ALLIES DISRUPT GERMAN DEFENSES IN FRANCE

London, England June 1, 1944

In June 1942 members of the French Resis­tance pro­vided British intel­li­gence with a copy of the top-secret blue­print of portions of Adolf Hitler’s Atlan­tic Wall—part of the defenses against the anti­ci­pated Allied in­va­sion of West­ern Europe. The map had been spirited from the office of the German public works bureau that was building the coastal defenses, and it revealed the strong and the weak points along the entire North­western French coast of Normandy, from Cherbourg in the west almost to Le Havre in the east.

The French Resistance continued to pass the Allies detailed infor­ma­tion about the Nor­man­dy in­va­sion area (gun emplace­ments and caliber, real and fake mine­fields, gaps in German flak defenses, etc.) right up to D-Day—infor­ma­tion pro­vided in part by some of the thou­sands of French laborers and Ital­ian POWs Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (he of Afrika Korps fame) was using to build stronger coastal defenses, plant thou­sands upon thou­sands of land mines, flood large areas behind the flat beaches to drown Allied para­troopers, and drive long poles called “Rommel’s asparagus” into open fields to thwart the safe landing of Allied troop gliders.

In advance of Oper­a­tion Over­lord, the code­name for the June 1944 Nor­mandy landings, Allied air­craft began pounding syn­the­tic oil plants in Germany, which reduced the Luft­waffe’s fuel supply by nearly 70 per­cent between April and this date in 1944. Allied intel­li­gence esti­mated that the enemy could lay hands on two million freight cars to move troops and supplies to the in­va­sion front. So to pre­vent the Germans from deploying, rein­forcing, and re­supplying their beach­head defenders, Allied air­craft hea­vily bombed and cra­tered French and Bel­gian high­ways, tunnels, river crossings, and rail­road yards. Heavy were the civil­ian casual­ties caused by these air raids, as well as from sabo­tage by Resis­tance fighters on the ground, partic­u­larly by Résis­tance Fer, the organ­i­za­tion of French rail­way­men: over 12,000 peo­ple lost their lives. (The Germans were quick with repri­sals, exe­cuting sev­eral hun­dred cheminots, as the French rail­way­men were known, and deporting another 3,000 to German camps.) But 80 classi­fi­cation/­mar­shalling yards and 1,500 loco­mo­tives were put out of com­mis­sion, along with miles of rail­road tracks (950 cuts), water pumps in the rail­way yards, numer­ous bridges, tunnels, and commu­ni­ca­tion lines, heavy lifting cranes, 36 air­fields, 45 gun bat­teries, and 41 radar instal­la­tions that the enemy would desperately need to throw back the invaders.

When the first in­va­sion ships set sail from England on June 4, 1944, and troops finally set foot on Fes­tung Europa, For­tress Europe, two days later, the Allies had neu­tra­lized the Luft­waffe over France (the Germans had less than 160 ser­vice­able aircraft) and degraded the enemy’s ability to move on land.





German Atlantic Wall Defenses on the Eve of Operation Overlord

Atlantic Wall, 1942–1944

Above: Map of the 1,668-mile-long Atlantic Wall shown in green. The wall hugged the coast­line from Nor­way to Spain in varying degrees and was most elab­o­rate facing the Eng­lish Chan­nel. It con­sisted of an exten­sive system of coastal forti­fi­ca­tions built between 1942 and 1944 as a defense against an anti­ci­pated Allied inva­sion of the con­ti­nent. In France the wall com­prised a string of rein­forced con­crete case­mates housing heavy­-caliber guns, bunkers housing smaller artillery (100‑210mm guns), and pill­boxes along the beaches or some­times slightly inland, as well as mines and anti­tank obstacles planted on the beaches or in waters just off shore. A major engi­neering feat for its time, the Atlantic Wall for most of its length was never­the­less a porous barrier because Germany and the occupied states lacked the resources to seal it completely. Along one 55‑mile beach­front in Normandy, strong­points were 650 to 1,100 yards apart; some undefended sections were as much as three times that wide.

Rommel and officers inspecting Atlantic Wall, France, April 1944 Planting high wooden poles on French beaches, 1944

Left: In November 1943 Field Marshal Erwin Rom­mel took com­mand of Ger­man Army Group B in occu­pied France. He also took con­trol of the Atlantic Wall defenses on the French coast facing Eng­land. In this photo from April 1944, Rommel and his officers can be seen in­specting an instal­la­tion of ob­struc­tion beams (Hemm­balken). Some were topped with Teller (German for “plate”) mines, detonating when Allied landing craft passed over them. The Allies modi­fied their origi­nal plans to land troops at high tide, closer to the shore, in favor of landing at a rising tide when the obstruc­tions and mines could be seen and avoided. The disad­van­tage with the revised plan was that it increased the length of beach to be crossed.

Right: In 1943 German troops had begun using hy­drau­lic pres­sure hoses to assist in planting high wooden poles (Hoch­pfaehlen) in beach sand as ob­stacles to landing craft. In February 1944, on a tour of Chan­nel beaches in Pas-de-Calais oppo­site England, Rommel ordered the tech­nique used to place wooden beams, hedge­hogs made out of steel girders, and other anti­landing ob­struc­tions along Normandy’s beaches. Nearly 11,000 were installed on the coastline where the Allies would land.

German sketch for log and wire defenses against airborne forces, 1944 "Rommel’s asparagus" in French field, 1944

Left: Rommel sent his subordinate com­manders sketches like the one depicted here for laying out wooden log and wire defenses against airborne assaults. Barbed wire and trip­wires were to be strung between the poles. The com­plete system of wooden poles and interconnecting wires was called Luftlandehindernis.

Right: “Rommel’s asparagus” (Rommelspargel) refers specif­ically to wooden poles used against aerial in­va­sion. Wooden tree trunks and logs set in French fields and mea­dows in 1944 were intended to cause damage to mili­tary gliders (e.g., by tearing off their wings) and to kill or injure glider infan­try in an uncontrolled landing. Though more than a million of these poles were erected, their effect on the invasion of Normandy was inconsequential.

Rare Color Footage: From D-Day to Liberation of Paris, 1944


WWII Chronicles book coverHistory buffs, there is good news! The Daily Chronicles of World War II is now avail­able as an ebook for $4.99 on Amazon.com. The ebook contains a year’s worth of dated entries from this web­site. Featuring inven­tive naviga­tion aids, the ebook enables readers to instantly move for­ward or back­ward by month and date to different dated entries. Simple and elegant! Click here to purchase the ebook.