Germans in Paris. On 11 June 1940 Paris was proclaimed an open city. On 14 June German troops without any troubles seized France's capital. Abandonment of the city by the troops caused huge confusion. Crowds of Parisians rushed to escape. On the picture: German parade in Champs Elysees.



In early spring 1940 General Maurice Gamelin, as he later admitted in his memoirs, was bothered a little by the idleness of his troops. And he had under his command the greatest land army ever formed in thereto history: five million men at arms. Perhaps overwhelmed by numbers, he gave, at the eve of the German invasion, vacation leaves to 750,000 soldiers. The invasion of Denmark and Norway did not bother him too much. He sent some units to the North and decided that that was a British problem rather than a French one. And then suddenly on 10 May 1940 at 4:00 the Germans struck against the West.

The underground shelter, from which the French Supreme Commander was supposed to control his armies, was later called by Charles de Gaulle somewhat maliciously a "laboratory". There, in silence and seclusion, Gamelin could meditate over strategic problems. He failed though to meditate over experiences from the Polish campaign, submitted to him in written by Gen. Władysław Sikorski's staff. What for? He deemed Polish experience useless. After all he had a mighty army generously equipped with all kinds of technics and on top of that strengthened by the formidable Maginot Line. He could feel himself not as much as a commander-in-chief but rather a scientist who watches from a distance the life of a throng. Unfortunately, when the battle started it turned out that this scientist was deprived of basic elements, which would enable him to make decisions, for he knew virtually nothing about the situation on the front! It may seem odd, but the "laboratory" possessed no radio-station. So Gamelin could neither receive reports from the front or the armies, nor could he communicate with his subordinates. At the echelon where I was, wrote Gamelin later in his memoirs, of what use would a radio transmitter have been? Besides, we had one in the Supreme Command Headquarters 35km away from Vincennes, but we did not use it so the Germans could not detect where we were. [Gamelin M. (1946).] Therefore the Supreme Commander would have to content himself with rare and laconic reports, which the commander of the north-eastern sector would be willing to send in; the more enigmatic and full of innuendoes the worse the reports would be. The general headquarters, a real submarine without a periscope, would remain without an influence on the military campaign.

Still it would have no influence for the French commander-in-chief did in fact control only the defence along the Maginot Line. Meanwhile the Germans did not even consider bumping their heads against the Maginot Line. Whereas in the north-east the command of the battle against the invasion's mainstream pouring through Holland and Belgium was left to General Joseph Georges. The French situation from the spring 1940 is the oddest example of poor organization of command, when the Supreme Commander is not and refuses to be interested in the course of the decisive battle for the entry to France. He assumed so-called co-ordination of activities on all the fronts and he was so busy with that fictional co-ordination, that he left Gen. Georges to his fate.

The Germans started their campaign as usually from a sneak attack: through neutral Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg. Airborne troops landed near the Hague, Rotterdam, and seized Belgian fort Eben-Emael and bridges on Albert Canal. Rotterdam got mercilessly bombed. Of course French staffs considered such a situation. The Maginot Line did not cover the Belgian border and the exposed terrain could tempt the enemy. The French however expected a positional war like in 1914-1918 and in case of German violation of Belgium's and Holland's neutrality they foresaw moving some French forces to Belgium to halt the German advance. So the French command sent to Belgium a motorized cavalry corps of General Jacques Prioux, who later remembered it with bitterness:

On the morning of 11 May I went to Gembloux, and went over the army's future positions. First surprise: no defence works over the township, which was one of the key points of the defence line, no decent trenches, no barbed wire... practically nothing at all! Carrying on for 5 miles or so eastwards, I came across some stretches of mobile tank obstacles which had arrived only a few days ago; but they did not form a complete line, still less an effective obstacle, for they were scattered here and there over ground. I was dumbfounded when I thought that the army counted on finding a prepared position here, and would have to make a recconnaissance of the area first and then dig in. The enemy would never give us time for that. [Prioux J. (1947).]

