The Spring of 1940: The Death of Giants

3 Sep

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(Another excerpt from the forthcoming book)

The belated-ness of the Anglo-French declaration of war cannot be measured in mere minutes or hours, not in days or months, but in years. The Western Allies had given unto Hitler the fertile soil of Europe, and even the plow—his armies—to sow the seeds of a totalitarian regime none dared stand against. Hitler had garnered for himself and his administration unbridled power and authority, and the Western Allies, fearful of a duplication of the previous war, had failed to act. Hitler’s armies had expanded into Europe almost unhampered by Western admonishments, which possessed little chance of consequence. Yet the invasion of Poland had awoken the Western Allies from their interbellum slumber, and propelled them to take action against an enemy who would stop for no man, and would gorge himself on the helpless, the fearful, the vulnerable of Europe until there was nothing more to feed upon. Hitler’s wretched regime had finally met an adversary capable of challenging his military might; yet it was not their strength in numbers that would determine the outcome in the fateful spring of 1940. It was how they utilized that strength that would determine who would be crowned victor when the dust settled in the whirlwind months following the invasion of Poland.

            Germany’s neighbor to the west, the French Third Republic, had suffered a terribly turbulent history. Waging wars against their ancient enemy, the English, the French had toppled their corrupted royal regime in the internationally tumultuous years marking the close of the Eighteenth Century, ushering in a period of violent retribution for years of subjugation: the Reign of Terror. And during this Reign of Terror, no one was safe, not even the event’s mastermind, who would soon fall victim to the very same blade he had utilized to sever the heads of France’s hated monarchs. The Convention would be held, followed by the structurally unsound Directory, and then by the Consulate, overthrown by Napoleon Bonaparte, one of its creators, following his return from campaigning in Egypt. Napoleon would combat France’s enemies both foreign and domestic, crown himself emperor, wage war in Spain, Portugal, the Holy Roman Empire, the Netherlands, Egypt, Syria, France, Italy, and Russia, laying waste to vast armies, making him the single greatest French military mind since Henri de la Tour d’Auvergne, Jeanne d’Arc, and Louis XIV. He would be defeated at Montmartre, forcing his abdication, his return, and his final defeat at Waterloo at the hands of his arch nemesis, Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, the only military mind in Europe capable of soundly defeating him battle, as the cunning English fox had proven years earlier in Portugal and Spain. The French would reinstate their previously abhorred monarchy three times, first during the absence of Napoleon in 1814, again following his defeat and exile subsequent to the 1815 engagement at Waterloo, and again in 1830 following the death of Bourbon king Charles X. Yet in 1852, a Bonaparte would once again take the throne, waging wildly unpopular and equally as disastrous military campaigns in Mexico and against the Prussians, terminating in his ultimate defeat in 1871 following his inglorious kidnapping at Sedan, ushering in the Third Republic, which would reign over France as the primary policy-making body until 1940, the year of the German invasion.

Following the Allied victory in the First World War, the French remained dubious of her eastern neighbor; an incredibly militant neighbor that had invaded her twice, defeated her once, and nearly defeated her twice. This unease had prompted the French government to spend millions of francs on the construction of a subterranean defensive network spanning from the Swiss frontier to the English Channel, known as the Maginot Line, eponymous for the Line’s primary benefactor, French Minister of War André Maginot. The Maginot Line, though, was never completed, and only covered France’s eastern border with Germany from Switzerland to Alsace-Lorraine. The French had found this sufficient. They believed the Germans would not be foolish enough to recreate the events of the First World War by attempting to strike toward Paris through Belgium, which had deteriorated into five engagements near Ypres and static warfare in northern France following the arrival of the British Expeditionary Force and a German defeat at the Marne, and they believed the dark expanses of the Ardennes Forest to be impassible for German armor. They were wrong.

Great Britain, France’s northwestern island neighbor, possessed close ties with France. Following the 1066 victory of Guillaume le Conquerant, William the Conqueror, at Hastings, the Norman duke united the thrones of England and Normandy, leading, far into the future, to the Hundred Years’ War, and numerous Anglo-French contests regarding the state of the French throne in the absence of male heirs. England suffered from a history as turbulent as that of France, with the constant turmoil of her population hailing back to the time of King John. The nation suffered from an insurrection in the late Fifteenth Century terminating in the death of the reviled King Richard III at Bosworth Field (Richard had, during his time as Duke of Gloucester, been blamed for the disappearance of the Duke of Cornwall, heir apparent, and the Duke of York, the heir presumptive, to the English crown, leading to a tarnished reputation when he usurped the throne following the death of Edward V in 1483), a future king who married six wives, beheaded two of them, and divorced two of them, prompting him to establish the separatist Anglican Church, putting him at odds with the Pope, at the time Clement VII. Constant wars with Scotland put the latter at odds with the English crown and allied it on numerous occasions with England’s sworn enemy, France, and twice the English crown was overthrown, the first being Charles I, who dismissed Parliament, prompting his beheading and replacement by Oliver Cromwell, and the second, James II, who suffered a coup known as the Glorious Revolution, that replaced him with William III, Duke of Orange, a Dutch stadtholder. England would wage war abroad, conquering the Gurkhas, Marathas, Mysores, Burmese, Chinese, Zulus, Mahdists, and Boers. The British had arrived supreme following the First World War, yet the tide soon shifted. An international economic downturn following the war led to the reinstatement of the pound sterling, backed by the gold standard, which caused the value of British exports on the global market to soar, injuring the British economy almost beyond repair. The Great Depression hit the English incredibly hard, prompting the October 1936 Jarrow Crusade, in which unemployed inhabitants of the town of Jarrow, which constituted the majority of the population, banded together to march on London to order reforms. Yet the government in London was impotent under the circumstances. Four years earlier, it had ordered the Import Duties Act, terminating eighty-six years of free trade and levying a ten percent tariff on all imports, safe for raw materials and food. By 1932, just three years after the onset of the Depression, three and a half million Englishmen were unemployed. And, in 1936, as the situation continued only to worsen, Britain’s reigning monarch, George V, succumbed to collapsing health brought on by chain smoking and bouts of sepsis and died, leaving his eldest son, Edward, Duke of Cornwall and Prince of Wales, to succeed him to the throne as King Edward VIII, surpassing his younger brother, Prince Albert, the Duke of York, in that capacity. Edward would rule for just one year, from the death of George in January of 1936 to that December. Edward abdicated to marry an American divorcee, Wallis Simpson, which shattered numerous provisions in the English Constitution, and he was forced to abdicate in order to marry, leaving Albert to take the throne in the line of succession, as Edward had no children. Albert was reluctant to do so: he had a severe stuttering problem, one faced by many English royalty, including “mad” King George III, but he was crowned king in 1937, taking the title of George VI. Great Britain and France had waged war with one another over twenty times since the Norman conquest of 1066, and this made for a seemingly volatile relationship when the two allied with one another to wage war against Nazi Germany, yet in this circumstance they were wholly committed in combating a mutual enemy. Yet Britain’s miniscule army stood in stark contrast to that of the French or Germans, and their negligible Expeditionary Force, consisting of just one hundred and sixty thousand men (sixty thousand more than that sent to France in 1914) in October 1939 could do little to shift the tide of the oncoming conflict.

