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.
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.
Now the real fight for Sedan was set to begin. German and French units stared at each other from across the Meuse. Behind the Germans a series of columns were strung out through the Ardennes Forest, desperately trying to get forward and join the attack. These columns contained most of their artillery and engineer assets. The French believed this meant the Germans would not try to cross until those assets could be brought forward, giving them time to prepare further. They also believed the French Air Force would fly sorties the next day to blunt this attack. To stiffen the defense the French high command committed the XXI Corps, composed of one armored and one motorized division. They began moving toward Sedan on May 11.