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Posted on Jul 23, 2010 in War College

The Panzer Controversy: The Employment of the Panzer Divisions in the Defense of Normandy, June 1944

By Homer Hodge

Panther tanks of Panzer Lehr Division prepare to counterattack the British landing beaches on June 6, 1944. (National Archives)

Germany’s best panzer leaders clashed over positioning and employing the vital armored divisions. When the Allied invasion struck on June 6, 1944, the panzer divisions were widely spread. (Petho Cartography)

In October 1943, as an Allied invasion of Northern France became increasingly likely, Hitler directed Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and his Army Group B staff to relocate from northern Italy to France to oversee the strengthening of coastal defenses. Initially, Army Group B was directly subordinate to Hitler; however, in January 1944, Rommel and his command were subordinated to Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, Commander-in-Chief West with direct command of 7th and 15th Armies and responsible for the most likely area of an Allied amphibious attack. However, Army Group B did not have any armor divisions assigned; all armor forces in the West were under control of an administrative command directly subordinate to Hitler,Armored Group West, that only had an operational role in the event of an invasion.

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German defensive doctrine emphasized the maximum employment of firepower, the effective use of fortifications, and a rapidly employable counteroffensive capability. Consistent with this concept, the German strategy for the defense of the French coast was based on a three-phase operational concept. The first phase of a defense against an amphibious operation was centered on preventing a successful enemy landing. The second phase consisted of a series of local counterattacks to create conditions for a decisive counteroffensive. The third phase was the conduct of a counter offensive to destroy the enemy lodgment.

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (National Archives)However, there was a major difference of opinion among the senior generals regarding the best strategy to be employed against an Allied invasion. Based on his recent experience in North Africa, Rommel came to his new assignment with strong views regarding defense. He understood well the classic German concept of mobile defense in depth, striking power and battle of annihilation. He was also thoroughly familiar with the orthodox solution of a strong, mobile strategic reserve centrally located sufficiently far from the battle area so as not to become prematurely committed, that could execute a swift, powerful counterattack on the enemy’s main force. However, Rommel saw little possibility of effectively employing a strategic reserve against an Allied amphibious operation because complete Allied dominance of the air and sea could interdict and destroy mobile forces before they even made contact with Allied ground forces. Therefore, Rommel advocated defeating an invasion by striking at the Allies when they were weakest – destroying them in the water where they had no cover and only limited fire support. To accomplish this, he insisted on a strategy of static linear defense, concrete fortifications supported by maximum firepower and stubborn resistance. Rommel felt the best employment of the Panzer divisions was as a local tactical force that could move swiftly to counterattack potential breakthroughs by the enemy. example, Rommel requested 12th SS Panzer Division be moved from near Evreux to Isigny at the mouth of the Vire River, placing it only nine miles from Omaha Beach and in a position to immediately counterattack and drive U.S. forces back into the sea.  However, von Rundstedt disagreed and Hitler denied the request. If the 12th SS  had deployed to the Isigny area in late May, it would have been in a position to dramatically influence the subsequent battle by defeating the landing at Omaha and creating a major gap between the Utah beachhead and Gold beachhead.

Rommel firmly believed the first forty-eight hours of the invasion would be decisive, one way or the other.

General of Armored Troops Leo Freiherr Geyr von Schweppenburg (National Archives)Von Rundstedt, and more specifically, General of Armored Troops Leo Freiherr Geyr von Schweppenburg, commander of Armored Group West vehemently disagreed with Rommel and advocated maintaining a strong centrally-located armor force around Paris to be employed in the more traditional orthodox role as a massive, concentrated counteroffensive force. Based on his experience in Russia, Geyr believed Rommel grossly exaggerated the Allied air threat. Colonel General Heinz Guderian, Inspector General of Armored Troops, supported Geyr during his controversy over the best use of the Armored forces in the defense against an Allied invasion. numerous meetings and discussions, Rommel, von Rundstedt and Geyr could not reach agreement. Von Rundstedt hesitated and did not exercise his prerogative as overall commander to make a decision, and the controversy was quickly elevated to Hitler’s headquarters; however, Rommel, who was not a trained general staff officer, had few allies there. Finally, Rommel, exercising his prerogative as a field marshal, raised the issue directly to Hitler.

Instead of choosing either Rommel’s operational concept or that of Geyr, Hitler directed a compromise that prevented both Rommel and Geyr from executing their respective plans. The 2d, 21st and 116th Panzer divisions were assigned to Army Group B; however, their areas of operation continued to be dictated by Hitler’s headquarters.  Armored Group West was allowed to keep only four of its original ten divisions:  1st SS, 12th SS, 17th SS Panzer grenadier and Panzer Lehr (a training demonstration division made up of high quality combat veterans). The 2d SS, 9th and 11th Panzer divisions were given to Army Group G in southern France. Most of these Panzer divisions were reorganizing and only a few were operationally capable by German standards on 6 June.

Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt (National Archives)The problem was further exacerbated by the fact that German planners apparently did not give sufficient attention to the actual nature of the terrain for defending the Normandy coastal area. Most German officers were familiar with the rolling steppes of Russia but even the veterans of the 1940 campaign in France had little or no firsthand knowledge of the Normandy coast.  They still thought in terms of rapid moving armored formations and operational maneuver. The geography of the coastal area was largely ill-suited for the employment of armored forces; especially in the manner the Germans used them. The eastern coastal area of the Cotentin peninsula consisted of flooded areas, wooded hills and the Bocageand favored infantry defense rather than mobile or armored offense or counterattack. This was generally true of the terrain beyond Omaha Beach to the east of the Vire River, as well as the terrain along the coast and inland where the British and Canadians would land. The major exception was the open terrain directly north of Caen.

Hitler’s decision was probably based upon a desire to exercise maximum control over the armored assets because of uncertainty about where the main effort would occur and that uncertainty rendered moot the question of whether Rommel or Geyr was right.  Even after the landings along the Normandy coast, there remained some doubt that they were not a diversion. The roots of German failure to prevent a successful Allied lodgment have more to do with that uncertainty than Hitler’s apparent late rising on D-Day.

On D-Day, only the 21st Panzer Division, which was closest to the invasion zone, played a critical role in frustrating the British attempt to capture Caen but was unable to mount any counterattacks until afternoon. Hitler finally authorized release of two divisions of Armored Group West at 1600 and 12th SS and Panzer Lehr were on the move to the coast by the evening; however, by that time, the overcast skies of the morning had cleared, allowing Allied aircraft to attack any German units moving on the Normandy roads.

Although some senior German commanders claimed after the war that the Allied air threat was not insurmountable and units were able to move at night and during inclement weather, the question remains whether a large mobile operational level reserve could have effectively attacked and driven the Allied forces off the continent once a lodgment was established. Rommel’s recommended defense was hindered not only because he was denied necessary armored assets, but by lack of effective coordination and mutual communication by subordinate corps and division commanders.

13 Comments

  1. Basically correct.
    Rommel’s plan had a much better chance of being effective than Gehr’s. A central armored force would have to be moved forward by train (AFV) and road (PzGr and artillery). The Allies were shooting up any train they spotted and any traffic on the road, so either bad weather or night would be needed to move the central armored reserves to near the coast. The actual movement of German divisions was so hindered that the divisions arrived with substantial losses to their transport and, more important, strung out. It took days to get one division to the front and assembled.
    This means that only infantry formations would be on the coast and the armored reserve would arrive piecemeal. The Allies would have been able to push inland much faster and possibly have cleared the hedgerow country along the coast.
    A major German armored force would have to be hidden. If the Allies spotted a concentration of German divisions then Eisenhower had the authority to use the strategic air forces against it. Strategic bombing of concentrated German armored divisions would have destroyed the German reserves. Considering the Allies were reading the German encripted radio messages (via ULTRA) I don’t see how the Germans could have kept their concentration secret.
    Even IF the Germans had managed to move close enough to the coast to launch an attack, probably at night, it would have to have been through the Norman hedgerows and once near the coast under Naval gunfire. Again, concentrating the German armor would have led to its destruction as a viable combat force.

    I go with Rommel. Read DISASTER AT D-DAY- the Germans Defeat the Allies, June 1944.

    TG

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  2. Not related to the Panzers at Normandy but is related to D-Day. Can anyone confirm Italian troops were fighting against the Allies in Normandy?

  3. Consider the experience of the Germans in early-mid 1944 with respect to amphibious landings – and Rommel’s logic becomes very clear.

    Sicily, Salerno and Anzio all demonstrated the importance of immediately stopping the invaders at the water’s edge. At times, naval gunfire support was critical in the survival of the last two invasions and air support was successively more important each time.

    It is easy to argue about this with the advantage of 20/20 highsight. We know about Ultra, and we have a great deal more experience with amphibious operations. Rommel didn’t. He worked from what he knew, and I suspect his plan would have worked.

  4. Rommel’s response to von Rundsted, et.al. was “You’ve never tried to move armored formations against an enemy with air superiority.” What Rommel faced at El Alamein was very different than that faced by generals with experience on the Russian Front.

  5. The German Generals with Russian front experience failed even more dramatically than Rundstedt in September 44. Russian veterans such as Blaskowitz and Båke squandered the brand-new Panzer-Brigades uselessly, not only because of their troops’ lack of training, but because of their ‘Russian-stock’ experience. Lack of reconnaissance and over-reliance on armour, superior numbers and ‘shock tactics’ failed to work against determined US and French troops, resulting in the biggest loss of German armour since Kursk. Rommel would have done better, but by then was dead.

  6. I will read the book based upon a few things the author put into the excerpt!

    I had the extreme pleasure 30 years ago of devoting 18 months of my life to researching and designing the board wargame THE LONGEST DAY for the Avalon Hill Company. I spend many hours in the captured German archives section of the National Archives. (It was pure joy!) Based on that research, I put several alternative WHAT IF scenarios into the game, one of which was exactly what the author proposed in the excerpt: Move 12th SS Panzer into the Isigny area. Had that been done, history may well habve been writ differently. Among some of the gems I uncovered were:

    1. The Allies did not know that the 352 ID was behind Omaha Beach. (intermingling of regiments with the 716 staitc division added to the confusion.)

