** World War II campaigns -- France German Western offensive

World War II Campaigns: Battle of France (May-June 1940)

Figure 1.--As soon as the Germans marched into Paris, these posters began appearing all over the city. The French text reads, "Abandoned people, have confidence in the German soldier."

The Germans proceeded to conquer virtually all of Western Europe. After a few months of the "Phony War", France's turn came. The Germans struck on a wide front against the neutral Netherlands, Belgiym, and Luxemburg. The terror bombing of Rotterdam convinced the already hard-pressed Dutch Army to surrender. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) rushed north to aid the Dutch. The Germans then struck in the Belgian Ardenes which allowed them to avoid the formidable Maginot Line. The French and Belgians considered the Ardenes impassable to tanks. The Germans managed to easily penetrate the rough terraine, crossed two substantial rivers, and the XIX Panzer Corps rapidly reached the English Channel--cutting the BEF off from the French and rendering the Maginot Line uselss. The French entrenched behind the Maginot Line simply could not cope with the exposive highly mobil style of Blitzkrieg warfare. The Panzers surrounded the Belgian Army which King Leopold III surrendered. The BEF was within Hitler's grasp. The Panzers were only a few miles south of Dunkirk and facing no serious opposition. Hitler ordered the Panzers to halt. Some believe that he hoped this gesture would help convince the British to comes to terms, other believe that is was just as it was described at the time, aneeded pause to regroup and prepare for a more coordinated assault. [Davidson, p. 408 and Fest, p. 630.] What ever the reason, this 48-hour respite allowed the British to organize a defensive perimter around Dunkirk and begin an almost miraculous withdawl. Nearly 340,000 men were evacuated from Dunkirk, including French and Dutch sholdiers. This is even more important that it sounds as akmost all if the British sholdiers were regulars and would form the corps of the future British Army that would play such an important role in the War. All of the BEF's equipment, however, was lost. Paris soon fell and the French signed a NAZI imposed armistace. The collapse of France after only a few weeks was a disaster of emense proportions. It was the French Army that had provided the bulk of the allied War Western Front in World War I. The German victory was no ccomplished with superior numbers or weaponry. In fact they had fewer men, tank, and planes. What they had was a superior tactical doctrine. The Germans were amazed to find, for example, that French tanks were not even equipped with radios, and a more disciplined fighting force. NAZI propaganda began to describe Hitler as " Der grösste Feldherr Allerzeiten " (the greatest field commander of all time). [Davidson, p. 483.]


The NAZI victory in the West and the collapse of the vaunted Fench Army left Hitler the dominant force in Europe. The Germans proceeded to conquer virtually all of Western Europe. The 19 weeks beginning on May 10 and ending September 15 was perhaps the most critical period in the 20th century. As one historian explains, "Theworld changed forever during the 19 weeks in the spring and summer of 1940." [Moss] The fall of France meant that the bullwark against the Germans--the French Army was out of the War. The loss of the French Army placed Western civilization itself in jeopardy. The full horror of the NAZIs plans for Europe were nit yet fully known--except by the Poles. While the BEF was able to escape at Duukirk, it was not until September 15 with a devestating defeat of an attacking Luftwaffe force over England did it seem possible that Britain would be able to survive the NAZI onslaught.

German Military Planning

The Germans began planning the invasion of the Lowlands (Belgium. Luxembourg, and the Netherlands) during the Sudeten crisis. Hitler provoked the Sudeten Crisis (August 1938). For a time it looked like the war might result. Whermacht planners began to consider an attack on Belgium and the Netherlands. Tge primary objective was Czechoslovakia, but war in the West had to be considered as the British and French were supporting the Czechs. Wehrmacht planners saw the advantages of bases in these countries. They wiould provide the Luftwaffe nases from which attacks on Britain could be launched. At the time, Germany's industrial heart in the Ruhr was in range of Allied bombers, but Britain was beyond the reach of the Luftwaffee. Britain anf France abandobed Czechoslovakia at Munich, but war was not averted, only postponed. Hitler in violation of the Munich accords seized Czecheslovakia (March 1939) and then began another crisis, this time targeting Poland. Hitler told hos military commanders that he had made an irrevocable decision to attack Poland, and foresaw the possibility at least of a war with England and France (May 1939). He did niot think Prime Minister Chamberlain in particular would have the spine to fight, but it was clearly a possibility requiring planning. As a result, he ordered that "Dutch and Belgian air bases must be occupied .. Declarations of neutrality must be ignored." His concedrn here was the Ruhr which he described as Germany's 'Achilles heel'. The Allies declared war when Hitler invaded Poland (September 1939), but did not attack Germany. After Poland was occupied, the Phoney War resulted in the West. But the Ruhr was still vulnerable to Allied attack. The Allies did not bomb the Ruhr at this time, but the Ruhr would later became the focus of the Allied Startegic Bombing Campaign.

