During the eight days of war in May 1940 in the Netherlands, the French were the only ally that contributed substantially to the Dutch cause. The assessment of the French share in the battles on Dutch soil should be weighted irrespective of the fact whether it were particularly French or (also) Dutch objectives that they were fighting for. In the end it are the men in uniform that execute orders from the top and who put their lives on the line for a foreign nation, a foreign people. Weighing the French contribution one can only conclude that in relation to the southern theatre it was considerable, pointing at the events in the province of Zeeland, even more than substantial.
Yet there remains plenty to say when it comes to assessing the impact of the substantial French contribution as well as the strategic and tactical curiosities that went along with it.
We shall focus more on the total perception that on the specific events. Besides the peculiars of the Zeeland battle shall be addressed under the 'Zeeland section' that zooms in on the eight days of war in that province.
The pre-war perception
The French were the self proclaimed victorers of WWI. All nations that actually actively participated in WWI knew better, but the French themselves were pretty convinced that they had been the dominant force in the Entente to gain the upper hand that eventually forced Germany on its knees. The closest allies, like Great-Britain, Italy and the United States had a different opinion but they did realize that France had paid the highest price amongst them. The Netherlands were however very much impressed by the French military performance and were convinced that the French doctrine was leading.
That Dutch perception was hard to understand. First and farmost the Dutch sympathy had always been with the Germans. Not that the Dutch would have liked a new European order to come into place, but the historical band with Germany was strong whereas the band with France, Belgium and England was poor to very poor. Moreover, the Netherlands were much depending on trade with Germany too. It must have been quite obvious that the country that had fought Russia, France, Belgium, Italy, Great-Britain and finally the US too, must have had a mighty and strong army to have been able to stand ground for four consecutive years! Also the Prussian officer skills and the almost natural born warrior-spirit of the average German had left its footprints in the historical sand. There seems to be no reason why the Dutch top-brass suddenly admired the French Generals. But they did.
The Dutch looked up to the French army and considered the French interbellum strategy superior. Besides, the Versailles Treaty had crippled the German army beyond any genuine threat, with an army strength at one-third of the Dutch strength. The French on the other hand had their hands free and were the only former Entente nation to keep up their investments in the country defences. The magistic Maginot line was a world-wide attraction with the merits of the Chinese Wall. The vast French tank potential and artillery arsenals a iron sledgehammer that would slam every respective opponent to rubble wihtout a blink of an eye. Curiously enough though, it were not the French who published new tactical doctrines in the 1930's. It were Italians, Austrians, British, American and even some German publishers who started printing ideas about modern tactics that shifted the odds. The few French 'modernists' in the army, like Lieutenant-Colonel Charles de Gaulle, were consistently out-flanked by the ruling conservative class. The conceited attitude of the French WWI army top was starting to slam back in their faces. They had become so conceited that they turned a blind eye to the evidence of irreversibly upcoming new battle tactics and weapon-systems.
The Dutch were tight on the money, but once in a while promising young officers in navy and army received assignments to French staff-officer education, where they had to record their lessons and practises carefully sothat they would be able to bring the French military gospel to the Dutch staff school in the Hague upon their return. An amazing copy-paste doctrine. That solution cut two ways. First of all the Dutch needed not themselves to reinvent the wheel and secondly they were being taught by the army considered by the Dutch to be the European Champion in modern tactics.
These perceptions may indeed have kept the Dutch budget for officer education low, but it had one specific dark side. The senior Dutch officers were self-indoctrinated by the French doctrine as not only being the leading but also being the only answer to the numerous tactical queries of those days. It was only a small selection of officers that kept track of alternative military sources for feeding their anxiousness about tactical developments.
It was only two minutes to twelve when a very promising staff-officer was assigned to the German (general) staff school in Berlin. He experienced a totally different environment than he was used to. He realised that the German doctrine, which emphasized on the liberal principal of 'Auftragstaktik' , was significantly different from the Dutch and French doctrine [Bataille methodique] of strict hierarchic command structures with very little room for personal freedom of executing officers and NCO's. He also experienced the German tactics for assaults in force, delaying defensive manoeuvres, the extended combined arms doctrine and the emphasis on speed and manoeuvribility. Features that were totally new to the Dutch way of thinking as well as the French.
