In the 2001 documentary film about the first Gulf War in 1991, Inside the Kill Box, an American armored unit commander reminisced about a remarkable experience,
“…in the first Gulf War, a Bradley [American armored personal carrier] had a picture of German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel inside. A captured Iraqi officer asked … why [a picture of] America's enemy inside. The driver replied that if he had studied Rommel's campaigns perhaps he wouldn't be an American prisoner.”1
I am seventy years behind the D-Day Invasion and I am Chasing Rommel across Normandy, trying to understand his defense of Hitler’s crumbling empire. A defense the Allies did not break until Rommel was wounded and removed from his Normandy command.
PART I: Rommel’s Road to Normandy
Allied Air Superiority
“In the future…the battle on the ground will be preceded
by the battle in the air. This will determine which of the
contestants has to suffer . . . operational and tactical disadvantages
. . . and thus be forced, throughout the battle, into adopting
General Erwin Rommel, 1940
Rommel May Guide U.S. In Desert Warfare
February 19, 1991|By Charles Leroux.
The Chicago Tribune
From February 1941 until May 1943, General and later Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and his vaunted Deutsches Afrikakorps rampaged across North Africa not once but twice. Initially, Hitler sent Rommel with a meager two division force to North Africa to help the faltering Italians. In September of 1940 The Italians invaded the British colony of Egypt. Mussolini’s dreams of a second Roman Empire were promptly crushed by the British Army in the North African deserts. Desperate for Italian glory, Mussolini asked Hitler to help his armies in North Africa as the British had nearly wiped them out.
In 1941, upon arrival in North Africa, Rommel and his forces were subordinated to Italian command. They were instructed by the German High Command in Berlin to help the Italians by engaging in defensive action only. Rommel’s idea of defensive action was to immediately attack the British Army. At the outset, he was remarkably successful. He surprised his British enemy constantly, engaging in fast moving armored battles and fought his way over one thousand miles west to the outskirts of Tobruk. The British held their coveted deep water port, defeating numerous German attacks. Rommel and the seemingly invincible Afrikakorps were forced to retreat, surrendering nearly all of the one thousand miles they had gained.
In 1942, Rommel attacked again. This time along with his one thousand mile advance, he captured Tobruk. Hitler awarded him the rank of Field Marshal, in German - Generalfeldmarschall the highest rank in the German Army. At fifty one years old, he was one of the youngest men ever to achieve such a rank. From Tobruk the new Field Marshal continued westerly trying to capture further British territory. Rommel’s plans included taking Alexandria, Cairo, the Suez Canal, and then the rich Middle East oil fields. But Rommel’s plans would be subjected to the same threat that so convincingly destroyed his supply lines, and constantly hammered his advances - The British Royal Air Force.
Known as the Western Desert Air Force (WDAF), it was formed in late 1941 and would ultimately turn the tables against Rommel in the North African campaign. In a word, the air support from the WDAF was - overwhelming. It was in the barren, open plains of North Africa’s desert that Rommel learned first hand of Allied Air Supremacy. As he was defeated at El Alamein and began his retreat, he quickly realized that he had no answer for an enemy who ruled the skies above a battlefield.
In his book, Rommel’s Desert War: The Life and Death of The Afrika Korps, author, professor, and retired US Army officer, Samuel W. Mitcham, Jr. bluntly describes the fate of Rommel’s forces facing Allied air superiority:
“The RAF had so badly mauled Rommel’s transport and supply
columns that all his captured [from the fall of Tobruk] stockpiles
did him little good, because he could not get them to front-line
soldiers. In fact the British Air Force operated so successfully
that it must be given the major credit for saving Egypt from
[Rommel’s] Panzer Army.”2
North Africa was Rommel’s first lesson in Allied air power, it would not be his last.
Rommel became more experienced than most German generals in the second World War with the destructive capabilities of an unchallenged enemy air force. The lesson quickly blasted into Rommel’s personal life.
Rommel’s wife and son were everything to him. And as the fortunes of war turned against him in North Africa, the war came home to his wife and son living in the family home near Stuttgart. In 1942 as Rommel was retreating from the WDAF and Montgomery’s 8th Army at El Alamein, Stuttgart was bombed by the Strategic Allied Air Forces. The bombings continued. In one raid alone in March of 1943, nearly 300 British bombers bombed Stuttgart.
