After the invasion of Poland, the next natural target for Germany was… Well, France, of course. Who else? Those two have been fighting since the Romans left, and possibly long before that. Enter Fall Gelb, the German’s big Blitzkrieg plan. It worked like a charm, mainly because some people completely ignored their orders and did what they thought was best. And that’s what this story is about: how individuals can change the outcome of an entire battle. It covers the battle of Sedan, a pivotal battle in the second world war. If the Germans hadn’t won this one as quickly as they did, the whole thing might well have turned into another trench war.
You see, everyone knew another war would come. In fact, the French General Joffre called the Versailles Treaty “a peace for twenty years” and he was correct - to a couple of days. Everyone knew Germany was going to attack France. They had to, or the French would have attacked them over lost honour - and Poland. It was much the same situation as in the Great War: Germany had to knock out France so it would be free to mess about in the East. But the trenches were still fresh in everyone’s minds, and the Germans didn’t want a repeat of that. The French and British did, though: it worked for them in the past. Reinforcing this concept, the French built the Maginot line, bloody great big tanks and an entirely defensive concept.
The idea was, as soon as war broke out, to move north into neutral Belgium and reinforce their defenses. From then on, it was to be business as usual with the trenches and the gas and the horrible, squelchy mud. In Belgium, of course. Where else? In Europe, people fight their wars in either Belgium or Poland.
The Germans knew all of this. They planned for it. Von Manstein did, and he was definitely not stupid. They launched an attack into the Netherlands and Belgium, exactly to provoke that response from the Allies. At the same time, they went around the Maginot Line and through the Ardennes. Obviously, no army could pass those hilly forests. Again, everybody knew that. The German aim was to do the impossible and emerge to the south of the Allied forces, cross the Meuse river and cut off the enemy completely. The entire scenario required speed, boldness, lots of fuel and a crossing of the Meuse. Without that, the operation was lost because the Allies could just retreat back into France.
Let’s now take a look at the French. They had been badly clobbered in the previous wars, lost some land and a lot of national pride. Okay, they won the Great War but that cost them about half their young Frenchmen. Their heavy industry was in ruins and there certainly wasn’t a lot of cash available for impenetrable defenses. Thus, the Maginot line was very strong in certain places and in others -like Sedan- not so much. Their entire military system relied on great battles, commanded from the top down. French artillery, for example, was to be directed on the headquarters level and not (as with the Germans) by just about anyone who needed it. Their tanks were horrible (yes, they were) and only really suited to trench warfare.
In the sector of Longwy, Sedan and Namur, where the Ardennes and the River Meuse meet, the French Ninth Army and French Second Army were made up chiefly of poor quality divisions. Reinforcements were minimal, and most units had been involved in construction work. The soldiers were constantly moved to different tactical positions and had little knowledge of the lay of the land and the general situation. Their weapons were obsolete or badly maintained. They had been digging, they were tired. But the French command was quite certain the Germans wouldn’t attack there, even though Sedan is a natural choke point near the French-German border. I mean, they did so in nearly every previous war, so why would they do that now?
Thus, this sector was only lightly defended by the French 55th Infantry Division, a reserve formation. It had no prepared defenses and only a few half-built bunkers. Even the mines that were supplied weren’t actually laid. Instead, the French generals preferred to reinforce the Stenay gap, basically an open field well-suited to moving large armies around. The Germans though, being Germans, chose the difficult option: attacking the weak point at Sedan. Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, the commander of Heeresgruppe A, did question the sanity of this but Guderian convinced him a crossing at Sedan was the best point of attack.
As the Germans were nearing the Meuse river on the 12th of May, discussions on where to cross were still ongoing. Ewald von Kleist, commander of XLI and XIX Panzer Corps, preferred to make the crossing at Flize, to the west of Sedan. He was serious about this and he ordered Guderian to attack right there - in writing. When the day came, though, Guderian ignored him completely. Heinz wanted to do the Sedan thing and wasn’t going to be bothered by anyone! His plan was straightforward. The 2nd Panzer Division was to attack northeast of Sedan, near Donchery, and flank the French from there. The 1. PD was equipped with most of the available artillery and tasked to cross the Meuse near Floing in order to seize the Heights of la Marfee overlooking the city. Finally, 10th Panzer was to cross south of Sedan and protect the southern flank.
When Guderian himself got to Sedan by the evening of the 12th, the French were nowhere to be seen. The city thus easily secured, masses of troops and equipment were assembled in preparation for the river crossing. However, he had almost no organic artillery - too little to make the crossing a success. Most of his guns were still stuck in a traffic jam, somewhere in the Ardennes. So the Luftwaffe would have to make up the difference. Now Hugo Sperrle, airforce boss-man, wanted to do a classic bomber attack and go home. Classic, you know, that means you fly out with a bunch of planes, dropping bombs and being back home in time for Kaffee & Kuchen.
“Carpet bombing is extremely accurate. The bombs always hit the ground.” -- US Air force
However, Guderian and Bruno Lörzer (of II. Fliegerkorps) had previously designed a close air support-style rolling raid, where bombers would be on call throughout the battle. Again, von Kleist explicitly forbade this. He would have none of that new-fangled tactical stuff! Guderian complained. Kleist ignored him. And on the 13th, the next day, Lörzer ignored both von Kleist and Sperrle. The Luftwaffe went ahead with the tactical, rolling attacks just like Guderian wanted. As they expected, this type of attack so disturbed the French defences that they, well, mostly ceased to be defences. The French artillerymen abandoned their guns, the telephone cables were cut, infantrymen ran away and officers were bewildered. Now, why was that? Only 50-odd Frenchmen died in the whole Luftwaffe attack. Ah, you, see, that was because of the sirens. You’ve probably seen videos of Stuka attacks, to the point that you might expect every dive bomber to make a high-pitched whine when diving. Many French soldiers later said the extremely scary sirens and the constant bombing were the main reason for their defeat. For example, "the panic of Bulson". On the evening of May 13th, a report French artillery observer reported German tanks near the town of Bulson and most of the artillerymen and infantrymen abandoned their heavy equipment. In reality, the Gremans were having dinner and wouldn’t reach Bulson for another 12 hours. Still, not everyone ran away; a lot of French bunkers would still be manned by the time the attack got going.
