There is a Nazi conspiracy theory to explain their defeat in Normandy, which begins with D-Day itself. Hitler loyalists still accuse Rommel’s chief of staff, Generalleutnant Hans Speidel, of diverting panzer divisions from counter-attacking the British. This first ‘stab-in-the-back’ legend of 1944 pretends that Hitler had been awake early on 6 June, and that any delays in deploying the panzer divisions were not his fault. He was certain that Normandy was the site of the invasion from the first moment. But then Speidel, acting in Rommel’s absence, managed all by himself to sabotage the German response. This preposterous version, which attempts to switch the blame from Hitler to ‘treacherous’ officers of the German general staff, is riddled with countless holes and contradictions.
There was indeed a long-standing conspiracy against Hitler within the army, but nothing was ready by 6 June. So to suggest that Speidel was trying to misdirect the 12th SS Panzer-Division Hitler Jugend and hold back the 2nd and 116th Panzer-Divisions ready for a coup d’état in France at that moment is sheer fantasy. Speidel was, however, a key figure in the plot which produced the unsuccessful bomb explosion in East Prussia over six weeks later.
There was another level of opposition to Hitler, which did not believe in killing the dictator. This centred on Rommel himself, who wanted to force Hitler to make peace with the western Allies.43 If he refused, then they would bring him to trial. But the tyrannicides grouped round Generalmajor Henning von Tresckow and Colonel Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg rejected that course as doomed to failure. The SS and the Nazi Party would resist all the way. It would risk a civil war. Only the sudden decapitation of the Nazi regime in a coup d’état would allow them to form an administration which they hoped, with deeply misplaced optimism, that the western Allies might recognize.
Speidel had known Rommel since the First World War, when they had served together in the same regiment. On Speidel’s appointment as Rommel’s chief of staff, he had been summoned on 1 April to Führer headquarters at the Berghof. Jodl had briefed him on the ‘inflexible mission of defending the coast’, and told him that Rommel was ‘inclined to pessimism’ as a result of the African campaign. His task was to give Rommel encouragement.
When Speidel reached La Roche-Guyon two weeks later, Rommel spoke with bitterness about his experiences in Africa ‘and above all about Hitler’s constant attempts at deceit’. He added that the war should be ‘finished as quickly as possible’. Speidel then told him about his contacts with Generaloberst Ludwig Beck, a former chief of the army general staff, and the resistance movement in Berlin who were ‘ready and determined to do away with the present regime’. In subsequent discussions, Rommel condemned ‘the excesses of Hitler and the utter lawlessness of the regime’, but he still opposed assassination.
On 15 May, Rommel attended a secret conference with his old friend General Karl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel, the military commander of Belgium and northern France. Although a member of the anti-Hitler conspiracy, Stülpnagel was ‘a hardline anti-semite’. If he had not shot himself later, he would probably have faced a war crimes tribunal after the war for his activities on the eastern front and the persecution of Jews in France. The two men discussed ‘measures to be taken immediately for the termination of the war and elimination of the Hitler-regime’. Stülpnagel knew that they could not count on Generalfeldmarschall von Rundstedt, even though the ‘old Prussian’ was well aware of ‘the catastrophic situation’ and loathed the ‘Bohemian corporal’. Stülpnagel believed that in an uprising, ‘Field Marshal Rommel would be the only person who possessed the undisputed respect of the German people and armed forces, and even the Allies’.
A series of sympathetic visitors came to La Roche-Guyon, which became an ‘oasis’ for the Resistance. Towards the end of the month, General Eduard Wagner of the OKH44 briefed Rommel on the preparations of the resistance group within the army. The extreme nationalist writer Ernst Jünger, who was serving on Stülpnagel’s staff in Paris, presented him with his thoughts on the peace which should be made with the Allies. Speidel returned to Germany at the end of May to meet the former foreign minister Konstantin Freiherr von Neurath and Dr Karl Strölin, the mayor of Stuttgart. Both believed that Rommel’s involvement was essential to gain the confidence of the German people as well as that of the Allies. Speidel felt able to brief General Blumentritt, Rundstedt’s chief of staff, on the discussions.
