Sedan: A Lesson in Army Air Support

Further south, Britain’s most important ally was also in trouble. Since 10 May, French reconnaissance planes had been monitoring the powerful armoured forces moving through the Luxembourg Ardennes towards the French defences on the Meuse, and more were moving across southern Belgium towards Gembloux. Initially, the latter seemed the greater threat; there was no natural obstacle to aid the defence in the 30-mile gap between the BEF on the Dyle and the French forces on the Meuse. The well-equipped French 1st Army had the task of plugging this gap. The 2nd and 3rd Light Armoured divisions pushed as far east as possible to buy time for the French infantry to dig in.

Before the German forces could even think about breaking through the ‘Gembloux Gap’, they had to cross the River Mass, which ran through the Dutch town of Maastricht. Just a couple of miles beyond that, in Belgium, there was another major obstacle—the Albert Canal. The Maastricht crossing was not important to Dutch defences, but the local troops did their duty and destroyed the bridges over the Maas before the Germans could seize them. German forces had more success just over the frontier, in Belgium. Troops in gliders landed near the three bridges over the Albert Canal and the fort at Eben-Emael, which was supposed to cover them. Belgian engineers blew one of the bridges, but those at Vroenhoven and Veldwezelt were captured intact and Eben-Emael was quickly neutralised.

With the Maastricht bridges blown, the Belgians had the best part of a day before any major reinforcements could reach the lightly armed German airborne troops holding the Albert Canal bridges. The German forces, however, had the firepower of the Stuka dive-bombers to help them fend of the Belgian counterattacks. The Belgian troops had no air support or fighter cover; apart from escorting the odd reconnaissance mission, Belgian fighters stayed on the ground. The Fairey Fox was as capable of carrying bombs as the Fokker C.V and C.X, but these and the Belgian Battles did not intervene. The blown bridges at Maastricht caused a huge bottleneck as German columns waited for the engineers to construct the pontoons. It was one of those rare occasions where there was no alternative route. The backed-up columns made an attractive target for the eleven unemployed Hampden and Whitley squadrons, not to mention the two Whitley squadrons attempting to hit less vital communication targets further north.

Sifting through the reports coming from the front, it was not German bottlenecks the Air Staff was looking for, but rather any evidence that the Luftwaffe was bombing civilians. The cabinet meetings that day spent much time discussing whether there was justification for unleashing Bomber Command on the Ruhr, but they reached no final decision. Apart from Wellington and Whitley attacks on Waalhaven and communication targets west of the Ruhr, no other missions were flown on the night of 10–11 May. This is not to say that the French effort was more intensive—only two of the six night bomber squadrons flew. Twelve aircraft made some rather ineffectual attacks on German airfields.

Five reconnaissance Blenheims, flying singly and unescorted, were dispatched during the course of 11 May to find out what was happening in the Maastricht/Albert Canal region. Three were lost and the two that made it back were badly damaged. They confirmed the Belgian frontier defences had been breached and armoured forces were heading for Gembloux. These missions also confirmed that using unescorted Blenheims for reconnaissance was not an efficient way of acquiring information; even the Belgians were escorting their reconnaissance planes. Only the photo-reconnaissance Spitfires could operate unescorted, but No. 212 Squadron had so few planes that it rarely managed to fly more than two sorties a day. The most important role of any air force has always been and probably always will be reconnaissance. A few more reconnaissance Spitfires would have been a very good investment.

Early on the morning of the 11th, Belgian Air Force Battles attempted to destroy the two intact bridges over the Albert Canal. The Gladiator escort was intercepted before it met up with the bombers, and only one of the eight Battles returned. No bombs had hit the bridges, and the 50-kg bombs they were carrying would not have made much impression anyway. The Belgians appealed to their British and French Allies to try.

In fact, Maastricht was the more rewarding target. The bridges high over the Albert Canal could not be easily replaced, but nor could they be easily destroyed. The pontoons the Germans had thrown across the Maas were far more vulnerable and any damage to the town itself would block roads. No. 2 Group Blenheims attacked the pontoon bridges in Maastricht (eleven sorties) and enemy columns pushing towards Tongres (twelve sorties). Twelve French LeO 451s, the first of the new French bombers, also bombed Maastricht. The French bombers had a close escort of M.S.406 fighters, while the Blenheims had to rely on Hurricanes operating in the general area, but it would seem the air defences were not that strong on the 11th. Two Blenheims were lost—one to fighters and one to flak.

