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|Battle of France|
|Part of the Second World War|
Clockwise from top left: German Panzer IV tanks passing through a town in France; German soldiers marching past the Arc de Triomphe after the surrender of Paris, June 14, 1940; Column of French Renault R35 tanks at Sedan, Ardennes; British and French prisoners at Veules-les-Roses; French soldiers on review within the Maginot Line fortifications.
| Allies: |
Italy (from 10 June)
|Commanders and leaders|
| Maurice Gamelin (until 17 May)|
Alphonse Georges (until 17 May)
Maxime Weygand (from 17 May)
| Gerd von Rundstedt|
Fedor von Bock
Wilhelm von Leeb
| Allies: 144 divisions|
Alps on 20 June
| Axis: 141 divisions|
Alps on 20 June
|Casualties and losses|
| 360,000 dead or wounded,|
Total: 2,260,000 casualties
| Axis:157,621 casualties|
1,236-1,345 aircraft destroyed
323-488 aircraft damaged
795 tanks destroyed
Italy:6,029; Italian forces were involved in fighting in the French Alps, where severe sub-zero temperatures are common even during the summer.
Total: 163,650 casualties
In the Second World War, the Battle of France, also known as the Fall of France, was the successful German invasion of France and Belgium, beginning on May 10, 1940 defeating primarily French and British forces. 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. When the French and British were pushed back by superior German manpower and weaponry, the British government decided to evacuate their British Expeditionary Force (BEF) along with several French divisions at Dunkirk in Operation Dynamo.
When France was left to fend for itself after the British evacuation, Germany launched a second operation, Fall Rot (Case Red), which was commenced on June 5 and left the French government indecisive on the best course of action since only part of the French forces were mobilized and the government was divided on the best course of action since many politicians wanted peace with Germany. Under the cover of the political turmoil in Paris, German forces outflanked the Maginot Line and pushed deep into France with little resistance. German forces subsequently arrived in Paris on June 14 and met with French officials seeking an alliance with Germany. This alliance was led by Marshal Philippe Pétain who, against the wishes of many Frenchmen, publicly announced his desire for an armistice with Germany.
On June 22, an armistice was signed between France and Germany, which resulted in the division of France whereby Germany would control the north and west, a small Italian occupation zone in the southeast, and an unoccupied zone, the zone libre was to be run by Marshall Philippe Petain himself under the newly formed Vichy government. France remained under Axis control until after the war ended.
Since his rise to power, Hitler had always fostered dreams about major military campaigns to defeat the Western European nations as a preliminary step to actions in Eastern Europe, thus avoiding a two-front war. This plan was firmly based on the seemingly more realistic assumption that Germany's military strength would still have to be built up for mobilization and that for the moment only limited objectives could be envisaged. They were aimed at improving Germany's ability to survive a long, protracted war in the West. Hitler ordered a conquest of Belgium to be executed at the shortest possible notice. This would stop France from occupying them first, and prevent Allied air power from threatening the vital German Ruhr Area. It would also provide the basis for a successful long-term air and sea campaign against Britain. There was no mention of any immediate consecutive attack to conquer the whole of France, although as much as possible of the border areas in northern France should be occupied.
Similarity to Schlieffen Plan
On October 10, 1939 the British refused Wilhem's offer of peace; on 12 October, the French did the same. Franz Halder, the chief of staff of the German Army (Generalstabschef des Heeres), presented the first plan for Fall Gelb ("Case Yellow") on October 19, the pre-war codename of plans for campaigns in the Low Countries: the Aufmarschanweisung N°1, Fall Gelb ("Deployment Instruction No. 1, Case Yellow"). Halder's plan has often been compared to the Schlieffen Plan, which the Germans attempted to execute in 1914 during the opening phase of the First World War. It was similar in that both plans entailed an advance through the middle of Belgium, but while the intention of the Schlieffen Plan was to gain a decisive victory by executing a surprise encirclement of the French Army, Aufmarschanweisung N°1 was based on an unimaginative frontal attack, sacrificing a projected half a million German soldiers to attain the limited goal of throwing the Allies back to the River Somme. Germany's strength for 1940 would then be spent; only in 1942 could the main attack against France begin.
Hitler was very disappointed with Halder's plan and reacted first by deciding that the German army should attack early, ready or not, in the hope that Allied unpreparedness might bring about an easy victory. This led to a series of postponements, as time and again commanders convinced the Kaiser and Hitler to delay the attack for a few days or weeks to remedy some critical defect in the preparations, or to wait for better weather. Hitler also tried to alter the plan which he found unsatisfactory, without clearly understanding how it could be improved. This mainly resulted in a dispersion of effort, since besides the main axis in central Belgium, secondary attacks were foreseen further south. Hitler made such a suggestion on November 11. On October 29, Halder let a second operational plan, Aufmarschanweisung N°2, Fall Gelb, reflect these changes by featuring a secondary attack from the Netherlands.
Hitler was not alone in disliking Halder's plan. General Gerd von Rundstedt, the commander of Army Group A, also disagreed with it. Unlike Hitler, von Rundstedt understood perfectly well how it should be rectified as a professional soldier. Its fundamental flaw was that it did not conform to the classic principles of the Bewegungskrieg ("manoeuvre warfare") which had been the basis of German operations since the 19th century. A breakthrough would have to be accomplished that would result in the encirclement and destruction of the main body of Allied forces. The logical place to achieve this would be in the region of Sedan, which lay in the sector of von Rundstedt's Army Group. On October 21, von Rundstedt agreed with his chief of staff, Generalleutnant Erich von Manstein, that an alternative operational plan had to be arranged that would reflect these basic ideas, making Army Group A as strong as possible at the expense of Army Group B to the north.
Whilst von Manstein was formulating new plans in Koblenz, Generalleutnant Heinz Guderian, commander of the XIX Army Corps, Germany's elite armoured formation, happened to be lodged in a nearby hotel. At this moment, von Manstein's plan consisted of a move directly north from Sedan against the rear of the main Allied forces in Belgium. When Guderian was invited to contribute to the plan during informal discussions, he proposed a radical and novel idea. Not only his army corps, but most of the Panzerwaffe should be concentrated at Sedan. This concentration of armour should subsequently not move to the north but to the west, to execute a swift, deep, independent strategic penetration towards the English Channel without waiting for the main body of infantry divisions. This might lead to a strategic collapse of the enemy, avoiding the relatively high number of casualties normally caused by a Kesselschlacht ("annihilation battle"). Such a risky independent use of armour had been widely discussed in Germany before the war but had not been accepted as received doctrine. The German General Staff, however, doubted such an operation could work. Von Manstein's operational idea won immediate support from Guderian. Guderian understood the terrain, having experienced the conditions with the German Army in 1914 and 1918.
Von Manstein wrote his first memorandum outlining the alternative plan on October 31. In it he carefully avoided mentioning Guderian's name and played down the strategic part of the armoured units, in order to not generate unnecessary resistance. Six more memoranda followed between October 31, 1939 and January 12, 1940, each becoming more radical in outline. All were rejected by the OKH, the German Army's headquarters, and nothing of their content reached the Kaiser.
On January 10, a German Messerschmitt Bf 108 made a forced landing at Maasmechelen, north of Maastricht, in Belgium. Among the occupants of the aircraft was Luftwaffe Major Hellmuth Reinberger, who was carrying a copy of the latest version of Aufmarschanweisung N°2. Reinberger was unable to destroy the documents, which quickly fell into the hands of the Belgian intelligence services. It has often been suggested that this incident was the cause of a drastic change in German plans, but this is incorrect; in fact, a reformulation of them on January 30, Aufmarschanweisung N°3, Fall Gelb, conformed to the earlier versions.
