"Fortress Europa": The Atlantic Wall on D-Day 
Western Civ

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This paper’s focus is on Germany’s defense of Western Europe, culminating in meeting the largest amphibious invasion in the history of the world. The barrier of the Atlantic Wall was the last great impediment the Germans could muster to keep the Allies out of Europe. It took close to four years to build. It used thousands of tons of concrete and steel. It was linked by hundreds of miles of trenches and studded with a half a million obstacles. It boasted millions of mines and rolls of barbed wire. Its pillboxes, bunkers, trenches, communications system and artillery position were all built knowing they would be used against an invasion. The invasion it was built for came on June 6th, 1944-D-Day. For Germany to win the war, the Atlantic Wall would have to stand against the greatest gathering of military power ever assembled. The very being of the Third Reich depended on three things: recognizing the threat in the West, preparing defenses along the Atlantic Coast, and  stopping the impending invasion.

Research Report

The sea had come alive. Assault boats and landing craft rapidly approached the beach and the first closely packed landing troops sprang from their boats, some in knee-deep water, others up to their chests. There was a race over the open beach toward the low stone wall running parallel to the waterline, which offered the only protection. On came the second wave, and again the race across the beach, and again the defensive fires. More and more comrades were killed or wounded. The tide came slowly forward and the waterline crept up on the beach. (Drez, 235)

    These words were spoken by a young German named Franz Gockel, a young private in the Widerstansnesten (resistance nest) 62, 726th Infantry Regiment, German 352nd Division in the Wehrmacht, Germany’s armed forces. Gockel had the responsibility of operating a machine gun in one of the casemates positioned onto a stretch of beach on the French coast. This stretch of beach was known to the Allied forces as Omaha Beach. The scene Gockel describes above took place in the early morning of June 6, 1944- D-Day.

    Historically, D-Day represents the turning point in the war against Hitler and fascism and the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany. For the Allied powers, D-Day was a crucial victory which gave them a foothold in Europe and allowed them to begin moving through France and eventually into Germany and then Berlin. For men like Gockel and the thousands of other Germans who were to defend such beaches as Omaha, Utah, Juno, Gold and Sword, the D-Day invasion represents a huge loss and great failure on their part. In the early minutes of the landings, Gockel’s machine gun was destroyed by a direct hit from a shell, rendering him defenseless, ineffective, and useless. With only his rifle, Gockel was to help repel an invading force that seemed to number in the thousands.

 Führer Directive No. 51
     After failed attempts to defeat the Russians at Stalingrad in January 1943 and again in June 1943 at Kursk, Hitler decided that it was impossible to strike a major victory against the Soviet Union without shifting resources from his western forces to concentrate on the Eastern Front and the Russians. The problem facing Hitler was that before he could move his resources to Russia, he had to ensure complete domination of the Western Front. To do this, he would have to repel any invasion made by the Anglo-American forces.

    During its phase of rapid conquest and expansion in early World War II, little thought was given by the German High Command concerning the defense of occupied Western Europe because victory for Germany seemed inevitable. In one of his greatest mistakes, in December 1941, Hitler declared war against the United States, bringing another ally to Great Britain and Russia. With the United States joining the war effort, Hitler realized that he had left a major soft spot in his defenses. Now, backed by the United States, Britain would have the means to launch an invasion that had a chance of success. The first signs that Western Europe was vulnerable to attack came in 1942 when 600 British commandos irreparably damaged a U-boat dock at St. Nazaire in France. Then, Canada launched a 5,000 man invasion force at Dieppe, France in one of the bloodiest commando raids in the war. While no damage was done to the U-boats at St. Nazaire and the Canadians suffered huge casualties, the fact that there was a successful breach of the Atlantic defenses prompted Hitler to dramatically increase its defensive power.

    On November 3, 1943, Hitler issued Führer Directive No. 51, his response to the unquestionable buildup of military equipment in England. In Hitler’s mind, this large buildup of force meant an invasion was inevitable sometime in the next year. The outcome of the war rested on that single action: if the invasion failed, then the Western Front would be safe because the Allies would not have the morale for another potentially disastrous attempt. In addition, it would take many months, probably close to a year, to develop a plan and organize the equipment and manpower needed for another attempt. With the Anglo-Americans temporarily ineffective, Hitler could then move war material from the West to his campaign in the East. If they succeeded however, then the Allied forces would overrun the Rhine-Ruhr, industrial areas invaluable to the German war effort. For these reasons, the invasion had to be stopped.

