Fall of France (1940)

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The Fall of France or Battle of France, was the German invasion of France and the Low Countries that started on 10 May 1940, ending the Phoney War.

The German invasion, code-named Case Yellow, entailed an armoured thrust through the Ardennes Forest, which bypassed the principal French defences of the Maginot Line. The German tank and infantry spreaheads would then threaten to encircle the northern French defences and British reinforcements under General Lord Gort from the British Expeditionary Force (BEF).

The German Army High Command ordered 35 million tablets of Pervitin before invading France in the spring of 1940.[1]

Low Countries

Just a week into the invasion, the German troops had broken through the French northern defences. General Hans von Sponeck's 22nd Infantry Division quickly overwhelmed the Dutch units defending the Valkenburg, Ypenburg and Ockenburg airfields, and the bombing of Rotterdam and killing of almost 900 civilians persuaded General Wilkelman to surrender on 15 May. And although German forces in the attack on The Hague encountered strong resistance and lost 1,000 captured in counterattacks from the Dutch 1st Corps,[2] the German thrust through the Netherlands met with eventual success. The 7th French Army having crossed the Dutch border, had no option but to fall back and take up positions outside Brussels.

Meuse

On 12 May, the leading element of Gruppe von Bismarck reached the Meuse River at Dinant while the 31st Panzer Regiment reached Yvou but neither could cross the river. While the 5th Panzer Division experienced much traffic congestion in the advance to the Meuse, General Erwin Rommel's 7th Panzer Division (advancing across country and tracks to avoid French mines) made good progress and reached a crossing point at Houx, establishng a small bridgehead. The next day, three German battalions crossed the river and secured the bridgehead.

On 13 May, the 1st Panzer Brigade emerged from the Ardennes near Sedan, on the River Meuse. In a two-day battle, the German panzer divisions crossed the river, despite fierce resistance from the French conscript divisions and near-suicidal attacks by Allied aircraft. The Großdeutschland Regiment was unable to advance through the woods of Bois de la Marfee due to fierce resistance. On the night of 13/14 May, the advance of the infantry of the 1st Panzer Division was also halted, with the German troops reported to be suffering from exhaustion. However, a good part of the French defences collapsed on 14 May, when the 55th and 71st Infantry Division withdrew unauthorized. That day, two French armoured cavalry battalions joined two regiments from the French-officered 71st North African Infantry Division to counterattack from Chémery and the Plateau of Bulson, causing great concern among the German commanders, for only one company from the 2nd Panzer Regiment had crossed the Meuse and reached La Boulette Pass at this point in the fighting . Eventually four panzer companies and supporting infantry from the Großdeutschland Regiment defeated the French attack, capturing the towns of Signy and Connage. During the battle, the Panzer Corps under General Heinz Guderian had suffered about 120 killed and 400 wounded.[3] Guderian, without proper authorization, ordered the 2nd and 10th Panzer Divisions to cross the Meuse and race forward, while the Wietersheim Motorized Infantry Corps waited for their turn to move on the other side. As General Guderian later explained, "the essence" of the success at Sedan was not to the "breakthrough action" but the immediate exploitation of the breakthrough with an armoured advance deep behind enemy lines.

The 1st and 2nd Panzer Division advance was so fast that there were hardly any major combat actions. Many French units along the chain of hills west of Chémery withdrew or surrendered. Lacking a centrally placed strategic reserve, the French commanders ordered their divisions out of Belgium to respond to the new threat emerging from the bridgehead.

The 2nd French Army Corps on 13 May, also ordered an infantry-armour counterattack against the 5th Panzer Division, but in their march to their forming up positions the 129th Infantry Battalion was caught out in the open by Stuka dive-bombers and dispersed and the counterattack cancelled.

At Gembloux Gap on 14 May, the 3rd and 4th Panzer Divisions encountered strong resistance from the French-officered 1st Moroccan Infantry Division and 1st and 15th Motorized Infantry Divisions that were well-equipped with anti-tank guns. The 6th and  35th Panzer Regiment were engaged outside Ernage and were forced to withdraw.

