Rommel writes in his journal: “The western route is now open. We had crossed the Maginot line! It was hard to believe. 22 years ago, we stayed 4 and a half years before the same enemy, had won victory after victory and still lost the war. And now we are sinking into enemy territory. It was not just a beautiful dream. It was reality!“(quoted by German historian Karl Heinz Frieser).
The evening before, he crossed the blockhouses near Clairfayts in the Avesnois. Despite the darkness, he decides to move forward without delay to exploit this victory. An audacity that succeeds.
With his Panzers, he stumbled across a whole French motorized division bivouacking for the night along the road between Solre-le-Château and Avesnes. These French soldiers, drawn back from Belgium, must have felt safe behind the border, happy to be able to take a little rest before confronting the Germans again.
But the unfortunate are surprised in full sleep. Rommel orders his tanks to fire while driving, to scare the French. “Hundreds and hundreds of soldiers and civilians are awakened with a start by the armored regiment rushing at full speed … Their faces are distorted by fear.“(journal of the 7e Panzerdivision quoted by Karl-Heinz Frieser).
So far, the enemy has found no response to this process. Her nerves let go.
Erwin Rommel, German general.
Rommel enters Avesnes-sur-Helpe with 40 French trucks captured and hundreds of prisoners. Rommel’s tactic: to impress and go for it by spitting fire from all his tanks even in the face of a superior enemy. In his memoirs he explains: “This method that I had ordered – advancing towards the enemy by firing – proved to be remarkable. It costs ammunition, but saves men and tanks. So far, the enemy has found no response to this process. His nerves let go“.
But Rommel is very reckless. He passed Avesnes-sur-Helpe with his tanks, leaving his infantrymen to finish with the last French defenders. He hears the sound of an engine in the night and tells himself that these are his Panzers following him. Unfortunately for him, these are 16 French tanks who survived the battle of Flavion in Belgium and who had retired until then. Among them, the dreaded B1 bis.
This time, Rommel has no choice, he has to turn back and fight until 4 am in the streets of Avesnes. The German losses are significant but ultimately a group of 3 French tanks ends up retreating. Again, tireless, General Rommel decides to continue towards Landrecies to take the city bridge before it is destroyed by the French.
Once again, he surprises French soldiers who do not expect to see Germans so far behind the border.
So it was a bluff that Rommel succeeded that night from May 16 to 17, by exposing himself personally to the head of his troops. Thousands of French soldiers are taken prisoner without even trying to fight, simply surprised by the Germans, whom they sometimes take for the English.
The overlap of Rommel’s armored vehicles which rushed without seeking to consolidate their positions, against military rules, created total chaos among French units. The French will nickname Rommel’s division “the ghost division“because it always pops up where you don’t expect it.
I saw young French soldiers hanged, some with their belts, surely they had committed suicide, young people … near Avesnes-sur-Helpe.
André Boutoille, Calais artilleryman.
That night, the Calais artilleryman André Boutoille will also be a victim of Rommel’s tactics. In the early hours of May 17, he left Maubeuge with his convoy of trucks to find his regiment at Avesnes-sur-Helpe. For him, the war is almost over. Before leaving in captivity, he saw near Avesnes, French soldiers who preferred to hang themselves rather than be taken prisoner. An image that has marked him for life.
“I was taken prisoner on May 17, at 4 a.m., that I remember“, he says.”We returned to Belgium on May 10 and on the 17th I was taken prisoner. “
“We stayed on the frontline for 7 days”, describes the veteran from Calais. “The driver had taken small paths to go to Avesnes. I was leaning on the back of the truck and I see a sidecar coming. On board, there were two Germans, I recognized them, I had already seen them in Namur. I say to the driver: “There is a sidecar following us”. “Just fuck him up,” he says. I took the submachine gun, a Saint Etienne half-round magazine with 25 cartridges and when they arrived 50 meters away… boom! Did I kill them? I don’t know … The sidecar rolled up. 5 kilometers further you arrive at a crossroads with two German tanks. We get out of the truck, a big guy came up to me, put the “firecracker” under my nose and he said to me in French: “If you don’t obey a shot right away!”
