Hitler examines model of heavy fortifications and bunkers, September-October 1942. From left to right: Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel (Chef des Oberkommando der Wehrmacht), Adolf Hitler (Führer und oberster Befehlshaber der Wehrmacht), Oberst Erich Kahsnitz (Führerreserve im Oberkommando des Heeres), and General der Pioniere Alfred Jacob (General der Pioniere und Festungen im Oberkommando des Heeres)
Battery Hanstholm I, 170mm gun battery. In front is an M-270 casemate for one of the four 170mm guns, with an M-162a fire-control bunker above it to the rear.
Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, already frustrated with his position as OB West, complained that he had little control over anything beyond his headquarters. With the establishment of Army Group B and Army Group G in 1944, his hands were further tied. Since taking command in 1942, he did not have control over Wehrmacht District Netherlands (except for operational control in case of invasion), the 3rd Air Fleet or the coastal naval units. His authority over the air and naval forces was limited to making requests. In a post-war account for the American Army, General Bodo Zimmerman also wrote that Rundstedt was ‘gravely concerned’ because he ‘felt that neither the combat efficiency of the field forces nor the fortifications was adequate’ from 1942 through 1943.
Zimmerman also opined that the Luftwaffe was ‘in a state of utter inferiority’. Considering the situation, von Rundstedt undertook a thorough inspection of the entire coast to determine existing flaws and weaknesses in order to present his case to OKW. His inspection included an evaluation of the condition of the field forces, the state of the troops (age, nationality, training and experience) and their weapons and equipment. In addition, he identified the ability of these field units as either ready, conditionally ready or not ready for taking part in offensive and defensive operations. He examined the tactical and technical situation of permanent and field fortifications for coastal defence and pointed out what needed to be changed. Von Rundstedt insisted that food stocks should be adequate to allow the soldiers to hold out for one week in the resistance points, two weeks in strongpoints, one month in strongpoint groups, three months in fortresses and indefinitely in the Channel Islands. He also looked over signal communications, alarm systems and preparations to counter glider and paratrooper landings. Rundstedt’s inspection began in late May 1943 and finished in early October. In addition to the army experts, representatives of the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine also took part in the undertaking. After the reports were compiled, OB West tried to address as many of the deficiencies as possible before Rundstedt forwarded a detailed survey to OKW. The deficiencies identified by Rundstedt included:
The fortifications and garrisons along the coast were so scattered that the only sector which qualified as having limited defensive readiness was in the Pas de Calais area of Fifteenth Army.
Only fortresses were sufficiently defended.
The coastal sectors were weakly garrisoned and lacked fortifications.
The French Mediterranean coast had the most deficiencies related to defences and troops.
Divisional sectors were over-extended and lacked depth. The Fifteenth Army divisional coastal sectors were 30–40 kilometres (20–25 miles), while in Brittany they were sometimes 200 kilometres (120 miles) or more. On average, most divisions under the command of OB West held sectors of up to 100 kilometres (60 miles). There was no tactical or strategic depth in the defences.
Lack of mobility would present serious difficulties.
In addition to these problems, noted Zimmerman, the best formations under OB West were being depleted or transferred to meet the needs of every crisis. Von Rundstedt dispatched this detailed report to OKW on 25 October 1943 from his headquarters at St Germain, near Paris. He asked Keitel to bring it, with his own assessment of the situation, to the Führer’s attention. According to von Rundstedt, the Atlantic Wall was beneficial for propaganda purposes and for helping in the defence, but it was an obstacle the enemy could overcome. The Germans’ only hope of victory, he believed, rested on their ability to launch strong counterattacks. He warned that his troop strength was too weak to hold the coastal fortifications and launch such a counterattack. The divisions of Fifteenth Army, which occupied the area most likely to be invaded, according to Rundstedt (the Kanalküste and the region extending from the Pas de Calais to the mouths of the Somme and the Seine), each covered coastal sectors of up to 30–40 kilometres (20–25 miles). In contrast, an entire army corps (two or more divisions) on the Eastern Front, where the German army was already over-extended, normally held a front of about 50 kilometres (32 miles). The situation was worse in the Seventh Army district in Normandy, west of the Seine, and in Brittany where the divisions held sectors of up to 170 kilometres (120 miles). On the French Atlantic coast, the least likely to be invaded, the First Army had some divisions holding fronts of over 325 kilometres (210 miles). To add insult to injury, most of the divisions consisted of two under-strength regiments with no transport and with insufficient or obsolete artillery and anti-tank weapons. According to General Blumentritt, in the month prior to the report the Atlantic Wall in OB West’s sectors was held by twenty-two infantry divisions, including six infantry divisions and seven armoured and motorized divisions in reserve. Some of these formations were rebuilding or new, and most had been forced to trade off combat-ready troops for newly trained recruits and troops rehabilitating after duty in the East. That September some of the better divisions were sent to Italy when it left the Axis. ‘OB West had no delusions as to its combat strength (particularly that of its Eastern troops) as compared with that of the Western Allies,’ observed Zimmerman after the war. Von Rundstedt’s report also pointed out the lack of self-propelled guns and anti-tank guns and highlighted the drawbacks of having a large variety of weapons, especially foreign ones, which required ammunition that was not always readily available. Most divisional artillery had limited mobility and relied heavily on horse-drawn guns. Other problems included insufficient fuel allotments, static divisions with only enough transport for supplies and the declining strength of the Luftwaffe. OB West emphasized that a fully mobile strategic reserve was not available for the counteroffensive that would be needed to drive the Allies back into the sea.
