is hard for them to navigate at once. They may read about battles etc, but details slip their mind quickly. I have been reading German history lately (hre to be precise) and I was surprised when listening to talks about it by historians by how many details were off.

    So my best guess is that Greg just remembers more details and noticing that the Germans rarely surprised the Allies is a thick problem that becomes easier to solve when you remember not just three battles at the time, but 10 and can keep them in mind while reading. I would not be surprised if noticing “stuff” is actually relatively directly predicted by digit span backward. I can retain 14 numbers and the historians lecturing about the holy roman empire don’t so whatever story they tell me will sound simplistic and incomplete.

    • gcochran9 says:

      The average historian seems not to know that American colonials had and used guns, rather than strangling the deer in their fields with their bare hands.

      • tautology5628 says:

        That seems more like a case of political wishful thinking. Wouldnt it be nice to stick it to the gun toting rednecks that their gun tradition is not actually a tradition but just an invention of the NRA? I mean I am pretty sure that is what they were thinking in that case.

        I think the cause here is distinct from the Enigma example. In the Enigma example you have to know something to notice, in the gun case you have to be outright silly to believe the settlers did not have guns. I dont know of any deep seeded political desire for the German codes not having been cracked.

        But maybe I am just wrong about that.

      • JP says:

        not to be a jerk, but history is what dumb, bookish people focus on. They generally don’t think systematically, don’t have a clue about economics or demographics. Whenever someone with a quantitative background rolls in, they start laying waste and actually advancing the state of knowledge. Think of what Gregory Clark has done in just two books, for our knowledge of Medieval Europe.

      • crew says:

        Wait. The second amendment was to defend against an uprising of the deer, wasn’t it?

  4. Daniel says:

    Presumably some of this can be explained by poor historians who are unaware of their subconscious biases. To the degree they view WW2 as a battle between ultimate good guys (us) and ultimate bad guys (them), it doesn’t strike them as odd that the plucky good guys continually get one over on the stupid, bumbling, inherently evil bad guys. Any time “Huh, that seems awfully unlikely” crosses the mind, it gets blotted out by “Such are the vicissitudes of war… God must have been on our side” or similar.

    Of course, this can’t explain all historians. Some are presumably smarter and more disciplined than that. Some

    • gcochran9 says:

      Like when the plucky Polish knights went out to fight the evil Mongols. And were all killed.

      • IC says:

        Story of Mongol conquest: Bunch of beta lead by omega killed a lot of alphas.

        After reading “secret history of Mongols” & “Yuan history”, you will find out Genghis Khan who was a timid (afraid of dogs, like to tear), introvert, even got bullied by nearby beta. He was even not very good physically strong who always choose to run away from confrontation and fight. He even abandoned his family during enemy raids.

        But he was doubtfully very intelligent and good boss as startup businessman who was able to grow his wealth tremendously. All people wanted to work for him as employees. After each military defeat on the steppe, he could quickly raise another force very fast due to his financial ability. Also he loves meritocracy (more trust for strangers) and hates nepotism (relatives meaning nothing for him).

        Adam Smith said something about strength of “Tartar” similarly. Wealth is power for Mongol lords.

        • David Chamberlin says:

          Superior weaponry that the Mongols possessed made all the difference. The noble and fearless Polish knights went to battle against a bunch of little guys on ponies that just so happened to have compound bows drawn back by a thumb hook that they could shoot very accurately for 100 meters. They trained their ponies to jump off the ground and at that instant when they were not bounced around they would shoot. The armor worn by the knights was no match for the high velocity arrows designed with armor piercing points. They even designed their arrows to make a frightening whistling sound that panicked many a soldier that heard it.

          • mtkennedy21 says:

            Same thing happened to the French at Agincourt. Armor vs strong bow.

          • David Chamberlin says:

            I meant to say composite bows.

          • IC says:

            Westerners believe in equipments superiority; orientals believe in brain-power superiority.

            I believe brain power.

            Here is how mongols armors look like and how they hold their spears (the same way of holding horse catching poles)

            First western invasion

            How they defeat Polish and Hungarian

            • Difference Maker says:

              There was successive improvement in the composite bow in the East. It is a larger steppe region more suited to such developments, after all

              Haven’t read too closely but the accounts of Mongol archery against knightly armor suggest that it was substantially more effective than that of the earlier Turks

              • ChrisA says:

                I have read that the compound bow only really worked in the kind of arid environments of the steppes, once the Mongols encountered more humid or wet climates, like North Western Europe, then the bows fell apart. This would explain why this kind of bow wasn’t developed or used in Europe very much.