    In Directive No. 51, Hitler laid out his reasoning for the strengthening of the Western Front and his plan for repulsing any invasion attempt made on continental Europe:

The situation has since changed. The threat from the East remains, but an even greater danger looms in the West: the Anglo-American landing! In the East, the vastness of the space will, as a last resort, permit a loss of territory even on a major scale, without suffering a mortal blow to Germany's chance for survival.
Not so in the West! If the enemy here succeeds in penetrating our defenses on a wide front, consequences of staggering proportions will follow within a short time. All signs point to an offensive against the Western Front of Europe no later than spring, and perhaps earlier.
For that reason, I can no longer justify the further weakening of the West in favour of other theaters of war. I have therefore decided to strengthen the defenses in the West…(Ambrose, 28)

    He demanded the strengthening of coastal defenses along the entire length of the Atlantic seaboard, from Kirkenes in the Netherlands to the Pyreness on the Franco-Spanish border, a distance of 3,000 miles. Though he ordered the fortification of the entire coast, his main concern was France. Hitler assumed that the invasion would occur somewhere on the French coast because of the close proximity between England and France across the English Channel. He ordered that heavy weapons: mines, stationary guns, and pillboxes be installed along the coast of Denmark and the occupied zone of France at the most vulnerable positions on the coast. He also wanted reinforcements to be positioned near the front to offer a quick and deadly counter-attack in case the Anglo-Americans were able to secure a landing zone.

    With the recommendation of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) - the Armed Forces High Command-Hitler gave the task of preparing his “Fortress Europa” to Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. One of the greatest tank commanders in World War II, Rommel was moved out of Africa and into Europe after his defeat to General Dwight Eisenhower in 1943 at the Battle of Kasserine Pass in Tunisia. After his return, Hitler decided to place Rommel under the command of Field Marshall Gerd Von Rundstedt, the Commander in Chief West and commander of Army Group B in France, and the man responsible for defending the Western Front. Short of supplies, energy, and able bodies, Rundstedt had completed little of Hitler’s magnificent Atlantic Wall; just a small section at Pas-de-Calais, the narrowest spot on the English Channel and most likely point of invasion, had been fortified. With explicit instructions from Hitler, Rommel’s task was to inspect the Atlantic Wall and provide motivation to ensure that the construction was completed by spring 1944, the estimated time of the invasion.

Atlantic Wall
     In December 1943, Rommel finished his two week inspection tour of the Atlantic defenses; he was not impressed by what he saw. A basic concept for defense did not exist in any form and any precautions taken did not meet the seriousness of the threatening major landing. No agreement had been decided upon regarding placement of artillery on the beaches with each branch of the Wehrmacht disagreeing as to where the guns would do the most good. He criticized the Atlantic Wall as “a figment of Hitler’s Wolkenkuckucksheim (cloud-cuckoo-land) …an enormous bluff …more for the German people than for the enemy …and the enemy, through his agents, knows more about it than we do.”(Mitcham, 7) Except for the area around Pas-de-Calais, no other part of Western Europe held any similarity to the impregnable fortress of concrete and firepower that Hitler wanted. Due to the immense length of the coast, Rundstedt had built only a few strong points as fortification, not the continuous stretch of concrete and guns. In a distance of 600 miles, only 11 coastal batteries with 37 guns total were in place. In fact, few of these sporadic strong points were even completed by January 1944 when Rommel began to fortification the coastline.

     Erwin Rommel was a realist and practical tactician. He predicted that the invasion would begin with aerial and naval bombings, airborne assaults, and then the seaborne landings would begin. Rommel predicted that when the attack came, it would be made during high tide. His reasoning was the Allies would want to land as far up on the beach and as close to the cities inland as possible. Rommel’s goal from the beginning was to keep the Allies pinned down on the beaches, “our only chance will be at the beaches-that’s where are enemy is always weakest.” (Ambrose, 63) The fixed defense would only delay the Allied force, not hold them back indefinitely. To defeat the invaders would require a rapid counter-attack made by infantry and panzer divisions while the Allies were still establishing a beachhead.