Even before his posting in 1938, this Dutch army Captain had been studying foreign tactics in international military papers. already mid 1930's he had published a paper about the force and power of armoured units and the vulnerability of light field units when it came to battling those armoured forces. He was opposed by many other publishers that were of the understanding that the days of the tank had been in the past, for modern fire-power of anti-tank guns would have countered the threat of the battle tank. This peculiar Dutch perception - mind you, of a nation that was totally oblivious as it came to modern warfare - was well received in political circles of course, for it meant that large investments in expensive tank-units appeared to be unnecessary.
The French themselves obviously had an ever growing internal struggle when the 1930's progressed. A growing force of younger officers, amongst whom Charles de Gaulle - believed in the essentials of a considerable mobile battle-force, an increased battle-tank component and an armoured infantry weapon to assist the heavier cavalry units. That was the opposide perception of the old school, that believed in tanks assisting infantry and the emphasis on mainly stationary defences. De Gaulle was not heard and considered a nuisance by many, although this had also to do with his sometimes lacking respect for senior officers. Although the resistance against the Gamelin circles was gradually growing, the French people and as such the French politicians stood firmly behind the WWI heroes, who after all had won the previous war for them and washed away the blame of 1870-1871.
The conventional French defence-politics, that had seen amazing funds for stationary defences like the vast Maginot complexes, remained largely unchanged. The bulk of the French army comprised foot-soldiers and light and medium tanks with inadequate guns, serving as protection to foot-infantry. Only the 7th Army - designated as the strategic reserve and moreover the main offensive force in case of counter-offenses - was well equipped with mobile and even mechanized units. It was the pride of the French army. It were men like Général Georges and De Gaulle who realized what a mistake was made to assign this modern French army to a dead corner of the war theatre.
One can ask oneself the question whether the Dutch indeed considered the mighty French army the leading force of Europe or that the French defensive doctrine was more than that. The Dutch had always relied on their water-masses for their defences. The French defence concept of stationary defences and a small mobile force as a quick reaction or counter-offensive force, was easily integrated in the Dutch defence policy. After all, the Dutch defence was envisaged behind the rivers and flooded area's anyway, and it was by far the cheapest solution to maintain that basic principle. The Dutch Light Brigade (later Division) was an excellent copy of the French 7th Army. The rest of the army needed not much of an overhaul to match the new French standard. Only some addtional fire-power like AT-guns and mortars, some howitzers and there we were. Up to date! And according to the leading doctrines too.
It is hard to predict what came first. The genuine believe in the dominant French doctrine or the convenient conclusion that the French doctrine better matched the very tight Dutch defence investments. Perhaps it was a bit of both. One way or the other, it had led to a firm believe in the power of the French army. The French were seen as the only ally that could really contribute to the Dutch defences and that were the most likely to come to aid in considerable force too.
10 May 1940
It had been late already when the French GQG had alerted the French (and BEF) army for the German invasion. Much time had been lost due to the odd decision not to lift the alert status on the 9th already, in pure disbelieve of the flow of reports that the German invasion was imminent. Gamelin had considered the leads not convincing enough and as such precious time was lost when the invasion did hit the Dutch and Belgian borders.
Around 0800 hrs Dutch time Gamelin ordered plan Dyle-Breda applicable. He had received firm confirmation that the Dutch resisted the German invasion and as such he did not consider to apply the more modest Dyle strategy. It meant that the 7th Army would hurry its way up North and that quick reaction forces were sent out to Luxembourg, the Ardennes, and the area west of the Meuze river. Tanks were loaded on trains and moved North too.
The French had set Dyle-Breda in motion. Without knowing it - or perhaps we should say without counting on it - they walked into a trap.
The Dutch had already decided in March 1940 that since the Belgian army refused to connect to the Peel-Raam line, and intelligence information from France confirmed that the French would not move eastwards of the line Tilburg - Turnhout, it would be to no evail to defend the Peel-Raamline in full force. General Winkelman decided to leave only a screen of troops behind and move the bulk of the army back into the Fortress Holland upon a German invasion. The French supreme commander knew this too. The Dutch attachee had informed his direct staff of this Dutch decision. It mattered little to the French plans, although they had hoped to find the Dutch beside them in full force. Gamelin was determined to be present on the left flank of the Belgian army and therefore he kept up his Dyle-Breda strategy as the most prominent strategy.
The developments on the battlefield on the first day should have warned Gamelin already that his Breda variant was in mortal danger. The Germans were close to a decisive penetration of both the Peel-Raamline and the Albert-canal defences. Would the Germans succeed in opening up this large wedge in the Dutch-Belgian defences, there would be nothing to stop them until the Tilburg-Turnhout line, of which the best part had yet to be formed by the French 7th Army itself! The German fortune was that their massive tank moves in the south had not been determined yet. The French therefore considered the Schlieffen/Moltke move - that they had anticipated - confirmed and the 7th Army exactly in the spot where it should be ...
