In 1939, a group of senior German Army officers, including Erich von Manstein and Franz Halder, devised a plan to inflict a major defeat on the French Army in northern France. The Manstein Plan, as it became known, included a attack through southern Belgium that avoided the Maginot Line. The ultimate objective was to reach the Channel coast and to force the French government to surrender.
Adolf Hitler gave his approval to the Manstein Plan on 17th February, 1940, but it was not activated until the 10th May, when the Luftwaffe bombed Dutch and Belgian airfields and the German Army captured Moerdijk and Rotterdam. Fedor von Bock and the 9th Panzer Division, using its Blitzkreig strategy, advanced quickly into the Netherlands. Belgium was also invaded and the French 7th Army moved forward to help support the Dutch and Belgian forces.
The 7th Panzer Division under Erwin Rommel and the 19th Corps commanded by Heinz Guderian and the 6th and 8th Panzers led by Gerd von Rundstedt, went through the heavily wooded and semi-mountainous area of the Ardennes, an area, north of the Maginot Line. The French military had wrongly believed that the Ardennes was impassable to tanks. Seven panzer divisions reached the Meuse River at Dinant on 12th May and the following day the French government was forced to abandon Paris.
German forces led by Paul von Kliest, Erwin Rommel, Heinz Guderian and Gerd von Rundstedt advanced towards the Channel. Except for a counterattack by 4th Armoured Division led by Charles De Gaulle, at Montcornet (17th May) and Laon (27th-29th May) the German forces encountered very little resistance.
Winston Churchill now ordered the implementation of Operation Dynamo, a plan to evacuate of troops and equipment from the French port of Dunkirk, that had been drawn up by General John Gort, the Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). Between 27th May and 4th June, 1940, a total of 693 ships brought back 338,226 people back to Britain. Of these 140,000 were members of the French Army. All heavy equipment was abandoned and left in France.
The French Army tried to hold the line along the Somme and the Aisne. Now clearly outnumbered, the troops were forced to withdraw to the Loire.
Paul Reynaud and his government now left the French capital and moved to Tours. On 14th June, the Germans occupied Paris. Reynaud now realized that the German offensive could not be halted and suggested that the government should move to territories it owned in North Africa. This was opposed by his vice-premier, Henri-Philippe Petain, and the supreme commander of the armed forces, General Maxime Weygand. They insisted that the government should remain in France and seek an armistice.
Outvoted, Reynaud resigned and President Albert Lebrun, appointed Petain as France's new premier. He immediately began negotiations with Adolf Hitler and on 22nd June signed an armistice with Germany. The terms of the agreement divided France into occupied and unoccupied zones, with a rigid demarcation line between the two. The Germans would directly control three-fifths of the country, an area that included northern and western France and the entire Atlantic coast. The remaining section of the country would be administered by the French government at Vichy under Marshal Henri-Philippe Petain.
Other provisions of the armistice included the surrender of all Jews living in France to the Germans. The French Army was disbanded except for a force of 100,000 men to maintain domestic order. The 1.5 million French soldiers captured by the Germans were to remain prisoners of war. The French government also agreed to stop members of its armed forces from leaving the country and instructed its citizens not to fight against the Germans. Finally, France had to pay the occupation costs of the German troops.
An estimated 390,000 soldiers were killed defending France whereas around 35,000 German soldiers lost their lives during the invasion.