Battle of France – 1940

In the Second World War, the Battle of France, also known as the Fall of France, was the successful German invasion of France and the Low Countries, beginning on 10 May 1940, defeating primarily French forces. The battle consisted of two main operations. In the first, Fall Gelb (Case Yellow), German armoured units pushed through the Ardennes to cut off and surround the Allied units that had advanced into Belgium. When British and adjacent French forces were pushed back to the sea by the highly mobile and well organized German operation, the British government decided to evacuate the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) as well as several French divisions at Dunkirk in Operation Dynamo.

After the withdrawal of the BEF, Germany launched a second operation, Fall Rot (Case Red), which was commenced on 5 June 1940. While the depleted French forces put up stiff initial resistance, German air superiority and armoured mobility overwhelmed the remaining French forces. German armour outflanked the Maginot Line and pushed deep into France with German forces arriving in an undefended Paris on 14 June. This caused a chaotic period of flight for the French government and effectively ended organized French military resistance. German commanders finally met with French officials on June 18 with the goal of the new French government being an armistice with Germany. Chief among the new government leaders was Marshal Philippe Pétain, newly appointed Prime Minister and one of the supporters of seeking an armistice with Germany.

On 22 June, an armistice was signed between France and Germany, which resulted in a division of France whereby Germany would occupy the north and west, Italy would control a small Italian occupation zone in the southeast, and an unoccupied zone, the zone libre, would be governed by the newly formed Vichy government led by Marshal Pétain. France remained under Axis occupation until the liberation of the country after the Allied landings in 1944.

Background

Maginot Line

During the 1930s, the French had built the Maginot Line, fortifications along the border with Germany. The line was intended to deter a German invasion across the Franco-German border and funnel an attack into Belgium, which could then be met by the best divisions of the French Army. A war would take place outside of French territory avoiding a repeat of the First World War. The main section of the Maginot Line ran from the Swiss border and ended at Longwy. The area immediately to the north was covered by the heavily wooded Ardennes region. General Philippe Pétain declared the Ardennes to be “impenetrable” as long as “special provisions” were taken. If so, he believed that any enemy force emerging from the forest would be vulnerable to a pincer attack and destroyed. The French commander-in-chief, Maurice Gamelin also believed the area to be safe from attack, noting that it “never favoured large operations”. French war games held in 1938, with the scenario of a German armoured attack through the Ardennes, left the military with the impression that the region was still largely impenetrable and that this, along with the obstacle of the Meuse River, would allow the French time to bring up troops into the area to counter an attack.

Invasion of Poland

In 1939, Britain and France offered military support to Poland in the likely case of a German invasion. In the dawn of 1 September 1939, the German Invasion of Poland began. France and the United Kingdom declared war on 3 September, after an ultimatum for German forces to immediately withdraw their forces from Poland was met without reply. Following this, Australia (3 September), New Zealand (3 September), South Africa (6 September) and Canada (10 September), declared war on Germany. British and French commitments to Poland were met politically, but they had adopted a long-war strategy and mobilised for defensive land operations against Germany, while a trade blockade was imposed and the pre-war re-armament was accelerated, ready for an eventual invasion of Germany.

Phoney War

On 7 September, in accordance with their alliance with Poland, France began the Saar Offensive with an advance from the Maginot Line 5 km (3.1 mi) into the Saar. France had mobilised 98 divisions (all but 28 of them reserve or fortress formations) and 2,500 tanks against a German force consisting of 43 divisions (32 of them reserves) and no tanks. The French advanced until they met the then thin and undermanned Siegfried Line. On 17 September, the French supreme commander, Maurice Gamelin gave the order to withdraw French troops to their starting positions; the last of them left Germany on 17 October. Following the Saar Offensive, a period of inaction called the Phoney War (the French Drôle de guerre, joke war or the German Sitzkrieg, sitting war) set in between the belligerents. Adolf Hitler had hoped that France and Britain would acquiesce in the conquest of Poland and quickly make peace. On 6 October, he made a peace offer to both Western powers.