The months between the German invasion of Poland and the subsequent Allied declaration of war and the invasions of Denmark and Norway in April 1940, upsetting a tentative peace that had settled like a thin sheet over Europe, were known as the “Phony War”, or, in a more satirical approach, the “Sitzkrieg”. No fighting had been done on land, except for war between the Soviet Union and Finland for control of the Karelian Isthmus north of the metropolis of Leningrad in the winter of 1939 into the spring of 1940. Aside from the Winter War, as it came to be known, very little fighting was done on the continent, although there was a diminutive French invasion of the Saarland, in western Germany, which culminated in very early, very limited success before being thrown back. The only real combat that had been done had been on the high seas, such as the sinking of the British aircraft carrier Courageous by the submarine U-29 on September 17, 1939—she sank in just fifteen minutes—or the infamous raid conducted by the German Unterseeboot—U-boat—U-47, commanded by Günther Prein, that snuck into the seemingly impenetrable Royal Navy anchorage at Scapa Flow, north of Scotland, and torpedoed and sank the British Revenge-class battleship Royal Oak on the night of October 14, 1939. Another such event was the sinking of the German pocket battleship Graf Spee, which had been dispatched into the South Atlantic shortly after war was declared, rounded the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa, and engaged British shipping in the Indian Ocean, before turning back in the face of mounting Royal Navy resistance. A three-cruiser squadron engaged the German warship off the Falkland Islands in a replay of events from the first war (ironically enough, the commander of the German Asiatic Fleet that engaged the Royal Navy off the Falkland Islands in December 1914, while attempting to flee from their anchorage at German Samoa after Japanese troops took Tsingtao, their original anchorage in China, was commanded by Count, Graf in German, Maximilian von Spee), with all three cruisers leaving with exceptionally severe damage, although the Graf Spee had exhausted the majority of its ammunition and fuel reserves. The warship limped into Montevideo Harbor, in Uruguay, a nation sympathetic to Nazi Germany, yet considering its status as neutral, the German battleship could only remain in harbor for seventy-two hours before Uruguayan authorities could force its eviction. The Germans intercepted a radio communiqué from the British that stated that a massive task force was en route to fall upon the German warship the minute it departed from Montevideo, and in an effort to save his crew from annihilation, Hans Langsdorff, the commander of the warship, ordered it scuttled. Shortly thereafter, it was discovered that the British communiqué had been doctored and was entirely false, designed to dupe Langsdorff into doing exactly what he had done, and Langsdorff, out of humiliation, committed suicide rather than face the wrath of the Führer. Those events occurred in December 1939, culminating in the December 17 scuttling. On the continent, however, fighting was almost nonexistent. Finnish troops of Field Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim continued to thwart every Soviet attempt to breach the vaunted Mannerheim Line and seize Karelia from their unruly Finnish neighbors, although when the spring thaw arrived in 1940, the tide shifted dramatically to the Soviets’ favor. They breached the line, and stormed over the frontier into Karelia, seizing the vital isthmus from the hands of the Finns, who, prior to 1917, had been a part of greater Russia, validating Soviet claims on the region. A peace was negotiated in March 1940, just three months after it had begun the previous November. Aside from that relatively minor and localized engagement, Europe was stagnant. Or so it seemed.

Every nation prepared for war as 1939 came to a close. That winter, every nation in Western Europe remained alert, cautious of what the inscrutable Third Reich might be planning next. The ‘Phony War’, a title coined by, oddly enough, American senator William Borah of Idaho, was a thin veneer of peace, yet beneath, it was all too obvious that every nation was preparing itself for a war they knew was coming, but knew not when. The French, facing the immediate brunt of German aggression, were faced with a dire situation. A 1920 pact with Belgium had allied the two nations against a potential German invasion, and had allowed France and Belgium to plan each contingency and construct any fortifications in tandem, yet in 1936, a dramatic shift in Belgian foreign policy toward neutrality removed Belgian support, and the treaty became virtually worthless. The French military had been struck surprisingly hard by the Great Depression, with around twenty four percent of the total population facing unemployment, and high casualties in the previous war, combined with an incredibly abysmal birthrate and a population equivalent to half that of Nazi Germany, France was forced to conscript any able-bodied man between the ages of twenty and forty-five into compulsory service, impressing roughly one-third of France’s total population. In doing so, the French had successfully mustered around five million men, although only about two million were stationed in northern France, along the Belgian frontier, adhering to the French military high command’s misconception that the Ardennes were impregnable and the Germans would not be foolish enough to repeat the calamitous commencement of the First World War. Although the French were convinced the German Wehrmacht would avoid invading Belgium altogether, they prepared for each possible contingency, with Marshal Maurice Gamelin, chief of the French military, drafting the Dyle Plan in 1940. Eponymous for the river Dyle, that flows from the Belgian province of Walloon to the port of Antwerp, fed via the Scheldt Estuary, the plan was simple: the French military in the north would meet the Wehrmacht in Belgium and halt its advance there, and once done, the Maginot Line would thwart any invasion from the east. The plan never once mentioned the Ardennes Forest, which was utilized by the plan to act as the side of a conduit to funnel the Wehrmacht into French killing zones, resembling the 1415 battle of Agincourt, where French heavy cavalry attacked the longbow men of English king Henry V down a narrow channel lined with thick forest. The French, as could be assumed, had been soundly defeated at Agincourt. And as one could easily deduce from the emphasis on the Ardennes, it would become pivotal.

