The British 1st Tank Brigade was directed to Tournai, but arriving at Enghein Brigadier Pratt’s tanks found that the railway station had been bombed by the Luftwaffe and that all the engines had dispersed. There was no choice but to take to the road. The Brigade gathered at Ath on 17 May, only to be sent on a fool’s errand in response to reports of a German breakthrough. Eventually reaching Orchies, 16 miles south-east of Lille, Brigadier Pratt joined a scratch force under Major General Frank Mason Macfarlane, Director of Military Intelligence at GHQ, dubbed ‘Macforce’. British tanks were designed to cover just 10 miles a day before maintenance; by the time they arrived back in Arras on 18 May they had travelled 120 miles.
Alarmingly by the 17th the French had exhausted all their reserves trying to stem the German tide and were not in a position to defend Paris. In a desperate all or nothing attempt to slice through the German spearhead General de Gaulle had launched his unsuccessful counterattack at Montcornet. Assuming the Germans would now turn on the French capital, General Alphonse Georges wanted to throw six divisions against the Germans’ southern and north-western flanks. in reality his scattered and harassed forces were unable to concentrate for such a counterattack. On 19 May Gamelin was sacked by French Premier Reynaud and replaced by the 72-year-old General Maxime Weygand. That day General Erwin Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division reached Cambrai, just 24 miles south of Orchies.
Within a week of getting over the Meuse seven German panzer divisions had pierced the French defences and on 20 May General Heinz Guderian’s 19th Panzer Corps reached the Channel west of Abbeville. It should be pointed out that the panzers did not have it all their own way. The bulk of the panzer divisions comprised Mk Is and Mk IIs and by the time the forward units were gazing out over the English Channel at Abbeville many vehicles had suffered mechanical failure. At this stage the panzers had lost 40 per cent of their strength and could have suffered a defeat if the Allies had any strategic reserves. Nonetheless they had conducted one of the greatest flanking movements in history – the encirclement of the Allies in Belgium. Now the French generals were in a state of despair and the British ones were alarmed at the prospect of being cut off from Cherbourg and Le Harve and home.
Guderian swept northward toward the ports of Boulogne, Calais and Dunkirk in an effort to cut off those British and French forces north of the River Somme. In the meantime early on the 20th the British 1st Tank Brigade and the 5th Division were ordered to the Vimy area north of Arras to reinforce the 50th Northumbrian Division. Placed under Major General Harold E. Franklyn, General Officer Commanding 5th Division, this force was known at ‘Frankforce’.
After reaching Cambrai Rommel halted to allow his troops to catch their breath. He planned to resume his advance on the 19th, his destination the high ground south-east of Arras where the British Rear GHQ was located. General Hoth arrived and ordered Rommel to stay his hand. ‘The troops have been twenty hours in the same place,’ argued an exasperated Rommel, ‘and a night attack during moonlight will result in fewer losses.’ Hoth acquiesced. On the 20th Rommel’s tank spearhead reached Beaurains just 2½ miles south of Arras at 0600hr. Unfortunately the motorised infantry were lagging behind so Rommel sped off to hurry them up. French troops caused him a few headaches for the next few hours until the infantry and artillery arrived.
Although Lord Gort had dismissed the Allied High Command’s call for a joint Anglo-French counterattack, he could not ignore the wishes of Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Aware of the deteriorating situation in France, General Sir Edmund ironside, Chief of the imperial General Staff and the most senior British Army officer, was sent to France to see Gort in person. Ironside wanted Gort to commit the whole of the BEF to an attack, but Gort could not withdraw those troops fighting on the Scheldt without opening up a gap in the defence between the BEF and the Belgian Army. To make matters worse the Germans were moving around the British right flank between Arras and the Somme.
The situation for the British was very desperate; the BEF had just four days worth of supplies remaining and barely sufficient ammunition for another grapple with the Germans. Although Gort’s options were limited and diminishing by the day, he still had the 5th and 50th Divisions that could strike toward the Somme. It was hoped that the new French Commander in Chief General Weygand might marshal his forces and attack the gap from the south.
General Ironside seeking out General Billotte found him at Lens with the commander of the French 1st Army, General Georges Blanchard. Ironside was appalled at the state of apathy exhibited by the French generals and shaking Billotte in a fit of rage declared, ‘You must make a plan. Attack at once to the south with all your forces on Amiens.’ The French 1st Army informed General Franklyn that it could not mount an attack towards Cambrai for two days.
