Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Straight into the Teeth of the Lion: Hermann Balck's Attack on Martelange, 1940

The campaign Germany unleashed against France in 1940 is one of the few clear examples of the so-called “blitzkrieg”. The details of this campaign at the operational level can be checked out in the widely available literature. Today,  a combat vignette of one of the tactical battles that was pivotal for the success of the German Army. A few considerations on the operational level are given to understand the context ...
(An expanded view and explanation of this figure is in the body of this entry, click "Read more" below)

Disclaimer: Back in 2007 I was involved in the so-called "Panther's War College", a gathering of war gaming enthusiasts with interest in exploring military history/science using the "Conquest of the Aegean" war game. The material presented here is from a post I made at the "War College's" forum. I'm currently working on a couple of entries about the so-called "maneuver warfare", and before posting them I wanted to have this combat story out.

The Belgian forces in the Ardennes consisted of two light infantry divisions under the command of General Maurice Keyaerts. One of these divisions consisted of three infantry regiments of Chasseurs Ardennais. These light Belgian forces had the mission of delaying the German advance towards the Meuse river. General Keyaerts planned to accomplish this mission by a system of obstacles covered by relatively long range fires. However, he had some 85 kilometers of front to cover and never intended to defend all obstacles with substantial firepower. Besides, the Chasseur Ardennais were an extremely light force, with bicycles for transportation and some four machine guns per company. In some cases they would boost their firepower with a T-13 armored vehicle, which featured a 47mm main gun.

Right at the border between Belgium and Luxemburg lies the town of Martelange. This town was defended by the 4th Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Regiment of the Chasseurs Ardennais with a series of pillboxes and fortified houses. The defense also featured a small minefield, and demolition charges placed along probable routes of advance.

The operational deployment plan of the German forces in the Ardennes was a recipe for disaster. Granted, the Ardennes is restrictive terrain, but its road network was relatively well developed. During the planning phase of the operation, there were bitter fights between General von Kleist (commander of a Panzer Group) and Generals List and Busch, commanders of the infantry armies that were to follow the tanks through the Ardennes. Everybody wanted guaranteed ownership over roads. As a result, the headquarters of Army Group A gave PzGrp Kleist (with a total of 41,140 vehicles, including tanks, trucks and others) only four roads for its advance. To make things worse, the headquarters of Army Group A, refused von Kleist’s request to spearhead the advance on these four roads with two Panzer Corps and he had to deploy his Panzer Group in echelons rather than in wings. This resulted in a operational deployment plan in which forces would make contact with the enemy in a piecemeal fashion and on restrictive terrain that favored the defenders.

On the first day of the campaign, the 1st Panzer Division was to advance via Martelange and Bodange towards the city of Neufchateau. The timetable for days ahead was tough, there was no room for mistakes or delays. Staff officers carried enough doses of Pervitin to keep all the drivers awake for as much as three days if necessary. The forward detachment of the 1st Panzer Division consisted of two motorcycle (Krad) companies (3rd Coy of the 1st Motorcycle Battalion and the 3rd Coy of the 4th Reconnaissance Battalion) plus 3 armored cars from the 4th Reconnaissance Battalion. One could ask why a second motorcycle company that was not organic to the 4th Reconnaissance Battalion was reinforcing the advance detachment. Vintage German doctrinal publications stressed that during marches “readiness for action must be the primary focus” and suggested the “formation of combined arms elements” and the “selection of suitable order of march”. Given the terrain of the Ardennes, it is not surprising that the spearhead of the 1st Panzer Division was centered around infantry rather than armored forces.

Part of the German advance detachment arrived at Martelange around 07:45 in May 10th 1940. One of the motorcycle companies halted at a destroyed bridge across the Sauer river. The armored reconnaissance cars which were advancing in a parallel road drew fire from Martelange. A few minutes later, Oberstleutnant Balck, commander of the 1st Rifle Regiment arrived at the scene and ordered the halted motorcycle company to cross the river and clear the enemy off the hill they were holding northwest of Martelange. The best way to describe this attack order is suicidal: cross a river under fire and attack an entrenched enemy uphill, frontally and without fire support (no tanks, artillery or air support). By this time, a Belgian T-13 tank had pinned down the three armored cars making them unavailable to support the infantry. Surprised by this wild frontal assault, many Belgians ran from their prepared positions, forcing the whole company to withdraw around 10:30.

The fight at Martelange, May 10 1940. Place names are in yellow (please dismiss the names in parenthesis: they are just made-up names for a war game scenario I prepared for "Panther's War College"). German forces are indicated in blue and Belgian forces in red.


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