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Battles over Sedan

Author : 🕔08.03.2018 📕11.004
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The actual day of judgment came for the crews of Fairey Battle light bombers from the Advanced Air Assault Army ( AASF ) on May 14, 1940. British pilots in obsolete aircraft and without proper security with their own fighters were uncompromisingly thrown directly into the epicenter of the ongoing battle, the Sedan area. The result was one of the largest massacres of RAF bombers during World War II.


Fairey Battle Mk. I serial number L5420 from the armament of the 12th Squadron RAF, France 1940

Situation at the front on May 14

It was in the area of Sedan that the center of gravity of the entire German western campaign, which began on May 10, 1940, lay. The tank divisions of Army Group A genplk. Gerda von Rundstedt . The previous lightning penetration of the mountainous Ardennes was followed on 13 May by an equally rapid crossing of the Máza River. At the same time, the defensive positions of the French 9th and 2nd armies were based on its flow. The Germans immediately proceeded with the construction of pontoon bridges. Already before midnight on May 13, the Germans completed the introductory one in Gaulier, northwest of Sedan . From the first hours of May 14, an ever-increasing stream of German technology passed to the other bank, and later, starting at 7.20, also tanks from the 1st Pz. Wonder. , belonging to XIX. choir gen. Guderiana . At that time, the German bridgehead on the west bank of the Maze reached a width of 5 km and a depth of 9 km. By late evening, German engineers had also completed the pontoon bridges at Donchery ( designated for the 2nd Pz. Div. ) And Wadelincourt ( for the 10th Pz. Div. ). A large amount of equipment and armaments got across the river, including a mass of tanks.

The reaction of the French army was completely inadequate and slow. The French planned tank counterattack against the German bridgehead was significantly delayed. Subsequently, it was carried out with limited force and completely failed. Nothing could prevent the collapse of the French defense. Between the shaken units of the French 9th and 2nd armies ( whose left wing practically did not exist on the evening of May 14 ), a gap opened, which the enemy used perfectly for further progress, resulting in the famous " sickle bite", ie penetrating to the shores of the Channel Manche, and later cut off in Belgium by fighting Allied armies.


A machine probably belonging to the 226th Squadron of the RAF during a reconnaissance flight over France, September 20, 1939

The British could only help their ally at Sedan by air. Shortly before midnight on May 13, A / M AS Barratt, commander of the British Air Force in France ( BAFF ), was ordered to prepare air raids the following morning against three pontoon bridges in Sedan and against two in Dinant. The operation was prepared by the staff of A / V / M Playfair, commander of the AASF. The air raids received the highest priority. During the night, however, there was ( inaccurate ) news that the French had been able to destroy two bridges in Dinant during the counterattacks and were also attacking German convoys advancing along the road from Cenay to Dinant and the enemy on the roads leading to Sedan from the north and east.Therefore, it was decided to concentrate the activity of AASF bombers against Sedan and its pontoon bridges.

A new order, No. 664, was drawn up, sent from the BAFF staff at 1.45 am It canceled the previous order, No. 662, from the previous day. According to the new regulation, the bombers were to attack three pontoon bridges, the construction of which was reported in the area of Sedan between Vrigne and Douzy . Four pairs of bombers were to take part in the attack. The choice of attack tactics was left to the commanders, but the raid was to take place in the first light early in the morning. The bombers were to be supported by a hurricane fighter squadron. Gradually, further specifying orders came, including the decision to fully deploy the 67th Fighter Wing of the AASF.

It was clear to both Barratt and Playfair that a major operation was under way. The problem, however, was the fact that the combat capability of the AASF was already seriously shaken after heavy days of fighting: May 10, 1940, the group lost 24 battles, the next day 11, May 12 and May 13 ( due to activity restrictions ) one bomber of this type. At the same time, on the opening day of the German offensive, about 130 battles were served by eight AASF bomber squadrons. The crews were under enormous psychological pressure in situations where the units often lost more than half of the machines sent.

