Chapter Six

Blitzkrieg – Across the Meuse

The Luftwaffe conducted concerted surprise attacks on seventy airfields across France, Belgium and the Netherlands on 10 May – nine of these sites were used by the RAF. Luckily the latter suffered little damage but that was soon to change. in the air the Germans reigned supreme. Any Allied air attack was swamped by enemy fighters or halted by a hail of deadly flak. The British Advanced Air Striking Force had almost 140 bombers on the morning of 10 May – only half remained by dusk on the 12th. The RAF’s wholly inadequate Battles and Blenheims suffered terrible losses as soon as they were committed to the battle.

The French thinking that the Belgian Ardennes region would shield them resulted in them placing their most ill-trained, ill-equipped troops who were unprepared to deal with the panzers at its exits. These forces were easily smashed and Corap’s 9th Army scattered. Although half the French 7th Army was still protecting Sedan, Guderian moved to strike across the River Meuse while they were off balance.

Guderian stormed over on 13 May at Sedan brushing aside the French 55th infantry Division. The latter was made up mostly of reserves lacking 75 per cent of their anti-tank guns, although they were well equipped with artillery. The division behind it, the 71st, had already lost almost half of its manpower due to leave and illness so could not help. Under sustained dive-bomber attack and artillery bombardment the 55th infantry lost contact with the troops on its flanks and a gap opened up between the French 2nd and 9th Armies through which Guderian’s panzers were pouring.

Although the French infantry were subjected to a terrifying air blitz on the morning of 13 May, they put up a stubborn resistance elsewhere along the Meuse. Three of the seven crossings attempted by the Germans failed completely and the others succeeded only after rather shaky starts. Luck was also a factor, and although two French armoured divisions were in a position to intervene, they were in a terrible state of chaos over their movement orders. They were never committed to the battle properly and became caught in the general chaos engulfing the French Army. It was the lack of strategic reserves that meant the French swiftly ran out of options.

General de Lattre’s regular 14th Infantry Division was ordered to move by road and rail to Rheims on 13 May, from where the advanced units were immediately sent to reinforce the threatened Sedan area. Combined with elements of another division plus the remnants of the French 9th Army, this force was ordered to plug the gap opened by the Germans between the French 9th and 2nd Armies. However, German dive-bombers constantly harassed the 14th infantry’s commander General de Lattre and his staff like so many others and it became impossible to coordinate his operations.

While the flanks of the German penetration were largely unprotected, with every hour the corridor grew wider and the forces in it more numerous. Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division crossed the Meuse at Dinant in Belgium on 14 May and soon found itself under threat from the French 1st Armoured Division totalling 175 tanks, under General Bruneau. However, the next day the 7th and 5th Panzers launched a two-pronged attack on the partially refuelled French tanks. Lacking infantry, artillery and fighter support, the decimated 1st Armoured Division was flung back to the French frontier with just seventeen tanks. At Hirson the French 2nd Armoured Division suffered a similar fate when the 6th Panzer Division overran it.

The 6th Panzer Division and its Czech Skoda 35(t) tanks were highly efficient striking across the Meuse towards the Channel covering 217 miles in nine days. They had moved into the Wester Woods, east of the Rhine, at the beginning of March 1940 ready to take part in Operation Sickle Cut – the armoured thrust through the Ardennes into France. Skodas belonging to First Lieutenant Dr Franz Bake’s 1st Company, 65th Panzer Battalion, spearheaded the attack on the Meuse. Unhindered by the French Air Force, the 37mm guns of Bake’s Skodas, supported by assault guns armed with short 75mm guns, poured fire into the French defences across the river. They then forded on 13 May 1940, losing just one tank, which sank. Over the next three days Bake’s Company accounted for seven French tanks, two of which Bake knocked out.

Every available Allied aircraft was then flung into the battle for the Sedan bridgehead on 14 May. The French Air Force tried first and was beaten off, and then seventy-one Battles and Blenheims were thrown into the attack losing forty of their number in the process. By nightfall both the French 2nd and 9th Armies were collapsing before the mounting German pressure.

Also on the 14th the subsequent anticipated French counterattacks failed to dislodge Guderian. The French threw in their only strategic reserve comprising the newly formed 3rd Armoured Division and 3rd Motorized infantry Division, but over half the French tanks were knocked out. More French armour was on the way, but along with the 71st infantry Division they withdrew in the face of the advancing panzers. The following day, having suffered 5,000 casualties in 5 days of fighting, the Dutch Army surrendered.

On 16 May 6th Panzer Division’s 35(t)s came up against a French armour counterattack, then four days later encountered the British 36th Brigade. Despite their mechanical shortcomings, 6th Panzer’s Czech tanks gave a good account of themselves when they crossed swords with the formidable French heavy tank the Char B1-bis of the 2eme Division Cuirassée (2DCR), or 2nd Armoured Division. By the time of the attack on Guise Lieutenant Bake knew that their 37mm guns could not penetrate the frontal armour of the French tanks nor were they powerful enough to knock out an enemy tank with a single round. in one instance after a close engagement Bake and his crew took three shots to destroy the tank they were engaging.

Meanwhile General de Lattre wanted to remain north of the Aisne near Rethel to impede what he rightly deduced was the main German thrust. However by 17 May the 14th Infantry Division was holding a 13-mile front on the south banks of the Aisne and the Aisne Canal. For four days de Lattre’s men contained the German attacks. The General himself understood that linear defence was simply a waste of time and operated an all-round concept based on mutually supporting defence zones usually anchored on villages and hamlets.

