With the Ghost Division

The Panzer Division that Erwin Rommel took over on 15 February 1940, though new in number and form, was by no means totally inexperienced in war. In the Polish campaign, under the name of ‘2nd Light Division’, it had been among the invading forces, but, like three similar mechanized formations raised from the old horsed cavalry units, it had been a failure. A single battalion of 90 light tanks to support 4 motorized infantry battalions was found incompatible with the mode of mobile warfare practised by the six existing Panzer divisions that Guderian and the Panzerwaffe had developed and demonstrated with such startling effect, for these contained anything up to 320 tanks each. However, absorbing new tanks from the German and Czech factories, each ‘light division’ had by now been converted into a Panzer division by giving it two additional tank battalions (including the latest medium machines), thereby increasing its tank strength to 218. Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division, in fact, was different from the others in that its infantry content of two lorried regiments instead of one incorporated five battalions plus an independent motorcycle battalion.

Preparations for war

When Rommel took command, the Division lay at Bad Godesberg, its equipment suffering in the open from exposure to a perishingly cold winter, and its role in the forthcoming invasion of the West yet to be revealed. As part of Hermann Hoth’s XV Corps, it was to provide the main striking power of Gunther Kluge’s Fourth Army, which would operate on the northern flank of Gerd von Rundstedt’s Army Group A, and spearhead the northern axis of the ambitious drive the Germans intended to launch through the Ardennes on 10 May, seizing bridgeheads over the River Meuse. While Hoth’s XV Corps made for Dinant, the two elements of Ewald von Kleist’s Panzer Group, Guderian’s XIX Corps (three Panzer divisions strong) and Reinhardt’s XLI Corps (with two Panzer divisions) would head for Sedan and Mont-herme respectively; then, if all three Corps achieved initial success, they would strike west with the coast of the English Channel as their objective.

Such daringly deep penetrations were second nature to Rommel: they embraced, in modern form, the battle techniques he had practised as an infantryman during the First World War, and which he had expounded ever since as a teacher. Tanks merely offered a quicker and more reliable way of advancing, while their thin armour (no German tank’s protection exceeding 30mm, compared with twice that thickness on many French and British tanks) merely gave an improved chance of survival against artillery and machine-gun fire. With so little time before the campaign, and with training in any case limited by a chronic shortage of fuel and ammunition, Rommel did not have much chance to get to know his men and machines before the invasion began. Nor could it be hoped that his staff would comprehend his style. No tactical training manuals in armoured warfare existed, but a standardized Panzer doctrine, such as it was, had been disseminated mainly by Heinz Guderian when he was Inspector of Panzer Forces before the war and, thereafter, improved by random discussions during the months of the ‘phoney’ winter war.

The 5th and 7th Panzer Divisions of XV Corps make the initial crossing of the River Meuse on 13 May, followed 12 hours later by XLI and XIX Corps. The French begin to withdraw opposite XV Corps on 14 May, as their 1st DCR advances to its destruction. XLI Corps strikes westward, soon accompanied on the flank by XIX Corps, which is also heavily engaged in fighting off determined counterattacks on its southern /lank, prior to being reinforced by infatry divisions. Panzer Group Kleist races westward, only occasionally hampered by desultory French attacks from the south, and lining its corridor with infantry divisions following more slowly behind. The 7th Panzer Division breaches the Maginot Line extension at Clairfayts on 16 May, and thrusts deep into the enemy rear. By the evening of 20 May, with the 5th Panzer Division echeloned to right rear, it has reached the outskirts of Arras, where it runs into stiff British defences and has its axis cut in rear by the French. Meanwhile, XLI and XIX Corps have moved even faster, Guderian’s XIX Corps reaching Abbeville on the evening of 20 May to complete the drive to the sea. The second phase begins on 5 June: the 7th Panzer Division races from the Somme, brushing aside resistance, and arrives at Cherbourg just too late to prevent remnants of the British 1st Armoured Division escaping.

