THE CAMPAIGN THAT OPENED on May 10, 1940, was one of the world’s great military masterpieces. As spring ripened into a beautiful early summer, the likelihood of war in earnest became apparent. The invasion of Denmark and Norway jolted the Allies out of their lethargy, and while it went on to its rapid and unhappy conclusion the Allied high commands tried to wrestle with the irreconcilabilities of their situation.
Hitler had made a peace offer back in October of 1939; this was probably not a serious one, and whether it was or not, the Allies refused to take it as such. Not too much had happened on the Western Front after that. The British had gradually increased their strength in France, and the British Expeditionary Force, under the command of Lord Gort, was up to a strength of nearly 400,000 men by spring of 1940. Against this, however, had to be set a noticeable decline in French morale. The army that had been fully confident of itself in September was less so by spring. There was disaffection, the troops had been quick to pick up the “phoney war” phrase, and inactivity in billets had led them to question the point of the whole exercise.
Neither of the Allies saw any real need for a reassessment of their view of the war. Though the British had increased their army commitment, they still believed that the economic pressure of the Royal Navy’s blockade would finally win the war. They coupled with this the possibility of bombing by the Royal Air Force, but when they thought of that, they had no idea of the difficulties involved, nor did they really give too much thought to the fact that strategic bombing had not only to deal with the enemy, but also with friends. The French, worried about the power of the Luftwaffe, were adamantly opposed to the initiation of a bombing campaign. With the war eight months old, the R. A. F. had so far done precious little bombing at all.
The French were busy with internal problems. There was for one thing a government reshuffle. Premier Daladier resigned, and was replaced by Paul Reynaud. A smallish, slightly oriental-looking man, Reynaud was thought to be more of a fighter than Daladier; unhappily, his political position was weaker, and he achieved the premiership only by taking into his cabinet men who were not fighters at all. In balance the Reynaud government was hardly in a position to prosecute the war any more vigorously than its predecessor had been.
There were equivalent difficulties in the army command. General Maurice Gamelin was the Commander-in-Chief of the French Army, with his headquarters just outside Paris. As leader of all French troops everywhere, he was responsible not only for metropolitan France, including troops facing Italy and Spain as well as Germany, but also for the troops throughout the empire. To deal with the main battle front from Switzerland to the sea, therefore, the French appointed General Alphonse Georges as Commander-in-Chief Northeast. Under him were the various army groups and armies of the front. This command structure was practically designed to create confusion, and did. Gamelin did not want to interfere in Georges’ direction of his battle but constantly did so; Georges wanted to run his own battle, but was never permitted to do it. Messages were shuttled back and forth and got lost, and in the end, neither Georges nor Gamelin was up to the task allotted to them.
Gamelin and his associates had refused to learn anything from the Polish campaign; they had decided before it started that the Poles were militarily negligible, and therefore the rapid defeat of Poland was no more than they expected. Since the campaign went as they supposed it would, there was obviously no lesson to be drawn from it. Through the 1939-40 winter Gamelin saw no need to restructure his defense system. The French did proceed with the leisurely equipping of armored formations, but no urgency underlay their endeavors. A more real problem for them was the attitude of the Belgians and the Dutch.
Both these countries had relatively respectable armies. There were twenty-two divisions in the Belgian, and nine in the Dutch. Between them they had a few hundred aircraft. The chief difficulty was their resolute insistence on their nonalignment. In spite of the experience of 1914, both states steadfastly clung to neutrality and therefore refused to have anything to do with the Anglo-French. It was impossible to coordinate any plans in such a situation.
Plans had to be made nonetheless; the Allies knew the Dutch intended to fight delaying actions as long as they could, and then to withdraw into an area between the Zuider Zee and the Rhine, known somewhat optimistically as “Fortress Holland.” They knew also that the Belgians planned to hold the rough triangle Antwerp-Maastricht-Namur-Antwerp. Knowing this, the French based their operational plan on four assumptions.
