August 14, 2014

Why We Lost!

Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt discusses with his American captors the course of the war in the west.
Gerd von Rundstedt as a  POW
1. Von Rundstedt with his
son as POWs in Wiesbaden.

Basic German Weaknesses

The situation immediately prior to the invasion of June 1944 was not good, von Rundstedt said. He and his former Chief of Staff, General Blumentritt, recognized at least three basic weaknesses:

  • their inadequate number of troops had to cover enormous stretches of coast line, some divisions as much as 35 to 40 miles; 
  • the Atlantic Wall was "anything but a wall, just a bit of cheap bluff"; and 
  • there was no counterattack reserve or so-called "Armee centrale," a strategic army under central command to counterattack where the invasion came.
Von Rundstedt, like many other German generals, said he did not control Germany's best troops. He complained that many of his best units were sent to Italy, and he asserted vigorously that it was "madness to continue the war in Italy that way."

After the collapse of Italy, "that frightful 'boot' of a country should have been evacuated, Mussolini should have been left where he was, and we should have held a decent front with a few divisions on the Alpine frontier. They should not have taken away the best divisions from me in the West in order to send them to Italy. That's my private view."

Whether he could have gotten more troops for the West, von Rundstedt did not know. He did know that the High Command was hard pressed for troops on all sides, but nothing was ever done about it. "It was only decent to do something" after Mussolini was reinstated, von Rundstedt admitted, but he added, "of course it was absolutely a matter of politics and nothing else. I assume, though I have no positive knowledge, that the High Command was in favor of it."

"I though that was nonsense, too," von Rundstedt said of the occupation of Norway. "What was the point of occupying it?" He termed the Norwegian operation "purely a naval affair" in which he had no interest. In fact, his major interest all along was to accumulate the proper armored divisions, mobile forces which could be quickly sent where they were needed.

High Command Interfered

"Had I been able to move the armored divisions which I had behind the coast, I am convinced that the invasion would not have succeeded." Von Rundstedt made this emphatic statement as he told of continued interference from higher levels with the disposition of his inadequate forces. "If I had been able to move the troops, then my air force would also have been in a position to attack hostile ships."

If he had had his way, von Rundstedt indicated that the Allies would first of all have sustained prohibitive losses during landing operations. In addition, they would not have been able, "with relative impunity," to bring up battleships close to the coast to act as floating gun batteries. "That is all a question of air force, air force, and again air force," he commented. The Normandy invasion would have been "like Dieppe on a big scale"—von Rundstedt believes—if he had been able to move his armored divisions as he desired. He summarized the situation with the statement:

"We would certainly have been better off if a good many things had been different as regards the distribution of forces."

Atlantic Wall Myth Exploded
The Atlantic Wall
2. The Atlantic Wall.

"The enemy probably knew more about it than we did ourselves," von Rundstedt said in referring to the so-called Atlantic Wall as a "mere bluff." He confessed that such a wall did exist from the Scheldt to the Seine, "but further than that—one has only to look at it for one's self in Normandy to see what rubbish it was." According to von Rundstedt, the wall consisted of a few pillboxes in holes in the sand so far apart that "you needed field glasses to see the next one." The only good thing was the fortresses, such as Cherbourg and Brest, but they were all fortified only toward the sea. He described the wall as "a dreary situation" south of the Gironde toward the Spanish border because "there was really nothing at all there."

All the ballyhoo about the Atlantic Wall was simply propaganda, von Rundstedt said, but he admitted that people believed it—"at least we believed it." He thinks, however, that it was no mystery to the Allies because their air photography probably revealed the bluff. Although a lot of material went into the defenses, von Rundstedt complained that the Navy got most of the concrete. He pictured the German Navy as building higher and thicker roofs on their U-boat shelters every time the Allies dropped a heavier bomb. "It doesn't suffice to build a few pillboxes," von Rundsted pointed out. "One needs defense in depth. Moreover, the requisite forces were lacking—we couldn't have manned them, even if fortifications had been there."

Artillery Weaknesses
Heavy coastal artillery
3. Heavy coastal artillery.

The former German commander in the West really warmed up on the subject of coastal batteries and artillery. Admitting that he was not an artilleryman, Von Rundstedt nevertheless severely criticized the mounting of the coastal guns. They were mounted as on ships, and could fire only out to sea. They were of no use to land forces because they could not fire in all directions. To make things worse, the coastal batteries included many captured guns, thus hampering the supply situation.

