German War Machine - The German Army of World War II

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German Army Battles & Campaigns: Battle of France, 1940

The German invasion begins

During the early hours of May 10, 1940, 92 German divisions commenced their invasion of Belgium, France, Holland, and Luxembourg. Surprise was total (Hitler ensured that his forces only learned about the impending attack 20 hours before it commenced). The lead elements of Colonel-General Fedor von Bock's Army Group B advanced into southern Holland and northern Belgium. The German spearheads soon pushed the relatively weak Dutch Army back toward "Fortress Holland," the latter's planned main defensive position in the west of the country.

The Allied response

Viewing these operations as the anticipated German main effort, Gamelin instructed the 32 divisions of General Billotte's First French Army Group to implement the Breda Variant by crossing into Belgium. These forces, plus the BEF, began to move to their designated positions around Breda and thence south along the River Dyle in central Belgium down to Sedan. The Luftwaffe did not undertake major efforts to hinder this movement, since it actually played into German hands by removing powerful enemy forces from the decisive central sector. The divisions fielded by the German Army Group A would subsequently keep these British, French, and Belgian forces locked in the north of the theater by relentlessly attacking the Dyle defenses.

Army Group A

As the three panzer and 26 infantry divisions of Bock's Army Group B pushed west in the northern sector of the theater during the early hours of May 10, Rundstedt's Army Group A commenced its crucial operations in the center. Spearheaded by three motorized corps, commanded by Generals Guderian, Reinhardt, and Hoth (the former two subordinated to Motorized Group von Kleist), Army Group A began to move into the weakly defended Ardennes region. General Hermann Hoth's XV Motorized Corps controlled Hartlieb's 5th and Rommel's 7th Panzer Divisions. This corps formed the northern axis of Rundstedt's armored wedge with a thrust from Stadtkyll, via Malmédy, to the River Meuse at Dinant. Following up Hoth's advance came the 12 infantry divisions of General Hans von Kluge's Fourth Army. In the center, General Georg-Hans Reinhardt's XLI Motorized Corps deployed the 6th and 8th Panzer Divisions along an axis from Prüm to the Meuse at Monthermé.

Guderian's XIX Panzer Corps

Along the southern axis, the strongest corps, General Heinz Guderian's XIX Motorized, fielded the 1st, 2nd, and 10th Panzer Divisions as well as the élite motorized Grossdeutschland Regiment. This corps would advance through Luxembourg and onto the Meuse at Sedan. Guderian's command needed to be the strongest of the three motorized corps, for upon his troops would fall the onerous burden of fending off any French attacks against the vulnerable southern flank of this concentrated armored penetration. In total, Rundstedt's three motorized corps fielded 1,900 tanks - over three-quarters of the total committed to the invasion. Farther to the south, below the Ardennes region, the 18 infantry divisions of Colonel-General von Leeb's Army Group C masked the Maginot Line.

The advance into the Ardennes

During the 72 hours of May 10-12, Rundstedt's three motorized corps successfully advanced through the weak Belgian and French forces in the Ardennes. The speed with which the Germans accomplished their infiltration through the Ardennes owed much to the air-landed forces dropped in front of the armor to secure key bridges and road intersections. Once the German armor had successfully infiltrated through the Ardennes, the next important step in the German attack plan was to get swiftly across the Meuse River before the French could recover.

The Battle of Sedan

At Sedan, which Guderian's corps approached during the evening of May 12, the Germans faced a tough assault river crossing against prepared enemy defenses. The main contingent of the defending French force was the 55th Infantry Division, which occupied powerful fortified positions along the southern bank of the Meuse River. In addition, they had the fire support of heavy artillery, and also benefited from the superb field of vision obtained from the Marfée Heights south of the German crossing sectors.

At 1500 hours on May 13, Guderian's artillery unleashed a two-hour artillery bombardment, supported by the direct fire of his 700 panzers lined up along the German-held bank of the river. Although the inability of the often horse-drawn German artillery to keep pace with the rampaging armored spearheads restricted the contribution it made to German victory in 1940, at Sedan it helped significantly to soften up the resolve of the French defenders.

