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.
The next object of our operations is to annihilate the French, English and Belgian forces which are surrounded by Artois and Flanders, by a concentric attack by our northern flank and by the swift seizure of the Channel coast in this area.
24th May, 1940: The left-wing, which consists of armoured and motorized forces and has no enemy in front of it, will be stopped dead in its tracks upon direct order from the Fuhrer. The finishing off of the encircled enemy army is to be left to the Luftwaffe.
30th May, 1940: Bad weather has grounded the Luffwaffe and now we must stand by and watch countless thousands of the enemy getting away to England under our noses.
Before the war the French were promised that the whole of the R.A.F.'s bomber force would be used to resist an invasion of France, and that all our bomber squadrons should operate, in the event of invasion, under the general direction of the French High Command. This included, not only the Advanced Air Striking Force of short-range bombers which was actually based in France, but also the longer-range bombers in England. The French had been much afraid, before the war, that the English would proceed at once to the strategic bombing of German industries and leave the air support of the French army to the French; this was naturally an alarming prospect, the French air force being what it was, but they were reassured, and promised everything we could give them. At the same time we had to warn them not to hope for too much from the bombers. We knew that the enemy would have vastly superior numbers of aircraft, that most of our bases would have to be far from the battle-front because we should not have the facilities for handling even a force of medium bombers in France, and that the Germans would have at their disposal an immense and therefore at that time an indestructible network of communications. Nevertheless the French continued to expect much from the bombing of railways behind the German lines and were inclined to think, when our bombing proved as ineffectual as we had said it would be, that this was because the R.A.F., in spite of all its promises, had concentrated on targets east of the Rhine.
23rd May, 1940: Baron Newall (Marshall of the Royal Air Force) came in the evening. He had just left a Chiefs of Staff meeting with the Prime Minister and he told me that the situation in France was critical. Viscount Gort (commander of the British Expeditionary Force in France) had sent a message to say that he was short of food and ammunition. Owing to the rapid advance of the German tanks and motored divisions, his lines of communication had been cut through Amiens, and food had to be sent to France from here by air. German tanks had reached Boulogne, and had captured a fort above the town and were shelling the harbour. Newall was sorry to come with such a gloomy account and said that the French command must have "gone to seed" behind the Maginot Line.
This news was so worrying that I sent a message to Winston asking him to to come and see me after dinner. The Prime Minister came at 10.30 p.m. He told me that if the French plan made out by Maxine Weygand (French military commander) did not come off, he would have to order the British Expeditionary Force back to England. This operation would mean the loss of all guns, tanks, ammunition and all stores in France. The question was whether we could get the troops back from Calais and Dunkirk. The very thought of having to order this movement is appalling, as the loss of life will probably be immense.
By the evening (28th May, 1940) the objective was reached. Only Mont Caubert still held out. There were a great many dead from both sides on the field. Our tanks had been sorely tried. Barely a hundred were still in working order. But all the same, an atmosphere of victory hovered over the battlefield. Everyone held his head high. The wounded were smiling. The guns fired gaily. Before us, in a pitched battle, the Germans had retired.
Alas! In the course of the Battle of France, what other ground had been or would be won, except this strip of fourteen kilometres deep? If the State had played its part; if, while there was time, it had directed its military system towards enterprise, not passivity; if our leaders had in consequence had at their disposal the instruments for shock and manoeuvre which had been often suggested to the politicians and to the High Command; then our arms would have had their chance, and France would have found her soul again
The way to the west was now open. The moon was up and for the time being we could expect no real darkness. I had already given orders, in the plan for the breakthrough, for the leading tanks to scatter the road and verges with machine and anti-tank gunfire at intervals during the drive to Avesnes, which I hoped would prevent the enemy from laying mines.
The tanks now rolled in a long column through the line of fortifications and on towards the first houses, which had been set alight by our fire. Occasionally an enemy machine-gun or antitank gun fired, but none of their shots came anywhere near us.
Troops lay bivouacked beside the road, military vehicles stood parked in farmyards and in some places on the road itself. Civilians and French troops, their faces distorted with terror, lay huddled in the ditches, alongside hedges and in every hollow beside the road. We passed refugee columns, the carts abandoned by their owners, who had fled in panic into the fields.
On we went, at a steady speed, toward our objective. Every so often a quick glance at the map by a shaded light and a short wireless message to Divisional HQ to report the position and thus the success of 25th Panzer Regiment. Every so often a look out of the hatch to assure myself that there was still no resistance and the contact was being maintained to the rear. The flat countryside lay spread out around us under the cold light of the moon.
