One of the greatest German leaders during World War II, also known
as the Desert Fox. German field marshal Erwin Rommel, was renowned mainly
for his Afrika Korp victories. He achieved a brilliant record as a tactician
in desert warfare, driving the British from Libya to el Alamein by June
1942. Subsequent reverses forced him back to Tunis, and he returned
home in March 1943 before the final surrender of the Afrika Korps.
However, it was not until November of 1943 that Rommel received a special
mission by the Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler. He was to inspect the coastal defenses
in the west, from the Skagerrak to the Spanish frontier, and report
on their readiness to resist invasion (Young 166). Expert advice in
the naval side would clearly be needed. Hence, Vice-Admiral Ruge, then
commanding the German naval forces in Italy, would be his close friend
Reporting for duty on November 10th, Ruge was sent to Berlin to collect
all the maps and charts and information he could find but it was not
until December that he and Rommel were able to start work in Denmark
(168). The inspection of the Danish coast took ten days. Then Rommel
moved the headquarters of Army Group B to Fountainbleau and began to
study the French coast (168). He had not been in France since 1940 and
what he saw or failed to see, appalled him. "The great 'Atlantic
Wall,' with which the German propaganda machine had succeeded in impressing
its own people as well as the Allies, was fake, a paper hoop for the
Allies to jump through" (168).
Although batteries had been erected for the protection of the principal
ports, there were not, in many cases concrete shelters. These were especially
lacking along the coast between the Orne and the Vire. Where they did
exist, was useless against preliminary air bombardments which were to
be expected. Beach obstacles were of the most primitive sort. There
were no shallow-water mines, nor were their minefields to seaward sufficient
(168). The fact was that no serious and concerted attempt had yet been
made to put the French coast into a state of defense against invasion.
Rommel set to recreate the coast; to make it efficient for fighting.
Beginning just before Christmas, he spent his days making long
trips by car with his staff to various sections of the coast. He inspected
defenses and held several conferences during the work hours.
Unfortunately, Rommel did not have authority in his headquarters.
He could give no direct orders to the troops but could only make suggestions
to the Commander-in-Chief West (Field-Marshal von Rundstedt) or to the
High Command (170). Since he was working under personal instructions
from Hitler and at the same time was a subordinate to von Rundstedt,
efficiency was impossible. Von Rundstedt was an aristocratic and dignified
German officer of the old school. He might have easily resented the
arrival of a Field-Marshal with no staff training. No matter how much
friction there was between both men, Rommel followed von Rundstedt's
orders. Long after Rommel was dead, he told Captain Liddell Hart that
he had no complaint to make of him. "Whenever I gave him an order
he obeyed... I do not think he was really qualified for high command
but he was a very brave man and a very capable commander" (170).
However, the one idea von Rundstedt and Rommel could not come to terms
with was the strengthening of the Atlantic Wall. Von Rundstedt did not
believe that it could be so strengthened as to form a real obstacle
of invasion. Nothing, he felt, could prevent the Allies landing in force.
As a result, he had failed to speed up the work on the defenses. Rommel
on the other hand, believed the Atlantic Wall would prove ineffective
if not strengthened. It was only at the beginning of 1944 that Rommel
sought and obtained an independent command (170). At the end of January
he was made Commander-in-Chief of the German Armies from the Netherlands
to the Loire.
Although he had more authority than when he first arrived at the coast,
Rommel was working under severe handicaps. He had very little influence
with the Navy, and none with the Air Force. Moreover, the knowledge
that von Rundstedt's disbelief in fixed defenses was shared by the Army
Command, always inclined to discount anything done by Rommel, did not
fail to percolate down to subordinate commanders. On April 22nd, Rommel
wrote his disgust toward units that would not follow his orders:
"My inspection tour of the coastal sectors...
shows that unusual progress has been made... However, here and there
I noticed units that do not seem to have recognized the graveness
of the hour and some who do not even follow instructions. There are
reports of cases in which my orders that all minefields on the beach
should be alive at all times have not been obeyed. A commander of
a lower unit gave an order to the contrary. In other cases my orders
have been postponed to later dates or even changed. Reports from some
sectors say that they intend to try to put one of my orders into effect
and that they would start doing so the following day. Some units knew
my orders but did not make any preparations to execute them. I give
orders only when they are necessary. I expect them to be executed
at once and to the letter and that no unit under my command shall
make changes, still less give orders to the contrary or delay execution
through unnecessary red tape" (Young 172).
