Military history of France during World War II

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France, along with the United Kingdom, was one of the first participants in World War II after declaring war on Nazi Germany following its invasion of Poland in 1939. They were invaded themselves soon after in 1940 though, and remained occupied by the Germans until liberated by the Western Allies in 1944.


After the vicious battles and expense of World War I, France spent large sums of money to build the Maginot Line. The idea behind the line was to protect key industrial areas, give the French Army time to mobilize, and make up for inevitable numerical shortcomings. The Line stretched from Switzerland to the Ardennes, which were not considered passable by German troops. As Belgium had declared itself neutral, the Line was only weakly continued through Belgium.

When the German army made its move, it sidestepped the Maginot Line by crossing through Belgium and the seemingly-impenetrable Ardennes. The French army, outnumbered, weakly equipped compared to Germany's bombers and tanks, and without support from major allies, had little chance. Still, some big fortifications in the Maginot line held fast and continued fighting.

However, the French high command, and many of France's politicians, despaired of the situation. While some suggested that the government should relocate to the French colonies in North Africa and continued to fight, it instead followed the suggestions of Marshal Philippe Pétain, an elderly veteran and hero of World War I. The French government surrendered to Nazi Germany on June 24 1940. Nazi Germany occupied three fifths of France's territory (Northern France and the entire French Atlantic Coast) and on July 10, 1940 established a new French government based at the town of Vichy. This government, officially neutral in World War II, was commonly referred to as Vichy France and was headed by Pétain. Its senior leaders acquiesced in the plunder of French resources, as well as the sending of French forced labor to Nazi Germany; in doing so, they claimed they hoped to preserve at least some small amount of French sovereignty. In the meantime, civilian anti-semites and Vichy officials aided in the concentration and persecution of Jews, in particular those of foreign citizenship. The German occupation proved costly, however, as it appropriated a full one-half of France's public sector revenue.

On the other hand, those who refused defeat and collaboration with Nazi Germany, the Free French, organised resistance movements in occupied Vichy France. The Free French Forces started in exile with the support of the United Kingdom. They were led by Charles de Gaulle, under-secretary of state for war and national defence, whose role in the resistance was to pave the way for his immense impact on the future of France, as leader of its provisional government and first President of the French Fifth Republic.

After the Allied landings in North Africa (Operation Torch) the German Army occupied southern France as well (Case Anton), leading to the scuttling of the French Fleet at Toulon.

After four years of occupation and strife, Allied forces, including Free French Forces, liberated France in 1944.

See also


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