Added September 25 2011.


Richard Hargreaves: The Germans in Normandy

Death reaped a terrible harvest

Hargreaves claims that the story of Normandy 1944 has been recorded "almost exclusively" from the Allies' point of view. Personally I find this to be somewhat exaggerated; accounts such as Max Hastings' Six Armies in Normandy include an account of the Germans, Paul Carell's Invasion: They're Coming! was published as far back as 1962-3, and of course we always have the likes of David Irving whose works, regardless of what one thinks of his reliability or political stance, include plenty of interviews with German commanders, eg his book on Rommel. Nevertheless Hargreaves claims to have worked for 15 years on his book, going through not just histories but also diaries and letters.

The Germans in Normany purports to focus on the ordinary German fighting man rather than to be a history of the campaign, a claim that is in fact impossible to meet, since any examination of the subject must include the framework of the campaign itself. Nevertheless there is an impressive cross-section of voices represented in the book, from the well-known (Rommel, von Rundstedt, Kurt Meyer and Michael Wittman) to the lowest ranks of the Wehrmacht. Unusually for some histories, Hargreaves also includes Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine men, albeit in very small numbers, since the number of aircraft and naval vessels available to the Germans was not great, even after Luftwaffe reinforcement.

The book commences with a look at German attitudes towards the impending invasion of France by the Allies in 1944, which was an open secret. One of the book's main surprises and points of interest is that many Germans, from Hitler down to the beach defenders, were impatient for the Allies to come, albeit the ordinary soldiers so that the waiting would be over, whereas Hitler was thinking in terms of destroying the Western armies and gaining a breathing space to deal with the East. This attitude of eager anticipation was apparently also common in Germany itself (the book discusses the changing attitudes of the home populace, as evinced by Sicherheitdienst probings during the campaign). Although the Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe (the latter commanded in the West by the indolent Sperrle) could not be expected to make much of a contribution, Dönitz did exhort his U-boat crews to their utmost, even though sending U-boats that had not yet been converted to the Schnorkel mechanism against the Allied navies was tantamount to suicide. The Army however firmly believed in its parity with, if not superiority over, the Allies in both the quality of its men and its weapons - and it was certainly true that tanks such as the Tiger and Panther were superior to anything in the Allied arsenal.

Any tactical superiority the Germans may have enjoyed, at least with their weaponry and first line units such as the panzer divisions and paratroopers, was unfortunately for them nullified by the strategic picture. Bled white by the Eastern Front, the armed forces were still struggling to make good their losses in men and materiel, leading to employment of men who would have normally been rejected for front-line military service, such as regiments of Georgians, Poles and Russians recruited from POW camps, or the overage and unfit men serving in the very weak coastal defence divisions. Despite their impressive organisation on paper, new or reformed units such as the 116th and 21st Panzer were still waiting for some of their tanks, or making do with obsolete models. More seriously, the Allied bombing both of the French invasion areas and of Germany proper led to shortages of materiel and difficulties in transporting anything that was available to the front. The supposed heavy fortifications of the Atlantic Wall, as displayed in German propaganda photographs showing heavily encased heavy artillery, were in reality few and far between: despite Rommel's fury of activity in the early months of 1944, defences still had not been completed by June 6th. Finally, German intelligence failed to accurately discern either the Allies' intentions or their formations, and the strange and contradictory command structure set up by Hitler, effectively setting the highest commanders at odds with one another and making him an umpire, was to fatally handicap decision making.

This confusion in the German command was evinced in the first 24 hours of the invasion, when even the dropping of paratroopers could not convince the Nazi command that more than a diversion was taking place, and when a senior commander could not obtain the release of panzers because Hitler was asleep. Nevertheless the landing at Omaha, as is well known, was a bloody affair as the American troops encountered the reasonably fit and seasoned 352nd Infantry Division rather than one of the coastal divisions they had been expecting, and the landing hung in the balance. Juno also offered stiff resistance until tanks could be brought up. At Utah and the British beaches it was a different story, however, one of incomplete defences, few anti-tank guns and the preliminary barrage. A German reconnaissance commander reported seeing thousands of Allied troops pouring off the beach. Henceforth, in the face of heavy naval artillery and Allied air superiority, it would prove impossible to dislodge the Western Allies. Initial German confidence in the ability of their armour to push the enemy back into the sea quickly evaporated as the reality of constant air attack became apparent, a theme that runs like a motif through the book.

