Soldiers from the British Expeditionary Force fire at low flying German aircraft during the Dunkirk evacuation.
Lieutenant General Alan Brooke, who had commanded II Corps of the British Expeditionary Force in France and Belgium, returned from Dunkirk on 30 May and on 2 June he was summoned to a meeting at the War Office in London. He met with the new chief of the imperial general staff, General Sir John Dill, who had replaced General Edmund Ironside on 27 May. Winston Churchill had appointed Ironside commander-in-chief of Home Forces: in other words the man who was given the responsibility of coordinating Britain’s ground defence in the event that the Nazis attempted an invasion of the co
untry. At their meeting, Brooke was informed that he was to return to France to command a second BEF.
Having already escaped from France and being well aware of the military mismanagement of the first BEF by the French, Brooke made it quite clear to both Dill and the secretary of state for war, Anthony Eden, that the enterprise was almost pointless unless it was meant to be nothing more than a gesture of good will towards the French. However, it was an order and Brooke accepted it; but he must have been devastated on being further informed that once in France his troops would again come under the authority of General Weygand.
The troops for this new force would comprise those already serving on the Continent that had not been evacuated at Dunkirk and new units that would be dispatched from Britain. The main troops already in France were the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division and the 1st Armoured Division. Of course, nobody could have predicted at that time that within the next ten days the 51st would be defeated around Saint-Valery-en-Caux and its main body of men taken prisoner.
The 1st Armoured Division, commanded by Major General Roger Evans, began to arrive in France on 14 May. Lord Gort had been pressing for more armoured support for weeks, but when the division did eventually arrive it was seconded to the French 10th Army. The division consisted of the 2nd Armoured Brigade, under Brigadier Richard McCreery; the 3rd Armoured Brigade, under Brigadier John Crocker; and the 1st Support Group, led by Brigadier Frederick R. Morgan. Unfortunately they had no infantry support available because their dedicated units had been transferred to aid the 30th Infantry Brigade. At the time of Brooke’s meeting with Dill, the division was still fighting alongside the French at Abbeville and had already suffered heavy losses.
Brooke’s forces would also include lines of communication troops and the mysterious Beauman Division, touched upon earlier, which appears to have been a ragtag army of misfits that had been left in France following Dunkirk: after the BEF had moved up to the K-W Line, a lot of support troops or units still under training were left in the area below the River Somme. These troops largely came under the jurisdiction of Brigadier Archibald Beauman from his headquarters at Rouen. There were units of Royal Engineers, Royal Army Ordnance Corps and Royal Corps of Signals as well as lines of communication troops acting as pioneers helping to build and maintain the various bases that supported the BEF, or posted there to protect bases and other facilities such as railways and ports.
After the Germans began their offensive, rail movements between the bases and the front line quickly became difficult due to congestion; the roads also began to clog up with refugees and retreating French and Belgian troops. On 18 May Beauman was ordered by Major General Philip de Fonblanque, the general officer commanding lines of communication troops, to strengthen his defences. He formed a small mobile force that he named Beauforce, which was made up of Territorial infantry battalions that had previously been used to protect his lines and undertake pioneer work. A second formation, called Vicforce, was also formed out of five provisional battalions that had been employed at various depots, together with reinforcement drafts recently arrived from Britain. This second brigade-sized unit was named after its first commanding officer, Colonel C. E. Vickery.
Beauman positioned his forces along the rivers Andelle and Béthune, in order to protect Rouen and the port of Dieppe. A further force, known as Digforce, was then established by combining units of the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps to make up several battalions under Lieutenant Colonel J. B. H. Diggle. These troops were mainly reservists who were not ready to join their units in the front line and had been detailed for construction and labour duties in the rear area.
On 29 May, these three formations were combined to form the Beauman Division, and Beauman himself was promoted to acting major-general in order to lead them. This was the only example of a British army division being named after its commander since the Peninsular War. The use of the word ‘division’ was to cause a little confusion, as General Weygand and the French assumed it to be a proper fighting formation complete with its own artillery, engineers and signals, rather than an odd collection of largely untrained troops armed only with light weapons and shovels.
