In this lesson, we explore the French defenses, the subsequent German invasion, and the disastrous consequences for France during WWII and its four-year occupation by Germany.
Fall of France
Have you ever seen a dam? Huge and impressive as they are, did you know that they can be completely undone by just a single leak? Indeed, a dam’s great ability to hold back immense amounts of water requires each part of the dam to be stable and spread the water’s force equally. One weak spot can have disastrous results.
In some ways, the French defenses on its eastern frontier prior to World War II (WWII) were similar to a weak dam. Large and impressive across most of its border with Germany, one or two small weak spots caused the whole French position to come crashing down.
Background and Defenses
Adolf Hitler took power in Germany in the mid-1930s. As he strengthened his grip on power in the country, his foreign policy became increasingly aggressive, claiming he wanted to unite all German-speaking people under the German flag.
With this justification, Hitler’s Germany annexed Austria as the rest of the world stood by.In 1938, Hitler was virtually handed the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and the French government, who hoped that by giving Hitler the Sudetenland, peace in Europe would be secured. This policy of appeasement, as it is known, proved foolhardy because before long, Hitler’s German troops had invaded the rest of the Czechoslovakia.In response, both Britain and France pledged Poland, Hitler’s next likely target, that any German incursions into Polish territory would trigger immediate declarations of war on Germany by both countries.
When Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, both countries vacillated, declaring war on Germany but sending little actual aid to Poland. As a result, German forces rolled across the Polish countryside before turning their eyes on France in early 1940.In anticipation of the German invasion, France set up an elaborate installation of fortified bunkers and defensive positions along the French frontier with Germany. Called the Maginot Line, French commanders assumed the strong position would repel any invading German army and force the Germans to take heavy casualties.
The line was set up in a similar fashion to the trenches of World War I (WWI), and the decision to build the fortifications was heavily based on lessons the French learned during WWI.However, there were two holes in the line: one along the Franco-Belgian border (Belgium, in 1940, was a neutral state) and a second on the French side of the Ardennes forest, which French commanders considered impassable for any large army.
These two weaknesses proved the French’s undoing. On May 10, 1940, Germany began a simultaneous invasion of both the Low Countries and France. In the north, German forces bombed the Netherlands into submission, and the Dutch surrendered only four days later. In response, French and British forces stationed on the Franco-Belgian border advanced into Belgium to fortify the Allied positions there. Despite some initial pushback, British and French forces largely held their ground in the face of the German assault advancing south from the Netherlands.
Unfortunately, this advance into Belgium played directly into Hitler’s hands. The German attack through the Netherlands and Belgium proved to be only a diversionary attack, and the main German attack pushed through the Ardennes forest a few days later after the initial attack in the Low Countries. The British and French forces were wholly unprepared for this second prong of the attack, and the area was largely undefended.The enterprising German blitzkrieg attack, which employed the use of fast-moving columns of tanks coupled with heavy airstrikes ahead of the columns, overwhelmed what few Allied forces existed on the French side of the Ardennes. Before long, the German forces were racing south and west, threatening the relatively undefended French heartland. Moreover, the advance cut off Allied supply lines to the northern forces in Belgium and threatened to encircle the force and cut off any possible retreat.
Only ten days after the initial invasion, German tank divisions had reached the English Channel and encircled the Allied forces. Belgium surrendered to the Germans eight days later, leaving the British forces in Belgium exposed. Abandoning the remaining French forces, the British commanders ordered all remaining British forces to abandon their positions and equipment and head for the coast for evacuation. Over a week’s time and under heavy German shelling, the British employed virtually every military, commercial, and private ship to evacuate British troops from the French seaside town of Dunkirk.The daring rescue proved a small moral victory for the British, but France remained doomed.
The French continued to conduct counterattacks and minor offensives against the advancing German onslaught, but most gains were minimal and short-lived. The Germans advanced south quickly toward the French capital. After several days of shelling, the French government fled the city on June 13. After the surrender of Paris, German tank divisions dispersed throughout the countryside, defeating what few French forces remained. On June 22, France formally surrendered to Germany.
The fall of France to Hitler’s Germany was a shock to the world. That one of Europe’s great powers could knock out another in less than two months surprised everyone and forced the British to reevaluate their entire wartime strategy.
For France, the quick defeat was only the beginning to its wartime humiliation at German hands. Hitler’s Germany set up a puppet regime, named Vichy France, to govern France during the German occupation.As the war dragged on, various paramilitary groups banded together, called La R;sistance, who conducted sabotage and guerrilla operations against German forces throughout the occupation. When discovered, the freedom fighters were often executed by the German government.
Sadly, French Jews met a similar fate as their coreligionists in much of central and eastern Europe, as they were rounded up and murdered as part of Hitler’s wartime genocide of the Jewish people known as the Holocaust. France remained occupied by Germany until Allied forces forced the Germans to retreat, beginning with the Normandy D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944.
The immediate cause of World War II was the aggressive foreign policy of Adolf Hitler’s fascist government in Germany. Not even the British and French-condoned policy of appeasement could placate Hitler’s lust for power, territory, and glory for Germany. After Hitler invaded Poland, France and Great Britain declared war on Germany. Once Germany had completed its conquest of Poland, it set its sights on France.
German forces invaded France at the Maginot Line‘s weakest points – through the Ardennes forest and across the Franco-Belgian frontier. The advance through the forest particularly surprised the Allies, and their northern forces were soon encircled. The Belgians promptly surrendered, and the British evacuated what forces they had remaining. Only a few weeks later, German forces took Paris and consolidated their gains in the French countryside, creating Vichy France to govern the occupied country.
French resistance fighters fought a guerrilla war throughout the occupation, but it was not until the Allied invasion on D-Day, June 6, 1944, that France truly began to recover her sovereignty.
With knowledge of this lesson’s facts, you could be able to:
- Summarize the British and French’s policy of appeasement during World War II
- Comprehend the impact that Germany’s conquest of Poland had on Great Britain and France
- Explain how Germany caused France to surrender
- Remember what Vichy France and La Résistance were