The West on the Eve of D-Day, 1944
|The scheduled completion date for the winter construction program and alltroop preparations for meeting the expected invasion was 30 April. Up tothat time the Germans made all arrangements to repel a major attack againstthe Kanalkueste. At the end of 1943 Hitler ordered the assembly of allavailable forces behind the front of the Fifteenth Army and the right wingof Seventh Army, but the latter sector was to be considered much less inperil. OB WEST was to release four divisions from coastal sectors of theSeventh First, and Nineteenth Armies. Of these, the 243rd Division, releasedfrom Seventh Army, was to remain as a reserve division in the army area.The other three were all attached to Fifteenth Army. Similarly, of fourreinforced regiments obtained at this time from the Replacement Army, threewent to Fifteenth Army; one was attached to the 709th Division. The latterattachment was made because the coastal defenses of the 709th Division werethin and enemy attack there was “possible.”|
That possibility, however, was not taken very seriously until the end ofApril. Since the German intelligence system had been supplying very littlereliable information, estimates of Allied intentions continued to be basedmore on logical inference than on fact. Air reconnaissance was severelyrestricted by Allied air supremacy. Reconnaissance by sea could never bedepended on. German agents in England steadily dwindled and the work ofthose remaining was made almost fruitless by the closing off of the Englishcoastal areas in April 1944. News filtering through neutral countries,especially from Portugal and Switzerland, was abundant but confusing. Thedifficulty was not that no reliable reports got through, but that they weretoo few and too spasmodic to allow the formation of a convincing picture ofAllied intentions, particularly since such a picture had to compete foracceptance with various preconceptions.
The best guess was Hitler’s, though how he arrived at it the records do notshow. While military leaders were nearly unanimous in predicting invasionin the Pas-de-Calais area, Hitler in March suddenly decided that the Allieswere likely to land on the Cotentin and Brittany peninsulas. He believedthey would be tempted by the ease with which defensible bridgeheads couldbe established there, but he apparently did not undertake any analysis ofthe possible military advantages.
The supposition of a special threat to Normandy and Brittany received somesupport a few weeks later from the Navy. On 26 April Admiral Krancke,Commander of Navy Group West, observed that recent air photographs showedno 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 threatenedby Allied landings. The conclusion was reinforced by the facts that Alliedair attacks against coastal batteries and radar installations wereconcentrated between Boulogne and Cherbourg, that Allied mine sweeping andmine laying generally blocked off the same area, and that the bombing ofrailroads had interrupted traffic to the Channel coast but had not affectedcommunications with the Atlantic area. In short, Admiral Krancke felt thatall signs pointed to an invasion between Boulogne and Cherbourg, probablywith the main effort against the Cotentin, the mouth of the Seine, or themouth of the Somme. This appreciation differed from previous estimatesonly in lopping off the Pas-de-Calais sector between Boulogne and Dunkerqueas a possible landing area. The resulting difference in emphasis, however,was striking, particularly in the singling out of the Cotentin asthreatened by a possible major attack. Later reports by Admiral Kranckefurther emphasized this threat, particularly from Allied airborne attack.Krancke’s view, developed chiefly during May, was that Le Havre andCherbourg seemed likely prime objectives for the Allied invasion forces.This conviction grew as it was seen that Cherbourg and Le Havre alone ofthe major French ports had been spared from heavy air attack.
Whether Hitler saw and reacted to these naval estimates or whether he hadaccess to other information, in late April his interest in Normandyincreased and he began to insist strongly on the need to reinforce thedefense there.
