The Battle of France

The signal 'BEF evacuated' sent from Dunkirk on the night of the 3-4 June did not mean that all British troops had been evacuated from France. In fact, there were still 100,000 British servicemen south of the River Somme, a figure which would rise to 160,000 as new units arrived to encourage France to remain in the war. This force was termed the 'Second BEF'.


Such encouragement was desperately required, as the French could now only field circa 60 combat divisions against the Germans' 143. To create a force even of this size, the French had been forced to throw into the line many of the exhausted troops which had been evacuated from Dunkirk and many of the support troops which had been supplementing the Maginot Line defences. In addition, the Germans now enjoyed complete air superiority over the battlefield.



During the sweep across France, the Germans had used the Somme River to protect their southern flank and secured bridgeheads at Abbeville, Amiens and Peronne. During the latter part of May, a new French 10th Army was assigned the task of eliminating the German bridgehead at Abbeville, with support from the 7th Army, which was also to attack at Amiens. Despite heavy losses of French and British tanks, the initial clashes did succeed in pushing the Germans back towards the Somme. However, dogged German defence of the dominating heights of the Monts de Caubert sapped the strength of the Allies and hampered meaningful progress elsewhere in this sector. The Germans brought up strong reinforcements and before long were back on the offensive.



The second great German offensive in the West, Operation Red, commenced on the 5th June 1940, using the Somme bridgeheads as the jumping-off points. Initially, the progress of attacking units such as Rommel's 7th Panzer Division, was slowed by determined resistance from French colonial infantry. French tactics had also changed; they now formed defensive zones and defended in depth with systematic use of strong points in key villages and at critical road junctions. On the left flank, the French 10th Army and the British 51st Highland Division held firm.



However, further to the south, the Germans, using infiltration tactics, soon exploited the allied weakness in manpower and outflanked the Bresle Line. Into open country, the 7th and 5th Panzer Divisions made rapid progress southwards and 7th Panzer reached the Seine at Rouen on the 9th of June. The bulk of the 10th Army and the 51st Highland Division were now cut off from Le Havre, their most obvious escape route. Plans to evacuate the force from the small Normandy coastal port of St-Valery were hampered by indecision. By the time the evacuation was eventually authorised on the 11th, the Germans had surrounded the town and taken the high ground commanding the port. Artillery was pounding the town and the approaches to the harbour, making evacuation impossible. The town was surrendered on the 12th of June and it is estimated that 38,000 French and 8,000 British were captured.


On the day Rommel reached the Seine, the massed formations of German Army Group A to the east and Army Group B to the west pushed towards the Marne and the Seine respectively. Bypassing areas of resistance (some isolated French units held out for days), progress was rapid. On the 10th of June, the French government left Paris for Tours and ultimately, Bordeaux. On that day too, Benito Mussolini, attempting to profit from a German victory, brought Italy into the war, as an ally of Germany. His troops attacked the French Alpine defences, but were comfortably repulsed, suffering heavy casualties in the process. Friday the 14th saw German units enter the open city of Paris.


Even at this stage, with the battle lost, the British government insisted on sending additional troops in an effort to keep the French fighting. The 52nd Lowland Division landed between the 7th and 12th of June and elements of the 1st Canadian Division arrived as late as the 13th. The British Commander, General Sir Alan Brooke, arrived at Cherbourg on the 12th of June and by the 14th, had arrived at General Weygand's HQ, south of Orléans. The briefing he received made it quite clear that the French Army was disintegrating; there were insufficient reserves to launch any sort of counter-attack and consequently, no viable plan of action. Immediately following the meeting, he telephoned Churchill who, after some persuasion, agreed to release Brooke and his forces from French command and to halt any further movement of troops to France. In addition, it was agreed that all British forces should make for the ports of Cherbourg, St Malo, Brest, St Nazaire and La Rochelle for evacuation. On the penultimate day of evacuation from western France disaster struck. The 16,000 ton ex-Cunard liner Lancastria was the largest vessel in the British fleet, anchored 11 miles off St Nazaire. On board were crammed 5-6,000 servicemen, civilians and crew. At 3.45pm, with the ship still at anchor, a lone German bomber appeared overhead and seconds later, three or four bombs hit the Lancastria. With the ship already starting to list to starboard, the vessel was doomed and the order to abandon ship was given. With limited lifeboats and life jackets, and many men trapped below decks, only 2,477 people were saved. With over 3,000 lives being lost, the sinking of the Lancastria became the worst maritime disaster in British history. The magnitude of the disaster forced the British government of the time to cover up the story, for fear of lowering morale at home. The last British ships left Cherbourg and St Nazaire on the 18th June.

On the 16th of June 1940, Marshal Pétain, the 84-year old hero of Verdun, replaced Paul Reynaud as President of France. This marked a sea change in French political attitudes. Reynaud had been determined to fight on, but Marshal Pétain's attitude was totally defeatist and reflected the mood of the majority of the French cabinet. Consequently, on the 17th, Pétain broadcast to the French nation stating that they should stop fighting whilst he negotiated an armistice.



France finally surrendered on the 22nd of June, when General Huntziger signed the armistice agreement at Compiegne. The Germans suitably stage-managed the process, by using the original railway carriage and site where they themselves had had to accept General Foch's humiliating surrender terms in November 1918.




By the time the armistice had been signed, the Germans had reached a line running west from Royan (north of Bordeaux) to Clermont-Ferrand and St Etienne in the east. In doing so, they surrounded large concentrations of French troops, south and west of the Maginot line. However, units in the Maginot Line itself, in a final act of defiance, continued to fight on for a further week before finally surrendering.

 


 

To see a French motorcyclists uniform, click here.

To see a French officers uniform, click here.

To view some of the munitions used in the battle, click here.

To read about the 1st Armoured Division in 1940, click here.

To view a propaganda leaflet dropped by Luftwaffe on French Troops,
click here.

To read about the Polish Troops involved in the Battle of France, click here.

To view a French M36 Anti-Aircraft Helmet, click here.

To read about Abel Jussiaume 78 eme RI, click here.

To return to the main museum menu, click here.


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