    2. There was a Luftwaffe Sturm Flak Korps (the other 2 were in Russia) consisting of 144 mobile 88mm AT/AA guns in the area behind the Omaha and British beaches. In the first days, anecdotal British reports of “severe effect of fire from 88s” was the only contemporary evidence that this formation existed. The Allies were clueless.

    3. Much of the German General Support artillery behind the front was provided by the considerable firepower of 3 Nebelwerfer Brigades that the Allies identified as “chemical smoke projector” units. Their throw weight was tremendous. Again, the Allies were clueless and did not prioritize their targeting.

    4. FWIW, I have seen no evidence of Italian combat troops in Normandy in June 1944. Sounds a litle late. About 20 Russian POW battalions (Osttruppen or Hiwi) have been well documented in the area on D-Day.

    Thanks for the thread!

  7. I think locally positioned armour could have succeeded but only as part of a combined response, namely harassing attacks in the Channel by the Kreigsmarine and in the skies by the Luftwaffe. The finite capabilities of the landing forces would have been divided on three axis.

    The effect of partisans and communist forces can not be discounted in this treatise. It would not have simply been 12.SS, 116.Pz and other armoured units battling the landing forces, but rather the German forces having to use resources to guard against attack and sabotage.

    You would think after years of fighting the Russians and getting steady diet of ‘maskirovka’ the Germans could have spun a little themselves.

  8. If Rommel had moved 12SS to the Vire estuary area, 12SS would have definitely intervened to crush the Omaha landings and probably moved to block 4th ID coming off Utah, engaging the 81st and 101st AB in the process. That would have changed history.

    However, the Cdn 3ID and 2nd AB would have taken Carpequet Airport and British and Canadian forces would have captured the high ground to the south of Caen before Panzer Lehr could arrive. That would be a game changer.

    With Gold, Juno and Sword beachs secure, British and American forces could pivot to encircle the 12SS forces to the east of the Vire estuary and destroy them while the American forces off Utah would be fighting a whole separate battle, but be in no danger of being driven into the sea.

    Canadian and British forces with no Germans on their right flank, and with British armoured formations penetrating deeply into France would outflank Panzer Lehr and the late to arrive 2nd Panzer. I do believe the allies would be on the Seine by June 30th in this scenerio of moving 12SS to the Vire estuary.

    • Panzer Lehr…..Caen Sword/Juno Sectors
      Hitler Jugend…Liseaux East Orne LZ’S
      21st Pz………….Vire Estuary Omaha Sector/
      Pz Stug Abt. Von der Hydte Carentan

    • I have to disagree, Don. If the 12 SS, or any major armored unit, had reached the beaches in force the invasion would have been in great peril and all available allied forces would have had to have been deployed against them. In fact such breakthrough almost did occur. An infantry kampfgroup from the 21st Panzer division broke through to the beaches on the late afternoon of June 6. It forced the British drive on Caen to be delayed.

      http://www.militaryhistoryonline.com/wwii/dday/counterattack.aspx

      That was one battalion! Can you imagine the entire 12 SS smashing its way to the coast and rampaging up and down the beachheads? Catastrophe!

      • With 12 ss straddling the Vire Estuary to protect both the Contenin Peninsula and the Omaha Area, Rommel probably would not have moved the detached paratroop regiment up from Brittany. 12 ss was a formidable formation but the weakened Cdn 2nd Inf Div and 2nd Arm Bgde coming off the beaches fought the numerically superior Hitler Youth to a standstill. They could not smash through to the coast. They were not supermen. 12ss was forced on to the defensive.

        Isolate 12ss at Omaha and with some formations moving on Utah, and the successful British landing at Gold, with 7 armored div and an additional armored Brigade could pivot and pin 12ss to the coast, The Germans would be getting hammered from the air and bombarded from the sea, and cut off from resupply. The outcome would be their annihilation.

        21st Panzer reached the coast between Juno and Sword as there were no allied forces to stop them. The beaches were not joined up. It was a drive relocation to the coast, not a break through, and when British Fireflys, artillery and warships concentrated fire on this force,it fled back to Caen as it was taking casualties and losing tanks. The British drive on Caen was delayed by a huge traffic jamb on Sword beach that delayed landing the armored battalion that was to advance on Caen for hours. The British Infantry Brigade that was supposed to be on the left flank of the Canadians where 21st panzer drove through was diverted, two battalions to the Orne to reinforce the paras and one to reduce a fortress at Lion sur Mer.

        True, the Americans would take terrible casualties at Omaha, but Caen would be encircled by mobile forces off Gold, including Americans landed there (Bradley’s plan B) and 12ss would cease to exist. The Mobile warfare that would have developed behind Caen against the highly mechanized allied forces backed by air power was not the Germans forte.

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