Field Marshals Erwin Rommel and Gerd von Rundstedt disagreed on the use of German panzers during the D-Day invasion, but neither position prevailed.
It comes as no surprise that the German high command was equally divided on the strategy for meeting and defeating an Allied invasion.
Rundstedt envisioned a classic counterattack once the exact location of the invasion was clarified. He wanted a strong, mobile panzer reserve centrally placed to launch a rapid, vigorous assault that would drive the invaders back into the sea before their bridgehead could be reinforced. Rundstedt’s strategic vision rested on defense in depth, a swift panzer counterattack, and the utter collapse of the Allied invasion.
Rommel previously had firsthand experience in North Africa with the devastating effectiveness of Allied air and naval campaigns. He saw little possibility of rapidly moving panzer reserves to meet the landing forces without sustaining significant casualties. “British and American superiority in the air alone has again and again been so effective that all movement of major formations has been rendered completely impossible,” Rommel wrote.
In his view the Wehrmacht had to stop the invasion at the water’s edge, on the landing beaches. Rommel proposed a strong static linear defense of concrete fortifications. “This will require the construction of a fortified and mined zone extending from the coast five or six miles inland.”
Rommel also wanted the panzer divisions to be placed near the coast where the Allies were most likely to land. They would then launch the decisive counterattacks within the first forty-eight hours of the invasion. The German tanks were meant to counterattack in small packets deployed from behind the beaches. The panzers would attack once the Allies had landed with close encounters to mix in and break up the seaward assault. With this deployment Rommel hoped to avoid being blasted by Allied destroyers firing at point-blank range as previously occurred at the Sicily and Salerno landings. It would be on that “longest day” that the battle would be decided.
Hitler saw advantages in both strategic plans. He kept vacillating, and his lack of decision ultimately doomed the German defense.
Rommel’s worst critic was not Rundstedt but Field Marshal Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg. He was appointed commander of Panzer Troops West in July 1943. His command was positioned near Paris for a potential large-scale counterattack in either Normandy or Pas-de-Calais. Geyr advocated large-scale counterattacks in divisional strength, not Rommel’s battle group tactics. Commit the panzers in mass was his guiding principle. Allied air power might delay movement but not stop them. Properly trained units under aggressive officers will arrive in time at the right location to drive the Allies back.
Rommel knew that control of the armored and motorized units during the critical twenty-four hours after the landings was vital. Northern France had relatively few roads, and many rivers and bridges offered inviting targets for Allied air interdiction. The days of the German Blitzkrieg were over. Geyr, Rundstedt, and the other German commanders learned to regret their failure to support Rommel’s strategy.
Part of their opposition stemmed from the fact that Geyr and Rundstedt were aristocrats with long family military lineages. Rommel was only a commoner, from a family of schoolteachers. Rundstedt also believed Rommel was overrated, one of “Hitler’s officers” who had been overpromoted by the Nazi propaganda machine.
This continuing controversy came to a head on March 19, 1944, when Hitler ordered his generals to attend a conference at his Eagle’s Nest mountaintop hideaway in Obersalzberg. It was preceded by a dramatic procession of field marshals and generals with Erwin Rommel and Gerd von Rundstedt arriving in a 2.3 liter Mercedes-Benz Cabriolet 230 Open Horch command car.
Hitler greeted each commander individually and then ushered them all into lunch. Afterward, over Arabian coffee shipped in at great risk by submarine through the British-held straits of Gibraltar, he began his strategy review.
Hitler had long shared these generals’ opinions that the Allies would land in the Pas-de-Calais sector. Now, without any warning, he changed his view, stating that they were all captives of rigid Clausewitzian military theory. In a prediction that proved amazingly accurate, Hitler contended that the Allied real targets “are the two peninsulas, Brittany and the Cotentin [in Normandy].” These would be the invasion sites since they provided “the best possibilities” for successful bridgeheads serving as a base for their offensive drive through France into Germany.
The Cotentin Peninsula was the probable first choice. The Normandy beaches and hinterlands were more suitable than Brittany’s harsher landscape. They would offer a shorter route for the Allied offensive thrust into Germany’s industrial Ruhr. Hitler appeared to be siding with Rommel’s views when he concluded that wherever the Allies invaded, destroying the landing would be the sole decisive factor in the whole conduct of the war and hence the war’s final result.
