Military history

Defenders

‘If they attack in the west,’ said Adolf Hitler in December 1943, ‘that attack will decide the war.’1 Whatever the shortcomings of the Atlantic Wall, Hitler’s proclaimed impatience for the Allied invasion was by no means bluff. His armies in Russia were being remorselessly pushed back and destroyed; between July 1943 and May 1944 alone, they lost 41 divisions in the east. Their total manpower had fallen from over three million in July 1943 to 2.6 million in December. Thereafter, between March and May 1944, they suffered a further 341,950 casualties, and lost an additional 150,000 men in the aftermath of the Allied landings in Italy. Germany’s sole conceivable chance of escaping catastrophe now lay in the destruction of OVERLORD. ‘Our only hope is that they come where we can use the army upon them,’ said General von Thoma to a comrade in captivity.2If the Allies could be thrown back into the sea, it was inconceivable that they should mount a new assault for years, if ever. Almost the entire strength of the German army in north-west Europe, 59 divisions, could be transferred east for a fight to the finish against the Russians. Within the year, secret weapons and jet aircraft should be available in quantity. Thereafter, Hitler reasoned, anything was possible. If it was a sketchy scenario, it was not an impossible one – granted only that the Allies could be denied a foothold in France.

In January 1944, Jodl toured the Channel coast and reported grimly on the state of its defences.3 The perpetual bleeding of manpower from west to east had crippled every division. In the Channel Islands, 319th Division was reduced to 30 per cent of its establishment. Re-equipment was causing chaos – the artillery was armed with 21 types of gun: French, Russian and Czech. Commanders complained that they were being denied time to carry out essential training because their men were continuously employed on building fortifications. The Germans were as preoccupied as the Allies with the need to maintain air superiority over the invasion coast, yet Jodl recognized that ‘. . . we must not accept battle with the enemy air force’.4 The hapless Commander-in-Chief, von Rundstedt, was never consulted about what forces he deemed necessary to defeat an invasion – he was merely informed of what was to arrive. The bulk of his army was made up of the over-age and medically unfit, convalescents from the east, and an entirely unreliable rabble of Polish, Russian and Italian defectors and forced labourers. Even the majority of the first-line divisions which began to move into France in the spring of 1944, in accordance with Hitler’s Directive 51 for the strengthening of the western defences, were formations shattered in the east, which would need massive reinforcement and re-equipment if they were ever to regain their old fighting power. However well Hitler recognized the need to defend against invasion, he was the victim of a remorseless imperative that demanded men and tanks to fight against the present menace in the east, rather than the prospective threat in the west.

If there was a euphoric belief among the western Allies after their victory that they had monopolized the attention and best efforts of Nazi Germany, the figures belie this. In January 1944, Hitler deployed 179 divisions in the east, 26 in south-east Europe, 22 in Italy, 16 in Scandinavia, and 53 in France and the Low Countries. By 6 June, there were 59 in France and the Low Countries – 41 of these north of the Loire – 28 in Italy, but still 165 in the east. There were 24 Panzer divisions in the east and eight elsewhere in January, compared with proportions of 18 to 15 by June. It remains astounding that after three years of devastating losses in the east and the relentless bombing of Hitler’s industries, Germany could still produce and equip an army in the west capable of causing the gravest difficulties to the best that Britain and America could throw into the war. ‘The possibility of Hitler’s gaining a victory in France cannot be excluded,’ wrote Brooke gloomily on 25 January. ‘The hazards of battle are very great.’5

Germany’s critical weakness on the Channel coast in the spring of 1944 was her blindness. The Luftwaffe had lost not only its strength, but its will. Despite the difficulties posed by Allied command of the air, some measure of air reconnaissance might yet have been possible given real determination by the German airmen. But there was no sign that they recognized the cost of their failure, or of the weakness of their photographic interpreters beside those of the Allies. ‘That the Luftwaffe did not carry out minimal reconnaissance of the east coast must rank as a miracle of the same dimensions as the destruction of the Armada in 1588,’ the historian of Allied deception planning has written.6 The British and Americans were quick to understand the importance of impeding German weather forecasting, and seized enemy stations in Iceland, Greenland, Sptizbergen and Jan Mayen island – actions that were of decisive importance on D-Day.7 It would have been impossible for an operation of the magnitude of OVERLORD to have sustained its extraordinary level of security had it not been launched from a sealed island. The brilliant British counter-intelligence operations had not only deprived Germany of authentic agents in Britain, but also placed the agents in whom she trusted under the control of the Allied deception planners. The Americans, surprisingly, placed little faith in deception, and showed limited interest in FORTITUDE. Yet it was the Germans’ utter uncertainty about where the Allies would land that contributed decisively to their debacle in June.

