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Saar Offensive
Part of the Western Front of World War II
Date 7–16 September 1939
Location near Saarbrücken, Germany
Result French withdrawal
France France
Army Group 2
Nazi Germany Germany
1st Army
Commanders and leaders
Alphonse Georges Erwin von Witzleben
12 divisions
270 tanks
432 pcs 75mm artillery
288 pcs 155mm artillery
8 divisions
0 tanks
348 pcs 105mm artillery
192 pcs 150mm artillery
Casualties and losses
2,000[1] 1,975[2]

The Saar Offensive was a limited-objective French offensive into Germany near Saarbrücken during the Second World War in September 1939. The offensive did not penetrate deeply into German territory and defending units of the German 1st Army retreated into the fortifications of the Westwall. The French assault was stopped on 12 September and the French forces eventually withdrew behind the Franco-German border in early October 1939. The purported purpose of the attack was to assist Poland, which was then under attack by Germany, but the scale of the French offensive was too small to materially affect the course and outcome of the Polish Campaign. Although few specific military measures had been called out by the Franco-Polish military convention,[3] the government of Poland had assumed that large-scale military retaliation against Germany would be undertaken by France. As this did not occur during the Polish Campaign, the government and people of Poland in large part came to believe that France (and Great Britain) had not fulfilled their obligation as allies and had allowed Poland to be sacrificed unnecessarily. For their part, the governments of France and Great Britain believed they had met their obligations by going to war against Germany in response to the German invasion of Poland, even if their immediate capabilities and actions had no effect on German operations in Poland. These differing points of view have resulted in contesting historiographical interpretations of these events to the present day.

Franco-Polish military accords[edit]

A Franco-Polish Alliance was reached in February 1921. This alliance included a military convention with terms that were largely general, with Article 1 stating If Germany attacks one of these two countries, they are bound to afford assistance to each other following an agreement between them. Article 3 further stated If (an attack by Germany arises) . . . direct French help to Poland will consist of sending to Poland war equipment and a technical mission, but not French troops, and securing the lines of sea communication between France and Poland.[4] By 1939, the threat to Poland from Germany had assumed stark clarity and the Polish government sought more specific assurances of French assistance in case of an attack by Germany against Poland. Talks ensued in Paris between Generals Tadeusz Kasprzycki and Maurice Gamelin which resulted in the Franco-Polish Military Convention of May, 1939. In this convention, Gamelin apparently agreed that if the Germans attacked Poland, the French would commence aerial bombardment of Germany from the first day of war. Land operations of an initial nature were to begin upon the third day of war, followed by a major offensive by the fifteenth day of war.[5] This convention, however, was not to be considered in force unless a separate political convention was also signed, something that did not occur until September 4, 1939.[6]

But the convention was interpreted differently by both parties and differing assumptions about it bedeviled the convention from the start. According to historian Anita Prażmovska, "The results of the talks were found by both sides to most confusing and unsatisfactory . . . . Nor was it clear whether the French had undertaken to start a major offensive against Germany within fifteen days of an attack by Germany on Poland."[7][8] Gamelin assumed Poland could resist a German attack for months[9] while Kasprzycki assumed that Britain and France could not afford to see Poland fall.[10] Critically, what the convention failed to specify was what the specific objectives of the French offensive were to be. The Polish government envisioned an all-out thrust by the French army into the heart of Germany, while the largely defensive doctrine of the French military led Gamelin to consider a much more restricted and conservative operation that, at best, might cause some redeployment of German forces from Poland.[11][12]

French war plans[edit]

Any French military response to German aggression against Poland had to perforce conform with France's overall plans for a war with Germany. Gamelin envisioned the main battle of the French and German armies taking place in Belgium assuming that the Germans had violated Belgian neutrality and the French army had moved northeast to defeat invading German forces on Belgian territory. Along France's border with Germany, the French army planned to conduct defensive operations centered upon strong fortifications known as the Maginot Line.

