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June 17, 1940 – The day the war came to an end for France. In an emotional address to the world, Marshall Pétain announced that France had ceased fighting and that a negotiate surrender was anticipated over the coming hours.
On June 10, 1940, Italy declared war on Britain and France. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was wholly unprepared to take advantage of Germany’s invasion of Poland, and, if Italy were to derive any benefit from the Pact of Steel, it seemed that Mussolini would have to act before Germany single-handedly drove the Allies to sue for peace. Both the declaration and Italy’s active participation made little difference in the course of the Battle of France. Although the Italians had some 30 divisions available on their Alpine frontier, they delayed their strike on southeastern France until June 20, when the matter had been all but settled. That attack, when it finally did come, made almost no progress against French defenses.
Meanwhile, German forces were closing in on the French capital. Reynaud and the government had already left Paris for Tours, and there seemed to be no concrete military purpose in defending the city. Weygand told Reynaud and the other ministers on June 12 that France’s war was lost and that further combat was fruitless. This was an unquestionably correct appraisal of the military situation; entire French armies were disintegrating under the weight of the German onslaught. That same day on the Channel coast, the 51st Highland Division, a BEF unit that had been placed under French command, was facing the inevitable at Saint-Valéry-en-Caux. Unable to reach Dunkirk, Cherbourg, or any of the other evacuation ports and having exhausted their supplies and ammunition, Maj. Gen. Victor Fortune and the 10,000 men under his command surrendered to the Germans. Fortune would become the highest-ranking British prisoner of war captured by Germany. On June 14 the French army evacuated Paris, and the Germans entered the city later that day.
Reynaud responded to the loss of Paris by relocating the government from Tours to Bordeaux, as Tours was on the new French defensive line on the Loire. Reynaud issued an appeal: “Today the life of France is at stake…Our fight, each day more painful, has no further sense if in continuing we do not see even far away the hope of a common victory growing.” On June 15 the capture of Verdun placed German armies well behind the Maginot Line, and the following day Reynaud resigned as premier. He was succeeded by Marshall Pétain, who had rallied his country at the World War I Battle of Verdun with the cry, “Ils ne passeront pas” (“They shall not pass.”).
Although Marshall Pétain’s cabinet included Weygand as defense minister, its composition left little doubt that the government had been formed to bring the war to an end. Absent was Reynaud, who had advocated a continuation of the fight from French North Africa, while prominent posts went to appeasers such as Pierre Laval, who urged cooperation with the Third Reich at virtually every turn. On June 17 Pétain asked the Germans for honorable terms of armistice.
Here are direct reports and analysis from a variety of sources, as well as analysis by H.V. Kaltenborn from NBC (Red and Blue networks) for June 17, 1940.