Battle of Stonne 15th May 1940

Battle of Stonne 15th May 1940

Battle of Stonne took place from 14th to 25th of May 1940., and is nicknamed the “Verdun of 1940”. A German victory, it was one of the more – if not the most – important battles of the western campaign. While German forces would end up capturing Stonne, battle itself was nevertheless French defensive victory.


The Battle for France in 1940. is often portrayed as nearly an effortless German victory, with the German Wehrmacht crushing the French forces with military might and tactical ingenuity. But there are several episodes which give lie to this picture, and the Battle of Stonne is perhaps the most prominent.

When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939., Britain and France declared war. Then they proceeded to essentially sit on their hands – engaging in what became known as the “Phoney War” in the West and “Sitzkrieg” or “Sitting War” in Germany – until May 1940., Some 110 Allied divisions spent the time hiding behind the Maginot Line and the mountain chains of Ardennes and the Alps. The force they were cowering from consisted of 23 second-rate German divisions positioned along the Siegfried Line, a defensive line constructed mostly from myths and propaganda, but very little concrete.

When Germans invaded through Belgium and the thought-to-be-impassable Ardennes, main French army was encircled, while the British Expeditionary Force and much of the rest of the French forces were pushed to the sea. The war was basically over before it had even begun, even though the French would continue to offer stiff but ultimately unsuccessful resistence over the next few weeks.

While overall a massive success for the Wehrmacht, invasion of France was a much closer run thing than the popular histories tend to portray it as. For all its flaws, the French army still had solid equipment, good leaders and motivated soldiers.


Germans had 90 000 soldiers and 300 tanks against French force of 42 500 soliders and 130 tanks.

Germans cross Meuse at Sedan

Battle of Sedan

In 1940., French strategy called for holding the Maginot Line while forcing Germany into a mobile battle in Belgium. In order to strengthen two key fronts, Ardennes were only lightly held as the heavily forrested mountain area was considered impassable for tanks. The defence of Meuse was responsibility of 2nd Army under Hutzinger which held the area from the Bar valley to Longuyon, while the Sedan region was defended by the 10th Army Corps under Grandsard.

In May, Germans attacked through the Ardennes, attempting to breach the mountains at Sedan. On 11th May the French cavalry retreated from Belgium, where it had gone before the Germans. On 12th May, Germans were at the entrance to Sedan.

A small town nestled among the slopes of the Ardennes, Sedan was not a priority target and so the French did not believe it would be attacked. Town was nearly unfortified. Most of the French positions were on the ridge behind the town, and as a result, the French failed to realize that the Germans had begun to sneak tanks into the town on the night of 12th of May.

On the 13th Germans began operations to cross the Meuse. While the French may have failed German movements of the previous night, they certainly noticed a mass of Luftwaffe aircraft from Luftflotte 2 and Luftflotte 3 that pulverized their defences on this day. But the French were not out of the fight yet and launched a series of counteroffensives to stop the German armored divisions. The first few, aimed at the town of Buson, were unsuccessful. But the French commanders soon switched attention to the village of Stonne, where the mountains provided a narrow and very defensible gap.

Map of Stonne area

Battle of Stonne

Any army moving south from Sedan has to pass through a narrow gap just north of the village of Stonne.

On 14th May the Germans forced their way through at Nouzonville cemetery and were in a position to take the defenders of Montherme from the rear. Huntziger reinforced the defensive system in place on the Stonne-Foret du Mont Dieu line, but was forced to abandon the area between Chiers and Meuse. This ended up widening the distance between the 1st and the 10th armies.

On 15th May the Germans attacked Stonne with tanks and aircraft, entering the village at around 5:00 in the morning. French anti-tank guns and a handful of Char B1-bis tanks knocked out seven German tanks, but were pushed back as German infantry entered the village. B1-bis tanks proved their value however as German tanks struggled to score any damaging hits. Two French Panhard 178 armored cars however were destroyed. Fierce fighting ensued from then on as a large contingent of French armored units had been concentrating near the village in order to mount counterattack towards Sedan.

Between the 15th and 18th May, the village changed hands a total of between 17 and 19 times. Strength of B1bis Renault tanks combined with defensive position allowed the French to hold position despite significantly smaller forces. A single B1bis tank destroyed 13 German tanks in the village square, suffering 130 hits in the process.

Losses were so heavy that German soldiers ended up comparing battle of Stonne to the hell of Verdun in 1916. Just in terms of tanks, French lost 33 tanks while Germans lost 24. In order to turn the position around, Wehrmacht started an offensive in the direction of Tannay. On 23rd of May it took down the 1st Hussar Regiment there and seized the village on 24th of May. The 3rd Colonial Infantry Division that had been holding the Foret du Mont Dieu was forced to withdraw along a narrow corridor the night of the 24th May and permanently abandon the area. Total personnel losses were 1 000 French and 3 000 German soldiers killed.

French Char B1 tank

Pierre Bilotte’s Wild Ride

One thing that made Battle of Stonne go down in history was an event known as Pierre Bilotte’s Wild Ride.

Bilotte was a commander of a unit of six Char B1 heavy tanks. These tanks were heavily armed and armored, and could easily withstand the fire from most if not all German tank guns of the time. Bilotte himself entered Stonne with just one vehicle, intending to flank the German forces there while his main force kept the enemy busy in a head-on engagement.

Unexpectendly, Bilotte came upon a line of seven German tanks waiting to engage his forces. Fortunately, Germans were even more surprised, and Bilotte used the opportunity to take out enemy lead and rear tanks, leaving the other five tanks stranded.

With the return fire from German tanks simply bouncing off his tank’s armor, Bilotte and his tanks easily took off the remaining German tanks before continuing on and destroying another six throughout other parts of Stonne.

But there were too many Germans. The next day, three of Bilotte’s tanks were knocked out by concentrated fire and defenses of the town collapsed.

Pierre Bilotte


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