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Command in Normandy:
Prof. Marcuse's UCSB Hist 133P course
About Jonathan Kraetsch
I am a third year history major with an interest in studying World War II. I had several family members fight during the war, one of them for Nazi Germany and the other for the United States. I am very familiar with European history after having taken History 4A & C as well as AP European History in high school.
Research Paper (back to top)
Review of Literature
For the majority of my background research I used works by two prominent World War II historians, Max Hastings’ Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy (1984) and Stephen E. Amrose’s D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II (1994). I picked these two works because they offer different interpretations as to why Germany failed to defeat the Allies in Normandy. Hastings argues that Hitler’s interference with nearly every aspect of the German military, from its command structure to the placement of divisions in preparation for the invasion, was the biggest reason why Germany was unable to defeat the Allies at Normandy. In contrast, Ambrose argues that Germany’s fundamental problem prior to the invasion was spatial rather than military incompetence. Its armies had conquered too much territory and Hitler was determined to defend every inch of its conquered lands. After examining primary documents such as The Rommel Papers, Admiral Ruge’s Rommel in Normandy, and Germany’s military debriefs from its highest ranking generals found in Fighting the Invasion, I found more support for Hastings’ argument that Hitler’s military incompetence and his involvement in the military planning was the primary reason for Germany’s inability to defeat the Allies in Normandy.
Although both assessments are true when looking at World War II as a whole, Hastings’ argument applies more directly to the Battle of Normandy while Ambrose’s seems to be more of an analysis of why Germany lost the war. The documents I have researched support this argument, especially those found in The Rommel Papers. Hastings attempts to envisage the course of the battle for Normandy had Hitler released the straightjacket from Rommel and the other western commanders. Had Hitler given his commanders more freedom, Hastings argues that a German victory in Normandy would have still been unlikely, but Allied casualties, especially the number of U.S. troops would have been much greater. The Allies still would have had numerical and logistical superiority over Rommel. Additionally, Hastings argues that their ability to skillfully defend an area, as the British proved in North Africa in 1941, would have given the Allies the upper hand in holding the beaches. It should be noted that because my research and Hastings' analysis of the battle for Normandy complement each other I used it more often than Ambrose’s work. Finally, I used a third secondary book, Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day, but because his work focuses solely on D-Day and does not go into detail about the difficulties of Rommel’s command I did not use it that often.
The Allied invasion of Normandy during World War II is considered to be the climactic battle on the western front because it forced Germany to fight a multiple front war that was beyond its industrial and military capacities. It was this realization that prompted Hitler and the High Command of the Armed Forces, in early November 1943, to assign Field Marshal Erwin Rommel to observe and report on the defenses of northwest Europe. However, Rommel’s assignment to construct the Atlantic Wall and repulse the Allied invaders was hindered by a number of obstacles from the Allies and from within the High Command, particularly Hitler. The constant stream of Allied bombings on Germany’s railway and industrial centers had weakened its ability to reequip badly mauled divisions from the eastern front, many of which were sent to France to man Rommel’s defenses. A complicated command structure implemented by Hitler meant “there was no absolute responsibility as was given to Field Marshal Montgomery or General Eisenhower” and only certain units were under the command of Oberbefehlshaber West, or OB West. Fighting between generals within the High Command, namely between Rommel and von Rundstedt, over which strategy would be best for defeating the U.S. and British invasion forces polarized the command structure on the western front and interfered with Rommel’s ability to construct and command the Atlantic Wall. Furthermore, Hitler’s obsession and paranoia with maintaining control over military matters hindered not only Rommel’s command but also Field Marshal Rundstedt’s, commander of OB West, and Hitler’s refusals to retreat forced his generals to waste valuable supplies and men in defending the indefensible. It was Hitler’s military incompetence that presented Rommel his greatest challenge in building up the defenses of the Atlantic Wall and conducting the battle for Normandy. However, despite these insurmountable obstacles, Rommel showed uncharacteristic ability that was uncommon amongst his fellow generals to “exploit the resources at his disposal…and showed once again his complete independence of orthodox doctrine and systems,” as a lieutenant general under his command later wrote.
German Command Structure
The High Command of the Armed Forces, or OKW, was a confusing array of independent army groups expected to cooperate with one another at the time of the invasion. At the highest level was Hitler as Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, then the High Command of the Armed Forces under Keitel, underneath OKW but independent of Keitel’s orders was the High Command of the Navy, Luftwaffe, and Army led by Doenitz, Goering and Hitler. Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, Commander–in–Chief West, was under the command of Keitel and commanded Army Group G and Army Group B, the latter led by Rommel. Rundstedt was forced to work with, rather than command, Navy Group West and the Third Air Force, both of which were vital to defending the Atlantic Wall. As Commander–in–Chief West Rundstedt commanded Army Group G and Army Group B, the latter was led by Rommel, and Panzer Group West. Furthermore, the High Command had its own set of reserves that were independent of Rundstedt’s command and reported directly to Keitel. The reason behind such a confusing state of military command was because of Hitler’s obsession with dividing command amongst his generals as a way of keeping overall power out of the hands of one man. General Gunther Blumentritt, Rundstedt’s chief of staff, was accurate in his observation that “a dictator does not favor putting too much power in the hands of one man.” Even when common sense should have intervened, Hitler’s paranoia resulted in a command structure that denied Rommel some of the most basic requirements for defending the Channel, such as control over OKW’s panzer reserves and the deployment of panzer divisions along coast.