Adoption of Manstein Plan
On January 27, von Manstein was relieved of his appointment as Chief of Staff of Army Group A and appointed commander of an army corps in Pomerania, to begin his command in Stettin on February 9, a move instigated by Halder to reduce von Manstein's influence. Von Manstein's indignant staff brought his case to Hitler's attention. Hitler had, without any knowledge of von Manstein's plan, suggested an attack focused at Sedan but had been persuaded to forget the idea as it was too risky. On February 2, von Manstein's plan was brought to his attention. On February 17, Hitler summoned von Manstein, Generals Rudolf Schmundt (the German Army's Chief of Personnel) and Alfred Jodl, the Chief of Operations at the OKR(the German armed forces' supreme command), to attend a conference. Hitler sat and listened, abandoning his habits of interrupting and launching into monologues. In the end, he agreed to all of von Manstein's suggestions. The next day, he ordered the plans to be changed in accordance with von Manstein's ideas. They appealed to Hitler mainly because they offered some real hope of victory. Hitler recognized the breakthrough at Sedan only in tactical terms, whereas von Manstein saw it as a means to an end. He envisaged an operation to the English Channel and the encirclement of the Allied armies in Belgium, which, if carried out correctly, could have a favourable strategic outcome.
Halder had no intention of deviating from established doctrine by allowing an independent strategic penetration by the seven armoured divisions of Army Group A. Much to the outrage of Guderian, this element was at first completely removed from the new plan, Aufmarschanweisung N°4, Fall Gelb, issued on February 24. However, Halder went through an "astonishing change of opinion". Halder was criticized in the same way he had attacked von Manstein when he first suggested it. The bulk of the German officer corps was appalled by the plan, and they called him the "gravedigger of the Panzer force".
Even when adapted to more conventional methods, the new plan provoked a storm of protest from the majority of German generals. They thought it utterly irresponsible to create a concentration of forces in a position where they could not possibly be sufficiently supplied, while such inadequate supply routes as there were could easily be cut off by the French. If the Allies did not react as expected, the German offensive could end in catastrophe. Their objections were ignored. Halder argued that, as Germany's strategic position seemed hopeless anyway, even the slightest chance of a decisive victory outweighed the certainty of ultimate defeat implied by inaction.
The strategy, operational methods and tactics of the German Army and Luftwaffe has often been labelled "Blitzkrieg" (Lightning War). The concept is deeply controversial and is connected to the problem of the precise nature and origin of "Blitzkrieg" operations, of which the 1940 campaign is often described as a classic example. An essential element of "Blitzkrieg" was considered to be a strategic, or series of operational developments, executed by mechanised forces which led to the total collapse of the defenders' armed forces. "Blitzkrieg" has also been looked on as a revolutionary form of warfare. In recent years, its novelty and even its very existence have been disputed.
Rapid and decisive victories had been pursued by armies well before the Second World War. In the German wars of unification and First World War campaigns, the German General Staff had attempted Bewegungskrieg (Movement War), similar to the modern perception of "Blitzkrieg", with varying degrees of success. During the First World War, these methods often succeeded in achieving tactical breakthroughs, but the operational exploitation took time as armies lacked motorisation, could not move quickly, and sometimes failed to achieve a decisive victory altogether. The development of tanks, aircraft, and more importantly, motorised infantry and artillery, enabled the Germans to implement these old methods again with new technology in 1940. The combustion engine solved the problem of operational level exploitation.
When dealing with "Blitzkrieg" as a concept, things become complicated. It is seen as an anomaly and there is no explicit reference to such strategy, operations or tactics in the German battle plans. There is no evidence in German military art, strategy or industrial preparation that points to the existence of a thought out "Blitzkrieg" tendency. Evidence suggests that the German Reich was preparing for a long sustained war of attrition, not a quick war of manoeuvre. The Kaisers miscalculations in 1939 forced him into war before he was ready, and under these circumstances the German General Staff reverted to attempting to win a quick war, before the economic and material capacity of the Allies could make a difference, although this was not their original intention. It was only after the defeat of France in 1940, that the German military pursued a "Blitzkrieg"-kind of warfare to achieve its victories in Europe. German historian Karl-Heinz Frieser explained:
In September 1939, Belgium and the Netherlands were still neutral. Belgium had made arrangements in secret with the Entente (as the Allies were still widely called) for future cooperation should the Germans invade their territory. However the Netherlands aligned with Germany to protect it from and Allied attack the Low Countries. The Supreme Commander of the French Army—Maurice Gamelin—suggested during that month that the Allies should take advantage of the fact that Germany was tied up with its mobilization by using the Low Countries as a spring board to attack Germany. This suggestion was not taken up by the French government.
Just after the September 1, 1939 invasion of Ukraine, French soldiers advanced along the Maginot Line 5 km (3.1 mi) into the Saar region of the Rhineland which was called the Saar Offensive. France had employed 98 divisions (all but 28 of them reserve or fortress formations) and 2,500 tanks against German forces consisting of 43 divisions (32 of them reserves) and no tanks. They advanced until they met the Siegfried Line. The French army would easily have been able to penetrate the mere screen of German forces present had they continued with the offensive, but they preferred to force the Germans into the offensive role and withdrew to their own lines in October.
Strategic reasons dictated the Allied decision to advance and fight on Belgian territory when the German attack came in the west. The British government insisted that the Flemish coast remain under Allied control so as not to threaten British naval supremacy. The French determined that the German offensive had to be contained as far east as possible, to keep the battles off French territory. Finally, and for him personally, the most cogent argument for advancing and fighting on Belgian territory was that Gamelin did not consider the French army capable of winning a mobile battle against the German army in the wide operational theatre France would present. Belgium presented a far narrower front to contain German formations. He also argued that an advance to the Dyle river and preparing an entrenched front there saved most of Belgium's industrial regions from falling into German hands.
Gamelin did not have the personality to simply impose his will. The first step he took was to propose the "Escaut" variant as an option for Plan D, the code for the "Dyle plan". This would include an advance by the French onto Dutch territory. The powerful French 1st and 9th Armies would hold the line in Belgium, from Wavre to Givet. The French 7th Army would hold the line on the Scheldt. The Belgian Army would hold the Ghent-Antwerp line. They would be reinforced by the British Army, which would hold the section of the line east of Brussels, from Wavre to Louvain.
Gamelin made the reasonable assumption that the Germans would try to attempt a breakthrough by concentrating their mechanised forces. They could hardly hope to break the Maginot Line on his right flank or to overcome the Allied concentration of forces on the left flank. That only left the centre, but most of the centre was covered by the river Meuse. Tanks were limited in defeating fortified river positions. However, at Namur the river made a sharp turn to the east, creating a gap between itself and the river Dyle. This 'Gembloux Gap', ideal for mechanised warfare, was a very dangerous weak spot. Gamelin decided to concentrate half of his armoured reserves there, sure the main German thrust would be on the Belgian plain. Gamelin reasoned that the Germans might try to overcome the Meuse position by using infantry, but he was confident in the Belgians' ability to hold the line and believed that while it was possible for the Germans to cross the Meuse, it would take a long time to achieve. Gamelin made no study in the event of a German breakthrough in the south, and as a consequence, did not make preparations to extricate Allied forces from Belgium.