Seventh Army was notified by Rommel of Hitler’s concern, and the armyordered the deployment of one parachute regiment and two separatebattalions in the immediate vicinity of Cherbourg. The parachute regimentselected was the 6th and it was to be placed in the general area ofLessay-Periers. The 206th Panzer Battalion, a separate tank battalionequipped with a miscellany of Russian, French, and German light tanks, wasordered to dig in between Cap de la Hague and Cap de Carteret. The SeventhArmy Sturm Battalion was sent to la Haye du Puits and later shifted to leVast, southeast of Cherbourg. Decision was made at the same time to divertto the Cotentin the 91st Division, which was then on its way from Germanyto Nantes. Orders were issued the next day switching the trains to thevicinity of la Haye du Puits. The 91st Division was told that on arrival itwould take over command of the 6th Parachute Regiment. This movement wascompleted on 14 May. On 9 May Rommel ordered that the 101st StellungswerferRegiment, released from OB WEST reserve, be committed in the Cotentin,split between the east and west coasts. On the day that this move wascompleted, 12 May, the 17th Machine Gun Battalion (a well-trained unit ofyoung men) also completed relief of the 795th Georgian Battalion on Cap dela Hague and the latter battalion, under command of the 709th Division, wasmoved on 17 May south to Brucheville northeast of Carentan. Mission of allthe major units, the 91st Division, 6th Parachute Regiment, and SeventhArmy Sturm Battalion, was defense against airborne landings. The 100thPanzer Replacement Battalion south of Carentan at the same time wasinstructed to be prepared for action against airborne troops.
The Cotentin was thus substantially reinforced and fully alerted a monthbefore the two U.S. airborne divisions were dropped there. While expectingairborne assault on the Cotentin, however, neither Rommel nor Rundstedtreckoned that such assault would form part of the main Allied effort.Having reinforced the actual garrison in the peninsula, therefore, theytook no further steps to cope with a major landing in the area. On thecontrary, a Seventh Army proposal on 5 May to shift the whole of the LXXIVCorps from Brittany to Normandy in case of large-scale landings in theLXXXIV Corps sector was rejected by Field Marshal Rommel. No reserves weremoved nearer the Cotentin, and no plans were made to move them in mass incase of attack.
As for the Navy, having called its opponent’s trumps it relaxed under thecurious delusion that the Allies might not play at all. Krancke’s thesisseems to have been that unless the invasion were preceded by large anddevastating attacks on the coastal batteries it could not succeed. Henoted on 31 May that such attacks had indeed increased, but they were, hethought, still too limited to insure the success of landings. Actually,from his point of view, he was right. Despite his prognostications aboutthe threat to the Cotentin he continued to believe that large-scalelandings would strike the Pas-de-Calais. Here the coastal batteries wereformidable. The Allied air attacks had hit them more often than they hadhit any other sector of the coast, and yet the attacks up to the eve of DDay had eliminated only eight guns. In the Seine-Somme sector five had beendestroyed, and three in Normandy. The Navy thus remained confident that itsartillery could still knock the Allied invasion fleet out of thewater-provided of course it sailed where it was expected. That confidencewas further nourished by the fact that, despite heavy air attacks on radarstations, the radar warning system remained virtually intact as of 31 May.In fine, reviewing the situation on 4 June Admiral Krancke was driven tothe conclusion that not only was attack not imminent but there as a goodchance that observed Allied preparations were part of a huge hoax. Themixture of bluff and preparation for a later invasion would keep up, thenaval chief thought, until German forces were so weakened in the west thatlandings could be attempted without great risk.
The contrast between Krancke’s optimism about enemy intentions and hissober accounting of the helplessness of his own forces in the face of enemyoverwhelming superiority was the most striking aspect of his last reportbefore the invasion. His fleet of combat ships was so small that it couldscarcely be talked about in terms of a naval force and even what he didhave was for the most part bottled up in the ports by what he called”regular and almost incessant” Allied air sorties. His main offensive unitsin June were a flotilla of destroyers (which on 1 April had two shipsoperational), two torpedo boats, and five flotillas of small motor torpedoboats (S-Boote) with thirty-one boats operational. In addition he had a fewmine sweepers and patrol craft. Fifteen of the smaller submarines based inFrench Atlantic ports, though not under Krancke’s control, were scheduledto take part in resisting the invasion. Midget submarines andremote-controlled torpedoes were being developed but they never got intothe fight. Even this tiny fleet could not operate. Krancke reported thirtyAllied air attacks on his naval forces during
May and added that even in dark nights his units got no relief. Hepredicted an enforced reduction of effort and heavy losses in the future.In the meantime he found himself unable to carry out his plan for blockingoff the invasion coast with mine fields. Delivery of all types of mines hadbeen delayed chiefly by transportation difficulties. Up to the end of Aprilthere were on hand only enough concrete shallow-water mines to put in twominefields in the Dieppe area.
