"The Convenient Opponent: The Wehrmacht and D-Day "
by Dennis Showalter
Dennis Showalter received his B.A. in history from St. John's University, Collegeville, Minnesota, and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. His interest in military history stems from his undergraduate days, and has been expressed in numerous books and articles on the subject ranging from Railroads, Rifles, and the Unification of Germany, first published in 1975, to Tannenberg: Clash of Empires, which appeared in 1991. The latter work received the American Historical Association's Paul Birdsall Prize in military history for 1992.
Professor Showalter has taught at Colorado College since 1969. He has also served as the U.S. Air Force Academy's Distinguished Visiting Professor of History from 1991 to 1993, and held the 1990 Chair of Military Affairs at the Marine Corps University. His latest work, The Wars of Frederick the Great, will be published by Longmans in 1995.
Eisenhower Lecture 6
A presumably-apocryphal story from the days of Imperial India concerns the aftermath of a minor campaign on the Northwest Frontier. When the British troops involved received their service medals, the tribesmen who opposed them requested similar recognition. After all, without them there would have been no fighting in the first place and no one would have received anything!
The Germans who opposed the Allied invasion of France on June 6, 1944, have long been in a similar situation. Here if anywhere history has been written by the winners - and the winners have depicted the Germans as the men who made the great victory possible. That image has undergone some changes. For a quarter-century after Overlord, the Wehrmacht played the role of a gallant, but overmatched opponent. The army's relative success in disassociating itself from Nazi ideology and Nazi atrocities facilitated the transformation of Rommel's Landser into the rough equivalents of Confederates or Zulus: worthy foes whose vanquishing did honor to their conquerors.
By the 1970's the Germans had been upgraded. Martin van Creveld, John Keegan, and Max Hastings set the tone for a generation of scholarly and popular writers who stressed in particular the German army's superiority to its British and American opponents. Man for man, unit for unit, sometimes weapon for weapon, Germans emerged as archetypes of the modem fighting man, much as had the stormtroops of the Kaiser's army in an earlier war. In training and morale, in unit cohesion and fighting spirit, German soldiers were presented as head and shoulders above the men they fought, ultimately succumbing to firepower and airpower rather than fighting power.
That mind-set informed to a significant degree much of the journalistic coverage of D-Day's 50th anniversary. British and American reporters took delight in stressing just how near-run a thing the landings had been, how close the Allies came in so many places to disaster, and how readily the Germans might have defeated the whole enterprise. Indeed an entire book, Peter Tsouras's Disaster at D-Day, offers an alternate history of a landing that barely succeeds and quickly evolves into a catastrophe.
This phenomenon might be dismissed as a search for frissons or a desire to make a fair fight out of the events of June 6. Nor has it gone unchallenged. Stephen Ambrose in D-Day, and the contributions in the new edition of D-Day 1944, among others, defend energetically and convincingly the soldierly qualities of the fighting men who stormed Hitler's Europe. Yet for all the sound and fury generated by the subject, the Germans of D-Day still remain "objectified." The purpose of this presentation is to search the reverse slope, examining not only June 6 but the months and the years leading up to it, from the perspective of the men who made the decisions and manned the guns on the other side.
To reach this end it is necessary to begin with its ideological and political perspectives. For Adolf Hitler World War II was a war to the finish planned, initiated, and executed with the intention of obtaining European dominance and world hegemony. Any compromises would be no more than tactical concessions. The current fad among British historians for discussing peace possibilities and windows of opportunity for negotiation after September 1, 1939, represents a triumph of abstraction over reality. For Hitler there could be no peace in 1940 just as there would be no surrender in 1945.
For Hitler total war did not mean instant apocalypse. Both in his theoretical writings and from his first days in power, the Fuhrer proposed to start his conflicts at times and over incidents of his choice. Above all these wars would be fought in isolation: one at a time, against a selected enemy, with victory in one reinforcing triumph in the next. The technique was more successful diplomatically than militarily, Poland's destruction as France dithered was an isolated event. The invasion of Norway in 1940 brought an Anglo-French response that was more effective than is often recognized, particularly in reducing an already-weak German surface navy to the point of strategic impotence. The German attack in the west two months later faced a four-nation alliance whose creation had overcome years of prewar friction and suspicion. It was not Hitler's diplomatic virtuosity, but the Wehrmacht's tactical and operational skill, that forced the Netherlands government into exile and led those of Belgium and France to salvage whatever they might from a military debacle.
The limitations of Nazi Germany's military power became apparent almost as soon as the armistice of Compiegne was signed. Winston Churchill may have kept Britain in the war out of miscalculated expectations of American support and American intervention. There is, however, no convincing evidence that Lord Halifax or anyone else likely to assume the post of Prime Minister by then regarded any agreement with Hitler as anything but a breathing space between rounds. That left only force majeure. The Luftwaffe's inability to achieve the air supremacy necessary for an invasion rendered moot the question of whether Operation Sea Lion, with its dependence on river barges and four-footed horsepower, had any real chance of succeeding. There remained the U-Boats, as yet few in number and poorly organized, but with at least some potential to starve out Britain; and a Mediterranean option that might have eventually offered more promise than continentalists like Gerhard Schreiber and Andreas Hillgruber concede. Instead Hitler's own ideological and strategic predispositions led him to focus increasingly on Russia as the key to victory, both in its own context and as a means of forcing Britain out of the war more rapidly than a death of a thousand cuts inflicted in the Mediterranean basin.
As a result of this strategic shift, by 1941 Germany had adopted de facto and de jure a defensive position in the west. This change of emphasis produced more problems that it solved. Germany's planners were not influenced by the "Gallipoli syndrome" that shaped so much British and U.S. thinking on the subject of amphibious operations during the inter-war years. The German perspective, indeed, was just the opposite. From late 1939 to early 1942, every landing made under modem conditions had succeeded. The Wehrmacht's own experiences in Norway, Crete, and the Baltic Islands seemed validated by Japan's achievements in the Pacific. Not the strength of the land forces involved, but sea and air superiority, were the crucial factors. In their presence landing operations could prevail even if initial casualties were high. There was little doubt in the Wehrmacht's newly-created High Command West that any landing would be attempted to the context of such superiority. Nor was there much doubt that superiority could be achieved, as the Kriegsmarine continued to decline while the Eastern Front and the strategic bomber offensive absorbed an increasing amount of Germany's air resources.
It may be appropriate in this context to suggest that the Germans were guilty of what Napoleon called "making pictures" - conceiving the invasion of a continent in small-scale terms, no more than a few divisions in contrast to the sledgehammer of men and material that was the reality of June 6, 1944. Yet the first tangible Allied plans for the operation, prepared in the summer of 1943, projected no more than a three-division assault force with some airborne support. A more significant German miscalculation involved the exaggerated flexibility they believed feasible in amphibious landings. The original plans for Sea Lion had projected force scales and frontages logistically and operationally impossible for even the forces available to the Anglo-Americans in 1944. However the "blitzkrieg landings" of 1939-42 had depended more for success on feint and finesse than on mass. Given the risks and possibilities German planners opted for what was at the time a conservative solution: preparing for an attack that might come almost anywhere along the Atlantic Coast.
