World War Two German invasion of France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, a brief history and the main battlefields.
After the defeat of Poland in September 1939, the German command faced the task of conducting an offensive campaign against France and Great Britain on the Western Front. The original plan for the invasion of France (“Gelb”), which provided for the main attack through Belgium in the Liege region, was radically revised at the suggestion of General von Manstein. This was due to the assumption that the plan became known to the Anglo-French command after a German plane with an officer carrying secret documents made an emergency landing on Belgian territory. The new version of the campaign plan was to deliver the main blow through the Luxembourg-Ardennes in the direction of Saint-Quentin, Abbeville and the English Channel coast. His immediate goal was to dismember the Anglo-French front, and then, in cooperation with the forces advancing through Holland and Belgium, defeat the northern grouping of allied forces. In the future, it was planned to bypass the main enemy forces from the northwest, defeat them, take Paris and force the French government to surrender. On the Franco-German border, covered by the fortifications of the French Maginot defensive line, it was supposed to be limited to demonstrative actions.
For the invasion of Holland, Belgium and France, 116 German divisions (including 10 armored, 6 motorized and 1 cavalry) and over 2600 tanks were concentrated. The Luftwaffe forces supporting the ground troops numbered over 3,000 aircrafts.
The Anglo-French war plan (“Plan Dill”) was developed in the expectation that the Germans, as in 1914, would deliver the main blow through Belgium. Based on this, the Allied command intended to firmly hold the fortifications on the Maginot Line and at the same time maneuver with the forces of two French and one British armies into Belgium. Under the cover of the Belgian army, defending on the Albert Canal and in the Liege fortified area, the French were to advance to the Meuse River, and the British to the Dyle River, covering Brussels and forming a solid front from Wavre to Louvain. The plans of the Belgian and Dutch commands provided for the conduct of defensive operations along the border line and in fortified areas until the approach of the allied forces.
In total, France, Great Britain, Belgium and Holland deployed 115 divisions against Germany (including 6 tank and mechanized and 5 cavalry), more than 3,000 tanks and 1,300 aircraft. Thus, with a total approximately equal number of divisions, the German armed forces had superiority over the allies in people and aviation and were inferior to them in the number of tanks. However, if the Allies had most of the tanks distributed between armies and corps as part of separate battalions and companies, all German tanks were part of tank divisions, brought together with motorized infantry divisions into special corps with great striking power. In addition, the Germans were significantly superior to their opponents in technical terms, in the level of combat training and unity of the troops.
Invasion of Belgium and the Netherlands
On May 10, 1940, at dawn, German troops launched a general offensive on the Western Front. Aircraft of the Luftwaffe bombarded the main Allied airfields in Holland, Belgium and Northern France. At the same time, airborne assault forces were thrown in the rear of the Dutch and Belgian armies in order to capture airfields, crossings and individual ports. At 05:30 on the front from the North Sea to the Maginot Line, the ground forces of the Wehrmacht went on the offensive. Field Marshal von Bock’s Army Group B launched an offensive in Holland and northern Belgium. The troops of the 18th Army of General von Küchler, operating on its right flank, captured the northeastern provinces of Holland on the very first day and immediately broke through the fortified positions on the IJssel River. At the same time, the left-flank formations of the army, striking in the direction of Arnhem, Rotterdam, broke through the Dutch border fortifications and the Pel defensive line and began to rapidly move west.
On May 12, 1940, German troops managed to break through the fortified Grabbe line, and capture Harlingen by mobile formations.
On May 13, 1940, the troops of the 7th French Army of General Giraud, who had entered South Holland by this time, were no longer able to support the Dutch and began to retreat to the Antwerp area. On the same day, German troops approached Rotterdam and connected with the paratroopers landed in the area. After the fall of Rotterdam, the Dutch government fled to London, and the army capitulated, surrendering The Hague and the rest of the country to the Germans without a fight.
The troops of the 6th German Army under General von Reichenau launched an offensive in Belgium in two directions: to Antwerp and Brussels. Overcoming the resistance of the Belgian troops, they broke through the border fortifications and by the end of the first day on a broad front crossed the Meuse and the Albert Canal in its lower reaches.
On May 11, 1940, in the morning, the Germans started fighting for the capture of the Liege fortified area and positions along the Albert Canal. The ground forces were greatly assisted by paratroopers, who managed to paralyze the main fort of Liege Eben-Emael and capture bridges across the Albert Canal in the Maastricht region. As a result of two days of fighting, the Germans broke through the Belgian positions and, bypassing Liege from the north, began to advance towards Brussels. By this time, the advanced units of the British Expeditionary Force under the command of General Gort began to approach the River Dil, and the troops of the 1st French Army, which on May 13 collided with the mobile formations of the 6th German Army, were approaching the Valar, Gembloux line.
On May 14, 1940, the French were driven back to the Dil River, where, together with the British, they went on the defensive.
Breakthrough in the Ardennes.
