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The West on the Eve of D-Day, 1944


The scheduled completion date for the winter construction program and all troop preparations for meeting the expected invasion was 30 April. Up to that time the Germans made all arrangements to repel a major attack against the Kanalkueste. At the end of 1943 Hitler ordered the assembly of all available forces behind the front of the Fifteenth Army and the right wing of Seventh Army, but the latter sector was to be considered much less in peril. OB WEST was to release four divisions from coastal sectors of the Seventh First, and Nineteenth Armies. Of these, the 243d Division, released from Seventh Army, was to remain as a reserve division in the army area. The other three were all attached to Fifteenth Army. Similarly, of four reinforced regiments obtained at this time from the Replacement Army, three went to Fifteenth Army; one was attached to the 709th Division. The latter attachment was made because the coastal defenses of the 709th Division were thin and enemy attack there was "possible."

That possibility, however, was not taken very seriously until the end of April. Since the German intelligence system had been supplying very little reliable information, estimates of Allied intentions continued to be based more on logical inference than on fact. Air reconnaissance was severely restricted by Allied air supremacy. Reconnaissance by sea could never be depended on. German agents in England steadily dwindled and the work of those remaining was made almost fruitless by the closing off of the English coastal areas in April 1944. News filtering through neutral countries, especially from Portugal and Switzerland, was abundant but confusing. The difficulty was not that no reliable reports got through, but that they were too few and too spasmodic to allow the formation of a convincing picture of Allied intentions, particularly since such a picture had to compete for acceptance with various preconceptions.

The best guess was Hitler's, though how he arrived at it the records do not show. While military leaders were nearly unanimous in predicting invasion in the Pas-de-Calais area, Hitler in March suddenly decided that the Allies were likely to land on the Cotentin and Brittany peninsulas. He believed they would be tempted by the ease with which defensible bridgeheads could be established there, but he apparently did not undertake any analysis of the possible military advantages.

The supposition of a special threat to Normandy and Brittany received some support a few weeks later from the Navy. On 26 April Admiral Krancke, Commander of Navy Group West, observed that recent air photographs showed no activity in the ports of southeast England or the mouth of the Thames, and concluded that Cap Gris Nez and the coast northeast were not threatened by Allied landings. The conclusion was reinforced by the facts that Allied air attacks against coastal batteries and radar installations were concentrated between Boulogne and Cherbourg, that Allied mine sweeping and mine laying generally blocked off the same area, and that the bombing of railroads had interrupted traffic to the Channel coast but had not affected communications with the Atlantic area. In short, Admiral Krancke felt that all signs pointed to an invasion between Boulogne and Cherbourg, probably with the main effort against the Cotentin, the mouth of the Seine, or the mouth of the Somme. This appreciation differed from previous estimates only in lopping off the Pas-de-Calais sector between Boulogne and Dunkerque as a possible landing area. The resulting difference in emphasis, however, was striking, particularly in the singling out of the Cotentin as threatened by a possible major attack. Later reports by Admiral Krancke further emphasized this threat, particularly from Allied airborne attack. Krancke's view, developed chiefly during May, was that Le Havre and Cherbourg seemed likely prime objectives for the Allied invasion forces. This conviction grew as it was seen that Cherbourg and Le Havre alone of the major French ports had been spared from heavy air attack.

Whether Hitler saw and reacted to these naval estimates or whether he had access to other information, in late April his interest in Normandy increased and he began to insist strongly on the need to reinforce the defense there.

