The German defences in Normandy


Festung Europa, Hitler’s Fortress Europe, more commonly known as the Atlantic Wall, was a system of fortifications under the command of OB WestGeneralfeldmarschall von Rundstedt, which was built by the Organisation Todt (OT) and stretched some 1,700 miles (2,736km) from the Spanish border to the Netherlands. It proved its worth in the failed raid on Dieppe by the Allies in August of 1942. The Nazi Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, used the statistics gathered from that bloody fiasco as a warning to the Allies of how impregnable the German fortifications were. From an assault force of over 6,000 British and Canadian troops, Anglo-Canadian casualties amounted to 3,613.1 Records for German casualties, by comparison, show fewer than 600 from all their three services.2 Nevertheless, until Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel, was appointed Inspector General of the Atlantic Wall on 21 November 1943, the coastal defences were, in most places, little more than a propaganda myth.

Our Atlantic Wall defences are unbreakable. No one can pass them. If they try, results will be like Dieppe.

Joseph Goebbels

The enemy must be annihilated before he reaches our battlefield. We must stop him in the water. destroying all his equipment while it is still afloat.

Generalfeldmarshall Erwin Rommel

With manpower constantly being drained to resupply exhausted divisions on the Eastern Front, von Rundstedt believed that the Allies could not be prevented from landing and that they possessed a strategic flexibility that could not be countered by a static defence system. He therefore concentrated most of his defences around the Pas de Calais, Cherbourg, Brest and the mouths of the River Somme and River Seine with the intention of denying the Allies the use of any of the major ports. Without a port it was hoped that the invading army would be denied the opportunity to resupply quickly and it was von Rundstedt’s plan then to use his mobile reserves to drive the Allies back into the sea before a sizeable bridgehead could be established.3

Rommel disagreed with von Rundstedt and believed that the invasion force must be defeated on the beaches. He appealed to Hitler for command of the Seventh and Fifteenth Armies who defended the coast from north-east France, at the mouth of the River Loire, on to Belgium and through into Holland. At this stage, in January 1944, much of the coastline of Calvados in Normandy was relatively unfortified.

Although he retained his position as OB West, von Rundstedt’s command was divided into two army groups with Rommel taking command of Army Group B. Immediately Rommel began to modify von Rundstedt’s plan and Army Group B records show that more than 500,000 foreshore obstacles and 4,000,000 land mines were laid by the end of May 1944. Also, the construction of pillboxes, reinforcement of shelters for anti-tank positions and many other obstacles were in place by June 1944. This would also include (and these would have most effect on the airborne forces) the appearance of anti-glider poles that became known as ‘Rommel’s Asparagus’. These thick wooden poles, some tipped with explosive shells and trip wires, were placed in many open areas of land within 7 miles (11.27km) of the coastline. At the same time, all low-lying land was flooded and the intermediate areas between were planted with mines.

Just as the defending force has gathered valuable experience from Dieppe, so has the assaulting force.He will not do it like this a second time.

Generalfeldmarshall von Rundstedt

Rommel inspecting beach obstacles.

In June 1944 von Rundstedt had sixty divisions under his command, forty-three of which came under Rommel’s Army Group B, with eighteen divisions (fifteen infantry and three armoured) situated between the River Seine and the River Loire. Eisenhower, by comparison, had thirty-seven divisions in Britain, but, due to the logistics involved, all of these could not be brought into action until seven weeks after D-Day.4

‘Rommel’s Asparagus’ – anti glider poles.

Generalleutnant Reichert, 711 Infanterie Division.

Generalleutnant Richter, 716 Infanterie Division.

Generalleutnant Kraiss, 352 Infanterie Division.

Three German infantry divisions, the 711716 and 352, and two armoured divisions, 12 SS Panzer and 21 Panzer, were all in the vicinity or within reach of the area where the 6th Airborne Division was due to land on the night of the 5/6 June 1944.

711 Infanterie Division was best situated to counter the attack by the 6th Airborne Division. It had an estimated strength of 13,000 troops, twenty anti-tank guns, sixty pieces of field and medium artillery and a French, Renault 35, tank squadron.

SS-Brigadeführer Fritz Witt. 12 SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend.

716 Infanterie Division was considered a low category division and was situated mainly west of the River Orne with its complement of eight infantry battalions which included two Russian battalions each of a thousand men. It also had artillery support in the form of twenty-four gun-howitzers, twelve medium howitzers and one anti-tank company.

