Friedrich Dollmann, a large, physically impressive officer who showed great adaptability throughout his career, was born at Wuerzburg, Bavaria, on February 2, 1882. He joined the army as a Fahnenjunker in 1899 and was commissioned second lieutenant in the 7th Bavarian Field Artillery Regiment in 1901. Despite his junior rank he attended the School of Artillery and Engineering at Charlottenburg from 1903 to 1905, did a stint as a battalion adjutant (1905–1909), and was sent to the War Academy for General Staff training in 1909. Promoted to first lieutenant in 1910 and to captain in 1913, he served briefly as a brigade adjutant in early 1913, before becoming an aerial observer—an unusual post for a General Staff officer. Moreover, he served in this capacity for the first two years of the Great War, before assuming command of an artillery battalion in late 1916. He did not take up his first wartime General Staff assignment until November 1917, when he became the intelligence officer of the 6th Infantry Division on the Western Front, a post he held at the end of the war.
Dollmann did not win any promotions during World War I, nor did he achieve any particular distinction; nevertheless he was selected for the Reichswehr and was appointed to the administrative section of the Peace Commission in 1919, no doubt largely because he could speak both French and English and because he had a talent for making himself acceptable. There is little in his personnel file to explain why he advanced to the top rungs of the army in the next 20 years, except that he was an expert in long-range artillery, was a good administrator, and knew how to play the political angles that exist in any army but proliferated in those of the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich. The fact that he was stationed in Munich (the cradle of Nazism) almost continuously from 1923 to 1933 no doubt gave him some early contacts with the Nazis and may have accelerated his later advancement; in any event, by February 1930, he was a colonel and chief of staff of Wehrkreis VII (Munich) and on February 1, 1931, assumed command of the 6th Artillery Regiment. Eighteen months later, he was promoted to Artillery Commander VII and deputy commander of the 7th Infantry Division in Munich, and on February 1, 1933, he was named inspector of artillery in the Defense Ministry in Berlin. Dollmann was promoted to major general on October 1, 1932, and to lieutenant general exactly one year later.
Although not a Nazi, Friedrich Dollmann saw which way the political winds were blowing and made himself very prominent in fostering good relations between the army and the party in the early years of Hitler’s regime. Partially as a result, he was named commander of Wehrkreis IX at Kassel on May 1, 1935. From this corps-level military district headquarters he issued directives criticizing those members of the officer corps who opposed the concept and outlook of the Nazi Party. He openly and officially blamed the officer corps for the mistrust that existed between the party and the army and wrote that “the Officer Corps must have confidence in the representatives of the Party. Party opinions should not be examined or rejected.” He demanded that “worthy” pictures of the Fuehrer be hung in officers’ messes and that those of the Kaiser be removed or hung only in tradition rooms; furthermore, officers’ wives should play active roles in the National Socialist League of Women, and the only civilian guest speakers who should be invited to address service functions were the politically nonbiased National Socialists.
Dollmann went even further in 1937, when he called in his Catholic chaplains and harangued them for not having a sufficiently positive attitude toward the Nazis. Although he was a Catholic himself, he told the padres, “The Oath which [the soldier] has taken to the Fuehrer and supreme Commander of the Wehrmacht binds him unto the sacrifice of his own life to National Socialism, the concept of the new Reich. . . . No doubts may be permitted to arise out of your [the padres’] attitudes towards National Socialism. The Wehrmacht, as one of the bearers of the National Socialist State, demands of you as chaplains at all times a clear and unreserved acknowledgement of the Fuehrer, State and People!”
Largely because of his pro-Nazi attitudes and orders, Friedrich Dollmann was promoted to general of artillery on April 1, 1936, and on August 25, 1939, he was elevated to the command of 7th Army. This last advancement seems to have been engineered by Bodewin Keitel, the chief of the Army Personnel Office, who had worked for Dollmann for years and was his chief of staff at Kassel until 1938. Six days after Dollmann took charge of his new command, the German Army crossed the Polish frontier, starting the Second World War.
