Gaston Billotte

Gaston Billotte

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Gaston Billotte was born in Sommeval, France in 1875. After graduating from St. Cyr in 1896 he joined the naval infantry. He made steady progress in the French Army and in 1930 became commander of all troops in Indochina.

In 1937 Billotte was appointed as military governor of Paris and on the outbreak of the Second World War was given the command of the 1st French Army Group. After protecting the Maginot Line his troops into Belgium during the Western Offensive. On 12th June he was made head of all Allied troops in Holland. When the Dutch surrendered two days later, Billotte ordered all Allied troops to withdraw to the Escaut River.

Soon after leaving a conference with General Maxime Weygand at Ypres on 21st May 1940, Billotte was involved in a car accident. Gaston Billotte died after two days in a coma.

Gaston Billotte - History

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland under the false pretext that the Poles had carried out a series of sabotage operations against German targets near the border, an event that caused Britain and France to declare war on Germany.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the events of September 1, 1939

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Following several staged incidents that German propaganda used as a pretext to claim that German forces were acting in self-defense, the first regular act of war took place on September 1, 1939, when the Luftwaffe attacked the Polish town of Wieluń, destroying 75% of the city and killing close to 1,200 people, most of them civilians.
  • As the Wehrmacht advanced, Polish forces withdrew from their forward bases of operation close to the Polish-German border to more established lines of defense to the east. After the mid-September Polish defeat in the Battle of the Bzura, the Germans gained an undisputed advantage.
  • On September 3 after a British ultimatum to Germany to cease military operations was ignored, Britain and France declared war on Germany.
  • On October 8, after an initial period of military administration, Germany directly annexed western Poland and the former Free City of Danzig and placed the remaining block of territory under the administration of the newly established General Government.

Key Terms

  • Battle of the Border: Refers to the battles that occurred in the first days of the German invasion of Poland in September, 1939 the series of battles ended in a German victory as Polish forces were either destroyed or forced to retreat.
  • Gleiwitz incident: A false flag operation by Nazi forces posing as Poles on August 31, 1939, against the German radio station Sender Gleiwitz in Gleiwitz, Upper Silesia, Germany on the eve of World War II in Europe. The goal was to use the staged attack as a pretext for invading Poland.

The Invasion of Poland

The Invasion of Poland, also known as the September Campaign, was a joint invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany, the Free City of Danzig, the Soviet Union, and a small Slovak contingent that marked the beginning of World War II in Europe. The German invasion began on September 1, 1939, one week after the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, while the Soviet invasion commenced on September 17 following the Molotov-Tōgō agreement that terminated the Russian and Japanese hostilities in the east on September 16. The campaign ended on October 6 with Germany and the Soviet Union dividing and annexing the whole of Poland under the terms of the German-Soviet Frontier Treaty.

German forces invaded Poland from the north, south, and west the morning after the Gleiwitz incident. As the Wehrmacht advanced, Polish forces withdrew from their forward bases of operation close to the Polish-German border to more established lines of defense to the east. After the mid-September Polish defeat in the Battle of the Bzura, the Germans gained an undisputed advantage. Polish forces then withdrew to the southeast where they prepared for a long defense of the Romanian Bridgehead and awaited expected support and relief from France and the United Kingdom. While those two countries had pacts with Poland and declared war on Germany on September 3, in the end their aid to Poland was limited.

The Soviet Red Army’s invasion of Eastern Poland on September 17, in accordance with a secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, rendered the Polish plan of defense obsolete. Facing a second front, the Polish government concluded that defense of the Romanian Bridgehead was no longer feasible and ordered an emergency evacuation of all troops to neutral Romania. On October 6, following the Polish defeat at the Battle of Kock, German and Soviet forces gained full control over Poland. The success of the invasion marked the end of the Second Polish Republic, though Poland never formally surrendered.

On October 8, after an initial period of military administration, Germany directly annexed western Poland and the former Free City of Danzig and placed the remaining block of territory under the administration of the newly established General Government. The Soviet Union incorporated its newly acquired areas into its constituent Belarusian and Ukrainian republics and immediately started a campaign of sovietization. In the aftermath of the invasion, a collective of underground resistance organizations formed the Polish Underground State within the territory of the former Polish state. Many military exiles who managed to escape Poland subsequently joined the Polish Armed Forces in the West, an armed force loyal to the Polish government in exile.

A map of Europe depicting the Invasion of Poland from Germany and the Soviet Union.

Details of September 1 Invasion

Following several staged incidents (like the Gleiwitz incident, part of Operation Himmler), in which German propaganda was used as a pretext to claim that German forces were acting in self-defense, the first regular act of war took place on September 1, 1939, when the Luftwaffe attacked the Polish town of Wieluń, destroying 75% of the city and killing close to 1,200 people, mostly civilians. This invasion subsequently began World War II. Five minutes later, the old German pre-dreadnought battleship Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on the Polish military transit depot at Westerplatte in the Free City of Danzig on the Baltic Sea. Four hours later, German troops—still without a formal declaration of war issued—attacked near the Polish town of Mokra. The Battle of the Border had begun. Later that day, Germans attacked on Poland’s western, southern and northern borders while German aircraft began raids on Polish cities. The main axis of attack led eastwards from Germany proper through the western Polish border. Supporting attacks came from East Prussia in the north and a co-operative German-Slovak tertiary attack by units from German-allied Slovakia in the south. All three assaults converged on the Polish capital of Warsaw.

Invasion of Poland: Soldiers of the German Wehrmacht tearing down the border crossing between Poland and the Free City of Danzig, September 1, 1939.

War Erupts

On September 3 after a British ultimatum to Germany to cease military operations was ignored, Britain and France, followed by the fully independent Dominions of the British Commonwealth—Australia (3 September), Canada (10 September), New Zealand (3 September), and South Africa (6 September)—declared war on Germany. However, initially the alliance provided limited direct military support to Poland, consisting of a cautious, half-hearted French probe into the Saarland.

The German-French border saw only a few minor skirmishes, although the majority of German forces, including 85% of their armored forces, were engaged in Poland. Despite some Polish successes in minor border battles, German technical, operational, and numerical superiority forced the Polish armies to retreat from the borders towards Warsaw and Lwów. The Luftwaffe gained air superiority early in the campaign. By destroying communications, the Luftwaffe increased the pace of the advance, overrunning Polish airstrips and early warning sites and causing logistical problems for the Poles. Many Polish Air Force units ran low on supplies, and 98 withdrew into then-neutral Romania. The Polish initial strength of 400 was reduced to just 54 by September 14, and air opposition virtually ceased.

The Western Allies also began a naval blockade of Germany, which aimed to damage the country’s economy and war effort. Germany responded by ordering U-boat warfare against Allied merchant and warships, which later escalated into the Battle of the Atlantic.

Hitler Wins: How the Nazi's Wehrmacht Overran France

Berlin's generals made tough decisions under great stress.

Key point: Berlin was able to use combined arms to shock and defeat the Allied armies. But it also took a lot of initiative--including ignoring some orders from above.

May 10, 1940, marked the beginning of the war in western Europe. Nazi-controlled Germany invaded Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France. For several days, it appeared to Allied commanders that the assault was a revised version of the attack of August 1914. They could see, of course, that there were new elements—the use of paratroopers and gliders to overwhelm strongpoints, and of Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive-bombers as close air support to disrupt marshaling and supply areas behind the front lines—but they believed the main thrust toward France was coursing through Belgium, as it had in 1914.

Calmly, the Allied commanders believed they had a plan to deal with the massive invasion. They thought they had the situation under control. Within days, they could see that they did not have the situation under control at all. Their plan was ruined as disarray and chaos spread like floodwaters from a swelling river. This climate of confusion bred hasty decisions on both sides that would have long-lasting effects.

A Freak Accident Changes the Course of the War

Most major decisions affecting May 10-28, 1940—that is, up to the time of the mass evacuations from Dunkirk—were necessarily made months earlier. They were made by the high military commands of both sides based on their objectives and the perceived intentions of the other. By a cruel twist of fate, however, the most major decision that had been made before the shooting started was the result of a freak accident, which changed the German attack plan to one that proved astonishingly successful.

Through the fall of 1939, the Wehrmacht was to follow a modified Schlieffen Plan, pressing its strength through the Low Countries in a wide right-flank sweep touching the English Channel. The Germans would push back the Allied armies and then continue on to Paris, ostensibly knocking France out of the war and bringing Britain to terms.

On January 10, however, a German military plane carrying two officers lost its way in the clouds near the German-Belgian border. It sought refuge on the ground and, although believing it was landing in Germany, actually set down in Belgium. Belgian soldiers rushed to the plane. One of the German officers, bearing the Wehrmacht plans for the main thrust through the Low Countries, immediately tried to burn the documents. The Belgians seized them, and the German attack plan was in Allied hands.

Von Manstein’s Bold New Plan

Hitler was furious. He meant to launch the offensive on January 17 and now realized he would have to delay. Into these anxious days stepped Lt. Gen. Erich von Manstein, who promoted a scheme that called for the drive through the heart of the Low Countries to be a massive one, but nonetheless a diversion. By his lights, the best fighting troops, the swiftest and the strongest—the panzer divisions—would be sent south, to just north of the end of the Maginot Line, for an attack through the Ardennes region in southern Belgium and Luxembourg.

The idea was to make the French, British, and Belgians believe that the main attack would come through central Belgium and send their best troops there. Meanwhile, the panzers would break through the weak defenses on the French side of the Ardennes and burst into the rear of the Allied armies fending off German forces farther north.

At worst, the panzers would wreak havoc among the secondary troops of the Allies. At best they would drive to the Channel to cut off the northern armies from both their line of supply and their fellow armies to the south. Their backs to the Channel, pressed from east, south, and west, the Allied northern armies might be compelled to surrender. A million fighting men in prisoner of war camps would be a powerful bargaining chip in any discussion of terms dictated by the Germans.

