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 Along the Atlantic Wall: Rommel's Last Battle

The Truth Revealed
by Jeremy Gypton 

The Desert Fox, soon after beginning his tour, began to see past the façade of the Atlantic Wall, and recognized the need for sweeping changes. German troops had mostly been concerned with occupying France, and less so with preparing and training for fighting off an invasion. The true makeup of Wehrmacht forces defies the stereotype of the efficient, well-equipped army of Nordic supermen so often perpetuated in film and novels. Of particular interest was the presence of so-called Ost battalions, which were units made up of foreign conscripts. Most of these men were Slavs, either from occupied territories in Eastern Europe or from the ranks of Russian prisoners captured over the years. Thought to be unreliable on the Eastern Front, they were shipped to France and used to replace German units stationed there. The training, equipment and motivation of these soldiers varied greatly from unit to unit. By the time the invasion came, it is estimated that “one in six German riflemen in France was from an Ost battalion”(9).

The German army units themselves were, with some notable exceptions, not much better than their Ost “allies.” For years France had been a veritable recovery ward for wounded troops in need of recuperation, units needing to be reformed and organized after being smashed in the East, and permanently disabled soldiers, no longer able to fight in the East. Some units were comprised entirely of men with similar ailments, such as the 70th Infantry Division, whose soldiers almost all suffered from stomach or intestinal disorders(10). Other units were so lacking in equipment that they were designated as “static,” being unable to conduct the mobile operations pioneered by the Nazis. Such units had more in common with their World War I predecessors than with the Nazi units that had invaded Poland and France just a few years before. These divisions’ primary means of transportation were the 2000-odd horses that were organic to each. Despite their pioneering of the new age of mechanized warfare, the Germans were still issuing horses to their divisions.

German divisional organization and strength had been simplified and weakened over the years of war, thus giving commanders an overly optimistic picture of their capabilities; senior German commanders most often looked at the overall number and deployment of divisions, and not actual troop strength when assessing readiness and making plans. When Poland was invaded in 1939 the standard German infantry division was made up of 17,200 men, arranged into nine battalions. By the spring of 1944, Wehrmacht divisions throughout Europe had been reduced in size to just under 13,000, with few of them actually being at full strength. To denote reduced manpower, a new divisional designation was adopted – that of the “Kampfgruppe,” or “battle group.” Divisions with this designation were actually only the size of regiments, having been reduced from combat losses, which were not replaced(11). Additionally, units that could be reconstituted were often sent immediately to the Eastern Front, thus through attrition promoting the consistently low readiness of units in France.

As for armaments and equipment, Germany’s Western forces suffered, too. They “had to put up with [weapons] more variegated than those ever accepted by any other army. [They] came from every imaginable arsenal in Europe. Some divisions had up to 100 different types, and rarely the same as their neighbors”(12). Ammunition, therefore, was a major logistical problem; some weapons were so old that repair parts and shells were no longer available. Training suffered as well, due to the lack of standardization of weapons and therefore combat capabilities from unit to unit. Senior commanders could not compare divisions with one another without taking into account the myriad differences between them.

Another interesting, if such a word can be applied to something so militarily unsound, entry into the German order of battle in France was the Luftwaffe Field Division. The German air force, its back broken after the Battle of Britain, was running out of planes. In order to find a role for his underemployed pilots and ground crews, Hermann Goering, commander of Nazi air forces, assembled his unoccupied men into infantry divisions, to be led by their own officers. Little was done to prepare these experienced air warriors for the intricacies of ground combat leadership and planning. Done more to maintain Goering’s control over his men than to create effective combat units, this initiative added to the number of divisions and men in Normandy, but at the price of skill and experience.

A final, telling statistic concerning the state of German readiness in Western Europe is this: “the average age of its personnel [was] thirty-one and a half years, or six years older than the average age”(13) found in the United States Army at the same time. The Germans would be facing a younger, healthier, and better-equipped foe than themselves.

