The French Army’s Six Fatal Mistakes at Sedan

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1. Panzer Reg. geht auf Pontonbrücke in Floing über die Maas, bei Sedan
[Heeresfilmstelle Spandau-Ruhleben]

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Neglecting the Sedan Sector

Under the X Corps, which formed the left wing of the Second Army, the Sedan Sector represented the weakest point in the French front. The French general officer corps considered it completely unlikely that the Germans would place their main attack effort at Sedan of all places. For example, on 7 May—three days before the start of the offensive—Huntziger, the commander in chief of Second Army, said: “I do not believe that the Germans will ever consider attacking in the region of Sedan.”

General [Pierre-Paul-Charles] Grandsard, the commanding general of X Corps, believed that the main effort would be in the eastern Mouzon Sector, where he ordered a crash program to improve the defenses along the Chiers River. On the other hand, the Sedan Sector that extended behind the Meuse River appeared to be protected by its terrain, which favored the defenders. Only one Category B Division was earmarked for this sector: General [Pierre] Lafontaine’s 55th Infantry Division. This terrain assessment actually appeared to be compellingly logical: The Maginot Line ended twenty kilometers to the east of Sedan at La Ferté, where Fort No. 505 constituted the western corner post of this gigantic fortification system. That was the beginning of the extended Maginot Line, which had not been improved anywhere near as much and ran behind the Meuse River starting at the bend of the river near Sedan. In the Mouzon Sector between La Ferté and Sedan, however, was located the so-called Stenay gap that was not protected by any major natural obstacles. This is why all responsible French generals emphatically advocated strengthening this sector along the Chiers River and, rather fatefully, neglected the Sedan area.

German reconnaissance did not fail to note this weak spot. Nevertheless, in the spring of 1940, von Rundstedt and his field army commanders once again had strong doubts as to whether it was correct to follow Guderian’s proposal and to put the main effort of the German breakthrough at the old fortress city of Sedan. The somewhat steeply sloped heights of Marfée rose on the other bank of the Meuse. These slopes were studded with one mighty bunker next to the other—at any rate, that was what the latest aerial photos indicated. Thereupon, once more a photo interpretation specialist was summoned—Major Stiotta, a former Austrian army engineer officer who had been integrated into the German army. His analysis produced a surprising result. The monstrous fortifications that the generals and their advisers thought they had spotted were, in reality, construction sites of bunkers that were shells, not even anywhere near half-finished. With that, Stiotta provided Guderian with the decisive counterargument.

Only a single Frenchman guessed the actual main point of effort of the German attack. Oddly enough, he was not a regular officer, but rather a politician, the Deputy [Pierre] Taittinger. In his capacity as a member of the Parliamentary Army Committee, he visited all sectors of the Ardennes front in March 1940. He was quite shocked about the inadequate defensive preparations in the Sedan Sector. He made the following statement in his report, which he forwarded on 21 March to the then war minister, [Edouard] Daladier, and to the army supreme commander, Gamelin: “In this region, we are entirely too much taken with the idea that the Ardennes woods and the Meuse River will shield Sedan and we assign entirely too much significance to these natural obstacles. The defenses in this sector are rudimentary, not to say embryonic.”

Taittinger said that he “trembled” at the thought that a German attack might be aimed at this point. His ominous warning reached its climax in the sentence that became famous later, and afterward earned him the rank of a “prophet” in France: “Il semble qu’ily ait des terres de malheurs pour nos armes” (This place spells misfortune for our troops).

The picture of horror painted by Taittinger, in which Sedan appears as a place of disaster, certainly did not spring from the superstition that there was a curse on the French army on that piece of land. Instead, the deputy was in a position to draw conclusions from the facts of military history and military geography, whereas the generals responsible for this sector were only interested in how many cubic meters of concrete were to be used for what type of bunker. Down through history, Sedan had always been a gateway for invaders who crossed the Meuse at that place. It was here that the Germans in 1870 were able to win their most important victory over France. Why should they not once again select this legendary place for a clash with the French army? Huntziger reacted full of sarcasm in his comment on the Taittinger Report. He challenged the military competence of the parliamentary deputy and declared categorically: “I believe that there are no urgent measures to take for the reinforcement of the Sedan Sector.”

The construction of new fortifications was neglected on the basis of this situation estimate. Actually, Huntziger was considered a convinced “advocate of concrete.” On the basis of his initiatives, from mobilization in September 1939 to May 1940 the number of bunkers was increased from 2.5 to 5 per kilometer in the western sectors. During that time, the Second Army built a total of fifty-two thousand cubic meters of concrete fortifications. The least effort, however, was made in the Sedan Sector. Before the start of the war, only 42 bunkers of the Barbeyrac type had been built here, along with an artillery casemate erected at the Bellevue crossroads (five hundred meters south of the castle of the same name).

