Battle of France
Germany invades the Low Countries and France
author Paul Boșcu, August 2016
The Battle of France, known as ‘The Fall of France’ took place in World War Two, when German forces invaded the Low Countries and France.
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.

Between the invasion of Poland and the battles in western Europe, there was a period of combat inaction between the Allies and Germany. This period is also known as ‘The Phoney War’. During this period, Hitler made an offer of peace to both western Allies. The British refused Hitler’s proposal and, a few days later, the French did the same.

Franz Halder, the German chief of staff, came up with the first project for a frontal attack on France. According to this project, Germany must sacrifice almost half a million soldiers. Hitler was very disappointed by Halder’s plan, because he hoped to rapidly occupy Benelux. Halder’s plan made this impossible. Thus, Hitler decided that the German forces, whether ready or not, should attack early, in the hope that the Allies were not prepared for war. Thus, the attack date was set for only a few weeks after the invasion of Poland.

The initial date for an attack on France was later cancelled. Hitler was persuaded by his generals that the German armed forces were not yet prepared. Hitler gave his generals the task of improving the war plan so that a rapid victory would be possible. Halder’s plan was not met with approval from General Gerd von Rundstedt, commander of Army Group A. In contrast to Hitler, von Rundstedt, a career military man, understood perfectly how the plan must be modified.

General von Manstein was no longer involved, and Franz Halder was the one who had to implement the changes. The new plan had the advantage of being unpredictable for the Allied defensive. The plan stipulated that the principal German forces should cross the Ardennes, an area with many forests and a very poor network of roads. Thus, the element of surprise could be created.

For a quarter of a century there was a generally accepted hypothesis concerning France. According to this, the plan to destroy France in World War I failed because, between the initial conception of the plan and its implementation, too many troops were withdrawn from the strong right flank, which was ahead, and placed on the weaker left flank. The plan to destroy France was drawn up by Alfred von Schlieffen and put into practice nine years after its conception.

After the New Year, a German airplane made a forced landing in Belgium. One of the passengers on the plane was Major Hellmuth Reinberger, who was carrying a copy of the German war plans. Although the plane landed safely, the major didn’t manage to destroy the documents in time, and they arrived in Belgian hands. Thus, the Germans had to make a drastic change in plan. The change occurred when General Erich von Manstein presented his plans to Hitler. Hitler was so impressed that the very next day he ordered the plans to be changed in line with von Manstein’s ideas.

For the plan to work, it was essential that the Allied forces be attracted towards the north, to defend Belgium. For this to happen, Army Group B had to carry out a static attack, similar to those used in World War I, on Belgium and Holland. Thus, the impression was given that this was the main German force. At the same time, Army Group A would carry out an attack of encirclement through the Ardennes region.

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.

At the time, Dr. Goebbels’ propaganda was transmitting the message that Hitler was ‘the greatest warlord of all time’, but Hitler at least knew that it was state propaganda. The fact that he was constantly being told the same thing by his own chief of staff could only tickle his huge pride.

It is true that Hitler had a phenomenal memory of the technical details of any sort of weaponry. From his library, which initially was made up of 16,300 books, 1,200 volumes can be found in the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. These include almanacs about military vessels, military planes and armored vehicles. ‘There are exhaustive works on uniforms, weapons, supply, mobilization, the building-up of armies in peacetime, morale and ballistics, and quite obviously Hitler has read many of them from cover to cover,’ wrote the Berlin correspondent of United Press International.

Hitler’s actual knowledge of military issues was certainly surprising. This has impressed some modern apologists, such as Alan Clark and David Irving. The former affirmed: ‘His capacity for mastering detail, his sense of history, his retentive memory, his strategic vision – all these had flaws, but considered in the cold light of objective military history, they were brilliant nonetheless.’

The moments in which Hitler showed interest for technical issues concerning weaponry during the war are countless. When he wasn’t asking about specific issues in the ‘Führer Conferences’ with top OKW figures and military commanders, nothing gave him more pleasure than showing off his detailed knowledge of these things. Even so, knowing the caliber of a weapon or the tonnage of a ship is far from having the genius of a strategist. Keitel confused the two, an unforgivable error for someone in his role and with his responsibilities.

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 Panzer divisions would be grouped close to each other in order to hit the Schwerpunkt - focal point - simultaneously. They used the advantage offered by the fact that the Allies had arranged their tank divisions over a wide area, along the entire front. The Germans were actually outnumbered, in men and tanks, by the Allies. At the same time, their equipment was not much better than that used by the Allies. Their superior training, the quality of the corps of generals, the element of surprise and especially Manstein’s strategy, all led to the defeat of France.

