The German tanks were more powerful than the Allied models, their SS crews more determined than the citizen soldiers of the West – and yet they failed to carry out offensive operations in Normandy

When the Allies landed on the Normandy beaches, the Germans were surprised, having not noticed the concentration or departure of the Allied armada. But they were still not unprepared. The most popular German general at the time, Erwin Rommel, had energetically promoted the fortification of the coast. On the beach, the troops were supposed to hold down the attacking Americans and British. The troops on the coast mostly did not consist of the elite divisions of the Germans. Some units were made up of people with stomach problems or hearing impairments. But protected by bunkers and trenches, they were to hold out until the German armored divisions arrived.

“At the time, both sides thought that the outcome was pretty open, even if the Allies knew they had a certain advantage,” historian Peter Lieb told SZ. Rommel could not get his way with the desire to station the armored forces as close as possible to the beaches so that they could not intervene on the morning of the landing. That was fortunate for the Allies, otherwise the invasion might well have failed.

No tank saw the beach

Large numbers of armored troops arrived over the days following the landing, including the notorious, well-equipped and battle-hardened troops of the 1st and 2nd SS Panzer Divisions. The Panzer Lehr Division, whose instructors were considered the best tank men in the Reich, could not throw the Allies back into the sea on a single beach, despite their concentrated power.

What was the issue? On the day of the landing, only the 21st Panzer Division was in the Caen area. These troops were not energetically directed against one or two landing sectors in the morning, but deployed somewhat delayed and dissipated. They hindered the Allies, but the 21st Armored Division could neither hold a landing beach nor clear the British paratroopers’ drop zone at Caen.

Useless Atlantic Wall

The “Hitlerjugend” division was still nearby, and its first formations only reached the combat area late in the night of June 6th. Like all other German tanks, they never got close to the beaches. In the meantime, the Allies had advanced inland, and the defenders had only been able to hold off the landing forces for a while on one beach – but resistance there had collapsed in the early afternoon of June 6th. The Atlantic Wall, which was the focus of propaganda, had cost the Allies a few thousand lives, but otherwise proved ineffective. The following day, the Allies had landed large numbers of their own tanks. On June 7th they planned to break through and take the city of Caen.

However, their advancing troops encountered the tanks of the SS Leibstandarte and Hitler Youth divisions and suffered heavy losses. The Allied tanks could not threaten the heavy German tanks at long range. Conversely, almost all German battle tanks, tank destroyers and assault guns were equipped with cannons that could knock out the Allied types.

War crimes but not a breakthrough

The fighting on June 7 also saw the largest known war crime in Normandy. The soldiers of SS Standartenfuhrer Kurt Meyer “Panzermeyer” murdered 187 Canadian prisoners of war. Meyer’s youthful soldiers managed to stop the Allied advance on Caen. The diary of a British officer was found in a tank. In one entry he wrote: “Our company went out to take a position but had to retreat quickly, losing four tanks in the process. After four years of preparation for this invasion, why is our technology inferior?” In desperation, Allied crews attached railroad tracks and sandbags to their tanks to increase frontal armor

The troops of the 1st SS Panzer Division also stopped an Allied advance. But the counterattacks by the SS troops, with which they wanted to throw the Allies out of their positions and break through to the beach, had to be stopped with high losses.

Only defense remained

As early as June 7th it became clear exactly what was possible for the German tanks in Normandy and what was not. In defense, the German tanks remained a feared weapon. The British lost 200 tanks on the way to Caen in a very short time. But they didn’t have the strength for a decisive counterattack. That was also due to the terrain of Normandy. The fields of the bocage, surrounded by walls and high hedges, favored the defenders. And even if the British and American tanks were inferior to the German models, they still had powerful anti-tank guns and powerful artillery.

By the evening of June 7, the Germans had worn out two of their strongest offensive formations and operationally achieved no more than a defensive success.

British historian Antony Beevor wrote. “The Battle of Stalingrad was much harder and also limited to a manageable territory. In Normandy, however, on the German side alone, an average of 2,300 men died per division and month. Compared to the front in the east, that was more than twice as much so many dead. This alone shows that the Battle of Normandy was far more violent than we had hitherto realized.”

Artillery decides the battle

Allied losses were heavy, but they were replaced in a very short time.

After the first few days, the period of large mobile operations on the German side ended. In a tough struggle, the Germans closed a ring around the Allied zone, but they could not win a battle of attrition in the long term. The German tanks strengthened the defenses and prevented the Allies from breaking through.

Contrary to what is often claimed, Allied air supremacy did not lead to heavy tank losses on the battlefield. Only a few tanks were knocked out, as Peter Lieb proved. This is also because the Germans knew their air superiority and did not allow larger formations to operate in open terrain. In fact, the German tanks and troops were worn out by the artillery. In June and July 1944, more than two million shells fell on the Germans – that’s 35,000 a day. Material left behind in the Falaise pocket showed that artillery was the biggest tank killer.

The liberation of France was delayed for two months

The Allies only managed to break out of their bridgehead at the beginning of August. Without the German armored troops, this would have happened immediately after landing. But that was not a turning point in the war, it only delayed the liberation of France by two months. The historian Antony Beevor has particularly followed the story of the casualties, and the price of the long battle was paid not only by German and Allied soldiers, but also by French civilians. Beevor wrote: “During the course of D-Day, more French civilians were killed by the Allies than conversely Allied soldiers in combat. … We’re talking about at least 35,000 people who died in the Allied attacks in Normandy. And then there are over 100,000 injured .”

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