The defeat of France by Nazi Germany in the spring of 1940 was as inexplicable as it was humiliating. Until then, France had been one of the great world powers, apparently safe behind the defences of the Maginot Line.
In a matter of weeks France was overrun, and the combined forces of the French and British armies that were meant to repel Hitler were forced to retreat to Dunkirk for evacuation. Historians still argue whether Germany’s swift victory was due to luck or military superiority, but the result was the same. In May, the French government faced an impossible decision: fight on and risk an even more crushing defeat or sue for peace. The government was split by this choice.
A group of pragmatists and realists – as they thought of themselves – decided to come to terms with Hitler. Both parties to the armistice of 22 June 1940 assumed it would be a temporary arrangement until Britain made its own peace with the Nazis or succumbed to invasion. A sizeable minority in France was always against the armistice, centring on the figure of General Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle managed to escape to London to rally the French opposition. A government-in-exile was formed, and military personnel who had escaped capture eventually formed the Free French forces that would participate in the liberation of their country.
The invasion of Britain never materialized, and the Germans stayed on in France. The French had to get used to a new way of living. Half their country (the north and west) was occupied by enemy troops; the centre, east and south were controlled by the Vichy regime of Marshal Pétain. Meanwhile, the bulk of the French soldiers, taken prisoner in 1940, were left languishing in German prison camps or put to work in German industry or agriculture.
Occupation meant difficult compromises for almost every French citizen, but it also unleashed the worst of right-wing politics. The authoritarian Vichy regime collaborated closely with the German authorities, aiding the deportation of 76,000 French Jews, of whom only 2500 survived. In November 1942, the Wehrmacht extended the occupation to cover the whole of France. Work began to fortify the west coast against an attempted Allied invasion. A disastrous raid on Dieppe by British and Canadian forces proved how difficult it would be to land an army on the European continent.
German domination also provoked the growth of the French Resistance – a movement of people from divergent political persuasions that became increasingly active as the likelihood of an Allied invasion increased. German reprisals against the partisans were disproportionate and brutal. The invasion of Italy in the summer and autumn of 1943 brought fresh hope to France, especially as it entailed the liberation of Corsica on 4 October 1943, the first French territory to be regained from the occupiers. Unbeknownst to either the Germans or the French – although the Resistance was partially informed – the Allies had set a date of spring 1944 for an invasion of France. This involved meticulous planning and an immense build-up of soldiers and ships. The experience of 1940 was in everyone’s mind: there could only be one chance to liberate occupied France, and its success was never a given. It would depend on many factors, predictable and unforeseeable, far beyond the skill of the military commanders.
Top image: Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches © joerg joerns/Shutterstock