In World War II, the Battle of France, also known as the Fall of France, was the German invasion of France and the Low Countries, executed from 10 May 1940, which ended the Phoney War. The battle consisted of two main operations. In the first, Fall Gelb (Case Yellow), German armoured units pushed through the Ardennes, to cut off and surround the Allied units that had advanced into Belgium. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and many French soldiers were however evacuated from Dunkirk in Operation Dynamo. In the second operation, Fall Rot (Case Red), executed from 5 June, German forces outflanked the Maginot Line to attack the larger territory of France. Italy declared war on France on 10 June. The French government fled to Bordeaux, and Paris was occupied on 14 June. After the French Second Army Group surrendered on 22 June, France capitulated on 25 June. For the Axis, the campaign was a spectacular victory.
France was divided into a German occupation zone in the north and west, a small Italian occupation zone in the southeast and a collaborationist rump state in the south, Vichy France. Southern France was occupied on 10 November 1942 and France remained under German occupation until after the Allied landings in 1944; the Low Countries were liberated in 1944 and 1945.
Whilst writing the directive, Hitler had assumed that such an attack could be initiated within a period of at most a few weeks, but the very day he issued it he was disabused of this illusion. It transpired that he had been misinformed about the true state of Germany's forces. The motorised units had to recover for an estimated three months, repairing the damage to their vehicles incurred in the Polish campaign; the ammunition stocks were largely depleted.
Hitler was very disappointed by Halder's plan. He had supposed the conquest of the Low Countries could be quick and cheap; but as it was presented, it would be long and difficult. It has even been suggested that Halder, who was at the time conspiring against Hitler and had begun carrying a revolver to shoot him in person if necessary, proposed the most pessimistic plan possible to discourage Hitler from the attack entirely. Hitler reacted in two ways. He decided that the German army should attack early, ready or not, in the hope that Allied unpreparedness might bring about an easy victory after all. He set the date on 12 November1939. This led to an endless series of postponements, as time and again commanders managed to convince Hitler that the attack should be further delayed for a few days or weeks to remedy some critical defect in the preparations, or to wait for better weather conditions. Secondly, because the plan as it was did not appeal to him, he tried to make it different, without clearly understanding in which way it could be improved. This mainly resulted in a dispersion of effort, since besides the main axis in central Belgium, secondary attacks were foreseen further south. On 29 October Halder let a second operational plan reflect these changes, Aufmarschanweisung N°2, Fall Gelb, which featured a secondary attack on the Liège-Namur axis.
Hitler was not alone in disliking Halder's plan. Gerd von Rundstedt, the commander of Army Group A, also disagreed with it. Unlike Hitler however, von Rundstedt, as a professional soldier, understood perfectly how it should be rectified. Its fundamental flaw was that it did not conform to the classic principles of the Bewegungskrieg, the "manoeuvre warfare", that had since the 19th century been the basis of German tactics. A breakthrough would have to be accomplished that would result in the encirclement and destruction of the main body of Allied forces. The logical place to achieve this would be the Sedan axis, which lay in the sector of von Rundstedt's Army Group A. Von Rundstedt on 21 October agreed with his chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Erich von Manstein, that an alternative operational plan had to be arranged that would reflect these basic ideas, making his Army Group A as strong as possible at the expense of Army Group B to the north.
Von Manstein wrote his first memorandum outlining the alternative plan on 31 October. In it he carefully avoided mentioning Guderian's name and downplayed the strategic part of the armoured units, in order not to generate unnecessary resistance. On 6 November, 21 November, 30 November, 6 December, 18 December 1939 and 12 January 1940, a further six memoranda followed, slowly growing more radical in outline. All were rejected by the OKH; nothing of their content reached Hitler.
The man who had to carry out the change was again Franz Halder — von Manstein was not further involved. Halder consented to shifting the main effort, the Schwerpunkt, to the south. Von Manstein's plan had the virtue of being unlikely (from a defensive point of view) since the Ardennes were heavily wooded and because of their poor road network, they were implausible as a route for an invasion. An element of surprise would therefore be present. It would be essential that the Allies respond as envisaged in the original plans, namely that the main body of French and British elite troops be drawn north to defend Belgium. To help to ensure this condition, German Army Group B had to execute a holding attack in Belgium and the Netherlands, giving the impression of being the main German effort, in order to draw Allied forces eastward into the developing encirclement and hold them there. To accomplish this, three of the ten available armoured divisions were still allocated to Army Group B.
However, Halder had no intention of deviating from established doctrine by allowing an independent strategic penetration by the seven armoured divisions of Army Group A. Much to the outrage of Guderian this element was at first completely removed from the new plan, Aufmarschanweisung N°4, Fall Gelb, issued on 24 February. The crossings of the River Meuse at Sedan should be forced by infantry divisions on the eighth day of the invasion. Only after much debate was this changed in this respect that the motorised infantry regiments of the armoured divisions would establish bridgeheads on the fourth day, to gain four days. Even now the breakout and drive to the English Channel would start only on the ninth day, after a delay of five days during which a sufficient number of infantry divisions had to be built up in order to advance together with the armoured units in a coherent mass.