The Battle of Sedan, May 13-15, 1940

The Battle of Sedan, May 13-15, 1940

Across the Meuse

The first German assault parties, which comprised pioneers and infantry, began to cross the Meuse in inflatable boats. Even though these troops advanced under a hail of supporting fire, they nevertheless still encountered very fierce French defensive resistance. Despite this heavy enemy fire, the German assault infantry nevertheless managed to secure a bridgehead on the French bank, albeit in only three of the original six assault sectors. Once the Germans had secured these toeholds on the French bank, their engineers immediately began to construct ferries and pontoon bridges to transport the panzers across the river. By 1700 hours the Stuka attacks ceased in the Sedan area and moved farther west and south to interdict French reinforcements approaching the bridgehead from deeper within France. Some 90 minutes later the German spearhead, provided by the motorized infantry of the 1st Rifle Regiment, achieved a critical breakthrough of the French defensive line at Frénois. By 2200 hours these troops had captured Cheveuges, some 3.75 miles (5 km) southwest of Sedan. By 2230 hours, soldiers of the élite Grossdeutschland Regiment had successfully reached the dominant ground of the Marfée Heights. Finally, at 0330 hours on May 14, the Germans established defensive positions for the night along the Chehéry-Chaumont line, and awaited the anticipated French counterattack.

Consolidation of the bridgehead

At Sedan, the Luftwaffe not only aided the initial crossing, it also fended off French attacks. By 0900 hours on May 14 the Germans had managed to transport the entire 1st Panzer Brigade across the Meuse River using a second, heavier, pontoon bridge for this formation's Panzer III and IV tanks. This achievement had been threatened that morning, however, when the Germans found their pontoon bridges under sustained enemy air attack; but the imminent arrival of Luftwaffe fighters and the concentration of 200 antiaircraft pieces around the pontoons helped restrict the damage these enemy aerial missions could inflict on the pontoons. By the time the two much-delayed French counterattacks commenced, large numbers of German tanks had reached the frontline infantry and assumed defensive positions. The French armor and infantry simply slammed themselves into the waiting German forces that now deployed armor, antitank, and light artillery assets to support the ground troops. Within 60 minutes these forces had smashed the attacking French units, which then withdrew 1.25 miles (2 km) to the south beyond Maisoncelle.

The Allies crumble

On May 14, as Guderian's forces, having launched an infantry and engineer assault river crossing supported by massed aerial, artillery, and tank fire, consolidated and deepened their bridgehead south of Sedan. Allied resistance was beginning to crumble: in the north, the decimated Dutch armed forces surrendered after being forced back by the 9th Panzer Division and the Eighteenth Army to western Holland. The Dutch Army alone had incurred nearly 3,000 killed and 7,000 wounded in the previous five days of combat. The imminent Dutch surrender, however, did not prevent the Luftwaffe from undertaking a terror bombing attack on Rotterdam which inflicted some 1,200 civilian casualties and left 78,000 homeless. The Dutch capitulation allowed the Germans to bring the full force of their thrust into southern Holland to bear on the northern flank of General Blanchard's French First Army positioned around Breda and Antwerp.

The Belgium sector

In central Belgium, Reichenau's infantry divisions (Sixth Army) attacked Allied defenses along the Dyle River, while Hoepner's armor (XVI Motorized Corps) charged west toward the open ground of the Gembloux Gap. Meanwhile, Hoth's and Reinhardt's motorized corps also undertook assaults on the Meuse River, at Dinant and Monthermé respectively. On May 14, Reinhardt's motorized corps finally managed to establish a small and precarious bridgehead across the Meuse at Monthermé after being repulsed the previous day. Hoth's corps managed to push 30 miles (48 km) west beyond Phillippeville to Sivry, despite encountering a fierce riposte by the surviving elements of the French 1st Armored Division. This resistance caused Kluge, commander of the Fourth Army, serious anxiety.

