How Did Germany Defeat France So Quickly in 1940?

Graham Land

4 mins

08 Aug 2018

Never one to shy away from hyperbole, Hitler predicted that the impending German advance in the west would result in ‘the greatest victory in world history’ and ‘decide the fate of the German nation for the next thousand years’.

This western offensive followed on from the German captures of Denmark and Norway in the face of relatively ineffective Allied resistance. It also coincided with political turmoil in France and Britain.

On the morning of 9 May Paul Reynaud offered his resignation as prime minister to the French President, which was rejected, and that evening Neville Chamberlain relieved himself of his position as British Prime Minister. Churchill took his place the following morning.

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The German war plans

In a reversal of the Schlieffen Plan, which Germany adopted in approaching France in 1914, the German command decided to push into France through the Luxembourg Ardennes, ignoring the Maginot Line and enacting Mannstein’s Sichelsnitt (sickle-cut) plan. This was designed to capitalise on Allied expectations that Germany would once again focus on invading France through Belgium.

Although intelligence was received by the French indicating the threat from the Ardennes it was not taken seriously enough and defences along the River Meuse were completely insufficient. Instead, the focus for the Allied defence would be at the River Dyle, between Antwerp and Louvain. The Germans knew the details of these initial plans, having broken French codes without difficulty, which instilled further confidence in their intention to invade from the south.

Panzer_II_and_Panzer_I_May_1940

A Panzer Mark II emerges from the Ardennes forest, May 1940.

The attack begins

On 10 May the Luftwaffe began attacking France, Belgium and Holland, concentrating particularly on the latter. The Germans also dropped airborne assault troops from Junkers 52 transporters, a novel tactic in warfare. They seized strategic points in eastern Belgium and landed deep within Holland.

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As hoped, this drew the French troops and BEF into the northern half of Belgium and towards Holland. To compound things, they were slowed in their reaction by the mass of refugees travelling in the opposite direction – it is thought that 8,000,000 deserted their homes in France and the Low Countries over the summer.

German_Troops_Rotterdam_May_1940

German troops move through Rotterdam, May 1940.

Meanwhile, over the course of 11 May, German tanks, infantry and supporting equipment protected overhead by Messerschmidts streamed through Luxembourg under the cloak of the Ardennes forests. The priority placed on the Panzer Divisions facilitated the speed and aggression of the German advance.

This was barely halted by the demolition of bridges as the French retreated, due to the speed with which advanced German bridging companies could build pontoon replacements.

Pontoon_Bridge_Over_Meuse_Near_Sedan_May_1940

A German pontoon bridge over the Meuse near Sedan, where they would win a decisive battle. May 1940.

The Allies in chaos

Poor and chaotic French communication combined with a continued unwillingness to accept where the greatest threat to their border lay to aid the Germans in moving west across the Meuse. From there, the Germans met French resistance at the village of Sedan.

Although they suffered more casualties here than in any other encounter during the Battle of France, the Germans won swiftly using their Panzer divisions with support of motorised infantry and thereafter poured towards Paris.

French_Colonial_POWs_May_1940

French colonial troops, who were subjected to extreme racial abuse by their Nazi counterparts, taken as POWs. May 1940.

Like the Germans, de Gaulle understood the importance of mechanised warfare – he was dubbed ‘Colonel Motors’ – and attempted to counter from the south with the 4th Armoured Division on 16 May. But he was ill-equipped and lacked support and despite benefitting from the element of surprise in attacking at Montcornet was quickly forced to withdraw.

By 19 May the fast-moving Panzer corridor had reached Arras, separating the RAF from British ground troops, and by the following night they were at the coast. The Allies were dogged by mutual suspicion, with the French bemoaning the British decision to withdraw the RAF from France and the British feeling that the French lacked the will to fight.

The miracle of Dunkirk

Over the following days the British and French troops were gradually pushed back under heavy bombardment to Dunkirk, from where 338,000 of them would be miraculously evacuated between 27 May and 4 June. The RAF managed to maintain a degree of superiority over the Luftwaffe at this time, whilst the panzer divisions hung back to avoid losses.

Abondoned_Anti-aircraft_Dead_Troops_Evacuation_From_Dunkirk_in_1940_HU2286

Abandoned corpses and anti-aircraft at Dunkirk after the Allied evacuation. June 1940.

100,000 British troops remained in France south of the Somme. Although some French troops defended bravely, others joined the masses of refuges, and the Germans marched on to a deserted Paris. Armistice was signed by French representatives on 22 June, accepting German occupation of around 60% of the landmass. They had lost 92,000 men, with 200,000 wounded and almost 2 million more taken as as prisoners of war. France would live under German occupation for the next four years.

Armistice_Compiègne_Hitler_Göring_June_1940

Hitler and Göring outside the railway carriage in Compiègne Forest where the armistice was signed on 22 June 2940. This was the same place that the 1918 armistice was signed. The site was destroyed by the Germans and the carriage taken to Berlin as a trophy.