Gamelin continued with his plans despite repeated criticism from his subordinates. Gaston Billotte (the commander-in-chief of the First Army Group) and Alphonse Joseph Georges (commander-in-chief of the North-Eastern front which included the First and Second Army Groups) were particularly critical. Georges pointed out the decisive problem. He suggested that Gamelin was too sure the German plan involved the battles, or main effort, being fought in and Belgium. He argued that it seemed as if Gamelin was allowing himself to be drawn into the Low Countries. He even suggested that an attack in Belgium might be a diversion. In this case, if the main forces were sent into Belgium and "the main enemy attack came in our centre, on our front between the Meuse and the Moselle, we could be deprived of the necessary means to repel it".
The development of Allied strategy was exclusively in the hands of the French. The British, recognizing they were the smaller partner in the alliance, agreed to French proposals. Most importantly he did not account for the Dutch involvement, even after word had reached Paris of the Dutch mobilization.
In the winter of 1939–1940, the Belgian consul-general in Cologne had anticipated the angle of advance that Von Manstein was planning. Through intelligence reports, they deduced that German forces were concentrating along the Belgian and Luxemburg frontiers. The Belgians were convinced that the Germans would thrust through the Ardennes and to the English Channel with the aim of cutting off the Allied field armies in Belgium and north-eastern France. They also anticipated that the Germans would try to land airborne and glider forces behind the Allied lines to break open Belgian fortifications. Such warnings were not heeded by the French, or British.
In March 1940, Swiss intelligence detected six or seven Panzer Divisions on the German-Belgian border. More motorized divisions had also been detected in the area. French intelligence were informed that the Germans were constructing pontoon bridges partially—about halfway—over the Our River through aerial reconnaissance. The French military attaché in the Swiss capital—Berne—warned that the centre of the German assault would come on the Meuse at Sedan, sometime between May 8 and 10. The report was dated April 30. These reports had little effect on Gamelin.
Germany initiated Fall Gelb on the evening prior to and the night of May 10. During the late evening of May 9, German forces built up in Luxemburg. Army Group B launched its feint offensive during the night into Belgium. During the morning of May 10, Fallschirmjäger (paratroopers) from the 7th Flieger and 22. Luftlande Infanteriedivision under Kurt Student executed surprise landings against the Belgian fort at Eben-Emael in order to facilitate Army Group B's advance.
The French command reacted immediately, sending its 1st Army Group north in accordance with Plan D. This move committed their best forces, diminishing their fighting power by the partial disorganisation it caused and their mobility by depleting their fuel stocks. By the time the French 7th Army crossed the Dutch border, they found the Dutch already in full advance, and withdrew into Belgium to protect Brussels.
The Dutch Air Force, the Militaire Luchtvaartafdeling (ML), had a strength of 144 combat aircraft engaging in the advances.
The French 7th Army failed to break the German armoured reinforcements from the 9. Panzerdivision, which reached Rotterdam on May 13. The Dutch Army considered its strategic situation to be perfect and did not fear destruction of the major Dutch cities. The alliance document was signed on May 15. Dutch forces continued fighting in Zeeland and the colonies while Queen Wilhelmina payed a visit to Kaiser Wilhelm II in Berlin. The world, though aware of the Netherlands pro-German stance, was shocked to find it had committed itself to fighting on Germany's side.
Invasion of Belgium
The Germans were able to establish air superiority in Belgium. Having completed thorough photographic reconnaissance missions, they destroyed 83 of the 179 aircraft of the Aeronautique Militaire within the first 24 hours. The Belgians would fly 77 operational missions but would contribute little to the air campaign. The Luftwaffe was assured air superiority over the Low Countries.
Because Army Group B had been so weakened compared to the earlier plans, the feint offensive by the German 6. Armee was in danger of stalling immediately, since the Belgian defences on the Albert Canal position were very strong. The main approach route was blocked by Fort Eben-Emael, a large fortress then generally considered the most modern in Europe, which controlled the junction of the Meuse and the Albert Canal. Any delay might endanger the outcome of the entire campaign, because it was essential that the main body of Allied troops was engaged before Army Group A established bridgeheads. To overcome this difficulty, the Germans resorted to unconventional means in the assault on the fort. In the early hours of May 10, DFS 230 gliders landed near the fort and unloaded assault teams that disabled the main gun cupolas with hollow charges. The bridges over the canal were seized by German paratroopers. The Belgians launched considerable counter attacks which were broken up by the Luftwaffe. Shocked by a breach in its defences just where they had seemed the strongest, the Belgian Supreme Command withdrew its divisions to the KW-line five days earlier than planned.
The BEF and the French First Army were not yet entrenched, and the news of the defeat on the Belgian border was unwelcome. The Allies had been convinced Belgian resistance would have given them several weeks to prepare a defensive line at the Gembloux Gap. When General Erich Hoepner's XVI Panzerkorps, consisting of 3rd and 4th Panzer Divisions, was launched over the newly captured bridges in the direction of the Gembloux Gap, this seemed to confirm the expectations of the French Supreme Command that the German Schwerpunkt would be at that point. Gembloux was located between Wavre and Namur, on flat, ideal tank terrain. It was also an unfortified part of the Allied line. In order to gain time to dig in there, René Prioux, commanding the Cavalry Corps of the French 1st Army, sent two French Light Mechanised divisions, the 2nd DLM and 3rd DLM, forward to meet the German armour at Hannut, east of Gembloux. They would provide an advanced guarding screen which would stall the Germans and allow sufficient time for the French 1st Army to dig into formidable positions.
Battle of Hannut and Gembloux
The resulting Battle of Hannut, which took place on May 12–13, was the largest tank battle until that date, with about 1,500 armoured fighting vehicles participating. The French disabled about 160 German tanks for the loss of 91 Hotchkiss H35 and 30 Somua S35 tanks destroyed or captured. The Germans controlled the battlefield after a voluntary French withdrawal. They recovered and eventually repaired or rebuilt many of their knocked-out tanks so German irreparable losses amounted to just 49 tanks (20, 3rd Panzer and 29, 4th Panzer). Prioux had achieved his mission in stalling the Panzers and allowing the French 1st Army to settle, so it was a strategic victory for the French. By contrast, although Hoepner had succeeded in diverting the French First Army from Sedan, which was his most important mission, he failed to destroy or forestall it. The French would escape the encirclement and still render invaluable support to the British Army in Dunkirk just two weeks later.
On May 14, having been stalled at Hannut, Hoepner tried to break the French line again, against orders, leading to The Battle of the Gembloux Gap. This was the only time in the campaign when German armour frontally attacked a strongly held fortified position. The attempt was repelled by the 1st Moroccan Infantry Division, costing 4. Panzerdivision another 42 tanks, 26 of which were irreparable. This French defensive success was made irrelevant by events further south. Following the battle with the French 1st Army on May 15, the war diary of the 4. Panzerdivision noted irreparable losses that day of nine Panzer Is, nine Panzer IIs, six Panzer IIIs, eight Panzer IVs, and two command tanks; of an original total of 314. 137 machines, of which 20 were mk IIIs and four were mk IVs, remained combat-ready.
