Western Offensive

Western Offensive

In 1939, a group of senior German Army officers, including Erich von Manstein and Franz Halder, devised a plan to inflict a major defeat on the French Army in northern France. The Manstein Plan, as it became known, included a attack through southern Belgium that avoided the Maginot Line. The ultimate objective was to reach the Channel coast and to force the French government to surrender.

Adolf Hitler gave his approval to the Manstein Plan on 17th February, 1940, but it was not activated until the 10th May, when the Luftwaffe bombed Dutch and Belgian airfields and the German Army captured Moerdijk and Rotterdam. Fedor von Bock and the 9th Panzer Division, using its Blitzkreig strategy, advanced quickly into the Netherlands. Belgium was also invaded and the French 7th Army moved forward to help support the Dutch and Belgian forces.

The 7th Panzer Division under Erwin Rommel and the 19th Corps commanded by Heinz Guderian and the 6th and 8th Panzers led by Gerd von Rundstedt, went through the heavily wooded and semi-mountainous area of the Ardennes, an area, north of the Maginot Line. The French military had wrongly believed that the Ardennes was impassable to tanks. Seven panzer divisions reached the Meuse River at Dinant on 12th May and the following day the French government was forced to abandon Paris.

The defence of Netherlands collapsed under threat of massive area bombing on 14th May. Queen Wilhelmina, along with members of her family and the government, escaped to London.

German forces led by Paul von Kliest, Erwin Rommel, Heinz Guderian and Gerd von Rundstedt advanced towards the Channel. Except for a counterattack by 4th Armoured Division led by Charles De Gaulle, at Montcornet (17th May) and Laon (27th-29th May) the German forces encountered very little resistance.

In Belgium the German Army captured Leige and Maastricht and the home army was forced back from the Dyle River to the River Lys. On 28th May, the Belgian government surrendered unconditionally. Leopold III was arrested and interned outside Brussels but most members of his government managed to escape to England.

Winston Churchill now ordered the implementation of Operation Dynamo, a plan to evacuate of troops and equipment from the French port of Dunkirk, that had been drawn up by General John Gort, the Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). Between 27th May and 4th June, 1940, a total of 693 ships brought back 338,226 people back to Britain. Of these 140,000 were members of the French Army. All heavy equipment was abandoned and left in France.

General Maxime Weygand, the Supreme Allied Commander, tried to hold the line along the Somme and the Aisne. Now clearly outnumbered, the French Army was forced to withdraw to the Loire. The Germans occupied Paris on 14th June and two days later, Paul Reynaud, the French prime minister, was replaced by Henri-Philippe Petain, who quickly accepted German peace terms.

Under the terms of the armistice northern France and the regions north of Vichy came under German occupation. The French government, led by Henri-Philippe Petain, moved to Vichy and remained at liberty along with the French Navy and an army of 100,000 men.

During the defence of France nearly 2 million French soldiers were taken prisoner. An estimated 390,000 soldiers were killed defending France whereas around 35,000 German soldiers had lost their lives during the invasion.

Primary Sources

(1) Kurt Student was interviewed by Basil Liddell Hart, about the Western Offensive for his book The Other Side of the Hill (1948)

On January 10th a major detailed by me as liaison officer to the and Air Fleet flew from Munster to Bonn to discuss some unimportant details of the plan with the Air Force. He carried with him, however, the complete operational plan for the attack in the West. In icy weather and a strong wind he lost his way over the frozen and snow-covered Rhine, and flew into Belgium, where he had to make a forced landing. He was unable to burn completely the vital document. Important parts of it fell into the hands of the Belgians, and consequently the outline of the whole German plan for the Western offensive. The German Air Attaché in the Hague reported that on the same evening the King of the Belgians had a long telephone conversation with the Queen of Holland.

It was interesting to watch the reactions of this incident on Germany's leading men. While Goering was in a rage. Hitler remained quite calm and self-possessed. At first he wanted to strike immediately, but fortunately refrained and decided to drop the original operational plan entire. This was replaced by the Manstein plan.

(2) Heinz Guderian was interviewed by Basil Liddell Hart about Erich von Manstein after the war for his book The Other Side of the Hill (1948)

Manstein asked me if tank movements would be possible through the Ardennes in the direction of Sedan. He explained his plan of breaking through the extension of the Maginot Line near Sedan, in order to avoid the old-fashioned Schliefien plan, familiar to the enemy and likely to be expected once more. I knew the terrain from World War I, and, after studying the map, confirmed his view. Manstein then convinced General von Rundstedt and a memorandum was sent to O.K.H. (on December 4th). O.K.H. refused to accept Manstein's idea. But the latter succeeded in bringing his idea to Hitler's knowledge.

