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Panzerwaffe Vol. 2: The Campaigns in the West 1940
Author: Mark Healy
Softback: 96 pages
Publisher: Ian Allen
Price: £16.99
ISBN: 9780711032408

Introduction

This is the second in a new series of studies from the established British publishing house Ian Allen. The series seeks to cover the chronological development of the Nazi armoured corps over ten volumes, from its Imperial roots during the First World War, to its ultimate destruction at the end of the Second.

The series is fortunate in having John Prigent at the helm as series editor. His forward introduction sets out the store for future volumes: namely, that each separate volume will cover a specific period or campaign. The slight twist with this tried and tested format being the intention to match the quality of the photographic and illustrative content with comprehensive text. For modellers, the significant pull to this series will be the promised extensive use of previously unpublished period photographs. The quality of the series, as a whole, is further boosted by the involvement of the near legendary pairing of Thomas Jentz and Hilary Doyle who contribute to the excellent colour plates of exemplar AFV.

The second study in this series focuses upon the so-called campaigns in the west. These included the extremely rapid advances through the Low Countries (Holland and Belgium) to the equally rapid dissection of France. There is also a very brief (two page) overview of the Invasion of Norway, which is perhaps reflective of the extremely limited role played by the Panzerwaffe in that short but strategically important campaign. Unlike the first volume of the series, this second study benefits from having just one author, Mark Healy who has an academic background coupled with interests in both modelmaking and gardening.

Introduction

The study opens with a comprehensive introductory chapter that introduces Fall Gelb (Case Yellow – the operational code name for the Invasion of Western Europe), a very brief overview of the Invasion of Norway and finally an analysis of the Panzerwaffe forces available in 1940.

The author provides a new take on the background to Fall Gelb. Rather than suggesting that victory was a foregone conclusion, Mr Healy recognises the German High Command’s nervousness at the prospect of facing the French Army - one of the largest and best equipped in 1940 - this in spite of their successes in Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland. Of course, in contrast to the September Campaign, the German Armed Forces would fight the Battle of France (and the Low Countries) alone, without the aid of their then ally the Soviet Union. The opening section’s text is matched by some very fine photographs of German artillery, notably of the 10cm Kannone18 on ranges outside of Poznan (which the author erroneously identifies as being in Germany). Modellers will also be impressed with the fine images of the towed version of the 8.8cm ‘bunkerknacker’.

The Invasions of Denmark and Norway follow, and, as stated above, receive only a cursory overview from the study. This is perhaps justified given the very limited use and role of the Panzerwaffe within these theatres of operation. In spite of this, the study does provide tantalising glimpses of Pz II (Ausf A or Bs) and Neubaufahrzeuge in action during the Invasion of Norway. Indeed, the Norwegian Campaign was the only combat use of the strangely anachronistic (and un-panzer like) Neubaufahrzeuge.

The final part of the introductory chapter is in my opinion its’ most insightful element. Essentially, it provides a baseline position of the Panzerwaffe on the eve of the Invasion in the west. It purports to set out the losses (during the September Campaign) and subsequent overall strength of the Panzerwaffe, inclusive of new tank production during the period October 1939 – May 1940. New vehicles, such as the Stug III, 15cm sIG33(Sf) Bison and 4.7cm PzJag I, are also cast into the equation. This statistical and unit overview slowly builds up into a comparison between the Panzerwaffe and the armour fielded by the French and British. The baseline review provides some interesting admissions, for example, the relatively poor performance of the early Pz IIIs and IVs during the September Campaign and the consequential need for heavier armour to counter the threat of AT weapons.

In addition to the extremely useful text, this section also contains some of the study’s best photographs, including some abandoned British Matilda Is and IIs and an A9 Cruiser. The chapter concludes with pictures of a true curiosity, the French behemoth, the Char de Rupture 2C, which never saw combat use succumbing to the Luftwaffe’s precision bombing.