In early October 1939, the first elements of the British Expeditionary Force arrived in France. Commanded by John Vereker, Sixth Viscount Gort, a Victoria Cross recipient in the previous war, the size of the Expeditionary Force was negligible at best. In 1939, the size of the English military was miniscule, just eight hundred and ninety seven thousand, and so, the English could only commit around one hundred and sixty thousand men to France. In comparison, the size of the Wehrmacht, including those units available as potential reserves following the invasions of Poland, Norway, and Denmark, the German military hovered somewhere between seven and eight million. The Allies were hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned. Initially, the English military was comprised solely of volunteers and professional soldiers, creating a relatively small, albeit incredibly well trained, well equipped, and well led force, yet following the German invasion of Poland and subsequent declaration of war, the Admiralty was forced to introduce the concept of general conscription in the form of the National Service Act, supplanting the April 1939 Military Training Act, which had been designed for limited conscription in the form of mandatory service of men between the ages of twenty and twenty one. The National Service Act called for the enlistment of men between the ages of eighteen and forty one, bolstering the size of the English military from just under eight hundred and fifty thousand to just over one and a half million. It was still not enough. As England and France prepared for war, with British troops arriving in France in October of 1939 and the defenses of the Maginot Line preparing for the oncoming invasion, the Low Countries prepared for war as well. The Netherlands possessed a military of nearly six hundred and fifty thousand men, with Belgium possessing an additional four hundred thousand. The Belgians also possessed modern fortifications, including Eben Emael and Liège, the latter of which had acted as the thorn in the side of the German military during the previous war. Yet no matter how large the armies of the western Allies, they could not compete with the Wehrmacht. Since 1933, Germany had been remilitarizing. The Germans had committed troops to combat in Spain, had invaded Austria, the Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, and by the time of the invasions of France, the Netherlands, and Belgium, Denmark and Norway as well. The armies of the Allies had been passive throughout the interbellum years. The desire of the western governments to avoid another catastrophe was obvious in their gross negligence in dealing with Hitler, and in the spring of 1940, that negligence would be proven, no matter the level confidence the Allied leaders possessed in their faulty militaries and fortifications. Hitler, in 1940, was unstoppable.

 

As the sky showed the first grey streaks of dawn on April 9, 1940, Cecil von Renthe-Fink, the German ambassador to Denmark, demanded a meeting with Danish foreign secretary Peter Munch. The two met in Copenhagen, the Danish capital, and Renthe-Fink made Munch aware that German forces were preparing to fall upon the minute Danish military and seize the entirety of the Jutland Peninsula, and should the Danish choose to fight, the Luftwaffe was at the ready to expense munitions on Copenhagen itself. Munch was horrified. He immediately retired to Amalienborg, the royal palace and residence of Danish monarch King Christian X, and informed him of the news. Unbeknownst to Christian, Munch, or General William Wain Prior, the chief of the Danish military, the Wehrmacht had crossed the Danish frontier nearly a half hour ahead of the notorious meeting between Renthe-Fink and Munch, had engaged small, disorganized units of the Danish military, and was advancing north, in the direction of the Danish capital. German forces had executed an amphibious landing at Gedser, others had seized Storstrøm Bridge, a massive railway suspension bridge connecting the southern island of Falster with the northern island of Zealand, which contains the Danish capital, and Fallschirmjäger had executed the first documented paratrooper assault in history after landing atop the garrison on Masnedø, a tiny island between Falster and Zealand. The Danish were powerless to resist. As Christian and his High Command discussed each possible contingency, the Luftwaffe thundered over Copenhagen, and dispensed leaflets entitled with the expression “Opraab!” meaning “shout” or “yell” in Danish. The leaflets, written in horrendously broken Danish, spoke personally to the Danish population, informing them that the neutrality of Denmark was to be breached by the English and French, and that the German invasion was merely to protect them from Western aggression. And the Danish believed every word, and, surprisingly, the leaflets were based on fact. An Anglo-French plan, known simply as “R 4”, had been drafted to dispatch troops to Scandinavia during the Soviet invasion of Finland to seize ore fields in Sweden and other vital resources on the peninsula, including the ice-free fjord of Narvik in Norway, where the majority of Swedish ore was exported, to prevent their capture by the Germans. Germany was one of the leading importers of ore in Europe, with the majority of German imports arriving from French mines, yet after war was declared, French shipments of ore, vital in the steel-forging process, ceased. Germany turned to Sweden, another leading producer, as well as a nation that had openly pledged its neutrality. The Anglo-French invasion was prepared, yet was running into considerable diplomatic hurdles, and was eventually scrubbed, yet the Germans had become aware of its former existence, and utilized it to tarnish the reputation of the western Allies in the eyes of Germany’s northern neighbor, who was to be utilized as a buffer and staging area for a potential assault. Just two hours after the German invasion, Denmark capitulated, with only General Prior in deviation of this nearly unilateral opinion. Denmark’s capitulation had been the first German expansion since the seizure of Poland, which had marked the beginning of the war, and effectively brought to a close the “Phony War”, opening what was known as Unternehmen Weserübung, Operation Weser Exercise (the river Weser is located in Lower Saxony). Denmark was the first piece to the Weserübung puzzle, and her northern neighbor, the kingdom of King Haakon VII, would soon follow her: Norway.

