France, Nazi Invasion of

Encyclopedia of Invasions and Conquests: From Ancient Times to the Present. Editor: Paul Davis. 2nd edition. Millerton, NY: Grey House Publishing, 2006.

While still fighting in Norway, the Nazis directed their attention to Germany's traditional enemy, France, in the spring of 1940. Since the breakup of Charlemagne's Holy Roman Empire, the rulers of the principalities of north-central Europe had been at odds with the rulers of France. This situation was at its worst in the 1870 Prussian invasion of France when German forces embarrassed the French army and imposed a harsh peace with severe reparations. It repeated itself in the 1914 German invasion of France, in which France came within a hair's breadth of another humiliation. The Germans provoked the wrath of the world at that time for violating Belgian neutrality at the start of their assault, but they had found it necessary to break international law in order to gain a strategic advantage over the French defensive plans. Ultimate French victory in World War I brought about a resolve to be fully prepared for any future German aggression, and this manifested itself in the construction of the Maginot Line, a string of fortresses guarding the Franco-German frontier. This defense, coupled with a large air force and an army equipped with almost as many tanks as its opponents could muster, made France feel secure despite the diplomatic victories and military successes scored by Hitler through the late 1930s.

There were shortcomings in the French strategy. First, though the Maginot Line was universally regarded as impregnable, the string of forts did not stretch all the way across the French border, and thus failed to protect France completely. These gaps occurred not only because of the prohibitive cost of construction, but because a fortress line all the way to the English Channel would necessitate building forts that pointed not at Germany but at neutral Belgium, hardly a favorable public relations move. The French tried to include the Belgians in the construction effort, but with no success. In addition, though the French army was large on paper, it was neither well motivated nor well led. Many units dedicated to manning defensive works were unable to operate in the fast-moving warfare that eventually took place. Late-developing defensive plans worked out by the French high command were not communicated to lower-ranking officers, and therefore failed to be properly implemented. Even as German forces were massing for the assault in early May, much of the French army was on leave. Further, France's equipment was no better than, and in many cases inferior to, that of the Germans, especially in the air force.

Therefore, when Germany launched its invasion on the morning of 10 May 1940, France and its allies were only partially prepared. They were also surprised by the German decision to disregard the neutrality not only of Belgium but also of Holland. Hitler wanted to control the coastline completely, so the Dutch became victims as well. The first attacks were launched against Dutch airfields, where the Germans repeated the successes they had scored early in the Polish invasion, destroying most of the aircraft on the ground. They advanced against little organized resistance achieved a major victory by securing the huge fortress at Eben Emael along the Dutch-Belgian border by the first-ever use of glider troops. As the Dutch retreated before the onslaught, the German air force began pounding the port city of Rotterdam. When the Germans continued their advances and also threatened aerial destruction of Amsterdam, the Dutch had had enough. They laid down their arms after four days of battle.

By this time, the Germans were making their way into Belgium and beginning to meet some French resistance. Allied defensive plans began to be implemented, and in some cases showed effectiveness, but the effort suffered because of a lack of coordination among French, Belgian, and British troops who had arrived to assist their allies during the "phony war" period (October 1939-April 1940). The Germans were able to take advantage of the confusion and exploit the capture of a few intact bridges across the Albert Canal and the Meuse River. As more French forces were sent to assist, they unknowingly fell into a German trap. The Nazi plan called for an attack through Holland into the flat coastal plain of Belgium, which would draw the bulk of the Allied forces. When these had been committed, the Germans would launch an armored thrust through the town of Sedan, site of the major French defeat in 1870. The French were unprepared for this, believing the wooded terrain too difficult for armor to negotiate. The Germans knew better, and aimed their thrust through the Ardennes forest, just north of the final Maginot Line defenses in an area held only by poor-quality reservists. By 12 May the Germans had reached Sedan with only light resistance and, after a devastating aerial attack, they captured the high ground west of the Meuse River late the following day. With the bulk of the French and all of the British and Belgian armies to the north, the pathway was open for the armored blitzkrieg to show its effectiveness.

The cumbersome French chain of command suffered from a shake-up at headquarters in the midst of the campaign and the accidental death of the general commanding the French First Army in Belgium. The Germans moved too quickly for the French to react; even if France could have reacted, there would not have been enough time for the Allied forces to respond cooperatively. At one point, French forces were ordered to withdraw from Belgium, and the British and Belgian generals learned of it only by accident. The one overwhelming aspect of the German invasion was its speed, and the Allied forces were never able to adapt to it, steeped as they were in the lessons of defense learned in World War I. Once past the Ardennes, German tank units raced northwestward for the Channel. They reached St. Quentin, the halfway point, on 18 May; the same day, the Belgian city of Antwerp fell. The French government had already been considering the consequences. On 16 May, the French met with Winston Churchill, who had taken control of the British government six days earlier, and admitted they had no strategic reserve and could no longer mount an active defense. The French begged Churchill for as many troops and aircraft as he could spare, a request he ultimately denied. He could see that France was falling, and a further commitment of British resources would make the defense of his own country that much more difficult. On 19 May the French government replaced their commander in chief, Maurice Gamelin, with General Weygand, a 73-year-old veteran of the command structure that had saved France in 1914. He promised nothing when he took the job, which was a wise decision because the next day, news arrived that German tanks had reached the Channel at Abbeville. The French First Army, along with the British Expeditionary Force and the remnants of the Belgian army, was now isolated.

