Military history


On the Other Side of the Hill

While the situation on Germany’s Eastern Front went from bad to worse in 1943 — 4, in the west the Wehrmacht enjoyed the sensation of unnatural calm. It was, however, the calm before the storm. Supreme Commander West, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, knew that an amphibious invasion by the British and Americans was imminent. What he could not tell was when it would come or where it would fall.

General Geyr von Schweppenburg commanded the main armoured counter-attack force on Rundstedt’s front. The positioning of its tanks was a source of fierce contention in the months before the invasion. Rundstedt wished to keep the tanks in reserve and commit them to battle only when the location of the landings had been firmly identified, the orthodox military solution. Rommel, his direct subordinate and in operational control of the anti-invasion forces, argued that the tanks must be deployed as near to the beaches as possible, on the grounds that Allied air power would prevent the tanks from moving, once the invasion was under way. Hitler adjudicated, to neither party’s satisfaction. While some tanks were left under Rundstedt’s control and others allotted to Rommel, a third portion was reserved to Hitler himself to deploy. In the event, the armoured divisions arrived at the beaches too late to hinder the landings.

Schweppenburg’s account of the misunderstanding and mistrust prevailing between the different German headquarters in the west in the invasion summer accurately summarizes how far the Wehrmacht’s power had declined since the days of effortless conquest in 1939 — 41. His own headquarters, identified by Ultra intelligence soon after D-Day, was to be completely destroyed by air attack on 10 June.


In a peaceful room in St Germain in the early summer of 1944 I was sitting with the Chief of Staff of von Rundstedt’s Western Army Group. Once again our conversation turned to the question of the invasion.

‘Our intelligence service has just received a warning from one of the London embassies that the invasion is now imminent,’ he remarked. ‘But I am not at all sure that this whole business of invasion is not an enormous bluff.’

Indeed, knowing the British intelligence methods, one could seldom tell what was the truth and what was a hoax; but this time I was sure. ‘No,’ I replied, ‘the British, from the Prime Minister down, are prepared to use anything as a hoax, with one exception. That exception is the Crown. The King has seen the troops off. Believe me, the invasion is coming.’

The danger of opinions such as that expressed by the Chief of Staff seemed to me so great that I asked if I might put my views personally to von Rundstedt. The Field Marshal listened in silence. Such was the lethargy in the Army Group Headquarters that I also warned the staff as energetically as I could of the dangers of air attack, and in particular of airborne landings. I knew General Browning [commanding British Airborne Corps] from my time in London. I knew his job at that time was training the airborne troops. [Air Marshal] Slessor I had not then known personally, but I was well aware of his important and dangerous military teaching.

By 1944, the Hitler regime had seriously undermined both the spirit and the principles of the German command system. In the old army, teaching on the subject of command depended upon a cold and sober assessment of every situation, and relied upon the competence of every subordinate to carry out his task in whatever manner seemed best to him. This was replaced by ‘intuition’ from Berchtesgaden [Hitler’s holiday retreat], and by a strict control of every smallest detail from the top. Contrary opinions were not entertained.

Hitler hated the General Staff. He succeeded in splitting it, and reducing it to a monstrous Saints and Sinners Club. Such few Saints as remained by 1944 he hanged after July 20 [the date of the failed attempt by German officers on Hitler’s life].

No Allied soldier can understand what the atmosphere of Hitler’s madhouse was like. His influence affected everyone — the leading military men as well as those of weaker character. To understand it one must have experienced it oneself. People who have had no experience of the destruction of complete families and the concentration camp cannot fully understand.

The German soldiers who fought and died bravely behind the fictitious Atlantic Wall made a sad picture. The infantry divisions could scarcely be called even third-rate. It was not their loyalty or their courage that was in question, but their physical condition and their equipment. Again and again these formations had been combed out to provide replacements for casualties on the Eastern Front. Almost one-third of the strength of the infantry divisions of the Seventh Army in Normandy was made up of Russians; they lacked all mobility, and their equipment simply did not compare with that of their enemy. At no time could the so-called Atlantic Wall ever seriously have impeded an Allied landing on the Continent.