    On every beach even remotely possible as a landing zone, Rommel built his defenses. Though these defenses would not be unbreakable, they would be as deadly and destructive as humanly possible. Rommel’s first order was for the mining of the beaches and English Channel,

“I want antipersonnel mines, antitank mines, antiparatroops mines. I want mines to sink ships and to sink landing craft. I want some minefields designed so that our infantry can cross them, but no enemy tanks. I want mines that detonate when a wire is tripped; mines that explode when a wire is cut; mines that can be remote controlled, and mines that will blow up when a beam of light is interrupted.” (Ambrose, 64)

    In three years from 1941-1944, only 1,700,000 mines had been laid on the Atlantic seaboard, most of these at unequal distances and away from strategic and vulnerable areas. Rommel requested that he be issued 2,000,000 mines per month. He then requested enough mines to lay one every 10 yards for a 1,000 yard wide section of the French coast. This would mean another 20,000,000 mines. Once he had these, Rommel then wanted to lay a mine every 10 yards for a distance of 8,000 yards inland and even more around strategic locations, requiring an additional 20,000,000 mines. Most mines were either anti-ship mines anchored offshore in the Channel or buried in the beach and immediate surrounding area. By May 20, 1944, 4, 193, 167 mines were active and resting somewhere along the coast or waiting in the sea. (Mitcham, 20)

    Behind the mines Rommel placed an assorted variety of beach obstacles. Positioned just underneath both the high and low tide water marks, the purpose of these obstacles was to prevent any ship or tank from landing on the beaches. Depending on the type of obstacle, any ship that passed over one of Rommel’s creations was either impaled and sank or destroyed by an explosive device. 150 meters out from the high-water line were the first line of  obstacles called “Belgian gates”. These were gate like iron squares 10 feet in height and width which ran parallel to the coastline. These obstacles were topped by Teller mines, antitank mines loaded with TNT, or old French artillery shells salvaged from the Maginot Line, rigged to explode on impact. 100 meters from the high-water mark Rommel placed a band of heavy logs driven into the water at angles which pointed out to sea, topped with Teller mines. 70 meters from the shore featured the main stretch of obstacles called hedgehogs. These were three or four steel rails cut into two-meter sections and then welded together at their centers. Besides these obstacles were other devices called “nutcracker mines”, a stake rising from a concrete housing containing a heavy shell. A landing craft hitting the shell would cause it to explode. By May 13, 1944, 517,000 obstacles were laid, of these 31,000 were armed with mines.

    Past these deadly obstacles and closer to the shore, most of the beaches had a low wall of smooth stones called a shingle which was then surpassed by a small stretch of beach and finally 100 foot cliffs. Between the shingle and the bluffs Rommel laid a variety of mines at irregular patterns. Behind these he placed rolls of barbed wire and further back he dug antitank ditches two meters deep and concrete antitank barriers crossed all exit roads running from the beaches up onto the bluffs.
 Though every beach’s defensive network was different due to variations in terrain and relative risk of invasion, the section of beach dubbed “Omaha Beach” was an excellent example of Rommel’s ideal defensive measures. At each exit from the beach on Omaha, machine gun nests were positioned in connected trenches on the bottom, middle, and top of the bluffs. These nests were setup so that they would have overlapping fields of fire, covering all areas of the beach. Along with these, scattered on the slopes were hundreds of “Tobruks”, circular concrete holes large enough for a machine gun team, a mortar team, or a tank turret interconnected by trenches. Also on Omaha Beach, Rommel built 12 strong points to provide flanking and overlapping fire the length of the beach. These big guns, 88 and 105 millimeter bores, were aimed directly at the beach, not the sea. On the bluffs were eight concrete casemates and four open field positions were sited to deliver massive firepower onto every square yard of the beach. The concrete used in constructing these casemates was so thick that they could withstand the impact of any shell which the Allied arsenal carried. For example, one fortified casemate at St.-Marcouf had steel-reinforced walls thirteen feet thick and was still firing on June 8, D-Day plus two, despite constant naval and aerial bombings. To protect the rear of these concrete bunkers from greatest threat of an infantry attack, they were surrounded by barbed wire and mines. Positioned sporadically behind these and farther inland, huge gun batteries made up of 155 mm cannons were capable of firing into the ships milling around in the Channel. 

    Though this describes the defense of Omaha Beach in detail, each section of beach in Western Europe shared common defensive units consisting of pillboxes, concrete gun emplacements, obstacles, and trenches. Millions of tons of concrete and steel were used in the construction of the Atlantic Wall, so much that it was unavailable for use in areas other than the Western Front. Supplies were in such short demand that structures such as the Maginot Line and Siegfried Line were stripped down to make the coastal defenses stronger. The forced labor teams were not enough; Rommel ordered that all drills be stopped immediately and that every man stationed on the coast help to build the defenses. To deceive the Allies, Rommel also built “dummy batteries”, concrete casements that held no guns, on the bluffs. He wanted these fake batteries to draw Allied bombings away from the actual artillery positions. In some cases, Rommel fitted these empty bunkers with telephone poles to simulate the barrel of a heavy gun.