German Strategy

Fall Gelb  (Case Yellow)

On 9 October, Hitler issued a new “Führer-Directive Number 6” (Führer-Anweisung N°6). Hitler recognized the necessity of military campaigns to defeat the Western European nations, preliminary to the conquest of territory in Eastern Europe, to avoid a two-front war but these intentions were absent from Directive N°6. The plan was based on the seemingly more realistic assumption that German military strength would have to be built up for several years. For the moment only limited objectives could be envisaged and were aimed at improving Germany’s ability to survive a long war in the west. Hitler ordered a conquest of the Low Countries to be executed at the shortest possible notice to forestall the French and prevent Allied air power from threatening the vital German Ruhr Area. It would also provide the basis for a long-term air and sea campaign against Britain. There was no mention in the Führer-Directive of any immediate consecutive attack to conquer the whole of France, although the directive read that as much as possible of the border areas in northern France should be occupied.

On 10 October 1939, Britain refused Hitler’s offer of peace and on 12 October, France did the same. Colonel-General Franz Halder (Chief of the General Staff of OKH), presented the first plan for Fall Gelb (Case Yellow) on 19 October. This was the pre-war codename of plans for a campaign in the Low Countries: the Aufmarschanweisung N°1, Fall Gelb (Deployment Instruction No. 1, Case Yellow). Halder’s plan has been compared to the Schlieffen Plan, the name given to the German strategy of 1914 in the First World War. It was similar in that both plans entailed an advance through the middle of Belgium. Aufmarschanweisung N°1 envisioned a frontal attack, sacrificing a projected half million German soldiers to attain the limited goal of throwing the Allies back to the River Somme. Germany’s strength for 1940 would then be spent; only in 1942 could the main attack against France begin. When Hitler raised objections to the plan and instead advocated for a decisive armoured breakthrough as had happened in the invasion of Poland, Halder and Brauchitsch attempted to dissuade him, arguing that while the fast-moving mechanised tactics were all well and good against a “shoddy” Eastern European army, they would not work against a first-rate military like the French.

Hitler was disappointed with Halder’s plan and initially reacted by deciding that the German army should attack early, ready or not, in the hope that Allied unreadiness might bring about an easy victory. Hitler proposed beginning the invasion on 25 October 1939 but accepted that the date was probably unrealistic. On 29 October, Halder presented another plan, Aufmarschanweisung N°2, Fall Gelb, featuring a secondary attack on the Netherlands. On 5 November, Hitler informed Walther von Brauchitsch that he intended the invasion to begin on 12 November. Brauchitsch replied that the military had yet to recover from the Polish campaign and offered to resign; this was refused but two days later Hitler postponed the attack, giving poor weather as the reason for the delay. More postponements followed, as commanders persuaded Hitler to delay the attack for a few days or weeks, to remedy some critical defect in the preparations or to wait for better weather. Hitler also tried to alter the plan, which he found unsatisfactory; his weak understanding of how poorly prepared Germany was for war and how it would cope with losses of armoured vehicles were not fully considered. Though Poland had been quickly defeated, many armoured vehicles had been lost and were hard to replace. This eventually resulted in a dispersion of the German effort; although the main attack would remain in central Belgium, secondary attacks would be undertaken on the flanks. Hitler made such a suggestion on 11 November, pressing for an early attack on unprepared targets.

Hitler was not alone in disliking Halder’s plan. General Gerd von Rundstedt, the commander of Army Group A, also disagreed with it. Rundstedt recognised that it did not adhere to the classic principles of the Bewegungskrieg (manoeuvre warfare) that had guided German strategy since the 19th century. A breakthrough would have to be accomplished that would result in the encirclement and destruction of the main body of Allied forces. The most practical place to achieve this would be in the region of Sedan, which lay in the sector of Rundstedt’s Army Group. On 21 October, Rundstedt agreed with his chief of staff, Generalleutnant Erich von Manstein, that an alternative operational plan had to be arranged that would reflect these basic ideas, by making Army Group A as strong as possible at the expense of Army Group B to the north.

