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Battle of France (Communist World)

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Battle of France
Part of the Great Patriotic War
Battle of France collage
Clockwise from top left: German Panzer IV tanks passing through a town in France; German and Soviet soldiers marching past the Arc de Triomphe after the surrender of Paris, June 14, 1940; Column of French Renault R35 tanks at Sedan, Ardennes; French prisoners at Veules-les-Roses; French soldiers on review within the Maginot Line fortifications.
Date 6 May - 27 December 1944 (7-months, and 21 days)
Location France, Spain (Catalonia), and Belgium
Result Decisive Allies victory, Collapse of Vichy French State
  • Armistice at Versailles
  • German and Dutch occupation of Belgium
  • Allied occupation of France
  • British occupation of northern France
  • Replacement of Vichy French State by Third French Republic
Belligerents
Allies:
Union flag 1606 (Kings Colors) British Empire
Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955) USSR
Flag of Germany Germany
Flag of the NetherlandsNetherlands
Axis:
Flag of Free France 1940-1944 Vichy France
Flag of Belgium Belgium
Flag of Italy Italian Social Republic (until 10 June)
Commanders and leaders
Union flag 1606 (Kings Colors)Lord Gort
Union flag 1606 (Kings Colors) Bernard Montgomery
Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955)Georgy Zhukov
Flag of Germany Gerd von Rundstedt
Flag of Free France 1940-1944 Maurice Gamelin
Flag of Free France 1940-1944 Alphonse Georges
Flag of Free France 1940-1944 Maxime Weygand (from 17 May)
Belgium Leopold III
Strength
Allies: 290 divisions
7,378 guns
5,445 tanks
6,638 aircraft
3,350,000 troops
Alps on 20 June
300,000 British
Axis: 196 divisions
14,974 guns
3,583 tanks
3,035 aircraft
3,300,000 troops
Alps on 20 June
~150,000 French
Casualties and losses
360,000 dead or wounded,
1,900,000 captured
2,233 aircraft
British forces were involved in fighting in the Pyrénées, where severe sub-zero temperatures are common even during the summer.
Total: 363,650 casualties
Axis:157,621 casualties
1,236-1,345 aircraft destroyed
323-488 aircraft damaged
795 tanks destroyed
Belgium:6,029;
Total:2,260,000 casualties

In the Great Patriotic War, the Battle of France, also known as the Fall of France, was the successful United Allied Coalition invasion of France and the Low Countries, beginning on 6 May 1944, defeating primarily French forces. The battle consisted of two main operations. In the first, Operation Market Garden , this was commenced on 5 May. Operation Market Garden was a successful combined British and Commonwealth military operation that focused on the liberation of French-occupied Western Europe. It was the largest seaborne operation up to that time.Nearly 160,000 troops crossed the Mediterranean Sea on 6 May; more than three million troops were in France by the end of August.  With France western front mostly defeated, Soviet Union launched the second operation, Operation Alexander on September 16, Soviet/German armored units pushed through the Ardennes to cut off and surround the French units that had advanced into Belgium. When French forces were pushed back to the sea by the highly mobile and well organized Soviet operation, the British government decided to invade France and sent the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) as well as several Commonwealth divisions at Dunkirk in Operation Sledgehammer.

The French were now faced by four powerful Allied army groups: in the north British 21st Army Group commanded by Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery, in the middle the American 12th Army Group commanded by General Omar Bradley, to the South the US 6th Army Group commanded by Lieutenant General Jacob L. Devers and to the East the 1st Belorussian Front commanded by Marshal Georgy Zhukov. By mid-September, the 6th Army Group, advancing from the south, came into contact with Bradley's formations advancing from the west and overall control of Devers' force passed from AFHQ in the Mediterranean so that all three army groups came under the central command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower at SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Forces). 

Under the onslaught in the North, South, and East of France, the French Army fell back. Initially the depleted French forces put up stiff resistance, but British air superiority gradually overwhelmed French artillery positions. Soviet forces outflanked the Maginot Line and pushed deeper into France as French forces began to collapse. Soviet-led UAC forces arrived in a heavily defended Paris on 14 December and their commanders met with French officials who sought an alliance with Britain. Chief among these was Marshal Philippe Pétain who, contrary to the wishes of many Frenchmen, announced he would seek an armistice. On 19 August, the French Resistance (FFI) organized a general uprising and the liberation of Paris took place on December 20 when general Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque accepted the French ultimatum and surrendered to general Charles de Gaulle, commander of the Free French 2nd Armored Division, ignoring orders that Paris should be held to the last and to destroy the city.

