Invasion of France and the Low Countries
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg were invaded on same day by the following forces:
- German Army Group A, with 38 infantry and 7 armored divisions, was the main column under the command of Gerd von Rundstedt. This group was to march through the Ardennes.
- German Army Group B, with 26 infantry and 3 armored divisions, was to invade the Low Countries under the command of Fedor von Bock. Though strong, this force was considered diversionary.
- German Army Group C, with 19 infantry divisions, attacked the Maginot Line under the direction of Wilhelm von Leeb to pin down the French forces there.
- Italian Army Group West, with 32 infantry divisions, attacked southern France under the command of Umberto di Savoia.
The Low Countries
On 3 May, Abwehr Colonel Hans Oster, an ardent anti-Nazi, sent a word of warning to the Dutch government through Colonel G. J. Sas of the Dutch embassy. The message, with the exact date for the invasion, was sent to the Hague via a courier on the next day. The warning was received and shared with Belgium, but none of the two countries decided to share the intelligence with Britain and France. On 9 May, Oster once again met with Sas and confirmed that the invasion was to take place the following morning, and another message was sent to the Hague. For whatever reason, the Dutch and Belgian governments again failed to share the news with Britain and France. In the morning of 10 May, as Oster warned, the German Army Group B marched into the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, and conquered all three nations quickly.
The Dutch, who should had been better prepared, nevertheless faced a surprise assault by paratroopers of the 7th and 22nd Airborne Divisions under the command of Kurt Student; the Netherlands fell after a Luftwaffe bombing of Rotterdam on 14 May with thousands of 2,200-pound delay-action bombs, killing 980 people, destroying over 20,000 buildings, and left 78,000 people homeless. The surrender was offered by the Dutch commander-in-chief; Queen Wilhelmina and the government fled to London.
Luxembourg, with an army consisted of merely 400 infantrymen and twelve cavalrymen, was the least armed of the Low Countries. The government of Luxembourg withdrew quickly to London, though before it left a rough plan for a passive resistance campaign was set in motion.
Belgium's defense centered around the mighty fortress of Eben Emael, manned by 1,200 men. However valiant, they were no match for the German invaders, and the fortress fell on 11 May, the second day of the offensive. The creative use of German airborne troops, delivered by parachutes and gliders, contributed both the fall of the fortress as well as other victories all around the country. The Belgian King Leopold III stayed in his country after surrendering to the Germans; although he refused to carry out German policy in Belgium, his decision created controversies which led to Britain's refusal to recognize his government and ultimately led to King Leopold III's abdication in 1951.
The fall of the Low Countries, particularly Belgium, provided the German army a northern entry into France, which the Allies had expected as a repeat of WW1 strategy. However, while the capture of the Low Countries were strategic in nature, the real intension of Army Group B was to pin the best of the French troops, along with the British Expeditionary Force, in and near Belgium while the main offensive made their thrust through the Ardennes into the heart of France. The role of Army Group B, once the Low Countries were conquered, became nothing but a diversion.
The Battle of France
Army Group A's tanks traveled in a long and vulnerable formation through the narrow roads of the Ardennes, protected from above by the Luftwaffe. The largely diversionary attack on the Low Countries drew the Allies' best troops, and thus what Philippe Pétain called "impenetrable" only a handful of years ago was penetrated by the German army with relative ease after wiping aside the weakly-numbered Belgian and French defenders. Elaborately rehearsed and trained in the Black Forest, the seven German armor divisions were at the River Meuse near Sedan by the evening of 12 May. The French rushed heavy artillery to the region and fired several rounds at the German invaders, but they were overwhelmed when Rundstedt called for air support in the form of Stuka dive bombers and low-level horizontal bombers to clear the French lines. By 1600 on 13 May, every piece of French artillery had been destroyed, and the German forces crossed the Meuse unmolested. The entire defense of the Meuse went according to the direction provided by commander of the French Army Maurice Gamelin, who expected the German forces to dig in on the east bank of the river and wait for their own artillery pieces to arrive before attempting to cross; the French infantry master of WW1 was completely unprepared for modern combat that involved aircraft and armor. German troops crossed the river at Dinant over a weir left intact by the retreating French, then took the city of Sedan from the French 55th Infantry Division. By this time, the German Luftwaffe had already achieved complete air superiority, and air raids on French columns, troop concentrations, and railroads as far as 50 miles behind the front were conducted. According to reports sent to the Intelligence Division of the Luftwaffe General Staff on 15 and 16 Mar, continuous attacks by day and harassing attacks at night by German aircraft sealed the battle areas and rendered French unable to deliver adequate quantities of men and supplies to the front lines.
The French Army at the time of invasion was not exactly in its top shape. During a pre-invasion visit by American Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, French officers went out of their way to complain to Welles, a foreign diplomat outside of the French chain-of-command, that the French Army was undisciplined. Additionally, Gamelin failed to call for practices at the divisional level, meaning that French commanders were not as well-versed with maneuvering large armies as they should be. Worst of all, Gamelin's obsolete belief in the value of infantry led to his decision to sell off many artillery pieces and anti-tank guns that became desperately needed during the invasion. These weaknesses were completely revealed as the German invasion continued.
