We’ve all had the unhappy experience: the guests who wouldn’t leave. They show up unexpectedly one day and you scramble to respond, whipping together whatever kind of food and drink you have on hand. Meanwhile, your new arrivals plunk themselves down on the sofa, chatting away, eating your food, and drinking their way through your liquor cabinet like they own the place. The minutes stretch out to hours, day turns to evening and then night. The clock ticks by, but they’re still there. You didn’t invite them in the first place, and now you’re not sure if they’re ever going to leave.
The German Wehrmacht of 1944 would no doubt feel your pain. Germany’s armed forces had carved out a home for themselves in occupied France: a position that its commanders insisted was impregnable, a great fortress of concrete and steel called the Atlantic Wall that would repel any Allied landing and slaughter the invaders. They had spent years preparing for the invasion, doing all that military engineering, human ingenuity, and slave labor could achieve. They felt that they were ready. When the visitors finally did arrive, however, showing up suddenly one fine morning in the late spring of 1944, all those carefully laid plans fell apart.
On D-Day, June 6, 1944, the German hosts botched the reception. They failed to show their unwanted guests the door, and in the end, the invaders moved in permanently.
General Dwight Eisenhower is meeting with US Co. E, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment (Strike) of the 101st Airborne Division, photo taken at Greenham Common Airfield in England about 8:30 p.m. on June 5, 1944.
2. Prepping for the Invasion
The Germans seemed to be holding some high defensive cards as they prepared to fight the Allied invasion in 1944. The High Commander West (OB-West), Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, had two army groups in the field: Army Group B in northern France, under famed Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, and Army Group G in the south, commanded by General Johannes Blaskowitz. Each army group contained two constituent armies, for a total of four armies in all: seventh and fifteenth in the north, first and nineteenth in the south. Take an average strength for a German army of about 225,000 men, throw in independent units and support personnel and we can call it one million men, enough to man 58 divisions.
These numbers sound impressive, but begin to shrink when we realize that Rundstedt had to spread them out over 2,000 miles of European coastline. Many of his troops were so-called “eastern battalions” (Ostbataillonen), poor-quality units formed from former Soviet prisoners of war, and about half his divisions were “static,” lacking any form of trucks or transport. Plunked down on the beach, their mission was to resist the initial landing, fire at any force that happened to land in front of them, and then, presumably, die at their posts. Without transport, retreat wasn’t going to be an option.
But what about that famous Atlantic Wall? An impressive project on paper, the Wall utilized 17 million cubic yards of concrete and 1.3 million short tons of steel, enough of the former to build 270 Empire State Buildings and enough of the latter to construct the Eiffel Tower 160 times over. German propaganda delighted in showing images of immense gun emplacements, guarded by grim Aryan-looking soldiers straight out of central casting. But in fact, if you looked carefully enough, those newsreels were often showing the same shot again and again: the Lindemann Battery at Cap Gris Nez on the coast, with its three 406 mm guns.
Elsewhere? Not so much. Rommel took command of the coastal defenses in late 1943, and was appalled at the slipshod work he inspected. He did his usual energetic job, sowing millions of mines, building bunkers for the static divisions, and placing anti-boat obstacles at all the likely landing sites. He did such good work that the Allies had to change their plans from a high-tide landing to low-tide, but even he knew the task was nowhere near finished in June. Since the Allies had their choice of landing sites, the Germans had to fortify every inch of beach in France, and they never came close.
When we boil it down, the German defense of France came down to a handful of Panzer divisions. There were only 10 of them, and so their precise placement became the topic of a major tussle within the German High Command. Rommel knew how hard it was to operate under Allied air attack, and wanted the Panzers close to the water’s edge, where they could hit the Allies in the vulnerable moment as they were slogging ashore. Rundstedt argued for a more orthodox posture, grouping the Panzers into a strong, centrally located reserve, ready to smash the Allies as they advanced inland. In the end, there was a compromise that, typically, satisfied no one. Each army group got three Panzer divisions to deploy as it wished, while the other four went into a central reserve, Panzer Group West, under the command General Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg. Even now, however, authority to send them into action lay with the High Command of the Armed Forces (OKW) alone, that is, with Hitler himself. In trying to make a limited resource go further than it could, the Germans had tied themselves into knots.
