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While doing some research on France's defeat in 1940, I saw that some harshly criticize the French Commander-in-Chief Gamelin and blame him for its speedy downfall (of course there isn't only one factor, and no person can be entirely blamed for France's defeat, but some feel that disaster could've easily been prevented had there been a good and competent commander, and that Gamelin cannot be vindicated). They blame him for viewing the Ardennes as impenetrable and for sitting and "awaiting events" even when he was aware of German action (and even knew the date of their attack).
Furthermore, the German lines were extremely thin while they were pouring through the gap in the French lines; Gamelin should have done something to break their lines, and they blame him for sitting idle.
In hindsight it is easy blame commanders and generals for not seeing the obvious, but I want to know the truth: was Gamelin really such a terrible commander-meaning that an able commander would've (easily) been able to prevent disaster-or were there other reasons why France fell so swiftly, and Gamelin cannot entirely be blamed for its defeat?
The choices of Generals absolutely matter, the way the Germans reorganized their plan on the bases of Mannstein's suggestions allowed the German to win the battle. But on the other side of the same coin the choices by Gamelin is the reason the French lost the battle.
Nature of Battle
While it is true that in WW2 a general couldn't conduct most of the battle during the battle itself, that had been true for a long time. Once a battle starts what matters most is how you set up your army to fight the battle. And Gamelin was most responsible for that.
Even so, during the Battle itself there were a lot of things the Top generals could do, about reorganizing and redeploying the troops. We saw this many times both in WW1 and WW2. Gamelin was very slow in responding, slow in realizing where the gravity of battle was going and slow in realizing what the plan of the enemy was.
Lessons from WW1
If there is a single lesson from WW1 its that you can plug holes in your line with your strategic reserve. It is incredibly difficult for the enemy to exploit a breakthrough because you can deploy your reserves faster and getting resources through the break in the line is difficult.
Now the exploitation of a breakthrough can be faster because of tanks and planes, but we should also remember that tanks don't run of fairy dust, and that if you penetrate deeper, you need to protect an even longer flanks to keep the supplies from coming through.
One of the single most surprising things about the Battle of France is that for some reason, after all that was learn in WW1 and how successful the strategic reserve was, for some reason there was non in the Battle of France.
Just for some history, in WW1 Foch became allied commander and successfully used the Strategic reserve to counter-attack a German breakthrough attempt at the Marne, and that is what started the 100 days of success that ended WW1.
The Strategic Reserve
So, now the question is, where was the strategic reserve after Guderian and Rommel penetrated across the river? Specially Guderian in Sadan. Why was there no counter-attack by the Strategic Reserve to hold this fundamentally important point?
If you actually look at the French battle plan a few month before the battle started, there was such a reserve force. It was the by far most important part of that Strategic Reserve was 7th French Army and it contained a number of pretty good formations.
- 21st Infantry Division
- 60th Infantry Division
- 68th Infantry Division
- 1st Light Mechanized Division (like a German Panzer division)
- 25th Motorized Division
- 9th Motorized Division
The French had a good plan initially, the Dyle plan made a lot of sense. You have the Maginot line, then you have the Meuse river, then you have the Dyle Plan to have a good defensive line all the way through Belgium to the coast, and then you have the British/French Navy from there. And you have one of your best most mobile armies, 7th French Army behind the lines to quickly plug any hole in the line. Just in case the Germans break through or attack in a place where you have weak forces, like, hint hint the Meuse defenses.
This is what should have happened. The German main attack towards the Southern sector, the French are slow to realize this because the Dyle Plans assumes the German attack would happen at Gambloux in Belgium. The German establish a few bridge heads over the Meuse mainly at Sedan. Good thing we have the 7th reserve army with some of the best troops, go to Sedan and throw them back over it or at least make sure they can't break out from the bridgeheads.
Then you redeploy some of your other good troops and other new formed formations behind them. You redirect air resources to that sector and bomb the river crossing continually to make it difficult for the Germans to actually launch a massive break out operation from there.
The Germans were incredibly resource constrained and simply didn't have the resources for large scale offensive after large scale offensive. Without the breakthrough at Sedan and the drive to the channel. The Germans would have not been able to surround all the best Allied forces, and with every day, the material superiority of the Allies would have been bigger and bigger.
The war would have turned into something more like we saw in 1944/1945 and the German could not win such a war.
Gamelin's Huge Mistake
So then the question is, why did that not happen? Where was 7th Army that was supposed to be the reserve? Well, Gamelin had decided, and it was his decision, that instead of having reserve forces he would send them to the Netherlands. The reasons he gave for this both at the time and historically make basically very little sense. Linking up with the totally unprepared and overwhelmed Dutch army was a pipe-dream and the idea that the Germans could use a island hoping campaign along the Belgium cost to get around his defensive line was so ridiculously delusional that it boggles the mind.
This was known as the 'Breda Variant' of the Dyle Plan. Breda being a place in Southern Netherlands where they hoped to connect with the Dutch army. In Gamelin mind this would add manpower to the battle line, because apparently wars are fought on spreadsheets where you automatically win when you have more divisions. No matter that these Dutch division were totally useless both in military terms and for the defense of France. That Netherlands would collapse was clear as soon as the Germans decided to invade it.
So instead of having some of your best and most mobile forces to counterattack Sedan when the Germans were still struggling to control the bridgeheads and were in a tough position. The only thing the French had was the leftovers in the Strategic Reserve that consisted of some of the worst divisions in the French army and some divisions that were not even fully equipped. Unsurprisingly they couldn't stand against the prime divisions of German army. So bad were these that the German front line generals totally lost respect for the French army and convinced them that they would not be able to mount a serious counterattack at their flanks.
When Churchill asked Gamelin to deploy the Strategic reserve, Gamelin told him 'There is none'. Well, Gamelin had sent them 500km away driving in the wrong direction and the most important moments of the war they were driving towards the Netherlands and then back down again without ever doing much fighting.
Its not like this is only a post-WW2 critic, Generals like General Georges had opposed the Breda variant specifically because they understood that if the Germans would break through in the Southern sector, there would be nothing opposing them. The Breda variant was seen a huge gamble even back then and it was the worst kind of gamble, huge downside, little upside. Literally all the best French and British troops would be in Belgium and the reserve army would drive through Belgium in attempt to get to the Netherlands leaving non of the Best allied troops anywhere near the German center of attack i.e. Schwerpunkt.
The German were successful, because their best divisions could drive from Meuse river all the way to the coast without any significant counterattack. If you look at how much panic there was to 'halt' the attack just because of the tiny counter-attack at the Somme. Or even before that the German command tried to stop the Panzers, but the Front line commanders saw that there was nothing in front of them. Think about what a Army sized counter attack would have done when the Panzer divisions were just starting to cross the river.
The French were trying to form up additional troops including tank divisions in the region during the German attacks, but because the Germans had no oppositions, they often overran those positions before the French forces were gathered. Had the 7th Army been there, the French would have had enough time to form or redeploy additional units behind the 7th Army and stop encirclement. The Dyle Plan would have worked and the Allies would have a powerful defensive line from Antwerp to the Swiss boarder.
This picture explains it all:
Breda is all the way at the top of the map.
The 7th French Army, nowhere near where the German troops are for the most part, especially not the main German Force.
Look at what is opposing the breakout of the Germans from the Meuse.
This is simply an utterly idiotic battle plan, Gamelin is personally responsible for ordering the 7th Army to Breda and that is what lost the Battle of France.
- The Fall of France: The Nazi Invasion of 1940
- Repercussions of the Breda Variant (paper)
- Order of Battle for the Battle of France
For the Winston Churchill quote:
- 'Their Finest Hour' By Winston Churchill
I'll take the question to mean "could any contemporary Allied commander have taken over from Gamelin in 1940 and won the Battle Of France?" Anything else is too broad or drifts into fantasy. The question is still very broad, so I'll focus on one aspect: the mechanized maneuver warfare which was the real German "secret weapon".
Could any contemporary Allied commander have taken over from Gamelin in 1940 and adapted to the mechanized maneuver warfare being used by the Germans?
No, Because WWII Was Different Than All Before It.
My question is pretty straightforward! Was the battle against France won because the Germans were so well organized and used superior tactics that France didn't really stand a chance (unless they would've had a brilliant commander like Napoleon or Hannibal of course) or because the French were so poorly prepared and had a weak leadership?
This comment by the OP (since edited, still useful) is illustrative, particularly the part about having Napoleon or Hannibal in charge. Commanding an army in 1940 was not like commanding one in 1918 which was not like commanding one in the Napoleonic era which was certainly not like being a commander in Hannibal's time. While the very basics remain the same, 1940s warfare was conducted at a pace and scale that would have made Napoleon give up and crawl back into his tent. In fact, several actual early WWII commanders did just that! Hannibal, who never commanded more than 50,000 men, would have no grasp of a modern military staff nor communications; he might have made an excellent company or even division commander with training. The Allied armies in the Battle of France numbered over 3 million and spanned hundreds of miles.
Prior to WWII, warfare was still centered around the Set Piece or Pitched Battle. This is a battle conducted at a time and place by two well defined units with well defined lines and commanders have a pretty clear strategic understanding of the entire battlefield. Emphasis on well defined. While not always planned, sometimes it comes out of a meeting engagement such as the Battle of Gettysburg, they have a fairly clear and limited scope. Everything from Cannae to Waterloo to the Somme has this basic shape. Napoleon, after some technological catch up, would have done well in the trenches of WWI.
