In September 1939, while the Germans concentrated on the fighting in Poland, the French army invaded Germany from the west.
By Kevin R. Austra
World War II in Europe was a week old when the French army edged across the frontier into Germany. On September 7, 1939, the German generals’ great fear of a two-front war seemed to have been realized. It was inconceivable that the Germans could effectively counter the mighty French army with the Wehrmacht wholly engaged in Poland.
While German Ju-87 Stuka dive bombers peeled off into steep dives over Polish targets, French General Maurice Gamelin directed his Third, Fourth and Fifth armies to begin Operation Saar. The French armies marched into the Cadenbronn and Wendt Forest salients, where the German frontier jabbed uncomfortably into France. Light reconnaissance units crossed the border on September 7, followed two days later by heavy infantry and mechanized forces.
Surprisingly, there was absolutely no German response, and French foot soldiers passed vacant enemy positions. The much-touted Siegfried Line seemed abandoned. Despite its aggressive beginning, however, the French probe into the Saar evolved into such a leisurely stroll that German soldiers and officials were able to collect their belongings and depart well in advance of Gamelin’s legions. In other areas on either side of the French border incursion, German and French customs officials chatted over their striped wooden highway barricades as if nothing was happening. Despite the declaration of war, border towns in France continued receiving an uninterrupted supply of electricity from German power stations. The new European war, it seemed, was a far cry from the horrible slaughter of World War I, 25 years earlier.
Throughout German villages, poilus found curious placards bearing printed messages such as: “French soldiers, we have no quarrel with you. We shall not fire unless you do.” Instead of hurling artillery projectiles, the Germans parked loudspeaker vans blasting propaganda messages toward the French lines or erected billboards bearing messages of peace and goodwill.
French soldiers also received more lethal greetings, however. During their unhurried withdrawal, the Germans saturated the frontier with explosives. Fields were mined, doors were booby-trapped and some of the National Socialist (Nazi) signs on the walls harbored hidden explosives. The mere hint of an explosive obstacle was enough to halt the snail-like French advance for days. In one case General Gamelin personally ordered soldiers to clear a path through a suspected minefield by driving a herd of pigs through it. The rapid succession of detonations and resulting carnage did nothing to inspire the soldiers to advance deeper into the Reich.
By September 9, two motorized divisions, five tank battalions and artillery had crowded into a sliver of occupied German territory. In spite of overwhelming firepower, most of Gamelin’s forces remained within sight of French territory. Their tanks, when employed at all, were committed in small, company-size raids on German frontier strongpoints or unoccupied pillboxes while VIPs from France watched at a safe distance.
In 1939 the French army possessed some of the best tanks in the world. Mechanically sound and powerfully armed, the tanks had armor thicker than that of any German tanks, and crews that were well-trained. If there was any shortcoming in the French tank doctrine, it was related to how the armor would be employed. With no training in large-scale tank maneuvers, the French tended to employ their armor in small, piecemeal attacks without coordinating infantry, artillery and air force operations.
In the rare instances when French tanks lumbered across the frontier within range of enemy guns, German 37mm anti-tank shells bounced harmlessly off the armor of the 33-ton Char B 1 bis tanks. The French tanks in turn fired back with high-velocity 47mm turret-mounted and 75mm hull cannons. The isolated exchanges, however, usually ended in a draw. The Germans would melt away and reposition their small-caliber cannons while the French tankers pulled back behind a protective line of infantry. These brief exchanges brought to light a serious design flaw in the French armor. The Char B 1 bis had its radiator vents on the side, at a point where a hit from small-caliber anti-tank shot could put the tank out of action.
Had French Military Intelligence known there were absolutely no panzers facing them, the situation might have been different. Not only was there no German tracked armor west of the Rhine, the Wehrmacht possessed no anti-tank weapons capable of defeating invading armor. Germany’s strongest defense proved to be blitzkrieg newsreels that intimidated and duped French Intelligence.
Contrary to Nazi propaganda that alleged unlimited military potential, the German army lacked fighting equipment. Its units were drastically short of machine guns, machine pistols, artillery and tanks. The vaunted panzer force numbered a mere 200 Mark IV medium tanks–the most modern armor in the German inventory–which were armed with low-velocity 75mm guns. The remainder of the force consisted of hastily produced Mark II light tanks with 20mm cannons and turret-mounted machine guns and even more of the lightly armored Mark I, mounting only two machine guns. At best these light tanks, originally relegated to training exercises until heavier tanks became available, were suitable for mechanized reconnaissance. By the time armored units could be shuttled quickly to the Western Front, the French might already have occupied the Rhineland.
