Fall of France 1940 :
After the dramatic fall of France in June 1940, many Frenchmen asked themselves whether they had been betrayed. If military ineptitude can be called betrayal, then it is fair to say that France's army betrayed her. At the forefront of this betrayal were the men who led it. Analyzing at all levels; serious command and control differences were the key to the undoing of French defences. Nobody noticed these differences until after the war was over. The First World War was fought in the grip of rigid doctrine. Since such doctrine hates imagination, all that the both sides could do was throw men at one another. Of course the result was that Germany lost, having fewer men to lose. When WWI was over, the Allies convinced themselves they had won and that the Central Powers had lost. In Germany this broke the power of old theories for some time; whereas in France, it strengthened them. Eventually this formed the basis for leaders like Hitler to come to power and for generals such as Heinz Guderian and Erich von Manstein to rise within the ranks.
The German Invasion of May 1940 followed a series of spectacular German victories in Czechoslovakia, Poland and Norway. Contrary to many beliefs, the campaign in Poland was not a rapidly mobilized armoured assault like that in France. It was fought more conventionally with foot soldiers led by concentrated tanks in a WWI fashion. Yet this was a campaign that the French should have taken serious note of. Their failure to improve the Army and Air Force command system would have disastrous consequences in the fast paced campaign that was to follow. A rigid adherence to principles of the First World War was also to prove disastrous. Exploiting these lapses on the part of the French army, the Germans were able to penetrate at Sedan and encircle the best armies the Allies could field at the time.
France and her Allies
The France of 1939 was very different from the France of 1914. After the Great War, a wave of pacifism had overtaken the country. While anti-war literature in Germany had been hastily put aside and hidden by Hitler, the citizens of France accepted it wholeheartedly. "Never again!" was the cry in the hearts of the people. From the time of Armistice to the time WWII broke out, 19 governments had been elected and then ousted. Otherwise, the existence of a socialist government by the name of the 'Popular Front' had done much to damage national unity amongst Frenchmen. France in 1939 was a divided country whose people had no idea why they had been suddenly thrown back into a state of serious conflict. As the Army failed and disaster befell them, the general population resorted to accusations of betrayal and the presence of a "Fifth Column" of spies and traitors. This was a way to avoid blaming themselves and their leadership for failure when the critical time was upon them and national unity was required the most.
The French Army: Ripe for Defeat
Generals and Doctrine
The tactics and doctrine of the French army were as antiquated as its generals. During and after the war, many French officers and leaders alike claimed that they had gone to war in 1939 with a 1918 army. Indeed the concepts of warfare the French generals clung to during the May campaign can be called antique. More than once French senior officers failed to show required aggressiveness in defence against the German armies. Instead they contented themselves (in WWI terminology) to 'sealing off' and 'containing' the enemy where counter attacking would have had devastating effects upon the German columns. It is apparent from the command decisions these men took that they were still caught up in the defensive siege mentality of the previous war. Otherwise, the cumbersome system of command would always mean that orders would be received late and would not be able to keep up with the rapidly changing face of the battlefield. Matters were made even worse by the use of the unreliable telephone network.
Tanks were simply viewed as a support weapon for the infantry. New theories and tactics presented by officers such as Colonel Charles de Gaulle were completely ignored. The theory that tanks should be used as the cavalry of an infantry attack prevailed. This literally meant that these valuable weapons would be dispersed ahead of the infantry and the deadly effect of concentrated armour would be lost. Their duties would be limited to infantry support and reconnaissance, rather than actual breakthrough. Inevitably, a German force applying exactly the opposite tactics defeated the French army.
Men and Material
The only lack of weapons in the French Army was that of anti-aircraft (AA) guns, anti-tank (AT) guns and anti-tank mines. There was a grave shortage of AT guns, yet in the period up till May 1940, the French were still exporting such guns. 830 AT guns, 500 Artillery pieces were actually exported on the eve of the German attack . Of the last 500 Renault R35 tanks, nearly half were exported. Even till the end of the campaign, supplies of AT guns were far from sufficient. To top these shortcomings, there was a stunning lack of AA weapons. France had only 5 AA regiments, whereas the Germans possessed about 72. Later on this was to prove to be another of many fatal flaws as French troops would not be able to defend themselves against air attack.
