If there was ever a chance to stop the German Panzers, that chance came in the afternoon of 14 May 1940.

A French Char B1 tank in running condition at the Saumur Tank

Second Army Attempts an Operational Counterattack

Huntziger, commander in chief of the Second Army, very nonchalantly countenanced a German attack in view of his own considerable reserves. He was not really worried either when a message arrived during the afternoon of 13 May that the Luftwaffe had hit the French units around Sedan with devastating bombing raids. All he said was: “Well, they have to have their baptism of fire sooner or later.” Shortly after 1800, he was informed that forty German infantrymen had crossed the Meuse River at Wadelincourt. His laconic reply was: “There will be just that number of prisoners.” Not even the bad news about the catastrophic collapse of the 55th Infantry Division made him nervous. He knew that the counterattack by the reserve of the X Corps was bound to be launched any moment and expected that the situation would be stabilized as a result. This was not supposed to be just an initial probing attack, for immediately to the rear he had concentrated a mighty force with which to mount the counterstrike.

The subsequent action appears highly interesting inasmuch as this was the only French attempt at launching an operational counterattack throughout the entire western campaign. Normally, French countermoves were mostly uncoordinated and were mounted, at best, in a division context. In this case, however, two reinforced army corps were to be combined to launch a single overall operation against the bridgehead at Sedan. If Guderian had guessed the threat building up to the south behind the massif of Stonne, he would hardly have accepted the risk of breaking out of the bridgehead prematurely. The 10th Panzer Division that had been left behind to cover the bridgehead now faced the following overwhelming enemy strength.

(1) Flavigny Group (XXI Corps)

3d Armored Division

3d Motorized Infantry Division

5th Light Cavalry Division

1st Cavalry Brigade

(2) Roucaud Group

2d Light Cavalry Division

1st Colonial Infantry Division

3d Tank Battalion

(3) Remnants of X Corps

12th and 64th Reconnaissance Battalions

elements of the 71st Infantry Division, the 205th Infantry Regiment, the 4th Tank Battalion

The Second Army was able to assemble about three hundred tanks for this counterattack, and numerous armored reconnaissance vehicles in the cavalry units also joined them. With its 138 battle tanks, half of them Hotchkiss and Char B1 models, the 3d Armored Division alone would have sufficed to overrun the few outfits Guderian had left behind to protect the bridgehead. The most powerful German combat vehicle, the Panzer IV, had 30-mm thick armor, while the Hotchkiss tank had 45-mm of armor and the Char B even had 60-mm. The latter was thus just about invulnerable when engaging German tank and antitank guns. Its twin armament of 47-mm and 75-mm guns definitely made it superior to all German models. In an open field engagement—tank versus Panzer— Guderian’s 10th Panzer Division would not have had a chance against those giants. On 14 May, it only had about 30 Panzer IV models, and two-thirds of its combat vehicles were the lightweight Panzer I and II models that were unsuitable for engaging even light French tank types on account of their weak armament. The attempted French counterattack at Sedan is the best answer to the question of why the French failed to exploit the superiority of their tank arm in operational terms in this campaign.

Flavigny, commanding general of XXI Corps, was ordered to carry out the counterattack. For this purpose, the Roucaud Group and elements of X Corps were formally subordinated to him on 14 May. Huntziger had demanded that his army reserve mount its attack immediately following the attack by the reserve of X Corps so that any developing local success could be exploited immediately. The axes of attack of Bulson-Sedan as well as the intermediate objectives that had been ordered for 3d Armored Division and the 3d Motorized Infantry Division were extensively identical to those of the corps reserve. This meant that two counterattacks, echeloned in succession, were to be mounted in the same terrain: The first one on the tactical echelon and the second one on the operational echelon.

The counterthrust by X Corps reserve under Lafontaine moved in a strikingly slow fashion compared to the tempo of the German attack. The employment of the 3d Armored Division demonstrated even more clearly that French armor planned to attack with 1918 speed as if time had come to a standstill since then. One seemingly secondary technical feature that turned out to be particularly significant with regard to the employment of tanks during this campaign was the volume of the fuel tank. This is precisely what symbolized the differing tank philosophy of the two armies. The German Panzer Force was intended for operational missions. Accordingly, German Panzers had comparatively large fuel tanks that gave them operational combat range and enabled them to accomplish deep penetrations. The French tanks, on the other hand, had a tactical mission to accomplish in close cooperation with the infantry. The daily movement distance covered during the infantry advances of World War governed their fuel tank volume and their range. The 32-ton French Char B was extremely heavy for tank designs at that time. Its disadvantage was not only its lack of speed but also that, when operating in difficult terrain, it could be employed for only about two hours before it had to be refueled.