This operational decision generated a fresh set of geo-strategic problems. The projected invasion zones lay in occupied territory. Recent scholarship tends to emphasize the depth and intensity of the French resistance, perhaps in reaction to Maurice Ophuls's still-controversial The Sorrow and the Pity. Even these accounts agree that between 1940 and 1942, active resistance was at a low ebb. German demands remained supportable. German behavior was on the whole "correct" - not least because a large number of middle-level officers and officials harbored an admiration for things French, from art and literature to wine and women. French administrators for their part tended to deal with the occupiers as best they could to protect their own people, while avoiding or bureaucratizing whatever uncomfortable moral choices might arise.
At bottom, however, Nazi ideology and Nazi practice left too little on the table for its subjects to provide anything like a basis for cooperation. Hitler made no systematic efforts to transform Vichy into a client, much less an ally, despite widespread French opinion that the Third Reich held most of the high military and political cards for the predictable future. On more human levels, the Boche remained the Boche no matter how politely individuals might behave, no matter how deep their knowledge of French culture, no matter how accent-free their speech. Paralleling the U.S. experience in Vietnam is a red thread running through German reports, correspondence, and memoirs: a visceral inability to comprehend why they were so generally disliked. The result in planning terms was a growing consciousness that any defense against a cross-Channel invasion would be standing on shaky ground. Perhaps the French might not perform with either the ferocity or the effectiveness of Russia's partisans, The Germans nevertheless could count on neither local support nor local assistance, except in the aftermath of a decisive victory.
The launching of Operation Barbarossa added another dimension to High Command West's problems. As Hitler's initial vision of simply kicking in Russia's front door drowned in the blood of the Eastern Front, France increasingly became a rest-and-recuperation zone for burned-out front-line units. Particularly for the panzer and panzer grenadier divisions, a few weeks in France to absorb new equipment and fresh replacements, to forget the war as far as possible, was a dream that ran a close third to a long furlough or a million-mark wound. The effect on Western Europe's permanent garrisons was correspondingly marked. The divisions that held the coast were commonly regarded as little more than clerks in uniform by the real soldiers from the real war. This image acquired increasing credibility as the "hero-thieves" of the replacement service staged comb-out after comb-out. In the course of 1943 just about anyone who wanted to fight, who was able to fight, or who could conceivably be made to fight, was transferred eastward. Their replacements were the lame, the halt, and if not the blind, sometimes the one-eyed. Ostlegionen, battalions recruited from Russia's Asian communities or from prisoners of war, took their places in orders of battle that tested even the German army's powers of improvisation to the hilt.
Even more serious than the manpower problem was the question of perspective. Instead of perceiving themselves on the front line, as had been the arguable case in 1940, the Germans increasingly developed a bunker mentality. They saw themselves as garrison troops - and wished to stay garrison troops as long and as comfortably as possible. The senior NCOs who in Hitler's Wehrmacht seemed to have a charm for making riflemen from mud in this sector counted an increasing number of dugouts and burnouts. Some had seen enough combat to calculate quite reasonably their chances of survival if sent east once more. Others had principled objections to spilling blood - their own blood. As for the junior officers who elsewhere led companies and battalions with a tactical flair and a physical courage that still excites admiration, the ones facing the Atlantic Coast were disproportionately drawn from the overeager and the unenthusiastic, the inefficient and the unintelligent. They were not the men to inspire the increasingly-heterogeneous formations they led to perform deeds of heroism against long odds. Even their supreme commander as of March 1942, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, had received his appointment after being relieved from his army group in Russia.
In these discouraging contexts High Command West began making specific plans for the defense of Europe against invasion. Initial deployment patterns essentially involved stationing whatever divisions were available directly on the coast. Immediate defense of threatened points seemed the most promising response to the kinds of landings that earlier in the war had been made with limited resources. The Germans had had direct experience in Norway and Crete that not merely the first hours but the first minutes of an invasion could be crucial. Once on the ground, whether from sea or air, good troops had at least the opportunity to disrupt a defense long enough for initial success to be exploited. And whatever the quality of the Allied invaders, they were certain to be superior to anything the German army was likely to have on hand. As for reinforcements, a mobile defense was simply impossible for an army whose Schnelle Truppen were mostly mounted on bicycles.
The concept of point defense received practical validation on August 19, 1942, when a division scale assault with heavy air and naval support was decisively broken on the beaches of Dieppe. Current controversies over high-level planning, inter-service cooperation, and the training and command of the Canadians who made up the bulk of the Allied contingent have tended to obscure the fact that the Germans won their victory with military pocket change. Terrain certainly favored the defenders at crucial points. Fortune smiled as well that day on the men who fought under the swastika. Nevertheless when all was said and done, the success of essentially local defense forces left High Command West confronting a paradigm shift as it contemplated the burned-out Churchills. Maybe Fortress Europe could be defended without depending on a combination of miracles.
At the end of 1941, Adolf Hitler had ordered the construction of a line of fortifications along the Atlantic Coast. He intended it as the main line of defense securing the conquered continent and Germany's western provinces against any feasible threat. Initially no comprehensive plans for the system were developed. At best the pillboxes and bunkers improved the immediate morale and confidence of the men who would have to fight in them. In strategic terms, however, by 1942 it was clear to High Command West that the Allies would eventually strike Northwestern Europe in force. Postwar controversies among British and U.S. scholars over the respective merits of Mediterranean and cross-Channel approaches have obscured the Germans' clear perception that a straight line was the shortest distance between two points. From an alternate viewpoint, since the German army had never taken the Mediterranean seriously, the generals found it difficult to believe the British and Americans would think differently. North Africa, Sicily, even the landings in southern Italy were for the Germans merely dress rehearsals for the main event. The only question was when and where the ball would open.
Some historians of World War 11 have argued that 1943 represented a missed opportunity. While proposals for an invasion in 1942 may have been premature, the U.S.-initiated Bolero-Roundup projections for a landing in the spring of 1943 would have caught the Wehrmacht at its lowest ebb. German fixed defenses in the west were still embryonic. At sea the Allies were supreme. In the air they could count on a significant margin of superiority. The disaster at Stalingrad and the preparations for Kursk had reduced the German army to a shell primarily concerned with rebuilding shattered divisions, providing cadres for new ones, and conducting training courses at all levels. For a good part of 1943 High Command West had fewer combat-ready divisions than it possessed in 1942.