That was quickly followed by an April raid by nearly 400 US bombers. This was happening all over Germany in 1943. Rommel knew it would get worse and it did. In July of 1943 the Allies bombed Hamburg. The night attack of 800 Allied bombers on 27-28 July was at that time unprecedented. The Allied Air Forces employed incendiary bombs and high explosives. The resulting firestorms caused the death of over 20,000 civilians, and left an additional 1.2 million homeless. The devastation of a German city was complete.
Charles F. Marshall author of, Discovering The Rommel Murder: Life and Death of The Desert Fox, captures the Desert Fox’s second lesson in the overwhelming power of the Allied Air Forces. Marshall writes,
“…Allied bombing squadrons were reaching deep into German
air space and rendering vast destruction. Rommel’s home…was near a Messerschmitt aircraft plant… He feared for the safety of his family and arranged… to move their residence…to southern Germany…”3
The war had come home for Rommel. The man who had become a legend in 1940 leading the German 7th Panzer Division - The Ghost Division (Gespensterdivision in German), and sweeping aside superior British forces in the deserts of North Africa, was now nearly powerless to protect his family. His enemy became all but unreachable in the skies above him and Germany.
In Marshall’s book we find a deeply concerned Rommel writing to his wife on October 10, 1943,
…thank god your trip [out of Stuttgart] was successful…
That you had to experience the air raid in Stuttgart was not so wonderful.
Only when you have moved will I be able to rest…3
Rommel’s last lesson in Allied air power would occur in Normandy. Before, during, and after the D-Day invasion of France, air power would greatly influence the outcome of the Allies most important military campaign. For Germany, her Armed Forces, and Rommel himself, Allied air power in Normandy would have fatal consequences.
Part II: Defending the Undefendable Fortress
When asked, ‘Why We Lost the War’, he reduced it to a
single formula: ‘What was decisive in itself was the loss
of air supremacy… Everything depends on air supremacy,
everything else must take second place.’
German General Karl Koller , Luftwaffe Chief of Staff (1945)
Why The Allies Won, Overy - Page 322
Adolph Hitler’s dreams of Nazi conquest and world domination were unraveling very quickly in early 1943. Just months before, in the summer of 1942, it was all so different. His armies were still on the attack all over Russia, albeit attacks that could not and would not be supported. And in North Africa, in June of 1942 Hitler’s favorite general Erwin Rommel, had captured the prized city and harbor of Tobruk, in Libya, from its British defenders. But by early 1943 everything had changed and Hitler’s armies were on the defensive after stinging defeats at Stalingrad, in the Soviet Union and at El Alamein, in the desert of North Africa. And in 1943 the Americans and British were bombing German cities, nearly at will.
It was within that context that drew Hitler, Germany’s Supreme Military Commander to write his Fuhrer Directive No. 51 on November 3, 1943,
“…The threat from the East remains, but an even greater danger looms in the West: the Anglo-American landing! In the East, the vastness of the space will, as a last resort, permit a loss of territory even on a major scale, without suffering a mortal blow to Germany's chance for survival…If the enemy here succeeds in penetrating our defenses on a wide front, consequences of staggering proportions will follow within a short time…”4
Found within those words is the reality of Germany’s war in November of 1943. Hitler’s words were issued as a warning of the land war that was looming in the West. But the prelude to invasion was the battle being fought in the skies over occupied Europe and Germany, a battle Hitler was badly losing.
Before the Allies would invade Hitler’s Fortress Europa, they had to have command of the skies over France and beyond. The more the Allies bombed cities, infrastructure, industrial plants, and military targets, large groups of the German Air Force fighters would forced to move closer to Germany to protect these vital assets. As Hitler was writing his Fuhrer Directive, Germany’s air defenses had already been breeched on a massive scale.
On the night of November 22-23, 1943, just three weeks after issuing his Fuhrer Directive, the British RAF flew 764 aircraft over Germany’s Capital Berlin. The resulting destruction caused insidious firestorms that left 175,000 people homeless. Three days later, 383 aircraft bombed Berlin, and two days after that 262 aircraft attacked.Then two days later, 450 airplanes attacked Berlin.6
It is within the context of massive arial attacks that Hitler and his Generals know the Allied invasion of Europe is pending. In November of 1943, Hitler ordered Germany’s most famous soldier, Field Marshal Rommel to inspect the coastal defenses the Allies would have to attack. The Atlantic Wall was Hitler’s believed impregnable series of structures running nearly 2,000 miles from arctic Norway to the Spanish - French border. Rommel only covered the areas he believed the Allies possibly could invade. One of his prerequisites was the ability of the Allies to use their overwhelming air superiority. Distance to known airfields in England held the key to the Allies choosing an invasion site. He toured from Denmark to the Brittany coast of France, ruling out all areas beyond the reach of Allied air power.