Manstein’s plan, which Hitler approved, involved significant risks. The Ardennes is a heavily forested mountainous region, with narrow roads. The area was considered practically impassable by heavily armored vehicles. The left flank of Army Group A would be widely open to an Allied counterattack from the south. As the army advanced beyond the north of France, towards Abbeville and then to the north towards Boulogne, Calais and finally Dunkirk, there were few bridges over the River Meuse.

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 Belgium reaffirmed, for a short time, its neutrality after the Great War, the Maginot Line should have continued along the Belgian border up to the English Channel. However, the huge financial costs threatened to exhaust France’s military budget. Furthermore, the Belgians complained, hypocritically, that an extension of the Line to the coast would in essence sacrifice them to Germany. It is true that the French could have taken this aspect into account in their plans, since Brussels had rejected the peace treaty which the construction of the Line was initially based on.

As it turned out later, even though the majority of the Wehrmacht forces went around the west of the Line, the 1st German Army breached it to the south of Saarbrücken. This happened in spite of their lack of tanks. The Germans discovered that the lack of depth to the line meant that it was relatively easy to attack with grenades and flamethrowers. Initially, the Line was intended as a way of slowing the Germans and taking away the element of surprise. However, it manage to produce in the French a defensive mentality that sucked out their offensive spirit.

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.

A vast program was put into place to modernize and expand the Allied forces. Thus, the existing economic advantages over Germany were exploited. The goal was to create an overwhelmingly mechanized force, and then in the summer of 1941, to carry out a decisive offensive against Germany.

There was a possibility that Germany would attack first. Thus, a strategy must be prepared for this eventuality. Most French generals considered that a vast military force must be held in reserve to the north of France, in a central position. This force would need to respond to possible directions of attack by the Germans. The strategy was called Plan D.

Allied plans proposed a rapid advance into Holland and Belgium as soon as Germany invaded those countries. Based on Plan D, three French armies, under the command of General Giraud of the 5th Army, General Blanchard of the 1st Army and General Corap of the 9th Army, together with part of the British Expeditionary Force, the BEF, under the command of Lord Gort, would advance from their fortified positions along the French-Belgian border, up to a line drawn between Breda and the River Dyle. This must be done in order to cover Anvers and Rotterdam. Allowing these vital Channel ports to fall into German hands was unthinkable.

Gamelin rejected this strategy for several reasons. Firstly, it was unthinkable, from a political point of view, for the Netherlands to be abandoned. Secondly, Gamelin considered that a potential offensive in 1941 had no chance of being decisive if it were launched from the north of France against German positions in central Belgium. The German positions were well fortified at that time. Thirdly, the General believed that the French forces were not capable of defeating the German forces in an offensive, since they didn’t have enough mechanized forces.

Gamelin intended to send the best French units, together with the British Expeditionary Corps, to the north. He proposed stopping the Germans at the KW line, a defensive line which followed the course of the River Dyle. According to this plan, the German forces must be concentrated in northern Belgium. They could be properly supplied there due to the network of good roads. The plan was met, however, with strong opposition from several French generals who supported the initial Plan D.

Concerning its forces, Germany had approximately three million men ready for battle, 2,700 tanks, 7,500 cannons and 1,800 battle planes. The Allies, on the other hand, had approximately the same number of men, 5,000 tanks inferior to those of the Germans, and 14,000 cannons. Thus, they had superiority in ground troops. The Allies suffered due to air inferiority. The French had 1,500 planes, while the British had only 680 fighter planes and 392 bombers.

The following day after the initial German plans were captured, the neutral Belgians handed over a two-page summary to the military attachés of Great Britain and France. They refused to disclose how they had come to possess the document. This initially caused the Allied High Command to suspect a German diversionary operation. However, the Belgians knew that the plans were authentic. They put microphones in the room in which the German attaché later met with the German Major, Reinberger. His first question was whether the Major had destroyed the documents.

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.

Early in the morning, Captain David Strangeways of the BEF, whose regiment was stationed close to Lille in northern France, was woken by the secretary of the battalion’s chancellor, who was shouting, ‘David, sir David!’ The officer was about to admonish the man for his impertinence in addressing an officer by his Christian name. However, Strangeways remembered that ‘David’ was the codename for the event the Allies had been waiting for: Hitler’s assault on the West had begun.

The French reacted according to Plan D. They sent Army Group I to meet the enemy. In the same evening, the French 7th Army crossed the Dutch border, finding local forces already in general retreat. The Allied air forces were not efficient, and the German Luftwaffe rapidly gained air superiority. Thus, the Allies were left without the capacity of air reconnaissance, and their communications and coordination were muddled. Local forces had only 144 planes. Of these, half were destroyed in the first day of operations.

The Supreme Commander of the French Army, General Maurice Gamelin, gave orders to the French-British armies to gather behind the Dyle-Breda Line. They advanced freely towards this area for two days. The OKW was thrilled to see the enemy responding to the German offensive exactly the way the Germans wanted them to. Even so, when Giraud advanced too far into Dutch territory, he was pushed back to Tilburg. Several Allied generals, such as Alan Brooke, Alphonse Georges and Gaston Billotte, strongly disagreed with Plan D. However, Gamelin’s mind was already made up.

