June 6 will forever be the anniversary of one of the most fateful days in modern history: the Allied D-Day invasion of Normandy. By day’s end American, British, and Canadian troops had breached Germany’s Atlantic Wall defenses and established a foothold in Western Europe. With Soviet armies rolling in from the east Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime was caught in a gigantic vise. Its defeat was now only a matter of time.
Considering the pivotal nature of June 6, 1944, how did Hitler react to the attack? Did he rant, did he rail? Did he move with focused calm to try and repel the invaders?
He did none of those things, at first. For D-Day’s opening act, Hitler slept.
In the early days of June Germany’s Fuhrer was at The Berghof, his residence in the Bavarian Alps. Everyone there knew an invasion was likely in the near future, but the atmosphere was not nervous, according to contemporary accounts. To the contrary it was relaxed, and in the evening, almost festive. A group of guests and military aides would gather at the complex’s Tea House and Hitler would hold forth on favorite topics, such as the great men of history, or Europe’s future.
On the evening of June 5, Hitler and his entourage watched the latest newsreels, and then talked about films and theater. They stayed up until 2 a.m., trading reminiscences. It was almost like the “good old times,” remembered key Hitler associate Joseph Goebbels.
When Goebbels left for his own quarters, a thunderstorm broke, writes British historian Ian Kershaw. German military intelligence was already picking up indications of an oncoming Allied force, and perhaps landing troops, in the Normandy region. But Hitler wasn’t told. The Fuhrer retired around 3 a.m.
German headquarters confirmed that some sort of widespread attack was in progress shortly thereafter. At sunrise, around 6 a.m., the defenders knew: Allied ships and planes were massed off the French beaches in astounding strength, and men were beginning to come ashore. It was a sight many would never forget.
But the German reaction was slow and befuddled. Was this the real thing, the main invasion? Or was it a feint, with the real force to land elsewhere, probably Calais?
“German confusion was extensive,” wrote US historian Stephen Ambrose in his book “D-Day: June 6, 1944, The Climactic Battle of World War II.”
Hitler snored on. He had previously insisted that any initial attack would be a decoy intended to divert forces to the wrong place. Given his tendency towards histrionics, no one wanted to tell Hitler what was going on until they themselves were certain.
“His adjutants now hesitated to waken him with mistaken information,” wrote Mr. Kershaw in his “Hitler: A Biography.”
Hitler was still asleep at 10 a.m. when Nazi associate and arms minister Albert Speer arrived at the Berghof. He was awakened around noon and told the news. Hitler was not angry, or vindictive – far from it. He seemed relieved. Goebbels thought the German leader looked as if a great burden had fallen from his shoulders. He had earlier said Normandy was a possible landing site, for one thing. He felt the poor weather in the area would favor the defense. He considered Allied troops far inferior to German units. For months, Allied forces had been massing in England, where the now-weakened Luftwaffe could not strike them. Now they were in reach, in range of German guns.
“The news couldn’t be better,” Hitler said when informed of the invasion, according to historian Mr. Ambrose.
But Hitler’s morning lie-in was a tremendous error. Or rather his sleep, plus the inflexibility of the German command system, significantly weakened the German response to the oncoming Allied forces.
Earlier on the morning of June 6 the top German commander in the west, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, had requested the immediate release of two reserve panzer divisions held in the area of Paris for use against the Normandy beachhead about 120 miles away. He had to ask for them because they weren’t under his command. They were controlled by Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, the overall military headquarters in Germany. OKW was at first reluctant to authorize their release. What if the “invasion” was a trap?
At a lunchtime military conference Hitler finally agreed with von Rundstedt’s request. But at that point it was too late. If they had moved out in early morning, under cover of darkness, they might have reached the front. Now they had to wait out the daylight hours, lest they be destroyed by Allied aircraft, which ruled the French skies.
“The delay was crucial,” judged Kershaw in his Hitler biography.
Allied units were already beginning to move inland and link up with each other in an attempt to create a seamless beachhead. A German counter-attack failed to drive wedges between the Allied landing beaches. More panzers might have made the response effective.
Later on June 6, Hitler attended a reception near Salzburg for the new Austrian foreign minister. When he entered the room he was radiant. “It’s begun at last,” he said.
By day’s end 156,000 Allied troops had already landed in France. Six days later all beachhead sectors were connected and the Allies controlled an area about 15 miles deep at its thickest point. Two weeks later 650,000 American and British troops were in France, the point of a spear aimed at Berlin.