Military history


Stauffenberg himself did not believe that the Western Allies would attempt to land in France that summer. He persisted in this belief even after Colonel Georg Hansen, a carryover from the Abwehr in Himmler’s military-intelligence bureau, had warned him early in May that the invasion might begin on any day in June.

The German Army itself was beset by doubts, at least as to the date and place of the assault. In May there had been eighteen days when the weather, the sea and the tides were just right for a landing, and the Germans noted that General Eisenhower had not taken advantage of them. On May 30 Rundstedt, the Commander in Chief in the West, had reported to Hitler that there was no indication that the invasion was “immediately imminent.” On June 4, the Air Force meteorologist in Paris advised that because of the inclement weather no Allied action could be expected for at least a fortnight.

On the strength of this and of what little information he had—the Luftwaffe had been prevented from making aerial reconnaissance of the harbors on England’s south coast where Eisenhower’s troops at that moment were swarming aboard their ships, and the Navy had withdrawn its reconnaissance craft from the Channel because of the heavy seas—Rommel drew up a situation report on the morning of June 5 reporting to Rundstedt that the invasion was not imminent, and immediately set off by car for his home at Herrlingen to spend the night with his family and then to proceed to Berchtesgaden the next day to confer with Hitler.

June 5, General Speidel, Rommel’s chief of staff, later recalled, “was a quiet day.” There seemed no reason why Rommel should not make his somewhat leisurely journey back to Germany. There were the usual reports from German agents about the possibility of an Allied landing—this time between June 6 and June 16—but there had been hundreds of these since April and they were not taken seriously. Indeed, on the sixth General Friedrich Dollmann, who commanded the Seventh Army in Normandy, on whose beaches the Allied forces were about to land, ordered a temporary relaxation of the standing alert and convoked his senior officers for a map exercise at Rennes, some 125 miles south of those beaches.

If the Germans were in the dark about the date of the invasion, they were also ignorant of where it would take place. Rundstedt and Rommel were certain it would be in the Pas-de-Calais area, where the Channel was at its narrowest. There they had concentrated their strongest force, theFifteenth Army, whose strength during the spring was increased from ten to fifteen infantry divisions. But by the end of March Adolf Hitler’s uncanny intuition was telling him that the Schwerpunkt of the invasion probably would be in Normandy, and during the next few weeks he ordered considerable reinforcements to the region between the Seine and the Loire. “Watch Normandy!” he kept warning his generals.

Still, the overwhelming part of German strength, in both infantry and panzer divisions, was retained north of the Seine, between Le Havre and Dunkirk. Rundstedt and his generals were watching the Pas-de-Calais rather than Normandy and they were encouraged in this by a number of deceptive maneuvers carried out during April and May by the British-American High Command which indicated to them that their calculations were correct.

The day of June 5, then, passed in relative quiet, so far as the Germans were concerned. Severe Anglo–American air attacks continued to disrupt German depots, radar stations, V-l sites, communications and transport, but these had been going on night and day for weeks and seemed no more intense on this day than on others.

Shortly after dark Rundstedt’s headquarters was informed that the BBC in London was broadcasting an unusually large number of coded messages to the French resistance and that the German radar stations between Cherbourg and Le Havre were being jammed. At 10 P.M. the Fifteenth Army intercepted a code message from the BBC to the French resistance which it believed meant that the invasion was about to begin. This army was alerted, but Rundstedt did not think it necessary to alert the Seventh Army, on whose sector of the coast farther west, between Caen and Cherbourg, the Allied forces were now—toward midnight—approaching on a thousand ships.

It was not until eleven minutes past 1 A.M., June 6, that the Seventh Army, its commander not yet returned from his map exercise at Rennes, realized what was happening. Two American and one British airborne divisions had begun landing in its midst. The general alarm was sounded at 1:30A.M.

Forty-five minutes later Major General Max Pemsel, chief of staff of the Seventh Army, got General Speidel on the telephone at Rommel’s headquarters and told him that it looked like “a large-scale operation.” Speidel did not believe it but passed on the report to Rundstedt, who was equally skeptical. Both generals believed the dropping of parachutists was merely an Allied feint to cover their main landings around Calais. At 2:40 A.M. Pemsel was advised that Rundstedt “does not consider this to be a major operation.”18 Not even when the news began to reach him shortly after dawn on June 6 that on the Normandy coast between the rivers Vire and Orne a huge Allied fleet was disembarking large bodies of troops, under cover of a murderous fire from the big guns of an armada of warships, did the Commander in Chief West believe that this was to be the main Allied assault. It did not become apparent, Speidel says, until the afternoon of June 6. By that time the Americans had a toehold on two beaches and the British on a third and had penetrated inland for a distance of from two to six miles.

