Header image

Chapter 3:

Invasion Front

German plans for the defeat of the Allied invasion of France.

In the spring of 1944, at depots and training camps all over Belgium and France, veteran Waffen-SS instructors were hard at work trying to knock thousands of new recruits into shape to meet the coming Allied invasion of northwest Europe.

Due to the lamentable state of German intelligence, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the commander of Army Group B, had no firm intelligence about where the Allied troops would come ashore. Aerial photographs showed huge camps in southern England packed with tanks, artillery and supplies, while ports around the British coast were chock-a-block with ships and landing craft. All that was certain was that this immense force would attempt to open the long-awaited second front in a matter of months.

The Atlantic Wall

For the famous “Desert Fox”, time was of the essence. When he toured France on an inspection of the Atlantic Wall coastal defences during December 1943, Rommel was far from impressed. France had long been a backwater of the war. It was where German units would be sent to recuperate after suffering a mauling in Russia. After being appointed commander of the invasion coast, which stretched from the French border to northern Holland, Rommel had been trying to knock the last vestiges of complacency out of his rag-tag collection of just under 60 divisions. He ordered a major effort to reinforce the beach defences with minefields and fortifications. Millions of tons of concrete were poured into the ground to build bunkers and gun positions overlooking every possible landing site on the French coast. Inland, Rommel wanted strong armoured forces close at hand to defeat any Allied troops that did manage to get ashore.

The Waffen-SS provided the bulk of Rommel’s armoured reserve, comprising six of the 11 panzer and panzergrenadier divisions available to the Western Front. Except for a brief period in Italy when he worked with the Leibstandarte Division, Rommel had never commanded Waffen-SS divisions, but he quickly formed a favourable impression of them and their commanders. Touring their training grounds, Rommel could see their superb equipment and rigorous training schedules quickly bearing fruit. That was more than could be said for a number of army divisions. Rommel was shocked at the state of the infantry divisions manning the invasion defences along the coast, which were staffed mainly by former Russian and Polish prisoners. Their fighting potential was minimal. Some of the army panzer divisions were not much better, with the famous 21st Panzer Division having to make do with captured French tanks and trucks in many of its battalions. Such problems only increased Rommel’s reliance on the Waffen-SS, which had first call on replacement manpower, new weapons and equipment.

Armoured fist

Rommel threw himself into his mission with a vengeance, setting a punishing schedule of inspection visits around France and trips to the Führer’s headquarters in East Prussia to secure more men and resources for his command. He spent hours locked in fruitless meetings with Hitler to secure backing for his counter-invasion strategy.

From his experience in North Africa and Italy, Rommel believed that the Allies had to be defeated on the landing beaches, otherwise they would be able to consolidate a bridgehead and bring their overwhelming superiority in materiel to bear against the thinly stretched German defenders. Rommel believed he would have little chance in a war of attrition in France. Any invasion would have to be smashed within 24 hours, so the panzer divisions should be based close to the coast, ready to strike.

Rommel’s immediate superior in France, the 71-year-old Gerd von Rundstedt, disagreed, and argued that it would be better to mass all the panzer reserves inland as a huge strike force, and then launch one knock-out blow against the Allied bridgehead. Luftwaffe bombers and Admiral Karl Dönitz’s U-boat fleet would also be able to cut the Allies’ supply lines, leaving them isolated in France.

map 1

German Dispositions in the West: 6 June, 1944

Furious arguments raged between Rommel and his commander-in-chief. Allied airpower would slaughter the panzers columns as they marched to the coast, said Rommel. The “Desert Fox” had little confidence in German air and seapower being able to influence the coming battle. SS-Oberstgruppenführer Paul Hausser and SS-Obergruppenführer Josef “Sepp” Dietrich, the commanders of the two SS panzer corps, also weighed in to the argument on the side of Rundstedt. Their experience in Russia told them that a mass attack would have more chance of success. Rommel countered that they had never had to fight under conditions of Allied air supremacy.

The lack of intelligence on Allied intentions also complicated Rommel’s planning. While most German commanders in France were convinced that the Allies would strike across the Straits of Dover to seize the Pas de Calais, the possibility of an invasion farther west in Normandy could not be excluded.

With his generals unable to agree on a common strategy, Hitler not surprisingly was able to force his own strategy on the invasion-front commanders. Even though his astrologer told him to expect an invasion in Normandy, Hitler decreed that the bulk of the German forces in the West would be based within striking distance of the Pas de Calais. This included the two SS panzer corps, until II SS Panzer Corps was temporarily dispatched to the Eastern Front in April 1944. He backed Rundstedt’s idea of a concentrated counterattack.

In April 1944, Hitler took on board some of Rommel’s ideas and decided to move some panzer units westwards to cover the Normandy beaches. The Hitlerjugend Division was shipped to new bases north-west of Paris, within a day’s drive of Normandy, and Dietrich soon followed with his corps headquarters. The Leibstandarte was still refitting and remained behind in Belgium. Dietrich’s force of one division and corps heavy tank battalions was poised with three army panzer divisions to strike at any landing in Normandy. Hitler gave Rundstedt and Rommel the authority to move the three army divisions, but the Führer had to give his approval for any other panzer units, including the Waffen-SS, to move towards any invasion beach. This was a classic Hitler muddle. It meant Rommel would have insufficient forces to kill off any Allied bridgehead at birth, while Rundstedt was unable to muster his 11 panzer division force to strike at the Allies en masse. This convoluted command arrangement would bedevil the German response when the invasion did occur in June 1944.

Fight to the finish

These arguments were far from the minds of the Waffen-SS tank crews and panzergrenadiers training in France and Belgium in the spring of 1944. They were focused on the coming battle with the British and Americans. Day after day, their commanders stressed that the outcome of the war would turn on the coming battle. If the Allies could be quickly thrown back into the sea, then Germany would have won a key breathing space to turn its attention eastwards once again and drive back the Soviets, who were already on Poland’s eastern border.

For the Waffen-SS, their Führer’s struggle against the Soviets was a crusade for racial survival. The threat from the Western Allies was a diversion from this battle that had to be quickly resolved, to release them to once again take on the Russians. On his inspections, Rommel told the Waffen-SS men that the Allies would not be able to recover from the defeat of their invasion. If the Allies failed to secure a bridgehead in Europe, it could take years for them to regain their strength to make another attempt (which was correct), perhaps forcing them to sue for peace, or so said Hitler.

This strategic assessment was one of Hitler’s more accurate. It was shared by the Supreme Allied Commander, US Army General Dwight D. Eisenhower. He also took the view that the fate of the war would turn on the success or failure of the invasion. The Waffen-SS would soon have to face its most important battle.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.net. Thank you!