Has France's WWII performance been fairly judged or not?

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?

This was France’s biggest mistake. The Wehrmacht was one of the greatest military machines in the history of the world. It took 27 million dead Russians, an insane dictator named Hitler who had no idea what he was doing and a ridiculous long supply line to stop it. If Canada was magically replaced by Germany in 1939 Goering would have been constructing a villa in the Hamptons by 1941.

Of course, it also helped that France had no idea about modern warfare at the time. They had better tanks than the Germans but they didn’t use them correctly at all.

Certainly the role of the communist French resistance was long downplayed, and that of the non-communist resistance lauded, for post-war political purposes.

It is pretty much inevitable that a country downplays the active collaboration that went on under Nazi rule, and France is by no means the only country where this occurred. I mean, Austria as Hitler’s first victim? Come on…

Collaborators existed everywhere, and (even as a British citizen myself) I have little doubt there would have been significant elements of British society that would have followed the same path after a successful Nazi invasion. And it isn’t just those looking for an easy life - there were certainly significant elements of the aristocracy that held sympathy at varying levels for old Adolph.

If one reads the history of WWII, the weeks leading up to the german attack were a time of boredom for the Frencg-General Gamelin (74 years old) was convinced that the Grmans would attempt to assault the Maginot line fortresses. plus, he thought that by sending forces into Belgium , he was forcing a german attack elsewhere. The French Army had better tanks than the Germans-the “CHAR-B” tank mounted a 75 mm cannon-but fixed in the hull. These tanks could take a direct hit from a panzer MK4 and survive-the problem was, the French dispersed most of their tanks as infantry support. The same went for the French Airforce-its planes were maginally inferior, but coordination with the army was poor, and the Armie de l’Air never engaged the german luftwaffe using its strenghths. For example, the Moraine-Saulnier fighter would have been effective against a ME-109, in a diving attack-(General Chennault had good success against japanese Zero fighters in China, even though his P-40 fighters were inferior).
General Gamelin also dismissed an attack though the "impenetrable Ardennes"had he stationed a division there, he could have blocked the whole German invasion. Which is weird, because the Ardennes are not formidable mountains-they are mostly chains of low hills, broken by ravines and rivers. French 75 mm cannons (mounted on the hills) could have blasted the germans to bits!
So, mostly hubris and poor planning,plus a 74-year old general whose ideas were fixed in 1918.
Had they had younger, more agressive generals, the French could have easily stopped the germans, and probably inflcited major casualties.

I’m no history buff, but this is a gross simplification (if not misrepresentation). The ‘miracle’ was that so many were able to get back before they were captured. Sure Britain played it for the best it could; what else could we have done?

As for Britain’s early contribution to the war in France, perhaps you’re forgetting that we were also fighting the Japanese? Perhaps you’re also forgetting that Parliament was very late in listening to Churchill?

That the whole “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” bit was a stupid joke when it was new and only gets stupider with age.

The British and Russians were both caught just as flatfooted by the German war machine and got their asses handed to them just as thoroughly. The only thing that saved the British in the early years of the war was the English Channel. The only thing that saved the Russians was the Russian winter.

Ever since the mid-19th Century France has had the misfortune to be located right next door to a significantly larger and more bellicose neighbor with obvious consequences. Just look at the French casualty figures for the Franco-Prussian War and World War I if you want an indication of the French willingness to fight and die for their country. The only reason that French casualties in World War II were so low is that the country was overrun in just a few weeks. Even so, 90,000 Frenchmen died in the initial Nazi assault.

Here’s a quote from 112 Gripes About the French, a pamphlet that was distributed to American troops shortly after the war to ease friction between them and the Frenchmen they came in contact with:

You’re right about Canada and South Africa. They were covered by the Statute of Westminster and weren’t obligated to go to war just because the UK did (look at Ireland). However the SoW didn’t apply to Australia, New Zealand, or Newfoundland and they automatically went to war when the UK did.

Well, I sit corrected, but I guess it is a minor point. And I forgot Newfoundland, which was not yet part of Canada. But my error does not really change my initial point, namely, that Britain had the help of these developed countries that were not peanuts when you add them all up. For example, I believe Canada had the third or fourth largest Navy in the world by the end of WWII. I read that somewhere. The point is that without being superpowers, Australia and Canada especially made a huge contribution to helping keep Britain afloat between the fall of France in June 1940 and the entry of the big boys, the USSR and the USA, in the last 6 months of 1941.

