The Battle of France
The world was stunned by the French loss to the Germans in 1940. France, victor of the Great War, with what appeared to be the world’s second most powerful military (greater than Britain or the USA; second only to the Soviet Union), was defeated in a matter of weeks, scarcely more time that it took Hitler to conquer feeble Poland. Worse, the turning point on the battlefield, caused by the fatal encirclement of the bulk of French and British forces, took scarcely more than days.
The Germans themselves, Hitler included, were stunned by the rapidity of their victory. General Guderian, commanding the German army as it sped for the coast to cut off the Allies, on several occasions found himself arguing vehemently with his superiors in Berlin, once even threatening to resign. The reason being that they wanted him to slow down! The concept of a rapid penetration without the need for careful consolidation of the attacking army’s flanks defied conventional military logic.
The German High Command were right to be apprehensive. The strategy was a huge gamble. If the Allies had successfully attacked German lines of communication — which they failed to do in the early stages of the penetration, and came closer to success but failed again in a poorly co-ordinated two-pronged attack centred on Arras — the Germans themselves would have been encircled and annihilated.
Everything about German tactics and strategy was new. They had invented a new form of combined arms warfare, ‘Blitzkrieg’, which involved mixed formations, heavy in tanks, tightly integrated with mechanised infantry, mobile artillery and engineers, acting in close co-ordination with bombers and ground attack aircraft. Unlike the great battles of attrition of the Great War, Blitzkrieg put an emphasis on speed, penetration and encirclement. Like the Americans in recent years, they brought command and control to a new and vastly more sophisticated level. Every German vehicle had a radio and unit commanders were trained and authorised for independent action like never before.
The German army was already responding to situations before the French and Allied commanders were even aware of them. This doctrine was combined with the professionalism and ruthlessness of the Prussian military class, whom the Allies had failed to eradicate at the end of the Great War. The larger and seemingly more powerful Allied forces were hopelessly out-classed.
The pattern set by General Guderian’s smashing of the Allied armies would be followed around the world in the months and years to come, everywhere German and Japanese victories were marked by long lines of captured Allied prisoners. The Americans were overwhelmed at lightning speed by Japanese forces in the Philippines, Singapore fell to an army one quarter the size of its defending garrison, two hundred divisions of Soviet conscripts — around two million men — were killed, captured or scattered in vast encirclement battles on the plains of the Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.
As in all the free countries, overwhelmed by the armies of Fascism, there were some individuals among the French whose courage broke. The French High command in particular were paralysed by what was unfolding. Generals wept. Troops went without orders. Some units became demoralised, but many others fought to the bitter end.
Despite the failure of so many of their senior commanders, on the battlefield the French fought and died for their country and freedom with honour and bravery. Nearly 100,000 French soldiers became casualties during the battle of France, and many more soldiers and civilians would die during the rest of the War. France was collapsing into confusion and despair, thousands of civilians were being killed, like those in the long lines of refugees deliberately strafed by Lufwaffe pilots, but even then, Frenchmen, alongside British and Commonwealth troops, fought a steadfast rearguard outside the port of Dunkirk, outgunned and without hope of rescue, while the Allied command tried to salvage enough of their army to maintain the fight against Germany, evacuating them off the beaches and piers while Hitler’s Stukas screamed overhead.
It’s bitter that so many remember only that the French were defeated. Had they not fought so tenaciously, even long after their defeat was certain, the Allies would never have been in a position to defeat Hitler. Had France fallen quickly, Britain would also have been defeated. Without Britain, and the British-occupied Middle East to her South, Russia could not have withstood the Germans.
The Marne and Verdun
It’s easily forgotten, with the exceptionally brutal behaviour of the Nazis in the Second World War, that Hitler was the second German tyrant to attempt to dominate the world, and that his murderous SS Divisions were the second army of Germans to commit shocking atrocities on a grand scale.The first tyrant was the Kaiser, and it was his massive army whose savage behaviour first earned the Germans the well deserved nickname of ‘Huns’. The ‘Huns’ attacked without provocation. They murdered civilians in the thousands as a deliberate act of terrorism. They brutalised, starved and enslaved the lands they occupied. They were finally halted, by the French on the outskirts of Paris, in 1914, at great human cost, to the benefit of the free world.