France had many reasons to doubt the quality of her army in 1939. Much of this was due to the destabilization of French society. There was a huge gap between the workers, communists and the bourgeois. The lack of national unity was bound to affect the men at the front as well. Although there were some excellent professional 'A' class divisions, the bulk of the Army was formed by reservists and conscripts. The discipline amongst these units is hardly worth calling adequate. The reason most historians give for this is boredom. The 'Phoney War' after Poland had left many servicemen with nothing to do. Drunkenness and disorder was common. There was hardly any attachment between the officers and the men. Both the latter and former were seemingly more concerned with pay and holidays. The question of "Why are we here?" was asked more than oft amongst soldiers. German propaganda also took its toll; with right wing and communist newspapers it managed to instil a strong feeling of Anglophobia amongst the men and officers. This situation contrasts heavily with that of the well trained and well disciplined Wehrmacht.
The French Air Force at the time had 3,289 modern aircraft operational. Of these 2,122 were fighters. Although French aircrew were very well trained and morale was high, they had no idea of modern tactics. They knew nothing of extensive ground support and tactics of concentrating air power to maximize sortie success. To make matters worse, there was no coordinated system of command for the Air Force. No specific body was in charge of issuing orders, and the chain of command overlapped in many places; maximizing confusion. These factors were to prove to be the undoing of the French air fleets.
The Maginot Line
To aid France, the British Government sent a force of 10 divisions called the British Expeditionary Force. This force was tiny in comparison to the great French and German armies massed at the borders. The size of this force was to cause much bitterness in Frenchmen when viewing the British contribution. The armoured elements present could hardly be called an armoured division. Due to the tiny size of this force, it was placed almost entirely under French High Command. General Montgomery later said the entire British Army at this stage was not prepared for the full-scale exercise, let alone a war.
The 'Revolutionary' Wehrmacht
Luftwaffe: A New Weapon is realized
Offence and Defence
The 'Dyle-Breda' Plan
Also, as the French High Command had ruled out the possibility of any enemy movement through the Ardennes forest in Belgium, the weakest units were placed ahead of this vital sector. Gamelin having visited the region many times, declared it impossible for tanks to scale the narrow winding forest roads of the region. Ironically this would be the focus of the German thrusts. Which would then slice through a 40-mile stretch of the Meuse, held by the poorly equipped 9th Army under General Corap. France would be caught completely off guard.
10th May: Hell Unleashed
One wonders whether Gamelin was blind. Indeed, French pilots had been flying over the area had made reports of huge massing of German armour. Yet these reports were not believed, and no action was taken. Had the French Air Force taken a serious air offensive against the long immobilized columns of German vehicles, the results would have been horrific. Only by the 11th of May did the German movement start to make sense. Not becoming uneasy and calculating that the Germans would not be there till the 14th and would then have to wait for artillery, Gamelin ordered 11 divisions to the sector. Given the state of the French logistics, it would mean that the first of these would arrive on the 14th and the last by the 21st. Unfortunately, Gamelin had miscalculated the time the German army would take to reach the Meuse.
By the 13th, the Panzer divisions were present at the Meuse, ready to cross without delay. Facing them was the grossly overstretched 9th French Army under Corap. Seven divisions were holding 75 miles of front. Sedan was where the 9th met the 2nd Army under General Huntziger. The 55th and 71st Infantry divisions held this critical crossing point. It is hard to understand the High Command's confidence in these troops when most of the units were composed of second-rate reservists. It were men like these who had led to so many stories about the lack of discipline and fighting punch in the French army. Arrayed against them were the finest legions Germany could field.
