Gerd von Rundstedt vs Fixed Fortifications
Karl Rudolf Gerd von Rundstedt was
born December 12, 1875 in Aschersleben, Prussia. (Barnett 175) Rundstedt
had never considered any vocation but that of a Prussian soldier even
though he was said to have shown some early talent in drawing, music
especially acting. (Barnett 175) Gerd von Rundstedt began his active
military service at age sixteen on March 22, 1892. The date was very
significant because they gave him a permanent place on the ladder
of advancement relative to all other career officers. (Barnett 175)
After ten years of service, mostly as a battalion and regimental adjutant,
Rundstedt passed the qualifying examination for the War Academy in Berlin.
That year, he was promoted to senior lieutenant and married Louise von
Goetz, the daughter of a retired major. (Barnett 176)
An officer in the army from 1893, Rundstedt rose during World War I
become chief of staff of an army corps. (Britannica Online) He remained
in the army after the war and was active in Germanys secret rearmament.
He retired in 1938 as senior field commander, but returned to command
an army group in the Polish campaign at the outbreak of World War II.
(Britannica Online) Later, on the Western Front, he took part in the
plan that defeated France in 1940. However, Rundstedt was partly to
blame for the order to halt the German armor. This order allowed the
British to escape from Dunkirk. Gerd von Rundstedt commanded the German
southern wing during the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.
When the Germans were forced to retreat, Rundstedt was dismissed. Returning
to duty in July 1942, Rundstedt was named commander in chief in Western
Europe and fortified France against an expected Allied invasion. (Britannica
In September he launched the Battle of the Bulge, which further delayed
Allied Victory. (Grolier Online) In the face of imminent defeat, Rundstedt
retired in March 1945. Captured by U.S. troops in May 1945, he was tried
by the British for war crimes but released in May 1949 due to ill health.
(Grolier Online) Gerd von Rundstedt died in Hannover, on February 24,
1953. (Grolier Online)
Theoretically, the German chain of command was a good example of order. Adolf Hitler
served as the supreme commander of the Wehrmacht. Field Marshall Wilhelm
Keitel led the High Command (OKW), which ran the war everywhere except
the Soviet Union. Navy Group West and the Third Air Fleet managed Germanys
naval and air forces in Western Europe, while a ground force of about
58 divisions came under the Oberbefehlshaber West (OB West), headed
by Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt. (Valour and Horror).
At the start of 1944, Nazi Germanys fundamental problem was that
she had conquered more land than she could defend. Hitler insisted on
defending every inch of his newly conquered soil. (Ambrose 27) To carry
out these orders, the Wehrmacht relied in improvisations, such as the
conscription of foreign troops, school-age German youths and old men.
The Wehrmacht also changed its doctrinal strategy from a highly mobile
Blitzkrieg equipped with light, fast tanks and hard-marching infantry,
to an all-but-immobile one, featuring heavy, slow tanks and dug-in infantry.
The Nazi and Soviet powers had been partners between August 1939 and
June 1941. In order to return to that situation, Hitler had to convince
Stalin that the Wehrmacht was still a threat to the Red Army. (Ambrose
28) In order to do this, Hitler had to strip his Western Front and hence,
push back the forthcoming invasion to the sea. (Ambrose 28) For this
reason, Hitler declared I can no longer justify the further weakening
of the West in favor of other threaters of war. I have therefore decided
to strengthen the defenses in the West
But Hitlers problems were not his priorities, it was his shortages.
(Ambrose 130) There was a shortage of ships, planes, men, guns and tanks.
Germany was far more over-extended than she had been in World War I.
(Ambrose 30) Hitlers spiritual mentor, Frederick the Great, had
warned Hitler, he who defends everything, defends nothing.
(Ambrose 33) It was the human and material wastage of the war
on the Eastern Front that forced Hitler to ignore Fredericks warning
and adopt a policy on the Western Front of fixed fortifications.
In March 1942, Hitler laid the down the basic principle in Directive
No. 40. (Ambrose 36) Adolf Hitler ordered that the Atlantic coast defenses
should be so organized, and the troops so deployed, that any invasion
attempt be crushed before the landing or shortly thereafter. (Ambrose
In August of 1942, he ordered that fortress construction in France proceed
with Fanatismus (fanatic energy). (Ambrose 36) Hitler ordered a continuous
belt of interlocking emanating from bombproof concrete structures.
(Ambrose 36) An American historian, Gordon Harrison commented Hitler
was not then, and never would be, convinced that defense could not be
made invulnerable if enough concrete and resolution could be poured
into it. (Ambrose 36)
In September, a three-hour conference was held with Goering, Reich Minister
Albert Speer, Rundstedt, Gen. Guenther Blumenstedt (chief of staff),
and others in order for Hitler to reiterate his orders. He wanted to
prepare the strongest possible fortifications along the Atlantic Wall.
