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Breakthrough at Sedan: May 1940

Mark has a BA from the University of Arkansas (Fayetteville).

The Ardennes

In the summer of 1940 a unit of Chasseurs, basically government forestry workers who put on uniforms and issued rifles, quietly waited for the Germans to attack under an ominous fog. Three German armies hidden by the forest massed against the thinly held Allied lines. The Germans advance virtually unopposed as they pushed the defenders aside and quickly advanced through the Ardennes.

In two days, Panzer Group von Kleist with most of the German Army's armor, seven armored and two motorized divisions, was parked on the banks of the Meuse River, France's main defensive position. With frantic reports of their arrival French commanders began shifting reserves to meet the oncoming threat.

Some of the French formations, made up of over age and under armed reserves, fled precipitately before the onslaught of tanks and Stukas; others fought to the last man, but nowhere were they a match for the constant German superiority of material and numbers at any vital spot. The order to retreat was given on the night of May 13,1940, but the order could be delivered because the French defensive line had already been destroyed.

By the next morning there was a fifty-mile hole in the French line, and within forty-eight hours Panzer Group von Kleist was across the Aisne River, rolling into open country. The whole situation along the breakthrough was incredibly fluid as German tanks raced ahead, with their flanks basically undefended. Ahead of the German spearhead German Stukas dive-bombed and strafed the retreating French troops as refugees clogged the roads and slowed down the troops.

Behind the German tanks was virtually nothing, just long dusty columns of very tired German infantry, slogging along attempting to catch up with the tanks as they raced ahead. A surprising fact was most of the German Army was largely dependent on horse-drawn transport which created dangerous gaps between the advancing amour and support troops. This type of horse transport was most vulnerable to Allied air and ground attack. The Germans left themselves wide open for a counterattack along their unprotected flanks. But the French Army was kept busy elsewhere with its own battle for survival.

German Mk III

Breakthrough

At sunrise on May 10, 1940, the German attack on western Europe began as German troops flooded across the borders of Belgium, Luxemburg, and Holland. Like the invasion of Poland, the Germans enjoyed the advantage of air superiority over the battlefield during the entire campaign as they advanced toward their objectives. The secret to the German victory was their skillful application of the two greatest principles of war, surprise and concentration.

The key to victory rested with Panzer Group von Kleist as its tanks cut through the woods of the Ardennes and headed for the Meuse River. The Allied military leadership, particularly the French, still thought in terms of the linear tactics of the First World War and scattered their armor along a wide the front.

French military leaders had yet to contemplate using their armored divisions in mass. By dispersing their armor along a front which extended from the Swiss border to the English Channel they played right into the German's hands.

The British 1st Armored Division had yet arrived in France, and the setting up of four French armored divisions was only in the initial stages. When the French military leaders considered the tank's uses, they took an essentially conservative view of it. It would not be much more than in had been in 1918. This idea was challenged by a whole series of military theoretical writers. In Britain, B.H. Liddell Hart and J.F.C Fuller were developing ideas that would make the linear trench systems of 1914-18 obsolete.

Instead of distributing tanks to infantry, they used their tanks in masses, as armored spearheads. Like the cavalry of the Napoleonic era, they could break the enemy's line and then go on the rampage storming the rear areas, disrupting communications and destroying his reserves which could be used later to block their armored spearheads.

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This was Liddell Hart's theory of "expanding the torrent." The tank would become the dominant weapon on the battlefield, along with the motorized infantry they would form the tip of the armored spearhead. These ideas would be picked up by German military leaders, notably Heinz Guderian and Erwin Rommel. General Heinz Guderian was the principal architect of Germany's devastating blitzkrieg strategy.

Guderian with an Enigma machine in a half-track being used as a mobile command center during the Battle of France, 1940. Commanding his armored fist from the front led to the German sucess in the battle for France.

Guderian with an Enigma machine in a half-track being used as a mobile command center during the Battle of France, 1940. Commanding his armored fist from the front led to the German sucess in the battle for France.

At the divisional level a German tank division was a better formation than its Allied counterparts, for it was an all-arms force. Meaning that each division, in addition to its tank battalions, had an adequate force of motorized infantry, artillery, engineer, and other support services organized into one fighting force.

This enabled each tank division to advance independently, its infantry fighting off ground attack, its artillery offering fire support against organized defensive strong points with its 105mm howitzers, against tank attack with its 50mm anti-tanks guns, and against aircraft with its 88mm anti-aircraft guns; and engineers to demolish Allied obstacles and build bridges to cross river barriers.

The French High Command failed to show little interest in the possibilities of armored vehicles on the battlefield. To the French High Command, the tank was regarded useful in supporting attacks by foot-soldiers or cavalrymen, or a substitute for cavalry in a reconnaissance role on the battlefield.

French generals also failed to grasp the value of close cooperation between tank and aircraft on the battlefield. The concept of aircraft used as flying artillery to clear the way for the tanks by laying down a carpet of bombs, was alien to the French High Command.

The German Air Force supported their advancing tanks columns with Dornier light bombers, Messerschmitt 109s and Junker 87s, also known as Stukas. All the aircraft came in at treetop level and opened up with their machine guns, as they dropped their bombs.

Stukas became the most feared weapon on the battlefield. The Stuka's bombs were each equipped with four small cardboard whistles, and on the plane's, wheels were little rotating propellers. The whistles were set at a different pitch. When a Stuka dived at an angle of 70 degrees and at a speed of over 300mph they produced a sound that terrified defending troops.