Rommel and Speidel had agreed on a list of possible parliamentaries to talk to Eisenhower and Montgomery. It was headed by Geyr von Schweppenburg, who spoke excellent English, but after his dismissal they had to consider others. They would propose a withdrawal to Germany from all occupied territories in the west, while the Wehrmacht held a reduced front in the east. Rommel insisted that Hitler should be tried by a German court. He did not want to be the leader of the new regime. That role he felt should be taken by Generaloberst Beck or Dr Carl Goerdler, the former mayor of Leipzig. Rommel was, however, prepared to take command of the armed forces.
Few of the plotters appear to have imagined for a moment that the western Allies would reject their offer, even if they had been in a position to make it. Their proposals included an Allied recognition of the German annexation of the Sudetenland and theAnschluss with Austria, as well as the restoration of Germany’s 1914 borders. Alsace-Lorraine should be independent. They had no plans for the revival of a full parliamentary democracy, in fact their solution appeared to be basically a resurrection of the Second Reich, but without the Kaiser. Such a formula would have been greeted with incredulity by the American and British governments, as well as by the vast majority of the German people.
Speidel and Rommel began to sound out army, corps and divisional commanders. The two most obvious supporters in command of fighting troops were Generalleutnant Graf von Schwerin, the commander of 116th Panzer-Division, and Generalleutnant Freiherr von Lüttwitz of the 2nd Panzer-Division. It was Lüttwitz’s division which had received the German nurses from Cherbourg handed over by the Americans. When Hitler later heard of this contact with the enemy, he was outraged. He had already begun to fear that his generals might make peace overtures to the Americans behind his back.
After Rommel’s humiliating visit with Rundstedt on 29 June to Berchtesgaden, he came to the conclusion that they would have to act. Even Keitel, the worst Hitler lackey of them all, admitted to him in private, ‘I also know that nothing can be done any more.’ And two senior Waffen-SS commanders, Hausser and Eberbach, seem to have come to the conclusion that some form of unilateral action was unavoidable. At the beginning of July, just before the fall of Caen, Hitler’s favourite, Obergruppenführer Sepp Dietrich, the commander of I SS Panzer Corps, came to La Roche-Guyon to ask what the commander-in-chief was intending to do in view of the ‘imminent catastrophe’. According to Speidel, Dietrich assured them that the SS units were ‘firmly in his hands’. It is not clear how much Dietrich was told of the plans afoot. At the same time the new commander-in-chief of the Seventh Army, Obergruppenführer Hausser, also predicted collapse.
On 9 July, the day the British and Canadians moved into Caen, Oberstleutnant Cäsar von Hofacker, a cousin of Stauffenberg, was sent by General von Stülpnagel in Paris to see Generalfeldmarschall von Kluge. Kluge had been in contact with the German Army resistance group when on the eastern front, but now prevaricated. Hofacker was Stülpnagel’s chief contact with the plotters in Berlin. He tried to persuade Kluge on behalf of the resistance to end the war in the west by ‘independent action’ as soon as possible. The Allies would never negotiate with Hitler or one of his ‘paladins’, such as Göring, Himmler or Ribbentrop, so a change of government and the removal of the Nazi leaders were essential. He asked Kluge how long the Normandy front could hold out, because the decisions taken by the resistance in Berlin depended on his answer. ‘No longer than two to three weeks at best,’ he replied, ‘then a breakthrough must be expected which we will be unable to cope with.’
Rommel and Kluge met on 12 July to discuss the military situation and the political consequences. Rommel would also sound out his corps commanders one last time, then prepare an ultimatum to be presented to Hitler. While Rommel consulted corps commanders, Speidel went to see Stülpnagel, who was already preparing to eliminate the Gestapo and SS in France. Two days later, Hitler moved from Berchtesgaden to the Wolfsschanze in East Prussia. On the eastern front, the vast Red Army offensive now threatened the whole of Army Group Centre. New bunkers had been built and there were much stronger anti-aircraft defences in the forest around. But the work had not been fully completed, so there were Organisation Todt labourers still on site.
The next day, Rommel wrote an assessment of the western front for Hitler. This warned that the Allies would soon break through rapidly all the way to the German border. The paper ended with the words, ‘I must request you, mein Führer, to draw the conclusions from this situation without delay. Rommel, Field Marshal.’ After Rommel handed over the message for dispatch, he said to Speidel, ‘I have given Hitler one more chance. If he does not draw the necessary conclusions, we shall act.’