On 27 December, an armistice was signed between Vichy France and United Allied Coalition, which resulted in a division of France whereby Germany would occupy Alsace-Lorraine, Soviet and British joint-occupation of northern France, Italy would control a small Italian occupation zone in the southeast, and an unoccupied zone, the zone libre, would be governed by the newly formed republic government led by Charles de Gaulle. France remained under Allied occupation until the 1950s. 

Prelude

Allied Strategy

Western Front

Initially, the chief operational objective of Operation Market Garden was to establish a foothold on Catalonia and later capture the important French ports of Marseilles and Toulon, which were considered as essential to supply the growing Allied forces in France. They chose a location without high ground controlled by the French army. The Allies chose an area at the Catalonia coast east of the French-Spanish border as the landing site. Prior to the invasion, an air campaign was planned to isolate the battlefield and cut the French off from reinforcement by destroying several key bridges. Also a large airborne landing was planned in the center of the landing zone to quickly seize the high ground overlooking the beaches. Parallel to the invasion, several commando units would seize the islands off the coast. Although the French Command expected another Allied landing in Europe, the advancing Red Army and the Allied forces in Italy required all French resources, so more was done to improve the condition of Army Group G. Given the advancing Allied forces in east of France, the France Command deemed a realistic defense in Spain impossible. Maxime Weygand's Army Group G headquarter openly discussed a general withdrawal from southern France in July and August with the French High Command, but was quite aware that with his scattered forces any serious Allied landing attempt would be impossible to ward off. He planned the withdrawal in secret, to include demolition of the ports and conduct an ordered withdrawal, covered by the 11th Armure Division. He intended to establish a new defense line centered on Dijon in central France. French intelligence was aware of the impending Allied landing, and on 13 April Weygand ordered the 11th Armure Division to move east of the Ebro River, where the landing was expected. 

Eastern Front

On 10 October 1943, the British refused France's offer of peace; on 12 October, the Soviets did the same. Franz Halder, the chief of staff of the German Army (Generalstabschef des Heeres), presented the first plan for Operation Alexander on 19 October to the Soviet military command. This was the codename of plans for a campaign in the Low Countries: the Aufmarschanweisung N°1, Operation Alexander ("Deployment Instruction No. 1, Case Red"). Halder's plan has often been compared to the Schlieffen Plan, which the Germans attempted to execute in 1914 in 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 rapid encirclement of the French Army, Aufmarschanweisung N°1 envisioned a frontal attack, sacrificing a projected half million German soldiers to attain the limited goal of throwing the Allies back to the River Somme.

The Soviet Union's strength for late 1943 would then be spent; only in late 1944 could the main attack against France begin.Marshal Zhukov was disappointed with Halder's plan and initially reacted by deciding that the German army should attack early, ready or not, in the hope that French unpreparedness might bring about an easy victory. This led to a series of postponements, as commanders repeatedly persuaded Stalin to delay the attack for a few days or weeks to remedy some critical defect in the preparations, or to wait for better weather. Stalin 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; although the main axis would remain in central Belgium, secondary attacks would be undertaken on the flanks. Hitler made such a suggestion on 11 November. On 29 October, Halder let a second operational plan, Dzhaggernaut N°2, Fall Gelb; reflect these changes by featuring a secondary attack on the Netherlands. Stalin was not alone in disliking Halder's plan.

General Gerd von Rundstedt, the commander of Army Group A, also disagreed with it. Von Rundstedt recognized that it did not adhere to the classic principles of the Bewegungskrieg ("maneuver warfare") which had guided German strategy since the 19th century. A breakthrough would have to be accomplished that would result in the encirclement and destruction of the main body of French forces. The most practical place to achieve this would be in the region of Sedan, which lay in the sector of von Rundstedt's Army Group. On 21 October, 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 armored 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 French 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 Soviet 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 31 October. In it he carefully avoided mentioning Guderian's name and played down the strategic part of the armored units, in order to not generate unnecessary resistance. Six more memoranda followed between 31 October 1943 and 12 November 1943, each becoming more radical in outline. All were rejected by the OKH, the German Army's headquarters, and nothing of their content reached Stalin. 

Winter Offensive 

Marshal Ivan Konev and Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt created a separate plan to invade France which was accepted by Stalin and given the ok. The plan called Wacht am Rhein ("Watch on the Rhine") and Operation Juggernaut by the Soviet Union and was to attack through the Ardennes and swing North to Antwerp, splitting the French armies. The attack started on December 16 in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. Defending the Ardennes were troops of the French Third Army. Initial successes in bad weather, which gave them cover from the French air forces, resulted in Soviet/German penetration of over 50 miles (80 km) to within less than 10 miles (16 km) of the Meuse River. However, having been taken by surprise, the French regrouped and the German-led forces were stopped by a combined air and land counterattack which eventually pushed them back to their starting points by January 25, 1944. 