Certain immutable principles had at least been established and drummed into every German armoured commander and staff officer: the necessity of reconnaissance, speed, concentration and reliable fuel replenishment. Reconnaissance would expose weak spots in the enemy defences, which could be exploited. Speed would help to surprise the enemy and, thereafter, prevent him from counterattacking in sufficient time at the right place—pace, in effect, would enhance security and safety. Concentration, by the employment of mass on a narrow front, would also purchase a measure of safety by distracting and overwhelming the enemy. And, perhaps above all, only an unchecked supply of fuel and ammunition would make these things possible. Such principles Rommel understood and had no need to digest-with the distinct exception of the last. He would use his tanks, armoured cars, lorries and motorcycles as he had previously used horses, bicycles and men on foot; he would utilize the wireless as once he had utilized a mobile telephone set; and, apart from the superior facilities provided by 1940s technology, he could operate as he had done in 1917, carefully rehearsing critical operations (such as the crossing of the Meuse) that could be foreseen. But, when battle began, he would dismiss logistics almost as an irrelevance.

Across the Meuse

The approach to the River Meuse, beginning at dawn on 10 May, must have awoken his memories of the march of 124th Regiment in 1914, taking him, as it did, through the enclosed terrain of the Ardennes. This time, he was in the lead from the outset, and immediately encountered opposition from the Belgian outposts, which were soon to be reinforced by the French 4th DLC (Division Legere de Cavalerie) as it arrived. Obstacles protected by enemy fire hampered progress, but were rapidly overcome by Rommel, drawing instantly upon his deeply-rooted intuition and applied in person from the forefront of battle. “I have found again and again”, he wrote in his comments on these skirmishes, “that in encounter actions, the day goes to the side that is the first to plaster its opponents with fire. The man who lies low and awaits developments usually conies off second best.”

This admirably sums up so much of his approach to life, let alone against an enemy; and, against the light mechanized cavalry and infantry forces opposed to him at this moment, the technique worked like a charm.  On schedule (while the rest of XV Corps and Panzer Group Kleist closed up to the Meuse), Rommel’s armoured cars and motorcyclists arrived at Dinant on the afternoon of the 12th. That evening, the motorcyclists infiltrated across the river, just as his mountaineers had crossed the Piave in 1917. By the following morning, the Division was tucked in among the steep ravines leading down to that fastflowing river; artillery registered on targets across the water; dismounted, motorized infantry and assault pioneers steeling themselves for the main crossing; tank battalions carrying out the maintenance work before being ferried over to continue the advance on ground more suited to their capability. On the right flank, the 5th Panzer Division had kept pace. As night fell, both divisions put the final touches to the preconceived plan for a crossing at 0300 hours next day.

The plan, however, was not to be: for the 7th Panzer Division was to beat its neighbour across the Meuse by nearly twelve hours-and at the cost of but twenty-four lives. By an enormous stroke of luck, Rommel had hit the boundary between two French Corps, a weak and sensitive point in any defence. Instinctively, he seized his opportunity and exploited it with a verve that few tacticians possess. His opponents, Generals Bouffet and Martin, were antagonists of pusillanimous calibre commanding units that were already badly shaken by bombing and the German onrush. But the French were not the only people to be disturbed. So, too, was Hoth, Rommel’s own Corps commander, who had forbidden him to cross independently and who now told him to halt and detach troops to help the 5th Panzer Division (whose bridging material he had coolly filched) coming up on the right flank. This Rommel refused to do, and he was supported by the Army commander, Kluge, who saw the possibilities of immediate exploitation.

By nightfall on the 13th, Rommel was in possession of a useful, if precarious, bridgehead on the west bank, secured in part by anti-tank guns, with eight-ton pontoons and rafts under construction at its base. But here was revealed a fault in his original orders: the eight-ton pontoon was incapable of supporting the heavier tanks.

The resulting delay, while sixteen-ton pontoons were built, meant that only fifteen tanks were floated across during the night, but the rate of build-up increased with daylight and, at 0800 hours on the 14th, with thirty tanks of the 25th Panzer Regiment assembled, he directed the assault upon the key village of Onaye, an operation that had been carefully rehearsed in exercises at Bad.Godesberg. Rommel now ran into trouble.

As heavy enemy artillery fire came down, and his tank driver swerved into a depression, Rommel was wounded in the cheek. For a short while he was a fugitive, out of touch with his Division. Onaye remained in French hands that evening, but the 5th Panzer Division was at last across on the right, and the rest of the 7th was beginning to arrive in strength, virtually unchallenged by any serious French counterattacks – despite Rommel’s exaggerated claims to the contrary. Perhaps it was his very proximity to the heart of the action that led him to overestimate, on this and several future occasions, the magnitude of the enemy threat. But perhaps it was something else: an outright determination to portray his activities to the maximum possible advantage before Hitler. At any rate, Lieutenant Hausberg, who had been one of Rommel’s students at Wiener Neustadt, had the task each evening of taking an aircraft and presenting to the Fiihrer a map depicting the day’s advances by the 7th Panzer Division, extravagant objectives for the morrow, and showing the flanking formation well in rear, signified by a question-mark. Hausberg’s embarrassing duty, which had been settled at a very high level prior to the invasion, brought him a fair measure of derision from those in the know; it also irritated officers of the other formations in the Corps, who justifiably felt slighted.

