In the early hours of May 14, 1940, General Alphonse Georges, the French commander of the northeast front, received bad news at his headquarters, the small but elegant 18th-century Chateau des Bondons, an hour’s drive east of Paris near the River Marne.
He had just learned that the Germans, who had invaded his country fours days earlier, had crashed through his defenses around the city of Sedan. As he wept, most of his staff stood around in awkward silence.
When Maj. Gen. Aimé Doumenc, a member of the general staff of the Supreme Headquarters of the French Land Forces, arrived, Georges greeted him solemnly, saying, “Our front has caved in at Sedan.” He then took to an armchair, his head in his hands. Regaining some composure, he explained that two divisions had run away under heavy bombing; German tanks were reported in the small, northeastern French village of Bulson, close to the Belgian border.
Doumenc tried to inject some optimism. “Let’s look at the map, General,” he said. He showed how the three French armored divisions were still intact and could be used to pinch out the German bridgehead; the enemy could be thrown back over the River Meuse, Doumenc said, hopefully.
Georges was unconvinced. Later that day, Georges reported to General Maurice Gamelin, the Allied commander-in-chief, who also played down the crisis. A counterattack of “formidable means” was underway, Gamelin told him.
Such a counterattack looked possible on a map, but the French had been “wrong footed” from the start and never recovered. Within five days of the German invasion on May 10, Holland had been defeated, French defenses on the Meuse had fallen apart, and French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud on May 15 telephoned British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, telling him, “We have lost the battle.”
Yet this outcome at the start of the campaign was far from a certainty; the Germans were not necessarily bound to win.
On May 10, Germany had 136 divisions in the West; 10 were armored (panzers) seven were motorized, and one was airborne. The French had 94 divisions, the British 10, the Belgians 22. The French had three armored divisions, three light mechanized divisions (similarly equipped to panzer divisions), and five cavalry divisions.
The infantry divisions on both sides, excluding the British, relied on horse-drawn transport. For example, the average German infantry division of 17,000 men had 5,375 horses, which required 53 tons of feed daily. The French alone had more tanks than the Germans: 3,254 vs. 2,574.
Although slower and with a more limited range, the French tanks were better armored and armed; the heavy Somua B tank was considered the best tank in the world. A quarter of the German tanks mounted only machine guns while another quarter had only 20mm guns. In antitank guns, the Germans had 12,800, largely of poor performance, opposed by 7,200 excellent French pieces.
It was in the organization of the armored units where there was a marked difference. Even the three French armored divisions, considerably larger than the panzer divisions, supplemented by a fourth formed during the campaign, lacked vital supporting elements such as motorized infantry, and thus were incapable of fighting independently. The panzer divisions were self-contained units of all arms and organized into corps forming a highly mobile striking force.
In the air the Germans had the advantage. In May 1940 the Luftwaffe deployed 1,016 fighters, 1,368 bombers, 342 Stuka dive bombers, and 500 reconnaissance aircraft. The French Air Force had some 1,220 modern aircraft: 700 fighters, 140 bombers, and 380 reconnaissance planes. To these were added 230 bombers and 200 fighters from Britain’s RAF, which had rushed to France and Belgium’s aid.
Clearly the Germans held the advantage, which was enhanced by superior aircraft and a better understanding, honed in Poland, of close aerial support of ground forces. The Luftwaffe also enjoyed a marked advantage in antiaircraft guns.
Thus, at the start of the campaign, Germany had an advantage only in bomber aircraft and antiaircraft defenses. Otherwise, the opposing sides were largely equal. The battle depended far more on the style of operations and the strategic concept.
The Allied high command, even before Germany’s invasion of Poland and demonstration of Blitzkrieg, had concluded that, in the event of a German attack in the West, they would seek a quick victory due to the weakness of the German economy.
With the Maginot Line forming a formidable barrier between Sedan and the Rhine River, Hitler would likely try and repeat the Schlieffen Plan of 1914, with a strike through Belgium (and likely Holland as well). The Germans were expected to advance on the Brussels-Cambrai line.
