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Blitzkrieg: How Nazi Germany Crushed France in World War II

The battle for France began on the morning of May 10, 1940. At 5:30 am, Guderian’s XIX Panzer Corps crossed the border into Luxembourg. By 10 that morning the leading German units had crossed the next border into Belgium. To the north, Army Group B was making a convincing demonstration with its tank and airborne troops, including the spectacular seizure of the Eben Emael fortress using a handpicked team of paratroopers. These efforts caused the Allies to believe the main thrust was indeed coming from the north and sent their forces to counter it. Meanwhile, the real main thrust was making its way through the thick Ardennes Forest, filling the roads with vehicles while overhead Luftwaffe fighters raced forward to keep back enemy reconnaissance or attack planes.

The Belgian section of the Ardennes was defended by a small force of Chasseurs Ardennais, infantrymen reinforced with a small number of tanks, some equipped with 47mm antitank guns. They were too small a force to defend the entire region, so their tasks were to delay the enemy, destroy lines of communication, and then withdraw to rejoin the main Belgian army to the north. Since their army lacked the resources to defend the area, it was expected the French Army would take over responsibility for the Ardennes.

Toward that end, the Chasseurs prepared demolitions and created a number of obstacles in the Germans’ path but had to abandon them before French troops arrived to utilize them. This made it easier for the Germans to clear the obstacles since they were not covered by fire. At the town of Martelange, two companies of the Chasseurs did not get the word to retreat and maintained their positions, opening fire on the advancing Nazis of the 1st Panzer Division. They were able to delay the German advance for several hours, the only real resistance Guderian’s troops faced from the Belgians on May 10.

When General Huntziger learned of the German invasion on the morning of May 10, he immediately dispatched the 2 DLC to the Ardennes. The division’s advance guard ran into the leading elements of the 10th Panzer Division late in the morning near the town of Habay-La-Neuve. It was a meeting engagement, meaning both units were advancing and essentially ran into one another. The French cavalrymen were quickly overwhelmed by the German panzers and fell back that evening with heavy casualties, heading for the nearby Semois River, only 10-15 miles from Sedan.

The next day the Germans moved on from the Martelange area and ran into another French cavalry unit, the 5 DLC, in the vicinity of Neufchateau, Belgium. This unit was also roughly handled by the Germans and forced to retreat. General Huntziger allowed them to fall back to the Semois River alongside the 2 DLC but ordered them to hold the river line no matter the cost. To bolster the cavalry he sent an infantry battalion from the 55th Division, which was digging in at Sedan. By that evening they were all situated on the west bank of the river.

This movement would prove to have unintended and disastrous consequences for the French in front of Sedan. The unit to the north of 5 DLC was the 3rd Spahi Brigade, part of the French 9th Army. Normally these two units would coordinate with each other to ensure no gaps in the line along the army boundary. On May 11, this did not happen properly, and when the commander of the Spahis learned of 5 DLC’s retreat he ordered his own unit to fall back behind the Meuse River, several miles farther west. At this point the Spahis had not even contacted the advancing Germans. As a result the left flank of the French cavalry was now open and unguarded. By the afternoon of May 11, the 1st Panzer Division’s motorcycle reconnaissance battalion found the open flank and reported it. By that evening the Germans were across the Semois River at Mouzaive, roughly 10 miles north of Sedan.

Overhead, another French miscalculation worsened the situation. The French high command, convinced the main attack would come from the north, ordered the Air Force to concentrate its strength on that front. Even so, French reconnaissance flights revealed the large German movements coming through the Ardennes. Air Force General Francois d’Astier noticed these reports and forwarded them to the high command, including references to large mechanized and armored forces accompanied by bridging equipment. He reported what appeared to be a major movement toward the Meuse River, but the high command kept to its assessment of the main thrust coming from the north. The French X Corps commander, General Pierre-Paul-Charles Grandsard, later said he never received any reports from the air force. This left him unprepared for what was coming.

On May 12, the Germans resumed their advance with 1st Panzer reinforcing its bridgehead over the Semois at Mouzaive and crossing at nearby Bouillon. By mid-day German engineers were building a bridge over the river as French artillery shells landed around them. Overhead, French warplanes dropped bombs in an attempt to delay the enemy. A few miles south the 10th Panzer was able to get across the Semois between the towns of Herbuemont and Cugnon. The 2nd Panzer was delayed fighting some enemy units that appeared to the north and did not get across. Still, two of XIX Panzer Corps’ three divisions got over the Semois and advanced on Sedan. As night fell over the battlefield, both leading divisions arrived at the Meuse River; their French opponents retreated to the opposite bank without putting up a fight or even a delaying action.