Key point: France had been preparing for the last war, while Germany moved ahead.
In May 1940, the German Wehrmacht launched a lightning attack into France and within weeks destroyed the combined French and British armies. The rapid defeat is typically ascribed to a combination of the French High Command’s attempts to refight the methodical battle of World War I against Germany’s adoption of new mobile, all-arms warfare. Those philosophical factors certainly played a major role in the outcome, but something much more elemental and human may have been the deciding factor: fearless, intelligent and sometimes ruthless leadership at the point of contact.
In light of the dramatic collapse of the French armed forces in 1940, it is hard to imagine that up until that point they had been recognized—including by the Germans—as the military masters of Europe. France had emerged victorious over the Germans in the Great War, and imposed the Treaty of Versailles on Berlin, a punitive, humiliating armistice. In the first decade following the war, Germany had been limited to no more than one hundred thousand soldiers, no armored vehicles, and only one hundred “search and rescue” aircraft. France, on the other hand, rebuilt its armed forces following World War I, and in the early 1930s embarked on a major modernization drive, motorizing many of its infantry divisions and beginning to form armored units.
Focused on preventing another German incursion into French territory, Paris had formed a military doctrine giving primacy to the defensive. The intent was to first blunt any invasion, and once the enemy had been sufficiently weakened, to transition to the offensive. In support of this philosophy, they built the now infamous Maginot Line of extensive defensive pillboxes and other heavily defended fortifications between France and her western neighbors. Senior officers of the High Command were confident their doctrine and defensive preparations would be successful against any German attack, most especially Commander of the Second French Army, Gen. Charles Huntziger.