Since 1933, de Gaulle had argued that France needed a modern, mechanized force, but this would be his initial experience commanding tanks in battle. He met most of his troops for the first time on the day of the battle. After reconnoitering, de Gaulle chose as his objective the crossroads at Montcornet on the River Serre, 20 miles northeast of Laon. Units dribbled in on 17 May. The tank crews had fired guns of the most modern tanks only once, if at all. The drivers were equally inexperienced.
Almost immediately, de Gaulle dispatched 46th Battalion to Montcornet. The battalion operated Char Bs, France's most modern heavy tank. The 46th was joined by a company of SOMUA D-2 tanks from the 6th Demibrigade. Both tank models had firepower and frontal armor superior to that of the German tanks. The 2nd and 24th Battalions operated R-35s, obsolete tanks but comparable to Germany's older models. However, the Germans had the advantage in training, experience, communications ability (by radio), tactical doctrine, and integration of combined arms.
The French force shot up two columns of soft-skinned vehicles from General der Panzertruppen (U.S. equiv. lieutenant general) Heinz Guderian's XIX Panzer Corps and knocked out a few light panzers before fighting its way into Montcornet around 3:00 p.m. Meanwhile, the French 4th Battalion of Chasseurs eliminated a threat to the French rear from German infantry concealed near Chivres. For three hours, the 4th Armored Division endured German artillery and air strikes with no means of responding. Finally, it fell back to Laon, harassed by Ju-87 Stuka dive-bombers. At least two Char Bs and about 200 infantrymen were lost in combat.
On 19 May, de Gaulle attacked again, this time northwest of Laon toward bridges at Crécy, Mortiers, and Pouilly. Although his troops were reinforced to about 30 Char Bs, 40 SOMUAs, and 80 R-35s, plus 75 mm guns from the 332nd Artillery Regiment and additional infantry, de Gaulle still lacked adequate artillery and air support. His troops could not fight their way across the Serre. Sixth Army had completed its defensive deployment on the Aisne by this time. Ordered to add his tanks to those defenses, de Gaulle lingered another day and then withdrew his troops in good order, fending off attacks by German armored cars along the way.
Although ballyhooed at the time, de Gaulle's counterstrikes had no effect. Guderian had been ordered to halt before de Gaulle attacked, a pause that lasted only 24 hours, and he did not even report the impotent French counterattacks to army headquarters until the following day. Regardless, the actions around Laon became one of four pillars of the de Gaulle pantheon. The others were his prewar advocacy of a mechanized army, his leadership of the Free French during the war, and his postwar political role.
Gerald D. Swick
de Gaulle, Charles. The Complete War Memoirs of Charles De Gaulle. Vol. 1, The Call to Honor, 1940–1942. Trans. Jonathan Griffin. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968.; Deighton, Len. Blitzkrieg from the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk. Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2000.; Horne, Alistair. To Lose a Battle: France, 1940. Boston: Little, Brown, 1969.; Shirer, William L. The Collapse of the Third Republic: An Inquiry into the Fall of France in 1940. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1969.