September 1944: The German Army consolidates the Western Front I

Commander-in-Chief in the West Gerd Von Rundstedt’s review of the precarious situation in early September served only to reinforce the opinion that he had formed earlier in the summer: that the German cause was lost. But he reported to OKW:

Our own forces are tied up in battle, and in part severely mauled. They are short of artillery and anti-tank weapons. Reserves worthy of mention are not available. The numerical superiority of the enemy’s tanks to ours is incontestable. With Army Group B at the present there are some 100 tanks [compared with the Allies’ 2000] available for action. The enemy air force dominates the battle area and rear communications deep into the rearward terrain…

To make matters worse, the quality of the German force in the west was deteriorating. This was not only because of a lack of fuel, ammunition and weaponry, but also because the fighting troops were tired and rapidly losing their efficiency. Poorly trained replacements were being drawn from an increasingly shallow and inappropriate pool of men from within the Reich. Those that made it to the front were invariably met by understandably disconsolate comrades who were taking part in a disorganized withdrawal after a miserable defeat. Lars Hahn was a decorated 30-year-old major who had fought on the Eastern Front for two years before being transferred to Normandy in April 1944. Recalling the difficult days after the battle of Normandy he says:

We had been fighting since 8 June without much time to sleep and only one or two days away from the front. My company was gradually whittled away during the summer. At first we received some young and inexperienced men as replacements, and then some older experienced men still suffering from wounds, but by early August there were none at all. In early June I commanded 123 men, but by the time we had crossed the Somme we were less than a section, 8 men… and I was carrying two wounds – one in the thigh and one in the shoulder. But I could not leave my men. They wanted the war to end, and so did I, but we fought on because we had to, because we were told to and because we still had some vestiges of honour left.

Hahn and his comrades were ready to continue their fight in spite of the recent morale-sapping setbacks. Others felt likewise. Young Lieutenant Erich Schneider, for example, had deserted from 553 Infantry Division at the end of August. But when questioned about the fighting spirit of his unit he replied: ‘The general opinion… was that the war would be over in eight weeks, but the soldiers of the Regt considered that they might as well retain their honour by fighting to the end.’ It was by harnessing the seemingly limited potential of such men, whilst strengthening the line with paratroopers, soldiers of the Waffen-SS and others who retained their motivation and combat effectiveness, that von Rundstedt and Model planned to build a defensive line to bring the retreat to an end. This was desperately needed for as Siegfried Westphal, von Rundstedt’s new Chief of Staff, later wrote:

The overall situation in the west was serious in the extreme. A heavy defeat anywhere along the front, which was so full of gaps that it did not deserve that name, might lead to a catastrophe, if the enemy were to exploit his opportunity skilfully. A particular source of danger was that not a single bridge over the Rhine had been prepared for demolition, an omission which took weeks to repair…

The opportunity to stop the exodus came with the stuttering of the Allied offensive around 4 September. It also coincided with Model’s final Order of the Day as Commander-in-Chief West:

With the enemy’s advance and the withdrawal of our front, several hundred thousand soldiers are falling back – army, air force and armoured units – troops which must re-form as planned and hold in new strongpoints or lines.

In this stream are the remnants of broken units which, for the moment, have no set objectives and are not even in a position to receive clear orders. Whenever orderly columns turn off the road to reorganize, streams of disorganized elements push on. With their wagons move whispers, rumours, haste, endless disorder and vicious self-interest. This atmosphere is being brought back to the rear areas, infecting units still intact, and in this moment of extreme tension must be prevented by the strongest means.

I appeal to your honour as soldiers. We have lost a battle, but I assure you of this: we will win this war! I cannot tell you more at present, although I know that questions are burning on your lips. Whatever has happened, never lose your faith in the future of Germany. At the same time you must be aware of the gravity of the situation. This moment will and should separate men from weaklings. Now, every soldier has the same responsibility. When his commander falls, he must be ready to step into his shoes and carry on.