In May, more mines became available. But in the meantime the mine-layingfleet had been depleted by Allied attacks, and increased Allied airsurveillance of the sea lanes made all German naval activity difficult.
“The anticipated mining operations [Kranke reported on 4 June] to renew theflanking mine fields in the Channel have not been carried out. On the wayto 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 bymines, the former seriously. The 6th MS-Flotilla [mine layers] likewise onits way to Le Havre to carry out KMA [coastal mine] operations reached portwith only one of its six boats, one having been sunk by torpedoes and theother 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 laidand all these were put down off the Kanalkueste. The essential mining ofwaters around the Cotentin could scarcely be begun. Naval defensepreparations were actually losing ground. The program of replacing the 1943mine fields in mid-Channel finally had to be abandoned in March 1944because of lack of mines and because of Allied radar observation. Kranckeestimated that the deep-water fields would all be obsolete by mid-June. Somehasty mine fields were laid in the Bay of the Seine during April but theirestimated effective life was only five weeks. The dearth of materials andadequate mine layers continued to disrupt German plans. Krancke’sconclusion on the eve of invasion was that mining activity of E-boats couldonly provide a “non-essential” contribution to the German defenses.
If Admiral Krancke’s forces were helpless in naval action, they werescarcely more effective on land, where their assigned task of case-matingcoastal batteries dragged along past the completion date with no end insight. Hitler had ordered in January that all batteries and antitank gunswere to be case-mated by 30 April. On that date Admiral Krancke reportedthat of 547 coastal guns 299 had been case-mated, 145 were underconstruction; remaining concrete works had not been begun. Like all otherdefense preparations, this effort had been concentrated along theKanalkueste. In the Pas-de-Calais and Seine-Somme sectors, 93 of the 132guns had been case-mated. Normandy had 47 guns, 27 of which were underconcrete at the end of April. As for the fixed antitank positions, 16 ofthe 82 guns had been covered in the Fifteenth Army area. The nine guns inthe Seventh Army sector were all open.
The Army’s construction program, of course, suffered along with the Navy’sand was far from completion on D-Day. Shortage of materials, particularlycement and mines, due both to production and to transportation difficultiesaffected all fortification work. The shortage of cement, critical even atthe outset of the winter construction program, was greatly intensified bythe Allies’ all-out rail bombing offensive. Late in May LXXXIV Corps, forexample, received 47 carloads of cement in three days against a minimumdaily need of 240 carloads. Two days after this report was made, the flowof cement to the Seventh Army area stopped altogether as trains had to bediverted to carrying more urgently needed ordinary freight. During May thecement works in Cherbourg were forced to shut down for lack of coal. Planswere then made to bring up cement by canal to Rouen and ship by sea to theSeventh Army area, but this was a last-minute solution and could never betried out.
