Battle of Hannut


Battle of Hannut

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Hannut
partof=The Second World War


date=12 May 1940–14 May 1940
place=Hannut, Belgium
result=Tactical German Victory
combatant1=
UK
NLD [Gunsburg 1992, p. 216: contributed lightly armed infantry units retreating from Dutch territory. Also committed the Dutch Air Force on few, ineffective and costly missions.]
combatant2=
commander1= General Langlois
commander2=General Hans-Jürgen Stumpff (3rd Panzer Division) "Generalleutnant" Johann Joachim Stever (4th Panzer Division)
strength1=20,800 personnel
600 AFVs [Gunsburg 1992, p. 210. ] [Gunsburg gives these numbers: 2nd DLM: 400 officers, 10,000 men, 300 AFVs 3rd DLM: some 400 officers,10,000 men, 300 AFVs]
strength2=25,927 personnel
618 tanks
108 artillery pieces [Gunsburg 1992, p. 210.] [Gunsburg gives these numbers, including "Befehlspanzer": 3rd Panzer Division: 400 officers, 13,187 men, 343 tanks, 48 artillery pieces, 4th Panzer Division: 335 officers, 12,005 men, 331 tanks, 60 artillery pieces]
casualties1= 121 tanks [Gunsburg 1992, p. 236.] , personnel: unknown
casualties2= 60 killed
80 wounded
49 tanks destroyed
111 Tanks damaged [Gunsburg 1992, p. 237.] |

The Battle of Hannut was a World War Two battle fought during the French Campaign and took place on 12 May 1940 – 14 May 1940 at Hannut in Belgium.It was considered to be the largest tank battle until that day, only to be surpassed by other engagements during the North African Campaign and on the German-Soviet front. The Germans succeeded in tying down substantial Allied forces that were removed from the path of the decisive blow through the Ardennes. However the Germans failed in neutralising the French First Army, which was then able to delay the Wehrmacht and enable the British Expeditionary Force to escape from Dunkirk.

Background

The Allied supreme commander General Maurice Gamelin committed his First Army Group, under General Gaston Billotte, and its strongest Army, the French First Army with the fully mechanised "Corps de Cavalerie" (Cavalry Corps), commanded by General René-Jacques-Adolphe Prioux, to advance into Belgium to support the large but more lightly equipped Belgian Army. Gamelin expected the German attack to break the Belgian defences at the Albert Canal line rapidly — the Belgians had in any case indicated they would after four days withdraw to the planned allied front in central Belgium, the "Dyle Line" between Antwerp and Namur — and sought to quickly establish an entrenched front line centred on Gembloux, just north of Namur, to check what Gamelin foresaw as the main enemy effort ("Schwerpunkt") of the campaign: an attempt to break through the "Gembloux Gap" between the rivers Dyle and Meuse with a concentration of armoured forces. As Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg would remain neutral until the German invasion of those countries (Fall Gelb), it had proven impossible to adequately prepare positions for the French First Army. Therefore the Cavalry Corps was given the mission to execute a delaying battle, somewhere between Gembloux and Maastricht (the likely crossing-point, where the Albert Canal connected to it, over the eastern bend of the Meuse), preventing the enemy from reaching the Gembloux area until the eighth day of an invasion and allowing the First Army sufficient time to dig in.

The Cavalry Corps had been created on 26 December 1939, containing both then existing armoured divisions of the Cavalry, the "1re Division Légère Mécanique" ("1st Mechanised Light Division") and the "2e DLM". On 26 March 1940 however, 1st DLM was given the mission, in case of an invasion, to establish a connection with the Dutch Army near Breda; this experienced active division was therefore removed from the Cavalry Corps. It was replaced by the "3e DLM", recently constituted on 1 February, manned with reservists and still insufficiently trained. Nevertheless, Prioux still considered he had sufficient forces to either contest a river-crossing at Maastricht, or wage a manoeuvre battle or, as a third alternative, defend an improvised line. He was at liberty to choose any option, provided the enemy was kept from Gembloux long enough. He decided to keep all possibilities open and act as the situation would demand. [Saint-Martin (1998), p 260]