The new Wehrmacht plan was risky. In the Ardennes, the panzers would have narrow roads to travel and poor bridges to cross. They would be lined up end to end for miles, vulnerable to concerted air attack. They would still have to breach the strong French defenses at the Meuse River, but if they could overwhelm the Meuse defenses there would be little to stop their drive all the way to either Paris or the Channel. Still, their thrust across northern France would necessarily be narrow and thus vulnerable to attacks that could potentially sever their lines of supply.

Nevertheless, Hitler had proved he was a gambler, and a lucky one. He approved the plan and set it in motion on May 10.

The Allies’ Plans Play into Hitler’s Hands

The pre-attack decisions of the Allies played precisely into his hands. The Allied leaders had always believed the main German effort would come through Holland and central Belgium. They had thus decided to place their best fighting troops opposite the expected thrust through central Belgium. The remaining troops would be formed along the Ardennes where little trouble was expected, and static troops could man the Maginot Line along the border with Germany itself where they could repulse any German drive in that area.

Thus the big decisions and dispositions were made, but the French and British could not station themselves on Belgian territory. The Belgians did not want to provoke the Germans, so they held the French and British at arm’s length. They made only cursory coordination of defense efforts with the French and British, who were compelled to remain on the French side of the border. The Allied plan necessarily had to be to wait until Germany violated Belgian neutrality, then advance into that country and stop the Germans just as they had in 1914-1918. Such an advance and engagement with the German thrust into central Belgium would, of course, be exactly what the Wehrmacht wanted. The Allied armies would be further removed and less likely to interfere with panzers clanking into their rear to the southeast.

The German plan worked to perfection. Once Wehrmacht Army Group B advanced into Holland and Belgium on May 10, the 35-division Allied Army Group One under French General Gaston Billotte, which included the nine divisions of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), wheeled into Belgium. From the start, things went badly for the Allies. The Germans were much swifter in the Low Countries than they had expected. Luftwaffe bombers created havoc at marshaling and supply points. Fleeing refugees clogged the roads on which the Allied armies needed to advance. The defensive positions the Belgians had been building along canals and rivers were not nearly as strong as the French and British had hoped they would be. Communication among French, British, and Belgian commands was poor. Still, the Allied command believed the attack was unfolding as they had foreseen. Major decisions on the fly were not needed.

Allies Thrown into Chaos by the German Breakthrough

That is, until the Germans broke out of the Ardennes and overpowered the defenses along the Meuse. With that river barrier broken, the Allied plan for the defense of Belgium and northern France was suddenly obsolete and many days of confusion and chaos were at hand. The next two weeks were pregnant with fateful decisions, all made in the fog of confusion and poor military intelligence.

The reaction among the French commanders to the breakthrough at Sedan was mainly one of disbelief and paralysis. The overall Allied commander, General Maurice Gamelin, operating from his Vincennes (a Paris suburb) headquarters, was not using radio for communications, but rather an unreliable civilian telephone system and motorcycle riders. The riders had great difficulties on the clogged roads and were sometimes injured or killed in accidents. Word did not get to BEF commander John Standish Vereker Lord Gort of the important German thrust at Sedan until May 14, or that they had broken into the rear area of Army Group One until May 16.

The French Ninth Army, which was positioned to halt any drive through the Ardennes, was by then coming apart. The Ninth’s soldiers were not well trained and, once confusion became infectious, they could not stand up to the German power relentlessly driving at them. This was due partly to the fact that the front was shifting so fast that commanding officers did not know where it was. Junior officers received orders that were obviously long out of date. Moreover, many junior officers became separated from their men. Hundreds of soldiers fled for home whole companies and battalions ceased to exist. The Ninth’s commanding officer, General André Corap, was sacked on the 15th.

Some soldiers of the Ninth did what they could, but coordination was beyond them. The panzers of General Heinz Guderian’s XIX Armored Corps clattered on, ferociously intent on driving all the way to the sea. Gamelin had to confess to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill on the 16th that there was no reserve to stop them, or, to be more exact, what reserves were available were scattered and could not be effectively concentrated to staunch the flow of Germans out of Sedan.

This same day, the 16th, Gort learned that the First French Army, which was on his right, was preparing to pull back. He was furious. No one had told him his flank would be exposed. Finally, Billotte issued orders for a coordinated retreat over the next two days to the River Escaut, there to make a stand. By this time Gort was losing faith in his French commanders and comrades in arms. Lack of communication, lack of coordination, confusion, and even chaos were overtaking the Allied command structure. The fog of war descended with a vengeance.

In particular, Gamelin seemed unable to take any decisive action. He was allowing Alphonse Georges, in command of northeastern France, to control the battles, but Georges was ineffective as well. Only one concerted French counterstroke was launched. This was made by Colonel Charles de Gaulle, who commanded an armored counterattack at Montcornet west of Sedan on the 17th. It made an impact, but lacked the strength to hold up Guderian for long.

Gamelin Tries a Counterstroke

Finally, Gamelin could see his way to a counterstroke. He wanted Georges and Billotte with the northern armies, including the BEF, to divert themselves from the Germans in central Belgium long enough to attack south in France behind the westward-driving panzers. Gamelin would try to muster some strength south of the panzers to attack north, meeting up with Billotte and thus cutting off the Wehrmacht armor from supplies and infantry following behind to consolidate the panzer’s gains.

Such a two-fronted attack would have been difficult under any circumstances. Both north and south of the panzer thrust, the Allied soldiers had been fighting or on the move for days. In addition, communication was bad enough on one side of the German penetration, but leaping it for a coordinated attack from both north and south toward the same objective and at the same time would be a tremendous undertaking.

In any event, Billotte was losing heart. On the 18th, when the retreating northern armies were meant to make a stand along the River Escaut, Billotte admitted he was physically worn out and did not know how he could deal with the panzers crossing toward the Channel behind his armies. Indeed, at the beginning of the day the panzers were at St. Quentin and by the end of it at Peronne. Gort, who was receiving precious little information, orders, or guidance from Billotte, could see that his own rear echelon troops were likely to be chewed up and his supply lines threatened. Along with the French northern armies and the Belgian Army, his force was in danger of being cut off from the Allied armies around Paris and farther south.

Gort Considers Acting on His Own

It seemed to Gort that in this demoralizing situation he could press for one of three courses. The first was to fight the Germans advancing through central Belgium, thus running the risk of being cut off. The second, in the vein of Gamelin’s recent thinking, was to attack the Germans behind and to the south of him in an effort to reconnect with the Allied forces north of Paris. Such an attack would hopefully be coordinated with a French attack north from the Somme toward the same point. The third option was to move toward the Channel and fight from a beachhead, to be supplied by ships or, if need be, evacuated.

Even in thinking along these lines, Gort was passing into uncharted territory. He was supposed to be taking his orders from Billotte, not devising his own ideas for Allied strategy. Because Billotte was communicating only sporadically and the French high command was in such disarray, Gort felt he had to undertake some strategic thinking of his own. In this he was not totally out of line his charge from the British War Cabinet, and endorsed by the French command, was that if he received an order from the French that he felt would endanger the BEF he could appeal to the British government. He was beginning to believe that the absence of orders in a time of confusion was indeed putting the BEF in mortal danger.

On the 19th, French Premier Paul Reynaud sacked Gamelin as the supreme Allied commander and replaced him with General Maxime Weygand, flown in from Beirut, Syria. Weygand suspended Gamelin’s plan and decided to take a tour of the front. For the next two days he was on the road. Thus, in a time of crisis and chaos, the Allied armies were virtually leaderless at the top.

When Churchill learned Gort was considering a retreat to the Channel as an option for the BEF, he was aghast. The prime minister had no conception that the situation was so serious. Retreat to the coast seemed like concentrating the armies into a “bomb trap.” He sent the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), Edmund Ironside, across the Channel to Gort’s headquarters to dissuade Gort from retreating. Ironside arrived there on the 20th.

When Ironside reached Gort, he ordered him to attack south. Gort had a high sense of duty, but he was skeptical at best. He told Ironside that seven of his nine divisions were fighting on the line and that to pull them out for an attack south would merely allow the Germans into the breach. Indeed, now that Ironside was closer to the action and confusion, he began to come around to Gort’s view. Ironside then met with Billotte and First French Army commander Georges Blanchard near the French town of Arras. He recognized their dejection and inability to devise a comprehensive counterstroke. “Situation desperate,” Ironside noted in his diary for this day. That evening, Guderian’s 2nd Panzer Division rolled into Abbeville, which lies at the mouth of the Somme. A million Allied soldiers were cut off from their comrades in the south.

Weygand, having concluded his tour, called a meeting of top commanders. He sketched out plans for an attack that differed hardly at all from Gamelin’s scheme of three days previous. By now, vital time had been lost. The plan called for the BEF and Blanchard’s First French Army to attack south near Arras in an attempt to link with French forces fighting north from the Somme. Coordination would be vital, but dire problems continued to plague the Allies. General Billotte, the man most knowledgeable of Weygand’s plan, suffered mortal injury in an automobile accident shortly after the meeting. Overall command of Army Group One passed to First Army commander Blanchard, whose energy was about exhausted. Communication across the German-occupied territory was tenuous.

Gort’s Counterattack is Rebuffed

Gort, never keen on the southward attack plan to begin with, nevertheless ordered parts of his two reserve divisions to the counterattack on the 21st. A strong French armored advance, which was to take place on the same day and alongside the British, was delayed.

The BEF attack near Arras comprised 74 tanks. They caught the SS Totenkopf (Death’s Head) Division traveling west in unarmored trucks following behind a panzer column. For a time, the British had it all their way, and the Germans fell into disarray. The British tanks, however, had traveled far from Belgium their treads were worn, their radios dead. General Erwin Rommel, commanding the 7th Panzer Division, although concerned for a time, counterattacked with a very strong force. He used his 88mm antiaircraft guns against the British tanks. He enjoyed better communication with his air force, which sent Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive-bombers down on British infantry columns virtually unimpeded by Allied aircraft. Moreover, the French attack north hardly materialized beyond the marshaling stage and got nowhere.

By the end of the day, the British attack was contained. The Germans pursued but ran into the strong French armored force that was meant to have advanced alongside the British. Through the night the French heavy tanks chewed up the German armor, but with daylight, the German 88s and the Stukas began to turn the tide.