That evening, things got started. First, we’ll quickly look at 1st Panzer near Floing. Supported by IR Großdeutschland and the Sturmpionier-Battalion 43, they tried to cross the Meuse. Then they discovered, to their horror, that the Luftwaffe had failed to destroy all enemy bunkers. The resulting enemy fire blocked the German units from crossing the river at Pont Neuf bridge in rubber assault boats but an 8.8 cm FlaK was brought in to shell the French into submission. That done, the regiment crossed over and went to work helping out their colleagues of 2. Panzer. The last French bunker surrendered did so just before dark, around half past ten.
Now for 2nd Panzer. At Doncherry, they clearly had the most difficult job before them. They arrived late and without most of their artillery. The French were thus alerted and most of their surviving heavy guns were concentrated in this sector. To make things worse, the Germans had to cross open terrain for the last 3 km before reaching the river. Not surprisingly, they failed miserably. Fortunately, around this time 1st Panzer had succeeded in crossing the Meuse and it assaulted the French eastern flank which caused lots of confusion and delay. It was not until 22:20, in darkness, that the Germans were able to ferry troops across in, well, peace. Funny choice of words, that.
The focus of this story, however, is on 10. Panzer, attacking towards Wadelincourt. They didn’t have an easy time at Sedan since a) they had almost no artillery and b) the Luftwaffe spent most of its energy to the north, supporting 1. PD at Floing. Thus, most of the French were still intact and adding to that, their 71st Infantry Division and X Corps had just joined the party near Rémilly, to the south.
"As with glass too quickly cooled," Clausewitz warns on panic, "a single crack breaks the whole mass."
So, summarizing: three Panzer divisions were stalled at Sedan, on the Eastern bank of the Meuse, after the French blew the bridges. French defenses were still intact, even when they were kind of weak and undermanned. People were shooting at each other and that’s not a healthy environment to go boating.
Near Bazeilles, just to the south of Sedan, German engineers and assault infantry prepared their boats for the crossing when an artillery barrage from the French positions destroyed most of their rubber boats.
“A large meadow is before us,” writes a Feldwebel Schulze, remembering that day. “On a hill across the river, about 800 meters in front, the enemy entrenched themselves. Initially we were making good progress even though the meadow is wet and we’re in water up to our ankles. Nevertheless, the barbed wire is cut and we’re advancing. Then all hell breaks loose: machine guns spraying bullets, grenades explode all around us. The enemy shoots well and nobody can move ahead. Our smallest movements attract their fire. We’re in the water now, pressing into the ground and are grateful for any clump of grass that hides us from the enemy. ”
That the 10th got to the other side that day was largely because of the efforts of a few men, like Feldwebel Rubarth of the Sturmpioniere. On their own initiative, Rubarth and ten merry men dragged their three rubber boats, along the Rue Berthelet, to the shore. They were heavily shot at by the defending French and one of the boats was torn to pieces. In the other two, the remaining soldiers paddled frantically to the other side, still under a hail of lead and iron. The operation had seemed pretty basic at the briefing that morning but the going got tougher and tougher. Rubarth was not deterred. “We will not take cover. We’ll come through or die here.”, he (apparently) said.
Having arrived on the other side, French forces opened up from a couple of bunkers and destroyed the remaining two boats. Rubarth and his men blew up the bunkers in turn, but there was no way back now. They had already lost half their strength and were now down to four Pioniere. When the French reinforcements arrived from nearby Wadelincourt, they decided to take cover in spite of Rubarth’s earlier objections. In the meantime their commander, still on the German side of the river, had followed the actions of his men and now sent the rest of his small force across. Rubarth’s team thus increased to about 30 soldiers.
Unsupported and acting on their own initiative, this small force opened a decisive breach by knocking out seven bunker positions. They carved out a bridgehead and caused such fear among the French that they, basically, ran away starting "the Bulson panic". An because the French were otherwise engaged, 10.PD’s engineers sneakily built a pontoon bridge, enabling the division’s Panzers to cross as well. Guderian, who had crossed in a boat before his men, was scolded for “joyriding in those silly canoos”, a practice that he had earlier discouraged himself. Anyway, he jumped onto the first available tank and rumbled on to Wadelincourt, where they completely routed the already retreating French.
The German capture of Sedan and the expansion of their bridgeheads alarmed the French generals who called for air attacks against the bridgeheads at Sedan, to isolate the three Panzer Divisions. "Over these bridges will pass either victory or defeat!", they said. “Concentrate everything on Sedan!”, they said. The RAF subsequently tried to bomb the fuck out of those bridges using the most utterly obsolete bombers available: the Fairey Battle. Most of those got shot down by the Luftwaffle. It was then the turn of the French Air Force - but they had been decimated in the previous days. That didn’t accomplish much, too. At one point, 167 aircraft were lost against a single target.
The German generals, in particular Guderian, were very happy that the Luftwaffe had prevented their supply bridges from being knocked out. By nightfall at least 600 Panzer were across the Meuse and the Germans could already taste victory. Even if those decadent fly-boys had to help out.