The "Panzer Corridor"

Consequently, he instructed his subordinate to slow the advance the following day.

By May 15, one German motorized and six infantry divisions of the Fourth Army had also managed to reach the Meuse and successfully cross. This was a dangerous development for the French, because as these forces filled the 20-mile (32-km) gap that existed between Hoth's corps and the Motorized Group von Kleist to the south, it reduced enemy opportunities to hit the armor in the flank. By the night of May 15/16, these three motorized corps with six armored divisions, supported by seven other formations in ancillary thrusts, were striking rapidly west in a concentrated armored corridor some 47 miles (76 km) wide into the rear of the French center held by the by now rapidly disintegrating French First and Ninth Armies.

The "Panzer Corridor", May 13-20, 1940

The "Panzer Corridor", May 13-20, 1940

A French and British withdrawal

In addition, this critical German armored advance deep beyond the Meuse between Sedan and Namur threatened to turn the southern flank of the still-cohesive British, French, and Belgian forces deployed on the Dyle River and in the Gembloux Gap down to the Meuse at Dinant. Late on May 15, Gamelin ordered the forces along the Dyle Line to commence a staggered withdrawal over four days to new positions on the Escaut River, some 45 miles (72 km) farther west. By May 17, the full extremity of France's plight had permeated the High Command at Vincennes. For the French had committed all their reserves to the sectors located north and east of the German armored penetration, and a proportion of these reserves had already been badly battered in contact battles. The French Army now possessed no reserves to stop the panzers from advancing on Paris. Having falsely perceived that the three German motorized corps would swing east behind the Maginot Line, on May 17 the French perception altered - again incorrectly - to assume that the Germans would turn southwest toward Paris.

A weak French response

To stem any German drive toward the French capital, that day the commander of the Northeastern Front, General Alphonse Georges, ordered that a coordinated, six-division counterattack against the southern and northwestern flanks of the German panzer salient be launched as soon as possible. However, the six earmarked divisions found themselves too pressed defending their own sectors to disengage. In addition, these formations were too battered, too dispersed, were experiencing too many transportation problems, and remained too busy reacting to the continued German advance to carry out Georges' order. That day, apart from a few unsuccessful minor countermoves, the only significant counterattack that materialized was the unsuccessful thrust initiated by Colonel de Gaulle's newly formed 4th Armored Division against Guderian's XIX Corps at Montcornet.

The panzers race ahead

During the next day, May 18, in western Belgium, the BEF and the northern flank of Blanchard's French First Army successfully fell back to the Escaut River. Meanwhile, in the center, the panzer divisions resumed their rapid advance west toward the coast and again, through bypassing the pockets of resistance that they encountered, managed to advance a further 40 miles (64 km). In the process, the panzers managed to sweep through several of the halt lines General Georges had ordered even before the allocated French forces could fall back to occupy them. Guderian's forces crossed the Somme River, while both Reinhardt's and Hoth's corps advanced beyond the Canal de St-Quentin in the St-Quentin-Cambrai sector. Once again, the only responses the shaken French Army managed that day were a few uncoordinated, unsuccessful, small-scale counterattacks against the "panzer corridor."

The panzers slow

To augment this German armored punch further, Hoepner's corps redeployed southwest toward the Sambre River to link up with Hoth's corps in a four-division armored wedge. It was this continuation of the rapid armored thrust through the French center on May 18 that finally convinced the French High Command that the Germans were intent on reaching the Channel, but this realization had come a critical three days too late. In retrospect, a further advantage of the Manstein plan was that by offering the Germans three possible axes of advance once Sedan had fallen - southeast to the Maginot Line, southwest to Paris, and west to the coast - it helped maintain the element of surprise long after their crossing of the Meuse.

