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World War II
Invasion of the Low Countries and the Fall of France


The campaign in the Low Countries could be said to be nothing but a farce. In London, the government was coming under fire. On May 7th 1940, the Chamberlain government became involved in a heavy debate in the House of Commons over the Norway outcome, the Prime Minister was told that the way that the Norwegian situation was conducted was nothing short of disastrous. The next day, the House made it quite clear that the government did not have the confidence required in view of the present situation. Only beforehand, member Leo Amery, who was a great ally to Churchill spoke in the House of Commons of Chamberlain, "You have sat too long here for any good you are doing. Depart I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!" Other comments were "We are sick and tired of the so called 'Lets wait and see attitude in this critical situation'" and ".....of course our forces were gallant and courageous, but because of ridiculous decisions and lack of support by this weak government we also suffered severe and unnecessary casualties"

During the first months of May 1940, the French army under General Gamelin and a smaller British force (British Expeditionary Force) under the command of Lord Gort took up their positions along the French border with Belgium. Gamelin expected that if Germany was to attack France it would be in this area whether Belgium was neutral or otherwise. His belief was that the border region along the Swiss border was safe, the area around Lorraine was protected by the Maginot Line, and the River Meuse from Verdun, Sedan and Charleville had the protection of the heavily timbered Ardennes. If the Germans were to try to enter France, it would be by way of the Schlieffen Plan, first tried in 1914 where the German armies advanced just to the north of the industrial centres of Liege and Maastricht. There was no reason that Germany would not apply the same tactics again, then trying to gain control of the heavily industrial centres of north-eastern France and then move south into France itself.

To a point, he was correct, Belgium and Holland, at the outbreak of WWII wanted to remain neutral countries, but, as in 1914, the German plan was to invade and gain control of the Low Countries if they were to gain total denomination of Northern Europe.

On May 10th 1940, Chamberlain after pressure from the government, tended his resignation to the House of Commons and Winston Churchill became Britain's new Prime Minister. Ironically, the same day that Germany made their Blitzkrieg attack on Holland. Paratroopers, then air attacks on airfields, more paratroopers then tanks and motorized divisions. Though in many places the Dutch put up a stiff fight, and we must remember that their air force was working with the army, some great instances of gallantry emerged in what was almost a lost cause. Let us take a look at one of Holland's great air force personalities Bob Van der Stock and in not a few re-won airfields and other localities, the Dutch Command was so completely paralyzed by the suddenness and swiftness of the attack that no co-ordinated resistance was possible. On the 11th this paralysis was increased by heavy German bombing attacks which reduced the Dutch air force to twelve machines.[1]

By May 14th 1940, the Germans ordered that the Dutch resistance be ceased immediately otherwise the Luftwaffe would be given instructions to bomb Rotterdam to destruction. Almost simultaneously over fifty German bombers began their attack on the city killing over 20,000 people, although it is believed that this figure was one that was given by the German propaganda machine. But Holland fell, and German forces were now on their way through Belgium. This was another Blitzkrieg attack with the bombing of Belgian airfield and railway junctions. Antwerp and Brussels were bombed just prior to parachutists taking many important bridges. The map above indicates the position up to the 13th and into the 14th.

Using the map above, let us look at the Allied positions and strength as they were on May 10th. Closest to the channel, was the French 7th Army under General Giraud that was to advance through the coastal areas of Belgium. Below them, were the British Expeditionary Force under the command of Lord Gort. Then came the forty divisions of the French 1st Army under General Billotte. The Maginot Line, a line of defence that was supposed to give protection to France, was covered by the twenty six divisions of the French 2nd Army under the command of General Prételat. The Swiss border was covered by thirty six divisions of the French 3rd Army under General Besson.