They must be built, he said, on the assumption that the Anglo-Americans
would enjoy air and naval supremacy. Only concrete could stand up to
the crushing weight of bombs and shells. (Ambrose 36) Hitler wanted
15,000 concrete strong points to be occupied by 300,000 men. Since no
portion of the wall was safe, the whole would have to walled up. Hitler
wanted the fortifications to be complete by May 1, 1943. (Ambrose 36)
The end of 1943 accomplished almost none of it, but the policy had
been set and the commitment made. Rundstedt disagreed strongly with
Hitlers idea of fixed fortifications. He argued that the Germans
should hold their armored units far from the coast out of range
from Allied naval gunfire, and capable of mounting a genuine counteroffensive.
Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt said of the Atlantic Wall:
The strength of the defenses was absurdly overrated. The
Atlantic Wall was an illusion, conjured up by propaganda
to deceive the German people as well as the Allies. It used
to make me angry to read the stories about its impregnable defenses.
It was nonsense to describe it as a wall. Hitler himself
never came to visit it, and see what it really was. For that matter,
the only time he came to the Channel coast in the whole war was back
in 1940, when he paid a visit on one occupation to Cap Griz Nez. (Miller
(Ambrose 37) Still, shortages of men, armor and fuel made that questionable.
Hitler planned to anticipate the landing, keep what armor was available
for the West near there, and use it for counterattacks while the Atlantic
Wall held off the invaders. (Ambrose 37) Tanks were to seal off any
penetration; tanks could drive the lightly armed first wave of invaders
back into the sea, if the fortifications were indeed strong enough to
hold back Allies and restrain them from establishing momentum. The
trick was to pick the place to make the fortifications that strong.
The most logical place for the invasion to take place was the Pas-de-Calais
for two reasons: the English Channel is the narrowest between Dover
and Calais and the straight line from London to the Rhine-Ruhr and on
to Berlin runs London-Dover-Calais-Belgium. (Ambrose 37) Hence, the
area around Calais became by far, the most fortified portion of the
Kanalkueste (Channel coast). (Ambrose 37)
In 1944, it became the location with the greatest concentration of
German armor in the West. (Ambrose 37)
It was there that the Atlantic Wall came closer to what
German Propaganda claimed it was, an impregnable fortress. (Ambrose
Hitler spent much time inspecting maps showing German installations
along the Atlantic Wall. He demanded reports involving the building
progress, thickness of the concrete used, kind of concrete used, system
used to put in steel reinforcements, etc. But after ordering the construction
of the greatest fortification in history, he never bothered to inspect
any part of it. (Ambrose 38) After he left Paris in triumph in 1940,
Adolf Hitler did not return to French soil again until mid-June 1944.
Although Gerd von Rundstedt was nominally the commander in chief in
the West, he had no direct control over the anti-aircraft units and
parachute troops. Solely Goering and his Luftwaffe controlled these
operations. (Duffy 117) The SS divisions stationed throughout occupied
France reported to Reichfuhrer Himmler. (Duffy 117) This arrangement
ruined von Rundstedts ability to maneuver fighting units effectively
under the stress of invasion battles, when mobility was paramount. This
resulted in a defense so badly fragmented that effective control was
impossible. Von Rundstedt complained endlessly and bitterly to Hitler
about this fragmentation of authority. This was useless, because Hitler
had created the dilemma. Fear of allowing any army commander to
acquire sufficient power over the movement of troops that might be used against him compelled
Hitler to defeat the enemy. (Duffy 116)
Hitler dominated every detail of the preparations for the defense of
the French coast. The Atlantic Wall was a great monument to the
military bungling and stupidity of Adolf Hitler. (Duffy 118) At
a time when such supplies where desperately needed elsewhere, the construction
fortifications required 17.3 million cubic yards of concrete and 1.2
million metric tons of steel in only two years. (Duffy 118) The iron
would have been put to better use by the armament factories. (Duffy
Although von Rundstedt and Rommel respected each other, the two men
could not agree on how to defend the inevitable invasion. Rommel felt
that the only way to fend off the Allies was to fight the invasion on
the beaches, and deny the Allies a foothold anywhere. (Duffy 119) Rundstedt
opted for permitting the Allies to gain beachhead from which they could
not escape easily. He proposed to mass the panzers behind the invasion
front so they could launch a counterattack against the invaders once
the Germans knew the disposition of all the enemy forces. (Duffy 119)
the panzers would push the Allies back into the sea, as Rundstedt saw
it. Gerd von Rundstedt sought to re-create the conditions in Dunkirk
four ears prior, when the British army had faced total destruction.
Because he controlled all troop movements and made all decisions, it
was left to Hitler to decide between the defenses.
