All quiet on the Western Front

With the outbreak of the Second World War and Hitler’s successful Invasion of Poland, Europe now awaited his next move in Western Europe. It was clear that Hitler would not stop with Poland but what was he planning to do next?

To begin with…nothing. At least, that how it appeared as the war entered a phase known as the ‘Phoney War’ (or ‘Drôle de guerre’ in French and ‘Sitzkrieg’ in German). From 3rd September to 10 May 1940, compared to events elsewhere (Poland), very little happened. To begin with, no invasion of countries or major battles would be fought in this period in Western Europe.

Action was restricted to a few half-hearted Allied offensives, minor naval skirmishes and attempts at economic blockades, but overall, most of the action relating to Western Europe, only took place on the planning boards and maps, as each side tried to second guess the actions of the other.

51st Highland Division en-route to the front, during the ‘Phoney War’, 1940.

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Operation Weserübung

Eventually in April 1940, Hitler, would turn his attentions to Denmark and Norway with Operation Weserübung and the ensuing campaign would see much fighting and destruction – there was certainly nothing ‘phoney’ about the blood being spilled in this conflict which led to both countries eventually being occupied by Nazi Germany and Hitler adding to his list of countries conquered.

Despite attempts by the British to intervene and prevent the Germans conquering Norway – which resulted in troops being landed in force, a number of skirmishes and several German naval vessels being destroyed, poor planning and tactics ultimately forced the British to evacuate their troops, a disappointing ending to their endeavours and one which would contribute to Neville Chamberlin to step down as British Prime Minister and being replaced by Winston Churchill.  

German soldiers in Norway during Operation Weserübung.

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Case Yellow (Fall Gelb)

On 10 May 1940, the relative peace and quiet in the rest of Western Europe ended abruptly with the German launch of ‘Case Yellow’, which saw their forces invade Luxembourg, Belgium, France and the Netherlands. Great Britain sent across an Expeditionary force to France to fight alongside the Allies as German ground forces – implementing the ‘Blitzkrieg’ tactics that have served them well in Poland, began to cut through the Allied defences.

French Army Hotchkiss H39 tank captured during battle of France 1940.

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Despite fierce resistance in some areas, the Allied forces struggled to contain the fast moving and powerful German forces. Luftwaffe Ju 87 Stuka dive bombers wreaked havoc from above, German armoured units moved rapidly, constantly punching through Allied defence lines, causing chaos and confusion in their wake, while lines of refugees trying to escape the carnage clogged up roads, further hampering the Allied attempts to react.  

Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands all fell relatively quickly to the German attacks, while France and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) struggled to get to grips with the rapidly changing strategic picture – they always seemed to be a step behind the Germans, helped in part by the excellent tactics and modern equipment being employed by very capable German commanders, such as Erwin Rommel and Heinz Guderian, but also due to the outdated methods and ideologies being adopted by the French and British armies.

Bren Gun Carriers of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) advance during the Battle of France.

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The Allies did have some successes – the counterattack at Arras caused a temporary panic in some German Units, their fear of their flanks being exposed as they raced on ahead becoming a reality. The Royal Air Force also extolled a heavy toll on the Luftwaffe, the Hurricane fighters causing problems for the Germans, although conversely,

British attempts to bomb the German advancing ground units, usually ended in disaster, the bravery and dedication of the pilots unable to compensate for the inferior and unsuitable bombers the RAF were using at this stage.

Eventually, with German forces running amok in the interior of France, the BEF would find itself cut off and surrounded next to the coast at Dunkirk, where only the spectacular and successful completion of Operation Dynamo would save the bulk of the British army – who would escape to fight another day, although much of their equipment had to be abandoned on the beaches they were evacuated from.

Disarmed French soldiers file pass German officers on the outskirts of Dunkirk. The evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force had been completed a few hours earlier.

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Case Red (Fall Rot)

With the bulk of the British forces now back in Great Britain and no longer in the battle, the Germans looked to finish off France with the launch of ‘Case Red’ and the elimination of the last of the French resistance. France struggled to fight on – it still had 60 division at its disposal - but morale was low, even with a second British Expeditionary Force being sent across to assist.

Despite a determined final stand by the French and British in the Somme and Aisne areas, once again the German use of combined arms – infantry, armour and air support = ‘Blitzkrieg’ – ensured that they would be victorious.

As a further blow to the French, Italy joined the war in June 1940 and attacked France in the south in what became known as the Battle for the Alps.

Italian artillerymen loading a howitzer during the Battle for the Alps, June 1940.

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Armistice

The French capital, Paris fell to the Germans on June 14, tellingly, the Germans being able to march in unopposed. The French government subsequently fled and with that, the French army ceased to operate as a coherent force. On 22 June 1940, an armistice was signed – the Second Armistice at Compiègne - which would result in the end of the French Third Republic and the country being divided into two – one half occupied by Germany and the other turned into ‘Vichy France’ (named after the French spa town of Vichy where the government was based) – a collaborationist state led by Marshal Philippe Pétain, a hero of the First World War.

A number of French soldiers escaped to Great Britain to continue the fight with Germany as the ‘Free French’.

The Second BEF also had a lucky escape being successfully evacuated by the British in Operation Ariel, along with many French, Czech and Poles (the latter two having previously escaped captivity when their own countries had been invaded by Nazi Germany).


Aftermath

Most of Western Europe was now either under direct Nazi control or allied to Nazi Germany (Italy) with only Great Britain remaining free, separated by the English Channel from the rest of Europe. Hitler would soon turn his attention to this island though with the planned invasion of England – Operation Sealion – and resulting Battle of Britain and the Blitz.