The first crossings took place in the Dinat sector where the 7th Panzer division crossed under the energetic General Rommel. In a display of extraordinary leadership abilities, Rommel personally led assaults across the river and defence against French armour on the other side. These were followed by a breakthrough at Sedan by General Hienz Guderian's panzerkorps. Both of these crossings were accomplished after fierce fighting and heavy bombardment by the Luftwaffe. By the nightfall on the 13th, German bridgeheads had been established. At this point in time the German condition was extremely fragile, a counter attack by even a small armoured force would have routed both bridgeheads.
The battle at Sedan has been called the battle through which France lost the war. At Sedan, 3 Panzer divisions along with some motorized infantry divisions had to fight through an array of French pillboxes and fortifications to secure a toehold of the western bank. Had the muscle of the Luftwaffe not been behind them, one doubts if the attack would have succeeded. French infantry was tied down by the aerial bombardment and attacked by daring assaults of German troops in rubber boats. Considering that they were up against the best troops the Heer could muster, initially the reservists of the 55th Infantry division did not perform too badly. Yet some artillery commanders in the rear areas panicked thinking that they were being attacked by tanks. This was impossible as Guderian's armour was still sitting on the eastern bank of the river. A general rout of rear echelon infantry and artillerymen followed. Men left everything behind and ran like cowards. And thus, once the artillery stopped firing, the front line troops also routed or surrendered. While at least the 55th made contact with the enemy and held for a while, the 71st Infantry Division withdrew even before they were attacked. And so, Sedan fell into German hands. Even so, the first tanks would not cross till the morning of the14th; meaning that any determined attack before that would wipe out the bridgehead.
It is here that we see the French commanders sticking to the old tactics of 'sealing off' the enemy. Counterattacks were planned of course, but the sluggishness and lack of punch showed by French attacks at various levels is all too evident. Everywhere one sees evidence of planned counterattacks being delayed time after time and then, in some cases, cancelled altogether. The mild uncoordinated attack against Rommel's bridgehead is a testimony to this (it was chased away by German infantry firing flare pistols to confuse French tanks). Eventually a strong effort to check the German bridgeheads was never made. And by the time the French command was thinking of a serious effort to cut the advance, German bridgeheads had not only become quite powerful, the panzers were on the move again by the 14th.
Ineptitude at its Worst
The division's orders were to "Counterattack with full force". In the meantime Guderian made the decision to wheel the 1st and 2nd Panzer divisions westwards without waiting for the 10th Panzer to secure his flank. Only the mauled Gross-Deutschland Infantry regiment was present for flank protection. The attack was supposed to take place on the 14th of May on Panzerkorp Guderian's exposed flank as it started to make its vulnerable westward movement. For this attack, Huntziger had the entire fresh 3rd Armoured division (with its formidable H-39 tanks) and the A class 3rd Motorized Infantry Division. There is no doubt that if the armoured assault had taken place, it would have shattered the flanks of the 1st and 2nd Panzer divisions rushing westwards.
Yet General Flavigny, commander of the 21st Corps of armour, postponed the attack for the next day only 30 minutes before zero hour, and ordered the division to "Seal off the area". This meant that the unit would be dispersed and all effect of concentration would be lost. The next day, on the 15th of May, elements of the 10th Panzer had crossed and were moving in to supplement the Gross-Deutschland infantry regiment. Huntziger ordered a rigorous counterattack. Even at this stage, it would have severely set the German plans back. Yet there were delays in putting the units back together and only a few elements participated in the battle for Stonne before the attack was cancelled. In the end Huntziger happily accepted Flavigny's excuses, dismissed the commander of the 3rd Armoured division for being incompetent, and gleefully added the divisions to his 2nd Army static defence line. It was these static defence 'lines' that the French generals of WWI loved so much. Thus the one of the golden opportunities of changing the course of the war was lost.
Race for the Channel
There had been a number of attacks in order to prevent the Sichelschnitt trap from being set. Colonel de Gaulle attacked the columns from the south twice near Montcomet with some armoured forces, but was pushed back on both instances. On The 18th of May, the seventy-three year old General Maxime Weygand replaced General Gamelin as the CinC of the French Army. This man was known for his severe distrust for politicians and the British. It took him two days to arrive in France, and then he took a further 2-3 days in 'judging' the situation. This wasted valuable time during which the counter attack south of Sedan Gamelin had planned was shelved.
