Welcome to the WWII Forums! Log in or Sign up to interact with the community.

The Fall of France

Discussion in 'History of France during World War II' started by Jim, Nov 27, 2006.

  1. Jim

    Jim New Member

    Joined:
    Sep 1, 2006
    Messages:
    3,324
    Likes Received:
    11
    via War44
    War came in earnest for the Allies in May 1940, when Hitler invaded France, striking hardest where least expected.

    General Maurice Gamelin, the 68-Year old French commander in chief, was a picture of satisfaction on May 10, 1940. He had just received a note from Prime Minister Paul Reynaud, a long-standing opponent of appeasement who had succeeded Daladier as premier in March that year calling an end to a month’s long feud. Reynaud had written: “Mon general, the battle is engaged; only one thing matters; to win it.' The Germans had at last attacked, and from exactly the direction Gamelin had predicted through southern Holland and across the Flanders plain.
    At 7 am Gamelin activated the French masterstroke. By midday, giant 27 ton Char B tanks of France's First Army Group, led by, General Billotte, were crossing the Belgian frontier. Alongside the French moved the nine divisions of General Lord Gort's British Expeditionary Force (BEF), equipped with Matilda tanks, at that time the most heavily armoured tanks in the world. The Anglo-French armies advanced north through villages and towns filled with cheering Belgian civilians. Overhead circled squadrons of British and French fighters.
    Neither the French nor the British had ever moved such large armoured forces at one time before. Some units had spent the eight months of the so-called 'Phoney War' in static positions along the French-Belgian border. When the order to move came, at least 40 per cent of British vehicles and even more French ones broke down, and large traffic jams developed. Nonetheless, the British entered Brussels that evening, while other units began to deploy along the River Dyle to the east to await the German thrust.

    Advance and retreat: British troops with a Bren carrier take a roadside break in May 1940. Streaming in the opposite direction are Belgian refugees, fleeing the Germans.

    [​IMG]

    Gamelin was yet to realise it, but he had just advanced his most powerful formations into the greatest military trap ever devised. The German plan, nicknamed “Sichelschnitt” ('Sicklecut'), was audacious to the point of recklessness, the sort of scheme that a half crazed corporal, used to gambling on long odds and winning, might come up with. Such a man was Adolf Hitler. His erratic flair coupled with the professional attention to detail of one of his staff officers, Erich von Manstein, shaped the plan in its final form.

    Churchill Becomes Prime Minister

    On May 7, 1940, the House of Commons debated the Norway campaign. Prime Minister Chamberlain was already ill with the still undiagnosed cancer which would kill him six months later, and did not perform well. The 77-year-old Lloyd George, in his last great speech, spoke against him; Churchill's friend, Leo Amery, used Cromwell's words when he dismissed the Long Parliament in 1653: 'Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God go!' When the House divided Chamberlain had won, but more than 30 Conservatives had supported the Opposition. On May 9 Chamberlain offered the Labour leaders, Attlee and Greenwood, places in a coalition government, but they would not serve under him. Determined that the alternative should not be Churchill, Chamberlain chose the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax. He summoned Churchill and Halifax to Downing Street, pointed out that Halifax was the king's choice and asked Churchill if he would serve under him. Churchill was silent. The seconds dragged by until Halifax, a shy man, could stand it no longer. He stammered out that he was willing to serve under Churchill. It was not the result Chamberlain or the king had wanted. But so it was that Churchill became premier on May 10, 1940.

    Top Brass: In January 1940 Churchill, still only First Lord of the Admiralty, stands with (from left to right) Generals Ironside, Georges, Gamelin and Gort.

    [​IMG]
     
  2. Jim

    Jim New Member

    Joined:
    Sep 1, 2006
    Messages:
    3,324
    Likes Received:
    11
    via War44
    The Birth of Blitzkrieg

    Hitler had turned his attention westward when the campaign in Poland ended in autumn 1939. The campaign in the east had ended much sooner than he or anyone else could have hoped; it was all over so quickly that American and British journalists referred to it as a "Blitzkrieg" (Lightning war). Hitler knew that an attack on France would be much more difficult and tried to avoid it. In early October 1939 he sent peace feelers to both France and Britain.

