Erwin Rommel checking-out atlantikwall

Erwin Rommel assumes command of the Atlantikwall

Erwin Rommel and the Atlantikwall

In the latter half of 1943, two of World War II’s most colorful and charismatic senior commanders, General George S. Patton, Jr. and Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the “Desert Fox,” were both out of work and in the doghouse, with their careers not only on hold, but possibly even coming to an end. Patton’s plight was self-inflicted, the slapping of soldiers in Sicily who were suffering from what’s now called Post Traumatic Stress. Rommel’s problem was more political. It stemmed from a falling out with the Italians combined with a frosty relationship with the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), the German military’s high command.

The Italian military high command resented Rommel’s brusque treatment in North Africa, and had made him the scapegoat for the Axis loss there. OKW and most other senior German generals disdained Rommel as an outlier because he rose to high command without going through the Prussian German General Staff system and with Hitler’s active support. Though Rommel’s brilliance on the battlefield was well earned, his notoriety as Nazi Germany’s most famous general was the combined result of Nazi and British propaganda. The Nazis touted his achievements as a panzer commander in France in 1940 and later as commander of the Afrikakorps. The British did so because in order to explain away their defeats at the hands of Rommel in North Africa they had to build him into something almost superhuman.

Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel checking out the Atlantikwall
Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel checking out the Atlantikwall

Having elevated Rommel to mythic stature in the eyes of the German people, Hitler couldn’t now put him out to pasture. The problem was, where to employ him? OKW chief Colonel General Alfred Jodl had an answer that would kill two birds with one stone: put Rommel in charge of the Atlantic Wall. Festung Europa (Fortress Europe) was the vainglorious term Adolf Hitler used to describe the European continent under German control. Its key component was the Atlantic Wall, an outer defense barrier stretching 4,000 miles from Norway to the Pyrennes. Construction began in August 1942 under the auspices of the engineering Todt Organization. While it contained some impressive fortifications, an October 30, 1943, report revealed that the Atlantic Wall was more show than substance, with construction vastly behind schedule. Someone of high rank had to be brought in to shake things up and fast-track construction. Though Jodl didn’t like Rommel (a feeling reciprocated, with Rommel calling Jodl a “chairborne soldier”), he knew Rommel would resuscitate the Atlantic Wall construction program. And, as Hitler explained in his meeting with the Desert Fox, doing so would restore his reputation.

Rommel was made responsible for the Atlantic Wall from Denmark to Brittany. The lethargy he encountered infuriated him, and many an officer cursed their new commander for the increased workload. The central element of Rommel’s plan was the construction of a six-mile wide Death Barrier extending the length of his command. To accomplish this Rommel augmented Todt Organization workers with his own troops and French laborers, offering the latter good wages. In a speech to a division based near Le Havre, at the mouth of the Seine River, he said, “Pay them well and promptly for it. Point out that the enemy is least likely to invade where the most obstacles have been erected! The French farmers will be only too glad to line their purses.” Thousands of Frenchmen signed up. To his engineer expert, Major General Wilhelm Meise, he said, “I want antipersonnel mines, antitank mines, antiparatroop mines — I want mines to sink ships and mines to sink landing craft. . . . I want mines that detonate when a wire is tripped; mines that explode when a wire is cut; mines that can be remote-controlled, and mines that will blow up when a beam of light is interrupted.”

Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel checking out the Atlantikwall
Generalfeldmarschall Rommel an der Biskaya.
Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel checking out the Atlantikwall

On April 22, 1944, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel paced back and forth on a deserted French beach, waving his “informal” marshal’s baton, a two-foot long silver-topped black stick with a red, black and white tassel (his official marshal’s baton he only carried once, on the day he received it from Hitler). Accompanying him was his adjutant, Captain Helmuth Lang. Pointing to the sand Rommel repeated what he had been saying for months, “The war will be won or lost on the beaches. We’ll have only one chance to stop the enemy and that’s while he’s in the water . . . struggling to get ashore. Reserves will never get up to the point of attack and it’s foolish even to consider them. The Hauptkampflinie [main line of resistance] will be here . . . everything we have must be on the coast. Believe me, Lang, the first twenty- four hours of the invasion will be decisive . . . for the Allies, as well as Germany, it will be the longest day.”

TIP: Did you know that there’s a unique bunker village in a Belgium Parc that served as the HQ of the Atlantikwall in Belgium? Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel visited it twice. Check out the museum’s website here or find a tour of the museum.