France Military Operations During the Second World War

France Military Operations During the Second World War

Preparation and armament. – France, mindful of the double invasion suffered by Germany in the space of less than half a century, had not neglected its military preparation in the twenty years between the first and second world wars. However, above all, a kind of reaction against the military doctrine dominant in France and essentially inspired by the offensive had weighed on the general direction of this.

Defensive, therefore; hence the first consequence of this revision of the French military doctrine was the construction of that formidable fortified bulwark on the eastern border which, from the name of its creator and builder, took the name of “Maginot line” (see defensive line) and which should have been capable of, in fact, to contain the opponent’s offensive impact and to allow the completion of the mobilization and rally operations.

While continuing, then, to proclaim that “the offensive alone can be capable of giving positive results” and that “with the heart of the infantryman, above all, victory is achieved”, nevertheless, great importance was attached to fire, both in the sense positive as well as negative, and new ideas about mechanization and motorization were also welcomed. In truth, France came to such ideas rather late, and motorization rather than mechanization was more favorably welcomed. That is, the machine was conceived and welcomed, above all, on a logistical level.

According to, this military doctrine was therefore in absolute contrast with the German one, inspired by concepts of offensive to the bitter end, rapid and decisive in the strategic field, and of maximum aggressiveness in the tactical field. (For a broader examination of German and French strategic-tactical concepts, see World War, in this App.

These dominant ideas in the German army had had widespread repercussions in France. Indeed, since May 1921, in a conference held in Brussels, in the presence of King Albert of Belgium, gen. Estienne, creator of assault artillery in the First World War, had already predicted that the tracked vehicle would soon subvert the secular foundations, not only of tactics, but also of strategy. And in prophetic language he will say, nine years before Sedan’s breakup: “I have often been struck by the marvelous technical and moral affinity of the two new weapons (tanks and planes) which complement each other admirably”.

At the same time, gen. Maistre wrote clear analyzes in the same sense as Estienne, and col. Ch. De Gaulle, developing the theses of the two generals in a clear and complete way, arrived in his Armée de métier to outline the real great armored unit, equivalent and perhaps superior to the Panzerdivision of 1940. Except that the very idea of ​​a professional army, within whose professional cadres the divisions of Ch. De Gaulle would be inserted, deeply disturbed the opinion of the generals, even more than the French statesmen. The De Gaulle project of the army by trade alarmed in itself and for its origins, appearing as a sort of re-edition of the Reichswehr, as it had been shaped by its great creator, Hans von-Seeckt. The French generals feared that the nation would end up losing interest in the army and national defense, the statesmen saw the parliamentary institutions in danger, under the threat of a new 18 brumaire or a new 2 December. Therefore nothing came of it.

However, the controversies managed, albeit on the surface, to operate on this mentality that made the tank tactically servant to the infantry, regarded, together with traditional artillery, as the determining element of the battle. Thus it was that in 1932 a part of the cavalry divisions began to be mechanized, which in 1936 received their definitive denomination of Light Cavalry Divisions (DLC). In 1937 it was also decided to form a fully motorized and tracked first division with 260 combat vehicles, equipped with a 4.7 cm gun. It was the mechanical light division (DLM), that is a sort of strategic heavy cavalry, but not yet the real autonomous armored division equipped with all the proper means of fighting, breaking, d ‘ tracking and refueling. This Armored Breaking Division (DCR) was first introduced in the autumn of 1938 in the French army, which had 3 large units of this type on 10 May 1940, while a fourth was in formation. Nor were the conditions better British Expeditionary Force (BEF: Gen. JS Lord Gort), highly motorized, but not mechanized. Only in 1938 the mechanized division was born, which was ultimately only the British edition of the French DLM; in April 1939 the armored weapon receives an autonomous organization, which was supposed to give prominence to the name of Royal Armored Corps. But the materials of this armored army were heterogeneous and, more seriously, they had poor efficiency, with the exception of 23 tanks, the only ones – as Lord Gort states in his report – able to compete with the tanks of the Panzerwaffe. The German armored division had 488 tanks of which 20% consisted of light armored vehicles (ie Mark I and II), 55% medium armored vehicles (Mark III), 25% heavy armored vehicles (Mark IV). Ultimately, on May 10, 1940, the Wehrmacht had 3000 wagons in all (exactly 3003), according to the source believed to be the most accredited up to now, col. general H. Guderian; according to other sources (Eddy Bauer), this figure can be raised up to 3560 wagons. Such an armored mass was spread over 10 divisions, supplemented by 4 so-called light divisions, quite similar to the French DLMs. However, by May 10, 1940 four of the 10 armored divisions had been transformed into Panzers only “quite imperfectly”. Against the 3500 German tanks, the Allies lined up 6 divisions, each on four armored battalions (150 tanks), with a total of 900 tanks. Furthermore, while 3/4 of the German tanks were equipped for anti-tank combat, only 60% of the French ones were. But, even more serious, a heavy armored division, such as the one built by OKW and designed by De Gaulle, was not only a complex of 500 tanks, it was above all a doctrine of use, a new tactic and therefore a new mentality of war almost completely unknown to the allied high command, which did not even suspect the doctrine of Schwerpunkt, that is, the most fruitful result of the German armored tactics. On the contrary, the French command, far from raising the problems from tactics, was still completely worried about the logistics as it actually took particularly experienced divisional staffs to get 3000 vehicles, 2500 of the which according to the 500 wagons of the division. The Germans, on the other hand, had appealed to numerous expedients, to the perfect education of the pioneers, to a rigorous discipline of traffic, finally managing to bend the demands of technology to the laws of tactics.