After passing his judgements, Weygand issued a nonsensical series of orders that required 8 Allied divisions to cut a path through the German encirclement. However this attack would never be possible as the BEF had lost quite a bit of its muscle in attacking Arras on the 21st and the trapped French forces had also sustained losses during an attack on the 22nd. The fact that these elements were attacking instead of conserving forces for Weygand's plan shows the complete lack of coordination between Allied HQs. Two more attacks were to take place from the south later, but both would fail to dent the Panzer corridor.
Eventually the Sichelschnitt trap forced the best troops the French and British armies could muster into a small pocket around Dunkirk. Their situation was given up as being hopeless and plans were made to evacuate as many men as possible. In a mass departure that would sour the German victory, the British evacuated about 337,000 men trapped at Dunkirk with every vessel available for the task. 30,000 men had to be abandoned as the rearguard when the operation ended on the 2nd of June. This in a way marked the definite end for France. Her military lay shattered, 61 divisions had been lost, and her entire northern area was occupied with a ruthlessly efficient enemy.
After Dunkirk, the Germans reorganized and the total number of divisions available in the north of France was around 102. Against this, the French could only muster 60 divisions.(2) There were only about 200 combat ready tanks. Of these, most units were second-rate reservists and lacked proper supplies and organization to sustain a tough campaign. Seeing the intact and victorious German armies pitted against them, the inevitable was clear to everyone in France. She could resist all she wanted to, but France would eventually fall. To make matters worse, on June 10, Italy declared war on France.
One last Battle
After Dunkirk, once again French armies were reorganized to for a 'solid front' like that of WWI. General Weygand and Marshal Pétain had already decided that one last battle was necessary to save the honour of the army before Armistice. They had given up hope, whereas the Prime Minister, Paul Reynaud was contemplating fleeing to Africa and continuing resistance from there. This seemed unacceptable to Weygand who feared anarchy due to the destruction of the Army more than the Germans themselves.
Thus the remnants of the French army formed a line behind the river Somme and waited for the German attacks once again. However things were different this time. French infantrymen stayed in their positions and died there no matter how many times they were harassed by the dreaded Stukas. Weygand himself was surprised by the new found courage his troops displayed. If only they had shown the same fighting spirit at Sedan and Dinat. Eventually Guderian and Rommel led their columns past French defences and eliminated the pockets of resistance, however, casualties this time were much greater. Paris fell on the 14th of June.
It was clear to everyone; France was lost. The French Government that had earlier moved to Tours now moved again, to Bordeaux. Premier Paul Reynaud made a desperate appeal to President Roosevelt to declare war on Germany and come to the rescue of France, but the response was negative. (In reply on June 15th, President Roosevelt promised every aid short of military intervention). On June 15th, as 30,600 British troops were evacuated from Cherbourg, and the Germans captured Verdun, the French Army GHQ moved to Vichy. The 220,000 French troops holding the Maginot Line held out until June 25th.
Many wished to continue resistance from North Africa. The French ambassador in London suggested a dramatic idea: the political union between France and Britain. Churchill immediately approved, and Reynaud thought it would strengthen the resolve of his cabinet to fight onwards. Unfortunately for Reynaud, his mistress, who favoured peace with the Germans, leaked the news. The cabinet reacted strongly and Pétain called such an idea "Like fusion to a corpse". A broken man, Reynaud resigned. Pétain formed the next government and immediately sued for peace on the 17th of June.
War in the Air:
While the Luftwaffe was hard pressed to maintain air superiority, one wonders where the French Air Force was. Looking at the post campaign losses, the Luftwaffe lost 1,284 aircraft. The British RAF losing 931 aircraft, of which 477 were priceless fighters. The Armée de l'Air lost approximately 560 aircraft (235 destroyed on the ground). These figures alone speak the absence of French air power over the front.(3) They also show that Britain went out her way to protect the airspace over France. While the Luftwaffe was terrorizing French troops and actually protecting the flanks of the Panzer armies, the French AASF was nowhere to be seen. Even German fighter pilots noted that most of their air victories were over RAF aircraft.