Phony War (September 1939-May 1940)

After Hitler invaded Poland, both Britain and France decalred war, but took no significant offensive action. The successful NAZI conquest of Poland was followed by inactivity in the West. The French felt secure behind the Maginot Line. When the Germans invaded Poland, there was no significant reaction from the French. Soon newspapers in the West were calling it the "Phony war". Hitler was ready to move west and scheduled several Western Offensives, but the General Staff managed to disuade him for a variety of reasons, primarily the insuitability of the weather. The press styled the inactivity "The Phony War"--a term originally coined by isolationist Senator Borah in America. The French Army refused to sally beyond the saftey of the Maginot Line. In actuality, it was a deadly race with Britain and France attempting to rearm so that they could meat the inevitable German Western Offensive. The Germans had to knock out the Allies before they could rearm with the support of American industry. To the surprise of many, Hitler after Poland did not unleash the Lufwaffe on the Allies--not yet. [Freidel, pp. 328-329.] The initial panic by civilians subsided. British children that had been evacuated began coming home, especially as Christmas approached.

Opposing Forces

The Allies in 1940 did not face and overwealiming surperior German force, even after the defeat of Poland and the concentration of German forces in the West. The forces were about equal numerically. The Allies had more tanks and the Germans more planes. [Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt, 2: p. 282.] The difference was the unified German command and their superior tactical battle doctrine. The Germans in particular massed their tanks to achieve a break through in the French line and supported this break through with their superiority in the air. The French on the other hand dispersed their tanks ineffectually along the front. Communications were a major factor. The German Panzers had radios, the French tanks did not. The French Army was still using runners on motorbikes to deliver messages little different from World War I. The French tried to form a new line of fefenxe, but often before the messages were dlivered, the Germans had occupied or move through the proposed defense line. Another factor was the spirit and morale of the Germans and French. The Germans had been effectively indoctrinated by the NAZIs and were prepared to fight. The French on the otherhand had a sence of fatalism about the War amd morale was low in many French Army units.

German Strategy

After the defeat of Poland, the Whermacht planners focused on the West. Hitler told his Wehrmacht adjutant Rudolf Schmundt even before the fighting in Poland was still in progress that he believed France could be defeated andcthe British brought to terms (Seotember 12). He still had the illusion that the Britishand French would come to their sences and make peace while at the sane time preparing for war. He informed the service commanders to prepare for an attack in the West (September 27). At the samec tome he offerec peace to the Briorish and French. At a Reichstag speech he coffered peace (October 6). Even before the British abd French rejected the offer, he issued F�hrer Directive No. 6, ordering a massive western offensive. The Oberkommando of the Heer (Army General Staff--OKW) developed many plans were developed for what became Fall Gelb (Case Yellow). Invasion dates were postponed and plans changed. Hitler rejected several of the plans proposed by dominated by the Commander-in-chief Walther von Brauchitsch and Chief-of-Staff General Franz Halder. Hitler came to support a strategy propsed by Gerd von Rundstedt and Erich von Manstein--the two commanders who became the leading faces of the Wehrmacht. They departed from the general opinion at OKW. The plan Hitler approved became known as "Sichelschnitt (Sickle Stroke). One British historian describes it as the World War I Schileffen Plan in reverse. [Keegan, pp. 54-60.] It involved Army Group B commanded by General Fedor von Brock attacking the Netherlands and northern Belgium to draw the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and French out of their fixed defenses on the Belgian frontier. Army Group C commanded by General Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb would engage the French forces on the Maginot Line to tie down the bulk of the French Army. The main force with the bulk of the Panzers was Army Group B commanded by Rundstedt would then strike through the thinly defennded Ardennes, cross the Meuse River and break through to the Channel. If the BEF and French moved north they could attack this force from the rear. Even if they did not, the Germans believed that with the surprise achieved, they still had a good chance of success.

German Offensive

After a few months of the "Phony War", France's turn came. The German initiated their long awaited western campaign on May 10, 1940. The Germans struck on a wide front against the neutral Netherlands, Belgiym, and Luxemburg.

The Netherlands May 10-15)

The Germans launched their long-awaited Western Offensive (May 10). The Wehrmacht first focused on the neutral Netherlands. The Dutch had assumed that as in World War I, the Germans would not invade. There was no declaration of war or other warning. The Germans struck on a wide front against the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxemburg. The Luftwaffe damaged the small Dutch Air Force on the first day when the Germans seized a key air base. The Dutch Army could do little to impeded the power of the Wehrmact. The Dutch had assumed that as in World War I, the Germans would not invade. The British and French had anticipated that the Germans would attempt to outflank the Maginot Line by striking though Belgium. The cream of the French Army and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) were thus positioned on the Belgian force. The British and French responded by leaving their prepared defenses and moving north to releave the Dutch. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) rushed north to aid the Dutch. The terror bombing of Rotterdam convinced the already hard-pressed Dutch Army to surrender on May 15 before the British could reach them. Queen Wilhelmina fled to London to establish a government-in-exile. Princess Juliana, the next in line, was sent to Canada in case Britain would also sucumb to the NAZI onslaught.

