The Germans had four years to fortify their conquered northern Atlantic coast, but they had not, as of early 1944, put that time to good use. For three of those years the Western Front was, to them, a place to refit formations that had been shattered in Russia or a place to station inferior troops not trusted with front-line duty. The Nazi propaganda machine boasted about Germany's “Atlantic Wall,” but until the latter part of 1943 the wall was more fantasy than reality. Two things happened in late 1943 that lit a fire under the Germans. First, they began to realize that an Anglo-American invasion of France was a real possibility. Second, they appointed their most prominent commander, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the great hero of North Africa, to command in the west.
Rommel toured the beach defenses and came away appalled. In almost every area along the coast, the Germans did not have enough mines, barbed wire, obstacles, pillboxes, cupolas, concrete, guns, or troops to repel the kind of invasion Rommel expected in 1944. He strongly believed that Germany could only win the coming battle by repelling the invasion at the water's edge. The first twenty-four hours would be decisive. If the Germans allowed the Allies a lodgment on the continent, their logistical, manpower, naval, and air superiority would inevitably overwhelm German forces. Only by turning the invasion coast into an impenetrable wall, ironically echoing the Nazi propaganda for which Rommel had little but contempt, could his forces achieve victory. The diminutive, dynamic German commander stood on a French beach one day in early 1944 and pensively told his young aide, Captain Hellmuth Lang, “The war will be won or lost on the beaches. We'll have only one chance to stop the enemy, and that's while he's in the water…struggling to get ashore. Believe me, Lang, the first twenty-four hours of the invasion will be decisive…for the Allies, as well as Germany, it will be the longest day.”1
Rommel immediately ordered a dramatic strengthening of the beach defenses. Thousands of slave and local laborers poured millions of tons of concrete and steel emplacements. German engineers sowed millions of mines and beach obstacles. The latter mainly consisted of devices aimed at thwarting landing craft: mine-tipped logs, sharp hedgehogs, concrete tank traps, barbed wire, Belgian gates (steel contraptions designed to snare landing craft), concrete cones, even live shells pointed out to sea. Behind these initial obstacles, his commanders supervised the construction of pillboxes, observation bunkers, communication trenches, guns, and machine-gun nests with interlocking fields of fire. They made brilliant use of terrain. They even took steps to defeat an airborne invasion, denuding local forests to emplace sharpened stakes known as Rommel's asparagus. The asparagus were supposed to tear open gliders or impale descending paratroopers.2