The German plan for this sector called for an assault by airborne and shock troops, conquering Fort Eben-Emael and the Meuse and Albert Canal bridges, to open the way through the Dutch and Belgian defences for the "4. Panzerdivision" (4th Panzer Division) and bring the Albert Canal line to a premature collapse. Once this breach was made, General Erich Hoepners XVI Army Corps, and Army Group B would assume control of the 4th Panzer Division. Also commanding 3rd Panzer and 20th Motorised Infantry Divisions, Hoepner's mission was to quickly launch his Corps from the bridgehead, seize the area of the intended Allied front around Gembloux before the French infantry divisions could entrench themselves there and by thus conforming to the worst fears of the French High Command draw all French reserves to the modern Allied forces, like the French First Army, away from the main thrust through the Ardennes, which would enable the Wehrmacht to cut them off by a swift advance to the English Channel leading to a giant encirclement. His action was thus basically a feint.

Opposing forces

The Battle of Hannut became the largest tank battle of the campaign because both sides committed considerable armoured forces. The French DLMs had each two "Brigades Légères Mécaniques", one of these, the "combat" brigade, contained two tank regiments, each regiment again having a medium tank squadron, equipped with the SOMUA S35, and a light tank squadron fielding the Hotchkiss H35. [Ramspacher (1979), p. 269] Its organic strength was 44 S 35s and 43 H35s; also eight armoured command vehicles were present. The other brigade contained a reconnaissance regiment, equipped with 44 Panhard 178 armoured cars organised in two squadrons, and a mechanised infantry regiment equipped with 126 Laffly S20TL APCs but also having three organic AMR ("Automitrailleuse de Reconnaissance") squadrons of 22 tanks each, and in total three armoured command vehicles. The "2e DLM" used AMR 35 tanks for this rôle, but as the production of this light tank had been discontinued, "3e DLM" employed H35s instead. [ Danjou (2007), p 17]

Both DLMs thus had an organic strength of 240 tanks and 44 Panhards, for a total of 176 SOMUA S35s, 238 Hotchkiss H35s, 66 AMR 35s and 88 P 178s, including the organic matériel reserve. The "3e DLM" used mainly improved H35s of the swifter "modifié 39" version, that today is often referred to as the "H 39", but also had a single AMR squadron of 22 vehicles of the slower original batch of four hundred, that were also exclusively present in "2e DLM". Most Hotchkiss tanks of both versions were still fitted with the short, Long 21, 37 mm gun, with a poor antitank capability. Some platoon and squadron commander's vehicles had been fitted with the more powerful Long 35 SA 38 37 mm gun, about a fifth of the total number of Hotchkiss tanks. [ Danjou (2007), p 18]

The more detailed organisation of "2e DLM" was: "3e BLM" as a combat brigade, with "13e Dragons" and "29e Dragon" tank regiments; the second brigade was "4e BLM" with "8e Cuirassiers" reconnaissance regiment and "1er Dragons" mechanised infantry regiment. The "3e DLM" had "5e BLM" with "1er Cuirassiers" and "2e Cuirassiers" tank regiments and "6e BLM" with "12e Cuirassiers" reconnaissance regiment and "11e Dragons" mechanised infantry regiment. [Ramspacher (1979), p. 269]

Like their French counterparts the German armoured divisions each had an armoured brigade ("Panzerbrigade") with two tank regiments ("Panzerregimente"). The latter were divided into two tank battalions ("Panzerabteilungen"); each tank battalion had apart from a staff company, two light companies of nineteen battle tanks, in theory mainly equipped with the Panzerkampfwagen III and a medium company of fifteen battle tanks using the Panzerkampfwagen IV. Due to a shortage of these types, the positions were actually in majority filled with the light Panzerkampfwagen II and even Panzerkampfwagen I. The exact numbers of each type on 10 May available to the German armoured divisions are known: 3 PD had 314 battle tanks in its "3. Panzerbrigade" consisting of "5." and "6. Panzerregiment": 117 PzKpfw Is, 129 PzKpfw IIs, 42 PzKpfw IIIs and 26 PzKpfw IVs; 4 PD had 304 battle tanks in its "5. Panzerbrigade" consisting of "35." and "36. Panzerregiment": 135 PzKpfw Is, 105 PzKpfw IIs, 40 PzKpfw IIIs and 24 PzKpfw IVs. "XVI. Armeekorps" thus had a total of 618 tanks: 252 PzKpfw Is, 234 PzKpfw IIs, 82 PzKpfw IIIs and 50 PzKpfw IVs. Besides these battle tanks, 3 PD had 27 "Befehlspanzer" tracked command vehicles with only a machine-gun armament and 4 PD ten. [Jentz (1998), p. 125] Each division also had about 56 armoured cars. Most PzKpfw IIs of "XVI Armeekorps" had not yet been uparmoured to the new 30 mm standard and were thus vulnerable to even the French 37 mm L/21 gun. [Jentz (1998), p. 123]