At the same time, the German 18th Army secured all the strategic bridges leading to the city of Rotterdam. Thus, the city was surrounded. The effort to capture the Hague however became a total failure. The airports in the outskirts of the city were taken, at the price of many victims. However, on the same day, due to the counterattack carried out by two divisions of Dutch infantry reserves, the airports were lost.

The French 7th Army failed in its mission to block the 9th Panzer division, which reached Rotterdam after three days of fighting. In these conditions, the Dutch Army, still for the most part intact, surrendered after only four days of battle. The Luftwaffe had already bombed Rotterdam. The Dutch surrendered, even though the Dyle-Breda front had not yet been breached by Army Group B. The bombing of Rotterdam destroyed much of the city and left 80,000 people homeless. Thus, the Dutch supreme commander, Henri Winkelman, announced Holland’s surrender on the Hilversum Radio, before other towns could suffer a similar fate.

The document of surrender was signed the day after the Dutch army surrendered. Even so, the Dutch colonial troops continued to fight throughout the conflict, while queen Wilhelmina established a government in exile in London.

Even though only 980 people died in the Rotterdam raid, it became a true symbol of Nazi terror tactics. Fear of such bombings sparked an exodus. Between six and ten million terror-struck French refugees left Paris and the areas behind Allied lines. Refugees filled all the roads leading south and west. 90,000 children were separated from their parents during the process, and the Allied capacity of striking back against the German invaders was extremely limited.

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.

Taking into account the fact that the Allies had been fighting Nazi Germany for over eight months already, it is amazing that the Wehrmacht managed to produce such a surprise while it was carrying out a Blitzkrieg on the west. This is even harder to believe since, only a month earlier, the Wehrmacht had invaded Denmark and Norway, again unexpectedly. One day before the invasion, the Belgian army increased the length of leave from two to five days per month. In one of the Belgian forts, strategically vital on the Albert Canal, it was discovered that the warning cannon was defective.

In order to overcome the obstacle, in the first hours of the 1oth of May, German military gliders landed on the roof of the fortress. German assault troops came out and used explosives to annihilate the cannons found in the fortress. At the same time, divisions of paratroopers secured the bridges of the Albert Canal. These bridges were part of the same defensive system as the fort of Eben-Emael.

The Belgian lack of preparation for an outcome which they knew was possible was illustrated by the fact that they did not take away the roadblocks from the entry into Belgium from France. They didn’t even have enough trains to transport troops and French equipment to Dyle. King Leopold III of the Belgians complained about this to Major-General Bernard Montgomery, when British troops passed through Brussels. ‘All Belgians seem to be overtaken by panic, from the leadership down’, observed Lieutenant-General Henry Pownall.

Shocked by the breach of the lines in the very place they seemed the strongest, the Belgians retreated to the south in order to join up with the French troops. As a response, two French divisions were sent to meet the German forces to cover the retreat of the Belgian troops and the fortification in trenches of the 1st French Army. This action was a defensive success. It was, however, irrelevant due to events happening in the south. Army Group A began its attack.

Things were made worse by the fact that the actual organization of the Allied command was ridiculously decentralized. Gamelin’s general headquarters were located far away, in Vincennes, almost in the Paris suburbs. The Supreme Commander felt he needed to be closer to the government than to his army. His field commander, Alphonse Georges, had his headquarters at La Ferté, 56km east of Paris. However, he spent much of his time in his residence found 19km from the capital. At the same time, the French General Staff was at Montry, between La Ferté and Vincennes. The air force was located at Coulommiers, 16km from La Ferté.

Army Group A’s progress was stopped by Belgian units of motorized infantry and French divisions of light cavalry. These troops did not have sufficient anti-tank weapons for the great number of German armored vehicles. Thus, they were forced to retreat. Even so, the advance of the German troops was slowed considerably due to the bad network of roads. Thus, Army Group A became an easy target for French aviation. An aerial attack did not happen, however, since the French air forces were too weak at that moment.

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.

At Sedan, the Meuse Line was well fortified. The first line was defended by the 147th Infantry Regiment, while positions in the second line were kept by the 55th Infantry Division. The defense point was strengthened again with the arrival of the 71st Infantry Division, billeted in positions east of the point. In these conditions, the French expected the main attack to happen as soon as the German forces regrouped. However, the Germans attacked the enemy lines much earlier, which was a surprise for the French.

In the center of the line, a vacuum was created between the bunkers, with the German forces rapidly trying to exploit this. Added to this was the chaos created in the French defensive lines by the German air bombardment. For this reason, the German infantry units breached the French lines and advanced up to 8km behind the lines. The cost was just a few hundred victims, since the main bulk of the German troops had not even reached that point. The German success was due to the actions of six platoons, especially by the assault engineers.

