German Command and Tactics in the West, 1944

It may be that the most serious weakness of the German defense in the westwas not the shortage of men and materiel but the lack of a unified command.While Rundstedt was charged with the entire responsibility for the defenseof France and the Low Countries, his powers were far from commensurate withthat responsibility. He had, in the first place, no command over air andnaval units. The four air corps that comprised the fighter and bomberaircraft stationed in the west were under command of the Third Air Force(Generalfeldmarschall Hugo Sperrle), which in turn was directly subordinateto OKL. Similarly Navy Group West, which under Admiral Theodor Kranckecommanded the destroyers, torpedo boats, and smaller naval vessels based inthe ports within Rundstedt’s jurisdiction, was responsible directly to OKM.Rundstedt could issue no orders to either Sperrle or Krancke; he could onlyrequest their co-operation.

Air and naval forces were too small to have decisive effect on the battle.From Rundstedt’s point of view the more important limitation of his powerwas the fragmentation of the command over the ground forces. Some of thisfragmentation was normal and universal in the German militaryestablishment. The Third Air Force had, for instance, besides command ofthe flying units, administrative control over parachute troops and theantiaircraft units that were under the III Flak Corps. Navy Group Westcontrolled through regional commanders not only ships and shoreinstallations but most of the coastal artillery, although command of thelatter was mixed. The Navy had complete jurisdiction before operations onland had begun. Afterward, firing on sea targets remained a navalresponsibility, but at the moment of enemy landing, in most cases, commandof the batteries in the beachhead area was to pass to the Army. Virtuallythe whole burden of tying in the important naval batteries to the coastaldefense was thus shifted to the initiative of local commanders.

A similar division of command affected the employment of the securitytroops which as instruments of the occupation were normally under the twomilitary governors (Militaerbefehlshaber), France and Northern France(including Belgium). The military governors were directly subordinated toOKH, but for purposes of repelling invasion their security troops might betactically under OB WEST. In preparation against invasion, the Commander inChief West could only direct that the military governors co-operate withthe army groups in matters affecting the latter’s authority and undertaketo settle any differences that might arise between them. Even this controlwas limited. Employment of security troops could only be ordered by theCommander in Chief West “in matters outside the scope of security.”

During 1944 OB WEST’s authority was abridged in special ways. In November1943, it will be recalled, Field Marshal Rommel had taken command of theArmy Group for Special Employment, which was charged at first withinspection of the western defenses and the preparation of plans forcounterattack against the main Allied landings wherever these might takeplace. Ultimately the Rommel headquarters was to conduct the main battleagainst the invading forces. About the middle of December, Rommel, havingcompleted the first of his tasks, the inspection of the coastal defenses ofDenmark, arrived in France and began a survey of the Fifteenth Army sector.Both he and Rundstedt recognized at once that it was neither logical norpractical for the Special Army Group to remain outside the theater chain ofcommand. Its independence could only be a source of friction andinefficiency. On 30 December Rundstedt recommended that it be subordinatedto OB WEST as Army Group B with command of the Seventh and Fifteenth Armiesand of the German Armed Forces of the Netherlands. Whether the initialsuggestion for this change came first from Rommel or from Rundstedt, it wasclearly in the beginning agreeable to both. Since the main Allied invasionwas likely to strike somewhere along the Channel coast, it made sense toput Rommel in immediate command there in order to familiarize him with histask and allow him to take such steps as he found necessary to strengthenthe defense. Hitler approved but warned OB WEST that the Rommelheadquarters was still to be considered available for commitment elsewhere.Rundstedt accepted the condition, and the reconstitution of Army Group Bwas ordered to take effect on 15 January. Rommel’s subordination to OKW wasat this time canceled.

His position, however, remained anomalous: whereas he had less than fullcommand over the armies attached to him, he enjoyed an influence over thewhole defense of the west which was in some measure commensurate withRundstedt’s. His orders provided that he was to be solely responsible forthe conduct of operations (Kampffuehrung), but that in matters not directlyaffecting this tactical command OB WEST would continue to deal directlywith the armies. Thus on questions of defense, training, organization andequipment, supply, artillery matters, communications, and engineerproblems, the command channel might bypass the new army group. [44] Rommelcontinued to be the coastal inspector for the whole of the west, andalthough his reports henceforth were forwarded through OB WEST his abilityto influence coastal defense policies and practices did much to blur hissubordination to Rundstedt. Moreover the binding of the Rommel staff to ageographical sector was only tentative; the headquarters was thought ofstill as a reserve command and as such the recommendations of its commandercarried special if informal weight. Finally, and most importantly, Rommelin common with all German field marshals enjoyed at all times the right ofappeal directly to Hitler. That privilege was especially important for thewest because of the personalities involved. The evidence indicates thatRommel had an energy and strength of conviction that often enabled him tosecure Hitler’s backing, whereas Rundstedt, who was disposed wheneverpossible to compromise and allow arguments to go by default, seems to haverelaxed command prerogatives that undoubtedly remained formally his. It ispossible, of course, that he too came under Rommel’s influence and failedto press acceptance of his own ideas because he was content to allow Rommelto assume the main burden of responsibility. In any case the clear fact isthat after January 1944 Rommel was the dominant personality in the westwith an influence disproportionate to his formal command authority.