Rommel was now an expert on Hitler’s impregnable Atlantic Wall. Who would be a better choice to defend the wall? Author Stephen Ambrose, on Page 58 of his excellent work, D-Day, June 6, 1944 The Climatic Battle of World War II, describes Rommel’s thoughts as he finished his inspections of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. “Rommel denounced the Atlantic Wall as a farce.” Ambrose then quotes Rommel as he confided to close associates,
“…[The Atlantic Wall] is a figment of Hitler’s Wolkenkuckucksheim
[cloud - cuckoo land imagination] …an enormous bluff…more for
the German people than the enemy…and the enemy through
his agents knows more about it than we do”.
On January 15, 1944, Adolph Hitler appointed General Field Marshal Erwin Rommel to command Army Group B, the defenders of the French northwestern coast. And on that very same day RAF Bomber Command sent 498 large two and four engine bombers over Germany.5
Hitler’s Third Reich was fatally broken. Since 1942, German cities, factories, infrastructure, as well as known or suspected military targets had been under devastating Allied Air Force bombing missions. Hitler’s promised 1000 year Reich was unraveling by an enemy who ruled the skies.
Beginning in March of 1944, the Allied Air Forces began the systematic destruction of the rails and roads leading to Normandy. General Eisenhower was creating a Strategic Island, isolating Normandy from its supplies and the German Army’s ability to resupply the area after the invasion. And Rommel had other worries as well, such as the time and specific locations of the invaders. In contrast to the massively growing Allied armada in England, Rommel and his army in France were low on most everything. The German occupiers could gather very little beyond what was already in France, a devastating result of the Strategic Allied bombing campaign.
Realizing he was low on oil, gasoline, ships, planes, trucks, tanks, and other motorized equipment, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had a simple plan to defend the western edge of Hitler’s quickly crumbling Third Reich. Rommel, the master of armored warfare, a genius of offensive, fast moving fluid battles fought with a combination of tanks, artillery, aircraft and infantry. He would do what he always did; attack his enemy. He would attack the attackers. He would attack the invading forces at the shoreline, where he was confident they were most vulnerable. Here his limited use of movement was not a hindrance because the Allies suffered from the same limited area of movement.
A good examination of the Germany Army situation Normandy is explained by the way they primarily moved soldiers, materials, and supplies in the Spring of 1944. Detailed in his book, Mechanized Juggernaut or Military Anachronism?: Horses and the German Army of World War II, author R.L. DiNardo describes the reality of the German Army in the west, charged with defending the expected Allied Invasion:
“…It [the use of thousands of horses] was a measure of the seriousness
of the German situation that what was once the most modern army in
the world was reduced to the use of horsepower.” 7
Another way to think of the German Army on D-Day is to remember the scene in the movie the Longest Day. In the film we see an older, fat, German soldier on a horse. He is trying to deliver breakfast to the Germans guarding the Normandy coast. He is mocked by a local French resident who sees the rich irony of his German occupiers using a horse to deliver supplies, as the Allies begin the invasion with modern warships sitting unopposed off the French coast.
Another revealing example is found in the first moments of combat in France for the famed, Band of Brothers, Easy Company, 506 PIR, 101st Airborne Division. Lieutenant Winters and a small group of paratroopers attack German soldiers on a horse drawn wagon in the second chapter of the HBO TV series, Band Of Brothers, “Day of Days”.
And at the end of that same episode, the viewer sees a group of dead horses being pulled from blocking the roadway. A roadway filled with American soldiers, tanks and trucks - a modern mobile motorized army, that arrived on the European Continent in a matter of hours, after crossing an ocean. The contrast is amazing.
How does one of history’s most famous armored warfare specialists win a 20th Century battle with horses? A battle that will foretell the outcome of humanity’s most deadly event, World War II. With greatly limited mobility, Rommel began to plan his defense.
If the Allies could travel thousands of miles and cross the vast Atlantic Ocean, a wall would not stop them. Rommel’s only chance was to improve that wall, to improvise obstacles, and use or create geographic barriers that would generate blockages. In doing so he planned to slow down or stop the attackers on the beach or as they moved inland. He would create kill zones on the beaches and beyond, to trap the American and British forces charged with destroying the Atlantic Wall. After all, they had the mobility he did not. By slowing, stopping, or funneling the invaders into preselected areas, Rommel hoped he was balancing the scales to some equal measure for his static defenders.