The Battle of Britain and the air defense of Britaon were also lifesavers, and young, trained pilots from Canada played a HUGE role in that.

Also, the French had ordered a large number of modern fighter planes from the US that were due to be delivered in June of 1940. But the fall of France occurred too quickly. Had they been delivered and deployed, the French would not have been so quickly overwhelmed in the air.

The period I am referring to when Britain could have helped France is the Spring of 1940 to the French surrender in June of 1940. The Japanese attack on Hong Kong did not take place until December of 1941, over 18 months later. It does not appear that Jpan was sucking up huge British military resources in the Spring of 1940, judging by this article

Churchill was Prime Minister in the Spring of 1940 and tried to explain to the French why so few British planes were involved on the continent. The French were not very satisfied.

Nobody is blaming the British for Dunkirk, but let’s face it, it was a rout that they just managed to turn into a “miracle” escape instead of a slaughter. The point I was getting at is that ALL of the allied LAND forces were knocked on their ass by the German war machine at the beginning of the war.

The other inherent problem with France was how close their capital was to the border. The first serious German push, after the end of the Phony War, led to the French government fleeing south, along with hundreds of thousands of people, amid a climate a chaos that annihilated any chance of a serious defense. But on the periphery of the French empire, where the German threat was not so immediate, wholesale resistance did sucessfully appear.

In Chad, for example, the governor, Félix Eboué, threw the whole of French Equatorial Africa behind de Gaulle. This permitted Free French forces to participate, in a limited but pivotal way, in the North African campaign. For example, at Bir Hakeim, they held off Rommel’s army for two weeks, letting the British regroup and and ultimately keep Rommel from overrunning Egypt.

And Hitler himself, apparently, in regard to Bir Hakeim, told a journalist, “It’s another proof of what I’ve always maintained: namely, that the French are, after us, the best soldiers in the whole of Europe.”

Hey, you just can’t buy an endorsement like that!

Do you really want to go there? For all Woodrow Wilson’s failings he tried to make for an amicable peace after the Great War but David Lloyd George, Georges Clemenceau, and even Vittorio Orlando were more interested in getting their pound of flesh from Germany. What resulted was the terribly unfair Treaty of Versailles that placed the bulk of the blame for starting the war on Germany and imposed some pretty harsh terms. In 1922 Germany asked France for a temporary repreive on reparation obligations and France supported by Italy and Belgium marched into the Ruhr district which causes even more economic hardship for them. What did France and England do when Germany started building their military? Nothing. When the Germans went into Czechoslovakia what did Chamberlain do? He negotiated the Sudetenland’s surrdender to Germany without bother to consult the Czechs.

I don’t think American pro-nazism had all that much to do with keeping us out of the war or for people not wanting to declare war on Germany. I do think Americans had a pretty damn good reason for being isolationist given that many of Europe’s problems were the results of European foolishness. Why would Americans want to get caught up in that?


That is a very good point. If you take the longer view, Wilson DID try to make a just peace and WAS frustrated by European revanchism. But then on the other hand, US isolationism also torpedoed Wilson’s ideas. The League of Nations never really had a chance after US isolationists managed to keep the US out.

What I am really referring to is the idea I hear from some Americans that France (I can understand hating the French, BTW – they can get on my nerves too!) is somehow to be held in contempt for having been beaten by Germany. That to me is like two guys, Britain and France, who see a huge and powerful bozo attacking and mugging a little guy (Poland) and come to his rescue. France gets knocked out by a few punches from the big creep and is lying prostrate on the ground. Britain takes a few punches and is not knocked out, but retreats to a safe distance when he realizes how powerful this criminal is. Meanwhile, a guy named America who has chosen to stay out of the fray eventually joins in, as well as another guy named USSR, and the big bully is overcome. Then someone points to France, who is just coming back to consciousness, and heaps scorn on him, and calls him a coward, for having gotten knocked out early in the fight.

I’mn not picking on this comment specifically, but there seems to be a consensus growing that Germany overwhelmed France with numbers or a bigger army or something; I’ve noticed the “Germany had 80 million to France’s 40 million” bit used several times.