On 14 May, two French tank battalions and supporting infantry from the 71st North African Infantry Division counterattacked, initially slowing the German advance, but overall to little effect. With the counterattack beaten, German troops built bridges (that the French and British air forces failed to destroy) and brought their tanks to the west bank of the Meuse; by 16 May, 2,000 German tanks crossed and advanced so rapidly into French territory that momentarily they lost contact with their headquarters because they had gone beyond field radio range. The rapid advance, however, placed the German forces in a grave risk. Hans Guderian and Erwin Rommel, who led these spearheads, were so far in advance that their tanks were slowly running out of ammunition and fuel. Being so far ahead of the infantry also meant they had no infantry support. A well-timed French counterattack by tanks at this time could have wiped out German tanks completely (which was the reason why Guderian and Rommel almost had gotten themselves into trouble for advancing so rapidly against plans), but the French were so deeply immersed by defeatism and shock that they did nothing. On 15 May, French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud telephoned British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and said "[w]e have been defeated. We are beaten. We have lost the battle." This telephone call exemplified the French defeatism at that time. On 16 May, Churchill visited Paris in attempt to rally morale, but he failed.
With nearly no reserves left, and the best troops already committed to fighting the diversion at Belgium, then topping it all off with French troops pinned at the Maginot Line, France could do little to stop the German Army Group A from moving into the open central plains. The Germans quickly crossed the plains in a northwesterly maneuver that trapped the Allied troops in and near the Low Countries. France was now essentially open for the taking. The French tried to muster together new units, including the 4th Armored Division under Colonel Charles de Gaulle that attempted to counterattack on 17 May, but none significantly posed any kind of threat to the German invasion plan.
In the south, Italian troops tested French defenders in the Alpine Mountains. While this was supposed to divide French Army's attention from the main German thrust, the actual effect impeded the German offensive. Because of the Italians' weak air force, the German Luftwaffe had to divide its strength to support the Italian troops. "Italy's entry into war was more of a burden to us in the OKW than a relief", wrote Wilhelm Keitel in his memoirs. The Alpine front of the campaign very quickly grounded to a halt, and the situation did not change much throughout the entire French campaign.
On 17 May, Rommel and Guderian held back most of their tanks for repairs and refueling. Although most of the armor were in an idle state, the French troops were so in fear of them that the troops at Cambrai simply surrendered on 18 May at the thought of having to face the tanks.
The Allied forces, contrary to popular belief, enjoyed a numerical advantage, and their equipment was not inferior to that of Germans'. Taking armor for instance, the French and the British had 3,383 tanks, while Germany's invasion force only had 2,445. The Allied tanks were not inferior, either; the French Char B1 tank was mobile and packed ample firepower, but inept tactics deployed them ineffectively, and fritted them away. Two major distinct advantages the Germans had were radio and field commanders' freedom to make decisions. All German tanks were equipped with radio to allow coordinated action on the battlefield, while only 20% of Allied tanks had them. Günther von Kluge, commander of the German 4th Army, commented on the freedom of the German field commanders:
On 20 May, Gamelin was removed for his failure to stop the Germans, and Maxime Weygand replaced him. Weygand attempted to rally the combined forces of French, Belgian, and British troops for a concentrated counterattack that in theory could drive back the German invasion, but in reality he would have too little time to organize such a counter offensive, and the men had already lost heart. On 21 May, however, a small scale counterattack by 58 British tanks did take place, and actually overran two of Rommel's regiments at the Battle of Arras, but German reinforcements quickly pushed the British back. A few attacks in smaller scales in the next few days were mounted, but they were mostly uncoordinated and all failed to achieve significant results. Nevertheless, what these counterattacks did for the Allies was to buy time. In Berlin, Adolf Hitler feared that these counterattacks, though uncoordinated, could amount to a serious threat if planned better, therefore the German forces must take a brief pause to regroup and plan how to deal with this potential threat. On the front lines, the German field commanders were encountered with flood plains unsuitable for vehicles, therefore they welcomed the order to slow the advance from Berlin. As a result, the Allies were given an opportunity to organize for a retreat to Dunkirk, where they made a miraculous evacuation.
Evacuation of Dunkirk
With the German forces moving northwesterly to the coast, British, French, and Belgian forces in the north were trapped near Calais and were badly in need to be evacuated from the region before facing total annihilation. On 22 May 1940 preparations for the evacuation began, and the mission was codenamed Operation Dynamo. Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay called for every ship he could get his hands on, including civilian vessels as shallow as 30 feet of draft. On 27 May, the first attempt only evacuated 8000 soldiers due to heavy German fire. On 28 May another attempt took place, but the ships were recalled after only evacuating several thousand men. Also on 28 May, the Germans resumed their offensive, but combined French and British forces held on to the perimeters of their mere 30 square kilometers of territory. On 29 May, another attempt evacuated 16,000 men before German air operations badly damaged Allied ships there, including nine destroyers. On 29 May, German tanks halted their advance once again, this time on the order of Rundstedt, who felt his infantry must catch up to the tanks. The window of opportunity allowed the Allies to evacuate 14,000 men that day. The next night, on 30 May, 30,000 men were evacuated by a vast fleet of small vessels. By 31 May the Allied forces were only able to hold an area 5 kilometers deep from the beaches near De Panne, through Bray-Dunes to Dunkirk. Through the German advances that day, 78,000 soldiers were evacuated throughout the day. On 1 June, another 65,000 were evacuated. The operation continued until 4 June, evacuating a total of 366,162 men (53,000 were French) using over 700 different vessels. The Royal Air Force lost 177 aircraft during the operation, and the Royal Navy lost 10 warships.
