The Atlantic Wall and the Defense of the West, 1944

Rommel’s construction and mine-laying program called for a very largeexpenditure of labor, and labor was scarce. It has already been pointed outthat Organization Todt was employed chiefly in the major port fortressareas, on V-weapon sites, and, in the spring of 1944, on railroadmaintenance. In the apportionment of the remaining labor supply among thearmies, Fifteenth Army continued to receive priority. Seventh Army thus hadspecial difficulty in completing its defense works. The LXXXIV Corps wasassigned three engineer battalions in January, two for fortress buildingand one for mine laying. In addition, 2,850 men of the former French LaborService were set to work on a secondary defense line immediately behind thebelt of coastal resistance points. Pleas for more construction hands wereanswered by attachment of two 0st battalions.

The only other available labor source was the combat troops. Increasinglyduring 1944 infantrymen were employed in work details on the Atlantic Wallwith consequent serious reduction of combat training. The reserve battalionof the 709th Division, for instance, devoted three days a week exclusivelyto labor duty. The time for training in the rest of the week was furtherreduced by transport and guard details. During the first two weeks in Maythe battalion was employed full time on the coastal defense in the Barfleursector. The 709th was an old division, but its personnel constantlyshifted. The lack of continuous adequate training meant that the totalcombat fitness of the division steadily deteriorated through the accretionof untrained recruits.

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

The only units specially exempted from work on the fortifications were thetwo parachute divisions. The 3d Parachute Division was brought intoBrittany in March and stationed east of Brest. Its mission was to completeits organization and at the same time train for defense against airborneattack. The 5th Parachute Division moved into the Rennes area between 5 and14 May with a similar mission. Both divisions in May were put under commandof the II Parachute Corps which, though subordinated tactically to SeventhArmy, was administratively and for training purposes under the Third AirForce. Since the Luftwaffe was thus responsible for parachute unit trainingand, on the other hand, was not responsible to army commands anywhere inthe hierarchy, Reich Marshal Goering ordered that the parachute divisionsnot be used for construction work except in providing local security forthemselves against airborne attack. The 5th Parachute Division hadscarcely more than begun to fill out its ranks when invasion struck; butthe 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 beeninevitable and apparently did not arouse any serious protests at the time.Where Rommel’s program met really effective opposition was in his effortsto concentrate reserves within the coastal zone. If it was true that theGermans had to fight on a fortified line, if they could not hope tomaneuver freely, and if the crisis of the battle against the invaders wouldcome within the first forty-eight hours, then it followed that all forceswould be wasted which were not near enough to the coast to be committed atonce against the first landings. This deduction was the final extension ofthe doctrine of static defense implicit in the original decision to buildthe Atlantic Wall. At least one high German commander had predicted thedevelopment and had warned against it in caustic tones. Sodenstern,commanding the Nineteenth Army, wrote privately in the summer of 1943 ofhis fear that German generalship would exhaust itself in the constructionof huge masses of concrete. “As no man in his senses,” he argued, “wouldput his head on an anvil over which the smith’s hammer is swung, so nogeneral should mass his troops at the point where the enemy is certain tobring the first powerful blow of his superior materiel.” Rommel’s answer,in all likelihood, would have been, first, that there was no practicalalternative, second, that the first Allied blow at the point of thelandings would not be the most powerful but the weakest since only a smallportion of Allied fire power could then be effective, and, third, that theGerman general in massing his troops in fortified positions was at leastgiving their heads some protection against the smith’s hammer.

The difference of opinion was essentially a difference in judgment of whatwas possible. Rommel’s chief of staff has testified that Rommel would havepreferred a battle of maneuver had he seen any chance of its succeeding.Rundstedt, like Sodenstern, was clearly more optimistic, perhaps because hehad 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 WESTwas exerted spasmodically in resisting Rommel’s efforts to shift the weightof the army forward to the coast, and in trying instead to free as manyunits as possible from bondage to the rigid defense system.