Germany was NOT numerically superior to the combined French and British forces in 1940. Nor were their weapons technically superior. They did have more aircraft, but fewer tanks, fewer guns, and essentially the same number of men. The idea that Germany’s “industrial power” was a factor in the fall of France is patently, transparently absurd; they didn’t win with numbers, and the campaign lasted only seven weeks, not long enough for attrition and industrial depth to matter. Furthermore, a fairly substantial portion of the German reserve was of poor quality; only the vanguard units were top notch.

The Germans won the battle as easily as they did for three reasons:

  1. Complete strategic surprise, due to the advance through the Ardennes,
  2. A unity of command and strategic intent, which the mixed and poorly coordinated Allied forces did not possess, and
  3. An understanding of modern mobile warfare that the Allies had not yet learned.

Population and industriual strength had nothing to do with it; the Allies had just as big a force as the Germans and lost because of their own incompetence. It’s worth noting that France DID stop Germany in 1914, with only limited British help, because the three factors I’ve already mentioned were not at play - they were fighting the same type of war as Germany, didn’t have much of their army cut off by an attack in a place they did not expect, and the force was mostly French and able to act with a degree of coordination.

It’s worth noting that Allied casualties in the battle amounted to less than ten percent. The Allies formations were destroyed, for the most part, by organizational shock, not physical destruction. The speed, ferocity and penetration of the German attack was part of it, but another was the inability of the Allies to coordinate a defense. Once their initial assumptions were proven false they simply didn’t have an opportunity, or even the ability at the level of strategic command, to muster a new defense the way the French had in 1914. Even at the operational and tactical levels, communications failures and bad coordination cost the Allies again and again; the battle around Sedan was particularly pathetic in this regard, with units retreating on bad intelligence, bombers attacking without fighter cover, fighters attacking after the bombers, and so on. The Germans - being one force, and fighting the battle in the style of their choosing - suffered none of this. When France surrendered, most of the Allied force was physically intact, but organizationally dead; scattered and confused units are of almost no conventional military value.

**It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of coordination and planning in military maneuvre. ** Army formations are incredibly difficult things to control and move, and senior officers spend much of their careers training in the art of simply maintaining control over the units under their command. Even a small unit doing the simplest thing - say, a regiment engaging in a road move ten miles down the road - will suffer from a small degree of shock in the process. Someone will forget his map and drive the wrong way, or the guy with the camp stoves will put them in the wrong truck, or packet discipline will break down, or Lieutenant Smith will get a late state because Captain Jones told him to start moving at 0930 when Major Brown thought it was 0900, and the next thing you know, what was supposed to take two hours takes six. It takes very few errors to screw things up royally when controlling hundreds, or thousands, of men in the field, which is why armies emphasize planning and predictability and doctrine so much. There’s a reason they teach you to give orders in a certain way, going through a checklist of “what should I be worried about?”

When you throw combat into the mix, the problem is magnified, and remember the scope of complexity we are dealing with here - the Allied force was about three million men, a larger number of people than live in the City of Chicago. The Germans had a plan, and set about doing it. The Allies DIDN’T have a plan - well, they did, but it was negated by the German plan - and they were not one army but four, and within days the army was beginning to lose touch with its own component units. Confusion set in, and that was pretty much all she wrote; it frankly would not have mattered a whole lot of the Allies had another million men. They would have been just as confused, disorganized and panicked as the other three million.

The German plan, to be honest, wasn’t fantastic; the armor kept outracing the infantry, a problem that repeated itself in Russia with more serious consequences, and they didn’t bring enough supplies with them and were short on everything. But it was 100% better than the Allied plan, which was, for all intents and purposes, nothing after about D+2. Everything in war is planning and coordination, and if you don’t have a plan and your side is running around in confusion, you’re dead. As Patton said, a good plan today is better than a great plan tomorrow.

So does France deserve its bad reputation? Of course not. As an instructor once reminded me, there’s a reason so many military terms are French. The defeat in 1940 was, as others have pointed out, no less embarassing than the pathetic performances of the UK and Soviets; they were saved by geography. American troops performed horribly in their first major encounter with the Germans, too, though for different reasons.

Blaming the British is silly, though. The 10 British divisions were the finest divisions the Allies had, absolutely top notch, and represented a significant contribution, especially from a country that was, after all, committed to the defense of a lot of places around the world. I’ve also seen the old saw that Britain had only 35 planes in France, which is ridiculous; in fact, they committed over 600.

