While the SS ‘V’ Division had been fighting in Holland as part of Eighteenth Army in von Bock’s Army Group B’, the mass of the German Army in the west had captured Brussels and had cut its way through southern Belgium and northern France striking towards the Channel coast. That thrust had created a salient separating the Allied armies in northern France from those which had been flung back to the River Somme. The Dutch surrender allowed the bulk of Eighteenth Army to be redeployed and, leaving only a token force in the Netherlands, it turned south to help in the task of stiffening the walls of the salient with motorized and infantry divisions. To carry out its part in this stiffening operation, XIL Corps issued an order on 22 May for the 6th and 8th Panzer Divisions, together with SS V Division, to drive without halt via St-Omer to Calais. Let us consider what that order meant to the fighting troops who had, it will be remembered, been fighting for weeks without relief. Almost every order they had been given had urged them to move fast so as to fulfil High Command’s strategic plans. Despite their exhaustion the soldiers were inspired by the realization that when they gained the Channel coast not only would the Allied armies in northern France and Flanders have been separated from those south of the Somme, but the encircled Allied formations in the Dunkirk region would be ripe for destruction. The promise of a splendid military victory spurred on the exhausted grenadiers. To carry out its part in the fighting between Calais and Ypres, SS V’ Division was deflected northwards towards the La Bassee Canal to stop the enemy attempting to break out across that waterway. The Division was further ordered to establish bridgeheads across the canal and to drive the British out of the forest of Nieppe. Although the Allies in Flanders were encircled and had their backs to the sea they were not impotent and in staunch defence as well as in spirited attack produced several unpleasant shocks for the German units surrounding them.
At 18.58 hours on 22 May, XIL Corps ordered SS ‘V’ Division to protect Corps right flank against enemy assaults and to occupy the area Divion-St-Hilaire. Division intended to reach the area around Aire where its units could concentrate and once his Division’s right flank was on the Canal d’Aire, Hausser could feel that that wing was secure. Later that same evening Army issued an order halting the advance of its panzer divisions towards the coast. Obedient to the orders they had received the SS regiments halted where they were along the sides of the roads. There they took up defensive positions and settled down for the night waiting until fresh orders came for them to resume their advance. Compliance with this unexpected and peremptory halt order meant that SS V was not concentrated but was dispersed in small groups all around the Divion-St-Hilaire area. DF was in the area of Blessy – St-Hilaire the divisional advance guard and 2nd Battalion DF’ were at Aire and 3rd Battalion on the banks of the canal. In the fast movement of modern warfare firm battle lines cannot be maintained; there was confusion regarding unit boundaries in the area where they were bivouacked. To add to the confusion on that dark night of 22/23 May, many SS units were struck by detachments of French infantry and armour probing for weak spots in the German perimeter through which they might escape.
In the very early hours of the new day Der Führer’ Regiment came under attack. No. 9 Company was overrolled by a French battalion of tanks and Nos. 10 and 11 Companies were surrounded. The French assault then struck Nos. 5 and 7 Companies at about 04.00 hours and at about the same time enemy forces penetrated the area at Blessy where the TAC HQs of 2nd Battalion Der Führer’ and of the artillery regiment’s 2nd Battalion together with an artillery battery had pulled off the road into a field and had settled down. It was a night of confused fighting. Schulze’s platoon of No. 7 Company of Der Führer was called to arms when the alarm was sounded. He moved his vehicles and anti-tank guns to join what he thought was a column of panzers. The NCO found to his horror that the vehicles before and behind him were enemy ones. Swinging his group out of the column he unlimbered the guns and put them into action against the surprised French. Schulze’s little group destroyed between fifteen and twenty enemy vehicles.
Another incident in the confusion of that night was recorded by Hauptscharführer Roeske, serving in the signals detachment of the artillery.
During the evening of 22 May 1940, the TAC HQ of 2nd Artillery Battalion reached Blessy. The regimental wireless group which was also with us went into position under a large tree in the middle of a meadow surrounded by hedges. The CO of our battalion, Sturmbannführer Erpsenmueller, had the vehicles driven up close to the hedges and ordered tents to be put up. Then the Spiess came along with canteen goods.
‘Not far from where TAC HQ was set up there was an inn where the unit First Aid Post had been set up. We put out sentries and I lay down in the cabin of the wireless truck and went off to sleep immediately. The wireless detachment leader and one of the signallers wrapped themselves in blankets and lay down in the hedge. Shortly before dawn, at about 04.00 hours, I was wakened by a sentry shouting, “Stabsscharführer, the French are here.” To collect my rifle and roll out of the truck was a single action and then came the cry from a number of sentries, “Alarm! alarm!” and the sound of firing.
By this time the light had improved and we could pick out details. I flung myself down into cover and landed near an Obersturmführer to whom a motor-cycle dispatch rider had just brought the message that we were surrounded. The DR was about to drive away when there was a flurry of shots which killed him and wounded the officer in both thighs. I carried him to the Aid Post and found there were already ten wounded comrades in the room. As I left the room I heard someone call out that the regimental wireless group should sent out a message for help. That meant me. I crept and crawled to the wireless truck. As I reached it a French soldier came towards me with raised hands. I gesticulated that he should lie down but it was too late. A burst of MG fire killed him on the spot. As I opened the door of the truck a group of several French soldiers stormed from the hedge towards the lorry but they did not reach it. Another burst of fire, this one from a different direction, mowed them down. I learned later this fire was from a group of men from Der Führer who were in the farmyard.
‘I climbed into the wireless truck, called up Regiment and got through immediately. Then I realized to my horror that the voice from Regiment was becoming fainter and fainter. The batteries on my set were running out. To obtain fresh ones meant I would have to leave the truck and go round to the back. That was a risky thing to do as the French were firing from positions all along the hedge. Thanks to the covering fire of my comrades in the farmyard and others in the supply truck I obtained and fitted a new battery. I passed the message that we were surrounded and needed infantry support. Hauptsturmführer Kreutz called for a signal pistol to let our comrades know where we were but there were no signal flares to hand. The CO shouted out “German soldiers here!” and he must have been heard because no more fire came from the “DF” men. Shortly afterwards a heavy battery from 2nd Battalion came up and, firing over open sights, they and the “DF” group soon cleared up the situation. That day we lost sixteen men killed in action.’
Karl Kreutz recalled the death in action of Sturmbannführer Erpsenmueller.
He told us quite calmly that he would not survive the campaign. The NCO who raised the alarm in the early hours of the morning opened fire on the French troops marching along the road in closed formation. It was clear that they had no idea where the front actually was. I took my carbine and fired across the top of the hedge on the French whom I identified through the crests on their helmets. Suddenly I saw Erpsenmueller was standing beside me smoking a cigarette. He asked, “Kreutz, aren’t you firing on prisoners of war?” The next second, while I was reloading I saw him fall, shot through the head. He lay face downwards with the cigarette still burning in his left hand. I shall never forget it. In that engagement we captured the standard of an Alsatian regiment which we later presented to our regimental commander, Peter Hansen. I also recall that HQ did not believe what was happening “so far behind the line” and Hansen sent someone to find out what was going on. That man was very promptly wounded. Now regiment knew the form and sent the infantry to relieve us very quickly.’