The panzer divisions, on the other hand, were well trained. The commanders had for the most part had a longer command training than even those of the Waffen SS. It was reckoned later on, by a number of experienced officers, that at this time the panzer divisions were still at least one-third as powerful as they had been in September 1939,

The whole basis of their training lay in recognizing the enemy air superiority over the battlefield. They depended upon fast movement by night and in the twilight, on really accurate shooting, and on the quick and reliable passing of orders. Enemy airborne or parachute landings had to be dealt with immediately, even if they turned out to be dummy landings. Where infantry tactics were concerned, I had ordered a demonstration battalion to be formed in 21st Panzer Division, to show British infantry tactics. These were watched by all the panzer troops.

The fine troops were overwhelmed by weight of numbers. The words of Marshal Timoshenko — ‘The steel of the German Army must be melted in the holocaust of the Russian onslaught’ — applied once more.

Old Field Marshal von Rundstedt in St Germain, though highly respected, was ailing. He had become lethargic. He had no command over either the Luftwaffe or the German Navy, and armoured tactics were not his strong point. Difficult decisions were avoided. His Chief of Staff tried to iron out differences of opinion by negotiation, even when no compromise was possible and only a tough decision would do.

Before the arrival of Rommel, Field Marshal von Rundstedt had laid down clearly the role of the panzer forces in defence of the Western Front. They were his only really battleworthv formations. Rundstedt had followed the recommendation of his responsible adviser on the subject — in this case myself. The main force of the panzer divisions was to remain well back from the coast, but north of the River Loire. South of the river were three panzer divisions which I had newly formed into the 58th Panzer Corps. It was impossible to tell at this stage whether the invasion would come first from the Mediterranean or from the Channel, but with this deployment, with the SS Panzergrenadier Division Götz von Berlichingen on the Loire, an immediate reaction either northwards or southwards could be achieved.

Rommel, however, brought a new idea. He required the invaders to be pushed back on to the coast. His experience of the very powerful British Air Force in Africa had convinced him (wrongly) that the movement of large mechanized formations was no longer a practical proposition. For months there had been a protracted controversy between him and myself as the adviser on this subject to the Commander-in-Chief. General Guderian, Hitler’s highly experienced but often unheeded armoured adviser, supported my opinion without question.

Rommel’s ideas, being clearly defensive in concept, were undoubtedly out of keeping with proper armoured tactics. He did not see the difference between the open expanses of the desert and the thickly covered countryside of Normandy. On the other hand, by adopting a more mobile concept of operations, a concentrated counter-attack could at the very least have achieved a temporary victory against the Allies. The insistence on the defence of the coastline threw away from the start the mobility of the panzer formations; worse, they were committed in the impossible hedgerow country, hemmed in by minefields and marshes.

The endeavours of the leading armoured experts to hold a proper force in reserve had two main purposes. The first was to retain some possibility of manoeuvre, and the second was to avoid, in the event of an airborne landing, the breakdown of our whole supply system by cutting us off from our petrol. Due to constant casualties to our supply columns caused by air attacks, our supply system never worked well from the start of the campaign.

Perhaps the last word in the story of this great argument about the employment of the armour comes from one of Rommel’s personal orderly officers whom I met briefly (much later) on Stuttgart railway station. He told me that shortly before Rommel’s injury on July 17, 1944 [he was severely wounded when a British aircraft strafed his car], the Field Marshal had remarked to him: ‘It would perhaps have been better after all to have held the panzer divisions back.’

At the time, the ultimate solution to this lengthy argument came in the form of a directive from Berchtesgaden. This solution was the worst possible: it was neither one thing nor the other. Half the force was to be moved at Rommel’s disposal, to the coast; the remainder would stay inland ‘for the time being’.