On February 7th, a war-game took place at Coblenz under the direction of General Halder, in order to discuss the Manstein plan. My proposal to attack as soon as possible over the Meuse with the panzer corps alone, and without waiting for the infantry, was heavily criticized by Halder. He judged an organized attack over the Meuse impossible before the 9th or loth day of the campaign.

A second war-game at General List's headquarters (12th Army) had the same negative results. General List examined the question of stopping the panzers after the arrival on the Meuse and waiting for the infantry to cross the river. General von Wietersheim (XIV Corps) and I protested against this solution. But in the end General von Rundstedt laid down that the panzer divisions should only gain bridge-heads over the Meuse and that no further aims should be aspired to. That was on March 6th. It became clear that General von Rundstedt had no clear conception of the capability of panzer forces. Manstein was needed there!

(3) William Stephenson went with Winston Churchill to France in May to meet Paul Reynaud. He wrote about the meeting in his book, A Man Called Intrepid (1976)

Churchill stumped up and down Reynaud's bedroom. There was "the great probability that Hitler will rule the world," he said. We must think together of how to strike and strike again, no matter what the cost nor how long the trials ahead." He faced the French Premier and then sat down heavily. His changing moods raced like clouds across his baby face. He was in turn sulky, tearful, and violent. None of it did any good. Reynaud in reply chanted the pace of Hitler's victories: Poland in twenty-six days, Norway in twenty-eight days, Denmark in twenty-four hours, Holland in five days, and Luxembourg in twelve hours. He turned sad luminous eyes on Churchill. "Belgium is finished. Now France."

(4) German sergeant described the Ju 87 Stukas in action during the Western Offensive in May 1940.

Three, six, nine, oh, behind them still more, and further to the right, aircraft and still more aircraft, a quick look in the binoculars - Stukas! And what we are about to see during the next twenty minutes is one of the most powerful impressions of this war. Squadron upon squadron rise to a great height, break into line ahead and there, there the first machines hurtle perpendicularly down, followed by the second, third - ten, twelve aeroplanes are there. Simultaneously, like some bird of prey, they fall upon their victim and release their load of bombs on the target.

Each time the explosion is overwhelming, the noise deafening. Everything becomes blended together; along with the howling sirens of the Stukas in their dives, the bombs whistle and crack and burst. A huge blow of annihilation strikes the enemy, and still more squadrons arrive, rise to a great height, and then come down on the same target. We stand and watch what is happening as if hypnotized.

(5) Erwin Rommel, led the 7th Panzer Division that broke through French defences in May, 1940.

The way to the west was now open. The moon was up and for the time being we could expect no real darkness. I had already given orders, in the plan for the breakthrough, for the leading tanks to scatter the road and verges with machine and anti-tank gunfire at intervals during the drive to Avesnes, which I hoped would prevent the enemy from laying mines.

The tanks now rolled in a long column through the line of fortifications and on towards the first houses, which had been set alight by our fire. Occasionally an enemy machine-gun or antitank gun fired, but none of their shots came anywhere near us.

Troops lay bivouacked beside the road, military vehicles stood parked in farmyards and in some places on the road itself. Civilians and French troops, their faces distorted with terror, lay huddled in the ditches, alongside hedges and in every hollow beside the road. We passed refugee columns, the carts abandoned by their owners, who had fled in panic into the fields.

On we went, at a steady speed, toward our objective. Every so often a quick glance at the map by a shaded light and a short wireless message to Divisional HQ to report the position and thus the success of 25th Panzer Regiment. Every so often a look out of the hatch to assure myself that there was still no resistance and the contact was being maintained to the rear. The flat countryside lay spread out around us under the cold light of the moon.

We were through the Maginot Line! It was hardly conceivable. Twenty-two years before we had stood for four and a half years before this selfsame enemy and had won victory after victory and yet finally lost the war. And now we had broken through the renowned Maginot Line and were driving deep into enemy territory.

(6) After the war General Paul von Kliest wrote about the French defences during the Western Offensive.

Along the Meuse there was a moderate amount of fortification, in the way of pillboxes, but these were not properly armed. If the French troops here had been adequately equipped with anti-tank guns we should certainly have noticed it, as the majority of our tanks were of the early Mark I type, and thus very vulnerable! The French divisions in the sector were poorly armed, and of low quality. Their troops, as we repeatedly found, gave up the fight very soon after being subjected to air bombing or gunfire.

(7) Basil Embry was a member of Royal Air Force who attempted to give support the the British Expeditionary Force during Germany's Western Offensive in May 1940.

