By David Atwell
The 1940 campaign for France was without doubt the show piece for the military strategy known as Blitzkrieg. Although Blitzkrieg has revolutionized warfare ever since, in 1940 it was an untested theory, yet its original writers would also be the ones who would put it into practice. On the German side, Generals Guderian & Rommel would cut deep into the Allied lines with little effort, while the father of Blitzkrieg General Hobart would, with Generals Montgomery & De Gaulle, launch the most audacious counterattack not seen since the days of the ancients. In the end, however, World War II would not be over by Christmas 1940 as everyone thought. Instead it would go on until 1945, & only after it seemed that the entire world was at war. But in 1940, the world was focused solely on North-West Europe.
The German Attack
On 10 May 1940 six German armies
attacked into Holland, Belgium & northern France. Von Rundstedt, or more to
the point Von Manstein, had planned the German attack to be massive. There would
be no hiding the fact that the Germans meant business. This message, an invasion
into the Low Countries, was more than intended. The Germans had set a trap for
the Allies in the hope that they would fall right into it. And it almost worked.
The French Chief of Staff, General
Gamelin, was a man accustomed to war. He had experienced the First World War, as
had most other senior officers, yet had learnt nothing about the modern theories
currently in vogue. Ignoring the likes of General Georges, the French commander
of the North East Front, Gamelin was convinced that the Germans would attack
France as they did at the beginning of the Great War. Others, however, were not
Gamelin, although in charge of the defence of France, actually had no idea what his armies were up to. Living a life of a monk, he had all but become a hermit in his headquarters where no radio, not even a telephone, was present. The senior French commanders knew this & took advantage of it. Gamelin had furthermore made the mistake of permitting Georges a freehand in his command due, not only to the hopeless state of communications, but because the two generals loathed each other & were not on speaking terms. Thus on 10 May it was Georges, & not Gamelin, who would fight the forthcoming battles.
This situation, as it would turn out, was a blessing. Georges did not believe that a second Schlieffen plan was in the offering. Although he was no expert in armoured warfare, he nevertheless saw the warning signs. Having read all there was from the reports on the 1939 Polish campaign, Georges became convinced that a German armoured thrust into France was exactly what was about to happen. Whatever the Germans offered in Holland & Belgium would be a bluff. The only problem was, where would this German armoured attack come from?
Georges was often one to seek advice (except from Gamelin) when he needed it, & so he turned to the only general that he knew was an expert on armour: General Hobart. Hobart had had a mixed military career. More often than not he was at logger heads with superiors, but after the Second World War had started, he had become sought after. By 1940, he had become Britain’s trouble shooter: even more so after several German successes. As a result, Hobart was seen everywhere establishing & training new divisions. By April 1940 he was in Egypt training the 7th Armoured Division. On the eve of the German attack, however, Hobart found himself on a plane heading for France.
Hobart was not one to waist time & began working on Georges concerns immediately. The Frenchman liked Hobart’s professional blunt style rather than the usual condescending attitude of, not only his fellow countrymen, but that of most British generals. It did not take Hobart long to conclude that the German armour would attack through the Ardennes behind the proposed Allied front line. As if on cue, the Belgiums reported having captured (on 8 May) German war plans supporting Hobart’s assessment.
Even though Gamelin had ordered otherwise, Georges decided to hold all his forces south of the Belgium border in the event of a German attack. The Dutch & Belgiums would have to fend for themselves until the German armour showed themselves. Then battle would be given on France’s terms. As a result of good foresight, Georges had thus organized the northern defences as followed: on the coast stood Huntziger’s 2nd French army; next came the BEF of Gort; then came Corap’s 9th French army; between the rivers Meuse & Sambre stood Blanchard’s powerful 1st French army; whilst Giraud’s powerful 7th French army covered the Sedan sector. Finally Georges ordered Hobart, with the consent of the British government, to command an armoured reserve of Allied forces mustering at Reims.
The Germans, unaware of these events, attacked nonetheless at dawn on 10 May 1940. Success was immediate. The Dutch army had no chance & Holland surrendered to the invader after only two days. The Belgiums had better success, but had to fall back dramatically while screaming for support. As all such communications came through Georges office, he alone made decisions which appeared to be nothing more than betrayal to the Belgiums. Gamelin was not even aware of the desperate situation of the Belgiums until he was ordered to report to the French government on 17 May!
Battle of Sedan
Georges, ignoring events in Belgium & Holland, concentrated on the Ardennes. As contact was reported at Dinant with German units, Georges ordered Giraud to hold Sedan at all costs. Sedan was the key & everyone knew it. The Germans, however, did not place as much importance on Sedan as they should have. Guderian was given the task of taking the crossing & had started such on operation on 13 May. But Giraud had stationed over half of the 7th Army to cover the town.
