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Battle of Sedan
Part of the Battle of France, Western Front of World War II
Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1978-062-24, Floing, Pontonbrücke über die Maas.jpg
Crossing the Meuse on 15 May 1940 near Sedan
Date 12 – 15 May 1940
Location Sedan and the surrounding area, France
Result Decisive German victory.[1]
Belligerents
France France Nazi Germany Germany
Commanders
France Maurice Gamelin
France Charles Huntziger
France Henri Giraud
France Henri-Jean Lafontaine
France General Marcel Têtu
United KingdomP H L Playfair
Nazi Germany Gerd von Rundstedt
Nazi Germany Heinz Guderian
Nazi Germany Wolfram von Richthofen
Nazi Germany Bruno Loerzer
Nazi GermanyHeinrich Krampf
Nazi GermanyKarl Weisenberger
Strength
174 artillery pieces[2]

152 bombers[3][4]
250 fighters[3][4]

60,000 men[5]

22,000 vehicles[5]
771 tanks[6]
1,470 aircraft[2]
141 artillery pieces[2]

Casualties and losses
120 killed
400 wounded (12–14 May)[7]

The Battle of Sedan or Second Battle of Sedan[7] was a decisive battle fought during the Battle of France during the Second World War. The battle was part of the German Wehrmacht's battle plan to encircle the Allied Armies in Belgium and north-eastern France. The German Army Group A crossed the Meuse river with the intention of capturing Sedan and pushing northwards towards the channel coast, in order to entrap the Allied Forces that were advancing east into Belgium, as part of the Allied Dyle Plan strategy. The initial assault was spearheaded by the Luftwaffe. Owing to the bombing and low morale, the French defenders broke down psychologically and were unable to mount a coherent defence. The Germans captured the Meuse bridges at Sedan allowing them to pour reinforcements and armour across the river on 14 May. The Allied Air Forces, the Royal Air Force (RAF) and Armée de l'Air (French Air Force) tried to destroy the bridges only to be prevented by German aerial resistance leading to very high losses and the breaking of the Allied bomber strength in the campaign.[8] Several French counter-attacks fell victim to delay and confusion and on 15 May the Germans defeated the last French defences and broke into the strategic depths of the Allied front. Five days later, on 20 May, the German Army reached the Channel. The breakout had managed to achieve the operational goal of Fall Gelb and encircled the strongest French Armies, the French Seventh, French Ninth and First Armies along with the Belgian Army and British Army. The battle was instrumental in the fall of France in 1940.[8][9]

Contents

Background

On 10 May 1940 the Wehrmacht invaded Luxembourg, Netherlands and Belgium. In the Netherlands the Germans made steady process. By the 12 May, Army Group B was closing on Rotterdam and Amsterdam, while in central Belgium the Germans were close to reaching the Dyle river east of Brussels.[10] In response the Allied First Army Group under the command of Gaston-Henri-Gustave Billotte including the French Seventh Army, French Ninth Army, French First Army and the British Army to meet the invading German forces on the Allied defensive line on the Dyle. The German Army Group B offensive was a diversion however. The main thrust of Fall Gelb was to be conducted through the Ardennes in Luxembourg and southern Belgium. Once these lightly defended areas were negotiated, Army Group A's XIX. Panzerkorps, under the command of Heinz Guderian, was to strike into France at Sedan, located on the Meuse. Sedan occupied the last fortified and entrenched position along the Allied First Army Group's southern flank. Its capture would enable a German advance to the English Channel, into the rear of the Allied mobile forces advancing into Belgium, and their strategic encirclement. It was at Sedan the main effort of the German thrust in the west would fall to achieve this goal.[11]

For the offensive the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (German High Command) gave Army Group A the most powerful concentration of German armour and motorised forces. Although Army Group B received over a quarter of German tanks, the high number of light tanks such as the Panzer I and Panzer II, as opposed to the Panzer III and Panzer IV, revealed their diversionary role.[12] Army Group A contained 1,753 tanks of all types while Army Group B contained just 808.[6]

The French General Staff had, following the First World War, ruled out the idea of a future German thrust through the Ardennes–Sedan sector. The French were certain such terrain could not be crossed by tanks. Marshal Philippe Pétain described them as "impenetrable".[13] Maurice Gamelin described the geographical feature as "Europe's best tank obstacle".[13] The "barrier" of the Meuse and Ardennes appeared to be a sound strategic defence feature that a future enemy could not get through or go around.[13] At best the French concluded a German assault through the Ardennes towards Sedan would not reach the Meuse until two weeks after the start of any German offensive, taking between 5–9 days to penetrate the Ardenes alone.[14]

The French assessments were even more incredible in the light of military exercises carried out in 1938. That year General André-Gaston Prételat took command of manoeuvres which created a scenario whereby the German Army launched an assault with seven divisions, four motorised infantry and with two tank brigades.[15] The "French" sides defences collapsed. "The result was a defeat so comprehensive a nature that the wisdom of publishing it was questioned lest morale be damaged."[15] As late as March 1940, a French report to Gamelin named the defences at Sedan, the last "fortified" position on the Meuse, and the last before the open country of France, as "entirely inadequate."[15] Prételat had, correctly identified the landscape as relatively easy terrain for armour to cross. At most, he concluded, the Germans would take 60 hours to reach the Meuse and take one day to cross it.[16] This estimate to was to prove only three hours too late. The Germans achieved the Meuse crossing after just 57 hours.[16]

