As Germany’s famed “Desert Fox,” YOU face an imminent Allied invasion.
It is May 1944 as you assume the role of German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, commander of Army Group B, responsible for defending German-occupied France against an Allied invasion that everyone on both sides of the English Channel knows is coming. Yet for Germany, several questions remain: Where will the invasion hit? When will it arrive? And what is the most effective organization of German defenses to defeat it?
You and other senior German leaders, including Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, realize that the crucial element to defeating the Allied invasion will be the effective employment of the German army’s mobile forces, the panzer and panzer grenadier divisions. Above all other combat units, they are the ones that must provide the speed, shock action and armored firepower to overcome the Allied invasion force when it arrives.
Getting the mobile divisions into combat in sufficient strength and at the right time and place will be the keystone of your defense. Indeed, the proper employment of these divisions will make the difference between victory and defeat. Therefore, determining the specific command and control arrangement for the mobile forces is the most vital decision facing German leadership at this critical point in the war.
After leaving Tunisia in March 1943 (two months before the final Axis defeat in North Africa) and holding brief postings in Greece and Italy, in November you received from Hitler an assignment to serve as inspector of the Atlantic Wall, Germany’s defensive fortifications on the western European coast that have been under construction since August 1942. Unfortunately, your initial inspection tours revealed shocking unpreparedness and lapses in defensive planning and coordination, low priorities in resources and troops, and shortfalls in fortification materiel.
You candidly reported these glaring weaknesses to Hitler and the German high command, Oberkommando des Wehrmacht (OKW), along with your recommendations for addressing the issues. Not only did Hitler approve your recommendations, he also placed you in charge of implementing them as commander of Army Group B, responsible for the Atlantic Wall defense.
Army Group B consists of 7th and 15th armies, along with German forces located in the Netherlands, and is subordinate to Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt’s Oberbefehlshaber West (OB West), controlling headquarters for all German military forces on the Western Front.
Together, 7th and 15th armies have 24 infantry divisions and five Luftwaffe field divisions (infantry ground combat units) organized in eight corps. However, most of your divisions are understrength by up to six infantry battalions each, and your army group has no mobile units (panzer or panzer grenadier divisions) directly assigned to it. Instead, Rundstedt has consolidated major mobile units by creating Panzer Group West. Under the command of General Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg, Panzer Group West includes six panzer divisions organized in two corps, I SS Panzer and LXIII Panzer.
German intelligence estimates that the Allied invasion force you may face is composed of 21st Army Group, consisting of 1st and 2d armies formed of U.S., British and Canadian divisions staging principally in south and southwest England. Radio intercepts and other intelligence gathering have also identified “Army Group Patton,” a force of undetermined size forming in southeast England under the command of American General George S. Patton. After his notable successes in North Africa and Sicily, Patton seems an obvious choice to lead the enemy’s main invasion effort.
Allied forces are capable of landing at multiple locations and could immediately put ashore a minimum of five assault divisions followed by five additional divisions. Within a few days of an initial landing, the Allies could push ashore many more thousands of troops, tanks, heavy weapons and supplies to establish a strong foothold in France that would prove difficult, or perhaps impossible, to dislodge.
The sector defended by Army Group B is immense, running from the mouth of France’s Loire River near Nantes for 1,000 miles along the Atlantic Ocean, English Channel and North Sea coastlines of France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Exactly where along this vast distance the enemy will invade is currently unknown. Hitler, Rundstedt and most senior commanders believe Calais is the most likely Allied landing site, since it is the shortest distance across the English Channel and the nearest point on the French coast to Germany’s border.
However, you realize that the Allies, who have control of the sea and the skies above it, could land at any beach capable of accommodating a large invasion force and its logistical support. The topography of northern France is such that the first suitable beaches south of Calais are those in Normandy. Indeed, the Allied forces staging in south/southwest England are actually closer to Normandy than they are to Calais.
Regardless of where the Allies strike, your defense must be prepared to meet them. In that regard, your overriding concern is the command, control and employment of the mobile forces you realize are the key to defeating the Allied invasion.
