MUSEE FRANÇAIS ASBL

B 1450 CORTIL NOIRMONT

BELGIUM

 

THE BATTLE OF GEMBLOUX

      

1.-SITUATION

 

 In March 1936, the German Nazi army invaded the west bank of the Rhine River in Germany.

Since the treaty of Versailles, after the defeat of the German army on the end of WW1, the west bank of the Rhine was declared as a demilitarized zone for security to protect France and Belgium against a German aggression.

This violation of the treaty of Versailles doesn’t provoke any reaction from the allieds, France and Great Britain hoped that afterwards Hitler will remain peaceful in the future.

Belgium feels the danger of the presence of the Germans close to its boundaries. The Belgian government declared his neutrality hoping to avoid entering in a conflict between France and Germany.

The geographical situation of Belgium doesn’t permit for France to remain reaction less if Belgium was invaded by the German armies. Belgium is an ideal preparation zone for an offensive to the heart of France for the Germans. For England, the Belgian coast in hands of Germans represents a deadly danger for his fleet by the action of the submarines.

Secret plan was planned in the case of invasion of Belgium. This was  “The DYLE Operation” 

 

2.-ALLIED PLAN

   If Belgium was attacked, the French and British armies will enter in Belgium to occupy and defend an allied defensive position in Belgium between the defensive position of the Dutch army and the Maginot line.

This defensive position is lined from the Dutch army position in Netherland  , the 7 French Army of general Giraud bound with the  Belgian defensive position « KW « (Koningshoikt – Waver) hold  by  the Belgian Army and the British Army.

In the South of Waver, behind the Dyle River and the railway tracks between Brussels and Luxembourg (obstacle against tanks with the railway trench) the first French army defends the position from Waver to the Belgian fortified position of Namur.

Southwards begins the sector behind the MEUSE River of the 9 The French army to Sedan and the second French army until the Maginot line defended by two other army groups to the border of SWITZERLAND.

Initially the Belgian forces are defending the covering position of the ‘Canal Albert ».This waterway is a good obstacle   defended with Belgian infantry divisions. It did normally permit to cover the build up of allied forces in North Belgium.

 

 3. - THE GERMAN PLAN

 

The North Belgium terrain is very favourable for the deployment of big masses of tanks .The country is open, with few cover, light waved terrain, a school training area for the use of tanks. The allied staffs are waiting there the principal effort of the German invasion plan.

To maximize the surprise effect, the German staffs has chosen a solution.

The big thrust was given in the Ardenne forests South of Namur, normally little useful for an principal effort of a modern army with numerous heavy armed vehicules.

To maximize the surprise effect it was necessary to have a powerful secondary attack in the North  in order to attract there the maximum allied units  to allow   the principal German attack to progress very smoothly and fast in the direction of the ocean coast in order to encircle the allied forces in North Belgium and to destroy them afterwards.

The strength of the secondary attack was calculated as minimum as possible   but his   most powerful unit was the XVI Panzerkorps with the 3 and 4 the Panzerdivisionen and the 20 motorized riffle division. This XVI Panzerkorps has to attack trough the Dutch border to Maestricht to cross the Albert canal with the support of airborne units to seize three bridges and neutralize the powerful fort of EBEN EMAEL . Afterwards he has to progress in the direction of Gembloux meanwhile the principal attack in the Ardenne forests crosses the Meuse River and rush to the ocean coast to encircle the mass of the allied forces engaged in North Belgium.

 

4.-SITUATION OF THE 1st FRENCH ARMY

  In  order to cover the movement and to build up of its units in Belgium, the 1st French Army push a armed covering force to the East for delaying the enemy  in order  to permit the arrival of the units on the defensive position and the preparation for the combat  behind the railway tracks Brussels Luxembourg.