In early June, the men of the Beauman Division continued to construct defences along the Andelle–Béthune line, which stretched for fifty-five miles. On 6 June reinforcements of three battalions of infantry as well as some artillery and engineer units arrived. However a complete brigade was subsequently detached to join the part of the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division in Arkforce, which as we have seen was intended to cover the retreat of the main part of the division to Le Havre. Beauman was evidently finding it difficult to maintain contact with all his widely dispersed men and issued the following orders stating that units should hold on ‘as long as any hope of successful resistance remained’ and that ‘brigade commanders will use their discretion as regards withdrawal’.
The Beauman Division would first see action on 8 June when elements of the 5th and 7th Panzer divisions began to advance towards Rouen, with their initial attacks arriving at Sigy-en-Bray and Forges-les-Eaux; at the latter the Germans tricked the British by using captured French tanks to drive through their roadblocks. Once successfully through the lines, they turned and attacked the novice soldiers from the rear. Despite the support of parts of the 1st Armoured Division, the Allied line had soon been penetrated in several places and the Beauman Division was pushed back. A brave stand was made in the late afternoon by a unit called Syme’s Battalion (presumably after its colonel), which had apparently been formed from depot troops the week before and had absolutely no battle experience whatsoever. They managed to stall the Germans for several hours outside Rouen before they were eventually forced to retreat to the south of the River Seine along with the rest of the division.
During the second week of June new forces sailed from Portsmouth to the port of Brest to bolster Brooke’s second BEF. These were the 52nd (Lowland) Infantry Division, commanded by Major General James Drew, made up of units of Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers; as well as the 155th Infantry Brigade (Brigadier Thomas Grainger-Stewart); the 156th Infantry Brigade (Brigadier J. S. N. Fitzgerald); and the 157th Infantry Brigade (Brigadier Sir John Laurie). This force was also supplemented by the 1st Canadian Infantry Division, under the command of Major General Andrew George Latta McNaughton. Among the Canadian infantry units that landed at Brest with the division were The Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR), The 48th Highlanders of Canada, and the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment.
It was hoped that these troops would be enough to help stabilise the French defensive effort, and if that failed to create a redoubt in the Brittany Peninsula. Brooke requested that the 3rd Infantry Division, under Major General Bernard Law Montgomery and which had also just returned from Dunkirk, be made ready to join his new command as soon as possible.
While Brooke’s troops gathered in France and he took stock of what forces were actually available to him – as opposed to what he had been led to believe would be available – the RAF found themselves in constant action supporting the French.
By 13 June the Germans had begun to make advances across the River Seine to the west, and the French forces around Paris had begun to retreat. This left General Altmayer’s 10th Army isolated with their backs to the coast. The remaining units of the Advanced Air Striking Force were ordered to retreat towards Nantes and Bordeaux and from there make a maximum effort to support the French. Fairey Battles were used to fly armed reconnaissance sorties over the River Seine and attack German columns, while Bristol Blenheims of Bomber Command were also deployed to attack enemy road and rail movements.
While the military struggles continued, on the political front a penultimate session of the Supreme War Council met at the Château du Muguet, near Briare in France, on 11–12 June. The French government had been forced to leave Paris and the meeting took place at General Weygand’s army headquarters. The British were represented by Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, General Sir John Dill, General Hastings Ismay (Churchill’s chief military advisor), General Sir Edward Spears (British representative to the French prime minister) and other staff officers. They met with the French prime minister Paul Reynaud and other dignitaries, including Charles de Gaulle, who had been promoted to brigadier general on 24 May. On 5 June, de Gaulle had been appointed Under Secretary of State for National Defence and War, and had been put in charge of coordination with the British forces.
