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The Saar Offensive: The Impossible Dream

A French soldier looking at a Nazi sign in a captured village.

A French soldier looking at a Nazi sign in a captured village.

The Saar Offensive is one of the much-talked of "what ifs" from the Second World, common for speaking about mistakes made by the French during their campaign in 1939-1940. The idea which is advanced is that if the French had continued their Saar Offensive and expanded it, then they could have managed to defeat the German army in the West while the majority of German troops were in Poland, putting an end to the Second World War almost before it had started. The idea is superficially tempting and is backed by some quotes from German generals Alfred Jodl and Siegfried Westphal that if the French had attacked fully, then the Germans would have been defeated. As pleasant as the idea may seem, in fact the Saar Offensive was not nearly as likely to succeed as hypothesized: its promotion has been the result of a self-serving tale spread by all the involved combatants, and rather than representing a missed chance to end the Second World War in 1939 it shows the problems and difficulties facing the French army at the beginning of the war.

French Mobilization

On Semptember 3rd, 1939, the French Republic and the United Kingdom declared war on Germany, in response to the German invasion of Poland two days earlier and the German refusal to back down. French mobilization had however, started considerably earlier, as the French high commander Gamelin had started to recall reservists starting from August 21st. Still, French mobilization would take weeks, and it had the problem in that the heavy artillery needed to contemplate an attack on the Siegfried line, the German defensive line in the West, would be in the later mobilization waves. The French also would have to contend with insufficient engineering support initially - very problematic given the need to cross many rivers and the difficult terrain present, as well as in attacking enemy fortifications.

When French artillery did get into action, the lack of effective delay fuzes for the heavy guns reduced the capacity to break the Siegried line, as German bunkers could not be easily suppressed. Still, this would doubtless have been solved by the sheer quantities of French artillery that could be deployed, with the vast French leftovers from WW1 - but a common feature was that deploying this artillery would take a long time and it was rather static and slow moving.

Furthermore, the French mobilization scheme meant a hasty attack was very difficult to pull off and meant major risks for the French army as a whole. French infantry divisions were mobilized on a basis where the standing troops were used to form the cadre (leadership) of the new mobilized forces. Although the number of French peacetime infantry divisions was small, only around 20, in wartime their numbers would triple through the formation of series A and Series B formation, and This did however, require that the cadre used for this mobilization stay intact, or the troops which mobilized would be without any experienced soldiers. Thus, the French army, until it was fully mobilized, had to carefully guard its trained cadre. By necessity a defensive strategy was thus necessary, since an attempt to utilize these trained soldiers early on would mean that they would risk being destroyed, and the mobilization of a larger army delayed. A French attack in the Saarland risked doing both, and hence was an inherently extremely risky project. Even if they were deployed after mobilization was completed, Series B units had poorly trained reservists, with very inadequate reservist training during the 1920s, and limited training for men from the first half of the 1930s, as well as insufficient reserve officers and general training in the 1930s as a whole. The Series B units would take a long time to be beaten into shape.

Still, once the French mobilized, they would have 65 divisions in Metropolitan France, although 10 were deployed on the Italian border, and 2 armored divisions, 2 armored brigades, and 40 independent tank battalions. These could be supported by 1,347 operational aircraft, including 439 fighters and 359 bombers, plus reconnaissance aircraft. The French would be able to expect significant amounts of additional forces as colonial divisions arrived and they fielded new armored units. In theory, the French force was a formidable one. There would also be 4 British infantry divisions sent to reinforce the French, and the RAF would send its advanced striking group - although it would insist on keeping the overwhelming majority of its aircraft back in Britain. All of this meant that if claims about the Germans being entirely concentrated in Poland were true, the French might be able to break through - but unfortunately, these claims are far from the truth...

The Siegfried line has been much ridiculed for its hasty construction, but to contain the French attack in 1939 it would have certainly served well

The Siegfried line has been much ridiculed for its hasty construction, but to contain the French attack in 1939 it would have certainly served well

German Forces

On the other side, German troops in the West were placed in Heeresgruppe III, under the command of Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb. At Leeb's disposal were 33 divisions - including 12 of the divisions from the German first wave, 1 welle. German divisional quality had fallen in later waves as new waves of divisions were constantly raised during the massive expansion of the German army in the 1930s, but even poorer and less well equipped German divisions could be counted on to do well when in static defensive positions and fighting in attrition warfare - particularly those veterans of the First World War, since the experience would be quite similar. This would be one of the less demanding military scenarios, and so reserve infantry units were well suited here. There were also 12 divisions from the fifth wave which were available to reinforce German troops in the West, as so necessary, and the German air force had kept substantial forces present in the region - 1,300 aircraft with 490 BF 109s, 500 He 111s, and 40 Stukas. In effect, even with much of the German air force's attention devoted to Poland, the Germans would still have aerial supremacy in the region - and many of their fighter pilots had much more experience than the French, due to operations over Spain in the Condor Legion.

