In the Second World War, the Battle of France was the German invasion of France and the Low Countries, beginning on 10 May 1940, which ended the Phoney War. The battle consisted of two main operations. In the first, Fall Gelb (Case Yellow), German armoured units pushed through the Ardennes, to cut off and surround the Allied units that had advanced into Belgium. During the fighting, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and many French soldiers were evacuated from Dunkirk in Operation Dynamo.
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Military Balance – Western Europe May 1940
On the evening of May 9, 1940 – the day before the German onslaught on western Europe – there were 2,350,000 Germans with 2,700 tanks and supported by 3,200 aircraft poised on Germany’s western frontiers; facing them between Basel and the North Sea were 2,000,000 Frenchmen, 237,000 British, 375,000 Belgians, and 250,000 Dutchmen, with 3,000 tanks and supported by 1,700 aircraft. The Germans therefore had considerable superiority in the air and the Allies a comparatively small numerical superiority on the ground. But, as often happens, statistics alone are misleading; there were major differences between the two sets of forces. In fact, two differing concepts of land warfare stood opposed. This was the governing factor and from it stemmed the majority of the differences in organisation, equipment, and planning.
During the inter-war period the French army had been looked upon by the world in general and by the French in particular as the fount of military knowledge in so far as large-scale continental warfare was concerned, and the French Staff College was the Mecca for aspiring officers from many nations. Perhaps understandably, French military thinking had not progressed beyond modernisation of the strategy and tactics which had brought them victory in 1918. The defence was held to be inherently superior to the attack, the balance being capable of adjustment only by use of a very great weight of material, mainly in artillery. The attack was therefore conceived as a slow and ponderous affair, tanks being used primarily in close support of infantry or to take the place of horsed cavalry in a reconnaissance or screening role. Much emphasis was laid upon the necessity of maintaining a continuous line. Aircraft were used for reconnaissance and interdiction, not for close support of land operations.
The Belgians and Dutch, who made little pretence of possessing modernised forces, followed the French school of thought.
The Germans had had one considerable advantage – they had to rebuild their forces from nothing. They were inhibited neither by traditional military thinking – for their political leaders overrode their most entrenched military die-hard’s – nor by the possession of large quantities of equipment designed for the First World War. The Treaty of Versailles had forbidden them an air force and had limited their army to 100,000 men; this force they had used, with some limited assistance from Russia, as a basis for experimentation and expansion. They had studied and absorbed the more advanced theories of land warfare (developed primarily in England by such men as Captain Liddell Hart [Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart (1895-1970) wikipedia] and General Fuller [Major-General John Frederick Charles Fuller CB CBE DSO (1878-1960) wikipedia]) and, under the influence of thoughtful and forceful generals like Guderian [Heinz Wilhelm Guderian (1888-1954) wikipedia] and Thoma [Heinrich Thoma (1891-1948) wikipedia], they based their concepts upon concentrated offensive action and highly mobile operations aimed at deep penetration far in rear of the ‘front’ or ‘line’.
For this purpose, tanks were grouped in armoured divisions or corps, and used in massed formations with aircraft taking the place of close-support artillery; parachute troops were developed to seize defiles and crossings of major obstacles, ahead of the armour. Concentration, mobility, and bold leadership were the three pillars of German strategic doctrine, and in September 1939 the German regular army had proved to their own satisfaction that the system worked – at least, that it had done so against an enemy of the strength of the Poles.
The British stood halfway between the French and the Germans. They had had the ideas but had been slow to put them into practice. The majority of Liddell Hart’s and Fuller’s disciples were still in comparatively low positions and in general the prophets ‘had not been without honour save in their own country’. Financial stringency in the inter-war years had also exerted a deadening influence; ‘Imperial policing’ had loomed large among the army’s tasks, and the ‘picketing the heights’ mentality, born and bred on the North-West Frontier of India, died hard. The RAF tended to regard air warfare as an activity totally distinct from war on land and to resist any too intimate involvement in a land battle.
