French Army on Parade in 1939
Here I write a cautionary tale about the destruction of a fine army and the ignominious collapse of a proud nation. It is the story of France, 1940. Parts of the story I have told before. This is a more complete account of the events leading up to May-June 1940 and the final denouement.
Twenty-six years earlier, in August-September 1914, French and German armies clashed in a great battle to open World War I. At that time, after great travail and near defeat, the French prevailed. I told that story in the post entitled From the Frontiers to the Marne. In May-June 1940 the armies met again, and this time the French army was rapidly crushed. I now try to explain why that happened. Indeed, in the first year of World War II, nothing was more astonishing than the sudden and total collapse of France. The German victory was not a complete surprise, but the speed and totality of it was a shock to everyone, including the Germans. It remains an irradicable stain on French arms.
It also brings to mind Clemenceau’s famous adage, “War is too important to be left to the generals.” Unfortunately, in May 1940 the fate of France was left in the hands of a general who, if not totally incompetent, was not up to the charge.
As the war began in September 1939, the French Army was believed by many to be the best in the world. Germany had a far stronger air force, but wars still must be fought out on the ground, and many observers thought the French had an advantage in that arena. France also had the Maginot Line, a massive series of fortifications along the French-German border.
What went wrong? The French had an excellent chance to stop Hitler before he unleashed his juggernaut on the civilized world. They failed miserably. But why? Many military experts have analyzed the 1940 debacle. I cannot classify myself as an expert; but I am an avid student of history, and 80 years later I take my turn to tell the tale.
France emerged from the Great War shaken to its core. Some of the richest areas in the land had been devastated, and nearly half of the French males of military age had been killed or wounded. Germany had also suffered grievously, but the German heartland had not been touched. Also, Germany had a strong industrial base and a young, growing population. The French population was older and relatively static, and it was never able to fully replace its war losses.
As the Great War ended, French military leaders were convinced that the Germans wished to resume the war under more favorable circumstances, and they began to prepare the nation for the coming crisis. Universal military conscription remained in effect, and a considerable part of France’s national budget was dedicated to defense. France spent more on the military than any other country until Germany itself began rearming in 1933, and this huge investment continued despite the terrible effects of the depression. The army was maintained at a high level, and a large portion of the defense funds was spent on the Maginot Line. Unfortunately, the French air arm did not receive equal attention.
Despite the military expenditures, the nation’s political leaders were generally pacifistic in their approach to international relations. They abhorred the thought of another European war, and they were determined to do all in their power to avert conflict. Germany must make the first move, and French strategic thinking gravitated around defense. French generals were acutely aware of the devastating casualties caused by their predecessors’ offensive tactics in 1914, and they were thus predisposed to rely on defensive measures and counterattacks to win any coming conflict. The “attaque a outrance” spirit that had motivated French commanders in 1914 had almost entirely dissipated. One might say, with some truth, that the Great War had taken the starch out of the French. This was also true of the British. Only the German military, motivated by a thirst for revenge and mesmerized by the flaming rhetoric of Hitler, was primed for aggressive, risk taking warfare.
As Adolph Hitler took the reins of power in 1933, the German nation firmly set its face toward war and began rebuilding its military arsenal. Alarmed by the Nazi leaders bellicose fulminations and Germany’s growing military strength, the French soon realized that conflict was probably inevitable and would be coming relatively soon. Their first concern was to ensure that the British entered the coming war on their side. France knew that it would be almost impossible to stand up to Germany alone. The Great War had caused a sharp dip in the French birth rate, and German males of military age now numbered twice that of the French. (With Germany’s absorption of Austria the disparity became even greater.) Also, German industrial production was second only to that of the United States, far more than that of France. The threat to France was formidable. At the same time, the French government was weakened by deep political divisions, and these divisions affected both civil and military efficiency. Political parties rotated in and out of office frequently. There was no strong civilian leader nor outstanding military commander in whom the people had confidence. Many civil and military officials were pessimistic about the overall situation.
