Rommel or Guderian?
Perhaps the most significant controversy surrounding the events of 18⁄20 May 1940, was the belief that the men of 7th Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment, successfully held up the advance of Rommel’s Panzer Division. This assertion first appears in the Suggested Addition to War Diary, filed by Captain G.H.Cook following an encounter with a German Officer, Oberleutenant Richter, in the spring of 1942. This Officer stated that he was with General Rommel’s Panzer Division in France and he very clearly remembered meeting with the opposition which this Division encountered from a small force of British troops at Amiens on 20th May 1940.
Unfortunately, Rommel and his Panzers were not responsible for taking Amiens, so references to Rommel are not credible. However, this story soon took on a life of its own, was accepted as fact and passed into legend! Thereafter, throughout the many official and personal accounts, the story is repeated again and again that the Battalion were responsible for delaying Rommel’s advance. Regrettably, those who sought to correct this misconception were generally thought to be unhelpful and divisive, thus confirming the adage that ‘Truth is the first casualty of war’.
The German Order of Battle
Erwin Rommel was in command of 7th Panzer Division and on 20th May 1940 7th Panzer Division were at Arras. On 21st May 1940, at the Battle of Arras, the British forces launched an attack which met with some considerable success until Rommel changed his tactics and stopped the British advance.
Heinz Guderian was commanding XIX Corps, which included the 1st, 2nd and 10th Panzer Divisions. These formations were responsible for the breakthrough at Sedan, which led to the fall of Amiens and the battle between 7th Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment and Guderian’s 1st Panzer Division.
During the Second World War, Rommel’s success in France and then in North Africa, earned him a significant reputation as a military leader and led him to be known as the “Desert Fox”. There is no doubt that the men of 7th Battalion were successful in holding off a much stronger force by way of a bluff and the idea that they had ‘out-foxed’ the ‘Fox’ was very attractive. It is also true that, whilst the Battalion were delaying Guderian’s forces at Amiens, others were inflicting significant damage on Rommel at Arras. This all led to a sudden German ‘halt’ order on 24th May 1940 and it is reasonable to conclude that the resistance shown by the men of 7th Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment, contributed to this decision. In turn, that allowed time for the Dunkirk evacuation which saved thousands of lives!
In the end, despite its inaccuracy, the Rommel legend was helpful in that it gave the survivors a sense of purpose and pride in their achievement. This helped them to come together and share their memories. There were also several trips to France to remember and honour those who fell, where the hospitality and gratitude shown by the citizens of Amiens and the surrounding towns, was simply spectacular! This all proved to be of great consolation to the men for the sacrifice that had been made by so many at Amiens in May 1940.
They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn;
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them.