WHO CONTROLS THE PANZERS?
There is great disagreement among Germany’s leaders concerning where the impending invasion will occur and how to fight it. As a result, German senior commanders hold different views on how the mobile forces of Panzer Group West should be controlled and employed in combat. The argument is over whether to fight an all-out defense at the water’s edge to stop the invaders on the beaches, or to allow the Allies to move inland and expose their vulnerable supply lines and extended flanks to catastrophic counterattack and encirclement.
Your combat experience in North Africa was marked by the Western Allies’ airpower that continually interdicted the progress of German and Italian mobile forces. You believe the counter to Allied air superiority is minimal movement by mobile forces; therefore you favor positioning the panzer divisions near likely invasion beaches with command and control of those units dispersed to the lowest levels to ensure instantaneous reaction.
However, Rundstedt and other German commanders who have fought on the Eastern Front have not experienced combat dominated by airpower. The Red Air Force, nearly wiped out by the Luftwaffe in June 1941 when the invasion of the USSR began, is growing and improving but does not yet dominate ground combat in the East. Although German commanders are often outnumbered by their Red Army opponents, they have achieved notable successes through wide-ranging battles of maneuver in which panzer and panzer grenadier units sweep around the enemy’s vulnerable flanks and cut off or smash advancing Soviet armies. Thus Rundstedt favors centralized control of German mobile forces and placing them well back from potential invasion sites.
Although you answer to Rundstedt, he in turn answers to Hitler. Therefore you decide to plead your case directly to the führer. Even though your formerly close relationship with Hitler cooled in the wake of the 1943 German defeat in North Africa, you know that he still holds you and your skills in high regard. That was the principal reason he picked you for the vital task of overseeing the preparation of the Atlantic Wall fortifications and leading the German defense of France against the Allied invasion. Moreover, Hitler has always despised the “Prussian aristocrats” like Rundstedt who dominate the German military high command. Hence you believe you have a good chance of convincing him to approve your preferred plan.
Nonetheless, you realize Hitler may choose any one of three possible courses of action regarding control of the panzers:
COURSE OF ACTION ONE: CENTRALIZED CONTROL OF MOBILE FORCES. Under this plan, favored by Rundstedt and the East Front generals, OB West will maintain direct control of the mobile forces, which will be located well back from potential invasion beaches. After the Allied attackers are allowed to come ashore and move inland, Panzer Group West will launch a powerful counterattack to cut off, encircle and annihilate the enemy in a decisive battle.
COURSE OF ACTION TWO: COMPROMISE CONTROL OF MOBILE FORCES. With this option, OB West will maintain centralized control of the mobile forces, but several of Panzer Group West’s panzer divisions will be stationed closer to potential invasion beaches. Situated a day or two’s road march away, these divisions will be moved to the landing sites, released to the control of local commanders, and tasked with defeating the enemy at the beaches.
COURSE OF ACTION THREE: DISPERSED CONTROL OF MOBILE FORCES. Under this plan, which you believe is the best option, control of Panzer Group West’s mobile forces will be dispersed to local commanders who will place the panzer divisions near potential invasion sites for immediate commitment to battle to stop the Allies at the water’s edge. With minimal road movement required, the divisions will not be delayed or be subjected to heavy damage by Allied air attacks.
It is now up to you to sway Hitler to approve your preferred course of action.
What next, Field Marshal Rommel?
COURSE OF ACTION ONE: CENTRALIZED CONTROL OF MOBILE FORCES
You are unable to convince Hitler to approve your plan to disperse control of the panzer divisions. Instead, he chooses strict centralized control of the mobile forces to encircle and annihilate the Allied invasion force once it has moved inland. After enduring the humiliation of one of the führer’s infamous rants, you were sent back to France.
For the remainder of May and the first days of June, you do the best you can to prepare Army Group B’s beach defenses. You work your soldiers as hard as humanly possible laying mines and constructing beachfront obstacles. On June 4, after several days of bad weather make it appear unlikely the Allies will risk an invasion, you decide to visit Hitler – following a brief stopover to see your family – to make one more personal appeal for dispersal of the mobile forces.
