Eighty years ago, the Battle of France ends in utter defeat and an act of heroic resistance

After less than forty days the Battle for France came to an end with the total defeat of the allies. It was the most decisive and rapid conclusion to any conflict between major European powers of modern times. It was an utter humiliation of Britain and France, leaving left Germany dominant on mainland Europe with the dubious assistance of Italy.

The French army had withdrawn from the defence of Paris, allowing the Wehrmacht to march in unopposed. The French government had fled to Tours and then to Bordeaux to escape the advancing Germans.

Paul Reynaud resigned as prime minister when he was overruled by the Cabinet which wanted peace. He was replaced by Marshal Petain who immediately called for an end to fighting and opened peace talks with Germany and Italy. A short-he British side did not take it specially seriously either; the man charged with working out the details was Sir Horace Wilson, civil service right-hand man to the recently unseated prime minister Neville Chamberlain, whom Churchill had ignominiously despatched into near-obscurity.

The remaining British forces in France – some 130,000 men – were withdrawn in Operation Ariel. Unlike the troops evacuated from Dunkirk they were able to rescue their heavy equipment. The operation was marred when German bombers sank the RMS Lancastria off St. Nazaire. She had been boarded in such haste that there was no final figure for the number of lives lost. The ship was crowded with thousands of people and only some 2,500 survived. Estimates run from 3,000 to 6,000 deaths, the largest death doll of any British marine incident and a large share of the total fatalities incurred by the BEF.

One French minister refused to accept his government’s decision to end the war. General de Gaulle left for London in the company of General Spears MP, Churchill’s liaison man to the French government. On the morning of 18th June he sought permission to broadcast to France, calling on his compatriots to continue the fight. At lunchtime on June 18 1940 the War Cabinet decided against allowing de Gaulle to broadcast "so long as was still possible that the French Government would act in a way conformable to the interests of the Alliance." By the evening something had happened to change this and Churchill gave de Gaulle permission to speak on the BBC.

Even after Petain had publicly called for end to fighting, scratch units under 58 year old Colonel Michon, who had survived massive injuries in the First World War, numbering about 2,000 troops including the cadets of the French army cavalry school at Saumur fought to prevent a German division crossing the river Loire. They failed and suffered heavy casualties. The dead included Jehan Alain, already celebrated as an organist and composer at the age of 29.


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