At GOC, Generals Franklyn and Martel had received the message to establish the new defence line, and were now co-ordinating their move when another message reached them. 19 May, 08.15. Units of German Army Group ‘B’ have breached Escaut at Oudenarde. Which meant that the Escaut defence line was equally untenable. They had to pull back immediately and regroup along the Canal du Nord and the Scarpe.
Units of German Army Group ‘A’ advancing Cambrai–Arras. Enemy identified as 7th Panzer Division with two non-motorised Infantry Divisions twenty-four miles in rear.
That was the opportunity they’d been waiting for, the panzers were running way ahead of the infantry. Time to act. A minimum of 200 panzers against their 18 Matildas and 65 Mark Is. Not much, but a start.
The brigadier checked his map. His orders from General Martel had been quite specific. Establish attack line along south bank Scarpe by 22.00 hours, May 20. Anchor on Vitry. His Michelin map showed six bridges across the Canal du Nord between Douai and Ruyaulcourt. The panzers would head for them. For the time being, the line was held by two divisions of the First French Army. A day or two and the panzers would be across, then his tanks would hit them from the side and drive them into the Sensée. He didn’t count on Rommel, whose 25th Panzerregiment crossed the Canal du Nord at Marcoing before the British could establish a defensive position. At 05.00 hours on 20 May, Rommel’s units were already driving past the Allies south of Arras. General Rommel went on a personal scouting trip. For this he took two panzers, plus his own lightly armoured scout car. On the road, near the village of Vise-en-Artois, he fell into an ambush. His two tanks were knocked out, and he himself was cut off for over an hour. It was a close call.
The CO of the 1st British Tank Brigade received the message that his forward units had shot up two German tanks. He couldn’t believe that the Germans were already upon him. He quickly put every one of his 25-pounder batteries and all the anti-tank gun units into ambush position. They would fire at the Germans head on and blunt their advance, while the Matildas and Mark Is struck at the Germans’ vulnerable flank. The plan was solid. It would work, it simply had to work.
‘17th Brigade will attack, with 4th Royal Tanks in support. All the divisional artillery is at our disposal, plus whatever the Corps can spare. We’ve got a job to do, and we’re bloody well going to do it.’
That’s when the Stukas struck. They droned like a swarm of angry bees: a host of them – thirty, forty, perhaps even more. They followed the Scarpe River for their orientation and headed straight for his bunched-up artillery units.
The drone changed into a shrill whistle as the first dive bombers fell out of the sky. They aimed at the smoke markers dropped by their artillery spotters. Clusters of bombs detached from their bellies. The ground shook, fountains of earth erupted, trucks and bodies flew through the sky; a plane came out from the smoke, its windscreen reflecting in the sun. More planes peeled over and headed down, swooping, climbing, circling, coming down again, a flying circus, birds of prey having fun. Everything around the commander seemed to be crumbling, drowned by the sound of exploding bombs and anti-aircraft fire. A Bren gun fired, suddenly there was this dark trail and a plane dived into the ground. A plume of greasy black smoke marked its fiery end.
‘We’ve got him, we’ve got him!’ It was finally something for the men to cheer about. It didn’t stop other Stukas from delivering their deadly loads. But the concentrated anti-aircraft fire had succeeded in diverting their attention away from his artillery and anti-tanks guns. His ground troops had suffered casualties, but the ambush was still in operation. His tanks were well hidden behind the tree line. ‘Sir, a column of panzers is breaking through.’
Through his glasses he could see their black silhouettes with the stubby guns. The column seemed to stretch way beyond the horizon. Tanks, more tanks, and then their support vehicles. ‘Let them pass.’ His orders were precise: 21 May, 14.00 hours. Throw everything you’ve got at them. It wasn’t yet time.
The minutes ticked by slowly. 13.40 … 13.50 … 14.00 hours.
‘All tanks forward.’