              • Cloveoil says:

                A less developed kind of compound bow called the Finno-Ugric bow was used in similar climates of Europe, Asia and North America.

          • Difference Maker says:

            Furthermore, there is the East Asian visuospatial IQ. Steppe peoples probably also have good vision, in contrast to the bookish civilized peoples

        • JP says:

          To quote John Milius’ script: “WRONG!”

  5. I think it might have been a “weight of numbers” issue: World War I was a stalemate till the US arrived, so after Pearl Harbour it was only a matter of time? Every battle could be interpreted as minor compared with the logic of US industrial production. Was the Battle of the Bulge something which made people believe that the Nazis had surprised the Allies?

    • gcochran9 says:

      The Battle of the Bulge really was a surprise: the Germans were back inside their own borders and could use land lines. And Hitler made that compulsory: he’s one of those that knew there was some kind of leak.

      No, it was more than sheer weight of metal.


      • ghano says:

        by 1944 no matter what germans would have tried there was no way theywould have won the war they simply lacked demographic and resources.

    • David Chamberlin says:

      The Russians on the other hand were still surprised by successful counter attacks up to the point where the Wehrmacht were ground down so far that they couldn’t do much of anything but try and hold their ground. But they didn’t have the code cracking abilities that the allies on the western front had. World War Two rolled right into the cold war and in this period historians were kept from being educated about code cracking advantages gained by the western front allies in World War Two over the Germans, because they were an asset in fighting the cold war against Russia.

      • reiner Tor says:

        The irony is that the Soviets knew about it anyway.

      • Rich Rostrom says:

        The reasoning was fairly complex.

        Gordon Welchman was one of the top theorists at Bletchley Park (developer of methods and machinery for cracking Enigma). Postwar, he emigrated to the US, and became an important figure at Mitre Corporation, working on military comm systems. He wrote about his WW II experiences in the 1982 book The Hut Six Story.

        Even though ULTRA had been declassified several years earlier, with several books about it already published, the NSA and GCHQ tried to suppress Welchman’s book and revoked his security clearance. This was because he revealed that the Allies could not have broken Enigma without German conceptual and operational errors – some of them quite egregious.

        NSA/GCHQ wanted crypto users to believe that they broke ciphers through mathematical wizardry applied by supercomputers. In fact they, like Bletchley Park, were very dependent on user errors, and they didn’t want anyone drawing attention to the importance of such errors – even in 1982, and certainly before that.

        Also, Enigma (which was actually a commercial product that the Germans licensed from its Swiss inventor) remained in use after the war, by various minor countries. GCHQ found that very convenient.

        • gcochran9 says:

          Still true that higher math made the problem a lot simpler than the Germans though: the plug-in board, being a permutation, did not change the cycle structure.

        • NickG says:

          Enigma without German conceptual and operational errors – some of them quite egregious.

          Yup, the silly habit of ending messages with Heil Hitler certainly helped.

        • ilkarnal says:

          I’d be interested in a list of works whose publication the national security agencies tried to suppress!

  6. HenryScrope says:

    I’m imagining most publishable historians, say Hugh Trevor-Roper, up to the mid 60s anyway, were ex- military or intelligence in some way, so they knew and kept quiet or found out and kept quiet.

    When David Irving, very much a new young writer at the time, was writing Mare’s Nest he put 2 and 2 together and was warned off and given some enhanced access as compensation, about 1963.

    Also if everyone is deliberately not looking at something sometimes it’s wise to join in.

  7. pyrrhus says:

    Which leaves the question, given that the Soviets knew and the Enigma machine was completely obsolete, of why the secrecy for so long after the war?

  8. inertial says:

    The idea that the Western allies had it too easy in WWII was anathema. That was exactly what the Soviets were saying for decades. You don’t want to repeat Soviet propaganda, do you?

  9. Withywindle says:

    There was the odd walloping or surprise—Kasserine, Bulge. But I would suspect that a lot of the early (and late) historiography was about apportioning credit and blame among the allies. Bernard Montgomery was a genius and Eisenhower a fool! No, other way round! And general Allied success then gets folded up into “my guy was a genius” arguments. Which are arguments worth having, but they would distract attention from other issues.

