by John Stinson
As a student of World War II, I have been fascinated by what is one of history’s greatest battles, the breakthrough that led to the fall of France in May 1940. Unlike the famous one- or two-day battles such as Waterloo, Antietam, and Gettysburg, there are no monuments or museums to this singular campaign; it is an event the western world would like to forget. But the absence of memorials is, itself, indicative of one thing: this was a battle of movement. I set out to retrace the steps of the soldiers and the tracks of the tanks in this campaign.
World War II began with the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. Although France and England declared war, they did nothing to help their eastern allies. After Poland fell, the “Phony War” left allied England and France, and Germany sitting quietly on their borders, with Belgium in between, hoping the Germans would leave them alone. The Maginot Line, a vast network of underground bunkers and blockhouses built between the two wars to protect France from German invaders, extended only to the southern border of Belgium, making that country all the more obvious as the invasion route. But Belgium suffered so terribly in World War I that it chose not to consider the inevitable.
The German plan was to attack through central and northern Belgium, as expected, while quietly sending a mobile Panzer corp through the southern Ardennes Forest of Luxembourg and southern Belgium in hopes of outflanking the main British and French armies–effectively going around the Maginot Line, instead of trying to go through it. The plan worked to perfection because the French thought the hilly and heavily wooded Ardennes was an unlikely line of attack, especially for tanks. Virtually unopposed, the Germans were able to reach the crucial line of the Meuse River, cross the lightly defended barrier, and move swiftly north to cut off the allied armies. The war in France was essentially over in a week, though the fighting continued for another month.
When Germany invaded on May 10, 1940, the allies advanced to planned positions in northern Belgium. This was exactly what Germany wanted. The news was all about the fighting to the north, but while attention was turned toward that battle line, the German Panzers led by Heinz Guderian unexpectedly arrived at Sedan on the Meuse, to the south.
Backtracking to the opening day, the most famous event in the northern region was the taking of Fort Eben Emael at the junction of the Albert Canal and Meuse River on the Belgium-Holland border. German glider specialists landed on top of the huge fort and neutralized it before the invading army arrived. Taking the fort was more spectacular than important–perhaps an example of Hitler’s uncanny feel for psychological warfare. World War II strategy called for bypassing such obstacles, but Eben Emael is testimony that Allied thinking was still mired in the previous war. They could not have expected the inventive mode of attack, and thus the 1,200 Allied forces inside were overwhelmed by 78 German invaders. The fort is still there, a huge rectangular structure with miles of tunnels. It lies only a few miles southwest of Maastricht, and is worth a visit, less for the fort itself than for the beautiful site.
As I traveled through the region, my attention was focused on the tank corps slipping through to the south. The Ardennes is hilly, forested, and chopped up with many streams, in other words easily defensible country. For this very reason, the French thought it was impassible for tanks. The French identified tanks with open country, overlooking that the Germans were merely using the Ardennes as an undefended highway.
The tank was invented during World War I and early models were cumbersome. Early tanks had a maximum speed of roughly 5 miles per hour and crossing a stream presented difficulties because of their weight; country bridges were often unable to support them. At the opening of the Second World War, German tanks were relatively light and emphasized mobility. Many French tanks were heavier and used largely in support of infantry, perhaps leading to the confusion about difficulty of passage. The British invented the idea of unified separate tank corps supported by mobile infantry, but only the Germans put the tactics to use. They tested independent use of tank divisions in Poland, but the French took little notice, even though success in Poland dictated similar tactics in France.
About half the Ardennes is in Luxembourg, which had only a ceremonial army. The French were informed by the local villagers and even had scouts in the area, but poor communications left Allied headquarters believing this German posturing was a minor event. The French commanders assumed it would take the German Panzers about 10 days to reach the Meuse. In fact, Guderian and his division made the trip in 3.
I began my excursion with a diversion to Bastogne, in southern Belgium, which gained notoriety in the Battle of the Bulge, four years later. This town has the usual tourist attractions–monuments and a war museum–and modern-day Bastogne continues to identify itself more with the war, than with anything else. Leaving Bastogne, I went south to Martelange on the Luxembourg-Belgium border, which the Germans reached on the first evening of their advance. I then took the road west to Neufchateau (Neufchateau also became well known in the Battle of the Bulge). Going east out of Neufchateau in the direction of the center of the German advance, I followed a narrow road along a stream–a road probably much the same today as in 1940. Despite the enticing lush, green landscape, this is rugged wooded country, and should have been easy to defend. Nevertheless, all the Germans had to do was drive off a few Belgian troops posted at occasional crossroads. Their target, as was mine, was Sedan, on the Meuse River.