The Germans launched a second, smaller offensive (Nordwind) into Alsace on New Year's Day, 1944. Aiming to capture Strasbourg, the Germans attacked the 6th Army Group at multiple points. Because French lines had become severely stretched in response to the crisis in the Ardennes, holding and throwing back the Nordwind offensive was a costly affair that lasted almost four weeks. The culmination of French counter-attacks restored the front line to the area of the German border and collapsed the Colmar Pocket. 

Adoption of Manstein Plan 

On 27 January, von Manstein was relieved of his appointment as Chief of Staff of Army Group A and appointed commander of an army corps in Prussia, to begin his command in Stettin on 9 February, a move instigated by Halder to reduce von Manstein's influence. Von Manstein's indignant staff brought his case to Hitler's attention. Zhukov 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 2 February, von Manstein's plan was brought to his attention. On 17 February, Zhukov summoned von Manstein, Generals Rudolf Schmundt (the German Army's Chief of Personnel), Alfred Jodl, the Chief of Operations at the OKW (the German armed forces' supreme command), Marshal Rokossovsky (commander of the 1st West German Front) , and Andrey Yeryomenko (commander of 4th Shock Army) to attend a conference. Zhukov 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 Stalin 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 French armies in Belgium, which, if carried out correctly, could have a favorable strategic outcome. Halder had no intention of deviating from established doctrine by allowing an independent strategic penetration by the seven armored divisions of Army Group A. Much to the outrage of Guderian, this element was at first completely removed from the new plan, Dzhaggernaut N°4, Fall Gelb, issued on 24 February. 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/Soviet 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 French did not react as expected, the German-led 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.

French Strategy 

Western Front

Through most of 1943 and 1944, the French had rightly regarded the possibility of a successful Allied invasion in the west as remote. Preparations to counter an invasion were limited to the construction, by the Organisation Todt, of impressive fortifications covering the major ports. The number of military forces at the disposal of Vichy France reached its peak during 1944 with 61 divisions stationed in France, Belgium and the Netherlands.In late 1943, the obvious Allied buildup in Britain and North Africa prompted the French Commander-in-Chief, Maurice Gustave Gamelin, to request reinforcements. In addition to fresh units, Gamelin also received a new subordinate, Field Marshal Maxime Weygand. Rommel originally intended only to make a tour of inspection of the Mediterranean Wall. After reporting to Philippe Pétain, Weygand requested command of the defenders of northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands. These were organized as Army Group B in February 1944. (The French forces in southern France were designated as Army Group G, under General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny).

Weygand had recognized that for all their propaganda value, the Mediterranean Wall fortifications covered only the ports themselves. The beaches between were barely defended, and the Allies could land there and capture the ports from inland. He revitalized the defenders, who labored to improve the defenses of the entire coastline. Steel obstacles were laid at the high-water mark on the beaches, concrete bunkers and pillboxes constructed, and low-lying areas flooded. Given the Allied air supremacy (12,000 Allied aircraft against 300 French fighters), booby-trapped stakes were set up on likely landing grounds to deter airborne landings.

These works were not fully completed, especially in the vital Catalonia sector, partly because Allied bombing of the French railway system interfered with the movement of the necessary materials, and also because the French were convinced by the Allied deception measures and their own preconceptions that the landings would take place in the Pas de Calais, and so they concentrated their efforts there.

The French had nevertheless extensively fortified the foreshore area as part of their Mediterranean Wall defenses (including tank top turrets and extensive barbed wire), believing that any forthcoming landings would be timed for high tide (this caused the landings to be timed for low tide). The sector which was attacked was guarded by four divisions, of which the 352nd and 91st were of high quality. The other defending troops included French who were not considered fit for active duty on the Eastern Front (usually for medical reasons) and various other nationalities such as conscripted Poles and former German prisoners-of-war who had agreed to fight for the French rather than endure the harsh conditions of POW camps. These units were provided with German leadership to manage them.

Mobile Reserves

Weygand's defensive measures were also frustrated by a dispute over armored doctrine. In addition to his two army groups, Maurice also commanded the headquarters of Amour Group West under General Jean de Lattre to administer the mobile formations in reserve. Jean and Weygand disagreed over the deployment and use of the vital tank divisions.

