May 22, 1940 – Breakthrough over the Scheldt River

1940-05-22The Situation of the Army report for the Wehrmacht on the evening of May 22, 1940, reports severe resistance and fighting on the western banks of the Scheldt river between Tournai and Ghent. Around Ghent, the Belgian Army is defending its positions, supported by some French units. Further to the south, the British forces are holding on to the west bank of the river with strong artillery support. In the south, an attack on the line of tanks heading north was reported. It is assumed that the encircled forces have a strength of about 50 divisions.

When II./AR 84 arrives for the battle, they are moving in their firing positions at Klijpe (1), west of the city of Ronse (Renaix). As my grandfather note, the battle is already raging – the sound of the artillery is ringing in the air. They also are setting up their heavy guns – and are receiving their first firing details the very same night.

Map 2 - Ingelmunster - RonseWith a firing range of about 30 kilometers, they can easily reach the Courtrai (2) and Ingelmunster (3), their targets of the night.

Image 03 - Night Shots at KlijpeThe general situation map shows that the advance of the Panzer Divisionen on the southern end of the encirclement was halted, possibly due to the battle near Arras the day before. Other aspects might also apply, but they…halted. And you can see the three German Infantry Divisions, the 14., 19., and 30. forcing their way over the Scheldt near Kerkhove (4).

1940-05-22 - Lage West HGr. B

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May 21, 1940 – Closing in to the Front

1940-05-21The next day, May 21, 1940, the men of AR 84 are taking a first firing position, as it seems. Unfortunately, I cannot read the place’s name properly and/or I cannot locate a matching location on any of the maps. However, it can be safely assumed that they got stuck somewhere between Graty (1) and Ronse (2) – or Renaix, as it is named in French.

Map 1 - Ronse - GratyIn the south, the British Expeditionary Force (or at least a small portion thereof) tried to break the German encirclement and found themselves involved in a Battle near Arras. Although initially with some success, the British forces were pushed back. While the British withdrew, the French 3rd Light Mechanised Division got itself involved in the fighting, also with some initial success but later fell victim to the Luftwaffe and reinforced German units. They also were forced to withdraw.

1940-05-21 - Lage West HGr. B

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May 20, 1940 – From Chastre to Castle Graty

1940-05-20The front has moved to the west, significantly. The new front line is the Scheldt River, behind which the remains of the Belgian Army, some parts of the French Army in Belgium and the British Expeditionary Force had withdrawn.

1940-05-20 - Lage West HGr. BThe situation map of May 20, 1940, shows how awfully close the front line was from the British Channel – from Courtrai is is merely 50 Kilometers to the sea, not much room for the armies of three nations to fight and retreat if necessary.

The Daily Report of May 20, 1940, summarizes the situation as follows:

“Frontline: northwest of Antwerp (1), 15 km southeast of Ghent (2), Audenarde (3), eastern outskirts of Tournai (4) on the eastern banks of the Scheldt river (attack over the Scheldt up until Peruwelz (5) ongoing), Mons (6), then westward towards Maubeuge (7), 20 km west of Arras (8), Amiens with some units as far as Domart and Comtfolie, Amiens, Le Fere, Laon (taken on the 19th), then along the Aisne via Rethel to Carignan.”

The worst thing for the Allied forces was the fact that the German 2. Panzer Division had almost reached Abbeville and the coast. The map above shows the 6. Panzer Division and the 7. Panzer Division west of and near the city of Arras, a little bit to the south the 8. Panzer Division and the 1. Panzer Division were heading West. The encirclement was almost complete.

As per his diary, my grandfather and his men made a swift move to the west, with a short stop at the Castle of Graty. They did not have much time to enjoy it – nor the wine they found in the wine cellar (although I could imagine that they “confiscated” some of the bottles…)

Image 01 - Destroyed French AircraftBut they are already seeing signs of the battle – the photos are showing destroyed French aircraft and treks of refugees leaving the area of fighting.

Image 02 - Refugees

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May 19, 1940 – From Cras-Avernas to Chastre

Wherever my grandfather had been around the previous days, on the morning of May 19, he is on the road again, the men are relocating from Cras-Avernas to Chastre, north-north-west of Gembloux.

1940-05-19aBut they would not leave Cras-Avernas without proper supplies – I am sure, the five bottles of red wine were a welcome addition to the standard Wehrmachtsverpflegung, their standard rations.

Map 01 - Nivelles - GemblouxThe distance from Cras-Avernas to Chastre (1) is somewhat around 50 km – 60 km, depending on the route. They will have come through the area of Hannut and possible Gembloux (2) where only a few days ago the French and German forces had fought major tank battles.

1940-05-19bThe diary note also shows that they have been passing through an area of intense fighting – the notable increase in devastation and destruction has made its way into my grandfather’s words.

