Watch on the Channel

While the Wehrmacht awaited the invasion, Hitler remained at the Berghof, his Alpine residence on the mountainside above Berchtesgaden. On 3 June, as the Allied ships were loading, a wedding had taken place in these rarefied surroundings. Eva Braun’s younger sister, Gretl, married SS-Gruppenführer Hermann Fegelein, Himmler’s representative at Führer headquarters. Guests wore their best clothes or dress uniform. The one exception was Hitler in his usual mouse-grey tunic. He seldom dressed up whatever the occasion. Hitler, assuming the role of father of the bride, did not object to the abundance of champagne being served and he allowed them to dance to an SS band. He left the bridal party early to let them celebrate late into the night. Martin Bormann became so drunk on schnapps that he had to be carried back to his chalet.

Hitler was in a confident mood. He longed for the enemy to come, certain that an Allied invasion would be smashed on the Atlantic Wall. The Reich propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, even implied that the Allies would not dare to cross the Channel. His great slogan at the time was: ‘They are supposed to be coming. Why don’t they come?’

Hitler had convinced himself that defeating the invasion would knock the British and Americans out of the war. Then he could concentrate all his armies on the eastern front against Stalin. The casualties the German armies in France would suffer in this great defensive battle did not concern him. He had already demonstrated what little attention he paid to loss of life, even in his own guard formation, the 1st SS Panzer-Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler. Yet he sent the men Christmas boxes each year containing chocolate and schnapps, but no cigarettes since that would be bad for their health. Himmler had to make up this deficiency from SS resources.

The Atlantic Wall, which supposedly stretched from Norway to the Spanish frontier, was more a triumph of propaganda for home consumption than a physical reality. Hitler had once again fallen victim to his own regime’s self-deception. He refused to acknowledge any comparisons to France’s Maginot Line of 1940 or even listen to complaints from those responsible for the coastal defences. They lacked sufficient concrete for the bunkers and batteries, because Hitler himself had given priority to massive U-boat shelters. The Kriegsmarine had lost the battle of the Atlantic, but he still believed that the new generation of submarines being developed would destroy Allied shipping.

Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, the Commander-in-Chief West, regarded the Atlantic Wall as ‘just a bit of cheap bluff’. Like many senior officers, the elderly Rundstedt did not forget Frederick the Great’s dictum ‘He who defends everything defends nothing.’ He believed that the Wehrmacht should abandon Italy, ‘that frightful boot of a country’, and hold a line across the Alps. He also disagreed with the retention of so many troops in Norway, whose strategic importance he considered ‘a purely naval affair’.3

Almost all senior German officers were privately scathing about Hitler’s obsession with ‘fortresses’. The ports of Dunkirk, Calais, Boulogne, Le Havre and Cherbourg on the Channel coast, and Brest, La Rochelle and Bordeaux on the Atlantic, had each been designated a ‘Festung’ to be held to the last man. Hitler also refused to contemplate bringing in the strengthened division based on the Channel Islands because, judging the British by himself, he was certain that they would want to take back the only piece of their territory that he had managed to occupy.

Hitler had convinced himself that his ‘fortress’ orders, both in the east and in the west, provided the best way to hold back the enemy and prevent his own generals from permitting retreats. In fact it meant that the garrisons - 120,000 men in the case of northern France - would not be available later to help defend Germany. His policy was contrary to every traditional tenet of the German general staff, which insisted on flexibility. And when Rundstedt pointed out that, with their guns and concrete emplacements facing seawards, they were vulnerable to attack from the landward side, his observation was ‘not favourably received’.

Yet even many experienced officers, and not just the fanatics of the Waffen-SS, looked forward to the approaching battle with some confidence. ‘We considered the repulse at Dieppe as proof that we could repel any invasion,’ Generalleutnant Fritz Bayerlein told his American interrogators later. An urge to get to grips with the enemy on the ground was widespread. ‘The face of the war has changed dramatically,’ a lieutenant wrote just five days before the landings. ‘It is no longer like it is in the cinema, where the best places are at the back. We continue to stand by and hope that they’re coming soon. But I’m still worried that they’re not coming at all, but will try to finish us off by air.’ Two days after the invasion he was killed by Allied bombers.

