The Axis Forces

Version française

Le Chemin de Mémoire Home

The Atlantic Wall
Probably the biggest problem for the Germans was how long the Atlantic Wall needed to be. As shown in the map, it stretched from northern Norway to northern Spain. Admittedly not all of this coastline needed defending but a significant proportion did and the Allies were very good at misleading the Germans as to where the Landings would take place.

“Organisation Todt” was the German’s engineering and construction organisation which had been in existence since 1933 and was tasked with building the Atlantic Wall.

The workers in this organisation varied from well treated designers and managers to very badly treated slave labour, often from captured territories. In addition over half a million French workers were brought in for the construction.

Much of the construction was for artillery casemates, pillboxes and bunkers, many of which can still be seen today, for example at Longues-sur-Mer and the battery at Mont Fleury in Ver-sur-Mer.

However, a huge amount of effort was put into smaller defences such as “Czech Hedgehogs” on the beaches. These were made from metal girders with mines attached and designed to damage landing craft.

Inland, sharpened poles "Rommel's Asparagus" with mines attached were placed in fields to deter gliders, and large areas were flooded, in particular the southern Cotentin, to disrupt advancing troops as well as airborne attack.

Thousands of mortar and machine gun pits were also constructed. It is estimated that nearly six million mines were laid in northern France, placed at obvious beach exit points and probable airborne landing sites.

Finally, anti-tank obstacles were constructed. Ver-sur-Mer had its own anti-tank trench, but this was dealt with by one of the bridge carrying tanks designed for such obstacles.

For the Allies, the Atlantic Wall was not easy to deal with. Many bombing raids were organised to attack these defences but there were two main problems. Firstly, the Allies could not reveal where the Landings would be, which meant bombing was required along many sections of the Wall so as not to give the game away. This of course stretched resources. Secondly, most bombing was at altitude and this lacked accuracy, especially against small targets such as bunkers and casemates.

The Axis Forces
In June 1944, the German forces defending Normandy were disparate, comprising the regular Army (Wehrmacht), SS Troops (Schutzstaffel), Navy (Kriegsmarine) and Airforce (Luftwaffe). This meant different chains of command and different levels of resources. For example, the SS were generally the best equipped. This undoubtedly led to rivalries between the different forces. In total around 40,000 german troops were defending the landing area against 132,000 allied troops who landed on 6 June 1944.

Not only were there different forces but a lot of the troops were not German. Many of the soldiers came from Eastern Europe and other countries invaded by Germany, hence their willingness to fight and defend the Fatherland could not always be depended upon. Weaponry was also different, with artillery pieces often being those captured requiring different spare parts and ammunition.

The German forces on the sea had very few warships to deal with an invading armada but more crucial was the almost complete lack of an air force. The British and American bombing raids along with the Soviet invasion from the east kept what was left of the German air force with more than enough to deal with. A key factor in the success of the Allied forces was their near total air supremacy.

Hitler was also a problem. Any significant command decisions had to be agreed by him first and this could take time. Further, he would not always agree with well thought out decisions made by commanders on the ground.

With the end of the Battle of Britain in 1940, and the failure to invade England, Germans started to think about a possible invasion of the continent of Europe. The Dieppe raid by mainly Canadian troops in August 1942 was a disaster for the Allies but many lessons were learned and the Germans realised that a full invasion was inevitable.