Breakthrough in the West, 1940
This activity was created by Ian Luff. It’s an excellent example of ‘enactive representation’ with several features worth noting which can be transferred to many other activities. In particular, look out for:
- the technique of talking and moving pupils through events, then repeating the sequence a couple more times, each time with less teacher input. This is excellent for improving pupils’ confidence and explicit awareness of what they have learned.
- debriefing in turn, in and out of role. The former is very powerful but the latter is equally important and moves you on naturally to look at interpretations.
So Hitler was at the Channel in 1940. Well, what about explaining how? So often this crucial contextual consideration is neglected and consequently pupils are expected to make judgements about the ensuing Battle of Britain, the Home Guard or the Blitz without any real concept of the threat posed by the superbly equipped, audacious and well-organised German army. Hitler’s victory in France in 1940 ranks as one of the greatest military victories of all time. This activity attempts in a ten minute reconstruction to demonstrate to pupils just how formidable that army was and why Britain’s success at preventing that army from landing in Southern England was so important for the outcome of the Second World War.
By the end of this activity pupils will have developed an understanding of:
- the sequence of events surrounding the German army’s breakthrough to the Channel
- why German army was successful
- why German army was such a threat to Britain
1. Arrange the room with three desks pulled together across the front of the classroom on the side furthest from the door. This is the Maginot Line.
2. Push all other desks and chairs as far towards the back of the room as possible.
3. Create labels – A3 paper? - for the Maginot Line, the Ardennes Forest, Dunkirk, France, Belgium
1. Sit six pupils behind the Maginot Line desks facing the main bulk of the classroom area. Instruct them to assume a casual, overconfident air.
2. Next to the Maginot line place three large cardboard boxes, bean bags or any soft large obstacle. This is the Ardennes Forest. Behind these ‘trees’ place a pupil from your class made scruffy by pulling shirt out and by placing tie over left shoulder – he or she represents General Corap’s execrable troops placed there for safety behind a seemingly impenetrable forest.
3. Take five pupils and place them next to Corap explaining that these French and British troops are on the Belgian border. Ideally these should be near the classroom door. If your door is elsewhere then pin up a sheet of paper marked ‘ Dunkirk’ near to them
Now position the German troops.
4. Place five more pupils facing the French/British troops and two metres away from them. These are the German forces facing Belgium.
5. Place five more pupils facing the Maginot Line. These again are German troops.
6. Then take the remaining five or six pupils and instruct them to crouch down opposite the ‘ Ardennes’. These are the new secret German Panzer Divisions.
Now for the active part.
Your task is to talk your class through the action, conducting them as an orchestra. Tell them that they are to be taken and talked through the events once, then they will be merely gestured through, before finally running the whole action themselves from memory.
7. Move them as follows.
a) The Germans opposite France and Belgium are to move one metre forward then stop. The French and British troops on the Belgian border advance to meet them – confident of renewed trench warfare in Belgium. They stand almost nose to nose with the Germans.
b) The Germans opposite the Maginot Line advance half heartedly and thumb their noses at the French seated behind the line. These last respond by casually pretending to shoot in an unconcerned manner.
c) At a shout of ‘Now’ the crouching Panzer divisions shuffle rapidly towards the forest pushing the soft obstacle out of the way and causing the hapless Corap to flee. On Corap’s flight, half of the Panzer troops stand behind the British and French in Belgium sandwiching them with the other German troops coming through Belgium.
d) The other half of the Panzer troops go behind the Maginot Line and shout ‘hands up’. The line, unable to turn, obliges.
e) The sandwiched British and French troops exit through the nearby classroom door – Dunkirk! British first, then French
Perform the action twice more directing less each time so that on the last run through pupils do as much as possible without your intervention, thus showing themselves what they’ve remembered and understood.
1. Firstly debrief in role, ideally with pupils in their final positions. You could use the following questions, aimed at particular groups:
a) Who do you French blame for the defeat?
b) What is the British point of view on who was to blame? How do the British see the evacuation at Dunkirk?
c) How far were the German plan and the modern army responsible for the victory? Do you feel confident of success in invading Britain?
2. Now re-create your normal classroom and ask pupils to stand back and look at events from an objective perspective. Repeat questions about the reasons for success and failure and look at why there might be different interpretations
3. Further consolidation could be undertaken by asking pupils (individually or in groups) to draw a plan of the campaign in stages, annotating each frame to explain what was happening.
- How effective was your use of space and movement? Would you do anything differently in terms of organization next time? (and don’t be afraid to pat yourself on the back!)
- How did tackling this topic through this physical activity affect students’ learning? e.g. was understanding of the patterns of events deeper? Did they have a better-developed sense of the possibilities for different interpretations?
- Did this have an impact on the quality of discussion among students? If so, how and why and what can be learned from this?
- How else could this technique be used within your History courses?