For many, if not all, of our seasoned history-lovers, the fact that the Second World War might have been over by the middle of 1940 is unknown. But for the dogged determination of certain European nations, Hitler’s Germany could have been the military victor of the War, not just, as has indeed happened, the political and economic leader it has become. The United States need never have entered the War at the end of 1941. Russia could have stayed Russia instead of being under the Soviet yoke until the fall of the Berlin Wall. German could have been the obligatory second language in all European schools. Berlin might have been the capital of a different kind of European Union. To find the reasons why this did not happen we must look at France.
When Germany assaulted France on 10 May, 1940 Hitler’s forces were not much bigger or necessarily superior in quality to those of the invaded country, either in numbers or quantity of materiel. It is true that Germany had more aircraft. 136 German divisions confronted 125 French, British and Belgian divisions. Germany had more tanks, but historians now tell us more than half were already obsolete. The Allies however had 3,600 tanks, and many of the French tanks were better than anything Germany could provide.
But the Germans massed their tanks in ten Panzer divisions, while the Allies foolishly spread theirs among the infantry divisions. Germany had 3000 aircraft in the air, of which at least 2000 were modern. France had a thousand armed aeroplanes, while the British could manage only four hundred on French soil. Britain was keeping her few better aircraft in England, in readyness for a German invasion. Massed production of Hurricanes and Spitfires etc. had not yet started.
The Germans, under brilliant generals not yet cowed by Adolf Hitler, appeared to be attacking, as the Allies expected, through invaded Belgium and Holland. This drew Allied forces north, but it was not the main assault! This arrived in the form of Panzers through the woods of the Ardennes, regarded by senior French officers as unsuitable ground for tanks, and therefore feebly defended.
Panzer commander and strategist Heinz Guderian carried out the ‘Manstein plan’ perfectly and gave the world an idea of what the word blitzkrieg meant. By 14 May the Panzers had crossed the Meuse and opened up a fifty-mile wide gap in the allied front. This is the time when Allied troops met the Stuka dive-bomber for the first time, with its distinctive howling whine, racing along the River Meuse, dealing death and destruction, on the way to the open Channel.
Historians consider this use of the dive-bombers most daring, as the tanks were in long columns supported only by motorized infantry – therefore vulnerable to counter-attack from both north and south.
But there were no counter-attacks. Gamelin the French commander seemed paralysed by the speed of the German assault, and was replaced by Weygand, aged 73; by 20 May the Germans had reached the Channel.
By the 28th they had taken Calais and the French, British (an expeditionary force) and Belgians were cut off from the rest of the French divisions. The Dutch and Belgian armies surrendered without much fighting, and the British moved their small force to Dunkirk where (probably with divine help which is the only rational explanation) they were able to evacuate 338,000 troops in every kind of vessel from destroyers to sailing dinghies back to Britain. Dunkirk was considered a miracle at the time.
Weygand was now left trying to defend France by holding a line along the Somme and Aisne but he had only forty-five divisions against the Germans’ ninety-five, including ten Panzers. In the battle lasting from 5th to 9th of June the Weygand line was broken, and the French fell back to the Loire, which isolated those still defending the Maginot Line (q.v.), which proved useless.
From 10th to 14th June more than two million citizens of Paris had abandoned the capital; most headed south or in the direction of Switzerland. They knew that Hitler intended to set up his headquarters in the West there. German armies famously entered Paris on 14th June (quatorze juillet) in order to make the humiliation worse.
On the 16th Prime Minister Reynaud, a staunch anti-Nazi resigned after General Weygand refused to obey any order to carry on the fight.
This is where Marshall Pétain enters the story, having no hesitation in the acceptance without question of Hitler’s dictated terms of surrender. The whole of northern France and the Atlantic coast (from which the invasion of England was to be effected) were to be occupied by German forces. General de Gaulle, calling to France from the BBC’s broadcasting station in London, insisted that the French should continue the fight abroad. There was little response, except by those French men and women who had already managed to get out of France. There was to be some resistance in Vichy France (q.v.) from now until the end of the War, but perhaps not as much as the movies maintain.
The French Army – which under Bonaparte had terrorized all Europe and caused the Duke of Wellington to muse that it had been a very close thing – was defeated in six weeks.