Crossing the Rhine

With the outbreak of the Second World War with Hitlers invasion of Poland, it was expected that the French – having long being aware of Hitlers aggressive intentions – would respond with a major offensive. However, both France and Britain were reluctant to commit to an aggressive course of action due to the fear of Germany launching air attacks – the offensive potential of the Luftwaffe was well known since their exploits in the Spanish Civil War. However, they were unaware that the majority of the German air force was committed to attacking the Poles as it supported the German invasion.

Nonetheless, the French – taking advantage of a superiority in numbers - did launch an offensive (named Operation Saar) in the Rhine Valley on 7th September (although this would be of no assistance to the Poles). Eleven French divisions from the Second Army Group attacked along a 32-kilometre front near the German city of Saarbrücken, pushing back the weak German opposition in this area.

Map detailing the French offensive moves.

Advancing up to 8 kilometres inside the border, they captured 12 German towns and villages without a shot being fired:

  • Gersheim,
  • Medelsheim,
  • Ihn,
  • Niedergailbach,
  • Bliesmengen,
  • Ludweiler
  • Brenschelbach,
  • Lauterbach
  • Niedaltdorf,
  • Kleinblittersdorf,
  • Auersmacher,
  • Sitterswald

They did however lose four of their Renault R35 tanks to German mines.

In a German village during the Saar offensive, a French soldier looks at a poster from a German Colonial League. Plate the Colonial Office (Reichskolonialbund) in Lauterbach, the soldier belonged to the French 151ème R.I., 42ème Division d'Infanterie, September 9, 1939.

The lack of strong resistance is perhaps to be expected given the German committing of the lions share of its forces to the ongoing conflict in Poland.  Hitler was gambling on a muted or delayed Allied response, giving him time to complete the conquest of Poland before then turning his attention to the West.

Two days later, the French had also occupied the Warndt Forest although the following day, a localised German counterattack recaptured the village of Apach, only for the French to capture it again a few hours later. On the 12th of September, the French then captures the German town of Brenschelbach for the loss of a captain, sergeant and seven soldiers.  

French soldiers in front of a guesthouse in Lauterbach, during the Saar Offensive.

This proved to be the limit of the French advance as they stopped short of the German Siegfried line fortifications, reluctant to try and breach them. However, with the Poland on the verge of collapse, The French commander, General Maurice Gamelin, felt there was little value in trying to hold on to the captured territories – especially with the growing German strength.

Despite the protestations of some of his fellow commanders – Henri Giraud being one – he ordered the French forces to return to their starting positions on 21 September.

A week later, as the French were withdrawing, the Germans launched a counterattack by the 18th Infantry Regiment between Bischmisheim and Ommersheim, but this attempt failed and was forced to retreat by the French.

By 17th October, the French withdrawal had been completed at the cost of 2000 casualties (killed, wounded or sick).

The Germans suffered 196 dead, 114 missing, 356 wounded and 11 aircraft destroyed.

Original color photos of the German Siegfried Line, photographed in 1939.

(20) WWII Pictures (@WWIIpix) / Twitter

Should France have continued with the offensive?

Some consider they should have done. With German forces committed in Poland, there is an argument that if France had committed enough forces to the offensive, they could have broken through the German defences – as strong as they were – and advanced further into Germany. This would have resulted in Germany essentially fighting a war on two fronts.

However, another viewpoint is that France, looking to avoid a repeat of the huge casualties they had suffered in the First World War, had invested heavily in fighting any future wars from a defensive standpoint.

They constructed the immense Maginot Line on the border for this very purpose in the hope that any invading force would smash themselves against its defences and avoid France itself becoming yet another battlefield. The French were simply not ready – either materially, strategically  or mentally – for another large-scale war.