    While his defenses dominated the beaches, the huge collection of fixed guns and mines did not extend very far inland. Once over the bluffs, defense depended on fast moving attacks from infantry and panzer units. Rommel, however, did establish some stationary defenses. Antiaircraft obstacles poles, nicknamed “Rommel asparagus”, roughly 10 feet high were driven into the ground at 100 foot spacings. These stakes were designed to break up and flip gliders, destroying equipment and causing heavy casualties. To meet the threat of paratroopers, Rommel had also dammed local rivers and controlled the opening of locks to flood any areas suitable for landings in Western France.

    Rommel knew that the beaches would only hinder the advance of the invasion, not completely stop it. Even with close to 500,000 obstacles and 5,000,000 mines, Rommel did not think that was enough; the Allies would still overpower the Atlantic Wall. The victory of the day depended on the response of the infantry and panzer units stationed inland. All along the Western Front, from Amsterdam to the Franco-Spanish border, the Wehrmacht had spread as efficiently as possible Army Group B under Rommel and Army Group G commanded by Colonel General Johannes Blaskowitz. Each Group was made up of two armies, B with the 15th and 7th Armies and G comprised of the 1st and 19th Armies. Army Group B was stationed from Amsterdam to Tours, France. On the Northern coast, the 15th Army had three attack divisions, 13 static defense and reserve divisions, and five panzer divisions. The bulk of 15th Army was positioned at Calais, the expected point of invasion. To the west of the 15th, the 7th Army was spread thin from Caen to Brest. The 7th boasted seven attack divisions, six static divisions, and one panzer division. The heaviest concentration of these divisions was stationed near Cherbourg on the Cotentin peninsula. Army Group G in Southern France had a total of 4 attack divisions, 7 defensive divisions, 3 panzer divisions, and 1 panzer grenadier division. (Keegan, xix)

 Nineteen of the 29 divisions in Army Group B were stationary, defensive positions. These were the men who manned the pillboxes, casemates, and trenches of the Atlantic Wall. The problem Rommel had to face was where to place his reserves and attack divisions. It was these few infantry units, and especially the panzer units, which would decide the battle. Rommel constantly argued with other German commanders concerning the placement of the tanks. He ordered that all the panzer units were to be moved as close as possible to the expected points of attack, dug in, and readied to deliver a crushing defeat for the Anglo-Americans,

“If we cannot get at the enemy immediately after he lands, we will never be able to make another move, because of his vastly superior air forces…If we are not able to repulse the enemy at sea or throw him off the mainland in the first 48 hours, then the invasion will have succeeded and the war will be lost.” (Ryan, 27)

    Once the bombings began, Rommel argued, it would be impossible to move the panzers to face the enemy until they had already established a beachhead and moved into France. By that time, they would have already lost. The best course of action was to finish the invasion right where it started. Everything, from troops to tanks to trucks, had to be ready at the coast or just behind it. In contrast, Rundstedt, Commander in Chief West, thought it was wiser to hold the tanks back out of range of the naval guns and attack the Allies in open battle, relying on the stronger Panther tanks to quickly route the weaker American Sherman tanks. Rommel did not think open battle would work because of Allied air superiority; the fighter-bomber or the heavy bomber of the Allied Air Corps could defeat any tank the Germans had. He was adamant about having the tanks brought forward. To settle the dispute, Hitler ordered that Rommel be given command of three panzer divisions, the 2nd, 21st, and 116th. The rest of the tank divisions, called Panzer Group West, were under the command of OKW and held inland. Though the OKW had command over the remaining panzer divisions, any movement made by these units had to be issued by Hitler himself. Rommel moved his tanks as close as he could and continued building up the coast.

    Rommel did more in five months to build the Atlantic Wall than had been constructed in 3 ½ years. His system of obstacles, mines, and barbed wire were the first defenses the Allies would run into. Then, machine gun emplacements, mortars, pillboxes, heavy guns pointed directly at the beach awaited anybody who made it that far. To get farther inland, the soldiers had to cross more minefields, more wire, and continuing fire from the series of connected trenches. If things went according to plan, three panzer divisions would hit the Allied forces just off the beaches and drive them into the sea. He would have to wait and see.