Instead of continuing the attack during the night, Bomber Command stuck rigidly to its pre-offensive plane to bomb communication targets west of the Rhine in Germany. Nineteen Hampdens and eighteen Whitleys bombed Mönchengladbach. It was the first time Bomber Command had attacked a German city. Four civilians were killed. How the Germans were supposed to distinguish between this and attacks on German industry east of the Rhine is not clear; nor would it have been clear to the Germans why Mönchengladbach was chosen as the crucial tactical target that merited Bomber Command’s only effort that night. Lines of communication from the city led into southern Holland and to Maastricht, but it was too far from either front line to be crucial. All the French could put into the air was five ancient Amiot 143s, but at least they were in a more relevant area, bombing Maastricht and targets around Aachen.

Fairey Battles: 12 Squadron aircraft going in against the bridges over the Albert Canal.

The fifty bombing sorties flown in the Maastricht area on the 11th were dwarfed by the number of bomber and dive-bomber sorties flown by the Luftwaffe. Nevertheless, they made sufficient impression for German Army commanders to demand better air cover. In response, on 12 May German fighter squadrons maintained a permanent watch, operating from airfields just a few minutes’ flying time from Maastricht. Operating without a close escort was now going to be very dangerous. To make matters worse, while the Luftwaffe was stepping up its efforts in the Maastricht area, Air Component Hurricanes had to divide their resources between Maastricht and the Belgian forces falling back on Antwerp. The bombers paid the price. Nine AASF Blenheims were intercepted just after attacking German troop columns and seven were shot down. Five Battles from No. 12 Squadron attempted to destroy the Vroenhoven and Veldwezelt bridges. Two squadrons of Blenheims bombing Maastricht from medium altitude were supposed to distract the defenders, but they arrived too late and the bridges were not destroyed. Ten of the twenty-four Blenheims were lost to fighters and flak, and all five Battles were also shot down.

An irate German officer scolded one of the shaken survivors:

You British are mad. We capture the bridge early Friday morning. You give us all Friday and Saturday to get our flak guns up in circles all round the bridge, and then on Sunday, when all is ready, you come along with three aircraft and try and blow the thing up!

It was a fair point. If they had struck quickly, before the defences were ready, the chances of surviving were much greater.

Other attacks on troop column heading for Tongres brought the total number of No. 2 Group sorties to forty-five for the loss of eleven Blenheims. This was an unsustainable loss rate. Fighter escorts helped the French medium bombers avoid heavy losses, but no escort could prevent eight of eighteen hedge-hopping Breguet 693 ground-attack bombers from being shot down by flak. Like the Battle aircrews, the French were flying their first mission, and they were equally taken aback by the lethality of the light anti-aircraft defences. The Breguet 693 was smaller and much faster than the Battle, but the French aircrews were no more experienced than their RAF counterparts.

Three more RAF Hurricane squadrons flew to France on the evening of the 10th, and the promised tenth squadron arrived on the 12th. Even so, the number of RAF fighters available was still inadequate for all the tasks they were required to carry out. RAF fighters were not being used as bomber interceptors deep in the rear, as Slessor and Dowding had anticipated; they were inevitably drawn to where the fighting on the ground was taking place, and the further east they went, the more frequent were encounters with Bf 109Es. Galland describes how he almost felt sorry for what he thought was a formation of Belgian Hurricanes he came across; it was actually an RAF squadron, probably No. 87. The German ace shot down two with an ease that he found embarrassing. The Battle and Blenheim raid on the Albert Canal/Maastricht bridges was supposed to be covered by three fighter squadrons, but they were committed piecemeal and engaged by German fighters over a wide area. Only the eight Hurricanes of No. 1 Squadron were in the Maastricht area, and only three of them returned intact, although all the pilots eventually made it back. Thirteen French-based Hurricanes were lost on the 12th, marking the first serious pilot losses—four killed and two wounded.

