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 Along the Atlantic Wall: Rommel's Last Battle

by Jeremy Gypton

All in all the landings and the airborne drops that preceded them were successful, if unexpectedly challenging in some places and easier in others. “The overall result…was that the Allies had breached Hitler’s ‘Atlantic Wall’ and won themselves a foothold on…Europe.”(41) Rommel’s fears of an Allied thrust through too-thin coastal defenses seemed to have come true. With some defenders along the coasts already overrun on D-Day, and others holding on until their ammunition ran out, the first line of defense – the beach – was compromised. While Rommel rushed back from his abbreviated leave in Germany, his divisions were throwing their reserves up to the line at “crisis points [where an Allied breakthrough seemed imminent]…But the marching columns were attacked again and again by whole swarms of fighter-bombers…Soon all the reserves had been committed…the front began to crumble at many points and by the afternoon it was clear that the Allied landing had succeeded.”(42) According to German Lieutenant General Fritz Bayerlein, commander of the Panzer Lehr Division stationed some 100 miles south-southeast of Sword Beach, “On the evening of 6th June, therefore, the situation did not look very encouraging.”(43) The I Panzer Corps, which included the 12 SS Panzer and Panzer Lehr Divisions, was finally released late in the day on 6 June.(44) Once his division and other armored units, also previously held inland, were redeployed they were met by devastating air attacks, which scattered their formations and slowed their advance toward the coast.

Even before these units, which were possibly strong enough to beat back the Allies had they been at the beaches when the landings took place, could begin their redeployments, they needed to be released by Hitler’s personal command. Another example of why the Third Reich lost the war, this overly centralized control of key combat assets took away the ability of local commanders to make on-site adjustments in order to cope with changing situations. Again, Hitler and his inner circle were running the war from their maps and status boards in Germany, rather than trusting their field commanders. To complicate issues further was the belief that, despite landings on 5 beaches and large-scale airborne insertions, the invasion was actually a feint, intended to force the Germans to move forces away from Calais, the perceived real target.

Arguments over the release of the panzer divisions in the region broke out in von Rundstedt’s headquarters as he tried to order the 12th SS Panzer Division to move up to the coast and for Panzer Lehr Division to prepare to do the same. Even though the order had been given, it needed to be passed through Oberkommando des Wehrmacht (OKW), the German Military High Command. Without Hitler’s personal consent, the order was useless, and with Hitler asleep and no one willing to wake him, the first attempts at an armored counterattack were dead.(45)

When the order finally did come to release the panzers, other units had already been thrown into the fight, and were faring badly after the first day. Just as Rommel had predicted, air superiority played a decisive role in the invasion: German reinforcements were often times cut to pieces before reaching their destinations, high-ranking officers were killed in their cars while traveling from one position to another, and the much-needed strength of the panzers was bled away as their formations were caught on the roads by Allied planes. Adding to the carnage was Hitler’s order that all positions were to be held to the last man; there would be no retreat for the German army in Normandy. Trained to be dedicated and loyal to the end, officers and men alike, regardless of their personal opinions about the war and its probable outcome, fought until killed or captured.

Ost troops proved to be unreliable, as expected, and often times turned on their German handlers once Allied troops were near enough that they could surrender. As for the Luftwaffe, an essential part of Rommel’s strategy and promised to him by OKW, “only 36 German aircraft were seen in the British sector [on D-Day]...of which 7 were shot down.”(46) Even fewer made an appearance over the American beaches. The Atlantic Wall, touted by Hitler as being ready to stop the Allied invasion on the beaches – able to throw it back into the sea – had turned out to more akin to a line of ink on a map than the impregnable barrier it was characterized to be. The defenses, neglected for years by a regime more interested in conquering than in possessing, were not enough to hold off the massive Allied invasion.

