Panzer II at bridge, 1940
A rear view of a Panzer II held up by a broken bridge in France in 1940.
SdKfz 121 Panzer II
Authored By: Dan Alex | Last Edited: 06/25/2019 | Content ©www.MilitaryFactory.com | The following text is exclusive to this site.
While development of the of the Pz.Kpf.W. I (Panzer I) light tank (Sd.Kfz. 121) was still ongoing, the Pz.Kpf.W. II (Panzer II) light tank was already being devised as an interim tank model series to bridge the gap between the former light tank and the projected Pz.Kpf.W III (Panzer III) and Pz.Kpf.W IV medium tanks. The Panzer III and Panzer IV were both experiencing project delays so a stopgap design became an ultimate necessity for Hitler, bent on going to war before his army was even prepared for one. The plan was to produce a better-armed and armored version of a light tank to shore up the limitations of the Panzer I as well as provide priceless training to tank crews. Plans for such a system were already in the works while the first production Panzer I Ausf. As had yet to make their way out of the factory. The Panzer II went on to form a large part of German invasion groups flooding into Poland and France and also saw combat along the East Front into Russia despite the system being all but obsolete by then.
Note: To help the reader along, it is important to note the German designation convention for its military vehicles. The abbreviation Pz.Kpf.W. covers "Panzerkampfwagen" and translates to "armored fighting vehicle". Likewise, the abbreviation Sd.Kfz. covers "Sonderkraftfahrzeug" and translates to "special motor vehicle". Ausf is the general term used to cover "model" or "mark" in showcasing a variant of note. Taking all this into account, the Panzer III can also be known by the designation of Pz.KpfW. II as well as Sd.Kfz. 121 while any model variants are covered in the convention of Ausf. A, Ausf. B, Ausf. C and so on. "Ausf." is the abbreviated form of the word "Ausfuhrung" meaning simply "model" or "design".
The Panzer II was first born in a German Ordnance Department requirement enacted in 1934, this time proposing a 10-ton light tank development with 20mm cannon and 7.92mm machine gun armament. As was the case in developing the Panzer I, it became common practice for the new Germany, now wholly under Hitler, to skirt the rules of the Versailles Treaty and develop its systems of war under various peaceful disguises such as farm equipment. The Versailles Treaty was forced upon Germany after World War 1 by the victors and severely restricted the nations war-producing capabilities. The post-war army was now limited to 100,000 personnel and no tank or airplane development and production was allowed save for a few types of security vehicles. As such, this new light tank design fell under the designation of "Landwirtschaftlicher Schlepper 100" (or "LaS 100") under the guise that it was a farm tractor. The German firms Krupp, Henschel and MAN were thrown into competition, each granted developmental contracts, with MAN coming out on top despite Krupps experience in developing the Panzer I and submitting a much simpler design this time around. MAN would be responsible for the new chassis while Daimler-Benz was handed construction of the superstructure and turret.
Several prototype forms of the MAN Panzer II emerged during 1935 while development continued into 1937. By July of that year, the Panzer II was cleared and ready for production and by 1939, some 1,226 Panzer IIs were in circulation. The Invasion of Poland took place on September 1st with the Invasion of France following in 1940. Despite their combat limitations in the previous two invasions, at least 1,000 Panzer IIs were still available for the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, some now being fitted with French 37mm main guns to help offset their initial limited firepower capabilities.
While the Panzer I proved the spearhead of these initial invasion assaults, the Panzer II formed the backbone of such early forays. Underpowered, under-armored and lightly-armed like the Panzer Is before them, the Panzer II also experienced its hardships on the battlefield - particularly against anti-tank weaponry at close ranges. Nevertheless, Hitler was eager for a war, time was of the essence and his more lethal Panzer IIIs and Panzer IVs were soon to come online. By 1942, around 866 Panzer IIs were still available though, by this time, the system had inevitably met its combat end - being wholly outclassed by both new German and incoming Allied armor. Clever anti-tank conversions of the Panzer II chassis soon followed in a somewhat economical effort to extend the chassis lifespan.
To the casual observer, the Panzer II may share some similarities to the Panzer I but it was a distinctly different machine in major ways. The system was powered by a Maybach water-cooled gasoline engine while the early Panzer I fitted a Krupp-designed, air-cooled engine that proved vastly underpowered and hence underperformed for the role. As such, a water-cooled six-cylinder Maybach engine was selected for the improved Panzer I Ausf. B model and Maybach engines (of various types) became a German Army standard from then on and the Panzer II line was no exception.
The tank fitted five rubber-tired road wheels to a track side. The Ausf. A, B and C versions fitted these wheels off of leaf-type springs while the Ausf. D and E versions introduced a Christie-type torsion bar suspension with larger road wheels that improved mobility and maximum speed. The crew of the Panzer II was increased by one to encompass three personnel. They were made up of the driver, radio operator and the commander, the latter also acting as the tank gunner. The driver and the radio operator were both situated in the hull, with the driver offset to the left of the front hull and the radioman seated under the turret with his back towards the hull front. Like the Panzer I, the commander/gunner retained his position in a hand-cranked turret and, while being responsible for managing the actions of his crew, was also charged with the loading, aiming and firing the onboard weapons. Communication from commander to driver throughout the smelly, noisy interior was accomplished via a voice tube. The turret was fitted towards the front of the superstructure and offset to the left (the Panzer I offset its turret to the right). The rear of the hull was dominated by the liquid-cooled engine while the transmission was situated forward in the design.
Vision ports were plentiful along the turret and the superstructure to allow for better outward crew visibility. The commander and radioman entered/exited the vehicle through a split hatch on top of the turret (in Panzer II Ausf. A through F models) but this method officially gave way to a simpler hinged-hatch cover on a commander's cupola emplacement that also featured eight vision blocks beginning with the Ausf. F in 1940. The driver had access to a side-hinged hatch located along the top of the glacis plate at the forward hull. His primary vision port was a long rectangular affair at the forward face of the superstructure with secondary vision out of the sides.
Armament was slightly upgraded from the 2 x 7.92mm machine guns as found on the Panzer I. The Panzer II fitted a more powerful 20mm 2-cm Kw.K 30 L/55 (or Kw.K 38 L/55) automatic cannon offset to the left side of the welded-steel turret and retained a co-axially mounted 7.92mm MG 34 machine gun along the right side of the turret for anti-infantry defense. The automatic cannon was fitted with a 10-round magazine and was strangely limited to full-automatic fire only, resulting in the standard practice of firing the weapon in controlled bursts. Rate-of-fire was an impressive 280 rounds per minute. Eighteen additional 10-round magazines could be stored within the tank itself allowing for 180 total projectiles on hand. Aiming could be accomplished through conventional fixed sights along the gun (when looking out of the vision port) or through a 2.5-power optical telescope when the tank was "buttoned" down.
The first production Panzer II became the Pz.Kpf.W II Ausf. A and was rather meekly-armored along its front facings (15mm at its thickest). Actions in the Poland Invasion of September 1939 proved that such protection was useless against close-range anti-tank implements causing the German Army to issue bolt-on steel armor plates beginning in 1940 (Interestingly enough, this practice has survived into today's modern battlefield where explosive reactive armor is added to existing steel armor for additional protection in defeating shells and anti-tank missiles). The Ausf. A featured five road wheels on leaf springs and could hit up to 25 miles per hour with a range of 125 miles on an improved manual transmission system. Weight was listed as 9 tons and deliveries began in 1935, with service beginning in July of 1937. Power was derived from a Maybach gasoline liquid-cooled engine of 130 horsepower.
The Pz.Kpf.W. II Ausf. B was essentially similar to the Ausf. A and featured slight changes including the implementation of a 140 horsepower engine and thicker frontal armor. Weight was listed at 8.5 tons with this revision. It eventually replaced the Ausf. A models along the production lines beginning in December of 1937 but was itself replaced by the improved Ausf. C model.
The Ausf. C was introduced in 1937 and appeared in force beginning in June of 1938 with continued production until April of 1940. The Ausf. C became the highest quantitative Panzer II available to the German Army. Frontal armor was once again improved and the road wheels became five independently sprung systems to each track side. Production was spread between Alkett, FAMO, Daimler-Benz, Henschel, MAN, MIAG and Wegmann. Top speeds reached 25 miles per hour on road and 12 miles per hour off road. Power was derived from a single Maybach HL 62 TRM inline 6-cylinder gasoline engine developing 140 horsepower. Range was 93 miles on road and 62 miles cross-country.
The Pz.Kpf.W. II Ausf.D was introduced in early 1938 and brought with it a new Christie-type torsion bar suspension system with four large-diameter road wheels. This change improved the vehicles mobility and allowed for road speeds of up to 34 miles per hour (though cross-country speed was actually slower than that on previous production models). The Ausf-D sported an all-new hull and superstructure but retained the turret of the Ausf. C model. The manual transmission of the Ausf. A, B and C models was dropped in favor of an automatic transmission system in the Ausf. D. MAN completed production from May 1938 through August of 1939. These units fought in the Polish campaign and served up until March of 1940.
The Pz.Kpf.W. II Ausf. E was essentially similar to the Ausf. D save for a few minor changes to its suspension system. Ausf. E models were fielded side-by-side with their Ausf. D counterparts.
The Pz.Kpf.W. II Ausf. F became the final major production form of the Panzer II and was based on the Ausf. C production model. This particular model was designated as a reconnaissance tank. The suspension system was revised as was the commander's cupola. First appearing in 1940, production by FAMO produced 524 total examples with quantitative numbers being reached in early 1942 and continuing into December of 1942. The Ausf. F was visually different from her predecessors in that she sported a redesigned forward hull and, internally, she fitted additional frontal armor (up to 35mm at its thickest). Weight was now topping 11 tons and forced a decrease in top speed. As the introduction of the Christie-type suspension system of earlier models degraded off-road performance, the Ausf. F reverted back to a leaf spring-type suspension system. Power for the Ausf. F was derived from a single Maybach HL45P 6-cylinder gasoline engine developing 140 horsepower. Road speed was listed at 34 miles per hour with maximum range equaling 125 miles. Fording was possible up to 2 feet, 10 inches and gradients of up to 50 percent were achievable. Vertical obstacle passage was limited to 1 feet, 5 inches and traversal over trench depths of 5 ft, 9 inches were attainable.
Following along the same lines as the Ausf. F, the Ausf. J was also conceived of as a reconnaissance tank though with better armor protection (up to 80mm along the front facings). The Ausf. J was powered by a Maybach HL45P engine (same as the Ausf. F) and fitted a 2-cm Kw.K 38 L/55 autocannon. MAN produced only 22 of these between April and December of 1942 with several seeing action along the East Front.
Panzer II Developments
The Panzerspahwagen II Luchs (or "Lynx" and formally designated as the Sd.Kfz. 123) also carried the Pz.Kpf.W. II designation but was essentially a different sort of light tank designed specifically for the high-speed cross-country reconnaissance role. They maintained a different exterior design when compared to any of the Panzer II Ausf. versions, featuring a rather stout profile housing a more powerful 180 horsepower engine. Five large overlapping road wheels were fitted to a track side as well as torsion bar suspension. The relatively high superstructure fitted the traversing turret with applicable main armament. The new vehicle weighed in at 12.79 tons. The Luchs also had a crew of four personnel (driver, commander, dedicated gunner and radioman) - an increase of one from the base and original Panzer II - and could hit speeds of up to 37.7 miles per hour. Armament was a 20mm automatic cannon tied to a co-axial 7.92mm machine gun with distance aiming accomplished via an optical sight. MAN took on production of at least 100 of these interesting developments beginning in September of 1943 and running to January of 1944 but plans for an upgunned 50mm model thereafter were eventually scrapped. The original plan called for 800 Luchs tanks with the first 100 being the 20mm-armed model and the latter batch becoming the 50mm-armed model. Despite its limited production run, the Luchs saw combat operations along both fronts until the end of the war, fielded by the 116th Panzer Division in the West. Expecting to encounter much more violent action in the East, German Luchs were fitted with extra armor.
The Panzer II chassis was modified in a variety of notable forms. One early form was the Panzerkampfwagen II mit Schwimmkorper amphibious model intended for the invasion of the British mainland through "Operation Sea Lion". This tank sported a propeller that was powered by the internal engine and could reach speeds of 6 miles per hour at sea. 1940 saw the implementation of the Flammpanzer II, a 12-ton dual-flamethrower wielding tank based off of the Panzer II chassis and was featured in a production run of 95 to 100 examples by 1942 in both Ausf. A and Ausf. B forms. These proved to be too lightly armored in practice.
While the combat capabilities of the panzer II light tank inevitably dwindled as the war moved on, other powerful developments soon came into play. The Germans became something of masters at taking old tanks and re-envisioning them to make for viable battlefield implements once more (this was done with captured French and Czech systems as well). The Panzer II chassis served as the basis for the Marder II self-propelled gun, fitting a 7.5-cm German anti-tank weapon. From 1942 to 1943, some 531 Panzer IIs became Marder IIs. The Wespe ("Wasp") became a self-propelled gun based on the Panzer II chassis and fitted the 10-cm main gun, seeing production from 1943 through 1944 to which some 682 Panzer II chassis were converted as such. A stop-gap self-propelled gun version of the Panzer II chassis fitting the 5-cm Pa.K 38 gun became the "5-cm PaK 38 auf Fahrgestell Panzerkampfwagen II". Captured Soviet 76.2mm guns were fitted to Panzer II chassis to become the "7.62-cm PaK 36(r) auf Fahrgestell Panzerkampfwagen II Ausf. D".
In all, the Panzer II seemed the logical next step in the Panzer family line. It was slightly better than the Panzer I before it but no match for medium tanks being fielded by the Allies. Perhaps the most interesting facet of the Panzer II's legacy is its use as modified or converted weapons that gave new life to the series. Including all of her conversions, the Panzer II served through the entire span of World War 2 and was produced in nearly 2,000 production examples.
This story starts in the 1930's and the strange idiocy of the final years in the mid-1940's is not yet apparent.
Germany, after World War 1, was not supposed to have an army with tanks. It had also physically lost manufacturing capacity and expertise with transfer of whole factories and land to France.
The desire of Hitler to rebuild an army thus had to be done in secret and start from the basics. Soviet Russia allowed the German army to have a base in Russia to start again.
The Panzer II was one of the first tanks built to test both how to build and how to use tanks.
It was a Minimum Viable Prototype. It was never meant to be a usable product in actual warfare.
And yet, it ended up being used in both the Spanish Civil War and the early parts of World War 2.
This was due to political and military necessity and realisation that not enough of the ‘real’ tanks were available in time.
Armored units in 1940 on the western front
Post by David Lehmann » 01 May 2005, 00:06
This article has been simplified compared to my .doc / .pdf file since I did not attach pictures like the divisional insignia. I could also not easily add the different tables.
ARMORED UNITS IN THE 1940 WESTERN CAMPAIGN
1. GERMAN ARMORED UNITS
On 1st September 1939, the German Army is still immature, it lacks some equipment and is far from being organized around the Blitzkrieg concept. The chain of command is still very classical and the armored units have not the importance they will gain later in 1940. 5 Korps include motorized units but there is no specific group dedicated to large mechanized operations beyond the tactical level.
The Panzerwaffe formed in 1934 includes in 1939 7 Panzerdivisionen and 4 Leichten-Divisionen (light armored divisions) beside 4 ID (mot). It is the most powerful element of the Heer but only 16% of the tanks are armed with a 3.7cm or a 7.5cm gun, 84% of the tanks are Panzer I, Panzer II or command tanks. At the tactical, mobility and flexibility level the German mechanized units were superior to their Polish opponents in 1939 but the inter-arms cooperation (tank/infantry/artillery/air support) was not yet mature even if already tested on the very basic level in Spain with the Panzer I and several crews.
The size of the Panzerwaffe is too limited in 1939 and its practical use is not yet well defined, the old school favoring the classical warfare is still powerful in the German high command. All the Panzerdivisionen and Leichten-Divisionen are completely scattered only the 10th Armee has in some extend some concentrated mechanized troops. The Panzerwaffe of September 1939 is not mature and not directed towards a specific point (Schwehrpunkt) of the front. Fall Weiss allowed testing some tactical principles that the German HQ wanted to upscale. The Germans did more than replace losses between the Polish and French Campaigns. They created new divisions and improved their army in terms of equipments, chain of command and doctrine.
The German forces had been reorganized after the campaign in Poland (Fall Weiss) :
• At the eve of Fall Gelb there are 155 German divisions available (136 engaged), including 2 Waffen-SS motorized divisions instead of 105 divisions (63 engaged) in September 1939. The Leichten-Divisionen have been transformed into Panzerdivisionen. The Leichten-Divisionen have been transformed into Panzerdivisionen. Created in 1936, these Leichten-Divisionen were based on the model of the French DLM. In Germany like in France, the cavalry wanted its own tanks because it was frightened to loose influence. After Fall Weiss the 1., 2., 3. and 4. Leichten-Divisionen became the 6., 7., 3. and 4. Panzerdivisionen and the 5. PzD had been created. The German army in May 1940 had therefore 10 Panzer Divisionen, 6 ID (mot) and 1 newly created Kavalerie division.
• The 3. and 4. Wellen Infanterie Divisionen from the Polish campaign were largely improved, younger men were enlisted and the equipment was modernized. In 1940, 15 of these divisions were frontline units.
• The chain of command is less centralized and more flexible whereas in Poland the command structures were very traditional. Add to that the important communication means (many radio sets), a well organized logistics and you have a powerful army.
• The German tactics with good inter-arms cooperation (tank / aircraft couple, close air support provided by the Ju87s and Hs123s, omnipresent tactical air reconnaissance) were not mature in Poland but they are ready for Fall Gelb. The first trials with air-ground cooperation were to be held in Grafenwöhr training area 21st - 25th August 1939, but cancelled due to the oncoming war. Therefore, in September 1939 the Germans had no new Blitzkrieg tactics to use.
A complete new HQ and ad-hoc structure is created with Gruppe Kleist for the initial phase of Fall Gelb. It includes 3 motorized army corps, regrouping 5 armored divisions and 3 motorized infantry divisions, directed towards the Ardennes. Unlike in Poland, the mechanized elements are well concentrated and have a real strategic role. They are well supported by the VIII.Fliegerkorps concentrating all the 300 Ju87 dive bombers and 42 Hs123 assault biplanes. The 5.PzD and 7.PzD of the XV.Armee Korps (mot.) are only several kilometers north of Gruppe Kleist. Therefore 7 Panzerdivisonen are concentrated against the weak area of the Ardennes. In the area of Sedan, 1500 aircrafts are concentrated on a small area to support the German attack. It is the very first time in History that such armored and air support forces are concentrated on such a small area.
During the initial phase of Fall Gelb, the Germans used also extensively airborne troops (paratroopers and glider troops) and commandos (in German uniforms, in allied uniforms or in civilian clothes – Brandenburger commandos, assault engineers or elite infantry of the "Grossdeutschland" regiment etc.). Such a concentration of commandos and airborne troops having a real strategic role is probably also a first time in History.
Compared to the Polish campaign, in France the armored units were better armed (more tanks were armed with 3.7cm and 7.5cm guns (16% - 452 tanks - in Poland and 36% - 955 tanks - in France) and also better armored. There were Panzer IV Ausf.A/Bs in Poland but more Panzer IV Ausf.C/Ds in France. There were lightly armored early Panzer III in Poland but more Panzer III E/F in France. The Panzer II was built with 14.5mm armor and up-armored after the Polish campaign for the invasion of France. Also the early Panzer IIs had no vision cupola for the commander, which reduced probably the tactical awarness. The cupolas were retrofitted to the existing tanks over a period of time. The first Panzer III armed with a 5.0cm gun left the production line in July 1940. During that month 21 were built and 17 of these accepted by Army (according to Blatt G112, 15th December 1940 "Überblick über den Rüstungstand des Heeres"). Apparently if 5.0cm shells were already in production in June 1940 it was because the 5.0cm PaK38 were slowly being produced at this time, not because of Panzer III with 5.0cm guns used in France in 1940.
--> For all these reasons, the 1940 western campaign can be seen as the best example of the so-called Blitzkrieg. It worked also later against Greece and Yugoslavia but it couldn't work anymore in Russia which was too big.
The Panzerwaffe had 2636 German tanks on 10th May 1940 :
[Table giving the tank strength of the different Panzerdivisionen and the repartition of the different tanks]
These 2636 tanks include 965 ones (37%) armed with a 3.7cm or 7.5cm gun. Not counting here the additional 99 Panzerjäger I and 24 StuG A. Which leads to 2759 AFVs and 1088 ones (39%) armed with a 3.7cm, 4.7cm or 7.5cm gun. All the German tanks were concentrated in the 10 Panzerdivisionen. The German Panzerdivisionen might be very different in composition from one to an other and during the campaign itself because of various attachments at different times. The type 1 Panzerdivisionen (Guderian model) like the 1., 2. and 10.PzD and the type 1 bis like the 3.,4. and 5.PzD had 2 tank regiments with 2 battalions each. The type 2 Panzerdivisionen, originating from the transformation of the Leichten-Divisionen, are the 6., 7. and 8.PzD. They had a single tank regiment but with 3 battalions. Finally the 9.PzD was a "reduced" type 2 Panzerdivision with only one tank regiment of 2 battalions. Except the atypical 9.PzD which is engaged in the Netherlands, a Panzerdivision had a mean of 270 tanks including 170 light tanks and 100 medium tanks. The Panzer 35(t)s are concentrated in the 6.PzD and the Panzer 38(t)s are all in the 7.PzD and 8.PzD.
2. FRENCH ARMORED UNITS
During World War 1, the French tanks were part of the artillery and called AS for "artillerie d'assaut" (assault artillery … and not special artillery as it is often written). General Estienne, father of the French tanks, was indeed from the artillery. He worked since 1915 to use mobile and armored guns. The main task of the tanks was nevertheless to support the advance of the infantry.
In 1920, the tanks became part of the infantry with more than 3,000 FT17 tanks available. In 1940, 1297 FT17 tanks were still in service : 1062 tanks in France and 235 in the colonies. From the 1062 FT17 tanks in France, 462 were in combat units and many others were in airfield protection platoons, anti-paratroops tank companies, regional platoon of protection tanks, important buildings protection platoons etc.
During the inter-wars period, the infantry and the cavalry developed their tanks separately. The infantry had tanks long before the cavalry but created big armored/mechanized units (divisions) later. The cavalry first used only armored cars.
The development of the French tanks was hampered by several factors :
• The disarmament conference at Geneva and the League of Nations with the post-WW1 pacifism. Germany left the League of Nations and developed its own tanks despite the interdiction of the Versailles treaty.
• Financial and political issues from 1919 to 1930 leading to the main effort on light tanks instead of medium main battle tanks. They appeared less offensive and therefore in adequacy with the international pacifist context. From 1928 to 1934, only 2.4% of the budget for armament production was dedicated to the tanks.
• Too many dispersed efforts and projects
• Not one single arm (independent or not) regrouping all the AFVs. There were infantry and cavalry tanks whereas in Germany the Panzerwaffe became an independent arm concentrating all the tanks.
In 1936, the French army had still some 700,000 horses. Nevertheless, in 1940 it had 400,000 motorized vehicles including motorcycles, cars, trucks, tanks, armored cars etc. (more or less equivalent to the German army, the small US army for example had 12,000 vehicles at the same time which shows how quickly it increased its size afterwards).
In the cavalry the DLC = Division Légere de Cavalerie = Light Cavalry Division included some tanks and armored cars but the main armored unit was the DLM = Division Légere Mécanique = Light Mechanized Division. The term "light" referred to its speed and mobility not its strength since it was more powerful than the armored division of the infantry.
In the infantry the armored division was the DCR = Division Cuirassée de Réserve = Reserve Armored Division (cuirassée means armored). The acronym DCR was chosen in order to differentiate it from the already existing DC (= Division de Cavalerie = Cavalry Division). But it was indeed originally meant as "Division Cuirassée de Réserve", the word "reserve" being a political choice. These new units would not be ready until 1940 and were initially assigned to the HQ reserve, thus their name. But once in the field they were simply known as "Divisions Cuirassées", which was technically abbreviated as DCu, yet DCR was often retained (leading to the use of DCr). The BCC (bataillon de char de combat) were the tank battalions included in the DCR but on 10th May there were still about 35 BCC available for the armies beside several companies (CACC = Compagnie Autonome de Chars de Combat = independent tank company). They were dispersed in all the armies and all over the territory to support the infantry. During peacetime the BCC were depending from RCC = Régiment de Chars de Combat = tank regiments.
