Road to Dunkirk:
Waterloo 1940, Part Three
Hell on the Dyle
By the morning of the 15th the Germans opened their attack on the “Dylestellung”, even though some of their reserve units and artillery had yet to arrive. The 31st Infantry Division would attack the BEF’s 2nd Division. Seventh Infantry Division and 54th Infantry Regiment of the 18th Infantry Division would attack the French 2nd DINA.
The entire day saw ferocious fighting with several attack waves along the whole front. The BEF and DINA defended themselves vigorously – in fact the first Victoria Cross awarded to a member of the British Army in World War II went to “Dickie” Annand, a 25-year-old 2nd lieutenant in the 2nd Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry, 6th Brigade, 2nd Division for his most conspicuous gallantry in defending the Dyle (as seen in the Road to Dunkirk scenario, The First Victoria Cross).
Lt. R.W. Annand's heroism is remembered on the banks of the Dyle.
By the end of the day the Germans had suffered considerable losses. In the BEF’s sector they had basically nothing to show for it. In the DINA sector they had managed to create a very small bridgehead in the forward line. The main line had not been breached. No wonder the Germans called the fighting “Hell on the Dyle.”
This lack of success should not surprise us. The attack odds of the Germans were not nearly high enough. These were good German troops, but the Allies were equally good. The Germans had no armor and even though the Luftwaffe was more active, this was not as decisive as the artillery support of the Allies. The Allies also had the benefit of prepared positions and a river obstacle in defense. There was bravery and determination on both sides. There was no inherent German superiority and so they failed in their attack. German invincibility in 1940 is a myth.
This was not the case everywhere and while the French 1st Army had pretty much stopped the panzer attack on the 14th of May near Gembloux, to the south the Germans had crossed the Meuse at Dinant and Sedan on the previous day and were starting to break out of their bridgeheads on the 15th. During the night of the 15th the BEF and DINA troops received some shocking news – they were to retreat!
What followed was as much hell as the fighting the previous day – the BEF had to pull back, with an initial fallback position the Dender river which is 80 kilometers to the rear. The front-line troops were in close proximity to the German attackers. The plan was to have the reserves hold a line some 10 to 20 kilometers to the rear, with the front-line troops falling back through them to the Dender. These reserves were to hold off the advancing Germans and then retreat themselves, in turn falling back through this new front line.
The reserves on which this plan depended were of course still arriving in the area, executing the Dyle Plan. What few people remember is that they included the 1st Army Tank Brigade. The lead unit in this deployment was 7th Royal Tank Regiment, which included heavy Matilda tanks. These were deployed forward by train. East of Brussels there is train track in the Forêt de Soignes, which gave good cover for such a delicate movement. Of course the original plan had just gone out of the window and a new one had to be improvised. It was decided to send the armored units back to the rear for use in a future battle. But getting them back out by train was impossible; the Matildas had to be driven back along the roads, first to the Dender/Dendre, then to the Schelde/Escaut, then to Northern France. The long drive would come back to haunt the BEF later at Arras.
This is the situation described in Road to Dunkirk’s Back to Waterloo scenario. The reserve 48th Division was asked to hold a line which ran south of Brussels through the famous town of Waterloo. This line was not fortified as the KW line had been. There was however a traversal extension of the anti-tank obstacle line with some small bunkers, which ran along the southern edge of the Forêt de Soignes and then followed a railway track all the way to Clabecq. The 145th Brigade (consisting of 2nd Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment, 4th Battalion and 1st (Buckinghamshire) Battalion, The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry), was given the task of defending this position and the town. It was strengthened with machine guns from the 4th Cheshires and armored cars from XII Royal Lancers (proud descendants of the same unit who had fought there in 1815!). For good measure a section of Matilda tanks was also in reserve.
The task was far from simple, as coordination between the retreating BEF and French units was tenuous. Also there was very little time to prepare and dig in. The BEF soldiers holding the line saw retreating French troops traverse in front of them heading to the Brussels-Charleroi canal further west, leaving their right flank open. Armored cars were sent to patrol the area waiting for further troops to arrive. In another curious incident on the morning of the 16th, the incredulous soldiers of 1st Bucks saw a gate open and lift the antitank obstacle to let through the morning train bringing Belgian civilians to work as usual! Nevertheless the reserve line was formed and the front-line troops withdrew through it in good order.
The view from a Dyle Line bunker.
The Germans tried to profit from this retreat and confusion. Having noticed by early on the 16th that the Allied forces were in retreat, they pushed forward reconnaissance elements to see if they could infiltrate among the retreating troops and penetrate behind the reserve line. It fell to 7th Infantry Division to push up behind the retreating French towards Waterloo. Being an Infantry division, they did not possess a lot of mobile forces – so they pulled together a scratch force from the 19th Infantry Regiment supported with divisional units: motorcyclists, two sections of Panzerjägerabteilung 7 and probably three armored cars of Aufklärungsabteilung 7. Also supporting these troops was the constant harassment by the Lufwaffe and in particular Stuka dive bombers.
It was these forces which appeared in front of Waterloo on the 16th of May. After probing the line and causing some anxiety in the BEF command as to what exactly was “this body of enemy tanks” which had been spotted and which had been rumored to be infiltrating their position, the Germans moved off in pursuit of the French during the night of the 16th. On the 17th they battled these to cross the Brussels-Charleroi Canal near Virginal. On the 17th 48th Division also received orders to withdraw from Waterloo. No epic battle was to take place there in 1940.
La Garde meurt, mais elle ne se rend pas! - Gen. Pierre Cambronne, Waterloo 1815
Little did the BEF know that this withdrawal was not going to end until those who could escape were evacuated from Dunkirk. No one could imagine that the victory for the Germans would be so swift. Surely there would be strategic reserves and a counterattack? But as Gamelin explained to Churchill at their crisis meeting on the 16th of May in the French Foreign Ministry in Paris: there was no strategic reserve. It had been sent to the Netherlands. Churchill later wrote: “I was dumbfounded. What were we to think of the great French Army and its highest chiefs? It had never occurred to me that any commanders having to defend 500 miles of engaged front would have left themselves un-provided with a mass of maneuver… I admit this was one of the greatest surprises I have had in my life.”
Even so the French Army and BEF still had many good units at their disposal, but no decisive leadership to direct them. Gamelin was setting up a plan, but was sent packing on the 19th of May. His successor, Weygand, cancelled that plan in order to set up his own plan. That was finally ready on the 22nd of May (and very similar to that of Gamelin). Unfortunately the general who was to lead this attack at strategic level died in a car crash on the 21st. So once again it had to be postponed until a new guy was appointed three days later. By that time it was postponed again to the 26th and then the 27th, in effect until the cows came home.
The BEF, seriously miffed at being left stranded, decided to develop its own initiative. This was the counterattack at Arras on the 21st of May. Amid all the other obstacles and mistakes, it turned out that a significant number of Matilda tanks were unavailable due to mechanical failure. A direct consequence of the long road back from Waterloo.
The attack failed and now it was the BEF’s turn to make a final stand to cover the withdrawal of the army. They did so bravely in Northern France and at Dunkirk, enabling the British Army to evacuate and live to fight another day. The beginning of a return that would last five years.
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