Even when adapted to more conventional methods, the new strategy provoked a storm of protest from the majority of German generals. They thought it utterly irresponsible to create a concentration of forces in a position where they could not possibly be sufficiently supplied, while such inadequate supply routes as there were, could easily be cut off by the French. If the Allies did not react as expected the German offensive could end in catastrophe. Their objections were ignored however; Halder argued that, as Germany's strategic position seemed hopeless anyway, even the slightest chance of a decisive victory outweighed the certainty of ultimate defeat implied by inaction. The adaptation also implied that it would be easier for the Allied forces to escape to the south. Halder pointed out that if so, Germany's victory would be even cheaper, while it would be an enormous blow to the reputation of the Entente — as the Anglo-French alliance was still commonly known in 1940 — to have abandoned the Low Countries. Moreover Germany's fighting power would then still be intact, so that it might be considered to immediately afterwards execute Fall Rot, the attack on France. However, a decision to this effect would have to be postponed until after a possible successful completion of Fall Gelb. Indeed German detailed operational planning only covered the first nine days; there was no fixed timetable established for the advance to the Channel. In accordance with the tradition of the Auftragstaktik, much would be left to the judgment and initiative of the field commanders. This indetermination would have an enormous effect on the actual course of events.
In April 1940, for strategic reasons, the Germans launched Operation Weserübung, an attack on the neutral countries of Denmark and Norway. The British, French, and Free Poles responded with an Allied campaign in Norway in support of the Norwegians.
In September 1939, in the token Saar Offensive—only made to nominally fulfill the prewar guarantee to Poland to execute a relief attack from the West—French soldiers advanced 5 kilometres into the Saar before withdrawing in October. At this time, France had deployed 98 divisions (all but 28 reserve or fortress divisions) and 2,500 tanks against German forces consisting of 43 divisions (32 of them reserve divisions) and no tanks. According to the judgment of Wilhelm Keitel, then Chief OKW, the French army would easily have been able to penetrate the mere screen of German forces present.
After October, it was decided not to take the initiative in 1940, though important parts of the French army in the 1930s had been designed to wage offensive warfare. The Allies believed that even without an Eastern Front the German government might be destabilised by a blockade, as it had been in the First World War. In the event the Nazi regime would not collapse, a possibility that seemed to grow ever more likely, during 1940 a vast modernisation and enlargement programme for the Allied forces would be implemented, exploiting the existing advantages over Germany in war production to build up an overwhelming mechanised force, including about two dozen armoured divisions, to execute a decisive offensive in the summer of 1941. Should the Low Countries by that date still not have committed themselves to the Allied cause, the Entente firmly intended to violate their neutrality if necessary.
Obviously the Germans might strike first, and a strategy would have to be prepared for this eventuality. Neither the French nor the British had anticipated such a rapid defeat in Poland, and the quick German victory was disturbing. Most French generals favoured a very cautious approach. They thought it wise not to presume that the German intentions could be correctly predicted. A large force should be held in reserve in a central position, north of Paris, to be prepared for any contingency. Should the Germans indeed take the obvious route of advance through Flanders, they should only be engaged in northern France, when their infantry would be exhausted and they had run out of supplies. If however they would try an attack on the centre of the Allied front, this Allied reserve would be ideally positioned to block it. If the Germans advanced through Switzerland, a large reserve would be the only means to deal with such a surprise.
Gamelin successfully countered these arguments by adopting the seemingly reasonable assumption that the Germans would try to attempt a breakthrough by concentrating their mechanised forces. They could hardly hope to break the Maginot Line on his right flank or to overcome the Allied concentration of forces on the left flank. That only left the centre. But most of the centre was covered by the river Meuse. Tanks were useless in defeating fortified river positions. However, at Namur the river made a sharp turn to the east, creating a gap between itself and the river Dyle. This Gembloux Gap, ideal for mechanised warfare, was a very dangerous weak spot. Gamelin decided to concentrate half of his armoured reserves there. By thus assuming that the decisive moment in the campaign would take the form of a gigantic tank battle, he avoided the problem of the German tactical bomber force since air attacks were considered less effective against mobile armoured units, the tanks of which would be hard to hit. Of course the Germans might try to overcome the Meuse position by using infantry. But that could only be achieved by massive artillery support, the gradual build-up of which would give Gamelin ample warning to allow him to reinforce the Meuse line.
During the first months of 1940 the size and readiness of the French army steadily grew, and Gamelin began to feel confident enough to propose a somewhat more ambitious strategy. He had no intention of frontally attacking the German fortification zone, the Westwall, in 1941, planning instead to outflank it from the north, just as four years later Bernard Montgomery intended in Operation Market Garden. To achieve this, it would be most convenient if he already had a foothold on the north bank of the Rhine, so he changed his plans to the effect that a French army should maintain a connection north of Antwerp with the Dutch National Redoubt, "Fortress Holland". He assigned his sole strategic reserve, the elite 7th Army, to this task. His only reserves now consisted of individual divisions. Again there was much opposition to this "Dyle-Breda-Plan" within the French army, but Gamelin was strongly supported by the British government, because Holland proper was an ideal base for a German air campaign against England.
The German forces in the West would in May and June deploy some 2,700 tanks and self-propelled guns, including matériel reserves committed; about 7,500 artillery pieces were available with an ammunition stock for six weeks of fighting. The Luftwaffe divided its forces into two groups. 1,815 combat, 487 Transport and 50 Glider aircraft were deployed to support Army Group B, while a further 3,286 combat aircraft were deployed to support Army Group A and C.