There has been recent speculation8 about the possible role of Admiral Canaris himself in Allied deception plans for D-Day. This was prompted by new discussion of the links between the British Secret Intelligence Service and a Polish woman contact of the Abwehr chief. It has been suggested that Canaris was either working actively for British Intelligence, or was at least instrumental in persuading Hitler that the Allies would land in the Pas de Calais. The evidence is overwhelmingly against either of these remarkable notions. Canaris’s loyalties wavered, and he certainly leaked some useful information which reached the Allies through the Polish contact; but there is no evidence whatever that he was personally exploited by the British, or that he was privy to the fact that every Abwehr agent in Britain was in the hands of MI5.

The worst charge thus far made against the authors of the British official history of wartime intelligence is dullness. It has not been suggested that they have concealed important elements of the truth, and they have had access to all the relevant documents. They declared flatly in their second volume, published in 1981, that after 1940 the Secret Service possessed no agents whatever in Germany. Professor Hinsley, the senior historian, confirms9 that there is still no evidence of Canaris’s complicity in Allied deception plans, which relied principally on the transmission of false information through Abwehr agents in Britain controlled by MI5. By the spring of 1944, Canaris was discredited in the eyes of Hitler and OKW. In any event, for the admiral or his associates consciously to have assisted Allied deception plans, they would have needed to know the truth about Allied intentions. It is unthinkable that these could have been revealed to them. The British were successfully employing all manner of conduits to channel false information to the Germans without any need of Canaris’ direct assistance. The balance of probability remains heavily in favour of the view that Hitler’s intelligence departments were incompetent, not treacherous, in their assessments of Allied plans in 1944. No significant historian of the period believes otherwise, and it is only because some recent newspaper reports have insistently suggested Canaris’s active involvement in the pre-D-Day deception that it becomes necessary to contradict this delusion at such length.

Many narratives of D-Day have focused upon the German failure to heed warnings that the invasion was imminent.10 Yet in truth, while these might have enabled more high commanders to be at their posts when the Allies landed, knowledge of when would have been of only the most limited strategic value as long as they remained ignorant of where. The confusion of German thinking in the spring of 1944 was astonishing. Hitler’s instinct continued to insist that the Allies would come in Normandy. But with uncharacteristic forbearance, he did not pursue his hunch to the point of demanding special emphasis upon Normandy’s defences. On 29 April, one report suggested that the Allies were concentrating in western rather than eastern England, but on 15 May ‘a good Abwehr source’ reported the 79th and 83rd US Divisions in Yorkshire and Norfolk, and XX US Corps and 4th Armored around Bury St Edmunds. A report from von Rundstedt’s headquarters on 21 May anticipated that the Allies would mount several simultaneous assaults, and use new weapons, including gas – this, of course, was a mirror image of the fear of the invaders. Lieutenant-Colonel Roger Michel of Rommel’s intelligence staff predicted that the Allies would land 35 divisions, but Hitler’s staff were studying likely figures of 85 or 90 divisions, which was not implausible if America had mobilized the same proportion of manpower for her fighting formations as Germany. Some Allied deception schemes made no impression on the Germans – for instance, the dispatch of an army pay corps lieutenant and former actor to impersonate Montgomery on a tour of the Mediterranean, and the creation of a mythical army in Scotland for the invasion of Norway. But a climate of uncertainty had been masterfully created, which would decisively influence German behaviour until deep into July. Its success reflected poorly both on Hitler’s intelligence departments and on the enfeebled self-confidence of his commanders.

