Why was France defeated in 1940

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In September 1939, the Nazi War Machine invaded Poland and World War II began. France was Allied with Britain against Nazi Germany in 1939. The French army was in theory as strong as the Germans, it had a vast Empire and a sophisticated arms industry. It had established a series of fortifications in the east of the country, known as the Maginot Line, which was designed to keep German forces out of France. France looked more than capable of matching the Germans and had a strong ally in Britain and its Empire. However, in a period of weeks in the late Spring and Early Summer of 1940, France was to suffer a humiliating defeat and was occupied by Nazi Germany. The reasons for this include a divided French political elite, poor French military tactics and a superior German army with better tactics.

-French Prisoners,1940


France had been fearful of Germany ever since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. In this war, the Prussians had quickly defeated the French and occupied much of the country. In World War I, The Germans had come very close to defeating the French and without allied assistance the country would have once again been occupied by the Germans. Despite, being among the victors in WWI the French still dreaded the Germans and they were vociferous in their demands that Germany was neutralized during the negotiations on the Versailles Treaty. The French initially led by Prime Minister Clemenceau, adopted a hard line towards the Germans in 1918-1919. There was a thaw in the Franco-German relationship in the mid-1920s and there was hope of a genuine rapprochement between the two greatest powers in continental Europe. However, the Great Depression and the rise of Hitler meant that the French were suddenly faced with a potentially aggressive regime in Germany. The French adopted a diplomatic policy of appeasement and sought to placate Hitler by offering him concessions, such as allowing him to re-militarize the Rhineland. The French took no chances and began to prepare their defences. The French devoted a huge level of resources to the construction of the Maginot Line. This defensive line was named after a French Defence Minister. The French constructed a long line of fortifications along their eastern border with German. It stopped at the Belgian border. The French stationed all their forces behind the Maginot Line and adopted a defensive posture. In September 1939, the French with the British declared war on Germany. For a period of some months, there was little or no activity and this was the period known as the ‘Phoney War’. However, in the Spring of 1940, the Germans’ went on the offensive. The Battle of France lasted only 46 days, from the German invasion on the 10th of May to the surrender of France on the 25th of June 1940. Paris fell to the Germans on the 14th of June, after the virtual collapse of the French Army and the French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud, resigned on the 16 June. His successor, Marshal Philippe Pétain, began negotiations to end the war. The German army approximately suffered 157,000 casualties in the invasion of France. The Allies lost over twice as many men, with 360,000 casulaties. A further two million were captured. Some 300,000 British and French troops escaped the Germans after being evacuated by naval forces at Dunkirk. The Germans occupied the majority of France – in the south of France, the Vichy Regime established a semi-autonomous political entity, and still controlled the majority of the French Colonies [1]

-Stuka dive bomber, 1940

Superior German Army and tactics

The German army developed the Blitzkrieg tactics. This was a tactic based on high-speed and mobile attacks on the enemy’s weak points and it proved devastating in France[2]. The German victory was founded on a plan developed by the great military strategies, General Erich von Manstein. He adopted the Schlieffen Plan that was used so nearly successful in WW I [3]. However, rather than advance on a broad front through Belgium, the Germans focused two-thirds of their forces, including most of their tanks, in the Ardennes region of Belgium. This area was weakly defended, as they believed that the terrain was unsuitable for tanks. When the Germans did attack through the Ardennes they caught the French and their British allies by surprise. French believed it was impassable to tanks. Having successfully made their way into France, German forces then employed a tactic known as the ‘sickle stroke’. Sweeping across the northern plains of France at great speed, they divided the French and British forces into two parts. The British army was left isolated in Belgium and the French were left to bear the brunt of the German forces [4]. The German army was much superior to the French and the British. Hitler had built up the Germany army and in particular the air force (Luftwaffe). The Germans had developed superior weapons. In particular, they had developed superior aircraft such as the Stuka dive bomber and the Messerschmitt ME fighter plane, that wreaked havoc on the allies [5]. The Germans placed a great deal of emphasis on mobile and armoured warfare. They had superior tanks, such as Panzer Mk iv, which easily overcame the allies in almost every tank engagement in the Battle of France. It must be remembered that although the German army was superior to the French in many ways, that this did not mean that the Fall of France was inevitable.

