Cat and Mouse


On March 7th 1936 German troops marched into the Rhineland. This was Hitler’s first illegal act in foreign relations since coming to power in 1933 and it threw the European allies, especially France and Britain, into confusion. What should they do about his actions?  In OTL, they hummed and hawed while trying to make up their minds and finally decided to let the remilitarisation of the territory stand.  This emboldened Hitler and encouraged him to press on with his program for Germany.

"If France had then marched into the Rhineland, we would have had to withdraw with our tails between our legs." -Adolf Hitler

There is no question that the allies (or even France on her own) could have found the resources to oppose the move, which was only three German battalions and an handful of aircraft, busy going Nyaahh Nyaahh to the most powerful (in numbers and equipment by popular reckoning) army in the world.  It was an amazing gamble and, when it came off, increased Hitler’s standing in Germany and the world enormously. 

So, how to change it?  Whatever POD is used must create a great deal more political will in France at least and allow the French to believe that they can oppose the Germans successfully. 

Changing the French army conditions, which was not as strong or as able as was believed by most observers, is going to alter events so much that whatever results from it would be so different to our World War Two and therefore cast little light on events.  Changing the French commanders, however, is far more likely to offer interesting possibilities.

Not that the French leaders were any better.  With elections just weeks away many government officials up for re-election in France were worried that any false move regarding such a hotly debated political issue would cause them to lose their election. Flandin[1] (foreign minister) appeared to be the only member of Premier Sarrat’s advisory board who advocated the use of troops to defend the Rhineland, but the other cabinet members who feared any sort of decisive action overruled him.

Its difficult to trace just who was responsible for what in the French government.  Throughout the 1930s, the French politicians played musical chairs with government seats, one source seems to think that Flandin was premier at one point, while another thinks that he was unimportant until he joined the resistance. 

When asked about his opinion, the French army commander, General Gamelin, gave a vastly exaggerated description of German strength and informed them that they would have to take a number of measures, including full mobilisation, before the French could stand up the Germans.  Horrified, the French leaders managed to allow their best chance to stop Hitler slip though their fingers. 

Now, lets assume that Flandin convinces a few of the other French cabinet members that Gamelin’s ‘accurate’ reports of German strength are a ‘little’ exaggerated.  He puts great stock in a French display of force in the Rhineland to serve notice on Hitler, even if the forces available can’t stop the Germans without reinforcement. 

Britain has its own problems with Mussolini in Abyssinia (Ethiopia).  Ethiopia, which Italy had unsuccessfully tried to conquer in the 1890s, was in 1934 one of the few independent states in a European-dominated Africa. A border incident between Ethiopia and Italian Somaliland that December gave Mussolini an excuse to intervene. Rejecting all arbitration offers, the Italians invaded Ethiopia on Oct. 3, 1935.  The British are unhappy about it and it is a constant preoccupation, particularly as the Italians are seen as more of a threat than the Germans, at least at first.  They can, however, be encouraged to assist (or at least give the French moral support) if they see it as a chance of serving notice on Mussolini that aggression is NOT TOLERATED!

Like it or not (and the French leaders don’t), there is a very real time limit on their actions.  Once the Germans start constructing fortifications (April 21st, OTL), the cost of tossing them back out will increase substantially.  Therefore, any action France takes must be quick.

Therefore, on March 15th, which allows time for arm-twisting, debate and a warning from France and Britain to Hitler, three French divisions (17’000 strong) advance into the Rhineland and prepare to engage the Germans.  The Hundreds of French aircraft (although they are slightly dated) are moved to the border and prepared for action.  Inevitably, the feeling of actually doing something sends morale souring though the French army and they become more effective. 

The German battalions have strict orders to retreat if fired upon.  Hitler knows that in a straight conflict, the Germans will lose and he can’t afford to waste any of his infant army.  However, as discontent and disruption starts to bubble over, he feels forced into one final gamble, and he orders the German troops in the Rhineland to stand fast.  Inevitably, the French and the Germans bump heads and the shooting starts.

The French outnumber the Germans in every category and they have tanks, of which the Germans have none, and therefore they slowly dig the Germans out of the territory that they occupied.  The German air force is a nuisance, even with better planes and pilots, but the numbers against it are overwhelming and soon it is withdrawn from the Rhineland, with only three or so planes left.  Within a week, Hitler desperately orders the remaining German forces out of the Rhineland and asks Mussolini and/or Sweden to meditate a peace deal. 

