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 Along the Atlantic Wall: Rommel's Last Battle

Rommel's Efforts
by Jeremy Gypton
 

Upon taking his new post and setting up his headquarters in France, Rommel set to work attempting to implement the changes he saw as essential. Von Rundstedt’s desire to prepare for a decisive inland battle, coupled with Hitler’s demands for heavy fortifications at certain points along the coast had resulted in a disjointed series of efforts. Hardly constituting a cohesive strategy, these moves seemed to fall into the trap of defending all, and yet defending nothing. The diametrically opposed strategies of constructing a solid coastal line versus preparing for a mobile inland battle were mutually irreconcilable. They could not be achieved simultaneously, given Germany’s manpower and material limitations brought on by the cost of the Eastern Front and deployment decisions by Berlin.

The problems faced by the German defenders of the Western Front, as of early 1944, were essentially two-fold. First was the issue of settling on where the invasion was most likely to take place. Second, and just as important, was the issue of just how to defend these sites, once selected. Using his influence with local commanders and a great deal of personal correspondence with Hitler, Rommel went about implementing his plan, however contradictory it might have been to the prevailing perceptions of his (nominal) superior von Rundstedt or the ever-shifting flow of favor and support coming from Berlin. Rommel had once said that Hitler always believed and supported the last person with whom he had met; (22) Rommel aimed at being this person.

Rommel’s fear, based on the information he gathered and defenses he inspected during his tour, was that Allied forces would quickly break through the weak coastal line and, within days, establish a solid beachhead through which supplies and men would pour unhindered. Among his first initiatives was the taking soldiers off their training schedules and putting them to work building obstacles, minefields, and other means by which the Allies could be stopped before moving inland, or even before they landed. Up to the end of 1943 most construction efforts on the Western Front were undertaken by Organization Todt (OT), “Hitler’s construction and labor force”(23). The engineers were pouring some 300,000 cubic meters of concrete each month. Most work, however, was concentrated on Hitler’s “fortresses.” This can be seen through the utilization of OT workers: an average of 63 were assigned, per kilometer of coast, in the Pas de Calais area. The Normandy area, lacking as many heavy fortifications, averaged only about 16 per kilometer(24). A further example of this emphasis on the ports is this: “only between Le Havre and Cherbourg were two naval batteries constructed on the open coast,”(25) with the remainder being at the ports themselves. While much attention had been lavished on the ports, the beaches themselves, especially along the Calvados coast (where the landings all took place), were largely ignored.

Rommel’s eventual choice of Normandy as the most likely site for the invasion came around March 1944. The Allies, no doubt, had an idea as to how strong the defenses were at Calais, and knew that a landing there would be a costly risk, at best. A suitable alternative was the Normandy coast, between the Orne River and the port of Cherbourg, on the northern tip of the Cotentin Peninsula. With roads immediately inland of the major beaches in the region, enemy units would, once key crossings, towns and bridges were seized, be able to advance into France’s interior and toward the Rhine-Ruhr region, just as Rommel feared. Allied air bombardments, for some time, had been concentrated on isolating the Normandy region from Calais to the north by cutting off the fastest and most direct routes reinforcements would most likely take. Bridges, key roads and railroads throughout northern France had been targeted, but those that linked Normandy to the rest of the country had been given particular attention.

Much like his defenses at El Alamein, Rommel wanted to create a series of defensive layers, each intended to slow the Allies’ approach, thus making them vulnerable to German fire from positions along and just behind the beaches. “Rommel [remembered] how his deep minefields…held up [British] tanks for days”(26), and aimed at recreating this same sort of defense in Normandy. He ordered that “rows of obstacles, mined or otherwise, [be] erected below the high water mark”(27) in order to sink enemy landing craft. More mines, wire, and steel obstacles were to be placed on the beaches themselves. When Rommel arrived in France “1.7 million mines had been laid, with a monthly supply of only 40,000”(28). Rommel’s goal was to have 50 to 100 million mines laid by the time the Allies attacked. In keeping with the “anything goes” attitude the Germans had toward munitions and the arming of their troops, the Desert Fox ordered that explosives were to be taken from old shells, captured French stockpiles, and anywhere else they could be found. If he could not have well-built German anti-ship, anti-armor and anti-personnel mines, he would settle for old artillery shells with improvised fuses. By the end of May 1944, over 4,000,000 mines had been laid along the channel coast; over half of them on Rommel’s initiative, and most of those in April and May.