When comparing the German command structure to that of the Allies, flaws are even more visible. On December 7, 1944, General Eisenhower was appointed by President Roosevelt to command the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force in preparation for Operation Overlord and the remainder of the war. With Eisenhower in command of all Allied armies for the invasion of Normandy, his subordinate commanders were Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery in command of the invasion armies, Sir Bertram Ramsay in command of the naval forces, and Sir Trafford Leigh–Mallory in command of the Allied air forces. Montgomery’s command of the Allied ground forces for the invasion, known as the Twenty–First Army Group, consisted of the United States First Army led by General Omar Bradley and the British Second Army led by General Sir Miles Dempsey. With one commander who controlled nearly all aspects of the Allied invasion forces orders were much clearer, materiel was more easily supplied, and the Allies could direct all their forces toward one battle rather than dispersing them throughout the front. In contrast, Hitler was the main cause behind the poor structure of the Wehrmacht in the west and it could not be easily remedied since he was unwilling to listen to the military advice of his generals in the first place. Although it can be argued that if Hitler had allowed for a more central command structure Rommel’s request for a second panzer division near St. Lo may have been granted and the cost in U.S. lives on D–Day would have been much more tremendous.
Rommel’s Assignment and Command of Army Group B
In November 1943 Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was assigned the task of defending northwest Europe as part of Hitler’s Fuhrer Directive 51, which was the general assignment that made the construction of the Atlantic Wall a top priority. Initially, Hitler’s Directive 51 failed to distinguish when Rommel would “transition from the theoretical plans for deployment and operational readiness to the state of combat command.” And, according to von Rundstedt’s chief of staff Gunther Blumentritt, this meant that the “armies under the orders of Rundstedt did not know who was now in charge, Rundstedt or Special Inspector Rommel, …[which] led to extensive friction in departmental circles, and in the organization of command…” Despite the confusion amongst the German commanders in France Rommel completed his initial inspection of the defenses along northwest Europe, which extended from the Netherlands to Brittany, and on December 31, 1943 had already sent Hitler his tactical recommendations. However, it should be noted that the tactics Rommel wished to use in France were influenced by his belief that “victory could no longer be gained by mobile warfare -not merely because of the British and U.S. air superiority, but also because the German armaments industry was no longer capable of keeping pace with the western Allies…” Rommel’s tactics were also influenced by his experiences of fighting the British in North Africa, and he was the only general in France who had fought the western Allies. All other generals, including Rundstedt, had more experience fighting the Russians and thus an entirely different method of war. These experiences and opinions influenced not just Rommel’s recommendations sent to Hitler in December 1943 but also his command of Army Group B.
Rommel’s initial recommendations for the defense of the Atlantic Wall consisted of descriptions on where the Allies would land and why, and how to best use Germany’s limited resources to repel the invasion. Rommel’s recommendations consisted of massive minefields, foreshore obstacles such as concrete bunkers and underwater devices, and air–landing obstacles. The use of minefields as a means of defense for the Atlantic Wall was influenced by Rommel’s campaign against the British in North Africa, which “made the maximum possible use of mines in constructing their new line” for the defense of Tobruk, which cost the Afrika Korps many men but taught Rommel “the value of the British large–scale mining.” The extensive use of minefields coupled with tanks, machine guns, and artillery meant the U.S. and British forces would have to “attack through the minefields against the defense works sited within them…fight his way through the zone of death in the defensive fire of the whole of our artillery.” However, for the minefields to be effective an estimated 20 million mines needed to be laid across northern France, but by May 1944 only about 7 million had been laid in the channel and along the coast, with nearly 2 million more still in production. Despite Rommel’s belief that the minefields would make up for the Wehrmacht’s poor condition, he failed to take into account that the British at Tobruk in 1942 were probably still better equipped with tanks, machine guns, anti–tank weapons, and artillery than the Germans were in 1944 prior to D–Day.
The implementation of foreshore and air–landing obstacles were the only defensive measures that were not influenced by his prior experiences but rather improvisation. Rommel ordered the foreshore obstacles to be placed in belts along the coast at the four different tide zones in order to “halt the enemy’s approach to the beaches…but also to destroy his landing equipment and troops. They consisted of a wide variety of obstacles armed by mines or shells.” However, on June 6 the obstacles for both levels of Normandy’s low tide had not been completed. The air–landing obstacles to be used against the airborne invasion consisted of ten foot high stakes stuck in the ground topped with mines and strung together with wire in order to rip apart and explode landing gliders and parachutists. Rommel also flooded low -lying areas behind the coastal fortifications to drown falling parachutists.
