German forces in the West – Normandy

German forces in the West – Normandy

Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel inspecting elements of the 21. Panzer Division in May 1944.
Photo: Bundesarchiv

General presentation of the German forces in Normandy

Structural weakness

Once France invaded in 1940, German forces focused on the eastern front, facing the Soviets. The Germans have installed the Atlantic Wall in order to oppose a first line of defense to the Allies. However, this structure is limited: it can not by itself repel an amphibious attack and the authorities of the Third Reich are well aware of this.

The German army thus subdivided several hundred thousand men in the west and ensured strict discipline in the occupied territories. This occupation force was obliged to avoid any overflow and behavior deviation to avoid giving grain to the French resistance. Far from Berlin and the Mediterranean and Russian combat zones, German generals did not find much opportunity to win the Führer’s favors and shine in battle; Others, very happy to be stationed far from the front, took advantage of this situation and lived in magnificent requisitioned houses where they became less and less interested by the war.

These units belong to the Wehrmacht, the S.S., the Kriegsmarine and the Luftwaffe. In 1944, German troops had been fighting for six years and morale had been declining since the beginning of 1942. The various armies were very critical of each other, especially since their means were very unequal: divisions SS were twice as numerous than those of the Wehrmacht, the Kriegsmarine has only very few warships and the Luftwaffe was totally bloodless since the end of the Battle of Britain and the continuous bombardments carried out by the Allied forces. The multiplicity of military authorities (eg some coastal artillery batteries were armed by the Kriegsmarine, Luftwaffe infantry units were side by side with those of the Wehrmacht and the SS) and counterproductive competition between these armies Between the Wehrmacht and the SS) were particularly detrimental to the Reich, since decisions were not necessarily taken in the general interest of Germany but, at times, in the interests of one unit in relation to another.

The German high command had a limited decision-making power: it must necessarily have the approval of Hitler to make decisions. This detail has its importance in the continuation of the events. Obviously, this structural fragility of German forces affected both units in the west and units fighting in the east and in the Mediterranean.

Let us now examine the organization and the situation of these units situated to the west, and in particular those stationed in Normandy.

German forces in Normandy

The German land forces of the Western Army Group were placed under the command of Marshal von Rundstedt, whose command post was located in Saint-Germain-en-Laye (near Paris). The coast of northern France was under the responsibility of Army Group B commanded by the “Desert Fox”, Marshal Rommel (installed in the castle of La Roche-Guyon).

Two armies shared this sector: the 7th army of General von Salmuth, installed along the Britanny littoral as far as the mouth of the Seine, and the 15th army of General Dollmann installed along the coasts from Le Havre to the Somme region.

German maritime forces positioned along the Channel coast were under the command of Admiral Friedrich Rieve, whose command post was located in Rouen. The German navy, known as Kriegsmarine, refered to both surface and submarine units of the Third Reich as well as the coastal artillery batteries. In the spring of 1944, the Kriegsmarine in Normandy was under the command of two different leaders: in the west, the area of ​​Admiral Walter Hennecke (based in Cherbourg) stretched from the bay of Mont-Saint-Michel to The mouth of the Orne. To the east the area of ​​Rear Admiral Henning von Tresckow (based in Le Havre) was spreading from the mouth of the Orne to the Somme.

Already greatly weakened by the previous years of war, the German navy had only 163 minesweepers (Raumboote), 57 patrol vessels (Vorpostenboote), 42 artillery barges (Artillerie-Träger), 34 fast attack crafts (S-Boote) and 5 torpedo boats (Torpedoboote). Of very meager means against the power of the 6,000 ships of different classes of the allied armada which were concentrated in the Channel from June to August 1944.

The German Air Force (Luftwaffe) in the west belong to the 3. Luftflotte. The latter is placed under the command of Marshal Speerle. Equipped with less than 1,000 aircrafts to control all French airspace, this unit was continually bombed by the Allies and was not able to occupy airfields along the English Channel.

In Normandy, on 6 June 1944, only the I / Jagdgeschwader (JG) 2 (Richthofen), I / JG 26 and III / JG 26 (Schlageter) squadrons and the Stab squadrons were present.

A substantive internal opposition

Von Rundstedt and Rommel opposed the strategy of coastal defense: the first considered that the Germans must imperatively let their opponents engage in the interior and then counterattack them during their breakthrough phase, while they are still in a weak position. The second, on the contrary, believes that the Allies should not be allowed to stand on their feet, lest they should be able to repel them. The two men however agreed on one thing: the tanks will make a difference. But Rommel absolutely wanted to place them immediately behind the beaches while von Rundstedt placed them away from the coasts, able to launch an armored raid into the depths of the enemy lines.

On June 6, 1944, Rommel was not in Normandy: he was in Germany to celebrate his wife’s birthday and to get an interview with the Führer. He absolutely wanted the armored units to be displaced along the Atlantic Wall, but it was too late: the Allies were landing in Normandy…