Battle of Arras (1940)
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The Battle of Arras (1940) took place during the Battle of France, in the early stages of World War II. It was an Allied counterattack against the flank of the German army, that took place near the town of Arras, in north-eastern France. The German forces were pushing north toward the channel coast, in order to entrap the Allied Forces that were advancing east into Belgium. The counterattack at Arras was an Allied attempt to cut through the German spearhead and frustrate the German advance. Although the Allies initially made gains, they were repulsed by German forces and forced to withdraw to avoid encirclement.
Early in the Battle of France, German forces managed to defeat Allied forces and push them back considerably. In an attempt to shore up defences against the rapidly approaching German advance, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) reinforced the town of Arras.
Lord Gort—commander-in-chief of the BEF—ordered a counter-attack in an attempt to delay the Germans and prevent British forces from being overrun. The counterattack would be led by Major-General Harold Franklyn; his forces—codenamed Frankforce, consisted of two divisions—the 5th Division and the 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division, plus 74 tanks from the 1st Army Tank Brigade and 60 supporting French tanks. A serious situation had developed to the south where the German spearheads had pierced the Peronne–Cambrai gap and were threatening Boulogne and Calais, cutting the BEF's lines of communication and separating it from the main French armies. A plan by General Maxime Weygand to close this gap included an attack by Frankforce, with the British 5th Infantry Division holding the line of the river Scarpe to the east of Arras, while the other two formations attacked to the south of that city.
During the afternoon of 21 May, the attack by the 50th Division and the 1st Tank Brigade was progressing south from Arras. This was to be the only large scale attack mounted by the BEF during the campaign. The attack was supposed to be mounted by two infantry divisions, comprising about 15,000 men. It was ultimately executed by just two infantry battalions, the 6th and 8th Battalions Durham Light Infantry supporting the 4th and 7th Royal Tank Regiment, totalling around 2,000 men, and reinforced by 74 tanks. The infantry battalions were split into two columns for the attack. The right column initially made rapid progress, taking a number of German prisoners, but they soon ran into German infantry and SS, backed by air support, and took heavy losses.
The left column also enjoyed early success before running into opposition from the infantry units of Generalmajor Erwin Rommel's 7th Panzer Division. The defending forces—elements of motorized SS regiment "Totenkopf" (later to be expanded into SS-Division Totenkopf)—were overrun, their standard 37 mm (1.46 in) PaK 36/37 anti-tank guns proving ineffective against the heavily armoured British Matilda tank. Rommel committed some of his armour to local counterattacks, only to find the guns of the Panzer II and Panzer 38(t) tanks could not penetrate the Matildas' armour. Desperate to prevent a British breakthrough, Rommel ordered the division's 88 mm (3.46 in) FlaK 18 anti-aircraft guns and 105 mm (4.1 in) field guns be formed into a defensive line and fire anti-tank and HE rounds in a last-ditch effort to stop the Matildas. The BEF's advance was halted with heavy losses. Then, with Luftwaffe support, Rommel launched a counter-attack, driving the British back. Frankforce had been repulsed.
The Germans pursued the British but were halted by French armour from the 3rd Light Mechanised Division (3rd DLM). The heavier armour of the French saw the German forces stopped cold. French cover enabled British troops to withdraw to their former positions that night. Frankforce took around 400 German prisoners and inflicted a similar number of casualties, as well as destroying a number of tanks. Later on 23 May the 3rd DLM launched its own attack to try to exploit British success. The Luftwaffe and German reinforcements defeated the attack.
The operation had punched far beyond its weight; the attack was so fierce that 7. Panzerdivision believed it had been attacked by five infantry divisions. The attack made the German commanders nervous, and it may have been one of the factors for the surprise German halt on 24 May that gave the BEF the slimmest of opportunities to begin evacuation from Dunkirk.
The battle is historically credited with shaking the confidence of the German High Command (OKW). Rommel is noted to have written a report of an attack by hundreds of Allied tanks, which was likely a contributing factor to the halt of the German offensive for 24 hours (though Hermann Göring's promises that the Luftwaffe could finish off Dunkirk was also a major factor). The main British force consisted of only 58 machine gun armed Matilda Is and 16 QF 2-pounder gun-armed Matilda IIs, supported by a few lighter armoured vehicles. The delay by the OKW is one of the main reasons for the success of Operation Dynamo. For this reason, Frankforce, in spite of being repulsed, could be considered one of the few allied successes of the 1940 French campaign. In total, more than 40 British and 20 French tanks were lost in the battle, compared to roughly 12 lost by the Germans. Rommel noted in his diary that his division had lost 89 men killed, 116 wounded and 173 missing and captured.
While the British lost around 100 men killed or wounded in the attack, it is unknown how many French soldiers became casualties in the engagement. The Germans lost 700 men, of which 400 were captured, mainly in the initial stages of the battle before the 88 mm FlaK 18s were brought about to engage the British forces.
Despite common misconception, the FlaK 18 was not used for the first time as an anti-tank gun at Arras. Several years earlier, during the Spanish Civil War, the German volunteer unit Condor Legion had used FlaK 18s against armour and other ground targets. Rommel realised the defensive power of the FlaK 18 and used it to great effect during his time commanding the Afrika Korps.
The Battle of Arras influenced von Rundstedt to halt the German armour advancing on the Aa river on 24 May. This allowed the French to establish defensive lines to the west of Dunkirk, allowing British and French forces to escape via the Channel port.
As the "Defence of Arras", the counterattack was awarded as a Battle honour to the British units in action.
- Bond 1990, p. 71
- Harmon 1981, p. 93.
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- Harmon 1981, p. 100.
- Harmon 1981, p. 88.
- Bond 190, p. 72-73.
- Harmon 1981, p. 101
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