Battle of Sedan (1940)

The Battle of Sedan 1940 (or the Second Battle of Sedan) was a battle fought between the Wehrmacht el ‘the French Army in the field of Sedan during the initial stages of the campaign in France. This battle represented a crucial moment for the fate of the ‘German offensive against France and one of the most important and successful military operations of the first phase of the Second World War. Some German armored divisions of Army Group A were able to overcome the Meuse and to conquer the important position of Sedan, thus laying the foundation for the rapid conversion to the north-west that would have surrounded in a few days the bulk of the Anglo-French troops of Army Group n. 1 in Belgium.

The battle, preceded by the surprising and unexpected advance of the German armored forces in the Ardennes, May 13, 1940 began with heavy bombing of the Luftwaffe, which weakened defenses and shook the morale of the French troops deployed on the line of the Meuse. In the afternoon of the same May 13 elements of the 19th Panzer Corps of General Heinz Guderian, powerful training mechanized consists of three Panzer Division with over 850 tanks, managed to cross the river at Sedan and by the next day solidified the bridgehead beyond The attempts of the Meuse in the Royal Air Force (RAF) and Armée de Air to destroy the bridges built by the Germans with shares of aerial bombardment were easily kept at bay by the Luftwaffe and German anti-aircraft artillery, and some confused counterattacks French armored reserves were easily repulsed by the German panzers. On May 15, the last resistance in the French sector of Sedan were superseded by Panzer Division that only five days later (May 20) would have reached the shores of the English Channel.

Fall Gelb

Tired German planning

Since November 1939 Adolf Hitler had surprisingly realized the strategic importance of the area of Sedan that was an important hinge of the French front on the extreme western edge of the Maginot Line. The German conquest of this area partially fortified along the banks of the Meuse could discover at the same time the Maginot Line, which could be circumvented on the left side, the Paris region, reached by an advanced direct to the south, and the region of Northern France, with a bold march westward towards the coast of the English Channel. So the Führer did not change substantially the first project of Fall Gelb and drawn up by OKH, which assigned the main role of the offensive to Army Group B of the General Fedor von Bock north of Liege, he decided to assign to the Group’ s A armies of General Gerd von Rundstedt the 19th Panzer Corps of the famous General Heinz Guderian, leading expert and theorist of armored warfare, to launch a secondary attack with two Panzer Division (2., and 10. Panzer-Division) and a motorized division (29. Division) just in Sedan, after passing through the Ardennes, to be used in case of any difficulty in the main sectors of the offensive.

On 10 May 1940, the Wehrmacht launched its offensive in the west invading Luxembourg, the ‘Netherlands and Belgium. Two days after the start of operations, the Army Group B had arrived a few kilometers from Rotterdam and Amsterdam, while in the center of Belgium, the German armed forces had reached the banks of the river Dyle.

According to the intentions of the German invasion of France, the advance of Army Group B represented only a diversionary tactic, designed to distract the attention of the Anglo-French command from the real center of gravity of the offensive: the attack through the Ardennes of Army Group A commanded by General Gerd von Rundstedt. Within this training, the brunt of the attack would be up to the elements of Panzergruppe von Kleist, under the command of General Paul Ludwig Ewald von Kleist, this armed battleship would be given the task of working attacks in depth in a relatively autonomous the progress of the rest of the infantry divisions of Army Group A. In order to ensure the necessary impact force to Panzergruppe, the unit was equipped with as many as 5 armored divisions divided into two Panzer Corps, but overall they were at the disposal of General von Kleist 41,140 vehicles, including 1,753 tanks of all types.

Operationally, the most strategically significant breakthrough would be up to the 19th Panzer Corps commanded by General Heinz Guderian, a formation composed of three armored divisions (the 1., The 2., And 10. Panzer-Division) and from Infanterie Regiment Großdeutschland.In this unit was assigned the crucial task of crossing the Meuse near Sedan, breaking through in the most southern point of the device of a German attack. The relevance of this operation on the fate of the overall Campaign of France was dictated by the location of the city of Sedan, in fact it was in the area at the turn of the right wing of the French Army Group and the left wing of II Army Group, to defend the Maginot Line: A quick breakthrough in this area would create a breach in the French camp, thus allowing the Germans to start an encirclement maneuver to the detriment of the Army Group.