The first line of defense would consist of four belts of underwater obstacles, many to be armed with explosives to blow up landing craft, or built to tear the bottoms out of the same. In his own notes, Rommel set out the following plan for the construction of obstacles in the water:

1. A belt in six feet of water at mean high tide.
2. A belt in six feet of water at half-tide of a twelve-foot tide.
3. A belt in six feet of water at low tide.
4. A belt in twelve feet of water at low tide.

Rommel believed that the invasion would come at high tide, when the Allies would have the shortest distance to cover before attacking German positions; his underwater obstacles were built to fend off such an attack. His intent was “not only to halt the…hundreds of landing boats and ships…but also to destroy his landing equipment and troops”(30). Limited by time and resources, however, the Germans were only able complete the first two belts by the time invasion came, and even then only in certain sectors. According to Army Group B’s War Diary, by “13 May 1944, a total of 517,000 obstacles had been constructed along the cost, 31,000 of which were fitted with mines.

If the Allies made it to the beaches, they would be faced with pillboxes, concrete bunkers, flamethrowers, and machineguns – all of which had sighted their overlapping zones of fire. Just beyond the beaches, “heavy anti-tank guns, self-propelled guns and anti-aircraft combat troops standing ready in the forward part of the defense zone,”(31) would be positioned, to be rushed up to the coast wherever needed. To augment the forces stationed on the coast, Rommel regarded as “urgently necessary” having additional divisions immediately inland to prevent a breakthrough. “The battle for the coast will probably be over in a few hours, and if experience is any judge, the rapid intervention of forces coming up from the rear will be decisive” (32). He believed that the Luftwaffe would be essential in enabling the movement of these reserves; someone would need to hold off Allied aircraft.

Obstacles in the water and on the beaches, and troop emplacements immediately along the coast were built to withstand the initial enemy naval and air bombardments that would surely precede the invasion, and to stop the invasion itself once initiated. The layers of underwater mines would be followed by steel walls, running parallel to the shore and topped with mines. Next would be more mines (mostly improvised explosives using old artillery shells) attached to the tops of posts sunk into the sea floor. More mine-tipped logs and poles would follow, as would “hedgehogs,” which were welded steel constructs tipped with again, more mines. Walls of barbed wire would complete the defensive zone through which the enemy would need to pass. Where this zone ended, German artillery and machinegun positions began.

Control of the forces located immediately on the coasts was a problem in and of itself, with the navy controlling all artillery for targets at sea. The army would take control once enemy forces had landed. This presented a complication when defining exactly what constituted a landing. Whether the transfer of control took place when Allied troops were actually ashore and out of the water or in landing craft headed toward shore was up for dispute, and added to the many organizational problems already facing the Germans.

Rommel also paid close attention to the many fields spread across the Normandy region, in anticipation of glider landings which would enable Allied forces to secure key crossroads and bridges, and disrupt German units as they moved forward to the coast. In order to hinder these landings, simple, but eventually effective, obstacles were erected throughout the region. These consisted of telephone poles sunk upright into the ground, sometimes with a grid of wire connecting their tops together. These wires, when supplies were made available, would be attached to explosives, which would in turn be tripped by any movement of the interconnected poles. Gliders would break up upon landing, killing troops, destroying equipment, and breaking the tempo of enemy operations.

