Why did France lose to Germany in 1940?

French prisoners of war in May 1940.
French prisoners of war in May 1940. © Bundesarchiv, Bild 121-0404 / Wikimedia

The speed with which France crumbled and capitulated in the face of the May 1940 German invasion is still shocking, 80 years on. How did this catastrophe happen?

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After several months of “phoney war”, the German army finally attacked France and the Low Countries on May 10, 1940. In less than a fortnight, the Wehrmacht swept through the country from the north.

The French army was one of the most powerful in the world, but it seems that it was unable to hold out – leading to France’s great debacle of the 20th century, when on June 22, 1940, Marshall Philippe Pétain’s government signed the armistice with Nazi Germany and started the ignominious story of French collaboration.

How did this happen? And why so quickly? FRANCE 24 spoke to historian Michaël Bourlet, a former professor of history at the Saint-Cyr Coëtquidan military academy, who deconstructed some of the myths about the egregious failure of the Battle of France.

There’s a common perception that the French army was badly prepared for the German attack – is it reflective of reality?

The French army of 1939-40 is strongly associated with the inglorious “phoney war”, then the military defeat in May-June 1940 followed by the collapse of its politics into collaboration in June 1940. This is still remembered as a huge defeat in the French collective memory.

The idea that the army was badly prepared, poorly motivated and ill-equipped against the invincible Wehrmacht is a myth constructed by Pétain’s Vichy regime. Unfortunately, it’s still used today, because it makes a good excuse: it’s so much easier to admit defeat if you say you had a weak army facing a much stronger one.

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The French army had the equipment and personnel – five million men, more than they had in 1914 – to really take the Germans on. Defence spending had been rising since the mid-1930s, making it possible to bolster the air force, to build a powerful naval fleet, ensure a well-equipped army and to build the Maginot line, a fortified boundary on France’s eastern borders.

So the high command was far from inactive before the war. They had these resources and they created a strategy to use them – small offensives with defined objectives, continuous fronts and the use of firepower to cut off the enemy’s movements.

Both in France and internationally, the French army of 1940 is seen as lacking courage. Do you think this image is accurate?

It’s true that some commanders didn’t know how to react in the face of the German onslaught, and that some units – after the inactivity of the “phoney war” – panicked or disbanded. But for the most part French soldiers fought with courage and tenacity.

Statistics show just how brutal the fighting was. Around 60,000 French soldiers were killed between May and June. The German military lost 30 percent of its tanks and planes during the Battle of France. Its death toll is estimated at 27,000 killed and missing in June and 21,000 in May.

Did the French army still have some success?

Well, as always, it was a multifaceted military campaign, and their degree of success was dependent on the terrain, the quality of leadership, the quality of the weaponry they had etc. There were some successful episodes, such as the defeat of the Italian army on the Alpine front in June 1940. And although you couldn’t really describe them as successful, in some battles the French gave the Germans a hard time.

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For instance, in Stonne in the Ardennes, from May 15 to 27, they tried to put pressure on the flank of the German offensive after the Wehrmacht’s famous breakthrough at Sedan. The village was taken and taken back at least 17 times, but the French failed to break through. Nevertheless, they inflicted significant damage on the Germans.

I’m also thinking of some fights in the Battle of the Scheldt in Belgium. French infantrymen prevented the Germans from crossing the Scheldt Canal between May 21 and May 26, thereby delaying the Wehrmacht’s advance north. The six infantry divisions of the French 1st Army provide another good example. They were encircled by the Germans in the Lille area but carried on fighting until June 1, thus facilitating the British Expeditionary Force’s famous evacuation from Dunkirk.

So why did the French lose so quickly?

The Germans took risks during the Battle of France. They concentrated their tanks in the Ardennes, on difficult terrain, between the Maginot Line and the main body of the French army in the north. Then they smashed through the Ardennes while the French army had gone north, to fight the Wehrmacht divisions that had gone through Belgium. So they encircled the Allied forces, penning them in towards the English Channel, before heading south towards Paris. That was when the French army collapsed.

Since 1945 a million and one explanations have been put forward to explain the French defeat, from the nature of the bridges over the River Meuse to the political institutions of the Third Republic to the Maginot line – which has recently been used as an analogy that supposedly explains France’s difficulties in the face of the coronavirus.

As we have seen, the French army had plenty of men, and lots of good quality equipment and arms. Its morale was good – despite being deflated a bit by the “phoney war”.

The reasons for its defeat were intellectual and doctrinal. It’s the old cliché of fighting the previous war. Commanders were too focused on lessons from the First World War; they couldn’t think about the actual war they had to wage in the present. They were unable to adapt. The Germans – by contrast – took risks.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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