Their fast rate of fire - up to 1, rounds per minute for the MG 42 - had a devastating effect on advancing Allied infantry. France and the Low Countries had long been places where divisions burnt out on the Russian Front were sent to recuperate. The coastline was held by a thin line of garrison troops, from where the fittest and most able had been combed to feed the meat-grinder in the East.
Waffen-SS formations were regarded as the best German forces in Normandy. The quality of German infantry divisions varied greatly. The army field divisions and the Luftwaffe parachute divisions were largely experienced and well equipped, even though their size had been reduced to cope with manpower shortages.
Most had good artillery provision, and were leavened by officers and NCOs with valuable combat experience in the East. These had little in the way of transport, and were merely expected to man fixed defences and hold their ground. They contained older troops, the medically unfit, and men recovering from wounds. Many were former Soviet POWs and were generally regarded as having little value.
For administrative purposes they came under OB West, but von Rundstedt had no direct control over them. These divisions represented the real striking force in the German order of battle, but authority over their deployment and use had become a major bone of contention. Von Schweppenburg was keen to keep the armour well back, hidden north of Paris, until the Allies were committed, and then launch a mass counterattack.
He wanted every tank as near to the coast as possible, where in his view the battle would be won or lost. He hoped too that the morale of the infantry manning the beach defences would be strengthened by the presence of elite formations beside them. SS troops firing a mm Nebelwerfer These smoke mortars could also fire high-explosive shells. The Germans became expert at concentrating mortar fire for maximum effect.
The British called them 'stonks'. It fell to Hitler to decide on the matter, and typically he chose an unworkable solution. This was the chain of coastal fortifications which stretched from western France to Norway. Begun in , it was still far from complete.
The major ports were well guarded, but only in the Pas de Calais was there something like a continuous belt of defences. On his appointment as head of Army Group B in November , Rommel ordered a massive strengthening of the existing fortifications, adding pillboxes, gun emplacements, beach obstacles and millions of mines. In some places the defences were extended inland to cover possible access routes and glider landing areas.
Five infantry divisions manned the coastal defences in the areas due to be assaulted by the Allies. The rd and th Static Divisions were in the Cotentin peninsula, with th facing the area of Utah. The 91st Airlanding Division, with the experienced 6th Parachute Regiment attached, was moved there in May to reinforce the defences. The nd Infantry Division was a well-trained veteran field formation, recently arrived and undetected by Allied intelligence.
It would oppose the American landings on Omaha with devastating consequences. The sector of coast to be attacked by the British and Canadians — designated Gold, Juno and Sword — was held by the th Static Division. This formation had been reinforced in late with experienced officers and NCOs, and would also give a good account of itself. The 88mm Flak 36 was an anti-aircraft weapon that also functioned as a superbly effective anti-tank weapon.
British and American armour had no protection against it. During Operation 'Goodwood' carefully hidden '88s' knocked out scores of British Shermans. As the clock wound down, some on the German side welcomed the chance to face the Allies. Here was probably the last chance to regain the initiative.
In the event, German reaction to the landings on 6 June was slow and confused. The spell of bad weather which had made the decision to go so fraught for Eisenhower also meant the Germans were caught off guard. Rommel was visiting his wife in Germany and many senior commanders were not at their posts.
Fifteenth Army was held there. On D-Day itself, the troops manning the coastal defences did as much as they could have been expected to.
The veteran nd Infantry Division inflicted heavy casualties on American forces storming Omaha beach. Elsewhere, many bunkers and gun emplacements survived the initial Allied air and sea bombardment, and their occupants held out for several hours. The defenders were gradually silenced and Allied units were able to start advancing inland, but German resistance was enough to prevent them achieving many of their first day objectives. The Panther was a formidable opponent superior to most Allied tanks, but vulnerable to the British pounder gun mounted on the Firefly.
