Sickle Cut through France III

The 7th Panzer, one of the two armoured divisions in Hoth’s Panzerkorps, had been able to skirt much of the forest and reached the river near Dinant on the afternoon of the 12th, finding when they got there that the retreating French cavalry had blown up all the bridges. The commander of the 7th was an obscure 48-year-old Generalmajor who was later to become very famous: Erwin Rommel. An ambitious and tough Swabian from a modest, non-military background, he had won Imperial Germany’s highest award, the Pour le Mérite, for his exploits as an infantry commander at Caporetto in the First World War. The textbook he wrote based on these experiences, Infanterie Grieft An (Infantry Attacks) so caught Hitler’s eye that he made Rommel commander of his bodyguard battalion during the Polish campaign. As a reward, Hitler had granted Rommel one of the much-desired panzer commands for the coming campaign in the west.

Although he’d been an ardent infantryman all his career and had only taken over the panzer division the previous February, Rommel had extensively drilled and exercised his new division in the months leading up to the attack and had mastered all the necessary techniques. During the battle of France he was to prove a natural tank commander. His was one of the 4 panzer divisions created during the winter of 1939 by the conversion of the ‘light divisions’; it had a complement of about 220 tanks, half of them Czech-built.

By the 12th Rommel was on the bank of the Meuse, personally directing the building of a pontoon bridge. Small-arms fire from the defenders on the opposite bank was proving dangerous so he gave orders that they be plastered with fire and nearby houses set alight to provide a smokescreen. He then crossed the river himself in a rubber boat and personally led a battalion assault. When French tanks attacked, Rommel and his men drove them off with small arms and flare pistols. He was to continue to show reckless courage and disregard for enemy fire throughout the campaign, just as he had in the First World War; both Rommel’s adjutant and a battalion commander were to be killed by gunfire while standing next to him, events which added to his aura of invincibility.

Early on the 13th, some of his motorcyclists crossed the river via a stone weir and put the French defenders to flight. Then on the 14th, using a cable ferry and the bridge he’d built, Rommel began moving tanks over the Meuse, under the protective guns of a few Pz IVs. At least one tank went to the bottom of the river, but by the day’s end thirty were across. That same day, Rommel got into trouble when his command tank came under heavy fire and crashed down a slope within easy range of the enemy. He quickly abandoned the Pz III, bleeding profusely from a facial wound caused by a shell splinter hitting the tank’s periscope. On the 15th, Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division began to thrust west, bypassing the French defenders, and on the first day covered 48 km (30 miles).

Rommel was to successfully employ several unorthodox techniques during his advance west. For one he indicated the route of his advance with ‘DG7’ signs marking all the relevant roads so that slow and straggling units could catch up with the vanguard, even though this was strictly prohibited by the High Command. He also ordered his panzers to fire while on the move, even when there was nothing to fire at, another activity frowned on by his superiors, but as Rommel had observed, ‘the day goes to the side that is the first to plaster its opponent with fire.’ Sometimes he even chose to continue the advance at night, a risky activity, but one which paid off.

Rommel had instinctively grasped the techniques of tank warfare and the new demands it made on a commander. He realised that the Divisional Commander’s place was not back in his HQ miles from the front, but at the head of his troops, giving direct orders on the ground. As a result he rarely saw his divisional staff, who sat in HQ far in the rear, wondering where their commander was and getting the odd radio message from him. To simplify radio traffic he agreed a ‘line of thrust’ with his operations officer and artillery commander, which they then marked on their maps. This made it easier to specify any particular location along the route of advance.

Reinhardt’s Panzerkorps had fared less well than its neighbours. The approach roads of the 6th and 8th Panzer Divisions were extremely narrow and twisting, causing massive traffic jams, and the troops had met particularly fierce enemy resistance which held them up for three days. On the 13th, some of Reinhardt’s riflemen reached the river at Montherme and tried to cross. However they ran into withering fire from the defenders and there was no hope of getting tanks across, at least for the time being.