Despite Rommel’s brilliance with tactical maneuvers and simple technological innovations for defeating the Allied invasion, his plans ultimately rested on the shoulders of battle weary, undersupplied Wehrmacht and SS soldiers hastily transferred from the eastern front during the spring of 1944, under Hitler’s Directive 51 given the previous year. On January 15, 1944 Rommel was given complete command of the coastal defense forces, which were later known as Army Group B; up until this point he had only been an inspector unable to issue orders. However, according to von Rundstedt’s chief of staff, Gen. Blumentritt, most of the divisions occupying the coast contained only “two organic infantry regiments, weak artillery, and very limited mobility…Most of the officers and men had been wounded and were in limited assignment status.” While a vast majority of the SS and Wehrmacht Panzer divisions stationed in France prior to the invasion had, by 1944, “been employed both in the East and in the West. They had been reorganized several times and were not the divisions of 1939-40.” Although these panzer divisions were deployed in Army Group B’s area of operations, because of the command structure they remained under the direct command of Hitler and OKW, severely hindering Rommel’s ability to assign the best divisions available to the areas he felt were the most threatened. Army Group B stretched from Brittany, France to the Netherlands which consisted of coastal divisions, which remained in a fixed place and were poorly equipped, and combat divisions that could be moved along the English Channel and were better equipped.
Rommel vs. Rundstedt: Strategic Differences and the Panzer Controversy
The second greatest interference to Rommel’s command was the lack of one cohesive defense strategy and arguing amongst high-level German officers at OKW and OB West, which was compounded by the confusing command structure in the west. The two opposing viewpoints over the best strategy to employ to stop the Allied invasion forces were led by Rommel in one school of thought, and Rundstedt and Geyr von Schweppenburg on the other. The two opinions divided most of the OKW and Hitler. Generals von Rundstedt and von Schweppenburg argued that “the British and Americans should be allowed to land and make a penetration, so that their forces could then be destroyed and thrown back into the sea by a counter-offensive.” Rommel, according to a general in his chief of staff, was of the opinion that “the enemy had to be beaten on the beaches.” According to Rundstedt’s chief of staff, General Blumentritt, “Rundstedt’s concept was strategic, Rommel’s tactical. Rundstedt had always to bear in mind that…he was responsible for all fronts, whereas Rommel could limit himself to that part of the front subordinated to him…” When considering the different responsibilities delegated to Rommel and Rundstedt it is easy to understand the differences of defensive strategies. For instance, if Rundstedt had agreed to Rommel’s tactics he ran the risk of miscalculating where the invasion would take place, and combined with the overwhelmingly superior Allied air force, it would have been impossible for Rundstedt to move the necessary forces to the invasion beaches. However, Rommel possessed one distinguishing quality over the other commanders at OKW and OB West: he was one of the few commanders in the west to have fought the British and Americans, and he had learned the value of mobile warfare. Rommel was aware of this and spoke about it on May 17, 1944, to Bayerlein, a general under his command, noting the differences between fighting the Russians and fighting the British and Americans:
Although Blumentritt’s opinion that Rundstedt had to consider all possible fronts as commander of OB West is accurate to some extent, he failed to take into consideration how the German forces would be able to maneuver against the beachhead with the Allied air force in control of the skies. Rommel believed that in order to do so they would “have to attack slowly and methodically, under cover of massed artillery…The day of the dashing cut-and-thrust tank attack of the early war years is past and gone…” Rundstedt’s strategy, allowing the Allies to move inland before counterattacking, followed the strategy of the Wehrmacht on the eastern front. It was common strategy for German commanders to allow the Red Army to attack before counterattacking with divisions held in reserve. Although this strategy may have been effective for the World War I style battles that occurred on the eastern front, it did little to halt the technological superiority of the western Allies. Rommel understood the differences between the Red Army and the U.S. and British forces, and it was in this area of military strategy where he showed tremendous independence and ingenuity from common Wehrmacht procedure. Unfortunately, Hitler felt the need to involve himself in this military matter, which once again resulted in more indecisiveness on the part of the German High Command and hampered Rommel’s ability to effectively command the coastal defenses.
Hitler’s interference failed to result in a single defensive strategy because he generally favored both Rommel’s and Rundstedt’s viewpoints. He liked the idea of stopping the Allies at the beaches but also agreed that formations needed to be put in reserve for a massive counterattack under his personal authority. This lack of decision making was most prevalent in an address Hitler delivered on March 20, 1944 to his western commanders-in-chiefs, which stated that an invasion will come but “whatever concentrations of shipping may exist, they cannot and must not be taken as any evidence…that the choice has fallen on any one sector of the long Western front…” Hitler wanted to employ both strategies but lacked the resources to effectively defend the beaches and maintain enough reserves to launch a massive counterattack. The Wehrmacht needed the same number of divisions in the west that were deployed in the east. And, although Hitler did not want to concentrate too many forces on a single area, Rommel and the rest of OB West had already been tricked by Operation Fortitude, and Allied deception plan that kept nearly half of Rommel’s divisions concentrated in the Pas de Calais area, away from Normandy on invasion day.