During the 1930’s experiments had been carried out with a mechanised force on Salisbury Plain and in 1940 an armoured division was being formed. The fact remained, however, that on this evening of May 9 there was no British armoured division in France and one-third of the BEF’s tanks were ‘I’ tanks designed only for close support of infantry.
These then were the ideas. Now let us examine the practical consequences to which they led.
The most visible and physical expression of the French belief in the power of the defensive was the Maginot Line [Maginot Line wikipedia], begun in 1929 and named after the Minister of War at the time. It covered the French eastern and north-eastern frontier from Basel to Longuyon – in other words, the whole length facing Germany and Luxembourg. From Basel to Haguenau, the Rhine – in itself a formidable obstacle – was at the same time the frontier; the Line therefore consisted of no more than a dense network of concrete pillboxes. From Haguenau west-wards, however, it was, and still is, the most formidable military construction of its type ever completed and was to all intents and purposes impregnable. Hills had been scarped for miles as an anti-tank barrier; gaps were sealed by anti-tank ditches and obstacles. The main works were veritable underground fortresses not unlike a battleship inside, with self-raising gun turrets, ammunition hoists, and underground electric railways to move the ammunition from the fire-proof magazines; the major forts required a garrison of near battalion strength. But this great defensive effort ended at Longuyon. Thence to the sea the frontier was covered only by improvised defences, mostly constructed after the outbreak of war.
On the German side was the West Wall, commonly known as the Siegfried Line. It had been more hurriedly constructed and did not include forts of the same size and complexity of the French. Begun in 1936, it had been conceived as a protection to the German flank during a campaign in eastern Europe. As with its French counterpart, time and money had run out before it had been completed, and in May 1940 it ended a few miles north of Aachen.
The Maginot Line severely limited the area in which the Germans could launch the mobile offensive operations demanded by their strategy. Nevertheless the balance of advantage was in their favour. The Maginot Line had lulled the French into a false sense of security and was a factor in the growth of a defensive mentality. In May 1940 one in seven of the French divisions in the north-east theatre was a fortress division capable only of fighting from its fortifications. By comparison the German garrison of the Siegfried Line was a very small proportion of the German army.
Under the ‘North-East Front’, which was responsible for the defence of France from Basel to the North Sea, the French had a total of 94 divisions in the field:
• 63 Infantry Divisions
• 7 Motorised Infantry Divisions
• 3 Armoured Divisions
• 3 Light Mechanised Divisions
• 5 Cavalry Divisions
• 13 Fortress Divisions
Of the normal infantry divisions 30 were active (regular) divisions, the remainder were reserve divisions constituted only on the outbreak of war and composed of reservists with a small regular cadre. Except in the motorised divisions, infantry transport was still horsed; so were the cavalry divisions. The fire power of a French division was nonetheless high; it included a total of some 90 guns of varying calibre, not counting anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. Overall the French army went into battle with a total of over 11,000 guns, approximately 50% of which, however, were the well-known ‘75s’ of the First World War; good though the gun still was, it was rapidly becoming obsolete.
The British Expeditionary Force [British Expeditionary Force wikipedia] consisted of ten divisions (five regular, five territorial), all of which were partially motorised infantry divisions. On May 9, 1940, the only British armoured division was still training in England and the armour available to the BEF consisted of one army tank brigade, two light armoured reconnaissance brigades, and three divisional cavalry regiments. The total tank strength of the BEF was approximately 300.
The Belgian army comprised 22 divisions, including two cavalry and two Chasseurs Ardennais [Chasseurs Ardennais (WWII) wikipedia] divisions, which were partially motorised. The remainder were infantry. There was no armour.
The Dutch army provided 10 divisions, all infantry apart from one light division. Again there was no armour.
