Battle of Houdilcourt

2nd Pz.Div. actions in the Houdilcourt area June 10, 1940.

Army Group A launched its offensive on June 9, four days later than the units near the English Channel. Guderian now had two Panzer corps at his disposal, both of which had been positioned in the Reims area. His grouping was the easternmost of the German mechanized formations and included four Panzer divisions and two infantry divisions. They were to be committed when infantry divisions had secured bridgeheads across the Aisne.

On June 9, Guderian’s units remained in reserve. One of them was the 2nd Panzer Division, which was cautiously moved forward. Although the main offensive had been launched, it remained important not to reveal the Panzer divisions and thereby disclose the overall intensions of the Germans. The commander of the division, Lieutenant-General Rudolf Veiel, continuously received information on how the attack progressed. He issued instructions accordingly to the battle groups formed in his division. They gradually moved south, troubled by traffic jams but not unduly hindered.

Early in the afternoon, alarming reports from the fighting infantry division were received. They indicated that French resistance was stiff. Heavy French tanks had also been observed, and so Lieutenant-General Veiel was requested to send tanks in support. He resisted, as he believed his tanks were inferior to the heavy enemy tanks and he did not want to reveal the presence of his division yet.

The 2nd Panzer Division’s preparations proceeded virtually according to plan, and early on June 10 it was ready to attack south. Veiel’s division had two Panzer regiments, the 3rd and 4th, with two battalions each. They belonged to the 2nd Panzer Brigade, which was commanded by Major-General Heinrich von Prittwitz und Gaffron. He had elected to advance with the 4th Panzer Regiment in the lead. It had taken longer than expected to cross the Aisne during the night, but at 6.30 a.m., the 4th Panzer Regiment attacked. An hour later, the 3rd Panzer Regiment joined in Beautiful summer weather accompanied the tanks of the 4th Panzer Regiment as they set out. The tanks made good progress across the billowy fields, but soon fire from a wooded area was aimed at the German tanks. The tankers asked for infantry to clear the woods. The request was first made on the radio, and then by a liaison officer. However, nothing had happened after fifteen minutes. The commander of the Panzer regiment did not wait any longer. The German tanks continued south and were soon able to report that the defenders had been defeated.

High tempo was vital to the German success. Accordingly, the 4th Panzer Regiment continued attacking, and soon after 7.30 a.m. it neared the village of St. Loup. The tanks had thus advanced approximately 5 km south of the Aisne. To maintain the tempo of the attack, one Panzer battalion from the 3rd Panzer Regiment was directed to outflank St. Loup to the east while the 4th Panzer Division attacked into the village as well as outflanking it to the west.

At this moment, the Germans observed French tanks moving north. The German tankers immediately opened fire and could soon see the French tanks turning south. Further west, the Germans found a French battery, which was also rapidly taken under fire. The French gunners tried to evade the attackers with their equipment, but the German Panzer IIIs and IVs continued to shell them. Only remnants of the battery managed to escape. St. Loup was captured without much trouble.

After this objective had been attained, the commander of the Panzer regiment ordered the advance to continue towards Houdilcourt, located approximately 8 km west-southwest of St. Loup. As was customary in the German Army, the brigade commander issued his orders orally by visiting his subordinates at their command posts. They did not find the brigade commander’s instructions surprising given the overall mission. The exact direction was, of course, not self-evident, but the brigade commander indicated it clearly.

From the St. Loup area, German tanks drove towards the slopes northwest of the village, but some of them remained at the village until the infantry arrived. Most of the 4th Panzer Regiment did, however, begin to move, initially without encountering any significant opposition. The 5th Company advanced on the left flank and the tank commanders raised their heads above the turret hatch to search for the enemy. They suddenly saw muzzle flashes from antitank guns north of Sault-Saint-Remy. One of the German platoons immediately opened fire and knocked out the French battery before any tanks were knocked out.

