Battle of France 1940



The development of the battle plan for Fall Gelb from the original plan developed by OKH.


The Battle of France, spanning May 10 to June 22, 1940, was the brilliant triumph of Germany’s Fall Gelb (“Case Yellow”) invasion plan, which brought about the ignominious defeat of the forces of France, Britain, Belgium, and the Netherlands. At the start of the battle, the Allied and German forces looked to be evenly matched. The French army had 104 divisions available (up from 94 at the very outbreak of war eight months earlier), the British Expeditionary Force (BEF, British forces transferred to the Continent) had 10, Belgium 22, and the Netherlands eight, for a total of 144 divisions. Germany invaded with 141 divisions. The Allies had nearly 14,000 guns against 7,378 for Germany, but much of the Allied firepower was obsolescent. Particularly lacking were antitank and antiaircraft artillery. France had 3,063 tanks, and the other Allies a few more, for a total of 3,384, many of them light tanks with inadequate firepower. Germany had 2,445 tanks, most of them more modern than the French vehicles. In terms of aircraft, the French air force had 637 operational fighters, all obsolescent, and 242 bombers. Britain had 262 very fine fighters and 135 bombers based in France, and it had another 540 fighters and 310 bombers based in England. Belgium and the Netherlands contributed a few more of each, so that the total of Allied fighters and bombers available was 1,590 and 708, respectively. Germany substantially outmatched these totals with 1,736 fighters (of which 1,220 were operational at the commencement of battle) and 2,224 bombers (of which 1,559 were operational). The German aircraft, especially the fighters, were of the most advanced type for their day and easily outclassed the French planes.

French military resources looked far better on paper than they were in reality. The army was substantial at some 5 million men, but it was poorly led by a high command that had a weak grasp of strategy, tactics, and execution and that communicated inadequately with commanders in the field. To compound these deficiencies, army commanders consistently failed to coordinate action with air commanders. Perhaps worse, the army was pervaded by an emotion of defeatism, and France’s politicians had done nothing to furnish a cogent, let alone inspiring, vision of the nation’s war aims. Doctrinally, the French army was also at a grave disadvantage. It had prepared for a static, defensive battle in the manner of World War I’s western front. There was virtually no offensive component to this plan, and, even as defense, it was wholly inadequate to the kind of war Germany had already demonstrated in the invasion of Poland: highly violent, highly mobile Blitzkrieg.

At dawn on May 10, 1940, the German Wehrmacht invaded the three small neutral nations of Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands. This had the effect of drawing the BEF and the Flanders- based French forces to the northeast, thereby exposing the territory directly to the south, where the Maginot Line, France’s elaborate subterranean and semi-subterranean chain of frontier forts, ended. French military planners and politicians had not wanted to offend neutral Belgium by extending the Maginot Line along its border. Besides, they believed that the thickly wooded and rugged terrain of the Ardennes was essentially impassable. This belief compounded the vulnerability of the Maginot Line. Not only was the northern end of the line left exposed so that it could be either flanked or merely bypassed by an invader, it was very thinly defended by few troops, because no one expected an invasion via the Ardennes. Yet it was precisely the Ardennes that Erich von Manstein, the German commander with primary responsibility for executing Fall Gelb, chose as the Schwerpunkt, the point of concentration, for his Blitzkrieg advance. He would execute a version of the famed Schlieffen Plan, by which Germany very nearly won World War I in its first month. Breaking through the Ardennes, he would use his tanks, the panzers, to race across the great plain of France all the way to the English Channel in a great scythe that would cleave the Allied armies in two. Of course, he first had to get through Belgium, which also had a formidable system of fortresses, the most important of which, Fortress Eben Emael, guarded the vital bridges at Briegen, Veldwezelt, and Vroenhoven, and was considered the impregnable, ultimate defense of Belgium. A daring German airborne assault quickly neutralized Eben Emael and allowed the advance into France, bypassing the Maginot Line.