The British could not muster an attack on the 22nd and did not tell the French they were pulling out of the fight. The French attacked, but could not make progress. The drive south, although it had given the German commanders a disturbing shock, was blocked. Nevertheless, it had consequences far beyond its meager success, as would play out two days later.

Now along the Belgian-French border there were three mind-sets—four, if that of the Germans is included. The Belgians, pushed back with the French and BEF, were fighting for their homeland, but there was precious little of it not under German control. The French, very near their homeland or actually in it, were fighting for France, nearly all of which was still in French hands. The BEF was fighting for the Allied cause, but most especially for Britain, which was across the Channel. If Britain was to stay in the war, the BEF would have to survive. Although they were all fighting a common foe and pledged as Allies, the commanders of the three forces saw the situation and the possible solutions somewhat differently. Allied solidarity was beginning to crack.

The Germans believed they could do what their fathers could not: defeat the French, British, and Belgian armies. They were fighting for revenge and a greater German dominance in Europe. Their primary task was to encircle the enemy armies and force their surrender. They did not have a fractured command structure, but a monolithic one, unencumbered by either language differences or the irritating demand for consensus. Further, their morale was high.

Weygand was furious with Gort’s lack of success at Arras and of seeming to pull back for no good reason. On the 22nd, he met with Churchill, who had flown to Paris, and impressed the British prime minister with the viability of more attacks from north and south. This seemed reasonable to Churchill, who ordered Gort to comply. Gort had already committed his reserves to the Arras fight. Nevertheless, he said he would attempt another attack south, but that he could not be ready to launch it until the 26th.

Meanwhile, the Germans were broadening their corridor stretching from Sedan to the sea and strengthening it with infantry on the flanks. To Gort’s mind, if the attempt to pinch off the panzer head by slicing through at Arras failed, another attempt would likely fare no better. In his view, the million men of three nationalities cut off in the north would have to fight in their own pocket, supplied through Channel ports. They would have to make an impenetrable perimeter, but to do so they would have to retreat from their present positions and concentrate. From this shell the three armies of the three different countries with their three different outlooks would do what they could.

A Reprieve: Rundstedt Orders the Panzers to Stop

Then suddenly they had relief. Early on the morning of the 24th, Army Group A commander Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt called for his panzers to stop. He had several reasons. The panzers had been running hard for two weeks and about half of them were out of commission owing to battle damage or lack of maintenance. In addition, they had so outpaced supporting infantry that Rundstedt was afraid they were vulnerable to being cut off. If they paused, the infantry could catch up, protect the corridor, and solidify the gains.

Oddly, the blunted attack at Arras had much to do with this decision. Rommel had told Rundstedt that he believed (incorrectly) that he had been up against seven divisions. Rommel’s own 7th Panzer Division had been badly shaken during the fighting, some of the Germans fleeing in panic. Rundstedt worried that another such blow from the north, accompanied by a coordinated attack from the south, could cut the panzers off from their base. Indeed, the Allies were trying to organize these attacks but were too crippled with confusion to make a good job of it. Hence, the decision to stop the panzers and await the arrival of the infantry.

Hitler had traveled to Rundstedt’s headquarters to confer with him that day. Rundstedt gave his reasons for the order, and Hitler concurred. Colonel General Franz Halder, the chief of the German General Staff, and Walther von Brauschitsch, the Army commander in chief, were aghast and tried to work around the order, but to no avail.

Why Hitler agreed with Rundstedt and allowed the order to stand has been the subject of much debate. Again, there were good reasons for acquiescing to Rundstedt’s caution. With the Allied northern armies cut off from the southern ones, the northern forces became less of a priority. The important targets became Paris and the remainder of France. For these the panzers would be much needed hence the rationale of husbanding their strength and preparing them for the long drive south.

Moreover, Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring implored Hitler to let his planes deal with the shrinking pocket, which even Churchill was calling a “bomb trap.” Göring, who no doubt wanted as much glory for himself as possible, said that his planes could dispose of the armies retreating to the coast. Possibly Hitler and other like-minded German commanders, being land- and not maritime-minded, believed that there was no escape once an army had its back to an ocean, that it was only a matter of time before destruction, starvation, or capitulation intervened.

Historians Ernest May and Karl-Heinz Frieser add to these. They believe that at this time Hitler was worried that too much of the glory would go to the Wehrmacht, whose leaders he did not trust. He therefore wanted to show his commanders who was in charge and felt this was one way of doing it.

In any event, Guderian reported later that he was furious and that the decision was a great blunder. Perhaps he was right. He was closer to the situation. Hitler and Rundstedt were removed from the confusion and chaos on the battlefield and perhaps overestimated the capacity of the northern Allied armies to resist.

The delay turned out to be a godsend for the Allied armies, especially for Gort and his BEF. The main effort to cut him off from the sea shifted to Army Group B, attacking with infantry from the north and east, and Gort was just able to hold them. Had he been more pressed with powerful tank forces from the west his lines might have crumpled.

The 25th was a critical day. Gort had hoped to put three divisions into the fight south, but pressure all along his line left him no choice but to offer two instead. Even these he was offering as a sort of token, but offer them he would. There was some hope. Blanchard was saying the French could put 200 tanks and two divisions into the fight. Then bad news followed bad news. The Belgian Army, which by now was fighting on the left flank of the BEF from the sea down to Menin, was beginning to crack. Moreover, Gort learned from captured German Sixth Army orders that two corps were going to hit the Belgian line hard.

Despite the fact that some Belgian units were fighting tenaciously, top Belgian commanders, even King Leopold, had been warning for days that they might have to pull out of the war. Gort was justifiably worried about this northern flank. If the Belgians collapsed, nothing would prevent Army Group B from reaching the coast near Ostend then marching south past Nieuport and Dunkirk to link up with Army Group A. That would cut off the BEF and the First French ˙ƒArmy from the sea and any source of supply, retreat, or evacuation.

Gort had nothing with which to bolster the Belgian line but the two reserve divisions he was about to launch on the attack south. If he sent them south as planned he risked being completely cut off from the Channel. If he sent them north to the Belgian line he would be abandoning Weygand’s plans, he would be disobeying Blanchard’s orders, and he would be acting on his own against the expressed intentions of his government. He would also be making a strategic decision for his country and the Allied cause.

The proposed attack south was intended to stagger the Germans to the extent that the French, British, and Belgians could rally where they were. Without such an attack, the only course was a beachhead around Dunkirk, and the only course from a beachhead under these circumstances, at least in Gort’s mind, was an evacuation by sea. It did not mean full abandonment of France. There was the possibility of British troops being rerouted back to more fighting in southern France, and this was, indeed, the eventual course for some British and French troops. It did, however, mean the end of the BEF fighting near the French-Belgian border.

At least this was Gort’s thinking. He did not express as much to Blanchard early the next day, but did tell him that he had redirected his two divisions to the north rather than sending them south. Blanchard agreed that both his forces and Gort’s would have to fall back. Blanchard saw the move as having the sea to their backs Gort saw it has having the sea “to the front,” with the expectation of moving across it.

The Belgian’s Finally Crack Under the German Onslaught

So Gort was falling back to evacuation. Neither he nor the London government had to this point told Belgian King Leopold that the BEF intention was now evacuation rather than a fortress bridgehead. Leopold repeatedly asked for aid, air cover, and counterattacks by the BEF in the Belgian sector, but not much was forthcoming owing to the desperate state of British and French forces.

Leopold was being cornered into a time of dire decision, and it was to be political as well as military. Already the Dutch queen had fled to England, heading a government in exile. King Leopold was urged to follow her example, but he refused. He felt that he could best serve his country by remaining in Belgium and dealing with the Germans as best he could. Leopold’s decision to make a separate peace has been controversial ever since. His own government disassociated with it and, claiming itself the legitimate government of the country, set up in exile.

Late on May 27, King Leopold sent a message to Gort that his army could take no more and that he was ready to surrender. Gort, although he knew of the tremendous pressure on this front for days, expressed surprise, shock, and dismay. The Belgians held a line of 20 miles from the sea to the northwestern divisions of the BEF. If they capitulated and there was no one there to close the gap, German Army Group B would sweep into the Channel ports.

Leopold called for a truce with the Germans on the evening of the 27th, asking for terms. Hitler demanded unconditional surrender, which Leopold accepted. The Belgians were to lay down their arms at 4 am on the 28th. Their war was done.

Nothing Left to do But Evacuate

On the 28th Gort was determined to hasten his withdrawal, to concentrate his forces into a beachhead and thus assure that he was not cut off from the sea. He told Blanchard in a meeting that morning that he was intending, even ordered by London, to evacuate by sea. Blanchard was astounded, and Gort was surprised that this was the first Blanchard knew of an impending evacuation. Nevertheless, he urged Blanchard to coordinate the movements of the First French Army with those of the BEF.

Blanchard was not of the same mind. He felt the French should fight where they were, every day allowing a further strengthening of the French armies that could defend Paris and the south. Unlike Gort who saw the Channel as a road home, Blanchard saw it as a border beyond which he did not care to go. Moreover, Blanchard was skeptical of French or British ships being able to carry out an evacuation of the size needed for so many men.

Blanchard talked with a liaison officer from the First French Army, which was around Lille. Its commander, General Piroux, believed that most of the army was too exhausted to move. Blanchard then asked Gort if he intended to withdraw that night even if it meant moving without the First French Army. Gort said that he did. Five divisions of the First French Army were thus left on their own in and near Lille. They attempted a breakout, but the Germans had them surrounded with too much force. Fifty thousand French soldiers thus became prisoners of war. About half of the First French Army retreated to Dunkirk with the BEF.

Now there was no recourse. The BEF was definitely leaving the fight along the French-Belgian border. The French would have to salvage what they could for the continuing struggle for the body of France. The job at hand was to get as many soldiers off the beachhead as possible.

Many commanders believed this might run into the tens of thousands at best. What followed was the “miracle of Dunkirk.” More than 330,000 British and French, that is, most of the BEF and a good portion of the remnant of the First French Army, slipped away from the Wehrmacht’s talons.