Remember the wise Moltke’s maxim: ‘Mistakes in preliminary deployment are difficult to correct.’ [Moltke the Elder directed Prussia’s victories over Austria and France, 1866 and 1870 — 1.]

As to where the Allied landings would take place, Rommel, Jodl and von Salmuth were all in agreement; the main landing would be in the Pas de Calais. Rommel clung firmly to this belief, even after the battle on the Cotentin peninsula had been fought for some weeks.

Early on June 6 I heard from my Chief of Staff that the invasion had begun. The army group had ordered the panzer divisions which had been held back north of the Loire to move to the coast. I had not even been asked.

I requested immediately that the Panzer Lehr Division should not move before nightfall. My request was refused; or rather, I did not even receive an answer. The armoured grenadier battalion of this division, which was the only one that was properly equipped, was heavily attacked from the air during this daylight move.

On the morning of the invasion a young German pilot had succeeded in carrying out a particularly courageous operation and had flown over the Allied invasion fleet without being detected or engaged. Unfortunately, hisreport never reached theHighCommand.Had it done so, it would have removed any doubt that this landing in Normandy was in fact the real thing. On June 7 I was ordered from the Headquarters in St Germain to take command of the Caen sector under the direct command of the Seventh Army and indirectly under Rommel’s command. (Whatever one may say of Rommel’s tactical ability, he was a brave and tough soldier, and his constant appearance at the front line demanded respect. This made it possible for the more senior officers to accept his orders.)

The area around Caen and the neighbouring coastline were well known to me. I had had the job of planning the operations of 24th Infantry Army Corps as the follow-up formation in Operation Sealion (which was the intended invasion of England in 1940).

The boldness of the enemy airborne operations achieved full success — as boldness always does. The landing of the 6th British Airborne Division near Caen was most successful.

A request was sent at once to Rommel’s headquarters to allow the list Panzer Division to operate against this landing. Unfortunately Rommel was away in Germany at the time, and he had given strict orders that the 21st Panzer Division should not be moved without his own specific order. He had estimated that there was no danger of invasion at this time because of the state of the tides. It was not until eight o’clock on the following morning that his Chief of Staff gave permission for the division to move. By this time it was too late.

When I visited the courageous infantry divisions on the coast north of Caen I found that they had been practically wiped out by the Allied bombardment. On June 8 and 9 I visited the three panzer divisions which had by then been committed. They were fighting a very hard battle. I had received clear orders from the Seventh Army on June 8 in the best traditions of the old German Army; however, shortly afterwards I received conflicting orders from Rommel, from the Army Group Headquarters in St Germain, and from Berchtesgaden. What a state our army had reached!

On the morning of June 10 I visited a regimental headquarters near an abbey on the top of the hill just north of Caen. From there I saw a panzer regiment in action against the Canadians. It was hellish, but in this case the hell came from the sky. The British and Canadian troops were magnificent. This was not surprising when one knew the type of man, and when one knew that a large part of them had been trained by that outstanding soldier (and old friend of mine) General Sir Bernard Paget.

However, after a while I began to think, rightly or wrongly, that the command of these superb troops was not making the best use of them. The command seemed slow and rather pedestrian. It seemed that the Allied intention was to wear down their enemy with their enormous material superiority. It will never be known whether Montgomery had received a private instruction from his Government to avoid for the British troops another bloodbath such as they had suffered in the First World War on the Somme and at Passchendaele. However, it seemed to me that the command of the British and Canadians failed to make the best use of these magnificent troops.

One serious problem which faced us was the dropping of agents by parachute. As soon as they landed they were swallowed up by the local population. Many years later [the New Zealand war correspondent and historian] Chester Wilmot told me that from the moment that my headquarters had left Paris it had been continually shadowed; I could well believe him. The subsequent destruction of my whole headquarters in the late afternoon of June 10 was no doubt the result of the highly organized intelligence service run by the British. Only a few moments before an air attack wiped out my operational headquarters, Rommel and I had left the very command vehicle which was destroyed. I was lucky in that, being ‘off-side’, I was only slightly wounded.

