In the first six months of the 1941 Russian campaign, the Nazis lost 1,000,000 soldiers killed and wounded. The Russians lost 4,000,000 soldiers killed and wounded. And the Russians lost 4,000,000 soldiers taken prisoner.
The Nazis were simply better, tactically, at the business of war then any of their enemies. They understood dive bombers, they understood tank columns, they understood surprise and flank attacks and digging in.
The interwar German army on which the Nazis built had been one of only 100,000 soldiers. But those 100,000 had learned and developed their business to a terrifying degree of tactical superiority over their enemies.
That is the first lesson of World War II: Fight the Nazis, and expect to be tactically outclassed. Expect to lose between two and five times as many soldiers on the battlefield as the Nazi armies do. That is true for everyone at the start of the war, and still true remarkably late—even though the allies did learn.
Moreover, the Nazis’ opponents were operationally outclassed as well. That is the second lesson of World War II: Fight the Nazis, and expect periodically to find large groups of your soldiers overwhelmed, surrounded, cut off, out of supply, fleeing in panic and forced to surrender in large numbers. The last such episode took place in December 1944, less than five months before the collapse of the Nazi regime: the Nazi Fifth Panzer Army surrounded and forced the surrender of nearly the entire U.S. 106th Infantry Division in the Schnee Eifel of the Ardennes.
How did this happen? Well, take a look at the French campaign of 1940:
- The French are expecting the Nazis to attack through Belgium north of the Ardennes Forest.
- Instead, the Nazis make their main attack through the Ardennes Forest
- They attack the weak French Ninth Army
- It was weak because the French command thought that the forest, the poor road network, and the Meuse River line would be sufficient additional defenses.
- Three days into the battle it was clear that a major Nazi attack was coming through the Ardennes, and the French began to respond.
How do the French respond? According to Ernest May’s Strange Victory:
At 3 P.M. on May 12 [General] Huntziger [commanding the Second Army to the South of the Ninth Army] signaled La Ferte that he wanted strong reinforcements to repel a prospective German attack.... Three of the strongest elements in the general reserve proceed[ed] immediately to join Huntziger's Second Army: the Third Armored, Third Motorized, and Fourteenth Infantry divisions.... The infantry division was a crack unit commanded by... General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny... (p. 410)
By May 15, these three divisions had been further reinforced: The French First Armored division had been switched from the Belgian plain to the Ninth Army sector to its south, infantry formations had been ordered to assemble behind the Ninth Army to form a new Sixth Army, and the Second Armored division had been ordered to assemble behind Ninth Army as well. Charles de Gaulle was placed in command of the newly-formed Fourth Armored division, and ordered to attack the southern flank of the incipient German breakthrough.
So what happened to all these forces—four heavy armored divisions, with perhaps 800 tanks between them, plus a large chunk of the sixteen infantry divisions that were in the French strategic reserve on May 10? They had as many tanks between them as the seven Nazi panzer divisions that were in the Nazi main thrust.
(1) The French First Armored division simply ran out of gas. While it was waiting for the fuel trucks to come up to refuel it, it was attacked by Rommel’s panzer division and destroyed as a fighting unit. (Curiosity: the czar of fuel for First Army--from which the armored division had come--was medieval historian Marc Bloch.)
(2) The French Second Armored division, according to William L. Shirer’s The Collapse of the Third Republic:
Orders for the [second armored] division to move... did not come until noon of May 13.... The trains with the tanks and artillery were not able to start until the afternon of the 14th.... The wheeled vehicles with the supplies ran into the panzers racing west from Sedan and, having no combat elements, withdrew south of the Aisne.... The tanks and tracked artillery were finally uinloaded from their flatcars... between Saint-Quentin and Hirson.... The division was hopelessly dispersed over a large triangle between Hirson, La Fere on the Oise, and Rethel on the Aisne...” and was ineffective because its assembly areas had already been overrun by the Nazis.
(3) The French Third Armored division retreated to the south as General Huntziger had ordered: he thought its principal task should be to guard the Maginot line against a flanking attack should the Nazis turn south after crossing the Meuse.
(4) The infantry formations of the French Sixth Army were, like the French Second Armored Division, overrun by Reinhardt's Sixth panzer division on May 15 and 16, while they were trying to coalesce in their assembly areas.