    On June 5, 1944, Lieutenant Colonel Meyer, counterintelligence chief of the 15th Army, knew the invasion was coming in 48 hours. To alert the French Resistance that an invasion was immanent, a two part message was broadcasted over the BBC. Meyer had just intercepted the second part. Meyer informed his commander of this news, who then put the 15th on full alert. Meyer also contacted the Oberbefehlshaber West (OB West), the general headquarters for the Western Front, and the OKW. Despite these numerous communiqués about the impeding invasion, the 7th Army, responsible for the defense of the Normandy coast, was never notified.

    Private Helmut Romer was stationed as one of two sentries on a swing bridge that crossed the Caen Canal on the Cotenin peninsula. At 12:16 a.m. on June 6, 1944 Helmut saw 21 British paratroopers appear out of nothing and run directly at his position on the bridge. Romer turned and ran, shouting “Fallschirmjager” (paratroopers), at the sentry on the other end of the bridge. The nameless sentry pulled out a flare gun and fired one shot, seconds later he was killed by a burst from one of the storming paratroopers. This unknown sentry was the first German casualty on D-Day. (Ambrose, 20)
The paratrooper landings came as almost a complete surprise to the Wehrmacht. Despite Meyer’s warning, few people believed that the invasion would occur on June 6. For the most part, warnings coming in from the OKW were given low priority. For months warnings of invasions came in almost every night, only to have nothing come of it. Bombings of the coastal positions increased into June, a sign that the Allies were almost ready. The weather in early June was not favorable to a large-scale invasion. Due to rough seas in the Channel and reduced visibility, no one believed the Allies would risk an invasion. Anti-aircraft crews were ordered to stand down, alerts were cancelled. Even after the drops were made, without aerial or naval reconnaissance, the only source of information available to OKW and OB West were various, sketchy reports. At 1:35 a.m., 7th Army reported parachute drops on the east coast of the Cotentin peninsula. Likewise, the 15th Army reported drops on its immediate western flank. The Germans could not tell if this was the invasion, a series of raids, a diversion from Pas-de-Calais, or a supply operation for the French Resistance.

    Though surprised, the German response was intense. In very short time, anti-aircraft fire-20 millimeter and 88 millimeter shells, tracers, and explosions filled the skies over the Channel. Flying low and at relatively slow speeds, the transports were easy targets. Drifting down slowly, the Germans scored the majority of their kills while the paratroopers were still defenseless suspended in the air. Once on the ground, however, the Wehrmacht offered little resistance. According to Major Hans von Luck of the 21st panzer division, the Germans were not allowed to counter-attack unless specifically ordered,
“The clearance for an immediate night attack, so as to take advantage of the initial confusion among our opponents, had still not come, although our reports via division to the corps and to Army Group B [Rommel] must have long since been on hand.” (Drez, 113)

Luck’s troops were eager to crush the lightly armored paratroopers. However, Luck could not move. His panzer division could only be released by Hitler, who was sleeping at the time the invasion began. The 7th Army HQ was still uncertain about what was happening. Without specific orders, he could not engage the quickly-strengthening enemy before him. Luck was in command of an immobile tank division.

    By no means did the Allies have an easy time on the ground. With the transport planes struggling to avoid flak, they went radically off course. A majority of the paratroopers suffered from misdrops, landing outside of their intended drop zones all over the Cotentin peninsula. The majority of the ground casualties came from paratroopers- mismatched, alone, and disoriented- landing near German resistance pockets. Rommel’s defenses worked extremely well. The “asparaguses” tore up many of the 121 gliders that came in to reinforce the paratroopers. The flooded fields and valleys were deathtraps. Though only 3 feet deep, a fully loaded paratrooper could not navigate through the swampy farmland; many drowned under the weight of their gear and from being tangled up in their chutes.

    Despite these setbacks, the Allies were gaining the advantage. Slowly they began to accomplish their primary missions. These included capturing bridges across the rivers that surrounded the invasion area, cutting off the German's support, and holding the causeways that led off the beaches, the only way to get the troops off of the beaches. By 5:00 a.m. on June 6, 1944, roughly 5 hours after the invasion began, the Germans were beginning to respond on a large scale. While the airborne forces were struggling to hold out against awakening German forces, the greatest test of the Wehrmacht and months of preparations was about to come- the invasion of the Atlantic Wall.

