This is a pithy extract from an account of the Battle of France I wrote six years ago and which is being re-drafted for a forthcoming book on the campaign. ..
"By attacking and fighting like dogs we will get the better of the panzers," Weygand declared. "The German panzers must be hemmed in within the arena into which they have so rashly advanced. They must not get out again.” [Weygand, p.57; Ellis, pp.112-13] On the morning of the twentieth both General Billotte, commanding the Allied armies in northern France, and the BEF commander Viscount Gort received orders to strike southwards:
The Germans cannot yet be in any great strength and must be considerably disorganised by demolitions, the distance they have marched and above all by air action...Now appears a favourable moment [to attack] with the German mechanised forces tired and main bodies strung out. [Ellis, p.84]
Billotte held out little hope for the attack, mesmerised by the German panzers’ “irresistible” drive.
Under their assault combined with ground attacks by Stukas [he told a Belgian officer] whether it be in the open field or on well-prepared positions, ordinary divisions are broken in an incredibly short time. [Gunsburg, p.254]
His front-line officers too did not believe their ill-equipped forces were up to the task. “If I had my division intact, especially my tanks, I could quite easily reach Cambrai,” one tank commander said, “but all I have is my non-armoured element.” [Horne, p.607]
Gort shared Billotte’s doubts but continued his preparations nevertheless. At 2pm on May 21st, elements of two British infantry divisions and 74 tanks ran headlong into Rommel’s 7th Panzer and the SS Totenkopf Divisions west of Arras. The SS troops briefly panicked, but stood their ground and suffered heavy casualties. [Sydnor, pp.95-6] Rommel, however, found his anti-tank weapons “ineffective” against the heavily-armoured British tanks. His men gave way, artillery was destroyed or over-run and gun crews wiped out. [KTB 7th Pz Div, 21/5/40. AL 596]
Bringing up anti-aircraft guns, Rommel first halted the British tanks then drove them back towards Arras in confusion by nightfall. [Rommel, p.33] Though he regarded his situation as “fully restored”, Rommel’s losses had been heavy – 84 dead and 289 wounded or missing. [KTB 7th Pz Div 21/5/40. AL 596. According to the division’s records, 43 British tanks were destroyed, 200 soldiers killed and 50 prisoners taken.]
The British had penetrated just six miles, but the attack rattled the Germans. “A certain air of panic dominated the staffs,” one officer recalled. [Gunsburg, p.256] The concern extended throughout Panzergruppe von Kleist and Fourth Army. [KTB XIX Pz Corps, 21/5/40. Ellis, p.379] That evening, Kluge conceded that May 21st had been “the first day on which the enemy had met with any real success”. [Jacobsen, p.51]