The Spring Offensive at the very end of WWI introduced modern large-scale maneuver warfare. While maneuver and deception has always featured prominently in warfare, primarily flanking maneuvers, it was always on a tactical level of individual battles and carefully controlled. Now this idea is applied to all levels of the battle, from individual small unit tactics to large scale maneuvers.
Mechanized Maneuver Warfare
Rather than destroying the enemy in a series of pitched battles, maneuver warfare seeks to keep the enemy always off balance and confused. Rather than attacking the enemy's defenses, it circumvents them and instead aims at logistical and command structures to remove the enemy's ability to fight in a coordinated fashion. The divided defenders can then be mopped up by concentrated attacks which achieve surprise and local superiority despite having overall inferior numbers.
This cannot be achieved overnight. It requires sweeping reforms from top to bottom: from top commanders to sergeants to individual soldier's training and equipment. It requires extensive use of mobile radios (still not widely available in 1940) and new communication and command techniques. It requires having a significant portion of your army mechanized and concentrated to act as a fast reaction force to both exploit opportunities and plug holes.
The Germans Had Experience, The Allies Did Not.
While most major militaries entering WWII had their own theories of large scale maneuver warfare, Soviet Deep Battle or the British Experimental Mechanized Force, they had little operational experience and understanding of how it would work in practice. A new Allied commander showing up in 1940 or even 1939 would have scant time to adapt their existing army of 3 million in the field to conduct maneuver warfare. This was an army mostly prepared and trained to fight WWI over again. They didn't have the equipment, the men and commanders did not have the training, nor even the schools necessary to conduct the training, nor the designs and factories to produce the equipment to conduct mechanized maneuver warfare.
In contrast, the Wehrmacht learned their lesson from WWI and had rebuilt their army, commanders, soldiers, and equipment around the concept of maneuver warfare. They gained experience from the Spanish Civil War, and unlike the Soviets, made the correct conclusions giving them several years to prepare.
The Occupation of Austria and Occupation of Czechoslovakia, while they involved no fighting, gave the German army valuable, practical information about large scale deployment and movement of their armies. Mundane but very important issues of maintenance, supply, and communication could be worked out in reality, not just on an exercise. How do you deal with mechanical failures? Traffic jams? How do you get food and fuel and ammo to an army constantly on the move? How well do radios actually work in the field? How well do air and ground forces coordinate?
By the time of the Invasion of Poland, the German army had years to prepare and two large scale real maneuvers to work things out. Even though Poland was, in some ways, a walk over it revealed more problems.
Fortunately, the Allies gave Germany six months to work them all out, recover, and reorganize. The German army that invaded France was now one well tested in the field, and perhaps the only major army in the world at the time with extensive experience in mechanized maneuver warfare. While the Allies had none.
The Saar Offensive, The Best Opportunity To Change History.
To a WWI commander sitting behind your defenses waiting for the enemy to attack is good policy. To a WWI commander, the well-prepared defender always has the advantage: chop up the enemy as they try to bludgeon their way through your lines.
To a modern commander, an army with superior numbers sitting for months behind their defenses waiting to be attacked is madness. It gives the attacker time to prepare logistically, build roads, build rail lines, build up supplies, repair, refit, and reorganize. It gives them time to gather intelligence, probe defenses, and form an accurate map of the enemy's unchanging positions. The attacker can then attack at the time and place of their own choosing.
This is exactly what happened after the invasion of Poland: the Sitzkrieg or Phoney War. Six months of the Allies doing almost nothing while the Germans recovered and prepared. But it didn't have to be that way.
The one place a more vigorous Allied commander could have made a difference was in the Saar Offensive. When Germany invaded Poland, it committed the overwhelming bulk of its forces; its western border with France was very thinly defended. It was another bluff that paid off.
A vigorous Allied offensive in the West in September 1939 could have called that bluff and left Germany in a very awkward position suddenly fighting a two-front war. They would have had to scale back or even halt their invasion of Poland and strip units to defend against and repel a French attack. The French could have pierced the Siegfried line before Germany could bring in sufficient reinforcements, they'd be fighting on German soil behind German static defenses, exactly what they wanted to do.
Meanwhile, the Poles were no slouches and could have held back a diminished German army. In reality their fate was sealed by a Soviet offensive from the east, the Soviets invaded seeing easy pickings and gaining a buffer zone against continued German expansion; even then the Soviets waited until mid-September when they had formally ended their undeclared war with Japan and felt their eastern front was secured.
If the Saar Offensive actually happened, and happened quickly enough, the Soviets may have hesitated further in invading Poland waiting to see how Germany would fare. A Germany distracted by extensive war in the West was not a great threat to the Soviets, and without the German army taking apart the Poles the Soviets would actually have to fight in Poland.
Italy would be unlikely to intervene, like the Soviets in Poland they only declared war on France after it was clear the battle had been won.
Germany would now find itself in serious trouble with its military stretched thin, its aura of invincibility punctured, its fair-weather allies hesitating, and the long-term deficiencies of its military in conducting a prolonged war made clear. There would have been no invasion of Norway, Denmark, nor the Low Countries meaning no forward bases for the U-Boat campaign nor bombing Britain.
While it's entirely possible the German army would have still defeated the invading Allied army, it would have to do so on its own soil rather than deep in French territory. It would then have to return to finishing off Poland before striking at France. Rather than victory in eight weeks, this might have turned into the longer, slower paced battle the Allies prepared for.
There are plenty of oddities about the fall of France. Getting a real in depth answer runs into a important problem, a lot of records were destroyed and key people that would of had answers were executed by the Nazis. So at first the main news about what had happenned came from German propaganda reels. Sure there those who got out but they only knew what they personally had seen. Which made for a very incomplete picture. The Vichy regime carried out the Riom Trials to try and fix blame but the trial got cut short when it backfired. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Riom_Trial When the war was over there was whole problem that certain questions really would open up a hornets nest. So people really did not like to talk about certain things. During the occupation appearing anti-German was a good way of getting shot. The nazi were quick to execute people. Its not like worse comes to worse you would know just ask those who joined French resistance what had happenned. The resistance operated in small groups and any list of members being fround upon. There was a few times some tried making list which would end up falling into the wrong hands resulting in executions of everyone on the list. Here are some odd details of events. There is La_Cagoule which was plotting the overthrow of the goverment of France. They had been stopped and were in jail, only to be released when the war started. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Cagoule
Checking into Petain background gives reason to worry to. In 1936 Pétain had told the Italian Ambassador to France that "England has always been France's most implacable enemy"; he went on to say that France had "two hereditary enemies", namely Germany and Britain, with the latter being easily the more dangerous of the two; and he wanted a Franco-German-Italian alliance that would partition the British Empire, an event that Pétain claimed would solve all of the economic problems caused by the Great Depression." Pétain fame as a war hero largely came from his own ability to promote himself. He is known as the hero of Verdun. The German goals in that battle were to bleed out the French army to prepare way for a later victory. In a later battle when Germany was getting close to the victory over France they were aiming for the tied was turned after Pétain was removed from command. Also considering his constance affection for Germany which he made apparent often enough and his tendancy to have plenty of wounded French troops executed for suspicion of avoiding combat he really should not have a hero reputation. His reputation should of been of one to be wary of. Plenty of Petain contemporaries were wary of him. Just not enough in the right places.
Another interesting detail is sabotage took out part of France's records on where there military equipment was stored. This of course made a mess of mobilization. There was also a issue of false orders issued to troops and false intel on the location of German forces. I surmise Gamelin was a bad commander but not the really bad commander that he was made out to be. To be a good commander it helps to be able to deal with misdirection, bad intel, untrustworthy politicians, and sabotage.
Photograph of General Maurice Gamelin
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This French General Survived Defeat in 1940 To Become a Military Legend
The career of General Maxime Weyland spanned half the turbulent 20th Century.
Here's What You Need to Know: Weygand viewed colonial France as an eventual springboard for the Allied liberation of continental France.
“What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over,” intoned British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. “The Battle of Britain is about to begin.” Those famous words were uttered as German armies steamrolled beaten French armies in the spring of 1940 and chased the British Expeditionary Force into the sea at Dunkirk in one of the most successful military campaigns in martial annals.
“A Man of Authority and Good Sense”
But who was General Maxime Weygand? Small in stature, weighing only 120 pounds and standing but five feet tall, Weygand was a mild-mannered and reserved soldier who is today virtually unknown among the senior military commanders of France during the early days of World War II.
It was Weygand who took over the routed French armies from General Maurice Gamelin on the very eve of their defeat. Prior to the debacle of May 1940, Weygand had been consulted by all the Great War Allied political leaders and military commanders of his generation.
His main French military rival was Gamelin. Called “a man of authority and good sense … who was always a man who did too much” by his biographer, Weygand was both a practicing warrior and prolific author like his peer, Philippe Pétain, and his protégé, ally, and sometime foe, Charles de Gaulle. All told, he published 21 books and penned 21 prefaces and introductions for other writers’ works.
