Why didn't France and the UK invade Germany in September 1939?

Why didn't France and the UK invade Germany in September 1939?

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On September 3rd 1939, when UK and France declared war on Germany, both ordinary Polish people and government officials became enthusiastic. There were spontaneous demonstrations of support for the French and British allies. People truly believed that Germans would soon be defeated.

And, from what I see, those thoughts were reasonable - if an allied offensive, no matter how poorly prepared, took place, the Allies would soon be in Berlin. Hitler left only 23 divisions on the Western front, while the Allies had 110 divisions. And those German divisions were poorly equipped. The French had 4 to 1 advantage in artillery, 80 to 1 advantage in tanks and the Germans hardly had any planes there. During the Nuremberg trials, General Alfred Jodl admitted that Germany would have easily been defeated in 1939 had the Allies helped the Poles.

Hitler gambled and concentrated the bulk of manpower, as well as nearly all mechanised units and Luftwaffe in Poland. And it's not like it was just a logistical challenge of transfering those resources to the Western front in case of an Allied offensive - the Poles managed to destroy much of that equipment and that's the reason why the Wehrmacht generals asked Hitler to postpone the invasion of France for next year.

What exactly failed in the Allied camp in 1939? Was it military intelligence? Poor strategy of supreme command?

The Phoney War (Sitzkrieg, Drôle de Guerre, etc.) seems destined to remain one of the great mysteries of history. It is difficult to comprehend now, after the fact, how such an astonishing combination of missed opportunities, wishful thinking, and indecisiveness on the part of not just one, but two great powers, could have carried on for more than half a year.

The seventh episode of the 1998 documentary series Sworn to Secrecy: Secrets of War is devoted to Sitzkrieg: The Phoney War, and a good introduction. The period is also the subject of numerous books and papers- not to mention various conspiracy theories, and certain narratives of Western betrayal, especially in Poland. Full coverage is not possible in the space of an answer here, but this excerpt from William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich covers most the popular theories:

[D]efeatism [among] the French… the memories of how France had been bled white in the First World War… the realization by mid-September that the Polish armies were so badly defeated that the Germans would soon be able to move superior forces to the west… the fear of German superiority in arms and in the air. Indeed, the French government had insisted from the start that the British Air Force should not bomb targets in Germany for fear of reprisal on French factories.

Fundamentally the answer to the question of why France did not attack Germany in September was probably best stated by Churchill. "This battle," he wrote," had been lost some years before."… The price of those sorry Allied failures to act had now to be paid, though it seems to have beeen thought in Paris and London that payment might somehow be evaded by inaction.

I will provide a bit more detail on three factors:

1. Unpreparedness

The British and French governments held Hitler to be a bully, willing to instigate border skirmishes and bark rhetoric, but not start a full-scale war over Poland. In fact, Lord Halifax, the British Foreign Minister, believed that Hitler was about to back down; on August 31, hours before the outbreak of war, he said he had seen in Hitler “the first view of the beaten fox.” So much for that.

Both Britain and France had been re-arming in anticipation of future conflict, and the French had begun to mobilize their army as early as August 26, but the process was incomplete. French commanders reported that they would not have sufficient resources to mount an offensive until 1941-42, and even if that was an exaggeration, other papers have argued that early in the war, the British and French believed time was on their side because it would give them time to coordinate and mobilize the full strengths of their overseas empires. The calculation was not to defend Poland in the short term, but to defeat Germany in the long term.

The British forces were inadequate for mounting a full-scale offensive. The air force was concerned about bombing, because it lacked the means to stop retaliatory raids; the navy could not operate freely in the Baltic Sea; the British Expeditionary Force was quite small compared to the French army. And even the last would take took several weeks to cross the Channel, by which time Poland was already doomed.

Still, Germany had deployed most of its forces in the east, and at the Nuremburg trials, their generals testified that had France and Britain taken action early in September, the course of the war would have changed and Germany might well have been defeated.

2. Misunderstanding of modern warfare

According to William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, France was bound under treaty with Poland to attack Germany within three days of the order to mobilize, and to launch a major offensive within fifteen.

