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The battle for France in 1940 is often portrayed as a rout: the German Wehrmacht simply trounced the French forces within a few weeks, crushing them with military might and tactical ingenuity. However, a few episodes debunk this image and the Battle of Stonne, where a small town in the Ardennes changed hands 17 times in three days, is one of the most prominent.

By Fergus O’Sullivan

The story of the Battle of France is fairly well-known. When the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939, Britain and France declared war, and then did pretty much nothing until May 1940. The French hid behind the Maginot line, figuring its forts and bunkers would be the rocks the German waves would crash upon. To the south and north were the Alps and Ardennes, respectively, two mountain ranges the French imagined the Germans couldn’t cross. 

This was a terrible miscalculation, and the French were effectively poleaxed when the Germans came roaring out of the Ardennes via recently conquered Belgium in Fall Gelb (“Case Yellow”). Their main army encircled, the war was over before it even really began. The next few weeks are a story of retreat, rout and abject defeat.

However, what many popular histories gloss over is that the German invasion was a relatively close run thing at some critical points in time. The French army might not all have been state of the art, but it had solid equipment, some excellent leaders and plenty of soldiers motivated to defend their homeland. 

The Battle of Sedan

One example of how things could have gone comes from the Battle of Sedan. Sedan is a small town nestled among the slopes of the Ardennes, just a few kilometres from the Belgian border. Because of its location, French high command thought it wouldn’t be likely to be attacked and hadn’t spent much effort in fortifying it. 

Most of the French positions were on a ridge behind the town, and thus didn’t realise that the Germans had started to sneak tanks into the town on the night of May 12th, 1940. What they likely didn’t fail to notice was the Luftwaffe bombers who came screaming overhead the next day, pulverizing the defences. This was an almost textbook example of Blitzkrieg, overwhelming the enemy with sheer shock.

German Troops crossing a Pontoon Bridge, Sedan, 1940.
M108/9 14.5.1940 1. Panzer Reg. geht auf Pontonbrücke in Floing über die Maas, bei Sedan [Heeresfilmstelle Spandau-Ruhleben]

However, the French weren’t out of the fight yet and launched a series of counter offensives aiming to stop the German armored divisions. The first few, which were focused on the town of Bulson, weren’t effective, but French commanders soon set their sights on the village of Stonne, where the mountains provided a narrow and extremely defensible gap.

The Battle of Stonne

Stonne is even now a small village and likely wouldn’t have appeared in any history books were it not for its extremely strategic location. Any army barrelling south from Sedan has to pass through the small gap just north of the village.

This map shows the location of Stonne, with hilly terrain marked yellow. Sedan lies north.

On May 15th, the Germans managed to take the village, but almost immediately met a French counteroffensive. The fighting around Stonne was fierce, and over the course of the next three days, the town would change hands 17 times, until the Germans finally won the final victory on May 17th. 

Pierre Billotte’s Wild Ride

This is amazing in and of itself, and shows the grit and determination of the French troops to not roll over in the face of the invader. However, what makes the battle of Stonne truly amazing is what has gone down in history as Piere Billotte’s wild ride. 

Pierre Billotte, second from left, in 1941.

Billotte was the commander of a unit of six Char B1 heavy tanks, massive machines with even more massive guns and thick armour plating that could easily withstand the fire from the small-barrelled German panzers. In a tale of derring-do that could easily have come out of a novel, Billotte entered Stonne with just one vehicle, intending to flank the German forces there while his main force kept the Germans busy.

A Char B1 heavy tank in 1940.

Imagine his surprise when he came upon a line of seven tanks, waiting to engage his forces. With the element of surprise on his side for once, Billotte made use of a tactic that would become popular among tank commanders of all sides during the war: he took out the lead and rear tanks in the column, leaving the other five easy pickings.

With the return fire from the German simply bouncing off his Char B1’s armor, Billotte and his crew made easy work of the initial seven tanks, before continuing and destroying another six throughout other parts of Stonne. This video goes into the details of that morning:

It was an amazing feat of arms, and left the Germans bloody. However, as brave and amazing as the attack was, it wouldn’t be enough: there were simply too many Germans. The next day, three of Billotte’s tanks were knocked out by concentrated fire and the defence of the town collapsed. 

As fierce as the French fought, the element of surprise would prove too much to overcome, no matter the heroics of men like Pierre Billotte. Still, though, stories like the battle of Stonne prove that the fight was never as one-sided as popular history tends to portray.

Podcast episodes about the Battle of Stonne

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