May 21, 2015

“Ghost” Division (part 1)

Rommel with his staff

The invasion of France was code-named “Fall Gelb”. According to that plan the German Army, organized into three Army Groups (A, B and C), would invade France on May 10. Army Group A would be delivered through the Ardennes and would provide the main thrust. It was composed of three Armies (the Fourth, the Twelfth and the Sixteenth) and Panzer-Group Kleist, which was to spearhead the advance. To the immediate north of Panzer-Group Kleist was XV Armeekorps (mot.) under the control of the Fourth Army, with the mission to protect Kleist’s right flank. XV Armeekorps (mot.) was commanded by Hermann Hoth and was composed of two panzer divisions (5th and 7th) and one infantry division (32nd). 

The 7th Panzer-Division
Logo of the 7th Panzer-Division
2. Logo of the 7th Panzer-Division.

The 7th Panzer-Division was formed from the 2nd Light Division in October 1939. Its first commander was Georg Stumme. Generalmajor Erwin Rommel assumed command of the division on February 2, 1940. The Division was organized as follows:

Schutzen Regiment
Schutzen Regiment
Panzer Aufklarungs-Abteilung
Pz.A.A. 37
Leichte Flak Abteilung

The tank strength of the Division was:

Pzkpfw I
Pzkpfw II
Pzkpfw 38(t)
Pzkpfw IV

Pzkpfw 38(t)
3. The PzKpfw 38(t) was the most numerous tank in the Division.
Here on display at the Auto & Technik Museum in Sinsheim, Germany.

The Advance Through Belgium

On May 9 at 13:45 hrs Rommel received the codeword “Dortmund”. The next morning his Division along with the rest of the German army would be thrusting west. Krad.7, the motorcycle battalion, spearheaded the Division’s advance and by the end of the first day it had reached the Ourthe river. The next morning on 11 May 1940 the 7th Panzer-Division crossed the Ourthe river through a ford at Beffe and across a bridge captured intact near La Roche-en-Ardenne. 

On May 11 the Ourthe river was crossed at Beffe and at La Roche-en-Ardenne
4. On May 11 the Ourthe river was crossed at Beffe and at La Roche-en-Ardenne.

The same day the advance guard of the Division, Krad.7 and Pz.A.A.37, took the town of Marche-en-Famenne, but met significant resistance on its way to Dinant. Rommel committed the bulk of his Division, Pz.Rgt.25 and S.R.7, and broke through the French defenders at 10:00 hrs, on May 12. At 16:45 a Kampfgruppe under Hauptmann Steffen reached the Meuse at Dinant. The Dinant sector was defended by the French 18th Infantry Division which had just arrived and was in the process of taking over its positions. 

Advance of the 7th Panzer-Division on May 12
5. Advance of the 7th Panzer-Division on May 12.

The Meuse river
6. An overview of the Meuse river as seen from the fortress of Dinant.

The 7th Panzer-Division pushed its first elements across the Meuse at 04:30 hrs on May 13 and gained two bridgeheads, the northern near Houx and the southern at Leffe, a village on the outskirts of Dinant. In the afternoon and early evening the French launched strong counterattacks, supported by tanks and artillery but failed to eliminate the German bridgeheads. 

The Meuse river
7. The Meuse river at Houx.

8. Vertical aerial photograph taken during a bombing attack on the pontoon bridge erected 
by the 7th Panzer-Division across the Meuse river at Dinant. A salvo of bombs can be 
seen exploding in the lower centre of the photo.

Having secured his bridgehead, Rommel continued the attack. His division was advancing even faster than Guderian’s panzer divisions. Hoth, the Corps commander, ordered 7.Panzer to advance during the night of 13/14 May towards Onhaye, a village 5 km west of the crossing site near Dinant. The lead regiment, S.R.7, advanced to the eastern edge of Onhaye, where it sent out a radio call, just before dawn that it was hit by French tanks. Rommel gathered up all the tanks and AFVs that had been ferried across the Meuse, put himself at their head, and rushed to the assistance of his regiment. At daybreak the regiment with the assistance of the tanks brought forward by Rommel had thrown back several French tank attacks and the 7th Panzer was advancing again. Rommel’s tank had received a direct hit and the general was lightly wounded. At 22:30 hrs on May 14 the Division seized Morville, a village 7 km west of Onhaye. 