Dollmann’s army, which consisted of nonmotorized divisions made up primarily of inadequately trained, older-age reservists, remained in Germany while Hitler conquered Poland. In the invasion of France (1940), it had the unspectacular mission of manning the southern end of the Westwall (the Siegfried Line), opposite the Maginot Line. Only after the best of the French divisions had been destroyed and the end of the campaign was clearly in sight did the 7th Army go over to the offensive, breaking through the Maginot north of Belford. Demoralized French resistance collapsed quickly, and on June 19, Dollmann linked up with the 1st Panzer Division of Panzer Group Guderian, completing the encirclement of 400,000 French soldiers in the Vosges Mountains. The French formally surrendered at Compiègne two days later. On July 19, 1940, a jubilant Adolf Hitler rewarded his generals with an outpouring of medals and promotions. Among those to benefit was Friedrich Dollmann, who was promoted to colonel general. He then returned to occupation duty in France, where he remained for the next four years.
From 1940 until 1944, while most of the Wehrmacht was fighting on the Eastern Front, Colonel General Dollmann and his 7th Army vegetated in France. During this period Dollmann—to his credit—began to have serious second thoughts about the Nazi regime he had previously supported. As the months went by and the war dragged on, and as the Nazis became more and more repressive and vicious in the occupied areas, the directives exhorting his troops to cooperate with the party ceased to flow from Dollmann’s headquarters. He was, in fact, a deeply troubled man; his health began to deteriorate, and he apparently felt guilty and ashamed of his previous support for the Nazis and was deeply concerned about the future of his country and his command. However, he did very little about either. Headquartered comfortably in LeMans, Dollmann grew fat and followed the lead of his superior, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, and neglected the coastal defenses of his sector. He did not see any active campaigning of any kind and, more debilitating, did not keep abreast of developments in his profession. Indeed, he had little or no grasp of panzer tactics and no understanding of the implications of Allied air superiority. By 1944, Dollmann was almost an anachronism; he simply was not prepared to deal with what he would soon be called upon to face: the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944. Before Eisenhower’s forces landed, however, Dollmann faced another threat to his position when Field Marshal Rommel arrived in France in December 1943.
Erwin Rommel, the famous Desert Fox, was the commander-in-chief of Army Group B, a headquarters that was interjected between Rundstedt’s Oberbefehlshaber West (OB West) and Dollmann’s 7th Army Headquarters. Rundstedt, like Dollmann, had vegetated in a static command and was living in the past. He believed that the proper strategy for Germany was to let the Allies land, build up, and advance inland. Here they could be engaged and perhaps destroyed in a blitzkrieg-like tank battle, well out of range of their big naval guns. Rommel, however, had experienced firsthand the devastating effects of Allied aerial supremacy in North Africa and realized that a battle of the kind envisioned by Rundstedt and his chief armored adviser, General of Panzer Troops Baron Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg, was no longer possible. The dynamic Rommel now insisted that the invaders be halted on the beaches and immediately counterattacked to throw them back into the sea. These tactics would require the laying of tens of thousands of mines, the construction of dozens of bunkers and anti-tank traps, and the erection of countless anti-glider and anti-parachute obstacles.
For almost four years, Friedrich Dollmann had done little to improve his coastal defenses. But Erwin Rommel had a reputation for replacing subordinate commanders who did not enthusiastically support his concept of operations. Suddenly, therefore, the 7th Army commander became a firm advocate of coastal obstacles and offshore barriers. “Dollmann was now absolutely for Rommel’s ideas,” Rommel’s naval adviser recorded in February 1944. However, four months of feverish activity could not make good four years of inactivity. When the Allies landed on D-Day, 7th Army was not ready.
Friedrich Dollmann was not only ill-prepared for D-Day—he was unlucky as well. Field Marshal Rommel was in Germany, away from his post, and Dollmann had scheduled a war game at Rennes for the morning of June 6. As a result, most of the key divisional and corps commanders of the 7th Army were also absent when the Anglo-American paratroopers began to land. Shortly thereafter, the assault forces stormed ashore. Acting in Rommel’s absence, Dollmann tried to restore the situation via an immediate armored counterattack with his only available armored division, but he experienced little success, and the 21st Panzer Division was devastated in the process. Furthermore, when Lieutenant General Fritz Bayerlein, the commander of the elite Panzer Lehr Division, turned up at 7th Army Headquarters in LeMans, Dollmann ordered him to move up his division at 5 p.m.—in broad daylight.
