Luigi Weber

The German Wehrmacht in France: Morale

A great invasion by the Allied forces was anticipated, however the exact date and location was unknown. To keep German spirits high, speeches denouncing the invasion and promoting German support were held. In a speech targeted to the troops in Italy, Hitler boasts the certain failure of the Allies' expected invasion. He says, 'Fanatical determination therefore required . . . holy hatred of enemy conducting a merciless campaign of extermination . . . destruction of European civilization . . . enemy to be made to realize that German fighting spirit was unbroken and that the great invasion of 1944 would be stifled in the blood of its soldiers.' Grossadmiral Karl Doenitz, Supreme Commander of the German Navy, made a speech on April 17 along the same lines as Hitler's January 28 speech. Doenitz emphasized the importance of the outcome of the impending invasion, and the obligation of the German men. 'Throw yourselves recklessly into the fight . . . any man who fails to do so will be destroyed in shame and ignominy' (Bennett 38-39).

The landings at Normandy on June 6 came as a complete tactical surprise and thoroughly confused the Germans. The failure of the initial German air raids on the beaches and on the ships lying just off-shore led to an order that bombing attacks on ships off the beaches were to be persistently executed. This order hints to the anxiety felt by the Germans about the rate of Allied reinforcement. Heavy bombing by Allied air forces in the Flers-Condé-Argentan area led to some soldiers showing signs of nervous exhaustion as early as June 8. Gunners belonging to the garrison of the Îles de Marcouf off Utah beach 'were soft, and had to be forced into action' (Bennett 69).

In the American sector, German morale was not doing well. The American threat to Cherbourg could only be neutralized if immediate help was provided. However, unable to believe that tired men and inferior aircraft could save the town, Rundstedt gave orders for the destruction of Cherbourg harbour to commence immediately. He refused to rescind his orders despite local protests about the bad effect the orders would have on morale. Rundstedt basically ignored the 'hard shell' policy and the coastal defense of Festung Europa (link to As events heated up at Cherbourg, morale continuously declined. Hitler's inquiry into the Divisions located in Cherbourg was answered by General Schlieben, who replied that his men were not only too exhausted for their task but they were also 'pill-box minded' garrison troops who would not be able to resist the pressures about to be imposed upon them by the Allied forces (Bennett 70-73).

German morale in the British sector wasn't as grim as in the American sector. However, there were certain times when morale was low. The Allied forces were attempting to capture Caen, which was strongly protected. The 9 SS Pz Division was moving north to block the Allied breakthrough west of Caen, but instead they decided to attack Cheux, a communications center for the Allies. The attack was a complete failure and caused one of 9 SS Pz's officers to warn all approaching German units to 'Abandon hope all ye who enter here' (Bennett 82).

The planning of Operation Cobra involved the capture of St Lô, which would spark a massive blow to form a gap for Patton's 3 Army. Reports from German forces in St Lô stated that 'even the bravest troops' would not be able to halt a breakthrough. The arrival of reinforcements did not lighten the Germans' gloom. The new arrivals strengthened the defense near the coast, but the 352 and 3 Parachute Divisions were so tired by weeks of continuous fighting that they could not seal gaps which might be driven into their lines (Bennett 101-102).

Morale in some portions of the German forces remained high. Despite the attempted assassination of Hitler on July 20 (link to July Plot), an air reconnaissance unit sent a message to its political commissar to assure him that its morale was still high and that it regretted the 'murderous attack.' For Günther von Kluge, however, the anxiety of the murder plot was the last straw that caused his nervous breakdown (Bennett 110).

By August 8, the American forces were moving at will and the German command was losing grip of the situation. The soldiers' morale had dropped so low that they were running away under the slightest Allied pressure. During the retreat across France, further signs of lowered morale began to appear. Theft, drunkenness, and desertions occurred among troops. There was an 'every man for himself' attitude amongst German naval personnel fleeing from the south of France. In autumn 1944, morale reached an all time low. Further signs of disintegration had appeared and the severest measures were taken in response, including the immediate execution of officers in front of their own men. Hitler also imprisoned his own troops by not allowing them to cross the Rhine from west to east. These were all signs of lowered morale and the decline of the Wehrmacht (Bennett 183).

Works Cited

Bennett, Ralph. Ultra in the West: The Normandy Campaign of 1944-45. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1979.