June 17, 2015

Panzergruppe Kleist and the Fall of France (part 2)

German Recon vehicle

“In three days to the Meuse, on the fourth day across the Meuse!”
Heinz  Guderian

In the first part we discussed French and German plans and we examined the organization and mission of Panzergruppe Kleist. It is time now to follow the Panzergruppe into the battle. 

XIX Armeekorps (mot.) advance through Luxemburg
2. XIX Armeekorps (mot.) advance through Luxemburg.
The 1st Panzer-Division left Germany at Wallendorf and entered Belgium at Martelange.

The Sûre river
3. The Sûre river at Martelange.
Luxemburg offered no resistance to the invading German army. Kleist’s Panzergruppe was deployed in three echelons, with Guderian’s XIX Armeekorps (mot.) in the lead. Guderian had chosen the 1st Panzer-Division to spearhead the attack. The forward elements of the 1st Panzer reached Belgian border at Martelange. There, Belgian troops of the 1st Ardennes Light Infantry Regiment opened fire. Without any waste of time an infantry company of Schützenregiment 1 crossed the Sauer river and stormed the hill, where the Belgians were entrenched. The defenders retreated. That was the first success for Kleist’s Panzer-Army. 

Through Belgium

Leaving Martelange behind the German spearhead met unexpectedly stiff resistance at Bodange. There a Belgian infantry company held its ground for six hours, delaying the advance of the 1st Panzer. With the capture of Bodange ended the first day of the war.  

The battle for Bodange
4. At Bodange a Belgian infantry company held the advance of the 1st Panzer-Division for half a day. The Belgians didn’t intent to do so, but German soldiers operating behind the enemy lines intercepted the Belgian messengers sent to Bodange. So the Company there didn’t receive the withdrawal order in time.

The Belgian army did not intent to defend the Ardennes, but merely to slow down the Germans. The 1st Ardennes Light Infantry Division and the 1st Cavalry Division under the command of Lt. General Keyaerts (Group “K”) had the mission to trigger prepared demolitions along the axis of the German advance and retreat to the north, behind the Liege – Namur line. In most of the cases the barriers prepared by Belgian engineers were left undefended, so the Germans lost only time in removing them. As the Belgians were retreating to the north the French were entering from the west. The French army intended to conduct a phased withdrawal to the Meuse river. That might have worked if the French had the appropriate time to occupy their positions before the German invasion, but as has been explained in the first part that was politically unacceptable. So the French troops in the Ardennes occupied their defensive positions just before encountering the panzer divisions. In reality it was a meeting engagement, not the kind of battle the French army was prepared for. 

Light Panzers crossing the forested terrain of the Ardennes
5. Light Panzers crossing the forested terrain of the Ardennes.

On May 11 the 1st Panzer advanced towards Neufchâteau, the heart of the Belgian Ardennes. Neufchâteau was defended by elements of the French 5th Light Cavalry Division, which had entered Belgium the previous day. Panzer-Regiment 2 penetrated French defenses at Cousteumont, southeast of Neufchâteau, and advanced 4 km west of Neufchâteau, at Petivoir. Panzer-Regiment 1, which followed, advanced even further and reached the town of Betrix, cutting of the French troops at Neufchâteau. At the same time a German infantry battalion attacked the city of Neufchâteau. When the French defenders realized that German tanks were already behind them they abandoned their posts and retreated. Neufchâteau fell at 15:30 hrs.

The battle for Neufchâteau
6. The Battle for Neufchâteau. After breaking through at Cousteumont Panzerregiment 2 advanced towards Petivoir, where it engaged reserve and artillery units. Panzerregiment 1 advanced even further thus disrupting the French plan. The French 5th Light Cavalry Division was supposed to delay the Germans between Line 1 and 2, but the Germans reached Line 2 before the retreating French. Neufchâteau fell to the 3rd Battalion of Schutzenregiment 1.

Guderian in Bouillon
7. Guderian in Bouillon on May 12.
After Neufchâteau the next major obstacle to be overcome was the Semois river. Panzer-Regiment 1, already ahead, rushed toward Bouillon, aiming to capture intact at least one of the two bridges there. The retreating French managed to blow up the bridges just in the nick of time. Nevertheless a ford was found and German tanks began to cross. The French decided to withdraw and on the night of 11/12 May they evacuated Bouillon. That was probably a hasty decision because the Germans had not yet crossed the Semois in force. Their decision probably came as a result of the following event. 

