Sickle Cut through France I

Knights of our times . . . Tank units, mobile, fast and hard hitting, and directed by wireless from headquarters, attack the enemy. This armoured machine paves the way to victory, flattening and crushing all obstacles and spitting out destruction.

Signal, 1940

Although Britain and France had declared war on Germany in September 1939, nothing much happened on the Western Front until the Germans invaded France in May 1940. This was the period known to the Germans as the Sitzkrieg (sit-down war) during which time both sides faced each other across the frontier, the Allies waiting for the Germans to make the first move. The Germans for their part were surprised that the French had not attacked while the bulk of the Wehrmacht was engaged in Poland. Indeed not only had the Germans stripped the West of all of their tanks and almost all of their infantry, they had no defence line worthy of the name to delay any French thrust. But the French chose instead to renege on their military pact with Poland and do nothing to help their ally.

The French did launch a half-hearted attack from the Saar with nine divisions on 9 September, in what was to be the only major French offensive of the war. But these divisions were ordered to halt after just three days and were withdrawn completely by early October, largely due to an unwillingness to provoke the Germans. The Western Front then settled into a period of prolonged inactivity, broken only by occasional artillery duels and the continual patrols mounted by each side to discover the strengths and dispositions of the other. Activity in the air was limited to reconnaissance and leaflet dropping, both sides wary of encouraging retaliation on civilian centres.

At least part of the reason for French inactivity can be attributed to their Commander-in-Chief, the 68-year-old General Gamelin, a relic of the First World War with an over-inflated reputation. He seemed to regard his real enemy to be not the Germans, but his own government. Gamelin set up headquarters in a thirteenth-century castle without radio or telephone communication and admitted it normally took forty-eight hours for his orders to reach the front. He was also on poor terms with his chief of staff. Clearly the French High Command was neither technically nor psychologically prepared for the pace of the battle ahead.

The Germans had used the winter of 1939–40 to convert the four Leichte divisions to full panzer status, thus forming the 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th panzer divisions. The general shortage of tanks meant that once upgraded, they were equipped with only one tank regiment whereas the earlier divisions all had two and about half of the 220 tanks each of these new divisions contained were Czech-built. There were now ten panzer divisions. The process of replacing the obsolete Pz Is and IIs with the new Pz IIIs and IVs was also accelerated, but the low numbers of tanks being produced meant that relatively little progress had been made on this by May 1940.

On 1 March 1940 Hitler issued a directive for the occupation of Norway and Denmark which he codenamed Fall Wesserubung. It was a daring operation, devised from a Baedecker guide by General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst and the Kriegsmarine (German Navy) staff and conducted largely by naval forces landing infantry at the main ports. The attack was launched on 9 April and Denmark capitulated almost immediately with Norway subdued by early May. Although the Panzerwaffe played only a very minor role in the campaign, it is still worthy of a mention.

A special tank battalion, Panzer Abteilung zur besonderer Vervendung 40, was formed for use in Norway by taking one company each from the 4th, 5th and 6th panzer divisions. Two of these companies were initially used in Denmark and the bulk of the third was lost at sea when its transport went down. An experimental formation called Panzerzug Horstmann was also dispatched to Norway, comprising three Neubaufahrzeug Panzerkampfwagen VI – these were prototypes sent with the specific intention of convincing the Allies that the Germans already possessed heavy tanks. With this purpose in mind, staged propaganda photographs were taken of the three tanks leaving the harbour. Whether the ruse worked or not must remain a matter of conjecture, as before the campaign had ended Hitler had struck in the West.

The total number of German tanks used in the northern campaign never exceeded fifty and was composed largely of obsolete Panzer Is and IIs. Despite the limited nature of the Panzerwaffe’s participation in the Norwegian campaign, the Germans learned some valuable lessons. The prototype heavy tanks were found to be suitable only for supporting infantry operations and never went into production. Indeed one proved so heavy it bogged down at a fjord crossing and had to be destroyed by army engineers – it was replaced with a sheet-steel mock-up in order to maintain the subterfuge. Experience in dealing with mountainous terrain was studied and put to good use when the panzers struck in the Balkans a year later.

The Allies, while slow to honour their pact with Poland, had devised a plan to counter the likely German assault on France. The plan, codenamed Plan D after the River Dyle, was to advance into Belgium to meet the invading Germans there. It was based on two simple premises: an expectation that the Germans would attack along the lines of the famous von Schlieffen plan which had come within an ace of success in 1914 and that the Allied southern front was adequately covered by the supposedly impassable Ardennes forest and the Maginot line fortifications. A German attack across the plain of Flanders offered ready access to France’s greatest prizes, Paris and the industrial region near the Belgian border. To counter this expected revival of Schlieffen, the Allied plan called for a wheel-like advance along the Belgian border to establish a defensive line along the rivers Dyle and Meuse. The overall objective of Plan D was to gain time, not outright victory. The Allies aimed for a battlefield deadlock until their own armament production got into full swing and they could then launch a massive offensive of their own in late 1940 or early 1941.

