May 15-16, 1940

As part of Germany's plan to defeat France, German committed seven of its ten panzer divisions to a thrust through the Ardennes.   Of these seven panzer divisions, three of them headed toward Sedan.  On May 13, 1940, these three panzer divisions managed to cross the Meuse at Sedan after the 1st Panzer Division crossed at the most vulnerable part of the French line.  The German bridgehead was tenuous, however.  There was only enough material to build one bridge, and the allied air forces tried desperately to destroy it.  A counterattack on May 14th by the French 55th Infantry Division supported by tanks was repulsed.  Much less flexible than their German opponents, it took the French high command 48 hours to transmit orders to the front, but even before the German crossing the French high command had dispatched two divisions, the 3rd Armored and 3rd Motorised, under General Flavigny from Reims toward Sedan.  They arrived late on May 14th.  Ordered both to defend the heights of Mont-Dieu south of Sedan and to attack the German bridgehead, Flavigny dispersed his force and refueled, giving the initiative to the Germans.  Flavigny had also seen a better trained armored division do poorly on exercise, so he likely doubted the ability of his troops to competently counterattack the Germans.  Manstein's concept from the beginning include a diversionary attack south from Sedan, which would confuse the French as to the German objective and encourage the French to commit their troops south of Sedan, allowing the panzers to advance to the English Channel with less opposition.  This German diversion was the task of the 10th Panzer Division and the Grossdeutchland Regiment.  Since French troops could use Mont-Dieu to launch counterattacks on the German bridgehead, the heights needed to be captured.


Traveling the same direction as the car here, 6 German Pz IV and 5 Pz IIs would reach an intersection in the distance and turn left to ascend Mont-Dieu, or God Mountain.  

A short German bombardment prepared the way.  Ascending the hill, the German tanks continued around this hairpin curve, right to left, at about 0500 - then into the town of Stonne on top of the ridge.  The hill with the calvary - Pain de Sucre, or Sugar Loaf Hill - was an ideal place to observe the valley below.  Waiting for the Germans in the town of Stonne was a French 47mm anti-tank gun, two 25mm AT guns, and two armored cars.  (An AT gun is below.)  The anti-tank guns were effective, with only three Panzer IIIs of the eleven German tanks making it through the town, but follow on German infantry captured the town.  Faced with the German attack and ordered once again to attack the Sedan bridgehead, Flavigny now concentrated his tanks, something that took most of the day.  There were attacks and counterattacks, and Stonne changed hands several times.




Char B

At full strength the French armored division, among other types, boasted over 60 of the heavy Char B tanks.  Due to mechanical problems and battle casualties, only 34 were available on noon May 14th for the planned counterattack.  Unhappy with the commander of the armored division, Flavigny had the commander of the motorised division command both units.  The fighting continued at Stonne, and by the evening, only 29 Char Bs were available.  Now there was little hope for the planned attack on the Sedan bridgehead.

The next day the battle continued.  Seven Char B tanks under Captain Pierre Billotte, son of the general, arrived.  The tanks pictured here are of this type.  Billotte's machine named "Eure".  The French vehicles had great strengths and also some weaknesses.  The lack of radios and small gas tanks had been serious deficiencies at the Battle of Flavion near Dinant a few days before.  Another problem was the small turret, served by just one man.  Despite these issues, the French tanks are generally regarded as superior to Germans ones in 1940.  The Char B had thick armor and two large guns, one a 47mm, the other a 75mm.  At Stonne, these attributes were just what was needed.  The Germans were shocked when they encountered the Char B.

Billotte's Rampage

The church at right is in same location as the 1940 church.  On the Morning of May 16th, seven panzers were waiting along the road here one after another in a tight formation, ready to launch a counterattack.  After a 45 minute artillery bombardment starting at 0430, Billotte emerged on the right of the panorama leading his seven tanks in this direction.  Firing at the first and last panzers in line, Billotte knocked them out and completely immobilized the column of German tanks.  Continuing forward, Billotte in turn knocked out each of the remaining panzers.  Seven panzers had been knocked out with no French losses.  Billotte wasn't done yet.  He and his column continued down the road on the left of the panorama.   

Billotte's Rampage Continues

Moving along the road from the right of the panorama, Billotte encountered a second group of German tanks, the rear of which was near this intersection.  Here, on the right of the panorama, he claimed another six panzers.  He and his column continued to the left of the panorama - to the hairpin curve.

Continuing through the hairpin curve from left to right, Billotte knocked out a German anti-tank gun near here.  Proceeding down the slope, he destroys another German anti-tank gun, only turning around after descending much of the hill.  In all, Billotte claimed 14 panzers.  His own tank had been struck 140 times but survived.  Of the tanks following him, one was missing, two broke down, and another was stuck in a gully.  French infantry secured the town and held it until late afternoon.  After the 16th, both the Germans and the French withdrew their armored forces, with the 10th Panzer Division continuing to the English Channel.

In light of Billotte's amazing feat of arms we can only speculate how better trained, better lead, and more flexibly used French armored divisions would have dealt with the German panzer divisions.  Although it is easy to take the German victory in 1940 for granted, it was in no way pre-ordained.  The result was the product of numerous decisions on both sides, beginning before the war, all of which could have been different.

The battle for Stonne continued, and the town changed hands a total of seventeen times.  It was a bitter fight, called "The Verdun of 1940" by the French.  A German officer ranked the battle as memorable as Stalingrad and Monte Cassino.  In the English speaking world, however, the battle is often neglected.  But the fighting here was vitally important because it protected the Sedan bridgehead and allowed the massive panzer thrust to quickly and easily reach the English Channel.  German victory in 1940 transformed the war into a global catastrophe, and Stonne made it possible. 


Copyright 2012 by John Hamill

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