Winston Churchill later described the successful evacuation of so many British and other Allied troops a "miracle", and described the determination as the "Dunkirk spirit".
After this operation, Allied personnel still trapped in France slowly continued escape the continent to England, including by means of the Mediterranean coast. 191,870 were successfully retrieved between the end of Dunkirk operation and Aug 1940 when formal efforts to rescue personnel ceased.
Had the German officers lost respect for the French military prowess by this point, many of them sure felt the French had earned it back through their fierce defense of the peninsula. In his memoirs, Keitel noted that it was the "gallant stand made by the French" that allowed the evacuation to become a success.
The Conclusion of the Campaign
On 5 Jun, after the Dunkirk actions, the German forces renewed their attacks. On 5 Jun a panzer attack on the Somme put them closer to Paris. On 10 Jun, the French government fled Paris for Bordeaux, declaring Paris an open city. Churchill visited France again the next day, attempting to rally morale but offering little material support. France was now lost; it would only be the matter of time when Germany would declare victory. On 14 Jun, German forces marched into Paris, dealing a critical blow to whatever French morale that remained.
On 22 Jun 1940, General Pretelat surrendered the French Second Army Group, marking the end of the battle. The government of France formally surrendered three days later in the same railroad car at Compiègne that Germany had surrendered in at the conclusion of WW1 in 1918. The French attempted to drag out the surrender negotiations by trying for more favorable terms, and they tried the patience of German leaders. Finally, at 1700 that day, Keitel communicated an ultimatum that the French must surrender by 1800, otherwise he would give the order to continue the attack on the rest of France. The French surrendered a few minutes after 1800. To many German military leaders, the victory spelled a satisfying revenge for the defeat in WW1 and the shame that resulted from the post-WW1 sanctions. "I had a feeling that this was our hour of revenge for Versailles, and I was conscious of my pride in the conclusion of a unique and victorious campaign, and of a resolve to respect the feelings of those who had been honorably vanquished in battle", said Keitel. "That day was the climax of my career as a soldier." French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud, who refused to surrender, resigned and was replaced by collaborationist Philippe Pétain. France was divided into a German occupation zone in the north and the German-sponsored Vichy government in the south. In London, de Gaulle announced his refusal to recognize the Vichy government, and instead established a new French government dubbed the Free French in London. At the end of the campaign, the Germans suffered 156,000 casualties (27,074 killed) while the Allies lost 2,292,000 casualties or capture. The breakdowns were as follows:
- France: 90,000 killed, 200,000 wounded, and 1,800,000 captured.
- Britain: 68,111 casualties
- Belgium: 23,350 casualties
- The Netherlands: 9,779 casualties
- Poland: 6,092 casualties
The campaign showed the world that warfare was no longer limited to fortresses and trenches. French troops stood guarding the Maginot Line achieved little while German troops bypassed them with speed. At the time of the surrender, some Maginot Line elements were still at decent strength, but surrendered all the same. In little over a month, the German troops had achieved what Germany could not in four years in WW1. Stunningly, while Germany lost 2 million men while unsuccessfully trying to take France in the previous war, this modern German army achieved it with a fraction of the lives lost.
Sources: the Fall of Berlin, In the Service of the Reich, the Last Lion, the Second World War, Spearhead for Blitzkrieg, Wikipedia.
Invasion of France and the Low Countries Timeline
|30 Jan 1937||Adolf Hitler proclaimed that Germany would continue to guarantee Dutch and Belgian neutrality.|
|24 Aug 1938||Adolf Hitler asked his generals to evaluate the possibility of the conquest and occupation of Belgium and the Netherlands.|
|26 Aug 1939||German ambassadors in Belgium and the Netherlands informed each of the two countries that Germany was friendly to them during the current political tensions.|
|27 Sep 1939||Adolf Hitler ordered to his top military leaders to begin planning for a war in the west, with a target launch date of 12 Nov 1939. The generals would complain that the date was too soon.|
|7 Oct 1939||The German Army reported to Adolf Hitler that there was a general shortage of steel, ammunition, and other war materials necessary to wage war against Britain and France.|
|10 Oct 1939||Adolf Hitler ordered the invasion of the Low Countries and France, but without a specific start date.|
|13 Oct 1939||With the offer for peace rejected by the French on 7 Oct and by the British on 12 Oct, Germany announced that the western powers desired war, and Germany could not be blamed for military action on the German-French border.|
|29 Oct 1939||During the German planning for future invasion in Western Europe, the Netherlands was briefly dropped as a target.|
|7 Nov 1939||Adolf Hitler postponed the decision for the western invasion; the next date of decision was to be 9 Nov 1939.|
|7 Nov 1939||German plans for the Western Offensive were passed to the Czechoslovakian government-in-exile in Britain by a double agent.|
|8 Nov 1939||Belgian King Leopold III revealed to Dutch Queen Wilhelmina that Belgium was aware of a German plan to invade the Low Countries, and it could be launched as soon as within a few days.|
|9 Nov 1939||Adolf Hitler again postponed the invasion of France; the next date for decision was to be 13 Nov 1939 for a possible invasion date of 19 Nov 1939.|
