The Final Phase – France 1940

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The BEF, which had hardly been in action at all, now began its famous retreat. The fact of this retreat doomed the Belgian army, which consequently surrendered. In the many British accounts of the war, this sequence of events was reversed: The British retreated because the Belgians had quit. But in reality it was the other way round.

In retreat, as they held the bridgehead, the British fought magnificently—a gloomy reminder of the true capabilities of the BEF in combat. As though to undercut their competence, the successful evacuation is charged off against some eccentricity of Hitler’s, who, it was initially alleged, wanted to let the BEF escape so as to enhance his chances of a negotiated peace with Great Britain. The actual case is simple enough. As the Germans reached the perimeter of the evacuation area, they were not enthusiastic about engaging the British army in battle. On the one hand their forces were exhausted. On the other they were much more aware than Reynaud of the fighting capacity of the French army.

So was Hitler. He had already given orders for an advanced headquarters to be constructed so he could be close to where he assumed the fighting would be. A small village in southern Belgium was selected, Brûly-de-Pesche, and in early June, Hitler actually moved there so he could direct the rest of the war. The village was close to Rocroi, right on the French frontier; clearly Hitler felt the war would continue for some time, and wanted to be close at hand to direct his armies.

He was in fact already nervous about the next stage of the war. Unlike Reynaud, who thought France defeated, the Germans, looking back on 1870 and 1914, assumed that the war might well go on for months, and were busily preparing a plan, Case Red, for an all-out offensive against the largely intact French army and air force.

So all factors militated against a direct ground assault on Dunkirk. Moreover, Hitler, like most dictators (and many other leaders in all walks of life), believed his own propaganda. Germany’s victories came from its command of the air, and this was to be expected: The Luftwaffe was the most National Socialist of the three branches of the military, and its commander, Göring, was the only senior German military officer whose allegiance to Hitler was unquestionable.

So the decision to use airpower was a foregone conclusion, the result of a series of independent decisions made both by the commanders on the ground and Hitler himself. Given the heavy losses sustained by the German air force, it was also a foregone conclusion that the attack on Dunkirk would not succeed. The Royal Air Force’s Fighter Command lost 106 aircraft, and the Luftwaffe lost 156—of which a good many were lost to fire from naval vessels. In an attempt to turn Dunkirk into a major victory, the British and French turned what was at best parity into victory, and claimed that the RAF had dominated the skies over the beaches, thus allowing the evacuation to proceed.

The main reason the evacuation succeeded was because of a tough and well-organized defense of the port by the French navy, the tenacity of the British infantry in combat, and their maintenance of discipline under fire. The numbers were impressive: The Allies evacuated 338,226 men, including 139,911 French. But it was hardly a victory. Only twenty-two armored vehicles came back to Great Britain. Other figures were equally awful: Of the 2,794 guns the BEF had brought to France, 2,472 were left there, along with 63,879 motor vehicles out of 66,618. The Allies lost 228 ships, including destroyers that would be badly needed in the months ahead.

The enumeration of these figures suggests the unintended consequences of the catastrophe. As we have seen, German armaments production was dilatory. But now, given the captured vehicles, Hitler would be able to paper over the problem almost indefinitely. It would be another two years before the realities of German industrial inefficiency would be realized.

By all accounts the war in France was now well and truly lost. The British knew it; Reynaud and the hapless politicians of the Third Republic knew it; the world knew it. Everyone in fact but the French army. On May 23 the Germans, who had still not pierced the French lines on the heights of the Meuse below Sedan, mounted an all out assault. But in this, the Battle of Tannay–Mont Dieu, the gains were reminiscent of an earlier war. The French still were hanging on to key pieces of ground, and the German advance had been measured not in kilometers but in meters. Finally, on June 11, the French, threatened with encirclement, had to withdraw. Not surrender, but withdrawal, and the best measure of how well they fought is a German evaluation made after the battle: “These woods and hills were defended by an adversary who, although almost completely surrounded, fought on with an extraordinary bravery, a competency and a tenacity quite incredible.”

While tens of thousands of French soldiers fought and died, the mythology of the defeat was already taking wing. In their attempt to justify their panic, the French leaders blamed their army for collapsing, Belgium for quitting the war, and the British for not committing their entire air force to the defense of France. The British in turn blamed the Belgians, but mostly the French, whose defeatism and ineptitude was seen as the root cause of the disaster. For the British to blame the Belgians was particularly unjust. Not only had the BEF’s unilateral withdrawal destroyed any chance for the Belgian army to defend their country, but the Belgians actually had more men killed in action than did the British.

The followers of Charles de Gaulle picked up this last charge and gave it a peculiarly eloquent twist, blaming the politicians of the Third Republic. Vichy France came to symbolize all that was rotten and degenerate in French life, the logical successor to the corruption of the Third Republic. For their part the rulers of Vichy France had their own explanation. As Jean Dutourd explains it: “After the collapse of 1940, the Vichy regime organized a press campaign to tell France that the real authors of defeat were Marcel Proust and André Gide,” so the blame was clearly laid—one way or the other—on the inherent wickedness and degeneracy of the French, for whom the aging Pétain was either the savior from or the symbol.

Or, as Dutourd would put it, paraphrasing Vichy propaganda: “Pétain, the Père Goriot of France, the Christ of patriotism, had made us a gift of himself. France was the daughter of this blameless old patriarch—a prodigal, shameful, daughter. She threw herself into his arms and begged forgiveness with great sobs for having read too many novels. They were the explanation of why a big brute had beaten her black and blue, poor thing.”

Between May 10 and June 22, 1940, at least one hundred thousand French military personnel were killed in action or died of wounds.

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