From the French Frontier to Cambrai

At 10:00 hrs, on May 15, the Division began moving again in the direction of Avesnes-sur-Helpe in France. The German panzers faced French heavy tanks which were put out of action thanks to direct hits from artillery pieces. The city of Philippeville was secured at 15:40 hrs. During the fighting thirteen French tanks were destroyed and twenty others were captured intact. By the end of the day Pz.Rgt.25 had reached Senzeille, a village 6 km west of Philippeville. The advance continued during the night and at 04:00 hrs Pz.A.A.37 occupied Froidchapelle, close to the French border. At 14:30 Rommel was ready to assault the French frontier fortifications. At Clairfayts, 2 km into France the Panzer-Regiment ran through the French fortifications. After five hours of combat Rommel’s advance guard had achieved a breakthrough. At midnight the tanks of Pz.Rgt.25, with Rommel among them, drove through the streets of Avesnes-sur-Helpe and seized the heights to the west of it. The French had collapsed. Many French troops fled weaponless, spreading panic to their comrades in the rear. Forty eight tanks were abandoned and captured by the Germans. 

Advance of the 7th Panzer-Division, May 13-16
9. Advance of the 7th Panzer-Division, May 13-16.

French "Char B1" tanks
10. French Char B1 tanks of the 37th Battalion, after they had been destroyed
by their own crews on May 16 in Beaumont just to the north of Froidchapelle.

On May 16 the 7th Panzer-Division had advanced so far that it had lost contact with its neighboring divisions, which is how it was called the “ghost division”. It was so far ahead that nobody knew exactly where it was, both friend and foe. Rommel’s next objective was to seize the bridge over the Sambre river at Landrecies. 

The advanced detachment of the Division with Rommel at its head attacked at 05:30 on May 17 toward Landrecies and ran into columns of French vehicles. Astonished by the presence of German tanks the French soldiers gave up in large numbers. At 06:00 hrs the bridge over the Sambre was taken. The Panzer-Regiment continued its thrust toward the city of Le Cateau-Cambrésis. At the time Rommel’s division was thinly spread, with the foremost elements being 50 km away from the rearmost. On the afternoon of May 17, General Hoth ordered 7.Panzer to take the bridge over the Sambre at Berlaimont, 13 km northwest of Avesnes. The bridge had to be seized and held open so that the 5th Panzer-Division could catch up and advance parallel with Rommel. The Division sent Oberleutnant Kiessling with the 1st Battalion of S.R.6, reinforced with the 2nd Battalion of A.R.78 to accomplish the new mission, while Rommel was focused on taking Le Cateu. 

7th Panzer-Division on May 17
11. This is how the 7th Panzer-Division would look like on May 17. The Panzer-Rgt. with part of the motorcycle battalion were thrusting towards Le Cateau-Cambrésis which was the division’s main effort. A Kamfgruppe composed of I./S.R.6 and II./A.R.78 was attacking Berlaimont and the rest of the Division was anywhere between Landrecies and Avesnes-sur-Helpe.

The Sambre river
12. The Sambre river at Berlaimont.

Oberleutnant Kiessling seized the bridge at Berlaimont and on the evening of May 17 advanced elements of the 5th Panzer-Division crossed it. Kiessling was awarded the Iron Cross first class for his achievement. Rommel with the bulk of the Division resumed the advance at 17:00 hrs on May 18. His new objective was the city of Cambrai. At 21:00 hrs German tanks reached the outskirts of Cambrai, but were repulsed. Nevertheless, Major von Paris leading a kampfgruppe of motorcyclists, infantrymen and tanks seized the bridges over the L’Escaut Canal, north of the city. 

L’Escaut (Schelde) Canal
13. L’Escaut (Schelde) Canal at Cambrai.

During the night 7.Panzer-Division faced determined French counterattacks, but held its ground. In the morning of May 19 S.R.7 seized the area south of Cambrai and established a bridgehead south of the city. At 01:40 hrs on May 20 the Division moved out of its bridgeheads north and south of Cambrai. The great obstacle to be negotiated in order to get to Arras was the Canal du Nord, 10 km west of Cambrai at Marquion.

The Canal du Nord
14. The Canal du Nord at Marquion.

