Battle of France

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Battle of France
Part of the Western Front of the Second World War
Battle of France collage
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, 14 June 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.
Date 10 May-25 June 1940
Location France, Low Countries
Result Decisive Axis victory
 United Kingdom
Poland Poland
Czechoslovakia Czechoslovakia
Italy Italy (from 10 June)
Commanders and leaders
France Maurice Gamelin (until May 17)
France Maxime Weygand (from May 17)
United Kingdom Lord Gort
Belgium Leopold III
Netherlands Henri Winkelman
Poland Władysław Sikorski
Czechoslovakia Sergej Ingr
Nazi Germany Gerd von Rundstedt
Nazi Germany Fedor von Bock
Nazi Germany Wilhelm von Leeb
Nazi Germany Erich von Manstein
Italy H.R.H. Umberto di Savoia
144 divisions[1]
13,974 guns[1]
3,383 tanks[1]
2,935 aircraft[2]
3,300,000 troops

Alps on 20 June
~150,000 French
141 divisions[1]
7,378 guns[1]
2,445 tanks[1]
5,638 aircraft[3][4]
3,350,000 troops

Alps on 20 June
300,000 Italians

The Battle for France, also known as the Western Campaign (Westfeldzug) or Fall of France, was the German invasion of France on 10 May 1940, which ended the Phoney War. On 3 September 1939, France and England had declared war on the Deutsches Reich which is considered the beginning of World War II.


German paratroopers after their victory of the Battle of Fort Eben-Emael 1940 (Sturm auf die Festung Eben-Emael (in German))
Panzergruppe von Kleist, May 1940; The Wehrmacht went to war in the West in 1940 with more than 500 Panzerkampfwagen I (PzKpfw I). The armament of these better training vehicles consisted of machine guns. The French Char B2 could not be endangered with such weapons. Equipped with armor up to 60 millimeters thick, the tank's armor was superior to both the German Panzer III (max. 30 millimeters of armor) as well as the Panzer IV (max. 30 millimeters). The French Somua S35 (55 mm armor, 55 mm gun) was considered the best tank of its time. The French army had more than 700 Hotchkiss H39s in stock, more than the Wehrmacht owned Panzer III and IV tanks. The British Matilda Mark II was unassailable for German tanks and anti-tank guns with its hull up to 80 millimeters thick. But the German Panzer were faster, had a longer range and were concentrated. They made up for their disadvantages with tactics and mobility. The german crews were a true elite when it came to training and determination, as the British and French were soon to discover.
Soldiers of the SS-Verfügungsdivision during the Western Campaign in May 1940
Adolf Hitler (centre) posing in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris shortly after signing an armistice with France, 23 June 1940, with him two of his favorite artists: Albert Speer (left) and Arno Breker.

France had declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939 at the behest of the British who promised them substantial "aid" if they did so. All that came of this aid was poorly equipped conscripted soldiers in the form of a British Expeditionary Force (BEF). Meanwhile Germany did nothing in the west. This period was known as the Phoney War.

Whilst Germany attacked Poland, the French Army had mobilized and deployed to its defensive positions, including manning the Maginot Line that stretched from Luxembourg in the north to the Swiss border in the south. Facing the Belgian frontier in anticipation of a German attack were the four armies of the First Group of Armies, joined by the British Expeditionary Force–initially of two corps (just four divisions). In May 1940, a total of ninety-two divisions were able to meet the German offensive, including five motorized infantry, five light cavalry, three light mechanized and three armoured divisions–the latter raised in the first quarter of 1940. In the meantime, the British had expanded its field army in France to three corps (nine infantry divisions and a tank brigade) with a separate division (51st (Highland)) serving alongside the French in the Saar. That said, this second British Expeditionary Force in a generation represented a far less significant contribution to the Allied cause than in 1917–18 when no fewer than four armies (sixty divisions) of the British Empire had served on the Western Front. Meanwhile, the German Army had continued to expand over the winter of 1939–40 to 157 divisions, of which ninety-three (including ten panzer divisions) were employed on 10 May 1940 for the offensive in the West.