Weygand proposed that the armored formations be deployed close to the coast, to counter-attack while the invaders were vulnerable. Jean argued that they should instead be concentrated in a central position around Paris and deployed en masse against the main Allied beachhead when this had been identified. When the matter was brought before Philippe, he imposed an unworkable compromise solution. Weygand was given only three tank divisions, only one of which was stationed close enough to the Catalonia beaches to intervene on the first day. The other mechanized divisions capable of intervening in Catalonia were retained under the direct control of the French Armed Forces HQ (OKW) and were scattered across France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Although nominally an Army Group, Army Group G had at the time of the invasion only one Army under its command: the 19th Army, led by Friedrich Wiese. As northern France had never been important to German planning, their forces there had been stripped of nearly all their valuable units and equipment over the course of the war. The remaining 11 divisions were understrength and only one intact Armor Division was left, the 11th Armor Division, which also had lost two of its tank battalions. The troops were positioned thinly along the French coast, with an average of 90 km (56 mi) per division. Generally the troops of the German divisions were only second and third grade. This meant that over the course of the years, Germans in those divisions were sent away and replaced with wounded old veterans as well as Volkfranzösisch from Germany and Czechoslovakia. There were numerous inserted, as well as several units made up from volunteered Soviet prisoners of war. The equipment of those troops was in poor shape, consisting of obsolete weapons from various nations, with Polish, and Soviet, Italian and Czech guns, artillery and mortars. Four of the French divisions were designated as "static", which meant that they were stripped of all of their mobile capabilities and unable to move from their assigned position. The only potent unit inside Army Group G was the 11th Armor Division, which was commanded by Alphonse Juin.

The French command chain was overly complex, with parallel chains for the occupation forces, the land forces, the French air force and the navy commands. As part of their defense, the French had several fortifications and coastal guns which they had constructed during the years of occupation. The air force as well as the French navy played a negligible role in the operation.

Eastern Front

Dlye Plan

Strategic reasons dictated the French decision to advance and fight on Belgian territory when the Soviet attack came in the west. The British government wanted the Flemish coast remain under Allied control so as not to threaten British naval supremacy. The French determined that the Soviet 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 Soviet army in the wide operational theatre France would present. Belgium presented a far narrower front to contain Soviet 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 Soviet 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 and link up with Dutch forces. The Belgian Army would hold the Ghent-Antwerp line. They would be reinforced by the French 2th Army, which would hold the section of the line east of Brussels, from Wavre to Louvain.

Gamelin made the reasonable assumption that the Soviets would try to attempt a breakthrough by concentrating their mechanized forces. They could hardly hope to break the Maginot Line on his right flank or to overcome the French 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 mechanized warfare, was a very dangerous weak spot. Gamelin decided to concentrate half of his armored reserves there; sure the main Soviet thrust would be on the Belgian-Dutch plain. Gamelin reasoned that the Soviet 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 Soviet 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 French forces from Belgium.

French Intellegence

In the winter of 1943–1944, the Belgian consul-general in Cologne had anticipated the angle of advance that Von Manstein was planning. Through intelligence reports, they deduced that Soviet/German forces were concentrating along the Belgian and Luxembourg frontiers. The Belgians were convinced that the Soviets would thrust through the Ardennes and to the English Channel with the aim of cutting off the French field armies in Belgium and north-eastern France. They also anticipated that the Soviet would try to land airborne and glider forces behind the French lines to break open Belgian fortifications. Such warnings were not heeded by the French.

In May 1944, Swiss intelligence detected six or seven German Panzer Divisions and three Soviet tank divisions on the German-Luxembourg-Belgian border. More motorized divisions had also been detected in the area. French intelligence were informed that they were constructing pontoon bridges partially—about halfway—over the Our River on the Luxembourg-German border through aerial reconnaissance. The French military attaché in the Swiss capital—Berne—warned that the centre of the Soviet assault would come on the Meuse at Sedan, sometime between 8 and 10 September. The report was dated 30 August. These reports had little effect on Gamelin.

French forces and dispositions

Allied forces and disposotions

Casualties

Allies

Fieldnurse

A Soviet Military Medic providing first aid to a wounded soldier

Allies overall casualties are hard to determine. A common estimate is about 27,074 killed, 111,034 wounded and 18,384 missing. Nevertheless, Soviet killed may have been as high as 49,000 men, due to additional non-combat causes, wounded who died and missing who were confirmed dead. The battle for France had cost the RAF 28% of its front line strength, some 1,236—1,428 aircraft destroyed (1,129 to enemy action, 299 in accidents). A further 323—488 were damaged  to enemy action, 263 in accidents), making a total of 36% of the RAF strength negatively affected. RAF casualties amounted to 6,653, including 4,417 aircrew; of these 1,129 were killed and 1,930 missing and captured. A great number were liberated from French prison camps upon the French capitulation. Italian casualties were 1,247 killed or missing and 2,361 wounded. Additionally, there were more than 2,000 cases of frostbite from combat in the subzero temperatures of the French Alps 

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