The French Army authorised fresh attempts to increase the power of the fortifications in the autumn, 1939, but severe winter weather prevented the pouring of concrete and the delivery of the necessary materials.[15] On 11 April 1940, General Huntzinger asked for another four divisions to work on the defences but was refused.[17]

French defences at Sedan

The French defences at Sedan were poor. The French had long held the belief that the German Army would not attack through the Sedan sector as part of their concentrated effort. Owing to this belief only Brigadier General Pierre Lafontaine's French 55th Infantry Division, a category B division, was allocated to this sector. The Maginot line fell 20 kilometres east of Sedan at La Ferté, where Fort No. 505 constituted its most western extreme. Sedan was a part of the extended maginot line that ran north behind the Meuse river. Between Sedan and La Ferté itself lay the Stenay gap, which was a stretch of unprotected terrain not covered by French defences or natural obstacles. Most French Generals insisted on its strengthening, while ignoring Sedan.[18]

The French strengthening preparations were to consist of further fortifications. German Luftwaffe reconnaissance picked up the activity and reported it. The slopes on the banks of the Meuse added to what appeared in German aircraft photographic reconnaissance to be of formidable barrier of bunkers and defence lines raised the question to von Rundstedt, the commander of Army Group A, about the wisdom of Guderian in choosing Sedan as the point of maximum effort.[18] To identify how strong these fortifications were, a team of photographic specialists were called in to evaluate the pictures. Their analysis concluded that what appeared to strong fortified positions were just the construction sites of half built bunkers that, to all intents and purposes, were empty shells. The contribution of the specialists had tilted the Sedan attack plan into Guderian's favour.[18]

General Charles Huntziger, commander of the French Second Army, was happy to rely on "concrete" to ensure the safety of Sedan as he rejected the idea that the Germans would assault through the Ardennes. The Second Army built 52 thousand cubic metres of concrete fortifications along its front, but very little in the Sedan sector. The number of bunkers protecting Sedan stood at 42 on the outbreak of war in September 1939 and an additional 61 were built by 10 May. Most bunkers were incomplete, lacked gun port shutters for the artillery casemates and some lacked doors.[18] To the north of Sedan, on the northern bend of the Meuse, the town of Glaire overlooked the crossing points of the river, which was to be the place the German armour would deliver its maximum blow. It was here a considerable 2 kilometre gap was located between Bunker 305 at Glaire and Bunker 211 next to the Pont Neuf bridge. Such a lack of defences enabled an attacker coming from the north to use the good road routes through the Fleigneux-Saint Menges-Glaire axis to enter Sedan from the north.[19]

The defences at Sedan also lacked any mines. The French Second Army was guarding a front of 70 kilometres, and was given only 16,000 mines. Of that number 7,000 were given to the Cavalry divisions that were delaying the German advance through southern Belgium as well as blockhouse points along the Franco-Belgian border. That left 2,000 for defending the river Meuse, of those the French 55th Infantry division got 422. Not all of these 422 mines were laid, and some barriers were moved during the bunker construction in the Sedan sector.[20]

German plans

As the German Army advanced through southern Belgium on 12 May, von Kleist and Guderian clashed over where the main point of effort should fall. Kleist pressed for the main point to come at Flize, further west than Sedan. Kleist argued that the blow would avoid a double river crossing at the Meuse and Ardennes canal. Moreover, the blow would strike at the dividing line between the French Ninth Army and the French Second Army. Guderian saw things differently. Guderian wanted to strike further south at Sedan. Guderian pointed out that a thrust along the lines of Kleist's plan would put the advances flank in range of the artillery shelling from the fortress artillery at Charleville-Mézières, some 25 km north west of Sedan. The shift of operations further north would also disperse concentration, or Schwerpunkt. It would also disrupt the intense planning of the German tactical units, who had been in training for this action for months. Guderian also felt that a regrouping period in front of Sedan would delay the assault for 24 hours. Kleist could not accept such a delay, so he agreed to Guderian's plan.[11] Nevertheless, while Kleist accepted the folly of the Flize detour, he insisted the offensive concentration point should be made west of the Ardennes Canal. Kleist reaffirmed this in a letter to Guderian on 18 April, but when operations began Guderian ignored this completely. Guderian had wanted a large, 20 km bridgehead at Sedan and the rapid occupation of Stonne and the high ground surrounding Sedan.[21]

Forces involved

French Order of battle

French Army:

Armée de l'Air:

  • 3e Armée
  • 4e Armée
  • 5e Armée
  • Groupement de Bombardement 10
  • Groupement de Bombardement 15

Royal Air Force

German Order of battle

Heer:

Luftwaffe:

German forces

The German forces consisted of the 1st Panzer, 2nd Panzer and 10th Panzer Divisions. The 1st Panzer Division under the command of General-Major Friedrich Kirchner, had on strength 52 Panzer IIs, 98 Panzer III, 58 Panzer IV, 40 Panzer 35(t) and eight SdKfz 265 Panzerbefehlswagens.[6] The 2nd Panzer Division had to hand 45 Panzer I, 115 Panzer II, 59 Panzer III and 32 Panzer IVs.[6] It also had 16 SdKfz 265.[6] The 10th Panzer Division was given 44 Panzer I, 113 Panzer II, 58 Panzer III, 32 Panzer IV and 18 SdKfz 265.[6] In total Guderian could muster 60,000 men[5] 22,000 vehicles[5] 771 tanks[6] 1,470 aircraft[2] and 141 artillery pieces for the Sedan battle.[2]