Did caution overcome boldness? Did Operation Torch and its successors drain resources from what might have been a war-winning operation? It is certain that the Germans viewed the increasingly-massive Allied buildup in the British Isles during 1943 with concern. Events in Russia, however, posed a far greater immediate threat. High Command West was also absorbed in implementing Hitler's September 1942 order to increase the coastal defenses by no fewer than 15,000 strong points. The archives include far more correspondence on details of the Fuhrer's blockhouse projects than on proposals for repelling a full-scale cross-Channel invasion.
The Allies' Mediterranean initiatives also helped focus High Command West's attention southward. In the immediate aftermath of Torch, concern developed over the possibility of an Allied movement into Spain. The invasions of Sicily and Italy made new sets of demands on High Command West's field forces. The occupation of Vichy France stretched garrison troops thinner than ever, while the accompanying growth of demands for forced labor in the Reich increasingly converted compliance to sullenness and hostility to resistance. During 1943, in short, the Germans had so many immediate priorities that concern for a D-Day-type operation moved towards the bottom of the list by default.
On the surface opportunities seem plain. To a significant degree, however, the argument for a 1943 invasion of northeastern Europe is self-referencing. It appears plausible because of distractions themselves largely the product of Anglo-American initiatives in the Mediterranean. Absent Operation Torch and its consequences, High Command West would have been correspondingly free to concentrate on preparing for a major landing mounted from Britain. And in that context it is necessary to move briefly from the realm of strategy to the field of psychology. D-Day was an operation that could only be mounted once. Britain's moral and material capital was nearly exhausted. Even failure, to say nothing of disaster, would have had incalculably negative consequences for the war effort of the island kingdom.
As for the U.S. the more men and equipment that reached the British Isles as the first step to northwest Europe, the more serious became the implications of the operation. Sledgehammer, Bolero, Roundup, all have in retrospect the flavor of a war game: theoretical exercises even for the generals committed to their planning and execution. "Overlord" was real - very real. America was powerful enough to bear and recover from the physical consequences of defeat on Europe's beaches. The psychic impact was a different story entirely. June 1944 in England invites comparison in U.S. military history with July 1863 in Pennsylvania. On both occasions those involved had a common sense of participation in a process not merely great but unique: something Hegel might have called a world-historical event. Seen in this light the cross-Channel invasion was more than a military operation - too much more to risk its launching in anything but the most favorable circumstances possible to obtain.
As High Command West coped with the challenges generated by the Russian and Mediterranean theaters, the Atlantic Wall began taking on a life of its own. Hitler's continued interest in the project combined with a growing sense that what passed for front-line troops in western Europe would need all the help they could get. By mid-1943, particularly around the major ports, the Atlantic Wall looked authentic, with trenches, ditches, and minefields, machine-gun nests, concrete strong points, and heavy guns emplaced in what even to men who knew better seemed impregnable bunkers. Statistics told the story. By June 1943, over 8,000 permanent installations were operable. By November, over 2,300 anti-tank guns and 2,700 guns larger than 75 millimeters were in place.
The building program trailed off in the final months of the year. Allied air raids, notably the bombing of the Ruhr dams, drew away skilled workers. German firms that had obtained sweetheart contracts or low-balled their bids produced unsatisfactory work, or simply failed to meet the terms of agreements. Nor were the commanders on the spot exactly sure what to do with the system in place. Imperial Germany had possessed significant coastal fortifications. During World War I, occupied Flanders received an increasingly-formidable system of guns and bunkers. None of these defenses, however, had ever been seriously tested. The Wehrmacht had a corresponding limited body of experience on which to draw in the face of the coming invasion.
The defense of western Europe, originally regarded as a joint-service undertaking, had by late 1943 become an army responsibility. The Kriegsmarine, defeated in the U-boat campaign, its remaining surface vessels penned in harbor, could expect to do little more than conduct coast-defense operations with a mixed bag of small craft. The Luftwaffe's attention had shifted to the Eastern Front and, increasingly, to the Reich itself. Staff and operational assignments to Air Fleet 3, responsible for Western Europe, were viewed as either dead ends or rest cures. On October 25, 1943, Rundstedt submitted a comprehensive memorandum describing the challenges and requirements of a sector that in the next year could expect not only to lose its backwater status but to become a major theater of operations.
Rundstedt informed Wehrmacht chief Wilhelm Keitel that he would be very glad if Hitler read this report despite his busy schedule. Otherwise the Fuhrer might accuse his generals of failing to keep him informed should things go wrong, as he had done in December 1941. And there was a great deal to go wrong in the sectors allotted to High Command West. The Field Marshal's report pulled no punches. Rundstedt expected an invasion no earlier than the spring of 1944, but probably not much later. He believed the Allies would land first in the Pas de Calais, then in Normandy and Brittany. Admittedly this would put them against the best-defended sector of the Atlantic Coast. On the other hand these invasion sites offered the easiest passages, the shortest supply lines, and the closest distances to Germany's frontiers. The Allies already had as many divisions available for such an operation as Rundstedt could muster in his entire expanded theater. Most of them were first-class assault troops: young, sound of wind and limb, and equipped with the best American and British industry could provide. Anglo-American air and naval supremacy meant that they could also count on the advantage of tactical surprise by stifling German reconnaissance.
Rundstedt was, to use the German term, "too old a rabbit" to deceive himself. He argued that the Atlantic Wall ordered by Hitler as the main battle line bore no comparison to the fixed defenses of the First World War with which the Fuhrer and the Field Marshal were alike familiar. As early as 1916 the Imperial Army's High Command had recognized the importance of flexibility. Front line trenches, pillboxes, and strong points were only half of a successful defense system. Depth was also necessary: fortifications in the rear areas, mobile artillery, and enough troops for counterattacks to seal off the inevitable breakthroughs.
High Command West not only lacked anything resembling an effective mobile reserve. It lacked even enough static troops to do more than observe and patrol much of the endangered area. Yet these weaknesses paradoxically made the Atlantic Wall more important than ever. Abandoning the coast without a fight would sacrifice the basic advantage of the Channel as a moat. It would mean the loss of a heavy military investment in fortifications and their armament. Above all it would require the conduct of a mobile battle in northeastern France against an enemy whose mobile capacity was his strong point. Therefore, Rundstedt argued, the coast and its defenses must be defended to the last. Experience in both world wars showed that landings in force would nevertheless succeed. But a combination of local counterattacks to disrupt initial successes, supplemented once the Allied Schwerpunkte became apparent by the concentrated blows of a massed reserve, provided the window of an opportunity for defeating the invasion, or so bloodying Anglo-American noses that they might reconsider their military and political options.