In 1940 the main tanks were :
Infantry tanks :
• Renault FT-17BS (light)
• FT-17c (light)
• FT-17m (light)
• FCM36 (light)
• Renault R35/39/40 (light)
• Hotchkiss H39 (light)
• Renault D1 (medium)
• Renault D2 (medium)
• Renault B1 (heavy)
• Renault B1bis (heavy)
• FCM-2C (very heavy)
Cavalry tanks :
• Hotchkiss H35/39 (light)
• Somua S35 (medium)
2.1 The French cavalry tanks
General Flavigny was the director of the cavalry from 1931 to 1936. In 1931, with general Weygand, he started big efforts to modernize the French cavalry and introduced motorized/mechanized elements, despite a low budget and many oppositions originating from pro-horse lobbies.
The development of the cavalry AFVs begun in 1930/1931 and three types of vehicles were studied :
• AMD = Auto-Mitrailleuse de Découverte = distant reconnaissance wheeled vehicles : Panhard P165/175, Laffly 80AM, Laffly 50AM, Laffly S15TOE were used at first but the main AMD in 1940 was the excellent Panhard P178. The Panhard 178, nicknamed "pan-pan", was a very good and reliable armored car. It has proven a superior designed armored car in 1940. It had a 2-men APX3 turret (hand-cranked) and its 25mm SA35 gun had good anti-tank capacities. The Panhard 178 was capable of relative high speed (72.6 km/h) and had two drivers (one forward and one backward) to change direction very quickly, increasing the overall maneuverability.
• AMR = Auto-Mitrailleuse de Reconnaissance = cross-country reconnaissance, tracked armored car / light tank : AMR-33 and AMR-35 ZT1, ZT2 and ZT3.
• AMC = Auto-Mitrailleuse de Combat = tracked (or half-tracked) vehicle that has better armament and armor, capable of heavy combat : at first the Panhard-Schneider P16 Mle1929 (used as AMR in 1940), Renault AMC-34 (YR), Renault AMC-35 (ACG1), Hotchkiss H35/39 and the most important, the very good Somua S35. The Somua S35 was fast, well armed and well protected. It was very liked by its crews who pulled away the embossed "SOMUA" plates and welded them on their new Sherman tanks in north Africa.
In 1932, 3 hybrid cavalry divisions (horses / armoured cars) are created but it remained a "oil and oats" solution, mainly because of the horse traditions and also because the modern armored cars and tanks were at first only slowly available. These DC = Division de Cavalerie = Cavalry Division were made up of half conventional horse mounted cavalry and half armored cars. The trainings revealed the issues of such units : if the armored cars moved at 25-45 km/h they were too fast for the horses and could not hold alone the area they just took, if the unit moved at 8 km/h, the rhythm of the horses, the armored cars' engine was overheating.
On 10th February 1940, there were 50% less horses in these units, 1 cavalry brigade instead of 2. This enabled to create more such units thanks to all the newly available tanks and armored cars. From the 3 hybrid units 5 DLC were created.
Each DLC includes about 7,800 men, 2,000 horses and 2,100 vehicles :
• 1 divisional HQ
• 1 cavalry brigade (BC = Brigade de Cavalerie) of 2 cavalry regiments (horse mounted)
• 1 light motorized brigade (BLM = Brigade Légère Motorisée) with :
--o a RAM (Régiment d’Auto-Mitrailleuses = armored cars regiment) including 13 Hotchkiss H35 tanks and 12 Panhard 178 (+1 radio car + 2 reserve armored car)
--o a RDP (Régiment de Dragons Portés = mechanized cavalry regiment) of 2 battalions including 23 AMR33 / AMR35 ZT1 and 5 motorcycle platoons
• 1 divisional AT squadron (EDAC = Escadron Divisionnaire Anti-Char)
• 1 divisional repair and recovery squadron
• 1 motorized artillery regiment (75mm Mle1897 and 105mm C with all-terrain tractors)
• 1 motorized AT battery (BDAC = Batterie Divisionnaire Anti-Char)
• 1 motorized engineer company (sapeurs-mineurs company)
• 1 mixed signals company
• 1 HQ horse-drawn transport company
• 1 HQ motor transport company
• 1 divisional quartermaster group
• 1 divisional medical group
Therefore each DLC had only an AFVs strength of 13 tanks and 35-37 armored cars = 48-50 AFVs. A DLC could in no way compete with a German Panzerdivision but they will nevertheless face them.
During combats, the 2 components (horse vs motorized) are often separated, the armored cars joining other motorized/mechanized elements. These hybrid characteristics could also be found in the motorized reconnaissance "battalions" of infantry divisions or army corps : 7 GRDI (= Groupe de Reconnaissance de Division d'Infanterie), 5 of them including armored cars, and 3 GRCA (=Groupe de Reconnaissance de Corps d'Armée).
In 1932-1935, the first fully motorized unit, the 1e DLM, was born and developed. The 2e DLM was born in 1937 and the 3e DLM in February 1940. There will be 3 DLMs on 10th May 1940 (1e DLM, 2e DLM and 3e DLM) forming the French cavalry corps under command of general Prioux. The DLM is more powerful than the DCR, faster and more mobile. It is a unit fully adapted to modern mobile warfare.
The 1e DLM and 2e DLM became very well trained divisions (even at the divisional an corps level) with efficient crews and specialists. Manoeuvres and trainings were organized at large scale in 1935, 1936, 1937 1938, 1939 and the last divisional training in 1940.. They included deep penetration behind fortifications, cooperation with close air support and close inter-arms cooperation. The crew knew their tanks and how to operate them. The gunners were skilled and trained. The 3e DLM formed in 1940 had only reservists who did their military service on horse and some of them discovered their tank a short time before being engaged, except some officers and specialists originating from the other DLMs.
The cavalry corps and the corresponding HQ is created at the mobilization beginning September 1939. It is under the command of general Prioux until 25th May 1940 when he took command of the 1st army and general Langlois replaced him at the head of the cavalry corps. The cavalry corps contains initially only the 1e DLM and 2e DLM. The 1e DLM is then attached to the 7th army to operate in the Netherlands on 10th May 1940. It is replaced in the cavalry corps by the 3e DLM on 26th March 1940. During the 1940 western campaign the cavalry corps will regroup 1, 2 or the 3 DLMs. During the battle of Hannut, general Prioux had the actual command of a real French tank corps facing a German tank corps. They inflicted heavy losses to the Germans. The use of such a French tank corps is unique during the 1940 campaign except perhaps the formation of the "groupement Buisson" beginning June for the battles on the Aisne and Retourne Rivers south of Rethel which grouped the 3e DCR and the 7e DLM.
Each DLM included about 10,400 men and 3,400 vehicles :
• 1 divisional HQ
• 1 light motorized brigade (BLM = Brigade Légère Motorisée) with 2 armored cavalry regiments (RC = Régiment de Cuirassiers or RD = Régiment de Dragons).
• 1 divisional AT squadron (EDAC = Escadron Divisionnaire Anti-Char)
• 1 divisional repair and recovery squadron
• 1 motorized artillery regiment (with all-terrain tractors)
• 1 motorized AT battery (BDAC = Batterie Divisionnaire Anti-Char)
• 1 motorized AA battery (BDAA = Batterie Divisionnaire Anti-Aérienne)
• 1 engineer battalion (3 motorized companies plus a bridging company)
• 1 telegraph company
• 1 radio company
• 1 carrier-pigeon detachment
• 1 HQ motor transport company
• 1 divisional quartermaster group
• 1 divisional medical group
On 10th May 1940 the cavalry consisted in :
• 5 Divisions Légères de Cavalerie (DLC)
• 3 Divisions Légères Mécaniques (DLM)
• 1 Brigade de Cavalerie (BC)
• 3 Brigades de Spahis (BS)
• 23 Groupes de Reconnaissance de Corps d'Armée (GRCA)
--o 20 normal (horses)
--o 3 motorized
• 105 Groupes de Reconnaissance de Division d'Infanterie (GRDI)
--o 52 normal (horses)
--o 7 motorized (5 with armored cars)
--o 46 reduced (in the colonies or late created units)
• A few corps francs de cavalerie (including armored cars) during the campaign
• 3 regiments in the 4e DCR of the infantry
During early June 1940, the remains of the 5 DLCs were to be converted to a DLM "type réduit", a reduced DLM :
• 1e DLC as 4e DLM
• 2e DLC as 5e DLM
• 3e DLC as 6e DLM
• 4e DLC as 7e DLM
• 5e DLC as 8e DLM
The deteriorating military situation meant only 4e DLM and 7e DLM were actually formed.
The 1e DLM, 2e DLM and 3e DLM are also reconstituted beginning June, as reduced DLMs, with men evacuated from Dunkirk and who returned to France after a transit in Great Britain. These 5 DLMs fought until 25th June 1940.
The cavalry tanks are organized in "escadrons" (1 escadron = 1 squadron) and in "pelotons" (1 peloton = 1 platoon). For example in a cavalry unit like the 4e Régiment de Cuirassiers there are : 44 Somua S35 and 43 Hotchkiss H35 (+4 reserve tanks of each model) :
• 1 regiment command tank (1 Somua S35)
• 1 Somua S35 squadrons group = 43 Somua S35 :
--o 1 Somua S35 squadrons group command tank (1 Somua S35)
--o 1st squadron (21 Somua S35) (one "escadron" with 4 "pelotons")
---- 1 squadron commander tank
---- 4 platoons of 5 tanks
--o 3rd squadron (21 Somua S35s) (one "escadron" with 4 "pelotons")
---- 1 squadron commander tank
---- 4 platoons of 5 tanks
• 1 Hotchkiss squadrons group = 43 Hotchkiss H35 :
--o 1 squadrons group command tank (1 Hotchkiss H35)
--o 2nd squadron (21 Hotchkiss H35) (one "escadron" with 4 "pelotons")
---- 1 squadron commander tank
---- 4 platoons of 5 tanks
--o 4th squadron (21 Hotchkiss H35) (one "escadron" with 4 "pelotons")
---- 1 squadron commander tank
---- 4 platoons of 5 tanks
2.2 The French infantry tanks
After World War 1, the Schneider and Saint-Chamond tanks were retired and mostly only FT17 tanks were available. The Renault FT17 light tanks were replaced by the Renault D1, Renault R35 (later R39 and R40), Hotchkiss H39 and FCM36. In 1935, The Renault R35 and the Hotchkiss H35 tanks were produced but already in 1937 they appeared insufficient. The Renault R35 was adopted by the infantry and the Hotchkiss H35 by the cavalry only. It was rejected by the infantry which accepted only the later Hotchkiss H39, better armored (40mm) and with a more powerful engine (120 hp on 2800 rpm for 36.5 km/h onroad and 16km/h in medium difficult offroad). The 37mm SA38 L/33 gun was nevertheless rare and most of the tanks had only the 37mm SA18 L/21 gun. The heavier Renault D2 was produced in 1937.
The Renault B1bis tank was developed between 1921 and 1938. During this time it became heavier (increased armor to 60mm) and more intricate and despite an always more powerful engine (307 hp) it had lost in autonomy compared to the initial project. The B1bis was before all conceived in the 20's and 30's as infantry support tank, transported by railway behind the frontline, used to pierce the frontline by neutralizing the MG nests and fortifications, moving at the speed of the infantry, opening the way to the infantry and the cavalry which were in charge of exploiting the breakthrough. Destroying a strongpoint and moving then to the next position to neutralize. The B1bis tank's autonomy (about 150 km) was therefore totally sufficient according to this doctrine and was in fact not bad at all compared to the other tanks of 1940. Nevertheless this heavy tank used a lot of fuel, especially during combats because the tank had to turn on the spot to aim the 75mm hull gun. The practical autonomy was of about 6 hours. The Renault B1bis tank is able to cross ditches 2.75m wide, to climb slopes at 41° (90%) (on hard ground) and to cross obstacles 1.33m high.
General Delestraint managed to use this tank at the rhythm of a medium tank, engaging it successfully in tank vs tank warfare, but it was not able to follow the fast and mobile strategic warfare imposed by the German Panzerwaffe. The infantry high command refused to equip the DCR with the Somua S35 tanks of the cavalry, despite being better adapted to mobile tank vs tank combats.
Both the Hotchkiss H39 and the heavy B1bis were better tanks than the Renault R35 in terms of speed and mobility. Beside all the infantry and cavalry AFVs that were mentioned, some 30 others AFVs were studied and tested.
All the BCCs which were used to from the DCRs were already available, they were not new units but the creation of an armored division was a new project. The first half DCR was born on 2nd September 1939 and a second one on 5th September 1939. The 1e DCR and 2e DCR were created on 16th January 1940 and the 3e DCR on 20th March 1940. Since at least 4 months training were required to make of these DCRs operational units, the 3e DCR was not completely ready on 10th May 1940. A 4e DCR will be created on the field during May 1940.
On 10th May 1940, beside the French cavalry units, the 10 Panzerdivisionen concentrating all the German tanks encountered the 3 new DCRs and about 30 BCCs dispersed in the armies from Switzerland to the North Sea / Channel.
Each DCR included about 6,400 men and 1,700 vehicles :
• 1 divisional HQ
• 1 heavy tank half-brigade of two heavy tank battalions
1e DCR : 62 + 1 command tank = 63 Renault B1bis (+6 reserve tanks)
• 28e BCC : 31+3 Renault B1bis
• 37e BCC : 31+3 Renault B1bis
2e DCR : 62 + 1 command tank = 63 Renault B1bis (+6 reserve tanks)
• 8e BCC : 31+3 Renault B1bis
• 15e BCC : 31+3 Renault B1bis
3e DCR : 62 Renault B1bis (+6 reserve tanks)
• 41e BCC : 31+3 Renault B1bis
• 49e BCC : 31+3 Renault B1bis
4e DCR : 49 Renault B1bis (+3 reserve tanks) and 19 Renault D2
• 46e BCC : 31+3 Renault B1bis
• 47e BCC : 18 Renault B1bis
• 19e BCC : 40+5 Renault D2
1e DCR : 80 Hotchkiss H39 (+10 reserve tanks)
• 25e BCC : 40+5 Hotchkiss H39
• 26e BCC : 40+5 Hotchkiss H39
2e DCR : 80 Hotchkiss H39 (+10 reserve tanks)
• 14e BCC : 40+5 Hotchkiss H39
• 27e BCC : 40+5 Hotchkiss H39
3e DCR : 62 Renault B1bis (+6 reserve tanks)
• 42e BCC : 40+5 Hotchkiss H39
• 45e BCC : 40+5 Hotchkiss H39
4e DCR : 80 Renault R35 (+10 reserve tanks), 39 Somua S35, 40 Hotchkiss H39
• 2e BCC : 40+5 Renault R35/39
• 24e BCC : 40+5 Renault R35/39
• 3e RC : 39 Somua S35 + 40 Hotchkiss H39
• 1 mechanized infantry battalion (BCP = Bataillon de Chasseurs Portés)
• 1 motorized artillery regiment (with all-terrain tractors)
• 1 motorized AT battery added to the two first DCR in February 1940
• 1 motorized engineer company
• 1 mixed signals company
• 1 HQ motor transport company
• 1 motor transport company
• 1 divisional quartermaster group
• 1 divisional medical group
The above composition was not final, there were to be further changes. It soon became apparent in training that the division had too few infantry. An extra battalion was planned to be added but the Germans attacked before anything was done. The lack of reconnaissance troops was also noted and something was planned to remedy this : a 131e, 132e and 133e GRDI each of a motorcycle squadron and an AMR squadron began to form in early June 1940. The 3 motorcycle squadrons were to come from the 7e RDP, a unit of the projected 4e DLM. Fall Rot, the second stage of the German offensive on the Somme and Aisne Rivers, beginning June, forced to cancel the formation of these units.
The 4e DCR was exception to the above organization as it was effectively an emergency formation initially used to block German progress towards Paris (involved in battles like Montcornet and Crécy-sur-Serre) and later to eliminate the German bridgehead at Abbeville on the Somme River. Formed on 15th May 1940, with only a few units ready when ordered to the front it was nearly two weeks before it reached its peak strength beginning June. The units were not trained to act together and at the beginning even the engineers were used as supporting infantry. The 4e DCR seems strong but the units were at first engaged one by one as they arrived and had often not their theoretical strength.
The tanks from the infantry are organized in "compagnies" (1 compagnie = 1 company) and sections (1 section = 1 platoon) :
Renault B1bis company – heavy tanks :
company commander : 1x B1bis
1st platoon (section) : 3x B1bis
2nd platoon (section) : 3x B1bis
3rd platoon (section) : 3x B1bis = 10 tanks
For the whole battalion :
3 companies = 30 tanks
+ 1 battalion command tank = 31 tanks
+ 3 reserve tanks in the "compagnie d'échelon" = 34 tanks in a B1bis battalion.
Renault R35 company – light tanks :
company commander : 1x R35
1st platoon (section) : 3x R35
2nd platoon (section) : 3x R35
3rd platoon (section) : 3x R35
4th platoon (section) : 3x R35 = 13 tanks
For the whole battalion :
3 company = 39 tanks
+ 1 battalion command tank = 40 tanks
+ 5 reserve tanks in the "compagnie d'échelon" = 45 tanks
NUMBER OF FRENCH TANKS IN FRANCE ON 10th MAY 1940, IN COMBAT UNITS : 2307 (2777)
• Hotchkiss H35 : 328
• Hotchkiss H39 : 474
• Renault R35/39 : 900
• FCM36 : 90
• Somua S35 : 264
• Renault D2 : 45
• Renault B1bis : 206
Modern tanks : 2307
• Renault FT17 : 462 (obsolete)
• FCM-2C : 8 (obsolete)
Obsolete tanks : 470
3. BRITISH ARMORED UNITS
On May 1940, 23 years after the first tank attack led by 49 British tanks, Great Britain has only achieved one exemplar of a kind of basic armored unit but grossly without supporting infantry, artillery, engineers or services.
In 1927, an experimental armored unit is tested by the British with 65 tanks, 16 tankettes, one motorized infantry battalion, supporting artillery and engineers. It is disbanded 2 years later and judged without interest.
In 1931, other trials are made with the 1st brigade, Royal Tank Corps (RTC), but the unit is only created for summer trainings.
In 1934, 4 battalions of the RTC are permanently regrouped : 150 obsolete tanks. One training of this mobile force proved to be a complete failure : bad coordination, the tanks were completely dispersed, isolated and "neutralized" one by one. This led the armored unit project to be completely neglected.
In 1934, Great Britain tested 1 tank brigade while the German had 1 operational battalion. In 1935, they had still 1 experimental tank brigade but the Germans had already 3 armored divisions. In 1937, there was a project for a possible armored division and the Germans had 4 armored divisions. The reluctance of the British high command delayed the development of an armored arm.
In 1934, the British high command had a project of reorganization of the army, implying the motorization of the cavalry but it faced the opposition of the pro-horse lobbies, which were even stronger than in France or Germany. At first Dragoons, Lancers, Hussars and Horse Guards didn't want to change their traditions.
Between the cavalry and the new and tiny RTC the relations were often very bad, the first one seeing the new one as being devoid of elegance and traditions.
Nevertheless, major general Blakiston-Houston, general inspector of the cavalry, announced that there was no future for the horse mounted cavalry. The regiments would have to be transformed in mechanized/motorized units, beginning with 3rd Hussars, Queen's Bays, 4th Hussars and 9th Lancers. The lack of equipments delayed the operation, which happened only on the paper.
The first modern tanks appeared only in the 3rd Hussars during 1937. The first operational unit is the 4th Hussars in November 1937. The last horse unit disappeared in 1941.
The RTC, whose expansion was strongly slowed down in 1934, continued its development during May 1937. 9 battalions were formed in 1938 and 5 others in 1939. This development created tensions between the cavalry and the RTC. The Royal Armored Corps (RAC) was therefore created, concentrating all the AFVs. Great Britain avoided therefore the cavalry/infantry tanks rivalry that can be found in France, but developed its mechanized units years later.
Germany was creating an independent and powerful Panzerwaffe. In France the industrial effort was similar to the German one but less efficient due to the inability to choose a unique doctrine and to unify all the AFVs in one arm (independent or not). United Kingdom had lost considerable time and was the last one to choose to have powerful armored units. The first modern British tanks, the A9 and A13 cruisers, are only available in December 1938.
In October 1939, the new born 1st armored division (AD) had in charge the defense the south British coast and is completely dispersed, all trainings being cancelled. In January 1940, the 1st AD was again grouped and went on with the training. On 16th/17th May 1940, 1 week after the German attack, the 1st AD (general Evans) was sent to France, without artillery, infantry or engineers. The AA and AT units are incomplete. The British AT units received French 25mm AT guns (a total of 220 25mm SA34/37 for the BEF). Several tanks had no guns, no episcopes or no radio set and there are grossly no spare parts. Part of the 1st AD remained to defend Calais.
NUMBER OF BRITISH TANKS IN FRANCE ON 10th MAY 1940 : 308
• 4th battalion Royal Tank Regiment : 50 Matilda I and 5 Vickers MkVIb
• 7th battalion Royal Tank Regiment : 23 Matilda II, 27 Matilda I and 7 Vickers MkVIb
• 13th / 18th Hussars (1st Division) : 28 Vickers MkVIb
• 4th / 7th Dragoon guards (2nd Division) : 28 Vickers MkVIb
• Lothian & Border Horse (48th Division) : 28 Vickers MkVIb
• 15th / 19th Hussars (3rd Division) : 28 Vickers MkVIb
• Innskilling Dragoon guards (4th Division) : 28 Vickers MkVIb
• East Riding Yeomanry (3rd Corps) : 28 Vickers MkVIb
• Fife & Forfar Yeomanry (51st Highland division) : 28 Vickers MkVIb
• Matilda I : 77
• Matilda II : 23
• Vickers MkVIb : 208
Only the 23 Matilda II are armed to fight against tanks, the other tanks have only MGs.
The 1st Armoured Division is arriving on 17th May 1940 only :
2nd Armoured Brigade
o 2nd Dragoon Guards (Queen's Bays)
o 9th Queen's Royal Lancers
o 10th Prince of Wales Lancers
3rd Armoured Brigade
o 2nd battalion Royal Tank Regiment (not present in France)
o 3rd battalion Royal Tank Regiment
o 5th battalion Royal Tank Regiment
Tank strength :
• Vickers MkVIb : 134
• Cruiser MkI (A9) : 24
• Cruiser MkII (A10) : 31
• Cruiser MkIII (A13) : 95
284 extra tanks but only 150 cruisers able to fight against tanks.
The British tanks except the Matilda II were all too lightly armored and the crew inexperienced. All the British light tanks could be easily penetrated even by the German 2.0cm guns which were not efficient against the French tanks. Some of these British tanks were fast but they did not use this potential advantage to hit and run. As described by German testimonies in Abbeville for example : while fired on, the British tanks generally just stopped to fire or to regroup, allowing the German AT gunners to concentrate easily on sitting ducks. The French tanks at least, even the lighter ones, had the luck to have a 40mm thick armor.
In Abbeville and Arras alone the British lost 167 of their 588 tanks (28% losses) in hours. The first attack on Abbeville for example was led by the 1st AD which lost 120 tanks out of 165 (73% losses), the attack failed in only 2 hours. The counter-attack in Arras involved 60 Matilda I and 16 Matilda II but also 60 French tanks (45 Hotchkiss H35 of the 13e BCC and 15 Hotchkiss H39 + Somua S35 of the 3e DLM). It cannot be called a success with the heavy losses that were sustained by the British troops before retreating : 62% of the British tanks (47 tanks), about 50% in the infantry and 75% of the reconnaissance vehicles (16 armored cars). The French troops covering the right flank were soon confronted to direct 10.5cm artillery and Flak fire as well as Pak and tanks. They were even fired at by British AT guns. They destroyed at least 3 Panzer IV and 6 Pz38(t) from the Pz.Rgt.25 when covering the retreat of the British troops. The French lost about 20 tanks and the Germans about 20 tanks during the battle of Arras.