The conflict of this plan with the Franco-Polish Military Convention became apparent after the outbreak of war. Belgium remained neutral until it was invaded by Germany on May 10, 1940, but the Franco-Polish convention had called for a major offensive after the fifteenth day of war. The only option for this offensive to occur without violating the borders of neutral countries was for it to take place along the Franco-German border, a region in which the French army had planned to conduct primarily defensive operations. A complicating factor for the offensive was the attitude of the man who was to command it, General Alphonse Georges, who stated that he would resign if he were ordered to carry out the major offensive referred to by the Franco-Polish Military Convention.[13] Finally, French prime minister Édouard Daladier was strongly opposed to any operations that might lead to heavy casualties, a desire of which General Gamelin was certainly aware.[14]

Terrain and lines of communication[edit]

Because of France's wish to respect the neutrality of Belgium, Luxembourg, and Switzerland, any offensive by France into Germany would have take place along their common border. The Rhine River flows along roughly half of the Franco-German border. Neither France nor Germany considered a major offensive across the Rhine a realistic option in 1939. Beyond the valley of the Rhine, the common border stretched from Lauterbourg to the point where the Franco-German border met that of Luxembourg.

Large areas of this part of the border are dominated by terrain that favors defenders. The Bienwald is a large forest that is situated from Lauterbourg to just east of Wissembourg. To the west of Wissembourg is the Pfalzerwald, a densely forested mass of high hills and low mountains that stretches to the region of Pirmasens. Further west, the elevation drops and there is more farmland and less forest, although the area around Saarbrücken is forested. Northwest of Völklingen, the roughness of the terrain increases again as the border approaches Luxembourg. Much of the land from Lauterbourg to Luxembourg ranges in elevation from 250 to 500 meters above sea level. A notable exception to this is the Saar River valley, which courses west to northwest of Saarbrücken in a gentle arc.

The Franco-German border beyond the Rhine has two areas in which the topography would not impose large penalties on an attacker; the Wissembourg Gap, and the area of relatively lower altitude around Saarbrücken. The Wissembourg Gap had served as a German invasion route in 1870, but as a terrain corridor for military operations it is relatively narrow. On the German side, the corridor opens into the Rhine Valley and tends to position an attacker's forces between the Rhine and Pfalzerwald mass, which possesses many observation points over the Rhine Valley and the Wissembourg Gap itself. The terrain around Saarbrücken is forested and rolling, and though the Saar Valley offers a route of advance, the valley leads to relatively unimportant areas of Germany near the Luxembourg border. Saarbrücken was, however, a significant industrial center with much coal mining along the valley of the Saar River.

A French offensive that effected a seizure of Saarbrücken and areas of the Saar Valley linked to industry had potential to hinder German offensives into eastern Europe, but would not have proved fatal to Germany's war effort. Regardless, given the unattractive opportunities for an offensive offered by the Franco-German border, an advance in the area of Saarbrücken probably offered the best immediate rewards. Moving beyond Saarbrücken further into Germany was problematic. In 1939, there was a two-lane highway, the R40, that led from Saarbrücken to Mainz over a distance of roughly 150 kilometers (90 miles). To get to Berlin from Saarbrücken entailed a road distance of over 700 kilometers (420 miles). Over half the road distance from Saarbrücken to Mainz traversed the rugged terrain of the Pfalzerwald, canalizing any advance and requiring the conquest of adjoining hill masses to ensure security along the route of march.

French mobilization and forces[edit]

French mobilization for the war progressed in stages. The active divisions started their transformation to war footing as early as 23 August 1939 and some of these units had assumed covering deployments on the French border by the end of August.[15] In metropolitan France, there were 32 active divisions in the French army at the outbreak of the war. An additional 39 divisions belonged to the "A" and "B" reserves in metropolitan France, but for the large part of them, their mobilization and deployment did not commence until the Germans had invaded Poland.[16] Of the 39 reserve divisions, only 10 had progressed far enough in mobilization and movement to the frontiers to be placed in the line under the command of a field army or an army corps by 16 September[17] and these included élite Alpine divisions that were covering France's frontier with Italy. With this speed of mobilization, even by mid-September France had only 42 divisions ready in the mainland with which to meet all requirements and contingencies, of which the offensive into the Saar was merely one. French military leadership had grave doubts as to the ability of active units to conduct an offensive immediately upon the outbreak of war as even the active divisions had a large contingent of reservists.[18][19]

Nor was the deployment of General Alphonse Georges' Army Group 2 well-suited to support the Saar Offensive. The area of the front over which the French forces would come into contact with the German army fell into the sectors of four army corps belonging to three field armies (from west to east, the 3rd, 4th, and 5th) -- a situation that was almost certain to produce liaison difficulties and an attendant lack of coordination among offensive efforts between the various army and corps headquarters. To open the offensive, these four corps commanded eight active infantry divisions, one of which, the 11th, was split between both sides of the Sarre River valley in and around Sarreguemines.

