Belgium and the defence of the Ardennes
Reading about the German May 1940 Western offensive it is possible to get the idea that it was "obvious" that the Germans would attack with massive mechanised forces through the Ardennes. Hence it was “obvious” that the Belgians should have committed more forces to a more active defence of the Ardennes area. The potential for delaying the German advance can be seen in such actions as that at Bodange and this example is used to “prove“ how such an approach would perhaps have helped delay the Germans sufficiently for an effective Allied defence to have been created.
However this is being wise after the event. Points we can consider regarding the defence of the Ardennes
:1) Pre WW1
The problem of defending the Ardennes did not first arise just prior to WW2. In the years before WW1 the problem had been looked at. At that time an advance into the Ardennes looked a possible strategy for both the French and the German armies.
De Selliers de Moranville, Chief of Staff since 25 May 1914, proposed centring the whole army on Antwerp, leaving Liege and Namur only as a delaying screen.
De Ryckel, Adjutant-General, favoured a forward policy of strongly manning the borders, especially in front of Liege, snuffing out the intruders as they appeared, and only falling back on Antwerp if necessary.
King Albert settled it : the army would concentrate on the left bank of the Meuse, prepare a second line along the Gette, and be based on Antwerp. The final decisions were taken on the 2nd of August, as the Germans were rolling into Luxemburg.
Similar discussions happened in the 1930s with perhaps greater political influence. In the end the idea of concentrating the Belgian Army won out over border defence with consequences discussed in other posts on here. 2) Operations in the Ardennes 1914
The outbreak of war saw the Germans advance through Luxembourg and move into the Ardennes. Extensive scouting by French cavalry during the first half of August 1914 failed to detect German units in the Ardennes. This led to French orders for an attack through the Ardennes against the southern flank of the major German sweep through northern Belgium. Unfortunately the difficulties of controlling such an advance and the lack of effective reconnaissance led to French units marching into effective German defences.
Advancing 3rd Army troops were heavily hit by artillery and the 3rd Army had to fight hard just to maintain its position and coherence. The 4th Army advance suffered also, especially the 3rd colonial division which lost 11,000 of its 15,000men. With their offensive stalled and key elements of both armies badly mauled the French were forced to withdraw. On 24 August both armies pulled back to the line of the Meuse.
A study of these events suggested that it was possible to move forces through the Ardennes to undertake significant offensives but it required careful planning, close control, and a good knowledge of any enemy forces present. It proved difficult to advance or control movement against the grain of the country especially once units left the roads and any such attempts led to many delays and surprise encounters. The results of the Fench efforts in late August 1914 show how difficult an advanc ein the Ardennes could be.3) Ardennes 1944
As an example of what forces might be needed to effectively defend the Ardennes we can look at the Americans in December 1944. The 1940 German attack in this region was obviously known and another such attack was therefore a possibility to be considered seriously. However the Americans were unable to be strong every where and the Allies judged that the Germans lacked the strength to repeat such a major strategic attack. Furthermore it was felt that there were no targets of strategic importance that would invite a smaller attack. In the light of this and the demands of other areas the Americans defended the Ardennes area with a few infantry divisions and a small armoured reserve relying on the rough defensible terrain to strengthen their defences.
The First US army deployed some 6 infantry and one armoured division to cover there line from c. Eupen to W of Luxembourg, roughly equivalent to the Belgian Ardennes defence line of 1940. This force was looked on as being comparatively weak given the length of the line to be defended (at least 50 miles) but the lack of any important strategic target in the area and the benefit of good defensive terrain was felt to offset this weakness.
Even this comparatively small defensive force was equivalent to over 25% of the total Belgian infantry force and virtually all the Belgian AFVs of 1940. The Belgians could not afford to "waste" a quarter of their army in defending an area of no real strategic importance to the Belgians and which was (apparently) unlikely to face a major German attack. 4) Belgian planning in the 1930s
see http://niehorster.orbat.com/021_belgium ... art_03.htm
As a result of studies concerning the creation of fortifications to defend Belgium, the Belgians built, in the Ardennes region, 309 MG bunkers (equipped with 1 heavy MG) and 12 medium type bunkers which were concentrated in Libramont and Neufchateau . The MG bunkers were arranged in centres de resistance (CR) and were designed to defend a town, important cross country roads and valleys. They were often placed to give flanking fire rather than forward fire to make them harder to detect. These bunkers formed 2 "lines"
Vielsalm-Gouvy – Houffalize – Bastogne – Arlon on the border with Luxembourg
Lienne valley– Baraque Fraiture – Western Ourthe
These lines were not continuous but rather were designed to provide support for Belgian units as they withdrew having performed their delaying (by obstruction) function.
Delays were based on c.325 planned demolitions and obstructions of roads, bridges, route junctions and communication lines. The basic concept was always for Belgian forces to ensure these demolitions occurred and for them then to withdraw to the defence line between Namur and Liege, for the 1st Chasseur Ardennais division, and the R Gette for the 1st Cavalry division. It was never intended for these forces to cover the obstructions with fire. The lines of bunkers were built to ensure withdrawing units were not overtaken by enemy units operating along roads.
