The 'Battle of Sedan' was fought between German and French troops within the 'Sichelschnitt' operation of the German 'Gelb' invasion of France (12/17 May 1940).
'Sichelschnitt' was the German offensive through the hilly and forested Ardennes, to punch through the Allied line and thus encircle the Allied armies in Belgium and north-eastern France as the German forces of Generaloberst Gerd von Rundstedt’s Heeresgruppe 'A' crossed the Meuse river with the intention of capturing Sedan and pushing to the west and then the north-west towards the coast of the English Channel, thereby trapping the Allied forces which were advancing eastwas into Belgium as part of the Allied 'Dyle' plan. Sedan is situated on the eastern bank of the Meuse river, and its seizure would give the Germans a base from which to take the Meuse bridges and cross the river. The German divisions could then advance across the open and undefended French countryside to the southern coast of the English Channel. On 12 May, Sedan was captured without resistance and the Germans defeated the French defences around Sedan. Luftwaffe bombing and low morale prevented the French defenders from destroying the bridgeheads. The Germans captured the Meuse river bridges at Sedan, so opening the way for them to pour forces across the river. On 14 May, British and French aircraft of the Royal Air Force and Armée de l’Air attempted jointly to destroy the bridges, but the Luftwaffe prevented them from doing so and in the resulting major air battles the Allies suffered high losses which radically depleted their bomber strength in the French campaign.
The French counterattacked the German bridgeheads from 15 to 17 May, but these counterattacks fell victim to delay and confusion. On 20 May, five days after consolidating their bridgeheads, German forces reached the English Channel coast. Crossing the Meuse had thus enabled the Germans to achieve the operational goal of 'Gelb' in encircling the strongest of the Allied armies, including General the Lord Gort’s British Expeditionary Force. The resulting battles of June destroyed the remaining French army as an effective fighting force and expelled the British from the continent, leading to the defeat of France.
On 10 May 1940, German forces invaded the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. In the Netherlands the Germans made steady progress, and by 12 May, formations and units of Generaloberst Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe 'B' were closing on Rotterdam and Amsterdam, while in central Belgium the Germans were approaching the Dyle river to the east of Brussels. In response to the invasions, Général d’Armée Gaston Henri Gustave Billotte’s 1er Groupe d’Armées, containing three French armies (Général d’Armée Henri Honoré Giraud’s 7ème Armée, Général d’Armée André Georges Corap’s 9ème Armée and Général d’Armée Georges Maurice Jean Blanchard’s 1ère Armée) and the British Expeditionary Force advanced to the Dyle river to form a solid front line as part of the 'Dyle' plan to halt the German advances in Belgium. However, the offensive by Heeresgruppe 'B' was in some respects a strategic diversion as the main thrust of 'Gelb' was to be 'Sichelschnitt' undertaken by Heeresgruppe 'A' through the Ardennes region of Luxembourg and southern Belgium. Once these lightly defended areas had been negotiated, General Heinz Guderian’s XIX Corps (mot.) was to strike into France at Sedan, whose capture would open the way for a German advance into the undefended depths of France and to the coast of the English Channel in the rear of the Allied mobile forces advancing into Belgium. The result would be a strategic-level encirclement.
For the offensive, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht allocated Heeresgruppe 'A' the more powerful concentration of German armour and motorised forces. Although Heeresgruppe 'B' was allocated 808 tanks, more than one-quarter of the total German tank strength, these were largely light tanks such as the PzKpfw I and PzKpfw II rather than the more modern and effective PzKpfw III medium and PzKpfw IV battle tanks. These heavier tanks were allocated to Heeresgruppe 'A' as this army group required the best machines with which to conduct the critical operation at Sedan. Heeresgruppe 'A' contained 1,753 tanks of the heavier types.
After World War I, the French general staff had ruled out the idea of a future German thrust through the Ardennes and Sedan sector. The French were certain such terrain could not be crossed by tanks. Maréchal de France Philippe Pétain described them as 'impenetrable', and Gamelin described them as 'Europe’s best tank obstacle'. The 'barrier' represented by the Ardennes and the Meuse river therefore appeared to be a sound strategic defence feature which no future enemy could penetrate or bypass. The French concluded that, at best, a German assault through the Ardennes towards Sedan would not reach the Meuse river for two weeks after the start of any offensive, and that it would require between five and nine days to penetrate just the Ardennes.
These initial French assessments became less credible in the light of military exercises carried out in 1938. That year, Général d’Armée André Gaston Prételat took command of manoeuvres which created a scenario in which the 'German' army launched an assault with seven divisions, including four motorised divisions and two tank brigades, and the 'French' side’s defences collapsed, and the result was 'a defeat of so comprehensive a nature that the wisdom of publishing it was questioned lest morale be damaged'. As late as March 1940, a French report to Gamelin named the defences at Sedan, the last 'fortified' position on the Meuse river, and the last before a westward attacker entered the open country of France, as 'wholly inadequate'. Prételat had correctly identified the landscape as relatively easy terrain for armour to cross, and he concluded that it would take the Germans no more than 60 hours to reach the Meuse river and then take them just a single day to cross this river barrier. This estimate was to prove inaccurate by a mere three hours, for the Germans achieved the Meuse river crossing after only 57 hours.
The French army authorised fresh attempts to increase the strength of the fortifications in the autumn of 1939, but severe winter weather prevented the pouring of concrete and the delivery of the necessary materials, and on 11 April 1940 , Général d’Armée Charles Léon Clément Huntziger, commander of the 2ème Armée, requested another four divisions to work on the defences but was refused. The French defences at Sedan were thus organically weak and had also been neglected. The French had long believed that the Germans would not attack through the Sedan sector as part of their concentrated effort, and only Général de Brigade Henri Lafontaine’s 55th Division, a 'Category B' formation, was allocated to this sector. The 'Ligne Maginot' defences ended 12.5 miles (20 km) to the east of Sedan at La Ferté, where Fort No. 505 constituted its most westerly position. Sedan was a part of the extended 'Ligne Maginot' which ran to the north behind the Meuse river. Between Sedan and La Ferté lay the Stenay gap, which was a stretch of unprotected terrain covered by neither French defences nor natural obstacles. This was the reason a significant number of French generals insisted on strengthening this sector, while ignoring Sedan itself.
