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Webmatters : The Battle for France May 1940 - Arras

May 1940

The Allies’ counter attack at Arras

The Royal Tank Regiment Memorial in the Abbey grounds

The Royal Tank Regiment Memorial in the Abbey grounds

The sticking point for the Germans on the 20th had been the British garrison at Arras which had failed to yield to Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division.

To try and relieve the pressure on the half surrounded garrison, Lord Gort VC commanding the BEF ordered the 1st Army Tank Brigade and 5th Division to join the 50th Division in the Vimy area.

This combined force was to be commanded by General Franklyn and designated the Frankforce.

The Frankforce was tasked with bolstering the Arras defences and mopping up German units in the southern and eastern suburbs.

Of the 5th Division, one Brigade (the 13th) relieved the battered 23rd Division on the Scarpe River whilst the 17th Brigade was held back as a reserve.

Like its partner the 50th (Northumbrian) Division only had two brigades (Not the usual three). The 150th Brigade was sent to strengthen the garrison. The 151st Brigade would be used in the attack, two battalions up front and one in reserve.

Thus, in reality the only troops actually available for an offensive action were the 6th and 8th Battalions Durham Light Infantry (DLI) supported by the 4th and 7th Royal Tank Regiment (RTR). A couple of thousand men and just 74 tanks.

Whilst this was being organised Rommel was being reinforced by the 3rd SS Totenkopf Panzer Division.

The plan and execution

The plan by the local commander, Major General Martel was simple. The 151st Brigade would sweep from the west of Arras coming around and underneath it as far as the Cojeul river on the old 1917 battlefield. That done, the 13th Brigade would move southwards from its position on the Scarpe to the east of Arras to join up with the 151st Brigade.

The troops were to leave their positions near Maroeuil in a two pronged attack crossing the Arras-Doullens Road at 1400 hours on the 21st May.

It has been pointed out that in setting this task the operational orders made mention of the fact that the Germans were already on the Arras-St Pol Road and advancing westwards — in other words between the attacking force and their supposed start line. Whether or not the British Command was aware of the fate of the 70th Brigade is another point.

The western attack column moved off at 1430 hours under shell fire and by the time they reached Duisans on the St Pol Road were engaged with units of the 7th Panzers. Leaving two companies of the 8th DLI to hold Duisans the remainder of the battalion accompanied by the 7th RTR moved on to Warlus which also had to be cleared of German troops. They now moved out onto the Doullens road where they were confronted by the troops of the SS Totenkopf and a sustained aerial attack.

The column was halted and forced back to between Warlus and Duisans.

The eastern column made up of the 6th DLI and 4th RTR fought their way through Dainville, Achicourt, Agny and Beaurains. There they ran into the German 6th Infantry Division and the advance came to a halt.

RTR Monumet At Beaurains

The Royal Tank Regiment Monument at Beaurains

With no reserves available or fresh troops to hold the ground gained, both columns were recalled. The Warlus contingent only managed to retire with the aid of the timely arrival of French tanks whilst the Beaurains column were heavily bombed by an unhindered Luftwaffe.

The HQ of the CWGC in France is situated in Beaurains

A qualified success

The day’s account sheet turned out historically not to have been all gloom and failure.

The Germans thought that the British Matilda II tanks seemed impenetrable by their own Panzer tanks and their standard anti-tank guns could not stop them either. Rommel was eventually forced to use his 88mm anti-aircraft guns firing as ground artillery.

Although the Frankforce was stopped and pushed back again, momentary panic set into the German High Command. Everything depended on speed, but the lines had become extended and the British effort had dented their confidence. The German High Command saw themselves vulnerable.

When the Panzers followed up the British they ran into French tanks (From the 3rd Light Mechanised Division) which were more than a match for them.

Monument to the SS Massacre at Aubigny

Monument at Aubigny Quarry

Tragically if the Totenkopf were unable to match Allied soldiers they were certainly not averse to taking revenge on the local population with summary executions taking place in their wake.

Dunkirk made possible

Rommel formed the impression that he had run into a force of hundreds of heavily armoured tanks and although his losses were relatively light (a dozen tanks and three hundred soldiers) his superiors and ultimately Hitler ordered a pause in the offensive encircling Dunkerque.

On the 23rd May Lord Gort ordered the retreat from Arras. Boulogne fell on the 25th and Calais on the 26th. The major part of the BEF and much of France’s best fighting units were now surrounded at Dunkerque.

The stand by the Allied forces at Arras is considered as being directly responsible for Hitler calling a halt to the German advance and thus giving Operation Dynamo the chance to carry to safety 198,000 British and 140,000 French soldiers.

Both the Durham Light Infantry and the Royal Tank Regiment carry Defence of Arras as a Battle Honour.