Of course the Germans did not lend them time to dig the soil. They outflanked the France's archbarricade from the north and rolled neutral lands with absolute disregard to their neutrality granted by international treaties. Four armoured groups took the shortest route from the Rhine westward to the Atlantic, aiming at Abbeville on the Atlantic coast. The southernmost of them went through Luxembourg and Belgium's southern provinces, and while already within the French borders struck against historic Sedan. The Maginot Line found itself in their deep rear. In its formidable forts French soldiers were still treating themselves with wine, reading newspapers and taking regular siestas. Confident in the power of their strongholds they had no idea, that practically they were already prisoners of war.

John Frederick Charles Fuller, an outstanding British theoretician of manoeuvre warfare and armoured forces, as well as a pre-war supporter of Oswald Mosley's British fascists, wrote after the war its concise history. This book, which has become a worldwide best-seller, is an amazing mixture of bright and stupid ideas. From the bright ones the following is worth mentioning:

It has frequently been stated that the reason why the Maginot Line was not continued to the sea was that the Belgian Government would have considered it an unfriendly act. The main reason was that, had it been, the French had not the manpower to garrison it adequately and simultaneously maintain a field army. Had the field army they had in 1940 been highly mechanized, well led and morally healthy, there is no reason to suppose that the Maginot Line would have earned the ill name which it did. It was a shield, it wanted a sword, and not another shield to extend it to the English Channel. Instead of being a sword, the French field army was a broomstick. [Fuller J. F. C. (1993).]

When the Germans invaded the West they introduced to fights 117 divisions including all 10 armoured ones. The French had on the north-eastern front 94 divisions and more divisions on the Maginot Line, on the Italian border and in garrisons throughout France. In the north they were reinforced by ten divisions of the British Expeditionary Forces, 22 Belgian divisions and 10 Dutch ones. So the Allies possessed superiority in manpower; they should not have had a feeling of inferiority in technics as well. Nevertheless the disaster occurred:

There were, however, 3000 up-to-date French tanks and 800 motorized machine-guns. The Germans had no more. But ours were, according to the plan, distributed up and down the sectors of the front. Also, they were not, for the most part, built or armed to form part of a mass manoeuvre. Even the few large mechanized units included in the order of battle were engaged piecemeal. The three light divisions, which had been thrown towards Liege and towards Breda for scouting purposes, were quickly forced back and were then spread out to hold a front. The 1st Armoured Division, restored to a corps d'armée and launched alone in a counter-attack on May 16 to the west of Namur, was enveloped and destroyed. On the same day the 2nd, having been transported by rail in the direction of Hirson, had its elements, as they were disentrained, swallowed up one by one in the general confusion. On the day before, to the south of Sedan, the 3rd Division, which had just been formed, was immediately split up between the battalions of an infantry division and was engulfed, fragment after fragment, in an abortive counter-attack. Had they been grouped together beforehand, these mechanized units, for all their deficiencies, would have been able to deal the invader some formidable blows. But, isolated one from another, they were nothing but shreds six days after the German armoured groups had begun to move.

This account belongs to General Charles de Gaulle, [Gaulle Ch. de (1998).] who on 11 May was assigned to the command of the 4th Armoured Division. The division was reinforced by one infantry battalion carried by requisited buses. Wireless communication was not provided; orders were carried by cyclists. Artillery was comprised by reserve units. Supply and ordnance practically did not exist. For short it was not a military unit but rather a big Gypsy encampment. But the new commander managed to instil his soldiers with his determination. In spite of all the odds they fought the Germans running to Abbeville, halted them in battles of Laon and Arras and took 500 prisoners. Nevertheless its gallantry remained a somewhat isolated example in the course of the whole campaign. On 13 May a rapid German armoured incursion already crossed the Meuse and struck against the French defence positions near Sedan. We met only slight resistance, claimed ironically German General Günther Blumentritt. It was weak opposition and easily brushed away. [Goutard A. (1956).] As a matter of fact not everywhere was it so easy, but the front got broken through anyway. It was there, that the 3rd Armoured Division was wasted in an anaemic, chaotic counter-attack. The German tanks to pass the Meuse caused panic among French troops.