Rommel’s achievement in galvanizing the building of coastal defences in the spring of 1944 was very real. But he shared the high command’s indecision and lack of grip in allowing resources to be wasted building fortifications in all manner of places where it was absurd to imagine that an invasion could occur. All along the 3,000 miles of occupied coastline, bunkers were constructed, positions dug. German perceptions were much blunted by the incompetence of FHW, the western intelligence arm of OKW, the supreme command. While the eastern branch was brilliantly runby Reinhard Gehlen, the western was in the hands of Colonel Baron Alexis von Roenne. Roenne had built his reputation on a confident prediction in 1939 that the French and British armies would not attack in the west while Germany was disposing of Poland, and on his advocacy of the great Sedan thrust in May 1940. But in 1944, he was wrong on almost every vital intelligence issue. Although he never took the bait of an Allied threat to Norway, he was deceived by FORTITUDE’s fantasy invasion force for the Pas de Calais. The Allies had placed General Sir Andrew Thorne in command of a fictitious British Fourth Army in Scotland, with wireless traffic to simulate a II Corps based around Stirling and a VII Corps around Dundee. But the central role in the deception operation was that of Patton, commanding the fantasy 1st US Army Group in south-east England, its order of battle greater even than 21st Army Group, with a massive array of dummy landing craft, vehicles, camps and wireless communications provided by the American 3103rd Signals Service Battalion in support. MI5 and the British ‘XX Committee’ were directing the operations of 20 captured or ‘turned’ German agents, nine of these in radio contact with Canaris’s controllers in Germany or Portugal, the remainder communicating by secret writing through the mail. The scepticism of many senior American officers about FORTITUDE was compounded by their necessary ignorance of the brilliant ‘XX Committee’ operation. But the leading historian of wartime deception has written of ‘the strange reluctance among the Americans to accept that it was part of modern warfare – all the more strange since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was a successful deceptive operation of the greatest magnitude.’11 Colonel W. A. Harris, the Americans’ principal deception expert, was converted to belief in the value of FORTITUDE only after its success. But it is only just to concede that before the triumph of June 1944, Allied deception operations in Europe had been notably less successful than those in the Middle East. In 1943, some elaborate deceptions had been created to delude the enemy about Allied intentions, which caused OKW to move not a single man or tank.

In the wake of Germany’s defeat, some bitter German commanders argued that Colonel von Roenne, one of the anti-Hitler plotters, deliberately misled them about Allied intentions. Yet it is too simplistic merely to compare the success of Allied intelligence with the failure of that of Germany, and seek conspiratorial explanations. The Allies’ success depended overwhelmingly upon intelligence provided by Ultra, the kind of inspired good fortune that comes to a waning nation seldom in a century. The record of the British Secret Intelligence Service in gaining useful information about Germany from agents was lamentable. For all the nonsense written in recent years about the American wartime OSS and its chief William Donovan, their real profits from agent networks were negligible by comparison with those from decrypts. If the Allies’ huge achievement in breaking the Enigma and the Japanese Magic ciphers is set aside, their agent-dependent intelligence operations appear unimpressive. There is no decisive evidence one way or the other about whether the anti-Hitler conspirators deliberately distorted German intelligence analysis. But it remains easier to believe that OKW’s men were simply wrong.

Hitler’s manic suspicion of his generals and his obsession with dividing authority among them to deny overall power to any one, made for a cumbersome command structure in France. In Paris, the dour, cynical, unbending von Rundstedt presided as Commander-in-Chief. ‘By this time his arteries were hardening,’ said Brigadier Williams,12 Montgomery’s principal analyst of the German army, ‘but they were pretty formidable arteries.’ At Army Group B’s headquarters at La Roche Guyon, Erwin Rommel was to be responsible for directing the battle against the invaders. Yet Rommel was denied direct control of the panzer divisions of OKW reserve, and Hitler was correct in believing that his field-marshal’s ability to dominate the battlefield was now deeply flawed by doubt that victory was even possible. Always highly strung, mercurial, that spring Rommel wavered between outbursts of buoyant confidence and deep depression. ‘If I were doing the invasion,’ he said laconically to his staff one morning, ‘I should be at the Rhine in fourteen days.’13 His driving energy was undiminished. His ability to spend hours racing from unit to unit along the coast, designing positions, hastening the erection of beach defences and glider obstacles – ‘Rommel’s asparagus’ – still aroused the wonder of his staff. But he was no longer the Desert Fox, the supremely confident Panzer leader of 1941–42. Too many defeats had intervened. Now under his command in northern France were the coastal divisions of Seventh Army in Normandy and Fifteenth Army in the Pas de Calais, together with Geyr von Schweppenburg’s Panzer Group West. But while the Allies deliberated about how far Hitler would allow his generals to fight the battle in their own fashion, the Führer had already placed fatal constraints upon them. Rommel was not permitted to deploy the panzer divisions on the coast – a disposition he believed vital in view of the Allied air threat to any movement of forces – and of his armour, only 21st Panzer stood within immediate reach of the beaches, south of Caen. Had Rommel’s request to place a second panzer division near St Lo been granted, the consequences for the American landings on D-Day would have been incalculable, conceivably decisive. If the Allies gained a foothold, Rommel’s preference was to withdraw to a river line to hold them. Hitler’s absolute determination to yield no ground precluded this. Everything would hinge upon the German’s ability to halt the Allies upon the beaches. If they failed in this, the generals understood perfectly that their only choice lay between skilful retreat and inexorable destruction.