Rommel must have been delighted by what he heard, and he again asked that the armored divisions be placed under his command. At first Hitler agreed. Then twenty-four hours later after a protest from Rundstedt, Hitler reversed himself. On March 21 as a compromise, he transferred only three panzer divisions, the Second, Twenty-First, and Sixteenth, to Rommel’s Army Group B as a mobile reserve. Four other divisions, the First SS, Twelfth SS Panzers, Seventeenth SS Panzer Grenadier, and Panzer Lehr, were placed under the direct control of OKW as a central mobile reserve to be released only by Hitler. No one was satisfied by Hitler’s “compromise.”
By April only the Twenty-First Panzer Division had been shifted to the Normandy sector near Caen. Rommel increasingly suspected that the invasion would land in Normandy, at least as a diversion. On May 6 he again requested the release of more panzer divisions but was refused by Rundstedt and OKW. Hitler had thrown away his best chance for victory in the West.
HITLER’S NORMANDY LEGIONS
On a promontory high up over the River Seine stands the Chateau de La Roche-Guyon and its pretty local village. Here Rommel made his headquarters. Nearby at Giverny, Monet had painted his numerous studies of water lilies. Forty miles from Paris, the chateau was centrally located between Pas-de-Calais and Normandy. It was the ancestral home of the Rochefoucauld family, and to maintain cordial relations, Rommel allowed the duke and his family to continue occupying their private quarters. Thomas Jefferson had been a guest there when he was the US ambassador to France.
Tunnels were cut in nearby cliffs to accommodate his officers and staff. Rommel’s rooms looked out on a rose garden, where after a hard day inspecting invasion defenses, he strolled with his chief of staff, Lieutenant General Hans Speidel. Rommel liked being in France. He appreciated its wine, food, people, and scenery. But he was not oblivious to the mood of occupied France as he observed, “What hatred there is against us.”
Rommel also could not ignore the sad state of the Wehrmacht in France. On paper the German army in Western Europe numbered 1,500,000 men, including naval and air force units. The army units totaled 850,000 soldiers—fifty-eight combat divisions, including thirty-three static, reserve, or training divisions (ten thousand men). Most had no transport or mobile artillery. They were assigned mainly to provide coastal defense. For years France had been used by the Wehrmacht as a rest and refitting area mainly for divisions recovering from service on the Russian front. Here they could be reequipped and trained. Some divisions included “ear and stomach battalions” composed of older soldiers who had lost their hearing or men recovering from stomach wounds. Many of these German infantry divisions were either older or younger than the norm. The average age in the 709th division was about thirty-six. Heinrich Boll, an NCO in the 348th Infantry Division, wrote, “It is really sad to see these children’s faces in grey uniforms.”
A group of twelve first-class infantry divisions were also deployed along the coast. By 1944 these stronger divisions had almost thirteen thousand men. (American infantry divisions contained over fourteen thousand troops). Unlike most of the British and American formations, all of these static and first-class infantry units were staffed with a high proportion of combat-experienced officers and NCOs. They had been tested on the battlefield and readily passed on their knowledge and practical fighting skills to many of these inexperienced soldiers.
There were two different types of Luftwaffe ground units. Parachute divisions (sixteen thousand men) were volunteer infantry units of high quality. Luftwaffe field divisions (12,500 men) were surplus personnel from antiaircraft, signal, maintenance, or administrative units that were weaker than regular infantry.
There was also significant variation in the makeup of the German armored units. In June 1944 nine panzer divisions were in Normandy with two additional on temporary detachment to the eastern front. However, even these divisions were not uniform in tank numbers or troop strengths and quality. They ranged from the 21,386 men in the First SS Panzer, down to the Ninth Panzer with only 12,768. The Seventeenth SS was a panzer/grenadier formation (fourteen thousand men), which meant it had half-tracks but no tanks and only one armored battalion equipped with assault guns. The 116th, Twenty-First, Second, Ninth, and Eleventh Panzer Divisions’ tank strength was less than a hundred, about half of British or American equivalents.
On the other hand, the Panzer Lehr Division was manned by soldiers taken from the German armored training schools. They had the best equipment with tank and troop numbers at full strength. The quality and motivation of personnel were very high. General Fritz Bayerlein, an officer from Rommel’s Afrika Korps, was in command. He was told, “With this division on its own you must throw the Allies into the sea. Your objective is the coast, no, not the coast—it is the sea.”
The same high quality of equipment and men were to be found in the First, Second, and Twelfth SS Panzer Divisions. The best recruits were placed in the SS panzer corps. Bayerlein observed, “No good replacements were ever sent to the infantry divisions.”
The SS panzer divisions were larger than their Allied counterparts. The First SS Panzer (Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler) was twice as large. But as noted earlier, they too had fewer tanks than the Allied formation. These SS units were composed of six motorized or mechanized infantry battalions, in contrast to only four in the Wehrmacht’s armored divisions. This made all of these SS units larger than their army equivalents.
