Battle of Dinant

May 12-14, 1940

After the Great War, France maintained its alliance with Britain.  Britain, though, was not eager for another war.  France also sought out new allies in eastern Europe to compensate for the loss of its former ally, Russia, to revolution, anarchy, then the evils of communism.  Alliances were formed with Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia, but these alliances were never strong.  Due to distance and lack of a common border, there was little practical aid that France could give these countries.  Tensions also existed among these nations.  Further, it appeared that France wanted allies to fight for it, but that France would not fight for its allies.  This perception was strengthened when France did nothing to stop Germany from re-occupying the Rhineland in 1936.  If France wasn't willing to stand up for itself, would France stand up for an ally?  Germany recovery, rearmament, and aggression increased Nazi influence in eastern Europe, and eventually, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria would join the Axis.  Belgium had allied itself with France in 1920 to protect itself from another invasion like in 1914.  Seeing French unwillingness to confront the re-occupation of the Rhineland, Belgium declared its neutrality in 1936.  Belgian hopes that its neutrality would save them proved to be false.  Belgium was the ideal invasion route into France.  Belgian neutrality also hindered Allied war planning.  France and Britain both courted Italy despite its fascist government and expansionist policies.  Italy would commit itself only after France's fall was inevitable and Germany appeared unstoppable.  Talks between France and the Soviet Union did not result in an alliance, with French right wing politicians fearing communism at home.  Unable to secure an alliance with France, the Soviets signed a non-aggression pact with Germany.  The Soviets would eventually join Germany in the September 1939 invasion of Poland.  The United States had its own problems and had no desire to become involved in the problems of Europe.

Diplomacy had failed.  Appeasement had failed.  Having allowed Hitler to reoccupy the Rhineland, annex Austria, take the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia, then dismantle the rest of Czechoslovakia, did France and Britain have credibility when they proclaimed that they would fight to protect Poland?

So France and Britain alone declared war on Germany after the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939.  A "Phony War" ensued, with neither side taking serious action until the spring of 1940, when the Germans conquered Denmark and Norway with shocking rapidity.  Time, the Allies thought, was on their side, and the horrors of the last war were still fresh.  Blockade, perhaps, would bring Germany to its knees.  French defeat was NOT inevitable.  The German army had great respect for the French army and expected a difficult, bloody war.  The two sides differed little in numbers, but the Allies had more tanks, planes, and artillery.  The Allies could muster several Dutch divisions, 22 Belgian divisions, 10 British divisions, and 104 French divisions.  Allied forces included 14,000 artillery pieces and over 3,200 tanks.  The Germans were to use 135 divisions, over 2,400 tanks, over 7,000 artillery pieces.

The real strength of the German army was its decentralized organization, command philosophy, and the use of combined arms tactics.  Under the German system, called 'mission analysis' or 'mission command', subordinates were given tasks but not told how to accomplish them.  This fostered independent thought, good decision making skills, and flexibility.  An officer was expected to adapt to circumstances and use common sense and not obey orders that were unreasonable.  Throughout World War II, Allied command was much more 'top down', slow, and inflexible - little different than in the First World War.  This is no more evident than in the 1940 campaign, where the Allies were unable to cope with a quick penetration by German armor.  The vast majority of the German army was infantry supplied by horse drawn wagons.  The relatively few panzer divisions, however, would be decisive.  The war was won and lost in the first few days of the invasion, when the German panzer divisions crossed the Meuse River.     

The Germans had originally planned to invade France soon after the conquest of Poland.  The invasion was delayed until winter, then the capture of a German officer after his plane crashed in Belgium revealed the plan.  Hitler approved a new plan, developed by Erich von Manstien, which involved violating Dutch and Belgian neutrality and luring the Allies forward into the plains of northern Belgium with a diversion.  The Belgian fortress of Eben Emael, considered the strongest in the world, was captured by 70 German glider troops, opening up Belgium to the German diversionary move.  The Allies, including a relatively small British Expeditionary Force of ten divisions, moved their best troops into Belgium to meet the Germans.  The German violation of Dutch neutrality spurred the Allied commander, Gamelin, to commit his reserve, sending it toward the southern Netherlands.  All this played into German hands.  Meanwhile, a large panzer force was advancing through the difficult, easily defensible terrain of the Ardennes, bypassing the Maginot Line, and hoping to penetrate the French line where it was weakly defended.  Then the panzers would advance to the Channel coast, cutting off the strongest and best Allied armies while follow-on motorized troops protected the flanks of the advance.  It was a risky plan, with the German column extending east for many miles.

We will be going from north to south along the Meuse.  Starting just south of Namur, we will go to Dinant, then Givet and Montherme.  The battle at Sedan will be separate for the sake of being concise.  After the German violation of Belgian neutrality, the French started moving troops into Belgium.  In this area, the French hoped to join the Belgians and take up defenses behind the Meuse River.

This gives you some idea of the terrain in the area.  The defender is strongly favored in such a hilly area.   


The most northerly of the German spearheads was the 15th Panzer Corps under Hoth, made up of the 5th and 7th Panzer Divisions, was heading for the Meuse between Namur and Dinant.  The 7th Panzer Division was under Erwin Rommel, who was new to armored warfare.  Harrassed by only a few Belgians and some French cavalry, Rommel quickly passed throught the Ardennes, thought by the French to be impenetrable to armored units, and reached the Meuse River.  The first of the French army was also arriving, but they were not yet defending the river in force.  Perhaps the Germans could force a quick crossing.