  10. Frau Katze says:

    It’s possible that some Germans high in the military did know or strongly suspect the code was being broken but were afraid to tell Hitler. He was always paranoid and got even worse after the failed assassination attempt. He didn’t hesitate to execute suspected traitors.

    Consider the equally paranoid Stalin. He refused to believe that the Germans were preparing to invade the USSR. A few German Communist spies did get word to him but he was did not believe them. I seem to recall that at least one bringer of bad news was shot.

    A big weakness of authoritarian governments is that the underlings are as afraid of their leader at least as much as they are of the enemy.

  11. akarlin says:

    From Simon Singh’s The Code Book:

    However, cryptanalysis is a clandestine activity, so Bletchley’s accomplishments remained a closely guarded secret even after 1945. Having successfully deciphered messages during the war, Britain wanted to continue its intelligence operations and was reluctant to divulge its capabilities. In fact, Britain had captured thousands of Enigma machines and distributed them among its former colonies, who believed that the cipher was as secure as it had seemed to the Germans.The British did nothing to disabuse them of this belief, and routinely deciphered their secret communications in the years that followed.

    Consequently, the thousands of men and women who had contributed to the creation of Ultra received no recognition for their achievements. Most of the codebreakers returned to their civilian lives, sworn to secrecy, unable to reveal their pivotal role in the Allied war effort.While those who had fought conventional battles could talk of their heroic achievements, those who had fought intellectual battles of no less significance had to endure the embarrassment of having to evade questions about their wartime activities. According to Gordon Welchman, one of the young cryptanalysts working with him at Bletchley received a scathing letter from his old headmaster, accusing him of being a disgrace to his school for not being at the front. Derek Taunt, another cryptanalyst, summed up the true contribution of his colleagues: “Our happy band may not have been with King Harry on St. Crispin’s Day, but we had certainly not been abed and have no reason to think ourselves accurs’t for having been where we were.”

    • dearieme says:

      “While those who had fought conventional battles could talk of their heroic achievements”

      In my experience of my father’s generation few spoke about heroic achievements. Indeed few spoke about the war at all, at least to their children.

      I suspect that Mr Singh had met few soldiers of that war. I realise that he was just reaching for a cliche to contrast with the experience of the Bletchley people; it’s a pity that his editor didn’t urge him to do better.

    • Frau Katze says:

      The treatment of Alan Turing was terrible.

  12. William Newman says:

    I dunno, I have some trouble seeing it. It fits the facts, sure, but not so well that it’s easy to guess without hindsight. For Japan, I might be able to guess naval communications being insecure from too much good luck at the level of fleets being in the right place at the right time. For Germany, though, strategic intelligence problems seem harder to pick out of the details. They are fuzzed not just by the generic fog of war, but specifically by the Germans making various strange choices (several choices related to USSR invasion, e.g.), and by the possibility of the Allies teasing information out of other forms of intelligence that they had available (notably aerial reconnaissance, but also lesser not-actually-reading-the-codes communication security problems such as traffic analysis, and all the informal human ways things can leak when you’re operating in hostile territory).

    I have heard claims that various German operational problems in the Battle of the Atlantic were a pretty good clue that the relevant codes were compromised. For that, though, I don’t know enough of the data to know whether I’d have had a chance to guess from that. And even there, direction finding and microwave radar might make things more ambiguous than a view that emphasized codes would suggest.

    Incidentally, because probably some readers would be interested, and because no one seems to have mentioned it: .

  13. Yudi says:

    The Nazis have mythological value, and the idea that they were often outfoxed by the Allies lessens that value. Similarly, the KKK must be presented as just as menacing as in the 1920s and Russia as intimidating as in 1962.

    • Toddy Cat says:

      There’s lots of truth to this. The Nazis were such great bad guys, people just can’t leave them alone.

      • Frau Katze says:

        Today’s non-religious leftists dislike the words “Satan” and “evil.” They sound too religious and conservative and non-progressive.

        They’ve substituted “Hitler” and “Nazi” (or “fascist.”) They’ve managed to actually change the language, at least informally. I expect they have done the same to other European languages. I don’t to imply a conspiracy, more of a zeitgeist thing.

