German soldiers at the gates of the captured Belgian fort Bonsel. May 1940
80 years ago, in May 1940, the Third Reich inflicted a crushing defeat on the Netherlands, Belgium, France and England. On May 10, 1940, German troops invaded Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Already on May 14 the Netherlands surrendered, on May 27 - Belgium, France was defeated and lost the will to resist, the British fled to their island.
The conquest of "living space"
Despite the rapid defeat of Poland, the capture of Denmark and Norway, the military and economic power of the Reich did not match the scale of Hitler's aggressive designs. However, the power of the German armed forces grew rapidly. In 1939, the ground forces already numbered 3,8 million people; by the spring of 1940, the active army had increased by another 540 thousand people. Twice as many tank connections (together 5 became 10). Increased reserve army. A large fleet was under construction. The Reich received a modern air force. War production rose sharply. However, the military and resource potential of the German Empire was much inferior to its opponents. The resources of the British Empire alone were significantly higher than those of the German. Thus, England and France had a good military material base for the victory over the Reich, but did not use it. The allies remained passive to the last, giving the enemy strategic initiative.
Germany, meanwhile, was actively preparing for the French campaign. To buy time for the preparation of a new offensive operation, Hitler pretended to be ready to agree. That Germany has no special claims against France, and the Germans are waiting from England for the return of the colonies selected after the First World War. At this time, new military units were deployed in the Reich, the production of weapons, equipment and ammunition was growing. Inside the country, the Nazis completed the rout of any opposition, suppressed anti-war sentiment. A powerful ideological treatment of the population in combination with repression was methodically carried out. The army and people became a single military machine, confident in its truth.
The Germans, using Hitler’s popularity in Europe, the ideas of Nazism and fascism, created a powerful intelligence network in France, Holland and Belgium. The German command knew almost everything about the enemy: the quantity and quality of troops, their deployment, the state of the military industry, mobilization readiness, tactical and technical data of weapons, etc.
Hitler in November 1939 at a military meeting again sets the task of conquering living space for Germany: "No cleverness will help here, a solution is possible only with the help of the sword." The Führer also speaks of a racial struggle, a struggle for resources (oil, etc.). Hitler notes that the Reich will be able to oppose Russia only victory in the West. It is necessary to defeat France and bring England to its knees.
As a result, Hitler and the military and political leadership of the Reich, despite the adventurism of their plans, quite reasonably believed that it was necessary to solve the problem of the possibility of a war on two fronts, which destroyed the Second Reich. On the path to supremacy in Europe and the world, it is first necessary to strengthen the military-economic potential of Germany by conquering a number of European countries and defeating France and England. Hitler wanted to take historical revenge for the lost war of 1914-1918 over France, which was to unite the nation even more, to give it the spirit of victory. To secure the rear, bring London to its knees (to avoid the complete defeat of England and agree with the British), establish unified power in Europe, prepare bridgeheads from the north and south to strike Russia (having agreed with Finland and Romania, occupying the Balkans). Therefore, the German supreme leadership came to the conclusion that it would be advisable to launch new attacks in the West, leaving Russia for later.
German soldiers under cover of anti-tank self-propelled gun Panzerjager I in Belgium. May 1940
French gunners fire from a 155-mm howitzer of the 1917 Schneider system in the Sedan area. May 1940
The calculation of the German 210-mm heavy mortar is preparing to open fire on French fortifications. In the background is another 210 mm heavy mortar
German soldiers at the taken pillbox line Maginot
Why Paris and London were passively waiting for an enemy strike
The military-political situation of France and England perfectly matched the plans of the Nazis. France, which since the victory in the First World War has maintained the position of one of the great world powers and the leader of Europe, has been in political decline. Politically, the French became junior partners of the British, who until the very last moment “appeased” the aggressor at the expense of their neighbors. London deliberately fomented a great war in Europe in the hope of leaving the new world war as the victor, the head of the new world order. The British Empire was in crisis, it needed a world war to bury its competitors. As a result, England consciously surrendered Hitler all of Europe (including France) step by step and, obviously, had secret agreements with the Fuhrer, including the mission of Rudolf Hess; arrangements are still classified in the British archives. Hitler received a quiet rear in Europe and then had to attack the Russians. After victory in Russia, Berlin and London could build a new world order.