The first attacks of the RAF

On May 14, six battles of the 103rd Squadron , located at Bétheniville Airport , launched a bombing operation on behalf of the RAF ( and the entire Allied Air Force ). They took off at 5.05 a.m. A bomber formation flew into the Sedan area about half an hour later. Battly attacked from a height of about 500 m. The crews claimed a direct hit with one bomb to the pontoon bridge north of Villers-sur-Bar ( ie in Donchery ). German fighters did not appear, only fire from the ground resisted. Five of the bombers returned safely to their base, the sixth ( serial number P2191 ) made an emergency landing near the village of Cauroy with a badly wounded pilot behind the wheel.

Starting at 7.35 a.m., two pairs of battles of the 150th Squadron took off from Ecury Airport. The bombers attacked the target at about 8.00 am with a dive flight and unsuccessfully bombed pontoon bridges northwest of Remilly-Aillicourt and north of Villers-devant-Mouzon. The event went without losses.


The battle turns into a dive, a pre-war image

Then the French Armée de l'Air attacked targets in the Sedan area ( though not directly on the pontoon bridges). The Breguet 693 fighters struck at 10 a.m., followed by the Amiot 143 and LeO 451 bombers in the afternoon. Insufficiently vigorous raids (a high percentage of crews returned prematurely under various pretexts ) did not achieve anything. Losses in the form of four bombers and three fallen and two captured pilots can be described as light (the operation is described by the author's article " French bombers over Sedan ", Military revue 12/2010 ).

While for the crews of the Armée de l'Air bombers, the battle over Sedan was over (the French did not carry out another raid on this critical day! ), For the men of the AASF bomber squadrons, on the contrary, the moments of truth were approaching. The French demanded the highest commitment from their British ally.Aware of the critical situation on the Sedan front, Barratt decided to attack all his remaining forces in the afternoon.


The armourers load a bomb weighing 113.4 kg into the wing bomb bay

Shortly after noon, the AASF staff ordered subordinate squadrons to attack five bridges and pontoon bridges in the Sedan area. The list of goals was as follows: The bridge south of Sedan was marked as No. 1 in the documents (it was a pontoon bridge built by German engineers in Wadelincourt ). Bridge No. 2 gave the order to Remilly ( in fact, it was located northwest of Remilly-Aillicourt ). Bridge No. 3 was located in Douza, ie on the river Chiers, a tributary of the Maze. Bridges 4 and 5 were placed by the reporters in Mouzon (the first was in fact north of Villers-devant-Mouzon and the second in Mouzon itself ). Some of the bombers were to concentrate on German convoys advancing on the N58 from Bouillon via Givonne to Sedan.

War operations, especially when led by coalition forces, are always accompanied by a number of mistakes, and this time they occurred in the selection of targets. The list thus included a bridge in Mouzon, southeast of Sedan, which at the time ( which the British did not know about ) was still held by the French army.

A total of 77 bombers were to be deployed in the raids. However, it seems that the British eventually collected only 71: 63 battles and eight Blenheims for the event . More AASF machines simply did not put together after previous heavy losses.


Attacks against German troops at Sedan on May 14, 1940 were intervened by both French Amiot 143 bombers ( in the foreground ) and British battles (in the rear ).

Massacre

Of course, the growing activity of Allied aircraft over Sedan did not escape German attention. Given the assumption that the attacks of the Allied air force will intensify, commander XIX asked. choir gen. Guderian Air Force on strengthening the protection of ground troops. At first, the insufficient presence of Luftflotte 3 fighters increased during the morning. In the afternoon, the crews of RAF light bombers over Sedan had to face the deadly concentration of Messerschmitt Bf 109Es .

The afternoon wave of British air raids was launched by two four battles of the 142nd Squadron . They took off from Berry-au-Bac Airport and individual swarms appeared in the target area just before 1 p.m. During the briefing, the crews were ordered to bomb pontoon bridge No. 1 at Wadelincourt and bridge No. 4 at Villers-devant-Mouzon during the briefing. On the way to the targets, British aircraft were attacked by single-engine fighters, which the crews designated as " Me 109 ". It was not until many years after the end of the conflict that the bitter truth came to light - in fact, it was MS 406 from GC III / 7. They organized a relentless chase for British aircraft and recorded a total of four victories, which appear in the documents as " Henschely Hs 126 ". In fact, the French shot down Battly P2246, P2333 ( two men of the crew fell ), K9333 and L5517 (a three-member crew fell ).For many decades to come, this tragic fratricidal battle was presented by French historians as a successful crackdown on the German Henschels.