As if things were not bad enough, von Rundstedt complained, the last divisions he got were very weak in artillery, some of them having only three light batteries. A good division on land should have nine light batteries and at least three heavy batteries, in his view.

Caught with Panzers Down
Panther tanks
4. Panther tanks transported to
the Normandy front.

Von Rundstedt confessed that the Allies caught him flatfooted with their thrust out of the Cotentin Peninsula. If he had been in the position of his enemy, intent on taking Paris and the interior of France, von Rundstedt explained, he would have landed to the left and right of the Seine and taken the shortest route. He admitted that he was puzzled because he believed a landing on the Cotentin was aimed at securing a harbor. At the same time, he could see no point in getting a harbor there because the route to the interior of France was three times as long.

Believing the most powerful thrust would come through Belgium toward the Ruhr, von Rundstedt considered the area northeast from the Seine to be the most dangerous. For that reason, the division sectors on that coast were shorter, and the fortifications there were constructed as strongly as possible. Adding to von Rundstedt's belief that the landing would come further north was the fact that the Navy believed a landing could be made on the Cotentin only at high tide. Even then the rocks and reefs below the water would wreck the ships, thus making a landing extremely hazardous. Here, too, the Allies fooled him by landing at low tide and using the rocks as cover against the fire from land.

"We probably didn't know about the floating harbors," he commented in explaining that he had not considered the Cotentin a likely landing area. "I, at least, didn't. Whether the Navy knew of them, I don't know."

Second Invasion Expected
Von Rundstedt at the  Channel Coast
5. Von Rundstedt at the
Channel Coast.

Von Rundstedt said there were definite grounds for anticipating another invasion further north, primarily from tactical and strategic considerations. Projecting himself into the mind of the Allied high command, he reasoned: "I will land here, wait until the Germans have gathered all their forces to meet me, and then land at the other place."

An additional motive for a second landing was the fact that the launching ramps for the V-bombs were in the Belgian area—if the effect of these bombs was as unpleasant as German propagandists declared. "I can't believe it was," von Rundstedt commenced, "because so far I've seen no results of V-weapons here (in England). But it would have counted for something, perhaps, if they were as unpleasant for the English as they afterward were for us in the Eifel, when they all went back into our own lines. The V-weapons as such had nothing to do with us in the Army," he said. "The actual protection of them was undertaken by the Flak."

He argued that he was afraid of an Allied thrust north from the Seine more because of the strategic importance of an attack toward the Ruhr and Lower Rhine than because of the V-bombs. "A landing which for a long time we considered very likely before the invasion actually began was one to get rid of the U-boat bases — namely, Brest, St. Nazaire, and Lorient — from the rear," von Rundstedt declared. "Then when the U-boat business collapsed so completely, we said that was no longer of interest and wouldn't come off. Attention was then concentrated more and more on the northern part."

German Armored Situation
Von Rundstedt inspects the  12th SS-Panzer-Division
6. Von Rundstedt inspects the 
12th SS-Panzer-Division “Hitlerjugend.”

Although Von Rundstedt could not remember his exact tank strength in France at the beginning of June 1944, he thinks he had approximately six or seven Panzer divisions, but they were spread out. Two were immediately available when the invasion came, and two others were able to come up on the first day. Another one came from Belgium, and then one came from southern France.

He complained that one division never did make it from southern France because it had "some difficulties" with the Maquis. "The defensive role played by the armored divisions near Caen during July and August was a great mistake," von Rundstedt confessed, "but it was done on the orders of higher authority. We wanted to relieve the armored divisions by infantry, but it was impossible in the bulge in front of Caen where they were also under fire from ships' guns. You can't relieve any troops then."

Von Rundstedt's plan, which was turned down, was to withdraw the armored forces behind the Orne, form up the relieving infantry there, and then take away the tanks from in front and use them as mobile units to attack U. S. forces on the flanks. He was backed up by the senior tank commander, General Geyr von Schweppenburg, but to no avail. The armored divisions were left where they were "on the Führer's own orders."