Manstein Plan

While Manstein was formulating new plans in Koblenz, Generalleutnant Heinz Guderian, commander of the XIX Army Corps, was lodged in a nearby hotel. Manstein was initially considering a move north from Sedan, directly in the rear of the main Allied mobile forces in Belgium. When Guderian was invited to contribute to the plan during informal discussions, he proposed a radical and novel idea. Most of the Panzerwaffe should be concentrated at Sedan. This concentration of armour should advance to the west to the English Channel, without waiting for the main body of infantry divisions. This might lead to a strategic collapse of the enemy, avoiding the relatively high number of casualties normally caused by a Kesselschlacht (cauldron battle).

Such a risky independent use of armour had been widely discussed in Germany before the war but Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH, the German General Staff), doubted such an operation could work. Manstein’s general operational ideas won immediate support from Guderian, who understood the terrain, having experienced the conditions with the German Army in 1914 and 1918. Manstein wrote his first memorandum outlining the alternative plan on 31 October. In it he avoided mentioning Guderian and played down the strategic part of the armoured units, to avoid unnecessary resistance. Six more memoranda followed between 31 October 1939 and 12 January 1940, each becoming more radical. All were rejected by OKH and nothing of their content reached Hitler.

Mechelen Incident

On 10 January 1940, a German aircraft carrying a staff officer with the Luftwaffe plans for an offensive through central Belgium to the North Sea, force-landed near Mechelen in Belgium. The documents were captured, but Allied intelligence doubted that they were genuine. In the full moon period in April 1940, another Allied alert was called for a possible attack on the Low Countries or Holland, an offensive through the Low Countries to outflank the Maginot Line from the north, an attack on the Maginot Line or an invasion through Switzerland. None of the contingencies anticipated the German attack through the Ardennes but after the loss of the Luftwaffe plans, the Germans assumed that the Allied appreciation of German intentions would have been reinforced. Aufmarschanweisung N°3, Fall Gelb an amendment to the plan on 30 January, was only a revision of details but on 24 February, the main German effort was switched south to the Ardennes. Twenty divisions (including seven panzer and three motorised divisions) were transferred from Heeresgruppe B opposite Holland and Belgium to Heeresgruppe A facing the Ardennes. French military intelligence uncovered a transfer of German divisions from the Saar to the north of the Moselle but failed to detect the redeployment from the Dutch frontier to the Eiffel–Moselle area.

Adoption of the Manstein Plan

On 27 January, Manstein was sacked as Chief of Staff of Army Group A and appointed commander of an army corps in East Prussia. To silence Manstein, Halder had instigated his transfer to Stettin on 9 February. Manstein’s staff brought his case to Hitler, who had independently suggested an attack at Sedan, against the advice of OKH. On 2 February, Hitler was told of Manstein’s plan and on 17 February, Hitler summoned Manstein, generals Rudolf Schmundt (Chief of Personnel of the German army) and Alfred Jodl, the Chief of Operations at Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW, German armed forces high command), to attend a conference. The next day, Hitler ordered Manstein’s thinking to be adopted, because it offered the possibility of decisive victory. Hitler recognized the breakthrough at Sedan only in tactical terms, whereas Manstein saw it as a means to an end. He envisaged an operation to the English Channel and the encirclement of the Allied armies in Belgium; if the plan succeeded, it could have a strategic effect.

Halder then went through an “astonishing change of opinion”, accepting that the Schwerpunkt should be at Sedan. He, however, had no intention of allowing an independent strategic penetration by the seven Panzer divisions of Army Group A. Much to the dismay of Guderian, this element was absent from the new plan, Aufmarschanweisung N°4, Fall Gelb, issued on 24 February. Halder was criticized in the same way he had attacked Manstein, when he first proposed his attack plan. The bulk of the German officer corps was appalled and called Halder the “gravedigger of the Panzer force”. Even when adapted to more conventional methods, the new plan provoked a storm of protest from the majority of German generals. They thought it utterly irresponsible to create a concentration of forces in a position impossible adequately to supply, along routes that could be cut easily by the French. If the Allies did not react as expected, the German offensive could end in catastrophe. Their objections were ignored and Halder argued that, as Germany’s strategic position seemed hopeless anyway, even the slightest chance of decisive victory should be grasped. Shortly before the invasion, Hitler, who had spoken to forces on the Western Front and who was encouraged by the success in Norway, confidently predicted the campaign would take only six weeks. Personally, he was most excited over the planned glider attack on Fort Eben-Emael.