As the French constructed further fortifications, Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft picked up the activity and reported it. The steep slopes on the banks of the Meuse river, added to what appeared in photographic reconnaissance imagery to be a formidable barrier of bunkers and defence lines, caused von Rundstedt to question Guderian’s wisdom in choosing Sedan as the Schwerpunkt (point of maximum effort) for his armoured formation. To identify how strong these fortifications really were, a team of photographic specialists was used to evaluate the pictures, and its analysis concluded that what appeared to be strong fortified positions were just the construction sites of half-built bunkers that were, to all intents and purposes, empty shells. The contribution of the specialists tilted the Sedan attack plan into Guderian’s favour.
Huntziger was happy to rely on 'concrete' to ensure the safety of Sedan as he rejected the idea that the Germans would attack through the Ardennes. The 2ème Armée used 1.8 million cu ft (52000 m³) of concrete to build fortifications along its front, but very little in the Sedan sector: only 42 bunkers protected the Sedan bridgeheads on the outbreak of war in September 1939 and a 61 more had been constructed by 10 May. by that date, however, most of these bunkers were incomplete, lacking gun port shutters for the artillery casemates. Some of the bunkers lacked rear doors, making them vulnerable to infiltration by infantry. To the north of Sedan, on the northern bend of the Meuse river, the town of Glaire overlooked the river’s crossing points, and it was to be here that the German armour delivered its heaviest blow. There was a gap of 1.25 miles (2 km) between Bunker No. 305 at Glaire and Bunker No. 211 next to the Pont Neuf bridge. This allowed an attacker coming from the north to use the good road routes through the axis from Fleigneux, St Menges and Glaire to enter Sedan from the north.
The defences at Sedan also lacked any mines. The 2ème Armée was holding a 43-mile (70-km) sector of the front, and but was allocated only 16,000 mines. Of that number, 7,000 went to the cavalry divisions intended to delay a German advance through southern Belgium as well as to blockhouse points along the Franco-Belgian border. Only 2,000 mines were allocated to the defence of the Meuse river, and of this small total the 55ème Division received a mere 422. Not all of these were laid, however, and some barriers were moved during the bunker construction in the Sedan sector.
As the Germans advanced through southern Belgium on 12 May, General Ewald von Kleist clashed with Guderian over where the main point of effort should fall. As commander of the Panzergruppe 'von Kleist', comprising General Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s XLI Corps (mot.) and Guderian’s XIX Corps (mot.), von Kleist was Guderian’s immediate superior and pressed for the main point to come at Flize, farther to the west than Sedan, arguing that the blow would avoid a double water crossing over the Meuse river at Sedan and then the Ardennes Canal to the west of Sedan. Moreover, such as blow would strike at the dividing line between the 9ème Armée and the 2ème Armée. Guderian demurred, pointing out that a thrust along the lines of von Kleist’s plan would put the flank of the advance within range of the fortress artillery at Charleville-Mézières, some 16 miles (25 km) to the north-west of Sedan. The shift of operations farther to the north would also disperse Schwerpunkt's concentration and disrupt the intense planning of the German tactical units, which had been training for some months specifically for the Sedan attack and an advance to the north-west. Guderian also believed that a regrouping period in front of Sedan would delay the assault for 24 hours and allow the French to bring up reinforcements. von Kleist agreed that such a delay was unacceptable, and thus agreed to Guderian’s plan.
While he accepted the folly of the Flize detour, von Kleist nevertheless insisted that the offensive concentration point should be made to the west of the Ardennes Canal, and confirmed this in a letter to Guderian on 18 April. When operations began, however, Guderian completely ignored von Kleist’s stricture. Guderian wanted a large 12.5-mile (20-km) bridgehead at Sedan and also the rapid occupation of Stonne and the high ground surrounding Sedan.
Guderian’s plan for 13 May was straightforward. The 2nd Panzerdivision in the north was to form the right flank of the assaulting force when it reached the Meuse river near Donchery. Reinforced by the Infanterieregiment 'Grossdeutschland', one battalion of assault engineers and the divisional artillery of the 10th Panzerdivision, the 2nd Panzerdivision was to make the main attack by crossing the Meuse river just to the north of Sedan and seizing the heights of la Marfée overlooking the city. The 10th Panzerdivision was to cross the Meuse river to the south of Sedan and protect the southern flank of the XIX Corps (mot.). Throughout the day, large numbers of men and equipment were massed to the north of the Meuse river in preparation for the river crossing.
Thus the German forces comprised the 1st Panzerdivision, 2nd Panzerdivision and 10th Panzerdivision. The 1st Panzerdivision, commanded by Generalmajor Friedrich Kirchner, had on strength 52 PzKpfw II, 98 PzKpfw III, 58 PzKpfw IV and 40 PzKpfw 35(t) tanks, as well as and eight SdKfz 265 Panzerbefehlswagen command vehicles. The 2nd Panzerdivision, commanded by Generalleutnant Rudolf Veiel, had to hand 45 PzKpfw I, 115 PzKpfw II, 59 PzKpfw III and 32 PzKpfw IV tanks, as well as 16 SdKfz 265 vehicles. The 10th Panzerdivision, commanded by Generalleutnant Ferdinand Schaal, had 44 PzKpfw I, 113 PzKpfw II, 58 PzKpfw III and 32 PzKpfw IV tanks, as well as 18 SdKfz 265 vehicles. In total, therefore, Guderian could muster 60,000 men, 771 tanks, 22,000 vehicles and 141 pieces of artillery, and could also call on the tactical support of 1,470 aircraft.
Part of Guderian’s problem was the lack of mobile artillery. He had no intention of halting the planned break-out in order to wait for additional artillery units to arrive for the assault on Sedan. Instead, Guderian requested maximum support from the Luftwaffe. For the first few days of the German invasion, the air force was to be used mostly in support of Heeresgruppe 'B' farther to the north, and most of the air support over Sedan was to be provided by General Hugo Sperrle’s Luftflotte III. Initially, only limited numbers of air units were to be used, but the Luftwaffe’s workload was greatly increased nearer the time of the battle. The Luftwaffe was now to commit General Ulrich Grauert’s I Fliegerkorps, General Bruno Loerzer’s II Fliegerkorps, General Robert Ritter von Greim’s V Fliegerkorps and General Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s VIII Fliegerkorps. These formations came from General Albert Kesselring’s Luftflotte II and Oberst Gerd von Massow’s Jagdfliegerführer 3 formations. The most significant of these formations and units was the VIII Fliegerkorps, nicknamed the Nahkampf-Fliegerkorps (Close Support Air Corps), which contained Sturzkampfgeschwader 77, a powerful grouping of dive-bomber units equipped with the Junkers Ju 87 single-engined ground-attack aeroplane. This potent air concentration totalled some 1,470 aircraft: 600 Heinkel He 111 and Junkers Ju 88 twin-engined medium bombers and Dornier Do 17 twin-engined light bombers, 250 Ju 87 dive-bombers, 500 Messerschmitt Bf 109 single-engined fighters and 120 Messerschmitt Bf 110 twin-engined heavy fighters.