    • syonredux says:

      “Similarly, the KKK must be presented as just as menacing as in the 1920s and Russia as intimidating as in 1962.”

      The ’20s Klan was a pyramid scam…..

      • From a recent reread of William Sheridan Allen’s “The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town, 1922-1945,” the NSDAP, if not a true pyramid scheme, sure seems to have operated like a multilevel marketing op at the very least. On pages 80-82 of my 1984 18th printing, Allen emphasizes the “businesslike” party financing structure, with local party groups having to pay cash in advance for any and all propaganda and other authorized recruiting materials sold by the regional divisions. Per Allen, this not only resulted in remarkably responsive adaptation to local conditions (evidently because if nobody showed up the organizers lost money — amazing innovation, that!) but it also meant that “the members of the Nazi party were exploited for all they could bear,” the poor things.

        What with all the rough-and-tumble tactics and beatings and murders of rivals, journalists, etc., from the Nazis’ early days — not to mention Ron Rosenbaum’s characterization of Hitler as a “gangster who became a politician” — one wonders if the whole Party was at some organizational level just a moneymaking enterprise that happened to become politically successful, too.

  14. Cantman says:

    Most historians are only capable of reading other written summaries and summarising them. The better ones at least use primary sources but if it isnt explicitly written down for them it didnt happen.

  15. As a lad I was fascinated by codes and read up on their importance. Not many other people seemed that interested, even those who knew periods of history in excruciating detail. They were fascinated by battles, and perhaps the diplomacy and personalities of important figures. Maybe you were more alert to that possibility than the others fascinated by WWII. You can see a lot just by looking, as Yogi Berra supposedly said. People who believe in codes believe also in the importance of knowledge, surprise, and communication in general. Even though those things don’t go boom.

    Leo Marks believed that enormous resources, including many humans, were wasted in the North Atlantic prior to the entry of the Americans and for a year after, because the Germans had clearly broken our codes and those in control among the allies refused to change them, though others were up and ready. It’s one of the simpler time-travel, alt-history scenarios to convince them to change and see what happens next.

  16. Cantman says:

    Here is a related question: how were they doing with our codes? German naval codebreaking was very effective in WWI (see e.g. Marder), but I hear little to nothing about allied codes in WWII, nor German attempts to break them.

  17. sam57l0 says:

    Don’t forget that Capt. Daniel Gallery, commanding the USS Guadalcanal, captured the U-505 and its code machine.

  18. Coagulopath says:

    One of the interesting things about the Ultra story is the great efforts the Allies took to hide the fact that they could see the Axis’s cards.

    Obviously, if German ships were constantly being intercepted with surgical precision, that would attract suspicion. So they sowed fictions about traitors within the German ranks, to detract attention from the information leak.

    On one occasion, Ultra intelligence was used to sink a convoy of five ships sailing from Naples to North Africa. The Allies sent a radio message to a (completely nonexistent) spy in Naples, congratulating him on his success. The Germans fell for it.

    Magic consists of making your audience look at one hand, while your other hand does the real trick.

    • JP says:

      Krauts were fools to put all their eggs in one basket. Why would they rely on an overly optimized system like this? vulnerable to a single point of failure? Russians learned this lesson and (apparently) used couriers to hand deliver messages in their recent Crimea operation. “When you make assumptions you make an ass out of me and you”

      • Coagulopath says:

        You mean the Enigma machines?

        Probably the answer is “for the same reason people don’t change their weak passwords”. The Germans had no reason to think Enigma was compromised, so it wasn’t. Even a leaky roof seems fine when it’s not raining.

        There’s institutional costs to using multiple systems: operators must be conversant in two ciphers, soldiers have to carry twice as many secret pads, etc. It’s like how increasingly onerous password requirements (“Starting today, all passwords must contain letters, numbers, doodles, sign language, and squirrel noises!”) actually make the system less secure, as your workers will just say “fuck it” and write the password down on a piece of paper.

        I think the machines did vary and increase in complexity as the war went on (through the addition of rotors). And a couple of Enigma messages remained uncracked for over 50 years, so it’s not like the system was terrible.

  19. Philip Neal says:

    The French knew that the Poles had found a way to read Enigma and some idea how (see Andrew Hodges), yet apparently the Germans never learned this after the fall of France. Is there an untold story here? On the face of it, the French deserve a measure of credit.

