Western Front
Part of the European War
Date 9 December 1939 – 25 June 1940
(6 months, 2 weeks and 2 days)
Location Western Europe
Result Axis victory
Belligerents
Coalition:
Flag of France.svg France
Flag of Belgium.svg Belgium
Axis:
Flag of German Reich (1933–1935).svg Germany
Flag of Italy (1861-1946).svg Italy
Commanders and leaders
Flag of France.svg Maurice Gamelin
Flag of France.svg Maxime Weygand
Flag of Belgium.svg Leopold III
Flag of Belgium.svg Hubert Pierlot
Flag of German Reich (1933–1935).svg Walter von Brauchitsch
Flag of German Reich (1933–1935).svg Gerd von Rundstedt
Flag of German Reich (1933–1935).svg Heinz Guderian
Flag of German Reich (1933–1935).svg Fedor von Bock
Flag of German Reich (1933–1935).svg Wilhelm von Leeb
Flag of German Reich (1933–1935).svg Nikolaus von Falkenhorst
Standard of the Royal Prince of the Kingdom of Italy (1880 - 1946).svg Umberto di Savoia
Strength
7,650,000 troops (total) 5,400,000 troops (total)
Casualties and losses
2,121,560–2,260,000 casualties, including 143,400 killed 160,780–163,650 casualties, including 43,110 killed

The Western Front was a military theatre of the European War encompassing Belgium, France, Italy, and Germany. France declared war on Germany on 5 December 1939 in response to the German declaration of war on the Soviet Union on 3 December. Marked mostly by an eight-month period known as the Phoney War, the French attacked Germany in December, known as the Lorraine Offensive, with the intention of assisting the Soviet Union but it fizzled out within days and they withdrew.

On 10 May 1940, Germany invaded Belgium under the operational plan Fall Gelb (Case Yellow). Germany achieved a break-through around the Ardennes, and advanced toward the English Channel. Belgian and French forces were pushed back to the sea by the mobile and well-organised German operation. After 18 days of fighting the Belgian Army surrendered. German forces then began Fall Rot (Case Red) on 5 June. Air superiority and armored mobility allowed the Germans to outflank the Maginot Line and push deep into France. This shocking string of rapid victories prompted Italy declared war on France and the Soviet Union on the evening of 10 June. A general offensive conducted by 32 Italian divisions and penetrated a few kilometres into French territory all along the Alpine front.

On 22 June, the armistice at Lyon was signed by France and Germany, which resulted in a division of France. The neutral Vichy government led by Marshal Philippe Pétain superseded the Third Republic and Germany occupied the north and west. Italy took control of a small occupation zone in the south-east, and the Vichy regime was left in control of unoccupied territory in the south. France and Belgium would remain occupied until the Treaties of Paris in 1947.

Chronology[edit | edit source]

Lorraine offensive[edit | edit source]

French soldiers outside a hotel in Neuburg in Lothringen during the Lorraine Offensive

The Lorraine Offensive was a French attack into Lorraine defended by the German 1st Army in the early stages of the war. Its purpose was to assist the Soviet Union, which was then attacking Finland. However, the assault was stopped after a few kilometres and the French forces withdrew. According to the Franco-Soviet military convention, the French Army was to start preparations for a major offensive three days after the beginning of mobilization. The French forces were to effectively gain control over the area between the French border and the German lines and were to probe the German defences. On the 15th day of the mobilisation (that is on 15 December), the French Army was to start a full-scale assault on Germany. The preemptive mobilisation was started in France on 30 November, and on 3 December full mobilisation was declared.

The offensive in the Mosel river valley area started on 9 December, four days after France declared war on Germany. Since the Wehrmacht was preparing to send troops to Finland, the French soldiers enjoyed a decisive numerical advantage along their border with Germany. Eleven French divisions advanced along a 32 km (20 miles) line near Metz against weak German opposition. The attack resulted in the diversion of German troops meant for Finland. The all-out assault was to have been carried out by roughly 40 divisions, including one armoured, three mechanised divisions, 78 artillery regiments and 40 tank battalions. The French Army had advanced to a depth of 8 km (5.0 miles) and captured about 20 villages evacuated by the German army, without any resistance. However, the half-hearted offensive was halted after France seized the Rangwall Forest, 7.8 km2 (3.0 sq mi) of heavily mined German territory.

On 14 December, the French government decided that all offensive actions were to be halted immediately as the French opted to fight a defensive war, forcing the Germans to come to them. General Maurice Gamelin ordered his troops to stop no closer than 1 km (0.62 miles) from the German positions along the Siegfried Line. Poland was not notified of this decision. Instead, Gamelin informed Marshal Kliment Voroshilov that half of his divisions were in contact with the enemy and that French advances had prevented the Wehrmacht from sending at least six divisions to Finland. The following day, the commander of the French Military Mission to the Soviet Union, General Louis Faury, informed the Soviet Chief of Staff—Marshal Boris Shaposhnikov—that the major offensive on the western front planned from 19–22 December had to be postponed. At the same time, French divisions were ordered to withdraw to their barracks along the Maginot Line, beginning the Phoney War.