The British Expeditionary Force were advancing to the River Dyle and had not been affected. But the German breakthrough to the south now forced them into rapid retreat to avoid being cut off. On 20 May, German panzers units reached Amiens and effectively trapped the BEF, who now made for Dunkirk in the hope of a rescue attempt on the part of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force.

Despite the renewed German advance on 18 May, General Maurice Gamelin continued to press French Army High Command for a counteroffensive aimed at severing the German panzer formations from the rear.

On 20 May, in his last message before capture, French General Herni Giraud reported: "Headquarters surrounded by 100 tanks."

On 21 May, a scratch force of British tanks and infantry gave a rough reception to General Erwin Rommel's 7th Panzer Division at Arras. 

Dunkirk

With the French defences collapsing, a British evacuation plan known as Operation Dynamo was hastily prepared by Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay of the Royal Navy. His strategy included the French Navy that would help the British evacuate the British and French armies.

On 23 May, the French destroyer Orage was sunk by the Luftwaffe. During the night of 23/24 May, the French destroyer Chacal was hit by German bombers and shells from German artillery and sunk. On May 29, the British destroyer Wakeful was torpedoed and sunk, with the loss of 600 men. On 30 May, the French destroyers Bourrasque with 600 troops embarked, struck a mine and sunk. On 31 May, the French destroyer Sirocco was sunk by German motor torpedo boats. On 1 June, the French destroyer Foudroyant was sunk in a German air attack. 

Between 26 May and 4 June, a period during which the panzer battalions were within 10 miles from Dunkirk, 338, 226 British, French, Belgian and Polish troops were evacuated to Britain, including 13,053[4] British sick and wounded. Six British destroyers, eight troopships and 243 smaller boats were lost during the evacuation.

According to the book The British Army in France After Dunkirk (Pen & Sword, 2009), 40,000 British troops were killed, wounded or captured at Dunkirk. Around 3,500[5][6] British were killed in the retreat and evacuations with 1,500[7] French civilians believed killed in and around Dunkirk.

There were many acts of bravery in the BEF. Sergeant Major Gus Jennings was killed neutralizing a German stick grenade in an effort to save fellow soldiers from the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Captain Marcus Ervine-Andrews was awarded the Victoria Cross for single-handedly contesting the advance of a German platoon, allowing eight of his men to escape to safety. .

During the Dunkirk evacuations, The RAF did its best to protect the Allied troops and ships. It flew 3,500 missions, losing 145 aircraft while shooting down 156 Luftwaffe aircraft.

Riviera

On 10 June, the Italian invaders attacked through the Little Saint Bernard Pass in the French Alps but encounter stiff resistance from the French mountain divisions under General René Olry and dispersed. The Italians eventually work their way[8][9] round the French defenders and capture Menton, Briançon and part of Uodane, overrunning a French rearguard in their advance past Lablachère along the Riviera Road, having finally broken through the determined French defences at three places in the Isère Valley.[10][11]

French Armistice

On 5 June, the German panzer divisions renewed their attacks. That day, a panzer unit after an attack on the Somme was within striking distance of the French capital.

On 10 June, Italy entered the war on Germany's side with the Regia Aeronautica bombing the cities of Orléans and Marseille.[12] That day, the French government fled Paris for Bordeaux, declaring Paris an open city.

On 11 June, Churchill visited Paris, attempting to stiffen whatever French resolve remained, but unable to offer any more significant military support.

On 14 June, German forces marched into Paris, provoking the flight of the French Government to Bordeaux.

Meanwhile, the panzer formations advanced in different directions across France, finishing off pockets of resistance, crossing the River Loire on 17 June, and reaching the Swiss frontier a few days later.

On 22 June, General Pretelat surrendered the 2nd French Army Group, marking the end of the fighting after nearly two months of French resistance. At the request of Hitler, the surrender document was signed in the same railway carriage when Germany capitulated in 1918.

French losses were 90,000 killed, 200,000 wounded, and 1,800,000 captured. German losses were reported to be 10,252 killed, 42,523 wounded, and 8,467 missing or captured.

Second BEF

The British 1st Armoured Division (under General Jonathan Forse), 51st Highland Division (under General Victor Fortune)[13] and Beauman Division along with the Canadian 1st Infantry Division, continued to fight as part of the "Second BEF" [14] under General Sir Alan Brooke but were overrun at Forges-les-Eaux, St Valéry-en-Caux and elsewhere on 8, 12 and 17 June, losing many tanks.