Speidel had telephoned Rommel at 6 A.M. at his home and the Field Marshal had rushed back by car without going on to see Hitler, but he did not arrive at Army Group B headquarters until late that afternoon.* In the meantime Speidel, Rundstedt and the latter’s chief of staff, GeneralBlumentritt, had been on the telephone to OKW, which was then at Berchtesgaden. Due to an idiotic order of Hitler’s not even the Commander in Chief in the West could employ his panzer divisions without the specific permission of the Fuehrer. When the three generals early on the morning of the sixth begged for permission to rush two tank divisions to Normandy, Jodl replied that Hitler wanted first to see what developed. Whereupon the Fuehrer went to bed and could not be disturbed by the frantic calls of the generals in the West until 3 P.M.

When he woke up, the bad news which had in the meantime arrived finally stirred the Nazi warlord to action. He gave—too late, as it turned out—permission to engage the Panzer Lehr and 12th S.S. Panzer divisions in Normandy. He also issued a famous order which has been preserved for posterity in the log of the Seventh Army:

16:55 hours. June 6, 1944

Chief of Staff Western Command emphasizes the desire of the Supreme Command to have the enemy in the bridgehead annihilated by the evening of June 6 since there exists the danger of additional sea- and airborne landings for support … The beachhead must be cleaned up by not later than tonight.

In the eerie mountain air of the Obersalzberg, from which Hitler was now trying to direct the most crucial battle of the war up to this moment—he had been saying for months that Germany’s destiny would be decided in the West—this fantastic order seems to have been issued in all seriousness, concurred in by Jodl and Keitel. Even Rommel, who passed it on by telephone shortly before 5 o’clock that afternoon, an hour after his return from Germany, seems to have taken it seriously, for he ordered Seventh Army headquarters to launch an attack by the 21st PanzerDivision, the only German armored unit in the area, “immediately regardless of whether reinforcements arrive or not.”

This the division had already done, without waiting for Rommel’s command. General Pemsel, who was on the other end of the line when Rommel called Seventh Army headquarters, gave a blunt reply to Hitler’s demand that the Allied beachhead—there were actually now three—“be cleaned up by not later than tonight.”

“That,” he replied, “would be impossible.”

Hitler’s much-propagandized Atlantic Wall had been breached within a few hours. The once vaunted Luftwaffe had been driven completely from the air and the German Navy from the sea, and the Army taken by surprise. The battle was far from over, but its outcome was not long in doubt. “From June 9 on,” says Speidel, “the initiative lay with the Allies.”

Rundstedt and Rommel decided that it was time to say so to Hitler, face to face, and to demand that he accept the consequences. They enticed him to a meeting on June 17 at Margival, north of Soissons, in the elaborate bombproof bunker which had been built to serve as the Fuehrer’s headquarters for the invasion of Britain in the summer of 1940, but never used. Now, four summers later, the Nazi warlord appeared there for the first time.

He looked pale and sleepless [Speidel later wrote], playing nervously with his glasses and an array of colored pencils which he held between his fingers. He sat hunched upon a stool, while the field marshals stood. His hypnotic powers seemed to have waned. There was a curt and frosty greeting from him. Then in a loud voice he spoke bitterly of his displeasure at the success of the Allied landings, for which he tried to hold the field commanders responsible.19

But the prospect of another stunning defeat was emboldening the generals, or at least Rommel, whom Rundstedt left to do most of the talking when Hitler’s diatribe against them had come to a momentary pause. “With merciless frankness,” says Speidel, who was present, “Rommel pointed out … that the struggle was hopeless against the [Allied] superiority in the air, at sea and on the land.”*20 Well, not quite hopeless, if Hitler abandoned his absurd determination to hold every foot of ground and then to drive the Allied forces into the sea. Rommel proposed, with Rundstedt’s assent, that the Germans withdraw out of range of the enemy’s murderous naval guns, take their panzer units out of the line and re-form them for a later thrust which might defeat the Allies in a battle fought “outside the range of the enemy’s naval artillery.”