Brooke C. Stoddard is the editor of Military Heritage magazine.

Stonne - Or The Verdun of 1940

"The Verdun of 1940" was the name given by German veterans to the battle of Stonne, a very little known battle fought in May 1940 in the Ardennes.

The battle of Stonne has been called by the Germans the "Verdun of 1940". The town itself switched side 17 times in 3 days (May 15-17). The Kriegstagebuch (journal) of the "Grossdeutschland" regiment indicates that "the name of Stonne entered in the history of the regiment with blood".

Possession of the town (according to K.H. Frieser - German time probably):

- May 15:
8h00: German
9h00: French
9h30: German
10h30: French
10h45: German
12h00: French
17h30: German

- May 16:
7h30: French
17h00: German

- May 16-17 night: Stonne remained unoccupied

- May 17:
9h00: German
11h00: French
14h30: German
15h00: French
16h30: German
17h00: French
17h45: German

Early in the morning of the May 15, the "Grossdeutschland" infantry regiment supported by tanks of the 10.PzD assaults the town of Stonne, which is defended by the I/67e RI and elements of the 6e GRDI. The French position is attacked on the front and on the flanks. The French are pulled back and 7 German AFVs are reported to be knocked out (e.g. Panzer IV n°711 is destroyed by the 25mm AT gun from Sergent Durand - but mainly due to the intervention of the 3/49e BCC with its B1bis tanks). 2 Panhard 178 armored cars from the 6e GRDI are also knocked out.

At 5h30, the 1/45e BCC (Hotchkiss H39 tanks) moves from the Grandes-Armoises to Stonne and they wipe out several German infantry positions. At 7h30 they are next to the town of Stonne but 2 Hotchkiss tanks are lost and the company moves back.

The 3/49e BCC (Renault B1bis tanks) carries on with the attack. The heavy tanks move into the town and the Germans have to evacuate Stonne. At 9h30 the French tanks are deployed on the southern edge of the town. Since no French infantry has actually followed the heavy tanks, the town is later again occupied by the Germans.

A renewed attack is launched at 10h30 with several tanks from the 45e BCC (Hotchkiss H39), 49e BCC (Renault B1bis) and one platoon of the 4e BCC (FCM36) supported by 1 infantry company of the 51e RI. The town is captured and again in French hands. The combats are intense and the infantry is fighting house by house. During their approach, the French tanks are already engaged by German guns (AT guns ? infantry guns ? AA guns ? tanks ?).

The 14th anti-tank company from "Grossdeutschland" infantry regiment (Lieutenant Beck-Broichsitter) is engaged later against the French tanks. This Lieutenant describes a very confuse situation (in French in "Les combats du Mont-Dieu" by Gérard Giuliano): a German tank abandoned in a ditch, German guns hidden on a hill behind his own position and firing on the French troops. His men hide behind a house to avoid a French tank which moves very closely etc.
Three 3.7cm PaK are deployed and engage 6 French tanks. The losses among the German infantry and gunners are increasing under the French fire. Then the Germans report having engaged about 10 French tanks on a large front. The combat will last about 1 hour.

What is sure is that the overall situation is rather intricate. There are many different units involved, it is not a simple duel between 3.7cm PaK and French tanks like it is often described.

The German infantry companies have to move gradually back. Lieutenant Beck-Broichsitter reports then the help of German self-propelled guns. Does that mean the StuG III Ausf.B of the Sturmgeschütz-Batterie 640 or the Panzerjäger I of the Panzerjäger Abteilung 521 ? He also reports that 4 infantry guns are deployed in support (7.5cm leIG or 15.0cm sIG ?) to engage the French troops. The German losses are nonetheless increasing, despite these reinforcements. Several AT guns of his company are scattered with splinters but continue to fire. Until yet they do not report having destroyed a single French tank.

At this moment the AT platoon of Hindelang is said to be attacked by 3 Renault B1bis tanks. Corporal in Chief Giesemann targets an area on the 'right' side of one tanks and fire burst out of the tank. The two remaining AT guns then target this area on the French tanks. Quickly a direct hit destroys one of the two German AT guns. Hindelang moves then back with its remaining AT gun and the 3 heavy tanks are said to be out of combat. From this it is generally said that the B1bis intake shutter on the left side of the tank is a weak point and that 3 Renault B1bis tanks have been knocked out by German 3.7cm AT guns.

The French troops capture the town of Stonne.

According to the description in the report, the intake shutter of the B1bis is on the wrong side but in the heat of the battle the gunner may have made a mistake. The 3.7cm PaK of the AT company are often said to have knocked out 3 B1bis tanks. From what I have researched, only 1 of the B1bis which are claimed (3) can eventually be credited to the AT guns of the "Grossdeutschland" regiment. And this was apparently at very close range in the town (≤ 100m probably). The 2 others have been neutralized by the fire of a Panzer IV.
Anyway, there were many German guns firing, it's not a simple duel at all as pointed previously. Concerning the efficiency of the 3.7cm PaK just read the German reports from 3.Panzerbrigade about the battle of Hannut. The 3.7cm KwK are inefficient against the French Hotchkiss H39 and Somua S35 tanks (40mm armor) beyond 200-300 meters.

3 Squadrons of Ju-87 'Stuka' dive bombers attack Stonne at this moment. This action is followed by heavy shelling of the German artillery. At 12h30, the French troops move temporarily back under this intense fire. About 3 hours later, B1bis tanks from 49e BCC occupy the town again and the defense is now in the hand of infantry elements of the 67e RI. The French tank move then back the town is only defended by infantry and AT guns.

During the evening a strong German attack is launched: the "Grossdeutschland" infantry regiment is supported by all the infantry companies of the 10.PzD and takes again the core of the town. The French troops of the 67e RI are still holding the southern edge of Stonne.

The presence of Panzer IV of the 10.PzD and of Panzerjäger I is confirmed in the town and in the vicinity by various photography of German wrecks.

Only at the end of May 15, the 3e DIM is now rather complete to face the German troops.

May 16 will see the involvement of 2 companies of the 41e BCC supporting the action of the III/51e RI. The attack is preceded by an artillery preparation of 45 minutes organized by the 242e RALD. The combats will be very intense. The "Grossdeutschland" infantry regiment and the 10.PzD are then replaced by the 16.ID, 24.ID and 26.ID. On May 16, at 01h30, the 41e BCC is ordered to attack Stonne with its 1st and 3rd companies.

At 3h00, the 1/41e BCC and the 3/41e BCC are moving to the departure line in the woods of Fay. The Renault B1bis tanks will open the way to the III/51e RI of the 3e DIM. The infantry will be directly supported by Hotchkiss H39 tanks from the 2/45e BCC.

The troops could not perform a reconnaissance of the area before the attack and the intelligence about the enemy is very limited. The 41e BCC is not aware if the town is currently in French or German hands when it starts moving.

The B1bis tanks will advance in an inversed V formation. The B1bis "Vienne" of Commandant Malaguti is leading the attack.

At 4h30 the Vth group of the 242e RATTT (12 105mm C howitzers) makes a 45 minutes artillery preparation on Stonne, the "Pain de Sucre" hill (the dominating hill east of Stonne) and the southern edges of the Grande Côte woods.

At 5h15, the 1/41e BCC encounters the first German elements. These troops are from the "Grossdeutschland" infantry regiment, supported by 2 tanks and an AT defense organized in depth. The 2 German tanks are quickly destroyed. Commandant Malaguti himself said about the Germans of this elite regiment: "beautiful warriors, they fired at us until we were at 100m of them. Then they ran away, fall down and simulated death or stayed in their foxholes until we killed them".

The 3/41e BCC reaches its first objective after 12 minutes and destroys the water tower of Stonne on which the Germans had deployed MGs. The French tank company stops and fires on the edges of Stonne to neutralize MGs and AT guns.

The 1/41e BCC outflanks Stonne by the north-west but capitaine Billotte is hampered by several cliffs and important slopes. He has to move to the right, arriving in Stonne itself (from the north-west) before the battalion commander. The B1bis "Eure" arrives nose to nose with 13 German tanks of Pz.Rgt.8 (10.PzD) in column in the main street of the town. The first tank is only at 30m. Billotte orders the driver (sergent Durupt) to target the last tank with the 75mm SA35 hull gun while he destroys the first tank with the 47mm SA35 turret gun. The first shots destroyed simultaneously the first and the last German tank of the column, the others could hardly move. In several minutes, the B1bis "Eure" advances in the street and neutralize the 11 remaining tanks while numerous shells are hitting the armor of the B1bis without penetrating it. 2 Panzer IVs and 11 Panzer IIIs are reported as being destroyed (It is however not 100% sure that among them there were not several wrecks from the previous day). Billotte crosses the whole town and destroys also two 3.7cm AT guns next to the "Pain de Sucre". The armor of the B1bis revealed later to be scattered with 140 impacts and gouges, none of the projectiles penetrated the armor according to the war diary of the 41e BCC. One can see here a kind of small reversed "Villers Bocage".

Malaguti enters the main street (from the south-west) a few minutes after Billotte and fires also at all the possible targets he could spot but none of the German tanks aligned in the street reacted anymore. Malaguti moves south in two other streets and finally exits the town by the south. He spots 2 B1bis wrecks ("Hautvillers" and "Gaillac" probably) from the 49e BCC (attack of the 15th May) and joins the 10th company of the 51e RI.

Billotte contacts then the battalion commander (Malaguti) by radio to report that the woods north of Stonne are full of MGs and AT guns firing at him. He moves back to Stonne.

Delepierre, the commander of the 3/41e BCC contacts Malaguti by radio to know if he can carry on with its progression but he is ordered to wait for the French artillery. 10 minutes later, the French artillery lengthens its fire and the 3/41e BCC moves to its next objective. The company arrives in a very rough ground with many gullies and cliffs hidden by dense vegetation. The dangers are hidden and the visual contact between the tanks is made difficult. The B1bis "Somme" is isolated and attacked at 100m by two 3.7cm AT guns. In 2 minutes the armor is scattered by a dozen of impacts. None of them penetrated the armor but the turret is blocked and the optics of the observation copula is destroyed. One German AT gun is destroyed by a HE shell and the B1bis moves on. Due to a hidden gully the B1bis falls over and lies on the flank. The tank is abandoned, put on fire by the crew. The men manage to reach the French lines again.