On May 10, 1940, the offensive of Army Group A under General von Rundstedt also began, delivering the main blow through the Belgian Ardennes and Luxembourg. The 4th Army of General von Kluge and the Panzer Corps of General Hoth, advancing on the right flank of Army Group A, overcoming the weak resistance of the Belgian troops, broke through the border fortifications and positions on the Urth River in two days of fighting.
On May 13, 1940, developing an offensive to the west, the mobile formations of the German army reached the Meuse River north of Dinan. Having repulsed the counterattacks of the French troops, they crossed the river and captured a bridgehead on its western bank. On the same day, stubborn battles broke out on the front from Sedan to Namur between units of 5 infantry and 2 cavalry divisions of the French and 7 tank and motorized formations of the Kleist group. Weakly provided with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, the French troops were unable to repel the onslaught of the enemy.
On May 14, 1940, the troops of the Goth tank corps and the Kleist group managed to cross the Meuse in the Dinan, Givet and Sedan sectors and throw back the left-flank formations of the 2nd French Army to Montmedy, Rethel, and the right flank of the 9th Army to Rocroix. As a result, a 40-kilometer gap formed between the two armies.
On May 15, 1940, in the morning, tank and motorized formations of the Germans entered the gap and began to develop an offensive in the general direction of Saint-Quentin.
In order to stop the advance of the enemy grouping that had broken through, the French command decided to strike at the flanks of this grouping: from the south with the forces of the 2nd Army and from the north with motorized formations of the 1st Army. At the same time, an order was given to withdraw the 7th Army from Belgium to cover Paris. However, the French failed to fully implement these measures. Being pinned down on the Dil River by the troops of the 6th and 18th armies of the Germans, the 1st army was unable to fulfill the order of its command. The attempts of the 2nd French Army to break through from the south to the Sedan region were also unsuccessful.
On May 17, 1940, the Germans broke through the defenses of the Anglo-French troops on the Dil River and occupied Brussels.
On May 18, 1940, the mobile formations of the Kleist group, developing the offensive in a westerly direction, approached the Sambre.
By the end of the first week of fighting, the situation at the front for the allies was catastrophic. Troop control was disrupted, communication was interrupted. The movement of troops was hampered by huge crowds of refugees and soldiers of the defeated units. German planes bombed and fired on military columns and refugees, while the Allied aviation, having suffered heavy losses in the first days of the campaign as a result of attacks on airfields, as well as from Luftwaffe fighters and effective German military air defense, was not active.
On May 19, 1940, the commander-in-chief of the French army, General Gamelin, was removed from his post and replaced by General Weygand, but this reshuffle had no effect on the course of hostilities, and the position of the allied forces continued to deteriorate.
Dunkirk and the Allied evacuation.
On May 20, 1940, the Germans occupied Abbeville, after which their tank formations turned north and attacked the Anglo-French troops in Belgium from the rear.
On May 21, 1940, German mobile troops reached the English Channel coast, dismembering the Allied front and cutting off 40 French, British and Belgian divisions in Flanders. Allied counterattacks to restore contact with the cut off grouping were unsuccessful, while the Germans continued to tighten the encirclement. After the capture of Calais and Boulogne, only two ports remained at the disposal of the Allies – Dunkirk and Ostend. In this situation, General Gort was ordered from London to begin the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force to the islands.
On May 23, 1940, in an attempt to delay the advance of the Germans, the Allies, with the help of three British and one French brigades, launched a counterattack on the right flank of the Kleist tank group in the Arras area. Considering that after two weeks of forced march and fierce fighting, the German tank divisions had lost up to half of their tanks, Rundstedt decided to postpone until May 25 the offensive of the Kleist and Gotha tank formations subordinate to him, in need of regrouping and replenishment. Hitler, who arrived at Rundstedt’s headquarters on May 24, agreed with this opinion, and the panzer divisions were stopped in front of Dunkirk. Further actions to destroy the encircled enemy were ordered to be carried out by the infantry, and aviation was ordered to prevent the evacuation.
On May 25, 1940, the 6th and 18th armies of Army Group B, as well as two army corps of the 4th Army, launched an offensive to destroy the encircled allied forces. A particularly difficult situation developed on the front of the Belgian army, which was forced to capitulate three days later. However, the German offensive developed very slowly.
On May 26, 1940, Hitler canceled the “stop order” for panzer divisions. The ban on the use of tanks in the operation was valid for only two days, but the command of the allied forces managed to take advantage of this.
On May 27, 1940, the German tank forces resumed their offensive, but met strong resistance. The German command made a major miscalculation, missing the opportunity to advance to Dunkirk on the move, until the enemy fortified in this direction.
The evacuation of allied troops (Operation Dynamo) took place from the port of Dunkirk, and partly from the unequipped coast under the cover of the Royal Navy and Air Force.