However, at 6:30 a.m. on June 6, your chief of staff telephones you in Germany with reports of Allied airborne night landings in Normandy and hundreds of Allied ships bombarding the Norman coast. You immediately cancel your trip to visit Hitler and call both OB West and OKW to request release of the panzer divisions. The commanders refuse your appeal since they remain determined to hold back the panzers to launch them in an overpowering counterattack once the main Allied invasion force has been identified and has moved inland.
While en route to your headquarters in France you receive a situation update: Allied troops are coming ashore in strength north of Caen and Bayeux and on the Cotentin Peninsula’s eastern coast, but the Allied landings between Bayeux and Isigny are stalled at the beach.
You arrive at your headquarters at 9:30 p.m. and receive a situation briefing. At the eastern landings, British and Canadian forces with strong contingents of tanks and artillery are approaching Caen and have seized crossings over the Orne River, threatening to push south. On the western side, the Americans landing between Bayeux and Isigny have rallied and are moving beyond the beach (U.S. prisoners reveal the beach is code-named “Omaha”), while on the Cotentin Peninsula, American forces are moving inland. During this first critical day of the Allied invasion, no panzer division joins the fight.
On June 7, you inform Hitler of the rapidly developing extent of the enemy invasion – the airborne landings, massive air support, huge naval armada and several Allied divisions that have come ashore. You convince him to send you some panzers, and he releases to you Schweppenburg’s two panzer divisions nearest Normandy, the 12th SS and the 21st. Yet valuable time has been lost.
The divisions’ response is agonizingly slow due to heavy Allied air interdiction. The panzers can move only during hours of darkness – and summer nights in Normandy are short. When elements of the divisions finally arrive in strength days after the landings, you have no choice but to throw the panzers into a defensive line to shore up your crumbling Normandy defenses. You order transfers of infantry divisions from 15th Army and request more combat units currently under OB West’s control. But Hitler says no, it is too early. The German high command is still expecting the Allies to commit Army Group Patton as their main attack.
Meanwhile, Panzer Group West’s uncommitted four panzer divisions become the targets of heavy Allied air attacks, incurring losses in tanks as well as supply and fuel trucks. On June 10, Panzer Group West’s headquarters suffers an air attack that kills most of the operations staff and wounds General Schweppenburg, seriously disrupting the mobile force’s command and control.
You realize you cannot contain the Allied invasion. Your old nemesis from North Africa, General Bernard Montgomery, captures Caen with British forces June 11 and then launches Canadian divisions toward Falaise. This cuts off 12th SS Panzer Division, which Allied artillery then hammers unmercifully. To the west, the Americans capture Cherbourg and occupy the entire Cotentin Peninsula. After pounding 21st Panzer Division with incessant air attacks, the Americans easily capture Saint Lo and begin pushing on to Avranches and Mortain.
Less than a week after the Allies’ June 6 landings, the invaders have seized an unassailable lodgment and have moved beyond Normandy’s restrictive terrain. You realize that nothing can stop the Allied juggernaut from quickly overrunning France. It seems likely the British and Americans will reach Berlin before the Russians.
COURSE OF ACTION TWO: COMPROMISE CONTROL OF MOBILE FORCES
You were partly successful in pleading your case to Hitler. The two of you reached a compromise by which several panzer divisions will be positioned within a day or two’s road march of potential invasion sites at Calais and Normandy: 2d Panzer Division will be situated around Amiens, 21st Panzer south of Caen, and 116th Panzer east of Rouen. As for Panzer Group West’s remaining panzer divisions, 1st SS Panzer will be positioned east of Antwerp, 12th SS Panzer around Lisieux, and Panzer Lehr Division near Le Mans.
You spend the remainder of May and the first days of June improving the Atlantic Wall defenses. On June 4, after several days of bad weather make it appear unlikely the Allies will risk an invasion, you decide to visit Hitler – following a brief stopover to see your family – to argue for additional panzer units to be moved closer to potential invasion sites.