On 11 May 1940 Charles de Gaulle, at 49 the youngest general in the French Army, was appointed commander of the virtually non-existent 4th Armoured Division. instead this was dubbed the ‘de Gaulle Force’, or ‘groupement de Gaulle’. He was despatched to Loan with instructions to delay the enemy so that a front could be established on the Aisene and the Ailette to bar the approaches to Paris. Gathering a battalion of heavy tanks and two of light tanks but lacking infantry and artillery, on 18 May these forces counterattacked with the aim of capturing Sissonne and Montcornet. They straddled the roads to Saint-Quentin, Loan and Rheims and would bar the enemy’s way west and to the front held by the French 6th Army.

General de Gaulle’s light tanks reached Montcornet while the heavies arrived on the outskirts of Saint-Pierremont. German artillery soon began to take a toll on his light tanks. After the arrival of reinforcements de Gaulle’s men overran a German column near Chivres. Retribution against ‘groupement de Gaulle’ swiftly came in the form of stuka and artillery bombardment. With the units on his flanks refusing to join his attack de Gaulle found himself in an exposed salient and had to withdraw. On the night of 26/27 May he was ordered back to Abbeville. Again he counterattacked with two battalions of tanks and a regiment of tracked carriers and this time drove the Germans back 14km.

Once the Germans were beyond the Meuse between Sedan and Namur, the British, French and Belgian position on the Dyle, Gembloux Gap and at Dinant was untenable. General Gamelin ordered a staggered withdrawal 45 miles west back to the Escaut River. With the Germans slicing through the Ardennes, British forces in Belgium were in danger of being cut off. While the BEF fended off heavy German infantry attacks, General Gaston Billotte, Commander of the First Group of Armies, which included the British, ordered a withdrawal to the Escaut or Scheldt Rivers on 16 May. This was done in an orderly manner, but ten days after the withdrawal the Belgians sued for peace. Seven British divisions were now committed to this new defensive line.

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A German shell impacts in a French field sending up a huge shower of clods of earth. German artillery and air strikes heralded Hitler’s assault on France and the Low Countries on 10 May 1940. The Luftwaffe conducted surprise attacks on seventy airfields. For the French and British forces this finally brought to an end the period known as the Phoney War.

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German infantry disembarking from a dinghy. On 13 May 1940 Guderian attacked across the Meuse at Sedan and the two French infantry divisions facing him soon collapsed.

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Ultimately French efforts to stop the Germans getting over the Meuse were a failure. Although three of the seven crossings were halted, the others succeeded.

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Allied air attacks on the German crossing points were swiftly beaten off and the panzers swarmed over the river.

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German troops examining an abandoned French howitzer. Judging from the debris, the crews were caught by enemy dive-bombers. The French 55th infantry Division which bore the brunt of the German attack at Sedan was well equipped with artillery, but crucially lacked anti-tank guns.

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In a highly touched up photograph a Panzer Mk I or II negotiates a pontoon bridge. Rommel’s 7th Panzer division crossed the meuse at dinant in Belgium on 14 may and soon found itself under threat from the French 1st armoured division totalling 175 tanks, under General Bruneau.

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A Panzer Mk III is seen pushing into France. Three panzer divisions with support from the Luftwaffe soon made short work of the French 1st and 2nd armoured divisions, which struggled to stage coordinated counterattacks.

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A horse-drawn German 105mm field gun crosses the Meuse – note the gun crew have stacked their helmets on the ammunition carriage. This is the leichte Feld Haubtize or LeFH 18 light field howitzer, which fired a 14.8kg shell with a range of 10,675m – over 5,000 of these were in service with the German Army by September 1939. it was either towed by horse or the Sdkfz halftrack.

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The Skodas of the 6th Panzer Division unhindered by the French Air Force forded the Meuse on 13 May losing just a single tank.

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Two knocked out French Char B1-bis. On 18 May 1940 General de Gaulle’s 4th Armoured Division counterattacked at Montcornet with heavy tanks and reached the outskirts of Saint-Pierremont. Although partially successful, the tanks found themselves at the mercy of German artillery and dive-bombers.

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The panzers did not have it all their own way as this disabled LT-35 shows. The French 47mm antitank gun easily outgunned the German light tanks.

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An abandoned French R-35 light tank – note the playing card insignia which were often painted on the turret for identification of sub units. The open turret hatch acted as a seat for the tank commander who had to aim, load and fire the 37mm SA 18 gun and the coaxial machine gun. Production amounted to upwards of 2,000 and when war was declared it was the most numerous of all the French tank types. Reportedly at the time of the invasion there were some 945 R-35/40s in front-line use, of which 135 were assigned to de Gaulle’s 4th Armoured Division.

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A German opel Blitz lorry (note the French helmet trophy hung from the bonnet) passes two abandoned tracked French carriers.

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This French town suffered at the hands of the Luftwaffe. The roofs and windows of the local shops have been smashed and the high street is strewn with debris. on the left a French woman trudges forlornly toward the wreckage.

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German soldiers inspect their prize – a French FT-17 light tank.

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French POWs are led to the rear.

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In the first shot a German motor vehicle column has stopped to gloat; most of the French are wearing the old Adrian type helmet.

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All too soon the RAF’s Fairey Battle bomber squadrons were to face the grim reality of confronting the Luftwaffe in France.

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