First Attempt at a Counterattack on 14 May. Initially, the 3d Armored Division was in a standby area near Reims. At 1600 on 12 May, General [Antoine] Brocard, the division commander, was given the mission of moving up to the front and initially of occupying a standby area near Le Chesne (a sixty-kilometer movement). It took until 0600 on 14 May for the last elements to reach the new assembly area. A dramatic conference took place that morning at 0500 at the XXI Corps command post. In view of the rather surprising German penetration, Flavigny’s superiors had been urging him to move with extreme haste. He told Brocard that the 3d Armored Division had to attack that same morning. Brocard thought that he had not heard the date right and requested that the attack be postponed by one day. He mentioned the following time requirements to justify his request:

refueling his tanks:

5–6 hours

marching to the starting position along the northern edge of the Bois du Mont-Dieu (a movement covering between fourteen and eighteen kilometers): 2–3 hours

refueling once more for the attack against Sedan, which was fifteen kilometers away: 2–3 hours

Flavigny, a tank expert, was rather annoyed by this time frame requirement, which in his opinion was excessive. He demanded that the jump-off line for the attack be taken up on that same day by 1200, but finally moved the time up to 1400. Now, the French army’s inadequate communications system revealed itself for what it was. Brocard’s order reached his headquarters only between 0800 and 0900. It took him from 1100 to 1300 to pass the order on to all units. The first French tanks did not start to move toward the Bois du Mont-Dieu until 1300. The Flavigny Group was finally ready to launch its attack at 1730. In the meantime, the Roucaud Group had also moved into its starting position to the east of Stonne.

This brings us to one of the decisive moments of the campaign in the west. If there was ever a chance to stop the German Panzers, that chance came in the afternoon of 14 May. The irony of history was that the attack would have been mounted at the best possible moment precisely because of the constant delays. To secure the bridgehead, the Germans no longer had the 1st and 2d Panzer Divisions available, while the 10th Panzer Division had not yet arrived. The French could thus have pushed into a gap. The 1st Panzer Division had, in the meantime, made a ninety-degree flanking movement to the west at Chémery and presented its unprotected flank to any attack that would have come from the south. A thrust into the soft underbelly would have hit the supply columns head-on, specifically at the moment when the Panzer units, which had pushed to the west, had run out of supplies. In the afternoon, the 1st Panzer Brigade reported that it had “no ammunition and no fuel.” On the other hand, the 10th Panzer Division at that time was still held up far to the rear engaging the bitterly resisting remnants of the French 71st Infantry Division and had not yet even reached its designated phase line east of Bulson. This meant that at that particular time the Germans essentially only had the Infantry Regiment Großdeutschland to defend the bridgehead against an attack from the south. The Germans would not have had the slightest chance of coping with an attack by Flavigny’s and Roucaud’s divisions.

The fighting spirit of these elite divisions was praised as “most magnificent” and “splendid” in the combat reports on 14 May. The French soldiers, especially the tank crews, were eagerly heading into their first engagement; they were spurred on by their officers. The commander of a tank battalion shouted to his men: “Forward men! We’ll whip them! Long live France!” But the attack order did not come. Now came the wearying wait. At last, a new order arrived during the evening hours. It had an almost paralyzing effect: The attack had been called off.

What had happened? On his way to the front, Flavigny over and over again heard tales of disaster as the panic-stricken soldiers streamed back, reporting hundreds and even thousands of attacking German Panzers. When he wanted to give the attack order on the afternoon of 14 May, some officers from the smashed 213th Infantry Regiment arrived and, horror-stricken, reported about the recently failed counterattack of the corps reserve. In addition, Flavigny was completely shaken up by the constant breakdowns and delays as his tank units tried to take up positions on the starting line. Thus, he canceled the attack at the very last moment. After the war he cited the rather astonishing justification for that decision of his: “I wished to avoid disaster.” In the rather thinly held Sedan bridgehead, the German soldiers would have had every reason to thank him for that.

Flavigny then committed an even more critical error. He decided to switch to the defense and ordered his formations, which really were supposed to attack from south to north, dispersed to the east and west. In so doing, he distributed his tanks on a line of twenty kilometers on both sides of the Ardennes Canal between Omont and La Besace. So-called bouchons (corks), composed of one heavy tank and two light ones, clogged all roads and passes. Thus, all French tank formations were broken up and scattered. Flavigny, the commanding general responsible for the counterattack, in this way managed to dissolve the French 3d Armored Division as a major unit capable of carrying out a military operation. This led to the complete dilution of an attack operation that, in the words of Huntziger, was to have been carried out “avec la plus brutale énergie sans aucun souci des pertes” (with the most brutal energy and in utter disregard of casualties).

The failure of the counterattack had been preprogrammed in the way Huntziger worded his attack order. In his Ordre général d’opérations No 24 (General Operations Order No. 24), dated 14 May at 0000, Huntziger had ordered troops (1) to take up the second prepared reserve position between La Cassine and Mont-des-Cygnes [southeast of Stonne] and to seal off the enemy penetration frontally; (2) after the enemy had been successfully blocked, to mount the counterattack as quickly as possible toward Maisoncelle, Bulson, and Sedan. That was a contradiction in terms because the defensive and offensive parts of the mission to “seal the gap and counterattack” (colmater et contre-attaquer) were mutually exclusive. Defending meant spreading the units out in a linear pattern along a front line. Attacking, on the other hand, meant concentrating all forces at one point in the form of a narrow and deep deployment pattern.