By the afternoon of the 14th, Guderian’s three panzer divisions were across the Meuse (the following infantry corps didn’t reach there till the 15th). That same day the Allied air forces launched a heavy attack on his bridge, but the German flak brought down over 100 planes and the crucial bridge stayed standing. Now the broad, flat plain of northern France beckoned, ideal tank country that led directly to the Channel, 150 miles away. Guderian took the 1st and 2nd Panzer Divisions and headed west, leaving the 10th Panzer Division and the GD Regiment behind to guard his flank. By nightfall they had crossed the Ardennes canal and opened up a bridgehead 10 miles deep.

On that same night, the commander of the French Ninth Army, General Corap, alarmed by the breakthroughs achieved by Guderian and Rommel, gave orders that the Meuse be abandoned and the defenders withdrawn to a line farther west – a retreat which soon degenerated into a general rout. On the 15th Guderian had intercepted an order from the French Commander-in-Chief, Gamelin, which declared melodramatically ‘The torrent of German tanks must finally be stopped!’, although at this stage the torrent was still only a trickle. Yet that same night Kleist tried to get Guderian to halt again so as to consolidate the bridgehead. Guderian would have none of it and a heated discussion ensued. Eventually Kleist permitted him to advance for another twenty-four hours and ‘Hurrying Heinz’ made the most of it, advancing a full 80 km (50 miles) farther west.

Reinhardt’s Panzerkorps was still on the wrong side of the river by 15 May, bottled up in a Gordian knot of a traffic jam and pinned down by the French defenders. Fortunately for Reinhardt, the French Ninth Army began to withdraw and so early on the 15th the 6th Panzer Division broke through the French bunker line at Montherme and put the remaining defenders to flight. Eager to catch up with the other panzer divisions, it ploughed on west, covering a record-breaking distance in one day. On the way it overran and destroyed most of the disorganised French 2nd DCR Armoured Division, which had become cut off from its supply and technical support echelons, and scattered the remnants over 40 km (25 miles).

At this stage all three panzerkorps were racing side by side through the plain of northern France in a 65 km (40 mile) wide ‘panzer corridor’, Guderian having crossed the Meuse at Sedan, Hoth at Dinant and Reinhardt at Montherme. After clearing the water obstacle and breaking through the western extension of the Maginot Line swiftly and relatively painlessly, the seven panzer divisions now seemed to have an unstoppable momentum. The French defenders in their way, Corap’s Ninth Army, were in full retreat and the Germans were to meet no really significant opposition in their race for the Channel. What little resistance they did meet on the way was spasmodic, weak and uncoordinated. When the panzers ran out of fuel, they filled up at French roadside petrol stations or were airdropped fuel by the Luftwaffe.

The French contemplated counter attacks, but trapped in a static warfare mindset, kept postponing them in the belief that the Germans would adhere to as sluggish a timetable as their own. That the German tanks crossed the river without waiting for several days for their artillery and infantry to catch up had come as a terrible shock to the French – this was just not the done thing in their book of warfare. But their book was out of date, having been written in the trenches of the First World War. This was a new kind of war and the Germans were calculating their timetables by a new measure of speed – that of the tank, not the infantryman.

Again on the 17th, the Panzergruppe commander, General von Kleist, tried to put the brakes on Guderian, ordering him to halt his advance so that Wietersheim’s motorised infantry could catch up. A furious Guderian, living up to his nickname ‘Brausewetter’, offered his resignation. Rundstedt sent the commander of the Twelfth Army, General Wilhelm von List, to mediate. It was pointed out to Guderian that the order came directly from the OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht – Armed Forces High Command) where Hitler himself was worried about the vulnerability of the armoured columns as they raced west, leaving their flanks wide open and their reinforcements far behind. He feared a French counterstroke could sever the armour from its supplies and communications. Although Hitler had completely endorsed the Manstein Plan, including Guderian’s proposed deep penetration by armour, he was now getting alarmed by its very success.

Guderian argued that the objective of Blitzkrieg was to reinforce success and so in line with his own maxim, ‘Klotzen, nicht Kleckern’ (‘Boot ’em, don’t spatter ’em’), the panzers should continue to push west in concentration and at full speed, making the most of their early advantage. Knowing the French still embraced the outdated doctrine of positional warfare, he didn’t believe they would attack until they knew his exact location, so the best thing was to keep moving. Guderian also knew that if the wedge driven by the panzers was deep and wide enough, they wouldn’t have to worry about their flanks at all.