The disarray in the French lines extended along the other defensive lines too, since the soldiers were in retreat. The 295th Regiment of the 55th Division, which held the last defensive line close to the small locality of Bulson, went into panic. The reason was a false rumor that German tanks had already arrived behind these positions. In these circumstances, the regiment retreated before any German tanks could get close to their positions.

The German generals Guderian and Rommel pushed their forces into the middle of France as quickly as possible, following the doctrine of blitzkrieg. Thus, Guderian reached Marle, 80km from Sedan. Rommel crossed the River Sambre close to Le Cateau, about 100km away from his objective, Dinant.

Hermann Göring promised General Heinz Guderian sustained air support. This support consisted of a continual attack throughout the entire day. The Luftwaffe executed the most intense bombardment of the entire war. Even so, the advance positions of the platoons, part of the 147th Infantry Division, being scarcely affected by the bombing, resisted the German attacks.

Two battalions of French tanks carried out a counterattack against the new bridgehead established by the Germans. The attack was repelled close to the same locality of Bulson. At the same time, the British Royal Air Force tried to destroy the newly captured bridges taken by the Germans. They failed due to the superiority of the Luftwaffe.

While the Allies were unable to react, as they were completely taken by surprise by the speed of the German Panzers’ advance, the Panzer corps stopped for two days to resupply. When the German Panzers began moving again, they crushed the British 18th and 23rd Divisions. They occupied Amiens, securing the most western bridgehead over the river Somme, at Abbeville. Thus, they isolated the British and French forces in the north.

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.

Paul Ludwig von Kleist ordered the crossing of the Meuse river without waiting for artillery support. He did this because the element of surprise and momentum were the key to Blitzkrieg success. ‘Time and again the rapid movements and flexible handling of our Panzers bewildered the enemy,’ recalled a triumphant Panzer commander years later. Colonel Baron Hasso-Eccard von Manteuffel agreed: ‘The French had more, better, heavier tanks than we had but… as General von Kleist said, “Don’t tap them – strike as a whole and don’t disperse.”’

Guderian arrived at Montcornet after 5 days of battle and at Saint-Quentin after 8 days. ‘Fahrkarte bis zur Endstation!’ - ‘Ticket to the last station!’ he shouted to his Panzer troops, telling them to go as far as possible. At one point, Guderian was temporarily released from command because he was moving too fast. He made his superiors fear a coordinated counterattack from the north and south. As he had intuitively guessed, this attack did not arrive.

The historian Liddell Hart, an admirer of Guderian, explained that the German tank commander was a supporter of ‘the idea of deep strategic penetration by independent armoured forces – a long-range tank-drive to cut the main arteries of the opposing army far back behind its front’.

For Guderian, this was the moment to prove the correctness of things he’d theorized before the war, but also to prove his opponents wrong. He took the meaning of ‘using his initiative’ to new extremes, ignoring orders he disliked and reading meaning in what others said far beyond normal sense. Thus, Guderian carried out the sickle cut much faster than anyone could have imagined possible.

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.

Paul Reynaud reorganized his government and High Command. He named Marshal Philippe Pétain, symbol of the resistance during the Battle of Verdun in World War I, as deputy prime minister. Reynaud took the post of Minister of War from the former prime minister who signed the Munich Agreement, Edouard Daladier. Daladier became minister of Foreign Affairs. Two days later, Reynaud fired Gamelin and replaced him with the 73-year-old General Maxime Weygand, who had never led troops in battle. Weygand arrived too late from Syria to be able to change the fate of the battle being raged around the Channel, at the port of Dunkirk.

If it had been successful, the battle of Arras would have isolated Generals Guderian and Reinhardt. However, in the end, the Allies gained nothing in the face of Major-General Erwin Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division and the 88mm anti-aircraft cannons used by the artillery. Rommel gained fame in the battle of Caporetto in 1917, when he captured 9,000 Italians and 81 cannons. Instructor at the Dresden Infantry School since 1929, he was the author of manuals of infantry tactics. He was commander of the War Academy in 1938, before taking command of Hitler’s body guard. Rommel understood Blitzkrieg tactics and had an excellent perception of military coordination.

A detachment of Matilda tanks from the British Expeditionary Corps, under the command of Major-General Harold Edward Franklyn, tried to delay the German offensive and possibly to surround the head of the German army. The result of this attempt was the battle close to Arras. German 37mm anti-tank cannons proved to be inefficient against the Matilda tanks. Rommel made use of the famous 88mm anti-air cannons, and of the 105-caliber artillery cannons. However, the next day, the British troops were forced to retreat.

