“Breaking Point Ardennes” – Battle of Sedan and the Fall of France 1940
4.10.2018 – 7.10.2018
This tour starts in
from £ 860 Per Person – All Inclusive
Max. Walking Distance
Half a mile on firm roads and paths
About two kilometers northwest of Bouillon, deep inside the forest of the Ardennes, the river Semois forms a narrow loop. Over millions of years the water has cut deep into the rock forming a geological feature on its northern bank that resembles an amphitheatre from which today’s observer can take a grandiose view onto the winding river. According to folklore this quaint scenery once served as a setting for an ancient drama which lends its name to the forest covered peninsula carved out by the Semois, Le Tombeau du Gént, the Giant’s Tomb. After the Romans had conquered Gallia in 52 BC fighting in the Ardennes raged on when local tribes used the protection of the deep forests to wage guerilla war on the far superior Roman forces. Launching a punitive expedition Roman troops destroyed Gallic villages along the Semois and massacred the local population. One of the leaders of the Gallic resistance, a giant of a man, managed to escape the Romans He fled in the forests but was ambushed by Roman cavalry. In a fit of despair he climbed a hill near Botassart and hung himself from a tree above the meandering Semois. Roman soldiers cut the rope and the body of the giant Gallic warrior went rolling down the hill. The next day, the villagers buried him right there and since then, this view is called the Giant’s Tomb. It is a spot where mother nature really outdoes herself and with a bit of imagination you can actually see a giant’s head, with eyes, nose and mouth in the trees. Even though in this case legend and historical truth melt into one another the story serves as a fitting parable. The archaic giant warrior personifies the nature of the Ardennes which has been repeatedly penetrated and invaded by armies operating modern weapons and machinery. Yet these armies only form episodes in the history ancient landscape that remained unchanged for centuries. And just like the story of the giant survived in fairytales and legends, the Ardennes survived all those conquerors which hastened their armies forward to be able to leave the wild and threatening landscape as quickly as possible.
No other landscape in the world has been shaped more by cliche. Today we rather automatically associate it with the Battle of the Bulge, the Schlacht in den Ardennen of 1944. Countless books on military history, novels and movies have been inspired by it. Yet the Ardennes Offensive of 1940 and its decisive climax, the Battle of Sedan, which most experts accept to be a turning point in modern military history, remains rather overshadowed. This first offensive revolutionized the image of war from the trench warfare of the First World War to a new and modern kind of operational war of movement which became later known by the name of “Blitzkrieg” – a name that had been created by the press and propaganda, not on the battlefield. For the first time in history these new operative methods of war were used during the thrust of German armour through the Ardennes in May 1940. In comparison the second Ardennes offensive of 1944 can only be seen as an abortive imitation, a pastiche written by a mad dictator based on the successful example staged four years before.
The Plan of Operations
At half past seven I was woken with the news that the French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud was on the telephone. He spoke in English, and evidently under stress. ‘We have been defeated.’ As I did not immediately respond he said again: ‘We are beaten; we have lost the battle.’ I said: ‘Surely it can’t have happened so soon?’ But he replied: ‘The front has been broken near Sedan; they are pouring through in great numbers with tanks and armoured cars.’ – Sir Winston Churchill, The Second World War
Sedan and the Ardennes, a landscape that has seen more than its share of war and battle since the time of Charlemagne. During this tour you will follow in the tracks left by the German tanks of Panzerkorps Guderian during the so called “Blitzkrieg” campaign of May and June 1940 and the apocalyptic and decisive battle of Sedan. Hear about the myth and reality of the operational concept that became known as “Blitzkrieg” while travelling a battlefield that has been a changing point for European and world history numerous times.
The thrust through the Belgian border defences, the advance towards the Meuse, the Battle of Sedan, the Battle of Stonne, a beautiful landscape, great hotels and great food – this battlefield tour, designed and guided by our German military historians Robin Schäfer and Christoph Höpfer will take you off the trodden paths and by offering insight into German and French first hand accounts and military records, will offer a unique glimpse into a fascinating and important chapter of Second World War history.
This tour follows the route of advance of Panzer Corps Guderian in May 1940. Attached to the Corps was a propaganda film unit that produced a 30 minute movie on the thrust through the Ardennes and the Battle of Sedan. Through one of our German historians we have access to an original 16mm roll of this film, copies of which were later used for the training of German officers and NCOs. Throughout the tour you will be shown digitalized material from the movie allowing you to compare today’s battlefield with the one as it was in 1940.
Location of the Battlefield
Verdun central battlefield
After one night in a charming little 3-Star hotel near Diekirch at the German-Luxembourg border, you will spend the rest of the time in the imposing and picturesqe Hôtel Le Château Fort de Sedan, which (as the name implies) is situated right inside the massive fortress of Sedan.
After arrival from the UK we will check into our hotel at Diekirch.
