By 1940 France had mobilised one-third of its male population from the ages of 20 to 45, which gave the French armed forces a total manpower of 5 million men. Less than half this number served in northern France, but was boosted by well over 1½ million British troops by June 1940. The Dutch and Belgians were able to field 400,000 and 650,000 men respectively.
The French Army was organised into 117 divisions, the British Army contributed 13, the Belgians 22, Dutch 10 and exiled Poles 2 divisions. In total they were able to deploy about 14,000 artillery pieces, nearly double that of the Germans. The French Army was divided into three army groups in the north; the 2nd and 3rd Army Groups held the Maginot Line to the east, while the 1st Army Group in the west was to move forward to defend the Low Countries should the need arise.
France’s key mobile forces were 1st Army’s Cavalry Corps consisting of the 2nd and 3rd Light Mechanised Divisions plus four mechanised infantry divisions, 2nd Army’s 2nd and 5th Light Cavalry Divisions, 7th Army’s 1st Light Mechanised Division and two motorised infantry divisions plus the 9th Army’s the 1st and 4th Light Cavalry Divisions.
Notably the French 7th Army, reinforced by one of the light mechanised divisions, was to move into the Netherlands via Antwerp. To the south was the BEF tasked with advancing to the Dyle Line to the right of the Belgian Army between Louvain to Wavre. The French 1st Army, with two light mechanised divisions and an armoured division in reserve, was to hold the Gembloux Gap between Wavre and Namur. The French 9th Army covering the entire Meuse sector between Namur and Sedan was also to support the move into Belgium.
The French High Command did not believe the panzers would attempt the dense Ardennes forest. Although both French and Belgian intelligence warned of a German build-up in this region, the weak French 2nd Army found itself acting as the hinge for the Allies’ move-forward, defensive strategy. This army comprised just five divisions, two of which were over age reservist units and another was a West African division from Senegal. Disastrously, with is weak manpower and lack of anti-aircraft, anti-tank weapons and air support, the French 2nd Army was right in the path of the panzers attack at Sedan.
At the beginning of the Second World War despite popular perceptions France had some of the finest tanks in the world, and French armour was certainly equal in quality and quantity to that of the Germans. France’s military collapse in May 1940 occurred not because of poor tank resources but the inability to use them effectively in containing the Wehrmacht’s Blitzkrieg tactics. During the First World War France had almost been the very first country to produce the tank and was only just beaten by Britain. Its early assault artillery, little more than guns in steel boxes, was at best crude but led to the highly successful Renault FT-17 light tank. A new production programme during the rearmament of the 1930s ensured France had far more sophisticated tanks than Britain or Germany and with better armament.
While the Allies, particularly the Belgians and the Dutch, had very little armour, the French had 3,254 tanks. This force was not only larger than that of the Germans but also of a better quality. On paper French tanks were superior to Hitler’s Panzer Mk I and Mk II, both the French B1-bis and the Somua had better armour and their guns packed a bigger punch. By June 1940 just over 400 B1 and B1-bis and 430 Somua S-35s had been built. General Gamelin, commander of the French armed forces, admitted after the Second World War that the French tank force was vastly better equipped to deal with German tanks than the Germans were to deal with French ones. At the time it did them no good whatsoever.
Most notably the Char de Battaille Renault B1-bis armed with a 47mm turret gun, a powerful 75mm hull gun and two machine guns was on paper an impressive piece of kit. The 47mm was the best weapon of its kind at the time and the tank’s steering system was ahead of anything the Germans had. The 1st Panzer Division discovered how ineffective its 20mm and 37mm guns were against the thickly armoured Char B1-bis around Juniville. A 2-hour tank battle resulted in heavy German casualties before they prevailed. Similarly a second French tank attack was driven off with difficulty. The B1s were able to give a good account of themselves, but generally they saw little action against the invading panzers.
At the outbreak of war France’s tank forces consisted of two very different formations: the Chars de Combat (the Army’s original tank formations) and the regiments of former horsed cavalry. Although Lieutenant Colonel Charles de Gaulle had argued for a professional mobile armoured force made up of career soldiers rather than conscripts, in 1934 the French government was not receptive to such radical ideas.