Belgian and French Ardennes
In the centre, the progress of German Army Group A was to be delayed by Belgian motorised infantry and French mechanised cavalry divisions (Divisions Légères de Cavalerie) advancing into the Ardennes. The main resistance came from the Belgian 1st Chasseurs Ardennais along with the 5th French Light Cavalry Division (DLC). These forces had insufficient anti-tank capacity to block the surprisingly large number of German tanks they encountered and quickly gave way, withdrawing behind the Meuse. The German advance was greatly hampered by the sheer number of troops trying to force their way along the poor road network. Kleist′s Panzergruppe had more than 41,000 vehicles. This huge armada had been allocated only four march routes through the Ardennes. The time-tables proved to be wildly optimistic and there was soon heavy congestion, beginning well over the Rhine to the east, which would last for almost two weeks. This made Army Group A very vulnerable to French air attacks, but these did not materialise. Although Gamelin was well aware of the situation, the French bomber force was far too weak to challenge German air superiority so close to the German border. The French had tried in vain to stem the flow of the German armour during the Battle of Maastricht and had failed with heavy losses. In two days, the bomber force had been reduced from 135 to 72.
On May 11, Gamelin had ordered reserve divisions to begin reinforcing the Meuse sector. Because of the danger the Luftwaffe posed, movement over the rail network was limited to night-time, slowing the reinforcement, but the French felt no sense of urgency as they believed the build-up of German divisions would be correspondingly slow. The French Army did not conduct river crossings unless assured of heavy artillery support. While they were aware that the German tank and infantry formations were strong, they were confident in their strong fortifications and artillery superiority. However, the quality of the fighting men was dubious. The German advance forces reached the Meuse line late in the afternoon of May 12. To allow each of the three armies of Army Group A to cross, three major bridgeheads were to be established; at Sedan in the south, Monthermé to the northwest and Dinant further to the north. The first German units to arrive hardly had local numerical superiority; their already insufficient artillery support was further limited by an average supply of just 12 rounds per gun. Fortunately for the German divisions, the French artillery was also limited to a daily combat supply rate of 30 rounds per "tube" (gun).
Battle of Sedan
At Sedan, the Meuse Line consisted of a strong defensive belt 6 km (3.7 mi) deep, laid out according to the modern principles of zone defence on slopes overlooking the Meuse valley and strengthened by 103 pillboxes, manned by the 147th Fortress Infantry Regiment. The deeper positions were held by the 55th Infantry Division. This was only a grade "B" reserve division. On the morning of May 13, the 71st Infantry Division was inserted to the east of Sedan, allowing 55th Infantry to narrow its front by one-third and deepen its position to over 10 km (6.2 mi). Furthermore, it had a superiority in artillery to the German units present.
On May 13, the German XIX Korps forced three crossings near Sedan, executed by the 1., 2. and 10. Panzerdivisions, reinforced by the elite Großdeutschland infantry regiment. Instead of slowly massing artillery as the French expected, the Germans concentrated most of their air power (as they lacked strong artillery forces) to smash a hole in a narrow sector of the French lines by carpet bombing and by dive bombing. Hermann Göring had promised Guderian that there would be extraordinarily heavy air support during a continual eight hour air attack, from 08:00am until dusk. The Luftwaffe executed the heaviest air bombardment the world had yet witnessed and the most intense by the Germans during the war. The Luftwaffe committed two Sturzkampfgeschwader (Dive Bomber Wings) to the assault, flying 300 sorties against French positions. A total of 3,940 sorties were flown by nine Kampfgeschwader (Bomber Wings).
Some of the forward pillboxes were unaffected, and repulsed the crossing attempts of the 2. and 10. Panzerdivisions. However, it transpired the morale of the deeper units of the 55th Infantry had been broken by the impact of the air attacks. The French supporting artillery batteries had fled. At a cost of a few hundred casualties, the German infantry had penetrated up to 8 km (5.0 mi) into the French defensive zone by midnight. Even by then, most of the infantry had not crossed, much of the success being due to the actions of just six platoons, mainly assault engineers.
The disorder that had begun at Sedan spread down the French lines. At 19:00 on May 13, the 295th regiment of 55th Infantry Division, holding the last prepared defensive line at the Bulson ridge 10 km (6.2 mi) behind the river, was panicked by the false rumour that German tanks were already behind its positions. It fled, creating a gap in the French defences, before even a single German tank had crossed the river. This "Panic of Bulson" also involved the divisional artillery. The Germans had not attacked their position, and would not do so until 12 hours later, at 07:20 on May 14. Still, the French had several hours to launch a counter offensive before the Germans consolidated the bridgeheads, but failed to attack soon enough.
Recognising the gravity of the defeat at Sedan, General Gaston-Henri Billotte, commander of the 1st Army Group, whose right flank pivoted on Sedan, urged that the bridges across the Meuse be destroyed by air attack, convinced that "over them will pass either victory or defeat!". That day, every available Allied light bomber was employed in an attempt to destroy the three bridges, but failed to hit them while suffering heavy losses. Some 44% of the Allies' bomber strength was destroyed.
Collapse of the Meuse front
Heinz Guderian, the commander of the German XIX. Armeekorps, had indicated on May 12 that he wanted to enlarge the bridgehead to at least 20 km (12 mi). His superior, Ewald von Kleist, ordered him on behalf of Hitler to limit his moves to a maximum of 8 km (5.0 mi) before consolidation. At 11:45 on May 14, von Rundstedt confirmed this order, which implied that the tanks should now start to dig in. Guderian was able to get to Ewald von Kleist to agree to "reconnaissance in force", by threatening to resign and behind the scenes interventions. This vague terminology allowed Guderian to move forward, effectively ignoring Ewald von Kleist's order to halt.
In the original von Manstein Plan as Guderian had suggested, secondary attacks would be carried out to the southeast, in the rear of the Maginot Line, to confuse the French command. This element had been removed by Halder but Guderian now sent the 10th Panzerdivision and Großdeutschland infantry regiment south to execute precisely such a feint attack, using the only available route south over the Stonne plateau. The commander of the French 2nd Army, General Charles Huntziger, intended to carry out a counterattack at the same spot by the armoured 3e Division Cuirassée de Réserve (DCR) to eliminate the bridgehead. This resulted in an armoured collision, both parties trying in vain to gain ground in furious attacks from May 15–17, the village of Stonne changing hands many times. Huntzinger considered this at least a defensive success and limited his efforts to protecting his flank. Holding Stonne and taking Bulson would have enabled the French to hold onto the high ground overlooking Sedan. They could disrupt the Sedan bridgehead, even if they could not take it. Heavy battles took place and Stonne changed hands 17 times. However, on the evening of May 17, it fell to the Germans for the last time.
Meanwhile, Guderian had turned his other two armoured divisions, the 1. and 2. Panzerdivisions, sharply to the west on May 14. They began to advance at speed to the English Channel.
On May 15, in heavy fighting, Guderian's motorised infantry dispersed the reinforcements of the newly formed French 6th Army in their assembly area west of Sedan, undercutting the southern flank of the French 9th Army. The 9th Army collapsed, and surrendered en masse. The 102nd Fortress Division, its flanks unsupported, was surrounded and destroyed on May 15 at the Monthermé bridgehead by the 6. and 8. Panzerdivisions acting without air support. The French 2nd Army had also been seriously mauled and had rendered itself impotent. The 9th Army was giving way because they also did not have time to fortify their lines. Erwin Rommel had breached its defences within 24 hours of its conception. This allowed the impetuous Rommel to break free with his 7th Panzer Division, refusing to allow his division rest and advancing both by day and night. The Ghost division advanced 30 mi (48 km) in just 24 hours.