|13 Nov 1939||Adolf Hitler again postponed the invasion of France; the next date for decision was to be 22 Nov 1939.|
|14 Nov 1939||The Netherlands was added back to the German invasion plan for Western Europe as the Luftwaffe stressed the importance of having airfields in the Netherlands.|
|23 Nov 1939||Adolf Hitler gathered the top German leaders and lectured them on his vision for the future of Germany, which involved an invasion of France.|
|12 Dec 1939||Adolf Hitler postponed the decision to invade France to 27 Dec 1939; if he was to launch the attack, the date of action was to be 1 Jan 1940. Since the decision was to be made after Christmas, he permitted the granting of Christmas leave.|
|27 Dec 1939||Adolf Hitler postponed the decision to invade France to a later date.|
|2 Jan 1940||Italian Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano sent a secret message to Belgium and the Netherlands, warning them of the German invasion plan. The Germans intercepted this message.|
|6 Jan 1940||Adolf Hitler postponed the attack of France and the Low Countries until spring 1940.|
|10 Jan 1940||Hitler set the start date for Fall Gelb, the invasion of France and the Low Countries for 17 Jan; however, a German aircraft with plans aboard (against orders) crashed in Belgium, and Belgian intelligence recovered some of the papers. Germany postponed the invasion indefinitely in light of this breach.|
|13 Jan 1940||Adolf Hitler postponed the attack of France and the Low Countries.|
|16 Jan 1940||Due to the compromise of Fall Gelb plans, Adolf Hitler postponed the attack on France and the Low Countries.|
|17 Jan 1940||Belgium revealed to the German ambassador that Belgium had learned German plans and not-yet-executed orders for the invasion of Belgium.|
|18 Feb 1940||German Army General Franz Halder, reluctantly, as ordered by Adolf Hitler, incorporated General Erich von Manstein's planned thrust through the Ardennes Forest into the invasion plans for France.|
|24 Feb 1940||Hitler gave approval to detailed plans for the invasion of France and the Low Countries.|
|26 Apr 1940||Satisfied with the progress in Norway, Adolf Hitler ordered his generals to resume planning for the invasion of France.|
|1 May 1940||Swiss intelligence learned of a potential attack on France to be launched soon and informed the French military attaché, who promptly reported this to Paris. Meanwhile in Germany, Adolf Hitler pushed the invasion decision date to 5 May 1940.|
|2 May 1940||93 German combat divisions prepared to invade France and the Low Countries.|
|3 May 1940||Dutch intelligence detected further hints of German troop gathering near its border; this information was forwarded on to Belgium. Meanwhile, in Germany, forecast of bad weather caused a postponement of the invasion.|
|5 May 1940||Adolf Hitler pushed the decision date for the invasion of France to the following day.|
|6 May 1940||Fall Gelb, the German invasion of France, was once again postponed by Hitler. Meanwhile, Pope Pius XII shared the intelligence gathered by Vatican agents that Germany was planning on invading the Low Countries with the Princess of Piedmont Marie José, who was the sister of King Leopold III of Belgium and wife of Italian Crown Prince Umberto. On the same day, a massive German armoured motorised column many miles long was spotted driving west through the Ardennes forest but the Belgian Army did not respond.|
|7 May 1940||Adolf Hitler pushed the decision date for the invasion of France to the following day.|
|8 May 1940||Adolf Hitler pushed the decision date for the invasion of France to the following day.|
|9 May 1940||Adolf Hitler issued the order to commence the invasion of France and the Low Countries at dawn on the following day. Meanwhile, Belgium declared a state of emergency and placed the army on alert for a potential German invasion.|
|10 May 1940||Germany invaded the Allied nation of France and the neutral Low Countries. In France, Luftwaffe aircraft destroyed many French aircraft on the ground. German tanks crossed into neutral Luxembourg with relative ease, reaching the edge of the Ardennes Forest; the royal family of Luxembourg was evacuated to the south. In the Netherlands, German paratroopers quickly secured key bridges and airfields around Rotterdam and the Hague, but the plan to land troops at the Ypenburg airfield to capture the Dutch political leaders was foiled when Dutch fighters shot down 18 German Ju 52 transport planes; German tanks penetrated more than 10 miles into the Dutch border by the end of the day. In Belgium, 10 gliders landed 78 German airborne soldiers atop Fort Ebel Emael at the crossings of the Albert Canal and the River Meusse, pinning down the 700 Belgian defenders. British and French leaders enacted the Dyle Plan in response to the invasion, moving troops toward the Dyle River in Belgium where they were to form a defensive line.|
|11 May 1940||Germany occupied Luxembourg. In Belgium, German airborne troops captured the "impregnable" Fort Eben Emael while tanks crossed Albert Canal bridges in an attempt to move behind Belgian defensive lines. Troops of the German 9th Panzer Division crossed the Meuse River; at 1200 hours, they found an undefended bridge over the Zuid-Willemsvaart canal 50 miles from Rotterdam, where airborne troops of the German 22nd Flieger Division held on to bridges along the Nieuwe Maas River, awaiting the arrival of ground troops. Seven German armored divisions began to spearhead into the Ardennes Forest, brushing aside the few French cavalry units guarding this route into France.|