Seventh Army was notified by Rommel of Hitler's concern, and the army ordered the deployment of one parachute regiment and two separate battalions in the immediate vicinity of Cherbourg. The parachute regiment selected was the 6th and it was to be placed in the general area of Lessay-Periers. The 206th Panzer Battalion, a separate tank battalion equipped with a miscellany of Russian, French, and German light tanks, was ordered to dig in between Cap de la Hague and Cap de Carteret. The Seventh Army Sturm Battalion was sent to la Haye du Puits and later shifted to le Vast, southeast of Cherbourg. Decision was made at the same time to divert to the Cotentin the 91st Division, which was then on its way from Germany to Nantes. Orders were issued the next day switching the trains to the vicinity of la Haye du Puits. The 91st Division was told that on arrival it would take over command of the 6th Parachute Regiment. This movement was completed on 14 May. On 9 May Rommel ordered that the 101st Stellungswerfer Regiment, released from OB WEST reserve, be committed in the Cotentin, split between the east and west coasts. On the day that this move was completed, 12 May, the 17th Machine Gun Battalion (a well-trained unit of young men) also completed relief of the 795th Georgian Battalion on Cap de la Hague and the latter battalion, under command of the 709th Division, was moved on 17 May south to Brucheville northeast of Carentan. Mission of all the major units, the 91st Division, 6th Parachute Regiment, and Seventh Army Sturm Battalion, was defense against airborne landings. The 100th Panzer Replacement Battalion south of Carentan at the same time was instructed to be prepared for action against airborne troops.

The Cotentin was thus substantially reinforced and fully alerted a month before the two U.S. airborne divisions were dropped there. While expecting airborne assault on the Cotentin, however, neither Rommel nor Rundstedt reckoned that such assault would form part of the main Allied effort. Having reinforced the actual garrison in the peninsula, therefore, they took no further steps to cope with a major landing in the area. On the contrary, a Seventh Army proposal on 5 May to shift the whole of the LXXIV Corps from Brittany to Normandy in case of large-scale landings in the LXXXIV Corps sector was rejected by Field Marshal Rommel. No reserves were moved nearer the Cotentin, and no plans were made to move them in mass in case of attack.

As for the Navy, having called its opponent's trumps it relaxed under the curious delusion that the Allies might not play at all. Krancke's thesis seems to have been that unless the invasion were preceded by large and devastating attacks on the coastal batteries it could not succeed. He noted on 31 May that such attacks had indeed increased, but they were, he thought, still too limited to insure the success of landings. Actually, from his point of view, he was right. Despite his prognostications about the threat to the Cotentin he continued to believe that large-scale landings would strike the Pas-de-Calais. Here the coastal batteries were formidable. The Allied air attacks had hit them more often than they had hit any other sector of the coast, and yet the attacks up to the eve of D Day had eliminated only eight guns. In the Seine-Somme sector five had been destroyed, and three in Normandy. The Navy thus remained confident that its artillery could still knock the Allied invasion fleet out of the water-provided of course it sailed where it was expected. That confidence was further nourished by the fact that, despite heavy air attacks on radar stations, the radar warning system remained virtually intact as of 31 May. In fine, reviewing the situation on 4 June Admiral Krancke was driven to the conclusion that not only was attack not imminent but there as a good chance that observed Allied preparations were part of a huge hoax. The mixture of bluff and preparation for a later invasion would keep up, the naval chief thought, until German forces were so weakened in the west that landings could be attempted without great risk.

The contrast between Krancke's optimism about enemy intentions and his sober accounting of the helplessness of his own forces in the face of enemy overwhelming superiority was the most striking aspect of his last report before the invasion. His fleet of combat ships was so small that it could scarcely be talked about in terms of a naval force and even what he did have was for the most part bottled up in the ports by what he called "regular and almost incessant" Allied air sorties. His main offensive units in June were a flotilla of destroyers (which on 1 April had two ships operational), two torpedo boats, and five flotillas of small motor torpedo boats (S-Boote) with thirty-one boats operational. In addition he had a few mine sweepers and patrol craft. Fifteen of the smaller submarines based in French Atlantic ports, though not under Krancke's control, were scheduled to take part in resisting the invasion. Midget submarines and remote-controlled torpedoes were being developed but they never got into the fight. Even this tiny fleet could not operate. Krancke reported thirty Allied air attacks on his naval forces during

May and added that even in dark nights his units got no relief. He predicted an enforced reduction of effort and heavy losses in the future. In the meantime he found himself unable to carry out his plan for blocking off the invasion coast with mine fields. Delivery of all types of mines had been delayed chiefly by transportation difficulties. Up to the end of April there were on hand only enough concrete shallow-water mines to put in two minefields in the Dieppe area.