These are strong words, but it is doubtful that many troops were aware of Model’s exhortations. It is much more likely, therefore, that the formation of an embryonic defensive position at this time came about after some fleeing troops had been successfully stopped and organized into a coherent force. Assisting in this process was the timely but unexpected arrival in southern Holland on 3 September of troops commanded by Lieutenant-General Kurt Chill. Chill had been ordered to move the remnants of his destroyed 85 Division back to Germany, but having seen Model’s Order of the Day, and angered by the stifling chaos, decided to merge his men with the remnants of two other divisions and organize a line along the Albert Canal in northern Belgium. Having set up reception centres on innumerable bridges, Chill’s officers and NCOs managed in just 24 hours to corral thousands of troops from every arm into new positions. By 5 September Chill’s growing force had been joined on its right from Antwerp along the Albert Canal to the junction of the Meuse–Escaut Canal by Lieutenant-General Karl Sievers’ 719 Infantry Division. These old men who had been stationed along the Dutch coast since 1940 – and had not fired a shot in anger – were supplemented by one Dutch SS battalion and a few Luftwaffe detachments. Over the days that followed, the newly shored up line was further reinforced by men from Fifteenth Army who had escaped a British Second Army encirclement by crossing the Schelde and reached the mainland north of Antwerp. Over 16 days, 65,000 men, 225 guns, 750 trucks and wagons and 1,000 horses were evacuated to take up defensive positions along the Albert Canal and throughout Holland. Meanwhile, Colonel-General Kurt Student’s First Parachute Army was also moving into position. It was activated on 4 September, when Jodl ordered him to collect all available units together and ‘build a new front on the Albert Canal’, which was to ‘be held at all costs!’ Göring made 20,000 men available to Student from six parachute regiments and two convalescent battalions, together with a further 10,000 men composed of sailors, Waffen-SS training units, Luftwaffe air and ground crews, along with 25 tanks. Lieutenant-Colonel Friedrich von der Heydte’s 6 Parachute Regiment moved quickly into defence with the three-regiment 7 Parachute Division, commanded by Lieutenant-General Wolfgang Erdmann, on its left flank. Completing the German line down to Maastricht was 176 Infantry Division which comprised invalids and convalescents. On 10 September, at his headquarters in Vught (17 miles north-west of Eindhoven), Student analysed the newly created 75-mile-long front that he had been charged with commanding. Spreading out a map on a large carved oak table, he announced in an exasperated tone that it amounted to little more than ‘the sweepings from Germany and elsewhere and the exhausted from France: not many of them and very little armour. But it must remain steadfast.’ Student, the talented yet modest creator of Germany’s airborne forces, recognized that his men would very soon be confronted with a renewed Allied thrust and that if he was to provide time required for the defences on the Rhine and along the West Wall to be reinforced, his army could not afford to crumble at the first blow.

It was the earliest arriving of these newly tasked German troops that the British clattered into as they resumed their offensive on 6 September. Immediately offering resistance to XXX Corps, 11th Armoured Division was held on the Albert Canal, whilst the Guards Armoured Division just managed to push on to the Meuse–Escaut Canal and to create a bridgehead at Neerpelt. Amongst those initially defending against Adair’s Guards was Lieutenant Adi Strauch, a platoon commander in 2 Parachute Regiment who had been wounded whilst fighting in Russia. Just before moving out to the front in northern Belgium he inspected his men:

Standing alongside young volunteers were old NCOs, Luftwaffe men taken away from their company office desks and from headquarters duties. The nucleus of the company consisted of just eight trained paratroops. We were soon to go into action so there was little time; a few days at the most, in which to give them weapon training.

The company began its journey forward on 5 September. It consisted of ‘two heavy machine gun platoons, a mortar platoon, a half-platoon of infantry guns, two Panzerschrek sections and company headquarters’. By the following day, the battalion was preparing itself for an attack on the village of Helchteren near the Albert Canal:

Our battalion reached the form-up area during the morning of the 7th and was soon involved in fighting against a British armoured division… On 8 September and for the next few days the British attacked again and again, but each assault was beaten back, although there were now heavy losses to both sides.

As the British bludgeoned their way forward, the Germans struggled to contain them, and suffering prohibitive casualties, Strauch was forced to take command of the company:

My old comrade, who had led No. 1 Platoon, was fatally wounded… and enemy tanks began to work round our left flank. Over the field telephone, which was still working, I was ordered to pull back. British tanks were only metres away as I, together with five others, worked our way back to battalion headquarters which enemy tanks were now nearing. Our close-quarters tank-busting teams went into action and the enemy advance on that sector was quickly halted.

This was the type of tenacious defence that the British troops had not experienced since the middle of August. It spelled the end of ‘Montgomery’s waltz through northern Europe’ and the beginning of something far more plodding and fraught. Indeed, the Dutch resistance informed the British that the German line was solidifying, and by the end of the first week in September Twenty-First Army Group was reviewing evidence to suggest that new units and formations were moving into Holland as Fifteenth Army escaped its clutches and a further 20,000 troops were sent into the line by OKW. This latter force consisted of various third-rate troops pillaged from units in training, cadres of veterans supplemented by untrained personnel, and Volksgrenadier divisions. These Volksgrenadier formations not only lacked men and heavy weapons but also suffered from a bare minimum of training, which made them useful only in static defensive positions. Their units were formed around a small cadre of experienced soldiers, but their ranks were filled with the young, the old, those who had previously been deemed unfit for military service and ‘unemployed’ men from other services and arms. Lieutenant Lingenhole, a platoon commander in the recently formed 553 Volksgrenadier Division, believed that the division was not ready for battle when it received its orders for the front. During that summer ‘no long tr[ainin]g marches were made… The co[mpan]ys of 1st Bn, GR1120 had a march of approximately 12 km to the range where they fired [their weapons]. About 10 per cent to 15 per cent of the personnel were unable to march that distance, and had to be transported.’ Lingenhole also said that the division’s troops were aged from 17½ years to 39½ years, the formation was at 60 per cent strength when deployed and ‘approximately half were not completely fit for field service’. Moreover, Major Geyer, who was on the divisional staff, reported that ‘The personnel of the Division suffered from low morale, not so much because of their lack of desire to fight, but because they felt that they were so poorly equipped with weapons.’ Even so, Model could not afford to be choosy about the men that he took: he understood that such formations were essential if the Germans were to have anything other than Student’s thin crust of a defensive line.

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