Guderian, outnumbered more than three to one, had no chance of success; especially considering the French had two armoured divisions supporting the infantry. The soldiers of the 7th French Army gave little ground, & even though the Germans were able to push the French across the river, any German attempt to do the same was constantly thwarted. By the time Guderian became convinced that the Meuse could not be forced at Sedan, two days had past.
But it was not the determined French defence that saved Sedan: it was the German timetable. With Guderian being held up, the German attack was falling behind. Furthermore, the Germans had crossed the Meuse at Dinant & Montherme. Rather than have the entire 16th German army stuck dangerously around Sedan, Guderian convinced his commander Busch to move north to Montherme & cross the Meuse there. As a consequence, the Germans did exactly what Georges wanted them to do.
By 17 May Georges had ascertained the German strategy. Hobart was right. The Germans had intended to lure the main Allied force into Belgium & then cut it off from behind. This, however, was not to be the case & the only forces being enveloped were the Belgiums. Of course they were not overly happy about the situation, but Georges continued to tell them that a counterattack would soon get under way that would see the Germans routed. The Belgiums did not believe it
Battle of Arras
Before any counterattack could get under way, however, the Allies would have to let the Germans continue their advance. By now, though, Gamelin had discovered the truth of the situation & was livid. Having been humiliated by the French Prime Minister about the current & seemingly desperate situation, Gamelin threatened Georges with execution if something was not done immediately. Such an order was not that easy to carry out, however, as the speed of the German advance ensured that any ad hoc counterattack was almost impossible.
Having said that, the Germans themselves ensured that a major battle would soon take place. Until now, the Germans had been content to race along westward, bouncing off French forces which had dug in along their line of advance. In reality, though, this meant that the French line was along an east-west parallel, one which mirrored the German advance. At Arras, however, this was about to change. Here the Allied line took on a north-south axis from St Quentin to Lille. And it was exactly here that the Germans had planed to move through & onwards towards Calais & the English Channel.
The Battle of Arras, which started on 20 May, was in effect three different battles. To the south of Arras commenced the Battle of Peronne. Here stood the French 6th & 9th Armies. Although the 6th Army was new to the front line, the area had already been prepared well by the 9th Army. With Guderian in the lead, the German 16th Army attacked without hesitation. Although successful at first, the French rallied themselves & held the Germans. The Battle of Peronne would continue for 2 days. The French, although sustaining heavy causalities, held the Germans.
At around the same time, in the centre, the Battle of Arras proper took place. The German 4th Army came straight at Arras itself. The defence at first was confusing because Arras was the army border between the 9th French army & the BEF. The Germans, however, did themselves a miss-service by getting themselves entangled in & around the town. The BEF rushed forces to the sector, regardless of jurisdiction, & then managed to hold the Germans in place. By the time the Germans attacked again, French reinforcements from the 9th Army ensured that the Germans got nowhere.
Finally on 21 May, to the north of Arras, the BEF (reinforced with the 5th British Tank Brigade) came under attack between the towns of Lens & La Bassee. The Germans would throw four panzer divisions at them under the command of Rommel. It would be desperate, but good defences, which had been prepared since 10 May, stopped the German advance. Nonetheless, BEF casualties were heavy.
The Germans, like at Sedan, were once again being held up by stubborn Allied resistance. Furthermore, the experience here, as at Sedan, would see Guderian develop his “Swing Right Plan”: one which impressed Von Rundstedt & was thus approved. The German 16th Army was hence pulled out of the line & swung around, behind the 4th & 12th Armies, to the right wing north of Lille. Here it would then head west towards Dunkirk. Although it meant that the Germans would arrive at the coast north of Calais instead of south of it, Guderian argued that once at the coast, 16th Army would turn south & attack into the rear of the Allied armies around Arras. “Where the panzers lead, victory follows” Guderian concluded.
On 25 May Guderian’s tanks reached the
coast. It was a magnificent achievement under the circumstances. It would,
however, be a short lived one. On the same day, the great Allied counterattack
would take place, even though at first it appeared to be doomed from the start.
In fact only a handful of people actually thought it would work; namely Georges,
Hobart & De Gaulle. Even Montgomery thought it was crazy, but he had little
choice. Hobart, both his senior officer & brother-in-law, placed him in
charge of the Allied Support Group (ASG), whilst Hobart kept the Allied Tank
Force (ATF) for himself. When Gamelin was finally informed of the plan on 24
May, all he could mutter over & over again was “Merde!”
The Allied counterattack began with the French 1st Army attacking to their front. This meant attacking into the Western Ardennes which had been occupied by the Germans for some time. Although the panzer divisions were nowhere nearby, the German infantry were more than up to the task of holding back the French. To the Germans, such an attack was somewhat expected. So to Von Rundstedt, such an attack was well within his plans, & when it was clear that the French were getting nowhere, he paid little attention to its developments.
