Counterattack at Abbeville
28 May 1940
A Mein Panzer play of some of the action around Abbeville in late May, 1940, had been in the works for a very long time, deferred for more than a year-and-a-half due to the pandemic. Finally, having vaxxed-up, a few of us codgers were able to convene on a day leading up to this Memorial Day weekend to get some stuff on the table. Zoom and Google-Meet calls were at last replaced by an in-person gathering. It felt good, an air of relief hanging over us, and it felt appropriate, this being the eighty-first anniversary of the battle.
Here in America, I find that many don’t know or understand much about the early stages of the war, especially the Battle of France. The mythology runs deep, and one encounters a lot of condescension when the topic of the “collapse” in France is raised. Notionally (and inaccurately) envisioning ourselves as the “saviors” of Europe, we tend to ignore all that came before, instead focusing on the years of American involvement. We think of armor battles in the West as great swirling engagements fought by hundreds of Panthers, Tigers, and Shermans (of such engagements, there were virtually nil). The breakout from Normandy and the subsequent drive across France to the German frontier was instead largely a deliberative combined arms operation executed by allies, one of infantry led by tanks facing an adversary primarily of infantry supported by tanks, with the former enjoying prodigious air support. Everything between D-Day and the Bulge tends to be a haze in our American memory; like I said, in my experience, the mythology runs deep.
That post-June 1944 “collapse” in reverse was certainly the product of all that had been learned before. Everything had grown in scale tactically; the tanks were bigger, better armed and armored, the infantry was better armed and organized, the artillery was bigger and longer-ranged, more mobile, and the fighter-bombers, a progression from the Sturzkampfflugzeug of 1939/1940, were nearly overwhelming. As Patton once said, when it came to the art of war, we’d grown up, and the result was often horrific.
If our American sensibilities are rife with mythology, it seems to me it is nothing as compared to that of the West during the first year of the war. The public, especially on the western side of the Atlantic, was quickly thrown into awe for what became known as Blitzkrieg, lightning war, a term coined by the press (America’s Time magazine perhaps being the first) to describe a new method of war executed by a German army led by legions of tanks and vast columns of motorized infantry. It was, in fact, baloney; the German army had less than half the number of tanks often attributed to it, and more than sixty percent of its transport remained horse-drawn. It was instead a refinement of the concepts of penetration and exploitation (largely introduced by the British in the closing years of WWI) that led to Germany’s initial successes. Blitzkrieg, it would seem, was largely a whitewash of the poor planning and field ineptitude of the French, Belgian, and to some extent British defenders.
When it comes to the French, I find myself torn, so many laying the blame for the coming debacle squarely at their feet. It is nearly impossible not to do so, the Third Republic having declined into a shambles during the years leading up to the war, and the psyche of the poilu was one largely of exhaustion and disinterest even before the balloon went up (I recommend Sartre’s novel The Reprieve for some invaluable insight into the mindset of the French). I’m not sure I would describe them as defeatist, but clearly, for many, the experience of the First World War lay heavy upon them. Rampant corruption within the government, over a decade of economic depression, and a near total failure in strategic planning proved a recipe for disaster. And yet, despite all of that, the mobile arm of the French army was formidably equipped (if not competently led).
Abbeville is located 50 kilometers northwest of Amiens and approximately 200 kilometers due north of Paris. It was at the mouth of the Somme, a point just 20 kilometers northwest of the town, where the German army, on 20 May 1940, drew within sight of the Channel, effectively cutting the French army in two and severing most of the BEF from the rest of France. It was recognized as a catastrophe of the first order, and was followed by a series of battles attempting to dislodge the Germans and reopen an avenue of communication with the rest of the country.
On this day, our focus was the 28 May 1940 attack by elements of De Gaulle’s 4th Armored Division on the German perimeter defense (57th Infantry Division) a few miles south and west of Abbeville. While the French force historically comprised nearly 140 tanks, who has that many French tanks in their bit box? Not our host, so he scaled it back a bit, which was both fortuitous in terms of the table size, the number of players available, and the amount of game time required.
Despite having convened early in the morning, it was nearly 0945 before we got ourselves sorted. The French were prepositioned in their jump-off locations, but the Germans were left to be deployed by the players. The French force was comprised of 18 Char B1s, 30 Hotchkiss H35s, and a dozen Somua S35s, all supported by three companies of infantry. The Germans had most of the 3rd Battalion of the 179th Infantry Regiment, along with dozens of Pak36 37mm AT guns, a company of 88mm Flak guns, and a handful of 105mm howitzers. Things finally got underway around 1030.
The game started, as historically, with a fairly vigorous French artillery bombardment. The French die-rolling was "très bien", resulting in a pretty lethal churning up of the German forward positions, including the vaporization of at least a half-dozen AT guns/crews and leaving some of the infantry in disarray. The French then launched their attack, leading with the Char B1 heavy tanks. The attack corridor centered on the Route Nationale highway leading into Abbeville from the southwest, and they hadn’t gone more than a few hundred yards when a lucky shot by a German Pak36 AT gun hidden amongst a copse of trees disabled the lead tank. The glee of the German gunners was quickly extinguished by the following tanks and infantry which quickly drove through the tree line, mopping up a few gun emplacements while breaking into the open ground beyond.
The H35s and their supporting infantry jumped off a few minutes later, running almost immediately into the bulk of the German infantry and a few AT guns. Where the well-armored Char B1 had a 47mm gun mounted in a turret and a hull-mounted 75mm gun (limited traverse), the Hotchkiss H35 light tank had a poor-performing short 37mm gun mounted in a turret along with a coaxial machine gun. It was also quite slow for its intended cavalry role, less than half as fast as the more lightly-armed/armored Vickers MkVI light tank employed by the British. The German Pak36, despite what has been written in some contemporary accounts, was quite capable of punching holes in the H35, and on this day, they did. Seven were knocked out within minutes, the remaining 23 left to scurry for cover and regroup.
