♦ The Army of the Third Republic ♦

The French Army in World War II


May 1940: French H35 tanks on the move  (Photo: Musée de l'Armée)

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The history of the French Army in World War II falls into three chapters: 1939-40, culminating in defeat and surrender; 1940-43, the “Armistice Army” of Vichy; and 1940-45, the Army of Fighting France. The debacle of May-June 1940 destroyed the Third Republic and its Army, ushering in long years of occupation and bitter division that witnessed French soldier in combat against other French soldiers amid charges of treason on both sides. Only gradually, under the auspices of DeGaulle’s government in exile, was a French Army opposed to the Axis reconstituted, so that by 1944-45 it was able to play a role in the final stages of the war.

Since the founding of the Third Republic, the French Army had been largely a conscript army. In peacetime, the main business of its full-time professional cadre was to train the annual intake of conscripts. Relatively few divisions (but most of the armored, mechanized and motorized ones) were maintained at full strength in peacetime, some being stationed in the colonies. Many colonial units, particularly those from French North Africa, were considered part of the metropolitan Army and were included in its mobilized order of battle.

In May 1940, on the eve of the German invasion, the mobilized French Army comprised three armored divisions (with one more in process of formation), three light mechanized divisions (really armored divisions), seven motorized infantry divisions, five light cavalry divisions (partially mechanized), 101 infantry divisions (including North African and colonial units) and 13 fortress infantry divisions. Of these, 91 infantry divisions and all the others listed were in metropolitan France. Those tanks not with the armored and mechanized divisions were mostly in armored groups of two or three battalions each, tasked with the mission of infantry support. There were also a number of separate mechanized brigades. Though some models dating from the First World War remained in service, many French tanks were modern and in terms of firepower and armor protection they generally outclassed the tanks at the disposal of the German Army. In other classes of weapons the two armies were roughly comparable.

Command Flag for Army Group and Army Commanders

The French Army’s organization and operational doctrine were based on the experience acquired in the First World War. This was most obviously symbolized by the Maginot Line, the deep fortified zone covering the French frontier opposite Germany. Contrary to popular belief it was not a “Great Wall” on the Chinese model. French military leaders recognized that in the event of another war with Germany, the enemy’s main attack would probably come through the Low Countries, as it had in 1914. To seal off by fortification the French border with France’s ally, Belgium, was clearly not feasible on either military or diplomatic grounds. Thus Marshal Pétain, when he was Chief of Staff in the 1920s, laid down that if another German attack ever did come, “We must go into Belgium.” With the common frontier well defended by fixed fortifications, a significant portion of the French Army would be free to advance against the attacking Germans—to fight the decisive battle on Belgian, not French, soil. French soldiers and politicians agreed that the devastation of northwestern France that had occurred in 1914-18 must on no account be allowed to happen again.

As for the French Army’s tactical doctrine, it placed great stress on the defense, on the domination of the battlefield by strong artillery concentrations and on the carefully prepared set-piece attack with tanks in direct support of the infantry. Having learned to its great cost in 1914-18 what modern weapons could do, the French Army placed its faith in firepower over mobility. Significantly, there existed no unified tactical doctrine for the employment of tanks. Unlike the German Army, which brought all mechanized forces together in a single arm of the service—the Panzerwaffe—French tanks were shared out between the cavalry and infantry arms. The light mechanized divisions and the partially mechanized light cavalry divisions received light and medium tanks; the armored divisions had medium and heavy tanks. Because of this division of authority over armored forces, there was no unified doctrine governing their employment. Particularly unfortunate was the combination of mechanized formations with horse cavalry formations in the light cavalry divisions. Because of the great difference in capabilities between mechanized and mounted units, they could not operate together or provide useful mutual support. The existence of the light cavalry divisions in 1940 shows that the French Army's senior leaders did not really grasp the military potential of mechanization.

There were also some significant deficiencies at the small-unit level. For example, many French tanks lacked a radio. Usually only the platoon or company commander's tank had one, for communication with higher headquarters. To communicate with the tanks under his command, the commander had to rely on flag or hand signals. But in the panzer divisions every tank was equipped with a radio, endowing German armored formations with a flexibility that the French ones lacked. German medium and heavy tanks also had larger crews than comparable French tanks. The French S35 SOUMA medium tank was well armed and armored but had a crew of only three (commander/gunner, radio operator/loader, driver)—imposing an excessive workload on the commander. The German Panzer III, on the other hand, had a crew of five (commander, gunner, loader, driver, radio operator)—enhancing the individual tank's tactical flexibility. Finally, on the French side there was no real provision for close air support of ground forces—this again in sharp contrast to German tactical doctrine.

French infantry, 1939-40  (Photo: Musée de l'Armée)

Most of the Army's 101 infantry divisions relied largely on horses to move their artillery and supplies. Organizationally they were very similar to the infantry divisions of the German Army: three infantry regiments, each with three battalions. The seven motorized infantry divisions were the same, but with motor vehicles replacing horses in the artillery and other support units and an attached motor transport group for the infantry regiments. At the corps level there was a heavy artillery regiment and a corps reconnaissance group.

On the operational level French Army’s organization for combat was much the same as other armies. Field armies embodied two or three corps headquarters (Corps d'Armée) and eight to ten divisions of various types which were attached to the corps or held under army control. In May 1940 there were nine field armies in all, divided among three army groups (Groupes d'Armées). Most of the armored and mechanized units were allotted to the 1e Groupe d'Armées for the advance into Belgium.

Operationally as well as tactically, the French Army remained wedded to the deliberate approach. It was assumed that operations—the deployment and maneuvering of large units—would take place at much the same pace as in days gone by. Movements and attacks would be carefully planned in advance; they would be launched only when all preparations were complete. That such deliberation risked yielding the initiative to an enemy more flexible and opportunistic in his approach occurred to few, and this was a major cause of the French debacle on the spring of 1940.

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Organizational Diagram

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