This was, at least, Rommel’s plan. The poles, 10 feet tall and spaced about 100 feet apart, (33) were not equipped with explosives (mostly captured French ordnance); the shells needed were not released to Rommel until only a few days before the invasion, and were thus not installed. Still, the presence of these stout obstacles did hinder Allied glider landings and contributed to the injury and death of many Allied soldiers. To round out his defenses against paratroopers and enemy units moving inland, Rommel also ordered a great many fields throughout the southern Cotentin to be flooded. It is interesting to note that Rommel ordered that fresh water be used wherever possible instead of seawater; he recognized the damage such water would do to the farm fields.

As the spring of 1944 passed, Rommel’s vision of the Allied attack became more specific and defined, and his countermeasures correspondingly were arranged to meet his design of what the enemy would eventually throw against him. Along with massive amphibious landings, supported by naval and air attacks on coastal positions, he saw the possibility for “parachute troops…in very large numbers, dropped…either along the coast or a few miles inland”(34). These troops would either support the landings or take on some operational role of their own. Rommel’s picture of the coming Allied attack, in retrospect, was almost exactly in line with Allied plans, aside from his assumption that the invasion would come at high tide, and probably later in the summer.

The Allies, according to the operations order written for the invasion, believed that “the Pas de Calais [was] the most strongly defended area on the whole French coast”(35) and that, therefore, landings in that area would be very difficult. Progress, if a landing were successful at all, would be slow and would require a northern expansion into Belgium in order to secure adequate ports for larger operations in the future.

Allied intelligence suggested, “The Caen sector is weakly held…defenses are relatively light and the beaches are of high capacity and sheltered from…prevailing winds. Inland…terrain is suitable for airfield development and…consolidation of the initial bridgehead…much of it is unfavourable (sic) for counter-attacks by panzer divisions.”(36) With this in mind they had settled on the beaches of Normandy, stretching from just east of Caen to the western base of the Cotentin peninsula. These landings, to take place at first light and at low tide (in order to expose as many underwater obstacles as possible), would be preceded by airborne drops inland. Three airborne divisions would seize key bridges, crossroads, and hold exit routes from the beaches. Once the lodgment had been secured the Allies would take the port of Cherbourg and the entire Cotentin peninsula, and then move out of the bocage and toward Paris. It was hoped that the city of Caen, the largest in the region, would be taken within the first days of the invasion. Again, this plan was for all intents and purposes the same that Rommel had envisioned would be used and was actively constructing defenses against. One can assume that this skill and insight Rommel possessed are what brought him such fame and esteem among German soldiers and political leaders.

Through the lens of time, one can see that in addition to the material and manpower shortages in France, and the sorry state of those units on station, that time was much more of a threat to the success of Rommel’s plans than he could have known. The slow Allied build-up in England, beginning in 1942, had reached critical mass by early summer of 1944, and the Allies were ready to attack. Indeed, as the Desert Fox had predicted, a combination of airborne drops and massive amphibious landings took place, albeit several weeks earlier than he had anticipated. Believing that weather conditions were wrong, and that the Western Allies’ attack would coincide with the Soviet summer offensive, Rommel was confidant that the invasion, as of early June, was not imminent. Accordingly, he took a short vacation to see his wife in Germany and to bring her a gift for her birthday.


Footnotes

(22). Mitcham, 29.

(23). Mitcham, 5.

(24). Keith Mallory and Arvid Ottar, The Architecture of War, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1973), 177.

(25). Mallory and Ottar, 167.

(26). Majdalany, 304.

(27). Mallory and Ottar, 177.

(28). Ruge, 46.

(29). Rommel, 457.

(30). Rommel, 458.

(31). Rommel, 456.

(32). Rommel, 456.

(33). Rommel, 460.

(34). Rommel, 460.

(35). Encyclopedia Britannica, Normandy 1944 -- War Document: Digest of Operation "Overlord". "Digest of Operation "Overlord,” available from http://normandy.eb.com/normandy/pri/Q00294.html; Internet; accessed 17 March 2001.

(36). Ibid.


Written by Jeremy Gypton
Copyright © 2002 Jeremy Gypton

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