In May, more mines became available. But in the meantime the mine-laying fleet had been depleted by Allied attacks, and increased Allied air surveillance of the sea lanes made all German naval activity difficult.

"The anticipated mining operations [Kranke reported on 4 June] to renew the flanking mine fields in the Channel have not been carried out. On the way to the rendezvous at Le Havre T-24 fell behind because of damage from [a] mine, "Greif" was sunk by bombs, "Kondor" and "Falke" were damaged by mines, the former seriously. The 6th MS-Flotilla [mine layers] likewise on its way to Le Havre to carry out KMA [coastal mine] operations reached port with only one of its six boats, one having been sunk by torpedoes and the other four having fallen out through mine damage, air attack or sea damage. The laying of KMA mines out of Le Havre therefore could not be carried."

In fact during the month only three more coastal mine fields could be laid and all these were put down off the Kanalkueste. The essential mining of waters around the Cotentin could scarcely be begun. Naval defense preparations were actually losing ground. The program of replacing the 1943 mine fields in mid-Channel finally had to be abandoned in March 1944 because of lack of mines and because of Allied radar observation. Krancke estimated that the deepwater fields would all be obsolete by mid-June. Some hasty mine fields were laid in the Bay of the Seine during April but their estimated effective life was only five weeks. The dearth of materials and adequate mine layers continued to disrupt German plans. Krancke's conclusion on the eve of invasion was that mining activity of E-boats could only provide a "nonessential" contribution to the German defenses.

If Admiral Krancke's forces were helpless in naval action, they were scarcely more effective on land, where their assigned task of case-mating coastal batteries dragged along past the completion date with no end in sight. Hitler had ordered in January that all batteries and antitank guns were to be case-mated by 30 April. On that date Admiral Krancke reported that of 547 coastal guns 299 had been case-mated, 145 were under construction; remaining concrete works had not been begun. Like all other defense preparations, this effort had been concentrated along the Kanalkueste. In the Pas-de-Calais and Seine-Somme sectors, 93 of the 132 guns had been case-mated. Normandy had 47 guns, 27 of which were under concrete at the end of April. As for the fixed antitank positions, 16 of the 82 guns had been covered in the Fifteenth Army area. The nine guns in the Seventh Army sector were all open.

The Army's construction program, of course, suffered along with the Navy's and was far from completion on D-Day. Shortage of materials, particularly cement and mines, due both to production and to transportation difficulties affected all fortification work. The shortage of cement, critical even at the outset of the winter construction program, was greatly intensified by the Allies' all-out rail bombing offensive. Late in May LXXXIV Corps, for example, received 47 carloads of cement in three days against a minimum daily need of 240 carloads. Two days after this report was made, the flow of cement to the Seventh Army area stopped altogether as trains had to be diverted to carrying more urgently needed ordinary freight. During May the cement works in Cherbourg were forced to shut down for lack of coal. Plans were then made to bring up cement by canal to Rouen and ship by sea to the Seventh Army area, but this was a last-minute solution and could never be tried out.

On 15 May Seventh Army reported that its defense preparations were to be considered complete, its beach obstacles and anti-air landing obstacles set, and its troop dispositions made. This was, to say the least, an exaggeration, analogous to a claim that a bombing program was complete as soon as all targets had been hit. In fact, a week later LXXXIV Corps estimated that the construction program was only half-complete. The corps was particularly concerned that not even the fortification of the immediate MLR along the water's edge nor the naval and army coastal batteries were finished. The so-called Zweite Stellung, which Rundstedt in late 1943 ordered to be built a few kilometers in from the coast line in order to get some depth of defense, had progressed still more slowly, even though, being largely a system of prepared field positions constructed by the French, it took relatively few priority materials or labor. In March LXXXIV Corps reported the position 65 percent finished, but the more critical fact was that only thirty-one of the planned eighty-eight resistance nests and strong points were actually fully ready for defense. In the sector of the 709th Division, defending the vital east coast of the Cotentin, only one of forty-two planned positions was fully prepared. Rommel decided in April that the Zweite Stellung was wasting time and effort that were vitally needed for reinforcing the main line of resistance. He therefore ordered all work discontinued except where the Zweite Stellung lay close to the coast and could be considered part of the primary defense. Thus the last chance to secure some depth of defense was lost.