On 17 July, during their meeting at the headquarters of Panzer Group West, Rommel asked Eberbach for his views on the situation when they were alone. ‘We are experiencing the overwhelming disaster of a war on two fronts,’ Eberbach replied. ‘We have lost the war. But we must inflict on the western Allies the highest possible casualties to bring them to a ceasefire and then prevent the Red Army from breaking through to our Germany.’
‘I agree,’ Rommel replied, ‘but can you imagine the enemy engaging in any negotiations with us so long as Hitler is our leader?’ Eberbach had to accept the point. ‘So things cannot continue as they are,’ Rommel continued. ‘Hitler must go.’ The panzer divisions were desperately needed on the eastern front. In the west they would withdraw to the Siegfried Line while trying to negotiate.
‘Would it not then lead to a civil war,’ Eberbach asked, ‘which is worse than anything else?’ This was the great fear of most officers. It brought back memories of November 1918 and revolutionary uprisings in Berlin, Munich and the mutiny of the fleet in Wilhelmshaven. An hour later, Rommel suffered a fractured skull during the attack by Spitfires near Sainte-Foy-de-Montgommery. He had no idea that an assassination was planned for three days later.
Attempts on Hitler’s life had been made before, but they had failed through bad luck.45 Hitler had evaded death by changing his movements at the last moment, almost as if he had a feral sixth sense. Yet the plotters faced a more fundamental problem of which they seemed to be unaware: what would be the attitude of the Allies?
The British were far from convinced that removing Hitler would be an advantage. His direction of military affairs since just before the Battle of Stalingrad had been disastrous for the Wehrmacht. Six weeks before D-Day, 21st Army Group summed up the position: ‘The longer Hitler remains in power now, the better are Allied chances.’ Yet during June, there was a subtle shift. ‘The Chiefs of Staff,’ Churchill was informed, ‘were unanimous that, from the strictly military point of view, it was almost an advantage that Hitler should remain in control of German strategy, having regard to the blunders that he has made, but that on the wider point of view, the sooner he was got out of the way the better.’ Special Operations Executive took this pronouncement as a green light to start planning Operation Foxley, their own assassination attempt on Hitler. The idea was to ambush Hitler near the Berghof, but it was never seriously pursued. Hitler had in any case left Berchtesgaden, never to return, but, more importantly, Churchill became convinced that this time Germany had to be utterly defeated in the field. The Armistice in November 1918, and the consequent failure to occupy Germany itself, had provided the opportunity for the stab-in-the-back myth among nationalists and Nazis. They had convinced themselves that the German Army had been betrayed at home by revolutionaries and Jews.
In 1943, Stalin had cancelled his own plans to assassinate Hitler, although for rather different reasons.46 After Stalingrad, the Soviet Union no longer faced defeat, and he had suddenly begun to fear that if Hitler were removed, the western Allies might be tempted to come to a separate peace with Germany. There is absolutely no evidence that this was ever considered, but right up to the end of the war Stalin, who tended to judge others by himself, was haunted by the idea of a Wehrmacht rearmed by American industry, turning back the victorious advance of the Red Army. In fact, Churchill and Roosevelt were totally committed to the principle of forcing unconditional surrender on Germany.
Stauffenberg, Tresckow and most of their comrades might be considered naïve for expecting the western Allies to enter into negotiations on the death of Hitler. Their planning and preparation were also astonishingly amateur, when one considers their general staff training. A few had been early admirers of Hitler, until they were forced to face the criminal reality of the regime. Yet nobody can cast doubt on their courage and self-sacrifice. They longed somehow to preserve their idealized image of Germany, a high-minded, less nationalistic version of the pre-1914 Wilhelmine era. And they may have hoped to save family estates from Soviet destruction, although they probably recognized it was far too late. Their overriding motive, however, had become a moral compulsion. They knew that there would be very little popular support for this act, so they and their families would be treated as traitors by everyone, not just the Gestapo. The chances of success were slim. But, as Stauffenberg put it, ‘Since the generals have up to now managed nothing, the colonels have now to step in.’ It was their duty to attempt to salvage the honour of Germany and the German Army, despite the danger of laying down another stab-in-the-back legend for the future.
