Operation Battle of Saumur

The 'Battle of Saumur' was a clash between German and French forces during the later stages of the German 'Rot' (iii) completion of the Battle of France during, in which officer cadets from the École de Cavalerie, at Saumur, under the command of Colonel Charles Michon, made a defensive stand along the Loire river at Saumur, Gennes and Montsoreau (18/20 June 1940).

For two days the École de Cavalerie, and other assorted units which had fallen back before the German advance, held off a German attack. Since the battle occurred after the message of 17 June by Maréchal de France Philippe Pétain, the French leader, which called for an end to fighting, the event is often considered one of the first acts of the French resistance movement.

In the first week of June 1940, in accordance with the instructions of Général d’Armée Maxime Weygand, the commander-in-chief of the French land forces, to delay German formations and units, Michon had issued contingency orders for the cadets to take up defensive positions along the southern bank of the Loire river, though he did not believe that there was any likelihood of the Germans reaching this river.

On 8/9 June there was a German air raid against Saumur railway station which killed three people. Another air raid at nearby Souzay took place on 13 June, on this same day Paris was declared an open city, and a meeting of the Anglo-French Supreme War Council, with Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the French prime minister Paul Reynaud, was taking place in Tours on the Loire river. On the following day the French government left Tours and fled to Bordeaux, and German troops entered Paris. On 15 June Reynaud resigned and Pétain was appointed as his successor. On the next morning, via the Spanish ambassador, Pétain asked Germany for a ceasefire and announced this fact over the radio.

The German troops advancing to the south and south-west across France into the area of Saumur were from Generalleutnant Kurt Feld’s 1st Kavalleriedivision, so the forthcoming 'Battle of Saumur' pitted graduates of the German cavalry school against cadets of the French cavalry school. The Germans had advanced at something between 45 and 60 miles (72.5 and 100 km) per day, and on 18 June the division had about 10,000 men in motorised, armoured car, artillery and standard divisional equipment units, whereas the French troops comprised 800 of the younger cadets who had joined the school only about three months earlier, older cadets having been assigned as officers on the fighting regiments. Also on hand were teachers who had not already joined their normal units, and any retreating men who could be collected to add to the defence.

One of the annual war games played by the cadets of the École de Cavalerie was to organise a defence along the Loire river, covering four bridges and a front of 25 miles (40 km). The French army manual required 80,000 men and several divisional artillery units to cover a 25-mile (40-km) front, but the students numbered just 780, although by 18 June they had acquired rifles, 10 old 25-mm cannon, 35 machine guns, three armoured cars of World War I vintage, four 81-mm (3.19-in) mortars, seven 60-mm (2.36-in) mortars and two 75-mm (2.95-in) pieces of artillery. By the time of the battle, through the acquisition of retreating soldiers (including 200 Algerian riflemen), 450 men from an armoured warfare training centre, and 210 men from the 1st Groupe Franc under Capitaine Robert de Neuchèze, which arrived with five Hotchkiss H.39 tanks and three Panhard 178 armoured cars, Michon had 2,190 men with which to face 10,000 German troops.

The front which Michin planned to hold comprised, to the west, the town of Gennes on the river’s southern bank, with double suspension bridges connecting the north via an island. The northern bank comprised a levée extending eastward for the whole of the 25-mile (40-km) front, behind which was a lower old flood plain. Small villages built into the cliffs of the river’s southern bank, overlooking the river and a number of islands in the river, occupied the 12.5 miles (20 km) to Saumur, which had another double bridge of stone via the Offard island, which measures 1,640 by 550 yards (1500 by 500 m), and was covered with buildings, overlooked by the mediaeval Château de Saumur. A railway line over a bridge just to the east of Saumur entered a tunnel into the cliffs on the southern bank. Some 12.5 miles (20 km) farther to the east, in an area dotted with small villages also built into the cliffs overlooking the river and more small islands, is the town of Montsoreau with a road bridge across the river.

The French made preparations for the destruction of the four bridges, which were being heavily used by refugees fleeing to the south. Sappers of the 6ème Régiment du Génie, based at Angers, arrived with lorry loads of explosives. Barricades were set up, and trenches and foxholes were dug. The students and troops were disposed as 'brigades' of around 20 students, four or five brigades constituting a 'troupe'. Each brigade had a specific task, some as static units and others held in reserve with transport so they could rush to any especially threatened sector. Each bridge was given one brigade, a section of skirmishers, a 25-mm cannon, two mortars and one heavy machine gun. Between each bridge were two troops. Communications were established on the basis of the civilian telephone system and some old radios. Unfortunately for the defenders, the water level had recently fallen, in the process revealing many sand banks and small islands.