Following 1st Panzer Division (11 & 12 May 1940)
After breakfast we will head out into the Ardennes making our way to Wallendorf, an ancient village stretching over both sides of border from Germany to Luxembourg and the place where the 1st Panzer Division, as part of Panzerkorps Guderian, negotiated the border defences. After a quick stop at the National Museum of Military History in Diekirch, which focuses on the Battle of the Bulge of 1944-45 and the history of Luxembourg’s army we well continue in the track marks of the tanks of 1st Panzer by heading to the village of Martelange where on 10 May 1940, at about 8:45 am the first shots of the Western Campaign were exchanged between troops of the 1st Panzer’s forward detachment and troops of the elite Belgian Chasseurs Ardennais. At Bodange, our next stop, we will look at an engagement which gives the lie to anyone doubting the fighting capabilities of the Belgian army before making our way to Traimont where you will learn about one of the most unusual, and yet hardly known air landing operations of World War Two. Heading to Petitvoir and Neufchateau, where Guderian’s Panzers finally broke through the French defences after heavy fighting. In the beautiful town of Bouillon will talk about the fighting there and the German coup de main on the bridges spanning the Semois. You will also have the opportunity to visit the massive medieval castle which still dominates the town. Following the German attack route to we will then visit the remains of a French border fortification before switching our attention to the southern bank of the Semois looking at the battles that raged around two French fortifications which blocked the German advance route towards Sedan.
On the plateau of Illy you will not only consume your lunch packets and a few bottles of local beer or wine, you will also be able to enjoy the fantastic view across the Sedan battlefield of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. By talking about this decisive battle of 1870 you will learn more about the thoughts behind Manstein’s ‘sickle-cut’ plan of 1940 before we switch our attention 1st Panzer Division’s thrust towards the Meuse on 12 and 13 May 1940.
On our way back to the hotel we will visit a house in which a legendary last-stand action was fought by French infantry during the battle of 1870 and which since then has been turned into a museum, unchanged since the days the last shot was fired from and against it.
Apocalypse at Sedan
On our third day in the Ardennes we will take you to a French officer’s cemetery and memorial dating back to the time of the Franco-Prussian War. Both mark the location of tragic ‘death or glory’ charge of French cavalry on 1 September 1870. After a short walk you will assemble on a position which allows a full view across Sedan and the breakthrough areas of Panzerkorps Guderian in May 1940. After talking about the key stages of the Battle of Sedan we will take a closer look at some of the German key crossing points over the river Meuse, highlighting a suicidal mission executed by eleven German assault pioneers – one that proved to be decisive for the further successful progress of the campaign. Near Glaire we will look at the air battle that raged over Sedan and during which hundreds of French and British aircraft desperately tried to destroy the bridges that Guderian’s pioneers had thrown across the Meuse. En route to our next stop we will see and learn more about the bunkers of the Sedan fortification line before visiting a number of locations where German regiments broke through the French lines. We will see a memorial which commemorates a supposed massacre of French soldiers by German forces and will then take some time off to see a house where world history was written in September 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War.
Around that time we will enjoy the contents of our packed lunches and will offer you a chance to sample a sweet specialty which formed part of the rations of both the German Heer and Luftwaffe. From Chemery, the pivot point of the sickle-cut, we will make our way to Stonne, the ‘Verdun of 1940’ and the town which saw the heaviest and most intense fighting in the 1940 campaign in the west. Changing hands 17 times between 15 and 17 May 1940. You will see a number of memorials, a surviving French tank and you will hear about the battle from both the French and the German perspectives. There is a small, privately owned museum about the battle with irregular opening times so we sadly can’t guarantee if a visit is possible. On our way back to Sedan we will visit a German military cemetery holding burials from both the First and the Second World War – there we will briefly address the battles that raged across the Meuse plateau in 1914 before heading back to our hotel within the old fortress of Sedan.
On this day we will travel back to the UK
Your Guides: Robin Schäfer & Christoph Höpfer
Rob is a German full-time German military historian, freelance battlefield guide and published author who has made his specialist study the life of the German soldier in wartime. He has acted as a historical consultant for authors, and television companies. He recently acted as historical consultant for the Department of Media, Culture and Sports and the First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Programme of the UCL Institute of Education and Equity. He has also worked as an historical advisor and contributor for a number of television programmes including the BBC’s ‘Great War War Interviews’, ‘Voices 16 – Somme’ and Channel 4’s ‘Battle of Britain: The Last of the Few’.
Chris is a former German combat medic, joined the German Bundeswehr in 1990 and served in a mountain hunter (Gebirgsjäger) unit. After his basic infantry training, he specialized in the ABC decontamination making him an expert in chemical warfare. He special interest lies in the Battle Verdun and the life of the German soldier in wartime in both World Wars. As a member of his hometown Regimental Association and in his role as a researcher he regularly visits the military archives of Munich, Stuttgart and Freiburg.
The Special Launch Offer price for this tour starts from £692 per person for two people sharing a double/twin room – a saving of £168 on the normal price! All meals are included. You will also receive the Zeitgeist TourPal, an extensive booklet that will help you to understand the battle, the events and men who fought in the ‘Blitzkrieg’ in the Ardennes in 1940.
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