The Dark Side Part III Chapter V - Fritz the Cat

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Dark side three Chapt. Five

(Page 604).  The first days of the German invasion of France, which started on May 10, 1940, were a catalog of "what ifs" and "if onlys", but decisive was not this or that missed opportunity by the French, but their feeble efforts at modernization and their dim awareness of the lessons of Poland, which should have been well drilled into the French commanders in the intervening seven months.  I won’t detail the events, the book is there for anyone to read, and it would only belabor the point I’ve already made: France’s role in world war two was not to stop the NAZI war machine, but to add to it, as actually happened; not to overthrow Germany, but to overthrow Russia.

(Page 688).  Given the facts of the military debacle, Premier Reynaud finally replaced Daladier as  minister of defense, and general Gamelin as supreme commander, but their replacements were ill chosen.  The new supreme commander was to be general Maxime Weygand, and Reynaud named Marshal Petain as vice-premier.  Both were old men who had risen to glory in the first world war, and both had anti-republican sentiments.  Both were held up as banners to which the nation could rally, but that was hardly what was needed.

(Page 694).  When Weygand took over it is possible that immediate, decisive action could have turned the tide.  The old French general’s bugaboos about letting the tanks get too far ahead of the troops could have been vindicated had they closed the gap between the rapidly advancing panzers and the lagging motorized infantry, cutting the Panzers supply line.  Indeed, Hitler and his generals agonized over this through much of the offensive.  But now, after two weeks of defeats the French high command was increasingly defeatist, and interested only in "saving the honor of the army".
(Page 730).  On the 25 th premier Reynaud flew to London to confer with Churchill.  At least some in the French high command begged him to convince Churchill to allow France to sign a separate peace treaty with Germany, contrary to a mutual pact.  He did not.  While he was in London a cabal formed with the objective of general Weygand’s assuming leadership.

On the 26 th another meeting of the French high command revealed another aspect of Weygand’s thinking: the necessity of saving the French army so it could be used to put down anarchy and revolution at home.  Petain held the same view.  With Petain and Weygand in the cabal were Paul Baudouin, who Reynaud had made his secretary of the war cabinet, and Camille Chautemps, deputy premier under Reynaud and leader of the Radical Party.  Soon to join was Pierre Laval, whom they mistrusted, but who was in secret touch with marshal Pétain.

Also on May 26 British expeditionary force, given German advances and French inaction, was ordered to retreat to Dunkirk, the last port held by the Allies.  Also on that day and Belgian government withdrew to Dunkirk and departed for Britain, without King Leopold, who could not be convinced that he could be of more use to Belgium free and in Britain than as a prisoner of Hitler.  This young king had declared neutrality and defected from the British-French Belgium alliance in 1936, and forbidden the French army entry into Belgium until Hitler had actually crossed the border, much too late.  His refusal to join the government in exile and his surrender to Hitler caused enough hostility that he chose exile in Switzerland after the war.  When he finally returned, in 1950, angry demonstrations drove him out after only 10 days, and he abdicated the flavor of his son.

General Lord Gort, head of the British expeditionary force, had warned London on May 19 that an evacuation of troops from Dunkirk might eventually be necessary.  The French were not immediately informed.  This, along with the initial refusal of some British ships to accept French soldiers when the evacuation began on May 26 led the French to believe they were being abandoned.  On May 31 Churchill flew to Paris to reassure the French and give orders to his own commanders to treat the French equally.  In the end some 338,000 troops were evacuate in from Dunkirk, some 120,000 of them French.  French general Weygand’s delay in ordering the retreat to Dunkirk must account for some of the imbalance in the numbers, but the French have long remained bitter that the British went first.  The last of the troops were evacuated in the early hours of June 3.

