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Normandy, France - June 1944
The Atlantic Wall
by Brian Williams

After the invasion and subsequent fall of France in 1940, the German army controlled the entire coast of Northern France.  Following the Allied evacuation at Dunkirk, Hitler had hoped that Britain would agree to settle the war.  But, because of British determination and Germany's inability to carry out an invasion of England, Germany was forced to maintain a defensive posture along the coast.

the many setbacks on the Eastern Front.  What it lacked in Luftwaffe and materials, it made up for in highly experienced and trained men.  Also, its armor, heavy infantry weapons, and anti-tank capabilities were years ahead of the Americans and British.  But, the Allies controlled the air and sea and what they lacked in quality, they hoped to make up for in quantity.

The German high command was actually anticipatory about the upcoming Allied invasion.  It meant that finally the British and American threat could be "dealt with" once and for all.  If they could defeat the Western Allies finally, they could transfer the badly needed units to the Eastern front.  Both sides knew that the outcome of the invasion would most likely result in victory or defeat in the war.

The "Atlantic Wall" really began in Spring of 1942 and involved the construction of minefields, concrete walls, concrete bunkers, barbed wire fences, and fortified artillery emplacements.  In command of the more than 3,000 miles of coastline was Field Marshal Karl Gerd von Rundstedt - who, now at the age of 69, held mostly a figurehead position.  At this earlier point in the war, the "Atlantic Wall" was woefully inadequate.

In 1943, Hitler appointed Field Marshal Erwin Rommel to command Army Group B and with it, the responsibility for the defense of Normandy.  Rommel inspected the beach defenses and found them altogether inadequate.  He immediately set to building improvements, laying minefields on the beaches and beach approaches and in the English Channel.  Fortifications were strengthened, fields of fire were improved, and obstacles of all sorts were placed in the water at approaches to possible landing sites.  In addition, flood plains were flooded and fields were positioned with poles to prevent their possible use as landing areas.  

Rommel realized that the defenses he was in charge of constructing were not going to stop an invasion.  The best he could hope for was that the defenses could delay the invasion and cause significant confusion among the invaders.  He understood that the invasion force mustn't be allowed to establish a foothold, because if it did, it could bring in near limitless resources.  Rommel believed that it was absolutely critical that any invasion must be met quickly by his troops and especially Armored units.  His belief was that they must defeat the Allies on the beaches, before a foothold could be established.

German Armies in occupied France during WWIIIn 1944, the German war machine was still very powerful despite But, Field Marshal Rundstedt remained above Rommel as Supreme Commander West in command of all of occupied France.  This would later become a problem because even though Rommel commanded Army Group B, he needed permission to move units between his different Armies within the Army Group.  This actually meant that Rundstedt would then need to send the request to Hitler.  

In addition, Rundstedt's philosophy on the countering an invasion was to hold back the six panzer divisions in reserve in Northern France and deploy them in a crushing blow after the it was determined where the real invasion was taking place.

By June 1944, the German forces in France numbered 46 infantry divisions and 9 panzer divisions (notably the Panzer Lehr, 1st, 2nd, and 12th SS Panzer Divisions).  Several infantry divisions were inexperienced and contained lower quality young troops and older men - troops that were unable to immediately fight on the Russian front.  In addition, of the 850,000 men under Rundstedt's command, 60,000 were hilfswillige (prisoners from the Russian front who volunteered for Russian service - mostly Tartars, Cossacks, Ukrainians, etc.)  But, most infantry divisions were of good quality and several consisted of battle-hardened veterans from the Eastern front.  A typical German division was slightly smaller than an American division, but because of material and fuel shortages, it lacked significant mobile transport - relying on heavy use of horse and train.

The question on the Germany higher command was where and when would the invasion come?  One suspected point of invasion was the shortest distance between the UK and occupied France at Pas de Calais.  An allied invasion here would give excellent Allied air cover for the invasion and the subsequent beachhead.  During the month of May, Hitler also suspected an invasion at Normandy and instructed Rommel to concentrate on its fortifications during that month.  Another possible invasion site that was never ruled out was the coast of Southern France.  Therefore, Hitler maintained 7 Infantry divisions and 1 Panzer division along the coast to counter any potential invasion from Italy.  In any case, Hitler suspected that the invasion would come close enough to the UK to provide close air support of any invasion force.
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Karl von RundstedtRundstedt, Karl Rudolf Gerd von (born: Dec. 12, 1875, died: Feb. 24, 1953)  Because of his age, Rundstedt retired in 1938 only to return to active duty in 1939 at the outbreak of World War II.  He was the commander of the armies that invaded southern Poland.  After success in the invasion of France in spring of 1940, he earned the title of marshal of the Reich.  In 1941, he commanded the armies of the south in the invasion of the USSR and was stopped at Rostov by Soviet Marshal Timoshenko.  During the D-Day invasions of June 1944, Rundstedt was German supreme commander in western Europe.  In September he launched the Battle of the Bulge and facing imminent defeat, he retired in March 1945.

Rundstedt was captured by U.S. troops at Bad Tolz in May 1945 and held by the British for war-crimes.  Because of poor health, he was released in May 1949 and died in Hannover, on Feb. 24, 1953.

Rommel, Erwin (born: Nov. 15, 1891, died: Oct. 14, 1944)
During the invasion of France in 1940, Rommel commanded the 7th Panzer Division.  In 1941, he was given the command of the German troops in Libya.  On June 21, 1942, Rommel was promoted to field marshal after his success against the British in North Africa.  Despite initial successes, he was unable to capture Alexandria in Egypt and was eventually defeated at El Alamein by the British Eighth Army under the command of General Montgomery during November 1942.  After the battle of Medenine on March 5, 1943, he returned to Germany because of ill health.

Erwin Rommel In July, Hitler gave Rommel command of Army Group B in northern Italy.  In November, he was ordered to oversee the coastal defense in the west.  In January 1944, he was commander in chief of all German armies from the Netherlands to the Loire River.  On July 17, 1944, he was severely wounded from allied aircraft while traveling near Livarot and returned to his home in Germany to recuperate.

While on leave, Rommel was implicated in the July 20th plot to assassinate Hitler.  On Oct. 14, 1944, two German generals investigating the case, visited Rommel and gave him the choice between taking poison or facing a trial by the People's Court.  He chose to take the poison and died in the generals' automobile near Ulm, Germany on Oct. 14, 1944.  Hitler gave Rommel a hero's funeral and publicized his death as the result of wounds received in the earlier air attack.

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The Atlantic Wall - written by Brian Williams
Copyright © 2000 Brian Williams
 

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