Several other British tanks were lost around Calais and Boulogne but most of the remaining tanks simply abandoned or lost due to mechanical breakdowns and could not be recovered and repaired in front of the advancing German troops. The 1940 British army shared the same weaknesses as the bulk of the contemporary French one like the inability to wage mobile battles, slow-thinking command, and what we would today call poor C3I, and did no better job in May/June 1940 than the French army. They were beaten the same way and led their battles more or less according to the same tactics of infantry support.
Post by David Lehmann » 01 May 2005, 00:07
4. COMPARISON OF FRENCH AND GERMAN ARMORED UNITS
4.1 Organization of armored units
[Table comparing the DLM / DCR / Panzerdivision]
This table gives just grossly a comparison, specific units may vary from this composition on both sides.
Unlike the French units, the German Panzerdivision is a real little army, able to fight completely independently. It contains numerous tanks and a powerful infantry support. There are important supports : numerous AA guns and good artillery support, more engineers including assault engineers and an efficient supply system.
The French units have several imperfections in their organization and available equipments. There is a lack of modern signals, AA guns, infantry, modern fuel supply organization and river crossing elements compared to the German Panzerdivision. The DLM has a reconnaissance regiment but not the DCR. Each Panzerdivision has an Aufklärung Abteilung and a Kradschützen (motorcycle) battalion. In the DLM the motorized infantry was very well integrated like in the Panzerdivision. The French engineers lacked crossing equipments whereas the German engineers were better integrated in fast and mobile units. The signals are more modern on the German side. The French logistics is originally very efficient but is was shattered by the new fast warfare imposed by the Germans and showed its limits in 1940. Ammunition, food and fuel had therefore often to be transported by requisitioned civilian trucks/lorries. The towing/recovery units were also better organized in the Panzerdivision.
4.2 Concept of use of the armored units
The DLM has to provide intelligence and to make deep reconnaissance, to cover the deployments of the French armies and to fight the enemy AFVs. Once engaged, the DLM will fight like the Panzerdivision but without the massive air support and the numerous spotter aircrafts of the Germans. In Hannut for example each DLM had only 3 modern spotter aircrafts available.
The DCR has by far not the power or the mobility of a Panzerdivision. A DCR remains subordinated to an infantry army which leads the manoeuvre at his own rhythm. The DCR is used for local counter-attacks, heavy charges like an armored fist, but not deeper than 15-25 km. It is rather a "defensive war hammer", powerful but slow, compared to the "offensive and fine sword" constituted by a Panzerdivision.
The French armored units were not a separate arm they were depending from the infantry or the cavalry in 1940. The French tanks were intended to work closely with the infantry, allowing it to advance from one specific target to an other. French armored units are meant to fill a gap in a front, to counter-attack against an enemy offensive, to delay the enemy long enough to enable the deployment of infantry division on a rear frontline or to piece the enemy lines but only 15-25 km deep. A German Panzerdivision is able to penetrate 100 km in the rear of the enemy lines before having to be supplied.
The German Panzerwaffe was organized for the kind of war it wanted to fight in 1940. It was independent and in the center of the operational chain unlike the French armored units. Everything around was subordinated to it or thought to support it.
One must add that the German doctrine for the Panzerwaffe was very often to avoid combat against the French tanks. The Luftwaffe and/or AT guns had to neutralize the enemy tanks. They engaged AT guns, 8.8cm FlaK and 10.5cm field guns in direct fire against the tanks while the German tanks went deeper in the French lines, spreading like water and disorganizing the rear lines.
4.3 Number of tanks and common mistaken conclusion
On 10th May 1940, there are 2626 German tanks, 117 Panzerjäger I, 24 Sturmgeschütze, 38 15cm s.I.G.33 auf Pz.Kpfw.I, 6 8.8cm FlaK (Sfl) auf Sd.Kfz. 8 and 1252 armored cars for a total of 4063 AFVs.
There are 2307 modern French tanks (2777 tanks with the obsolete FT17 and FCM-2C tanks) and about 575 armored cars. For the British there are 308 tanks and 56 armored cars, 278 tanks for the Belgian army and 25 armored cars for the Dutch army.
There is therefore a comparable number of allied and German tanks with about 2900 tanks. If all the AFVs are counted there are 4020 allied vs 4063 German AFVs, with the obsolete French FT17 and FCM-2C tanks being counted. This apparent equality in the number of tanks is purely mathematical and just taken as such by many people. In the facts it is completely false.
All the about 3000 German tanks are concentrated in the 10 Panzerdivisionen unlike only about 960 French tanks in the DCR/DLM. Each DCR/DLM has less tanks than a Panzerdivision : there are grossly 10x300 German tanks against 6x160 French tanks and many dispersed battalions. That was the reality on the battlefield. The British 1st AD concentrated the cruiser tanks but did not really change the balance and was quickly neutralized. All the Belgian tanks were dispersed in small numbers in their infantry divisions, the higher number of Belgian tanks could be found in the 1e division de chasseurs ardennais with about 50 AFVs.
In the DLM/DCR 80-90 tanks are only light tanks unlike what was initially planned (only medium/heavy tanks). 80% of these light tanks are armed with the 37mm SA18 L/21 gun and only 20% with the 37mm SA38 L/33 gun. The 37mm SA18 is only adapted to infantry support. A tank armed with the 37mm SA18 gun can actually destroy armored cars, Panzer I and Panzer II tanks at 300-400m but has to go closer than 25-100m to have a chance to destroy a Panzer III or Panzer IV, whereas it can itself be destroyed at 300-400m by them.
The DLMs were led by the cavalry corps HQ and the different DCRs were commanded by an armored group HQ. Nevertheless, these HQs had insufficient means unlike the Panzerkorps which had fully operational HQs.
Thanks to more radio sets the German tanks were able to better coordinate and concentrate their attack, changing more easily the attack axis. The French tanks favored better armor (and armament if we exclude the 37mm SA18 gun) rather than communications and speed. This better tactical regulation resulted in much more concentrated German armor against allied tanks, usually 4 vs 1, sometimes even 8-10 vs 1 odds.
4.4 Fuel supply
In the French army there were 5-10 liters fuels cans but most of the fuel supply relied on fuel tank trucks or lorries carrying 50 liters fuel cans. For example each B1bis tank company had the fuel required for "4 days" of operations without being supplied by units higher than the battalion level.
• "1 day" in the tanks of the company themselves (10x 400l for the 10 B1bis tanks)
• "1 day" thanks to the Lorraine 37L TRC (fuel supply tractors) of the company (6x565l = 3390l)
• "1 day" thanks to the fuel tank truck of the company (3600l)
• "1 day" for each combat company thanks to the 50l fuel barrels provided by the battalion's supply company
Various fuel trucks where used by the French army for the strategic transport of fuel :
• Unic SU55 (5000 l) : 23
• Panhard K125 (5000 l) : 4
• Berliet VDCN (5000 l) : 80
• Renault AGR (5000 l) : 16
• Renault AGK (5000 l) : 340
• Berliet GDR7 (5000 l) : 400
• Matford F917-WS (5000 l) : 150
• Willeme (18000 l) : 0-50
• Renault AIB1 (9500 l) : ?
• Also a few White 920 (8000 l and 18000 l), Mack EXBX (18000l) and several Chevrolet conversions.
+ civilian requisitioned trucks.
For the cross-country/tactical supply on the battlefield other vehicles were used :
• Lorraine 37L TRC as mentioned (565 l fuel + ammunitions + oil + water) : 482
The Lorraine 37L TRC was very liked because of its armor + good cross country capacity, he could supply the first line troops.
• Renault 36R tractor with a 450 l trailer : 260
• Laffly/Hotchkiss S20 TL (1450 - 1900 l) : 39
• Lorraine 28 (2000 l) : a dozen
• Citroën-Kégresse P17 (2000 l) : 50
• + special dedicated trailers (450 l, 600 l and 800 l models) that could be towed by the tanks themselves, by tractors or tankettes.
In the German army nevertheless the use of the jerricans was more generalized and supply was quicker and easier on the frontline.
4.5 Tank carriers and towing / recovery elements
Until 1935/1937 most of the tank carriers were simply trucks with an embarkation ramp allowing the truck to carry the tank. This solution had been adopted in the 20's for strategic movements.
For the new light tanks (R35, FCM36, H35, H39 . ) special lifting-carrier trucks (camions "leveurs-porteurs") were also developed : Berliet GPE2 (1 produced), Berliet GPE3 (2 produced), Berliet GPE4 (32 produced) and Willeme DW12A truck (5 produced).
The theoretical strength was at first 3 lifting-carrier trucks for a battalion of 45 light tanks and later only 1 lifting-carrier truck complemented by 2 simple tank carrier trucks with no special device except a winch and an embarkation / disembarkation ramp. Of these tank carriers, 430 Bernard trucks had been ordered for example, but only 73 were delivered. 300 White-Ruxtall 922 US tank carriers had also been ordered but only one vehicle could be delivered. 5 ex-Spanish Autocar (US trucks) were also used.
Medium (D2, Somua S35 . ) or heavy (B1 and B1bis) tanks needed a dedicated trailer towed by a tractor (Somua MCL5, Somua MCL6, Laffly S35T, Laffly S45T or Latil M4T). There were two types of trailers : 20t and 30t. These trailers were produced by Titan, Coder, Lagache & Glazmann . Theoretically there should be one trailer for a company of 10 Renault B1bis and two trailers for a squadron of 20 Somua S35 cavalry tanks. Only 60 20t trailers and 40 30t trailers had been delivered to the French army.
From 1935 on, the typical tow truck was the Somua MCL5, but this vehicle reached its limits with the B series heavy tanks because of its only 90 hp engine. Therefore the Laffly S45T had been developed but only 12 vehicles were delivered, explaining that the Somua MCL5 was sometimes replaced by the Laffly S35T.
The Laffly S35 had been originally developed to tow the 155mm GPF, 155mm GPFT and 220mm C Mle1916 heavy mortar. Only 225 Laffly S35 had been delivered, 170 of them in the towing version with a winch. That means that the Somua MCL5 was still widely in use and that in the artillery units the heavy pieces were still mostly towed by vehicles like the Latil TARH2. All these wreckers should have been replaced by the huge Latil M4TX (8x8, 140 hp) but this one only reached the prototype level in 1940. The Latil M4TX could easily tow 100t, that is to say it could easily tow a B1bis tank with blocked or destroyed tracks.
4.6 Training / Instruction
For the DCR, the training went generally not further than the battalion level. Only the individual tank / platoon / company and battalion warfare was at level. For the DLMs, the training was excellent for the 1e DLM and 2e DLM, even at the divisional and corps level but was rather insufficient for the 3e DLM which included many reservists. One of the best unit of the French army is probably the 1e DLM. This division has been very well trained for long, all the crew were highly motivated and knew very well their tanks (mechanics, functions, armament, tactics) etc. The division had practised division-scaled trainings and inter-arms trainings (tanks + infantry + artillery) before the war. This is a perfect example of a very good mechanized unit of the French army. In opposition there is for example the 7e RC (Régiment de Cuirassiers) formed after the 10th May 1940 had brand new tanks but 80% of the crew who were perfect rookies.
On the German side, as soon as 1935 the forming Panzerdivisionen had a coherent and continual training, even if Guderian like in France encountered strong opposition from pro-horse lobbies at the beginning. During the Spanish civil war several trials were made with the Panzer I, influencing the later organization of the German armored units. Nevertheless, listening to some people it seems that all the German tankers of 1940 acquired a high level of training in Spain in 1937, which is of course by far exaggerated. The Spanish civil war had also grossly nothing to do with the modern warfare of May 1940 which was even not applied in 1939 in Poland.
The maneuvers in Czechoslovakia allowed to train massive movements and the combats in Poland allowed to modify/adapt and modernize the Panzerwaffe which proved not sufficient in several cases and which was not concentrated in Poland.
4.7 Air support
Operational frontline aircrafts on 10th May 1940 on the western front :
France : 879
UK : 384 (total of 416 : 100 fighter (Hurricane + Gladiator) and 316 attack/bomber (Fairey Battle + Blenheim)
Belgium : 118
Netherlands : 72
Germany : 2589
The French air force was largely inferior to the German one, in numbers and quality, especially the bomber fleet which was really small in comparison.
The French air force had some 1900 aircrafts, of which only about 1,400 frontline aircrafts available (650 fighters, 240 bombers and 490 reconnaissance and observation). It was conceived as a defensive arm, in cooperation with / attached to the ground troops. It was therefore very dispersed and it explains the importance of the reconnaissance fleet working for the ground troops At the time of the German attack the French air force was just modernizing and reorganizing.
There were only 36 Dewoitine D520 fighters in May 1940, the others were Morane-Saulnier 406, Curtiss H75, Bloch 151, Bloch 152 and Potez 631 fighters. Only 400 fighters were operational on 10th May 1940.
Only 120 of the bomber/assault aircrafts were modern ones (10 Amiot 354, 55 Lioré et Olivier 451, 45 Bréguet 691 or 693, 10 Potez 633) with 85 being operational. The others were older ones : 75 Bloch 200 or 210, 10 Farman 221 or 222 and 35 Amiot 143 with about 100 considered operational.
From the 490 reconnaissance aircrafts only 370 are really operational and rather modern ones : Bloch 174, Potez 637 and Potez 63/11. Older Mureaux 115 and 117 were also still in use.
Great Britain sent 416 aircrafts in France and kept about 800 aircrafts in Great Britain but all the allied planes available (1340 French + 416 British + about 190 for Belgium and the Netherlands = 1946) was still inferior to the about 3,000 / 3,500 German aircrafts effectively used during the 1940 western campaign. Nevertheless the RAF was also active from Great Britain, especially during the battle of Dunkirk. At the beginning of the German attack mostly all the Dutch and Belgian aviation are destroyed on the ground as well as 232 French aircrafts.
The German air force was conceived as an offensive arm with very numerous fighters and a powerful tactical bombardment/attack fleet to support the ground troops like an aerial artillery. They had 1,264 fighters (1016 single-seat fighters like the Me109 and Me110), 1,120 bombers (He111, Do17, Ju88), 342 Ju87 dive bombers concentrated in the VIII. Fliegerkorps for close air support, 42 Hs123 specialized in close air support, about 700 observation and reconnaissance planes (Fi156, Hs126, Do17, He111 and Ju88) and about 450 transport planes for a total of about 3900 aircrafts. The Germans had a powerful fighters fleet, which combined with a very powerful mobile AA artillery covering the advancing troops was decisive to gain the air superiority. More of the 892 destroyed French aircrafts were shot down by the AA guns than by the German fighters. On 13th May 1940, the Luftwaffe was able for the first time of history to concentrate about 1500 bombers and attack planes over the small area of Sedan were only weak French divisions were defending an overstretched front.
The Panzewaffe was actually trained to cooperate closely with the Luftwaffe, especially the VIII. Fliegerkorps, which concentrates all the 342 Junkers Ju87 dive bombers, specialized in close air support, and providing a new kind of mobile artillery to support the advance of the Panzerdivisionen. The Germans were able to concentrate all their tanks in the Panzerdivisionen but also all their dive bombers in one Fliegerkorps. The Germans had also the advantage of having omnipresent observation aircrafts to support them.
5. QUALITY OF THE FRENCH TANKS
French tanks were generally slower and less mobile than the German tanks. The German main advantages were speed, ability to concentrate tanks and better capacity to change the attack axis thanks to the radio sets.
The main French advantages were a thick armor even for the light tanks (40-60mm for the French tanks versus 13-30mm for the German tanks), able to resist to many German hits and sometimes a better armament with the 47mm SA35 L/32 gun. It is able to destroy all the German tanks up to 800-1000m but generally the French rate of fire is slower because of the 1-man turret where the commander is also spotter, loader and gunner.
French tanks were generally more adapted to heavy and brutal charges against slow or immobile targets but were not really conceived for a war in which speed and mobility rules. And this speed and mobility was created by the revolutionary Panzerdivisionen. Only the Somua S35 cavalry tank could really compete with the German tanks in terms of speed, mobility and autonomy.
5.1 Speed and autonomy of the tanks
Top Speed (km/h) and autonomy (by road, in km)
Panzer I : 40 170
Panzer II : 40 200
Panzer III : 40 165
Panzer IV : 40 165
Panzer 38(t) : 42 250
Panzer 35(t) : 35 190
Renault FT17 : 7.5 35
Renault AMC-34 (YR) : 40 200
Renault AMC-35 (ACG1) : 42 160
Renault R35 : 20 140
Renault R40 : 20 140
Hotchkiss H35 : 35 150
Hotchkiss H39 : 36.5 150
FCM36 : 24 225
Renault D1 : 18 90
Renault D2 : 23 100
Somua S35 : 44 255
Renault B1 : 28 180
Renault B1bis : 28 160
Renault AMR-33 : 54 200
Renault AMR-35 : 55 200
German tanks are generally faster and more mobile : 7-10 hp/ton for the French tanks which are heavier and 15-20 hp/ton for the German tanks. The autonomy of the French tanks is not that bad at all compared to German tanks. The autonomy was good for the Somua S35 cavalry tank, in adequacy with its role, but it remained insufficient for the Renault B1bis and the Hotchkiss H39 tanks.
Nevertheless, the Renault B1bis tanks used much fuel because the engine was not only used for advancing but also largely used for aiming the 75mm SA35 hull gun in combat. Even if not advancing the engine was used to make the tank turn in place and aim the 75mm SA35 hull gun. The maximum speed are good for the French tanks but due to lower hp/ton ratio they needed generally more time than German tanks to reach it.
The German tanks were generally able to move at about 30 km/h offroad. For a Renault R35, the top speed in medium difficult offroad terrain was only 8.7 km/h. The Hotchkiss H39 was better with 16 km/h in medium difficult offroad terrain and even the heavy Renault B1bis was better with 21 km/h (easy offroad) to 10-15 km/h (hard offroad). The mean speed of the Somua S35 was measured at 35 km/h onroad, 32.3 km/h in easy/medium offroad terrain (fields etc.) and 11.19 km/h in hard offroad terrain (rough, ditches etc.), which makes of it a tank able to compete with the German ones.
5.2 Conception of the turrets, the French 1-man turret issue
On the French side all of the tanks and armored cars had a 1-man turret except :
• FCM-2C (11 men with 3 in the front turret and 1 in a rear turret)
• AMD White (2-men turret)
• AMD Laffly 50AM (2-men turret)
• AMD Panhard 165/175 (2-men turret)
• AMD Panhard 178 (2-men turret)
• Renault AMC-35 (2-men turret)
• And actually the SOMUA S-35's APX1CE turret is sometimes described as a "one-and-a-half-man turret", as the enlarged turret ring (1.130m instead of 1.022m), compared to the APX1/4 found on the B1/B1bis, allowed the radio operator to provide assistance to the commander/gunner/loader. The radio operator could get out of his seat and stand up to function as the "loader".
Germans had 1-man turrets for their Panzer I and Panzer II (except the late war model Luchs with 2 men). In the Panzer II like in the Somua S-35 one crew member not sitting in the turret could be the loader. The Panzer III and Panzer IV had 3 men in the turret. The British Matilda I also had a 1-man turret.
In the French 1-man turret the commander is also spotter, loader and gunner and sometimes platoon or company/squadron leader. When looking for a new shell in the darkness of the hull (no ammunition stored in the turret), nobody is spotting or firing, the tactical awareness could therefore become rather bad. In the Renault B1bis or Somua S35 for example the situation is better because at least one crew member assisted the tank commander and acted as loader. The Somua S35 had a larger turret ring favoring such help.
The French tanks due to their 1-man turret were probably a bit more intricate to use. For rookie tank crews that has proven to be very hard, a rookie crew will probably be more effective in a German tank than in a French one. Lieutenant-colonel Baillou who was tank commander in the 3e DLM in 1940, officer in the 2nd French armored division in North Africa and France and instructor from 1945 to 1950 described well the issue of the 1-man turret. He also explained that c ontrary to the 1e DLM and 2e DLM who had well trained crews, the 3e DLM (except some officers from the other DLMs) had only reservists who did their military service on horse and some of them discovered their tank a short time before being engaged. To worsen the situation, most of the Somua of the 3e DLM went to combat with 2 crew members instead of 3, many tankers were in permission at the beginning of the combats and therefore nobody was there to help the commander to reload. In these tanks the Somua had really a 1-man turret instead of a 1 ½ one. This can explain why *one* German source (even not specified) is quoted in Gunsburg's article "battle of the Belgian plain" about the bad gunnery skills of the French tankers. The 3e DLM in Hannut which had a very high proportion of reservists sustained heavy losses while the more experienced crews of the 2e DLM (also less engaged) in the same battle had only light losses. Nevertheless the 3e DLM reservists inflicted significant losses to the elite of the Panzerwaffe. Each counter-attack made by a small formation of Somua S35 tanks was seen as critical by the Germans. For this division, there was of course the absence of tracer shells and the fact that grossly all the Hotchkiss tanks of the 3e DLM had 37mm SA18 L/21 guns with only poor anti-tank efficiency. It is a miracle that they could fight so well against the elite Panzerwaffe in Hannut. They had better tanks (considering the Somua S35 tanks) than most of the German crews but mostly with crews lacking training. In 1940, the French tanks like the Somua S35 had better armor and main gun than the German tanks but the crews of the 3e DLM were less experienced than their enemy. Other units had experienced crews. One can absolutely not generalize about bad French tankers as it is often said in a typical French bashing spirit.
In 1940, when the French crews were experienced with their tanks they were at the level of the German tankers. They knew how to operate their tanks, even if it was a bit different than for a German crew. The 2e DLM in Hannut / Gembloux had rather light losses and proved to be a dangerous opponent. Many German tanks were knocked out but as the ground was later controlled by the Germans they could recover/repair the damaged ones unlike the French which had also to abandon several tanks due to mechanical breakdowns. A French tank is more intricate and becomes really a deadly and efficient weapon only with experienced crews. A rookie crew will have several drawbacks. History has shown that the experienced French crews were at level with their German opponents. An other example of that is the engagement of 10 Somua S35 tanks of the 4e regiment de cuirassiers (1e DLM) in the town of Jolimetz on 18th May 1940 against half of the 5. Panzerdivision. In 10 vs 1 odd, the French lost 10 tanks (destroyed or abandoned) and the Germans 26 tanks, including many Panzer IVs. That is a perfect example of what well-trained French crews were able to do.
Baillou explained that in 1943-1945 the situation was inverted : they were more experienced than most of the German crews they met which on their side had better tanks (Panthers in his explanation). They also took advantage of a drawback of the Panther : when the slope was to important in a hilly countryside, the turret became too heavy to be rotated for the Panther, they had to turn all the tank. The French transposed the cavalry spirit to the French armored division of the liberation, and many officers were veterans from the DLMs, applying the cavalry speed and tactics but this time with the Sherman which had an intercom system and a radio. Often they checked the range of a target by firing tracer rounds with the coaxial machinegun. They had observed that until range X it corresponded grossly to the ballistics of the main gun. Many French tankers and commanders who were defeated in 1940 were again in armoured units for the liberation and drew their tanks in the heart of Germany and Austria.
5.3 Vision means in the French turrets
- Renault R35/39/40 and Hotchkiss H35/39 tanks vision means
1x E2B episcope (early models) (28° vertical field of view) OR 1x PPL RX 180 P episcope (30° vertical field of view)
2x lateral slits
APX-R or APX-R1 turret (1350 kg with 37mm SA18 gun and 1540 kg with the 37mm SA38 gun) :
1x L.713 / L.739 sight (37mm SA18 gun) OR 1x L.767 sight (37mm SA38 gun)
3x diascopes (28° vertical field of view) (early) OR 3x PPL RX 160 episcopes (30° vertical field of view)
1x slit in the rear turret hatch
1x slit (150mm x 7mm slit protected by a 15mm thick armored shutter) (early) OR 1x PPL RX 180 P episcope (APX-R1) (30° vertical field of view)
1x PPL RX 160 episcope (68° horizontal field of view, 24° vertical field of view)
2x lateral slits
FCM turret (1287 kg) :
1x L.739 sight (37mm SA18 gun) OR 1x L.767 sight (37mm SA38 gun) but rare.
