Blitzkrieg: How Nazi Germany Crushed France in World War II
Now the real fight for Sedan was set to begin. German and French units stared at each other from across the Meuse. Behind the Germans a series of columns were strung out through the Ardennes Forest, desperately trying to get forward and join the attack. These columns contained most of their artillery and engineer assets. The French believed this meant the Germans would not try to cross until those assets could be brought forward, giving them time to prepare further. They also believed the French Air Force would fly sorties the next day to blunt this attack. To stiffen the defense the French high command committed the XXI Corps, composed of one armored and one motorized division. They began moving toward Sedan on May 11.
General Grandsard also positioned another infantry division, the 71st, between the 55th and 3rd North African to reinforce the Sedan front. The 55th had lost the battalion sent forward to assist the cavalry and was redistributing its troops. Both infantry divisions were short of antitank and antiaircraft guns, but the 55th Division possessed double its normal allocation of artillery. A number of corps-level artillery units were also attached to the 55th, giving it 140 guns under its control.
Also on May 12, Guderian met with his superior, General Ewald von Kleist, who ordered Guderian to force a crossing of the river by the following afternoon. Guderian was concerned about the 2nd Panzer Division, which still had not arrived. Kleist insisted on maintaining the offensive and believed the element of surprise could be achieved with a quick attack. Guderian agreed and made a hasty plan based on one he developed as an exercise the previous February. The 1st Panzer Division would make the primary effort. It would cross the Meuse just north of Sedan, seizing the high ground of La Marfee, which overlooked the city. To ensure success the division would be reinforced by the Grossdeutschland Regiment, a battalion of combat engineers, and the entire artillery pool of the three divisions in XIX Corps. The 10th Panzer would cross the river south of Sedan and protect the left flank of the corps while the 2nd Panzer would do the same on the corps’ right flank at the French town of Donchery, west of Sedan. Once across, the corps would be poised to strike west toward the coast, cutting off the Allied armies to the north and achieving the German operational objectives.
Preparation for the attack began on May 13, as each German unit struggled to get into its proper position for the afternoon attack. The limited road network still restricted their speed, and from across the Meuse French artillery fired at any target observers could find. One French general later wrote, “What a chance for the artillery to strike hammer blows, to put into practice the ‘swinging concentrations’ which are the crowning glory of the 500-page general instruction on artillery fire!”
Unfortunately for the French, their guns were restricted to only 30 rounds per day, greatly reducing the amount of fire they could mass upon the Germans across the river. The gunners had to limit their fire, feeling the need to conserve ammunition for later fighting. General Grandsard and his staff were still assuming it would take the enemy perhaps a week before they would be ready for a crossing attempt.
The German artillery was still trying to get into position through May 13, struggling with all the other supporting troops trying to get into their assigned places. Instead, the Germans used their marked superiority in air power to mount a heavy attack. The Luftwaffe used a combination of level bombers and Stuka dive bombers to lay down a barrage from the air, which shocked the French with its intensity. This allowed Lt. Col. Balck the reprieve he needed to get his panzergrenadiers across the Meuse.
It also tipped the commander of the French 55th Division, General Pierre Lafontaine, that the main enemy attack was coming soon. He signaled the corps commander, General Gransard. In response Gransard ordered his corps reserves, composed of a pair of tank battalions and two infantry regiments, forward so they could counterattack any German assault that developed. The French were still reacting too slowly, however. It took until dusk for the reserve units to even begin moving, and by then it was too late.
With the French artillery knocked out of the battle, the Germans moved up what tanks and antiaircraft guns they could to place the French river defenses under direct fire. At 4 pm, the boatloads of infantrymen began crossing the river, with Balck among those in the leading craft. Though his memoirs mention a lack of artillery support, other sources point out a short, sharp barrage laid down by German guns to suppress the defenders immediately before the crossing operation began.
Either way, the German infantry started across. Despite the artillery and air attacks, heavy fire greeted them, causing heavy casualties for the first few waves; one estimate placed the dead and wounded at fully half the infantry Balck took with him. Nevertheless, they pushed forward and seized a bridgehead. Their efforts paid off; they were able to knock out enough French bunkers to allow the following waves to get across practically unharmed. The engineers also got forward and began building a pontoon bridge at 6:30 pm. By sunset the heights on the southern bank were in German hands.