Such a concept ran counter to France’s defensive policy and even when two armoured divisions were authorised they were not ready for battle until 1940. Crucially this meant France’s armoured strength was dissipated. Apart from the armoured divisions equipped with the Char B and the fast Hotchkiss H-39 light tank, most of the tank battalions were deployed on infantry support duties. When it came to French infantry tanks they were hampered by inadequate speed, communications, range and the size of the turret.
However, France pioneered the first armoured division with the Division Légère Mécanique (DLM – light mechanised division) combining tanks, armoured cars, motorised infantry and artillery. Like many of other countries in 1940, France’s cavalry consisted of some units still mounted on horses while others were wholly mechanised. Notably in the mid-1930s France created two entirely motorised and armoured light divisions, which were equipped with the brand new Somua S-35. In reality while dubbed ‘light’, these well-equipped units were equivalent to a German panzer division, with 300 armoured vehicles including 190 tanks. A third DLM was created in early 1940 and a fourth ended up as part of the ‘de Gaulle Force’.
In 1939 the French Army formed the Division Cuirassée (DCR), its first real tank division and by the following year had three DLMs and four DCRs. The Char B1 tank, supported by some of the older Char D2, constituted the main striking force of the DCR, while the H-35/39, R-35 and S-35 tanks equipped the DLM and the light battalions of the DCR.
While the French had some excellent tanks, the myriad of different types compared to Germany understandably proved a logistical headache. For example, French ordnance officers were faced with tanks ranging from the tiny Renault FT, through the modern Somua S-35 to the heavy Char B. Also the design of French tanks resulted in crews feeling isolated from each other.
Ultimately it was the French insistence on breaking up their tank force into penny packets that greatly aided the Germans. While France could field around 3,000 tanks, 500 were in units in the process of forming and others were in reserve. The light mechanised and new armoured divisions accounted for 1,292, the rest were split up among the infantry divisions.
French infantry divisions were supported by armoured battalions of around 100 tanks which were clearly too weak to provide any real punch. To make matters worse few French tanks had radios and those that did found that they were frustratingly unreliable. Coupled with this the general slowness of French tanks meant that the panzers would run circles round them.
The French mindset was to treat tanks as armoured cavalry using them for reconnaissance and screening work. Added to this was a lack of training and importantly tank radios. The failure to coordinate effectively with the rest of the French Army was to have one simple outcome. When war came France’s armoured units were too dispersed in defensive formations, air cover was non-existent (thousands of French aircraft remained at safe airfields) and French anti-tank guns remained in storage.
On 2 September 1939 Colonel de Gaulle was appointed to command the tanks of the French 5th Army. This force, sheltered by the Maginot Line, covered Alsace with its headquarters in Wangenbourg south of Saverne. Instead of an armoured division, which he had so long lobbied for, de Gaulle’s units consisted of five scattered battalions equipped with R-35 tanks. On 12 September some of his tanks went into action for the first time when one or two companies launched a raid on Shweix, a German frontier post near the camp at Bitche in front of the Maginot Line.
It was not until just before the German invasion had commenced that de Gaulle was appointed to command and organise the new French 4th Armoured Division. Frustratingly for de Gaulle on 15 May 1940 he was only able to gather three tank battalions, less than a third of his armoured strength and less than half his officers. He was expected to launch a counterattack with this force and in the process lost a quarter of his tanks to mines, anti-tank weapons and Stukas. The heavy French B1- bis under major Bescond gave the 1st Panzer Division a nasty surprise but the intervention of 10th Panzer and the death of the major forced them to retreat.
In terms of infantry units, the 14th Infantry Division was purportedly one of the best in the French army. General de Lattre de Tassigny took command in January 1940 of this ‘active’ rather than reserve formation recruited mostly from Alsace. It consisted of two infantry regiments, a demi-brigade of Chasseurs, a reconnaissance group and divisional artillery. Like so many units, de Lattre found the division afflicted by the general malaise infecting the French Army, namely apathy, inadequate welfare services and allowing the Germans to take the initiative when it came to patrolling the front. Fortunately for the 14th Division de Lattre was a man of action and he set about shaking his command up. Like all infantry divisions, its anti-tank capabilities were not very good.
