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Webmatters : Arras - 1940; 70th Anniversary exhibition, Wellington Quarry
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Arras

Arras 1940-44

To coincide with the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of Arras in 1940 an exhibition was mounted at the Wellington Quarry’s display room – Salle Thompson.

Thompson Hall at the Wellington Quarry

In 2011 a second exhibition has been mounted highlighting life under the Occupation.

Entrance is free and the exhibition will be open until September 2011 during the working hours of the Wellington Quarry: 1000-1230 and 1330-1800.

 

Blitzkrieg

The background to the Battle of Arras in 1940 shows just how Hitler’s forces duped the Allies.

In September 1939 Germany invaded Poland and the French and British declared war on the Third Reich. With neither party taking any action the next few months became known as the phony war. In preparation for the inevitable hostilities British troops once again found themselves embarking for the fields of France and Flanders.

France’s military thinking following the Great War was to rest on the defensive, to stand behind its Maginot Line whilst at the same time being prepared to outwit a second outing of the Schlieffen Plan should the Germans attempt to swing through Belgium as they had in 1914.

On the German side Hitler ultimately accepted an outline from Lieutenant-General Erich von Manstein. A strike would be made against Belgium to draw the French and British northwards. A second thrust would then be made through the Ardennes, on to Sedan and then westwards to the Channel ports.

Thus German doctrine was for a lightening fast victory. Hitler would dangle what the Allies were expecting in front of their noses; but, if the bait wasn’t taken, German would be crushed in a long engagement that she was not financially equipped to fight.

A Tommy's kit

A Tommy’s kit

 

10th May 1940

Hitler launched his attack on the 10th May 1940 when Army Group B occupied Luxembourg and began luring the French and British north. General Von Rundstedt’s Army Group A began its tortuous drive through the Ardennes forests towards Sedan.

The plan worked well with the French and BEF heading north in accordance with their Dyle/Breda Plan.

At Sedan the French defence forces readied themselves for the blow but expected it to come once the Germans had amassed sufficient forces to overcome the strong fortifications. This would take time which the French knew the Germans didn’t have.

But it wasn’t artillery as in 1914 that would breach the defences. Time had moved on, and on the 13th May the elite Großdeutschland infantry regiment were supported by wave after wave of Stuka dive bombers which together with thousands of sorties by the medium bombers of the Luftwaffe pummelled the French pill boxes.

The French had believed in the power of concrete to withstand such an attack and they were right. Where they were proved wrong was in the collapse in morale of some of the soldiers. Sedan was breached for only a few hundred German casualties.

German map showing Australia

World Domination — a German map showing Australia

 

Race to the coast

The Panzers now took a considerable risk in leaving the infantry behind them as they raced across France towards the coast.

On the 19th May Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division reached the Canal du Nord at Marquion. To his left flank were the 8th, 6th, 2nd and 1st Panzer Divisions. Behind them were the 5th and 10th Panzer Divisions.

Facing them were the British 12th and 23rd Divisions both of which were made up of Territorials, were under equipped and under strength.

As the 7th Panzers advanced against Arras the others pushed all before them as they created a narrow corridor of German armour and motorised troops moving towards the Somme estuary.

The 70th Brigade (23rd Div) was retired from Ruyaulcourt to Neuville Vitasse and then back to Beaumetz les Loges on the Arras-Doullens Road (There are 1st World War cemeteries around all of these villages).

However, as the 70th Brigade’s transport began ferrying the men towards the Doullens road the 8th Panzer Division reached the scattered units and caused such havoc that only a core of 14 officers and 219 soldiers could be accounted for from a Brigade of some 3,000 men.

The following day the 8th Panzers had reached through St Pol and Hesdin, some of their forward units were at Montreuil where throughout much of the Great War Field Marshal Haig had his Headquarters.

The 6th Panzers had taken Doullens, after a hard fight, from the 36th Brigade of the 12th Division. Two battalions of the 35th Brigade were confronted and overwhelmed by the 2nd Panzers at Abbeville whilst their 3rd battalion (7th Royal West Kent) put up a gallant fight against the 1st Panzers at Albert but were incapable of stopping the German troops from seizing Amiens that night.

 

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 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.

A British soldier's, Bird's egg substitute

A British soldier’s, Bird’s egg substitute

 

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.

Gott mit Uns

Gott mit Uns

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.

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.

From the battlefield: British Radio, French Helmet

From the battlefield: British Radio, French Helmet

 

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.

RTR Monumet At Beaurains

The Royal Tank Regiment Monument at Beaurains

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.