By June 6, 1944, the Germans had deployed fifty-eight divisions spread from Norway to the Mediterranean to defend Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. When the invasion came, most were in the wrong place.
The brunt of the attack was borne by the Seventh Army of Colonel General Friedrich Dollmann and portions of the Fifteenth Army, Army Group B commanded by Rommel. The German forces that were available included four coast-defense divisions manning fortifications, two infantry divisions, the garrison of Cherbourg, and three panzer divisions in reserve, only one being adjacent to the coast.
About 20 percent of the troops in the Seventh Army were foreign volunteers—Osttruppen. Many had volunteered for the Wehrmacht to escape starvation or disease in German slave labor camps. They included Poles, White Russians, East Indians, Ukrainians, Cossacks, and Hungarians. There was even a contingent of Korean soldiers whose unbelievable odyssey included being forcibly conscripted—captured—and recruited again and again by the Japanese, Russian, and German armies, before finally surrendering to the Americans on D-Day. The German officers and NCOs who commanded these units feared being shot in the back once the invasion began. Some of these Osttruppen deserted to the French resistance. While many surrendered early in the invasion, some of these foreign units fought well during the entire Normandy campaign.
The Twenty-First Panzer Division was close to the British beaches near Caen. It tried to stop the British advance with lighter Mark IV tanks, instead of the larger gunned and heavily armored Panther or Tiger tanks. Many of its soldiers were “foreign volunteers” who could hardly understand orders in German or respond in kind to their NCOs and officers.
To resist Allied airborne assaults, the Germans positioned the Ninety-First Air Landing Division and Sixth Parachute Regiment on the Cotentin Peninsula behind the beaches assigned to the Americans, code-named Utah and Omaha. In the Allied landing zones General Marcks’s LXXXIV Corps deployed two third-rate coastal divisions, the 716th and 709th.
On March 15 Rommel was able to order the first-class 352nd Infantry Division stationed in St. Lo to the coast. They took over the defense of a thirty-mile coastal sector. In its center were the American invasion beaches. Luckily for the US troops, the German division commander, General Dietrich Kraiss, positioned only one artillery battalion and two infantry battalions on Omaha Beach. He then deployed a large reserve battalion twelve miles inland.
In May Rommel visited the 352nd Division and was not pleased with what he saw. He criticized Kraiss for dispersing his troops over a wide front and not placing enough troops in the most threatened shoreline sector in order to enable them to concentrate their fire on the landing zones.
As Kraiss was not one of Rommel’s disciples, he refused to redeploy his division and instead straddled the front. If he had supported Rommel’s tactical ideas, Kraiss would have placed a greater concentration of men on Omaha Beach and moved the division’s reserves closer to the coast. Had he done so, D-Day might have turned out very differently.
Not only were many of Rommel’s units badly positioned, but also overall Hitler’s forces in France were poorly armed to resist the invasion. The Seventh Army’s equipment made it a largely make-do outfit. A hodgepodge of captured enemy equipment tanks, trucks, and artillery led to severe spare parts shortages. All the German units lacked sufficient anti-tank guns and self-propelled assault guns. Even proper caliber ammunition and artillery shells were in short supply.
Moreover, fuel shortages limited the mobilization of the few German motorized vehicles. Regimental commanders used their cars once a week. To make the Seventh Army more mobile, troops were given bicycles. French vehicles with French drivers proved unreliable since the Frenchmen often vanished during air raids.
Only the German ground forces were somewhat competitive with the forces landed by the Allies. On June 1, 1944, the entire Luftwaffe Third Air Fleet in France had only ninety bombers and seventy fighter aircraft. The German air force in Western Europe on D-Day could only muster three hundred planes. The day of the invasion the Allied pilots flew 14,674 sorties, the Germans about 319. Few soldiers knew the situation was so bad. Walter Schwender, a German soldier in an army repair shop, recalled, “We often discussed the Allied landing…. We genuinely believed…that we were strong, we would throw them out in no time. But then we also thought there were several thousand German aircraft ready to come and give us support. We firmly believed that.”
The German Kriegsmarine’s Navy Group West was too weak to stop the Allied cross-channel attack. Its fleet was composed of twenty destroyers, fifty to sixty E-boats (a motor torpedo boat), and twenty-five to thirty minesweepers and submarines. Grand Admiral Donitz, commander in chief of the German navy, had E-boats in France, but only thirty-five ready to sail. He realized that the entire German naval force could inflict “only fleabites” on the Allied invaders.