BEF Rushes Northeast to Aid the Belgians and Dutch (May 10-15)

After Hitler invaded Poland (September 1, 1939), Britain anf France declared War on Germany (September 3). The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was sent to France and positioned along the Belgian border. At the time of the German invasion, the BEF was composed of 10 infantry divisions organized in three corps and a tank brigade. They were supported by a Royal Air Force (RAF) force of about 500 aircraft. The BEF was about a tenth of the Allied force on the Western Front. The BEF was commanded by General Lord Gort (1886- ). He was Anglo-Irish and a World War I hero. He was a highly respected officer who had commanded the Staff College. Interestingly the BEF was the only fully mechanized force involved in the campaign. The Wehrmacht had a powerful mechanized force, but a substantial part of the Wehrmact was still not mechanized and relied on horses as draft animals. (This was still the case a year later when Hitler launched Barbarossa.) Despite the example of Poland, Gort and his command were unprepared for Blitzkrieg when the Germans struck in the West. The general opinion was it was Polish weakness and not German competence that was involved. After the German attack, as the Germans anticipated, Gort activated Plan D and ordered the BEF north to aid the Dutch (May 10). Actually BEF moved east, to a line on the Dyle. Lord Gort left his headquarters and moved to a new field headquarters near Lille. He wanted to be close to the action, but was iladvised as it greatly complicated communications at a critical point in the campaign. the BEF thus rushed north and east out of its prepared positions to aid the Belgians and Dutch. The Dutch Army, however, after the bombing of Rotterdam surrendered before the BEF could reach them (May 15). This also meant that the BEF wasnot positioned to confront the German armored force that broke through to the south in the Ardennes (May 14). An army, once committed, is not eassy to turn around once set in motion, especially when heavily engaged. The BEF was heavily commited and sufered substantial losses. The ensuing German drive to the Channel meant that the BEF, the French First Army, and the Belgian Army were cut off from the rest of the French Army.

The Ardennes (May 10-14)

The Germans then struck in the Belgian Ardenes which allowed them to avoid the formidable Maginot Line. The French and Belgians considered the Ardenes impassable to tanks. The Germans then they attacked France through the Belgian Ardennes. To the amazement of the French, the Panzers penetrade the Ardenees crossed the Meuse River. The Germans managed to easily penetrate the rough terraine, crossed two substantial rivers. Desperate French actions to hold at the Meuse River failed. RAF efforts to stop the German crossing at the Meuse lead to very subastanial losses of fighter aircraft. After crossing the Meuse, the Pamzers raced to the Channel ofter flat country side. Only a few days into the offensive, on May 14 Premier Reynaud reported that there was nothing between the Panzers and Paris, but the Panzers moved west to the Channel. The French despite possessing some excellent tanks were totally unprepared for modern mechanized warfare. The XIX Panzer Corps rapidly reached the English Channel--cutting the BEF off from the French and rendering the Maginot Line uselss. The French entrenched behind the Maginot Line simply could not cope with the exposive highly mobil style of Blitzkrieg warfare.

French Response

The strongest French spokesman for mobile tank warfare was General Charles DeGualle. His theories concerning the use of tanks were generally rejected by the French high command. The German breakout toward the Channel was led by Erwin Rommel's 7th Panzer Division. Rommel at the time was virtually unknow outside od Army circles. The 7th Division became known as the Ghost Division (Gespensterdivision) because it moved so rapidly that OKW was at times unsured just where it was. OKW wanted a slower advance because of concerns that the French might attack the breakout on the flanks and cut off the af=dvancing columns. OKW wanted to strengthen the flanks before driving wressly toward the Channel. This is just what general DeGualle wanted to do, One author writes, "Thus, in May 1940, when the German juggernaut turned west and rumbled toward France, the French military found itself totally unprepared. The Maginot Line was bypassed, leaving France's vaunted line of defense totally useless. Too late to be effective, de Gaulle was given command of the 4th Armored Division on May 11 and was told by the commander of the northeast front, General Alphonse Georges, 'Here is your chance to act.' Despite the fact that the division was newly formed and inexperienced, de Gaulle mounted a counterattack, only to be quickly brushed aside by the German advance. Regrouping two days later, he attempted to renew his attack and actually penetrated the German line, but was ordered to desist as his division was needed elsewhere." [Johnson] This was the only important French counter measure taken after the 1st Army Group mobed into Belgium. A reader writes, "Has his superiors listened to his advice and prepared the French Armored forces for their own Blitzkrieg type of mobile warfare then the French might have been able to stop the German attack. As it is just when he could have at least slowed the Germans down he was ordered to a defensive position that allowed his tank forces to be decimated." We do not yet have details on DeGualle's actual successes before he was transferred.

The Belgians

King Leopold was an advocate of a more independent foreign policy for Belgium before World War II, Leopold twice urged mediation of the conflict between NAZI Germany and the Western Allies in the months immediately before and after the outbreak of war in 1939. Belgium remained strictly neutral, but was invaded by the Germans for a second time in the Spring of 1940. King Leopold before the War had promoted the construction of important defensive fortifications from Antwerp to Namur in front of the German border. His actions as Commander and Chief of the Army during the German invasion of 1940 has been criticized by some Belgians and the British and French. Leopold, with the bulk of the Belgian Army, was surrounded by the Germans, and capitulated. Leopold ordered his army to surrender and refused to flee with officials to form a government-in-exile in England. His actions were resented by some Belgians. His surrender at a crucial point in the battle for the low countries left a critical gap in the Allied ring around Dunkirk and could have made the evacuation impossible if the Germans had pressed their attack. King Leopold aroused further criticism by his marriage in 1941 to a commoner, who was some looked on as pro-NAZI. To many Belgians, Leopold's surrender to the NAZI's forces were in stark contrast to his father's gallant resistance to the Kaiser's Army during World War I. Other Belgians believe that the King has been unfairly criticized. King Leopold showed great courage by subsequently refusing to administer his country under German control and lend any appearance of legitimacy to the NAZI occupation government. Leopold was held prisoner by the Germans until the end of the war, first in his castle at Laeken, Brussels, and later deep in Germany itself.


