Just for starters, let me explain that I, as the OP, have no particular nationalistic axe to grind. I am a French-Canadian. That makes me a French-speaking North American. I am NOT a Frenchman any more than an English-speaking American is an Englishman.
But I have recently read a fair amount about France in WWII, including a biography of Phlippe Pétain by French Historian Marc Ferro. It is quite complete and well-documented, and seems to be part of that French school of historical writing that seeks to give objective facts without taking sides.
Now, Americans have long been raised on the idea that the French were “surrender monkeys” etc. Recently in South Park, Cartman referred to the French in WWI having discovered a way to make everyone soil their pants.
I used to take the same attitude, but now I have been wondering. Here, in no particular order, are a few facts I have gleaned. If I am wrong about some of them, I can certainly be corrected:
ALL of the allied forces that faced the new German blitzkreig tactics in 1939, 1940 and 1941, INCLUDING the British army as well as the French and the Poles (and even the Soviets) were quickly routed by the German Army. NONE of them were really ready for World War II.
The so-called “miracle” of Dunkirk was nothing more than the British land forces rushing back across the channel after being knocked silly by the German forces.
One of the reasons so many of the British forces made it back across is that their French allies fought to hold back German forces while they escaped.
German proaganada later alleged that the British had purposely kept French soldiers from getting on ships at Dunkirk, in order to turn the French against the British. In fact, this is easily disproved by the fact that there were 200,000 Brits and 100,000 French who got away at Dunkirk.
The British really did not give the French the aid they had expected when the two countries declared war on Germany. Ferro records that the British sent 10 divisions, and France had 80. Once Poland was defeated and once the Soviet-Nazi pact came into force, the Germans were free to throw 145 divisions against the 80 French and 10 British Divisions.
At one point in 1940, the French asked their British allies to explain why they had just 35 fighter planes in France and 600 held in reserve in Britain.
France had only about 40 million people compared to Greater Germany’s 80 million. In addition, so many Frenchmen had died fighting in World War I, 23 years earlier, that France’s “age pyramid” had been skewered and France as a whole had a fairly lower proportion of military-age young men than many countries. Germany had had a much higher birth rate for a couple of generations at least.
What especially saved the British was the fact that they were on an Island, and that the German Navy was a poor match for the British. France had the misfortune to share a land border with Germany.
British writer George Orwell, in his wartime diaries, makes it clear how imminent the British thought an invasion was and how little prepared they were for land fighting.
As far as collaborators are concerned, Orwell has a chilling paragraph in which he says that in case of occupation, the British Police would be among the first to go over to the Nazis and to help them arrest leftists, Jews and other opponents.
Britain had the help of Commonwealth Countries like Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. While they were not obliged to declare war on Germany, they did so out of loyalty. They may not have been superpowers, but they were developed countries with industries out of enemy range, and their own military forces. These four countries together were the equivalent of a country of maybe 25 or 30 million added to the British side.
Even so, Churchill expressed his amazement that “we had won after all” (emphasis mine) when in the space of 6 months, Germany took on The Soviet Union and the USA. In his earlier diaries around 1940-41, he frequently wondered how long Britain could hold out. And there WERE British forces in favour of a peace with Germany, no matter how humiliating.
The French and British may have entered the war badly prepared, but at least they and the British TRIED to stop the Nazis. Americans might remember that they had to be dragged into that war by Pearl Harbour. And even then, it is a little-known fact that GERMANY DECLARED WAR ON THE US FIRST! Some Americans were so isolationist and secretly pro-Nazi that they proposed that America need only declare war on Japan and not Germany.
On the other hand, there are those who say that the French surrendered too easily, that they should have held on like the British did, etc. Also, that a considserable slice of right-wing Frenchmen would have even favoured France joining Nazi Germany in its war. The Sorrow and the Pity exposed this shameful aspect of France’s history.
It has also been said that the bravery of the French Resistance is a comforting myth made up after the war.
What do other WWII buffs think?