    Unstoppable advance: Hitler's gamble in sending the bulk of his forces through the Ardennes paid off handsomely. German panzers emerging from the Ardennes in May 1940

    [​IMG]


    It was only when these were rejected that he determined to strike west, and the planning for Case Gelb (Plan Yellow) began. He was unhappy with earlier plans, which called for a massive thrust through Belgium and southern Holland, almost exactly the route the German armies had taken in 1914 when they failed to defeat France. In its final form the Hitler-Manstein plan turned the thrust through Belgium and Holland into a subsidiary attack, to be launched by a force designated Army Group B. This assault was designed to draw Billotte's First Army Group into Belgium, well to the south another force, Army Group C, was to keep up pressure on French troops stationed on the Maginot Line, a zone of underground forts which ran along the Franco-German border. The main German thrust was aimed at a 70 mile (110 km) gap between Sedan in the south and the Flanders plain in the north.

    German troops in the Netherlands crossing the Maas on inflatable crafts following the destruction of a bridge.

    [​IMG]

    The troops given the task of passing through the gap - Army Group A. under General Gerd von Rundstedt - comprised about 90 per cent of Germany's panzer (tank) forces In geographical terms the 'gap' was anything but a gap. The Ardennes, an area of heavily forested hills and mountains, was passable only by roads which twisted down river valleys, crossing; and recrossing fast-flowing torrents on narrow stone bridges.

    A plate commemorates the German victory in France.

    [​IMG]

    Down these roads 3000 tanks had just 48 hours to get to the River Meuse, and another 48 hours to cross it.
    All depended on surprise, and surprise they achieved. On May 10, scores of Fiesler Storch light aircraft carried Special Forces of the Grossdeutschland Regiment down the valleys of the Ardennes to seize bridges and crossroads. Many lost their way, but enough landed to confuse Belgian and French cavalry posted there. Meanwhile, throughout May 10 and 11, Army Group A's panzers crawled undetected through the wooded hills.
     
  3. Jim

    Jim New Member

    Joined:
    Sep 1, 2006
    Messages:
    3,324
    Likes Received:
    11
    via War44
    In the Low Countries

    Unaware of the danger closing on his right flank, Billotte concentrated on the situation to his front. The Dutch and Belgians were already in a poor state. German special forces, some disguised in Dutch uniforms, had seized many bridges across the Maas (the Dutch name for the Meuse) while paratroopers and airmobile forces had landed deep in the heart of “Fortress Hollandâ€￾, the area between Amsterdam, Rotterdam and the Hague. In Belgium, a handful of glider borne engineers landed on top of Eban Emael, the strongest fortress in Europe. Using shaped charges, which concentrated explosive power into a white hot jet, they smashed through the reinforced concrete of the roof, and forced the surrender of 1200 surprised Belgian defenders. German troops were now flooding into Belgium, their spearheads moving towards the small city of Gembloux.
    Around midday on May 12, French tanks smashed into the German spearhead, and for the next three days they clashed bloodily in the fields and woods north of Gembloux. Meanwhile, reports filtered through from the section of the Meuse adjacent to the Ardennes that forces there, mostly over age reservists were having difficulties. “There seems to be a serious pinprick at Sedanâ€￾, the French commander in chief in the northeast, General Georges, told Billotte.
    On the morning of May 13, panzer assault forces reached the Meuse between Dinant and Sedan. The defenders poured a withering fire onto the river, killing hundreds of German assault troops as they tried to paddle across in rubber dinghies. At Sedan the battle was going well for the French when suddenly Stukas flew along the river. German mortar crews lobbed coloured Hares across to mark the location of French positions; all day long Stukas screamed down, destroying position after position. The defenders morale began to crack; by evening a rout was in progress.