Altogether, 61 additional bunkers were built by 10 May. In addition, there were numerous other bunkers that were just about completed. Official statistics consider only the completion of concrete pouring. Many bunkers lacked the steel gun port shutters that could be used to close the gun ports; some did not even have a door. A report prepared by an officer of the 2d Panzer Division that crossed the Meuse River in the Donchery Sector indicated just what some defensive facilities really looked like: “The road runs along the river. . . . There is a bunker about every 100 meters. Some of these bunkers are still under construction. The wooden shell is still there and the construction pit has not yet been filled up again. Those French really are astonishing! They have been tinkering on their line of fortifications for almost 20 years now; they organized fortress units that are considered to be elite, that wear a special uniform and have a special badge that reads: ‘No One Shall Pass.’ And now they have not even finished their bunkers along the Meuse River, more than half a year after the start of the war!”

The Gaulier Gap

The original French maps show the planned fortifications that appear to be arranged according to a highly refined system. The bunkers are so placed in the terrain that overlapping fire from various defensive works could guard every sector along the Meuse. One is therefore all the more astonished to find not a single bunker at the most endangered point, at the northern tip of the bend of the Meuse River where the main effort of the breakthrough was later located!16 Here was a yawning 1.5-kilometer-wide gap (measuring almost 2 kilometers along the bend of the river) between Bunker 305 at Glaire and Bunker 211 next to the Pont Neuf [New Bridge], the northernmost bridge of Sedan. Thus, the Germans were able to cross the Meuse River relatively undisturbed at this important place. Between the Glaire and Torcy strongpoints, a wide-open meadowland extending along the south bank was just about ideal for placing mine barriers. But not even that had been done.

From a purely military terrain assessment, such a failure seems incomprehensible because if an attacker coming from the north wants to push out of the Ardennes to the Meuse River, then, at almost a straight line, he has available the St. Menges-Floing-Gaulier axis. In most sectors, such as at Donchery, wide-open terrain has to be crossed to get to the river; but here it is possible to approach the Meuse River shielded by the mentioned villages. Besides, the vast workshops of the Espérance Textile Plant in Gaulier extend directly along the banks of the Meuse River. The Germans were able to use them as an engineer depot to store the numerous rubber boats and assault boats for the river crossing and also the material for the construction of the military bridge. This bridge, over which most of the Panzers rolled, was to assume an operational significance as no other bridge in the campaign in the west. Actually, the French should have learned a lesson from the last war. After all, it was on 26 August 1914 that the attacking German Fourth Army built its first bridge across the Meuse River at almost exactly the same spot.

Absence of Mines

The weakness of the Sedan Sector was not so much due to a shortage of bunkers (this kind of criticism only bears witness to that fateful Maginot mentality) but rather to a shortage of mines. During World War II, the use of mines proved to be the most effective means for stopping enemy tank operations before they got started. In July 1943 the German Panzer divisions trying to break through the Soviet front at Kursk first of all got stuck in kilometer-wide mine belts.18 At El Alamein, Rommel also had ordered about 500,000 mines to be planted along a front of seventy kilometers. In the spring of 1940 the French Second Army had to watch almost the same frontline width, but it had only 16,000 mines. Of that number, 7,000 each were earmarked for the delaying action of the cavalry divisions in the Ardennes as well as for use in the line of the blockhouses along the border. That left only 2,000 mines for the actual defense line along the Meuse River. Of those, the 55th Infantry Division got only 422.

Looking at it more closely, however, that was actually 422 mines too many because when Guderian’s eight hundred battle tanks started out on their final breakthrough on 14 May, almost no mines had been planted in the ground. French officers had concentrated so much on building bunkers that they paid hardly any attention to the mines. At first, only some of them had been laid. Before the German attack, however, the French removed the few mine barriers that did exist in the Sedan Sector. Most of the mines were shipped to a depot near Vrigne-aux-Bois (north of the Meuse River) where they had to be greased again due to soil moisture. That is where they were discovered in 1941.

