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Blitzkrieg: How Nazi Germany Crushed France in World War II

Instead, Manstein devised a plan that could trap the Allies away from their lines of communication and end the war quickly. His plan also involved three army groups. Army Group C would still attack the Maginot Line to keep the troops manning it focused away from the real action. Army Group B would invade Belgium and the Netherlands using a large number of airborne troops and just enough armored divisions to make it look like the main thrust was occurring there. This would hopefully draw the Allies’ main armies north into Belgium. In actuality, this was just what the French expected to happen. Army Group A, with the bulk of the tank and mechanized units, would be the primary force. It would attack through the Ardennes Forest, which was thought impassable to heavy forces. Once through, it would quickly cross the Meuse River and strike for the English Channel coast. This would cut off the Allied armies in Belgium and place them in a position to be annihilated if they would not surrender.

Army Group A would send its best units through the Ardennes first in the hopes they would quickly get to the Meuse River, crossing it between Sedan and Namur. This included the panzer divisions supported by motorized infantry units of both the Heer (Army) and Waffen SS. If they could get across the river quickly, it would allow the Germans to get behind the French lines and make their break for the coast. It was difficult but not impossible. The roads through the Ardennes were narrow, and only a few of them ran east to west. Moving so many divisions through the area quickly would require using both lanes of each road for westbound traffic. Even worse, the units would have to abandon the usual rules for spacing; they would be packed together almost bumper to bumper, making them vulnerable to air attack. To offset this risk the Luftwaffe would deploy much of its fighter strength over the area to beat back any Allied air attacks. Likewise, large numbers of antiaircraft guns would accompany the advancing German columns.

Among the subunits of Army Group A was the XIX Panzer Corps, commanded by General Heinz Guderian, Germany’s premier bewegungskrieg theorist. Aggressive and confident, he was a good choice for such a daring operation. Under his command were the 1st, 2nd, and 10th Panzer Divisions along with the attached Grossdeutschland Infantry Regiment, an elite Army unit that would later be expanded to divisional strength. Photographic evidence of the campaign shows the armored divisions were well equipped with PzKpfw. III and IV tanks, the best the Wehrmacht possessed at the time, though not available in great numbers. Each division also contained motorized infantry and artillery.

On the Allied side, French planners were convinced the main German thrust would come through the Netherlands and Belgium, believing a large army could not quickly move through the Ardennes. The Allies’ Plan D was created for this eventuality. This plan would send three French armies and the entire British Expeditionary Force northward into Belgium to meet the German attack along the Dyle River. The Royal Air Force and French Air Force would prioritize their effort in this sector, leaving the Ardennes and Sedan defended by second-rate French units and some Belgian cavalry. To the south, the Maginot Line would stop any attacks from Germany itself.

Though the Germans have since become known for their tanks, during the Battle of France they actually had fewer tanks than the Allies. Moreover, French tanks were more heavily armed and armored than their Wehrmacht counterparts. Several factors served to negate this advantage, however. French tactics dispersed most of their tanks among their divisions in an infantry support role. The Germans concentrated their panzers to strike decisive blows where needed and exploit breakthroughs. German tank crews were usually better trained, and their vehicles were all equipped with two-way radios, allowing them to communicate and coordinate during battle. Only a few French tanks had radios at all, reducing many of them to using signal flags and other methods, which distracted tank commanders from controlling their crews. The French were also quite deficient in antiaircraft guns; most of those they had were obsolete. In terms of aircraft the Germans were dominant in numbers and overall quality. The German Junkers Ju-87 Stuka could act in the role of artillery with its accurate dive-bombing capability.

Perhaps the worst discrepancy was in the area of morale. The Germans were eager to balance the scales of the last war and regain lost pride. Their officers were trained to lead from the front and share hardships. French enlisted men in Sedan were often billeted in stables next to the horses. They were under orders to wear their helmets, gas masks, and cartridge belts when on duty. However, their officers would disregard this order and walk around without the encumbrance, leading to feelings of discontent. The French government was also dealing with political instability and even sabotage in factories making war material by underground communist groups. While many Germans lacked enthusiasm for the war and the rationing it brought, they had faith in their military’s capabilities, bolstered by the recent campaigns in Poland and Norway.

The French 2nd Army was the force responsible for defending Sedan. Commanded by General Charles Huntziger, it had gained fame at the Battle of Verdun in World War I. The Army’s X Corps—composed of the 55th Infantry and 3rd North African Divisions, later bolstered by the 71st Infantry Division—was the main unit to engage at Sedan. The 2nd Division Legeres de Cavalerie (2DLC), or light cavalry division, was the scouting and screening element for the 2nd Army.