Général Georges had already sent his worrying reports to Paris though, but in vain. Dyle-Breda stood firm and Gamelin was determined to execute it exactly as planned. The 7th Army continued to move North. Its spearheads already close to the Dutch-Belgian border and some units had even management to reach the Dutch province Zeeland already. The quick reaction forces would enter the room behind the two jeopardized defence lines on the 11th and the tanks - amongst which the best battle tank the French had [Somua] - would arrive on that very day too.
The Dutch had been reassured that the French would assist in recovering the Moerdijk bridges. This promise by Gamelin himself had been a huge relief to Winkelman who could then focus on retaking Waalhaven, that was seeing Germans flying in contineously. One may consider the Gamelin promise genuine in the morning of the 10th, but it is almost certain that Gamelin's perception changed within 24 hours or that Général Georges or Giraud acted in contradiction with the Gamelin instructions - if these were ever conveyed to both commanders anyway. Fact is that the French would not act like Gamelin's promise on the 10th. A matter that may be understandable, but that was not shared with the Dutch.
The second day
Already overnight the messages from the frontline seemed to shape an alarming status of the battlefield. Gamelin's fear for a quick German progression in front of the Dyle and KW-line appeared to be current. If the Belgian army would not be able to regain the control over the Northeastern Albert-Canal sector, the German forces would be able to widen the gap beyond recovery by the allies. Although Gamelin remained possitive about the chances to overcome the imminent threats, he failed to asses the situation in its genuine severity. All his units, even the quick reaction forces, were in the process of getting to their first or second rally points. None was in place yet. In order to get his forward forces into position, he required at least another 24 hours. He was positive that they would get that time. But would they?
In the early morning of the 11th both the Peel-Raamline and Albert-Canal defences crumbled. Large airforce contingents of Belgian, French and BAFF were thrown into the northeastern region in order to at least crush some of the river crossings to prevent the German army of pouring its units in through the large penetrations. Virtually all airforce attempts failed due to Luftwaffe supremacy over the sector. Some allied squadrons were utterly destroyed before even reaching the target area's. It was a carnage. Meanwhile the 7th Army was pushed in even a bigger hurry to man the Tilburg-Turnhout line, in order to outrun the German's to these positions. To their rear the main defences around Antwerp had to be shaped in full force. Yet, the signs were still imminent that the Schlieffen/Moltke strategy was leading.
On this second day the differences between the battlefield assessments amongst the allied commanders were remarkable already. In fact only Lord Gort of the BEF assessed the situation rather accurately, at least the necessity to get the allied troops in position as soon as possible. He ordered his divisions to proceed indiscriminately of anything and have speed prevail over safe marching distances between the units. His troops would largely outmarch the French neighbours as a result. The French held on to their strict daylight directives about save distances between the respective units. The Belgian Chief of Staff even considered that he had all the time of the world to take his troops back on the KW-line, and assessed the German time necessary to get the bulk of their army accross the Albert-Canal on four to five days! All allies considered the defensive screens in front of the Dyle and KW-line sufficient to slow the German spearheads down and gain a number of days yet.
When the Belgian command ordered the full retreat on the KW-line, with exception of defensive screens in front, the allies were still confident that all was save. The German plan fell in place like clockwork. The massive Luftwaffe presence up north, the huge army units massing west of the Meuze in Holland and Northern Belgium and the seemingly German persiverance to make progress in the Northern theatre. The allied forces were so much convinced of a Schlieffen/Moltke repetition, that the first air-recce reports of massive tank and armoured vehicle columns spotted in the Ardennes were dismissed as insignificant flank manoeuvres and decoy operations. Dyle-Breda stayed on.
During the second day the first larger units of the 7th Army arrived at Antwerp and the South of Holland. Contacts were made with Dutch and Belgian officers. In the early morning of the 11th the Dutch commander of the Brabant army [or - what was left of it] adjusted his defence plans according to French desires. A new improvised defence around Tilburg would be formed, to which the French would contribute with considerable forces. To the South of it tank squadrons and more cavalry units would extend the defences around Belgian Turnhout. It all seemed to be a feasible plan.
