Rommel and the Battle of Flavion

Rommel and the Battle of Flavion

In which mr. Rommel bravely bypasses the French

PR. 25, PD. 7 | Fall Gelb | Flavion, Belgium | May 15th, 1940

PzKpfw 38(t)

The Panzer II ausführung C was the main model of this little tank. It incorporated the lessons learnt from the Panzer I’s in the Spanish civil war – and a 2cm autocannon. In the first two years of the war, it was widely used while a lot of funky adaptations were made, from Bergepanzer to Marder and the infamous J-model (okay, in in WoT). All in all, a decent light tank but totally outclassed once the big boys showed up.

Fall Gelb comes to Belgium

The battle of Flavion was fought on the 15th of May, 1940 near Charleroi, in Belgium, during the opening days of Fall Gelb. It’s considered to be the second large tank battle in human history, the first one being the battle for Hanut – a few days earlier. It’s quite an interesting fight because it illustrates the value of flexibility, persistence, combined arms warfare and proper logistics support. It also features a certain Herr Rommel. The tank displayed here is a Panzer 38(t), an old Czech tank fighting with the 7th Panzer Division. It was pressed into Wehrmacht service because it was really better than anything the Germans had built themselves.

That morning, the maitre d’hotel suggested pancakes.

Setting the trap

After the war started on May 10th, the French sent a lot of reinforcements north to meet the enemy in Belgium. Why was that? Long story, that. First, we have the 1870 Franco-Prussian war. This was fought directly in the border area of both countries and ended in the siege of Paris, which pissed off a lot of French people. The effect of this was that the French massively reinforced their border with Germany. Then, along came the First World War. In that war, the Germans executed what they called the “von Schlieffen-plan”. This plan stated that the German armies should sweep west, then south, through Belgium to circumvent said French defences. Belgium was a neutral country, you see, and it was generally believed that this neutrality would be respected. This didn’t work as well as expected and the flashy German plan ended up being a horrible trench war.

Von Manstein to the rescue

The third version, as used by Hitler in WW2, was redesigned by OKH General von Manstein. He figured out that simulating the original von Schlieffen plan would draw the French and British defences north. The French border with Germany was heavily defended by the Maginot line and the Ardennes region considered impassable; therefore the only viable attack route for the Germans was seen as coming from Belgium. And the Netherlands, but that was a flank-defending backwater move. Suck on that, Holland! Well, who brings bicycles to an armoured battle, anyway? Well, the Germans painted just that picture with their Army Group B moving south through the Low Countries. The French took the bait and started taking up defensive positions in Belgium, leaving their eastern flank unprotected from attacks through those not-so-impassable Ardennes. But that’s another story.

Enter the French

On the outbreak of Fall Gelb, the French 1e DCR moves from their bases to Charleroi, Belgium, by road and rail to support their infantry forces already there. They are redirected to the east, however, when information about advancing German armour becomes available. It takes them a lot of time and gasoline to get to their assigned stations around Dinant however; the roads are clogged with refugees and Stukas are buzzing all around, smashing towns and tanks alike. Parts of 1e DCR reach Flavion by the evening of the 14th but their fuel tankers are still a long way off. Only the next morning do the supplies and more tanks arrive but it’s never enough. Thus, French general Bruneau is forced to take up defensive positions and hope for the best.

Kamerad! Kamerad! Der Befehl is da, wir starten!
Kamerad! Kamerad! Die Mädels mussen warten!

German armour mantra

The Germans attack

At the same time, the Germans were having no such problems. All right, their tanks were quite small in comparison to the huge French B1bis, but there were a lot of them. They had infantry, they had air support. Fuel, ammunition, everything they needed. And cleanly shaven faces. Rommel’s 7. PzDiv had spent the night at Morville, just to the southeast of Flavion. At 0800 they moved to attach the French while 5. PzDiv came in from Falaen, to the northeast. About half an hour later, they met. The French were between a rock and a fuel station, really. Most of their vehicles were still refuelling, only 6 tanks of 3/28e BCC was able to resist as a unit. A little later, 10 tanks of 1/28e BCC joined their ranks a bit to the north. Finally, 10 more B1bis of 2/28e closed the rear. Those 26 French tanks were facing about 250 German Panzer, artillery, Grenadiere and air support by Stuka. That, Ladies and Gentlemen, is Blitzkrieg: overwhelming an enemy with locally superior, combined firepower. That is also why the French lost the war. They did very well, at first. The French immediately destroyed several German tanks, who were quite shaken by the French Kolosse. But as good tankers, they immediately started using the terrain for cover. Also, there’s a small hill between the 1/28e and 3/28e BCC. The Germans weren’t bothered as they used radios and three-man turrets. The French, however, used flags and one-man turrets. What’s the difference? Well, let’s examine.

A firing sequence.

French

The char commander sees a target.

His vehicle is equipped with two different type of cannon: one against infantry, one against tanks. The latter is in the turret, where this commander is all alone. So he’s hanging out of the back of the turret, scanning those tree lines. He sees his target by eye, goes into the turret and takes a shell out of the rack. He loads his gun, all on his own. He aims the gun by rotating the turret and looking through the gunsights. Which, I promise you, is insanely difficult. He has to look outside to scan for other threats. Re-acquire the target tank, who is on the move. Aim and… Fire! Miss! He orders the driver to move. He then has to stick his head outside (again, risking it getting shot off) and re-acquire the target by eyeball. Possibly, he has the chance to flag-signal his colleagues about the situation. Damn, where has that Panzer gone? Re-acquire, load, aim, fire!

German

The Panzer commander sees a target from the relative safety of his turret hatch.
Commander: “French tank, two o’clock, 400 meters. Radio, warn command!”
Gunner: “Check!” – BAAAAM!!! – “Miss!”
Commander: “Verdammt! You wait for my command!”
Loader: “AP shell, ready!”
Commander: “He’s moved to one o’clock!”
Gunner: “I see him!”
Commander: “Good, Bobby. Now…”
BLAAAAM!!!
Gunner: “Whoo! Hit!”
Commander: “Scheisse, mensch… OK, new target at eleven!”

Self-reflection is a good thing

So there. These silly people were taking a nap because their enemy -a bicycle company- had shot some rifles at their precious panzer tanks. Two men made the difference. By the way, this lack of performance was noted – I already mentioned this in Zieglers story. The Oberkommando saw they were in no way ready to start a major war against the French – who were a lot stronger than the Poles. Basically, if the Germans hadn’t nearly lost in Poland, they would never have won the Battle for France. It would probably have turned into another WW1-slugfest, something no-one wanted.