3. The Landing
The D-Day landings on June 6 have become one of our great historical epics, filled with grand and glorious exploits of heroism. Seen from the German perspective, however, the romance vanishes, leaving us with the uninspiring spectacle of a once-proud military force no longer up to the challenge. For years, the Germans had been formulating plans for repelling an Allied landing in the west. When the time came to go into action, however, they found themselves scrambling back and forth across Normandy seemingly without plan or purpose, trying to put out whichever fire seemed most threatening at the time.
The Allies came ashore at five invasion beaches along a 50-mile stretch of the Norman coast. Facing the landings—containing the spearheads of two complete Allied armies—was a single, understrength German corps, the LXXXIV under General Erich Marcks. He had a mere three divisions, two of which were static. All five landings succeeded, unsurprisingly. Three (Utah, Gold, and Sword beaches) were easy, with minimal casualties; another (the Canadian landing at Juno Beach) was difficult. And as every student of World War II knows, a fifth, the US landing at Omaha Beach, nearly ended in disaster for the Americans.
On Omaha, a landing by the US 1st and 29th Divisions had the misfortune to run into the one regular German infantry division in the invasion sector, the 352nd. The division’s 916th Grenadier Regiment, under Colonel Ernest Goth, held a naturally strong position, a semi-curved amphitheater with steep bluffs looming over the beach, and hulking concrete fortifications like Widerstandsnest 62 (WN 62), which stood less than 100 meters from the water. From the moment the Americans hit the beach, at 6:30 a.m., machine-gun fire erupted from the resistance nests, mowing down the first wave, shredding the dense mass of US infantry desperately trying to find cover behind the tiny rocky ledge at the waterline, the "shingle." Within 10 minutes, the beach was littered with dead and dying Americans. General Omar Bradley, floating offshore on the cruiser USS Augusta, actually considered evacuating the beach.
But even with fate apparently handing them the US Army on a platter, the Germans failed. Their soldiers spent the morning shooting, they shot quite well, and they inflicted punishing casualties. But the defenders had no maneuver component, no counterattacking force, no tanks, no aircraft: nothing that could have driven a rattled US landing force into the sea. The Germans had bunkers aplenty, but what they needed were more soldiers.
4. The German Reaction
Things got no better for the Wehrmacht as the day wore on. The landing had come as a complete surprise, and many German commanders were away from their posts. Rommel was spending a day back at home, celebrating his wife’s birthday. Hitler, as was his wont, was sleeping in. General Friedrich Dollmann, Seventh Army commander, had scheduled a planning war-game in Rennes, testing responses to an Allied landing. His division commanders were on the road to Rennes, got the recall en route, and spent the morning scurrying back to their command posts. General Wilhelm Falley of the 91st Air-Landing Infantry Division could clearly hear the roar of thousands of Allied aircraft engines in the night sky. He turned his car around and raced back to his headquarters near Bernaville. As he pulled onto the grounds, however, he ran into a blaze of gunfire from US paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division and became the first German general to die in Normandy.
With the commanders driving to and fro, the situation at the front descended into chaos. Consider the case of the 915th Regiment, under Colonel Ernest Meyer (and thus known as Kampgruppe Meyer). Deployed inland in the Bayeux sector, the heart of the Normandy landings, Kampfgruppe Meyer was the sole reserve force for the LXXXIV Corps. Responding to reports just after midnight that Allied paratroopers had landed south of the key crossroads town of Carentan, General Marcks ordered Meyer to clear up the problem. The latter quickly assembled his grenadiers and was on the road by 3:00 a.m. Navigating Normandy's narrow country lanes in the middle of the night was no easy task, however, and the battle group was still on the road at 6:00 a.m., when the sun came up and the vast Allied invasion fleet came into view off the coast. Soon Marcks’s corps was under attack everywhere: 709th Division in the Cotentin, 352nd Division between Vierville and Coleville-sur-Mer, and 716th Division on the long stretch from Arromanches in the west to Ouistreham in the east.