In the Longwy, Sedan and Namur sector, where the Ardennes and the Meuse river meet, the 9ème Armée and the 2ème Armée for the most part comprised poor-quality divisions. Reinforcements were minimal, and those units were equipped with obsolete weapons. The resources at the disposal of the two 'Category B' divisions, the 55ème Division and later the 71ère Division that were to bear the brunt of the German attack, were both weak: they had almost no regular officers and they had not been accustomed to war conditions by being in contact with the Germans.
The 55ème Division guarding Sedan had little time for combat training as its time had been spent in construction work. The division consisted mainly of reservists, most of who were over the age of 30. Little attempt was made to improve the division’s poor combat capability: indeed, one junior officer of the 1/147ème Régiment d’Infanterie de Forteresse had been arrested and confined for 15 days for ordering firing practice with a 25-mm anti-tank gun in a nearby quarry. The division’s commander, Lafontaine placed greater faith in fortifications than in training as he believed it would compensate for his division’s weakness. The men of the division lacked the confidence and will to fight when the battle took place. The division’s organisation was also chaotic. Most units had been involved in construction work and had been shifted constantly to different tactical positions. Of the nine companies in position by 10 May, only a few had been holding their positions for even a few days, and were therefore unfamiliar with them. One of the premier infantry regiments, the 213ème Régiment d’Infanterie, was removed from the line altogether and replaced with the 331ère Régiment d’Infanterie. In some cases, infantry regiments comprised companies from several different battalions from different regiments: the 2/295ème Régiment d’Infanterie’s 6ème Compagnie, for example, had four different companies drawn from three different battalions belonging to three different regiments.
Such actions damaged the cohesion of even the units which were initially strong. The 147ème Régiment d’Infanterie de Forteresse was the backbone of the 55ème Division and was to occupy the bunker positions on the Meuse river and at the start of mobilisation possessed high morale and very good cohesion. Because of the constant changes in organisation, however, the unit’s battalions were 'torn apart again and again'.
To relieve the 55ème Division, the 71ère Division was ordered out of reserve and into the line. The presence of this latter formation shortened the front from 12.5 to 8.7 miles (20 to 14 km) along the Meuse river. This increased the density of the French fighting strength in the immediate area, but the move had been only partially completed by 10 May as it was scheduled to be completed on 13/14 May, three days after the German attack. Although the two divisions had 174 pieces of artillery, a total greater than that of the German forces opposing them, they had to share that strength between them, and both divisions were also short of anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns, which was to be a critical defect.
As noted above, the main problem confronting Guderian and his Sedan strategy was the inadequacy of his artillery support. Several batteries were stuck in traffic in the Ardennes and he could not rely solely on his Panzer divisions' artillery batteries. Therefore all depended on the support which could be supplied by the Luftwaffe. Sperrle had planned a conventional method of a brief bombardment before the ground forces moved in. After preparatory raids, the medium bombers and dive-bombers were to smash the French defences in a concentrated blow lasting 20 minutes. The raid was planned for 16.00 before the infantry started to cross the Meuse river. In collaboration with Guderian, however, the II Fliegerkorps developed the concept of the rolling raid, in which the concept of a single massed strike was abandoned and the German air units were to deliver small but continuous attacks throughout the day. It was believed that this operational method’s effect would be threefold: the French artillery would be eliminated, the effect of continuous raids would damage French morale, and smaller formations would be more systematic and accurate against point targets such as bunkers.
Unknown to Guderian, von Kleist had contacted Loerzer and banned Guderian’s proposed long systematic approach in favour of one big assault, and when Guderian objected von Kleist ignored him. Yet, on the following morning, Loerzer rejected von Kleist’s method and went ahead with the agreed rolling bombing as discussed with Guderian, and later claimed that the official order from Sperrle had arrived too late for changes to be effected.
By the fall of night on 12 May, the XIX Corps (mot.) had rolled into Sedan, and Guderian reported that there was no sign of the French. With the city itself secured, Guderian now had to strike to the south across the defended rear behind Sedan, which in turn was protected by a large bunker complex located on the Marfée ridge, an area of high ground covering Sedan and the Meuse river to the south. Guderian was now faced with three fundamental options: he could obey tactical necessity and protect the bridgeheads against a French counterattack from the south; he could strike west-south-west toward Paris; or he could carry out the dash to the coast of the English Channel. Remembering what Oberstleutnant Walther Wenck, the 1st Panzerdivision's chief of operations, saying 'Hit with your fists, don’t feel with your fingers!', Guderian opted for the last.
In the early hours of 13 May, the 10th Panzerdivision slipped into position upstream to the north-east of Sedan, ready to strike at its designated crossing point near the town of Wadelincourt. Downstream, the 2nd Panzerdivision moved into position to cross at Donchery. The 1st Panzerdivision prepared to strike at the Gaulier bridgehead, near Floing, in the centre of Sedan’s tactical front. It was on the northern bend of the Sedan-Meuse loop that the Luftwaffe was to make its maximum effort, between Gaulier and Wadelincourt. To supplement his air support, Guderian stripped most of his Panzer divisions of their organic artillery, which he then positioned directly opposite Gaulier. However, the artillery regiments lacked ammunition, so any sustained and damaging bombardment through shelling was impossible and it was the Luftwaffe which would have to deliver the main blow. Guderian reported that his corps had only 141 pieces of artillery against the French opposition’s 174 such pieces. To the north and south of Sedan, Général de Corps d’Armée Pierre Paul Jacques Gransard’s X Corps d’Armée and Général de Division Emmanuel Urbain Libaud’s XLI Corps d’Armée de Forteresse (at the artillery fortress at Charleville-Mézières) could also add their artillery strengths and shell Guderian’s Panzer units as they crossed into the bridgeheads. The slow advance of artillery units to the front added to the German numerical inferiority, which was now 1/3. Only in the afternoon did the German artillery make its appearance, but to little effect. The 2nd Panzerdivision was forced to attack without artillery support. For these reasons, Guderian had decided the outcome depended on the quality of air support, acting as flying artillery.
