Saturday, April 30, 2022

The Bridge

Pont-Rémy. Chars allemands traversant un pont, fin mai 1940
6FI67 Archives de la Somme¹

As the platoon came out of the woods on the heights above the town, Willi spotted a sign along the road. It had been knocked down, but there was no other reason for the sign than to announce the name of the village they were approaching. The sign gave the name of the place, Pont-Rémy, about six kilometers up river from Abbeville according to Willi's map. 

"Fritz," Willi announced over the intercom, "slow down. I don't like this."

Willi felt the tank slow as Fritz simply let up on the accelerator. He was sitting low in his hatch, it was open but he was using the vision slits. He could see Leutnant Ensbach in his tank, about twenty meters ahead, the distance was opening as Fritz slowed 223. The lieutenant was actually sitting on his open hatch, he was very exposed.

Willi saw the lieutenant turn and it was obvious that Ensbach was angry that 223 was falling back, as was the remainder of the platoon, behind Willi's tank. As the lieutenant began to gesture angrily at 223, all Hell broke loose.

"Can you take him from this range, Jean-Yves?" Sergent Podbielski asked the young Frenchmen.

"I think so, there isn't much wind, shall I?" Jean-Yves asked.

"At your convenience, mon ami."

Willi jumped as he saw the lieutenant clutch his chest then slump to his right. What the Hell? Then Leutnant Ensbach toppled over the side of Panzer 221 and fell heavily to the road. He wasn't moving.

Then Willi saw sparks fly from the side of 221's turret as the tank cut suddenly to the left and drove off the road. Willi could see smoke coming from the commander's cupola, 221 had been hit.

"Fritz! Find us some cover! Horst! Is the gun loaded?" Willi was trying to do twelve things at once, or so it seemed, and everything was in slow motion.

Raising his head slightly, Willi looked to his rear, 222 and 224 were already deploying to Willi's right, away from where the shot which killed 221 had come from. What were they facing? Had to be infantry and anti-tank guns, maybe French tanks, he knew from the Ic² that French armor was in the area. Damn it, where was the Luftwaffe?

"Nice shot, Jean-Yves. Time to cross the river! Chodźmy chłopcy!³"

No sooner had the words left Sergent Podbielski's mouth than the Poles, with their French colleague in tow, were scrambling down the embankment to the small bridge across the Somme. Rumbling down the street which led up the hill and out of town to the north were two Somua S-35 tanks, both heading for the bridge.

The first tank got across the bridge, the second stopped, Podbielski noticed that its turret was facing back up the road, as if to cover the withdrawal. As he watched, an enemy tank moved into the open at the top of the street and stopped.

The Somua fired.

"Scheiße! That was close!" Willi had heard the shot from the French tank go whistling over the top of the turret, it couldn't have been more than a meter over his open hatch. Willi fired the tank's cannon then prepared to fire again.

A quick glance through his sight indicated that there was no need for a second shot at the French Somua. Which he noted was now blocking the bridge they had to have.

Podbielski watched in horror as the German tank fired, he winced at the clang of steel on steel as the German's shot hit the rear of the Somua. Moments later the hatch on top of the turret popped open, as did the main crew hatch on the left side of the vehicle.

Podbielski could see smoke billowing from the top of the turret, he saw a hand rise up out of the turret, then slide back down inside. He shuddered as he could hear the crew screaming inside the tank.

Only one man got out of the side hatch, his tanker's uniform was smoldering. The man took three halting steps before falling to his knees. Soldat Krempa and Soldat Mierzejewski rushed over to the man, Krempa was yelling in French as they did so.

Before they could reach the French tanker, the man fell on his face. By the time Krempa and Mierzejewski reached him, the tanker was dead.

"Damian, Klaudiusz, come on, we need to get out of here!" Podbielski could see the German tank at the top of the street, he didn't think they had seen him and his men yet. Then he saw the turret begin to move.

In his direction.

Willi had seen the infantry only at the last minute. They were beginning to fall back after apparently trying to help one of the tank crewman from the vehicle Willi had just killed. "Horst! Load high explosive, infantry in the open!"

Willi fired the coaxial machine gun as soon as the turret was laid on the target. He had the satisfaction of seeing one of the French soldiers fall to the ground. Before he could open fire again, the Frenchmen had vanished.

Soldat Mariusz Perzan was sobbing with the pain of being hit in both legs. Jean-Yves had dashed out and pulled the man to safety before the German tank could fire at them again. One of the Poles helped him drag the wounded man across the bridge,

They took shelter in a building just down the street. Jean-Yves took post in an upstairs window to cover the street leading from the bridge. He had a front row seat when the French engineers blew the bridge. Though the knocked out French tank was blocking the far side of the bridge, Jean-Yves knew that it could be pushed off the road by a big enough vehicle. The Germans, he was sure, had such vehicles. Better that the bridge was in the Somme, it halted the Boches, for now.