To make matters easier for the Germans, the French stood motionless while XV Corps built up its strength on the west bank during the 13th. They did not begin to react with their own armoured divisions until after midday on the 14th, when the threat at Dinant, Montherme and Sedan gradually, but forcibly, came to their notice. If this delayed reaction was another stroke of luck for Rommel, so too was the inept manner in which the 1st DCR (Division Cuirassee Rapide) approached from Charleroi on the 14th and 15th, in its attempt to counter the penetration achieved by XV Corps.

For the 1st DCR, a recently-founded armoured formation like the 7th Panzer Division, was deficient in its communication equipment, lacking in its traffic-control organization and inadequately supplied by its fuel echelons; furthermore, its men were given to outbreaks of ungovernable panic on the random occasions when they were bombed by the Luftwaffe. Its line of march now bisected the advancing prongs of Hoth’s two armoured spearheads, enabling both Divisions to share the killing. On the afternoon of the 15th, the Germans caught a thoroughly disorganized, immobile 1st DCR in open ground, where it was engaged in a delayed refuelling. The German tanks, free to manoeuvre, hit the French heavy tanks in flank. By the end of the day, only 50 out of the original 160 French tanks remained serviceable, many having surrendered intact; by the next morning, they were down to 17, the rest having been abandoned in flight and from shortage of petrol; and, the following night, these demoralized survivors were mopped-up by the 7th Panzer Division as it burst into the town of Avesnes. Only 3 escaped.

Breaching the Maginot Line

The sudden arrival of Rommel’s division in Avesnes [83] was itself the product of the Panzer units’ overall success. The breakthrough, which had opened a fifty-mile gap in the French defences, had utterly disrupted their Army. The wholesale destruction of three-quarters of their best mobile armoured forces, within a period of seventy-two hours, demolished any hope of their recovery. Apart from a few semi-mobile infantry divisions, backed up by scattered tank detachments, the French were rendered defenceless. Their Maginot Line proper, which terminated at Longwy, had been outflanked, and the thin line of pill-boxes, which extended its coverage westward along the frontier with Belgium, put up but the barest resistance-as Rommel demonstrated on the night of the 16th in the advance that carried him to Avesnes, to complete the rout of the 1st DCR. Rommel’s personal account of the breaching of the Maginot Line extension at Sivry and Clairfayts is among his best writing, and explains to perfection his methods of conducting a pursuit.

The fortifications were to be reconnoitred in daylight; the Rifle Regiments supported by tanks and artillery were then to seize the fortifications, whereupon the 25th Panzer Regiment would burst through towards Avesnes. “I rode … in the regimental commander’s command tank … When a report came in from a reconnaissance troop that the road through Clairfayts had been mined, we bore off to the south and moved in open order across fields and hedges in a semi-circle round the village … Suddenly we saw the angular outlines of a French fortification about 100 yards ahead… In a few moments the leading tanks came under heavy anti-tank gunfire from the left… and two of our tanks were knocked out.”

The 7th Panzer was called the ‘Ghost Division’ because the Allies never knew its exact location during the battle for France. Neither did the German High Command for much of the time, though Rommel could have used his communications vehicle to keep in touch. Rommel’s command car carried the license plate WH 143149 painted on the vehicle’s bow.

The battle became general over a wide front, as the Germans explored and tackled the complexity of ditches and hedgehogs guarded by the pill-boxes. At nightfall, the enemy was still very much in evidence, although gaps had been cleared in the obstacles and several French guns had been destroyed by a Panzer-kampfwagen IV [the German close-support tank with a short 75mm gun firing high-explosive shells]. Rommel took his place immediately behind the leading tank company as its engines were rewed-up and its machine-guns began spraying the surrounding countryside.