The French Seventh Army was allocated the bulk of motorised units as it was expected to advance along the coast, at the rim of the imaginary wheel, and hence had the farthest to travel. The ten motorised infantry divisions of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) occupied the centre of the front with the French First Army, to their south. Corap’s French Ninth Army was at the hub of the wheel and was composed of second-rate reservists and older troops. Their advance was to be the shortest as these troops were not up to the rigours of the long forced marches expected of their northern comrades.

Little or no consultation was taken with the Belgian military, as the Belgians, keen to maintain a neutral stance, did not want to provoke the Germans with overtly belligerent behaviour – an attitude hard to reconcile with the fact that all her defences, including the fortress of Eben Emael, pointed toward the Reich. As a result no common defence plan, central command or framework for co-operation was agreed on for use in the event of a German attack. This unhelpful Belgian attitude to their own allies hampered the successful prosecution of Plan D, as the twenty-two Belgian divisions would be badly missed if they were destroyed in the initial stages of a German attack.

The French for their part had invested a lot of money and effort in the Maginot Line, the series of underground fortifications built along the central part of her north-eastern frontier during the 1930s. These forts were the physical manifestation of the French static warfare mentality. It is often said that generals always expect the next war to be fought in the same way as the last one and in the case of the French, this was certainly true. They anticipated the battle ahead would be First World War, Mark II with a deadlock on the battlefield forcing both sides to dig into defensive positions like the trenches of 1914–18. They seemed to have forgotten that Napoleon had once said that the side that stays within its fortifications is beaten.

Each of the large forts was the equivalent of a two-storey building sunken into the ground with only the big guns on its roof visible. They were designed to be self-sufficient and indestructible, the larger ones capable of housing up to 1,000 defenders for a prolonged period. Some were interconnected by tunnels and the guns were given a good range of fire, even capable of firing at neighbouring forts if they fell into enemy hands. This impressive piece of engineering formed a formidable obstacle stretching along the French border from Luxembourg to Switzerland. However it must be stressed that large parts of the line were less well defended and consisted of minor secondary works.

There was only one problem with the Maginot Line: it was clearly in the wrong place. No invader of France had ever followed the route it defended – from the time of the Romans they had always come further north. The Germans had come through Belgium in the First World War and even the Allies expected them to do so again in the coming attack. Why then was the Maginot Line not extended as far as the Channel coast?

The main reasons were political. For one thing, building a defensive line between Belgium and France would mean abandoning the Belgians to their fate. If it had been built, it would have left the Belgians to fight the initial German advance alone, while the Allies stood by and watched the Belgian Army’s inevitable destruction from behind their defensive walls. More importantly, Allied military thinking was based on the notion of advancing into Belgium to meet the Germans there, thus keeping the fighting off French soil altogether. There were also the peacetime considerations of the detrimental effect such a barrier would have on trade, industry and communications.

Once war broke out, the French did begin work on extending the defensive line to the sea, but it was much too late by then and it didn’t take the panzers long to breach these flimsy westward extensions when they met them in May 1940. In the end the Maginot Line proved more of a propaganda success than a military one. One commentator later stated that the Maginot Line did prove a formidable barrier, not to the Germans but to ‘French understanding of modern war’.

In September 1939, Hitler had ordered his army to produce a plan for the conquest of France. The work was allocated to the planning staff of the OKH (Oberkommando das Heer – Army High Command) led by Generaloberst Franz Halder, Chief of the General Staff. The bureaucratic, pince-nez-wearing Halder, a typical product of the German General Staff, looked and behaved more like a pedantic school-master than a soldier. This colourless functionary had no real faith in the possibility of a successful Western offensive, and aided (or hindered) by a 58-page memo from Hitler, the OKH under Halder’s guidance produced an unambitious plan which bore some resemblance to the Schlieffen Plan of 1914, but fell far short of promising the quick and decisive victory Hitler needed in France.

