A Short History of World War II, Adolf Hitler, Ardennes, Charles de Gaulle, Erich von Manstein, European History, Fedor von Bock, Ferdinand Foch, French History, Gerd von Rundstedt, Heinz Guderian, James L. Stokesbury, Luftwaffe, Maginot Line, Maurice Gamelin, Military, military history, Monsieur Jerôme Barzetti, Napoleon Bonaparte, Nazis, Nazism, Schlieffen Plan, The Fall of France, The Weeping Frenchman, Third Reich, Vichy France, War, warfare, Winston Churchill, World War Two
“[T]he French based their operational plan [for repelling a Nazi invasion] on four assumptions…
These assumptions were, first, that the Maginot Line was indeed impregnable; second, that the Ardennes Forest north of it was impassable; third, that the Germans were therefore left with no option but a wheel through the Low Countries [Belgium and Holland], a replay of the Schlieffen Plan of 1914; and fourth, that to meet and defeat this, the French would advance into Belgium and Holland and come to their aid as soon as the war started. The Anglo-French were sure, correctly, that the minute the first German stepped over the frontier, the Dutch and Belgians would hastily abandon their neutrality and start yelling for help.
Materially, though they were unaware of it, the Allies were more than ready for the Germans. Figures vary so widely — wildly even — that one can choose any set to make any argument desired. In 1940, the French high command was speaking of 7,000 German tanks, deliberately overestimating them to cover themselves in the event of a disaster. What this did for French morale can readily be imagined. Figures now available give a comparison something like this:
German Men: 2,000,000
Allied Men: 4,000,000
The original [Nazi] plan called for a drive north of Liège [Blue ‘X’ on the map above]; Hitler now changed it to straddle Liège, that is, he moved the axis of the attack farther south. Finally, he was convinced by von Rundstedt’s chief of staff, General Erich von Manstein, that the plan ought to be reversed. Instead of making the main effort in the north, the Germans would go through the Ardennes; instead of Schlieffen, there would be ‘Sichelschnitt,’ a ‘sickle cut’ that would slice through the French line at its weak point and envelop the northern armies as they rushed to the defense of the Belgians and Dutch. Manstein was an infantryman and was uncertain about the Ardennes; he approached General Heinz Guderian, the recognized German tank authority, who said it could be done. Hitler jumped at it immediately, and the plan was turned around. The assumptions on which the French had planned their campaign were now totally invalidated. […]
In the early dawn of May 10 the Germans struck.
There were the usual Luftwaffe attacks at Allied airfields and communications centers, and by full day the Germans were rolling forward all along the Dutch and Belgian frontiers. The whole plan depended upon making the Allies think it was 1914 all over again. Therefore, the initial weight of the attack was taken by General von Bock’s Army Group B advancing into Holland. Strong infantry and armor attacks were carried out, along with heavy aerial bombardment, and paratroop and airborne landings on key airfields at The Hague and Rotterdam, and bridges across the major rivers. The Dutch hastened to their advanced positions, some of which they managed to hold for two or three days, others of which they were levered off almost immediately.
The whole campaign of Holland took a mere four days.
The mass of French armor was in Belgium and Holland and busy with its own battle. The French tried; they threw an armored division, newly organized under General de Gaulle, at the southern German flank. This attack later became one of the pillars of de Gaulle’s reputation — he at least had fought — yet it achieved nothing more than the destruction of his division. The few gains the French tanks made could not be held against the Germans sweeping by, and they hardly noticed that there was anything special about this attack.
As the Germans went on toward Cambrai, toward the sea, the new British Prime Minister, Churchill, came over to see what on earth was going on. He visited [French Commander-in-chief Maurice] Gamelin and looked at the maps. Surely, he said, if the head of the German column was far to the west, and the tail was far to the east, they must be thin somewhere. Why did the French not attack with their reserves? In his terrible French he asked Gamelin where the French reserves were. Gamelin replied with an infuriating Gallic shrug: there were no reserves. Churchill went home appalled.
Hitler was determined to rub it in. The armistice talks were held at Rethondes, in the railway carriage where the Germans had surrendered to [former Head Allied] Marshal [Ferdinand] Foch in 1918. The Germans occupied northern France and a strip along the Atlantic coast down to the Spanish frontier. They retained the French prisoners of war, more than a million of them, and used them in effect as hostages for the good behavior of the new French government, set up at the small health resort of Vichy. They wanted the French fleet demobilized in French ports, but under German control. The French agreed to essentially everything; there was little else they could do but accept the humiliation of defeat. After their delegation signed the surrender terms, Hitler danced his little victory jig outside the railway carriage and ordered that it be hauled off to Germany. He left the statue of Foch, but the plaque commemorating Germany’s surrender twenty-two years ago was blown up.
On the morning of the 25th, the sun rose over a silent France. The cease-fire had come into effect during the hours of darkness. The refugees could now go home or continue their flight unharassed by the dive-bombers. Long silent columns of prisoners shuffled east. The French generals and politicians began composing their excuses, the Germans paraded through Paris, visited the tourist sites, and began counting their booty. It had indeed been one of the great campaigns of all time, better than 1870, probably unequaled since Napoleon’s veterans had swarmed over Prussia in 1806; Jena and Auerstadt were at last avenged, and there would be no more victories over Germany while the thousand-year Reich endured.
The casualties reflected the inequality of the campaign. The Germans had suffered about 27,000 killed, 18,000 missing, and just over 100,000 wounded. The Dutch and Belgian armies were utterly destroyed; the British lost about 68,000 men and all their heavy equipment: tanks, trucks, guns — everything. The French lost track of their figures in the collapse at the end, but the best estimates gave them about 125,000 killed and missing, about 200,000 wounded. The Germans claimed that they had taken one and a half million prisoners, which they probably had. Except for defenseless England, the war appeared all but over.”
Selections from the eighth chapter (“The Fall of France”) in James L. Stokesbury’s A Short History of World War II. Though I’m not if it’s considered AAA historiography by experts in the field, Stokesbury’s book is a highly informative, tight read, divided into episodes that make for good twenty minute immersions in specific topics. I recommend it.
The above photo, often called “The Weeping Frenchman,” was taken several months after the invasion and published in the March 3rd, 1941 edition of Life Magazine. It depicts Monsieur Jerôme Barzetti, a resident of Marseilles who wept as the flags of his country’s last regiments were exiled to Africa. You can read more about it here.
Below: soldiers from the Wehrmacht march down a Parisian boulevard.
Stay on topic:
- Why the French still seem to deny their role in the war, but the Germans now own theirs
- The charming Hungarian immigrant who stormed Omaha Beach with a camera
- Hitler’s ridiculous laziness
- Churchill’s superhuman energy
- “Your leaders are crazy”: the leaflet we dropped on Nazi Germany