“The way to the west was now open. The moon was up … The tanks now rolled in a long column through the line of fortifications and towards the first houses, which had been set alight by our fire. In the moonlight we could see the men of the 7th Motorcycle Battalion moving forward on foot beside us … Our artillery was dropping heavy harassing fire on villages and the road far ahead … Gradually the speed increased. Before long we were 500-1,000-2,000-3,000 yards into the fortified zone. Engines roared, tank tracks clanked and clattered … Troops lay bivouaced beside the road, military vehicles stood parked in farmyards … Civilians and French troops, their faces distorted with terror, lay huddled in the ditches … the flat countryside lay spread out around us under the cold light of the moon. We were through the Maginot Line! It was hardly conceivable!”

For the ensuing forty-eight hours, Rommel drove his men hard, not for one moment letting the pace slacken, urging them beyond the point of exhaustion and frequently pushing the tank regiment so far ahead that the infantry regiments were left miles behind while the

tanks themselves ran out of petrol. Whereas the other Panzer divisions advanced on a relatively broad front, Rommel’s thrust a narrow pencil line of red crayon across the map, with himself either in action at the tip or racing backwards and forwards like a dervish, berating the units that failed to keep up. Several times he was within an ace of being captured, and hardly ever was the 7th Panzer Division complete master of the country it had traversed. French soldiers roamed about as they pleased, surrendering when convenient and then escaping as they chose, a constant menace to this handful of impudent Germans in their midst. Although Rommel often pushed his luck beyond the limits of prudence, the results proved him correct in taking such risks. The French nation’s morale had collapsed—the Polish Army would never have allowed itself to be bullied like this in 1939. Never again would he fight so innocuous a foe, whose soldiers were presented with innumerable opportunities to end his career there and then, but who supinely threw in the sponge. Rommel was lucky to get away with it.

Certainly, Major Otto Heidkamper, his principal staff officer and chief of operations, was seriously alarmed by Rommel’s unorthodox methods and the risks he took with the Division. Not for the first time, on 18 May, Heidkamper, at Divisional headquarters, was unable satisfactorily to arrange replenishment of the tanks, which as usual were in the far distance and cut off. And, since contact with Rommel (who was closely engaged in battle) was also broken, he turned, a worried man, to Corps headquarters for help-to the immense rage of his commander who subsequently wrote: “This young General Staff Officer, scared that something might happen to him and the staff, stayed some twenty miles behind the Front and, of course, lost contact with the fighting troops … Instead of rushing everything up forward he went to Corps headquarters, upset the people there and behaved as if the command of the division were no longer secure … I’ll have to make a thorough study of the documents so as to put the boy in his place.” Apart from its manifestation of his attitude to the staff, this is the first recorded instance of discord between a General Staff officer and Rommel. It may not have been the first, and it certainly would not be the last. Although it is easy to understand Rommel’s anger, one must have sympathy too with Heidkamper, who was a brilliant officer, one day to become a lieutenant-general. Lacking clear instructions from Rommel, he had had good reasons for being anxious about the command’s security. And here Rommel displays a significant misconception of how the staff should work.[84] A headquarters cannot function calmly and efficiently if it is dashing from place to place and coming constantly under fire: uniform procedures are essential, and the commander must behave in a rational manner if misunderstandings are to be avoided. Rommel’s cavalier notion of ‘rushing’ soft-skinned lorries forward was risky. In due course, peace would be restored between commander and chief of operations, but those at Corps headquarters were also decidedly, and justifiably, alarmed.

General Hoth came forward in person on the afternoon of the 19th, anxious to call a halt, since in his opinion the Division was exhausted and too far separated from the 5th Panzer Division for comfort. By then, the 7th Panzer Division stood with its head at Cambrai, in the process of bringing up supplies, resting its men and taking time for essential vehicle maintenance. Retorting that “the troops have been twenty hours in the same place”, Rommel managed to dissuade his superior and, before dawn next day, they were off again, traversing the site of the first great tank battle of the First World War. At noon, they were in sight of Arras, where the British stood firm. Rommel’s infantry were again slow to follow and, as the day progressed, French troops cut the 7th Panzer Division’s axis to the east.

Turning back to hasten the infantry forward, Rommel was nearly captured. Once more, the advance had to be halted to allow the Division to consolidate its gains and concentrate south of Arras. That night came the news that Guderian had reached the English Channel. At the same time came fresh orders. The Division was to wheel north on Lille, accompanied by the SS Totenkopf Motorized Infantry Division (as it arrived) and followed, in due course, by the 5th Panzer Division, which was still some distance to the east of Cambrai, mopping-up the mass of the bypassed enemy in stiff fighting.