How would Rommel disrupt the seaborne invaders? How would he slow, stop and kill as many as possible on the shoreline? Returning to Ambrose’s book D-Day The Climatic Battle of World War II, on Pages 63-64 the author quotes a conversation Rommel had with his chief engineer officer in Normandy, General Lieutenant Wilhelm Meise,
“Drawing on his experiences in North Africa, Rommel told his Chief Engineer Officer, Wilhelm Meise, Allied control of the air would prevent movement of reinforcements to the battle area. Our only possible chance is at the
beaches - that is where the enemy is always weakest.”
Rommel knew his enemy would dominate the skies above his coastline defenders. Ambrose continues and captures Rommel’s words demanding action from his Chief Engineer,
“ I want anti-personnel mines, anti-tank mines, anti paratrooper mines. I want mines to sink ships and mines to sink landing craft. I want some minefields designed so our infantry can cross them but no[t] enemy tanks. I want mines that detonate when a wire is tripped; mines that explode when a wire is cut; mines that can be remote controlled; and mines that will blow up when a beam of light is interrupted.”
Rommel would reluctantly surrender the skies above the invasion, but would offer to his enemy something that very few amphibious invasion forces in history had ever encountered. They would be attacked while invading. The invaders would be slowed, or stopped on the beach and then attacked while still wet, disoriented, and having finite supplies of ammunition. Ambrose brings us into Rommel’s mind as he addresses his staff officers,
“Rommel predicted the Allies would launch their invasion with aerial bombings, naval bombardments, and airborne assaults, followed by seaborne landings.”
Rommel knew the bulk of the invading forces would be from the seaborne side. His only answer for that was to place his static and mobile troops, as well as armored divisions close to the beaches to deliver a fast and decisive counter attack at the shoreline. With his ideas of repelling the invasion in place Rommel also realized he was nearly out of time.
By the Spring of 1944, years had been wasted as the German Forces in France failed to build an impregnable barrier between the sea and the land. And what of the defenders of that barrier, what soldiers were left to defend Hitler’s most vulnerable flank, the Western Front on the French Coast? The best troops and equipment had been removed and sent to the Eastern Front in Russia and replaced by an amazing array of Germans and non Germans, under a scattered not centralized command.
First, there were some elite units in France. The best ground forces the German Army had in France on D-Day were the German Paratroops (Fallschirmjäger in German. Also, there were Panzer Divisions mostly under the direct control of Hitler, or Geyr von Schweppenburg, Commander of Panzer Group West. There were also SS (Schutzstaffel) units in France, and they, like most of the Panzer Divisions, were under separate SS command. The German Navy, the Kriegsmarine and German Air Force, the Luftwaffe were also not under Rommel’s direct command. The Luftwaffe Field Divisions were commanded by Luftwaffe officers and they were poorly trained as infantry soldiers. The bulk of Rommel’s defenders were infantry units, and many of those were immobile or static. According to author Steven Ambrose, one in six of them was a Non-German.
A large part of the men defending Germany in France were not Germans, could not speak German, and were very poorly trained. They were also for the most part unarmed, and remained that way until the invasion. They were called volunteers, and labeled Osttruppen, troops from the east. On pages 33-34, Ambrose describes the foreign soldiers fighting for Germany in France,
“… the Wehrmacht had “volunteers” from France, Italy,
Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Poland, Finland, Estonia,
Latvia, Lithuania, Asians, North Africa, Russia, Ukraine,
Muslim Republics… and Koreans.”
Ambrose continues describing some of the Germans in Normandy,
“…increasingly unreliable…relaxed physical standards…
convalescing soldiers, stomach and lung ailments, and
older men and boys [one division the average age was 36.]”
Hitler had more divisions fighting the Soviet Union than all his other remaining forces combined. And, the once feared German Air Force, the vaunted Luftwaffe, had been recalled to defend the skies over the Fatherland. As we have seen, the destruction of Germany from the endless Allied aerial bombing campaigns was conducted night and day with deficient resistance.