The organization of the French armed forces, their strategy, operational and tactical art froze at the level of the First World War. The French did not pay much attention to the development of advanced military equipment, and the Germans gained an advantage in aviation, communications, anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. The French generals basically remained in the military thought in the past, slept through new processes in the development of military art. The French proceeded from a defensive strategy, believed that the enemy, as in the previous war, would exhaust its forces in a positional struggle. France spent huge amounts of money and paid great attention to improving well-equipped fortified lines on the western border. The French thought that the Germans would get bogged down by storming the Maginot line, and then it would be possible to build up reserves, pull up troops from the colonies, and launch a counterattack, taking advantage of the material and military advantage over Germany.
As a result, they were in no hurry with total mobilization; they continued their generally peaceful life. The “strange war” on the Western Front continued until the German strike. Holland and Belgium were in no hurry to establish military cooperation with the French and British. They emphasized their neutrality. The allies reigned flawed defensive strategy, giving the initiative to the enemy. Divisions, tanks and aircraft were evenly stretched along the front. Strategic reserves in case of an unexpected breakthrough of the Germans were not formed. The rear defensive lines were not prepared. There wasn’t even such a thought! The generals looked at politicians, waiting for a speedy peace. The lull at the front was seen as evidence that the German leadership would soon seek peace with England and France in order to organize a common "crusade" against Russia. Officers and soldiers were also convinced that signing a peace with Germany was a matter of time. Even if the Germans try to attack, they will be stopped on the Maginot line, and then they will try to agree. Therefore, they killed time by playing football, cards, watched imported movies, listened to music, made romance with ladies. The fighting in Norway at first alerted the military, but it was still quiet on the French border. Thus, in general, society and the army believed that the Germans would not climb to storm the impregnable forts, and sooner or later they would seek a compromise.
At the same time, the Allies had plenty of time for complete mobilization, organization of stiff defense and preparation of strong counterattacks. Hitler several times postponed the start of the operation. First, from November 1939 to January 1940 - due to the unavailability of the army. Then, in the spring of 1940, due to the loss of secret documents (the so-called Mechelen incident), from March to May, due to the Danish-Norwegian operation. The military conspirators from the Abwehr (military intelligence and counterintelligence of Germany) informed allies about all Hitler's plans of the German army. The Anglo-French command knew about the preparations for the Reich operation in Norway, but missed the moment for the destruction of the German naval landing. The Anglo-French knew about the plans for an attack on France, about the time of the invasion, that the Germans would deliver a distracting blow through Belgium and the Netherlands, and that the main one would be in the Ardennes. But they fell into this trap.
The Western powers seemed to be asleep. A number of "oddities" led to a brilliant victory for Hitler and the Third Reich. Small countries believed in the inviolability of their "neutrality." For example, the Belgian authorities on May 9 (the day before the invasion) restored a 5-day dismissal from the army, showing their disbelief in the "ridiculous rumors" about the war. At this time, German tanks were already approaching the border of Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg. Western leaders were confident of an imminent alliance with the Third Reich against the Russians. France, which in the First World War showed real heroism and fiercely fought, gave herself to defeat and occupy. England escaped heavy losses, it was simply driven out to the islands. In Berlin, British colonialists and racists were respected, who showed the Germans how to rule the world with the help of colonial "elites", terror, genocide and concentration camps.
French artillerymen near a 220-mm cannon of special power of the Schneider model of 1917 are preparing to open fire on the fortifications of the Western Wall (Siegfried Line) on the German border
German soldiers visiting the French tank Char B1-bis "Mistral", lined in Le Catle
German soldiers posing on the French tank Renault FT-17
The forces of the parties
Hitler concentrated the main forces on the Western Front (only a few cover divisions were left in the East) - 136 divisions, including 10 tank and 6 motorized. A total of 3,3 million people, 2600 tanks, 24,5 thousand guns. Ground forces supported the 2nd and 3rd air fleets - over 3800 aircraft.
The allies had approximately the same allied forces: 94 French, 10 British, Polish, 8 Dutch and 22 Belgian divisions. A total of 135 divisions, 3,3 million people, about 14 thousand guns of caliber above 75 mm and 4,4 thousand aircraft. In terms of the number of tanks and aircraft, the Allies had an advantage. However, the Allies were inferior as armored forces: 3 armored and 3 light mechanized divisions, in total more than 3,1 thousand tanks. That is, the Germans were inferior in the number of tanks, as well as in the quality of equipment (French tanks were better). But German tanks were reduced to attack groups and divisions, and French tanks were dispersed along the front line, distributed between formations and units. As a result, at the beginning of the battle the forces were approximately equal; in some quantitative indicators, the allied armies had an advantage.