During May 19 the German armored corps made less spectacular gains, with Guderian's forces pushing on just 15 miles (24 km) to Péronne. Once again, as on May 17, the slackening panzer advance owed much to logistic shortages as the German combat support services struggled desperately to keep the panzer spearheads supplied.

Disaster for the French

In addition, two French ripostes slowed Guderian's advance. Colonel de Gaulle's weakened division managed to counterattack from Laon toward Crécy to strike Guderian's exposed southern flank, while the battered 2nd Amored Division also hit Guderian from the north at Saint Quentin. However, the successful penetration of the French center represented a French military disaster. An operational setback of this magnitude needed a sacrificial victim to provide some atonement. Consequently, late on May 19, Premier Paul Reynaud sacked French Commander in Chief Gamelin and replaced him with the 72-year-old General Weygand, just returned from the Middle East.

The German Victory

On May 20, Guderian's and Reinhardt's panzer divisions reached the Channel coast at Abbeville, just seven days after they had crossed the Meuse. They had covered 240 miles (386 km) in a week, at an incredible average rate of advance of 34 miles (55 km) per day.

The Risks Inherent in "Blitzkrieg" - Arras

Enemy actions on May 21, 1940, were to prove how valid were the fears that haunted the German High Command over the vulnerability of the flanks of the armored corridor. During that day a British brigade group based around the 1st Army Tank Brigade counterattacked at Arras, spearheaded by 58 Matilda Mark I and 16 heavily armored and gunned - but slow - Matilda Mark II tanks. On its flank, the French also launched a supporting operation. This limited response represented the pitiful attempt to implement the large-scale attack originally ordered by Gamelin. Despite the modest forces committed, the British counterstroke nevertheless successfully pressed 3 miles (5 km) forward against the defense offered by the 7th Panzer and SS Totenkopf Divisions. Indeed, many of the Waffen-SS soldiers abandoned their antitank guns and ran as fast as they could toward the rear. Notwithstanding their "hard" training, the SS troops were horrfied to discover that their 37mm shells bounced off the hulls of the Allied tanks (an experience that was to be repeated against Soviet T-34 tanks on the Eastern Front). The men of the 7th Panzer Division fared no better, and it was only the presence of Rommel himself that steadied their nerves and saved the day (he was forced to run from gun to gun to prevent the crews from running). If the attack had been pressed with determination it may have caused serious problems for the advancing Germans.

A nasty shock

While ultimately, the May 21 British and French counterstroke at Arras proved a failure, it profoundly shocked the German High Command, particularly Hitler, as fearful officers cast their military minds back to 1914, when the Allied "Miracle of the Marne" had halted the previously successful Schlieffen attack. Meanwhile, as the British counterstroke at Arras unfolded, Weygand flew over the panzer corridor to land at Calais. Here he attempted to arrange a coordinated attack from the north by elements of Billotte's First Army Group. Despite what was agreed that day, this plan was soon wrecked by the combination of Billotte being fatally wounded that night and the unrelenting German pressure, which prevented the earmarked forces from being able to deliver Weygand's proposed counterstrike. Ultimately, however, it was a case of too little, too late for the French and British armies.

The Dunkirk pocket

Then they began to push forward toward Calais and Dunkirk to seize the embarkation ports that represented the sole means of escape for the British, French, and Belgian troops trapped against the coast by the German advance. During the next day, however, the repercussions of the shock inflicted at Arras (see page 105) now critically influenced the unfolding German invasion. Hitler's twin concerns about the threat posed by enemy counterattacks against the weak German flanks and the high losses likely when the panzers entered defended urban areas led him to order the panzer divisions to halt for 48 hours. During this pause the Luftwaffe pounded the isolated British, French, and Belgian forces to further weaken their battered cohesion.

The Dunkirk evacuation

Between May 27 and June 4, 1940, British, French, and some Belgian forces resolutely defended the shrinking defensive perimeter they held around Dunkirk to permit the evacuation of a large part of these isolated forces. In the nine-day "Miracle of Dunkirk," some 861 small boats transported 226,000 British and 112,000 French and Belgian soldiers to safety. But they left most of their equipment behind: 2,472 guns and 84,427 vehicles.