At 5h30, the III/51e RI (10th and 11th companies), supported by the 2/45e BCC (Hotchkiss H39 tanks), begins to move towards Stonne. They encounter German troops which have joined again their foxholes after the passage of the French heavy tanks. Around 7h00, the French infantry controls the town of Stonne.

At 10h00 and during more than half an hour the town is again heavily bombed by German dive bombers. They are followed until 12h00 by heavy German artillery shelling. At 15h00 the French tanks (41e BCC and 45e BCC) are ordered to move back to be used in other areas than the town of Stonne itself. At the end of the afternoon, the French infantry moves on the edges of the town because of the heavy German shelling. North-west of Stonne, in the woods the German assaults have all been defeated by the 67e RI. Reinforcements are arriving in the area of the Mont Damion, east of Stonne, with the III/5e RICMS from 6e DIC.

On May 16, around 17h00, the Renault B1bis "Ricquewihr" (commanded by Lieutenant Doumecq or Domercq ? Apparently the second name is the right one but the first one can be found in several books) from 49e BCC attacks towards Stonne and encounters a German infantry column, which fires at the tank with infantry weapons including anti-tank rifles, without effect. The B1bis crushes German troops and pushes into the town defended by the Schützen-Regiment 64. When the German soldiers saw the bloody tracks of the tank they fled in panic and abandoned Stonne which remained unoccupied for the night. After that action Domercq was nicknamed "the butcher of Stonne" by his comrades. It will be heavily involved in the combats of Tannay on May 23-24. The B1bis "Ricquewihr" will be the last tank of the 3e DCr, abandoned on June 18, at Sombernon north-east of Dijon, the weapons having been previously scuttled by the crew.

End 1942, Domercq (former commander of the tank and living in Paris) is in a pub on the Poincaré Avenue where a German tanker shows several photos to his friends. Domercq recognize his former tank, the "Ricquewihr". The German explains that he is now the commander of this tank, that he fired with it and that it was a good tank. He will join the tank and the rest of the crew on the Russian front. The German tanker gave the following photo of his former tank to Domercq (information by Roger Avignon).

Stonne saw very hard combats and some German officers mentioned Stonne beside Stalingrad and Monte Cassino amongst the battles they will never forget.

In two days (May 15-16), the "Grossdeutschland" regiment alone will loose 103 KIAs, 442 WIAs and 25 MIAs (570 men).

For the whole campaign the "Grossdeutschland" regiment had 278 KIAs and 830 WIAs (1,108 losses). Therefore the regiment sustained 51% of its losses of May-June 1940 in only 2 days in Stonne. Then of course we would have to count all the equipment losses. I can only give details for the 14th AT company of the "Grossdeutschland" infantry regiment: 13 KIAs, 65 WIAs, 12 vehicles destroyed and 6 AT guns destroyed (50% of the AT guns of the company).

On May 15-16, the 10.PzD will definitely loose about 25 tanks and the French will loose several 33 tanks. These wrecks will remain on the battlefield. What can also be said from German sources in that later, on June 5, before the battle south of Amiens, the 10.PzD is reduced to 180 tanks [85 "missing" tanks].

Other examples of known losses can be given for the later stages of the battle in the Mont Dieu area. During May 23-24, the German 24.ID sustained 1,490 losses (347 KIAs, 1,086 WIAs and 57 MIAs) in the area of Tannay [left French flank]. During May 17-25, the I/79.IR sustained 191 losses (41 KIAs, 144 WIAs and 6 MIAs) in the area of the Mont Damion [right French flank].

Between May 15 and May 25, the French infantry lost also many men. For example the I/67e RI had 362 KIAs and a company of the 51e RI finished the battle with only 5 sergeants and 30 soldiers left !

Operations near the town involved 90,000 German troops and 300 German tanks, opposed by 42,500 French soldiers and 130 French tanks. The Germans lost 26,500 (wounded and killed) men and the French 7,500.(wounded and killed)

Regarding Stonne, one of the heroes of the battle was Captain Pierre Bilotte:

Pierre Armand Gaston Billotte (1906–1992) was a French Army officer and politician. (. ) Billotte is known for his extraordinary actions on 16 May 1940 at the French village of Stonne. Billotte served in the 1st Compagnie of the 41st Tank Battalion, equipped with the Char B1 heavy tank. Then-Captain Billotte, commanding a Char B1 Bis tank nicknamed "Eure", was instrumental in capturing the village of Stonne, defended by elements of the German 8th Panzer Regiment. The village had already been the scene of fierce fighting before Billotte's action, having changed hands for numerous times and lying on a strategic location on the road to Sedan. On 16 May, while under heavy fire from German tanks, Billotte and his B1 Bis managed to break through the German defences and to destroy two German PzKpfw IV tanks, eleven PzKpfw III tanks and two enemy [Anti-Tank] guns. Billotte's Char B1-Bis tank received 140 hits from enemy tanks and guns, but none were able to penetrate the tank's heavy armour.

When France Defied Hitler’s Panzers

Though in many ways superior to Germany's vaunted panzers, the French Char B1 tank achieved only a glimmer of glory in 1940.

Ullstein Bild via Getty Images

Its Char B1 tanks proved too much for the Wehrmacht’s armor—but even they couldn’t withstand irresolute Allied leadership.

“We are on the edge of the abyss,” a desperate Brig. Gen. Charles de Gaulle wrote to French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud on June 3, 1940. “Our first defeat stems from the application by the enemy of my conceptions and the refusal of our com mand to apply the same conceptions.”

De Gaulle escaped to England, spearheaded the Free French government and was later elected president of France. (Serge de Sazo/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

De Gaulle’s plea to Reynaud had come too late to stave off the debacle of May 1940, when German armored units raced across France to the English Channel within three weeks. The British put a bright face on an awful month by couching the June 4 evacuation at Dunkirk as a moral victory, while leaving their disgusted French allies to fight the Germans (and Italians after June 10) for two more weeks.

The British and French commanders had quietly hoped to avoid another Western Front. Diffuse strategies suggested attacks via the German-allied Soviet Union, through Finland and Norway, or into the Soviet oil fields at Baku, Azerbaijan, through French-occupied Syria. But the Germans struck first, conquered the Netherlands in five days and swung around France’s vaunted Maginot Line into the Ardennes forests. While the line held, third-rate French troops deployed in the “impassable” Ardennes broke and ran.

“Caught up as they fled by the enemy’s mechanized detachments, they had been ordered to throw away their arms and make off to the south so as not to clutter up the roads,” de Gaulle recalled in his war memoirs. “‘We haven’t time,’ [the Germans] cried, ‘to make you prisoners!’”

French troops relished a brief moment of glory before the country’s total collapse, when three armored divisions, notably those units equipped with relatively capable Char B1 tanks, thwarted—and in places even routed—Adolf Hitler’s panzers during a decisive week of intense fighting along the French-Belgian border.

At the outbreak of World War II the weapon of choice among French armored divisions was the Char B1 bis, the heaviest standard tank of its time. Designed by committee over the better part of two decades and manufactured by Renault and other firms, the vehicle carried a 75 mm howitzer and a 7.5 mm machine gun mounted in the hull, both aimed largely by steering the vehicle, as well as a 47 mm anti-tank cannon and second 7.5 mm machine gun in a one-man turret. The Char B1 bis boasted armor 60 mm thick on its front and turret, 55 mm on its sides. Each tank bore the name of either a French region or national hero. By June 1940 French factories had rolled out nearly 400 of them.

Char B1 bis crews first proved themselves during the German advance into Belgium, as British and French divisions covered the unprotected flank of the Maginot Line. On May 15, 1940, Captain Pierre Gilbert in Adour attacked a German armored formation north of Flavion and knocked out three enemy vehicles with his turret gun. Incoming tank rounds soon disabled Adour, leaving three of its six-man crew injured. The wounded Gilbert sent crewman Daniel Legac to inform Lieutenant Louis Bounaix, the commander of Guynemer, that he was now in charge of the three- tank formation.

Germans inspect an abandoned Char B1 bis. (Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)

Soon after seeking concealment in a thicket, Gilbert and Chief Sgt. Joseph Baur were killed by enemy fire. The surviving crewmen surrendered. Smoke billowed up from Adour, and through its open side hatch approaching Germans could just make out a painted message bestowed by actress and later resistance agent Jeanne Boitel on the day the tank was christened: My wishes accompany the Adour, Captain Gilbert and his men.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Bounaix and crew in Guynemer and Lieutenant Pierre Lelong and crew in Gard fought on. Bounaix left a particularly vivid account of the fighting:

I looked over the terrain and spotted an immobile Char B. I was a little annoyed, as I thought the 28th BCC [Battalion de Chars de Combat] held the ridge, the first phase of combat was already over, and that we, the second wave, would have nothing to do.

At that moment we took a blow to our left side armor. I looked down the road, and a red flash lit up from a hedge at about 800 meters. Another blow to our armor! I hesitated to withdraw, as I thought a friend had made an error. I refused to believe the Boches could have arrived. Corporal Le Bris, the assistant driver, announced: ‘Popped armor bolts, left side.’ I then turned my turret toward the intermittent flashes and expended four of five explosive shells from the 47 mm. The enemy fire continued. I checked the range and asked Millard for explo sive shells. Two projectiles, and the enemy fire ceased.

I resumed my course and accelerated to catch up with Adour and Gard, which had never slowed down. A hundred meters farther there was another red flash on my left. We fired the 75 this time, and the enemy fire stopped. Resuming course, I ar rived at the woods between the second ridge and the edge of the plateau. These wooden tongues determined the fire corridors, and hits soon rang on the left side armor. Having steered the tank east and looked southeast, at first I couldn’t spot the enemy. Then the driver cried out, ‘A tank in front of us!’ It was, indeed, a Boche—a Panzerkampfwagen IV. I felt great joy, mixed with a bit of anxiety, as when a hunter spots game, but what formidable game.