Setback at Arras

Rommel’s conduct of the action that now began to the south of Arras is a classic example of improvident generalship. Ignoring reports of enemy tanks concentrating to the north, he hardly deigned to leave outposts covering his threatened right flank, but travelled himself, as usual, with the 25th Panzer Regiment far ahead of the vulnerable infantry in their lorries. His towed 37mm anti-tank artillery (which was already known to be inadequate against the armour of the best French and British tanks) lay back to guard the infantry on its line of march; his 105mm field artillery was deployed well in rear purely to provide long-range indirect fire support on call, while the attached Luftwaffe 88mm dual-purpose guns were located still farther in rear, fulfilling their anti-aircraft role.

(None of this artillery was, as is sometimes claimed, positioned specifically as an anti-tank screen.) Quite by chance, the German advance started at precisely the same moment as the British 50th Division, with the 1st Tank Brigade, began to destroy Rommel’s 6th Rifle Regiment at Agnez. Yet not a word of this disaster reached Rommel: it was by luck that he arrived back in time to see the impending destruction of the 7th Rifle Regiment, his return to the assembly area prompted purely by the desire to hasten them forward. His arrival at Vailly coincided with the assault by the right-hand British column  (which itself happened to be in a state of some confusion).

According to Rommel, some nearby field-gunners were in flight, the rest lying low. But he too was out of touch, and his sole constructive contribution to this battle was, with  The British armoured attack near Arras caught the SS Totenkopf (mot) Division by surprise. The British force was composed of 74 vehicles, including thickly armoured Matilda infantry tanks. The British gave the Germans a major scare, until Rommel used the Luftwaffe 88mm (3.5in) anti-aircraft guns attached to his division to engage the otherwise invulnerable Matilda. Other Luftwaffe assistance came from Ju-87 Stuka attacks called in by Rommel’s 7th Panzer.

On the morning of 21 May, 74 British heavy tanks with infantry in two columns, guarded on their right flank by 70 French tanks of the Cavalry Corps, begin to pivot upon Arras with the intention of then moving eastward. They are completing their wheel as the 7th Panzer Division, with SS Totenkopf Motorized Division on its left, is beginning a reciprocal wheel aimed on Lille via Acq. Since the 25th Panzer Regiment is sent far in advance of the rest of the Division, the Rifle Regiments receive the brunt of the British attack, their 37mm anti-tank guns proving quite inadequate to penetrate the British tanks’ armour. The 6th Rifle Regiment is overrun, and the 7th avoids the same /ate only because the British right column loses direction and falls behind schedule. As it is, Rommel is compelled to abandon the advance and call back the 25th Panzer Regiment, inadvertently causing it heavy losses on a line of British anti-tank guns near Agnez. The British, meanwhile, have also been stopped by the combined efforts of the 7th Panzer Division’s 105mm field artillery and 88mm dual-purpose guns at Mercatel and Telegraph Hill. The subsequent arrival of the 5th Panzer Division, post-haste from Cambrai, completes the British repulse and, next day, XV Corps can recommence its wheel to the north, his ADC, managing to get a few light (20mm) anti-aircraft guns into action in time to help repulse the already-failing British advance at Vailly. But here, as elsewhere, the real credit for the defeat of the British belonged to the crews of the 105mm and 88mm guns that just happened to be standing in the way of the triumphant British left column as it debouched into open country at Beaurains. It was they who defeated the British tanks, but even they were lucky, since the British utterly failed to coordinate their artillery fire and use it to neutralize the exposed German guns.

Later that evening, it was Rommel’s failure to arrange sound reconnaissance that led to the heavy losses sustained by the 25th Panzer Regiment after he had recalled it to the rescue (the first and only retrograde movement by any part of the Division during the campaign). For it ran, quite unexpectedly, into an anti-tank-gun ambush laid by the British at Agnez, and here lost the majority of the thirty German tanks knocked out that day. On this one day, Rommel lost 388 men-four times more than had been suffered by the Division during the previous fighting. It was as the result of his experiences in the heat of this action that Rommel actually contributed to the British success.

