Panzer IVs and a T(38) roll through another small French town.
5th and 7th Pz.Div. May 15, 1940
When the 6th Panzer Division reached Montcornet on the evening of May 15, the 9th French Army was in disarray. Not only had Reinhardt broken through, but slightly further north, Hermann Hoth’s XV Corps, comprising the 5th and 7th Panzer Divisions, had also blasted a hole in the 9th French Army. Its commander, General Georges Corap, lacked the mobile units required to restore the situation. The 1st French Armored Division, commanded by Major-General Bruneau, had been diverted to Corap, but it fared no better as it met and clashed with German Panzer formations.
On the evening of May 14, the French armored division had advanced towards the bridgehead at Dinant captured by Major-General Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division. As the tanks had to be refueled, Bruneau ordered his division to halt in the Flavion area. He did not know that Rommel’s most advanced elements were only a few kilometers away. However, Rommel was just as ignorant about the presence of the French division.
In the engagement that followed on May 15, two different philosophies were pitted against each other. The French emphasized deliberate, well-planned and systematic action, but speed was not given priority. The German philosophy stressed mobility, combined arms and rapid decision-making and conduct.
On the morning of May 15, the German 25th Panzer Regiment, which was part of Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division, encountered French tanks at Flavion. A violent battle ensued for a few hours before Rommel decided to break off the action and send the 25th Panzer Regiment on an outflanking move towards Philippeville. At the same time, the German 5th Panzer Division, commanded by Major-General Max von Hartlieb, approached from the east and engaged Bruneau’s division.
NCO Nökel commanded a Panzer III that belonged to the 31st Panzer Regiment, one of the two Panzer regiments in the 5th Panzer Division. He moved near Flavion on the morning of May 15. The terrain was undulating and covered by thick vegetation. Abandoned French equipment littered the nearby woods and, in some places, also the road. Nökel proceeded calmly, but just east of Flavion he was interrupted by voices in his headset telling him that the lead tanks in the company had encountered French tanks at a range of 1,200 meters. The voice of the company commander immediately followed, ordering his tanks to take up firing positions.
While Nökel and the other tank commanders in the company maneuvered their tanks into firing positions, further French tanks were observed at the fringe of a wood. The range was approximately 1,400 meters. The enemy tanks had one gun in a revolving turret and also one mounted in the chassis front. They were of the type Char B1bis, a heavy French tank that was better armed and armored than the German models. The French crews did not seem to have spotted the German tanks, which held the advantage of higher ground.
Captain von Schönburg-Waldenburg, the company commander, ordered I Platoon to advance to a gentle crest around 300 meters away while II and III Platoons provided cover. Unfortunately for the Germans, the French saw the advancing tanks of I Platoon and opened fire. Nökel ordered his driver to take the tank to the crest as quickly as possible, as did the other tanks in the platoon. The Germans reached the crest unharmed, where they sought cover in copses. Nökel’s driver maneuvered the tank into a suitable firing position while the loader and gunner ensured that they could open fire. As soon as the tank had reached the intended position, Nökel ordered his crew to fire. The shell left the muzzle and could, due to the tracer, be followed during the good second it took to reach its target. To his dismay, Nökel saw the 3.7-cm shell bounce off the enemy tank as if it were a pea. The other tanks in the platoon were just as unsuccessful.
The Germans found themselves in a deteriorating situation. More French tanks appeared on the scene. They gradually reduced the distance to the German tanks, which awaited permission to fire. As the German guns had proved themselves wholly ineffective at longer range, there was no point in wasting ammunition. Nökel saw the silhouettes of the French tanks loom ever larger. He had not seen such large tanks before and had not even heard of them during training—not even during the session devoted to recognizing enemy vehicles. The tense situation made his pulse jump.
The company commander issued clear instructions on the radio, allocating targets for the platoons. When the range had shrunk to 250 meters, von Schönburg-Waldenburg ordered his tanks to open fire. Three French tanks were instantly hit and came to a halt. The crews bailed out and fled the scene. Other French tanks continued forward and exposed their sides. The Germans fired on the side armor, which proved to have a weak spot where a hatch for the radiator was located. This allowed the Germans to knock out some of the heavy enemy tanks. Over the radio, they informed the other German tanks about the weakness they had found in the enemy’s armor.
