The Allies succeeded in landing on the coast of France, despite a tenuous hold on the center of their lines. If the German command structure allowed for independent action, they might not have stayed.
In a stroke of luck for the Allies, General Erwin Rommel was in Germany for his wife’s birthday on June 6, 1944. General Gerd von Rundstedt had asked Hitler’s Chief of Staff, Jodl, to release the Panzers, but Hitler was asleep and Jodl would not wake him. The Panzers were moved towards the British beaches hours later when Hitler woke, but already it was too late.
Thus the Allies survived the initial landings. Beyond the invasion beaches were ancient, knotted hedgerows, called bocage, that were ten to fifteen feet high and impossible to cut through. The Allies and the Germans moved off the beaches and into the bocage, fighting hedgerow by hedgerow. Allied and German units would get lost and stumble upon each other, and there was no way over or through them to escape. The invasion was in danger of stagnation.
Advance was made only with high explosives, but as the Allied stock dwindled, it was realized that blasting through the hedgerows would be impossible. The Americans took the anti-invasion obstacles, made out of tough railroad ties, and cut them into cowcatchers for their tanks. Digging into the thick root structure with their tanks, the Americans were finally able to make progress.
The British were ordered by Montgomery to take Caen. Soon the city had the dubious distinction of being the most bombed French city in the war, but in armored attacks at Villers-Bocage on June 13 and on Caen itself on June 25-29, the British made no progress in breaking out of the Cotentin Peninsula and moving inland. Everyone was growing impatient, and Montgomery’s characteristic long wait while he built up his forces added tension between the Americans and their coalition partner. A grim mood hung over SHAEF.
The Americans were tired of waiting and in the meantime were clearing the city of Cherbourg of German defenders. As a major port, Hitler ordered his men to fight to the death, but by June 28 the last pocket of resistance was cleared and the port facilities began to be repaired.
Meanwhile, the German High Command, OKW, was undergoing a serious crisis. The Wehrmacht Seventh Army Commander, Friedrich Dollmann, committed suicide. Strafing on July 17 injured Erwin Rommel and he was out of action, replaced by Günther von Kluge. Three days later the July 20 plot failed, and Rommel and von Kluge were implicated and forced to commit suicide.
But the stagnation still characterized the Normandy front. Montgomery, under increasing pressure even from Churchill, started Operation Goodwood on July 17-19. Large numbers of British tanks tried again to take Caen and breakout, but they were again repulsed.
The Americans were winning a protracted battle of attrition to the south. With most of the German armor concentrated around the Goodwind operation, the newly created United States Third Army under General George S. Patton landed in France and began to make a flank attack around the German lines. He drove into Brittany and threatened to encircle the Germans from the rear. Hitler tried to use the American flank attack to create one of his own, but Ultra decrypts showed the planned offensive, and the Germans ran into heavy barriers of antitank guns. Stopped in their tracks, Operation Lüttich began on August 7 and was over quickly.
By mid August, additional landings in southern France made Hitler realize further resistance was useless and that his Army had to retreat in order to stabilize their lines. On August 16, he ordered a retreat and it was carried out with great skill, despite the blown bridges and shattered roadways. Since the Allies had command of the air, movement was often by night. 250,000 men, with little equipment got across the Seine. But almost as many were caught near the town of Falaise.
As the American and British spearheads moved towards a linkup, the Germans smashed through the lines of the tough Polish 1st Division, despite being harassed by fighter-bombers firing rockets. 50,000 were killed and 200,000 were captured. When Eisenhower toured the battlefield several days later, he was said to have remarked that a person could walk for a mile on German corpses.
Between August 19 and August 31, 1944, the Germans and the Allies fought a series of actions as the German rearguard put up a stubborn defense. Feldmarschall Walther Mödel, another veteran of the Eastern Front, crossed 186 miles from the sea to the Meuse River, all the while pursued by Allied spearheads and fighter-bombers.
On August 19, with the Germans in retreat and the Allies still miles away, the communist-led Paris Resistance rose up and attacked the German garrison. The Free French forces declared their intention to break off and attack the city with or without the Allies, who favored a broad front strategy through Europe.
The battle in Normandy was over; Paris was about to be liberated; by the end of 1944 almost all of France would be free of German occupation. But that August, an outraged Hitler would demand, “Is Paris burning?” Attention focused on the City of Lights.