As Marcks tried to process these threats, a new report came in around 7:00 a.m.: there had been no airborne drops south of Carentan, after all. It had been a mistake of some sort—a rumor, a jumpy patrol, a typo on the report. A reconnaissance flight could have clarified the situation in ten minutes, of course, but no German aircraft were in the sky. Marcks was operating in the unknown. The US landing at Omaha had been smashed, that much seemed clear. On his right, however, the British had come ashore on a broad front, supported by tanks. They had penetrated the beach defenses of the 726th Regiment and were heading inland. With trouble clearly brewing on his right, Marcks ordered Meyer to turn around, head east at speed, and counterattack the British.
But even this simple order proved impossible. Meyer had to turn his units around and get them back into march column. That process took an hour. Since Allied naval gunfire was ranging deep, the battlegroup had to loop south of Bayeux rather than head directly up the main road. And now the weather suddenly changed. As the clouds lifted and the skies cleared, the dreaded Allied fighter bombers arrived, Jabos to the German soldier (for Jagdbomber). While we tend to think of them as killers, what they did best was hamper German movement. The clock slipped past 11:00 and on to noon, and Meyer decided to postpone his counterattack until 2:00 p.m. That deadline, too, came and went. Much of the battle group was now strung out along the road, either pinned to the ground or taking cover under a rain of Allied bomb and strafing. By 3:00 p.m., it was too late. Elements of the British 50th Division now went over to the attack, Sherman tanks in the lead, Jabos screaming overhead. They easily overran the German assembly area, killing Colonel Meyer in the process, and soon the bulk of the regiment was in a hurried retreat to the west. Calling Kampfgruppe Meyer’s counterattack a failure isn’t quite accurate. Actually, it never even got started.
5. To the Shore: The Ride of the 21st Panzer Division
The Germans did manage one counterattack that day. The 21st Panzer Division under General Edgar Feuchtinger opened June 6 deployed 20 miles southeast of Caen (although the general himself, like so many others, was away from the front at the moment). Nevertheless, the division reacted quickly to the Allied air drops, fighting a series of sharp nighttime scraps with British paratroopers dropping all around it. As dawn broke and the Allies landed on the beaches north of Caen, General Marcks wanted the division to disengage and head for the beaches. The 21st Panzer was under Army Group B, however, so Marcks first had to get Rommel's permission. But Rommel wasn’t there, either, and that meant a wearying series of radio messages with Colonel Hans Speidel, Rommel's chief of staff.
Marcks finally got command of the 21st at noon, and immediately ordered it to cross the Orne river, wheel north through Caen, and drive to the sea. But as always for the Germans on June 6, slow motion was the order of the day. The division took three full hours to move the 10 miles from Ranville to (and through) Caen. Every man and vehicle had to squeeze over the few remaining undestroyed bridges in Caen, the sky was crawling with Jabos the whole way, and losses in machines and men were heavy.
Not until 4:20 p.m. did it happen: a Panzer attack on the Allied D-Day beachhead. The German battle array had the 22nd Panzer Regiment (Colonel Hermann Oppeln-Bronikowski) on the right, paired with elements of 192nd Panzergrenadier Regiment (Colonel Joseph Rauch) on the left. Confidence was high. Oppeln was a skilled Panzer commander with a reputation for hard drink and for dodging the reaper. On no fewer than three occasions in this war, he had survived direct hits on his tank and walked away without a scratch, and both his swagger and his luck were legendary with his men.
The assault opened with Oppeln's tanks rolling north toward Périers Ridge. His Panzers were mainly Mark IVs, older models now upgraded with a high velocity 75 mm gun, though in most of the other relevant metrics—speed, armor, optics—the state of the art had long passed them by. Trundling along behind the tanks came the infantry on half-tracks, along with self-propelled guns of various calibers mounted on the reliable French Lorraine 37L tracked chassis. The regiment moved out with gusto, and was, as always, an impressive sight: the army that had invented mechanized, combined-arms warfare once again on the prowl, apparently irresistible in the advance.