There was the rumble and clatter of tank chains as engines changed into top gear. From the shadow of the trees they crushed the bushes that had been their cover. They burst into the sunlight – thirty, fifty, eighty. The Germans must have seen them but didn’t react immediately. Perhaps the commander had realised that he had a sizeable tank force to cope with, and no means to riposte, only thirty mark IIs and a few Skodas to guard the supply vehicles and fuel transporters. Their main panzer units were way ahead.
The brigadier had to deliver a lightning strike and benefit from the surprise. ‘Fire at will!’ All hell broke loose. Along the entire front line British anti-tank guns opened from the front and British tanks broke out from the tree line and fired point blank at the panzers and Rommel’s supply columns. A British tank leader was directing a squadron of Matildas leaning from his turret. A flanking squadron of light Mark Is closed to 400 yards of the Germans. Machine guns opened up on the enemy’s thin-skin support vehicles. An ammo-truck blew up with a bright yellow flame. Shells whistled overhead. A German Mark III received a hit below the turret and exploded. We’re smashing them! ‘Sir, the 7th Royals have a dozen panzers boxed in. We’ve lost two to their eight.’ The British tank force was advancing quite steadily, one wave staying in position and engaging the panzers, while the next wave lurched forward, presenting only their thickest armour to the German tank guns. A few panzers burnt fiercely in a flat field. Blackened hulls with their crews inside. Many German tanks had stopped owing to the crippling effect of British fire. Others reversed into the woods. Rommel’s 42nd Antitank Battalion was overrun. Most of its tank crews were killed when their 37 mm anti-tank guns proved useless against the 80 mm front armour of the British Matildas.
The brigadier clutched his microphone. ‘Keep moving.’ For the first time since their never-ending retreat he could hear excited voices and cheers from his crews. He knew it couldn’t last forever. The Germans would counter-attack, that was the lesson they had so dearly learned in 1918.
21 May. 19th Panzer Corps, advance HQ, near the Channel coast. Guderian’s 2nd Panzer Division had reached the Channel coast at Noyelles on 20 May. The Allied forces had been effectively cut in half. In four days, maximum five, he expected to have taken every Channel port. A message about the tank battle at Arras reached him at 14.10 hours.
‘General, units of 7th Panzers have been engaged by heavy tank formations south of Arras. They’re being pushed back on the Sensée.’
‘I need enemy strength.’
‘Identified are 4th and 7th Royal Tank Regiment.’
‘Which units have we got there?’
‘General, our nearest units are part of the 8th and 5th Panzers.’
‘Enemy air cover?’
Guderian thought for a moment. ‘All right, divert units from the 8th, and call up the Luftwaffe, let their Stukas handle it.’ The orders went out and were acknowledged. ‘Where is the 8th at this moment?’
‘They’re sending in reinforcements along the Beaumetz Road.’
‘Fine, fine’, said Guderian.
‘Any other orders, General?’
‘No. Our main objectives are the Channel ports. My orders stand. 1st on to Calais, 2nd to Boulogne, 10th to Dunkirk.’
HQ 1st British Tank Brigade south of Arras. ‘Sir, a column of enemy tanks approaching from west.’ The brigadier could hear distant rumble. It wasn’t only tanks which rolled up on the road, but with them came the camouflage-painted barrels of those nasty 88s, deadly guns against tanks. Bangs came from beyond the forest line.
‘Red 5, what’s your situation? Over.’
‘We’ve run into ack-ack.’
‘Give me co-ordinates, I’ll lay artillery on them.’ A battery of 25 pounders fired. The Ack-Acks went silent.
The shells struck all around Rommel. He had a close escape when one exploded nearby and killed his ADC, who was reading the map for the general.
Rommel had reached the Scarpe River with his 25th Panzer Regiment. When he heard about the Arras action, he immediately ordered his heavy units to turn around and head for the rear of the British tank force. A fierce battle broke out near Agnes which went initially in favour of the British. For the first time since crossing the French border, Rommel was forced into a defensive action, even to a point where he had to protect some of his lighter units with mines. That day Rommel lost 250 killed, more than on any previous day.