The key question, of course, was where the Allies would attack. German contingency planning had considered Norway and Denmark, and even landings in Spain and Portugal. Staff officers of the OKW, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, looked carefully at the possibilities of attacks against France’s Mediterranean coast and the Bay of Biscay, especially Brittany and also around Bordeaux. But the most likely areas would be those well within range of Allied airbases in southern and eastern England. This meant anywhere from the coast of Holland all the way down the Channel to Cherbourg at the tip of the Cotentin peninsula.

Hitler had given the task of improving the Channel defences to Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel, the commander-in-chief of Army Group B. Rommel, a former Hitler loyalist, had become dejected by the effects of Allied air superiority in North Africa. The energetic panzer commander who had been made a national hero now referred cynically to Hitler’s mesmerizing pep talks aimed at depressed generals as ‘sun-ray treatments’. But Rommel never slackened in his attempts to improve the coastal defences.

The most obvious target of all was the Pas-de-Calais. This offered the Allies the shortest sea route, the greatest opportunity for constant air support and a direct line of advance to the German frontier less than 300 kilometres away. This invasion, if successful, could cut off German forces further west and also overrun the V-1 launching sites, which would soon be ready. For all these reasons, the main defences of the whole Atlantic Wall had been concentrated between Dunkirk and the Somme estuary. This region was defended by the Fifteenth Army.

The second most likely invasion area consisted of the Normandy beaches to the west. Hitler began to suspect that this might well be the Allied plan, but he predicted both stretches of coast so as to make sure that he could claim afterwards that he had been right. The Kriegsmarine, however, bizarrely ruled out the Normandy coastline in the belief that landings could be made only at high tide. This sector, running from the Seine to Brittany, remained the responsibility of the German Seventh Army.

Rommel chose as his headquarters the Château de la Roche-Guyon, which lay on a great bend of the River Seine, which marked the boundary between his two armies. With chalk cliffs behind and a ruined Norman stronghold on the heights above, it looked down across the parterres of a famous herb garden to the great river below. The Renaissance entrance set in medieval walls seemed entirely fitting for the seat of the Rochefoucauld family.

With Rommel’s permission, the current duke and his relations kept apartments on the upper floor of the great house. Rommel seldom used the state rooms apart from the grand salon, with its magnificent Gobelin tapestries. There he worked, looking out over a rose garden not yet in flower. His desk had been the one on which the revocation of the Edict of Nantes had been signed in 1685, a measure which had sent the Huguenot ancestors of many Wehrmacht officers to seek new lives in Prussia.

Rommel seldom spent daylight hours at the château. He usually rose at five, breakfasted with Generalleutnant Hans Speidel, his chief of staff, then set out immediately on tours of inspection in his Horch staff car, accompanied by no more than a couple of officers. Staff conferences were held in the evening on his return, then he dined frugally with his closest entourage, often just Speidel and Konteradmiral Friedrich Ruge, Rommel’s naval adviser and friend. Afterwards, he would continue the discussion with them outside, strolling under two huge cedar trees. They had much to talk about in private.

Rommel was exasperated by Hitler’s refusal to bring the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine under a centralized command for the defence of France. Encouraged by Göring and Admiral Dönitz, Hitler instinctively preferred to maintain rival organizations which only he could control from the top. Speidel argued that the Luftwaffe had more than a third of a million ground staff and signals personnel in the west, all part of Göring’s empire building. To make matters worse, the Reichsmarschall refused to put his flak corps at the service of the army, which his own aircraft could not defend from Allied air attack.

Whenever Rommel complained of the uselessness of the Luftwaffe, Führer headquarters would try to impress him with the prospect of a thousand new jet fighters and countless rockets to bring Britain to its knees. Not only did he refuse to believe these promises, he knew that his hands were tied operationally. Ever since the Battle of Stalingrad, Hitler had not allowed a flexible defence. Every inch of ground must be held.

Speidel, a member of the army’s resistance movement, recorded that Rommel himself bitterly quoted Hitler’s own dictum in Mein Kampf from the days of the Weimar Republic: ‘When the Government of a nation is leading it to its doom, rebellion is not only the right but the duty of every man.’ Rommel, however, unlike Speidel and the plotters in Berlin motivated by Oberst Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, did not believe in assassination.

