Tuesday, November 12, 2013

12 May 1940 - Flanders

Panzers in Belgium, 1940

News of the deteriorating situation had gone from bad to alarming as report updates steadily flowed into the Belgian military command.  The officers involved with critical decision-making were clearly upset but they were still charged with saving the nation from disaster.  The linchpin of their initial defense, the 1200 man fortress Eben Emael, the modern man-made Gibraltar, had been rendered useless through the quick work of 78 German engineers and, ultimately, lost to the invaders within the space of 24 hours.  The entire Belgian defense along the Albert Canal had also crumbled and its demoralized formations were falling back towards the River Dyle and their last chance to stop the German troops from sweeping across their land and into France.

German forces were now less than 25 miles from the Belgium capital of Brussels and BEF Corps Commander Alan Brooke motored east from Louvain with 3rd Division Commander Bernard Montgomery to survey the scene of battle.  The road was clogged with frightened refugees, bundled with precious few possessions, and streaming in the opposite direction, away from the violence that was engulfing their homes just a few miles further down the road.  General Brooke remarked how strange the scene was of refugees trudging pass a crowd of church-goers, congregated in their Sunday best and, seemingly, chatting as they would following any morning service.  War had intervened once again to flip all sense of reason upside down.

Army Group B Commander Fedor von Bock knew he wasn’t making any friends as he whipped his senior commanders into a greater sense of urgency.  16th Panzer Corps Commander Erich Höepner snapped back angrily, “You don’t need to push me!”  Bock felt otherwise.  He relentlessly pushed the reeling Dutch and Belgian forces back into a hurried, improvisational retreat.  He wouldn't allow them time to accurately assess their situation or to determine an appropriate countermeasure.  With speed he could stampede the Belgians into the laps of the advance elements of British and French forces who were just now attempting to set up their own defensive positions along the River Dyle.  Maintaining the pressure wasn’t going to be easy.  Bock had still to contend with the many waterways crossing his line of attack.  There were simply too few bridges to move men, armor and supplies forward as rapidly as opportunities presented themselves.  The narrow bridges were clogged and resulted in tremendous congestion as his surge of armies funneled through them on their way west.  Once again Bock found himself resorting to transporting fuel by air in an effort to keep his thirsty tanks moving.  Bock was passionate with impatience and he wanted those under him to share his killer instinct for attack.  They must believe as he did that Germany’s success in the West demanded that Allied commanders’ full attention be placed upon what was bearing down on them now.  They should consider no threat other than what he provided.

 French cavalry units used to reconnoiter areas of the Ardennes beyond the River Meuse were easily routed by massed German armor on this Sunday, 12 May.  Their alarm at what they saw had somehow failed to make it up the chain of command.  Still, there was concern enough for the French 2nd Army to destroy the bridges in the Sedan sector of the Meuse River, and to secure the promise of four first-rate divisions to soon come to their aid.  For the moment they had only the French 10th Corps, many of whom were aging reservists parked in an area considered to be of least importance.  The local French commanders now knew a German attack was coming but they had no appreciation of its speed or force.

About forty miles up the River Meuse, north of Sedan, Erwin Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division had chased two retreating French Cavalry Divisions across the river.  Rommel’s attempt that afternoon to make a tank crossing of the river was thwarted as the French blew up all the bridges in the area.  He settled for planning an infantry assault across the river, scheduled for early the following morning.  Meanwhile, by that evening, two panzer divisions of Heinz Guderian’s 19th Panzer Corps arrived on the north bank of the Meuse River, opposite the historic city of Sedan. 

Guderian was eager to begin the effort to cross the Meuse the following day but it wasn’t certain he would get the needed approval from his immediate superior, Ewald Kleist.  Guderian’s tanks would be making their assault without proper infantry support.  Waiting for their arrival would require a delay of, at least, another day.  But Kleist, a usually more cautious commander than Guderian, had been pleased with the Panzer Group’s progress through the Ardennes and agreed to the next day’s attack.  Preparations for the assault were made during the night.  It was decided the Corps’ artillery resources would be concentrated on the main focus of attack – the area opposite 1st Panzer Division.  One other critical component for success was arranged for – the inclusion of twelve squadrons of dive-bombers to be used to help force the river crossing.  The following day would give the Allied command their first inkling that the battle they would fight wasn’t the one for which they had planned.

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