French armored troops were split into three divisions of light armor, three divisions of heavy armor - initially, all were kept in reserve - and over 40 tank battalions. These had to support the infantry units. Apart from the light armor troops of General René Prioux, no other French motorized formations acted in concert during the campaign. Failing in their attempt to push south, the BEF and the French 1st Army retreated to Dunkirk.

The RAF lost Merville, its last aerodrome in France. From that moment, all British planes flying over the Allied armies had to come from across the Channel. This severely limited the amount of time they could spend fighting the Luftwaffe.

Charles de Gaulle, who at 49 was the youngest general in the French army, led a vigorous counterattack at Laon, but was repelled. The French tried to attack in the southern area, east of Arras. They had infantry forces and tanks, but the German infantry forces began to catch up with their tanks. Thus, the French attack was stopped by the 32nd Infantry Division. A new attack in the southern region took place two days later. The French, with very few tanks at their disposition, did not manage to finalize what they had planned.

One week before the beginning of the Dunkirk evacuation, 27,936 people, the non-essential functionaries of the BEF, were evacuated. This operation was organized by Lieutenant-Colonel Lord Bridgeman of the Rifle Brigade, from the continent, and by Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay, Flag Officer in Dover. Cartographers, bakers, railway workers, etc. were sent back. It was a clear indicator that things were expected to go badly. And they did. Army Group A and Army Group B joined their forces to crowd the Allies into a corner of France and Belgium that was becoming smaller and smaller.

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.

The city’s defense was organized by the French 1st Army, which resisted for several days. Thus, the Allies were able to evacuate a large part of their troops which were isolated in northern France. This army was sacrificed in order to gain the time needed for the Allied soldiers to be evacuated. After the end of operation Dynamo, the remaining soldiers of the 1st Army fell as prisoners of war in the hands of the Germans.

To the amazement and great frustration of commanders such as Kleist and Guderian, the coup de grâce which could have isolated the entire northern Allied force was not put into operation. Thus, the Germans gave the Allies a vital breathing space of 48 hours. They used this to strengthen their perimeter and begin the exodus from the beaches of Dunkirk. General Wilhelm von Thoma, leader of the tank section of the OKH, was in the front with the foremost tanks, close to Bergues. From this location he could look down over the town of Dunkirk.

General Wilhelm von Thoma sent radiograms to the OKH, insisting that the tanks must go forwards. However, he was categorically refused. ‘You can never talk to a fool,’ he said bitterly of Hitler. ‘Hitler spoilt the chance of victory.’ When Churchill later spoke of a ‘miracle of deliverance’, this was realized thanks to Rundstedt and Hitler, and also thanks to Gort and Ramsay. It was the first of several capital mistakes which would cost Germany the victory in World War II.

At that moment, the most modern French armies were lost in the encirclement in the north. Thus, the French lost most of their high-caliber cannons and most of their tanks. Weygand had before him the prospect of defending a long front, which stretched from Sedan to the English Channel. However, his troops were exhausted, with a very low morale.

While the Panzer Divisions commanded by Kleist were only 29 km away from Dunkirk, they received orders from Hitler to halt. This order countermanded that of capturing the city, given by Brauchitsch, supreme commander of the Wehrmacht. This order specified clearly that the Lens–Béthune–Saint-Omer–Gravelines line ‘will not be passed’. For reasons which are still being debated by historians, Hitler’s so-called Halt Order of 11.42 hours supported Rundstedt’s request to halt Kleist’s Panzer Divisions at the front line and not enter the pocket.

The Allied situation was complicated by Belgium’s surrender. The area abandoned by the Belgian army stretched from Ypres to Dixmude. Even so, the total collapse of the front could be avoided, and the evacuation of French and British soldiers could be finalized. King Leopold III of Belgium accepted the unconditional surrender of his country, without giving the slightest warning to the Allies. This suddenly created a 48km long breach in the Allied front line. This gap was rapidly covered, evidently only in part, by Alan Brooke’s II Army Corps.

To the encirclement in the north was added the fact that Italy declared war on France and Great Britain at the beginning of June. However, Italy was not prepared for war. It contributed in insignificant ways in the last days of battle, through an invasion in southern France. Mussolini was consciously trying to profit from the German success.

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.

Flying over the town of Dunkirk, Churchill told André de Staercke, personal secretary to the Prince Regent of Belgium: ‘I shall never understand why the German Army did not finish the British Army at Dunkirk.’ The answer could be that, up until the morning of the day in which Hitler gave the halt order, the troops had been fighting continuously for almost two weeks. From his own battle experience in the trenches of the Great War, Hitler knew how exhausting this could be. Furthermore, the terrain surrounding the Dunkirk pocket was not ideal for tanks.

