In 1940, France, a European superpower, was crushed under the onslaught of German forces. The French signed a humiliating peace in Compiegne, in a train car. The city and train car were the same as where Germany signed their capitulation 22 years prior.
Anglophone historians, looking at 1940-1941, compare the rapid fall of France with the successful evacuation at Dunkirk, Battle of Britain, and the North Africa campaign. They tend to not shy away from the conclusion that the French army was bad and that they fought poorly.
However, as one German officer said, he will never forget three battles: Stonne, Stalingrad, and Monte-Cassino. Stonne was in fact in France, the same France that "didn't know how to fight".
A mountain in a torrent
One of the most terrifying tank attacks came at the French in May of 1940 from where they least expected it. Heinz Guderian's tanks passed the wooded mountains of the Ardennes. Crushing an unfortunate French division in their path, "Fast Heinz" made it to the Meuse river. A portion of the forces crossed the river, engineers quickly built a bridge for vehicles, and the foothold was expanded the next morning. German divisions rushed towards the heights south of the French city of Sedan, towards the small village of Stonne.
At dawn on May 15th, a battalion from the German division Grossdeutschland with support from tanks moved to attack the village. The French defenses consisted of infantry, a handful of armoured cars, and 25 mm AT guns. These guns welcomed the Germans by leaving two PzIVs on the battlefield. The more agile PzIIs managed to break through into the village. German infantry, initially chased off with machinegun fire, restored their spirits and fortified on the outskirts of the village. A large German force flanked the village. The French, threatened with encirclement, retreated, leaving behind their armoured cars. The Germans tried to follow, but that cost them two more tanks. Germany won the first round.
Having received reports of the German attack, the French command sent 15 Hotchkiss H39 tanks to Stonne. The description of this counterattack could apply to any battle of the Red Army in the first months of the Great Patriotic War: as soon as the Germans opened fire at the infantry, it went prone and refused to follow the tanks, despite the commander's best efforts. The result of the tank attack was the same: the Germans held out, and the French lost several tanks.
By this time, Stonne grew from a small village to a key point on the map. Ten more tanks were moving towards it: the armoured colossus that was the B1 bis.
Day of fire and metal
Heavy B1 bis tanks were similar to British "rhombuses": their tracks went all the way around the hull, an archaic solution for the start of the 1940s. However, the thick armour and powerful armament, a 75 mm howitzer and 47 mm gun, made the French heavyweight the best tank in its class.
According to tradition, each B1 bis had a personal name along with a serial number. For instance, Lieutenant Caraveo's tank was called Tulal, after a city in Morocco.
May 15th was one continuous battle for Stonne. The village changed hands several times. French infantry continued to show little enthusiasm when supporting its armoured forces. Without support, even the most powerful tank is vulnerable. After two attacks, only 3 B1s remained in action.
Having gathered their forces and pulled up a few Hotchkisses and FCM 36es, the French managed to knock the Germans out of Stonne by noon. The Germans responded with an artillery barrage and a dive bomber strike, turning the village into ruins. In the evening, the Germans were left holding Stonne.
Night fell. The opponents gathered their strength and called up reinforcements. Nobody doubted that there was more to come. The morning was going to be hellish.
Before dawn, Stonne was worked over by French artillery. After the barrage, the French attacked again. This time, 14 B1 bis tanks drove into battle.
Famous French tanker, Captain Pierre Billotte, commanded a tank named Eure in this battle. On one of Stonne's streets, he met with a column of German tanks. He ordered the 75 mm gun to destroy the head tank, methodically shot up one tank after another, then moved on. The German guns were not powerful enough to cause his tank any harm. A second column encountered by Eure met the same fate. By the end of the day, Billotte had 13 tanks and 2 AT guns to his name. After the battle, his tank had nearly 150 dents from enemy shells. There were no penetrations.
On the next day, only two tanks, Tunis and Mistral, turned 50 German trucks, tractors, and APCs, several light tanks and AT guns into scrap metal in only half an hour.
The battle for Stonne continued for another week, but the B1s did not participate. They were moved to other parts of the front. However, one cannot leave out the battle of a tank called Jeanne D'Arc on May 28th. It lost its 75 mm howitzer, but kept fighting with machineguns and tracks. Two more hits jammed the turret and damaged observation devices. The tank was hit 90 times, but only a shell from an 88 mm AA gun finally stopped it. The crew managed to leave the tank and return to their lines.
Any army could be proud of tankers like these. It is not their fault that victory requires more than heroism, but cooperation, logistics, tactics, and many other components.
Original article available here.