Up One Level
Adlertag
Up One Level
Table
Fulda Gap
Harpoon

Rommel's Second Meusing

Seventh Panzer Cross at Dinant & Houx, Belgium - May 1940

(Originally appeared in GHQ Tac News 23 & 24, September - December 2000, kindly reprinted with permission)

On the 10th of May 1940, the German high command put into action Fall Gelb, Plan Yellow, the invasion of France and the low countries. Intended to punish France for her draconian terms in the Treaty of Versailles, the invasion had been originally conceived as a variant of the World War I Schlieffen Plan, a conventional sweep through the low country of Holland and Belgium. However, the plan finally adopted was that of von Manstein, that of an armoured assault through the difficult terrain of the Ardenne region of Belgium and Luxembourg, followed by a sweep to the North Sea behind the defending armies. The cutting edge of this "Sweep of the Sickle" (Sichelschnitt) was the seven panzer divisions of von Rundstedt's Army Group A. One of these divisions was the Seventh Panzer division commanded by Erwin Rommel.

Rommel had no direct experience of tank warfare prior to the day he took command of Seventh Panzer, in mid February 1940. However, within three months Rommel's division was taking part in Fall Gelb, and was the first unit to breach the Meuse River defences. Elements of Seventh Panzer crossed the Meuse River between Houx and Dinant on the night of 12th/13th May. This was half a day earlier than the panzer's of Heinz Guderian crossed the Meuse near Sedan. However, this was not Rommel's first assault across the Meuse. In August 1914, immediately after the German declaration of hostilities, Lieutenant Erwin Rommel led his platoon into Belgium and by 31st of August, they had crossed the Meuse by pontoon bridge into the French Argonne near Sassey.

The assault of Seventh Panzer division on May 12, 1940 was to be Rommel's second "Meusing".

One of the main natural obstacles to tank movement in Western Europe are rivers, and therefore river crossings deserve particular attention. For this reason, prior to the assault on France, the German armed forces had practiced river crossings, and had developed efficient methods of attack across such obstacles. In the region of Rommel's crossing, the Meuse River is 80 to 120 metres wide and flows through a steep sided limestone gorge some 150 metres below the level of the surrounding countryside. In addition to the natural obstacle presented by this river, on 12 May 1940 the crossing point was defended by elements of General Corap's Ninth Army. Despite these problems, Rommel's forces were able to cross quickly, consolidate and then rapidly pierce the French defences as far as the border of France. During this operation, Rommel made a risky night march with tanks, advancing 50 miles in 24 hours to Le Chateau, perfectly embodying Heinz Guderian's requirement of good Panzer commanders to be willing to change tactics when the situation requires it.

So who was Rommel?

Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel was born in Heidenheim, Swabia on 15 November 1891, the son of a schoolmaster. Despite there being almost no military service in his family background, he joined the armed forces and served with distinction in World War I. Rommel's first experience of war was on August 22nd 1914 - a platoon level action in Bleid, Luxembourg, which he efficiently cleared of French soldiers using the aggressive innovative tactics which would become the hallmark of all of his later battles. After the Argonne and a quiet period in the Vosges, Rommel went on to serve in the Carpathian Mountains in Rumania, and then in Italy. On October 26 1917, Rommel's battalion captured Mt Matajur, during the Battle of Caboretto. In the process, Rommel's force had captured 150 Italian officers, 9000 men and 81 guns. For this feat, Rommel was awarded the Pour de Merite, Germany's highest award for valour. During these engagements, Rommel used his infantry as if they were mobile infantry, his tactics emphasising fire, movement and the momentum of the attack.

After the war, Rommel held a number of military posts including the position of instructor at the Infantry School at Dresden in 1929, command of a Jaeger battalion at Goslar in 1935 (where he met Hitler for the first time, as his battalion served as security for the Fuhrer during his visit there), and a brief period as an instructor of the Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth). Rommel's book Infanterie Greift An (Infantry Attacks) was published in 1937, and in 1938 Rommel commanded the Fuhrerbegleitbattalion (The Hitler Escort Battalion, or Hitler's bodyguard) during the occupation of the Sudatenland and again during the invasion of Poland. By this time, Rommel had come to know Hitler quite well, and was able to ask for a fighting command of his own. Hitler had taken a liking to this brave soldier, and asked Rommel what he wanted. "Command of a panzer division" replied Rommel. By mid February 1940, Rommel was at Godesburg, on the Rhine, ready to take over the command of the 7th Panzer division.

