Military history

THE FALL OF BELGIUM AND THE TRAPPING OF THE ANGLO–FRENCH ARMIES

By the time the Dutch had surrendered, the die was cast for Belgium, France and the British Expeditionary Force. May 14, though it was only the fifth day of the attack, was the fatal day. The previous evening German armor had secured four bridgeheads across the steeply banked and heavily wooded Meuse River from Dinant to Sedan, captured the latter city, which had been the scene of Napoleon III’s surrender to Moltke in 1870 and the end of the Third Empire, and gravely threatened the center of the Allied lines and the hinge on which the flower of the British and French armies had so quickly wheeled into Belgium.

The next day, May 14, the avalanche broke. An army of tanks unprecedented in warfare for size, concentration, mobility and striking power, which when it had started through the Ardennes Forest from the German frontier on May 10 stretched in three columns back for a hundred miles far behind the Rhine, broke through the French Ninth and Second armies and headed swiftly for the Channel, behind the Allied forces in Belgium. This was a formidable and frightening juggernaut. Preceded by waves of Stuka dive bombers, which softened up the French defensive positions, swarming with combat engineers who launched rubber boats and threw up pontoon bridges to get across the rivers and canals, each panzer division possessed of its own self-propelled artillery and of one brigade of motorized infantry, and the armored corps closely followed by divisions of motorized infantry to hold the positions opened up by the tanks, this phalanx of steel and fire could not be stopped by any means in the hands of the bewildered defenders. On both sides of Dinant on the Meuse the French gave way to General Hermann Hoth’s XVth Armored Corps, one of whose two tank divisions was commanded by a daring young brigadier general, Erwin Rommel. Farther south along the river, at Monthermé, the same pattern was being executed by General Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s XLIst Armored Corps of two tank divisions.

But it was around Sedan, of disastrous memory to the French, that the greatest blow fell. Here on the morning of May 14 two tank divisions of General Heinz Guderian’s XIXth Armored Corps* poured across a hastily constructed pontoon bridge set up during the night over the Meuse and struck toward the west. Though French armor and British bombers tried desperately to destroy the bridge—forty of seventy-one R.A.F. planes were shot down in one single attack, mostly by flak, and seventy French tanks were destroyed—they could not damage it. By evening the German bridgehead at Sedan was thirty miles wide and fifteen miles deep and the French forces in the vital center of the Allied line were shattered. Those who were not surrounded and made prisoners were in disorderly retreat. The Franco–British armies to the north, as well as the twenty-two divisions of Belgians, were placed in dire danger of being cut off.

The first couple of days had gone fairly well for the Allies, or so they thought. To Churchill, plunging with new zest into his fresh responsibilities as Prime Minister, “up until the night of the twelfth,” as he later wrote, “there was no reason to suppose that the operations were not going well.”10 Gamelin, the generalissimo of the Allied forces, was highly pleased with the situation. The evening before, the best and largest part of the French forces, the First, Seventh and Ninth armies, along with the B.E.F., nine divisions strong under Lord Gort, had joined the Belgians, as planned, on a strong defensive line running along the Dyle River from Antwerp through Louvain to Wavre and thence across the Gembloux gap to Namur and south along the Meuse to Sedan. Between the formidable Belgian fortress of Namur and Antwerp, on a front of only sixty miles, the Allies actually outnumbered the oncoming Germans, having some thirty-six divisions against the twenty in Reichenau’s Sixth Army.

The Belgians, though they had fought well along the reaches of their northeast frontier, had not held out there as long as had been expected, certainly not as long as in 1914. They, like the Dutch to the north of them, had simply not been able to cope with the revolutionary new tactics of the Wehrmacht. Here, as in Holland, the Germans seized the vital bridges by the daring use of a handful of specially trained troops landed silently at dawn in gliders. They overpowered the guards at two of the three bridges over the Albert Canal behind Maastricht before the defenders could throw the switches that were supposed to blow them.

They had even greater success in capturing Fort Eben Emael, which commanded the junction of the Meuse River and the Albert Canal. This modern, strategically located fortress was regarded by both the Allies and the Germans as the most impregnable fortification in Europe, stronger than anything the French had built in the Maginot Line or the Germans in the West Wall. Constructed in a series of steel-and-concrete galleries deep underground, its gun turrets protected by heavy armor and manned by 1,200 men, it was expected to hold out indefinitely against the pounding of the heaviest bombs and artillery shells. It fell in thirty hours to eighty German soldiers who under the command of a sergeant had landed in nine gliders on its roof and whose total casualties amounted to six killed and nineteen wounded. In Berlin, I remember, OKW made the enterprise look very mysterious, announcing in a special communiqué on the evening of May 11 that Fort Eben Emael had been taken by a “new method of attack,” an announcement that caused rumors to spread—and Dr. Goebbels was delighted to fan them—that the Germans had a deadly new “secret weapon,” perhaps a nerve gas that temporarily paralyzed the defenders.