I adjusted the fire of the 75. ‘Range 450—short!’ ‘Range 500—short!’ “Range 550…’ I can still hear the cry of the driver: ‘I got it!’ Two or three men jumped from the Boche tank, as an enormous red glow burst from the front of the enemy machine. I then noticed that our left flank was lined with large German tanks.…They were camou flaged and immobile, but red flashes lit up, and we took hits. The word ‘hail’ is far too weak to describe the noise inside the turret from all the projectiles. We took a hit on the bottom of the side door, which unhinged it, leaving it half open. Millard jumped up, grabbed it and held it shut for the duration of the fight.

Edging up a bit, I noticed at the edge of the woods Gard, its turret open. At the side door was Sergeant Waslet, the radioman, pistol in hand. We could only guess what had happened. The door may have been smashed in, wounding tank commander Lieutenant Lelong. Was that it? Looking around, I spotted Ourcq and Isère, all that remained of our first section. They’d done wonders, struggling, shooting. With them at my side we formed a section.

Hits on the right increased in intensity, as our right flank was filled with Boche tanks, lined up as if on parade and firing at us. But their hits sounded weak, and they barely accepted combat, withdrawing into the woods as soon as taken to task.…I had the consolation of demolishing one.

At that point my right tread was snarling in a disquieting manner, my 47 had fired too much, and my brake fluid was leaking at the cylinder head. Only the 47 of Ourcq was still speaking. Radio orders came through—“Rally!” Ourcq and Isère obeyed by forging a path. I followed and in passing saw Hérault in flames. Arriving at our starting point, the three tanks were out of steam. Its motor ravaged, Ourcq stopped cold. Guynemer’s right track broke, and Isère experi enced the same accident a hundred meters farther on.

Exiting the tank, I made a tour of Guynemer.…Its hull had absorbed more than 50 hits. Yet on the front, miraculously intact, the banner of Sacré-Coeur still fluttered. I retrieved it.

Guynemer was credited with destroying three Panzerkampfwagen IVs and one Panzerkampfwagen III. Ourcq had destroyed four enemy tanks, Isère three. Gard, on the other hand, had been destroyed with the loss of five crewmen, while Hérault had taken a disabling shell hit to its track drive sprocket, forcing the crew to scuttle it.

While the clash in Belgium proved the French Char B1s could give much better than they got, it also suggested their mechanical issues might negate at least a measure of their crews’ fighting ability.

Captain Pierre Billotte, the 34-year-old son of French 1st Army commander General Gaston-Henri Billotte, was a standout commander in the May 16 seesaw tank battle between French and German forces over the tiny village of Stonne in northeast France. Colonel Michel Malaguti commanded the 41st BCC from the Char B1 bis Vienne, while Billotte represented the tip of the spear in Eure. Leading the French attack, Billotte had taken a sharp turn in the village when he came face to face with a column of tanks and other armored vehicles of the 10th Panzer Division. Billotte immediately ordered his driver, Sergeant Du rupt, to fire Eure’s 75 mm hull gun at the lead tank in the German column, while he himself used the 47 mm turret gun to take out the trailing tank. With both enemy tanks disabled and ablaze, the others were trapped. Billotte and Durupt then rumbled through the village at will in their heavy tank, systematically knocking out 11 other German tanks and two anti-tank guns. The tanker and his crew men later counted some 140 enemy hits on Eure’s hull.

The ability of the Char B1 bis to absorb punishment made a daunting impression on Wehrmacht tankers yet to be convinced of their own invincibility. When two French crewmen from Lieutenant Jacques Hachet’s Vertus roamed the forest at Stonne looking for spare parts after the tank suffered an engine failure, they routed a nervous German patrol, captured a prisoner and discovered hundreds of enemy graves and discarded packs. They also recovered an abandoned, intact Panzerkampfwagen III.

Over three days of bitter fighting Stonne changed hands 17 times. The French deployed 130 tanks and lost 33, mostly to mechanical failure, while the Germans deployed 300 tanks and lost 24, primarily to battle damage. The Germans, however, suffered some 26,500 casualties to 7,500 for the French. Germans who fought both at Stonne and later at Stalingrad insisted Stonne was worse.

When the Germans ultimately secured Stonne, de Gaulle moved his forces east to the village of Montcornet, the target of General Heinz Guderian’s next armored thrust. De Gaulle ordered his tanks to deploy on either side of the road between Montcornet and Laon, which ran through the forest of Samossy, thus providing the tanks cover from the air. Colonel Aimé Sudre’s armored half-brigade, including a battalion with a number of Char B1s, came up as reinforcements for de Gaulle’s 4th Armored Division, which was still forming. Major Jean-Yves-Marie Bescond, a foremost expert on big tanks, led the Char B1 battalion.

“You are the champion of the Char B,” de Gaulle told Bescond. “Show what it is worth.”

Bescond returned to his tank crews and made a dour prediction: “This will be my Reichshoffen.” It was a reference to the Aug. 6, 1870, clash during the Franco-Prussian War in which some 700 of Napoléon III’s elite mounted cuirassiers became bottlenecked near the Alsatian village of Reichshoffen and were cut to pieces by Prussian infantry firing from cover.

At 4:30 a.m. on May 19 de Gaulle’s 4th Armored Divi sion attacked with more than 100 tanks. Leading the charge from his Char B1 bis Berry-au-Bac was Bescond.

Much to the Germans’ astonishment, the Char B1’s turrets and frontal armor proved impenetrable to standard anti-tank guns—a fact that enabled the French tanks to cross the Serre, capture Montcornet and threaten Guderian’s lines of communication. The German commander later admitted the Char B1s had given him some very bad moments. But the French assault ultimately faltered under withering fire from emplaced German 88 mm guns.

Bescond, as he had feared, was among the casualties. Berry-au-Bac had broken down, and Bescond had transferred to Sampiero Corso. As he followed orders to withdraw, panzers semi-concealed in the forest opened fire, and an incoming round bounced harmlessly off Sampiero Corso’s hull. Then a shell from a German 88 penetrated the Char B1’s side door and detonated inside, killing Bescond and his crew. Sampiero Corso remained largely intact, and the Germans set up a marker so the French could later identify the bodies for proper burial.

During the fight for Montcornet 6-foot-5 de Gaulle strode around upright, ignoring bullets and shell bursts to inspire his men, who remained tenacious. Regardless, the French high command unilaterally halted the attack. The division managed to pull back in good order, suffering just 25 casualties, though it lost 23 of 85 tanks engaged to land mines and Ju 87 Stuka dive bombers. Still, though Montcornet went down as a tactical German victory, de Gaulle had captured 130 enemy soldiers and inflicted four times as many casualties on the Germans.

Despite continuing stubborn resistance and the magnificent stand at Stonne—house-to-house fighting con tinued until May 25—the French cause was doomed.

German tanks roll through a city in northern France following the surrender. (Corbis via Getty Images)

The French, still in command of 100 divisions and some 6 million men in late May, had expected the 200,000 men of 10 British divisions then on the Continent to advance on Arras. The British instead opted to escape and evade. The French themselves were appalled when thousands of their reserve infantrymen broke under German air attack and tried to surrender without much of a fight—and without much interest from the onrushing Germans.

Britain and France blamed one another for their mutual collapse. Tanker Pierre Billotte’s father, the decorated World War I veteran General Gaston-Henri Billotte, was written off as a hopeless coward by British General Edmund Ironside, chief of the Imperial General Staff. The elder Billotte did not long have to suffer the oppro brium of his British counterparts, however—he was fatally injured on May 21 when his car struck a military truck during a wild midnight ride to organize another counterattack. Ironside assumed command of the British, French and Belgian forces in the Battle of Belgium—and lost. Ironside also wrote off General Georges-Maurice-Jean Blanchard as another hopeless coward, though Blanchard was later decorated for his valorous rearguard action that enabled the British withdrawal from Dunkirk.

While the Char B1 bises acquitted themselves well, they continued to suffer mechanical problems, and when the French and British fought side by side at Abbeville starting on May 27, poor coordination led to needless losses. On June 4 a late-arriving column of Char B1s approaching town from the south stumbled into a mine field zeroed in by German artillery and anti-tank guns and took heavy losses. Of the 30 Char B1s engaged in combat that same day at Dunkirk—in the closing hours of the evacuation—only seven made it back to their jump-off positions. Some French units fought better after the British left, but the Char B1s could not compensate for poor communication and morale in second-echelon units elsewhere.

“We were the bosses, and we lost the battle, and this gave a good excuse for the British to be selfish,” French strategist and General André Beaufre later observed in an episode of the popular British documentary series The World at War. “Anyway, they were very selfish.” MH

A frequent contributor to Military History, John Koster is the author of Custer Survivor and the forthcoming Hitler’s Nemesis: Hermann Ehrhardt. For further reading he recommends The General: Charles de Gaulle and the France He Saved, by Jonathan Fenby, and De Gaulle: The Rebel, 1890–1944, by Jean Lacouture.

Allies Thrown into Chaos by the German Breakthrough

That is, until the Germans broke out of the Ardennes and overpowered the defenses along the Meuse. With that river barrier broken, the Allied plan for the defense of Belgium and northern France was suddenly obsolete and many days of confusion and chaos were at hand. The next two weeks were pregnant with fateful decisions, all made in the fog of confusion and poor military intelligence.

The reaction among the French commanders to the breakthrough at Sedan was mainly one of disbelief and paralysis. The overall Allied commander, General Maurice Gamelin, operating from his Vincennes (a Paris suburb) headquarters, was not using radio for communications, but rather an unreliable civilian telephone system and motorcycle riders. The riders had great difficulties on the clogged roads and were sometimes injured or killed in accidents. Word did not get to BEF commander John Standish Vereker Lord Gort of the important German thrust at Sedan until May 14, or that they had broken into the rear area of Army Group One until May 16.

The French Ninth Army, which was positioned to halt any drive through the Ardennes, was by then coming apart. The Ninth’s soldiers were not well trained and, once confusion became infectious, they could not stand up to the German power relentlessly driving at them. This was due partly to the fact that the front was shifting so fast that commanding officers did not know where it was. Junior officers received orders that were obviously long out of date. Moreover, many junior officers became separated from their men. Hundreds of soldiers fled for home whole companies and battalions ceased to exist. The Ninth’s commanding officer, General André Corap, was sacked on the 15th.

