If France wanted to compete militarily with the growing power of Germany, it was going to have to start a serious effort to rearm itself.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 67 - The Third Republic Part 7 - Rearmament. This week a big thank you goes out to Mike, Brad, and Paul for their generous donations to the podcast, with part of those donations going to the purchase of Shattered Sword: the untold story of Midway, which is far and away the most listener recommended book in the history of any of my podcasts. One of the challenges of approaching the Second World War is the sheer amount of books that have been written about the war, there are many many libraries worth, so if you have a favorite book on any topic relating to the interwar or war years, let me know through email or social media or on Discord, the links for all of which are on the website. With that out of the way, on with the episode. The topic of rearmament in France is a tricky subject, because it is almost impossible to discuss French rearmament without comparing it to what was happening in Germany at the same time. In that comparison French efforts seem small, almost quaint, before 1939 but if you break the rearmament years into specific periods, then things start to look much better. There is no disputing that until the Munich Crisis German efforts were far in excess of anything that France was doing. But then in the period between the start of 1939 and September 1939 and the start of the war that balance begins to drastically shift. By the time that the war began, France was starting to outproduce Germany in both tanks and aircraft. When it comes to the specifics of how the French pursued rearmament the evaluations you can find are all over the place. At the time there was a real debate about the most efficient way to manage rearmament, which was a serious economic and industrial undertaking. Soem advocated for close and tight government control which had been the path that Germany had been forced to pursue. But there were both philosophical and economic arguments against such an arrangement. On the philosophical side, a more laissez faire approach was what the French economic system had been. In the strict government budgets of the early 1930s, they had moved even further away from strict control in an effort to limit government spending. There was also the beleif that the German rearmament was not doing so well, especially as it looked to the future, which was a solid evaluation of the German efforts which were on a quick course to causing serious economic problems as the demands of rearmament could not be met by further imports. Or as one editorial in the Economist would say at the time “The one great lesson that can be drawn from the German economic experience of the past three yers, is that well-organized control can secure the maximum utilisation of a country’s resources for the piling up of armaments.” There were similar concerns that such control in France would stfle the growth that was absolutely essential for rearmament to hit the desired production targets. In the end the French would pursue an uncoordinated approach, which caused a rapid incrase in production, but also had other ramifications, some of which we discussed last week with the rapid draining of French hard currency reserves. Another theme that would run through French rearmament was a fundamental belief that “real” rearmament would not even begin until the war started. At that point the entire French economy could be reoriented towards military needs. This was a lesson that had been learned during the First world War, where military production and expansion during the war years absolutely dwarfed anything that had come before. In this episode we are just going to look at rearmament itself, while next episode, and the final in our series focusing on France, will focus on how they were planning to use the weapons that they were creating.
The beginnings of rearmament were rooted in the Popular Front years. It would be during 1936 that the first 4 year program would be mapped out and started, and it required the Popular Front to sacrifice social reforms that had been a critical part of their political program. The final cost of this initial round of investment would be 14 billion francs spread over four eyars, and it would be finalized on October 30, 1936. While this was a considerable sum of money, there were some considerable problems that had to be rectified both within the French military and economy before the proper results culd be attained. When it came to acquisition of war material the French miltiary had a tendency to not make it all easy either. There were certain best practices when it came to producing, well anything, but especially when it involved the kind of specialty and large production facilities that many large armament projects required in the 1930s. Some of these best practices was to provide a long runway of production orders, consistent purchases, and no radical changes to the specifications. All of these were at many points violated by the French military. One specific example of this phenomenon was a scouting vehicle that was designed to work with the French cavalry. The initial design was signed off one, and the factory created an assembly line to produce it, several test models were then handed over to the cavalry with the expectation that it would be tested and then more orders would be placed with some minor modifications. Then nothing happened for 6 months. In that time the entire ecosystem that had been built around the production of that vehicle had fallen apart. The assembly line was mothballed, all of the various part suppliers had found other buyers for their goods. When the second order was finally placed everything had to be reworked and restarted, which then cuased further delays. Now, not everything was the military’s fault, as we will discuss here in just a moment, but everything was tied together. The military not doing everything possible to work with French industry resulted in further delays. Then those delays for weapon systems, especially newer and more complicated systems like new tanks, would result in training delays and the lack of ability of the troops to fully prepare to use them in time of war. These problems were very problematic for large maneuvers, because without the proper number of the most modern equipment it was impossible to do any real testing of their usage and performance. The 1937 maneuvers were derailed for this reason, which in retrospect would be incredibly important, because they would be the last pre war maneuvers that would occur, because they were staged in the fall and the 1938 version would be cancelled by the Czech crisis.
