Confusion: The Organization of the German High Command On D-Day

 

Dwight_D._Eisenhower_as_General_of_the_Army_crop

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).

+ Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel (left)
and Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt

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.

A Nazi in Prussian Clothing: Herr General Feldmarschal Gerd von Rundstedt

u96786435

Herr General Feldmarschal and devoted Nazi Gerd von Rundstedt in France, April 1944. He is carrying the standard issue field marshal’s baton for everyday use and not the ceremonial baton carried when in full dress uniform.

 

Let us first dismiss the myth that there was something honorable about Gerd von Rundstedt or that he represented in any way the hard working Protestant morality of Prussia. The only biography of him, The Last Prussian: A Biography of Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt 1875-1953 by Charles Messenger is hagiography, not history, and isn’t worth reading.

That von Rundstedt is often described as ‘The Last Prussian’ makes a mockery of the values associated over the centuries with the Prussian aristocracy from whence came almost all Prussian Army officers. Were these officers often arrogant – particularly in the late 19th century after their thrashing by Napoleon earlier in the century had been forgotten? Yes. Dedicated to war – hoping for war? Yes. Narrowly educated? Yes. All those things. But they were not men who would permit wholesale murder of innocent civilians or genocide. And if someone under them had been doing it, they would put a stop to it. And if someone above them ordered such an action, they would have refused to carry out such an order.

+

Left to Right: General Gerd von Rundstedt, General Werner von Fritsch (Commander-in-Chief of the German Army) and Colonel General Generaloberst Werner von Blomberg, Berlin, 1934. The Nazis had only recently come to power (1933).  Blomberg (right) had been appointed as Minister of Defence in Chancellor Hitler’s new government. Blomberg was a boot licking toady to Hitler to the point of revulsion.

Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt
Gerd von Rundstedt in 1940 after being promotoed to Generalfeldmarschall. He had actually retired as the senior serving officer of the German Army in 1938 after being in the army for almost forty-six years. He was recalled when World War Two broke out.

 

Was their strong anti-Semitism in Prussia? Yes, there was. Yet long before other European countries took such actions, Frederick the Great of Prussia removed many restrictions against Jews in his kingdom and thus arose a flourishing German-Jewish culture in Berlin in the mid to late 1700s. One of the great intellectuals of the age, Moses Mendelssohn, was the leader of what many scholars refer to as the Jewish Renaissance, which created the school of thought and of specific belief we call Reform Judaism. As the leading intellectual of the age, Mendelssohn made Berlin the cultural capital of Europe.

I mention this great man to illustrate the complexity of the relationship between largely Christian Germany and its Jewish citizens. There was a great deal of intermarriage, far more than people realize, and this furthered the complexity of the German/Jewish relationship to the broader society. While a very strong feeling of anti-Semitism was present in Prussia and the other states which would eventually comprise the actual nation state of Germany, this anti-Semitism did not include the idea of murdering some, or all, of the Jews of Europe.

By the time the Nazis came to power, much of the Prussian aristocracy had become morally and financially bankrupt and most Prussian officers served Hitler zealously. Von Rundstedt was such a man. Like many high ranking officers, he had accepted large amounts of money, bribes, from Hitler, the first check coming in December of 1941 in the amount of 250,000 Reichsmarks. The yearly pay of a German Army captain was approximately 8,000 Reichsmarks which will give you a point of comparison.

+

von Rundstedt, Benito Mussolini, and Adolf Hitler, Russia, 1941. Von Runstedt is carrying his everyday field marshal’s baton and not the gaudy ceremonial baton.

Says Anthony Beevor in his very good (I rate it four stars) history of D-Day: “The British regarded ‘the Last Prussian’ (that is, Rundstedt) as nothing more sinister than a reactionary (Prussian Imperial) Guards officer and failed to appreciate that he shared many of the Nazis’ murderous prejudices. Rundstedt had never objected to the mass murders of Jews by the SS Einsatzgruppen on the eastern front. He had spoken of the advantages of using the Russian slave labourer in France. ‘If he does not do as he is told,’ he said, ‘he can quite simply be shot.'”

+

To those who defend von Rundstedt, and there are many, I recommend Beevor’s book on D-Day. Yet far more important as an indictment of von Rundstedt and what he knew about the Holocaust and the behavior of his troops on the Eastern Front, is the organization known as Fremde Heere Ost, which translates as Foreign Armies East. (It’s other unit was Fremde Heere West). While most students of German military history are familiar with the Abwehr, a sort of German CIA, and with RSHA, the SS controlled Reich Main Security Office which included the notorious Gestapo, not so many are familiar with Foreign Armies East and that is unfortunate.

