Policy, Outlook and Plan in the West, 1944
|German strategy for 1944 rested on the realization that decisive offensivescould no longer be mounted in the east and that the growing strength of theWestern Allies made almost certain a major invasion attempt before the endof the year. The prospective invasion of Western Europe presented both thegravest danger to the Reich and the most hopeful opportunity for turningdefeat into victory. If the Allies were not stopped at the landings, theirattack would carry at once into the heart of Germany; if they were stoppedand their beachheads annihilated, it was unlikely that a new attempt couldbe made for a long time to come, and as many as fifty German divisionsmight thereby be freed for the struggle against the Soviet Union.|
Recognizing the superiority of the Allied military potential, the Germansknew that their one chance for defeating the invasion was to defeat itquickly. It was therefore vital that the maximum German force be on thespot to fight the decisive battle as soon as the Allies attacked. To stakeeverything on a battle whose place and timing would be entirely of theenemy’s choosing was to put an all but impossible burden on the defense,demanding of it a mobility it did not have and a sure knowledge of enemyintentions it had no means of acquiring. It was one thing to decide – asHitler did with the issuance of his Directive No. 51 – to prepare the westfor the critical battle to come; it was another to find the means to carryout those preparations.
Regardless of how critical the defense of the west was declared, therecould be no question of withdrawing forces from the hard-pressed easternarmies to reinforce it. The best that could be hoped for was to hold on toforces already in the various occupied territories outside of Russia anddevote to the west the bulk of the new resources in men and equipment thatbecame available in the months remaining before the Allies attacked. AfterHitler’s November order, OKW drew up a plan providing in detail for theshift of troops to meet a major Allied invasion of any one of the westerntheaters of operations. If the invasion hit France – the most likelypossibility – OKW planned to move three infantry divisions from Norway andDenmark, one infantry division, a Werfer regiment and a corps headquartersfrom Italy, and four mobile infantry or Jaeger divisions and some minorunits from the Balkans. Although these troop shifts would not amount toevacuation of any occupied area, they would mean a considerableconcentration of force.
Such concentration was based on the assumption that the Allies would makeone main attack. In January, OKW began to wonder whether the assumption wasjustified. All signs still pointed to an attack across the Channel,probably at its narrowest point, but there were also indications that suchan attack might be preceded or accompanied by other major thrusts. OKWnoticed the “astonishing” emphasis in Allied quarters on preparations for a”second front” and reasoned that these might be designed to conceal another”main blow” that would not strike across the Channel. The “other place”selected might be Portugal or the Balkans, but the choice of the latter hadparticular plausibility. It seemed unlikely that the large Allied forcesin the Mediterranean would be committed in the slow and costly attempt topush all the way up the Italian peninsula. The Balkan area offered greaterstrategic prizes and was conveniently at hand.
Whatever area was threatened OKW viewed the twin facts of accumulatedAllied power in the Mediterranean and comparative stalemate in Italy as akind of strategic unbalance which might be solved by another sudden majorassault. German jitteriness on this score was not calmed by a report atabout this time from agents in England that the ratio of Allied seagoinglanding ships to landing craft for Channel use was ten times as great asthe Doenitz staff had previously estimated. This discovery seemed toconfirm the guess that the Allies were planning an expedition outside theChannel. All these fears seemed to be further confirmed by the Alliedlandings at Anzio on 22 January. The Anzio beachhead, in the German view,had only a slim tactical connection with the main Italian front. GeneralJodl, Chief of the Armed Forces Operations Staff, considering it to be anindependent, self-sustaining operation, argued that it might well be thefirst of a series of attacks on the periphery of the Continent with thepurpose of forcing dispersion of German reserves in preparation for athrust across the Channel. This interpretation drew support from the factthat the Allies instead of at once pushing inland from the Anzio beachespaused for about a week to consolidate a beachhead, as though the objectwere not to gain tactical objectives but to attract German forces.Reasoning thus, Jodl told Hitler that they now had to reckon with aperipheral Allied strategy which would probably entail attacks on Portugal,on the west and south coasts of France, or in the Aegean, before theassault on the Kanalkueste. With regard to France, it was thought that themost likely Allied peripheral operations would be simultaneous landings onthe Mediterranean and Biscay coasts to pinch off the Iberian Peninsula.This threat was taken seriously enough that during February two newinfantry divisions then being formed were attached to Nineteenth Army fordefense of the south coast and the 9th SS Panzer Division was released fromOB WEST and moved south into the Avignon area as army reserve. One newdivision went to First Army for defense of the Biscay coast and Spanishborder.