A compromise was reached by which Guderian was allowed a ‘reconnaissance in force’ which he interpreted as a continuation of the headlong dash west, while the motorised infantry would stay behind and hold Sedan. To prevent being issued any more senseless halt orders, Guderian laid down a telephone cable between him and his advance HQ, so the OKH could no longer fix his exact position by radio intercept. To his troops he sent: ‘Fahrkarte bis zur Endstation!’ (ticket to the last station), by which he meant keep going till the final objective is reached, in this case the Channel.

Now the French armoured divisions were thrown into the battle, but to little effect. The three DLMs had been sent into Belgium and were so badly mauled by Hoepner’s XVI Panzerkorps that they had no more impact on the campaign. The four DCR’s now entered the fray. Reinhardt’s panzers had already smashed the French 2nd Armoured Division during its breakout from Montherme. Now early on the morning of the 15th, Rommel’s 7th Panzer, along with the 5th Panzer Division fell upon the French 1st Armoured Division while it was still refuelling. By the evening the French were in full retreat, having lost 90 per cent of their tanks. Rommel continued his thrust westwards, leaving the 5th Panzer to finish off the French armour.

The French 3rd Armoured Division had been formed only six weeks before and was equipped with Hotchkiss H39 tanks with high-velocity 40 mm guns, as good as anything the Germans had. Ordered to Sedan on 12 May, it didn’t get there until the 14th and then instead of counter-attacking Guderian’s very exposed flank, it formed itself into a 13-km (8-mile) defensive line of static pillboxes in what it called a ‘defensive success’.

That left just the 4th Armoured Division, so new that its units were still only forming. It was commanded by France’s leading tank expert, Colonel Charles de Gaulle, and was a rag-tag formation cobbled together from all the remaining armour the French could lay their hands on. Ironically de Gaulle was now moving towards the more professional army he’d written of in the 1930s. Badly mauled by the Luftwaffe while still assembling, the Division attacked near Marle on 17 May but was quickly brushed aside – Guderian didn’t even bother reporting the incident back to headquarters. Yet this minor skirmish bulked large in post-war Gaullist propaganda.

So much for the French armour. Despite strong tank complements and some high-quality tank models, the French armoured divisions were disorganised, badly supplied, ineptly led and totally squandered in battle. In particular they lacked radio communication, infantry and supporting arms and seemed to be permanently short of fuel.

All this time Rommel’s 7th Panzer were advancing well, from crossing the river at Dinant on the 13th to reaching Cambrai, scene of the first major tank battle of the First World War, on the 18th. The division was travelling too fast to take prisoner the huge numbers of French troops who were surrendering to them all along the way, although one French lieutenant colonel they encountered showed more fighting spirit; according to Rommel ‘his eyes glowed hate and impotent fury and he gave the impression of being a thoroughly fanatical type’. Three times he curtly refused to accompany the Germans and so ‘there was nothing for it but to shoot him’. Once they reached Cambrai, Rommel’s Division and the neighbouring 5th Panzer were ordered to stay there and protect the northern flank of Guderian and Reinhardt’s Panzerkorps while the infantry caught up.

Three days after the meeting with List, Guderian’s panzers had crossed the Somme and went on to take Amiens on the 18th and Abbeville on the 20th. A battalion from the 2nd Panzer Division travelled on to Noyelles and so became the first German unit to reach the Atlantic. The day before Weygand had replaced Gamelin as Commander-in-Chief, illustrating the state of crisis in the French military. It had taken the panzers just ten days to reach the sea, thus encircling a million Allied soldiers in the north – Guderian had ably proven his own maxim that the tank’s engine was as important a weapon as its gun. The pocket – pressed from the east by Bock’s Army Group B and flanked in the south by the panzers of Army Group A – contained nine British and forty-five French divisions as well as the entire Belgian Army. The trap had been successfully sprung. Now the second phase of Sichelschnitt was set to begin – that of destroying the enemy forces trapped in the pocket.

