Eight decades ago in the late summer of 1940 the Wehrmacht’s generals, at Adolf Hitler’s behest, were beginning preparations for a massive invasion of the USSR. Morale within the German Army was very good indeed, for obvious reasons. Battle of France
Battle of France
Within six weeks Germany’s traditional nemesis France had been conquered at remarkable ease, along with the Low Countries of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, demonstrating that this second major European war was proving rather different to the bitter toil of its 1914-1918 predecessor.
During the Battle of France which officially concluded on 25 June 1940 the Germans, with their revolutionary blitzkrieg, provided definitive proof to the world of their considerable superiority over the outmoded French Army. Three months before this attack, Hitler had been informed of the Manstein Plan relating to the Western offensive’s strategy.
Manstein Plan – Ardennes Forest
The Manstein Plan called for a main thrust by the Wehrmacht through the famous Ardennes Forest, that would bypass an uncompleted Maginot Line, consisting of forts manned by half a million French soldiers – and thereafter lead to the trapping and annihilation of the French and British armies to the north; who were expecting, as in the Great War, the primary German assault to come via neutral Belgium.
The Manstein Plan, named after Major-General Erich von Manstein, was an unconventional, bold and risky venture. Von Manstein has often been credited alone for developing his above successful strategy, which may not be entirely true. Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, one of Hitler’s closest military advisers, wrote that the Nazi leader had already formulated through his own thinking, as early as October 1939, an identical proposal to that of von Manstein; and quite likely before the latter had come upon his idea.
Keitel wrote in September 1946, “I will only go so far as to make it quite plain that it was Hitler himself who saw the armoured breakthrough at Sedan [in the Ardennes], striking up to the Atlantic coast at Abbeville, as the solution; we would then swing round northwards into the rear of the motorised Anglo-French army, which would most probably be advancing across the Franco-Belgian frontier into Belgium, and cut them off”.
Germans luckier than French
General Prételat conducted a scenario in the Ardennes, whereby he mimicked a concerted German attack that went into this area to Sedan. The result of the simulated operation was a successful navigation through the Ardennes for the invaders, and a complete defensive collapse along the Meuse river. Prételat passed on this vital report to the French high command; but it underwent suppression because it was felt morale would “be damaged” by its publication.
France’s Commander-in-Chief Maurice Gamelin
On 21 March 1940, France’s Commander-in-Chief Maurice Gamelin was forwarded information by a French politician, Pierre Taittinger, that the defences at Sedan “are rudimentary, not to say embryonic”. The 67-year-old General Gamelin, an intelligent but cautious and methodical man whose military thinking was rooted in the First World War, ignored the warning. Gamelin foresaw another long, drawn out encounter with the Germans.
On 11 April 1940, French General Charles Huntziger asked for four additional divisions to bolster the thinly guarded line at Sedan, but his request was refused. Due to intelligence accounts, the leaders in Paris were aware in the hours building up to 10 May 1940, that almost 50 Wehrmacht divisions were on the move and gathering ominously close to the Ardennes region.
Over the preceding fortnight, the French military attaché in Switzerland had twice warned Paris that the German invasion would fall sometime between the 8th and 10th of May. He further relayed his opinion that the principal German manoeuvre would be towards Sedan. No action was again taken. General Gamelin even learnt the correct date of the attack, May 10th, but still did nothing. As he said, they preferred “to await events”. Their waiting was almost over.
Land mass of the Ardennes
In idyllic spring weather, early on 10 May 1940 vast numbers of highly motivated German troops from XIX Panzer Corps – commanded by Heinz Guderian – were snaking their way through the thick and hilly land mass of the Ardennes, supported by considerable quantities of armoured vehicles and much larger numbers of horses.
Guderian’s panzers swept aside the Belgian and French units and, come the evening of May 12th, had reached Sedan. The Wehrmacht’s position along the Meuse was for now precarious, as pontoon bridges were being prepared for the panzers to cross. A concerted French counter-attack could have wrought serious harm on the enemy. Though several counter-attacks were ordered, not one of them was carried out, a sign of the terrible collapse soon to come.
On the morning of May 13th Stuka dive bombers, with their mournful and piercing siren, arrived in 12 squadrons above Sedan. The Stuka was a poor military aircraft, with a flying distance of less than 400 miles and capable of holding only a light payload of bombs; but its siren had a devastating impact on the morale of French soldiers stationed along the Meuse, that was out of proportion to the damage imparted. With the stukas starting to dive, the French artillery fell silent as the gun crews took cover, cowering and demoralised in their bunkers.
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German sneak attack – Battle of France
French response – Battle of France
French units for example within the 55th and 71st divisions deserted in disarray, saying they were being encircled by panzers when none throughout May 13th had crossed the Meuse at Sedan. Nearly all of the French troops at Sedan were leaving their positions, fleeing westwards, allowing their armour to fall undamaged into German hands.
French commanders who had fight in them, like the 49-year-old Colonel Charles de Gaulle, later ordered counter-attacks to be launched but, once more, not enough reliable troops could be found. Unfortunately, the direction of the war had been out of De Gaulle’s hands.
Many of the deserters produced the utterly false claim that a panzer group had reached the village of Bulson, well behind the French line. A significant number of officers joined in the rout, as anxious to escape from the Germans as their men. Lt. Col. Goodspeed wrote, “This type of excuse for cowardice later gave rise to completely untrue stories of German fifth columnists in French uniform… As far back as 30 miles south of Sedan, French units were swept by irrational and shameful fear”.
A joyous Hitler – German victory in Battle of France
On 14 May 1940, a joyous Hitler ordered all available German motor divisions, within reasonable distance, to pour through the gaping holes punctured in the French defences along the Meuse. During May 14th the Germans therefore made another unmolested crossing of the Meuse at Givet, having easily captured that town, about 35 miles north of Sedan. battle of France
The French 55th and 71st divisions commanded by General Huntziger had evaporated. Huntziger, furious and humiliated, moved his headquarters to Verdun more than 30 miles to the rear, and ordered the French artillery to fire on any surrendering troops.
The unseemly panic spread to General André Corap’s 9th Army, and by last light on May 15th it had practically disintegrated. Moreover, the French 18th, 22nd, 53rd and 61st Infantry divisions melted away into the sunset too, some of their soldiers crying “Panzer!” and “We have been betrayed!”
By May 15th with his centre burst wide open, Commander-in-Chief Gamelin still did not order the French armies to return post haste from Belgium. His reaction was incredibly sluggish. On May 16th, the fleeing French soldiers began to reach Paris where they descended on the capital’s bars and cafes, concocting terrible tales to justify abandoning their posts. battle of France
It came as no surprise when Gamelin was mercifully sacked on May 17th, one week into the German invasion. Only a miracle could save France now, and none was forthcoming.
Over following hours, the best of the Allied divisions were being cut away from the rest of France to the north. Guderian’s XIX Panzer Corps, having led the way through the Ardennes and comfortably crossed the Meuse, on the afternoon of May 15th drove on with unfettered glee towards the Channel coast.