Germany’s scarcity of motor transport resulted in the Wehrmacht’s last-minute procurement of vehicles of all shapes and descriptions. The German army’s hasty acquisition of an additional 16,000 civilian vehicles added to its maintenance burden. Many of these vehicles came from recently acquired Austria and Czechoslovakia. The problem of getting spare parts for trucks exceeded nightmare proportions, as there were 100 different types of trucks in army service, 52 kinds of cars and 150 different sorts of motorcycles. As a result, many of the Wehrmacht’s reconnaissance troops rode in motorcycle sidecars painted in brilliant civilian paint schemes.
Taking a calculated risk, Hitler stripped the Western defenses in an attempt to guarantee overwhelming victory in the east. What remained west of the Rhine would have hardly sufficed to hold off a determined enemy attack. While battles raged in Poland, 43 diluted German divisions stretched the length of the western German border from Denmark to Switzerland. In the Saar, German First Army commander General Erwin von Witzleben counted 13 hollow divisions under his command.
The threat of an aggressive French offensive plagued the First Army commander daily. Witzleben, who had actually retired from the service some years earlier, was hardly suited to a field command. The general consistently found himself in uninspired assignments, and the Saar posting was no exception. Witzleben’s defense was hampered by a lack of anti-tank guns and artillery and the fact that his infantry divisions were of low quality and equipped with machine guns of World War I vintage. Opposing Witzleben were 10 fully equipped French divisions anchored in the formidable defenses of the Maginot Line.
Named for André Maginot, a war veteran and the French minister of war until his death in 1932, the Maginot Line was the most elaborate and expensive string of fortifications ever built. The French had studied the feasibility of a permanent defensive barrier facing Germany after the end of World War I, using Verdun fortresses as models. The first payment on the $500 million project was approved by parliament in 1929, and work began in 1930.
Construction of the fortified line was not just a result of the postWorld War I uneasiness the French felt for their eastern neighbors. In 1928, Germany and its impotent 100,000-man peacetime army, the Reichswehr, posed little threat to France; nor could the Germans force French, British and American armies from the occupied Rhineland. French domestic issues also prompted the region’s militarization. In 1928, France’s Alsace-Lorraine provinces–which had been lost to Germany in the peace treaty that ended the 1870 Franco-Prussian War and had been regained by France through the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I–now petitioned to become autonomous regions. The thought of these resource-rich provinces–so recently gained at an incredible cost–leaving France again was intolerable. Maginot directed the construction of the line as a permanent concrete reminder of the area’s allegiance. Indeed, most of the proposed line lay in a region of France inhabited by nearly a million German-speaking Alsatians.
The Maginot Line supplemented existing fortifications opposite Germany and was particularly strong in the Saarbrücken-Metz corridor, the most direct route to Paris. In Alsace-Lorraine the Maginot Line took 10 years to build at a cost of $323 million. The main fortifications were completed in 1935, and 300,000 soldiers garrisoned them.
As with most defensive contingencies, the Maginot mentality focused on the concrete barrier as a security blanket. Much of the line’s firepower, however, was negated because operations in Germany placed targets outside the effective range of the heavy artillery. To be of any use at all, the Maginot guns would have to be moved forward. With World War I experiences like the bloody defense at Verdun fresh in their minds, the French were reluctant to vacate the fortifications in favor of headlong attacks against Germany’s Siegfried Line.
Construction of the Westwall, or Siegfried Line as it was popularly named by the Allies, began in 1936 following Germany’s uncontested military occupation of the Rhineland. Forts and pillboxes extended from the Swiss frontier to the Netherlands. The heaviest fortifications were constructed around Saarbrücken, where some French Maginot outposts sat only 100 meters from the German border. As the hub of the defense, industrial Saarbrücken was militarily significant because it was the gate to the Kaiserslautern Gap, a traditional invasion route.
The Kaiserslautern Gap led directly to the city of Worms, on the Rhine River. Realizing the importance of this route through the Saar, the Germans arrayed their Westwall defenses three belts deep. The first line was scattered on both sides of the Saar River and consisted of anti-tank obstacles and scattered bunkers, pillboxes and irregular patterns of minefields. Wherever possible, fortifications were built into existing factories and smelting facilities. The heaviest concentration of mines and booby traps was found in this line.