But the Supreme warlord would not listen to any proposal for withdrawal. German soldiers must stand and fight. The subject obviously was unpleasant to him and he quickly changed to others. In a display which Speidel calls “a strange mixture of cynicism and false intuition,” Hitler assured the generals that the new V-l weapon, the buzz bomb, which had been launched for the first time the day before against London, “would be decisive against Great Britain … and make the British willing to make peace.” When the two field marshals drew Hitler’s attention to the utter failure of the Luftwaffe in the West, the Fuehrer retorted that “masses of jet fighters”—the Allies had no jets, but the Germans had just put them into production—would soon drive the British and American flyers from the skies. Then, he said, Britain would collapse. At this juncture the approach of Allied planes forced them to adjourn to the Fuehrer’s air-raid shelter.

Safe in the underground concrete bunker, they resumed the conversation,* and at this point Rommel insisted on steering it into politics.

He predicted [says Speidel] that the German front in Normandy would collapse and that a breakthrough into Germany by the Allies could not be checked … He doubted whether the Russian front could be held. He pointed to Germany’s complete political isolation … He concluded … with an urgent request that the war be brought to an end.

Hitler, who had interrupted Rommel several times, finally cut him short: “Don’t you worry about the future course of the war, but rather about your own invasion front.”

The two field marshals were getting nowhere, either with their military or political arguments. “Hitler paid no attention whatsoever to their warnings,” General Jodl later recalled at Nuremberg. Finally the generals urged the Supreme Commander at least to visit Rommel’s Army Group? headquarters to confer with some of the field commanders on what they were up against in Normandy. Hitler reluctantly agreed to the visit for June 19—two days hence.

He never showed up. Shortly after the field marshals had departed from Margival on the afternoon of June 17 an errant V-l on its way to London turned around and landed on the top of the Fuehrer’s bunker. No one was killed or even hurt, but Hitler was so upset that he set off immediately for safer parts, not stopping until he got to the mountains of Berchtesgaden.

There more bad news shortly arrived. On June 20 the long-awaited Russian offensive on the central front began, developing with such overwhelming power that within a few days the German Army Group Center, in which Hitler had concentrated his strongest forces, was completely smashed, the front torn wide open and the road to Poland opened. On July 4 the Russians crossed the 1939 Polish eastern border and converged on East Prussia. All available reserves of the High Command were quickly rounded up to be rushed—for the first time in World War II—to the defense of the Fatherland itself. This helped to doom the German armies in the West. From now on they could not count on receiving any sizable reinforcements.

Once more, on June 29, Rundstedt and Rommel appealed to Hitler to face realities both in the East and in the West and to try to end the war while considerable parts of the German Army were still in being. This meeting took place on the Obersalzberg, where the Supreme warlord treated the two field marshals frostily, dismissing their appeals curtly and then lapsing into a long monologue on how he would win the war with new “miracle weapons.” His discourse, says Speidel, “became lost in fantastic digressions.”

Two days later Rundstedt was replaced as Commander in Chief West by Field Marshal von Kluge.* On July 15 Rommel wrote a long letter to Hitler and dispatched it by Army teletype. “The troops,” he wrote, “are fighting heroically everywhere, but the unequal struggle is nearing its end.” He added a postscript in his own handwriting:

I must beg you to draw the proper conclusions without delay. I feel it my duty as Commander in Chief of the Army Group to state this clearly.21

“I have given him his last chance,” Rommel told Speidel. “If he does not take it, we will act.”22

Two days later, on the afternoon of July 17, while driving back to headquarters from the Normandy front, Rommel’s staff car was shot up by low-flying Allied fighter planes and he was so critically wounded that it was first thought he would not survive the day. This was a disaster to the conspirators, for Rommel had now—Speidel swears to it23—made up his mind irrevocably to do his part in ridding Germany of Hitler’s rule (though still opposing his assassination) within the next few days. As it turned out, his dash and daring were sorely missing among the Army officers who, at long last, as the German armies crumbled in the East and West that July of 1944, made their final bid to bring Hitler and National Socialism down.

The conspirators, says Speidel, “felt themselves painfully deprived of their pillar of strength.”*24

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