| The offensive in the West was originally planned for
12 November 1939. It had to be carried out by 67 divisions organized in
three army groups. Yet controversies in the command of the German armed
forces, shortages of war materials, and severe winter caused that the
date of invasion had to be postponed; and it was postponed 29 times.
Eventually, when bad weather conditions put air forces' operations in
question, and made it impossible to attack on 17 January 1940, the date
of the offensive was postponed till the spring. Troops, designated for
the invasion, were kept on alert, rotated occasionally for their rest.
Constant menace from the German side forced the Allies to expect an
attack at any moment, and that, as the time past, lowered psychological
resistance of the Anglo-French troops.
And then happened so-called Mechelen incident - a small German
transport plane crash-landed in the vicinity of the town, and two
with them a large part of the operations plan for the attack on the
West, were captured. But king Leopold chose to ignore the matter,
suspecting a provocation. But the Germans took that incident seriously,
and worked out a new plan of the campaign, in the version proposed by
Gen. Erich von Manstein. The plan was in effect since 24 February 1940
in the form of a directive to the land forces.
The directive foresaw offensive with 136 divisions. The main effort was
on the Army Group A
(Col.-Gen. Gerd von Rundstedt). It comprised the 4th, 12th and 16th
Armies (45 divisions, including 7 armoured and 3 motorized). Its task
was to advance in the south to the line Liege - Charleroi, along the
axis Mayen - St.Quentin, in a 170km-wide sector from Roetgen to the
crossing point of the borders of Germany, France and Luxembourg. It had
to seize bridgeheads on the Moselle, between Dinant and Sedan, wedge in
between the French 9th and 2nd Armies, envelope French fortifications
of the Maginot Line, and pursue the enemy to the mouth of the River
Somme. Seven armoured divisions, supported by motorized infantry, were
to play the decisive role - after the passing of the mountainous massif
of the Ardennes, they had to cross the Moselle and break French
defences straight away.
Breaking through the Belgian fortifications was left to the Army Group B (Col.-Gen. Fedor von Bock),
comprising the 18th and 6th Armies - altogether 29 divisions, including
3 armoured and 2 motorized ones. They were to operate in the whole
sector north of the line Liege - Charleroi to the North Sea, and
divert as much of Anglo-Franco-Belgian forces from the main axis of
attack as possible. A supporting thrust was to be driven to Holland.
Special tasks were given to airborne groups, which had to be dropped in
many vulnerable points, seize numerous bridges and dams, penetrate
so-called "Fortress Holland", and paralyze the system of the state
administration and military command.
The task of the Army Group C
(Col.-Gen. Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb) was to contain the enemy forces
that might be transferred elsewhere. It comprised the 1st and 7th
Armies - 19 divisions deployed along the Siegfried Line, in front of
the Maginot Line. On 27 March to its passive task were added offensive
orders: in favourable conditions it was to advance in a chosen sector
between Strasbourg and the Swiss border.
In the reserves the Germans kept 42 divisions. Two air fleets, 2nd and
3rd, had to support land forces. It was a precise plan, and it had
co-ordinated all the factors decisive for a "lightning war" (Blitzkrieg).
On the other hand, the French military doctrine was entirely defensive,
prepared for protracted trench warfare. Intelligence information
diverted the attention of the French command from the Saarland to the
north. Movements of the German rapid forces (armoured and motorized
troops), whose concentration was identified on the western bank of the
Rhine, as well as the presence of the 6th Army's headquarters in
Dusseldorf, suggested that the German thrust would be driven across
Holland and Belgium. Therefore, the French had corrected their
strategic plan Dyle, by
including outflanking manoeuvre Scheldt
(Escaut in French), later
extended to include advanced manoeuvre Dyle, and extended further by
adding manoeuvre Breda.
March 1940 the commander in chief of the Allied forces in north-western
France, General Joseph Georges, issued secret Instruction No.9, in
which he had specified the tasks of the forces of the 1st Army Group
assigned to the plan Dyle.
Even that plan was purely defensive. It issued from the assumption that
the main German effort would be driven on the right wing, across
Belgium north of the line Liege - Namur; in other words - that it would
be a copy of the Schlieffen plan from the beginning of the First World
War. In order to forestall the Germans, the Allied command decided to
assume defences along the line Namur - Antwerp, along the River Dyle,
and fight a battle in the fields of Belgium, where they expected to
encounter the bulk of the German armoured and motorized troops. The
manoeuvre had to be carried by the 1st Army Group (General
Gaston-Henri-Gustave Billot), comprised of 1st, 2nd, 7th and 9th
Armies, as well as the British Expeditionary Force (Gen. John Gort) -
altogether 41 divisions.
The Belgian government gave its secret consent for deployment of the
Army, left wing of the 9th Army, and the British troops along the Dyle,
traversing Belgium from south to north. There they had to bring the
German advance to a halt. The 7th Army had to be moved (partly by sea)
to the area north of Antwerp, to the Dutch territory. The 2nd Army and
the right wing of the 9th Army were deployed along the Meuse, between
Longwy and Givet.
The 2nd Army Group (Gen. Gaston Prételat) assumed defences along the
Maginot Line from Longwy to Selestat. It comprised 3rd, 4th and 5th
Armies, altogether 39 divisions. The task of the 2nd Army Group was to
hold the enemy on the heavily fortified line and deny it access to the
The 3rd Army Group (General Antoine Besson) comprised the 8th Army and
the XLV Army Corps - altogether 11 divisions. It was deployed to defend
so-called Belfort gap and communications with Switzerland; the Allies
deemed it possible that the Germans might violate Switzerland's
neutrality and attack across that country.