'England's man', Paul Reynaud of the 'war party' in the Assembly, became France's Premier in March 1940 and on the 27th of that month, just four days after taking office, Reynard went to London for a meeting of the Allied Supreme War Council. With him were General Maurice Gamelin and the notoriously anti-English Admiral François Darlan. At this meeting Reynaud, with no Cabinet approval, proposed that there should be no separate armistices or peace without the approval of either great Britain or France. Churchill's personal envoy to France, General Spears, thought this was essential: "It was after all to our advantage to bind the French, as they had been uncertain starters and their hearts were certainly not in the war."[5]

On the evening of 9 May 1940, the German Wehrmacht had 2,350,000 troops with 2,700 tanks supported by 3,200 aircraft poised on Germany's western frontiers. Facing them, between Basel and the North Sea were 2,000,000 French troops, 237,000 British (plus the mobilised neutrals: 375,000 Belgians and 250,000 Dutchmen), with 3,000 tanks supported by 1,700 aircraft. Therefore only in the air did the Germans have a superiority. On the ground the Allies had a comparitively small numerical superiority.[6]

Operation Sichelschnitt

The Manstein Plan or Case Yellow (German: Fall Gelb), also known as Operation Sichelschnitt (Sichelschnittplan, from the English term sickle cut), was the war plan of the German armed forces (Wehrmacht) by Erich von Manstein. Once victory had been assured in Poland the previous September, OKH planned initially what appeared superficially as a rerun of the Schlieffen-Plan (de) of 1914. The main effort of the attack lay in a sweeping envelopment through northern Belgium towards the Channel coast. Documents with details of the plan – Aufmarschanweisung N°1, Fall Gelb (Campaign Instruction No 1, Case Yellow) – fell into Belgian hands during the Mechelen incident on 10 January 1940 and the plan was revised several times, each giving more emphasis to an attack by Army Group A – Aufmarschanweisung N°4, Fall Gelb (Campaign Instruction No. 4, Case Yellow) – issued on 24 February 1940 through the Ardennes, which progressively reduced the offensive by Army Group B through the Low Countries to a diversion. After crossing the Meuse River between Namur and Sedan, Army Group A would turn north-west towards Amiens, as Army Group B executed a feint attack in the north, to lure the Allied armies forward into Belgium and pin them down.

Manstein’s determined efforts to secure the high command’s agreement to his extraordinary sickle-cut (Sichelschnitt) plan incurred the displeasure of both of the commander-in-chief, Colonel General Walter von Brauchitsch and Colonel General Franz Halder, the German Army Chief of the General Staff. Although he desired a field command, in many respects Manstein had wished to remain in Koblenz under Colonel General Gerd von Rundstedt, the commander of Army Group A. This happy partnership of arms had already proved itself in the Polish campaign: an apparently ideal combination of a relaxed ‘handsoff’ commander with an energetic and highly competent chief of staff. Rundstedt, in a similar manner to Field Marshal Harold Alexander, relieved the tedium of high command with a passion for reading crime novels. In so doing they amused their more than competent staffs by trying to disguise their innocent distractions. Whilst Rundstedt was certainly more than a distant figurehead, Manstein represented the principal intellectual stimulus and driving force. Thus the Rundstedt–Manstein partnership resembled that of Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff of the previous war. [...] Immediately after the meeting of 17 February, Manstein wrote a detailed memorandum for the benefit of his former headquarters, setting out the key points of the discussion. His principal observation was: The aim of the offensive in the West must be to bring about a decision on land [emphasis as in original]. For the limited objectives given in the present deployment order, the defeat of largest possible enemy groupings in Belgium and the seizure of parts of the Channel coastline, the political and military stakes are too high. The goal must be the final victory on land. Operations must therefore be directed [immediately] towards achieving a final decision in France, and the destruction of French resistance. In a nutshell, he summed up what Sichelschnitt was all about: seeking a strategic decision through a novel operational method that would play to German strengths and exploit the weaknesses of her enemies.[7]

Operation "Dawn"

At the end of January 1940, officer cadet Feldwebel Hermann Kürschner from the special unit Bau-Lehr-Bataillon z. b. V. 800 "Brandenburg" was given the order by Dr. Theodor von Hippel to set up a squad for use in the west. Kürschner gathered volunteers from the Young German Bund and miners from the area because they knew the area particularly well. The Stoßtruppe or assault platoon ("Westzug") was led under the staff company. At the end of February 1940, Kürschner reported to Abwehr-Abteilung II and received detailed instructions from Lieutenant Colonel Lahousen and Major Stolze. A few weeks before the start of the campaign, Kürschner was promoted to lieutenant.