The opposing viewpoints between Rommel and Rundstedt over the deployment of the panzer divisions are closely related to the conflicting opinions of strategy and defense for the invasion beaches. Rommel argued that the panzer divisions needed to take part in the battle immediately if Germany was to stop the Allies at the beaches, and due to Allied air superiority they had to be as close to the invasion beaches as possible in order to react quickly to the invasion and limit their exposure to Allied bombing. In contrast, Rundstedt favored the creation of a large panzer reserve force, later designated as Panzer Group West under Geyr von Schweppenburg, located around Paris to counterattack the invasion force once it began pushing inland. Both opinions are related to how each general thought it best to defend the coast, since the panzer divisions were among the best equipped and best trained divisions in the German army. Rommel displayed an incredible amount of anxiety over the panzer controversy, which is evident in a letter to Colonel-General Jodl in which he states his “only real anxiety concerns the mobile forces…they have so far not been placed under my command. Some of them are dispersed over a large area well inland, which means that they will arrive too late to play any part in the battle for the coast.” As a result, Hitler tried to appeal to both Rundstedt’s responsibility to the whole front and Rommel’s need for command over the panzer divisions, and divided the ten panzer divisions in France amongst the two army groups and OKW reserves. Therefore, Army Group B and Army Group G, in southern France, received only three panzer divisions while Panzer Group West was given four and placed under OKW reserve, thus removing them from Rommel or Rundstedt’s command. The debate over the deployment of the panzer divisions was not limited to Rommel, Rundstedt, and Hitler, the commander of all panzer forces in the German military, Guderian, and Rommel’s chief of staff, Speidel, also debated the issue. However, according to Ruge, due to the manner in which Guderian and Rommel discussed military matters gave him the “impression that Guderian neither rejected nor fought Rommel’s plans” which was unfortunate because he was a very high ranking member of the Nazi elite and certainly could have influenced Hitler.
Hitler’s Interference with Military Strategy
If the relationship between Rommel and Rundstedt was strained because of the panzer controversy and differences of strategy, the relationship between Rommel and Hitler quickly deteriorated as D-Day drew closer and the battle for Normandy began. Hitler approved of Rommel’s strategy to stop the invasion at the beaches, but according to Bayerlein, Hitler agreed to this strategy not “out of sympathy with Rommel’s line of thought, but simply because he could always find pleasure in the idea of massive fortifications.” This is again another instance of implementing strategies used on the eastern front against an enemy with technological superiority in which there is little use for trenches, dugouts and fortifications when the enemy’s air force dominated the sky. Although Hitler generally disagreed with allowing the enemy to take ground before attacking, he did allow for reserve forces to be created around Paris, as was seen in his address to his western commanders. However, Rommel had an ace up his sleeve when it came to approving his strategy over Rundstedt’s: his close relationship with Hitler. Rundstedt’s chief of staff noted how frequently Rommel and Hitler would telephone each other, whereas Rundstedt would not, and “if someone only found the right psychological method” the Fuhrer could be easily influenced. Despite Rommel’s influence over Hitler, and that of other generals as well, he could not convince him to accept the prospect of an orderly retreat from the beaches if the Allies were to gain a foothold in France. Hitler remained adamant that no ground was to be given up to the Allies, thus putting an immense amount of pressure on Rommel and Army Group B’s ability to stop the Allies at the beaches. Furthermore, Rommel’s inability to deploy the panzer divisions as he saw fit hindered his ability to comply with Hitler’s illogical order. Hitler’s blatant disregard of proper military strategy against an enemy that was more mobile and better equipped, combined with his disillusionment as to the situation facing Rommel’s poorly equipped divisions, had later consequences for Rommel’s command and his ability to effectively counterattack the Allies once they had landed.
Germany’s Supply Situation
As the day of the invasion drew closer Germany’s supply problems became more and more pronounced due to increased Allied bombing and the supply demands of the eastern front. For instance, as late as April 9 Rommel had discovered only a little more than one million cubic meters of concrete had been reserved by Hitler to construct the Atlantic Wall, which was thousands of miles long. According to Rundstedt’s chief of staff, Hitler always had a flair for the imaginary and believed that “a blue line along the coast with lots of fortifications and much technical finesse would hermetically seal off any attacker.” However, already at the 1943 Casablanca Conference the Allies had devoted their air forces to Operation Pointblank, which was designed to soften up Hitler’s Atlantic Wall for the invasion forces. Although more concrete would have certainly helped in the immediate defense of the Atlantic Wall, especially considering the ineffectiveness of the aerial and naval bombardments on Omaha Beach, Rommel still placed more tactical emphasis on how quickly the panzer divisions could reach the beaches. However, not all of Rommel’s supply problems were a result of Hitler’s incompetence. The incoherent command structure and the lack of local natural resources added to the problem. For instance, when discussing the construction of “Rommel’s asparagus” his naval liaison officer recalled that the artillery general “protested against releasing tractors for work on the obstacles. Overly zealous soldiers searching for stakes had to be stopped when they…cut down trees which served as camouflage...for the V1 rockets.”