(Page 754).  On May 23 German general von Rundstedt , commander of army group eight, gave orders for a pause in the armored attack on Dunkirk.  The next day, over the violent objections of the German army chief, general von Brauchitsch, and his general staff chief, general Halder, Hitler ordered the tanks to a halt.  The terrain leading to Dunkirk was crisscrossed with canals, and some of it was swampy, and better suited to the German infantry.  The canal line where the Germans halted was lightly defended and had they kept going that surely would have overrun Dunkirk in two days.  On May 26 Hitler rescinded his order and the German advance continued the next day, but against a reinforced defense.  The Allies had to leave all their artillery, tanks, and heavy equipment.  They had lost 61 divisions, nearly half of the total they had started with three weeks earlier.

(Page 760).  General Weygand, now with half the troops Hitler commanded, decided to hold the line behind the Somme river.  This 650 mile front would necessarily be thinly manned, and would invite the same tank breakthrough France had just experienced.  He knew that this line would be penetrated, and his army broken into pieces, making further active resistance impossible.  Other generals voiced concern and urged a retreat to form a shorter, more defensible front, with a war of maneuver and if necessary a retreat into North Africa in mind.  Weygand rejected that advice.

On June 5, the day the German offensive on the Somme began, premiere Reynaud shook up his cabinet.  Apparently his mistress, the Countess de Portes, had a hand into selecting who was to stay and who was to replace those let go.  Though he fired some of the defeatists, he retained the two principle ones, Weygand and Petain (he dared not fire them), and appointed several that, as the author states, "he was soon to regret".  The battle of the Somme was essentially over in four days. France lost half the troops it had started with, and the Germans were within 40 miles of Paris.

(Page770).  Weygand and Petain now advised Reynaud openly to ask Hitler for an armistice.  Reynaud would not.  With DeGaulle at his side he declared that the government would leave Paris, first for Bordeaux, and if necessary for the north African colonies, and even the south American Colonies.  On June 10 the government and high command left Paris, accompanied by an estimated eight million Parisians, about ½ the city’s population.

Churchill wanted the city to hold out in house to house resistance, as Leningrad and Stalingrad would later do.  When Reynaud and DeGaulle left Paris in the last hours of June 10, they surely knew that there would be no defense of Paris, in spite of considerable talk of it, because the high command had left for the south of the day before.  The city’s petroleum reserves were set on fire, but its vast industrial plant was left intact, and within weeks would be turning out tanks and guns for the Nazis.

And now a word from our sponsor.
If one looks at conventional history with a jaundiced eye, and focus on events that are usually passed over lightly, shapes can begin to shift, and the familiar become uncanny.  Earlier I looked it Hitler’s various diplomatic victories, gained so easily, all resting on the slender reed of Hitler’s honor, when his  whole history was one of dishonor.  The diplomats fattened Hitler up like a Peking duck with the Rhineland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland.  The French generals who had been adamant that a tank army could never advance too far in front of its infantry watched, as if paralyzed, while Hitler’s tanks did exactly that.  The panzers broke the Allied lines on a 30 mile front and stormed ahead, leaving a near vacuum in their wake.  It was two days before the German infantry occupied that gap.  During those two days the official history is that the old French generals let slip that opportunity through indecisiveness or a breakdown in communications.

At this point premier Reynaud chose to replace the commander of the army.  Days were wasted when hours were crucial, and in the end the new team was no better than the old.  Hitler and Stalin had been ruthless in trimming the deadwood from their officer corps, putting drive and ambition ahead of past glory.

Daladier and Reynaud were both, to some degree at least, controlled by their mistresses.  Both mistresses came from high bourgeois families and married into an old family of the nobility.  Were the politicians in total thrall to the power of the purse?  Were the mistresses relaying commands from the powers that be to the powers that appeared to be?
All this would be water under the bridge were it not for the nagging doubt that perhaps that tragedy is being replayed.  Will Putin be given further conquests to sharpen his appetite?  Will the Hitler-Stalin pact be repeated somehow in a Putin China pact, or Putin Iran pact, or all three together?  Will sanctions against Russia or Iran push them into doing something foolish before their strength is further drained?  As of yesterday (August 30, 2014) Russian troops were definitely in eastern Ukraine, and Western Ukraine was being sized up for NATO membership.  Will it be betrayed a la Czechoslovakia?  But back to our story.

