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The French 2nd Armored Division

By Simon McBeth and Mike Haught 

The troops of the 2ème Division Blindée, or French 2nd Armoured Division, first saw combat in the disastrous 1940 Norwegian Campaign as a part of the independent 501ème Régiment de Chars de Combat (501st Tank Regiment). After the fall of France, the unit retreated to the United Kingdom where it formed the core of the free French forces under Charles De Gaulle.

They were sent south to the French central African colonies to form bulk of the Free French Forces.
2éme Division Blindée

2éme Division Blindée - General Leclerc

Philippe François Marie, Comte de Hauteclocque joined the 501st Tank Regiment as its new commander. Hauteclocque took the name Leclerc to protect his family from German reprisals in occupied France.

Before this posting, Leclerc was briefly involved in the resistence and was captured in 1940. He managed to escape and made his way to London where he met De Gaulle. He was entrusted with the task of convincing France’s African territories to join the Free French against Germany.

After rallying the French colonies of Cameroon and Gabon, Leclerc launched several large and daring raids from his African bases into Italian-held Libya. They successfully traveled 930 miles (1500km) to attack and capture the Koufra Oasis on 1 March 1941.

While there, Leclerc and his ‘L’ column declared an oath to cease fighting only “when our colours will float on the Cathedral of Strasbourg”. The raids continued until 1942 when Leclerc led his force northwards to join the British 8th Army in Tunisia in January 1943.

‘Force L’ entered the Tunisian capital, Tunis, in May 1943 strengthened with the 12ème Régiment de Cuirassier (12th Cuirassier Regiment) and 12ème Régiment de Chasseurs d’Afrique (12th African Light Cavalry Regiment) and renamed the 2ème Division Blindée. The Division was then transferred to England to prepare for the Normandy landings.

Free French
Free French

Normandy

The 2ème Division Blindée landed on Utah Beach on the night of the 31st July – 1st August, and formed up near La Haye-du-Puit. They joined the XV Corps of the US Third Army and were readied for their role in Operation Cobra. They were ordered to attack through the Avranches Corridor towards Le Mans. After several days of hard fighting through the countryside, Le Mans was liberated on 9 August. This was the first fo many major French cities that Leclerc and his 2éme Division Blindée would liberate in the next year of the war.

From Le Mans, the  XV Corps turned their attentions northwards to the city of Alençon. The city was liberated by the 2ème Division Blindée on 12 August.

The following attack then drove through the German defences in Ecovre. As they drove inland with the rest of the Third Army, the French division ran into many prepared anti-tank defences deployed by the 9th Panzer Division.

They overcame the initial shock of the violent ambushes and fought valiantly through the German positions, clearing the Germans out of the forest of Ecuvres.

2éme Division Blindée in Paris
2éme Division Blindée - Rally Point

The success of operations near Ecuvres opened the way for the division to advance on the city of Argentan in an effort to close the southern portion of the Falaise Pocket. However, the 2éme Division Blindée was disorganized as a result of the actions against the 9th Panzer Division. The armoured columns of the Combat Commands were causing multiple traffic jams amongst the rest of the Allied troops delaying the attempts to close the Pocket.

When the roads were finally sorted, the Allied High Command decided to use the 2ème Division Blindée as a battering ram to try to close the Falaise Pocket.

2éme Division Blindée - Marin
 2éme Division Blindée - Rally Point

They were to meet the southward advancing Polish Armoured Division to close the gap. The division advanced northwest and made for their objective; the town of Oméel. The fighting was again desperate and although lead elements of the Spahis made the South Eastern slopes of Hill 262, the rest of the division could not reach the Poles and the Pocket remained open.

Operation Cobra and the attempt to close the Falaise Pocket cost the division 133 dead, 648 wounded and 85 missing, The division was told to hold their position as the rest of Third Army closed the gap. Leclerc’s attention now turned firmly on to Paris.

Falaise Pocket ...

2éme Division Blindée in Paris
 2éme Division Blindée in Paris

Paris

Initially, SHAEF was not prepared to spend valuable resources on liberating the Capital city. They were worried that an assault would trigger a brutal street-to-street fight. Obviously De Gaulle objected. He threatened that he would order the city to be liberated using the 2ème Division Blindée with or without Allied assistance. Finally they approved, and it was agreed that the Free French forces would lead the way. Leclerc threw the 2éme Division Blindée into a headlong rush towards Paris.

The capital was already in a state of turmoil. The French Police force had risen up in open revolt and it snowballed as more and more Parisians joined the uprising.

Dash to Paris...