A company of the 1st Motorcycle Battalion found an opening and seized a bridge on the Semois river at Mouzaive, a village some 10 km northwest of Bouillon. The accomplishment of the German company had an unexpected effect on the French leadership. At Mouzaive run the boundary line between the Ninth Army and the Second Army. North of the boundary line the Ninth Army was employing the 3rd Spahi Brigade, while south of the boundary line the Second Army was employing the 5th Light Cavalry Division. The 5th Light Cavalry reached the Semois before the 3rd Spahi and that created the opening which the motorcyclists exploited. When the 3rd Spahi reached the Semois they learned about the presence of a German company at Mouzaive. The Brigade commander lost its nerve and ordered his Brigade to retreat. The Second Army learned that the unit of the Ninth Army on its left had retreated and ordered the 5th Light Cavalry Division to retreat from the Semois also. Thus the Semois river, the last significant barrier before the Meuse, was abandoned without serious fighting.

The bridge on Semois at Mouzaive
8. The bridge on Semois river at Mouzaive.

And what about the rest of Panzergruppe “Kleist”? As had been said in the first part Army Group “A” allocated only a narrow zone for the advance of Kleist’s troops, therefore the Panzergruppe was deeply echeloned. When Guderian’s XIX Armeekorps (mot.) was crossing the Semois river, Reinhardt’s XXXXI Armeekorps (mot.) was entering Luxemburg, while Wietersheim’s XIV Armeekorps (mot.) was still in German soil!  

To Sedan!

After the fall of Bouillon the 1st Panzer-Division was organized into two columns and began her advance toward Sedan. Along the French borders there was a line of fortifications, the extension of the Maginot Line. Those fortifications consisted mainly of pillboxes camouflaged as houses. The armor-heavy group arrived at St. Menges at 10:00 hrs. The village was taken at 14:30 hrs. Then the group reached Sedan, via Floing, at 18:15 hrs. The infantry-heavy group was delayed at La Hatrelle for many hours. French resistance there proved very effective. Finally this group reached Fleigneux at 19:00 hrs. 

A border pillbox at Saint Menges
9. A border pillbox camouflaged as residential home at Saint Menges.

The advance of 1. Panzer-Division on May 12
10. The advance of 1. Panzer-Division on May 12.

Guderian’s plan for crossing the Meuse
11. Guderian’s plan for crossing the Meuse.
The Sedan sector was defended by Second Army’s X Corps, and more specifically by the 55th and the 71st Infantry Divisions. Guderian’s XIX Armeekorps (mot.) was to cross the Meuse river at three places:
  • The 1st Panzer-Division at Gaulier,
  • the 2nd Panzer-Division at Donchery and
  • the 10th Panzer-Division at Wadelincourt.
The operational goal of XIX Armeekorps (mot.) was the city of Rethel. The main effort was allocated to the 1st Panzer-Division, which was also to receive the bulk of the air support. The crossing was to take place at 16:00 hrs, on May 13. From 12:00 hrs until the infantry crossing the Luftwaffe attacked systematically the French positions. Although the damage inflicted was rather modest, the psychological effect on the French troops was enormous.

The Crossing

The 1st Panzer-Division attacked from two directions. Schützenregiment 1, Division's main effort, crossed the Meuse between Gaulier and Glaire. Its objective was Hill 301. Guderian crossed the river with the first assault boat of the second wave. The Regiment pushed south until it reached the Donchery – Sedan road. Then engineers of the 43rd Assault Engineer Battalion advanced toward Donchery and neutralized a number of bunkers. At 20:10 hrs the Regiment was at Frénois. At 22:40 hrs the 2nd Battalion of the Regiment, with the Regiment commander at its head, occupied Hill 301. The Meuse defensive line was penetrated.

The Meuse river
12. The Meuse river between Sedan and Donchery.

The elite Infantry Regiment “Grossdeutschland” was attached to the 1st Panzer-Division for the crossing. Infanterie-Regiment “Grossdeutschland” the previous days had followed the route: Vance, Étalle, Villers-sur-Semois, Marbehan, Mellier, Suxy, Saint-Médard, Herbeumont, Bouillon and Sedan. Now the moment of truth had come. The 7th Company of the 2nd Battalion led the assault. Despite the air bombardment the bunkers on the other side of the river were intact and were purring murderous fire on the attackers.  By 19:00 hrs “Grossdeutschland” had managed to establish a bridgehead and clear enemy bunkers. Hill 247, the Regiment’s objective was seized at 20:00 hrs, after hard hand to hand fighting. Half of “Grossdeutschland” was employed into house to house fighting in Sedan.