Weygand was denied the highest honor of a baton of a Marshal of France despite the fact that two of his former protégés, Alphonse Juin and Jean de Lattry de Tassigny, were, indeed, given the coveted staffs.
Reviewing his accomplishments in the Russo-Polish War of 1920 when Weygand was dispatched as chief military adviser to the embattled Poles fighting the Red Army outside Warsaw, Churchill assessed him thus: “A soldier of subtle and commanding military genius veiled under an unaffected modesty … France had nothing to send to Poland but this one man. He was, it seems, enough.”
The Poles defeated the Russians, thus securing their eastern frontier for almost the next two decades, but Weygand’s true role, given full credit by some historians and virtually none by others, is still debated more than 90 years later. Another martial observer characterized Weygand as “the ideal soldier: precise, hardworking, firm in opinion, yet modest brave, yet prudent believing intensely in discipline, method, and organization, but neither stereotyped, nor deficient in resource.”
Noted still another contemporary of General Weygand: “I had the most absolute deference toward, and respect for, his person. Without wishing to idealize him, I considered him one of the most remarkable people of our time, due to his broad outlook, serenity, uprightness, fundamental honesty, and deep faith, as well as the wideness and catholicity of his learning, moral rectitude, and fidelity of his friendships.”
It was Weygand’s historic fate to witness his country’s fall to the Germans twice, in 1871 and 1940, as well as its resurrection and triumph twice, in 1918 and 1945. His long life spanned the Second Bonapartist French Empire of Napoleon III through the Fifth Republic presidency of “le Grand Charles,” the haughty de Gaulle. His main fear both in 1940 and 1944 was that communist revolution might break out, akin to the bloody Paris Commune of 1871
Hidden by the omnipresent shadow of Allied Generalissimo and French Marshal Ferdinand Foch (whose chief of staff he was, both during and after World War I) for nine years of his career, Weygand was present at the 1918 Armistice negotiations, reading out the terms to the vanquished Germans, in the famed railroad dining car at Compiegne that ended World War I. He was also a key player at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, in which he, albeit briefly, held sway at center stage as commander in chief of the greatest army in continental Europe before its Gallic sword was shattered.
While at the 1919 conclave, French statesman Georges Clemenceau characterized the quiet Weygand as “dangerous, but valuable,” an opinion shared by others.
A Man of Mystery
Oddly, mysteriously, and still controversially, neither Weygand’s actual birth date nor his nationality, and not even his parentage, are entirely certain to this day. Born in Brussels sometime during 1865-1867, Weygand had a father who was most likely Belgian, and a mother who was possibly Austrian. It has even been rumored that he was the grandson of the famed Viennese diplomat Prince Clemens Metternich and the bastard son of either the mad Empress Carlotta of Mexico, or of her brother, Leopold II, King of the Belgians. No one is entirely sure.
“I was raised by a Jew,” as Maxime de Nimal, he himself asserted later. However, he was allowed to be baptized as a Catholic in 1877 at the approximate age of 10. In 1888, when Maxime was about 23, he was adopted via a financial transaction by the Jew’s accountant, one Francois-Joseph Weygand. Thus, he became the French citizen Maxime Weygand known to history ever since. Spitefully, de Gaulle once told his son Philippe that his rival was “without a drop of French blood in his veins.”
Nevertheless, young Maxime entered the French Army as a Belgian cadet, graduated from the famed military academy of Saint-Cyr in 1887, and received his first cavalry posting at the foot of the Alps. An avid reader of martial writings by Napoleon, Weygand also went to the elite, aristocratic French cavalry school at Saumur, where he was a top instructor for five years, until 1905.
Using a doctored birth certificate to effect his marriage in 1900, Weygand was a lieutenant colonel in 1914 and had served 28 days in action with the 5th Hussars when Foch selected him as his chief of staff, a post he held until 1923. Subsequently, he served mainly as a staff officer and not, therefore, a commanding officer for rather a long tour.
“This Utter Outsider”
Called by some of his more combat-oriented peers, including de Gaulle, “this utter outsider,” Weygand’s organizational passion was in attention to detail. Beside Foch, he also idolized France’s colorful “Papa Josef” Joffre, even after the catastrophic mutinies of the French Army in 1917. Promoted to brigadier general under Foch, Weygand was sent to Switzerland to advise the Swiss how best to counter a possible German invasion, a specter that raised its ugly head again during World War II when he commanded the French Army.
Renowned as the taker of copious notes during high-level staff conferences, the unobtrusive Weygand was considered as “a useful go-between” by all the Allies and saw the entire Great War from the very top of the command pyramid, from the inside looking out. His peers, however, considered his lifelong idolatry of Foch misplaced.
On May 9, 1923, Weygand arrived in Beirut to take up the first real independent command of his career when he was named High Commissioner Levant of the French Mandate of Syria and Lebanon in the Near East. Soon, noted a biographer, “The Arabs began seeing miraculous powers in this French official,” so good a colonial administrator he was deemed to be, “with both art and science in his soul … a military thinker” as well.
Indeed, Weygand developed into a sort of French Eisenhower during this period, coaxing disparate elements to work together smoothly. Like the Italians in their interwar colonies, General Weygand also became known as a builder of roads and railways. Still, a French leftist government in Paris recalled him on November 29, 1924.
Back in “Metropolitan France,” the bookish, wiry Proconsul Weygand was posted as director of the Center of Higher Military Studies in Paris, the so-called school of marshals, in 1925. He was also named as vice president of the French Supreme War Council.
Predicting France’s Doom
Like de Gaulle, Weygand was an advocate of developing armored warfare capabilities within the French Army. Weygand became the army’s chief of staff on January 3, 1930, with his rival Gamelin as his own staff chief. Gamelin was slated to succeed Weygand as chief later on, with Weygand assuming the office of president of the Supreme War Council. Therefore, the little general was designated as the future wartime generalissimo of all French armies in the field for the expected war that was to come against a rearmed Germany.
Weygand was opposed to the French disarmament mania then current, and he favored tanks and a two-year draft. Elected to the French Academy in 1931, he was revered as a wonderful organizer. He also became obsessed with airplanes and arms limitations, yet worked well with War Minister Andre Maginot and, indeed, supervised the building of the famed line of defensive fortifications named after Maginot.
In 1932 came military budget cuts under Prime Minister Edouard Daladier, who wanted Weygand out. During 1930-1935, there were 10 French war ministers under 16 separate governments in Paris and, gradually, the less dogmatic Gamelin came to the fore at Weygand’s political expense. On January 2, 1935, he edged out Weygand, both as generalissimo in time of war and on the Supreme Council, as well as in the offices of chief of staff and inspector general. Weygand retired from the army that same year.
Von Manstein’s Bold New Plan
Hitler was furious. He meant to launch the offensive on January 17 and now realized he would have to delay. Into these anxious days stepped Lt. Gen. Erich von Manstein, who promoted a scheme that called for the drive through the heart of the Low Countries to be a massive one, but nonetheless a diversion. By his lights, the best fighting troops, the swiftest and the strongest—the panzer divisions—would be sent south, to just north of the end of the Maginot Line, for an attack through the Ardennes region in southern Belgium and Luxembourg.
The idea was to make the French, British, and Belgians believe that the main attack would come through central Belgium and send their best troops there. Meanwhile, the panzers would break through the weak defenses on the French side of the Ardennes and burst into the rear of the Allied armies fending off German forces farther north.
At worst, the panzers would wreak havoc among the secondary troops of the Allies. At best they would drive to the Channel to cut off the northern armies from both their line of supply and their fellow armies to the south. Their backs to the Channel, pressed from east, south, and west, the Allied northern armies might be compelled to surrender. A million fighting men in prisoner of war camps would be a powerful bargaining chip in any discussion of terms dictated by the Germans.
In a matter of weeks, German armored spearheads advanced across the breadth of France, forcing their traditional enemies to the surrender table and pushing the British Expeditionary Force into a narrow perimeter around the French port city of Dunkirk.
The new Wehrmacht plan was risky. In the Ardennes, the panzers would have narrow roads to travel and poor bridges to cross. They would be lined up end to end for miles, vulnerable to concerted air attack. They would still have to breach the strong French defenses at the Meuse River, but if they could overwhelm the Meuse defenses there would be little to stop their drive all the way to either Paris or the Channel. Still, their thrust across northern France would necessarily be narrow and thus vulnerable to attacks that could potentially sever their lines of supply.
Nevertheless, Hitler had proved he was a gambler, and a lucky one. He approved the plan and set it in motion on May 10.
80 Years Ago: Fall of France, the Wehrmacht’s Advance Through the Ardennes Forest
Eight decades ago in the late summer of 1940 the Wehrmacht’s generals, at Adolf Hitler’s behest, were beginning preparations for a massive invasion of the USSR. Morale within the German Army was very good indeed, for obvious reasons. Within six weeks Germany’s traditional nemesis France had been conquered at remarkable ease, along with the Low Countries of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, demonstrating that this second major European war was proving rather different to the bitter toil of its 1914-1918 predecessor.
During the Battle of France which officially concluded on 25 June 1940 the Germans, with their revolutionary blitzkrieg, provided definitive proof to the world of their considerable superiority over the outmoded French Army. Three months before this attack, Hitler had been informed of the Manstein Plan relating to the Western offensive’s strategy. The Manstein Plan called for a main thrust by the Wehrmacht through the famous Ardennes Forest, that would bypass an uncompleted Maginot Line, consisting of forts manned by half a million French soldiers – and thereafter lead to the trapping and annihilation of the French and British armies to the north who were expecting, as in the Great War, the primary German assault to come via neutral Belgium.