Tensions between France and Germany rose steadily through the 1930s as Germany violated terms of the Versailles Peace Treaty and began its full-scale rearmament program. Hitler also made obvious his desire for German territorial expansion, and the newly established states of Czechoslovakia and Poland (created in part out of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire) were particularly vulnerable because of the large numbers of ethnic Germans in each country. Hitler began pressing for the annexation of certain areas of both of these nations.
In October 1938, the crisis came to a boiling point when Hitler indicated that he was preparing to take German speaking areas of Czechoslovakia, known as the Sudetenland, by force. He threatened war unless the Czechs gave in. France had a mutual defense pact with the Czechs, and the two nations appeared ready to face up to the German threat. The British feared that they would be drawn into the possible conflict. Europe was on the brink of another explosion. A hurried conference was called, and the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, and Italy met in Munich to seek a solution.
Hitler appeared ready to march into Czechoslovakia, but the new German army was not yet prepared for war, and its top commanders knew it. Some of them were plotting to overthrow Hitler should he order them to attack. They feared that a combination of French, British, and Czech arms would be impossible to overcome; also, the Soviet Union might become involved. Unfortunately, the Allies were not aware of dissension in the German ranks. Even so, Daladier, the French Premier, wished to confront Hitler at this moment, but Prime Minister Chamberlain of Britain was horrified by the prospect of another general war, and he chose to believe Hitler’s assurances of peace if he got the Sudetenland. Hitler also promised that he would make no more territorial demands. Daladier was not willing to fight without British support, so he gave in. Czechoslovakia was forced to surrender critical areas of the country to the Germans, and Chamberlain returned home to London proclaiming “Peace in our time!” Daladier had no such illusions.
Hitler’s leadership position was now unassailable. In a few short years he had reoccupied the Rhineland, absorbed Austria into the greater German Reich, and taken significant areas of Czechoslovakia, rendering that nation virtually defenseless. All this had been accomplished without firing a shot. It seemed that the Fuhrer could do no wrong. The German populace and the military were now fully behind him.
Less than six months after the Czechoslovakian accords of October 1938, Hitler violated his Munich agreements and occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia. Even Chamberlain the peacemaker was now convinced that war was inevitable. When Hitler began pressuring Poland for territory, Britain and France signed guarantees of mutual protection with that nation.
Unfortunately for the Allies, their earlier abandonment of Czechoslovakia had a profound effect on the attitude of the Soviet Union. Prior to that time the Soviets had been inclined to support France and Britain against Germany, especially if it threatened Poland. If Germany occupied Poland it would become the Soviet’s neighbor, and Hitler made no secret of his hatred for the communist state and his desire for German lebensraum (living space) in White Russia and the Ukraine. Following the Allies pusillanimous betrayal of Czechoslovakia, however, the Soviets changed their approach. They now decided to stand aside in the hope that Germany and the western democracies would destroy each other, leaving the Soviet Union “cock of the walk” in Europe. In accordance with this new thinking, Stalin and Hitler signed a mutual non-aggression treaty in late August 1939 that included a secret clause calling for a division of Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union. With Soviet neutrality assured, Germany attacked Poland on September 1, 1939, and World War II began,
Despite their promises of support to the Polish state, Britain and France did almost nothing to assist the Poles as the Germans attacked. With the German army heavily involved in Poland, the French could have unleashed a land assault from the west with reasonable prospects of success. Instead, the French remained firmly wedded to their defensive strategy. As a further indication of Allied timidity, the British and French air forces failed to mount any serious bombing raids against German military installations, and propaganda leaflets were substituted for bombs over German cities for fear the Germans might retaliate. The large German air force had developed a fearsome reputation during the Spanish civil war, and Londoners and Parisians suffered nightmares over the possibility of devastation from the air. Truth was, neither Briton nor Frenchman had his heart in this new conflict.
