Asleep at the Switch


Erwin Rommel knew that he had to stop the Allies on the beach when they invaded France. This was mandated simply by the dominant air superiority the British and Americans had. The field marshal had seen, in North Africa, what damage the aircraft could do to any column of troops or formation of tanks. If the Allied army got a foothold on the French coast, they might well be able to reinforce it quicker and in greater numbers using ships from Britain than he could transport over what remained of the French highways and railroads. History is to show that he was correct. Part of Rommel’s reaction to this reality was to pour money and labor down the drain of the West Wall. His other efforts were spent attempting to ensure that there would be enough men, tanks, and artillery near where the Allies landed to throw them back into the sea.

Erwin Rommel’s opinion was not shared by everyone. Having seen the damage ships’ guns could do at Salerno, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt wanted to let the Allies land and then chew them apart on a line that was just out of the range of the naval weapons. Hitler, as always, did not want to give up an inch of French soil and pushed to make the beach defense of the West Wall so strong that the landing craft never made it to shore. But he also encouraged the competing views of both of his field marshals.

A chart of the actual command situation in France in 1944 would resemble a plate of spaghetti, with lines of command and responsibility that bore little resemblance to those on the charts on the walls of the high command in Berlin. The high command (OKW) ran the war in the west, but Hitler personally could, and often did, override their decisions. These changes could be quite painful for the staff and OKW generals: By this time, the Führer was disposed to screaming fits and loud lectures. Just telling Hitler something he did not want to hear could be hazardous to your career; and explaining why any order or demand he made was wrong could have fatal consequences. Often these consequences involved a long train ride to the Eastern Front.

While Field Marshal Wilhelm von Keitel was in overall command of France, he did not have control of the Third Air Fleet, which Goering held tightly, or Navy Group West. The navy group had few ships, but it did control most of the heavy guns built into the West Wall. So the man in charge of defending France was not in control of much of his shore artillery and none of the aircraft in the theater. The ground forces in France and the Low Countries were commanded by von Rundstedt. He controlled, when his orders were not countermanded by Hitler, fifty-eight divisions, including seven panzer divisions. Also in France were almost totally independent panzer units controlled by the SS. The SS were responsible directly to only Hitler or their own headquarters in Berlin.

Preparing to meet the Allied landing as it moved inland, von Rundstedt located a strong reserve force, including most of the panzers available, near Paris. Erwin Rommel felt that with Allied air superiority, any unit not close to the front would be unable to get there until it was too late to matter. So he lobbied to have the best units, including most of the tanks, stationed near the beach. He even went over his commanding officer’s head, talking Hitler into giving him control of all seven of the panzer divisions in France. Needless to say, Field Marshal von Rundstedt was upset to be overruled and went himself to the Führer. So Hitler reversed himself and gave control of the panzers back to von Rundstedt. But both men continued to bicker, and eventually Hitler made a compromise by assigning three of the panzer divisions to Rommel and four to von Rundstedt for the OKW reserve. This was a mistake since now neither field marshal had a large enough force to be decisive.

Complicating the scenario for the Germans even more was the question of where the Allied landing would be. For a range of reasons, which included excellent deceptions in England to the opinion that the V1 and V2 rockets were so effective that they had to be the Allies’ first target, Hitler and many of his generals were sure the real landing would be at the Pas-de-Calais. It also sat across the narrowest part of the Channel. There was even a lot of chatter and messages from Nazi spies who had turned into double agents that the landing at Normandy was really a diversion and no more than a large raid. Every effort was made to reinforce the defenses based on this mistaken assumption.

Because of the complicated command structure, the rivalry between the German field marshals, and the expectations of Hitler, when 75,000 British, Canadian, French, and American troops landed on four beaches, only the three panzer divisions under Rommel reacted. And he was proven correct about one thing. Even the nearby panzers had problems moving short distances by day due to attacks by the Allied airplanes. And the four panzer divisions commanded by von Rundstedt? They sat and waited. Not just for Hitler to wake up in the morning and approve an order to move, but for Hitler to wake up and realize Normandy was the real landing. Then when the tanks of OKW reserve finally began to move toward the fighting, they soon found out just how much Rommel had been correct. Harassment by the Allied air forces slowed or simply prevented them from moving at all during daylight. More than half the German panzers took no part in the fighting during the first and most vulnerable days of the landing.

Hitler made the mistake of splitting the best weapon Germany had to meet the Allied invasion with: its armored units. By doing so, he ensured they could not all join in a truly decisive counterattack. Then because of Hitler’s mercurial nature and his holding on to the belief that the real Allied invasion was still going to be at Pas-de-Calais, there was a delay in committing more than half of his panzer divisions until it was too late. By the time they arrived, the landings were a success, and Germany’s defeat in France almost assured.

On D-Day in Normandy on June 6, 1944, the first wave that landed on Juno Beach suffered 50 percent casualties. On Utah Beach, things were just as bad. The assault went so badly on Omaha Beach that General Omar Bradley almost pulled the troops back off when they bogged down with massive casualties only a few yards onto the sand of the beach. At any one of these beaches, the addition of a panzer division to the initial defense might well have wiped out or driven off the landing. If each beach had one additional division, the entire invasion would have been in shambles. With only two beachheads left, the flanks of both would have been open to the very type of attack the panzers excelled at. In addition, if the fourth reserve panzer division had been in the area where the paratroopers landed, this would have meant their total destruction.

With intense naval bombardment and massive air support, the Allied armies might well have gained and expanded their five D-Day beachheads. If Eisenhower had been willing to endure the casualties, there would have been enough men waiting offshore to reinforce what beaches were held, even in the face of momentous losses. D-Day most likely still would have succeeded, but only at a terrible cost in lives. The loss might have been so great that the breakout and conquest of France might well have been delayed by weeks or longer. So by personality, purposely muddled command, and a decision made as a compromise, Hitler himself made the key mistakes that guaranteed the success of the Normandy D-Day landing.

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