The second belt of defenses dotted the Hunsrück, a series of highlands extending eastward almost to the Rhine, forming a natural barrier to the heart of Germany. In this rugged terrain, the second belt required fewer anti-tank obstacles. The greatest concentration of individual defenses was clustered around roads, railroads and trails leading into the hills. The Hünsruck belt contained more positions for heavy artillery and held more command bunkers.
The third Westwall defensive band was 20 kilometers farther east and consisted of scattered bunkers and concrete emplacements around existing military installations at Landstuhl and Ramstein. This band constituted the last defense before Kaiserslautern.
Unlike its expensive French neighbor, the Siegfried Line was not a continuous line of forts. Although it was designed to provide mutually supporting fire, there were far too many gaps in the defensive positions. By 1939, only 30 percent of the planned defenses were complete. Further complicating completion was the transfer of responsibility for the Siegfried Line from the army to the highway ministry. Much of the Siegfried Line was built in such haste that many bunkers and pillboxes were placed improperly. National Socialist Labor Corps units constructed bunkers and tank traps with abandon. Most consideration was given to areas closer to main roads, where they were afforded easy access. In a 1938 tour of the frontier forts, Hitler was impressed by the number of pillboxes visibly dotting the hills. The truth, however, was that dozens of other natural corridors were overlooked in favor of those that could be viewed by high-ranking Nazi officials.
Prior to the invasion of Poland, the German army had little difficulty providing soldiers for the Siegfried Line since the defense of the German western frontier was a priority during Hitler’s acquisition of Austria and Czechoslovakia. Operations in Poland, however, required a substantial effort, and Westwall fortress units were absorbed into regular army units. The hollow Westwall left the Kaiserslautern Gap virtually defenseless.
The French army certainly had the strength to move on Kaiserslautern. Along the entire German border, 85 French divisions stood against 34 Nazi divisions. Of those German divisions, all but 11 were reserve units. The French, however, were unaware of the favorable balance of forces. Furthermore, the French generally were unsupportive of another European war, and the morale of the army was at an all-time low.
French civilians were not pleased with the prospect of another war so close to France. World War I had nearly destroyed an entire generation and irreparably disrupted French society. There was also the matter of the devastation that would be wrought on French towns near the combat zone. French territory near the Saar had been virtually untouched at the end of World War I because the area was then part of Germany and distant from the Verdun, Somme and Argonne killing grounds. As a result, few of the homes, factories, mines, roads and bridges in the Saar region suffered any damage. Now that France’s frontier had moved eastward, it seemed likely that this area was in a position to become devastated by war.
The day the French army marched into Germany, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) landed in France. Although the British military was not quite ready to take on the Wehrmacht, British leaders were eager for some sort of action. Winston Churchill, then head of the British Admiralty, proposed floating mines down the Rhine River. The French, however, protested that the Germans would retaliate and blast the Seine River bridges. In the British House of Commons there was equal hesitancy to aggressively conduct the war. When it was suggested that the Black Forest be bombed to create uncontrollable fires in Germany, British Secretary of State for Air Sir Kingsley Wood protested on the grounds that such attacks would be perpetrated against private property. Additionally, French Premier Eduard Daladier requested that the British Royal Air Force (RAF) refrain from bombing Germany. It was fast becoming a gentlemen’s war, with the Germans operating as such out of operational necessity and the French out of timidity.
Unlike the mass-produced machines of the Luftwaffe, French aircraft were virtually hand assembled and in short supply, though they were still formidable in the hands of experienced pilots. The French air force was prohibited from flying missions into Germany despite its capabilities. Had French military leaders realized that the Luftwaffe was wholly involved in the east, the Anglo-French air effort might have been more aggressive. In the west, the Luftwaffe was limited to a few antiquated fighters, many of which were biplanes. The bulk of Messerschmitt Me-109 fighters available were based in the north, protecting the industrial Ruhr and naval facilities. The greatest amount of aerial activity during the period, which came to be known as the “Phony War,” was conducted by Germans flying reconnaissance missions.
Throughout what most of the German high command viewed as a crisis in the Saar, Hitler surprisingly maintained a “wait and see” attitude. Generally appearing unconcerned with the activity in the west, Hitler was actually curious as to French conduct. He wanted to test whether the Siegfried Line could withstand an all-out attack. Additionally, in the event of a French move toward the Ruhr through Luxembourg or Belgium, he had some concern whether a German counterattack by forces returning from Poland could eject the French from German soil. Somewhat gleefully, Hitler saw the Saar incursion as provocation for operations in the west.