Gen. Gamelin was not a timid general, but he believed that any attack required an artillery barrage, and made his offensive and defensive plans according. The French army waited in the field while fixed artillery could be brought out from storage, shipped to the front, and assembled, and wanted for planes and tanks. A direct attack on Germany in the north was not possible without violating the neutrality of Belgium and the Netherlands; in the south, the French army did invade the Saarland on September 7 to fulfill France's treaty obligation, but did not advance far into Germany, stopping short of the Siegfried Line fortifications. And shortly thereafter, the Supreme War Council decided not to proceed with invasion, and ordered the army to retreat back behind the Maginot Line.

3. Fear of wider war and hope for a peaceful settlement

And why would the Supreme War Council do that? The horror of World War I was very much in the minds of European leaders. Fear and wishful thinking led them to hold out for what now seems like a foolish amount of time.

At the outbreak of war, Germany was allied with the Soviet Union, something that became clear when Soviet forces joined the invasion two weeks later. Chamberlain and Daladier did not want to risk angering Stalin and widening the war. They might have been able to send forces to reinforce Poland from the Mediterranean, but were not yet at war with Italy, and did not want to risk provoking Mussolini.

At the same time, Hitler was intimating with diplomats that Poland would at last appease him. On September 19 he declared in a speech that he had no war aims against Britain or France, and on the 28th Germany and the Soviet Union issued a statement that the matter of Poland having been "settled" (through their conquest and partition), there was no further cause for war. And the British were in contact with disaffected Germany military officers, hoping they would influence or overthrow Hitler. It did not come to pass.

I believe the greatest mistake of the allies was made before Poland, during the Munich treaty. The Allies left Czechoslovakia to the Germans in exchange for a promise of peace which never came.

Czechoslovakia had a great defensive line, better tanks than the Germans, the same quality airplanes and totally awesome and modern artillery which the Germans totally missed. If the Allies had supported Czechoslovakia instead of throwing them to the wolves, Hitler would easily have been stopped before he started to plan to attack Poland.

Instead of that the German army nearly doubled their supplies and weapon base after the occupation of Czechoslovakia. The Germans got the most modern artillery in Europe, many tanks even better than the German ones, many airplanes, a huge load of ammunition and fuel (they had fuel for 1 week before Munich). In Czechoslovakia the Germans got also several top class factories already producing weapons. All these resources were used to conquer Poland, France and during attack the Soviet union later.

I believe this was the greatest mistake of Allies, they had chance to stop Hitler before the real war even started but they supplied them instead.

Preparing for war takes place over a matter of months, if not years. This is true physically, logistically, and psychologically. Basically, the Germans were ready for war in September 1939, the Allies were not.

One advantage enjoyed by the German army was the "practice" it had obtained in the occupation of both Austria and the modern Czech Republic (Slovakia became a satellite state). There was no resistance, but an occupation is an occupation, and the German army worked out a number of logistical bugs. What's more, they got the benefit of Austrian and Czech weapons-producing capability. The Allied armies had no similar experience.

Then there was Poland, a flat land made for German tanks in ideal (non hot, non rainy) early fall weather. Imagine a Germany army on the Polish border at the race track, supplies and ammunition in place, ready to charge across the starting line at top speed as soon as the starting gun goes off, crushing everything standing its way. With some help from the Soviet Union (totally unexpected by the Allies), the Germans are across Poland in about 30 days.

On the other side, you do have Allied armies with about a 5 to 1 numerical advantage against German defenders of the Siegfried line. A fifth of those troops are in Britain, across the English Channel, and will require time to deploy. Their symbolic importance is greater than their numerical importance, because the French won't move without them.

And the Allies weren't "at the race track," but at home, "heading down to the track." They could, and did cross the German border, but the experience of World War I had taught them that even with a 5-to-1 advantage, defeating a fortified enemy would take some time, certainly more than a month. And suppose they began to get the better of the defenders of the Siegfried line…

Buoyed by their recent victory, the invaders of Poland would have hurried back across Germany and smashed the Allied attack in late fall, possibly causing as much or more damage as they did in the invasion of France. On the other hand, the French experience (pre tank) was that they could hold on for a long time in a defensive war, which is the war they adopted.