The German Army was divided into three army groups:
The Allied forces deployed an organic strength of about 3,100 modern tanks and self-propelled guns on 10 May; another 1,200 were committed to battle in new units or from the matériel reserves; also 1,500 obsolete FT-17 tanks were sent to the front for a total of about 5,800. They had about 14,000 pieces of artillery. Enjoying thus a clear numerical superiority on the ground, the Allies suffered from an inferiority in the air: the French Armee de l'Air had 1,562 aircraft, and RAF Fighter Command committed 680 machines, while Bomber Command could contribute some 392 aircraft to operations. Most of the Allied aircraft were of an obsolete type, among the fighter force only the British Hawker Hurricane and the French Dewoitine D.520 could contend with the German Messerschmitt Bf 109 on something approaching equal terms. At the beginning of Fall Rot, French aviation industry had reached a considerable output, and estimated the matériel reserve at nearly 2,000. However, a chronic lack of spare parts crippled this stocked fleet. Only 29% (599) of the aircraft were serviceable, of which 170 were bombers.
The French forces in the north had three Army Groups: the Second and the Third defended the Maginot Line in the east; the First Army Group under Gaston-Henri Billotte was situated in the west and had to execute a swing movement into the Low Countries. At the coast was the 7th Army, reinforced by a Cavalry armoured division, that had to move to the Netherlands via Antwerp; then came nine divisions of the BEF, which had to position itself to the right of the Belgian army in the Dyle Line; next was the First Army that had to hold the Gembloux Gap, reinforced by two Cavalry armoured divisions and having an Infantry armoured division in reserve. The most southern to move was the Ninth Army, which had to cover the entire Meuse sector, between Namur and Sedan. At Sedan, the Second Army would form the "hinge" and remain entrenched.
The First Army Group had 35 French divisions; the total of 40 divisions of the other Allies in its sector brought their forces equal in number to the combined German forces of Army Group A and B. However, the former only had to confront the 18 divisions of the Ninth and Second Armies, and thus would have a large local superiority. To reinforce a threatened sector Gamelin had sixteen strategic reserve divisions available on General Headquarters level, two of them armoured. These were "reserve" divisions in the operational sense only, in fact consisting of high quality troops — most of them had been active divisions in peace time — and thus not comparable to the German reserve divisions that were half-trained. Confusingly, all mobilised French divisions were officially classified as A or B "reserve divisions", although most of them served directly in the front armies.
The French command reacted immediately, sending 1st Army Group north in accordance with Plan D. This move committed their best forces, diminished their fighting power through loss of readiness and their mobility through loss of fuel. That evening 7th Army crossed the Dutch border, finding the Dutch already in full retreat. The French and British air command was less effective than their generals had anticipated, and the Luftwaffe quickly obtained air superiority, depriving the Allies of key reconnaissance abilities and disrupting Allied communication and coordination.
The French 7th Army failed to block German armoured reinforcements of the 9th Panzer Division; they reached Rotterdam on 13 May. That same day in the east the Dutch retreated from the Grebbe line to the New Water Line, when a counter-offensive to contain a German breach had failed.
The Dutch Army, still largely intact, surrendered in the evening of 14 May after the Bombing of Rotterdam by Heinkel He 111s of Kampfgeschwader 54. It considered its strategic situation to have become hopeless and feared a further destruction of the major Dutch cities. The capitulation document was signed on 15 May. However, the Dutch troops in Zealand and the colonies continued the fight while Queen Wilhelmina established a government-in-exile in Britain.
Because Army Group B had been so weakened compared to the earlier plans, the German feint offensive by 6th Army was in danger of stalling immediately, since the Belgian defences on the Albert Canal position were very strong. The main approach route was blocked by Fort Eben-Emael, a large fortress then generally considered the most modern in the world, controlling the junction of the Meuse and the Albert Canal. Any delay might endanger the outcome of the entire campaign, because it was essential that the main body of Allied troops was engaged before Army Group A would establish bridgeheads.
To overcome this difficulty, the Germans resorted to unconventional means. In the early hours of 10 May gliders landed on the roof of Fort Eben-Emael unloading assault teams that disabled the main gun cupolas with hollow charges. The bridges over the canal were seized by German paratroopers. Shocked by a breach in its defences just where they had seemed the strongest, the Belgian Supreme Command withdrew its divisions to the KW-line five days earlier than planned. At that moment however the BEF and the French 1st Army were not yet entrenched. When Erich Hoepner's XVI Panzer Corps, consisting of 3rd and 4th Panzer Divisions was over the bridges launched in the direction of the Gembloux Gap, this seemed to confirm the expectations of the French Supreme Command that here would be the German Schwerpunkt. The two French Cavalry armoured divisions, the 2nd DLM and 3rd DLMs (Division Légère Mécanique, "Mechanised Light Division") were ordered forward to meet the German armour and cover the entrenchment of 1st Army. The resulting Battle of Hannut on 12 May-13 May was, with about 1,500 AFVs participating, the largest tank battle until that date. The French claim about 160 disabled German tanks for 91 French Hotchkiss H35 and 30 Somua S35 tanks destroyed or captured. However, as the Germans controlled the battlefield area afterwards, they recovered and eventually repaired or rebuilt many of the Panzer: German irreparable losses amounted to 49 tanks (20 3PD and 29 4PD). The German armour sustained substantial breakdown rates making it impossible to ascertain the exact number of tanks disabled by French action. On the second day the Germans managed to breach the screen of French tanks, which on 14 May were successfully withdrawn after having gained enough time for the 1st Army to dig in. Hoepner against orders tried on 15 May to break the French line, the only time in the campaign when German armour frontally attacked a strongly held fortified position; the attempt was repelled by the 1st Moroccan Infantry Division, costing 4PD another 42 tanks (26 irreparable). This defensive success for the French was however already made irrelevant by the events further south.