These bunkers were built as part of the “defend the borders strategy” advanced in the mid 1930s.
seehttp://abl1914to1940.aceboard.fr/213798 ... -belge.htm
for a map showing the areas of these bunkers, line of the PFL defences and the extent of the areas defended by the 3 Chasseur Ardennais regiments of the 1st ChA division.
This "defend the border" strategy also led to the creation of the Chasseur Ardennais
Note that originally the Chasseur Ardennais units were all professional long term (comparatively) service soldiers, the only full time professional units in the Belgian Army. However the expense of this led to these units becoming conscript units though many of the professionals kept on to create a well trained effective elite unit.
In the end it was realised that given the economic constraints and the population of Belgium it would never be possible to create an army sufficiently large to defend everything. Due to this it was decided to effectively abandon the Ardennes as a defensive zone and concentrate on using the Albert canal - PFL - PFN line as a delaying defence line to allow the Allies to advance to the planned KW line so that the Belgians, British and French forces could form a continuous effective defence covering the more important parts of Belgium and all of France. The mobile elite ChA division would over see the demolitions and slip away to join the rest of the Army.
5) Defence of the Ardennes in fact
In the end the defence of the Ardennes was undertaken by Group K, a small corps commanded by General Keyaerts and consisting of:
1e Division de Chasseurs Ardennais (including 3 T15 and 48 T13 at full strength)
1e Division de Cavalerie (including 8 T15 and 18 T13 at full strength)
Cavalry regiments (mechanised units, no horses):
3e Chasseurs à Cheval
1 motorcycle battalion from VIIth Army Corps
3rd cycle regiment
These units were all mechanised, using bicycles, motorbikes and trucks, and had a total of 11 T15 light tanks and 66 T13 self-propelled AT guns.
The use of only mechanised units in the relatively rough Ardennes shows that the Belgians regarded the terrain as not being impassable to small mechanised units, including AFVs. However the primary use of mechanisation was to enable the rapid and effective withdrawal of units to the main defence lines. There these mechanised units could supply an effective reserve to support the relatively static infantry divisions that formed 18 of the 22 divisions of the Belgian army.
The AFVs were typically used in very small units typically of 2 to 4 vehicles. Given the 85km or so that the 1st ChA was to cover most of its sub units operated at no more than company strength. Therefore although the Belgians used mechanised units in the Ardennes, these units were small in size and consequently suffered less from the difficulties of moving through the rugged terrain than would say a complete mechanised division.
To provide engineer support the partly motorised 3rd GHQ engineer battalion was stationed in the Ardennes as was 1st Cavalry division's fully motorised 25th engineer battalion. It should be noted that most Belgian engineer units were not motorised. The Ardennes was also under the 1re Directions du Genie et des fortifications (DGnF), Namur. I assume it was under the direction of the 1re DGnF that most of the c 325 planned demolitions were created.
6) To attack France via the Ardennes
By the outbreak of war to get from Germany into France beyond the Meuse involved an attack through 6 obstacle lines:
a) the obstacles at the Luxembourg border
Luxembourg had effectively no army so this line represented merely whatever obstacles would be in place prior to a German advance.
b) the first Belgian fortification line just behind the border in the area of Martelange,
c) the second Belgian fortification line between Libramont – Neufchateau – Rulles
these lines consisted of bunkers concentrated at towns and villages on roads through the Ardennes. Generally these bunkers would be manned only to cover a withdrawal.
d) the Semois valley in the area of Bouillon
to be defended by French units advancing to this line after a German invasion of Belgium. Cavalry units would advance ahead of the infantry to provide warning of and to help delay any German advance. Meanwhile the infantry would establish themselves in new defensive positions.
e) the French border fortifications, formed by bunkers which were camouflaged as normal houses, the so called “ligne des maisons fortes”,
already established defences created in the late 1930s and added to during the phoney war.
f) then the most difficult task: to cross the 70 meter broad River Meuse at Sedan, which was defended by French troops in a line of bunkers and pillboxes of the extended Maginot Line.
already established defences created in the late 1930s and added to during the phoney war.
Note that the movement of French units for training and as detachments moved to different areas meant that the defneders of these 2 lines were not as well established in them as the 8 months of war available prior to the May 1940 attack might suggest.
These defences, the difficulty of the terrain, the apparent lack of strategic targets in the Ardennes all led to the defence of the Ardennes being low on the list of Belgian priorities. The example of the problems of advancing through the Ardennes seen in WW1 suggested that the planned demolitions would delay any German advance.
If the Germans advanced through the Ardennes against the French Meuse it was felt that the delays caused by the Belgian demolitions would give enough time for French forces to establish defences in depth based on the R Semois and backed by border defences and French pre war defences on the R Meuse.
