Sedan – 14–15 May: The Counter-attack Fails: The Tragic Fate of the Three DCRs Part II

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Another chance was missed by the 1st DCR further north on 14 May, while Rommel’s bridgehead was still vulnerable as he waited for the bulk of his forces to cross the river. A counter-attack was launched on that day by the 4th North African Division, but this would have been more effective in conjunction with the 1st DCR. Originally assigned to the reserve of the First Army, this unit had been dispatched on 10 May towards Charleroi. This meant that on 13 May its tanks were only 40 km north of Rommel’s bridgehead, but Billotte, still unsure where the main German attack was coming, hesitated to order them south. Not until the early morning of 14 May was the DCR instructed to head for the rear of Corap’s army. There were delays in transmitting this order, and when the division did set off at 1 p.m., its progress was slowed by columns of refugees clogging the roads. On the next morning the DCR’s commander, General Bruneau, was still not ready to attack because his tanks needed to refuel. He had made the mistake of placing his fuel tankers at the rear of his columns. Delayed by the chaos on the roads, they took several hours to arrive. Moving south-west out of the bridgehead, Rommel’s troops came upon two battalions of B1 tanks, which were refuelling. Some confused fighting ensued. If the bulk of the French tanks had been ready, they could have posed a serious challenge to Rommel. Instead he was able to continue his progress, leaving the 7th Panzer Division to deal with the rest of the French tanks. In the afternoon, there was fierce fighting between the Panzers and the French tanks whose refuelling was now complete. Although about 100 German tanks were knocked out, the French also suffered heavy losses because their tanks had been thrown in piecemeal. By the end of the day the DCR had been more or less wiped out.

By now Corap’s Ninth Army was in a state of total disintegration, with Rommel threatening his northern flank and Guderian his southern one. In the early hours of 15 May, Corap was granted his request to abandon the line of the Meuse and fall back on a line running roughly north–south from Charleroi to Rethel. But this was a position with no natural defences and the chaos of implementing the withdrawal merely hastened the collapse of Corap’s troops.

The most remarkable German advance on 15 May was made not by Rommel or Guderian, but by Reinhardt from the third bridgehead at Monthermé. For two days the French defenders had successfully contained him, but on the morning of 15 May he finally broke through. The penetrations by Rommel and Guderian on either side had fatally weakened the French centre. In Alistair Horne’s vivid description, Huntziger had opened up one sluice gate on 14 May and Corap another the next day: ‘[T]hrough the pair of them the flood was about to burst into France.’ Nothing now lay in Reinhardt’s path. The problem, as we have seen, was that once Georges had identified a threat to the Ardennes, he had initially thought that the danger lay on Huntziger’s right flank, and moved his reserves to deal with this eventuality. This caused him to neglect the possibility of a danger to Huntziger’s left flank, that is of a breach opening up between the Second and Ninth Armies. When he became belatedly aware of this possibility, he had decided to assemble a force (soon dubbed the Sixth Army) under General Touchon to plug (colmater) the gap and attack the flanks of the German advance.

It proved difficult to assemble Touchon’s troops fast enough. One of the units assigned to him was the 2nd DCR. Early on 14 May, it had been ordered to move from Châlons, where it was stationed in reserve, to Charleroi in order to join the counterattack against Rommel. Before the tanks had set off, this order was countermanded once it was clear that they would not be able to reach Charleroi fast enough. This mission was given to the 1st DCR, while the 2nd DCR was ordered to head for the Signy-l’Abbaye area for a counterattack against the central German bridgehead. Unfortunately, its accompanying wheeled vehicles had already set off for Charleroi and had to be redirected in mid-morning. They were slowed down by troops fleeing from the east. Meanwhile the tanks were being loaded on trains for transportation to Hirson, which was a time-consuming operation. The result was that on 15 May the units of the 2nd DCR were widely dispersed around the region lying between the Oise and Aisne rivers. Some tanks were being unloaded; others were still on the trains; the wheeled vehicles were still on the move. As Reinhardt’s Panzers moved west, they passed unwittingly through the centre of the area in which the tanks were being unloaded from the trains. The 2nd DCR ended the day scattered uselessly on both flanks of Reinhardt’s thrust—the tanks mainly to the north and most of the wheeled vehicles and supporting artillery to the south. Of the abortive counterattacks by the three DCRs, this unit’s effort had proved most futile.

By 4.00 p.m. on 15 May Reinhardt, reaching Montcornet, had covered about 60 km, meeting little opposition. By the end of that day Touchon recognized that there was nothing he could do to plug the gap, since Reinhardt’s troops were already west of the point where he had intended to position his forces. He therefore ordered his army to fall south below the River Aisne. Nothing now lay between the Germans and the Channel.

On the next day (16 May), it was Rommel’s turn to take the lead. In one of the most daring exploits of the campaign, he surged forward with two tank battalions ahead of the bulk of his forces. Moving through the day and the night, and circumventing larger agglomerations in order not to slow himself down, he stopped only when reaching Le Cateau at 6 a.m. on 17 May. He had covered about 110 km. Pushing so exposed a force so far ahead of the infantry and artillery was both unconventional and dangerous, but its very audacity only served to demoralize the French and further disorganize their lines. Rommel’s advance was less a battle than a mopping up operation as French troops moving forward to reinforce the line were stunned to find themselves encountering German forces so far west. By 16 May the three German bridgeheads across the Meuse formed one compact mass, which measured about 95 km at its widest point. This was the situation when Churchill arrived in Paris on 16 May for his crisis meeting with Reynaud.

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