At the time of its presentation Rundstedt's strategic concept was almost purely theoretical. It depended on the presence of full-strength, combat ready panzer and panzer-grenadier divisions whose training and tactics were oriented to the requirements of repelling an amphibious invasion, as opposed to returning to the Eastern Front. In October, 1943, the western theater had only 256 tanks no more than a token against the thousands available to the Allies. Its half-dozen mobile divisions were skeletons or embryos.
Hitler read Rundstedt's complex document with a level of attention by this time unusual. Instead of responding by insisting on the importance of will power, a Fuhrer Directive of November 3, 1943, accepted most of Rundstedt's basic propositions. For two and a half years the Reich's energies had been directed against Asiatic Bolshevism. Now an even greater danger had emerged: the Anglo-Saxon landing. In the east space could be traded for time. Not so in the west. An Allied breakthrough on a broad front would have prompt and incalculable consequences. No longer could the west be stripped for the sake of other theaters. Instead its defenses must be strengthened by every means possible. The General Staff and the Inspector-General of Panzer Troops were instructed to provide sufficient mobility for the formations responsible for defending northeast Europe. Divisions must be created or re-equipped. Mark IV tanks and assault guns would replace older models. The supply of antitank, infantry, and artillery weapons must be increased. Similar directives went to the navy, the army, and the Waffen SS. At the same time High Command West was ordered to reduce the garrisons of less-threatened areas and improve the counterattack capacity of even static formations by improvising their mobility through internal resources.
Hitler believed more than Rundstedt that the Allies were likely to understate a spectrum of feints and holding operations. These must be contained, but victory in the west ultimately would depend on a full-strength counterattack against any major landing. The enemy must be thrown into the sea at all costs. Was Rundstedt, a man of advanced years and fixed opinions, the general to perform that mission? Later in the month the Fuhrer played a trump card by sending Field Marshal Erwin Rommel to inspect the western theater's defenses. Nor did he content himself with a personal delegate. The entire staff of Rommel's Army Group B, over 200 officers and men, accompanied their chief. Under Hitler's personal command, Rommel and his men were to prepare plans and suggestions for the best ways of meeting an Allied invasion.
This decision arguably reflected less any specific lack of confidence in Rundstedt than Hitler's long standing practice of establishing parallel systems for solving difficult problems. Rundstedt, not one of Rommel's chief admirers, was nevertheless familiar enough with the process, and pleased enough with the Fuhrer's new-found interest in the west, that he offered the newcomer full cooperation. Rommel for his part recognized the awkwardness of his position and took pains to avoid stepping on his senior's toes. But these men, the army's senior and junior field marshals, were like oil and water. Rundstedt had been to the circus and seen the clowns. He tended to let situations develop before he acted, all the while commenting on those developments with an irony that could alternately inspire admiration or fury in his associates. Rommel was a driver, accustomed to seeing every situation as an emergency, making snap decisions, and making those decisions work.
The problem was exacerbated because both men were respected and admired by their subordinates. Both possessed charisma: Rundstedt, the "last Prussian," patrician, dignified; Rommel the frontline commander who could still talk like a first sergeant and paid little attention to formalities. The old pro and the new broom - small wonder that within weeks even senior officers were uncertain who was in command. It was Rundstedt who broke the ice. On December 30 he made a formal proposal to place Army Group B under High Command West, with direct responsibility for the region most exposed to invasion. On January 15 Rommel was assigned command of the garrison of the Netherlands and of the 15th and 7th Army in, respectively, the Pas de Calais and Normandy.
The solution, while not optimal, was by no means an obvious recipe for disaster. Rundstedt's command style, like that of most of his old-army contemporaries, was based on the delegation of authority. His responsibilities as theater commander had been so extended by recent Allied initiatives that he could not hope to supervise directly every area under threat. And if, as was frequently murmured behind closed doors, Rommel was no more than a good corps commander, his tactical record was nevertheless sufficiently distinguished to make him a solid, arguably indeed an obvious, choice to command western Europe's most likely hot spot.
Against such opponents, wisdom to Geyr involved maximizing the striking power of High Command West's mobile forces, keeping them in hand for a decisive blow in the style of 1940 or 1941.
Rundstedt had not commanded troops in the field since his relief in Hitler's December, 1941, purge of the Eastern Front's high command. He regarded Geyr's postulates as the simplest form of military common sense - a position facilitated by the Field Marshal's tendency to regard air power as a peripheral factor in planning his defensive strategy. If Geyr said mechanized formations could move by night like jungle tigers, that was good enough for Rundstedt. Had he lacked confidence in Geyr's judgment, the latter would have been relieved.
Erwin Rommel approached the panzer problem from a fundamentally different perspective. He had spent a fair amount of his time in North Africa personally dodging Allied aircraft, and began from the premise that the coming invasion would have higher levels of air support than anything previously seen in history. The terrain, moreover, was ideally suited for tactical air power. In contrast to the wide open desert, northern France was so heavily built-up that only a relatively few roads could be used for major troop movements. These led across rivers and through cities. Bridges and buildings alike offered inviting targets for Allied medium and heavy bombers. Rommel did not expect any feelings for the French people to restrict such uses of air power. To the idea that darkness would provide a cloak for the panzers, Rommel offered the expectation that flares and similar illumination techniques would be used over France in much the same way they were being employed over the Reich itself. The French resistance was also likely to be a factor, both directly in partisan operations and by providing up-to-date intelligence to the Allied airmen.
Air superiority did not make movement impossible. It simply imposed delays. Not for ten days to two weeks, Rommel argued, was it reasonable to expect divisions positioned along Geyr's proposed lines to reach the battle zone, reorganize, and refit. That was all the time and more the invaders would need to break coast defenses that in their present state offered no more than the illusion of security and establish a bridgehead impregnable to anything High Command West was likely to bring against it.
Nor was Rommel indifferent to wider issues of strategy and politics. Never a blind admirer of Hitler, his direct contact with the Fuhrer was more recent and more extensive than anyone else in High Command West. His faith in "final victory" had been correspondingly weakened. In that at least Rommel had much in common with Rundstedt, Geyr, and almost every other senior officer west of the Rhine River. But while his counterparts were content to play the cards in their hands with a cynical shrug, Rommel thought in wider terms. Hitler's promised wonder weapons were unlikely to work any grand-strategic miracles. The V-1 attacks that were scheduled to begin against southern England in the near future might, however, disrupt both the invasion's staging areas and Britain's morale. Even without the rockets, repulsing the landings at the shoreline would buy military time that might be exploited politically.
The key to Rommel's thinking on the subject was his continued, albeit by now attenuated, belief that Hitler could ultimately be brought to reason. A decisive victory presented on a platter by his favorite marshal might well prove an entering wedge for a negotiated peace. If not - there was always the Resistance, whose plans and hopes for direct action against "history's greatest warlord" were increasingly-open secrets among those in the know at High Command West. Best evidence indicates Rommel was not directly involved in any conspiracies. He was, however, tactician enough to profit from any opportunities.
