Battle of France

Renault R35 moving to the front towards Sedan.

Renault R35 moving to the front towards Sedan.

This article is about a campaign during World War II.

Battle of France (the Campaign of France) (in German historiography Westfeldzug), was all the German military operations that led to the invasion of France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg during World War II. The campaign consisted of two major military operations called by the German high command, Fall Gelb (“yellow plane”) and Fall Rot (“red case”). The first operation, which began on May 10, 1940 at the end of the so-called “strange war”, refers to the German invasion of Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and France. While the second step refers aggiramento the Maginot Line and the consolidation of the advance into France.

 

The Wehrmacht, contrary to predictions allies, committed the majority of their armored forces in the Ardennes with the operation said Sichelschnitt (“stroke of the sickle”), thereby circumventing the Maginot Line and catching the Allies unprepared. On June 10, Italy declared war on France, June 14, while Paris was occupied by German troops, and the French government in Bordeaux repaired. France capitulated on June 25. The war in the west ended with a spectacular German victory, achieved thanks to the wide use of armored and mechanized forces, cooperation between ground forces and the Luftwaffe, and the launching of paratroopers behind enemy lines.

 

Signed the peace, France was divided into a military zone of occupation in the north and along the Atlantic coast, while to the south was established a collaborationist government, the Republic of Vichy. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was evacuated from France during the Battle of Dunkirk in Operation Dynamo, along with several French units that had escaped encirclement, during the early stages of the German attack, and that formed the core of the Free French forces under the command of Charles de Gaulle.

 

France was occupied for four years during which it was built a powerful defense system, the Atlantic Wall, in order to prevent the Allied landings in continental Europe. Only with the Normandy landings of June 1944, began the campaign to free France from the Nazi regime.

 

Prelude

After the Polish campaign the previous year and the so-called “strange war”, it was clear that after the victory of Nazi Germany to the east would take all its military power in the west. In the plans of Hitler’s attack was to be launched on November 12, 1939, but his generals were able to convince him to postpone next year’s invasion. In April 1940 the Germans launched an attack on “preventative” against neutral Denmark and Norway (Operation Weserübung), mainly for strategic issues, given that Norway was especially rich in resources needed for the war industry and that its German bases were most appropriate to accommodate the German U-boats in the clashes in the Atlantic. In response to these moves was prepared an allied contingent (consisting largely with British forces, with the help of French and Polish forces) that was sent in support of the Scandinavian countries (see Country of Norway).

 

In fact the governments of France and Great Britain had been negatively surprised by the rapid defeat of Poland, and new military tactics used by the Wehrmacht. In the military plans of the two countries was expected that Germany, as in the First World War, it would be working on two fronts, resulting in a breakdown of their forces, thereby allowing Allied forces to better contain the probable German attack to the west. According to the predictions of the Supreme Commander of the French army, General Maurice Gamelin, the German attack would take place as the Schlieffen Plan of the previous conflict, and for that reason it was popular, and in some political circles, and in public, the belief that a strategy based on a solid defensive line better strike an agreement with the demands of a modern war. This was implemented for a large defense complex, the Maginot Line, while the better elements of the French and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) were located in the north, the area of the river Dyle, and once the shot German offensive, these forces would move to Belgium and the Netherlands.

 

Just as he thought the French general staff, the original Fall Gelb foresaw the invasion of Belgium, Holland and maybe then head south along the English Channel to Normandy, and thence to Paris. However an accident incurred a German plane that was carrying some German officers with plans of invasion (the plane lost in fog and was forced to land in Belgium), Hitler forced to rethink their strategies. The new German plan, even if initially hampered Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), was developed by Erich von Manstein, Chief of Staff of Army Group A, Gerd von Rundstedt, with the help of Guderian, the father of Panzertruppen German: the plan was that the armored troops of Army Group A, through Luxembourg, would invest the Meuse between Sedan and Dinant, breaking through the French defenses in the Ardennes Forest, considered (only the French command) for the conformation of terrain, inaccessible to armored troops, and from there go up to Boulogne and Calais on the English Channel, thus encircling the allied forces deployed between France and Belgium, the new plan was called Sichelschnitt (sickle stroke), despite what the military documents Germans often encountered the original name. But we must take into account that the “conversion” command to the new German tactics (Blitzkrieg) was not complete within the OKW fact remained strong mistrust towards the defensive, and logistical problems that the new plan would give, in particular feared for the procurement of weapons and fuel Stormtroopers (the lack of supplies had created serious problems during the previous crossing of the Bulge during World War I) and for the display of the flanks of the armored columns to attack from the sides; Guderian argued instead that the speed and depth of the attack would have prevented the enemy to regroup.