The German infantry needed time to catch up, taking into account the amazingly large space covered by the tanks since Sedan. As Franz Halder wrote in his diary: ‘The Führer is terribly nervous. Afraid to take any chances.’ Too many things had already been done to risk falling into an Allied trap at that advanced phase. There were still many French forces and reserves to be confronted to the south of the River Somme and the River Aisne. The street battles in Warsaw also demonstrated the vulnerability of tanks in urbanized zones, such as Dunkirk.

Rundstedt himself, who was credited with making the decision for the Halt Order which the Führer later approved, vehemently denied doing this. ‘If I had had my way the English would not have got off so lightly at Dunkirk,’ he later recalled with bitterness. ‘But my hands were tied by direct orders from Hitler himself. While the English were clambering into the ships off the beaches, I was kept uselessly outside the port unable to move. I recommended to the Supreme Command that my five Panzer Divisions be immediately sent into the town and thereby completely destroy the retreating English.’

Von Rundstedt’s claim of innocence concerning the halt order can be passed over easily. The order was given by Hitler at a meeting held at the general headquarters of Army Group A in Maison Blairon, a small castle in Charleville-Mézières. Hitler gave the order only after Rundstedt himself said that he wanted to keep the armored troops back for an assault to the south, at Bordeaux. It was feared that the British would soon open a new front there. Anyway, the countless channels in Flanders meant that the region was unwelcoming for tanks. All Hitler did was approve the request.

Another theory is that Hitler wasn’t expecting or desiring to capture the BEF, because he was hoping to make peace with Great Britain. This theory lacks logic. Hitler’s chances of forcing Great Britain to make peace would have been extremely low after the elimination of the BEF. There is however, a testimony, ignored until now, which demonstrates that the OKW believed that the Allied force would still be destroyed, in spite of the Halt Order. This testimony is found in a handwritten note belonging to Alfred Jodl, written at the Führer’s General Headquarters and addressed to the Head of the German Labor Front, Robert Ley. The note is now in private hands.

Even though the initial decision to halt Kleist’s Panzers outside Dunkirk originated with Rundstedt, the Führer’s influence was necessary in order to silence the opposition from Brauchitsch, Halder, Guderian and Rommel. ‘We could have wiped out the British army completely if it weren’t for the stupid order of Hitler,’ recalled Kleist later. Kleist’s conviction that, after the capture of the BEF, ‘an invasion of England would have been a simple affair’ is harder to accept. At that moment, the RAF and Royal Navy were still undefeated, and the Germans had no concrete plan for sending men across the Channel.

The Allied forces were overwhelmed at Boulogne and Menin and Calais. Dunkirk resisted, however, up until the day in which all the Allied troops in the pocket who could board ships to leave for Great Britain had done so. Operation Dynamo was so called because Ramsay’s Dover bunker had hosted electrical equipment during the Great War. It was the greatest military evacuation until that point and a great logistical accomplishment, especially since daytime sailing had to be suspended due to the strong attacks by the Luftwaffe.

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.

These massacres disprove the myth that, towards the end of the war, despair and fear were the motives which made the SS kill Allied prisoners of war who surrendered. In fact, these actions took place all the time, even when Germany was on the brink of the greatest victory in its history.

The officer responsible for the massacre in Le Paradis, Hauptsturmführer - captain - Fritz Knochlein, was executed in 1949. Hauptsturmführerul Wilhelm Mohnke, who led the unit which executed the prisoners in Wormhout, was never punished for this war crime. He died in 2001 in a retirement home in Hamburg.

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.

Churchill was right: any public deal with Germany would have destroyed British morale, legitimized Hitler’s conquests and dispelled American sympathy. At the same time, it would have allowed the Germans to concentrate their entire force against the USSR. The initial terms of the understanding would have been favorable. In the long term, however, a divided England would have been forced to sustain an impoverishing level of expense for its defense for decades, or at least until Germany won in the east and returned to settle its accounts with the British bourgeoisie democracy.

Dunkirk fell into the hands of General Günther von Kluge. He marched into town cloaked in a huge wave of acrid smoke, coming from the burning ships and oil installations. The next day, the Germans put Fall Rot - Case Red - into action. This meant that Army Group A would return south and try to create a breach in the Weygand Line. The BEF had disappeared, leaving only a division of infantry and two brigades of armored vehicles on the continent. The Belgians surrendered, the French lost 22 of their 71 land divisions, 6 of their 7 motorized divisions, 2 out of 5 territorial divisions and 8 of 22 armored battalions.

The Marshal of the RAF, Sir Hugh Dowding, firmly refused to send any more Hurricanes or Spitfires to the battle of France. He correctly foresaw that, in the next battle it would fight, Great Britain would need every plane it owned. It had already committed the squadrons of the Advanced Air Striking Force at the beginning of the battle of France. However, since the rate of loss of the Hurricane planes was, sometimes as high as 25 per day - while the factories were producing only four or five per day - he was right to threaten to resign rather than lose any more planes.