    Flattened: The ruins of a church lend emphasis to the desolation of Rotterdam, razed by bombs and fire. People hurry along streets, like ants across an open wasteland.
    [​IMG]

    During the night of May 13/14, German engineers worked furiously to erect pontoon bridges across the Meuse. By dawn tanks of the panzer corps, led by Lt General Heinz Guderian, were streaming across. But the French commander in chief, General Gamelin, remained ignorant of the extent of the disaster. During the night of May 14/15 three powerful French armoured divisions moved towards the Meuse; these surely would remove the “serious pinprickâ€￾. The problem was that they were moving on three separate axes. One division, on its way to attack a German bridgehead at Dinant, stopped at dawn on the 15th to refuel. The tanks were deployed over several acres of fields when the Germans arrived. Major General Erwin Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division roared amongst them, shooting up the French tanks at point-blank range.
    The other French formations fared no better. The tanks of the 2nd Armoured Division were moving by rail along the east bank of the Meuse when German panzers got between the trains. At Sedan the tanks of the third division had just begun detraining from flat-cars when Guderian's panzers arrived; it was not so much a battle as a walkover.
    That evening Lt Colonel Guillaut, a staff officer Gamelin had sent to Sedan, reported back: “The disorder of this Army is beyond description ... The Army General Staff has lost its head. It no longer knows even where its divisions are.â€￾ At last the scales fell from Gamelin's eyes. He telephoned the French war minister, the former premier Daladier, who was dining with the US ambassador, William Bullitt. Bullitt heard Daladier exclaim: 'No! What you are telling me is not possible! You are mistaken! It's not possible!' As the full extent of the catastrophe sunk in, Daladier's shoulders sank and tears filled his eyes. He asked Gamelin: 'Then this means the destruction of the French Army?' 'Yes', replied the commander in chief.
    Dawn on May 16 found Paris close to panic. The Germans had broken through at Sedan, and even now must be on their way to the capital. Churchill, who had been British prime minister for just six days, flew to Orly for a meeting with Reynaud and some members of his cabinet. This convinced him that nothing short of a miracle could save France. Back in London that night he ordered the drawing up of contingency plans for the evacuation of the BEF from the Continent.
    Events moved with stunning rapidity. Breaking out from Sedan, Guderian's panzer corps did not head for Paris, but instead swung north-west across the lines of communication of Billotte's First Army Group; it reached the Channel coast at Abbeville on May 20. French command and control disintegrated. General Georges suffered something like a nervous breakdown, as did many of his officers. Gamelin worked out a plan for a counterattack but just as he was about to implement it, he was sacked. Now desperate, Reynaud turned to still living symbols of France's heroic resistance in the Great War. The ambassador to Madrid, the 84-year-old hero of Verdun, Marshal Petain, was recalled to Paris to become vice-president of the council; 73-year-old General Maxime Weygand, now commander in chief in the Levant, was brought back to replace Gamelin. On May 21 Weygand flew to see Billotte. The two men agreed on a combined Anglo-French offensive. Unfortunately, Lord Gort was not present, as no one seemed to know the whereabouts of the BEF's headquarters. A confused situation degenerated into black farce when Billotte was killed later the same night in a car crash.

    Margarine blaze

    On May 14, 1940, Luftwaffe bombers hit central Rotterdam; the results exceeded their wildest expectations. A bomb hit a warehouse crammed with margarine and produced a fire that burned for days. The Dutch government claimed 30000 dead, 30 times the real number, and capitulated.
     
  4. Jim

    Jim New Member

    Joined:
    Sep 1, 2006
    Messages:
    3,324
    Likes Received:
    11
    via War44
    Dynamo from Dunkirk

    Meanwhile, Guderian's panzers had captured Boulogne on May 24 and Calais on May 26. The Germans also struck at the Belgian army. King Leopold was not like Albert, the Belgian monarch of 1914; he had no intention of turning his country into a wasteland for France or Britain. The British Government learned on May 26 that he had decided to capitulate, and Churchill authorised Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the BEF and other Allied forces through Dunkirk. Nobody remembered to tell the French about either decision. On May 28 Paris was once again in shock.

    Getting out: For the second time in the
    20th century, families in northern France pile their belongings onto carts in a mad scramble to escape the invading “Bocheâ€￾.


    [​IMG]


    Leopold had announced the unconditional surrender of the Belgian Army. On the same day, Weygand realised that increased British shipping movements in and out of Dunkirk were, in fact, the evacuation of the BEF. The British press rubbed salt into the wound by creating the "Miracle of Dunkirk", transforming the largest evacuation in history into something approaching a victory. In a purely logistic sense it was an impressive operation. In just eight days - May 28 to June 4 338 000 Allied soldiers were evacuated from the harbour and the open beaches. Most left in destroyers, but about 30 000 were carried across the Channel in hundreds of small boats, some of which had never before left the Thames.
    But the British accounts left out the fact that the evacuation was possible only because of the sacrifice of the French rearguard, 40 000 of whom were taken prisoner. There was, too, some indirect help from the Germans. On May 26, Hitler had ordered a halt to the panzers drive against the southern flank of the Allied pocket so as to allow Goering's Luftwaffe to deliver the coup de grace. A combination of bad weather and the operations of RAF fighters from bases in Kent meant that the Luftwaffe was unable to make good Goering's promises.