In 1940 the best anti-tank gun available to the Allies was the venerable French Puteaux ‘75’, which was not designed as an anti-tank gun and was vulnerable to superior German field artillery. This was still the standard French field gun in 1940 and various upgrades had improved its range and cross-country mobility. The ‘75’ was the first modern quick-firing field gun and its appearance in 1897 heralded a revolution in the design and capability of artillery (an on-carriage recoil system, one-piece round, shield and quick-action breech). By 1914 although the Puteaux was a superior direct fire weapon, tactically it was obsolete because its low trajectory was ineffective against targets concealed by folds in the ground or field works.
Most of France’s medium and heavy guns were mainly late First World War or immediate postwar models. In keeping with the French preference for positional warfare there was a notable lack of mobility with the larger calibre guns. In addition French gunners lacked tactical flexibility, target-spotting techniques and were slow to concentrate their fire. The French firms St Chamond and Schneider pioneered the development of self-propelled guns during the First World War and some of these such as the 194mm self-propelled gun saw combat during the battle for France. However, lacking armour and being slow they were easily outmanoeuvred by the panzers or knocked out by German dive-bombers.
In the air the Allies theoretically had numerical superiority in fighter aircraft but most were obsolete types and the Allies were in reality outnumbered in part because of the chronic serviceability of French aircraft. The French Armée de l’air could field 1,562 aircraft while RAF fighter command contributed 680 and RAF Bomber Command 392. The Germans were able to pit 836 Bf 109s against 764 French, 261 British and 81 Belgian fighters. Of these only the French Dewoitine D.520 and British Hawker Hurricane were capable of taking on the German Messerschmidt Bf 109.
The Dewoitine D.520, which first appeared in 1938, was easily the best French fighter at the time of the German invasion. Unfortunately from an overall order of 2,320, only 36 D.250s had been delivered by 10 may 1940. Production continued and the D.250 Groupes de Chasse of the Armée de l’air claimed 114 victories and 39 probables for the loss of 85 aircraft. In contrast the morane-Saulnier MS.406, which in terms of numbers was the most important French fighter in service, fared poorly in combat with the Bf 109. About 150 MS.406 were lost in action and up to 300 through other causes. America moved to assist the Armée de l’air during the Phoney war taking orders for 140 American Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk fighters and 370 Douglas Boston DB-7 attack bombers, but they were not delivered in time and diverted to the RAF instead.
French Renault FT-17 light tanks on parade in the mid-1930s. During the First World War France helped pioneer armoured warfare with the Schneider and St Chamond assault tanks. The subsequent two-man FT-17 went into service with the French Army in 1918 and was widely exported and copied round the world. The standard production model was armed with a 37mm Puteaux gun and around 1,600 were still in use in 1940 making up half of the French tank fleet, although by then they were completely obsolete.
The Char B1 heavy tank, seen here in side profile and head-on, in contrast was a much better proposition as its thick armour could withstand everything except the German 88mm gun. Like the Italian M11/39 and the later American M3 Grant/Lee tanks, its main armament was hull-mounted, thereby greatly limiting its traverse. While the principal weapon was a 75mm gun, it also carried a 47mm gun in the turret, making it one of the most formidable tanks in service. About 365 of the final production model, known as the Char B1-bis, had been built by 1940, which were issued to the four French armoured divisions and independent tank companies.
Likewise the Char Somua S-35 medium tank was well armoured with good mobility and firepower. Its turret was identical to that of the B1-bis and D2 tanks armed with the 47mm SA 35 gun and a 7.5mm Model 31 coaxial machine gun. This meant it had the usual disadvantage in that the commander had to also act as the gunner and loader during combat. About 500 had been built by the time of the German invasion.
The Char Léger (cavalry tank) Hotchkiss H-35 appeared at the same time as the Renault R-35 and both were alike in appearance. However the H-35 used narrower coil springs on its suspension system rather than the wide rubber washers and this made room for one extra road wheel either side which allowed better cross-country performance and a higher speed. The later H- 39, seen in the photograph opposite, top, had the same calibre gun but was upgraded with a longer barrelled variant to become the H-39, seen opposite, below. While the infantry opted for the R-35 the cavalry accepted the H-35/39 as their principal tank. Over 1,000 Hotchkiss tanks were produced and with the S-35 formed the backbone of the cavalry’s Division Légère Mécanique, or light mechanised divisions, as well as subsequently equipping most of the light battalions in the Divisions Cuirassées formed in 1939–40 which were France’s first real tank divisions.