Nevertheless, Rommel continued in trying to strengthen
the Atlantic Wall. But scarcity of materials could not be overcome quite
easily. Hence, Rommel had to make do with what he could lay his hands
on. Hitler agreed that all coastal defense batteries should be put into
concrete emplacements, but Rommel could not get the concrete, simply
because there was none. Rommel was never afraid to confront the Fuhrer
in times of need. He was not afraid to ask Hitler for a Panzer Division
or supplies. When supplies or commands were essential, Rommel made sure
Hitler was aware of his needs even if he did not get what he wanted.
Hence, he had a rather favorable relationship with the Fuhrer for the
Still Rommel got much done in the small amount of time allotted. Which
revealed his innate talent for improvisation (174). He succeeded in
having four million mines laid, as against less than two million in
the previous three years (174). Because mines, like everything else,
were in short supply, Rommel raided depots where he discovered stocks
of hundreds of thousands of old shells. Nor were the minefields laid
in conventional pattern. His idea was to employ mines in as many different
ways as possible.
When the invasion was imminent, Rommel was anxious that V1's should
be used against the British concentration areas in the South of England.
He was refused, though many of the installations were ready, because
there were not yet enough V1's to allow continuous fire (175). "But it is interesting to note that General Eisenhower
says that, had the Germans succeeded in perfecting these weapons six
months earlier and had they been used principally against the Portsmouth-Southampton
area, 'the invasion of Europe would have proved exceedingly difficult
and perhaps impossible'" (175-76).
The real conflict of opinion was mainly how the invasion could be resisted.
Rommel stated "We must stop the enemy in the water, and destroy
his equipment while it is still afloat" (176). Once the Allies
secured a bridgehead it would be impossible to drive them back into
the sea or to prevent them breaking out. He based his belief on the
factor of air superiority which he had experienced in Africa. The Army
Command and the Commander-in-Chief West, had another idea. They would
wait until the main landing would be made and then launch a large-scale
counter-offensive at the right moment.
Had Rommel retreated from defending the Atlantic Wall, it is believed
Rommel might have fought his last battles in the moving warfare of which
he was master (178). For his defenses were not even a quarter complete
when they were attacked and the air bombardments were inevitable as
he had foretold. General Montgomery was aware of Rommel's intentions
as he analyzed in the document below:
"Last February, Rommel took command from Holland
to the Loire... It is now clear that his intention is to defeat us
on the beaches... He is an energetic and determined commander; he
has made a world of difference since he took over. He is best at the
spoiling attack; his forte is disruption; he is too impulsive for
a set-piece battle. He will do his level best to 'Dunkirk' us __ not
to fight the armored battle on ground of his choosing but to avoid
it altogether and prevent our tanks landing by using his own tanks
well forward. On D-day he will try to a) force us from the beaches;
b) to secure Caen, Bayeux, Carentan. Thereafter he will continue his
Neither of the plans of resisting the invasion were put to the test
for neither Rommel nor von Rundstedt were free to do as they wished.
"Because Hitler, if he did not inspire it, backed Rommel in his
belief that the beaches must be the main line of resistance, von Rundstedt
was unable to form his army of manoeuvre. Because von Rundstedt, against
Hitler's intuition and Rommel's judgment, took the orthodox staff view
that main landing would come in the Pas de Calais, the nearest point
to England and the direct road to the Ruhr, Rommel was not able to concentrate
a strong armored force behind the Normandy beaches" (179). Rommel
had only his 21st Panzer Division with very few of the old personnel.
For weeks before the invasion Rommel had begged to be allowed to move
the 12th S.S. Panzer Division, the Hitler Jugend, to the mouth of the
Vire, near Carentan (180). It was near Carentan that the Americans landed.
Rommel was refused the division by von Rundstedt. Yet von Rundstedt
was not to blame. He could not move it without permission of Alfred
Jodl, and Jodl could not move it without Hitler's permission (180).
Hitler in the meantime was asleep. No general could control a battle
under such conditions.
On July 17th, the Allied Air Force at last overtook Rommel. His staff-car
was only one of the thousands of German vehicles shot up on the roads
of Normandy. He fell unconscious almost immediately. A few days later
he had been relieved of his command along with von Rundstedt. Rommel
however decided to make one more attempt to bring Hitler to reason.
He sent a report to home and family, of which the combination created
a man, as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill stated in his speech,
"We have a very daring and skillful opponent against us, and, may
I say across the havoc of war, a great general..." (http://www-cgsc.army.mil/milrev/english/sepoct97/rob.htm).
Young, Desmond. Rommel: The Desert Fox. New York:
Harper and Row, 1950.
The Rommel Myth: [http://www-cgsc.army.mil/milrev/english/sepoct97/rob.htm]
Fraser, David. Knight's Cross: A Life of Field Marshal
Erwin Rommel. New York: Harper Collins, 1994.