Drive to the Channel
The breakthrough in the south seriously jeopardized the main Allied forces in Belgium. The French Seventh Army on the extreme left had already lost some of its advance contingents in the Netherlands, and others retreated to the island of Walcheren between Antwerp and the sea (there to hold until May 17), while late on May 14 what remained of the army began to move southward under orders from General Gamelin to try to reinforce Corap’s Ninth Army. The next day, Gamelin replaced Corap with the Seventh Army commander, Giraud. Meanwhile, the Belgians and the British were not particularly hard pressed in their positions behind the Dyle, and the French First Army at a continuing heavy cost in casualties maintained its positions in the Gembloux gap. In view of the breakthrough to the south, however, none of this mattered much. In midmorning of May 16, Gen. Gaston Henri Billotte, the army group commander in Belgium, ordered a withdrawal to the Scheldt River, the line originally contemplated in Plan E.
In the meantime, the French High Command had tried to muster reserves to eliminate the armored penetration near Sedan. There was a frenzy of improvisation-a division ordered here, another there, 7 divisions pulled out of the Maginot Line, the Second Army ordered to attack northward, the First Army ordered to attack southward-but none of it bore directly on the realities of the situation. In almost every case the scheduled times of counterattack showed that the French generals still failed to appreciate the speed of the new type of warfare. The only two counterattacks of any consequence were launched northeast of Laon by a newly created armored division, the 4th, under a general of brigade, Charles de Gaulle, who in the 1930’s had raised one of the few voices urging French adaptation to the methods of armored warfare. Although de Gaulle gained initial successes on May 17 and May 19, he could not hold the positions he won without help.
Moving with impressive speed, Kleist’s armor on May 18 took St.-Quentin, halfway to the Channel from Sedan, and by the end of the day had reached Peronne. The next day the tanks reached Amiens and Doullens, 40 miles from the coast. On May 20, Abbeville fell, and for all practical purposes German armor faced the Channel. The British line of communications, which had been based on Cherbourg and the Brittany ports in deference to German strength in the air, was severed. In 11 days the Germans had driven from the eastern frontier of Luxembourg to the coast, a distance of more than 240 miles.
Allied attempts to stem the onrush north of the German penetration were almost as futile as the French efforts from the south. Although the BEF withdrew in good order to the Scheldt, arriving at the river during the night of . May 18, the situation on both flanks had begun to disintegrate. Kuchler’s Eighteenth Army hammered the Belgians in front of Antwerp relentlessly and took the city on May 18. By May 21, the Belgians were back on the Lys River protecting Ghent (Gent). Although the French First Army held a salient extending southeast of Lille, the fact that the Ninth Army had collapsed (the new commander, Giraud, was captured on May 18) left the French right flank and thus the British rear unprotected. The next day the BEF commander, the 6th Viscount Gort, created two makeshift commands, each somewhat larger than a brigade, as a first step in forming a so-called canal line from the Channel near Dunkerque to the vicinity of Arras.
Short of an attempt to withdraw across the Channel, the only hope for the Allies appeared to lie in cutting the German penetration and thereby establishing a firm line from the Somme to the Scheldt. This General Gamelin ordered late on May 19, only a short while before the French government relieved him of command. The new supreme commander, Gen. Maxime Weygand, canceled the order pending consultation with the commanders in the pocket. Flying to Calais on May 21, Weygand talked with King Leopold III of the Belgians and with General Billotte, the army group commander, but he failed to see Lord Gort, who was delayed en route to the meeting. After ordering a combined British-French attack toward Bapaume and Cambrai with 8 divisions, to be met by a French attack northward across the Somme, Weygand departed. While returning from the conference, Billotte was killed in an automobile accident. Although Weygand ordered General Blanchard to fill the post of group commander, Billotte’s death combined with Gamelin’s relief and Weygand’s delay to deprive the forces in the pocket of strong central command for three critical days when a coordinated counterattack to the south might have succeeded.
Under orders from his government, Lord Gort had already attempted one counterattack on May 21. With the promise of considerable help from the French First Army, he intended to drive southward from Arras, but as the French assistance materialized, it amounted to only 60 tanks, and unremitting German pressure forced the diversion of a substantial part of the British troops. The counterattack failed even to reach the first day’s objectives a few miles below Arras, and as night fell, Gort pulled the troops back to Arras and the canal line. The next day, May 22, as the First Army mustered 2 divisions to counterattack, Gort was too hard pressed on his two fronts, the positions on the Scheldt and the canal line, to give any help. Although the French divisions almost reached the outskirts of Cambrai, German dive bombers forced their withdrawal. The French in the south then mounted an attack on May 23, but it failed even to cross the Somme. For all practical purposes, this ended the efforts to link the troops in the pocket, which still totaled 40 divisions, with the main French armies in the south.