In the late afternoon of the i4th May I was called upon to lead two squadrons of Blenheims in an attack against the German bridgehead at Sedan. The French had asked the R.A.F. for a supreme effort at Sedan where their army was massing for a counter-attack against the Germans in an attempt to restore the catastrophic situation in that area. In the afternoon the remaining Battle and Blenheim squadrons based in France had been thrown into the attack with disastrous results: forty out of a total of seventy-one aircraft taking part were destroyed, mostly by enemy fighters.

(8) Hugh Downing, letter to the Air Ministry (16th May 1940)

I would remind the Air Council that the last estimate which they made as to the force necessary to defend this country was fifty-two squadrons, and my strength has now been reduced to the equivalent of thirty-six squadrons.

I must therefore request that as a matter of paramount urgency the Air Ministry will consider and decide what level of strength is to be left to the Fighter Command for the defence of this country, and will assure me that when the level has been reached, not one fighter will be sent across the Channel however urgent and insistent the appeals for help may be.

I believe that if an adequate fighter force is kept in this country, if the Fleet remains in being, and if Home Forces are suitably organized to resist invasion, we should be able to carry on the war single-handed for some time, if not indefinitely. But, if the Home Defence Force is drained away in desperate attempts to remedy the situation in France, defeat in France will involve the final, complete and irremediable defeat of this country.

(9) In his book, Their Finest Hour, Winston Churchill, reported on how he heard from Paul Reynaud how France had been defeated during the Western Offensive.

About half-past seven in the morning of the 15th (May 1940) I was woken up with the news that Paul Reynaud was on the telephone at my bedside. He spoke in English, and evidently under stress. "We have been defeated." As I did not immediately respond he said again: "We are beaten; we have lost the battle." I said: "Surely it can't have happened so soon?" But he replied: "The front is broken near Sedan."

(10) General Harold Alexander served under General John Gort who gave him the task of planning the rear guard action that enabled the British Expeditionary Force to be evacuated from Dunkirk.

At Charleville, on 24 May, when the B.E.F. was absolutely ripe for the plucking, Hitler informed his astonished generals that Britain was 'indispensable' to the world and that he had therefore resolved to respect her integrity and, if possible, ally himself with her. Perhaps a less fanciful explanation of Hitler's attitude is supplied by Ribbentrop's representative at the Fuhrer's headquarters, who has left on record the comment: "Hitler personally intervened to allow the British to escape. He was convinced that to destroy their army would be to force them to fight to the bitter end."

On the military side the facts are clearer. On 23 May Field-Marshal von Rundstedt, commanding Army Group A, halted

General Guderian's XIX Army Corps when two of its panzer divisions were heading for Dunkirk, not twenty miles distant and with little or no opposition ahead. The British counter-attack at Arras on 21 May, though undertaken by no more than two mixed columns, each comprising a tank battalion, an infantry battalion, a field battery, an anti-tank battery, and a machine-gun company, had caused him some concern. He therefore called the halt in order to "allow the situation to clarify itself and keep our forces concentrated". The panzers had just reached the Channel, and the success of this British counterattack engendered the fear of a larger operation that would cut them off from their supporting infantry. The next morning he received a visit from the Fuhrer, who confirmed the stop order. The panzers were not to be risked in a possibly flooded area but preserved for future operations-presumably against the French Army. On the other hand, the Luftwaffe's 'field of action' was not to be restricted.

Actually, on the available evidence, there can be little doubt that it was at the particular instance of the Luftwaffe's commander-in-chief, Field-Marshal Goering, that in the upshot the B.E.F. Was "left to the Luftwaffe". Guderian was to write, bitterly, of the first day of the evacuation, 26 May: "We watched the Luftwaffe attack. We saw also the armada of great and little ships, by means of which the British were evacuating their forces." Guderian's bitterness was shared by the whole of the German Army High Command.

(11) Sonia Tomara, New York Tribune (14th June, 1940)

For four days and four nights I have shared the appalling hardship of 5,000,000 French refugees who are now fleeing down all the roads of France leading to the south. My story is the typical story of nine-tenths of these refugees.

I left Paris Monday night, June 10, in a big car which was to take me, my sister, Irene Tomara, and a Canadian doctor, William Douglas, who has been working with the American and civilian refugees. We loaded our car with whatever we could carry. We had enough gasoline to take us at least to Bordeaux. It was quite dark when we left. All days cars had been going toward the southern gates of Paris. Just as we departed dark clouds rose above the town, obscuring the rising crescent of the moon. I thought at first it was a storm. Then I understood it was a smoke screen the French had laid down to save the city from bombing.

We drove across the Seine bridge and in complete darkness past the Montparnasse station, in which a desperate crowd was camping. We found the so-called Italian Gate and drove past it, risking all the time the chance of being hit by trucks. But all went well for about fifteen miles. Then, as we started up the first hill, the gears of our car refused to work and the car would not move.