The Manstein Plan, named after Major-General Erich von Manstein, was an unconventional, bold and risky venture. Von Manstein has often been credited alone for developing his above successful strategy, which may not be entirely true. Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, one of Hitler’s closest military advisers, wrote that the Nazi leader had already formulated through his own thinking, as early as October 1939, an identical proposal to that of von Manstein and quite likely before the latter had come upon his idea.
Keitel wrote in September 1946 that,
“I will only go so far as to make it quite plain that it was Hitler himself who saw the armoured breakthrough at Sedan [in the Ardennes], striking up to the Atlantic coast at Abbeville, as the solution we would then swing round northwards into the rear of the motorised Anglo-French army, which would most probably be advancing across the Franco-Belgian frontier into Belgium, and cut them off”. (1)
There is little reason to believe that, after the war, when Keitel was faced with the hangman’s noose at Nuremberg, he would have invented this assertion in his memoirs and Keitel had condemned Hitler for shooting himself, leaving his soldiers “to bear the guilt” for the crimes of the Third Reich. On 17 February 1940, Hitler summoned von Manstein to Berlin at the new Reich Chancellery for discussions, where in attendance were other military men like Erwin Rommel and Alfred Jodl. According to Keitel, von Manstein’s dialogue with Hitler had simply confirmed the dictator’s personal views of what the Western offensive should entail – and “this had greatly pleased” Hitler, as von Manstein was “the only one of the Army’s generals to have had the same plan in view” (2). That very day Hitler gave his approval to the Manstein Plan, asking for its strategic thinking to be formally adopted. (3)
The German advance up to 21 May 1940 (Source: Public Domain)
The Germans were fortunate that the French leaders would prove so lacklustre and incompetent, regarding their preparations for another European war. France’s top brass dismissed the possibility of German troops passing through the 100 mile stretch of the “impenetrable” Ardennes, as it was deemed by vaunted figures like Marshal Philippe Pétain, the Victor of Verdun. Yet in 1938 French military exercises along the critical section of the Ardennes at the town of Sedan – led by General André-Gaston Prételat – provided proof that the region could, in fact, be navigated quite comfortably by tanks and armoured vehicles, let alone men and horses.
General Prételat conducted a scenario in the Ardennes, whereby he mimicked a concerted German attack that went into this area to Sedan. The result of the simulated operation was a successful navigation through the Ardennes for the invaders, and a complete defensive collapse along the Meuse river. Prételat passed on this vital report to the French high command but it underwent suppression because it was felt morale would “be damaged” by its publication (4). Prételat estimated it would take the enemy, at most, 60 hours to reach the Meuse at Sedan. As it turned out, the Germans would arrive at the Meuse after 57 hours of marching through the Ardennes.
On 21 March 1940, France’s Commander-in-Chief Maurice Gamelin was forwarded information by a French politician, Pierre Taittinger, that the defences at Sedan “are rudimentary, not to say embryonic”. The 67-year-old General Gamelin, an intelligent but cautious and methodical man whose military thinking was rooted in the First World War, ignored the warning. Gamelin foresaw another long, drawn out encounter with the Germans. It was also the case that, by the 1930s and into 1940, many on the French side did not have the stomach for another conflict with Germany the Wehrmacht hierarchy themselves sensed this. Field Marshal Keitel made the following observation, “the fact that the French had not exploited either the good weather, or the weakness of our Western defences earlier, could only lead us to conclude that they did not really want to fight”. (5)
On 11 April 1940, French General Charles Huntziger asked for four additional divisions to bolster the thinly guarded line at Sedan, but his request was refused (6). Due to intelligence accounts, the leaders in Paris were aware in the hours building up to 10 May 1940, that almost 50 Wehrmacht divisions were on the move and gathering ominously close to the Ardennes region. Over the preceding fortnight, the French military attaché in Switzerland had twice warned Paris that the German invasion would fall sometime between the 8th and 10th of May. He further relayed his opinion that the principal German manoeuvre would be towards Sedan. No action was again taken. During the evening of 8 May 1940, a French airman reported seeing German transport columns, 60 miles long, driving towards the border with their headlights on.
Image on the right: Belgian anti-aircraft gun, circa 1940 (CC BY-SA 3.0 de)
By May 9th, thousands of German vehicles and marching troops could actually be heard approaching the frontier. Before midnight on May 9th/10th, the French, Dutch and Belgian governments were all informed of large German troop concentrations close by. General Gamelin even learnt the correct date of the attack, May 10th, but still did nothing (7). As he said, they preferred “to await events”. Their waiting was almost over.
In idyllic spring weather, early on 10 May 1940 vast numbers of highly motivated German troops from XIX Panzer Corps – commanded by Heinz Guderian – were snaking their way through the thick and hilly land mass of the Ardennes, supported by considerable quantities of armoured vehicles and much larger numbers of horses. Guderian’s panzers swept aside the Belgian and French units and, come the evening of May 12th, had reached Sedan. The Germans quickly discovered that this village had been abandoned by its defenders, who retreated across the Meuse. The Wehrmacht’s position along the Meuse was for now precarious, as pontoon bridges were being prepared for the panzers to cross. A concerted French counter-attack could have wrought serious harm on the enemy. Though several counter-attacks were ordered, not one of them was carried out, a sign of the disgraceful collapse soon to come.
On the morning of May 13th Stuka dive bombers, with their mournful and piercing siren, arrived in 12 squadrons above Sedan (8). The Stuka was a poor military aircraft, with a flying distance of less than 400 miles and capable of holding only a light payload of bombs but its siren had a devastating impact on the morale of French soldiers stationed along the Meuse, that was out of proportion to the damage imparted. With the stukas starting to dive, the French artillery fell silent as the gun crews took cover, cowering and demoralised in their bunkers (9). A mere 56 casualties were inflicted by the Luftwaffe bombardment, and none of the bunkers on the far side of the Meuse had been hit.
An abandoned Belgian T-13 tank destroyer is inspected by German soldiers. (Source: CC BY-SA 3.0 de)
It was not until mid-morning on this day, May 13th, that it finally dawned on the French high command, to their horror, that the bulk of the German attack was coming not through Belgium, but into the Ardennes, and successfully. Following the stukas’ departure from Sedan, shortly after 4pm German soldiers began crossing the Meuse in broad daylight, where they met little opposition except for sporadic machine gun fire. At dusk on May 13th, the German bridgehead at Sedan was four miles deep and four miles wide, strengthening all the while. By now, still on the fourth day of the offensive, France’s defeat in its war against Nazi Germany was assured.
The military historian Lt. Col. Donald J. Goodspeed, who at this time was based in England as a sergeant with the Canadian Army Overseas, could only look on at the unfolding catastrophe occurring across the English Channel. Goodspeed recalled later that the French soldiers at the Meuse “who should have held the line and counter-attacked now gave way to disgraceful panic, and fled from the battlefield before they were seriously engaged”. (10)
Late in the afternoon on May 13th one French commander, of B Group Heavy Artillery in X Corps, reported that he and his men were surrounded by German machine gunners and asked desperately for permission to retire. In reality, along his section of the front there was not a German soldier yet in sight. His panicky request to retreat was accepted, and thereupon all of the soldiers under his command relinquished their posts and weaponry. French units within the 55th and 71st divisions likewise fled in disarray, saying they were being encircled by panzers when none throughout May 13th had crossed the Meuse at Sedan. Nearly all of the French troops at Sedan were leaving their positions, fleeing westwards, allowing their armour to fall undamaged into German hands. French commanders who had fight in them, like the 49-year-old Colonel Charles de Gaulle, later ordered counter-attacks to be launched but, once more, not enough reliable troops could be found to effectively implement them. Unfortunately, the direction of the war had been out of De Gaulle’s hands.
Many of the deserters produced the utterly false claim that a panzer group had reached the village of Bulson, well behind the French line. A significant number of officers joined in the rout, as anxious to escape from the Germans as their men. Lt. Col. Goodspeed wrote,
“This type of excuse for cowardice later gave rise to completely untrue stories of German fifth columnists in French uniform… As far back as 30 miles south of Sedan, French units were swept by irrational and shameful fear”. (11)
At the headquarters of the 55th French division, General Pierre Lafontaine heard the sound of voices outside of the window. To his amazement he saw many hundreds of deserting French troops filing along the road, some having thrown their rifles away. Lafontaine ran outside to accost them but he was unable to stop the panic-stricken exodus. Lafontaine spotted French officers among this rabble, and demanded to know who had given the order to retreat. He received merely evasive replies and no definitive answer to his questions. The deserters continued on their way, leaving the panzers and Nazi infantrymen to move effortlessly into the heartland of France, a black mark on French history which has never fully been erased.
On 14 May 1940, a joyous Hitler ordered all available German motor divisions, within reasonable distance, to pour through the gaping holes punctured in the French defences along the Meuse. During May 14th the Germans therefore made another unmolested crossing of the Meuse at Givet, having easily captured that town, about 35 miles north of Sedan (12). The French 55th and 71st divisions commanded by General Huntziger had evaporated. Huntziger, furious and humiliated, moved his headquarters to Verdun more than 30 miles to the rear, and ordered the French artillery to fire on any surrendering troops. German panzer formations soon grew tired of taking prisoners, contemptuously ordering them to throw their weaponry on the ground where the panzers rolled over it. The unseemly panic spread to General André Corap’s 9th Army, and by last light on May 15th it had practically disintegrated. Moreover, the French 18th, 22nd, 53rd and 61st Infantry divisions melted away into the sunset too, some of their soldiers crying “Panzer!” and “We have been betrayed!”
By May 15th with his centre burst wide open, Commander-in-Chief Gamelin still did not order the French armies to return post haste from Belgium. His reaction was incredibly sluggish. On May 16th, the fleeing French soldiers began to reach Paris where they descended on the capital’s bars and cafes, concocting terrible tales to justify abandoning their posts. It came as no surprise when Gamelin was mercifully sacked on May 17th, one week into the German invasion. Only a miracle could save France now, and none was forthcoming. Over following hours, the best of the Allied divisions were being cut away from the rest of France to the north. Guderian’s XIX Panzer Corps, having led the way through the Ardennes and comfortably crossed the Meuse, on the afternoon of May 15th drove on with unfettered glee towards the Channel coast. (13)
To Guderian’s relief they previously found the bridges intact over the Bar river, which the French had not bothered to destroy. Ideal for the panzers to roll across and provide the long envisaged coup de grâce for the marooned Allies – hundreds of thousands of whom were left to contemplate a mass exit from the port of Dunkirk. British propaganda did its best to portray the ensuing Dunkirk evacuation as an heroic rescue mission, when it was the culmination of a disastrous campaign for both the French Army and, to a lesser extent, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). Not broadcast by Western propaganda were the nasty recriminations taking place in the background, between the French and British leaders.
In spite of the routine nature of this German victory, as in any large-scale war there were glaring risks involved that could have turned against the Nazis. At the offensive’s outset, advancing towards Luxembourg’s border further south, a column of German armour stretched unprotected for over 100 miles of open terrain. Had Allied warplanes been sent to this region in waves, they could have wreaked havoc on the Nazi war machine. French and British aircraft were instead directed northwards, to support the Allied armies moving into Belgium.
The Manstein Plan was also dependent upon the French political and military leadership committing an array of blunders, which they duly did. Had the warnings been heeded of a potential German advance through the Ardennes, and past errors rectified with a proper fortification of French divisions at Sedan and elsewhere, the German advance along the Meuse could have been halted or at least delayed. The arrival of superior quality French and British divisions, on the Meuse, might well have stiffened the resolve of those troops who withered away so shamefully when faced with determined German forces, who were bent on avenging Germany’s defeat to the Western democracies in the First World War.
1 Wilhelm Keitel, The Memoirs of Field Marshal Keitel (William Kimber and Co. Limited 1st edition, 1965) p. 103
3 John Simkin, “Manstein Plan”, Spartacus Educational, September 1997 (updated January 2020)
4 Martin Marix Evans, Invasion! Operation Sea Lion 1940 (Routledge 1st edition 9 Sep. 2004) p. 37
6 Evans, Invasion! Operation Sea Lion 1940, p. 37
7 John Plowright, Causes, Course and Outcomes of World War Two (Palgrave 2006 edition, 22 Nov. 2006) p. 47
8 Andrew Knighton, “The German breakthrough at Sedan, May 1940”, War History Online, 8 March 2019
9 Donald J. Goodspeed, The German Wars (Random House Value Publishing, 2nd edition, 3 April 1985) p. 359
11 Goodspeed, The German Wars, p. 360
12 Jason Mark, Island of Fire: The Battle for the Barrikady Gun Factory in Stalingrad (Stackpole Books Illustrated edition, 1 May 2018) p. 490
13 John Brown, “Blitzkrieg 1940: From the Invasion of Holland to the Fall of France”, Warfare History Network, 30 December 2018
Shane Quinn obtained an honors journalism degree. He is interested in writing primarily on foreign affairs, having been inspired by authors like Noam Chomsky. He is a frequent contributor to Global Research.
How capable was the French Army in WWII?
If the French Army was tipped off prior to the invasion of France that Germany would be storming through Belgium and went to meet them, would they still be effective after pouring so many resources into the Maginot Line?
On paper the French Army was well equipped and trained. The Division Legere Mechaniques (DLM - a mechanised division) were amongst the best units on either side during the Battle of France and French tanks, notably the Somua-S35 were generally better than their German counterparts. Allied forces (French, Belgians and British) together outnumbered the Germans in every respect other than air power and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was the only completely motorised force involved in the Battle of France.
In my opinion, whether the French were tipped off or not was irrelevant. From the outbreak of war it was obvious that the Maginot line meant that the great strategic weakness for the allies, which was widely accpeted on both sides, was a German advance through the low countries. The serious problems for the French, which lay in leadership and doctrine and strategy, were so great that advance warning would have made no difference.
Leadership. Although most of the French senior generals had distiguished themselves individually during the closing stages of WWI, collectively they suffered from a lack of imagination and a lack of will to fight. In Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory, Julian Thompson asserts that "[the French] didn't hate Hitler, they didn't even hate Germany, the only thing they hated was war." Their experiences in WWI had shown them how horrific war could be, the effect it could have on their countrymen and thus that conflict should be avoided at all costs. The effect was a general malaise from the Commander-in-Chief, Gamelin, down to the lowest levels of the French Army. After the arrival of the BEF in France in late 1939, the British General Alan Brooke visited French units on the Maginot line. Brooke was born in France, spoke fluent French and was an open Francophile, but what he found disappointed him. With German forces recovering from the invasion of Poland and preparing to attack France, there were very few exercises being run or training being conducted. Few soldiers showed the will to fight and more effort was being put into making the Maginot defences look nice (paint, flowers etc) that in ensuring that they were an effective defensive position.
Indicative of this lack of motivation was the Saar Offensive of September 1939. With German forces engaged in Poland, the Siegfried line was held by 20 reserve divisions with little artillery and no armour. By contrast the French had 40 divisions with armour and a significant artillery contingent. Unfortunately the French unwillingness to go on the offensive prevented the anticipated 40 division assault from ever happening, Gamelin ordered the forces to go no closer than 1km to the Siegfried Line and the French force started to return to France after 9 days. As if to make matters worse, Gamelin effectively lied to the Polish High Command about the nature of the offensive, claiming that they were engaged with a number of German units.
Doctrine and Strategy. In response to WWI, the French further developed a doctrine based around the "set-piece" defensive battle fought from fixed positions, with highly developed communications, according to a rigid plan. The final form of the plan for the defence of France, Plan D, depended on the French army and the BEF having 6 days notice of the German offensive (not an unreasonable assumption), advancing to the line of the river Dyle (hence Plan D for Dyle) in Belgium and holding defensive positions in order to resist the German assault. There was little critical assessment of the plan by either the French or British few large scale exercises were conducted (Brook's II Corps in the BEF being the exception) and the Belgians, who were keen to remain neutral, refused to allow large scale reconnaisance of proposed defensive positions.
Gamelin's immediate subordinates in the French North West sector, Georges and Billottes, had highlighted vulnerabilities in the plan, especially around the town of Gembloux where the gap between the rivers Dyle and Marne presented open country ideally suited to German armoured operations. Gamelin dismissed these, but even if he had taken these criticisms on board, the intractable nature of the Belgians would haveprevented effective defences being set up just as it did elsewhere. What no-one of any influence spotted, however was the vulnerability of the hinge between the mobile forces in the north, who would advance in to Belgium, and the fixed defences of the Maginot Line. Had Gamelin been a divisional commander conducting this operation in WWI at the divisional scale, he would not have conducted this manouvre without reinforcing the hinge. For whatever reason this vulnerability was not just overlooked, but the hinge was held by poorly equipped and trained reservist soldiers. The Germans identified this and so decided to focus their armoured forces on the hinge, and around the town of Sedan in particular. Ominously if a breakthrough was achieved over the Meuse at Sedan there were only two further river crossings required before German forces could reach the Channel coast and cut off the bulk of Allied forces.
Ultimately the German plan was a masterstroke which would have ruined the French even if they had reinforced the hinge around Sedan. The exploitation of two points of effort (Schwerpunkt), one at Gembloux and the other at Sedan, utterly dislocated Allied forces from their fixed command posts and thus their lines of communication. The German Army Group B, in the North, was supposed to be a diversionary attack intended to hold the French and the BEF in Belgium whilst the breakthrough happened in Sedan. In reality Army Group B was so succcessful that it had virtually forced the Allies out of Belgium before Army Group A, in the south, had reached the Channel coast unable to communicate effectively the Allies were unable to respond to rapid changes instigated by the Germans. It was only a hastily organised counter attack by French DLMs at Gembloux that prevented the whole of the French 1st Army being overrun had this happened then the BEF's right flank could have been turned and the allied forces outflanked without the help of Army Group A!
1954: The Bloody Battle of Dien Bien Phu – The Worst Defeat of the French in Vietnam
Although the Vietnam War is today remembered as a conflict between the Americans and the Vietnamese, it had previously been the French who fought against the local communist rebels. Namely, the French were the colonial rulers of Vietnam since the 19th century (until the mentioned year, 1954). After that it was the Americans who took over the war effort.
The battle presented a severe defeat for France, so that even the French government in Paris resigned. Indeed, soon afterward France decided to withdraw from Indochina, leaving the Americans to fight against the local communist forces.
The French military forces in Vietnam at the time of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu belonged to the so-called French Far East Expeditionary Corps (French: Corps Expéditionnaire Français en Extrême-Orient – CEFEO). Their commander-in-chief was General Henri Navarre, and the Corps included many soldiers from North Africa as well as a number of legionnaires.
The French underestimated the Vietnamese forces. Namely, it turned out that communist forces possessed heavy artillery and anti-aircraft guns. Dien Bien Phu is a city located in northern Vietnam, near where the border with Laos is located today. The French found themselves surrounded in a valley surrounded by mountains. A hard-fought battle followed, part of which was even fought in trenches reminiscent of those from World War I. Many French soldiers were eventually forced to surrender, so that the Vietnamese managed to capture around 11,700 of them.
(1872–1958). French army commander in chief at the beginning of World War II, Maurice Gamelin proved unable to stop the German assault on France (May 1940) that led to the French collapse in June of that year.
Maurice-Gustave Gamelin was born on September 20, 1872, in Paris, France. He graduated from the Saint-Cyr military academy in 1893 and ended World War I as a brigadier general in command of a division. Gamelin rose steadily after the war, becoming army chief of staff in 1931 and president of the Supreme War Council and army inspector in 1935. He was appointed chief of staff of the national defense in 1938.
Gamelin was a strong supporter of the defensive strategy based on the Maginot Line as commander of the Allied forces in the West when World War II broke out, Gamelin took no offensive action even though at that time most of the German forces were engaged in Poland. In the “phony war,” an early phase of World War II, he proved similarly prudent and unaggressive. He was taken by surprise by the German offensive through the Ardennes region that cut the Allied front in two in May 1940. He was dismissed on May 19 and was replaced by General Maxime Weygand. Gamelin was later placed on trial at Riom by the French Vichy government and—from 1943—was interned in Germany until the end of the war. His memoirs, Servir (“Serving”), in three volumes, appeared in 1946–47. Gamelin died on April 18, 1958, in Paris.
The Nazis’ Astonishing Conquest of France
These assumptions were, first, that the Maginot Line was indeed impregnable second, that the Ardennes Forest north of it was impassable third, that the Germans were therefore left with no option but a wheel through the Low Countries [Belgium and Holland], a replay of the Schlieffen Plan of 1914 and fourth, that to meet and defeat this, the French would advance into Belgium and Holland and come to their aid as soon as the war started. The Anglo-French were sure, correctly, that the minute the first German stepped over the frontier, the Dutch and Belgians would hastily abandon their neutrality and start yelling for help.
Materially, though they were unaware of it, the Allies were more than ready for the Germans. Figures vary so widely — wildly even — that one can choose any set to make any argument desired. In 1940, the French high command was speaking of 7,000 German tanks, deliberately overestimating them to cover themselves in the event of a disaster. What this did for French morale can readily be imagined. Figures now available give a comparison something like this:
German Men: 2,000,000
Allied Men: 4,000,000
The original [Nazi] plan called for a drive north of Liège [Blue ‘X’ on the map above] Hitler now changed it to straddle Liège, that is, he moved the axis of the attack farther south. Finally, he was convinced by von Rundstedt’s chief of staff, General Erich von Manstein, that the plan ought to be reversed. Instead of making the main effort in the north, the Germans would go through the Ardennes instead of Schlieffen, there would be ‘Sichelschnitt,’ a ‘sickle cut’ that would slice through the French line at its weak point and envelop the northern armies as they rushed to the defense of the Belgians and Dutch. Manstein was an infantryman and was uncertain about the Ardennes he approached General Heinz Guderian, the recognized German tank authority, who said it could be done. Hitler jumped at it immediately, and the plan was turned around. The assumptions on which the French had planned their campaign were now totally invalidated. […]
In the early dawn of May 10 the Germans struck.
There were the usual Luftwaffe attacks at Allied airfields and communications centers, and by full day the Germans were rolling forward all along the Dutch and Belgian frontiers. The whole plan depended upon making the Allies think it was 1914 all over again. Therefore, the initial weight of the attack was taken by General von Bock’s Army Group B advancing into Holland. Strong infantry and armor attacks were carried out, along with heavy aerial bombardment, and paratroop and airborne landings on key airfields at The Hague and Rotterdam, and bridges across the major rivers. The Dutch hastened to their advanced positions, some of which they managed to hold for two or three days, others of which they were levered off almost immediately.
The whole campaign of Holland took a mere four days.
The mass of French armor was in Belgium and Holland and busy with its own battle. The French tried they threw an armored division, newly organized under General de Gaulle, at the southern German flank. This attack later became one of the pillars of de Gaulle’s reputation — he at least had fought — yet it achieved nothing more than the destruction of his division. The few gains the French tanks made could not be held against the Germans sweeping by, and they hardly noticed that there was anything special about this attack.
As the Germans went on toward Cambrai, toward the sea, the new British Prime Minister, Churchill, came over to see what on earth was going on. He visited [French Commander-in-chief Maurice] Gamelin and looked at the maps. Surely, he said, if the head of the German column was far to the west, and the tail was far to the east, they must be thin somewhere. Why did the French not attack with their reserves? In his terrible French he asked Gamelin where the French reserves were. Gamelin replied with an infuriating Gallic shrug: there were no reserves. Churchill went home appalled.
Hitler was determined to rub it in. The armistice talks were held at Rethondes, in the railway carriage where the Germans had surrendered to [former Head Allied] Marshal [Ferdinand] Foch in 1918. The Germans occupied northern France and a strip along the Atlantic coast down to the Spanish frontier. They retained the French prisoners of war, more than a million of them, and used them in effect as hostages for the good behavior of the new French government, set up at the small health resort of Vichy. They wanted the French fleet demobilized in French ports, but under German control. The French agreed to essentially everything there was little else they could do but accept the humiliation of defeat. After their delegation signed the surrender terms, Hitler danced his little victory jig outside the railway carriage and ordered that it be hauled off to Germany. He left the statue of Foch, but the plaque commemorating Germany’s surrender twenty-two years ago was blown up.
On the morning of the 25th, the sun rose over a silent France. The cease-fire had come into effect during the hours of darkness. The refugees could now go home or continue their flight unharassed by the dive-bombers. Long silent columns of prisoners shuffled east. The French generals and politicians began composing their excuses, the Germans paraded through Paris, visited the tourist sites, and began counting their booty. It had indeed been one of the great campaigns of all time, better than 1870, probably unequaled since Napoleon’s veterans had swarmed over Prussia in 1806 Jena and Auerstadt were at last avenged, and there would be no more victories over Germany while the thousand-year Reich endured.
The casualties reflected the inequality of the campaign. The Germans had suffered about 27,000 killed, 18,000 missing, and just over 100,000 wounded. The Dutch and Belgian armies were utterly destroyed the British lost about 68,000 men and all their heavy equipment: tanks, trucks, guns — everything. The French lost track of their figures in the collapse at the end, but the best estimates gave them about 125,000 killed and missing, about 200,000 wounded. The Germans claimed that they had taken one and a half million prisoners, which they probably had. Except for defenseless England, the war appeared all but over.”
Selections from the eighth chapter (“The Fall of France”) in James L. Stokesbury’s A Short History of World War II. Though I’m not if it’s considered AAA historiography by experts in the field, Stokesbury’s book is a highly informative, tight read, divided into episodes that make for good twenty minute immersions in specific topics. I recommend it.
The above photo, often called “The Weeping Frenchman,” was taken several months after the invasion and published in the March 3rd, 1941 edition of Life Magazine. It depicts Monsieur Jerôme Barzetti, a resident of Marseilles who wept as the flags of his country’s last regiments were exiled to Africa. You can read more about it here.
Lynne Olson | Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of War | Random House | April 2017 | 15 minutes (3,983 words)
Below is an excerpt from Last Hope Island, by Lynne Olson. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.
In all the history of war, I have never known such mismanagement.
Winston Churchill arrived at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the Quai d’Orsay on the afternoon of May 16 and saw “utter dejection written on every face” of the officials with whom he met. In the gardens outside, clouds of smoke billowed up from bonfires stoked by official documents that government workers were heaping on the flames.
The French military leaders summarized for Churchill the disastrous news of the previous four days: the German breakthrough at the Meuse and the onrush of tanks and troops “at unheard-of speed” toward the northern French towns of Amiens and Arras. When Churchill asked about plans for a counterattack by reserve forces, General Gamelin shrugged and shook his head. “There are none,” he said. Churchill was speechless: no reserves and no counterattack? How could that be? Gamelin’s terse response, Churchill wrote later, was “one of the greatest surprises I have had in my life.”