Meanwhile a French Général de Brigade [Mittelhauser] was sent to the Hague. He would be escorted by a squadron of heavy Panhard armoured cars. The German occupation of the Moerdijk bridge didn't seem to concern the French. But when push came to shuff, the French unit appeared to be all but decisive, wandered around for half a day in full sight of the German defences, that had all the time of the world to call in the Luftwaffe. When the French finally had made up their minds a full Luftwaffe Gruppe of bombers raided the French off. It was the first and last French attempt to regain the Moerdijk bridges, and it had mainly been given in by the orders from Paris to get a liaison officer into the Hague.
Apparently Giraud was not aware of the Gamelin promise to assist in retaking the Moerdijk bridges or Giraud considered the Moerdijk bridges not worth his while. He had received the news that the bulk of the Dutch army had moved out from the south back into the save confines of the Dutch main defences North of the main rivers. That Dutch decision cancelled the French objective to join up with Dutch forces. Why bother about retaking the Moerdijk bridges then? Giraud probably didn't care less, and most likely that perception would soon grow even bigger.
The third day
On the 12th of May it started to get more and more clear that the German army had a considerable force concentration North of the Dutch Belgian border. Air reconnaissance started to sculp a picture of the German strength. In the North it became apparent that considerable German forces were not only pushing along the Northside straight West, but German divisions were also acknowledged pouring over the Southern Dutch border. Général Giraud must have realised that he was opposing a large German force whereas his divisions had not managed to even form the most basic defences around Breda and Antwerp. The forward defence-line between Tilburg and Turnhout had failed to come into place and had to be moved back.
The status of the battlefield combined with the increasing awareness of the actual German strength in the North must have worried Giraud and Georges to the limit. Moerdijk shall not have been one of their worries, and as far as it was addressed to them or their chiefs-of-staff, the French must have considered a German occupied Moerdijk rather more than less favourable to their strategic situation. Closing the door on the Germans at Moerdijk would bring the entire German force into the field against them. If Moerdijk would be left to the Germans, they would at least push a considerable part of their force through that open door to deal with the Dutch. That would relief the French at least of some enemy units.
Elsewhere the German strategy started to unwrap too. Large tank formations were established in the central and southern Belgian sectors. In the vulnerable room south of the Dutch border a large tank battle unfolded around Hannuit [Hannut]. Spearheads of the German 4th Tank Division [35th Tank Regiment] were countered by French Hotchkiss and Somua tanks of the quick reaction forces. The German tanks were largely outclassed by the Somua units and suffered considerable losses. If it hadn't been for the Luftwaffe, the Germans would have been hit much harder. Unfortunately the Somua force had suffered a great deal from the large displacements of the previous days. It had caused considerably mechanical malfunctions that had thinned the lines. Those losses would start to contribute in the days to come. But after the first punishing clash the Germans retreated. It was a first modest success on the French side.
The tension along the Meuze river started to rise too. Especially around Dinant, where German attempts to cross the river were met by hesitant defenders. The appearance of German tanks did however still not trigger any alarming noises at the GQG.
Meanwhile a large allied summit was held in the Belgian city Bergen [Mons]. It was a French attempt to get more control over the Belgian and British troops.The French Général Bilotte was appointed supreme commander over the Belgian, French and BEF troops in the KW-line/Dyle line defences. Notwithstanding the new command structure arrangements it were the Belgians that were pushed in the corner by mainly the French. The French showed their discontent with the Belgian resistance and tried to convince the Belgian King and Chief-of-Staff to submit to French strategic command directives. The Belgian King though was not convinced that the French had his country's objectives high enough, and right he was. The French were only concerned with their own challenges. The summit at the 12th was another confirmation that the allies were not really united at all. The established German masses West of the Meuze were not even addressed in any significance. It was further proof that even on the third day of the invasion the cunning German strategy still worked.
The 13th of May
In the far North it had become clear that the initial plans for the wide arc defence of Antwerp had to be abolished. The German tank division had reached Moerdijk and their infantry units were deploying around Breda, that was evacuated by the French. Giraud ordered his troops to concentrate around the Scheld mouth and the Dutch province Zeeland. The French were constantly under attack by the Luftwaffe that was intensively roaming the skies in the operational sector of the 7th Army.