I remember from reading Churchill's memoirs that in September 1939 it was pretty much the consensus among western generals and politicians to take the defensive strategy. Everybody remembered costly offensives of WWI and preferred to count on the Maginot Line.

Broadly speaking, there are two strategies in winning a war: "attrition" (starving the enemy into surrender) and "overwhelming" (defeating the enemy on the battlefield).

Both sides tried both strategies in the WW1, and, in the end, Entente won by attrition.

Moreover, the attempts at the battlefield victory were so costly, that the Western allies did not even consider it an option by the start of WW2.

Thus, the war plan included a rigid defense and a tight blockade, not a decisive offensive, public statements to the contrary notwithstanding.

France wasn't prepared.

The French strategy in the late 30s (including the military industry which had been greatly weakened in the 30s) did'nt include attacking Germany before 1941. They could have invaded Germany (the Ruhr would have been sufficient) in 1936 (before the Anschluss and the annexion of the Czech arm industry). But it was clearly not possible in 1939 (lack of planes, lack of an effective offnsive supply chain, lack of efficient tanks, even if they had th best models at that time).

That's why they chose a defensive/attentist posture, that, strategically, was much likelier to succeed that the crazy German attack strategy that could have failed very quickly hadn't the French been so slow to react because of their rigidity, lack of efficient intelligence (or any intelligence), obsolete command structure and some unfortunate incidents (like half of the staff of the nothern French Army getting accidentally killed just before the discovery of the German attack).

In addition to hoping for a negotiated solution, the Allies were unprepared for war. Germany had been rearming for years, while the Allies thought they were playing catch-up. They knew their industrial capacity was superior, though, not to mention strategic advantage on raw materials thanks to their colonies. That's why they were content to hold the line and exploit their economic advantages to rearm and build up a large modernized force that could be used in 1941 or even later.

The French did attack, starting on September 7, 1939. They even gained some ground. Attacking on September 7 in reaction to the September 1 invasion of Poland is actually remarkably quick. So the question might more appropriately be could they have attacked more strongly?

Saar Offensive (Wikipedia)

The French had a fortress mentality and would rather sit behind the Maginot Line than take any risky adventure.

the ineffectual Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was paralysed by indecision and churchill did not ascend to the Prime Ministership until the invasion of France on 10th May 1940.

What you had was a vacuum of leadership. Churchill on the other hand was a military man who had been involved in the charge of the dervishes during the conflict in Sudan, where he had learned the need for decisive action.

Some great answers, starting with lack of preparedness, timidity and belief that time was on their side.

However, I am surprised no one mentioned the seasonal timing. Northern European wars typically stagnate during wintertime and offensives happen in spring, summer and fall.

By attacking on Sept 1st, Germany gave itself just enough time to complete a 4-6 week offensive before the end of campaign season. Most countries then, and now, don't have much of their force in a rapid reaction stance - it will take at least a few weeks to get a unit ready for mobile activity. But every week's delay in calling up reserves and getting ready would trim that much off the Allies' timeline, should they start attacking.

In short, the timing gave a good reason for the Allies to put things off until the next year's campaign season. Of course, we now know, with hindsight that it was the wrong thing to do, but it seemed reasonable at the time.

It was a share of multiple factors.

  1. France at the time had a much smaller population than Germany, from which to draft personel. It was thought that a defensive war to grind german numerical advantage was the best way to fight this war. French generals expected a repeat of world war one, and planned accordingly, with the hindsight that in the first world war, the attacks against trenches were costly and, generally, ineffective. This proved to be a wrong assumption in the long run.
  2. Lack of national unity on the french part. To change the status quo you need a centralized government, else, everyone will avoid the risk changing the current thinking.
  3. France lacked leadership, doctrine and means (People and Materiel) to persecute an offensive war against an armed and organized Germany.
  4. Lack of interest, the stated enemy of germany was URSS, and they expected the germans and russians to kill each other on the long run.

One thing to consider is that the invasion came right after the announcement of the Soviet-German pact so the Allies were aware that it wouldn't turn in to a two front war. And in fact that the Soviets would do half the work of occupying Poland.

But primarily as other answers have touched upon France and the UK simply were not ready to launch an offensive war in September of 1939. There wasn't even a joint staff.

