(689): The three heavy [armored divisions] the French had, all of which in May 10 had been stationed... within 50 miles of the Meuse at Sedan and Mezieres, which they could have reached by road overnight, had thus been squandered.... Not one had been properly deployed.... By now, May 16, they no longer counted. There remained only the newly formed 4th [armored division], commanded by de Gaulle, which was below strength and without divisional training..."
So the instant takeaway here is that the "four armoured divisions" to which Brad Delong refers are actually "tank circusses." Now, this isn't quite true. The French decided that they wanted their heavy armoured assault asset pools to be capable of ensemble manoeuvre, and so gave them infantry, artillery, and subordinate headquarters. This made the DCRs potent units with 4 battalions of heavy tanks, 2 battalions of infantry, and a regiment of artillery; it did not, however, given them anything like enough infantry, artillery, or, crucially, a reconnaissance regiment.* DCRs were assumed to operate under couverture. Will they run out of gas? Char Bs have 280hp engines driving 28 ton hulls. They're not designed for long road marches. Of course they'll run out of gas if you try throwing them around as though they were.
So, as I've noted before, the final Allied plan called for the two DLMs of Prioux's Cavalry Corps to lunge into the Gembloux Gap , while 1st DLM, best prepared and best equipped of the three, was switched from forming the key element of the couverture in the Ardennes to a lunge northwards to link up with the Dutch for various reasons that sounded good at the time. And, contra the implicit apology for the American debacle at Kasserine/obviously-not-fully-thought-out-"God's-On-Our-Side"-implicit-argument-for-Fascism, the DLMs did just fine where they were used. Indeed, from Erich Hoeppner's apparent perspective, Prioux wasn't covering a defensive deployment, but rather threatening the flank of the German main effort.
Which, as we've been told many times, was coming through the Ardennes directly for Sedan. Now, as practically everyone who has written seriously on the subject will note at some point or another, the French knew that it was perfectly possible that the Germans would show up in front of Sedan within sixty hours and attempt to launch an assault crossing.
If we can take anything away from the way that two platoons of the Chasseurs ardennais managed to hold up Guderian's core for six hours at Bodelange, this wasn't a matter of Nazi supermen being our superiors. It was a matter of a thin road network restricting movements. The flip side of that was that blocking positions were easily outflanked, however. So you pull out a march table, figure out how many blocking positions a unit will have time to take up, add in enough time for the poor bloody infantry to struggle through the Ardennes bush to enfilading positions, and you get how many hours it will take the enemy's van to reach the Meuse. Are we then surprised that the best blocking features are along the Belgian frontier? No, that would another case of "feature, not a bug."
So the Germans have reached the Meuse, pretty much on schedule. What happens now? If you're the French High Command, you think, "a buildup of forces." Why do you think that? Because of the roads, that's why. Again, you turn to your march tables. Every unit takes up some space. Once you've estimated column march speed, you have a pretty clear idea of how many feet of units are going to be on your front on the morning of May 13. You won't necessarily know what kind of units, but if you've ever driven a mountain road, you know that the basic parameters of choice balance lots of sports cars against a much smaller number of semis. In the military paradigm of 1940, twenty ton tanks are sports cars, and artillery are semis. Panzergruppe von Kleist will have available on the shores of the Meuse on the morning of 13 May Guderian's 19th Armoured Corps. (Follow along with Florian K. Rothbrust's Guderian's XIXth Panzer Corps And the Battle of France if you can get it.)
It consists of 2nd, 1st and 10th Armoured** Divisions from right to left. 1st Panzer is reinforced with Infantry Regiment Großdeutchsland, giving it four armoured regiments organised into two Regimente grouped into a brigade, plus an infantry brigade of three rifle battalions plus two weapons companies, plus, outside the division, an infantry regiment of three rifle and one heavy weapon battalions. Plus, besides the embarrassing excess of infantry guns, a mere 36 105mm gun-howitzers in a single field artillery regiment. Besides this, 1st Panzer has a single reinforced artillery regiment from corps assets and has poached a battery of 12 105s from the divisions to either side. Notice, the next time you're in a wearying "Nazi Supermen Are Our Superiors/their armoured doctrine was teh awesome" debate, that the Germans are putting their motorised infantry under separate headquarters from their armour. Guderian is going to be spending a wearying amount of time over the next few days separating his armour and infantry when they start to get intermingled.