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Sieg im Westen

This chapter deals with the Invasion’s opening battles. The rapid advance through Holland and Belgium receives token reference – the Panzerwaffe advancing almost unopposed through Holland and with only light resistance through Belgium. At this desperate juncture, King Leopold of Belgium sought help from the Western Allies (the French and British) and invited them into Belgium to defend against the German invaders. Whilst both French and British High Commands greeted this request with much gusto, it translated into a lethargic and ponderous movement of forces on the battlefield. Indeed, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was so lackadaisical that they became an easy target for the marauding Luftwaffe. The first tank-on-tank contact came at the Battle of Hannut, where a numerically and technically superior French force of Somua and Hotchkiss tanks came up against the 4 Panzer Div, the same Panzerwaffe Division that had painfully spearheaded the September Campaign. The author provides us with a telling and detailed description of the battle. As in Poland, the 4 Panzer Div suffered at the hands of a well-placed static defensive line (this time tanks instead of AT weapons). Unlike the Polish forces who faced the 4 Panzer Div in 1939, the French tank force was (on paper) superior in both armour and firepower and could have, if used more aggressively, matched the attacking Germans. Unfortunately, for the French, their lack of movement allowed the Germans to bypass the French tank force on day two of the Battle, leaving them isolated and demanding their withdrawal. It is interesting that the author acknowledges the Battle as French victory.

The Advance through the Ardennes

The following chapter describes the German forces incursion into the Ardennes, which had the objective of smashing through towards Sedan (in France). It is with some irony that the author notes that the Panzerwaffe’s most significant questions in breaking through the Ardennes were not posed by the opposing French and Belgium forces but by progressive traffic jams and fuel shortages; the latter caused by the German vanguard outrunning the second-line logistics supply train.

This chapter benefits from rarely seen period colour photographs such as illustrating vehicles (both Skoda Pz 38(t)s and Pz IV Ausf Ds) from the 7 Panzer Div attacking the same French position. Modellers will find the information revealed in these colour photographs extremely valuable.

The Breakthrough at Sedan

The next chapter details the subsequent actions that would culminate in the German forces breaking through the French Army’s Meuse Line, to the west of Sedan. The French Army had taken the strategic view that the coupling of the (River) Meuse and a 6km deep prepared defensive positions would provide a sufficient buffer to the advancing Panzerwaffe. Their logic was steeped in the Great War philosophy that such a defensive line would demand the use of heavy artillery, which the Panzerwaffe lacked. However, whilst Mr Healy kindly acknowledges that the French Army had been right to make this strategic assumption, he deftly points out that Guderian (who commanded XIX Panzerkorps) had always planned on a swift crossing of the Meuse and that nothing would stop him. In order to achieve the required bridgehead, Guderian sought to employ the close support of the Luftwaffe to secure existing bridges to the west of Sedan and then deploy the Panzerwaffe’s own bridging equipment to bolster the bridgehead (at Sedan). Those interested in the history of the RAF will bear witness to the effectiveness and ferocity of the Panzerwaffe’s AAA and the Luftwaffe’s top cover around the Sedan bridges. Whilst the study doesn’t illustrate any of the supporting AAA deployed at Sedan, it does include a very fine profile study and photograph of a Brueckenleger IVb. There are also photographs of more 8.8cm ‘bunkerknacker’ artillery, these featuring both towed and portee examples.

The chapter concludes with an interesting account of the French armoured counterattack at the Battle of Bulson. This witnessed the Panzerwaffe once more engaging heavily armoured French vehicles – notably the FCM-36 tank. Again, the French tanks proved a very tough nut for the German tankers to crack – the author notes that the German 37mm AT shells simply bounced-off the FCMs’ frontal armour. It is therefore extremely interesting to note that the Zgkw half-tracks (equipped with 8.8cm Flak 18s) of PanzerJagerAbteilung 8 achieved considerable success against the French FCMs during the later phases of the Battle.

Guderian Unleashed

Here Mr Healy goes on to describe Guderian’s flagrant insubordination and the resulting rout of the British and French forces to the north, toward the Channel and the Dunkirk pocket. The Fall Gelb plan required the Panzerwaffe to halt and consolidate to the west of Sedan. However, Guderian, the prime advocate of the Panzer arm within the broader Blitzkrieg strategy, had other ideas and saw the Sedan breakthrough as an ideal opportunity to exploit the panic that now gripped the British and French forces.