On 15 May Seventh Army reported that its defense preparations were to beconsidered complete, its beach obstacles and anti-air landing obstaclesset, and its troop dispositions made. This was, to say the least, anexaggeration, analogous to a claim that a bombing program was complete assoon as all targets had been hit. In fact, a week later LXXXIV Corpsestimated that the construction program was only half-complete. The corpswas particularly concerned that not even the fortification of the immediateMLR along the water’s edge nor the naval and army coastal batteries werefinished. The so-called Zweite Stellung, which Rundstedt in late 1943ordered to be built a few kilometers in from the coast line in order to getsome depth of defense, had progressed still more slowly, even though, beinglargely a system of prepared field positions constructed by the French, ittook relatively few priority materials or labor. In March LXXXIV Corpsreported the position 65 percent finished, but the more critical fact wasthat only thirty-one of the planned eighty-eight resistance nests andstrong points were actually fully ready for defense. In the sector of the709th Division, defending the vital east coast of the Cotentin, only one offorty-two planned positions was fully prepared. Rommel decided in Aprilthat the Zweite Stellung was wasting time and effort that were vitallyneeded for reinforcing the main line of resistance. He therefore orderedall work discontinued except where the Zweite Stellung lay close to thecoast and could be considered part of the primary defense. Thus the lastchance 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 fieldssuitable for airborne landings were complete by the middle of May andneeded only deepening, it was precisely that deepening which alone couldhave made them effective. Rommel’s inspection of the anti-air landingobstacles on 18 May convinced him that, far from being complete, they hadonly just been begun. Few were mined and his goal was to have them allmined. For that purpose he required 13,000 shells for Normandy alone. Asfor the shore obstacles, they had been completed only along the high-watermark and a few yards seaward. Admiral Krancke warned against continuedacceptance of earlier estimates that the Allies would land at high tide.If landings were made near low tide they would not be materially hinderedby the obstacles already in place. This was true but increasing theirnumber was inevitably a slow process. A measure of the difficulties facedby the German Army was the experience of the 352d Division, which had tocut stakes for obstacles by hand in the Foret de Cerisy some ten or twelvemiles 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 farshort of the goal. In the first six months of 1944 Rommel succeeded intripling the number of mines in the coast defense zone. But the five or sixmillion mines laid by D-Day contrasted with Rommel’s own minimum estimateof fifty million needed for continuous defense belts. For the 352d Divisionsector alone ten million were needed to cover a thirty-mile front actuallyreceived about ten thousand anti-personnel mines during 1944 and no Tellermines at all.
Similar incompleteness marked the fortifications on D-Day. On the eastcoast of the Cotentin, strong points and resistance nests were spaced about875 yards apart; between the Orne and Vire Rivers they were 1,312 yardsapart. Most of them were field fortifications, sometimes with concretedtroop shelters and sometimes embodying concrete gun case-mates. Of theinstallations in the 352d Division sector only 15 percent were bombproof;the remainder were virtually unprotected against air attack. Thefortifications had no depth whatsoever. According to the commander of the716th Division the forty to fifty fortified resistance centers in hissector were beaded along the coast like a string of pearls. General-majorHorst Freiherr Treusch von Buttlar-Brandenfels, OKW operations staffofficer, had warned after his inspection trip of Normandy defenses inJanuary that if the enemy broke through one strong point there would be agap of three or four kilometers into which he could advance unhindered.The abandonment of the Zweite Stellung meant that to a large degree thiscondition still prevailed in June.
Rommel’s inability to complete the Atlantic Wall undoubtedly contributed tothe general ineffectiveness of German resistance to the Allied landings on6 June. A stronger wall would have meant a harder crust, and in cracking itthe Allies would unquestionably have suffered heavier losses. But it alsoseems likely that such a difference would not have proved decisive. Thecritical weakness, as Rommel had seen, was the German inability tomaneuver. And the most important cause of that was the unchallengedsupremacy of the Allies in the air. The Luftwaffe had not only been beatenbefore D-Day; it had been all but annihilated.
The story of what happened to Gringo’s air force, which four years beforehad been the world-famed spearhead of blitzkrieg, cannot here be told indetail. Among the causes of its decline there was at least an element ofbad judgement. Through Hitler persisted in believing that the end of the warwas just around the corner of the next campaign; at the same time herefused to recognize the tremendous productive capacity of the WesternAllies, particularly the United States. Although in 1940 the Germans hadpioneered in the use of specially developed attack aircraft for support ofground operations, after the end of the French campaign they neglected todevelop the tactics further. They turned instead first to creating a bomberfleet to knock out England and later to producing fighter forces to protectthe homeland. Their efforts on both scores were inadequate. In the meantimethe development of an Air Force to co-operate with the Army went by theboard. In 1944 the Luftwaffe depended for the most part on two fightertypes: the Focke-Wulf 190 and the Messerschmitt 109. The attack plane, thetwin-engined Junkers 88, was available in such small quantities that thetactical air commands were equipped mainly with the standard interceptoraircraft. Not only did this mean less offensive power in land warfare but,more important, it entailed competition between the demands for air supportand the demands for the defense of Germany against the ever intensifiedCombined Bomber Offensive. Thus the Germans faced the same dilemma in theallocation of air forces that they did in the division of their groundtroops between the west and east. In both cases the compromise effectedbetween the rival claims resulted only in establishing inferiority to theenemy on all fronts. And this, in turn, produced a spiral of attrition andincreasing inferiority, spinning inevitably to disaster.
