Armoured warfare was to dominate the German attack on Western Europe in May 1940. Holland fell to the use of paratroopers, but it was armoured vehicles used in blitzkrieg attacks that were to be crucial in this phase in World War Two.

Guderian – the father of blitzkrieg

On August 8th 1918, 430 British tanks had attacked German lines on the Western Front. In one day, British forces advanced five miles into German lines. Such an attack convinced Luderdorff that Germany would not be able to stand up against another armoured attack and by November 1918 an armistice had been signed. The shock that accompanied this attack was overwhelming. Ironically, the attack on the 8th August was nowhere near as devastating as Luderndorff believed as the British tanks had advanced much further than their supply lines could cope with and even though they had penetrated five miles, they had not got much further than the forward German defences. However, their psychological impact had been huge. This is what had caught the eye of German officers such as General von Kuhl, who had been on the receiving end of the August attack. In 1928, Kuhl wrote with huge enthusiasm about the impact of tanks and the surprise factor they gave to commanders in the field.

Neither France nor Britain shared Kuhl’s enthusiasm for the tank. In the inter-war years, France put her faith in the defensive – hence the building of the Maginot Line. Such a strategy – the so-called ‘continuous line’ – meant that the tank was never seen as anything more than a vehicle that could support the infantry wherever it was needed. The other role given to it was one of reconnaissance. However, the tank was not a weapon considered good enough to drive a gaping hole through the enemy and inflicting major damage to it. In Britain, the military hierarchy was still dominated by the old established cavalry or Guards regiments. The tank did not fit into their way of thinking as the cavalry still had a love affair with the use of the horse in battle while the Guards regiments were all infantry based. Also, those who did not support the tank also pointed out that despite the achievements of the tank in August 1918, many had been lost in battle or had broken down, thus questioning their reliability in battle. To some in the inter-war years, the cost of tanks was an issue. Horses were cheaper, some saw them as more reliable and there was also a comfort zone with them.

After the success of blitzkrieg in September 1939 against Poland, the French tinkered with their strategy involving tanks. Each of the four light mechanised divisions the French had by May 1940, had 220 tanks and armoured cars in them. Combined with a brigade of infantry, this was a formidable force on paper. However, the importance of defence still prevailed and the tank was seen even in May 1940 as a means of supporting infantry as opposed to a weapon in its own right. The French had also created at the last minute four heavy mechanised divisions with heavy tanks and fewer infantry. But even these heavy tanks were seen as just being able to punch a hole through the German line through which the infantry could move through – once again tying the tanks to the infantry.

In Germany, the Wehrmacht had to effectively start from scratch after the Treaty of Versailles imposed its military terms on Germany. With just 100,000 men allowed, German senior commanders needed to find ways and means to bolster the fighting capacity of the army. This does not mean that all German senior commanders were supporters of the tank. Luderndorff, though no longer in the military, had not been a supporter of the tank and some of the old guard in the army carried on this belief. However, a new generation of young officers embraced the idea of a fast moving war based on armoured vehicles supported by air power. After Hitler came to power in January 1933, he gave these officers his backing against the more conservative views of the old guard. As a man who had experienced the horrors of trench warfare, it is possible that Hitler, even though he planned wars of conquest, was keen to ensure that trench warfare never occurred again. Men such as Guderian and Rommel were given a free hand to develop tactics based on mobility, while tank designers were also given encouragement from the highest level.

In September 1939, when blitzkrieg was unleashed on Poland, many senior German military commanders were not convinced it would work. They were proved wrong. Even in the build up to the May 1940 attack, senior figures such as Brauchitsch and Halder, supported by Bock, Leeb and Rundstedt, tried to persuade Hitler against a mass armoured attack on the French. Once again, blitzkrieg worked and only served to advance in Hitler’s mind the standing of advanced thinkers such as Guderian and Rommel (and his own military ‘genius’) – and undermine the standing of men such as Brauchitsch.

Ironically, not all of the British Army was devoid of forward thinkers. Three of the main people associated with what was known as the “Tank Idea” were Captain Liddell Hart and Generals Percy Hobart and J F C Fuller. In particular, Hobart was driven by the idea of creating a fighting force based on the mobility of tanks that could drive through an enemy’s line. He envisaged mobile infantry and artillery units to support the tanks. However, he came up against the entrenched views of the establishment in the military and despite being commander of the 1st Tank Brigade, he had little chance against the traditionalists. These traditionalists found support in political circles as well. In 1934, the Financial Secretary to the War Office was Duff Cooper. He stated in that year:

“The more I study them (military affairs) the more I become impressed by the importance of (horsed) cavalry in modern warfare.”

Ominously for the likes of Hobart and Fuller, Duff Copper became Secretary of State for War in 1935.

It was only in 1937, that Britain decided to invest in tanks en masse. However, by May 1940, very few of the new tank units had any form of experience in operating with infantry units – and certainly not in a war situation.

In May 1940, the BEF had seven cavalry light armoured regiments mounted in light tanks and their task was one of reconnaissance and supporting the infantry – just as cavalry units had done. Neither the French nor the British had devised a plan on what to do against a major German armoured thrust. They had designated certain areas along the frontier as “tank proof”, areas where tanks and other vehicles could not operate due to the terrain. The Ardennes was one of these places – exactly the area where the Germans were to launch a massive armoured attack on Sedan and then drive through to Abbeville.

Many assume that the success of the May 1940 attack on the west is indicative of the superiority of Germany’s tanks when compared to the British and French ones. This is misleading. The Panzer III and IV’s were well armed but poorly armoured when compared to British and French tanks. But Germany only had 627 of these tanks. The armour of these tanks was no more than 30 mm which gave both Marks little armour against a direct hit. The other ‘tanks’ available to the Wehrmacht at this time were no more than lightly armoured vehicles – good for speed and reconnaissance but of little value in a one-to-one with a French/British tank.

The French Char B was a fine tank – well armed and well armoured. It had a 47-mm gun in a fully rotating turret and a 75-mm gun in the hull. Its armour ranged from 40-mm to 60-mm. The French had 800 of these tanks. But they had one major failing. The commander in the turret had to command the vehicle, load and fire the gun and invariably take some part in the tactics being used on a local level. Such a responsibility meant that he could not concentrate on one thing. The German III and IV’s had three men sharing these duties, as did the British.

British tanks did include many light armoured vehicles that would not really pass as tanks. But in the Matilda they had a fine tank with armour of up to 70-mm and a two-pounder gun. No German tank shell could penetrate the Matilda’s hull and few German tanks could match the firepower of the two-pounder.

So why were the German so successful when it came to the actual attack on May 10th when so much of the Allies equipment was as good as the Germans or better? The answer must always go back to the tactics employed. Once the Germans had attacked into the Ardennes, they gained a momentum, combined with air superiority, that the Allies could not handle. As tanks were used to support the infantry, the Allies found that they had no answer to the constant onslaught of blitzkrieg, despite having tanks as good or better than the Germans. The overwhelming success of blitzkrieg pushed the Allies back to the beaches around Dunkirk which required Operation Dynamo to rescue British and French troops who had to leave all their vehicles behind.