In the air, the French air force was potentially capable of providing powerful support to an offensive by the French army. Catastrophically for France, poor doctrine, inter-service rivalry, and mutual distrust of the air force and the republican government had led to a situation in which the French air force practically refused to conduct close air support missions in support of the army. According to a 1985 Air University study by Faris R. Kirkland, "the French Air Force entered combat with an incomplete ground infrastructure, insufficient personnel to man its aircraft, and a doctrine so completely at variance with the army's doctrine that the two services were destined to fight largely independent wars."[20] Because of the French air force's resistance to the concept of providing close air support to ground units, the first aircraft suited to such missions were not available until October 1939 and the manual for the operation of such air units was not printed until January 1940.[21]

German forces in the Saar region[edit]

The German troops defending the Saar region were assigned to the 1st Army, commanded by General Erwin von Witzleben. In the area in which the French offensive would eventually take place, the 1st Army had eight infantry divisions organized into two corps defending the line. Of these, five were active divisions of what was known as the "1st Wave" (1. Welle -- "wave" was a term denoting groups of divisions with the same tables of organization and equipment), and the other three were mobilized reserve divisions of the 2nd Wave.[22][23] Reserve troops of the 2nd Wave possessed high readiness[24] and were equipped similarly to regular divisions of the 1st Wave, with the only notable equipment shortages being a lack of mortars and anti-aircraft guns.[25] In terms of personnel quality, the 2nd Wave divisions were primarily manned (83% of unit strength) by Class-I reservists who were under 35 years of age.[26] Thus, the German troops on the front line in the Saar region were in no way undermanned or unmotivated.

Under direct control of the 1st Army were six further infantry divisions.[27] One of these was a 2nd Wave division and the other five were of the 3rd Wave, divisions made up of older personnel without much transport but reinforced with additional men and machine guns. 3rd Wave divisions were intended for static defensive missions. 1st Army also directly controlled three battalions of artillery equipped with 210mm-, 150mm-, and 105mm artillery pieces, as well as three anti-aircraft battalions. Distributed among the XII. Armeekorps and the Grenztruppen Saarpfalz (a corp-sized command which was retitled the XXIV. Armeekorps in late September 1939) were seven further artillery battalions and two anti-aircraft battalions. All of these army- and corps-controlled troops were potentially available to reinforce the eight divisions on the front line.

In the Saar region, the Germans also had 33,000 border defense troops organized into companies and battalions, and equipped with machine guns and light antitank weapons.[28]

While the bulk of the Luftwaffe was engaged against Poland, the Saar region could call upon the Rhineland-based Jagdgeschwader 53 with some 90 Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters[29] while the region to the southwest mustered fighter strength (Bf 109s and Ar 68s) equivalent to another Jagdgeschwader.[30] Beyond the fighters, the Luftwaffe also had ground support aircraft from the 5th and 6th Fliegerdivisionen to call upon for air support.

The Westwall as a fortified line[edit]

Providing strong reinforcement for the German defense was the Westwall, a defensive work of infantry and artillery bunkers as well as antitank obstacles and mine fields. The Westwall was constructed several kilometers behind the trace of the German border and ran from the point on the upper Rhine where Germany's border met that of Switzerland's roughly to the point where Germany's border met that of the Netherlands. In the Saarbrücken area, the Westwall split and passed both to the front and the rear of the city. About twenty kilometers to the rear of Saarbrücken, another fortified belt of the Siegfried Line ran from the Hunsrück Mountains to the Pfälzerwald hill mass, defending against movement along the valley in the direction of Mainz.

Westwall bunkers ranged in size from works manned by a single squad to those capable of containing a platoon. The bunkers were made of reinforced concrete 1.5 to 3.5 meters (about 5 to 11 feet) thick and were rated as being capable of resisting multiple hits from artillery of 150mm caliber.[31] The bunkers were connected by infantry trenches, and to the front, antitank obstacles, wire obstacles, antitank ditches, and minefields hindered and canalized the advance of opposing soldiers.