The French state of mind is illustrated by their casual attitude toward manning a line they knew to be crucial. Part of the French mental block was the idea that rivers would stop tanks. Pontoon bridging for walking infantry, in use for centuries, requires only light equipment. The French discounted the ability of heavy trucks to carry tank-bridging equipment. Again, they had not allowed modern techniques to penetrate their World War I mentality. In particular, the French saw the Meuse River, approximately marking the western boundary of the Ardennes, as a major obstacle that would require considerable time to bridge, even though German tanks had already sprinted across larger rivers in Poland. French planning called for a minimum of 10 days to reach the Meuse based on the number of other rivers and streams that had to be crossed first.
The most important of the intervening rivers is the Semois. The Semois is a meandering river with tight, graceful curves, cutting through almost pristine forestland. This river now provides a place for many to relax on its banks, or play in its water, but at the time, it represented a major entryway into French territory. The Semois is no mere stream and at that point its bridges had been blown. However, the river is extremely shallow in many places, and a shallow ford with a firm bottom could be crossed without bridging. At other points the Semois is considerably wider and therefore even shallower. Driving along the river in the area where the tanks traversed revealed many good crossings adjacent to the road. German sport fisherman had picked out ahead of time the fords with the shallowest, sturdiest bottoms where the tanks could cross without getting bogged down in the river bed.
After searching for passable fords in the area, I continued west to the spectacular town of Bouillon, on the Semois, a convenient stopping point. The town sits in the river valley at a sweeping curve of the river, its centuries-old buildings (including the Castle of Bouillon–once occupied by Godfry V, leader of the first Crusade on Jerusalem) creeping up the steep banks on either side. Not far from the ancient fort is the justly named Panorama Hotel, where Heinz Guderian spent the night of May 12. Its spectacular view makes a visit worthwhile.
By the evening of May 12 (the third day) Guderian had reached the Meuse at Sedan with the main force. Sedan is only a short drive from Bouillon. Steep banks along much of the Meuse in this region means it is easily protected; Guderian headed for Sedan specifically because the countryside there is flat on both sides of the river, making a crossing more difficult to oppose.
Commanding the northernmost arm of Guderian’s Panzer corps–before he became an infamous figure in the war–Erwin Rommel’s division reached the Meuse, on the same day as Guderian, but roughly 40 miles to the north, just above Dinant. His route, unlike Guderian’s, did not go through undefended Luxembourg, and Rommel ran into more resistance. But the roads were better and Rommel, himself, was driven like no other division commander. When he reached the Meuse at Yvoir, the bridge had been blown. Rommel went up river (south) to find a crossing. Here, in an area with low river banks, he found an old weir, or low dam, between the shore and a small island at the little village of Houx. The weir extended to the western bank. Rommel promptly got troops across on top of the weir, under cover of darkness. It’s all there today, except that the old wooden dam has been replaced with steel and a foot bridge. As they reached the far side, history books describe the troopers as crouching under the bank fighting off French defenders, but in fact there are no steep sides here and the country to the west is reasonably flat. The next morning, several hundred yards upstream, Rommel strung a cable over the river capable of carrying pontoon-supported vehicles. After commandeering another division’s bridging equipment (his had been used farther back) a full pontoon bridge was laid a mile upstream, at Bouvinges, on May 14. Tanks were moved over the Meuse both here and at Sedan.
Finding remnants of those historic days is difficult. No monuments stand to the German invaders. The Auberge de Bouvinges, a small hotel between Houx and Bouvinges on the western bank, known for its excellent dining room, has pictures of Rommel’s crossing on its walls, but these are the sole artifacts I found of those famous events.
As a military historian, I was interested in why the French thought of the Meuse as a formidable barrier. Along much of its course, in this area, the banks are high and easily safeguarded, but there are low points, principally at Sedan, and it was at these that the Germans directed their attention. Sedan is in France, so the French had not been inhibited from building defenses, but the troops there were both second line and few in number. Reinforcements were slow coming up, because attention was directed to the north.