A German Panzer Column in Poland
Poland was out of the fight by the end of September, and the German army moved west to take up positions facing the Allies. Hitler made peace overtures, but, as a matter of principle, the British and French governments felt they could not accept so long as Hitler occupied Poland. Also, Munich had proved that they could not trust him. Nevertheless, the Allies did nothing that would tend to exacerbate the situation. Their general approach seemed to be building their strength while awaiting developments. Chamberlain remained as British Prime minister, and French political leadership continued to be highly unstable. Paul Reynaud had succeeded Daladier as Premier, but the latter still served as Minister of War. This was the period of the so-called sitzkrieg or phony war. The French and British military leaders expected that the German would eventually attack in the west. The question was, where and when? Marshal Maurice Gamelin, who had achieved some distinction as a French staff officer in World War I, was serving as the overall Allied military leader, and he had developed detailed plans to be put into operation once the Germans resumed their offense.
No one could be certain where the enemy would strike, but Gamelin believed that the Maginot Line would effectively deter any German assault along the Franco-German border. Marshal Gamelin’s confidence in the line was not misplaced. In the years since World War 2 there has been a tendency to disparage fixed fortifications, but the Maginot Line was truly impressive. Heavy, well protected guns had been sited to give covering fire to other strongpoints, and infantry units were placed behind the line for counterattacks in the event the enemy attempted a penetration in force. Unfortunately, Gamelin deployed a full 45 French infantry divisions in support of the Maginot Line, an excessive number considering the strength of the fortifications. Only 14 German divisions were facing them, and, as things developed, the Germans never made any serious attack in this area until the battle was virtually over and supporting infantry had been withdrawn. Another 9 French divisions were stationed along the Franco-Italian border. This number proved to be more than adequate when the Italians entered the war and attacked France on June 10. The French thew them back with no difficulty. With the Franco-German and Franco-Italian borders secure, Gamelin expected that the Germans would charge at France through Belgium much as they had done in 1914. This time German offensive plans also involved the Netherlands, but that had little impact on overall French planning.
French fortifications were much less formidable along the Belgian and Luxembourg borders north of the Maginot Line. This was due in part to the fact that this area was not suited for deep fortifications; but more to the point, Gamelin’s plans called for Allied units to advance and confront the Germans in Belgium and prevent their incursion into France. The Germans had occupied and devastated northeastern France during World War I, and the French were determined to avoid a repeat.
By tapping its manpower resources to the fullest, France managed to field 109 army divisions. With 54 French divisions deployed along the German and Italian borders, 55 were available for the decisive struggle in the north. In addition, there were the 10 divisions of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and 20 Belgian divisions. The Dutch could field 10 divisions, but they were poorly equipped and out of the fight within a few days. Facing the Allied troops in the north would be the 135 divisions of the Wehrmacht, minus those 14 divisions along the Franco-German border. This gave the Germans a 121 to 85 divisional advantage in the critical zone. These were not impossible odds for soldiers in strong defensive positions. The moment German forces violated the Dutch and Belgian frontiers, Gamelin planned to send his strongest and most mobile formations forward to take up defensive positions along the Dyle River in central Belgium. He was confident that French troops, allied with British and Belgian units, could hold off the German onslaught on that narrow front.
Along with the Germans, the French had the most experienced and battle-ready troops on the continent. Many senior officers and NCOs in both armies had served in the Great War and were tactically proficient. The greatest German advantage was in their offensive spirit and a greater mastery of the newly developed tactic of combining large armored formations with infantry and air support to achieve battlefield breakthroughs.. The Germans had some practice with this tactic in Poland but were still learning. The French had as many tanks as the Germans, but they were mostly dispersed among infantry units in a support role. They had only four true tank divisions. As the new battle began on the western front, the Germans thus had a significant edge over the French and British in their appreciation for the effect of fast moving tanks combined with incessant air attacks. The new tactic was referred to by journalists as blitzkrieg or lightening war.