The surrender of the Belgian Army left the BEF seriously exposed. The British fell back on the Belgian port of Dunkirk, but the BEF was within Hitler's grasp. Then Hitler stopped the Panzers to resupply and make needed repairs, allowing the British to evacuate their men and many French. The Panzers had been only a few klometers south of Dunkirk and facing no serious opposition. Hitler ordered the Panzers to halt. Some believe that he hoped this gesture would help convince the British to comes to terms, other believe that is was just as it was described at the time, aneeded pause to regroup and prepare for a more coordinated assault. [Davidson, p. 408 and Fest, p. 630.] What ever the reason, this 48-hour respite allowed the British to organize a defensive perimter around Dunkirk and begin an almost miraculous withdawl. Seven German divisions pressed toward Dunkirk which was also subjected to intensive bombing by the Luftwaffe. The Belgians had surrendered, but the surronded French First Army continuing to fight occupying key German forces while the British evacuated. The resistance of the French First Army was critical in the success of the Dunkirk evacuation. The British rushed all available craft accross the Channel. Nearly 340,000 men were evacuated from Dunkirk, including French and Dutch sholdiers. This is even more important that it sounds as almost all if the British sholdiers were regulars and would form the nucleus of the future British Army that was to play such an important role in the War. [Moss] All of the BEF's equipment, however, was lost. Leaving the British Army with little artillery and few tanks to face an anticipated German invasion. Paris soon fell and the French signed a NAZI imposed armistace. Saving the BEF, however, greatly not just enhanced the chances of Britain's survival, but n fact was crtical.

The French Army

The Wehrmacht in 1940 was known to be a powerful force. The real shock was that the French Army which many military experts had considered to be the most powefull force in Europe proved to be a hallow shell. It was the French Army which stopped the Germans in 1914 nd which the Allied front in the West was largely structured around in World War I. When the War broke out, Britain hasd only a small professional army. Many believed that the Allied war effort during World war II would largely be vased on the French Army. Thus the French collapse within a few weeks was such a momentous outcome. Some French units fought with destinction, but whole French divisions surrendered en masse. Soldiers layed down their arms with fighting and started the treck east to German POW camps where they would spend 5 years while France's future was decided by other countries. This was the great shock of 1940. Historians today still debate what happened to the French Army. It is relatively easy to chart out the factors which led to the destruction of French arms and almost the French nation. Less clear is the relative importance of these various factors. Some have stressed superior German arms and tactics. This was certainly a factor. Petain tended to lay the debacle to years of left-wing ideologists.

Air Operations

The Luftwaffe played a key role in the German success in the West. This success is largelY misundersttod. It is commonly assumed that the German success had much larger numbers of superior aircraft. This in fact is not the case. even not counting the Dutch and Belgians, the British and French had comparable air forces to the Germans in terms of aircraft strength. The German air craft types were no dramtically supperior to the Allied aircraft. The German edge was that they ere more experienced and their tactical doctrine and deployment gave them an enormous edge. An offensive battle plan in particular gave the Luftwaffe an enormous advantage. And the Germans had made considerable progress in establishing communication links between the ground forces and supporting air units. The French French Arm�e de l' Air at the onset of the German offenssive was a sizeable forece. With British supoort it could have inflicted considerable damage on the Germans. The French aviation industry had been significantly expanded and was priducing aircraft in substantial numbers. They had about 2,000 planes when the Germans struck. Management of the force was, however, apauling, not disimilar to the perfornmance of the Army's ground forces. There was a chronic failure of maintenabce. Shortahes od spare parts were a major problem. One source claims that only 29 percent of its aircraft were serviceable, about 600 planes. And this included 170 largely obsolate bombers. The French fighters were inferior to the Luftwaffe's Jagdgruppen ME-109s, but if reasonably handeled could have put up a serious fight. The German break out in the Ardennes and crossing of the Meuse was achieved largely because the Germans concentrated available forces to support the attack. The Whermacht forces were verybvulnerable at this time as the Panzers, other velickes, and artillery were jammed into the few narrow roads in the area. The French Arm�e de l' Air had dispersed its air assetts so they were not vuknerabke to a Luftwaffe raid. This meant that they were not in a position to attack the Germans at their weakest point and block the breakout (May 16). This was the decisive point of the German offensive. Unable to assessmble their own air firces, the French pleaded for the British to commit more RAF Fighter Groups. Hugh Dowding, RAF Fighter Command Commander in Chief resisted, telling Churchill that if France collapsed, the a weakened RAF Fighter Command would be severely impaired in its ability to protect Britain. The Luftwaffe effort was very important to the German success in France. The one operational failure was the inability to prevent the escape of the British Expeditionary Force and large numbers of French soldiers at Dunkierk (May�June 1940). Reichs Marshall G�ring had assured Hitler that his Luftwaffe could bag the BEF. The result was a fierce air battle. The men on the ground later complained that the RAF was absent over the embarcation beaches. Actually it was very active, but focused on breaking up Luftwaffe air groups before they got to the beaches rather than immediately over the beaches. Maintaining a constanht presence over the beaches would have dusapated the limited RAF strength and ability to hold off the Luftwaffe. Had this not been done, the BEF would not have escaped. The Luftwaffe flew 1,882 bombing and 1,997 fighter sweeps. Luftwaffe losses over Dunkirk constituted a mere 2 percent of their losses during the campaign, less than 100 aircraft. RAF losses totaled 6 percent of their total losses during the French campaign, including 60 desperately needed fighter pilots. [Hooton, p. 74.] This was particularly important because the key to the Battle of Britain was experienced pilots. Britain was never short of aircraft, it was the pilots that were in short supply. After Dunkirk the Germans turned south executed the second phase of their offensive--Fall Rot. The Luftwaffe continued to actively support the rapidly advancing Panzers. They launched several offensives such as Operation Paula. French opposition in the air was at first substantial, but quickly declined. The pivital point was Parirs. Nearly 1,000 French aircraft were destroyed or captured on airfields around Paris when the city fell (June 14). After this, the Armee de l'Air was largely absent in the final days of the Battle for France. [Hooton, pp. 74-75.] The French Army thus had virtually no air cover as the Panzers drove south.