We were through the Maginot Line! It was hardly conceivable. Twenty-two years before we had stood for four and a half years before this selfsame enemy and had won victory after victory and yet finally lost the war. And now we had broken through the renowned Maginot Line and were driving deep into enemy territory.
About half-past seven in the morning of the 15th (May 1940) I was woken up with the news that Paul Reynaud was on the telephone at my bedside. He spoke in English, and evidently under stress. "We have been defeated." As I did not immediately respond he said again: "We are beaten; we have lost the battle." I said: "Surely it can't have happened so soon?" But he replied: "The front is broken near Sedan."
In the 1940 campaign the French fought bravely, but they were no longer the French of 1914-18 of Verdun and the Somme. The British fought much more stubbornly, as they did in 1914-18. The Belgians in part fought gallantly; the Dutch, only a few days. We had superiority in the air combined with more up-to-date tanks than the French. Above all, the German tank troops were more mobile, quicker and better at in-fighting, and able while in movement to turn wherever required by their leader. This, the French at that time were unable to do. They still thought and fought more in the tradition of the First World War. They were not up to date either in leadership or in wireless control. When they wanted to change direction on the move, they had to halt first, give fresh orders, and only then were they able to start again. Their tank tactics were out of date-but they were brave!
At Charleville, on 24 May, when the B.E.F. was absolutely ripe for the plucking, Hitler informed his astonished generals that Britain was 'indispensable' to the world and that he had therefore resolved to respect her integrity and, if possible, ally himself with her. Perhaps a less fanciful explanation of Hitler's attitude is supplied by Ribbentrop's representative at the Fuhrer's headquarters, who has left on record the comment: "Hitler personally intervened to allow the British to escape. He was convinced that to destroy their army would be to force them to fight to the bitter end."
On the military side the facts are clearer. On 23 May Field-Marshal von Rundstedt, commanding Army Group A, halted General Guderian's XIX Army Corps when two of its panzer divisions were heading for Dunkirk, not twenty miles distant and with little or no opposition ahead. The British counter-attack at Arras on 21 May, though undertaken by no more than two mixed columns, each comprising a tank battalion, an infantry battalion, a field battery, an anti-tank battery, and a machine-gun company, had caused him some concern. He therefore called the halt in order to "allow the situation to clarify itself and keep our forces concentrated". The panzers had just reached the Channel, and the success of this British counterattack engendered the fear of a larger operation that would cut them off from their supporting infantry. The next morning he received a visit from the Fuhrer, who confirmed the stop order. The panzers were not to be risked in a possibly flooded area but preserved for future operations-presumably against the French Army. On the other hand, the Luftwaffe's 'field of action' was not to be restricted.
Actually, on the available evidence, there can be little doubt that it was at the particular instance of the Luftwaffe's commander-in-chief, Field-Marshal Goering, that in the upshot the B.E.F. Was "left to the Luftwaffe". Guderian was to write, bitterly, of the first day of the evacuation, 26 May: "We watched the Luftwaffe attack. We saw also the armada of great and little ships, by means of which the British were evacuating their forces." Guderian's bitterness was shared by the whole of the German Army High Command.
For four days and four nights I have shared the appalling hardship of 5,000,000 French refugees who are now fleeing down all the roads of France leading to the south. My story is the typical story of nine-tenths of these refugees.
I left Paris Monday night, June 10, in a big car which was to take me, my sister, Irene Tomara, and a Canadian doctor, William Douglas, who has been working with the American and civilian refugees. We loaded our car with whatever we could carry. We had enough gasoline to take us at least to Bordeaux. It was quite dark when we left. All days cars had been going toward the southern gates of Paris. Just as we departed dark clouds rose above the town, obscuring the rising crescent of the moon. I thought at first it was a storm. Then I understood it was a smoke screen the French had laid down to save the city from bombing.
We drove across the Seine bridge and in complete darkness past the Montparnasse station, in which a desperate crowd was camping. We found the so-called Italian Gate and drove past it, risking all the time the chance of being hit by trucks. But all went well for about fifteen miles. Then, as we started up the first hill, the gears of our car refused to work and the car would not move.
We managed to pull off the road and park. We were in a small suburb of Paris. As nothing could be done during the dark hours, we rolled into our sleeping bags in a ditch alongside the road and tried to sleep. But cars roared by us incessantly. Then came an air-raid alarm. Then the cars started again.