These assumptions were, first, that the Maginot Line was indeed impregnable; second, that the Ardennes Forest north of it was impassable; third, that the Germans were therefore left with no option but a wheel through the Low Countries, a replay of the Schlieffen Plan of 1914; and fourth, that to meet and defeat this, the French would advance into Belgium and Holland and come to their aid as soon as the war started. The Anglo-French were sure, correctly, that the minute the first German stepped over the frontier, the Dutch and Belgians would hastily abandon their neutrality and start yelling for help.
The disposition of Allied forces reflected these assumptions and plans. On the seacoast was the French 7th Army under General Giraud; the most mobile and presumably best of all the armies, it would dash across Belgium and link up with the retreating Dutch to help hold Fortress Holland. It had the farthest distance to go, hence the assignment to it of the bulk of French motorized equipment. Next to it came the B. E. F., destined to advance into Belgium and link up with the Belgians, then the French 1st Army, also to help the Belgians. Finally came the 9th and the 2nd armies, under Generals Corap and Huntziger; the 9th was the pivot of the Allied wheel, and the 2nd was to hold in front of the Ardennes. With not-too-active roles to play, these were the weakest of the French armies. All five of these forces were under General Billotte, as Commander of Army Group 1. Two more army groups, consisting of four armies altogether, held the Maginot Line.
One remaining problem was how far into Belgium the Allied armies should advance. After a great deal of discussion, they finally agreed to go as far as what was called the “Dyle Line,” roughly from Antwerp to Namur, or in effect the rear face of the Belgian fortified triangle. This not only covered Brussels, but it also covered a gap between Wavre on the Dyle River and Namur on the Meuse; known as the “Gembloux Gap,” after a little town right in the middle of it, this was regarded as the classic invasion route through the whole of the Low Countries. Within twenty-five miles of it were Wavre, Namur, Liège, Charleroi, and Waterloo, names that had run down through European military history for three centuries and more. As the trees budded and burst into bloom, the French could say they had resolved their difficulties; they knew what the Germans would do, and they were as ready as they could be to meet them.
Materially, though they were unaware of it, the Allies were more than ready for the Germans. Figures vary so widely—wildly even—that one can choose any set to make any argument desired. In 1940, the French high command was speaking of 7,000 German tanks, deliberately overestimating them to cover themselves in the event of a disaster. What this did for French morale can readily be imagined. Figures now available give a comparison something like this:
[94 French, 10 British, 22 Belgian, 9 Dutch]
[This includes all French (about 1,200), British in France (about 600), and Belgian and Dutch]
This gave the Germans a superiority only in aircraft, and even that depended upon what aircraft were counted, and on the inclusion of all types, as well as the exclusion of the Royal Air Force equipment retained in Britain.
What really mattered in all this, however, was less what either side had, than what either side thought the other had. Ultimately, the key factors were two: the French high command believed itself vastly outnumbered by the Germans, and it lacked a Hitler to force it to go ahead and fight anyway.
For the paradox was that if the French believed themselves outnumbered by the Germans, the Germans knew that they were outnumbered by the French. It was only on Hitler’s oft-repeated demands that the German General Staff could be made to take the initiative at all. After his peace offer in October, he had ordered the General Staff to prepare for an offensive; they did not feel up to it, and between the lateness of the season and their dragging their feet, the offensive was gradually put off through the winter and into the spring. Finally, they produced Plan Gelb, or Plan Yellow, calling for a drive through the Netherlands and Belgium to secure the Channel ports, a sort of short-range Schlieffen Plan. This far they were in line with French strategic thinking.
Through the winter, however, the plan evolved. As early as November, when there was an invasion scare in the West that ended only with the advent of bad weather, Hitler and some of his subordinates began to have second thoughts. The original plan called for a drive north of Liège; Hitler now changed it to straddle Liège, that is, he moved the axis of the attack farther south. Finally, he was convinced by von Rundstedt’s chief of staff, General Erich von Manstein, that the plan ought to be reversed. Instead of making the main effort in the north, the Germans would go through the Ardennes; instead of Schlieffen, there would be “Sichelschnitt,” a “sickle cut” that would slice through the French line at its weak point and envelop the northern armies as they rushed to the defense of the Belgians and Dutch. Manstein was an infantryman and was uncertain about the Ardennes; he approached General Heinz Guderian, the recognized German tank authority, who said it could be done. Hitler jumped at it immediately, and the plan was turned around. The assumptions on which the French had planned their campaign were now totally invalidated.
