The Battle of the Gembloux Gap

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Eightball
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The Battle of the Gembloux Gap

Post by Eightball » 10 May 2004 22:32

During the invasion of Belgium, Germand and French tank troops clashed in what is known as the battle of the Gembloux Gap.
Apparently the Fourth and Third German armored division of the 16th corps attacked here shielding the main thrust through the Ardennes.
The French armored forces inflicted such a terrible toll upon the German forces they retreated. This all happened on the 14th and 15th of May.

Does anyone know what French tank forces was involved, and who the commanders were in the German Third and Fourth armored division?
It seems like an astonishing victory for the French forves, yet I have hardly heard of it.

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David Lehmann
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Post by David Lehmann » 11 May 2004 00:06

Hello,

Here is a compilation from personnal notes and debates on the France 1940 discussion group.

HANNUT - GEMBLOUX (12-15 May 1940) :

On 10th May the French troops headed for Belgium being attacked by the Germans. They were moving during night and reached Gembloux on 13th May. Their mission was to block the German advance to allow other French and English troops to establish a defensive position between the Dyle and the Meuse. The area is favorable to the tanks, therefore to the ennemy whose tanks are more numerous. The French used the Bruxelles-Namur railroad and the cities of Gembloux and Ernage to anchor the defences.

The first contact between French and German tanks took place in Hannut on 12th May 1940.
The French cavalry Corps, with its 8 Somua S-35 squadrons (13e and 29e Dragons in the 2e DLM, 1er et 2e Cuirassiers in the 3e DLM) had to delay the German XVI. Panzerkorps. The infantry (Dragons portés) was organized into strongpoints, the tanks were deployed on the rear, ready to counter-attack between the infantry positions. On 12th May 1940 the Hannut area (3e DLM) is attacked by the Panzer Gruppe Eberbach. The German tanks reach the center of the town. A first counter-attack is led by the Hotchkiss tanks of Capitaine Sainte-Marie Perrin : 11 French tanks and 5 German tanks are destroyed. The 9 other Hotchkiss are ordered to retreat.
In Crehen the Sous-Lieutenant Lotsisky and his Somuas destroyed 4 Panzers, 1 gun battery and several trucks.
In Thisne, despite heavy losses the French troops destroyed the Befehlspanzer of Lt Col Eberbach who will later be Kommandeur of the 4.PzD.
Colonel Du Vigier then launched the Somua squadron of Capitaine Beaufort into action. The Germans sustained heavy losses and were forced to retreat. General Hoeppner (XVI.PzK) had been amazed by the efficiency of the Somua S-35 in comparison to the Hotchkiss tanks, it was the first time the German encountered French tanks. During the 12-13th May night General Hoeppner gave the orders to engage all the Hotchkiss tanks but to avoid combat with the Somua S-35s if not at close range because the French 47mm SA35 gun was too dangerous at medium/long range.
On 13th May, at the beginning of the afternoon the 2e Esc/1er Cuirassier from Capitaine Ameil is launched in an attack against the 4.PzD positions. The Somuas stopped at 800m of the German positions, all the German tanks were crowded in a forest edge. The 4 Somua S-35 platoons opened fire and slaughtered the German Panzers (about 60% of the 4.PzD was composed of PzI and PzII). The 4.PzD could not deploy as it was programmed and the 3.PzD had to be engaged to outflank the 2e Esc/1er Cuirassier but it encountered the Somua S-35 squadron of the 1e Esc/1er Cuirassier (Lieutenant Mazeran), perfectly embossed and engaging the flank of the Germans. About 50 German tanks were destroyed or partially disabled but the French position was finally taken because the Somuas had no ammunitions anymore. Only one platoon (Lieutenant Racine) managed to retreat and 29 impacts of 20mm and 37mm shells were numbered on his tank.
From the 42 Somuas of the 1er Cuirassier, only 16 were still operational on the 13th May evening, all covered with impacts.

Gembloux in Belgium saw the engagement between 376 French tanks (2nd and 3rd DLM = Division légère mécanique) and 664 German tanks (XVI. Pz Korps). It is the fisrt big tank battle of WW2. The French lines are also reinforced by the 1st and 15th DIM (General Juin).
On 14th May 500 German tanks attacked the positions of the 2 infantry divisions but the attack remained inefficient despite the large use of artillery and the support of the Luftwaffe.
About 60 German tanks were destroyed by the French field artillery (grossly half of the 35. Pz Rgt). Two French companies are totally destroyed in Ernage. From the 700 men of the 7th RTM only 74 are still alive on 16th May. The front didn't collapse but the losses are really heavy. At Gembloux it is a Pyrrhus victory for the French but the German pierced the lines in an other area. The mobility and tactics of the Germans almost systematically resulted in concentration of firepower and local superiority in the objective area.