When dawn came we tried to get the car going. It would not start. We waited for hours for a mechanic, while cars passed at the rate of twenty a minute. Then we learned there were no mechanics. They had all been called into the army. But the driver of a truck stopped and inspected the car. He said it could not be repaired on the road.
We tried to buy a little truck that could take our luggage. Finally the gendarmes on the road took pity on us and stopped a military truck, asking its driver to tow us. Fortunately we had a chain. We started off at noon on the road to Fontainebleau. At that time the road was a dense stream of army and factory trucks carrying big machines. We drove all day, and at 8 p.m. got into Fontainebleau.
In Fontainebleau we located a garage. The mechanic looked at the car and said it could not be repaired in less than two days. "We have no men to repair it, anyway," the manager of the garage said. "We work only for the army." We passed the night at a hotel and in the morning started to look for a truck that could tow us. Douglas found a youngster who had a country truck, but no gasoline. He was going back to Paris. We promised him gasoline and he said he would take us to Orleans and then drive to Paris.
We were abandoning our car, which was worth at least 40,000 francs (approximately $875), but money had ceased to have significance. We reloaded our bags on the truck, which had no top, and sat on them. It was 5 p.m. We drove five miles without difficulty and then got into a stream of refugees and army cars. Refugees blocked the road by trying to get past the main line of cars, thus interfering with oncoming traffic.
At 10 p.m. we had driven less than fifteen miles from Fontainebleau. The boy driving our car was in despair. He wanted to turn back to Paris, but we would not let him. We saw thousands of cars by the roadsides, without gasoline or broken down.
We drove on in the night. Presently the road cleared, but we were off our route. Soldiers had detoured traffic to permit movement of military cars. We were driving south instead of toward Orleans. In a small village we turned off and started at a good speed through the dead of night, with lights turned off. It was fantastic. The clouds parted and the moon came up. The country seemed phantom-like. There were piles of stones in front of each village we passed, and peasants with rifles guarded these barricades. They looked at our papers and let us pass.
We arrived before the Orleans station at 3 a.m. on Thursday. After three nights and two days we had made only seventy miles. The scene near the station was appalling. People lay on the floor inside and the town square was filled. We piled our baggage and waited until daylight.
There was nothing to eat in the town, no rooms in the hotels, no cars for sale or hire, no gasoline anywhere. Yet a steady stream of refugees was coming in, men, women and children, all desperate, not knowing where to go or how.
I walked around and found a truck that was fairly empty. I talked to the driver, offering him money to take me to Tours. He would take us near Tours. For food, we had only a little wine, some stale bread and a can of ham.
The scene of the refugees around the station was the most horrible I had ever seen, worse than the refugees in Poland. Fortunately, there was no bombing. Had there been any attacks it would have been too ghastly for words. Children were crying. There was no milk, no bread. Yet social workers were doing their best and groups were led away all the time, but new ones continued to arrive.
All morning we sought means of transportation. There was none. I decided to go to Tours. I started to walk in the rain with my typewriter and sleeping bag, at last getting a lift in a car which moved slowly through a mob of refugees moving in the opposite direction. In Tours, I learned that the government had left. Also gone were most newspapermen, but a press wireless operator and the French censor were still there.
As I finish this story there is a German air raid. The sound of bombs is terrific. I hope the German bombers have not hit at the road which leads to the south, for there refugees are packed in fleeing crowds.
The catastrophe that has befallen France has no parallel in human history. Nobody knows how or when it will end. Like the other refugees, and there are millions of us, I do not know tonight when I shall sleep in a bed again, or how I shall get out of this town.
The claim that the German Army is "invincible" is a myth invented by the Nazi rulers. The easy victories of 1939 and 1940, on which the German militarists now preen themselves, were won not so much by their own forces as by base treachery in the countries against which they fought.
It is common knowledge that some members of the former French government were connected with German agents and deliberately led their army and people to defeat.
In the main drive against the Allies in Holland, Belgium and Luxemburg on May 10, 1940, the Germans used 107 infantry and 10 tank divisions, while the Allies used 63 infantry divisions, 4 light mechanized and 6 cavalry divisions. These Allies belonged to four different armies - the French, British, Belgian and Dutch - which actually were not under one command. Moreover, some of these armies were disunited by deep-rooted political friction and conflicting opinions on operations and strategy.