Image 04 - POWThey also are starting to see the first prisoners of war, in this case a Moroccan soldier that most likely had been serving with the French army in Belgium.

My grandfather, together with Lt. Pohl, is taking the car to Gembloux first, then on to Namur. They are not quite sure the city is in German hands by now – so they are driving in, ready to defend themselves (which I think would not have been more than a desperate gesture should the city not have been taken already…). But they do find the town in German hands.

In general, the action has shifted even further to the west – a final situation map before (as of the next one), we will see the English Channel showing up on the map… and with it the Panzer Divisionen of Heeresgruppe A (which I will also include as of the next map).

1940-05-19 - Lage West HGr. B

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May 18, 1940 – Preparations to follow the Front

1940-05-18The supply truck (and supposedly other parts of the unit) managed to catch up with my grandfather’s location by May 18. But the front had “jumped” westward, they would not remain in their current location for much longer, in fact, the relocation orders already came in the very same day.

Around this time, it seems that my grandfather must have made it to the city of Leuven, now under German control. The fact is not mentioned in his diary but at least two of the following photographs are from there. Maybe, one day, some reader familiar with the area is able to put some locations on these images.

Image 01 - Belgian VillageThe above one shows an unknown town or village in Belgium, roughly dated around the mid of May 1940.

Image 02 - Belgian TownAgain, the location of the photo above is not known – it looks like a larger place, the building on the right could be a church in ruins. Again, the date should be around mid of May 1940.

Image 06 - LeuvenThis one is very likely taken in Leuven, multiple sources suggest that this is the Diestsesteenweg railroad bridge which was blown up. The tower, which is a easily identifiable landmark, appears on a series of photos that once was traded on eBay.

Image 03 - LeuvenThe last photo very likely is taken in the vicinity of the Leuven cathedral, possible at the very beginning of Bondgenotenlaan. There is a youTube video showing British forces in the city in May 1940 that shows the exact same location (and destruction). See here, time stamp 02:50.

Once more, a quick look at the situation maps shows the front racing towards the west – and also the fact that Heeresgruppe B had been ordered to release the 3. Panzer Division and the 4. Panzer Division to Heeresgruppe A (you can see them as well as the 20. Infanterie Division (mot.)) exiting the area of operations south-bound.

1940-05-18 - Lage West HGr. B

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May 17, 1940 – In Cras-Avernas

1940-05-17May 17, 1940, looks like a “quiet day” for those of II./AR 84 which made it to Cras-Avernas.

The previously mentioned break-through at Sedan and the fact that fast-moving German units were now racing towards the English Channel without any major force available to stop them forced the French and British forces in Belgium to reconsider their situation.

The allied forces which had retreated to the Dyle line had been able to slow the Wehrmacht‘s advance – cities such as Antwerp, Leuven and Brussels itself were still under Belgian control. However, the danger of being encircled by the Wehrmacht called for a change – the French 1st Army withdrew from the Antwerp area, the British Expeditionary Force also started to fall back.

Outnumbered, the Belgian forces abandoned Brussels, the British had abandoned Leuven. Both cities fell to the Germans. The situation map of May 17, 1940, shows the “jump” westward.

1940-05-17 - Lage West HGr. B

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May 16, 1940 – II./AR 84 on the move

1940-05-16aAs we have seen before – my grandfather and the men in his unit have been eagerly awaiting their orders to break down their guns in Laurensberg and move on into Belgium, following the advancing units of Heeresgruppe B.

The length of the diary entry for this day shows that this is nothing that has left him untouched – it’s a long, very detailed entry that goes along with plenty of photos.

Map 01 - Vaals to MaastrichtThe diary tells us some key parts of the route – they had crossed the border at Vaals (1 in the map above). His first photo must have been taken right at the border – you can see the toll bar.

Image 01 - Border Crossing in VaalsMaybe the care we are seeing – a military car – might have been his transport, who knows? But one thing I do know is the exact place the photo was taken – thanks to Google’s Streetview.

Following what today is N278, I think they managed to get to Maastricht (2). With the bell tower in the background of the photo, I think this may be Wilhelminabrug in Maastricht.

Image 02 - Maastricht

I don’t think, however, they crossed the Maas in the city – for whatever reason, maybe because the bridges would not support the load or they did not want to move the guns through the city.

Map 02 - Maastricht to TongresInstead, I assume, they turned south and followed the river all the way to the village of Lanaye (2). At least the image of the blown-up bridge that is amongst the photos suggests that this is the bridge he is writing about as “having been blown up”.

Image 04 - Blown BridgeWikipedia holds a photo of the original bridge – from my perspective, this looks like the same structure. Which also explains the photo of the nearby Albert Canal and Fort Eben-Emael.