The Beaches
    The section of Normandy coast invaded on D-Day lay between Cherbourg on the Cotentin peninsula and Caen. For attack purposes, it was divided into 5 sections: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. Utah and Omaha were attacked by United States 4th and 1st Divisions, Gold and Sword by the British 50th and 3rd Divisions, and Juno by the Canadian 3rd Division.
“Ships are concentrating between the mouths of the Vire and the Orne. They lead to the conclusion that an enemy landing and large scale attack against Normandy is imminent.” (Ryan, 148)

    Major General Pemsel of the 7th Army telephoned these words to Rommel’s headquarters shortly after 5 a.m. At the same time, Major Werner Pluskat was at an observation post overlooking Omaha Beach. For four hours he had been there looking out into the Channel, staring into nothing. Just before he was to give up, Pluskat made one last sweep and saw the incredible-ships, apparently thousands of ships of all sizes maneuvering in the Channel. Pluskat ran to a phone and called Major Block at the 352nd Division’s headquarters, the division manning the defenses at Omaha Beach, “Block, it’s the invasion. There must be ten thousand ships out here... (heading) right for me.” (Ryan, 151)

    Just after dawn, a naval and aerial bombardment of magnificent scope began to hit the Normandy coast. 13,000 Allied bombers and the thousand ships in the Channel unleashed tons of shells and bombs onto the beaches of Normandy. The situations on the beaches were unimaginable:

“The heavy naval guns fired salvo after salvo into our positions. The hail of shells falling upon us grew heavier, sending fountains of sand and debris into the air. The fight for survival began. Our weapons were preset on the defensive fire zones, thus we could only wait. We had planned that he should land at high tide…but this was low tide. Slowly the wall of explosions approached, meter by meter, cracking, screaming, whistling, and sizzling, destroying everything in its path. There was no escape…” (Drez, 231)

    At the beginning of the bombardment, the incoming shells were fired from an average distance of 4,800 yards out when the bombing began at 6:37 a.m. By 7:15 a.m., one US destroyer was firing into the Atlantic Wall from a distance of 1,700 yards. German batteries did return fire but with little effect. For starters, the German firepower was vastly inferior to the amount of ordinance being launched at them. Also, they had no spotter planes to direct the firing and the observation posts were blinded by the smoke. Though a tremendous tonnage of shells was aimed at the beach defenses, few casemates were destroyed. The cause was not a lack of accuracy on the Allied navy, but on the construction of the buildings. The casemates and other fortifications were built so well that not even 14-inch shells were able to penetrate the bunkers. The shelling did, however, deafen and knock out many of the defenders. It also had the effect of neutralizing some strong points by terrifying the Germans inside so badly that they were not able to man their weapons. Though the massive shelling of the beaches was impressive, they did little to weaken the defenses. While the beach was being pummeled, landing craft and assault carriers made their way through the choppy shore to face of the Atlantic Wall.

    Rommel assumed that the invasion would come at high-tide so the enemy would cross a short distance of beach. However, the attack came at low-tide when the beach was a long 300 yards to the only protection on the beach, the shingle. Despite this error in judgment, Rommel’s obstacles still did some damage. On Utah beach, PC (personal carrier) 1261 and LCT (landing craft, tank) 597 both struck mines in a matter of 5 minutes.

    Utah Beach, the most Eastern of the assault beaches on the Cotentin peninsula, was defended by the 919th Regiment of the 709th Division. The 709th was composed of low-quality troops. A large number were POWs from the Eastern front impressed into the German Army. These Ost battalions were forced at gunpoint to man the weak defenses. The opposition at Utah was very light. First, defensive positions at Utah were light because the areas immediately inland were flooded; the four exit ways off the beach had to cross these flooded areas. This rough terrain was considered impassable from the beach. Anything on the beach would remain on the beach. Due to the pounding from the air and sea, many of the Germans were badly shaken and wanted to surrender. Those who did fight abandoned their fixed positions to fight from the trenches with small-arms fire. This severally reduced the amount of machine gun fire onto the beach. Mortars and machine gun fire was present but often inaccurate and sporadic. The Germans fired 88s onto the beach, but most splashed into the water behind the Americans. The German defense was also weakened by the flood of troops rushing the beach and the paratroopers behind them preventing any counterattack. This box effect left the poorly equipped “German” soldiers unable to stop the landings. In 15 hours, 20,000 troops and 1,700 trucks were on Utah Beach. The cost for Utah was a low 300 men, mostly coming from Rommel’s mines.