The situation in the East continued to deteriorate at a more rapid pace after the Germans’ defeat at Kursk during the summer of 1943. To make things worse, Hitler was forced to divert several divisions – including some taking part in the fighting for Kursk (Operation Citadel) – to Italy in response to the Allied invasion of Sicily. Italy surrendered before long and the Allied invasion of the mainland in September required the commitment of additional German troops. The overall situation left Hitler with no choice but to act upon von Rundstedt’s report if he did not want the West to fall like a house of cards. Even though the quality and condition of the troops sent to the West mainly for rehabilitation did not improve, the supply of weapons and equipment did, at least for Fifteenth Army. OKW also promised to create a strategic reserve. This was partially achieved with the activation of Panzergruppe West in January 1944.
Hitler formally responded to von Rundstedt’s September report on 3 November 1943 with Führer Directive number 51 in which he lamented that the two-and-a-half years of war against the Communists had absorbed most of Germany’s war effort, and acknow ledged that a great threat now loomed in the West as the Allies prepared for landings. Germany, he claimed, could lose ground on a large scale in the East without suffering a fatal blow, but not in the West.37 Hitler and his staff expected the Allies to attempt landings in the spring of 1944 and concluded that they could no longer weaken the defences in the West to support other theatres. In fact, they had to reinforce them, which included deploying the secret V-weapons. Hitler also fretted that diversionary landings were possible, including in Denmark. His directive called for all panzer and panzergrenadier divisions to become sufficiently mobile and to be equipped with Panzer IV tanks by the end of the year. He also called up the 12th SS Panzer Division – formed mainly from teenage Hitler Youth – and the 21st Panzer Division. Moreover, he decided to send additional reinforcements of self-propelled and heavy anti-tank guns to the West and Denmark. Most importantly, he forbade the withdrawal of formations in the West without his permission. Areas that were unlikely to be attacked were to be ‘ruthlessly stripped of all except the smallest forces essential for guard duties’. The Luftwaffe was to increase its strength in the West and the Kriegsmarine was to plan to bring all possible naval forces into action against an Allied landing fleet. Coastal defences under construction were to be completed with all speed and additional batteries and obstacles were to be laid on the flanks. Hitler insisted that special attention had to be given to prepare for landings in Norway and Denmark. During the winter of 1943/1944 Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, as Inspector General of Defence reporting directly to the Führer, was sent to inspect positions on the Atlantic Wall. He soon assumed command of a new Army Group B headquarters that controlled northern France. Rommel was to be the catalyst for turning the Atlantic Wall into a formidable barrier since the work done during 1943 did not live up to Hitler’s expectations.
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had been pulled out of North Africa for health reasons and was later assigned to a new headquarters that became Army Group B a few months later. In late July 1943 Rommel was in Greece to survey the situation there because Hitler had planned for his army group to take command of Greece and the Aegean. At the time Hitler believed the Allied deception plan for a landing in that region. However, soon after he arrived at his new station, Hitler recalled him and made him move his headquarters from Munich to Lake Garda, Italy, in mid-August. He was to take command in northern Italy first, and then all of Italy. However, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, who was in command in southern Italy, refused to become Rommel’s subordinate. Finally, in November Hitler decided to send Rommel and his headquarters staff to the West. Rommel departed by aircraft on 21 November. His staff followed shortly afterwards. As his first assignment was to inspect the Atlantic Wall, he began with a rail trip to Silkeborg in Jutland (headquarters for the Commander-in-Chief Denmark). After a ten-day tour of western Jutland, he discovered that the Atlantic Wall was, for the most part, a sham creation of propagandists. The picture did not improve significantly as he proceeded along the English Channel to Brittany. Finally, in February he inspected the Atlantic coast and the French Mediterranean, since they were all part of his assignment, even though his army group would only command the Seventh and Fifteenth Armies. Rommel had a free hand in turning the Atlantic Wall into a fortified line. In the process he came into conflict with Geyr von Schweppenburg, Commander of Panzergruppe West, over the deployment of the mobile formations held in reserve and for a counterattack. Although von Rundstedt was the one who insisted that a strategic reserve was needed to launch the counter-blow and supported von Schweppenburg, according to Zimmerman, Rundstedt also believed the allies would ‘attack with tremendous technical and material superiority’ and that ‘the impending invasion would be decided on the first day’. This would be more in line with Rommel’s opinion that the mobile reserve needed to be close to the coast since it had to be ready to strike on the first day.
Rommel felt that the headquarters of Army Group B, set up at the palace of Fontainebleau in December 1943, lay too far from the coast. He received permission to move it closer to the coast at Chateau La Roche-Guyon on the Seine, and he occupied his new HQ there after the first week of March 1944. As Rommel went about his work, on 19 January 1944 Hitler designated several coastal areas between the Netherlands and the Gironde River as fortresses, when previously they had been defence areas known as Verteidigungsberich. These fortresses included Ijmuiden, the Hoek van Holland, Dunkirk, Boulogne, Le Havre, Cherbourg, St Malo, Brest, Lorient, St Nazaire, Gironde Mündung Sud (Gironde Estuary South) and Gironde Mündung Nord (also known as Royan). On 3 March he added the Channel Islands (Fortresses Guernsey, Jersey and Alderney), a status they already held unofficially. La Rochelle/La Pallice, Calais, Den Helder and Vlissingen (Flushing) were VBs, but on 4 September Hitler declared the commanders of Calais and Walchern Island (including Vlissingen) to have the authority of a fortress commander in their VB.
The last instructions issued were in Führer Order number 11 on 8 March 1944. This directive laid down procedures for fortified areas and battle commanders in all theatres. In this directive Hitler distinguished fortified areas from local strong-points. The fortified areas were to allow themselves to be encircled to draw off the greatest possible number of enemy forces. In the West Hitler wanted all his ‘fortresses’ to hold out to the end.
On 29 August 1944, well after the invasion of Normandy and the Allied landings in southern France, Hitler issued Directive number 62 for the completion of defences on the German Bight. By this time the Allies had broken out of Normandy, the French Atlantic coast fortresses had been isolated and the fortifications on the Channel were being overrun During the first half of 1942 the fortifications of the Atlantic Wall were concentrated mainly at the major ports. The bulk of the work did not begin until the summer of 1942 and consisted of bunkers to defend against amphibious landings. By late in 1943 most of the positions defending the key sites were largely finished, but many gaps remained and the number of obstacles was still deemed insufficient.
At a conference on 20 December 1943 Hitler confessed, ‘I am constantly thinking about new ways to improve the defence. Automatic flamethrowers, for instance, and oil cans that can be thrown in the sea, and then begin to burn.’ General Kurt Zeitzler mentioned new mines that were detonated by mine detectors and would be ready the following month. He suggested using them in the West so they would come as a surprise to the Allies, who would not be prepared for them when they landed. Hitler calculated that the invasion would take place in either mid-February or early March 1944 and deluded himself into thinking that the British were not enthusiastic about the coming assault. He was not far wrong, however, when he said, ‘If they attack in the West, that attack will decide the war.’
The Atlantic Wall of 1943 was a far cry from a formidable barrier. Although a direct landing against a port such as Dieppe was a risky proposition, many beach areas along the French coast that offered an overland route to a large port were still not well protected. In spite of this, even the German Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, was blinded by his own propaganda. On 19 April 1943 he wrote: ‘The English are in no position to strike us in our vitals. When I look at the pictures of the Atlantic Wall, I have a feeling that we are sitting in Europe in an absolutely secure fortress.’ After the Axis forces collapsed in North Africa a month later, he wrote on 9 May that he would explain to the German people how the sacrifice in Tunisia would delay the Allies for half a year, ‘enabling us to complete the construction of the Atlantic Wall and prepare ourselves all over Europe so that an invasion is out of the question’. As Field Marshal Rommel observed, the Atlantic Wall of 1943 was mostly a paper wall, even after all the work he had put in during the first half of 1944. Field Marshal von Rundstedt concurred.