The tempo of events could not be completely disguised; it is impossible to move hundreds of thousands of men, their equipment, and supplies into a place for battle without anyone noticing, however hard one tries to hide it. As May opened and the long days came, the reconnaissance flights increased, the sound of birds was increasingly drowned by truck and tank engines; spring and war—the one so fruitful and the other so destructive—lay heavy on Europe.
In the early dawn of May 10 the Germans struck. There were the usual Luftwaffe attacks at Allied airfields and communications centers, and by full day the Germans were rolling forward all along the Dutch and Belgian frontiers. 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 at The Hague and Rotterdam, and bridges across the major rivers. The Dutch hastened to their advanced positions, some of which they managed to hold for two or three days, others of which they were levered off almost immediately.
The whole campaign of Holland took a mere four days. The French 7th Army, rushing across Belgium to the rescue, arrived on the 12th, just in time to bump into oncoming German armor in full cry; the French, caught up in a wave of Dutch flotsam, were brushed aside and the next day were in retreat back into Belgium. Fortress Holland never even got organized; the Dutch government left for England on the 13th, to join the other exiles, and the army command surrendered on the 14th. In a last-minute mixup, an intensive bombing raid of Rotterdam missed the recall, and the “terror bombing” of Rotterdam became another example of Hunnish cruelty.
Almost if not quite the same thing happened in Belgium. The forward face of the Belgian defense position ran from Antwerp to Liège along the Albert Canal, and its southern anchor was the great fortress of Eben Emael, about seven miles out of Liège. The fortress was billed as impregnable, and the Belgians were very proud of it. It was a complex of tunnels, steel cupolas and casemates made of heavy concrete; self-contained and with a garrison of about 800 men, the fortress was the key to Belgium. The Germans landed an assault detail on it by glider, blew open the casemates and gun turrets with shaped hollow-charges, and were masters of the fort in twenty-eight hours, just in time to greet the armor forcing its way across the Albert Canal. The canal bridges were seized by similar if slightly less spectacular feats, and the whole Albert Canal line was gone before the Belgians knew what hit them. The Panzers roared on, past Liège, toward the Dyle and and the Gembloux Gap.
The British and French reached the Dyle on the 12th. They had left their more or less prepared positions along the French frontier, hoping and expecting to find the same thing on the Dyle. They found nothing. The Germans were on them before they had time to site their batteries. The Royal Air Force contingent in France, the Advanced Air Striking Force, made desperate attempts to bomb the bridges over which the Germans were pouring. The lumbering Fairey Battle bombers were decimated; the attacks won several posthumous medals for the R. A. F., but did not even slow the Germans down. The pressure was so great that all reports were sure this had to be the main attack; the Germans pushed over the Dyle by the 14th, but the frantic resistance of the Belgians, French, and British at last began to take effect, and it looked for a moment as if the northern front, minus Holland, might stabilize.
Between Namur and the northern end of the Maginot Line, however, things were ominous. Corap’s 9th and Huntziger’s 2nd French armies had taken their positions on the western side of the Ardennes. As the 9th and 2nd waited on their quiet sector, three German armies, including seven armored and two motorized divisions, were bearing down on them. The Germans had poured through the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and been swallowed up in the forest. But it was not impassable after all. It was garrisoned by a Belgian unit, the Chasseurs Ardennes, basically the government forestry workers of the area, put into uniform and issued rifles. They had no heavy weapons, and more important, no demolition material. The Germans were virtually unopposed. It took them two days of careful driving, and on the night of the 12th, they were on the Meuse, the main French defense position. With frantic reports of their arrival in force reaching him, Gamelin began shifting reserves north to meet them.
He was far too late. The Germans were operating at the speed of a truck or tank, the French at that of a marching man. The next two days were crucial. On the 13th, the Germans surged across the Meuse. Some of the French formations, made up of overage and underarmed reserves, fled precipitately before the 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. Corap ordered a retreat on the night of the 13th, but it was an order given to an army already out of existence. By next morning there was a fifty-mile hole in the French line, and within two days the German armor was on the Aisne, rolling into open country.