Temporarily halted by a machine-gun nest, members of a German motorcycle infantry platoon maneuver to silence the threat on the outskirts of a French village.

Some soldiers of the Ninth did what they could, but coordination was beyond them. The panzers of General Heinz Guderian’s XIX Armored Corps clattered on, ferociously intent on driving all the way to the sea. Gamelin had to confess to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill on the 16th that there was no reserve to stop them, or, to be more exact, what reserves were available were scattered and could not be effectively concentrated to staunch the flow of Germans out of Sedan.

This same day, the 16th, Gort learned that the First French Army, which was on his right, was preparing to pull back. He was furious. No one had told him his flank would be exposed. Finally, Billotte issued orders for a coordinated retreat over the next two days to the River Escaut, there to make a stand. By this time Gort was losing faith in his French commanders and comrades in arms. Lack of communication, lack of coordination, confusion, and even chaos were overtaking the Allied command structure. The fog of war descended with a vengeance.

In particular, Gamelin seemed unable to take any decisive action. He was allowing Alphonse Georges, in command of northeastern France, to control the battles, but Georges was ineffective as well. Only one concerted French counterstroke was launched. This was made by Colonel Charles de Gaulle, who commanded an armored counterattack at Montcornet west of Sedan on the 17th. It made an impact, but lacked the strength to hold up Guderian for long.

Nestor F. Billotte Obituary

&ldquoNestor was a great Father-in-law and made me feel like a welcome memeber of the family ever since I first met him a little over eight years ago. . Read More » &rdquo
6 of 9 | Posted by: Eric Phillips - Bridgeport, WV

&ldquoMary,Cindy,Pete,Nestor and Melissa: I am really sorry for your loss and for the short time I knew Nestor I can say that I felt he was a very good man. Read More » &rdquo
7 of 9 | Posted by: Janet A. Phillips - Elkins, WV

&ldquoDear Mary, You have our deepest sympathy. We will miss seeing Nester whenever we go up to the camp. He always took time to pay us a visit and keep. Read More » &rdquo
8 of 9 | Posted by: John Hofmann & Family - PA

&ldquoMy thoughts and prayers are with your entire family. With my deepest sympathy, &rdquo
9 of 9 | Posted by: Debby King - Clarksburg, WV

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Nestor F . Billotte , 78 of Frenchville died on Saturday, February 7, 2009 at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Presbyterian Hospital.

He was born on September 20, 1930 in Frenchville, a son of the late Fred G. and Olive L. (Plubell) Billotte .

Mr. Billotte retired in 1995 from J.H. France Refractories after 23 1/2 years of service.
He was a member of St. Mary Catholic Church, Frenchville and a member and Past Commander of the Leigey Renaud Post #8386 Veterans of Foreign Wars, Frenchville.
He served in the US Army during the Korean Conflict.

He is survived by his wife, Mary R. (Hugney) Billotte whom he wed June 26, 1954 in Frenchville,

three children,
Nestor J. Billotte ofFrenchville
Cindy Cardinale ofFrenchville
Melissa Phillips and husband Eric ofBridgeport, WV

a great grandson,
Barry Shirey

a sister and brother,
Regina Deluccia ofCurwensville
Kenneth A. Billotte and wife Helen ofFrenchville

and several nieces and nephews.

In addition to his parents, he was preceded in death by a granddaughter Jennifer L. Cardinale, a son in law, Carl 'Joe' Cardinale, an infant brother Francis Billotte , a sister Rosemary S. Ginter and two brothers in law, James Ginter and Vincent Deluccia.

Friends will be received at the Kevin A. Beardsley Funeral Home, Clearfield on Wednesday from
2-8 PM.

History of the French settlers in Covington and Girard Townships

  • Rosalie Bronoel
  • Eleanor Catherine Valimont
  • Elmer Vallimont
  • Sarah (Royer) Vallimont
  • Robert Vallimont
  • Daniel Lloyd Vallimont
  • Alta Maurer (Rider) Vallimont
  • Joseph P Vallimont
  • Anna Willetta (Michaels) Vallimont
  • Blair F Vallimont
  • Nellie F Vallimont
  • Louis Brice Vallimont
  • Earl L Vallimont
  • Jack Orville Vallimont
  • Buddy D Vallimont
  • Jean-Baptiste Julius (Fauconnier) Vallimont
  • Pierre Francois Vallimont
  • Teresa Louise (Coudreit) Vallimont
  • Fredrick A Vallimont
  • Norman S Vallimont
  • Clara E Vallimont
  • Edgar Paul Vallimont
  • Elizabeth N Vallimont
  • Clarence John Vallimont
  • Louvenia F Vallimont
  • Pauline J G (Vallimont) Shadeck
  • Olive Frances (Vallimont) Fortney
  • Unlisted
  • Violet (Vallimont) Billotte
  • Clyde Vallimont
  • Edna (Royer) Vallimont
  • Unlisted
  • Unlisted
  • Unlisted
  • Unlisted
  • Unlisted
  • Unlisted
  • August Peter (Vallimont) Valimont
  • Alice L (Vallimont) Kanski
  • Edward William (Vallimont) Valimont
  • Clark G (Vallimont) Valimont
  • Willard J (Vallimont) Valimont
  • Grace A (Vallimont) Valimont
  • Fannie L Sirgey
  • Nicholas A Vallimont
  • Francis E Vallimont
  • August G Vallimont
  • Renette (Vallimont) Bamat
  • Germain Bamat
  • Pauline (Bamat) Barrett
  • Jules J Bamat
  • Felix Vallimont
  • Lawrence Vallimont
  • Aloysius Vallimont
  • Mary C (Kohlbecker) Valimont
  • Mary (Vallimont) Fitzgibbons
  • Oliver Leroy Fortney
  • Francis F Coudreit
  • Harry Conaway
  • Nettie (Wagner) Vallimont
  • Charles Guenot II
  • Nester Plubell
  • Georgianna Vallimont
  • Arthur Valimont
  • Lucilla P. (Renoe) Valimont
  • Francis L Fauconnier
  • Fannie (Miller) Vallimont
  • Victor Vallimont
  • Agnes M (Folmar) Valimont
  • Lloyd James Vallimont
  • Amelia O (Vallimont) Renaud
  • Rosanne Rosana (McGonigal) Vallimont

Where: Covington, Clearfield, Pennsylvania

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338,226 Soldiers Rescued

At his base in Dover, Admiral Ramsay was struggling with the problem of how to rescue the troops. The shortest crossing to Dunkirk could only be used under cover of night, and other possible routes were ruled out by the danger of mines. The only route possible in daylight was 87 miles long, from Dover to the North Goodwin Light, east to the Kwinte Buoy, and back to Dunkirk. Some 6,000 troops were rescued by the Royal Navy from the beaches and 11,900 from the mole during May 28.

By now, communications in the armies had broken down, and each commander had to act on his own initiative. But by nightfall on May 28, the BEF had redeployed in good order, providing protection on all flanks.

In the French First Army, however, there was utter confusion and a sense of defeatism, but the III Corps and some cavalry units continued to give some support north of the British, and two divisions commanded by Maj. Gen. Jean-Baptiste Molinié kept fighting in spite of low morale. By the end of May 29, the front line was nowhere more than five miles from the sea, and by the next day the perimeter of the bridgehead was reduced to 32 miles. The French held 11 miles of it and the British the rest.

Ramsay sent a continuous stream of small ships to Dunkirk via the North Goodwin Light and Kwinte Buoy route and opened up a route through mined areas, raising the number of soldiers rescued on May 29 to some 53,800.

As soon as secrecy was lifted and news of Operation Dynamo broke at 6 pm on May 31, many private boat owners and yachtsmen set sail from the south coast of England. This huge civilian effort brought back a further 26,000 soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk. To provide more ferrying craft, small river boats were tied in strings behind larger craft and towed over empty, but this proved disastrous as the light frames of the river boats could not stand up to vigorous towing. But “drifters,” believed to be capable of carrying 100 men, limped back with 250 men on board.

Cutting through Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg, the Germans brushed aside sporadic opposition and soon reached Paris—something they failed to do in World War I.

By the end of the 31st, the perimeter of the British beachhead was no more than 10 miles wide and five miles deep, but by sunset on June 1 and dawn next day, most of the British had been evacuated.

On the night of June 2, the remaining 4,000 British and more than 20,000 others were evacuated. The next night, more than 26,000 troops, mostly French, were evacuated, although many, exhausted and beaten, refused to embark, preferring captivity to further warfare.

During the evacuation, the 21 understrength squadrons of 11 Group of the RAF flew a total of 4,822 hours in support of the evacuation, destroying 258 German aircraft and damaging 119 more for the loss of 87 of their own.

When Dunkirk’s remaining defenders surrendered on the morning of June 4, a total of 338,226 soldiers had been saved.They left behind a huge assortment of tanks, vehicles, and guns.

During the final stages of the evacuation at Dunkirk, General Weygand tried to organize a new defensive position in northern France, but the situation was desperate. The Belgians and Dutch had been defeated, the British, except for two divisions, had been driven from the Continent, and the French Army had lost 370,000 dead, wounded, or taken prisoner, together with three quarters of its tanks and most of its motor transport.

The morale of the army, and of the French nation itself, was close to rock bottom. The Germans had outflanked the fortifications of the Maginot Line by attacking through Belgium and Holland and were now threatening to swoop down from the north and overrun all of France. Hitler said, “Our most dangerous enemy is Britain, but we must first beat her continental soldier, France.”

Fall Rot

The German offensive to the Seine River between 4 and 12 June.

French problems

The best and most modern French armies had been sent north and lost in the resulting encirclement the French had also lost much of their heavy weaponry and their best armoured formations. Overall, the Allies had lost 61 divisions in Fall Gelb. Weygand was faced with the prospect of defending a long front (stretching from Sedan to the Channel), with a greatly depleted French Army now lacking significant Allied support. Weygand had only 64 French and one remaining British division (the 51st Highland) available. Weygand lacked the reserves to counter a breakthrough or to replace frontline troops, should they become exhausted from a prolonged battle on a front of 965 km. The Germans had 142 divisions to use.