Meanwhile the British decided to counter-attack the long exposed flank of the German armoured thrusts. They assembled a motley collection of units including two infantry battalions, some field artillery and a tank brigade containing 16 Mk II Matildas armed with 2-pounders (40 mm) and 58 Mk Is armed with machine-guns; the French supplied 60 Somuas, the remnants of a light mechanised division. But the counter-attacking force was hampered from the start by a lack of maps and inadequate radio communication. It also lacked sufficient infantry and artillery support and had no air support at all. The British commander also made the elementary mistake of splitting his forces, deploying them into two separate columns with little communication between them.

Despite all these disadvantages, the force acquitted itself well in battle. On the afternoon of 21 May it attacked southward near Arras, clashing first with the motorised infantry of Rommel’s 7th Panzer which was just preparing to move out. The Germans soon discovered that their 37 mm anti-tank guns were useless against the 3-inch armour of the Matildas and so had to send in their own tanks. The SS motorised infantry division, Totenkopf, which Himmler had recruited from the ranks of concentration camp guards, took fright and fled. Meanwhile Rommel brought 88 mm anti-aircraft guns to bear against the British tanks, personally directing the firing. After forty-eight hours, the doughty British withdrew, by which time they had lost nearly half of their tanks, but had inflicted about 400 dead and wounded on the Germans. Rundstedt later commented that none of the French counter-attacks carried as serious a threat as this one did.

Despite its failure, the Arras counter-attack bought time for the Allied divisions in the north by delaying the German advance. It also spooked the normally unflappable Rommel who reported he’d been attacked by ‘five enemy divisions’ and ‘hundreds of tanks’. This in turn alarmed the OKW, who ordered Rommel to halt his division for rest and repairs. For a while the Germans feared the attack was the long-anticipated Allied counterstroke. Arras does show what a determined, well-led and properly supported Allied attack could have achieved even at that late stage, especially given the inadequacy of the German anti-tank weapons and the length of their exposed flank.

But it was soon too late for the Allies in the north to do anything. While the Arras fighting had been going on, Guderian had captured Boulogne on the 23rd and was heading for Calais. Dunkirk was now the only port left from which the BEF could be evacuated and the panzers would soon reach that too, cutting off their last hope of escape. Then on the 24th there came an event which was to have a major influence on the whole course of the war: Rundstedt ordered Guderian to halt temporarily so that the motorised infantry could catch up, whereupon Hitler stepped in, extending the order for three crucial days. The panzer divisions were told not to advance beyond the canal and that Dunkirk was to be left to the Luftwaffe, a decision Guderian attributed to Goering’s vanity.

Halder noted in his diary that as the panzers approached Dunkirk, Hitler grew more and more nervous and inclined to ‘pull the reins’. The Führer couldn’t believe the operation really had been as successful as it seemed to be and kept anticipating a massive French counter-attack, which of course never came. Originally the panzers were to be the fast-moving hammer that would smash the Allied armies on the anvil of Bock’s stationary armies, but the German attack now lost its velocity, with the panzers standing idly by for nearly three days, despite all their protests, as the BEF was busy being evacuated. After the war, von Thoma echoed the sentiments of most of the panzer officers present at Dunkirk when he angrily declared that Hitler had thrown away the chance of victory.

Debate has raged since about Hitler’s controversial halt order at Dunkirk with various explanations put forward. One is that Hitler wanted to preserve the armour for the coming battles in the south; already Kleist’s Panzergruppe had lost half of its tanks and the built-up areas around the port were bound to be costly for armour. Also Hitler was reluctant to send tanks into what he called ‘the Flanders marshes’ surrounding the port, claiming the terrain to be unsuitable for tanks, although panzer generals on the ground foresaw no great difficulty there. Goering, hungry for glory for his own arm, had given Hitler his personal guarantee that the Luftwaffe could destroy the Allied armies in the pocket all on their own. This boast proved impossible to fulfil, just as two years later when the Reichsmarshal promised to supply Stalingrad from the air, but as a top Nazi he held more sway over Hitler then did any of the panzer generals.

Another motive sometimes put forward is a political one: that Hitler had a grudging respect and admiration for Britain and so wanted to spare her honour for what he believed were the inevitable surrender negotiations by leaving her army intact. Whatever his motives were, the result of Hitler’s halt order was that 340,000 Allies were successfully evacuated by sea between 28 May and 3 June, including the bulk of the BEF, although minus most of their equipment. It is also almost certain that if the panzers had been allowed to advance, very few Allied soldiers would have left Dunkirk beach. Of course at the time no one could have foreseen just how successful the evacuation would be. Just a few days after its completion Hitler himself conceded to Kleist that the halt order might have been a mistake, but asserted that the British would play no more part in the war.

