After Dunkirk - The Battle of France June 1940

By John Dudek 06 Feb 2015 0

Time: 0900 hours 5 June 1940

Location:  The village of Vandy France

The French artillery officer crouched low over the camouflaged WW I vintage, 75mm. cannon pointing towards the turn in the road a hundred yards away from the French farmyard they were concealed in. His gun crew were itching for action that was guaranteed to be not long in coming.  As he looked through his binoculars, a column of German tanks, trucks and support infantry vehicles swung into view a few hundred yards distant and the gun crew quickly made their gun elevation and directional corrections. They aimed at the lead tank and awaited the "firing" order. The first round missed the lead tank but nailed the second one immediately behind it.  That tank slewed out of line and drove off the road into a ditch to begin burning and "brewing up."  The second French artillery round nailed the lead tank squarely as well and it too began to burn, its crew evacuated the vehicle, only to be taken under flanking fire from hidden French automatic weapons fire. The third tank halted abruptly to begin sweeping the farmyard with machine gun and tank gunfire as the trucks and half tracks behind it began disgorging its supporting troops onto the ground.  This was what the French officers in the farm house were waiting for as their Major emerged shouting and waving his sword.  "Mes amis!  Mes frères! Baïonnettes de charge!"  (My friends, my brothers!  Charge Bayonets!)  A company of enraged, blood thirsty French infantry with bayonet fixed rifles and with their officers leading them, charged the shocked and surprised dismounted German infantry to quickly put them all to the sword, sparing only the rare few who managed to flee.  A badly wounded German gefreiter, (private) lying next to one of the burning trucks coughed up blood as he tried to hold in his guts that had been recently pierced by a French poilu's  bayonet.  He shook his head in disbelief saying:  "I thought the war in France was over."

Many people mistakenly believe the withdrawal of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk spelled the end of fighting in France.  In reality, there was another month of no holds barred, extremely savage fighting left in the campaign that saw the Germans lose far more fighting men than during the first 8 months of the war.  The sheer savage brutality of this continued fighting shook the very resolve of the German High Command, right up to the dictator Adolf Hitler, as the French Army now fought with their backs to the wall with a near indomitable will to fight to the bitter end.  This was a quality that had been sadly and tragically lacking since the start of the war nearly a year before.  Since the start of the German combined arms blitzkrieg (lightning war) offensive on 10 May 1940, the Wehrmacht had overrun Holland, Denmark and Belgium, while destroying the cream of the French Army and a fair piece of the British Expeditionary Force.  The Anglo-French Allies lost some 61 divisions, most of their armor, heavy weapons, and supporting arms before the BEF and over 100,000 French troops were finally evacuated at Dunkirk.  The remaining 64 French and one British division were now dug in along a line stretching 600 miles east from the channel coast along the Somme and Aisne Rivers to Sedan, eventually linking up with the near impenetrable Maginot Line of concrete fortifications.  This "Weygand Line" of defenses, named for General Maxime Weygand was weak in that all 64 of his divisions were deployed in the line with none left in reserve to counter any German penetrations.

However, the French had learned hard and fast lessons from the fierce and costly fighting of the month before.  Many officers threw away "the book" and adapted radically new battle tactics to deal with the highly mobile German blitzkrieg assaults. Rather than attempt to hold a single contiguous line, the French instead built "hedge-hog" defenses in depth, designed to allow German armor to pass, but halt any German motorized infantry.  The French defended key road networks, bridge and ferry crossings, while fortifying many towns and villages a full 360 degrees around their perimeter to bring this to pass.  With the majority of their anti-tank guns lost during the retreat earlier in May, the French Army resulted to the expedient of bringing their obsolete WWI vintage 75mm field guns out of storage and issuing them to front line units to be used as anti-tank guns.  These quick firing cannon may have been long out of date, but they fulfilled this need better than was ever imagined.  No current German tanks then in service could survive a direct hit by one of these guns, especially at close range and they proved a nasty surprise indeed when German armor first encountered them.