The priority of the eastern front was also an indirect factor to the poor supplies and soldiers Rommel received to defend to the Atlantic Wall. The war in the east was a black hole for men and materiel vital to the defenses in the west, which was a fact Hitler stressed immensely in his March 20 address to the commanders-in-chiefs in the west. At the end of his address Hitler concluded that the “forty-five divisions which we now have in Europe, excluding the Eastern front, are needed in the East, and will and must be transferred there so as to effect a fundamental change in that situation…” This paper is published on a UCSB website. From this excerpt it is obvious that Hitler was concerned with numbers, such as how many divisions could be transferred from west to east, rather than quality, such as the combat quality of the soldiers who made up the division in the west. Many of the coastal divisions that comprised Rommel’s Army Group B, especially at the Utah beach landing zone, were the Ost battalions. These battalions were made up of foreign conscripts from across Europe, North Africa, and Asia.
“The Longest Day” for Rommel, Hitler, and Nazi Germany
The problems Rommel faced prior to the invasion when building up northwestern Europe’s defenses were brought to the surface and exacerbated once the Allies finally landed at Normandy. On the morning of June 4, 1944, Rommel left his headquarters at La Roche-Guyon to visit his wife and son in Germany and to discuss logistical problems with Hitler. Meanwhile, across the English Channel, Allied Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower was forced to postpone the invasion, which was originally scheduled to begin on the morning of June 5, by twenty-four hours due to poor weather conditions. The time in which Rommel left for Germany and his reasons for leaving are still debatable. For instance, in The Rommel Papers Lt. Gen. Fritz Bayerlein claims that “after receiving von Rundstedt’s authority for the trip…Rommel left his headquarters…on the morning of the 5th of June.” Bayerlein also provides an excerpt from Rommel’s diary, dated June 3rd, that states the need for leaving France was “to speak personally to the Fuhrer on the Obersalzberg, convey to him the extent of the man-power and material inferiority we would suffer in the event of a landing, and request the dispatch of two further panzer divisions…” However, in The Longest Day historian Cornelius Ryan argues that Rommel left on the fourth and one of the reasons he left was because June 6 was his wife’s birthday, which is noted in Army Group B’s War Diary. Regardless of the date and time Rommel left, and instead focusing on the reason why, it is plausible that some aspects of Bayerlein’s argument and Ryan’s are correct. If Rommel was going to visit his wife in Germany for her birthday then it is reasonable to assume he wanted to meet with Hitler while he was there. Rommel was also not concerned about the invasion taking place during his absence as noted in his diary dated from June 5-8 that the “tides were very unfavorable for the days following, and the fact that no amount of air reconnaissance had given the slightest indication that a landing was imminent.”
The invasion began with the deployment of U.S. and British paratroopers in the Cotentin Peninsula and Ouistreham. With the invasion underway many of the problems Rommel encountered while trying to build up the defenses of the Atlantic Wall, especially the problems caused by Hitler’s interference and the poor command structure, compounded his ability to coordinate effective counterattacks while the Allies were at their most vulnerable position. General Blumentritt, Rundstedt’s chief of staff, noted how hours before the invasion, when the army was put on alert after the interception of two Allied messages, the “plans and orders of OB West were rigidly dictated by the Fuhrer and OKW; freedom of action on the part of OB West, Army Group B, and Seventh Army was impossible.” Although Rommel was still in Germany, Rundstedt made several efforts to counterattack the airborne forces with two panzer divisions and was denied their release twice before the German High Command finally relented late in the afternoon of June 6th, Rommel returned to France that evening. However, one panzer division near Caen was able to counterattack the British forces, but failed to do anything of much significance because of the massive numbers of British paratroopers being dropped into Normandy.
Four days into the invasion Rommel was able to identify the Allies' immediate goals of the invasion and the factors that were hampering his command of Normandy. Rommel determined that the British planned “to gain a deep bridgehead between the Orne and Vire [Rivers], as a springboard for a powerful attack later into the interior of France…” while the U.S. forces were “to cut off the Cotentin peninsula and gain possession of Cherbourg…in order to provide himself with a major port of large landing capacity.” This was generally an accurate assessment of the situation, but there was little Rommel could do to stop the Allies from achieving these goals because of the “immensely powerful, at times overwhelming, superiority of the enemy air force…the effect of the heavy naval guns…the material equipment of the Americans…” However, this document states only the defensive and material factors that were hindering Rommel’s ability to halt the Allies’ gains and does not mention the interference by Hitler in determining where he was to counterattack. As stated in his document Rommel planned to shift a majority of his forces to the “Carentan-Montebourg area…in order to destroy the enemy in that sector and divert the danger from Cherbourg.” This area was the most vital objective of the U.S. airborne landings because it had many roads leading in and out of the town between Utah and Omaha beaches, and the port of Cherbourg. However, Hitler ignored this advice and ordered Rommel to counterattack the British beachhead, despite the fact that the “American bridgehead in the Cotentin was not only potentially more dangerous than the British one -as it could be the base for a move to cut off the entire Cotentin peninsula -but it also contained fewer troops at first.” Although Bayerlein does not give an explanation as to why Hitler preferred to have Rommel attack the British rather than U.S. forces, it is generally agreed by historians that the British faced German divisions of a much higher quality, such as the fanatical 12th SS Panzer and Panzer Lehr divisions, than the U.S. Americans. With this in mind perhaps Hitler believed the British could be thrown back into the sea more easily with the combined strength of two of the Wehrmacht’s most experienced divisions plus the counterattacking forces.