(Page 780).  The French government and high command drove all night long on a road packed with refugees.  At dawn they reached the river Lorie and dispersed to the variable castles and chateaux round about.  Churchill was asked to confer twice, on June 11 and again on June 13.  The second time he was accompanied by Lords Halifax and Beaverbrook.  At the first meeting general Weygand bemoaned the sorry state of the French army’s position, and all but declared for an armistice when Reynaud reminded him that that was a question for the gov’t, not the military, to decide.  Reynaud did ask Churchill, hypothetically, what the British position would be in the event of such an occurrence.  Churchill replied that Britain would nevertheless fight on, from her Colonies if necessary, adding that a France out of the war would be included in a blockade of the continent.

In those few days the group surrounding Weygand and Petain became firmer, and the group around Reynaud, including Reynaud himself, became weaker.  Reynaud had brought his mistress with him, and she became increasingly bold in her interventions.

(Page 8O3).  On June 14 the gov’t and many of the refugees moved on to Bordeaux, a port city that had also been the temporary seat of government in 1871 and 1917 during the two previous German threats to Paris.  The mayor was a fascist sympathizer and made space for the defeatist faction in the best hotels, where intrigues against Reynaud began to gather momentum.  The military was defeatist and was tapping Reynaud’s telephone.  Key to their plans was admiral Darlan, commander in chief of the navy, for Hitler wanted the French navy, so far untouched, if not for his own use then at least neutralized so that it could not be used in the defense of Britain or by a French government in exile in Algeria.  Without the navy as a bargaining chip the defeatists knew that Hitler would demand unconditional surrender.
(Page 840).  Sunday, June 16 was the fateful day for Reynaud and the French Republic.  Reynaud was increasingly weary given the intrigue and persistence of the cabal against him.  Madame De Porte, Reynaud’s mistress, was everywhere, sticking her head into ministerial meetings, questioning people in hallways, scowling here, smiling there, brow beating the premier of the country.  She was not an attractive woman, that much was agreed.  Slightly overweight, smelly, untidy, what was her hold over the premier?  High bourgeoisie by birth, and married into the nobility, she represented the views of the classes that did not wish to see France fight to the bitter end, which would surely be destructive of much of their wealth.

Reynaud was under no legal obligation to step down.  Only an adverse vote of no confidence in the chamber or senate could do that, even then he could reshuffle the parliament and ask for another vote, and the parliament was so scattered no quorum existed, so no vote could be taken.  His cabinet was present and remained against an armistice to the end.  Yet at 10:00 PM the premier handed his resignation to President Lebrun, who then decided to ask Petain to form a government.  Petain soon arrived with a list of his ministers, prominent among them the members of the cabal against Reynaud.

(Page 845).  Brigadier General Charles De Gaulle met the British ambassador and the British military charge d’affaires around midnight.  He wanted to fly to Britain, fearful of arrests by the new government and wanting to form a government in exile.  He was the most junior of all the French generals, practically unknown in France, and had enemies in the new government.  Moreover, none of the other members of the old government wanted to form a government in exile.  The British flew him to London in the morning and presented him to Churchill.

Petain’s government was mostly established that night, including some men Petain barely knew.  The communist party, outlawed because of its support of the Soviet NAZI pact and opposition to the war, approved of the new gov’t.  The clandestinely printed Humanité called for an end to the fighting on June 17, and on July 4 call on the workers to fraternize more with the German soldiers.  After the German attack on Russia in 1941 they reversed their stand on the war and made it a holy crusade.

(Page 854).  At 12:30 PM on June 17 Petain broadcast a radio request to the French people to stop fighting.  During the night Spain had been asked to mediate the armistice, but no word from Hitler had yet been received.  The German generals naturally help to spread the word, dropping leaflets with the text of Petain’s speech from airplanes, broadcasting his speach over loudspeakers over no man’s land, releasing prisoners with bundles of leaflets, etc.  Deliriously happy troops abandoned their weapons, and officers were instructed to disarm their troops and confine them to barracks, on pain of court martial.