Rommel’s position, however, was not unchallenged. In November 1943Rundstedt, thinking in terms of a large-scale counterattack against themain Allied landings, created a special staff to control armored units inthat attack. The staff, designated Panzer Group West, was headed by Generalder Panzertruppen Leo Freiherr Geyr von Schweppenburg, and was directed totake over at once the formation and training of all armored units in thewest and to advise the Commander in Chief West in the employment of armor.Geyr was ordered to co-operate with and respect the wishes of army groupcommanders. Actually, however, Geyr’s ideas on the proper employment ofarmor were so completely at variance with Rommel’s that co-operation wasimpossible.

In March 1944, at a meeting of the senior commanders in the west withHitler, Rommel asked for an extension of his own authority that to allintents would have eliminated Geyr and Rundstedt as well from effectivecommand of the defense forces. Specifically he requested that all armoredand motorized units and all GHQ artillery in the west be put directly underhis command and that he also be given some control over the First andNineteenth armies. The latter two armies, defending the Atlantic andMediterranean coasts of France respectively, were at this time stillsubordinated immediately to OB WEST. In one sense, Rommel’s requestlogically arose from his mission. Assigned responsibility for counteringthe major Allied invasion attempt, he required control over all the forcesthat might be used in the defense. It was plausible furthermore that suchcontrol should be turned over to him before the battle so that he couldproperly prepare and dispose the troops to fight the kind of battle hewould order. Making a strong bid to unify defense policies, he asked thatthe Humpty-Dumpty command in the west be put together again under him.Although the method of repair naturally did not please Rundstedt, hisobjections were unheeded at the March meeting and Hitler approved theexpansion of Rommel’s command. Only after a study by the operations staffof OKW had supported Rundstedt’s later written protest did Hitler reversehimself. Even then the reversal was not complete. Three panzer divisions(the 2d, 21st, and 116th) were assigned to Rommel as Army Group B reserves,over which he was to have full tactical control while Geyr remainedresponsible for their training and organization. The patchwork solutionsolved nothing.

At the same time four other panzer-type divisions in OB WEST’s sector (the1st SS Panzer, 12th SS Panzer, 17th SS Panzer Grenadier, and Panzer Lehr)were set aside as a central mobile reserve under the direct command of OKW.The two decisions smacked of a compromise tending to preserve something ofboth Rommel’s and Rundstedt’s tactical ideas. The main effect, however,was to deprive the Commander in Chief West of the means to influence thebattle directly without transferring those means to Rommel. Thus, even suchinclusive authority as was possible in the German military establishmentwas scrupulously withheld from both high commanders in the west.

The final command change before the invasion was made in May when Rundstedtordered the formation of a second army group headquarters to take commandof the First and Nineteenth Armies. Army Group G, formed underGeneraloberst Johannes Blaskowitz, took over, besides the two armies, theremaining three panzer divisions in France (the 9th, 11th, and 2d SS). Thereorganization provided a counterbalance for Rommel and somewhat simplifiedthe command channels. It probably also expressed final recognition of theimpracticality of the reserve high command concept.

With the establishment of Blaskowitz’s headquarters, Rundstedt undertook todefine his own position. He outlined for himself what amounted to anover-all ground command in his theater, subject to the restrictions alreadydiscussed. He announced his intention of granting his army group commandersthe maximum freedom of action in their own sectors. He would intervene onlywhen he fundamentally disagreed with their policies or when decisions hadto be made affecting the theater as a whole. He promised to confine hisdirectives to passing on Hitler’s orders and to specifying policies thatought to be uniformly carried out by all commands.

In fact, during the critical preparatory months of 1944, general directiveswere few either from Rundstedt or Hitler. Hitler, far away at hisheadquarters in East Prussia, was so preoccupied with the Russian war thathe did not even visit the west until after the invasion. Furthermore heseems not to have had any clear and consistent view of tactics himself, andhis interventions in the western scene resulted more often in decisions ofdetail than in definitions of policy. The failure of Hitler to provideconsistent guidance together with the vague demarcation of authoritybetween Rommel and Rundstedt left the west with a vacillating leadership.Defense preparations in 1944 were increasingly scarred by compromise as theCommander in Chief West and the commander of Army Group B made detaileddecisions in accordance with divergent aims.