Sperrle’s III Luftflotte and Kesselring’s II Luftflotte executed the heaviest air bombardment the world had yet witnessed and the most intense by the Luftwaffe during the war. The Luftwaffe committed two Sturzkampfgeschwadern (dive bomber wings) to the assault, flying 300 sorties against French positions, with Oberst Günther Schwartzkopff’s StG 77 alone flying 201 sorties. A total of 3,940 sorties was flown by units of nine Kampfgeschwadern (bomber wings), often at Gruppe strength.
The aerial assault was planned to last the eight hours between 08.00 and 16.00. Loerzer and von Richthofen committed two Stuka units to the attack: Loerzer’s dive-bombers flew some 180 missions against Sedan’s bunkers while von Richthofen’s units managed 90. The nine Kampfgruppen of the II Fliegerkorps flew 900 sorties against the 360 sorties generated by the VIII Fliegerkorps. The latter formation’s total sortie count on the Meuse river front was 910 compared to the II Fliegerkorps' 1,770 sorties.
The Luftwaffe’s target was the Marfée heights behind Sedan to the south-west. These heights accommodated fortified artillery positions and dominated the approaches to the strategic and operational depths beyond Sedan and the Meuse river. The Luftwaffe was two hours late in appearing, but the effort made was considerable. The attacks were made in Gruppe (group) strength and against the line of maximum resistance along the French gun line. To restrict French movements and communications, German fighters swept the area to cut landlines and strafe fortifications, and some of the aircraft shot radio antennae off command posts. The attacks isolated the forward defence lines. StG 77 struck first in the morning of 13 May, and on a mere five hours some 500 dive-bomber sorties had been flown.
The Luftwaffe’s onslaught totally cowed the defenders, breaking them psychologically. The backbone of the defences, the gunners had abandoned their positions by the time the German ground assault began. The cost to the Luftwaffe was just six aircraft, of which three of which were Ju 87 machines.
The 55ème Division was wholly unprepared for such an attack. French soldiers commented on the massive psychological effect of the bombardment, in particular the wailing sirens of the Ju 87 dive-bombers. However, after the war, it was discovered that none of the bunkers had been destroyed by direct hits. Moreover, the French suffered just 56 casualties. Thus it was the indirect effect that did the damage. As noted above, bombing severed the telecommunications network, most of the cables having been laid in the open, and this paralysed the division’s communications, while the psychological damage crippled its defensive capacity. This latter was a major factor in the resulting 'panic of Bulson'. At about 19.00 on 13 May, a report by a French artillery observer was passed on incorrectly and thus there developed a rumour that German armour was approaching the village of Bulson. The false reports spread and the 55ème Division deserted its positions. German sources say that the first German tank in fact crossed the Meuse river only some 12 hours later. By the time the error was realised, most of the artillerymen and infantrymen had abandoned their heavy equipment.
The central ground assault was to be undertaken by the 1st Panzerdivision with the support of the Infanterieregiment 'Grossdeutschland' and the 43rd Sturmpionierbataillon (43rd Assault Engineer Battalion) as the 1st Panzerdivision had only a single organic infantry regiment. The Infanterieregiment 'Grossdeutschland' would be attached to the 1st Panzerdivision for the rest of the campaign, and was the first unit to breach the defences on Hill 247, the high ground dominating Gaulier. Much to its surprise, the regiment discovered that the Luftwaffe had failed to destroy the French bunkers. French small arms fire ensured that crossing the river at the Pont Neuf bridge could not be achieved in rubber assault boats as intended, and the regiment retreated. Reconnaissance found that one French bunker, No. 211, was still active. Its location guarded the bridgehead, making it dangerous for German infantry attempting a crossing. A platoon of German 75-mm (2.95-in) short-barrel infantry guns failed to knock it out, and an 88-mm (3.465-in) dual-purpose gun was therefore used to achieve the task. The gun was successful, but the crossing that followed failed as French machine gun fire arrived from another flanking position that had not been spotted. Once this had been taken by the 2/Infanterieregiment 'Grossdeutschland', the regiment’s other battalions crossed the river. Throughout the rest of the day, the regiment moved up and into the French defences, the 6th, 7th and 8th Kompanien of the 2/Infanterieregiment 'Grossdeutschland' gradually knocking out each bunker. Despite the fact that the other two battalions were checked farther to the south, by 20.00 the central Hill 247 had been taken. The Infanterieregiment 'Grossdeutschland' had now penetrated 5 miles (8 km) into the French defences.
On Hill 301, farther to the west, Oberst Hermann Balck’s 1st Schützenregiment of the 1st Panzerdivision had helped in taking the position by the fall of night. With help from two platoons of the 3rd Kompanie of the 43rd Sturmpionierbataillon, it had succeeded in knocking out the bunker positions. The regiment advanced slowly to the west and was able to see the 2nd Panzerdivision on the 1st Panzerdivision's extreme western flank, attacking the bunker position near Donchery. Several tanks were knocked out. The 1st Schützenregiment had crossed the boundary into the 2nd Panzerdivision's territory, and facilitated the 2nd Panzerdivision's passage by knocking out several bunkers on its eastern flank, and succeeded in cutting the road linking Donchery and Sedan. The infantry also knocked out most of the casemates in the area using flamethrower teams to destroy the bunkers whose infantry failed to surrender quickly. The last bunker surrendered at 22.40 on 13 May, and by that time elements of the 1st Panzerdivision and 2nd Panzerdivision had negotiated the Meuse river.