Meanwhile the Belgian army could concentrate its forces on the Albert canal - PFL - PFN line covering the main defence line, the KW line where the Belgians would hold with the British and French armies.
If the Germans entered the Ardennes and then turned to the north west to flank the defences at Namur, again demolitions would delay their advance sufficiently for the French to establish a line south of Namur on the R. Meuse.
Thus the Belgian plan of delays and demolitions was thought sufficient to establish defences against any major German attack while allowing the Belgians to concentrate its army, and make best use of its mechanised units.
7) Franco Belgian co operation
the map athttp://abl1914to1940.aceboard.fr/213798 ... -belge.htm
shows a line dividing the area of Belgian operations (including the French 1st Army) and the French area of operations including the Belgian Chasseur Ardennnais as agreed on 15-5-36. The line runs from south of Namur on the Meuse - Havelange - just S. of Sougne Remouchamps.
This shows that some pre war discussions and agreements had occurred. However the Belgians severed treaty links to France in the next year and so further detailed discussions did not happen. A common Franco-Belgian defence of the Ardennes would only have been possible if there had been a prior, minutely prepared preliminary agreement. The lack of such an agreement meant
a) The Belgians undertaking their planned demolitions irrespective of the effect on French units. This led to situations where demolitions happened behind advancing French units.
b) The French being unaware of the Belgian plan to withdraw all their units to the Namur - Liege line leaving the Ardennes essentially undefended by Belgian units.
c) The French being unaware of any planned Belgian defences that had been constructed in the Ardennes and elsewhere. This was especially significant in the KW line and defences in the Gembloux gap.
8) Air Power and the Ardennes
As regards the possibilities of Allied air power stopping the German attack through the Ardennes we only have the example of air power used in the 1944 German attack in the Ardennes. Obviously if the Allies had turned their air forces against the German advance through the Ardennes in 1940, the Luftwaffe would have responded by concentrating its fighters in the region. The effectiveness of AA units to defend columns in the Ardennes would be decreased to some extent by the terrain and the forests. However these same features would also help limit the effectiveness of any allied attacks. During the Battle of the Bulge the extensive bombing of route centres such as St Vith achieved little in the way of delaying German movements. For example an RAF carpet bombing raid dropping over 1000 tons on St. Vith, far beyond anything possible in May 1940, and this created maximum delays of one day. However if bottle necks such as La Roche were successfully attacked this might have caused delays, c 150 tons of bombs over 2 days caused significant delays. Conclusions
In the light of "conventional wisdom" there was no reason to expect a major mechanised force attacking through the Ardennes. The examples of 1914, study of the Schlieffen plan, considerations of between the war studies and indeed the Germans own plans until October 1939 all avoided any such advance.
Given the (comparatively) small size of the Belgian Army and the extensive area of the Ardennes it was not possible to provide sufficient forces to defend the Ardennes effectively. It did not appear prudent to allocate c 25% of the army to the defence of an area which was unlikely to be attacked in strength and which in any case was of sufficient interest to the French that they were likely to advance into the region to establish a defence in depth for their frontier. This type of move had been agreed in the mid 1930s and there was no reason for the Belgians to believe that this type of move would not be undertaken by the French if Germany ever did attack Belgium.
The only sensible alternative seemed to be to try and delay any advance by the use of obstructions and demolitions while withdrawing any units stationed in the Ardennes for more productive use elsewhere.
The experiences of operating in the Ardennes suggested that infantry and small mechanised units could move through the area given careful planning. However the delays imposed on such moves by demolitions was thought sufficient to allow the French to establish themselves in suitable defensive positions. in addition the French planned to move cavalry units into the Ardennes to provide a covering force to the infantry's advance. This would provide the possibility of a more active delay for the Germans than just Belgian demolitions.
Thus any German units that succeeded in moving through the Ardennes would face sufficiently strong well established units in defensible terrain that they would achieve little if anything. or so it was thought..... Sources http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/ba ... _1914.html
pre WW1 studies and 1914 actions in the Ardenneshttp://niehorster.orbat.com/021_belgium ... art_01.htmhttp://www.fortiff.be/ifb/index.php?p=720 http://www.fortiff.be/ifb/index.php?p=80
examples and plans of bunkers on the Meuse and in the Ardenneshttp://www.arrc.nato.int/journal/summer04/opstory.htmhttp://www.sonic.net/~bstone/archives/031026.shtml
review of and extracts from
Rommel and Guderian against the Belgian Chasseurs Ardennais: The Combats at Chabrehez and Bodange. http://www.history.army.mil/books/wwii/7-8/7-8_25.htm
UNITED STATES ARMY IN WORLD WAR II
The European Theater of Operations
THE ARDENNES: BATTLE OF THE BULGE by Hugh M. Colehttp://users.skynet.be/frat.royale.cha/
OOB Group Keyaerts
any comments on these musing is most welcome