The SS Verfügungs [‘V’] Division in the West 1940 Part II

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SS Gruppenführer Paul Hausser – May 1940

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The French assaults in the Der Führer’ area were absorbed and then halted in St-Hilaire, south of the canal, when the regimental anti-tank guns came into action. A situation which had seemed to be critical was soon mastered as gunners and grenadiers collaborated in destroying the enemy tanks. During the morning of 23 May the actions carried out by ‘Der Führer’ changed the course of the battle as the regiment swung from a defensive to an offensive posture. The 3rd Battalion alone, destroyed thirteen enemy armoured fighting vehicles, many of them knocked out by grenadiers using explosive charges. Five hundred French soldiers were also taken prisoner and the enemy was flung back across the La Bassee Canal. Fighting then became general along the entire front of the SS Division. In one action Untersturmführer Vogt, who had already distinguished himself in Holland, led his motorcycle reconnaissance patrol into a small but intense fire-fight against overwhelming odds. He saw a column of enemy troops and vehicles heading eastwards towards Mazinghem, ordered the anti-tank guns of his detachment to be unlimbered and to open fire upon the soft-skinned vehicles at the tail of the column. Then the gun barrels swung towards the tanks at its head. The action ended with the surrender of a whole enemy battalion to the thirty men of the recce patrol.

The French tank thrusts – which were the first Der Führer Regiment had had to face – demonstrated in a most frightening way that the standard German anti-tank gun lacked the power to penetrate enemy armour. The Renault 35 tank, in particular, could only be knocked out at very close range and there was one action during that day when an enemy tank reached to within 5 metres of the barrel of an anti-tank gun before it was destroyed. By 24 May, the Division had crossed the La Bassee Canal and had forced bridgeheads against bitter opposition put up by the British defenders. While still engaged in fighting off the attacks of 2nd British Infantry Division, orders issued on 26 May presented the Division with its most difficult task yet. Its two grenadier regiments and the recce battalion were directed to clear the British out of the forest of Nieppe. The attack opened at 08.30 hours on 27 May, with Germania on the right wing, Der Führer’ on the left and the recce battalion taking post between the 1st and 3rd Battalions of Der Führer Regiment. Only slow progress could be made against the well-constructed British field fortifications in the forest which were defended vigorously. Germania was held by the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment and the excellent marksmanship of these British soldiers was acknowledged in post-battle reports. But the SS pressure was too strong to be held indefinitely and by the evening Germania’ had advanced as far as Haverskerque. On its sector Der Führer had passed through the Bois d’Amont and its right wing companies had reached the banks of the Canal de Nieppe. The strong British resistance worried Corps who were aware that its role in the second part of the war in the west, Operation Red’, would be jeopardized by a long-drawn-out battle. All loose ends had to be tied up before Corps could be redeployed, and the most important of these loose ends was the capture of the forest. On 28 May, the day on which the Belgian forces capitulated, Corps directed that the Nieppe was to be cleared speedily and thoroughly. This proved to be a less difficult task than formerly for the Belgian surrender had laid open the British flank and further resistance in the forest of Nieppe no longer served any purpose. The Queen’s Own, together with the rest of the BEF, pulled back in a fighting retreat to the beaches.

Corps, aware of how much the strain of the fighting had exhausted its formations, ordered SS V Division to rest but the respite from battle was brief. On 31 May, ‘Germania on the Mont des Cats and Der Führer’ around Cassel were close in pursuit of the retreating British troops. Der Führer’ detachments on the hill at Cassel had a panoramic view of the whole Allied perimeter, dominated by the pall of black smoke rising from burning oil tanks into a cloudless blue sky. A welcome addition to divisional strength came on 1 June when more than 2,000 officers and men arrived to replace those who had been lost in the campaign. These reinforcements were welcome, not so much because companies making an attack would be up to strength again, but because the onerous and tiring round of sentry duty now being shared among a greater number of men came round less frequently. A soldier’s life centres on such trivial details.

Late in the evening of 1 June the Division marched to Bapaume, being no longer needed in the contracting perimeter at Dunkirk. When the last survivors of that Allied garrison surrendered on 4 June, the SS V Division was resting as part of Army Group reserve, ready to move into the next phase of the war in the west: the battle for France. The German Army High Command envisaged a threefold campaign. In quick succession three Army Groups would roll up the French battle line in an operation vaster than anything seen in warfare hitherto. The opening blows would be struck by Army Group B on 5 June, along a line extending from the Channel to the Aisne, north of Reims. The intention was to force a breakthrough on the lower Seine.

Only four days after Army Group B had opened the offensive it would be the task of Army Group A to start the main attack between the Aisne and the Franco-German frontier. This move would strike into the back of the French divisions holding the Maginot Line. While the attention of the French Army of the East was concentrated on warding off the assault of Army Group A’, Army Group C’ would cross the Rhine and assault the Maginot Line from the east. If the campaign in Flanders had been a terrible blow to the French Army, the assaults which began to rain upon it in the first week of June, were disastrous. Although it deployed more than sixty divisions south of the Somme, these formations were facing an enemy superior not only in number, but also one which had mastery of the air and who held the military initiative. The blows of the German Army were, heavy, sustained and mortal.

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