By May 1940 Britain only had a single armoured division and this was still undergoing training at home. In the meantime deployed to France was the 1st Army Tank Brigade consisting of two battalions of ‘I’ or Infantry tanks. Also with the BEF were seven light armoured regiments equipped with light tanks. Their task was reconnaissance similar to the traditional cavalry role.
On 9 May 1940 the BEF had a total of 210 light tanks with the light armoured regiments and 100 ‘I’ tanks with the 1st Army Tank Brigade. An additional 174 light tanks and 156 new cruiser tanks with the 1st Armoured Division were ready to cross the Channel as battle commenced. Nonetheless the greatest thing that hampered both the British and the French armoured forces was lack of training and experience. In contrast the German panzer crews had cut their teeth in Poland and knew exactly what they were doing.
The French Chief of staff was General Gamelin, while General Georges was his theatre commander for the North-east Front. Georges organised his forces with General Huntziger’s 2nd French Army on the coast, then General Gort’s BEF, followed by Corap’s French 9th Army, with Blanchard’s French 1st Army on the Meuse and Sambre and finally Giraud’s 7th Army covering Sedan. On paper these forces looked impressive, but their lack of flexibility and mobility was to be their undoing.
Britain’s paucity of tanks at the outbreak of war was a glaring deficiency for the British Army. Those tanks available were too lightly armoured and their guns lacked a punch capable of tackling Hitler’s panzers on anything like equal terms. Most of the BEF’s tank strength was made up of the Mk VIB light tank armed with two Vickers machine guns, which went into production in 1936. Although designed as a reconnaissance tank, it was often used in a cruiser role, and its inadequate armour and armament invariably lead to heavy losses when facing anything heavier than a Panzer I. They served in the 1st Army Tank Brigade’s Headquarters.
The much heavier Matilda I (A11) Infantry Tank was also first delivered to the British Army in 1936. It was a fine example of penny-pinching utilising a lorry engine and initially the suspension kept shedding the tracks. The first batch of 60 was ordered in April 1937 later increasing to 140, all of which had been delivered by the summer of 1940. Like the Mk VI, it was armed with just a machine gun and was not capable of withstanding the panzers.
In contrast the Matilda Mk II Infantry Tank was the exception in the British inventory. Designed in the mid-1930s by Colonel Hudson’s team at the Mechanisation Board, it benefited from work conducted on the A7 medium tank, which never saw the light of day. In late 1937 165 Matilda IIs were ordered, but due to the shape and size of the armour castings the tank was not easy to mass-produce. When war broke out in 1939 there were just two in service. Although heavily armoured, some 78mm on the front (this was more than twice that of the Panzer II and III), cross-country it was slow and its 2-pounder (40mm) main armament lacked real penetrating power.
Within the 1st Army Tank Brigade three battalions of the Royal Tank Regiment (RTR) were to be equipped with the Matilda II, consisting of the 4th at Farnborough, 7th at Catterick and the 8th at Perham Down on Salisbury Plain. Unfortunately the only unit ready to be shipped to France was the 4th Battalion equipped with fifty Mk I Infantry Tanks and seven Mk VI light tanks. Production of the Matilda II remained grindingly slow and it was not until the eve of the German Blitzkrieg that the 1st Tank Brigade HQ and the 7RTR shipped to France. Frustratingly 8RTR was not up to strength and was left behind, but 7RTR arrived on the Continent with 23 Mk IIs, 27 Mk Is and 7 light tanks. The unit commander Brigadier Douglas H. Pratt found himself under the direct control of the Commander in Chief BEF General the Viscount Gort, who had a total of nine divisions under his command.
Two days after the Germans launched their offensive in the West Brigadier Pratt and his men moved toward Brussels. In the meantime over ninety German divisions swarmed into Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Lacking tank transporters, Pratt’s armour was shipped by train while the rest of the Brigade struggled up the line by road. Little did Brigadier Pratt realise what a key role his Brigade was to play in the unfolding disaster that was about to engulf the Allies in northern Europe.
While the air forces of France, Belgium and the Netherlands fielded a large number of aircraft, the RAF initially only had four squadrons of Hawker Hurricanes and two of Gloster Gladiators deployed to France during the period known as the Phoney War from September 1930 to May 1940. These formed part of the Advanced Air Striking Force providing fighter cover for the RAF’s Battle and Blenheim light bombers and the Air Component attached to the British Army.
The RAF like the Royal Navy and the Army struggled to secure a share of government resources during the economic difficulties of the 1930s. In the mid-1930s RAF Fighter Command had been promised at least fifty-three squadrons by 1939. When Hugh Dowding became Commander in Chief in 1936 he found he only had fifteen regular and three auxiliary squadrons. This was expanded to twenty-four regular and six auxiliary squadrons by 1938, but this was still well short of the total envisaged and they were all equipped with a variety of outdated biplanes.
The RAF’s Fairey Battle and Bristol Blenheim light bombers were to prove highly disappointing. The Battle only had a single engine and its three-man crew and bomb load ensured that it was slow and vulnerable to flak, while its single machine gun offered little protection against nimble enemy fighters. Nonetheless between 1937 and 1940 2,185 Battles were built and as well as the RAF were also supplied to four other air forces. The twin-engine Blenheim, another export success, also proved vulnerable to flak and enemy fighters.