In practice any plan to introduce flexibility into the defense dependedprimarily on whether units could be made mobile and whether they could beorganized and equipped to support themselves in combat. Through the earlymonths of 1944 Rundstedt struggled to strengthen and provide some transportfor the coastal divisions. In the Seventh Army area he succeeded in formingmobile Kampfgruppen (of reinforced regiments) from four of the infantrydivisions (the 265th, 266th, 275th, and 353d) defending the Brittany coast.In case of a major invasion of Normandy, Seventh Army had plans to movethese Kampfgruppen into the combat zone. In the Cotentin, the 243d Divisionwas converted from a static into a nominal attack infantry division. Itwas 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. Reorganizationtook place in late 1943, but the motorization planned to begin in May 1944could be carried out only in very limited degree.

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

For the most part the Germans lacked resources even to provide that limitedmobility for the west army. Rundstedt’s efforts to restore mobility to hisstatic divisions on the whole failed. A beginning, for instance, was madeto upgrade the 709th Division, but the vehicles allotted in March had to bewithdrawn in May when, as a result of the Allies’ successful rail bombingattacks, Seventh Army began to scrape together everything on wheels to formcorps transport companies.

Rundstedt’s efforts to put wheels under his army were at least partlyoffset by Rommel’s concurrent labors to dig in every available soldier andgun along the coast line. After an inspection trip in the LXXXIV Corpssector in February, Rommel concluded that reserves were held in too greatstrength too far from the coast. In particular, he felt that the 352dDivision, located near St. Lo, and the 243d Division, near la Haye duPuits, should be regrouped so that they could be committed in the firsthours after an enemy landing. Seventh Army therefore ordered that thedivisional reserves of the 709th and 716th Divisions (the 795th GeorgianBattalion and 642d 0st Battalion respectively) should be committed at thecoast, that the 243d and 352d Divisions should move slightly northward, andthat the 352d Artillery Regiment of the latter division should be emplacedin the coastal one under the control of the 716th Division. Similarreshuffling in Brittany put the artillery of the 275th and 353d Divisionsinto static defense positions. The shift forward of the 352d Divisionmeant in effect that it was no longer in reserve. On 14 March Seventh Armytherefore proposed that the division actually take over responsibility forthe left half of the 716th Division sector. On OB WEST’s approval, thischange was accomplished by 19 March. With the doubling of the troops on thecoast, the former battalion sectors of the 716th Division became regimentalsectors. The 726th Regiment of the 716th was attached to the 352d, less the2d Battalion, which became division reserve for the 716th. One regiment ofthe 352d plus the Fuesilier Battalion was held in corps reserve in thevicinity of Bayeux.

Hitler, whose ideas, possibly under Rommel’s influence, had undergone somechange since Directive 51, wondered at this time whether all units oflimited mobility which were located immediately behind the coast should notas a matter of policy be incorporated in the main line of resistance (MLR),leaving only fully mobile forces as attack reserves. General Jodl of theOKW pointed out that, except for three divisions, units were already farenough forward for their artillery to bear on the invasion beaches. Toshift all troops into the coastal fortifications would be dangerous sinceconcrete shelters were limited and fieldwork might be destroyed by Alliedbombing In Brittany and the Cotentin, moreover, it was necessary topreserve 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 itsbattalions were split on either side of the Orne River and its artillerycommitted on the coast. The disposition to all intents removed the 21stPanzer Division as a unit from the pool of mobile reserves. [74] The othertwo panzer divisions directly under Rommel’s command were placed inposition to reinforce the Fifteenth Army, one between Rouen and Paris, theother near Amiens. In May, another inspection tour convinced Rommel thatmovement of units from right to left into the invasion area would beimpossible. He therefore requested that the four divisions in OKW reservebe assembled nearer the coast. Rundstedt entered an immediate protest withOKW, contending that the move was tantamount to committing the reservesbefore the battle. OKW agreed, and Rommel’s proposal was turned down.

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

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