In the centre, the progress of German Army Group A was to be delayed by Belgian motorised infantry and French Light Divisions of the Cavalry (Divisions Légères de Cavalerie) advancing into the Ardennes. These forces however had an insufficient anti-tank capacity to block the surprisingly large number of German tanks they encountered and quickly gave way, withdrawing behind the Meuse. The German advance was however greatly hampered by the sheer number of troops trying to force their way through the poor road network. The time-tables proved to have been wildly optimistic and soon a traffic congestion formed, in the beginning to the east reaching well over the Rhine, that would last for almost two weeks. This made Army Group A very vulnerable to French air attacks, but these didn't materialise. Although Gamelin was well aware of the situation, the French tactical bomber force was far too weak to challenge German air superiority so close to the German border. However, on the 11th Gamelin ordered many reserve divisions to begin reinforcing the Meuse sector. Because of the danger the Luftwaffe posed, movement over the rail network was limited to the night, slowing the reinforcement, but the French felt no sense of urgency as the build-up of German divisions would be accordingly slow.
The German advance forces reached the Meuse line late in the afternoon of 12 May. To allow each of the three armies of Army Group A to cross, three major bridgeheads were to be established: at Sedan in the south, at Monthermé twenty kilometres to the northwest and at Dinant, another fifty kilometres to the north. The first units to arrive had hardly even a local numerical superiority; their already insufficient artillery support was further limited by an average supply of just twelve rounds apiece.
On 13 May, the German XIX Army Corps forced three crossings near Sedan, executed by the motorised infantry regiments of 1st, 2nd and 10th Panzerdivision, reinforced by the elite Großdeutschland infantry regiment. Instead of slowly massing artillery as the French expected, the Germans concentrated most of their tactical bomber force to punch a hole in a narrow sector of the French lines by carpet bombing (punctuated by dive bombing). Hermann Göring had promised Guderian that there would be an extraordinary heavy air support of a continual eight hour air attack, from 8am until dusk. Luftflotte 3, supported by Luftflotte 2, executed the heaviest air bombardment the world had yet witnessed and the most intense by the Luftwaffe during the war. . The Luftwaffe committed two Stukageschwader to the assault flying 300 sorties against French positions, with Stukageschwader 77 alone flying 201 individual missions. By the nine Kampfgeschwader (medium bomber units - See Luftwaffe Organization) committed, a total of 3,940 sorties were flown, often in Gruppe strength.
The forward platoons and pillboxes of the 147 RIF were little affected by the bombardment and held their positions throughout most of the day, initially repulsing the crossing attempts of 2nd and 10th Panzerdivision on their left and right; however in the centre of the river bend there was a gap in the line of bunkers. In the late afternoon Großdeutschland penetrated this position, trying to quickly exploit this opportunity. The deep French zone defence had been devised to defeat just this kind of infiltration tactics; it now transpired however that the morale of the deeper company positions of the 55th DI had been broken by the impact of the German air attacks: they had been routed or were too dazed to any longer offer effective resistance. The French supporting artillery batteries had fled, and this created an impression among the remaining main defence line troops of the 55e DI that they were isolated and abandoned. They too went into rout by the late evening. At a cost of a few hundred casualties the German infantry had penetrated up to eight kilometres into the French defence zone by midnight; even then most of the infantry had not crossed yet, much of the success being from the actions of just six platoons, mainly assault engineers.
The disorder that had begun at Sedan was spread down the French lines by groups of haggard and retreating soldiers. During the night, the 295th, regiment of 55th DI, holding the last prepared defence line at the Bulson ridge, 10 kilometres from the Meuse, was panicked by the false rumour that German tanks were already behind its positions. It fled, creating a gap in the French defences, before even a single German tank had crossed the river. This "Panic of Bulson" involved the divisional artillery, so that the crossing sites were no longer in reach of the French batteries.
In the morning of 14 May, two French FCM 36 tank battalions (4 and 7 BCC) and the reserve regiment of 55th DI, 213rd RI, executed a counterattack on the German bridgehead. It was repulsed at Bulson by the first German armour and anti-tank units which had been rushed across the river from 07:20 on the first pontoon bridge.
General Gaston-Henri Billotte, commander of the 1er Groupe des Armées whose right flank pivoted on Sedan, urged the bridges across the Meuse River to be destroyed by air attack, convinced that "over them will pass either victory or defeat!". That day every available Allied light bomber was employed in an attempt to destroy the three bridges; but, despite heavy losses for the RAF, they failed to hit them. The RAF Advanced Air Striking Force under the command of Air Vice-Marshal P H L Playfair, bore the brunt of the attacks. The plan called for the RAF to commit its bombers for the attack while they would receive protection from the French fighter groups. The British bombers received insufficient air cover and as a result some 21 French fighters and 48 British bombers, 44 percent of the A.A.S.F's strength was destroyed by Oberst Gerd von Massow's Jagdfliegerführer 3 Jagdgruppen. The French Armée de l'Air also tried in vain to halt the German armoured columns, but the small French bomber force had been so badly mauled the previous days that only a couple dozen aircraft could be committed over that vital target . Two French bombers were shot down. The German anti-aircraft defences, consisting of 198 88 mm, 54 3.7 cm and 81 20 mm cannon accounted for half of the Allied bombers destroyed. In just one day the Allies lost ninety bombers, in the Luftwaffe it became known as the "Day of the Fighters".