The truth was much more prosaic. With their usual flair for minute preparation, the Germans during the winter of 1939–40 had erected at Hildesheim a replica of the fort and of the bridges across the Albert Canal and had trained some four hundred glider troops on how to take them. Three groups were to capture the three bridges, the fourth Eben Emael. This last unit of eighty men landed on the top of the fortress and placed a specially prepared “hollow” explosive in the armored gun turrets which not only put them out of action but spread flames and gas in the chambers below. Portable flame throwers were also used at the gun portals and observation openings. Within an hour the Germans were able to penetrate the upper galleries, render the light and heavy guns of the great fort useless and blind its observation posts. Belgian infantry behind the fortification tried vainly to dislodge the tiny band of attackers but they were driven off by Stuka attacks and by reinforcements of parachutists. By the morning of May 11 advance panzer units, which had raced over the two intact bridges to the north, arrived at the fort and surrounded it, and, after further Stuka bombings and hand-to-hand fighting in the underground tunnels, a white flag was hoisted at noon and the 1,200 dazed Belgian defenders filed out and surrendered.11

This feat, along with the capture of the bridges and the violence of the attack mounted by General von Reichenau’s Sixth Army, which was sustained by General Hoepner’s XVIth Armored Corps of two tank divisions and one mechanized infantry division, convinced the Allied High Command that now, as in 1914, the brunt of the German offensive was being carried out by the enemy’s right wing and that they had taken the proper means to stop it. In fact, as late as the evening of May 15 the Belgian, British and French forces were holding firm on the Dyle line fromAntwerp to Namur.

This was just what the German High Command wanted. It had now become possible for it to spring the Manstein plan and deliver the haymaker in the center. General Halder, the Chief of the Army General Staff, saw the situation—and his opportunities—very clearly on the evening of May 13.

North of Namur [he wrote in his diary] we can count on a completed concentration of some 24 British and French and about 15 Belgian divisions. Against this our Sixth Army has 15 divisions on the front and six in reserve … We are strong enough there to fend off any enemy attack. No need to bring up any more forces. South of Namur we face a weaker enemy. About half our strength. Outcome of Meuse attack will decide if, when and where we will be able to exploit this superiority. The enemy has no force worth mentioning behind this front.

No force worth mentioning behind this front, which, the next day, was broken?

On May 16 Prime Minister Churchill flew to Paris to find out. By the afternoon, when he drove to the Quai d’Orsay to see Premier Reynaud and General Gamelin, German spearheads were sixty miles west of Sedan, rolling along the undefended open country. Nothing very much stood between them and Paris, or between them and the Channel, but Churchill did not know this. “Where is the strategic reserve?” he asked Gamelin and, breaking into French, “Où est la masse de manœuvre?” The Commander in Chief of the Allied armies turned to him with a shake of the head and a shrug and answered, “Aucune—there is none.”*

“I was dumfounded,” Churchill later related. It was unheard of that a great army, when attacked, held no troops in reserve. “I admit,” says Churchill, “that this was one of the greatest surprises I have had in my life.”12

It was scarcely less a surprise to the German High Command, or at least to Hitler and the generals at OKW if not to Halder. Twice during this campaign in the West, which the Fuehrer himself directed, he hesitated. The first occasion was on May 17 when a crisis of nerves overcame him. That morning Guderian, who was a third of the way to the Channel with his panzer corps, received an order to halt in his tracks. Intelligence had been received from the Luftwaffe that the French were mounting a great counterattack to cut off the thin armored German wedges which extended westward from Sedan. Hitler conferred hastily with his Army Commander in Chief, Brauchitsch, and with Halder. He was certain that a serious French threat was developing from the south. Rundstedt, commander of Army Group A, the main force which had launched the breakthrough over the Meuse, backed him up when they conferred later in the day. He expected, he said, “a great surprise counteroffensive by strong French forces from the Verdun and Châlons-sur-Marne areas.” The specter of a second Marne rose in Hitler’s feverish mind. “I am keeping an eye on this,” he wrote Mussolini the next day. “The miracle of the Marne of 1914 will not be repeated!”13

A very unpleasant day [Halder noted in his diary the evening of May 17]. The Fuehrer is terribly nervous. He is worried over his own success, will risk nothing and insists on restraining us. Puts forward the excuse that it is all because of his concern with the left flank … [He] has brought only bewilderment and doubts.

