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The Battle of France (French: bataille de France; 10 May – 25 June 1940), also known as the Western Campaign (German: Westfeldzug), the French Campaign (Frankreichfeldzug, campagne de France) and the Fall of France, was the German invasion of France during the Second World War. France and the Low Countries were conquered, ending land operations on the Western Front until the Normandy landings on 6 June 1944.
|Battle of France
|Part of the Western Front of the Second World War
Clockwise from top left:
|Commanders and leaders
Germany: 141 divisions
Italians in the Alps
Allies: 135 divisions
3,383–4,071 French tanks
French in the Alps
|Casualties and losses
On 3 September 1939, France declared war on Germany following the German invasion of Poland. In early September 1939, France began the limited Saar Offensive but by mid-October had withdrawn to their start lines. German armies invaded Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and France on 10 May 1940.
In Fall Gelb ("Case Yellow"), German armoured units made a surprise push through the Ardennes and then along the Somme valley, cutting off and surrounding the Allied units that had advanced into Belgium to meet the German armies there. British, Belgian and French forces were pushed back to the sea by the Germans; the British and French navies evacuated the encircled elements of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and the French and Belgian armies from Dunkirk in Operation Dynamo.
German forces began Fall Rot ("Case Red") on 5 June 1940. The sixty remaining French divisions and the two British divisions in France made a determined stand on the Somme and Aisne rivers but were defeated by the German combination of air superiority and armoured mobility. German armies outflanked the intact Maginot Line and pushed deep into France, occupying Paris unopposed on 14 June. After the flight of the French government and the collapse of the French Army, German commanders met with French officials on 18 June to negotiate an end to hostilities. Italy entered the war on the German side on 10 June 1940 and attempted an invasion of France.
On 22 June 1940, the Second Armistice at Compiègne was signed by France and Germany. The neutral Vichy government led by Marshal Philippe Pétain replaced the Third Republic and German military occupation began along the French North Sea and Atlantic coasts and their hinterlands. The Italian invasion of France over the Alps took a small amount of ground and after the armistice, Italy occupied a small area in the south-east. The Vichy regime retained the zone libre (free zone) in the south. Following the Allied invasion of French North Africa in November 1942, in Case Anton, the Germans and Italians took control of the zone until France was liberated by the Allies in 1944.
During the 1930s, the French built the Maginot Line, fortifications along the border with Germany.[page needed] The line was intended to economise on manpower and deter a German invasion across the Franco–German border by diverting it into Belgium, which could then be met by the best divisions of the French Army. The war would take place outside French territory, avoiding the destruction of the First World War. The main section of the Maginot Line ran from the Swiss border and ended at Longwy; the hills and woods of the Ardennes region were thought to cover the area to the north. General Philippe Pétain declared the Ardennes to be "impenetrable" as long as "special provisions" were taken to destroy an invasion force as it emerged from the Ardennes by a pincer attack. The French commander-in-chief, Maurice Gamelin also believed the area to be safe from attack, noting it "never favoured large operations". French war games, held in 1938, of a hypothetical German armoured attack through the Ardennes, left the army 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 any attack.
German invasion of Poland
In 1939, the United Kingdom and France offered military support to Poland in the likely case of a German invasion. At dawn on 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 immediately to withdraw their forces from Poland was not answered. Australia and New Zealand also declared war on 3 September, South Africa on 6 September and Canada on 10 September. While British and French commitments to Poland were met politically, the Allies failed to fulfil their military obligations to Poland, later called the Western betrayal by the Poles. The possibility of Soviet assistance to Poland had ended with the Munich Agreement of 1938, after which the Soviet Union and Germany eventually negotiated the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, which included an agreement to partition Poland. The Allies settled on a long-war strategy in which they would complete the rearmament plans of the 1930s while fighting a defensive land war against Germany and weakening its war economy with a trade blockade, ready for an eventual invasion of Germany.
On 7 September, in accordance with the Franco-Polish alliance, France began the Saar Offensive with an advance from the Maginot Line 5 km (3 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 thin and undermanned Siegfried Line. On 17 September, Gamelin gave the order to withdraw French troops to their starting positions; the last of them left Germany on 17 September, the day of the Soviet invasion of Poland. 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.
Fall Gelb (Case Yellow)
On 9 October 1939, Hitler issued Führer-Directive Number 6 (Führer-Anweisung N°6). Hitler recognised 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. 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 industrial area of the Ruhr. It would also provide the basis for a long-term air and sea campaign against Britain. There was no mention in the directive of a 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. The pre-war German codename of plans for a campaign in the Low Countries was Aufmarschanweisung N°1, Fall Gelb (Deployment Instruction No. 1, Case Yellow). Colonel-General Franz Halder (Chief of the General Staff Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH)), presented the first plan for Fall Gelb on 19 October. Fall Gelb entailed an advance through the middle of Belgium; Aufmarschanweisung N°1 envisioned a frontal attack, at a cost of half million German soldiers to attain the limited goal of throwing the Allies back to the River Somme. German strength in 1940 would then be spent and only in 1942 could the main attack against France begin. When Hitler raised objections to the plan and wanted an 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 effective 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 Army should attack early, ready or not, hoping that Allied unreadiness might bring about an easy victory. Hitler proposed an invasion on 25 October 1939 but accepted that the date was probably unrealistic. On 29 October, Halder presented Aufmarschanweisung N°2, Fall Gelb, with 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 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 led to the German effort becoming dispersed; 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.
Halder's plan satisfied no-one; General Gerd von Rundstedt, the commander of Army Group A (Heeresgruppe A) recognised that it did not adhere to the classic principles of Bewegungskrieg (war of manoeuvre) that had guided German strategy since the 19th century. A breakthrough was needed to encircle and destroy 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 Army Group A. On 21 October, Rundstedt agreed with his chief of staff, Generalleutnant Erich von Manstein, that an alternative operational plan to reflect these principles was needed, by making Army Group A as strong as possible at the expense of Army Group B to the north.
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 that most of the Panzerwaffe should be concentrated at Sedan. This concentration of armour would 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 OKH 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.
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 Maasmechelen (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. On 24 February, the main German effort was moved 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 Eifel–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, General Rudolf Schmundt (Chief of Personnel of the German Army) and General Alfred Jodl, the Chief of Operations of Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW, Supreme Command of the Armed Forces), to a conference. The next day, Hitler ordered Manstein's thinking to be adopted, because it offered the possibility of decisive victory. Hitler recognised 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 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. 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 to adequately resupply, 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. He was most excited over the planned military glider attack on Fort Eben-Emael.
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 in the east (right flank) and attack on the west (left flank) by advancing into Belgium, to fight forward of the French frontier. The extent of the forward move was dependent on events, which were complicated when Belgium ended the Franco-Belgian Accord of 1920 after the German Remilitarisation of the Rhineland on 7 March 1936. The neutrality of the Belgian state was reluctant openly to co-operate with France but information was communicated 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 practicable 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....
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 persuaded them; 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 would be denied bases for attacks on Britain.
By May 1940, the 1st Army Group was responsible for the defence of France from the Channel coast south to 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.
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 Belgians and Dutch by passing the Belgians along the Albert Canal and then turning east, a distance of 175 km (109 mi), when the Germans 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.
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. 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-long (60 mi) line of German armoured vehicles on the Luxembourg border trailing back inside Germany.