When Hitler’s Bliztkrieg commenced on 10 May 1940 the RAF could muster 2,750 front-line aircraft, but only 1,000 of these were fighters. Once the Nazi attack commenced the RAF moved to assist the French and in the first two days of the Blitzkrieg four more fighter squadrons were sent across the Channel. On the 13th a further thirty-two Hurricanes and pilots flew to France. Four more fighter squadrons were assigned to Coastal Command for convoy protection duties.
Dowding was in the uncomfortable position of having been forced to commit a third of his fighter force to France, which was intended to defend British skies. He was swift to warn the government that on the present rate of attrition within two weeks the RAF would not have a single Hurricane left in France or Britain. He badgered the Air Ministry to specify what level of strength was required to defend Britain. Shortly after British Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered that no further fighters cross the Channel no matter what France’s need.
The Belgians began mobilising just before Hitler attacked Poland and by May 1940 had gathered 18 infantry divisions, 2 divisions of Chasseurs Ardennais (partly motorised) and 2 motorised cavalry divisions, totalling 650,000 men. While they were supported by 1,338 artillery pieces they only had a few French-built AMC 35 light tanks. The standard Belgian anti-tank gun was the 47mm FRC, towed by truck or the tracked armoured Utility B tractor. This gun was much more powerful than the standard German 37mm anti-tank gun.
Belgian combat vehicles also included 200 T13 tank hunters armed with the 47mm anti-tank gun plus a coaxial FN30 machine gun in a turret. The Belgians also possessed forty-two T15s and although dubbed armoured cars, these were actually fully tracked tanks with a 13.2mm turret machine gun.
The Aéronautique Militaire Belge (AéMI – Belgian Air Force) had only just begun to modernise and was equipped with 250 combat aircraft. Less than 100 were fighter aircraft, with just 12 bombers and 12 reconnaissance aircraft. On 10 May 1940 AéMI had just 50 modern aircraft and only 78 fighters and 40 bombers were operational.
Manpower posed a severe problem for the neighbouring Dutch Army. It could muster 48 infantry regiments and 22 border defence battalions numbering about 400,000 men; in contrast Belgium, despite a smaller and more aged male population, fielded the equivalent of 30 divisions when smaller units were included. The Dutch had a total of 676 howitzers and field guns, not surprisingly just 8 of the 120 modern 105mm guns ordered from Germany had been delivered at the time of the invasion. The Dutch also had 386 Böhler 47mm L/39 anti-tank guns which while effective were too few in number. The Dutch Air Force, which was part of the Army, had just 155 aircraft. All in all on the eve of the German attack things did not look good.
Following Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939 Britain and France found themselves at war with Germany.
London’s response was to despatch the BEF to support the French armed forces while also preparing the defences of the British Isles, as seen opposite.
A British and French soldier photographed during the winter of the Phoney War, 1939–40. The British Army committed over a dozen divisions to the defence of northern France supported by an armoured brigade and an armoured division. Within four months of this photograph being taken these men would find themselves on the receiving end of Hitler’s Blitzkrieg.
This British gunner has turned a machine gun taken from a German bomber back on the Luftwaffe.
The British Mk VI series of light tanks were numerically the most important armoured fighting vehicles of the British Army in 1939–40. Mk VIBs were deployed with all the divisional cavalry regiments of the BEF and as HQ tanks with the 1st Army Tank Brigade. Likewise Mk VICs formed the bulk of 1st Armoured Division’s tank strength due to the delay in the delivery of the newer cruiser tanks.
The Infantry Tank Mk I or Matilda I was much bettered armoured than the light Mk VI, but was very slow and again armed with just a machine gun. In 1937 an initial order for sixty was placed with Vickers-Armstrong, and a further sixty were ordered the following year with a final batch of nineteen in 1938. They were used to equip the 1st Army Tank Brigade sent to joint the BEF.
In 1940 the Matilda Mk II Infantry Tank was the heaviest in British service, but was not available in sufficient numbers. The early production Matilda II deployed to France is instantly recognisable by the large Vickers machine gun on the left-hand side of the turret, rather than the smaller Besa 7.92mm fitted in the later Mk IIA seen in the photograph below.
The British 1st Armoured Division was equipped with the Mk I (A9), Mk II (A10), Mk III (A13) and Mk IV (A13 Mk II) cruiser tanks, all of which saw service in France. It had been planed to arm them with a 3-pounder or 47mm gun but they ended up with the new 2-pounder or 40mm which had a higher muzzle velocity. Depending on the model, maximum thickness of the armour ranged from 14mm to 30mm. These particular Mk IIs were delivered to Alexandria for operations against the Italians.
These cruiser tanks Mk IVA (A13) belong to the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment of the 1st Armored Division deployed to France in 1940. This was essentially an uparmoured version of the Mk III and is identifiable by the V-section armour plating on the side of the turret. In addition the Mk IV and IVA are distinguishable by the Vickers and Besa machine guns mounted in the turret.
Initially the RAF had just four squadrons of Hurricane and two squadrons of Gloster Gladiator fighters deployed to France during the Phoney War. The tense waiting game would soon be over when the Luftwaffe swung into action.
The RAF’s slow Fairey Battle (seen here under German guard) and Bristol Blenheim light bombers were to prove very disappointing in France. The Battle had a single engine and easily fell prey to enemy fighters.
French General Maurice Gamelin, the Allied Commander in Chief of Allied forces in France, inspecting Canadian troops in Britain, 29 March 1940. in less than six weeks time the Germans were overrunning the Low Countries and France.