Part of Guderian's problem was the lack of mobile artillery. He had no intention of halting the breakout in order to wait for additional artillery units to be moved into place to assault Sedan. Instead, Guderian requested maximum support from the Luftwaffe. For the first few days the German air arm would be used mostly in support of Army Group B.[26] Most of the air support over Sedan was to be provided by Luftflotte 3 which was initially planned as limited, but the Luftwaffe's workload was increased enormously nearer the time of the battle.[26] The Luftwaffe was to commit I. Fliegerkorps, II. Fliegerkorps, V.Fliegerkorps, VII. Fliegerkorps, VIII. Fliegerkorps (from Luftflotte 2) and Jagdfliegerführer 3.[2] The most significant unit was VIII. Fliegerkorps, nicknamed the Nahkampf-Fliegerkorps (Close Support Air Corps), which contained Sturzkampfgeschwader 77, a powerful concentration of dive-bomber units equipped with the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka precision ground attack aircraft.[2] This powerful air concentration numbered some 1,470 aircraft; 600 Heinkel He 111 and Junkers Ju 88 medium bombers and Dornier Do 17 light bombers, 250 Ju 87s, 500 Messerschmitt Bf 109s and 120 Messerschmitt Bf 110s.[2]

French forces

The 55th Infantry Division unit guarding the Sedan position had little time for combat training. Their duties had been taken up in construction work. The division consisted mainly of reservists, most of whom were over the age of 30. Moreover little attempt was made to improve the poor combat quality of the division. One officer, First Lieutenant Delas of the 1st Battalion 147th Fortress Infantry regiment was arrested and confined for 15 days for ordering firing practice with a 25mm anti-tank gun in a nearby quarry.[27] The division's commanding officer, General Lafontaine put more faith into fortifications than training, as he believed it would compensate for the weakness of the division. Owing to this, the divisions men lacked the confidence and will to fight when the battle took place.[27]

The organisation of the French 55th Infantry division was chaotic and confused. Most units had been involved in construction work and were constantly moved to different tactical positions. Of the nine companies in position by 10 May, only a few had been holding their respective positions for a few days and were not familiar with them. One of the premier Infantry Regiments, the 213th Infantry Regiment was removed from the line altogether and was replaced with the 331st Regiment. In some cases Infantry regiments were made up of several different companies from several different battalions from different regiments. For example, the 295th Infantry Regiment's 6th Company, 2nd battalion, was made up of four different companies which were drawn from three different battalions belonging to three different regiments.[28] Such actions damaged the cohesion of the units that were initially strong. The 147th Fortress Regiment was the backbone of the 55th Infantry Division and was to occupy the bunker positions on the Meuse. At the start of mobilisation the unit had high morale and very good cohesion. Owing to the constant changes in organisation, the units battalions were "torn apart again and again".[29]

To relieve the 55th Infantry Division, the French 71st Infantry Division was ordered out of reserve and into the frontline. The presence of the 71st Infantry shortened the front by 20 to 14 kilometres along the Meuse. This would increase the density of fighting strength in the immediate area, but such a move was only partially complete by 10 May, as it was scheduled to be complete on 13–14 May, three days after the German attack.[30]

The battle

12 May

Guderian's Panzerkorps assault route

The main problem confronting Guderian and his Sedan method was inadequate artillery support. Several batteries were stuck in traffic in the Ardennes and he could not rely on the artillery batteries of his Panzer Divisions only. Everything depended on the support of the Luftwaffe. General der Flieger Hugo Sperrle, commander of Luftflotte 3, had planned on a conventional method of a brief assault before the ground forces moved in. After preparatory raids, the medium and dive-bombers were to smash the French defences in a concentrated blow lasting 20 minutes. The raid was planned for 16:00 before the infantry crossed the Meuse. In collaboration, Bruno Loerzer's II.Fliegerkorps had developed the concept of the rolling raid with Guderian. Mass was abandoned in one strike, and the German formations were to attack in small formations but constantly, through the day. It was deemed the effect would be threefold:

  • Enemy artillery is eliminated
  • Effect of continuous raids would damage enemy morale
  • Mass raids can hit only targets with rough accuracy, small formations could hit special targets, like bunkers with greater systematic precision.[31]

Von Kleist, Guderian's immediate superior, unknown to Guderian, had contacted Loerzer and banned Guderian's proposed long systematic approach in favour of one big assault. Guderian complained. Kleist ignored him. Yet, the following morning to Guderian's delight, Loerzer had rejected Kleist's method and went ahead with the agreed rolling bombing as discussed with Guderian. Loerzer would later say that the official order from Hugo Sperrle had come in too late to make changes.[32] By nightfall on 12 May 1940, Guderians XIX. Panzerkorps rolled into Sedan. Guderian reported there was no sign of the enemy.[33] With city itself secured, Guderian would now have to strike south, across the defended rear behind Sedan, which in turn was protected by a large bunker complex located on Marfee ridge, a piece of high ground covering the Sedan-Meuse river to the south.

13 May

The Luftwaffe attacks

Junkers Ju 87B Stuka bombarding French positions around Sedan.