The capitulation of the Belgians on the 28th opened up a 30-km (20-mile) hole in the British northern flank. Bock’s ordinary infantry made for the gap with all possible speed, but they were too slow to get there before the hole was plugged by two British motorised divisions; the Allies now had formed a strong defensive ring around the port of Dunkirk. The armour was moving again by 27 May, but against increasing resistance and in worsening conditions for tanks. Guderian’s Panzerkorps found it hard going and so was withdrawn on the 29th for refitting, on Guderian’s own suggestion. The Germans had little time for recriminations about the halt order, as there was still a lot of fighting ahead in the south.

The second phase of the attack was ‘Fall Rot’, the final conquest of France. After events in the north had seen 60 of the best Allied divisions beaten, it was largely a fait accompli anyway. The French were in a hopeless situation, having lost one-third of their army and with only 50 second-rate divisions left, barely 200 tanks and no air force with which to defend a front longer than the original one. As well as this, the French political and military command was in complete turmoil, with neither the will nor the ability to prolong the struggle for very long.

The campaign that followed proved to be of a much more conventional and traditional type than the radical Fall Gelb. It saw a reversion to the tried and trusted German technique of ‘Kesselschlachten’ (small encirclements) and greater involvement by ordinary infantry. The German forces redeployed swiftly along a 400-km (250-mile) front stretching from the English Channel to the Maginot Line and then began to push south. Guderian, as reward for his successful Channel dash, was given a new command, Panzergruppe Guderian, containing two panzerkorps, each one consisting of two panzer divisions and a motorised infantry division. These panzergruppen were armies in all but name, but were denied army status so as to maintain the traditional status quo and to keep the panzermen in their place. Guderian ordered a large white letter G painted on all his vehicles for identification purposes.

‘Fall Rot’ began on 5 June when the Germans attacked along the Somme and the Aisne and saw a few days hard fighting before the French defensive line was breached. But once it was, the Germans met less and less resistance as they moved south. The armour carved its way through France, leaving the defenders isolated in defensive pockets, which the infantry then finished off. On 14 June the Germans entered Paris, but it was not the vital objective it had been in the First World War. On that same day the Germans attacked the much-vaunted Maginot Line, but from the rear, the kind of attack its designers had never anticipated. It was quickly breached, this outdated relic of static warfare in which the French had reposed so much hope and money, although 22,000 defenders held on impotently within its walls until 1 July.

From the 16th on, there was a general collapse of the French front. Marshal Pétain formed a cabinet and appealed for armistice terms. By 17 June, Guderian’s 52nd birthday, his Panzergruppe had reached the Swiss border. In an impressive military manoeuvre the previous day, he had ordered two of his panzer divisions to make a 90-degree turn in a north-easterly direction into Alsace, thus encircling the 400,000 men of the eastern French armies. It was the kind of feat for which Montgomery and Patton would be ‘acclaimed to the rooftops’ in years to come, but which was merely routine to Guderian. Speaking of those famed Allied tank commanders, Guderian’s biographer Kenneth Macksey wrote, ‘It was to another that tribute should have been made for designing the methods which made their triumphs possible.’

When Guderian first radioed the OKW to report his position on the Swiss border, Hitler radioed back: ‘Your signal based on an error. Assume you mean Pontailler-sur-Saone,’ unable to believe that Guderian had covered as much ground as he said he had. Guderian replied: ‘No error. Am myself in Portarlier on Swiss border.’ In less than two weeks his Panzergruppe had captured 250,000 prisoners and a massive amount of enemy equipment. Guderian was now a hero back home in Germany and Goebbels persuaded the reluctant tankman to make a radio broadcast to the nation. Campaign films taken at the time were later turned into a documentary extolling Guderian and his Panzertruppen.

The campaign also brought more glory for Rommel. On 5 June he’d crossed the Somme, a decisive stroke which accelerated the French collapse, and had reached the sea near Dieppe on the 10th – his panzer regiment commander crashed through the sea wall in a Pz IV and drove down the beach until the waves were lapping around the tank’s tracks. Rommel sent a laconic message back to the OKW: ‘Am at sea.’

