An Axis Europe, 1939 – 1942

An Axis Europe, 1939 – 1942

The War in Western Europe: 1940-2


In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland. England and France quickly declared war on Germany for the act of aggression. Despite the war declarations, though, very little combat occurred between the Germans and the Allies for the first six months of World War II, aside from minor skirmishes on the border of France and Germany. For this reason, newspapers began to call World War II, the “Phoney War.” Then in the spring of 1940, Germany launched all-out blitzkrieg invasions of much of Western Europe, including Norway, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France. Between spring 1940 and early 1943, it looked as if Germany might indeed win World War II because of its superior technology, style of warfare, and military command. Despite the grim outlook, the Allies always hung on, determined to see the war to its bitter end.


Learning Objectives

  • Examine the factors that led to Nazi Germany’s occupation of much of Western Europe in 1940
  • Analyze the Allies’ responses to Nazi occupation of much of Western Europe


Key Terms / Key Concepts

Battle of Britain: aerial war between Britain and Germany from June – October, 1940 that resulted in a narrow British victory

Dunkirk evacuation: between May 26 and June 4, 1940, during World War II, the critical evacuation of over 300,000 Allied soldiers from the beaches and harbor of Dunkirk, France

Fall of France: French surrender to the Germans on June 22, 1940

Maginot Line: line of concrete fortifications, obstacles, and weapon installations that France constructed on the French side of its borders with Switzerland, Germany, and Luxembourg during the 1930s to deter German attack

RAF: Royal Air Force of Great Britain

The Blitz: the heavy bombing of London and other British civilian targets by the German air force in the fall of 1940

Vichy France: the French collaborationist government from 1940 – 44 in the southern half of France

“We Shall Fight on the Beaches”: powerful speech by Winston Churchill delivered after the evacuation of Dunkirk that committed Britain to see the war to its end


Nazi-Dominated Europe: 1940 – 1942




During the 1930s, the French constructed the Maginot Line, a series of fortifications along their border with Germany. This line was designed to deter a German invasion across the Franco-German border and funnel an attack into Belgium, where it would be met by the best divisions of the French Army. The area immediately to the north of the Maginot Line was covered by the heavily wooded Ardennes region, which French General Philippe Pétain declared to be “impenetrable” as long as “special provisions” were taken. The French commander-in-chief, Maurice Gamelin, also believed the area to be of limited threat, noting that it “never favored large operations.” With this in mind, the French Ardennes area was left lightly defended.


Map showing the famed, French Maginot Line of defenses. Using numerous columns of the Panzer tanks, the German tanks smashed through the woods in northern France (weaker fortifications), thus allowing German troops to avoid engaging the French army in areas more strongly defended.



The initial plan for the German invasion of France called for an encirclement attack through the Netherlands and Belgium, avoiding the Maginot Line. Erich von Manstein, then Chief of Staff of the German Army Group A, prepared the outline of a different plan and submitted it to the German High Command.  His plan suggested that Panzer tank divisions should attack through the Ardennes, then establish bridges on the Meuse River and rapidly drive to the English Channel. The Germans would thus cut off the Allied armies in Belgium and Flanders. This part of the plan later became known as the Sichelschnitt (“sickle cut”). After meeting with him on February 17, Adolf Hitler approved a modified version of Manstein’s ideas, today known as the Manstein Plan. Rather than engaging the Maginot Line head-on, the German army simply went around it.


The Invasion of France and the Low Countries


In April 1940, Germany successfully conquered and occupied Denmark in a day. Norway also soon fell to the Nazis. On May 10, 1940, Germany attacked Belgium and the Netherlands. Using tanks, their Stuka airplanes, and troops, the Germans quickly defeated Belgium and the Netherlands, setting up occupational governments after they conquered the countries. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) sent troops to bolster the failing armies of Belgium, the Netherlands, and France. But the German blitzkrieg strategy, combined with superior military equipment, quickly overran the Allied armies. By mid-May, they had forced the Allies to the English Channel and encircled them. Defeat seemed imminent. The best course of action, the Allied commands determined, was an evacuation at the French port city of Dunkirk, located six miles south of the Belgian border.


The Dunkirk Evacuation


The Dunkirk evacuation was one of the most dramatic, and remarkable moments for the Allies on the Western Front. The operation occurred after most of the surviving Belgian, British, and French armies were cut off and surrounded by the German army during the Battle of France. With the Nazi occupation of much of Western Europe, the rescue of these troops was essential. They were almost all that remained of the Allied forces, and the only significant resistance to Nazi Germany and its allies. In a speech to the House of Commons, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the events in France “a colossal military disaster,” saying “the whole root and core and brain of the British Army” had been stranded at Dunkirk and seemed about to perish or be captured.


Map showing the three shipping routes taken across the English Channel to the port of Dunkirk as part of the Dunkirk evacuation.