In the early hours of the 13 May, the 10th Panzer slipped into position upstream to the north of Sedan, ready to strike at its designated crossing point near the town of Wadelincourt. Down stream the 2nd Panzer moved into position to cross at Donchery. The 1st Panzer prepared to strike at the Gaulier bridgehead, in the centre of Sedan's tactical front. It was on the northern bend of the Sedan Meuse loop that the Luftwaffe was to make its maximum effort, between Gaulier and Wadelincourt. Guderian, to supplement his air support, stripped most his Panzer Divisions artillery and positioned them directly opposite Gaulier.[26] However, the artillery regiments lacked ammunition. Sustained and damaging bombardment through shelling was impossible. The Luftwaffe was going to have to do most of the work.[26] Guderian reported that his korps had only 141 artillery pieces against the French' 174.[5] To the north and south of Sedan the French X Corps and French XXXXI Corps (at the artillery fortress at Charleville-Mézières) could also add their artillery and shell Guderians Panzer units as they crossed the bridgeheads.[5] The slow advance of artillery units to the front added to the German numerical inferiority, which was now 1:3 against.[5] Only in the afternoon did the German artillery make an appearance, but with little effect. The 2nd Panzer was forced to attack without artillery support. For these reasons Guderian had decided the outcome depended on the quality of air support.[5]

The planned aerial assault would last for eight hours, from 08:00 to 16:00 hours.[34] Loerzer and Richthofen committed two Stuka units to the attack. Loerzer's Ju 87s flew some 180 missions against Sedan's bunkers whilst Richthofen's managed 90. The nine Kampfgruppen (bomber wings) of Loerzer's II. Fliegerkorps flew 900 missions against the 360 of von Richthofen's VIII. Fliegerkorps. VIII. Fliegerkorps's total mission count on the Meuse front was 910 compared to II. Fliegerkorps 1,770 missions.[35]

The Luftwaffe's target was the Marfee heights which lay behind Sedan to the south east. They contained the fortified artillery positions and dominated the approaches to the strategic and operational depths beyond Sedan and the Meuse.[32] The Luftwaffe was two hours late in appearing but the effort made was considerable. The attacks were made in Gruppe strength and against the line of maximum resistance along the enemy gun line. To restrict enemy movements and communications, German fighters swept the area to cut land-lines and strafe fortifications, with some shooting of radio antennae off command posts. The attacks isolated the forward defence lines.[36] The Luftwaffe cowed the defenders, breaking them psychologically. The gunners, the backbone of the defences had abandoned their positions by the time the German ground assault had begun. The cost to the Luftwaffe was just six aircraft, three of which were Ju 87s.[36]

The French 55th Infantry Division was not prepared for such an attack. French soldiers had commented on the massive psychological effect of the bombardment, in particular the siren of the Ju 87. However, after the war, it was discovered that none of the bunkers had been hit directly that led to its destruction.[37] Moreover, just 56 French casualties were suffered.[37] It was the indirect effect that did the damage. The telecommunication cables were destroyed (most had been laid out in the open) through bombing, paralysing the division the divisions communications, and the aforementioned psychological damage crippled its defensive capacity.[37]

The ensuing psychological damage contributed to "the panic of Bulson". About 19:00 hours, 13 May, a report by an French artillery observer was passed on incorrectly. There was a rumour that German tanks were approaching the town of Bulson. The false reports spread and the French 55th Infantry Division dissolved into a mass of personnel who deserted their positions. By the 14 May the division had ceased to exist. German sources, however, say that the first German tank crossed the Meuse River 12 hours later.[38] By the time it was realised it was in error, most of the artillery and infantrymen had abandoned their heavy equipment.[39]

The 1st Panzer Division at Gaulier

The ground central ground assault was to be conducted by the 1st Panzer Division and supported by the Infantry Regiment Großdeutschland and the Sturmpionier-Bataillon 43 (43rd Assault Engineer Battalion) as the 1st Panzer had only a single rifle regiment.[37] The Großdeutschland would be attached to the 1st Panzer for the remainder of the campaign[40] and it was the first unit to breach the defences on Hill 247. The Regiment, much to their surprise, discovered the Luftwaffe had failed to destroy the enemy bunkers. Enemy fire ensured that crossing the river at Pont Neuf bridge could not be done in rubber assault boats. The Regiment retreated and fired on Bunker 211, guarding the bridgehead. The 75mm short barrel artillery failed to knock it out. A 8.8 cm FlaK dual purpose gun (88mm) was brought in to do the job. It succeeded, but another crossing failed as machine gun fire from a flank position had not been spotted. Once this was dealt with by the 2nd Battalion, the Regiment crossed the river.[37] Throughout the remainder of the day the Regiment moved up and into the French defences, the 2nd Battalion's 6th, 7th and 8th Companies gradually knocking out each bunker. Despite the other 1st and Second Battalions being held up further south, by 20:00 the central Hill 247 had been taken.[41] The Regiment had now penetrated 8 km into the French defences.[40]

On Hill 301, further west, the First Rifle Regiment had help take the position by night fall. With help from two platoons of the 3rd Company 34th Assault Engineer Battalion, it had succeeded in knocking out the bunker positions. The Regiment inched westward and was able to see the 2nd Panzer Division on the extreme west flank attacking the bunker position near Donchery. Several Panzers were knocked out. The First Rifle Regiment, now in an area designated to the 2nd Panzer, eased their flank units passage by knocking out several bunkers just east of their combat zone and cutting the Donchery-Sedan road. The infantry succeeded in knocking out most of the casemates in the area using flamethrower teams to destroy the bunkers whose infantry failed to surrender quickly.[42] The last bunker to surrender did so at 22:40 hours on 13 May. By that time elements of the 1st and 2nd Panzer had negotiated the Meuse river.[42]