The opening battle of the push towards the Channel took place at Stonne (15 May 1940), where once again the Panzerwaffe came up against a materially stronger French armoured force. Again, the author recounts the relative ineffectiveness of German AT weapons against the monstrous Char B1. Again, the Allies’ (paper) superiority was tellingly countered by the Panzerwaffe’s speed, mobility and ability to adapt to changing conditions.

The push north would come to an abrupt and unceremonious conclusion with the Battle of Arras (20 May 1940). The Battle is commonly held as being an Allied (and especially British) victory. Yet is telling that in the hours before the Battle, British High Command informed their French comrades that the BEF would begin their withdrawal from French soil and effectively leave the French to their fate. This had a profound effect upon the already depleted French morale. Whilst the author acknowledges that the German forces (initially the 7 Rifle Regt, part of 7 Panzer Div) were overwhelmed by the combined British and French assault, he also notes the extreme confusion that gripped the Allied attackers and ultimately contributed to the petering out of their attack. Once again, the superiority of the Allies’ heavy armour is clearly spelled out – with accounts of Rommel’s 7 Panzer Div turning their 8.8cm Flaks onto the advancing British Matilda tanks. However, the Allies’ lack of coordination and communication in pressing home their advance is also very clear. This chapter is very well supported by illustrative material. As usual, there are plenty of previously unpublished photographs. These include, most notably, more (detail) pictures of a Char 2C, including an undamaged vehicle (Tank No 99) and a vehicle used to test German AT fire (Tank No 97). Perhaps the most welcome illustrations within this study are the contemporary maps used in support of the text. Mapping of any sort was absent from the first study (in this series), which made the text hard for the reader to follow. I hope that the use of contemporary maps continues through the rest of the study.

Denouement – Fall Rot and Panzers for Seelowe

The study concludes with a brief examination of Fall Rot (Operation Code Red), which was the second phase of the Invasion in west; basically the coup de grace to the French nation, a sweep down into Central France with final surrender on 22 June 1940. Given the comprehensive rout of Allied forces in Northern France, the Panzerwaffe played a minor role in Fall Rot. Although a short chapter, there are some interesting photographic references for the modeller, most notably, an image of a Befehlspanzer III Ausf E and its triumphant crew surveying a rather barren French vineyard. A photograph of Pz IV Ausf C demonstrates, even at this early point in the war, that tank crews readily sought additional protection with sandbags and spare-track armour.

The final chapter (Panzers for Seelowe) briefly theorises upon the possible Invasion of the British Isles and refers to the mythical Tauchpanzers (submersible/ amphibious tanks). Of greater interest is the text concerning the reorganisation of the Panzerwaffe (following Fall Gelb), a list of new Panzer Divisions and the lessons learnt in terms of tactics and vehicle design.

Conclusion

The major plus point about this study is that it does not perpetuate the image of the Panzerwaffe as fully formed invincible supermen, which was the first volume’s main failing, but does show them as an evolving fighting forces, learning from their loses and mistakes. This point is most telling in the study’s descriptions of the initial contact between the Panzerwaffe and the French Char B1.

The study also hints at one of history’s best-kept secrets, namely the complete incompetence displayed by both French and British forces in wielding their (superficially) superior strengths against the advancing German Armies. However, whilst the ineptitude of the French forces is implicitly laid bare by the author, he is kinder to the British, which perhaps reflects the intended market for the study. Future studies, focussed on the Balkans and the early North African Campaigns, may well require greater honesty.

The quality and content of the illustrative material has also raised a few notches. Gone are the slightly obscure subjects that characterised the first study in the series; these are replaced by a multitude of quality photographs of familiar Panzer types. There is even a smattering of French and British tanks, to provide casual interest for Allied vehicle modellers.

In my view, this second study in this series is a considerable improvement on the first. I am very happy to recommend this study as a high quality reference for modellers.

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