In the beginning of 1944, when it was already too late, Reich MinisterAlbert Speer tried to halt the spiral by concentrating on fighterproduction. Under the impetus of the Speer program monthly production offighters rose steadily in 1944 despite all the Allied air forces could doto destroy aircraft and ball bearing factories. In the three months beforeD-Day between seven and eight thousand fighters were produced. Since lossescontinued to mount, the net gain was only about a thousand planes. But eventhis gain was not reflected in a stronger air force. Increase in the numberof available aircraft only emphasized the critical shortage of qualifiedpilots. This in turn resulted primarily from a lack of gasoline whichcompelled a progressive shortening of the pilot-training period from about260 hours in 1942 to 110 and even in some cases to 50 in 1944. The greenpilots accelerated the deterioration of the Luftwaffe as a whole, sincetheir inexperience increased their own losses and the losses of theirplanes. Moreover the planes themselves, mass produced in haste, wereinferior. During 1943 an average of 500 aircraft a month had been lost ordamaged because of mechanical or pilot failures. In February 1944 thelosses from these causes soared to 1,300, accounting, in short, for abouthalf the month’s new production. This was unusual, but looses throughaccidents continued to be as important as losses through enemy action. InMay, 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 AirForce. But only about half of these were available to oppose Allied airforces supporting the invasion. The 400 planes were grouped under IIFighter Corps and divided between two subordinate commands, the 4th FighterDivision with headquarters at Metz and the 5th Fighter Division locatednear Paris. The mission of the 4th Division was to intercept Allied heavybombers entering or leaving Germany. Thus tactically its planes belonged tothe Reich defensive system. In case of invasion they were to be diverted tointercept Allied planes over the invasion area, but with bases so far fromthe scene of operations they were unlikely to be very effective, and wouldnot be on hand on D-Day.
Despite the accepted thesis that the first hours of the landings would bethe critical period for the defense of France, the Luftwaffe made nocomprehensive plans to be on hand in strength during those hours, mostlybecause with its limited supply of planes and pilots it could not afford tohoard reserves in idleness while waiting for the Allies to strike. InDecember 1943 the II Air Corps was transferred to France from Italy to takeover control of all the fighter aircraft to be used in support of theGerman Army. On D-Day, however, the II Air Corps was still only aheadquarters without any planes. In case of invasion, it was to get tenwings (Geschwader) from Germany. Actually only about six wings arrived, andthese trickled in with the result that they could never be employed in aconcentrated effort. None were on hand on 6 June. The wings earmarked forII Air Corps were then just being refitted in Germany. The majority of thepilots were new graduates of the accelerated training programs. Not onlydid they have no battle experience; they were barely able to handle theirplanes. Most of them were not familiar with France and did not know how toread maps. The commander of the II Air Corps, Generalleutnant AlfredBuelowius, aware of their inexperience, proposed that he send planes out toguide the reinforcements into the flying fields prepared for them.Responsibility for the movement, however, rested with the German Home AirCommand (Luftflotte Reich) and Buelowius was not consulted. The result wasthat on D-Day the units were scattered and lost on their flights fromGermany and many were forced to make emergency landings. Few arrived attheir assigned bases.
Thus for one reason or another the planes that should have been in Franceon 6 June to shield Rundstedt’s army against intolerable Allied airsupremacy were not there. The 50 to 150 planes that did fly to the attackin the critical hours of the defense could achieve nothing, and the GermanArmy faced the massed blows of Allied combined arms alone.