Mounted troops consolidate the German advance

Horse drawn light artillery, Belgium, May 1940

The German forces were spearheaded by tanks and mechanised troops which achieved rapid advances that the Allies were ill prepared to meet. On the 18th May the French High Command became aware that the Germans were breaking out from their Sedan bridgehead. The Blitzkrieg or ‘Lightning War’ now began to accelerate, spreading panic and confusion.

Yet the larger part of the German army that followed still relied on horse drawn transport. Siegfried Knapp was an officer with an horse drawn Artillery unit part of 8th Army Korp, 4th Army, Army Group A, that started its journey on 11th May. They marched through the Ardennes before entering Belgium on 13th May 1940. He describes the daily routine of his unit, which marched for a week, had one days rest on 19th May, then entered France on May 21st and did not fire their first round until May 25th.

We had to be ready to move out at 6:00 a.m. In our battalion, the horse people, the cook, and one officer from each battery got up at 4:30. At that early hour, it was still dark. It was always cold, and it was usually wet with early-morning dew if not with rain. The birds would soon begin to protest our disturbing their sleep as the cook started fires under the coffee and tea kettles and the two huge cooking drums on their field kitchens. The cooks would put everything for a thick stew in the large drums and build fires under the drums before we left at 6:00. The stew would continue to cook on the field kitchen wagon as we marched. The smell of the smoke from the cook’s fires mingled with the odor of the earth’s dampness.

The \'Field-Kitchen\' that was in widespread use in the German army, here pictured in Denmark, May 1940

A hot cup of tea usually helped me fight off the chill of the early-morning air. The men would begin to stir, their grunts and slow-motion movements bringing the area alive with activity as the dawn chased away the mystery of the night. The men would make their way to the field kitchens for coffee or tea, bread with butter and jam, and sometimes a can of liverwurst or an equivalent. Then the clanking of chains, the clunking of heavy wheels on rough terrain, and the creaking of leather harnesses would fill the early morning as the batteries moved into marching position. At 6:00 we would move out, and another day would begin.

After four hours or so, we would stop for the main meal of the day. We always stopped where there was water for the horses, even if it was only a small creek. We would feed and water the horses and check them for saddle or harness sores and loose shoes before we ate. Since there was no enemy resistance, the field kitchens were set up and the cooks dispensed the hot meal that had been cooking as we marched. We had forty-five minutes to eat. This was usually our only hot meal of the day, although the cooks might prepare a soup for the evening meal. They also served coffee and tea at breaks. After lunch, we would march until 5 :00 or 6:00 P.M., or until we reached our objective for the day. Of course, weather would sometimes affect our pace. We averaged forty kilometers per day, but it varied from twenty to fifty depending upon the weather and the terrain. .

Siegfried Knappe: Soldat: Reflections of a German Soldier, 1936-1949

German mounted troops

From the Diary of Captain R. Leah, 1st Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders :

Saturday May 18th

This morning met Pat [?]Hunter/Gordon, who had stopped for a moment on his way through Lessines blowing bridges. He had apparently been at St Amand for the past 8 months or so only 9 miles from Haut Hameau.

Today we took up defensive position on canal line and dug in. “B” Coy were on the right with “C” Coy on our left on the main road and bridge. P.S.M. Fleming on Coy left about 50-100 yds from the main bridge. Peter was centre, back off the canal, on the high ground. In between Peter and Fleming was a barge on the canal which was later set fire to. On the right was Kerr with 1 sec and Pl H.Q. in last house. The remainder of his Platoon in the field. A very good cellar in the house in more ways than one as was later seen.

Opposite Kerr was a large railway bridge which had to be blown up about 3 times before collapsing. Bn H.Q. was in the large house behind Mairie on the square. Early morning was quiet but later was considerable mortar shelling and sniping: several civilians sniping us from houses on our side of canal. Had Coy H.Q. in very fine A.A. shelter room for whole Company. Bowring brought us very nice [?] which he found in the canal.

Pte Yates hit by sniper late in evening but not badly. Great deal of mortar shelling all night, especially round Coy H.Q. C.S.M. Maclean was standing in the courtyard with his haversack on when a shell exploded some yards away. His mug attached to the haversack on his back, had a large hole blown through it. Orders to withdraw following morning when relieved by cavalry.

Sgt Turner hit a sniper tonight who was just on the other side of the canal. It was almost dark at the time. Pte Hutchinson ran across an open bit of ground to draw the fire. The sniper shot, and Turner, firing at his flash, was rewarded with sound of somebody tumbling into the canal. Hutchinson was not hit.

[Entry No.9, for the first entry see 10th May 1940]

See TNA WO 217/15

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