But as winter turned to spring along the northwestern French coast, Rommel’s most oppressing problem was the lack of time. Rommel understood the magnitude of his challenge, and the coming campaign in France. Interestingly, one day along the English channel, Rommel gazed out in the direction of Britain. Detailed in his epic D-Day account, The Longest Day, author Cornelius Ryan quotes Rommel standing on a Normandy Beach, on April 22, 1944, just weeks before the D-Day Landings:
“The first twenty-four hours of the invasion will be decisive…
the fate of Germany depends on the outcome…for the Allies
as well as the Germans, it will be the Longest Day.”8
It was a prophetic realization and the inspiration for the title of Ryan’s Book - The Longest Day. This quote underscores the Desert Fox’s belief that the significance of time had no parallel in the successful defense of the coast of France. Simply stated, Rommel wanted the struggle decided on the beaches on the very first day - The Longest Day.
On that April day, standing along the cold and windy beach, Rommel looked out at the rushing seas and pointed where the sands and waves collided. He said to his aide,“The war will be won or lost on the beaches” 7 Not the battle will be won or lost - but “the war will be won or lost”. Rommel knew as did every German or Allied soldier who could read a map, that the coast of France was close to Germany, and that a successful invasion would represent victory or loss in the war.
Even Hitler had drawn that conclusion in his :
Fuhrer Directive No. 51 on November 3, 1943:
“…If the enemy here[Invading France] succeeds in penetrating our defenses on a wide front, consequences of staggering proportions will follow within a short time…”4
Rommel was determined to kill, stop, or slow the invading allies between the tide lines at best and on the open beach at least. His weapons were composed of old and new artillery pieces, mortars, machine gun positions, and panzer divisions he hoped to move just behind the static beach positions. With this thin shoreline defense in place, he hoped his troops would defeat the most powerful seaborne force ever assembled.
What Rommel found in Normandy, and all along the French coast appalled him. He understood that by 1944 the Allies had already launched a number of successful invasions in the both the European and Pacific Theaters of the war.
His own forces in North Africa had been defeated when the Allies launched “Operation Torch” in late 1942. Torch was the nearly unopposed amphibious invasion of North Africa that surrounded the German Army and forced its surrender in less than six months. Next it was the near unopposed seaborne landings at Sicily in July of 1943, code named “Operation Husky”. Then “Operation Avalanche” in September of 1943, the nearly unopposed seaborne invasion of mainland Italy. All the while the US Navy, Marines and Army had launched many successful invasions of Pacific Islands. The Allies were coming and sooner not later. Rommel knew he was nearly out of time.
Part III: Crumbling Fortress
“The Battle for Normandy was the most complex and daring military
operation in the history of modern warfare. Two years of intense,
detailed planning reached its successful conclusion when the Allied
forces took the beaches on D-Day. But the seventy six day campaign
that followed…was one of the bloodiest of the war and its
true story has been concealed in myth.”
Decision In Normandy
Carlo D’Este - 1983
Artillery was a major problem all along Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. Rommel ordered guns from every conquered territory. What he ultimately had was an unsupportable mixture of calibers and kinds: German, British French, Czech, Hungarian, and Russian. It was mockingly referred to as, Rommel’s Traveling Artillery Circus, by some of his German peers. In 1942 and 1943, much of the movable, wheeled artillery had left the Atlantic Wall for the failing Eastern Front. Rommel and his operatives gathered as much artillery as they could find, including some World War I relics. They assembled artillery from all over the Reich. Many were obsolete and with a very finite supply of ammunition. Rommel had successfully used captured Russian guns in North Africa. With Hitler’s war against the Soviet Union consuming nearly all of Germany’s military assets, The German Army shipped captured Russian 76mm guns to Rommel for his 1942 campaign.
Also, it is often overlooked and is an important piece of the Normandy story, that the Allied air attacks over Germany forced thousands of anti-aircraft guns to remain in Germany to protect German cities. Thousands of artillery pieces, tens of thousands of tons of ammunition, and the hundreds of thousands of soldiers to man these guns were unavailable to protect the coast and skies of Normandy. The material vacuum created by the day and night bombings in Germany by the Allied Air Forces was critical to creating the opening that the D-Day invading forces exploited.
One of the best examples of the artillery shortage in Normandy is that even the guns at Pointe-du-Hoc, the cannons Eisenhower made job number one to destroy on D-Day, were French built World War I 155 millimeter wagoned wheeled howitzers. These famous guns were destroyed by US Army Rangers on D-Day. They never fired a single shell on the invading US forces at Omaha and Utah beach.
Rommel also mined vast swaths of the beaches and areas inland. He knew from experience mines, or even the suspicion of mines could slow an advance. Any mines made by any supplier would be fine. Antitank, antipersonnel, metal, wooden, and delay fuse mines were all used. He also used artillery shells in creative manners, such as hanging them from trip wires at Pointe-du-Hoc, and placing them on beach and airborne obstacles.