On 8 May 1940 (two days before Fall Gelb), commandos of the “Kürschner” unit were smuggled into France, Belgium and the Netherlands in half and full camouflage. With semi-camouflage, when approaching the object, enemy uniform parts or civilian clothes were worn over the German uniform. This camouflage was removed before the actual battle. One spoke of full camouflage when the enemy's complete uniform was also worn during combat. In the case of mixed camouflage, only some of the soldiers appeared in enemy uniforms, while the majority in German uniforms were escorted through enemy lines by the former, mostly as alleged German prisoners or deserters. The deportees then hid weapons and ammunition in or under their uniforms. Enemy weapons and vehicles were also used for camouflage purposes. How this equipment were used was left to the respective operational leaders, who were solely responsible for planning an operation. On 9 May 1940, the operational order of the XXVI. Army Corps (Army Group B, 18th Army) was received, whereupon camouflage clothing, weapons and equipment were issued to the task forces. At 11 p.m., all five squads began the march to their respective targets.

The actual Operation "Dawn" or Unternehmen „Morgenröte“ (Maas/Maas-Waal Canal) was the audacious capture of eight Maas bridges on the night of 9 to 10 May 1940 (before the start of the western campaign or the storming of Eben Emael) by less than 50 commandos of the Brandenburgers and Dutch combat interpreters (Kampfdolmetscher) of the right-wing nationalist Mussert movement. In particular, the capture of the railway bridge at Gennep was of immense importance. This bridge was taken by only seven men (five German "deserteurs" and two Dutch "gendarmes") in mixed camouflage and equipped with the appropriate legends.

The commando squad, led by Oberleutnant Wilhelm Walther, who later received the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross, succeeded in first eliminating or capturing a Dutch guard and then an entire platoon of Dutchmen and destroying three bunkers. Shortly thereafter, a German armored train appeared to finally secure the bridge. The capture of the bridge at Gennep was of great operational importance. The 9th Panzer Division was able to cross the Maas on it and a few days later established contact with the German paratroopers under the command of Captain Fritz Prager who had landed near Moerdijk.

Other commando operations against the Meuse bridges, e.g. the capture of the Heumen bridge under the command of Dietrich F. Witzel, who was wounded in the process and later received the Knight's Cross (code names Kirn and Wolf; platoon commander 1st platoon/4th company/Bau-Lehr Battalion, e.g. V. 800), also succeeded.

On the railway bridge near Buggenum (north of Roermond), the Brandenburger squad (six men) of NCO Hilmer (group "Haut" or group "Janowski", 2nd platoon of the 4th company of the Bau-Lehr-Bataillon z. b. V. 800), dressed in Dutch railway workers' suits and armed with shovels and pickaxes, was exposed and caught in a hail of bullets from the bridge's western security bunker. Nevertheless, four of the still unwounded Brandenburgers made it to the middle of the bridge, but then it was blown up with four large explosions. The elite soldiers died and the approaching German Panzerzug 5 could not cross the bridge as planned. Because the armored train had to stop right in front of the bridge, it was immobilized by a direct hit in the machine from the bunkers on the other side. Losses: 41 killed, 76 wounded (mostly seriously).

Overall, strategically important bridges at Maaseik (Belgium), Berg, Uromon, Obicht and Stein in the Netherlands were taken by surprise during Operation "Dawn". Responsible for the bridges in Maastricht was the Infanterie-Bataillon z. b. V. 100 under Captain Fleck from the Abwehrstelle Oppeln.

