The Germans did not have numerical or technological superiority over their opponents. Against Adolf Hitler's 136 divisions (2.5 million men), the French, British, Belgians, and Dutch could field 135 divisions (more than 2 million men). The Allies and neutral powers also had more tanks (perhaps 3,600, compared with 2,500 for the Germans). The Allies were sadly deficient, however, in numbers of antiaircraft guns and aircraft. Against 1,444 German bombers, the Allies could send up only 830 fighters. These would have to cope with 1,264 German fighter aircraft, more than 1,000 of which were Bf-109s. Overall, the German air fleets deployed in the west numbered 3,226 combat aircraft, whereas the British and French had half that number.
Well aware of this parity, the German General Staff were reluctant to undertake any assault in the late fall of 1939, instead producing the Phony War, when both sides were largely idle. Hitler's insistence on striking into France forced the issue, producing a series of changing operational plans that eventually invalidated the assumptions underlying the French defensive strategy. That strategy, and France's ability to execute it, suffered substantial defects by May 1940. The prolonged period of inactivity along the front since the fall of Poland had seriously eroded both Allied military morale and confidence in France's military and civilian leadership. Defeatism and internal political struggles divided Premier Paul Reynaud's government. The French High Command deliberately overestimated German strength in its pronouncements to provide an excuse in the event of disaster, and bureaucratic inertia and stubbornness hampered efforts by Colonel Charles de Gaulle and others to concentrate France's greater number of tanks into armored units capable of opposing Germany's panzer divisions. The first three French tank divisions did not assemble until January 1940, and they lacked radios. Most of France's tanks were parceled out in small packets along the front to act in support of infantry.
Allied strategy predicted that any German assault would bypass the fortified Maginot Line by moving through the neutral Low Countries and then pivoting north of Li?ge to fall upon the Channel ports and move against France from the north. But following the January 1940 compromise of the original German plan, which would have met Allied strength, Generals Fritz Erich von Manstein and Heinz Guderian convinced Hitler to abandon this approach in favor of concentrating the bulk of the resources on a more southern axis. Under the new plan, while other units extended the line to the sea, the main German force would drive through the Ardennes forest south of Li?ge to strike the French army as it moved to defend Belgium.
General Feodor von Bock's Army Group B, charged with invading Belgium and Holland, was downgraded from 37 divisions in the original plan to only 28 in the Manstein plan, and 3 rather than 8 armor divisions. General Gerd von Rundstedt's Army Group A, which was to move through the Ardennes, was upgraded from 17 to 44 divisions, including 7 rather than a single armor division. Thus, at the point of the breakthrough, the Germans would outnumber the French 44 divisions to 9.
By early May, the signs of an impending attack were obvious to those who wished to see, but its direction, speed, and success caught the Allies by surprise. French intelligence services, usually among the world's best, completely misread German intentions and strengths. Manstein's plan capitalized on the French tendency to anticipate a repetition of the World War I offensive inspired by the Schlieffen Plan. Therefore, the operation began on 10 May with an attack into Holland by von Bock's Army Group B. Although some positions held for two or three days, German blitzkrieg tactics drove the bulk of the Dutch army back in short order. The French Seventh Army raced across Belgium to the rescue, arriving on 12 May only to join the retreat.
The great fortress of Eben Emael anchored Belgium's defenses on the south. A German glider assault took the allegedly impregnable position in just 28 hours, opening the path for German tanks. Similar airborne assaults carried bridgeheads and lesser defensive positions, overwhelming Belgian defenses. There, too, help arrived on 12 May. British and French forces executing the planned strategy managed to slow the German advance through Belgium by 14 May, but the concurrent German strike through the Ardennes obliterated that planned strategy. Quickly overrunning Luxembourg, von Rundstedt's Army Group A advanced through the Ardennes to reach the main French line along the Meuse River on 12 May. French army commander General Maurice Gamelin's belated efforts to stem the tide with reinforcements came too late to prevent German forces from crossing the Meuse. The Germans took Sedan and punched a 50-mile-wide gap in France's defenses. By 16 May, they were on the Aisne River in open country.
The BEF and many French armor forces were already committed to battle in the north. Gamelin now ordered up reserves and formed a new army under General Robert Auguste Touchon, the Sixth, to try to seal the gap. General Henri Giraud took over command of the Ninth Army, but his forces were badly mauled by the Germans on 17 May, and Giraud himself was captured. From 17 to 19 May, Colonel Charles de Gaulle scored the only French successes of the battle when he flung his 4th Armored Division in three successive thrusts against the southern flank of the German advance from Laon. Aided by air power, the Germans blunted the Allied attacks and swept on.