The basic postulate of Rommel's defense plan was to keep the Allies from coming ashore at all. The most difficult phase of a landing was its beginning: the movement from ship to shore. The Germans should take every possible advantage of this fact. Passive defenses, mines and offshore obstacles, must complement the fire of artillery, antitank guns, and automatic weapons covering the landing sites. Infantry should be deployed as close to the beaches as possible. But the heart of Rommel's tactics was his proposal to deploy the panzer formations so close to the coast that their artillery could supplement the forward defenses, while combined-arms battle groups prepared to engage the enemy in the invasion's first three hours.
Without the immediate help of mechanized reserves, the Field Marshal insisted, the divisions holding the coastline could not expect to maintain their positions. The physical and moral consequences of a sea and air bombardment would resemble that of the March 1918 offensive by allowing no time for adjustment. Apart from that the Allies were certain to get ashore somewhere. If left undisturbed, particularly if supported by amphibious tanks, they would flank the defenders out of their fixed positions and roll up the Atlantic Wall like a rug.
Rommel's approach offered the advantage of employing the panzer divisions in ways grown familiar to their officers: Counter-punching a vulnerable enemy, with dash and tactical skill compensating for numbers. It offered as well a closer link between the two tiers of the defense, the semi-mobile infantry divisions and the mechanized formations. Rommel's plan made it less likely that the former would regard themselves as pawns for sacrifice and correspondingly less likely that they would break or capitulate. One of the reasons for the German infantry's Homeric combat record on the Eastern Front was the widespread knowledge that surrendering to Ivan involved high levels of immediate risk and complete certainty of subsequent discomfort. By contrast conditions of British or American captivity were so favorably mythologized that not a few prisoners taken during the D-Day campaign seemed surprised when their first meal did not include steak.
To Rommel's critics, if Geyr's evaluation of the survivability of panzer battle groups against the western allies proved even remotely correct, High Command West's limited mobile reserves would be destroyed piecemeal. Any divisions prudence might salvage from this unfortunate plan would, moreover, have to pick up the catastrophe's pieces. That meant moving by day under constant air attack and presumably naval bombardment as well - a direct contradiction of Geyr's original ideas for bringing his reserves into place. Rommel's plan, moreover, depended heavily if not entirely on calculating the exact areas where the invasion would take place. Successful Allied deceptions on either operational or tactical levels could leave the Germans coming to the wrong party.
Perhaps as important as the debates over deployment and force structures was the growing conflict in High Command West between mind sets. Rommel did not embody a specific National Socialist way of war so much as reflect the actual military situation facing Germany in 1944. Willpower, striking power, and tactical virtuosity were keeping the Reich alive. They were not, however, bringing victory - only prolonging an end game. To Geyr's supporters, that general's approach offered a last chance to wage a mobile campaign the way one ought to be waged, against an enemy that from Africa to Anzio had shown significant vulnerability to German operational skills. And if it failed, the Panzerwaffe would at least expire in a final blaze of glory rather than being destroyed a tank at a time.
The decision was Rundstedt's, and the Field Marshal remained torn between his two-year commitment to destroying the invasion on the coast and the new opportunity to attempt something more decisive. Once again a parallel might be drawn with Gettysburg, this time from the German perspective. Western Europe was no longer a secondary theater. Rommel, Geyr, Rundstedt, all by now agreed that events on the French coast would determine the fate of the German people. Rommel sought Hitler's intervention. The Fuhrer was reluctant to decide, particularly since a decision in Rommel's favor meant the corresponding necessity of relieving Rundstedt. Geyr did not have Rommel's access to the supreme commander but his patron, Heinz Guderian, was still in good odor at the Fuhrerhauptquartier. As the jockeying intensified, Rundstedt found himself in the position of a poker player who antes in every hand but fails to bet any: his stack of military/political chips was steadily diminishing.
The initial result was something the German army had rejected in principle since the days of Frederick the Great, but regularly employed in practice: a compromise. In February Rommel's Army Group B had been given the right to command any formations of Panzer Group West in its operational area as part of its preparation for the invasion. Rommel also received the right to recommend sector assignments and command appointments for the mobile formations directly to Rundstedt. This structure was flexible, and arguably as sensible a solution as was, possible given the limited strength of the panzer reserves. To work, however, it required levels of harmony significantly absent at the upper levels of High Command West.
The continued and growing differences of opinion among the senior officers on the spot led Hitler to clarify the command structure. He began in April by stating his decision to determine the precise time when all or part of the mobile formations should be assigned to Army Group B. Until that point High Command West retained full control of those divisions. A month later the Fuhrer became even more specific. He created a new Army Group headquarters under Rundstedt to control southern France, and assigned it three panzer divisions: 9th, 11th, and 2nd SS. Rommel's Army Group B also received three panzer divisions: the 2nd, 21st, and 116th. The mobile units were the cream of the crop: 1st and 12th SS Panzer, 17th SS Panzer Grenadier, and the army's Panzer Lehr. They remained under control of Panzer Group West - but not exactly under Rundstedt's command. Instead the group was designated part of the Wehrmacht High Command reserve, which in practice placed it under Hitler's direct control.
This reorganization invites dismissal as no more than another example of Hitler's high-test meddling in matters outside his competence. The new command structure, however, also closely reflected Rundstedt's long-held conception of a two-tiered mobile reserve, one to be employed tactically and the other operationally. The Field Marshal's well known sarcastic comment that Hitler's decision left him only the authority to move the sentries in his headquarters is also at best a half-truth. Rundstedt had forgotten a fundamental military axiom: the first duty of a commander was to command. War abhors vacuums, and Adolf Hitler filled that created by Gerd von Rundstedt.
Hitler's concept was in good part vitiated by the limited forces available to implement it. Assigning three mechanized divisions to what could only be the secondary theater of southern France left seven available for the decisive sector. As a central reserve or posted on the beaches they represented a force strong enough to shape, if not decide, the coming battle - not a queen, but perhaps a pair of knights. Hitler's distribution, resembling an arithmetic lesson rather than a strategic calculation, not only created the obvious possibility of being too weak everywhere, but it generated also a subtler risk of making everyone just strong enough to generate a false sense of security. It also encouraged continued focussing on acquiring control of one or two divisions more instead or working and maximizing resources in hand.
