Below are the reading notes for Ernest May's Strange Victory. This is a long and difficult book; it is also the single best example of intelligence history that now exists. So we're going to read it all.

That doesn't mean sitting down and plowing through every page. I have highlighted in red the 100 pages or so that need to be read closely, with questions for you to consider as you read, questions that will be brought up again in discussion. You also should start with the appendices (pp. 466-480) to give you a clear sense of the decisionmaking structures and some of the key players on all sides. Here goes.

Introduction (pp. 3-12): read closely

  • Chapters 1-6 (up to p. 94): skimmable--gives a general sense of Germany's march toward war; anyone with even the remotest familiarity with the path to WWII will be fine here. And I'll be covering this material in class anyway.
  • pp. 95-126: read closely. How did Hitler use intelligence? How did Daladier do so? How significant did the intelligence structures of the two sides differ?
    Ask yourself a counterfactual: if Daladier had ruled Germany and Hitler had ruled France, would the war have come out the same way?
  • pp. 127-140: General Gamelin is introduced, but read pp. 133-140 closely, since this will provide you with your first introduction to the French intelligence establishment.
  • pp. 140-178: skimmable, introduction to events in England, followed by shifts in British and French public opinion after Munich, on pp. 178-202.
  • pp. 203-239: this section discusses British, French, and German war plans. Get a sense of what they are; you need no more

Chapter 17

  • read these two chapters (through pp. 268) closely. Do you agree with ERM's assertion on the importance of Liss?
  • How sophisticated was the German intelligence apparatus? Was humint or sigint more important--and why? How did collection and analysis differ? And how does Hitler use intelligence?
  • pp. 248-249: how can we deal with Germany's reliance on publicly available information to get intelligence? what does that say about the essence of intelligence gathering?
  • pp. 278-281: events associated with Polish war; point on p. 281 about war's effect in a pluralistic democracy is key.
  • pp. 281-285: interesting commentary on how Gamelin used intelligence, and the preconceptions he brought with him to the table.
  • pp. 286-294: general summary of the lessons of the German occupation of Poland; pp. 290-291, 293 point on war in Poland and DB's intelligence analysis of that conflict is key
    Ask yourself a counterfactual: if the war in Poland had resulted in a German victory in 4 months rather than 4 weeks, would the course of the war in the west have differed? If so, how? Given May's thesis that the French defeat resulted from an intelligence failure, does he understate the significance of Poland?
  • pp. 294-99: detailed discussion of Gamelin's belief that there would be a strike through Belgium. Why were the Belgians not more cooperative?
  • pp. 299-305: discussion of odd situation in Belgium

Chapter 21

  • pp. 306-314: why did the Western governments seem so ill prepared? Good discussion here of the bureaucratic rivalries. Georges' letter on p. 314 is important.
  • pp. 314-321: continuing tensions with Belgium. Could this have been overcome through better intelligence?
  • pp. 321-346: You don't need to read this--it's a summary of political developments (the replacement of Daladier with Reynaud in France and of Chamberlain with Churchill in Britain). It's also a summary of the German decision to move into Scandinavia before attacking the Low Countries.
  • pp. 347-362: What constitutes intelligence failure, according to May? Do you agree with May's two models (p. 347-8)? In which was the French defeat? Last para. of p. 348 is very important; why does May constantly reiterate this theme of the structures of the government playing a role regarding intelligence failures?
    Can we distinguish between intelligence failures regarding collection or analysis (350-351)? Of which were the French guilty?
  • pp. 352-355: did the overestimation of the enemy matter? What caused it?

Chapter 25

  • This chapter should be read closely.
  • pp. 362-370: Consider--how much did individuals matter here. Was failure structural, as May seems to suggest throughout?
  • pp. 371-380: skimmable--ERM covers breakdown of French government before the onset of the war.
  • pp. 383-399: skimmable: ERM discusses the early stages of the invasion, and the continued confusion in the French response.
  • pp. 400-413: ERM's military history continues, but this chapter should be read more closely, since the hitch at Sedan was at the heart of the intelligence distinction that ERM describes
  • pp. 414-447: skim this--don't ignore it entirely, but you don't need to have anything beyond a general sense of the course of the war.


  • This should be read closely: we'll be asking the questions in class of why? and what can be learned?