Construction Troops Instead of Fighting Troops

The French army’s decisive mistake was not that it built too few bunkers but rather that it built too many. Because of all this labor duty involved in building defensive positions, the army had hardly any time for combat training. That is precisely what should have been the most urgent task of the 55th Infantry Division, which, rather unusually, was positioned in the foremost front line, although it was merely in Category B. The division consisted mainly of reservists, most of whom were over the age of thirty and whose active duty time as a rule was far in the past. What little combat training they had was only sufficient to bring out the frightening shortcomings rather than correct them. There also appears to have been no special demand for individual initiative in that area. So, 1st Lieutenant Delas of the 1st Battalion, 147th Fortress Infantry Regiment, was punished with fifteen days of arrest during the winter because he had dared to order firing practice with a 25-mm antitank gun in a quarry.

Lafontaine was of the opinion that building fortifications could best compensate for his division’s obvious weaknesses. The quality of bunkers was considered to be more important than the training of personnel. In that way, it was impossible to correct the shortcomings, although eight months were available for proper combat training from mobilization up to the start of the German offensive. Because the men had hardly been trained for combat, many of them at the critical moment lacked the will to fight. All the greater was the shock when on 13 May they were attacked by soldiers who had been given perfect training and who displayed an almost fear-inspiring resoluteness. Many French defenders did not dare offer resistance but instead simply fled. They had been taught very carefully how to build defensive positions, but they had not been taught much about how to defend them.

General der Panzertruppe [Hermann] Balck, at that time an Oberstleutnant in command of the 1st Rifle Regiment that was employed at the main effort near Gaulier, described exactly what preparations on the opposing side were like: “Training was intensively geared toward the future mission. Up to the breakthrough at Sedan, everything was practiced down to the last detail in map exercises and every situation was run through in similar terrain also with live firing and air support. The Mosel [Moselle] River had to stand in for the Meuse River and I did not let up until every last man in my regiment knew how to handle rubber boats like an engineer. I let the exercises run their course, completely and freely, to get everybody accustomed to independent action. This was the best preparation for an offensive that I ever saw.” The attack was correspondingly successful. As several German officers emphasized, the Meuse River crossing went as perfectly as if it were a demonstration in the training camp.

The Principle of Rotation

Basically, the defensive organization of the 55th Infantry Division appeared to be uniform and clearly structured:

The Sedan Sector comprised three subsectors, each for one regiment.

The subsectors were subdivided into (mostly) three Quartiers (quarters), each for one battalion.

The Quartiers were (mostly) subdivided into three Centres de résistance (CRs, centers of resistance) (position areas), each for one company.

The Centres de résistance consisted of (mostly) four Points d’appui (strongpoints), each for one platoon.

However, the many months of duty in this sector had produced the paradoxical effect that the initially rather orderly mosaic of the formations turned into a confused puzzle. The cause of this crazy-quilting was the principle of rotation: The individual companies were repeatedly taken out of the line for construction work, work in agriculture, or training sessions. After this, they were mostly employed not in their former sector but rather in that of the unit that relieved them. That meant that they no longer returned to “their” positions, which they themselves had built and with whose surrounding area they had become familiar.

Out of the nine companies that were employed in the Frénois subsector, where the main effort of the German attack was later placed, most had been in their new positions only a few days as of 13 May. The situation was even worse in the Villers-sur-Bar subsector opposite Donchery. The 213th Infantry Regiment, which was stationed here originally, was taken out of the line on 7 May and was replaced by the 331st Infantry Regiment. In the meantime, the units of the 55th Infantry Division had been so reshuffled that a kind of crazy-quilt pattern resulted. In many cases, the original cohesion had also been lost within the units. The 6th Company, 2d Battalion, 295th Infantry Regiment, stationed in Torcy (the section of Sedan that is located on the south bank of the Meuse River) was a particularly stark example. It was made up of soldiers from four different companies, which, again, had been drawn from three different battalions belonging to three different regiments!

Even more serious than the organizational problems were the psychological effects of this crazy-quilting principle upon the internal structure of the major and minor units. The 147th Fortress Infantry Regiment that was to occupy the bunkers along the Meuse River represented the backbone of the 55th Infantry Division. Its soldiers were recruited mostly from reservists from the area around Sedan and quite a few of them had known each other for a long time. Captain Carribou, commanding officer of the 2d Battalion, therefore, described the internal cohesion after mobilization as cohésion totale (total cohesion) and judged the regiment rather enthusiastically: “The 147th has a ‘soul’: It is ready!”

His later reports no longer mention this spirit of unity. Carribou had to accept the fact that his battalion’s units were torn apart again and again. When the Germans attacked, he had three companies under his command, which came from three different regiments. Here, the 6th Company, 2d Battalion, 331st Infantry Regiment, was a special problem. It was stationed in the Prés de Queues center of resistance in the rear area of the Torcy quarter, which he commanded. Carribou hardly knew it, and he was never to get to know it in combat either. When he had to withdraw his forward-engaged units all the way to the halt line in the Marfée woods due to the pressure of the German attack, the 6th Company, which was stationed there, had disappeared without a trace.