As the French mechanised infantry regiments had three mechanised infantry battalions, total infantry strength of the "Corps de Cavalerie" was six battalions. "XVI. Armeekorps" had seven motorised infantry battalions. The French units were only lightly equipped with antitank-guns: twelve 25 mm and eight 47 mm SA 37 guns per division; and AA-guns: six 25 mm guns per division. [Saint-Martin (1998), p 326] Also there was an imbalance in artillery: the DLMs had each 36 pieces against 68 (including 24 7.5 cm leichtes Infanteriegeschütz 18) per "Panzerdivision". [Saint-Martin (1998), p 327] This was not set off by Corps artillery; the Germans had four attached artillery regiments and a heavy battery; the French CC only two 75 mm field gun regiments (and a group of twelve 25 mm antitank-guns) as corps troops. [Ramspacher (1979), p. 269]

The Battle

12 May

On 12 May "4. Panzerdivision" raced to seize their first objective, Hannut, reaching the area that morning. General Hoepner, commander of the German Sixth Army ordered the 3rd and 4th Panzer Divisions (3PD and 4PD) to concentrate on and secure Hannut to secure the Sixth Army's flank. Noting his lack of fuel and his divisions artillery and infantry support that had not yet caught up with the "Panzer", which made an immediate assault on Hannut risky, General Stever request an air-drop of fuel. That morning the 4PD made contact with a French Armoured force of some 25 tanks. [Gunsburg 1992, p. 221] The 4PD knocked out seven of the French tanks for no losses while the division's 35 Panzer Regiment advancing toward Hannut ran into fierce resistance. The French armour was deployed under cover and during the battle counter-attacked several times. The engagement ended with the French retreating. The 4PD destroyed nine enemy tanks for the loss of five. The 4PD continued toward Crehen and encircled the French 2nd Cuirassiers. However 2nd DLMs Somua S35s breached the German line and the French units broke out, suffering heavy losses in the process. The right flank of the 4PD was now dangerously exposed. [Gunsburg 1992, p. 223-224]

The 3PD moved up to cover this threat. At 16:30 pm Sixth Army requested air reconnaissance. The "Luftwaffe" reported French armour at Orp and motorised units at Gembloux. Hoepner ordered the 3PD to attack to prevent the Allies organising an effective defence. Coming under intense artillery fire from French strong points at Wansin and Thisnes the German force fell back. The French again counter-attacked and both forces armour engaged in a fire-fight. The result was a stalemate, and both retreated to their starting points. [Gunsburg 1992, p. 224-225]

At 20:00 Stever spoke to Hoepner, telling him he was certain two French mechanized divisions were before him, one to his front and one behind the Mehaigne river. Both agreed to mount a major offensive the next day. According to the plan the 4PD would concentrate to Gembloux's right and operate jointly with the 3rd Panzer.

The Germans again attacked during the night, testing the French defences. The French strongpoint at Wansin fought all night against German riflemen, finally withdrawing in the early hours of 13 May. The 3rd DLMs front remained, with positions near Tirlemont, Jandrenouille and Merdorp. The 2nd DLM held its original front. The only breach occurred at Winson, the 2nd DLMs junction with 3rd DLM. Hoepner had failed to take his objective. [Gunsburg 1992, p. 226]

13 May

To the south-east of the plain, German forces began their assault over the Meuse River: the Wehrmacht's principal effort. To the north, General Hoepner launched spoiling attacks and tied down the powerful French First Army, so that it could not intervene.