At 6:30 a.m. on June 6, your chief of staff calls to report large enemy airborne landings in Normandy, but the situation remains unclear. You call back at 10 a.m. and learn the Allies are conducting heavy air and sea assaults in Normandy between Caen and the Cotentin Peninsula. You return to France and stop at Nancy to call and request that 21st Panzer Division be released to you and moved immediately to counterattack.
Upon arrival at your headquarters at 9:30 p.m., you receive a situation briefing. The release and movement of 21st Panzer Division was delayed, and the division did not counterattack against British infantry and tanks north of Caen until early evening. The panzers’ penetration stopped well short of the invasion beaches. (See COA Two map.) Enemy airborne units are now holding bridges over the Orne River northeast of Caen, while British and Canadian troops have landed on a 10-mile-wide beachhead. To the west, the Americans have conducted two landings: one between Bayeux and Isigny, where the enemy has suffered heavy casualties and remains stopped below the cliffs above the beach; and one on Cotentin’s eastern coast, where the Americans are quickly expanding to link up with their airborne force at Sainte Mere-Eglise.
In response to your report that, in general, the enemy is successfully ashore, Panzer Group West’s nearest two divisions, 12th SS Panzer and Panzer Lehr, are released to your command June 7. However, Allied air interdiction delays their march and inflicts serious losses. Commander of Panzer Lehr refuses to move his division during daylight hours.
With the Allies established on the beaches, your concern now is how to keep them bottled up there by holding Caen and the Cotentin Peninsula. On the evening of June 8 you commit 12th SS Panzer Division west of Caen, and the next day you commit Panzer Lehr Division to stiffen your Caen defense. This gives you three panzer divisions – 21st, 12th SS and Panzer Lehr – maintaining a line around Caen. The front is holding, but you are forced to use the panzer units in the front line instead of as a mobile reserve striking force.
On June 10, the Americans press forward and then outward to link up their beachheads, while you continue counterattacking to stop the British striking southward. Meanwhile, Panzer Group West’s headquarters suffers an air attack that kills most of the staff and wounds Schweppenburg. As in North Africa, the fighting becomes a battle of materiel in which the Allies hold an advantage in firepower and have a seemingly inexhaustible ammunition supply.
The following day, British 7th Armored Division begins an attempt to flank Panzer Lehr, but you halt it two days later at Villers-Bocage with the newly arrived 2d Panzer Division.
On June 12, the Americans capture Carentan, and then their two beachheads link up the following day. With this and the June 9 linkup of the eastern American beachhead and the British-Canadian beachheads, the enemy now has firmly established a consolidated position. You realize the Allies cannot be thrown back into the sea.
You believe the enemy’s air superiority and materiel wealth is an insurmountable strategic advantage and that Germany should seek negotiations to end the war. However, you also recognize that Hitler will never permit this – as long as he remains in power, that is.
COURSE OF ACTION THREE: DISPERSED CONTROL OF MOBILE FORCES
Due to extremely fortunate timing, you approach Hitler immediately after he has berated his East Front generals (including Rundstedt and Schweppenburg) for constantly frustrating his plans. In one of his increasingly frequent changes of mind, he agrees to place Panzer Group West under your direct command.
During the remainder of May and the first days of June, you position Panzer Group West’s panzer divisions near potential invasion sites at Calais and Normandy and place them under the control of the local commanders in those areas. In the Normandy sector, you position 21st Panzer Division southeast of Caen, move 12th SS Panzer Division between Saint Lo and Carentan, and put Panzer Lehr Division near Vire as your mobile reserve. Placing the panzer divisions as close as possible to the beaches will prevent Allied air interdiction from delaying their counterattacks. You are confident that any Allied invasion at Calais or Normandy will be met on the beaches by strong mobile panzer forces within the first few hours.
On June 4, after several days of bad weather make it appear unlikely the Allies will risk an invasion, you are tempted to go to Germany for your wife’s June 6 birthday. Yet since you have no official business to justify the trip, you decide to remain at your headquarters in France. That decision proves wise, since during the night of June 5-6 you receive reports of Allied airborne drops behind the Normandy beaches. Although the purpose of the drops is unclear, you place Army Group B on alert and recall commanders who are away from their units.
