Why France Fell

Reading Time: 6 minutes

The Fall of France was one of the most shocking events of the Second World War. In just six weeks, the European democratic bulwark against Communism and Fascism crumbled, and a superpower became a satellite. Only seven years earlier, Winston Churchill had cried before the Commons: “Thank God for the French Army.” This was not merely rhetorical embellishment, but a sign of the respect Europe held for the force that had held the Kaiser in check for four bloody years. In January 1940, only three months before the Nazi invasion, Sir Edmund Ironside, Chief of the Imperial General staff, reported after inspecting the French Army that he “saw nothing amiss with it on the surface.” The Army was operating as usual, and therein lay the problem. France had been defeated long before fighting began, since its Army’s traditional methods and ideas had doomed it. Backwards military theories and doctrines combined with a perfect storm of other factors to propel France into a catastrophic defeat at the hands of a forward-thinking foe, who had a fundamentally different understanding of warfare.

It is too simple to suggest that the Wehrmacht defeated the French Army simply because they were the superior fighting force. From a material point of view, the French and German armies were on an equal footing as, despite its myriad struggles during the previous decade, France mustered itself for the war. By 1940, France had a million men fighting in the front lines and potentially four million in reserves, similar numbers to those of Germany. France had the upper hand in artillery, and had 4188 tanks to Germany’s 3862. For the most part, French tanks had stronger armour, with the German Panzer IV’s 30mm of armour being outclassed by both the Hotchkiss’ 45mm and the Char B1’s 60mm. However, the Wehrmacht did enjoy a few advantages over the French Army. The Panzers had three-man turrets, allowing for rapid accurate fire, whereas the French tanks had just a one-man turret. Only 25% of French tanks had radio, whereas almost every Panzer was part of a comprehensive radio network, greatly aiding communications. Furthermore, the French tanks were slow, cumbersome and needed to be refuelled every two hours. The Germans also outshone the French in the matter of specialised infantry companies; German pioneering bridging companies proved to be particularly effective, and would manage to build pontoons across key rivers at astonishing speeds. Finally, it can not be denied that Germany enjoyed absolute superiority in military aviation. The Luftwaffe fielded 3600 aircraft – far more than the combined Anglo-French total of 1500. Luftwaffe and Stuka units were able to stage four to six sorties a day, whereas the Allied air-force averaged just a single sortie a day. The overall picture, therefore, is extremely nuanced, with both armies enjoying key advantages in distinct areas.

It is sometimes argued that France was conquered because the nation lacked the ruthless determination of its German neighbour. Instead, France was hopelessly divided, poorly governed and its populace was unwilling to fight to the bloody end. There is some truth to the argument. In the decade preceding 1940, France was split savagely between the extreme-right and far-left, and spent most of this time lurching from crisis to crisis. In the five years before the war, France had three different governments. This chaos was particularly damaging to France, a country in which military commanders relied on political patronage.

A bizarre situation developed, as both the left wing Popular Front Coalition and Centre-Right Coalition attempted to staff as many army positions as possible with loyalists, to ensure the other faction would be unable to use the army to crush their political rivals. In essence, this led to the rapid rise of loyal bureaucrats at the expense of those with actual ability or experience. The French Army had, in effect, been accidentally sabotaged by its own governments, and the Vichy Government would later prosecute key individuals of those governments in the Riom Trial, blaming them for leaving the nation unprepared. At the same time, political extremism was making matters worse still; both fascists sympathising with the Nazis and communists who saw the war as an imperialist struggle promoted resistance against rearmament and damaged notions of patriotism. When Petain was asked to return to the government after a cabinet reshuffle, he told Spanish Dictator Franco: “My country has been beaten, this is the work of thirty years of Marxism.”

Unfortunately, even the prospect of imminent destruction could not heal France’s political divide. Even as late as May 1940, the French government had options other than an armistice; the Belgian, Dutch and Polish governments had all refused to surrender and had withdrawn to fight from overseas. France still possessed an unconquered empire and an almost untouched navy. Despite this, political developments meant that France succumbed to surrender. Daladier, the Prime Minister, had resigned and made way for Paul Renard, who tried to resuscitate the war effort by inviting veteran commanders like Pétain into government. Yet this only weakened resolve to continue the fight and allowed defeatism to seep through the cabinet. Many of these cabinet ministers saw the war as beyond all hope, and were terrified that if the army was completely destroyed a communist uprising would occur. Fear of a repeat of the events of Russia in 1917 compelled them to seek an armistice with Germany.

Yet it is important to avoid overemphasising these divisions. The politics of the 1930s were not as chaotic as they seem at a glance. Despite the numerous different coalitions of these years, many key figures consistently dominated politics and remained in office for long stretches of time. Daladier served in every single government between 1926 and 1940, demonstrating that, beneath the veneer of a political merry-go-round, there lay substantial continuity. Secondly, the Riom Trial was orchestrated by the fascist Vichy regime, and was little more than an exercise in smearing prominent political opponents. Finally, France itself not nearly as pacifistic a nation as history recalls; though France had sought to avoid conflict at all costs throughout the 1920s and 1930s, opinion polls from a few months after the Munich agreement revealed that 70% of the public supported resistance to Hitler. This shows that the overwhelming majority of the nation was resolved to fight, and France did not enter the war nearly as divided as some suppose. 

