On War #136
By William S. Lind
Life occasionally offers a chance to make a boyhood dream come true, and I did just that a couple of weeks ago when I joined the Quarterhorse, 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, to follow General Heinz Guderian’s XIX Panzer Corps’ attack through the Ardennes to Sedan in 1940. Guderian’s memoirs, Panzer Leader, were a big influence on me when I read them as a kid, and he was at his best in the 1940 campaign against France. To follow in his footsteps (and Hermann Balck’s) was a rare honor.
This was also the best staff ride I have ever been on. Too many are junkets. What made the difference is that the Quarterhorse’s outstanding commander, Lt. Col. Chris Kolenda, led his officers to do their homework. All participants had to read Bob Doughty’s superb book, The Breaking Point, on the battle of Sedan in 1940 (it is one of the books in the canon). They could then see how the individual events we observed in the staff ride fit into the larger picture, and what that picture (from both the German and French perspectives) means for us today. The Quarterhorse shows how good a U.S. Army unit can be when it combines the usual American physical courage and technical proficiency with a (sadly) less common interest in ideas.
So what did we learn from the staff ride? For me, the biggest lesson was the relationship between operational results and tactical risk. The German attack through the Ardennes, called Sichelschnitt or sickle-cut, promised to be decisive operationally. But until I actually saw the terrain I did not realize how risky it was tactically. While parts of the Ardennes are rolling, relatively open country, some of the sections through which XIX Panzer Corps had to pass were extremely constrained. They gave the French and Belgians repeated opportunities to turn Guderian’s Panzers into a world-class traffic jam. When one Belgian company did not get orders to withdraw, its resistance caused the Germans serious problems. But such resistance occurred only by accident; French doctrine called for delay, not defense, so the French threw opportunity after opportunity away. The French were defeated as much by their own doctrine as by the Germans, a point of some relevance since U.S. Army doctrine today remains largely French, especially in its focus on synchronization.
One of the mysteries of the 1940 campaign, as I read about it, was the rapid fall of the new, powerful Belgian fort of Eben Emael. As we walked through its kilometers of tunnels, a Cav officer solved the mystery: “It’s a blind giant,” he said. The fort had only a handful of small vision cupolas, which the Germans quickly took out with shaped charges. Why was it so designed? Because it was a “system of systems,” dependent on others to tell it what was going on. When that information did not come, its situation was hopeless.
The critical point in the campaign was the crossing of the Meuse river at Sedan. There, over and over, we saw the central difference between a Second and a Third Generation army. The Germans, focused outward, cooperated laterally and took initiative at every level to get the result the situation required, while the French, focused inward, could act only in response to orders from higher headquarters. The fact that the German senior commanders were all forward at the decisive points enabled them to see the real situation quickly and act on it.
In contrast, we visited the very comfortable, landscaped bunker that was the headquarters of the French 55th Division, well to the rear of the fighting. As we reflected on that headquarters’ isolation, I asked one of the Cav officers if a modern U.S. Army division’s command element could fit in the same bunker. The answer was no, by a large margin; in the size and complexity of our headquarters, we have out-Frenched the French.
Our staff ride ended at the heights of Stonne, south of Sedan. Again, until I saw terrain, I did not appreciate how commanding it was. Here, what we learned dispelled one of the myths of the 1940 campaign, that the French did not fight. Stonne was captured and recaptured some seventeen times in one day, in actions where the French fought bitterly and the Germans, especially the Grossdeutschland Regiment, took heavy casualties. At one point, a single French Char B heavy tank entered the village, destroyed thirteen German tanks and then left, intact, despite taking 140 hits. That illustrated both the French superiority in equipment and the rarity of French initiative and cooperation. A bit more of both and the battle for the heights at Stonne could have gone the other way, which might have kept even Hurrying Heinz from turning west toward the English Channel and operational victory.
I am deeply grateful to the Quarterhorse for inviting me along a truly model staff ride. I also appreciate the opportunity to spend some time with officers of the caliber of Lt. Col. Kolenda and Captains Jay Pieri and Jim Egan. They illustrate the enormous potential inherent in the U.S. Army if we can ever shift the institution’s practices from the Second to the Third Generation.
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The Free Congress Foundation, is a 28-year-old Washington, DC-based conservative educational foundation (think tank) that teaches people how to be effective in the political process, advocates judicial reform, promotes cultural conservatism, and works against the government encroachment of individual liberties.