Adding to this grave situation, on June 10, Italy declared war on France and Britain. The country was not prepared for war and made little impact during the last twelve days of fighting. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was aware of this and sought to profit from German successes. Mussolini felt the conflict would soon end. As he said to the Army's Chief-of-Staff, Marshal Badoglio, "I only need a few thousand dead so that I can sit at the peace conference as a man who has fought." However, French General René Olry commanding the Army of the Alps resisted all Italian attacks, and then repulsed German attacks from the Rhone valley.

Collapse of the Weygand line

The Germans renewed their offensive on June 5 on the Somme. During the next three weeks, far from the easy advance the Reichswehr expected, they encountered strong resistance from a rejuvenated French Army. It had fallen back on its communications, and had closer access to repair shops, supply dumps and stores. Moreover, 112,000 evacuated French soldiers were repatriated via the Normandy and Brittany ports. It was some substitute for the lost divisions in Flanders. The French were also able to make good a significant amount of its armoured losses and raised the 1st and 2nd DCR (heavy armoured divisions). De Gaulle's division—the 4th DCR—also had its losses replaced. Morale rose and was very high by the end of May 1940.

A central explanation for the high morale was threefold most French soldiers that knew about the defeats, and were now joining the line, only knew of German success by hearsay surviving French officers had increased tactical experience against German mobile units increased confidence in their weapons after seeing their artillery, which the Reichswehr post-battle analysis recognised as technically very good, and their tanks perform better in combat than the German armour. The French tanks were now known to have heavier armour and armament.

French prisoners are marched into internment

Between May 23 and 28, they reconstituted the French 7th and 10th Armies. Weygand decided on hedgehog tactics, which were to implement defence in depth operations, and perform delaying strategies designed to inflict maximum attrition on enemy units. He employed units in towns and small villages, as well as major towns and cities, and fortified them 360° along their perimeter. Behind this, the new infantry, armoured, and half-mechanised divisions formed up, ready to counter attack and relieve the surrounded units, which were ordered to hold out at all costs.

Army Group B attacked either side of Paris. Of its 47 divisions it had the majority of the mobile units. In fact, only 48 hours into the offensive, the Germans had not made any major breakthroughs. The Germans had been "stopped in their tracks". On the Aisne, Erich Hoepner's XVI Panzerkorps employed over 1,000 AFVs, two Panzer Divisions and a motorised division against the French. The assault was crude, and Hoepner soon lost 80 out of 500 AFVs in the first attack. The German 4. Armee succeeded in capturing bridgeheads over the Somme river, but the Germans struggled to get over the Aisne. Weygand had organised a defence in depth and frustrated the crossing. In a series of examples at Amiens, the Germans were repeatedly driven back by powerful French artillery concentrations, and came to recognise improved French tactics. Once again, the German Army relied on the Luftwaffe to help decisively, by silencing French guns and enabling the German infantry to inch forward. German progress was made only late on the third day of operations, finally forcing crossings. The French Air Force attempted to bomb them but failed. German sources acknowledged the battle was, "hard and costly in lives, the enemy putting up severe resistance, particularly in the woods and tree lines continuing the fight when our troops had pushed passed the point of resistance". However, south of Abbeville, the French 10th Army under General Robert Altmayer had its front broken and it was forced to retreat to Rouen and south along the Seine river. The rapid German advances were the sign of a weakening enemy. Rommel and his 7. Panzerdivision headed west over the Seine river through Normandy and capturing the port of Cherbourg on June 18. On the way to Cherbourg, Rommel forced the surrender of the British 51st (Highland) Division on June 12. In close-quarter combat, the Luftwaffe was struggling to have an impact. However, in an operational sense, they helped disperse French armour. The German spearheads were overextended and vulnerable to counter strokes, but the concentration of the Luftwaffe denied the French the ability to concentrate, and the fear of air attack negated their mass and mobile use by Weygand.

On June 10, the French government declared Paris an open city. The German 18. Armee now deployed against Paris. The French resisted the approaches to the capital strongly, but the line was broken in several places. Weygand now asserted it would not take long for the French Army to disintegrate. On June 13, Churchill attended an Allied Supreme War Council Meeting at Tours. He suggested a union between the two countries. It was rejected. On June 14, Paris fell. Those Parisians who stayed in the city found that in most cases the Germans were extremely well mannered.

On top of this added danger, the situation in the air had also grown critical. The Luftwaffe established air supremacy (as opposed to air superiority) as the French air arm was on the verge of collapse. The French Air Force (Armée de l'Air) had only just begun to make the majority of bomber sorties between June 5 and 9 (during Operation Paula), over 1,815 missions, of which 518 were by bombers, were flown. The number of sorties flown declined as losses were now becoming impossible to replace. The RAF attempted to divert the attention of the Luftwaffe with 660 sorties flown against targets over the Dunkirk area but losses were heavy on June 21 alone, 37 Bristol Blenheims were destroyed. After June 9, French aerial resistance virtually ceased, some surviving aircraft withdrew to French North Africa. The Luftwaffe now "ran riot". Its attacks were focused on the direct and indirect support of the German Army. The Luftwaffe subjected lines of resistance to ferocious assault, which then quickly collapsed under armoured attack.

Collapse of the Maginot line

Meanwhile, to the east, Army Group C was to help Army Group A encircle and capture the French forces on the Maginot line. The goal of the operation was to envelop the Metz region, with its fortifications, in order to prevent a French counter offensive against the German line on the Somme. Guderian's XIX Korps was to advance to the French border with Switzerland and trap the French forces in the Vosges Mountains while the XVI Korps attacked the Maginot Line from the west, into its vulnerable rear to take the cities of Verdun, Toul and Metz. The French, meanwhile, had moved the French 2nd Army Group to the 'Weygand line' on the Somme, leaving only small forces guarding the Maginot line. After Army Group B had begun its offensive against Paris and into Normandy, Army Groups A began its advance into the rear of the Maginot line. On June 15, Army Group C launched Operation Tiger, a frontal assault across the border and into France.

German attempts to break open or into the Maginot line prior to Tiger had failed. One assault lasted for eight hours on the extreme north of the line, costing the Germans 46 dead and 251 wounded, while just two French were killed. On June 15, the last well-equipped French forces, including the French 4th Army were preparing to leave as the Germans struck. The French now holding the line were skeletal. The Germans greatly outnumbered the French. They could call upon the I Armeekorps of seven divisions and 1,000 artillery pieces, although most were First World War vintage, and could not penetrate the thick armour of the fortresses. Only 88 mm guns could do the job, and 16 were allocated to the operation. To bolster this, 150 mm and eight railway batteries were also employed. The Luftwaffe deployed the V Fliegerkorps to give air support.

The battle was difficult and slow progress was made against strong French resistance. However, each fortress was overcome one by one. One fortress (Schoenenbourg) fired 15,802 75 mm rounds at attacking German infantry. It was the most heavily shelled of all the French positions. Nevertheless, its armour protected it from fatal damage. The same day Tiger was launched, Operation Kleiner Bär began. Five assault divisions of the VII Armeekorps crossed the border into the Belfort area with a view to advancing to the Vosges Mountains. It had 400 artillery pieces bolstered by heavy artillery and mortars. They drove the French 104th and 105th Divisions back into the Vosges Mountains on June 17. However, on the same day Guderian's XIX Korps reached the Swiss border and the Maginot defences were cut off from the rest of France. Most units surrendered on June 25, and the Germans claimed to have taken 500,000 prisoners. Some main fortresses continued the fight, despite appeals for surrender. The last only capitulated on July 10, after a request from General Alphonse Joseph Georges, and only then under protest. Of the 58 major fortifications on the Maginot Line, just 10 were captured by the Reichswehr in battle.

The second BEF evacuation

The evacuation of the second BEF took place during Operation Ariel between June 15 and 25. The Luftwaffe, with complete domination of the French skies, was determined to prevent more Allied evacuations after the Dunkirk debacle. I. Fliegerkorps was assigned to the Normandy and Brittany sectors. On June 9 and 10, the port of Cherbourg was subject to 15 tonnes of German bombs, whilst Le Havre received 10 bombing attacks which sank 2949 GRT of escaping Allied shipping. On June 17, Junkers Ju 88—mainly from Kampfgeschwader 30—sank a "10,000 tonne ship" which was the 16243 GRT liner RMS Lancastria off St Nazaire, killing some 4,000 Allied personnel. Nevertheless, the Luftwaffe failed to prevent the mass evacuation of some 190,000–200,000 Allied personnel.

Surrender and armistice

Hitler (hand on side) staring at Foch's statue before signing the armistice at Compiègne, France (22 June 1940)

Discouraged by his cabinet's hostile reaction to a British proposal to unite France and Britain to avoid surrender, and believing that his ministers no longer supported him, Prime Minister Paul Reynaud resigned on June 16. He was succeeded by Marshal Philippe Pétain, who delivered a radio address to the French people announcing his intention to ask for an armistice with Germany. When Hitler received word from the French government that they wished to negotiate an armistice, he selected the Compiègne Forest as the site for the negotiations.

Compiègne had been the site of the 1918 Armistice, which had ended the First World War with a humiliating defeat for France Hitler viewed the choice of location as a supreme moment of complete victory for Germany over France. The armistice was signed on June 22, 1940 in the very same railway carriage in which the 1918 Armistice was signed (it was removed from a museum building and placed on the precise spot where it was located in 1918), Hitler sat in the same chair in which Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg had sat when he faced the defeated French representatives. After listening to the reading of the preamble, Hitler, in a calculated gesture of disdain to the French delegates, left the carriage, leaving the negotiations to the Chief of Staff of the OKR, Wilhelm Keitel. The armistice and the cease-fire went into effect at 01:35 on June 25.

Watch the video: Μπεν και Χόλι-Ο Γκαστόν πάει σχολείο (May 2022).


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