The French Army in World War II

Infantry Divisions 1939-40
 

 

The end of an army: French soldiers captured by the Germans, June 1940 (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
 


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In May 1940 the French Army embodied 101 infantry divisions (Division d'Infanterie or DI), of which 91 were located in metropolitan France. They were classified by composition as Series A, B or C, and by organization and equipment as Northeast, Fortress or Overseas (i.e. stationed in the colonies). Several Northeast divisions assigned to the Army of the Alps on the frontier with Italy carried the unofficial designation Mountain (Division Alpine).

The Series A divisions were regular formations that were maintained in peacetime at two-thirds strength. Upon mobilization they were brought up to full strength with reserve units. The Series B divisions were maintained in peacetime with only a small regular cadre; on mobilization they too were brought up to strength with reserve units. In peacetime Series C divisions existed only on paper, consisting entirely of reserve units. Series A divisions embodied regular soldiers and the youngest reservists, Series B divisions a mix of younger and older reservists (aged 30 and above) and Series C mostly older reservists.

The Northeast organization applied to all infantry divisions in metropolitan France except mountain and fortress divisions. Regardless of classification, however, all infantry divisions had the same basic triangular organization: three infantry regiments, each with three battalions. The Northeast infantry division was the most numerous type and it was quite similar to the German 1st Wave infantry division. The principal points of difference concerned the divisional artillery and antitank units.
 

French infantry at Dunkirk, May 1940 (Photo: Imperial War Museum)

After World War I, the French Army was left with enormous stockpiles of weapons. This made it hard to justify an upgrade of the artillery so instead the existing weapons were modernized. Thus in the French infantry division, the famous M1898 75mm field gun was still in service in 1939—36 of them in a light artillery regiment. Despite its age the 75mm remained a reasonably effective field gun, but it could not deliver a weight of fire equivalent to the German infantry division’s 36 x 105mm light field howitzers, which had replaced the 77mm field gun of WW I vintage. (Germany, having been compelled by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles to discard most of its weaponry, was not burdened with a huge reserve of obsolescent weapons.) Another problem was that the French 75mm gun was not capable of high-angle fire—a considerable handicap by comparison with the German 105mm howitzer. However, this deficiency was somewhat offset by the French division’s 24 x 155mm howitzers (versus 12 x 150mm howitzers in the German division).

As for antitank guns (ATG), the Northeast infantry division had a total of thirty, distributed among the three infantry regiments, the divisional reconnaissance battalion and two independent companies. In most divisions there were 22 x 25mm ATG and, usually, 8 x 47mm ATG. One of the independent companies had 12 x 25mm ATG and the other had either 8 x 47mm ATG, 2 x 75mm and 6 x 47mm ATG, or 6 x 75mm ATG. The 75mm ATG was a modified M1898 field gun. The 25mm AT company was usually attached to one of the infantry regiments and the 47mm ATG company was always attached to the light artillery regiment. Thus the French infantry division had significantly fewer ATG than the 75 x 37mm in the German infantry division.
 

Command Flag for Generals Commanding a Division

The divisional reconnaissance battalion was “mixed mobility,” with a cavalry company, a motorcycle company and a motorized heavy weapons company (heavy machine guns and ATG): broadly similar to its German counterpart albeit with a higher level of motorization and less firepower.

The foregoing description applies mainly to the Series A Northeast infantry divisions, which embodied active soldiers and the most recently trained reservists, and had the latest equipment. Besides being manned by older reservists, most of the Series B and C divisions lacked various components and they generally were armed with older weapons, e.g. the 8mm M1915 Chauchat light machine gun (LMG) and unmodernized 75mm field guns. In many cases a single “mixed” artillery regiment with three 75mm field gun battalions and one 155mm howitzer battalion replaced the light and heavy artillery regiments. The 25mm ATG company was often missing, and mortars and heavy machine guns were in short supply.


French infantry with an FM 24/29 LMG (Photo: Musée de l'Armée)

The fortress infantry divisions (Division d'Infanterie de Forteresse or DIF) originated as Fortified Sectors, i.e. the Maginot Line and its extensions. These fortifications had troops permanently assigned to them and in early 1940 they were given divisional identities. The 102nd DIF, for example, was formed from the troops of Ardennes Defensive Sector. It consisted of the 148th Fortress Infantry Regiment, 42nd Colonial Machine Gun Demi-Brigade, the 52nd Colonial Machine Gun Demi-Brigade, the 3rd Machine Gun Battalion, 160th Artillery Regiment and the 218th Artillery Regiment. (Demi-Brigade was the French term of a regiment-sized unit made up of battalions with an independent identity.)

In the initial phase of the 1940 campaign, many infantry divisions suffered high losses or were largely destroyed. In early June their remnants were used to form new light infantry divisions (Division Légère d'Infanterie or DLI), most of which had the approximate strength of a brigade. The 59th DLI, for example, was formed with remnants of the 55th and 71st DIs. It had two understrength infantry regiments, a mixed artillery regiment and a few ATG. The 59th DLI fought in the second phase of the campaign, surrendering to the Germans on 10 June.

When the armistice came into effect on 25 June, the Army in metropolitan France laid down its arms, and hundreds of thousands of French soldiers went into German captivity. The terms of the armistice allowed the Vichy government to maintain only eight infantry divisions plus corps troops in unoccupied France, and these units had roughly the organization of the 1939-40 infantry division.

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Organizational Diagrams
 

 


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