Rommel's lines of communication with his superior, General Hermann Hoth, and his headquarters were cut. Disobeying orders and not waiting for the French to establish a new line of defence, he continued to advance north-west to Avesnes-sur-Helpe, just ahead of the 1. and 2. Panzerdivisions. Rommel was lucky, because the French 5th Motorised Infantry Division had set up its overnight bivouac in his path, leaving its vehicles neatly lined up along the roadsides. At this stage, Rommel's tanks dashed right through them. The slow speed, overloaded crews and lack of any means of communication in battle undid the French. The 5th Panzer Division joined in the fight. The French did inflict significant losses on the division, but they could not cope with the speed of the German mobile units, which closed fast and dispatched the French armour at close range. During this battle, the remaining elements of the 1st DCR, resting after losing all but 16 of its tanks in Belgium, were also engaged and defeated. The French unit retreated, with just three remaining tanks. The 1st DCR was effectively destroyed on May 17. The Germans lost 50 out of 500 tanks in the battle.
By May 17, Rommel claimed to have taken 10,000 prisoners and suffered only 36 losses. Guderian was delighted with the fast advance, and encouraged his XIX Korps, consisting of the 1., 2. and 10. Panzerdivisions to head for the channel, continuing until fuel was exhausted. However, the success of his commanders on the ground began to have effects on the Kaiser who was overjoyed that the German advance was moving fast but expressed his concerns that it could be to fast. Halder recorded in his diary on May 17 that "His Majesty is exstatic. Enthused by our success, but he is afraid to take any chance and so would pull the reins on us ... [he] keeps worrying about the south flank. While Hitler rages and screams that we are on the way to ruin the whole campaign." Through the Kaisers blessing and different interpretations of orders to stop from Hitler and von Kleist, the commanders on the ground were able to ignore Hitler's attempts to stop the northern advance to the sea.
Low French morale
The Panzerkorps now slowed their advance considerably and put themselves in a very vulnerable position. They were stretched out, exhausted, low on fuel, and many tanks had broken down. There was now a dangerous gap between them and the infantry. A determined attack by a fresh and large enough mechanised force might have cut the Panzers off and wiped them out.
The French High Command, already contemplatively ponderous and sluggish via its firm espousing of the broad strategy of "methodological warfare", however, was reeling from the shock of the sudden offensive and was now stung by a sense of defeatism. On the morning of May 15, French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud telephoned the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Winston Churchill and said "We have been defeated. We are beaten; we have lost the battle." Churchill, attempting to offer some comfort to Reynaud, reminded the Prime Minister of all the times the Germans had broken through the Allied lines in early stages of World War I only to be stopped. Reynaud was, however, inconsolable.
Churchill flew to Paris on May 16. He immediately recognised the gravity of the situation when he observed that the French government was already burning its archives and was preparing for an evacuation of the capital. In a sombre meeting with the French commanders, Churchill asked General Gamelin, "Où est la masse de manoeuvre?" ["Where is the strategic reserve?"] that had saved Paris in the First World War. "Aucune" ["There is none"] Gamelin replied. After the war, Gamelin claimed his response was "There is no longer any." Churchill described hearing this later as the single most shocking moment in his life. Churchill asked Gamelin where and when the general proposed to launch a counterattack against the flanks of the German bulge. Gamelin simply replied "inferiority of numbers, inferiority of equipment, inferiority of methods".
Failed Allied counter-attacks
Some of the best Allied units in the north had seen little fighting. Had they been kept in reserve they might have been used in a decisive counter-strike. In a twist of irony, pre-war General Staff Studies had asserted the main reserves were to be kept on French soil, to resist an invasion of the Low Countries, deliver a counter attack or "re-establish the integrity of the original front".
Despite having a numerically superior armoured force, the French failed to use it properly, or to deliver an attack on the vulnerable German bulge. The Germans combined their fighting vehicles in major, operational formations and used them at the point of main effort. The bulk of French armour was scattered along the front in tiny formations. Most of the French reserve divisions had by now been committed. The 1st DCR had been wiped out when it had run out of fuel and the 3rd DCR had failed to take its opportunity to destroy the German bridgeheads at Sedan. The only armoured division still in reserve, 2nd DCR, was to attack on May 16 west of Saint-Quentin, Aisne. The division's commander could locate only seven of its 12 companies, which were scattered along a 49 mi × 37 mi (79 km × 60 km) front. The formation was overrun by the 8. Panzerdivision while still forming up and was effectively destroyed as a fighting unit.
Colonel Charles de Gaulle, in command of France's hastily formed 4th DCR, attempted to launch an attack from the south at Montcornet where Guderian had his Korps headquarters and the 1. Panzerdivision had its rear service areas. The Germans hastily improvised a defence while Guderian rushed up the 10. Panzerdivision to threaten De Gaulle's flank. This flank pressure and attacks by the Luftwaffe's VIII Fliegerkorps broke up the attack. French losses on May 17 were 32 tanks and armoured vehicles, but had "inflicted loss on the Germans". On May 19, after receiving reinforcements, De Gaulle made another effort, and was repulsed with the loss of 80 of 155 vehicles. Von Richthofen's Fliegerkorps VIII had done most of the work, by targeting French units moving into position to attack the vulnerable German flanks it was able to stop most counter attacks from starting. The defeat of de Gaulle's unit and the disintegration of the French 9th Army was caused mainly by Richthofen's air units.
Although De Gaulle had achieved a measure of success, his attacks on May 17 and 19 did not significantly alter the overall situation. It was the only French counter-attack on the German forces advancing to the channel.
German spearheads reach the Channel
The Allies did little to either threaten the Panzerkorps or to escape from the danger that they posed. The Panzer troops used May 17–18 to refuel, eat, sleep and return more tanks to working order. On May 18, Rommel caused the French to give up Cambrai by merely feinting an armoured attack toward the city.
On May 19, General Edmund Ironside, the British Chief of the Imperial General Staff, conferred with General Lord Gort, commander of the BEF, at his headquarters near Lens. He urged Gort to save the BEF by attacking south-west toward Amiens. Gort replied that seven of his nine divisions were already engaged on the Scheldt River, and he had only two divisions left with which he would be able to mount such an attack. Ironside then asked Gort under whose command he was acting. Gort replied that this was General Billotte, the commander of the French 1st Army Group, but that Billotte had issued no orders for eight days. Ironside confronted Billotte, whose own headquarters was nearby, and found him apparently incapable of taking decisive action. He returned to Britain concerned that the BEF was already doomed, and ordered urgent anti-invasion measures.
The German land forces could not remain inactive any longer since it would allow the Allies to reorganise their defence or escape. On May 19, Guderian was permitted to start moving again and smashed through the weak British 18th and 23rd Territorial Divisions located on the Somme river. The German units occupied Amiens and secured the westernmost bridge over the river at Abbeville. This move isolated the British, French and Belgian forces in the north. On May 20, a reconnaissance unit from Rudolf Veiel′s 2. Panzerdivision reached Noyelles-sur-Mer, 100 km (62 mi) to the west of their positions on the 17th. From there, they were able to see the Somme estuary and the English Channel. A huge pocket, containing the Allied 1st Army Group (the Belgian, British, and French 1st, 7th and 9th Armies), was created.