Beginning on May 26, 1940, the evacuation at Dunkirk began. Its goal was to rescue the 400,000 British, French, and Belgian soldiers trapped at the port. While the Allied soldiers waited, the German Stuka airplanes relentlessly bombed and strafed them, and bodies littered the beach. The British navy sent destroyers. The French sent additional destroyers, but neither country had enough ships to rescue the number of men awaiting them on the French coast. In a desperate plea, the British called on private sailors, fishermen, and anyone who owned a private boat to join the effort to rescue “the boys” trapped in France. More than 800 private vessels set sail between May 26 and June 4. Of the roughly 400,000 soldiers awaiting evacuation, nearly 340,000 were brought safely across the Channel to England. By luck, combined effort, and the ingenious, quick planning of the British, the Allied forces had been evacuated, but not defeated. Churchill commemorated the Dunkirk evacuation with a speech titled We shall Fight on the Beaches; his speech remains one of the strongest of the war because it presented strength and resignation at a point when the Allies were at their lowest.

…We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…


British troops, rescued from Dunkirk in May 1940, rest on a destroyer.


The Fall of France


As Churchill noted, an evacuation is not a victory. The Allies had been saved from complete destruction by the success at Dunkirk, but the war still raged. Most of Western Europe, and much of Eastern Europe, was under Nazi authority. Not long after their arrival in England, the thousands of French troops who were evacuated at Dunkirk were refreshed and redeployed to fight against the Nazis. Even across the English Channel, it was easy to understand that France could not withstand the German onslaught. On June 18, the Germans claimed Paris—only a month after their invasion began. By June 22, the French government had lost the will to fight. Utterly defeated, they surrendered to the Nazis. In a cruel twist of fate, the cease-fire was signed by the French in the very same train car, in the very same corner of France, in which the Germans had been forced to sign the 1918 cease-fire with France that ended World War I. Hitler himself decided upon the location to demonstrate Germany’s triumph over France.


Vichy France


Following the cease-fire, France was divided into two zones. The northern half of France, including Paris, was occupied and administered by Nazi Germany. The southern half operated under an independent French government headed by World War I hero, Marshal Philippe Pétain. This government bartered for independence in exchange for cooperating with the Nazis. Commonly, the southern government became known as Vichy France, and widely despised by the Allies for its collaboration with the Nazis, which included the arrests and deportations of French Jews. The government operated until June 1944, when the Allies successfully occupied all of France. In addition to the southern half of the country, Vichy France also governed in the French colonies in North Africa and the Mediterranean—an important point when the Allies launched invasions of North Africa.


Map showing the French Free Zone, better known as “Vichy France” in the southern part of the country.


The Battle of Britain


The Battle of Britain was an air war that occurred when the Royal Air Force (RAF) defended the United Kingdom against the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) attacks from June to October 1940. It is described as the first major campaign fought entirely by air forces.

The primary objective of the Nazi German forces was to push Britain into a negotiated peace settlement. In July 1940, the air and sea blockade began with the Luftwaffe mainly targeting coastal shipping convoys, ports, and shipping centers, such as Portsmouth. On August 1, the Luftwaffe was directed to achieve air superiority over RAF with the aim of incapacitating RAF Fighter Command. Twelve days later, it shifted the attacks to RAF airfields and infrastructure. As the battle progressed, the Luftwaffe also targeted factories involved in aircraft production and strategic infrastructure, eventually deploying terror bombs on areas of political significance and civilians.

By preventing the Luftwaffe’s air superiority over the UK, the British forced Adolf Hitler to postpone and eventually cancel Operation Sea Lion, a proposed amphibious and airborne invasion of Britain. However, Nazi Germany continued bombing operations on Britain, which became known as The Blitz.

Beginning September 7, 1940, London was systematically bombed by the Luftwaffe for 57 consecutive nights. More than one million London houses were destroyed or damaged and more than 40,000 civilians were killed, almost half of them in London. Ports and industrial centers outside London were also attacked. The main Atlantic sea port of Liverpool was bombed, causing nearly 4,000 deaths. The North Sea port of Hull, a convenient and easily found secondary target, was subjected to 86 raids; this resulted in a conservative estimate of 1,200 civilians killed and 95 percent of its housing stock destroyed or damaged. Other ports were also bombed, as were major British industrial cities.


German bomber over London, September 1940.


The failure to destroy Britain’s air defenses to force an armistice (or even outright surrender) is considered the Nazis’ first major defeat in World War II and a crucial turning point in the conflict. Several reasons have been suggested for the failure of the German air offensive. The Luftwaffe’s High Command did not develop a strategy for destroying British war industry; instead of maintaining pressure on any of them, it frequently switched from one type of industry to another. Neither was the Luftwaffe equipped to carry out strategic bombing; the lack of a heavy bomber and poor intelligence on British industry denied it the ability to prevail.

By the end of 1940, much of Western and Northern Europe was under German occupation. And for the next two years, most of Europe remained either allied to or under control of the Nazis. England remained the sole member of the Allies to be free of the Nazi yoke, protected by its ocean borders and German interests in Eastern Europe. The fall and winter of 1940 were perhaps the bleakest for the Allies, but it also solidified their will to fight to the end. Little could they suspect that the “end” would not come until more than four years later, in 1945.




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