    • Toddy Cat says:

      The French probably get a worse rap than they deserve with regard to WWII in a number of ways. The French Army didn’t really do any worse against the Wehrmacht in 1940 than anyone else did in their first encounter; the only problem was that they didn’t have huge spaces like the Soviets, the English Channel like the British, or the Atlantic Ocean like the USA, so they never got a second chance. They had all too many collaborators, but so did almost every country, when Nazi ideology didn’t get in the way. The Nationalist Chinese are another group that probably do not get the credit they deserve.

      • Rhetocrates says:

        If we gave Chiang Kai-Shek the credit he deserved, we’d also have to admit how dirty we done’im.

        Very dirty indeed.

        Still, though, the guy deserves a little disapprobation. He gave his country to the Reds because Moscow told him they had his son hostage.

      • Pincher Martin says:

        Toddy Cat,

        The French probably get a worse rap than they deserve with regard to WWII in a number of ways. The French Army didn’t really do any worse against the Wehrmacht in 1940 than anyone else did in their first encounter; the only problem was that they didn’t have huge spaces like the Soviets, the English Channel like the British, or the Atlantic Ocean like the USA, so they never got a second chance.

        The problem with this kind of excuse-making is that a country’s geography ought to be the first thing its strategists keep in mind when planning a defense against an invading army. The French Army knew it didn’t have Soviet-like expanses to which it could retreat; it knew it didn’t have an English Channel to protect the country; it knew there wasn’t an ocean between France and the German Army. It’s not as if those were unknown things prior to the invasion.

        So the French should’ve been far more vigilant of the growing German threat than they were. Yet many of them assumed that the stalemate of trench warfare – but this time with better trenches -was going to hold for another war. Instead, the Germans bypassed the Maginot Line and went into France through the Low Countries against surprisingly little resistance. While all the Western Europeans involved in this joint defense deserve some blame for this, the primary blame ought to be on the French.

        • Coagulopath says:

          Would the Maginot Line have done anything?

          Modern defensive strategy is all about defense in depth: making the enemy charge until his legs fall off, then encircling him and cutting him off. The Germans built a big-ass wall and it didn’t help: Allied forces stormed it within hours.

          • Pincher Martin says:

            Would the Maginot Line have done anything?

            I guess we’ll never know. The German Army mostly avoided attacking the Line in their blitzkrieg through the low countries into northern France.

            But the idea was sound for its time. The French believed that another war with Germany would be similar to The Great War, lasting many years, and that a strong, well-defended defensive line was necessary to winning that war.

          • Rich Rostrom says:

            The French strategists expected the Germans to move through the Low Countries, just as in WW I – because of the Maginot Line, which the Germans respected and did not try to breach. (BTW Allied forces did not breach the Westwall within hours; it took a lot of fighting lasting several weeks.)

            The French were prepared for such a move – the best French Army, the First, was earmarked to march into western Belgium and meet the Germans around Antwerp and Brussels. The relatively elite BEF was also so tasked. Another French army was assigned to race up the coast to link up with the Netherlands, which came under heavy attack as expected.

            However, the main German attack was in a different sector – across eastern Belgium against the center of the Allied line. The Germans broke through there and raced westward to the sea behind the entire Allied left flank. All those troops were cut off and lost, except those evacuated at Dunkirk.

            The real French failure was that they did not understand how motorization made rapid responses to enemy moves necessary. Once the breakthrough was made, the French commanders fell behind the course of events and couldn’t catch up.

            • Pincher Martin says:

              Nice account, Rich Rostrom.

            • Coagulopath says:

              The real French failure was that they did not understand how motorization made rapid responses to enemy moves necessary.

              It really is true that generals are always fighting the last war. The Line would have been designed with WWI in mind: trenches, infantry charges, and primitive tanks with a top speed of 5mph or so.

              • dearieme says:

                Your accounts sound wrong to me.

                The reason the French didn’t defend the Ardennes properly was that they had somehow convinced themselves that it would be impossible for the Germans to mount a mechanised attack through them. What evidence the French had for their peculiar belief I don’t know, but it was bugger all to do with expecting a repeat of trench warfare.