Appearances can be deceiving, though. Holding the ridge was a full British battalion, the Shropshire Light Infantry. It had dug in, hidden its positions well, and had a full complement of heavy weapons: 6-pounder anti-tank guns, Firefly tanks (a Sherman variant with a powerful, high-velocity 17-pounder gun), and self-propelled artillery. The Shropshires held their fire until the Germans came to the foot of the ridge, then opened up with the full spectrum. Six Mark IVs on the German right went up in flames in the opening minutes of the engagement, followed by nine more on the left near the village of Mathieu. Ten minutes later, the surviving German tanks were scrambling towards whichever gully, copse, or farmhouse they could find, desperately seeking cover. British fire had broken the momentum of the attack. Oppeln's luck had run out.
The attack had greater success on the left, where the 1st Battalion of Rauch's regiment managed to hit the seam between the British and Canadian landing forces. Forward they came against little enemy opposition or fire, their path ahead eased by the attention being devoted to Oppeln's abortive Panzer attack to their right. In an hour they reached the sea at Lion-sur-Mer and Luc-sur-Mer, splitting the Allied beachhead, separating Juno Beach from Sword, and linking up with joyful elements of the 716th Static Division who were still hanging tough in their bunkers on the coast and who thought they were all goners.
Rauch had reached the sea, traditionally a marker of victory. But to what end? He was now crammed into a tight spot between two powerful Allied forces pouring fire into his position from both flanks. A follow-up drive to the right or left was unthinkable, since it required a flank march along the seashore, where any German assault column would have presented a perfectly silhouetted parade of targets. Allied naval commanders would have been licking their chops and adding up their kills.
The coup de grâce, fittingly, hit the Germans from the air. At 9:00 p.m., with Rauch still holding his position at the water's edge and divisional commander Feuchtinger still deciding what to do, a great force of aircraft passed overhead. The British were reinforcing their airborne bridgehead east of the Orne River with an immense glider drop, some 250 craft, their tow-planes, and dozens more fighters flying escort. Fearing an Allied airdrop into the rear of the division, Feuchtinger ordered Rauch to retreat from the coast and rejoin the main body of 21st Panzer Division along Périers Ridge. Rauch’s regiment ended this day of drama slinking back to the south and, incidentally, leaving the remnants of 716th Static Division to their unhappy fate.
Allied soldiers, vehicles and equipment swarm onto the French shore during the Normandy landings, June 1944. Image: Regional Council of Basse-Normandie/US National Archives.
6. Conclusion: The Longest Day
June 6th, 1944, was the “longest day” alright—for the Germans. Indeed, it was a disaster. The twin rocks of the Wehrmacht’s defensive strategy in the west, the Atlantic Wall and the Panzer divisions, were both abject failures. The Allies pierced the wall within the opening minutes of the landing, and only a single Panzer Division managed to head towards the beach and launch an attack.
The catastrophe resulted from numerous factors. Many analysts blame German blundering (Hitler sleeping in, Rommel’s absence), or Allied cleverness in launching deception operations that fooled the Germans as to the time and place of the landings. And of course, the popular imagination continues to focus on Allied heroism, especially those young American boys who landed under withering fire and stormed the bluffs of Omaha.
While all these factors were important, however, the real reason for the Wehrmacht’s failure was much more basic: the sheer, raw power of its adversaries. The Allies had finally learned how to translate their wealth and industrial might into combat power at the front. Thousands of ships, tens of thousands of aircraft sorties, and the elements of nine divisions were in play on the Allied side that morning, while millions of men waited in the wings as a follow-on force. To resist this onslaught, the Wehrmacht fielded just three divisions—two low-grade static formations and a single infantry division—with no navy or air force. Whether Hitler slept in or not wasn’t going to change the balance of forces in Normandy.
As night fell on June 6, World War II had entered its final phase. Unexpected visitors had crossed the water with impunity, cracked the wall of Germany’s “Fortress Europe” at five places, and decided to stay.
Note: This article appeared in the August 2017 issue of MHQ magazine.