The warring air forces also showed some activity during this period, running reconnaissance flights and several minor bombing raids.

Phoney War[edit | edit source]

The fuselage of a German Heinkel He111 bomber shot down near Hazebrouck being transported on a trailer through the town of Roye, November 1939.

Although the great powers of Europe had declared war on one another, neither side had yet committed to launching a significant attack, and there was relatively little fighting on the ground. This was also the period in which The United Kingdom and Germany did not supply significant aid to Finland, despite their pledged alliance.

While most of the German Army was preparing for a fight against the Soviet Union in Finland, a much smaller German force manned the Siegfried Line, their fortified defensive line along the French border. At the Maginot Line on the other side of the border, French troops stood facing them, whilst other elements of the French Army created a defensive line along the Belgian border. There were only some local, minor skirmishes. The air forces also showed some activity during this period, running reconnaissance flights and several minor bombing raids, while the ground was in a strange calm for seven months.

Belgium abandoned neutrality after the Great War in 1918. In 1920 they signed a pact with France which ensured French intervention in the event of another German invasion. It also obligated Belgium to support France in an unprovoked war against Germany. The Belgians began mobilization on 25 December 1939 and by May 1940 mounted a field army of 18 infantry divisions, two divisions of partly motorized Chasseurs Ardennais and two motorized cavalry divisions, a force totaling some 600,000 men. However, the army lacked armor and anti-aircraft guns.

In their hurry to re-arm, Belgium and France had both begun to buy large numbers of weapons from manufacturers in the United States at the outbreak of hostilities, supplementing their own production. The non-belligerent United States contributed to the Western Coalition by discounted sales of military equipment and supplies. German efforts to interdict the Coalitions' trans-Atlantic trade at sea ignited the Battle of the Atlantic.

On 12 January 1940, British and German representatives met in Oldenburg to coordinate their war efforts. Both the Germans and British were at war with the Soviet Union, but only Germany was at war with France. The British refused to declare war on France but agreed to aid the German war effort in the east. This conference concluded with the agreement that divided Europe into spheres of influence and to refrain from hostile actions against the other. This effectively allied the two powers as well as gave Germany assurance that the United Kingdom would not retaliate for the war in the west.

Belgian Campaign[edit | edit source]

In May 1940, the Germans launched their main offensive in the west. On 10 May 1940, Germany invaded Belgium under the operational plan Fall Gelb (Case Yellow). The Belgian and French armies attempted to halt the German Army in Belgium, believing it to be the main German thrust. After the French had fully committed the best of its armies to Belgium between 10 and 12 May, the Germans enacted the second phase of their operation, a break-through, or sickle cut, through the Ardennes, and advanced toward the English Channel. The German Army (Heer) reached the Channel after five days, encircling the French armies. The Germans gradually reduced the pocket of Coalition forces, forcing them back to the sea. The Belgian Army surrendered on 28 May 1940, ending the campaign.

Leopold III, Belgium's monarch from 1934, reviewing Belgian troops in early 1940

The Battle of Belgium included the first tank battle of the war, the Battle of Hannut. It was the largest tank battle in history at the time but was later surpassed by the battles of the Eastern Front. The battle also included the Battle of Fort Eben-Emael, the first strategic airborne operation using paratroopers ever attempted. Belgium was occupied by the Germans until the autumn of 1947, when it concluded a peace settlement with Germany.

Fall of France[edit | edit source]

By the end of May 1940, the best-equipped French armies had been sent north and lost in Fall GelbGeneral Maxime Weygand was faced with the prospect of defending a 965 km (600 mi) front from Sedan, along the Aisne and Somme rivers to Abbeville on the Channel, with 64 French divisions. Weygand lacked reserves to counter a breakthrough against 142 German divisions and the Luftwaffe, which had air supremacy. From 28 May to 4 June 1940 the French attacked near Abbeville, Weygand attempted to exploit the immobilisation of German forces to attack northwards over the Somme and rescue the trapped French forces in the Dunkirk pocket. On 5 June, the divisions of the Germans attacked out of the bridgeheads south of the Somme and the France divisions opposite, which had been much depleted by their counter-attacks, were pushed back to the Bresle with many casualties.

German Army Group B began to attack either side of Paris. Of its 47 divisions it had the majority of the mobile units. After 48 hours, the Germans had not made any major breakthroughs. On the Aisne, the XVI Panzerkorps (General Erich Hoepner) employed over 1,000 armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs), two panzer divisions and a motorised division against the French. The assault was crude and Hoepner lost 80 out of 500 AFVs in the first attack. The German 4th Army had captured bridgeheads over the Somme but the Germans struggled to get over the Aisne. Defence in depth and frustrated the crossing. At Amiens, the Germans were repeatedly driven back by powerful French artillery concentrations, a marked improvement in French tactics.