The rapid armored movement had succeeded in splitting the French military, as expected, but it put the Germans in a precarious position because their infantry had not been able to keep up and consolidate the ground. British and French attempts to seize the opportunity failed because their counterattacks were too slow or too weak, and they scored only occasional, moderate successes. During the remainder of May, the Allied forces in Belgium slowly crumbled under the weight of the German advance. The Belgians and British staged a hard-fought withdrawal, but they could only withdraw toward either the German armored columns or the Channel. By 26 May the British had been forced to the coastal city of Dunkirk, where they began a miraculous withdrawal across the ocean under the noses of German troops. They were assisted in this operation by Hitler himself. Already overly worried about the condition of his tanks, he responded favorably to a suggestion from the chief of Germany's air force, Hermann Goering. The air force, or Luftwaffe, could bomb the British into submission, Goering claimed, and there would be no need to risk the armor. Hitler agreed, and ordered the assault on Dunkirk to halt.

The British had been throwing together Operation Dynamo over the previous few days and had to draft every available boat to assist. When the port cities of Boulogne and Calais fell to the Germans, the harbor facilities at Dunkirk were damaged, and only shallow-draft boats could get right up to the coast and take soldiers onboard. Every yacht, pleasure craft, and ferry boat along the southeast coast of England was pressed into service to aid in the evacuation. Under cover of occasional bad weather and the effective action of the Royal Air Force, the operation continued around the clock for nine days, by which time more than a third of a million men left France for England. The operation had to be called off with some 40,000 men left behind, but the bulk of the British army, as well as refugees from the French and Belgian armies, lived to fight another day.

After an unbroken string of successes, Hitler had finally committed a grave error. Had he allowed the German army to finish off the troops in the ever-shrinking pocket around Dunkirk, which they certainly could have, Britain would have had to build a new army virtually from the ground up. As it was, the British now had a large force of veterans around which to expand their numbers and continue the fight.

Hitler did not see that at the time; he was too busy celebrating the victory on the Continent. Belgium unconditionally surrendered on 28 May, and though the French fought on, they were doomed. German forces attacked southward along a broad front and overcame or bypassed most of the French opposition. To compound the French problems, Mussolini brought Italy into the war on 10 June, although Italy did not invade until 20 June. Threatened by imminent encirclement, on 11 June, the commander of French forces in Paris declared it an open city, and the Germans entered it three days later. On 16 June, a new French government was formed at Bordeaux under the leadership of World War I hero Marshal Philippe Petain, and the next day he ordered the French to stop fighting. An armistice was signed on 22 June, and 400,000 French soldiers surrendered.

The French expected the worst, but it did not occur. The Germans offered lenient terms, which the French were glad to accept, especially when they remembered the cost of defeat at German hands in 1870-1871. Many blamed Britain for having abandoned France at Dunkirk and used the British as a scapegoat for the defeat. German occupation forces did little pillaging or looting, and even left the southern half of France apparently unoccupied.

The "unoccupied" section was under the authority of a French government in Vichy led by Petain, a role into which the Germans forced him. Actually a puppet government, the Vichy regime gave the impression of independence for the sake of France's overseas possessions. The Germans hoped that the French possessions would continue to take orders from home, orders that would actually come from Germany. The only resistance to this action came from a young French general named Charles de Gaulle. He had escaped France when the British left, and in London announced that he was forming a French government-in-exile. He would lead the French resistance that would ultimately free his country, he claimed, and he ordered French possessions around the world to ignore the Vichy government and resist their orders. Most French people, both inside and outside France, had no idea who de Gaulle was, whereas everyone knew who Petain was: the hero of the great battle of Verdun in World War I. This set the stage for a number of problems that Allied forces would have to face in the future. Whenever French-owned territory was attacked, such as Algeria was in November 1942, would the inhabitants listen to Petain or de Gaulle? Would they resist or cooperate? It varied. Under the direction of the Vichy government, the French administration in Indochina gave up control of that province to the Japanese in 1940 when Germany and Italy brought Japan into the Axis fold. Those who responded to de Gaulle's leadership and resisted, in France and in the colonies, became the first French people to support the man who would dominate French politics and society for two decades after the war ended.

Other than the normal lack of amenities that exists in any occupied country, the French did not suffer extensively until the Allied invasion in the summer of 1944 obliged the Germans to seriously enforce their will on the population. Only French Jews felt the wrath of Nazi policies on a regular basis. Still, an underground movement, the Maquis, did creditable work in harassing the German forces in France and offered considerable assistance during the Normandy invasion.

Postwar France, like postwar Britain, found itself a second-rate power. Without an empire, with only the memory of a humiliating defeat and a long occupation, France had little but faded glory to fall back on. Only de Gaulle's obstinacy maintained French prestige in international relations, and the chauvinism he practiced can still be seen to an extent in the French attitude toward their neighbors on the Continent and in their relations with the United States.