Hitler’s poor military judgment and suspicion of his generals added to the success of the Allied deception plan Operation Fortitude, which had tied down nearly half of the divisions under Rommel’s command in the Pas-de-Calais area waiting for a second invasion that would never happen. The brilliance of the Allied plan even tricked Rommel and nearly every German commander in the west, but once it was clear that there would not be a second invasion Hitler continued to deny Rommel’s request to move divisions that were supposedly under his own command toward the Normandy bridgehead. For instance, General Speidel, Rommel’s chief-of-staff, recalled how OKW sent dozens of intelligence documents to Rommel and Rundstedt indicating that the Allies had enough troops to launch a second invasion. While Hitler demanded that his generals fight to the last man for every yard, the two field marshals asked for a conference with Hitler to discuss the situation in the west.
Rommel and Hitler: Necessity vs. Fantasy
The first conference between Hitler and his generals concerning the opening of the western front took place on June 17 near the French town of Soissons. Rundstedt and Rommel shared the belief that Germany was going to lose the battle, and ultimately the war, if the strategic and political situation did not change soon. The two field marshals began the meeting with a discussion of the problems faced by German soldiers, but according to Blumentritt, who was present at the meeting, “Hitler would not go into that, preferring to produce photographs of new weapons and aircraft…” technological developments such as the V-1 and V-2 rockets, and jet aircraft was too little too late to help Germany win the war. The second point to be discussed at the meeting was Rundstedt’s request “for a strategic instruction on a grand scale for the conduct of the war in the west, to make freedom of action possible,” which, according to Blumentritt, Hitler stoically accepted, but future operations throughout the war proved that he did not heed the advice of his generals. And finally, Rommel argued “that something be done to negotiate politically with the Allies,” which Hitler vehemently refused because he knew of the agreement between the Allied nations for Germany’s unconditional surrender, which to Hitler meant “everything now depended upon ‘fanatical resistance.’” However, despite Rommel and Rundstedt’s best efforts to affect a change in Hitler’s policies toward the western front, Hitler quickly left Soissons after a V-1 buzz bomb accidentally landed next to his bunker. Hitler never again visited the western front and Rommel and Rundstedt were not able to meet Hitler until the end of June at his mountain retreat, Berchtesgaden.
The unrealistic expectations that Hitler had in mind during the June 17 conference were also present in the conference at Berchtesgaden later in the month. Hitler argued that the “first essential is to bring the enemy attack to a halt as a pre-condition for…cleaning up the bridgehead,” but offered no strategic plans with which to do so and failed to provide the two field marshals with more divisions. He then issued the following order:
According to Blumentritt, Hitler’s irrational thinking and avoidance of the discussion about the fate of his armies “was too much for Rundstedt, for he was used to constructive thinking and the facing of facts.” Only on paper did Hitler’s plans for defeating the Allies look legitimate, but there is a fine line between irrationality and enthusiasm, and at this point in the war Hitler was crossing the line into irrationality. Since 1943, when Rommel gave his first assessment of how Germany would be able to repel an Allied invasion, he acknowledged the fact that Germany no longer possessed the industrial strength to match that of the Allies. It is likely that the Allies’ successes in Normandy were the straw that broke the camel's back for Hitler’s grasp on reality, and with the exception of the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944 to 1945, he was moving shattered divisions that appeared operational on paper but were undermanned and under equipped in the field.
Shortly after their meeting with Hitler, Rundstedt was asked to retire due to his failing health and was replaced by Field Marshal von Kluge, who quickly came to the same grim conclusions as Rundstedt and Rommel as to the situation in Normandy. However, Rommel remained in command of Army Group B and on July 3, shortly after von Kluge took command of OB West, sent a memorandum to his new commanding officer and Hitler outlining the reasons for German military’s failures in Normandy, the Cotentin peninsula, and Cherbourg. The Desert Fox argued that “repeated requests for reinforcements…before the invasion…were refused. Most important of these was the request for the 12th SS Panzer Division...to enable it to launch an immediate and overwhelming counterattack…” Hitler’s order to attack the British beaches rather than allowing Rommel to conduct his original plan to first destroy the U.S. bridgehead “north of Carentan, thus eliminating all danger to the Cotentin peninsula and the fortress of Cherbourg…” then attack the British. But, Rommel’s concluding reason for failure in Normandy was the unsatisfactory command structure which “at the start of the invasion, the Army Group had no control over the mobile formations of Panzer Group West… Only unified, close-knit command of all services, after the pattern of Montgomery and Eisenhower,” could lead to ultimate victory.