Initially and inadvertently, Rundstedt's refusal to decide what to do with his tanks had had just the latter result. Rommel did not spend all of his time playing headquarters politics. Instead he applied the energy that had made him famous into strengthening and vitalizing the Atlantic Wall. He estimated that no fewer than fifty million mines would be needed to establish a viable belt around the coast! Such an astronomical number was of course unattainable. Nevertheless between October 1943 and May 1944 the number of antitank and antipersonnel mines had risen from two million to six and a half million. These included shells converted to mines and similar improvisations: the total was no less impressive. Rommel also oversaw the introduction of underwater obstacles off the most likely landing sites. These ranged from angled wooden stakes to steel Belgian antitank barriers transplanted from their original sites on the German border. By mid-May over 500,000 of these passive defenses had been laid, many of them with mines attached. Behind the coast the Field Marshal planted "Rommel asparagus," pointed stakes driven into the ground on terrain deemed suitable for paratroops or glider landings.
Rommel also brought new vigor to the construction and renovation of manned defenses. He was shocked to find that many of the gun positions and machine-gun emplacements were open, offering no significant protection from air strikes or naval gunfire. Engineers and workers from the Organization Todt began the laborious task of bringing as many heavy weapons as possible under bomb-proof protection. Camouflage and camouflage discipline improved sharply. Local commanders assisted by assigning their troops to the construction efforts which included establishing dummy positions in hopes of deceiving the by-now ubiquitous Allied reconnaissance aircraft.
On paper and in reality the results were impressive. In 1944 the Germans laid over 4 million land mines - well over double the number that had been put in place since 1940. Between January and May, 1944, over 5,000 new permanent fortifications were erected - no small number even though the figures included the Mediterranean coast as well. In the Pas de Calais sector, 93 of 132 heavy guns had been put under concrete, as were 27 of the 47 heavy guns in Normandy.
That last figure suggested Rommel's ultimate quandary. Fixed defenses depended for their effectiveness on an enemy obliging enough to attack them. German focus on Normandy, Brittany, and the Pas de Calais hardly required General Staff training. A schoolboy with a Mercator map and a compass could expect to reach a similar conclusion. Until 1944, however, the exact invasion sites mattered relatively less. Both static and mobile defenses were so thin everywhere that believing in victory was like a second marriage: the triumph of hope over common sense. Now deciding where to pour the concrete, lay the mines, and emplace the guns was perceived as being of decisive importance no matter where one stood on the question of deploying the panzers. The respective programs were by now not competitive. The material required for static defenses was of no use in mobile operations. Rommel had been unable to squeeze enough trucks and bicycles from the army's drained supply system to give most of the coastal formations anything but token mobile capacities. The training time sacrificed by field troops to working on the defenses seemed a correspondingly reasonable exchange. Rundstedt, Geyr, Rommel and their staffs, moreover, were in agreement that the more damage that could be done to the Allied landing in its initial stages, the better would be the subsequent prospects of High Command West.
But where would the invasion take place? Here the Germans were tapping in darkness. Since 1940 the entire network of German spies in the United Kingdom had been operating under British control. The Double Cross system involved providing accurate information to the German Abwehr - but information of no importance or just out of date. Systematic counterintelligence efforts might have revealed the true state of affairs. The Abwehr, however, was increasingly involved in the anti-Hitler resistance - involved, perhaps, to a point where its senior officers may have chosen not to ask awkward questions about the nature of the material they received from the British Isles.
To the Double Cross system was added in late 1943 an even more elaborate deception plan. Operation Fortitude created entire armies out of whole cloth and radio call signs. It suggested possible invasion sites from Norway to Marseilles, and was spectacularly successful in encouraging Hitler to retain no fewer than thirteen divisions in Norway to secure the bases of a U-boat arm that had been ineffective for almost a year. The heart of Fortitude, however, was it effort to convince the Germans that the major invasion would take place in the Pas de Calais. A non-existent First U.S. Army Group (FUSAG) was placed under the command of the very real George S. Patton - a man the Germans regarded as the Allies' best and most daring commander. With a mixture of real and imaginary divisions under its command, FUSAG seemed not a pistol, but a cannon aimed at the area which years before Rundstedt had described as posing the greatest long-term risk to Germany's security.
By the end of May, Fortitude convinced High Command; West's intelligence that the Allies had no fewer than eighty-nine divisions, with enough landing craft to bring twenty of them ashore in the first wave. The actual figures were forty-seven and six, respectively. The course of the operation is a classic illustration of the risks of becoming over-involved in intelligence operations. Had part of the energy devoted to monitoring and analyzing Fortitude's communications been directed instead to common-sense evaluation of possibilities, it seems likely that some bright colonel or major might have questioned whether an exhausted Britain and a U.S. fighting a two-ocean war could in fact provide such huge forces even for a decisive operation. German intelligence, however, like the Wehrmacht of which it was a part, tended to focus on tactical and operational problems rather than production statistics and manpower pools. Fortitude was a German failure as well as an Allied success.
The effect of Operation Fortitude on German planning must not be exaggerated. Rommel might have been an unconventional soldier, but he unconditionally accepted the traditional maxim that to be strong everywhere meant being strong nowhere. The Pas de Calais was the most likely invasion sector, and the most threatening. It was, moreover, small enough that its fixed defenses could be concentrated to a degree that would pose a genuine threat to a landing force. Normandy-Brittany, in contrast, offered such a broad front that it absorbed concrete as a sponge absorbs water. It was not gambler's intuition but common strategic sense that led Rommel, as the spring of 1944 waned, to concentrate his available resources around the port city of Calais and its environs - even in the face of Hitler's intuitive belief the landings just might come farther west, in Brittany and the Cotentin Peninsula.
Statistics help tell the final story. The 15th Army in the Pas De Calais sector eventually grew to a strength of eighteen infantry and two panzer divisions, responsible for about 550 kilometers of coastline. Its supporting arms, artillery and antitank guns, were in proportion. The 7th Army, responsible for Normandy and Brittany, had fourteen infantry divisions and a single panzer division. It was responsible for 1,600 kilometers of coast. One of its divisions had a defensive sector of 100 kilometers; another was expected to secure no fewer than 270 kilometers.
The figures, of course, must not be taken literally. Large sections of the 7th Army's zone of operations were completely unsuitable for major landing operations. In crucial areas, including the actual D-Day beaches, German force-to-space ratios were a good deal more favorable. Nevertheless by June 6 the discrepancy was clear. The Pas de Calais was something approximating a true fortified zone, along lines High Command West had hoped to achieve since 1942. Its combination of mutually-supporting fixed defenses, relatively large infantry forces, and two mobile divisions in sector reserve represented the best the Germans were likely to achieve in the foreseeable future. Normandy in contrast was still a network of isolated, thinly garrisoned, strong points. Its principal mobile reserve, the 21st Panzer Division, was still partly equipped with French tanks captured in 1940.