Unbeknownst to the Germans, however, the attack by the 1st French Army was merely the opening round. From Sedan the main attack would take place. On the eastern side of the river, the French 7th Army attacked towards Montherme. This was successful within a few hours. Before the Germans knew it, a third of their supply lines had just been cut. And the major attack was still to come.
Next came the ATF. This army, formed in secret at Reims, would be more powerful than anything the Germans currently had. Made up of nine Allied divisions (1st UK Armoured Division, 2e DCR, 3e DCR, 4e DC, 51 UK Division, 3e DIM, 12e DIM, 7e DINA & 7e DIC) & the 1st British Tank Brigade, it was Blitzkrieg Hobart style. Supported by 10 Hurricane, 4 Spitfire & 8 Blenheim squadrons there was nothing that could stop Hobart. Furthermore, the ASG of Montgomery added a further four infantry divisions (3rd UK Division, 5e DIC, 23e DI & 29e DI) to the counterattack.
The AFT had three objectives overall. The first was Dinant. This was taken relatively simply. But the AFT had to wait until the 7th French Army could send units from Montherme, to take over the defence of this sector, for the AFT had other plans. Although 12 hours were lost waiting, this did not stop AFT’s next objective falling the next day. The Germans at Namur put up stiff resistance, but in reality they had no chance of fending off Hobart. The ATF, supported by the ASG, captured Namur by dusk on 26 May.
The AFT, however, had not finished its mission. The third objective was Antwerp. This would be the most dangerous part of the counterattack. All number of things could go wrong, especially if the Germans acted swiftly to counter the Allied offensive. This, Von Rundstedt tried to do by having the German divisions in the Western Ardennes facing the 1st French Army, fall back on Charleroi & Namur. Although Charleroi was secured, Namur was by now well & truly defended by Montgomery. Furthermore, Hobart had transferred the French 3rd Reserve Armoured Division & De Gaulle’s 4th Armoured Division to the ASG.
On 28 May, as the tanks of British 1st Armoured Division met the Belgiums at Antewrp, the Germans knew that they were in deep trouble. It was they that had been enveloped & not the Allied armies in Belgium. Yet there was still hope. Despite calls from Hitler for the Germans not to retreat, Von Rundstedt had no intention of letting “… the little corporal order him to get the German army slaughtered.” From Brussels, Von Rundstedt ordered the 16th Army to fall back through the 4th & 12th Armies & attack Namur.
Following the 16th Army, the 12th Army would likewise fall back through the 4th Army, which, in turn with the 6th Army, would bring up the rear. As these two armies acted as the rearguard, one powerful enough to hold off the following Allies, the 16th & 12th Armies would force a corridor through the Allied lines whereupon the German armies would then escape.
Guderian could not believe what had
taken place. Here he was at the English Channel & yet it was the Germans in
trouble & not the French. In a heated discussion over the radio with Von
Rundstedt, Guderian argued that they should not retreat, but continue with the
attack. By all means have the German 18th Army attack Namur & in turn
surround Hobart, but continue the attack into the rear of the Allied armies
around Arras. Von Rundstedt, nonetheless, rejected Guderian’s advice whereupon
Guderian declared “It is easier to fight the French than make my superiors see
Battle of Namur
Alas, even great plans go astray. It would not be all that simple. Instead of the 16th Army arriving at Namur first, the 12th Army did. To complicate the situation even more, the 12th Army immediately attacked on 30 May without waiting for the 16th Army. Furthermore, no one at Von Rundstedt’s headquarters had communicated much with the German 18th Army (it belonged to a different army group - Army Group B Von Bock), which was to the north of the ATF. The result saw no coordination with the German break-out attempt & Montgomery had no trouble throwing back the initial German attack.
On the following day, the Germans tried again. A half hearted attempt, this time by the 18th Army, was repulsed in the morning of 31 May. Even so Montgomery was worried. He only had two French divisions covering the east, whilst the rest covered the expected main line of attack from the west. Although Hobart really did not have anything to give him, the French 2nd Armoured Division would nonetheless become the ATF/ASG reserve.
The Allies, however, were not getting everything their own way. After the Battle of Arras, the French 9th Army was all but destroyed. Having suffered over 50% casualties, it was in no shape to chase after the Germans. The BEF was not in much better condition, but did get reinforcements in the shape of the 1st Canadian & ANZAC divisions. Nonetheless, Rommel enjoyed a glorious retreat & hit the pursuing Allied armies on several occasions. One example is Rommel’s counterattack at Mons. The French 6th Army was hit so hard by the 7th Panzer Division that it had to be reinforced with three of the lessor depleted divisions from the exhausted 9th Army. Still, an attack the next day by the ANZAC Division forced Rommel to write “British [sic] attacking with infantry. It is actually true… They fought with remarkable tenacity. Even the wounded went on defending themselves.”