General Franklyn tried to coordinate his efforts with two senior French officers, Generals Prioux, of the Cavalry Corps, and Altmayer, of the French 5th Corps, on 20 May. Also present was General Billotte, in theory Lord Gort’s superior, but Franklyn had no idea who he was. Altmayer announced he planned to launch the 250 tanks of the French 3rd Light Mechanised Division south the following day. However, the French were unable to get into position until the 22nd due to fuel shortages and the exhaustion of the crews. In reality all the 3rd Light Mechanised could muster were about 60 Somua tanks having already lost its H-35 tanks.
Altmayer though was a broken man. Liaison officer Major Vautrin was sent to the general’s HQ to get him to commit to the venture. Vautrin reported back to the High Command, ‘General Altmayer, who seemed tired out and thoroughly disheartened, wept silently on his bed. He told me his troops had buggered off. He was ready to accept all the consequences of his refusal (to go to Arras) … but he could no longer continue to sacrifice the Army Corps of which he had already lost half.’ In contrast GHQ was considering ‘Frankforce’ as a major element of the forthcoming British and French counterattack.
Franklyn, intent on supporting the Arras garrison, deployed 5th Division’s 13th Brigade to the east on the Scarpe facing Pelves, while its 17th Brigade was held in reserve north of Arras. The 150th Brigade from 50th Division took up position east of the town on the 13th’s right flank. To the west the 151st Brigade joined 4RTR and 7RTR of the 1st Tank Brigade.
At 30 tonnes, with 60mm of armour plus a 75mm gun in the hull and 47mm anti-tank gun in the turret, the B1-bis was the most powerful tank in Western Europe in 1939–40. The initial B1 had a 25mm turret gun.
The heavily armoured 20-tonne French Somua S-35 was the backbone of the French cavalry and mechanised divisions. While French armour was organised into regiments, consisting of two battalions, these were only peacetime formations, which on mobilisation were supposed to fight in tank battalion groupings. In reality the tank battalions fought singularly and often at just company or just platoon strength with inevitable results.
Judging by the near horizontal rear engine deck (as compared to the sloping deck of the H-35) this Hotchkiss light tank is either the interim H-38 or an early production H-39 armed with the shortbarrelled SA 18 37mm gun. Generally the later H-39 was equipped with the long-barrelled SA 38 37mm gun which had double the muzzle velocity.
More knocked out French B1-bis. The photograph to the left shows that this tank’s rear armour took eleven hits, while the tank in the photograph below has had its turret blown clean off and the fighting compartment ripped open.
More knocked out French tanks, this time the S-35; the turret is derived from that of the B1-bis and D-2 tanks. Note the relatively compact silhouette, it was built from cast armour. Originally this was classified as an Automitrailleuse de Combat (AMC) but was later redesignated Char de Cavalrie and became one of the principal tanks of the Division Légère Mécanique. Each of these mechanised cavalry divisions had one regiment (two squadrons) of S-35s in its tank brigade along with a regiment of Hotchkiss H-39s.
These German troops are examining a Char Moyen Renault D-2. This was one of the first modern types of infantry medium tank to be supplied to the French Army after the First World War. The Char D-2 appeared in 1933 but had been largely superseded by the Char B series by 1940. However, it still remained in front-line service and notably was issued to de Gaulle’s 4th Armoured Division.
This burning tank appears to be a Panzer Mk I. The French 47mm anti-tank gun was more than capable of tackling this model of panzer.
On 14 May General Brocard’s 3rd Armoured Division and General Bertin-Boussu’s 3rd Motorised Infantry Division were launched into a counterattack. They lost half their tanks for their trouble. In the photograph above the French crewman lying on the ground was unable to escape his stricken R-35. In the image below the S-35 in the foreground appears to have been abandoned after its crew tried unsuccessfully to get it off a cobbled road. Behind it is a Char Léger Hotchkiss H-35, which also seems to have been abandoned. The raised engine cover indicates that it may have broken down.
These Germans are looking at what appears to be a Panzer Mk IV Ausf C or D armed with a short 75mm anti-tank gun. By May 1940 every tank detachment had a medium tank company of six to eleven Panzer IVs. At the start of the campaign against France there were 280 Ausf A, B, C and D Mk IVs in the panzer divisions.
German troops including a panzertruppen on the right pose with another knocked out S-35. On 16 May General Bruche’s French 2nd Armoured Division came up against the 6th Panzer Division and was driven back. Two days later de Gaulle’s 4th Armoured Division struck toward Montcornet but after some initial success was also driven back.
This French anti-tank gunner died trying to fend off the panzers. The weapon is either the French 25mm or 47mm anti-tank gun.