The allied chances in tank battle at Hannuit - that had brought the French some modest success on the previous day - started to tilt towards the German side. In concentrated attacks the Panzers attacked the scattered French formations. It was the first show of different battle-tank tactics between the Germans and the French. The German tactics prevailed. The Germans focussed their attack on the 3rd DLM that was virtually blown of the map. In particular the Hotchkiss tanks proved worthless in tank-battles. They were powerless against the German Pz.III and Pz.IV. The French battle tactics failed dramatically. The Germans by-passed the vast tank force of the 2nd DLM and outflanked many of the 3rd DLM forces that had formed a linear defence with squadron strength tank-formations. Notwithstanding the German success also they had received some food for thought. Their losses had been staggering, especially against the Somua tanks that had been able to rip-open the Pz.III and Pz.IV like it were tin cans. In the end the French lost 105 tanks [75 Hotchkiss, 30 Somua] but the Germans lost no less than 160 tanks themselves. The Germans soon recognized that the French remnants fell back in an unorderly fashion, which had the Germans decide to immediately follow-up on the battle. They would not leave the tension off of the French, which posed the large danger that the Dyle line would be penetrated along with the French mechanized retreat if no efficient counter-measures would be taken.
The KW- and Dyle-line had been occupied by the envisaged troops. The Belgian army had almost 8 divisions in the northern sector, the BEF had arrived in the Wavre region and on their right flank the strong 1st French Army had seen its bulk force come into place. The 9th French Army connected the Dyle line to their 2nd Army that held the critical region between Sedan and the northeastern extremity of the Maginotline. In the region of the French 9th and 2nd Army the German pressure had grown dramatically though. The frontline between Dinant and Sedan was hammered by German artillery and Luftwaffe assault planes and German tank units tried to cross the Meuze. In the morning of the 13th elements of two German tank divisions managed to set foot on the east-bank of the Meuze around Dinant. During the day the German penetration would be widened and reinforced.
At Sedan the situation was possibly even more dangerous. General Heinz Guderian operated in this sector with no less than three tank divisions. Besides the tank force the Luftwaffe had assigned the bulk of its tactical airforce to this theatre. The battle for Sedan started without the knowlegde of the GQG. Sedan was defended by two French divisions of the B-type. On the French side nobody had expected a large scale German attack in this region. North of Sedan at St. Menges the Meuze river showed an odd meander. That portion of the defences had been carefully studied by the Germans and proven them that it was a weak spot that lacked the extensive bunker-reinforcements the balance of the line did have. The Germans divided the three tank divisions over the narrow frontline. Two were to attack on either side of the meander North of Sedan, whereas the third division would assault south of Sedan. It would all happen in a ten kilometre wide sector around Sedan.
On the 13th a massive Luftwaffe offensive was opened to the Sedan region. Hundreds of assault planes unloaded over the French trenches, artillery positions and bunkers. It would create a massive panic amongst the French troops. Overnight the first crossings of the river would be initiated.
This fourth day of the war in the West showed the irrational defence strategy the French had clung too. Gamelin still tried to manage the events in perception of a battle that he regarded the preliminary phase to an upcoming stationary defence in the heart of Belgium (after which he was positive to be able to recover the weak spots in the defences). The French GQG didn't realize that they had only seen the beginning of it all. Only 24 hours later they would become aware that they had been wrong all along.
The fifth day
Had the 13th been a day that the allies had grown a little worried about the German progress in the North and the threats along the Meuze front, the fifth day would see their worries grow beyond moderate level.
The battles in the sector Dinant - Sedan developped dramatically. The Germans managed to increase the bridgehead at Dinant and at Sedan the defences had started to crumble from ever lasting air raids. The French troops yielded and the Germans managed to cross the river in force. A light French counter action by a tank brigade was countered by German AT guns and Luftwaffe actions as well as some forward German tank squadrons.
The news of these German successes only reached the French GQG with a considerable delay. Since they had to organise new units to seal off German penetrations in the jeopardized sector, the lost time was hard felt. But on the other hand - again - the French had missed out on the merits of the German strategy. When overnight it had become clear that considerable tank formations had crossed the Ardennes woods, the French had been surprised but had relied on the inpregnable character of the Meuze defences in the rough terrain between Dinant and Sedan. A bizarre flaw in reading the German capacity. The constant underestimates of the German plans and moreover the German tactics and capacity continued to occur. These human flaws caused the majority of command and control failures that were yet to follow.
The instruction to take the bulk of the 7th French Army back from the north came way too late. The entire Army was trapped in the north and would be decimated in the days to come. The Dyle-Breda strategy had been maintained too long. The repercutions would be devastating.
At the KW-line - the allied defences between Antwerp and Wavre - the Germans started to tie the opponent. A fierce battle unfolded around the city of Leuven. Belgian and British forces rejected two German divisions in hard battles. A massive artillery duel, that involved over four-hundred guns in total, had memories of WWI reoccur in the minds of older soldiers and civilians. The British 3rd Division distinguished itself substantially during the battle. A brief German success was effectively countered by these British professionals. The next day the British would again successfully counter local German gains. The lines held .. for a while.