Australians and Americans justifiably feel a melancholy pride in our painful contribution to the preservation of freedom in the First World War, although our sacrifice was far less than that of the enormous expenditure of young lives endured by the British. In some places in Britain virtually every man between the ages of 18 and 30 was dead or maimed, whole generations were obliterated, millions of children would be raised in households shattered by war. Yet Britain herself suffered only around half the losses of the French.
The pain of the First World War may never be forgotten, certainly people will still speak of it for many centuries to come. But people forget that only twenty-one years after this nightmare had ended, the evil they sacrificed so much to defeat had risen again; and Frenchmen had to die to defend the world from Germans.
Omaha and Anzio
We all know about D-Day. It is probably the single most famous event in the history of the Second World War. The Allied forces, British, Canadian, Polish, Free French and (most importantly) American, undertook the largest and most complex military operation the world had then seen, to bring freedom to occupied Europe — beginning with France.
Our most vivid images of that day come from the American landing at Omaha Beach. It was the most awful of the D-Day beaches, an almost impossible position to attack with cliffs at each end and steep bluffs in between. Right in the centre of the assailable section of Normandy coast, it was the key to the German defensive strategy. It was also the most heavily fortified of the D-Day beaches. Thousands of Americans died in the sand and the surf trying to storm it, but it had to be done, because taking ‘bloody Omaha’ was essential to the success of the invasion. To succeed, both sides knew the beachhead had to be of a particular size, and the five attacking armies had to rapidly join up. Otherwise Operation Overlord would fail. The reason they knew this so clearly was because six months earlier, the American amphibious invasion at Anzio, on a much smaller beachhead, had been encircled by the Germans and had almost ended in disaster.
At that time, the Allies advancing through Italy were halted at the ‘Gustav Line’, a series of formidable German defensive positions built across mountainous country South East of Rome, anchored in the middle by the fortress of Monte Cassino. The Anzio landing had been an attempt at outflank this obstacle, but the Americans became trapped by an unbreakable ring of German armour and artillery.
Had they stayed on the beach, they would eventually have been annihilated. If they had tried to withdraw by sea, they would have been rapidly annihilated. America appeared to be facing her worst ever military disaster, and there was no way out.
But, just as America was preparing to launch the invasion across the English Channel and rescue France from German occupation, the French were instrumental in rescuing the Americans from this potential catastrophe. A few weeks before D-Day the Gustav Line was finally breached by Free French and Polish forces. To avoid a disaster of their own, the Germans rapidly withdrew to the Gothic Line north of Rome.
Rome was freed. The Americans at Anzio were saved.
Vive La France.
The French resistance in WWII
As part of the trend to downplay the French nation contribution to the defeat of Fascism, there’s a trend in some quarters to downplay the French Resistance’s actions during the Second World War; in particular by comparing them unfavourably to the activity of the Yugoslav and Soviet partisans.
The French Resistance, by any fair measure, should be seen as an extraordinary organisation.
The Yugoslav and Soviet partisans were armies. The Soviet partisans were basically Soviet troops, defeated in the great battles of encirclement of 1941, who had fled to Russia’s vast forests and marshes. Likewise the core of the Yugoslav partisans were also soldiers who, after the successful German invasion, had retreated to the mountains.
The French resistance was mainly composed of civilians, not defeated soldiers. Their extremely dangerous work was performed by ordinary French men and women, not operating from in inaccessible mountain hideouts, but risking their lives right under the noses of the Germans. The expected life span of a Resistance member was a matter of months, but many thousands of men and women took that risk, and their activities in rescuing thousands of Allied airmen, and disrupting German command and control were vital to winning the war.
France didn’t have equivalent mountain or wilderness areas into which a defeated army could disappear, but the surviving remnants of the French Army nevertheless did continue the fight, by fleeing to England. By 1944, half a million French troops were fighting in the Free French forces. Free French troops had faced Tiger Tanks in North Africa, spearheaded the invasion of Southern France, saved the Americans from disaster in Italy, and made an important contribution to D-Day and Operation Overlord.