The plan proposed a strong right hook across Holland and Belgium led by Generaloberst Fedor von Bock’s Army Group B. Holland would be overrun by Armee-Abteilung N (an army detachment – this was a small army made up of two or three army corps) while the three armies under von Bock were expected to engage and defeat the Allied armies in Belgium somewhere in the region of Liege. For this task Bock’s Army Group was to receive eight of the ten panzer divisions and over half of the available forces in the West. At the same time Army Group A under Generaloberst Gerd von Rundstedt was to cover the southern flank of these operations using two armies and a single panzer division, but with little hope of getting much farther than the Meuse. Army Group C, commanded by Generaloberst Ritter von Leeb, was left to hold the Siegfried Line. Although the attack on Holland was repeatedly dropped and re-included over the coming months, the plan in essence remained the same.

Neither Hitler nor his army chiefs had any great faith in the ‘Fall Gelb’ (Case Yellow) plan. If the Germans failed to defeat the Allies outright in Belgium, all they could then hope for was to push them back to the Somme, at the same time aiming to seize as much of the Channel coast as possible for future operations by the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine. What was to happen after that was unclear, but it looked as if the battle would then settle into a protracted First World War style war of attrition, which the Germans knew from experience they couldn’t win. Victory had to be quick if war in the West was to be viable.

The launch of Fall Gelb was postponed nearly thirty times, generally caused by poor weather prospects, but one wonders how much Hitler’s basic dislike of the plan influenced these postponements. In the months before the attack he constantly sought modifications and improvements. Finally a new and radical plan came to his attention and he enthusiastically adopted that instead.

In October 1939 the Fall Gelb plan fell into the hands of General von Manstein, now Chief of Staff to Army Group A under his old boss, von Rundstedt, and he wasn’t at all impressed. Manstein, who had ably proven his own planning credentials during the Polish campaign, remarked in his memoirs that he felt deep disgust that the General Staff could do no better than try an old formula, and even then on a less ambitious scale: ‘I found it humiliating, to say the least, that our generation could do nothing better than repeat an old recipe, even when this was the product of a man like Schlieffen.’ By the end of the month he had formulated an entirely different plan.

Manstein was of the opinion that what was required was a decisive result from the campaign, not merely grabbing as much of Belgium as possible – he wanted to defeat the Allies completely. The strategic surprise so obviously lacking in Fall Gelb could only be attained by attacking through the Ardennes. With these ideas in mind, he proposed a feint attack in the north through the Low Countries and Belgium, as the Allies no doubt expected, by Army Group B. The new Schwerpunkt would now however lie along the front of Army Group A, reinforced with an extra army and most of the armour. Army Group C would continue to harass the Maginot Line and man the Siegfried defence line. Once the Allies had been lured north into Belgium to meet the threat of Bock’s armies, phase two would be set in train. Rundstedt’s forces would strike out for the Meuse and once that obstacle was overcome, would thrust in the direction of the Channel coast, thus severing the Allies’ communications and supply lines and trapping their best troops in a pocket.

Manstein conferred with Guderian when the tank expert’s new command, the XIX Panzerkorps, was transferred to Army Group A on Hitler’s order to conduct an attack south of Liege. Guderian assured him that the terrain through the Ardennes was not in fact tank proof as all serious military experts assumed. He had personal experience of the Ardennes and the Meuse river valley from the First World War and study of the maps did nothing to discourage his view. He therefore became an enthusiastic supporter of Manstein’s plan, realising that the panzer divisions were the ideal force to deliver the surprise blow needed. Armed with this assurance, Manstein now attempted to get his plan adopted.

Although in essence events evolved as Manstein had foreseen, the real struggle for France was in getting the Supreme Command to accept his proposals. Manstein bombarded the OKH with a whole series of memoranda, all countersigned by von Rundstedt, but to no avail. Halder and the Army’s weak-minded Commander-in-Chief, Generaloberst Walther von Brauchitsch, lacked the imagination to appreciate the subtle genius of the plan. Manstein’s persistence eventually led to him being sidelined to command an obscure infantry corps, which later backfired on the arch plotter Halder and his vacillating Commander-in-Chief.

On 10 January 1940 German plans received a serious setback when a Luftflotte II liaison officer was forced to land his plane in Belgium during a storm. In strict contravention of standing orders, he carried a full set of plans detailing Fall Gelb. Despite his frantic efforts to destroy the documents, they were captured relatively intact and sent post haste to Paris and London. In any event, the Allied High Command chose to dismiss them as a deliberate plant and made no effort to change their dispositions, but the Germans couldn’t have known this and had to assume that the element of surprise was lost.