Clearly the desire to intervene was not there in the allied ranks. An early attack in the north by the British whilst the poles still held out would have spurred France on and forced the German army to falter. Would Churchill have gone for broke possibly Chamberlain never

Battle of France

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Battle of France, (May 10–June 25, 1940), during World War II, the German invasion of the Low Countries and France. In just over six weeks, German armed forces overran Belgium and the Netherlands, drove the British Expeditionary Force from the Continent, captured Paris, and forced the surrender of the French government.

Fatal Mistake: Why Didn't Nazi Germany Use Heavy Bombers?

The bombers that Berlin did have weren't enough to defeat Britain or the Soviet Union.

Here's What You Need to Know: The Allies made ruthless use of their heavy bombers. Why didn't Germany attempt the same?

An armada of German Heinkel He-111 bombers droned through the Ukrainian night sky on September 21, 1944, en route to Poltava Airfield in the Ukraine for a mission against American bombers parked at the base. The B-17 Flying Fortresses and their escort P-51 fighters were part of an experimental cooperative “shuttle” program between American and Russian forces known as Operation Frantic by which American strategic bomber crews based in England and Italy would fly against Axis targets in and around Berlin, lay over at Soviet Union airfields, and strike more targets on the return leg of their circuit.

The chief architect of the German bomber raid was General der Fleiger Rudolf Meister, the commander of Fliegerkorps IV, based at Brest-Litovsk. The mainstay of this particular air corps was the Heinkel He-111 medium bomber with a range of 1,400 miles. The bombers had been upgraded with advanced avionics and their crews were well trained in long-range navigation and target location. A group of Junkers Ju-88 pathfinder aircraft navigating electronically would guide the Heinkels to their target.

The armada took off from airfields near Minsk bound for their target 500 miles away. The Ju-88s dropped flares to mark the targets for the Heinkels. At 12:40 amthe Heinkels began dropping their ordnance. They roared over the airfield in several waves. Altogether, the bomb crews dropped 15 tons of high explosives on the airfield. The raid lasted 90 minutes during which the Soviets mounted a weak defense. No Soviet night fighters took off to contest the attack, and 50mm truck-mounted antiaircraft guns proved wholly inadequate for the task. Of the 73 B-17s parked at Poltava, 47 were destroyed and the remaining 26 suffered varying degrees of damage. In contrast, the Luftwaffe did not lose a single aircraft. It was an exhilarating triumph not only for Meister’s Fliegerkorps IV, but for the German military leadership and German people at a time when bad news from the front lines vastly outweighed good news.

After Germany’s defeat in World War I, the country was banned from having an air force by the Treaty of Versailles. In spite of this restriction, the Germans secretly began to rearm in the 1930s. One of the aircraft designers who most benefitted from the German rearmament was a short, bespectacled aircraft engineer named Ernst Heinkel. The native of Baden-Wurttemberg eventually became a Wehrwirtschaftsführer. Having paid his dues as an aircraft designer for various companies during World War I and in the early postwar period, 34-year-old Heinkel established his own company, Heinkel-Flugzeugwerke, in 1922 at Warnemunde in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania.

In the postwar period, Heinkel was fixated on fielding the world’s fastest passenger aircraft. He was passionate about high-speed flight and was keen on exploring different forms of aircraft propulsion. Because of his interest in propulsion, he donated aircraft to aviation wizard Wernher von Braun, who was exploring rocket propulsion for aircraft. Many of his colleagues in the German aircraft industry were dismissive of Heinkel’s concepts and ideas, but that was generally the case with all innovators.

In June 1933, Albert Kesselring, who at the time headed the Luftwaffe Administration Office, wanted to build a German Luftwaffe whose air wings were composed of modern aircraft. Kesselring convinced Heinkel to relocate his factory and increase his work force to 3,000 employees. Among the aircraft that Heinkel would develop under a government-sponsored program was a fast medium bomber. To disguise the work so that Germany would not be found in violation of the Treaty of Versailles, the Luftwaffe requested in 1934 that Heinkel design and build a commercial airliner incorporating Germany military specifications that could be converted to a medium bomber.

