The collapse of France in the face of the German onslaught in 1940 has always seemed bizarre. A quarter century earlier, Frenchmen had fought like lions for four long years to defend their country against the Germans, yet in 1940 they folded like a house of cards in a mere six weeks. This fateful event has led to an unfair misconception, especially among Americans, that the French are poor fighters and perhaps even cowards. Crude jokes about "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" are commonly heard when France is mentioned in conversation.
This is unfortunate, for the French have a long and distinguished military history. Frenchmen had provided the majority of soldiers for the Crusades, to the point where the Muslims used the term "Franks" to describe the Crusaders as a whole. The vast and costly Hundred Years War gave the English memories of dramatic battlefield successes at Crecy and Agincourt, but in the end it was the French who emerged victorious. Under mighty rulers like Louis XIV and Napoleon I, French armies were the terror of Europe. Throughout the 19th Century, military officers from as far distant as the United States and Japan traveled to France to receive their advanced education in artillery, infantry, and cavalry tactics. Even the terrible defeat at the hands of Prussia in 1870-71 had seen its share of glory for France, as the desperate people of Paris bravely resisted a siege with a courage almost unrivaled in history.
In the First World War, French soldiers performed prodigies of courage and sacrifice. France lost more soldiers between 1914 and 1918 than America has lost in all of its wars from 1775 to the present day. No one can study the French experience during the First World War and say that Frenchmen are unwilling to fight.
The Second World War began in September of 1939, when Germany invaded Poland and rapidly overran the country. In the early spring of 1940, Hitler added Denmark and Norway to his rapidly growing empire. It was clear to all that a battle on a truly massive scale was about to take place between the French, aided by their British allies, and the Germans. It would go down in history simply as the Battle of France.
The odds seemed to favor the French. Together with the British, they had roughly the same number of troops deployed for battle, with roughly three million men on the two opposing sides. In terms of artillery, the French had a decided advantage, with nearly 14,000 pieces against less than 8,000 for the Germans. The French also deployed many more tanks than the Germans, with 3,300 against 2,400. Moreover, the French tanks were generally of a better quality than the German ones, being armed with heavier guns and having superior armor. Only in the air, where the Luftwaffe deployed roughly 5,000 aircraft against 3,000 French and British planes, did the Germans have an obvious advantage.
Moreover, the French and their British allies were fighting the battle on the strategic defensive. The Germans had to come to them, and not the other way around. Before the war, the French had expended enormous resources to construct the legendary Maginot Line, the most formidable set of fortifications in the history of the world, along their border with Germany. If the Germans were to come, they would have to go through Belgium, just as they had during the First World War. If they did that, the French planned to link up with the Belgians and halt the German advance in central Belgium. This would add Belgium's not inconsiderable army to the Allied ranks and keep the fighting well away from French soil.
What happened was so shocking that few could believe it, including the victorious Germans themselves. Like a knife through butter, German armored divisions punched through the lightly defended region of the Ardennes, north of the Maginot Line and south of the French and British armies advancing into Belgium. In a series of confused battles around Sedan, the Germans crossed the Meuse River and shattered the French divisions opposing them. Before the Allies could properly react to this unexpected development, the German armored divisions launched themselves from Sedan forward towards the English Channel. In Belgium, the French were winning tactical victories against the Germans at the Battle of Hannut and the Battle of Gembloux, but the only thing that mattered was that the major Allied armies were being held in Belgium. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of French troops dangled uselessly in the Maginot Line to the south. Beating off French counter attacks (including some led by a colonel named Charles de Gaulle), the Germans armored spearheads advancing from Sedan reached the coast on May 19, splitting the Allied armies in two and trapping hundreds of thousands of French and British troops in a pocket.
The next few weeks saw the British and French armies fight a desperate rearguard action while they evacuated as many troops as possible from the port of Dunkirk. The Germans inexplicably halted for a priceless few days, giving the trapped army time to get away, while a planned counter attack by the French never got off the ground. By June 4, the evacuation was complete. France's vaunted army had been well and truly smashed.
On June 5, the Germans launched their offensive southward, driving towards Paris. The French resisted stubbornly, but had lost their best troops and much of their heavy equipment in Belgium. On June 10, Italy declared war on France; an Italian offensive across the Alps was later easily repulsed by the French. Under relentless pressure on the ground and in the air, the French army began to collapse. On June 14, Paris fell to the Germans and, eight days later, the French government sued for peace.
What on Earth had happened? Why had the vaunted French Army fallen apart so quickly and so easily? It hadn't been outnumbered. It hadn't been surprised. In many ways its weapons and equipment were superior to those of the Germans. There were numerous individual cases of French soldiers fighting gallantly and winning tactical successes against the Germans and they had beaten the Italians without trouble. Yet, in the end, the French army surrendered and the country came under a German occupation that did not end for four long years. People have been trying to figure out the answer to the question since the moment the French surrendered and have never come to a satisfactory answer. I'll now humbly set out my own thoughts on the question.
First of all, the Germans were incredibly lucky in 1940. There were many occasions when the fortunes of war nearly turned in favor of the French. As a single example, on the afternoon of May 14, the French actually had a golden opportunity to mount a devastating counter attack at Sedan, when two of the three German panzer divisions formed up in a line facing westward. Only a single infantry regiment protected their left (southern) flank. At that moment, the French 3rd Armored and 3rd Mechanized Divisions were forming up directly to the south of them in preparation for a counter attack. Had it gone forward, it would have smashed into the exposed German flank and rolled up the German line. Unfortunately, as happened far too often during this campaign, the attack was cancelled for reasons that remain unclear.