Metal, wooden, and sometimes concrete barriers were placed in belts along the beaches. Some were topped with mines and some old artillery shells. He also positioned the beach obstacles so they would be covered by a high tide. When this was learned by the Allies, they chose to invade at low tide, a course of action that only slowed the invading troops. Now instead of a narrow strip of beach they would have to cross 400 plus yards to the sea walls. Slowed by wet clothes, wet and sandy weapons, being sick and disorientated, this played into Rommel's plans.
All of his defense obstacles were narrow. Those with multi support legs had narrow legs, never wider than the average soldiers body. They lulled a soldier into thinking that cover could be found there. It was rather a place where the invaders were slowed or stopped and made an easier target.
If an invader or his landing craft made it to shore, he would have to contend with the mines. Mine fields were just beyond the open beach, and usually marked. From the base of the seawall to the rising bluffs, Rommel placed his deadly static killers. By D-Day Rommel and his defenders were nearly out of mines, but had nonetheless buried millions of hidden killers in the Normandy sands. And they had also developed fake mine fields which could slow down an invader as quickly as a live mine field. They were all marked, “Achtung Minen” - caution mines.
Behind those mines were infantry, machine guns, mortar and artillery spotters connected by tunnels, trenches and telephones. The effect, especially on Omaha Beach, would be devastating.
To combat the threat of an airborne landing Rommel gathered concrete and wooden poles. He also ordered trees cut down and turned into deadly poles whittled into points to impale gliders or falling paratroopers. They were called Rommel’s Asparagus and some also had artillery shells or mines so if struck by a glider they would explode injuring or killing many aboard.
Next he ordered streams and rivers dammed up. Unable to drain into the sea, they filled low lying areas, thereby creating lonely roads that could be mined, or have artillery zeroed in on them. The raised dry roads were the only way to move men and supplies inland and were often death traps. (Please see our articles Hell of a Place to Die: The battle for La Fiere Bridge and Causeway and Last To Fall: The Battle of Graignes. Go to: www.normandyresearchfoundation.com)
And finally close to the beaches Rommel would place his Panzer divisions. He felt it was a critical piece of his defense of the coast. And it was a constant source of contention between Rommel and his direct superior in Normandy, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, and his superiors in Berlin. Rommel knew he had no answer for Allied air power, and only one hope - to have Panzers close enough to strike the beaches immediately.
On the morning of June 6, 1944, Erwin Rommel was at his home in Herrlingen, outside of Ulm in Southern Germany. Rommel was not in Normandy on D-Day. Believing the weather was impossible for an Allied attack, he was granted permission to leave Normandy by his superior, Field Marshal von Rundstedt. He also had been told repeatedly by the weather experts in Berlin that an invasion was not possible for the next few days. But the unknown to Rommel was that the Germans had lost their weather stations out in the Atlantic. Before 1944, they had used U-Boats and small surface ships to gather weather data. But by 1944 that was no longer an option and weather charts were created and read in Berlin, and were of little value in an area like Normandy.
With rainy, cloudy stormy weather expected for the foreseeable future, Rommel went home to Germany to be with his wife and son, and celebrate her fiftieth birthday - June 6, 1944. He stopped at home, because he was on his way to see Hitler in East Prussia, at his military headquarters at Rastenburg, The Wolf’s Lair - Wolfsschanze in German. There he was to argue for more Panzer divisions and to move them into coastal areas like Normandy close to the beaches, for the expressed purpose of attacking the invaders at the water’s edge. Rommel wanted as much armor as he could get from his commander in chief, Adolph Hitler. Rommel’s plan included moving the fanatical 12th SS Panzer Division to the area of Carentan, close to Omaha and Utah Beaches.
On the morning of June 6, 1944 the day of Mrs. Rommel’s 50th birthday celebration, the phone rang at the Rommel house in Herrlingen. It was Rommel’s Normandy Chief of staff, General Hans Speidel who informed Rommel the invasion had seemingly begun. Rommel never made it to Rastenburg, to meet with Hitler. The Panzers were never installed behind the beaches in Normandy. Rommel returned to his headquarters in Normandy late at night on June 6, 1944. By then the Longest Day was nearly over, and the battle for the beaches had been decided. Rommel’s forces were overrun on the most of the landing beaches.