Next the French fleet came into focus, at least for Britain and the U.S..  On the 17 th of both informed France that at the least, the fleet must be moved to neutral ports, future cooperation depending on it.  In addition the U.S.  froze all French assets in the U.S., and Churchill ordered his navy to sink the French Fleet should its captured or surrender to Germany seemed imminent.  The Atlantic Coast of the U.S. could be vulnerable to the combined German, Italian, and French fleets, the U.S. navy being occupied in the Pacific against Japan.  During the night of the 17th to 18th the French Admiralty sent orders to its naval bases that no warships must fall into NAZI hands.

On the afternoon of the eighth De Gaulle, speaking on the BBC, called on his countrymen not to give up the fight, but to retreat to the Colonies to continue.  The speech was heard by a few and had little effect, other than earning DeGaulle a death sentence, in abstentia, for desertion.  Soon all the leaders of the republican government, Reynaud, Daladier, even general Gamelin and President Lebrun, would be imprisoned and later turned over to the Germans.

(Page 682).  Early on the 19 th the Spanish ambassador brought Hitler’s reply to Boudouin, Petain’s foreign minister.  Hitler said he had a location picked out and would inform the French as soon as he had a list of the French representatives.  No parliamentarian wanted the job, and in the end military men were ordered to do it.  Hitler also had his mind on the French fleet.  Above all he did not want it in British hands, but he was afraid to demand it be turned over to Germany, lest the French balk at peace over it.  Securing it in a neutral port would be sufficient.

On the 18 th and Petain proclaimed all cities over 20,000 to be open cities, and that no bridges or rail yards be destroyed.  This while 2/3 France was still unoccupied.  Moreover, General Colson, the new minister of war, prohibited the withdrawal of all civil and military officials from their posts, ordering them to await the arrival of the German, to whom they surrendered with relief.  Some soldiers who tried to escape (from their own officers!) were arrested by the military police.

The retreating soldiers, without officers, who had been the first to flee, sometimes drunk, regularly looted the towns they passed through, resulting in citizens often welcoming the German troops who quickly restore order.  Local citizens sometimes prevented troops from blowing bridges.  Officers wanting to resist German advances were killed by the populace or their own troops.

(Page 878).  On June 21st the Germans gave France her armistice terms.  They were a harsh, but any pretention of resistance or negotiation was futile, having given up days before.  Predictably the French Fleet was uppermost in the minds of most.  The Germans demanded it be disarmed and secured in a French harbor, where it would be held and returned to France at the conclusion of peace talks.

The British were anxious and angry with France on many counts.  First their conclusion of a separate peace, the refusal to consult with Britain when they did negotiate with Germany, and by taking Hitler’s word that the French Fleet would not be seized.  British Ambassador Campbell would have been kept in ignorance of the armistice terms if one of France’s senators, Francois Charles Roux, had not gone behind the back of his government to give him a copy.  Toward midnight of the 22nd Ambassador Campbell took his leave of Bordeaux, having been ordered not to let himself fall into the hands of the approaching Germans.

(Page 864).  Interwoven with contentions regarding the French Fleet was the questions of a retreat to North Africa to continue resistance to Germany.  On June 18th the parliament decided to go to Algiers to continue the government.  General Weygand objected vigorously, fearing it could interfere with the armistice.  Late on the 19 th France telephoned its Spanish intermediary that unless Hitler allowed France some free territory, the control the forces calling for further resistance would carry the day.  Departure preparations were nearing completion on the 20th when Raphael Alibert, vice council to Petain, lied to the parliament, saying that Pétain had ordered them to stay.  He then forged an order on Petain’s personal stationary confirming the lie.