To this extent, it is psychologically entirely understandable that Flavigny—in view of the constant flow of bad news—initially concentrated on the defensive portion of the order, even though he was not at all attacked directly and thus was unable to seal off any enemy thrust. He also had the units of X Corps in front of him. The roots of the problem were much deeper. Many Frenchmen later considered the cause of the defeat in 1940 to be the word colmater (to seal off) or, rather, the wrong line of thinking concealed behind that order. Huntziger’s order was completely in consonance with the principles of command dating back to World War I.

At that time, the reaction to the German penetration attempts was (1) seal off the penetration frontally (colmater); (2) wipe out the attacker with artillery fire; (3) clear the terrain of enemy. This concept, which was aimed at restoring the linear cohesion of the front, appeared outdated in an era of a modern mobile warfare. In similar crisis situations, the Germans reacted not with any frontal blocking action but instead with a counterattack against the flank using their Panzers. Paradoxically, Flavigny’s attack quite by accident would have thrust into the exposed flank of Guderian’s Panzer Corps, if his rather respectable armored fighting force had moved just a few more kilometers to the north.

The Second Attempt at a Counterattack on 15 May. In the evening, when Georges, the commander in chief of the northeast front, learned of the Second Army’s so-called successful defense, he furiously told Huntziger: “The 3d Armored Division was put at your disposal to counterattack toward Sedan.”

The commander in chief of Second Army, on the other hand, allowed the night to pass without taking any action whatsoever. After all, he was busy moving his headquarters from Senuc to Verdun, which is about fifty kilometers farther to the rear. On the next morning, however, the right moment had passed because the front line along the Meuse River collapsed over a width of more than one hundred kilometers on 15 May, primarily on account of the disaster at Sedan. In the meantime, the 1st and 2d Panzer Divisions had continued their thrust to the west and were out of range. Moreover, the 10th Panzer Division was now fully available. Nevertheless, a resolute attack would inevitably have led to a crisis in the German operational command setup.

Georges once again urged Huntziger to make haste during a telephone conversation at 0715 on 15 May. That is when Huntziger at last went into action. At 0800 he gave Flavigny the mission impérative (express order) to mount a counterattack with his tank formations. That directive did not reach Flavigny until 0830. He summoned the commanding generals of the 3d Armored Division and the 3d Motorized Infantry Division to his command post at 1000 (note the time delay) and ordered them to continue the counterattack together with the neighboring divisions. He set a deadline of 1400. Now it turned out that it had been much easier to spread the French tanks out than to concentrate them again for a renewed attack. In some cases, the commanders simply did not know where their vehicles were. That was particularly noticeable when the widely scattered French tank units were to be refueled. In addition, most of the radios had failed because there had been no time in recent days to recharge the storage batteries.

The same drama of constant delays as the day before now began all over again. Flavigny ordered the attack to be postponed from 1400 to 1600 and then to 1830. But there was no end to the problems. Besides, it was impossible to maintain a constant hold on the key terrain around Stonne, which in the meantime the Germans had attacked several times. In the end, Flavigny, completely shaken up, canceled his attack order at 1815.

The 1st and 2d companies of the 49th Tank Battalion, however, had not been informed in time that the order had been canceled. Attacking all by themselves with their Char B tanks, they advanced from the northern edge of the Bois du Mont-Dieu toward Chémery without any artillery and infantry support. After only two kilometers they ran into a blocking position of German antitank guns between Artaise and Neuville. Now, the Germans were able to concentrate their defensive fire on these few tanks that had been pushed too far ahead. Although the Char B tanks had been hit several times, the Germans managed to put only two of them out of action. When the two French company commanders realized that they had attacked all by themselves, they ordered a retreat. Their German opponents ran into no end of surprises. First of all, they found to their amazement that their projectiles, with which they literally covered the French Char B tanks, bounced off the French armor almost without any effect. Then they could not figure out why these colossuses that threatened to overrun them suddenly turned around and drove away. This isolated thrust showed what the Germans would have run into if a French tank attack had indeed been mounted on a broad front. What Manstein and Guderian feared most was a French countermove immediately after the breakthrough at Sedan. The counteroffensive, which in the Flavigny’s words was to be pushed “avec le plus grand esprit de sacrifice” (with the utmost spirit of sacrifice), consisted merely of the mistaken thrust by two French tank companies that had not been informed in time that the attack order had been countermanded.

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One thought on “If there was ever a chance to stop the German Panzers, that chance came in the afternoon of 14 May 1940.

  1. In another war my CO told me of his adventure during this period. His company of Mk III tanks were proceeding warily down a lane mindful that the day before they had been mauled by French tanks. On the railway they could see a line of Char B, all clean and new. The crews were sitting on bits of the train or tanks eating their bagettes and ‘wurst’. The Char B guns were all fore and aft. He took the lead and was greeted by an elderly Leutnant of the Reserve with a white rag. It seemed their ammunition was on another train (perhaps) and fuel on a 3rd (perhaps). Peut etre was the word he heard most. He had neither interest or facilities for prisoners [especially elderly reservists] and the Leutnant plus the French soldiers disappeared to reappear in civilian clothing heading home. After a while he made contact with his CO and was told to put their battle flags over the Char B so that the Luftwaffe would not be more confused than normal.

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