Rommel’s memorandum argued that the command structure was the final undoing of the Germans in Normandy. However, it was Hitler who insisted on a complicated command structure as a way to exert more control over the military. Rommel did not openly criticize Hitler in his July 3rd memorandum because it would have meant his discharge from the military and possible execution. However, in private conversations with his son he blamed Hitler for the many failures at Normandy. During one conversation, Rommel remarked how his “functions in Normandy were so restricted by Hitler that any sergeant-major could have carried them out. He interfered in everything and turned down every proposal we made.” Rommel’s private feelings towards Hitler’s leadership are the general feelings of most of the former German generals at the end of the war. For instance, in a report about the preparations for the Normandy invasion given to the U.S. Army at the end of the war, Generalmajor Rudolf, Freiherr von Gersdorff argued that “it is no wonder, nor is it a coincidence, that since the day Hitler took over the Supreme Command in 1942… not one significant German operation was led to success aside from the capture of Sebastopol.” Generalleutnant Hans Speidel, Rommel’s chief of staff, when asked to discuss the views of Rommel’s command in a similar report to the U.S. Army, tried to explain the reasoning behind the poor chain of command. Hitler, he argued, “thought he could carry through also in waging war the revolutionary principle he practiced everywhere of division of power and playing forces against each other to his own advantage” but there was no conceivable advantage to be gained from weakening his generals’ command, especially when they were fighting an enemy with much more industrial strength than Germany. However, the arguments made by Gersdorff and Speidel should not be taken at face value because these were reports given to the U.S. Army in 1946, and could be written in such a way to distance themselves from Hitler as much as possible.
Rommel’s Suicide and the Last Gasp of the Wehrmacht in Normandy
On July 17, 1944, while on his way back to his headquarters after learning of the U.S. attack on Saint-Lo Rommel’s staff car was strafed by two Allied planes. The field marshal survived, but suffered “a fracture of the base of the skull, three additional fractures of the skull, splinters in the face,” and was essentially unable to command Army Group B. With Rommel effectively out of action, Field Marshal von Kluge took over the command of Army Group B while simultaneously commanding OB West, but Rommel’s misfortunes continued to mount especially after the failed July 20th conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. Although he had been an ardent supporter of Hitler and did not know about the plot to kill the Fuhrer, the conspirators considered Rommel as a possible leader for peace negotiations with the western Allies if the plot had succeeded. Three months later, on October 14, Rommel was driven by two generals towards Berlin when the car stopped and he accepted a lethal pill from one of the generals. However, Rommel’s dismissal from command and subsequent suicide did not mark the end of the fighting in Normandy for the Wehrmacht. The most notable counterattack that occurred after Rommel left the command of Army Group B was the attack against Avranches in early August. Von Kluge, according to Gen. Gersdorff, “persisted in the decision to close anew the Normandy front line and…regain connection with the coast through attacking.” However, the same problems that plagued Rommel’s command, in this instance the supply problems and effectiveness of the divisions, also affected the Avranches counterattack, which ultimately failed.
Field Marshal Rommel’s command of the invasion beaches before and after the invasion of Normandy were hampered by a number of factors, the most important of which was the incredible amount of interference by Hitler in the command structure, disposition of divisions before the invasion, and Hitler's refusals to listen to the strategic advice of Rommel and his other generals during the Battle of Normandy. The difficulties caused by Hitler were compounded by fighting within the German High Command over which strategy was best for defeating the Allied invasion, constant Allied bombardments on Germany’s industrial centers meant the German divisions in Normandy were ill equipped to stop an invasion on the magnitude of Operation Overlord, and many of the units stationed in Normandy had been shattered while fighting on the eastern front. Although these factors contributed to the poor condition of the German military stationed along the Atlantic Wall, Hitler’s involvement in the strategic planning of its defenses and, once the invasion had occurred, locations for counterattacks put severe restraints on Rommel. Ultimately, Rommel was forced to work with what had been given to him and considering the restraints put on his command and the limitations of available supplies he nevertheless constructed a brilliant system of defenses that ran hundreds of miles. Had Hitler removed many of these command restraints the invasion of Normandy would have been a much bloodier battle and the course of the western front in World War II would have been significantly different.
Notes (back to top)
 Friedrich Ruge, Rommel in Normandy: Reminiscences by Friedrich Ruge (London: Presidio Press, 1979), 2.
 Gunther Blumentritt, “Report of the Chief of Staff,” Fighting the Invasion: The German Army at D -Day. David C. Isby, ed. (London: Greenhill Books, 2000), 19.
 Lieut.-General Fritz Bayerlein, “Invasion, 1944,” The Rommel Papers, B. H. Liddell Hart, ed. (London: St. Jame’s Place, 1953), 456.
 Blumentritt, “Report of the Chief of Staff,” Fighting the Invasion, 21.
 Max Hastings, Overlord: D -Day and the Battle for Normandy, (London: Michael Joseph, 1984), 64.
 Blumentritt, Fighting the Invasion, 20.
 Hastings, Overlord, 64 -65.
 Ibid, 28 -29.
