What Prompted France's Surrender to Germany in 1940?
What Led France to Fall in 1940: Even 80 years after Germany invaded France in May 1940, the speed with which France capitulated continues to astound. What exactly caused this tragedy?
After several months of “fake war,” the German army launched an attack on France and the Netherlands on May 10, 1940. The Wehrmacht overran the country from the north in less than two weeks.
The French army was one of the most important in the world. Nonetheless, it could not hold out, resulting in France's tragic fiasco of the twentieth century, when Marshal Philippe Pétain's government signed an armistice with Nazi Germany on June 22, 1940, and the embarrassing history of French collaboration started.
What may have triggered this? And why so quickly? FRANCE 24 spoke with historian Michal Bourlet, a former history professor at the Saint-Cyr Cotquidan Military Academy, who debunks some of the myths behind the Battle of France's catastrophic failure.
Is there any truth to the widely held belief that the German attack caught the French army off guard?
The French Army of 1939-40 is inextricably linked to the humiliating “false war,” military defeat in May-June 1940, and policy failure in June 1940. In French cultural memory, this is still viewed as a significant defeat.
The Vichy dictatorship under Pétain promoted the notion that the army was unprepared, unmotivated, and unequipped to combat the overwhelming Wehrmacht.
Unfortunately, it is still used today because it is a fantastic excuse: it is much easier to admit defeat by claiming a weak army faced a much stronger one.
The French army had the resources and manpower – five million more men than in 1914 – to tackle the Germans squarely. Since the mid-1930s, defence spending has increased, strengthening the air force, building a powerful naval fleet, supplying a well-equipped army, and erecting France's eastern border protected by the Maginot Line, a defensive barrier.
Thus, before the war, the top leadership was far from idle. It possessed these resources and established a strategy for using them, which included modest offensives with specific targets, continuous fronts, and artillery to obstruct the enemy's movements.
Several commanders were confused about how to respond to the German invasion, and due to the “false war,” some forces panicked or dissolved. The majority of French soldiers, on the other hand, fought with bravery and perseverance.
Statistics show how brutal the fighting was. More than 60,000 French soldiers were killed between May and June. During the Battle of France, the German army lost 30% of its tanks and planes. The number of individuals slain or missing is likely to rise to 27,000 in June, up from 21,000 in May.
Was the French army manage to win any battles?
As usual, it was a multi-faceted campaign with terrain, leadership quality, weapon quality, and other factors determining victory. There were some successful moments, notably the Italian army's defeat on the Alpine front in June 1940, and, while not genuinely successful, the French did make life difficult for the Germans in several fights.
For example, from May 15 to 27, they attempted to put pressure on the German attack's flank following the Wehrmacht's dramatic breakthrough at Sedan near Stonne in the Ardennes. The French took and retreated from the hamlet at least 17 times before breaking through. They did, however, deal significant damage to the Germans.
In addition, I recall some fighting in Belgium during the Battle of the Scheldt. Between May 21 and 26, French foot soldiers prevented the Germans from crossing the Scheldt Canal, causing the Wehrmacht's march north to be delayed. The six infantry divisions of the 1st French Army are another notable example. The Germans surrounded them in the Lille area, but they fought until June 1, allowing the British Expeditionary Force to escape from Dunkirk.
So, what caused the French to lose so quickly?
The Germans took risks during the Battle of France. They concentrated their tanks in the Ardennes, where the terrain was challenging, between the Maginot Line and the main body of the French army to the north. The French Army moved north to confront the Wehrmacht forces that had penetrated Belgium, charging through the Ardennes. As a result, before pushing south into Paris, they encircled and pinned the Allied forces along the English Channel. At that point, the French army had crumbled.
Millions of explanations for France's defeat have been proposed since 1945, ranging from the nature of the Meuse bridges to the Third Republic's political systems to the Maginot Line, which was recently used as an analogy for France's coronavirus problems.
As previously noted, the French army had many men and high-quality weapons and armaments. Despite being hurt by the “wrong war,” its morale was good.
The failure was due to doctrinal and intellectual issues. It's the adage of waging the last war. The leaders were too absorbed with World War I lessons to consider the actual war they had to fight in the present. They were unable to adjust. Germans, on the other hand, were willing to take risks.