Book Review: “We Defended Normandy” by Lt Gen Hans Speidel, 1951

Could War In Europe Have Ended in 1944?

Was Montgomery right ?

Americans said “No”, now Speidel says “Yes”


“We Defended Normandy” by Lt-Gen Hans Speidel (Herbert Jenkins, 12. 6d.), 1951

Book review by John Alldridge

for the Manchester Evening News, Wednesday April 18 1951

In September, 1944, the Allies were in full cry after a defeated enemy. Well ahead of the field was Field Marshal Montgomery with his 21st Army Group based on Brussels and poised to make the final dash for the Rhine crossings.

Knowing that Allied transport and maintenance capacity were strained to the limit, Montgomery asked Eisenhower that all available facilities should be placed at his disposal so that his Army Group, or part of it, could make a thrust across the Rhine and deep into the plains of Northern Germany while the American Armies in the south called a halt.

As Montgomery saw it the enemy was disintegrating so fast that the risk of thrusting

forward in relatively small force was acceptable, provided it was carried out immediately. Eisenhower first demurred, then decided against it. The pursuit, considerably slowed down, continued on a broad front.

Montgomery has always insisted that had he been given his head he could have brought the war to a speedy conclusion – a theory that has always been strongly challenged by the Americans.

Was Montgomery right? Could the war really have been over by Christmas, 1944 ? One German general at least thinks so: he is, or was, Lieut-General Dr. Hans Speidel,  Rommel’s Chief of Staff from D Day until he was relieved of his post in dramatic circumstances three months later.

“Then something unexpected occurred,” he tells us in his personal eye-witness account of those historic weeks. A German variation of the Miracle of the Marne for the French in 1914.

The furious advance of the Allies suddenly faded away. There could be no serious supply difficulties with such secure lines of communication. . . Perhaps the imaginary prestige of the name ‘West Wall’ still impressed the enemy. He spread out and made preparations to overcome this so-called fortified line. Had the Allies held on grimly to the retreating Germans they could have harried the breath out of every man and beast and ended the war half a year earlier. “There were no German ground forces of any importance that could be thrown in, and next to nothing in the air.”

There are clear signs in the writings and evidence of some German generals that there is a scheme afoot to excuse the defeat of the Wehrmacht by throwing all the blame on Hitler; just as their predecessors spread about the legend that the Kaiser’s Wehrmacht was never beaten, but was stabbed in the back by cowardly civilians.

General Speidel does his best to be fair. While anxious that the reputation of his hero, Rommel, shall be protected at all costs, he is quite positive when he states that the war was lost for Germany long before the end of 1943; from the moment the tide began to turn at Stalingrad and El Alamein Germany was doomed. Decay was spreading through her political leadership and military command.

Marshall Rommel (left) and General Speidel

Hitler was the villain of the piece, of course, no doubt about that. But by the time the Wehrmacht began to sit down wearily on the defensive it was already a spent force. Everywhere there was evidence of a strange disunity; the men at the top were divided among themselves.

“The military leaders of all ranks fell into three groups,” he tells us: the soldiers who obeyed in blind obedience and credulity and also because it was the line of least resistance; the party soldiers of ambition and with an eye to promotion; the thinking-soldier whose yardstick was his patriotism.”

There was a divided command, deliberately introduced so that Hitler could play off one commander against another to his own – but nobody else’s – advantage.

This meant that no one commander could ever be certain of getting assistance from another. The fire control arrangements for coastal artillery were an example of this confusion: the navy claimed the responsibility for coastal gunnery as long as the invader was seaborne; but after a landing was established the army might take over.

“This led to disagreement in the planning stages as to tactical principles, siting of guns, and observation posts and serving of the guns.”

Even the much-vaunted Atlantic Wall was largely a myth, thanks to this same fetish for divided responsibility.

“In 1944,” General Speidel reveals, “the Atlantic Wall consisted only of strong points on the coast with radar stations, command posts and battery sites. The redoubts were mostly earthworks and seldom concrete. These strong points were often miles apart.”

In the short time at his disposal – he took over from von Rundstedt in the winter of 1943-4 – Rommel did what he could with booby traps, minefields, and dummy gun sites. But even Rommel was no miracle worker.

When invasion came there was only one battery to every 14 miles of coast. Yet Hitler insisted blindly to the end on the strategy of ‘no retreat.’

“Every enemy thrust is to be prevented by grimly holding your own. It is forbidden to shorten the front. There is no freedom to manoeuvre” – he was still issuing fanatical orders like these when the battle was almost over and only a strategic withdrawal could extricate a battered Wehrmacht from a hopeless position.

‘Pockets of resistance’ was another favourite piece of Hitlerian strategy which Rommel tried in vain to combat. Such a ‘pocket’ was Caen.

Because he was considered slow in reducing this formidable objective, Montgomery has been ceaselessly criticised by Americans. Yet once again he is vindicated by his ex-enemy, Hans Speidel:

“The whole defensive battle was eating up German strength, so Hitler forbade a pliable strategy and insisted that every inch should be defended. Thus the tactically worthless foothold across the Orne near Caen was held by grievous losses of men. These stubborn tactics left the initiative to the enemy; obstinate defence was the weaker decision in every respect.”

It was over this obstinate policy of holding on at all costs that Hitler and his best generals finally fell out.

General Speidel draws a diverting picture of the famous ‘West Front’ meeting between Hitler and his generals on June 17, 1944. The rendezvous was at Battle Headquarters ‘W 11’ at Margival, near Soissons; a rabbit-warren of concrete bunkers dug out of a railway cutting on the main line to Laon. This was to have been command headquarters for the invasion of Britain in 1940; it was used just this once.

Speidel describes Hitler as “wan, sleepless, playing nervously with his spectacles and an array of coloured pencils, which he held between his fingers. He was the only one who sat, hunched upon a stool, while the Field Marshals stood.”

Later he saw the Führer at lunch, “a one-course meal at which Hitler bolted a heaped plate of rice and vegetables after it had been previously tasted for him. Pills and liqueur glasses of various medicines were ranged round his place and he sampled them in turn. The S.S. men stood behind his chair.”

At the height of this fatal meeting – for all but two of those taking part in it came to violent ends – Rommel threw down his challenge to Hitler. The Führer had just rejected the suggestion that the new ‘V-weapons’ should be aimed at the Allied bridgeheads in Normandy instead of the British Isles.

“Hitler still appeared to doubt the catastrophic account that Rommel gave of enemy weapons, whereupon Rommel brusquely pointed out that nobody of importance from the Führer’s headquarters, the High Command, the Luftwaffe, or the Navy had come to the front to form an opinion on the spot.

“These orders are worked out round the table, and there’s no front-line knowledge behind you,” exclaimed Rommel. “You demand our confidence, but you do not trust us yourself.”

“Hitler turned pale at this reproach, but remained silent.”

Shortly afterwards the meeting broke up in disorder when Allied planes were reported to be approaching Margival. But the die had been cast: it was to be war to the knife between the Führer and his Field Marshal from that moment.

General Speidel also clears up the point that has so far puzzled Allied historians – why Paris was so tamely surrendered on August 24, 1944.

It appears that the day before, the Commandant of Greater Paris, General von Choltitz, received an order from Hitler to destroy the bridges and other important objectives in Paris “even if residential areas and works of art are destroyed in doing so.”

General von Choltitz did not carry out the demolitions. He surrendered the city and was taken prisoner. As General Speidel points out, sardonically: “It would perhaps have been tactically expedient to have evacuated the city earlier and drawn off the entire garrison northwards. But the Commandant might well have gone to the gallows for doing so.”


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