One the German side, a total of 136 divisions was earmarked for employment in the west. They consisted of:
• 118 Infantry Divisions
• 7 Motorised Infantry Divisions
• 10 Armoured Divisions
• 1 Cavalry Division
Parachute troops belonged to the Luftwaffe. Of the infantry divisions only 35 were active; the remainder were reserve divisions formed on the outbreak of war in seven ‘waves’. Compared to the French, the German army was under-gunned, possessing only 7,700 guns against the French 11,000. The standard German field gun, however, was the 105mm; a superior weapon to the French 75, and further example of the advantage accruing from complete, though enforced, re-equipment.
In this outline of forces available, the formations which leap to the eye are, of course, the ten German armoured divisions. In divisional-size formations the Allied list shows only the three armoured and three light mechanised divisions of the French army. Yet, as we have seen above, the Allies had in fact a small overall numerical superiority in tanks. The majority, however, were deployed in ‘penny packets’, distributed along the front for close support of infantry.
Because the Dutch and Belgian air forces were negligible, on the Allied side we have only the French and British to consider.
The French air force had been sadly neglected during the inter-war period and comprised a total of some 1,200 aircraft:
• 600 single-seater fighters (Morane, Bloch, Dewoitine, Curtiss and Loire)
• 100 twin-seat fighters (Potez 63)
• 150 to 175 bombers
• 350 to 400 reconnaissance
The British air forces in France totalled approximately 500 aircraft:
• 130 fighters (Blenheim, Hurricane)
• 220 light bombers and reconnaissance (Battle, Blenheim)
• 50 army co-operation planes (Lysander)
These do not, however, represent the full extent of the British contribution since air forces based in the United Kingdom, particularly Spitfire squadrons, could be, and were, used in France. Total Allied air strength, was therefore approximately 1,700 aircraft.
Against this the Luftwaffe could produce a formidable force:
• 1,000 fighters (Me109 and Me110)
• 1,200 bombers (He111)
• 350 Stukas (Ju87 and Ju88)
• 250 medium bombers (Dorniers)
• 400 scouts
The German total was therefore 3,200 aircraft, a numerical superiority of nearly two to one. Moreover, in almost every department German aircraft were technically superior to their Allied counterparts. The only Allied aircraft which could indisputably get the better of its German opposite number (the Me109) was the Spitfire. It will also be noted that only the German air force possessed a Stuka (dive-bomber) force, the close-support artillery for the armoured formation. The Luftwaffe had been tailored to its job.
On the German side the problem of high command was comparatively simple. They had only themselves to consider, and their organisational problems were merely those created by Hitler himself; he had assumed the position of Supreme Commander and exerted his influence primarily through Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) [Oberkommando der Wehrmacht wikipedia], the defence staff of the German armed forces, which was in effect little more than his personal military bureau. It was Hitler who had pushed his somewhat unwilling military command into preparations for a campaign in the west, and he had taken an active personal part in its planning; he had not, however, at this stage of the war, begun to interfere in the actual conduct of operations.
Each of the three services had its own high command: the army, Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH) [Oberkommando des Heeres wikipedia]; the navy, Oberkommando der Kriegsmarine (OKM) [Oberkommando der Marine wikipedia]; the air force, Oberkommando der Luftwaffe (OKL) [Oberkommando der Luftwaffe wikipedia]. The C-in-C of the army was von Brauchitsch [Walther von Brauchitsch (1881-1948) wikipedia], while the C-in-C of the Luftwaffe was Göring [Hermann Wilhelm Göring (1893-1946) wikipedia]. The forces standing ready on the western frontier were divided into three army groups:
• In the North – from the North Sea to the southern tip of Holland (opposite Maastricht) Army Group B (Bock [Fedor von Bock (1880-1945) wikipedia]) – 29 ½ divisions, including three armoured, two motorised, one airborne, and one cavalry – with Air Fleet II (Kesselring [Albert Kesselring (1885-1960) wikipedia]).