 

The forces

The Wehrmacht took on the Western Front three army groups: Army Group A (Gerd von Rundstedt) with 45 including 7 armored divisions, Army Group B (Fedor von Bock) with 29 divisions including 3 battleships, Army Group C (Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb) with 19 divisions. This third group was holding a defensive position on the Maginot Line, while the main offensive was launched by Army Group A in the Ardennes, with the support of Army Group B in the meantime invaded Belgium and Holland. In front of them, about 100 French divisions, many of which were poorly armed, in addition to the BEF, with 15 divisions and 10 Belgian Dutch. A clear advantage in terms numerically, which was neutralized by some key factors: the new doctrine of “Blitzkrieg”, which aimed to find a single Schwerpunkt (decisive point) in which overwhelm the opponent, not to mention the outdated military doctrines of the French and fact that the Dutch were not included in the chain of command ally. Moreover, the allies were unable to counter effectively the German air power, air whose domain was crucial for the successful operations of collapse. The French air force, terribly neglected over the years 30, had against the Luftwaffe about 1200 bellicamente efficient airplanes, including a few well-bombers. Almost all French models were outdated or otherwise outclassed by the Germans pariclasse. The British air forces in support of the BEF were also inadequate in number to affect the transactions.

 

The invasion of the Benelux and northern France

According to Allied plans, the Germans would take at least 10 days to overcome the myriad of canals and rivers in the Netherlands. The attack was preceded Wehrmacht Holland, however, the first airborne operation of history: May 10 nuclei Fallschirmjäger (paratroopers) of the German Air Division VII and Division XXII of the landing, under the command of Kurt Student, were parachuted on the main bridges over the Meuse, in the streets of Rotterdam and the Belgian fortress of Eben-Emael, occupying all the key objectives, thereby facilitating the advance of Army Group B.

 

The Allied command reacted immediately by sending forces to the north in what seemed, by Ally, a remake of the Schlieffen Plan: in fact the French pushing north-east of their best armed, without adequate air cover, and lifeline very weak, they unwittingly helped to further the German advance. In fact, the Luftwaffe was already “trained” by the operations in the Spanish Civil War and the Polish campaign, it easily because of the Anglo-French air force, thereby preventing the allied commands to obtain precise information about the movements of German armored forces.

 

Meanwhile the German parachute forces, despite the capture of all targets (in particular the towns of Ypenburg, Ockenburg, and Valkenburg), were heavily engaged in Rotterdam, where they faced a counterattack of two Dutch infantry divisions: the clashes, particularly bloody resulted in the deaths and capture of 1,745 Fallschirmjäger, of which 1,200 were conducted in England.

 

Despite strong resistance, the Netherlands surrendered on May 15, although some pockets of resistance Zealand continued to resist.

 

In Belgium, the fort of Eben-Emael, defended by 780 men, was occupied after 30 hours of fierce fighting, despite the attempt to reach the fort by the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), which together with the French Second Army, was rejected by the forces of the German Sixth Army, von Reichenau.

 

“The gamble of the Ardennes”

At 5:35 on May 10, while group B Army penetrated the Netherlands, took the operation Sichelschnitt (“stroke of the sickle”): the Twelfth Army of Wilhelm List and Panzergruppe K von Kleist broke at the junction between the Second and the Ninth French Army. On May 12, von Kleist Sedan reached the Meuse, on the right bank of the river was occupied by Guderian, while further north Rommel reached Dinant. Although the French had blown up all bridges, under the protection of Stukas and artillery units of sappers and grenadiers managed to cross the Meuse at Sedan, then consolidating the beachhead and preparing the way for armored vehicles. On 14 May two French tank battalions attacked the German forces of the bridgehead, but were repulsed by the first panzer who had crossed the river, suddenly, then, between the rows French produced an effect of collective hallucination, which created the illusion of already be seen in front of the German panzers.

 

On the evening of May 14 General Corap did withdraw 16 kilometers of its facilitating the Ninth Army Corps XLI German crossing the Meuse at Monthermé. Corap deposed, the new commander, General Giraud could not fix the error, so that even the French Second Army of General Charles Huntziger, remaining exposed on the left flank, was forced to retreat: between Sedan and Dinant seven armored divisions began to advance great career in breach of 50 km which was opened in the French front.

 

The Blitzkrieg

The battle of France was addressed by employing the best German Blitzkrieg tactics, already initially tested in Poland: the defeat of the enemy by means of a fast encirclement strategy, executed by mechanized forces, leading to operational failure. Von Manstein certainly had in mind a strategic encirclement, however, the three dozen infantry divisions that followed the Panzer Corps were not there just to consolidate the gains. It was actually the opposite, in the eyes of the High Command of the German Panzer Corps were to play a limited role. Their motorized infantry contingents would secure the crossing of rivers and tanks regiments had conquered a dominant position, consolidating the gains and allowing infantry divisions to position themselves for the real battle: perhaps a classic Kesselschlacht, if the enemy had remained to the north, perhaps a combat encounter, if he tried to flee to the south. In both cases an enormous mass of German divisions, both armored and infantry, had cooperated to defeat the enemy, in accordance with current doctrine. The Panzer Corps, however, should not cause the collapse of the enemy alone, but would have to wait for reinforcements of infantry.

 

However the day was 16 Rommel, Guderian, in an act of open insubordination against their superiors, disobeyed direct orders and explicit attack pushed their divisions many kilometers to the west, as quickly as possible. Guderian reached Marle, 80 kilometers from Sedan, Rommel across the Sambre at Le Cateau, a hundred kilometers from his bridgehead, Dinant. While nobody knew the exact location of Rommel (he had advanced so rapidly as to be beyond the reach of radio contact, earning his 7. Panzer Division the nickname Gespenster-Division, “Ghost Division”), an enraged von Kleist flew to Guderian on the morning of May 17 and after a heated argument relieved him from all positions. However, von Rundstedt, commander of Army Group A, would not hear anything and refused to confirm the order.

 

It had proved difficult to explain the actions of both generals. Rommel was forced to commit suicide by Hitler before the war ended, and therefore was never able to clarify its behavior in complete freedom. After the war, Guderian claimed to have acted on his own, practically inventing Blitzkrieg instantly. Many historians had ever since regarded this as an empty claim, denying any radical division within the German operational doctrine of the time, minimizing the conflict as a mere difference of opinion on the timing and pointing out that Guderian’s claim does not match his role was said to be the prophet of Blitzkrieg even before the war.

 

However, its pre-war writings explicitly rejected the only strategic encirclement by motorized forces as generally sufficient to cause the collapse operation. Moreover, there was no explicit reference to this tactic in the German battle plans, the blitzkrieg should be seen as a doctrine rather than as a school of thought inside the German army which had its greatest exponents in some “young” general (while the average age of the high command of the Wehrmacht was 65 Guderian had “only” 52 years, Sepp Dietrich 48) were often opposed by more conservative elements within the German General Staff.

 

The reaction Allied

The Panzerkorps slowed their advance considerably but had put in a very vulnerable position: they were pushed too far forward, over-stretching supply lines, and suffering as a result of lack of fuel and spare parts, since many tanks were unusable. There was now a dangerous gap between them and the infantry attack determined by a large and fresh mechanized force could have cut them off and wipe them out.

 

The French High Command, however, was recovering from the shock of the sudden offensive and was struck by a sense of defeat. On the morning of May 15, the French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud telephoned the newly appointed Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Winston Churchill and said: “We have been defeated. We fought and we have lost the battle.” Churchill, attempting to console Reynaud, reminded him of when the Germans had broken through Allied lines during the First World War then being arrested. However, Reynaud was inconsolable.

 

Churchill flew to Paris on May 16. He immediately recognized the seriousness of the situation when he observed that the French government was already burning its archives and preparing for the evacuation of the capital. In an eerie encounter with the French commanders, Churchill asked General Gamelin, “Where is the strategic reserve?” who had saved Paris in the first world war. “There,” said Gamelin. Following Churchill described the acceptance of this as the most shocking news of his life. Churchill asked Gamelin when and where the general proposed to launch a counterattack on the sides of the bulk of German forces. The replica was Gamelin “inferiority in numbers, inferiority in the equipment, methods inferiority.”

 

Gamelin was right; most of the reserve divisions were involved. The only armored division still in reserve, the second DCR, attacked on May 16. However the armored divisions of French infantry, the Divisions Cuirassées de Réserve, were despite their name very specialized breakthrough units, optimized for attacking fortified positions, could be quite useful for the defense, if entrenched, but had little utility for a fight in the open: could not execute tactics combined infantry-tanks as they had an important motorized infantry component; had poor tactical mobility because their Char B1 bis, the main model that had been invested half the budget for the tanks, had to refuel twice a day. The second DCR sided so a protective grid, whose sub-units fought bravely, but without a strategic effect.

