Rommel's Atlantic Wall: Failure of Monumental Proportion
The Western press has created a picture of Rommel which is larger than life. He is supposed to be a most brilliant general though, in fact, he was just a mediocre soldier who rose up the ladder courtesy Adolf Hitler. One reason for Rommel being rated a great general is British propaganda (easiest way to explain failure) in overrating him after their initial retreat in North Africa. Another example of his not so great performance was during the time of the retreat of the Afrika Corps. Roman retreated 700 miles without making a stand against Montgomery. He had not prepared any second line of defence and worse he escaped from North Africa in a plane to Italy leaving 300,000 soldiers of the Afrika Corps to become POW. Rommel left Africa in March 1943.
On return home, he was lucky that he was not given command of any of the army groups facing Russia. Rommel relaxed at home in Berlin and waited for his next appointment. He was a favorite of Hitler and the fact that he had left 300,000 soldiers to surrender in North Africa did not go against him; Hitler had removed German generals who were a lesser failure than Rommel.
Rommel as Commander Army Group B
Rommel relaxed in his home for almost 5 months. He was then summoned by Hitler and told that he would be given another command. He was informed during the meeting that he would be given command of Army Group B and that meant the entire Western front and France. He was told that the nominal commander to whom he would report would be Field Marshal Von Rundstedt but generally, he would have a free hand. In August 1943 Field Marshal Rommel took over command of army group B. Rommel was the Army Commander for nearly a year before the allied invasion on 6 Jun 1944. Thus, he had ample time to shore up the defenses of the sea coast.
Rommel had complete freedom to strengthen the Atlantic wall; a series of defenses along the coast of northern France to stop an Allied invasion. Rommel carried out an inspection of the entire defenses from Normandy to Calais and made many suggestions to strengthen the Átlantic wall'. He was of the view that the invasion had to be stopped at the beaches of northern France and the alliance should not be allowed to get a foothold on the continent.
This is where his strategic sense failed him. All the time he was expecting an invasion by the allies at the narrowest point of the English Channel at Calais. The English coast was only 22 miles from the French coast at that point and he assumed that the alliance would launch an amphibious attack on the shortest route across the sea. As a man with a strategic vision, he never realized that the allies could choose the coast of Normandy to mount their invasion.
The net result of his fallacious strategic thinking resulted in the defenses of Normandy not having priority than other points notably at Calais where the Germans expected the assault.
The Defense Against an Allied Landing
Rommel again proved to be a poor thinker. Just like in Africa, where after the Battle of Alamein and his defeat and retreat, he had no plans for a second line of defense or a place to make a stand, here also he had no plans to counter the allies once the Atlantic wall was breached. This was strategically an error and can only show that
Rommel’s biographers have glossed over this point. In addition, as brought out by Jonathan Kratetch he allowed himself to tricked by the Allies. Rommel and the rest of OB West had already been tricked by Operation Fortitude and Allied deception plan that kept nearly half of Rommel’s divisions concentrated in the Pas de Calais, away from Normandy on invasion day.
His failure to visualize an invasion in Normandy is one of the causes of the German defeat in the west. Besides though having lost in Africa, he had retired as a ‘hero’ to Germany. But his defeat in Africa conditioned him to face the allies without a positive frame of mind. No general can fight a war in case he does not believe in victory. Thus between the successful beachhead landing and Hitler's obstinacy and his frame of mind, Rommel felt the war was lost.
But there is no denying the fact that Rommel set about his task in earnest. He inspected the coast from Normandy to Calais and suggested measures to strengthen coastal defenses. Thus, laying of mines along the coast with barbed wire defenses as well as pillboxes housed in concrete were ordered to be built. But again his thinking was conditioned by his defeat in Africa. He was perhaps a little overawed by allied air superiority and mentally he expected the allies to win.
By June 1944, Rommel realized that the war was lost. That's when the Allies mounted the invasion. Rommel was not on the scene. As the weather was bad, he assumed there would be no invasion and took time off for a holiday in Berlin to celebrate his wife's birthday. He was also fooled by a deception plan by the allies that the invasion was imminent across the channel at the Pas de Calais. Even after the Allies had got a foothold at Normandy he did not prevail upon Hitler to use the German Panzer divisions to stop the invasion.
Rommel lacked the reach and horizon of a great soldier. Thus it has never been explained how during the crucial Allied landing at Normandy on 6 Jun 1944, Rommel was absent. With an allied attack imminent, Rommel being away must be a minus point against him.
Rommel's career in the Army was coming to an end and while proceeding to his HQ office in his car he was struck by an Allied fighter and injured. He landed in the hospital and that was the end of his command.
Prior to his going on leave certain conspirators who wished to get rid of Adolf Hitler had contacted him and he had given his tacit approval as he had already realized that Germany could not win the war and it was essential to remove Hitler. The bomb plot against Hitler failed and interrogation of the suspects by the Gestapo implicated Rommel. Hitler was at a loss as to how his most favorite general had betrayed him. Besides Hitler was worried about how to deal with a soldier who had been built up as a great hero. A via media was found and two generals were sent to Field Marshal Rommel's house with the option to commit suicide by taking poison and then have a hero's funeral. Alternatively, he would be tried as a traitor and his family would bear the consequences. As is well known Rommel, committed suicide by consuming cyanide which was brought to him by the generals. He was given a hero's funeral and it was announced to the world that Roman had died in an Allied air attack. His wife and son were not harmed.
Thus ended the life of Germany's most popular General. In retrospect, it is worth pointing out that Rommel was a greatly overrated general and at no stage, he proved to be a decisive leader in warfare. His dash across North Africa is much admired but a general has also to learn how to form a line of defence like Field Marshal Kesselring in Italy. He also failed in France where he had almost a year to get ready for the Allies invasion.