Hoepner believed the newly arrived 3PD had only weak enemy forces before it; the 4PDs on the other hand, he believed, faced strong French mechanized forces at Hannut and Thisnes-which the French had in fact already abandoned-and possibly a second French mechanized division south of the Mehaigne.

The Luftwaffe struck in the late morning to soften the enemy defences. The 3PD advanced on Thorembais. The 4th Panzer was to move in parallel on Perwez, against an expected strong Belgian anti-tank line. XVI Army Corps thus fell back on the Sixth Army's instruction to push immediately on Gembloux.

The French the 12th Cuirassiers and to the south the 3d Battalion of the 11th Dragoons, fought off waves of German infantry supported by armoured vehicles. The German 18th Infantry Division infiltrated their positions. French command planned to counter-attack with tanks from the 1st Cuirassiers unit to restore their lines, but dropped those plans due to developments on the rest of the 3d DLM's front. In the afternoon the French command ordered a retreat, and the Allied force escaped as the German infantry was being slow in following up their success. The 2d DLM was positioned just south of the planned axis of Hoepner's attack. In the early morning the 2d DLM sent some 30 Somua S-35s from the Mehaigne to the line Merdorp-Crehen to relieve the pressure on the 3d DLM. The attack was repulsed by heavy enemy tank and antitank fire near Crehen with crippling losses. General Bougrain, commanding the 2d DLM, signalled enemy infiltrations and attacks by armoured cars over the Mehaigne river at Moha and Wanze, just north of Huy, attacks which threatened to cut off the large Belgian garrison in Huy. Bougrain diverted his tank reserves to try and retrieve the situation. At 3pm a French reconnaissance aircraft reported large concentrations of German armour south-east of Crehen. The 2d DLM no longer had reserves available to intervene. [Gunsberg 1992, p. 228.]

Bougrain's Dragoons and motorized infantry were strung out in a series isolated strongpoints and vulnerable to infiltration. Bougrain refused the offer of the Belgian III Corps, retreating through his front from the Liege area, to reinforce his troops on the Mehaigne river.

The German command remained concerned of the apparent potential of the 2d DLM to interfere with its main attack. It gathered elements of the 35th, 61st, and 269th Infantry Divisions and four other units equipped with armoured vehicles. These forces infiltrated French strong points north of Huy and drew the attention of Bougrain's armour allowing Hoepner to concentrate against Prioux's front west of Hannut.

The German forces attacked; the 3PD on the north facing Marilles and Orp, the 4PD facing Thisnes and Merdorp. After heavy fighting the German Divisions forced elements across the Mehaigne. Near Orp, large concentrations of Allied and German armour clashed. The Panzers were concentrated and numerically superior while the French operated in small groups. The 3PD was flanked and attacked in the rear but this was repulsed by elements of its 3rd Panzer Brigade. At 4pm German infantry had secured Orp.

As French morale started to waver, the 3d DLM noted about one hundred Panzers before Orp and Marille. Colonel Dodart des Loges, commanding the northern sector of the 3d DLM front, ordered a retreat, As the remaining dragoons withdrew, their Hotchkiss H35 tanks together with two Hotchkiss squadrons from the 1st Cuirassiers counterattacked. The French pushed the German armour back to the stream. Losses were about even, the French claiming six Panzers for the loss of four [Gunsberg 1992, p. 230. ] . Colonel de Vernejoul commanding the 1st Cuirassiers dispatched 36 Somua S-35s to halt German armour advancing fro Orp to Jandrain. German armoured forces then surprised the French as they attacked. An equal number of Panzers attacked from cover defeating the French attack.

This offensive was the principle effort of the 3d DLM to check the 3PD. The 2d DLM launched raids against the still vulnerable flanks of the 4PD, and some small groups of French tanks broke through but were quickly dealt with by the 654th Anti-tank battalion. Apart from these isolated and sporadic raids the 2d DLM did not make any further attempts to attack the 4PDs flank. [Gunsberg 1992, p. 231.]

In the afternoon the 4PD began an assault on Medorp. As the French artillery opened fire and German artillery responded, the French pushed armour into the abandoned town and skillfully changed position making the Panzers struggle to strike their targets. The German tanks decided to bypass the town around its left flank, but this exposed the German infantry who were forced to give ground against encroaching French armour. The Panzers quickly did a u-turn and engaged the French in the open. Initially the French held the advantage due to their superior armour and firepower, but German tactics of "schwerpunkt", concentrating their armour on the vital point, began to tell. Small groups of French infantry infiltrated and attacked from the rear but German infantry crushed any resistance.

