Panzer Group Kleist and the
In the preceding World War, the Germans had tried in vain for four years to break through the French front. In May 1940 they succeeded after only four days. Panzer Group Kleist achieved the decisive breakthrough near Sedan. Its role in Operation SICHELSCHNITT (Sickle Cut) can be illustrated with the famous bullfight simile coined by Liddell Hart.3 He proposed that Army Group B in the north represented the matador’s red cloak that was intended to provoke the Allied expeditionary troops to rush into Belgium like a raging bull — right into the trap. Army Group A would strike the unprotected flank like a sword, the point of which was Panzer Group Kleist.
Panzer Group Kleist represented a novelty in military history. For the first time tanks were employed in an operational manner. Whereas in the Polish campaign tanks normally fought in a divisional framework — on a tactical level — here in France, five armored divisions were now combined into an operationally independent Panzer group. General Ewald von Kleist had to coordinate the attack of two panzer corps, supported by a motorized infantry corps. He commanded 1,200 battle tanks, which represented about half the German tank forces.4
The mission of Kleist’s panzer group was to “thrust through Luxembourg and southern Belgium [and to] gain the western bank of the Meuse River in a surprise attack.” During this operation, Panzer Corps Reinhardt was to operate in the area of Monthermé and Guderian’s panzer corps in the Sedan region. The right, or northern, flank was to be covered by the Panzer Corps Hoth, attached to Fourth Army.5
Speed and surprise were of decisive importance for the success of the operation. First, from the tactical perspective the panzer divisions would have to cross the Meuse River in a coup de main before the enemy could move his reserves to the river. Second, from the operational perspective, Panzer Group Kleist had to reach the rear of the enemy’s northern flank before the Allies saw through this deceptive maneuver. Otherwise, they might be able to withdraw their expeditionary force, which was now pouring to the northeast from the “Belgian trap.” However, according to the German operational concept, if a fast armored thrust successfully reached the Channel coast, all enemy forces north of the Somme River would be caught in a huge encirclement. Third, the Germans needed a quick decision — in the sense of the Schlieffen concept from a political- strategic standpoint. Similar to World War I, the Germans could not cope successfully with a protracted war against the Western Allies and their sea power, which gave them virtually inexhaustible raw material resources. The Blitzkrieg was a race against time because time worked against the Wehrmacht on the tactical, operational, and strategic levels. This plan, devised by General Erich von Manstein, was initially turned down by the German General Staff as too risky.
The time factor already had been taken into consideration with respect to the organizational structure of Army Group A. It consisted of two components: The Schnelle Truppen, or fast troops, were key armored and motorized divisions that would cross the Meuse River in a swift coup de main; the infantry armies, the second component, would trail behind on foot.
The Conduct of Operations
The chief of staff of Panzer Group Kleist stated prior to the start of the campaign, “If the success of an operation has ever depended on logistics, it is our operation.”6 The course of the Blitzkrieg was so fast-paced that mistakes made in the preparatory phase — especially in logistics — could hardly be corrected later. To ensure logistical success, the Panzer group was to carry most of its supplies. Three motor transport detachments, with a total capacity of 4,800 tons, were attached to the group to reinforce its organic logistic elements. Establishment of large fuel storage sites close to the border was also a key logistical consideration. Using an elaborate system of refueling by jerry cans, all vehicles carried their full loads of fuel when they crossed the border. As stated in the logistical after-action report, not a single crisis in logistics occurred between 10 May and the seizure of Calais that could not be handled with the resources of Kleist’s group.7
The Advance through the Ardennes (10–12 May)
Panzer Group Kleist had more than 41,000 vehicles. If all attached and organic units were strung out in column, it would stretch for 1,000 miles, or about the distance from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans. To traverse the Ardennes Mountains, this huge armada of vehicles had been granted only four march routes. This showed that several German general officers had no understanding of the Manstein and Guderian operational concepts. Perhaps they may even have rejected these concepts outright.
General Kleist planned for the employment of two corps abreast: Panzer Corps Reinhardt on the right, toward Monthermé, and Panzer Corps Guderian on the left, toward Sedan, with the Motorized Corps Wietersheim behind both. The commander of Army Group A, however, insisted on placing the three corps in echelon behind each other, with Guderian’s panzer corps’ forming the first echelon. Left unanswered was how Panzer Corps Reinhardt should reach Monthermé on time if Guderian’s convoys blocked the two northern march routes. This seemingly wrong decision of the army group command caused traffic chaos in the Ardennes.
