7.Panzer Division on their way through the french countryside-possibly near Somme.
Timeline for Ghost Division in France:
10 May 1940 – Fall Gelb, the invasion of France, is launched. 7th Panzer advances through the Ardennes.
12 May 1940 – 7th Panzer Division reaches Dinant on the Meuse.
13 May 1940 – Crosses River Meuse after heavy fighting.
15 May 1940 – Reaches Philippeville and continues Westward passing Avesnes and Le Cateau.
21 May 1940 – Reaches Arras where counterattacked by 2 British Tank Regiments. British tank advance stopped by feared Flak 88 “Tank Killers”.
5 June 1940 – Positioned near Abbeville.
8 June 1940 – Reaches outskirts of Rouen.
10 June 1940 – Reaches English Channel West of Dieppe.
17 June 1940 – Reaches Southern outskirts of Cherbourg.
19 June 1940 – Garrison of Cherbourg surrenders to Rommel.
25 June 1940 – Fighting ends for 7th Panzer Division in France.
7.Panzer Division since 10th May had captured:
The Admiral of French Navy (North) and 4 other admirals,
1 Corp Commander,
4 Divisional commanders with their staffs,
277 artillery and 64 anti-tank guns,
458 trucks and armored cars,
1,500-2,000 horse- and mule-drawn wagons,
300-400 buses, and
About 30 000 prisoners of war were captured
Apart from this it had brought down 52 aircraft, captured 15 more on the ground, and destroyed another 12. There was much more booty which could not be counted because the division moved too fast.
The Führer’s train left Berlin at 2100 hours on Sunday, September 3, 1939, traveling east. It included a Flakwagen (armored wagon with anti-aircraft guns mounted at each end), the Führerwagen (Hitler’s drawing room and bathroom) and the Befehlswagen (command and communications center). Among those on board were Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler; Martin Bormann, chief of the High Command; Wilhelm Keitel; and Keitel’s chief of staff, Alfred Jodl. At Bad Polzin they were joined by General Rommel and the escort battalion. In the early hours of Monday morning Hitler’s mobile headquarters, now under Rommel’s command, crossed the border into Poland—and into the Second World War.
The invasion, code-named Fall Weiss (Operation White), was in its fourth day. With the speed and firepower of the panzers as their spearhead, ten German divisions supported by the Luftwaffe had swept through the Polish frontier forces and pressed inland. Hitler’s train kept pace with them. He traveled out from it each day in an armor-plated Mercedes, accompanied by Rommel’s escort troops in armored cars, to visit German troops at the front.
Both Rommel and his wife were fervent supporters of the Führer. On September 4 Lucie wrote: “May the dear Lord protect him, and you too, my beloved Erwin. All of my friends ask you to plead with him not to expose himself to unnecessary danger. Our nation cannot afford to lose him.” Like most Germans, they were particularly eager to see the recapture of Danzig, the “German” city taken from them by the Treaty of Versailles. But the Rommels had a personal interest too: Danzig, where they had met and fallen in love, was “their” city.
Following the rapid advance of the panzer divisions through Poland, the train reached Plietnitz on September 5. Rommel replied to Lucie: “I have big problems with the Führer. He always wants to be right up with the forward troops. He seems to enjoy being under fire.” Because Rommel always accompanied Hitler to the front he gained a firsthand insight into the operation of blitzkrieg and its effect on the enemy in this, the first major military operation to be fronted by tanks. The roads were littered with burned-out Polish army vehicles, which he at first credited to the Luftwaffe, until reports described how they had been overtaken and destroyed by the speed and firepower of the panzers. This he saw as his own infantry tactics—using the shock effect of a rapidly moving and concentrated attacking force—applied to armored warfare.
On September 10 the train reached Kielce, south of Warsaw, and by now a surprising rapport had developed between the supreme commander and the newly appointed general. The Führer treated him as more than a bodyguard. Rommel wrote to tell Lucie that he had been invited to attend the daily situation conference chaired by Hitler and was “occasionally allowed to speak.” He “sometimes sat next to him at lunch.” While Hitler was attracted by Rommel’s aggressive tactics displayed in Infanterie greift an, and Rommel appreciated a head of state who saw everything through the eyes of a soldier, this special relationship had its roots in class. Neither man belonged to the Prussian military aristocracy that still dominated the High Command and whose members surrounded and advised Hitler. In Rommel he had found “one of his own.”