LOSSES IN GEMBLOUX :
- 105 tanks on the French side
- 165 tanks on the German side

Germans never attacked with less than Panzer battalion's strength (so about 80 Panzers including 10 PzIII and 6 PzIV) against squadron strength strongpoints (20 French tanks either Hotchkiss or SOMUA). The reason is simple : tactical regulation (French officers latter admitted that they were surprised by the German tank concentration) and transmissions (lots of radio vs few radios, the classical 1940 tank stuff).
Then you have to know that apart from the officers, the tank commanders were reservists that actually did their military service on horses ! They had fired a few shells at Suippes and now, they were facing a fload of German panzers ! (It is still amazing that they did not run away at this glance). To actually hit a Panzer with the one-man turret would prove to be difficult : panzers were fast, training insufficient ... But on the German side, the situation was not very good as well : apart from the 75mm gun (PzIV), no German shell could pierce the Somua S35 and the Hotchkiss (and even not talking about the B1bis not present in this battle) at a cumfortable range, they had to move to close range. Also German tankers went to duel the French Somuas at long range (around 800 to 1000 m) with both sides using too many rounds for nothing but the 47mm gun of the Somua was able to destroy the German tanks at longer range.
Even counterattacks by 10 SOMUAs were viewed as critical on the German side ! The French would trade tanks for time.
When coming to the reason of French losses, a high proportion of Hotchkiss were destroyed by gun fire but for SOMUAs, a significant proportion were lost due to drivers errors or mechanical breakdowns.
In tank battle, the one that hold the ground in the end has a tremendous advantage. Belgian civilians still remember that after the battle, German field workshops would work during the night to repair.

Regards,

David
Last edited by David Lehmann on 01 Jun 2004 23:50, edited 1 time in total.

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Eightball
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Post by Eightball » 11 May 2004 19:47

Thanks, David. A most elaborate reply. Could you explain the following sentence though;
(13e and 29e Dragons in the 2e DLM, 1er et 2e Cuirassiers in the 3e DLM)

I understand it must be units and what they are attached to which is talked about here, but if it could be explained more it would be great.

Also, the French artillery in this battle was supposedly deadly accurate? Any background on this statement?

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Post by David Lehmann » 11 May 2004 22:00

Hello,

Concerning the organizations, order of battle etc. look at this two reference sites :
http://enpointe.chez.tiscali.fr/oobs.html
http://enpointe.chez.tiscali.fr/dlm.html (here the page about the DLM, see the table and organigram)

and

http://france1940.free.fr/en_index.html

Concerning the artillery, proof is that among all the German AFVs losses, about 60 of them (half of the Pz Rgt 35) were destroyed by its fire.

David

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Post by JC » 12 May 2004 12:29

Very good information about this important battle, however a couple of additional points need to be made. First: the mission of the XVI A.K.(mot.) was to appear to be the main German attack and thereby draw the French and British forces north to meet them, while the real German schwerpunkt, Panzergruppe v.Kleist, was making its way through the Ardennes and crossing the Meuse at Sedan. This mission they accomplished completely. Secondly, after the battle the French withdrew leaving the field to the Germans, thus they were able to retrieve and repair many of their "destroyed" tanks.

Also, the commander of the 5th Panzer Brigade, Oberst Hermann Breith, won the RK for the conduct of this battle.

FWIW

JC

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Post by Eightball » 12 May 2004 16:40

Interestingly enough though, had the French kept on pushing they might even have jeopardized the entire Ardennes assault.
Thanks for the links, David.

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Post by JC » 12 May 2004 18:21

Interestingly enough though, had the French kept on pushing they might even have jeopardized the entire Ardennes assault.


How do you figure that?

JC

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Post by Eightball » 12 May 2004 22:25

Well, the two Panzer divisions were shielding the northern flank of the main thrust into the Ardennes. Needless to say, had these been pursued in their retreat by reinforced French armor the northern flank would be endangered.

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Post by JC » 13 May 2004 02:19

Eightball wrote:Well, the two Panzer divisions were shielding the northern flank of the main thrust into the Ardennes.