Meanwhile the allies were still bringing in forces to the central front, unaware of the giant threat of a German break-out from the Sedan region. The fact that the central front held notwithstanding considerable German pressure, was seen as a first sign of stabilization. The allies saw their basic strategy work or they thought. That perception would not survive very long though.
The Dutch army stretched the arms and although it had been no surprise that the isolated Dutch would have to yield rather sooner than later, the capitulation had not been expected this soon. It posed the allies with the matter of the extra available German units from the Dutch front, amongst which a tank division.
In Zeeland two French divisions had been caught. The considerable 7th Army forces North of Antwerp were ordered to retreat from Dutch soil, which they did in such a disorder that they left high material losses to the weak German forces on their tail. Only one German SS brigade, lacking any tanks and only supported by one artillery battalion, managed to chase of a far superior French force including a squadron of tanks. Many tanks, armoured cars, light artillery and other material was left behind when a hasty retreat was set in. The Germans were amazed but gladly accepted the French gifts.
15-18 May 1940
Between the 15th and 17th of May the fate of the allied defence was sealed. On the 14th Giraud and Georges had already realized that their positions had worsenend and that the chances of gaining the upperhand again had diminished. Their supreme commander Gamelin needed yet another day to come to the same conclusion. Only on the 15th, when it became apparent that a massive German tank force was crossing the Meuze at Sedan, Gamelin started to become aware that he had walked into a giant trap of misleading strategy. The first counter measures had failed and as such a huge challenge faced the French GQG. If they would not be able to seal off the German bulge West of the Meuze, the entire allied defence would be in mortal danger.
In the North it had become apparent that all was lost. The French troops in Zeeland were defeated without putting up much of a fight. Around Antwerp more and more ground was lost to the Germans and although the Belgian army made quite an impression standing its ground the French were more occupied with saving the 7th Army. At the 18th the Germans had pushed so deep into Belgian territory that Antwerp had already been given up.
A French counter assault by the 1e DCR [battle tank division] against the north of the Meuze penetration failed against the forces of the German 5th and 7th Tank Divisions. The heavy battle tanks on the French side were not supported by infantry and that costed them darely, when German AT traps picked out tank after tank.
The French command were still unaware that the German emphasis was on a giant push towards the Northsea coast. They first appreciated the German tank push as an attempt to outflank the Maginot line. That's why major French forces were positioned to the south of the German penetration, but not with the objective to counter the Germans in the flank but simply closing the open flank of the Maginot-line! Général Georges only learnt of this decision in the morning of the 15th. He was outraged with this passive attitude. Georges very rightly considered the German forward units vulnerable and demanded immediate offensive action. It was too late. The French had again deconcentrated tank forces and German flank manoeuvres had even pushed some of the French positions back.
At Stonne elements of the 10th Tank Division and the Regiment Gross Deutschland managed to tie large French forces. This flanking manoeuvre misled the GQG, who were convinced again of the German intention to come into the rear of the Maginot-line. It tied important French units in the sector. On the 16th a limited tank battle occured. French Char B-1 tanks showed the German tank commanders the amazing weakness of both armour and main armament of the German tanks. But the French did not gain much - in particular due to fading strength of the attack - and the Germans had already shifted their attention westwards.
The main German spearheads broke out of the Sedan bulge on the 15th. Distances up to 50 km west of Sedan were covered. It caused not only panic amongst the allies - who finally became aware that they were fighting a lost battle - but also amongst the traditional German Generals, who were in charge of the Fall Gelb operations. Along with the massive battle in the North of France, a German competance battle was fought between the new generation of Generals and the more conservative top brass. The Blitzkrieg doctrine of relentless progression was not conceived by the conservatives and as such the field Generals who pushed their troops not to halt, were intervened from the top. At the OKH the fear of open flanks was felt, and that was very understandable. The armoured spearheads had run way ahead of the follow-up forces and supply columns. It was the inability of the French that the vulnerable German flanks were not attacked, but then again that was the basis of the Blitz doctrine. The share power of a massive penetration had to sent the adjacent sectors on a run too so that counter attacks would hardly be feasible. The OKH was not in favour of that risky business though and called on Von Kleist to stop and regroup. Von Kleist - commander of the vast German armour - felt stuck in the middle. His supreme command ordered him to be cautious whilst his direct subordinates - Guderian in particular - time and again expedited their forces to proceed.