While the French military was suffering partially due to decisions they were making during rearmament, on the economic side they also had to contend with years of decisions that created a perfect storm to make rearmament difficult. Before we talk too much about the problems, let’s at least start on a postiive note, when the Popular Front started the four year program, it at least made one really smart move, and that was to make ti clear that the investments in rearmament were going to be long term investments. This made industrialists and investors less hesitant to spend the money that was needed for French rearmament to be a success, and was money sorely needed. By the late 1930s French arms industry was a shockingly debilitated state. Due to the strength of the France during most of the interwar period, there had been very little international interest in French produced arms, because the strong Franc had made such exports very expensive. The French military had not been a great source of orders either, as the constant reductions in government budget had put a serious damper on any domestic arms production. This lack of inccentive had resulted in little investment in industrial expansion or factory modernization in critical arms industries. When those same industries were then called upon to massively increase their output for rearmament, they were simply not up to the task. One of the possible solutions to these problems, at least according to some French leaders, was to nationalize the arms industries, which would allow more direct control over the behavior of the entire supply chain. This nationalization push had some very strong advocates within the French government, including Prime Minister Daladier. Daladier was joined by Gamelin in the desire to push for greater govenrment control in the hopes of solving equipment shortages that the French military was experiencing. This nationalization prush was divisive at best, and when it was introduced into the French Senate it would have an important caveat: if the government took over anything, it had to be full companies. They could not just buy into part of a company, it had to become wholly nationalized. Daladier and others would have preferred some way to exert large amounts of influence without requiring complete control, but they took what they could get. Over the following months the Air Ministry took control of 28 factories, the Navy 2, and the Army 9. However, this was just a drop in the bucket of the companies that made up France’s arms industry. There were something like 600 private factories in France participating in rearmament, and so just 39 in total was a pretty small percentage. It did allow the military to take control of some of the lowest performing factories, and gave them at least some control over what was being manufactured, and how it was being designed.
Even though a number of factories had been nationalized there was still a huge amount of friction between the industrialists and the unions, and in the early stages it would be an important part of the rearmament process. In every country that began these large rearmament programs, this pre-existing friction would increase as the employers wanted to maintain a high level of production, on generally very profitable government contracts. The French workers were adamant that they not lost some of the reforms that they had gained over the previous years, like the 40 hour work week. Restricting working hours was anathema to those employers that were trying to push through greater and greater levels of production. This difference in opinion would result in a 1 day strike in November 1938. The strike would result in swift action from the government, who would call in the police to break up to the strike. Such an action was at the behest of many within the government that still strongly favored a free market outlook on the econocmy, and for that free market to work they believed that the power of the industrialists had to be maintained. Or as the Finance Minister Paul Reynaud would say in November 1938: “We live in a capitalist system, for it to function we must obey its laws. These laws are those of profits, individual risk, free markets, and growth by competition.” The clear government backing of the industrialists would break the resistance of the unions, and over the next year the 40 hour work week would be destroyed in the name of greater arms production. During 1939 hours would rise up and would be exceeding 60 hours, while at the same time the real purchasing power of wages would drop precipitously. This complete shift in worker relations would continue into the war years, while at the same time taxes on workers would be increased to help fund further rearmament efforts. However more power did no solve all problems for the factory owners though, and when mobilization was ordered they would very rapidly find themselves robbed of thousands of skilled workers who were called to the front. That such actions occurred is a great indication of the absence of some of the controls of the entire industry that probably should have been put in place. It was a simple lack of coordination, with the Ministry of Labor unable to put limits on who would be mobilized.
When it came to what was being built during rearmament, aircraft obviously played a major role. When it came to those aircraft one of the common discussions that would occur in nations around the world during the years before and during rearmament was how the nation’s air assets related to other military arms. For example, in Britain there would be many discussions between the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force over control of the Fleet Air Arm. In the United States the Army Air Corps and the Army would have their own disagreements. In France these discussions would also occur, and it would result in the French Air Force becoming its own independent military branch after 1934. While some of the disagreements in these discussions were focused around political power and control, there was also an undercurrent of how air power should be used. Air forces that were under the control of the Army were often molded and pushed towards capabilities that were most useful to the rest of that Army. This often meant a focus on artillery spotting, reconnaissance, and close air support. In essence, the Army saw the air force as just an extension of its normal strategy, just another tool to mix in with everything else like artillery or tanks. In France, the tie to the French army would also prevent the air service from putting serious time and resources into strategic bombing capabilities. It was in these strategic capabilities that air force leaders believed they could have their greatest impact. The relationship between the army and air force would begin to shift after 1931, when laws were first proposed in France that would create an air force that was independent from other services. However, given the resistance to this idea from other military leaders, it would be a long and delayed process before this independence became official in July 1934. There were limits to this new found freddom. Army leaders were able to set up a system whereby almost all of the air force’s resources were classified as ‘forces of cooperation’ with the Army. This was important because any air units that were classified as forces of cooperation would come under the command of the regional army commander in time of war. Only the reserve forces would be under the command of the Air Force. For the leaders of the air force, his was seen as a serious problem for how air power would be used in France. They believed that to use the air force effectively they might need to concentrate all available strength to meet a specific enemy attack. By praceling out the various air units to army group commanders, such concentration of force was simply not possible.