The speed of the German advance caught even von Rundstedt by surprise, as his armor commanders subverted instructions to slow down, slipped around areas of heavy resistance, and reached the English Channel by 21 May. Germany's spectacular success broke General Gamelin's ability to respond. French communications were abysmal, and there was no strategic reserve. Convinced of France's inevitable defeat, Gamelin ceased to exercise effective command. Premier Reynaud dismissed him on 19 May and replaced him with General Maxime Weygand, but the situation was already too far gone for Weygand to stave off disaster. The BEF was trapped in the north, and cooperation between it and the French First Army broke down. Forced to choose between supporting an increasingly unlikely French breakout (which both Weygand and British Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill ordered) or maintaining his line of retreat to the sea, on 24 May BEF commander General Sir John Gort ordered the BEF to withdraw to the north and the port of Dunkerque.
This proved to be one of the important decisions of the war, for it saved the BEF to fight another day. Hitler now committed his first major military mistake of the war, which allowed the BEF to escape. On 26 May, Rundstedt, worried about the speed of the advance, halted the panzer divisions when they were within striking range of the last Channel ports open to the British. Hitler then converted this temporary halt into a firm order. He wanted to allow time for the infantry to come up and was convinced by Luftwaffe commander General Hermann Göring that the Luftwaffe could destroy the British on the beaches, preventing their escape. Not until 29 May did Hitler release the tanks again, and by that time the BEF was in place, protected in large part by the French First Army. In the weeklong Operation dynamo, the British evacuated some 365,000 men from France, of whom nearly 225,000 were British.
Reynaud's new cabinet proved to be unable to deal with the deteriorating situation. The French government increasingly disintegrated into rival factions and descended into defeatism. Although much of the army was still intact, it was bereft of leadership or sound strategy and psychologically defeated. Although Churchill proposed a union of Britain and France to keep the latter in the war, he refused, under pressure from the RAF, to commit the remainder of his fighter aircraft to the battle for France. It appeared to Paris that Britain was withdrawing from the war, leaving France to fight alone.
By 5 June, the Germans had repositioned the bulk of their forces in preparation for the final conquest of France. France opposed the onslaught with a greatly weakened military and an already defeated government. On 8 June, von Bock's Army Group B reached the Seine. One of his generals, Erwin Rommel, pushed on to Rouen before turning back up the coast, encircling the remaining British and French units along the seashore. East of Paris, French forces held out, perhaps in response to Weygand's futile and foolish 8 June order to hold without thought of retreat. But on 12 June, Rundstedt's forces broke through the French line at Ch‰lons. Before his tanks stretched open ground and the retreating French army. That same day, the French government abandoned Paris for Bordeaux in the southwest. On 13 June, the government declared Paris an open city to spare it the fate of Warsaw and Rotterdam, and the next day German troops took peaceful possession of the capital.
For a full week, the French government struggled to find a solution while its demoralized forces fought an unorganized withdrawal without any clear strategy. The cabinet rejected alternatives ranging from a retreat to North Africa and the still-secure resources of the colonies to the outright union of France and Britain. The premier summoned Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain, hoping he could restore morale and reinvigorate resistance. Unfortunately, the aged hero believed the war was lost and added his voice to the defeatists opposing Reynaud. On 10 June, Italy entered the war on Germany's side, although Italian forces did not attack France in the southeast until 20 June.
Late on the evening of 16 June, with the Germans having taken Verdun and beginning to cut off the Maginot Line from the rear, Reynaud resigned. With his departure, any hope of France remaining in the war disappeared. Pétain succeeded him as premier, proclaiming in a radio address to the French people the next day that the country had lost the war and "the fighting must stop." Many army commanders interpreted this as an order, and the German advance continued largely without resistance. Brigadier General de Gaulle and a few other Frenchmen escaped to Britain.
France and Germany signed a cease-fire on 22 June 1940, but operations continued at Hitler's insistence until the Italians agreed to the armistice on 25 June. Signed at Compi?gne—at the same site and in the same railway carriage that had witnessed the signing of the armistice with Germany in 1918—the 1940 armistice allowed Germany to occupy northern France and the Atlantic coastal regions to the Spanish border, with France to pay for the German costs of administration. French prisoners of war remained under German control. The French fleet, much of which had escaped to North Africa, would remain under French control but was to be demobilized. The French government, having fled Paris, continued to rule the unoccupied zone from Vichy under the leadership of Pétain.
Jeffery A. Charlston
Barber, Noel. The Week France Fell. New York: Stein and Day, 1976.; Benoist-Méchin, Jacques. Sixty Days That Shook the West: The Fall of France 1940. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1963.; Chapman, Guy. Why France Fell: The Defeat of the French Army in 1940. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969.; Horne, Alistair. To Lose a Battle: France 1940. Boston: Little, Brown, 1969.; Reynaud, Paul. In the Thick of the Fight 1930–1945. Trans. James D. Lambert. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1951.; Shirer, William L. The Collapse of the Third Republic: An Inquiry into the Fall of France in 1940. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1969.