3x PPL RX 160 episcopes (68° horizontal field of view, 24° vertical field of view)
- Renault B1bis tank vision means
2x L.710 sights for the 75mm SA35 gun (stereoscopic telemeter, each with 3.5x magnification, field of view 11.15° and range ladders, adjustable drum up to 1600m).
1x adjustable slit with PPL RX 160 episcope (E2B episcope on the B1)
2x lateral slits
1x periscope (about 180° horizontal field of view)
APX4 turret (56mm armor, 2570 kg) :
1x sight for the 47mm SA35 gun (4x L.762 sight, + reticle, field of view 11.82°)
2x PPL RX 160 episcopes (68° horizontal field of view and +3° to -21° = 24° vertical field of view)
1x periscopic binocular (4x magnification, 8.91° field of view)
1x PPL RX 160 episcope (68° horizontal field of view and +2° to -22° = 24° vertical field of view)
1x Estienne slit (114° field of view – 120mm x 10mm slit protected by a 24mm thick armored shutter)
- Somua S35 tank vision means
3x PPL RX 160 episcopes (68° horizontal field of view, 24° vertical field of view)
APX1CE turret (42mm armor, about 2100 kg) :
1x sight for the 47mm SA35 gun (4x L.762 sight, + reticle, field of view 11.82°)
2x PPL RX 160 episcopes (68° horizontal field of view, 24° vertical field of view)
1x periscopic binocular (4x magnification, 8.91° field of view)
1x PPL RX 160 episcope (68° horizontal field of view, 24° vertical field of view)
1x Estienne slit (114° field of view – 120mm x 10mm slit protected by a 24mm thick armored shutter)
5.4 Armor and turret rotation speed
Armor is the main advantage of French tanks with 40-60mm thickness (only 35mm for the Hotchkiss H35). It enables them to sustain numerous hits without being damaged. Many Renault B1bis received 40-140 3.7cm and even 7.5cm hits without having to break the combat and many German AT guns were simply crushed under their tracks, being unable to stop them.
With the Somua S35 such situations were also common and during the battles of Hannut/Gembloux many Somua S35 came back with 20-40 hits without serious damage. Even the lighter Renault R35/40 and Hotchkiss H35/39 resisted rather well to the German AT guns.
On French tanks cast armor allowed for better profiled armor. The armor was often round and had also often more sloped area than on the German tanks.
Except for the Renault B1bis all the French armor are generally cast. The values of the angles are therefore difficult to give in a table because there is a huge number of rounded angles and parts. Nevertheless on can for example mention the surface of the front (turret and hull) really exposed to the enemy fire :
• For a Renault R35 : 2.00 m2 with only 0.65 m2 with a slope inferior to 30°
• For a Hotchkiss H35 : 6.00 m2 with only 3.24 m2 with a slope inferior to 30°
That gives a good idea of the few vulnerable surfaces of these little tanks.
• Hotchkiss H35 and H39 (APX-R and APX-R1 turret - hand 27 seconds + 10° traverse for the gun)
APX-R turret (1552 kg) is cast and hull is cast bolted armor.
The turrets are hand-cranked in the H35/39 and R35/39/40 tanks and could also be unlocked from the training crank and moved with the rotation of the gunner's body for quick snap-turns.
• Renault R35 and R40 (APX-R and APX-R1 turret - hand 27 seconds + 10° traverse for the gun)
APX-R turret (1552 kg) is cast and hull is made of 3 cast parts + RHA bolted armor elements.
The turrets are hand-cranked in the H35/39 and R35/39/40 tanks and could also be unlocked from the training crank and moved with the rotation of the gunner's body for quick snap-turns.
• Renault B1 (APX1 turret - electric 28 seconds + hand : 2°21 per wheel turn)
APX1 turret (2100 kg with the 47mm SA35 gun, 1.022m ring) is cast and hull is RHA bolted armor.
• Renault B1bis (APX4 turret - electric 36 seconds + hand 55 seconds)
APX4 turret (2570 kg with the complete armament, 1.022m ring) is cast and hull is RHA bolted armor.
• Somua S35 (APX1CE turret - electric 20-30 seconds + hand)
APX1CE turret (about 2100 kg, 1.130m ring) is cast and hull is cast welded armor.
• FCM-36 (FCM turret - electric 21 seconds + hand)
FCM turret (1287 kg) is cast and hull is RHA welded armor.
• Renault D1 (ST2 - electric + hand)
ST2 turret is cast and hull is RHA bolted.
• Renault D2 (APX1 and APX4 turret - electric 28 seconds (APX1) or 36 seconds (APX4) + hand)
APX1/4 turret (1.022m ring) in cast and hull is cast welded armor.
• AMR-33 and AMR-35
RHA bolted armor.
• AMC-34 and AMC-35 (AMC-35 = APX2 turret, AMC-34 = APX1 or APX2 turret)
APX2 turret is cast and both welded and bolted, the hull is RHA bolted armor.
• Panhard P-178 (APX3 turret)
Turret and hull are RHA bolted armor.
France's metallurgical industries were competitive in WW2 but French armor seems slighlty inferior in purity to German steels at the beginning of WW2. French steel was mainly extracted/produced in north-eastern France (Lorraine) but also imported from Sweden and Germany (the Ruhr was occupied by France after WW1 and during the 20's and many resources were taken from this area). French RHA was a Cr-Ni steel and delivered about the same effective protection as German Cr-Ni free steel, but slightly less than German Cr-Ni steels. There is therefore no deficiency multiplier for French RHA armor but French used very often cast armor. The rounded cast armor on some French tanks like the APX turrets, the hull front of the Somua S35 etc. plays an important role in defeating the German shells. The French army did not use FH RHA.
The German FH RHA benefit is sometimes reduced when using APC and APCBC shells. Almost all the French AT rounds were AP capped, except the shells from the 75mm SA35 L/17 (B1bis hull gun), the 25mm L/72 AT guns and the 25mm L/60 (or L/47.2 ?) AT gun from the Panhard 178. The British ammunitions were also uncapped during the battle of France.
Concerning the B1bis "invicibility", penetration from the front is minimized due to the frontal sloped armor, penetration on the turret is minimized due to rounded construction and the armor thickness in 60mm RHA on the front hull and 56mm cast on the turret (+ the gun mantlet on the front turret).
The 3.7cm PaK earned it's nickname of "door knocker" when faced against the British Matilda II tanks (only 23 in the 1940 western campaign) and/or the Renault B1bis tanks, the last one being called "Stahl Kolossus" among other nicknames. [The nickname may in fact only have been earned on the eastern front in 1941].
Concerning the usage of German APCR rounds (Pzgr.40) available for the PzKpfw III F in middle June 1940, the round is VERY light. After 250m, the APCR round looses its amount of overall energy at an incredible rate. After about 300m, standard AP shot will do more than APCR will be able to do. From 0-250m though, even the Renault B1bis and Matilda II are both at risk if a good shot from an APCR round is attained. Under 250m range from favourable angles, the B1bis is easily susceptible to penetration by the 3.7cm APCR round fired from the PzKpfw III F, especially in the side and rear hull which are vertical plates.
At most combat ranges from favorable angles, the B1bis is susceptible to penetration by the 4.7cm Pak(t) auf PzKpfw I Ausf B (PanzerJäger I Ausf. B), especially in the side and rear hull which are vertical plates.
The B1 bis, in most regards, is "invincible" to most rounds otherwise from all German calibers, including 7.5cm shells fired from the PzKpfw IV and StuG III. At close range (< 100m) the 7.5cm shells are a threat but not the 3.7cm AP shells which are in the wide majority of the cases not sufficient. The Renault B1bis, in most combat conditions is a very dangerous opponent. Once it looses it's ability to maneuver (e.g. track knocked off) or when outnumbered and loosing tactical awareness, it is a sitting duck for a skilled commander (with the help of smoke rounds also for example).
On 16th May in Stonne, a single B1bis tank (the B1bis "Eure" from Lieutenant Bilotte) pushed in the town itself into the German defenses and went back. He attacked a German column of Pz.Rgt.8 and destroyed 2 PzIV, 11 PzIII and 2 PaK guns. The first shots destroyed simultaneously the first (with the 47mm gun) and the last tank (with the 75mm gun) of the column. The first German tanks were at less than 50m range. The armor of the B1bis was scattered with 140 impacts, no one penetrated or really damaged the armor.
During the battle of Abbeville the B1bis "Jeanne d'Arc") sustained more than 90 impacts from 3.7cm PaK without being penetrated and simply crushed several AT guns.
The B1bis was almost invincible when engaged by 3.7cm AT guns if not a point-blank range and a lot of luck. Mostly all the B1bis that had been lost due to the enemy had been destroyed by 8.8cm Flak, indirect artillery fire, direct 10.5cm artillery fire and anti-tank mines. Many others have been abandoned after mechanical breakdowns or being out of fuel.
5.5 Rate of fire
Typical early WW2 ammunitions like the French 25mm, 37mm and 47mm were rather small and easy to handle, much lighter in weight compared to later bigger shells (the German 8.8cm shell for example). Big shells are more heavy and difficult to handle inside a tank. Practical rate of fire in tanks is about 4-12 rpm.
The French tank guns had a semi-automatic system on the breech (SA = semi-automatique = semi-automatic) : block opening, ejecting case and drawing a firing pin were automatic. The gunner had just to introduce the shell and to fire. After firing, the recoil opened the breech and the shell case was automatically ejected. This semi-automatic breech allowed winning precious time.
Not only caliber and ammo type used had an effect on rate of fire, also crew ergonomics and number and how their tasks were arranged played great role, especially in combat. In the APX4 turret of the B1bis tank, the practical rate of fire of the 47mm SA35 gun was 6 rpm in accurate aiming/firing (15 rpm theoretical) but it could drop down to 2-3 rpm in combat. The rate of fire of the 47mm turret gun in the B1bis is probably slightly lower than in the Somua S35 turret which had a larger one (APX1CE, CE means "chemin élargie", enlarged turret ring), enabling a crewman to provide direct help to the tank commander / gunner. Nevertheless the B1bis crew was often increased from 4 to 5 men, one additional man assisting the commander.
And last but not least factor, the training of the crew had obviously also an effect on rate of fire.
After firing many rounds the spent cases will be in the gunner's way on the floor of tank, stuck in the turret mechanism. The crew had to throw them out to avoid interfering with the movement of the turret and gun and dangerous. The B1bis and Somua S35 tanks for example had several little traps to get rid of ammunition cases.
The ergonomics and rate of fire was superior in German turrets. Therefore only well trained men were able to use the French turrets really efficiently but for new recruits a French turret was more intricate to operate than a German turret. The German tanks were generally firing 2-3 times more than the French ones but the French tanks could far better resist to the hits.
5.6 French guns and shells
There are 2307 modern French tanks (2777 tanks with the obsolete FT17 and FCM-2C tanks) and about 575 armored cars or light reconnaissance tanks. That makes 3056 French tanks (if the AMR33/35s are counted as tanks) :
• only about 480 French tanks armed with a 47mm SA35 (including the B1bis tanks with their 75mm hull gun)
• about 300-350 which have a 37mm SA38 gun.
• from the 279 AMR33/35s, 259 are only armed with a single 7.5mm or 13.2mm MG and 20 AMR35 have a 25mm SA35 gun, which is also better than the German 3.7cm gun.
That makes 800-850 French tanks (26-28%) with an excellent to good anti-tank capacity.
The characteristics of each gun and shell are detailed in an other document I have written but the different ones are listed here :
8mm Hotchkiss Mle1914 MG
- Cartouche Mle1886 D (am) (heavy ball)
- Cartouche de 8mm à balle traceuse (T)
- Cartouche de 8mm à balle perforante (AP)
- Cartouche Mle1932 N (very heavy ball)
7.5mm 'Reibel' MAC Mle1931 MG
- Cartouche Mle1929 C
- Cartouche Mle1929 D (heavy ball)
- Cartouche Mle1929 T (T)
- Cartouche Mle1929 P and TP (AP and APT)
- Cartouche Mle1929 I (Incendiary)
13.2mm Hotchkiss Mle1930 HMG
- Cartouche Mle1935 (heavy ball)
- Cartouche Mle1935 T (T)
- Cartouche Mle1935 PT (APT)
- Cartouche Mle1935 P (AP)
25mm SA35 (L/47.2 or L/60 ?)
- Cartouche de 25mm Mle1934 à balle perforante (charge forte) (AP)
- Cartouche de 25mm Mle1934 à balle traçeuse perforante (APT)
37mm SA18 and SA18 M37 L/21
- Obus de rupture Mle1892/1924 (APHE)
- Boulet de rupture Mle1935 (AP/API)
- Obus de rupture Mle1937 (AP)
- Obus explosif Mle1916 (HE)
- Boîte à balles Mle1908 (canister)
- Boîte à balles Mle1918 (canister)
The huge majority of the French tanks (2206-2256 tanks) are light tanks armed with the 37mm SA18 gun or only MGs. The 37mm SA18 gun can be used at 300-400m against the Panzer I and Panzer II but to knock out a Panzer III Ausf.E/F (the previous models are less armored and easier to destroy) or a Panzer IV Ausf.C/D, they have to get as close as < 25-100m, whereas the enemy can destroy them at about 300m (3.7cm KwK) to 500m (7.5cm KwK) and even from longer range if you consider the obsolete Renault FT17.
37mm SA38 L/33
- Obus de rupture Mle1938 (APC)
- Obus explosif Mle1938 (HE)
Note concerning the the APX-R and APX-R1 turret armed with the 37mm SA18 or 37mm SA38 guns :
Elevation of -16° to +20°
Traverse of 5° right and 5° left but it could be blocked to aim only with the turret rotation and so that the coaxial MG was always well aligned with the main gun.
47mm SA34 L/30
- Obus de rupture Mle1892G (APHE)
- Obus explosif Mle1932 (HE)
47mm SA35 L/32
- Obus de rupture Mle1935 (APC)
- Obus explosif Mle1932 (HE)
75mm SA35 L/17.1
- Obus de rupture Mle1910 (APHE)
- Obus explosif Mle1915 (HE)
The 75mm HE shells are able to destroy the armored cars, Panzer I and Panzer II and are very efficient at short range against the tracks and lower parts of the heavier tanks. The HE shell has a penetration of 17mm/30° even at 800m.
The French tanks had all AP/APC/APHE AND HE shells unlike the British cruisers which had only AP shells and only HE shells in their CS version (infantry support). Nonethelss, in the French tanks and especially the light tanks, there were generally more HE shells than AP shells (3/5th HE shells), illustrating the infantry support role seen as primary task. The French tanks (except the 25mm guns and of course possibly the 8mm, 7.5mm and 13.2mm MGs) had no tracer shells unlike the German tanks. It was therefore often harder to find the range of a spotted target.
The only Pzgr.40 (APCR) shells produced only in June 1940 were for the 3.7cm L/45 KwK of the Panzer III. The OKW ammo consumption reports tells that during the whole battle of France about 63,000 3.7cm Pzgr. and 7,440 3.7cm Pzgr.40 were fired by tank guns. The 3.7cm PaK received not any 3.7cm Pzgr.40 during the battle of France. The production of the 4.7 cm Pzgr.40 for the 4.7cm PaK(t) and 4.7cm PaK36(t) started in May 1941. The APCR round introduced next after the 3.7cm Pzgr.40 was the 3.7cm Pzgr.40/37(t), which started in autumn 1940. The 2.0cm Pzgr.40 was introduced in December 1940 or the first months of 1941, the other Pzgr.40 types also until May 1941. The 7.5cm L/24 KwK37 of the PzIV Ausf.A/B/C/D or the StuG III Ausf.A in France in May/June 1940 could fire the K.Gr.rotPz. (AP) at 385m/s (penetration of 41mm/30° at 100m) but also a HEAT shell (Gr.38 HL/1) at 452m/s which was available in very small numbers but allowed a penetration of 45mm/30° at any range. There was no HEAT shell ready for the campaign in Poland. The Gr.38 HL/1 made the final tests in December 1939 and the shooting of the ballistic tables was finished in March 1940. The shell is listed in the ammo manual of the 7.5 cm KwK from July 1940. HEAT shells use chemical penetration instead of kinetic penetration thus the same amount of armor penetration could be achieved despite striking velocity. HEAT shells also tended to do better with striking armor plates at an angle, but were also easily defeated by employing spaced armor or side skirting. HEAT shells could also be used as a substitute for HE shells. HEAT shells in early WW2 Panzers were not strong enough to penetrate the stronger French tanks, however later revisions (Gr.38 HL/A, HL/B, HL/C) proved more successful on the eastern front.
If we exclude the direct artillery fire and the 8.8cm L/56 Flak, the 4.7cm Pak36(t) L/43.4 mounted on the Panzerjäger I seems to be the most dangerous gun for the French tanks (except the HEAT shell of the 75mm L/24 beyond 500m). The French 47mm L/53 AT gun is the best AT gun before the 5.0cm Pak38 and 7.5cm Pak40.
On the French side, the Laffly W15 TCC (tank destroyer) was really deadly against German tanks with its 47mm L/53 and the Mle1936 APCBC shells, still 72mm/0° at 1000m according to French tests.
The best French tank gun is the 47mm SA35 L/32 which is superior to the German tank guns. The best German tank guns are the 3.7cm L/47.8 (t) of the Panzer 38(t) and the 7.5cm L/24 KwK37 of the PzIV Ausf.A/B/C/D or the StuG III Ausf.A. The French 47mm SA35 gun is better than the German 3.7cm guns with AP shells but it is outclassed by the APCR shells of the 3.7cm L/45 at close range and by the 7.5cm L/24 gun at medium/long range with its HEAT shells. The APCR shells of the 3.7cm L/45 gun are able to penetrate the front armor of a Renault B1bis tank at 100m. The 47mm SA35 L/32 gun APC shells are slower than the AP shells of the 3.7cm L/45 gun (660 versus 745 m/s) but much heavier (1.620 kg versus 0.685 kg) and capped. The French 47mm has a higher KE and a better T/D ratio, leading to a better penetration.
[Table with the main guns, shells types, V°, penetration . ]
kinetic energy of German and French shells :
Weapon name (shell) -- Kinetic Energy (1/2.m.v2) (J)
13.2mm Mle1930 (AP) -- 16,640
2.0cm L/55 Kw.K.30/38 (AP) -- 45,022
37mm SA18 L/21 (AP) -- 90,000
25mm SA34/37 L/72 (AP) -- 135,424
25mm SA35 (L/60 or L/47.2) (AP charge forte) -- 144,400
47mm SA34 L/30 (APHE) -- 170,496 + 50g explosive filler
37mm SA38 L/33 (APC) -- 173,959
3.7cm L/40 Kw.K.34(t) (AP) -- 185,667
3.7cm L/45 Kw.K. or Pa.K. (AP) -- 190,096
3.7cm L/45 Kw.K. or Pa.K. (APCR) -- 191,434
3.7cm L/47.8 Kw.K. 38(t) (AP) -- 229,219
47mm SA35 L/32 (APC) -- 352,836
7.5cm L/24 Kw.K.37 and 7.5cm L/24 Stu.K.37 (APCBC) -- 503,965
4.7cm L/43.4 Pa.k.36(t) (APC) -- 504,507
47mm SA37/39 L/53 (APCBC) -- 630,875
75mm SA35 L/17.1 (APHE) -- 722,000 + 90g explosive filler
75mm Mle97/33 L/36.3 (APHE) -- 1,076,480 + 90g explosive filler
8.8cm L/56 Fla.K.18 (APCBC) -- 3,047,398
In this table the penetration values are all from Jentz and are just enabling to have an idea of the various guns compared to each others. Analyzing the ballistics and penetration values is the object of an other document. Nevertheless when calculated, the penetration values at 0° impact angle and at a range of 100m are :
Main French guns
25mm SA35 L/60 (or 47.2) : about 57mm
37mm SA18 L/21 : about 37mm
37mm SA38 L/33 : about 44mm
47mm SA35 L/32 : about 58mm
47mm SA37 L/53 : about 84mm
Main German guns
3.7cm KwK/PaK L/45 : about 53mm (AP) and 90mm (APCR)
3.7cm KWK L/47.8 : about 55mm
4.7cm PaK(t) : about 78mm
7.5cm KwK/StuK L/2 : about 55mm (APCBC) and 52mm (HEAT)
It gives a good idea of the power of the main guns involved, keeping in mind that the French tanks had a 40-60mm armor and the German tanks had a 13-35mm armor.
In the French tanks and especially the light tanks, there were generally more HE shells than AP shells (3/5th HE shells), illustrating the infantry support role seen as primary task. The French tanks except the 25mm guns and of course the 8mm, 7.5mm and 13.2mm MGs had no tracer shells unlike the German tanks. It was therefore often harder to find the range of a spotted target.
5.7 French gunsights and gun accuracy
The quality of French tank optics were not at all inferior to the German ones, this is a false statement and an other myth usually spread. In fact they were of similar quality, perhaps a bit more complicated to operate. With the German optics it may have been more easy to determine the range of the target, but only for experienced crew since it was not an easy task. The French optics with their 4x magnification are more suited than German ones to engage targets at long range but the drawback is a smaller field of view which can become an issue during close combat.
In the French tanks, the tank turret gunsight consists of an aiming "v" or "+" and aiming ladders. The telescopic sights have generally a 4x magnification.
The L.762 telescopic sight of the 47mm SA35 gun has a 4x magnification, a 11.81° field of view and consists in a crosshair “+” with three aiming ladders. On the “+” reticle the horizontal line can be adjusted for the elevation. On the horizontal line of the “+” reticle, there are vertical long and short bars. One 2.50m high vehicle covered by a long line is at 500m and the same vehicle covered by a short line is at 1000m range. On the right of the “+” reticle there are two black range ladders : one for the AP shells and one for the HE shells. On the left of the “+” reticle there is one red range ladder for the coaxial MG.
The 75mm SA35 hull gun on the B1bis tank has two L.710 sights (sterescopic telemeter) with a 3.5x magnification, a 11.15° field of view and range ladders (no "v" or "+" reticle). The 75mm SA35 hull gun is a fixed gun with only elevation controls, thus left-right aiming is done via changing the tank's heading with the usual driving system or with the fine-tuned hydrostatic Naeder system.
Another surprising statement is about accuracy of French guns versus German ones. Accuracy is not a matter of nationality, only a matter of ballistics. All the ballistics tests proved that the French guns were very accurate. Some French tankers scored very well, others not so well. This was due to training, 1-man turret etc. but the guns by themselves were totally good ones. About the accuracy of the guns by themselves, here are two examples taken from real 1939-1940 shooting tests with the 47mm SA35 gun (Somua S35 and B1bis turret gun for example) and with the 75mm SA35 gun (B1bis hull gun), both with anti-tank shells :
For the 47mm SA35 :
• 15 shots at 200m : H+L = 10+20 = 30cm
• 10 shots at 500m : H+L = 55+53 = 108cm
For the 75mm SA35 : 10 shots at 400m : H+L = 30+28 = 58cm
During the battle of Abbeville one German 8.8cm FlaK was destroyed by the 75mm SA35 gun of a Renault B1bis at a range of 1500m.
Sight : L.711
Magnification : 4x
FOV : 10.13°
Reticle : V
Adjustable drum up to : 3450m
37mm SA18 and SA18 M.37
● For the Renault FT17/18C
Sight : L. .
Magnification : 1x
FOV : 45°
Reticle : ?
Adjustable drum up to : ?
● For the Renault R35, Hotchkiss H35/39 and FCM36
Sight : L.713
Magnification : 4x
FOV : 11.25°
Reticle : V
Adjustable drum up to : 1000m for the AP shells and 1600m for the coaxial MG
Sight : L.739
Magnification : 4x
FOV : 11.25°
Reticle : ?
Adjustable drum up to : ?
The L.739 was probably introduced after the L.713 for the new Mle1935 and Mle1937 AP shells fired by the 37mm SA18 L/21 gun.
● For armored cars : Laffly 50AM, Panhard 165/175 and AMC P16 Mle1929. Either the sight used in the Renault FT17/18 (1x, 45°) or a sight like the L.698 used for the infantry gun (2x, 7.88°).
Sight : L.767
Magnification : 4x
FOV : 11.25°
Reticle : +
Adjustable drum up to : ?
The L.713, L.739 and L.767 sights are similar, same shape and weight, only the range drums and the reticles are different due to the different shells.