“With my regiment at Avesnes, we were taken prisoner”
, continues André Boutoille. “It was there that I saw young French soldiers hanged, some with their belts, surely they had committed suicide, young people, … near Avesnes-sur-Helpe. We waged war for nothing, us. All these martyrs who died for nothing… “.
André Boutoille will be sent to a disciplinary camp in Poland. He was released by the Soviet army and had to wait until 1945 to return home. He was a member of veterans of Coudekerque-Branche, the city where he lived for many years, when we interviewed him in June 2010.
Your advance cost me a sleepless night.
Adolf Hitler to General Rommel.
During this unusual night, 10,000 French soldiers were taken prisoner while Rommel lost only 105 men. At 6 am, his Panzers are at Landrecies, at 6.30 am they are at Cateau-Cambrésis. There, the German general realizes that he has crossed 50 kilometers in one night.
His division is dangerously spread out behind enemy lines. He only has a little avant-garde with him. He finally stops his ride. Besides, Hitler himself reminds Rommel to order despite the success: “Your advance cost me a night of insomnia“. The German General Staff fears a French counter-offensive and wants to rally its troops.
This offensive opened the English Channel route to the Germans and yet it was by no means planned like that. The order to attack Avesnes-sur-Helpe was not officially given by the General Staff until 8 am on May 17, 8 hours after the conquest of the city.
English historian David Irving wrote about this bluff from Rommel: “One furious Frenchman determined to shoot would have sufficed and Rommel’s race would have stopped immediately. He had absolutely no thought of hiding his rank and his person. By his elegant uniform, his high peaked cap, his decorations and his high voice, he clearly distinguished himself from his tank commanders. But he continued to live his protected life as if by a spell, as countless events show“. Rommel caused his luck that night …
French B1 bis resist in places
At Landrecies around 1 p.m., 2 French B1 bis tanks destroyed 100 German armored cars and light tanks parked in the streets of the center (reported by historian Dominique Lormier). The B1 bis was the most powerful tank of the time, but very heavy: it consumes a lot of fuel. German tanks, lighter and faster, spin and destroy the supply lines forcing the French to constantly back up to regroup, in vain.
Further east, in Stonne in the Ardennes we are still fighting. This May 17, a French B1 bis tank crushes a group of German infantrymen under its tracks and allows the French to reconquer the village.
The day before, another B1 destroyed a column of 13 German tanks, despite the 140 projectiles that hit it. This village in the Ardennes changed hands 17 times in 3 days. At 5:45 p.m., the Germans took it back, this time definitively. General Wagner, a senior German officer, said after the war: ” There are 3 battles that I will never forget: Stonne, Stalingrad and Monte Cassino“.
De Gaulle strikes back in the Aisne
Also on May 17, Charles de Gaulle can finally apply the principles he had outlined in his book Towards a professional army. In Aisne, at Montcornet, Colonel de Gaulle was ordered to attack with his armored division. He has campaigned for a long time for the organization of large tank units while the French army has dispersed its armored vehicles, scattered in multiple small units, unlike the Germans.
At 4:45 am, he attacked with 88 tanks, including 35 B1 bis. The attacks succeeded each other until 6.30 p.m., due to lack of fuel and under pressure from the Stukas, French tanks withdrew. De Gaulle has proven that when grouped together, French tanks can make the German army back down.
De Gaulle will write: “There are several hundred German dead on the ground, many enemy trucks burned. We have made 130 prisoners. We have not lost 200 men. Back on the roads, the refugees have stopped fleeing. Some even turn back because it is rumored in their columns that French troops have advanced“.
In fact, de Gaulle’s division will have put a thousand Germans out of action. An unfinished victory, which will not change anything during the campaign.
The French General Staff is a little reassured, thanks to the battles of Stonne and Montcornet, it thinks that it has stopped the progression of the Germans towards Paris.
German chief of staff Von Manstein – the man who devised the plan of attack against France – prepared a new surprise for the Allies. Generals Guderian and Rommel will relaunch their Panzers. Not to Paris, but to the Channel …
► The continuation of our series tomorrow with the day of May 18, 1940. You can re-read the previous episodes in the summary below: