Myth Busting The French Surrender Of 1940

Are charges of quickly drawn white flags and an army-wide lack of courage fair?

On May 10, 1940, Adolf Hitler ordered the invasion of France and the Low Countries. 

Occurring eight months into the war – a period disparagingly named The Phoney War – the invading action was decisive, strategic, and altogether mighty. By June 22, the French government surrendered, signing an armistice that led to the Vichy government's initiation and the official policy of collaboration with Nazi Germany -a matter still viewed with national ignominiousness 81 years on.

To this day, accusations exist of a lacking French military, a state-wide under-preparedness in making the task even remotely tricky for the advancing Wehrmacht, and a void of courage from the nation's top political figures to the low men and women on the streets of Paris. 

But is any of it fair? Are these claims rooted in political skulduggery by failed Vichy leaders or set in everyday discourse because they find agency in the truth?

Here are several arguments that perhaps bust some of the myths around any claims of unreadiness and unwillingness of France to fight and challenge decades-old accusations that the French were found wanting when it really mattered. 

Hitler in Paris after armistice in June 1940. Credit: Alamy

Did France Surrender Too Soon?

A search online can turn up several pessimistically toned inquiries around the subject of France's involvement in the Second World War. In terms of the nation's surrender in June 1940, some of these questions included:

  • Why did France surrender so quickly while the Soviet Union held out for years?
  • France contributed very little to winning WW2, so why did France get a 'French region' in Germany and a seat on the UN Security Council?
  • Why is France teased for surrendering in WWII, but Poland is not when both fell to the Nazis?

Although each question deals with different matters specifically, such as Poland's invasion in 1939, they generally all speak to the common notion that the French surrender happened too soon or without a proper defence beforehand. 

However, experts have attempted to interrogate those accusations by pointing out facts about the size and readiness of the French military and by drawing attention to the highly controversial Chief of the French State, Marshal Philippe Pétain.

Why Did France Lose To Germany?

The dismissive tendency used by many to describe France's surrender is something not exclusive to Brits or Americans. Criticism of the nation in its efforts to hold off Nazi Germany has been expressed by the French themselves. 

Writing in a France 24 article in 2020 to mark the 80th anniversary, French journalist Stéphanie Trouillard described the "speed with which France crumbled and capitulated in the face of the May 1940 German invasion" as "shocking, 80 years on." 

But was it really that shocking an occurrence? How much of such a claim is based on fact?

In the same article, a former professor of history at Saint Cyr Coëtquidan military academy, Michaël Bourlet, suggested there was little evidence of France being unready, particularly militarily. He said:

"The idea that the army was badly prepared, poorly motivated and ill-equipped against the invincible Wehrmacht is a myth constructed by Pétain's Vichy regime. Unfortunately, it's still used today, because it makes a good excuse: it's so much easier to admit defeat if you say you had a weak army facing a much stronger one."

But how strong was France's army at the beginning of World War Two, and why would Marshal Pétain attempt to blame it?

How Big Was France's Army In WW2?

At the start of World War Two, France boasted a regular army of 900,000 men but could call upon a further four and a half million who had been trained in the event of war. 

Upon the Second World War commencement, France's military was mainly deployed along the frontier facing Germany, stretching from Luxembourg to Switzerland. This was known as the Maginot Line, and on it, France placed 100 divisions of soldiers. Referring to this process of strengthening defences and troop numbers, Professor Bourlet remarked to France 24 that the French High Command could not be accused of being "inactive before the war." He said:

"They had these resources and they created a strategy to use them – small offensives with defined objectives, continuous fronts and the use of firepower to cut off the enemy's movements."

French flag over Paris - Jumpstory picture

Why Did The Maginot Line Fail?

France's building of the Maginot Line, which was an extensive process lasting ten years, spoke to an undercurrent notion of paranoia situated in the country's experiences of the First World War. 

The French viewed the Maginot Line as impregnable, and in some respects, it was. It boasted impervious qualities that would, if the need arose, force a German enemy to go around it if it wanted to invade. 

When Germany did choose to invade in May 1940, they did precisely that … they just went around the Maginot Line.

Instead of taking it on, Hitler had his forces go around it via the north, heading into the Low Countries and France via the Ardennes Forest – an area the French fatally assumed was impassable. 

Essentially, the French had been too obsessed by its singular source of protection from an invading Germany. They had, to use another phrase, put all their eggs in one basket. The Germans exploited this situation.

Did The French Lack Courage In World War Two?

France, as a nation, has borne the brunt of teasing where surrendering to the Germans matters. Although sometimes those remarks are intended to poke fun, often, statements have been made by influential figures in politics, remarks that could be received by some offensively. Some infamous examples include:

  • "I would rather have a German division in front of me than a French one behind me." – General George Patton.
  • "Going to war without France is like going deer hunting without your accordion." – General Norman Schwartzkopf.
  • "As far as I'm concerned, war always means failure." - Jacques Chirac.

Yet, while speaking to France 24, Professor Bourlet explained this often-joked about suggestion of widespread meekness was off the mark. He said:

"It's true that some commanders didn't know how to react in the face of the German onslaught and that some units – after the inactivity of the "phoney war" – panicked or disbanded. But for the most part, French soldiers fought with courage and tenacity.

"Statistics show just how brutal the fighting was. Around 60,000 French soldiers were killed between May and June. The German military lost 30 percent of its tanks and planes during the Battle of France. Its death toll is estimated at 27,000 killed and missing in June and 21,000 in May."

Why Was German Victory So Easy?

According to Professor Bourlet, the "Germans took risks during the Battle of France," which the French were not prepared for conversely. He said:

"The French army had plenty of men and lots of good quality equipment and arms. Its morale was good – despite being deflated a bit by the "phoney war".

"The reasons for its defeat were intellectual and doctrinal. It's the old cliché of fighting the previous war. Commanders were too focused on lessons from the First World War; they couldn't think about the actual war they had to wage in the present. They were unable to adapt. The Germans – by contrast – took risks."