Hoth and Rommel

During the invasion of Poland, Germany had fielded something like 44 divisions, of which there were five panzer, four motorised and four light divisions. These latter divisions were armoured reconnaissance divisions similar to the French division Légère de Cavalerie (D.L.C, or Light Cavalry Division). These proved to lack sufficient armoured punch and were later reorganised as panzer divisions. The 2nd Light division crossed the Reich frontier into Poland near Gleiwitz, and took part in fighting to the south of Warsaw, until the fall of Poland twenty six days later. However, from 9th September, the 2nd Light division was only used for mopping up operations. At the end of September, the 2nd Light division returned to Germany and were reorganised as the 7th Panzer division, also known as the "Ghost Division". By an order issued on 6th February 1940, Erwin Rommel was to take command of the 7th Panzer division, and he took up his post sometime between 10th and 15th May 1940. At the time of Rommel's assumption of command the 7th Panzer's organization was:

Armor

  • 25th Panzer Regiment (of 3 tank battalions)
  • 37th Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion
Motorised Infantry
  • 6th Rifle Regiment
  • 7th Rifle Regiment
  • 7th Motor-cycle Battalion
Engineers
  • 58th Pioneer Battalion
Artillery
  • 78th Field Artillery Regiment (of 3 battalions, each of 3 four-gun batteries)
  • 42nd Anti-tank Artillery Battalion
Within this organization, the complement of Armoured Fighting Vehicles was as follows:

Pz. Regt. 25:

  • 109 light and command tanks (PzKpfw I and II)
  • 110 gun-armed tanks (more than half were PzKpfw 38(t) the remainder being PzKpfw III and IV)
Aufkl. Abt. 37:
  • 50 Armored cars
Pi. Btl. 58:
  • 13 PzKpfw I and PzKpfw II

Dinant Location

During the period of its reorganisation, the 7th Panzer division was trained in panzer tactics, and the correct use of panzer equipment. Part of this training and equipment involved the delicate art of river crossings.

The same year Rommel published his book Infanterie Greift An, 1937, also saw the publication of another military classic, Heinz Guderian's Achtung Panzer! This book became the basic textbook of all panzer tactics throughout World War II. On the subject of river crossings, Guderian wrote:
"When the two sides are in close contact and the terrain favours the attack, the tanks will attack simultaneously with the infantry; the infantry will have to attack under artillery cover ahead of the tanks when we need to overcome initial obstacles - a stretch of river, for example, or barriers or minefields - before the tanks can intervene".

Getting troops across a body of water requires the correct equipment, and in this too, the 7th Panzer was well equipped. Pionier-Bataillon 58 had in its inventory the standard "pneumatic boats" - four man inflatable rubber boats, as well as sixteen man wooden assault boats, pontoon bridges and even four experimental bridge laying PzKpfw II. The wooden assault boats were flat bottomed and powered by 12 horsepower engines. The pontoon bridges came in three major designs, the Brückengerät B, capable of 8 tonne loads, the Brückengerät C, capable of 5 tonne loads and the Brückengerät K, capable of 16 tonne loads. In addition, if a Brückengerät B was assembled with twice the number of pontoons, it could be used to bear 16 tonne loads.


Map of Dinant and Houx

The standard technique for crossing a river involved suppression of the far bank with artillery and direct fire from small arms and supporting tanks. A crossing of panzer grenadiers in rubber dinghies and wooden assault boats followed this, preferably under the cover of smoke or darkness. Engineers would also cross with equipment to destroy enemy strongpoints, while rubber boats could also be used to bring across heavy equipment and motorcycles. Ferry systems consisting of boats pulled back and forth with ropes were also employed. Troops from the initial lodgement were to clear the river bank of all enemy soldiers, and then to press outward to expand the bridgehead. Pontoon sections were then assembled, floated across the river and used to construct a bridge. Each pontoon section usually carried a vehicle or heavy weapon, so that in the process of floating the bridge section over, a vital piece of equipment for the beachhead could also be rafted across. Panzers were to be brought over a quickly as possible, to allow a breakout and exploitation from the river's edge, the target being a deep penetration of the enemy position, followed by engagement and destruction of the enemy position.


Hex map of Dinant and Houx, North at top

Despite such preparation, such an operation remains a delicate affair, and a lot depends on the efficiency of the defence.