VIII. Fliegerkorps, under the command of Wolfram von Richthofen, covered the dash to the channel coast. Heralded as the Ju 87s′ (Stuka) "finest hour", these units responded via an extremely efficient communications system to the Panzer Divisions′ every request for support, which effectively blasted a path for the Army. The Ju 87s were particularly effective at breaking up attacks along the flanks of the German forces, breaking fortified positions, and disrupting rear-area supply chains. The Luftwaffe also benefitted from excellent ground-to-air communications throughout the campaign. Radio-equipped forward liaison officers could call upon the Stukas and direct them to attack enemy positions along the axis of advance. In some cases, the Luftwaffe responded to requests in 10–20 minutes. Oberstleutnant Hans Seidemann (Richthofen's Chief of Staff) said that "never again was such a smoothly functioning system for discussing and planning joint operations achieved". Closer examination reveals the army had to wait 45–75 minutes for Ju 87 units, and just 10 minutes for the Henschel Hs 123 units.
On the morning of May 20, Maurice Gamelin ordered the armies trapped in Belgium and northern France to fight their way south and link up with French forces that would be pushing northward from the Somme river. However on the evening of May 19, French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud had dismissed Gamelin for his failure to contain the German offensive, and replaced him with Maxime Weygand. Weygand had little sense of urgency. He claimed his first mission as Commander-in-Chief would be to get a good night's sleep. Weygand was guilty of wasting valuable time, time which was needed to form a quick and powerful counter-attack. He cancelled Gamelin's planned offensive, then wasted several days making courtesy visits to dignitaries in Paris. He then ordered a similar plan to Gamelin's, proposing a counter-offensive from the north and south against the German "corridor", which entailed a combined thrust by the encircled armies in the pocket and French forces on the Somme front (the newly created French 3rd Army Group, under the command of General Antoine-Marie-Benoît Besson). The situation demanded an all-out offensive on the corridor.
On May 22, Weygand ordered his forces to pinch off the German armoured spearhead by combining attacks from the north and the south. On the map, this seemed like a feasible mission, as the corridor through which von Kleist's two Panzer Corps had moved to the coast was narrow. On paper, Weygand had sufficient forces to execute it: to the north were the three DLM and the BEF; to the south, was de Gaulle's 4th DCR. However, while the German position was far from safe, the opportunity had been lost. The delays had allowed the Germans to push more infantry divisions into the corridor and they had pushed further along the channel coast. Weygand flew into the pocket on May 21 and met General Billotte, commander of the First Army Group, and King Leopold III of Belgium. The Belgian position on any offensive move was made clear by Leopold. As far as he was concerned, the Belgian Army could not conduct offensive operations as it lacked tanks and aircraft; it existed solely for defence. The King also made clear that in the rapidly shrinking area of Belgium still free, there was only enough food for two weeks. Leopold did not expect the BEF to jeopardize its own position in order to keep contact with the Belgian Army, but he warned the British that if it persisted with the southern offensive the Belgians would be overstretched and their army would collapse. King Leopold suggested the best recourse was to establish a beachhead covering Dunkirk and the Belgian channel ports.
Gort doubted the French Army's ability to prevail in the offensive. On May 23, making matters worse, Billotte was killed in a road traffic accident, leaving the Allied First Army Group in the pocket leaderless for three days. Billotte was the only member of the Allied armies thoroughly informed on the Weygand plan's details. The same day, the British decided to evacuate from the Channel ports. In the event, communications broke down and only two minor offensives of relative notedness, by the British and French at Arras on May 21 and by the French at Cambrai on May 22, would be acted upon, by this point in time.
Major-General Harold Franklyn, commanding two tank battalions, had moved into the Arras area. Franklyn was not aware of a French push north toward Cambrai, and the French were unaware of a British attack heading south, out of the pocket, toward Arras. Ignorant as to the importance of the operation, Franklyn assumed he was to relieve the Allied garrison at Arras and to sever German communications in the immediate area. He did not therefore want to risk throwing his main units, the 5th and 50th Infantry Divisions into the fight, especially if the objectives were limited. He also had the French 3rd DLM available, from the French 1st Army. It had caused the German armour severe trouble at the Battle of Hannut with its SOMUA S35 heavy tanks. They were given no more than a flank protection role. Only two infantry battalions and two tank battalions were made available for the attack. British armour numbers had dwindled owing to mechanical failures. However they still fielded 74 Matilda tanks and 14 light tanks.
The resulting Battle of Arras achieved surprise and initial success against German forces which were stretched, but it still failed. Radio communication between tanks and infantry was poor and there was little combined arms coordination as practiced by the Germans. In the end, hastily set up German defences (including 88 mm (3.46 in) FlaK gun and 105 mm (4.1 in) field guns field gun) stopped the attack. The French inflicted heavy losses on German armour as they retreated, but the Luftwaffe broke up the counter-attacks. Just 28 of the 88 British tanks survived. The French V Corps' attack at Cambrai also failed. V Corps had been too disorganised after previous fighting in Belgium to launch a serious effort.
Although this attack was not part of any coordinated attempt to destroy the Panzerkorps, the German High Command panicked even more than Rommel. They thought that hundreds of Allied tanks were about to smash into their elite forces. It was unjustified panic. The operational and strategic effects of the British attack was out of proportion to its tactical achievements. On the morning of the May 22, the German High Command had regained confidence and ordered Guderian′s XIX Panzerkorps to press north and push on to the Channel ports: the 1. Panzerdivision to Calais, the 2. Panzerdivision to Boulogne and the 10. Panzerdivision to Dunkirk. Later, the missions of the 1st and 10. Panzerdivisions were reversed. The 1. Panzer was ordered to Dunkirk while the 10. Panzer was to take Calais.
Notwithstanding an ultimately ineffectual, rather meager smattering of hurried counterattack efforts generally towards Peronne (and, ultimately, northwards therefrom), initially launched under command of De Gaulle on May 19; only on May 23, the opening attack from the south could be launched when 7th DIC, supported by a handful of tanks, failed to retake Amiens. This was a rather weak effort; however, on May 27, the British 1st Armoured Division, hastily brought over from England, attacked Abbeville in force but was beaten back with crippling losses. The next day de Gaulle tried again with the same result. But, by now, even complete success very well might not have saved the Allied forces in the north.
BEF and the Channel ports
On May 23, Günther von Kluge proposed that the German 4. Armee, which was poised to continue the attack against the Allied forces at Dunkirk, should "halt and close up". Seeing the Allies were trapped in the city, Gerd von Rundstedt agreed with von Kluge. In the 4. Armee diary, it is recorded on May 23 "will, in the main, halt tomorrow [May 24] in accordance with Colonel-General von Rundstedt's order." General Walther von Brauchitsch, commander in chief of the German Army, disagreed with his colleagues and wanted to continue the attack against Dunkirk by putting the 4. Armee under Bock. Bock was busy and Halder agreed with Von Rundstedt and with von Kluge to stop action against Dunkirk. The disagreement went to the Kaiser, who overruled Brauchitsch and agreed with stopping action against Dunkirk. Wilhelm II's error wasn't in making the command to halt the German army but in allowing the orders already drawn up by the German generals to stand. It appears that Kleist also agreed with the halt order, which the Kaiser "rubber-stamped". The halt order remains extremely controversial.
