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
3,200 tanks. The Germans were to use 135 divisions, over 2,400
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
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
Hitler approved a new plan, developed by Erich von
Manstien, which involved violating Dutch and Belgian neutrality
luring the Allies
forward into the plains of northern Belgium with a diversion. The
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
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
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
army was also arriving, but they were not yet defending the river in
force. Perhaps the Germans could force a quick crossing.
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
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
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
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