The 9th Army of General André Corap occupied the Meuse river defences from Namur in the north to Pont-à-Bar, near Sedan, in the south. The defensive front was divided up into three Corps areas, from north to south, the II Corps of General Jean Bouffet (5th Motorised division), the XI Corps of General Julien Martin (18th and 22nd Infantry divisions) and the XXXXI Corps of General Libaud (61st Infantry and 102nd fortress divisions). In reserve were the 4th North African and the 53rd Infantry divisions. Additionally, tasked with scouting across the Meuse there were the 1st and the 2nd Light Cavalry divisions (Division Légère de Cavalerie or D.L.C.), as well as three Spahi brigades. All of the infantry divisions were Series A or B units, effectively militia, with few regular officers. The soldiers in such units had an average age of 36, and many of them had just returned from agricultural leave.

Across the Meuse, the Ardennes were defended by the Belgian Groupement K, commanded by General Maurice Keyaerts, and consisting of the 1st Division de Chasseurs Ardennais and the 1st Division de Cavalerie.

10th of May

At 4:35 am on the morning of the 10th, the 7th Panzer rolled into the forests of the Belgian Ardenne. To their north were 5th Panzer division, under the command of General Hartlieb. Collectively, these two divisions made up XV Panzer Corps, under the command of General Hoth. South of Rommel's panzers was XXXXI Panzer Corps, consisting of 6th and 8th Panzer under the command of General Reinhardt. Further south again were the tanks of 2nd Panzer, 1st Panzer and 10th Panzer, collectively being XIX Panzer Corps under the control of General Heinz Guderian. Each Panzer Corps was the spearhead of a whole army - 4th Army under von Kluge in the north, 12th Army under List in the centre, and 16th Army in the south under Busch. Collectively this formation was Army Group A, under the command of von Runstedt.

Ahead of the panzers were various Brandenberger units, tasked with seizing vital crossroads and bridges, required for the efficient advance of the German formations. Overhead, ensuring the advance was protected from enemy reconnaissance planes flew Me109's of Luftflotte 3.

The advance was slowed only slightly by Belgian demolitions (though these were more of a problem for the French as will be seen shortly), because while these were extensive, few of the obstacles were covered by defensive fire, and so engineers were able to quickly put things right. However, at Chaberez, 7th Panzer was held up by elements of the 3rd Regiment of the Chasseurs Ardennais and was not able to advance again until they surrendered at 9 pm that evening. Rommel was furious as his troops had gone to ground without returning fire. Rommel's own experience had been:
"...that the day goes to the side that is the first to plaster its opponent with fire".
Standard panzer tactics required a rapid advance to contact, and then the enemy was to be engaged from the halt. Rommel was a strong advocate of firing on the move, however, and spraying possible enemy positions with machinegun fire.

Meanwhile, the infantry of General Corap's left wing were still marching to the line of the Meuse, and his cavalry had crossed the Meuse and were probing toward the advancing Germans. The French cavalry and mechanised units were having difficulty getting forward, however, due to the extensive Belgian demolitions to their front, and sometimes even behind them! Tempers grew short, and in one Belgian command post at Laroche, a French captain, Edouard de Verdelon drew his pistol and threatened "If you blow the road, I will blow your head off!"

11th of May

Despite Belgian opposition, 7th Panzer continued to advance, and by the morning of 11th May, they had crossed the Ourthe River at Beffe, Marcourt and La Roche. Shortly thereafter they found themselves engaging the 4th Armored Car Regiment (an element of the French 4th D.L.C.) at Marche. Later in the morning, the German high command ordered a halt for fear that the Allies would become suspicious, and stop their advance to the Dyle River in the north.

12th of May

At 2 am on the morning of the 12th, Corap's cavalry received orders to retire behind the Meuse. This was achieved without too much difficulty, except for the nuisance caused by the ongoing Belgian demolitions. At Crupet, a railway bridge was accidentally blown while a squadron of the 31st Dragoons were passing, causing several injuries. The 4th DLC crossed the Meuse at several points deep in the II Corps area, while 1st DLC crossed at Dinant and regions south. Everything went according to plan, with the 1st Armored Car Regiment fighting a rearguard action to allow the rest of the 1st DLC to cross the river. The division commander, General Jaques d'Arras crossed the Meuse with his staff at Dinant at about 1 pm, and the 1st Armoured Car Regiment had finished crossing at 4 pm that afternoon.