Heinkel entrusted the project to gifted aircraft designers Siegfried and Walter Gunter. The Gunter brothers designed what would come to be regarded as a classic World War II airplane. The He-111 not only incorporated the latest aerodynamic features and structural refinements, but also handled well and performed to the designers’ expectations.

The Gunter brothers had designed the He-70 Blitz, a German mail plane and fast passenger aircraft in 1932, and they incorporated many of its best features into the medium bomber they were building. The first prototype was tested in February 1935, but it was found to be under powered, and therefore required significant changes. The design team subsequently replaced the original 600 horsepower BMW engines with 1,000 horsepower Daimler-Benz engines for the 111B series.

The He-111E series aircraft came off the production line in February 1938 and were flown to Spain where they joined the bomber fleet operated by the German Condor Legion fighting for the Nationalist cause during the Spanish Civil War. Afterward, the Heinkel team made some minor refinements to the aircraft, such as raising the pilot’s seat so that he could see over the glazed cockpit if necessary because it proved difficult to see through in extremely bright sunshine and in rainstorms. During this period the crew increased from four to five as more machine guns were added for protection against enemy fighters.

The He-111P, which incorporated these improvements, went into action in the skies over Poland when the Germans invaded that country in September 1939. The Kampwaffe, or bomber force, in Poland consisted of 705 Heinkel He-111s and 533 Dornier Do-17s.

During the first half of 1940, the He-111s became a workhorse of the German Luftwaffe. They harassed British shipping in the North Sea, participated in the invasion of Denmark and Norway, and supported Wehrmacht forces in the Low Countries and France. They played a key role in the bombing of Rotterdam on May 14, 1940, which was intended to ensure the Dutch surrender. During the fall of France, they harassed Allied troops attempting to evacuate from the Dunkirk beaches.

After the fall of France, the Luftwaffe began preparing for the Battle of Britain. The He-111H, which could deliver 5,500 pounds of bombs, inflicted an impressive amount of destruction. Whereas in the Spanish Civil War the Heinkel bomber could outrun enemy fighters, this was not the case during the Battle of Britain. During the three-month campaign that began in July 1940, the Heinkels faced fierce resistance from Royal Air Force Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires. Their one advantage lay in their large numbers because there generally were not enough fighters in the skies to stop the incoming bombers. Still, the campaign revealed substantial defensive deficiencies in regard to speed, armor, and weapons.

In the strikes on Great Britain, it soon became evident that the bombers needed an escort. Even better, the bombers needed their own defensive capabilities. Heinkel engineers placed machine guns in the nose and tail and a 20mm cannon in the ventral gondola. To man the guns, it was necessary to add more crew as well. The aircraft eventually had five crewmembers: a pilot, navigator-bombardier-nose gunner, dorsal gunner/radio operator, ventral gunner, and side gunner. The redesign called for machine-gun positions in the glass nose and in the flexible ventral, dorsal, and lateral positions of the fuselage.

The Heinkel design team developed a variant specifically for attacking Allied surface vessels. The He-111J-1 was designed to serve as a torpedo bomber. It boasted two external torpedo racks in lieu of an internal bomb bay. But following a short period in service, the Kriegsmarine discarded it because the service felt it required too many crew members to operate.

The He-111 also saw action in the Balkans and North Africa and during the invasion of the Soviet Union. The He-111 would have a long career on the Eastern Front not only conducting raids against the Soviet rail network, but also serving as a transport workhorse along with the venerable Junker Ju 52. During the Battle of Stalingrad, the He-111F was one of the aircraft used to fly food and ammunition to the encircled German Sixth Army during the winter of 1942-1943.

The first versions of Germany’s V-1 Flying Bombs were launched in the summer of 1944 not from rocket launchers as they would be later in the war, but from He-111Hs. To launch the powerful weapon, the pilot approached the target below 300 feet to avoid detection by British radar. As the aircraft approached the coast of England, the pilot would increase the altitude of his aircraft to 1,700 feet, which was deemed the minimum altitude for a safe launching. He then released the cruise missile. Over a period of seven weeks, it was reported that the Luftwaffe launched more than 300 of the bombs against London. The initial missions achieved great success however, during the next six months only 240 of the 1,200 V-1s reached their intended targets.