Bayerlein objected immediately. Having served with Rommel in the Afrika Korps, he realized the risks involved in a daylight move, but Dollmann refused to listen. He was more concerned with his invasion front, which was being hammered by vastly superior Allied forces and would soon be on the verge of collapse. Summer days are long in France; to comply with Bayerlein’s request would have meant a delay of more than three hours, and Dollmann did not think he could spare the time. He insisted that the division begin its move at 5 p.m. and even proposed a change in the preselected approach routes, but on this point Bayerlein held firm—any modification at this point certainly would have resulted in chaos, as Dollmann surely should have known. To make matters even worse, Dollmann imposed radio silence on the division. “As if radio silence could have stopped the fighter-bombers and reconnaissance planes from spotting us!” a disgusted and angry Bayerlein snapped later.
As Fritz Bayerlein foresaw, the Allies quickly spotted the move, and Panzer Lehr’s approach to contact quickly became a nightmare. The fighter-bombers were soon everywhere, shooting up the long columns of vehicles and blasting bridges, crossroads, and towns along the division’s five routes of advance. Night brought no relief, because Allied airplanes now knew the approximate location of the division’s columns, so they illuminated the countryside with flares until they found a suitable target. All the while the columns became more and more spread out, scattered, disorganized, and fragmented. The tanks were relatively safe from the bombardment (only five were knocked out), but the rest of the division suffered terribly. During the night of June 6–7, Bayerlein lost 40 loaded fuel trucks; 84 half-tracks, prime-movers, and self-propelled guns; and dozens of other vehicles. Perhaps more important, the elite but now depleted Panzer Lehr Division arrived at its assembly areas in dribs and drabs. Field Marshal Rommel once predicted that the invasion must be thrown back into the sea within 48 hours or the war would be lost. Partially as a result of the Panzer Lehr debacle, the Desert Fox could not launch his armored counterattack until June 9—at least two days too late. It was repulsed. The war was lost.
Significantly, almost as soon as he returned to France (he was in Germany, en route to see Hitler, when the invasion struck), Rommel took the panzer divisions away from the control of Friedrich Dollmann and placed them under Headquarters, Panzer Group West (later 5th Panzer Army) under Geyr von Schweppenburg. Seventh Army now had responsibility only for the left wing of the invasion front—which was quite enough. For the next three weeks an increasingly distressed Dollmann slowed, but could not halt, the progress of the Allied invasion, and the units of the 7th Army were slowly ground to bits in the hedgerow country of Normandy. The French port of Cherbourg, Eisenhower’s initial strategic objective, was cut off from the rest of the army on June 18. Despite the fact that it had enough food and ammunition to hold out for eight weeks, the defenses of Cherbourg collapsed with incredible speed. Lieutenant General Karl Wilhelm von Schlieben, the fortress commander, surrendered at 1:30 p.m. on June 26. Although isolated resistance would continue for several days, the fall of the critical port was now just a matter of time.
Hitler, naturally, was furious, and Keitel ordered a court-martial investigation of the fall of the fortress. Dollmann was questioned, of course, and not too politely. He was accused of negligence in connection with the disaster—and probably rightfully so. In any event, Hitler summoned Rommel and von Rundstedt to Berchtesgaden and, on the afternoon of June 29, demanded that Dollmann be court-martialed for losing Cherbourg. Rundstedt, however, refused to listen to such talk. (Dollmann, after all, had been no more negligent in the pre-invasion years than Rundstedt himself had been.) Hitler then turned to Rommel and demanded that Dollmann at least be relieved of his command. Dollmann, however, had obeyed Rommel’s orders to the best of his ability and the field marshal was personally fond of the fat general; furthermore, the Desert Fox was not accustomed to sacking commanders who had served him loyally.
Like Rundstedt, he stood up for Dollmann and then changed the subject. It was only after the marshals left that Hitler sent the order to LeMans, personally relieving Dollmann of his command. He was replaced by SS Obergruppenfuehrer Paul Hausser. Friedrich Dollmann, however, never knew that he had been sacked. At 10 a.m. on June 28, overworked, stressed out, and very worried about the ongoing investigation that Hitler had ordered, he suffered a heart attack at his forward command post. Sources differ as to whether he succumbed on June 28 or 29, and word of his death did not reach LeMans for hours; however, it seems certain that while Hitler, Rommel, and von Rundstedt were arguing about his fate, Dollmann was already dead. In any case he was buried in France on July 2. Perhaps remembering better days, or perhaps feeling a twinge of guilt for sacking him (if that were possible), Adolf Hitler authorized a laudatory obituary for Colonel General Dollmann.