            • mtkennedy21 says:

              Hitler was also worried about a lost German Courier who had the plans in his possession. He recommended the Ardennes variation as a result. The Manstein Plan was the Ardennes plan.

              • Warren Notes says:

                I’ve read that the demographics needed for raising an Army were much less in favor of the French than they were for the Germans – due to WWI. Whether that’s true, I don’t know.

              • gcochran9 says:

                Germany had more than twice the population of France.

              • Apparently the demographic situation was even more dire with respect to the men reaching draft age in the years up to and including 1940 — the Germans had something like a 4:1 numerical advantage each year. Hence France’s extensive use of colonial troops, much to the Germans’ disgust.

              • zinja says:

                I exaggerated. In 1915 464,000 German men were born versus 184,000 Frenchmen, which is about 2.5:1, a ratio that was apparently maintained in subsequent years.

        • Frau Katze says:

          The geographical explanation cannot be discounted completely. You may know of your vulnerability but really, sometimes there’s nothing you can do.

          A friend of mine from Belarus explained that people “kept their heads down” and tried not to upset passing occupiers. Belarus, right next to Poland must have seen quite a few.

          OTOH, those of us of solely UK ancestry don’t have that attitude.

          Is it a mere coincidence that the UK and Japan are both on islands?

      • sthomson1971 says:

        It’s not just that the French were quickly defeated, it’s that they killed so few Germans in the process, and so many of their soldiers all but refused to fight. The Poles and the Russians (even when the latter were being routed in 1941) fought much harder.

    • dearieme says:

      I don’t think it’s untold. When the Ultra story first came out in Britain the French were given credit, and the Poles even more. Over the years the acknowledgement of the French seems to have dwindled. Even of the British now seem to have been replaced in the story by a mysterious body “the Allies”.

    • Rich Rostrom says:

      Part of the story is known. The Polish codebreakers escaped to France in 1939, and were put to work there (supervised by the spy who in 1932 had given them the German documentation they used in breaking Enigma ). This operation was in full partnership with Bletchley Park, and the two centers read several thousand Enigma messages during the battle of France.

      The Poles were evacuated to Algeria; then brought back to unoccupied France where they continued to work on Enigma for the official French spy service, under the Vichy government. This operation continued till the rest of France was occupied in November 1942.

      What’s not known is “Who knew?” That is, who in the Vichy government knew about the Poles and that Enigma was cracked? Not Pétain or Laval, I’m sure. Spooks in the Deuxième Bureau knew; but which ones, and how did they rationalize withholding the secret from the head of the government?

  20. Eli says:

    Aren’t most historians paid to support a particular narrative, not so much discover new patterns?

    • Coagulopath says:

      I don’t think historians are paid to do anything.

      According to CUPA-HR, history grads who find employment earn a starting salary of $42,318 p/a. Roughly a hundred such openings appear in the job market per year. This is ahead of “Area, ethnic, cultural, and gender studies” ($41,776 p/a), but behind “Visual and performing arts” ($43,464 p/a). Given grad school debt, most of them teach or turn tricks.

      But then, have you ever seen those conspiracy Twitter accounts with 200K tweets and fifty followers? Just machine-gunning gibberish insanity into the void at all hours of the day and night, regardless of the fact that nobody’s listening?

      People don’t need to be paid to share their crazy ideas. Some do it for the love of the game.

  21. David Chamberlin says:

    Unrelated but interesting.
    A couple of Russian “tourists” who just happened to be in the area at the time of the nerve agent attack in England left behind non toxic levels of the nerve agent Novichok in the room where they were staying. ttps://

    What idiots. Professional assassins everywhere must be disgusted at these fools for leaving a clear and obvious trail back to themselves and to their boss, Mother Russia. Now Putin has come out and said they are innocent. It’s an obvious open and shut case if they can prove Novichok was found in the room they were staying at. The KGB ain’t what it used to be, they might as well have had Putin sign his name on a bullet and have it used to kill the Skirpals.

    • Peter Lund says:

      I thought the obviousness of the whole thing was the whole point?

      Russia wants everybody to know what they do to defectors. Russia also wants everybody to know that there isn’t a whole lot the West can (or rather: is willing to) do about it.

      • albatross says:

        It may be that the kind of guys you can get to carry nerve agents around on their person to carry out a very public and spectacular assassination in a foreign country are not the very sharpest tools in the drawer.

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