April 16, 2015

Panzergruppe Kleist and the Fall of France (part 1)

A German panzer advancing through the Ardennes

Early in the morning of September 1, 1939 the German Reich invaded Poland. The same day Monsieur Coulondre, French ambassador in Berlin, visited Herr von Ribbentrop and handed over a communication demanding the withdrawal of German troops. With no answer coming from the German side Coulondre presented himself to Ribbentrop two days later. Their meeting ended at 5 p.m. France and Germany were officially at war.

Phoney War

The French government signed the decree of general mobilization on September 1. On September 7 French High Command ordered an attack of nine divisions, along a sixteen mile front, in the area of Saarbrücken, which became known as the Saar Offensive. Meeting little resistance, French troops advanced to a depth of five miles, without even reaching the Siegfried Line. Minor engagements took place and the French suffered a number of casualties, mainly from German mines. On September 12, as the situation in Poland was deteriorating, the offense was halted and the troops were ordered to go on the defensive. On October 4 all units were withdrawn to France.

The Saar Offensive
1. The Saar Offensive.

The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) began arriving in France in mid-September. By the end of March a total of ten divisions had arrived, organized into three Corps.

Men of the 2nd Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers disembarking at Cherbourg
2. Men of the 2nd Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers disembarking at Cherbourg. September 16, 1939.

French Strategic Considerations
French soldiers observing the Rhine
3. French soldiers observing the Rhine, 1929.

The destructions suffered during the Great War led the French to seek a defensive strategy that would keep the horrors of the next war outside their country. Occupation of the Rhineland served that purpose, but when it ended in 1930, other options were examined. 

Major considerations for French strategic planners were:
  • the need to protect French industrial base, dangerously close to the German borders,
  • the need for a covering force, while French army mobilized, and
  • the diminishing number of conscripts
In the Great War space had been traded for time but in the interwar years that wasn’t desirable any more. A defensive line ought to be established and held, as far to the east as possible. Along the Franco-Belgian border there wasn’t a military significant river, but there were plenty of them in Belgium. Those river lines if manned properly and anchored on the Maginot Line to the south would constitute a continuous front that would:
  • absorb the initial blows,
  • shield French Army’s mobilization,
  • protect France’s interior.
Belgium lacked the quantity of troops needed, but France didn’t. The success of that strategy relied on the timely arrival of French defenders, which depended on Belgian cooperation. During the Interwar years Franco-Belgian relations had their ups and downs. In 1920 a Military Accord was signed between France and Belgium. A joint command was established under the French C-in-C and various plans were considered. All of them foresaw the deployment of French forces along Belgium’s river lines. That move became known as the “Belgian maneuver.”  
Marshal Philippe Pétain
4. Marshal Philippe Pétain proposed
the creation of the “continuous front”
and supported the “Belgian maneuver”.

The dwindling influence of France in the international system, the rise of Germany and domestic troubles made Belgian decision makers more cautious. In 1930 it was decided that French troops would enter Belgian soil only after an invitation from the Belgian government, and in 1936 Belgium denunciated the Military Accord and declared its neutrality. The strategic setting in Western Europe had changed, but France’s operational planning remained unchanged. The “Belgian maneuver” was still considered the only viable defensive option, although it was certain that Belgium would allow passage only after it had been invaded.

Summing up, French military strategy was undermined by the following contradiction:

The French Army was prepared to fight a defensive battle; that means troops well established in prepared positions. In the northeastern part of the front (Franco-German borders) the Maginot Line served that purpose. But in the northern part (Franco-Belgian borders) the French Army had to maneuver into position. That brought the possibility of an encounter battle with the invading Germans. Such a battle would turn fluid and chaotic; certainly not the kind French High Command was in favor. Although such a possibility was acknowledged, it was utterly dismissed.

The Maginot Line
5. The Maginot Line.

Final Plan & Disposition of Allied Forces

Plan D

Considering various options Gamelin, the French C-in-C, decided in favor of Plan D. This plan envisaged the establishment of a defensive line from Givet through Namour, along the Dyle (Dijle) River to Antwerp. Further north a French Army would establish contact with the Dutch at Breda. The area south of Givet and as far as Longwy (northern end of the Maginot Line) was considered impassable, because of the Ardennes Forest. It was believed that through the rough terrain of the Ardennes the Germans could send their forces only piecemeal. 

The continuous front and the Belgian maneuver
6. The continuous front (Antwerp-Dyle River-Namur-Meuse River-Maginot Line)
and the Belgian maneuver.

On November 17, 1939 the Anglo-French Supreme War Council gave its support to Gamelin’s plan. The British Chiefs of Staff were uneasy about Belgium’s stance and preferred a line closer to the Franco-Belgian borders. However, with BEF being less than a tenth of the French army their objections counted for little.

