Along the Atlantic Wall: Rommel's Last Battle|
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
by Jeremy Gypton
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
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.”
(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,
(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