The plan of operations of General Guderian was quite simple: the three divisions would have made simultaneous attempts of crossing the river, with motorized infantry units that would guide the action ensuring a bridgehead useful crossing the wagons. Once the tanks had gained in safety the opposite bank of the Meuse, they could occupy Sedan and begin their westward movement. To realize this plan, Guderian had identified in 1. Panzer-division unit which would have been his spear in the attack at Sedan, putting it at the center of the device of German attack.

French strategic decisions

The French Supreme Command, following the experience of the first world war, he considered that in this new attack the Germans would have repeated the strategy of the previous Schlieffen Plan. Therefore, according to the Dyle Plan prepared by General Maurice Gamelin, the left wing of Army Group n. 1 ally (consisting of the I, VII and IX of the French Army and the British Expeditionary Force) went within the Belgian territory to counter the German invasion.

The main French political and military figures, despite the concerns brought to light by the British military experts, believed that no offensive action could be carried out by the Germans through the Ardennes. In particular, they believed that the difficulties posed by the terrain prevented any action on the part of armored vehicles: Marshal Philippe Petain said that the Ardennes were “impenetrable”, while General Gamelin defined geographical features of the area as “the best anti-tank obstacle of Europe”.

The natural barrier posed by the Ardennes and the Meuse seemed then a French High Command impenetrable line of defense for armored forces. The French military experts concluded, therefore, that in the worst case, a German attack through the Ardennes to Sedan conducted would not have reached the Meuse than two weeks before the start of the German offensive. According to their estimates, moreover, the only crossing of the Bulge the Germans would take between five and nine days.

There were some, however, attempts to change the opinion of French officers to their commands militants, especially in light of the results of some exercises carried out in France in 1938 by these maneuvers emerged as a potential attack German motorized troops would have quickly destroyed the French lines. Again in March 1940, then, a report addressed to [Gamelin pointed as fortified positions in defense of Sedan, which is critical for the defense of the line of the Meuse, were completely inadequate.

All these considerations do not, however, convinced the French command to change their opinion on the conduct of the strategic line of defense. So when ‘April 11, 1940, General Charles Huntziger, whose II Army defended the line of the Meuse before the Ardennes, requested additional divisions to complete defensive fortifications, he saw only refuse dry by the French command.

The French defenses at Sedan

The belief that the Germans would not attack Sedan had left in that area to concentrate scarce French defense forces. Between the units of the Second Army Huntziger, which defended the area west of the Maginot Line, only the 55th Infantry Division (commanded by General Henri-Jean Lafontaine) was positioned to defend the area.

Consistent with their strategy, the French entrusted their defenses to the construction of fortified positions along the course of the Meuse at Sedan. They were so large fortification works undertaken throughout the area, in order to build a solid line of defense. The work, however, never came to be completed due to bad weather and shortage of labor: when the battle began, most of the bunkers and pillboxes were still incomplete and basically unusable.

During some surveys, some pilots of the Luftwaffe, the German High Command reported the presence of these structures, which made ​​him think of an extensive system of bunkers and fortifications that put in serious alarm around the top German military and the same Gerd von Rundstedt (commander of the Army Group A) began to doubt the goodness of Guderian’s offensive plan. From more careful photographic analysis, however, the Germans sensed that the fortification works were not yet complete: this gave them even more thrust and determination in making a quick attack on Sedan.

As mentioned, the defense of Sedan relied mainly on the shoulders of the 55th French Division. This unit, however, for various reasons it was not in a position to deal effectively with the conflict: it was, in fact, a division consists mainly of reservists, many of whom had already passed the age of 30. From when you were in the area of Sedan, moreover, the actual of the 55th Division were much more engaged in the construction of fortifications in the preparation military, making it still unprepared for a fight in the open field.

The organization of the 55th Division, moreover, was very confusing: most of the units or of the soldiers was reassigned over and over again in different tactical positions. This had a negative effect not only on the general organization of the defense system, but also the morale of the troops, whose spirit of cohesion was frustrated by the frequent changes slowly.