The 2nd Panzer Division at Donchery

The 2nd Panzer had been given the most difficult job. Its advance through the Ardennes trapped and delayed it in nearly 250 km of traffic. Consequently it arrived late at Donchery, after the 1st and 10th Panzer had initiated their assault. Owing to this the enemy defences were alerted. Crossing at extreme western end of the Sedan sector on the Donchery axis, it was forced to advance across open terrain for the last 3 km. This subjected the division to fire from Donchery and the Bellevue Castle's 75mm artillery casemates. Several boats were tied to the Panzers and dragged across, but the tanks were knocked out.[43] The French defences and the bulk of 174 artillery concentrated on the 2nd Panzer from their view point bunkers on the south side of the river Meuse-Donchery sector. Some of the French 102nd Infantry division's batteries also joined in from the north west, at Charleville. The 2nd Panzer had handed its heavy howitzers over to the 1st Panzer, and now had only 24 to conduct its assault. They did not arrive on the battlefield until 17:00, and had only had a couple of shells per gun owing to a logistical tailback in the Ardennes.[44]

All attempts to land on the southern side of the Meuse failed. Fortunately, the 1st Panzer succeeded in crossing the Meuse in the centre, and sent some tactical units west to the Meuse bend. Assault Engineers and 1st Panzer neutralised the Castle guns at Bellevue, and cleared the bunker positions along the Meuse River from behind. The artillery falling on the 2nd Panzer's eastern flank stopped.[44] With the threat of artillery fire on its right flank removed, the units of the 2nd Panzer’s left flank crossed the river and infiltrated it’s the French positions opposite Donchery at 20:00. French fire from the bunkers on the south side of the Meuse opposite Donchery continued heavily. It was not until 22:20, in darkness, regular amounts of ferrying missions enabled the reinforcement the German bridgehead.[44]

The 10th Panzer Division at Wadelincourt

The 10th Panzer, like the 2nd, had detached its heavy artillery batteries to support neighbouring units. It was left with just 24 light 105mm howitzers.[45] Moreover, the batteries were short of ammunition. The Luftwaffe had not helped the 10th Panzer's position. Most of the air attacks were in support of the 1st Panzer Division on the central sector. This meant all of the French artillery and machine gun positions in the Wadelincourt were undisturbed.[45] Added to this, the newly inserted 71st Infantry Division and French X Corps in the Remilly area had a serious effect on preventing the 10th Panzer from gaining any quick progress. The Division also had to advance down to the river on open flat terrain of some 600-800 metres.[45] Near the town of Bazeilles the Engineers and assault infantry had gathered to prepare the boats for the crossing of the Meuse at Wadelincourt when an artillery barrage from the French positions destroyed 81 out of 96 rubber boats.[45] The plan of attack, which had included an assault by the 69th and 89th Infantry Regiment, but with the boat losses meant only the 89th Infantry Regiment was able to conduct the crossing. The 69th was kept in reserve to follow the 89th as reinforcements.[45]

The 10th Panzer Divisions assaults failed all along the Meuse front. The only success came from a small 11 man team (five engineers and six infantrymen) of the 2nd Company, Panzerpionier-Batailion 49 (49th Panzer Engineer Battalion) placed under the 1st Battalion, 86th Infantry Regiment. Unsupported, acting on their own initiative and led by Feldwebel Walter Rubarth, this small force opened a decisive breach by knocking out seven bunker positions. Follow up units from the 1st Battalion 86th Rifle Regiment had crossed over by 21:00 and stormed the remaining bunkers on Hill 246, where the main French defence positions were located. By the end of the day, the bridgehead had been consolidated and the objective taken.[46]

14 May

Allied air strikes and air battles over Sedan

In the central sector, at Gaulier, the Germans began moving 37mm Pak and 75mm light infantry field artillery across the Meuse to provide support from infantry support across the river. By 01:00 on 14 May, a pontoon bridge had been erected over which Sdkz 222, SdKfz 232 and SdKfz 264 armoured cars began to dismount in the bridgeheads. French reports spoke of German tanks crossing the bridges. Such reports were in error, as the first Panzers only crossed at 07:20, 14 May. Prior to this masses of lorries, armoured cars and other traffic had passed through, but not tanks.[40]

The RAF Fairey Battle suffered heavy losses over the bridgehead

The capture of Sedan and the expansion of the bridgeheads alarmed the French who called for a total effort against the bridgeheads at Sedan, to isolate the three Panzer Divisions. Gaston-Henri Billotte, commander of the First Allied Army Group whose right flank pivoted on Sedan, urged the bridges across the Meuse River to be destroyed by air attack, convinced that "over them will pass either victory or defeat!".[36][40] General Marcel Têtu, commander of the Allied Tactical Air Forces ordered: "Concentrate everything on Sedan. Priority between Sedan and Houx is at 1,000,000 to 1".[3] The RAF Advanced Air Striking Force No. 103 Squadron RAF and No. 150 Squadron RAF undertook 10 sorties against the targets in the early morning. In the process they suffered only one loss in a forced landing. Between 15:00–16:00, 71 RAF bombers took off escorted by Allied fighters.[Notes 1] The impressive escort was offset by the presence of German fighter units that outnumbered the Allied escort by 3:1.[47] No. 71 Wing RAF lost 10 Fairey Battles and five Bristol Blenheims. No. 75 Wing lost 14–18 Battles and No. 76 Wing lost 11 Battles.[47] Out of 71 bombers dispatched 40–44 bombers were lost, meaning a loss rate of 56–62 percent.[47] The AASF lost a further five Hawker Hurricanes.[47] The bombing results were poor. Just three bridges were damaged and one might have been destroyed.[47]