Although land mines were not new, the deployment of large numbers of them in small areas as a defensive measure was novel. In 1939, electronic mine detectors had not yet been invented and only some armies had begun to experiment with specially modified armored vehicles capable of mechanized mine clearing. For the French army, only the most basic methods of mine clearing were at hand, and this disadvantage would impact the advance of French troops and tanks in the coming offensive.[32][33][34]

The initial French advance[edit]

On 5 September, the 42nd Division moved patrols into Germany west of Saarbrücken, reconnoitering the villages of Naßweiler (49°09′37.76″N 06°50′30.10″E / 49.1604889°N 6.8416944°E / 49.1604889; 6.8416944 (Naßweiler)) and Sankt Nikolaus (49°10′20.42″N 06°49′31.36″E / 49.1723389°N 6.8253778°E / 49.1723389; 6.8253778 (St. Nikolaus)), near the edge of the Warndt Forest. During 5 and 6 September, elements of the 21st and 4th North African Divisions approached the border east of Sarreguemines and in the area between Forbach and Saarbrücken. On 6 September, elements of the 4th NA Division crossed the border and occupied an area on the east edge of the woods of Sankt Arnual (49°13′06.50″N 07°01′05.80″E / 49.2184722°N 7.0182778°E / 49.2184722; 7.0182778 (Sankt Arnual)), just SE of Saarbrücken. By 7 September, the 21st Division had advanced to the border along the Blies River. On the same day, the 42nd Division occupied the villages of Sankt Nikolaus and Karlsbrunn (49°10′36.51″N 06°48′41.26″E / 49.1768083°N 6.8114611°E / 49.1768083; 6.8114611 (Karlsbrunn)).

The advance halted and French reinforcements[edit]

The French withdrawal[edit]


The historiographical contest[edit]

According to the Franco-Polish military convention, the French army was to start preparations for the major offensive three days after mobilisation started. The French forces were to effectively gain control over the area between the French border and the German lines and were to probe the German defenses. On the fifteenth day of the mobilization (that is on September 16), the French army was to start a full-scale assault on Germany. The preemptive mobilization was started in France on August 26 and on September 1 full mobilization was declared.

French mobilization suffered from an inherently out of date system. The French military's ordinance lacked the tanks and planes of the mechanized German military which greatly affected their ability to swiftly deploy their forces on the field.[35] French command still believed in tactics of the previous war which relied heavily on stationary artillery which took time to transport and deploy (many pieces also had to be retrieved from storage before any advance could be made).[36]

A French offensive in the Rhine valley began on September 7, four days after France declared war on Germany. Then, the Wehrmacht was occupied in the attack on Poland, and the French soldiers enjoyed a decisive numerical advantage along the border with Germany. However, the French did not take any action that was able to assist the Poles. Eleven French divisions advanced along a 32 km line near Saarbrücken against weak German opposition. The French army had advanced to a depth of eight kilometres and captured about 20 villages evacuated by the German army, without any resistance. However, the half-hearted offensive was halted after France seized the Warndt Forest, three square miles of heavily-mined German territory.

The attack did not result in any diversion of German troops. The all-out assault was to be carried out by roughly 40 divisions, including one armoured division, three mechanized divisions, 78 artillery regiments and 40 tank battalions. On September 12, the Anglo French Supreme War Council gathered for the first time at Abbeville in France. It was decided that all offensive actions were to be halted immediately. Maurice Gamelin ordered his troops to stop "not closer than 1 kilometre" from the German positions along the Siegfried Line. Poland was not notified of this decision. Instead, Gamelin informed marshal Edward Rydz-Śmigły that half of his divisions were in contact with the enemy, and that French advances had forced the Wehrmacht to withdraw at least six divisions from Poland. The following day the commander of the French Military Mission to Poland General Louis Faury informed the Polish chief of staff, general Wacław Stachiewicz, that the planned major offensive on the western front had to be postponed from September 17 to September 20. At the same time, French divisions were ordered to retreat to their barracks along the Maginot Line. The Phoney War had begun.