21 May. Advanced HQ British 50th Division, 17.30 hours. General Martel studied the developing situation. Red and blue arrows covered the map. It was too early to get a comprehensive overall picture. They had hit Rommel’s vulnerable flank; most of the units they had engaged so far were supply columns and some infantry. His seventy-odd tanks were pushing at the Germans along the Bapaume Road. The front line began to bulge south from Arras. It was time to throw in the reserves along the Cambrai Road, go at the retreating Germans and cut through their line in a synchronised pincer movement with the push from the south, promised by the French tank force … his thoughts were interrupted by a terrific howl as a Heinkel bomber dived over the village at near street level. The general noticed that the cross on the church steeple trembled and the street erupted under the impact of bullets. ‘Sir, in addition to the 7th Panzers, other units have now been identified as parts of the 8th Panzers moving on Beaumetz and the 5th Panzers at Vitry.’ More messages were coming in as more panzer units became identified. He could hear the drone of aircraft engines. Stukas. The first wave passed over the farmhouse. How clever the Germans were, using dive-bombers as mobile artillery, and with devastating results. It wasn’t long before the bombs fell and the ground shook.
The brigadier of the 1st British Tank Brigade was standing up in his open car, microphone in hand. Through his glasses he watched the Germans come on in packs. 8th Panzers from his right, 7th in the centre and 5th Panzers approaching his left flank. Damn! His tanks were getting boxed in by elements of three German panzer divisions! Keep hammering away at them, bluff them, keep them from counter-attacking. The tanks faced each other at as near as 300 yards. His gunners began to fire over open sights, so close were the Germans now. One of his Matildas was hit in the track, spun around, but kept on firing. A German Mark III went up with a clean hit; a man tried to climb out, was cut down by bullets. A Fieseler Storch scout plane made its appearance, dropping flares to mark targets. The Germans were bringing up more of their long-barrelled guns; their muzzle-flashes were brighter than those of the tank guns. A Matilda was blown into the air, then another. He had to buy time for the rest to pull out. And then, out of a late afternoon sky came the Stukas. Suddenly the deafening roar was directly above him before he heard the high whistling of falling bombs and his tanks began to catch fire …
21/5 18.25 Uhr. From H Gr B to OKW.
The enemy resistance has stiffened. South-easterly counterattacks by tanks. Army Group B intends to put main effort on right flank, given that you intend to push with strong forces in a northerly direction along the line Valenciennes–Arras–Abbeville. Request urgent OKW decision.
The message that came back at 20.05 p.m. displayed a growing panic at Hitler’s headquarters.
OKW takes the following position: H Gr B has to keep its present position by engaging the enemy. H Gr A bars the enemy the way to the Somme by attacking Arras in direction Calais. A full attack by H Gr A is only feasible after occupation of the heights north-west of Arras.
General Jodl made a call to a Heeresgruppe commander which showed the total confusion about the conflicting reports coming into OKW: ‘The Führer has expressed his extreme worry that the Infantriedivisionen are not pushed ahead with sufficient vigour.’
That night, Hitler panicked. He remained in the map room at OKW until 02.30 hours, desperately awaiting further communications. There were none.
In the cover of darkness the remainder of the British units withdrew to their original position along the Scarpe River. The operations of the Franklyn corps lasted twenty-four hours. The promised attack by French tanks never materialised and General Franklyn sent out orders to regroup during the night. Next morning they tried one last time. The second attack ended in a complete catastrophe. The British units were pushed against the Scarpe. With their backs to the river and no bridges to cross it, they fought a holding action until late afternoon on the 22nd. By evening the situation had reached a critical stage. Most of their tank reserves had been destroyed, their only option was to drop everything, swim across, and make for the coast. By now, Guderian’s panzers had swung around their flank and threatened to cut off their last available escape route towards the Channel ports.