As noted before, however, not all German units were hobbled by disease, inadequate manning or insufficient and outdated equipment. The 12th SS Panzer Division (“Hitler Jugend”), stationed some 40 miles east-southeast of Caen, was fully equipped at 21,386 officers and men(14). Five other Waffen-SS divisions were in the area, and in keeping with the favoritism given them, were well equipped. German units, ready or not, were spread unevenly across the region, from Demark to the Spanish frontier, with concentrations both on the coast and well inland. Most of the mobile and best-equipped units were inland, however.

According to Rommel, “the main battle line will be the beach”(15), where the invasion forces would be at their most vulnerable. Admiral Friedrich Ruge, assigned to Rommel as his Naval Liaison, pointed out that amphibious invasions were the opposite of their land-based counterparts. Land-based operations were strongest at their outset, and gradually lost potency and cohesion as time passed. The point at which an amphibious attack is most vulnerable is just as the attacker makes his initial landings. At this point he usually lacks heavy armor and artillery and is therefore at a disadvantage when facing a well-prepared defender. Based on their experiences with Allied landings in Africa and Italy, the Germans expected some period of vulnerability during the first hours of the invasion. It was at this point in time and place that Rommel believed the bulk of defensive strength must be concentrated and directed, enabling the Germans to stop the Allies on the beaches.

Conversely, weak defenses along the coast would enable the enemy to “succeed in creating bridgeheads at several different points and in achieving a major penetration of our coastal defenses”(16). In the event of such a breakthrough, “Rommel believed that it would not be possible to break up the enemy’s beachheads”(17). Having secured these footholds, the Allies would be able to land reinforcements and vehicles sufficient to overcome the defenders waiting inland.

With this philosophy in mind, Rommel conducted his tour and assessment of what had been accomplished during three and one-half years of German occupation. In addition to his belief in the point at which the invasion could be stopped, Rommel brought with him his recent experiences with Allied tactics and logistical capabilities, culled from his years in North Africa. This knowledge set him apart from many of the other senior German commanders in France, whose experience came mostly from the Eastern Front. For the Russians, airpower had not been as dominating a factor as it would be for the Allies. Rommel had, in fact, observed that his forces in Africa had been “nailed to the ground”(18) at times for days by enemy air forces; German units facing enemy air assets would be hard-pressed to be as mobile as they were accustomed to being, and would therefore lack the rapid striking capacity they had enjoyed during the early days of the Blitzkrieg.

Rommel would also need to deal with the question of who would be responsible for planning and commanding the defenders, and the tactics they would employ. Hitler, in his Directive no. 40, seemed quite clear in its requirement that “responsibility for the preparation and execution of defensive operations must unequivocally and unreservedly be concentrated in the hands of one man.” Presumably this man would be a battlefield commander in the actual theater itself, rather than someone leaning over a map in a bunker in Berlin. At the time of Rommel’s inspection tour this responsibility seemed to be, by default, on the shoulders of Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, Oberbefehlshaber West (Commander-in-Chief, Western Forces, or OB West).

Von Rundstedt had served in the Great War and reached senior rank while Rommel was still climbing up from the company and battalion level. Hitler’s favor for Rommel, and the younger man’s quick rise to pre-eminence in rank and prestige was not lost on von Rundstedt, who sometimes referred to the Desert Fox as “Marschall Bubi – roughly, Marshal Laddie”(19).

Von Rundstedt and his predecessor shaped the defensive strategy that existed as of Rommel’s tour, as did the material and logistical priorities established by Berlin during the years of occupation. A fine example of Berlin’s priorities could be seen when Field Marshal von Witzleben, the first OB West, was refused any construction battalions for building fortifications early during the occupation. From that point forth little emphasis was placed on such projects. Von Rundstedt, drawing from his experience in the Great War, favored placing the strongest units inland, out of range of Allied naval guns. Undamaged during the initial assault, these panzer and infantry units would fight in open, familiar territory. Von Rundstedt hoped to then achieve a decisive victory over Allied units, and end the threat to Nazi-occupied Western Europe. Strategically this was the exact opposite of the plan Rommel was slowly putting together during the weeks of his tour.

