At 05:30 on May 10, 1940, the great German gamble in the west, known as Case Yellow, was about to commence.
Just a few months earlier, Generalmajor Erwin Rommel had been transferred from the Führer-Begleit Battalion to the command of the German 7th Panzer Division. As part of the XV motorised Armeekorps, it would be the mission of his 7th to guard the right flank of Panzer group Kleist, which was to drive a “Schwerpunkt” into France. His immediate goal was to penetrate the Belgian border defences and push through the densely forested and hilly terrain of the Ardennes Forest as quickly as possible. Time was essential, they had only a short window of three to four days to cross the river Meuse. If they did not manage, the whole offensive might fail.
Time is of the essence
From the get-go, Rommel pushed his division hard. Vital to his advance were the motorcycle and armoured reconnaissance units of Kradschützen Battalion 7, who raced ahead to scout and clear the quickest route for his tanks. These ultra-mobile units could not only cover a large distance much quicker than any tank, but also carry enough firepower to tackle obstacles and resistance.
Rapidly advancing, the division moved across the River Ourthe the first day and made headway to Dinant, advancing 90km. They soon outpaced their neighbouring units, the 5th Panzer Division to the north and the 23 Infantry Division to the south, and contact was repeatedly lost. With the Meuse just 35km away, Rommel wanted to rest for a minimal amount of time and be on the move again as quickly as possible.
Looking neither left nor right, he raced ahead with the forward units of his tanks, keeping close contact only with his reconnaissance units. At Dinant, they smashed through a strong French force, and the 7th got its first real taste of armoured combat. By the afternoon of May 12, his forces had reached the mighty River Meuse.
Crossing the Meuse
Thus far, Rommel had enjoyed the blessings of his superior, General Hermann Hoth, who supported the idea of aggressive tank spearheads. Taking risks was necessary, and thanks to Rommel, the Meuse had been reached in record time – but it needed to be crossed. Kleist, commanding the whole Panzer corps, opted to rest his units for the night. After they had reorganised and acquired enough support from the air, they would begin the crossing of the Meuse in the late afternoon of the next day.
Rommel however, thought that air support would be modest at best, and instead ordered only a short rest for his division. At first light, the 7th went on the attack again. It was a hard fight and the French would not let them cross without resistance, but the hasty attack prevented the French from putting together enough force to stop them.
Personally leading his tanks across the Meuse, Rommel always remained close to the fighting. From his experience as a Storm troop leader in the Great War, he understood the importance of keeping the momentum going. Speed would be both their sword and their shield. The faster they advanced, the more likely they would catch their enemy off guard. They had to ensure that the battle would be fought on their terms.
While the German troops were busy crossing the Meuse that day, Rommel did not consider resting. He had to move west. It did not take long for strong French and Belgian forces to find them. Their superior heavy Char B-1 and S.O.M.U.A tanks threatened his troops with disaster time and time again, but Rommel’s energetic leadership and improvisation skills gave him the upper hand. He was not afraid to take immense risks now, as this whole endeavour was a massive risk anyway. One misty morning, for example, they were surprised by a French tank attack. Rommel went right up to the front, ordering his troops to fire their signal-pistols. Surprised and confused, the French tanks veered off. That gave Rommel’s artillery enough time to find their targets. By the night of May 14, the Germans had successfully punched through the last line of defence at the Meuse River. The command “Pursue with all weapons” meant that the French resistance in that area had been broken.
The next day, Rommel found himself staring down the French-Belgian border at Montcornet, as a halt order was imposed on all of Hoth’s divisions. They were standing in front of the extended Maginot-Line. It was not as well fortified as the Maginot-Line to the east and south, but still dangerous enough that they were given the direct order to not risk the tanks and to leave it to the infantry to break through.
By late afternoon of May 16 though, Hoth gave the cautious order to probe the defences. However, he immediately clarified that no breakthrough should be attempted… but Rommel was long gone by then.
The 7th Division crossed the French border on its own and spotted a whole system of interlocking concrete bunkers with armoured cupolas, tank-ditches and other obstacles. At first glance, it seemed impossible to break through without heavy artillery and air support. But as the sunlight was fading, Rommel decided to attempt something unseen before in military history – a surprise armoured night attack directly against a fortified line while on the move. It was near suicidal, but also the last thing the French Fortress Divisions had anticipated that night.
