The Battle of France, known as ‘The Fall of France’ took place in World War II, when German forces invaded the Low Countries and France. The battle was made up of two main operations. During ‘Fall Gelb’ or Case Yellow, German mechanized units pushed through the Ardennes to surround the Allied units stationed in Belgium. The second operation, ‘Fall Rot’ or Case Red, involved flanking the Allied forces along the Maginot Line, and an advance made by the German armed forces into French territory.
Hitler was later given credit for Manstein’s new plan. Keitel described the Führer as ‘the greatest field marshal of all time’. Even six years later, he confessed to his psychiatrist in Nuremberg: ‘I thought he was a genius. Many times he displayed brilliance… He changed plans – and correctly for the Holland-Belgium campaign. He had a remarkable memory – knew the ships of every fleet in the world.’ Keitel regularly told the Führer himself that he was a genius. Nazi propaganda made Hitler into what he wasn’t: a great military strategist.
Manstein correctly identified the enemy’s focal point as the 80 km-long stretch of the river Meuse, between Dinant and Sedan. Once the river was crossed, the Channel reached, and the 40 Allied divisions in the north surrounded and captured, the rest of France, to the south, could be attacked from the area beyond the Somme and Aisne. This attack was carried out in a separate operation called Fall Rot - Case Red. Speed would be the essential element. This could be obtained through a close cooperation between the Luftwaffe and the advanced Panzer units. This strategy also worked very well in Poland.
The left flank, which was weak, protected by the 20 unarmored divisions of Army Group C from the Siegfried Line, would have been vulnerable against the 40 French divisions which were awaiting them behind the Maginot Line. Concerning this last issue, the Germans had no need to be worried. The Maginot Line was both a state of mind and a fortified line. There was not even the slightest possibility that the French would burst out from behind it to engage Army Group C in battle. The Maginot Line received its name from a French Minister of Defense, André Maginot. The line was built in the interwar period.
After the German invasion of Poland, the supreme commander of the French Army, Maurice Gamelin, suggested that the Allied forces should occupy the Netherlands before Germany did. Thus, they would have profited from the fact that the Germans were busy in Poland. This suggestion was not taken into consideration by the French government. After the Germans conquered Poland, it was decided that in the following year there would be no offensive action taken against the Germans. The Allies believed that Germany could be destabilized by a blockade, even without the existence of a front in eastern Europe, as in World War I.
Germany initiated Case Yellow during the night, when Army Group B launched its offensive in Holland and Belgium. Parachutists from the 7th Flieger Division and the 22nd Luftlande Infantry Division, under the command of General Kurt Student, carried out surprise landings close to the Hague, Rotterdam and the Belgian fort of Eben-Emael. The goal was to facilitate the advance of Army Group B. In Holland, the Germans rapidly obtained air superiority. Thus, in a few days, the Dutch army was forced to surrender.
In Belgium, the German air forces gained superiority fairly easily. They destroyed 83 of the 179 Belgian planes in the first 24 hours. The main advance direction of Army Group B, which had been entrusted with executing the so-called phoney attack, was blocked by the fortress of Eben-Emael. This fortress was considered at the time to be the most modern in the world. For the deception to work, Army Group B must carry out an attack on the French forces. This was to happen before Army Group A established the first bridgeheads.
In order to counter the German advance, Gamelin ordered several reserve divisions to reinforce the Meuse sector, the next defensive line. The German forces reached this area. In order to allow the three armies of Group A to pass, three bridgeheads must be established: at Sedan, Montherne and Dinant.
The attack of Army XII, part of Army Group A and commanded by General Wilhelm List, passing through the Ardennes mountains, was a masterpiece of the General Staff of the OKW. The Kleist Panzer Group, under the command of General Paul von Kleist, comprised of the XIX Panzer Corps of Heinz Guderian and the XLI Panzer Group of Georg-Hans Reinhardt, reached Sedan and Monthermé, on the River Meuse. They fought against the 9th Army of General André Corap. After a stubborn battle on the banks of the River Meuse, especially at Sedan, the much greater concentration of German armored vehicles, closely supported by the Luftwaffe, led to the crushing defeat of the French armed forces.