The commander of XIX Army Corps, Heinz Guderian, on 12 May had indicated that he wanted to enlarge the bridgehead to at least twenty kilometres. His superior Ewald von Kleist however ordered him to limit it to a maximum of eight kilometres before consolidation. On 14 May at 11:45, von Rundstedt confirmed this order, which basically implied that the tanks should now start to dig in. Nevertheless Guderian immediately disobeyed, expanding the perimeter to the west and to the south.
In the original von Manstein Plan as Guderian had suggested it, secondary attacks would be carried out to the southeast, in the rear of the Maginot Line, to confuse the French command. This element had been removed by Halder. Guderian now sent 10th Panzer Division and Großdeutschland south to execute precisely such a feint attack, using the only available route south over the Stonne plateau. However, the commander of the French Second Army, General Charles Huntzinger, intended to carry out at the same spot a counterattack by the armoured 3e Division Cuirassée de Réserve to eliminate the bridgehead. This resulted in an armoured collision, both parties in vain trying to gain ground in furious attacks from 15 May to 18 May, the village of Stonne changing hands many times. Huntzinger considered this at least a defensive success and limited his efforts to protecting his flank. However, in the evening of 16 May, Guderian removed 10 PD from the effort, having found a better destination for this division.
Guderian had turned his other two armoured divisions,1st and 2nd Panzerdivision sharply to the west on 14 May. In the afternoon of the 14 May there was still a chance for the French to attack the thus exposed southern flank of 1 PD, before 10 PD had entered the bridgehead, but it was thrown away when a planned attack by 3 DCR was delayed because it was not ready in time. On 15 May, in heavy fighting, Guderian's motorised infantry dispersed the reinforcements of the newly formed French 6th Army in their assembly area west of Sedan, undercutting the southern flank of the French Ninth Army by 40 kilometres (25 mi) and forcing the 102nd Fortress Division to leave its positions that had blocked the tanks of XVI Army Corps at Monthermé. While the French Second Army had been seriously mauled and had rendered itself impotent, the Ninth Army began to disintegrate completely, for in Belgium also its divisions, not having had the time to fortify, had been pushed back from the river by the unrelenting pressure of German infantry, allowing the impetuous Erwin Rommel to break free with his 7th Panzer Division. A French armoured division (1st DCR) was sent to block him but, advancing unexpectedly fast, he surprised it while it was refueling on 15 May and dispersed it, despite some losses caused by the heavy French tanks.
On 16 May, however, both Guderian and Rommel disobeyed their explicit direct orders in an act of open insubordination against their superiors and moved their divisions many kilometers to the west, as fast as they could push them. Guderian reached Marle, 80 kilometers (50 mi) from Sedan; Rommel crossed the river Sambre at Le Cateau, 100 kilometers (60 mi) from his bridgehead, Dinant. While nobody knew the whereabouts of Rommel (he had advanced so quickly that he was out of range for radio contact, earning his 7th Panzer Division the nickname Gespenster-Division, "Ghost Division"), an enraged von Kleist flew to Guderian on the morning of 17 May and after a heated argument relieved him of all duties. However, von Rundstedt refused to confirm the order.
It has proved difficult to explain the actions of both generals. Rommel was forced to commit suicide by Hitler before the end of the war and thus never could clarify his behavior in full freedom. After the war, Guderian claimed to have acted on his own initiative, essentially inventing Blitzkrieg on the spot. Some historians have since considered this an empty boast, denying any fundamental divide within contemporaneous German operational doctrine, downplaying the conflict as a mere difference of opinion about timing and pointing out that Guderian's claim is inconsistent with his professed role as the prophet of Blitzkrieg even before the war. However, his prewar writings in fact explicitly reject strategic envelopment by mechanized forces alone as a generally sufficient means to cause operational collapse. Also, there is no explicit reference to such tactics in the German battle plans.
The Panzer Corps now slowed their advance considerably but had put themselves in a very vulnerable position. They were stretched out, exhausted and low on fuel; many tanks had broken down. There was a dangerous gap between them and the infantry. A determined attack by a fresh large mechanized force could have cut them off and wiped them out.
The French High Command, however, was reeling from the shock of the sudden offensive and was stung by a sense of defeatism. On the morning of 15 May French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud telephoned the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Winston Churchill and said "We have been defeated. We are beaten; we have lost the battle." Churchill, attempting to console Reynaud, reminded the Prime Minister of the times the Germans had broken through Allied lines in World War I only to be stopped. However, Reynaud was inconsolable.
Churchill flew to Paris on 16 May. He immediately recognized the gravity of the situation when he observed that the French government was already burning its archives and preparing for an evacuation of the capital. In a sombre meeting with the French commanders, Churchill asked General Gamelin, "Où est la masse de manoeuvre?" ["Where is the strategic reserve?"] which had saved Paris in the First World War. "Aucune" ["There is none,"] Gamelin replied. Later, Churchill described hearing this as the single most shocking moment in his life. Churchill asked Gamelin when and where the general proposed to launch a counterattack against the flanks of the German bulge. Gamelin simply replied "inferiority of numbers, inferiority of equipment, inferiority of methods".
