Historians now explain the collapse of French military resistance in June 1940 in ways that make defeat seem inevitable. But at the time, the fall of France was, in the words of the British foreign secretary, “so unbelievable as to be almost surely unreal”. Thoughtful people everywhere recognized that the world had suddenly changed; this was either the beginning of Hitler’s Thousand-Year Reich, or–if Germany was defeated–the end of the European age.The fate of France was probably determined in 1936 when Belgium, France’s vital ally in the West, stuck its head in the sand and declared neutrality. Thereafter, the French army confronted a strategic problem that no one then or since has been able to resolve. Put in its simplest terms the French were required to defend a perimeter that stretched from the English Channel to the Mediterranean. If they extended the Maginot line to fortify their border with Belgium, there would be little choice except to stand by and watch Hitler destroy the Belgian army and advance towards them. France could not violate Belgium’s neutrality before a German attack, so plans were drawn up to move into the Low Countries after a Nazi offensive had begun. This required the French to deploy their most mobile armies in the north to make the rapid moves required.
French General Maurice Gamelin could afford to thin out his forces along the Maginot line but the hostility of Italy and the possibility of a German attack through Switzerland required heavy commitments in the south. This meant that the 94 French divisions available in 1940 could not possibly develop defences in depth or assemble a large strategic reserve.
The Belgian problem also made it difficult for France to take advantage of German weakness during the invasion of Poland. Hitler was confident there would be no French violation of neutrality and so he concentrated the 35 divisions left in the west along a 100-mile sector in The Rhineland. No French general could agree to attacking such a narrow, and, well defended front so pleas from Poland for action went unanswered.
Some historians attribute the defeat of France to a lack of will, low morale and defeatism among politicians and the military. No matter what form the German attack took, it is argued, France would have been crushed. Other analysts focus on German strategic planning for the breakthrough at Sedan and the rapid advance to the Channel coast while military historians emphasize the operational and tactical skill of the German army whose troops overwhelmed French, Belgian and British units in a war of manoeuvre that the press called Blitzkrieg.
All of these explanations add to our knowledge of what happened but it is not clear they help explain what alternative strategies should have been pursued in 1940. It is worth reminding ourselves that a year later the Soviet Union, forced to defend an even longer frontier, almost collapsed under the impact of surprise attacks delivered at a time and place of Hitler’s choosing. And in 1944, faced with the need to defend the Atlantic Wall from Holland to the south of France, Hitler and his generals spread out their forces with the smallest of mobile reserves. They too misjudged the location of the main attack and 1ost all of France in a little over two months. Eisenhower’s dispositions at the time of the second Ardennes offensive, the Battle of the Bulge, were strangely similar to those of Gamelin in 1940, though this time the Germans lacked the strength to take advantage of it.
The armies of NATO, during the long years of the Cold War, found themselves forced to develop a strategy based on the forward defence of the entire frontier between east and west. The planners were well aware of the supposed lessons of the Battle of France but just as in 1940 there seemed no choice. If you are not prepared to attack first, your enemy can choose his time and place. If you decline to defend part of your territory you sacrifice land and people without resolving your dilemma. NATO would not deliberately abandon large sections of Germany any more than France could give up its industrial zone or allow the 18 divisions of the Belgian army to be isolated. France’s only hope in 1940, or NATO’s if a Soviet attack had ever come, was to absorb the blows, fall back and reform a new perimeter defence. The French lost because they had not adjusted, mentally or physically, to the new age of mobile and mechanized warfare. Fortunately, we will never know if NATO planners succeeded where the French, Soviets and Germans failed.
Canadian involvement in the battle of France is a largely forgotten chapter in our history, but it is worth recalling for a number of reasons. Historians have been very critical of the performance of the Canadian armed forces in WW II and have questioned the competence of virtually every senior officer. No one has suffered more criticism than Gen. Andy McNaughton, the man the wartime generation knew as “the father of the Canadian Army”.