The excellent communications equipment allowed Nökel and the other soldiers in the German company to cooperate efficiently and compensate for the poor armament and weak armor of their tanks. The Germans were also aided by further advantages. Their tank turrets comprised a crew of three men—the commander, the gunner and the loader. This allowed the commander to focus on the terrain and the enemy and make suitable decisions. French commanders also had to aim and load the 4.7-cm gun mounted in the turret. Neither did they have the kind of turret hatch fitted to the German tanks, which allowed the commander to peek out and get a full view of the surrounding terrain. All this resulted in the French commanders being overburdened in battle, and they also suffered from inferior communication and means of observation.
In a way, the poor French radio communications are puzzling. As the French Army practiced a more centralized mode of decision-making, it was actually more dependent on good communication than the German Army, particularly in mobile operations. Considering their different doctrines, it would make more sense for the French to have devoted efforts to create robust communications. In fact, it was the Germans who possessed more and better means of communication. Additionally, the German emphasis on decentralized decision-making made them less prone to complete breakdown when communications failed.-*
The French 1st Armored Division suffered something that might be termed a breakdown near Flavion on May 15. Despite the fact that important elements of von Hartlieb’s division did not reach Flavion on that date, Bruneau’s division was outmaneuvered in a succession of small actions contributed to by German tanks and other arms of the 5th Panzer Division. At the end of the day, Bruneau ordered his men to retreat, but less than a quarter of his tanks remained operational. The 1st French Armored Division had ceased to be an effective formation.
Although the German losses were far smaller, they were not negligible. Nökel was one of the unlucky ones; his radio malfunctioned and he became separated from the company. He was also running dangerously low on ammunition. He caught sight of a few tanks from the company and ordered his driver to steer towards them. At this stage, Nökel was so disoriented that he did not know which direction he was driving in. Black smoke from burning vehicles obscured the sun to such an extent that it was of no help for orientation. Suddenly, Nökel’s tank was fired upon from the right. The driver immediately steered towards a building and managed to reach it before being hit. Nökel saw two enemy tanks firing on him. His gunner revolved the turret as rapidly as possible and fired a shell against one of the French tanks. The range was only 200 meters, and the first shot was a hit.
At the same time, another French tank fired upon Nökel’s Panzer III. The first shot landed in front of the target and the second behind. Nökel ordered his driver to reverse. At that moment, he saw a third muzzle flash. As the driver shifted to reverse gear, Nökel heard some kind of noise coming from the gearbox. It was the last sound he heard before a multicolored flame flashed before his eyes. The tank shuddered and sulfuric vapor reached his nose. He would never forget the smell. He could not remember how he managed to escape the tank, but once he was outside he realized that he had lost his hearing. He managed to find the crew, except for the driver, behind the tank. Still deaf, Nökel decided to check if the driver was still alive. He placed his fingers on the tank and could feel that the engine was still running.
When he reached the front of the tank, Nökel saw that the enemy shell had hit above and behind the driver’s position. The driver was still alive and halfway out through the hatch above his seat. He was laid on top of the tank’s rear together with the wounded gunner. Nökel crept into the tank, sat down on the driver’s bloody seat and turned the vehicle around. He drove to an asphalt road and turned left on it, hoping to find a dressing station.
Nökel drove as fast as he could down the road, but after 500 meters he could already see French vehicles in a nearby wood. They turned out to be horse-drawn baggage carts. Nökel promptly drove past them. A few minutes later, the German tank came near a small village where a bridge spanned a stream. It soon became clear that there were French soldiers in the village. However, their backs faced Nökel’s approaching tank. Without any deliberation, he gave full throttle and stormed across the bridge. Once on the other side of the river, Nökel again saw soldiers, but they wore German helmets.
Nökel and his crew had reached their goal. They received the medical treatment they needed and Nökel would slowly regain his hearing. However, almost four weeks would elapse before he could serve again.
Three Panzer corps comprised the spearhead of the German attack. After defeating the 1st French Armored Division, Hoth’s XV Corps advanced deep into the enemy territory. Similarly, Reinhardt’s XXXXI Corps headed west at high speed. Perhaps the most important attack was conducted by Guderian’s XIX Corps, which operated on the most southerly axis of the three Panzer corps in von Rundstedt’s Army group.