Sunday, November 3, 2013

10 May 1940 - Flanders

Battle of France

Glider used at Eben Emael

The morning came to life with reports from everywhere flooding in all at once.  Allied airfields were being bombed and strafed.  The frontier defenses of the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France erupted with attacks all along the border with Germany.  The long winter lull, filled with months of boredom and tedious exercises, had become suddenly a swirl of actions, each demanding someone’s quick judgment call.  Each decision resulted in either a reward or penalty of great military consequence.  Mistakes would be made but there’s no time to fret.  So be it.  Keep moving.  Do the best you can.

10 May 1940 – Luftwaffe aircraft pounce on every Allied airfield within reach, destroying whatever planes are caught on the ground.  It is the required first step if German planes are to gain air superiority, enabling unrestricted action by Stuka Ju 87s to bomb and destroy enemy positions hindering the forward progress of fast moving Panzer units.  This is the combined one-two punch of Blitzkrieg air-ground attack.  It is the coordination of powerful tactical aircraft aiding the lethal drive of massed tank formations.

Immediately following the waves of fighters and bombers are formations of Junkers Ju-52s carrying airborne troops towards bridges crossing the Albert Canal, bridges that must be captured intact if German troops are to quickly penetrate Dutch and Belgian defenses.  This invasion has an unforgiving timetable that must be met if Germany is to achieve its ambitious goals.  Waterways must be broached.  Dutch and Belgian resistance must be quickly overwhelmed.  Germany’s long-time military rival, France, must suffer complete defeat.

In the air the British were slow to respond.  It wasn’t until 1100 hours that RAF bombers were ordered to attack German units west of the Rhine.  As it turns out these attacks were largely ineffective.  Within the first three days of fighting the British lost half of their 200 bombers stationed in France.  The French air force was virtually wiped out.  German aircraft were newer and superior in performance than most Allied aircraft.  Also, the German command structure enabled them to concentrate their airpower while Allied efforts were more dispersed.  Still, the battle in the air wasn’t all one-sided.  German losses were 83 aircraft on 10 May alone, including 47 bombers.  One problem was that neither side appreciated how vulnerable unescorted bombers would be to fighter attack.  German losses to their fleet of transport aircraft were also high with 213 Luftwaffe transports lost and another 240 damaged.  This represented 80 percent of the transport fleet.

The French and British have positioned their best, most mobile, armies along France’s border with southern Belgium.  They’ve long anticipated a German sweep through the Low Countries in order to plunge into northern France, much as the Hun did 25 years before in 1914.  The building of the impregnable Maginot Line along the border shared by France and Germany all but makes this course the only feasible avenue for invasion, or so thought the French High Command.

German paratroopers landed near key bridges in the early morning hours of 10 May and were able to capture nearly all of them before defenders were able to blow the bridges up.  Rotterdam, the hub of Dutch communications was attacked with its airfield and bridges across the River Maas captured.  Paratroopers also captured the airfields near the Dutch capital of The Hague but were driven off by Dutch counterattacks.  Nonetheless these troop attacks from the air added greatly to Allied confusion.

The key defense of the Albert Canal was Belgium’s reputably impregnable fortress, Eben Emael.  Glider-borne German troops landed on the fort’s roof, taking advantage of its Achilles’ heel, a very limited defense against attack from the air.  A contingent of less than a hundred German engineers effectively disabled the fortification, manned by over 1,200 men.  Within 24 hours Eben Emael was lost despite a desperate counterattack from Belgium troops.  Allied commanders expected the fort to hold for a good five days.  They hoped Belgian defenders along the Albert Canal would give them the time needed for French and British troops to reach the River Dyle and set up a coordinated defense with the Belgians.

Plan ‘D’, the Allied strategy to rush troops to a defensive line along Belgium’s River Dyle had two major problems.  Belgian fear of a hostile German response meant it never agreed to properly coordinate their defense with French and British troops.  Consequently, during the heat of battle, there was much confusion and disorganization between French, British and Belgian military contingents.  The second, more lethal, problem would not reveal itself before another four days.  Germany’s plan all along was to lure the best of British and French forces into a fatal trap.  The sweep by Germany’s Army Group B into and through the defenses of the Netherlands and Belgium was actually a distraction.  The early successes of these troops in Holland and along the Albert Canal convinced the French command that they were right in moving the weight of their army deep into Belgium territory.  Their attention was fixed on the desperate battle now unfolding to the north and west.  They had no inkling whatsoever of the enormous offensive force of concentrated tanks to the southeast that was steadily moving towards a lightly defended French portion of the Meuse River opposite the Ardennes forest.  None in the French high command could conceive of a large tank attack coming out of this densely forested, hilly terrain.  This is exactly what German military planners had counted on the Allies to believe.  If this were a game of chess this would now become the equivalent of checkmate in five moves or less.

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11 May 1940 - Flanders

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Objective:  France 1940

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