All About Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel(12)…
FRANCE 1943 – 1944…
The inglorious end of the North African campaign meshed poorly with the Nazi propaganda machine’s relentless portrayal of Rommel as an unbeatable military genius. This opened in Berlin the awkward question of precisely what use now to make of the erstwhile Desert Fox.
Back in Germany he was for some time virtually „unemployed”. On 23 July 1943 he moved to Greece as commander of Army Group E to defend the Greek coast against a possible Allied landing that never happened, and which the Germans were led to expect due to the elaborate British deception plan known as „Operation Mincemeat”—only to return to Germany two days later upon the overthrow of Mussolini. On 17 August 1943 Rommel moved his headquarters from Munichto Lake Garda as commander of a new Army Group B created to defend northern Italy.
After Hitler gave Kesselring sole Italian command, on 21 November, Rommel moved Army Group B to Normandy in France with responsibility for defending the French coast against the long anticipated Allied invasion. He was dismayed by the lack of completed works and the slow building pace and feared he had just months before an invasion. Rommel reinvigorated the fortification effort along the Atlantic coast. The Commander-in-Chief West, Gerd von Rundstedt, expected the Allies to invade in the Pas-de-Calais because it was the shortest crossing from Britain and the nearest point to Germany. Hitler’s HQ, although agreeing with this assessment, also considered a landing at Normandy as a possibility. Rommel, believing that Normandy was indeed a likely landing ground, argued that it did not matter to the Allies where they landed, just that the landing was successful. He therefore toured the Normandy defenses extensively in January and February 1944. He ordered millions of mines laid and thousands of tank traps and obstacles set up on beaches and throughout the countryside, including in fields suitable for glider aircraft landings, the so-called Rommelspargel („Rommel’s asparagus”).
After his battles in North Africa, Rommel concluded that during the Allied offensive any German tank movement would be nearly impossible due to overwhelming Allied air superiority. He argued that the tank forces should be dispersed in small units and kept in heavily fortified positions as close to the front as possible, so they would not have to move far and en masse when the invasion started. He wanted the invasion stopped right on the beaches. However, von Rundstedt felt that there was no way to stop the invasion near the beaches due to the equally overwhelming firepower of the Allied navies. He felt the tanks should be formed into large units well inland near Paris where they could allow the allies to extend into France and then cut off the Allied troops. Other renowned Panzer commanders such as Heinz Guderian agreed with von Rundstedt. Panzer Group West commander Geyr von Schweppenburg strongly disagreed with Rommel, wanting the armour placed far inland.
When asked to pick a plan, Hitler vacillated. In late April, he ordered them placed in the middle, far enough inland to be useless to Rommel but not far enough for von Rundstedt. Rommel did move some of the armoured formations under his command as far forward as possible, ordering GeneralErich Marcks, commanding the 84th Corps defending the Normandy section, to move his reserves into the frontline.
The Allies staged elaborate deceptions for D-Day (see Operation Fortitude), giving the impression that the landings would be at Calais. Although Hitler himself expected a Normandy invasion for a while, Rommel and most Wehrmacht commanders in France also started believing in a Pas-de-Calais landing. Rommel concentrated fortification building in the River Somme estuary and let the work in Normandy lag. By D-Day on 6 June 1944 virtually all German officers, including Hitler’s staff, firmly believed that Pas-de-Calais was going to be the invasion site.
During the confusing opening hours of D-Day, the German command structure in France was in disarray. Rommel, and several other important officers were on leave. Several tank units, notably the 12th SS Panzer Division and Panzer-Lehr-Division, were close enough to the beaches to create serious havoc. The absence of Rommel and continued confusion in the army and theater HQs led to hesitation in releasing the armoured reserves to Normandy when they might be needed to meet a second invasion further north. Facing only small-scale German attacks, the Allies quickly secured abeachhead. Rommel personally oversaw the bitter fighting around Caen where only the determined defence of Kampfgruppe von Luck prevented a British breakout on the first day. Here, again, the on-site commanders were denied freedom of action and the Germans did not launch a concentrated counterattack until mid-day on 6 June.
The Allies pushed ashore and expanded their beachhead despite the best efforts of Rommel’s troops. By mid-July the German position was crumbling. On 17 July 1944, Rommel was driving along a French road near the front in his staff car. A British Spitfire strafed the car near Sainte-Foy-de-Montgommery and Rommel was thrown to the ground. He was hospitalised with major head injuries.