The British government of Neville Chamberlain was in crisis as the Norwegian campaign crumbled. Member of Parliament Leopold Amery, leading the attack, quoted from Cromwell: “Depart I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!” Chamberlain, was shaken and began to question the need to form a government that incorporated both Labour and Conservative members for the duration of the war. Despite Churchill”s acceptance of blame as First Lord of the Admiralty for the Norway debacle, he was summoned to Buckingham Palace and asked to form a government on May 10, 1940. In his first speech to Parliament on May 13, Churchill uttered the famous quote, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”
That morning, the Germans swept through Holland and Luxembourg and were moving on Belgium. The Blitzkrieg that had claimed Poland, Denmark and Norway was heading for France and the Low Countries. Luxembourg could not resist and surrendered immediately. Holland attempted a conventional defense, flooding large areas and blowing up bridges, but German Luftwaffe aircraft bombed Rotterdam on May 14. 800 were dead and 78,000 were made homeless. The Dutch government and her King fled to London and she surrendered the next day to spare other cities.
Belgium declared its neutrality and refused to allow the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to enter the country. The BEF defied the Belgian order, but had no effect. German paratroopers landed directly on top of the main defensive line at Fort Eban Emael and used flame—throwers to force the Fort to capitulate. Belgium surrendered on May 27.
Meanwhile, the Germans, counting on the French to not leave their prepared positions in the Maginot Line to attack Germany. Feinting in Belgium, the main thrust came when the Germans sent tanks through the supposedly impassible Ardennes. Infantry held open the corridor as Panzers crossed the Meuse River in France at the Battle of Sedan May 12-15. The Allies lost many bombers to Nazi Bf-109 fighters attempting to destroy the bridges.
Churchill flew to Belgium on May 16. General Maurice Gamelin, shocking Churchill with the hemorrhage of the front at Sedan, listed defeat after defeat as the weight of five German divisions bared down on Paris. “Where is the strategic reserve?” asked Churchill. “There is none.” Replied Gamelin. Churchill returned to London with the first of two great shocks of the war, the other was the loss of the HMS Prince of Wales in December 1941.
Newly minted French Brigadier General Charles de Gaulle’s 4th Armored Division made the only Allied counterattack on the Meuse bridgehead at the Battle of Montcornet on May 17. The French tanks, especially the Char B1bis and the Somua, were superior one—on—one to the German Panzerkampfwagen I and II panzers. But the Germans required their tanks to have radios to allow maneuver as a group, and the French used tanks as infantry support. De Gaulle’s attack was too little too late, but for temporarily stopping the German advance, he won the admiration of a weary French public.
The shocked French command began to break down. The World War I hero General Maxime Weygand replaced Gamelin. Attempting to pull together his forces, Weygand flew to the front, but was forced down and lost contact with his high command. Another ranking French General, Général d’Armée Gaston Billote, was killed in a car accident. BEF Commander Lord Gort was without orders for four critical days.
Finally, on May 22, Churchill and Weygand met in Paris and decided on a strategy to save Paris. Gort was given orders to move to the channel ports to be evacuated. His forces made a disheartening attack on the Germans at the town of Arras, where the British tanks were shown to be unequal to the Germans. Weygand still hoped to establish a defensive line to the south of the Somme, and Lord Gort was ordered to move south.
But the Allies were reacting to events that had already overtaken their plans. The rapid German advance would nullify whatever strategy the French could come up with. Defeatism began to grip the French government.
The Panzers swept towards the Channel ports, cutting off Boulogne, Calais, and Dunkerque. Lord Gort had no hope of reaching the Somme. In a hotly debated move, the Panzers stopped to regroup and wait for infantry support. The British quickly organized Plan Dynamo, the evacuation of some 330,000 British and French troops to England. Civilian craft were called to take out the British Expeditionary Force.
As Dunkerque was evacuated, Churchill flew to Paris again on May 31. He met the aging Marshal Philippe Pétain, who was a growing force in the French government. The French attitude had grown increasingly defeatist. Claiming to be willing to fight on from their colonies should England fall, Churchill felt the intent was to end the war unilaterally. Pétain was willing to make a separate peace with Germany. Churchill and his staff warned him that surrender might mean the bombardment of French ports held by the Germans. A dejected Churchill flew back to London.
On June 4, Churchill addressed Parliament, where he spelled out clearly, to his country and to the world, the intent of England to carry on the war. At the same time, Italian Duce Benito Mussolini was directing his forces to plan for the invasion of Southern France. The entry of Italy into the war on the side of Germany was a blatant attempt to grab French spoils. Hitler asked Mussolini to postpone until June 10. At midnight Italy declared war on England and France and her armies moved into Southern France. At the same time, the British moved against Italian forces in Libya. Both theatres eventually saw the defeat of the Italians.
Churchill returned to France on June 11. Instead of Paris, he met the French Supreme War Council in Briare. Included in the war council was Charles De Gaulle, now Under Secretary for National Defense. A heated exchange followed; the French demanded every available fighter for the French battle. Churchill refused, saying the decisive battle would come over the skies of Britain, and every fighter would be needed there. Only twenty—five fighter squadrons remained, and United Kingdom Air Vice Marshall Hugh Dowding refused to send any more fighters to France. Churchill obtained promises from French Navy Admiral Darlan that the Navy would not fall into German hands.
On June 14, without any reserves to stream out to meet the enemy as in 1914, Paris surrendered and was occupied by the Germans. Pétain and Weygand formed a new government, seeking to gain an armistice, on June 16.
De Gaulle escaped by plane to England, fearful that the new collaborationist government would arrest him. On June 18 De Gaulle addressed all of France on BBC radio: “France is not alone!” and proclaimed himself leader of the exile force of Free French. Vichy collaborators condemned him to death.
Darlan did not follow through on his pledge to sail the French Fleet to British ports. British units cajoled, coerced, or attacked and eliminated the French Navy all over Europe and North Africa. The French Navy ships in Allied ports were incorporated into Allied control or nullified. This engendered great resentment as the two Allies became belligerent themselves.
On June 18 Churchill addressed Parliament: “What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin.” Pétain asked for an armistice on June 22, 1940. Humiliating surrender terms were signed in the same railway car that the Germans had signed their armistice in November 1918. Hitler then had it blown up so it would never be used again. Nazi Germany occupied only part of France; Pétain ran the rest from a collaborationist government administration in Vichy.
England, with twenty—five squadrons of fighters against a much larger Luftwaffe, now stood completely alone against Nazism and Fascism. She would remain alone and defiant for an entire year.