Only a lieutenant at the outbreak of the First World War, by 1939 the 49 year-old Colonel Charles de Gaulle had spent two years in command of the 507th Tank Regiment (RCC) and earned himself the nickname of "colonel motor".
The phoney war
On 2 September, Colonel de Gaulle was given command of the tanks of the 5th Army, assigned to cover Alsace from behind the Maginot line and with its headquarters at Wangenbourg.
During the period known as the "phoney war", which lasted from the day war was declared on 3 September 1939 to 10 May 1940, the 5th Army stood waiting, in common with the rest of the French armed forces, behind the Maginot line.
Colonel de Gaulle continued to advance his ideas on the use of tanks. First, in the field where he sought to make the most of the "crumbs" of resources with which he was provided by demanding that radios be installed in his tanks and, most importantly of all, by creating the 5th Army tank training school at Blamont. Second, he persuaded the Army's commander, General Bourret, to agree that the 5th Army's tanks should no longer be deployed solely in support of infantry but should be combined under his command in liaison with the commanders of major formations. In October 1939, he was given an opportunity to present the 5th Army's tank unit to President of the Republic Albert Lebrun. Finally, in January 1940, he completed a memorandum entitled L'avènement de la force mécanique (The advent of mechanized forces) which he addressed to Léon Blum, former President of the Council, and to an audience of some 80 civilian and military dignitaries including Edouard Daladier, Minister for National Defence, who chose to ignore it.
His persistence in putting forward his ideas finally persuaded the high command to concentrate a number of tanks into four armoured divisions (DCR), and in February 1940 he was ordered to prepare to take command of one of the four.
At the head of the 4th Armoured Division
Three days before the German offensive of 10 May 1940 which rapidly broke through the French front, Colonel de Gaulle was notified of the high command's decision to put him in command of the 4th Armoured Division (4th DCR), the strongest of all the major formations of the French Army : he took command on 11 May. The division was, however, still in the process of being formed, its component units never having operated together.
On 15 May, he was ordered to delay the enemy in the Laon region in order to gain time to bring up the 6th Army to block the road to Paris. Having received only part of the units intended for his division, Colonel de Gaulle launched an initial attack with 80 tanks to try and cut the lines of communication of the German armoured divisions. After reaching its objectives, including the town of Moncornet, the 4th DCR was forced through lack of support to retreat in the face of enemy reinforcements.
Once the division was joined by its other units, a second attack was launched with 150 tanks : after achieving its initial objectives, the attack was halted by German air and artillery attacks.
On 28 May, after covering a distance of 200 km that took its toll on the equipment, the 4th DCR, whose commander had been promoted to temporary general four days earlier, attacked twice to destroy a pocket captured by the enemy south of the Somme near Abbeville. The operation was successful, with over 400 prisoners taken and the entire pocket mopped up except for Abbeville, due to enemy superiority in numbers and artillery. The Germans were prevented from crossing the Somme until later, north of Abbeville, but in the second attack the 4th DCR failed to gain control of the city in the face of superior enemy numbers.
On 6 June 1940, General de Gaulle was called urgently to Paris by Paul Reynaud, President of the Council, to take up a ministerial post as Under-Secretary of State for War and National Defence.
At this point in his career, Charles de Gaulle left the military chain of command.