But the sacrifice of depth did not result in solidity for the main line. Despite Seventh Army's report that obstacles on the shoreline and in fields suitable for airborne landings were complete by the middle of May and needed only deepening, it was precisely that deepening which alone could have made them effective. Rommel's inspection of the anti-air landing obstacles on 18 May convinced him that, far from being complete, they had only just been begun. Few were mined and his goal was to have them all mined. For that purpose he required 13,000 shells for Normandy alone. As for the shore obstacles, they had been completed only along the high-water mark and a few yards seaward. Admiral Krancke warned against continued acceptance of earlier estimates that the Allies would land at high tide. If landings were made near low tide they would not be materially hindered by the obstacles already in place. This was true but increasing their number was inevitably a slow process. A measure of the difficulties faced by the German Army was the experience of the 352d Division, which had to cut stakes for obstacles by hand in the Foret de Cerisy some ten or twelve miles inland, haul the wood by cart to the beach, and drive the stakes, again by hand, into the tidal flats.

Mining of the coastal zone had made considerable progress but was still far short of the goal. In the first six months of 1944 Rommel succeeded in tripling the number of mines in the coast defense zone. But the five or six million mines laid by D-Day contrasted with Rommel's own minimum estimate of fifty million needed for continuous defense belts. For the 352d Division sector alone ten million were needed to cover a thirty-mile front actually received about ten thousand antipersonnel mines during 1944 and no Teller mines at all.

Similar incompleteness marked the fortifications on D-Day. On the east coast of the Cotentin, strong points and resistance nests were spaced about 875 yards apart; between the Orne and Vire Rivers they were 1,312 yards apart. Most of them were field fortifications, sometimes with concreted troop shelters and sometimes embodying concrete gun case-mates. Of the installations in the 352d Division sector only 15 percent were bombproof; the remainder were virtually unprotected against air attack. The fortifications had no depth whatsoever. According to the commander of the 716th Division the forty to fifty fortified resistance centers in his sector were beaded along the coast like a string of pearls. General-major Horst Freiherr Treusch von Buttlar-Brandenfels, OKW operations staff officer, had warned after his inspection trip of Normandy defenses in January that if the enemy broke through one strong point there would be a gap of three or four kilometers into which he could advance unhindered. The abandonment of the Zweite Stellung meant that to a large degree this condition still prevailed in June.

Rommel's inability to complete the Atlantic Wall undoubtedly contributed to the general ineffectiveness of German resistance to the Allied landings on 6 June. A stronger wall would have meant a harder crust, and in cracking it the Allies would unquestionably have suffered heavier losses. But it also seems likely that such a difference would not have proved decisive. The critical weakness, as Rommel had seen, was the German inability to maneuver. And the most important cause of that was the unchallenged supremacy of the Allies in the air. The Luftwaffe had not only been beaten before D-Day; it had been all but annihilated.

The story of what happened to Gringo's air force, which four years before had been the world-famed spearhead of blitzkrieg, cannot here be told in detail. Among the causes of its decline there was at least an element of bad judgment. Through Hitler persisted in believing that the end of the war was just around the corner of the next campaign; at the same time he refused to recognize the tremendous productive capacity of the Western Allies, particularly the United States. Although in 1940 the Germans had pioneered in the use of specially developed attack aircraft for support of ground operations, after the end of the French campaign they neglected to develop the tactics further. They turned instead first to creating a bomber fleet to knock out England and later to producing fighter forces to protect the homeland. Their efforts on both scores were inadequate. In the meantime the development of an Air Force to co-operate with the Army went by the board. In 1944 the Luftwaffe depended for the most part on two fighter types: the Focke-Wulf 190 and the Messerschmitt 109. The attack plane, the twin-engined Junkers 88, was available in such small quantities that the tactical air commands were equipped mainly with the standard interceptor aircraft. Not only did this mean less offensive power in land warfare but, more important, it entailed competition between the demands for air support and the demands for the defense of Germany against the ever intensified Combined Bomber Offensive. Thus the Germans faced the same dilemma in the allocation of air forces that they did in the division of their ground troops between the west and east. In both cases the compromise effected between the rival claims resulted only in establishing inferiority to the enemy on all fronts. And this, in turn, produced a spiral of attrition and increasing inferiority, spinning inevitably to disaster.