    To the West of Utah was Omaha Beach, a 6 mile wide killing zone. It was a narrow, enclosed stretch of land with no possibility of outflanking it and many natural obstacles for the attacker to overcome. On Omaha, Rommel had placed 12 resistance nests at the 5 draws (exits) and dozens of Tobruks, pillboxes, and trenches. The waters offshore and beach were heavily mined. The bunkers held 88s, 75s, and mortars. Rommel laid out firing positions of overlapping angles from all types of weapons that covered every inch of the beach. Concrete walls protected the guns from the seaward while still allowing them to turn parallel along the beach. Omaha was defended by three battalions of the very capable 352nd Division. Unlike on Utah, the bombardment was ineffective in either destroying the casemates or scaring off the defenders. A very capable and strong force awaited the incoming boats. Some of the men could not believe what they saw. Sergeant Krone in Widerstandsnesten 62, the same nest as Franz Gockel, declared, “They must be crazy. Are they going to swim ashore? Right under our muzzles?” (Ambrose, 322)

    As soon as the landing craft were in range, shells and mortars began to fall around them. Landing craft hit mines anchored in the sea. Upon reaching the beach, machine gun fire and mortar rounds hit the boat as soon as the ramp went down. In some cases, entire boatloads of men were killed before leaving the ship. Due to misplaced landings, several boats landed near each other or in alone, creating distinct targets for the murderous machine guns. The amount of fire hitting Omaha Beach was enormous. At strong point 62, one machine gunner fired 12,00 rounds. (Ambrose, 380 ) Artillery pieces, ranging from on the beach to the tops of the bluffs, fired at will onto the beach. Mines littered the beach. Snipers fired at anything that moved, including medics. The only hope of protection, the seawall, was sighted by mortar teams and machine gunners. On Omaha, Rommel’s defensive measures were a brilliant success. For hours the Germans pounded the beach with every weapon at their disposal.

    As the day progressed, the amount of men and equipment became too great for the German defenders. The increased volume of targets meant that groups of Americans began to climb over the shingle and head up the bluffs. Tanks began to filter out of the Channel and fire into the defenses. Also, the destroyers in the Channel moved in parallel and as close to the beach as possible and began firing point-blank into the casemates, pillboxes, and trenches. The Germans had no defense against this sort of assault. Many small groups began to surrender to the Americans moving slowly up the walls. As the Americans moved up the bluffs and into the rear of the Atlantic Wall, the Germans retreated into the farmland and hedgerows, earthen mounds topped by hedges used to separate farmland and hold cattle. Once in these rows, the Germans setup machine guns across corners and looking into the open sections of field.

    By 11:00 a.m., divisions began opening the draws off of the beach. Coming off of the beach they linked up with paratrooper units behind the defensive network. This cut off the Germans at Omaha Beach. From this point, the momentum of the battle began to change.  Instead of a concentrated move inland and organizing a counterattack, the Germans on Omaha stood and fought from their fixed positions. This move served no real purpose, the defenders would either be killed or captured in the clean-up operations. Also, the German positions were rapidly running out of ammunition. Cut off and without communication inland due to the pre-invasion bombings, the Germans could not get another supply of munitions until nightfall at the earliest. By 1:00 p.m., the Americans were one mile inland. Though the Germans prevented the Americans from going far into France, they did not stop them at the beach. Rommel was right; the Atlantic Wall did not stop the Allies, but neither did his all-important counterattacks. By late afternoon it was decided, the Germans had lost the day.

    The storming of the Atlantic Wall cost 10,000 Allied casualties. German casualties range from 4,000 to 9,000. By July, German casualties in France were 28 generals, 354 commanders, and 250,000 men. (Ryan, 239)

    By the end of D-Day, 175,000 Allied troops were in Normandy. Every man had gone through the Atlantic Wall. It took close to four years to build. It used thousands of tons of concrete and steel. It was linked by hundreds of miles of trenches and studded with a half a million obstacles. Rommel had placed millions of mines and rolls of barbed wire. Its pillboxes, bunkers, trenches, communications system and artillery position were all built knowing they would be used against an invasion. At Utah Beach, it took less than one hour to crack this “impregnable” fortress. At its strongest defensively, Omaha Beach was taken in less than one day. With a lack of depth, once the wall was penetrated it became useless.

   Inside the wall, the Germans were spread too thin while still trying to maintain a heavy defense everywhere. The Ost troops, POWs and Eastern Europeans impressed into the Wehrmacht, were effective in building the wall, not defending it. Even with the foreign troops, the number of soldiers holding the wall was not sufficient. Rommel had 50 divisions to hold 3,000 miles of coast, at full strength 600,000 men. Few of these divisions were at full strength; most divisions were under-equipped, immobile, and formed from old men, young teenagers, and wounded veterans returning from the Eastern Theater. These under strength divisions had the task of repelling 2,876,000 men in 45 full-strength, mobile divisions. On the American beaches, Rommel had 3 full divisions, 3 regimental-size divisions, and other miscellaneous formations to face 14 full divisions. After the beaches were assaulted, the defenders did not receive any sort of reinforcement. Even units in other parts of the Atlantic Wall could not come to their aid due to lack of transports and the terrible condition of the roads inland. The air campaign over Normandy had isolated the men at the front.

