The Atlantic Wall and the Defense of the West, 1944

Rommel's construction and mine-laying program called for a very large expenditure of labor, and labor was scarce. It has already been pointed out that Organization Todt was employed chiefly in the major port fortress areas, on V-weapon sites, and, in the spring of 1944, on railroad maintenance. In the apportionment of the remaining labor supply among the armies, Fifteenth Army continued to receive priority. Seventh Army thus had special difficulty in completing its defense works. The LXXXIV Corps was assigned three engineer battalions in January, two for fortress building and one for mine laying. In addition, 2,850 men of the former French Labor Service were set to work on a secondary defense line immediately behind the belt of coastal resistance points. Pleas for more construction hands were answered by attachment of two 0st battalions.

The only other available labor source was the combat troops. Increasingly during 1944 infantrymen were employed in work details on the Atlantic Wall with consequent serious reduction of combat training. The reserve battalion of the 709th Division, for instance, devoted three days a week exclusively to labor duty. The time for training in the rest of the week was further reduced by transport and guard details. During the first two weeks in May the battalion was employed full time on the coastal defense in the Barfleur sector. The 709th was an old division, but its personnel constantly shifted. The lack of continuous adequate training meant that the total combat fitness of the division steadily deteriorated through the accretion of untrained recruits.

Still worse was the effect on the new and reorganized divisions that represented a large proportion of the German striking force in the west. In Seventh Army all but one of the non-static infantry divisions were organized during 1944. New divisions accounted for six of the fourteen divisions under the army's command. All of these units were burdened with construction duties. In February Rommel ordered that infantry be used to lay mines and obstacles. On 25 May Seventh Army reported to OKH that all its units were engaged in construction projects and that consequently the necessary training was not being carried out.

The only units specially exempted from work on the fortifications were the two parachute divisions. The 3d Parachute Division was brought into Brittany in March and stationed east of Brest. Its mission was to complete its organization and at the same time train for defense against airborne attack. The 5th Parachute Division moved into the Rennes area between 5 and 14 May with a similar mission. Both divisions in May were put under command of the II Parachute Corps which, though subordinated tactically to Seventh Army, was administratively and for training purposes under the Third Air Force. Since the Luftwaffe was thus responsible for parachute unit training and, on the other hand, was not responsible to army commands anywhere in the hierarchy, Reich Marshal Goering ordered that the parachute divisions not be used for construction work except in providing local security for themselves against airborne attack. The 5th Parachute Division had scarcely more than begun to fill out its ranks when invasion struck; but the 3d proved one of the best prepared of the new units in Seventh Army. The general stinting of training under the circumstances seems to have been inevitable and apparently did not arouse any serious protests at the time. Where Rommel's program met really effective opposition was in his efforts to concentrate reserves within the coastal zone. If it was true that the Germans had to fight on a fortified line, if they could not hope to maneuver freely, and if the crisis of the battle against the invaders would come within the first forty-eight hours, then it followed that all forces would be wasted which were not near enough to the coast to be committed at once against the first landings. This deduction was the final extension of the doctrine of static defense implicit in the original decision to build the Atlantic Wall. At least one high German commander had predicted the development and had warned against it in caustic tones. Sodenstern, commanding the Nineteenth Army, wrote privately in the summer of 1943 of his fear that German generalship would exhaust itself in the construction of huge masses of concrete. "As no man in his senses," he argued, "would put his head on an anvil over which the smith's hammer is swung, so no general should mass his troops at the point where the enemy is certain to bring the first powerful blow of his superior materiel." Rommel's answer, in all likelihood, would have been, first, that there was no practical alternative, second, that the first Allied blow at the point of the landings would not be the most powerful but the weakest since only a small portion of Allied fire power could then be effective, and, third, that the German general in massing his troops in fortified positions was at least giving their heads some protection against the smith's hammer.

The difference of opinion was essentially a difference in judgment of what was possible. Rommel's chief of staff has testified that Rommel would have preferred a battle of maneuver had he seen any chance of its succeeding. Rundstedt, like Sodenstern, was clearly more optimistic, perhaps because he had not had firsthand experience with the air power of the Western Allies. In any case, he did not accept Rommel's thesis and the influence of OB WEST was exerted spasmodically in resisting Rommel's efforts to shift the weight of the army forward to the coast, and in trying instead to free as many units as possible from bondage to the rigid defense system.

In practice any plan to introduce flexibility into the defense depended primarily on whether units could be made mobile and whether they could be organized and equipped to support themselves in combat. Through the early months of 1944 Rundstedt struggled to strengthen and provide some transport for the coastal divisions. In the Seventh Army area he succeeded in forming mobile Kampfgruppen (of reinforced regiments) from four of the infantry divisions (the 265th, 266th, 275th, and 353d) defending the Brittany coast. In case of a major invasion of Normandy, Seventh Army had plans to move these Kampfgruppen into the combat zone. In the Cotentin, the 243d Division was converted from a static into a nominal attack infantry division. It was reorganized according to the 1944 type with six infantry battalions. Four battalions were to be equipped with bicycles. The artillery regiment, supply troops, and antitank battalion were to be motorized. Reorganization took place in late 1943, but the motorization planned to begin in May 1944 could be carried out only in very limited degree.

