The World War II Multimedia Database

For the 72 Million

France in World War II

In 1939 France’s Third Republic was sixty—eight years old, despite church and state rivalries, corruption, and political factionalization. At the start of World War II, every major politician and every political party had their own newspaper disseminating their own propaganda.

Born out of the humiliating defeat of 1871, the Third Republic had survived a punishing Great War that cost over one million dead and over four million wounded. Entire towns lost their young men, forcing leadership to go on into the 1930s that should have been long retired. Focused on those millions of casualties, the French government prepared its people to fight the last war. Security prevented widespread use of radios in French units. Communication was slowed by telegraph and dispatch riders. André Maginot, the defense minister in the early 1930s, pushed through his vision of a solid wall of concrete and steel to hold back any future German onslaught.

But it was a mistake to term everyone in France as a defeatist. France had better tanks than the Germans, and good planes and artillery. Her Navy was second only the British, and she was building, slowly, new battleships. Middle rank leaders like Charles DeGaulle showed new techniques. But the French leadership was slow to adopt them.

France was also slow to read the warnings that were growing in 1939 and 1940. Contrary to popular opinion, the French Intelligence service did not see the writing on the wall any more than the senior French Generals Maurice Gamelin or Maxime Weygand did. Weygand and Gamelin seemed to bicker with each other and other commanders as much as plan for war.
The plan, in retrospect, seems as purposeful to prevent French casualties as it was to stop the Germans. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and the French main force would march into Belgium as soon as German troops crossed the Belgian frontier. Belgium demurred from that plan, as it put them in the center of the fighting. They hoped to stay out by maintaining their neutrality.

The Germans invaded Holland and Belgium on May 10, 1940. True to plan, as the Germans expected, the Allies marched into Belgium for the main force engagement. Some Belgians tried to stop both the Allies entering from the South and the Germans entering from the Northeast. Little attention was paid to cooperation, communication and intelligence between the three Allied Armies.

Thus, what could have been a powerful coordinated Allied Army became three separate armies speaking several different languages, fighting the Germans separately. The Allies never practiced or trained together, and they often neglected to even tell their own countrymen where they were during the battle. France and Britain were completely unprepared for German General Heinz Guderian’s tanks to burst out of the Ardennes, and the Allies failed to stop them at Sedan. By May 28, when Belgium surrendered, the situation was critical and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was evacuated from Dunkerque by June 4. Weygand replaced Gamelin as senior commander and put a stop to Gamelin’s plan to reroute the first line French forces to march against Guderian. That sealed France’s fate and on June 22nd, the new Vichy government under Philip Petain sued for peace.

It’s hard to imagine today, with so much American public prejudice against the French Army’s abilities, but in 1940 the fall of France shocked the world, and more so the French people. Some 250,000 french soldiers were dead, and while France’s colonies still held significant forces, Vichy was unwilling to commit them to the British cause. Britain attacked key installations in North Africa, notably a naval raid on Dakar, to prevent the French Navy from falling into the hands of the Germans. France attacked Gibraltar in response.

Vichy remained in control of the lower half of France, while the Germans occupied Paris. Hitler came to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower and contemplate his success at Napoleon’s tomb. The Gestapo came to France to begin a terrible occupation that would eventually see hundreds of thousands of French citizens forced into slave labor by French Gendarmes.

At first, the Communists stayed out of resistance activity at the behest of Stalin, but with the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Communists took the lead in resistance activity. The Gestapo drove Former French soldiers, Communists, and socialists, as well as disillusioned Vichy officials, into remote areas of France to hide, where they organized. By 1942, eight major resistance groups baed on political affiliation and geography were active, rescuing Allied pilots, striking German transportation, and distributing illegal propaganda. At DeGaulle’s urging, Jean Moulin was dropped into France by the Special Operation Executive (SOE) and he unified the resistance into a single command. While the resistance has become romanticized, they were never more than irregular partisans, and were unable to stand up to the Germans in the two pitched battles known to have taken place. Jean Moulin was arrested by the Gestapo and executed, but his resistance cell was able to provide substantial intelligence to the Allies when they invaded in 1944.

At the time of the Normandy invasion, the Germans were drawing increasingly on forced French labor. French citizens had to make a choice: sign up for a ration card to get food, but a ration card meant you were liable to be drafted and sent to work in German factories. Hundreds of thousands of French were shipped to the Reich, were they often had little to eat and worked for days without a break on weapons and munitions.

The Allies were greeted as liberators throughout France, but especially DeGaulle’s Free French divisions. A second landing was made in Southern France in August 1944. By December 1944, most of France, except for the channel ports holding out on Hitler’s orders, was in Allied hands.

DeGaulle and the resistance leaders were heroes, but the Vichy government were considered traitors. Philippe Petaîn was sentenced to life imprisonment and died there in 1951.
France was a founding member of the United Nations, and is one of the five permanent members of the Security Council.

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