The battle grew fiercer as the German tanks approached Houdilcourt. The village was located along an east–westerly stretch of woodland. The German maneuver brought them alongside the woods. Concealed French antitank guns, fire controllers for the artillery and heavy infantry weapons lurked beneath the branches. After the command was given, they opened fire on the German tanks, which lacked supporting infantry at this stage. Neither were the German tanks accompanied by fire controllers for the artillery.

Despite their disadvantages, the 4th Panzer Regiment continued the attack and tried to envelop the French position by advancing west, which would allow it to roll up the defense. However, the attempt failed as the French flank extended further to the west than anticipated by the Germans. The 6th Company did manage to break into Houdilcourt and clear the village, but the strongest French defenses were located in the woods east and west of Houdilcourt. The French were also protected by minefields and the bridges across the Retourne river—the swampy banks of which extended westwards through the woods—had been barricaded.

The regiment commander regarded artillery support as necessary for successfully attacking the French position. Over the radio, he requested fire support from the divisional howitzers, but this could not be provided immediately. It was not until 12.20 p.m. that the tankers received any information suggesting that artillery support could be expected soon. The tanks in Houdilcourt were ordered to move out of the village to avoid being subjected to the artillery fire. The howitzers would commence firing at 12.45 p.m.

The German tank crews anxiously waited for the shells to hit the French positions, but despite straining all their senses, they could not see any artillery fire when their watches passed 12.45. Neither did they receive any information on the radio, leaving them with no option but to wait—they could not risk being hit by their own artillery.

A sort of stalemate resulted from the poor communication between the German tanks and artillery. Finally, tanks from the 5th and 6th Companies began to move in order to find firing positions on a slope, but they drew fire from French antitank guns. Several German tanks were knocked out by the well-concealed French guns, which the Germans were unable to locate. At this moment, the German tankers decided not to wait any longer, despite the uncertainty of the artillery fire. II Battalion of the 3rd Panzer Regiment attacked east of the French position, thus rolling it up from the flank. Around 200 prisoners were captured, as well as five antitank guns.

Shortly thereafter, the Panzer regiment was able to establish a connection with the neighboring division, which detailed two of its artillery battalions to support the tanks. The latter could thus continue its attack and dislodge the defenders from their positions. The tanks could not pursue south in force until the minefields and other obstacles had been removed. However, the tanks and the temporarily subordinated artillery from the neighboring division fired upon the retreating French defenders.

Later in the evening, the 3rd Panzer Regiment took up defensive positions south of Houdilcourt, near the northern outskirts of St Etienne sur Suippes. The French line of defense had been broken, but at a cost. No fewer than twenty-one of the tanks in the 3rd Panzer Regiment had been knocked out, although it was possible to repair many of them. The 2nd Panzer Division recorded twenty-five killed in action, seventy-one wounded and three missing. Of these, three of those killed, twenty-one of those wounded and one of those missing belonged to the 3rd Panzer Regiment. Casualties within the 4th Panzer Regiment were far smaller: two killed in action, nine wounded and one missing.

In the evening of June 10, two pieces of news were received by the 2nd Panzer Division. The Allies had evacuated Narvik, and thus the campaign in Norway had come to an end. Also, Italy had declared war on Britain and France. This information was enthusiastically received, but the 2nd Panzer Division ad no time to rest on its laurels. During the night, the bridges across the Retourne were cleared of mines and obstacles. Another river, the Suippes, flowed across the German axis of advance further south, and the retreating French blew up the bridges spanning it. Nevertheless, the 2nd Panzer Division advanced on a broad front east of Reims on June 11.

The battles northeast of Reims had shown that the spirit of the French Army was not yet broken. However, once the Germans had broken through the prepared defenses, they could not be stopped. The losses suffered previously in the north had left France bereft of any significant reserves, and when the fighting became more fluid, the Germans held all the trump cards. No significant opposition would bother Guderian’s divisions after June 11.

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