This week in the War, 20–26 May 1940: Maxime Weygand–man of the hour

Monday 20 May 1940, General Maxime Weygand (who had been appointed French commander-in-chief the previous day)  met with General Gamelin, whom he was replacing, and with a government which was already beginning to panic. The seventy-three-year-old Weygand had (like de Gaulle) long been an advocate for military preparedness and mobile armour. He recognized the need for immediate action to counter the German advance and, at 7.00am 21 May, he flew from Le Bourget on a tour of the front, intending to meet his key generals—including Lord John Gort, commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and the Belgian King Leopold III .

The king posed objections to the latest French plans, General Billotte who commanded France’s First Army was fatally injured in an automobile accident soon after meeting with Weygand, and the meeting with Gort never took place. The speed of the German advance and the overwhelming superiority of the Luftwaffe forced Weygand to cross the English Channel to Dover and return to Paris by way of Cherbourg.

Weygand’s enthusiasm for mounting a counteroffensive impressed Winston Churchill, when he met with the general at the fort of Vincennes on the edge of Paris on 22 May. Churchill describes Weygand as, “brisk, buoyant, and incisive.” Alas, too many Allied tanks and planes had already been lost.

On 26 May, with the situation worsening by the hour, Lord Gort drew up plans for the BEF to retreat to the coast with a view to evacuation.


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