|12 May 1940||The first tank battle of the European War took place at Hannut in central Belgium between the German 3rd and 4th Panzer Divisions and two French armored divisions; French S35 and H35 tanks overwhelmed their German counterparts, destroying large numbers of Panzer I and II tanks. On the same day, German armored columns pushed out of the Ardennes region and into France, preparing to cross the Meuse River at Sedan, Monthermé, and Dinant. In the Netherlands, German 9th Panzer Division reached Moerdijk bridges 10 miles south of Rotterdam, relieving the paratroopers who had been holding the bridges since 10 May. After evaluating the situation, Dutch Crown Princess Juliana and Prince Bernhard departed for Harwich, England, United Kingdom aboard HMS Codrington.|
|13 May 1940||While on the previous day the inferior German tanks suffered against their French counterparts in Belgium, German tank commanders amassed their tanks (while the French commanders decided to divide their tanks to cover a wider front) and punched a hole in the French lines; French troops began falling back toward Gembloux; the Battle of Hannut ended with the French losing 105 tanks and the Germans 160. Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands departed for London at 1200 hours aboard HMS Hereward, while the Dutch government would leave at 1720 hours aboard HMS Windsor; meanwhile, the German 9th Division reached the outskirts of Rotterdam, which was a part of the final Dutch defensive line, Amsterdam-Rotterdam-Utrecht. In France, Germany Army Group B established bridgeheads at the Meuse River near Dinant and Sedan after penetrating a 50-mile gap in French defensive lines; by the evening, pontoon bridges were set up for tanks to cross.|
|14 May 1940||General Rudolf Schmidt's German 9th Panzer Corps threatened the Dutch city of Rotterdam with aerial bombardment, and the Dutch garrison surrendered; some Luftwaffe aircraft, however, did not get the order to abort; 95 tons of bombs were dropped on Rotterdam, killing 1,000 civilians and rendering 85,000 homeless. Elsewhere in the Netherlands, Dutch Commander-in-Chief General Winkelman ordered his forces to cease fighting as the situation became hopeless. In Belgium, Erwin Rommel personally led a 30-tank charge near Dinant, pushing back French and Belgian forces three miles. Near Sedan, France, Heinz Guderian's three armored divisions crossed the Meuse River. In central Belium, German Gernal Erich Hoepner sent 3rd and 4th Panzer Divisions in pursuit of the French defeated at the Battle of Hannut in the previous two days, but French anti-tank artillery fire destroyed many pursuers.|
|15 May 1940||The Netherlands surrendered to Germany at 1015 hours; Dutch General Winkelman signed the surrender document. The Battle of Gembloux in Belgium ended with the Germans losing about 250 tanks, which was the equivalent of an entire armored division; the weakened French forces, however, were unable to hold the line despite their effective 75mm artillery and 25mm anti-tank guns; they fell back toward the Belgian-French border.|
|16 May 1940||German 6th Army broke through the Dyle Line; British troops withdrew west of Brussels and the Belgian government evacuated to Ostend. From its Meuse River bridgeheads, German Army Group A tanks broke through the French lines, capturing thousands of surrendering French troops. Guderian's units reached Montcornet, while Rommel's units reached Avesnes-sur-Helpe. Fearful that this advance into France would expose the invasion's flanks, the German High Command ordered Army Group A to halt its spearheads so that the infantry could catch up.|
|17 May 1940||Colonel Charles de Gaulle of the French 4th Armored Division launched a 200-tank counterattack at Montcornet, France; the French forces saw initial success, capturing 500 prisoners, but the momentum quickly waned. Guderian seized upon the opportunity and launched his own counterattack in France, driving the French back several kilometers. In Belgium, British Expeditionary Force commander General Lord Gort, fearful of being surrounded, ordered his troops to fall back to the Scheldt River; this move allowed German General Reichenau to capture Brussels. Meanwhile, Dutch resistance to the German invasion comes to an end with the evacuation, by French destroyers, of the survivors of the Franco-Dutch forces in Zeeland and on the islands of Walcheren and Beverland.|
|18 May 1940||German troops captured Antwerp, Belgium; meanwhile, the German government re-incorporated into its borders the territory that Germany ceded to Belgium per the Versailles Treaty. In France, Erwin Rommel's German 7th Panzer Division reached Cambrai where it halted to consolidate his supply lines; in the past 5 days the division advanced 85 miles and captured 10,000 French prisoners and tanks, suffering only 150 casualties. The French called the German 7th Panzer Division the "Ghost Division" for its ability to strike in unexpected and vulnerable places. Elsewhere in France, German troops captured Petonne and Amiens.|
|19 May 1940||German General Guderian resumed his attack, capturing territories between Saint-Quentin and Péronne. His troops were now within 50 miles of the English Channel and had cut off the Allied troops in Belgium. British Expeditionary Force commander General Lord Gort issued the order to withdraw toward port cities, including Dunkirk, while Colonel de Gaulle's French 4th Armored Division made a failed attempt to attack Guderian's flank at Montcornet.|
|20 May 1940||In France, Rommel's troops began a new offensive but was held up at Arras. Meanwhile, Guderian's troops continued to advance, capturing Amiens at 0900 hours, Abbeville at 1900 hours, and Noyelles-sur-Mer at 2000 hours; they had reached the English Channel. At Dunkerque on the French coast, small seacraft began gathering for an Allied evacuation.|