What would prove to be the final meeting of the council took place at the Préfecture in Tours on 13 June. The British delegation was composed of Churchill, Lord Halifax (Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs), Lord Beaverbrook (Minister of Aircraft Production), Sir Alexander Cadogan (Permanent Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs), General Ismay and General Spears. Among those accompanying the French prime minister was Paul Baudoin, the Under Secretary of State to the Prime Minister and a member of the French war committee, as well as Generals Weygand and de Gaulle.
The atmosphere at this final session was very different from the preceding one at Briare, where Churchill had been sympathetic and understanding of France’s predicament. Now it was down to business, with the British focusing on the situation from their own perspective.
Reynaud declared that unless immediate help was forthcoming from the USA, the French government would have little choice but to surrender. General Weygand also stated that, in his opinion, an armistice should be sought immediately. This was an awkward proposition because Britain and France had agreed never to conclude a separate peace deal with the Germans. However, by this point France was evidently incapable of sustaining its war effort. Having said that, the French Cabinet was not totally in support of Reynaud and Weygand; General de Gaulle, for instance, was certain that France could continue by using guerilla tactics. Churchill hoped that Weygand would relinquish his command of the French armies in favour of de Gaulle, but the general stood fast.
Churchill was shocked by this development. He insisted, ‘We must fight, we will fight, and that is why we must ask our friends to fight on.’ Reynaud understood Britain’s stance, acknowledging that as an island he could see how it could continue the war. He also affirmed that France could still pursue the struggle from its North African possessions, but only if there was a realistic chance of success. That success could only be guaranteed if America was prepared to join in the fight. The French leader called for British understanding, asking again for France to be released from her obligation not to broker a separate peace with the Nazis, explaining that his country could do no more militarily.
The day ended in confusion as Churchill returned to London without speaking to the French Cabinet, as had been promised by Reynaud. The ministers were dismayed and angry and felt abandoned. Spears believed that this event played its part in swaying the majority of the Cabinet towards surrender. He later suggested that by the night of 13 June any possibility of France remaining in the war had almost disappeared.
In the meantime, the 157th Infantry Brigade of the 52nd (Lowland) Division had occupied defensive positions south of the Siene and been put under the command of the French 10th Army. Lieutenant General Brooke placed all the British units that were now fighting with the 10th Army under the command of Lieutenant General James Marshall-Cornwall and collectively named them Norman Force.
By now it was clear to Brooke that his second BEF was doomed. The 51st (Highland) Infantry Division no longer existed; the 1st Armoured Division was depleted; and the Beauman Division was in total disarray. He sent an urgent request to the War Office asking for his troops to be evacuated, and during the night of 14 June he received orders to prepare British forces to leave through the port of Cherbourg; he was also told that he was no longer under the command of the French. He ordered Marshall-Cornwall to withdraw his forces towards Cherbourg immediately. Although they were no longer obliged to follow French instructions, Brooke decided to continue to cooperate with their ally for the time being.
As by then only the 157th Infantry Brigade had actually arrived at the front line, Brooke ordered the rest of the 52nd (Lowland) Division to adopt a defensive stance near Cherbourg to cover the evacuation of the rest of his force. The AASF was also directed to send the last bomber squadrons back to Britain and use its fighter aircraft to cover the evacuation.
The French government had declared Paris an open city on 10 June, which effectively meant that all defensive measures had been abandoned. This was done so that the Germans could enter the city without being opposed: in doing this there would be no need for them to bomb or otherwise attack the city. The military concept of declaring somewhere an open city was aimed at protecting its landmarks and resident civilians from unnecessary violence. The Germans entered the city peacefully on 14 June and a gigantic swastika flag was raised above the Arc de Triomphe. By the time the tanks rolled through the streets, some two million Parisians had already fled. To a large extent the Germans did respect the heritage and people of Paris, although the Gestapo would arrest, interrogate and spy on those denizens they suspected of subversive activity.
While all of this was taking place the German advance over the Seine had come to a standstill while bridges were built over the river for the Panzers to cross. On the morning of 15 June the 157th Infantry Brigade and elements of the French 10th Army made contact with the enemy to the east of Conches-en-Ouche. They were ordered to retreat to the area near Verneuil, where the British contingent took over an eight-mile front. German forces followed up quickly and on 16 June, General Altmayer ordered the army to fall even further back to the Brittany Peninsula.
