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The Top 10 Books to Read about the Fall of France from the French Perspective

Updated on July 2, 2020

The Battle of France was one of the most decisive, brief, and cataclysmic military conflicts in human history, seeing Germany, in the span of a brief few 6 weeks, defeat the United Kingdom, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and above all else France. Where it had failed to do so over the course of 4 years barely two decades prior, now it won a crushing, and relatively painless victory over its adversaries, annihilating the proud French army, widely viewed as probably the most powerful and finest in the world. Since then, a whole host of different reasons have been advanced concerning the reason for the French defeat, and many books, papers, and theses written on the subject, and doubtless will continue to be for much time, until the nations of France and Germany themselves fade out of existence - and perhaps even afterwards, for we still after all study the battles and campaigns of the Romans or the Franks, long after they have vanished into dusty history books of the past. With such a plethora of sources available, it can make it difficult to get a true, good grasp of the subject, in a way which understands the scholarly material available upon the matter and gives a broad and well rounded picture of those sunny days of May 1940. This list is intended to give a depiction of the best books which exist on the topic, explaining why they are useful, and enabling the reader to have a reading list which can encompass this momentous event.

This list of books is focused on the French side of operations, so the reader is advised to look elsewhere for German books. This has meant that some otherwise excellent books such as The Blitzkrieg Legend: The 1940 Campaign in the West, don't appearon this list. Furthermore it is above all focused on military books although some general works do feature, and so volumes on political history are best for understanding the political developments which happened, although many of these books do touch on them and so taken as a whole they provide a good general understanding.

#10 - Strange Defeat

Strange Defeat, or L'Etrange Defaite, is one of the most important primary resources and studies on the Battle of France that exists. Marc Bloch, one of the most famous French historians, writing amidst the ashes of defeat, was able to create an account of the weaknesses of the French military, and indeed of French society as a whole, which continues to be relevant, widely cited, and critical to today. Reading Bloch's book can be an uncanny experience, as it so brilliantly adumbrates everything that later scholarship has added onto the topic. At the same time, it is one which is extremely difficult to read and is much more difficult to digest than later, secondary source books, and given Bloch's position in the rear areas, he doesn't have nearly as good of an understanding of the operational process of the battle as later military historians. For a primary source material and to wrap up your understanding of the era with a look at the perceived problems of broader French society, it is a good book - but one which can be treated as secondary to the most important volumes.

#9 - The Breaking Point: Sedan and the Fall of France

There is no doubt that it is an incredibly detailed and impressive piece of work, written by the highly renowned military historian Douglas Porch. If one wants a richly, meticulously, detailed account of Sedan and the operations around it, where the Germans broke the French lines and formed part of their breakthrough where they smashed to the Channel and sealed the fate of France, then The Breaking Point: Sedan and the Fall of France is it. At the same time, it is hyper specialized and is generally not needed to understand the broader depth of the campaign, in spite of its own individual utility. Thus, like Strange Defeat, it is a great book that forms an auxiliary role to broader and more useful tomes.

#8 - French Foreign and Defense Policy 1918-1940: The Decline and Fall of a Great Power

French and Defense Policy 1918-1940 is a book which unlike many of the other ones here harks back to a greater period of time than just the Battle of France in 1940 itself, and focuses upon the Interwar as a whole. However, even just about the Battle of France itself it includes important subjects of information, such as on French military intelligence on the Germans, French war strategy, and the Maginot Line, and French policy towards Germany in the years up to the crisis. It makes for a book which is well worth the read to gain a better general understanding of the conflict and discussing key aspects that other books deal with but lack the same degree of pre-war context.

#7 The Sources of Military Doctrine: Britain, France, and Germany in the Interwar

As with French Foreign and Defense Policy 1918-1920, this book is devoted to providing an overview and context to the strategic decisions and the organization of the French military - well, in this case, also the British and German. While it is not devoted to France specifically, and other books do a much better job of explaining the military aspect of France's doctrine - this one is much too broad - it nevertheless is of great use for gaining a general grasp of all of the participants involved in the conflict and what their respective organization and general strategic principles were. Importantly it also lavishes great attention on the why, enabling one to understand why different factions implemented their ideas, and in light of other books and their notes about French reliance upon coalition warfare and its negative factors for the French army it shows well why this was viewed as a good strategy by the French. However, the first several chapters are unnecessary to read, being byzantine political science ramblings.

#6 - Fortress France: The Maginot Line and French Defenses in World War II

The Maginot Line continues to live on in popular perception as a catastrophic military era, a stupid decision which cost the French the Battle of France through spending on obsolete concrete and static forts instead of on mobile forces and aircraft. This view, as many books argue convincingly, is wrong, and the Maginot Line formed an important part of the French strategy and doctrine, valiantly fulfilling its role and constituting an effective defense investment on the French part. To better understand the abilities, construction, nature, and operations of the Maginot Line, Fortress France: The Maginot Line and French Defenses in World War II is an excellent tome upon the subject. It covers the Maginot Line in magisterial detail with plentiful information upon it, and also relates it to broader conceptions of French strategy and operations as they unfolded during the Second World War.