Meanwhile, 7th Panzer had continued to forge ahead, with 5th Panzer's Kampfegruppe Werner keeping pace. Kampfegruppe Lubbe had fallen behind and its route was then loaned to the 7th Panzer. Due to the speed of the advance and the need to capture the Meuse bridges entact, Kampfegruppe Werner was subordinated to Rommel's command until the Meuse was reached. Unfortunately, the Meuse River bridges were destroyed before Panzer elements could cross, the railway bridge at Houx being blown at 2:45 pm, the road bridge at Dinant at 4:20 pm, and the road bridge at Bouvigne less than ten minutes after that. In additon, General Martin of XI Corps had taken 2nd Battalion, 39th Regiment from 5th Motorised division from General Bouffet's II Corps and transferred it to the hill opposite Houx. Here the battalion could defend the village of Grange.

Things were beginning to go wrong for the defenders by this stage. Corap had assumed he would have at least five days to reorganise his defence, and in the event he had only two. Communications were terrible, and morale was low. The 2nd/39th chose to remain encamped on the crest of the hill overlooking the Isle of Houx rather than defend the valley right down to the bank of the river. Additionally, the 18th Infantry division, tasked with holding the Meuse between Anhee and Hastiere (which included the Houx - Dinant region) had only some of its artillery as well as 5 of its 9 infantry battalions in position, and these were exhausted from a 55 mile march to the front. A number of the pillboxes at the waters edge were locked, and the keys passed to officers of 53rd Infantry division, who were actually deployed to the south, and so a number of pillboxes remained unoccupied.

By contrast, Rommel's response to the situation was characteristically decisive. As Hans von Luck, of 37th Reconnaissance Battalion records:
"Rommel appeared among us , as so often in the following weeks, in order to form personally a picture of the situation. He arrived in his armoured car, specially equipped with radio gear. "What's going on?" he asked. "Held up by artillery fire," we replied. "Show me. Where is the fire coming from?" Standing in his armoured car, he studied the opposite bank with his binoculars. He was calm and steady, giving no sign of uncertainty or nervousness. Within minutes he made his decision."Stay put," he told us. "This is a job for the infantry."

13th of May

During the early hours of the 13th May, Rommel's attack got under way, with 7th Panzergrenadier Regiment crossing at Dinant, and the 6th regiment crossing between Leffe and Houx. When Rommel arrived on the scene of the 6th Regiment's crossing he found the situation:
"None too pleasant. Our boats were being destroyed one after the other by the French flanking fire and the crossing eventually came to a standstill. The enemy infantry were so well concealed that they were impossible to locate even after a long search through glasses. A smoke screen in the Meuse valley would have prevented these infantry doing so much harm. But we had no smoke unit. So I now gave orders for a number of houses in the valley be set alight in order to supply the smoke we lacked."

Driving along the valley to 7th Regiment, Rommel found they had succeeded in getting a company across to the west bank, but the enemy fire had them become so heavy that their crossing equipment had been shot to pieces and the crossing had to be halted. Realising that without powerful artillery and tank support the crossing could not continue, Rommel then drove to division headquarters to talk with the army commander Generaloberst von Kluge, and the corps commander General Hoth. After making the necessary arrangements, Rommel returned to Leffe and the 6th Regiment to find that:
"...the crossing had come to a complete standstill, with the officers badly shaken by the casualties which their men had suffered."

Fortunately the tanks Rommel had requested and two field howitzers from Battalion Crassemann then arrived, and all points capable of holding enemy riflemen were brought under fire. Soon the aimed fire of all weapons was pouring into rocks and buildings, and a pillbox on the Bouvigne bridge ramp was knocked out. The tanks, with turrets traversed left, drove slowly north at 50 metres' spacing, closely watching the opposite slopes.
"Under cover of this fire the crossing slowly got going again, and a cable ferry using several large pontoons was started. Rubber boats paddled backwards and forwards and brought back the wounded from the west bank."
Returning to 7th Regiment, Rommel took personal command of 2nd Battalion and crossed with it to the aid of the company on the west bank. Moving north through a deep gorge, Rommel and his men came to the position of Company Enkefort. As they arrived, there came a warning of French tanks advancing to the front. Lacking antitank weapons, nevertheless, Rommel directed the company to pour small arms fire on the armoured vehicles, which then retired. By it was the afternoon of the 13th and the crossing was now a day old.