To illustrate, by noon of 10 May Panzer Corps Guderian had already penetrated Belgian territory while the main body of General Reinhardt’s force was still east of the Rhine River. The Wietersheim Motorized Infantry Corps had not even left its assembly area near Marburg and Giessen. This development became even more dramatic on 11 May. General Kleist ordered the northern march route to be cleared for Reinhardt’s panzer corps. But the 2d Panzer Division jammed the woods of the Ardennes. In the evening Guderian’s 1st Panzer Division reached Bouillon, near the French border. General Reinhardt’s tanks, however, were still standing on German soil near the Luxembourg border.
On 12 May Guderian’s 1st and 10th Panzer Divisions pressed into the east-bank parts of Sedan. On the northern march route, however, chaotic traffic conditions evolved. From the right, contrary to orders, elements of the III Army Corps wedged amidst the 2d Panzer Division and stalled in the Ardennes. Nevertheless, the advance detachment of Reinhardt’s 6th Panzer Division successfully progressed through this mess to the French border near Monthermé. The convoys congesting the narrow Ardennes roads eventually extended all the way from the Rhine River to the Meuse River — 170 miles — and would have been a sitting duck for any enemy air forces.8
The Breakthrough at the Meuse Line
The Sedan sector presumably formed the weakest point of the French front line.9 But General Huntziger, commander-in-chief of the French
Second Army, thought a major German offensive on Sedan unlikely. He also believed he had enough time to deploy reserves in case of a German attack in this area. He had calculated that the Germans needed at least five days to cross the Ardennes. Undoubtedly he was still completely absorbed in the World War I operational tempo, and he reckoned with at least seven days for the preparations of the Meuse River crossing.10 In reality, Panzer Corps Guderian reached the Meuse River after just three days and conducted an immediate surprise attack on the fourth day.
The main problem was fire support. Guderian had only about 150 artillery pieces, with several batteries arriving belatedly from the Ardennes congestion. On the other side of the Meuse River, however, the French X Corps had some 350 pieces. Thus, everything depended on the German air force, the “vertical artillery” of the Blitzkrieg.
On 13 May Panzer Group Kleist was supported by almost 1,500 aircraft, the bulk concentrated in the Sedan sector.11 The employment of bombers and dive-bombers in rolling waves lasted the whole day and was intensified into a massive aerial attack shortly before the crossing. This massive aerial attack was the largest in military history at that time.12
The attack across the Meuse River began at 1600 hours. By 2000 hours the main line of resistance was penetrated. This breakthrough occurred at a place that had attained importance once before in Franco- German history. The Emperor Napoleon III surrendered to King William of Prussia at the Château Bellevue on 2 September 1870. Now, about 2300 hours, Hill 301 was taken. It was the very hill from which General Moltke had commanded the first battle of Sedan decades before. In the meantime the resistance of the French defenders had collapsed like a broken dam. The reason for this was not so much the violence of German arms but a dramatic development that is recorded in the history books as “the panic of Bulson.” About 1900 hours a report by an artillery observer was passed on incorrectly. Suddenly, there was a rumor that German tanks had already reached Bulson. This rumor spread like a grass fire, and eventually the French 55th Infantry Division had dissolved into a wave of personnel who took flight. On the next day the division had ceased to exist. When a parliamentary commission later tried to investigate this panic, some soldiers declared they had seen the attacking German tanks with their own eyes. German war diaries, however, say that the first German tank crossed the Meuse River twelve hours later. This mass delusion was therefore called a “phénomène d’hallucination collective.”
At Sedan, one of the strangest tank victories in history occurred. It repeatedly happened that tanks caused the enemy to take to flight without having fired a shot — simply by their physical presence. Here, however, they drove the enemy to seek refuge without even appearing. But in reality, it was not only the tanks but also the aircraft, above all the Stuka dive-
bombers, which caused this mass panic. The apparently endless “rolling operation” of the air force, aimed at the nerves of the defenders, was one of the greatest tactical surprises of the war. British and French sources say that the surprise effect was even greater than that of the first employment of tanks or the first gas attacks of World War I.13
On the morning of 14 May the first tank crossed the pontoon bridge at Gaulier. By afternoon about 570 tanks had been moved to the other bank of the Meuse River. This did not go unnoticed by the Allies, whose air forces conducted desperate though unsuccessful attacks to destroy the pontoon bridge. During the so-called air battle of Sedan, almost 100 of about 400 Allied bombers and fighters were shot down. Before the Allied air attacks, General Guderian had ordered the deployment of 303 air defense guns around the crossing site. They wrought havoc upon the Allied air fleets. Decisive for the disaster was also the fact that the Allied aircraft were split up into twenty-seven piecemeal attacks of mostly no more than 10–20 aircraft. The Allies did not succeed in concentrating several formations for a massive strike.14
At 1230 hours the 1st Panzer Division crossed the Ardennes Canal at Chémery. General Guderian now faced a most difficult dilemma: Follow tactical necessity and strengthen the bridgehead to the south, or exploit the enemy’s confusion and drive west toward the Channel coast with the bulk of his corps? Guderian decided in favor of the overall operational mission. Accordingly, he ordered the 1st and 2d Panzer Divisions to attack to the west with all available forces and proceed with utmost speed. Yet, until the arrival of the Motorized Corps Wietersheim, protection of the bridgehead for twenty-four hours depended solely on the 10th Panzer Division, supported by Infantry Regiment Grossdeutschland. Guderian thought he could take the risk because of the “slow and doctrinal” operational approach of the French leaders.15
French countermeasures were conducted without coordination and only by division-size forces. Only at Sedan was an operational counterattack attempted by the Group Flavigny. This group consisted of the 3d Armored, 3d Motorized Infantry, and 5th Light Cavalry Divisions. The counterstroke should have started in the morning of 14 May, when the 3d Armored Division reached the southern edge of the Bois du Mont Dieu. But instead of immediately attacking the weak bridgehead, the division wasted ten critical hours on servicing equipment in an assembly area. After those critical hours passed, General Flavigny reevaluated his decision to attack. He was worried by numerous alarming reports and decided on defense instead of attack. Accordingly, he distributed his tanks along a frontage of twelve miles, where he sealed all roads and bottlenecks with so-called corks. Each cork consisted of one heavy and two light tanks. When the attack was to be resumed the following morning, it became evident that it had been much easier to disperse the tanks than to concentrate
them again. Besides, it was not possible to recapture the key terrain that centered on the village of Stonne. General Flavigny finally canceled his order to attack. Thus, the only operational-level counteroffensive ended before it had really started.16
The British General Fuller made an interesting comparison. He called Operation SICKLE CUT the Second Battle of Sedan.17 The more famous battle of Sedan, the “Cannae of the nineteenth century,” had been fought in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War. It is indeed possible to draw a direct line of comparison from General Moltke’s double envelopment of 1870 to General Manstein’s single envelopment of 1940. In 1870 the linkup point of the two German armies that conducted the pincer move had been at Illy, only six miles away from Moltke’s 1870 observation post. The 1940 operation was a giant outflanking movement over about 250 miles. It extended in the shape of a sickle from the Luxembourg border to the Channel coast. While in 1870 a French army of 120,000 was successfully encircled at Sedan, this time almost 1.7 million Allied soldiers were caught in the SICKLE CUT trap. The entire northern flank, where the Allies had deployed their best divisions, had been amputated. In the destruction of these Allied forces — to quote General Franz Halder — Army Group B in the north represented the anvil and Army Group A in the south was the swinging sledgehammer. French and British military historians largely agree that the defeat of France was basically inevitable after the breakthrough at Sedan. This was the time it became apparent that the Allied troops had been operationally outmaneuvered because of their ill-advised deployment.18
Panzer Corps Reinhardt at Monthermé (13–15 May)
On 13 May at 1600 hours — simultaneous with the operation at Sedan — the air force shifted its attacks at Monthermé into depth. What followed now was not the all-out offensive of a Panzer Corps, but the coup de main of an infantry battalion task force. The main body of Panzer Corps Reinhardt was still stalled in the Ardennes because of the miscalculated deployment planning and the chaotic traffic jam that resulted. Nevertheless, a bridgehead was established on the western bank with the first crossing attempt. On 15 May the 6th Panzer Division broke through the main resistance line and advanced within a few hours into Montcornet, about thirty-five miles away. Thus, the operational miscalculation of the army group was compensated by the tactical flexibility of the intermediate and lower echelons of command. As was to become evident later, this advance forced the French leaders to split up the counterattack of their operational reserves.19
The Thrust through the Depth of France to the Channel Coast
The first phase of this operation had been completed in almost textbook fashion. So much so that the operations officer of the 1st Panzer Division adopted almost verbatim the exercise order he had elaborated on 21 March for a map exercise of Panzer Corps Guderian at Koblenz, which was used as a rehearsal for the operation.20 Now, after the panzer corps crossed the Meuse River, it became evident that no clear operational concept existed for the further employment of tanks. Most of the German generals from the start had seriously doubted that the crossing of the Meuse River at Sedan by a panzer corps attacking from the move stood any chance of success at all.