#5 The Fall of France: The Nazi Invasion of 1940

Julian Jackson's book is either one that one would read the first of any on this list, or the last. It is not a military history book, even if this does feature as the event which it tries to comprehend in the form of the Fall of France, and nor is it a volume which has defined much of the field of study of the Battle of France in the way that Strange Defeat has. Yet it is an excellent summary of the Battle of France and a very good work for looking at what the consequences would be, and in providing international context to the battle with comparison to the United Kingdom and Germany, and their own flaws and failings. There are few other works which do such a good job in relating how the Fall of France would influence history, and in providing a nuanced perspective of the factors leading up to the Battle of France. For purely military history, other books on the list are better - although the morale argument here is very well done - but as a general book for the Battle of France and its broader context, it is a top one to read. If this comes at the end, to provide a broader idea of the significance of the event, or at the beginning, to place it into framework, is up to the reader's choice - but it is definitely one which should be read.

#4 - The Rise and Fall of the French Air Force

The French and their allies in 1940, despite continuing prejudices, had an armed force that was roughly equivalent to the size of the Germans opposing them, with tank forces that were larger - and probably roughly equal in quality, if worse in doctrine and organization - and more powerful artillery arms. On the ground, as a whole, things were roughly equal between the Allies and Germans, some sides possessing individual facets with superiority. But in the air, it was a different story, with a much more powerful, organized, aggressive, and decisive German air force, the dreaded Luftwaffe, that ran riot over the scattered, hesitant, and smaller Allied air units. Understanding how this was able to occur is a vital part of understanding how the Battle of France could go south so quickly for the French, and The Rise and Fall of the French Air Force is almost certainly the best book on the subject for it, showing French doctrine, production, intentions, and operations and problems which afflicted their air force.

#3 The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine 1919-1939

Ultimately it was the French army which collapsed in 1940, even if its problems can be linked to broader difficulties in French society and the failings of the French air force. Looking at why it failed, why it proved to be such a flawed sword against the German army which shattered and broke as a brittle instrument rather than being capable of winning the war like in the Great War, is something which must assume primary position in any look at the Battle of France. Thus The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine 1919-1939, the second book on this list written by Robert A. Doughty, constitutes a vital tome to do just that. This concise, direct book enables one to look at the key and crucial characteristics of the French army's doctrine, that of the idea of methodical battle - a tightly centralized, highly formalized, methodical operation based on artillery and rejecting the idea of mobility and fast breakthrough for an emphasis on overwhelming firepower. The issues that this led to for the French and their catastrophic impact for 1940 become clear as a result of this irreplaceable work.

#2 - Case Red: The Collapse of France

Most books concerning the Battle of France revolve around the fighting in Belgium and on the Meuse, with the fateful encirclement of the French, Belgian, and British armies in the North and their annihilation or forcible ejection from the continent. While this was the decisive and central centerpiece of the Battle of France which decided the rest of the battle, another whole half of the operation took place after the evacuation from Dunkirk, with Fall Rot - Case Red, the German advance South and the annihilation of the rest of the now weakened French armies. Robert Forczyks' book Case Red:The Collapse of France is special in covering this in appropriate detail, and shows how grave French material deficiencies in airpower, integral organic firepower in their units, and poorly coordinated operations stemming from excessive focus on reliance upon other continental European allies, insufficient aid from Great Britain with its schizophrenic and poorly organized war effort, and too much of a focus on high tech and specialist weaponry instead of procuring the necessary equipment in numbers needed for French security resulted in a catastrophic defeat for the French and Allied armies. Arguably, Forczyk's book could be considered the most complete of any singular volume in this list on the Battle of France, and it definitely grants a very impressive and holistic understanding of the tragedy of the Western Allies in 1940.

#1 To Lose a Battle: France 1940

It can be a difficult choice to choose the best book on the Battle of France, particularly when Case Red exists as probably the most holistic and complete book on the subject. But while there are many great books to cover the Battle of France, in the end there can only be a single one which can take the #1 spot, and that is the magisterial work of Alistair Horne's To Lose a Battle: France 1940. Horne's book is brilliantly written, with an elegant style which covers both small, individual events in the battle, and its overall progress, providing a tremendous grasp of both the situation on the ground and its view from the airy heights. It does a very good job in reviewing the run-up to 1940, reflecting upon the French army and its own weakness, organization, and status. Easy to read, but filled with plentiful details, it is assuredly the best book which exists on the subject, one which simply cannot be missed to understand it in its entirety. To fully understand the full depth of the battle, one needs other books, but for the centerpiece of any work, To Lose a Battle: France 1940 is the key work.

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    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      11 months ago from UK

      This is a good selection of books to give an interesting perspective on a major World War 2 event.

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