Campaign (Case Yellow)

The campaign 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 neutral Belgium. Five panzer divisions of Panzergruppe von Kleist advanced through the Ardennes; XIX Panzer Corps with three panzer divisions on the southern flank towards Sedan, against the French Second Army. The XLI Panzer Corps with two panzer divisions on the northern flank, advanced towards Monthermé, against the French Ninth Army (General André Corap). XV Corps moved through the upper Ardennes towards Dinant, with two panzer divisions, as a flank guard against a counter-attack from the north. From 10 to 11 May, XIX Panzer Corps engaged the two cavalry divisions of the Second Army, surprised them with a far larger force than expected and forced them back. The Ninth Army, to the north, had also sent its two cavalry divisions forward, which were withdrawn on 12 May, before they met German troops.

The retreating British Expeditionary Force (the BEF existed from 2 September 1939 when the BEF GHQ was formed until 31 May 1940, when GHQ closed down and its troops reverted to the command of Home Forces) and many units of the French army were evacuated from Dunkirk. In the second operation, Fall Rot (Case Red), executed from 5 June, German forces outflanked the Maginot Line to attack the France proper. Italy later declared war on France on 10 June 1940.


The French government fled to Bordeaux, and Paris was occupied by the German Wehrmacht on 14 June. On 17 June 1940, the Premier of France, Marshal Pétain, publicly announced by wireless that France would ask for an armistice. On 22 June 1940, the armistice was signed between France and Germany, to take effect from the 25th. For the Axis Powers, the campaign was a spectacular victory.[8]


French and British

  • 376,734 dead, missing and wounded
  • 1,756,000 captured
  • 2,233 aircraft lost
  • 1,749 French tanks lost
  • 689 British tanks lost
  • Total: 2,260,000


  • 27,074 dead
  • 111,034 wounded
  • 18,384 missing
  • 1,129 aircrew killed (mostly during the Battle of Britan)
  • 1,236 aircraft lost
  • 795–822 tanks lost
  • Total: 157,621 casualties


  • 6,029–6,040 casualties


France became divided into a German military occupation zone in the north and west, a small Italian military occupation zone in the southeast, and an unoccupied zone, the zone libre, in the south. The French State continued to administer civil law in all three zones according to the terms laid out in the armistice. They also had full control of their navy and a truncated army of 100,000 men; plus full control of the French Empire. In November 1942, the Axis forces were forced by the Allies invasion of neutral French North Africa to move troops south to the [[Mediterranean] for defensive purposes. This mean that the zone libre now also became part of occupied France (but not its empire) remained occupied until after the Allied invasion in 1944.


On 19 July, during the 1940 Field Marshal Ceremony at the Kroll Opera House in Berlin, Hitler promoted 12 generals to the rank of Generalfeldmarschall:

This number of promotions to what had previously been the highest rank in the Wehrmacht (Hermann Göring, Commander in chief of the Luftwaffe and already a Field Marshal, was elevated to the new rank of Reichsmarschall) was unprecedented. In the First World War, Kaiser Wilhelm II had promoted only five generals to Field Marshal.


See also

External links



  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Maier and Falla 1991, p. 279.
  2. Hooton 2007, p. 47-48: Hooton uses the National Archives in London for RAF records. Including "Air 24/679 Operational Record Book: The RAF in France 1939–1940", "Air 22/32 Air Ministry Daily Strength Returns", "Air 24/21 Advanced Air Striking Force Operations Record" and "Air 24/507 Fighter Command Operations Record". For the Armee de l'Air Hooton uses "Service Historique de Armee de l'Air (SHAA), Vincennes".
  3. Hooton 2007, pp. 47-48: Hooton uses the Bundesarchiv, Militärarchiv in Freiburg.
  4. Luftwaffe strength included gliders and transports used in the assaults on The Netherlands and Belgium
  5. Benoist-Méchin, Jacques, Sixty Days That Shook The West, Putnams, New York, 1963, p.21-2.
  6. Barry, Major-General R.H., CB., CBE., "Military Balance - Western Europe May 1940" in Purnell's History of the Second World War, London, 1981, vol.1, pps:95-105.
  7. Manstein and Sichelschnitt (Archive)
  8. Keegan, John, The Second World War, Glenfield, Auckland 10, New Zealand, Hutchinson, London, 1989.