Shortly before dawn on April 9, 1940, as Cecil von Renthe-Fink and Peter Munch met in Copenhagen to discuss the oncoming German invasion, a Kriegsmarine naval squadron entered the Oslo Fjord, and immediately steamed north toward the capital—Oslo—with the intention of seizing the Norwegian Royal Family. As the squadron steamed north, it came under fire from the Oscarsborg gun battery, which succeeding in shattering the forecastle of the cruiser Blücher, leading to the death of the Blücher’s skipper, and a costly delay for the squadron’s timeline, allowing the Norwegian Parliament, Prime Minister Johan Nygaardsvold, and the Royal Family to elude capture and flee the doomed capital. They would later escape to Tromsø, where the Royal Navy cruiser H.M.S. Devonshire would ferry them to exile in England, a common location for asylum for deposed regents in the early stages of the war. English troops had become increasingly involved in Norwegian neutrality, meddling in the doomed kingdom’s affairs in an effort to spare her from the overwhelming superiority of the Third Reich. On February 16, 1940, a British destroyer, H.M.S. Cossack, and slipped into Jøssingfjord undetected, openly violating Norway’s neutrality. The destroyer had approached the German supply ship Altmark, and, after several tense minutes, some of her crew boarded the German ship and rescued two hundred and ninety nine Royal Navy prisoners being held in the ship’s hold, victims of the relentless exploits of the Graf Spee during her notorious South Atlantic sortie. The warship’s late captain, Langsdorff, had demanded the crews of doomed ships to abandon their vessel, and the gracious captain had taken them in before destroying their craft, saving the lives of his sworn enemies, and prior to the Graf Spee’s scuttling, he handed his prisoners over to the Altmark to spare them from harm.

Soon, German troops were landed in the fjord near the city of Narvik. And amidst this landing’s unopposed execution, a British task force, spearheaded by the aging warship H.M.S. Warspite, fell upon the German squadron covering the landings, and after the guns of the ships exchanged lethal fire with one another at close range, the contest appeared decided, with the Royal Navy reigning supreme. But in just three days, the German Kriegsmarine would return to challenge this supremacy, and again the Royal Navy would defeat them, yet at a cost: the British possessed a now untenable position, with mounting German resistance both on the high seas and on land, and the victorious Royal Navy task force was forced to flee the scene of its first real victory. An Anglo-French force had also arrived on the mainland to contest German advances north after the capture of Oslo, and fighting ensued near the village of Namsos. It appeared initially that the Allies would be successful, yet the situation rapidly altered, and the Germans routed the Allies and forced them still further north. It was the first engagement of British ground forces against Nazi German troops. By early May, southern Norway was in German hands, and after a final, suicidal stand at the fortress at Hegra, Norway had fallen. Now nothing stood between the Third Reich and the last bastions of freedom in Western Europe. Nothing but nearly microscopic militaries whose leaders still clutched with white knuckles to tactics of a previous war, who knew nothing of dynamic armored warfare, who knew not the blitzkrieg, a tactic that would drastically alter the course of the war. The Allies had played the hand they were dealt, and came up with one pair. Yet the Third Reich remained superior, flaunting a straight flush.

             

            The kingdom of Christian X had fallen in a mere two hours, yet the kingdom of Haakon VII would prove a much tougher nut to crack. And it would not fall until June of that fateful year of 1940, a year in which every feeble institution the Western Allies had erected to end war would come crashing down, ironically, in the flames of combat. The fall of Denmark and the invasion of Norway had thrown fuel onto the already massive fire of German territorial ambition, and nothing could stand in its way, not even the insipid resistance of an army that had only just begun to adopt the strategies of war that would not be determined in the trenches, but on the open field of battle. It had only just begun to sluggishly shrug off the shroud of interbellum wariness, and had opened conflict with a nation they had only just begun to comprehend. The combat in the first months of the war would shape the outcome of the next five years of bitter war in Western Europe. Tank against tank, man against man. And the Allies were as unprepared to take on this task as the Americans had been in their attempt at waging an early campaign against the Japanese, who had been entrenched in brutal combat in China for over a decade before attacking Pearl Harbor, or General Thomas Gage, who had attempted to pilfer the arms of American insurgents at Lexington and Concord, and again stumbled in an ill-managed assault on Breed’s Hill. Although he seized the coveted hill overlooking Boston Harbor, incorrectly named Bunker Hill for a neighboring promontory, it had cost Gage his commission as commandant of the British garrison in Boston. All that remained was the West, the last bastions of freedom in a world rapidly becoming enveloped in darkness.

            In Great Britain, the startling, now visible, defeat in Norway was obvious. The strategy in combating the overwhelming numerical superiority of the Wehrmacht had torn the House of Commons and House of Lords in England’s Parliament to shreds. The preemptive assault into Scandinavia, R 4, had been shelved indefinitely, only to be supplanted by a German invasion in its absence. The War Cabinet had ordered the rapid deployment of British forces, yet by late April it was clear the situation was speedily spiraling toward untenable. The majority of the blame on the woefully inadequate utilization of British troops was placed on the shoulders of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, the brainchild behind the 1938 meeting in Munich communion between himself and Hitler regarding the fate of the Sudetenland, and following a series of debates in the House of Commons in early May 1940, Chamberlain was reviled by most and supported by few, and in the face of mounting opposition, resigned. Most Conservatives had wished he alter the government rather than depart, yet Clement Attlee, leader of the Labour Party, announced his wish not to work in tandem with Chamberlain to construct a coalition government to reconstruct the faulty national government. His successor, Winston Churchill, a fellow Conservative and veteran of combat in the Second Boer War, was handpicked after Chamberlain’s original choice, Edward Wood, Viscount Halifax, had announced his wish not be placed in such a lofty office. The date was May 10, 1940; the very same day German forces invaded France and the Low Countries in accordance with an incredibly intricate, organized plan.