• In the Centre – from the southernmost tip of Holland to the south-eastern corner of Luxembourg, Army Group A (Rundstedt [Gerd von Runstedt (1875-1953) wikipedia]) – 45 ½ divisions, including seven armoured and three motorised, with Air Fleet III (Sperrle [Hugo Sperrle (1885-1953) wikipedia]).
• In the South – from Luxembourg to the Swiss frontier facing the Maginot Line, Army Group C (Leeb [Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb (1876-1956) wikipedia]) – 19 divisions. A considerable reserve of 42 divisions was retained under direct control of OKH.
A number of points stand out from this grouping. In the first place almost the entire weight of the German army and air force was concentrated in the northern half of the western front; the whole length of the Maginot Line was watched by only 19 divisions out of a total of 136. Secondly, within the Northern Sector the main ‘punch’ was concentrated in Army Group A, opposite the Belgian and Luxembourg frontiers: Rundstedt had seven out of the ten armoured divisions and three of the five that were motorised. Finally, the air organisation was simple and logical; each attacking army group was supported by an air fleet containing fighters, light bombers, and reconnaissance aircraft; and the dive-bombers, the close support artillery for the armour, were centralised under OKL. Concentration, the first pillar of German strategy, was the key-note.
With the Allies, the high command problem was by no means so simple. Four nations were involved and two of them, Belgium and Holland, were determined to maintain their neutrality up to the last possible moment. Not only could there be no question of a unified Allied command but the Belgians and Dutch had refused even to hold staff conversations with their political allies or to co-ordinate their plans between themselves.
Even between the British and French there was no integrated command in the later sense of that word. Although he was under overall French command, Lord Gort [John Vereker 6th Viscount Gort (1886-1946) wikipedia] at the head of the BEF was a C-in-C in his own right as well as an army commander, and retained a certain independence of status. Finally, the French and British were physically separated from their future allies and the latter from each other, since no movement across their national frontiers by each other could take place without formal invitation – and this would not be issued before the Germans moved. Fifty per cent of the Franco-British forces were not directly facing their enemy.
The French command system was a peculiar one. At the head of the French army was General Gamelin [Maurice Gustave Gamelin (1872-1958) wikipedia], responsible for the defence of France on all fronts, including her over-seas territories. Facing Germany and Belgium – and at this stage of the war naturally containing the bulk of the French army – was the ‘North-East Front’ under General Georges [Alphonse Joseph Georges (1875-1951) wikipedia]. Gamelin had his headquarters at Vincennes on the outskirts of Paris; Georges was located at La Ferté-sous-Jouarre, about 40 miles east of the capital. A single staff located at Montry, over 20 miles east of Vincennes and about the same distance south-west of La Ferté, was intended to serve them both; the Chief-of-Staff, General Doumenc [Edward Joseph Aimé Doumenc (1880-1948) fr.wikipedia], made valiant attempts to divide his time between his two masters.
The C-in-C of the French air force, General Vuillemin [Joseph Vuillemin (1883-1963) wikipedia], had his headquarters at yet another place, Coulommiers, with an ‘Officer Commanding the Air Co-operation Forces’ alongside the C-in-C of the North-East Front’. The whole area was divided into ‘zones of air operations’ corresponding to the boundaries of army groups, an arrangement which should theoretically have worked well, but in practice meant that the French air force was never used in concentration, and air units frequently received contradictory orders from central headquarters and the ‘Air Observation Groups’ attached to the armies.
Directly subordinate to General Georges along the north-east and eastern frontiers of France were, from north to south:
• The French 7th Army [7th Army (France) wikipedia] (Giraud [Henri Giraud (1879-1949) wikipedia]) – from the North Sea to Bailleul. It consisted of seven élite French divisions, including two motorised infantry and one light mechanised.
