Sarah Zuckerman


In midsummer 1943, a year before the Anglo-American invasion of Normandy that would lead to the liberation of western Europe, Adolf Hitler's Wehrmacht, or Armed Forces, still occupied all the territory it had gained in the blitzkrieg campaigns of 1939-41 and most of its Russian conquests of 1941-42. It also retained its foothold on the coast of North Africa, acquired when it had gone to the aid of its Italian ally in 1941. The Russian counteroffensives at Stalingrad and Kursk had pushed back the perimeter of Hitler's Europe in the east. Yet, he or his allies still controlled the whole of mainland Europe, except for neutral Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, and Sweden. The Nazi war economy, though overshadowed by the growing power of America's, outmatched both that of Britain and that of the Soviet Union except in the key areas of tank and aircraft production. Without direct intervention by the western Allies on the continent--an intervention that would center on the commitment of a large American army--Hitler could count on prolonging his military dominance for years to come.

The military command structure of German forces in Europe in mid-1944 reflected the growing megalomania of the Führer and supreme commander of the armed forces, Adolf Hitler, as well as the rigidity of the Nazi state. All military operations in the western theatre were placed under the direction of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW; Armed Forces High Command). This body reported to Hitler separately from its rival, the Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH; Army High Command), which ran the war on the eastern front. Under the OKW, the defense of western Europe against a possible Allied invasion from Britain was entrusted to the Oberbefehlshaber West (OBW; Commander in Chief West), Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt Both of these forces reported to their own high commands, which in turn reported to Hitler. The same situation applied to the theatre armored reserve, Panzer Group West: its commander was to deliberate in concert with OBW, yet none of its well-armed, mobile divisions was to be moved without the explicit permission of the Führer. Finally, through Army Group B, Rundstedt directly controlled some 30 infantry divisions and air force field divisions as well as several armored units from Britanny to the Dutch-German border; yet even the commander of this group, Erwin Rommel, having been awarded the title of field marshal, was entitled to appeal personally to Hitler with pressing tactical concerns--a resource that this determined general was not loath to exploit.

The Wehrmacht of 1944 was a strange army. In the panzer divisions, it had highly mobile forces with superior firepower, absolutely up to date. However, it did not have the fuel to sustain operations. Thanks to the Allied Bombing campaign against the Roman oil fields, Germany had desperate fuel shortages. In France, that meant the panzer divisions had to sharply curtail their training. In the infantry divisions, meanwhile, the Wehrmacht of 1944 was almost a replica of the Kaiser's army of 1918. It was dependent on rail and horse for its supplies, on foot power for movement. In organization, tactics, and doctrine, it was prepared to fight a 1918 battle, just as the Atlantic Wall was an attempt to build a replica of the World War I trench system.

Despite the handicap of inadequate equipment, the German infantry divisions could have been made more mobile through training maneuvers. The Germans in France hardly trained at all. So great was Rommel's obsession with pouring concrete and sticking logs into the tidal flats that he put his fighting men to work building beach obstacles. Instead, they put more poles in the ground, and more obstacles on the beach, working through April and May as construction battalions rather than going through field maneuvers. Challenged by a subordinate who wished to emphasize the training, Rommel ordered, "I hearby forbid all training, and demand that every minute be used for work on the beach obstacles. It is on the beaches that the fate of the invasion will be decided, and, what is more, during the first twenty-four hours." (Ambrose 115).

An exception was the 21st Panzer Division. Colonel Luck, commanding the 125th Regiment, put his tankers through regular night exercises. He emphasized assembly points, various routes to the coast or to the bridges over the Orne River and Canal, fire and movement, speed and dash. On May 30, Rommel inspected the division. He was enthusiastic about a demonstration with live ammunition of the so-called Stalin Organ, a rocket-launcher with forty-eight barrels. That evening, Rommel told the officers of the 21st Division to be extremely vigilant. He closed with these words, "You shouldn't count on the enemy coming in fine weather and by day." (Ambrose 116).

However, staying vigilant was not easy. As Luck records, "For a panzer division, which in the campaigns so far had been accustomed to a war of movement, the inactivity was wearisome and dangerous." (Ambrose 116). Vigilance was easily relaxed, especially after the enjoyment of Calvados and cider, both typical drinks of the region. There was, in addition, the uncertainty as to whether the landing would take place at all in our sector.
In other words, even the elite of the Wehrmacht in Normandy had grown soft enjoying the cushy life of occupiers in the land of fat cattle and fine apples. For the ordinary Wehrmacht soldier, whether a teenager from Berlin or a forty-year-old Pole or Russian in an Ost battalion, life consisted of boring work during the day, and enjoyment at night, waiting and praying that the invasion would come elsewhere-anything but getting ready for the fight of their lives.

Works Cited

Ambrose, Stephen E. D-Day, The Climatic Battle of WWII. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.

Hart, B.H. Liddell. History of the Second World War. New York: Capricorn Books, 1970.