The elderly Rundstedt, on the other hand, while constantly referring in private to Hitler as ‘that Bohemian corporal’, would never have contemplated revolt. If others were to remove the Nazi ‘brown band’, then he would not stand in their way, but he would certainly not commit himself. His ambivalence went deeper. Rundstedt had accepted massive amounts of money from Hitler and must have felt compromised as a result. But even Speidel underestimated the depths to which Rundstedt would sink after the attempted revolution against Hitler failed.

Rundstedt had become almost as much a figurehead of the army and nation as Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg after the First World War. The British regarded ‘the Last Prussian’ as nothing more sinister than a reactionary Guards officer and failed to appreciate that he shared many of the Nazis’murderous prejudices. Rundstedt had never objected to the mass murders of Jews by the SS Einsatzgruppen on the eastern front. He had then spoken of the advantages of using the Russian slave labourer in France. ‘If he does not do as he is told,’ he said, ‘he can quite simply be shot.’

Rundstedt’s dismay over Hitler’s disastrous conduct of the war had turned into a lethargic cynicism. He showed little interest in the theory of panzer tactics and held himself aloof from the fierce debate over the best way to fight the invasion. This was conducted mainly between Rommel on the one hand, who wanted a forward defence to defeat the Allies as they landed, and the two leading proponents of a massive armoured counter-attack on the other: Generaloberst Heinz Guderian, the inspector-general of panzer troops, and General der Panzertruppen Leo Freiherr Geyr von Schweppenburg.

Geyr, a former military attaché in London who bore a certain resemblance to Frederick the Great, was rather more cultivated than many of his contemporaries. His intellectual arrogance, however, made him a number of enemies, especially within Führer headquarters and the SS, who suspected his loyalty to the regime. As commander-in-chief of Panzer Group West, Geyr believed with Guderian that a panzer army should be assembled in the forests north of Paris ready to smash the enemy back into the sea.

Rommel, who first made his name as a bold panzer leader in 1940, had since been profoundly influenced by his experiences in North Africa. And now that the Allies had achieved total air supremacy over north-west Europe, he believed that panzer divisions held back from the front for a counter-attack would never be allowed to reach the battle in time to ensure a decisive result. Predictably, a bad compromise was the result of Hitler’s insistent meddling and the confused command structure. Neither Geyr nor Rommel had control over all the panzer divisions, because Hitler would only permit them to be deployed with his approval.

Increasingly convinced that the Allies might well land in Normandy after all, Rommel visited the coastal defences there frequently. He thought that the long curving bay which the Allies had designated as Omaha beach was similar to Salerno, where they had landed in Italy. Certain that the outcome would be decided in the first two days, Rommel was tireless in his efforts. Turrets from French tanks captured in 1940 were fixed to concrete bunkers. They were known as ‘Tobrouks’, from the battle in North Africa. French labourers and Italian prisoners of war were drafted in to erect large posts to thwart glider landings on the most likely sites identified by German paratroop officers. These forests of stakes were nicknamed ‘Rommel asparagus’.

The Army Group commander’s energy produced mixed feelings in many unit commanders. All the time spent on improving the defences had left fewer opportunities for training. They also suffered from a shortage of ammunition for range practice, which may well have contributed to the generally bad marksmanship of many German units. Rommel also insisted on a dramatic increase in the number of minefields. A British officer heard later from prisoners that many of the dummy minefields had in fact been marked out on the orders of German officers purely to impress their demanding commander-in-chief. They had assumed that he would not poke about too much to check that they were real.

In theory, Rundstedt’s command included one and a half million members of the Wehrmacht, although he had no control over the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine. The army units, with 850,000 men all told, were of very mixed quality. Of the thirty-six infantry divisions, just over half had no transport or mobile artillery. These were mainly the formations allotted for coastal defence. Some even included ‘ear and stomach battalions’, composed either of soldiers who had suffered stomach wounds or - a truly surreal notion when it came to giving orders in battle - of those who had lost their hearing.