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.

Prime minister Paul Reynaud resigned and was replaced by Marshal Philippe Pétain, who signed an armistice with Germany. Thus, the northern and western regions of France were occupied by German troops, while in the south a French state was instituted, with its capital at Vichy.

For the signing of the armistice, Hitler decided that the ceremony should occur in the very place where Germany was forced to sign the armistice with the Entente at the end of World War I. Thus, the Compiègne armistice was signed in the very same railway carriage as the armistice of 1918.

The French government fled Paris, with Weygand declaring it a demilitarized ‘open city’. Three million of the five million inhabitants of the city also fled. Terrible scenes ensued: nurses euthanizing patients who could not move, babies abandoned, a tank commander who was preparing to defend the bridge over the Loire killed by neighbors who didn’t want bloodshed. The mayors were especially panic-stricken in the face of the threat that the French army would not remain to defend their towns.

Churchill and de Gaulle tried to stir up enthusiasm in the Allied War Council in London. The Prime Minister promised a second British Expeditionary Force to fight in Normandy, supported by troops from Narvik. Churchill hoped that France could survive until the spring of the following year. Then a remade British army, of 25 divisions, would come to its aid. However, it was strikingly clear that the fighting spirit had evaporated from the French High Command. Some of the members of this command saw, in the Dunkirk evacuation, a greater betrayal than that of Belgium.

At Tours, on his last visit to France, Churchill refused to let the country off its promise not to sign a separate peace agreement with Germany. Three days later, he proposed a plan through which France and Great Britain would fuse together as a single political entity, thus becoming an indivisible nation. Pétain rejected the idea, asking why he would wish France to ‘fuse with a corpse’. Later, during the war, Churchill acknowledged that France’s refusal to accept the offer was ‘the narrowest escape we’d had’, because such a union ‘would have impeded us in our methods completely’.

Charles de Gaulle, who managed to escape from France, issued an official declaration to the French people, saying: ‘France has lost a battle. But France has not lost the war!’ Few people heard this historical proclamation, and even fewer had heard of the man. The mobilizing words of the then-obscure tank expert however were broadcast far and wide. They were the rallying cry of the Free French Movement. ‘I ask you to believe me when I say that the cause of France is not lost,’ he said. ‘Whatever happens, the flame of French resistance must not and shall not die.’

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.

Once the Germans had made a breach in the French line at Reims, they managed to cover a lot of ground in surprisingly short time. The 15th Panzer Corps of General Hermann Hoth captured Brest. On the same day, the 2nd Army of General Otto von Stülpnagel arrived in Nantes. Lyon fell to the 16th Panzer Corps of General Erich Hoepner. On the same day, a general ceasefire was declared.

A huge number of French soldiers - over 1.5 million - ended up in German captivity. Friedrich von Mellenthin declared that the breadth of the Führer’s victory had no precedent since the days of Napoleon - which can hardly be contested. Even so, it was not a victory without bloodshed for the Germans.

Before the armistice, General Weygand warned prime minister Reynaud not to try to continue the battle in the empire held by France in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Thus, no effort was made to send the strong French fleet to Toulon or other southern ports. If the French navy had decided to continue the battle from outside metropolitan France, this could have been a significant support for the Anti-Nazi forces. They were forced to continue the battle in the west without the French navy.

Paul Reynaud resigned in favor of Phillipe Pétain, who asked the Germans to sign an armistice the very day after his accession as president. Responding to de Gaulle’s appeal to continue the resistance, Weygand said: ‘Nonsense. In three weeks England will have her neck wrung like a chicken.’

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.

Under the terms of surrender, all free French fighters were liable to the death penalty. Captured Luftwaffe pilots were to be returned and the French Army was to remain in captivity. Three-fifths of France - roughly the northern and western parts including the whole Atlantic seaboard - were to remain under German occupation. The financial costs of the occupation were to be borne by France.

After Hitler saw the granite memorial raised in honor of the 1918 armistice, close to the railway carriage, he ordered it to be destroyed. In spite of the aggressive Nazi propaganda which would begin - that France would take its place of honor in ‘New Europe’ which would be led by Germany - it was never intended that France be anything more than another satrapy of the Reich, and also a rich source of food supplies and slave labor.

The victory over France, won in only six weeks, was the greatest victory in Germany’s history. Thus, it deserved to be commemorated. However, the rapid multiplication of the number of active field marshals, from one to 13 in a single day, had the effect of diluting the statute of field marshal in the Wehrmacht. Thus, their authority before the Führer was reduced. One of those honored with this dignity, Wilhelm Keitel, was aware of this.

