How Did the Divided Command in 1944 Hamper Rommel’s Defenses of Normandy?
By the time of the Normandy invasion of 1944, World War II was largely oven in both theaters. Hitler was driven out of Africa, most of Russia, and Japan was slowly dying. The best troops available to Hitler were freezing in the Russian winter, and the British had sapped most of Hitler’s air corps. The Germans were suffering morale problems, supply problems and a deep crisis of confidence. Hence, there is little question that there was no real usable defense strategy in the late date of the Normandy attack, but the divided command between Fields Marshall Rommel and von Rundstedt made a significant defense of the French coast impossible.
The nature of the divided command was no so much between Hitler and Rommel, but between von Rundstedt and Rommel. The two men could not have been more different. The former was an older man (the oldest Field Marshall in the German army) and was a noble–as his name suggests–of the old school. He was cool and collected, with an even temper and an intellectual and even haughty air. He was a tad anti-Hitler, and often mocked Hitler’s low born status. On the other hand, Erwin Rommel was a young man, in fact, the same age as Hitler. Like his chief patron, Rommel was forward looking, brash and hot tempered. He often made decisions in the heat of passion, and was best at quick strikes rather than long campaigns.
But their personal differences were only the beginning. Hitler, seeing that the danger to his rule came as much from the west as from the east (i.e. the Russian front), he had issued a directive placing Rommel to take charge of the western defense, that is, the French coastal defenses. At the same time, Field Marshall Rundstedt was also given this charge, and it was unclear who was to be under whom. This problem was never resolved, and some have mad the charge that this was a part of a divide and rule strategy on Hitler’s part. The problems that were inherent in this job were many. Apart from the divided command (with Hitler as a wild card), Rommel faced supply problems given air assault from the British on German cities. He faced serious gasoline shortages (eventually wiped out by British air attacks), serious labor problems in terms of transport, and importantly, railroad labor, saboteurs from French communists, lack of uniformity in equipment and the near impossibility of importing spare parts for repairs. Really, it was only the SS that was armed to proper proportions.
So thus far, one can see problems with basic military supplies and provisions, at the same time a divided and confused chain of command between two very different Fields Marshall, Rommel and Rundstedt. But this is only the beginning. What was the most important division, and a serious one, is how to do the impossible: to defend the French coast from an overwhelming Allied assault, when your best forces are being hacked to ribbons in the east.
The basics in the divisions between Rommel and Rundstedt were basic issues of strategy. According to the American naval Department of History, the basic differences were this: von Rundstedt basically had a more “mobile” and “decentralized” approach to warfare. He wanted strong costal defenses (as it goes without saying), but he wanted to see more mobile tank units backed by fast moving reserves. Others, such as Ose, see Rundstedt as wanting a naval battle, and the landing faced by fast moving reserves and light panzers.
At the same time, Rommel’s vision was very different. He wanted one thing: to stop the landing before too much equipment could be unloaded. Hence, we wanted to see little else but a serious concentration of forces at the coast. All strength and resources were to be diverted to the Atlantic Wall, that barrier of defense that was to guard Fortress Europe from Allied Assault. It was this wall that Rommel was asked to rebuild and strengthen, and hence, he took this as his mandate. Above all things, Rommel wanted to hit the Allies at the landing point itself. In so doing, Rommel wanted to see extensive mining of the beaches and well as using the air force to hit the Allied shipping prior to landing.
These two approaches are not that different, but in practice, they would have worked out in two different ways. First, Rommel’s was a static approach, an approach that put all resources at the wall. Second, such an approach would have saved fuel, since this was not a mobile defense. Third, his approach would have nothing left had the wall been breached. Nevertheless, Rommel may have known that this was a suicide mission, in that the Axis powers did not have the men and armor to repulse an Allied attack under any conditions. Hitler made matters worse by insisting on a divided command that would leave him with the trump cards.