"Whether similar orders were likewise responsible for the Avranches counterattack, I don't know," von Rundstedt commented, "since I left on 1 July." He said he had wanted to make a counterattack while German forces were still north of St. Lô. His plan was to thrust between the British and American landing troops, attacking the Americans and merely screening off the British, because the terrain was more favorable and the battle prospects were better.

Air Power at Work
A German column destroyed by P-47 fighter-bombers
7. A German column destroyed by
P-47 fighter-bombers.

Systematic preparations by the Allied air forces caused the general collapse of the German defense, von Rundstedt said. He cited three important factors.

First, there was the smashing of the main lines of communication, particularly the railway junctions. Although von Rundstedt had planned the defense so that reserves could be moved to the threatened areas, Allied planes knocked out railway lines and made the shifting of troops impossible.

The second factor was the attack on roads and on marching columns, individual vehicles, etc., so that it was impossible to move by day. This made it extremely difficult to bring up reserves, and it also created a supply problem because fuel and ammunition could not be brought up.
Carpet bombing constituted the third factor. In certain respects, von Rundstedt said, it constituted an intensified artillery barrage and knocked out troops in pillboxes or dug in ahead of the front line. It also smashed reserves in the rear.

Although the Luftwaffe "did what it could," von Rundstedt pointed out that he had practically no air reconnaissance. German planes which, did take to the air were outnumbered 10 to 1, and any long-range reconnaissance was "absolutely nonexistent."

"Rommel's asparagus" (beach obstacles) was "well meant," according to von Rundstedt, but it was not much of a success because in some places the sea simply turned the obstacles around and sanded them up or rolled them away.

In reinforcing German troops fighting in the Cotentin, men were immediately withdrawn from the southern front. Troops were held on the northern front, however, because the Germans were afraid of a landing on the Belgian or French coast. As explained by von Rundstedt, the Germans believed that "Phase I is here, but Phase II will come there." When it became apparent later on that the Normandy invasion was the real thing, the destruction of the Seine bridges "made itself felt very unpleasantly." The reserve troops had to be detoured around or brought over in ferry boats.

The Ardennes Offensive
Von Rundstedt with Model and Krebs
8. Rundstedt with Model and Krebs,
planning the Ardennes offensive.

Turning to the Ardennes offensive, von Rundstedt said that every protest on our part, including those from the late Field Marshal Model, was turned down.

If he had directed the attack, Von Rundstedt said, he would have confined himself to a smaller objective. His plan would have embraced an attack on the Aachen pocket from two sides in an attempt to destroy it. "For a far-reaching operation such as the Ardennes offensive, aimed first at the Maas and possibly still further, the forces were much, much, much too weak. The possibility of driving inland with armored divisions, with no Luftwaffe, was purely visionary. Reinforcements and supplies, with their railheads back on the Rhine, took longer and longer to move, and it was impossible to get them up. That offensive was bound to fail. There was no other possibility."

Pointing to the German offensive in 1940 from Trier toward Luxembourg and Calais, von Rundstedt explained that a vast number of troops were available simply to cover the flanks and protect the spearhead. The forces in the Ardennes offensive were far too weak for the exercise of a comparable function, he explained, using as examples the actions at Bastogne and near Stavelot-Malmedy.

"If I do anything like that, I must have large, very large forces," von Rundstedt concluded, "but those suggestions were not heeded and things turned out as I'd expected. The root of the whole trouble was air power, air power!"

U.S. War Department, Military Intelligence Division. Intelligence Bulletin. March, 1946.

Photos attribution
1. Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-2007-0220/CC-BY-SA [CC-BY-SA-3.0-de, via Wikimedia Commons
2. Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1987-017-29A/CC-BY-SA-3.0-de, via Wikimedia Commons
3. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-364-2314-16A/Kuhn/CC-BY-SA-3.0-de, via Wikimedia Commons
4. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-721-0398-10A/Wagner/CC-BY-SA-3.0-de, via Wikimedia Commons
5. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101II-MW-6754-10/Wolf, H./CC-BY-SA-3.0-de, via Wikimedia Commons
6. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-297-1740-09A/Kurth/CC-BY-SA-3.0-de, via Wikimedia Commons
7. US Army (NARA), via Wikimedia Commons
8. Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1978-024-31/CC-BY-SA [CC-BY-SA-3.0-de, via Wikimedia Commons