In the beginning of 1944, when it was already too late, Reich Minister Albert Speer tried to halt the spiral by concentrating on fighter production. Under the impetus of the Speer program monthly production of fighters rose steadily in 1944 despite all the Allied air forces could do to destroy aircraft and ball bearing factories. In the three months before D-Day between seven and eight thousand fighters were produced. Since losses continued to mount, the net gain was only about a thousand planes. But even this gain was not reflected in a stronger air force. Increase in the number of available aircraft only emphasized the critical shortage of qualified pilots. This in turn resulted primarily from a lack of gasoline which compelled a progressive shortening of the pilot-training period from about 260 hours in 1942 to 110 and even in some cases to 50 in 1944. The green pilots accelerated the deterioration of the Luftwaffe as a whole, since their inexperience increased their own losses and the losses of their planes. Moreover the planes themselves, mass produced in haste, were inferior. During 1943 an average of 500 aircraft a month had been lost or damaged because of mechanical or pilot failures. In February 1944 the losses from these causes soared to 1,300, accounting, in short, for about half the month's new production. This was unusual, but looses through accidents continued to be as important as losses through enemy action. In May, for instance, 712 aircraft were destroyed or damaged by the Allies, while 656 were lost in flying accidents.

On D-Day there were about 400 fighter planes in the west under Third Air Force. But only about half of these were available to oppose Allied air forces supporting the invasion. The 400 planes were grouped under II Fighter Corps and divided between two subordinate commands, the 4th Fighter Division with headquarters at Metz and the 5th Fighter Division located near Paris. The mission of the 4th Division was to intercept Allied heavy bombers entering or leaving Germany. Thus tactically its planes belonged to the Reich defensive system. In case of invasion they were to be diverted to intercept Allied planes over the invasion area, but with bases so far from the scene of operations they were unlikely to be very effective, and would not be on hand on D-Day.

Despite the accepted thesis that the first hours of the landings would be the critical period for the defense of France, the Luftwaffe made no comprehensive plans to be on hand in strength during those hours, mostly because with its limited supply of planes and pilots it could not afford to hoard reserves in idleness while waiting for the Allies to strike. In December 1943 the II Air Corps was transferred to France from Italy to take over control of all the fighter aircraft to be used in support of the German Army. On D-Day, however, the II Air Corps was still only a headquarters without any planes. In case of invasion, it was to get ten wings (Geschwader) from Germany. Actually only about six wings arrived, and these trickled in with the result that they could never be employed in a concentrated effort. None were on hand on 6 June. The wings earmarked for II Air Corps were then just being refitted in Germany. The majority of the pilots were new graduates of the accelerated training programs. Not only did they have no battle experience; they were barely able to handle their planes. Most of them were not familiar with France and did not know how to read maps. The commander of the II Air Corps, Generalleutnant Alfred Buelowius, aware of their inexperience, proposed that he send planes out to guide the reinforcements into the flying fields prepared for them. Responsibility for the movement, however, rested with the German Home Air Command (Luftflotte Reich) and Buelowius was not consulted. The result was that on D-Day the units were scattered and lost on their flights from Germany and many were forced to make emergency landings. Few arrived at their assigned bases.

Thus for one reason or another the planes that should have been in France on 6 June to shield Rundstedt's army against intolerable Allied air supremacy were not there. The 50 to 150 planes that did fly to the attack in the critical hours of the defense could achieve nothing, and the German Army faced the massed blows of Allied combined arms alone.