The 2nd Panzerdivision had been given the most difficult task. Its advance through the Ardennes trapped and delayed it in nearly 160 miles (250 km) of traffic and, as a result, the division was late in reaching Donchery, after the 1st Panzerdivision and 10th Panzerdivision had begun their assaults across the Meuse river. As a result of a combination of tardiness and the attacks of its sister units, the French defences were on full alert before the start of the 2nd Panzerdivision's offensive. Crossing at the extreme western end of the Sedan sector on the Donchery axis, the division had to advance across open terrain for the last 1.85 miles (3 km) before reaching the bridgehead. This meant that the division was subjected to fire from Donchery and the Bellevue castle’s 75-mm (2.95-in) artillery casemates, located slightly to the east of the town. Several tanks had boats attached to them to provide flotation as the vehicles were dragged across the river, but were soon knocked out. Most of the 174 pieces of artillery available to the French at Sedan were concentrated on the 2nd Panzerdivision's front, the majority of these weapons being located in the bunkers on the southern side of the Meuse-Donchery sector. Some of the 102ème Division d’Infanterie’s batteries also fired from the north-west at Charleville. The only way to respond was with howitzers, but the 2nd Panzerdivision had handed its heavy howitzers to the 1st Panzerdivision. Only 24 guns remained, and these did not arrive on the battlefield until 17.00: when they arrived, moreover, they had only had a very small quantity of ammunition as a result of the logistical tailback in the Ardennes.
All attempts to land on the southern side of the Meuse river failed. Fortunately for Guderian, the 1st Panzerdivision succeeded in crossing the Meuse in the centre, as noted above. Once its crossing had been completed, the division headed into the French right flank at Donchery, and some of its units cleared the Meuse river bend. Assault engineers and the 1st Panzerdivision neutralised the guns at Bellevue castle, and cleared the bunker positions along the Meuse river from the rear. The artillery fire falling on the 2nd Panzerdivision's eastern flank was thereby stopped. With the threat of artillery fire on its right flank removed, the units on the 2nd Panzerdivision's left flank crossed the river and infiltrated the French positions opposite Donchery at 20.00. Heavy French fire continued from the bunkers in front of Donchery on the southern side of the Meuse river, however. It was not until 22.20, in darkness, that regular ferrying missions enabled the reinforcement of the German bridgehead.
Like the 2nd Panzerdivision, the 10th Panzerdivision had detached its heavy artillery batteries to support neighbouring units, and was thus left with just 24 105-mm (4.13-in) medium howitzers which were, moreover, short of ammunition. The Luftwaffe had not helped the 10th Panzerdivision as most of its attacks had been delivered in support of the 1st Panzerdivision in the central sector. This meant none of the French artillery and machine gun positions in the area of Wadelincourt had been hit. Added to this, Général de Brigade Joseph Antoine Jacques Louis Baudet’s newly arrived 71ère Division and Général de Corps d’Armée Pierre Paul Jacques Gransard’s X Corps d’Armée in the Remilly-Aillicourt area prevented the 10th Panzerdivision from making quick progress. The division also had to advance some 655 to 875 yards (600 to 800 m) down to the river across ground that was both open and flat.
Near Bazeilles, the assaulting engineers and infantry had gathered to prepare the boats for the crossing of the Meuse river at Wadelincourt when a French artillery barrage destroyed 81 out of 96 rubber boats. The German attack plan had included an assault by both the 69th Infanterieregiment and 89th Infanterieregiment, but the loss of so many boats meant that only the 86th Infanterieregiment could undertake the crossing. The 69th Infanterieregiment was thus kept in reserve to follow the 86th Infanterieregiment as a reinforcement.
The 10th Panzerdivision's assaults failed all along the Meuse river front, their only success coming from an 11-man team (five engineers and six infantrymen) of the 2nd Kompanie of the 49th Panzerpionierbataillon (49th Panzer Engineer Battalion) under command of the 1/86th Infanterieregiment. Unsupported and acting on its own initiative, this small force created a decisive breach by knocking out seven bunker positions. Following units of the 1/86th Infanterieregiment had crossed by 21.00 and stormed the remaining bunkers on Hill 246, where the main French defence positions were located. By the end of the day, the bridgehead had been consolidated and the objective taken.
In the central sector, at Gaulier the Germans began moving 37-mm PaK 36 light anti-tank guns across the Meuse river to provide support to infantry across the river. By 01.00 on 14 May, a pontoon bridge had been erected over which SdKfz 222, SdKfz 232 and SdKfz 264 armoured cars began to cross into the bridgeheads. French reports spoke of German tanks crossing the bridges, but these reports were in error, as the first tanks crossed only at 07.20 on 14 May. Before this masses of trucks, armoured cars and other traffic had crossed the river.
The capture of Sedan and the expansion of the bridgeheads seriously alarmed the French, who called for a total effort against the bridgeheads at Sedan in order to isolate the three Panzer divisions. Billotte’s 1er Groupe d’Armées, whose right flank was pivoted on Sedan, urged that the bridges across the Meuse river be destroyed by air attack, Billotte himself being convinced that 'over them will pass either victory or defeat!'. Général de Corps Aérien Marcel Têtu, commander of air forces of the north-eastern theatre, ordered his squadrons to 'Concentrate everything on Sedan. Priority between Sedan and Houx is at 1,000,000 to 1.'
The RAF’s Nos 103 and 150 Squadrons of Air Vice Marshal P. H. L. Playfair’s Advanced Air Striking Force flew 10 sorties against the targets early in the morning, in the process suffering only one loss in a forced landing. Between 15.00 and 16.00, 71 British bombers took off escorted by Allied fighters. The impressive escort was more than offset by the presence of German fighter units that outnumbered the Allied escort fighters by 3/1. The RAF’s No. 71 Wing lost 10 Fairey Battle single-engined light bombers and five Bristol Blenheim twin-engined light bombers. No. 75 Wing lost between 14 and 18 Battle aircraft, and No. 76 Wing lost 11 Battle aircraft. Out of 71 bombers despatched, therefore, between 40 and 44 were lost, representing a loss rate of between 56 and 62%. The Advanced Air Striking Force also lost five Hawker Hurricane single-engined fighters. The Advanced Air Striking Force flew 81 sorties and lost 52% of its strength. The RAF’s No. 2 Group also contributed with 28 sorties. The bombing results were poor, with three bridges damaged and one possibly destroyed.