The 100-odd bomber sorties flown by the Allied air forces on 11 and 12 May in the Maastricht region caused delays, especially to the 4th Panzer. This could only help the French racing to meet them, but it was only partial compensation for the far more powerful blows that were delaying the French. These were spearheaded by the 300 Stuka dive-bombers of Fliegerkorps VIII. This mobile close-support unit had helped smash a way through the Dutch Peel Marshes defences, had beaten off the Belgian counterattacks around Eben-Emael, had forced the French tanks advancing on Breda to retreat, and was now supporting the drive on Gembloux. The idea that German Army commanders could radio for help whenever they needed it was perhaps an exaggeration, but the Germans were very good at concentrating their air resources where they were needed.

The French 2nd and 3rd Light Armoured divisions first clashed with the 3rd and 4th Panzer Divisions on 12 May. From the 13th to the 15th, a fierce tank battle raged east of Gembloux. The French suffered heavily at the hands of their more experienced opponents, but the German Panzers failed to break through. In a hard-fought and close battle, by imposing some delays, the Allied day bombers could claim to have made a small but useful contribution. Perhaps significantly, for most of the battle the French tanks were spared the full attention of the German Stukas. On the 13th, most of Fliegerkorps VIII moved south. The French thought they were dealing with the most serious threat; in fact, the heaviest German blow was to fall on the Meuse.

Since the first day of the offensive, the French had been following the progress of the Panzers heading through Luxembourg and southern Belgium towards the Meuse. On the 11th, two flights of four AASF Battles were involved in a rather ambitious attempt to bomb roads around Prüm, in Germany. Only one returned. The survivors reported that the three other planes in their flight had been shot down by flak before reaching the target. In view of the heavy losses to ground fire, Barratt suggested that the Battles should be used from a higher altitude. Playfair argued that the highest altitude for accurate bombing would still be within range of light flak, and flying as low as possible was still the best option. This seemed to be borne out in further raids on the 12th, when a first wave of three attacking from 20 feet suffered no losses, a second wave of six attacking from 100 feet lost two, and a third wave of six attacking from 1,000 feet lost four. There had been eight months of phoney war and a campaign in Norway to try out different tactics. The middle of a crucial battle was an unfortunate time to be debating solutions.

As far as the Air Staff was concerned, the losses proved they had been right all along. Portal had predicted 50 per cent losses and that was what was happening. In fact, the losses in tactical operations had been no more disastrous that those suffered in the Wilhelmshaven raids. The Air Staff’s response, however, was very different. The heavy Hampdens and Wellington losses had not been allowed to throw into doubt the validity of strategic bombing; they had just hardened Air Staff resolve to find ways around the problem. The heavy losses in tactical operations were gratefully accepted as proof that Army air support did not work.

The only problem was that the Luftwaffe was proving the contrary. The Air Staff were left sticking gamely to their argument that direct air support for ground forces only worked for armies going forward; only armies that were advancing knew what needed to be attacked, whereas armies that were retreating would always be less sure. The Air Staff liked to conjure up the image of bombers desperately scouring the countryside, looking for a particular enemy column the Army wanted bombed. In fact, in such a large-scale offensive, the bombers had no problems finding suitable targets. Their losses to anti-aircraft fire were a testament to that. Two of the raids on 12 May were actually witnessed by Guderian, the commander of the German tank forces heading for Sedan. The bombers were in the right areas.

The problem was the losses they were suffering. In critical situations, the AASF was supposed to fly repeat missions every two hours. If his had been possible, even the relatively small AASF could have had a major impact on the German columns winding their way through the Ardennes. This was what the German commanders had most feared. As it was, repeat missions were out of the question. Indeed, there were doubts about continuing to use the Battle at all in the low-level attack role. Much to their relief, the Germans were able to complete their three-day approach march to the main French defensive position along the Meuse relatively unscathed.

On Newall’s orders, Barratt instructed Playfair not to fly any missions on the 13th—the Battles had to be conserved for the decisive phase of the battle. Given the losses so far suffered, the decision was understandable. Unfortunately, the 13th was to be the decisive day of the entire campaign. This was far from obvious to the French that morning; the Germans had reached the Meuse, but all the bridges had been blown and French artillery dominated the battlefield. The French expected a pause of a few days while the Germans brought their artillery up to support a crossing of the river, and the situation seemed far more critical elsewhere. The tank battle at Gembloux was about to begin, and the French 7th Army was in difficulty around Breda, in the Netherlands. The only mission flown by the AASF on the 13th was an attempt to slow down the German advance by blocking roads in Breda. While Battles were flying all the way from Reims to support the French Army in the Netherlands, the real danger was much closer to hand.