    Once through the wall, the Germans did not launch an immediate counterattack. One reason was that Rundtsedt and the OB West saw the invasion in Normandy as a diversion from the main attack which they believed would come at Pas-de-Calais. Only one panzer division, the 21st, launched an unsuccessful counterattack against the British forces at Sword Beach. The rest of Rommel’s tanks were too far from the coast and would not arrive in Normandy until nightfall. Panzer Group West would take until June 7 to reach Normandy.

    Another reason for the ineffective defense was Germany’s chain of command. Rundstedt and the OB West did not realize the Normandy coast was the site of the invasion and not a diversion until mid-afternoon. By that time the Allies had made movements off of the beach. Also in Normandy there was a pure absence of command. Since OKW believed an invasion was highly unlikely on June 6, most high ranking officers were preparing for a map exercise when the landings began. Rommel himself was in Germany for his wife’s birthday. Hitler had not been to France since the fall of Paris in 1940. The division of was materials between commands also hindered the German defense. The separation of panzer divisions between 3 commanders especially weakened the possibility of immediately driving back the Allies. Rommel’s assertion of a counterattack at the beach versus Rundstedt’s plan for a counterattack inland with Hitler’s decree of personal command of Panzer Group West neutralized any effect the panzers might have had. The lack of initiative on the behalf of German officers in Normandy facilitated the advance of the Allies. The strict unquestioning obedience to the OKW also was an error on D-Day. Men like Major Luck, who knew where the enemy was, its strength, and when to attack did not because of waiting for orders to come in from OB West and Hitler.

    The German Navy, Kriegsmarine, and Luftwaffe were all but nonexistent on D-Day. Due to commands from the OKW, Luftwaffe forces in Normandy on June 6 numbered 2 planes! The rest were transferred to the Calais region. The dreaded U-boats and destroyers were either held at harbor or in the North Atlantic hunting merchant ships. Only 3 German E-boats, huge German patrol boats, were involved in minor action with the largest armada ever assembled.

    D-Day was a massive military operation that involved every branch of the Allied military forces. For the Allies, it was the most crucial step in liberating Europe. For the Germans, D-Day was the last stand between victory and defeat. The barrier of the Atlantic Wall was the last great impediment the Germans could muster to keep the Allies out of Europe. The bulk of Germany’s war material was placed into the construction of the Atlantic Wall. The greatest officer in the Wehrmacht was in charge of building it. On April 22, 1944 Rommel summed up the importance of D-Day and his creation while inspecting his defenses:

“Believe me, Lang, the first twenty four hours of the invasion will be decisive…the fate of Germany depends on the outcome. For the Allies as well as Germany, it will be the longest day.” (Ryan, 27-28)
Though the German effort to stop the invasion was admirable, ultimately it was a futile gesture. Misinformation, absence of command, lack of resources, faulty planning, overconfidence in the Atlantic Wall, and plain bad luck brought the end of Nazi Germany. After the success of the D-Day invasion, the Third Reich had less than a year to last. Erwin Rommel could not have been more right.

Historical Significance

    D-Day was a massive military operation that involved every branch of the Allied military forces. Historically, D-Day represents the turning point in the war against Hitler and fascism and the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany. The Normandy invsaion was the decisive conflict between victory and defeat for Germany. The barrier of the Atlantic Wall was the last great impediment the Germans could muster to keep the Allies out of Europe. For the Allied powers, D-Day was a crucial victory which gave them a foothold in Europe and allowed them to begin moving through France and eventually into Germany and then Berlin. After the failure of the Atlantic Wall, the Third Reich had less than a year to exist.


Web Resources

http://www.normandy.eb.com/normandy/ -one of the most comprehensive and detailed sites concerning the Normandy invasion, with pictures and testimonials

http://www.army.mil/cmh-pg/books/wwii/100-11/100-11.htm -a US Army report on the invasion of Omaha Beach from June 6 to June 13 1944

http://www.princeton.edu/~ferguson/adw/d-day.shtml#intro- a general examination of D-Day

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/dday/ -a website related to a PBS special about the American actions during the Normandy invasion

http://www.isidore-of-seville.com/d-day/ -a comprehensive guide and web directory to the allied invasion of Normandy begun on June 6, 1944

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M.P. Hart