Many of the Germans in other infantry divisions in France were either comparatively old or else very young. The writer Heinrich Böll, then an Obergefreiter in the 348th Infanterie-Division, wrote, ‘it is really sad to see these children’s faces in grey uniforms’. The infantry had also suffered, because the best recruits were sent to the SS, the Luftwaffe paratroop divisions or the panzer corps. ‘No good replacements were ever sent to the infantry divisions,’ observed General Bayerlein. ‘That is one reason why good panzer units had to be kept in the front line for an excessive time.’

Numbers on the western front had also been made up with conscripts from Alsace, Lorraine and Luxembourg, as well as those defined as Volksdeutsch. These included men deemed to be of German extraction born in central Europe from the Baltic to the Black Sea, even though few of them spoke or understood the language. Poles had also been forcibly conscripted.

Around one-fifth of the troops in the Seventh Army command were Poles by birth or Osttruppen - eastern troops recruited from Soviet prisoners of war. Many had volunteered only to save themselves from starvation or disease in German camps. Their deployment on the eastern front had not been a great success, so the Nazi regime had withdrawn them gradually, to be incorporated into General Andrei Vlasov’s ROA, or Russian Liberation Army. Most had then been sent to France. They were organized in battalions, but the German attitude to Slav Untermenschen changed little. As in the occupied territories of the Soviet Union, they were often used in anti-partisan operations. Generalfeldmarschall von Rundstedt approved of the idea that their presence and tendency to loot would create an ‘apprehensive impression about the invasion of France by the Soviet army’.

German officers and NCOs who commanded them were anxious about being shot in the back by their own men once the fighting started. A number of these Osttruppen deserted to French resistance groups. Many surrendered to the Allies at the first opportunity, but a second change of side would not save them from Stalin’s revenge at the end of the war. In any case, German attempts to stiffen their morale with hatred of the western Allies - the ‘Plutokratenstaaten Amerika und England ’- proved a failure. Only a couple of units, such as the Ostbataillon Huber, were to fight effectively in the battle to come.

For French civilians, the Osttruppen presented an unusual sight. A citizen of Montebourg on the Cotentin peninsula, a town which was to experience heavy fighting, watched in amazement when a battalion of Georgians marched down the main street behind an officer mounted on a grey horse. They were singing an unfamiliar song, ‘very different to the usual “Heidi-Heidi-Hos” which had rung in our ears since 1940’.

The French, who sometimes referred to the Volksdeutsche as ‘booty Germans’, showed most sympathy towards the conscripted Poles. One woman in Bayeux heard from Poles in the German army that word had spread secretly from Warsaw that they should surrender to the Allies as soon as possible and then transfer to the Polish army of General Anders, fighting with the British. These Poles also spread word to the French of the SS extermination camps. Their existence was not always believed, particularly if accompanied by garbled details, such as a story that Jewish corpses were rendered into sugar. These Poles also foresaw the fate of their own country as the Soviet armies advanced. ‘You will be liberated,’ they said to the French, ‘but we will be occupied for years and years.’

In stark contrast to the weak infantry divisions were the panzer and panzergrenadier divisions of the Waffen-SS and the army. Generalleutnant Fritz Bayerlein, one of Rommel’s officers from North Africa, commanded the Panzer Lehr Division, whose cadres were based on the staff from the armoured training establishments. When he took over, Guderian told him, ‘With this division on its own you must throw the Allies into the sea. Your objective is the coast - no, not the coast - it is the sea.’

Other full-strength armoured divisions which would fight in Normandy included the 2nd Panzer-Division under Generalleutnant Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz, a tubby man with a monocle. Rommel trusted him enough to open negotiations with the Allies, if the need arose. The armoured formation closest to the Normandy coast was the 21st Panzer-Division, which would face the British in front of Caen. Equipped with the Mark IV tank, rather than the latest Panthers or Tigers, a sixth of its personnel consisted of Volksdeutsche. According to their commander, Generalleutnant Edgar Feuchtinger, they ‘could hardly understand orders and could hardly be understood by their NCOs and officers’. Feuchtinger was a convinced Nazi who had helped organize the Berlin Olympics of 1936. Unadmired by his colleagues, he was also a philanderer. On the night of the invasion, he was with his mistress in Paris.