Due to the rapid advance of the German troops, French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud replaced General Maurice Gamelin with Maxime Weygand, who came up with the Weygand Plan. He ordered the annihilation of the spearhead of German armored vehicles through combined attacks from the north and south. On paper, this kind of attack seemed possible. In reality however, the Allied divisions only had a handful of tanks.
The Allied forces in the north were surrounded and stranded in the town of Dunkirk. This caused the Allies to launch Operation Dynamo. Thus, approximately 220,000 British troops and 120,000 French were evacuated from Dunkirk.
When Paul Ludwig Ewald von Kleist met Hitler at the Cambrai aerodrome, he had the courage to remark that a great opportunity had been lost at Dunkirk. Hitler replied: ‘That may be so. But I did not want to send the tanks into the Flanders marshes – and the British won’t come back in this war.’ Another excuse used by Hitler, on another occasion, was that mechanical failures and the subsequent offensive against the rest of the French Army had meant that he wanted to build up strength before going further.
During the operation, 97 British prisoners of war from the Royal Norfolk Regiment were massacred by the 1st Battalion of the 2nd SS Totenkopf Division. The massacre took place in Le Paradis. The next day, 90 prisoners of war from the Royal Warwickshire Regiment were executed with grenades and gunfire by the Adolf Hitler Liebstandarte Regiment, in a cramped barn in Wormhout. When they saw the two grenades thrown into the barn full of men, Sergeant Stanley Moore and Sergeant-Major Augustus Jennings threw themselves over them, to protect their men from the explosions.
Churchill’s public plea in favor of continuing the fighting was a victory for him in the interior of the British War Cabinet. For five days, this cabinet discussed the possibility of starting peace talks with Hitler, initially through Mussolini. The supporter of this course of action was the Foreign Minister, Lord Halifax. He stated, however, that he would never support a peace which involved sacrificing the Royal Navy or any essential part of the country’s sovereignty. Churchill was opposed to starting any discussions, at least until he could see how many soldiers could be evacuated from Dunkirk.
After the collapse of the Allied forces in the north, the Germans resumed their initiative on the course of the River Somme. A strong attack breached the thinly stretched French troops. The French government retreated to Bordeaux, declaring Paris an open city. As a consequence, German troops occupied France for the first time since the Franco-Prussian war of the 19th century.
The speed with which France fell shocked everyone, even the Germans. General Bogislav von Studnitz led the 87th Infantry Division along the streets of a widely deserted Paris. The next day, Guderian’s Panzer Group and the 8th Army of General Friedrich Dollman surrounded 400,000 French soldiers close to the Swiss border. They were from the 3rd, 5th and 8th armies. They surrendered en masse.
The official surrender was signed by French General Charles Huntzinger, in the same railway carriage at Compiègne, 80km to the north-east of Paris where the Germans themselves were forced to surrender in 1918.
After the end of the fighting, France was divided into an occupation zone, in the north and west, and a ‘free’ zone in the south. Both areas were under the rule of the new French authoritarian government, under the command of Philippe Pétain. This government replaced the third French Republic. This state is often also known as the Vichy Regime. Marshall Philippe Pétain was condemned, after the war, to life in prison for his role as leader of the regime. As a consequence of the occupation of France, Charles de Gaulle denounced Pétain’s government from London and organized the Free French Forces. They continued to fight against Germany and its allies.
France’s fate, between her surrender and the beginning of liberation on D Day, was crude and humiliating. However, the country escaped at least from what is called ‘polonisation’, the ethnic purification realised by the General Government of Hans Frank in Poland. France was the only country given the chance of an armistice. Before the Germans invaded the unoccupied region of France, Pétain’s government maintained quite a lot of its autonomy. Its counter-espionage services executed 40 Abwehr spies - the German Military Espionage Service - and retained a few hundred others.