The German 'General revolt' came to a climax on the 17th. Then Von Kleist summoned Guderian at his HQ and accussed the highly successful General of irresponsible action and even insubordination. Guderian resigned on the spot but Gert von Rundstedt did not accept the outcome and demanded Guderian to be reaccepted by von Kleist. It were not only the French that suffered from communication flaws and internal competition amongst the highest commanders. The major difference between the two sides was that the German revolt was for the better whereas the French command differences were for the worse.
Just when the emotions between the German Generals seemed to be settled, Hitler started to intervene. Hitler had been overjoyed by the successes of the Von Kleist tank army, but just at the time that even the OKH was starting to believe in the opportunities of a push to the West, Hitler saw large risks occur. He commanded Von Kleist to stop at the 17th and await the 12th Armee to cover the flanks.
The allies had been overtaken time and again up until the 17th, but the Führer Weisung gave them opportunity to reset the odds and overcome some of the devastation of the past week. But nothing of the kind happened. In Belgium the battle continued and the German progressed through the deserted KW-Dyle line. On the Southflank the French appeared unable to shift the odds. The excelled in passive measures only.
The strong tank forces of the French had suffered tremendously the first week. Not only from German doing but as well of the long distances that they had travelled. Mechanical failures took care of more tank fall-out than German destruction had done. The scattered DLM tank formations would be reformed into one armoured unit under Général Prioux. The French had seen the light and realized that their method of assigning smaller tank formations in infantry support units worked against them. The huge problem though was the fact that the DLM's had suffered so much that the Prioux tank force could not be assembled. Besides, infantry commanders were very reluctant to let the tank support go, and thought of many excuses or even acts of insubordination in order not to let go of their tanks.
The only allied counter-attack that was of any significance was given shape by the 4th DCR, a hastily formed tank division commanded by Colonel Charles de Gaulle. Although the assault had some effect [on Hitler in particular], it was operationally nothing to lose any sleep over [altough De Gaulles assaults have been lifted in significance after the war for obvious reasons].
In the end the indecisiveness of the French would close the window on the allied opportunities. The French had failed to keep considerable strategic reserves available and the few divisions that had been formed into the 6th French Army had already been shattered by the German break-out of the Sedan sector. Moreover the French were in doubt what the German plans were. Would they aim for Paris [like in 1914], would they turn head to the north and attack the flank of the Belgian front, would they turn south and raid the Maginotline in the rear or would they continue west and cut off the allied forces in Belgium? Gamelin couldn't make up his mind and made a defeated impression to his entourage.
Meanwhile the central front was on the verge of total collapse too. At the 17th Général Giraud let himself be surprised by a German recon party and was captured. The 7th Army was beheaded, and considerable parts of the mighty army were taken out during the days to follow. It was a disaster for the allies, that were forced to retreat to the coast and the North of France. The trap was about to close ...
19 May - 1 June
When Hitler released the Panzergruppe Kleist again on the 19th, the tank masses pushed forward again. Two days later they took Abbeville and saw the source of the Somme river at the Canal. The trap had been closed. The Belgian army, the 1st and 7th French army and the BEF had been caught on Belgian territory.
The same day - May 19th - Gamelin finally saw the full impact of the German strategy. His orders to shift all motorised forces onto the south flanks of the German penetration were not executed. He was relieved of his command and replaced by the 74 year old Weygand, hero of WWII. Weygand cancelled Gamelins order. He first needed to establish the battlefield situation.
The Germans wondered at the same time what the allies would do. They feared strong French counter attacks on the flanks. Counter attacks that would have to come because the surrounding of the bulk of the French army would force them sideways. Given the fact that the flanks of the German corridor were still weakly protected, the Germans started to deploy more troops in the gap.
Weygand meanwhile took exactly 24 hours to do the only thing that made sense. He issued orders for two massive flank attacks on the German corridor. From the South no less than four tank divisions, a newly formed DLM [7th] and the newly arrived British 1st armoured division [that had the very capable Mathilda II tank] had to counter attack. From the north the remnants of all armoured units had to be concentrated and copy the Southern manoeuvre. These allied forces were however much more impressive on paper than in real life. In fact less than 750 tanks were battle ready, less than half of the paper strength. The Germans had little under 1,000 tanks available in the same theatre.