It happened because it just did. A smarter army kicked their ass. Sometimes you lose. They ended up winning in the end so there ya go.

I’m with Pochacco that the whole ‘surrender monkey’ thing is a bad joke that far too many people take too seriously.

As other posters have said, the French Army never really was engaged against the Germans - because the French high command ignored the possibility that German would violate the neutrality of the low countries. And once the Wehrmacht got behind the bulk of the French forces, they were screwed - first the Maginot line was set up to defend in only one direction, but more importantly, the French lacked the mobility to match the Wehrmacht. Their tanks were, individually, the match of those of the Wehrmacht, but they weren’t concentrated - nor did the French commanders, AIUI, think in terms of using them as anything but moving pill boxes to support infantry. Which, without an infantry anti-tank capability, meant that they were horribly vulnerable to the Wehrmacht’s armor as they were tied to the infantry.

Similarly, it’s important to my mind to point out that the leader of the Vichy French gov’t was Marshall Petain - one of the few WWI commanders to have come out of that mess with a pretty good reputation. Had he been a focus for resistance, I suspect he would have been much more palatable than DeGaulle had been. But with his prestige being tied to the puppet state it was one more blow to the morale of the French Army.

Its somewhat more complicated then that. Australia had been a dominion since 1901 and both Australia and New Zealand were included in the Statute of Westminster just as Canada was (the Australian parliament just hadn’t ratified it yet and didnt until 1942). In the event the Menzies government considered itself beheld to the old constitutional doctrine that a British government declaration of war automatically committed Australia to war as well. So there was no separate declaration of war. With the particular conservative government in Australia at the time, and in this particular crisis, joining the war was pretty much automatic. However a number of Labor leaders in the 30s were challenging the notion of ‘automaticity’ and with a different crisis and a different government we would likely have seen a different constitutional doctrine applied or a prompt ratification of the SoW and then a No. As it was, whichever party was in power Australian involvement in this particular war was pretty much guaranteed given the strong pro-British attitude of the public and joining the war wasn’t controversial.

I agree with RickJay, in 1940 the French (and British) were defeated by a superior army using superior tactics within a plan that was completely unanticipated; so much so that it completely disrupted the Franco/British command and control function. Actually OtakuLoki is wrong to say “the French high command ignored the possibility that German would violate the neutrality of the low countries” - that was planned for and the best allied divisions advanced into Belgium as soon as the German attack started. It was the attack through the Ardennes, south of the Allied field armies in Belgium that was unexpected. Another case of the French High Command refighting the previous war. Although it wasn’t that stupid - the original German plan in late 1939 did envisage a direct attack through Flanders and the armoured thrust at Sedan was not favoured by all the German Generals. Larger population and industrial capacity had little to do with it - the Battle of France was over before these factors came into play.

England, France, and Italy came to the table with the objective of punishing Germany as much as possible and Wilson’s 14 Points were flatly rejected before the United States Senate even had the opportunity to reject the League of Nations. Would the United States joining the League of Nations have mitigated some of the punishment Germany was taking? I doubt it but there’s always that possibility. Would it have helped if the United States hadn’t enacted tariffs in the 1920s that made it a little more difficult for Europeans to pay off their war debts to America? I doubt it but it’s possible. I must say that when this particular issue comes up it is a refreshing change to hear the United States criticized for non-invervention when we’re so used to be criticized for our intervention.

We don’t make fun of the Poles, the Belgians, or the Czechs for getting beat by the Germans so there must be something more than that to warrant disliking the French. On Thursday I saw a census taken by the U.S. Army among their troops in Europe in May of 1945 and one of the questions asked was what their opinions were of the English, the French, and the Germans. As far as likability went the British ranked the highest, the Germans actually came next, and below that were the French. I find this perplexing given that many of these men were exchanging fire with Germans just a few short months before the poll.

That’s an apt analogy I suppose but you forgot to include the part where the two guys, France and England, spent a bunch of years kicking and starving Germany until he became a ranting loon, did nothing about it when he first showed signs of violent behavior, and their negligence is what led to the Poles being attacked.

To be fair it isn’t only the United States who seems to have a problem with France. I’ve met a lot of Germans, Austrians, and even Englishmen who don’t hold the French in high esteem. They may not go the “cheese eating surrender monkey” route but they dislike France in their own special way.