To help the 55th Division in the defense of the Meuse, the French command sent also in the forefront the 71 Infantry Division. In this way it was thought to be able to significantly increase the firepower of Sedan in France, but at the time of the German attack, only part of this unit was actually able to arrange themselves along the line in defense of the Meuse

The decisive for the fate of the battle, however, was the presence of a leak of about 2 km between the French fortified positions, soon discovered by explorers Guderian. This gap would have allowed the attackers from the north you could easily take possession of the road between Fleigneux, Saint Menges and Glaire, thus gaining possession of one of the most important roads in the sector.

Advanced Panzer in the Ardennes

The battle

May 13

Bombing of the Luftwaffe

The XIX. Panzer korps possessed significant forces for the attack,, in terms of the availability of armored vehicles: in total were available for the attack uomii nearly 60,000, 22,000 motorized vehicles, 771 tanks of various types, 141 artillery pieces and 1,470 aircraft support. The biggest problem for Guderian was the scarcity of pieces of heavy artillery, and most of the infantry divisions, with their artillery, they were still lagging behind compared to the tips German battleships, which had reached the Meuse Guderian convinced, however, the commander of the Panzergruppe Von Kleist that it was not possible to wait for the arrival of the infantry divisions to launch the attack, it was evident to both, in fact, that a rapid crossing of the Meuse was the decisive condition for the success of the whole country of France.

To remedy therefore the problem of shortage of artillery, the German general budget of the concentrated artillery pieces of his Panzer-Korps under the command of the 1. Panzer-Division, the spearhead of his attack. In order to strengthen the impact force of this division, therefore, Guderian reassigned most of the heavy artillery battalions of 2. and 10. Panzer-division under the command of the 1. Panzer-Division, which would have also received the support of independent artillery battalions of the corps. In this way it could have a number of artillery pieces about 10 times higher than in the other two divisions.

Under these conditions, air support from the Luftwaffe would make a difference. L ‘OKW ordered therefore that it was guaranteed Sedan attack on the highest possible level of air cover, subtracting aircraft to the support of Army Group B engaged in Belgium. The Luftflotte 3, under the command of Hugo Sperrle was then assigned to the attack on Sedan, this unit possessed 1,470 aircraft: 600 bombers Heinkel He 111, Junkers Ju 88 and Dornier Do 17, Ju 250 87 500 Messerschmitt Bf 109 Messerschmitt Bf 110 and 120.

Crossing the Meuse

Guderian predispose plans for a quick connection to Sedan. The attack would be leaving at 16:00 with an intense air raid, simultaneously with the start of operations of the Meuse crossing by land departments. The point through which to launch the attack was identified by Guderian in a long stretch of the river about 2.5 km, located just west of Sedan and poorly defended by the French. The tactical advantages of this sector showed obvious to the German general: the river in that area bends sharply to the north, to then turn back to the south, thus creating a sort of small salient natural. The dense woods around the course of the Meuse, then, ensured excellent coverage for the preparations of attack and artillery positions.

Groups of German armored infantry crossed the river to 16 of 13 May 1940, rapidly conquering the salient and then head to the assault of the heights south of Sedan. By midnight the bridgehead had reached a depth of nearly 8 km without encountering excessive resistance French and in the meantime the tanks crossed the Meuse crossing several bridges prepared by German sappers.

At the end of 12 May 1940, the troops of the XIX. Panzer-Korps were easily smoothed the way to the south and west of the Meuse town of Sedan (on the right bank of the river) had already been easily occupied without meeting May 12, the same as reported Guderian, a significant resistance French side, once the situation has stabilized at Sedan, the German command was able to program the continuation of the offensive against the French defensive fortifications around the city.

Failure of the French defenses

In the late afternoon of 13 May, also the 2. and 10. Panzer-division gave way to their attacks to take possession of the cities of Donchery and Wadelincourt near Sedan; their attacks proceeded with difficulty due to the insufficient supply of artillery, especially in the early stages of the battle. The 1 Panzer-Division in the meantime got a major achievement in the central sector of the front of Sedan, expanding the bridgehead conquered the day before over the Meuse Once the center of the front was broken by the attacks of the 1. Panzer-Division, the situation improved for the other two German divisions: both reached on the night of May 14, their goals. Given the scarcity of artillery pieces available to attackers, the support of the Luftwaffe was also crucial on this occasion for the success of the operations of ground troops. The Luftwaffe air supremacy represented a decisive element for the German success in this battle, as in the rest of the campaign.