The French air forces under the command of Têtu’s Forces Aériennes de Cooperation du Front Nord-Est (Air Forces for Co-Operation on the North-Eastern Front) rarely supported the British efforts despite substantial reinforcements. They flew an average of only one mission per day, including strategic defensive missions. One of the reasons for this was heavy French bomber losses on the previous two days. During the 'Battle of Maastricht' in the Netherlands, the Groupements de Bombardement had suffered a major reduction of their squadrons: GB I/12 and II/12 now had only 13 Lioré et Olivier LeO 451 twin-engined medium bombers between them. The Groupement de Bombardement d’Assaut 18 had left to it only 12 of 25 Breguet Bre.693 twin-engined ground-attack aircraft. GB I/34 and II/34 could muster eight aircraft out of 22 Amiot 143 obsolete twin-engined medium bombers, GB I/38 seven out of 12, and GB II/38 six out of 11. All these groups were sent to Sedan on 14 May. Escort was provided by the Groupements de Chasse: GC III/7 with 12 Morane-Saulnier MS.406 single-engined fighters, 12 Bloch MB.152 single-engined fighters of GC I/8 and nine Dewoitine D.520 single-engined fighters of GC I/3 took part. GBA 18 was escorted by 15 MB.152 fighters of GC I/8. The missions cost the French five bombers, two to anti-aircraft fire. After this date, the French bomber forces were eliminated from the fight over Sedan. The major efforts were now made by the Advanced Air Striking Force.
The Allied bombers received mostly poor protection: only 93 fighter sorties, 60 of them by French aircraft, were flown, and the French lost 21 fighters. The German air defence was soon reinforced by Major Hans Hugo Witt’s Jagdgeschwader 26 'Schlageter' and Oberstleutnant Max Ibel’s JG 27. One of the premier German fighter units responsible for the Allies' heavy loss rate was Oberstleutnant Hans-Jürgen von Cramon-Taubadel’s JG 53 'Pik As', which later engaged French bombers which tried to succeed where the Advanced Air Striking Force had failed, but also failed as the attacks lacked co-ordination.
Along with fighter aircraft, the Germans had assembled powerful concentrations of anti-aircraft artillery in and around Sedan. The Flak battalions of the 1st Panzerdivision, 2nd Panzerdivision and 10th Panzerdivision numbered 303 anti-aircraft guns. This force was built around Oberstleutnant Walter von Hippel’s 102nd Flakregiment with its 88-mm (3.465-in) guns and lighter but faster-firing 37- and 20-mm weapons. So heavy was the German defensive fire that the Allied bombers could not concentrate over the target, which the Allied bomber pilots called the 'hell along the Meuse'. On 14 May, the Allies flew 250 sorties, the French losing 30 (another source states 21) and the British 20 fighters; 65 more aircraft were heavily damaged. Out of 109 British bombers despatched, 47 were shot down. This meant that 167 aircraft had been lost against one target. Loerzer called 14 May 'the day of the fighter'.
The German commanders, in particular Guderian, were relieved that the Luftwaffe had prevented the Allied bombers from knocking out their supply bridges. By the fall of night, at least 600 tanks, including those of the 2nd Panzerdivision which had to use the 1st Panzerdivision's bridge at Gaulier as its own had not yet been constructed, were across the river. The German victory in the air battle had been decisive.
The commander of the 2ème Armée, Huntziger was unconcerned by the capture of Sedan and the failure of the French defences under air assault. Huntziger expected considerable French reserves, particularly Gransard’s X Corps d’Armée, to stabilise the front, and the forces at Huntziger’s disposal were apparently formidable. Guderian’s decision to strike to the west left only the 10th Panzerdivision to protect the bridgehead. Against this force could be committed was Général de Corps d’Armée Jean Adolphe Louis Robert Flavigny’s XXI Corps d’Armée (single armoured, motorised infantry and light cavalry divisions, and one cavalry brigade); a second grouping, comprising one armoured and one light cavalry divisions, reinforced Flavigny. Gransard’s X Corps d’Armée, with two reconnaissance battalions, elements of one infantry division, one infantry regiment and one tank battalion, were also to join the attack. The French had nearly 300 tanks, with 138 Hotchkiss and Char B1-bis battle tanks.
The French tanks had heavier armour and better armament than the German tanks. The PzKpfw IV had 30 mm (1.18 in) of armour while the Hotchkiss had 45 mm (1.77 in) and the Char B1-bis 60 mm (2.26 in) of protection. Moreover, the Char B1-bis’s main armament, one 47-mm and one 75-mm (2.95-in) gun, outmatched that of all German tanks. In an open-field engagement, Guderian’s armour stood little chance, for two-thirds of his units were equipped with PzKpfw I and PzKpfw II light tanks, and in his order of battle were a mere 30 PzKpfw IV battle tanks. However, one crucial disadvantage of the French tanks was their low endurance: they had to be refuelled after just two hours' running. They were also slow, complicating their employment in high-tempo operations.
During 14 May, Lafontaine had moved command post of his 55ème Division from its original location on the Marfée heights to Bulson, some 6.2 to 6.8 miles (10 to 11 km) top the south of Sedan. The French had prepared, to a limited extent, for a German breakthrough at Sedan, and accordingly placed the X Corps d’Armée available for a counterattack. It was to occupy the Bulson position on the axis from Chéhéry to Haraucourt via Bulson and strike at the Meuse river bridgeheads. The terrain included heavily wooded areas, and the units left behind convinced Huntziger that these would be adequate for the retention of Bulson, and the Germans would not be able to exploit their tactical victory at Sedan on 14 May.
The Germans suffered a seven-hour delay in getting their armour across the river between 01.20 and 07.30, which could have been disastrous for the Panzer divisions. The French had already initiated plans for armoured counterattacks on the German bridgehead area during the night, but delays in bringing up their forces and hesitation on the part of the overall French command at the local level, exacerbated by erroneous intelligence reports and the confusion resulting the panic and retreat of the infantry, which had also abandoned its positions and artillery in the 'panic of Bulson', made an attack possible only in the morning of 14 May. The commander of X Corps d’Armée’s artillery, Colonel Poncelet, had tried to retain his units where they were but had then reluctantly ordered a retreat. This decision resulted in the corps' artillery battalions abandoning many pieces of heavy artillery and caused the collapse of the 55ème Division and a partial collapse of the 71ère Division. Poncelet committed suicide a few days later.
On 13/14 May, the Germans were vulnerable. A strong counterattack at this point by the French armoured units could have prevented Guderian from breaking out of the Meuse river bridgeheads and changed the outcome of the campaign. However, the French commanders, deeply schooled and versed in the defence-focused doctrine of methodological warfare, were located far to the rear, which meant they lacked any real-time picture of the battle. The French forces in the area were also hindered by mistaken intelligence reports, which suggested that German tanks had already crossed the Meuse river, several hours before the first such vehicles actually did so. Moreover, when intelligence did filter through to command elements, it was outdated. This was to prove fatal, especially when combined with the fact that the French generalship at large was expecting a considerably more prolonged process of the initial German assault phase.