What follows will necessarily be illustrated by showing two battles — the one at the front, and the rear battle within the German leadership. This conflict between the “progressives” and the “traditionalists” was argued primarily in Panzer Group Kleist.21
This Blitzkrieg showed that the German panzer divisions had become too fast not only for the French, but also for the German operational commander. On the morning of 17 May near Montcornet, General Guderian was relieved of his command. After intense lobbying, he was reinstituted a few hours later. He had been charged with continuing his westward advance beyond an expressly ordered halt line. The fact was simply that Guderian had been advancing so fast that this halt order failed to reach him in time. However, it is true that Guderian continually disregarded General Kleist’s orders. Guderian was convinced he could better judge the military situation leading from the front.22
At the same time, another German Panzer commander, General Erwin Rommel, conducted a thrust on his own account, which earned his division the French nickname “la division fantôme” — the phantom division. The mission of his 7th Panzer Division, part of Hoth’s panzer corps, was to cover the right flank of Panzer Group Kleist. But Rommel attacked so vigorously that he was usually far ahead of his neighbors. For example, on the evening of 16 May his first tanks stood at the French- Belgian border. On the other side lay the fortifications of the so-called “extended Maginot Line.” Faced with this situation, Rommel did something typical of him. He opted not for a deliberate, but for a hasty attack. The French defenders were absolutely taken by surprise, and this hasty attack resulted in a successful breakthrough.
Another episode is a textbook example of the German system of Auftragstaktik, mission-oriented tactics. During the very moment of the hasty attack and breakthrough, Rommel’s radio communications with higher headquarters — Hoth’s panzer corps — had broken down. There simply were no orders as to how things should proceed, because none of
Rommel’s superiors had foreseen such a spectacular success. Traditionally, waiting for orders would have given the enemy the opportunity to consolidate a new defensive line. However, General Rommel decided to exploit the enemy’s confusion and press ahead with full momentum to ensure continued success. He was lucky, because the French 5th Infantry Division (Motorized) had set up its overnight bivouac on the road to Avesnes, leaving its vehicles neatly lined up along the roadsides. At this stage, Rommel’s tanks dashed right through them, firing to both sides with all guns. Within minutes the 5th Infantry Division (Motorized) disintegrated into a wave of refugees; they had been overrun literally in their sleep. But Rommel’s pace did not even slow that night. When he had reached Avesnes, he continued the assault pace by a sprint via Landrecies to Le Cateau. (See Map 8.) There, he stopped because of both ammunition and fuel shortages.
The success of this nighttime armored attack — contravening all doctrine and orders — was overwhelming. That night the French II Army Corps was shattered and disintegrated so that on 17 May, Rommel’s soldiers could take approximately 10,000 prisoners. Their own losses, on the other hand, amounted to fewer than thirty-six men.23
At dawn Rommel was himself surprised when he suddenly discovered that only his vanguard had followed his tempestuous surge. This force comprised only an armored regiment, reinforced by the motorcycle battalion and a reconnaissance battalion. The division’s main body, including the two rifle regiments, was still resting — literally — on Belgian soil. Radio contact had been interrupted, and nobody knew where General Rommel was located.