352 Infanterie Division was deployed around Port-en-Bessin and intelligence reports suggested that this was a counter-attack division which, if deployed, could be in the Caen area within eight hours.

12 SS Panzer Division (Hitlerjugend) was believed to be up to its full strength of 21,000 men. The number of Panther tanks it had was undetermined. It was assumed that its operational role was north of Lisieux or east of the River Seine. However, in the event of an attack it was expected that it would be ready to operate south-east of 6th Airborne Division’s drop and landing zones within twelve hours of the landings.

Generalleutnant Edgar Feuchtinger 21 Panzer Division.

Troops put through their paces by an NCO.

Plan for a bunker with a Renault turret from a French tank.

Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel examines the building work.

The 21 Panzer Division was also believed to be up to full strength – 21,000 men – and had been stationed in Rennes until May when it was unexpectedly transferred to Caen. On the night of the 5/6 June 1944, the Division was actually on anti-invasion manoeuvres in the Caen area.

In reaction to the invasion the Allies expected that the German forces would, after determining the strength of the landings and assuming they failed in an initial counter-attack, choose a line on the high ground east of the flooded valley of the River Dives and hold the invading forces there. Once the threat of the invasion had clearly declared itself west of the River Orne and there was no sign of an attack east of the River Dives or on the River Seine estuary, it was assumed that part of the 711 Infanterie Division would move across to take up the high ground east of the River Dives, even though this would weaken the estuary defences on the River Seine. The reaction of the 716 Infanterie Division, effectively in the middle of the invasion, was expected to be completely disrupted.

Sleeve badge for the Russian Army of Liberation that formed units from Russian and Georgian prisoners of war.

Soldiers of the Ost Bataillon attached to 711 Infanterie Division defending the area between the River Orne and the Seine. These were recruited from among Russian prisoners of war. They would be in the best position to counter-attack the 6th Airborne Division.

Panzer MkIVs of 21 Panzer Division in Normandy.


The planned date for the invasion had been 5 June 1944, but low clouds, high winds and the bad conditions forecast by the meteorologists forced Eisenhower to postpone the invasion on the morning of 4 June. The weather front prevailed throughout the next day as predicted and Eisenhower feared the worst, for if the attack did not take place on 6 or 7 June there would be a wait of at least fourteen, possibly twenty-eight, days before the combination of moon, tide and time of sunrise would allow another attempt. Suspending the movement of over 2,000,000 men for this length of time without losing morale and letting the secret out seemed an impossible task. Also, if the invasion was to be rescheduled Rommel would be given even more time to prepare his growing defences. At 0330hrs on 5 June 1944, Eisenhower received some unexpected news.

Our little camp was shaking and shuddering under a wind of almost hurricane proportions and the accompanying rain seemed to be travelling in horizontal streaks. The mile long trip to the naval headquarters was anything but a cheerful one, since it seemed impossible that in such conditions there was any reason for even discussing the situation.

When the conference started the first report was given by Group Captain Stagg and the meteorological staff... Their astonishing declaration was that by the following morning a period of relatively good weather, heretofore completely unexpected, would ensue, lasting probably thirty-six hours...

The consequences of delay justified great risk and I quickly announced the decision to go ahead with the attack on June 6. The time was then 4.15 am, June 5.5



As soon as the order had been given the wheels of the well-oiled Allied war machine were set in motion. The greatest combined assault force in the history of warfare was moving relentlessly towards its target on the French coastline of Normandy. At this point the potential outcome of the invasion was taken away from the politicians, chiefs of staff and planners, and transferred to those soldiers, sailors and airmen who would have to endure the sharp end of war. In less than twenty-one hours the first British and Canadian paratroopers and gliderborne troops, of the 6th Airborne Division, would be fighting, and dying, on Normandy soil in the opening engagements for the battle for Normandy.

Rommel at les Petites Dalles. His defences were still incomplete but he was determined to repel the assault force on the beaches.

Counting out invasion money prior to its distribution to the airborne soldiers.

The invasion fleet heads across the Channel to the Normandy coast.

Glider pilots receive their final instructions.

Lorries carry 6th Airborne Division paratroopers to waiting Albemarles.

Paratroopers boarding an aircraft during a training exercise.

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