Image 05 - Albert CanalSo the photos fall on the map – and if we connect the dots, we can imagine the route II./AR 84 could have taken on their move to Tongres (3).

1940-05-16bWhat now follows is a tour of a war-torn country. In the days before their arrival, the area between Liége and Maastricht on the western banks of the Maas river was the stage for much fighting – the German 4. Panzer Division had moved through the area, so did some of the German Infantry Divisions, most likely the 269. Infanterie Division and the 61. Infanterie Division. In return, at least the 7th Infantry Division and the 4th Infantry Division of the Belgian forces was also retreating through the area.

According to the diary, the men of II./AR 84 reached Tongres that day – no matter what caused the destruction (and I am not aware of British forces defending their positions there), Tongres must have been in ruins – if it indeed was attacked by German Ju-87 Stukas, as my grandfather suggests, the destruction must have been immense.

Passing the destroyed city, the track of men and material must have traveled on, towards Waremme (2). From there on, it was only a small hop to the village of Cras-Avernas (3) where they were supposed to take quarters.

Map 03 - Tongres - Cras AvernasFollowing the final parts of the day’s entry, they ended up taking quarters with the mayor – assuming my grandfather’s spelling of Burgmester was only slightly off and he meant the french Bourgmestre. In which case, his host may have been Joseph Nihoul.

1940-05-16cAwaiting the rest of their column to arrive, they seem to have settled in quite well – and were, apparently, not treated in a way I would have expected soldiers of an invading force to be treated…

A final look at the overall situation for Heeresgruppe B shows the general push to the west, south of Brussels and the stability of the front between Antwerp and the Belgian capital.

1940-05-16 - Lage West HGr. B

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May 15, 1940 – Leaving Laurensberg

1940-05-15By end of the day, the long awaited orders to leave the positions at Laurensberg have arrived. The II./AR 84 is not moving as a monolithic block, military units rarely do. In this case, my grandfather and his Survey Team were attached to the first column moving out – which also means that they would be the first ones to arrive in any new location and would have the ability (and duty) to scout out the circumstances – that is, of course, finding firing positions, surveying the situation but also getting acquainted with the location, quarters, etc. This time, however, they did not get very far. Leaving Laurensberg late on May 15, 1940, they find the roads blocked again and seek quarters in the city of Aachen. Promptly, a visiting British bomber passes by – if the very last sentence in this entry refers to them seeking a more “secure” location than they had before and if the term “-keller” (which means cellar) is to be taken literally or refers to a location is hard to say.

Things had started to move elsewhere as well: so far, the German units had been “pushing” the allied units back – either by direct confrontation or by forcing them into strategic withdraws. But so far, the front line had been stable. Now, things had changed…

At Heeresgruppe A – that is the army group responsible for pushing through the Ardennes in the south, the city of Sedan had been taken three days earlier, on May 12, 1940. The Battle of Sedan evolved, as the German Panzer Divisions crossed the Meuse River and then started to break out of their bridgeheads. When this happened on May 15, the fast-moving tanks deeply penetrated the open and unguarded rear of the allied front-line. The “race to the coast” was on…

1940-05-15 - Lage West HGr. B

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May 14, 1940 – Getting ready to move

1940-05-14While – as it seems – II./AR 84 is finally getting ready to move out of their positions in Laurensberg, the  general situation of the Westfeldzug had evolved.

1940-05-14 - Lage West HGr. BThe Daily Report contains the following information: the city of Antwerp is sealed off by German units in the North, the Northeast, and the East. Near the city of Leuven, the Wehrmacht had broken through and are now standing east of Wavre.

Aerial reconnaissance also suggests that strong allied forces are rushing towards the east, trying to re-enforce the retreating Belgian units. The line of defense is expected to be Antwerp – Brussels – Charlroi. Namely, the 1st French Army, the 7th French Army and the British Expeditionary Force are expected to be involved in the fighting.

In the area between Wavre in the north and Namur in the south, and Hannut in the west, the advancing 4. Panzer Division (and also the 3. Panzer Division) had been in combat with the French 1st Army since May 12, 1940. First, the Battle of Hannut evolved, it lasted until May 14. The outcome was a tie – the French units managed to slow down the pace of the Panzer Divisions and retreated to Gembloux, the Wehrmacht was able to push back the French units but was unable to eliminate the threat. Consequently, the pushing German units had to fight elements of the French 1st Army again when reaching the city of Gembloux where they had retreated to. This second battle, referred to as Battle of Gembloux, lasted another two days, May 14 – 15.

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May 13, 1940 – The first Rounds fired in Anger

May 13, 1940, sees the first rounds fired by II./AR 84 – their target: Fort d’Évegnée.

1940-05-13At a distance of almost 30 kilometers, the Fort is right about at the maximum firing range for the batteries.

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