Evacuating Children

The French appear to have made some effort to evacuate children. They do not seem to have organized an effort like the British did to evacuate children to the country side like the British did when the War began. There appears to have been some effort to evacuate children from Paris after the German Western Offensive began. We notice images of French children with identification tags. We have no details, however, at this time concerning the French evacuation effort.


The French people were aprehensive about the Warm but most felt safe behind the MaginotvLine and the Fremch Army which was regarded by many as the most powerful in Europe. This changed quickly after the German break through in the Ardennes and crossing the Meuse. Civilians began heading south, convinced that the the French Army would stop the Germans again as they did in World War I. French roads became clogged with refugees. Cars pilled with matresses and furniture tied to the roofs and packed with the entire family. There were also carts of all kinds. Many people were on foot. As panic spread the numbers only increased. The refugees made it difficult for the Army to move forces forward to restablish the front. And the Luftwaffe stafed the regugee filled roads to create further chaos. The fast moving Panzers were beyond anything that General Gamelin still using couriers rather than radio to communicate. Rommel as he drove to the Channel, wrote, "We passed refugee columns, the carts abandoned by their owners, who had fled in panic into the fields." as they moved south. Such a disaster had not been anticipated. After Dunkirk the Germans turned south and Parisians began to pour out of the city in large numbers. Trains carried refugees south as well as vehicles of every sort. And there was no provisions or accomodations for the refugees


After Dunkirk the RAF continued flying missions over France, but flying from distant British bases made the RAF effort ineffectual. The RAF units that had been posted to France were badly mauled. The RAF had depoyed 261 fighters and in only 10 days, 75 had been shot down in aerial combat or destroyed on the ground. An additional 120 could not be brought back to Britain because they were damaged or fuel was not available. [Gilbert, p. 319.] Overall the RAF lost 1,000 planes in France. Fortunately, most of the pilots could be brought back. The losses in France were a quarter of the RAF's front-line fighter strength. The French pleaded for more, but Churchill, who had just replaced Chamberlain as prime minister, had to refuse knowing that the RAF now would be needed to protect Britain itself. Given how narrow the British victory in the Battle of Briain was, this would proive to be one of the crucial decisions of the War.

Italy Enters the War (June 10, 1940)