The race to Bulson ridge began at 16.00 on 13 May. At 07.30 on 14 May, French armour advanced to Bulson ridge with a view to seizing the high ground vacated by the infantry of the 55ème Division on the previous day and, more importantly, to destroying the German bridgeheads. While that may have been possible on 13 May, the odds had shifted against the French by the following day.
The attack of the X Corps d’Armée involved a strike on the left flank by the 213ème Régiment d’Infanterie and the 7ème Bataillon Cuirassé, and on the right flank by the 205ème Régiment d’Infanterie and the 4ème Bataillon Cuirassé The right flanking force arrived late, so the 213ème Régiment d’Infanterie and the 7ème Bataillon Cuirassé advanced alone on the northern axis. It was thought that the 213ème Régiment d’Infanterie could reach an area in between Chéhéry and Bulson in 110 minutes and the 7ème Bataillon Cuirassé in 120 minutes, but it was not until 17 hours after the original order to advance that the leading French tanks reached the Bulson ridge to which, the French discovered, the Germans had beaten them by a few minutes.
Lafontaine had hesitated for more than 24 hours since the afternoon of 13 May. He spent hours reconnoitring the terrain, sometimes trying to contain and reason with fleeing infantrymen and artillerymen of the 55ème Division and 71ème Division, and travelling around the area to various regimental headquarters, looking for his corps commander, Gransard, who was out reconnoitring the terrain and for an order to attack, and meanwhile assessing and conferring with some local command personnel. As a result, Lafontaine also delayed issuing orders to the tactical attack units until 05.00 on 14 May, by which time the Germans had consolidated their bridgehead and the Panzer divisions' combined-arms teams were already advancing toward Bulson. Lafontaine had had a mission plan since 20.00 on 13 May to defeat the Germans and retake the Meuse river bridgeheads, but waited for the order to proceed with this task. Lafontaine’s need for an order was contrary to the practice of the Germans, who operated the tactically more efficient Auftragstaktik (mission command) system. Ultimately, Lafontaine squandered valuable hours essential for a potentially decisive counterattack effort.
The French had been offered an opportunity to throw the Germans back into the Meuse river, but missed this opportunity as a result of poor staff-work. The 1st Panzerdivision had struggled to advance as quickly as it would have liked, and was jammed on the roads leading from Gaulier and Sedan. Moreover, the German soldiers were exhausted after a five-day advance. A quick counterthrust by just two infantry regiments and two tank battalions could have 'plunged the Germans into crisis'. Even a failed attack, and the retention of Bulson, would have allowed this latter to be used by formations of the 2ème Armée and the tank units, including the 3ème Division Cuirassée, of Flavigny’s powerful XXI Corps d’Armée, which were moving up from the 'Ligne Maginot' area in the south.
Contributing to their problems, the French lacked tanks providing good mobility and designed for offensive service. French military doctrine dictated that the armour, mostly FCM36 light infantry tanks intended for defence-optimised infantry support, were to advance with the infantry. The FCM36 had therefore been designed to move at little more than the speed of the average infantrymen, so its maximum was only 15 mph (24 km/h). Thus it took from 07.30 to 08.45 on 14 May for the French armour to cover the 1.25 miles (2 km) to the ridge. Leading elements of the 1st Panzerdivision and 2nd Panzerdivision had reached the ridge just minutes earlier after moving 5.6 miles (9 km) in a shorter time. Even so, the initial clash was not in the Germans' favour: instead of making sure the PzKpfw III medium and PzKpfw IV battle tanks had priority in crossing the Meuse river, the Germans had sent only few of these vehicles across the river, and the van of the advance was based mostly on the faster, but poorly armed and lightly armoured, PzKpfw I and PzKpfw II light tanks.
The initial encounters took place even as the 'Battle of Hannut' was being fought in Belgium, and the results of the two battles were much the same. On the southern face of Bulson, Kirchner’s 1st Panzerdivision suffered several tactical reverses and saw the 37-mm projectiles of his PaK 36 anti-tank guns and PzKpfw III tanks bounce off the more heavily armoured French tanks. A number of the German tanks were knocked out in rapid succession, but the Germans had to hold the French at the ridge, and Kirchner was compelled to commit his tanks on a piecemeal basis, a tactic detested by Guderian but which he himself had to approve for lack of any alternative. It was once again the German tanks' radio equipment that enabled them to move around quickly and communicate with one another, to change the point of defence or attack quickly. The speed of the German tanks also enabled them to offset their inferiority in combat power to the French tanks. The few PzKpfw III and PzKpfw IV tanks could often speed into the rear of French formations, closing quickly and knocking out the French armour from the rear. The Germans noted the particular weakness of the French armour between the hull and the turret, which was vulnerable to the fire of the German guns.
Concealed in wooded areas, the French artillery proved more potent than the French tanks. One German tank company was destroyed by the French artillery, and pulled back with just one serviceable tank. The company retreated under the cover of part of the ridge, and moved its single tank back and forth, simulating the presence of many German tanks. Diverted from the success at Gaulier, near Sedan, another German tank company was rushed to the spot and managed to delay the French armoured advance until the belated arrival of the Infanterieregiment 'Grossdeutschland' tilted the scales in favour of the Germans by eliminating the French anti-tank lines and entrenched infantry.
On the left-hand side of the Bulson ridge, the Germans encountered 13 French tanks with infantry support near Chéhéry. The German advance was intended to strike at Connage, to the south of Chéhéry, in order to outflank the French. Kirchner reacted quickly, ordering the placement of two anti-tank platoons at Connage. The 37-mm guns struggled to halt the French armour, which then outflanked the position at Connage by moving to the west while the infantry advanced from the south-east on the German right flank. The 43rd Sturmpionierebataillon and the 8th Kompanie of the 2/2nd Panzerregiment then arrived and drove the French back to the town of Chémery-sur-Bar, some 3.1 miles (5 km) to the south-west of Bulson and due south of Connage.
