♦ The German Army in World War II ♦


Defending the West 1944: Command & Planning



Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (left) in conference with Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt (center) and OB West staff officers (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

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The German Army's highest field command was the Heeresgruppe (army group), here abbreviated to HG. They usually had a geographical designation, e.g. HG Nord (North) or an identifying letter, e.g. HG B. Then came the numbered field armies, e.g. 7. Armee (Seventh Army), and the panzer armies, e.g. 5. Panzerarmee (Fifth Panzer Army). At the next lower echelon of command were found the Armeekorps (corps), and Panzerkorps (armored corps) which were identified by Roman numerals, e.g. XXVI. Armeekorps, XXXXVII. Panzerkorps. There were also two temporary command arrangements for special missions or emergencies. The Armeeabteilung (AA; army detachment) placed one corps in command of a second corps; the Armeegruppe (AG) placed one field army in command of another. They were usually named after their commander, e.g. Armeeabteilung Kempf, or received a letter designation, e.g. Armeegruppe G.

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The German forces tasked to repulse the long-expected Allied invasion of France were under the command of the Oberbefehlshaber West (Commander-in-Chief West)OB West for short—which also referred to the headquarters as a whole. Since March 1942 this command had been held by Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, the Army’s senior officer,  who in June 1944 was sixty-nine years old. OB West had two major formations: AG G (Colonel-General Johannes Blaskowitz), responsible for the defense of the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts of France; and HG B (Field Marshal Erwin Rommel), responsible for the defense of Brittany and the Channel coast of France and Belgium. An additional headquarters, Panzergruppe West (later to become 5. Panzerarmee), controlled three of the six panzer divisions in the HG B zone. OB West was answerable to the High Command of the Armed Forces: Oberkommando der Wehrmacht or OKW. In his capacity as supreme commander of the armed forces Hitler issued his orders through OKW, which also served as his planning staff. (The High Command of the Army, Oberkommando des Heeres or OKH, was by now restricted to the conduct of operations on the Eastern Front on Hitler’s behalf in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the Army.)

If this chain of command seems straightforward, the reality was otherwise. As Rundstedt complained, his authority was circumscribed by Hitler, who was not hesitant to issue orders over the head of OB West. Moreover, neither Rundstedt nor Rommel had full control of the six panzer divisions in the HG B zone. The three under Panzergruppe West were designated as OKW reserves—meaning that they could not be committed to action without Hitler’s express authorization. This was to have fateful consequences on the day of the invasion.

Normandy and northwestern France (Department of History, USMA West Point)

Since it was considered certain that the invasion, when it came, would strike somewhere between Brittany and Calais, two-thirds of the forces at the disposal of OB West were allotted to HG B. The question was precisely where in this area the Allies would land. The obvious spot was the Pas de Calais, where the English Channel was at its narrowest. But there were reasons to think that the enemy might choose Normandy instead. The early seizure of a major port was an obvious Allied objective and Cherbourg at the tip of the Normandy peninsula fitted the bill. And this indeed was a major consideration in the Allies’ choice of Normandy.

Two additional factors complicated this guessing game. First, there was Hitler’s anxiety concerning Norway, where he suspected that the Allies might attempt a landing with the objective of barring Germany’s access to Swedish iron ore—essential to industrial production. Second, there was Operation Fortitude, an Allied deception plan designed to convince the Germans that the invasion would come at the Pas de Calais. This involved the creation of a phantom army group in England, supposedly under the command of Lieutenant General George S. Patton. Fake radio traffic, dummy tanks and guns made of wood and canvas and other deceptions were highly successful in convincing German commanders that Pas De Calais was the Allied target. Even on and after 6 June 1944, Rundstedt and others suspected that the Normandy landing was merely a diversion, and that the real invasion had yet to be launched.

Nor was there unanimity of opinion regarding operational and tactical matters. Rommel, whose task it would be to conduct the defensive battle, believed that it was vital to concentrate all reserves close to the coast, in readiness to meet the invasion on the beaches and throw it back into the sea. If the Allies were not promptly repulsed, he argued, they were unlikely to be driven out at all. Rommel’s experiences during the campaign in North Africa had convinced him that thanks to Allied air superiority, reserves positioned inland would be unable to reach the coast in time to prevent the enemy from consolidating a bridgehead.

Rommel (left) on an inspection tour of the Channel coast defenses (World War Photos)

But his superior Rundstedt and many others on the OB West staff disagreed. Basing themselves on traditional military principles of concentration and mass, they advocated the creation of a powerful panzer reserve, positioned well inland, to deliver a well-planned, carefully prepared counterattack, smashing the invaders in their beachheads before they could build up their strength. The preparation and conduct of this counterattack was to be the mission of Panzergruppe West; in the meantime the German infantry divisions, withdrawn out of range of naval gunfire, would dig in and cordon off the invasion zone.

Both sides appealed to Hitler—who characteristically split the difference. Three of the six immediately available panzer divisions were placed under HG B. The other three remained with Panzergruppe West and were not to be committed to action without OKW approval. In effect, the Führer’s decision approved Rommel’s plan without giving him the forces necessary to do the job. The beaches were sown with mines, strewn with obstacles and covered by artillery. Protected fighting positions for the defending infantry were constructed with interlocking fields of fire. But the reserves—the panzer divisions especially—were not positioned as Rommel desired. On D-Day only one of them, the 21. Panzer-Division, was immediately available to launch a counterattack—which failed. And just as the Desert Fox had predicted, the enemy was able to consolidate a bridgehead from which he could not be dislodged.

Whether Rommel or Rundstedt was right in this dispute over operations and tactics is a doubtful question, though with hindsight it appears that Rommel’s assessment of the situation was more realistic. In view of the Allies’ overall superiority of forces it seems unlikely, albeit it not quite impossible, that the Germans could have repulsed the invasion. But there can be no doubt that Hitler’s failure to make a clear-cut decision was prominent among those factors contributing toward the German Army’s catastrophic defeat in the Battle of Normandy.

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Organizational Diagrams

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