General Franklyn called General Gort for permission to disengage his badly mauled units towards Douai. That permission had been accorded three hours earlier but was never passed on. A shell had wiped out the radio truck. The order to pull out was rushed to the various units by motorcycle riders. The whole BEF retreated: long columns of men with their rifles slung across their shoulders and machine-gun bandoleers around their necks. Many wore bandages torn from shirts, others had arms in slings or were limping along on home-made crutches. At the noise of an aircraft they hobbled into the nearest ditch to take cover, because by now they knew that these planes wouldn’t be British. All their armour had been abandoned on the Scarpe.
The British Expeditionary Force, and with it the Seventh French and the Belgian Army, were caught in a trap. General Gamelin’s plan of a massive front at the Dyle had backfired. The Allied division north of the Somme were now surrounded by a ring of steel, and about to be pushed into the sea. They had a choice of two options: surrender or drown. That night, nothing stood any longer between the panzers and the Channel ports.
The Allies needed a miracle. But the German panzers had outlawed miracles.
By 23 May, General Guderian reported to his superior at H Gr A (Army Group A), that the situation at Arras was under control and the British armour destroyed. Field-Marshal von Brauchitsch, head of the armies, ordered Army Group A to commence the end phase of the battle.
The sacrifice by British tanks at Arras had pushed Hitler over the edge. For the next two days, he was extremly fidgety and nervous. At this crucial point, a new player entered the field, one whose only interest in it was to achieve personal glory. Der Dicke, Air Marshal Hermann Goring. When he heard that the encirclement of the Allied armies had been completed he immediately demanded to be put in contact with his Führer.
‘Das ist eine glänzende Aufgabe für die Luftwaffe.’
A brilliant task for his airforce. The over-ambitious Goring then went on to assure Hitler that his bomber pilots would annihilate the Tommies. The Air Marshal argued that the northern Allied armies were cut off from the rest of France and that the Führer needed his panzer force intact to crush Paris, to avenge the humiliation of 1918. The Führer need only order the panzers to stop so that his Luftwaffe wouldn’t strike at their own units. Hitler, still suffering from the aftershock of the Arras tank encounter, readily agreed to Göring’s proposal.
At the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), a heated confrontation between General Halder and Field-Marshal von Brauchitsch on the one side, and Hitler, feebly supported by his yes-men Keitel and Jodl on the other, ended with Hitler hysterically screaming:
‘Ich wünsche, dass alle Panzerspitzen bis an die Kanallinie23 zurückgenommen werden. Jeder Verlust an Panzern ist unbedingt zu vermeiden. Meine Luftwaffe wird den Engländern den Rest geben.24 (‘I order that all advance panzer formations are brought back to the Kanallinie. Any loss of panzers is to be strictly avoided. My Luftwaffe will finish off the English.)
When faced by the cream of military leaders, with their gold shoulder boards and red-striped trousers, the former corporal always felt inferior, and people who feel themselves inferior have a pathological need to disprove the perceptions of their own persona. Hitler’s fantasies of glory took the form of desperate escapes from the cruel reality. But the reality was lethal.
History took a hand. All he did was nod.
And so it happened, that for the first time, Hitler, the astute politician and propagandist, got involved with the business best left to the military mind. He overruled his top tacticians, men like von Brauchitsch and Halder, or his tank commanders on the ground, Guderian, Reinhardt and Hoth, and took a disastrous strategic decision. He issued his famous stop-order of 24 May 1940.
The Halte Befehl.
24/5/40 – 12.31 Uhr.
(Fernmündlich von H Gr A an AOK 4 Ab)
OKW. Auf Befehl des Führers ist der Angriff ostwärts Arras mit VIII und II AK im Zusammenwirken mit linken Flügel H Gr B nach Nordwesten fortzusetzen. Dagegen ist nordwestlich Arras die allgemeine Linie Lens–Béthune–Aire–St Omer–Gravelines (Kanallinie) nicht zu überschreiten. Es kommt auf dem Westflügel vielmehr darauf an, alle beweglichen Kräfte aufzuschliessen und den Feind an der genannten günstigen Abwehrlinie anrennen zu lassen. ‘(By order of the Führer the attack east of Arras is to be co-ordinated by the 8th and 2nd Army Corps. However, you are ordered not to cross the line Lens–Bethune–Aire–St Omer–Gravelines (Kanallinie). The right wing has to bring together its mobile forces and allow the enemy to run up against a favourable defensive position.)