 

Of course, some of the best units around the north had already had some small clashes with the Germans, had been kept in reserve could be used in a decisive counter. But they had lost a lot of combat power by simply moving toward the northeast; hurrying south again would cost even more. The most powerful of the Allied divisions, I DLM (Division Légère Mécanique, “light” in this case meaning “mobile”), were deployed near Dunkirk on May 10, having moved his units advanced 220 kilometers north-east, behind the Dutch city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, in 32 hours. Finding that the Dutch had already retreated northward, was withdrawn and diverted to the south. When he met the Germans again, of its 80 wagons SOMUA S.35, only three were functional, the others had stopped mainly due to failures.

 

Nevertheless, a radical decision to retreat south, avoiding confrontation, he could probably save most of the mechanized and motorized divisions, including the BEF. This would have meant leaving about thirty infantry divisions to their fate. The mere loss of Belgium would have been politically, a huge blow. Moreover, the Allies were uncertain about the intentions of the Germans who threatened the advance in four different directions: north, to directly attack the main force allied to the west, to isolate it and to the south, to occupy Paris and even to the east, to move behind the Maginot Line. The French decided to create a new reserve, including a reconstituted Seventh Army commanded by General Touchon, using all the units that could be diverted from the Maginot Line to block the way towards the French capital.

 

Colonel Charles de Gaulle, in command of the Fourth Armored Division, assembled in haste, tried to launch an attack from the south, getting some success that later would give him considerable fame and a promotion to Brigadier General. The attacks of de Gaulle, of 17 and 19 May, which seemed to save Paris for several weeks, produce few fruits when the reinforced German army forced him to retreat to the south-west.

 

Towards the Channel

While the Allies did little to threaten them or escape the threat they represented, the Panzer Corps employed the days of 17 and 18 May to refuel, repair wagons and resting the men. On 18 May Rommel forced the French to give up Cambrai, merely feinting an armored attack. That day, the Prime Minister Reynaud sent a terse telegram, however, testified that the drama of the situation:

 

“Mr. Churchill, we have lost the battle!”

 

 

On May 19 the German High Command was very confident: the Allies seemed unable to handle events. Apparently seemed to be no serious threat from the south – indeed General Franz Halder, Chief of Army Staff, suggested the idea of attacking Paris immediately to force France to leave the war in one fell swoop. The allied troops were retreating to the north towards the river Scheldt, with their right flank that gave way to the Division III and Panzer IV. The next day the Panzer Corps resumed their move, they did breach through the weak British Territorial Division XVIII and XXIII, occupied Amiens and secured control of the bridge west of the river Somme at Abbeville isolating the British forces, French, Belgian and Dutch to the north. On the evening of May 20 reconnaissance unit of the Second Panzer Division reached Noyelles, a hundred miles to the west. There he could see the estuary of the Somme, which flowed into the English Channel.

 

The Plan Weygand

Also on 20 May, the French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud dismissed Maurice Gustave Gamelin for his failure to contain the German offensive, and replaced him with Maxime Weygand, who immediately attempted to devise new tactics to contain the Germans. More urgent, however, was his strategic task: he conceived Weygand Plan, ordering to isolate the spearhead of the German armored forces combined with attacks from the north and south. On paper this seemed a feasible mission: the corridor through which von Kleist’s two Panzer Corps had moved to the coast was only 40 kilometers wide. In theory, Weygand had sufficient forces to execute the plan: to the north the three DLM and the BEF, south of the DCR IV de Gaulle. These units had a workforce of about 1,200 tanks and Panzer divisions were again very vulnerable, with the mechanical condition of their vehicles in rapid deterioration. But the conditions of the Allied divisions was far worse. Both south and the north could actually collect only a handful of tanks. Nevertheless Weygand flew to Ypres on May 21, to try to convince the Belgians and the BEF of the validity of his plan.

 

That same day a detachment of the British Expeditionary Force under the command of Major-General Harold Edward Franklyn had already attempted to at least delay the German offensive, perhaps to isolate the spearhead. The result was the Battle of Arras, who demonstrated the ability of the British Matilda tanks, heavily armored (anti-tank weapons from German 37mm proved ineffective against them) and whose offensive routed two German regiments. The panic that resulted (the German commander at Arras, Erwin Rommel, reported being attacked by hundreds of tanks, while only 58 were used in battle) stopped the German offensive and allowed to Weygand, in Paris, to deploy more units to the south. The German reinforcements forced the British to Vimy Ridge the following day.