Contrary to the general impression sometimes given, the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine did both attempt to intervene against the landings. However the huge protective screen throwun up by Allied fighters in front of the US and Commonwealth armies made it virtually impossible for the Luftwaffe to attack ground targets, at least by day, and similarly the now highly evolved naval air cover and surface tactics made even leaving Brest, the U-boat base, a nightmare journey. Not one Allied aircraft was lost on 6 June to Luftwaffe aerial activity, and by nightfall 175,000 Allied soldiers were already ashore. Already, despite their earlier confidence, it seemed that some Germans felt that the battle was hanging in the balance, if not already lost, solely by dint of the Allies' huge material superiority. What follows throughout the rest of the book is a Homeric tragedy of men's lives being thrown away in a lost, and odious, cause, strategic defeat edging ever nearer despite tactical successes in the bocage fighting, on Hill 112 and against Operations Epsom and Goodwood.

In his use of accounts from individual combat soldiers, Hargreaves does not neglect the politics of the situation, drawing also on Goebbels' diaries and statements as well as the orders of senior commanders. Of the latter, it appears that only Rommel was aware of the practical constraints that would be imposed by Allied air and material superiority, but his colleagues and successors would soon come to share that knowledge. Indeed another interesting motif throughout the book is the transformation of optimism to pessimism on the part of men such as Kluge and Model who followed Rommel to the front line with Hitler badgering them for results. In fact only Model, a favourite of Hitler, was able to finally persuade the dictator that France west of the Seine had to be abandoned. Hitler, of course, is shown as out of touch with reality, but even so his strange ability to influence people is mentioned in his conference with Rommel and von Rundstedt, which left the former temporarily more optimistic despite his fears having been realised. The V-1 flying bomb, which it was hoped would kill enough British to bring the Commonwealth down or at least to the negotiating table, initially boosted German morale but after the failure of the extravagant claims made for it morale, both at the front and at home, slumped. An interesting if somewhat satisfying element is the hoops that the Nazi propaganda publications were forced to jump through to portray the situation in a positive light, even when cities such as Cherbourg and Paris fell. As the campaign drew on, men such as Rommel and von Rundstedt were forced to submit bleak appraisals of the prospects facing the Western Front, and finally to suggest that it was time for politics to come into play - a Rommel suggestion brusquely rejected by Hitler. Instead, the failure of the July 20 assassination attempt on Hitler's life was to lead to the emasculation of the Army's independence, the suicide of von Kluge (who had sat on the fence as regards the plot) and later of Rommel, and the further straitjacketing of Germany which would not be broken until the Führer's death. It is worth noting however that many of the ordinary German troops and civilians at the time were indignant against the plotters and were still putting their faith in Hitler's powers and the promised new weapons.

The closing chapters of the book records the alternating hope and despair of individual German fighters, many of whom were taken prisoner or killed in the fighting. Alongside the hope of the new weapons is the despair of the breakdown of the front, the lack of replacements and the apparently overwhelming power of the Allies. At Falaise, thousands of Germans were trapped and killed or taken captive in a horrific carnage that impressed and evoked pity even in their enemies; surviving formations streamed across the Seine where possible, a shadow of their former selves with just handfuls of tanks and a few hundred men each. Henceforth the predominant desire was to get back across the German border. As Rommel mentioned in one of his last writings, "The sky over Germany has grown very dark".

Overall this is very readable book and can be recommended particularly to those readers who have only read accounts of the Normandy from the Allied side.

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