Gamelin was right; most reserve divisions had by now been committed. The only armoured division still in reserve, 2nd DCR, attacked on 16 May. However the French armoured divisions of the Infantry, the Divisions Cuirassées de Réserve, were – despite their name – very specialized breakthrough units, optimized for attacking fortified positions. They could be quite useful for defense, if dug in, but had very limited utility for an encounter fight: they could not execute combined infantry–tank tactics because they simply had no important motorized infantry component; they had poor tactical mobility because the heavy Char B1 bis, their main tank in which half of the French tank budget had been invested, had to refuel twice a day. So 2nd DCR divided itself in a covering screen, the small subunits of which fought bravely – but without having any strategic effect.
Some of the best units in the north had yet seen little fighting. Had they been kept in reserve they could have been used for a decisive counter strike. But now they had lost much fighting power simply by moving to the north; hurrying south again would cost them even more. The most powerful Allied division, the 1st DLM (Division Légère Mécanique, "light" in this case meaning "mobile"), deployed near Dunkirk on 10 May, had moved its forward units 220 kilometers (140 mi) to the northeast, beyond the Dutch city of 's-Hertogenbosch, in 32 hours. Finding that the Dutch had already retreated to the north, it had withdrawn and was moving to the south. When it reached the Germans again, of its original 80 SOMUA S 35 tanks only three were operational, mostly as a result of breakdown.
Nevertheless, a radical decision to retreat to the south, avoiding contact, could probably have saved most of the mechanized and motorized divisions, including the BEF. However, that would have meant leaving about thirty infantry divisions to their fate. The loss of Belgium alone would be an enormous political blow. Besides, the Allies were uncertain about German intentions. They threatened in four directions: to the north, to attack the Allied main force directly; to the west, to cut it off; to the south, to occupy Paris and even to the east, to move behind the Maginot Line. The French decided to create a new reserve, among which was a reconstituted 7th Army, under General Touchon, using every unit they could safely pull out of the Maginot Line to block the way to Paris.
Colonel Charles de Gaulle, in command of France's hastily formed 4th DCR, attempted to launch an attack from the south and achieved a measure of success that would later accord him considerable fame and a promotion to Brigadier General. However, de Gaulle's attacks on 17 May and 19 May did not significantly alter the overall situation.
The Allies seemed incapable of coping with events. On 19 May, General Ironside, the British Chief of the Imperial General Staff, conferred with Gort, commander of the British Expeditionary Force at his headquarters near Lens. Gort reported that the Commander of the French Northern Army Group, General Billotte, had given him no orders for eight days. Ironside confronted Billotte, whose own headquarters was nearby, and found him apparently incapable of taking decisive action.
Ironside had originally urged Gort to save the BEF by attacking south-west towards Amiens. Gort replied that seven of his nine divisions were already engaged on the Scheldt River, and he had only two with which to mount such an attack. Ironside returned to Britain concerned that the BEF was already doomed, and ordered urgent anti-invasion measures.
On the same day, the German High Command grew very confident. They determined that there appeared to be no serious threat to them from the south – indeed General Franz Halder toyed with the idea of attacking Paris immediately to knock France out of the war in one blow. The Allied troops in the north were retreating to the river Scheldt, their right flank giving way to the 3rd and 4th Panzer Divisions. It would be foolish to remain inactive any longer, allowing them to reorganize their defense or escape. Now it was time to bring them into even more serious trouble by cutting them off. The next day the Panzer Corps started moving again, smashed through the weak British 18th and 23rd Territorial Divisions, occupied Amiens and secured the westernmost bridge over the river Somme at Abbeville, isolating the British, French, Dutch, and Belgian forces in the north. In the evening, a reconnaissance unit from 2nd Panzer Division reached Noyelles-sur-Mer, 100 kilometers (60 mi) to the west. There they could see the estuary of the Somme flowing into the English Channel.
Fliegerkorps VIII under the command of Wolfram von Richthofen committed its StG 77 and StG 2 to covering the "dash to the channel coast". Heralded as the Stukas "finest hour" these units responded via an extremely efficient communications system to the Panzer Divisions every request for support, effectively blasting a path for the Army. The Ju 87s were particularly effective at breaking up attacks along the flanks of the German forces, breaking fortified positions and disrupting rear-area supply chains. The Luftwaffe also benefitted from excellent ground-to-air communications throughout the campaign. Radio equipped forward liaison officers could call upon the Stukas and direct them to attack enemy positions along the Axis of advance. In some cases the Stukas responded to requests in 10-20 minutes. Oberstleutnant Hans Seidmann (Richthofen's Chief of Staff) said that "never again was such a smoothly functioning system for discussing and planning joint operations achieved".
On 20 May also, French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud dismissed Maurice Gamelin for his failure to contain the German offensive, and replaced him with Maxime Weygand, who immediately attempted to devise new tactics to contain the Germans. More pressing however was his strategic task: he formed the Weygand Plan, ordering to pinch off the German armoured spearhead by combined attacks from the north and the south. On the map this seemed a feasible mission: the corridor through which von Kleist's two Panzer Corps had moved to the coast was a mere 40 kilometers (25 mi) wide. On paper Weygand had sufficient forces to execute it: in the north the three DLM and the BEF, in the south de Gaulle's 4th DCR. These units had an organic strength of about 1,200 tanks, and the Panzer divisions were very vulnerable again, the mechanical condition of their tanks rapidly deteriorating. But the condition of the Allied divisions was far worse. Both in the south and the north they could in reality muster but a handful of tanks. Nevertheless Weygand flew to Ypres on 21 May trying to convince the Belgians and the BEF of the soundness of his plan.
