Why are there trees planted along the Champs-Elysee? Because Germans like to march in the shade.-- My German buddy Klemens.
In July of 1870 the French declared war on Prussia and the combined German States. The Germans responded by attacking France. In less than 2 months 2/3 of the country was conquered. The mighty French military had been destroyed in less than 8 weeks. Within 6 months Paris had fallen. France was completely defeated and more importantly, humiliated. By May of 1871, a treaty was signed. The French had lost wars before. Never before (not even at Agincourt)had they been shown to be so completely incompetent. A nation can take a lot. Shame is hard to forget. The French people reacted by forming a new Government. After delivering the military version of the schoolyard bully hat trick (wedgie/swirly/roast beef) the Germans went home taking the coal-rich French territories of Alsace and Lorraine with them. The French fumed and vowed to never forget.
It has been often cited that the primary cause of World War Two was World War One. History has clouded much of WWI. It was brutal and deadly. The Germans came perilously close to victory over the British and French troops. Only the influx of American troops turned the tide. The Americans did not fight long in the Great War, and the losses pale in comparison with the other combatants, but the role of America in the final outcome cannot be diminished. When it came time to fight the peace, France wanted to extract vengeance upon the German people. The humiliation of the Franco-Prussian war was still fresh in their collective memory. Veterans from that conflict were still alive. The treaty terms for the Germans were harsh. The resulting economic collapse of Germany gave the ground to support the rise of Hitler and the National Socialists. That is a subject for another post. But for a short time, the French got their revenge, and the return of Alsace and Lorraine.
On September 1, 1939 the German Army invaded Poland. Great Britain and France declared war against Germany two days later. The French placed the bulk of their armed forces into the line of forts and redoubts constructed along the Franco-German border. Called the Maginot Line, these emplacements were thought to be impregnable. The forts were built to guard France from another German invasion like they had suffered in the Franco-Prussian War and WWI.
Nobody's fool, the German High Command swept into France from the North through The Netherlands and Belgium, bypassing the Maginot line. They smashed French resistance and nearly captured a large portion of the British Army at Dunkirk. By June 22, 1940 France had signed an armistice with Germany. The French people reacted by forming a new government. Two-thirds of the country was "neutral" controlled by pro-German officials. This was the Vichy Government. The French had again been conquered by Germany in mere months. Who said history does not repeat itself.
Field Marshall Henri Phillipe Petain was chosen as the puppet leader of the Vichy Government. He was a hero from the Great War. Now he was old and glad to have whatever power he could grasp even if it came from the Germans.
Meanwhile, Germany and her allies, the Austrians, the Italians, the Japanese, and the French were on a roll. The British were fighting for their very survival. England was blasted around the clock by German bombers launched from France. The British were being pushed toward the Red Sea by Rommel's Afrika Korps. Things looked bleak as the war began its third year in mid-1941.
In 1941 two major mistakes were made by the Axis powers.
In June, Hitler turned on his ally in attacking Poland, the Baltic States and Norway -- The Soviet Union. The Nazis launched Operation Barbarossa and entered Russia in force. By December they had captured most of Eastern Russia and were moving on Moscow. The Soviets gained a mighty ally in old man winter. The Axis advance was stymied and manpower was rushed toward the Eastern Front.
Also in December of 1941 the Axis power of Japan decided to attack the one remaining wild card in the now nearly global conflict -- the (sort of) neutral United States of America. Hitler was said to be furious.
The Americans looked around the world and came to the correct conclusion the biggest threat to winning the war was in Europe where only Britain held on by their fingernails. The decision was taken to fight a holding action in the Pacific and shift most of the materiel and manpower to the European front.
The American commanders were convinced only by defeating the Germans in Germany would the war be won. They looked at the map and came to this conclusion -- I see England, I see France that is the line to kick Hitler in the seat of the pants. The British thought the best approach was through the underbelly of the Axis Powers -- North Africa, Italy. The Soviet Commies agreed, wanting the combined Americans / British to attack anywhere to help relieve some of the pressure on the Eastern Front. The British convinced the Americans that North Africa / Italy was the best strategy, and the US insisted they be given overall command of the operation. The Brits agreed, since we had the planes, the tanks, the manpower. Ike Eisenhower was placed in charge and Operation Torch was born.
Operation Torch detailed the landing of the Americans in North Africa in a three prong attack spreading from Morocco and Casablanca (did they drink at Rick's Cafe?) to Algiers. Who manned the shore defenses in these areas? You guessed it -- The French! Would they fight against us?