1943 had not been very kind to Hitler’s military. His army, navy, and air force had, in the space of 11 months, suffered a series of crushing defeats. In the east, Stalingrad had been lost in dramatic fashion early on. Then the German armies were forced to call it quits in North Africa in May. Then there was the expensive battles around Kursk coupled with Allied landings in Sicily and then Italy. All in all, pretty bad.
And as the year drew to a close, a new threat was emerging…the Allied second front. The Allies were desperately trying to keep any operations a secret, and the Germans badly wanted to know. But most everyone guessed that this invasion would be opened on the northwest coast of France.
There is little doubt that the far-flung battles fought over Russia’s vast expanses had been the clear focus of Hitler for a couple of years, but with the turning of the tide in ’43, eyes began to turn elsewhere. Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt had been pushing for more attention to be given to the western theater, where increased Allied activity was seen as a prelude to bigger operations. He didn’t feel that current manpower and equipment levels were adequate to check a concerted effort by the enemy.
His report, submitted in late October, reached the Fuhrer’s hands. Less than a week later, von Rundstedt got his response. On November 3, Hitler issued Directive No. 51, which largely backed his Field Marshal’s assessments and recognized the need for an increased western presence.
In his book The Atlantic Wall, Alan Wilt records that Adolf Hitler recognized that some ground could be given in the east without sacrificing the Third Reich’s chances for survival. He then recounts Hitler’s words concerning the west. “Not so the West! Here, if the enemy succeeds in breaching our defenses along a wide front, consequences of staggering proportions will follow within a short time. All signs point to an offensive against the western front of Europe, at the latest in the spring, perhaps even earlier. For that reason, I can no longer justify the further weakening of the West in favor of other theaters…”
And to emphasize the importance of Directive No. 51, the Fuhrer took another important step. On this day in history (November 5, 1943), Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was ordered to begin inspecting “the defensive readiness of the German-occupied coasts.”
As we know, Rommel was one of Germany’s most capable field commanders. Having gained fame (and the respect of his adversaries) in the deserts of North Africa, he had spent much of the first half of 1943 fighting illness. But having convalesced, his service to his country was renewed. And all up and down the coasts, from Denmark to Brittany, Rommel would inspect and call for improved defenses.
And in the succeeding months, he would work to build up the Atlantic Wall (a series of coastal fortifications) to greater strength, hoping to stop an expected Allied invasion.
Recommended Reading: The Atlantic Wall – Written by a military history professor of mine…I really enjoyed the class. And his book’s pretty good, too.