Allied Strategy

Escaut Plan/Plan E

On 3 September 1939, French military strategy had been settled, taking in analyses of geography, resources and manpower. The French Army would defend on the right and advance into Belgium on the left, to fight forward of the French frontier. The extent of the forward move was dependent on events, which had been complicated when Belgium ended the Franco-Belgian Accord of 1920, after the German Remilitarization of the Rhineland (7 March 1936). As a neutral, the Belgian state was reluctant to co-operate openly with France, but did communicate information about Belgian defences. By May 1940, there had been an exchange of the general nature of French and Belgian defence plans but little co-ordination against a German offensive to the west, through Luxembourg and eastern Belgium. The French expected Germany to breach Belgian neutrality first, providing a pretext for French intervention or that the Belgians would request support when an invasion was imminent. Most of the French mobile forces were assembled along the Belgian border, ready to forestall the Germans.

An early appeal for help might give the French time to reach the German–Belgian frontier but if not, there were three feasible defensive lines further back. A possible line existed from Givet to Namur, across the Gembloux Gap (la trouée de Gembloux), Wavre, Louvain and along the Dyle river to Antwerp, which was 70–80 km (43–50 mi) shorter than the alternatives. A second possibility was a line from the French border to Condé, Tournai, along the Escaut (Scheldt) to Ghent and thence to Zeebrugge on the North Sea coast, possibly further along the Scheldt (Escaut) to Antwerp, which became the Escaut Plan/Plan E. The third possibility was along field defences of the French border from Luxembourg to Dunkirk. For the first fortnight of the war, Gamelin favoured Plan E, because of the example of the fast German advances in Poland. Gamelin and the other French commanders doubted that they could move any further forward before the Germans arrived. In late September, Gamelin issued a directive to Général d’armée Gaston Billotte, commander of the 1st Army Group,

…assuring the integrity of the national territory and defending without withdrawing the position of resistance organised along the frontier….
— Gamelin

giving the 1st Army Group permission to enter Belgium, to deploy along the Escaut according to Plan E. On 24 October, Gamelin directed that an advance beyond the Escaut was only feasible if the French moved fast enough to forestall the Germans.

Dyle Plan/Plan D

By late 1939, the Belgians had improved their defences along the Albert Canal and increased the readiness of the army; Gamelin and Grand Quartier Général (GQG) began to consider the possibility of advancing further than the Escaut. By November, GQG had decided that a defence along the Dyle Line was feasible, despite the doubts of General Alphonse Georges, commander of the North-Eastern Front about reaching the Dyle before the Germans. The British had been lukewarm about an advance into Belgium but Gamelin talked them round and on 9 November, the Dyle Plan was adopted. On 17 November, a session of the Supreme War Council deemed it essential to occupy the Dyle Line and Gamelin issued a directive that day detailing a line from Givet to Namur, the Gembloux Gap, Wavre, Louvain and Antwerp. For the next four months, the Dutch and Belgian armies laboured over their defences, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) expanded and the French army received more equipment and training. Gamelin also considered a move towards Breda in the Netherlands; if the Allies prevented a German occupation of Holland, the ten divisions of the Dutch army would join the Allied armies, control of the North Sea would be enhanced and the Germans denied bases for attacks on Britain.