The French 2nd Army was fighting near Sedan yet, and even partially halted the German advance, when the next to it in the north 9th Army got beaten on 15 May near Dinant in southern Belgium, where it entered five days before. Seven infantry divisions, two mechanized divisions and a brigade of Arab cavalry comprised the 9th Army. During the fights it was reinforced by the 1st Armoured Division. It may seem incredible, but six days later none of those big units existed any more. They got dispersed, thousands of soldiers with lowered heads humbly marched into captivity. Caught up, as they fled, by the enemy's mechanized detachments, they had been ordered to throw away their arms and make off to the east so as not to clutter up the roads. We haven't time to take you prisoners, they had been told. [Gaulle Ch. de (1998).] It can be frankly said that this army disappeared without being really fought. Because it never came to a battle of the whole army led by its commander. Only few isolated battalions and few tank companies without infantry support fought gallantly, but the rest collapsed in retreat.

In the north was fighting yet a large Allied army group with the French 1st Army, British Expeditionary Forces and Belgian divisions. But between the intact 1st Army holding its positions along the Sambre, and the battered 2nd Army fighting near Sedan, the debacle of the 9th Army opened before the Germans a 100km wide gap. There, according to the original campaign plans by the way, German armoured masses rushed to the sea. On 16 May, as the news about the disaster by Dinant reached Paris, a meeting of the Supreme War Council was held in Paris. Sir Winston Spencer Churchill, who arrived from London, attended it. Gamelin was talking about gathering bigger forces in order to liquidate the growing German bulge. When and where are you going to counter-attack, asked Churchill. [Churchill W. S. L. (1986b).] The French supreme commander was not able to answer this simple question. Two days later he would not be the Supreme Commander any more. On 18 May collapsed the government of the first French Munichian, Edouard Daladier. A new government was formed by Paul Reynaud. Gamelin was replaced by General Maxime Weygand, the commander of the troops deployed in the Levant. He had experience from the First World War and the Russian civil war, and was regarded for one of the most outstanding strategists of his epoch. But on 20 May, when he assumed the post of the Supreme Commander, the German 2nd Armoured Division took Abbeville. The whole defence grouping got split in halves.

In the north remained Gen. Georges with the British and Belgians. As Weygand flew there to inspect the troops, he saw that the command there was completely lamentable. When the commander of the Army Group, Gen. Henri Bilotte, died in a car accident, his deputy, Gen. Georges Blanchard realised he did not know the Supreme Command's plans at all. In this situation the commander of the British Expeditionary Forces, Lord John Gort, received a dramatic telegram from London. It read that his only duty since then had been saving as many men as possible. So the British Expeditionary Forces started evacuation through the port and beaches of Dunkirk. It was a unique operation and it was carried out by ships, vessels, cutters, barges and even boats hastily mobilized throughout the whole United Kingdom. Within a week 340,000 men were saved, including 120,000 Frenchmen, but they had to destroy or leave all their equipment. Meanwhile German tanks occupied the whole English Channel's coast from Abbeville to Boulogne and Calais. However Adolf Hitler's personal orders had stopped them at Dunkirk. German generals were astonished: an opportunity to interrupt the gigantic evacuation was slipping out of their hands. Even now it is not clear why Hitler deprived his troops of an easy victory: did he actually want to spare tanks' tracks and finish the Britons solely with air forces, or did he want to leave them a chance for an "honourable" withdrawal from the war?