Before it came to the execution of the Weygand plan, the British unleashed a strong counterattack on the right flank of the Germans at Arras. The 7th German tankdivision [Erwin Rommel] was taken by surprise by the British heavy armoured brigade that comprised the well armoured Mathilda I and II tanks, assisted by about 50 French Hotchkiss tanks of the 3rd DLM. The Germans suffered great losses. The SS Totenkopf Division was run off by combined French-British forces and the 7th Tank Division could only hold position by the assignment of some batteries 88 mm FLAK guns. Rommel contacted the OKH and informed them that he was attacked by a massive tank army. This caused a brief panic among the German staff planners, of whom some had feared an all out allied counter offensive with the still hidden tank reserves. But at the 22nd the allied offensive stalled. The Germans pushed on to the coast and took the surroundings of Boulonge and Calais the same day, although the battles for both harbours would continue for some days more.
Lord Gort - commander of the BEF and under the firm instruction not to jeopardize the BEF's existance - realised that the battle was fought. He ordered the entire BEF back to Duinkerke [Dunkirk]. This caused the beginning of the end of the allied cooperation. Weygand begged the British to leave a considerable portion of the BEF units back in Belgium in order to maintain the defences overthere. Obviously Weygand feared for the main body of his army being trapped in Belgium. The British Government refused to submit to the French demands and Lord Gort's decision to evacuate the BEF out of Belgium was sanctioned.
It was the end of the story. From then on the Belgian army faught a lost battle for its home country, the BEF retreated and the French remnants in Belgium largely joint the British in the retreat to the coast.
It was the notorious Hitler directive to halt the army advance to Dunkirk that saved the day for the BEF forces. It facilitated the British evacuation from the besieged harbour city and that would go into history files as the miracle of Dunkirk. That miracle was facilitated by the Germans though and not at all an allied achievement. The bizarre Hitler directive is one of the huge enigma's of WWII. Fact was that the Luftwaffe was ordered to attack the British fleet and evacuating troops and that the army stood still.
Meanwhile it were the Belgians who fought determined and brave against a German offensive in the North. Along the Leie river a tough battle unfolded that saved many French and British troops from being overtaken by progressing German units. The Belgians would however never get the merits for these tough battles, but rather receive the blame from the ever conceited French.
That French venom increased considerably when the Belgian King decided - on the 27th of May - that it had been enough. The King realized that the British withdrawal had sealed the fate of the defences in Belgium. He considered that the tremendous suffering that his army, but especially his civil population, had to endure was only worth while if a sustained defence was feasible. That was no longer the case. Only the strong emotional appeal of the French and British commanders persuaded the King to postpone the Belgian capitulation for another 24 hours, but when also the Leie defences had to yield after five days of bitter fighting, he decided that enough was enough. The French in particular reacted embittered. Although their reaction could be appreciated in the light of their own fate, their over-reaction - that would exceed the days of the defeat itself by many years - was quite embarrasing. Especially considering the astonishing poor performance of their own large army.
At the 26th of May the Operation Dynamo started. It would become the largest maritime evacuation of an army in history and a show of British resilience too, although they were assisted by many allied ships and sailors. But the assmbly of an massive armada of small ships, mainly manned by civilian volunteers, was an ocassion that probably only the British are capable off.
In the end this unmeaserable fleet would manage to shuttle more than 325,000 men back to the UK. The losses of ships and material had been heavy though. The best part of the evacuated troops had left all their heavier weapons and equipment back in Belgium and the North of France. More than 700,000 British and French men had been taken prisoner of war. That was a huge blow to the French in particular. They had lost their best two Armies, the 1st and 7th and about half their able tanks.
The Germans had had an amazingly easy campaign. About 25% of their divisions had seen battle, the rest had not fired a single shot or had not even set foot on Belgian or French soil. The German tank divisions had suffered considerably and lost about one-third of their strength, but many tanks would be recovered and furthermore many French and British tanks had been captured too.
The German losses in men had been low. The Fall Gelb campaign had cost them 10,250 KIA, 52,500 WIA and 8,500 men MIA. The allied losses had been about a six-fold in KIA and WIA. The entire Dutch and Belgian armies had been taken POW, as well as about 750,000 French and British troops.
Remarkable was the balance on the Dutch front. The Dutch lost about 2,300 men KIA and a mere 10,000 WIA. The Germans lost 2,100-2,200 men KIA and about four-fold WIA. That was a heavy loss in the Dutch theatre once one compares it to the 10,000 men KIA in the entire western campaign in May.
The war was not over for the French. In fact the worst of the fighting still awaited them, and assisted by some Britsh units they would show the most tough side of their capacities in the actual battle for France that was unleashed with Fall Rot at the 4th of June. It would end with the French capitulation on the 25th of June 1940.