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Webmatters : The Battle for France May/June 1940

May 1940

10th May 1940

Hitler had wanted to launch his assault on the west in 1939 but had been stalled by his generals long enough for the new plans to be put into order. These were instigated on the 10th May 1940 when their Army Group B occupied Luxembourg and began luring the French and British north.

The plan worked well and the Luftwaffe quickly gained aerial supremacy: an absolute must if the advance was to proceed with alacrity. Whilst the Luftwaffe would not emerge unscathed, the French Air Force was badly beaten and the RAF lost more machines during the Battle of France than it did during the Battle of Britain.

At the same time General Kleist’s Panzer Corps spearheading General Gerd von Rundstedt’s Army Group A was forcing its way through the Ardennes using the less than adequate road system. This element was a key part of their strategy, the idea of trying to achieve such an undertaking was considered by the French as impossible.

 


Lieutenant Richter

Lieutenant Richter
5e Cuirassiers
Died on 12th May 1940

On the 10th May 1940 the 5è Division Légère de Cavalerie which included Lieutenant Richter’s Cuirassiers regiment entered Belgium advancing towards Arlon in what would prove to be a repeat of 1914.

Having crossed the border at 0800 hours they encountered the German forces an hour later. Despite holding out until the 12th May the French were pushed back into France.

He is buried in Radan Military Cemetery at Bellefontaine (Grave: 356). The cemetery is filled with German and French soldiers who were killed on the 22nd August 1914, a day on which 27,000 French soldiers were killed in their bloodiest day of the Great War.

With 41,000 vehicles involved, German tail-backs reached as far as their own frontier but this dreadful vulnerability was never exploited by the French Air Force.

The French defence forces in the area of Sedan readied themselves for the blow but expected it to come once the Germans had amassed sufficient forces to overcome the strong fortifications.

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.

It was akin to the fall of the impregnable Fort Douaumont keystone to the Verdun defences in 1916 and only a short distance to the south.

Departing from the plan, Generals Guderian and Rommel decided that rather than establish a bridgehead and wait, they would take their motorised units as deep into France as they could.

The French forces collapsed in front of them and within a week Rommel had taken 10,000 prisoners for a few dozen casualties. The Germans had started their sweep across northern France.

By the 15th May French forces had not only lost the opening battle they had also mentally lost the war. Gamelin was replaced by Général Weygand (Maréchal Foch’s chief of staff in 1918) who felt that a line could be drawn up along the Somme with what remained of the French army.

 

Race to the coast

The Panzers were taking 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 Division both of which were made up of Territorials, were under equipped and under strength.

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

The (British) 70th Brigade (23rd Division) was retired from Ruyaulcourt to Neuville Vitasse and then back to Beaumetz les Loges on the Arras-Doullens Road.

There are First 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-sur-mer, Field Marshal Haig’s old 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.