 

Although this attack was not part of any coordinated attempt to destroy the Panzer Corps, the German High Command was panicked much of Rommel himself. For a moment they feared being killed in an ambush and a thousand Allied tanks were about to smash their elite forces. But the next day had regained confidence and ordered Guderian’s XIX Panzer Corps to push north, on the Channel ports of Boulogne and Calais, in the back of the British and Allied forces in the north.

 

That same day, May 22, the French tried to attack from the south east of Arras, with infantry and tanks, but by that time the German infantry had gathered and the attack, with some difficulty, he was stopped by the Division of XXXII Infantry.

 

Weygand, trying to retake control of the French army, flew to the front, but was shot down and lost contact with the command. The commander of the British Expeditionary Force was left without orders for four days.

 

Only on May 24 the first attack could be launched from the south, when the seventh DIC, supported by a handful of tanks, failed to recapture Amiens. This was a pretty weak effort, however, the May 27 The British Armoured Division, hastily transported from England, attacked Abbeville in force but was defeated with heavy losses. The next day de Gaulle tried again with the same results. But now, even complete success could save your forces to the north.

 

In the early hours of 23 May Gort ordered a retreat from Arras. He had no faith in the Weygand plan nor in the latter’s proposal to at least try to keep a bag on the Flemish coast, a Réduit de Flandres. The ports required to supply such a foothold were already threatened. That day the Second Panzer Division assaulted Boulogne and Calais X Panzer Division attacked. Boulogne interest until May 25, supported by destroyers evacuated 4,368 men. Calais, though strengthened by the arrival of the Royal Tank Regiment III, equipped with Cruiser and XXX Guards Brigade, fell to the Germans on May 27.

 

While I Panzer Division was ready to attack Dunkirk on May 25, Hitler ordered it to stop on 24. This remained one of the most controversial decisions of the entire war. Hermann Göring had convinced Hitler that the Luftwaffe could prevent an evacuation; von Rundstedt had warned that any further effort by the armored divisions would lead to a longer period of supply and maintenance. Attaching the city was not part of the normal duties of the armored units under any operational doctrine.

 

Surrounded, the British launched the Operation Dynamo and Operation Ariel, evacuating Allied forces from the northern pocket in Belgium and the Pas-de-Calais, from 26 May. The British position was complicated by the plan of King Leopold III of Belgium, to surrender the next day, then moved to May 28.

 

The yield Allied

The best and most modern French armies had been sent north and lost acerchiamento result, the French had lost most of their heavy weaponry and their best armored formations. Weygand was found bleeding on the front of a front stretching from Sedan to the Channel, and the French government had begun to lose confidence in the likely defeat of the Germans, in particular because the British forces were evacuating from the continent, particularly symbolic event for the morale French. On 10 June, Italy declared war on France and Great Britain.

 

The Germans renewed their offensive, June 5, on the Somme. An attack on Paris led by panzer broke scarce reserved that Weygand had put between the Germans and the capital, and June 10 the French government fled to Bordeaux, declaring Paris an open city. Churchill returned to France on June 11, meeting the French War Council in Briare. The French, obviously panicked, Churchill wanted to concede that every available fighter aircraft for the air battle over France, with only 25 squadrons remaining, Churchill refused, believing that the decisive battle would be fought on Britain (see battle of ‘ England). Churchill, at that meeting, he obtained the promise of Admiral François Darlan that the French fleet would not fall into German hands.

 

The fighting continued east until the Pretelat general, commander of the French II Corps, was not obliged to surrender, on June 22.

 

Consequences

France formally surrendered on June 25, and Hitler wanted peace was signed in the same railway carriage where the armistice was signed in 1918 which had marked the end of WWI. The new armistice was signed at Compiegne and then the car was moved to Berlin to celebrate the victory, however, being destroyed during Allied bombing on the German capital. Paul Reynaud, the French Prime Minister, having signed an agreement with Great Britain with which they undertook not to establish a separate peace with Nazi Germany, he resigned and was replaced by Marshal Philippe Petain, who was in charge of negotiating an armistice with Germany.

 

The armistice terms

Hitler did not intend to humiliate the French too, so make sure, if the alliance, at least the neutrality that kept in cooperation with Great Britain to exploit French colonial resources. This softness was justified by the fact that Germany would not have been able to capture directly the immense French colonial empire, and it seemed more appropriate to remain overseas territories administered directly by the French.

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