This short comparison illustrates that the plans of the opposing sides
differed diametrically. The German plan had weighed on the fates of the
1940 campaign which were decided in two strategic
battles: first - Battle of the Flanders, and second - Battle of France.
Yet the Battle of the Flanders had the decisive impact on the fates of
The German offensive started on 10 May 1940 with massive bombings of
the objects located in Holland, Belgium and France even as far as 400km
behind their eastern borders. Attacked were airfields, communication
nodes, commanding posts and industrial targets. Simultaneously the
German air forces bombed the German city Freiburg, and accused Belgian
and Dutch air forces in that to justify the aggression against those
two countries. At 5:35 German land forces crossed the borders of
Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg, starting the hostilities. Luxembourg
surrendered practically without fights. In the rears of the Dutch and
Belgian forces landed airborne troops on
gliders and parachutes. They seized untouched bridges on the Albert
Canal, as well as fort Eben-Emael.
Meanwhile the troops of the 1st Army Group were put on combat alarm. At
6:30 the supreme commander of of the Allied forces, French General
Maurice Gustave Gamelin, informed General Georges that the Germans had
violated the neutrality of Belgium, which called for help. He ordered
to commence the Dyle
manoeuvre, and confirmed validity of the Breda manoeuvre assigned to the 7th
Army. Once set in motion, the troops marched out to meet the advancing
The Belgian army (nominal commander-in-chief - king Leopold II, Chief
of General Staff - Gen. François Fidèle Oscar Michiels), organized in
seven army corps and one cavalry corps, assumed defences along the line
Arlon - Liege and on the fortified positions around Antwerp. There were
concentrated 14 divisions. Another 3 divisions were deployed on the
line of the River Meuse. A cavalry division assumed defences along the
River Gette. The VI Corps, reduced to one infantry division, was
shifted to a rear position defending Brussels. Three divisions were
left in the reserve of the supreme commander.
On 10 and 11 May, in the sector of the advance of the Army Group A, first German troops encountered
French cavalry outposts from the 9th and 2nd Armies. At night from 10
to 11 May, Belgian troops starter withdrawing to the line of the River
Dyle. They were followed by the first echelon of the Army Group B.
On 12 May most of the French cavalry divisions had pulled out beyond
the Meuse. During the pursuit after them, German armoured troops
reached the eastern banks of the Meuse in the sector between Namur and
Sedan. German motorized units at that time were way ahead of their
infantry divisions, which lagged one day of march on foot behind. Yet
the French forces had failed to exploit that advantage.
German advanced units undertook crossing the river without waiting for
the arrival of the bulk of their forces: XV Armoured Corps (Gen.
Hermann Hoth) at Dinant, XLI Armoured Corps (Gen. Georg-Hans Reinhardt)
at Montherme, and the XIX Armoured Corps (Gen. Heinz Guderian) at
Sedan. The river was forced at night from 13 to 14 May. It was a
complete German success. From the bridgeheads on the western bank of
the Meuse, German armoured divisions thrust into the French rears,
wreaking havoc, commotion and panic.
Meanwhile the 12th Armoured Army advancing in Holland linked with
airborne groups around Rotterdam. Dutch forces (11 divisions) pulled
out to the new defence line - a series of water based defences known as
the New Water Line. Yet, they were not able to hold it, and once their
defence was broken, Dutch forces capitulated on 14th May. Queen
Wilhelmina and the Dutch government flew to London. Although the
Supreme Military Commander, Gen. Henri Gerard Winkelman, signed the act
of surrender of the Dutch forces, the Germans bombed Rotterdam and
destroyed the historic downtown of this old and beautiful city.
And the ability of the French command to keep the situation under
control was limited, since almost all reserve divisions were already
assigned to the fighting armies. After all, French generals still did
not realise the gravity of the situation, even when the German armoured
divisions got to the western bank of the Meuse. Gamelin still had three
armoured divisions concentrated around Reims, but he regarded them for
reserve units designated to reinforce infantry divisions and corps in
the menaced sectors. The 1st Armoured Division, sent to plug the gap in
the front west to Dinant, became immobilized due to the lack of fuel,
and was wiped out by the armoured corps under the command of General
Hermann Hoth. The 3rd Armoured Division exhausted its forces in the
static defence in the south of Sedan. The 2nd Armoured Division was
sent to reinforce the defence on the middle Oise and the Oise-Sambre
Canal, but the armoured corps of Gen. Heinz Guderian caught its units
unloading from the trains near St.Quentin and destroyed them piece by
Thus on 10 to 15 May 1940 German forces achieved an enormous
operational success: they passed the "impassable" Ardennes, crossed the
Meuse, forced the Dutch to capitulate, and broke through the French
defences between the 2nd and the 9th Armies. In that situation the
Allied command ordered the general retreat of the entire northern wing
of its forces, which became exposed to being cut off the main forces
and encirclement. Between 16 and 21 May that retreat turned into a race
with the German troops towards the sea. Once the Germans reached
Abbeville, the northern wing of the Allied forces got trapped. On 19
May the government decided to dismiss Gamelin from command, and replace
him with General Maxime Weygand, thereto the commander of the Army of
the Levant; also lower levels of the chain of command saw many changes.
They were coupled with the reshuffling of the French government:
Marshal Philippe Pétain became deputy prime minister. Those two
appointments were very unfortunate, because they reinforced the
positions of the capitulationists. Paul Reynaud retained the office of
the prime-minister, and took the portfolio of the minister of defence;
Edouard Daladier became the foreign minister, and Georges Mandel - the
minister of interior.
However, no political leapfrogging could save the situation as the
German forces just began to liquidate gradually the 1st Army Group.