Men and materials not required for the defence were evacuated to the south, as were 800 of the cavalry school’s horses together with their equipment. Refugees crossing the river were also sent farther to the south. A reconnaissance unit was sent to the north with instructions to locate the approaching German forces. The mayor of Saumur was not sure that the defence was appropriate as all towns with a population of more than 20,000 had been declared open and, now full of refugees, Saumur possibly qualified in numerical terms, but the army would countenance neither this nor allowing evacuation of the civilians. Pétain had received no reply from the Germans and sent a message contradicting a previous message, saying that France had not abandoned the struggle nor laid down its arms.  Saumur therefore prepared for a siege. At 21.00 on 18 June, a telephone call was received at the headquarters at Les Grandes Brises, 880 yards (800 m) to the east of the Château de Saumur, warning that the Germans were 12.5 miles (20 km) to the north of Saumur.

The leading elements of the 1st Kavalleriedivision, the only remaining horsed cavalry division in the German army, reached the river at Saumur just before 00.00 on 18 June with reconnaissance motorcycle units, followed by armoured cars. A 25-mm gun scored the first hit, and tis marked the start of the battle. The French blew the Pont Napoleon at Saumur just after 00.00, the Montsoreau bridge at 01.15, and the detonation of some 3,750 lb (1700 kg) of explosives destroyed the railway bridge to the east of Saumur at 03.00.

At dawn on 19 June, a German staff car approached the destroyed Saumur bridge and a German and French officer got out and approached the bridge under a white flag. For unexplained reasons, the French opened fire: the car was destroyed and the two officers were killed. The Germans now brought up artillery to bombard the town: 2,000 shells hit Saumur over the next two days. Several ancient buildings were destroyed and the civil population, after suffering a number of casualties, took to hiding in cellars and wine caves. Telephone lines to the headquarters were cut and, as it was too exposed to artillery fire, the headquarters was relocated during the evening some 1.85 miles (3 km) to the west to Auberge de Marsoleau, near the airfield. Fighting continued throughout the day, the cadets on the island firing at any targets which presented themselves. The 25-mm gun on the island scored nine more hits on armoured vehicles.

The morning of 20 June was strangely quiet, and after some cadets had crossed from the island to the north bank and found it deserted, it was assumed that the Germans had moved to the east or west to effect crossings elsewhere. Several French died on the north bank taking the battle to the Germans.

At Gennes, to the west of Saumur, there was no sign of German troops until 19 June, when their scouts arrived during the afternoon and early evening. As motorcyclists approached, the suspension bridge to the north of the island was blown. The 11th century church of St Eusèbe, on the high ground overlooking the bridge, was an excellent observation position and also a good site for another 25-mm cannon. At 20.00, 50 German carriers packed with assault troops arrived on the northern bank. Artillery began to bombard both the island and Gennes, destroying the tower of St Eusèbe and setting buildings in the town on fire. The Germans then attacked the island in rubber boats, but had been driven back by the cadets and Algerian riflemen by 00.00. Concerned that his charges might be damaged by another bombardment, an engineer without orders blew the southern bridge, isolating the troops on the island. The wounded had to be evacuated by boat.

Early in the morning of 20 June, reinforced and with more artillery, the Germans used rafts and boats to reach and overwhelm the few defenders on the island as their ammunition had run out, but they were unable to cross from the island to the river’s southern bank, which was still strongly defended by four units of cadets.

Moving down the river, the Germans looked for an alternative crossing point, identifying a gap that was only lightly held. Here, despite the arrival of more cadets who inflicted losses on the,, the Germans managed to establish a small bridgehead on the southern shore.

Moving farther to the west toward Angers, other German units managed to find a point at which they could force a crossing against a different French defending unit and captured the city of Angers.

While French reinforcements were approaching Gennes for an attempt to destroy the German bridgehead, the Germans established yet another bridgehead between Gennes and Saumur, and this threatened an assault on Saumur from the rear, and the reinforcements were diverted to this new threat.

The cadets at Gennes, supported by two tanks, were ordered to destroy the bridgehead west of them. By 15.00, the commander at Gennes was able to report that they had been successful and the left bank of the Loire was once more in French hands, but also that casualties had been high. The German losses around Gennes were between 200 and 300 men killed, wounded and taken prisoner,

To the east, at Montsoreau, after the bridge had been blown, it remained quiet until dawn on 20 June, when the Germans tried a 05.00 crossing between Montsoreau and Saumur: despite relatively heavy losses, the German managed to seize a foothold on the southern bank at Le Petit Puy, but were checked from advancing on Saumur by the cadets based around the railway viaduct. Three armoured cars patrolled the river road to the east of Saumur trying to keep the area clear of additional German reinforcements rowing across the river, and to drive them back.  It was not possible to eliminate the German bridgehead, however, as the Germans could shelter in the troglodyte houses in the cliff.