The German troops could content themselves with advantage of defending prepared fortifications as well. In the West, the Germans had spent great amounts on the West Wall bordering France - twice the amount of steel and four times the amount of concrete as the French Maginot line, with thousands of bunkers and gun emplacements - 11,283 combined to be precise. This could have been dealt with through the massive amounts of artillery that the French could ultimately assemble - but the Germans also had unprecedented numbers of mines deployed in front of the West Wall, including the S-Mine - to become famous as the "bouncing betty" - and many anti-tank mines. The French had not invested enough in mine clearing and certainly had insufficient mine warfare units attached to their attacking forces, and during the historical French attack on the German forces in the region, they lost many tanks and men to anti-personnel and anti-tank mines. Even without the Siegfried line, the terrain along the Rhine and in the Rhineland is difficult, with many hills, forests, and rivers - good defensive terrain and not conducive to large scale offensives

The German organization

The German organization

The Germans admittedly, did not have any tank divisions stationed in the West, but for the defensive warfare that they would fight, this was not a real problem. In addition, the Polish campaign would be finished within a few weeks, at which point they could bring troops back from the East, and cut off advancing French columns if the French made any progress and had sustained the casualties to do so. But it is unlikely that the French would have, as hastily prepared units would have to advance in horrible terrain against potent enemy fortifications under enemy air attack and braving minefields which they had no equipment to deal with.

The Historical Quagmire

The French attack historically went about as well as one might expect under such circumstances - it took the French until September 7th to start to attack, until September 9th for them to be really engaged, and only a total of 4 divisions saw any serious fighting. This fighting only involved pushing the Germans back to their own fortifications, and came at the cost of significant losses to anti-tank mines which destroyed numerous H35 tanks, and casualties were steeply titled against the French - some 400 dead, wounded, or missing on the German side compared to 3,000 on the French side.

It also did not bode well for future attacks, as French reconnaissance aircraft were unable to operate due to intense Luftwaffe fighter resistance, which meant French units were attacking blind. In the case of a German counter-attack, the French would have no warning. The French stopped their offensive entirely once it became clear that Poland was lost, with the Soviet invasion of September 17th.

The Enduring Myth

If the Saar offensive was an offensive which was always futile, with a balance of forces preventing any possibility of French success, why did it gain such attention as a great missed opportunity?

For all of the parties involved, the Saar offensive has been a useful tool to exaggerate. For Germany, the exaggeration of the strength of the French army at the time and the weakness of their own was both useful for the Nazis and those sympathetic to them by a demonstration of the bold dashing courage of the Nazi regime, but also useful post-war. For German generals, it made their triumph in France look all the greater, and the decision for war all the bolder. Their enemies meanwhile, looked even more incompetent and decadent, further portraying the German military in a positive light. Meanwhile on the French side, the pre-war military had been utterly discredited by the defeat in the Battle of France. The Saar offensive would be yet another representation of their foolishness, of their lack of aggression and excessive defensiveness, another argument for the need for a mobile, aggressive, French army. It was something to be scorned in the case of Poland and other Eastern/Central Europeans: to them and the Russians, it is another demonstration of "Western Betrayal", when the West stood by and did nothing to stop Hitler, to be scorned in the Polish and Czech case, or to be contemptuously compared to the Red Army's valiant struggle. And for the Americans and the British, it is another way to critique the French and to emphasize their own successful offensive operations in comparison. As a result, the actual reality of the Saar is something which has been lost in the historical rubble, as it serves little the interests of all sides.

What Might Have Been - The Necessary Preconditions of the Saar Offensive

So if the Saar Offensive was doomed to defeat in its historical plan, could anything have led to its success? Given the previously stated factors this would be tremendously difficult for the French. A vital necessity would be an earlier mobilization, so that French troops were fully mobilized and ready to attack as soon as the French declared war. Poland would need to resist longer, so the French and British would have to encourage the Poles to mobilize earlier, instead of delaying Polish mobilization as long as possible to attempt to buy time for negotiations. Both of these require dramatically different French, and probably British leadership as well, and leadership of such firmness might have been enough to deter Hitler - although probably not, as he knew well that his window of opportunity against the French and British was closing.