Hitler did not consult Mussolini about his planned Western offensive. It was clear that it was coming, but there were no military conultations before hand. Mussolini had extensive war aims, but did not want to get involved in a protracted war and it was widly believed that the French Army would stop the Germans leading to a long draining militaru conlict like World War I. The Franco-Itlian border lay along the Western Alps. Thus both sides had easily denfenible border fortifications. For the French it wa a southern extension of the Maginot Line. The Italians had deployed two armies (the First and Fourth Armies) on the border with about 300,000 men. They did not have orders to attack even after the German breakthrough in the Ardennes, the Dutch and Belgian surrender, and the Dunkirk evacuation. They were confronted by only understrength French army (Sixth Army) composed primarily of recently mobilized reserve units. They were, recruited locally and preoared to fight as they were defending their own homes on familar terrain, And they had the advantage of rugged mountain terraine to defend which had been strengthened with Maginot Line fortifications like those built on the Franco-German bordrr. Despite the disaster unfolding in the north, the Sixth French Army was determined to fight. The extrodinary German success in the West made up Mussolini's mind. He told Forminister Ciano, that thecAllies had lost the War (May 13). "We have no time to lose. Within a month I shall declare war I shall attack France and England in the air and on the sea." [Ciano, p. 249.] The decesiin w a personal one, noy bassded on consulatiions with Italian military commanders. Foreignminister Ciano advises Mussolini to work out Italian war 'aspirations' formally with the Germans (May 21). [Ciano, p. 253.] Mussolini prepares to inform Hitler about Italy joining the war (May 26). [Ciano p.255.] Hitler responded to Mussolini about Italian intervention (June 9). [Ciano, p. 263.] German Panzers were crossing the Seine (June 10). The French Army was collapsing. Only then did Musolini make the fatal decission and declare war. He declared war on Britain and France and ordered an invasion of southern France. It was not totally unexpected in London and Paris, but some in Britain had hoped that Mussolini could be used to approach Hitler. President Franklin Roosevelt was suprised and add to his commencement address at the University of Virginia, "the hand that held the dagger has plunged it unto the back of its neighbor'. The comment did not go well among Italian Americans because of the unitended suggestion of crimality and the Mafia. Mussolini seeing that France was defeated wanted in on the spoils before the French surrendered. He told General Pietro Badoglio, the Army Chief of Staff, "I only need a few thousand dead so that I can sit at the peace conference as a man who has fought". What Mussolini wanted was the Western Alps, Nice, and the British and French colonies. No meaningful military operations began for more than a week as the Germans streaned south and occupied Paris. The Italians finally attacked (June 21).

Germans Enter Paris (June 14, 1940)

The French commander of Paris declared it an 'open city'. The Wehrmacht entered Paris without resistance. (June 14). The Germans stage a triumphal parade up the Champs Elysees. One author writes, "Like a grotesque, enfless assembly belt, the processiin of lead collored vehicles, with their fresh blond, silent robots sitting stiffly four abreast, poured through the empty streets of Paris on this, its blackest day.".... Here and there knots of people stood and watched in what one man described as 'the silence of death'. The women weopt, the men were grim; all were stupefied bt the freshness, the youth, the discipline of the German troops, the trim spick and soan armour, so smart it was almost as tghough there had been no war, that this was just another military parade." [Barber, pp. 156-157.]

British Offer of Union

Prime Minister Reynaud asked the British Government to release France from its commitment not to make a separate peace with Germany (June 16). Churchill replied that the honor of France was involved, but would essentially agree if the French fleet sailed for British ports. Reynaud refused. The idea of offering France a political union arose. Churchill was initially opposed, but joined with the War Cabinent in making the offer which DeGualle enthusiastically cabeled to Reynaud. He presented to his cabinent. They rejected it. Churchill writes, "Rarely has so generous a proposal encountered such a hostile reception. [Churchill, Dinest, p. 212.] The French were not focused on what terms could be obtained from the Germans.

Armistice (June 22, 1940)

French Prime Minister Reynaud resigned (June 16). He was replaced by Marshall P�tain, the hero of Verdun in World War I. The French ask to be released from the commitment to Britain not to make a separate peace. P�tain immediately asked for an armistace (June 17). France capitulated (June 22). Hitler had found the railroad car in which the Germans had signed the World War I Armistace (1918). The armistace was signed at Compi�gne. France was thus out of the War and Britain now faced the Germans alone. The terms of the Armistice are dictated by the Germans. Thgey are harsh, but not as harsh as some had anticipated. The Germans treat France vert ifferently than Poland.The terms of the June 1940 armistace between Germany and France divided France into an occupied and unoccupied zone, with a rigid demarcation or boundary line between the two. The unoccupied zone becoes known as Vichy as aew capital is established there. The French had to agree to hand over anyone the Germans wanted. Former Primeminister Reynaud was among those detained. And they had to pay heavy reparations for starting the War.


The collapse of France after only a few weeks was a disaster of emense proportions. It was the French Army that had provided the bulk of the allied War Western Front in World War I. The German victory was not accomplished with superior numbers or weaponry. In fact they had fewer men, tank, and planes. What they had was a superior tactical doctrine. The Germans were amazed to find, for example, that French tanks were not even equipped with radios, and a more disciplined fighting force. NAZI propaganda began to describe Hitler as " Der grösste Feldherr Allerzeiten " (the greatest field commander of all time). [Davidson, p. 483.]

Britain Alone

From a distance of several decades we tend to see a supremely confident Churchill. We are moved by his defiant speeches. We read the stirring language in his six volume history of World War II. And of course we have the advantage of knowing that Britain did survive and triumph. This is not, however, a luxury Churchill had after Dunkirk. It was not atall clear at the time that Britain would survive. Churchill flew to Paris to try to bolster the reeling French. He saw it was a lost cause. France was broken and the Panzers were mioving south toward Paris. Churchill meeting with General Hastings Ismay on his staff announced, more in desperation than defiance, "We fight alone." Ismay replied, "We'll win the Battle of Britain." Churchill's response was, "You and I will be dead in three months time." [Reynolds] This was not view Churchill ever allowed to be seen pubically. That was understandable during the War. Churchill did not wanted it revealed even after the War. He thought it would affect his image. It well might. It certainly humanizes the man and I think makes his defiance to Hitler even more admirable. After the Germans entered Paris, the French Armistice, Britain was alone. The future was bleak. In World war I the British with French and Rusian assistance barely stopped the Germans until America entered the War. Now Britain had to do it on her own. Many in Europe and America thought Britain lost.