On 28 May capitulated Belgium. The French command did not exploit a chance created yet few days before by a gap between the German armoured divisions advanced towards the sea and masses of infantry hastening behind them. On the day Belgium capitulated there was no more chance. The rests of the Allied troops in the north were taken prisoners. Could it however mean France's complete catastrophe? On 25 May took place a meeting attended by the president of France, prime-minister, ministers and supreme military commanders including old Marshal Philippe Pétain. The Supreme Commander, Gen. Weygand, presented the situation on the front: it ran along the Maginot Line, from Montmedy on Aisne along the Ailette, Crozat Canal, and Somme to the sea. This front was expected to become continuous very soon since on 20-24 May most of the troops, 36 divisions, assumed their positions. Another 3 divisions were kept in reserve, and 9 were hastening to the front. Two more divisions were called from North Africa; the General Headquarters considered the transfer of one more division from Africa and one from the Alps. Seven divisions had been formed out of the remnants of the 9th Army; they were expected to be ready by 1-15 June. 

So, almost sixty divisions but ten frozen on the Maginot Line. And almost 1200 tanks. So much forces France still possessed after the northern group of armies got cut out and annihilated. Nevertheless during the meeting the Supreme Commander expressed the view, that France had committed the immense error of going to the war without having adequate equipment or the military doctrine, which was necessary. Frankly speaking, Weygand lied in the former but was absolutely right in the latter. Nevertheless none of the participants asked the Supreme Commander whether there were chances to abandon useless doctrines before it came to a military disaster. Instead, President Albert Lebrun suggested discussing France's position in case of a peace offer. He stated that the problem had to be discussed before the total annihilation of the French army. Prime Minister Reynaud limited himself to acknowledgements to Gen. Weygand for accurate conferral of the situation. Apparently the officials responsible for the state had already considered the worst finale of the campaign in spite of having almost seventy divisions. One can frankly say without literary exaggeration that the spirit of defeat soared indeed over the Frenchmen's battle for France. Of course they did not miss officers, who were not blindfolded by the theory and routine, and demanded to promptly abandon old defensive strategy and tactics. We should have renounced the continuous front in order to manoeuvre and manoeuvre, said later Charles de Gaulle as he summarized ideas he tried to promote during the war. [Gaulle Ch. de (1998).] Nobody then wanted to listen to him, although in the manoeuvre, in the mobile operations, he saw a chance for France's salvation. Instead, on 29 May, Weygand addressed Reynaud with the request, that if the battle is lost, and France overrun, the really courageous thing to do would be to treat with the enemy. [Shirer W. L. (1969).] He expected, that it would happen after the rupture of the defence lines, on which French soldiers had to stand to the end. How provident was the new French supreme commander!

To the end... How lavish are generals in such directives! The orders of that sort were actually issued and many French soldiers fighting on the Somme fulfilled them literally as they had Paris behind their backs. But their own commander-in-chief did not believe in the effectiveness of the continuous front. Since there was no Maginot Line along the Somme a chain of temporary redoubts, called "hedgehogs", was built. Every redoubt, generously equipped with all kinds of arms and ammunition, was able to defend itself like a hedgehog from all the sides. But there were huge gaps, not covered even by artillery fire, left among the "hedgehogs". The Germans could easily penetrate positions of the French, who had no mobile reserve units to challenge enemy's incursions. For short - the celebrated continuous front was finally created, but its breakthrough would inevitably bring a disaster. Individual "hedgehogs" fought gallantly, but their effort was doomed anyway. For General Weygand expected that his continuous front would be pierced, and therefore he expected a final defeat because he was afraid to engage his forces in manoeuvre warfare. He could not even imagine that the fight could be continued after the continuous front got broken. He proved a man incapable to abandon useless doctrines and subsequently took his place in his country's infamous hall of shame of the first capitulationists.

The Germans resumed their advance early in the morning 5 June along the whole line on the Somme. At once they stalled on the "hedgehogs". One might expect that the French would overcome both the indolence of their command and the ominous activities of various individuals, who made for months a fuss about dying not for Danzig. But the Germans quickly discovered the weak points of the defence. On 7 June their XV Armoured Corps, commanded by Gen. Erwin Rommel, pierced through the French positions and headed to the lower Seine. They reached it next day and spotted there a hard defence of the Scottish 51st Highland Division, the last regular British unit Churchill sent to France somewhat upstream of the Dunkirk evacuation. The Britons held their positions for a couple days while the Germans ruptured French defence in the east, on the upper Aisne, and drove the defenders beyond the Marne. Therefore a double menace, from the west and east, emerged for Paris. On 10 June Weygand notified Reynaud, that in case the Germans crossed Seine and Marne, the collapse of the entire army would be just a matter of time. So the French government resolved to promptly abandon the capital and surrender it to the Germans. By night they made for Tours and next morning the Germans crossed Seine and Marne unmolested.