Sight : L.671
Magnification : 3.8x
FOV : 9.56°
Reticle : V
Adjustable drum up to : 1100m for the AP shells and 1600m for the coaxial MG
Sight : L.724 for the APX1 turret
Magnification : 4x
FOV : 11.25°
Reticle : V and later +
Adjustable drum up to : 1500m for the AP shells and 1600m for the coaxial MG
The L.724 sight is 477mm +/- 4mm long and weights 1.4 kg.
Sight : L.762 for the APX4 turret
Magnification : 4x
FOV : 11.81°
Reticle : +
Adjustable drum up to : 1500m for the AP shells and 1600m for the coaxial MG
The L.762 sight is 721mm +/- 4mm long and weights 2.6 kg.
On the “+” reticle the horizontal line can be adjusted for the elevation. The + reticle was preferred to the V reticle to materialize the horizontal. On the horizontal line of the “+” reticle, there are vertical long and short bars. One 2.50m high vehicle covered by a long line is at 500m and the same vehicle covered by a short line is at 1000m range. On the right of the “+” reticle there are two black range ladders : one for the AP shells and one for the HE shells. On the left of the “+” reticle there is one red range ladder for the coaxial MG.
There might be a L.731 sight for the APX1 CE turret (Somua S35) but there is no information about it at the moment.
Sight : L.710 (two sights for a stereoscopic telemeter)
Magnification : 3.5x
FOV : 11.15° for each sight
Reticle : range ladders
Adjustable drum up to : 1600m
The Somua S35 or the Renault B1bis with their good armor and their powerful 47mm SA35 gun coupled to the well adapted 4x sight were able to destroy any German tanks at long range (800-1000m) unlike the German ones. A Panzer III had to come far closer to have a chance to destroy a Somua S35 and had grossly no single chance to destroy a Renault B1bis without using APCR shells. During the Hannut / Gembloux battles, even counterattacks led by 10 Somua S35s were viewed as critical on the German side.
5.8 Smoke shells and smoke dischargers
The French 37mm and 47mm tank guns had no smoke shells, only the 75mm guns (B1, B1bis, FCM-2C, FT-17BS, SAu40) were theoretically able to fire smoke shells but were probably never equipped with this kind of shells. The 75mm smoke shells like many other shells (canister shells, incendiary shells etc.) were probably restricted to the 75mm Mle1897 field guns, the 75mm Mle1897/33 AT guns and/or various 75mm AA guns. In the French army, smoke shells were apparently fired by the supporting mortars, field guns or howitzers, not by the tanks themselves.
Smoke dischargers were tested as prototypes on the Panhard 178 armored car for example and on the Renault AMC-35, which is the single French tank which might have used them on battlefield in very few cases.
The Pz.IV Ausf.A/B/C/D and the StuG III Ausf.A in France in 1940 could fire a smoke shell with the 7.5cm L/24. The German tanks were not equipped with smoke dischargers prior to 1941. The use of smoke dischargers was more generalized in the following battles in Russia and North Africa. They were mounted on the rear portions of the mudguards, facing forwards, or on the sides of the turret. For instance, on a Pz38(t), they would mount a 1/2 cylindrical shaped cylinder propped up by a piece of steel that would contain 3 smoke projectiles per side.
Nevertheless, beside the smoke shells fired by the artillery or by the Pz.IV or StuG III, the Germans modified several tanks by mounting a kind of smoke dispenser on the rear of the tank. It was a rack with German infantry smoke candles ("Nebelkerzen"). These candles just "burned" and made smoke on the rear of the tank instead of real smoke dischargers making a smoke screen in front of the tank. It is not sure that there was a triggering system from inside the tank. This system was already used in Poland in 1939.
In France in 1940, only the British (light tanks, infantry tanks as well as cruisers) could have smoke dischargers on their tanks but mostly on their CS (close support) variants. British had special CS variants of their tanks, which had nothing but smoke and HE shells. The cruiser tanks did not have on them anything other than AP shells. Four smoke dischargers (2 on each side of the turret) were usually mounted on tanks like the Matilda II or the cruiser A13 but only two smoke dischargers on tanks like the Matilda I or the Vickers MkIVb.
5.9 Radio sets and intercom
French tanks had less radio sets than their German opponents but it was not because of an inherent French bad design, it is all a matter of doctrine. The light tanks like the Renault R35/39/40 and the Hotchkiss H35/39 tanks only rarely had radio sets if they were not command tanks (platoon or company commander). For the Somua S35s it is roughly the same with only 1/5th of the tanks being equipped with a radio set. The first radio set in the B1/B1bis tanks was the ER53 Mle1932 (ER is Emetteur-Récepteur, or transmitter-receiver), with a 15km range. It was operated by morse key, broadcasted on a frequency range of 40-100m, and weighted around 80kg. Only 100 of these radio sets were produced. It was then replaced by the ER51 Mle1938, weighting 50kg only and operated by voice (3km range) and/or morse key (15-20km range) on the same frequencies. The communications had usually to be coded before being emitted unlike the German which emitted clearly. A tank or a unit was ordered to go to a precise location for example. Therefore the French radios were rarely efficiently used because it took too long compared to the German units. But even on the French side during offensive operations messages were sometimes send clearly and by voice to coordinate two companies for example. Nevertheless, in the heat of a combat and with all the noise, the radio was often not used at all and each tank manoeuvred roughly alone, keeping a view on the 2-4 other tanks of the platoon (infantry or cavalry) and if possible on other platoons.
The range of the radio set seems rather small for today tank warfare requirements but when you compare it to the German radio sets of the same period it is not worse. The more common radio in the PzIII and PzIV was the FuG 5 SE 10 U which had a range key / voice of 4 km / 2 km when moving (6 km / 4 km in station). When compared to the ER51 Mle1938, the voice range is similar and the French radio set has a much bigger range in morse key. But of course the German had more radios and were trained to operate them in order to gain a tactical / operational advantage. All the German tanks had a complete radio set except the Panzer I where it was only a receiver. The French tanks communicated otherwise by flags or the platoon commander went outside from one tank to an other, which of course could hardly be done during an intense battle.
The German Panzer III and Panzer IV had a complete intercom system, adding to the "serenity" of a German crew. In the Panzer I and Panzer II (1-man turret), which were the most numerous German tanks, there was apparently not always an intercom system.
In French tanks the crew communicated by speaking/shouting like. The tank commander gave generally his orders by hitting the drivers with his feet. In the B1bis there was also an order transmitter with some lights on the driver's instrument panel which allowed the commander in the turret to order simple thinks like : forward, turn right, turn left, speed up, slow down, warning, cease fire (the driver was also the hull gunner) etc. The radio operator of the crew had a specific aluminium helmet with a speaker and headphones. A complete drawing of an intercom system for the Renault B1bis can be seen in a document dated from March 1940.
It seems that this system was not only tested but issued to combat units and not all French tanks were devoid of intercom system. There is a photo of the B1bis "Ulm" (47e BCC) on which the tank commander seems to speak in a device. On an other photo of the B1bis "Tahure" (49e BCC), all the crew members have helmets with headphones instead of only the radio operator. According to testimonies from veterans, the Somua S35 tanks from the 18e RD (Régiment de Dragons) had also an intercom system in May 1940. On a photo from a Somua S35 of this precise unit the commander seems indeed to have a helmet with headphones etc.
5.10 Differential steering
The Somua S35 and the Renault B1/B1bis have a double differential steering. One track could go in one direction while the other could go in the opposite direction - allowing the tank to "turn on the spot". On the 1940 battlefield, only these French tanks posses this ability. All other tanks had to move forward/backward in some fashion for the ability to turn, and this could cause, in situations such as hull-down or good camouflaged position, to loose that advantage since you did have to move. In some extent there are therefore able to turn the hull faster than most other tanks in 1940, the differential steering allowed a better turn radius "on the spot".
The German tanks in 1940 did not have that feature, thus the two tracks could not rotate in different directions. One track was blocked to turn but this could be bad considering that you could possibly throw a track if your opposite track wasn't on the correct type of ground. The later Panther and Tiger tanks did have a kind of differential steering.
5.11 Survivability in the French tanks ?
The thick armor of the French tanks protected the crews very well. The crews of the B1bis tank kept all the campaign long a high morale and high confident in their tanks. Unusual for the time feature concerning at least the Somua S35 and the B1/B1bis tanks is the automatic fire extinguishing system. Made by "Telecamit", it is made of 3 pressurized tanks containing each a litre of methyl bromide. This extinguishing system was probably found in the other French tanks and for sure it was standard in the Panhard 178 armored cars. Situated between the access hatch and the firewall and near the driver, the extinguisher tanks are connected to sprinklers set around "hot "spots" (carburettors, fuel dump, fuel tanks, etc.). As a plus, the fuel tanks have a valve to prevent overfill and are self-sealing.
5.12 Crew armament ?
Each tank or armored car crew was armed with miscellaneous small arms, mainly pistols and revolvers. But according to a French cavalry officer manual from 1939 there were also hand grenades and explosives. In the AMR-33 and AMR-35 armored cars and in the Hotchkiss H35 tanks, the crew had 5 F1 hand grenades (defensive). In the Laffly 50AM, Laffly 80AM, Panhard TOE, Panhard 178, Schneider-Kégresse P16 Mle1929, Renault AMC-34, Renault AMC-35 etc. each crew had 10 F1 hand grenades (defensive) and 2 incendiary grenades. In each cavalry vehicle (including armored cars and tanks) there were also 4x 200g explosive charges (150g explosive) = "pétard de cavalerie", for various destruction tasks.
It is not clear if the infantry tank crews also had grenades but for sure pistols and revolvers. Some testimonies indicated that some men even received a MAS36 rifle.
In several occasions the tanks crews, especially from the B1bis tanks, once the tank knocked down, continued to fight with the small arms instead of retreating.
Post by David Lehmann » 01 May 2005, 00:10
6. Notes concerning French tanks vs German tanks warfare
For example, a combat involving a Somua S35 tank : the commander / gunner is standing in its turret and observes the horizon with the copula and its means of observation : periscopic binocular, PPL RX 160 episcope and Estienne slit.
Turret rotation speed of the Somua S35's APX1CE turret :
• electric powering for a 360° rotation in 20-28 seconds
• hand cranked for precise aiming
Of course the hull could also be rotated towards the enemy.
The tank commander / gunner spots the target in the copula and then brings the turret in the direction of the target thanks to the electric powering of the turret. A mark in the turret indicates when the gun is towards the spotted target. The APX1 (CE) and APX4 turrets were operated this way :
• 1 lever to block / unblock the turret
• 1 lever set right or left for the electric rotation (Ragonot engine : 1/4th hp, 12V - when not powered by the main engine), if the lever is neutral (central position) the rotation is automatically manual
• 1 wheel to rotate the turret by hand more precisely (about 2° per wheel turn)
Concerning the turret rotation speed, the widest arc it would usually be needed to turn a turret is 180° (if it's 181°, you might as well move it 179° to the other side, unless something is hampering the rotation). A Somua S35 could achieve a 180° rotation in 10-14 seconds.
The commander sits in his strap. He is rather blinded due to the modification of the light condition (relative darkness inside the turret versus light from the exterior through the optics) and then he puts one eye on the gunsight (L.762 sight, magnification 4x, field of view 11.81°, reticle +). He searches the target (again modification of the light condition) which is not easy due to the 4x magnification. This magnification is an advantage if engaging the enemy at long range. He aims precisely, with the manual rotation of the turret this time.
On the + reticle the horizontal line can be adjusted for the elevation. The + reticle was preferred to the V reticle to materialize the horizontal. On the horizontal line there are vertical long and short bars. One 2.50m high vehicle covered by a long line is at 500m and the same vehicle covered by a short line is at 1000m range.
On the right of the + reticle there are two black range ladders : one for the AP shells and one for the HE shells. On the left of the + reticle there is one red range ladder for the coaxial MG.
In the APX1 and APX4 turrets the left hand of the gunner is handling the wheel for the manual rotation of the turret (or the lever for the electric rotation), the right hand is firing the gun or handling the lever for the blocking/unblocking of the turret and the elevation is set with the shoulder.
From the tests (not in a combat situation) of the APX4 turret (which is smaller than the APX1CE of the Somua S35 but with the same copula) :
• Rotation of the copula, always by hand : 12 seconds for a rotation of 360°
• Time to look all around with the 3 means of observation (periscopic binocular, episcope, Estienne slit) and to return to the weapons : 5 seconds
• Time to find a target in the gunsight that has been first spotted in the copula's episcope : 3 seconds
Data from other APX4 turret tests with the coaxial machinegun :
• if the target is 5° away from the field of view of the gunsight, the overall time before opening fire is about 15 seconds.
• if the target is up to 90° away from the field of view of the gunsight, the overall time before opening fire could reach 28 seconds.
The commander has the target in his gunsight this time. He estimates the range and fires. Despite the smoke of the first shoot he has to observe the point that has been hit to correct the range if needed. This is more difficult for French tankers because of the absence of tracer shells (only available for the machineguns and for the 25mm gun). That's why the first shot, if not a direct hit, was often short, it was easier to spot the impact on the ground.
In the time frame of 15-30 seconds the commander/gunner would be able to fire 1-2 47mm APC shells against the target before being fired upon. This is after it has been discovered, which would most likely not be until the first round had hit (in the case of multiple incoming targets). Any German tank taking 1-2 hits from a 47mm L/32 SA35 gun in a range of 0 to 1000m, at least one of which is carefully aimed at, has a very high probability to be penetrated and destroyed.
The French tank guns are semi-automatic, the shell case is automatically ejected, the introduction of a new shell closes the breech.
The German tanks have an advantage in the sense that :
• in Panzer III and Panzer IV one crew member can continue to observe and spot while the gunner fires
• the Panzer II also have a 1-man turret but it has tracer shells and a 150 rpm rate of fire (magazine feed)
• German tanks are faster and more mobile, and thanks to the radio sets they are able to better coordinate and concentrate their attack, changing more easily the attack axis.
The Somua S35 crew could use the advantage of its powerful 47mm SA35 L/32 gun coupled to the 4x sight to engage safely the German tanks already at 800-1000m while the enemy has generally to get closer to about 400-500m to have a good chance of destroying the Somua. The Somua has a good cast armor (47mm/round and 20° front hull armor and 42mm/0° front turret armor + (42mm) round gun mantlet on about 30% of the front turret surface). If a German tank engaged at 1000m is driving straight forward to be at 500m of the Somua, at a speed of 25 km/h he will need about 60 seconds. But he will probably not behave that way and of course this tank is not alone . but the French tank probably also not.
At 800-1000m the real threats could only be a Panzer IV firing a 7.5cm Gr.38 HL/1 (HEAT) shell (penetration of 52mm/0° and 45mm/30° - but at this range an embossed Somua S35 is offering a small target) or supporting guns (8.8cm FlaK or 10.5cm leFH guns). Nevertheless their tactical regulation and their usual numerical local superiority would probably allow the Germans to outflank the Somua S35 tank if it doesn't move (supposing the French tank is alone), perhaps even without that the crew of the French tank could notice the manoeuvre, being too busy engaging the frontal targets). In the battle of Hannut / Gembloux for example, the Somua S35 tanks could spread havoc among the German tanks, which often had to face a second Somua S35 squadron while trying to outflank the first squadron. In this battle, the French tactical regulation proved to be at level, the German tank formations being often attacked on their flanks or rear.
More numerous German tanks as it was generally the case (often 1 vs 4 or more) could nevertheless be able to get close enough to the French tank to destroy it. In the 400m to 100m range, a Panzer III firing a 3.7cm APCR shell had a good to very good probability to penetrate the frontal armor of a Somua S35 (penetration of 48mm/0° at 500m, 71mm/0° at 250m and 90mm/0° at 100m) and to knock it out. The Panzer II gun could penetrate 63mm/0° at 100m with APCR shells but the Pzgr.40 were not available in France in 1940 and with the standard AP shell the penetration was reduced to 45mm/0° at 100m. The Panzer II can be deadly for a Somua but at point blank, in an ambush in a town for example. A somewhat higher German rate of fire (the Somua has a 1 ½ man turret) and combined suppressive fire of multiple (tracer) shells (especially the 2.0cm shells of the Panzer II at 150 rpm which could damage the episcopes, binoculars and gunsights) or the use of smoke shells (both tracer and smoke shells were not available in the Somua S35) to hide German moves increased the chance for the German tanks to get closer to the French ones and to overrun the French position. That would probably force the French tanks to move. In a pure movement battle the French squadron will probably loose tactical cohesion more rapidly than the German formation because of the lack of radio sets (often only radios for the platoon commander who will have to communicate with the other tanks of his platoons with flags . which is very difficult during a combat). Therefore once in a melee style battle each French tank will often act rather on its own or with the tanks of its platoon which are directly next to its position. This is the main drawback of all the French tanks. Generally very courageous tankers doing their best but being not enough aware of the general tactical situation while the German tanks were more mobile and could find the weak points of the French deployments.
7. Notes from a document of the 2e DCR
This note is dealing with tank vs tank warfare gives also some elements and intelligence of the time about the German tanks before the campaign.
The German tanks are listed as :
• K.W. 4 with 25mm armor and 75mm gun = Panzer IV (that would be close to Ausf. A/B/C)
• S.2. A and S.2. B with 25mm armor and 37mm gun = Panzer 35(t) and Panzer 38(t) probably
• K.W. 3 with 20mm armor and 37mm gun = Panzer III (that would be close to Ausf. A/B/C/D but E/F are better armored)
• K.W. 2 with 12-14mm armor and 20mm HMG
• K.W. 1 with 8-13mm armor and no anti-tank weapons
Estimation of the capabilities of the German armament (admitting as basis that they are superior to the French ones of same caliber) :
• the 20mm gun cannot do something against the French tanks. The Hotchkiss H39 and the Renault B1bis are immune against it, even at close range (< 100m)
• the 37mm guns have a practical range of 200m against French 40mm armor but are inefficient against 50mm or more armor. The B1bis is rather immune and the H39 is in danger at short range (< 300m)
• the 75mm gun has a practical range of about 500m against French 40mm armor and is very poorly efficient against 50mm or more armor. It is therefore poorly efficient against the B1bis but very efficient against the H39.
One can see that the French apparently didn't know about the HEAT shells of the Panzer IV and the new APCR shells of the Panzer III but this one appeared only later in June/July and in very small quantities for the battle of France. They probably also take into account only the Panzer III Ausf.A-D, the Ausf.E/F having a far better armor.
Note about French tank warfare :
• fire when stopped
• fire ideally from a cover and behind a protection (ambushed, hull down – except the B1bis if he wants to use its 75mm SA35 gun)
Tactics : try to impose combat to the enemy tanks
• open a fire barrage from a given position against the flanks or the rears of the enemy tank formation
• engage the meeting combat on an advantageous axis
The company commander organizes :
• the deployment : generally 2 echelons, 1 manoeuvre echelon and 1 protection echelon. The protection echelon can be composed of part of the tanks, of infantry with AT guns or better both of them.
• the manoeuvre
• the rules of engagement, range and areas of fire controlled by each tank platoon
• the conditions of the pursuit or the pull-back and the successive targets
The company commander gives orders thanks to the radio to each platoon commander.
The platoon commander applies the orders on the ground, during the battle. He has liberty of action to operate and achieve the goal.
The tank commander :
• He must have good skills to recognize the different types of enemy tanks, to identify the most dangerous threats (first due to the armament and second due to the armor) and to engage it.
• He must have adaptability, flexibility and initiative to apply the orders of the platoon commander.
• If isolated he had to return as quickly as possible in the field (of view) of his platoon commander.
Security range (where the tank is safe) :
Panzer IV < 100m
immune to the others
The B1bis engages the enemy tanks at 800-1000m with the 47mm SA35 and the 75mm SA35 guns.
The 75mm SA35 gun with the L.710 sights has an adjustable drum up to 1600m for the HE shells and 1560m for the APHE shells. The 75mm APHE shells are used against tanks. The 75mm HE shells are able to destroy the armored cars, Panzer I and Panzer II and are very efficient at short range against the tracks and lower parts of the heavier tanks. The HE shell has a penetration of 17mm/30° even at 800m.
The B1bis is superior to all the German tanks (armament and armor being here considered). The single threat is the Panzer IV if closer than 100m.
Security range (where the tank is safe) :
Panzer IV = 500m
Panzer III, Pz35(t) and Pz(38t) = 200m
immune to the others
with 37mm SA18 gun
engages the Panzer IV, Panzer III, Pz35(t) and Pz(38t) at < 100m
engages the other tanks at 400m
with 37mm SA38 gun
engages the enemy tanks at 400-700m
A crude estimation of the capabilities (not the max penetration) of the French tank guns (this is not a ballistics study, it is just to give an estimation of part of the capabilities to inform the crews) gives an advice at which range engage the enemy tanks with good kill probability. Against German medium/heavy tanks :
37mm SA18 at 100m
37mm SA38 at 400-600m
47mm SA35 at 600-800m
75mm SA35 at 700-800m
Lighter tanks and armored cars could be engaged at longer range.
The huge majority of the French tanks were armed with the 37mm SA18 gun. They had to go closer to the German tanks. A H39 with a 37mm SA18 will try to reach the 10-100m range but a Panzer III could engage it already at 200m and a Panzer IV at 500m according to French intelligence.
8. Quotes from the German general Halder
General Franz Halder considered on 18th February 1940 that :
"the Panzer I was mostly useful against a weak and demoralized enemy, the Panzer II was not able to face enemy tanks. The heavy Panzer IV was efficient against enemy tanks and infantry but the Panzer III, Panzer 35(t) and Panzer 38(t) were not adapted to fight enemy infantry".
Nevertheless, the statement on the Panzer II seems harsh since it was efficient against all the British tanks except the Matilda II. When used massively and attacking by surprise from many directions it obtained good results against the French tanks thanks to their number, speed and mobility. There are several French testimonies of Somua S35 or Hotchkiss tanks being penetrated at point blank range on the side
9. According to the German colonel Kühne
The single efficient German gun against the French Renault D2 and Somua S35 tanks is the 7.5cm KwK L/24 of the Panzer IV - firing an APCBC shell - (and the 8.8cm FlaK which penetrates all the enemy armor up to 2000m). The shell (3.7cm Pzgr.) from our 3.7cm KwK/PaK L/45 are inefficient against all these tanks at standard combat range and bounce even at a very favourable impact angle. At close range our 3.7cm gun can nevertheless penetrate the lighter French tanks. Generally speaking the 3.7cm shell can penetrate the French tanks at an angle of 0° if closer than 300m. The 3.7cm AP shell did not fulfil its mission and is not adapted to warfare against modern tanks.
Direct hits with the 7.5cm HE shell have no effect against the Somua S35 or the Renault B1bis at 600 to 800m.
The 2.0cm AP shell cannot penetrate the French tanks, its single effect is on the morale. The British tanks were penetrated at all ranges by the 2.0cm AP shells, except the Matilda II heavy tank, luckily in very small number. The armor of the Matilda II resists even sometimes to our 7.5cm guns.
Huge quantities of ammunition were used during the battles against French tanks because of the lack of power of the 2.0cm and 3.7cm guns. In our brigade, all the 3.7cm and 7.5cm shells were used during a single battle on 13th May. Our unit had to wait for ammunition supply to continue to fight.
The equipment of the German turret is completely efficient and it is superior to the French one. This gives an advantage to the German tanks.
The French 47mm SA35 tank gun proved to be remarkable. This gun penetrates all the German tanks independently from the impact angle up to 600-800m and sometimes more. [Several Somua S35 and Renault B1bis destroyed German tanks at a range of 1000m !]
The French 37mm SA18 proved to be inefficient.
The French rate of fire is slower because of the conception of the French turrets.
Concerning the AT guns, the accuracy is good for the 47mm SA37, very good for the 25mm SA34/37 and excellent for the British 40mm. The front hull armor of the Panzer III has been easily penetrated by the excellent French 25mm SA34/37 gun. Trials with booty guns proved that the French 25mm AT gun is superior to the German 3.7cm PaK. This 25mm AT gun is very hard to spot because the flash is invisible (flash hider). The armor of the Panzer III and even more of the Panzer IV is insufficient.
The speed of our tanks proved to be very good. In the future we should maintain a capacity of 30-40 km/h in easy offroad. The French tankers or AT gunners who were captured said all that the speed of our tanks constituted the main difficulty to hit them.