The Nazi warlord showed no improvement during the next day despite the avalanche of news about the French collapse. Halder recorded the crisis in his diary of the eighteenth:

The Fuehrer has an unaccountable worry about the south flank. He rages and screams that we are on the way to ruining the whole operation and that We are courting the danger of a defeat. He won’t have any part in continuing the drive westward, let alone southwest, and clings always to the idea of a thrust to the northwest. This is the subject of a most unpleasant dispute between the Fuehrer on the one side and Brauchitsch and me on the other.

General Jodl of OKW, for whom the Fuehrer was nearly always right, also noted the discord at the top.

Day of great tension [he wrote on the eighteenth]. The Commander in Chief of the Army [Brauchitsch] has not carried out the intention of building up as quickly as possible a new flanking position to the south … Brauchitsch and Halder are called immediately and ordered peremptorily to adopt the necessary measures immediately.

But Halder had been right; the French had no forces with which to stage a counterattack from the south. And though the panzer divisions, chafing at the bit as they were, received orders to do no more than proceed with “a reconnaissance in force” this was all they needed to press toward the Channel. By the morning of May 19 a mighty wedge of seven armored divisions, driving relentlessly westward north of the Somme River past the storied scenes of battle of the First World War, was only some fifty miles from the Channel. On the evening of May 20, to the surprise of Hitler’s headquarters, the 2nd Panzer Division reached Abbeville at the mouth of the Somme. The Belgians, the B.E.F. and three French armies were trapped.

Fuehrer is beside himself with joy [Jodl scribbled in his diary that night]. Talks in words of highest appreciation of the German Army and its leadership. Is working on the peace treaty, which shall express the tenor: return of territory robbed over the last 400 years from the German people, and of other values …

A special memorandum is in the files containing the emotion-choked words of the Fuehrer when receiving the telephone report from the Commander in Chief of the Army about the capture of Abbeville.

The only hope of the Allies to extricate themselves from this disastrous encirclement was for the armies in Belgium to immediately turn southwest, disengage themselves from the German Sixth Army attacking them there, fight their way across the German armored wedge that stretched across northern France to the sea and join up with fresh French forces pushing northward from the Somme. This was in fact what General Gamelin ordered on the morning of May 19, but he was replaced that evening by General Maxime Weygand, who immediately canceled the order. Weygand, who had a formidable military reputation gained in the First World War, wanted to confer first with the Allied commanders in Belgium before deciding what to do. As a result, three days were lost before Weygand came up with precisely the same plan as his predecessor. The delay proved costly. There were still forty French, British and Belgian battle-tested divisions in the north, and had they struck south across the thin armored German line on May 19 as Gamelin ordered, they might have succeeded in breaking through. By the time they moved, communications between the various national commands had become chaotic and the several Allied armies, hard pressed as they were, began to act at cross-purposes. At any rate, the Weygand plan existed only in the General’s mind; no French troops ever moved up from the Somme.

In the meantime the German High Command had thrown in all the infantry troops that could be rushed up to strengthen the armored gap and enlarge it. By May 24 Guderian’s tanks, driving up the Channel from Abbeville, had captured Boulogne and surrounded Calais, the two main ports, and reached Gravelines, some twenty miles down the coast from Dunkirk. The front in Belgium had moved southwestward as the Allies attempted to detach themselves there. By the 24th, then, the British, French and Belgian armies in the north were compressed into a relatively small triangle with its base along the Channel from Gravelines to Terneuzen and its apex at Valenciennes, some seventy miles inland. There was now no hope of breaking out of the trap. The only hope, and it seemed a slim one, was possible evacuation by sea from Dunkirk.

It was at this juncture, on May 24, that the German armor, now within sight of Dunkirk and poised along the Aa Canal between Gravelines and St.-Omer for the final kill, received a strange—and to the soldiers in the field inexplicable—order to halt their advance. It was the first of the German High Command’s major mistakes in World War II and became a subject of violent controversy, not only between the German generals themselves but among the military historians, as to who was responsible and why. We shall return to that question in a moment in the light of amass of material now available. Whatever the reasons for this stop order, it provided a miraculous reprieve to the Allies, and especially to the British, leading as it did to the miracle of Dunkirk. But it did not save the Belgians.

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