He’s too late.  On March 30th, a group of German army officers walk into his office and inform him that he is under arrest.  Needless to say, Hitler does not take this calmly and orders the SS to arrest them.  A brief civil war breaks out and is swiftly won by the army.  Hitler, arrested, is exiled to Italy and becomes a guest of Mussolini.  How the mighty fall. 

The new German army dictatorship swiftly discovers what Hindenburg and Lundendoff found out: it takes two to make a peace.  France is not in a forgiving mood and dictates terms at the barrel of a gun.  Britain, meanwhile, orders HMS Hood to shell Wilhelmshaven, in order to have a seat at the discussion table.  The terms are very simple, Germany must hand over all Panzers (tanks) and their future designs, all their submarines, reduce their army back to Versailles levels and to pay a vast compensation.  Reluctantly, the German army commanders agree to those terms and sign the peace treaty on 20th April 1936.

The German army dictatorship swiftly discovers what the German provisional government from 1919 found out; signing unpopular treaties makes you very unpopular.  The Nazi party is officially banned, but they have a substantial underground movement and keep on a quiet persecution of the Jews, who become the army dictatorship’s most fervent supporters. 

The French, meanwhile, have a new Premier.  Flandin, after his great success, replaces Sarrat when he faces a vote of confidence.  Enjoying huge power and prestige, Flandin sacks Gamelin and replaces him with Weygand[2].  Studying the captured or surrendered German tanks, the French army states their complete disgust with the German units, while working to either copy them or steal as many good ideas as they can.  France, and Britain, also loose the remaining doubt about monoplanes and swiftly work to replace their air forces with monoplanes. 

So, where can this go?  If Germany fails to hold the lead that they claimed in OTL, its hard to see how they can stage a breakout like they did in 1940 OTL.  If they seize a lead in Jet Technology, they might have the potential to cause trouble, but if they face the French on relatively even terms, they’ll lose, or win at such a huge cost that the victory would not be worth the price.  Worse, they have lost the mind that guided them to those victories, it was Hitler who ordered the stokes of genius that defeated Norway and France[3].  With more pedestrian minds, Germany could be forever trapped in Europe. 

The Spanish civil war will probably be a Republican victory.  Germany and Italy sent huge amounts of material to the Nationalists in OTL, here, they won’t have the resources to do that.  There, the Soviet Union might end up with what would be a colony in the west, and France might be forced to ‘convert’ to communism or make an alliance with Germany in order to survive. 

Japan is likely to be less aggressive in the Far East.  They took careful note of the Franco/British failure in the Rhineland in OTL, here, they see that the democratises are willing and able to respond to aggression.  Will they see though the appearance of strength to the underlying weakness?  I suspect that they will continue their attempt to take over china or possibly fight a war with the USSR.

The USSR will be weaker than in OTL.  They spent the time from the Winter War until Barbarossa desperately repairing the flaws in the Red Army, here, without that experience, the army will be, not to put too find a point on it, crap.  If the Spanish civil war is soon won, they won’t get the infusion of gold from Spain to boost their monitory stocks[4]. 

France and Britain will be out of favour with the US.  The Rhineland was German territory and, legally, the French have not right to interfere, aside from the Treaty of Versailles, which many Americans denounced.  

So, who gets nukes first?  If Britain, America or France get them first, the other powers will probably get them soon.  If Germany, Italy, Russia or Japan get them first, I suspect that they will attempt to use them to dominate the world.  Not a nice thought.

[1] Flandin is real.  He was Foreign Minister until 1937 (?) when he refused to join an all-party government.  He was one of the figures behind Petain’s elevation to power in the Vitcy Government until late 1940, when he was replaced.  Intending to join the free French, he went to Africa, only to be arrested and jailed until 1947.  

[2] Weygand replaced Gamelin in OTL after the start of the German attack on France.  I’ve moved events up a little. 

[3] True as far as it goes.  Hitler gambled recklessly, a trait that brought him down in the end, but he had a gift for divining the weakness of an opponent.  

[4] In OTL, Stalin bullied the republicans into sending most of Spain’s gold reserves to the USSR for ‘safekeeping’.