Hitler’s curious attitude toward events was evidenced on September 7, when he appointed General Kurt Freiherr von Hammerstein commander of Army Detachment A, an ad hoc force for the defense of the Siegfried Line. In selecting Hammerstein, who was overdue for retirement and given no real authority over his forces, Hitler ensured that there would be no German initiative in the threatened sectors. Hitler believed that the French had attacked where the Westwall was the strongest, and he realized the French had failed to capture one major German town or do battle with German units despite their territorial gains. So meekly threatened was Saarbrücken, the industrial hinge of the Saar, that the mills and factories continued to operate. The only shots taken at Saarbrücken were made by telephoto camera lenses in Maginot outposts on hills dominating the city.
Gamelin grew increasingly suspicious of the continuing German inactivity. Misinterpreting the lack of response, the French general directed his commanders to maintain their distance from the Siegfried Line and plan for a quick withdrawal to the dominating Spicheren Heights in France. Politically it was also the safest course. Further advance into Germany meant abandoning the expensive Maginot Line.
By September 12 the sluggish French offensive reached its peak–a 5-mile penetration into Germany. It was increasingly apparent that the closer lead French elements got to the Westwall, the more cautiously they advanced. In one village, a single German machine gun held up the French advance for more than a day. With such delays the Saar foray dwindled into a confused demonstration.
Events in the east prompted the eventual French withdrawal. On September 17 the Soviet army invaded Poland. Clearly, this European war was fast becoming a world war. The Saar was no longer a focal point, and the French hatched new schemes to defeat the Germans and Russians on battlefields far from France. The German and Soviet governments launched separate peace campaigns. Outright rejection of these peace initiatives and an escalation of hostilities by the French would seemingly invite world war. There was also the danger that the Italians would join the conflict.
Gamelin commented that the whole Saar operation was no more than a “little test.” With 35 Polish divisions shattered just one week after the German invasion, the French military concluded that it was only a matter of time before resources would be diverted to the west. Gamelin issued secret Personal Instruction No. 4, ordering his forces to discontinue their advance.
On September 21 Gamelin renounced any prospect of continuing the offensive and ordered that the French army should withdraw to the Maginot Line in the event of a German counterattack. Not all of the French commanders agreed with this assessment. General Henri Giraud, commander of the Seventh Army, saw an almost unbelievable opportunity for French forces in the Saar. He believed a corps could have seized the area between Saarbrücken and Trier. Such a move not only would prove an embarrassment to Germany but also would secure the Metz Corridor into France and open avenues to further operations toward the Rhine in the direction of Koblenz or Mannheim. In either case, it seemed possible that French forces would be able to reach the Rhine.
The German high command sheepishly conceded Hitler’s assessment of French reluctance. When Poland’s fate was sealed, German troops were able to shuttle to the west. General von Hammerstein was relieved of his impotent command without ceremony, and the Westwall garrisons relaxed.
German General Siegfried Westphal agreed that the situation in the west was perilous and estimated that the French could have reached the Rhine in two weeks if they had tried. The French command feared otherwise. German artillery now had the range of forward elements of the Maginot Line, and Luftwaffe fighter planes were returning to the western skies. French commanders, with their backs to the Maginot Line, obligingly withdrew.
On September 30 the French army was secretly ordered to retreat to its homeland, the movement to be conducted at night. The withdrawal was as sluggish as the advance had been. It was not until October 17 that the last French screening forces departed German territory.
Witzleben’s German First Army, reinforced by an infantry division, launched a general attack on October 16 that did little more than roll up a few French rear-guard units. The counteroffensive lasted until October 24. The First Army crossed into France and thus became the first German military force do to so since August 1914. The Germans continued their uncontested advance and occupied a sliver of French territory a full five months before the May 10, 1940, blitzkrieg that hammered the country. A French communiqué announced a German attack in strength, with later reports that the enemy had suffered severe losses. The Germans, in fact, listed a total of only 198 killed in that action.
France’s 14-day opportunity to thwart the Third Reich concluded the only French offensive of the war and signaled the beginning of the Phony War. Worse, the inexplicable French lethargy in the Saar doomed France to defeat seven months later and guaranteed four years of Nazi occupation.
Kevin R. Austra is a former U.S. Army officer. Further reading: The Collapse of the Third Republic, by William L. Shirer; and Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk, by Len Deighton.[ TOP ] [ Cover ]