At this point the 3PD and 4PD were advancing to Jandrain. Outside the town a bitter tank battle took place. The Panzers prevailed through numbers and reported 22 French Somua S-35s totally destroyed. The German forces secured the area and town. German forces reported taking 400 prisoners, and capturing four and five tanks [Gunsberg 1992, p. 233.] . The French forces, the 2d and 3d DLM began a general retreat westward. The Panzer Divisions, no longer fearing an attack to their flanks, advanced and engaged the remnants of the enemy in the evening. The 3d Panzer Brigade claimed a tally for the day of 54 French tanks knocked out, 36 by the 5th Panzer Regiment, 18 by its sister unit; 3rd Panzer Regiment. Its own losses were listed as "slight". The 6th Panzer regiment reported a provisional loss total of only two tanks [Gunsberg 1992, p. 236.] . The Germans suffered many more tanks disabled, but as the battlefield was secured a great many were repaired. The remainder of the 3d DLM was in line behind the Belgian antitank obstacle on the front Beauvechain-La Bruyere-Pietrebais-Incourt-Perwez. The next morning the 2d DLM fell back into line south of Perwez.

14 May

The German attack on Perwez came in the morning of the 14 May. General Stumpff's 3PD was to engage the new Allied line near Gembloux, whilst General Stever and the 4PD were to break through its centre at Perwez.The 4PD engaged French Armour, which resisted heavily in wooded areas around Perwez. After hard fighting the French defences were destroyed with the help of German infantry.The 3PD was halted due to fierce resistance from 2 DLM. Bitter fighting resulted and the appearance of large numbers of French tanks panicked the German Command into thinking a major counter-attack was developing, when in fact they were just rearguard actions. Both sides suffered significant losses in armour, but as night fell the 2d DLM halted rearguard actions. The German Command regained its composure.The Allied forces had gained themselves time to reorganise their forces in response to another major German assault on 15 May.

Aftermath

The German plan failed to forestall the French First Army at Gembloux, despite their victory over the 3d DLM. Still, Hoepner's advance to the Belgian plain tied down the Cavalry Corps and part of the French First Army while the decisive German assault succeeded across the Meuse to the south-east. The Germans had hoped that Hoepner's panzers and their neighbouring corpswould tie down and neutralize the threat of the First Army. However on 15 May, forces of the First Army, properly settled into position, checked the "Panzerwaffe" which gained them time and space to manoeuvre.In the end it was the First Army which, sacrificing itself, held up the bulk of those Panzers which had broken through to theSoutheast, enabling the British Expeditionary Force and other French units to escape from Dunkirk.

References

Citations

Bibliography

* Danjou, Pascal, "HOTCHKISS H35 / H39", Editions du Barbotin, Ballainvilliers, 2007
* Danjou, Pascal, "SOMUA S 35", Editions du Barbotin, Ballainvilliers, 2006
* Jeffrey A. Gunsburg, 'The Battle of the Belgian Plain, 12-14 May 1940: The First Great Tank Battle', "The Journal of Military History, Vol. 56, No. 2. (Apr., 1992), pp. 207-244"
*Jentz, Thomas L., "Die deutsche Panzertruppe 1933 - 1942 Band 1", Podzun-Pallas Verlag, Wölfersheim-Berstadt, 1998, ISBN 3-7909-0623-9
* Prigent, John. "Panzerwaffe: The Campaigns in the West 1940", Vol. 1. London. Ian Allan Publishing. 2008 ISBN 978-071103-240-8
* Ramspacher, E. "Chars et Blindés Français", Charles-Lavauzelle, Paris 1979
* Saint-Martin, Gérard, "L'Arme Blindée Française, Tome 1, Mai-juin 1940! Les blindés français dans la tourmente", Ed Economica, Paris 1998, ISBN 2-7178-3617-9
* Taylor, A.J.P. and Mayer, S.L., eds. "A History Of World War Two". London: Octopus Books, 1974. ISBN 0-70640-399-1.


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