The Allied air strike received mostly poor protection. Only 93 fighter sorties, (60 by the French) were flown.[36] The French lost 21 fighters in the operation.[36] Bruno Loerzer called the 14 May "the day of the fighter".[36] One of the premier German fighter units responsible for the heavy loss rate was Jagdgeschwader 53, who later engaged French bombers who tried to succeed where the AASF failed. The attacks failed as they were uncoordinated. Along with fighter resistance, the Germans had assembled powerful flak concentrations in Sedan. The Flak battalions of the 1st, 2nd and 10th Panzer Divisions numbered 303 anti-aircraft guns.[48] This force was built around the 102nd Flak Regiment with its 88mm, 37mm, and rapid fire 20mm weapons.[4] So heavy was the defensive fire Allied bombers the aircraft could not concentrate over the target. Allied bomber pilots called it "hell along the Meuse".[48] On 14 May the Allies flew 250 sorties, the French losing 30 (another source states 21[36]) and the RAF losing 20 fighter aircraft.[49] Another 65 were heavily damaged.[49] Out of 109 RAF bombers dispatched, 47 were shot down, and out of 43 French bombers, five were lost.[49] This meant 167 aircraft had been lost against a single target.[49]

The German Generals, in particular Guderian, was relieved the Luftwaffe had prevented the Allied bombers from knocking out his supply bridges. By nightfall, at least 600 Panzers, including the 2nd Panzer which had to use the 1st Panzer Divisions bridge at Gaulier (owing to theirs not having yet been constructed), were across the Meuse.[50]

X Corps counter-offensive, slow French reactions

During the 14 May, General Lafontaine had moved the 55th Infantry Division's Command post to Bulson, 10–11 km south of Sedan, from its position on the Marfee heights. The French had prepared, to an extent, for a German breakthrough at Sedan, and accordingly placed X Corps available for a counter-attack. It was to occupy the Bulson position on the Chéhéry - Bulson - Haraucourt axis and strike at the Meuse bridgeheads. The terrain included heavy wooded areas, and the units left behind convinced General Charles Huntziger commander of the French Second Army that they would be bale to hold Bulson, and the Panzers would not be able to exploit their tactical victory at Sedan on the 14 May.[51]

The Germans suffered a seven hour delay in getting their armour across the bridge from 01:20 to 07:30 hours. It could have been disastrous for the German Panzer Divisions. The French had already initiated plans for counter-attacks with armour on the German-held bridgehead during the night but delays in bringing up forces and procrastination, made worse by the panic and retreat of the infantry who had also abandoned their positions and artillery as part of the "panic of Bulson"[52], made an attack possible only in the morning of the 14 May. The commander of X Corps' artillery, Colonel Poncelet, had tried to keep his units where they were, but had reluctantly ordered a retreat.[52] This decision resulted in the Corps battalions abandoning large amounts of heavy artillery and forced the collapse of the 55th Infantry Divisions organisation and a partial collapse of the 71s Infantry Division.[52] Poncelet was so psychologically damaged by his decision, he committed suicide a few days later.[52]

The race to Bulson ridge began at 16:00 hours on 13 May. At 07:30 on 14 May, French armour advanced to Bulson ridge with a view to seizing the high ground vacated by the infantry of the 55th Infantry Division on 13 May.[50] But the main, primary objective was to destroy the German bridgeheads. While that may have been possible on 13 May, the odds had shifted against the French.[50] The X Corps attack would involved a strike along the left and right flank. On the left, the 213th Infantry Regiment and 7th Tank Battalion along with the 205th Infantry Regiment and 4th Tank Battalion on the right.[51][53] The right flanking force arrived late, so it was the 213th Infantry and the 7th Tank battalion which advanced alone on the north axis. It was thought that one hour fifty minutes for the 213th and two hours for the 7th tank units to reach an area in between Chéhéry and Bulson would be achievable.[51] Yet it was not until 17 hours after the original order to advance to Bulson that the lead French tanks reached the Bulson ridge. They found the Germans had beaten them there by a few minutes.[51]

Lafontaine had hesitated over the 24 hours since the afternoon of the 13 May. He spent hours reconnoitring the terrain and travelling around the area to various Regimental headquarters, looking for his Corps commander General Gransard for an order to attack. Owing to this Lafontaine also delayed the order to the tactical attack units until 05:00 hours on 14 May, by which time the Germans had consolidated their bridgehead and the Panzer Division's combined arms infantry teams were advancing inland to Bulson. Lafontaine had had a mission plan since 20:00 hours on 14 May - to defeat the Germans and retake the Meuse bridgeheads. But he waited for and wanted an order to proceed. Lafontaine's need for an order was contrary to the unit actions of the Germans, who operated the tactically more efficient Mission Command system. Lafontaine had wasted valuable hours.[54] The French had an opportunity to thrown the Germans back into the Meuse but they missed their chance owing poor staff work and generalship. The 1st Panzer Division had struggled to advance as quickly as it would have liked, and was jammed on the roads leading out of Gaulier and Sedan. Moreover, the German soldiers were exhausted after a five day advance. A quick counter thrust by just two infantry regiments and two tank battalions would have "plunged the Germans into crisis".[55] Even a failed attack, and the holding of Bulson, would have allowed it to be used by formations of the Second French Army and General Jean-Adolphe-Louis-Robert Flavigny's powerful French XXI Corps tank units moving up from the Maginot line area from the south[55] which included the French 3rd Armoured Division[23]