The calibre of German troops

The physical caliber of German troops far exceeded that of their Allied opponents. For example, the 12 infantry divisions of General Reichenau's Sixth Army pushed into central Belgium in what the French believed to be the main German attack. These physically very fit German infantrymen both conducted forced marches over long distances and fought hard tactical encounters with the enemy to advance west in a desperate race to reach the Dyle River before the French First Army Group reached it and consolidated its defenses.

Panzergrenadiers

During Reinhardt's advance, as in other instances during the campaign, the successes achieved by the panzer divisions owed much to the evolving manner in which their armor and motorized infantry (subsequently termed panzergrenadiers) cooperated intimately on the tactical battlefield. During the Polish campaign, the few German halftracked armored personnel carriers (APCs) available had merely transported motorized infantry troops to the edge of the battlefield, where they debussed. In France, however, the well-trained motorized infantry often stayed in their APCs - now available in greater numbers - as these vehicles advanced alongside the armor in the face of what often constituted scarcely cohesive enemy resistance. The panzergrenadiers then provided intimate small arms fire support for the panzers from within their APCs, or while still embussed screened the flanks of advancing armored wedges, or even debussed on the battlefield to mop up disorganized enemy forces. Though this new tactical role inevitably brought somewhat higher casualties among the panzergrenadiers, it nevertheless augmented the combat power of the advancing panzer divisions, and contributed to the stunning success obtained in the West during 1940.

Improved night fighting skills

In late May, even nightfall did not prevent elements of Hoth's corps from exploiting the lack of cohesion now evident within the enemy forces facing them by continuing their attacks northwest throughout the hours of darkness. Back during the Polish campaign, the ordinary German soldier had demonstrated certain tactical frailties when it came to night-time operations, largely due to the modest time devoted to these skills during the otherwise rigorous German training programs undertaken prior to the invasion of Poland. During the winter of 1939-40, however, the German Army worked hard to improve the night-fighting skills of its soldiers through conducting extensive retraining courses.

The 7th Panzer Division

The significantly improved effectiveness of the ordinary German soldier in such night-time scenarios was demonstrated on a number of occasions during the May 1940 invasion of the West. One notable example occurred during the night of May 20/21, when elements of Hoth's corps - notably Rommel's 7th Panzer Division - conducted a successful night-time crossing on the La Bassée Canal in the face of the heavy resistance offered by a battalion of the British Grenadier Guards. Once again, as Hans von Luck, a German officer who took part in the action, recalled, the forward momentum of the attacking troops in this difficult tactical situation was powerfully reinforced by the immediate presence of Rommel, who both exhorted his troops forward and personally directed artillery fire to support them. In addition, the assault was reinforced by the rudimentary and improvised supporting attacks undertaken by German aircraft, though German aerial night-fighting techniques still remained rather underdeveloped at this stage of the war. Clearly, the ability to conduct effective attacks at night increased the already high tempo of operations the German Army had achieved in the West and helped maximize the pressure its forces exerted on the increasingly disoriented Allied formations attempting to resist the German advance.

The Superiority of German Infantry

The decision to halt the panzers before Dunkirk was rendered unnecessary by the quality of the German infantry. The gravest threat to the German advance had passed by May 24, since follow-up infantry forces were rapidly filling out the vulnerable southern German flank established from the coast eastward along the Somme River back to Stonne near Sedan. Indeed, the success of the German armored drive to the coast owed much to the ability of the follow-up infantry not to fall too far behind. In an effort to keep up with the panzers and throw much-needed defensive screens across the exposed German flanks, the infantry had to march impressive distances each day: up to 35 miles (56 km) in some instances.

Luftwaffe support

German tactical reconnaissance aircraft contributed greatly to the successful screening missions undertaken by these follow-up infantry forces by forewarning the ground forces of impending enemy counterstrokes. The ordinary German soldier's ability to march such distances and then fight effectively, however, owed little to the aerial support provided and everything to the excellent physical resilience engendered in the ordinary soldier by the rigorous training regimen all recruits and soldiers underwent during basic training.

