First Army Group started with eight infantry divisions, four in forward positions on a line approx Mauberge-Avesnes-Guise, and four in a second line approx Valenciennes-Cambrai-St Quentin. Army Group HQ was located at Doullens. We expected reinforcements at some point in the shape of a motorised infantry division and two armoured divisions.
The Germans attacked hard on 16 May. Our intelligence was correct: eight panzer*, one motorised and three infantry divisions. The panzer and motorised divisions rapidly broke through our forward positions, avoiding contact with our troops if they could manage it and leaving their infantry to engage our forces. Then they opened a wide gap in our second line between Valenciennes and Cambrai through which the panzers poured. By the end of the first day German advanced units were on the outskirts of Arras and the situation looked impossible to the French high command.
On 17 May German tanks moved into Arras and stopped, causing a vast tailback of panzer divisions all the way back to Mauberge. I'm still not sure why this happened: the advanced elements of our motorised infantry division were starting to deploy to the west of Arras, but frankly the panzer divisions in Arras could have swept them aside. We even had the unexpected pleasure of German recce units beating a hasty retreat. The southern route through Doullens to the Channel lay entirely open all day, held only by the French HQ fuel bowsers and my sommelier. Our infantry divisions began to attack the flanks of the stalled German column, capturing among other things a copy of the German C-in-C's secret orders and of all things the German C-in-C's medals and marshal's baton, all of which feature in newsreels now playing cinemas across France, England and neutral America. And the dense column of tanks and trucks proved a target even the French Air Force couldn't miss. De Gaulle's (semi-formed) armoured division arrived in the late afternoon, and overall the second day had worked out rather better than the French might have expected. So much so that I invited the French Air Force commander for dinner at the chateau that night.
The third day was marked by the continuing struggle for Arras, but by day's end the French forces, though depleted, had again prevented any German advance much beyond the western outskirts of Arras. However Rommel, in the German reserve, was able to see what others in the German command don't seem to have noticed, and sent his 7 Panzer Div racing along the Doullens road to the Channel, forcing my sommelier to pack up his wine glasses. Rommel was closely followed by another panzer division, so finally our position was becoming untenable. I departed from Albert airfield with my mistress, chef and sommelier just as the first of Rommel's armoured cars arrived.
Remnants of the French infantry divisions were bravely hanging on in Valenciennes and Cambrai as night fell on 18 May, the depleted French armoured reserve grimly held the road west from Arras, and our Sixth Army, reinforced by the Army Group supply train, remained a viable force in the St Quentin-Peronne area.
So we lost the battle, but the French Army kept its honour and glory by halting the panzer divisions at Arras for two days.
My thanks to all those who made this such a great day: to Kiera for her excellent catering, to Tom for organising the venue, to Chris the air umpire and most of all to Tim, for making the whole thing work.
Leave the final word to Alistair Horne in his brilliant book on this campaign "To Lose A Battle". Our game exactly echoes his chapter titles for this period:
16 May: "We Have Lost The Battle!"
17 May: The Panzers Halt
18-20 May: The Dash to the Sea
|General B flies off to safety. In a rare example of advance planning part of his|
fighter escort already wears Vichy markings... Photo by John Atrmatys
* The General exaggerates - there were in fact only(!) seven panzer divisions present.