At 10.45, Lafontaine ordered a retreat and Guderian finally received heavier artillery from the Infanterieregiment 'Grossdeutschland'. The 88-mm (3.465-in) dual-role anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns, and the heavier PzKpfw III and PzKpfw IV tanks, now reached the area of the battle. By this time, the 7ème Bataillon Cuirassé had been destroyed and the 213ème Régiment d’Infanterie had been devastated. There remained only 10 of the original 40 French tanks. In the two battles fought by the 7ème Bataillon Cuirassé on this day, the battalion had lost 10 of 13 tanks. Delays on the right flank meant the 205ème Régiment d’Infanterie and the 4ème Bataillon Cuirassé did not reach their start line until 10.45, by which time the battle on the left wing had been lost and further attacks on the right would have made little sense. The 1st Panzerdivision's victory parade was held in Chémery at 12.00, but it was cut short when the Luftwaffe bombed the square by mistake, inflicting a few casualties.
The German high command did not want to exploit the victory at Sedan and Bulson until the German infantry divisions had caught up with the three Panzer divisions. To Guderian, this was madness and would waste the victory at Sedan and allow the French time to recover and reorganise its still formidable armoured units. Guderian decided to push forward toward the English Channel, even if it meant ignoring the high command and Hitler himself. Guderian thus ordered the 10th Panzerdivision and the Infanterieregiment 'Grossdeutschland' to hold the Sedan bridgehead while the 1st Panzerdivision and 2nd Panzerdivision struck out to the north-west and the English Channel. Now that they were pushing largely at an 'open door', the 1st Panzerdivision and 2nd Panzerdivision advanced at speed into the undefended French rear.
The Sedan bridgeheads were still not securely under German control, however, and French forces were massing to the south. Given his corps' lack of anti-tank weapons suitable for a defensive battle, Guderian decided it was better to mount an aggressive defence. The advance of the 1st Panzerdivision and 2nd Panzerdivision had assisted his progress. They ran into and defeated elements of X Corps d’Armée near Chémery-sur-Bar. The French corps was moving toward Sedan, but withdrew to the south after the engagement, and thus any possible threat on the German western flank had been removed.
Part of Guderian’s original plan had called for a feint to the south toward and behind the 'Ligne Maginot' to mask his intention to thrust to the English Channel. General Franz Halder, the chief-of-staff of the Oberkommando des Heeres, had dropped this from 'Gelb', but Guderian resurrected it and ordered the 10th Panzerdivision and Infanterieregiment 'Grossdeutschland' to attack across the Stonne plateau. Here a hard-fought two-day battle took place in which the Germans came face to face with the premier French tank, the Char B1-bis, for the only time. One of these tanks proved invulnerable to German anti-tank fire despite being hit 140 times, and knocked out two PzKpfw IV and 11 PzKpfw III tanks, as well as a number of anti-tank guns. It transpired that the French had concentrated their own armour in this area to mount another attack on the Sedan bridgeheads, and the 'Battle of Stonne' took place between 15 and 17 May, a period in which the town changed hands 17 times. Ultimately the failure of the French to hold Stonne spelled the final failure to eliminate the Sedan bridgeheads.
The French offensive at Stonne was of vital importance as the town is located on high ground overlooking Sedan and in May 1940 the French could use it as a base from which to launch long-term attacks on Sedan. The battle began on 15 May. The French committed the 3ème Compagnie of the 49ème Bataillon Cuirassé, the 1ère Compagnie of the 45ème Bataillon Cuirassé, the 2ème Compagnie of the 4ème Bataillon Cuirassé, the 1/67ème Régiment d’Infanterie and the 1ère Compagnie of the 51ère Régiment d’Infanterie. The French infantry was slow in its advance, which meant that the armour outran it. Without infantry support, the tanks tried to attack and failed. At this time, Stonne was held only by the 1/Infanterieregiment 'Grossdeutschland' supported by only nine of the regiment’s 12 anti-tank guns. As the French pressed forward, the weak German defence struggled to hold its ground, but after one German platoon knocked out three Char B1-bis tanks, the crews of the French armour panicked and drove away to the south. It was a psychological victory for the Germans which encouraged their continued defence of the position. In the next attacks, they held their positions and fought. The town fell to each side over the next 48 hours as offensive followed counterattack. The 10th Panzerdivision sent its 1/69th Infanterieregiment to support the hard-pressed Infanterieregiment 'Grossdeutschland', and the Germans retook the town at 17.00 on 17 May for the fourth time in nine hours.
The Germans reinforced their defence on the night of 16 May with Generalmajor Walther Düvert’s VI Corps, comprising Generalmajor Heinrich Krampf’s 16th Division and Generalleutnant Justin von Obernitz’s 24th Division. This proved to be a timely deployment, for by this time the Infanterieregiment 'Grossdeutschland had lost 570 men and was in dire need of a rest, and the 14th Panzerjägerkompanie (14th Anti-Tank Company) had lost six of its 12 guns as well as 12 men killed and 65 wounded. Stonne was flattened. Around 33 French and 24 German tanks had been destroyed. Now reinforced, the Germans captured the town for the seventeenth and last time at 17.45 on 17 May.
The French defeat in the 'Battle of Sedan' left the Allies in Belgium with sparse right-flank protection: the limited Allied flank protection that was available was rapidly and handily defeated by the German forces in their driving and pressing offensive attacking thrust from their break-out at Sedan. The break-out was so fast that there was little fighting, and many French soldiers were taken prisoner before they could offer resistance, which also explains the low number of casualties suffered by each side. The two assault engineer battalions achieved the most important success: by eliminating the bunkers in the Bellevue sector, they opened the way for the breakthroughs of the 1st Panzerdivision and 2nd Panzerdivision, and this was achieved without loss.
Military historians agree that the 'Battle at Sedan' sealed the fate of Belgium and France for on 14 May the Allied forces had been wholly wrong-footed and through their deployment failures forfeited the campaign.
The subsequent German advance to the English Channel trapped 1.7 million Allied soldiers and resulted in the expulsion of the Allies from the mainland of western Europe. The bulk of the British army escaped from the port of Dunkirk in 'Dynamo', but the Allies had inevitably to abandon large quantities of weapons and equipment. The German encirclement destroyed the best units of the French army, resulting in 40,000 soldiers being taken prisoner, but 139,732 British and 139,037 French troops escaped. French and British forces were despatched from England and participated in the battles of June 1940, but the French armed forces ceased fighting on 25 June 1940, when the armistice of 22 June took effect.