On the flat plateau some some 1,975 yards (1800 m) inland of the Loire river and cliffs, Aunis farm was the headquarters of troupe commander Capitaine de St-Blanquat and his troupe’s elements ordered to protect the gap between the railway bridge at Saumur and Montsoreau. When the Germans landed on the river’s southern bank, the unit realised it was in an excellent position to provide a defence that would block a German break-out, and quickly dug trenches. The position was equally important to the Germans, who launched artillery from positions to the north of the river using an aeroplane as a spotter. Outlying cadet units began to attack German mortar positions in the bridgehead that were firing on the farm, whose buildings caught fire, but suffered significant casualties in the process. French military infantry officer cadets from St Maixent had arrived early on 20 June and, initially ordered toward Gennes, were now diverted to the eastern sector and sent into a counterattack to relieve the pressure on Aunis farm, with the support of the five Hotchkiss tanks of the reserve. The fighting had lasted six hours, with part of the farm on fire and under artillery, mortar, and machine gun fire, and with several unsuccessful German assault, when at 13.00 the counterattack from the south was made. The German artillery barrage switched to the advancing cadets and tanks, knocking out two of the tanks. The remaining three tanks pulled back, but the infantry cadets managed to reach the farm, reinforcing the cavalry cadets. The farm’s cellar was full of wounded, a second barn caught fire, and the French decided to pull back to the south before they were surrounded. The Germans took the farm late in the afternoon. The Germans and their French prisoners then tended to the wounded and collected the dead of both sides in the farm’s fields.

Farther still to the east, the Germans had managed to make another crossing of the river toward Tours, and were advancing to the south and circling behind Saumur. A bridge at Port Boulet, which had not collapsed when its demolition charges were exploded, was well-defended but was captured at 00.00 on 20/21 June. The German commander gave ordered a disengagement from the Saumur fight as it was now easier to bypass the town than to continue against the stiff resistance and incur more heavy losses.

A national armistice had been agreed on 19 June, but it was on the afternoon of 20 July before the Germans gave instructions about where and when the armistice would be signed: the French delegation was to cross into German-held territory at Tours at 17.00 on 20 June. At 21.00 on this same day, with Tours to the east and Angers to the west in German hands and with orders to pull back, Michon decided that his cadets could no longer hold Saumur and pulled them back to the south.  The defenders were exhausted, but those that could made their way to the south, many by bicycle, to a rendezvous in the area just to the south of Fontevraud Abbey.

There is evidence that German officers, posing as Belgian civilian refugees, had shot two cadets on 20 June at Gennes; one of the Germans died later that day and was found with army dog tags under his shirt. A similar problem of spies was encountered at Montsoreau, where an empty house was discovered with a map marked with the defenders' positions, and two men in civilian clothing were found carrying signalling equipment on the southern bank.

Why the battle took place at all is something of a mystery. The cadets provided the moral backbone of the defence, and their decision to fight was probably the result of their refusal to accept the dishonour of simply retreating. The cadets were backed by other units and there were many instances of outstanding personal bravery despite the facts that the men knew it was only hours before the war in France would end, and they were heavily outnumbered and outgunned. Many German officers commented on the bravery of the French cadets. To the French public, the cadets' resistance formed a seed for the rebuilding of French honour: Général de Brigade Charles de Gaulle, the leader of the Free French movement, had made his appeal of 18 June and considered the action by the cadets to be the first act of resistance.

The Germans entered Saumur on the morning of 21 June as the cadets retreated, many of them burying their weapons before they were captured. Feldt, the German commander, praised the resistance of the cadets in his after-action report.

The Franco-German armistice was signed on 22 June at Compiègne.

Of the 560 cadets from Saumur, 79 were killed and 47 wounded, and in total the French lost 250 men killed or wounded. Two tanks were destroyed. The Germans lost 132 men killed and hundreds wounded, and seven armoured vehicles were destroyed.

The 218 students captured by the Germans were released in the following days instead of being interned. These cadets then marched to the south, in the heat of summer, covering 27 miles (43 km) on 4 July, 21.75 miles (35 km) on the next day as they passed St Maixent, and on 8 July arrived in sight of the armistice’s demarcation line. After cleaning their uniforms and polishing their boots they marched, singing, across the line to the French zone between lines of German soldiers standing at attention. They were later joined by other students as they managed to escape.

The school became Stalag 181, holding French prisoners of war from October 1940 until June 1942. During the war Saumur became a centre of resistance. Unable to capture some of the 'trouble makers', the German fined the town 500,000 francs. The bridges were repaired under German instruction, but in 1944 Allied bombers destroyed them again as part of their effort to isolate the Normandy battlefields of 'Overlord' by destroying all routes across the Loire river. Saumur was held by the Germans until liberated on 30 August by the US 3rd Army commanded by an ex-student of the school, Lieutenant General George S. Patton, who had studied there in 1912 under the command of the then Colonel Maxime Weygand.