Onslaught in Belgium
Elsewhere in Bock’s Army Group B, the Sixth Army under Gen. (later Field Marshal) Walter von Reichenau attacked just before dawn on May 10 to jump the Meuse and the Albert Canal north of Liege and swing southwestward into the Gembloux gap. Taking out the guns of Fort Eben-Emael was essential to the army’s progress. In a minutely planned operation, German parachutists and glider troops landed within the fortress and quickly seized key points. The garrison was forced to surrender around noon on the second day, May 11. The line of the Meuse and the Albert thus compromised, the Belgians began to fall back to the Dyle that night under cover of advance contingents of British and French troops. Meanwhile, strong German units advanced on Liege. They occupied the city on May 12, but although they seized a number of the big forts, others held out, the last falling on May 29, though without influencing the general course of the campaign.
By May 15, the Sixth Army had been built up against the Dyle Line, while the main column of the Eighteenth Army in the Netherlands swung southwestward against the Belgian left flank near Antwerp. Although the French First Army fought valiantly in the Gembloux gap, by the morning of May 16 French armor had incurred disturbing losses. So strong was the Sixth Army’s onslaught against the Dyle Line that the Allies had considerable justification for continuing to believe that the main German effort was in the north. But it would now be only a question of time before Rundstedt’s Army Group A, its panzer columns shielded at first by the forests and valleys of the Ardennes, made its full weight felt in the south.
Army Group A controlled six armies, three in line and three in reserve. The northernmost army, the Fourth under Gen. (later Field Marshal) Hans Gunther von Kluge, pointed an armored corps at Dinant. In the center an armored force called Panzer Group Kleist after its commander, Gen. (later Field Marshal) Ewald von Kleist, was the equivalent of an army with two armored corps and a follow-up corps of 5 motorized divisions. The corps in the north under Gen. Hans Reinhardt had 2 armored divisions aimed at the Meuse around Montherme; the other, with 3 armored divisions under Gen. (later Col. Gen.) Heinz Guderian, was aimed at Sedan. South of Panzer Group Kleist the Sixteenth Army under Gen. (later Field Marshal) Ernst Busch was to cover Kleist’s south flank east of the Meuse. Once Kleist achieved his penetrations, three other armies were to move forward to protect the south flank of the drive to the sea.
On the French side the error of the high command in placing two mediocre armies in the Ardennes sector against what was to be the main German effort was compounded by the dispositions ordered by the army commanders. General Huntziger (Second Army) put his strongest divisions in the Maginot Line; his weakest (newly mobilized reservists), along his left boundary near Sedan. General Corap (Ninth Army) put his two weakest divisions along his right boundary near that city. Thus the main German thrust of Kleist’s armor was destined to strike not only the two weakest French armies but their weakest portions as well.
As Rundstedt and his subordinate commanders learned on May 10, there was some reason for the French theory that the Ardennes is a difficult barrier for major attacks. It took all of the first day for the armor to cross the undefended northern portion of Luxembourg. Yet on the second day the columns picked up momentum, and the cavalry of the Belgian Chasseurs Ardennais and of Corap’s Ninth Army could do little to stay the German tanks. French aircraft were absent, preoccupied with the presumed main effort in the Gembloux gap. By nightfall of May 11, Guderian’s columns had reached Bouillon, on the serpentine Semois River only a few miles from Sedan. Although a blown bridge forestalled further advance for the night, the armored corps forced a crossing early the next day, and by nightfall it overlooked the great loop in the Meuse at Sedan that had played a vital role in the defeat there in 1870 of the army of Napoleon III. Meanwhile, Reinhardt’s armor reached the Meuse near Montherme and Mezieres, north of Sedan. Although both Reinhardt and Guderian prepared to cross the Meuse on May 13, the honor of the first bridgehead fell to the 7th Panzer Division of the Fourth Army, under the command of Gen. (later Field Marshal) Erwin Rommel. A column of the division reached the Meuse at Dinant on the evening of May 12, narrowly missed taking a railroad bridge intact, and then sent a patrol across during the night over an old dam or weir. Under concealment of a fog soon after daylight on May 13, reinforcements crossed in rubber assault boats. Night fell with Rommel holding a bridgehead a mile deep.
Neither Guderian nor Reinhardt had yet built up sizable forces for an assault crossing of the Meuse near Sedan, but an attack was ordered for the afternoon of May 13 in the hope of catching the French before they were prepared for it. To compensate for the absence of heavy artillery, hundreds of fighters and Stuka dive bombers began to bomb and strafe French positions four hours before the assault began. Confronted with this terrifying new departure in warfare, some of the defending French reservists panicked. Nevertheless, the French made their enemy pay dearly in the actual assault. Artillery and machine guns cut down half of the German troops, but the other half got across the river. Three out of four attempted crossings succeeded, and by midnight a pontoon bridge spanned the Meuse. The next day, May 14, General Huntziger hastily counterattacked Guderian’s south flank with a cavalry division, though without appreciable success. Guderian’s 2d Panzer Division plunged on to the west, seizing two bridges intact across the Ardennes Canal. The spectacular drive from the Meuse to the Channel coast had begun.
In the meantime, Reinhardt’s armored corps had greater difficulty. French artillery and small arms fire beat back two crossing attempts at Mezieres and. Montherme. Not until almost nightfall, after tanks had arrived to deliver pointblank fire across the river, was a crossing achieved, and then only at heavy cost. All through the next day, May 14, the status of the bridgehead remained in doubt as the French mustered local reserves against it, but by the morning of May 15 Reinhardt’s engineers had put in a pontoon bridge, and reinforcements poured across it. The French fallacy in failing to establish defenses in depth then became painfully apparent: by evening advance contingents of Reinhardt’s armor were 35 miles beyond the Meuse, close to Guderian’s flank. Army Group A had made a gap 50 miles wide in Second and Ninth Army positions. The breakthrough was complete.