Even in such contexts the D-Day lodgements were by no means a walkover. Omaha Beach teetered for hours on the brink of becoming America's greatest disaster since Pearl Harbor. On Sword
the British 3rd Division got ashore and went to ground instead of pushing inland. Utah, Gold, and Juno had their lesser fiascos, proving that war remained the province of friction. The rest of the story is familiar: desperate German counterattacks, falling short of their objectives; Hitler's refusal to release Panzer Group West; an Allied foothold that became a buildup; the British/Canadian grapple for Caen, finally Operation Cobra, the Falaise Gap, and pursuit to the Seine. The Battle of Normandy has gone into history's ledger as exactly the decisive encounter Rundstedt, Rommel, and Hitler expected.
In war excuses are like feet. Everyone has at least two, and they usually smell. Within days after the initial landing Hitler was demanding explanations. The process has continued ever since. Rommel emphasized Allied success in achieving tactical surprise at the water's edge. His subordinates from division commanders to rear-rank Landser stressed Allied material superiority. Not only were their fighter-bombers everywhere; it sometimes seemed that every infantryman had his own radio to call for air support. And if British and American tanks were individually inferior to the Mark IVs, Tigers, and Panthers, there nevertheless seemed to be an endless supply of them.
At higher levels Hitler's control of operational details remains a target of criticism. One author indeed describes the Fuhrer's alleged late sleep on the morning of June 6 as among the war's turning points. In fact Hitler was awake early in the day. What was important was his uncertainty as to whether the Normandy landings were only a diversion - an uncertainty shared at all levels in High Command West, however much it was denied later. Committing the armored reserves, local or theater, meant the die was indisputably cast and for all their alleged battlefield virtuosity most of the generals were just a bit reluctant to throw that final switch.
This brings us to the most familiar debate on the German side of the D-Day battle line. Who was right about the panzers, Rommel or Geyr? Most English-language accounts take Rommel's side, not least because he is a familiar and sympathetic figure. Friedrich Ruge, Rommel's naval adviser; Max Hastings, author of the best popular history of Overlord; Carlo d'Este, David Fraser, whose Knight's Cross should remain Rommel's standard biography - all agree that the defenders' best chance involved deploying their armored formations near the beaches. Tsouras's alternative history of an Allied defeat begins when Hitler authorizes Rommel to move a second panzer division to Normandy. Stephen Ambrose stands almost alone among contemporary writers in arguing that such a move would have led to the immediate neutralization of the mobile units not only by air strikes, but by the often-overlooked effects of naval gunfire. Ambrose goes further, postulating that the material and labor expended on the Atlantic Coast would have been put to better effect establishing defensive systems further inland, reinforcing the natural obstacles that in the event proved so formidable and providing as well an anvil for the hammer of the panzer reserves. Keith Simpson begs the question, arguing in "A Close-Run Thing?" that nothing the Germans did was likely to make much difference even in the short run.
The argument is likely to continue into the next century as part of the theme of exactly how narrow was the Allied margin of victory on June 6, 1944. As this presentation has shown, however, German preparations for D-Day did not begin with Rommel's arrival in Normandy. Nor did they occur in a vacuum. They reflected four years of war experience. They reflected the internal dynamics of the German army and the National Socialist system. And they reflected a series of individual decisions dating back to 1940. Hitler himself, Rommel, Rundstedt, Geyr von Schweppenberg, the officers and men under their commands, approached the Longest Day with the intention of being victors at its end. That instead they tasted defeat to the dregs was in part a consideration of German failures and shortcomings. But it was ultimately the result of men, British and Americans, Canadians, Poles, Czechs, and Free French, who put their lives on the line to storm the Atlantic Wall, to fight their way through the hedgerows to the green fields beyond, and to final victory in the Liberation Campaign.
Ambrose, Stephen E. D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II.. New York: Simon &
Chandler, David L. and James L. Collins, Jr., eds. The D-Day Encyclopedia. New York: Simon & Schuster,
Cochran, Alexander F. "ULTRA, FORTITUDE", and D-Day Planning: The Missing Dimension," in D-Day
1944, ed. T.S. Wilson. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1944, pp. 63-79.
D'Este, Carlo. Decision in Normandy. London: Collins, 1983.
Fraser, David. Knight's Cross. A Life of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. New York: Harper Collins, 1993.
Kershaw, Robert J. D-Day. Piercing the Atlantic Wall. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1994.
Luck, Hans von. Panzer Commander. New York: Praeger, 1989.
Messenger, Charles. The Last Prussian. London: Brassey's 1991.
Ose, Dieter. Entscheidung im Westen. Der Oberbejehlshaber West und der Abwehr der allierten Invasion.
Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlag, 1981.
Ruge, Friedrich. Rommel in Normandy. Novato, Cal.: Presidio, 1979.
Simpson, Keith. "A Close Run Thing? D-Day, 6 June 1944: The German Perspective," The RUSI Journal,
139 (June, 1994), 60-71.
Wegmuller, Hans. Die Abwehr der Invasion. Die Konzeption des Oberbefehlshabers West 19401944, 2nd
ed. Freiburg: Rombach, 1986.
Wilt, Alan F. The Atlantic Wall. Hitler's Defenses in the West, 1941-1944. Ames: Iowa State University
By Catherine Merridale
Joseph Stalin. Credit: Library of Congress.
Order no. 227 was issued on 28 July. At Stalin’s insistence, it was never printed for general distribution. Instead, its contents were conveyed by word of mouth to every man and woman in the army. “Your reports must be pithy, brief, clear, and concrete,” the politruks were told. “There must not be a single person in the armed forces who is not familiar with Comrade Stalin’s order.” In ragged lines, huddled against the sun and wind, the soldiers listened to a roll call of disgrace. “The enemy,” they heard, “has already taken Voroshilovgrad, Starobel’sk, Rossosh’, Kupyansk, Valuiki, Novocherkassk, Rostov-on Don, and half of Voronezh. A section of the troops on the southern front, giving into panic, abandoned Rostov and Novocherkassk without offering any serious defense and without waiting for Moscow’s orders. They covered their colors in shame.” The leader then spelled out what every soldier knew, which was that the civilian population, their own people, had lost almost all faith in them. The time had come to stand their ground whatever the cost. As Stalin’s order put it, “Every officer, every soldier and political worker must understand that our resources are not limitless. The territory of the Soviet state is not just desert, it is people—workers, peasants, intellectuals, our fathers, mothers, wives, brothers, and children.” Even Stalin conceded that at least seventy million of these were now behind the German lines.
Stalin’s remedy was embodied in a new slogan. “Not a step back!” was to become the army’s watchword. Every man was told to fight until his final drop of blood. “Are there any extenuating causes for withdrawing from a firing position?” soldiers would ask their politruks. In future, the reply that handbooks prescribed would be “The only extenuating cause is death.” “Panicmongers and cowards,” Stalin decreed, “must be destroyed on the spot.” An officer who permitted his men to retreat without explicit orders was now to be arrested on a capital charge. And all personnel were confronted with a new sanction. The guardhouse was too comfortable to be used for criminals; in future, laggards, cowards, defeatists, and other miscreants would be consigned to penal battalions.