The whole situation was incredibly fluid. Here was this enormous gap in the French line, with Germans pouring through it. The German armor raced ahead, its flanks in the air. Stukas dive-bombed and strafed the retreating French, refugees jammed the roads and slowed down the troops. Behind the Panzers there was virtually nothing, just long dusty columns of dog-tired German infantry, slogging along and hoping to catch up. The Germans were wide open for a drive into their flanks.
But there was nothing to do this with. The mass of French armor was in Belgium and Holland and busy with its own battle. The French tried; they threw an armored division, newly organized under General de Gaulle, at the southern German flank. This attack later became one of the pillars of de Gaulle’s reputation—he at least had fought—yet it achieved nothing more than the destruction of his division. The few gains the French tanks made could not be held against the Germans sweeping by, and they hardly noticed that there was anything special about this attack.
As the Germans went on toward Cambrai, toward the sea, the new British Prime Minister, Churchill, came over to see what on earth was going on. He visited Gamelin and looked at the maps. Surely, he said, if the head of the German column was far to the west, and the tail was far to the east, they must be thin somewhere. Why did the French not attack with their reserves? In his terrible French he asked Gamelin where the French reserves were. Gamelin replied with an infuriating Gallic shrug: there were no reserves. Churchill went home appalled.
The truth was, the Germans were indeed thin, and in many ways their high command was as scared as the French were. Von Rundstedt, in command of Army Group A, was so worried by his flanks that he tried to slow his Panzers down. The tank commanders, Guderian, Reinhardt, and Rommel, were aghast. When ordered to stop and wait for support, they asked permission to carry out local reconnaissances. This qualified permission granted, they drove on again full tilt. Occasionally, there was heavy fighting. On the northern shoulder of the drive, the French put up a good resistance, the French 1st Army giving them hard knocks around Arras a bit later. But the Germans were not going to bang their heads against failure. They just sideslipped their armor and kept on. The farther they went, the more the Allies lost cohesion. On the 21st, the Germans reached the sea at Abbeville; the northern Allied armies were cut off.
Gamelin was gone by then. Utterly outpaced by the speed of events, he had become completely defeatist; he could do nothing and therefore decided that nothing could be done. On the 19th, he was replaced by General Maxime Weygand, flown in from the French territory of Syria to take over. By the time Weygand figured out what was happening, he was too late to do anything but preside over the disaster.
Ordered to attack south and break through, the Anglo-Franco-Belgian forces were unable to pull themselves together, change fronts, and coordinate their efforts. Allied cooperation began to break down. The French still wanted to move south, but were incapable of doing it. Lord Gort, commanding the B. E. F., and mindful that his army was all Britain had, began thinking instead of evacuation. Out of these thoughts came the “miracle of Dunkirk,” as well as a great deal of Anglo-French recrimination.
The Germans now held their southern shoulder along the line of the Aisne and Somme rivers, and turned their attention north. The Allied forces began to contract into a perimeter around the small Channel ports, especially Dunkirk. Boulogne fell on the 23rd; Calais was reinforced from England and, isolated, held until the 27th. To the north, the Belgians, fought out, surrendered on the 28th. King Leopold believed he had done all he could, and he was probably right, but the Allies flung charges at him of leaving them in the lurch, and that was right too. The defensive perimeter shrunk and shrunk around Dunkirk, while the B. E. F. and the French 1st Army held off the Germans.
With no alternative now but evacuation, the British government hoped they might pull off 50,000 men. They organized everything that would float, and with the help of the French Navy as well, they started lifting men out of the port of Dunkirk, and even off the open beaches beyond the town. Destroyers, tugs, cross-Channel packets, paddle-wheel ferries, fishing boats, yachts, dinghies, swarmed in the Channel, prey to the Luftwaffe but determined to bring the soldiers home. Churchill and Reynaud agreed that the two armies should go off “arm in arm,” but even the best intentions were lost in the general disaster. By that remark, Churchill meant one Englishman, one Frenchman; the French thought it meant proportional representation, and as there were a lot more Frenchmen than Englishmen in the perimeter, this would have meant more French than British were to be evacuated.
