Road to Dunkirk:
Scenario Preview, Part Two
With Road to Dunkirk, Philippe Léonard returns the Panzer Grenadier series to the 1940 campaign in Belgium and France, this time focused on the British Expeditionary Force. It’s a big game, with eight heavy cardstock maps, 517 playing pieces and 47 scenarios. But like all Panzer Grenadier games, it’s the scenario set that lies at its heart. Let’s take a look at the second chapter.
You can see Chapter One here.
There and Back Again
Belgium renounced its alliance with France in 1936 and shifted to a belief that the best hope for the coming war would be to take no side. The French high command, supported by the British, was more realistic, believing that the Germans would come rattling through the Low Countries on their way to invade France. The capture of German plans in January, 1940 made it clear that central Belgium would be a battleground. The Belgians still refused to pursue joint military planning with the Allies but did share the German plans with their expected rescuers.
Accordingly the strong French 1st and 7th Armies advanced into Belgium along with the BEF according to the Dyle Plan. The BEF was to array itself along the Dyle River with the French 1st Army to their right and the Belgians to their left. The French 7th Army was to move to the support of the Dutch, with defense of the Meuse River line left to the French 9th Army with a number of second-line divisions.
Of course, the Germans were well aware that their plans had fallen into enemy hands (well, Belgian hands) and therefore developed new plans based on the exploitation of the Ardennes as an avenue of advance that the French had discounted.
Had the Germans kept to their original plans, the Dyle Plan would have been an ideal defense. We know, however, that was not what happened. The BEF quickly advanced to the Dyle starting on May 10th as the Germans started their assault and arrived in force on the 11th of May in the vicinity of Louvain. The British had expected a couple weeks of time before the Germans pushed the Belgians away from the frontier but were disappointed to find German troops probing the Dyle only three days after the campaign began. The German 6th Army conducted some attacks against the BEF along the Dyle which were designed to bite and hold.
Meanwhile the Germans had broken through the French 9th Army at Sedan and on the 15th broke through the French lines completely and began a four-day romp to the Channel at Abbeville. The Allies were not unaware of the disaster but did not have the mobility to do more than withdraw behind the Senne River, then the Dendre River and finally the Eschaut/Sheldt. The result was that Bernard Law Montgomery’s 3rd Division found itself manning its previous positions on the Franco-Belgian border only 10 days after leaving them to fight in Belgium.
At least it was familiar ground.
Dion-le-Val, North-east of Wavre
14 May 1940
Following a well-rehearsed maneuver, the BEF infantry divisions entered Belgium on May 10th and took up positions behind the Dyle River between Louvain and Wavre. While the infantry dug in along the river line, light tank companies were sent to the east to collect information and watch over the Cointet anti-tank obstacle line. Long files of refugees and battered Belgian troops fled to the west as the sounds of battle drew closer. All of the main bridges across the river had been destroyed except for one at each battalion boundary.
At 1500 came the campaign’s first contact between British and German armored vehicles. One Pz JgI was destroyed but the combined force of German infantry and vehicles pushed the British armor back to the river. When 37mm AT guns joined the fray, the British soon lost one of their tanks along with one Bren carrier. The British tanks crossed the bridge at Florival just before their engineers blew it up. Later in the afternoon, further fire fights occurred between the advancing German troops and the last British infantry companies on the eastern bank of the river. At night a slow infiltration began all along the line.
It’s a tank battle, albeit a very small one with German infantry backed by some tank destroyers and armored cars trying to force their way past British defenders supported by a strong force of weak armor (Mark VIb light tanks). It’s going to be tough on the Germans, as the defenders equal their numbers and have sky-high morale, and no one has any artillery support.
The First Victoria Cross
Gastuche, North-East of Wavre
15 May 1940
Second Division’s sector included the wooded area surrounding the village of Gastuche. The countryside between Gastuche and the ominously named village of La Tombe saw one of the most celebrated actions of the BEF’s campaign, when twenty-five-year-old 2nd Lieutenant Dick Annand’s bravery under fire won the war’s first Victoria Cross. Annand commanded one of the DLI platoons that arrived at the Dyle during the night of 11-12 May and dug themselves in along the river’s west bank.
The first Dyle River crossing in the DLI’s sector took place in the early morning of 15 May. The Germans rushed the British position at the destroyed bridge and annihilated the DLI platoon holding it. However the other British platoons checked the enemy’s advance. When German soldiers started to build a new crossing-point from the rubble of the old bridge, Annand attacked the party. He went forward himself over open ground with total disregard for enemy mortar and MG fire. Reaching the top of the bridge, he drove out the party below inflicting over 20 casualties with hand grenades. During the evening when another attack was launched, he repeated his heroic charge with the same success. Despite an inspired defense, the DLI retreated from the Dyle line on 16 May.
It’s an infantry battle, with the Germans tasked not only with forcing a river line but capturing and repairing a bridge across it. The Brits are outnumbered and without artillery, but they do have that Old Contemptible morale and a heroic leftenant. Perhaps that will be enough.
North of Louvain
15 May 1940
In accordance with Plan “D” the British 3rd Division took up its position on the line of the River Dyle, deployed in and about the old city of Louvain. The defenses in this section of the Dyle had been slightly improved by the Belgians despite their strict neutrality. Opposite 7 Brigade, north of the town, the Germans heavily engaged the Coldstream Guards throughout the morning but every move to throw pontoons across the river was checked by accurate fire from guns and mortars. In the afternoon, the 2nd Company moved back to the eastern outskirts of Herent and the Germans took the opportunity to cross the Dyle canal and made a lodgment in 1st Coldstream’s sector.