While Rommel was making friends with Hitler he made a dangerous enemy in Martin Bormann. At Gdynia, Hitler decided to drive to the Baltic down a steep, narrow road that led to the sea’s edge. Rommel allowed Hitler’s car and an escort vehicle to set off down, then blocked the road. Martin Bormann, in the third car, demanded that he be allowed to pass. Rommel replied: “I am headquarters commandant. This is not a kindergarten outing and you will do as I say.” According to Walter Warlimont, deputy chief of staff of the Wehrmacht, Bormann directed “furious screams” at Rommel and “swore in an outrageous manner.” Bormann was soon to become chief of the Nazi Party Chancellery and would carry with him a personal dislike of the upstart general.
Danzig was retaken, and on September 19 Rommel accompanied Hitler on the drive from the station at Goddentow-Lanz into the city, where the Führer broadcast to the nation. “I was able to talk with him about military matters for almost two hours. He is extremely friendly toward me.” Their special relationship could no longer escape the notice of the Army High Command. On September 23 he told Lucie: “I eat at his table twice each day now, and yesterday I sat next to him … relations with [Colonel Rudolf] Schmundt are strained. Apparently my relationship with the Führer is becoming too strong.”
This three-week period played a crucial role in forming Rommel’s military career. He was able to study at first-hand how the theory of blitzkrieg could be successfully applied by a rapidly moving “arrowhead” of panzer divisions. But just as significantly, his high regard for Hitler was confirmed by seeing him continually exhorting the troops from the front and at some personal risk: a command style that matched his own. Hitler had won Poland but he had also won Erwin Rommel. Rommel began signing his letters, “Heil Hitler! Yours, E. Rommel.” He might never have been a card-carrying Nazi but he was now Hitler’s man.
It was during one of their lunchtime conversations that he told the Führer he would like to be considered for an operational command, and that although his only experience was with the infantry he would prefer a panzer division. Such a request from any other officer with no tank experience would have been ignored; indeed, no other officer would have dared to ask it. But by now Rommel had a special place in Hitler’s affections. When the last Polish resistance had collapsed and the train was heading back to Berlin, the Führer gave him a signed copy of Mein Kampf inscribed, “To General Rommel with pleasant memories.”
Hitler kept his word to Rommel, and on February 6, 1940, he was given command of the 7th Panzer Division at Bad Godesberg. He had never commanded tanks in battle and Colonel Hans von Luck wrote: “My infantry instructor from Dresden became our divisional commander. Much as we admired this man, we wondered if an infantryman could be a commander of tanks.”
Rommel, like Monty, trained his men hard, included nighttime exercises and made a point of visiting every unit to make himself known to the men. He told them he was proud to lead a panzer division. He met the author of Achtung! Panzer! when Guderian visited the division and addressed the officers. “You are the cavalry,” Guderian said. “Your job is to break through and keep going.”
The division consisted of the 25th Panzer Regiment, two Schützen (motorized infantry regiments), an artillery regiment with 36 guns, an anti-tank battalion with 75 guns and an engineer battalion. The panzer regiment, commanded by Colonel Karl Rothenburg, had 218 tanks, and although these included the Mark III (with a 5 cm gun) and IV (7.5 cm gun), half of them were light, Czech-built tanks. The success of the German divisions has often been put down to the superiority of their panzers but at this point they had no technological advantage over the British and French. The benefit of the heavier shells fired by Rommel’s best tank, the Panzer IV, was canceled out by the thicker armor of the British Matilda Mark II, while the German tank’s relatively thin armor left it vulnerable to both the Matilda and the French SOMUA S35.
The invasion of France would not be determined by the relative technologies of the tank but by the way in which it was used. The British and French viewed it as an infantry support vehicle and therefore spread their tanks thinly along the whole defensive line. The German army, convinced by the concept of blitzkrieg, used panzer divisions as the spearhead of an attack coordinated with the Luftwaffe (to bomb ahead of the advance) and the infantry (to surge through the gap in the enemy line thus created). Blitzkrieg was not just about speed but also about mass: achieving a rapid, deep penetration by massed armor.