The positioning of these forces was considered to be adequate at the time, the main concern was, where would the German army break through. The Swiss frontier seemed to be quite safe although as a precautionary measure the French 3rd Army was positioned here. The Maginot Line was a long fortress of defence along the French-German border and a quite unlikely area where any German advance would be made, so the 2nd Army consisted mainly of aging reservists not fully trained in all aspects of defence warfare. This 2nd Army was also to cover the forest area of the Ardennes where it was thought that it would be an almost impossibility for any German advance in this area. In all probability any German attack would be made through Belgium where previously the German Army Group B under General von Bock, Army Group A under General von Rundstedt and a Panzer division under General von Kliest had already made their blitzkrieg attacks on Holland and Belgium.

But in addition to the 170 infantry, parachute, motorized and panzer divisions, the German forces also had up to 4,000 aircraft spread over four air fleets. If we compare this to the 105 military divisions made up of French, British, Belgian and Dutch, and the estimated 1000 aircraft of these countries, the German forces had a considerable advantage.

General Gamelin knew that Germany had plans to attack through Belgium. Captured documents from a German courier plane that crashed in Belgium during January 1940 was the source. But this was supposed to have happened in mid January 1940, the months passed, still no invasion, was Germany having a re-think of the situation or were they casting their thoughts elsewhere. The problem was, was that to German Generals, Guderian and von Manstein could not agree that the Schlieffen Plan would be the best option. Guderian insisted that Panzer units and mechanized units followed by infantry should push through the Ardennes, capture and cross the Meuse River at Sedan, then push west towards Ameins then north to Abbeville, Boulogne and Calais pushing the French and British towards the Channel coast.

The argument was taken as far as the German High Command. The result was that "Sichelschnitt" (Sickle Cut) would be put into operation. Sources differ as to whom the architect was, (Major- General J.F.C.Fuller in his book The Second World War 1939-1945 states that von Manstein had already proposed this plan to General von Rundstedt, yet Mark Arnold-Forster in The World at War states that Guderian mentions that he wanted to abandon the Schliefflin Plan in favour of an attack through the Ardennes p44). "Sichelschnitt" was to attack and advance through Holland, then cross the Belgian border luring General Gamelin and the French as well as the British Expeditionary Force into central Belgium. While this was happening, Guderian would advance his Panzer Divisions through the Ardennes, push towards the Channel and squeeze the Allies into a pocket where they would be trapped at Calais or thereabouts.

May 12th 1940. The French 7th Army had moved on to Breda in an effort to support what was left of the Dutch army. The B.E.F. had got as far as Wavre. Not a great distance, but along with the French 1st Army, who had advanced only to Namur slightly ahead of the British had still opposition from the confident German 4th Army Panzer Corps and the constant barrage from the Luftwaffe. Lord Gort had made contact with the War Office in London requesting the urgent need for the British 1st Armoured Division and requested more aircraft to replace the 50% of his air force destroyed. He stated that ".....without the necessary aircraft, reconnaissance of the enemy lines is now impossible." It was a request that was declined by Britain.

France continued with its slow advance, but lacked the anti-tank guns needed and the use of the Hotchkiss 35 tank was useless, they could not even slow a German Panzer tank, let alone stop one. The Belgians were retreating northwards, the French were blowing all available bridges over the River Meuse to slow the German advance.

May 13th - 18th 1940. General Gamelin the French Supreme Commander had ordered forty or more of his divisions into Belgium to confront the advancing German 4th Army Corps and the Panzer divisions. This was backed up by the British B.E.F. This move suited the Germans and General von Manstein who could now complete the rest of his operation "Sichelschnitt" (Sickle Cut). The invasion of the Low Countries had pulled the Allied forces towards the German Army Group B, now von Manstein gave the order for Panzer divisions, motorized and mechanical units and infantry divisions to make the surprise entry into France by way of the Ardennes just north of the northern end of the Maginot Line.
Nothing could have suited the German plan better than the forward wheel of the Allied left wing. The hitherto closed door was now swung open, and henceforth, its ability to withstand the enemy's onrush mainly depended on the strength of its hinges. These were represented by the French Ninth Army, which consisted of two active and seven reserve or fortress divisions, whose men were elderly, under-trained and ill armed. The active divisions were on the left, holding fifteen miles of the Meuse south of Namour; the rest of the army's front, forty miles in length, was held by three reserve and one fortress divisions, the right one of all having not a single anti-tank gun. On its right the two left divisions of the French Second Army were also composed of elderly reservists. These second rate troops were considered adequate, because it was not believed that the Germans would attempt to advance in force through the Ardennes.