In terms of aviation, then, the imbalance was even more alarming: against about 4500 Goering’s planes, the Allies opposed just over 1660, of which 976 French, 310 British, 129 Belgians, 248 Dutch. Except for the British air force and in particular for its 150 fighters (out of the total of the 310 machines deployed in France), almost all the other aircraft were unable to engage the enemy. The French bombers that had to oppose the 3,500 Germans amounted to about 100, of which only 31 were able to be used even during the day. The 51 Belgian aircraft, considered “binding”, found themselves in a condition of incurable inferiority compared to the Messerschmitt ME 109. The Dutch aviation, decidedly inferior to the quality and training level of the Belgian, was completely wiped out on the third day of combat.

Finally, if we keep in mind the length of a marching armored division, and therefore the need to have dominion over the skies or at least air balance, we will understand the irreparable Anglo-French inferiority. In addition to the daily and massive intervention of the Luftwaffe, which created the terrible properties of the aircraft-tank combination with the Panzers, the Germans had attributed to the staff of each armored division an anti-aircraft divisional company, equipped with 12 automatic guns of 2 cm.

As for the traditional armed complexes, the distances between the adversaries were not excessive: the Allies opposed the 115 divisions of German infantry with 81 (of which, however, 11 of fortresses, that is of “static” troops, therefore unsuitable for war of movement), to which 18 Belgian and 8 Dutch divisions could be added. However, given the decisive value of the new weapons and the Panzer-Stuka combination, contrary to the prevailing opinion in all military circles in the world (except, of course, for the German ones), Hitler on May 10, 1940 had a number of machines warfare, sufficient to ensure his success against all the armies of the time.

The first phase of operations. – France and England had declared themselves in a state of war with Germany since September 3, 1939. Given the essential character of the western front, where two formidable defensive lines had been erected one against the other, the “Maginot” and “Siegfried” were not to be expected any major operations there, at least until the mobilization and assembly operations had been completed on both sides; all the more so since it was not possible for the French army to undertake such far-reaching operations, such as the attack on the “Siegfried Line” before the bulk of the British forces reached French territory.

Likewise, on the part of the Germans, more or less imminent offensive actions on the Western front were not foreseeable, first of all because it was evident that it could not be convenient for them, at least as long as it was possible, to fight on two fronts at the same time; even after the end of the operations in Poland, they would have had to arrange to rearrange the units, fill the gaps, carry out the huge transport of troops and materials, adopt those measures that might have been suggested by the changing political situation. It is therefore not surprising that the German side repeated itself in those months of the autumn-winter of 1939-40: “there is no Western front for us”.

In fact, in those months, there were only local actions for exploratory purposes, mostly conducted by the French, in the space between the two defensive lines; actions to which the Germans limited themselves to opposing reactions almost exclusively of artillery.

Only after having concentrated 60 to 70 divisions in the West, the OKW decided on 16 and 17 October to launch two attacks in the Sarre to disengage Sarrebrück and to reoccupy the temporarily lost territory. Without accepting the fight, the French armies returned to settle in the works of Maginot and in the positions behind the great line of defense.

In the following months, there were no more noteworthy actions, either on one side or the other. The French command, however, increasingly concerned about strengthening its defensive system, expected to give a better and more efficient organization to the border section between Luxembourg and the North Sea, that is, along that stretch that was not protected by the Maginot., stopping this, as is well known, at Montmédy, just beyond the Moselle. In order, therefore, to block the possible invasion routes for the valleys of the Sambre and the Oise, in the impossibility of extending the Maginot, it was provided to disseminate that area of ​​works of field fortifications such as to constitute, as a whole, a defensive system, which was deemed capable of withstanding long enough.

France Military Operations During the Second World War