            The plan had been known simply as Fall Gelb, Case Yellow. It had been completed by Oberkommando des Heeres, the supreme headquarters of the German military, in mid-October 1939, and was submitted to der Führer for approval. The plan’s simplistic name was mirrored closely in its simplistic nature. It called for German forces to advance to the coastlines of the neighboring nations of Belgium and the Netherlands, comprising the Low Countries, named due to location of the rivers Scheldt, Rhine, and Meuse estuaries, which place the majority of the nations’ lands below sea level. Once these nations were conquered, German forces would advance south and engage the dual Anglo-French army amassed in northern France and southern Belgium, in accordance with Gamelin’s Dyle Plan. Hitler despised the plan. It was a far too unimaginative approach to outflanking the Maginot Line, the seemingly impregnable, daunting labyrinth of defenses bristling along Germany’s western frontier. Fall Gelb would outflank the Maginot Line, yes, but it would force German troops into an engagement against the majority of what the French army could mobilize against them, and the negligible British Expeditionary Force of Lord Gort, which numbered now close to three hundred and fifty thousand. German forces would also be forced to contend with the Belgian military, numbering some twenty-two infantry and motorized divisions, as well as her contemporary citadels. The German military, capable of massing one hundred and thirty six infantry, motorized, and airborne divisions, would be forced to contend with not only the Belgians, yet also nine infantry and motorized divisions in the Netherlands, and ninety-four in France, bolstered by the insignificant British Expeditionary Force. One of Case Yellow’s most outspoken detractors had been Erich von Manstein, the future architect behind the overwhelmingly successful siege of Sevastopol against Petrov’s Coastal Army in the summer of 1942 and the faulty attempt to rescue the ill-fated Sixth Army of Friederich Paulus caught in the frigid grasp of winter outside Stalingrad that same year. Manstein drafted an entirely different concept regarding the invasion of France and the Low Countries: instead of attacking in a relatively straight line in the direction of the coast and utilizing the Low Countries as a staging area for an assault into France, the Wehrmacht would instead launch an assault into the Low Countries, with German forces flanking south into Belgium while German forces attacked from the east, flanking south into the expanses of the Ardennes Forest, outflanking the vaunted defenses of the Maginot Line, and charging across the river Meuse. They would cross the river Meuse in northeastern France at Sedan, Dinant, and Monthermé, before an abrupt turn westward that would pin the unsuspecting Anglo-French army against the English Channel, before destroying it. Once this resistance had either capitulated or faced the wrath of their German adversary, the Wehrmacht would turn south and initiate Fall Rot, Case Red, the advance to and seizure of Paris, the City of Light. Manstein’s plan, dubbed simply “Sicklestroke”, but later christened the “Manstein Plan” in his honor, was adopted in February 1940, compensating for a strategic vacuum left in Oberkommando des Heeres after a German major, Erich Hoenmanns, was forced to crash-land in Belgium transporting schematics for Fall Gelb in early January. The Belgians had taken the plans seriously, and, in spite of their outspoken neutrality, passed the information along to Maurice Gamelin, who realized the plan’s implications: the German forces would be resuscitating the decrepit, defunct Schlieffen Plan, and the Allies could meet their advance along a more stable, entrenched, frontline in northern France, rather than give chase following a reactionary victory, such as at the Marne subsequent to a comparatively disorganized retreat from Belgium in 1914. Gamelin, and most Allied commanders at the time, held true to the static strategies of trench warfare, popular in the previous war, yet none understood the relatively new tactics of dynamic warfare, determined by armor, and ironically so—the British had invented the tank. And all Allied commanders were unaware of Fall Gelb’s replacement. The Wehrmacht was to do the unthinkable: they would attack through the Ardennes.

 

            The first assault came, swift and brutal, a mere month following the anticlimactic fall of Denmark. In the early morning light of the fateful day of May 10, 1940, a day that would come to shape the next four years in Western Europe, the Third Reich fell upon her neighbors like an eagle, striking fast from a location unknown. She struck three enemies simultaneously: the French Third Republic and the Kingdoms of the Netherlands and Belgium, and in a much more successful repetition of the ill-fated Schlieffen Plan of the First World War, that met its match at the Marne, and later the Aisne, Manstein would outflank the Allies. The Dutch military, having erected modern fortifications and having poured fifty-three million gilders into a near-worthless defense budget, had fallen in just seven days, the last bastions of resistance holding out in the province of Zealand until the seventeenth of May. Dutch attempts at the destruction of dikes to slow the rapid German advance met with negligible success, and the Dutch were faced, much like their Danish and Norwegian counterparts, with air- and glider-borne infantry, revolutionary weapons of war the likes of which had never been combated. An early attempt to seize Queen Wilhelmina, the matriarch of the Netherlands, met with little success during a catastrophic melee on an airfield outside of The Hague, the administrative capital of the Netherlands. Yet, unbeknownst to the German paratroopers, Wilhelmina and the entirety of the Dutch Royal Family had preemptively fled aboard the British destroyer H.M.S. Hereward, and had been securely evacuated before German forces could seize them. The fighting was swift and brutal, with Dutch forces meeting defeat at each turn, such as the overwhelming German victory at Grebbeberg on the third day of battle, and later, the terror bombing of major Dutch municipal centers, the most infamous of which being the bombing of Rotterdam in spite of the glaring fact that it had been declared an open city to prevent its destruction. The German forces, under order from General Dietrich von Choltitz—later to command the Paris garrison that would surrender to American forces under George Patton in August 1944 and equate himself to Paris’s savoir after deliberately ignoring an order from der Führer to raze the City of Light to the ground in light of its precarious situation—had destroyed the Dutch city and claimed it was to assist German forces battling Dutch troops on the city’s periphery, although it was more likely designed to shatter the Dutch will to fight. Regardless of its true intent, it did indeed splinter the Dutch mentality regarding the invasion, and the Dutch surrendered the same day as the inglorious, unsanctioned aerial assault on Rotterdam, although scattered Dutch troops held out in Zealand, northwest of Belgium, for three more days in the face of mounting resistance.