This kind of misunderstanding occurred all down the chain of command. The British were anxious to evacuate, the French still had some obscure vision of holding on as a sort of fortress; the British insisted that they would form the rear guard, but the run of the perimeter was such that they were squeezed out by the French, who insisted anyway that they ought to form the rear guard, and then tended to blame the British for letting them do so.
When the evacuation was finally over, on the night of June 3-4, the Allies had managed, incredibly, to lift off about 335,000 men. The British had gotten off about 215,000 out of perhaps 250,000 trapped in the north. The French had taken off only 125,000 out of about 380,000. It was both a triumph of the human spirit and a military disaster.
No one expected to get off anything like that, and it is probable that they would not have done so, had they not been helped by Hitler. For two crucial days, from the 24th to the 26th of May, days which allowed the Allies to organize both their defensive perimeter and their evacuation, he had issued a stop order for his armor. This order has puzzled students of history for many years, and gave rise to suggestions that Hitler really wanted a deal with the British, that he liked Britain, and so on and so forth. The truth seems to be a great deal more mundane. For one thing, von Rundstedt was by that time already looking south, and wanted to conserve the armor for the forthcoming drive against the remaining French armies. For another, the area around Dunkirk was low-lying, and crisscrossed by canals and ditches, and therefore not thought suitable for armor. Hitler also thought, incorrectly, that the Luftwaffe was capable of isolating the perimeter and thereby destroying the bottled-up forces in it. Finally, there does seem some ground for believing that the Germans were indeed overawed by the magnitude of their own astounding success so far. That, however, is a long way from the imputations that have been put on the whole matter. At bottom, it was a sound tactical decision plus a misassessment of the capabilities of the Luftwaffe that caused the stop order. They would make that mistake again.
For practical purposes Britain was now out of it. The campaign of France would last another three weeks. During that time Churchill and his government would make strenuous efforts to keep the French in the war, but they would make no material contribution to it. The few British forces south of the Somme would soon be evacuated. There was indeed only one thing the British had left that they could have contributed: the fighter arm of the Royal Air Force. To have sent this over to France would have left the British Isles absolutely defenseless, and in spite of French pleas for it, the British steadfastly refused to commit it. The French therefore, though only a few of them were churlish enough to say it, increasingly took the attitude that Britain was willing to fight to the last Frenchman. They could not believe that Britain either could or would continue the war alone, and even while Churchill tried to keep them up to the mark, Britain’s weakness and inability to help told against his own arguments. There was little point in recriminations, and in pointing out that it was essentially the incredible deficiencies of the French command and war plan that had brought about that weakness. Current disasters came crowding in too fast to bother recapitulating past ones.
The French Army was now on its own. The nine Dutch divisions were gone, as were the twenty-two Belgian and nine of the ten British. The French had lost twenty-four of their sixty-seven infantry divisions, six of their twelve motorized or armored divisions. They had lost extensive amounts of equipment, and even the mechanized formations that remained were seriously depleted in strength and material. Perhaps half their army, the weaker half, remained to face the Germans along the Maginot Line, the Aisne and the Somme rivers. The Germans already had bridgeheads across the Somme at Abbeville and Amiens, and French attempts to squeeze them out failed. Defeat hung like a miasma over the Third Republic, and the higher one went, the worse it got. Weygand made futile attempts to pull his armies together and he issued orders of the day designed to inspire the troops to their utmost. But even in the most stirring government and military pronouncements of those weeks, despair lurked just below the surface. When generals begin talking of “satisfying the dictates of honor,” the implied conclusion to the sentence is always “before surrendering.”
While the French high command tried to sort out and organize the “Weygand Line” along the Somme and Aisne, the Germans were carrying out an impressive redeployment of their troops to face southward. They were ready to go by June 5, within a day or so after the completion of the Dunkirk withdrawal. With 120 divisions, they would attack all along the line. Von Rundstedt’s Army Group A would break over the Aisne between Paris and the end of the Maginot Line, von Bock’s Army Group B would storm across the Somme west of Paris as far as the Seine, then decide where to go from there. Meanwhile, General Ritter von Leeb’s Army Group C would attack the southern end of the Maginot Line, break through, and link up with the Germans advancing south behind the line.