French military doctrine dictated the tanks, mostly FCM 36s, to advance with the infantry. The speed of the FCM 36 was not designed to go any faster for this reason so its top speed was only 24kph.[50] It took from 07:30-08:45 on 14 May for the French armour to traverse the last two kilometres to the ridge.[50] Lead elements of the 1st and 2nd Panzer Division Panzer Division had reached the ridge just minutes before, having travelled nine kilometres in less time.[50] But the initial clash was not in the Guderian's XIX. Panzerkorps' favour. Instead of making sure the Panzer III and Panzer IV had priority in crossing the Meuse, the Germans had sent few across, and the van of the advance contained mostly lightly armed and armoured Panzer Is and Panzer IIs.[50]

The tank battle at Bulson

The initial encounters took place as the Battle of Hannut and Merdorp were taking place during the Battle of Belgium. The results were much the same. On the southern face of Bulson, General Friedrich Kirchner, commander of the 1st Panzer Division, suffered several tactical reverse and saw the 37mm shells from his PaK3 6 anti-tank guns and Panzer IIIs bounce of the more heavily armed French tanks.[50] A number of the Panzers were knocked out in rapid succession.[50] The Germans had to hold the French at the ridge, Kirchner was forced to send in his tanks in dribs and drabs, tactics hated by Guderian, but even the Korps commander himself decided there was no other recourse.[50] It was once again the Panzers radio equipment that enabled them to move around quickly and communicate with one another to change the point of defence or attack quickly. The speed of the Panzers also enabled them to offset their inferiority in combat power to the French tanks.[9] Often the Panzer III and IVs could speed into the rear of French formations, closing quickly and knocking out the French armour from the rear.[9] The Germans noted the particular weakness between the chassis and turret of the French tanks, which were vulnerable to their fire.[9]

The French artillery positioned in hidden wooded areas proved more potent than the tanks. The German 1st Panzer Company was wiped out by French artillery, and pulled back with just one battleworthy Panzer. The Company retreated under the cover of part of the ridge, and moved its single Panzer back and forth, simulating the presence of many German tanks. At Gaulier, near Sedan, the 2nd Panzer Company was rushed to the spot and managed to stop and delay the French who were advancing with armour. It was the Großdeutschland Infantry Regiment's late arrival that titled the scales. They managed to eliminate the anti-tank lines and entrenched infantry.[56]

On the left side of the Bulson ridge, the Germans encountered 13 French battle tanks with support from infantry near Chéhéry. The advance intended to strike at Connage to the south of the town of Chéhéry, intended to outflank the French. Kirchner reacted quickly, ordering two anti-tank platoons to be set up at Connage. The 37mm guns struggled to halt the French armour which then outflanked the Connage position by moving to the west while the infantry advanced from the south east on the German right flank. Fortunately the 43rd Assault Engineer Battalion and the 8th Company, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Panzer Regiment arrived and pushed the French back to the town of Chémery-sur-Bar, some 5 km south west of Bulson, and south of Connage.[57]

At 10:45, Lafontaine ordered a retreat and Guderian finally got heavy artillery from the Infantry Regiment Großdeutschland, 88mm dual role artillery guns and the heavier Panzer III and IVs reached the area of the battle. By this time the French 7th Tank Battalion had been wiped out and the 213th Infantry Regiment had been devastated.[57] Only 10 French tanks, out of 40, remained.[57] In two pitched battles the 7th Tank Battalion fought that day they lost 10 from 13 and another 19 tanks.[53] Delays on the right flank meant the 205th Infantry Regiment and 4th tank battalion did not reach their starting line until 10:45, by which time the battle on the left wing had been lost and further attacks on the right would have made little sense.[57] The 1st Panzer Division's victory parade was held in Chemery at 12:00, but it was cut short when the Luftwaffe bombed the square by mistake inflicting a few casualties.[57]

15 May

Tank battle at Stonne

The German High Command did not want to exploit the victory at Sedan-Bulson until the German infantry divisions had caught up with the three Panzer Divisions. The Panzer Divisions were not to be moved. To Guderian this was madness and would throw away the victory at Sedan and allow the enemy time to recover and reorganise his still formidable armoured units. Guderian decided to push for the Channel, even if it meant ignoring the High Command and Hitler himself.[58] Guderian ordered the 10th Panzer Division and Großdeutschland Regiment to hold the Sedan bridgehead and the 1st and 2nd Panzer Divisions were to stike north west, towards the channel, beginning the thrust.[59]

Part of Guderian's original plan had called for a feint thrust south towards and behind the Maginot line, to mask the intention to thrust to the channel. General Franz Halder had dropped this from the Fall Gelb. But Guderian resurrected it and ordered the 10th Panzer and Großdeutschland to attack across the Stonne plateau. It was in this innocuous town that a vicious two day battle took place in which for the first and only time the Germans came face to face with the premier French tank, the Char B1-Bis. One of these tanks proved invulnerable to German anti-tank fire and took 140 hits and knocked out 13 Panzer tanks and a number of anti-tank guns. It transpired that the French had concentrated their own armour there to mount another attack on the Sedan bridgeheads. The battle of Stonne took place over the 15–17 May, and the town would change hands times 17 times. Ultimately the failure of the French to hold it meant the final failure of eliminating the Sedan bridgeheads.[59]