            The Dutch capitulation had been swift, yet the Netherlands’ southern neighbor would prove a much more complicated undertaking to overcome. The reserved, neutral Belgium, ruled by thirty-eight-year-old King Leopold III, grandson of infamous king Leopold II, whose brutal treatment of dissenters in the Belgian Congo is too well known, possessed a relatively simple strategy: his armies would meet the advancing German military along a defensive line that spanned from the Scheldt Estuary, feeding the sprawling port of Antwerp, to the cavernous, murky Ardennes Forest. The Belgians did not anticipate a German invasion, and on numerous occasions refused meeting with British and French officers and strategists in order to preserve their tentative neutrality, continuously upsetting Anglo-French plans to counter the German invasion wherever it originated. The Belgian neutrality had also disregarded Dutch overtures at an alliance, which essentially forced the tiny, canal-ridden nation to fight for itself. The Belgian military was tiny, yet possessed some of the most modern fortresses in Europe, including Eben Emael, completed in 1935—which straddled the Dutch-Belgian border near Maastricht—Namur, near the French frontier, and Liège, an existing fortress in eastern Belgium, just south of Eben Emael, that had upset the timetable of the German advance in the First World War, costing the German infantry considerable time in surmounting its intricate defenses and reaching France. Yet in this war, much had changed. Imperial Germany’s pickelhaubed armies of the previous war had been replaced with grey-clothed, stahhelmed corps of battle-hardened infantry intent on victory. And, to the dismay of the Allies, although the strident blue and red uniforms of the French may have changed, so little had their strategies. And Maurice Gamelin, credited with organizing the highly praised counterattack at the Marne in 1914, would soon fall from grace, not realizing his most resounding blunder. He had positioned the French First Army Corps along the Belgian frontier, in harmony with his Dyle Plan, yet his distribution had been horrid. The strongest armies sat south of Antwerp while the French Second Army, by far its weakest, comprised of relics from the previous war, was defending Sedan, the keystone of the German advance.

            The assault into Belgium had been swift, with German Fallschirmjägern seizing Eben Emael. The fortress, designed to halt the advance of armor, had been seized from the air, not assaulted from the ground. The vital bridges the fortress protected, commanding the confluence of the river Meuse and Albert Canal, were soon taken by freshly landed German paratroopers, who, by day’s end, would be supplemented by the arrival of the German Fourth Panzer Division. German forces had seized Bastogne, a vital crossroads village to the south that commanded the Ardennes, severed Belgian communication, and advanced into the Central Belgian Plain, reigning victorious at Hannut, the first armored engagement of the war, while copious attempts to cross the river Meuse in southern Belgium were beaten back before a successful fording was completed between Houx and Yvoir, in central Belgium, in mid-May. A trellis bridge over the river had been sabotaged by retreating Franco-Belgian forces, yet in spite of this numerous attempts to cross between the two villages had been made by determined German forces, whose commanders comprehended the significance of speed, the lifeblood of the German advance. These attempted crossings had yielded almost no success, until German forces discovered a decrepit lock that could be crossed. The French had not blown the lock in fear that its destruction would lower the water level of the Meuse to a fordable depth, and when German forces crossed, they discovered the opposing bank to be undefended. Gamelin’s awkwardly constructed, inept, and incompetent command structure had proven too slow to react. German forces were steamrolling over Allied troops in western Belgium, forcing them still further back toward the Channel coast. To the south, Gerd von Rundstedt, a brilliant German field marshal, had struck hard and fast into the Ardennes, reaching Sedan in a matter of two and a half days.

Anglo-French resistance stood fast and subsequently broke in the face of the German invasion, and a general retreat to the coast was called, commanded to move in the direction of the port of Dunkirk in Calais, similar to Henry V’s attempt to flee from overwhelming French numerical superiority prior to his stunning victory at Agincourt in 1415. Henry, too, was attempting to flee to Calais. German forces under Georg von Küchler, following their victory at Rotterdam, advanced south into northern Belgium, while troops under Fedor von Bock and Walther von Reichenau struck westward. The Allies had sprung Manstein’s trap: Sicklestroke had been designed as a massive encirclement, similar to Hannibal’s double-envelopment victory over Lucius Aemilius Paullus at 216 B.C. at Cannae. Manstein had designed the invasion of the Netherlands and Belgium as fronts: diversionary attacks constructed with the express purpose of luring the massed Anglo-French forces in northern France away from their prepared and intricate defensive positions near the river Dyle, and simultaneously, German troops, spearheaded by armor, would attack through the Ardennes into Sedan, closing the rear of the Allied lines, and into western Belgium, striking the Allies on their right flank. And the Allies had gone for it, unwittingly springing the trap that would lead to their demise. If the Anglo-French troops were encircled and annihilated in Belgium, who would be left to defend the opened road to Paris?

            Gamelin ordered his troops into Belgium to assist the vastly outnumbered Belgian troops, yet it had been exactly what Manstein wanted, and before long, armored spearheads commanded Erwin Rommel and Heinz Guderian, the latter being the mastermind who had designed the Blitzkrieg, had crossed the “impassible” Ardennes and had entered Sedan, the scene of Napoleon III’s catastrophic defeat to the Prussian military in 1870, where he was actually kidnapped and ransomed by German troops. The generals soon arrived at the shimmering expanses of the Meuse in northeastern France, yet were met instantly with roadblocks in their near-stellar advance: Franco-Belgian forces had blown the bridge over the river at Dinant, yet it was no matter; the Germans had already crossed at Sedan. In just a matter of two days, the German forces under Rundstedt had massed nearly seven armored divisions, and after routing a counterattack of token resistance near Montcornet, commanded by then-colonel, and future firebrand leader of the Free French, Charles de Gaulle, Rundstedt arrived outside the port of Dunkirk just nine days after the commencement of Sicklestroke. His men had covered over two hundred miles in a mere ten days. Soon von Bock and Reichenau arrived. Just eighteen days after the German invasion, Belgium surrendered, and over three hundred thousand British and French troops, now disavowed by their previous ally, were trapped in Dunkirk, their backs to the English Channel. All seemed lost, when the unthinkable happened. Just as Rundstedt’s panzers seemed poised to fall upon the Allies, they did not. Rundstedt had halted to consolidate his armor, which had advanced so quickly he was now in danger of spreading his forces far too thin. This momentary respite was exploited by Winston Churchill, who ordered every serviceable boat in the British Isles, whether they be sailboat, skiff, battleship, submarine, fishing boat, or destroyer, to traverse the treacherous waters of the Channel, just twenty miles between Dunkirk and Dover, and rescue the battered and bruised Allied forces. It was known as Operation Dynamo, and in a sign of almost divine grace, a veritable miracle, the horrendous weather within the Channel, which had marked the days leading up to and during the Allied stay in Dunkirk, ceased, granting the motley crew of Allied rescuers to retrieve the three hundred thousand men and ferry them back to safety in the British Isles, just as Rundstedt’s men fell upon the city.