The infantry cover the flanks

With these infantry forces now successfully managing to secure much of the exposed German southern flank, the threat posed by enemy countermoves had diminished somewhat. Thus, when British and French forces did manage to initiate two weak counterthrusts against the German positions along the Somme during May 23-26, when the 1st British Armored Division and what was left of de Gaulle's 3rd Armored Division attacked, these assaults made little headway. In fact, all

Hitler's halt order

Hitler's halt order "achieved" was to give the BEF precious time for its battered and disorganized forces to extemporize a shaky defensive perimeter around Dunkirk, into which the British and French could retreat. By then, unfortunately, what was left of the Belgian Army had reluctantly surrendered on May 28 on the orders of King Leopold. In the north, the overriding issue now was how the British and French forces could escape the impending annihilation as the jaws of the German encirclement closed around Dunkirk.

The Luftwaffe

As in Poland, the Luftwaffe's contribution to the campaign was essential to the army's success. As the ground forces commenced their attacks on the border defenses, massed formations of German bombers and fighter-bombers - mainly Dornier Do 17 and Heinkel He 111 bombers, Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighter-bombers, and Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers - began attacking enemy air bases. These attacks proved particularly successful in Belgium and Holland, where dozens of aircraft were caught on the ground and destroyed, but inflicted less damage against the French Air Force. These aerial operations represented a classic attritional counter-air campaign designed to achieve local air superiority over the theater. Once this had been accomplished, the Germans could then employ their air power to facilitate the ground advance through undertaking the missions of aerial reconnaissance, battlefield air interdiction (BAI), and close air support (CAS).

German airborne forces

To assist the speed of advance of Army Group B, the Germans inserted the paratroopers and air-landed troops of the 22nd (Airlanding) Infantry and 7th Airborne Divisions deep into Dutch territory, including some troops disguised as Dutch soldiers. The objectives of these forces were to seize several important bridges over the Maas, Waal, and Rhine rivers at Dordrecht, Gennep, Maastricht, Moerdijk, and Waalhaven. These actions were designed to enable General Schmidt's XXXIX Motorized Corps, with the 9th Panzer Division under command - the only German mechanized formation used in Holland - to advance swiftly toward The Hague.

German special forces

At Gennep, for example, a handful of superbly trained Brandenburg commandos disguised as Dutch policemen successfully seized the bridge with minimal losses, in an operation that aptly demonstrated how effectively élite covert forces employing classic ruses de guerre could facilitate overall German success in the theater. To the immediate north of this airborne carpet, the infantry of General Küchler's Eighteenth Army pushed west toward the Zuider Zee and The Hague to support the advance of the 9th Panzer Division.

In addition, German air-landed forces attempted to capture the three principal Dutch airfields around The Hague and use them to enact a raid designed to seize Queen Wilhemina and her government. Although several of these operations failed, notably the attempt to capture the government, the other missions secured their objectives and successfully facilitated the subsequent advance of the invading ground troops. Once again, as in Poland, it would be effective German joint (interservice) and combined-arms cooperation that would go a long way to securing decisive success for the Wehrmacht in the 1940 Western campaign.

Ground support

In the case of de Gaulle's counterattack, the ability of the highly trained and well-motivated soldiers within Guderian's panzer divisions to halt French ripostes owed much to the assistance rendered by the Luftwaffe. For as de Gaulle's armored columns crossed the plain of Laon to attack Guderian's forces in the flank, German tactical reconnaissance planes detected the French threat. Subsequently, German fighter-bombers repeatedly struck the enemy armor both to reduce their forward momentum and to inflict significant casualties on them. During the precious time bought by these aerial attacks, Guderian's forces rapidly improvised their own countermoves, which completed the task of halting de Gaulle's attempted riposte.