Many explanations for the fall of France can be found. The tragedy of the Great War explains, in a large measure, France’s fate in 1940. During the Great War, France lost more men, proportionally speaking, than any other country. One of the reasons Gamelin was so desirous to reach the Dyle-Breda Line was so that the next war would not be waged on French territory. During World War I, no less than 1.36 million French soldiers were killed and 4.27 million wounded, from a total mobilized force of 8.41 million. This meant, using the words of General Andre Beaufre, ‘Patriotism… had lost much of its magic.’

The extreme polarization in French politics throughout the 1930s, in which fascist groups such as Action Française carried out street fights against those from the left, meant that a deeply split nation went to war. However, in the short term it was the inability to learn the lessons of modern mechanized warfare which led directly to the fall of France. This inability of the French was best illustrated by Corap’s defeat by Guderian at Sedan.

The Nazis saw the fall of France in racial terms, as a surrender of the Mediterranean and Latin race before the superiority of the ruling Aryan race. Even so, the place still remaining for the British Anglo-Saxons was never satisfactorily explained from a racial point of view. Hitler’s growing suspicion that he, and not Manstein, conceived the attack plan certainly contributed to the creation of the pride which, in the end, cost him the war.

The Allies tended to see the fall of France in nationalistic terms, if not also in racial terms. Great animosity was later caused by the critical British attitude towards General Corap and by the French attitude towards the Dunkirk and Normandy evacuations. The French observed that the British adopted a superior attitude towards them concerning the extent of their later collaboration with their German conquerors. Even so, it would have been hard for there to be good Anglo-French relations, when Churchill allowed the Royal Navy to bomb the Vichy Government’s fleet in Oran, Algeria.

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.

After the defeat of France, the British Navy attacked French ships from northern Africa and off the coast of France. The British feared that these ships could be used by the Germans for a terrestrial invasion of Great Britain.

Vichy France is known in history for the fact that its members collaborated with the German occupation. This took place at the state level and must not be confused with the collaboration of certain private French citizens. The collaboration of Vichy France with Nazi Germany led, directly or indirectly, to the death of several tens of thousands of French Jews. Vichy France only lasted for two years. The Allies launched Operation Torch and invaded the western part of north Africa. German forces occupied the south of France to strategically secure the country.

When the Allies launched Operation Overlord and invaded Normandy, France was liberated. This happened after four years of German occupation. When the country was liberated, the provisory French government declared the reinstallation of the Republic in France. The executive power began to recruit people to participate in the battles which would take place, with the advance towards the Rhine and the invasion of Germany by the western Allies. This French army became, by the end of the war, the fourth largest army on the European continent.

Concerning the loss of lives during the battle of France, it is estimated that the Germans lost around 27,000 soldiers. The number of their victims was much smaller than the estimates made before the campaign. The Italians lost approximately 600 soldiers, while the British had approx. 10,000 losses. Most of the victims came from the French army, which suffered over 85,000 deaths.

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.

In main points, France was led, first of all, by the ideology of the Nazi Party and by the German ambassador in France, Otto Abetz. Secondly, France was ruled by the German military governor of France, General Karl von Stülpnagel. The Vichy satellite state was given only the illusion of independence. This brought however a little balm to those whom the authoritarian government had blamed for the catastrophe during the invasion of France. Included in this number were socialists, intellectuals, protestants, syndicalists, professors and especially Jews.

The Vichy government implemented anti-Jewish measures before this was demanded by Berlin. The Vichy authorities refused the German request that Jews be forced to wear yellow stars. They participated in sending non-French Jews to death camps, especially to Auschwitz. The Vichy rulers did this through measures which the Germans didn’t have the means or knowledge to carry out. The regime did not deport French Jews, at least at the beginning, especially if they had fought in the Great War.

In the Occupied Zone, the situation was worse. The gendarmes arrested both French and non-French Jews. Then they were transported, via Bordeaux, to an almost certain death in the east. This was done using trains driven by French drivers and logistics arranged by French policemen. The deportation to Auschwitz of 4,000 Jewish children aged 12 and under, after they had been forcibly separated from their parents, was carried out not by the Gestapo or the SS, but by the same Parisian gendarmes. They acted on the orders of French officials.

Around 77,000 French Jews died in the Holocaust, 20% of the total Jewish population. However, this is a lower percentage than that of other countries such as Belgium or even Holland. This had less to do with the authorities and more with the Jews’ ability to hide in the countryside which was mostly rural. Often, refugees in isolated villages were not denounced to authorities. Countless acts of heroism were carried out: professors who created false paperwork for Jews, non-Jewish students in Paris who wore the yellow star in protest or Catholic priests who protected the Jews.

There were also French citizens who willingly cooperated with the Germans, as there were others who joined the Resistance. Around 30,000 men were shot as hostages or résistants - fighters in the Resistance. However, the great majority of the French population simply tried to carry on with their lives. Around 300,000 and 400,000 French citizens enrolled in different military organizations and in German fascist movements. Even so, they only represented 1% of the entire French population of 40 million people.