On the defence, the logic is very simple: fortresses save men. Now, the Maginot Line ends twenty miles east of Sedan, as extending it along the Belgian frontier would have been expensive and have Sent the Wrong Message, but the natural strength of the Meuse line is such that it is easily reinforced by field fortifications. Right? Right. So that's what the second-echelon reservists stationed around Sedan have been up to for the last eight months. Except for when the ground was frozen, or soaked by the spring freshette. Which was most of the time. And to the limits of their available materials, which were not what they could have been. (For which see Eugenia Kiesling's much more boring but more important book that people could have been reading instead of May. Sixty-one bunkers have been completed in this key sector, to free men up for action elsewhere; but many more are in an incomplete state this morning of the 13th. (Hans Frieser's Blitzkrieg-Legende, now in translation.)
So the defences weren't very strong. It's too bad that the French couldn't have relied on the old works at Sedan. Dunquerque's works were far more obsolete than Sedan, but they worked brilliantly in 1940, after all. But that's the thing. What works at Dunquerque works because of immemorial geography. It was very old civil engineering that pierced the North Sea barriers to let the standing water and ships out, but sluices that can be opened can be closed, no matter how old they are. Forts that depend on the commanding heights being out of artillery distance of the works become obsolete when artillery ranges increase. The army of Napoleon is hoist on its own petard. That's Sedan. But, on the other hand, the Germans are trying to attack into Sedan. Aren't they just as much under the threat of guns concentrated on the far bank of the Meuse? Aren't they attacking a loop of the river? That means that, while the infantry defenders are stretched, the artillery within the loop are, by the same token, concentrated. This is not a point that the French have missed. The series B 55th Infantry Division defending Sedan had two march and one fortress infantry brigade, which may or may not have been as mishandled and disorganised as some think; but it had 171 guns, where a Commonwealth division was otherwise the envy of its counterparts with 72. Guderian's entire corps was allocated, including all available army level assets, only 180 tubes. (Though you can play some games with the numbers.)
Shorter Sichelschnitt: bring a sabre to a gunfight. This is exactly the scenario in my two clips, playing out.
So how is Guderian's 19th Armoured Corps expected to win this one? Give an awesome speech and watch the orcs run away? Well, that doesn't seem so plausible. And, in fact, 2nd and 10th Armoured Divisions were both repulsed by stout French resistance and withering artillery fire. Matters are different on 1st Panzer's front in the centre, however. It is here that the crucial penetration is made, and that Colonel Balck's relentless infantry demonstrates the superiority of the Ideal to the grossly materialistic conceptions of the bourgeois West. I wouldn't call this the decisive moment in the campaign: other elements of the armoured group make it across the Meuse, including its single horsed cavalry formation, and there's still the question of the handling of the reserves to consider (not that I'm going to do that today. As usual, my ambition exceeds my attention span.) But it takes some explaining.
So what happened? The short answer is that 1500 German aircraft happened. Six hundred bombers, 250 dive bombers, 500 single-engined fighters and 120 twins. I have no idea whether that's a count of sorties, actual aircraft, or even nominal squadron strengths, but it's a lot of planes by the standards of 1940. Of course, it's also not a lot of planes at all by the standards of the carpet bombings of 1944 that didn't generate a decisive breakthrough. Now, it's also a tactical situation such as air commanders could only dream of, with the river clearly demarcating the opposing lines on a bright, still day, the kind of day and circumstance on which even the primitive combat air control technology of 1940 could flourish. Even so, are we back to Nazi Supermen Being Our Superiors?