10. Notes from general Jean Perré, commander of the 2e DCR in 1940
"Concerning my 90 light tanks (Hotchkiss H39), only 33% of them had the 37mm SA38 gun, 66% had the 37mm SA18 gun, which was generally inefficient against armor thicker than 15mm. It had only an initial velocity of about 400 m/s against about 700 m/s for the 37mm SA38 gun (personal note : in this case he doesn’t take into consideration the Mle1935 and Mle1937 AP shells). My mechanized infantry battalion (BCP = Bataillon de Chasseurs Portées) had no armoured car platoon as planned and the 12 25mm AT guns of the divisional AT company were towed by unarmored tractors. My units were composed of natives of Lorraine, Alsatians and Britons. 33% of the men were from the active army and all the men were very proud to belong to a DCR. I recognized among the officers, NCOs and men the same faith, that general Estienne, father of the French tanks, had inspired during World War 1 to the first tanks crews. The torch had been passed to the crews of 1940 and well maintained by the active army but also by many officers of the reserve like commandant Cornic, fallen for France on 17th May 1940 in my division. The officers and the men had one single aim : to serve their arm and the army.
On 10th May 1940, the 2e DCR is a beautiful war tool, with high morale and sure of is strength : 6,500 men including 340 officers, 160 tanks, 1,400 vehicles, 400 motorcycles, 25 105mm C field guns, 12 25mm AT guns and 8 47mm AT guns. On the other hand the AA guns were lacking and we had only our Hotchkiss Mle1914 MGs in AA role.
On 13th May, the 2e DCR starts its movement, part by road and part by railroad. During the transport, the destination is changed twice and the movement is modified due to the action of the enemy air force.
On 15th May, the 2e DCR disembarks and deploys from Nouvion to Rethel, dispersed on a 70 km front. The northern and southern parts of the division are separated by the Panzerdivisionen advancing between the Oise and Aisne Rivers. The units cannot be commanded efficiently but the companies and crews fight where they are. In the bridgehead of Rethel 3 B1bis tanks, led by lieutenant Robert, destroy 23 German tanks.
On 16th May, the "groupement Bourgin" (20 B1bis tanks and 1 infantry company) pulls the advanced elements of a Panzerdivision back on 20 km. When the group is ordered to retreat, the few immobilized tanks remain, fight on the spot and destroy all the appearing enemies. On the night, these crews finally scuttle their tanks and joins again the French lines.
On 17th May, 80 tanks of my division are deployed on a 40 km frontline, from Noisy to Tergnier, along the Oise River : 1-2 tanks defending each bridge. On 18th May morning, they face the assaults of 4 Panzerdivisionen (about 1200 tanks) in 1 vs 15 odds. The 80 French tanks are submerged but they inflict heavy losses to the Germans.
On 17th May, 2 B1bis tanks from the 15e BCC (the "Mistral" and the "Tunisie") surprise advanced German elements in Landrecies. They destroy 100 armored cars and all-terrain vehicles.
On 20th May, I have lost more than 50% of my tanks. I am ordered to regroup and reorganize in the area of Compiègne. I receive reinforcement of 138 tanks including 21 B1bis tanks. 66% of the light tanks are armed with 37mm SA38 guns. Two days later, after a short reorganization period of time, I am attached to the 7th army?
On 24th, 25th and 26th May we take the bridges on the Somme River north of Péronne, during one day attack and two night attacks.
From 26th May to 1st June, we are deployed behind the 7th army to counter-attack if needed.
On 4th June we attack the bridgehead of Abbeville. Hard day for a partial success … hard day also for the enemy. The action of our 309th artillery regiment was outstanding.
On 5th June, my infantry battalion and two light tanks companies support the British troops which are attacked.
On 6th June, we should be resting but we are ordered to move in the area of Beauvais. We are facing the 7.PzD of Rommel. Several days later general Besson confessed that we have saved 2 army corps which were on our left flank.
From 9th to 12th June we are fighting while retreating to the north of Paris. On 13th June we move south of Paris. We continue to fight while moving back.
On 16th June, we are encircled in the Orléans forest. During the night we assault and manage to pierce the German lines and the rear guard combats go on.
On 25th June, we are north-east of Limoges. The division has lost 25% of its strength and only 70 tanks are available. Only 40 tanks out of the 70 are really able to fight. With the dismounted crews I have constituted 2 extra motorized infantry battalions. My artillery has still all its guns. The units are coherent and disciplined. We have had grossly no sleep for the last 45 days and 45 nights. Our tiredness is awful, but the 2e DCR has destroyed more than 500 German AFVs (personal note : this estimation includes tanks, armoured cars, armoured personal carriers, self-propelled guns etc.)"
General Perré also judges the value of the French equipment :
"Our equipment is generally excellent. The 40mm armor for the light tanks and 60mm armor for the B1bis tanks constitute a very efficient protection. From 3rd June to 25th June only 21 tanks were lost due to enemy fire. One of my B1bis tanks had more than 20 3.7cm hits and still worked perfectly. Even several Hotchkiss H39 remained undamaged after having been fired at by 3.7cm AT gun at less than 200 meters !
The Hotchkiss H39 armed with the 37mm SA38 gun could face efficiently all the German tanks except the heavier version of the Panzer IV. The B1bis crews engaged in tank vs tank combat preferred to use the 47mm turret gun with 360° traverse instead of the 75mm hull gun, which was located very low. The 47mm SA35 gun was at least as powerful as the 7.5cm gun of the Panzer IV in terms of penetration. The MAC31 'Reibel' MG gave entire satisfaction.
I never suffered from the speed discrepancy with the Panzerdivisionen. I had the feeling of lacking mobility only when I had no reconnaissance group. In that case I was forced to use my tanks for that task, resulting in the core of the division being slowed down at half of its speed ! Our range/autonomy was generally insufficient.
Concerning the rusticity of our tanks, the B1bis tanks went beyond our hopes. Several of them had crossed 1600 km without more maintenance than a quick oiling on the evening. The Hotchkiss H39 tanks proved to be more fragile. The Renault R35 tanks received in reinforcement were exceptionally rustic. Therefore, except the radio equipment which was too diverse and which sometimes lacked range, all our equipments gave complete satisfaction. I have the duty to say that these equipments had a soul …
The crews, mechanics, soldiers etc., from the active or reserve army, made there duty until the end ! I never had deserters or men leaving their position without orders. My men have got a dozen 'Légion d'honneur" medals, about 15 military medals and 2000 ratified citations.
Despite the retreat, despite the defeat, having seen everything collapsing around us, the men were grouped around their officers and their tanks until the end. They had, I think, the same feeling than the first tank crews … the feeling to be part of an elite, the feeling to be among the men discovering new things and facing new dangers. They gave me the powerful but bitter joy to feel that they were more and more faithful when facing increasing adversity, tragic fates and awful sufferings. They were worthy of the tank crews of 1914-1918, who fought in Malmaison, Méry, Belloy and Villers-Cotterêts."
Panzer II at bridge, 1940 - History
By Jan Bos
The city of Nijmegen, in the southeastern part of Holland and about six miles from the Dutch-German border, is believed to be Holland’s oldest city, going back some 2,000 years. The Romans first established a military camp there, and the area has been permanently occupied ever since. Nijmegen is situated on the south bank of the Waal River, a branch of the Rhine River, flowing northward from Switzerland. Barges carry goods on the Waal River from the harbor at Rotterdam in Holland to the Ruhr industrial area in Germany. Because of its location along a major river trade route, Nijmegen became an important commercial center long ago. And, because of its importance, it was also fought over by various armies during a span of 20 centuries. The 20th century was no different, as its strategic location and the Nijmegen bridge over the Waal made it an ideal objective for armies passing through from east to west and vice versa.
Nijmegen’s strategic importance was recognized first by the Germans and then by the Americans and British. It was brought to worldwide public awareness by Cornelius Ryan’s 1974 book, A Bridge Too Far, and even more so by the 1977 movie of the same name.
The Nijmegen Bridge: Connecting Both Sides of the Waal River
Until 1936 there was no fixed roadway connection with the north bank vehicle traffic used the ferry between Nijmegen and Lent. The only bridge over the river was a three-span steel railroad bridge, which was opened in 1879.
In 1906, a government committee started to make plans for building a highway bridge across the mighty Waal River at Nijmegen, but World War I intervened and put the construction of the bridge on hold. Although the Netherlands was neutral, all major civic-works projects were cancelled for fear that the war might spill over the border and drag Holland into the conflict. Instead of allocating Dutch guilders for the bridge project, the government used the money instead for building defenses and expanding the Dutch Army.
Soon after the Armistice of 1918, the committee met again and renewed the Nijemegen bridge project. Blueprints for the bridge were drawn and, in 1927, final plans were made. Construction costs were estimated at 2,600,000 Dutch guilders. The Dutch government approved the plans and, on October 23, 1931, construction began. The Nijemegen bridge over the Waal River became the largest single-span bridge in Europe.
It was a magnificent structure. The total length was 604 meters (1,982 feet) resting on four concrete and stone piers, with four lanes for automotive traffic and special paths on each side for pedestrians and bicycles. The highest point of the bow was 65 meters over the roadway. Building the bridge was not without risks. Three workers fell to their deaths and 10 others were injured in several accidents.
At 3:00 pm on June 16, 1936, the bridge was officially opened by Holland’s Queen Wilhelmina as some 200,000 Dutchmen witnessed the ceremony. After the queen had cut the ribbon, hundred of cars, buses, and trucks crossed the bridge. It was a glorious, prideful day for the Dutch (and especially the citizens of Nijmegen), but no one could have guessed that, within eight years, the beautiful bridge would be destroyed, rebuilt, and become one of the bloodiest battlegrounds in history’s most devastating war.
Three years after the bridge’s opening, dark clouds began gathering over Europe and Nijmegen when neighbor Germany began making belligerent noises and threatening war. In September 1939, the threat became real and Germany invaded Poland. The rest of Europe watched, waited, and worried. The Dutch government hoped that Holland could remain neutral, as it had in World War I, but the Germans were already making secret plans to invade France, Denmark, Belgium, and Holland under the code name Fall Gelb (Case Yellow). Hitler’s Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop had made promises that Holland would remain neutral, but it was a ruse designed to lull the Dutch into inaction.
Nevertheless, the suspicious Dutch government called for a mobilization to strengthen the Army and Air Force. Warplanes were ordered from the Dutch Fokker factories, and extra anti-aircraft guns and howitzers were bought from foreign companies, while defenses were hastily built all over Holland. On the west side of the Maas-Waal Canal, the west bank of the Grave Bridge, and on the north bank of the Waal River, several concrete pillboxes were constructed. The same for the south bank in the Hunnerpark at Nijmegen, and well-equipped Dutch soldiers soon occupied the fortifications.
Dutch engineers installed so-called “road asparagus”–vertical steel pillars–in the roadway at both ends of the Waal River Bridge to impede any invading tanks and other military vehicles. Both the rail and traffic bridges were mined in case they needed to be blown in an emergency. Dutch Army forces at Nijmegen were prepared for whatever came their way. (Get an in-depth look at the rest of the European Theater by subscribing to WWII History magazine.)
War Comes to Nijmegen
It was early on Friday, May 10, 1940, when some 1,000 enemy airplanes flew over Holland in a westerly direction at the start of Germany’s violent Blitzkrieg. Many of them were Junkers Ju-52 transport planes, carrying Fallschirmjäger (paratroopers) and towing gliders packed with infantrymen. The airborne troops’ mission was to capture the main bridges and waterways in western Holland, seize and hold key airfields, and even capture the Dutch royal family in The Hague.
The Dutch Army fought back fiercely and the German Luftwaffe lost many planes that day some 361 planes of all kinds were shot down or destroyed on the ground. Included in this number were 275 Ju-52 transport planes. It was the largest loss the Luftwaffe would suffer on a single day.
In an instant Holland was at war, and Nijmegen and its two bridges were a main objective of the German Army. Once taken and held, they could be used to shuttle tens of thousands of follow-on troops into Holland, Belgium, and northern France. A reinforced battalion, “Gruppe Nimwegen” of the 254th Infanterie Division, was detailed to capture the bridges, and several Dutch soldiers were killed trying to prevent such an outcome.
Despite all the time, money, and effort that had gone into building them, Dutch engineers mined Nijmegen’s bridges with explosives in order to stop or slow down the enemy. As the enemy drew near, the charges were set off and, with a huge bang, both bridges dropped into the Waal. The effort hardly slowed the Germans, who crossed in assault boats and aboard the ferry that ran between Nijmegen and Lent the city was soon occupied by Wehrmacht soldiers.
German Field Marshal Walther Model visits a forward command post of a Volksgrenadier division on the Western Front, October 18, 1944.
Elsewhere, the country was being overrun. After the Germans bombed the “open city” of Rotterdam, the Dutch commander surrendered. The battle for Holland was over almost as quickly as it had started, and a bitter period of occupation for Nijmegen began that would last for four years. Western Holland would be controlled by the Germans until May 1945.
On orders of the German authorities, Dutch engineers started to repair the bridges at Nijmegen. Pontoons with cranes were used to lift the bow from the river and a three-year reconstruction process began. Finally, in 1943, the rebuilt bridge was opened for traffic––German traffic. During the same time the railroad bridge was also repaired.
As the war went on, Allied bombers flew over Holland day and night on their way to Germany. No bombs were dropped on Nijmegen and/or its bridges, however. But suddenly, on February 22, 1944, a formation of American bombers dropped their load on the city. Was it an error? Did the navigators mistake Nijmegen for a German target? Were the bombs meant for the bridges?
No matter how or why the attack happened, the damage was done. Between 700 and 800 inhabitants of Nijmegen and several German soldiers were killed, with many wounded. The historic old buildings in the center of the city were heavily damaged or destroyed. The bridges, if they had been the target, were not hit.
Four months later, the liberation of Western Europe began. It was D-Day––June 6, 1944. American paratroopers and glider infantrymen of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions landed by parachute and glider in Normandy in advance of amphibious landings on the American Utah and Omaha invasion beaches. Also in the British sector (Gold, Juno, and Sword) British, Canadian, and other Allied amphibious troops came ashore after an early morning assault by British and Canadian airborne and glider forces to capture important targets.
A month after the Normandy invasion, Allied forces conducted a rapid drive across northern France. The airborne divisions were alerted for several missions (Transfigure, Linnet, Linnet II, and Comet) but these operations were cancelled when ground forces overran the intended drop zones. By the end of summer, several bloody but successful battles were fought across France and Belgium, and finally the German Army was retreating in northerly and easterly directions toward the Fatherland. In Holland, the Germans were on the run as well.
It was Dolle Dinsdag (Mad Tuesday)––the Dutch name for Tuesday, September 5, 1944. On this day, rumors were flying across occupied Holland, saying that the long-awaited liberation by Allied forces was at hand. After all, the previous day, the Allies had liberated Antwerp, Belgium, so the liberation of Holland, according to the rumors, must be imminent.
In preparation for this day, the Dutch had made thousands of orange and national flags and were ready to cheer and shower the Allied liberators with flowers as they entered each city. As American and British planes began to fill the sky, and Allied paratroops and gliders descended to earth, it appeared that liberation day had indeed arrived. It was the vanguard of an operation called Market-Garden.
British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, commanding the British 21st Army Group in the north, had conceived the daring operation in Holland that would bypass the formidable defenses of the Siegfried Line (Westwall) and allow for an attack into Germany’s industrial Ruhr Valley. In order to do so, airborne troops would first have to capture a series of bridges over major waterways in eastern Holland and hold them until relieved by stronger forces coming over land. If the operation were successful, British forces would be in an excellent position the clear the Scheldt Islands in southwest Holland and open the port of Antwerp.
Such a move would also cut off German troops in western Holland. If everything went as planned, Monty believed the Allies could be in Berlin by Christmas 1944 and the war in Europe would at last be over. Montgomery and his staff put the complex plan together in just a couple of weeks and named it Operation Market-Garden.
Photographs of the bridges and planned landing zones were taken by fast, low-flying airplanes, but information from spies in the Dutch underground was ignored. The Dutch said that the 9th and 10th German SS Panzer Divisions were resting and refitting northwest of Arnhem and Oosterbeek––information that Montgomery disregarded. If they were recuperating, Monty thought, that meant that they probably were not combat ready and posed little danger to the operation.
On Sunday September 17, 1944, Operation Market-Garden began. It was a beautiful, warm, cloudless day. The “Market” portion was the Allies’ first airborne daylight operation of the war and would involve the U.S. 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, the British 1st Airborne Division, and Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade––over 34,000 men. “Garden” was the follow-on portion that would be conducted by armor and infantry forces from the British XXX Corps, coming up from the Belgian-Dutch border. It would be the largest airborne operation ever mounted up to that point of the war (Operation Varsity, in March 1945, would be larger).
However, there were not enough transport planes to carry all the airborne and glider troops from England to Holland on one day, so plans were made to make one drop in Holland on the 17th, and another on Monday, September 18, 1944. It was also decided not to have two missions on the 17th as there would not be time enough to rest the aircrews and repair the battle damage to the planes. Through such decisions are battles and wars decided.
Paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne strap on their gear before their flight from England to Holland.
On the morning of the 17th, paratroops and glider troops began climbing into their aerial vehicles and the C-47 “Skytrains” took off from their English bases, heading east. Maxwell Taylor’s 101st Airborne Division was carried by C-47s from the 53rd Troop Carrier Wing toward the drop zones near Eindhoven. James Gavin’s 82nd Airborne was dropped from C-47s belonging to the 50th and 52nd Troop Carrier Groups to DZs around Groesbeek and Overasselt, while the British and Polish units would be dropped on the Hinkelse Heath, northwest of Arnhem, by transport planes from the 38th and 46th Transport Groups, as well as several other Troop Carrier Groups.
The first men in were two “sticks” of Pathfinders, who had landed on fields on the Schoonenburgseweg at Overasselt to mark the drop zone. As soon as the first C-47s carrying the 82nd Airborne Division passed the Dutch coast, German anti-aircraft guns opened fire on the low-flying, unarmed, and unarmored transports but, miraculously, only one was shot down: a C-47A named “Betty” from the 315th Troop Carrier Group, tail number 43-15308, and piloted by Captain Richard Bohannan. On board were 15 paratroopers who were all able to jump from the burning plane. The crew chief was also able to bail out but four others were killed on impact. Except for two paratroopers who escaped, the others were surrounded and, after a firefight, captured by the Germans. Allied fighter planes escorting the aerial convoy dived down and destroyed the anti-aircraft gun that had brought “Betty” down.
Early Successes For the Airborne
The sky continued to rain paratroopers. Men from Colonel Reuben H. Tucker’s 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne, were dropped onto DZ “O” at Overasselt. E Company, 504th, landed on the south bank of the Maas River and captured the large Maas River bridge at Grave in no time, and the villages of Overasselt, Grave, Nederasselt, and Heumen fell into 504th hands with hardly any fighting. The lock bridge over the Maas-Waal Canal was also captured intact. However, German opposition here was much stronger and Tucker’s troops suffered several casualties. The Germans were able to blow the other bridges over the Maas-Waal Canal at Malden, the bridge exploded practically in the faces of the company sent to capture it. The lock bridge at Heumen, although wired for demolition, was taken before it could be blown up, but the ones at Hatert and Neerbosch were gone before the troopers reached them. South of Nijmegen the paratroopers attacked Bridge #10 (Honinghutje Bridge) across the Maas-Wall Canal. The bridge was badly damaged and was not able to carry the heavy British tanks.
Meanwhile, the paratroopers from the 1st and 3rd Battalions of William Ekman’s 505th PIR, plus the 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion and the 376th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion, descended upon DZ “N,” southwest of Groesbeek. The 2nd Battalion of the 505th and the 508th PIR both landed on DZ “T” on the Wylerbaan, northeast of Groesbeek.
It was a shooting gallery the northeastern edge of DZ “T” was almost on the Dutch-German border near Wyler, and several planes were shot down over the drop zone. The 2nd Battalion, 505th, was dropped here by mistake, got their bearings, and headed toward Groesbeek to join the rest of the regiment and meet up with the 504th at the Heumen Bridge.
The 505th sent out a strong fighting patrol into the German Reichswald, southeast of Nijmegen, where rumors told of 1,000 panzers hiding in the woods. The rumor was false and Groesbeek was taken without much opposition.
The operation seemed to be progressing nicely now, despite the failure to capture more bridges. Colonel Roy E. Lindquist’s 508th PIR marched to Beek and Ubbergen and secured these villages the high ground between Nijmegen, Beek, and Groesbeek was also secured by the 508th. Roadblocks were set up and the 376th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion emplaced their 11 75mm pack howitzers and were ready to fire on call (a 12th howitzer was destroyed during the jump due to parachute failure). Gavin’s 82nd Airborne was successful in securing its initial objectives for the operation, and defensive positions were established in the event of a German counterattack. So far so good.
Heavy Resistance at Nijmegen
Nijmegen was a different story. The bridges there were lightly protected, and there were guards on both sides of the bridges, but these men were of inferior quality. As soon as the paratroopers from Colonel Roy Lindquist’s 508th had landed on its Drop Zone “T” at Wylerbaan, 1st Battalion, 508th, marched in the direction of Nijmegen with orders to capture the Waal River bridge there. Lt. Col. Shields Warren, Jr., the battalion commander, directed Companies A and B to link up south of Nijmegen at 7:00 pm a Dutch civilian would lead the battalion to the bridge. But Company B got lost en route and, after waiting for an hour, Company A, under Captain Jon Adams, pushed on toward the bridge.
Dutch civilians began to greet the paratroopers joyously as they moved into the town, but quickly disappeared when the Germans opened fire. Slowly and carefully the troopers went forward, but came too late into the center of Nijmegen German troops from the 10th SS “Freundsberg” Panzer Division had just crossed the Waal River bridge before the 508th could get there, set up their defensive perimeter, and send a patrol into town. A deadly firefight broke out and, despite repeated attempts, the 508th, which had earned a Distinguished Unit Citation for its heroic actions during the invasion of Normandy, was unable to get close to the bridge.
Captain Adams was told by a civilian that the control mechanism for blowing the bridge was in the post office a few blocks north of the Keizer Karelplein, so Adams led a patrol that battled its way to the post office. After destroying what they believed was the mechanism, Adams and his men tried returning to their lines, only to find that they were surrounded by the enemy.
A C-47 burns in a Dutch field during Operation Market Garden. All aboard managed to escape safely.
The Germans outgunned and outmanned the lightly armed paratroops. The feared 88s and heavy machine guns were positioned in hastily dug trenches in the Hunnerpark traffic circle on the southern approach, as well as in and around the houses, and a number of homes were burned down by the Germans to create better fields of fire.
Company G approached, only to be met by a torrent of rifle, machine-gun, and anti-aircraft weapons fire. Several paratroopers were killed by a machine gun on the Keizer Karelplein, their bodies left sprawled and bleeding on the pavement. A number of other paratroopers were wounded and were taken to a makeshift first-aid station set up in the houses on the Groesbeekseweg, close to the traffic circle. Company G was stopped only some 400 yards from the bridge it could advance no farther.
Taking Back the Drop Zone
The Germans started to reinforce their positions with regular infantry troops and Luftwaffe personnel. Unable to advance due to fierce German opposition, the 508th PIR received a message from General Gavin to “withdraw from close proximity to the bridge and reorganize.”
Frustrated, the 508th could do nothing but pull out of Nijmegen, leaving the town in German hands. To make matters worse, the British airborne troops, battling for their lives in Arnhem, a mere 11 miles due north, were still cut off and no relief columns could reach them as long as Nijmegen remained under enemy control.
The 508th fell back to DZ “T,” but by then Germans troops had overrun the American position and had taken over the drop zone some 450 CG4A Waco gliders, carrying Gavin’s artillery battalions, supplies, and vehicles were scheduled to arrive at this landing zone the next day.