Battle Mk.I serial number K9204 from the armament of the 142nd Squadron, French Airport Berry-au-Bac

The main AASF offensive operation was planned in three waves, each consisting of single wing aircraft. The plan assumed that the individual wings of the bombers would penetrate the specified targets gradually, with short time intervals: The raid was to begin 76th Wing ( 12th , 142nd and 226th Squadron ) attack at 15.00 hrs. mixed, the 71st Wing ( 105th , 114th , 139th and 150th Squadrons ) formed by battalions of battles and blenheims. The third was to arrive at the targets on the 75th wing ( 88th , 103rd and 218th Squadron ) five minutes past half past three. Fighter protection was entrusted for the task to a completely insufficient number of hurricanes of the 67th Fighter Wing of the AASF.

However, the original schedule was not kept: the 142nd Squadron ( 76th Wing ) hastened its action ( and paid for the loss of four battles, shot down by mistake by pilots of the French GC III / 7 ). There were delays in other departments. The start of the event was delayed by about half an hour; the aircraft took off late and in a different order than originally intended. Eventually, because the bombers of all three attack waves took off virtually simultaneously, within a few minutes, she took the idea of creating pressure on the enemy by successive attacks by larger formations of bombers. Now a stream of often small assemblies of planes was heading into the area of Sedan, which could not provide mutual support due to the breakdown of coordination. In addition, the bombers quickly lost their fighter support, as the pilots of the RAF hurricanes became involved in the fight with the German bombing expeditions on the way to the target, and resigned to accompany the battles.

It so happened that four battles of the 150th Squadron , which originally belonged until the second attack wave of the 71st Wing , were the first to hit enemy targets between 3.20 and 3.30 p.m. Two of them aimed at Pontoon Bridge No. 1 in Wadelincourt and two Bridge No. 2 northwest of Remilly-Aillicourt. None of them returned to Ecury-sur-Coole's home base. It is assumed that all four bombers shot down German fighters, most likely Bf 109E from I./JG 53 and I./JG 76. Out of a total of 12 men of the crew survived a single pilot, wounded shooter LAC AK Summerson.


Among the battles shot down on 14 May near Sedan was also the L5239 machine belonging to the 142nd Squadron of the RAF

The main onslaught of British bombers against pontoon bridges and columns took place between about 15.25 and 16.25. The German defense expected the battles and blenheims in full force.Probably every anti-aircraft weapon fired in space, and numerous formations of fighters cruised in the sky. The crews of British bombers stubbornly headed for the specified targets, but many of them went to the air sky before the bombing. Others dropped bombs off target: at Mouzon, attacks were made on bridges still held by the French. The fighting spirit of the AASF squadron crews contrasted sharply with what ( some ) of the Armée de l'Air bomber crews had previously demonstrated, but this was not enough to ensure success. Pontoon bridges remained virtually intact.

And now to the individual units involved: Pontoon Bridge No. 1 in Wadelincourt aimed (in addition to battles of the 142nd Squadron from the first attack wave and machines of the 150th Squadron from the second attack wave ) also the crews of four battles of the 218th Squadron from the third planned wave. The same squadron also sent seven battles against the columns advancing in the area between Bouillon and Givonn. Of the 11 light bombers of the 218th Squadron , which took off from Auberive-sur-Suippes Airport , colleagues at the base did not see a full 10! Incomplete documents make it possible to capture in more detail the loss of only five battles. Only one pilot returned from their crews, a seriously burnt Battalion L5232 P / O WAR Harris pilot, four other men were killed, two were missing and four ended up in captivity.