From June 6 through July 17, 1944 Rommel tried to slow the Allied advance off the beaches. With every passing day the Allies grew stronger and the German Army grew weaker. In a matter of weeks the Allies’ opposition to the German resistance was becoming overwhelming. The Normandy front was crumbling. Yet, he managed to prevent a breakout. And everyday that passed he knew Germany was that much closer to a total defeat and loss of the war. Knowing the end seemed a mere formality, Rommel played his last desperate card. A daring, and deadly assault on the power of the man who had helped to create the Rommel legend, his military commander and chief - Adolf Hitler.
He would offer the Allies peace on the Western front.
On July 15, 1944 Field Marshal Erwin Rommel did what no other German Field Marshal dared to do, he directly challenged Hitler’s absolute power. Rommel wrote a document now remembered as, The Ultimatum of July 15. Author and retired US Army officer Samuel Mitcham writes on page 184 of, The Desert Fox in Normandy that Rommel addressed his Chief of Staff, General Speidel,
“Rommel told his Chief of Staff that he would take
independent action against the Nazi dictator…”
Mitcham tells us,
“Rommel summarized the deteriorating military
situation in Normandy. [Rommel wrote] Army
Group B had sustained 97,000 casualties…
and lost 225 tanks…[of which only 7% were replaced.]
Rommel concluded his ultimatum,
“The troops are everywhere fighting heroically, but the unequal
struggle is approaching its end. It is urgently necessary that the proper
political conclusions to be drawn from this situation. As C & C of the
army group I feel myself duty bound to speak plainly on this point.”
The next day, July 16, Rommel visited one of his trusted subordinate commanders. The officer asked Rommel what he would do if the Fuhrer refused to agree with his assessment. Rommel snapped back that he would open the Western Front and seek peace with the Allies. But before he could do that, he had one last rendezvous with the Allied Air Forces that had so bitterly defeated him in North Africa, in Germany and in Normandy.
On July 17, 1944, early in the evening, Rommel was speeding back to his headquarters. He had been visiting the front in the area of Caen. His open top staff car drew the attention of two Allied fighter aircraft hunting for any signs of German movement. The Allied air power that had defeated Rommel in North Africa, bombed his German homeland into tatters, and reduced his Normandy Armies to ineffective defensive action was now bearing down on him. With a series of machine gun blasts the two staff cars were destroyed, killing or wounding all the occupants. Although he survived the attack, he would not survive Hitler’s vengeance for treason.
“Unlike other senior army leaders, Rommel had had experience with the air power the Anglo-American powers would bring to the battlefield, as well as with their immense logistical capabilities. For other German leaders, especially Hitler, American and British military capabilities simply did not appear nearly as threatening as they did to Rommel. ..
From early 1944, Rommel argued that the Germans must defend against the coming invasion on the beaches. If the Wehrmacht failed to defeat the Allies at the water’s edge, the superiority of Anglo-American air power and logistics… The result would be an inevitable defeat that would end whatever chance the Reich had to achieve a compromise peace.”
June 2006 issue of World War II magazine
The Allied air power that nearly killed Rommel would only continue to dominate the struggle on the ground. Just a week after Rommel’s wounding, the Allies preceded their breakout with a breakthrough. Air power was chosen to create the vital opening that would free the Allied armies stuck in the bocage country. In a plan called “Operation Cobra”.
The Panzer Lehr Division were the unfortunate German ground forces opposite Bradley’s American forces set to pass through a gap that would be created in the German’s fragile defense lines. For all of Rommel’s preparation, planning, building, and creative defenses there was no defense what happened on July 25, 1944.
World War II expert, author, professor and retired American Army officer, Samuel Mitcham describes the ultimate blow that the Allied Air Power would deliver in Normandy. It was the fatal blow of destruction in the Normandy ground war and it arrived from the skies which grew dark as the incredibly massive, enormous modern air armada blotted out the Norman Sun. It was the decisive blow that most Germans could not imagine and all Germans could not possibly defend. It was what Rommel feared most in his final showdown with the Allied Air Power in Normandy. Professor Mitcham writes,
“ On July 25th, 1944, the heaviest tactical employment of strategic air power during World War II was concentrated against the Panzer Lehr Division…1,600 B-17 Flying Fortresses dropped thousands of tons of high explosive on Bayerlein’s [German General Fritz Bayerlein] units. They were followed by hundred of medium bombers and Jabos[German slang for Allied fighter planes]. In all, the air forces dropped 12 bombs for every German soldier in the target area. Tanks were hurled in the air…Entire companies were buried alive and completely wiped out… The massive carpet bombing continued on an unprecedented scale…the entire area resembled the surface of the moon.”
