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Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Grind Stonne

There's a small village near Sedan in France that was the location of two days of intense combat in May 1940. The fighting was tank on tank combat. Called the "Verdun of 1940" by some, we generally know it as the Battle of Stonne. The French have often been criticised for their lack of attacks during the battle of France, but at Stonne they got up to speed and laid into the Germans.
Famously Stonne changed hands seventeen times over this two day back and forth, a brutal slogging match. Which was exactly the sort of fighting the French were expecting. To give you an idea of how bitter the fighting was on May the 15th the town changed hands at these times: 0800, 0900, 0930, 1030, 1045, 1200 and 1730. The last change on that day was the Germans taking control. But that wasn't going to last, the French would be back.
Photo taken in Stonne
Early the next morning, at 0430, the French opened with a 45 minute artillery bombardment from 105mm guns. Afterwards the plan was for fourteen Char B1 tanks, divided into two companies (the first and third companies of the regiment) to charge the town, while infantry and Hotchkiss H39's would follow up and take the ground. As the artillery barrage was lifting the first company ran into its first resistance. Anti-tank guns, infantry and a pair of tanks were holding a tree line. The seven Char B1's drove at full speed into the storm of enemy fire trusting their thick armour to keep them safe. As they advanced the two tanks were knocked out by tanks from the company. As they reached 100m the fire suddenly slackened and stopped. The German infantry were pulling back or playing dead in their positions.The first company carried on its advance.

The third company reached the local water tower at 0527 and destroyed it to silence a German machine gun that had been sighted on top of the tower. They then began to take the outskirts of the village under fire, which was returned by German heavy weapons.

Meanwhile the first company had been trying to reach its objectives. The commander had been frustrated by impassable slopes, however, this worked in his favour as it had forced the company to move round the side of the German position. Suddenly the commander (Captain Pierre Billotte), found himself on the outskirts of the Village of Stonne, he led the charge towards the church tower he could see in the dawn light. As his tank came round a corner he saw eleven Panzers lined up on the road next to the church, the road was at right angles to him and just thirty meters away! The German tanks were manned and were readying to launch a counterattack against the third company.
Cpt Billotte, and his B1, Eure
Cpt Billotte ordered his driver to destroy the rear most tank, meanwhile he used the turret gun to fire at the lead tank. Under most circumstances either gun wouldn't have had trouble with a German Panzer from the front at longer ranges, at practically point blank from the flank both Panzers were almost instantly destroyed. With the column immobilised, Cpt Billottes Char B1 began to destroy the rest of the German tanks.
Although immobilised the Germans guns could still fire, and they started a concentrated barrage of fire aimed at the one tank. Again the tanks armour and luck held out, and the German shells bounced harmlessly off for the few moments it took for Cpt Billotte to destroy all the German tanks in the column.

After this the Char B1 lurched on the road, turned left, and began to head deeper into German occupied territory. As he neared a T junction further up the road Cpt Billotte met another parked column of Panzers. These were lined up facing up the road Cpt Billotte was coming down. He quickly despatched all these tanks taking even more hits.  As he neared a hairpin turn the Germans set up an ambush with an anti-tank gun, which again fails and the gun is destroyed. Finally they try another ambush, again with a lone anti-tank gun, which also fails. By now Cpt Billotte is over extended deep behind German lines, and out of targets. So he returns to the village, by now in French hands, the time is about 0730. The French managed to hold until 1730 when the Germans retake the village.
The following day the village changed hands at 1100, 1430, 1500, 1630, 1700 and then changes hands once more for the last time, at 1745 as it's captured by the Germans.
Another picture of Stonne
Cpt Billotte's tank had taken over 140 hits during the battle, but stayed in action until it broke down on 13th of June at Possesse, and had to be destroyed. Cpt Billotte was captured and made a POW, but almost immediately escaped to the Soviet Union, where he was interned. That didn't last long as the Germans were soon to invade, once at war the Soviet Union turned the internee over to the French military attaché, whom he served for a while before making his way to join the Free French in the UK.
Pierre Billotte died in July 1992 aged 86.