Commonwealth representatives at Gamelin’s HQ
7. Commonwealth representatives at Gamelin’s HQ, November 1939. Left to right: Peter Fraser (NZ); Anthony Eden (GB); Gamelin; Thomas Crerar (CN); Muhammed Zafrulla Khan (I); Richard Casey (AUS); Denys Reitz (SA).

Belgian Army

Belgian Army intended to defend its country as follows:

Advanced units and demolition squads were to slow down the invaders. Part of the army was disposed as a covering force on positions along the Albert Canal from Antwerp to Liège and along the Meuse from Liège to Namur. The Antwerp – Liège – Namur line was considered as a covering position only. It was 200 km long and elliptical, therefore exposed to flank attacks. 

Delaying position and Main defensive line
8. Delaying position: Antwerp – Albert Canal – Liège – Namur.
Main defensive line: Antwerp – Louvain – Wavre – Namur.

The main defensive line was further to the west connecting Antwerp to Namur. This line, known as the K.W. line (because it run through Koningshoyckt – Malines – Louvain – Wavre), was fortified during 1939 and was consistent with Plan D. The Ardennes were lightly defended.

The nine forts surrounding the city of Namur
9. A map of the nine forts surrounding the city of Namur. Forts are represented in red.
Purple squares are infantry bunkers in intervals between the forts.

Franco-British forces were expected to enter Belgium on the third day of the war. Presumably the Belgians counted on an exchange of ultimatums before the start of hostilities. Belgium had mobilized twenty infantry divisions, one motorized brigade and a mechanized cavalry corps.

Disposition of Allied Forces
Allied command structure
10. Allied command structure.

Allied armies were organized in three Army Groups. The 1st Army Group was from the Channel coast to Longwy. The 2nd Army Group covered the area from Metz to Strasbourg and the 3rd Army Group the Swiss borders. Of interest to us is General Gaston Billotte’s 1st Army Group, which was to execute the “Belgian maneuver.” Billotte’s armies were deployed as follows:
  • On the far left was General Giraud’s Seventh Army. Seventh Army initially was held in reserve at Rheims, but in the final plan its mission was to move along the Belgian coast and link with the Dutch. Thus Gamelin, by his own decision, was deprived of his most powerful reserve.
  • Immediately after was the BEF under Lord Gort. The British force was to advance up to the Dyle River between Louvain and Wavre.
  • Next came General Blanchard’s First Army, holding the Gembloux Gap down to Namur on the Meuse. The Gembloux Gap was a 28 km stretch of open country between the southern end of the K.W. line and the fortress of Namur.
  • General Corap’s Ninth Army was to occupy the line of the Meuse, from south of Namur to just north of Sedan.
  • Finally, to the far right, General Huntzinger’s Second Army was from Sedan down to Longwy.

General Georges inspecting the  Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers
11. General Georges accompanied by Lord Gort inspecting the
Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers at Bethune on April 23, 1940.

The Other Side of the Hill
Hitler with Keitel, Brauchitsch and Halder
12. Hitler with Keitel, Brauchitsch and Halder.

The German Army High Command (OKH) finalized its operational plan at the end of the 1939/40 winter. Although the struggle for the plan is a fascinating story in its own right we will deal here only with the basic considerations and the final output.

Firstly, OKH ruled out any possibility of a French preemptive strike. The French general attitude and disposition of forces were not leading towards this end. Then OKH assumed that the Belgian army would concentrate its efforts along the Albert Canal and the Meuse river and would fight delaying actions in the Ardennes. Also, the OKH came to the conclusion that the French wouldn’t await the German attack at their border; in all probability they would enter Belgium. Two decisive factors pointed in favor of this view:
  • France, with its manpower shortages, could not afford to allow the Germans isolate and destroy the twenty Belgian divisions. On the other hand it was inconceivable that the Belgians would voluntarily sacrifice their country in order to fight on French soil.
  • It was imperative for Great Britain to prevent the German navy and air force from gaining control of Antwerp and the coast of Flanders.
A harder question for the Germans was whether the Anglo-French forces would move into Belgium in a surprise action or they would do so after a confirmed report of a German invasion. As time went by the OKH was convinced of the later. This was a serious development. The Germans, taking into account the time Allied armies would require for preparations before starting to move, saw the opportunity to engage them before a coherent front was established.

Evolution of the German plan
13. Evolution of the German plan, between October 1939 and January 1940.

OKH also estimated that French High Command had expected the German main thrust to be affected on either side of Liège toward Brussels. But the Germans were on a different mindset. The strategic problem for the German army was to tie and envelop (“binden und auffassen”) the bulk of the allied armies engaged in Belgium. For that purpose the invading force was divided into three army groups.

Army Group B (northern group), had the mission to eliminate Holland as a military factor, to engage and beat the Belgian army close to the border and then by rapid movement to the west to draw to itself and then tie down the approaching Allied forces. Army Group B was not expected to defeat the Anglo-French forces but rather to attack them severely and tie them down.