As in his typical style, Hitler refused to fully support either plan.
He gave each man a little of what he wanted. (Duffy 119)
The end result was that neither defense could function properly because
the defenses were spread out too thin. (Duffy 119) Hitler arbitrated
and arranged a compromise, telling Rommel to defeat the landings on
the beaches with the help of some armored forces held nearby and let
von Rundstedt retain a diluted central reserve for the main punch if
the enemy was not checked on the shoreline. (Duffy 119)
Whichever man was right, Hitler made sure that neither had the sufficient
number of troops and materials to effectively conduct the defense he
proposed. Hitlers inability to make a decision in favor of one
defense or the other ensures the Allied victory.When the invasion began
with assaults by parachute and glider forces, Rundstedt sprung immediately
into action. (Duffy 121) One of his first orders was to mobilize two
powerful panzer divisions that were held in reserve by Hitler though
the OKW. (Duffy 121)
The two divisions were the Panzer Lehr Division, stationed southwest
of Paris, and the 12th SS Hitlerjugend Panzer Division, stationed in
western France. (Duffy 121) Gerd von Rundstedt ordered the divisions
to move towards Caen, under the command of Rommels Army Group
B. (Duffy 121) Rommel was not found in his headquarters at the time.
Only minutes after having received a call confirming the invasion, von
Rundstedt received another call. This one was from OKW, with reference
to the mobilization of the two divisions advancing towards Caen. (Duffy
The field marshal was harshly reprimanded for having assumed control
the panzer divisions without prior approval from Hitler. (Duffy 121)
He was then informed that the two divisions had been ordered to halt
their advance and to remain stationed until Hitler gave further instructions.
(Duffy 121) Field Marshal von Rundstedts operations officer describes
what happened in the next moments:
Throughout the morning and the early afternoon I, the Chief of Staff,
General Blumentritt, and Rundstedt himself repeatedly telephoned the
OKW, in order to find out what Hitler had decided in the matter of these
two divisions. Apparently he was asleep, and no one dared wake him.
was not until his usual conference, between three and four oclock
that afternoon, that Hitler decided to allow the commitment of the divisions.
They were immediately ordered to resume their advance.
But by then it was too late. During the morning, and until 1100 hours,
a hazy fog had covered Normandy. This would have provided the divisions
with some protection from air attack and have permitted rapid movement.
Now the haze had dissipated, and the whole area through
which the divisions must march was being intensively patrolled by the
Allied air forces. No road movement by day was possible in view of this
air umbrella, which reached from Normandy to the Paris area. (Duffy
When the two panzer divisions resumed their advance, the immediately
came under violent attack by Allied fighters and bombers, suffering
both heavy casualties in mean and tanks before they were to reach the
actual battle ground. (Duffy 122) The minister of armaments, Albert
Speer gave a description of what he found at Hitlers headquarters
on the morning of the D-Day invasion:
One June 6, I was at the Berghof about ten oclock in the
morning when one of Hitlers military adjutants told me that
the invasion had begun early that morning. Has the Fuehrer been
awakened? I asked. He shook his head. No, he receives the
news after he has eaten breakfast. (Duffy 122)
The twofold disappointment over the failure to throw the Allies
back into the Sea and the inability to bring about a decisive turn in
military fortunes through retaliatory measures produced an extraordinary
fluctuation and instability in the state of public opinion. (Steinert
Overall, the situation was regarded as grave, as certain disillusionment
set in. By late August, German forces in France were defeated and they
had been forced back to the West Wall. (Valour and Horror) In December
of 1944, the German launched their final counterattack, the Battle of
the Bulge. This attack failed. The Allied landing of troops from the
Italy to southern France drove the German forces deep into Germany.
(Valour and Horror) Under attack form all sides, their major cities
devastated by aerial bombardment and with Hitlers suicide on April
30, Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945. (Valour and Horror)
Ambrose, Stephen E. D-DAY June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World
War II. New York: Simon & Schuster. 1994.
Barnett, Correlli. Hitlers Generals. New York: Grove Weidenfeld.
Duffy, James P. Hitler Slept Late And Other Blunders That Cost Him
The War. New York: Praeger Publishers. 1991.
Miller, Russel. Nothing Less Than Victory. New York: William
Morrow and Company, Inc. 1993.
Steinert, Marlis G. Hitlers War and the Germans. Ohio:
Ohio University Press. 1977.
Britannica Online: Normandy 1944.
Grolier Online: Karl von Rundstedt. http://www.grolier.com/wwii/wwii_rundstedt.html
The Valour & The Horror In Desperate Battle Normandy 1944.
Mitcham, Samuel W. Rommels Desert War. New York: Stein
and Day Publishers. 1982.
Paschall, Rod. The Defeat of Imperial Germany. North Carolina:
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 1989.