World War 2 resulted in the defeat of France, but the charge that France fought cowardly is incorrect.
The old French generals had not bothered to learn the new methods of warfare using tanks and quick movement and flexibility (Blitzkrieg warfare). French soldiers fought bravely but never had a chance against the Germans.
Some right wing Americans hate the French almost as much as they hate Al Qaida. They say that France is ungrateful to the United States even though we "saved them in the two world wars." Also, they now state the French fought cowardly in World War 2 and France's defeat was because of this. Rush Limbaugh, for example, is very judgmental toward the French. (In the 2004 presidential election campaign, he repeatedly called Senator Kerry the "French-looking" John Kerry!)
France had a large army at the start of World War 2 and their units were fairly well supplied with tanks and other, at least semi-modern, equipment. Their major problem was that the French generals had a World War I mentality. France's generals were old, almost exclusively World War I veterans. The French army was best suited for fighting a defensive battle. The army didn't have a clue as to how to fight a Blitzkrieg-type war and the officers didn't bother to learn although the Germans gave ample opportunity, e.g., Poland Campaign, for them to learn. The German army the France faced in World War 2 had about the same manpower and somewhat more modern armament than France's army. However, in addition, they knew how to use their weapons. They also out-generaled and outwitted France's army at every step.
The French dug in time and time again and were ready to fight. They were not cowards. They were just up against a foe that was, at the time, much more familiar with how to use the new tools and tactics of war and who had much smarter and bolder generals who had studied and mastered the art of the Blitzkrieg. France's army simply got the crap beat out of them. That doesn't mean they were cowards. The same would have happened to any other army of 1940 that faced the Nazis. That statement includes the very small US Army at the time (we were just starting to rearm).
The defeat of France was inevitable
"The Horse is Here to Stay, but the Automobile is Only a Novelty, a Fad." ........... Marshal Foch, France's Top General
Going into the war, France had one of the largest armies in the world. However, it was not ready for a World War 2 type war. The worst problem of all was France's old generals who did not seem to understand strategic planning at all. They were very cautious and defense minded. They ignored DeGaulle's modernization views. Also, the views of the different branches of the military were not coordinated. The generals did not understand the role of aircraft in a modern war nor did they understand the role of modern communication. So much for France's generals. As far as the French soldiers, they simply did not know what was going on. No one had bothered to teach them.
Contrast these deficiencies with the German generals who were embracing these new Blitzkrieg tactical doctrines with great interest. The Germans were not shy about their effort and published several works, e.g., General Guderian's "Achtung Panzer." The French officers did not bother to read these books. A recipe for disaster was at hand.
As far as the German soldiers were concerned, they were well-trained, well-disciplined and much better informed than the soldiers of France.
As France struggled, with only partial success, to get its defenses in order for the war that seemed sure to come, their global strategic position began to deteriorate. Not only had Germany recovered the industry-rich Saarland and Rhineland, but the Spanish Civil War delivered a new fascist nation at France's rear. That event pulled resources away from their border with Germany because they had to watch their rear now. Then, their noble but foolhardy objections, to Italy over that country's adventures in Ethiopia helped make Italy a potential enemy when they might have been an ally against Germany (as they were in World War I). Also, France and Russia had a mutual defense pact, signed in 1935, but after the Munich disaster of 1938 in which Czechoslovakia was handed over to the Germans, Russia lost interest in the pact. France was losing allies and gaining enemies much as the United States did over the Iraq war. Now France had only Great Britain as an ally, and a defense pact with Poland that they could no longer effectively honor.
France's politics did not help the situation. It should be noted that the entire political system of France was divided between right and left. (Anything here sound familiar? What about the present political system in the US? Right wing vs. left wing (conservative vs. liberal.)
Without Britain, France would have been up the creek without a paddle (as it turned out, they were anyway). France was dependent on imports for most vital raw materials and they counted on the British Empire to see that they got these materials if it came to war with Germany. France also counted on the powerful British Navy to blockade German ports and the top flight British royal air force (RAF) to support France's air force. And finally, Britain was counted on to provide an expeditionary force to help the large French army on the ground. If war came, maybe, just maybe, together, they could hold out and force a military stalemate on the western front with the Germans. Then, the large empires of the two nations should be decisive in a long war. Maybe, things weren't hopeless after all!
Or were they?