The attack opened on the 5th, and though the French fought desperately, things went pretty well as planned. The Stukas and tanks still proved a winning combination, the German bombers continually harassed the French rear areas, disrupting communications, and the French were simply too thin to inflict more than local checks on the Germans. Von Bock reached the Seine within three days. One of his tank commanders, Erwin Rommel, drove as far as Rouen on the lower Seine, then angled back up to the seacoast to gather up remnants of the French and British who had been holding along the coast. These were the last British fighting in France. To the east of Paris the French did a little better, but were slowly forced back to the Marne, and then, on the 12th, Guderian’s tanks broke through their line at Chalons and took off south. It was the Ardennes all over again and, for practical purposes, with Guderian’s breakthrough the campaign was won. When the news came in to headquarters, Weygand went to Reynaud and asked the government to seek an armistice.
There followed several days of grasping at straws. Reynaud refused immediately to consider giving up. Political and diplomatic questions of incredible complexity had to be answered. In a bid for time, Reynaud recalled France’s hero, Marshal Pétain, who was then ambassador to Spain. Surely, he thought, the magic of Pétain’s name would put fresh heart into the army and the people of France.
Tragically, Pétain proved to be a broken reed. He was a very old man, and his ideas had changed over the years. He now was obsessed with the idea that France had sinned and must be purged of guilt; he added his voice to those counseling surrender. Reynaud’s position was further weakened.
The problem of relations with Britain was a major one. Back in March, France and Britain had rather offhandedly signed an agreement that neither would seek a peace or armistice without the full consent of the other. Little thought had been given to it at the time but now, in the face of disaster, it emerged as a major stumbling block. Asked if the British would release the French from it, Churchill’s government backed and filled. To say they would not release France from the agreement was hardly fair, when France was bearing the brunt of the battle; indeed the French now insisted that the agreement had been predicated on the idea that each country would make an equal commitment to the war; this not being the case, some thought the agreement invalid anyway. But to acquiesce in France’s seeking an armistice would only strengthen the hands of the defeatists.
Assorted alternatives were proposed. The French government might flee to North Africa, and with the strength of the empire behind it, carry on from there. An even more dramatic suggestion was one that came forward from some of the liaison people, especially Jean Monnet and de Gaulle, who was in close touch with the British representative, General Spears, and was adopted by Churchill and forwarded to France; it was for a total union of the two countries, shared citizenship, shared responsibility and effort. Perhaps it was Utopian, but it was a gesture in the grand manner. The French turned it down flat.
As the war rolled on, Paris, flanked to east and west, was declared an open city. The government fled south followed by those who could get away. Reynaud launched pathetic appeals to President Roosevelt in the United States to intervene, but the Americans would do nothing—could do nothing had they been willing.
The French, in their agony, had a sense of the vultures gathering; Britain would release France from her promises, but only if she were given custody of the French fleet. Roosevelt also suggested he would welcome the French fleet, and the French government’s gold reserves as well. It was not only well-meaning friends who watched France’s agony. Mussolini in Italy, thwarted so far of a share in the glory, could restrain himself no longer. He leaped in on the 10th and declared war on both Britain and France, though it was the 20th before his generals could launch an attack. The scanty French units on the Italian frontier beat it back with contemptuous ease.
The Germans roared on. Reynaud lost what little credibility he had left, and Pétain replaced him on the 17th. Over the radio he announced grandiloquently, “I give the gift of myself to France,” then he added, “The fighting must stop….”
By then, the remnants of the mighty French Army were back on the Loire. Orleans was gone, the Germans had reached the Swiss frontier behind the Maginot Line and the armies trapped there were too late to break out. There were isolated, ferocious little fire fights, where occasional units died rather than surrender. But no one wanted to be the last man killed in a war that was already lost. Any possibility of defense was hampered by the government’s declaring that every town of more than 20,000 was to be regarded as an open city. Often even if the troops wanted to fight, local officials and civilians pressured them not to do so. The flood of refugees continued to the south.
There was some attempt to get overseas. A few planes fled to North Africa, some naval units did the same, some took shelter in British ports. De Gaulle at the last minute boarded a plane for England.
