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The offensive began on 10 May 1940, with commandos and Abwehr already active in the Netherlands and Belgium. Army Group B's 18th Army, with nine divisions plus airportable and parachute troops, attacked the neutral Netherlands, rapidly overwhelming the inexperienced Dutch Army. With 250,000 men organised in ten poorly trained infantry divisions, the Dutch put up an unexpectedly spirited defence, but surrendered on 15 May following the bombing of Rotterdam.

Germany, 1939. A Sanitätsunteroffizier in M1935 undress uniform with the M1935 other ranks' field cap and Medical Corps red-cross armband, instructs in first-aid infantry stretcher-bearers, who wear black on white Hilfskrankenträger armbands. (Brian Davis Collection)

Luxembourg fell on 10 May to 16th Army, its 82-man 'Volunteer Company' offering only token resistance. The same day Army Group A, joined by 6th Army from Army Group B, began its advance through neutral Belgium, spearheaded by an airborne attack on Fort Eben-Emael. The 600,000-strong Belgian Army, organised in 18 infantry, two mountain and two cavalry divisions, supported by British and French troops, initially resisted strongly. Its morale declined as it retreated before the relentless German advance, led by the powerful Panzergruppe von Kleist's surprise outflanking attack through the supposedly impenetrable Ardennes hill country. On 28 May the Belgian Army surrendered.

Two NCOs in undress uniform with M1935 field greatcoats having field rations in Germany, September 1939. Note the NCOs sword-knot attached to the bayonet of the Feldwebel (right), the absence of shoulder-strap numbers, and the regulation mess-tins. (ECPA)

The Battle of France

On 16 May Army Groups A and B began to advance into France. They were confronted by the 4,320,000-strong French Army, organised in Army Groups 1-3, with eight armies composed of 38 infantry, one fortress, nine motorised, three light mechanised, four light cavalry, and three armoured divisions, a total of 87 divisions, supported by nine British, one Czechoslovak and four Polish infantry divisions.

A force of nine Panzer divisions, comprising Panzergruppe von Kleist, XV Corps and General der Panzertruppen Heinz Guderian's XIX Corps (redesignated Panzergruppe Guderian on 1 June) with the Groβdeutschland Motorised Regiment, burst through the French 1st Army Group at Sedan, reaching the Channel coast on 22 May. Concerned that the unit, containing almost all Germany's armoured troops, had outrun its logistical tail and supporting infantry, and was vulnerable to an Allied counterattack, Von Rundstedt ordered a halt on 23 May, allowing the Allies to evacuate 338,226 British, French and Belgian troops from Dunkirk from 27 May to 4 June.

On 5 June Army 'Operation Red' commenced. Army Group B advanced along the French Channel and Atlantic coasts, stopping before Bordeaux on 22 June, while A headed through central France and C forced the Maginot Line. The French Army signed an armistice on 25 June. Eupen and Malmédy districts in Belgium were annexed and joined Wehrkreis VI, Luxembourg and Lorraine Wehrkreis XII, and Alsace Wehrkreis V. Northern, western and eastern France was occupied, leaving central and southern France unoccupied as a nominally independent French state under Held Marshal Pétain.

The verdict on Blitzkrieg

The Blitzkrieg period had restored the reputation of the German armed forces, but weaknesses had emerged. Success had confirmed Hitler's belief in his own genius and the corresponding inferiority of his professional generals. Jealousy between the OKW, the Wehrmacht High Command, and the OKH, the Army High Command, exacerbated by the fact that Hitler controlled both, led to a division of authority. The Danish and Norwegian campaigns were controlled by OKW, and the Polish and Western campaigns by OKH. Panzergruppe Kleist's classic Blitzkrieg tactics had proved brilliantly successful, but the infantry performance in Norway had been less decisive. Finally, the swift advances of the Blitzkrieg had enabled large numbers of enemy troops to evade capture and organise themselves as guerrilla armies, a constant threat to the German occupation authorities.

Poland, September 1939. Dispatch riders in field uniform. They wear M1934 rubberised greatcoats, with shoulder-straps removed for security, and M1935 dispatch-cases. Their M1916 helmets were already obsolete but were still widely encountered in the early years of the war. (Brian Davis Collection)

The Armies of Occupation

The Army established transit prisoner-of-war camps (Dulags) in occupied territory which collected enemy POWs before transfer to the officer camps (()flags) and other-rank camps (Stalags). They were organised by each Wehrkreis and guarded by Landesschützen units unfit for front-line combat.

Occupied territories were placed under military governments - Poland under the General-Gouvernement (until September 1942); Denmark (from August 1943); Belgium-Northern France. The rest of occupied France was organised under Militärbefehlshaber (Army Governors), and Netherlands and Norway under Wehrmacht-befehlshaber (Armed Forces Governors). Each governor controlled regimental-level district commands (Oberfeldkommandanture), which in turn were subdivided into battalion-level sub-districts (Feldkommandanture) and then into smaller metropolitan, urban or rural commands.

In addition three conquered territories had occupation armies. Norway, from December 1940, had 'Norway Army' (Armee Norwegen) made up of three, sometimes four Corps. The Netherlands, from June 1942, had LXXXVIII Corps. Army Groups A, B and C remained in Occupied France, to be replaced in October 1940 by Army Group D with 1st, 7th and 15th Armies.

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