The most important effect of the new appreciation, however, was to unsettleGerman plans for the defense. If the Allies were going to pursue a policyof many simultaneous or successive assaults, the Germans could not affordto weaken sectors not immediately under attack in order to concentrate onone main invasion. It would, in fact, be very difficult to discover whichof many attacks constituted the major threat. Partly for this reason, andpartly because the military situation both in the Mediterranean area and inRussia was shifting so rapidly during the early months of 1944 that anyplans for the future were subject to almost daily changes, OKW in Marchcanceled its comprehensive defense plans. Instead, theater commanders wereadvised that troop movements would be ordered in detail only at the timethey were needed, presumably after a given Allied attack had developed intoa major action. In addition, a new plan was drawn providing for a shift ofcertain units from the Replacement Army in Germany to any OKW front underheavy attack. OB WEST by this plan might get one corps headquarters, tworeinforced panzer grenadier regiments, one reinforced infantrydemonstration regiment, Kampfgruppen of three infantry regiments which werecadre for new divisions, a motorized artillery demonstration regiment, fiveLandesschuetzen battalions, and one Nebelwerfer demonstration battalion.These miscellaneous, partly green units were hardly a substitute for theeight divisions (reinforced) which would have gone to OB WEST under the oldplan. Although OKW did not formally abandon the intention of drawingadditional reinforcements from occupied areas not under attack, as apractical matter the possibility of such reinforcement had by March becomenegligible. With the high command admitting the possibility of not one butseveral landings, strategic uncertainty would evidently delay any possibleconcentration.
By March 1944, the German western defense had thus been weakened by agrowing confusion as to Allied intentions. This confusion, however, was arelatively small element in the difficulties that multiplied for theGermans after the end of 1943. Not threats but immediate dangers in boththe south and east were the principal preoccupations of the German highcommand. For three months after Hitler issued his order that the west wasno longer to be weakened in favor of the Eastern Front, the Germanssucceeded generally in holding the manpower dikes despite ominous cracks,and rising tides of Soviet victories. Just before Christmas, 1943, theRussians launched an offensive on the Kiev front which in a few days drovenearly two hundred miles west; in January, Leningrad was relieved bysuccessful attack against the German Army Group North; at the end of themonth, much of the German Eighth Army was encircled near Cherkassy; inFebruary, the Russians attacked the German Sixth Army in the Ukraine in ageneral offensive to clear the Dnepr bend. The temptation again to corralidle divisions from the west was very great. But only one infantry divisionwas taken from Norway, and it was replaced by a unit, which, though notcompletely formed, was roughly equivalent in combat strength. The westsuffered only minor depredations. In February, three reinforced regimentsbeing formed in Germany and earmarked for OKW reserve for the west wenteast. During the same month 3,000 Russian front soldiers who were sufferingfrom frostbite were exchanged for a like number of troops in the west.Signs of the mounting pressure of the Russian war, these borrowings stilldid not constitute important weakening of the west.
But at the end of January the Anzio landings had opened another smallcrack. The Germans reacted to the Anzio attack in force, not only becausethey believed it to be the first of a series of major Allied amphibiousassaults, but because they saw the possibility of gaining politicalprestige by wiping out at least one Allied beachhead. In accordance withplans for meeting a large-scale landing in the southwest, the fullymotorized 715th Division was ordered out of France. By 4 February, however,it was seen that this reinforcement was not enough to crush the Anziobeachhead and General Jodl asked Hitler for permission to move in the 9thss Panzer Division, the only fully combat ready armored division in France.Hitler refused. With an eye on the large Allied reserve forces in NorthAfrica, he feared an attack against the Mediterranean coast of France. Hedoubted, furthermore, whether the 9th SS Panzer Division, even ifeventually returned to France, could make up its losses in Italy,particularly in equipment. OB WEST thus survived that crisis. But the lossof the 715th Division, which because of its unusual mobility had beenincluded with the reserve armored force, was serious enough.
Much worse was to come. In March, the manpower dikes broke wide open as theSoviet Union launched a new offensive, and at the same time fears increasedthat Hungary was getting ready to pull out of the war. These circumstancesforced temporary abandonment of the principles of Hitler s Directive No.51. The bulk of the troops for the occupation of Hungary (carried out inthe latter part of the month) were to be furnished by the Commander inChief Southeast from the Balkans, and by the Replacement Army, but OB WESThad to send the Panzer Lehr Division, a corps headquarters, some aircraft,and a few minor units. The plan was to return all these units as soon asHungary was firmly in German hand! In fact, the occupation took placerapidly and smoothly and the bulk of the Hungarian Army remained under armsand continued to fight for the Germans. The Panzer Lehr Division thus wasactually able to come back to France in May. But two divisions from theReplacement Army and two of the divisions contributed by the Commander inChief Southeast were shuttled on to the Russian front and a third was savedonly by a last-minute appeal to Hitler. The loss indirectly affected thewest in that it further reduced the reserves available to meet the invasion.