The command of the Caen sector was then taken over by 1st S S Panzer Corps under General Sepp Dietrich on the orders of Seventh Army. Dietrich had been a Bavarian cavalry sergeant. He was brave and friendly and to me he was always most loyal. However, in a fast-moving and attacking battle he was not up to his job.

The counter-attack which I had planned to take place on June 10 had to be cancelled. Then the British 7th Armoured Division made its appearance. The Desert Rats first started to make life unpleasant for us in the area of Bayeux.

In accordance with my orders I went off to Paris to reorganize my new staff. By about June 23 I had taken over my new command which consisted of three panzer corps and one infantry corps. I was under the direct command of Rommel. As soon as I took over command I called together the four chiefs of staff of these formations. They were all well-trained and experienced soldiers and I had no reason to think that any of them were suicidal maniacs. I then put to them a question to which I required the answer Yes or No. The question was: ‘Do you think it possible to push the Allied invasion backinto the sea?’ Nobody would answer for fear of the results. For this, although it was Hitler’s dream, was in fact nothing short of cloud-cuckoo-land.

I felt it my duty to send an honest report about the situation. Fortunately I took the precaution of keeping a photostat copy of this report. Both Rommel and Rundstedt agreed with my opinions. My neighbour, General Hausser, the Commander-in-Chief of the Seventh Army, also supported me.

Rundstedt and I were as a result relieved of our commands, and Rommel, who was good enough to try to support me, told me that he expected to be the next to go.

The most clear-thinking soldier on the Western Front, General Dollmann, latterly the Commander-in-Chief of Seventh Army, soon disappeared from the picture. Luckily for him his sudden death saved him from a subsequent court martial. In any case he, as a practising Catholic, had always been suspect, as was I. By seniority I should have been his successor, but I was superseded. In a sworn statement made subsequently, Rommel’s Chief of Staff said that Hitler had always mistrusted me. He was right.

In ending these notes on the invasion, I must stress that what I have said is far from the whole story. No landing or lodgement attempted by the Allies could ever have been defeated by us without an air force, and this we utterly lacked. The command organization set up by Rommel and von Rundstedt in the West was not unlike the Roman system of changing command daily between the two consuls. The result, of course, was Cannae [Hannibal’s crushing victory over the Romans in 216 BC].

The differences of opinion throughout the German High Command at the time of the invasion put one in mind of a story told by Field Marshal Lord Ironside [Chief of the — British — Imperial General Staff in 1940, at the time of the German conquest of France] in his memoirs; these had been written, it must be remembered, four years before by a member of the other side! He tells how General Gamelin had warned the French politicians in the hour of emergency that endlessly sitting round a table, thousands of miles from the scene of the battle, would never produce any better answer than the strategists of the Café de Commerce. The German café strategists were at this time sitting in Berchtesgaden.

The effect of Hitler’s and Rommel’s coastal defence policy on the German troops echoes the bitter remark made to Lord Ironside by the French Commander-in-Chief on the Western Front in 1940, General Billotte: ‘Nous crevons derrière des obstacles.’ (‘We are rotting behind our defences.’)

To think that these were the tactics chosen bv the successors of von Schlieffen! [Field Marshal Count von Schlieffen, architect of the famous plan for Germany’s defeat of France and Russia which, disastrously altered, was employed in August 1914.] They do not deserve the title of ‘strategy’, for true strategy is always bold. But one thing is certain, no matter how bold our strategy had been, the final result in the West would never have been changed. The war had already been lost in Stalingrad, in Africa, with the destruction of the production lines for the air force, and, indeed, with the destruction of the Luftwaffe itself. The invasion was the final act in the tragedy of the Third Reich. The remainder of the war after the success in Normandy was only a prolonged epilogue, in which the events of July 20 were no more than the final spasm before the old Germany breathed her last.

5 June 1964

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