Allied tanks unlike the Germans lacked two-way radios to communicate with other tanks or aircraft, which put them at an extreme disadvantage during the Battle of France. Everything stemmed from the French weakness in the air.

Without sufficient air cover French tanks could never match the speedy advances made by the German tanks divisions. The German Army was actually inferior to the Allied Armies not only in numbers of divisions, but particularly in numbers of tanks.

While the combined French and British forces had over 4,000 tanks, the German Army could only put about 2,800 tanks on the battlefield. The Panzer MK III accounted for a large proportion of the German tank forces in 1940. Only armed with a 50mm cannon and machine guns, in theory it stood little chance against Allied medium tanks.

The German Stuka Dive Bomber

 Stukas became the most feared weapon on the battlefield. The Stuka's bombs were each equipped with four small cardboard whistles, and on the plane's, wheels were little rotating propellers. The whistles were set at a different pitch. When a Stuka di

Stukas became the most feared weapon on the battlefield. The Stuka's bombs were each equipped with four small cardboard whistles, and on the plane's, wheels were little rotating propellers. The whistles were set at a different pitch. When a Stuka di

Race to the Channel

German tanks had advanced more than forty miles since crossing the Meuse River four days earlier. As German spearheads converged into a solid armored mass of seven armored divisions, the evidence of the collapse of the Allied armies was clearly in front of them as they advanced through the defeated French Ninth and Second Armies.

As the German armored spearhead rolled forward toward Cambrai and the Channel Coast, the new British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, flew over to see what could be done to stop the disaster that was unfolding before them. He visited French generals and looked at their battle maps.

Surely, he said, if the head of the German column was far to the west, and the tail far to the east, they must be thin somewhere. He asked the French commander Gamelin where the French reserves were located. Gamelin replied with a shrug, there were no reserves. After the meeting Churchill went back to London appalled. The Germans were indeed thin, and in many ways their high command was as worried as the French were about their exposed flanks.

Von Rundstedt, in command of Army Group A, was so concerned about his flanks that he tried to slow his panzers down. The tank commanders leading the spearhead, Guderian, Reinhardt, and Rommel, were shocked when given the order to stop.

When ordered to stop and wait for support, they asked von Rundstedt permission to carry out reconnaissance missions to camouflage their advance. They continued westward again at full tilt. Occasionally, there was heavy fighting. On the northern edge of the drive, the French and British forces put up stiff resistance, the British tanks counter-attacked near Arras and threatened Rommel's headquarters. The British Matilda tanks proved difficult to stop with their heavy armor, the Germans were forced to bring up their famous 88mm anti-tank guns to deal with the threat.

The French did attempt to attack the German armored spearhead's southern flank with the newly formed 4th Armored Division led by Charles de Gualle. On May 17, 1940, he led an attack near Laon, which lay in the path of the German spearhead in an attempt to gain time for a new front to be established north of Paris.

The attack would later become the foundation for de Gaulle's reputation as a fighter, but it achieved nothing more than the destruction of his division. The few gains French tanks made could not be held, as they were swept aside by the German armored juggernaut and constant attacks from the air. When the Germans ran against a determined enemy strong point, they would side-step it with their armor and roll onward leaving it for their Stukas and light bombers. The further west they advanced, the weaker the Allied resistance.

On May 21, 1940, German tanks reached the French coast near the seaside town of Abbeville; the northern Allied armies were now effectively cut off from France. The French supreme commander Gamelin was sacked, and on the 19th of May, he was replaced by General Maxime Weygand, flown in from the French territory of Syria to take over the French defense.

By the time Weygand had determined what was happening it was too late to do anything but preside over the disaster. Ordered to push their attack south and break through to France, the Anglo-Franco-Belgian forces were too defeated to combine their forces.

Allied cooperation between forces began to break down. The French forces trapped in the northern pocket still wanted to move south but were incapable of doing so. Lord Gort, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force, realized that without his force England would be left defenseless began planning its evacuation.

Battle of Arras (1940)

Junkers Ju 88 (Dive Bomber)

Junkers Ju 88A-1 of the Stab/KG 51, June 1940. The Ju 88 was too fast (286mph) for Allied fighter aircraft to intercept it proved deadly for Allied ground forces. Over 15,000 were built during the Second World War.

Junkers Ju 88A-1 of the Stab/KG 51, June 1940. The Ju 88 was too fast (286mph) for Allied fighter aircraft to intercept it proved deadly for Allied ground forces. Over 15,000 were built during the Second World War.

Operation Dynamo

British troops line up on the beach at Dunkirk to await the evacuation of over 338,000 Allied soldiers from the beaches and harbor of Dunkirk in northern France, May 26, 1940. By June 4,1940, the evacuation of Allied forces was completed.

British troops line up on the beach at Dunkirk to await the evacuation of over 338,000 Allied soldiers from the beaches and harbor of Dunkirk in northern France, May 26, 1940. By June 4,1940, the evacuation of Allied forces was completed.

Sources

Keegan, John. The Second World War. Viking Penguin Inc. 40 West 23rd Street, New York, New York, 10010 U.S.A. 1990

Monaghan, Frank. World War II: An Illustrated History. J. G. Ferguson and Associates and Geographical Publishing Chicago, Illinois 1953.

Ray, John. The Illustrated History of WWII. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. The Orion Publishing Group Ltd. Orion House. 3 Upper Saint Martin's Lane, London WC 2H 9EA 2003.

Swanston, Alexander. The Historical Atlas of World War II. Chartwell Books 276 Fifth Avenue Suite 206 New York, New York 10001, U.S.A. 2008.

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