In the battles for the Dunkirk bridgehead, the British lost 68 thousand people and 302 aircraft. The losses of the fleet were significant: out of 693 ships and vessels participating in the rescue of the encircled troops, 226 English and 17 French were sunk. The Germans in the Dunkirk area lost 130 aircrafts.
The Battle for Paris
Immediately after the breakthrough to the English Channel, the German command began preparing the second stage of the campaign – an offensive deep into France (the Roth plan) in order to prevent French troops from gaining a foothold at the turn of the Somme, Oise and Ain rivers. Even during the period of advance to Abbeville and further to the coast of the English Channel, part of the German forces consistently deployed front to the south. Subsequently, they were reinforced by the transfer of formations from the Dunkirk area.
June 5, 1940 in the morning, the troops of the right-flank Army Group “B” attacked the French positions on a wide front. On the very first day of the offensive, they managed to cross the Somme and the Oise-Aisne canal. By the end of the fourth day of the offensive, Kleist’s tank group had broken through the French defenses and advanced in the direction of Rouen.
On June 9, 1940, in the morning, the troops of Army Group A went on the offensive, which, despite the stubborn resistance of the French, managed to break through the front on the Aisne River by June 11 and reach the Marne in the Château-Thierie area with mobile formations.
Military operations in the French Alps (Les Alpes), “Alpine Front”.
On June 10, 1940, when it became clear that the defeat of France was inevitable, Italy entered the war on the side of Germany, intending to get Savoy, Nice, Corsica and a number of other territories for its participation. The Italian Army Group West (22 divisions), under the command of Prince Umberto of Savoy, began military operations in the Alps on a front stretching from the Swiss border to the Mediterranean Sea. She was opposed by the French Alpine army of General Aldry (7 divisions). Outnumbered by the Italians, the French occupied advantageous positions, thanks to which they managed to repel all enemy attacks. Only in the very south did the Italian troops manage to advance slightly in the border zone.
Retreat for the Loire.
On June 10, 1940, when the fighting began in the Alps, the French government of Reynaud left Paris and moved to Tours (Loire Valley), and then south to Bordeaux.
At this time, the Germans, developing the offensive in all directions, threw back the French troops to the south and southeast. Army Group B, having crossed the Seine between Rouen and Paris, divided the French left-flank grouping into two parts and completed the detour of the French capital from the west. By this time, the troops of the right wing of Army Group A, developing an offensive to the south, created a threat to Paris from the east.
Having decided to surrender Paris, the French command sent directives to its three army groups, according to which, if possible, without dispersing their forces, they had to retreat beyond the line of Caen, Tours, Middle Loire, Dijon, where it was supposed to form a new front of defense along the natural boundary of the Loire River. . In the course of the retreat that had begun, individual French units and formations (such as the 4th Reserve Armored Division, for example) still offered fierce resistance, trying to delay the enemy in rearguard battles.
June 12, 1940 Paris was declared an “open city”
On June 14, 1940, in the morning, Paris was occupied by German troops without a fight.
The last military operations of the German troops in France in the 1940 campaign.
Capture of Verdun.
On June 13, 1940, continuing to develop the offensive in a southeast direction, the troops of Army Group A occupied Montmedy and approached Verdun.
June 14, 1940 Verdun was taken and the German troops went to the rear of the Maginot Line.
At the same time, on June 14-15, the divisions of Army Group C, General von Leeb, went on the offensive, which managed to break through the Maginot Line, thereby completing the encirclement of the French 2nd Army Group.
On June 16, 1940, realizing that the war was finally lost, the French government of Reynaud resigned. Marshal Pétain, who headed the new cabinet, immediately asked Germany for a truce.
On June 17, 1940, French troops stopped organized resistance and began to retreat south in disorder.
On June 18, 1940, the last units of the British Expeditionary Force, as well as more than 20 thousand Polish soldiers, were evacuated from Cherbourg.
By June 21, 1940, the Germans occupied Brest, Nantes, Metz, Strasbourg, Colmar, Belfort and reached the lower reaches of the Loire from Nantes to Troyes.
On June 22, 1940, in the Compiegne forest, in the same place as in 1918, in the staff car of Marshal Foch, delivered by order of Hitler from the museum, an armistice was signed.
The 1940 campaign in France was over.
Losses of the German army: 27 thousand killed, 111 thousand wounded and 18.3 thousand missing.
Allied losses amounted to 112,000 killed, 245,000 wounded and 1.5 million captured.
This was the third major victory of the Germans during the Second World War after the defeat of Poland and the occupation of Denmark and Norway. It was achieved thanks to the competent use of tanks and aircraft by the German command, the passive defensive strategy of the allies and the surrendering position of the political leadership of France.
The Museums dedicated to the “Battle of France”, 1940:
– Army Museum. Military Museum in Paris, Les Invalides
– Tank Museum. City of Saumur, Loire Valley
– Air and Space Museum at Le Bourget
– Military Museum “1939-1945”, Atlantic Wall
– Museum of mountain rifle units. Grenoble, French Alps