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Blitzkrieg in Western Europe: The Fall of France and the Third Republic

Mark Caruthers holds a Bachelor's degree in Geography and History from the University of Arkansas (Fayetteville).

1918-1939: The Inter-War Years

It's fair to say that the victors of the First World War were as demoralized by the victory as the losers were by their defeats. The cost of winning the war was enormous both in material terms and in manpower. France was wavering near the edge of defeat in 1917 when her army mutinied, and Great Britain was six weeks away from starvation at the hands of German submarines and even closer to financial ruin.

The fact that Great Britain and France would go on and win the war was little more than an illusion. That was particularly true for France, who sustained an enormous loss of life on the battlefields of the Western Front losing over 1,654,000 soldiers.

This loss of life would shape the strategy of the French Army after the end of the First World War. The man most responsible for this strategy was Henri Philippe Petain, the hero of Verdun, Marshall of France. He was to France during the inter-war years as Wellington had been to Britain after Waterloo, or what Eisenhower would be to the United States after the Second World War.

Basically, after the First World War, the French Army's military leadership tied their nation's military strategy to the idea of the static defense. The French nation embarked on building a great belt of fortifications on the German frontier to defend against further invasions. They named it after their Minister of War, a man named Andre Maginot.

The French committed a fundamental error building half a fortress leaving the other half of the country completely vulnerable to an end-run around their fortress. "France," a prominent observer said, "was perfectly prepared in 1914 for the war of 1871, and 1939 France was perfectly prepared for the war of 1914." The French military leadership were convinced an army entrenched in its position could not be defeated.

The Maginot Line demonstrated that belief, it took ten years to build and was estimated to cost, a half-a-billion dollars in 1939. French generals were certain that the invaders would never get beyond the main fortifications, so certain in fact that its guns faced in one direction toward the ancient enemy on the other side of the Rhine River.

Only the round-topped, steel-armored turrets containing the big guns and the periscopes by which the officers directed the artillery were above ground. Below ground there were networks of catacombs for the ammunition depots, food stores, barracks, hospitals, power plants, air-conditioning apparatus to protect against gas attacks, airplane hangars and garages and the railways linking the series of forts known as the Maginot Line.

The Maginot Line was a marvel of scientific accomplishment but proved to be a failure in protecting the French nation from invasion. After months of inactivity known as the Phony War, Hitler was now ready to unleash his Blitzkrieg in the West.

Predicting that the Allies expected the main offensive to take place through Belgium and northern France. The forward-thinking German General von Manstein drew up a plan that would involve a diversionary thrust through Holland and Belgium, enticing the best of the French and British troops north to meet the threat. While the main Panzer attack would drive through the "impassable" forest of the Ardennes and head for the channel coast, catching the main body of the Allied armies in an enormous pocket.

German Light Bombers Supporting German Armored Formations France 1940

Do 17 Z-2s over France, summer 1940 bombing French and British strong points to support German spearheads.

Do 17 Z-2s over France, summer 1940 bombing French and British strong points to support German spearheads.

Case Yellow—the Invasion of Western Europe

In November 1939, the German plan of attack in the West was very similar to the famous Schlieffen plan of the First World War. The main effort was to be on the right wing but swinging a little wider than in 1914 by including Holland, Army Group B (Colonel General von Bock) was entrusted with this part of the plan.

Army Group A (Colonel General von Rundstedt) was to support the attack by crossing the Ardennes and pushing infantry up to a line along the Meuse River, while Army Group C (Colonel General von Leeb) was to stand on the defensive and face the Maginot Line. Doubt arose regarding the advisability of the plan when a plane crashed behind enemy lines containing an entire set of German battle plans.

General Eric von Manstein, then chief of Army Group A was particularly opposed to making the German's main effort on the right wing, which he though would lead to a frontal clash between German amour and the best of the French and British formations in the Brussels area.

Merely to repeat the mistakes of the past meant throwing away the prospect of surprise always the best guarantee of victory. Manstein would produce a subtle and highly original plan.

A great attack was still to be made on the German right flank. Army Group B was to invade Holland and Belgium with three panzer divisions and all the available airborne troops at key points in Belgium and Holland.

The advance of Army Group B would be formidable, noisy, and spectacular but it was an illusion to lead the British and French military away from the main point of attack. There was little doubt that the Allies would regard this advance as the main attack and move rapidly across the French and Belgium frontier in order to reach a line along the Dyle and Meuse Rivers to cover the approaches to Brussels and Antwerp, as they approached their new positions their advance would best be compared to a gate swinging shut.