            German troops had invaded the Netherlands, and, in conquering it, shifted south and stormed into northern Belgian as German forces advanced from the west, while a southern prong struck through the Ardennes, forded the river Meuse, and folded up the Anglo-French rear. The Allied forces were trapped at Dunkirk, and rescued by the most uncommon of saviors, yet in their absence, the German troops had blasted open the road to Paris. And the City of Light was theirs for the taking. The German forces initiated Fall Rot. The Wehrmacht had kicked the doorway to Paris open. The entirety of an Allied army had been annihilated in Belgium. If Paris fell, all of Western Europe, formerly the only wall standing between the dark armies of the Reich and the free world, would fall with it. And just one British and sixty-four French divisions covered the threshold to Paris, a massive stretch of some six hundred miles, from Sedan and the Ardennes to the English Channel. The French had lost thirty and the British had lost nine infantry and motorized divisions in the calamitous combat in Belgium, yet they would not back down. The plucky little force would stand and fight, a decision that would not negate the inevitable seizure of Paris, but merely stall it. The Germans would take the French capital, one way or another. They outnumbered and outgunned the Allied armies, but as they pushed further south, renewing their offensive in early June—ironically exactly four years prior to the future Allied landings in Normandy—they ran into a new, previously unseen obstacle: organized resistance.

            The Allied forces had, in late May, been offered a minute window of opportunity to consolidate their forces and prepare for the inevitable German drive to Paris. Fortunately, the sheer force of German troops had alleviated the ever-present hazard of Gamelin’s awkward command structure and shattered communications. The fact was, the closer the Germans pushed the Allies to Paris, the healthier their communications and flow of supplies became, and the smoother their troops fought. The close proximity to Allied supply dumps and communications posts made the circulation of munitions and orders much smoother and faster. Oddly enough, morale was at an all-time high. French armor had proven itself against the formidable German Panzer, and the utilization of French artillery was spectacular, proving the German juggernaut was not invincible. Surviving French officers had been educated, through hands-on experience, in the tactics of the Wehrmacht, and understood how to combat them. It was the proverbial David and Goliath. The Allied armies stood poised on the gates of Paris, like Leonidas and his three hundred Spartans prepared to defend Thermopylae from the massive armies of the great Xerxes, even if it meant their death. The stage had been set for a biblical engagement the likes of which had not been witnessed in Europe since the massive armies of Napoleon had swept across the continent nearly a century prior. And it would culminate on the ultimate prize: the city of Paris, a thriving metropolis of over three and a half million people (one million six hundred thousand of those three and a half million would flee prior to the onset of the German offensive).

 

            It began on the river Somme, the scene of two climactic battles during the stagnant course of the previous war. A stretch of river flowing in northern France, whose name is the Celtic word—ironically—for tranquility, the Somme would prove the launch pad for the German strike toward Paris, and in early June, that strike materialized. Germany’s Army Group B would drive to Paris from two different directions, one striking south through the Brittany region, the other east of the city, in a double envelopment on a massive scale. As this was underway, Army Group A had driven south from Belgium into eastern France to encircle the Maginot Line, while Army Group C had struck directly into it, with the objectives of capturing the fortress cities of Metz, Toul, and Verdun, the latter of which being the scene of a nearly ten month siege in the previous war. And in another of history’s brutal ironies, the Maginot Line, a massive, two hundred mile subterranean defensive network that had cost the French government upwards of three billion francs, had been surmounted by armor, the very thing it had been designed to defeat. The Line had been constructed almost entirely underground, and in that regard, German Panzers merely drove over it. Previously, the Line had proved impregnable, with strikes at Fermont and Ferme-Chappy being driven back with overwhelming casualties, yet the ever-present threat of the German assault had drawn French forces away from the Line in an effort to bolster the Weygand Line on the Somme, named for General Maxime Weygand, the successor to the ball of tactical blunders and underestimates that had been Maurice Gamelin. If Army Groups A and C were successful, they could bottle up the French forces, now weakened to a meager strength by the constant removal of French armies to halt the German drive to Paris, in the Vosges Mountains. The French had, again, underestimated the German military. They had not believed an assault on the Maginot Line was possible, and if mounted, they were confident their now-negligible defenses could force it back. They were wrong.

On June 5, German forces pushed south toward the Weygand Line. In a mere matter of days, Army Groups A and C were pushing toward the Maginot Line in Alsace-Lorraine, slicing great swathes in its defenses. And the French at the Weygand Line were helpless to assist. The French fought hard, yet it would not be enough to prevent the German Wehrmacht from taking Paris. Strong resistance at Amiens dramatically blunted the sharp German spearhead, and the advance was, at the onset, uncharacteristically slow, yet the sheer volume of German assaults upon the numerically inferior enemy meant Paris would soon be within sight. German aerial superiority meant the formerly superior French artillery was now victim to unstoppable accosts from the air, as were the evenly matched French tanks, which were either destroyed or dispersed, opening gaps in the French line. Weygand had intended to combat the numerically superior Wehrmacht in a sort of fighting retreat, attritional warfare, in which he would bog the enemy down in constant combat, leapfrogging from defensive network from defensive network back toward Paris. The plan had initially worked, yet could buy the French only so much time. The remnants of the battered and bruised British Expeditionary Force had been separated and pushed into Normandy, where they would soon be evacuated across the English Channel during Operations Cycle and Ariel, and the French 10 Army was annihilated at Abbeville and its survivors were forced back to Rouen, south of Paris. In this striking turn of events, French resistance gradually began to crumble. The Maginot Line was all but destroyed, as was the Weygand Line, and a June 10 Italian invasion had furthered French woes. Mussolini’s forces had no intention of real success, and were thwarted in each strike through the precipitous passes of the Alps. Mussolini had no intent to mirror Hitler’s meteoric strike toward Paris, Il Duce just wished to purchase himself a seat at the bargaining table in the wake of France’s inevitable surrender, even if that seat was purchased with the blood of Italian soldiers, spilled without necessity. The fighting in the plains between the Somme and Seine was swift and brutal, lasting just a mere nine days. One June 14, 1940, German forces seized Paris, lowering the red, white, and black banner of Nazi Germany on the face of the Eiffel Tower. Fortunately, the French had declared the city open, saving it from destruction had the French army attempted to defend the city from the city itself. A last-ditch effort to save France from destruction, a proposed Anglo-French union, had been refused by Prime Minister Paul Reynaud, who saw it as accepting defeat, which seemed, at this point, the most intelligent avenue to take. Reynaud resigned soon after; one of his final acts was his establishing Colonel Charles de Gaulle as Undersecretary of National Defense. Marshal Philippe Henri Pétain, the aging French marshal whose brainchild had been the 1916 victory at Verdun, which had saved Paris in the previous war, succeeded Reynaud. On June 22, 1940, the commanding generals of each side met in Compiègne. The stage was set for the collapse of France.

