(CRISIS and WAR in EUROPE, 1937 to 1940 – continued)
The Spanish civil war had ended in March 1939, after killing about one million people. Franco's forces began a bloodbath against targeted opponents, while Franco also began programs to rebuild war-damaged communities. The German and Italian military men in Spain returned home. And in September, when Germany attacked Catholic Poland, Catholic Spain was disconcerted, and Franco declared Spain to be neutral.
On 8 April 1940, the British violated Norwegian neutrality by laying ocean mines in the shipping channel Germans were using to bring iron ore from Sweden. Hitler already had plans to occupy Norway. His admirals had persuaded him to take Norway before the British occupied it or its territorial waters, cutting Germany from its major source of iron ore.
As the British were laying their mines, Hitler's forces were on their way to Norway, and on the 9th of April his paratroops landed at six of Norway's ports, between Oslo and Narvik. And that same day the Germans moved to take control of the land directly between it and Norway: Denmark. On the first day of that invasion the Danish king, Christian X, ordered his troops to cease fire, the king saving lives and the Germans conquering Denmark in one day.
One month later, on May 10, the day that Churchill became Britain's prime minister, Hitler sent his troops into Belgium and the Netherlands without forewarning – although he had promised to respect their neutrality. His excuse was that the Belgians and Dutch had been conducting military talks with the Western powers and that Germany had to take power in these countries to protect their neutral status and to protect Germany's Ruhr region. And the German public bought their government's argument.
The Germans used parachutists and gliders not used in Poland. With this they leaped over rivers, forts and enemy lines. And after a deadline that Germany had offered for the Netherlands' surrender, the Germans bombed military targets at Rotterdam. The city had already surrendered, and the bombing had been canceled, but the cancellation orders had been too slow in arriving to Germany's airforce. With the bombing came raging fires, and much of Rotterdam burned. News services in the Allied countries described thousands killed. Germany had intended to hit only military targets, but some 900 civilians had been killed, and about 78,000 were left homeless.
Germany conquered the Netherlands after five days of fighting. Belgium capitulated within two weeks, while tens of thousands of British troops in Belgium were pulling back to the channel coast, converging at Dunkirk. Hitler held his troops back from Dunkirk, and from May 29 to June 4 the British moved their troops across the channel and back to England, while on June 3 the Germans dropped 1,000 bombs on Paris.
On June 5, Hitler invaded France. It was more "lightning" warfare. Hitler, writes Max Boot, was supremely confident of victory "because he had smelled out the inability of 'the systematic French or the ponderous English ... to operate and to act quickly.'"
Germany's forces were not superior in numbers – not even in their number of tanks. The French had the best tanks. According to Max Boot, Germany's easy victory over the French can be attributed to "...their decisive edge in doctrine, training, planning, coordination, and leadership."
The Germans moved through Belgium and into France – north of France's defensive works, the Maginot Line. The Germans used infiltration, with the tanks exploiting but not creating breakthroughs, and they used their Stuka dive-bombers against enemy ground forces. German tanks had radios. French tanks did not and were less able to move in coordination. It was more mobile warfare rather than a repeat of 1914 when defensive warfare on the Western Front was supreme and resulted in stalemate and trenches.
The Germans advanced rapidly. And, on June 10, Mussolini joined the war, to derision from a proud German nation. On June 12 the British bombed the Italian cities of Genoa and Turin. On June 14, Paris fell to the Germans, and on the 16th the French government, now in Bordeaux, voted thirteen to eleven for an armistice. On June 18 the British bombed "military targets" at the German port cities of Hamburg and Bremen. And on the 18th, Charles de Gaulle, in London, announced the creation of the French resistance to Germany's occupation of France.
France's old war hero, Marshal Petain, was asking Germany for an armistice. France's parliament elected Petain head of state with extraordinary powers. And on June 22 he signed an armistice with Germany.
In Germany, Hitler spoke of France as having a great past. He wanted France as an ally he could trust, unaligned with Britain and of no military threat to Germany. He did not want to drive the French into continued resistance and to the side of de Gaulle. He had Italy reduce its demand on French territory. He offered the French a peace that would give them total sovereignty over two-fifths of the country while Germany was to maintain control over French territory along the English channel, including Paris, to seal the continent from England.
Hitler at this point in the war appeared to have accomplished much for Germany. The German public attributed Hitler's success to what they believed was his genius. Hitler was at the height of his popularity in Germany and with his admirers around the globe. With military victory in France the German public had become enthusiastic.
In France, on the other hand, many saw defeat as a result of enemies within. It was after the Hitler-Stalin pact. Germany and the Soviet Union were allies, and some saw Stalin's communists as well as Hitler's admirers in France as the enemy. Some in France were blaming spies for the defeat – although, as writes Max Boot, "... there were few German spies operating behind enemy lines, and their meager efforts can hardly explain the magnitude of the disaster that befell the French. note54
Copyright © 1998-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.