On 1 June the fighting around Namur had quietened down. It would be the calm before the storm & Mongomery knew it. The Germans, having had no success so far in breaking out, decided to wait until both the German 12th & 16th Armies had concentrated enough to attempt a coordinated attack. Just to confuse matters more, the 10th Panzer Division attempted a diversion in the afternoon on 1 June which ran into 1 UK Tank Brigade. Little fighting, however, took place as the 10th Panzer withdrew. They had grown to respect the battlefield qualities of the Matilda II tank.
The largest tank engagement in any war to date took place on 2 June 1940. Four panzer divisions, with infantry support, attacked Montgomery’s ASG. From the start Montgomery was in trouble & he immediately called upon the French 2nd Reserve Armoured Division. The battle, however, would last all day. Wave after wave of Germans attacked the Allied line, yet they would be repulsed. But, at around 4pm, Guderian concentrated all his armour against the French 5th Division which henceforth crumbled as a result. Although it appeared that the Germans had gained their break-out, the remains of De Gaulle’s 4th Armoured Division smashed its way into Guderian’s northern flank. Following De Gaulle came the 2nd Reserve Armoured Division. Another desperate tank battle thus was fought with the German’s backs to the Sambre.
In a final measure, the 10th Panzer Division was thrown into the vortex by a desperate General Busch. Unfortunately for Mongomery, he had no further reinforcements. After a day of horrific fighting, at around 8pm, Mongomery had to withdraw from Namur in order to protect Hobart’s rear. In doing so, however, the Namur Corridor opened for the Germans who were quick to link up with the 18th Army around Eben Emael.
If the Germans thought that they had reached safety, however, they were wrong. Now that it was obvious that the Allies had to let the Germans out, Allied artillery would nonetheless make the Germans pay dearly for their pyrrhic victory. Every spare cannon was rushed to the area & these shelled the fleeing Germans constantly for the next two days. Added to this carnage was the RAF's Bomber Command. Having been sheltered from the war so far, unlike the French Air Force, Bomber Command unleashed its squadrons of Wellington bombers. Although the addition of the Wellingtons to the battle actually caused little damage overall, it was still an unwanted reminder to the Germans of the aspects of modern warfare.
By 5 June the last German units, namely the 7th Panzer Division, made it through the Namur Corridor. The Germans, however, were given little rest as following the 7th Panzer were the BEF & the 6th & 2nd French Armies. Thus the Germans were forced to quickly establish a defensive line from Namur to the Albert Canal in the north. Having said that the Germans need not have worried about an Allied attack. Like the Germans, the Allies were exhausted. Only the French 2nd Army was at relatively full strength, but it was in no position to attack the entire German line.
Unlike everyone else, though, Hitler had other ideas. Although it was a welcomed addition to the exhausted German forces, & further good reason for the Allies not to attack, the German 7th Army came with orders to attack through the Ardennes. Von Rundstedt could not believe what Hitler wanted & announced to all at his headquarters “Attack with the 7th Army towards Paris? If it should even get across the Meuse we should go down on our knees and thank God!” Instead the 7th Army would face off against Giraud’s 7th French Army & protect the southern flank of the German 4th Army defending Namur. The Germans, though, need not have worried as Giraud was in no condition to launch a major attack anytime soon. In fact the front line, settled upon on 5 June, would remain that way for months to come.
The cost to both sides was horrendous. Whilst on the move, casualties remained minimal. But as the Battles of Arras & Namur had shown, once a fully fledged battle commenced, the firepower of the respective sides quickly changed all that. On the Allies side, the 9th French Army was non combat effective. In a similar fashion, so too was Mongomery’s ASG. Yet the ASG had to remain in the line as there were no replacements available. Even the French 6th Army could barely manage a 60% turnout in personnel.
The Germans suffered fewer casualties, but like their Allied counterparts, they were in no condition to recommence offensive action anytime soon. German casualties were significantly much lighter than the Allies until the Battle of Namur. It was here where the cream of the German army was smashed. The once proud panzer divisions would suffer the most casualties in the desperate tank battles against the French. Yet just as many Germans would become casualties when German units came under artillery attack whilst chancing the Namur Corridor.
The war, of course, would go on. More & more countries were dragged into it. Furthermore, it would not be until 1944 when the tide of battle would finally swing its weight towards the Allies. Until then, four more years, alas, would be spent fighting it out in eastern Belgium before the Germans were finally pushed back into their territory in late 1944. By then, however, the Russians were approaching the eastern German frontier & America had added its armed forces to the Allied cause.
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