As the Luftwaffe was putting other bombers, such as the He-177 and the Dornier 217, into service, the He-111 became increasingly obsolete. As the war moved into its final phase, it became obvious that it was too late to begin developing a replacement for the He-111. For that reason, the Luftwaffe continued to produce the He-111, but eventually the beleaguered Third Reich stopped building bombers altogether in order to produce fighters to defend the Fatherland against Allied air raids. Altogether, Germany built 6,500 He-111s during World War II.

3. The Luftwaffe’s fighting strength was Blitzkrieg

It worked best in the short, fast “lightning war”, supported by air strikes – dominating Britain at length was not the kind of mission it was experienced in conducting.

The Battle of Britain consisted of several phases, with Germany’s widespread attacks designed to lure British fighter planes into action and inflict heavy losses upon the RAF.

Initially, the Luftwaffe’s aircraft totalled more than 2,500, outnumbering the RAF’s 749, though Britain managed to step-up the production of fighter planes, building them faster than Germany. Ultimately, however, the battle would prove to be about more than who had the most aircraft.

Why didn't Britain and France do anything to help Poland when it was invaded by Germany in 1939?

There were several reasons. First, it should be noted that they did demand Germany withfraw and when she didn't they declared war, but you mean why didn't they contribute materially to Poland's defense. First of all, they weren't ready for war in September of 1939. They needed time to call up their reserves and get their men and equipment ready to fight. England in particular had only a small regular army. Secondly, the only way to get any troops into Poland would have been by way of the North Sea and the German navy and Air Force were strong enough to prevent that. Thirdly, most French and British generals thought the second war would be much like the first, that offensive manuevers would be almost impossible against well entrenched defenders. Thus they thought the Poles would be able to defend themselves better than they did, and that the Germans would wear themselves out attacking the Maginot line. The Germans quickly showed them that this was goping to be a whole different war with very fast maneuvers conducted by tanks. But the French and british had to learn that lesson the hard way.Michael Montagne

Britain did not 'go to war over' Poland but just declared war on Germany.

According to the Polish-British Common Defence Pact Britain signed with Poland on August 25th 1939 mutual military assistance was promised between the nations in the event either was attacked by another European country.

Britain provided no meaningful assistance to Poland so effectively did not honour the treaty and abandoned Poland to fight Germany alone. Shame Britain!

Why did the French stop the Saar Offensive(1939)?

I know they had numerical superiority, most of the German army was in Poland, and the Siegfried line was still undermanned. Why didn't the French army just continue with their invasion of merely defended Germany?

"Poland proved a terrible disappointment. Gamelin had expected it to hold out between four and six months, but within a week of the German invasion this was revealed as a wildly optimistic prediction. On 7 September, French forces advanced beyond the Maginot Line into the Saar. They halted on 12 September, having moved about 8 km along a line of about 12 km, and ‘taken’ a handful of abandoned German villages. This ‘Saar offensive’, which involved only ten divisions, represented the full extent of western assistance to Poland. On 4 October, after Poland’s defeat, the French fell back behind the Maginot Line. The defeat of Poland meant that Gamelin was faced earlier than he had expected by the prospect of an attack in the west. During the autumn there were frequent alerts about an imminent German invasion." "The Fall of France The Nazi Invasion of 1940" Julian Jackson, p. 75.

There was a very pervasive sense of fear and anxiety in the French military command and in the French Legislature in 1939 and 1940. Although they did declare war on Germany (several hours after the UK, and only after the Foreign Minister Bonnet spent several days desperately hoping for Munich Pt II) and they did spend around time in the Saarland in September 1939, the entire command structure had this dread of taking offensive action that they thought would lead to World War I, Part II. (I know, but bear with me.) France had a serious demographic gap at that point in time, hitting the so-called "hollow years" with seriously insufficient numbers of young men who should have been reaching draftable ages in their late teens and early twenties. The government was extremely hesitant to go on the offensive, because they already saw France after WWI as a land of widows and orphans. It was very easy in this period for defense-oriented military tactics to be held up high, because they didn't frighten either the old pacifists on the left or the new pacifists on the right. They were able to argue (and it was later argued very interestingly by Pétain in summer 1940, who claimed that it had been fulfilled) that their treaty obligation to Poland did not require going on the offensive in Germany, but in preparing for the future German attack, which, they hoped, they would be able to fight off. Didn't quite work that way, but that was a major part of the idea -- the very real fear among the military and political cadres that war would just destroy the population.