The only explanation is that the evacuations of forward airfields after German aerial attack lead to French aircraft being flown and dispersed into central France in a disorganized manner. This coupled with the cumbersome and inefficient system of command of air assets lead to a logistical and organizational disaster in the air force. To top this, the French knew nothing of the lessons of air power the Germans had learnt during the Spanish Civil War. They were ignorant to the effects of concentration of air power and thus most of their attacks were piecemeal and ineffective. The failure of the Armée de l'Air meant that the Luftwaffe could easily dominate the aerial battlefield and hence contribute greatly to the German successes.
The Battle for France had cost a number of around 90,000 French lives and about a quarter of a million in wounded. Almost 2 million French soldiers were prisoners of war.(4) The British had lost 3,475 dead and 15,850 wounded since the invasion on May 10th, plus many thousands more to German prisoner of war camps. Germany had suffered the loss of 27,074 dead and 111,034 wounded. At least 5 percent of these casualties were officers. The concept of leading from the front had lead to victory, but there was a cost.
Many have argued that France had lost the battle even before it had started. The signs of this are shown in various episodes before the campaign in May 1940. In 1936 when the Germans reoccupied the Rhineland, France did nothing to check the movement of German forces into the region and thus showed her unwillingness to fight. Later on, the signing of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Non-Aggression pact in 1939 would mean that there would be no relief from the east. This was compounded by the fact that France did nothing to help her Polish ally when the Germans invaded. Any movement into Germany would have been disastrous for Hitler as almost the entire Wehrmacht was busy in Poland.
Aside from these facts, France in 1940 was a country severely divided by political and social unrest. Some historians such Shirer and Horne have called the domestic situation being almost at the brink of civil war. This certainly did nothing to help the morale and discipline of the Army, which was at its worst in years. The indirect or direct effects of these conditions were the routs at Sedan and other locations.
When the invasion started in May 1940, the French army was in the worst possible position to react. Almost the all of first-rate divisions had been committed in Belgium. A famous strategist had once said: 'One fault only in the initial deployment of an Army cannot be made good through the course of an entire campaign'. In order to react to the threat of the Panzers rushing through the Ardennes and concentrate enough French armour, the decision to take immediate action should have come on the 12th of May. However Gamelin took things very lightly and the delay was almost fatal. Had the deployment of the 3rd Armoured division not been interfered with by its leaders, perhaps the outcome would have been different. Any determined assault would have produced some results in terms of stopping or delaying the enemy. This was definitely proved later in the war when the Ardennes offensive in 1944 caused a serious delay to the invading Allied armies.
More than she needed weapons, and perhaps even more than morale, France needed time. And when one looks at the way the French system of command worked, the wastage of time is blatantly evident. Even more evident is the refusal of French generals to modernize. The important figures in this fateful campaign: Gamelin, Weygand, Corap, Huntziger, Flavigny and others who held the fate of France in their hands displayed the siege mentality so associated with the First World War. Where counterattacking would have been the correct approach, they preferred to adopt a defensive posture. This obviously resulted in local defeats all over the French landscape.
Needless to say, once the Germans had broken out of Sedan and completed the Sichelschnitt, very little could have been done to salvage the situation. The leaders of France would have to choose between the bloodbath of Verdun in 1940, or slavery under the Nazis. Already plagued by a 'missing generation' of Frenchmen, they chose the latter.
Sources and Bibliography
Horne, Alistair. To Lose a Battle: France 1940:Macmillan, 1969.
Shirer, William L. The Collapse of the Third Republic: An Inquiry into
the Fall of France in 1940: New York- Simon and Schuster, 1969.
Galland, Adolf. The First and the Last: the German Fighter force in World War Two: London- Methuen, 1955.
Cull, Lander and Weiss. Twelve days in May: London- Grub Street, 1995
Manstein, Field-Marshal Erich von. Lost Victories: Translated by Anthony G. Powell. London- Methuen, 1958.
Copyright 2004, Usman Khan