But in 1936, Belgium announced its neutrality, thus upsetting Gamelin’s plans to move large numbers of troops into Belgium and fight the battle on the neighboring country’s eastern frontier. The plan was therefore revised with the battle expected to be fought on the plains of Belgium.
However, a defect in the revised plan was to assign the highly mechanized French Seventh Army to a coastal flank operation in the hope its speed would enable a link to be made with the Dutch.
Gamelin was largely right in his analysis of German strategy. The major role in the German plan—Fall Gelb (“Plan Yellow”)—postponed several times between October 1939 and January 1940, was given to Col. Gen. Fedor von Bock’s Army Group B, with a thrust through Holland and Belgium, and Col. Gen. Gerd von Rundstedt’s Army Group A, with no armored units, would cover the southern flank. They only expected to seize the Low Countries and Channel coast.
General Franz Halder was ordered by Hitler to prepare the attack in the West––even before Poland had surrendered. He viewed his task with horror and secretly thought it wise to get rid of Hitler.
Von Rundstedt, after being appointed to command Army Group A on his return from Poland, felt Plan Yellow as it stood was poor, for it did not cut the Allies off from the Somme but merely pushed them back, risking the same stalemate as 1914. General Walter von Brauchitsch, the German C-in-C of the Army, did not agree.
However, on February 17, 1940, von Rundstedt’s brilliant chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Erich von Manstein, had dined with Hitler and explained that he and his commander felt the left wing should be reinforced and become the main striking force. Hitler was taken by the suggestion—a surprise attack through the Ardennes against the weakest sector of the French defenses. It was bold and held the prospect of a swift victory; it appealed to Hitler’s gambler’s instinct.
Von Rundstedt got more armor than he had asked for, as the main weight of attack was now transferred to Army Group A. Von Bock’s Army Group B was reduced to 26 infantry divisions and three panzer divisions, but it would still attack through Holland and Belgium, distracting the Allies. Army Group A, bulked up to 44 divisions (including seven panzer), would attack through the thinly defended Ardennes, then strike north along the Somme valley toward the Channel coast, cutting off the French and British forces lured into Belgium.
Despite mounting intelligence that the Germans were concentrating more heavily opposite the Ardennes area, Gamelin stuck with his plan for a rapid movement of his left wing into Belgium, and this was to play perfectly into the enemy’s hands.
Colonel Hans Oster, an Abwehr officer and ardent anti-Nazi, gave the Dutch military attaché, Major Gijsbertus Sas, in Berlin advance warning of the attack in the West on the night of May 9. Sas had already received a string of alerts since November from this source.
However, during that time, the Dutch commander-in-chief, General Izaak Reynders, questioned such intelligence, concluding that the string of alerts from Sas amounted to “B.S.” and did not “believe a bloody word of it.” Nevertheless, his warning of the German invasion of Norway proved correct. Reynders resigned after a disagreement with the Dutch defense minister; he was replaced by General Henri Winkelman, who kept Sas in place.
At 3 am on May 10, the Dutch at last accepted the warning and began to blow the bridges over the River Maas. Half an hour later, most of the airfields in Holland were bombed by the Luftwaffe; the small Dutch Air Force was destroyed.
The German 7th Airborne Division was deployed to capture The Hague and Rotterdam; 4,000 paratroops and 12,000 airborne infantry were delivered in Junkers Ju 52 transport planes but suffered heavy casualties and failed to capture The Hague. Attempts to capture the Dutch airfields at Valkenburg, Ockenburg, and Ypenburg also failed. At Ypenburg, many Ju 52s were shot up on the ground—some by RAF Hurricane fighters that intervened at 5 pm.
Army Group B had better luck. It pierced the Belgian frontier defenses on the first day when the principal fortress of Eben Emael, which was regarded as a formidable piece of engineering, fell to a special unit of the Koch Assault Detachment. The Germans landed by glider on the roof of the fortress at first light and, using hollow charges, kept the garrison cowed while paratroops and glider troops captured key Albert Canal bridges.