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“The situation becomes more and more diffi cult from hour to hour.

Things are so desperately seriou– Vice Admiral Bertram Ram

● ‘The booty’s incalculable...’ A lone German soldier surveys the masses of abandoned vehicles in La Panne

T WAS not yet dawn and the steel snake of armour, motorcyclists, motorised infantry, flak gunners, and engineers was winding through the village of Sorel on the edge of the rolling terrain of Picardy.


Before noon, the columns were across the old battlefield of the Somme. They skirted the mine barriers shielding Doullens and pressed on westwards. It wasn’t the poilu or Tommy which hindered the panzers’ progress this Monday, but the poor people of France who had taken to the roads to escape the Boche. In the glare of the afternoon sun the soldiers watched civilians haul their meagre possessions “on the most unlikely of contraptions”, their eyes showing “the horrors of war and misery of recent strains”.

The panzers ground to a halt somewhere outside Doullens. The fuel trucks could not keep pace with their inexorable advance. The motorcyclists and motorised infantry roared on ahead, no longer slowed down by the lumbering steel monsters.

seized Abbéville after a brief skirmish on the outskirts of the town. It was not enough for their masters. Westwards, ever westwards. Before Monday May 20 1940 became Tuesday 21, the vanguard of 2 Panzer Division reached the village of Noyelles-sur-Mer, ten miles from Abbéville. There they watched the glint of the silvery Channel in the moonlight.

through Étaples. By the small hours of May 24, Boulogne was in German hands. The swastika flew over Calais by first light on the 27th. There was one Channel port left to conquer: Dunkerque to Frenchmen, Dünkirchen to Germans, Dunkirk to Britons.

Britons talk of the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’ or the ‘Dunkirk spirit’, Germans the ‘hell of Dunkirk’, Frenchmen for many years complained that they had been betrayed at Dunkirk. There are the myths of Dunkirk, too: the stoicism of the troops awaiting rescue, Hitler letting the enemy slip away so he’d be more inclined to surrender, the little ships plucking men from the beaches. And there are the facts of Dunkirk: ten days of evacuation, six destroyers lost, five minesweepers sunk, a dozen trawlers, half a dozen drifters – the list goes on. And the most impressive fact of all: 338,226 men carried across the sea to British shores – two out of five of them Frenchmen.

By nightfall, the infantry had

Of course, none of this should have happened. There were no plans for evacuating 300,000 soldiers – after all, Tommy should have been hanging out his washing on the Siegfried Line. He didn’t. Fritz had other ideas: Blitzkrieg, Stukas, panzers and a plan officially known rather uninspiringly as Fall Gelb – Plan Yellow. History has come to know it as Sichelschnitt – the cut of the sickle.

The news was passed up the chain of command, eventually reaching the

headquarters of XIX Panzer Corps

and its commander, Heinz Guderian. Schnell Heinz – fast Heinz – was delighted. “The encirclement of the French-Belgian-English armies in Belgium and northern France is completed,” he recorded self- satisfyingly in his diary that night. All that was left to do was crush the trapped enemy.

In time, the panzers would turn north, their left wing brushing along the Channel coast. They would sweep past the upmarket resort of Le Touquet, over the Canche,

he road to Dunkirk begins 150 miles to the southeast on the edge of the Ardennes and an historic fortress city: Sedan. It was here that the sharp blade of the sickle – three armoured or panzer divisions – cut through weak French defences on the Meuse, the last great natural barrier to an invader from the east.


The defences here were weak because the Ardennes, the French High Command determined, were impenetrable. The main German threat, its leader Maurice Gamelin decided, would come through Belgium – just as it had done a generation before. There the French Army and its allies – the British Expeditionary Force and the Belgian Army – would meet the invader head-on, meet him and defeat him. And so it was proving in the second week of May 1940 on the plains of Gembloux, west of Liège: the German Army was battering itself against an immovable Allied wall; on the evening of May 15, it broke off the battle. But so too did the Allies. The ‘impenetrable’ Ardennes had been penetrated.

It took the German armour just three days to pass through the Ardennes and reach the Meuse, another day to cross it and another day or so after that to smash through the remnants of French armies holding the line of the river. After just five days of battle, French premier Page 1  |  Page 2  |  Page 3  |  Page 4  |  Page 5  |  Page 6  |  Page 7  |  Page 8  |  Page 9  |  Page 10  |  Page 11  |  Page 12  |  Page 13  |  Page 14  |  Page 15  |  Page 16  |  Page 17  |  Page 18  |  Page 19  |  Page 20  |  Page 21  |  Page 22  |  Page 23  |  Page 24  |  Page 25  |  Page 26  |  Page 27  |  Page 28  |  Page 29  |  Page 30  |  Page 31  |  Page 32  |  Page 33  |  Page 34  |  Page 35  |  Page 36  |  Page 37  |  Page 38  |  Page 39  |  Page 40  |  Page 41  |  Page 42  |  Page 43  |  Page 44  |  Page 45  |  Page 46  |  Page 47  |  Page 48  |  Page 49  |  Page 50  |  Page 51  |  Page 52  |  Page 53  |  Page 54  |  Page 55  |  Page 56
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