Richard Atkinson: The Guns at Last Light:
IN happier days, when the Reich was ascendant and the conquest of Britain seemed inevitable, Hitler had ordered construction of an elaborate command post for the German invasion of England in 1940. Tucked into a sheltered valley outside Margival, seventy-five miles northeast of Paris, Wolfsschlucht II, or W-II, was among more than a dozen elaborate Führer headquarters built in occupied Europe by a force of 28,000 workers pouring a million cubic meters of concrete. W-II rambled across ten square kilometers, with hundreds of offices, garrison rooms, and guest quarters appointed with thick rugs and new maple furniture.
Engravings looted from Parisian art shops hung on the walls, and a bootjack could be found in every wardrobe. Larders held tons of canned meat and cherries, sugar, and tinned asparagus. Camouflage netting by the acre concealed the complex; rails leading into a train tunnel were painted rust-red to simulate disuse. Potemkin farmhouses, barns, and pig pens, and a grove of fake trees hid gun batteries on an adjacent ridge. An inconspicuous teahouse atop the Führer’s personal bunker offered a fine view of Soissons Cathedral, five miles south. Although W-II had never been used, locals deemed it “the most forbidden place in France,” and it was here that Hitler ordered Rundstedt and Rommel to meet him for a secret conference on Normandy.
The Führer and his entourage flew from Berchtesgaden in four Focke-Wulf Condors to Metz, then drove 175 miles in armored cars to Margival. (Venturing farther west by air seemed foolhardy when even SS soldiers had begun referring to predatory Allied fighter-bombers as “meat flies.”) At nine A.M. on Saturday, June 17, Hitler received the two field marshals in an entry hall with cyclopean walls and a green tile fireplace. This was Hitler’s first return to France since 1940, and he looked like a man who was losing a world war: eyes bloodshot and puffy from insomnia, skin sallow, the toothbrush mustache a bit bedraggled. Aides reported that even his passion for music had waned. “It is tragic that the Führer has so cut himself off from life and is leading an excessively unhealthy life,” wrote his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels.
Often he checked his own pulse, as if fingering mortality; a quack dubbed the Reich Injection Master frequently administered sedatives or shots of a glandular concoction. He shunned bright lights and wore a cap with an enlarged visor to shield his eyes. “I always have the feeling of tipping to the right,” he complained. He spoke of retirement, of a life devoted to reading, or meditating, or running a museum. His battle captains disappointed him, and of eighteen German field marshals and forty full generals, he would quarrel with more than half before the calamity ended. In Berlin it was rumored that he intended to take personal command in the west. Hitler sat hunched on a wooden stool, fiddling with his spectacles and a fistful of colored pencils as Rommel opened the session with a glum progress report.
The Allies had landed at least twenty divisions in Normandy—half a million men with 77,000 vehicles. The German Seventh Army opposed them with the equivalent of fourteen divisions, and those depleted units averaged under 11,000 men, compared with almost 17,000 a few years earlier. German casualties had reached 26,000, including more than 50 senior commanders. Allied naval guns could hit panzers more than twenty-five kilometers inland, while the enemy’s superiority in matériel was at least as profound as it had been in Africa. Anglo-American warplanes harried the battlefield to a depth of 150 kilometers or more; day marches in fair weather were suicidal. Rail traffic could get no closer to the beachhead than two hundred kilometers. Air attacks now immobilized nearly three hundred trains a day. German aircraft reinforcements were shot down at a rate of three dozen each day, while others lost their way, ran out of fuel, or were destroyed by their own antiaircraft guns; of fifty-seven fighters that left Wiesbaden for Évreux, only three arrived. At dusk on Wednesday, British planes had dropped twelve hundred tons of explosives on Le Havre port, including six-ton “Tallboy” bombs, and more attacks followed on Thursday. Seven hundred French houses had been destroyed in Le Havre, but so too sixty-three German vessels, including attack boats and minesweepers.
Rommel pointed to a large map. Just this morning American tanks had crossed the Cherbourg–Coutances road; soon the Cotentin Peninsula would be severed, trapping forty thousand troops and dooming Cherbourg. If the Anglo-Americans broke free of the beachhead, either south of Caen or below the Cotentin, the road to Paris lay open and Brittany could be cut off. Hitler stirred on his stool. “Don’t call it a beachhead, but the last piece of French soil held by the enemy,” he said calmly, adding, “Cherbourg is to be held at all costs.”
Rundstedt said little, taciturn as usual in his trim gray uniform with the carmine trouser stripe that marked a general staff officer. If Rommel was an unlicked cub, then Rundstedt—at sixty-eight, the oldest German field marshal, he had been a Prussian soldier for half a century—was known as both der alte Herr, the old gent, and der schwarze Ritter, the black knight. The scion of Junker gentry and eight centuries of soldiering ancestors, he had served as an army group commander and then military governor in Poland. After receiving his marshal’s baton in 1940, Rundstedt arrived in France to help plan SEA LION, the aborted invasion of England. During the subsequent attack on the Soviet Union, he commanded six field armies, captured the Ukraine, and then retired in late 1941 after a spat with Hitler, only to return in uniform as commander-in-chief for the west.