I myself don’t have many serious problems with the French. Like others I realize that many of our military awards and ranks have French origins so they must have been doing something right on the military front for many centuries.


I agree with much of what you have written and believe that the outcome in 1940 owed much to the flow of events and particular decisions made by commanders, the outcome wasn’t pre-determined. However the Germans were numerically superior in manpower. In manpower the Germans commited about 3.3 million men to their western offensive, the combined allied strength of the defenders was about 2.8 million. The allies had a marked superiority in numbers of guns and tanks, the Germans had a marked superiority in aircraft. The combined strength of the British, French, Dutch and Belgian forces gave them close enough to a rough parity with the Germans, certainly close enough that they did not expect a rapid collapse or indeed any collapse at all.

This parity collapsed in 2 weeks. The German offensive began on 10 May, by the end of May the Dutch and Belgians had surrendered, the British had evacuated their expeditionary force, and the French themselves had sustained heavy losses in Belgium. This transformed the strength equation and for the last four weeks of the campaign the French were fighting against an enemy that outnumbered them more then two to one.

Numbers aren’t everything but they are much. Posters pointing out the huge population disparity between France and Germany are onto something, which is that France by itself couldn’t match Germany. She was simply a much smaller power, one that was defeated when she fought Germany by herself (1870), and one that could only expect to win when she had assembled a coalition of allies capable of matching German strength. The 1940 coalition was very fragile. The Dutch held out for four days, when they surrendered 10 allied divisions vanished from the balance sheet. The Belgians surrended after 18 days and another 22 divisions vanished. The point is that much of the strength that these lesser armies contributed was largely illusory and really contributed little to the strategic equation.

This was however even more true in the French army. Its also worth noting that almost all German infantry divisions in 1940, despite whatever deficiencies they had, were assessed by the High Command as category A divisions, that is capable of offensive operations in their own right.

I think the poster is making a point in time comment. The French badly wanted the RAF to commit its fighter reserves during the second half of the campaign which the British refused to do. At this point the RAF may well have had only 35 modern fighters left in France as RAF casualties had been heavy in earlier operations over Sedan and elsewhere. The RAF did not believe that committing its fighter reserves (the home defence squadrons) in the UK would change the outcome in France in which they were almost certainly correct. Those fighters were soon after to prove crucial during the Battle of Britain. Nonetheless the refusal is a factor pointing out the somewhat less then all in support that the British provided the French as is the small size of the British Expeditionary Force some eight months after the beginning of the war.

This is true but perhaps not to the extent that many people realise. While the French widely dispersed most of their tank strength in infantry support they did still have six armoured divisions during the campaign (by contrast the Germans had 10 Panzer divisions in 1940). The biggest tank battle of the war up until Kursk was the Battle of Hannut in Belgium in May 1940 with over 1000 tanks involved. In this battle a French combined tank corps under General Prioux defeated the German 16th Panzerkorps with heavy losses. The lightly armoured German tanks of the time proved highly vulnerable to the French Somua S-35. Unfortunately for the French, the German breakthrough further south at Sedan was about to render their operation in Belgium irrelevant.

What was unfair about it? In hindsight, things may have been done differently, had we known a nutter was going to come to power in Germany, but was the ToV really all that unfair?

I don’t mean to hijack my own thread, which is about MILITARY history, but just as an aside, even French-Canadians have a tendency to dislike Frenchmen (as opposed to France as a country).

But I have also been told by many travellers that this is really more endemic to PARIS, which is after all about 10% of France. I have been told that most Frenchmen away from Paris can be very warm and friendly. Maybe it is a bit like the “rude New Yorker” syndrome.

There seems to be some kind of agressive arrogance that is considered normal behaviour among Parisians.

For example, if an American says “truck” in England, the Brit may pause a second and then say “Oh, right, that’s what you chaps call a lorry”, in a friendly manner.

If a French-Canadian says “crème glacée”, which is the common French-Canadian term for “ice cream”, the Frenchman will first look at him as if he were either insane or a two-headed Martian just landed on Earth, and then finally with a condescending sneer say: “O, monsieur veut dire une glace.” As if the term “glace”, which also means a mirror and ice, were an inherently better term to describe the food in question than the perfectly descriptive"crème glacée".

Obviously French, like English, will have regional differences when spoken in different countries. But it is the attitude of some Frenchmen that grates on the nerves.