One of the ways in which the Air Force angled to get more resources was that it might be the only piece of the French military that could fulfill an offensive operation at the start of a war. If it was recognized that the Army had to be defensive, then it would be up to the Air Force to project as much strength as possible in support of France’s allies in Eastern Europe. This roughly aligned with the thinking in some other nations as well, especially in Britain where the RAF was seen as the best way to launch early offensive operations against an enemy. But in France the results of this advocacy and of the general desire of the Air Force to build up a large strategic bombing capability would be disappointing. The three most serious problems were the continued sabotage of the Army, manufacturing problems, and the massive head start enjoyed by the Luftwaffe. When it came to discussions with the Army, most of the problems were around the type of aircraft they wanted to build. The Army pushed for a multi-role aircraft which could fulfill several missions like tactical bombing and reconnaissance. In the early 1930s this resulted in a series of aircraft which were based around a multi-seat concept that could fulfill both roles, but generally pretty poorly. In later years this would shift, but not until after several years of pursuing these larger multirole aircraft. Along with disagreements around which aircraft to build, there were also serious problems simply building enough of anything. Before rearmament French air manufacturing facilities were antiquated, and few major upgrades had been made since the 1920s. Instead of mass assembly and the use of manufacturing machinery, aircraft were still being made largely by hand in what some histories call an artisinal process. Great strides would eventually be made to solve this problem, but not until after 1938. By the time that French aircraft production began to accelerate, the Luftwaffe already had a massive head start. This caused the third serious problemm, the sheer size and power of the Luftwaffe. This changed all of the calculations around where money should be spent, and it put added emphasis on building as many fighter aircraft as possible, otherwise the greater Luftwaffe numbers might simply overwhelm the French air service. The focus on fighters would almost be forced on the French rearmament efforts, and to do this there would be a massive increase in spending, with the Air Ministry ghven almost 24 billion francs in 1938 and 1939, up from just 6.6 billion the year before.
The challenges in the aircraft manufacturing industry were just one of many faced by France in its rearmament efforts, but one of its real strengths over specifically Germany or many other European nations was its colonial possessions. Colonies had been accumulated for many reasons by European great powers for centuries before the Second World War. For the French during the interwar period the colonies were seen to play a role in both rearmament and in the conflict that would follow. To make the most out of the colonies would require some investment by France around general infrastructure and industrial capabilities. The first major interwar plan for this investment would be in the form of the Sarraut Plan that was proposed in April 1921. The primary focus of this plan was around public spending on colonial infrastructure particularly transportation infrastructure, a clear statement that the government should take responsibility for further enhancements, the needs of the indigenous populations should be considered, and then finally simply a long term commitment to continue the investment in the hopes that this would attract more private spending. While of these items involved a transfer of wealth out of France and to the colonies, there was the general hope that over time this would be completely worth it and would be paid back several times over. There would be resistance to colonial investment from a few different corners of french politics and society which kind of all revolved around two major concerns: worker relations and market disruption. On the first point there were those that were concerned that if industry in the colonies increased they would have to start being more concerned about worker activism and the class politics of France spreading. These concerns were strongest in the early 1920s, at a time when Socialism in France was gaining more and more support, and more radical leftists were also a huge concern, especially with the Russian Civil War either ongoing or just ended. The second concern was around how the colonial markets interacted with industry in France. Due to protective measures that were put in place to provide French products a preferential position in the colonies, those colonies were mostly a captured market. This greatly benefited industry within France, as they had a market they could count on for their products, because there was no other area that those colonies could import from. When the topic of investment in the colonies was introduced into French politics industrial leaders started to agitate against it under concern that they would lose this captured market if more products were produced in the colonies themselves. These two concerns, among others, would put limits on how much investment could be made and how many really meaningful changes could be put in place.
While they were hesitant to make too many economic changes, there were also some concerns about making too much of an investment in building up the colonies as manpower reserves. To put it simply, there were concens about training too many soldiers, becuase they might just turn hostile. When structures were put in place to assist in conscription and training they were almost always rooted in the martial races theories that had been so popular in the 19th century, here is Martin Thomas from Economic Conditions and the Limits to Mobilization in the French Empire, 1936-1939 to explain: “When it came to conscription policies were grounded in martial race theories with subject populations were graded against numerous scales of utility from the early days of 19th century conquest. Ethnic groups were variously typecast by schemes of physical, psychological, and cultural profiling, as complex as they were specious.” This put self imposed limits on the manpower resources that could be pulled form the colonies to the defense of the French mainland, and these limits were then also influenced by the general unrest that was experienced in the colonies. The rabid fear of investment in the colonies from some groups in France meant that the colonies did not have the economic growth that they probably should have. By 1939 the entire situation was one of decay, with French power slipping as the general quality of life of those in the colonies continued to decline. That did not prevent a massive influx of resources from the colonies into the French war effort in the months after the war began, but this had the side effect of pushing many population into even great resistance to further French rule. This resistance was bolstered by massive requisitioning efforts, increases in inflation which rendered local economies impotent, and increase French control in their efforts to enact those exploitative policies. This would eventually result in martial law having to be put in place in many of France’s most important colonies, especially the North Afria Triumvirate of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. The French empire would end up being a great what if, with decades of under investment and antagonistic politicies robbing France of what should have been an even greater strength.