The British prime minister’s shock and confusion, his failure to grasp the speed and immensity of the German onslaught, were no different from the dazed reactions of French and British officers and troops in the field. Years later, General Alan Brooke would write dismissively, “Although there were plenty of Frenchmen ready to die for their country, their leaders had completely failed to prepare and organize them to resist the blitzkrieg.” Brooke didn’t mention that he and his fellow British commanders were as guilty as their French counterparts in that regard—a point repeatedly made by General Bernard Law Montgomery, a subordinate of Brooke’s in France. In his diary of the campaign, Montgomery, who commanded a British division in the battle, was scathingly critical of General John Gort, the British Expeditionary Force commander. Later Montgomery would write, “We had only ourselves to blame for the disasters which early overtook us in the field when fighting began in 1940.”
Trained for static defensive warfare, the Allied military simply did not know how to react when the blitzkrieg—“this inhuman monster which had already flattened half of Europe,” in the words of an American observer—burst upon them. Coordination and communication between the French and British armies broke down almost immediately within a few days, most phone and supply lines had been cut, and the Allied command system had virtually ceased to function. The only way army commanders could communicate was through personal visits.
While French and British units functioned without information or orders, their tanks and aircraft were running out of fuel and ammunition. An RAF pilot called the situation “a complete and utter shambles” a British Army officer wrote in his diary, “This is like some ridiculous nightmare.” Back in London, Churchill told one of his secretaries, “In all the history of war, I have never known such mismanagement.”
With Allied losses escalating and French and British troops in retreat, Paul Reynaud and the French high command begged Churchill to send ten more RAF fighter squadrons to France, in addition to the ten already there, to counter the Luftwaffe dive-bombers that were decimating their forces. Churchill eventually agreed to the request, arousing the impassioned opposition of the RAF’s Fighter Command, which insisted that sending any more fighters abroad would pose a grave danger to Britain’s own security.
Just six days into his tenure as prime minister, Churchill was faced with an agonizing choice: whether to give France as much material assistance as possible to bolster its morale and resistance or to withhold such support so that it could be used in Britain’s own defense. As the French saw it, the British had nothing to lose by pouring all their resources into France, because if France went down, Britain would soon follow. The pugnacious Churchill did not share that view. Once the ten squadrons were dispatched, France would get no more, despite repeated appeals from Reynaud. And, unbeknownst to the French, on the day he returned from his May 16 trip, Churchill ordered plans drawn up for a possible evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force.
Increasingly doubtful of France’s will or ability to fight back and fearing the encirclement and annihilation of his troops, General Gort was also contemplating evacuation. By the last week of May, the British forces had begun their retreat toward the beaches of Dunkirk, pursued by German troops and strafed by dive-bombers as they fled down dusty roads and lanes leading to the port. Churchill renewed his appeals to the French to stand and fight, never telling them until after the evacuation began that his own troops were leaving the field of battle.
We don’t care a bugger what happens to the Belgians.
Also left in the dark was the Belgian army, which had borne the brunt of Germany’s aerial and tank juggernaut, shielding British and French troops in Belgium from much of its fury. Churchill’s failure to inform the Belgians of the British retreat was not an oversight he was counting on them to help keep the German forces at bay while British troops boarded the armada of small boats and large ships now being dispatched to Dunkirk.
In fact, the Belgian army—pummeled relentlessly by German dive-bombers, tanks, and artillery for more than two weeks and running out of food and ammunition—was already in the throes of disintegration. When the British began their westward retreat toward Dunkirk, the Belgians agreed to guard their flank but repeatedly warned both the British and French commanders that their reserves were nearly depleted and that unless the Allies came to their assistance, they would soon have to surrender. In London, Churchill was given the same message by Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes, a flamboyant British war hero and close friend of Churchill’s, who was serving as the prime minister’s personal liaison with King Leopold. But the Belgians’ pleas for help carried no weight with Churchill, who told the War Cabinet that “the Belgian Army might be lost altogether, but we should do them no service by sacrificing our own Army.”
When Colonel George Davy, the BEF’s liaison officer with the Belgian army, asked General Gort and his deputy, General Henry Pownall, if Belgian forces would be allowed to participate in the Dunkirk evacuation, Pownall scoffed at the idea. “We don’t care a bugger what happens to the Belgians,” he said. Seemingly oblivious to the stalwart defense being waged by the Belgians, Pownall wrote in his diary on May 15, “Belgian morale, already thoroughly bad from top to bottom. They are simply not fighting.” He later referred to them as “rotten to the core” and “lesser breeds.”
Evacuated British soldiers. Via Wikimedia.
On May 26, the Belgian commander in chief sent his last request for aid to Britain and France. Like his earlier pleas, it went unanswered. Instead, Churchill instructed Roger Keyes to emphasize to Leopold the importance of his troops remaining in the field. Obviously, the Belgians would have to capitulate soon, Churchill told a subordinate, but only “after assisting the BEF to reach the coast.” He bluntly added, “We are asking them to sacrifice themselves for us.”
The exhausted Belgians, however, believed they had done enough sacrificing. Abandoned and isolated by their allies, lacking everything they needed to keep fighting, they felt they had held off the Germans for as long as humanly possible. On May 27, the Belgian government, in an official communiqué, informed France and Britain of its imminent surrender to Germany: “The Belgian Army has totally exhausted its capacity for resistance. Its units are incapable of renewing the struggle tomorrow.” Leopold sent an envoy to the Germans, and early on the morning of May 28, a cease-fire was announced.
If the only usefulness he retains is that of a scapegoat, then a scapegoat he must be.
The Belgians’ surrender was a purely military act, a laying down of arms, but it was complicated by Leopold’s decision to remain in Belgium. His fateful choice followed more than a week of soul-searching discussions with his government ministers about whether to go or stay. Prime Minister Hubert Pierlot and his colleagues informed the king of their plans to escape to France and urged him to accompany them. As head of state, they argued, it was his duty to continue Belgium’s resistance in exile. Under no circumstances should he be taken prisoner by the Germans.
Leopold, however, saw his duty very differently. In that, he was guided by the example of his father. During the Great War, Albert, in his role as commander in chief, had repeatedly declared that he would never leave Belgium, even if the Germans conquered all of it. “Never would King Albert have consented to take refuge abroad,” leaving his troops to their fate, Leopold told his ministers. Like his father, he believed that his responsibilities as commander in chief trumped those of head of state.
Pierlot and the others contended that according to the Belgian constitution, it was Leopold’s duty to follow the wishes of the government. They added that if he stayed behind, the Germans would make political use of him whether he cooperated with them or not. The king rejected all their arguments. He would not, he said, become “an idle refugee monarch, cut off from the Belgian people as they bow under the invader’s yoke.” To abandon the army, he added, “would be to become a deserter. Whatever happens, I must share the fate of my troops.”
At the time of the surrender, Leopold pledged not to have any dealings with the enemy while his country was in German hands. “For the duration of the occupation,” he declared, “Belgium must not do anything in the military, political, or economic sphere which could harm the Allied cause.” He asked to be put in a prisoner-of-war camp, along with his captured troops, but Hitler confined him instead to his palace in Laeken, on the outskirts of Brussels.
Leopold had been scrupulously correct in his handling of the surrender, but the French and British erupted in fury, joining forces to whip up a campaign of violent verbal abuse against the Belgians and their king. “Defeat arouses the worst in men,” Irène Némirovsky noted in Suite Française, her posthumously published novel about the fall of France. As one historian put it, “When one is fighting a war and things are going badly, one cannot afford the luxury of being generous or even fair to an ally who has ceased to be of any use. If the only usefulness he retains is that of a scapegoat, then a scapegoat he must be.”
Seeing a way to evade responsibility for France’s looming defeat, French and British leaders put the onus on Belgium for all their troubles. To General Maxime Weygand, who had replaced Gamelin as French commander in chief on May 17, the capitulation of Belgium was actually a “good thing,” because “we now shall be able to lay the blame for defeat on the Belgians.”
In covering up their own ineptitude, the Allied commanders resorted to outright lies. Both Weygand and Gort made the patently false claim that they had been given no warning of Belgium’s impending surrender. Accusing the Belgian army of cowardice, Gort also charged that its withdrawal from the fight had endangered the lives of his troops in their flight to Dunkirk. In reality, as the British military historian Brian Bond wrote, “the Belgian Army, virtually without air cover, bore the brunt of the German . . . attack while the BEF had a comparatively easy withdrawal to the French frontier. Indeed, but for the prolonged resistance of the gallant Belgian Army, the evacuation of the BEF from Dunkirk would have been impossible.”
French premier Paul Reynaud went even further in his diatribes against Leopold and the Belgians. One of the few French politicians to oppose the appeasement of Hitler in the late 1930s, Reynaud, who had headed the government for just two months, was nearing the end of his emotional tether. In the early days of the German invasion he had aligned himself with Churchill, arguing that France should continue to hold out. But as the military situation worsened, he began yielding to the defeatist mood of many of his ministers, prominently including Marshal Philippe Pétain, the eighty-four-year-old architect of the failed Maginot Line strategy who was now deputy premier. Since Reynaud had vowed he would never agree to a surrender, he knew he would soon have to hand over power to Pétain—an act that would infuriate the British. In Belgium’s capitulation, he saw a golden opportunity to shift the blame from himself and his government to the hapless Leopold.
“There has never been such a betrayal in history!” Reynaud exclaimed to his ministers when he heard of the Belgian surrender. “It is monstrous, absolutely monstrous!” In a May 28 broadcast to the French people, he accused Belgium of capitulating “suddenly and unconditionally in the midst of battle, on the orders of its King, without warning its French and English fellow combatants, thus opening the road to Dunkirk to German divisions.”