The French soldiers now manning the Weygand Line fell into three categories of military effectiveness.  The best French troop formations were the long service veterans who'd been deployed to the south of France and had seen little to no action in the past month. They were at their peak of combat effectiveness and morale while possessing all of their Table of Organization and Equipment and weapons.  Weygand deployed these men in the most likely avenues of approach for the coming German assault.  The second group of men were the recently conscripted units that had also seen little fighting and were largely indifferent to what they were about to undergo. Their issuance of support weapons ranged from poor to being almost fully equipped.  The final group were the 112,000 French troops who'd been evacuated at Dunkirk before being returned to France.  These men were issued rifles, but possessed few support weapons. In addition, their morale was completely shattered after the hard fighting of the month before.  One of the things badly needed by the French was time to amalgamate and rebuild these many formations into a cohesive and effective fighting army once again and bring order out of chaos. With the French armaments industry now hitting its stride after over a year of full war production, there was ample war material now in the pipeline to rebuild and re-equip their shattered legions, with the promise of much more to come.  With good interior lines of support and supply, plus a highly effective modern rail and road transportation network, this could come about a lot sooner than later. Once again time was the most needed component to bring all this to pass.  By the end of May most of the lost tanks of the key French armored divisions destroyed during the recent fighting were replaced and the 1st, 2nd and 4th heavy armored divisions were completely restored to fully functional combat strength. Moreover, their unit morale was very high and they were looking forward to a re-match with the Germans. Another key element required by the French was the WWII equivalent of WWI's “Miracle of the Marne" where badly outnumbered and shattered French Army units had stood firm to halt and repel a German invasion near Paris in 1914.  However, as stated before, the key element needed was time and Hitler's generals were not likely to give the French any breathing room now that they were on the ropes.  The Germans had 142 divisions to use in the assault on the Weygand Line, more than enough to achieve this end task, but for once it was Hitler who favored caution.  He remembered the deadly tenacity and professionalism of the French Army in WWI, especially its ability to quickly rebound after suffering heavy losses.  Throughout the coming days, Hitler remained afraid of a massive French counter-attack that would wipe out everything the Germans had gained during the past month.  Therefore he advocated caution and preferred a more modest armored thrust towards the French iron producing province of Lorraine, the home of much of the French armaments industry.

When the German attack known as "Case Red" came, it was finally decided to be a multi pronged offensive utilizing four major armored thrusts to pierce the Weygand Line at the towns of Abbeville on the channel coast, Amiens, Peronne and Reims. 

Each of these penetrations was to be carried out by a strong armored corps, with two to four panzer divisions, reinforced with additional infantry, combat engineers, heavy artillery and in light of the fact that French could still put a thousand or more tanks in the field, units of anti tank guns.  Between these armored attacks, the infantry would press forward, attacking across the rivers Somme and Aisne to keep the French from ganging up on the armored penetrations.   However, the German army had quite serious and multiple problems of their own. Deciding on a second offensive and carrying it out was two different things.  The conquest of the Low Countries and the defeat of the cream of the French and British armies had taken nearly 65,000 men out of operational units, had left over half of Germany's tanks in need of repair and had worn out the soles from untold thousands of jackboots.  The infantry needed time to rest, refit, and integrate replacements. A logistics system based on the heavily damaged Belgian rail network had to be set up if the German units were to ever move beyond their railheads. In addition and perhaps most importantly, the more than 250,000 horses the German Army relied heavily upon for much of its overall mobility and pulling most of its heavy weapons were completely exhausted from the intense fighting of the past month.  They would need several days’ worth of rest and serious grazing before they'd ever be ready to resume their combat support roles.

The passing of May into June saw the rapid reorganization and regrouping of units, plus engineering improvements of fighting positions made by both sides, with the French still desperately trying to heal the monumentally catastrophic battle wounds suffered during the previous month - although this was something more akin to putting a child's bandage onto a recent amputee, given their horrendous losses in manpower and material. 

