The first campaign of World War II reached its expected conclusion. No one had seriously expected isolated Poland to stand up for long against the German and Soviet armed forces or expected Britain and France to act rapidly enough to help their Polish ally decisively.
Yet the speed of the German conquest surprised almost everyone. The Luftwaffe (air force) soon gained absolute command of the air and used it to disrupt Polish communications and to spread terror with its dive bombers. Special fully motorized German task forces swept through the less mobile Poles.
Hitler’s collaborator, Stalin, hastened to invade Poland from the east; he also occupied and then annexed the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Fear of Germany and an imperialistic desire to expand also drove the Soviets into a war with neighboring Finland in November 1939. The Soviets, who had perhaps miscalculated the strength of the Finns, did rather badly at first.
For a time the British and French considered massive aid to the Finns. By March 1940, however, Soviet forces had worn down the Finns; they secured bases and annexed Finnish lands that were close to Leningrad. This “winter war” with Finland helped push Hitler toward the fateful decision in 1941 to make war on the Soviet Union, for German military experts concluded from Soviet difficulties that an easy victory would be possible.
In April 1940 the Germans secured their northern flank. Without declaring war, they invaded neutral Denmark and Norway by sea and air. Denmark, totally unprepared, was occupied almost without resistance. Norway, also unprepared but favored by rugged terrain, put up determined opposition. Neither the British nor the French could help with more than token forces, and by the end of April Norwegian resistance had been broken. A puppet government was installed under the Norwegian fascist Vidkun Quisling (1887-1945), thus introducing into the English language a synonym for traitor. The Germans now had excellent bases for air and submarine action against the British.
The great blow was struck without warning on May 10, 1940. The German armies, invaded the Low Countries and thus bypassed the Maginot line. Both the Belgians and the Dutch had been anxious in the 1930s to avoid compromising themselves by planning for joint resistance with Britain and France against a possible German attack. They were now to suffer the full consequences.
Through the Ardennes hills on the Franco-Belgian border, the Germans poured their best motorized troops into France. In a blitzkrieg that once more capitalized on the lessons of 1914, the Germans resisted the temptation to drive at once for Paris, but instead pushed straight through northern France to the English Channel, where the port of Boulogne fell on May 26, a little more than two weeks after the start of the campaign. By this stroke the Germans separated the British, Belgian, and a large part of the French troops from the main French armies to the south.
Meanwhile, in Britain Chamberlain had resigned. He was succeeded as prime minister by Winston Churchill (1874-1965). Chamberlain was neither a man of action nor an appealing or heroic figure; Churchill was to prove himself all this and more.
In despair, the British and French attempted to pinch off the German motorized thrust by a concerted attack from north and south. But the Belgians, badly disorganized, decided to surrender, and neither the French nor the British could rally themselves to carry out the movement. In the last days of May and the first days of June, the British withdrew some 215,000 British and 120,000 French soldiers by sea to England from the beaches around Dunkirk at the northern tip of France. With protection from the Royal Air Force, an extraordinary flotilla of all sorts of vessels, including private yachts and motorboats, got the men out, though most of their equipment had to be abandoned.
From documents captured after the final defeat of Germany, it appears (though the point is still controversial) that the “miracle of Dunkirk” was possible in part because Hitler himself decided not to press home the destruction of the British forces trapped on the coast, since he believed that Britain was no longer a real threat. At the last moment, he decided to push the attack on Paris at once. Here he was entirely and rapidly successful. The French could not rally, and the Germans marched southward almost unopposed. On June 13 the French declared Paris an open city and evacuated it without fighting.
The battle of France was thus decided by mid-June 1940. But the French might still have tried to defend the south or, failing that, used their navy and merchant marine to get as many troops as possible across the Mediterranean into French North Africa, where they might have continued the fight against the Germans with British aid. Some French leaders, of whom General Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970) was the most vocal, wished to do this. To persuade them to do so, Churchill made France the extraordinary offer of a complete governmental union of the two countries to continue the struggle. But his offer was not accepted.
On June 16 French premier Paul Reynaud (18781966) was supplanted by Marshal Henri Petain (18561951). Petain and his colleagues were determined on peace at any price, and on June 22, 1940, an armistice was signed at Compiegne. By this armistice the French withdrew from the war, handed over three fifths of France, including the whole Atlantic and Channel coasts, to German occupation, and retained only the central and Mediterranean regions under strict German supervision. “Unoccupied France” was ruled from the little resort city of Vichy, where Petain set up an authoritarian, antidemocratic state of which he was chief. His government was known simply as Vichy France.
Some of Petain’s supporters were pro-German. But most of them were sure that Hitler had won the war and were coming to terms with what they regarded as the inevitable German total victory. They did not believe that Britain could successfully resist the German war machine that had defeated France. Their army was demobilized, and their navy either immobilized in France or scattered among North African ports. The situation of Vichy France was extremely delicate and ambiguous, and the problem of who collaborated and who resisted the Germans would plague the French nation for years after the war was over.
Even in the dark days of June 1940, a few French patriots led by Charles de Gaulle refused to give up the fight. With British aid, de Gaulle, set up a French National Committee with headquarters in London. A nucleus of French soldiers taken off the beach at Dunkirk, plus a stream of refugees who left France in the next few years, made up the Free French, or Fighting French.
Back in France, a secret Resistance movement gradually formed to prepare for eventual liberation. While North Africa, strongest of the French colonial areas, was controlled by Vichy, some of the colonies rallied to the Free French from the start. Although weak, the Fighting French were at least a rallying point. They set up an effective radio center in England from which they conducted a propaganda campaign against Vichy and the Germans, beamed across the Channel to the homeland.
On June 10, 1940, Mussolini brought the Italians into the war against France and Britain, too late to affect the outcome of the battle of France. This “stab in the back,” as Franklin Roosevelt called it, further outraged American opinion. Italy was anxious to secure some kind of success that would offset the great gains of its German ally. The war, up to this time confined to northern and western Europe, would soon spread to the Mediterranean.