Beset by rheumatism, an ailing heart, and what one general called “psychic resignation,” Rundstedt lived in the Parisian suburb of St.-Germain-en-Laye, where he slept late, read Karl May westerns, and addressed visitors in credible French or English. He disdained both the telephone and the “brown dirt” of Nazi thuggery; although loyal to Hitler, he was not above deriding him as “the Bohemian corporal,” or denouncing the Führer’s orders with his favorite epithet, “Quatsch!” Nonsense! He “would have been most happy if Prussia had remained alone,” his chief of staff later observed, “just as before 1866.” Rarely did he visit the front, considering the Atlantic Wall “a bit of cheap bluff.” He preferred to command from a one–to–one million scale map on which the beachhead—or rather, that last bit of France held by the enemy—was hardly bigger than a playing card. His pessimism ran deep, and the past ten days had only deepened his gloom.
Now Rundstedt stepped forward to support the Marshal Laddie. A rigid defense of the Cotentin was doomed, he warned. Better to pull exposed German forces back inside Cherbourg’s bristling fortifications. Hitler nodded in agreement, but believed southern approaches to the port should also be defended. “The fortress is to hold out as long as possible,” he said, “if possible until about mid-July.” He had earlier drawn a line with a red pencil across the peninsula below Cherbourg, declaring, “They must hold here.”
What about further Allied landings? the Führer asked. Rundstedt thought another invasion was likely. Intelligence from Britain suggested that fifty more divisions had coiled for a second, larger blow. For this reason the German Fifteenth Army had diverted but a single division to Normandy; twenty-one others remained in the Pas de Calais, peering seaward. Yet even if the Allied force in Normandy had been bottled up for the time being, Rundstedt agreed with Marshal Rommel that it was “impossible to hold everything.” Both men advocated evacuating southern France to the Loire River, shortening German lines and forming a mobile reserve of some sixteen divisions to safeguard the line of the Seine.
Hitler waved away the proposal—“You must stay where you are”—then changed the subject. Great things were afoot, he said, magical things. New jet-propelled aircraft would soon dominate the skies. New sea mines, triggered by pressure waves from passing ships and almost impossible to sweep, had already holed a number of Allied ships. But the greatest secret weapon had just come into play. Until now, the Reich had no answer for the Anglo-American bombers devastating the Fatherland; a single German city might absorb more bombs in twenty-four hours than had fallen on Britain in all of 1943. That was about to change. Hitler had once dismissed rocketry as “imagination run wild,” but in September 1943 his scientists had begun production of a self-propelled bomb in a Volkswagen factory.... This very morning the nameless weapon had been anointed the Vergeltungswaffe—reprisal weapon—or V-1. “Terror is broken by terror,” the Führer liked to say. “Everything else is nonsense.”
Rundstedt suggested that the V-1 be used against those half million enemy soldiers now massed in the beachhead. Rommel agreed. Hitler summoned a military expert who explained that the flying bomb’s inaccuracy made any target smaller than London difficult to hit.... They broke for lunch, a joyless repast taken in silence. Two SS guards stood behind the Führer’s chair as he wolfed down a plate of rice and vegetables—first sampled by a taster—garnished with pills and three liqueur glasses of colored medicines. A sudden warning of sixty Allied planes approaching sent Hitler and the field marshals scuttling into a cramped bomb shelter for another leaden hour until the all-clear sounded.
Hitler walked Rommel to his car at four P.M., promising to visit him at La Roche–Guyon the next morning. “What do you really think of our chances of continuing the war?” Rommel asked with his habitual effrontery. Was it not time to consider coming to terms with the West, perhaps in common cause against the Bolsheviks? “That is a question which is not your responsibility. You will have to leave that to me,” Hitler snapped. “Attend to your invasion front.” A laconic Rundstedt later summarized the conference with concision: “The discussion had no success.”
Rather than press on to Rommel’s headquarters, Hitler would abruptly bolt for Bavaria after an errant V-1 flew east rather than west and detonated near the Margival bunker; it did little damage but brought court-martial investigators sniffing for possible assassins. Back in Berchtesgaden, the Führer bemoaned Rommel’s gloom. Had the Desert Fox lost his strut? “Only optimists can pull anything off today,” Hitler told his courtiers. In fact, Rommel felt buoyant, having been beguiled once again by the master he served. He “cannot escape the Führer’s influence,” an aide wrote home. After supper on Saturday he walked the château grounds with his chief naval adviser, Vice Admiral Friedrich Ruge, to discuss the day while admiring the mother-of-pearl vistas along the Seine. Movies often were projected on a cave wall behind the castle, and the sound of laughter from staff officers watching a light comedy carried on the evening air. Ruge was reading Gone with the Wind, and Rommel enjoyed hearing the latest plot twists. In Scarlett, Rhett, and the doomed Confederacy, the admiral detected “endless parallels with our time” and an affirmation that “rebuilding after a total defeat was possible.”
Rommel retired to his chambers, beyond the ancient portcullis slot and the curiosity room with its glass cases of mounted insects and its stuffed hawk. In the morning he would dash off a “dearest Lu” note about Margival and the new V-1 campaign. “The long-range action has brought us a lot of relief,” he told her. “The Führer was very cordial and in a good humor. He realizes the gravity of the situation.”