Creating a Western Front – Late 1944 I

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Scherl: Raum Aachen, 9.10.1944 Generalfeldmarschall Model besucht den vorgeschobenen Gef.Std. der in und um Aachen eingesetzten (246.) Volksgrenadier-Division. Die Aufnahmen zeigen den Feldmarschall mit dem Div.Kdr., Oberst Wilk vor dem in einem Westwallbunker untergebrachten Gef.Std. (kurz vorher ein Volltreffer darauf) und mit dem I/A der Division.

Field Marshal Model visiting the 246th Volksgrenadier Division in Aachen.

The news of the fall of Antwerp (Europe’s second port after Rotterdam and third in the world after New York and Rotterdam) was greeted with shock and consternation at Fuehrer Headquarters in East Prussia. Its loss not only held out to the Allies the immediate possibility of solving their supply problems; it also threatened to make the Albert Canal line (from Antwerp to Maastricht) useless and placed the 15th Army in imminent danger of being surrounded in the lowlands of Flanders. In two days, Montgomery had driven a 75-mile wedge between it and Dietrich’s 5th Panzer Army, which was now retreating in the direction of Aachen. All Model had to cover the gap with was the low-quality 719th Infantry Division, a two-regiment unit that had been on guard duty along the Dutch coast since it was formed in the summer of 1941; a “Normandy” division at Kampfgruppe strength; a brigade of Dutch SS; and a few garrison and security units from the Netherlands. Himmler, in his capacity as commander in chief of the Home Army, could only offer one ad hoc convalescent division, the 176th Infantry, which was made up of soldiers who would not have been in the army four years before. The men of this unit were grouped into battalions according to their ailments. The “stomach battalion,” for example, consisted of men with ulcers who required special diets. There was also an “ear battalion,” a “foot battalion,” an “eye battalion,” and so on. Not even the most optimistic Nazi believed they could stop (or even significantly delay) the British 2nd Army.

Hitler was in a temper that day, and, among others, he took his rage out on Hermann Goering and even threatened to end the Luftwaffe’s existence as a separate branch of the service. At this point, Goering came to the rescue of the army. To the complete surprise of Guderian and the General Staff, he announced that he had six parachute regiments more or less ready for frontline duty and could raise two more from convalescent battalions, making a total combat force of 20,000 men. To this he could add as many as 10,000 from Luftwaffe air and ground crews whose training or operations had been stopped by a lack of fuel. In addition, he pointed out, these were Luftwaffe personnel, thoroughly indoctrinated with the spirit of National Socialism-they could be counted upon to fight to the end.

When he heard this news, an excited Hitler forgot all about letting the army absorb the Luftwaffe (as Goering had calculated). He immediately ordered Colonel General Kurt Student, the commander of the 1st Parachute Army, to move his headquarters (until then an administrative and training command) to the Netherlands and to defend the canal line. Model had planned to use this HQ to direct a Fuehrer-ordered counterattack against Patton’s right flank and rear in the Nancy-Langres; now he transferred Dietrich’s 5th Panzer Army Headquarters to eastern France for that purpose. Dietrich handed over his sector to Headquarters, 7th Army, which was now under the command of General Brandenberger, and left at once for Nancy. Finally, Model ordered General of Infantry Gustav-Adolf von Zangen, the newly appointed commander of the 15th Army, to withdraw the bulk of its troops to the banks of the Scheldt estuary, leaving behind garrisons at Boulogne, Dunkirk, Le Harve, and Calais to deny the Channel ports to the Allies as long as possible. He also instructed the commander of the 15th Army to counterattack to the northeast, but these orders were countermanded on September 6, just as Zangen’s troops were about ready to strike. The attack was called off because Model and OKW realized that the British were too strong to be dislodged. Also, Model probably did not want to call the attention of the Allied generals to this sector, for reasons explained below. Meanwhile, Hitler reinstated Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt as OB West, although Model remained commander in chief of Army Group B.

To Hitler, the aging Rundstedt had proven his political reliability as president of the “Court of Honor,” which discharged the conspirators of July 20 from the Wehrmacht so that they could stand trial in Friesler’s People’s Court. Rundstedt’s appointment to supreme command in the West at this time, Hitler felt, would reassure the Officers’ Corps and help restore its morale. The situation Rundstedt inherited now, however, was much worse than it had been in July, when he told Keitel to “end the war, you fools!” In Model’s estimation, OB West now had only the equivalent of 25 full-strength divisions and needed 35 to 40 more to conduct an effective defense in the West. Since everyone knew that these were not available, he saw only one option: a retreat to the West Wall. Model had made this recommendation to Fuehrer Headquarters the day before he was superseded by Rundstedt.

Hitler, for once, was correct in separating the posts of OB West and commander in chief, Army Group B. Commanding an army group and the entire Western Front was too big a job for anyone. Kluge probably realized this when he assumed both positions on July 17, the day Rommel was critically wounded. He apparently took personal command of Army Group B only because he was afraid that Hitler would give the post to the SS general, Hausser-and he was probably right. In the 18 days that he held both posts, Walter Model had proven that he could not handle both jobs at the same time, although in fairness to him, it must be pointed out that he inherited a battle already lost, and twice during this period Model had complained to Hitler about the difficulties of commanding both Army Group B and OB West at the same time.

Hitler summoned Rundstedt to “Wolf’s Lair” at the end of August and invited him to attend the daily situation conferences. According to General Warlimont, he treated Rundstedt with “unwonted diffidence and respect,” even though the aging marshal sat through the sessions “motionless and monosyllabic.” Rundstedt was kept in the dark about the reason for his presence in Rastenburg until the afternoon of September 4, when Hitler asked him to reassume command of the Western Front. Stiffly, with both hands on his marshal’s baton, Rundstedt replied: “My Fuehrer, whatever you may command, I will do my duty to my last breath.” He left for the Western Front that same afternoon. The next day, even before the field marshal resumed his command, Hitler transferred his longtime chief of staff, General of Infantry Guenther Blumentritt, to the staff of the LXXXVI Corps (where he was to undergo training as a corps commander) and replaced him with Lieutenant General Siegfried Westphal, the former chief of staff of OB South, who had just recovered from the nervous breakdown he had suffered in Italy that summer during the battle for Rome. Rundstedt protested the change but to no avail. He and Westphal, however, worked well together, and Westphal was certainly a better chief of staff than Blumentritt. The appointment of Rundstedt, however, was not a fortunate one. The aging Prussian field marshal took one look at the decimated and dispirited forces and decided that the war was lost. When he arrived at OB West (now headquartered at Aremberg, a small town near Koblenz) on the afternoon of September 5, his operations officer, Colonel Bodo Zimmermann, gave him an inventory of his divisions. OB West now had 48 infantry and 15 panzer-type divisions, but only 15 of these were at anywhere near full strength. In all, OB West had a combat power equivalent to only 27 divisions. Eisenhower had an estimated 60 divisions on the Continent. OB West’s condition on September 5 is illustrated in Table below.

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On September 7, two days after he resumed command, Rundstedt informed Fuehrer Headquarters that the Allies were advancing with approximately 2,000 tanks (a very close estimate) but that he had only about 100 panzers fit for action. He estimated that he was outnumbered more than 2 to 1 in men; 2.5 to 1 in artillery; 20 to 1 in tanks; and 25 to 1 in airplanes. Furthermore, his soldiers were worn out and exhausted, and there were serious shortages in transport, gasoline, and ammunition. He asked that all available tanks and assault guns be rushed to the Western Front, but Hitler had nothing left to give him in the way of armor. During the month of July, the army had lost 1,969 tanks and assault guns, but German industry could provide only 1,256 replacements, and nearly all of these had been sent to the Eastern Front, where Army Group Center was being crushed. In August, the army only received 1,122 replacements but lost twice that many. To make matters worse, the situation in the East was no less catastrophic than that in the West, so OB West could not claim priority for new tanks and panzer units. “As far as I was concerned,” Rundstedt said later, “the war ended in September.” He retired to his headquarters with his cigarettes and cognac and seldom reemerged; he left the daily conduct of operations in the hands of his subordinates, his chief of staff, and OKW (i. e., Fuehrer Headquarters).

Like Rundstedt, Model received a new chief of staff on September 5, when Lieutenant General Dr. Hans Speidel was arrested in connection with the assassination attempt of July 20. He was replaced by the less capable General of Infantry Hans Krebs, who had been Model’s chief of staff when he commanded the 9th Army on the Eastern Front. Despite his Nazi sympathies, Model had tried to shield Speidel, but to no avail. He spent the rest of the war in prison and only escaped execution because he was lucky.

Goering’s “surprise” parachute regiments were not the only reinforcements Hitler sent to Rundstedt; the Replacement Army and the Wehrkreise continued to crank out Volksgrenadier divisions at an incredible pace, as it did throughout the war. Wave 30 consisted of the 12th, 16th, 19th, 36th, 560th, and 563rd Volksgrenadier Divisions, of which the 12th, 16th, and 36th were sent to the West. The 5 Wave 31 “shadow” divisions (i. e., partially formed units) were quickly absorbed by the 25 Wave 32 divisions: grenadier divisions numbered between 564 and 588. They, in turn, were absorbed by veteran infantry divisions (now designated Volksgrenadier divisions) that had been depleted in combat: the 9th, 18th, 26th, 47th, 62nd, 79th, 167th, 183rd, 212th, 246th, 256th, 257th, 271st, 272nd, 276th, 277th, 320th, 326th, 337th, 340th, 349th, 352nd, 361st, 363rd, and 708th-75 grenadier regiments in all. Nine of these divisions were sent to the West; most of the rest were sent to Army Group South Ukraine, which had just suffered a catastrophic defeat in Rumania.

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