Road to Dunkirk:
Waterloo 1940, Part One
Blitzkrieg analysis: No news from the Waterloo front!
As we recall the dramatic events of May 1940, old newsreels showing Panzers and Stukas descending on the hapless Allied forces will flash by on our screens and people will remember the stories of how the Nazi war machine released a surprise Blitzkrieg and brought the Belgian and French armies to their knees in a matter of weeks, with the British forces only escaping via the Miracle of Dunkirk to live to fight another day.
In a probably not-quite-accidental move, and certainly one with fortunate timing, Avalanche Press has decided to release a new module in its acclaimed Panzer Grenadier series which focuses on these actions, with particular focus on the British Expeditionary Force which faced the invader, fielding both well-known and obscure types of units and equipment.
The purpose of this article is to give a small refresher on the situation on the Belgian front in 1940 and in particular that of the BEF. We’ll use the “Back to Waterloo” scenario to illustrate some of the lesser-known points and lessons learned (obviously with liberal helpings of hindsight).
The author inspects a bunker at Gastuche.
Sichelschnitt vs Dyle Plan
The German attack plan for the offensive in the West (codename Fall Gelb), called “Sichelschnitt,” was a very inventive if also very high-risk proposition. Germany wanted and got the strategic initiative, which in turn allowed it to prepare and concentrate troops and resources in a way it saw as most advantageous to gain the element of surprise. It used extreme concentration of forces, particularly armored units (7 of the 10 Panzer divisions) and air power facing the Belgian Ardennes. The plan called for a quick dash through this rough terrain, followed by crossing the Meuse river at Sedan in France and Dinant in Belgium under cover of the Luftwaffe. Panzer General Heinz Guderian expressed it as follows: in two days to the Meuse and on the third across. Once across, the Germans planned for follow-up exploitation to the Channel coast and encirclement of the main body of Allied forces in Belgium and Northern France.
To achieve surprise and maximum odds for success, large amounts of troops were initially positioned in such a way, that the area in which they intended to strike – north or south of the Ardennes - could not be fully determined by their enemies. That uncertainty was heightened by a final concentration plan which demanded that these troops reach their final assembly areas for the attack within 12 hours after the final order for the commencement of offensive operations had been given.
Additional attacks north of the Ardennes would help obscure the German objectives. A large parachute drop on “Fortress Netherlands” would combine with a small attack force including one Panzer division to knock out the Netherlands. A smaller parachute drop to neutralize “Fortress Liège” in Belgium would combine with a medium-sized attack force including two Panzer divisions to make a major diversionary attack along the traditional invasion route into Belgium – from World War I back to even the Middle Ages and Roman times.
The Allied war plan had some serious shortcomings. The most damning one, in my opinion, is the fact that Belgium, despite all the evidence of imminent attack, clung to its neutrality policy and steadfastly refused to allow French and British troops access to its territory. With four additional Allied armies dug in behind the Albert Canal, Liège fortress and the Ardennes, Germany’s “Sichel” would have had no “schnitt.”
The Allies were by definition a coalition in which each had their ideas, but with France by far the largest contributor it got the driver’s seat. There was an overall strategic coordination in what became the final version of the Dyle Plan – Breda variant.
The Belgian plan called for demolitions of bridges and other key infrastructure and rapid withdrawal from the Ardennes. The Belgians would concentrate their army along the KW (lightly fortified) line between Fortress Antwerp (Koningshooit = K) and Leuven (Louvain). The British Expeditionary Force would prolong the KW position from Leuven to Wavre (= W) behind the (lightly fortified) Dyle river. The French then took over from Wavre to Namur behind some antitank obstacles, and from there on behind the Meuse into France proper, where it joined up with the famous Maginot line (heavily fortified naturally).
Since Belgium would not allow foreign troops on its territory it follows that these would have to arrive very speedily after the German offensive had commenced – an operation with some risk. Nevertheless it was in essence a sound plan, shortening lines by about 250 kilometers and placing them pretty much everywhere either behind rivers or some level of fortification – with a buffer zone in front of that to buy time to get everyone into place. For some totally non-military reason Maurice Gamelin, the French commander in chief, insisted on adding the Breda variant in which one French Army was dispatched north of Antwerp to “sort of” link up with the Dutch in a what militarily speaking was clearly a “faux pas.”
The author (left) and Philippe Léonard, designer of our Road to Dunkirk game, visit a 1940 bunker near Waterloo.
British Expeditionary Force vs German Sixth Army
The combination of the “Sichelschnitt” with the “Dyle-Breda variant” meant that instead of facing the anticipated armored spearhead the BEF would be up against German infantry divisions.
The BEF itself consisted mostly of 1st line infantry (7 out of 10 divisions), the remaining 3 divisions being 2nd line territorials, all organized into three corps and heavily supported by artillery and engineers as well as 1st Tank Brigade and 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Brigade. Considering the power of the BEF it had a surprisingly small sector to defend. From Leuven (Louvain) to Wavre is about 30 kilometers. As mentioned above, the front line ran behind the river Dyle (which in this area is up to 10 meters wide) and covered by prepared fortifications and bunkers.
South of the BEF was the 1st French Army which was set up between Wavre and Namur (40 kilometers’ distance). It was an elite unit of the French Army consisting, except for one division of fortress infantry which held border fortifications, of four first-line infantry and two armored divisions. It was organized into four corps, among which the armored and fully mobile Cavalry Corps Prioux (2nd and 3rd DLM - Division Légère Mécanisée), probably the best corps of the whole French Army. It had been hand-picked to defend the place where the Allies expected to see the major effort of the German offensive. It was supposed to defend behind an antitank barrier purposely built to defend the open country. But following much local political wrangling and changing of minds the Belgian authorities had finally built a barrier some 10 to 15 kilometers east of where they said they would build it, leaving an only partially built barrier on the position where they originally said it would be – a not-very-effective form of Belgian compromise.
The units facing these forces were drawn from the 6th German Army, which had to break through the Belgian cover around Fortress Liège and keep both the BEF and the 1st French Army busy in a diversionary attack. It was organized into four corps and consisted of 11 divisions – two Panzer, six first-line infantry and three second-line infantry. It used its two best corps to attack along the invasion route – XVI Corps (four divisions including the two crack panzer divisions) would try to break through to the French border while XI Corps (three infantry divisions) would try to capture Brussels. It also benefitted from heavy support by the Luftwaffe. It is accepted wisdom that on a level playing field a 3:1 advantage is generally needed by an attacker to overcome an equally qualified defender. Looking at this, 6th Army clearly had one of the toughest tasks of all the German armies in Fall Gelb.
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