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D-Day: Afternoon on Omaha Beach

What Hitler Did Wrong

Converted for the Web from "D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II" by Stephen E. Ambrose

There was no German counterattack. Rommel's plans for fighting the D-Day battle were never put into motion. There were many reasons.

First, German surprise was complete. The Fortitude operation had fixed German attention on the Pas-de-Calais. They were certain it would be the site of the battle, and they had placed the bulk of their panzer divisions north and east of the Seine River, where they were unavailable for counterattack in Normandy.

Second, German confusion was extensive. Without air reconnaissance, with Allied airborne troops dropping here, there, everywhere, with their telephone lines cut by the Resistance, with their army, corps, division, and some regimental commanders at the war game in Rennes, the Germans were all but blind and leaderless. The commander who was most missed was Rommel, who spent the day on the road driving to La Roche-Guyonan -- another price the Germans paid for having lost control of the air; Rommel dared not fly.

Third, the German command structure was a disaster. Hitler's mistrust of his generals and the generals' mistrust of Hitler were worth a king's ransom to the Allies. So were Hitler's sleeping habits, as well as his Wolkenkuckucksheim ideas.

The only high-command officer who responded correctly to the crisis at hand was Field Marshal Rundstedt, the old man who was there for window dressing and who was so scorned by Hitler and OKW. Two hours before the seaborne landings began, he ordered the two reserve panzer divisions available for counterattack in Normandy, the 12th SS Panzer and Panzer Lehr, to move immediately toward Caen. He did so on the basis of an intuitive judgment that the airborne landings were on such a large scale that they could not be a mere deception maneuver (as some of his staff argued) and would have to be reinforced from the sea. The only place such landings could come in lower Normandy were on the Calvados and Cotentin coasts. He wanted armor there to meet the attack.

Rundstedt's reasoning was sound, his action decisive, his orders clear. But the panzer divisions were not under his command. They were in OKW reserve. To save precious time, Rundstedt had first ordered them to move out, then requested OKW approval. OKW did not approve. At 0730 Jodi informed Rundstedt that the two divisions could not be committed until Hitler gave the order, and Hitler was still sleeping. Rundstedt had to countermand the move-out order. Hitler slept until noon.

The two panzer divisions spent the morning waiting. There was a heavy overcast; they could have moved out free from serious interference from Allied aircraft. It was 1600 when Hitler at last gave his approval. By then the clouds had broken up and Allied fighters and bombers ranged the skies over Normandy, smashing anything that moved. The panzers had to crawl into roadside woods and wait under cover for darkness before continuing their march to the sound of the guns.

"The news couldn't be better," Hitler said when he was first informed that D-Day was here. "As long as they were in Britain we couldn't get at them. Now we have them where we can destroy them." He had an appointment for a reception near Salzburg for the new Hungarian prime minister; other guests included diplomats from Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary. They were there to be browbeaten by Hitler into doing even more for the German war economy. When he entered the reception room, his face was radiant. He exclaimed, "It's begun at last." After the meeting he spread a map of France and told Goering, "They are landing here -- and here: just where we expected them!" Goering did not correct this palpable lie.

Nazi propaganda minister Goebbels had been told of the Allied airborne landings at 0400. "Thank God, at last," he said. "This is the final round."

Goebbels's and Hitler's thinking was explained by one of Goebbels's aides, who had pointed out in an April 10, 1944, diary entry: "The question whether the Allied invasion in the West is coming or not dominates all political and military discussion here.

"Goebbels is afraid that the Allies dare not make the attempt yet. If so, that would mean for us many months of endless, weary waiting which would test our strength beyond endurance. Our war potential cannot now be increased, it can only decline. Every new air raid makes the petrol position worse." It had been galling to the Nazis that the Allies had been able to build their strength in England, untouchable by the Luftwaffe or the Wehrmacht. Now they had come within range of German guns.

But Hitler was more eager to hit London than to fight a defensive war. He had a weapon to do it with, the V-1. It had first been flown successfully on Christmas Eve, 1943; by June 1944, it was almost ready to go to work. The V-1 was a jet-powered plane carrying a one-ton warhead. It was wildly inaccurate (of the 8,000 launched against London, only 20 percent even hit that huge target), but it had a range of 250 kilometers and flew at 700 kilometers per hour, too fast for Allied aircraft or antiaircraft to shoot down.

On the afternoon of June 6, Hitler ordered the V-1 attacks on London to begin. As was so often the case, he was giving an order that could not be carried out. It took six days to bring the heavy steel catapult rigs from their camouflaged dumps to the Channel coast. The attack did not begin until June 12, and when it did it was a fiasco: of ten V-1s launched, four crashed at once, two vanished without a trace, one demolished a railway bridge in London, and three hit open fields.

Still, the potential was there. Fortunately for the Allies, Hitler had picked the wrong target. Haphazard bombing of London could cause sleepless nights and induce terror, but it could not have a direct military effect. Had Hitler sent the V-1s against the beaches and artifical harbors of Normandy, by June 12 jammed with men, machines, and ships, the vengeance weapons (Goebbels picked the name, which was on the mark -- they could sate Hitler's lust for revenge but they could not effect the war so long as they were directed against London) might have made a difference.

Copyright © 1994 Ambrose-Tubbs, Inc. Converted for the Web with the permission of Simon & Schuster.

Click to Amazon to purchase "D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II" by Stephen E. Ambrose.

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