2. 1940 Ardennes Offensive Surprises and Discombobulates the French
Although victorious in World War I, the conflict left France exhausted, shaken, and gun shy. The country had suffered 1,358,000 killed, and 4,265,000 wounded, of whom roughly 1,500,000 were permanently maimed, plus another 535,000 missing or made prisoner. That equated to 73% of the 8,410,000 men mobilized during the conflict. And that was aside from the extensive property damage, as most of the fighting on the Western Front had occurred on French soil – and in the most productive French regions, at that.
To avoid a repetition in case of a future war, the French built the Maginot Line to fortify and secure the Franco-German border. They also stationed most of their mobile forces in the north, to plunge into Belgium – through whose territory the Germans had invaded in 1914 – and fight the invaders as far forward and away from French soil as possible.
However, while the French had fortified the south and stationed strong forces to the north, they paid little attention to a stretch of wooded and broken terrain in the center: the Ardennes Forrest. The French deemed that region impassable for enemy armor, and left it lightly defended. The Germans, adopting a plan devised by up and comer general Erich von Manstein, disagreed, and massed most of their tanks in that sector.
The Battle of France began on May 10th, 1940, with a German attack in the north through Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. According to plan, French and British armies advanced into Belgium to contest the issue there. On May 16th, once the Allies’ mobile forces were committed in Belgium, the Germans unleashed their surprise armored attack through the Ardennes.
The French and British were wrong footed. Their mobile forces were stuck in Belgium, and could not disengage and turn around to deal with the Germans in the Ardennes. Nor did they have reserves to stop the rampaging Panzer divisions that overwhelmed the local defenders, burst through their lines, and raced to the English Channel, to cut off the French and British armies in Belgium from the rest of France. On June 20th – only 40 days from the start of the German offensive – the French were forced to surrender.