The P�tain Government after signing the armistace with the NAZIs on June 22 set up a governmnt in Vichy for the sector of southern France that was not occupied by the Germans. The Vichy regime in many ways cooperated with the NAZIs. The most shameful single act was Vichy assistance in rounding up over 80,000 foreign and French Jews as part of the Holocaust so they could be shipped to the death camps in Poland. vichy even ran camps in France with apauling death rates. After the War some Vichy officials were executed and the Gaullists nurtured a myth that the great majority of the French people bravely resisted the Germans. Gaullist claimed that the French people never accepted the Vichy regime as a legitimate French Government. Gradually it has become increasingly clear that the bulk of the French people, shocked by the collapse of the French army and thinking that the War was lost, sought accompdation with the NAZI occcupiers and looked upon Marshal Philippe Pétain with reverence. [Curtis] For years, any questioning of that myth was highly controversial. The film by Marcel Ophuls "Le chagrin et la pitié" (1969) was commissioned by French Government-controlled television, but the documentary on French life during the occupation proved so embarassing that officials were afraid to broadcast it.

General de Gaulle

De Gualle was given command of a tank brigade in the Fifth Army when the War broke out and then given command of the Fourth Armormed Division. The French had many excellent tanks, but no radio communication. French armored doctrine was different than the Germans. The French used their tanks piece meal rather than forming massed formations. When the German blow came (May 10), the German Panzers were spectaularly successful while the French tanks played only a minor role. De Gualle had been appointed Undersecretary for Defence and was used by Primier Reynard to coordinate with the British Government in the desperate days when German Pazers were driving into France. He was in London when the Reynard fell from power and Pétain signed an armistace with the NAZIs. De Gualle refused to surrender. He rejected the armistace as well as the Pétain Vichy Goverment. De Gualle was unknown to the French people, but organized the Free French resistance to the Germans and the Vichy French Government which was colaborating with the Germans. He formed the French National Committee and fled to England. The Committe was to become the Free French movemnent. He made inspired radio broadcasts to occupied France. It was these speeches that made him a symbol of French resistance.

NAZI Peace Offer

Winston Churchill was appointed primeminister, the same day that the Germans launced their western offensive (May 10). Churchill was not the leading contender for primeminister. The Foreign Secretarry Lord Halifax could have had the office, but declined. Halifax had been the princple backer for Chamberlain's policy of appeasement with Germany. Halifax declined the post. We are not sure why, perhaps he understood that he was not suited to be a war leader. Churchill was fully aware of the danger after the news from the front reported one German victory after another. He mused, "I hope it was not too late. I am very much afraid that it is. We can only do our best." After France fell, Britain could have had peace. Hitler appears to have been willing to have foregone an invasion and air assault. Britain could have kept its fleet and even colonies. As peace talks were never held it is unknown precisely what Hitler would have offered. What ever the terms, a German in comtrol of the continent would have meant a British Vichy. The actual terms Hitler would have offered, however, would have been meaningless. After Munich, the British knew that Hitler's commitments were worthless and could not be trusted. [Moss] There were members of the War Cabinent who wanted to seek terms. Churchill was having none of it and by the force of his leadership carried the Cabinent with him. His defiant words "we shall fight on the beaches" were to rally the British people.

French Fleet (July 3, 1940)

The Royal Navy began World War II with only 9? battleships, a fraction of the World War I Grand Fleet. Italy's fleet of fast modern battleships and carriers already outnumbered the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean. The French batleships if they had fallen into German hands would havegiven the Axis the striking power to confront the Royal Navy. Churchill's most difficult decission upon becoming First Lord of the Admiralty was the order he gave to neutralize the French fleet. A British squadron was dispatched to Oran where the French fleet had sought shelter. The French fleet was given the options of joining the British in the fight against the NAZIs, imobilizing their vessels, or destruction. The French rejected the British demands and the British opened fire. Only the French battleship Strassbourg survived.

Operation Sea Lion

After France fell, many saw A German invasion of England as imminent. Many believed that nothing could stop the Germans. [Moss] The German Plan to invade Britain after the fall of France was code named Oprtation Sea Lion. The BEF had miraculosly managed to escape capture at Dunkirk, but had to abandon their heavy equiment. This left the British Army largely disarmed. The American Naval Attaché reported that the Bitish were no more prepared to defend the coast than Long Island. The British asked for surplus World War I destroyers, but President Roosevelt was not yet ready to authorize this. He did ask General Marshall to find surplus arms, mostly small arms, that could be rushed to Britain. [Freidel, p. 336.] It is not clear to what extent Hitler ever seriously contemplated an invasion. Historians differ on this, but there is considerable evidence that he was prepared to attempt an ionvasion. The first step, however, would have to be air superority over the channel. Both Hitler and the Navy agteed, etablish air surperority over the Channrl was a necessary prerequisites. Hitler ordered the Lufwaffe to destroy the RAF. And given the Luftwaffe's record to date, this seemed a foregone conclusion.

