Last Stand on the Loire (rerun)

By this date in 1940, the Battle of France was clearly lost. British troops had been evacuated at Dunkirk by June 4. Large numbers of French soldiers had been killed or captured, the French Air Force had been largely crippled, German armored units were marauding across wide areas of France. Columns of refugees were blocking the roads,  seriously interfering with military operations. The French government had evacuated Paris for Bordeaux, and on June 16 the combative Paul Reynaud resigned as premier, to be replaced by the aged Philippe Petain.

And by June 18, the cadets of the French Cavalry School at Saumur, in obedience to the orders of their Commandant, had taken position to defend the bridgeheads across the Loire. It was a military operation that had been the subject of war-game exercises at the school for years, but few had imagined it would ever be carried out in earnest. The 800 cadets and instructors were joined by 200 Algerian riflemen, by various units in the vicinity, and by volunteers whose units had disintegrated but who wished to continue fighting. Arrayed against this small and ill-equipped force would be the German First Cavalry Division—more than 10,000 men, well-equipped with tanks and artillery.

The Battle of Samaur is the subject of an excellent photo essay….there is also a Wikipedia page.

The German attack started just before midnight on June 18. The cadets and their associated units held out until late on June 20. French casualties were 79 killed and 47 wounded–one of those killed was the composer Jehan Alain.  German casualties are estimated at 200-300.

The German commander, General Kurt Feldt, was very impressed by the tenacity of the French defense, and so indicated in his report. On July 2, someone in the German command structure–probably Feldt–decided that out of respect for their courage and sacrifice in the battle, the cadets would be allowed to leave the school and transit into the Unoccupied Zone, rather than being interned as prisoners of war. He advised them to get going quickly, before someone in higher authority could countermand his order.

The most comprehensive English-language source on the Battle of Saumur is the book For Honour Alone, by Roy Macnab.

11 thoughts on “Last Stand on the Loire (rerun)”

  1. Is there a more well read group of contributors than those at Chicago Boyz? A link from ADV Rider, no less. Desplats and Nelson, thanks, I needed that.

  2. “British troops had been evacuated at Dunkirk by June 4”: one of Churchill’s less successful decisions was to leave many of the British troops behind so that French troops could be evacuated. These were then returned to France where they were anyway surrendered.

    As for the Loire: did they blow the bridges?

  3. I’m struck that a German tank division had to resort to rubber boats. Maybe that’s just a reminder that the speed and completeness of French collapse surprised the Germans too.

  4. Had the French had better political leadership they would have had better Generals, their soldiers were never the problem.

    This was one heroic stand.

    The German Commander Feldt was also Cavalry and knew the school, this in part explains his gallantry.

  5. All things considered there are lessons here in Gallantry that apply for all time, and most acutely ours.

    Or more pointedly – stick to men, avoid granny’s, women, kids. Atrocity is not value adding in war. In particular in the West where atrocity really hasn’t been productive for nearly 1000 years.

    So let us do more than admire the mutual gallantry of the combatants here, let us emulate it.

  6. Saumur has a fine armor museum, which I visited over 10 years ago. Very worthwhile but Google it to see what I mean. Visiting French provincial cities is enjoyable without being overwhelming.

  7. Reminds me of the cadets of VMI – didn’t they fight as a unit against the Union in a battle?

    And bravo for General Feldt – gallantry in a war that so so little of that

  8. Napoleon once supposedly said, one Mamluk was worth two Frenchmen, but 1000 Frenchmen would always beat 1500 Mamluks.

    Or something like that. You can never fully trust historical quotes anymore it seems.

    Anyway, the point being that the Frenchman was capable of fighting valiantly and effectively as long his unit stayed united, group cohesion stayed strong, and pride in his endeavor remained intact. It looks like that was the case with the cadets of Saumur. Not so much at Sedan.

  9. 1st Cavalry was not a Panzer division at this point in the war. The tanks referred to were probably MkI and MkII attached to the reconnaissance battalion as a sort of tracked armored car function. They were vulnerable to anything larger than rifle caliber and many were lost as a result. Even so, against so few defenders an entire division was never going to be held up for more than a brief period, it was simply a matter of bringing the combat power of the division to bear on whatever location they wished to cross.

  10. “The tanks referred to were probably MkI and MkII attached to the reconnaissance battalion as a sort of tracked armored car function.”

    The Germans actually had few tanks of the types we are familiar with from later in the war. Many were Czech tanks.

    The up-gunned Panzer III did not appear until after the fall of France.

    They served during most of the Wehrmacht campaigns, including Russia and Africa, were they were found suitable against British tanks. Both the armor and gun were a handicap against Soviet tanks, especially the T-34, which was impregnable to the “door-knocker”, even at short ranges.

    The Sherman was not equal to the up gunned Panzer III, let alone the Panzer IV.

    The Panzer IIIs that were used in France were not that powerful.

    795 tanks were lost of all types, a significant number which highlighted the weaknesses of the same Panzer III, namely the lack of penetrating power of their main KwK 36, and insufficient protection.

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