Actually no they wern't. They were about 100 k north of Panzergruppe v.Kleist in the Ardennes and seperated by several Infantry Divisions, Motorized Divisions, and at least 4 Panzer Divisions. So even if the French forces at Gembloux had somehow succeeded they could of scarcely had any effect on events in the Ardennes.

Eightball wrote:Needless to say, had these been pursued in their retreat by reinforced French armor the northern flank would be endangered.


German forces didn't retreat. By the end of the first day (May 12) they had captured Crehen, Thisnes, and Hannut. On the second day 3PzD forced the Gette River and captured Jauche while 4PzD encircled Merdrop and reached Ramillies. The third day the French armored forces withdrew several kilometers and took up new positions. The next day, after several hours of German artillery fire on the French positions the XVI A.K.(mot) panzer units struck and quickly penetrated 5k to Baudeset and Sauveniere. The French tanks were ordered to withdraw behind their infantry and reorganize. They did so in some disarray. Thus ended the first major tank verses tank battle of WWII.

For further reading on the subject you might want to read Jean Paul Pallud's fine work on the subject: Blitzkrieg in the West Then and Now.

JC

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David Lehmann
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Post by David Lehmann » 13 May 2004 10:28

The mission of the French units in Hannut and Gembloux was not to breakthrough or to control the ground .... the French cavalry corps had the task to delay the Germans while other units were deploying.

David

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Post by JC » 13 May 2004 12:19

Panzermeyer wrote:The mission of the French units in Hannut and Gembloux was not to breakthrough or to control the ground .... the French cavalry corps had the task to delay the Germans while other units were deploying.


That's quite true, and they succeeded in that.

The German mission was not to breakthrough or control the ground either. The XVI A.K.(mot) mission was to draw the French and British forces toward them. They succeeded in that.

JC

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Post by Eightball » 13 May 2004 17:12

JC wrote:Actually no they wern't. They were about 100 k north of Panzergruppe v.Kleist in the Ardennes and seperated by several Infantry Divisions, Motorized Divisions, and at least 4 Panzer Divisions. So even if the French forces at Gembloux had somehow succeeded they could of scarcely had any effect on events in the Ardennes.


The French forces destroyed a somewhat higher number of German tanks than they lost, so in a way they succeeded. And we'll never know how the German high command would have reacted to a French armored thrust into the northern flank of the Ardennes assault, had it been ordered, but post war German analyses opine that a reinforced French force might have "crumpled" the German front in Belgium.

JC wrote:German forces didn't retreat. By the end of the first day (May 12) they had captured Crehen, Thisnes, and Hannut. On the second day 3PzD forced the Gette River and captured Jauche while 4PzD encircled Merdrop and reached Ramillies. The third day the French armored forces withdrew several kilometers and took up new positions. The next day, after several hours of German artillery fire on the French positions the XVI A.K.(mot) panzer units struck and quickly penetrated 5k to Baudeset and Sauveniere. The French tanks were ordered to withdraw behind their infantry and reorganize. They did so in some disarray. Thus ended the first major tank verses tank battle of WWII.


I've read the attack started the 14th, continiuing into the 15th, where French armored and artillery forces repulsed the Germans. And I used the term retreat to lightly, what I meant was that they had simply been repulsed. Sorry for that.

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Post by Richard Hargreaves » 01 Jun 2004 19:49

Panzermeyer wrote:Hello,
Here is a compilation from personnal notes and debates on the France 1940 discussion group.


Really stupid question, but where is the France 1940 discussion group. I'm writing a book on the Fall of France from the German viewpoint and it may prove useful. :D

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Post by David Lehmann » 01 Jun 2004 20:36

Hello Halder,


Concerning the German point of view I hope you have Karl-Heinz Frieser's (Oberst Bundeswehr, MFGA) book "Blitzkrieg Legende" ... But I think it is for the moment only available in German and French.

The discussion list can be found here :
http://france1940.free.fr/

click on France mailing list.

Regards,

David

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Post by Richard Hargreaves » 02 Jun 2004 07:40

Panzermeyer wrote:Hello Halder,


Concerning the German point of view I hope you have Karl-Heinz Frieser's (Oberst Bundeswehr, MFGA) book "Blitzkrieg Legende" ... But I think it is for the moment only available in German and French.


I have indeed. I picked up a French translation on a visit to Normandy last year. Excellent book.

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