Germany’s Army Group B (under Fedor von Bock) was responsible for the decoy attack in the north, while Army Group A (Gerd von Rundstedt), with twice the divisions of Group B and most of the armor, was poised to attack through the Ardennes. South of this Schwerpunkt, Army Group C (Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb) would pin down French forces at the Maginot Line. Rundstedt’s panzers were under the very capable field command of Heinz Guderian, the father of German tank development, doctrine, and tactics, and Erwin Rommel, who would soon emerge as one of Germany’s legendary tank commanders.

While the German commanders were, for the most part, brilliant, their command network streamlined and highly efficient, and their troops among the most elite in the world, the French commanders were defeatists struggling with a poorly conceived network of command and command communication and leading demoralized, inadequately trained troops. The overall French commander, Maurice-Gustave Gamelin, was a victim of his own conventional military mind, which made his actions perfectly predictable. He readily fell for the German decoy attack in the north. He left the sector between Namur and Sedan, the very Schwerpunkt, in the hands of General AndrĂ© Corap’s Ninth Army and the Second Army of General Charles Huntziger. Most of the troops in these two forces were inexperienced and suffering from a particularly acute form of the malaise that seemed to grip all of France. These inadequate soldiers, led by two inept commanders, would feel the brunt of the Blitzkrieg. Even more useless were the 30 divisions deployed along the Maginot Line. German Army Group C would keep them in check, effectively taking them out of the battle. Making a bad situation worse, Gamelin ordered the Seventh French Army, under the very capable Henri Giraud, to rush from its position as a mobile reserve force near Dunkirk, in northwestern France on the Belgian border, to Breda, Netherlands, to support the Dutch. This had the effect of putting the most important mobile reserve force out of position for timely action when it would be needed.

As bad as the Allied deployment was on the ground, the situation was even worse in the air. Not only were the French aircraft inferior to the German, they were poorly deployed and generally misused. While the French air force did have a nominal commander, General Joseph Vuillemin, he exercised direct control over the air reserve only. Command of the principal air units was shared with the relevant ground commanders. This resulted in paralysis because operational air officers found themselves subject to command from three or even more ground commanders in addition to Vuillemin. Worse, because the aircraft were distributed among the ground units, they could not be deployed at the discretion of a single overall commander, which meant that they could not be concentrated where they were most needed. The French air asset was simply dissipated. In sharp contrast, German Blitzkrieg doctrine thoroughly integrated air assault with ground advance, and Luftwaffe pilots were keenly trained to function as part of the assault machinery. They flew precisely where they were needed, and they employed tactics that joined seamlessly with the ground assault.

Within 48 hours of breaching Eben Emael, the German invaders had overrun both Belgium and the Netherlands. At the same time, Rundstedt’s tanks pushed through what had been thought to be the impassable forests of the Ardennes. Luftwaffe air cover prevented Allied air attacks against the slowly moving armored columns, and nobody among the Allies seems to have thought of mining the forest roads. Thus, by the night of May 12, seven panzer divisions had reached the east bank of the River Meuse along a front stretching from Dinant to Sedan. Astoundingly, the Allies continued to rely on intelligence estimates that were manifestly contradicted by the facts. They thought that five or six days would be required for the Germans to build up the strength necessary actually to cross the Meuse. As the Allies dithered, Guderian boldly decided to press ahead with the crossing of the Meuse on May 13, even though one of his three panzer divisions was still making its way through the Ardennes. This attack, with only three divisions, was made possible by strong air support, especially from the same Stuka dive bombers that had proved so effective in the invasion of Poland. They were true terror weapons, totally demoralizing the ground troops. Because Stukas are vulnerable to fighter attack when they dive, Me-109s kept the French fighters off. By nightfall, Guderian’s troops had secured a three-mile-wide bridgehead across the Meuse. Rapid and vigorous response from the French 3rd Armored Division might have stemmed this advance, but, as usual, the unit was poorly deployed and proved ineffective. British bombers sent to destroy the pontoon bridges of the 1st Panzer Division were torn to shreds by German antiaircraft artillery. The net result was the loss of most of the British bombers, which had failed even to damage the German bridges. Allied air power had been defeated and crushed, and the French failed to mount a creditable counterattack.

