Collapse of France

The collapse of France occurred after German forces breached the Maginot line and overwhelmed the combined French and British military forces, eliminating France as a serious opponent to Germany for the remainder of World War II.

Summary of Event

When World War II broke out in September, 1939, France was weak and demoralized. Unable to face a resurgent Germany alone and unaided, French leaders had followed the British in appeasing the aggressions of Adolf Hitler, the chancellor of Germany. France’s domestic political problems had worsened during the interwar years, and there was a feeling of disillusionment with the politicians of the Third French Republic. Finally, France’s military establishment, ostensibly strong, was actually weak in both planning and practice. Hidden behind the daunting series of fortifications known as the Maginot line, Maginot line the French army waited for the Germans to attack and did not go to the aid of Poland when the Germans invaded it. From September, 1939, to May, 1940, the border between France and Germany was characterized by inactivity, for the French were reluctant to move out of their defenses. What mobile forces the French had were concentrated on the Belgian border, prepared to go to that country’s aid should the Germans invade. [kw]Collapse of France (May 10-June 22, 1940)
[kw]France, Collapse of (May 10-June 22, 1940)
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];French collapse
France;World War II collapse[World War 02 collapse]
[g]France;May 10-June 22, 1940: Collapse of France[10190]
[g]Germany;May 10-June 22, 1940: Collapse of France[10190]
[c]World War II;May 10-June 22, 1940: Collapse of France[10190]
[c]Colonialism and occupation;May 10-June 22, 1940: Collapse of France[10190]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;May 10-June 22, 1940: Collapse of France[10190]
Hitler, Adolf
[p]Hitler, Adolf;French collapse in World War II
Rundstedt, Gerd von
Manstein, Erich von
Gamelin, Maurice
Weygand, Maxime
Pétain, Philippe
Reynaud, Paul
Churchill, Winston
[p]Churchill, Winston;French collapse in World War II
Mussolini, Benito

Meanwhile, following his successes in the east, Hitler made plans to invade France. In the winter of 1939-1940, he appointed General Gerd von Rundstedt as commander of Army Group A and approved a modified Schlieffen Plan that would call for the Germans to sweep through Belgium and attack northern France. It was clear from the concentration of French mobile forces along the Belgian border that the French expected such an attack. Rundstedt’s chief of staff, General Erich von Manstein, a strong proponent of the utility of the armored division, proposed instead that the German armies concentrate on a push through the Ardennes forest, outflanking both the Maginot line and the French mobile forces. The French considered the Ardennes impassable to armor, and the area was lightly defended. Hitler approved of Manstein’s plan, and following his Blitzkrieg invasion of Norway and Denmark in April, 1940, he prepared to attack France.

The British and French were totally unprepared militarily and psychologically for the German assault. During the 1930’s, France had focused on the building of the Maginot line. Military preparedness lagged behind that of Germany, which, after 1936, had concentrated on building mobile, armored forces along with new aircraft such as the Stuka divebomber. The lessons of the successful, rapid German campaign in Poland in September, 1939, were also lost on the French high command. The senior French leadership was basically very old. For example, General Maurice Gamelin, overall commander of Allied forces in France, was sixty-eight years old in 1940. Very few senior French generals grasped the fact that new battlefield technology had changed the face of combat since 1918. The French and British General Staffs made few substantive inspections of the front and remained dangerously ignorant of the poor state of training of the armies or of the low state of morale of the troops.

On May 10, 1940, the German armies invaded Belgium, and Army Group A struck through the Ardennes, achieving an immediate breakthrough. The French cabinet, led by Premier Paul Reynaud, removed General Gamelin from command because he had committed all his armored forces to the fighting in Belgium and held none in reserve. General Maxime Weygand was appointed to replace Gamelin. To bolster the French cabinet and increase its prestige, Reynaud took over the Ministry of War himself and recalled Marshal Philippe Pétain, the aged hero of World War I, to act as his deputy.

Adolf Hitler (center) poses in front of the Eiffel Tower in June, 1940, after taking France.

(Library of Congress)

Weygand could not contain the German forces, and they swept close to Paris, encircling and trapping the French troops against the back of the Maginot line. Reynaud appealed to Great Britain for additional aid, particularly fighter planes, but Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, refused the request because he foresaw that he would need them to protect England. Reynaud’s cabinet was in a state of indecision and confusion over the obviously deteriorating military and political situation. Word reached Paris that the roads from northern and eastern France were jammed with hundreds of thousands of fleeing, terrified refugees. German tanks were moving with no significant opposition from the defeated and demoralized Allied armies.

There were obvious signs of panic in Paris, where the train stations were overwhelmed with citizens and government officials who were trying to evacuate the city before the Germans arrived. To spare the historic city and its population, Paris was declared to be an open city. That is, the government announced that it would not defend Paris: The Germans would be allowed to occupy it, in the hope that it would be spared from a devastating bombing campaign.

On June 11, the French cabinet withdrew to Tours, as the German armies approached Paris. Churchill implored the French not to surrender but to retreat to North Africa and carry on the fight from there. Although Reynaud agreed, the French military saw no reason to carry on the fight, especially after Benito Mussolini, the Fascist dictator of Italy, declared war and sent Italian troops into southern France. On June 16, in the face of almost certain defeat, Reynaud resigned his cabinet positions, and because the majority of the government wanted to conclude an armistice with Germany, Pétain was named premier with full powers. He appealed to Hitler, and on June 22, 1940, the French surrendered to Germany.


France’s surrender did not mark the end of all French resistance to the Germans: When it became clear that the French government was no longer able or willing to fight, Brigadier General Charles de Gaulle, serving as an undersecretary of state for war, fled to England. On June 18, 1940, de Gaulle broadcast from London his first appeal for France to continue the struggle against Nazi Germany. Eventually, a signficant French resistance movement would develop. In June of 1940, however, few Frenchmen had the will to resist any further.

According to the terms of the surrender, France was divided into two parts; northern France was to be under German occupation, and southern France was to be nominally independent. The French fleet was to be interned in its home ports and was not to be used for the duration of the war. Pétain formed a government at the small southern town of Vichy, and in July formally abolished the constitution of the Third French Republic and established himself as virtual dictator. It was France’s most inglorious moment and Germany’s greatest, for Hitler had captured in one month what the German armies of 1914 had failed to take in four years of fighting. World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];French collapse
France;World War II collapse[World War 02 collapse]

Further Reading

  • Corum, James S. The Roots of Blitzkrieg: Hans von Seeckt and German Military Reform. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1992. A fine study of the rebuilding of the German army that eventually defeated France and Britain in 1940.
  • Diamond, Hanna, and Simon Kitson, eds. Vichy, Resistance, Liberation: New Perspectives on Wartime France. New York: Berg, 2005. Collection of essays reconsidering many aspects of France’s occupation during World War II. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Doughty, Robert A. The Breaking Point: Sedan and the Fall of France. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1992. An analysis of the German breakthrough at Sedan, a battle that destroyed Allied defensive plans.
  • _______. The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine, 1919-1939. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1985. Discusses the decisions and the doctrine that brought France to the disaster of 1940.
  • Footitt, Hilary. War and Liberation in France: Living with the Liberators. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. In addition to discussing France’s brief defense, occupation, and liberation, this study looks at the long-term effects of the occupation and liberation on French culture and politics. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Horne, Alistair. To Lose a Battle: France, 1940. Rev. ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1990. Horne’s classic work remains an excellent, detailed account of the French military disaster in 1940.
  • Weygand, Maxime. Recalled to Service. London: William Hinemann, 1952. These memoirs by a key player shed much light on the lost battles of 1940.

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