That same day, a detachment of the British Expeditionary Force under Major-General Harold Edward Franklyn had already attempted to at least delay the German offensive and, perhaps, to cut the leading edge of the German army off. The resulting Battle of Arras demonstrated the ability of the heavily armoured British Matilda tanks (the German 37 mm anti-tank guns proved ineffective against them) and the limited raid overran two German regiments. The panic that resulted (the German commander at Arras, Erwin Rommel, reported being attacked by 'hundreds' of tanks, though there were only 74 (+60 French) at the battle) temporarily delayed the German offensive. Rommel had to rely on 88 mm anti-aircraft and 105 mm field guns firing over open sights to halt these attacks. German reinforcements pressed the British back to Vimy Ridge the following day.
Although this attack was not part of any coordinated attempt to destroy the Panzer Corps, the German High Command panicked a lot more than Rommel. For a moment they feared to have been ambushed, that hundreds of Allied tanks were about to smash their elite forces. But the next day they had regained confidence and ordered Guderian's XIX Panzer Corps to press north and push on to the Channel ports of Boulogne and Calais, in the back of the British and Allied forces to the north.
Also on 22 May, the French tried to attack south to the east of Arras, with some infantry and tanks, but by now the German infantry had begun to catch up, and the attack was, with some difficulty, stopped by the 32nd Infantry Division.
The first attack from the south could only be launched on 24 May when 7th DIC, supported by a handful of tanks, failed to retake Amiens. This was a rather weak effort; however on 27 May the British 1st Armoured Division, which had been hastily brought forward from Evrecy in Normandy where it was forming, attacked Abbeville in force but was beaten back with crippling losses. The next day de Gaulle tried again with the same result. But by now even complete success couldn't have saved the forces in the north.
In the early hours of 23 May, Gort ordered a retreat from Arras. He had no faith in the Weygand plan nor in the proposal of the latter to at least try to hold a pocket on the Flemish coast, a Réduit de Flandres. The ports needed to supply such a foothold were already threatened. That day the 2nd Panzer Division assaulted Boulogne. The British garrison in Boulogne surrendered on 25 May, although 4,368 troops were evacuated. The British decision to withdraw was much criticised in later French publications.
The 10th Panzer Division attacked Calais, beginning on 24 May. British reinforcements (3rd Royal Tank Regiment, equipped with cruiser tanks, and the 30th Motor Brigade) had been hastily landed 24 hours before the Germans attacked. The Siege of Calais lasted four days. The British defenders were overwhelmed and surrendered around 16:00 on 27 May while the last French troops were evacuated in the early hours of 28 May.
The 1st Panzer Division was ready to attack Dunkirk on 25 May, but Hitler ordered it to halt the day before. This remains one of the most controversial decisions of the entire war. Hermann Göring had convinced Hitler the Luftwaffe could prevent an evacuation; von Rundstedt had warned him that any further effort by the armoured divisions would lead to a much prolonged refitting period. Attacking cities was not part of the normal task for armoured units under any operational doctrine.
Encircled, the British, Belgian and French launched Operation Dynamo, evacuating Allied forces from the northern pocket in Belgium and Pas-de-Calais, beginning on 26 May. About 218,226 British troops were evacuated in Dynamo, along with 120,000 French; almost all of the latter returned to France. The Allied position was complicated by King Léopold III of Belgium's surrender the following day, which was postponed until 28 May.
During the Dunkirk battle the Luftwaffe flew 1,882 bombing and 1,997 fighter sweeps. British losses totalled 6% of their total losses during the French campaign, including 60 precious fighter pilots. The Luftwaffe failed in its task to prevent the evacuation, but had inflicted serious losses on the Allied forces. A total of 89 merchantmen (of 126,518 grt) were lost; the Royal Navy lost 29 of its 40 destroyers sunk or seriously damaged.
As early on as the 16 May, the French position on the ground and in the air was becoming desperate. They pressed the British to commit more of the RAF fighter groups to the battle. Hugh Dowding, C-in-C of RAF Fighter Command refused, arguing that if France collapsed, the British fighter force would be severely weakened. The RAF force of 1,078 had been reduced to just 475 aircraft. RAF records show just 179 Hawker Hurricanes and 205 Supermarine Spitfires were serviceable on 5 June 1940.
Confusion still reigned however; after the evacuation at Dunkirk and while Paris was enduring its short-lived siege, part of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division was sent to Brittany (Brest) and moved 320 kilometres (200 mi) inland toward Paris before they heard that Paris had fallen and France had capitulated. They retreated and re-embarked for England. The British 1st Armoured Division under General Evans (without its infantry, which had been re-assigned to keep the pressure off the BEF at Dunkirk) had arrived in France in June 1940 and was joined by the former labour battalion of the 51st (Highland) Division in a rearguard action. Other British battalions landed at Cherbourg were also still waiting, to form a second BEF.
