1938 vs. 1940

A key defence of appeasement, and especially the 1938 Munich Agreement, is that it gave Britain and France time to rearm against the Nazi threat. It is actually an ex-post argument: Chamberlain himself sold his policies as a bid for peace, not time. He launched no rearmament effort until March 1939, when Hitler reneged on Munich. The idea has nevertheless achieved a surprising degree of acceptance, especially in Britain. It was worthwhile sacrificing Czechoslovakia in 1938 the better to be able to face Germany militarily in 1939/40, so it goes. Except it wasn’t.

In this post I set out why the Entente partners actually lost time at Munich in as few words as possible. The long argument can be found in The Bell of Treasonor in my International History Review article on the subject. It is touched upon in the rest of the Munich literature, of course, though not with the full data.

The first reason Britain and France were worse off in 1939 than 1938 is that in 1939 they got a far weaker set of allies. In September 1938, they could count on Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. In September 1939, they only had Poland. Czechoslovakia had fully mobilised, possessed a well-equipped army, and could base its defence on a long fortification barrier. Poland was surprised in the middle of mobilization, its army was ill equipped, and – thanks to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 1939 – it was invaded from both sides. The longer explanation, again, is in my book.

tank factory

Nuremberg Panzer factory (Ullstein Bild – Photo12 / Collection Bernard Crochet)

The key data is military. France, and with it Britain, lost time because the one to one-and-a-half years between 1938 and 1939/40 helped Germany far more than it helped them. This was partly because the Germans were able to seized the large Czechoslovak stockpiles and factories. A third of the tanks that pierced the French front in May 1940, causing the French collapse, were built in Czechoslovakia. Germany faced dire raw-material and production bottlenecks in 1938, which were relieved through time gained, the Czech annexation, and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Meanwhile, German rearmament proper had only begun in 1935 when Hitler had reintroduced conscription. By 1938, Germany had thus been forming new army divisions for three years. By 1939 this was four years and by 1940 almost five: half as long again as by 1938.

I set out the relative army numbers, in simplified form, in the table below. France did not need to re-arm because it was already armed at or close to its full potential. Its accretion in military strength between 1938 and 1939 was limited. Germany’s accrued power was considerable. The difference became even more marked by 1940. This does not count the relative value of the Czechoslovak or Polish armies nor any Soviet contribution. Britain’s expeditionary force only increased from two to five divisions in the interval, so it can be ignored.


France 1938 Germany 1938 France 1939

Germany 1939

Infantry – regular


36 37


Infantry – reserve


8 18


Motorized / armoured


13 10




12 21




1 5




70 91


After the war started, France was able to put together another twenty divisions, while Germany assembled another forty. So France’s position changed from an advantage of fifteen divisions in 1938, to a disadvantage of twenty-four by 1939, which became forty-five in May 1940. This is a quantitative, not a qualitative overview, but two additional factors are worth mentioning. First, the 1938 German tanks were all Panzer I and II models, fitted with inferior armour and firepower. The mark I Panzer did not even possess a canon, just a machinegun. The tanks that pierced the French front in 1940 were mark III and IV – still at the prototype stage in 1938. Second, the German army was only able to push through Belgium, in 1940, by taking its border fortresses with glider and parachute units. In 1938, these elite units were still being assembled.

Germany lacked the firepower to defeat France in 1938. Indeed, it faced defeat at the hands of a stronger coalition, possibly in short order. It also follows, finally, that it was not in a position to launch an attack on Britain. This goes to the core of the theory that Chamberlain bought time by helping muster the country’s air defences. Actually in 1938 Britain was already producing Spitfires and Hurricanes, and output rhythms were not sped up until the spring of 1939 – and even then still less than to a wartime pace – so that the time gained was close to nil. But the key is that the Luftwaffe, even in 1940, could only launch an assault on Britain from bases in Belgium and northern France. It was not possible to do that from Germany. So until France fell, there could be no Battle of Britain. And if Germany lacked the land forces to defeat France in 1938 or 39…

The Battle of Britain was this incredibly romantic moment, immortalized by Churchill. Seen more coldly, though, it was only one of many turning points in WWII, the first among which were the falls of Poland, then France. The Battle of Britain was not even “the end of the beginning” (that was reserved to El Alamein). I want to close this post with Churchill’s own words, making exactly the point I make in the preceding paragraph.

“The German armies were not capable of defeating the French in 1938 or 1939. The vast tank production with which they broke the French front did not come into existence until 1940, and, in the face of French superiority in the West and an unconquered Poland in the East, they could certainly not have concentrated the whole of their air-power against England as they were able to do when France had been forced to surrender. This takes no account either of the attitude of Russia or of whatever resistance Czechoslovakia might have made. I have thought it right to set out the figures of relative air-power in the period concerned, but they do not in any way alter the conclusions which I have recorded. For all the above reasons, the year’s breathing-space said to be “gained” by Munich left Britain and France in a much worse position compared with Hitler’s Germany than they had been at the Munich crisis.”

(Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War (6 vols, Boston, 1948-53), vol. I, p. 304).

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