Only now were conditions ripe for the adoption of the Manstein plan. On 17 February Manstein and all other newly appointed corps commanders were summoned to meet Hitler for lunch. As they rose to leave, Hitler asked Manstein to remain and expound on his ideas for a thrust through the Ardennes. Manstein outlined his ideas succinctly, calling for a shift in emphasis to Army Group A, which would then attack across the Meuse towards the lower Somme, while Army Group B attacked the Allies frontally in Belgium. Once Army Group A reached the Channel coast, the Allied forces would then be surrounded and destroyed. He argued that for this Rundstedt now needed three armies: one to intercept the Allied forces driven back by Bock; a second to cross the Meuse at Sedan and destroy any French forces massing for a counter attack and a third to cover the southern flank of the Group. He also insisted that Guderian’s XIX Panzerkorps was insufficient to force the Meuse crossings and demanded the motorised infantry of Wietersheim’s XIV Armeekorps to reinforce them.

Hitler was attracted to his proposals for three reasons. Firstly, they were audacious and appealed to Hitler’s liking for the unorthodox; secondly they tied in with his earlier calls for an attack south of Liege; and thirdly they were in complete contrast to the proposals of the hated General Staff. Whatever his shortcomings as a warlord, Hitler can never be accused of lacking imagination and a taste for novel schemes. Manstein himself received precious little credit for his masterstroke; he was to command a mere infantry corps in the second wave of the attack while Hitler later claimed the idea for the plan as his own.

On 20 February Manstein’s Sichelschnitt (Sickle Cut) was officially adopted, although not without much opposition from within the High Command. The pedantic Halder declared the plan ‘senseless’ and wanted the panzers to wait on the Meuse till the infantry and artillery caught up for what he called ‘a properly marshaled attack in mass.’ Guderian was violently opposed to this. The vain and ambitious General Bock, appalled at the erosion of his Army Group, developed an irrational jealousy of Rundstedt that was to have dire consequences for the entire Wehrmacht within eighteen months. Even Rundstedt seemed doubtful that his Army Group could carry out its task and uncertain about the capabilities of tanks. In fact there was so little enthusiasm for the plan among the High Command that Guderian states in his memoirs that only three people believed it would actually work – himself, Manstein and Hitler.

On the eve of battle the German Army in the West comprised 136 divisions. These forces were opposed by 135 Allied divisions: 94 French, 10 British, 22 Belgian and 9 Dutch divisions. There was rough parity in the numbers of troops, about 2.5 million men each. The Germans were outnumbered however when it came to most important weapons: in field artillery pieces they had 2,500 versus the French’s 10,000 and in tanks they fielded 2,600 to the French 4,000. The only place the Germans had superiority was in the air where they could pit 5,500 planes against the Allies’ 3,100.

Of course as it turned out the tank was to be the crucial weapon in this campaign – not so much because of their quantity or quality, but because of the way they were handled. The BEF, though small, was entirely motorised and the French had a total of 7 armoured divisions; these were the 3 Divisions Légères mécaniques (DLMs), mechanised cavalry divisions which carried out the traditional roles of cavalry, and the 4 Divisions Cuirassées Rapides (DCRs) which acted as infantry support units. There were also 25 independent light tank battalions engaged in infantry support. In total 1,300 of France’s tanks were concentrated within these armoured divisions, which were spread across the front in line with the fatal French reluctance to concentrate their armour.

The French main battle tanks included 300 massive Char B1 heavy tanks, bigger and better armoured than anything the Germans had and carrying two guns, a 47 mm in the turret and a low-velocity 75 mm in the body of the tank. They proved almost impossible to destroy and the Germans who encountered them dubbed them Kolosse; their only vulnerable point proved to be a small ventilation grill in the side – it took a steady and calm gunner to hit it at close range. The French were also able to field over 250 Somuas, widely regarded as the best tank in Europe at the time and the model for the American Sherman; like the Char B1, it mounted the superb 47 mm gun and at least 55 mm of armour. The French also had plenty of light tanks, including 800 Hotchkiss H35s or H39s, nearly 1,000 Renault R35s and about 2,500 of the tiny First World War vintage Renault FTs. All these light tanks were armed with 37 mm guns and mainly used for infantry support.

The Char B1 was the only French tank with four crewmen. The Somua had three, all the rest only two. This proved to be a major disadvantage, especially as many of the French tanks incorporated a one-man turret where the commander was expected to choose targets and then load, aim and fire the gun all by himself; in the German turrets there were three men to carry out these tasks. Also, very few of the French tanks had radios, making formations hard to control in battle.

The French Army had neglected higher formation staff training for tank officers such as was needed for handling several divisions at once. This was in keeping with their belief that tanks should function either as infantry support or in the traditional cavalry roles. The French had completely failed to grasp the possibilities offered by tanks deployed independently and in concentration, instead sticking to the tired old formula of ‘penny packeting’ their armour.

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