 Ibid, 82 -83.
 Ibid, 65.
 Ruge, Rommel in Normandy, 4 -5.
 Gunther Blumentritt, Von Rundstedt: The Soldier and the Man (London: Odhams Press Ltd., 1952), 195.
 Bayerlein, The Rommel Papers, 453.
 Ibid, 467.
 Ibid, 456, 458, 459.
 Ibid, 457.
 Ibid 458.
 Ibid, 457 -458.
 Ibid, 458 -459.
 Ibid 460.
 Cornelius Ryan, The Longest Day: June 6, 1944 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1959), 21.
 Hastings, Overlord, 59.
 Ruge, Rommel in Normandy, 53.
 Blumentritt, Fighting the Invasion, 24.
 Ruge, Rommel in Normandy, 168.
 Bayerlein, The Rommel Papers, 466.
 Ruge, Rommel in Normandy, 44.
 Blumentritt, Von Rundstedt, 201.
 Conversation between Rommel and Bayerlein, The Rommel Papers, 467.
 Ibid, 468.
 Stephen E. Ambrose, D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II (New York: Simon & Schuster: 1994), 176.
 Blumentritt, Von Rundstedt, 202.
 Quoted from Hitler, The Rommel Papers, 465.
 Hastings, Overlord, 28.
 Dieter Ose, “Rommel and Rundstedt: The 1944 Panzer Controversy,” Military Affairs, Vol. 50, (Jan. 1986), 9.
 Quoted from Rommel, The Rommel Papers, 469.
 Ose, Rommel and Rundstedt, 10.
 Ruge, Rommel in Normandy, 144.
 Bayerlein, The Rommel Papers, 468.
 Blumentritt, Von Rundstedt, 203.
 Hastings, Overlord, 65.
 Ruge, Rommel in Normandy, 126.
 Blumentritt, Von Rundstedt, 203.
 Hastings, Overlord, 40.
 Ruge, Rommel in Normandy, 135.
 Hitler’s Address to Western Commanders, The Rommel Papers, 466.
 Ambrose, D-Day June 6, 1944, 34.
 Ryan, The Longest Day, 36.
 Bayerlein, The Rommel Papers, 470-471.
 Ibid, 470.
 Ryan, The Longest Day, 36.
 Rommel’s Diary, The Rommel Papers, 470.
 Hastings, Overlord, 82-83.
 Blumentritt, Fighting the Invasion, 29.
 Bayerlein, The Rommel Papers, 474.
 Rommel’s June 10, 1944 Document, The Rommel Papers, 474.
 Ibid, 476-477.
 Ibid, 476.
 Hastings, Overlord, 160.
 Bayerlein, The Rommel Papers, 478.
 Hastings, Overlord, 161.
 Ibid, 28.
 From Speidel’s We Defended Normandy, Bayerlein, The Rommel Papers, 478.
 Blumentritt, Von Rundstedt, 233.
 Ibid, 234.
 Bayerlein, The Rommel Papers, 479.
 Ibid, 480.
 Blumentritt, Von Rundstedt, 238.
 Hastings, Overlord, 175.
 Rommel’s July 3 Memorandum, The Rommel Papers, 481.
 Ibid, 483.
 Ibid, 484.
 Manfred Rommel, conversation with his father, The Rommel Papers, 495.
 Freiherr von Gersdorff, “Preparations Against the Invasion,” Fighting the Invasion, 36.
 Hans Speidel, “Ideas and Views of Genfldm Rommel, Commander of Army Group B, on Defense and Operations in the West in 1944,” Fighting the Breakout, 41.
 Ruge, Rommel in Normandy, 229.
 Hastings, Overlord, 176.
 Manfred Rommel, The Rommel Papers, 504-505.
 Gersdorff, “The German Counterattack Against Avranches,” Fighting the Breakout (London: Greenhill Books, 2004), 105.
Annotated Bibliography (back to top)
Ambrose, Stephen E., D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of
World War II. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.
Blumentritt, Guenther. Von Rundstedt: The Soldier and the Man.
London: Odhams Press Limited, 1952.
Hastings, Max. Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy. London:
Michael Joseph Ltd, 1984.
Hart, Liddell B. H., ed. The Rommel Papers. London: Collins St.
James’s Place, 1953.
Isby, David C., ed. Fighting the Invasion: The German Army at D-Day.
London: Greenhill Books, 2000.
Isby, David C., ed. Fighting the Breakout: The German Army in Normandy
from COBRA to the Falaise Gap. London: Greenhill Books, 2004.
Ose, Dieter. Rommel and Rundstedt: The 1944 Panzer Controversy.
Military Affairs. Vol. 50. No. 1 (Jan. 1986): 7 -11. http://www.jstor.org.
Ruge, Friedrich; Rommel in Normandy: Reminiscences by Friedrich Ruge,
Ursula Moessner, trans.. London: Presidio Press, 1979.
Ryan, Cornelius. The Longest Day: June 6, 1944. New York: Simon
& Schuster, 1959.
Plagiarism Warning & Links (back to top)
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