-Eric Von Manstein.jpg 1940

French Tactics and Equipment were Poor

THE French tactics were very poor. They had failed to recognize that warfare had changed since the First World War. They were over-reliant upon the Maginot Line and they believed that this would stop any German invasion in its track and such would be their casualties that they would enter into negotiations. This over-reliance on the Maginot Line meant that they were too defensive. The French also failed to understand that the Maginot Line was inadequate and it did not extend to the entire French border with Belgium. The defensive line only partially defended France and indeed left the country open to an invasion via Belgium. Typical of the defensive mentality of the French High Command was that they failed to launch an offensive against Germany when the German Army was fighting in Poland. The French army simply waited behind the Maginot Line and waited for the Germans to attack. When the Germans did attack through the Ardennes the French army stationed in bunkers and fortifications were immediately outflanked. Even when the Germans invaded Belgium, the French General Staff continued with their cautious policy and were slow to respond to the German threat [6]

The French army was large and had been well resourced. However, it had not been modernized. It was still based on the idea that the next war would be like WW I. As a result, the French did not believe that any war with Germany, would be a mobile one, but would rather be a war of attrition, a repeat of WWI. This meant that they failed to develop their tank formations, in particular[7]. This meant that the German Panzer tanks were able to quick and powerful and quickly overcame the French on the plains of Northern France. The French also neglected their air force and many of their planes were not match for the Germans in aerial combat. The French army was unable to cope with the German Blitzkrieg tactics and therefore defeated in less than six weeks [8].

Poor Military and Political Leadership

In 1940 the French general staff was led by General Maurice Gamelan, an officer widely respected. A veteran and war hero of the First World War, he was credited developing the strategy that led to the decisive French victory at the Marne in 1914. He had also tried unsuccessfully, to modernize the army. But Gamelin was suffering from a serious illness, whose symptoms included poor concentration levels, memory loss and other cognitive difficulties Gamelin’s own memoirs, published after the war showed symptoms of paranoia and delusions of grandeur [9].. The military leadership below Gamelin was generally poor. They were slow to respond to the Germans and there was a marked reluctance to take the initiative and go on the attack. The political leadership of France was also very poor. According to one French commentator during the war, they could not inspire the French people, they were more interested in fighting among themselves that the Germans[10]. France was bitterly divided between the left and the right and this meant that there was a lack of unity in France at a critical juncture. Moreover, the military and political leadership of France was divided. The French Generals were rights wing and distrusted the left wing politicians and many French ministers did not trust the Generals. Many of the French officer corps were more worried about a Communist revolution than the Germans. For example, General Weygand was more concerned with maintaining social stability in the wake of the German invasion that actually fighting the Germans. Many later accused some French Generals of being traitors. Perhaps the greatest weakness in the French leadership was that they did not have a true war leader, as one Frenchman stated in 1942, they ‘had no Churchill’. If France had a leader of the calibre of Clemenceau in 1940, the outcome of the Battle of France could have been different [11] .

Defeatism in France

France was a powerful country with a large army and a vast Empire, that stretched around the globe. The country because of political differences was not unified and many were more loyal to their political party that the country. Many on both the extreme Left such as the Communists or the extreme right hated the French government so much, that they were only half-hearted in their response to the German invasion. Many ordinary people were disgusted with the leaderS of the Third Republic, who were widely seen as professional politicians who were venal and corrupt [12]. Furthermore, there was a general air of defeatism in the air at the start of WW II. France had a low birth rate and many were convinced that the country was degenerating, based on ideas current at the time [13]. The cultural pessimism in France meant that many, in the political and military elite believed that France could not win against the Germans and that any efforts to resist the Germans were pointless. Many believed that France was a nation in decline and that her greatest days had passed. This led to a spirit of defeatism in France in the Spring and Summer of 1940, that played an important role in the Fall of France. It must be noted that many French men and women were very patriotic and resisted the Germans with great bravery[14].


On the face of it the Fall of France, in so short a period, was remarkable. The country was protected by the Maginot Line and by a large army. It was allied to the British, who had the largest Empire in the world and was a great industrial power. However, the country fell in a matter of weeks. The reasons for the sudden defeat of France in 1940 were various. They included a failure of leadership, both at the military and the political level. The army of France was not only poor led but had inferior arms and equipment. Moreover, the Maginot Line not only failed to protect France, but it encouraged a defensive mentality that allowed the Germans to have the initiative at crucial periods. The French were bitterly divided between Many French people were pessimistic about the country and had no faith in their country’s ability to defeat the Germans. All these factors combined to ensure that the country was swiftly defeated in May-June 1940.
  1. Bond, Brian Britain, France and Belgium, 1939–1940. (London, Brassey's, 1990), p.178
  2. Bond, p. 111
  3. Bond, p. 117
  4. Blatt, Joel, The French Defeat of 1940: Reassessments (Providence, RI, Berghahn, 1997), p. 111
  5. Blatt, p. 117
  6. Cooper, M. The German Army 1933–1945, Its Political and Military Failure. Briarcliff Manor, NY: Stein and Day, 1978), p. 201
  7. Copper, p, 137
  8. Copper, p, 134
  9. Jackson, Julian T. The Fall of France: The Nazi Invasion of 1940. Oxford UP, 2003), p. 234
  10. Jackson, p 235
  11. Why Did the French Army Collapse So Quickly? – Omnibooks Magazine, (London July, 1942), p. 6
  12. Jackson, p.117
  13. Bloch, Marc Strange Defeat: A Statement of Evidence Written in 1940 (New York, NY: Norton, 1946), p. 117
  14. Copper, p, 144