For, in assuming that “hundreds of enemy tanks” and ”five divisions” were against him (when only 140 tanks were involved), he greatly exaggerated the strength of the Allied forces, and radiated panic in his wireless calls for help. The 5th Panzer Division raced to the aid of what its War Diary describes as “the hard pressed 7th Panzer Division”, and ripples of alarm spread along the channels of command to the Fuhrer himself. There is little doubt that, when Hitler later told Rommel “we were very anxious about you”, he was referring to this moment. Hesitancy already had the High Command in its grip. Rommel’s reports reinforced its anxiety that the Panzer force might have overreached itself. Through a compound of mis-appreciations, the certainty of seizing Dunkirk almost unopposed was forfeited—and with it the opportunity to encircle and annihilate the best British and French formations.

For Rommel, his Division, the Panzer force and the rest of the German Army, however, the failure to wipe out the British at Dunkirk seemed merely a minor disappointment at the conclusion of a month of incredible triumphs. When Hitler called Rommel to see him on 3 June, while the 7th Panzer Division recuperated and prepared for the next phase of the campaign, he was, as Rommel told Lu “radiant”, and “I had to accompany him afterwards. I was the only division commander who did.” They all knew that France was prostrate and the British unlikely to come back for many years. That Rommel was held in high favour had been made plain eight days previously, when one of his own officers, Lieutenant Karl-August Hanke “acting on behalf of the Fiihrer, ceremonially decorated me with the Knight’s Cross and gave me the Fiihrer’s regards”. It may seem strange that so junior an officer should perform this duty, but Hanke was no ordinary junior officer. Not only had he demonstrated, according to Rommel, exceptional bravery and initiative in action, but he was one of Goebbels’ favourite officials from the Propaganda Ministry, sent quite obviously to keep an eye on one of his master’s proteges and to act as a special Nazi Party link with Berlin. He had brought with him as officers to the 7th Panzer Division several Nazi members of the Reichstag, including Kraus, the Chief of the Nazi Motor Corps (NSKK), and his financial adviser, Koebele, who later succeeded Julius Streicher as Gauleiter of Franken. And there was another man called Karl Holz, who had to remain a sergeant because he had twenty-four ‘previous convictions’-twenty-two of them ‘political’ and two criminal!

But Hanke (who, at the end of the war, would be Hitler’s nomination as head of the SS in place of the infamous Heinrich Himmler), was the most important of this liaison team, and to him Rommel extended the greatest favour, awarding him the Iron Cross (without consulting his battalion commander) even though he carried out his duties no more courageously than anybody else. A few days later (again without consultation), he recommended him for the Knight’s Cross-but this application was withdrawn because Hanke refused to take command of a tank company, telling Rommel that he scarcely knew how to lead a troop let alone a company, and that he was not prepared to risk the soldiers’ lives. This snub may well have angered Rommel, for Manfred Rommel inserts a lengthy footnote in The Rommel Papers to explain how unpopular Hanke was with the other officers of the Division, and mentions an incident in the Mess when Hanke boasted that he had, as an official, the power to remove Rommel from command. This, so Manfred says, led Rommel to report the matter to Hitler’s Army adjutant, Rudolf Schmundt, with the result that Hanke was posted away (and, much later, found his way to be Gauleiter of Breslau, where he achieved a certain notoriety). Be that as it may, it is unquestionable that Rommel, in furthering his ambition, saw no impediment to using any means to curry favour within the Nazi Party; subsequent suggestions that he was a Nazi, hotly denied as they are and technically correct though they may be, were by no means groundless.

The pursuit south

The next task for Hoth’s XV Corps looked, and was, a good deal less difficult than the initial drive across the Meuse. For a start, the enemy were cripplingly deficient of mobile forces, and this time there was only a canal to cross from a well-established bridgehead south of the River Somme, east of Abbeville. The fact that the French had at last adopted a defence in depth based upon a sort of ‘chequer-board system’ did not in the least deter Hoth’s men (even though it had disastrous consequences for von Kleist’s armour to the left when it attacked southward from Amiens). On 5 June, with smooth precision behind artillery concentrations, the 6th Rifle Regiment seized a bridgehead, while the Pioneers set to work clearing obstacles from the short bridges that had not been demolished by the French. Rommel walked forward just behind his infantry, to be joined a few hours later by the leading tanks of the 25th Panzer Regiment. It was now that the French put up their best performance ever against Rommel. Fortified villages were costly and time-consuming to reduce: although the tanks bypassed this opposition with ease through the fields on either side, they dared not proceed too far until the villages and woods had been secured and, meanwhile, they came under intense gunfire from many directions. It was here that the improvised grouping of tanks with infantry was beneficial. Each time, the French were overcome by a mixture of direct and indirect fire, followed up by an all-arms assault to close quarters. Hard though Rommel makes this battle sound in his Papers, the penetration achieved by nightfall was more than five miles, and the tanks were still rolling forward. Prisoners gave themselves up by the hundred. The enemy guns fell silent.