We managed to pull off the road and park. We were in a small suburb of Paris. As nothing could be done during the dark hours, we rolled into our sleeping bags in a ditch alongside the road and tried to sleep. But cars roared by us incessantly. Then came an air-raid alarm. Then the cars started again.

When dawn came we tried to get the car going. It would not start. We waited for hours for a mechanic, while cars passed at the rate of twenty a minute. Then we learned there were no mechanics. They had all been called into the army. But the driver of a truck stopped and inspected the car. He said it could not be repaired on the road.

We tried to buy a little truck that could take our luggage. Finally the gendarmes on the road took pity on us and stopped a military truck, asking its driver to tow us. Fortunately we had a chain. We started off at noon on the road to Fontainebleau. At that time the road was a dense stream of army and factory trucks carrying big machines. We drove all day, and at 8 p.m. got into Fontainebleau.

In Fontainebleau we located a garage. The mechanic looked at the car and said it could not be repaired in less than two days. "We have no men to repair it, anyway," the manager of the garage said. "We work only for the army." We passed the night at a hotel and in the morning started to look for a truck that could tow us. Douglas found a youngster who had a country truck, but no gasoline. He was going back to Paris. We promised him gasoline and he said he would take us to Orleans and then drive to Paris.

We were abandoning our car, which was worth at least 40,000 francs (approximately $875), but money had ceased to have significance. We reloaded our bags on the truck, which had no top, and sat on them. It was 5 p.m. We drove five miles without difficulty and then got into a stream of refugees and army cars. Refugees blocked the road by trying to get past the main line of cars, thus interfering with oncoming traffic.

At 10 p.m. we had driven less than fifteen miles from Fontainebleau. The boy driving our car was in despair. He wanted to turn back to Paris, but we would not let him. We saw thousands of cars by the roadsides, without gasoline or broken down.

We drove on in the night. Presently the road cleared, but we were off our route. Soldiers had detoured traffic to permit movement of military cars. We were driving south instead of toward Orleans. In a small village we turned off and started at a good speed through the dead of night, with lights turned off. It was fantastic. The clouds parted and the moon came up. The country seemed phantom-like. There were piles of stones in front of each village we passed, and peasants with rifles guarded these barricades. They looked at our papers and let us pass.

We arrived before the Orleans station at 3 a.m. on Thursday. After three nights and two days we had made only seventy miles. The scene near the station was appalling. People lay on the floor inside and the town square was filled. We piled our baggage and waited until daylight.

There was nothing to eat in the town, no rooms in the hotels, no cars for sale or hire, no gasoline anywhere. Yet a steady stream of refugees was coming in, men, women and children, all desperate, not knowing where to go or how.

I walked around and found a truck that was fairly empty. I talked to the driver, offering him money to take me to Tours. He would take us near Tours. For food, we had only a little wine, some stale bread and a can of ham.

The scene of the refugees around the station was the most horrible I had ever seen, worse than the refugees in Poland. Fortunately, there was no bombing. Had there been any attacks it would have been too ghastly for words. Children were crying. There was no milk, no bread. Yet social workers were doing their best and groups were led away all the time, but new ones continued to arrive.

All morning we sought means of transportation. There was none. I decided to go to Tours. I started to walk in the rain with my typewriter and sleeping bag, at last getting a lift in a car which moved slowly through a mob of refugees moving in the opposite direction. In Tours, I learned that the government had left. Also gone were most newspapermen, but a press wireless operator and the French censor were still there.

As I finish this story there is a German air raid. The sound of bombs is terrific. I hope the German bombers have not hit at the road which leads to the south, for there refugees are packed in fleeing crowds.

The catastrophe that has befallen France has no parallel in human history. Nobody knows how or when it will end. Like the other refugees, and there are millions of us, I do not know tonight when I shall sleep in a bed again, or how I shall get out of this town.

(12) Lieutenant-General Khozin, of the Red Army, wrote about the German Army in the book, Strategy and Tactics of the Soviet-German War (1943)

The claim that the German Army is "invincible" is a myth invented by the Nazi rulers. The easy victories of 1939 and 1940, on which the German militarists now preen themselves, were won not so much by their own forces as by base treachery in the countries against which they fought.

It is common knowledge that some members of the former French government were connected with German agents and deliberately led their army and people to defeat.

In the main drive against the Allies in Holland, Belgium and Luxemburg on May 10, 1940, the Germans used 107 infantry and 10 tank divisions, while the Allies used 63 infantry divisions, 4 light mechanized and 6 cavalry divisions. These Allies belonged to four different armies - the French, British, Belgian and Dutch - which actually were not under one command. Moreover, some of these armies were disunited by deep-rooted political friction and conflicting opinions on operations and strategy.