On May 10, 1940, a full eight months after the formal declaration of war in September 1939, German troops launched a long-expected attack in western Europe, but, in a surprise maneuver, the main German assault came through Luxembourg and the Ardennes Forest. With astonishing speed, German Panzer divisions slashed through Allied lines, cutting off British and French troops in the north, leading to the evacuation at Dunkirk. Meanwhile French forces in the south were forced to retreat from the numerically superior German army, which had simply bypassed the "impregnable" Maginot Line, the core of French defensive strategy. On June 10, Mussolini's Italian government, delighted to get in on a sure thing, declared war on France, moving its troops into areas along the French-Italian border. On June 13, the Germans entered Paris and, two days later, occupied Verdun, the city that in World War I had stood as the symbol of an indomitable France.
On June 16, 1940, the French prime minister, Paul Reynaud, resigned. His successor, Marshal Henri Petain, hero of the battle of Verdun in the First World War, sued for peace on June 22. By the terms of the treaty, the southern area of the nation was to be nominally autonomous, governed by Petain from its capital in Vichy, a well-known health spa. The remaining French territory (about two-thirds of the total) would be under direct German command. The German army had defeated their great traditional enemy in six weeks of fighting, a humiliating debacle for the nation of Joan of Arc and Napoleon. When he heard the news, Adolf Hitler danced a celebratory jig. Vehemently protesting this collapse, French general Charles de Gaulle broadcast from London, calling for the continuation of the war from the French colonies by "Free French" troops. Fearful that the French naval fleet would fall into German hands, British ships and planes attacked the fleet while it was anchored in harbor off Algeria, destroying almost the entire fleet and killing nearly 1,300 French sailors. As a result, the Vichy government broke off diplomatic relations with the British, who continued to support the Free French troops under de Gaulle.
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