Thus, the 7th Panzer Division became a “phantom division,” not only for the French enemy, but also for the German general staff! That night Rommel and his tanks had vanished without a trace, making the Army high command extremely nervous. Even Hitler had one of his proverbial sleepless nights. But it was impossible to court-martial such a successful general. Instead Rommel was awarded the Knight’s Cross to the Iron Cross.24
Only a few generals, like Rommel, had quickly grasped the welcome possibilities offered by the new tank arm, provided it was employed with determination. To the contrary, many German generals regarded the tremendous successes of the panzer divisions with ever-increasing wariness; instead of being invigorated by the success, it seemed to paralyze them.25
During this phase, when the success of Operation SICKLE CUT was becoming increasingly evident, Hitler changed his opinion dramatically. General Halder, for example, noted this change in his diary entry of 17 May: “A rather unpleasant day. The Führer is extremely nervous. He is afraid of his own success, does not want to risk anything and therefore wants to stop us. The pretense is concern about the left flank!” On the
same subject, Halder wrote on 18 May: “The Führer has unreasonable fears for the southern flank. He rages and shouts that we are about to spoil the whole operation and to evoke the risk of defeat.”26
But the threat to the southern flank — which mesmerized Hitler — did not exist. This is demonstrated even by Winston Churchill’s memoir account. Alarmed by the German armored breakthrough at Sedan, on 16 May the Prime Minister flew to Paris, where the French commander in chief, General Gamelin, briefed him on the gloomy situation. Churchill then asked where the French operational reserves were located. In French, he asked: “Où est la masse de manoeuvre?” General Gamelin’s answer was shattering: only one word, “Aucune” — there was none.27 In fact, the core of the French operational reserves had been formed by four armored divisions whose operations developed into a sequence of escalating tragedies. The 1st Armored Division found itself caught in an encounter with Panzer Corps Hoth just when the heavy tanks had run out of fuel and were about to refill in an assembly area. The 2d Armored Division was on the way to the front, its tanks still partly loaded on trains, when Panzer Corps Reinhardt thrust right into the concentration area. The 3d Armored Division was, as discussed before, cheated out of its chance to counterattack at Sedan by the incompetence of its own commanders. And last, the 4th Armored Division was still in the process of being formed. Nevertheless
its commander, Colonel de Gaulle, conducted the first and only resolute armor attack at Montcornet on 17 May. The German Air Force reacted quickly and sealed this flank attack with its dive-bombers. So much for the operational reserve.
The employment of the German Luftwaffe can be divided into three phases. For the first three days, the Luftwaffe had primarily a counterair or air superiority mission. In the second phase, on 13 and 14 May — during the breakthrough at the Meuse line — the main effort was changed to close air support of the ground forces. In the third phase — the thrust toward the Channel coast — the major task was to seal off the left flank by interdiction.
On 20 May Panzer Corps Guderian reached Abbeville at the mouth of the Somme. However, the tanks had surged so far west that a gap between them and the trailing infantry divisions had opened. The Allies then decided on a pincer attack into the only 25-mile-wide corridor of Arras, to “chop off the head of the German tortoise,”28 quoting Winston Churchill. (Map 9) But the French Army was unable to mass sufficient forces quickly enough at the southern flank of the corridor to counterattack. Thus, on 21 May the British had to attack single-handed from the northern areas near Arras. This attack came to a halt after only a few miles in front of Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division.29 That same day Guderian’s Panzer Corps reached the Channel coast and cut off the Allied troops in the north from their rear area. Thus ended the first phase of the SICKLE CUT Plan.
Three conclusions may be drawn from this brief study. First, one of the fundamental causes of the Allied defeat was that their commanders could react to the operational challenge of the German tanks only on a tactical level. They were unable to concentrate their tank force, even though it was superior in quantity and quality, for an operational counterattack.
Second, this was the first instance of employment of tanks on an operational level, which was analogous to a leap in the dark. It was the first performance in military history without prior rehearsal. Exercises that could have served to test the new concept were out of the question simply for security reasons. But all deficiencies were more than compensated by the effect of surprise.
Third, the German surge of armored forces to the Channel coast led both to a climax of operational freedom of action and to its reversal when Hitler began to interfere increasingly with the control of military operations. The pace of operations in the Blitzkrieg was so rapid that the German panzer divisions not only outran the Allied commanders but even their own leaders. That proved the value of the principle of Auftragstaktik,
mission-oriented tactics. Determined leaders like Guderian or Rommel did not hesitate to take the initiative. They could, while leading from forward positions, react instantly to any enemy weakness. Then Adolf Hitler interfered. In view of the breathtaking speed of the operation, he finally lost his nerve and pulled the emergency brake. His most disastrous halt order was that of Dunkirk. With it he downgraded the strategic success that General Manstein had envisaged, to merely operational success.
Thus, going back to Schlieffen, no Cannae occurred in 1940. But even the capture of all 340,000 Allied soldiers who escaped from Dunkirk would not have meant the end of the war. Schlieffen and his successors were so thoroughly mesmerized by the envelopment at Cannae that they completely forgot that Hannibal had succeeded only on an operational level against the Roman power. The winners of Cannae were the losers of the Second Punic War. Similarly, the winners of the Blitzkrieg of 1940 at the operational level were to become the losers of World War II.
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