Scarcely any other battle in World War II has been described as frequently as Guderian’s breakthrough at Sedan. These reports are confined mostly to the course of military events. The sociological aspect offers a supplementary perspective here. After all, two military formations with utterly different group cohesion collided with each other in this battle. Guderian’s elite formations of enormously strong compactness punched into the amorphous mass of the 55th Infantry Division, whose group cohesion had been destabilized by constant changes. The structures of the primary groups that had grown in the division were constantly torn apart. Instead, ever-new secondary groups were formed, and they were artificially maintained only by the formal structures of the military hierarchy.

This fateful principle of rotation was developed in the French army during World War I, which was fought as battles of matériel. The human factor had become one of anonymous, optional, interchangeable quantities. The rotation system undoubtedly proved itself at Verdun. The German soldier often had to hold out in the foremost front lines for many weeks; the French soldiers on the other hand were taken out of the front line after just a few days of combat and were replaced by fresh troops. The Germans had learned completely different lessons from World War I than did the French, and thus they refrained from tearing apart “units that had grown together.” Even on the eastern front they later refrained from replenishing units that had already been heavily decimated by assigning new personnel. Instead, the units were left in the front lines until they had fallen below a minimum in terms of combat strength. Only then were these formations taken out of the front line and reconstituted in the rear areas. In that way, it was possible to integrate the new soldiers before their unit was sent back into action.

Inserting the 71st Infantry Division into the Front Line

Due to the constant reshuffling, the disintegration of the 55th Infantry Division in the meantime had reached worrisome proportions. Now, however, immediately before the start of the German attack, a measure was initiated that made the confusion complete. On 10 May, Grandsard ordered the 71st Infantry Division—which had been held in reserve until then—to be inserted in the front line, smack in the middle between the two divisions of the corps that were committed forward. Everything was very simple in theory: The 55th Infantry Division had to evacuate the right-wing Angecourt subsector, and the neighboring 3d North African Infantry Division was to evacuate the Amblimont subsector on the left-wing to make room for the units of the 71st Infantry Division.

Where was Lafontaine now to put the 295th Infantry Regiment that until then had been employed in the right-hand subsector? He decided on a procedure that is reminiscent of the formal training of a company. His three regiments that initially had moved into position next to each other in three subsectors were to close up to the left so tightly that they would find room in the remaining two subsectors. The right-hand boundary now was no longer at Petit Remilly but rather at Pont-Maugis. That shortened the division’s frontline sector from 20 kilometers to 14 kilometers along the Meuse River, or from 14 to 8.5 kilometers as the crow flies. In theory, this was bound to lead to a tremendous concentration of fighting strength, and indeed the density of machine guns in purely statistical terms rose from thirty-two to forty-two per kilometer. As regards the cohesion of the formations, there was reason to fear chaos. However, the restructuring of the 55th Infantry Division, ordered for the night between 13 and 14 May, mostly did not occur because the Germans had in the meantime launched their attack. These measures had been partly begun, so both of the divisions were caught in the middle of the relief operation “on the wrong foot.”

Karl-Heinz Frieser

Colonel Dr. Karl-Heinz Frieser was born in Pressath, Germany. He joined the Bundeswehr as an officer candidate in 1970. After completing the regular training of an infantry officer, he was assigned to the Combat Arms School at Hammelburg. As a special award, he was selected in 1978 to study politics and history at Würzburg University where he received a doctorate degree in 1981. He later returned to a troop assignment to serve as commander of an armoured infantry company for three years. In 1985, he was assigned to the Military History Research Institute of the Bundeswehr where he is now head of the Department of World Wars I and II. His most successful book, Blitzkrieg-Legende (The Blitzkrieg Legend), was first published in 1995 and has been translated into several languages, including Japanese, French, and now English. For the French edition, the Institute de France awarded him the Prix Edmond Fréville (Edmond Fréville Prize) in December 2004. He was the first foreign historian to receive that award. As a supplement to this book, he wrote the military-historical battlefield guide Ardennen-Sedan (Ardennes-Sedan) (Frankfurt: Report Verlag, 2000). His current research focuses on the German-Soviet war. Soon, his comprehensive article “German Military Operations on the Eastern Front, 1943–44” will be published in the official series Germany and the Second World War.

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