The Germans were now entering open country, their momentum on one occasion checked only by an order prohibiting further advance until the Luftwaffe had bombed a fortified village that stood in the way. Here and there, French tanks put in an appearance. Often the French artillery made good practice against 88mm guns pushed too far ahead for their own safety. On the left flank, the 5th Panzer Division was keeping pace, cutting a wide swathe deep into the enemy rear. From now on, there was scarcely a question of strategic risk: the worst that could befall the Germans was that of aggravating casualties from sporadic ambushes. The subsequent story of the 7th Panzer Division’s rapid advance mirrors that of the other German armoured formations and some of the infantry ones too. It becomes a catalogue enumerating prisoners captured and a log of distances covered each day, a succession of rivers crossed, villages, towns and cities conquered.

Throughout these hectic days, the 7th Panzer Division wrought havoc upon the Allied lines of communication. The route between Paris and Le Havre was cut, vast munitions dumps captured, and enemy units pinned, in pockets, to the coast. Having failed in an attempted coup de main of the Seine bridges (which were blown in his troops’ faces) at Elbeuf, just south of Rouen, Hoth switched the Division on the 10th to round up several French divisions and a single British division congregated between Le Havre and Dieppe. After moving sixty miles in a single day against minimal opposition, Rommel found himself faced on the llth, in the vicinity of St. Valery-en-Caux, with an opponent who was not prepared to give way. Here, the French fought well and the British 51st Highland Division surrendered only after a stiff resistance, efforts to evacuate it by sea having largely failed. While his artillery engaged ships of the Royal Navy, resistance on shore was gradually overcome, and a rich haul of prisoners taken, including one corps and four divisional commanders.

For the Germans, it was now simply a matter of mopping-up France, while the French called for an armistice and the British pulled back across the English Channel. The final operations by the 7th Panzer Division, launched forth from a bridgehead that had been seized over the Seine near Rouen, saw the Division making full speed for Cherbourg, mopping-up stragglers and demoralized French formations on the way, but failing to reach the port in time to prevent the evacuation of the British 1st Armoured Division.

By this time, Rommel’s sense of achievement was unsurpassed in an army that could congratulate itself on one of the greatest campaigns of annihilation of all time. To Lu, he described in exultant terms the capture of Cherbourg, as he carried out “the Fuhrer’s special order to take the port as quickly as possible”. Heavy bombing of the forts and rapid exploitation of success, against an enemy he reckoned at thirty to forty times his superior in numbers, achieved the desired result with the minimum delay, and brought an end to the fighting for his Division. Since 10 May, for the loss of 682 killed, 1,464 wounded, 296 men missing and 42 tanks totally destroyed (losses higher than those in other Panzer divisions that had seen quite as much action), it had taken 97,648 prisoners, 277 field guns, 64 anti-tank guns, 458 tanks and armoured cars and over 4,000 lorries, besides a mass of other material. Josef Goeb-bels could congratulate himself upon the success of the man his judgement had backed. The feats of the air and tank arms were trumpeted on high, the names of air aces and Luftwaffe commanders were linked with the Panzer leaders, especially the charismatic Guderian and Rommel. The 7th Panzer Division came to be known as “The Ghost Division”, and its photogenic commander was firmly emplaced on the peaks of public esteem. The book he wrote extolling his troops’ feats played down or ignored the part played by the rest of the German Army and the Luftwaffe. It was illustrated by the pictures he had taken with the camera given him by Goebbels.

Naturally, the 7th Panzer Division was among the formations selected for a part in the invasion of England that was planned for September. To this task, Rommel bent himself with a lot more enthusiasm than many of the Wehrmacht’s upper hierarchy. Had the operation not been called off, it is not impossible that he would have been at the head of a spearhead driving on London. Even so, his future glory was assured. For the next three years or more, he would be Hitler’s first choice for some of the most dramatic tasks on offer, as the German frontiers were pushed farther afield.

 

 

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