See also[edit]

Category:Battle of France Category:Battles and operations of World War II Category:Western European theatre of World War II


  1. ^ French government page on Saar Offensive, includes those fallen sick.
  2. ^ Anlage 1 zu Nr. 3011/39 g. K. A H A Ib (report of losses of German field armies), losses for 1st Army to 16 September 1939, includes KIA, MIA, WIA, as well as those fallen sick. The forum mention unspecified document(s) posting losses for 1st Army from 1 September to 10 October 1939 as 1,188, which does not include those fallen sick. The losses for September 1939 in the unspecified document(s) align exactly with the aforementioned official German report.
  3. ^ The Popular Front and Central Europe, pp. 294-295.
  4. ^
  5. ^ Weinberg, pp. 67-68.
  6. ^ Prażmovska, pp. 103-104.
  7. ^ Prażmovska, pp. 103-104.
  8. ^
  9. ^ Smart, p. 80.
  10. ^ Prażmovska, pp. 103-104.
  11. ^ Weinberg, pp. 67-68.
  12. ^ Smart, p. 80.
  13. ^ Weinberg, pp. 67-68.
  14. ^ May, p. 277.
  15. ^ For examples, see GUF, Volume II, pages 9 and 35, among others.
  16. ^ For examples, see GUF, Volume II, pages 21, 129, and 915, among others.
  17. ^ GUF, Volumes II and III. Unit reports in Volume II for infantry divisions: 4th (p. 47), 7th (p. 79), 28th Alpine (p. 385), 29th Alpine (p. 407), 30th Alpine (p. 429), 51st (p. 587), 54th (p. 627), 64th Alpine (p. 739), 66th Alpine (p. 767), and 7th DIC (Vol. III, p. 103).
  18. ^ Doughty, p. 26.
  19. ^ Smart, p. 79.
  20. ^ Faris R. Kirkland, The French Air Force in 1940, "Interservice and Civil-Military Political Issues".
  21. ^ Kirkland, "The Battle of France: 10 May - 25 June 1940".
  22. ^ Lage West map of 9 September 1939.
  23. ^ Kroener, p. 712.
  24. ^ Mueller-Hillebrand, p. 69.
  25. ^ Kroener, p. 713.
  26. ^ Kroener, p. 710.
  27. ^ 1st Army OOB.
  28. ^ Mueller-Hillebrand, pp. 75-76, 79.
  29. ^ Aircraft strength on 1 September 1939
  30. ^ Kroener, chart facing p. 702.
  31. ^ Fuhrmeister, p. 17.
  32. ^ Kaufmann and Kaufmann, pp. 132-134.
  33. ^ Beaufre, p. 147.
  34. ^ Mosier, pp. 39-40.
  35. ^ Snyder, Louis L. The War: A Concise History 1939-1945. Julian Messner, Inc., 1960. p.95-96.
  36. ^ Liddell Hart, B. H. History of the Second World War. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1970. p. 31-33.


  • André Beaufre, 1940 The Fall of France, New York: Knopf, 1968.
  • Robert A. Doughty, The Evolution of French Army Doctrine, 1919-1939, Fort Leavenworth: Command and General Staff College Master's Thesis, 1976.
  • Jörg Fuhrmeister, Der Westwall, Stuttgart: Motorbuch Verlag, 2003.
  • Julian Jackson, The fall of France, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Nicole Jordan, The Popular Front and Central Europe: The Dilemmas of French Impotence 1918-1940, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
  • J. E. Kaufmann and H. W. Kaufmann, Fortress France: The Maginot Line and French Defenses in World War II, Mechanicsburg: Stackpole, 2006.
  • Faris R. Kirkland, The French Air Force in 1940, Maxwell AFB: Air University Review September - October 1985.
  • Bernhard R. Kroener, Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, Volume 5/1, Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1988.
  • Ernest R. May, Strange Victory, New York: Hill and Wang, 2000.
  • John Mosier, The Blitzkrieg Myth, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003.
  • Burkhart Mueller-Hillebrand, Das Heer 1933-1945, Darmstadt: E. S. Mittler & Sohn, 1954.
  • Anita Prażmovska, Britain, Poland and the Eastern Front, 1939, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • Nick Smart, British strategy and politics during the Phony War: before the balloon went up, Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2003.
  • Gerhard L. Weinberg, A World at Arms, Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1994.
  • Service Historique de l'Armée de Terre, Grandes Unités Françaises, Volumes I, II, III. Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1967.