During his interrogation by Allied intelligence officers at the end of the war, General Walter Warlimont described events in East Prussia on 20 July. The midday situation conference took place as usual in the long wooden hut. Hitler entered at about 12.30. The room was bare save for a few chairs and a heavy oak table twenty feet long which ran the length of the room. Among those present were Field Marshal Keitel, Generaloberst Jodl, General Warlimont, General Buhle, Gruppenführer Fegelein and Hitler’s adjudants: General Schmundt, Admiral von Puttkamer and Oberstleutnant von Below.
General Heusinger, representing the chief of the army general staff, had begun his briefing when Stauffenberg entered. He was the chief of staff of the Replacement Army, the Ersatzheer. Stauffenberg, according to Warlimont, was carrying a ‘strikingly large briefcase’, which he placed under the oak table not far from Hitler, who had his back to the door. Because of the briefing, nobody noticed that Stauffenberg left the room a few minutes later.47
At 12.50 hours, ‘There suddenly occurred a terrific explosion which seemed to fill the whole room in dust, smoke and fire, and throw everything in all directions.’ When Warlimont recovered his senses, he saw Hitler being ‘led backwards through the door, supported by several attendants’. Casualties were remarkably few, only because the blast was dissipated through the windows and the thin walls. Hitler had been saved by Stauffenberg’s failure to arm the second bomb and by the heavy oak table support between the briefcase and him when the explosion took place.
At first, suspicion focused on the Organisation Todt workers, but during the early afternoon, a sergeant on the staff mentioned that Oberst von Stauffenberg had arrived with a briefcase and had been seen to leave without it. He had flown back to Berlin.
Stauffenberg, convinced that nobody could have survived the blast, had driven straight to the airfield. Meanwhile, a garbled message from a co-conspirator at the Wolfsschanze left the conspirator generals waiting in Berlin in a terrible state of uncertainty. They had congregated at the Bendlerblock, the headquarters of the Replacement Army in the Bendlerstrasse. Nobody knew for sure whether the bomb had gone off or not, or whether Hitler was alive or dead. Generaloberst Friedrich Fromm, the commander of the Replacement Army, refused to trigger the coup with the codeword ‘Valkyrie’ until he was sure that Hitler was dead. Without his certain elimination, a coup d’état stood virtually no chance of success.
To make matters worse, there was no car waiting at Tempelhof airfield to collect Stauffenberg, which delayed his return to the Bendlerblock for a further hour. Stauffenberg’s assistant rang through from the airfield to say that Hitler was dead. Stauffenberg also insisted that this must be true when he finally arrived, but Keitel had rung Fromm, demanding where Stauffenberg was. Keitel insisted that Hitler’s injuries were not serious. Fromm refused to act as a result, but other officers in the conspiracy went ahead. They sent out signals to different headquarters announcing that Hitler was dead.
The plan was to exploit an existing mechanism specifically designed to suppress a revolt in Berlin against the Hitler regime. The authorities feared an uprising, because there were ‘over a million foreign workers in Berlin, and if any revolution did start, these people would be a very great menace’. The codeword to set this counter-insurgency plan in motion was ‘Gneisenau’. It appears that somebody in the Bendlerblock had already jumped the gun, perhaps as a result of the telephone call from Tempelhof airfield to say that Hitler was dead. Because at 15.00 hours, Major Otto Remer, the commander of the Grossdeutschland Guard Regiment, was summoned with the codeword ‘Gneisenau’ to the offices of another senior member of the conspiracy, Generaloberst Paul von Hase, the military commander of Berlin.
At exactly the same time, the plot was triggered in Paris. General Blumentritt, Kluge’s chief of staff, was told by one of his own officers that Hitler had been killed in a ‘Gestapo riot’. He rang La Roche-Guyon to speak to Kluge, but was told that he was visiting the front in Normandy. Generalmajor Speidel asked Blumentritt to come immediately, as Kluge would be back that evening. Blumentritt, however, had no idea that General von Stülpnagel, the military commander, was issuing orders for the arrest of all Gestapo and SS officers in Paris.
There were many senior officers involved in the plot and so little organization or effective communication that the uncertainty over Hitler’s death was bound to cause delay and chaos. When Remer reached Hase’s office he noticed that the atmosphere was very nervous. Remer was told that the Führer had died in an incident, that a revolution had broken out and that ‘executive powers had been passed to the army’. Remer claimed later to have asked a series of questions. Was the Führer dead? Where was the revolution, as he had seen no sign of anything on his way? Were the revolutionists foreign workers? Why had executive power passed to the army rather than to the Wehrmacht? Who was to be Hitler’s successor and who had signed the orders passing control to the army?