For the invasion of France and Belgium, code-named Fall Gelb (Operation Yellow), Rommel’s division would advance as part of General Gerd von Rundstedt’s Army Group A through the heavily forested valleys of the Ardennes, considered impenetrable by tanks. On their right General Fedor von Bock’s Army Group B would enter northern Belgium along the “traditional” route—the lowlands—and tempt the British and French forward to confront them. Then Army Group A would appear unexpectedly from the Ardennes, cross the Meuse and make a Sichelschnitt (scythe’s sweep), striking first westward, then turning north across the rear of the British and French to trap the Allies in Belgium. Caught between these two army groups, the enemy could then be destroyed. It was intended that Guderian would act as the forward edge of the scythe, with Rommel securing his right flank.
While many in the High Command had grave doubts about the plan, Rommel praised Hitler for understanding and implementing Guderian’s concept of the tank attack. He told Lucie in April that “if we did not have the Führer, I doubt there would be any other German capable of so brilliant a mastery of both military and political leadership.” Rommel’s approval for Hitler was not given, as would later be said, in ignorance of the darker side of National Socialism. Two “Party men” were attached to his divisional headquarters: Lieutenant Karl Hanke, personal assistant to Goebbels, the propaganda minister, was now appointed ADC to Rommel; Karl Holz was editor of Der Stürmer, the country’s most anti-Semitic paper, and acted as a link between Rommel and the attached propaganda unit. There is no evidence that Rommel found their presence objectionable; on the contrary, he and Hanke became close friends.
At the beginning of May the division moved to a training area near the Eifel Mountains in northwest Germany for practice with live ammunition. Rommel stressed to his commanders that “it won’t be a walk-over as in Poland; the French and the British are quite different opponents.”
Fall Gelb was launched on May 10. At 0430 the advance guard of Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division crossed the Belgian frontier. In two days he broke through the outnumbered Chasseurs Ardennais and crossed the Ourthe River. In his first armored encounter of the war at Marche, when his way was blocked by a handful of Renault and Hotchkiss tanks, “prompt opening fire on our part led to a hasty French retreat.” He kept up the pace of his advance westward by ignoring his flanks, depending on his speed and firepower to crush French opposition. He commanded from the front and in person, writing to tell Lucie on the evening of May 11 that his voice was hoarse from continually shouting orders.
He reached the eastern bank of the Meuse near Dinant on the afternoon of May 12 to find that the bridge had been blown and French infantrymen installed in buildings on the far bank. The next morning an attempted crossing in rubber boats failed under heavy enemy small-arms fire. Rommel positioned tanks along the east bank to fire on French positions, had houses set alight to provide a smokescreen and was among the first men to cross in a rubber boat: “I now took over personal command of the 2 Battalion of 7 Rifle Regiment and for some time directed operations myself.” While his riflemen engaged the French infantry, Rommel’s engineers built pontoons to get his tanks across. Army Group A was crossing the Meuse at two other points but Rommel’s division was first across, beating even Guderian’s panzers to the west bank.
He now went ahead of the division with Rothenburg’s 25th Panzer Regiment, moving rapidly west from the Meuse before the French had time to organize a counterattack. His own command vehicle was a specially adapted Panzer III but he often rode in Rothenburg’s Panzer IV. Now that they were through the Ardennes the open countryside allowed much quicker progress and by the evening of May 16 he had reached the “impregnable” Maginot Line. His artillery provided covering fire while his tanks advanced and engaged enemy positions with direct, close-range fire; then his infantry followed up to assault and take the fortifications. It was here that in the Great War the kaiser’s army had been held for more than four years. Rommel hardly paused as his panzer division swept through, the tanks firing to both flanks as they sped on to the west.
Rommel led his division, covering fifty miles during the night, so by the morning of May 17 he was ahead of both panzer divisions advancing on his flanks. The German blitzkrieg had become Rommel’s blitzkrieg.