    Mass evacuation: Trawlers and pleasure craft played a vital part in conveying soldiers across the Channel from Dunkirk.

    [​IMG]

    The British were going and would not be back for many months, certainly not before January 1941: Churchill made this clear on May 31, when he flew to Paris for another meeting with the French Government. Reynaud argued that the British could at least commit RAF Fighter Command to what he called the “battle for Franceâ€￾. Churchill prevaricated. Four days later he addressed the House of Commons, concluding with the rousing lines: 'We shall fight them on the beaches ... we shall never surrender.' To Reynaud's cabinet this seemed like hollow boasting. It was France that was fighting virtually alone.
    The Germans resumed their offensive on June 5. Four days later panzers reached the Seine west of Paris. On June 10 Mussolini broadcast Italy's declaration of war on Britain and France. The next day Churchill again flew to meet the French Government, now based outside Orleans. The discussions verged on the poisonous. Weygand and Reynaud demanded the complete commitment of RAF Fighter Command to the battle for France. Churchill refused, and suggested instead that the French should prepare to conduct a guerrilla campaign within their country while carrying on the war from French North Africa. He was utterly sincere; within a few weeks he would be preparing to do much the same thing in London. But to the Frenchmen he was flying back to safety.
    Weygand and Petain, convinced of the perfidy of all Anglo-Saxons, wanted an immediate armistice with the Germans, but Reynaud was against the idea.
    On June 14, German forces entered Paris. Two days later, at the suggestion of General Charles de Gaulle in London, Churchill proposed the formation of an Anglo French union. When this was not accepted by the French cabinet, Reynaud resigned. Petain formed the new government and opened negotiations with Germany via the Spanish ambassador to France.
    Newsreel film of Hitler waiting for the French to sign an armistice showed him stamping his left foot enthusiastically. British propagandists later looped the stills of the film to make it look as if Hitler was dancing a jig. He was not, but that was certainly the way he felt. On June 21, shortly after Hitler had met the French delegation in the Forest of Compiegne in the same railway carriage in which the Armistice had been signed in 1918; Hitler ordered the carriage to be blown up.
     
  5. Jim

    Jim New Member

    Joined:
    Sep 1, 2006
    Messages:
    3,324
    Likes Received:
    11
    via War44
    The Germans in Paris

    The American William L. Shirer, Berlin correspondent for CBS, drove into Paris on June 17, 1940. It was a beautiful day, but nothing (thought Shirer, who knew Paris well) was as it should have been: "First shock: the streets are utterly deserted, the shops closed, the shutters down tight over all the windows. It was the emptiness that got you ... Now before us, the familiar view. The Place de la Concorde, the Seine, the Chambre des Deputes, over which a giant Swastika flag flies ... Demaree [a friend) says the panic in Paris was indescribable. Everyone lost his head. The government gave no lead. People were told to scoot, and at least three million out of the five million in the city ran, ran without baggage, literally ran on their feet towards the south. The inhabitants are bitter at their government, which in the last days, from all i hear, completely collapsed. It even forgot to tell the people until too late that Paris would not be defended."

    June 18: "Most of the German troops act like naive tourists, and this has proved a pleasant surprise to the Parisians. It seems funny, but every German soldier carries a camera. I saw them by the thousands today, photographing Notre-Dame, the Arc de Triomphe, the Invalides. Thousands of German soldiers congregate all day long at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where the flame still burns under the Arc. They bare their blond heads and stand there gazing:"￾



    The Fuhrer in Paris: On June 28, 1940, Hitler made a three-hour visit to the French capital. According to Albert Speer, he was at heart like any other tourist. He told Speer: "It was the dream of my life to be permitted to see Paris. I cannot say how happy I am to have that dream fulfilled today."￾

    [​IMG]
     

Share This Page