The German resumed their offensive on 5 June after a punishing artillery barrage, attacking on all fronts along the Weygand Line only to find they were facing a much different French Army than what they'd encountered the past month.  During the first 48 hours of the attack, the incredulous Germans could not make any significant break-through in the line while suffering heavy casualties at the hands of grim faced and determined French soldiers.  Time and time again German attacks were frustrated and met with immediate and highly effective counterattacks on their flanks or heavily inundated by massive concentrations of French artillery fire, causing them to halt in their tracks after suffering heavy casualties.  On the River Aisne, Erich Hoepner's XVI Panzer corps sent over 500 armored fighting vehicles forward in the first attack, only to lose 80 of them to French anti-tank fire while gaining nothing in the unsuccessful attempt.  While the Germans managed to seize bridge-heads across the Somme River, they could not get across the Aisne.  Near the village of Vandy, a German regiment initially made a four kilometer penetration only to be hit with a series of unbelievably fierce counter-attacks by elements of the French 36th Infantry division costing them 971 officers and men, and nearly 400 POW's before they retreated to their original positions.  Just to the west of Vandy, the French 14th Infantry Division handled a much larger attack, turning it back and trapping over 800 German troops between "hedge-hog" fortifications.  The Germans surrendered rather face sure death.  At Abbeville on the channel coast, Charles de Gaulle's armored division hurled back an assault by a German division and temporarily stopped a serious penetration in that sector.

However, it was at Abbeville where the Germans made their first serious break through after three days of savage fighting.  With the future "Desert Fox" Erwin Rommel leading his men from the front, the Germans tore through a defending French colonial infantry division before pushing hard down the channel coast towards the key seaport of Cherbourg where they surrounded the British 51st Highland Division and compelled them to surrender after a pitched battle of encirclement.  Meanwhile other armored units of that Army Group fanned out to threaten Paris.  After three days of near continuous battle and just when it seemed that a possible temporary stalemate to the fighting could been reached, the Luftwaffe came to the aid of the Germans by breaking up a number of French armored concentrations poised for counterattacks, while silencing many of their deadly artillery batteries.  The French Air Force made numerous bombing assaults on the German bridgeheads, but overall that arm of their military was conspicuously absent in this key battle for the life of the nation.  As a result, the French had more aircraft at the close of the battle than at the beginning.

Adolf Hitler, seeing the seeds of military success taking shape near Abbeville and the opportunity to seize Paris and eviscerate France, cancelled any further attacks at Perrone and Amiens.  He sent many of those intended armored formations to reinforce those of General Heinz Guderian that were still trying to attack the province of Lorraine.  At the same time he ordered additional units to widen the penetration at Abbeville before tearing into metropolitan France. French General Weygand, facing increasing German military pressure on all fronts plus a collapse of communications with his forward units, finally lost his nerve and ordered a general withdrawal from the line that bore his name.  Little did he know that the line was still bearing up remarkably well under all German attacks and in little danger at the time of falling or being flanked and defeated.  After his retreat order and with the French Army now in full retreat south on the roads, the Germans easily broke through the remnants of the Weygand Line.  They fanned out across the country with their swift moving mechanized forces, while driving ever southward in hot pursuit of the fleeing French. The Germans launched a major attack on Paris on 9 June, easily breaking through the defending French units.  On 13 June Paris was declared an open city, and the French government fled to Bordeaux. On 14 June Paris fell to the Germans and it would remain in their hands for the next four years.  French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud, saddened by his cabinet's rejection to a British plan of union to unite England and France as one nation, resigned on 16 June.  Marshal Philippe Petain, the 80 year old hero of Verdun in WWI succeeded him as Prime Minister.  Rather than continue the fighting as most of his countrymen wished, the elderly Petain immediately asked for an armistice to end the war with Germany. When Hitler heard the news, he insisted the surrender ceremony take place in the Forest of Compiegne, the very same site of the 1918 armistice that ended World War I and in the very same railway carriage the German surrender documents were signed in.  This was done as a final slap to the remaining national dignity of the defeated French - Hitler had his revenge for the German humiliation following WWI. On 25 June 1940 the cease fire went into effect and France faced four full years of German military occupation.  In the end, it was not the hard fighting French soldier who'd failed his mother country, it was the corrupt politicians who sold their nation for 30 pieces of silver during and after the interwar years, not to mention the elderly generals who were content to rest upon the glorious laurels of past victories in wars past and who were unable to adapt to a new and modern mode of warfare until it was far too late.



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