If the battle dragged on, then the Germans would have begun big problems. The Allies had the opportunity to relatively quickly increase the number of divisions with the help of total mobilization in France, the transfer of troops from England and the colonies. Also, the French and British colonial empires had an advantage in human, material resources. A protracted war was deadly for the Reich.
The landing of the German parachute landing from transport aircraft Junkers U-52 in the Netherlands
German motorcyclists on the street of a suburb of Luxembourg
German horse scouts cross the river in the Ardennes
The German offensive was unfolding in accordance with the revised Yellow Plan (Gelb plan). It provided for the invasion of troops in France not only through Central Europe, as was the first version (a repetition of the "Schlieffen Plan" in the basics of 1914), but a simultaneous attack on the entire front to Ardennes. Army Group B linked the enemy with battles in Holland and Belgium, where the allies were supposed to transfer their troops. The main blow of the army group "A" delivered through Luxembourg - the Belgian Ardennes. That is, German troops bypassed the powerful fortified zone on the Franco-German border - the Maginot line, and were supposed to break through to the coast of the English Channel. If successful, German divisions cut off the Belgian enemy group from forces in France, could block and destroy it, and avoided heavy fighting on the French border.
The main task of Army Group B (18th and 6th Army) under the command of von Bock was to forge enemy forces on the northern flank, capture Holland and Belgium, at the second stage of the operation, troops were transferred to France. The success of the entire operation depended on the speed of operations of the 18th and 6th armies of Küchler and Reichenau. They were supposed to prevent the Dutch and Belgian armies from recovering, to organize stubborn resistance at the convenient positions of the "Holland Fortress" (numerous rivers, canals, dams, bridges, etc.), forts of Belgium. To prevent the advance of the Anglo-French troops, who were to enter Belgium with the left wing. Therefore, the decisive role in the operation was played by the advanced units of paratroopers, the 16th Göpner motorized corps (as part of the 6th army).
The main strike was delivered by Army Group A under the command of von Rundstedt (4th, 12th, 16th armies, 2nd reserve army, Kleist’s Panzer Group — two armored and mechanized corps). German troops invading Belgium, moving slowly at first, waiting for the enemy troops to be drawn into the trap, then made a jerk through the Ardennes, breaking through to the sea, to Calais. Thus blocking the allied forces in Belgium and the northern coast of France. At the second stage of the operation, the Rundstedt group was supposed to strike the flank and rear of the French troops on the Maginot Line, to join army group “C” (“C”), which conducted an auxiliary operation on the Franco-German border.
The 4th Army of Kluge was advancing on the right flank of Army Group “A”: it was to break through the defenses of the Belgian army, advance south of Liège, and quickly reach the r. Meuse in the Dinan area, Givier. The 15th Motorized Corps (Gotha Group) began a breakthrough to the sea from the turn of the Meuse. Liszt’s 12th Army and Klest’s Panzer Group (19th and 41st Panzer, 14th Mechanized Corps) were to easily pass through Luxembourg, then cross the inaccessible area of Ardennes and reach Maas on the section of Givier - Sedan. Force the river and advance rapidly to the northwest. The 12th army provided the left flank, tank formations broke through to the sea, to Boulogne and Calais. The left flank of the shock group was covered by the 16th Bush Army. As the armored group broke through to the west and north-west, the 16th Army was to provide the southern flank, first from the Franco-German border, then beyond the Meuse. As a result, Bush’s army was supposed to go to Luxembourg, and then turn the front south.
Army Group C under the command of von Leeb (1st and 7th armies) played a supporting role, was to actively engage the enemy forces and prevent the French from transferring divisions to the north. The 2nd and 3rd air fleets of Sperley and Kesselring solved the task of destroying enemy aircraft at airfields and air, covering the advancing ground forces.
To be continued ...
German anti-aircraft gunners visiting the French light tank AMR 35 ZT 1 of the 2nd light mechanized division, lined in Belgium
German soldiers inspect the ruined fortifications of the Belgian fort Eben-Emael
German paratroopers who took part in the capture of the Belgian fort Eben-Emael. May 12, 1940
German tank Pz.Kpfw. III, standing near the mill on Reysord Street in Holland