German forces in Normandy and west from 1941 to 1944

German forces in Normandy

Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel inspects 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 concentrated on the eastern front, facing the Soviets. The Germans have the Atlantic Wall installed to oppose a first line of defense to the Allies; however this structure is limited: it can not alone repel an amphibious attack and the authorities of the 3rd Reich are well aware.

The German army thus confines several hundreds of thousands of men to the west and takes care to enforce a strict discipline in the occupied territories: this occupation force must avoid any overflow and any difference of behavior in order to to avoid giving grain to the French resistance. Far from Berlin and the combat zones in the Mediterranean and Russia, the German generals do not find many opportunities to put themselves forward to win favors from the Führer and shine in battle; others, very happy to be stationed far from the front, take advantage of this situation and live in magnificent houses requisitioned where they are less and less interested during the war.

These units belong to the Wehrmacht, S.S., Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe. In 1944, it is already six years since the German troops fight and morale has been falling since the beginning of 1942. The different armies are very critical between them, especially since their means are very uneven: the SS division are twice as numerous on average as those of the Wehrmacht, the Kriegsmarine has only very few warships and the Luftwaffe is totally bloodless since the end of the Battle of Britain and the continual bombardments by the British and Americans. The multiplicities of the military authorities (for example: some coastal artillery batteries are armed by the Kriegsmarine, Luftwaffe infantry units alongside those of the Wehrmacht and the SS) and the counterproductive competition between these armies (particularly strong between the Wehrmacht and the SS) are particularly harmful for the Reich, decisions not necessarily taken in the general interest of Germany but rather, sometimes, in that of one unit in relation to another.

The German high command has limited decision-making power: it must necessarily have the approval of Hitler to make decisions. This detail is important in the following events. Of course, this structural fragility of the German forces affects both the units in the west and those leading the fighting in the east and the Mediterranean.

Let us now see what is the organization and the situation of these units located to the west and in particular those stationed in Normandy.

German forces in Normandy

Two armies share this area: the 7th army of General von Salmuth, installed along the Breton coast to the mouth of the Seine, and the 15th army of General Dollmann installed along the coast from Le Havre to the Sum.

The German maritime forces positioned along the Channel coast are under the command of Admiral Friedrich Rieve whose command post is located in Rouen. The German Navy, Kriegsmarine, refers to the surface and submarine units of the 3rd Reich as well as the coastal artillery batteries. In the spring of 1944, the Kriegsmarine in Normandy was under the orders of two different commands: to the west, the sector of Admiral Walter Hennecke (based in Cherbourg) stretching from the Bay of Mont-Saint-Michel to the mouth of Orne, to the east the sector of Rear-Admiral Henning von Tresckow (based in Le Havre), stretching from the mouth of the Orne to the Somme.

Already heavily weakened by the previous war years, the German navy has only 163 minesweepers (Raumboote), 57 patrol boats (Vorpostenboote), 42 artillery barges (Artillerie-Träger), 34 -torpilles (S-Boote) and 5 torpedo boats (Torpedoboote). In a very meager way, the power of the 6,000 ships of different classes of the Allied armada concentrated in the Channel from June to August 1944.

Click here to find out more about Kriegsmarine during the Battle of Normandy

The German Air Forces (Luftwaffe) in the west belong to the 3rd Luftflotte. It is under the command of Marshal Speerle. Equipped with fewer than 1,000 aircraft to control the entire French airspace, this unit is constantly bombarded by the Allies and is unable to occupy the aerodromes located along the Channel coastline.

In Normandy, on June 6th, 1944, only squadrons I/Jagdgeschwader (JG) 2 (Richthofen), I/JG 26 and III/JG 26 (Schlageter) as well as the Stabs are present on the spot.

Click here to find out more about the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Normandy.

An internal opposition of substance

Von Rundstedt and Rommel argue against the strategy of defense of the coasts: the first considers that the Germans must imperatively let their opponents engage in the land and then counterattack during their phase of rise in power, while they are still in a weak position. The second thinks on the contrary that it is important not to let the Allies take foot on pain of not being able to repel them. The two men, however, agree on one thing: it is the tanks that can make the difference. But Rommel absolutely wants to place them immediately behind the beaches while von Rundstedt places them far from the coast, able to launch an armored raid in the depth of the enemy lines.

June 6, 1944, Rommel is not in Normandy: he is in Germany to celebrate the birthday of his wife and to get an interview with the Führer. He absolutely wants the armored units to be moved along the Atlantic Wall, but it is too late: the Allies land in Normandy…

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