|21 May 1940||German General Rommel bypassed Arras, France and advanced west toward the English Channel. 74 British tanks spearheaded two infantry divisions in an attempt to counter Rommel's offensive, but it was defeated by Rommel's use of 8.8 cm FlaK anti-aircraft guns in an anti-tank role. Elsewhere, the French 9th Army was surrounded and destroyed; commanding officer General Giraud was captured.|
|22 May 1940||In Northern France, Rommel held his ground at Arras as he mistakenly believed he was facing 5 division of Allied troops when he was only facing 2 divisions and 2 tank battalions. Guderian, however, advanced toward Calais, Dunkirk, and Boulogne.|
|23 May 1940||The German 6the Army crossed the Scheldt River in Belgium. In France, British General Lord Gort withdrew his troops from Arras despite being able to halt Rommel's momentum. Elsewhere, German 2nd Panzer Division attacked Boulogne while the German 1st Panzer Division's forward elements reached Calais.|
|24 May 1940||German troops captured Ghent and Tournai, Belgium.|
|24 May 1940||In France, the German 10th Panzer Division began an attack on Calais and captured the town of Boulogne (capturing 5,000 Allied troops), Maubeuge, and Saint-Omer. To the north, the German 1st Panzer Division reached the Aa Canal 10 miles from Dunkerque in an attempt to cut off the Allied troops in Belgium. At this key moment, Adolf Hitler interfered and ordered the tanks to pull back; he was promised by Hermann Göring that the Luftwaffe would be able to prevent the Allied evacuation from taking place; German Army generals protested, but to no avail.|
|25 May 1940||Adolf Hitler continued to hold off his tanks from engaging on an offensive even though those armored division were merely 10 miles from Dunkerque, France. At Calais, France, Heinz Guderian obediently, albeit frustratingly, ordered his tanks to halt per Hitler's orders, but the field commanders continued to push back the British and French troops. In the evening, British Expeditionary Force commanding general Lord Gort began to fall back to Dunkerque. On the same day, the French Army relieved 15 generals of their commands.|
|26 May 1940||At Dunkerque, France, British Expeditionary Force commanding general Lord Gort received the formal authorization for a withdraw; Operation Dynamo, the code name of the massive evacuation, was headed by British Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey. Meanwhile, Adolf Hitler rescinded the order to halt the offensive near Dunkerque. At Calais, after a heavy aerial and field artillery bombardment, German troops crossed the canals and moved toward the Citadel; at 1600 hours, Brigadier Claude Nicholson surrendered. Elsewhere, the French 1st Army was nearly encircled by the Germans, while the Belgians was pushed back to the Leie/Lys River.|
|27 May 1940||German tanks and aircraft maintained pressure on the Allies in France, pushing them back four miles toward the coast and placing Dunkirk within artillery range; meanwhile, the first 7,669 British troops were evacuated from Dunkirk.|
|28 May 1940||In France, 11,874 Allied personnel were evacuated from Dunkerque harbor and 5,930 from the nearby beaches; the latter was possible due to the arrival of many small fishing boats and pleasure craft. At Lille, seven German Divisions trapped the 40,000-strong French First Army. At Abbeville, the crew of French Char B1 Bis tank "Jeanne d'Arc" gallantly fought on against a German attack despite receiving 90 hits.|
|28 May 1940||King Leopold III of Belgium officially surrendered unconditionally to Germany at 0400 hours; he made this decision without consulting his government nor the Allied nations.|
|29 May 1940||Allies evacuated 33,558 men from the harbor at Dunkirk, France and 13,752 from the nearby beaches. German aircraft interfered, attacking ships in the sea as well as men waiting on the docks. Destroyer HMS Grenade was hit by three bombs, one of which went down her funnel, in Dunkirk harbor and sank, killing 19. Destroyer HMS Jaguar was badly damaged by a bomb, killing 13 and wounding 19. Minesweeper HMS Waverley, with 600 troops already aboard, was sunk by a bomb, killing 350. Elsewhere in France, German troops captured Lille, Ostend, and Ypres. Also on the same day, French auxiliary cruiser Ville d'Oran took on 200 tons of gold from the French reserve for shipment to Casablanca, French Morocco.|
|30 May 1940||The British Admiralty ordered all modern destroyers to leave Dunkirk, France due to the previous day's losses by German Luftwaffe, leaving 18 older destroyers to continue the evacuation; 24,311 were rescued from the harbor and 29,512 were rescued from the nearby beaches on this date. Despite poor weather, German aircraft damaged destroyers HMS Anthony and HMS Sabre, minesweeper HMS Kellet, armed boarding vessel HMS King Orry, and steamers St. Julien & Normannia. French destroyer Bourrasque was damaged by a mine and finished off by German artillery off Ostend, Belgium; 660 were either killed or swam to shore and became captured, while about 300 were rescued.|
|31 May 1940||Poor weather clouded over Dunkirk, France and gave the British a chance to bring in the modern destroyers into the area to assist the evacuation with less fear of German air attacks; 68,014 (45,072 from harbor and 22,942 from beaches) were rescued on this date, including British Expeditionary Force commanding general Lord Gort. French destroyer Leopart and British destroyers HMS Express, HMS Icarus, HMS Keith, and HMS Winchelsea were damaged by German aerial bombing. German torpedo boats damaged French destroyers Sirocco and Cyclone; Sirocco was finished off by German aircraft, killing 59 crew and 600 troops.|