Spurned on by the desperate resistance the outnumbered partisans faced, Leclerc decided to split the division into two columns. The first column consisted of Combat Command 1 and 2 under Colonels Langlade and Dio. They were ordered to secure a route through St Cyr. The other column was Combat Command 3, under Colonel Billotte, and was ordered to advance through Chartres.

By 23 August, Leclerc quickly advanced to Rambourllet, just South of St Cyr, but German resistance was stiffening. Leclerc ordered the division to fight through.

2éme Division Blindée in Paris

2éme Division Blindée in Paris

He sent Capitan Raymond Dronne of the Régiment de Marche du Tchad to take a section of the 9th Company and a troop of Shermans and drive for the city centre to let the partisans know they were coming.

As Dronne’s command reached the town hall the city bells rang throughout the city celebrating their arrival. The advance guard helped reinforce the civilian partisans and held their positions. On 25 August, Billotte’s Combat Command 3 had reached the Prefecture and captured the garrison commander, General von Choltilz.

Leclerc received von Choltliz’s surrender, and met De Gaulle at the town hall for liberation speeches, victory parades and general revelry. The celebrations in the capital did not stop even when elements of the division were forced to defend against a last gasp German counterattack on the 26 August. The failure of this counterattack finally eliminated the last German resistance points and Paris was now firmly in Allied control.

The Spaniards Who
Liberated Paris

The 9th company of the 3rd Battalion of the Régiment de Marche du Tchad was made up of Spanish volunteers.

At the conclusion of the Spanish Civil War, nearly 500,000 defeated Republicans fled to France to avoid being persecuted by the Nationalist government. After the fall of France, the Vichy government forced the Spanish refugees into concentration camps and eventually began deporting them back to Spain.

Faced with this bleak future, many  of the Spanish refugees joined the ranks of the French resistance. Enough volunteers were gathered to form a company which was sent to central Africa to form the core of the 2éme Division Blindée.

The company was commanded by Captain Raymond Dronne and was given the honour to be the first Allied unit to enter Paris ahead of the 2ème Division Blindée. His a small task force included armoured cars named Guadalajara, Madrid, Teruel and Ebro, and a troop of Shermans named Montmirail, Romilly Champaubert, Don Quijote, and Durruti, after an anarchist leader. The vehicles were named after civil war battles and important Republican leaders. 

When the company entered the city, it met up with the resistance. Dronne told the resistance leaders to hold fast as the Allies were coming. He then set to work reinforcing the partisans, fighting the Germans until Leclerc and the rest of the 2ème Division Blindée arrived.

2éme Division Blindée in Paris

2éme Division Blindée in Paris

These volunteers were veterans of the Spanish Civil War that knew war and how to fight. They had been ejected out of their own country and now found themselves in the strange position of fighting to liberate France. This they did, and fought on with the 2ème Division Blindée to the end of the war. By the spring of 1945, a mere dozen Spanish fighters remained to scale the heights of Berchtesgaden.

Strasbourg

In the meantime, the newly formed 1st French Army had landed in the South of France on 14 August as a part of Operation Anvil. After taking the port cities of Toulon and Marseilles, the 1st French Army under Jean de Lattre de Tassigny advanced steadily northwards fighting their way through German defences. Their goal was to liberate the capital of Alsace, Strasbourg which represented the last major French city in German control.

After the liberation of Paris, the 2ème Division Blindée passed from US Third Army to the 1st French Army. They became involved in the heavy fighting to both liberate and then defend Strasbourg against the German counterattacks in November 1944. 

Despite SHAEF’s orders to the contrary, De Gaulle ordered the 2ème Division Blindée and the 1st French Army to hold the city at all costs. The 2ème Division Blindée was stretched thin but never broke.

The defence of Strasbourg marked the end of the campaigns to liberate France. The 2ème Division Blindée was forced to wait on the Western side of the Danube until January 1945, due to lack of reinforcements and supplies. The division’s first assignment for the year was to reduce the Colmar Pocket. The fighting was hard and the defence was lead by units of the tenacious German 2nd Mountain Division.

With the help of the 2ème Division Blindée, the Colmar pocket was finally reduced on 3 February. A period of rest followed before Leclerc and the Division were sent to deal with the Royan Pocket in April. The division was attached to the US Seventh Army during the advance into Bavaria. Their last combat action involved the division in the capture of , Hitler’s private residence, on 8 May 1945.

2éme Division Blindée - Marin

Berchtesgaden

The 2ème Division Blindée in Flames Of War 

Simon McBeth and myself have teamed up to give you the official Flames Of War intelligence briefing for the Free French forces in Normandy.

The 2ème Division Blindée in Flames Of War (PDF)...
2éme Division Blindée - Stuart


Last Updated On Monday, October 11, 2010 by Blake at Battlefront