It is also too simple to attribute France’s defeat purely to the poor morale of its armies. Much has been made of the French Army’s willingness to turn tail and rout, and like all myths, there is some truth to the legend. Though French esprit de corps was at first believed to be high, morale occasionally crumpled upon first contact with enemy. This was largely because of Tank Terror – the psychological trauma wrought by armoured vehicles upon terrified soldiers unfamiliar with these weapons of war. When this was combined with Stuka dive-bombing, French morale simply dissipated. At Sedan, mere rumours of the presence of enemy tanks spread such terror among reservists that a spirit of sauve qui peut ensued, and soldiers retreated in droves. Yet there are issues with this analysis. While Sedan was a humiliation of the highest order, other French units fought valiantly throughout the war. In Belgium, mechanised divisions under General Priouz held off a Panzer assault under General Hoepner at the Battle of Gembloux. At Dunkirk, ferocious resistance from the French 12th Motorised Infantry Division bought the time needed for the final days of the evacuation. Even the German commanders recognised their foes were far from cowards, with General Guideran noting that “Despite the major tactical errors of the Allied Command, the soldiers put up an obstinate resistance with a spirit of sacrifice worthy of the polius (French troops) of 1916.”

Indeed, in the search for the roots of French failure, it is perhaps best to examine the impressively inept performance of Allied military leadership. At the pinnacle of the French Army was the 68 year-old General Gamelin, a man noted for being obstinate, old-fashioned and unwilling to set foot outside his headquarters at the Chateau de Vicennes. Incredibly, the Chateau lacked both radio-communication and a telephone, meaning messages were dispatched via motorcycle, and received on the front lines forty-eight hours after they were first issued. Having successfully sealed himself off from the world, Gamelin ignored intelligence pointing to a German attack through the Ardennes aimed at Sedan. Instead of reacting to these developments, Gamelin left the defence of Sedan in the hands of third-rate divisions of unenthusiastic reservists. When Sedan fell, Gamelin refused to accept responsibility, and instead sacked twenty of his front line commanders. Gamelin was not the only incompetent in Allied High Command. After the Germans punched through Sedan, the Allies planned a large counterattack. General Huntzinger and many others assumed the Germans would attempt to move south towards the Maginot Line. Huntzinger accordingly pivoted south to stop such an advance, leaving the Wehrmacht with an open corridor towards the Channel. British generals were little better; when the Germans sliced through northern France towards the Channel, the French repeatedly attempted to assault the German salient from north and south, but instead of following orders and supporting the French attack near Arras, Lord Gort elected to ignore orders and retreat the British Expeditionary Force. 

Yet the Achilles heel of the French military machine was its doctrine. When a horrified Churchill interrogated Gamelin as to how events had gone so spectacularly wrong, Gamelin blamed “inferiority in numbers, inferiority in equipment, inferiority of methods.” While the first two of Gamelin’s culprits can be dismissed, his third answer is at the heart of why France fell so swiftly. French theory was simply antiquated and outdated for a war in 1940, especially against a pioneering and innovative foe. French military doctrine was still obsessed with experiences from the First World War, with France assuming that the war would be a static struggle, in which battles were determined by attrition, not movement. France focused on defensive fortifications, the piece de resistance of which was the Maginot Line. Taking comfort from its very own Great Wall, France neglected to develop new aircraft and pursue greater mechanisation. When war erupted, France was slow to attack Germany while the Wehrmacht was occupied with Poland, since any territory conquered would have to be abandoned for the Line to be of use. Ironically, the Maginot Line ended up defending Germany more than it defended France. In fairness to the French Army, there was little evidence of how dramatically warfare had changed since 1918. Apart from the notable exception of the Condor Legion’s bombing of Guernica, the Spanish Civil war had been a ponderous conventional war similar to the Great War. Yet that simply meant that France was even more unprepared when modern warfare knocked at its door. General Weygand summed up the situation when he despondently declared “We have gone to war with a 1918 army against a German army of 1939.” 

Backwards concepts of military theory not only cost France strategically, but also in the tactical theatre. German officers were schooled in a tradition of delegation, known as Auftagstaktik, in which leaders were trained to take the initiative – within their commander’s intent – to accomplish their mission. In contrast, French soldiers were taught to follow a methodical doctrine, so even soldiers at the lowest level could follow the same orders as all others. Compared with the hyper-flexible Wehrmacht, the French army was rigid and unresponsive. Outdated ideas even infected the organisation of armies. The French treated their tanks as little more than steel horses, and had dispersed them, with 44% of French tanks being placed in the mechanised and armoured divisions (DLM and DCR) and 66% in separate infantry and cavalry units. Meanwhile, almost all German tanks were concentrated into ten designated Panzer divisions, meaning the Wehrmacht was able to focus overwhelming force at strategic points, exerting a pressure that the thinly-spread French tanks were unable to resist.

Ultimately, the Fall of France had a thousand fathers. The political instability of the 1930s, the complex question of morale and the incredible incompetence of Allied High Command all combined to weaken the French Army. Yet Sun Tzu once noted that “every battle is won before it is fought”, and this maxim has rarely proven so true as it was in 1940. Outdated French doctrines and stratagems were completely outclassed by those of the Wehrmacht, and effectively doomed the war effort from the outset. France had fallen before she fought her first battle. 

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Documentary: The World at War, Episode 3. 1973. Directed by David Elstein, Narrated by Lawrence Olivier. Thames Television.