Guderian had forced a crossing by late in the afternoon of May 13, a mere day after his arrival, before the French could react. Lack of attention to Sedan is all the more remarkable, as the city is infamous in French-German military history as the place of Napoleon III’s defeat in 1870, after which the Germans marched into Paris.Sedan is an unattractive, small city. Some of the other crossing towns, such as Dinant and Namur (the target of the Bulge counterattack in 1944) make for better stops, but no matter where you are on the Meuse, the striking geographic feature for the military historian is the river’s narrowness. At Dinant (just south of Rommel’s crossing) and Sedan, the Meuse is only 100 yards wide. Stand on the river bank just below Sedan and imagine crossing under fire in a rubber raft. Frightening, to be sure, but not impossible, especially with a rain of fire behind the paddlers and the Stuka dive bombers, their sirens screaming, causing the French defenders to protect all sides. And at such close range, tank and machine guns firing from the east bank had a strong influence. The Germans were short of artillery, but were near enough that heavy artillery was not needed. The more the German feat is analyzed, the easier it is to understand, especially given French incompetence and defeatism.
The best account of the fall of France is Alistair Horne’s To Lose A Battle. The book sets the tone for the collapse by examining the French mentality resulting from World War I and conditions in France between the wars. Horne also wrote on the Verdun battle in World War I, in his book The Price of Glory. This induced me to drive on to Verdun, an hour and a half south of Sedan, where I found a clue to the French defeat in 1940.
Verdun is a medieval town steeped in military history–from the Treaty of Verdun in 843, which divided the vast empire of Charlemagne among his warring grandsons; to the bloody battle of 1916, in which an estimated 700,000 French and Germans lost their lives, so that no side clearly won; to the 1984 United Nations declaration of Verdun as an “International City of Peace.” Two principal forts defending Verdun still exist. One in particular, Douaumont, appears unconquerable as it dominates the surrounding terrain. However, not only did the Germans succeed in taking both forts, but the French retook them later (from the easier back side). The limitation of such strongholds under modern conditions would seem to have been demonstrated. Nonetheless, impressed by how long one of the forts held out, the French were encouraged to build the Maginot Line.
The monumental ossuary outside Verdun is striking for its deep sense of doom. This is a tomb, not a glorification of victory. The windows have plaque-like overhangs that give the appearance of tears. At the back, on a slightly lower level, is a chapel. The service being conducted while I was there befitted the utter gloom of the structure. In front is a large cemetery. Unlike the uplifting American cemeteries in
Monument outside Verdun
Europe, with beautiful crosses of white marble, the French crosses are made of concrete, left to crumble from lack of maintenance, casting a gray, desolate image.
The tone of Verdun comes from the appalling casualties in the great battle there. Mutiny surfaced late in the battle, and subsequently in other segments of the French army. The French suffered so terribly in the First World War that an unwillingness to face a similar fate a mere 22 years later is not surprising. Although German losses in World War I were severe, their land was never invaded. They were humiliated by the harsh terms of the Versailles Treaty without having been driven from the field of battle. They had the advantage of less suffering in that war, and they had the impetus for revenge. While, arguably, the French are to blame for the success of the 1940 invasion, and for allowing the Germans to rearm in the 1930s, millions of French casualties and devastation to the richest portion of the country in the first war accounts for the failure of 1940.
I found an uplifting sentiment in the American cemeteries in this and other regions. The Omaha Beach cemetery is the most often visited, but it is only one of many. There are more in this area than any other, for not only was the Battle of the Bulge here, but also the fierce fighting around Metz in the fall of 1944. The cemeteries are beautifully laid out and maintained. One of the most interesting was found by following a sign in a small village north of Verdun. After wandering in for miles through French farmland, I came to the cemetery, which had a different look from the others. It was carefully graded and formally laid out, whereas the distinguishing feature of the others was their informal rolling contours that fit the surrounding landscape. On inspecting the stones, I was surprised to find all the dates in 1918: World War I. This is rugged country, terrible for attack. Why did so many American lie here?
The answer is that the American Expeditionary Force refused to fight as integrated units with their allies because French and British commanders had thrown their men repeatedly at machine guns and shrapnel for small gains that were quickly lost because of the huge casualties. Insisting on a separate front, the Americans were naturally given one of the worst areas, under the assumption they could not possibly advance. In fact, they did advance. Some authorities think that the Germans gave up when they saw that the American civilian army really could fight. Looking around the Argonne countryside, having walked down the footpath of one of history’s greatest and most devastating battles, gives me pause, and makes me wonder how they succeeded so many years ago.