In April 1940, the Germans surprised the Allies with a quick strike north at Denmark and Norway, but this was a secondary theater; and on May 10 they charged into the Netherlands and Belgium with full force. Immediately the French and British units along the Belgian border moved north to link arms with their new allies. There had been no military pre-planning between the Allies and Belgium. The Belgians had scrupulously maintained a posture of neutrality and did not wish to give Hitler any excuse to draw them into the war. Of course, Hitler needed no excuse, and because of the lack of coordination, there was considerable confusion as British and French troops moved into position alongside the Belgians. The German juggernaut quickly charged through the Netherlands and northern Belgium and struck the Allies before they had a chance to fully deploy.
As the battle began on May 10, the deployment of Allied and German forces was as follows. The BEF (10 divisions), French 1st Army (10 divisions), and French 7th Army (7 divisions) were moving north to join the Belgians. The 7th even raced into the Netherlands to help the Dutch, but the Dutch quickly capitulated and the 7th quickly retreated south toward the Dyle. The Netherlands’ rapid exit from the war was prompted by the German air force’s massive bombing of Rotterdam and threats of more such raids to come. There were heavy civilian casualties, and the Dutch ran up the white flag.
The Dyle Line
Meanwhile, the German 6th Army (19 divisions) and 18th Army (11 divisions) were charging south through Holland and Belgium to attack the Allies in Belgium. Gamelin positioned the French 9th Army (9 divisions) and the French 2nd Army (8 divisions) to the right of the British and French units on the Dyle. The purpose of these armies was to protect the 1st Army’s flank and provide a link to units along the Maginot Line. The southernmost units of the 9th Army and all of the 2nd were situated to the immediate west and south of the Ardennes, a heavily forested area that the French believed to be entirely unsuited for mechanized warfare. Gamelin realized that the Germans might send infantry through the Ardennes, but the passage of major armored units and heavy artillery was thought to be practically impossible. Units assigned to the 9th and 2nd Armies and posted to this area were chosen based on his conviction that it was extremely unlikely they would become heavily engaged in the fighting, and a number of these divisions were reservist organizations of questionable quality and poorly equipped with antiaircraft and antitank guns. Gamelin believed that If these troops should come under heavy attack by German infantry, reinforcement could be moved up in time to provide necessary support.
By May 12th Allied and German forces were fully engaged in central Belgium along the Dyle River line. The results were mixed. The Germans were the aggressors, but the Allies were holding their own. In fact, French tanks performed better than German armor in the Battle of Hannut, and Allied troops repulsed German infantry all along the front. All seemed to be going as Gamelin had planned. The next day, however, a mailed fist struck French armies on the right.
Large German units, including armored divisions, managed to rapidly push their way through the Belgian Ardennes area virtually uncontested, and on May 13th they confronted elements of the 2nd and 9th French Armies along the Meuse River. The French regular units fought well and threw back assault after assault, but the ill-equipped reservist divisions had no chance. With few or no antitank and antiaircraft guns, they broke under the attacks of German armor and infantry combined with relentless bombing by German aircraft. The fearsome Stuka dive bombers were particularly effective against unprotected infantry. A hole was punched in the French line, and German tank units raced toward the French coast.
The German left wing now swinging into northern France comprised the bulk of the German Army’s offensive power. It consisted of the German 4th, 12th, and 16th German Armies plus Panzer Groups Kleist and Guderian, a total of 46 divisions, including 9 panzer (tank) divisions. The Germans had another 45 divisions in reserve. On May 15th the rapidly advancing German left faced the shattered remnants of the French 2nd and 9th Armies along with French reserve formations totaling another 21 divisions. These reserve units were poorly situated, mostly unmotorized, and unable to respond quickly to the growing crisis.
Winston Churchill had succeeded Chamberlain as British Prime Minister on May 10th, the very first day of the German offensive. On May 15th Premier Reynaud contacted Churchill and told him that the battle was lost. The news seemed unbelievable. The British leader flew to Paris on May 16th and pressed Marshal Gamelin for a counterattack, but Gamelin informed him that he had no mobile reserve, Churchill was shocked by this statement as well as the general air of defeatism that seemed to infect the French high command. Almost all French mobile formations had been rushed into Belgium on the first day of battle, and they were now in danger of being cut off in the north. The only remedy was to attempt a breakout and try to regroup.