As far as Rundstedt is concerned, this would have forced the Germans to fight the Allies in the streets of France. The invasion of France in 1940 was a huge success, and it might be the case that this Field Marshall wanted to use the German advantages of speed and a huge investment in light armor that can out-maneuver all comers. Thus, it might be said that the basic unit of disagreement was that Rundstedt wanted to see the German forces having substantial reserves in the case of a breach in the wall, and maybe draw the Allies into house to house fighting in downtown Paris, which might at least take a longer amount of time to accomplish, giving the German high command time to sue for peace. In other words, and this is speculation, it seems that a bloody land battle (rather than throwing everything into the costal defenses) would have permitted a nasty, long, and drawn out campaign that would have registered great Allied casualties. If this was the case, then anti-war sentiment in the Allied states could arise and demand a peace treaty with the defeated German empire. The very fact that von Rundstedt was rather anti-Hitler might have given him the notion that Hitler might be overthrown in a military coup, making peace a possibility. Of course, an assassination attempt occurred not too long after the landing at Normandy, the consequence of which was that Rommel was murdered by poison.
The ultimate conclusion is that Hitler split the difference between the two commanders. In a rather common sense move, Hitler decided to compromise between the two commanders. What Hitler decided upon was to strengthen the costal defenses as much as humanly possible while retaining fast moving reserves. There was a little investment taken from each position, which could be considered a smart compromise, a means of making peace, or, more caustically, that Hitler created a hodge-podge of tactics, leaving the ordinary line officer with little direction as to which sort of defense was really favored.
To conclude, a few things need to be considered. There is absolutely no means of creating a scenario where the Germans could have successfully repulsed an Allied attack as late as 1944. At the very most, a strategy of inflicting maximal casualties on the Allies in an bid for time, where Hitler could be removed, or at least, the casualties inflicted on the Allies could have led the Allies to seek peaceful solutions. The Dictionary of Military History and the Art of War says about this situation: “Rommel became disillusioned with Hitler’s military leadership when the latter did not permit German forces to be withdrawn to defensible positions after the Normandy invasion.” It goes on to say that Rommel did favor Hitler’s removal from power after this debacle.
Nevertheless, it needs to be reiterated that the division of power at the field command level was not the issue: the central concern is that the Germans did not have a fraction of the Allied resources in naval and air power, leaving the Panzers always vulnerable to air assault. Germany was running out of supplies, her cities were daily bombarded in vicious attacks that killed millions of civilians, her best troops were already ground down in Russia. Hence, the question of the divided command is an academic one, and one that could ultimately not have been a central concern at the day of the invasion. The Germans were already a defeated force, and in fact, were a defeated force as soon as the Russian invasion lost momentum. The 1.9 million German army forces in the west were of an inferior quality (with the exception of the SS) since the cream of the German infantry died in either Africa or Russia. Nevertheless, the divided command only cemented the doom of the Reich, and the real question might be if there was a good chance of Hitler’s removal and hence, wither a) the competent commanders (of which Germany had many) would have taken over, or b) if Hitler’s removal would have changed the Allies’ perception of the war entirely, leading to peace talks.
Andre Coversier, et al. A Dictionary of Military Affairs and the Art of War. Blackwell, 1994.
Dieter Ose. “Rommel and Rundstedt: The 1944 Panzer Controversy.” Military Affairs, 50. (1986): 7-11
Samuel Mitcham. The Desert Fox at Normandy: Rommel’s Defense of Fortress Europe, 1997.
Gerhard Loose. “The German high Command and the Invasion of France.” Military Affairs, 11 (1947): 159-164
Robert Dart. “Rommel and the Atlantic Wall.” Navy Department Library (history.navy.mil.) 1947.
Dieter Ose. “Rommel and Rundstedt The 1944 Panzer Controversy.” Military Affairs, 50. 8. Dieter Ose. “Rommel and Rundstedt: The 1944 Panzer Controversy.” Military Affairs, 50, 9. Gerhard Loose. “The German high Command and the Invasion of France.” Military Affairs, 11, 163-164 1st lt. Robert Dart. “Rommel and the Atlantic Wall.” (history.navy.mil.) 1947. Dieter Ose. “Rommel and Rundstedt: The 1944 Panzer Controversy.” Military Affairs, 50, 9-10 Samuel Mitcham. The Desert Fox at Normandy: Rommel’s Defense of Fortress Europe, 1997. Dieter Ose. “Rommel and Rundstedt: The 1944 Panzer Controversy.” Military Affairs, 50, 10-11 Andre Coversier, et al. A Dictionary of Military Affairs and the Art of War. (Blackwell, 1994), 711