The French and British High Commands code named this military action the Dyle Plan. It would involve about thirty-five of their best divisions who would advance into Belgium if the Germans invaded, they were to hold up the Germans long enough for the Allies to fortify their positions. The more they committed themselves to this advance, the more certain they would fall into ruin.

The main effort would go to Army Group A, this would involve three armies, the Fourth, Twelfth, and the Sixteenth which contained a special strike force, under the operational name Panzer Group von Kleist also known as the 1st Panzer Army, commanded by Field Marshal Ewald von Kliest.

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It was a revolutionary organization that included two Panzer Corps, Guderian's and Reinhardt's, along with a mechanized corps which included vital tank battalions forming the largest armored force in existence in any army anywhere in the world at that time. This panzer group contained seven of the ten panzer divisions used in the invasion of western Europe.

This force was to attack through the difficult terrain of the Ardennes, extremely unsuitable tank country and cross the Meuse River at Sedan. Panzer Group von Kleist was to then push rapidly west and thrust far behind the flank and rear of the Allied forces as they advanced into Belgium.

The plan would be adopted by the German High Command after the original plan was lost when a German courier aircraft containing the initial plans crashed behind enemy lines.

At sunrise on the 10th of May 1940, the German attack on western Europe began as German troops flooded across the borders of Belgium, Luxemburg, and Holland. Like the invasion of Poland, the Germans enjoyed the advantage of air superiority over the battlefield during the entire campaign as they advanced toward their objectives.

The secret to the German victory was their skillful application of the two greatest principles of war, surprise and concentration.

The key to victory rested with Panzer Group von Kleist as its tanks cut through the woods of the Ardennes and headed for the Meuse River. The Allied military leadership, particularly the French, still thought in terms of the linear tactics of the First World War and scattered their armor along the front.

French military leaders had yet to contemplate using their armored divisions in mass. By dispersing their armor along the whole front from the Swiss border to the English Channel they played right into the Germans hands.

The British 1st Armored Division had yet arrived in France, and the setting up of four French armored divisions was only in the initial stages. When the French military leaders considered the tank's uses, they took an essentially conservative view of it.

It would not be much more than in had been in 1918. This idea was challenged by a whole series of military theoretical writers. In Britain, B.H. Liddell Hart and J.F.C Fuller were developing ideas that would make the linear trench systems of 1914-18 obsolete.

Instead of distributing tanks to infantry, they used their tanks in masses, as armored spearheads. Like the cavalry of the Napoleonic era, they could break the enemy's line and then go on the rampage storming the rear areas, disrupting communications and destroying his reserves which could be used later to block their armored spearheads.

This was Liddell Hart's theory of "expanding the torrent." The tank would become the dominant weapon on the battlefield, along with the motorized infantry they would form the tip of the armored spearhead.

These ideas would be picked up by German military leaders, notably Heinz Guderian and Erwin Rommel. General Heinz Guderian was the principal architect of Germany's devastating blitzkrieg strategy.

At the divisional level a German tank division was a better formation than its Allied counterparts, for it was an all-arms force. Meaning that each division, in addition to its tank battalions, had an adequate force of motorized infantry, artillery, engineer, and other support services organized into one fighting force.

This enabled each tank division to advance independently, its infantry fighting off ground attack, its artillery offering fire support against organized defensive strong points with its 105mm howitzers, against tank attack with its 50mm anti-tanks guns, and against aircraft with its 88mm anti-aircraft guns; and engineers to demolish Allied obstacles and build bridges to cross river barriers.

The French High Command failed to show little interest in the possibilities of armored vehicles on the battlefield. To the French High Command, the tank was regarded useful in supporting attacks by foot-soldiers or cavalrymen, or a substitute for cavalry in a reconnaissance role on the battlefield.

French generals also failed to grasp the value of close cooperation between tank and aircraft on the battlefield. The concept of aircraft used as flying artillery to clear the way for the tanks by laying down a carpet of bombs, was alien to the French High Command.

The German Air Force supported their advancing tanks columns with Dornier light bombers, Messerschmitt 109s and Junker 87s, also known as Stukas. All the aircraft came in at treetop level and opened up with their machine guns, as they dropped their bombs.

But the Stukas were the most feared plane on the battlefield. The Stuka's bombs were each equipped with four small cardboard whistles, and on the plane's, wheels were little rotating propellers. The whistles were set at a different pitch. When a Stuka dived at an angle of 70 degrees and at a speed of over 300mph the sound terrified defending troops.

Allied tanks unlike the Germans lacked two-way radios to communicate with other tanks or aircraft, which put them at an extreme disadvantage during the Battle of France. Everything stemmed from the French weakness in the air.