By May 1940, the 1st Army Group was responsible for the defence of France from the Channel coast to the west end of the Maginot Line. The Seventh Army (Général d’armée Henri Giraud), BEF (General Lord Gort), First Army (Général d’armée Georges Maurice Jean Blanchard) and Ninth Army (Général d’armée André Corap) were ready to advance to the Dyle Line, by pivoting on the right (southern) Second Army. The Seventh Army would take over west of Antwerp, ready to move into Holland and the Belgians were expected to delay a German advance, then retire from the Albert Canal to the Dyle, from Antwerp to Louvain. On the Belgian right, the BEF was to defend about 20 km (12 mi) of the Dyle from Louvain to Wavre with nine divisions and the First Army on the right of the BEF was to hold 35 km (22 mi) with ten divisions from Wavre across the Gembloux Gap to Namur. The gap from the Dyle to Namur north of the Sambre, with Maastricht and Mons on either side, had few natural obstacles and was a traditional route of invasion, leading straight to Paris. The Ninth Army would take post south of Namur, along the Meuse to the left (northern) flank of the Second Army.

The Second Army was the right (eastern) flank army of the 1st Army Group, holding the line from Pont à Bar 6 km (3.7 mi) west of Sedan to Longuyon. GQG considered that the Second and Ninth armies had the easiest task of the army group, dug in on the west bank of the Meuse on ground that was easily defended and behind the Ardennes, a considerable obstacle, the traversing of which would give plenty of warning of a German attack in the centre of the French front. After the transfer from the strategic reserve of the Seventh Army to the 1st Army Group, seven divisions remained behind the Second and Ninth armies and more could be moved from behind the Maginot Line. All but one division were either side of the junction of the two armies, GQG being more concerned about a possible German attack past the north end of the Maginot Line and then south-east through the Stenay Gap, for which the divisions behind the Second Army were well placed.

Breda Variant

If the Allies could control the Scheldt Estuary, supplies could be transported to Antwerp by ship and contact established with the Dutch army along the river. On 8 November, Gamelin directed that a German invasion of the Netherlands must not be allowed to progress around the west of Antwerp and gain the south bank of the Scheldt. The left flank of the 1st Army Group was reinforced by the Seventh Army, containing some of the best and most mobile French divisions, which moved from the general reserve by December. The role of the army was to occupy the south bank of the Scheldt and be ready to move into Holland and protect the estuary by holding the north bank along the Beveland Peninsula (now the Walcheren–Zuid-Beveland–Noord-Beveland peninsula) in the Holland Hypothesis. On 12 March 1940, Gamelin discounted dissenting opinion at GQG and decided that the Seventh Army would advance as far as Breda, to link with the Dutch. Georges was told that the role of the Seventh Army on the left flank of the Dyle manoeuvre would be linked to it and Georges notified Billotte that if it were ordered to cross into the Netherlands, the left flank of the army group was to advance to Tilburg if possible and certainly to Breda. The Seventh Army was to take post between the Belgian and Dutch armies by passing the Belgians along the Albert Canal and then turning east, a distance of 175 km (109 mi), when the German armies were only 90 km (56 mi) distant from Breda. On 16 April, Gamelin also made provision for a German invasion of the Netherlands but not Belgium, by changing the deployment area to be reached by the Seventh Army; the Escaut Plan would only be followed if the Germans forestalled the French move into Belgium.

Allied Intelligence

In the winter of 1939–40, the Belgian consul-general in Cologne had anticipated the angle of advance that Manstein was planning. Through intelligence reports, the Belgians deduced that German forces were concentrating along the Belgian and Luxembourg frontiers. The Belgians were convinced that the Germans would thrust through the hilly and heavily forested Ardennes to the English Channel to cut off the Allied field armies in Belgium and north-eastern France. The Belgians also anticipated that the Germans would try to land Fallschirmjäger (paratroops) and glider forces to capture Belgian fortifications, but their warnings were not heeded by the French nor British. In March 1940, Swiss intelligence detected six or seven Panzer divisions on the German-Luxembourg-Belgian border and more motorised divisions were detected in the area. French intelligence were informed through aerial reconnaissance that the Germans were constructing pontoon bridges about halfway over the Our River on the Luxembourg-German border. On 30 April, the French military attaché in Bern warned that the centre of the German assault would come on the Meuse at Sedan, sometime between 8 and 10 May. These reports had little effect on Gamelin, as did similar reports from neutral sources such as the Vatican and a French sighting of a 100 km (62 mi)-long line of German armoured vehicles on the Luxembourg border trailing back inside Germany.