France is and was a big country, and while the last remaining British effort was taking place in and around Normandy and Brittany, the rest of the country was also under attack. On the western front, the German implementation of Operation Fall Rot was going well, but Hitler’s directive had also called for an attack on the Maginot Line. On 15 June Army Group C, led by General Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, launched Operation Tiger, a frontal assault across the Rhine, one element of the much larger Operation Fall Braun, the overall name for the invasion in the east across the German border. Prior to this all of their attempts to break through the Maginot Line had failed. One assault lasted for eight hours on the extreme north of the line, costing the Germans forty-six dead and 251 wounded, while the French had only two soldiers killed.
Operation Tiger marked a change in strategy with regards to the Maginot Line. The Germans would now carry out a full and direct offensive, employing the full might of their army. When, on 14 June, Paris fell, the German 1st Army went over to the offensive and attacked the Maginot Line between Saint-Avold and Saarbrücken, achieving penetrations in several places. The Wehrmacht employed a three prong strategy: first, to weaken the forts’ defensive capability through concentrated heavy artillery and bombing; second, to move in close and blind the defenders by destroying apertures with line-of-sight fire from high-velocity 88 mm cannon; and finally, direct combined-arms assault.
Despite having superior weapons, all German assaults at each of the main forts on the Maginot Line had failed. The bunkers were so strong that they had hardly been scratched. Intense barrages by siege cannon and Stuka dive-bombers placed 2,000-lb armour-piercing bombs right on top of the emplacements, but still they caused little or no damage. German assault teams attempting to blow up the forts were unable to get close enough to deliver their explosives. The French pounded their every move with accurate and deadly fire. At the Ouvrage Simserhof, for instance, soldiers from the German 257th Division tried and failed to get close to the fort as almost 15,000 French artillery shells rained down on them. Most of the forts had been designed so that they could be covered by supporting fire from the next emplacement along the line. One fortress, at Schoenenbourg, fired 15,802 75-mm rounds at attacking German infantry. Consequently and by return it was the most heavily shelled of all the French positions.
The same day that Operation Tiger was launched, Operation Kleiner Bär began as Army Group C’s XXXVII Corps crossed the Rhine and advanced through the Alsace region of north-east France, near Colmar, towards the Vosges Mountains. It possessed 400 artillery pieces bolstered by heavy artillery and mortars. The area around Colmar was being guarded by the French 104th and 105th divisions, both of which retreated to the safety of the mountains on 17 June.
On the same date, General Heinz Guderian’s XIX Corps, which had been an essential part of Army Group A’s spearhead towards the Channel ports, had backtracked to help out in the east. They had reached the Swiss border and in so doing had cut off the Maginot defences from the rest of France. Most units surrendered on 25 June; the Germans claimed to have taken 500,000 prisoners.
One or two of the main fortresses did continue to resist despite repeated appeals for them to surrender from both the Germans and General Georges. The last forts finally capitulated on or around 4 July under protest. Of the fifty-eight major fortifications on the Maginot Line, just ten were captured by the Wehrmacht in battle.
Another development to all of these events was the declaration of war on Britain and France by Italy on 10 June, which opened up another front in the Alps. Italy was not really prepared for war but Mussolini hoped to profit from Hitler’s success. He had reportedly said to Marshal Pietro Badoglio, his army chief of staff, ‘I only need a few thousand dead so that I can sit at the peace conference as a man who has fought.’
The French Army of the Alps, commanded by General René Olry, consisted of 190,000 troops along the Alpine Line. The Italians sent 450,000 men against them, but Olry had no problems stopping their advance. He proved a hard enemy for the Germans to deal with when they decided to enter the theatre. Despite these efforts, Olry’s surrender would be a forced inevitability due to the wider political situation, but the performance of the French army in this sector was far more successful than on other fronts and is claimed to be one of the reasons why some areas of the country were later preserved from occupation.