Blitzkrieg- The German Invasion of France

Nazi War Machine

In 1940, in six weeks the German war machine conquered France and evicted the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from the Continent of Europe at the port of Dunkirk.

It was the most complete military victory in modern times.

There are two kinds of conventional warfare: static and maneuver. The First World War was an example of static war. You achieve victory by massive firepower, slow advances and a solid linear front.

The German Army was badly defeated in World War I. The men of all armies were used as cannon fodder. Wave after wave of men were thrown against heavy artillery bombardments and machine guns. Blitzkrieg changed that.

In May 1940, static war was replaced by the war of maneuver.

Maneuver war is a system of rapid movement where the enemy does not have time to establish a front to fight. The enemy is defeated by being overwhelmed, surrounded and forced to surrender.

The Stuka dive-bombers allowed the tanks to break through almost anywhere. They provided aerial artillery so the tanks could continue to move as they attacked.

Operation Yellow and the Fall of France

After the defeat of Poland in September 1939, WWII settled a lull until the following spring.

On April 9, 1940, German armies shattered Europe’s calm. It invaded Denmark and Norway.

Denmark fell in twenty-four hours. Norway was conquered in twenty-three days. Denmark and Norway were only stops along the way in the plan called “Fall Gelb” (Case Yellow).

Case (or Operation) Yellow was the plan for blitzkrieg in the Low Countries- Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg and France.

On May 10, 1940 German Army Group B under General Fedor von Brock launched a limited assault on the Low Countries.

At the same time, German Army Group A under General Gerd von Rundstedt launched a German thrust. It went through the Ardennes region of Belgium, Luxembourg and northeastern France.

Meanwhile, German Army Group C under General Wilhelm von Leeb held the front line along the Rhine River opposite France’s Maginot Line. The Maginot Line was a complex system of fortifications linked by pill boxes, minefields, tanks traps and barbed wire.

The Germans simply drove around it.

Panzer divisions led by Generals Erwin Rommel and Heinz Guderian, crossed the Meuse River at Dinant, Belgium and Sedan, France.

Luxembourg had no defense force and offered no resistance. German paratroopers struck deep into Holland. Dutch resistance collapsed before the British and French could arrive. Holland surrendered after five days.

The Belgians took up defensive positions at the Albert Canal at Fort Eben Emael. German troops landed on the roof of the almost impregnable fortress. Explosive charges were dropped down observation slits. The guns of Eben Emael were silenced.

German Army Group B swept into Belgium. The Belgians fought hard but were no match for the might of the Germans. Belgium surrendered on May 28.

In the south, Army Group A skirted the Maginot Line. They roared through the Ardennes. The French thought the hills and gullies of the densely wooded area were impassable to tanks. They were wrong.

German infantry poured through the “Panzer Corridor.” They held it until German tanks crossed the Meuse at Sedan and elsewhere.

The French and British tried to knock out the Gaulier Bridge at Sedan to slow the flow of tanks into France. The British and French did not stop the Germans.

Guderian’s panzers rumbled across the northwestern France. They relied on speed to protect their flanks. The tanks reached the English Channel at Abbeville on May 21.

Their drive extended the Panzer Corridor. It cut the Allied armies in two. It isolated a large pocket of British and French troops near the French port of Dunkirk.

Heinz Guderian

General Heinz Guderian was one of the first Germans to recognize the potential of tanks in modern warfare. Tanks and motorized support vehicles in fast moving mobile formations evolved into Blitzkrieg tactics.

In the 1920s, he studied British and French tank enthusiasts and built on upon their ideas. By 1928, he’d developed his own theories. He wanted to employ tanks in mass formations in combined arms attacks.

He rehearsed his theories in peacetime with bicycles and later cars. He wrote about them in his book “Actung- Panzer!” (Attention, Tank!). It heavily influenced the German army in World War II.

Guderian describes the technological developments for tanks. His book was written in 1937, two years before the outbreak of WWII.

Things like radios, gunnery skills, operating in small and large formations and operating with airplanes and artillery changed the way tanks were used. The Germans saw the tanks as a way to disrupt enemy formations from the rear.

The idea was to punch through static defenses. Tanks could take advantage of the enemy’s limited mobility by making fast, deep penetrations into the enemy’s rear area.