Prelude

German Army

Germany had mobilised 4,200,000 men of the Heer, 1,000,000 of the Luftwaffe, 180,000 of the Kriegsmarine, and 100,000 of the Waffen-SS. When consideration is made for those in Poland, Denmark and Norway, the Army had 3,000,000 men available for the offensive on 10 May 1940. These manpower reserves were formed into 157 divisions. Of these, 135 were earmarked for the offensive, including 42 reserve divisions. The German forces in the west in May and June deployed some 2,439 tanks and 7,378 guns. In 1939–40, 45 percent of the army was at least 40 years old, and 50 percent of all the soldiers had just a few weeks’ training. The German Army was far from fully motorised; just 10 percent of their army was motorised in 1940 and could muster only 120,000 vehicles, compared to the 300,000 of the French Army. The British had the most enviable contingent of motorised forces. Most of the German logistical transport consisted of horse-drawn vehicles. Only 50 percent of the German divisions available in 1940 were combat ready, often being more poorly equipped than their equivalents in the British and French Armies, or even as well as the German Army of 1914. In the spring of 1940, the German Army was semi-modern. A small number of the best-equipped and “elite divisions were offset by many second and third rate divisions”.

The German Army was divided into Army Group A, commanded by Gerd von Rundstedt, was composed of  45 1⁄2 divisions, including seven armoured and was to execute the decisive movement through the Allied defences in the Ardennes. The manoeuvre carried out by the Germans is sometimes referred to as a “Sichelschnitt”, the German translation of the phrase “sickle cut” coined by Winston Churchill after the events to describe it, but never the official name of the operation. It involved three armies (the 4th, 12th and 16th) and had three Panzer corps. The XV, had been allocated to the 4th Army but the XXXXI (Reinhardt) and the XIX (Guderian) were united with the XIV Army Corps of two motorised infantry divisions on a special independent operational level in Panzergruppe Kleist (officially known as XXII Corps). Army Group B (Fedor von Bock), composed of  29 1⁄2 divisions including three armoured, was to advance through the Low Countries and lure the northern units of the Allied armies into a pocket. It consisted of the 6th and 18th Armies. Army Group C (Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb), composed of 18 divisions, was charged with preventing a flanking movement from the east and with launching small holding attacks against the Maginot Line and the upper Rhine. It consisted of the 1st and 7th Armies.

Communications

Wireless proved essential to German success in the battle. German tanks had radio receivers that allowed them to be directed by platoon command tanks, which had voice communication with other units. Wireless allowed tactical control and far quicker improvisation than the opponent. Some commanders regarded the ability to communicate to be the primary method of combat and radio drills were considered to be more important than gunnery. Radio allowed German commanders to co-ordinate their formations, bringing them together for a mass firepower effect in attack or defence. The French advantage in numbers and equipment, which was often deployed in “penny-packets” (dispersed as individual support weapons) was offset. Most French tanks also lacked radio, orders between infantry units were typically passed by telephone or verbally.

The German communications system permitted a degree of communication between air and ground forces. Attached to Panzer divisions were the Fliegerleittruppen (tactical air control troops) in wheeled vehicles. There were too few Sd.Kfz. 251 command vehicles for all of the army, but the theory allowed the army in some circumstances to call Luftwaffe units to support an attack. It is said the participants in the dash to the English Channel carried out by the XIX Panzer Corps never had to wait more than 15–20 minutes for the Luftwaffe to appear over a target after they had called. Fliegerkorps VIII, equipped with Junkers Ju 87 dive-bombers (Stukas), was to support the dash to the Channel if Army Group A broke through the Ardennes and kept a Ju 87 and a fighter group on call. On average, they could arrive to support armoured units within 45–75 minutes of orders being issued.

Tactics

 

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German Military History with a focus on World War 2 History including other areas of German History