The men of the German army in France in June 1944 were sustained by a compound of fatalism and blind faith. Above all, perhaps, for most there was a sense of unreality, a comforting impossibility about the notion that their stretch of windswept dunes, their familiar billets and battery positions, should be chosen above all others by the Allies to become one of the great battlefields of history. ‘It wasn’t in our interests to think too much about our feelings,’ a staff officer of 21st Panzer Division, Captain Eberhard Wagemann, said drily. ‘We were conscious that neither our men nor our tanks were good enough.’ The troops of the Division had little confidence in its commander, General Feuchtinger; Rommel still thought well of him, but this opinion was rapidly to change. 21st Panzer retained a core of veterans from its great days in Africa, but had been made up to strength with drafts of very moderate quality, and was equipped with substantial quantities of French and locally-modified equipment. Yet this division, deployed around Caen, would be the first German armoured formation to sustain the shock of the Allied landings.

‘We no longer expected total victory,’ said Sergeant Helmut Gunther of 17th SS Panzergrenadiers, ‘but we still felt an absolute sense of loyalty. In Russia we had fought men against men. We knew that in Normandy it would be men against machines.’14 A bank trainee before the war, Gunther volunteered in September 1939 at the age of 20, fought across Europe until he was evacuated with frostbite before Moscow, and later served as an infantry instructor before being posted to the Panzergrenadiers in January 1944. Now, as a platoon commander in the reconnaissance battalion, he was training the big draft of 18-year-olds which had reached the unit, many of them conscripts.

One May morning, Rommel visited the 1716th Artillery Regiment in their positions around Ouistreham. He told the assembled circle of battery officers: ‘If they come, they’ll come here.’15 Lieutenant Rudolf Schaaf did not really believe him. Twice wounded in the leg in Russia, Schaaf was one of many officers and men posted to France because they were unfit for further duty in the east – he walked with a pronounced limp. He and most of his comrades were enjoying their time in France, with plenty to eat and drink, all of it cheap. Above all, they were thankful to be out of the east. ‘The soldiers did as little work as possible,’ he said, ‘and we were too busy putting up wire and planting “Rommel’s asparagus” to have much time for training.’16 Private Heinz Walz, a jovial Swabian shopkeeper serving as a signaller with the 266th Artillery in the eastern Cotentin, was dismayed to hear at the beginning of June that there was to be yet another comb-out of his unit for men fit to be transferred to the eastern front. He had already served in Russia with a labour unit, and knew that he would be an obvious candidate for posting. The abrupt arrival of the Allies narrowly saved him from that.

There was a wide gulf between the men of the coastal divisions – at best cynical about their role, at worst openly defeatist – and those of the crack units. Sergeant Hans Stober of 17th SS Panzergrenadiers, a 22-year-old veteran of the east, was sent on an anti-gas course to St Lô, where he found himself alongside men of Seventh Army. The coastal troops distanced themselves from the likes of Stober, although contrary to myth there was no general animosity between soldiers of the SS and the Wehrmacht. The Russians, especially, maintained a stolid silence. Stober was amused to meet one man whom he himself had taken prisoner in 1941. A farmer’s son from east Prussia, the sergeant understood that the invasion would be the decisive battle of the war. Like many men on both sides of the Channel, he found that the greatest strain was the interminable waiting for the blow to fall.