The 55th French Division showed however that it is not prepared to attack German and in particular the absence of effective anti-aircraft defenses this unit left at the mercy of massive bombing on his positions. Then, when German bombers destroyed the communications center of the division, the entire organization and logistics operations of this unit was completely paralyzed, thus inflicting a blow to the morale of the troops.

May 14

Allied air attacks

The situation in the bridgehead, however, still remained complicated for the Germans: Despite initial successes, in fact, a shortage of ammunition, and the inferiority of the artillery pieces were threatening their positions. Besides the German troops who occupied the bridgehead were already exhausted after the rapid advance made in the previous days. 1: 00 of May 14, the engineers completed the construction of a large bridge over the Meuse Gaulier large enough to allow the transport of not only supplies but also of heavy artillery and armored vehicles, the first German tanks of 1. Panzer-Brigade of Colonel Keltsch began to cross the river only at 7:20.

The fall of Sedan and the enlargement of the bridgehead, on the other hand, imposed the French to act. The commander of Army Group n. French 1 (General Gaston-Henri Billotte) ordered decisive action in the field of Sedan, to prevent the Germans aggirassero on the side of the entire Army Group. The French reaction was entrusted to two actions: an aerial bombardment and a counter-attack from the south.

The combined strengths of the RAF and French aviation were engaged in several operations against German positions throughout the 14 May. The Germans resisted this attack an intense anti-aircraft artillery fire, using the 303 cannons 20mm, 37mm and 88mm at the disposal of the three armored divisions. Moreover, the Luftwaffe possessed an overwhelming numerical superiority in terms of hunting, which caused substantial losses to the aircraft of the Anglo-French fleet. The air assault to bridges Germans ended in failure: by the evening of May 14 the 1. Panzer-Brigade of Colonel Keltsch (who had already fought against the French tanks in the morning) and the bulk of the 2. Panzer-Brigade of Colonel von Prittwitz and 4. Panzer-Brigade of Colonel Landgraf (over 600 tanks in total) were over the Meuse, without which the Allied bombings were able to make significant damage to facilities operations and logistics.

Battle of wagons Bulson

In parallel air attack, the French command also programmed a ground offensive to undermine the German bridgehead, the French X Corps would attack the German positions already at dawn on 14 May. The German positions in the bridgehead were still very weak in the early hours of that day, while the first panzer (4th Panzerkompanie of the 2nd Panzer-Regiment) crossed the river only at 7:20. So an energetic and rapid attack by the French could have put them in big trouble, but delays and indecision the counter French, which was to be launched from the 4th and 7th Battalion wagons (dependent on the 503e Groupement de Bataillon de Chars, training of reserve 2nd Army) and the 205 º and 213 º Infantry Regiment, was postponed for several hours and developed with great hesitation and slowness, following the classic tactical schemes French of the First World War, allowing the Germans to strengthen their positions south of Chéhéry. In contrast to the French commanders, Generals Guderian and Kirchner quickly engaged the first companies of panzer 1 Panzer-Brigade of Colonel Keltsch received after the Meuse and sent immediately to the south to occupy the territory tactically important to Bulson.

General Lafontaine gave the order to attack only at 5:00 on 14 May, and the slow advance of the French armored forces (tanks of the 7th Battalion greater Giordani, equipped with floats FCM36), who marched along with the infantry of the 213 Regiment of Colonel Labarthe and artillery, left the time the Germans to deploy tanks Panzerkompanie of Lieutenant Krajewski, undergoing rapid influx from the bridge of Sedan, who managed to reach first (at 8.45) the dominant positions on the crest of Bulson, anticipating and surprising the French armored vehicles. The clash took place in the areas of Bulson and Connage starting from 09.00.

Initially, the French forces did in fact rely on the superior firepower of their artillery and their tanks and put the company in difficulty panzer Lieutenant Krajewski (4th of I / 2nd Panzer-Regiment) that was at the forefront, however, after the arrival of the panzer companies lieutenants von Grolmann and von Kleist (2nd and 8th of II / 2nd Panzer-Regiment), the German tanks took over and, thanks to their greater maneuverability, units of the 1. Panzer-Brigade of Colonel Keltsch had the better: with their greater speed and better radio communications system, the German panzers often able to fit through the French lines, allowing them to hit the attackers behind at close range, inflicting heavy losses the slower French tanks.