Some of its units had already been engaged by British airborne forces, but it was not until mid-afternoon on D-Day that the division finally advanced against the British north of Caen. They lost 70 out of tanks. Other formations also soon on the way - 17th SS would be in place at Carentan on 11 June. Two static divisions from Fifteenth Army were immediately transferred to the Normandy front, and other regular field divisions started moving there from further afield in France.
As they were dependent on horses and their own feet, the infantry divisions took much longer than the armoured formations to reach the front. The British failure to take Caen on D-Day and make progress further inland meant the Germans were able to get sufficient forces into the battle area to contain the Allied armies. Over the next few days the fanatical SS formation made repeated attempts to drive a wedge through to the sea. The Canadians held the SS at great cost but were prevented from continuing their own advance further south, and could only consolidate their positions.
These three formations formed the main defence for Caen, but plans for a major counterattack had to be abandoned as a result of Allied air attacks. British troops pose with captured German infantry anti-tank weapons. The Panzerschreck was based on the American bazooka. The sergeant is holding two versions of the most effective Panzerfaust single-shot weapon. By his feet are two Teller mines. Units elsewhere would hold their positions. Retreat was out of the question. For the rest of June, General Bernard Montgomery, commanding all Allied ground forces, made several attempts to envelope Caen.
All failed in the face of tenacious German resistance. To the west of Caen, 50th Division was frustrated trying to push south from Bayeux towards Tilly-sur-Seulles. On 13 June Wittmann single-handedly destroyed 11 British tanks and 13 other armoured vehicles. The failed battle at Villers-Bocage was the last chance the British had for quickly outflanking Caen. The Germans had successfully plugged the gaps in their line before the Allied build-up became overwhelming.
The defensible terrain gave them a significant advantage, and they enjoyed a measure of weapon superiority. But the Germans had no answer to the prodigious firepower of the Allies. Air strikes, artillery and naval bombardment inexorably depleted already under-strength formations. A wrecked German SdKfz half-track in the village of Christot.
Allied fighter bombers took a heavy toll of German tanks, vehicles and horse draw transport during the retreat of the Seventh and Fifth Panzer Armies from Normandy. Unlike the British or Americans though, German units could continue to function even when substantially reduced by casualties. Many had combat experience in the East.
The most dramatic and most significant reversal of German fortunes came, however, on the eastern front. The sheer scale of the conflict between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army dwarfed anything seen anywhere else during the second world war. From 22 June , the day of the German invasion, there was never a point at which less than two-thirds of the German armed forces were engaged on the eastern front. Deaths on the eastern front numbered more than in all the other theatres of war put together, including the Pacific.
But it did not. On the contrary, Stalin's patriotic appeals to his people helped rally them to fight in the "great patriotic war", spurred on by horror at the murderous brutality of the German occupation. More than three million Soviet prisoners of war were deliberately left to die of starvation and disease in makeshift camps. Civilians were drafted into forced labour, villages were burned to the ground, towns reduced to rubble. More than one million people died in the siege of Leningrad; but it did not fall.
Soviet reserves of manpower and resources were seemingly inexhaustible. In a vast effort, major arms and munitions factories had been dismantled and transported to safety east of the Urals. Here they began to pour out increasing quantities of military hardware, including the terrifying "Stalin organ", the Katyusha rocket-launcher. Already in December , Japan's entry into the war, and its consequent preoccupation with campaigns in the Pacific, allowed Stalin to move large quantities of men and equipment to the west, where they brought the German advance to a halt before Moscow.
Unprepared for a winter war, poorly clad, and exhausted from months of rapid advance and bitter fighting, the German forces had to abandon the idea of taking the Russian capital. A whole string of generals succumbed to heart attacks or nervous exhaustion, and were replaced; Hitler himself took over as commander-in-chief of the army. Hitler had already weakened the thrust towards Moscow by diverting forces to take the grainfields of the Ukraine and push on to the Crimea.
