In late 1943 Erwin Rommel had been given a job inspecting the defenses of Hitler’s ‘Atlantic Wall’, strung all along the coast of Europe from Norway down to France. The greatest likelihood was that the expected Allied invasion would come on the coast of France closest to England across the English Channel. Yet the uncertainty was great. The Allies might not land in the most obvious place – even if it was the shortest route.
By early 1944, Rommel had been given an operational role in command of troops who would resist the invasion. The German lines of command in France were not clear and would cause tension right up to the day of the invasion and beyond. Nevertheless, Rommel was responsible for energetically improving the defense structures along the coast. The emphasis was less on massive concrete gun emplacements but the smaller Widerstandsnest – WN – strong points.
On January 29 Rommel visited WN 62 and immediately spotted the parallels with the Allied landing beach at Salerno in Italy. Gazing along the beach between Colleville and Vierville he declared, “this bay must be fortified as quickly as possible against an attempted invasion by the Allies.”
He was testy about the two Czech 76.5mm field guns he saw standing in the open on concrete platforms beneath camouflage net poles. “You have been here for three years,” he asked the uncomfortable local company commander, Hauptmann Ottermeier, “and what have you achieved?”.
Gefreiter Franz Gockel remembered that sixty paid Morrocan laborers turned up with locally pressed labor and built two new emplacements, upper and lower concrete casemates for the two 76.5mm guns in six weeks.
Unteroffizier Henrik Naube at WN73 farther along remembered Rommel as “a very energetic and active man; he walked very briskly and spoke rapidly.” He fired off detailed questions at their officer “about the ammunition we had in the post; how old the weapons were,” and so on. Rommel exuded impatient energy, “he was quite a short man,” Naube recalled, “but with a powerful presence.”
It was not until later that “the beach between Colleville and Vierville” was to become identified by the Allies as “Omaha Beach”. Rommel was making fateful decisions that were to have terrible consequences for many young men when the invasion did come.