The « Cavalry Corps Prioux » had two armed divisions the 2nd and 3rd light mechanical Division with 435  light tanks of 20  tons, Somua and Hotchkiss with a good armour, good guns but without radio equipment. This lack of transmission did not permit to react fast to any combat situation. The 700 German tanks had radio equipment allowing practising the new German tactic for tanks « Klotzen nicht Klekkern » the use of tanks in mass. Moreover the Germans dispose of an up to date air support able to rally numerous combat air plane as air support for the heavy columns of tanks far of their normal artillery support.

The Cavalry Corps Prioux got the mission to delay the enemy during four days.

He succeed in its mission, the German tanks were in contact with DYLE position on May 14 at noon .The covering forces cross the Dyle defensive position.

The battle Gembloux is beginning …

 

5.-THE BATTLE OF   GEMBLOUX

 

The 1st French Army had disposed its forces as follows:

Three army corps from North to south: the 3, 4, and 5 Corps each with two divisions

One motorized riffles divisions and a normal infantry division from North Africa.

The three divisions of North Africa; (1 Moroccan Division, 2 and 5 North African Infantry Divisions) are formed with professional soldiers,

The motorized riffle divisions (1, 12, 15 motorised Infantry Divisions) with soldiers of the national service.

On the attack axis of the XVI Panzerkorps are the 1 Moroccan Division and one regiment of the 1 DIM (the 110th Regiment).

 

 

 A.-On May 14 1940

 The XVI Panzerkorps try to seize the bridges on the railway and to cross the French defensive position by surprise with the tanks units heading with full speed to their objectives. After a while, surprised by the swift movements of the panzer divisions, the French army strong reacted and repulse all the tentative to cross the railway.

In the evening, the French with counter attacks had the control of the situation.

The position has been crossed by armed elements but for the night the position is intact. Twenty German tanks were burning in front of the defensive position.

During the night, the French artillery, good prepared for the combat, was firing on the spotted German detachments, the command posts and concentrations of vehicles obliging the Germans to withdraw the two tanks brigades of the 3  and 4 Panzer divisions to put their tanks out of the  bursts  of the French artillery.

B.-On May 15 1940

 Considering it was impossible to breach the French position with an mounted attacks (Effectively the obstacle of the railway is reinforced with thousands of antitank mines) the XVI Panzerkorps launches an attack against the French position with his infantry. An artillery group for counter battery normally must destroy the French batteries before the start of the attack but it completely missed its objectives.

The French artillery is completely safe on the start of the German attack.

Following the old Roman route, on the high ground between the two rivers, Meuse and Escaut the German infantry was battered by the violent artillery concentrations of the French artillery. The artillery division of the 15 DIM reinforce the artillery of the 1 Moroccan Division with his fire together with the artillery of the general reserve.

It was a hell for the German infantry, the losses are important.

In the sector of the 4 Panzer, the infantry was not able to cross the French position.
The tanks brigade was engaged to support the infantry but the heavy French artillery intervene and destroy the heavy tanks of the 4 Panzer. Having all his heavy tanks out of combat, the 4 Panzer was unable to continue his attack.

Its remaining light tanks were not able to manage against the French tanks best armed.

In the sector of the 3 Panzer, in the afternoon, the reserve battalion of the infantry brigade with the support of tanks succeed to breach the position, but deeply weakened by his losses and counterattacked by the French tanks, at about 20 hours 45 (German time) general Hoeppner, commanding officer of the XVI Panzerkorps ordered to stop the attack and to withdraw after the railway, excepted a few points in the French position.

 

6. CONCLUSION

 The German strategic plan succeed, on May 20 the encirclement is performed.

The campaign of May 1940 was a great defeat for the allied. Although the re-embarkation at Dunkerk of the BRITISH EXPEDITIONARY FORCE (BEF) will have a great influence on the final victory of WW2. 330.000 professional soldiers of the British Army are safe. The battle of Gembloux has played an important role in this final succes. We can easy imagine how disastrous would have been a breach in Gembloux of two Panzerdivisions and the rush in the rear zone of the BEF. It had been the end of the BEF .These professional soldiers were the basis of the invasion army on the coast of Normandy in June 44.