At the beginning of World War II, after the attack on Poland in the autumn of 1939 both the French and the British declared war on Germany, put their forces into place in France, then waited .. and waited … and waited. It was known as the “phoney war”. Hitler realised that the Allies were not going to defend Poland or attack Germany, so he prepared, then in 1940 launched the blitzkrieg (lightning war) driving tanks and infantry, supported by close air support, through the supposedly impassable Ardennes Forest. The Allies were stunned by this flanking manoeuvre and quickly lost ground. These ancient enemies, France and England, did not trust each other and the lack of trust created an ongoing communications crisis.
The French decided that they could not withstand the onslaught and sued for peace. The British, feeling betrayed, evacuated the remnants of their army through Dunkirk, declaring a victory by getting most of their men out, but leaving virtually all of their heavy weaponry. The evacuation at Dunkirk is a story in itself, with thousands of private British boats assisting the navy to evacuate survivors.
The Germans occupied the northern half of France and installed a puppet government under Marshal Pétain in the southern half, with the government in Vichy. A lot of people over the years have accused the French of simply rolling over when the Germans attacked. What I did not know was that, in the first month of the attack on France, they sustained over 100,000 killed in action. That is approximately twice the number of American fatalities during all the years of the Vietnam war. I think that the French believed, with some accuracy, that they were going to lose a second generation of young men to another war in a span of 20 years and decided that that was too high a price to pay.
One of the appalling parts of the history of Vichy France is their treatment of the Jews. There were many, many Jewish refugees from the rest of Europe who had fled to apparent safety in France prior to 1939. As the Germans executed their “final solution”, the deliberate extermination of the Jews, Vichy France was only too eager to assist. While many Jewish French citizens were helped by their gentile neighbours, the Jewish refugees, most in refugee camps, had no one to help them. The rules concerning who was a Jew in Vichy France were more draconian than those in occupied France or in Germany itself. They were rounded up by French police and transported to the extermination camps in their tens of thousands. Most did not survive.
There was, of course, an active resistance movement both in occupied France and in Vichy France but, as a wise and cynical Frenchwoman said much later, there were a lot more resistance fighters after the war than during the war. For many years after the war, the French government simply denied its complicity in the round-up of the Jews but this denial has since been rescinded.