The battles was filled with incidents like this. Everything seemed to go right for the Germans and everything seemed to go wrong for the French. Allied intelligence said that the Ardennes were impassable to tanks, but they were passable. The critical Belgian fortress at Eban Emael was captured by an airborne operation that would, under normal circumstances, have been a futile suicide mission. British and French aircraft tried to destroy the German bridges over the Meuse, but the bombs all seemed to miss. Bridges scheduled for demolition in Holland, whose destruction would have completely thrown off the offensive, were accidentally left standing. German assaults would just happen to strike the weakest portions of the French lines, while French counter attacks would just happen to run up against elite German armored units. It seemed that every time the Germans rolled the dice during the campaign, they got double sixes; the French, by contrast, always seemed to get snake eyes. Had the fortunes of war been evenly shared between the two sides, there is no way the Germans could have succeeded.
Setting aside the simple matter of luck, there is no question that the Germans used operational tactics that were far superior to the French. Even though the French had more and better tanks than the Germans, they were mostly spread out among the infantry divisions, while the Germans concentrated their tanks into compact armored divisions. Consequently, at the point of impact, the Germans almost always had enormous armored superiority. This is what allowed the Germans to punch through the French defenses at Sedan and drive to the coast with such seeming ease. Another crucial advantage the armored units of the Germans had over their French enemies was the fact that every German tank was equipped with a radio, allowing for much more effective coordination. This single fact in itself probably negated the superior firepower and armor of the French tanks.
Another crucial advantage that the Germans had over their French enemies was the fact that German officers were trained to employ auftragstaktik, or "mission tactics". Its lower-level officers were told what to do, but the question of exactly how to do was left for them to determine on their own. This allowed for enormous flexibility on the regimental, brigade, divisional, and corps level. In the French Army, by contrast, there was an expectation that orders were to be literally followed and that all operations were to be spelled out precisely before any action was taken. This meant that French decision-making on the field was going to be rigid and slow. In a fast-moving battle, the employment of auftragstaktik by the Germans was going to give them a tremendous advantage.
As stated already, the only major quantitative advantage the Germans had was in air power. Unfortunately for the French and their allies, the Germans made full use of this advantage during the battle. The battle began with Luftwaffe attacks on Allied air fields throughout Holland, Belgium, and northern France, establishing air superiority from the opening moments of the campaign. For the remaining weeks, Allied columns moving on the roads were constantly bombed and strafed by German aircraft, slowing them down, inflicting casualties, and instilling demoralization. The Germans also had an effective system of coordination between the air force and the army, something the French and their allies utterly lacked. This allowed German infantry and armored units to call in air strikes to hammer strong pockets of resistance. There were innumerable cases of German forces running up against entrenched French troops who stubbornly held their ground; the Germans were able to call in Luftwaffe strikes against such strong points, smashing the resistance through the deadly combination of air power and armored attacks.
So, the Germans had a lot of luck and a few crucial advantages. By itself, though, this still doesn't seem enough to explain the sheer magnitude of the German victory over France in 1940. The further explanation might be found in the tragic book Strange Defeat, written by the French historian Marc Bloch in the months immediately following the German conquest. In his book, Bloch lays the blame squarely in the hands of the military and political leadership of France. While he contended that the French people and the French soldiery were generally committed to winning the war, he believed that the high command had become infected with defeatism and disillusionment even before the war had begun. He cites the bitter political and social divisions within French society, between socialists and conservatives, creating a culture of national cowardice in some many segments of French society.
The leaders of France, in Bloch's eyes, simply lacked the stomach for the fight against Germany. This manifested itself in a reluctance to take the offensive, the construction of the Maginot Line, and an obsession with minimizing loss of life rather than achieving victory. Consequently, when the Germans won the initial encounters in May of 1940, the heart went out of the French leadership like water let out the bottom of a tub. In his memoirs, Winston Churchill expresses astonishment that the French leadership was so eager to surrender to the Germans.
The Prime Minister of France, Paul Reynaud, had only recently been appointed when the German offensive began. He had long opposed appeasement of the Germans and supported French rearmament. Yet even he seemed to lose heart after the first few German victories. On May 15, long before the outcome of the battle had been determined, Reynaud called Churchill in near despair, saying that the battle was lost. Reynaud's mistress, Helene de Portes, was a fascist sympathizer who constantly pressured him to surrender to the Germans. De Portes died in a horrific car accident a few weeks after the armistice; many Frenchmen saw it as the act of a vengeful God.
It would fall to Charles de Gaulle to maintain and protect the honor of his great nation.
The French might have fought on. Their navy was strong and many elements of their army and air force could have been evacuated to Britain or to French colonial holdings in North Africa. This would have completely changed the course of the war. The French Resistance would have been much more active and effective had the legal French government remained steadfast. Nazi German would surely have been defeated much earlier than it historically was and countless lives would have been saved. The French people would never have had to endure the humiliation of the Vichy regime.
So, in the end, why did France fall so easily in 1940? Sheer bad luck for the French? German air superiority? Better German tactics? A few technical advantages like equipping their tanks with radios? Cowardly French national leaders?
The answer is all of the above.