At Yvoir, on the right side of the panorama, there is a bridge.  This is approximate the site of the wartime bridge.  The stonework on the far bank next to the stone building appears to be Belgian defenses.  On the afternoon of May 12th, the last of the French cavalry crossed the bridge to the safety of the west bank.  The Germans were following closely in the hope of capturing the bridge intact.  German armored cars tried to cross the bridge, but both were knocked out on the bridge by a 47mm anti-tank gun, blocking the way.  The head of the Belgian engineers, Lt. Wispelaere activated the plunger to blow the explosives on the bridge.  It didn't work.  Using the manual backup, he blew the bridge but was killed by German fire as he did so.  The first German attempt at crossing had been foiled, but more troops were approaching the river further south.  


This is the German side of the river at the southern end of an island at Houx.  A railroad bridge at the north end of the island had already been blown.  This would have been downstream, off the picture to the left.  Here, near where the panorama was taken, a dam, Wier #5, stood.  (It has since been replaced.)  On the far side of the island, a lock gate stretched over to the west bank.  Demolition of this potential crossing had been contemplated but decided against for fear of the resulting lower water.  When the French unit on the west bank was relieved, the new French unit did not extend their defenses all the way to the river as they had been ordered.  That night, the Germans tried a crossing with men of the 8th Motorcycle Bn of the 5th Panzer Division.  They captured the heights.  More troops followed that morning, three rifle batallions, subjected to French artillery as they crossed.  Dead and wounded floated down the Meuse.  The German infantry expanded the bridgehead expanded to four kilometers, without the benefit of heavy weapons they fought off French troops equipped with tanks.

The Germans had crossed at this island in 1914 also.

Auberge de Bouvignes

In this vicinity, the Germans ferried vehicles across the Meuse.  Due to the constricted terrain from the cliffs, this was not a practical crossing point.

Bouvignes and the Chateau de Crevecoeur

This is just south, opposite the town of  Bouvignes, which is visible on the left of the panorama.  The castle on the opposite bank, the Chateau de Bouvignes, was used by the French for artillery observation.  A footbridge across the 100 meter wide river at Bouvignes had been blown, so the 7th Rifle Regiment under Georg von Bismarck tried to cross in rubber boats at 4:30am on May 13th.  Helped by the morning mist, the first wave, one company, reached the far shore but were pinned down.  After that, French machine gun fire from town and from bunkers on the heights above prevented any more troops from crossing.  German artillery set the town on fire, but only two battalions were available.  The Luftwaffe was concentrating on Sedan and was unavailable.  After returning from Army HQ, Rommel had several tanks drive up and down the road at left and fire into the buildings on the far bank, directing the action himself.  Even then, the results were not encouraging.  Rommel ordered more panzers and more artillery into the fight.  Rommel took command of the 2nd Bn of the 7th Rifle Regiment.  When enemy fire slackened, the crossing was made, with Rommel in one of the first boats across.  The town and the heights were captured.  Returning to the east side, Rommel ordered a ferry built, and even waded into the river to help.  Rommel and his command panzer were the first over, and 30 vehicles would be ferried across by the next morning.  That night, a pontoon bridge was built a little south of the church that you can see.  It was lined up with one of the underpasses that you can see, facilitating the German advance toward Phillipeville.

On the 14th, Rommel had a scare at the town of Onhaye where his command tank was hit twice, slightly wounding him.  In an attempt to evade fire, the tank crashed down a hill, landing on its side.


This is the view from the Dinant Citadel, which dominates the town.  The bridge here was blown on the afternoon on May 12th, so traffic was diverted north to Leffe, then across the pontoon bridge to Bouvignes.  This is the area on the right of the panorama.  With only limited bridging material available, the bridge here at Dinant was not replaced.  The exploitation of the bridgehead at Bouvignes, however, broke the Meuse barrier in Belgium.

In the First World War, Charles de Gaulle was wounded on the bridge here in Dinant.



Late on May 14th, the French 1st Armored Division began moving south from the Charleroi area to counterattack Rommel's bridgehead.  Had they arrived in time, they likely would have thrown the Germans back to the river.  French tanks, however, had small fuel tanks, and when they ran out of fuel, the process of refueling was complicated by the fact that fuel vehicles were at the rear of the column, unlike German practice, and they couldn't even be found.  The French tankers were forced to stop for the night near Flavion.  The next morning, May 15th, German air power struck the French fuel convoys, further complicating refueling.  The French tanks, around 170 of them, would have to stay where they were as parts of the 5th and 7th Panzer Divisions attacked them.  Rommel, took his men on a wide flanking move, continuing toward Phillipeville and leaving the 31st Panzer Regiment of the 5th Panzer Division to directly confront the French.  This regiment could muster only 30 Panzer IIIs and IVs, with the rest being Panzer Is and IIs that were too lightly armed and armored to take on the French tanks.  These Panzer Is and IIs were used in feints to the enemy flanks while the Panzer IIIs and IVs would use the coordination made possible by their superior radios to gang up on small groups of French tanks and fire on them from all sides.  And while the 1st French  Armored Division was using primarily tanks to fight, the Germans were using combined arms tactics with artillery and anti-tank guns brought forward.  The Luftwaffe also lent support with its Stukas.

In the end, Rommel's flank move convinced the 1st French Armored Division to fall back with only 50 of its tanks left.  Continuing the withdrawal that night, by the next morning, only 17 French tanks remained.  There would be little that could stop Hoth's Panzer Corps now.    


Givet, in a portion of France that juts into Belgium, has long been a fortress town, with strong defenses atop the hill overlooking town.  Between the major German panzer thrusts, Givet was occupied by the 32nd Infantry Division on May 12th.

On the far bank of the river, behind the 18th century stone fortification is an Esso station without a single squeegee.  

Further south along the Meuse, another German panzer column would attack Montherme.  Further south still along the Meuse, the main German panzer attack would fall on Sedan.

Copyright 2010-11 by John Hamill

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