German Western Offensive: French Refugees (June 1940)


Figure 1.--This wire service photo appeared in American newspapers. The caption read, "Exhausted French boy sleeping in Annie Morgan's shelter." Annie Morgan was an American who set up a centre in Bellac France to help with the number of refugees who arrived in the area from Alsace after the German invasion in 1940.

The French people were aprehensive about the War but most felt safe behind the vaunted Maginot Line and the French Army which was widely regarded by many as the most powerful in Europe. The French evacuated people from Alsace. This changed quickly after the German break through in the Ardennes and crossing the Meuse (May 10-15). Civilians began heading south, convinced that the the French Army would stop the Germans again as they did in World War I. French roads became clogged with refugees. Cars pilled with matresses and furniture tied to the roofs and packed with the entire family. There were also carts of all kinds. Many people were on foot. Most headed for Paris. Welfare facilities were overwealmed with the number of refugees. Families tried to stay together, but this was not always possible. Parents were in some cases killed ior injured. In other instances, families were separated in the growing chao. As panic spread the numbers only increased. The refugees made it difficult for the French Army to move forces forward to restablish the front. And the Luftwaffe stafed the regugee filled roads to create further chaos. The fast moving Panzers were beyond anything that General Gamelin, who was still using couriers rather than radio to communicate, was capable of confronting. Rommel as he drove to the Channel, wrote, "We passed refugee columns, the carts abandoned by their owners, who had fled in panic into the fields." Such a disaster had not been anticipated. After Dunkirk the Germans turned south. Now Parisians began to pour out of the city in large numbers and head south to escape the advancing Germans. Trains carried refugees south as well as vehicles of every sort. Huge numbers of people were involved. And there was no provisions or accomodations for the refugees. The French Governmrnt was debating what to do. Prenier Renard wanted to resist from North Africa. General Weygand and Petain objected. In the mean time the French people did not know what to do.

Pre-War Refugees (1933-39)

Large numbers of refugees had fled to France before the War. This began when the NAZIs seized power in Germany (1933). Jews has begun to seek refuge in France. Beginning with the NAZI take over in Germany (1933), Jews sought refuge in other countries. The refugees included large numbrrs of Jews, at first from Germany and then Austria and Czechoslovakia. At first the NAZIs did not restrict Jewish emigration, they encouraged it. The problem for the Jews was finding a country willing to accept them. France was one of the most willing countries. As German persecution escalated, the numbers increased. The Austrian Auschluss and Kristalnacht increased the number of Jews seeking refuge. And Germany was not the only country persecuting Jews. Because of the numbers involved, the French began restricting immigration. Internment camps were set up for them. When France fell to the NAZIs (June 1940), more than 180,000 Jewish refugees were in France, many in internment camps. There were also many non-Jewish anti-NAZIs. The largest numbers of refugees came from the south--refugees from the Spanish Civil War. The Nationalists conquered Catalonia in a rapid campaign (January-February 1939). Madrid fell (March 1939). As Franco's Nationalists were shooting the men who fought for the Republic, large numbers of Republicans and there families sought refuge in France. An estimate 0.5 million Spaniards sought refuge in France. Many trekked through the high mountain passes of the Pyrenees (February 1939). As the War approached, France was having increasing problems caring for them. Many were being housed in camps located throughout the country. Newsreels showed refugees crossing the mountainous countryside along the French-Spanish frontier. Lines of refugees made their way into French borders town having come over the mountains; women and children followed by men. The camps set up by the French would become under Vichy rule concentration camps.

Public Attitudes During the Phony War (September 1939-April 1940)

The French people were aprehensive about the War but most felt safe behind the vaunted Maginot Line and the French Army which was widely regarded by many as the most powerful in Europe. The Germans invaded Poland and did not attack in the West. Hitler was actually suprised that the British and French declard War. The result was the Phoney War (September 1939-April 1940).

Evacuee Children (September 1939)


Evacuation of Alsace (September 1939)

The French evacuated people from Alsace. Alsace had been seized by the Germans in he Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). many alsatians were German speaking and the Germans expelled the French, but not the native Alsatians. Aftr World War I (1914-18), Alace was retuned to France and the French expelled the Germans, but also not the Alsatians. With the outbreak of World War II, the French assumed that Alsace in northeast France in the German border would be a major battleground. The French evacuated Strasbourg. French authorities ordered the Strasbourgeois leave their homes and belongings. Families were split up. The Strasbourgeois refugees wre sent to Dordogne (90,000 refugees) and Indre (30,000 refugees).

German Offensive (May 10, 1940)

The French feeling of security changed quickly after the German launched their Western Offensive (May 10). A German feint in the north drew the BEF and French Fifrst Army north. Than the main body of the German forces struck kin the ardennes. The Frenmch believed that the Ardennes was impassible for German tanks. Theu were provenn wrong. The French surrendered Sedan virtually without a fight. Within days they break through in the Ardennes and crossing the Meuse (May 15-17).

Waves of Refugees from the North (May 1940)

Belgian French civilians began heading south immediately (May 10). They were soon followed by the French. Most were convinced that the the French Army would stop the Germans again as they had done in World War I. French roads became clogged with refugees. Cars pilled with matresses and furniture tied to the roofs and packed with the entire family. There were also carts of all kinds. Many people were on foot. The refugeeson the road made it difficult for the French Army to move forces forward to restablish a front. And the Luftwaffe stafed the regugee filled roads to create further chaos.