Events on the Meuse were moving far faster than the French had anticipated. The German forces had no intention of waiting for artillery to move up. Instead, the Luftwaffe gave a classic demonstration of how airpower could substitute for artillery. Throughout the 13th, the French positions at Sedan, in the front line and artillery to the rear, were subjected to waves of medium bombers and dive-bombers. Under the cover of this continuous air bombardment, German infantry established bridgeheads on the west bank of the Meuse. So fierce was the aerial bombardment that some French troops holding the front line panicked and fled. There could be no doubt now about the impact tactical bombing could have on the battlefield. It was, however, still only German infantry on the west bank. The Panzers would have to wait until the German engineers could get their pontoon bridges across the river.

Further north, at Dinant, the German forces had nothing like the same air support. Nevertheless, at Houx, just north of Dinant, Rommel managed to get a small party of infantry across the Meuse and establish the first tiny, precarious bridgehead on the west bank. The German troops were spotted by a French reconnaissance plane. The pilot appreciated the significance of the discovery and knew what to do; following the guidelines established before the offensive for dealing with important fleeting targets, he headed for the base of No. 12 Battle Squadron. On 13 May, there could be no more important a target of opportunity than German forces on the west bank of the Meuse. Playfair wanted to strike, but Barratt, anxious to avoid unnecessary losses, denied permission. Perhaps a single strike by a squadron of Battles would not have been enough to defeat Rommel’s first attempt to cross the Meuse, but the Allies would never find out. By the evening, the bridgehead was large enough to allow work to begin on a pontoon bridge.

The French planned to retrieve the situation at Sedan by a counterattack by two tank battalions. These slow-moving infantry support tanks were quite capable of dealing with lightly armed infantry. If bridges enabled German Panzers to cross the river, the odds would swing heavily against the French. The counterattack was supposed to be launched at dawn on the 14th, but it had to be put back because of the confusion caused by retreating troops. The French desperately needed a little more time.

At 10 p.m. on 13 May, General Billotte, the commander of all Allied armies on the North-Eastern front, instructed D’Astier and Barratt to take immediate action against the bridges the Germans were building. He wanted the attacks to begin that night if possible. D’Astier immediately switched his four night bomber squadrons from the Maastricht region to the Ardennes and prepared to launch every available bomber against the bridges the following day. Barratt was more cautious. He committed himself to just one small raid at dawn.

The Meuse crossings were a much easier target for the Allied air forces than the Maastricht/Albert Canal bridges. The German fighter pilots would now be operating much further from their bases. The bridges were only temporary pontoons and they were only a short distance from Allied airfields. As Billotte appreciated, the attacks had to be launched quickly, not just because of the urgency of the situation, but to deny the Germans time to organise their air defences. On the morning of the 14th, the Germans were still desperately trying to extract flak units from the miles of columns queuing back from the Meuse.

As promised, early on the 14th, six Battles attacked the Sedan crossing points. All made it back to their base, although one wounded pilot had to force-land. Encouraged by this relative success, another flight of four was dispatched. They reported light flak, but all four returned. At 9 a.m., eight French Breguet 693s attacked armoured units spotted by the Battle crews, losing one plane. At this point, no Panzers had yet crossed the Meuse and the anti-aircraft defences were still relatively disorganised. A more substantial effort might have brought a greater reward at less cost than the British bombers were about to suffer.

Soon after these raids, the French launched their counterattack. Almost simultaneously, the 1st Panzer Division started crossing the Meuse. The French tanks advanced until they ran into the German Panzers, at which point they were quickly scattered. The situation at Sedan had suddenly become extremely critical.

French hopes of restoring the situation rested with General Flavigny’s XXI Corps, a substantial force with motorised troops, light tanks, and one of the three French heavy armoured divisions. This was moving north towards the Sedan bridgehead, with instructions to strike as soon as possible. To buy time for these reinforcements to move into position, all bombing effort was to be focused on Sedan. Barratt was persuaded to join the French in one all-out effort. At around midday, he instructed the AASF to launch every available Battle and Blenheim against the Sedan bridges that afternoon.