With the Russian armies again on the move and threatening to collapse thewhole southern wing of the German defense, the danger of invasion in thewest for a time dimmed by comparison. The Russians attacked on 4 March. Onthe 9th Uman fell; the Germans evacuated Kherson and Gayvoron on the 14th.Still the Russian armies suffered no check. Before the end of the monththey crossed the Bug, Dnestr, and Pruth Rivers. In Galicia they temporarilyencircled the German First Panzer Army. The crisis for the Germans was toodesperate to permit consideration of long-range plans. Reinforcements wereneeded at once and they had to be taken wherever they could be found. On 10March the 161st Division was ordered out of Denmark, and replaced with adivision of much lower combat value. Two weeks later a similar exchangeremoved the 349th Division from France and brought as a substitute a newweak division, the 331st, from the Replacement Army. At about the same timefour divisions under OB WEST (the 326th, 346th, 348th and 19th LuftwaffeField) were ordered to give up all their assault guns, initially tostrengthen Romanian forces and later to be distributed to various divisionsalong the whole Eastern Front. The big ax fell on 26 March when the wholeII SS Panzer Corps with the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions receivedmarching orders to leave France and go to the assistance of the FirstPanzer Army.
The departure of the II SS Panzer Corps left OB WEST with only one fullymobile division (the 21st Panzer). The OKW historian has suggested that,had the Allies invaded at that time, Rundstedt could have offered noeffective resistance. This may be an exaggeration, but it is true that theend of March 1944 marked one of the low points of preparedness in the westand that during the next six weeks, with the Russian front relativelystabilized, the west did much to recoup its losses. By the middle of Mayfour panzer divisions were ready for combat (despite deficiencies ofequipment) and four more were being built up. Toward the end of the monthPanzer Lehr Division returned from Hungary and the 1st SS Panzer Divisionfrom the Eastern Front was attached to OB WEST for rebuilding. At the sametime the XLVII Panzer Corps under General der Panzertruppen Hans Freiherrvon Funck, one of the oldest and most experienced armored commanders in theGerman Army, was brought from the east to serve under Rundstedt.
Actually the recuperative powers of the west under the severe andcontinuing strain of supplying transfusions to the east were remarkable.Between November 1943 and June 1944, the total of combat divisions underRundstedt’s command increased from forty-six to fifty-eight. The increasewas accounted for in part by the transfer of fought-out units from Russiabut in larger part by the formation of new units. In the fall of 1942 theGerman Army, already sore-pressed for manpower, adopted the policy ofcombining training with occupation duties. The old combined recruiting andtraining units were split, and the recruit henceforth after induction intoa recruiting unit near his home was sent to an affiliated training unit inthe field. In 1943 about two-thirds of these training units were located inFrance, the Low Countries, Denmark, Poland, Lithuania, the Soviet Union,and northern Italy. The infantry and panzer units were organized intoreserve divisions of which twenty-six (including four panzer) were formedduring 1942 and 1943. Half of these were stationed in the OB WEST sector.Though they remained under the commander of the Replacement Army andtheoretically retained their primary function of training replacements, inreality they came to be regarded as low-grade field divisions. Their timewas increasingly devoted to garrison duty and on occasion to fightingResistance forces. In order to carry out these duties, they receivedadministrative attachments from the regular field army. As theiroperational responsibilities expanded and they began to occupy a permanentplace on OB WEST’s order of battle, it became impossible for them to giveup personnel for filler replacements to regular units. In short they becamethemselves an integral part of the field army. In recognition of this fact,most of them were eventually redesignated as infantry or armored divisions.Six of OB WEST’s reserve divisions, including all three reserve panzerdivisions, had thus been upgraded before the invasion. Five of theremaining seven were similarly converted in the summer of 1944; the othertwo were disbanded.
Besides converting reserve divisions, the Commander-in-Chief West enlargedhis army by rehabilitating German units from the east as already noted, andby activating new divisions out of miscellaneous personnel drawn in partfrom his own resources and in part from the Replacement Army. The effect ofall this on the organization and character of the west army must bedescribed in some detail, but in summary it may be said that the steadydrain of the Eastern Front left to Rundstedt on the eve of his great battletwo kinds of units: old divisions which had lost much of their bestpersonnel and equipment, and new divisions, some of excellent combat value,some only partially equipped and partially trained. The majority of the newdivisions were formed according to streamlined tables of organizationdesigned generally to use the fewest possible men to produce the maximumfirepower.