Lieutenant Walter Kruger, a signals officer with 12th SS Panzer, was an SS man in the classic mould, asserting his ‘absolute confidence in victory from first to last’.17 The troops of this, the Hitler Youth division, were to prove the most determined and fanatical opponents facing the Allied armies. ‘They had received a proper training in the Hitler Youth,’ said Kruger proudly. ‘They had a sense of order, discipline. They knew how to sing!’ They had practised repeatedly the advance from their camps near Evreux to the Normandy coast. Thinking nothing of the air threat, they confidently expected to be engaged within seven hours of a movement order. Their principal problem was the lack of fuel, which hampered training, and caused such petty restrictions as the divisional mail collection being conducted by horse and cart.

In the last week of May, Kruger was one of 60 officers from his division who found themselves cursorily summoned to divisional headquarters, apprehensive about the cause. To their astonishment, they arrived to find all their wives gathered, brought up from Germany on the orders of General Fritz Witt, their commander. ‘Since there is going to be no leave for anybody from now on,’ said Witt, ‘you can all go to Paris for two days and then say goodbye at the Gare de l’Est.’ Kruger told his wife Martha that it was obvious that they were ‘for it’. He gave her all his personal possessions to take home to Germany. ‘They told us that the first five days would be critical. If we could not defeat the landings by then, it would be impossible.’

Much depended upon the performance of 12th SS Panzer and the other nine armoured divisions in France. General Guderian, Inspector-General of Armoured Forces, wrote: ‘All hopes of successful defence were based upon these.’18 Lieutenant-Colonel Kurt Kauffmann, Operations Officer of Panzer Lehr, the finest tank formation in the Wehrmacht, created from the demonstration units of the armoured corps, believed that the invasion could be defeated. Despite Panzer Lehr’s lack of opportunity to exercise as a formation, 75 per cent of its men were veterans and it was superbly equipped. Kauffmann’s chief worry concerned the performance of its commander, General Fritz Bayerlein: ‘He was a very good soldier, but he was worn out. In Normandy he showed himself nervous and weak.’19

Through those last weeks before 6 June, the men of the coastal units dutifully laid yet more concrete and field telephone wires, pottered between the minefields carrying their little cans of milk from the local farms, hung their washing to dry on the edge of the bunkers, and cherished their hopes that the Tommies and the Americans might come somewhere else. If high morale means the motivation to give everything for a cause or an objective, few of them possessed it. Their senior officers were haunted by the knowledge that they commanded forces inadequate for the task they might face. The highest hope of most of their men was to survive the war. For few was it to be fulfilled.

The mobile formations behind the coast exercised with varying degrees of intensity, their movements watched with deep apprehension by Allied intelligence. The Germans were carrying out their own deception operations, circulating maps showing false positions for their formations through such sources as the Japanese Ambassador to Vichy. In the face of Ultra and incessant reconnaissance, they enjoyed little success. Almost every German formation was accurately plotted on Allied maps. There were only a handful of critical uncertainties. Brigadier Williams suspected that the 352nd Division had been moved forward to the area below the elbow of the American beaches, although the evidence that he circulated proved too uncertain to disturb the American planners. When a maze of tank tracks was photographed in the coastal area of Caen, there were acute fears that 21st Panzer had been moved forward within immediate range of the beaches. In reality, after an exercise, the armour withdrew to its leaguers between Caen and Falaise.

On the afternoon of 5 June, Corporal Werner Kortenhaus, a wireless operator in the division’s Panzer Regiment, took his crew’s laundry to the local Frenchwoman who had been doing their washing for weeks. Sergeant Heinz Hickmann of the Luftwaffe Parachute Division, stationed outside Nevers, left his base for a relaxed evening in the local army canteen. Colonel Kauffmann of Panzer Lehr was on honeymoon near Stuttgart. Captain Wagemann of 21st Panzer was standing in as duty officer at headquarters in the absence of the division’s senior staff officer in Paris, and of the divisional commander on what was believed to be private business with a female friend. Most of Seventh Army’s senior officers were attending war games in Rennes. Sepp Dietrich of 1st SS Panzer Corps was in Brussels. And Rommel had retired to Germany to celebrate his wife’s birthday and to importune Hitler for a more realistic attitude to the defence of the Atlantic Wall.

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