As the Germans raced to the sea to cut off the Allies, several attempts were made to strike at the German flanks. At Marle and Montcornet on May 17, Arras on May 21, and Cambrai on May 22, the attacks were too little, too late. Airpower isolated the attacking units and punished them severely, often before their attacks ever started. Once in contact with German ground units, the attacking Allies found themselves outgunned and alone. The decision to start using the German 8.8cm anti-aircraft gun in an anti-tank role helped seal the fate of the poorly-planned Allied attacks.
17th May 1940 France: At dawn, Rommel and his armoured advance guard, thrust towards Landrecies.
At 5.15 am the Germans enter Landrecies and make straight for the local headquarters; which they capture and then take the bridge over the Sambre. On the upper Oise, Reinhardt’s advance-guard seizes the bridges between Hirson and Guise at about 8 am. In the middle Oise between Guise and La Fere, posts manned by the French 2 Armoured Division were attacked at 5 am by forward elements of the 2nd Panzers, and resisted fiercely on the bridges of Moy, Bethenicourt and Mezieres. But farther to the south, the bridge of Ribemont was seized at 9am by the 1st Panzers. Then the Panzers are halted. According to Guderian’s memoirs, this morning with his leading troops on the Oise, Von Kleist arrived by plane in a towering rage. Guderian was ordered to stop his columns at once, by the Fuhrer’s orders. He also stormed at him for having exceeded his instructions. Finally, he relieved him of his command, which he handed to his senior divisional commander. Guderian consequently sent orders to all his units to stop where they were, and handed over to General Veiel. Then by wireless he gave a full account to von Runstedt. In the afternoon the army group commander asked General List, commanding the 12th Army, to settle the quarrel. The latter went to see for himself, saw the position, re-established Guderian in his command, and even authorised him to send out “strong fighting reconnaissance patrols” on the next day, but without moving his command post. Guderian now used a succession of “advanced CP’s” to pursue his advance. On the French side, one positive action was the counter-attack by 4 Armoured Div., under Col. de Gaulle. He had only 150 tanks in three battalions, one of Renault R 35 s and two of Renault B 1biss. His intention was to reach Montcornet, on the Serre about 12 miles to the north, a junction of roads to Saint-Quentin, laon and Rheims, to block the German’s routes in those directions. They reached Montcornet, but the German’s were in strength on the Serre, and the unsupported tanks cannot cross it. In the evening, severely harassed by German artillery fire and continuous Stuka attacks, the group fell back to Laon, bring 130 prisoners with them.
The air force did its best to support Colonel Charles de Gaulle’s armored thrusts toward Montcornet on 16 and 17 May. Night fighters received day ground assault missions, and the remains of the bomber units were committed. But Colonel de Gaulle failed to tell the air force the time and direction of his movements. As a result, 68 bomber sorties went in before de Gaulle moved and were of no assistance to him. Laon and Montcornet are famous in post-war official French history because they were the site of so-called “victories” by the 4th DCR led by… colonel De Gaulle!
On 17 May there was an attack on Guderian at Montcornet by the 4th DCR under the command of Colonel (as he still was) de Gaulle. This unit, assigned to General Robert Touchon’s 6th Army, had been hastily assembled only days earlier out of a battalion of infantry support tanks, a battalion of B1 tanks, and a few other medium tanks, making about 95 tanks in total. They had never trained together before, and they lacked radios, anti-tank guns, and air support. The attack took the Germans off guard, but they were able to fend it off easily enough. It was no discredit to de Gaulle that his ramshackle unit, hastily cobbled together, had been unable to achieve greater results. To the north of the German corridor, on 17 and 18 May, the Germans were engaged in fierce fighting at the Forest of Mormal by elements of the First DLM, which had arrived from Holland. On 19 May de Gaulle’s 4th DCR carried out another attack near Laon, which enjoyed more tactical success than the first one. But in the end all these attacks were like flies buzzing around the tortoise head, while never concentrating sufficient force to threaten its jugular.
Specifically, on May 17th, 4 tank battalions advanced on the Laon-Montcornet road (on the left on the D977 through Chivres and Clermont: 46e BCC with Renault B1 bis and 19e BCC Renault D2, on the right on the D181 and D18 through Sissonne, Boncourt-Lappion, Dizy-le-Gros, la Ville-aux-Bois 2e and 24e BCC Renault R35) without any infantry support. They reach Montcornet separately, first the light tanks, then the “heavies” (delayed by astronomic gas consumption), but are repelled by anti-tank fire and must retreat, leaving 7 R35, 4 D2 and 2 B1 bis on the battlefield. The objective of the “offensive” (which turned out to be no more than an armed reconnaissance) i.e. cutting off the supply lines of the Guderian tank corps, has not been achieved, and it is even dubious that it indirectly caused the famous temporary stop ordered by von Kleist, which was sent to Guderian before the first contact and lifted the same evening…
On May 19th, the 4th DCR, with all its elements (about 30 B1 bis, 40 D2 and 40 light tanks) as well as 40 Somua S-35 of the 3e Cuirassiers and the armored cars Panhard 178 of the 10e Cuirassiers, attacked North from Laon towards Crécy-sur-Serre and was repelled by concentrated anti-tank and artillery (105mm) fire, probably from the 37th Pionier battalion from the 1.PzD, with one anti-tank company (37mm), a heavy infantry company and an artillery battery. Losses are estimated at 181 men for the 4e BCP and 38 armored vehicles (9 B1 bis, 2 D2, 7 S-35, 10 light tanks Renault R-35 or Hotchkiss H-35 and 10 Panhard P-178).