Evidently, the plotters had not prepared themselves for such questions. Their answers were evasive and lacked confidence. Remer was suspicious, but still confused. He returned to his headquarters and summoned his officers. He ordered them to set up a cordon round the government buildings right down the Wilhelmstrasse. Remer’s suspicions were further aroused when he heard that a general who had been dismissed by Hitler had been sighted in Berlin. Then Remer received an order from General von Hase to arrest Goebbels. He refused, as Goebbels had been patron of theGrossdeutschland division. In the meantime, an officer, Leutnant Hans Hagen, who was even more suspicious than Remer of what was afoot, had been to see Goebbels to find out the truth. Hagen then convinced Remer that Goebbels, as Reich Commissioner of Defence for Berlin, was his direct superior. Even though General von Hase had specifically forbidden him to see Goebbels, Remer went to the propaganda ministry. He was still confused by the conflicting stories, and did not entirely trust Goebbels.
‘What do you know about the situation?’ Goebbels asked. Remer recounted what he had been told. Goebbels told him it was not true and put a call through to the Wolfsschanze. A few moments later, Remer found himself talking to Hitler. The voice was unmistakable.
‘Now we have the criminals and saboteurs of the eastern front,’ Hitler said to him. ‘Only a few officers are involved and we will eliminate them by the roots. You have been placed in a historic position. It is your responsibility to use your head. You are under my command until Himmler arrives to take over the Replacement Army. Do you understand me?’
Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring had also arrived in the office and asked what Hitler had said. Remer told him. Göring said that they should call out the SS. Remer replied that it was an army matter and that they would finish the task. Remer went out to find that a panzer detachment, summoned by the conspirators from the tank training base at Döberitz, had arrived in the Berlinerplatz. He spoke to their officer and took them under his command. Remer lifted the cordon around the Wilhelmstrasse and moved his troops to the Bendlerstrasse. The conspiracy was now doomed in Berlin.
In France, meanwhile, Kluge had returned to La Roche-Guyon around 20.00 hours and immediately called a conference. Blumentritt suspected that Kluge was involved in the plot simply because there had been two anonymous calls for him from the Reich. One of them was from General Beck, who failed to win him over at the last moment. Kluge insisted privately to Blumentritt that he had known nothing about the ‘outrage’. He did, however, admit that the previous year he had been contacted twice by the plotters, but ‘in the end’ he had refused.
At 20.10 hours, Ultra intercept stations picked up a signal from Generalfeldmarschall von Witzleben, ironically marked with the ultimate priority of ‘Führer-Blitz’. It began, ‘The Führer is dead. I have been appointed commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht, and also . . .’ At this point the text ceased. Thirty minutes later, Kluge received a signal from the OKW in East Prussia: ‘Today at midday, a despicable assassination attempt against the Führer was committed. The Führer is perfectly well.’ Kluge rapidly ordered Stülpnagel to release all the Gestapo and SS officers who had been arrested in Paris.
Confirmation that Hitler was alive made the waverers run for cover, even though it would not save them from the Gestapo later. News that Himmler had been appointed commander-in-chief of the Replacement Army was received with horror by army officers, who sometimes referred to him as the ‘Unterweltsmarschall’, the marshal of the underworld. An order was issued that the conventional army salute now had to be replaced by the ‘German salute’ of the Nazi Party.
Unaware that Kluge had already ordered Stülpnagel to release his prisoners, Himmler told the chief directorate of the SS to ring Sepp Dietrich. He was ordered to prepare to march on Paris with the 1st SS Panzer-Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler. Himmler seems to have been unaware that the division had just been involved in a major battle and could not possibly abandon the Bourguébus ridge at such a moment. He was also unaware that Hitler’s ‘loyal disciple’, Sepp Dietrich, had in Eberbach’s words, ‘almost turned revolutionary’.48
Back in Berlin, there was chaos in the Bendlerblock. Generaloberst Fromm, in a doomed attempt to save himself from suspicion, ordered the arrest and instant court martial of four of the other officers involved. He allowed Generaloberst Beck to keep his pistol, provided he used it immediately on himself. Presumably because his hand was shaking, Beck shot himself twice in the head. He grazed his scalp the first time, then inflicted a terrible wound with the second shot. An exasperated Fromm ordered a sergeant, some accounts say an officer, to finish him off.