Cambrai to Arras

The German tanks reached the canal at 03:00 hrs, but an alert Anglo-French security unit blew up the bridge in the face of Pz.Rgt.25. South of Marquion another kampfgruppe managed to seize an intact bridge. Pz.Rgt.25 exploited the new success, used the bridge and reached Beaurains, three miles south of Arras. Rommel while trying to bring the rest of his Division forward was attacked by French tanks. The general and his security personnel survived by lying low while surrounded by French tanks and infantry. Later in the morning the advance of the rest of the 7th Panzer freed the Divisional commander.

Advance of the 7th Panzer-Division from Cambrai to Arras
15. Advance of the 7th Panzer-Division from Cambrai to Arras.

According to Hoth’s plan the 7th Panzer-Division was to advance round the Flank of Arras from the west, while the 5th Panzer-Division was to do the same from the east. Then both panzer-divisions were to turn toward a northern direction. The 7th Panzer was set in motion at 15:00 hrs on May 21. French and British tank forces counterattacked from Arras. A critical situation emerged. Rommel had to intervene personally and order every gun, no matter whether it was an anti-tank gun or a howitzer or an antiaircraft gun to open fire against the incoming tanks. It was a particularly difficult day for the 7th Panzer. Its official history states that on that day the Division lost: 89 killed, 116 wounded and 173 missing. Nevertheless the counterattack was repulsed. 

A German medic gives first aid to an injured soldier
16. A German medic gives first aid to an injured soldier.

Final Drive

After the battle of Arras the British withdrew intending to hold the “canal line”, a waterline running through Gravelines – Bethune – La Bassée. On May 24 Hitler ordered his panzer divisions to halt on this canal line. Two days later, on May 26, he cancelled his order. Rommel used this time to rest and reorganize his Division. When the halt order was lifted the 7th Panzer was positioned southeast of La Bassée. Rommel’s next objective was Lille.

Disposition of forces on May 26
17. The canal line and disposition of forces on May 26.

On the 26th of May the British had decided to withdraw to the sea at Dunkirk and only light forces were holding the canal line. 7th Panzer’s infantry regiments established a crossing point at Cuinchy; also 5th Panzer-Division’s Panzer-Brigade was placed under Rommel’s command. After crossing the canal the panzer regiments advanced through Lorgies and Fournes-en-Weppes and reached Lomme at the outskirts of Lille. 

Advance of the 7th Panzer-Division on May 26
18. Advance of the 7th Panzer-Division on May 26.

On May 27 Rommel was decorated with the Knight’s Cross. The next day Lille was encircled, with Rommel’s Division cutting off the western approaches to the city. Lille’s defenders capitulated on May 31. With the capture of Lille the first phase of the campaign for the 7th Panzer-Division was over. After a few days rest the Division was sent to a southeastern direction, towards the harbor of Dieppe. That part of Rommel’s advance will be presented in the future.

Overview of Rommel’s advance from May 10 to May 27
19. An overview of Rommel’s advance, from May 10 to May 27.

Carruthers, Bob. German Tanks at War. London: Cassell & Co, 2000.
Ellis, L.F., Major. The War in France and Flanders 1939-1940. London, 1954.
Irving, David. Rommel. Parforce UK Ltd., 2004.
Jentz, Thomas L., Panzertruppen, Atglen, PA: Schiffer, 1996.
Liddell-Hart, B.H. The Rommel Papers. 1953. Reprint. Da Capo.
Mitcham, Jr., Samuel W. The Panzer Legions. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2007.
Shepperd, Alan. France 1940. Oxford: Osprey, 1990.
Stolfi, Russel H.S. A Bias for Action: The German 7th Panzer Division in France & Russia 1940-1941. Perspectives on Warfighting no. 1. Quantico, VA: Command and Staff College Foundation, Marine Corps University, 1991.

Photos attribution
1. Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1972-045-02/CC BY-SA 3.0 de, via Wikimedia Commons
2. Marco Kaiser, via Wikimedia Commons
3. Hugh Llewelyn, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
4., 5., 9., 11., 15., 17.-19., operational details:
6. Ignaz Wiradi, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
7. Jean Housen, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
8. No. 40 Squadron RAF, via Wikimedia Commons
10. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-125-0277-09/Fremke, Heinz/CC BY-SA 3.0 de, via Wikimedia Commons
12. Budotradan, via Wikimedia Commons
13. Camster, GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
14. Padawane at French Wikipedia, GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
16. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-054-1531-11/Eckart/CC BY-SA 3.0 de, via Wikimedia Commons