Rommel’s panzers were the first German unit to cross the Seine and went on to cover 150 km (90 miles) in just four days. On 12 June St Valery fell to Rommel along with 40,000 Allied prisoners, the prisoners including 11 British generals and a French corps commander. Rommel’s campaign ended on the 19th when he took the fortress of Cherbourg. The total number of prisoners captured by the 7th Panzer was almost 100,000 and the Division had destroyed or captured a massive amount of enemy equipment, for a loss of just 42 of its own 220 tanks. The French campaign had made Rommel a legend and earned the 7th Panzer a nickname: ‘The Ghost Division.’

On 22 June the French signed an armistice with Germany in the same railway carriage that had been used for the 1918 armistice. The panzers had pulled off a startling victory, but not without high cost to the Germans: 27,000 killed, over 100,000 wounded and 18,000 missing. The two newest weapons, the Panzerwaffe and the Luftwaffe, had suffered the heaviest casualties. Half of the tanks were out of action, either for good or until repaired. These figures prove that Blitzkrieg, while swift, was far from bloodless and also illustrate the fact that the campaign in France was no pushover for the Germans. Of course the losses they inflicted on the Allies were even higher: 100,000 dead, 250,000 wounded and 2 million either captured or missing. The tank had finally achieved its true potential.

The lightning victory won by the Wehrmacht can be attributed to an innovative plan – sublimely executed – combined with an enemy who was not so much incompetent as outmoded. The senior Allied commanders, and indeed many German staff officers like Halder, took it for granted that any war in the West must inevitably develop once more into static warfare. Such officers generally belonged to the older arms of service and believed that the defensive had finally overcome the offensive. They considered that modern artillery, with its creeping barrages timed and measured to fractions, machine-guns and pistols, gas, barbed wire and mines had all banished the infantryman from the attack.

They were partly right of course, but they failed to realise that the tank could be the new vehicle of assault. Everyone feared a return to the senseless slaughter of the Somme, but only one man, Manstein, had the vision to look for alternatives. Only one man, Guderian, had the expertise to execute that plan and only one man, Hitler, had the will to set it in train. The only believers in the Manstein plan were the same men who brought it success.

In short the Blitzkrieg in the West was proof that ingenuity, resourcefulness and audacity can sometimes be as decisive as firepower. The Germans’ opponents had failed to counteract the threat of Sichelschnitt because its unorthodox brilliance and speed was anathema to their concept of waging war. They believed that the pace of battle was dictated by the speed of marching infantry and the time needed to assemble vast supply dumps. The Allies were convinced that all they had to do was to hold out and eventually a resource-starved Germany would collapse, just as in the First World War. But in Hitler they encountered an enemy who had grasped that war can be a continuation of economics by other means. He realised Germany couldn’t hope to win a trial of brute strength against the Allies, especially under the constant threat that the Russian Bear might pounce, and instead he leapt at the opportunity to strike a decisive blow.

The operation had carried grave operational risks, but the front-line commanders assessed correctly that the Allied command wasn’t capable of carrying out the necessary countermoves. The Arras counter-attack showed what could have been achieved had the Allies been a little more flexible and a little less prone to farming out their armour in penny packets.

Blitzkrieg was never successful again. Ironically, its very success meant it couldn’t work a second time. The vanquished assimilated its bitter lessons and began to develop tank forces of their own along the lines of the Panzerwaffe. The victory had been partly spoiled by Hitler’s short-sightedness in halting the Panzers from cutting off the BEF at Dunkirk, yet paradoxically his support had allowed them to be in a position to overcome the world’s best-equipped army in just six weeks. Hitler’s flaws as a warlord were to become more and more evident as the war progressed.

The victory in France had one overwhelmingly negative effect: Hitler, claiming the operation as his own brainchild and feeling vindicated in his belief that he knew more than his generals, was now convinced that he was the greatest military genius of all time. As such he now took an even keener interest in the running of his armed forces, and in particular the Panzerwaffe. His patronage had brought them to their zenith and now his interference would lead to their nadir.

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