The rest was largely denouement, as far as the French and the Germans were concerned; Pétain’s remark that the fighting must cease was taken as an injunction by the army. With armistice talks opened, the Germans rolled on unimpeded; Hitler would not end the advance until the Italians agreed to an armistice too, so though a cease-fire was signed on the 22nd, operations continued until the 25th. The Germans in the southeast were then at Grenoble and the Italians, still stalled on the frontier, begged them to cut in behind the French. But the German General Staff was not disposed to be overly helpful to the Italian Comando Supremo and they did little.
Hitler was determined to rub it in. The armistice talks were held at Rethondes, in the railway carriage where the Germans had surrendered to Marshal Foch in 1918. The Germans occupied northern France and a strip along the Atlantic coast down to the Spanish frontier. They retained the French prisoners of war, more than a million of them, and used them in effect as hostages for the good behavior of the new French government, set up at the small health resort of Vichy. They wanted the French fleet demobilized in French ports, but under German control. The French agreed to essentially everything; there was little else they could do but accept the humiliation of defeat. After their delegation signed the surrender terms, Hitler danced his little victory jig outside the railway carriage and ordered that it be hauled off to Germany. He left the statue of Foch, but the plaque commemorating Germany’s surrender twenty-two years ago was blown up.
On the morning of the 25th, the sun rose over a silent France. The cease-fire had come into effect during the hours of darkness. The refugees could now go home or continue their flight unharassed by the dive-bombers. Long silent columns of prisoners shuffled east. The French generals and politicians began composing their excuses, the Germans paraded through Paris, visited the tourist sites, and began counting their booty. It had indeed been one of the great campaigns of all time, better than 1870, probably unequaled since Napoleon’s veterans had swarmed over Prussia in 1806; Jena and Auerstadt were at last avenged, and there would be no more victories over Germany while the thousand-year Reich endured.
The casualties reflected the inequality of the campaign. The Germans had suffered about 27,000 killed, 18,000 missing, and just over 100,000 wounded. The Dutch and Belgian armies were utterly destroyed; the British lost about 68,000 men and all their heavy equipment: tanks, trucks, guns—everything. The French lost track of their figures in the collapse at the end, but the best estimates gave them about 125,000 killed and missing, about 200,000 wounded. The Germans claimed that they had taken one and a half million prisoners, which they probably had. Except for defenseless England, the war appeared all but over.
There were two footnotes, both fruitful.
General de Gaulle, the unsuccessful armored division commander, had gone to England. On June 18, the day that Churchill rose in the House of Commons to inspire Englishmen to their finest hour, de Gaulle broadcast over the BBC to France. He invited French soldiers and sailors everywhere to get in touch with him; the few who responded would become the nucleus of Free France.
The second footnote was Churchill’s. Everyone but the British thought the British were done for. They would not fight alone, and they had no material to do it with even if they were willing. The American ambassador to Britain, Joseph P. Kennedy, thought they would cave in at any moment. Churchill, however, was determined to hang on. The key element now and for the foreseeable future was naval power; Britain’s control of the seas was tenuous at best, and if the French fleet fell into the hands of the Germans, it, the German Navy, and the Italian Navy together would tip the balance. In a gesture that would restore that narrow margin, that would show the world, and especially the United States, that Britain was not going to give in, Churchill decided he must either control or destroy the French fleet.
On July 3, before daybreak, the British acted. French ships in British ports were seized by armed parties. The French squadron in Alexandria harbor found itself staring down the gun muzzles of its comrades of a couple of days ago and reached an accommodation. Most painful of all was what happened in the western Mediterranean. A British squadron appeared off the port of Mersel-Kebir, near Oran, and issued an ultimatum. It now appears that had either side known exactly what the other intended to do, agreement could have been reached. Instead, as so often happens, there were mistaken signals, misunderstandings, and a certain disingenuousness on both sides. Late in the afternoon the British opened fire; they sank the battleship Bretagne and the new battle-cruiser Dunkerque and several destroyers. They killed 1,300 French sailors and wounded another 350. Then they sailed away, sick at heart, leaving the ruined port and outraged French behind them.
The whole episode has been argued ever since. It was brutal, to many it appeared merely spiteful, and it may well have been unnecessary. But whatever else it did, it showed one thing: Britain would fight. The war was not over yet.