This organization was directly subordinated to OKH, German Army High Command – not, I stress, OKW, German Armed Forces High Command. Thus the German general staff and high ranking German Army field officers received their own undiluted intelligence from an organization in their own chain of command. It beggars the imagination to suggest that Fremde Heere Ost failed to learn about the Holocaust, about the actions of SS murder squads, about the starvation of Russian POWs and the general horrendous treatment of Soviet civilians. It beggars the imagination even more to suggest this information was not reported to the highest levels of the German Army.

A Nazi in Prussian Clothing: Herr General Feldmarschal Gerd von Rundstedt (Part 1)

Let us first dismiss the myth that there was something honorable about Gerd von Rundstedt or that he represented in any way the hard working Protestant morality of Prussia. The only biography of him, The Last Prussian: A Biography of Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt 1875-1953 by Charles Messenger is hagiography, not history, and isn’t worth reading.

That von Rundstedt is often described as ‘The Last Prussian’ makes a mockery of the values associated over the centuries with the Prussian aristocracy from whence came almost all Prussian Army officers. Were these officers often arrogant – particularly in the late 19th century after their thrashing by Napoleon earlier in the century had been forgotten? Yes. Dedicated to war – hoping for war? Yes. Narrowly educated? Yes. All those things. But they were not men who would permit wholesale murder of innocent civilians or genocide. And if someone under them had been doing it, they would put a stop to it. And if someone above them ordered such an action, they would have refused to carry out such an order.

+

Was their strong anti-Semitism in Prussia? Yes, there was. Yet long before other European countries took such actions, Frederick the Great of Prussia removed many restrictions against Jews in his kingdom and thus arose a flourishing German-Jewish culture in Berlin in the mid to late 1700s. One of the great intellectuals of the age, Moses Mendelssohn, was the leader of what many scholars refer to as the Jewish Renaissance, which created the school of thought and of specific belief we call Reform Judaism. As the leading intellectual of the age, Mendelssohn made Berlin the cultural capital of Europe.

I mention this great man to illustrate the complexity of the relationship between largely Christian Germany and its Jewish citizens. There was a great deal of intermarriage, far more than people realize, and this furthered the complexity of the German/Jewish relationship to the broader society. While a very strong feeling of anti-Semitism was present in Prussia and the other states which would eventually comprise the actual nation state of Germany, this anti-Semitism did not include the idea of murdering some, or all, of the Jews of Europe.

By the time the Nazis came to power, much of the Prussian aristocracy had become morally and financially bankrupt and most Prussian officers served Hitler zealously. Von Rundstedt was such a man. Like many high ranking officers, he had accepted large amounts of money, bribes, from Hitler, the first check coming in December of 1941 in the amount of 250,000 Reichsmarks. The yearly pay of a German Army captain was approximately 8,000 Reichsmarks which will give you a point of comparison.

+

Says Anthony Beevor in his very good (I rate it four stars) history of D-Day: “The British regarded ‘the Last Prussian’ (that is, Rundstedt) as nothing more sinister than a reactionary (Prussian Imperial) Guards officer and failed to appreciate that he shared many of the Nazis’ murderous prejudices. Rundstedt had never objected to the mass murders of Jews by the SS Einsatzgruppen on the eastern front. He had spoken of the advantages of using the Russian slave labourer in France. ‘If he does not do as he is told,’ he said, ‘he can quite simply be shot.'”

+

To those who defend von Rundstedt, and there are many, I recommend Beevor’s book on D-Day. Yet far more important as an indictment of von Rundstedt and what he knew about the Holocaust and the behavior of his troops on the Eastern Front, is the organization known as Fremde Heere Ost, which translates as Foreign Armies East. (It’s other unit was Fremde Heere West). While most students of German military history are familiar with the Abwehr, a sort of German CIA, and with RSHA, the SS controlled Reich Main Security Office which included the notorious Gestapo, not so many are familiar with Foreign Armies East and that is unfortunate.

This organization was directly subordinated to OKH, German Army High Command – not, I stress, OKW, German Armed Forces High Command. Thus the German general staff and high ranking German Army field officers received their own undiluted intelligence from an organization in their own chain of command. It beggars the imagination to suggest that Fremde Heere Ost failed to learn about the Holocaust, about the actions of SS murder squads, about the starvation of Russian POWs and the general horrendous treatment of Soviet civilians. It beggars the imagination even more to suggest this information was not reported to the highest levels of the German Army.

Confusion: The Organization of the German High Command During D-Day and the Weeks Afterwards (Part 2)

+

+

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 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 Feld Marschal 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.