2nd Panzer-Division

The 2nd Panzer-Division had to attack into the bend of the Meuse River at Donchery. In that sector the defenders commanded very strong positions, while 2nd Panzer’s approach route provided no cover. All attempts of the Division’s infantry to get across the Meuse failed. Only when the 1st Infantry Regiment of the 1st Panzer-Division successfully penetrated French defenses did the 2nd Panzer manage to cross the Meuse on May 14.

10th Panzer-Division

 The 10th Panzer-Division attacked from two directions. The 86th Infantry Regiment attacked from Balan toward the village of Wadelincourt, while the 69th Infantry Regiment attacked from Bazeilles toward Pont-Maugis. The attack of 69 Infantry Regiment never materialized because French artillery destroyed almost all of the Regiment’s rubber boats, while they were being unloaded. 69 Infantry Regiment was withdrawn and held as reserve. Hill 246 was 86 Infantry Regiment’s objective. The Regiment’s attack was not adequately supported and failed to cross the Meuse. Only a group of five engineers and six infantry soldiers, led by Feldwebel Walter Rubarth managed to get to the other side. Acting dearly Rubarth and his men neutralized a total of seven bunkers and created favorable conditions for the rest of the Regiment to exploit. Rubarth was awarded the Knight’s Cross. At 21:00 hrs Hill 246 was seized.

XIX Armeekorps (mot.) crosses the Meuse
13. XIX Armeekorps (mot.) crosses the Meuse.

Summing up, by the end of May 13 two of the three Panzer Divisions of XIX Armeekorps (mot.) had crossed the Meuse and had achieved their tactical objectives. Let’s now move on to the other Corps of Panzergruppe Kleist.

XXXXI Armeekorps (mot.)

Crossing the Meuse
14. Crossing the Meuse south of Nouzonville at Aiglemont on May 14.

Thirty miles to the north of Guderian Reinhardt’s Panzer Divisions had the most difficult roads to traverse to get to the Meuse. The 6th Panzer-Division was to cross at Monthermé, while the 8th Panzer-Division at Nouzonville. The area was defended by the 102nd Fortress Division. Two companies of 6 Panzer-Division managed to get a foothold, despite heavy enemy fire, but were not able to expand it. The 6th Panzer-Division achieved a breakthrough only on May 15.

The Meuse river at Monthermé
15. The Meuse river at Monthermé.

With the crossing of the Meuse the 2nd part of the article is concluded. In the next part we will follow the fight between the Meuse and the Ardennes Canal.

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Doughty, Robert A. The Breaking Point – Sedan and the Fall of France, 1940. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 2014.
Evans, Martin Matrix. The Fall of France, Act with Daring. Oxford: Osprey, 2000.
Frieser, Karl-Heinz. The Blitzkrieg Legend: The 1940 Campaign in the West. Naval Institute Press, 2013.
Guderian, Heinz. Panzer Leader. Translated by C. Fitzgibbon. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2001.
Holland, James. The Battle of Britain – Five Months that Changed History May-October 1940. Reprint. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2012.
Leach, Christopher B. “The Belgium Question in French Strategic Planning and Army Doctrine Between the Wars.” B.A. thesis, Simon Fraser University, 1992.
Shepperd, Alan. France 1940. Oxford: Osprey, 1990.

Photos attribution
1. Screenshot taken from U.S. War Department made "Divide & Conquer", via Wikimedia Commons
2., 4., 6., 10., 13. http://www.openstreetmap.org/copyright, operational details: panzeroperations.com
3. L. Mahin, via Wikimedia Commons
5. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-382-0248-33A/Böcker/CC BY-SA 3.0 de, via Wikimedia Commons
7. Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1980-004-32/CC BY-SA 3.0 de, via Wikimedia Commons
8. Michel wal, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
9. Adri08, GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
12. Szeder László, GFDL or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0, via Wikimedia Commons
14. Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1971-088-63/Lohmeyer,CC BY-SA 3.0 de, via Wikimedia Commons
15. Pierre Lavaurs, via Wikimedia Commons

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