Without sufficient air cover French tanks could never match the speedy advances made by the German tanks divisions. The German Army was actually inferior to the Allied Armies not only in numbers of divisions, but particularly in numbers of tanks.

While the combined French and British forces had over 4,000 tanks, the German Army could only put about 2,800 tanks on the battlefield. The Panzer MK III accounted for a large proportion of the German tank forces in 1940. Only armed with a 20mm cannon and machine guns, in theory it stood little chance against Allied medium tanks with their 37mm or even 47mm main armament.

The British Matilda tank with its 47mm main gun was a much better tank than the German Mark III which had thinner armor and a smaller main gun. However, there were few major tank versus tank engagements in the whole campaign.

The Destruction of Fort Eben Emael

Instead of the Schlieffen right hook through Belgium and Holland there would be a "Sichelschnitt," a "sickle cut" in the Ardennes. The attack would slice through the French line at its weakest point and envelop the cream of the Allied armies as they advanced north to defend the Belgian and Dutch frontier.

The whole plan depended upon making the Allies think it was 1914 all over again. Therefore, the initial weight of the attack was taken by General von Bock's Army Group B advancing into Holland. Strong infantry and armor attacks were carried out, along with heavy aerial bombardment, and paratroop and airborne landings on key airfields throughout the low countries.

The whole campaign in Holland took only four days to complete. The main Belgian defense line ran from Antwerp to Liege along the Albert Canal, and its southern anchor was the great fortress of Eben Emael, about seven miles from Liege.

The fortress was considered impregnable, and the Belgians put the future of their nation in the hands of the few who defended it. It was a complex of tunnels, steel cupolas and casemates made of heavy concrete all self-contained, with a garrison of about 800 men. Eben Emael was the key to the front door of Belgium.

The Germans would attack Eben Emael by landing on top of the fort by using gliders surprising its defenders. By blowing open the casemates and gun turrets with shaped hollow-charges, they were in control of the fort in twenty-eight hours, in time to greet German armor as it forced its way across the Albert Canal.

Soon afterward the Germans occupied Liege and raced toward the Dyle River, overwhelming British and French forces who had advanced to support Belgian troops before they had time to site the artillery. The ferocity of the attack convinced the Allied leaders this had to be the main attack they could not have been more wrong.

Destruction of Fort Eben Emael Part 1

Destruction of Fort Eben Emael Part 3

The German Army's Breakthrough as Sedan

The German Army would send seven panzer divisions through Sedan.

The German Army would send seven panzer divisions through Sedan.

The Ardennes near Sedan and the Meuse River German combat engineers crossed the river in rubber boats and paid a high cost.

The Ardennes near Sedan and the Meuse River German combat engineers crossed the river in rubber boats and paid a high cost.

Breakthrough at Sedan

As the Belgian forces battled the Germans at Fort Eben Emael in the Ardennes they quietly waited for the Germans to attack, things were clouded in an ominous fog. Three German armies hidden by the forest massed against the Belgian garrison defending that sector of the front.

The unit the Chasseurs Ardennes was basically government forestry workers in the area, put in uniforms and issued rifles. The Germans were virtually unopposed as they pushed the defenders aside and advanced through the Ardennes.

In two days, Panzer Group von Kleist with most of the German Army's armor, seven armored and two motorized divisions, was parked on the banks of the Meuse River, France's main defensive position. With frantic reports of their arrival French commanders began shifting reserves to meet the oncoming threat.

Some of the French formations, made up of over age and under armed reserves, fled precipitately before the onslaught of tanks and Stukas; others fought to the last man, but nowhere were they a match for the constant German superiority of material and numbers at any vital spot. The order to retreat was given on the night of the 13th of May 1940, but the French defensive line had already been destroyed.

By the next morning there was a fifty-mile hole in the French line, and within forty-eight hours Panzer Group von Kleist was across the Aisne River, rolling into open country.

The whole situation along the breakthrough was incredibly fluid as German tanks raced ahead, with their flanks basically undefended. Ahead of the German spearhead Stukas dive-bombed and strafed the retreating French troops and refugees who clogged the roads and slowed down the troops.

Behind the German tanks leading the breakthrough there was virtually nothing, just long dusty columns of very tired German infantry, slogging along attempting to catch the tanks as they raced ahead.

One surprising fact was most of the German Army was largely dependent on horse-drawn transport which created dangerous gaps between amour and support troops during the battle for France. This type of horse transport was most vulnerable to Allied air and ground attack. The Germans were leaving themselves wide open for a counterattack into their unprotected flanks. But the French Army was busy elsewhere with its own battle for survival.