Before he made the broadcast, the premier bullied the Belgian government officials who had just arrived in France to support him in his attack upon their king. If they didn’t, Reynaud said, he couldn’t answer for the safety of the more than 2 million Belgians who had fled to France after the German invasion.
The Belgian ministers, who apparently feared that Leopold was thinking of establishing a new government in cooperation with the Germans, gave in to Reynaud’s blackmail. In doing so, they made far graver and equally false accusations against Leopold, charging him with “treating with the enemy”—in effect, accusing him of treason. Instead of preventing acts of violence against their countrymen, their denunciation only added to the French fury against Belgian refugees, who were jeered at, spat upon, beaten up, and ejected from restaurants and hotels. A number of Belgian pilots who had escaped to France were handcuffed and thrown into jail, while several thousand young Belgians undergoing military training in France were imprisoned in their barracks.
For the space of a day, Hitler had to give up his title of most-hated man.
Kept in the dark about the ineptitude of the British and French military response to the German blitzkrieg, public opinion in Britain readily accepted as truth the accusations against Leopold and Belgium. In London, the Daily Mirror ran a front-page cartoon depicting the Belgian king as a snake wearing a swastika-topped crown the Evening Standard called him “King Quisling.” One British newspaper columnist wrote that no child would be christened Leopold in Britain or anywhere else for the next two hundred years. Mollie Panter-Downes, the New Yorker’s London correspondent, told her American readers that “for the space of a day, Hitler had to give up his title of most-hated man to Leopold III of the Belgians,” who apparently “would rather be a live Nazi than a dead Belgian.”
In the midst of all the vituperation, only a few lonely voices spoke up for Leopold. “The king’s capitulation was the only thing he could do,” the U.S. military attaché in Belgium reported to his superiors in Washington. “Those who say otherwise didn’t see the fighting, and they didn’t see the German Air Force. I saw both.”
Admiral Keyes and Colonel Davy, the two British liaison officers assigned to the king and the Belgian military, also strongly defended the actions of Leopold and his army. Both were appalled when they returned to Britain on May 28 to find that Gort and his staff were heaping blame on the Belgians for their own incompetence. Particularly galling to Keyes and Davy was the fact that Gort himself was guilty of what he falsely accused the Belgian king of doing—withdrawing from the fight without warning his allies that he was going to do so.
Both officers, however, were forbidden by the British high command to make any public statements about their mission in Belgium. Furious at being muzzled, Davy wrote an account of what actually occurred there and gave copies to Keyes and the War Office for use in preparing the British official history of the war after it had ended. In a cover letter, he declared that the “savage and lying attacks” made on Leopold by “prominent military persons who found in him a profitable and unresponsive scapegoat” (i.e., Gort and Pownall) had prompted him to act. He added that “the truth should not be suppressed forever.”
Keyes, for his part, mounted a passionate defense of Leopold in a letter to Churchill, urging him to put a stop to British officials’ “vilification of a brave king.” At first, the prime minister seemed to heed his friend’s admonition, telling Parliament at the end of May that the Belgian army had “fought very bravely” and that the British should not pass “hasty judgment” on Leopold’s surrender.
His forbearance was short-lived. Annoyed that Leopold had chosen to remain in Belgium, Churchill was still riding his hobbyhorse of anger at the European neutral countries for not joining Britain and France in preinvasion military alliances. Refusing to acknowledge that the neutrals might have had valid reasons for shying away from such ties, he repeatedly made statements blaming their alleged cowardice for Germany’s military successes. He told Keyes privately that Leopold’s surrender had “completed the full circle of misfortune into which our Allies had landed us while we had loyally carried out our obligations and undertakings to them”—a comment that could not have been less true.
Evacuated British soldiers. Via Wikimedia.
Churchill’s already strong prejudice against Leopold was exacerbated by growing pressure on him from Paul Reynaud to join France’s scapegoating of the king. Reynaud accused the British of being too subdued in their expressions of outrage against Leopold and the Belgians, and Churchill, desperate to keep France in the war, finally gave in to the French premier’s arm-twisting. On June 4, in a speech announcing the success of the Dunkirk evacuation, Churchill employed all his formidable rhetorical skills in a fierce denunciation of Leopold. “Suddenly, without prior consultation . . . he surrendered his army and exposed our whole flank and means of retreat,” the prime minister thundered, as the MPs around him cried “Shame!” and “Treachery!” “Had not this ruler and his government severed themselves from the Allies, had they not sought refuge in what has proved to be a fatal neutrality, the French and British armies might well at the very outset have saved not only Belgium but perhaps even Poland.”
The sheer absurdity of Churchill’s statement—that Belgium’s neutrality, not Germany’s military prowess, had been responsible for the defeat of Poland and other European countries—registered with Roger Keyes but with few others in Churchill’s parliamentary audience. An MP himself, Keyes listened to the prime minister’s diatribe with mounting anger and disbelief. Instead of praising the Belgians for having protected the BEF from the worst of the German onslaught, Churchill was echoing Reynaud in accusing them of having endangered the British evacuation, as well as causing the encirclement and surrender of thousands of French troops.
The BBC, under pressure from the War Office, suppressed the news of the king’s exoneration.
Yet, in retrospect, Churchill’s harangue, though unjustified, is understandable. Prime minister for only four weeks, he considered his political position at that point to be extremely tenuous. Many Conservative MPs, whose party dominated Parliament, had not yet reconciled themselves to his succeeding Neville Chamberlain indeed, a fair number were openly hostile to him. “Seldom can a prime minister have taken office with the establishment so dubious of the choice and so prepared to have its doubts justified,” noted John Colville, one of Churchill’s private secretaries.
With his country now facing the greatest challenge in its history, Churchill was eager not only to fortify his own position but also to draw a veil of secrecy over the incompetence of his top generals as well as the other grave shortcomings of the British military’s performance thus far in the war. What better way to do so than to pin the blame on a smaller ally whose king and commander in chief was unable to defend himself?
Roger Keyes, however, refused to fall into line. In early June, he filed a libel suit against the Daily Mirror for a story accusing him of abetting what the Mirror called Leopold’s treachery. Determined to exonerate himself as well as the Belgian king and his military, Keyes pressed for a public trial. Before the case was finally heard in March 1941, the Mirror acknowledged that it had erred in its statements about Leopold and Keyes and agreed to apologize to both. Declaring that “the public interest would not be served” by publicizing the matter, Churchill and his government pressured Keyes to accept an out-of-court settlement rather than go to trial. Keyes agreed, but, in settling the case, his lawyer outlined in open court what had really happened in Belgium the previous May in the same hearing, the newspaper’s attorney conceded that the Mirror had done the king “a very grave injustice.”
The story of Leopold’s vindication made front-page headlines in Britain. k.c. clears king leopold’s name: london told of surrender plan , one blared. Another noted, king leopold warned britain of surrender . But the BBC, under pressure from the War Office, suppressed the news of the king’s exoneration it remains relatively unknown to this day. In the seventy-plus years since 1940, many if not most historians who have written about the battles in France and Belgium have accepted as true the charges made by the British and French against Leopold and his country.
Yet even during the chaos of May 1940, there was one celebrated Briton who knew better and who refused to participate in the mudslinging. King George VI was said to be furious at the campaign aimed at the Belgian sovereign, who was a distant cousin of his and whom he had known and liked since the teenage Leopold had attended Eton during the Great War. When British officials proposed that Leopold be dropped from the Roll of the Knights of the Garter, Britain’s highest order of chivalry and one of its most prestigious honors, George, who keenly understood the excruciating dilemma faced by his fellow monarch, rejected the idea.
As George’s biographer, the historian John Wheeler-Bennett, has pointed out, the choice confronting the heads of state of German-occupied countries was “one of hideous complexity, [with] little time for calm consideration. To leave their homeland and follow their Governments into exile leaves them open to the charge of desertion by those who remained behind yet to remain [in their countries] involves the risk of their being held hostage for the submissive conduct of their peoples.”
The day before Belgium surrendered, Leopold wrote a fond letter to George, whom he addressed as mon cher Bertie—a diminutive of his given name, Albert, which was used only by members of the British king’s family and a few others close to him. In the letter, Leopold explained his rationale for staying in Belgium, declaring that his overriding duty was to share the ordeal of German occupation with his troops and the rest of the Belgian people and to protect them as much as possible. “To act otherwise,” he told George, “would amount to desertion.”
As it happened, King George did not agree with Leopold’s choice. When Harry Hopkins, Franklin Roosevelt’s closest aide, visited London in early 1941, George told him he thought that Leopold had gotten his two jobs—king and commander in chief—“mixed up.” In a memo to FDR, Hopkins observed that George had “expressed a good deal of sympathy for the King of the Belgians and had little or no criticism of him as C-in-C of the Army, but as King . . . he should have left the country and established his government elsewhere.” Yet while questioning the wisdom of Leopold’s decision, George never doubted that his cousin was following his conscience and keen sense of duty in staying behind.
Ironically, George himself had taken the same vow made by Leopold: under no account, he said, would he leave his country if it were invaded by Germany. Fortunately for him and for Britain, he was never called upon to make that choice.