The perspective from which Rommel viewed his task derived in part from hisexperience with desert warfare in North Africa and in part from thecircumstances of his new assignment. It is important to bear in mind thatRommel came to the west only at the point when the battle was about to befought there, and that he was assigned responsibility specifically for theconduct of that battle. He had not endured the long waiting period with itsperiodic alarms. He had not spent months making plans, calculating actualbut shifting deficiencies against ideal needs, outlining defense systemsand struggling to find the means to carry them out. The theoreticalapproach to tactics-the drafting of the abstractly best plan first, thesearch for resources second-was ruled out by the nature of his mission aswell as by the limited time at his disposal. He was appointed coastalinspector and told to assess defensive capacities and make his plansaccordingly. Whatever he chose to do had to be completed in three or fourmonths. He was bound therefore to start by examining his limitations.

The experience in North Africa had convinced Rommel of the folly of tryingto use massed armor as long as the enemy enjoyed air superiority. In AfricaRommel commanded some of the best trained and equipped troops that Germanyproduced. In France he was to command an army that was already crippled inpart by inadequate training, inferior human material, and lack of mobility.Furthermore, there was still less hope in 1944 than in 1942 that theLuftwaffe could challenge the supremacy of the Allies in the air. To Rommelthat meant that mobile operations were impossible in fact however desirablethey might be in theory. If the German Army could not hope to maneuver onanything like terms of equality with the Allies, its only chance for adefensive success was to fight from the strongest possible naturalpositions. The pillboxes, entrenchments, wire, and mines of the AtlanticWall and the waters of the Channel, in short, seemed to Rommel to offer notonly the best but the only means to offset Allied superiority in mass andmobility.

Rommel therefore was led to place an exclusive dependence on fortificationsthat Rundstedt never advocated and that even Hitler had not contemplated inhis directive of November. The battle for the west, Rommel believed, wouldbe decided at the water’s edge, and the decision would come literallywithin the first forty-eight hours of the Allied landings. In accord withthat diagnosis, his first aim was to create a defensive belt around theentire coast with special concentration on the Fifteenth Army sector)extending five or six kilometers inland. Within this belt all infantry,artillery, headquarters staffs, and reserves up to division level were tobe located in a series of resistance nests. Between the resistance nestsmines and obstacles were to be laid so thickly as to prevent enemypenetration. Because of limited time, labor, and materials, Rommelconcentrated on many simple, field-type defenses rather than on a fewcomplex fortifications. He stressed in particular the laying of mines. Heintroduced further, a defense device new to the Atlantic Wall: underwaterobstacles designed to wreck landing craft. In Normandy, hedgehogs andtetrahedra located inland as tank obstacles were moved to the beachessuitable for enemy landings. Belgian Gates and stakes slanting seawardsupplemented them. The intention was to cover every possible landing beachbetween high- and low-water marks with obstacles staggered to leave no freechannel for even a flat-bottomed boat to reach shore. Obstacles as far aspossible were to be mined. As it was considered most likely that the Allieswould land at flood tide to reduce the amount of open beach to be crossedunder fire, laying of the obstacles began at the high-water line and wasextended in belts seaward as materials and labor became available.

To complete his hedgehog fortress, Rommel undertook to stake all fieldssuitable for glider landings behind the coastal zone. The stakes were to beplaced close enough together so that gliders could not come down betweenthem. They, too, were to be mined. The German estimate was that Alliedairborne troops would be used in diversionary and subsidiary operations,for which Brittany and Normandy were considered the most likely targetareas. Rommel therefore concentrated the erection of anti-airlandingobstacles in these areas.

The general scheme of obstacle defense of the Continent was further to beextended by mine fields in the Channel. Sixteen fields, each about fivemiles long, were put down in the Channel between Boulogne and Cherbourgfrom August 1943 to January 1944. These were to be kept renewed as far aspossible, but it was not believed that they would have much effect onAllied shipping. They were therefore to be supplemented by hasty minefields laid down by all available vessels immediately before the invasionwas expected. These fields would be planted without keeping open any markedlanes for German vessels. From Zeebrugge to Granville thirty-six minefields were planned. It was also planned, when invasion seemed imminent, tosow mines from the air in British harbors. Finally along the French coastshallow-water mines were to be laid and a special seventy-kilogram concretemine was developed for the purpose.