Paris, France May 10, 1940

On this date in 1940 the German Wehrmacht (armed forces) began its western offen­sive, the dual con­quest of France, like Great Britain at war with Nazi Germany since Septem­ber 3, 1939, and the neutral Low Coun­tries. The year before, on Octo­ber 9, 1939, five weeks after setting in motion the con­quest of his eastern neighbor, Poland, on Septem­ber 1, Adolf Hitler issued Fuehrer Direc­tive No. 6. That direc­tive spawned the first opera­tional plan for Fall Gelb (Case Yellow), which the Wehr­macht amended multi­ple times well into 1940, each time widening the scope of its planned campaign in the west.

As Wehrmacht units brushed aside light oppo­sition from tiny Luxem­bourg and began neu­tralizing stronger Dutch and Belgian resis­tance, German infan­try and armor columns, pro­tected by an aerial umbrella of Luft­waffe fighters and bombers, crossed the French and Bel­gian borders north of France’s vaunted Magi­not Line, out­flanking it. (The Magi­not Line on France’s eastern fron­tier facing its his­tor­i­cal arch­enemy con­sisted of 58 major conc­rete and steel fortifi­ca­tions that stretched from Southern Belgium to the Swiss border.)

French forces on the country’s left flank, well away from the Magi­not Line, were supple­mented by mem­bers of the British Expedi­tion­ary Force. Starting on Septem­ber 9, 1939, the BEF had begun sta­tioning 13 army divi­sions and their equip­ment in the Low Coun­tries and North­western France. British men at arms soon repre­sented 10 per­cent of Allied forces on the Western Front. Together, the Anglo-French land forces were numer­i­cally superior to the enemy’s. But after the Germans broke through Allied lines at Sedan (May 12–15) and dashed to the English Chan­nel across the open and unde­fended French country­side, the Allied armies were now on the back foot. The BEF and ele­ments of the French and Belgian armies found them­selves trapped in the Dun­kirk poc­ket, to be rescued by sea in an amazing 10‑day effort code­named Opera­tion Dynamo (May 26 to June 4, 1940). (Evac­u­a­tion of a second BEF took place between June 15 and 25.) Over­all, the Allies lost 61 divi­sions in Fall Gelb. The French could cobble together about 64 divi­sions from what remained of their army. The Germans had 142 out of an original 157 divisions with which to press on.

The Wehrmacht’s second phase of the Battle of France was code­named Fall Rot (Case Red). Beginning on June 5, the Teu­tonic jugger­naut turned south toward Paris, the French capi­tal, and west to Normandy on a 160-mile front. On June 14 Paris fell to the invaders, the French govern­ment having already fled to Tours before settling in Bor­deaux on the French Atlan­tic coast. Two days later Prime Minis­ter Paul Rey­naud resigned and was suc­ceeded by 84-year-old Deputy Prime Minis­ter Marshal Philippe Pétain. The World War I hero delivered a radio address to the French people, announc­ing his inten­tion to ask for an armi­stice with Germany. When Hitler learned that the French govern­ment wanted to nego­ti­ate an end to hos­til­i­ties, he selected the Forest of Com­piègne, the site of the 1918 armistice, as the venue.

On June 21, 1940, Hitler visited Compiègne to start the nego­ti­a­tions, which took place in Marshal Ferdinand Foch’s per­sonal rail­way car­riage where the World War I armi­stice was signed. After listening to the pre­amble in the same chair occu­pied by Foch when he faced repre­sen­ta­tives of the new German republic (Kaiser Wil­helm II had abdi­cated 2 days ear­lier), Hitler, in a delib­er­ate ges­ture of scorn for the French dele­ga­tion, left the rail­car. Nego­ti­a­tions were con­cluded by Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, Chief of Staff of the Wehr­macht high command (Ober­kommando der Wehr­macht). The Franco-German armi­stice was signed the next evening by Keitel for Germany and Général d’armée Charles Hunt­ziger for France. It came into effect just past mid­night on June 25, 1940, ending the 46-day Battle of France.

The Battle of France, May 10 to June 25, 1940

Battle of France: Packed Paris train station, June 12, 1940Battle of France: French road clogged with refugees, June 1940

Left: A packed Paris train station, June 12, 1940, as panicky Parisians try boarding trains leaving the capi­tal. Two days earlier the govern­ment had abandoned Paris for the Atlantic port city of Bor­deaux via Tours, signaling to Parisians that it was no longer safe to remain in the capi­tal. Almost 3 out of 5 mil­lion Parisians clamored to get out of the city. On June 13 the French govern­ment declared Paris an “Open City” and thus undefended, a decla­ra­tion intended to pro­tect the city so long as French troops and resi­dents offered no resis­tance to the advancing enemy. The next day, June 14, the Wehr­macht entered the half-empty “City of Lights” in the wake of France’s mili­tary collapse and hoisted their swas­tika over the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, and the French Chamber of Deputies. By the time minis­ters of the defeatist Pétain govern­ment signed a humil­i­ating cease­fire on June 22, 1940, the German Blitz­krieg had loosed itself across more than half the nation.

Right: Desperate and terrified French refugees flee advancing German troops, their cars, horse-drawn wagons, wheel­barrows, and bicycles loaded with house­hold posses­sions. The Luft­waffe had bombed Paris on June 3, sparking fear of terror bombing on the scale of Warsaw, Poland, in Septem­ber 1939 and Dutch Rotter­dam on May 14, 1940. About 15 per­cent or more of the French popu­la­tion—up to 10 million people, most of whom were women absent their hus­bands, chil­dren, and the elderly—clogged roads and high­ways to the south and west to escape from harm’s way. Despite the stifling summer heat, it was common to see women wearing layered clothing: skirt over skirt (as seen here) over trousers, coats over jackets, gloves, scarves, and hat. The French called the chaotic evac­u­a­tion of their cities, towns, and villages “the Exodus” (l’Exode).

Battle of France: Fleeing civilians at rail yard with belongings, June 1940Battle of France: Baby and stroller put aboard train, June 1940

Above: One observer of l’Exode reminisced: “People would go to the station with their entire fortunes: baskets, mat­tresses, suit­cases, trunks, strollers, bicycles and caged canaries” and try to load their posses­sions on trains already packed with anxious and weary passen­gers bringing simi­lar items on board. Toilets provided addi­tional seating and storage space. He also recalled that “run­aways and the failed soldiers” often looted homes aban­doned by their frightened resi­dents. To add to the un­folding tragedy Luft­waffe pilots roared their Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive-bombers and Messer­schmitt Bf 109 fighters low over the crowded roads, bombing and strafing the defense­less civil­ians. Some mothers, deathly afraid and wearied by carrying toddlers, entrusted their chil­dren to passing motorists, even­tually losing track of them in the ensuing chaos. Heart-rending mes­sages begging for news of lost children appeared in various media for weeks afterwards.

How Germany’s Blitzkrieg Defeated France, May–June, 1940