In a word, no; just as in the carpet bombings of 1944, the actual physical damage done by all of these bombs was fairly slight. Bunkers weren't busted, guns weren't smashed, and men who duck-and-covered in time were fine. Yes two infantry regiments got across the Meuse in the centre just fine, even as single infantry regiments attacking on either flank were brought to a standstill by infantry resistance and artillery fire. It's the artillery that's missing in the centre.
Artillery fire. Robert Doughty is, in my opinion, far too interested in "doctrine" for his own good. Again, I can't point to a theoretical apparatus to back up my intuition, but I can tell an over-extended heuristic when I see one. But he's also written a close and detailed study of the defeat at Sedan, and, sometimes, details are crucial. The issue at Sedan was that the French army's artillery was still under the dedicated control of battery-level forward observers. There was, as yet, no forward observer net. There couldn't be, because radio technology wasn't sophisticated enough yet. The British, rich in everything except units on the ground, have lately supplied their field artillery regiment forward observers with radios, so that the guns can be brought into action on the march by a single observer riding with the advance guard. It's an awesome advance in operational flexibility, so, really, boo to the penny pinchers who vetoed the "long range" 25 pounder design.
Unfortunately, even this revolutionary new radio is so big that it has to be carted around in what my informer describes as a "sedan car." If the observer doesn't want to sit in his car in full view of the enemy calling in fire, he has a couple hundred yards of relay cable that he can play out between a less conspicuous observing position and his sedan car. (I'm sorry, I know that is a perfectly acceptable Britishism, but I still think it's hilarious.)
The French? They're stuck with telephones. Telephones with cables. Cables that they have to play out on the ground between observer and battery headquarters. If you want to protect these cables against counterbattery fire, you have to bury them. Which is something that mostly hasn't been done in this sector, because, after all, we're expecting a mobile war, and having to wait to move until you've dug up all your cables is the antithesis of mobility. Now, if there were more cables... but, unfortunately, there aren't. Shortages, you know.
Doughty notes that the German bombs cut the cables, before moving on to Important Things, but, this is the important thing. All of those bombers have succeeded in their role --the bog standard, key artillery role of counterbattery fire. The asset that the French relied upon has been successfully countered. The next battle will be the mobile one, in the rear of the Sedan position.
Now the question is whether the Germans can defeat the elephants. If this were intended as an exhaustively organised and polished bit of writing, I would now be cutting-and-pasting my earlier discussion of the DCRs down here and fixing all the loose ends. But it is a beautiful day here in Vancouver that I've already wasted all too much of. I shall probably use up the rest of it vacuuming my apartment, but it is sorely needed, and, thanks to having advanced to the coveted status of "full time" employee at the day job, I have to work a great deal less, so that I have a full day off still to come tomorrow. I mention this because I'm ready to start it now, even if it won't officially begin until I hit Starbucks tomorrow morning. And with that in prospect, I feel the strongest desire to hit "Publish" and be done.
I still need a conclusion, however, and my conscience is niggling at me. "Enjoy a vanilla latte at sunrise" is fine for me, it's perhaps not as good a conclusion to this post.
Fine: the answer to the mystery is this: it was the Luftwaffe, with a shallow-penetrating fragmentation bomb, at Sedan. So what the French needed in 1940 was more fighters. Wow! Supreme revisionism, or what?
*Look, I'm a Canadian. To me, infantry comes in battalions, and tanks, armour, artillery and recce in regiments, with companies, squadrons and batteries below and brigades above.You may think in terms of regiments as base units. Or you may think of demi-brigades, tank corps, or motor rifle armies or artillery battalions. Whatever. It's not any less confusing, it's just the way that you choose to do it. You've got to choose some scheme and be consistent, or be constantly spellling out unhelpful details. You see where I'm going with this.
**Given that we're not making a useful distinction, I'm incined to regard the use of "Panzer Division" as an affectation that, given our continuing cultural tendency to glamourise the Nazi regime, ought be avoided. But that's just me.