The Char B1s, having pushed into the open ground ahead of their first objective, the crossroads at Huppy, drove the Germans before them. One German platoon made an effort to stand and deliver, only to be quickly overrun with heavy casualties. A barrage of 105mm arty slowed the French advance briefly, one heavy tank knocked out by plunging fire, but by our 1300 lunch break, the tanks had passed through Huppy and were pressing their attack toward Huchenneville.
Having made quick work of a Subway order, the French offensive resumed around 1345. Two more heavy tanks were disabled by AT fire, a pause in the advance called while they waited for the light tanks to catch up on their right flank. A lack of radio communications prevented them from knowing that the H35s had scarcely made any headway. Some well-placed 81mm mortar fire, however, soon dislodged a number of the German AT guns, and the French infantry, together with a few H35s in support, cleared the German position sufficiently such that the advance could resume. Within an hour they’d pushed the Germans back beyond the crossroads at Limeux where the advance to Huchenneville could begin. Six more knocked-out H35s were left behind.
The H35s made good progress across a mile-and-a-half of open ground, crossing the D13 where they shot up a German truck column bringing up more Pak36s. As they drew toward a tree-covered ridge east of Huchenneville, they once again came under AT fire from the tree line. Two more Hotchkiss were knocked out while they waited for their infantry to catch up. The road up to and over the ridge appeared to be strongly defended, and efforts to find an alternate avenue of attack got nowhere. Under stiff AT fire from a German position dug into the top of the ridge, the attack stalled, but not before another four H35s were knocked out. Down to just 12 tanks, the French pulled back beyond the range of the German AT guns.
Relief would come in the form of a dozen S35s, a faster, well-armored cavalry tank sporting a 47mm dual-purpose gun. More than half-again faster than the H35, the Somuas pushed up the road into the very teeth of the German position blocking them. Two were knocked out, but the rest were on the Germans before they knew what hit them. Heavy casualties quickly turned into a rout, the German infantry fleeing the ridge, abandoning their positions and much of their equipment. Despite having lost considerable time, the ad hoc column of infantry and cavalry tanks was then able to pass east of Huchenneville where they soon linked up with the Char B1 column.
The situation was looking disastrous for the Germans, but they had time on their side. We’d been at this now for nearly six hours and, while the French had achieved two of their three objectives, we had an arbitrary stop at 1900 for dinner (now just 90 minutes or so away). The French reorganized their column with the Char B1s on the point and the S35s on the right flank. Leaving the H35s behind to protect their rear, they began to push up the Route Nationale toward Abbeville.
They hadn’t gone far before the lead Char B1 was staggered by direct hit, stoving in the front of the tank while launching the turret high into the air. The French had stumbled into the lethal range of the Germans’ battery of 88mm Flak guns, positioned with their backs to the Somme River as a final defense on the southwestern approach to the city. A desperate effort to press the attack developed, with two more of the heavy tanks soon burning along the road. While the Char B1s temporarily withdrew, an attack by the S35s from the right proved no more successful. Four of the Somuas were shot to pieces before they could reach cover. Now, with the offensive stalled, the French caucused as the clock ran.
With the French deep in contemplation, the Germans regrouped. A few fire teams attempted to close-assault the S35s from the rear, but were cut down by the following French infantry. This was followed by a barrage of 105mm arty which disrupted the French infantry, pinning most while sending the others scurrying in all directions.
After much gnashing of teeth, the French reluctantly decided to call it. It was thought that there was simply too much open ground along the highway’s approach to allow the heavy tanks a reasonable chance of success in the face of the 88s. The six remaining S35s, while they had some cover, similarly looked vulnerable in any contemplated bull rush of the German position. There certainly was insufficient time for the French infantry to be able to reach them. No, the French decided enough for today and withdrew, nearly to their start line.
French casualties were considerable. More than half the French tanks had been destroyed and, had they chosen to press their attack, it was likely quite a few more would have been lost. The much-maligned French infantry remained generally intact and had performed well, uncharacteristically well, as had the French artillery.
The Germans had suffered heavy casualties, with some one-third of the infantry destroyed or driven from the field. Similarly, nearly half the AT guns had been wiped out, including a half-dozen when the French jumped the column of trucks bringing in reinforcements. The German artillery, as is usual in my experience, gave a good account of themselves, disrupting a number of attacks while knocking out a few tanks. The 88s, just as at Arras, proved decisive.
Subjectively (we never keep track of “victory points”), the day seemed to belong to the Germans. Their hold on Abbeville remained intact, while the French had withdrawn for a do-over. Both sides were left significantly weakened. Historically, the battle would rage for another five or six days, with both French and British attempts to dislodge the Germans continuing, and failing. The wedge would remain in place, and the march toward the debacle of Boulogne, Calais, and Dunkirk would begin.
I was left wondering if the French, using the hull-mounted 75mm howitzers of the Char B1s, might have successfully beaten up the 88s in a gunnery duel, allowing whatever tanks remained to reach the final objective. Historically, I doubt the French would have had the stomach for such a fight, but then who knows, sometimes the dice go your way.
We knotted this day with a good dinner and a few beers amongst friends, remembering the two we lost in recent months. Before we left for the night, I handed out a few souvenirs for their game rooms. Hopefully the worst of the pandemic is behind us.
On to the next.