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 Along the Atlantic Wall: Rommel's Last Battle

Introduction
by Jeremy Gypton

During the small hours of 6 June 1944, three Allied Airborne divisions, two American and one British, dropped behind German coastal defenses across the Normandy region of Northwest France. The main thrust of the invasion, codenamed Overlord, would begin just after dawn with massive landings on five separate beaches, thousands of air sorties, and the support of naval artillery. More than 8 divisions and other attached units, comprised of over 150,000 men(1), would land on the beaches over the course of the day, and despite fierce resistance, by nightfall would establish a shallow beachhead. Within a week heavy ground forces would be landed in mass and would move inland, beginning the build-up required to break out of Normandy and into the interior of France. Barely a month would pass before over 875,000 troops, 150,000 vehicles and some 570,000 tons of Allied supplies(2) would be on French soil. Fighting an enemy with logistical and manpower resources they could not match, the Germans lost territory, men and material at a steadily increasing rate. The war would eventually, as hoped by Allied planners, be over by the spring of 1945.

The defenses facing the Allies on the beaches and immediately inland were the end product of over 4 years of German occupation of Western Europe. It was these defenses that the Allies would have to defeat if they were to achieve a foothold in Europe. Although work had gone into the “Atlantic Wall” for some time, probably the most notable period was the five months of effort spearheaded by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, charged by Berlin with overhauling the defenses starting in late 1943. This paper is concerned with the work accomplished during those months and the possibilities that Rommel envisioned for bringing the Atlantic Wall out of “Hitler’s cloud cuckoo land”(3) and into reality. The gap between Rommel’s plans and what Berlin and time constraints allowed will be addressed, as will the final impact these defenses had on Allied forces. The possibilities of what might have resulted if Rommel had been given the freedom he requested in preparing Festung Europa for the Allies will also be analyzed. Rommel was, without a doubt, the best man Hitler had to tackle such a job. The eventual failure of the Atlantic Wall was not his fault alone, but rather a convergence of material and manpower shortages, and most pointedly, the organizational ineptitude, inefficiency and paralysis so organic to the Third Reich.

Rommel is perhaps, aside from Hitler himself, the most written-about German leader of World War II. His tactical genius as commander of the Afrika Corps, fierce nationalism and final self-sacrifice for his family have all been examined and analyzed by many, and practically canonized by some. As opposed to his accomplishments in Africa, however, there is comparatively little written about his efforts, beginning in December 1943, to ready the Atlantic Wall for the imminent Allied invasion.

Erwin Rommel entered the German army as an officer cadet in 1910, and soon after was commissioned as a Leutnant (2nd Lieutenant) in 1912. Distinguishing himself as an infantry officer in combat throughout Europe during the Great War, he was awarded one of Germany’s highest military honors, the Pour le Merite’, for capturing a numerically superior enemy unit in 1918. A professional soldier by choice, Rommel stayed in the small army allowed Germany by the Treaty of Versailles, reaching the rank of Colonel and commanding an infantry school by 1939. Within three years of war and exemplary combat service he had risen to the rank of Field Marshal, the highest rank in the German army(4). Rommel’s assignments during World War II included a division command during the invasion of France, command of Hitler’s bodyguard in Poland, and his legendary exploits as head of the Afrika Corps.

Rommel’s mission along the Atlantic Wall was to assess the overall readiness of the coastal areas and to make proposals for any changes he believed were necessary. He began his tour, which was not originally intended to be a permanent assignment, on 11 December 1943 in Copenhagen, Denmark5. In analyzing the Atlantic Wall Rommel was to take into account the deployment and utilization before, during, and after the invasion of the following German assets:

1. The major reserves.
2. The combat groups from unthreatened coastal sections.
3. The combat groups from reserve divisions, schools, and military installations, and the Waffen SS located in the new areas.
4. The assembly of all combat-ready forces from all branches of the armed forces located in Germany.(6)

Hitler’s reason for choosing Rommel to conduct this tour and study was obvious: the Desert Fox was his most famous and possibly most capable commander, and his expertise was needed in the area where the Allied invasion was most likely to take place – somewhere along the nearly 2500 miles of coastline the Germans occupied in Western Europe. Hitler himself had, in the preceding months, emphasized the coming Allied invasion as the pivotal event of the war.

At the outset of his tour Rommel had no reason but to believe the propaganda surrounding the Atlantic Wall, which portrayed the defenses as being impenetrable and more than ready to crush any Allied invasion forces. Hitler had “ordered that the western coast of Europe be turned into an impenetrable fortress [with] 15,000 permanent defensive positions [arranged with at least] 30 per mile,”7 terrain permitting. These positions would be manned by 300,000 front line troops and supported by 150,000 in reserve, enough to stop the coming invasion.

The Fuhrer recognized the inevitability of the Allied invasion of Europe, stating in his Directive 51, dated 3 November 1943, that “If the enemy here succeeds in penetrating our defenses on a wide front, consequences of staggering proportions will follow within a short time. All signs point to an offensive against the Western Front of Europe no later than spring [of 1944] and perhaps earlier.” No doubt the consequences to which he referred were Allied establishment of a permanent hold on continental soil, thus enabling a build-up of forces sufficient to eventually push through and liberate France, then into Germany and victory. A successful Allied invasion “would pose a direct threat to Germany’s industrial heartland…[therefore]… a successful 1944…offensive would overrun the Rhine-Ruhr, areas that were indispensable to Germany’s war-making capability”(8).

Conversely, if this invasion could be thwarted, the Allies would be unable to, due to losses of men and equipment, attempt another such move until at least 1945. Allied morale would also suffer greatly from what would be a stinging and costly defeat. Such a loss would give Hitler more time to fend off the Russians, and possibly turn the tide of war back in his favor.

The bulk of Germany’s war effort, as of late 1943, had been put toward the war in the East, which consumed German men and materials at a prodigious rate; by the end of 1943 Germany had suffered some 1.5 million dead, wounded, captured or missing on the Eastern Front. In Hitler Directive 51, the Fuhrer focused on the West, asserting, “I can no longer justify the further weakening of the West in favor of other theaters of war. I have therefore decided to strengthen the defenses in the West.”

Footnotes

(1). Stephen Badsey, Classic Battles: Normandy 1944, Allied Landings and Breakout, ed. David G. Chandler, Osprey Military, (London: Reed International, 1990), 34.

(2). Ibid., 48.

(3). Cornelius Ryan, The Longest Day, (New York: Touchstone, 1959), 23.

(4). Samuel W. Mitcham, Jr., The Desert Fox in Normandy, (London: Praeger, 1997), 1.

(5). Ibid., 7.

(6). Friedrich Ruge, Rommel in Normandy, (San Rafael, CA: Presidio Press, 1979), 4.

(7). Mitcham, 5.

(8). Stephen E Ambrose, D-Day: The Climactic Battle of World War II. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 29.


Written by Jeremy Gypton
Copyright © 2002 Jeremy Gypton

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