Willi had sworn in frustration when the bridge had been destroyed, he figured that he could have pushed the knocked out Frenchie off the road with his own tank, which would have gotten his platoon over the Somme on the first day. But it was not to be.

It was two days before the engineers had a temporary bridge over the Somme at Pont-Rémy. The first platoon across had been hit by French artillery, which destroyed one tank and damaged two others, the little Panzer IIs weren't very tough.

Worse still, the infantry which had crossed in support of the panzers took heavy casualties, twenty-two dead and thirty-eight wounded.

Only on the fourth day did the Luftwaffe make an appearance.

Then the Panzers could continue south.

To Paris!

¹ Pont-Rémy. German tanks crossing a bridge, end of May 1940 6FI67 Somme Archives
² Intelligence officer
³ Let's go boys! (Polish)


  1. It is often overlooked, but up to the Barbaroossa, France was Wehrmacht's bloodiest campaign.
    And French have lost even more dead in the short campaign, denying the picture of "surrendering Frenchies". French were willing to die for their Patrie... Units had to surrender when cut off from supply of fuel and ammo, and biggest chunk went into captivity after the armistice.
    The whole affair could have easily swung other way, Germans were having only 14 days of artillerry ammo left by the time of armistice...

    1. Pawel, thanks for that last bit of information; it makes a good point that many folks don't know and even the students may have overlooked. I haven't served with many French, but those I have earned my complete trust and confidence.
      Likewise, thanks Sarge for these many "lessons" and including these elements such as the Poles. War is made up of these "bits" which can often be quite significant in the larger picture but are always significant to the participants
      Boat Guy

    2. Paweł - To use a phrase of Wellington's, it was indeed a "close run thing."

    3. Boat Guy - There are so many stories in those "bits." Many of which have been lost, I try to convey some of the essence of those lost bits in my writing.

  2. On to Paris!
    And Tobruk and Stalingrad and Palermo and Athens ... Lot's of opportunity for these guys to do some word sightseeing in the next 5 years ...

  3. Who can react the fastest? Who is in the wrong spot at the wrong time? The German tide is still rising. Another tense effort Sarge.

    1. Sometimes mere seconds separate life and death in combat.

    2. OAFS - a matter of seconds - and/or of inches. Life or death can be the matter of a small gust of wind.

      The Lord giveth, and he taketh away.

    3. Germans had the advantages of better radio comms, Auftragstaktik giving leaders in the field more freedom to act, and overall air superiority. Even then, Luftwaffe lost about 30 percent of it s strength to combat and accidents combined... Which was felt later during Battle of Britain. Allies had series of unlucky moments, and decisions from French PM sacking General Gamelin at worst possible moment on May 19th, as Allied command tried to make counterattack on German "sichelschnitt" towards the Channel, to General Bilotte, commander of 1st Army Group (in Belgium) getting killed in car crash and leaving the AG leaderless for crucial 3 days. As for the Maginot Line, it held out so long that Germans managed to get to Swiss border behinfd the line itself by that time. Hell, last fortress did surrender on 10th of July, 19 days after Compiegne armistice!

  4. Sarge, thanks for primer on how infantry and armored units work in unison. It is quite clear.

    To Boat Guy and Pawel's comments, there are a lot of things buried in World War II that probably few remember or know about - the Polish involvement after the conquest of Poland and the French campaign are two of them. An oversight (I guess we shall call it such) of American education which, as you have pointed out, tends to start around the end of 1941.

    Great writing as usual.

    1. American history tends to ignore the rest of the world. My eyes were opened by a very good history professor at Colorado State.

  5. Better a hatch popping open than the turret I guess. Saw this in my feed the other day:

    1. Yup, ammo cooks off, turret flies. It's a big problem with all that ammunition in the turret area. Had the same problem in WWII, not because of an autoloader but because a lot of ammunition was stored in the turret area to give the loader quick access (that 19-year-old with the string back).

  6. What the French didn't just surrender? I bought this really cool French Rifle, never fired, dropped once... In all seriousness though yes US history IF you got to WW2 started in Dec, 1941 nevermind that the rest of the world was fighting for what 4-5 years already? 1937 is sometimes given as a start date.

    Great stuff thanks for writing, I enjoy it immensely.


Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)
Can't be nice, go somewhere else...

NOTE: Comments on posts over 5 days old go into moderation, automatically.