Mitcham. The Desert Fox in Normandy, Page 187.
The air power that drove Rommel from North Africa, drove his family deep into southern Germany, and drove him off the Normandy Battlefield would be one of the deciding factors of the Second World War. Rommel’s defense of Normandy, considering that he had very little time and materials, was a remarkable military accomplishment. He held lines, using natural geographic barriers like hedgerows and barriers of his own devices like flooded areas. With all his inventiveness it was the Allied Air Forces that he could not ever stop.
The Allies breeched the Atlantic wall on a fifty mile front by sea in a matter of hours. They also landed in Hitler’s Fortress Europa from the skies, as three airborne divisions arrived and remained to protect the flanks of the invasion force.
In the end, Rommel’s defense of Normandy was a failure. He was unable to stop the Allies on the ground, by the sea, and most importantly - from the air.
In the coming episodes of Chasing Rommel, we will look closely at Omaha Beach, and Rommel’s defense of Caen. And in the future we will examine the first D-Day - Dunkirk. The remarkable extraction of nearly 350,000 British and French troops out from under Goring’s Luftwaffe. The English Channel that scared Napoleon and Hitler was crossed twice by the Allies during World War II. First, for a remarkable withdrawal and later for a decisive invasion, both events were imperative to victory for the Allies in the Second World War. Without that evacuation at Dunkirk (completed June 4, 1940) there never would have been D-Day (June 6,1944).
Join us in the future, you will not be disappointed as we continue Chasing Rommel.
1. Inside The Kill Box: Fighting The Gulf War 2001 Documentary TV Movie Aired: January 15, 2001. 1hr. 44 min. HBO
2. Mitcham, Samuel W. Jr. Rommel’s Desert War: The Life and Death of The Afrika Korps. Mechanicsburg, PA:Stackpole Books, 2007. Print. P.102.
3. Marshall, Charles. Discovering The Rommel Murder: The Life and Death of the Desert Fox. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2002
about 3 pages into Chapter VIII
4. Ambrose, Stephen E. D-Day June 6,1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994. Print. P. 28
5. National Archives of the Government of Great Britain. Royal Air Force Bomber Command 60th Anniversary. Campaign Diary November 1943
http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20070706011932/http://www.raf.mod.uk/bombercommand/nov43.html retrieved 10/21/16
6. National Archives of the Government of Great Britain. Royal Air Force Bomber Command 60th Anniversary. Campaign Diary January 1944
http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20070706011932/http://www.raf.mod.uk/bombercommand/nov43.html retrieved 10/21/16
7. Dinardo, R.L., Mechanized Juggernaut or Military Anachronism?: Horses and the German Army in World War II. Stackpole Books: Mechanicsville, PA. Print. 2008. P.
8. Ryan, Cornelius. The Longest Day. Simon and Schuster: New York. Print Introduction
Ambrose, Stephen E. D-Day June 6,1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994. Print
D’Este, Carlo. Decision In Normandy. E. P. Dutton: New York. Print
Dinardo, R.L., Mechanized Juggernaut or Military Anachronism?: Horses and the German Army in World War II. Stackpole Books: Mechanicsville, PA. Print. 2008.
Hargreaves, Richard. The Germans in Normandy: Death Reaped a Terrible Harvest. Pen & Sword Military: South Yorkshire, UK. 2009 Print.
Marshall, Charles. Discovering The Rommel Murder: The Life and Death of the Desert Fox. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2002
Mitcham, Samuel W. Jr. Rommel’s Desert War: The Life and Death of The Afrika Korps. Mechanicsburg, PA:Stackpole Books, 2007. Print
Overy, Richard. The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945. Penguin Books Ltd: London. 2013. Print.
Overy, Richard. Why The Allies Won. W.W. Norton: New York. Print
Ryan, Cornelius. The Longest Day. Simon and Schuster: New York. Print
Williamson Murray. Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s Defense of Normandy During World War II www.historynet.com/field-marshall-erwin-rommels-defense-of-normandy-during-world-war-ii.htm
Bibliography: TV and Movies
The Longest Day. Ken Annakin (British and French exteriors), Andrew Marton (American exteriors), and Bernhard Wicki. 20th Century Fox.1962. Film.
Day of Days. Band OF Brothers. HBO. September, 2001. TV Mini Series.