Major-General J.F.C.Fuller The Second World War 1939-1945 Meredith Press

The three French divisions of the Ninth Army defending the Meuse River around Sedan were in no way, in a position to stop, or even slow the elite XIX Panzerkorps, the Grossdeutschland Regiment and the XIV Motorized Corps. The French, in an attempt to keep the Germans from crossing the Meuse, they started to blow all bridges. But with little organization and even less discipline, French were slow to act and the German tanks were already in sight of the river crossings.

Once on French soil, the Blitzkrieg started. 1,500 planes of the Luftwaffe bombarded Sedan and the surrounding areas accompanied by heavy artillery support. LaMarfée Heights, one of the best defences that France had at Sedan, was soon overrun by the German forces. Pillboxes were blown by the Sturnpioneren, while flak guns attacked others killing the Frenchmen through their unprotected weapon slits. At midnight on May 13th the heights had been taken and from then on the crossing of the Meuse by German Panzer divisions was complete. The German 12th and 16th Armies, their mechanical and motorized divisions, the infantry and artillery units were now able to complete the 'sickle cut' and move west towards Reims, northwest towards Amiens and Arras.

The German attack was text book style, like a well drilled precision machine. After the taking of Sedan, their movements were just as swift, with units and divisions attacking one after the other.
On May 15th, General von Kleist'd 12th Army moved westward crossing the Ardennes Canal just below Omicourt and Malmy after finding all bridges still intact. By May 16th the township of Rozoy, about thirty miles due west of Donchery had been taken, and infantry, parachute troops and an armoured division were just short of Réthel on the Aisne River. Meanwhile, in Belgium, the French 1st Army and the British Expeditionary Force were ordered to withdraw from their positions.
May 17th, and Brussels was now occupied by the Germans, with Panzer divisions and mechanized units pushing west towards France. By May 19th, German forces had marched into Amiens and other divisions were lining the Somme towards Abbeville.

All roads in north-east France was packed with refugees, the Allies had managed to force an attack on the German forces at both Amiens and Arras:

    The picture was now no longer that of a line bent or temporarily broken, but a besieged fortress. To raise such a siege, a relieving force must be sent from the south, and to meet this force a sortie on the part of the defenders was indicated.
    Lord Gort on the Allied position at Amiens [2]
Lord Gort had also stated, that the position now was at the critical stage, the air cover, although the best under the circumstances, the actions of his infantry and what mechanized units he had had been courageous, but the Allied forces were still on the defence and losing ground all the time. On May 20th, the German forces moved into Abbeville, and continued on to Etaples and by the 23rd, were within sight of Boulogne and Calais. At the same time, the Panzer divisions, and Artillery forces had moved in from the Belgian border in the east and the Allies had been forced into a small pocket at Gravelins and Dunkirk. On May 24th, Cambrai to the south was bombed by the Luftwaffe and the last of the Belgian army was again suffering defeat and was forced to retreat northwards and join the rest of the Allies. By May 25th, orders went out to the Allies to withdraw to the coast and Lord Gort was ordered to save what he could of his army.

The British War Office devised a plan of evacuation of the B.E.F and all other Allied soldiers from France. The Prime Minister gave the task of organizing the evacuation, code named "Operation Dynamo" to Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsey and gave him historic Dover Castle as his headquarters. But as operations into the evacuations started to take place, the German High Command made its one and only mistake of the whole campaign, they diverted many of their Panzer divisions and mechanized units away from Dunkirk, and headed west, obviously Paris seemed to be their objective. On May 27th 1940, Lord Gort was issued with the official order to withdraw all British troops of the B.E.F and regard the evacuation of as many of them as possible as an absolute priority and that the order was to override all other orders previously supplied.

The scene was now set for one of the greatest feats of the Second World War.

 
Thanks to The Battle of Britain Org for this story. 

 

 


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