The Background Behind German Defensive Dispositions in France on the Eve of D-Day
As we celebrate yet another anniversary of the tremendous Allied victory of June 6, 1944, or D-Day, let us take a closer look at the role played by German command decisions as one element in enabling the Allied establishment of a lodgment in France. From the beginning, Germany's approach to defending against an Allied liberation of Western Europe was overshadowed by the war waged in Eastern Europe. In particular an early focus of the Wehrmacht's defensive efforts revolved around preventing special operations conducted primarily by the British. This was understandable not only given the singular importance of the German struggle against the Soviet Union in terms of determining the outcome of the war; but also stemmed from a reasonable appraisal of the structure and limitations of the British military establishment, and from the reality that Britain's best units remained tied down in North Africa during much of the period 1941-43.
Nonetheless, Hitler's declaration of war on the United States, coupled with Barbarossa's defeat, and the Soviet Union's resilience; meant it was only a matter of time before the Anglo-American armies struck Nazi occupied Western Europe. To direct the German defensive effort in the west, Hitler turned, in the spring of 1942, to Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt; idled since his November 1941 resignation as commander of Army Group South on Germany's Eastern Front. Rundstedt took over a command in France plagued by numerous problems. Most noticeably, the German leadership featured an all too common top-level dichotomy. This schism eventually fed the 1944 German debate regarding the appropriate strategy for dealing with an Allied invasion; a rupture never truly resolved, with the resultant half-measures crippling German defensive efforts.
After taking over the German army's in France Rundstedt became tremendously concerned about the pitiable state of his "army." Rundstedt's concern in regards to his command resulted in an October 1943 inspection report he sent to Hitler that, among other things, requested greater authority over military assets in the region; as well as detailing a woeful shortage in fuel, heavy weapons, ammunition, and quality personnel. In addition, Rundstedt's report also and perhaps most critically narrowed the expected Allied invasion to three possible areas. The expectations created by this assessment would have profound implications for the disposition of the German armies in France during the spring of 1944. What the report did was single out the Pas de Calais area as the foremost location to expect an allied invasion - a logical choice given the region's proximity to England. However, the report also highlighted potential landing sites along the French Mediterranean coast in conjunction with potential attacks in the Bay of Biscay - a vast region stretching all the way to the Spanish border. Lastly, Rundstedt singled out the beaches in Normandy and Brittany as potential Allied invasion sites.
The legacy of these decisions is evident when one looks at the actual German defensive dispositions in Western Europe and sees the results of a command apparatus that never really made up their minds regarding where they thought the Allies would strike. The Germans never even really organized their armies around properly defending their top choices for an expected Allied invasion. Thus, several elements had worked to undermine the German defensive effort. First, was the failure to limit the scope of potential invasion sites early in the process; although this can also be attributed to a brilliant Allied deception effort in regards to where the invasion force would land. Second, in November 1943, when Hitler appointed Field Marshall Erwin Rommel to prepare the "Atlantic Wall" for repulsing the Allied invasion, in spite of Rundstedt's continued presence, the Germans had only further bifurcated their command and this meant competing theories revolving around how to stop the Allies were never truly resolved. Up to June 6, 1944 German planners remained split in regards as to whether they should attempt to smash the Allies on the beaches, or fight the Allies in the French interior.
Consequently, Germany's best defensive assets; including the ten panzer and panzer grenadier divisions in France on June 6, 1944 were scattered all about. Had Hitler, OKW, Rundstedt and Rommel ever resolved their numerous differences, and even a third of the panzer/panzer grenadier divisions in France been concentrated near each of the most commonly expected invasion locations, including the Normandy beaches on June 6 1944, then the D-Day victory celebrated every June in the sixty-eight years since this fateful day may not have occurred, and the world could look very different today.