(Page 892).  When word of the armistice first got to Algiers on the 17 th  the local military commander, general Nogues, sent a telegram to general Weygand that bordered on insubordination, demanding the right to continue resistance.  Weygand recalled him to France, but Nogues refused to go.  Nogues then gave the order to all French troops in unconquered ports to board ship with all the arms they could carry and sail for Algiers.  General Weygand countermanded that order as soon as he heard of it, on June 22.  General Nogues had sent three staff officers to France to scrounge up what troops and materiel they could, but the new minister of war had them arrested.

On June 22 General Weygand sent General  Koeltz to confer with General Nogues and ascertain his ability to resist Hitler.  After a brief meeting Nogues gave Koeltz a list of all arms he needed and Koeltz returned and reported to Weygand, or so Koeltz swore under oath and on his word of honor as an officer to the parliamentary investigation committee on the Vichy government after the war.  General Weygand insists that Koeltz reported directly to the Petain parliament that general Nogues  admitted that he could not hold off a German invasion.  Weygand did not share a telegram Nogues had sent him about the situation with either the parliament or president Lebrun.  He did share a telegram of June 25th in which Nogues all but refused to obey Weygand’s order to cease resistance.  The skullduggery had its effect, the North Africa and command was dissolved and Nogues was sent back to Rabat.  The French generals of 1940 made the same mistake that the generals of 1934 had made:   greatly overestimating the German strength and greatly underestimating French strength.  In the words of   German general Halder’s diary, "it would have been impossible for Germany to conquer Britain and North Africa at the same time".

(Page 900).  On June 24 the fighting ended.  84,000 French soldiers had been killed in the 46 days of battle, 120,000 wounded, and 1.5 million made prisoner, a small fraction of world war one’s casualties.  On the 25 th Petain sounded the new line:  "Our defeat came because of our slackness….  I call on you first of all for intellectual and moral redress." On June 28 general Weygand chimed in:  "we must return to the cult and the practice of god, country, and family.  We need a new program, new men…"  At the end of June the French government moved into a new provisional capital in the so-called free zone and the Germans moved into Bordeaux.

The government set up its capital in Vichy, a chic spa with enough luxury hotels to accommodate the fleeing crowd.  Nice, France’s second city after Paris, was rejected because Herriot was mayor there and many of the armistice crowd despised him.  It was in Vichy that Laval accomplished his goal of ending the republican form of government and initiating a totalitarian form a government under the semi senile Petain.  It followed a path similar to that of Russia’s and Germany’s fall into totalitarianism: a lost war and a weak government with the rich afraid of losing everything.

Pierre Laval was the catalyst that precipitated all the fear and weakness of the republican side and all the fear and weakness of the fascist side.  Rumors were spread that general Weygand was preparing a military coup, and that Hitler would give better terms to a fascist government.  Parliamentarians were intimidated and shouted down by royalist and anti-republican bully boys from Paris.  The staunchest republicans were being held in North Africa after being tricked into thinking the government was moving there.  Lifelong socialist joined the new government, lured by a job or just worn down by the nervous tension of the past few weeks.

It is still debated in France whether all the constitutional provisions were observed in converting the democratic Republic into a one man dictatorship.  Certainly the parliament did vote itself into a long vacation, to be called back into session at Petain’s pleasure, which never came.  This vote came on July ninth and 10 th, 1940, a mere two months after German troops crossed into Belgium.

Laval achieved his goal of being the power behind the throne.  He sure that fascism under Germany was Europe’s destiny, and hoped that France would become Hitler’s favored vassal state.  He predicted, like so many in the new government, that Britain would fall within a month.

Laval and Petain were tried for treason after the war, convicted and sentenced to death.  Petain’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment on the island of Yeu, where he died in 1951 at the age of 96.  Laval was executed by firing squad, October 15, 1945, at the age of 62.  Admiral Darlan, for a time head of the Vichy government under Petain, was assassinated in Algiers in 1942.  The rest got off lightly.  DeGualle was made President at the end of the war, and was in and out of government until he chose to retire in 1969, at the age of 78.

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