The Germans renewed their offensive on 5 June on the Somme. An attack broke the scarce reserves that Weygand had put between the Germans and the capital, and on 10 June the French government fled to Bordeaux, declaring Paris an open city. Churchill returned to France on 11 June and met the French War Council in Briare. The French requested that Churchill supply all available fighter squadrons to aid in the battle. With only 25 squadrons remaining Churchill refused, believing at this point that the decisive battle would be fought over Britain. Churchill, at the meeting, obtained assurances from French admiral François Darlan that the fleet would not fall into German hands. On 14 June Paris, the capture of which had so eluded the German Army in the First World War, after having been declared an open city, fell to the Wehrmacht, marking the second time in less than 100 years that Paris had been captured by German forces (the former occurring during the 1870-1871 Franco-Prussian War).
The Luftwaffe virtually destroyed the Armée de l'Air during the campaign and inflicted heavy losses to the RAF contingent that was deployed. It is estimated the French lost 1,274 aircraft destroyed during the campaign, the British suffered losses of 959 (477 fighters). The battle for France had cost the Luftwaffe 28% of its front line strength, some 1,428 aircraft destroyed. A further 488 were damaged, making a total of 36% of the Luftwaffe strength negatively affected. The campaign had been a spectacular success for the German air-arm. The Luftwaffe had effectively destroyed three Allied air forces and inflicted heavy losses to a fourth.
Prime Minister Paul Reynaud was forced to resign because he refused to agree to end the war. He was succeeded by Maréchal Philippe Pétain, who announced to the French people via radio his intention to ask for an Armistice with Germany. When Adolf Hitler received word from the French Government that they wished to negotiate an armistice, Hitler selected Compiègne Forest near Compiègne as the site for the negotiations. As Compiègne was the site of the 1918 Armistice ending the First World War with a humiliating defeat for Germany, Hitler saw using this location as a supreme moment of revenge for Germany over France. The armistice was signed on 22 June in the very same railway carriage in which the 1918 Armistice was signed (removed from a museum building and placed on the precise spot where it was located in 1918), Hitler sat in the same chair that Marshal Ferdinand Foch had sat in when he faced the defeated German representatives. After listening to the reading of the preamble, Hitler, in a calculated gesture of disdain to the French delegates, left the carriage, leaving the negotiations to his OKW Chief, General Wilhelm Keitel. The French Second Army Group, under the command of General Pretelat, surrendered the same day as the armistice and the cease-fire went into effect on 25 June 1940.
France was divided into a German occupation zone in the north and west and a nominally independent state in the south, to be based in the spa town of Vichy, dubbed Vichy France. The new French state, headed by Pétain, accepted its status as a defeated nation and attempted to buy favor with the Germans through accommodation and passivity. Charles de Gaulle, who had been made an Undersecretary of National Defense by Reynaud, in London at the time of the surrender, made his Appeal of 18 June. In this broadcast he refused to recognize the Vichy government as legitimate and began the task of organizing the Free French forces. Numerous French colonies abroad (French Guiana, French Equatorial Africa) joined de Gaulle rather than the Vichy government.
The British began to doubt Admiral Darlan's promise to Churchill not to allow the French fleet at Toulon to fall into German hands by the wording of the armistice conditions; they therefore attacked French naval forces in Africa and Europe, which led to feelings of animosity and mistrust between the former French and British allies.
In France this approach to the subject has always remained popular as shown by later works as Jean Baptiste Duroselle's La Décadence (1979). Especially outside this country in reaction to these traditional "decadentist" works a more revisionist school has developed. The revisionist historians emphasize on the one hand the very deep structural demographic and economic disadvantages for France, that would have made it difficult to attain parity with Germany anyway, whatever the state of the people, leadership or command; and on the other hand the fundamental contingency of history, indicating the actual choice for a strategy as the main cause of defeat. When the structural approach is dominant it often results in depicting the French defeat as predetermined by the circumstances, whereas the more "contingent" view tends to consider a French defensive success as quite possible.
An early revisionist work was Adolphe Goutard's La Guerre des occasions perdues ("The War of the lost opportunities", 1956), claiming that the war could have been won with a correct strategy. In the sixties the "international history" school around Pierre Renouvin saw the low birth rate, the manpower losses in the previous war and a slow industrial innovation cycle as the main factors. At the same time Canadian historian John Cairns in a number of articles warned against the tendency to read the defeat into all previous events. In the seventies Robert J. Young argued in his In Command of France: French Foreign Policy and Military Planning, 1933-1940 (1978) that the French leadership in its military planning rationally adapted to the conditions present in preparing for a long war of attrition against Germany. The Israeli-American historian Jeffrey Gunsburg in his Divided and Conquered: The French High Command and the Defeat of the West, 1940 (1979) saw the failure of France's allies to match the French war effort in proportion to their population as the main allied weakness. French historian Robert Frankenstein in his Le prix du réarmement français, 1935–1939 (1982) showed that France made an enormous rearmament effort, in the end surpassing German production in both tanks and aircraft. In 1985 Robert Doughty in his The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine, 1919–1939 tried to replace the image of a merely stagnant French military doctrine with that of an as such understandable adaptation to manpower shortages in form of very methodical tactics, as opposed to the flexible German Auftragstaktik. The traditional presumed antithesis with German Blitzkrieg tactics was made even more problematic by Karl-Heinz Frieser's Blitzkrieg-Legende (1995), which claimed that Blitzkrieg was neither the basis of German long term geostrategy nor the tactical basis of the official German attack plan of May 1940. Pointing out that in strategic battlefield simulations of the campaign it is hard to make the Allied side lose, American historian Ernest May in his Strange Victory: Hitler’s Conquest of France (2000) emphasizes the failure of Allied intelligence to predict the German strategy.