Race to the coast

The decision to evacuate saved the BEF from annihilation © A potentially decisive counterattack by two high quality French armoured and motorised divisions fizzled out into some fierce, but ultimately inconclusive fighting. Under the dynamic command of General Heinz Guderian, a pioneer of armoured warfare known euphemistically as 'Hurry-up Heinz', the German Panzers broke out of their bridgehead. They began to race towards the Channel coast, aided by the German aircraft that ruled the skies.

With the bulk of the Allied forces fighting in Belgium, there was little to stop the German forces as they sliced across the Allied supply-lines. The German spearheads reached the English Channel on 20 May.

. there was little to stop the German forces as they sliced across the Allied supply-lines.

Lacking a centrally placed strategic reserve, the Allies tried to pull their armies out of Belgium to respond to the new threat emerging in their rear. And the Germans did not have it all their own way, as French forces under Charles de Gaulle showed how vulnerable the flanks of the German forces were to bold counterattacks.

Then at Arras on 21 May, a scratch force of British tanks and infantry gave a rough reception to Erwin Rommel's 7th Panzer Division. Yet this was all too little, too late. With German forces pushing through Belgium and the Panzers looping up from the south and west, the Allies were encircled. The Belgian army surrendered on 28 May, leaving a gaping hole on the British flank of the Allied forces.

Allied high command seemed paralysed. General Weygand replaced General Gamelin as French commander-in-chief, but it made no difference. Then General Lord Gort, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), on 23/4 May took the morally courageous decision to abandon his role in a projected Anglo-French counterattack, and fell back on the Channel ports.

The French, not surprisingly, regarded this as a betrayal, but Gort's decision saved the BEF. Between 26 May and 4 June, a hastily organised evacuation by sea, code-named Operation Dynamo, lifted 338,000 Allied troops from Dunkirk.

That the German forces failed to press their attack on Dunkirk was largely thanks to grim defence of the Dunkirk perimeter by British and French troops, and the efforts of the much-depleted RAF.

Although as Churchill, who had become Prime Minster on 10 May rightly commented, 'wars are not won by evacuation', Dynamo was a victory of incalculable importance for the BEF. The return of the troops, even without much of their equipment, gave Britain a basis on which to rebuild the Army, sheltering behind the Navy and the RAF. It also strengthened the credibility of Churchill's insistence that Britain would fight on, thus influencing the neutral USA at a time when American aid was vital.


While France was protected by the Maginot Line and a fairly large army, it put up little resistance to Germany. It only took a few weeks for the entire country to fall. The reasons for the sudden defeat of France in 1940 were numerous and varied.

They included a failure of leadership, both at the military and the political level. The army of France was not only poorly led but had been equipped with 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 take the initiative at crucial points during the invasion. The French public was also bitterly divided.

These political divisions and incompetent leadership convinced many French citizens that their country could not defeat Germany. All these factors combined ensured a swift between May and June 1940.

A pragmatic future?

While it might appear that the French and British governments are intractably divided over Brexit, the history of Franco-British relations highlights the importance of pragmatism in overcoming mutual suspicions. The entangled histories of the UK and France are a potent reminder of their close ties, but the ongoing political, defence and economic connections provide a powerful incentive for continued cooperation. This will be all the more important because just as the UK is seeking to reposition itself post-Brexit, so France is seeking to do the same.

After the UK leaves the EU, France will be the only major military power in the EU with an independent nuclear deterrent and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Macron has already shown himself to be an adept diplomat and a pro-business leader. He has made no secret of his ambitions for France to exploit the opportunities arising from Brexit.

Relations between the UK and France will need recalibrating post-Brexit, but will not necessarily need any wholescale reimagining. As the history of the two countries’ relations shows, it is when pragmatism prevails that they have worked together most effectively.


  1. Galvyn

    Well written, if in more detail, of course. Would be much better. But in any case, it is true.

  2. Jensen

    about such I did not hear

  3. JoJobei

    Quite right! Exactly.

  4. Benson

    Said in confidence.

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