Indeed, the layered combination of obstacles in the water, on the beaches and inland presented the Allied with many challenges, and cost the invaders dearly in lives, equipment, and time. However, static defenses, regardless of strength, seemed at this point in time to be dated – remnants of the Great War. The Germans had made this painfully clear to the French when they used maneuver to marginalize the value of the Maginot Line in 1940. Without mobile units and reserves to fill the gaps that would eventually develop in these static lines, such defenses were useless, and served only to stave off inevitable defeat. Rommel seemed to know this, and strove for a cooperative defense, built not only of concrete and barbed wire, mines and welded steel obstacles, but also panzers, mobilized infantry, artillery, rockets, and air forces.

Severely limited by time, the Desert Fox was given neither the material nor manpower support he requested, and in retrospect, sorely needed. Contradicting his own order that the invasion would be fought off by forces under one, on-site commander; Hitler spread control out among several officers in the theater: Rommel, von Rundstedt, his stooge in Goering, and others, and kept some of the most essential units under his own control.

Had Rommel been given the support and freedom he requested, the outcome may well have been different. His four belts of underwater obstacles were unfinished at the time of the invasion, and yet still cost the Allies lives and time. Hundreds of troops were killed when their gliders broke up while landing in fields planted with “Rommel asparagus.” German troops did in many places fight to the last man, or at least in the case of Cherbourg, destroy anything and everything of worth to the Allies before being captured or surrendering. Omaha was nearly lost due to a mistake in Allied intelligence; the Americans were totally unaware that an extra German division moved up to the coast just days before the invasion.

This final point gives rise to the possibility that had more units been deployed forward, along the coast instead of inland, the other beaches might have been more like Omaha, or worse. Had the panzers been at Sword and Juno, and had the Nebelwerfers Rommel had asked for been near Utah, it is highly possible, if not probable, that the Allied landings would have stalled on some or all beaches, or may have failed entirely. The losses sustained due to Allied air dominance took away much of the strength of fresh units such as Panzer Lehr Division, and the 12th SS Panzer Division; forward deployment before the invasion would have eliminated these losses completely. Allied aerial bombings, which immediately preceded the landings, fell well inland of German positions, and therefore would not have exacted a heavy toll on armored units dug in along the coast. While naval artillery would have shook these units, as it did the many emplacements on all five beaches, the presence of such fresh, mobile units as the panzers along the coast would have had a significant impact on the Allied invaders.

While the cities of Caen and St. Lo were not both taken until mid-July, well behind the schedule the Allies had hoped for, and the port at Cherbourg was almost completely destroyed by the Germans before it was finally captured, the Allied invasion slowly achieved its objectives. The German line was slowly pushed back. Rommel, ever energetic and dedicated, tried to stem the enemy advance, pleading with Berlin to send more units into the region. Sitting idle in southern France were four panzer divisions, which were finally sent north in July and August, long after they were most needed.

Rommel’s plans were sound and without a doubt slowed the Allied advance into Europe by weeks. Along with material and manpower shortages, the Germans lacked what Hans Speidel, Rommel’s Chief of Staff, called the “uncanny precision in the co-operation between…Allied land forces and their air and naval support.”(47) At the highest level, “Hitler, unable to compromise politically or in his propaganda, devoid of any sober clarity of thought, ordered his troops to hold their ground,”(48) and “it was the soldier at the front who paid the price.”(49)

All these factors combined to produce a great deficit between Marshal Rommel’s plans and the reality forced on him by time and material constraints and organizational ineptitude; these ensured the German loss of Normandy, and eventually the war.


(41). Ibid., 32.

(42). Rommel, 473.

(43). Rommel, 474.

(44). Hans Speidel, Invasion 1944: Rommel and the Normandy Campaign, (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1950), 82.

(45). Mitcham, 78.

(46). Mitcham, 85.

(47). Speidel, 83.

(48). Speidel, 174.

(49). Speidel, 173.

Written by Jeremy Gypton
Copyright © 2002 Jeremy Gypton

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