By May 16, as Shirer puts it (p. 689):
The three heavy [armored divisions] the French had, all of which in May 10 had been stationed... within 50 miles of the Meuse at Sedan and Mezieres, which they could have reached by road overnight, had thus been squandered.... Not one had been properly deployed.... By now, May 16, they no longer counted. There remained only the newly formed 4th [armored division], commanded by de Gaulle, which was below strength and without divisional training...
The French failed in tactics—the comparative battlefield casualties make that clear.
The French failed in strategy—opposing the main Nazi attack with the weak Ninth Army while leaving the stronger formations to the north vulnerable to encirclement.
Yet the French threw 800 tanks in four armored divisions plus between six and ten infantry divisions in front of the Nazi breakthrough in plenty of time to make a difference—yet (de Gaulle's division aside) they were completely ineffective in a running fight against seven Nazi panzer divisions, which had no more tanks and somewhat fewer soldiers than the French reserves committed to oppose them.
Winston Churchill had kissed hands and taken over as First Lord of the Treasury on May 10, 1940. Five days later he received a phone call from the French Prime Minister, Paul Reynaud:
We have been defeated. We are beaten. We have lost the battle. The road to Paris is open. We are defeated...
On the sixteenth Churchill crossed the English Channel:
At about 3 PM I flew to Paris in a “Flamingo,” a Government passenger plane, of which there were three. General Dill, Vice-Chief of the Imperial General Staff, came with me, and Ismay.... [W]e... reached [Paris airport] in little more than an hour.
From the moment we got out of the “Flamingo” it was obvious that the situation was incomparably worse than we had imagined. The officers who met us told General Ismay that the Germans were expected in Paris in a few days at most.... Reynaud was there, Daladier, Minister of National Defence and War, and General Gamelin.... Utter dejection was written on every face. In front of Gamelin... a map, about two yards square, with... a small but sinister bulge at Sedan.
The Commander-in-Chief [Gamelin] briefly explained what had happened. North and south of Sedan, on a front of fifty or sixty miles, the Germans had broken through. The French army in front of them was destroyed or scattered. A heavy onrush of armoured vehicles was advancing with unheard-of speed.... Behind the armour, he said, eight or ten German divisions, all motorized, were driving onwards, making flanks for themselves as they advanced against the two disconnected French armies on either side....
When he stopped... I then asked: “Where is the strategic reserve?” and, breaking into French, which I used indifferently (in every sense): “Ou est las masse de manoeuvre?”
General Gamelin turned to me and, with a shake of the head and a shrug, said: “Aucune.”
There was another long pause. Outside in the garden... clouds of smoke arose of large bonfires... venerable officials pushing wheel barrows of archives onto them. Already therefore the evacuation of Paris was being prepared....
[H]ere were two new factors that I had never expected to have to face... the overrunning of the whole of the communications and countryside by an irresistible incursion of armoured vehicles and secondly NO STRATEGIC RESERVE.
I was dumbfounded. What were we to think of the great French Army and its highest chiefs?... [O]ne can have, one must always have, a mass of divisions which marhes up in vehement counter-attack at the moment when the first fury of the offensive has spent its force.... I admit this was one of the greatest surprises I have had in my life....
Presently I asked General Gamelin when and where he proposed to attack the flanks of the Bulge [that was the Nazi breakthrough]. His reply was “Inferiority of numbers, inferiority of equipment, inferiority of method”—and then a hopeless shrug of the shoulders...
What Churchill did not realize at the time—and either did not learn later or wanted to gloss over when he wrote his memoirs—is that the French had possessed a mobile strategic reserve with more tanks, guns, trucks, and troops (and planes) than the Nazi breakthrough force. That strategic reserve had been committed to contain the breakthrough. That strategic reserve had been, operationally, wholly ineffective—except for Charles de Gaull's Fourth Armored Division.
But before we scorn the French army of 1940 as cheese-eating surrender monkeys, remember what happened to the U.S. 106th Infantry Division when Hitler’s Third Reich was on its very last legs, and what happened to Major General Lloyd Fredendall’s U.S. II Corps at Kasserine Pass. Everybody who faced the Nazis did more-or-less equally badly, in their initial encounters at least.
France in Defeat, 1940
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It took only six weeks for France to capitulate to the German invaders. A stunning defeat - particularly since before the war the French army was considered the most powerful in Europe.