Those fighting in Normandy, especially in the British sector on the eastern flank round Caen, would see one of the greatest concentrations of SS panzer divisions since the Battle of Kursk. There would be the 1st SS Panzer-Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler; the 12th SS Panzer-Division Hitler Jugend, which contained the youngest and most fanatical troops of all, and then later, when they were transferred from the eastern front, the 9th SS Panzer-Division Hohenstaufen and the 10th SS Panzer-Division Frundsberg. British armour would also encounter two SS Tiger battalions, with devastating consequences. The American forces to the west would find themselves facing only the 17th SS Panzergrenadier-Division Götz von Berlichingen, the weakest and worst trained of all the Waffen-SS formations in Normandy, and the 2nd SS Panzer-Division Das Reich, which was soon to become even more infamous for its brutality. But the Americans would come up against many more infantry divisions. Of these, General der Fallschirmtruppen Eugen Meindl’s II Paratroop Corps would prove the most formidable.

The commander of LXXXIV Corps, which controlled the Normandy sector, was General der Artillerie Erich Marcks, a highly respected and intelligent leader. Thin and wiry, he had lost one eye in the First World War and a deep scar ran across his nose and cheek. The bespectacled Marcks had also lost a leg earlier in the Second World War. ‘He was of Spartan-like, old Prussian simplicity,’ wrote one of his admiring officers. On one occasion, when whipped cream was served at dinner, he said, ‘I do not wish to see this again as long as our country is starving.’

Marcks was indeed an exception. Since its defeat in 1940, France had been seen as ‘a conqueror’s paradise’, according to Rundstedt’s chief of staff, General Günther Blumentritt. As a posting, the country represented the complete antithesis of the Russian front. In fact unmarried officers on leave from the war in the east tried to obtain passes for Paris instead of spending it in an austere and heavily bombed Berlin. They far preferred the prospect of sitting in the sun outside cafés on the Champs-Elysées, then dining in Maxim’s and going on to nightclubs and cabarets afterwards.

Even the idea of civilians helping the Allies did not seem to disturb them too much. ‘The enemy will certainly be well informed because it is easy to conduct espionage here,’ wrote a technical officer from the 9th Panzer-Division on leave in Paris. ‘There are signposts everywhere and generally relationships between soldiers and the fair sex are very close. I have spent wonderful days here. One really has to have seen and experienced Paris oneself and I’m glad I had the opportunity. You can get everything here in Paris.’

Formations transferred from the eastern front, especially Waffen-SS divisions, believed that the soldiers garrisoned in France had become soft. ‘They had done nothing but live well and send things home,’ commented one general. ‘France is a dangerous country, with its wine, women and pleasant climate.’ The troops of the 319th Infanterie-Division on the Channel Islands were even thought to have gone native from mixing with the essentially English population. They received the nickname of the ‘King’s Own German Grenadiers’. Ordinary soldiers, however, soon called it ‘the Canada Division’, because Hitler’s refusal to redeploy them meant that they were likely to end up in Canadian prisoner of war camps.

Members of the German occupation army in France indeed led an easy life. This had been helped by the correct behaviour demanded by their commanders towards the civilian population. In Normandy, the farmers above all had simply wanted to get on with their lives and their work. It was usually the arrival of SS units or Osttruppen in a neighbourhood during the spring of 1944 which led to outbreaks of drunken violence, with shooting in the streets at night, occasional incidents of rape and frequent examples of robbery and looting.

Many German officers and soldiers had struck up liaisons with young Frenchwomen in the provinces as well as in Paris, and for those without a girlfriend there was an army brothel in Bayeux. This had been established in the quiet little town along with an army cinema, a military dental practice and other facilities attached to the Maison de la Wehrmacht. German soldiers in France, especially those quartered amid the rich farmlands of Normandy, availed themselves of another advantage. Those going home on leave went back with wooden boxes packed with meat and dairy produce for families having to survive on ever-diminishing rations. As Allied air attacks against rail communications intensified in the spring of 1944, Norman farmers had found it increasingly difficult to market their produce. Ordinary German soldiers known as ‘Landser’ and NCOs were able to swap their cigarette ration for butter and cheese, which they would then send back to Germany. The only problem was that the air attacks on transport also made the Feldpost less reliable.

