The attack was beginning despite the widespread lack of artillery support, engineers, or armor. Normally this would be a recipe for disaster. Clusters of gray-clad German infantrymen braved the torrent of enemy fire, carrying assault boats right up to edge of the Meuse River. On the opposite bank, French soldiers crouched in their bunkers and trenches as German aircraft roared overhead, bombing and strafing, paying particular attention to the French artillery positions within range of the river. The Luftwaffe pilots were determined to keep French heads down with a storm of bombs and bullets. Men on both sides braved fire to accomplish their respective missions on the afternoon of May 13, 1940.
On the German side of the river, Lt. Col. Hermann Balck urged his men forward. His command, Panzergrenadier Regiment 1 of the 1st Panzer Division, was tasked to get across the river and establish a bridgehead. The situation was already unfolding against his unit. Earlier in the day, the least German movement drew artillery fire, keeping the German troops pinned in their hastily dug foxholes and entrenchments. Their own artillery was hopelessly mired in a traffic jam rearward and could not get there in time. The boats for the crossing had arrived, but the operators had not. The only thing that had gone right was the Luftwaffe’s air attack. The aviators’ efforts had been so successful the French gunners had reportedly abandoned their guns and refused to return to them.
It was here that Balck’s meticulous training and leadership came into play. He had trained his men to operate the boats themselves, planning against just such an occurrence. Now he did not have to wait. The French artillery’s cessation had an immediate effect on his men. Just minutes earlier they were lying in slit trenches, trying to avoid the maelstrom of steel flying mere inches above them. Now they leaped from cover and got the boats into the water. Ordering his regiment to cross the Meuse, Balck climbed into a boat, set on accompanying the first wave.
The German troops huddled in the fragile inflatable boats; they were at their most vulnerable point with nothing to protect them from enemy fire. Bullets fell like hail. Balck, always one to lead from the front, impressed his men by his willingness to share the risks of combat. It would enable him to get the most out of them now and in the future. Today, however, the crossing was quick as the Meuse is only a few hundred feet wide.
It took only minutes for Balck and his men to scramble ashore while the boats returned for the second wave. The Panzergrenadiers hurriedly attacked the first line of bunkers nearest the riverbank. Within a short time they carved out a small perimeter and steadily began to expand it. The battle for Sedan was well underway; its outcome would soon decide the fate of France itself.
The blitzkrieg legend has stayed with the German Wehrmacht to this day. The term itself was made famous by the Western press; the Germans referred to the concept as bewegungskrieg, or war of movement, only rarely using the term blitzkrieg at the time. Nevertheless, the word has gained common usage since and there is no better example of it than the Battle of Sedan in 1940. It was a critical point in the Nazi invasion of Western Europe; if the Germans were held up here it could have fatally doomed the entire effort into stalemate. Success would mean victory and revenge over hated France, which imposed harsh terms at the end of World War I.
Both France and Britain entered the war just days after the Third Reich attacked Poland on September 1, 1939. The war since then had been marked by a lack of combat in the West. British pundits labeled it the “Sitzkrieg” due to the inactivity. An American senator called it the “Phony War.” This low tempo was just what the Nazis needed; they were unprepared to fight a two-front war, and their western defenses were manned by underequipped second-rate troops. They did not waste this precious time but instead began planning their campaign to knock France out of the war. With luck, this would cause Britain to negotiate, leaving Germany in control of mainland Europe.
The German plan was the brainchild of General Erich von Manstein. He was unhappy with the existing plan, which he feared would not achieve the fast, decisive victory Germany needed. It called for one army group to demonstrate in front of the Maginot Line to keep the force occupying it in place. A second group would advance through the Ardennes region and southern Belgium, acting as a pivot point for the main effort, an attack by a third group that would sweep through the Netherlands and northern Belgium to drive the Allies back until the Channel ports were captured. To Manstein, this was an unimaginative repetition of the World War I Schlieffen Plan, which ultimately ended in four years of stalemated trench warfare.