The Fall of France

by Julian Jackson

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Julian Jackson wrote his historical analysis in an effort to summarize and evaluate numerous different perspectives on the reasons that Germany’s May 1940 invasion of France succeeded so quickly. From that very moment, Jackson notes, opinions have diverged widely as to the military and political reasons that led to this shocking course of events.

The debate of the Fall of France has gone on ever since 1940, but now it is at least possible to view the event with greater serenity, and abandon the tone of polemic and accusation . . . There are many strands to the Fall of France: it was a military defeat, the collapse of a political system, the breakdown of an alliance between two countries, and in its final stages, almost the complete disintegration of a country.

One reason that France was less prepared than it could have been was that the attack came much sooner than expected. As Germany was poised to invade Poland in August 1939, France’s Commander-in-Chief, General Gamelin, was among those who assumed that the German military would be fully occupied to the east. Rather than expect that Germany would mount substantial attacks to the west as well, Gamelin’s main strategy was to prepare to attack Germany. Should they attack, he believed the existing defenses would be adequate. (Gamelin, notably, was later replaced by General Weygand.)

His [Gamelin's] strategy was to prepare for a long war (guerre de longue durée). The French with their British allies would asphyxiate the German economy with a blockade, while at the same time building up their armed forces in order to be able to mount an offensive in 1941 or 1942. Ultimately, it was believed, the superior economic potential of the Allies would give them the military advantage; meanwhile, they were defensively prepared to meet any German challenge.

The French had done their utmost to coordinate with Belgium, Jackson is convinced, but this coordination was bogged down when Belgium assumed a position of neutrality. This left the Maginot Line—originally established in World War I—vulnerable. When the German invasion began, the French defenses along the Belgian border had a temporary effect. Instead, the main attack occurred near Sedan.

While affirming the importance of the oft-noted German military advantage, Jackson points out that superiority was not just in numbers or kind of tanks and planes. One key area that contributed to German superiority was communications via radio. Few French tanks were equipped with radios, while all German tanks had them. Not only were communications slower between the French units, the lack of radios also made the soldiers more vulnerable, as they had to emerge from the tanks to use hand signals or actually run between them.

[I]n the German tank arsenal, which ultimately overcame superior French guns and armor, . . . the radio [was] fitted into each Panzer. Only one in five—20%—of French tanks carried a radio, so once combat began, 80% of the French tanks relied on visual signals, including merely observing the movements of other tanks and attempting to guess the intended maneuvers.

Between May 10, when Germany entered Belgium, and May 15, when French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud placed a telephone call to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the British Embassy, the German forces crushed Belgian defenses and broke through the French lines near Sedan. Reynaud, convinced of their defeat, began to prepare Paris for the inevitable invasion. Churchill realized correctly “‘the mortal gravity of the situation.’”

[O]fficials of the Quai d’Orsay, the French Foreign ministry, began to burn papers to prevent their falling into German hands . . . [F]rom the parliament building next door, Reynaud made a defiant but hollow speech, which was greeted by an ovation.

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