Meanwhile, during the night of 12th/13th May, 5th Panzer had failed in their attempt to cross the Meuse by boat at Yvoir to the north. In Houx, motorcyclists of 8th Reconnaissance Battalion of 5th Panzer had succeeded in crossing the weir linking Houx with the Isle de Houx and the far bank. Oberst Werner quickly sent three battalions of panzergrenadiers across to reinforce the bridgehead. The 7th Motorcycle Battalion of 7th Panzer division also crossed, and were able to capture Grange.

On the evening of 13th May Rommel ordered that tanks be ferried across into the bridgehead and by dawn 15 had been transported across. Additionally, the engineers had thrown a bridge across the river near Leffe, and a further 15 tanks had crossed on that way. These joined 20 antitank guns of the 42nd Antitank Battalion under the command of Colonel Mickl.

That night the 7th Motorcycle Battalion in Grange beat off a determined attack by French units, the commander being wounded and his adjutant killed.

14th of May

By dawn on the 14th, the advance guard of 7th Panzer under the command of Colonel von Bismark had reached Onhaye, 2 miles west of Dinant. Triumphantly signalling that he had "arrived", von Bismark's message was miscoded and sent as "encircled". Rommel immediately sent all tanks available on the west bank of the river to von Bismark's aid. The attack was led by, Colonel Rothenberg, commander of Panzer Regiment 25, with Rommel following close behind in at Panzer III. Onhaye quickly fell, with 25th Panzer Regiment suffering a few casualties, including Rommel himself who was hit in the cheek by a small shell splinter.

15th of May

The following day, the 15th, 7th Panzer penetrated as far as Philippeville, 15 miles beyond the Meuse. Rommel's panzers were now striking deep into the rear of the 9th Army, and near Flavion, came upon the French 1st Tank divison, just as it was refuelling. A sharp engagement ensued, with all German tank and antitank rounds simply bouncing off the French Char B tanks. As at the Meuse River crossing, it was howitzers, brought up and firing over open sights, which decided the day. Soon the division was being attacked by 5th Panzer from the north, and the Char B tanks were quickly overrun. Although held up briefly, 7th Panzer were soon on their way again, catching and shattering the 4th African division at Philippeville.

17th of May

By the morning of the 17th, Rommel had progressed as far as Le Chateau and French soil, performing the risky night march based on Rommel's judgement that the French formations could no longer offer any resistance. Meanwhile, the panzers of Guderian's XIX Corps were pacing Rommel's troops. When Guderian's 2nd Panzer division reached the English Channel at Noyelles-sur-Mer around 8:00 pm on 20th May, the evacuation of Dunkirk and the fall of France were inevitable.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Steven Thomas for modern day photographs of Rommel's crossing point.

Bibliography

  • Dupuy, Trevor Nevitt. The Military History of World War II, Volume 17, Combat Leaders of World War II. (New York: Franklin Watts, Inc. 1965).
  • Pallud, Jean Paul. Blitzkrieg in the West, Then and Now. (London: Battle of Britain Prints Intnl. 1991. ISBN 0-900913-68-1).
  • Rommel, Erwin. Infantry Attacks. (London: Stackpole Books. ISBN 1-85367-064-2).
  • Rommel, Erwin. The Rommel Papers. (Edited by B. H. Liddel Hart. London: Collins. 1953).
  • Sheppard, Alan. France 1940, Blitzkerig in the West. (London: Osprey, Reed Consumer Books Limited. 1990. ISBN 0-85045-958-3).
  • ____________. The World at Arms. (London: The Reader's Digest Association Limited. 1989. ISBN 0-86438-116-6).
  • Von Luck, Hans. Panzer Commander. (New York: Dell Books. 1989. ISBN 0-440-20802-5).
  • Young, Desmond. Rommel. (London: Collins. 1950).

Building the Table


Dinant in Terrain Maker Tiles


Houx in Terrain Maker Tiles


Hex map of Dinant and Houx

| Up | Adlertag | Meuse | Table | Fulda Gap | Harpoon |

Greetings you are visitor number to this site...


This website is owned and operated by Piraeus Games: Copyright © 2000 - 2005, Piraeus Games. All rights reserved.
Last updated on: Tuesday 20 September 2005 00:23:00