Poland needed an earlier mobilization and assurance that the British and French would really stand by them so that it could deploy its forces in depth instead of on the frontiers,  if it was to have a hope of lasting longer.

Poland needed an earlier mobilization and assurance that the British and French would really stand by them so that it could deploy its forces in depth instead of on the frontiers, if it was to have a hope of lasting longer.

Even at this point, an actual offensive by the French would be problematic in light of the Luftwaffe's crushing dominance. There would need to be a much better French air force to protect advancing French troops, with many more French pilots, better aircraft, better ground crew, and better air-defense for the units on the attack. This is difficult to imagine without massive alterations to the French war effort. The French had made impressive strides in massively increasing aircraft production capacity over the previous few years, and while there could have been some improvements to efficiency - such as a better nationalization effort which would more rationally develop the French aircraft industry instead of history's original nationalization-by-geographic zone efforts which probably complicated aircraft production - it is difficult to imagine these doing enough to close the gap between the Luftwaffe and the Armée de l'Air. Of course, offensive operations are not impossible in the context of lacking air superiority - but the French units struggled enough as it was, and so having them be on the offensive, pummeled by enemy aircraft, and without any reconnaissance flights would be a very bad idea indeed.

Furthermore, a French attack would mean that the French would be unable to release some of their mobilized soldiers back to their factories to expand production, something which happened after the immediate French mobilization.This would mean that even the historical French aircraft production numbers of the Phony War - which greatly disappointed French planners who wanted much more - would be higher than those achieved in the context of an all out, and continuing Saar Offensive.

At this point, there are still the problems of German mines, which the French seem to have put insufficient thought into defeating - not unsurprisingly one can suppose, since the French didn't expect to be on the offense during the beginning of the war anyway. The French would have to do much to come up with functional mine clearing units and and anti-mine doctrine. It is difficult to imagine the French army of 1939 having the élan to take the casualties required to cross the vast German minefields without appropriate mine-clearing units.

Once all of these problems are resolved, with the French having a fully mobilized army, enough aircraft to provide air cover for their troops, a more prepared Poland, and mine-clearing units - there is still the question of what exactly the French can achieve. The Franco-German border is very bad terrain for an offensive, with rivers, hills, and forests. The French attack would be slow - French doctrine mandated that, and the force ratios would make any other option impossible - and vulnerable to being cut off by a German attack at its base as it advanced north, into the increasingly slender terrain mandated by the presence of Luxembourg and Belgium on the left and the Rhine on the right - and the Rhine is a broad and swift-flowing river, and crossing it only was achieved historically in the context of collapsing armies or of lucky seizures of bridges. The German army in 1939 had its problems, but is unlikely to collapse, and the French army lacked the speed and doctrine to quickly seize a bridge. In effect, the French would be in a long salient, very exposed to being cut off, and without the ability to stage a broad-front advance with overwhelming numerical and material superiority due to the terrain, and thus would sustain greater casualties and wear. It would do little to prepare the French for the coming armored warfare, and just give the French a repeat of WW1. It would harden the troops up - but not cause a fundamental re imagination of the French style of warfare. It could be contained with enough German forces that the Germans would be able to still finish off Poland. The Russians would still probably intervene and take their spoils in Eastern Poland. The German attack in the West would have choice targets to go after in 1939, and the French less in the way of mobile units to help out the Belgians and Dutch, while the Germans would still be able to swing through the Low Countries to hit the French army from behind - with a repeat Schlieffen plan being an ideal move in this circumstance.

And all of this assumes that the French were in a dramatically better event to launch the Saar offensive than they were historically, with leadership that was much firmer towards Germany and would probably have dramatically altered the diplomatic circumstances surrounding the coming of the Second World War anyway.

In short, the Saar Offensive being a decisive turning point of the Second World War is an imaginary proposition. It has had the utility of offering everybody involved something to further improve their reputation on, as a seductive "what if" that can be proposed as something which could have happened. In fact, the reality is much less glamorous - that the French high command made the right move in sitting still in 1939, that they had no choice but to abandon Poland to her fate, and that the idea of French soldiers crying "à Berlin!" like in 1914 is an exercise in futility. it is time to retire the myth of the missed chance of the Saar Offensive


Case Red:The Collapse of France by Robert Forczyk

The Rise and Fall of the French Air Force by Greg Baughen

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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