It should be observed in this connection that German notions of mobility in the west in 1944 hardly corresponded to American concepts of a motorized army. A mobile infantry unit in general was one equipped with bicycles, with horse-drawn artillery, and modicums of horse and motor transport for supply purposes. It was called mobile more because of its ability to maintain itself in the field than because of its ability to move rapidly from one place to another.

For the most part the Germans lacked resources even to provide that limited mobility for the west army. Rundstedt's efforts to restore mobility to his static divisions on the whole failed. A beginning, for instance, was made to upgrade the 709th Division, but the vehicles allotted in March had to be withdrawn in May when, as a result of the Allies' successful rail bombing attacks, Seventh Army began to scrape together everything on wheels to form corps transport companies.

Rundstedt's efforts to put wheels under his army were at least partly offset by Rommel's concurrent labors to dig in every available soldier and gun along the coast line. After an inspection trip in the LXXXIV Corps sector in February, Rommel concluded that reserves were held in too great strength too far from the coast. In particular, he felt that the 352d Division, located near St. Lo, and the 243d Division, near la Haye du Puits, should be regrouped so that they could be committed in the first hours after an enemy landing. Seventh Army therefore ordered that the divisional reserves of the 709th and 716th Divisions (the 795th Georgian Battalion and 642d 0st Battalion respectively) should be committed at the coast, that the 243d and 352d Divisions should move slightly northward, and that the 352d Artillery Regiment of the latter division should be emplaced in the coastal one under the control of the 716th Division. Similar reshuffling in Brittany put the artillery of the 275th and 353d Divisions into static defense positions. The shift forward of the 352d Division meant in effect that it was no longer in reserve. On 14 March Seventh Army therefore proposed that the division actually take over responsibility for the left half of the 716th Division sector. On OB WEST's approval, this change was accomplished by 19 March. With the doubling of the troops on the coast, the former battalion sectors of the 716th Division became regimental sectors. The 726th Regiment of the 716th was attached to the 352d, less the 2d Battalion, which became division reserve for the 716th. One regiment of the 352d plus the Fuesilier Battalion was held in corps reserve in the vicinity of Bayeux.

Hitler, whose ideas, possibly under Rommel's influence, had undergone some change since Directive 51, wondered at this time whether all units of limited mobility which were located immediately behind the coast should not as a matter of policy be incorporated in the main line of resistance (MLR), leaving only fully mobile forces as attack reserves. General Jodl of the OKW pointed out that, except for three divisions, units were already far enough forward for their artillery to bear on the invasion beaches. To shift all troops into the coastal fortifications would be dangerous since concrete shelters were limited and fieldwork might be destroyed by Allied bombing In Brittany and the Cotentin, moreover, it was necessary to preserve some depth of defense in order to resist probable airborne landings.

Commitment of all forces at the MLR was thus not accepted as a principle. But in practice Rommel continued to shift the weight of his army forward. In April the 21st Panzer Division was moved from Rennes to Caen where its battalions were split on either side of the Orne River and its artillery committed on the coast. The disposition to all intents removed the 21st Panzer Division as a unit from the pool of mobile reserves. [74] The other two panzer divisions directly under Rommel's command were placed in position to reinforce the Fifteenth Army, one between Rouen and Paris, the other near Amiens. In May, another inspection tour convinced Rommel that movement of units from right to left into the invasion area would be impossible. He therefore requested that the four divisions in OKW reserve be assembled nearer the coast. Rundstedt entered an immediate protest with OKW, contending that the move was tantamount to committing the reserves before the battle. OKW agreed, and Rommel's proposal was turned down.

These four divisions (three panzer and one panzer grenadier) thus saved by OKW's intervention were the only mobile units in the west on the eve of invasion which could properly be designated strategic reserves. Three were located within easy marching distance of Normandy (easy, that is, if the Allied air forces were discounted); the fourth was far away on the Belgium-Netherlands border.

In summary, the conflict between Rommel's and Rundstedt's theories of defense was never resolved definitely in favor of one or the other and led to compromise troop dispositions which on D Day were not suitable for the practice of either theory. The pool of mobile reserves had been cut down below what would be needed for an effective counterattack in mass; it had been removed from OB WEST's control, and, as though to insure finally that it would not be employed in force, it had been divided among three commands. While the possibility of seeking a decision by counterattack had thus been whittled away, considerable forces were still held far enough from the coast so that, if Rommel's theories were correct, they would be unable to reach the battlefield in time to influence the action. In short, operational flexibility had been curtailed without achieving a decisive thickening of the coastal defense.