Battle of Britain

The fall of France led to the Battle of Britain. The Luftwaffe command were encouraged by their success in France and many assumed that it could be repeated over Britain. The poor performance of the RAF in France was not do the quality of their planes, but rather to inferior training and tactics. The Luftwaffe concluded, however, that they could just as easily defeat the RAF over Britain. Victory in Poland and the West led the Luftwaffe high command to believe that they were invincable. After the French capitualation, Britain stood alone and for a year had to valiantly fight the Germans without allies. The Liftwaffe rapidly behan building bases along the French coast. American public opinion was deciseively isolationist--against involvement in another European war. Most Europeans and Americans thought Britain would soon colapse and further resistance was futile. But the British stirred by Prime Minister Churchill did fight. The British were battered, but held. Newreel footage of the Luftwaffe bombing London and other British cities had an enormous impact on American public opinion. It was the first German defeat of the War. The narrow, but decisive victory in the Battle of Britain changed the course of the War. As Hitler turned his evil view east toward Russia, a huge unsinkable aircraft carrier with a population willing to make virtually any sacrifice remained in his rear.

Battle of the Atlantic

The fall of France also had terrible consequences or the Royal Navy in the Battle of the Atlantic. The Grmans now had Atlantic ports which they could base U-boats. They were no longer restricted to Baltic and North sea ports. This significantly increased the range of the force and the amount of time thatpatrols could actually sprend in the sea lanes. The Germans proceeded to build massive bomb-proof submarine pens in French Atlantic ports.

Student Demonstration (November 1940)

A 17 year old French girl remembers the first important student demonstration after the German occupation of Paris. The students wanted to ay flowers on the grave of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe. The Germans brutally suppressed the students. Hundreds of German soldiers set up machine guns and shoot low into the crowd to disperse the students. Many are injured and arrested. The girl sees a Jewish boy she knew forced to raise his hands in the air with a pistol held at the back of his neck. The desceibes, "The ominous feeling she has, that she will never see him again, proves to be true." [Podstel-Vinay]


The German soldiers in France behaved very differently than they did in the East. With the exception of actions against Jews, the Germans behave realtively correctly. Even with the Jewsd, mmost of the actions were carried out by the French police and Milice. There were some attrocities against French civilians, especially after the Allied D-Day invasion, but these appeared to have been realtively exceptional. There were many affairs with French women. This was not ebcouraged, but not strictly proohobiyed. One question we have is how the German soldiers interacted with French children. There are of course countless images ogf American GIs with children in France and other liberated countries. We wonder how German soldiers got on with French children and how the children reacted to them. We would be interested in any information that readers may be able to supply on this topic.

The Ressistance

Resistance groups in France played an important tole in the success of the D-day invasion. France surrendered to the German Army on June 22, 1940. The terms of the armistace divided France into an occupied and unoccupied zone, with a rigid demarcation or boundary line between the two. Provisions of the armistice, the "surrender on demand clause", was an obligation to arrest and turn over anyone requested by the Germans. French soldiers escaped to England in the Dunkirt evacualtion. Other French soldiers, including General Charles DeGaulle, also reached England. DeGualle when he arrived in England made an inspiring radio speech where he proclaimed that "whatever happens, the flame of French Resistance must not and will not be extinguished." This was in fact the beginning of the French Resistance. Most French people thought that the Germans had weon the War and that resistance was futile. It looked at first like Britain, the only country still resisting the Germans, would also soon fall. The Germans banned political activity. They were most concerned about the Communists and Scocialists which had been the most critical of then. The Gestapo in the occupied zone began arresting members of the Communist Party and Socialist Party. The Gestapo also demanded that Vichy authorities make similar arrests. As a result, many Communists and Socialists went into hising. The safest place was the rugged forests of the unoccupied zones. Some soldiers who refused to surrender to the Germans also hid in the forests. The men and women involved gradually formed into small units. Often the units were based on common political beliefs such as Communists or Free French. The groups also formed on geographic lines as the Germans made communications difficult. These groups, despite their political differences joined together to organize the Maquis. The success of the RAF in the Battle of Britain (July-October 1940) proved that the Geramns could be defeated. Then the German invasion of the Soviet Union (June 1941) meant that Britain no longer fought alone. The German losses before Moscow and the entry of the United States into the War (December 1941), changed the whole power ballance. The Germans no longer looked unbeatable and ressistance futile. Winston Churchill was a strong believer in unconventional forces. Thus when he became primeminister he orderede that resistance movements in occupied countries be supported. The Ressiatance movement grew in strength an began to organize small-scale attacks on German forces. These attacks were answered savedly with German reprisals on civilians. The Allies did not have the strength to engage the Germans militarily in 1941, but British Bomber Command carried out limited air attacks in 1941 which they escalted in 1942 when the Lancaster ling-range bomber became vavilable. The Resistance assisted Allied airman, still mostly British in 1942, shot down over France to get back to Britain. Usually they helped get the airmen to Spain whuch allowed them to return to England. General Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote: "Throughout France the Resistance had been of inestimable value in the campaign. Without their great assistance the liberation of France would have consumed a much longer time and meant greater losses to ourselves."


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Created: June 25, 2000
Last updated: 7:33 AM 7/26/2013