Von Rundstedt followed Frederick the Great’s maxim that “he who would defend all defends nothing,” and thus wanted to concentrate his strength in areas that were most likely to see action. The idea of constructing defenses adequate to protect some 2500 miles of Atlantic and Mediterranean coast was unrealistic; Germany simply lacked the manpower to achieve this monumental feat. Thus the issue of deducing exactly where the Allies would come ashore became of paramount importance.

This issue of exactly where and when the invasion would take place further hampered the deployment of German forces and construction of fixed defenses. If the attack was to come in northwest France, weather and tide conditions indicated it would most likely be between the months of May and September. As to exactly where the invaders would attack, there were many differing opinions, all having some merit. Many, including Rommel for a time, believed that the most logical place for the Allies to cross the English Channel would be at the Pas de Calais. At this shortest point across the Channel, German defenders could, on a clear day, see the cliffs of Dover. Other potential landing sites existed, as well: the ports of Cherbourg, Le Havre, Dieppe, and the mouths of the Seine and Somme rivers were all possibilities. At such locations, Hitler ordered the construction of massive fortifications. These “fortresses,” as Hitler called them, would be manned by one or two divisions each, and would serve as a series of defensive anchors along the coast.

The construction of such static defenses seemed in keeping with Rommel’s philosophy of stopping the Allies at the beaches, but whether or not the right places were defended, and defended adequately, was the next issue. Von Rundstedt, an obedient soldier but always contemptuous of “Corporal Hitler,” obliged his Fuhrer by “promoting to the rank of fortress”(20) the locations chosen by Hitler. Meanwhile he busied himself with putting together an armored reserve, deployed inland, to destroy the Allies once they came ashore. Hitler, never having visited the region, relied on reports and markers on his maps to assure him that work was being completed to his satisfaction.

Rommel completed his tour in late December and submitted his report just before the New Year. Upon receipt of the lengthy assessment, Hitler appointed him head of Army Group B, under which fell the many corps and divisions in the Calais and Normandy area. His mission was to make the changes he saw as being essential to defeating the Allied invasion, and to act as ground commander during the attack itself. Within the Wehrmacht chain of command, he was a direct subordinate to von Rundstedt (OB West); however, Rommel was ordered to report directly to Hitler. In keeping with his efforts to prevent too much control being in anyone’s hands but his own, “Hitler [ordered] that Rommel should be responsible to him even though he would be operating [in the area controlled by OB West]. Rommel’s position was not clearly defined and von Rundstedt was told almost nothing about what he [Rommel] was supposed to be doing”(21). It would seem that by this organizational arrangement Hitler had, intentionally or not, ignored his own requirement that all Atlantic Wall defenses should be under the control of one man.

This contradiction, however, should not have come as a surprise to those involved, as Hitler was obsessed with keeping as much control over events and people as possible. Rommel preferred to control his troops from the front, or as close to the battle as possible, while Hitler and his inner circle believed they could adroitly run operations from their maps in Berlin. Guenther Blumentritt, von Rundstedt’s Chief of Staff, stated in a later interview that Hitler relied far too much on his maps, and not enough on the advice of his commanders in the field. Throughout all Hitler’s Directives and orders given to Rommel and those in the West, it is interesting to note that never once did the Fuhrer actually see his Atlantic Wall for himself; he had not, in fact, been to France since 1940. His insistence on personally controlling the deployments of certain units, especially the panzer divisions, would play an important role once the invasion was under way. Rommel, on the other hand, consistently requested, and was almost always refused, more local control over planning and utilization of troops.


(9). Ibid., 34.

(10). Mitcham, 14.

(11). Mitcham, 15.

(12). Ruge, 46.

(13). Fred Majdalany, The Fall of Fortress Europe, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1968), 307.

(14). Badsey, 17.

(15). Ruge, 15.

(16). Irwin Rommel, The Rommel Papers, ed. Lidell Hart, B.H., (New York: De Capo Press, 1953), 452.

(17). Ruge, 16.

(18). Ruge, 16.

(19). Ryan, 23.

(20). Majdalany, 309.

(21). Majdalany, 301.

Written by Jeremy Gypton
Copyright © 2002 Jeremy Gypton

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