A three-member swarm of light bombers Fairey Battle Mk.I 218th Squadron RAF, France 1940. The machine in the foreground ( K9353 ) was lost on May 12 at Bouillon

According to the original plan, Pontoon Bridge No. 2 in Remilly-Aillicourt was to be attacked by four bombers from each attack wave. In the end, four battles of the 103rd Squadron ( from the third wave ) and four battles of the 105th Squadron ( belonging to the second wave ) headed against him. The command separated both of these squadrons exclusively for attacks on pontoon bridges. Four light bombers of the 103rd Squadron also attacked Bridge No. 5 in Mouzon. After the operation, the squadron lacked three machines: two fell on the account of flak and one shot down German fighters. Two men fell. One hundred and fifth squadrons next to Pontoon Bridge No. 2 attacked Bridge No. 3 in Douza with three battles and Bridge No. 5 in Mouzon with four light bombers. She suffered catastrophic losses during the action: Of the 11 light bombers, six were missing after the action, and two others returned, but had to be eliminated for damage. Nine pilots lost their lives and three others were captured by the enemy.

Bridge No. 3 in Douzy was also a target for the crews of two battles from the 226th Squadron , belonging to the first wave. The same squadron also sent four light bombers against the No. 5 bridge in Mouzon. Here it is necessary to remind again that this village was still held by French troops. V. Butler's K9345 F / Lt machine was the first to penetrate the target. He dropped four bombs, half of which fell into the river, but two claimed a direct hit by the bridge. Of the three other battles attacking Bridge No. 5, two were shot down and the third returned to the home airport, but never took off against the enemy. A particularly tragic fact remains that the defensive fire of French troops contributed to these losses (if not exclusively, then certainly significantly).

In total, three bombers did not return from the battles of the 226th Squadron to the home airport of Reims-Champagne. The crews reported five men as fallen, three were missing and one escaped by parachute and was captured by the Germans. Four other light bombers suffered various serious damage from the event, while two of them remained at the airport during the evacuation, and must therefore also be included in the losses.


The three-member crew of the 226th Squadron enters its war steed

In the third wave, the 88th Squadron divided attention between Bridge No. 4 north of Villers-devant-Mouzon, against which it sent four battles, and the columns between Bouillon and Givonn. She sent six battles against ground troops. The squadron escaped the operation very well: it wrote off only one machine, shot down by anti-aircraft fire (the crew fell ). The next battle returned, but he had to be left at Mourmelon-le-Grand Airport for an evacuation two days later.

Five battles of the 12th Squadron from the first wave of command sent against the German columns in the area between Bouillon and Givonn. The Squadron returned to Amifontaine the only machine whose crew dropped the bombs prematurely, before penetrating the target. The other battleships remained massacred Bf 109E from 4. / JG 52 . Six pilots were killed and the same number ended up behind the wires of German prison camps.

Tragic balance

The AASF command originally hoped that upon their return, the bombers would be armed again and carry out another massive raid with refueling. However, the group no longer had enough strength to implement it. The losses were truly catastrophic - approaching 60%. A full 40 of the 71 bombers ( 35 battles and five Blenheims ) did not return from the afternoon raid, one machine made an emergency landing and about eight of them were damaged! Several entire squadrons were literally depleted.


The menacing opponent of the Fairey Battle light bombers was represented by the German light flak operators during the May events.

The suicide bombing of the AASF battles had no significant effect on the speed of the Wehrmacht's advance. However, the attacks by British pilots were not without results. The evening situation report of Guderian's XIX clearly states this. Corps : The completion of the military bridge in Donchery has not yet been completed due to heavy side artillery fire and long bombing attacks against the bridgehead… During the day, all three divisions suffered air attacks - especially during the crossing and on the bridgehead. Our fighter coverage is inadequate. Requests ( to increase fighter protection ) are still unsuccessful.

Sources ( selection ):
Cornwell, PD: The Battle of France Then and Now. Old Harlow 2007;
Franks, NLR: Valiant Wings. London 1988;
Šnajdr, M .: Men and Machines Against the Tide. Prague 2013.

Published with the kind permission of the author.
Published in the magazine Military revue 1-2 / 2015 published by Naše Vojsko .

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Author : 🕔08.03.2018 📕11.004