The first tanks of Rommel’s armoured wedge smashed through the first defences before the French were able to react. Still, resistance was formidable. Vehicles were knocked out left and right by anti-tank guns and artillery firing from the bunkers. Nevertheless, enough German tanks were already within the perimeter to silence the forward bunkers with direct hits. In that lull, the 7th’s combat engineers moved into action, throwing themselves with satchel-charges and flamethrowers against the field works. Firing on the move to all sides, the Panzers sped on, quickly followed by the agile motorcycle companies. The only way to escape now was forward. At top speed, they raced towards the French artillery, never stopping. At 23:00 they had finally punched through the second line, and suddenly saw only open terrain in front of them.
Rommel wrote in his diary: “We were through the Maginot Line! It was hardly conceivable. Twenty-two years before, we had stood for four and a half long years before this self-same enemy and had won victory after victory but yet finally lost the war. And now we had broken through the renowned Maginot Line and were driving deep into enemy territory. It was not just a beautiful dream. It was reality.”
But even this unimaginable success would be only temporary if not exploited. Instead of stopping, Rommel drove his armoured spearhead onwards, speeding at night over the French roads towards the city of Avesnes. They suddenly crashed right into the French 5th Motorised Infantry Division, which had neatly parked its tanks and vehicles on roadside before going to sleep. Now they awoke to the sound of grinding metal and the fire of heavy guns. Paralysed by the sudden violent appearance, the surviving French scattered in all directions, throwing down their weapons in panic. Rommel was gone as quickly as he had arrived. All along the road to Avesnes, the French were caught by surprise, and soon, the night was illuminated by burning tanks and trucks.
By 06:00 the next morning, Rommel stood at the Sambre River, but as the sun rose, he came to the grim realisation that he was in a seriously dangerous situation. He had been so busy advancing almost 50km the evening prior, that he hadn’t noticed that only the few tanks of his spearhead and a handful of motorcycle platoons had been able to keep up with his ludicrous speed. In fact, much of the main body was still at the Maginot Line and on Belgian territory. Ammunition and fuel were low, so Rommel ordered his battered and exhausted tank crews to guard the bridge, while he himself would establish contact with the rest of his forces. It must have dawned on him that his daring exploit had left his forces isolated in the middle of enemy territory. Pedal to the metal, the crew of his armoured command vehicle raced back along the same road to the east.
La Division Fantôme
News spread fast. French soldiers spoke of a German breakthrough, causing further chaos and confusion. French High Command tried to make sense of the reports, which seemingly multiplied the advancing forces by the hour. No one knew where this German Division was or what it had planned, so this operation earned the 7th Panzer Division the French nickname “La Division Fantôme” – the Ghost Division.
On his way back, Rommel encountered whole columns of confused, directionless French soldiers, whose officers did not know how to react to the news. It could not have helped that suddenly a German armoured vehicle was racing towards them from the other direction, firing wildly and scattering them off the road. Rommel ordered the driver not to stop for anything, until they were suddenly behind a large column of trucks moving towards the front.
The convoy of 40 trucks was guarded with machine guns, and Rommel drove up and passed it. Then he stopped the lead vehicle, told the French officer to stand down and then ordered the crew of 40 trucks to get out and disperse. He did this with his commanding tone and his imposing General’s uniform alone, and this was not the only occasion this happened. Such was the chaos, that French soldiers came up to his vehicle, hopefully asking “anglais?”.
But it was a Ghost Division for German Command as well. Rommel had presented them with a fait-accompli. The French lines were breached, but on such a narrow route that many believed it was a trap set by the French to lure them in. Nonetheless, the success of his unauthorised push had not only saved countless German lives but also decisively sped up the whole campaign by days or even weeks.
The French II Corps had dissolved in panic, the 1st French Armoured Division was more or less wiped out, and many other French divisions were disorganised or badly mauled. Rommel’s attack was an extreme version of German operational warfare, but its strongest effect was psychological. Anything short of a breakthrough would have seen Rommel court-martialled, but his success earned him the Knight’s Cross instead. Adolf Hitler himself congratulated Rommel after the campaign, but also scolded him with the words: “Your raid had cost me a sleepless night.” Hitler certainly was not the only one.
If you prefer a visual representation of this story, watch our Sabaton History episode, Ghost Division – Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division: