Battle of Hannut (May 12, 1940 to May 14, 1940)
When the French and German armor clashed near the sleepy Belgian town on May 12, 1940, World War II’s first tank brawl got underway. The German military had smashed across Belgium’s borders two days ago, and General Maurice Gamelin, the Allied supreme commander, believed his enemy was repeating their World War I tactics, and he intended to stop their advance by entrenching his forces near the town of Gembloux.
Gamelin suspected the Germans would attempt to break through with concentrated armor, and assigned the mechanized Corps de Cavalerie, commanded by General René Prioux, the task of fighting a delaying battle while building his defenses. Unfortunately for Gamelin, that was exactly what the German High Command wanted the French General to do.
The majority of Germany’s newest and most experienced armored units were sweeping through the Ardennes forest to the south, and the Nazis’ plan hinged on tying up the Allies army’s while the Panzer’s completed their surprise movement. Commanded by General Erich Hoepner, the assault to the north incorporated a large group of predominately older tanks. Hoepner’s forces included roughly 600 tanks, but most of them were Panzer Is, and IIs, designed as infantry support units. The Mark IIIs and the new Mark IVs were designed for tank-on-tank combat, but nearly all of them were in the Ardennes. This presented Hoepner with a serious problem as the French SOMUA S35 was arguably the world’s premier tank.
Heavily armored, fast, and equipped with a powerful 47 mm gun, the SOMUA S35 was superior to German armor in nearly every way… with one notable exception. The French tank used a two-man turret, and the tank commander was also the gunner. French tank commanders couldn’t watch the battlefield constantly, whereas their German counterparts had a dedicated gunner, and their commanders could react instantly to the changing conditions of a battlefield. This deficit was compounded by General Prioux’s decision to spread his tanks out along the defensive line whereas General Hoepner concentrated his armored units. Essentially, distance prevented Prioux’s tanks from supporting one another, and Hoepner exploited this advantage ruthlessly.
On May 12, Hoepner concentrated the 3rd and 4th Panzer Divisions to secure Hannut, where they destroyed seven French tanks with no losses. Fierce resistance stalled the German advance, and intense fighting exploded throughout the region. Hoepner launched a focused attack on a single point of his enemy’s defenses the following day, seizing the opportunity that Prioux’s dispersed tanks offered, and smashed through the French line. The older German Panzer Is and IIs, inferior in every way to the SOMUA S35, swarmed the French tanks; outflanking the more heavily armored and armed tank, and pounding them into scrap, but they paid a heavy price for their victory. French units destroyed 160 Panzer’s (all but 49 were eventually repaired and returned to service), whereas the Corps de Cavalerie lost 121 tanks.