The French would attack first, followed by the AASF bombers. Both forces would rearm, return, and attack again. Blenheims from No. 2 Group would round off the assault. The first AASF attack would consist of three waves, with two escorted by Hurricanes and the third by French fighters. Hurricanes and French fighters would escort No. 2 Group Blenheims in the final attack. Five Hurricane squadrons would be involved; it was the first time Hurricanes had been switched from Belgium to the French front. They were joined by around fifteen now somewhat under-strength French fighter squadrons. Two of them, however, were equipped with the new Dewoitine D.520.

The RAF escorts were again indirect. At least three of the Hurricane squadrons were distracted by formations of Ju 87 dive-bombers. These were very worthy targets and the Hurricanes inflicted heavy losses, but this was little consolation to the AASF bomber crews they were supposed to be protecting. The Bf 109Es of JG 53 alone claimed thirteen Battles. Arguably, the Dutch tactics of providing a close escort, with the fighters joining in the attack if possible, would have been more successful.

It seems the French ‘escorts’ were not the standard close escort they were providing for their own bombers. At least some of the French fighters were actually escorting a French reconnaissance plane. The Bloch 152 that were supposed to be escorting the Blenheims of No. 2 Group were covering Flavigny’s forces moving up from the south. It seems the RAF was happy to accept French fighters operating in the area on other duties as an escort.

By the time the first French bombers appeared, German fighter and flak defences were ready. This first wave consisted of just twenty-one bombers, thirteen of which were Amiot 143s—obsolete, ungainly medium bombers that previously the French had only dared use by night. They did at least get a substantial escort; twelve M.S.406s flew with the bombers, while Bloch 152s and Dewoitine D.520s provided cover at a higher altitude. The French fighters fought valiantly to protect their vulnerable charges and were reasonably successful. Two Amiots were shot down by Bf 110s and another two were lost to flak, while one of the eight LeO 451s was also shot down. It could have been a lot worse.

For the AASF bombers that followed, it was a lot worse. Forty of the seventy-one Battles and Blenheims were lost to fighters and flak. So many of the returning French and British bombers were damaged that the repeat attacks had to be abandoned. Twenty-eight Blenheims of No. 2 Group attacked in the evening; only five Hurricanes could be mustered for the RAF element of the escort, and even these got side-tracked by German observation planes. Again, these were very worthy targets, but shooting down reconnaissance planes was not the role of the fighters on this occasion. Given their rather vague instructions, the pilots can scarcely be criticised for attacking any enemy aircraft they came across, but another six bombers were lost.

The dive-bombers and observation planes shot down by the Hurricanes did not help the bombers, but these successes did underline how many very vulnerable German planes there were in the battlezone. It was not surprising that Pownall was fuming at the ‘the thirty-four squadrons at home where there is no attack’. There would have been plenty of targets for them in France. Even the fighters that were available were affecting German operations. On 15 May, Guderian’s XIX Corps reported its aerial reconnaissance was ‘severely impeded’ by Allied fighters and it was no longer possible for squadrons ‘to carry out vigorous, extensive reconnaissance, as, owing to casualties, more than half of their aircraft are not now available’. It was fortunate for the Luftwaffe that so many RAF fighter squadrons were still in Britain.

During the course of the 14th, twenty-eight French-based Hurricanes were shot down. Nearly all these were victims of Bf 109s and 110s. Nineteen pilots were killed or wounded. The Hurricane was effective enough against German bomber and reconnaissance planes, but it was losing the battle with the Messerschmitts. Total Battle losses since the start of the offensive had risen to seventy—over half of the force. The AASF was withdrawn from daylight operations once again.

The French did their best to maintain the pressure on the Sedan bridgehead. During the night of 14–15 May, huge four-engine long-range Farman 222 bombers were ordered to join the tactical night offensive, but the two groups only had six serviceable machines. The four Amiot 143 bomber groups, after flying the previous night and in the daylight attack, were in action again on the night of 13–14 May; in the circumstances, the tired crews did well to manage sixteen sorties. Still the ‘heavies’ of Bomber Command remained idle. After the thirty-seven sorties flown on the night of the 11–12 May, the Air Ministry instructed Bomber Command to conserve its strength as cabinet permission for the bombing of the Ruhr was believed to be imminent. On 12–13 May, just twelve sorties were flown by the 250-strong force, and these were mainly near the Dutch/German border. On the 13th–14th, another twelve operated rather vaguely in the Eindhoven-Aachen-Maastricht region.

