Arras Counter-Attack 1940

Arras Counter-Attack 1940

Tim Saunders
ARRSE Rating
4.5 Mushroom Heads
On 21st May 1940 the British army launched it’s only armoured attack in the battle for France, striking Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division in the flank in what would become known to cold warriors several decades later as a counter stroke. Had the Cold War gone hot the entire defensive plan in Northern Germany was based on such actions. The battle of Arras has therefore been much studied.

In 1939 7th Panzer Division did not exist and Rommel, still an infantry general, was commanding Hitler’s military escort brigade in Poland. By May 1940 it comprise 25th Panzer Regiment of three Panzer battalions, largely equipped with Czech 38(T) tanks, two Schutzen regiments of two battalions of infantry, an artillery regiment and just four 88mm dual role guns. They trained hard, to a coherent doctrine and with a clear but flexible command structure. In the opening moves of the invasion of France they crossed the Meuse and then raced to the channel, completely outflanking the British Expeditionary force in Belgium, but having to fight through the French Army. While the Germans may have had a command structure developed for, and practiced in, mobile warfare, the dash for the channel was not without risk, particularly to the flanks and this played heavily on the minds of the higher commanders and Hitler.

Command was tougher for the British and French, who were reeling from the discovery that no fewer than seven panzer divisions had struck into their flank through the allegedly impassable Ardennes. Their planned advance into Belgium made the problem worse and, to cap it all, they had just one tank brigade, comprising 4 RTR and 7 RTR (as the 1st Armoured Division had not yet been deployed to France). The rest of the BEF was infantry - with some tanks embedded in some units. The BEF reaction was twofold; firstly to strike South and secondly to prepare to withdraw. Unfortunately its command structure was not adequate for this, and ad hoc forces had to be created.

Which did not mean that their arrival in Rommel’s flank was not a rude shock -creating near panic. (The British Matilda flank was very heavily armoured and capable). Rommel reacted quicker, not least because he was (like all Panzer Formation commanders) commanding from the front. Ultimately this was a contest between well trained German troops with a coherent organisation, doctrine and a good commander against a well-equipped but poorly trained, confused and weakly led opposition. There was only every going to be one outcome.

In the Cold War this battle was studied to understand the tactics and develop procedures to avoid the pitfalls. Now that the UK has very little in the way of armour and yet finds itself squaring up to the Russians it is a battle worth reviewing. Perhaps someone could send Penny Mordaunt a copy?

This book provides an excellent account, weaving together first-hand accounts with an overview – massively helped by an abundance of clearly marked maps. The prose is clear, engaging and exciting; the structure straightforward and the narrative clear.

Buy it. Read it.

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