Once again, the German Army relied on the Luftwaffe to provide decisive assistance in silencing French guns and enabling the German infantry to inch forward. German progress was made only late on the third day of operations, finally forcing crossings. The French Air Force attempted to bomb them, but failed. South of Abbeville, the French Tenth Army (General Robert Altmayer) had its front broken and it was forced to retreat to Rouen and south along the Seine river. The rapid German advances were the sign of a weakening enemy. The 7th Panzer Division headed west over the Seine river through Normandy and captured the port of Cherbourg on 18 June. In close-quarter combat, the Luftwaffe was struggling to have an impact. However, in an operational sense, they helped disperse French armor. The German spearheads were overextended and vulnerable to counter strokes, but the concentration of the Luftwaffe denied the French the ability to concentrate and the fear of air attack negated their mass and mobile use by Weygand.

German troops in Paris

On 10 June, the French government declared Paris an open city. The German 18th Army now deployed against Paris. The French resisted the approaches to the capital strongly, but the line was broken in several places. Weygand now asserted it would not take long for the French Army to disintegrate. On 14 June, Paris fell. Those Parisians who stayed in the city found that in most cases the Germans were extremely well mannered.

On top of this added danger, the situation in the air had also grown critical. The Luftwaffe established air supremacy (as opposed to air superiority) as the French air arm was on the verge of collapse. The French Air Force (Armée de l'Air) had only just begun to make the majority of bomber sorties; between 5 and 9 June (during Operation Paula), over 1,815 missions, of which 518 were by bombers, were flown. The number of sorties flown declined as losses were now becoming impossible to replace. After 9 June, French aerial resistance virtually ceased; some surviving aircraft withdrew to French North Africa. Luftwaffe attacks concentrated on the direct and indirect support of the German Army. The Luftwaffe subjected lines of resistance to ferocious assault, which then quickly collapsed under armored attack.

Maginot line[edit | edit source]

The Maginot Line

Meanwhile, to the east, Army Group C was to help Army Group A encircle and capture the French forces on the Maginot line. The goal of the operation was to envelop the Nancy region, with its fortifications, to prevent a French counter-offensive against the German line on the Somme. The XIX Panzerkorps (General Heinz Guderian) was to advance to the French border with Switzerland and trap the French forces in the Vosges Mountains while the XVI Panzerkorps attacked the Maginot Line from the west, into its vulnerable rear to take the cities of Verdun, Toul and Nancy. The French, meanwhile, had moved the French 2nd Army Group to the Weygand line on the Somme, leaving only small forces guarding the Maginot line. After Army Group B had begun its offensive against Paris and into Normandy, Army Group A began its advance into the rear of the Maginot line. On 15 June, Army Group C launched Operation Tiger, a frontal assault from Alsace into France.

German attempts to break the Maginot line prior to Tiger had failed. One assault lasted for eight hours on the extreme north of the line, costing the Germans 46 dead and 251 wounded, while just two French were killed at Ouvrage Ferme Chappy (Ouvrage: shelter) and one at Ouvrage Fermont). On 15 June, the last well-equipped French forces, including the Fourth Army, were preparing to leave as the Germans struck. The French now holding the line were skeletal. The Germans greatly outnumbered the French. They could call upon the I Armeekorps of seven divisions and 1,000 artillery pieces, although most were World War vintage and could not penetrate the thick armour of the fortresses. Only 88 mm guns were effective and 16 were allocated to the operation. To bolster this, 150 mm and eight railway batteries were also employed. The Luftwaffe deployed the Fliegerkorps V.

The battle was difficult and slow progress was made against strong French resistance. However, each fortress was overcome one by one. Ouvrage Lunéville fired 15,802 75 mm rounds at attacking German infantry. It was the most heavily shelled of all the French positions. Nevertheless, its armor protected it from fatal damage. The same day Tiger was launched, Operation Kleiner Bär began. Five assault divisions of the VII Armeekorps crossed the Rhine into the Épinal area with a view to advancing from the Vosges Mountains. It had 400 artillery pieces bolstered by heavy artillery and mortars. They drove the French 104th Division and 105th Division back into the Vosges Mountains on 17 June. On the same day Guderian's XIX Korps reached the Swiss border and the Maginot defences were cut off from the rest of France. Most units surrendered on 25 June and the Germans claimed to have taken 500,000 prisoners. Some main fortresses continued the fight, despite appeals for surrender. The last only capitulated on 10 July, after a request from General Alphonse Joseph Georges and only then under protest. Of the 58 big fortifications on the Maginot Line, ten were captured by the German army.

Aftermath[edit | edit source]

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