|1 Jun 1940||Overnight, British troops pulled out of the defensive line around Durkirk, France and headed for the ships, leaving French troops to hold a reduced perimeter. After day break, German bombing sank French destroyer Le Foudroyant (killing 19), British destroyers HMS Basilisk (killing 9; scuttled by destroyer HMS Whitehall), HMS Havant (killing 8, scuttled by minesweeper HMS Saltash), and HMS Keith (killing 36). British minesweeper HMS Skipjack was bombed after embarking 275 soldiers from the beach, taking down 19 crew and most of the boarded soldiers. British steamer Scotia was bombed and sunk, killing 32 crew and 200 to 300 soldiers. 47,081 Allied troops were evacuated from the harbor and 17,348 from the beaches.|
|2 Jun 1940||Due to costly air attacks, British Admiralty decided that evacuation from Dunkirk, France would only be undertaken at night, particularly because nearly all British troops had already left Dunkirk by this time. On this date, 19,561 troops were evacuated from the harbor and 6,695 from the beaches.|
|3 Jun 1940||The last group of British troops at Dunkirk, France was evacuated before the break of dawn. At 1050 hours, Royal Navy Captain William Tennant signaled the completion of Operation Dynamo, but he was overruled by this superiors as there were still some French troops in Dunkirk. During the day, the British Admiralty acknowledged that 222 British naval vessels and 665 other craft were employed for the Dunkirk evacuation; 6 destroyers, 24 small armed vessels, and 226 other ships were lost. British ships returned to Dunkirk after night fall. By this time, German troops were only 2 miles away.|
|4 Jun 1940||Overnight, 26,175 French troops were evacuated from Dunkirk, France. At 1020 hours, German troops occupied the city and captured the 30,000 to 40,000 French troops, 2,000 British field guns, and 60,000 British vehicles. In total, 338,226 Allied personnel were evacuated through Operation Dynamo.|
|5 Jun 1940||Germany began the second phase of the invasion of France, Fall Rot. 130 infantry divisions and 10 armored divisions attacked cross the Somme and Aisne Rivers. 66 French divisions attempted to hold the Weygand Line. Across the English Channel, the Allies transported French troops recently evacuated from Dunkirk back into France via ports still under French control; additionally, the Canadian 1st Infantry Division, elements of British 1st Armored Division, and the British 51st Highland Division were also sent to France.|
|6 Jun 1940||German 5th and 7th Panzer Divisions bypassed the strongpoints on the French Weygand defensive line, penetrating near Abeville, Amiens, and Petonne. Nevertheless, the French hedgehog defense along the Weygand Line inflicted German tank losses, with the obsolete 75mm field guns performing surprisingly well as anti-tank guns.|
|7 Jun 1940||Rommel's troops marched down the French coast toward Rouen, while Kleist's troops were held up by French defensive lines between Amiens and Péronne.|
|8 Jun 1940||German 5th and 7th Panzer Divisions crossed the Seine River in France, and the troops of the 5th Panzer Division captured the city of Rouen. To the east, the 14th Panzer Corps broke through at Amiens, but the 16th Panzer Corps continued to be held down in Péronne by hedgehogs manned by troops of the French 7th Army.|
|9 Jun 1940||The German 7th Panzer Division under Rommel pushed the French 10th Army and British 51st Highland Division to the sea at St-Valery-en-Caux, France. To the east, the 14th Panzer Corps under Kleist advanced near Amiens, but his 16th Panzer Corp remained held down at Péronne. Further east, Guderian's tanks attacked toward Reims. French General Weygand announced that the battle was lost and France should attempt to negotiate an armistice. Meanwhile, the French government evacuated Paris, France.|
|10 Jun 1940||Erwin Rommel's troops continued to march down the French coast, now west of Paris, France. To the east, Heinz Guderian's tanks advanced towards Chalons-sur-Marne, threatening Paris, causing the French government to move to Tours, declaring Paris an open city. In Operation Cycle, 3,321 Allied troops embarked aboard ships at St-Valery-en-Caux for evacuation, and 11,059 embarked ships at Le Havre to be transferred to Cherbourg for continued fighting. Off of Le Havre, British destroyers HMS Bulldog and HMS Boadicea were damaged by aircraft, killing 6. HMS Bulldog would have to be towed back and remained out of commission until Feb 1941.|
|11 Jun 1940||German 7th Panzer Division under Rommel captured Le Havre, France, then turned back and drove 30 miles to the northeast to St-Valery-en-Caux, where the German troops succeeded in encircling 46,000 French and British troops. Elsewhere in northern France, troops under Guderian captured Rheims. In the south, Italian troops began crossing the Alps toward the French border. Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Foreign Minister Anthony Eden traveled to France for a Supreme War Council meeting at Chateau du Muguet near Briare. Churchill, detecting feelings of defeat, reminded the French that the 28 Mar agreement noted that none of the two countries could seek a separate peace with Germany without the other country's consent. During this meeting, French Navy Admiral François Darlan assured Churchill that the French fleet would not fall into German hands.|
|12 Jun 1940||German tanks under Guderian crossed the Marne River at Chalons-sur-Marne, 80 miles east of Paris, France. Meanwhile, in the French capital, US Ambassador William Bullitt, the last ambassador of a major nation left in the city, was named the provisional governor of Paris as the French government moved to Tours.|
|13 Jun 1940||Maxime Weygand declared Paris, France an open city. Italian aircraft attacked the naval base at Toulon, France. British Prime Minister Churchill flew to Tours, France for what would become the last meeting of the Supreme War Council. Both Britain and France now acknowledged that defeat would be imminent. Churchill encouraged the French to withdraw to North Africa to continue the fight; his French counterpart Reynaud, however, said that France would like to secure Britain's permission to seek an armistice; Churchill refused the request.|