Before dawn on June 6, you receive reports that the airborne drops, although involving thousands of paratroopers, have proved disastrous for the Allies. British paratroopers landed at the Orne River bridges but were quickly overrun by 21st Panzer Division, while the American airborne landings in the west virtually dropped on top of 12th SS Panzer Division, leading to even greater losses for the Allies.
Sunrise on June 6 reveals a huge Allied invasion armada off five Normandy beaches, from Caen to the Cotentin Peninsula’s eastern coast. Allied air attacks and a naval bombardment hammer the beachheads as landing craft move toward the coast. You immediately order the panzer divisions forward to close on the invasion beaches, sending 21st Panzer Division east of Douvres, Panzer Lehr west of Douvres, the panzers of 12th SS Panzer Division to the eastern Cotentin Peninsula coast, and the panzer grenadiers of 12th SS to the beach area between Bayeux and Isigny.
Throughout June 6, your defenders, reinforced by the panzer divisions, hammer the enemy landings on all five beaches. By day’s end, the surviving Americans that landed between Bayeux and Isigny (U.S. prisoners reveal the Allied code name for this beach is “Omaha”) withdraw under murderous fire. By abandoning that beach, the Allies leave a huge gap between the American beachhead on the Cotentin’s eastern coast and the British and Canadian beachheads between Caen and Bayeux. Isolated, unsupported and under heavy attack by 12th SS Panzer Division, the Americans at the Cotentin landing site are trapped in an ever-shrinking beachhead.
Only British and Canadian forces, which are better supported by tanks and artillery, are able to seize a weak toehold. However, they suffer extremely heavy casualties inflicted by Panzer Lehr and 21st Panzer divisions, and the combat is at such close quarters that the Allies cannot risk intense airstrikes or naval bombardment lest they hit their own troops. You deliver the final blow to the British and Canadian forces midday on June 7 when you order 116th Panzer Division forward to reinforce Panzer Lehr and 21st Panzer.
Later that night you read with satisfaction a message publicly released by Allied Supreme Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Our landings … have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. … The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.”
In the wake of your stunning defeat of the Allied invasion of France, Hitler summons you to receive a medal – and a new assignment. Disgusted with the Prussian aristocrats running the East Front war, Hitler is sending you to Belorussia to command Army Group Center. You will now test your skills against Soviet commanders.
HISTORICAL COURSE OF ACTION AND ANALYSIS
Rommel was unable to convince Hitler to give him control of Germany’s mobile forces before the June 6, 1944, Allied D-Day invasion. Instead, COURSE OF ACTION TWO: COMPROMISE ON DISPERSAL OF MOBILE FORCES was implemented, and the battle played out as described in the COA Two narrative. As Rommel had warned, Allied air interdiction fatally delayed the employment of panzer divisions located where they otherwise could have been quickly moved to Normandy, while OB West – due to the successful Allied “Fortitude” deception plan – kept other key mobile forces out of the battle for weeks as it waited for the nonexistent “Army Group Patton” to invade at Calais.
One of World War II’s greatest what-ifs is how D-Day might have played out had the American, British and Canadian invaders faced panzers at the water’s edge, as in Course of Action Three: Dispersed Control of Mobile Forces. It seems unlikely the Allies could have established firm beachheads at all five invasion sites – particularly bloody Omaha Beach – in the face of powerful German panzer counterattacks launched within hours of the initial landings. With the landing beaches isolated and ringed by panzers, the Allied invasion of France almost certainly would have failed.
Such a disastrous setback for the Western Allies would have greatly strained their frequently contentious coalition with the Soviet Union and possibly could have resulted in World War II ending without Germany’s unconditional surrender.
Colonel (Ret.) Richard N. Armstrong, author of “Soviet Operational Deception: The Red Cloak,” is an adjunct history professor at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.
Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Armchair General.