France's vaunted Maginot Line failed to hold back the Nazi onslaught and the German Blitzkrieg poured into France. (see Blizkrieg, 1940) Thousands of civilians fled before it. Traveling south in
A Frenchman weeps as German
troops march into Paris
June 14, 1940
Paris was abandoned and declared an Open City. The French government joined the fleeing throng and after moving to, and then quickly abandoning one location after another, finally ended up in the city of Vichy.
The ultimate humiliation came at the signing of the armistice on June 22. The French had maintained as a memorial the railroad car in which the armistice ending World War I had been signed twenty-two years earlier. It occupied a hallowed space within a small forest north of Paris. Hitler insisted that France's capitulation to his Nazi jauggernaught be formally acknowledged in the same railroad car at the same spot.
Under the terms of the armistice, France was divided into two sections: Occupied France under direct German control and Vichy France - a quasi-independent territory with Marshall Petain, an eighty-four-year-old hero of the First World War, as its head.
A reporter for the London Times published his observations on defeated France shortly after its collapse:
"A problem for all who think about it is how to explain the amazing mental attitude which seems to prevail today in France. Most Frenchmen seem to regard the total collapse of their country with a resignation that has the appearance of indifference. They are, indeed, dazed by the rapidity of the collapse, but register no violent reaction to so great and unexpected a shock. Soldiers in considerable numbers are being demobilized and returning home, and so, it is felt, the catastrophe cannot be too appalling. The German propaganda machine is working on this state of mind. The R.A.F. attacks upon the aerodromes in the occupied region are used as evidence that the British, who have already deserted their Ally, are now making direct onslaughts on the Frenchman's home. There is little interest among the ordinary people in the maneuvers of the Petain Government. The Marshal himself is not looked upon with any enthusiasm. His achievements as a soldier in the last War are generally recognized, but his last minute entry into politics makes little stir in the Frenchman's heart. On the other hand Laval [a lieutenant of Petain's and the real head of the government], who has never been popular, excites almost general distaste..."
Conditions in Vichy France
"Vichy, for a nation which has reached the nadir in its history, gives an excellent picture of a certain French state of mind. Naturally the place is crowded beyond capacity. It is full of well-to-do refugees from occupied France, as well as French officers, immaculately accoutered, and political aspirants. They crowd the cafes, hotels and boulevards. The refugees and officers are enjoying the calm and the mild pleasures to be had there.
The aspirants are busily fishing in the stirring political pool in the hope of finding an agreeable job. There is adequate food for those who can afford to buy it, always provided that you are not a butter lover or do not expect to find a wide selection of luxuries in the shops. Here is little evidence that France has suffered one of the greatest defeats in her history. Outside the boundaries of this temporary capital, food is not so plentiful, yet in a minor degree the same spirit of indifference exists. The men are returning fairly quickly to their homes and to the harvests which have been in many cases ruined by inattention. But it is hard to discover any serious attempt to meet the formidable problems which are threatening the Vichy Government."
Conditions in Occupied France
"The opinion is often expressed that occupied France is in a much better shape, in spite of all the devastation, than the unoccupied territory. The Germans for many reasons are trying to whip into shape that part of the country which has fallen into their sphere of influence. Their problem is especially serious.
The division of France
Crops are rotting on the ground. The first wave of the German Army consumed everything. It was, in fact, until a week or two ago a land of the dead, metaphorically and literally, since the corpses of men and animals still littered the ground. Now the people are slowly creeping back, only to find that there is little to eat and less to do. Everywhere the first pick of what is going falls to the army of occupation, the second to those who work for their German masters, the scanty crumbs that remain are left for those who fulfill neither of these conditions."
Treatment of British Prisoners
"One case of refined cruelty was witnessed at Malines, where a body of British prisoners were being marched east. They were in full uniform except for their tin hats. These had been replaced by a variegated assortment of every kind of headgear, male or female: bowler hats, toppers, caps, homburgs, women's bonnets, berets, plumed Ascot models. A pathetically ridiculous spectacle. Its only purpose could have been to make the weary men look clownish or to suggest to the French inhabitants that British troops had been looting the shops. Other tales of discrimination between British and French prisoners of war are common. Nevertheless, on the whole, the treatment of prisoners whose care is left to the second-line troops is not too bad."
This article was originally published in The Times of London on August 17, 1940, republished in The Times of London, Europe Under the Nazi Scourge (1941); Shirer, William L., The Collapse of the Third Republic: an inquiry into the fall of France in 1940 (1969).
How To Cite This Article:
"France in Defeat, 1940," EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (2006).