|14 Jun 1940||In France, German troops captured the open city of Paris, France without any opposition. To the north, the coastal city of Le Havre fell under German control. To the east, the German 1st Army under General Erwin von Witzleben broke through the Maginot Line near Saarbrücken. The French government moved from Tours to Bordeaux and appealed for the United States to enter the war. Also on this date, all remaining British troops in France were ordered to return.|
|15 Jun 1940||The German 7th Army under General Friedrich Dollmann crossed the Rhine River into France about 40 to 50 miles north of the Swiss border and penetrated the Maginot Line. To the north, the city of Verdun was captured by German troops. On the coast of the English Channel, the Allies launched Operation Ariel to evacuate troops from Cherbourg and St Malo. In Berlin, Germany, Adolf Hitler gave the German Army the permission to demobilize some divisions once the French campaign drew closer to its end.|
|16 Jun 1940||Germans broke through to Dijon and reach Besancon in France, while continuing a wide assault on the Maginot Line.|
|17 Jun 1940||Prime Minister Philippe Pétain ordered the French Army to stop fighting and sued for an honorable peace as the Germans crossed the Loire River near Orleans, France. Taking advantage of the initial demoralizing effect and confusion this caused, the German 7th Panzer Division under Erwin Rommel advanced 125 miles toward Cherbourg; to the east, tanks under Heinz Guderian reached the Swiss border at Pontalier, encircling 17 French divisions on the Maginot Line. Meanwhile, the Allied evacuation operation, Operation Ariel, continued in Cherbourg, Saint-Malo, Brest, and Saint-Nazaire. At Saint-Malo, private vessels of the Royal Channel Islands Yacht Club of Jersey arrived to assist with the evacuations. In the Loire estuary near Saint-Nazaire, British passenger liner Lancastria, with 4,000 to 9,000 British civilians and military personnel on board, was sunk by three bombs by Ju 88 aircraft, causing about 3,000 deaths; it was the worst maritime loss in British history.|
|18 Jun 1940||The German 7th Panzer Division under Rommel advanced another 75 miles since the prior date, reaching Cherbourg, France but not before most of the Allied personnel had already evacuated the city; also on this date, Le Mans, Belfort, Metz, and Dijon fell under German control. Elsewhere, the Allies completed the Operation Ariel evacuation of La Pallice and Saint-Nazaire, but all the heavy equipment were left behind in the latter location.|
|19 Jun 1940||Troops of the German 7th Panzer Division under Rommel shelled fortifications defending the port of Cherbourg, France; Cherbourg surrendered at 1700 hours. On the same day, the 5th Panzer Division captured Brest, but found the port facilities destroyed by Allied personnel who had already been evacuated. Along the coast, Operation Ariel continued, evacuating British, and Polish troops from Saint-Nazaire, La Pallice, Bayonne, Saint-Jean-de-Luz, and Gironde.|
|20 Jun 1940||Although the French had already reached out to Rome for peace, the Italians were determined to capture French territory in order to bargain for colonial holdings in North Africa; 32 divisions organized in 2 armies stood ready on the Italian-French border. Meanwhile, German troops captured Brest and Lyons. 9,000 Polish soldiers fighting in France were evacuated from Bayonne aboard the Polish ships Batory and Sobieksi. Also on this date, British RAF bombers attacked the German-controlled airfield at Rouen, France.|
|21 Jun 1940||French and German representatives met to negotiate peace at the 1918 Armistice site at Compiègne, France, using the very same rail carriage where the WW1 armistice, brought from a French museum, for the negotiations. Hitler personally attended the negotiation, but at 1530 hours abruptly left the meeting to show disrespect for the French. At 2030 hours, French General Huntzinger called his government and informed that the Germans allowed no room for negotiations and demanded harsh terms; he was told to accept the German terms. Meanwhile, in southern France, the 32 Italian divisions deployed on the French border marched through the Little Saint Bernard Pass in the Alps and along the French Riviera; some of the Italians were met with a heavy snow storm and the latter halted by a very small group of French troops at Menton, which was about 5 miles from the border. According to the diary of Galeazzo Ciano, Benito Mussolini was extremely embarrassed by the inability of his troops to break through the French lines.|
|22 Jun 1940||At Compiègne, France, in the very same rail carriage and at the same location as when the WW1 armistice was signed, French General Huntzinger and German General Keitel signed the armistice at 1830 hours to end the invasion of France. Meanwhile, France dispatched officials to go to Rome to negotiate peace with Italy.|
|23 Jun 1940||Adolf Hitler arrived in Paris, France and did some sightseeing early in the morning; this would be his only visit to Paris. Although Germany and France had already signed an armistice, fighting between Italy and France continued while French delegates negotiated in Rome; General Huntzinger, who signed the German-French armistice at Compiègne on 22 Jun, was once again the a member of the French delegation.|
|24 Jun 1940||The Franco-Italian armistice was signed at Villa Olgiata near Rome, Italy by French General Huntziger and Italian General Badoglio. Fighting would continue until the following day when the agreement would take effect.|
|25 Jun 1940||The Franco-German armistice became effective, officially ending all hostilities.|
|27 Jun 1940||German forces reached the Franco-Spanish border.|
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