The Fall of France

The German blitzkrieg into Norway and Denmark foreshadowed what lay ahead for France, which had joined forces with Great Britain to try to halt Hitler's conquest of Europe. Internally, France was going through a political shift. Communist organizations were dissolved, and a vote of no-confidence resulted in new leadership as Daladier stepped down to become minister for the war and Paul Reynaud was selected to be premier.

Things happened quickly in Europe from May to July of 1940. Germany simultaneously invaded the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, taking the three countries with remarkable swiftness. French and British troops tried to halt the German invasion but found themselves overwhelmed and forced to retreat. On May 13, German troops established a bridgehead at Sedan, the gateway to France; the nation, which had been invaded by Germany during World War I, again found itself fighting for its existence.

Breaking through the French border defenses took just two days. German forces outflanked the famed Maginot line — a defensive perimeter of forts along the French-German border — and raced through the Ardennes. Almost immediately, France found itself an occupied country. British prime minister Winston Churchill learned of France's fate when he received a telephone call from Premier Reynaud who, speaking in English, said simply: “We have been defeated.”

On June 10, the French government fled Paris, first to Tours and then, on June 14, to Bordeaux. Two days later, Reynaud resigned as premier and his successor, Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain, surrendered the French army. Germany and France signed an armistice on June 22, and two days later, General Charles de Gaulle, who had fled to Great Britain before the German army had invaded, was recognized by the British government as the leader of the Free French.

As the war drew to a close, French Resistance leaders executed an estimated 10,000 French collaborators. Thousands more were sent to jail.

France Carved Up

Germany claimed the Alsace-Lorraine area of France, long a point of contention in previous wars, as a territory and occupied northern and western France as a conquered land, putting it under the military governor of Belgium. The remainder of France was left unoccupied and was administered, along with all French colonies, by a collaborationist government that became known as Vichy France because its capital was the city of Vichy, approximately 200 miles southeast of Paris.

Intent on punishing France for its role in humiliating Germany with the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles as well as for transgressions in previous wars, Germany fined France an estimated $120 million and assessed occupation costs of nearly $2 billion a year. In addition, the Bank of France was forced to extend huge credits to Germany. These figures were as staggering as those imposed on Germany by France and its allies at the end of World War I.

Worst of all, however, according to many, was the plunder of France's priceless artwork. A total of 140 railcars of looted art — including irreplaceable works by many of the world's great masters — were taken from France to Germany. Hitler, himself a failed painter, coveted great works of art and thought that his nation, which he considered to be the strongest on the planet, had a right to inherit the legacy of such masterpieces.

The German invaders found life in France much to their liking, at least for the first few years. The best wines were reserved for high-ranking German officials, as were specially designated seats on all public transportation. Many Germans also enjoyed the company of French women who found it easier to join their nation's conquerors than to resist them. (After the liberation of France, many such women, loathed by their countrymen, were forced to parade through town with their heads shaved as a sign that they had been Nazi sympathizers.)

A strong French underground resistance sprang up almost overnight, but the price for its activities was high: 100 French hostages killed for every German. Nonetheless, the underground succeeded in hindering the Nazi war effort through sabotage and guerrilla warfare.

Figure 2-4 A French woman who had collaborated with the Germans during the occupation has her head shaved.

Photo courtesy of the National Archives (111-SC-193785)

Operation Dynamo

The war could have ended for the Allies with the fall of France, if not for the astounding evacuation of nearly 300,000 troops from the French port of Dunkirk.

The German advance, which had been lightning-swift, trapped nearly 200,000 Britons and 140,000 French and Belgians in the coastal city near Belgium. To save them, the British Admiralty rounded up virtually every seaworthy vessel available — from warships to tiny pleasure craft. On May 26, the first vessels sailed across the English Channel, protected by Royal Air Force planes, and the waiting soldiers crowded the beaches and piers to greet them.

The evacuation, code-named Operation Dynamo, lasted ten frightening days. British and French destroyers raced to the port, took on as many soldiers as they could, then, with guns firing almost constantly, raced back to Dover, England. Smaller boats carried troops to ships located outside the ruined Dunkirk harbor. Hitler, who certainly had enough troops and tanks in the country to prevent such a thing, had misread the situation and halted his advance too soon to prevent this massive relocation of troops. Instead the Luftwaffe was sent to do what damage it could.

The horrors and hazards of the evacuation — the largest of its kind in history — were tremendous. German planes rained a constant barrage of bombs on both land and sea, terrorizing those still waiting for rescue. The Royal Air Force (RAF) engaged the Germans at every opportunity, downing 159 enemy planes (which was significant but not too threatening, since the Luftwaffe possessed many more planes and the capacity to manufacture a great many more). Making things worse was the knowledge that every hour brought the invading German army closer and closer. Three days into the evacuation, the nearby port of Calais fell to the Nazis, and the following day Belgium surrendered. The situation might have ended far worse if Hitler had not twice suspended his drive toward Dunkirk to concentrate on other objectives.

When the rescue was over, only 2,000 had died. Those who made it to the Dover shore were greeted with cheers and soon left to continue the fight against Germany.

Figure 2-5 British prisoners at Dunkirk.

Photo courtesy of the National Archives (242-EB-7-35)

In the United States, there was a sense of shock as France fell to the Nazis, leaving an ill-prepared Great Britain to fight alone. While the United States remained neutral regarding affairs in Europe, Congress decided to prepare for the worst by enacting the first peacetime conscription in American history and greatly increasing the military budget. However, the public, while sympathetic toward Great Britain's plight, was not eager to engage Germany, and most Americans maintained that isolationism was still the best policy.

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