The selection at Compiègne had been quite significant for the German delegation: it had been the scene of the German surrender in the First World War. Marshal Charles Huntziger chaired the French commission, while the German concession was headed by none other than der Führer himself, who sat in the very same chair Marshal Ferdinand Foch had sat in while negotiating the climactic close of the preceding war some twenty-two years prior. And much like the terms imposed on Germany following the close of the First World War, Hitler’s terms placed upon France were equally insufferable. Three-fifths of the country was to be occupied by Nazi Germany, while a diminutive, collaborationist republic was established in the South of France, centered on the city of Vichy. The Vichy Republic was straddled to the west by German-controlled territory running through Aquitaine to northeastern Spain, the reasoning for this would be to allow the Kriegsmarine to have access to the entirety of France’s coastal ports, such as Lorient, Saint-Nazaire (at the time, the largest port in the world, and the only capable of servicing Germany’s massive warships), and Cherbourg. Previously, all German surface ships and submarines were forced to sail from Germany’s Baltic Coast through the Skagerrak and Kattegat Straits between Denmark and Scandinavia, or through the Heligoland Bight into the North Sea, riddled with the Royal Navy, yet the seizure of Norway had opened its North Atlantic fjords, and the seizure of France had opened its Atlantic ports to German usage, making the vast expanses of the Atlantic Ocean easily accessible to prowling German wolf packs. The French would also be forced to shoulder the entirety of the expenses necessary to maintain the Wehrmacht on French territory, amounting to some four hundred million francs, paid daily, which would easily bankrupt France within a matter of days. All French troops captured during Sicklestroke or the drive to Paris, amounting to some one and a half million men, would be kept in captivity until Great Britain was subjugated, at which point they would be granted their freedom, and a nominal French military could be maintained. The modern French navy, a belligerent matching both the Royal Navy and Kriegsmarine in its effectiveness, was disarmed but not disbanded for Hitler feared too numerous restrictions would prompt the French to wage war in French North Africa. Admiral François Darlan, the commandant of the French navy, assured the Allies that the massive French navy would not fall into German hands, yet the fear remained deep within Allied hearts, primarily within those of the British. If the Kriegsmarine gained control of France’s modern warships, there was no telling what could be the outcome. To further alleviate Allied worries, Darlan even ordered the navy to be scattered, breaking the fleet into thirds and commanding them to steam away from Marseilles, the home port of the fleet. One third steamed for Mers-el-Kébir, in Algeria, while another steamed for friendly ports in Palestine, primarily French Syria. The third, disobeying a direct order, steamed through the Strait of Gibraltar between Spain and Morocco, through the Bay of Biscay, and entered English waters, surrendering itself to the Royal Navy. Yet British worries were still not alleviated. On July 3, 1940, a Royal Navy squadron centered on the aircraft carrier Ark Royal launched an assault on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir after its refusal to sail to the port of Martinique in the West Indies under Royal Navy escort or surrender. The attack had been launched to deny the fleet’s potential utilization by the Kriegsmarine. The assault resulted in the sinking or damaging of the modern battlecruisers Dunkerque and Strasbourg, and the battleships Provence, Bretagne, and Mogador, while a July 8 assault on the warship Richelieu at its anchorage at Dakar resulted in its garnering negligible damage. As these came to pass, the warship Lorraine and four cruiser escorts were blockaded in the port of Alexandria, in northern Egypt, offered the same terms as the squadron at Mers-el-Kébir, and after careful negotiations, the commodore of the Lorraine offered his surrender. These three events damaged Anglo-French relations beyond repair, and would come to stain the tentative alliance of the two nations for the remainder of the war.

Final terms stipulated that the Vichy regime would be forced to hunt, discover, and deport all Jews and others deemed “inferior”, leading to the 1943 creation of the Milice, a paramilitary organization dedicated to fulfilling the duties of the Totenkopfvorbände-S.S. in what was known, ironically, as the Zone Libre, the Free Zone, as it was free of German occupation. Marshal Pétain would head the Vichy government, as his first act as prime minister had been to propose an armistice with Nazi Germany rather than a complete surrender, which would subjugate all France under German control. His tactic had been somewhat noble in its aim, yet tragically skewed in its outcome, as insufferable German demands mutated and bastardized the policies dictated within Vichy France, turning it into an equally anti-Semitic, oppressive administration. To further add to Allied woes, all overseas territories formerly controlled by France would fall under the control of the Vichy government, including Syria, French North Africa (present-day Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia), French West Africa (which consisted of the present-day regions of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Niger, Benin, and Burkina Faso), French Somaliland (present-day Djibouti), French Indochina (which consisted of present-day Vietnam and Laos), Madagascar, French Guiana, French Equatorial Africa (which consisted of Chad, the Central African Republic, the Congo, Cameroon, and São Tomé and Príncipe), Lebanon, and the French Concession within Shanghai. The demands were set before the French delegation on June 22, 1940, at Compiègne, and, much to the anguish of the distraught Huntziger, he had no choice but to concede. Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel had informed the French that negotiation over any point was impossible, and that the armistice before them was concrete. They would be forced to either take it or leave it entirely. To abandon negotiations would mean prolonging the war, leading to the unnecessary deaths of French soldiers and civilians, yet to accept the unilateral, horrendous treaty would mean forfeiting France’s hard-fought liberty to an enemy France had become well acquainted with. At 6:50 on the evening of June 22, 1940, the French delegation announced their acceptance of the humiliating terms. The armistice and accompanying ceasefire would go into effect at 1:35 in the morning of June 25, 1940. The French Third Republic was no more. 

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