A.G.L. McNaughton won recognition as an outstanding gunner in WW I and rose to the highest rank in the Canadian Army before becoming President of the National Research Council. In 1939 he was recalled to active service and given command of the First Canadian Infantry Division. McNaughton and the Red Patch Div. reached England in December 1939 carrying with them the exalted reputation of the Canadian Corps. The arrival lifted the spirits of everyone in Britain and although the division lacked equipment and needed training it was made up of Canadians, cut from the same cloth as the victors of Vimy Ridge and the Amiens offensive.
It settled into the old permanent barracks at Aldershot and began preparations to join the small British Expeditionary Force that made up 8 of the 28 Anglo-French divisions slated to advance into Belgium. Given priority in equipment and training facilities, they were to be ready to go to France by May 1940.
Recently one of Canada’s most brilliant professional soldiers, retired Lieutenant-Colonel John A. English, has argued that McNaughton must bear a large share of the responsibility for what he sees as the inadequate performance of the Canadian Army and its senior officers. We will examine this issue in other parts of the series but for the moment we should look closely at McNaughton and his men during the crisis of May-June 1940.
The first call on the Canadians came with the sudden onslaught on Norway. A force of some 800 men were requested for combined operations against the Norwegian port of Trondheim. McNaughton agreed immediately and the Loyal Edmonton Regiment, with the Princess Patricia’s Cdn. Light Infantry, were on their way to Scotland in 36 hours. The assault was called off but everyone was impressed with the rapid reaction capacity demonstrated by the Canadians.
General Sir Edmund Ironside, the Chief of the Imperial General staff, turned to McNaughton again when the British Expeditionary Force began its retreat to Dunkirk. On May 22, as a German Panzer division reached Boulogne, McNaughton was asked to prepare a battle group to go to France and restore communications between the expeditionary force and the remaining Channel ports. He quickly crossed to Calais and Dunkirk to survey the situation, concluding that the Canadians could be best used at Calais to delay the enemy armor from reaching Dunkirk.
While McNaughton tried to make sense of the situation in Calais and Dunkirk, Operation Angel Move was under way. First Brigade–the Royal Cdn. Regt., the Hastings and Prince Edward Regt. and the 48th Highlanders of Canada, with field and anti-tank artillery regiments–was ready and waiting to embark from Dover and Southampton. However, German pressure on Calais and the arrival of French troops to defend Dunkirk led McNaughton to insist that Operation Angel Move be cancelled. It was his belief that the Dunkirk area was already quite congested and what the Allies needed there was not reinforcement, but organization.
McNaughton, was now convinced that the “coast of the United Kingdom is the citadel which must be held”, everything else was of secondary importance. Churchill thought otherwise and insisted on the formation of a Second British Expeditionary Force built around 52nd Lowland and lst Cdn. Div. They were to move to Brittany to support the French in holding the new Weygand line, or failing that, to join in the defence of the Breton Redoubt as a last fortified foothold on the continent.
First Bde. sailed for Brest on June 13, the day before the Germans entered an undefended Paris. The level of confusion in France was such that the Canadians, who were supposed to concentrate near the port before linking up with the Lowland division, were sent inland to Le Mans well past the proposed Brittany defence line.
The next day orders were issued reversing the movement; the Canadians were to return to England. Some elements of the division were 250 miles inland while much of First Bde. was en route to Le Mans by road. There was much cursing, frustration, disappointment and some reports of drunkenness, but the entire force was re-embarked in good order. Most of the brigade’s vehicles were lost though Lt.-Col. J.H. Roberts, commanding the lst Field Regt., Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, insisted his precious 25-pounder guns had to be saved. He was given less than two hours to accomplish this but it was more than enough time. The RCHA war diary noted bitterly: “Although there was evidently no enemy for 200 miles the withdrawal was conducted as a rout.” This was no doubt unfair but the Canadians had little reason to be impressed with the strategic or operational management of the British army.
The Canadian role in the last days of the Battle of France did not involve any actual combat and is quite properly ignored in most accounts. But for Canadians, the actions of McNaughton and the performance of Canadian troops are of continuing interest. By any reasonable standard both McNaughton and his men came off well. They had done as if the famous Canadian Corps had been reborn.
- Originally published in Legion Magazine, on October 1st 1995