Paris Inundated (May 1940)

Most of the Belgian and northern French refugees at first headed for Paris. Paris is a large city with many churches, schools, hospitals and other facilities. Masses of refugees flowed into the city. Many were in terrible conditions, especially those arriving on foot. We have not yet been able to find data on th numbers involved. Welfare facilities in the city, however, were overwhelmed with the number of refugees arriving from the north. Caring for the children involved even greater problems than intact families. Families tried to stay together, but this was not always possible. In other instances, families were separated in the growing chaos. Parents were in some cases killed or injured. So there were both children temporarily separated from their families as well as orphaned children. As panic spread the numbers only increased. There was still hope that the Germans could be stopped.

German Drive to the Channel (May 17-20)

To the surprise of General Gamelin, the Germans after crossing the Meuse did not make for Paris, but instead headed for the Channel in an effort to cut off the BEF, Belgians Army and French First Army, the most effective formation in gthe French Army. The fast moving Panzers were beyond anything that General Gamelin, who was still using couriers rather than radio to communicate, was capable of confronting. Rommel as he drove to the Channel, wrote, "We passed refugee columns, the carts abandoned by their owners, who had fled in panic into the fields." Such a disaster had not been anticipated by the French people. The German Panzers reached the Channel at Abbeville (May 20)

Germans Drive South (June 4)

After Dunkirk (May 26-June 4) and a brief respite, the Germans turned south. Now Parisians began to pour out of the city in large numbers and head south to escape the advancing Germans. Trains carried refugees south as well as vehicles of every sort. Huge numbers of people were involved. And there was no provisions or accomodations for the refugees. Paris had trouble dealing with the refugees. Small towns and villages were simply overwealmed.

Refugee Children

The Germans launched their long awaited Western Offensive first at the Low Lands (May 10). It was an enormous success and within days they were driving into the Ardennes and racing across northern France toward the Channel. Most of the fighting took place in Belgium and northern France. Refugees streamed south in long columns. They were used by the Germans to impede the movement of reinforcements to the front. There was intensive fighting in Belgium and northern France creating even more refugees. As most of the fighting occurred in the north, the refugee problem was generally limited to the north including Paris. As the Germans moved South after Dunkirk, the French Army put up only desultory resistance. As a result the fighting and refugee problem was more limited. We have very limited information on the French refugees during 1940 at this time. We do not know of a good source of information describing the refugee problem in detail.

French Government (June 1940)

The French Governmrnt was debating what to do. They evacuated Oaris and declared it an open cvity. The Germans entered Paris (June 14). Prenier Renard wanted to resist from North Africa. General Weygand and Petain objected. What the French did was critical. They were defeated, but continued resistance would buy the British time. Invasion and air operations over Britain were possible during the summer (July-September), but after September the Germans woukd have to delay offensive operations because of the weather. This does not seem to have entered into Petain's thinking. In the mean time the French people did not know what to do. The French government joined the fleeing mass of refugees and after moving south to, and then abandoning several locations. They finally ended up in the spa city of Vichy, largely because it had manyb hotels.

Armistice (June 22)

After Dunkirk, the Germans turned the Panzers south. It is soon apparent that the French Army is broken and will not be able to hold. Refugeees flow out of Paris to the south. The French declared Paris an open city. The Germans entered Paris (June 14). Prime Minister Reynaud asked the British Government to release France from its commitment not to make a separate peace with Germany (June 16). Churchill offered a union of France and Britain. The French Government rejected the offer. [Freidel, p. 337.] French Prime Minister Reynaud resigned (June 16). He was replaced by Marshall Pétain, the hero of Verdun in World War I. The French ask to be released from the commitment to Britain not to make a separate peace. Pétain immediately asked for an armistace (June 17). France capitulated (June 22). Hitler had found the railroad car in which the Germans had signed the World War I Armistace (1918). The armistace was signed at Compiègne. France was thus out of the War and Britain now faced the Germans alone. The terms of the Armistice were dictated by the Germans. They were harsh, but not as harsh as some had anticipated. The Germans treat France vert ifferently than Poland.The terms of the June 1940 armistace between Germany and France divided France into an occupied and unoccupied zone, with a rigid demarcation or boundary line between the two. The unoccupied zone becoes known as Vichy as aew capital is established there. The French had to agree to hand over anyone the Germans wanted. Former Primeminister Reynaud was among those detained. And the French had to pay for the cost of the occupation.

Refugees Return Home

Hitler decided on a relatively moderate, correct if budensome occupation of France. He had two goals in mind. First, he wanted to encourage the British to surrender and show them that advantageous terms could be negotiated. Second, he wanted to return the French economy to normal operations as soon as possible so hev could begin to exploit it for the German war effort. The correct behavior of German troops encouraged the desperate Belgian and French refugeees living in squalor to return home.

Sources

Freidel, Frank. Franklin D. Roosevelt: Rendezuous with Destiny (Little Brown: Boston, 1990), 710p.





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Created: 7:05 AM 9/15/2009
Last updated: 1:31 PM 6/5/2013