A Bulson, the three Panzerkompanie of the 2nd Panzer-Regiment decimated the 1st and 3rd tank company French (who lost 29 tanks of 39), while Connage at 9.45am on 8th Panzerkompanie/2nd Panzer-Regiment Lieutenant von Kleist overwhelmed the French 2nd tank company (which lost 11 of its 15 tanks FCM 36), with the support of the infantry (under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Mahler who died during the battle) and anti-tank teams (under the command of Lieutenant Beck-Broichsitter) Großdeutschland that dell’Infanterie Regiment, sent expressly by General Kirchner to support the panzers, conquered the positions of the French and collaborated effectively to the fight against enemy armored vehicles.

After the defeat of the French tanks, the German tanks, supported by infantry, they could attack in the afternoon on the left side of the 213 º Infantry Regiment which was almost destroyed, while the same commander Colonel Labarthe was captured; already at 10.45, General Lafontaine had counterattacks suspended and canceled the movement of 205 º Infantry Regiment and the 4th Battalion wagons, which then fell back in disorder without fighting. In the evening, General Lafontaine ordered the general retreat of his division now in decay. The 1. Panzer Division marched Chemery so on, more than ten kilometers south of Sedan, where the tanks of the 2nd Panzer-Regiment arrived already at 12.00 am completely disrupting the enemy’s defenses. In the town there was also a bombing in error against German aircraft units of the division that caused deaths among the officers of the 2nd Panzer-Regiment and seriously wounded Colonel Keltsch that was replaced in command of the 1 Panzer-Brigade by Colonel Nedtwig.

Advanced Panzer westward

May 15

Failure of the French counter-

German advance over the bar and Vence

After the landslide victories in Sedan and Bulson, the German High Command and Hitler personally ordered the XIX. Panzer-Korps to settle in their positions until the arrival from the back of the rest of the infantry divisions of Army Group A. The main concern of the German commands, in fact, was to make sure that the German bridgehead remained solid, to avoid excessively discover the French side counterattacks.

Guderian did not agree with this policy, in compliance with the new military theories based on the movement and actions in the depths of the armored corps, the German general was convinced that a rapid conversion to the north-west (towards the English Channel) was the key to victory of the war. So he chose to ignore his orders: the 10. Panzer-Division Infanterie Regiment el Großdeutschland would remain to guard the bridgehead, but the 1 and 2 Panzer-division would begin to move towards the north-west.

Battle Stonne

To cover his true intentions in the eyes of the French, Guderian ordered the two divisions remained to guard the area of Sedan to attack to the south, as if they wanted to get around the French positions along the Maginot Line. The battle took place between 15 and 17 May near the town of Stonne; clashes were very bloody and led, after many reversals in the face, to the conquest of the city by the Germans and the final defeat by France in the field of Sedan.

Collapse of the Meuse front


It is generally recognized by military historians that the French defeat at Sedan was the decisive factor for the success of the German invasion of France. Once you have established a bridgehead, in fact, the Germans were able to quickly jump to the coasts of the English Channel, bypassing the French Army Group: Already on the evening of May 16, the avant-garde armored Guderian had reached the shores of Oise, 80 kilometers from Sedan.

In this battle emerged clearly the limits of the French army tactical and operational; always in this battle, however, also emerged the ability of General Guderian, from then on considered one of the ablest commanders of armored forces throughout the Second World War and one of the fathers of the Blitzkrieg.


•John Keegan, The Second World War: A Military History, BUR, Milano 2000

•John Prigent, Panzerwaffe: The Campaigns in the West 1940 – Vol 1, Ian Allan Publishing, London 2007

•Basil Liddell Hart, Military history of World War II, Mondadori, Milan 1996

•Basil Liddell Hart, History of a defeat, BUR, Milano 2000

•Karl-Heinz Frieser, The Blitzkrieg Legende, Naval Institute Press, 2005

•Martin Matrix Evens, The fall of France, Osprey Publishing, Oxford 2000

•John Terraine, The Right of the Line: the air force in European war 1934-1945, Hodder and Stoughton, London 1985

War in 1940

Transactions of the Western Front


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