Two good views of the Char Léger Renault R-35, which was designed and built to replace the FT-17. It was a two-man light tank of just under 10 tons and was intended to re-equip the tank regiments supporting the infantry divisions. This meant that it had heavier armour and could only manage around 12mph. When war broke out although R-35 production had not completely replaced the FT-17 in the infantry tank regiments, sufficient numbers had been produced to equip twenty-three battalions.
This rather grainy photograph features a Renault AMR-33 VM (Auto-Mitrailleuse de Reconnaissance) light tank of which only 120 were built. This two-man tank armed with just a 7.5mm machine gun was designed for cavalry reconnaissance work. Almost 200 of the follow-on Renault AMR 35 ZT were also produced, some of which were armed with a 25mm anti-tank gun. In parallel Renault came up with the AMC 35 ACG1 but only 100 were built and some were supplied to the Belgian Army.
Like the Russians who produced the massive T-35 tank, the French also produced a lumbering heavy tank dubbed the Char 2C, which weighed in at 70 tons and required a crew of twelve. Just ten had been built by 1922 and the surviving six serving with the French 51st Tank Battalion were destroyed or captured by the Germans while still on their railway flat cars.
Two more photographs of the compact FT-17 light tank. The German soldier peering out of the second vehicle gives some idea of how small this tank is. The French military found it useful for police duties in France’s colonial possessions such as Morocco, Syria and Tunisia but against the panzers it was all but useless.
This small carrier is a Chenillette d’infanterie Renault Type UE. It was produced in large numbers from 1931 onwards to provide French troops with an armoured supply tractor. It normally came with an open tracked trailer that could carry 500kg. The two armoured domes covered the driver’s and passenger’s heads.
Like the B1 and S-35, this was another good piece of kit. The Auto-Mitrailleuse de Découverte (AMD) Panhard Type 178 armoured car entered French service in 1935. This modern-looking vehicle was the first four-wheeled, four-wheel-drive, rear-engined armoured car to go into series production. The Panhard Type SK 105HP engine gave it a maximum speed of 45mph. Standard armament was a 25mm high-velocity gun and one 7.5mm machine gun mounted coaxially in the turret. It was employed for long-range reconnaissance duties by the mechanised cavalry in the reconnaissance regiments of the Division Légère Mécanique and in the reconnaissance groups of the infantry divisions.
Charles de Gaulle followed General Estienne’s commitment to armoured warfare and argued long and hard that France needed to gather her tanks into powerful tank divisions rather than dissipating them among the infantry. In 1939 he took command of the tank forces deployed with the French 5th Army defending the Maginot Line in the Alsace region. Just before the German invasion he was appointed commander of the French 4th Armoured Division and subsequently fought with distinction.
This was the reality of many European armies. By 1940 although parts of France’s cavalry divisions had been mechanised many units still relied on the horse. The fighting in Poland in September 1939 showed how powerless mounted cavalry were in the face of Hitler’s panzers. Both France and Britain had remained committed to their mounted cavalry regiments.
This photograph seems to show an air of racial tension. French infantry units in mainland France included colonial infantry divisions from West Africa. Notably the weak French 2nd Army holding the Sedan area included an infantry division from Senegal. By 1940 France had mobilised a third of its male population raising 5 million men, but less than half were deployed in northern France.
Confident and ready for battle, this French tank crew are posing by the back of their Char B1-bis. In fact it had four crew consisting of the driver/gunner, wireless operator, loader and commander. The loader had the awkward job of supplying both the hull-mounted 75mm gun and the 47mm in the turret. The man on the left is wearing the distinctive 1935 pattern motorised troops’ helmet, which was normally associated with motorised dragoon and armoured car units. Both he and the crewman on the right are wearing the 1935 pattern heavy utility leather jacket. The man in the middle has on the 1935 pattern overalls that were made from a heavy red-brown canvas. The two bulbous tankers helmets look far from comfortable.