Marshal Gamelin was dismissed on May 19th and succeeded by General Maxime Weygand, a capable commander, but the change in command did not immediately improve the overall situation. In fact, the inevitable delays arising from switching generals disrupted Allied plans for a counteroffensive and breakout. Two or three critical days were lost during the change of leaders, and meantime the situation had become even more hopeless.
On May 20th German armored units reached the English Channel, severing supply lines to the BEF and the French 1st and 7th Armies in Belgium, around three quarters of a million men. These armies contained the best and most mobile Allied formations. They continued to fight the Germans to their north while facing increasing pressure from the south. With lines of communication completely severed, the Allied units began to experience shortages of food and supplies, including essential ammunition and fuel. There were several abortive attempts to break the encirclement, but all failed. The Belgian’s fought alongside the British and French until surrendering on May 28th. The situation was desperate for the remaining Allied forces, and they had already begun retiring toward the Channel ports of in hope of evacuation. Then came the Miracle of Dunkirk. Over the period May 27 through June 3 over 339,000 British and French troops were transported from Dunkirk to Britain, saving them from certain capitulation. All their tanks, artillery, and trucks were abandoned along with perhaps 300,000 French and British prisoners of war from other parts of the collapsing front. Some British and French units fought courageously and brilliantly in defense of the Dunkirk perimeter, but the overall campaign could only be labeled as a total Allied disaster,
The Germans then regrouped their armies in northern France for the final thrust. They now had better than a two-to-one divisional advantage, and the French had lost almost all their mobile, armored units. The outcome was not long in doubt. Weygand organized the defense skillfully. Within a few days, however, panzer units managed to bypass French strong points and break into open country. On June 10th Italy joined the war on Germany’s side, declaring war against both France and Britain. On June 14th the Germans entered Paris. On June 22nd the French capitulated.
Could there have been any other outcome? Were the French doomed for defeat from the outset?
The following are my thoughts on the matter:
- French and British forces, in combination with the not inconsiderable military strength of Czechoslovakia, could have stopped Hitler cold in 1938. Chamberlain was principally to blame for the failure to act, but I believe Daladier should have stood by the Czechs regardless. If that had happened the battle could have gone either way, but the odds were more favorable to the French and Czechs.
- When the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939 the French and British should have attacked from the west. Again, the decision could have gone either way, but the Allies chances at that time were much better than in the following May.
- Britain should have contributed more to the fight in Belgium. The BEF consisted of 10 excellent divisions. Even allowing for its naval contribution, the United Kingdom and its commonwealth states could have done much better. By extreme effort, France alone managed to field 109 divisions, and the United Kingdom had a slightly larger population. After the debacle, Britain and the commonwealth were eventually forced to mobilize armies many times the size of the original BEF. Britain should have been better prepared for the critical encounter in May 1940.
- Gamelin should have been dismissed as allied commander before May 10th. Daladier supported him, but Reynaud had no confidence in the man and neither did some of the marshal’s top subordinates. Gamelin had already made crucial mistakes that doomed his army to defeat before the battle began. First, he kept too many divisions south in support of the Maginot Line. At least 20 of those 45 divisions could have been placed in reserve behind the critical Belgian front. Second, the French 7th Army should never have been sent on its wild charge through Belgium into the Netherlands. Instead, that army’s mobile units could have been used as a quickly deployable reserve in support of the BEF and French 1st as well as the 2nd and 9th Armies. Third, on the very first day of fighting Gamelin should have sent four or five infantry divisions into the Ardennes, all equipped with a full complement of anti-tank weapons, to guard against any eventuality. In that difficult terrain, strategically placed small units could have effectively disrupted the German advance. As it developed, the Germans faced almost no resistance as they moved through this heavily wooded, easily defensible area. Had the Ardennes been even partially secured, the Allied forces may have been able to hold the narrow Belgian front for an indefinite time, giving France and Britain time to mobilize their overseas assets. Who knows then how the war would eventually have been resolved, but Hitler’s mad campaign of destruction could well have been blunted or entirely averted.