One senior NCO spent a night before the invasion in a dugout with his company commander, discussing how people back in Germany would react when it came. He was, however, preoccupied by another problem. ‘I have here more than four kilos of butter,’ he wrote to his wife, Laura, ‘and I very much want to send it to you, if I only get the opportunity.’ He presumably never did, because a few days later he ‘gave his life für Führer, Volk und das Großdeutsche Reich’, according to the standard formula which his company commander used in a letter of condolence to his wife.

One soldier in the 716th Infanterie-Division defending the coast was asked by a French storekeeper how he would react when the invasion came. ‘I will behave like a mussel,’ he replied. Many, however, thought of their patriotic duty. ‘Don’t be too concerned if I am not able to write in the near future or if I am in action,’ a senior NCO with the 2nd Panzer-Division wrote home. ‘I will write to you as often as I can, even if sparks really begin to fly. One cannot rule out the possibility that the great blow against the Fatherland, of which our enemies have been dreaming for so long, will now be struck. You can be sure though that we will stand firm.’

During those first days of June, there were numerous contradictory indications of the expected invasion. According to Rommel’s naval adviser, Konteradmiral Ruge, an imminent attack was discounted because of the weather. German meteorologists, who lacked the information available to the Allies from weather stations in the western Atlantic, believed that conditions would not be right before 10 June. Rommel decided to seize the opportunity to return to Germany for his wife’s birthday and to see Hitler at Berchtesgaden to ask him for two more panzer divisions. He clearly showed great confidence in the forecasts, for he had not forgotten his absence from the Afrika Korps due to illness when Montgomery launched the Battle of Alamein, nineteen months earlier. Generaloberst Friedrich Dollman, the commander-in-chief of the Seventh Army, also decided on the basis of the weather forecasts to hold a command post exercise for divisional commanders in Rennes on 6 June.

Others, however, seemed to sense that something might be happening this time, even after all the false alerts that spring. On 4 June, Obersturmführer Rudolf von Ribbentrop, the son of Hitler’s foreign minister, was returning from a 12th SS Panzer-Division radio exercise when his vehicle was machine-gunned by an Allied fighter. He was visited the next day in hospital by a member of the German embassy in Paris. The diplomat said as he was leaving that, according to the latest report, the invasion was due to start that day.

‘Well, another false alarm,’ said Ribbentrop.

‘The fifth of June is not quite over yet,’ his visitor replied.

In Brittany, an increase in Resistance activity aroused suspicions. North-east of Brest, an airdrop of arms to the local network had landed almost on top of the 353rd Infanterie-Division’s headquarters. ‘Couriers and individual soldiers were waylaid’ and its commander, General Mahlmann, only just survived an ambush with automatic weapons. His aide was killed in the attack and his staff car was found afterwards to have twenty-four bullet holes. Then, on 5 June, Oberst Cordes, the commanding officer of the 942nd Grenadier-Regiment, was killed. The no doubt brutal interrogation of a member of the Resistance captured at the beginning of June also obtained results. He is said to have ‘made statements about the beginning of the invasion in a few days’.

The bad weather on 5 June did not stop an exercise with blank ammunition in the streets of Montebourg on the Cotentin peninsula, but the Kriegsmarine decided that it was not worth sending out naval patrols into the Channel that night. As a result the flotillas of Allied minesweepers were able to advance in line abreast towards the Normandy coast completely unobserved.

During the early evening, one of the BBC’s ‘personal messages’ in code to the Resistance aroused suspicions. Rundstedt’s headquarters passed on the information at 21.15 hours as a general warning, but only the Fifteenth Army in the Pas-de-Calais implemented ‘Alert Stage II’. At the Château de la Roche-Guyon, General Speidel and Admiral Ruge had guests to dinner. They included the writer Ernst Jünger, an ardent nationalist who had now become a member of the German resistance. The party went on until quite late. Speidel was about to go to bed at 01.00 hours on 6 June when the first reports came in of airborne landings.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!