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