Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Forces, General Dwight Eisenhower, seen here wearing the five stars of General of the Army, a wartime rank specially authorized by Congress.
There was one person in charge of the Allied invasion of Europe and subsequent campaign to defeat Nazi Germany: General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Forces. All Allied military forces came under his command with an occasional exception. Most important, Eisenhower was backed by three key men: Army Chief of Staff George Marshall, US President Franklin Roosevelt, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. When he had to flex his muscles to bring subordinates into line, he had a lot of muscle behind him.
The Germans, who have a reputation as organized and efficient, had a command structure resembling a bowl of spaghetti thrown against a wall. In a report written for the Allies after the war and published in a fascinating volume, Fighting the Invasion: the German Army at D-Day, General Günther Blumentritt, who served as Chief of Staff to Herr General Feldmarschal Gerd von Rundstedt, Oberbefehlshaber West or ‘OB West’ (C-in-C West), wrote about the command structure which I have summarized below.
OB West reported to OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht or German Armed Forces High Command), which had operational responsibility for war on the Western Front. OKH, or German Army High Command, had responsibility for the war in the east or the Ost Kreig against the Soviets. While co-located at Zossen, twenty kilometers outside of Berlin, neither organization was allowed to communicate with the other. They had completely separate compounds and bunkers and were known as Maybach 1 (OKH) and Maybach 2 (OKW). wikipedia.org/wiki/Maybach_I_and_II
Under the nominal command of OB West were Army Groups B and G which controlled all subordinate German Army forces in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. (The Military Governor of France and the Military Governor of N.France/Belgium, which had their own special units and security troops, reported directly to OKW by-passing OB West and often not even informing OB West of what they were doing).
However, there was a caveat here which caused the Germans to react slowly on D-Day and it is this: only coastal defense units of German troops in France, Belgium and the Netherlands were directly subordinated to OB West.
Only if an actual invasion occurred, would the German Army commanders in Belgium and France become fully subordinated to OB West. The German Army commander in the Netherlands did not come under the authority of OB West in the event of invasion. He reported directly to OKW. However, the majority of front line German Army combat units in Holland came under the command of Army Group B and not the German Army commander in Holland. Got it?
If this wasn’t confusing enough, the Germans had a shortage of troops but not of Field Marshals. Rommel (seen above on right), the not-so-unbeatable Desert Fox, was sitting around in Germany while the unbeatable German Afrika Korps was being beaten – and later surrendered to the British 8th Army. (Eventually, the entire Deutsche Afrika Korps ended up as POWs in the United States.)
So Hitler sent Herr General Feldmarschal Rommel to France to assume command of Army Group B, which already reported to Herr General Feldmarschal von Rundstedt (seen above on left) in his capacity as OB West. So theoretically Rommel was subordinated to von Rundstedt but all German Field Marshals had the right to contact Hitler directly so it wasn’t clear that Rommel really was subordinate to von Rundstedt and both of them gave orders to Army Group B and these orders often conflicted.
A meeting in Paris in December of 1943 between Generalleutnant (equivalent to Major-General or two star general in US Army) Alfred Gause (who looks to be wearing an AfrikaKorps cuff title), Rommel’s Chief of Staff (at right, pointing at map), with Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel (left) and Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, OB West or Commander-in-Chief, West (center). Oberst (Colonel) Bodo Zimmermann (senior staff officer to von Rundstedt is in the background).
The Luftwaffe’s Third Air Force, responsible for air operations in the West as well as anti-aircraft defense, did not come under the authority of OB West except for matters of coastal defense. Otherwise, they reported to the Luftwaffe commander for France who was in Paris and he reported to OKL (Oberkommando der Luftwaffe in Berlin) which came under the drug-addicated Reichsmarschal Göring who reported, theoretically, to OKW (Armed Forces High Command) but in actuality reported to Hitler.
Even in the event of the actual invasion, Luftwaffe units would not (and did not) come under the command of OB West. That anti-aircraft units came under Luftwaffe command is important to note since these units, often of division strength, were heavily armed with the awesome German 88s as well as all sorts of other heavy weapons. Most of the time, these anti-aircraft units provided direct fire support to German Army troops but this required good relations between local unit commanders since the Luftwaffe didn’t have to take orders from the army or vice-versa.
Marinegruppen Kommando West, (Naval Group West), reported to OKM (Oberkommando der Kreigsmarine), which came under Grand Admiral Dönitz who theoretically reported to OKW (German Armed Forces High Command) but actually reported directly to Hitler. As with the Luftwaffe, Herr General Feldmarschal Gerd von Rundstedt, Oberbefehlshaber West, could only give orders to Naval Group West on matters regarding coastal defense and even in the event of the actual invasion, OB West could not give orders to Naval Group West. What makes this even more screwed up than it looks is that the Kriegsmarine controlled all coastal artillery units since they were part of the navy.
The Waffen SS, which literally translates as ‘Armed SS’, meaning SS combat troops as opposed to SS concentration camp guards and organized murderers, came under the tactical control of local army commands in the event of invasion. Otherwise, they reported to that weak chinned killer, Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler. (After the war was over, men who had served in the Waffen SS tried to claim they were simply soldiering and had nothing to do with the death camp guards, those men being in a separate unit. The concentration camp guards and murder squad SS men were in a separate unit but men transferred between these units on a regular basis.)
In the event of an Allied landing, the German strategy was to launch their reserve panzer divisions against the Allied beachhead. But, as you might imagine, the reserve panzer divisions came under the authority of the OKW, not OB West, and could only be released to OB West if he asked – which he did when the invasion began – but he was rebuffed.
Oberquartiermeister West, (Chief of Supply and Logistics), who was responsible for supplying the units which would come under OB West in the event of an invasion, reported simultaneously to three different commands, OB West, the Military Governor of France, and the Generalquartiermeister of OKH (Oberkommando das Heer or German Army High Command), all of whom could – and did – issue orders to him. Since OB West had no transport of its own, it had to borrow transport from subordinate army commands. Incredibly, these supply trucks were driven by hired French civilians who were supposed to keep driving while being attacked by Allied aircraft.
If this seems confusing, it is and it was. Herr General FeldMarschall von Rundstedt, OB West, said he had but the authority to change the guard in front of his headquarters, located in a magnificent chateaux northwest of Paris, later occupied by General Eisenhower as his headquarters.
Curiously, when von Rundstedt was dining with his senior staff officers in his personal mess, they all spoke to each other in French.