Next, Guderian and Rommel rolled through the Sedan sector as Huntziger’s Second Army and Corap’s Ninth melted away. Prime Minister Churchill rushed to France on May 16, only to be told that no great reserves existed with which to make a counterattack, and French premier Paul Reynaud pronounced the Battle of France lost. The main German thrust was toward the coast, but the French could not decide whether the objective would be the English Channel, from which an invasion of England could be staged, or Paris. Colonel Charles de Gaulle led the 4th Armored Division in a spirited desperation attack near Montcornet but was repulsed.

At this point, the Germans nearly became victims of their own success: It all seemed too easy. Moreover, Guderian’s panzers had moved so fast that they were far ahead of conventional infantry supporting units. On May 15 and again on May 17, they were ordered to halt so that the infantry could catch up. Both of these pauses presented the defenders with rich opportunities for counterattacks, but by this time, the Allies were so cut up and demoralized that coordinated action was impossible. Worse, the replacement of Gamelin with General Maxime Weygand on May 20 accomplished nothing but to induce further delay in mounting any possible counterthrust, especially on the narrower portions of the far-extended panzer advance.

Guderian’s 2nd Panzer Division reached Abbeville, on the English Channel, on May 19. This thrust had accomplished what the Schlieffen Plan of World War I had failed to do: It split the Allied forces, trapping the best French units and most of the BEF in a cul de sac that backed up against the channel. The BEF counterattacked to the south from Arras on May 21 with considerable success, but when the French failed to follow up on this, the BEF had no choice but to retreat and contract its defensive perimeter yet further. The BEF made for the port town of Dunkirk on the English Channel, where there was a very slim hope of evacuation to England.

The tanks of General Paul Ludwig von Kleist were massed against the southern perimeter of the Dunkirk pocket on May 24. Eager to push forward and bag the BEF and French units trapped there, Kleist was instead ordered by no less a figure than Adolf Hitler to halt and await the arrival of the infantry. Like the earlier halts of May 15 and May 17, this was the product of an excess of caution. It was, in fact, among the most momentous errors of World War II. While it would be an exaggeration to declare that by his halt order Hitler lost the war on May 24, 1940, it is nevertheless true that he relinquished an early opportunity either to win it outright or to compel Britain to come to favorable peace terms. As it was, Allied Ultra intelligence intercepted and decrypted the halt order. This opened a narrow window of opportunity in which the Dunkirk evacuation was launched.

The Belgians surrendered on May 28, but by June 3 the evacuation from Dunkirk was complete. A total of 338,226 Allied troops, including 140,000 French soldiers, had been saved. The “miracle of Dunkirk” gave Britain a critically needed reprieve, but there was no saving France. The rest of the battle was essentially a broad-based mopping up operation. Paris, undefended, fell on June 14. At about this time, the Maginot Line, still garrisoned by French troops who could have been used elsewhere, was taken from the rear. Declaring war against Britain and France on June 10, Italy mounted an invasion of southern France but gained little.

On June 22, 1940, the Battle of France formally ended with French signatures on an armistice concluded, humiliatingly, at a railway siding in Compiegne in the very parlor car in which Germany had signed the hated Treaty of Versailles. The immediate cost of the battle was 90,000 French troops dead and 200,000 wounded. Nearly 2 million were either taken prisoner or reported missing. German dead numbered 29,640; wounded, 133,573. Total as this victory had been, the Germans failed to provide for the most obvious follow- up: the immediate invasion of Britain, which was now at its most vulnerable. Instead, they set about occupying and exploiting France.

Further reading: Bloch, Marc. Strange Defeat. New York: Norton, 1999; Deighton, Len. Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Denmark. London: Book Sales, 2000; Gordon, Bertram M., ed. Historical Dictionary of World War II France. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998; Jackson, Julian. The Fall of France: The Nazi Invasion of 1940. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003; Pallud, Jean-Paul. Blitzkrieg in the West. London: After the Battle, 1991.


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