His theories show why the Germans dominated land warfare in the early stages of the war. Guderian was promoted to general in 1938.

In the campaigns for Poland and France, he led his armor units into action. They proved the deadly accuracy of his ideas.

Erwin Rommel

North of Sedan, France, another panzer leader was trying his skills out for the first time. Erwin Rommel was new to armor command. He had only been the commander of the 7th Panzer Division since February, 1940.

Rommel was a decorated infantry officer who fought in WWI. He wrote a book called “Infanterie Greift An” (Infantry Attacks). Rommel describes his “Stoßtruppen” (shock troops) tactics. Using speed, deception, and deep penetration into enemy territory to surprise and overwhelm the enemy.

In the book, Rommel uses small numbers of men to approach enemy lines from the direction the attack is expected. The raiders would yell and throw hand grenades to simulate a large attack. At the same time a larger body of men would attack the flanks and rear of the defenders.

The defenders would surrender. This avoided the use of lots of men and ammunition in a useless frontal assault.

The book was published in 1937. It helped Adolf Hitler to give Rommel high command in WWII. This was rare. Rommel was not from an old military Prussian family. This mold dominated the German officer corps.

Rommel was a quick learner. He applied his infantry tactics to tank warfare.

Now, twenty-two years later, Rommel crossed the Meuse River at Dinant. He led his Panzers across Flanders in a blazing assault. He moved faster and farther than any other division in military history.

His unit became known as the “Ghost” or “Phantom” division. They appeared out of nowhere. They spread confusion and terror everywhere.

On May 20, Rommel reached Arras. He turned northeast toward Lille, just southeast of Dunkirk. He arrived on May 26.

For his actions in France Rommel was awarded the Knight’s Cross (the same as the Medal of Honor)- the highest degree of the Iron Cross. He got it for his valor during the armored drive across Belgium and France.

Dunkirk

Two days earlier, most of the German armor massed for a final attack on the southern perimeter of Dunkirk. Hitler ordered the panzers to halt.

He wanted to the infantry and slower units to catch up with the fast-moving tanks. It would be one of the biggest mistakes of WWII.

The Allies threw up defenses around Dunkirk. From May 26 to June 3 the Allied Army evacuated Dunkirk. They used every boat they could including destroyers, fishing boats, yachts, motorboats and more.

The evacuation saved 338,000 British, French and Belgian troops. There is much debate among military scholars what would have happen if the Germans would have pressed the attack.

The German Army could have crushed the remaining Allied armies if they had pushed to Dunkirk. It would face that army again in the invasion of Normandy, adding in the Americans, three years later.

France Falls

After Dunkirk, the Germans turned south to deal with the remnants of the French Army. The Germans sliced through the defensive line of Paris. On June 10, Italy invaded southern France.

Paris fell on June 14. On June 20, the Germans captured Lyon. Marshall Philippe Petain, France’s new Prime Minister, called for the guns to fall silent.

On June 22, the French signed a humiliating armistice with the Germans at Compiegne.

France, a country the size of Texas, had fallen to the German Army’s lightning war in a little over five weeks. Operation Yellow ended in a shocking German victory.

Conclusion

The key to the battlefield victories of the German army in the French Campaign was mass, fast attacks.

The most important was the concept Heinz Guderian insisted upon- all tanks must by concentrated in panzer (armored) divisions. Guderian followed a long-standing maxim by Napoleon Bonaparte:

“The art of warfare can be boiled down to a single principle: concentrate a greater mass than the enemy at a single point.”

Guderian preached that massed tanks could break through anywhere. He knew the Allies had more tanks along the battle lines.

French general Charles Delestraint said, “We had 3,000 tanks and so did the Germans. We had 3,000 packs of three, the Germans had three packs of a thousand.”

The massed panzer attack spread like a flood into the Allied rear. This was main line of Allied resistance.

Rommel described as, “We must view today’s war from the cavalry viewpoint- we must lead panzer units like cavalry squadrons; we must issue commands from the panzers as they race along, just as commands were given out in earlier days from the saddle.”

This concept of massing tanks is called “Schwerpunkt” (center main line of effort).

Along with aerial artillery and cover from the Stuka dive-bombers allowed the tanks to break through almost anywhere.