Fortunately, Lindquist’s 508th, thanks to the arrival of the companies that had pulled back from Nijmegen, managed to recapture the fields on the 18th––and just in time, otherwise casualties would have been devastating. Despite heavy fire from small arms and 16 20mm flak guns, Warren’s battalion formed up and charged the enemy positions just as the first gliders started to land. One of the heroes of that day was 1st Sergeant Leonard A. Funk, Jr., who led elements of Company C in a fierce counterattack that cleared LZ “T” of German infantry and anti-aircraft artillery, and allowed the landing of reinforcing glider-borne troops and artillery of the 319th, 320th, and 456th FA Battalions. For his actions, Sergeant Funk received the Distinguished Service Cross. A total of 50 Germans were killed in the battle for the DZ, another 149 captured, and all the 20mm guns were destroyed.
Unlike the night drops during the Normandy invasion, the paratroopers jumped into Holland during daylight. Here men and supplies parachute into Nijmegen.
The 508th also seized, occupied, and defended the Berg-en-Dahl hill mass, which controlled the Groesbeek-Nijmegen area. The regiment cut Highway K, an act that prevented the enemy from bringing in reserves––or escaping destruction.
That afternoon, General Browning, fearing that the British XXX Corps in Arnhem could not hold out much longer, requested that Gavin try again to take the Nijmegen bridge. The Americans drew up a plan to seize the bridge in a night assault. Before the attack could be launched, however, Browning changed his mind and called it off, preferring that the 82nd hold the high ground south of Nijmegen for the time being.
Meanwhile, confusing and contradictory reports from Dutch civilians about the composition, size, and location of German units in and around Nijmegen and the Reichswald continued to filter in to Gavin’s headquarters, to the point that no one really knew what or who they were facing.
Van hoof and the Heroic Dutch Resistance
The Dutch resistance fighters and ordinary citizens bravely did everything in their power to assist the Allies. Tom Horne of Company H, 508th PIR, remembered that he and other members of his company were digging foxholes near a church in Nijmegen when a priest and a tall young boy of about 15 in a Boy Scout uniform approached. Horne said, “The priest motioned for me to get out of the hole and give my entrenching tool to the young man. I did so and the boy dug a big, wide, deep hole for me. As I went to get into the hole, the priest motioned for me to wait and he sent the boy off on an errand. A few minutes later the boy came back with a small mattress which he put in the hole for me. By this time it was very late in the evening. After I was in the hole for a while, the priest came back pushing a wheelbarrow with a large pot in it. He came around to each trooper’s hole and served hot beef stew. These people were showing their gratitude by serving us this hot food.”
One of the Dutch resistance fighters was 22-year-old Jan van Hoof. On the night of September 18, he crept beneath the highway bridge’s structure and with his knife cut the cables that were connected to the explosives on the bridge. By cutting the cables, van Hoof saved the bridge from destruction. He then went back and guided the Americans through the maze of city streets, avoiding the German positions. He would soon pay for his heroics with his life.
A German soldier surrenders to members of the British Guards Armored Division during the drive to relieve Arnhem.
Led by van Hoof sitting on a Humber, a British scout car, American tanks and halftracks were creeping through the streets with paratroopers riding the tanks soon the Shermans and armored cars came under fire from the feared 88s. The Humber raced toward the railroad bridge. In the scout car were an American paratrooper and the two-man British crew. A German antitank gun destroyed the car, wounding van Hoof and killing the others. Several Germans approached the smoldering Humber and, seeing van Hoof still alive, shot him in the head.
During a lull in the fighting, the four men were buried by Dutch civilians in the garden of a house at the corner of Lange Hezelstraat-Kronenburgersingel Nijmegen––about 60 yards from the railroad bridge. (After the war, a statue honoring Jan van Hoof was erected on the traffic circle next to the Hunnerpark. An official investigation into van Hoof’s role in saving the bridge was held. Both Dutch and American reports give Jan credit for his part in the capture of the bridge, although there were several doubters. By Royal Decree, Jan was posthumously awarded the Militaire Willemsorde, fourth class, the highest Dutch military award.)
Preparing to Cross the Waal River
On the morning of Tuesday, September 19, 1944, the first reconnaissance vehicles from the Household Cavalry arrived in the 82nd’s perimeter at Nijmegen, soon to be followed by Sherman tanks, Bren carriers, half-tracks, and other armored vehicles. Because XXX Corps had to fight a series of ambushes and running gun battles along “Hell’s Highway,” as Route 69, the narrow road between Eindhoven and Arnhem, came to be called, and experienced a long delay at Son caused by a bridge demolition–they were more than 30 hours behind schedule.
General Gavin and General Brian Horrocks, commanding the British ground column, met in Malden to discuss plans for getting across the Waal River as soon as possible. Gavin said he intended to send Lt. Col. Ben Vandervoort’s 2nd Battalion, 505th PIR, against the south end of the bridge while sending Tucker’s 504th PIR across in boats the next day to capture the north end. The only problem was, Gavin had no boats. Fortunately, the British had collapsible wood-and-canvas boats in their engineer train many miles back and offered them to Gavin.
The British lorries carrying these boats were sent to Nijmegen with top priority. It was expected that they would arrive during the night of September 19/20, but the boats did not arrive in the 82nd’s sector in time and the crossing had to be postponed. In addition, 2nd Platoon, B Company, 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion, under command of Lieutenant Adrian J. Finlayson, was ordered to collect any boats he could find on the Maas-Waal Canal. In several “sweeps,” the platoon gathered some 27 rowboats of all kinds, but they were never used during the Waal River crossing.
While waiting for the British boats, Gavin ordered Vandervoort’s men, supported by British armor, to attack the south end of the bridge. Repeated attempts resulted in repeated failures and mounting casualties. Intelligence reports estimated that some 500 SS men, backed by artillery, mortars, and anti-aircraft guns, controlled the highway bridge and the accesses toward it.
An up-gunned Sherman “Firefly” tank of the Irish Guards rolls past three other tanks knocked out during Operation Market-Garden on September 17, 1944.
Reinforcements were needed. The weather in Holland was good. The weather in England, however, was bad, with low-hanging clouds and fog preventing the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment from taking off and reinforcing the 82nd. (The 325th would not arrive in Holland until September 23.) The Germans had no trouble reinforcing their positions, however, and soon the Reichswald was bulging with troops, armor, and artillery.
On the morning of September 20, 1944, General Gavin climbed into his jeep and drove off toward the power station when his jeep was suddenly fired upon by German soldiers. The driver quickly turned the jeep around, while General Gavin fired back with his M-1. The jeep raced back to the 504th positions in the Jonkerbosch area in southern Nijmegen. Exasperated with the delays (the British boats still hadn’t arrived) and the stubborn German resistance, Gavin ordered Tucker to clear the area of enemy troops in preparation for the river crossing. H-hour was set for 3:00 pm.
The paratroopers of Major Julian Cook’s 3rd Battalion, 504th, set off, escorted by British Sherman tanks from the Irish Guards that would provide cover for the crossing. The tanks of the 2nd and 3rd Squadrons took up positions behind a dike near the power plant and started to lay down a smoke screen British artillery positioned in Malden would fire their 25-pounders to support the crossing. Eight British Typhoon fighters from 247 Squadron, 83 Group (2nd Tactical Air Force, RAF) flew over and strafed the north bank. The wind blew away the smoke screen.
The First Wave: Buriss’s Charge
Finally, at approximately 2:30 pm, the trucks carrying the boats arrived and were unloaded near the power station. The 307th Engineers from C Company, who were to pilot the boats across the river, were stunned. They had never seen boats like these, let alone rowed anything like them. The boats––26 in all––were folding boats, 19 feet long, with plywood bottoms, canvas sides, and wooden struts to hold up the sides. There were hardly any oars, and there was no time to train in using them.
The Germans noticed the activity around the power station and started to rake the area with artillery fire. While under intense fire, the boats were carried over the dike and lowered into the river, but some of the boats––and men––got stuck in the mud. In spite of exploding shells, whizzing bullets, and flying shrapnel, the paratroopers had to get out of their boats and carry them farther into the river, which was approximately 460 feet wide at this point, with a swift current. The men had to paddle using their rifle butts as oars, ducking between strokes as the air was filled with small arms fire, heavy machine-gun fire, mortar, Nebelwerfer, and artillery fire.
The crossing was made in several waves. Each boat carried 13 paratroopers and a crew of three engineers. The first wave was launched at 2:57 pm and consisted of troopers from 3rd Battalion, 504th: Staff, H Company (Captain Carl W. Kappel), I Company (Captain T. Moffatt Burriss), and forward observer teams from the 376th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion whose guns were positioned on the west bank of the Maas-Waal Canal. Due to their heavy equipment, several 376th observers had to stand up, exposed, in the boats.
A Sherman tank of the 47th/7th Dragoon Guards passes a knocked-out German PzKpfw III in Oosterhout near Nijmegen, September 27, 1944. Narrow roads such as this hampered Allied efforts to reinforce the heads of Nijmegen bridge.
The men rowed as fast as they could but they couldn’t out-row the sheets of deadly metal being flung at them. Men were wounded or killed, and boats were blown out of the water. The canvas sides offered no protection for the frantic men, and the punctured boats began to fill with water. Helmets were used for bailing and handkerchiefs were stuffed into bullet holes. Some of the men exited their sinking boats and swam the remainder of the way.
Exhausted, the survivors of Burriss’s I Company reached the north bank, jumped out of the boats, took cover, and tried to catch their breath and gather their courage before pushing on. The men had to run across a 1,200-foot-wide field to reach the 20-foot-high dike. About halfway across the field was a shallow ditch, which gave some protection.
Ordering his men to fix bayonets, Burriss charged up the dike, showing no mercy. I Company threw hand grenades into the German positions and shot every German
who came in sight. No prisoners were taken at first. The men then moved through the fields, some heading for the railroad bridge and others toward Hof van Holland, an old Dutch fortress with a moat around it and German machine guns and anti-aircraft guns in its towers.
Captain Harris and the Second Wave
While Burriss’s men were battling their way northward, the second wave was preparing to cross. Only 11 boats were available for the second wave, the others having been destroyed or abandoned on the north bank when there were not enough engineers to return them. The remaining engineers rowed these 11 boats back to the Nijmegen side to pick up more paratroopers.
The 2nd wave started across at 3:15 pm with troopers from G Company (Captain Fred E. Thomas), 3rd Battalion, and 1st Battalion, 504th (Captain W.S. Burkholder). One boat consisted only of engineers under command of 1st Lieutenant John A. Holabird, Jr., whose task was to fulfill the engineer role: remove/lay mines, remove explosives and obstacles, etc., on the far side of the Waal.
American and British artillery and tank fire covered the crossing. Second Battalion, 504th, also tried to suppress the enemy with rifle and heavy machine-gun and mortar fire.
Although the boats continued to be hit by deadly fire, the diminishing number of engineers from C Company, 307th, never faltered, rowing time and again back and forth to pick up and deliver the remainder of Major Willard E. Harrison’s 1st Battalion, 504th. Wounded paratroopers were returned to the south bank and received medical attention at an aid station set up in the power plant. With only nine boats still available, the sixth and final crossing took place at 7:00 pm.
One of those who risked his life to ferry the paratroopers across the Waal was Captain Wesley D. Harris, commander of Company C, 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion. For his heroism, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. The citation for the medal reads, in part: “Captain Harris, while under heavy enemy fire, personally directed the loading and movement of assault boats which enabled the 504th Parachute Infantry to successfully cross the Waal River and establish the vital Nijmegen bridgehead.
“Crossing the river in the face of heavy enemy machine gun, 20-mm, and artillery fire in one of the first assault boats of the initial assault wave, Captain Harris was painfully wounded in the back and arm but continued to supervise the movement and unloading of the boats. After returning to the south bank of the river he refused medical evacuation but effected rapid and thorough reorganization of the remaining boats and engineer personnel for the crossing of the second wave. While leading the second wave, a pontoon near his boat was hit by enemy fire and capsized, but Captain Harris plunged into the river and, despite his wounded condition, assisted three men to other boats. Captain Harris then returned to the south bank and while supervising loading of the third wave, fainted for the loss of blood.”
The greater part of 3rd Battalion, 504th, on the north side of the river, bypassed the fortress and set their sights on the railroad bridge. Two pillboxes near the railroad tracks were destroyed, and the north end of the railroad bridge was captured and secured.
A German counterattack, supported by 20mm self-propelled guns, was beaten back by the paratroopers. Several prisoners were taken and locked inside a chamber of the railroad bridge, while the fortress was captured by a platoon from H Company.
Jack Dube’s Shrapnel Wounds
Meanwhile, small groups from both H and I Companies were attacking the north end of the railroad bridge and spraying Browning Automatic Rifle fire while awaiting reinforcements. Elements from these two companies were also fighting their way toward the north end of the still-intact highway bridge.
Lieutenant Jack Dube, Company G, 508th PIR, had crept to within a few blocks of the bridge when his unit was stopped by heavy machine-gun and 88mm fire and fought back with a bazooka, 60mm mortar, and rifles. “We were soon pinned down and fragmented as an effective combat unit,” he said. “I was kneeling behind shrubs in the yard of a structure I thought was a dental or medical office building. Several shell bursts near my location restricted my movement.
An advancing American paratrooper narrowly escapes an exploding round from a German 88mm gun.
“A shell hit the building behind me and shrapnel from that explosion hit me in the back of the head, left shoulder, and left forearm. The shrapnel had penetrated through my helmet and helmet liner, leaving a jagged three-inch hole. A medic applied sulfa powder to my gaping and profusely bleeding head wound. Continued enemy shelling completely dispersed our small group, and I soon found myself alone with no weapon, and much confusion due to my injury. Weakness, dizziness, and disorientation convinced me to seek cover and medical assistance.”
Dube was taken to a hospital, which he said was soon was hit by incendiaries and set on fire. He was then evacuated by members of the Dutch underground and carried to the basement of a private home where he remained for three or four days before being taken to a U.S. Army field hospital near Nijmegen.
Rolling Across the Bridge
At the south end of the span in Nijmegen, Vandervoort’s battalion, reinforced by British tanks and infantrymen, was closing in on the structure. Several tanks were knocked out but paratroopers fought their way from house to house, from rooftop to rooftop, battling their way toward the highway bridge.
The SS troops in the park started to run for the bridge, leaving behind their dead and wounded. (In a later stage of the operation, the Germans were buried in mass graves in several Nijmegen cemeteries some 123 dead Germans were buried in a special plot of the temporary American Molenhoek cemetery, south of Nijmegen.)
German resistance finally was overcome at the south/Nijmegen end of the bridge. Now, with both ends in Allied hands, Major Cook requested tanks. He sent a message that read, “Cook has the dike and the guns. Can you run a tank down the bridge to help them out?”
Four Shermans from the Guards Armoured Division, under command of Sergeant Peter Robinson, obliged. When the signal was given, the tanks raced across the bridge, blasting away with their machine guns and 75mm main guns. They managed to destroy an 88mm antitank gun north of the bridge another 88 fired on one of the tanks, disabling it. When the tanks were midway across the bridge, the Germans tried to blow the structure. Nothing happened (perhaps thanks to Jan van Hoof’s heroic activity?), and the tanks reached the paratroopers in Lent. There were still a few Germans on the bridge, but their resistance was soon overcome and the bridge was declared secure at 7:10 pm on September 20.
Cromwell tanks of the 2nd Welsh Guards cross Nijmegen bridge, September 21, 1944.
The price for the bridge was high the 504th lost 24 men killed and some 70 seriously wounded in the river crossing and the attack on both bridges. In the battle for the railroad bridge, a total of 267 dead Germans were counted and a little more than 200 Germans were captured. Much of the city of Nijmegen was destroyed during the five days of fighting.
Gavin later wrote, “The [Dutch] underground played a major part in getting this done and they deserve a lion’s share of the credit for saving the big bridge at Nijmegen.” But the fighting was far from over.
An area of about a mile north of the bridge was cleared by the paratroopers, but the tankers refused to go on toward Arnhem to relieve the beleaguered British and Polish airborne troops Dutch intelligence had sent a message with information that three Tiger tanks, several antitank guns, and supporting German infantry were on their way to Lent. The paratroopers and British tankers at Lent dug in for the night. During the night, the last wounded were evacuated from the north bank and taken to field hospitals in Nijmegen.
Fighting at Mook and Beek
At the time of the river crossing, paratroopers of the other battalions of the 505th had a hard fight at Mook. General Gavin left the power station at Nijmegen, mounted his jeep, and raced to Mook, where he personally took command of the 505th’s defense.
At Beek, about two miles southeast of Nijmegen, paratroopers from the 508th and D Company, 307th Engineers, succeeded in stopping several German attempts to take back the Waal River bridge. Heavy fighting took place in Wyler and Beek, the latter village changing hands several times.
Harry Roll, Company H, 508th PIR,was one of those fighting in Beek. Launching a night assault from Berg-en-Dahl, Company H was raked by machine-gun fire coming from the cupola of a house. “I dove for a ditch,” said Roll, “and snuggled as low as I could. I took a shoulder hit that only skinned and burned, but to my surprise, Captain Toth, our CO, stood just above me in the middle of the road and called for Moon and Tucker to get that bazooka up front. Toth told them to hit the shutters on the cupola. A direct hit silenced that machine gun, allowing us to proceed down through the streets into Beek.”
After the order to pull back was given, Roll went over to the foxhole of a buddy, Cecil Bledsoe, to give him the word, only to find Bledsoe shot through the head. “The sniper fire of the German was well placed despite the darkness,” Roll said.
Soldiers of the 82nd Airborne unload their wrecked glider after a controlled crash in a Dutch field at the opening of Market-Garden.
Tom Horne, Company H, said that his company was involved in a “heated skirmish” with the Germans in the streets of Beek. “They were throwing grenades and firing from everywhere. I was in a kneeling position firing my rifle at them when I got hit and knocked flat on my back. Harry Roll was behind me and he said I was hit in the mid-section because blood was coming out of my back. A few moments later I figured out that I was hit in the base of my neck. I’m pretty sure I was hit by a burst from a machine gun because the woodwork on my rifle was also busted up. This ended my tour in the Holland campaign. Hospital life was more to my liking.”
Sergeant Ralph Busson was another Company H paratrooper at Beek. He remembered that it was so dark during the night attack, “we had to hold onto each other. All hell broke loose as we got into the center of town. After about 20 minutes of fighting, things quieted down. We pulled back out of town to the hill above it. The next morning we found out that the Germans were still there, so we called for an artillery barrage. H Company was to attack and take the town.
“As we were going down a small alley with eight men, a German machine gun opened up the gunner got five out of the eight. Frank Shimko, R.J. Brown, and I managed to duck into a small building. About 100 yards down the street, I saw a German sticking his head out of a window. It took me one shot to get him. Throwing all of our grenades down the street, we must have gotten their machine gun, too, because it stopped firing. Then we got orders to withdraw. The next day H Company took the town without firing a shot.”
Another Company H trooper, Ollie W. Griffin, recalled the loss of two buddies at Beek. When the company returned to the town on September 20 after pulling out the night before, they jumped into the same slit trenches they had dug on the 19th the Germans were waiting for them. “There must have been several snipers looking right down on us,” Griffin said. “Sergeant Curtis Sides was in a hole about 10 feet from mine. Bill Kurzawski was in another one about ten feet in front of Sides. The first shot hit Kurzawski in the head, killing him. The next shot hit Sides’ rifle, ruining it.
“He turned to me and said he couldn’t use his rifle. I said to get down but I should have said ‘Let’s move.’ Almost immediately the next shot hit Sides in the head and killed him.”
Griffin got out of the killing zone as fast as he could with bullets following him, and ended up in a small woods. A few minutes later he was joined by Frank Bagdonas. “We found a place a little up the hill with a good view of Beek,” Griffin said. “We were observing the closest house when out the door walked a tall German soldier. He acted like no one was within a hundred miles I guess he thought we all took off for Berg-en-Dahl. Frank and I decided to aim, count to three, and both shoot. We did and he went down.”
John Towle’s Medal of Honor
During the fierce fighting for Wyler and Beek, the 508th captured 483 prisoners, but the regiment suffered heavily: 139 killed, 479 wounded, and 178 missing. On the morning of September 21, German tanks approached the American lines in the western part of the Waal bridgehead. Bazooka gunner Private John Towle, C Company, 504th, managed to disable the panzers on the Oosterhoutsedijk. The remaining tanks were pulled back and the German attack was stopped, but Towle was wounded by shrapnel from enemy mortar fire and died on the spot. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
His citation reads, “The rifle company in which Private Towle served as rocket launcher gunner was occupying a defensive position in the west sector of the recently established Nijmegen bridgehead when a strong enemy force of approximately 100 infantry, supported by two tanks and a half-track, formed for a counterattack.
“With full knowledge of the disastrous consequences resulting not only to his company but to the entire bridgehead by an enemy breakthrough, Private Towle immediately and without orders left his foxhole and moved 200 yards in the face of intense small-arms fire to a position on an exposed dike roadbed.
“From this precarious position Private Towle fired his rocket launcher at and hit both tanks to his immediate front. Armored skirting on both tanks prevented penetration by the projectiles, but both vehicles withdrew, slightly damaged. Still under intense fire and fully exposed to the enemy, Private Towle then engaged a nearby house which nine Germans had entered and were using as a strongpoint and with one round killed all nine.
“Hurriedly replenishing his supply of ammunition, Private Towle, motivated only by his high conception of duty which called for the destruction of the enemy at any cost, then rushed approximately 125 yards through grazing enemy fire to an exposed position from which he could engage the enemy half-track with his rocket launcher.
“While in a kneeling position preparatory to firing on the enemy vehicle, Private Towle was mortally wounded by a mortar shell. By his heroic tenacity, at the price of his life, Private Towle saved the lives of many of his comrades and was directly instrumental in breaking up the enemy counterattack.”
Of such men was Tucker’s regiment made. His battered 504th PIR was relieved by the British 43rd Infantry Division on the 21st and marched back across the bridge toward Nijmegen. There they boarded DUWKS and were taken to positions halfway between Nijmegen and Groesbeek to briefly rest and recuperate.
The High Cost of Operation Market-Garden
Some men of the 504th had been unhappy that the regiment had been left out of the Operation Overlord fighting in Normandy the battle for Nijmegen more than made up for it.
Although the fight for Nijmegen and the effort to capture the bridges intact was successfully concluded, the same cannot be said for the rest of Operation Market-Gar- den. Allied forces were never able to reach the elements of the British 1st Airborne Division surrounded in Arnhem, and so the entire operation stalled. Eighty-one British paras died trying to take the city and its vital bridge, and hundreds more were captured.
The toll for Market-Garden was high. From September 17 to the 25th, the British Airborne Corps lost 7,212 men killed, wounded, and missing. The 82nd lost a total of 1,432 and the 101st Airborne had 2,110 casualties. The 1st Polish Parachute Brigade, which took part in the battle of Driel, lost 378. Among the aerial forces, 122 American glider pilots were killed, wounded, or missing, while the American and British air transports lost 596 crew- men and 144 planes. British XXX Corps lost 1,420 men, as well as 70 tanks.
The Waal River highway bridge and the ruins of Nijmegen, shown after the battle.
In the end, it was Field Marshal Montgomery on whose shoulders must rest the responsibility for the conception—and ultimate failure––of Market-Garden. The failure of the operation, which Monty blamed on bad weather, not only caused the loss of so many brave troops but delayed the Allies’ major thrust into Germany that Market-Garden was sup- posed to have facilitated and thus pro- longed the war.
A lot of good detail and easy to read. However, the summary only gives allied casualties but no German casualty figures or prisoners. You conclude that it was a decisive failure, whereas I would argue that it was mainly successful. Far from prolonging the war, it drew in the German reserves which enabled Patton’s thrust to be even more successful.
WW2 German Panzer Tanks
The German Panzer line began in the pre-war years with the machine gun-armed Panzer I which was slightly improved with the stopgap, cannon-armed Panzer II. While sufficient in fighting lesser foes, the types were not equipped to combat stouter enemy armor directly, leading to the Panzer III and Panzer IV medium-class tanks - the former to be utilized to counter enemy tanks while the latter was intended as an infantry support vehicle. In time, both saw extended service use as their chassis were reconstituted for other battlefield roles by the Germans.The Panzer IV saw particular upgrading through new main guns and additional armor protection and was the most-produced Panzer model of them all.
The Panzer V medium tank - or 'Panther' - is oft-regarded as Germany's best all-around tank of the war with its potent mix of armor, armament, mobility, and production reach. The Tiger I heavy tank brought an all-new level of lethality against Allied tanker crews and infantry requiring particular attention in any given engagement. The Panzer line then culminated with the introduction of the Tiger II, or "King Tiger". This model was a much-feared monster limited only by production, logistical, and mechanical issues towards the end of the war.
