On the 10th May 1940, the Germans struck with simultaneous land and air assaults on neutral Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg. While German Army Group C made feint attacks on the Maginot Line, Army Group B under von Bock pressed into Holland and the central and western parts of Belgium, capturing vital bridges over the River Meuse (Maas) and the Albert Canal. The Allies misinterpreted this particular attack as the main assault and hurriedly sent their best divisions into Belgium to execute their Dyle - Breda defensive plan. This was to prove to be the decisive error in the whole of the battle. In fact, far to the south, the main thrust was being undertaken by Guderian's Army Group A, through the Ardennes Forest (Luxembourg and southern Belgium). This force of 44 divisions contained 7 out of the 10 Panzer (armoured) divisions available. The Panzer divisions were highly mobile and effective self-contained fighting units, possessing, tanks, motorised infantry, artillery and anti-tank components, engineer battalions and support functions. In addition, each unit had its own Luftwaffe (German air force) liaison officer, who was able to call in air strikes to deal with pockets of resistance. With the Allied commanders' eyes firmly fixed on developments in Belgium and with the Germans enjoying general air superiority over the battle zone, this highly mobile force made short work of the 'impenetrable' Ardennes Forest. Resistance from Belgian Chasseurs and French cavalry units in the area was swiftly swept aside. It is difficult to comprehend why the French generals ignored reconnaissance reports that major German armoured formations were on the move in this sector.

German engineers clear a barricade of trees in the Ardennes Forest to allow the panzers to pass.

By the 13th May, forward German units of Army Group A were set to force a crossing of the Meuse in the Sedan area, the bridges having been blown hours earlier. The defences here were incomplete and manned by the 55eme Infantry Division (part of the weak French 9th Army), largely made up of over-age reservists and with a limited cadre of regular officers. The Luftwaffe made more than 500 bomber sorties over this sector in the space of a few hours to soften up the French defences, prior to a major infantry assault using rubber boats. The 'shocked' defenders were quickly overcome and German casualties were remarkably light. French artillery was largely ineffective due to a shortage of ammunition and a lack of forward observation posts. The surviving French defenders broke and their disorganised retreat clogged roads leading to the rear, hampering French attempts at a counter-attack that evening. By midnight, three pontoon bridges had been constructed across the river and German medium tanks were reinforcing the assaulting infantry against any French counter-attack.

Likewise on the 13th, elements of Erwin Rommel's 7th Panzer Division forced a crossing of the Meuse using an old weir, which had not been blown up for fear of lowering the water level, so that the river could be forded. Fighting in the vicinity of this bridgehead and that of 6th Panzer Division was intense as French resistance stiffened.

Belgian horse-drawn artillery withdraw from the crumbling front.

On the 14th, the French and British air forces attempted to mount attacks on the pontoon bridges over the Meuse, but they suffered exceptionally high casualties due to intense flak and the dominant German fighters. German air superiority was key as they were able to reinforce their bridgeheads rapidly, whilst decimating French counter-attacking forces as they were being assembled. Leaving 10th Panzer Division and the Grossdeutschland Regiment to deal with French strongpoints at places like Stonne, the leading elements of the Panzer spearhead smashed through the French defences and into open country.

Exhausted German motorcyclists in France in May 1940.

When news of the breakout began to reach Paris, panic set in. On the morning of the 15th May, Paul Reynaud, the French Prime Minister, telephoned Churchill (who had taken over as British PM on the 10th) and said 'We are beaten, we have lost the battle'. Whilst Churchill initially had difficulty in coming to terms with this assessment, Reynaud knew that with the defensive line breached, the modest reserves available to him were unlikely to be able to derail the German offensive. The way was open for the Germans to sweep east and north-east to the sea, trapping the main Allied armies in Belgium. Over the next six days, 7th Panzer Division on the axis of  Dinant, Cambrai, and Lille and 1 st and 2nd Panzer on the line of Moncornet, St Quentin, Peronne and Amiens cut a swathe across northern France. Counter-attacks on these columns by French tanks in the Laon / Moncornet area and British tanks at Arras, were ultimately unsuccessful, with these units lacking co-ordinated infantry, artillery and air support. On the 16th, the Allies in Belgium began their withdrawal, which would ultimately end at Dunkirk. By May 20th, elements of 2nd Panzer Division had reached the coast near Noyelles; the race for the Channel ports was now on.


To read about Eben Emael, click here.

To read about German Tanks, click here.

To view a French Tank Corps Uniform, click here.

To view a Belgian Army Uniform, click here.

To view a Stokes Mortar box used by the French, click here

To read about Rolf Schluz, click here.

To read about Major Franklyn Rogers, click here.

To read more about the German invasion of the Netherlands, click here.

To read about Sergeant Ronald Johnson 12th Queen's Royal Lancers, please click here.

To read about Private L J S Turner 6345653 Queen's Own Royal West Kents, please click here.

To view the uniform of a French Officer of the Colonial Infantry in campaign dress, please click here.

To read about the role of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps, click here.

To read about the Rev Podmore, click here.

To view a Christmas Card sent by a member of the 6th Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment, click here.

To read about the Pacha Chicorei conspiracy theory, click here.

To return to main museum menu, click here.

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