During Operation Ariel (the final evacuation of British troops from St Nazaire), the troopship Lancastria was sunk on 17 June with the loss of 1,738[15] British troops, civilians and crew.

on 3 July, the French destroyer Branlebas that had taken part in Operations Dynamo and Ariel foundered during a storm off Dartmouth.

English Channel Islands

On 30 June, the English Channel Islands - comprising Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Sark and Herm - were occupied after British Prime Minister Winston Churchill concluded them impossible to defend after much loss of British equipment at Dunkirk, St Nazaire and other ports of evacuation.

In the retreat to Dunkirk and other ports, the BEF was forced to leave behind 2,400 artillery guns, 445 tanks, 65,000 vehicles and 68,000 tonnes of ammunition.[16] Winston Churchill, who had become Prime Minister on 10 May, hailed Dunkirk as a miracle and described the British determination as the "Dunkirk spirit", but also warned that "wars are not won by evacuations".

Mers-el-Kébir

Fearing losing the French Navy to the Axis side, Churchill set in motion Operation Catapult with the Royal Navy presenting the French naval commanders at Mers-el-Kebir with an ultimatum to sail to Britain or to a neutral port for internment. When this offer was rejected on 3 July, British ships bombarded the French naval fleet, killing 1,297 French sailors. Although this operation did much to assure Washington of the strength of the British resolve, it and the evacuation of Dunkirk did great damage to Franco-British wartime relations.

References

  1. Hitler's all-conquering stormtroopers 'felt invincible because of crystal meth-style drug Pervitin'
  2. "By late evening, the Dutch had taken approximately 1,000 German prisoners, and Sponeck himself was among the wounded. For the time being the attack on The Hague was a failure." World War II in Europe: An Encyclopedia, David T. Zabecki, Routledge, 2015
  3. "During the Sedan breakthrough battle on 13 and 14 May, Panzer Corps Guderian suffered about 120 dead and 400 wounded." The Blitzkrieg Legend, Karl-Heinz Frieser, Naval Institute Press, 2013
  4. "Of these, 211,532 were listed as physically fit British troops, 13,053 as British sick or wounded, and 112,546 as Allies, mostly French but including some Belgians." Britain, Volume 4, p. 4, British Information Services, 1944, 1945
  5. "Enemy action against ships at sea and the beaches resulted in the deaths of some 3,500 British troops out of the total of 68,111 killed, wounded and taken prisoner during the retreat to Dunkirk." Churchill's Channel War 1939-45, Robert Jackson, Osprey Publishing, 2013
  6. Dunkirk veterans commemorate 60th anniversary of epic rescue
  7. The miracle of Dunkirk: 40 facts about the famous evacuation
  8. ITALIANS REPORT ADVANCE ON NICE
  9. Attack By French Repelled
  10. "The group of two armies ... scored only some minor local successes in the Isere valley, near Uodane, and Briancon and Mentone on the Riviera was taken after heavy fighting." World War II German Military Studies: Introduction & Guide, Donald S. Detwiler, Charles Burton Burdick, Jürgen Rohwer, p. 19, Garland Publications, 1979
  11. Italy To Take Over Nice And Savoy As War With France Ceases
  12. "The Luftwaffe also attacked the Citroën works on the Quai Javel in Paris and targets as far away as Cherbourg and the Loire valley, while the Italian Air Force hits Orleans and Marseille." Forgotten Blitzes: France and Italy under Allied Air Attack, 1940-1945, Claudia Baldoli, Andrew Knapp, p. 7, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012
  13. 51ST HIGHLAND DIVISION
  14. "With France still fighting, the British government had reached the conclusion that the BEF should be reconstituted at Cherbourg and continue to fight alongside their French allies. To form the core of this new force the 52nd Lowland Division and the 1st Canadian Division were hastily shipped to Cherbourg." Dunkirk: The Men They Left Behind, Sean Longden, Hachette, 2009
  15. RMS Lancastria: Worst Loss of Life on a British Ship
  16. The miracle of Dunkirk: 40 facts about the famous evacuation