The same day 10 June happened another, though expected since some time, misfortune: Italy declared war on France and Great Britain. Benito Mussolini was waiting till the moment most appropriate according to him to catch an easy prey. Italian advance in the Alps launched the same day was actually sluggish and got halted at once, but since then the Italian navy menaced French communications in the West Mediterranean and Italian air forces bombed the British base in Aden.

On his way from Paris to Tours Prime Minister Reynaud learnt, that Weygand had just invited Churchill and his military advisers to France. In a democratic political system this was an inconceivable action and only proved the total confusion of the French supreme authorities: French militarymen did not hitherto dare to undertake such political actions like inviting the leaders of foreign governments. Nevertheless Reynaud authorized the meeting, which took place on 11 June in Briare - the new place of accommodation of the French supreme headquarters. Weygand stated at once: Our last line of defense fell apart everywhere. The Battle of France is lost. [Shirer W. L. (1969).] Weygand's statement was completely endorsed by others, especially Marshal Pétain. It caused a short verbal clash noted by de Gaulle:

Mr. Churchill, wishing to ease the atmosphere, said to him jovially, "Come, come, Monsieur le Maréchal! Remember the Battle of Amiens in March 1918, when things were going so badly. I visited you then at your HQ. You outlined your plan to me. A few days later the front was re-established."

Then the Marshal answered harshly, "Yes, the front was re-established. You, the English, were done for. But I sent forty divisions to rescue you. Today it's we who are smashed to pieces. Where are your forty divisions?" [Gaulle Ch. de (1998).]

Indeed: at that moment the British could support their allies only with two divisions.

The same day was sealed the fate of France's illustrious fortifications. Weygand ordered withdrawal from the Maginot Line for the salvation of the troops designated to its defence. The German troops rolling the Champagne were already menacing from the rear this French archbarricade, which subsequently became useless. The only logical thing to do was to save its garrison - the enterprise, which had not come true for the orders were issued too late. Nevertheless all these defeats could not determine the collapse of France - a world power, which still had enough resources to wage the war the Germans could not wage in longer term. So what, if on 12 June collapsed the Supreme Commander. In a few hours, he wrote later about his thoughts on that day, I would ask the government to conclude an armistice. [Shirer W. L. (1969).] He was already incapable to make more determined decisions. However on 13 June Reynaud demanded that Weygand would hold yet Brittany and Massif Central and considered, in case of complete defeat in France, continuation of the war from overseas territories. The same day Churchill arrived in Tours. In any case, he said, be sure that England will not retire from the struggle. We shall fight to the end, no matter how, no matter where, even if you leave us alone. [Gaulle Ch. de (1998).] He calmly listened to French suggestions to conclude an armistice, but firmly insisted that the French navy be saved. It was indeed an issue of capital importance: not too strong yet German naval forces fed with captured, and mostly very modern, French ships could make a challenge even to the British navy. And the Royal Navy at that time was the Britain's last resort.

Meanwhile German tanks were rolling the areas between the Seine and Loire. In the evening prime-minister Reynaud said in his radio-broadcast speech: If a miracle is needed to save France, I believe in a miracle. [Gaulle Ch. de (1998).] His belief was not to last long. On 14 June the Germans took Paris. The French government had moved from Tours farther to Bordeaux. Next day German armoured and mechanized columns reached Saone; the encirclement of the troops from the Maginot Line and neighbouring departments was becoming true. Two days later the Germans reached the Swiss border and the whole eastern grouping of the French forces found itself in a trap. The more so that since 14 June the Germans were attacking also from the east, from Saarland.