Army Group A (central group) was to advance through the Ardennes; gain the western banks of the Meuse River between Sedan and Dinant; then continue westwards to the Channel coast, at the mouth of the Somme River in order to separate the Anglo-French forces operating in Belgium from the forces of interior France and then in concerted action with Army Group B to annihilate them. To accomplish this, a strong panzer wedge was formed under the command of General von Kleist.

Army Group C (southern group), was the weaker one and had the mission to tie down the French troops manning the Maginot Line.

The success of the operation largely relied on the surprise element of choosing the Ardennes as the point of the main effort.

Disposition of opposing forces and the opposite Plans
14. Disposition of opposing forces and the opposite Plans.

Panzergruppe Kleist
Ewald von Kleist
15. Ewald von Kleist.

In the Polish Campaign German army grouped Panzer and light-Panzer divisions in corps sized formations. Although these motorized corps (the term Panzerkorps was introduced in 1941) were subordinated to infantry armies, they were assigned strategic objectives far to the enemy rear and advanced with unprecedented speed. This was a serious development, not properly studied by the Allied military.

The French made no efforts into creating powerful tank formations, capable of deep thrusts. On the contrary, the role they envisioned for their armored divisions was that of a screening force. The Divisions Légères Mecaniques (DLM) were to advance forward and establish a line of outposts, covering the concentration of the infantry armies. Once the bulk of the forces was engaged the tanks were to provide direct fire support to the infantry, whilst the artillery was providing indirect fire support.

The German High Command, after much debate, decided that this time a motorized corps was not enough to spearhead the advance of Army Group A and that an army sized formation was needed for the task. That’s how Panzergruppe Kleist was born. Although officially designated a group and not an army, Panzergruppe Kleist was composed of three corps and contained hundreds of tanks and thousands of vehicles. It was the first tank army to appear in the battlefield. 

Panzergruppe Kleist was named after its commander General der Kavallerie Ewald von Kleist. The 59 year old general was of aristocratic origins, came from the cavalry branch and had commanded a motorized corps the previous year in Poland. His subordinated formations were:
  • XIV Armeekorps (mot.). It was composed of the 2nd, 13th and 29th Infanterie-Divisions (mot.) under the command of General der Infanterie Gustav von Wietersheim.
  • XIX Armeekorps (mot.). It was composed of the 1st, 2nd and 10th Panzer-Divisions under the command of General der Panzertruppe Heinz Guderian.
  • XLI Armeekorps (mot.). It was composed of the 6th, 8th Panzer-Divisions and the 2nd Infanterie-Division (mot.) under the command of Generalleutnant Georg-Hans Reinhardt.

The tank strength of Panzergruppe Kleist was as follows:

PzKpfw I
PzKpfw II
PzKpfw 35t
PzKpfw 38t
PzKpfw III
PzKpfw IV
1st Panzer
2nd Panzer
6th Panzer
8th Panzer
10th Panzer

It should be noted that the light PzKpw Is & IIs made half of the total.

Kleist’s mission was to thrust through Luxemburg and Southern Belgium to achieve crossings over the Meuse River, in the vicinity of Sedan and Givet; then to head west - northwest and cut off the Allied armies in Northern France and Belgium. In the initial phase Guderian’s mission was to head for Sedan; Reinhardt’s mission was to head to Monthermé, while von Wietersheim’s Corps was to follow behind and secure the group’s southern flank. The main thrust would fall at the boundary between the Second and the Ninth French Armies.

German command structure
16. German command structure. Panzergruppe Kleist was subordinated to Twelfth Army.

Before encountering the enemy, Panzergruppe Kleist had to face von Rundstedt’s conservatism and open hostility from the Army commanders of Army Group “A”. Those senior officers believed that the panzers would fail to breach French defenses and sooner or later they would cry for help. So, it was decided that in the dense Ardennes Forest the infantry armies were to advance parallel to the panzers. For that reason, Panzergruppe Kleist was squeezed in a narrow sector and was allocated only four roads for its three Corps and 40,000+ vehicles. That resulted in an unbelievable traffic jam with marching columns of 250 miles on each of the four roads. The success of the operation was hanging in the balance.

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Photos attribution
1. Arderiu (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons
2., 7. Keating G (Lt), War Office official photographer, via Wikimedia Commons
3. Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-08810/CC-BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons
4. Bibliothèque nationale de France, via Wikimedia Commons
5. Niels Bosboom, via Wikimedia Commons
6., 8. “Belgium, The Official Account of What Happened 1939-1940”
9. adapted by Noben k (OpenStreetMap.org), via Wikimedia Commons
10., 16. Panzeroperations.com
11. Malindine E G (Lt), Puttnam L A (Lt), War Office official photographer, via Wikimedia Commons
12. Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1971-070-61/CC-BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons
13., 14. Department of History, United States Military Academy
15. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1986-0210-503/Hartmann, Fritz / CC-BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons

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