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INSIDE TRACK ON WORLD NEWS
by international syndicated columnist & broadcaster Eric Margolis
THE MOST BRILLIANT BATTLE IN MODERN HISTORYCopyright: Eric S. Margolis, 2005
May 15, 2005
SEDAN, FRANCE – At 0430 am 10 May, 1940, General Heinz Guderian’s XIX Panzer Corps began a life and death race to cross Belgium’s vast Ardennes Forest and cross the Meuse River at Sedan before the French Army could react.
Thus began, 65 years ago this week, one of the most brilliant campaigns in military history.
Devised by Germany’s two greatest generals, Eric von Manstein and Heinz Guderian, Operation Sichelschnitt(sickle stroke) was to employ Germany’s new, highly mobile panzer units to strike France’s defenses at their weakest point – the hinge between the 2nd and 9th French Armies at Sedan, then drive to the Channel, divide, and destroy in detail the 88 Allied divisions in northern France and Belgium. Sedan was the scene of France’s crushing defeat in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War.
In a superb feat of logistics and movement control, the Wehrmacht managed to move the XIX and XLI Panzer Corps, roughly 90,000 men and thousands of vehicles, over the Ardennes’ narrow, rutted forest roads without creating history’s biggest traffic jam. French and British bombers were inexplicably unable to even delay this torrent of onrushing German troops.
Light Belgian and French cavalry units were swept aside. By night on 12 May, Panzer spearheads, including 7th Panzer Division, led by a still unknown general, Erwin Rommel, reached the Meuse.
Further north, near Maastricht, in one of the war’s most daring missions, German paracommandos of Koch Storm Detachment captured Belgium’s Eben Emael, Europe’s largest and most powerful fort, by landing in gliders atop the huge, underground work, then knocking out its cannon and turrets with a newly introduced secret weapon, shaped charge explosives. Fifteen intrepid Germans immobilized the 800-man garrison. This writer was fortunate enough to have been given a tour of the fort by one of its 1940 Belgian defenders.
The capture of Eben Emael wrong-footed the French-Belgian-British High Command, which had planned to use the mighty fort as a `point’d’apui,’ or strongpoint to anchor the planned forward deployment of the Allied armies to the Meuse River. The Allies were forced to give up this plan and concentrate instead further west on the Dyle River defense line.
This audacious attack further convinced France’s supreme commander, Gen. Maurice Gamelin and the British commander, Lord Gort, the main German offensive was coming through central Belgium, where their best divisions were deployed, not the Ardennes. German demonstrations in that sector, and raids by `Brandenburger’ commands – the Germans called it `waving the matador’s cape’ - further misled the Allied commanders as to the true axis of the German offensive. Allied air reconnaissance proved pathetically inept. However, France’s intelligence service, the `Deuxieme Bureau,’ accurately warned the maim German thrust would come through the Ardennes.
The Meuse crossings were guarded by Gen. Corap’s 2nd Army, a mixture of regular line units and weak, reserve `B divisions’ of older men. Ironically, Corap positioned his best divisions to defend the left flank of the Maginot Line, which the French believed was a primary German target, emplacing his weaker units further west around Sedan.
Ironically, these units, France’s poorest soldiers in the weak B divisions, were to face the elite of the German Wehrmacht. Contrary to popular belief, the Germans did not outflank the Maginot Line. The broke through the French field army and eventually took the Maginot Line ten days later from the rear.
It was France’s regular army, not the Line, that failed. The Maginot Line was never designed to do more than defend the iron and coal industry of northern Lorraine. Its unconquered forts were among the last French positions to surrender.
On 13 May, Guderian’s `sturmpionieren’ (elite combat engineers) and the legendary Lt. Col. Hermann Balck’s 1st Rifle Regiment, fought their way across the Meuse, established bridgeheads, and began to bring across tanks. The `sturmpionieren’s’ key role in the Sedan victory has rarely received the attention it deserves. Without their heroic bridge-building under heavy fire, the panzers would never have rolled into France.
Rommel’s units crossed the Meuse further north at Houx. The French were taken by surprise. Their powerful artillery was silenced and arriving infantry reinforcements scattered by incessant strafing and precision bombing by deadly Stukas from Gen. Wolfram von Richthofen’s VIIIth Fliegerkorps. French casemates along the river were silenced by infantry assaults and direct fire from tank and deadly 88mm anti-tank guns.
The French supreme commander, Gen. Gamelin, failed miserably to understand what was happening at Sedan. Indeed, poor communications were to play a major and lethal role in France’s defeat. The French high command was not even linked by telephone to major field formations, preferring to reply on motorcycle dispatch riders.
In 1940, French and British generals were preparing to refight World War I at a ponderous, leisurely pace, in effect, at walking speed.
The Germans, by contrast, were waging a new automotive war in which speed, movement and close air support replaced infantry frontal attacks backed by massed artillery. Germany’s panzer generals aimed to attack the enemy’s brain, rather than body, by piercing his lines then attacking his headquarters, rear echelons and supply units.
On 15 May, the great breakout from Sedan began. Instead of turning east to attack the Maginot Line, then defended by 400,000 French troops, Guderian wheeled west, driving a 35 km wedge between France’s 2nd and 9th Armies and again wrong-footing the French High Command.
The French and British, in spite of having more and better tanks than the Germans, were unable to redeploy their corps to the Sedan sector or move up reserves in time to plug the yawning gap in their lines through which the panzers surged. The Allies were drawn up in a long, brittle line that extended from the Swiss border to the Holland. Once the panzer fists had punched a way through this linear deployment, it was extremely difficult for the French Army to quickly redeploy divisions to the breakthrough areas.
Every time the French divisions sought to retreat and reform, they found Rommel’s and Guderian’s panzers behind them. Advancing French reinforcements were blocked by roads choked by millions of panicked refugees and incessant air attacks. French military morale at all levels fell disastrously.
Today, it is easy to mock the French for losing heart, but in the spring of 1940, their soldiers were facing weapons and military doctrines that had hitherto been unknown: attacks by massed armor; precision attacks by dive bombers; and tactics of rapid movement and deep penetration by an enemy equipped with good communications.
The unsung heroes of Sedan, German infantry, marched 40 kms daily to protect the sides of the expanding but fragile `Panzer Corridor’ that was sundering the northern and southern Allied armies like a dagger driven through soft butter.
By 23 May, D+13, Guderian’s tanks reached the Channel. The British escaped total destruction by retreating through Dunkirk, abandoning their French allies. The rapidly advancing Germans ground up one French division after another. After five weeks of brutal combat, France surrendered, stunned and overwhelmed by the ferocious German blitzkrieg.
As France lay dying, the vulture Benito Mussolini declared war in an effort to conquer Nice and Corsica. Southern France was defend only by 30,000 troops under Gen. Olry. Over 300,000 advancing Italian troops attacked the little-known southern arm of the Maginot Line. The Maginot forts crushed every Italian attack. The maxium Italian advance into France, at Menton, was 1.5 km.
Still, the Second Battle of Sedan it was a close-run thing. A single bombed bridge at Sedan or major traffic jam in the Ardennes could have delayed the German plan and given France time to redeploy. On these glorious spring days in May, 1940, the Germans seemed to have all the good luck while France had none.
At Sedan, the fortunes of war favored the bold. A year later, Adolf Hitler sent his magnificent army to destruction in the wastes of the Soviet Union.
To read previous columns by Mr. Margolis: Click here
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