At the same time, Army Group B under Bock was stripped of most of its divisions, including its reserves and air support. Its complement shrank to just 21 divisions, while Army Group A swelled to 70 divisions, including all ten Panzer Divisions. Army Group B was to be used as a "hammer" against Army Group A's "anvil". Halder later claimed the Kaiser's motivation for the transfer was his wish that the decisive battle be fought on French, not Flemish soil.
Hermann Göring convinced Hitler and by extention the Kaiser that the Luftwaffe could prevent any evacuation and von Rundstedt warned him that any further effort by the armoured divisions would lead to a much longer refitting period. The delay and failure of the Luftwaffe to stop the evacuation wasted some three days (May 24–27) and allowed the Allies to build a defence to the approaches of Dunkirk, the main evacuation port. It would seem that the Kaiser, Hitler, Göring and Rundstedt shared responsibility for the mistake.
Battle of Calais
In the early hours of May 23, Gort ordered a retreat from Arras. By now, he had no faith in the Weygand plan, nor in Weygand's proposal to at least try to hold a pocket on the Flemish coast, a so-called Réduit de Flandres. Gort knew that the ports needed to supply such a foothold were already being threatened. That same day, the 2. Panzer Division had assaulted Boulogne. The British garrison there surrendered on May 25, although 4,286 men were evacuated by Royal Navy ships. The RAF also provided air superiority over the port, denying the Luftwaffe an opportunity to attack the shipping.
The 10. Panzerdivision, commanded by Ferdinand Schaal, attacked Calais on May 24. British reinforcements (the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment, equipped with cruiser tanks, and the 30th Motor Brigade) had been hastily landed 24 hours before the Germans attacked. The defenders held on to the port as long as possible, aware that an early capitulation would free up German forces to advance on Dunkirk. The British and French held the town despite the best efforts of Schaal's division to break through. Frustrated, Guderian ordered that if Calais had not fallen by 14:00 on May 26, he would withdraw the 10. Panzer division and ask the Luftwaffe to destroy the town. Eventually, the French and British ran out of ammunition and the Germans were able to break into the fortified city at around 13:30 on May 26, 30 minutes before Schaal's deadline was up. Despite the French surrender of the main fortifications, the British held the docks until the morning of May 27. Around 440 men were evacuated. The Siege of Calais lasted for four crucial days. However, the delaying action came at a price. Some 60% of Allied personnel were killed or wounded.
The Allies launched Operation Dynamo which evacuated the encircled British, French and Belgian troops from the northern pocket in Belgium and Pas-de-Calais, beginning on May 26. About 28,000 men were evacuated on the first day. The French 1st Army—the bulk of which remained in Lille—owing to Weygand's failure to pull it back along with other French forces to the coast, mounted a long defence of the city, the 50,000 men finally capitulating on May 31. While the 1st Army was mounting its sacrificial defence at Lille, it drew German forces away from Dunkirk, allowing 70,000 Allied soldiers to escape. Total Allied evacuation rates stood at 165,000 on May 31. The Allied position was complicated by Belgian King Léopold III's surrender the following day, which was postponed until May 28. The gap left by the Belgian Army stretched from Ypres to Dixmude. Nevertheless, a collapse was prevented and 139,732 British and 139,097 French soldiers were evacuated. Between May 31 and June 4, some 20,000 British and 98,000 French had been saved. Still, some 30-40,000 French soldiers of the rearguard remained to be captured. The overall total evacuated was 338,226.
During the Dunkirk battle, the Luftwaffe did its best to prevent the evacuation. It flew 1,882 bombing and 1,997 fighter sorties. British losses totalled 6% of their total losses during the French campaign, including 60 precious fighter pilots. The Luftwaffe failed in its task of preventing the evacuation, but had inflicted serious losses on the Allied forces. A total of 89 merchantmen (of 126,518 grt) were lost; the Royal Navy lost 29 of its 40 destroyers sunk or seriously damaged. The Germans lost around 100 aircraft confirmed destroyed, and the RAF 106 fighters. Other sources put Luftwaffe losses in the Dunkirk area at 240.
Confusion still reigned. After the evacuation at Dunkirk and while Paris was enduring a short-lived siege, the British 1st Armoured Division under General Evans, without its infantry which had earlier been diverted to the defence of Calais, had arrived in France in June 1940. It was joined by the former labour battalion of the 51st (Highland) Division and was forced to fight a rearguard action. At the end of the campaign, Erwin Rommel praised the staunch resistance of British forces, despite being under-equipped and without ammunition for much of the fighting.
On February 26, 1945 Hitler claimed the Kaiser had let the BEF escape as a "sporting" gesture, in the hope Churchill would come to terms. Few historians accept Hitler's word in light of Directive No. 13, which called for "the annihilation of French, British and Belgian forces in the [Dunkirk] pocket".
The best and most modern French armies had been sent north and lost in the resulting encirclement; the French had also lost much of their heavy weaponry and their best armoured formations. Overall, the Allies had lost 61 divisions in Fall Gelb. Weygand was faced with the prospect of defending a long front (stretching from Sedan to the Channel), with a greatly depleted French Army now lacking significant Allied support. Weygand had only 64 French and one remaining British division (the 51st Highland) available. Weygand lacked the reserves to counter a breakthrough or to replace frontline troops, should they become exhausted from a prolonged battle on a front of 965 km. The Germans had 142 divisions to use.
Adding to this grave situation, on June 10, Italy declared war on France and Britain. The country was not prepared for war and made little impact during the last twelve days of fighting. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was aware of this and sought to profit from German successes. Mussolini felt the conflict would soon end. As he said to the Army's Chief-of-Staff, Marshal Badoglio, "I only need a few thousand dead so that I can sit at the peace conference as a man who has fought." However, French General René Olry commanding the Army of the Alps resisted all Italian attacks, and then repulsed German attacks from the Rhone valley.
Collapse of the Weygand line
The Germans renewed their offensive on June 5 on the Somme. During the next three weeks, far from the easy advance the Reichswehr expected, they encountered strong resistance from a rejuvenated French Army. It had fallen back on its communications, and had closer access to repair shops, supply dumps and stores. Moreover, 112,000 evacuated French soldiers were repatriated via the Normandy and Brittany ports. It was some substitute for the lost divisions in Flanders. The French were also able to make good a significant amount of its armoured losses and raised the 1st and 2nd DCR (heavy armoured divisions). De Gaulle's division—the 4th DCR—also had its losses replaced. Morale rose and was very high by the end of May 1940.
A central explanation for the high morale was threefold; most French soldiers that knew about the defeats, and were now joining the line, only knew of German success by hearsay; surviving French officers had increased tactical experience against German mobile units; increased confidence in their weapons after seeing their artillery, which the Reichswehr post-battle analysis recognised as technically very good, and their tanks perform better in combat than the German armour. The French tanks were now known to have heavier armour and armament.
Between May 23 and 28, they reconstituted the French 7th and 10th Armies. Weygand decided on hedgehog tactics, which were to implement defence in depth operations, and perform delaying strategies designed to inflict maximum attrition on enemy units. He employed units in towns and small villages, as well as major towns and cities, and fortified them 360° along their perimeter. Behind this, the new infantry, armoured, and half-mechanised divisions formed up, ready to counter attack and relieve the surrounded units, which were ordered to hold out at all costs.