Aftermath

The French defeat at Sedan left the Allied Army Group's in Belgium with sparse flank protection. The German attack, especially the breakout from the bridgeheads was so fast that there was hardly any major combats. Moreover, many French soldiers were in such shock many were taken prisoner before they could offer resistance. That also explains the astonishingly low casualty rates for both sides. The two assault engineer battalions under Korthals achieved the most important success. By eliminating the bunkers in the Bellevue sector they made the breakthroughs of the 1st and 2nd Panzer Divisions possible. This was achieved without a single casualty.[7] There is general consensus among military historians that the Battle at Sedan sealed the fate of Belgium and France. On 14 May the Allied forces had been wrongfooted and through the failures in deployment had effectively lost the campaign. The advance to the channel would trap 1.7 million Allied soldiers and expel the Allied presence on the continent of western Europe.[60]

References

Notes

  1. ^ John Terraine states 250 fighters were used as escort for this one mission[47] Frieser states this was the total strength of Allied fighter forces in the area[3] and that it was 250 missions that were flown throughout the day.[48]

Citations

  1. ^ Frieser 2005, p. 145.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Frieser 2005, p. 158.
  3. ^ a b c d Frieser 2005, p. 179.
  4. ^ a b c Healy 2007, p. 56.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h Frieser 2005, p. 157.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Healy 2007, p. 44.
  7. ^ a b c Frieser 2005, p. 196.
  8. ^ a b Keegan 2005, p. 326.
  9. ^ a b c d Healy 2007, p. 62.
  10. ^ Healy 2007, p. 48.
  11. ^ a b Frieser 2005, p. 155.
  12. ^ Healy 2007, p. 32.
  13. ^ a b c Frieser 2007, p. 139.
  14. ^ Frieser 2007, p. 139-140.
  15. ^ a b c d Evans 2000, p. 48.
  16. ^ a b Frieser 2007, p. 140.
  17. ^ Evans 2000, p. 49.
  18. ^ a b c d Frieser 2005, p. 146.
  19. ^ Frieser 2005, pp. 148-149.
  20. ^ Frieser 2005, p. 149.
  21. ^ Frieser 2005, p. 155-156.
  22. ^ a b c Frieser 2005, p. 199.
  23. ^ a b Krause & Cody 2005, p. 173.
  24. ^ Mitcham 2007, p. 120.
  25. ^ Mitcham 2007, p. 57.
  26. ^ a b c d Healy 2007, p. 52.
  27. ^ a b Frieser 2005, p. 150.
  28. ^ Frieser 2005, p. 151.
  29. ^ Frieser 2005, p. 151-152.
  30. ^ Frieser 2005, p. 153.
  31. ^ Frieser 2005, p. 154.
  32. ^ a b Hooton 2007, p. 64.
  33. ^ Healy 2007, p. 51.
  34. ^ Healy 2007, pp. 52-53.
  35. ^ Hooton 2007, pp. 64-65.
  36. ^ a b c d e f g Hooton 2007, p. 65.
  37. ^ a b c d e Frieser 2005, p. 161.
  38. ^ Krause & Cody 2005, p. 172.
  39. ^ Frieser 2005, p. 175.
  40. ^ a b c d Healy 2007, p. 53.
  41. ^ Frieser 2005, pp. 161-162.
  42. ^ a b Frieser 2005, pp. 166-167.
  43. ^ Frieser 2005, p. 172.
  44. ^ a b c Frieser 2005, p. 173.
  45. ^ a b c d e Frieser 2005, p. 168.
  46. ^ Frieser 2005, pp. 169-172.
  47. ^ a b c d e f Terraine 1985, pp. 134-135.
  48. ^ a b c Frieser 2005, p. 180.
  49. ^ a b c d Frieser 2005, p. 181.
  50. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Healy 2007, p. 60.
  51. ^ a b c d Frieser 2005, p. 183.
  52. ^ a b c d Frieser 20r05, p. 177.
  53. ^ a b Evans 2000, p. 59.
  54. ^ Frieser 2005, p. 183-186.
  55. ^ a b Frieser 2005, p. 187.
  56. ^ Frieser 2005, pp. 190-191.
  57. ^ a b c d e Frieser 2005, p. 192.
  58. ^ Healy 2007, pp. 66-67.
  59. ^ a b Healy 2007, p. 67.
  60. ^ Frieser 2005, p. 197.

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  • Bond, Brian. (1990) Britain, France and Belgium, 1939–1940. Brassy's, London. ISBN 0-08-037700-9
  • Brian Bond. France and Belgium, 1939–1940. London : Davis-Poynter. 1975. ISBN 0706701682
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  • Ellis, Major L.F. (2004) [1st. pub. HMSO 1954]. Butler, J.R.M. ed. The War in France and Flanders 1939-1940. History of the Second World War United Kingdom Military Series. Naval & Military Press Ltd. ISBN 978-184574-056-6. 
  • Evens, Martin Marix. The Fall of France. Osprey Publishing, Oxford. 2000. ISBN 1-85532969-7
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  • Healy, Mark, Ed. Prigent, John &. Panzerwaffe: The Campaigns in the West 1940. Vol. 1. London. Ian Allan Publishing. 2008 ISBN 978-071103-240-8
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  • Mitcham, Samuel. German Order of Battle, Volume Two: 291st 999th Infantry Divisions, Named Infantry Divisions, and Special Divisions in WWII. Stackpole Books. 2007. ISBN 978-0811734370
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