The four, including Stauffenberg, who tried to take all the responsibility for the attempted assassination on himself, were executed in the courtyard of the Bendlerblock by the light of automobile headlights. A detachment of Remer’s men, who had just arrived, provided the firing squad. When it was Stauffenberg’s turn, illuminated by the headlights, he called out, ‘Long live holy Germany!’ Fromm, as desperate as ever to save himself, gave a grotesque speech over their bodies in praise of Hitler and ended with a triple ‘Sieg Heil!’
In France, Generalfeldmarschall von Kluge ordered the arrest of Stülpnagel at 01.25 hours on the morning of 21 July. That afternoon, Stülpnagel was put in a car to be taken back to Berlin for interrogation by the Gestapo. Because of his seniority, his escort had not taken away his pistol. When the car had stopped en route, presumably to give the occupants a chance to relieve themselves, Stülpnagel attempted to commit suicide, but managed only to shoot both his eyes out. He was taken to a hospital in Verdun to be patched up for the journey on to Berlin, where he would be tried and hanged. At 22.15 hours, it was announced that ‘the Military Commander of France, General von Stülpnagel, has been ambushed and wounded by terrorists’.
News of the assassination attempt ‘came like a bomb-shell’, in the words of Generalleutnant Bodo Zimmermann, one of Kluge’s senior staff officers. ‘As in the case of any sudden, unexpected event, a certain paralysis set in at first.’ For most officers the ‘burning question’ was, ‘What are the men at the front saying and doing? Would the front still hold?’ When word of the attempt reached a Kampfgruppe of the 21st Panzer-Division near Troarn, ‘its pread like wild-fire down the column’. Yet ‘the front kept on fighting as though nothing had happened’. The ‘high emotional tension of battle’ meant that the news only touched the average soldier ‘on the fringe of his consciousness . . . the combat soldier was in another world’. General Eberbach, on the other hand, later said he was ‘amazed’ at the ‘indignation and anger’ that the attempted putsch had provoked ‘not only among the SS Divisions but also among some of the infantry Divisions’. Most officers were appalled that the plotters could have broken their oath to the Führer.
Eberhard Beck with the 277th Infanterie-Division, recorded what happened when the news reached his artillery battery. ‘Our signaller heard over the radio that an attempt at assassination had been made against Adolf Hitler. His death could have been a turning point for us and we hoped that this pointless war would find its end.’ Their battery commander, Oberleutnant Freiherr von Stenglin, came over and announced that the attempt had failed. Hitler was alive. The order had been given that from now on every soldier must make the ‘German greeting’ (the Nazi salute), instead of the military one. Stenglin made his own sympathies very clear by promptly bringing ‘his hand up to the peak of his cap in the military salute’. Beck recorded that all his comrades were disappointed at the unlucky outcome. A few days later, Allied aircraft came over the German lines dropping propaganda leaflets. These gave details of the bomb plot and also of the Nazis’ new Sippenhaft decree, ordering reprisals against the families of those involved.
The reaction of Stenglin and Beck was far from universal. Most junior officers were shaken and confused, yet preferred not to dwell on the subject. Staff officers like Zimmermann, on the other hand, suffered a ‘feeling of moral oppression and worry’. Some were curiously shocked that Stauffenberg had placed a bomb and then left the scene. An assassination by pistol, during which the assassin had been gunned down, seemed to them more in keeping with the honour of the German officer corps. What depressed them most, however, was that the failed attempt handed all power to the fanatics and eliminated any possibility of a compromise peace.49 ‘Those who were far-seeing,’ wrote Zimmermann, ‘thought this is the beginning of the end, a terrible signal. The die-hards thought: it is good that the treacherous reactionaries have been unmasked and that we can now make a clean sweep of them.’
In London, hopes were raised that the failed bomb plot ‘might well be the proverbial pebble which starts the avalanche’. But Hitler’s belief that providence had saved him made him even more convinced of his military genius, to the despair of his generals. He happened to be right, however, about one thing. He described the idea of a truce with the British and Americans, perhaps even persuading them to join the war against the Soviet Union, as ‘an idiotic idea’. The plotters, he said, were ‘unbelievably naïve’ and their attempt to kill him was ‘like a Wild West story’.