Following World War II there has been a tendency to criticize the French nation for its rapid collapse and to disparage the quality and bravery of French fighting men. Indeed, the French military has become the butt of jokes.
Certainly, the French decision to surrender on June 22nd, 1940, can be censured. France and Britain had promised each other not to make a separate peace. After the collapse in the north, Paul Renaud, Charles de Gaulle and some others wished to continue the war from North Africa, but the defeatists took charge and sued for an end to hostilities. It was not France’s finest hour. After France surrendered, there were some British leaders who also wished to negotiate with Hitler. At this critical moment in its history France needed a leader with the stature and grit of a Churchill. Unfortunately, no such man was available. (De Gaulle had the grit but not the stature.)
As for the French military, if one excepts Gamelin’s incompetent performance, their record was not that bad. Man for man, the French infantryman was perhaps as effective as the German in 1940. The fighting in Belgium is illustrative. During small unit encounters the French held their own. In the Battle of Hannut French tanks actually bested their German armored adversaries, but for the most part French tanks were wasted elsewhere in penny-packet tactics. Later, in the siege of Lille, elements of the French 1st Army fought off two or three times their number of first-line German soldiers, including armored units, for several critical days, thus protecting the Dunkirk perimeter and surrendering only after their ammunition was exhausted. In the summer of 1942, serving alongside the British in North Africa, outnumbered Free French troops battled units of the famed Afrika Korps to a standstill in the Battle of Bir Hakeim, leading Hitler to say “After us, the French are the best soldiers in Europe.”
The German General Staff was the springboard for many brilliantly conceived campaigns during World War II, and none of the Allied powers had strategic planners who could match their performance. Germany also quickly demonstrated a mastery of combined arms tactics that remained unchallenged throughout the war, and they had superb leadership from men like Manstein, Guderian, Rommel, von Runstedt, and others. But the Allies were not entirely deficient, and they grew in skill and prowess as the war continued. Though doomed by stupid strategical decisions, the French army was probably the second most proficient in the art of war during the first year of the conflict – somewhat inferior to the German, perhaps modestly better or equal to the British, and definitely superior to the Italian and Soviet military. Of course, the Soviet Union had advantages in space and numbers that Germany’s strategic and tactical brilliance could not overcome.
Skill in the art of war has nothing to do with courage. Every nation is capable of producing men and women willing to die in service to their country. In that respect, I would not rate one nation’s citizens better than any other.
Another thing that affects a military’s performance is the matter of motivation or spirit. Young German soldiers in 1939-41 were inspired to a near frenzy by Nazi rallies and propaganda, and they responded with great energy and valor. Later in the war, these now seasoned soldiers were willing to give their all in defense of the homeland. By contrast, French and British troops had no real enthusiasm for the war. They were there because they were there, and that was generally true of American soldiers when we entered the war. Nevertheless, these men and women heeded the call to duty and performed magnificently when the chips were down. Theirs was the eventual victory.
One final note. I have always been fascinated by the similarities of the Battle of France in 1940 to the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. In 1940 the Germans struck through the Ardennes to hit a weakly defended part of the French line with overwhelming force, achieving a breakthrough that led to victory in the west. In December 1944, a few American divisions were stretched out in the Ardennes in what was thought to be, just as in 1940, the area least likely to be attacked. Eisenhower’s intelligence officers should have remembered lessons from four years before. Hitler wished to repeat his most brilliant military success by launching another mass attack though this heavily wooded area. In both instances the surprise was complete, and the defending troops were outnumbered, outgunned, and quickly overwhelmed. In December 1944, however, the Germans no longer had the reserves to exploit their initial success.