A reserve company mounted a quick counterattack supported by medium and field artillery and two tank troops of the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards. The “Skins” – normally 4th Division’s armored recon regiment – were temporarily supporting 3rd Division and their Adjutant was Lt. (later General) “Monkey” Blacker who was to command the division 25 years later. He remembered that the counterattack had little difficulty in restoring the situation, the enemy having pulled back under the weight of artillery fire.
This one is tough on the Germans, who have to prepare a river crossing (a new, special mission introduced in Road to Dunkirk) in the face of equal British numbers and soaring British morale. They don’t even have artillery superiority.
Back in Waterloo
South of Brussels
17 May 1940
Following the collapse of the French front on the Meuse River, the I and II British Corps were forced to move from the Dyle River and Belgian fortified KW line back to the Senne River. During this withdrawal, the Germans attempted to get behind I Corps between the Forêt de Soignes, south of Brussels, and Hal. Parts of 48th Division, 1st Armoured Brigade recon elements and two sections of Matilda tanks moved up to form a reserve line. There was, however, never any intention of fighting anything more than a delaying action on that line since the whole BEF was being withdrawn to the Escaut River line.
The heaviest German attacks concentrated against the forest, accompanied by heavy shelling and bombing of the roads. At about 0930 Major Jimmy Hawker, commanding B Squadron 13th/18th Hussars said that the Germans had been seen in the woods and asked that the 12th Lancers should not withdraw, but found that the Lancers were being hard pressed towards the southwest. Eventually, all the attacks were repelled by fire, and the British pulled out safely.
This is an odd scenario, with a mobile German force trying to force a path through the British defenses – but they’re penalized if they take too long to achieve their objective. The Brits are tough, and they have support from a couple platoons of Matilda II tanks and their low speed, weak firepower and invulnerable armor.
West of Brussels
18 May 1940
The 15th/19th King’s Royal Hussars had been ordered to take up position in the northern suburbs of Brussels with their left flank well forward to maintain contact with the Belgians. Despite extensive patrolling, no contact with the Belgian 5th Division could be made. At 0845 the regiment was ordered to withdraw to a north-south line through the town of Asse. Since time had to be bought for the 10th Infantry Brigade on the River Dendre to complete their retreat, the regiment should hold on this position until released. However no information was available on the enemy, the Belgians or the promised supporting machine-gun battalion and artillery observers.
The squadrons never had a chance to occupy the Asse line. By motoring straight down the main road on the open flank, the Germans had got between them and the river Dendre, cutting off the British. Unable to find a path to rejoin their division or to fight their way clear, the regiment began to disintegrate by late morning with the German capturing 22 Bren carriers and 28 Mk VIb tanks. Third Division waited intact behind the Dendre, watching impotently as its vital mobile armored cavalry screen was thrown away. After "the biggest disaster in the regiment's history", 15th/19th Hussars had ceased to exist as an independent unit.
For once, the Germans have better morale than the British. That’s a problem, since the British have to fight their way through the Germans and off the edge of the board, and do it without artillery support.
South of Pecq
21 May 1940
The British who had retreated from the Dyle to the Senne River and then again to the Dendre River had been ordered to retreat further to hold back the northern arm of the German attack along the canalized River Escaut. An air of tension lay on the river line that morning. The heavy early morning mist hung like a blanket on the water and hid the attacker’s moves. Suddenly all hell let loose as the enemy opened up with artillery, mortars and machine-guns.
Despite the violent bombardment, the crossing proved very difficult. From well-built and well-concealed positions in wood on a small hill west of the Escaut River, known as Poplar Ridge, the British inflicted heavy losses to the Germans. Even so, they had to give way as the 3rd Grenadier Guards’ 4th Company was practically destroyed. Bren carriers spearheaded repeated counter-attacks against the tiny German bridgehead in suicidal charges that incurred heavy losses but forced the Germans to fall back across the river.
This is a small but intense infantry fight, with the Germans on the attack and the British counter-attacking with the aid of reinforcements. This time there’s plenty of artillery, and they’re very big guns.
The Wattrelos Counter Attack
North East of Roubaix
24 May 1940
On 22 May, Montgomery’s 3rd Division was back where it had started before the German advance, occupying the prepared defenses of the Gort Line near Roubaix. Since German activity was quite limited, Brigadier Frank Witts of 8th Infantry Brigade ordered a counterattack to reach a railway line about 1,000 yards in front of the forward position. With no supporting artillery, the operation had the sole aim of raising morale. Each of the brigade’s three battalions provided two companies with two machine guns platoons of the 2nd Middlesex as flank protection.
The right battalion found the enemy established in some strength and could make no progress, suffering considerable casualties; the center battalion got further and suffered less; the left battalion reached their objective with little opposition. Battalions were ordered to lead with their carriers, as if they were tanks. In spite of the carrier platoons’ losses, the companies fought their way forward, took prisoners and returned. However they suffered very severe casualties. Witts, an aide to King George VI just before the war, could not be disciplined but was never trusted with a combat command again.
It’s a British infantry attack, and proof that the lions were still led by asses in 1940, at least in some formations. The British have plenty of Bren carriers to spearhead their attack; they’re no substitute for actual tanks.
And that’s Chapter Two.
You can order Road to Dunkirk right here.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.