The Commanders – D-Day


Hitler and the Allies instinctively chose to command in the great battle two champions whose fates had already intertwined: Generalfeldmarshal (Field Marshal) Erwin Rommel, ‘The Desert Fox’ and General Bernard Montgomery, ‘Monty’. Rommel with his small Afrika Korps had come closer than any man in history to severing the jugular of the British Empire. His first command in the invasion of France in 1940 had seen him carve out a reputation in command of the 7th Panzer ‘Ghost’ Division as a master of modern armoured warfare. In North Africa he was to make the world his audience, and the British soldier one of his greatest admirers for his brilliance no less than his chivalry. So thoroughly had he won the moral ascendancy over the enemy that British commanders were driven to forbid the common use of the term ‘a Rommel’ used to describe any action particularly and imaginatively well-done. Even Churchill had recognized the difference when he said to the House on 27 January 1942, with El Alamein still unwon: ‘We have a very daring and skilful opponent against us, and, may I say across the havoc of war, a great general.’


Montgomery was to change all that and not by forbidding his men to respect a gallant enemy. Montgomery chose to reestablish the British soldier’s faith in himself and his commanders. A thorough professional, he had distinguished himself by commanding the 3rd Division in a demanding rearguard action in the retreat to Dunkirk. He also possessed the uncanny sense of instilling a sense of trust in him, he turned around the 8th Army, defeated Rommel at El Alamein and chased him across North Africa. His successes in concluding the North African campaign, and in Sicily and southern Italy made him the darling of the British people and their army. After years of shameful defeats, he embodied victory.

The Commanders’ Appraisal of the Situation

With an eerie coincidence, both Rommel and Montgomery submitted their first appraisals of the strategic requirements of their new commands to their political masters on 31 December 1943. Both men brought a fresh approach and a master’s touch and both rejected the bases of existing plans and assumptions. Rommel had just finished an exhaustive inspection of the fortifications of the so-called Atlantic Wall that ran from Holland to the Bay of Biscay. Rommel’s report read:

We can hardly expect a counter-attack by the few reserves we have behind the coast at the moment, with no self-propelled guns and an inadequate quantity of anti-tank weapons, to succeed in destroying the powerful force which the enemy will land. We know from experience that the British soldier is quick to consolidate his gains and then holds on tenaciously with excellent support from his superior air arm and naval guns, the observers for which direct the fire from the front line.

With the coastline held as thinly as it is at present, the enemy will probably succeed in creating bridgeheads at several different points and in achieving a major penetration in our coastal defences. Once this has happened it will only be by the rapid intervention of our operational reserves that he will be thrown back into the sea. This requires that these forces should be held very close behind the coast defences.

These observations were based on his personal observations of the crippling effectiveness on German operations of overwhelming Allied air power.

Montgomery had just reviewed the plans prepared in London for the invasion at Churchill’s personal request. His report read:

My first impression is that the present plan is impracticable. From a purely Army point of view the following points are essential:

o The initial landings must be made on the widest possible front,

o One British army to land on a front of two, or possibly, three corps.

One American army similarly.

o The air battle must be won before the operation is launched. We must then aim at success in the land battle by the spread and violence of our operations.

Advantages and Disadvantages?

Both men were allotted similar roles under a theatre commander. Montgomery was appointed commander of the 21st Army Group which would conduct the Allied invasion. He would personally command the British 2nd Army under Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey and the American 1st Army under Lieutenant General Omar Bradley. Two later armies would follow his army group, and a separate American army group would be formed. His superior was General Dwight Eisenhower who commanded all Allied forces in the European Theatre of Operations and would have overall command of all ground, air, and sea forces in the invasion. Rommel was given command of Army Group B consisting of the 7th and 15th Armies, on a front from Holland to the Loire River. Two other armies in southern France (1st and 19th) were formed into Army Group G. Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, Eisenhower’s counterpart, had overall command of all German forces in the West. Neither Montgomery or Rommel would have direct command over the theatre naval and air forces.

The remarkable similarities in their situations ceased at this point. Montgomery worked within one the most cooperative and efficient alliances in history and within a chain of command that functioned rationally. Although he had professional disagreements, some of them bitter, with his peers and colleagues, the system consistently supported his efforts to plan and prepare for the invasion. He was given the widest latitude and initiative. Rommel, on the other hand, worked within a system that had been both morally and professionally distorted by the evil genius of Adolf Hitler. His chain of command theoretically ran from the German High Command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht – OKW) through von Rundstedt at OB West to himself at Army Group B. The reality was that the unity of command of his army group was badly compromised. He could not move a single division without Hitler’s express permission. Hitler involved himself in every detail and muddied the concept of operations to meet the invasion. Rommel did not even control most of the panzer divisions held in reserve to counterattack the landing. That was the domain of the Commander of Panzer Forces West, General Geyr von Schweppenburg, who reported to von Rundstedt.

The great issue that the Germans were not able to resolve before the invasion was the concept and timing of the counterattacks that would drive the invasion into the sea. Rommel was adamant that the operational reserves should be held closely behind the coast. Allied air power would harry and bleed those held deeper inland as they tried to move, so delaying them that they would arrive too late and too understrength to defeat the invasion. Von Rundstedt and von Geyr, having never commanded under conditions of enemy air superiority, tended to discount Rommel’s warnings. They maintained that the panzer reserves should be held deeper inland so as to be able to move to any sector of the threatened front. Hitler never endorsed one or the other position decisively. The result was that Rommel was given control of only three panzer divisions: Panzer Lehr, 21st Panzer, and 12th SS Panzer. He wanted to put them all behind the coastal defences in Normandy between the Rivers Vire and Orne. Again Hitler intervened to micromanage affairs, by ruling that Rommel could only move one division, 21st Panzer, directly behind the front. It was not until late May that Rommel was able to extract from Hitler permission to move Hitlerjugend to the Norman coast as well. However, the Führer was adamant that Panzer Lehr remain inland in the area between Chartres and Le Mans.

In divining the location of the invasion, the great question facing the Germans and one the Allies took great pains to keep from them, Rommel was at first convinced by the conventional wisdom that the invasion would come the shortest distance across the Channel, straight at the Pas-de-Calais area. The Pas-de-Calais not only offered a short road into the Reich itself but was site of the vaunted, mysterious ‘wonder weapon’ that Hitler had promised would make the English weep for peace. Naturally the Allies would strike there. But as the winter turned to spring, Hitler’s vaunted intuition seemed to make a comeback. He sensed more than analyzed that Normandy might be the site of the invasion or at least a major diversion. Rommel’s increasing familiarity with his sector had also changed his mind to the degree that he thought at the very least the Allies would conduct major airborne diversionary landings in Normandy. Infantry divisions that had been going consistently to reinforce the 15th Army at the Pas-de-Calais now began to be assigned to 7th Army. The 91st Airlanding Division was moved to the Cotentin Peninsula, and in March the 352nd Infantry Division was assigned to the Calvados coast, the area between the Vire and the Orne and the responsibility of Generalleutnant Erich Marcks, commander of LXXXIV Corps. Rommel also specifically ordered that Kraiss’ division take over a section of the coastal defences manned by one of the weaker coastal defence divisions. Hitler’s interest was the key to approving the move of 21st Panzer and 12th SS Panzer Divisions up behind the coast to support Marcks’ corps.

Montgomery would have been appalled at Rommel’s difficulties. It would have been cruel to have informed Rommel, on the other hand, of Montgomery’s scope for action. Essentially Montgomery threw out the plans already prepared for the invasion. Using every bit of authority he had been given to plan, prepare, and conduct the invasion, he took even more and was supported because he manifestly knew what he was doing. He had already identified the essentials of the invasion concept. Now he devised the strategic plan that would underlie all else. The British 2nd Army would land with three divisions abreast on a two-corps (I and XXX Corps) front west of the Orne River. The Americans would land with two divisions as the lead elements of two corps (V and VII Corps) further west. The two lodgements would link up into a solid lodgement as quickly as possible. The British sector, being closer to open country and 150 miles closer to Paris than the Americans, would attract the strategic priority of the Germans and most of their armoured forces. The mission of 2nd Army was to hold this attention and the panzers while the American 1st Army built up sufficient forces for a major breakout of the lodgement which would in turn envelop the Germans concentrated against the British. There was a strategic elegance in the simplicity and practicality of the plan.

Montgomery had another priceless advantage over Rommel. Although neither man had operational control over the naval and air forces in theatre, Montgomery had the fullest support and cooperation of those two arms in both the planning and conduct of operations. Rommel had to deal with national commanders of these services who were jealous of their authority to the point of obstruction of the war effort. But by the spring of 1944, the cooperation of the increasingly impotent Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine were of questionable value anyway. Montgomery, on the other hand, had call on massive air and naval fleets of unsurpassed power and capability.

Without doubt the greatest advantage possessed by Montgomery over Rommel was the ability to read his enemy’s thoughts. The British Goverment Code and Cipher School at Bletchley succeeded in breaking the coded messages from the seemingly unbreakable German Enigma coding machine. Enigma was in use throughout the Wehrmacht as the ultimate in secure radio communications. The exploitation of this ability was codenamed Ultra, and the Allies had taken priceless advantage of it in the Mediterranean Theatre where radio communications were vital. The Western European Theatre was more of a problem. Active operations had ceased in 1940, and four years of comfortable garrison conditions had allowed the Germans to install landline communications throughout the occupied countries. Prior to D-Day, Ultra was reading comparatively little from OB West. The destruction or disruption of the landline system in order to drive German communications into the vulnerable air, therefore, became a high priority for the few days just prior to the invasion.

In the advantages and disadvantages so far listed, Rommel had come off a poor second. In one arena, though, he retained a sharp and frustrating lead. The German soldier consistently demonstrated overall greater qualities of aggressive leadership, offensive-mindedness, and initiative at every level than his British and American counterparts. One senior British officer asked in exasperation how it was that they were reading the enemy’s mail and still had not beaten him. The answer was in the mettle of the German soldier. General Harold Alexander noted of the Americans: ‘They simply do not know their job as soldiers and this is the case from the general to the private soldier. Perphaps the weakest link of all is the junior leader, who just does not lead, with the result that their men don’t really fight.’ If the Americans lacked a consistently good junior leader to follow, the British soldier, particularly the English, all too often lost heart and gave ground when his officers were killed and wounded. So noted was this characteristic that the Germans were making it a priority to kill junior British officers in Italy. After D-Day one American battalion commander paid the Germans the ultimate compliment, although he was dealing with the elite Fallschirmjägers:

You know, those Germans are the best soldiers I ever saw. They’re smart and they don’t know what the word ‘fear’ means. They come in and they keep coming until they get their job done or you kill ’em… If they had as many people as we have they could come right through us any time they made up their minds to do it.

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