The events leading to the ‘Miracle of Dunkirk’ took their destined way. Halder had to inform all German panzer units: ‘By direct order of the Führer the fast left wing is to be stopped immediately.’
Guderian couldn’t believe it, and neither could his divisional commander, Erwin Rommel. That was the day he first began to doubt the military wisdom of his supreme commander. It changed little that his aide marched up to him, saluted and announced: ‘By order of our Führer I have the great honour to present Herrn General with the Ritterkreuz.’ Erwin Rommel was the first divisional commander to receive the Knight’s Cross during the French campaign. He didn’t care. His panzers stood idle.
At 15.42 hours, on 24 May, British Intelligence intercepted a second German message, sent out, inexplicably, en clair:
24 May. From OKW to AG A and AG B. Present positions to be secured and advance to be discontinued until further Führer directive.27
On 24 May 1940, at 17.15 hours, the brigadier of the mauled 1st British Tank Brigade received an Intelligence report from his GOC:
All forward movement of German Army Group A halted in sector St Omer–Bethune–Douai …
A miracle had taken place. Hitler had stopped his panzers.
General von Rundstedt noted in his war diary:
‘Arras, 21–22 May 1940.
For a short time it was feared that our armoured divisions would be cut off before the infantry divisions could come up to support them. None of the French counter-attacks carried any serious threat as did the one at Arras.’
And so, the significance of this suicidal attack by a small force of British tanks is that it convinced Hitler his valuable panzers were running too many risks. The outcome was Hitler’s decision to halt his panzers from 24 to 26 May 1940.
26/5 – 16.25 Uhr
OKW an H Gr A und HG B.
Fernspruch – nur durch Offiziere.
The immediate continuation of the attack by HG A and HG B against the enclosed enemy forces is hereby ordered.
It was too late, much too late …
The three days had given the British Expeditionary Force the respite it needed to reach their evacuation points. The rest is history.
What if …
What if – Hitler hadn’t stopped his panzers?
Three hundred and thirty thousand British soldiers would have marched into German captivity. England would have been left with almost no defences and encouraged Hitler to launch Operation Sea Lion, the planned invasion of the British homeland.
Never were German armies closer to crush England than on this 24 May 1940. After the war, surviving generals present during the fateful hours of that morning stated unanimously that Germany lost the war the day Hitler issued the Halte Befehl.
It has never been explained why Hitler sent out his second stop-order en clair. Some experts have put it down to political reasoning, that Hitler wished to let Churchill know that he was looking for a negotiated solution. Today it is clear that it was never Hitler’s intention to allow a third of a million British soldiers to escape. He had the sworn assurance of Air Marshal Goring that the Luftwaffe would look after the annihilation of the BEF.
It didn’t work out that way. Before Dunkirk fell, on 4 June, 338,226 British and Allied troops were evacuated to safety. This in itself was an achievement, and for a beleaguered England, it represented a triumph.
Two years later, these soldiers were to meet up once more with Rommel’s panzers, at El Alamein. The outcome was different.
The high water mark for the German armies was reached with the surrender of France on 22 June 1940. The Blitzkrieg against France gave Hitler an erroneous picture. In their dash for the Channel ports, German panzers could be easily resupplied from their stocks in Germany over 300 kilometres of an efficient rail network. This became a different matter in Russia, where distances had to be multiplied by ten, where the rail gauge was different from the one in France and Germany, where partisans blew up rail lines and bridges along the enormous distances which separated Berlin from Moscow or Stalingrad.
Russia was not France. Some of Hitler’s generals tried to warn him. The ‘greatest military genius since Julius Caesar’ wouldn’t listen to his prophets.
Thus, the lightning success achieved by his able panzer commanders over a nearby foe lured Hitler into a far-off adventure which led to his downfall.