• The British Expeditionary Force (Gort) – from Bailleul to Maulde north-east of Douai. On May 9th it comprised nine infantry divisions, one division (51st Highland [51st Highland Division wikipedia]) having been detached to the Saar front. As already mentioned, the C-in-C of the BEF, although under command of the North-East Front, retained a certain measure of independence. His directive included the following statement: ‘If any order given by him (C-in-C, North-East Front) appears to you to imperil the British Field Force it is agreed between the British and French Governments that you should be at liberty to appeal to the British Government before executing that order.’ The British Air Forces in France (BAFF [British Air Forces in France wikipedia]), while intended to give the BEF ‘full assurance’ regarding air support, were also required to operate ‘in accordance with the day-to-day needs of the Allied situation on the western front as a whole’.
• French Army Group 1 (Billotte [Gaston Billotte (1875-1940) wikipedia]) – from Maulde to the western end of the Maginot Line proper, opposite the south-west corner of Luxembourg. It consisted of three armies:
(four infantry divisions, two light mechanised divisions, two motorised infantry divisions)
(five infantry divisions, one motorised infantry division, two cavalry divisions)
(five infantry divisions, two cavalry divisions)
• French Army Group 2 (Prételat [André-Gaston Prételat (1874-1969) wikipedia]) – holding the Maginot Line from Longuyon to Basel. This consisted of four armies totalling, with the fortress troops, some 43 divisions. Except for one cavalry division on the Luxembourg frontier, it had no mobile formations.
The French general reserve consisted of 22 divisions, including all three armoured divisions, and two motorised infantry divisions. Of this total, however, seven divisions, including two armoured, were ear-marked for immediate allocation to Army Group 1 in the event of any German move through Belgium and Holland, five more divisions were ear-marked to guard against a possible German outflanking move through Switzerland. The true French reserve therefore consisted only of some ten divisions, including one armoured.
The arresting point about the Franco-British dispositions was the high proportion of the available forces allotted to the southern sector, already heavily protected by the Maginot Line. A total of 104 divisions was available, and of these 43 were in or behind the Maginot Line, while – even including the earmark from general reserve – there were only 46 divisions in the north-west sector. Admittedly that sector included the majority of the available armoured and mobile formations, but nevertheless comparison between the two sides is striking: on the German side the whole weight of the army was concentrated in the northern half of the front, leaving the southern sector defended only by a thin screen; on the Allied side, the forces were more or less evenly distributed along the entire length of the front, in accordance with the French theory of the continuous line. Moreover, the Germans kept a large reserve (42 divisions), the Allies a small one, half of which was already earmarked.
The distribution of forces within the Franco-British north-west sector also deserves consideration. Four French armies and the BEF stood ready along this 200 miles frontier, but their strength was not evenly distributed. In the north-west half of the sector were three armies (French 7th Army, BEF, French 1st Army) with 24 divisions, including the vast majority of the armoured and motorised formations. Opposite south-east Belgium and western Luxembourg were two armies totalling only 15 divisions. This was in fact the weakest point of the entire Franco-British front.
Beyond the frontier along which stood the Franco-British left wing, the Belgian Army was manning its defences. King Leopold [Leopold III of Belgium (1901-1983) wikipedia] was its C-in-C; he took his advice from his military adviser, General van Overstraeten [Raoul Van Overstraeten (1885-1977) fr.wikipedia], rather than from his General Staff. The main line of defence was the Albert Canal, running northwest from Liège to Antwerp; south of Liège the defence was based on the Meuse, westwards to Namur and thence south to the French frontier. Liège, which was heavily fortified, therefore constituted the linchpin of the entire system. Five corps comprising a total of 12 divisions were on the line of the Albert Canal; one corps of two divisions was responsible for the defence of Liège; a further corps of of two divisions, including one Chasseurs Ardennais division, held the bridges over the Meuse from Liège to the French frontier, while one cavalry division and a second Chasseurs Ardennais division were located in the Ardennes. Four divisions were in reserve in the interior of Belgium.
Major-General R.H. Barry
taken from History of the Second World War
[Phoebus Publishing Ltd in collaboration with the Imperial War Museum