On 16 June Reynaud, overwhelmed by the catastrophe as well as more and more numerous capitulationists, resigned. President Lebrun assigned the leadership of the government to old Marshal Pétain. Little people might believe that meant further resistance: to them the old Marshal was the hero of the previous war. But the initiated ones knew that meant the end of resistance. Nothing could help France, even Reynaud's idea - unheard of in the relations between two great powers - to conclude a Franco-British union. This idea would probably never work anyway, but it contained a load of belief in France, her people, her navy and the possibility to continue the war from overseas. Pétain simply did not need a belief of that kind, and this was truly pointed by de Gaulle:

It must be said that, in any case, the Marshal considered the game lost. This old soldier, who had put on the harness in the aftermath of 1870, was naturally inclined to view the struggle as no more than another Franco-German war. Beaten in the first one, we had won the second - that of 1914-1918 - with allies, certainly, but allies who played a secondary part. We were now losing the third. It was cruel, but normal. After Sedan and the fall of Paris, the only thing was to end it, negotiate, and, if the case arose, crush the Commune, just as, in the same circumstances, Thiers had already done. In the old Marshal's judgment the world character of the conflict, the possibilities of the overseas territories, and the ideological consequences of Hitler's victory hardly entered into account. Those were not things he was in the habit of considering. [Gaulle Ch. de (1998).]

Indeed, on 17 June Pétain said in a radio broadcast: With a heavy heart I tell you today that it is necessary to stop the fighting. [Paxton R. O. (1972).] This was enough to ultimately demoralize the French army. Only few units were still fighting; the history of France would yet record the gallant defence of Tours, cavalry cadets' last stand in Saumur, Moroccan spahis holding the valley of Rhone, Polish grenadiers to refuse to capitulate despite angry orders of their French superiors, but the heroism of isolated units would not save the country, which did not lack any kind of means to wage the war, but lacked strengths and impulses capable to mobilize the energy of the whole nation. Crowds of soldiers and civilians alike met the capitulation with genuine, cretinous enthusiasm. Whether armed or not they cheered the fact, that they did not need to give their lives for their country any more, and marched into captivity. Among them happened French writer Francis Ambrière, who noted:

Our way was also through the battlefields not cooled yet after the recent fights. We realised that others, perhaps braver or better commanded, were fighting to the end and dying like soldiers. (...) We saw fresh graves with roughly squared crosses, sometimes adorned with a helmet, a cap, a photograph of a woman, or another item left after the dead. Battlefields in the first lines of the fight were not cleared yet (...) We saw soldiers where they fell. I still can see two artillerymen in the outskirts of a hamlet called Raon-l'Etape, who died when their gun was hit, and lay among its debris. Next to them lay the corpse of another soldier, whose body was covered with a white sheet; a firmly clenched fist protruded from beneath the cloth as if in the last, desperate gesture of menace or challenge. [Ambrière F. (1956).]

The Franco-German cease-fire was concluded on 22 June 1940, the Franco-Italian one - on 24 June. The Germans seized enough military equipment to arm 55 divisions. Two million Frenchmen were taken prisoners. A world superpower was eliminated from the further war; the bigger part of its territory with the capital was occupied by invaders, the rest was reduced to a puppet political creation ruled by a handful of renegades. Only in some overseas territories some more conscious and courageous administrators and commanders raised against the disgrace. Only a handful of patriots rallied around General de Gaulle, who announced continuation of the fight in his famous broadcast of 18 June. After all de Gaulle did not represent anybody; with Weygand's approval he was court-martialled in absentia and sentenced to death. The campaign in the West was waged by 108 French divisions, including four armoured ones, 10 British, 22 Belgian, 10 Dutch and 2 Polish divisions. They were supported by the joint power of the French and British air and naval forces. The campaign lasted 37 days - just two days longer than the Polish campaign. It ended in request to cease fire, formal capitulation, and ruin of the state, which had to accept enemies' political concepts and to give them all the resources of metropolitan France and its vast colonies.