Bomber Command stepped up its efforts on the night of 14–15 May, but not over the Meuse. The French assured Barratt that the heroism of RAF crews had saved the day by allowing time for a French counterattack to restore the situation. Perhaps the French were slightly too enthusiastic with their appreciation; they convinced Barratt that the danger had passed. The French Air Force continued to focus on the Meuse crossings, but Barratt suggested that Bomber Command should concentrate on Breda and Maastricht. Always anxious to bomb something inside Germany, Portal added Aachen and Mönchengladbach. Twelve Hampdens attacked targets in and around Breda in support of the retreating French 7th Army, and eighteen Wellingtons bombed Aachen and Maastricht in support of the 1st Army. Twelve Whitleys revisited Mönchengladbach in support of no one in particular.

The Allied bombing at Sedan might well have helped restore the situation—if Flavigny had actually launched his counterattack. The 150 bomber sorties the Allies had flown against the Meuse bridgehead on the 14th had caused delays. Guderian’s XIX Corps reported: ‘Throughout the day all three divisions have had to endure constant air attack—especially at the crossing and bridging points. Our fighter cover is inadequate.’ These delays could have been significant. While the attacks were taking place, Guderian had decided to push his 1st and 2nd Panzer divisions as far west as possible, despite their rather precarious base. The 10th Panzer division was supposed to cover the left flank. This began crossing the Meuse on the morning of the 14th, but the air attacks meant it was not fully deployed on the west bank until the 15th. Had Flavigny’s corps attacked on the evening of the 14th, as had been the original intention, he might well have sliced between the Panzers pushing west and the delayed 10th Panzer. Unfortunately, the French could not really decide if Flavigny should attack the bridgehead or secure the left flank of the Maginot Line. Flavigny went on to the defence and the opportunity was missed.

The situation on the ground now went from bad to worse. The French forces at Dinant tried to pull back to the frontier positions they had held on 10 May, but under incessant air attack, the retreat turned into a rout. The two remaining French armoured divisions in the rear were taken by surprise by the advancing Panzers and scattered. By the morning of the 16th, the Germans had achieved a complete breakthrough along a 60-mile front. No substantial Allied units stood between the Panzers and Paris—or the English Channel.

The situation was remarkably similar to March 1918, when the Germans had also broken through on a 60-mile front. It was the scenario that the Air Ministry and Air Staff had so frequently mentioned as the only circumstances justifying the use of the ‘heavies’ in support of the Army. It had worked in 1918, when the intervention of the RFC and French Air Force had bought the Allies sufficient time to bring reserves into position. This, however, was not 1918. The Germans were now exploiting their breakthrough with fast-moving armoured and motorised forces. The Allied air forces in 1918 had been battle-hardened formations, but in 1940 they were still inexperienced. In 1918, the RFC had not suffered horrendous losses. The British and French had excellent SE5a, Camel and Spad fighters. In 1940, however, it was the German Air Force that had the best fighter operating over the battlefield. Perhaps most significantly of all, in 1918, most of the RFC was in France; in 1940, most of the RAF was in Britain.

Still, the battle was far from lost. Indeed, in the period following the breakthrough, the German forces were probably at their most vulnerable, both to counterattacks on their weakly held flanks and air attack on their lengthening supply lines. The Bf 109 had a very limited range, and the Meuse was already some way from German airfields. The Panzer forces were now racing even further west. Bf 109 squadrons began moving westwards, but the number that could be maintained so far forward was limited, and protection against Allied bomber attack could not be so effective. The French were doing their best to bring up air reinforcements to take advantage; bomber squadrons in the process of converting to modern equipment were rushed to the front. Those that were not ready were told to use their old equipment by night. French naval bombers were ordered to operate against the advancing German forces.

However, the largest single untapped bomber resource available to the Allies was the 250 Whitleys, Wellingtons, and Hampdens of Bomber Command. It seemed it was time for the Air Staff to deliver on its promise to intervene if a crisis arose.

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