In September 1939, the European part of World War 2 began with Germany's attack on Poland. Germany gave a quick demonstration (see Blitzkrieg for details) of what modern war is all about. The Poles were routed in less than a month. France and Britain had entered the war because of their pact with Poland and had observed successful new military tactics in action. Why did they, particularly France, not revise their own strategy and get ready for a similar assault? No, instead they relied on a passive defense system behind the Maginot Line. France's generals seemed incapable of "getting the message." They were doomed.
(Reminds me a little of my home city of New Orleans in 2005 where we all huddled behind an impressive-looking but defective levee system as hurricanes began moved closer and closer to the city.)
After a period of quite during the bitter winter of 1939-40, the dam burst in the spring of 1940. The Germans bypassed the Maginot line and struck through the lightly defended Forest of Ardennes (tactics conceived by General von Manstein) quickly breaking through Allied lines.
The Germans did not attack heavy concentrations of Allied soldiers. Rather, they used the "indirect approach" which involved looking for soft spots. The indirect approach is somewhat similar to a football back "running to daylight" instead of running over people. The most aggressive German general was General Guderian who commanded a army corps of only three Panzer divisions. But nothing could stop him. When his Panzer divisions established a beachhead across the Meuse River, he was ordered to halt because he was moving too fast. After arguing with his superior generals, Guderian was told he could only "widen" the beachhead. Instead Guderian took advantage of the limited go-ahead and raced forward another 50 miles. Two days later, when the generals halted him again, he asked to be relieved of his command. A few hours later, he was restored to command and told he could make strong reconnaissance moves, only. Guderian took this as another go-ahead and raced forward with more speed than before. It appears the German upper command wanted to let him charge ahead but didn't want personal responsibility if he ran into problems with his rapid advances. It was OK for him to advance as long as he was disobeying orders.
General Manstein, apparently, was the brains for the plan for attacking France but General Guderian ( Guderian, Panzer General, ) was its facilitator. He was its heart and soul."
This was the sort of aggressiveness that won France for Germany. If only France had had a general like Guderian! He understood the theory of Blitzkrieg warfare and also knew how to implement it. He wrote the book! And the French army had his book and didn't read it!
The attack on France continued with the Germans using Blitzkrieg tactics to completely smash France. Often, the French dug in preparing to defend against a frontal assault and, instead, soon found the Germans at their backside. This forced the French to retreat and try to set up defense lines further back.
The Germans also made excellent use of air power in the campaign. The Stuka dive bomber, an incredibly slow, soon-to-be-obsolete airplane, was a great terror weapon in the French campaign because of the loud shrieking noise it made in its slow dive.
The Germans also made excellent use of propaganda tactics causing civilians to flee the cities and clogging France's highways. This clogging further limited the French army in their attempts to maneuver.
World War Two was not a pretty sight for the French.
Soon badly beaten France was suing for peace. The equally badly beaten British Expeditionary Force barely escaped from Dunkirk leaving their weapons on the beach. World War 2 was over as far as France was concerned. (The affairs of the Vichy puppet government and the French Resistance are not covered by this web site. The Vichy government was a disgrace but this is usually the case where a country loses a war and a "new" government is forced on them by the conquerors.)
France's Defeat in the Second World War was complete.
So, France made many mistakes prior to and during World War 2, but their major mistakes were caused by the lack of intelligence and flexibility in their top officers. France's army had not adjusted to changing conditions. They were still trying to make buggy whips after the automobile had taken over the highways. In their further defense, any existing army who would have gone up against the panzer corps of Guderian and Rommel in 1940 would have been demolished just as France's army was.
But France made mistakes were in strategy, tactics, and inflexible thinking of the generals - not cowardice.
In closing, I have this to say:
Vive la France!
1. Germany Against The World in World War 2. Causes of World War 2, Hitler, the rise of the German military machine and the fall of the German empire.
2. German Battles World War 2. Blitzkrieg warfare, fall of France, Battle of Britain, Rommel and North Africa, the Russian campaign, D-Day, and the final devastating battles that sealed the fate of Germany.
3. World War 2 Battlefield Tours. World War 2 has been over for 65 years. Time to visit Europe, especially France, and tour the World War 2 battlefields.
4. Rush Limbaugh. Apparently, does not like France! He is not satisfied with France's performance in World War 2 and is not satisfied with France's refusal to go along with Bush on Iraq.
The defeat of France in World War 2 was due to their old generals and their out-dated strategy - not because France fought cowardly. The Germans used newly-developed Blitzkrieg warfare featuring the mobile Panzer mechanized divisions. France did not have a clue as to how to fight the Germans.
Last updated: 01/01/16