For much of , this tactic seemed to be succeeding. German forces took the Crimea and advanced towards the oilfields of the Caucasus. Here again, acquiring new supplies of fuel to replenish Germany's dwindling stocks was the imperative. But Soviet generals had begun to learn how to co-ordinate tanks, infantry and air power and to avoid encirclement by tactical withdrawals.
The German forces were already dangerously short of reserves and supplies when they reached the city of Stalingrad on the river Volga, in August Three months later, they had still not taken the city. Stalingrad became the object of a titanic struggle between the Germans and the Soviets, less because of its strategic importance than because of its name.
Soviet reserves of manpower and resources were seemingly inexhaustible. On his appointment as head of Army Group B in November , Rommel ordered a massive strengthening of the existing fortifications, adding pillboxes, gun emplacements, beach obstacles and millions of mines. It was the turning point of the war. Share this Share on twitter Share on facebook. The Germans were forced to retreat. In early July came the last great German counter-attack, at Kursk.
Short of fuel and ammunition, the Germans under General Paulus were unable to break out. As one airfield after another was captured by the Red Army, supplies ran out and the German troops began to starve to death. On 31 January , refusing the invitation to commit suicide that came with Hitler's gift of a field marshal's baton, Paulus surrendered. Some , German and allied troops were captured; more than , had been killed. It was the turning point of the war.
From this moment on, the German armies were more or less continuously in retreat on the eastern front. The Red Army around Stalingrad was threatening to cut off the German forces in the Caucasus, so they were forced to withdraw, abandoning their attempt to secure the region's oil reserves.
In early July came the last great German counter-attack, at Kursk. This was the greatest land battle in history, involving more than four million troops, 13, tanks and self-propelled guns, and 12, combat aircraft. Warned of the attack in advance, the Red Army had prepared defences in depth, which the Germans only managed partially to penetrate.
The local party commissar, Nikita Khrushchev, covered up this disaster by persuading Stalin that they had been destroyed in a huge battle that had eliminated more than German tanks and won a heroic victory. The legend of "the greatest tank battle in history" was born. In fact it was nothing of the kind. So enormous were the Russian reserves that the loss of the tanks made little difference in the end, as fresh troops and armour were moved in to rescue the situation.
More than one million soldiers, 3, tanks and self-propelled guns, and nearly 4, combat aircraft entered the fray on the Soviet side and began a series of successful counter-offensives. The Germans were forced to retreat. After the war, German generals claimed bitterly they could have won at Kursk had Hitler not stopped the action. And the tanks really were needed in Italy. Following their victory in north Africa, the allies had landed in Sicily on 10 July to be greeted in Palermo by Italian citizens waving white flags. A fortnight later, reflecting the evaporation of Italy's will to fight on, the Fascist Grand Coalition deposed Mussolini and began to sue for peace.
On 3 September an armistice was signed, and allied forces landed on the Italian mainland. German troops had already invaded from the north, taking over the entire peninsula. Following the armistice, they seized , Italian soldiers and shipped them off to Germany as forced labourers to join millions of others drafted in from Poland and the Soviet Union to replace German workers sent to the front to replenish the Wehrmacht's rapidly diminishing manpower.
But as the allied armies made their way slowly northwards towards Rome, nothing could disguise the fact that Germany's principal ally had now been defeated. These events had a devastating effect on German morale at home. In particular the catastrophe of Stalingrad began to convince many Germans that the war could not be won. Worse was to come. Meeting at Casablanca in January , Churchill and Roosevelt decided on a sustained campaign of bombing German cities. A series of massive raids on the industrial area of the Ruhr followed, backed up by the destruction of key dams by the famous "bouncing bombs" on 16 May Arms production was severely affected.
And in late July and early August , the centre of Hamburg was almost completely destroyed in a firestorm created by intensive incendiary bombing that killed up to 40, people, injured a further ,, many of them seriously, and made , homeless. Refugees from the devastated city spread a sense of shock and foreboding all across Germany. In Hamburg itself, anger at the Nazis' failure to defend the city led to crowds tearing party badges off officials' coats amid cries of "murderer!