There, they would have an opportunity “to atone for their crimes against the motherland with their own blood.” In other words, they would be assigned the most hazardous tasks, including suicidal assaults and missions deep behind the German lines. For this last chance, they were supposed to feel gratitude. Only through death (or certain specified kinds of life threatening injury) could outcasts redeem their names, saving their families and restoring their honor before the Soviet people. Meanwhile, to help the others concentrate, the new rules called for units of regular troops to be stationed behind the front line. These “blocking units” were to supplement existing zagradotryady, the NKVD troops whose task had always been to guard the rear. Their orders were to kill anyone who lagged behind or attempted to run away.
Order no. 227 was not made public until 1988, when it was printed as part of the policy of glasnost, or openness. More than forty years after the end of the war, the measure sounded cruel to people reared on the romantic epic of Soviet victory. A generation that had grown up in decades of peace balked at the old state’s lack of pity. But in 1942 most soldiers would have recognized the decree as a restatement of current rules. Deserters and cowards had always been in line for a bullet, with or without benefit of tribunal. Since 1941, their families, too, had suffered their disgrace. Like a slap in the face, the new order was intended to remind the men, to call them to account. And their response was frequently relief. “It was a necessary and important step,” Lev Lvovich told me. “We all knew where we stood after we had heard it. And we all—it’s true—felt better. Yes, we felt better.” “We have read Stalin’s order no. 227,” Moskvin wrote in his diary on 22 August. “He openly recognizes the catastrophic situation in the south. My head is full of one idea: who is guilty over this? Yesterday they told us about the fall of Maikop, today Krasnodar. The political information boys keep asking if there isn’t some treachery at work in all this. I think so, too. But at least Stalin is on our side! . . . So, not a step back! It’s timely and it’s just.”
To the south, where the retreat Moskvin abhorred was taking place, news of the order chilled the blood of depressed, tired men. “As the divisional commander read it,” a military correspondent wrote, “the people stood rigid. It made our skin crawl.” It was one thing to insist on sacrifice but quite another to be making it. But even then, all that the men were hearing was a repetition of familiar rules. Few soldiers, by this stage in the war, would not have heard about or seen at least one summary execution, the laggard or deserter drawn aside and shot without reflection or remorse. The numbers are hard to establish, since tribunals were seldom involved. It is estimated that about 158,000 men were formally sentenced to be executed during the war. But the figure does not include the thousands whose lives ended in roadside dust, the stressed and shattered conscripts shot as “betrayers of the motherland”; nor does it include the thousands more shot for retreating—or even for seeming to retreat—as battle loomed. At Stalingrad, as many as 13,500 men are thought to have been shot in the space of a few weeks.
“We shot the men who tried to mutilate themselves,” a military lawyer said. “They weren’t worth anything, and if we sent them to prison we were only giving them what they wanted.” It was helpful to have a better use for able-bodied men—that much was a real outcome of Stalin’s order. Copied from German units that the Soviets observed in 1941, the first penal battalions were ready well in time for Stalingrad. Though most assignments in this war were dangerous, those in the shtraf units were wretched, one step removed from the dog’s death that awaited deserters and common crooks. “We thought it would be better than a prison camp,” Ivan Gorin, who survived a penal battalion, explained. “We didn’t realize at the time that it was just a death sentence.” Penal battalions, in which at least 422,700 men eventually served, were forlorn, deadly, soul destroying. But there could not have been a soldier anywhere who doubted that in this army, in any role, his life was cheap.
Though Stalin’s order formalized existing regulations, the process of its implementation exposed a fundamental problem of mentalities. Indeed, its reception in many quarters was symptomatic of the very weakness that it was supposed to remedy. People brought up in a culture of denunciations and show trials were used to blaming others when disaster struck. It was natural for Soviet troops to hear Stalin’s words as yet another move against identifiable—and other—anti-Soviet or unmanly minorities. The new slogan was treated, initially at least, like any other sinister attack on enemies within. Political officers read the order to their men but acted, as some inspectors observed, as if it “related solely to soldiers at the front. . . . Carelessness and complacency are the rule . . . and officers and political workers . . . take a liberal attitude to breaches of discipline such as drunkenness, desertion, and self-mutilation.” The warm summer nights seemed to encourage laxity. In August, the month after Stalin’s order, the number of breaches of discipline continued to increase.
Obligatory repetition turned the leader’s words to cliché. The new instructions, once ignored, could sound as stale, if not as benign, as orders to eat more carrots or be vigilant for lice. The message was drummed into every soldier’s head for weeks. Some hack in Moscow composed pages of doggerel verse to ram it home. Inelegant in the first place, it loses nothing in translation. “Not a step back!” it rattles. “It’s a matter of honor to fulfill the military order. For all who waver, death on the spot. There’s no place for cowards among us.” Groups of soldiers, weary of government lies, were always quick to identify hypocrisy, and that autumn they watched their commanders evading the new rules.
Few officers were keen to spare their best men for service in the blocking units. They had been in the field too long; they knew the value of a man who handled weapons well. So the new formations were stuffed with individuals who could not fight, including invalids, the simpleminded, and—of course—officers’ special friends. Instead of aiming rifles at men’s backs, these people’s duties soon included valeting staff uniforms or cleaning the latrines. In October 1942, the idea of regular blocking units at the front (as opposed to the autonomous forces of the NKVD) was quietly dropped.
Meanwhile, the retreat that had provoked the order in July continued in the south. German troops took another eight hundred kilometers of Soviet soil on their way to the Caucasus. The defense of their Caspian oil that autumn cost the Red Army another 200,000 lives. As late as September, army inspectors would observe that “military discipline is low, and order no. 227 is not being carried out by all soldiers and officers.” It was not mere coercion that changed the fortunes of the Red Army that autumn. Instead, even in the depth of their crisis, soldiers appeared to find a new resolve. It was as if despair itself—or rather, the effort of one final stand—could wake men from the torpor of defeat. Their new mood was connected to a dawning sense of professionalism, a consciousness of skill and competence that the leaders had started to encourage. For years, Stalin’s regime had herded people like sheep, despising individuality and punishing initiative. Now, slowly, even reluctantly, it found itself presiding over the emergence of a corps of able, self-reliant fighters. The process would take months, gathering pace in1943. But rage and hatred were at last translating into clear, cold plans.
Excerpted from Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945by Catherine Merridale.
Copyright © 2006 by the author and reprinted by permission of Picador, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.
CATHERINE MERRIDALE is the author of the critically acclaimed Night of Stone, winner of Britain’s Heinemann Award for Literature, and Ivan’t War. A professor of contemporary history at the University of London, she also writes for the London Review of Books, the New Statesman, and The Independent and regularly presents history features for the BBC.
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Posted in Military History, Modern History