There are a total of [ 9 ] WW2 German Panzer Tanks entries in the Military Factory. Entries are listed below in alphanumeric order (1-to-Z). Flag images indicative of country of origin and not necessarily primary operator.
Panzer I Ausf.C specifications
The Panzer I Ausf F had additional protective armour: the front armour was now 80 mm thick. It was intended to be used against fortified strongpoints and have a weight limit of 18 tonnes so that it could safely drive over army engineers combat bridges. In September 1942 seven were reported as being used on the Eastern Front, near Leningrad. Five more were sent in January 1943. An additional 11 were sent to the Eastern Front with two other units between Aug – Nov 1943. One is preserved at the Kubinka museum, another in Belgrade.
Panzer I Ausf.F light tank of the 1st Panzer Division at Kursk
The attack begins
On 10 May the Luftwaffe began attacking France, Belgium and Holland, concentrating particularly on the latter. The Germans also dropped airborne assault troops from Junkers 52 transporters, a novel tactic in warfare. They seized strategic points in eastern Belgium and landed deep within Holland.
As hoped, this drew the French troops and BEF into the northern half of Belgium and towards Holland. To compound things, they were slowed in their reaction by the mass of refugees travelling in the opposite direction – it is thought that 8,000,000 deserted their homes in France and the Low Countries over the summer.
German troops move through Rotterdam, May 1940.
Meanwhile, over the course of 11 May, German tanks, infantry and supporting equipment protected overhead by Messerschmidts streamed through Luxembourg under the cloak of the Ardennes forests. The priority placed on the Panzer Divisions facilitated the speed and aggression of the German advance.
This was barely halted by the demolition of bridges as the French retreated, due to the speed with which advanced German bridging companies could build pontoon replacements.
A German pontoon bridge over the Meuse near Sedan, where they would win a decisive battle. May 1940.
The 291st Engineer Combat Battalion
It was almost sundown near the village of Neucy, Belgium. A thick fog had settled over the ground, worsening the already poor twilight visibility. SS Lieutenant Colonel Joachim Peiper squinted down the road, past the lead tanks of his panzer column and towards the Neufmoulin Bridge, a small wooden structure barely discernable in the haze. The bridge spanned a creek and carried the road into the village of Habiemont.
Standing tall in the cupola of his tank, Peiper peered through his binoculars and looked again towards the bridge, where he noticed several fog-obscured figures scrambling across the bridge to the opposite bank. The column’s lead panzer opened fire on them with its hull-mounted machine gun. A few other tanks followed suit and, within seconds, the whole front of the panzer column was blazing away at the area around the bridge. Several of the figures ran off of the bridge and faded into the fog just as an 88mm high-explosive round detonated, kicking up dirt, grass, rocks, and shrapnel.
Lieutenant Colonel David Pergrin was twenty six years old when he assumed command of the battalion before shipping out of Camp Swift, Texas for Europe in 1943. (National Archives)
Peiper could not help but grin the only resistance between his armored vanguard and Habiemont was a small group of American infantry cowering before the panzers’ firepower. His elation was soon interrupted, however, by a deafening blast that knocked the binoculars out of his hand. When he lifted them again, he could scarcely believe what he saw. Where before there had been a small bridge across the creek, representing the only way the panzers would be able to continue the advance towards the Meuse River, there was now only a mass of smoke and splinters. As he surveyed the demolished bridge, he could hear falling debris hitting the turrets of his lead tanks. The Americans had blown the bridge. What Peiper had thought was just a squad of infantry was a team of engineers charged with cutting off the advance of his armored spearhead. With his movement halted, all Peiper could do was slam his fist on his tank and yell, “The damned engineers! The damned engineers!”
The “damned engineers” who halted Peiper’s column on the evening of 18 December 1944 were soldiers of the 291st Engineer Combat Battalion. The demolition of the bridge at Habiemont was but one of many important actions performed by the 291st in the European Theater of Operations during World War II. The battalion was consistently at the fore of the U.S. Army’s campaign to defeat Nazi Germany, from Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge and into the German heartland itself.
The 291st Engineer Combat Battalion’s distinguished unit insignia contains the scarlet and white colors of the Corps of Engineers. The rampant lion on the top right is from the coat of arms of Bavaria symbolizing the unit’s final campaign during World War II. The lion on the bottom left is the symbol of Normandy representing the battalion’s participation in the Normandy campaign. (Institute of Heraldry)
The battalion began as one of the many units organized to bolster the United States Army in the months following the nation’s entry into World War II. Constituted on 19 December 1942 as 2d Battalion, 82d Engineer Combat Regiment, it was activated on 25 January 1943 at Camp Swift, Texas. Two months later, the battalion was reorganized and redesignated on 29 March 1943 as the 291st Engineer Combat Battalion. After a one-month training session at the Louisiana Maneuver Area from 26 July to 26 August 1943, the battalion returned to Camp Swift for a couple of weeks before receiving orders to Camp Myles Standish, Massachusetts, on 11 October 1943. From there, the 291st made the short trip to Boston Harbor, embarked on a troop transport, and arrived in England on 18 October.
The men who comprised the 291st came from a diverse array of backgrounds that was later recalled by the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel David E. Pergrin:
“We had among our six hundred men and thirty-two officers born gentlemen and youngsters from the wrong side of every situation society fostered…we had eightballs, oddballs, and screwballs whose mission in life was to stretch the credulity and leadership skills of their appointed overseers to unimagined limits of tolerance. We had strong men, weak men, rough men, and soft men. The Army had put them in uniform, called them ‘soldiers,’ scrambled them together, and unloaded them on my doorstep.”
In addition to their diverse backgrounds, the enlisted men of the 291st were remarkably young, with an average age of just nineteen. This youthfulness was embodied in the battalion’s leader. Pergrin had graduated from Pennsylvania State University’s Reserve Officer Training Corps program in 1940 in 1943, at the age of twenty-six, he assumed command of the 291st. Despite their collective youth, the wartime performance of the 291st and the leadership of Pergrin proved to be of the highest quality.
After months of training in England, the engineers of the 291st received their first combat assignment a couple of weeks after D-Day. On 24 June 1944, the 291st sailed across the English Channel to France, where their mission was to maintain the military supply route (MSR) between the Norman towns of Carentan and St. Mère-Église. This route was the only hard-surfaced road connecting Utah and Omaha Beaches and served as a vital logistical artery in the Allies’ campaign to break out of northern France and drive the Germans eastward.
Obersturmbannführer (Lieutenant Colonel) Joachim Peiper was in command of Kampfgruppe Peiper of the 1st SS Panzer Division (Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler) during the Battle of the Bulge. Engineers from the 291st demolished a bridge near Habiemont, Belgium, on 18 December 1944, delaying the advance of Peiper’s column. Peiper was later charged for war crimes involving the execution of American prisoners near Malmédy, Belgium, during the Bulge. (National Archives)
The 291st spent the following months supporting First Army in its campaign through France and arrived in Belgium on 17 September 1944, just as the Allied summer offensive was winding down. Here they built bridges and conducted maintenance on First Army’s rapidly lengthening MSR. The 291st moved into Luxembourg on 24 September to do more of the same work before returning to Belgium on 29 September. For the next couple of weeks, the battalion moved from town to town within Belgium, performing low-intensity engineering tasks while waiting for the Allied offensive to resume. During this lull in the action, Pergrin’s battalion built several bridges in Belgian towns such as Berledang, Salmchateau, and Trois-Ponts. These structures would later be of great significance in what later became known as the Battle of the Bulge.
The Allied offensive resumed in November, and soon the men of the 291st were once again supporting First Army’s advance. After achieving some initial success, the Allied offensive ground to a halt. For much of the next month, there was little fighting along the front, and some units, including newly arrived “green” divisions and others needing rest and refit after being mauled in the Hürtgen Forest, manned a quiet sector in the Ardennes.
In the early morning hours of 16 December 1944, German forces launched a surprise offensive in the Ardennes Forest. At 0530, the predawn stillness erupted in a massive artillery barrage that heralded the advance of General Joseph “Sepp” Dietrich’s Sixth Panzer Army towards the unsuspecting, thinly-held American lines. The Battle of the Bulge had begun. Panzers and accompanying infantry took the Allies completely by surprise, routing and cutting off entire divisions. Additionally, bad weather left the Americans unable to rely on their vaunted air power. As the Allied command attempted to organize a defense, Pergrin was put in charge of holding the Belgian town of Malmédy, which featured a road network vital to the German assault. He promptly ordered a dozen roadblocks to be set up and defended by soldiers of the various engineer units under his command.
As civilians and American combat units retreated west through Malmédy, the soldiers of the 291st and other engineer units holding the town realized that they would be left virtually alone with few heavy weapons to hold the line against the might of German panzers. Despite Pergrin’s increasingly desperate attempts to enlist the aid of better-armed American units moving through Malmédy, no one wanted to stay and fight. Pergrin remembered the following:
The 291st located the remains of American prisoners killed in December near Malmédy, on 13 January 1945. (National Archives)
It naturally dawned on me that the manpower and weapons I needed were slipping westward through our lines, so I tried to convince passing units to throw in with us. I failed miserably. I was not able to convince officers of routinely transiting elements of the 7th Armored Division to commit even modest combat resources to the defense of Malmédy…that I could elicit no aid was stupefying…There was no one left in Malmédy except diehard civilians and my own valiant engineers.
On 17 December, the second day of the German offensive, the Allied lines remained in flux as more and more American units retreated ahead of the panzers. At around 1200, yet another group of American troops passed through Malmédy: a convoy carrying Battery B, 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion. Despite Pergrin’s request that Battery B join his engineers in the defense of Malmédy, the battery’s officers insisted upon following their original orders to link up with the 7th Armored Division at St. Vith. Frustrated, Pergrin watched as the convoy departed.
Later that day, after Pergrin received reports of a German armored column advancing towards the town, heavy fire was heard down the road to the east. The officers of the 291st concluded that the artillerymen’s convoy from earlier must have run into the enemy column. Pergrin tried organizing a patrol to investigate the fighting, but soon discovered that every officer and noncommissioned officer under his command was busy establishing roadblock defenses. In the end, Pergrin grabbed the only unoccupied soldier he could find, Sergeant Bill Crickenberger, his interpreter, and organized a two-man patrol. The men each grabbed a Thompson submachine gun, got into a Jeep, and set off down N-23, the road running southeast out of Malmédy. After talking with engineers manning a roadblock on this road, Pergrin and Crickenberger parked their Jeep and continued on foot toward a juncture named Five Points, after the five roads that run through it. Looking down on the juncture from the top of a nearby hill, the two men could see the evidence of a recent fight. Turning their attention to the snow-covered pasture in front of them, they were surprised to see figures running toward them. As Pergrin later remembered:
We were within twenty-five yards of the tree line when three uniformed figures broke through the trees into the pasture. All three were covered with mud and in a disheveled state. We could not immediately identify them by nationality, so we leveled our lethal .45 caliber Thompsons and prepared to open fire. At the last instant, I saw that one of the men had U.S. Army sergeant’s stripes sewn on to the sleeve of his jacket. I raised my weapon and yelled, ‘They’re ours!’
The three men encountered by Pergrin and Crickenberger were survivors of one of the most infamous atrocities committed on Allied prisoners of war during World War II. Battery B, 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion, had encountered the advancing German column made up of armored vehicles from SS-Lieutenant Colonel Joachim Peiper’s elite Kampfgruppe, a spearhead element of the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler. The firefight that ensued was brief and lopsided over eighty Americans surrendered to the men of the SS. Instead of marching the prisoners to the rear, however, the Germans assembled them in the field near Five Points and fired on them with machine guns. Most were killed, but a small number escaped. The three men Pergrin found were simply the first of a handful of survivors who straggled into Malmédy throughout the day on 17 December. This atrocity, though not taking place within the town itself, has become known as the Malmédy Massacre.
Men from the 291st examine the wreckage of an abandoned German tank of Kampfgruppe Peiper outside of Geromont, Belgium, during the Allied counteroffensive in January 1945. (National Archives
The ensuing days saw Peiper’s tanks repeatedly frustrated as engineer units such as the 291st foiled their attempts to capture bridge crossings and road junctures in order to continue the German assault westward. Malmédy was a particularly bothersome thorn in Peiper’s side, as the 291st, with the help of elements of other units, held the town for the duration of the Battle of the Bulge. For this stubborn defense under the harshest of circumstances, the 291st Engineer Combat Battalion was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation.
Eventually, the German offensive faltered. The Allies regained the momentum and launched a counteroffensive intended to break through into Germany itself. The 291st played an active role in supporting the Allied advance and First Army. On 8 February 1945, the 291st entered Germany.
Although the Allies had crossed the border and entered Germany, they now faced a major obstacle: the mighty Rhine River, the last line of defense before the German heartland. The river’s crossing points were fiercely guarded by the Wehrmacht. One such crossing was at the town of Remagen, where the Ludendorff Bridge spanned the river and ended at the village of Erpel. One of the major crossing points of the Rhine, the Ludendorff Bridge, was the site of intense fighting. Because of the stiff German resistance, as well as an unsuccessful demolition attempt by Wehrmacht engineers that had nonetheless badly damaged the bridge, the American commanders decided not to wait for the Ludendorff Bridge to be secured before moving men and equipment to the eastern bank of the Rhine.
American engineers soon received orders to construct a new bridge across the Rhine. As this order made its way down the chain of command, Colonel H. Wallis Anderson, commanding officer of the 1111th Engineer Combat Group, directed the 291st Engineer Combat Battalion to construct the bridge, which was to be an M2 steel treadway bridge capable of sustaining the width and weight of tanks and other heavy vehicles. Pergrin, though initially dumbstruck by the “enormity” of the task laid before him, got his battalion to work immediately. The 291st, with the help of a platoon of the 299th Engineer Combat Battalion and the 988th and 998th Treadway Bridge Companies, began construction at 0830 on 9 March 1945. The fanatical determination of the Germans to destroy the bridge was evident in the volume and intensity of fire received by the engineers as they struggled to span the river. The 291st and its fellow engineering units suffered numerous casualties and significant damage to their equipment, all as a result of constant German artillery barrages, occasional strafing by Luftwaffe aircraft, and even one incident where panzer units in Erpel laid down direct fire on the engineers and their construction site. Despite all these obstacles, Pergrin and his engineers completed the bridge, touching down on the east bank of the Rhine at 1710 hours on 10 March 1945, just under thirty-six hours after initial construction began. It was the first Allied bridge built across the Rhine, and remains the longest tactical bridge of its type ever assembled under enemy fire. Once again, the 291st Engineer Combat Battalion had greatly contributed to the success of the Allies against the Germans.
Lieutenant Colonel Pergrin (center) and several officers of the 291st stand in front of the completed treadway bridge over the Rhine River near Remagen, Germany, on 10 March 1945. The treadway bridge served as an alternative to the unstable Ludendorff railroad bridge, that was under constant attack by German artillery and the Luftwaffe. (National Archives)
The last bridging assignment given to the 291st came after the battalion moved into Bavaria. Along with the 324th Engineer Combat Battalion, the 291st was charged with bridging the Danube River at Heinhelm and began construction on 27 April 1945. Despite sporadic German artillery fire, the engineers completed the bridge shortly before nightfall on 28 April.
Not long after, the war in Europe came to a close on 8 May 1945. The 291st remained in Germany with the occupation forces until 9 September 1945, at which point they were transferred to Camp Miami in Mailly, France. After boarding the SS St. Alban’s Victory on 11 October, the 291st arrived at Hampton Roads, Virginia, on 20 October. On the same day it arrived in the United States, the battalion was sent to Camp Patrick Henry, Virginia, where it was inactivated. The 291st was briefly activated once more, this time as a Kentucky National Guard unit, on 21 May 1947. After just three years, however, on 30 June 1950, the 291st Engineer Combat Battalion was finally inactivated and has remained inactive since. The deeds of the 291st’s men, however, will live on, forever recognized for their contributions that helped defeat Nazi Germany and win World War II.
More Than Hitler's Panzer Tanks Wrecked Havoc Upon Russia In World War II
Although the Poles outnumbered the Germans, the Germans had more combat experience and were buffered by paramilitary Freikorps. Leading a counterattack, Strachwitz fought off eight Polish companies and retook his ancestral castle. The fighting climaxed on May 21, 1921, with the iconic Battle of Annaberg. While the bulk of the German forces under Generals Karl Hofer and Bernhard von Hulsen
Upon his return to Gross Stein castle, Strachwitz found more strife in his homeland. Upper attacked the Polish-held mountain from the front, Strachwitz led his men around to the rear. Strachwitz forced the Poles on the summit to surrender after a short but violent fight. In the ensuing battles, Strachwitz captured an artillery battery and turned the guns against the fleeing Poles. The conflict was finally settled in 1922 with Germany retaining the western two thirds of Upper Silesia while the industrial eastern third was ceded to Poland. Strachwitz received the Silesian Order of the Eagle, both second and first class.
During the interwar years, Strachwitz moved his growing family to Alt Siedel manor. He educated himself in forest management and modern methods of agriculture. In 1931 Strachwitz joined the Nazi Party, reckoning that doing so would benefit his Silesian homeland. Two years later he was admitted into the Schutzstaffel (SS), which was eager to have aristocrats in its ranks however, Strachwitz never served in the SS and remained a reserve officer under the command of the new Wehrmacht. The latter made Strachwitz Rittmeister der Reserve (Cavalry Master of the Reserve) in 1936.
When Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Strachwitz was put in charge of supply and reinforcement for the 1st Panzer Division’s 2nd Panzer Regiment. Despite his rear-echelon position, he participated in the fighting and earned the Iron Cross Second Class. To help the wounded, Strachwitz allowed Gross Stein to be used as a military hospital. Back at Alt Siedel by mid-October, Strachwitz returned to his division at the end of the year.
During the six-week-long Battle of France in the spring of 1940, the 1st Panzer Division spearheaded General Heinz Guderian’s XIX Panzer Corps’ fateful drive through the Ardennes to the coast of the English Channel. At the start of the offensive, a young officer asked Strachwitz if he hated the French. In spite of his bad experiences, Strachwitz replied that he had no hate and that he respected the French as soldiers, who ceased to be his enemy once they were defeated.
On the morning of May 14, French aircraft struck the German crossing of the Meuse Bridge. Strachwitz directed traffic and ordered the men to take cover. After the German breakthrough over the Meuse, Strachwitz set out with his Kubelwagen and driver for a reconnaissance. Nineteen miles into French territory, they pulled up to a French signals garrison. Strachwitz got out of the car, calmly lit a cigarette, and demanded the surrender of the garrison in perfect French. He told the captain that his panzers were only minutes away. The bluff worked and 600 French soldiers surrendered. Strachwitz delivered the captives in their own new trucks. “Strachwitz, that devil” said General Friedrich Kirchner of the 1st Panzer Division upon learning of the feat. Promoted to major, Strachwitz was awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class in June.
Strachwitz was on another excursion when he watched the embarkation of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk. He was dumbfounded by Hitler’s order to halt the panzers in favor of air strikes. The miraculous British evacuation was soon eclipsed by the fall of France, however. Alongside the 2nd Panzer Regiment, Strachwitz was transferred to East Prussia and to the new 16th Panzer Division led by Generalmajor Hans-Valentin Hube.
The one-armed general clapped Strachwitz on the shoulder, granted Strachwitz’s frontline request, and assigned him the 1st Battalion of the 2nd Panzer Regiment, 16th Panzer Division. Strachwitz briefly took part in the invasion of Yugoslavia before being withdrawn to prepare for Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.
At the outset of the invasion, the 16th Panzer Division was in the forefront of Paul Ludwig Ewald von Kleist’s First Panzer Group, which had as its initial objective the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. On June 26, Kleist was more than 75 miles into Soviet territory when Col. Gen. Mikhail Kirponos launched a spirited counterattack. In the hills west of the Ikwa River, 2nd Panzer Regiment sallied forth to intercept masses of Soviet tanks. Amid deafening explosions, fountains of earth, and clouds of smoke, an adjutant reported to Strachwitz that they were T-26 light tanks. Strachwitz’s Ullstein Bild binoculars zeroed in on more Soviet tanks in the woods to the rear. He ordered the heavier Mark IVs to counter the Soviet outflanking attempt. Soviet infantry swarmed through the panzers. A bullet grazed Strachwitz’s arm. Roughly bandaged, the wound continued to bleed into the cloth. At dusk, after hours of fighting, the Soviets were thrown back but the regiment had been cut off from the division.
It was only the first day of the largest tank battle of Barbarossa so far. The panzer guns proved to be nearly impotent against the new Soviet T-34s and KV-Is. The Germans made up for it with superior tactics, Junkers Ju-87 Stuka support, and tank-busting 88mm guns. Strachwitz drove back attacking tank packs, chased them into the night, and shot up Soviet batteries. The battle wound down at the beginning of July, with Kirponos withdrawing toward Kiev.
The First Panzer Group headed south, intending to link up with Seventeenth Army and trap Soviet forces in a pocket at Uman, 200 miles south of Kiev. During the ensuing fighting, Strachwitz had his panzers move their guns to a six o’clock position in Soviet fashion, which enabled him to ambush the enemy or wreak havoc behind their lines. Strachwitz sustained additional minor wounds in the head and the arm. The regiment had suffered as well. Its remaining panzers were combined into one battalion led by Strachwitz.
On August 3, while attempting to secure the bridge over the Southern Bug at Pervomaisk, Strachwitz’s panzer took a direct hit by an artillery shell. The radio operator was killed but Strachwitz and his remaining crew were able to crawl out of the smoking wreck. Fighting off Soviet infantry with MP-40s and grenades, Strachwitz climbed into the next panzer. He led his battalion to the wooden bridge that the Soviets were trying to blow up. The panzers opened fire to cover the German pioneers storming across. The Soviets pulled back, but they maintained a withering fire. The pioneers struggled to disassemble the demolition charges until Strachwitz sped across the bridge with his panzer.
The Battle of Uman ended in another German victory. Six weeks into Barbarossa, Strachwitz’s panzers had covered 440 miles but the steppes of the Ukraine seemed endless. Sixteenth Panzer Division pushed toward the Black Sea, where Nikolajew fell on the eve of August 16. Late in August, the division was back north, resting south of Kirovograd. On August 25, Hube awarded Strachwitz with the Knight’s Cross.
Restored to two battalions, Panzer Regiment 2 returned to action in September as part of the southern pincer of the Kiev encirclement. On September 16 the gigantic pocket of the Dnieper bend was closed 130 miles east of Kiev. Strachwitz’s battalion engaged Soviet troops desperately trying to break through to the east. When a Soviet division commander of German ancestry was captured, Strachwitz refused to take him prisoner unless the commander returned with his whole division. The next morning 7,000 men marched out of the nearby wood and into captivity. They were among the 663,000 Soviet prisoners captured at Kiev.
Strachwitz did his best to treat the prisoners well and also helped ailing farmers, women, and children. Often his men repaired local churches, further endearing him to the population. Unfortunately, Strachwitz’s goodwill and that of others like him was undone by Nazi terror in conquered areas. Most of the prisoners ended up starving to death or were executed, fueling hate and hardening resistance.
Upgraded to First Panzer Army, the former First Panzer Group attacked the Soviet Dnieper Front from the north in late September. On October 6 Strachwitz’s battalion captured the main road junction of Andrejewka, closing one of the last links of another huge encirclement. On October 9 the temperature dropped and falling snow obscured the view. Fighting to seal off penetrations, Strachwitz was again wounded in the head. Cutting short his field hospital stay, he returned to the front on the same day.
After the successful conclusion of the cauldron battle north of the Azov Sea, First Panzer Army pushed toward Rostov. The remaining panzers of the depleted 2nd Panzer Regiment were again amalgamated under Strachwitz’s command. At the end of October, rain, snow, and slush turned roads into swamps. Supplies slowed down and vehicles were stranded without petrol. While Strachwitz’s panzers underwent repairs at Uspenkaja, a Soviet bomber hit a camp of their own prisoners. Distraught at the carnage, Strachwitz moved the Soviet prisoners farther behind the front lines.