Army Group B attacked either side of Paris. Of its 47 divisions it had the majority of the mobile units. In fact, only 48 hours into the offensive, the Germans had not made any major breakthroughs. The Germans had been "stopped in their tracks". On the Aisne, Erich Hoepner's XVI Panzerkorps employed over 1,000 AFVs, two Panzer Divisions and a motorised division against the French. The assault was crude, and Hoepner soon lost 80 out of 500 AFVs in the first attack. The German 4. Armee succeeded in capturing bridgeheads over the Somme river, but the Germans struggled to get over the Aisne. Weygand had organised a defence in depth and frustrated the crossing. In a series of examples at Amiens, the Germans were repeatedly driven back by powerful French artillery concentrations, and came to recognise improved French tactics. Once again, the German Army relied on the Luftwaffe to help decisively, by silencing French guns and enabling the German infantry to inch forward. German progress was made only late on the third day of operations, finally forcing crossings. The French Air Force attempted to bomb them but failed. German sources acknowledged the battle was, "hard and costly in lives, the enemy putting up severe resistance, particularly in the woods and tree lines continuing the fight when our troops had pushed passed the point of resistance". However, south of Abbeville, the French 10th Army under General Robert Altmayer had its front broken and it was forced to retreat to Rouen and south along the Seine river. The rapid German advances were the sign of a weakening enemy. Rommel and his 7. Panzerdivision headed west over the Seine river through Normandy and capturing the port of Cherbourg on June 18. On the way to Cherbourg, Rommel forced the surrender of the British 51st (Highland) Division on June 12. In close-quarter combat, the Luftwaffe was struggling to have an impact. However, in an operational sense, they helped disperse French armour. The German spearheads were overextended and vulnerable to counter strokes, but the concentration of the Luftwaffe denied the French the ability to concentrate, and the fear of air attack negated their mass and mobile use by Weygand.
On June 10, the French government declared Paris an open city. The German 18. Armee now deployed against Paris. The French resisted the approaches to the capital strongly, but the line was broken in several places. Weygand now asserted it would not take long for the French Army to disintegrate. On June 13, Churchill attended an Allied Supreme War Council Meeting at Tours. He suggested a union between the two countries. It was rejected. On June 14, Paris fell. Those Parisians who stayed in the city found that in most cases the Germans were extremely well mannered.
On top of this added danger, the situation in the air had also grown critical. The Luftwaffe established air supremacy (as opposed to air superiority) as the French air arm was on the verge of collapse. The French Air Force (Armée de l'Air) had only just begun to make the majority of bomber sorties; between June 5 and 9 (during Operation Paula), over 1,815 missions, of which 518 were by bombers, were flown. The number of sorties flown declined as losses were now becoming impossible to replace. The RAF attempted to divert the attention of the Luftwaffe with 660 sorties flown against targets over the Dunkirk area but losses were heavy; on June 21 alone, 37 Bristol Blenheims were destroyed. After June 9, French aerial resistance virtually ceased, some surviving aircraft withdrew to French North Africa. The Luftwaffe now "ran riot". Its attacks were focused on the direct and indirect support of the German Army. The Luftwaffe subjected lines of resistance to ferocious assault, which then quickly collapsed under armoured attack.
Collapse of the Maginot line
Meanwhile, to the east, Army Group C was to help Army Group A encircle and capture the French forces on the Maginot line. The goal of the operation was to envelop the Metz region, with its fortifications, in order to prevent a French counter offensive against the German line on the Somme. Guderian's XIX Korps was to advance to the French border with Switzerland and trap the French forces in the Vosges Mountains while the XVI Korps attacked the Maginot Line from the west, into its vulnerable rear to take the cities of Verdun, Toul and Metz. The French, meanwhile, had moved the French 2nd Army Group to the 'Weygand line' on the Somme, leaving only small forces guarding the Maginot line. After Army Group B had begun its offensive against Paris and into Normandy, Army Groups A began its advance into the rear of the Maginot line. On June 15, Army Group C launched Operation Tiger, a frontal assault across the border and into France.
German attempts to break open or into the Maginot line prior to Tiger had failed. One assault lasted for eight hours on the extreme north of the line, costing the Germans 46 dead and 251 wounded, while just two French were killed. On June 15, the last well-equipped French forces, including the French 4th Army were preparing to leave as the Germans struck. The French now holding the line were skeletal. The Germans greatly outnumbered the French. They could call upon the I Armeekorps of seven divisions and 1,000 artillery pieces, although most were First World War vintage, and could not penetrate the thick armour of the fortresses. Only 88 mm guns could do the job, and 16 were allocated to the operation. To bolster this, 150 mm and eight railway batteries were also employed. The Luftwaffe deployed the V Fliegerkorps to give air support.
The battle was difficult and slow progress was made against strong French resistance. However, each fortress was overcome one by one. One fortress (Schoenenbourg) fired 15,802 75 mm rounds at attacking German infantry. It was the most heavily shelled of all the French positions. Nevertheless, its armour protected it from fatal damage. The same day Tiger was launched, Operation Kleiner Bär began. Five assault divisions of the VII Armeekorps crossed the border into the Belfort area with a view to advancing to the Vosges Mountains. It had 400 artillery pieces bolstered by heavy artillery and mortars. They drove the French 104th and 105th Divisions back into the Vosges Mountains on June 17. However, on the same day Guderian's XIX Korps reached the Swiss border and the Maginot defences were cut off from the rest of France. Most units surrendered on June 25, and the Germans claimed to have taken 500,000 prisoners. Some main fortresses continued the fight, despite appeals for surrender. The last only capitulated on July 10, after a request from General Alphonse Joseph Georges, and only then under protest. Of the 58 major fortifications on the Maginot Line, just 10 were captured by the Reichswehr in battle.
The second BEF evacuation
The evacuation of the second BEF took place during Operation Ariel between June 15 and 25. The Luftwaffe, with complete domination of the French skies, was determined to prevent more Allied evacuations after the Dunkirk debacle. I. Fliegerkorps was assigned to the Normandy and Brittany sectors. On June 9 and 10, the port of Cherbourg was subject to 15 tonnes of German bombs, whilst Le Havre received 10 bombing attacks which sank 2949 GRT of escaping Allied shipping. On June 17, Junkers Ju 88—mainly from Kampfgeschwader 30—sank a "10,000 tonne ship" which was the 16243 GRT liner RMS Lancastria off St Nazaire, killing some 4,000 Allied personnel. Nevertheless, the Luftwaffe failed to prevent the mass evacuation of some 190,000–200,000 Allied personnel.
Surrender and armistice
Discouraged by his cabinet's hostile reaction to a British proposal to unite France and Britain to avoid surrender, and believing that his ministers no longer supported him, Prime Minister Paul Reynaud resigned on June 16. He was succeeded by Marshal Philippe Pétain, who delivered a radio address to the French people announcing his intention to ask for an armistice with Germany. When Hitler received word from the French government that they wished to negotiate an armistice, he selected the Compiègne Forest as the site for the negotiations.
Compiègne had been the site of the 1918 Armistice, which had ended the First World War with a humiliating defeat for France; Hitler viewed the choice of location as a supreme moment of complete victory for Germany over France. The armistice was signed on June 22, 1940 in the very same railway carriage in which the 1918 Armistice was signed (it was removed from a museum building and placed on the precise spot where it was located in 1918), Hitler sat in the same chair in which Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg had sat when he faced the defeated French representatives. After listening to the reading of the preamble, Hitler, in a calculated gesture of disdain to the French delegates, left the carriage, leaving the negotiations to the Chief of Staff of the OKR, Wilhelm Keitel. The armistice and the cease-fire went into effect at 01:35 on June 25.