Conspiracy theories flourished in Nazi circles over the next few months, once the large numbers of officers involved in the plot and their sympathizers became clearer. Altogether some 5,000 were arrested. These theories extended beyond the idea that Speidel had deliberately misdirected the panzer divisions on 6 June. Once Plan Fortitude and the threat of a second landing in the Pas-de-Calais were finally seen to have been a brilliant hoax, the SS became convinced that there had been treason within Fremde Heere West, the military intelligence department dealing with the western Allies. The SS demanded how military intelligence could have swallowed a deception involving a whole army group which never existed. Staff officers were suspected of having inflated Allied strengths deliberately, and accused of the ‘falsification of the enemy situation’.
Tensions between Waffen-SS and the German Army also grew rapidly in the field in Normandy over the coming month. As rations were drastically reduced because of Allied air attacks on supply transport, SS foraging parties looted without compunction and threatened any army soldiers trying to do the same.
The one thing on which army and Waffen-SS seemed to agree in Normandy was their continued exasperation with the Luftwaffe. General Bülowius, the commander of II Air Corps, regarded this as very unfair. Allied air supremacy meant his aircraft were intercepted as soon as they took off, and bombers were forced to drop their loads long before they reached the target area. He suffered from the army’s ‘daily reports which even reached Führer headquarters that their own Luftwaffe and own aircraft were nowhere to be seen’. As a result he received ‘many unpleasant reproaches and accusations’ from the highest quarters.
Luftwaffe aircrew in Normandy consisted of a surviving handful of aces, while the vast majority were cannon fodder straight out of flying school. Major Hans-Ekkehard Bob, a fighter group commander with fifty-nine victories, often found himself being pursued by eight or ten Mustangs. He survived only by using all his flying skills, twisting and turning almost at ground level round small woods and church towers. He claims he was helped greatly by the intense competition between American pilots, each desperate to shoot him down and thus getting in each other’s way.
Since every known airfield was bombed and strafed by the Allied air forces on a regular basis, fighter squadrons deployed to woods close to a stretch of straight road, which they could use as a runway. They had to land and then turn off into the trees, where ground crews would be ready to cover the plane with camouflage nets. For this sort of work, the Focke-Wulf 190, with its wide undercarriage and robust construction, proved much more effective than the Messerschmitt 109.
As Rommel and Kluge had warned, the German forces in Normandy were close to breaking point. They had received only a very small number of men to replace their losses. ‘Alarm units’ of clerks and others known disparagingly as ‘half-soldiers’ were brought forward to fill some of the gaps in the front-line divisions. They were not just losing men to enemy action. The reduced rations due to Allied air attacks prompted desertions, both of Poles, Osttruppen,50 Alsatians and Volksdeutsche, but also of Germans born in the Reich.51
Some were soldiers who did not believe in the Nazi regime or who just hated the war. A British doctor was suspicious at the enthusiastic help of a young German soldier who had surrendered. Sensing this distrust, the boy pulled out a snapshot of his girlfriend and showed it to him. ‘No, no,’ he said. ‘I play no tricks. I want to live to see her!’
Generalleutnant von Lüttwitz, the commander of the 2nd PanzerDivision , was shocked when three of his Austrians deserted to the enemy. He warned that the names of any deserters would be published in their home towns so that measures could be taken against their relatives. ‘If somebody betrays his own people,’ he announced, ‘then their family does not belong within the German national community.’ Lüttwitz may have supported the idea of resisting Hitler, but he was still prepared to adopt measures of a Nazi character.
Treatment of SS soldiers was even harsher. According to a Führer decree, SS soldiers could be accused of high treason if they were taken prisoner by the enemy unwounded. They had been forcefully reminded of this just before the invasion. It was hardly surprising that the British and Canadians captured so few SS alive.52 But perhaps the most horrific story of SS discipline came from an Alsatian drafted into the 1st SS Panzer-Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler. A fellow Alsatian in the 11th Company of the 1st SS Regiment of the Leibstandarte, who had also been forcibly recruited, deserted and tried to escape in a column of French refugees. He was spotted by members of their regiment and brought back. Their commander then ordered members of his own company to beat him to death. With every bone in his body broken, the corpse was thrown into a shell-hole. The captain declared that this was an example of ‘Kameradenerziehung’, an ‘education in comradeship’.