While these developments were unfolding in the East, world attention was focused on the war in the West, or rather the peculiar absence of it. Germany was officially at war with England and France, but no military operations were under way along the Western Front—only a brief incursion into the Saar by the French and the occasional exchange of gunfire along the border. All was, indeed, quiet on the Western Front. It was a strange situation, dubbed by the English the “Phoney War” or “Bore War,” by the French the “Drôle de Guerre,” or Strange War, and by the Germans the “Sitzkrieg,” the Sitting War. Brimming with confidence, Hitler offered a new “peace initiative,” and a brief flurry of diplomatic activity followed, but no progress was made toward a settlement. The Western Allies, much to Hitler’s dismay, stubbornly continued to insist that a German withdrawal from Poland was the sine qua non for talks, and, of course, Hitler was not about to relinquish what he had gained. Poland was to be the launching pad for an eventual assault on the Soviet Union and, equally important, was fast becoming a laboratory for Nazi racial policy.
Although the military leadership was cautious, an emboldened Hitler was impatient. The shooting had barely stopped in Poland when he ordered the High Command to begin preparing for an immediate offensive in Western Europe. Planning was to be completed by November 5, less than a month away, and X-Day was to be November 12. His commanders were shocked. They had anticipated a protracted period of defensive warfare in the West that would allow them time to regroup and repair their equipment, to replenish their stocks of weapons, and to integrate fresh troops into the line units. In addition to the human casualties, the Wehrmacht had lost some 300 armored vehicles, 370 heavy guns, and 5,000 other military vehicles in Poland. All Hitler’s top commanders were convinced that a war against the combined forces of Britain and France would end in disaster. Generals Gerd von Rundstedt, commander of an army group in Poland, Franz Halder, chief of staff of the army, Heinz Guderian, the respected advocate of armored combat and a corps commander in Poland, and Commander-in-Chief of the Army Walther von Brauchitsch were all convinced that a war against the combined forces of Britain and France would be folly. The Allies could put more troops in the field than the Germans, and unlike the Poles, the British and French were well armed, well trained, and competently led. France possessed the largest army west of the Soviet Union and was considered the best in Europe. General Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, commander of German forces in the West during the Polish campaign, was enormously relieved that the French had not launched an attack on his forces—they could have walked into the Ruhr, he claimed—and believed an offensive now against the British and French would be a catastrophe.
These views were reinforced by General Eduard Wagner, the army’s chief supply officer, and General Georg Thomas, head of the High Command’s economic section, who reported that the Polish campaign had seriously depleted the army’s reserves of fuel and ammunition and that Germany’s industrial base could not produce enough chemicals and steel for adequate supplies of gunpowder and artillery shells until 1941. Wagner also noted that half the tanks used in the Polish campaign were not yet repaired and would not be operational until 1940, maybe 1941. As Halder recorded in his war diary on November 3, “none [his emphasis] of the top commanders believes that the attack ordered by High Command promises success. A decisive success for the ground forces cannot be expected.”
When the generals presented their objections to the Führer on November 4, they found that “discussion with him about these things [was] absolutely impossible.” He accused the commanders of cowardice and held their foot-dragging responsible for the slow tempo of rearmament. When, at a subsequent meeting, Brauchitsch suggested that morale troubles among the troops in the West had surfaced and that “there are signs of a lack of discipline like we saw in 1917–1918,” Hitler flew into a blistering rage. He would go there himself, he bellowed, and confront the troublemakers. “He would have them shot.” Brauchitsch’s story was a complete fabrication—there was no morale problem among the troops. He had concocted this yarn in hopes that it would give Hitler pause and add to the arguments against an immediate attack in the West.
The generals, singly or in groups, met with Hitler over the following days and weeks, and left each of these encounters deeply troubled. As in 1938, a small number of army leaders began to contemplate “making a fundamental change,” by which they meant removing Hitler from power. Even Brauchitsch and Halder were involved, though the center of the nascent conspiracy was Admiral Canaris’s counterintelligence agency (the Abwehr), where Colonels Hans Oster and Helmuth Groscurth, long disillusioned by Nazi radicalism, were most active. They were also in contact with conservative civilian leaders, especially former Leipzig mayor Carl Goerdeler, Hjalmar Schacht, and retired general Ludwig Beck about forming a new post-Hitler government. Those discussions meandered through the winter months, as one postponement after another delayed the offensive again and again. There were eleven postponements between November and April, most due to weather, and while the generals were relieved that Germany had been spared certain calamity in the West, the repeated delays also took the edge off the embryonic conspiracy. As in 1938 nothing came of their plans.
Despite the disturbing outcome of their meetings with Hitler, the army’s staff did produce an operational plan for an offensive in the West. The first version of Case Yellow called for a major thrust through Belgium and Holland, followed by a direct assault on French and British forces in northern France, then a drive south to Paris. The operation bore a striking resemblance to the Schlieffen Plan of 1914, and although the plan would be modified over the winter months, its central feature remained a massive assault through the Low Countries. By December, however, an important shift in German thinking was under way. The basic premise of Case Yellow was that once German troops launched their offensive, British and French forces would rush to prearranged defensive positions in Holland and Belgium to meet the German onslaught. There the decisive battle would take place. The French left substantial numbers of troops marshaled behind the Maginot Line, the elaborate string of fortifications constructed along the Franco-German border, while fewer, mostly reserve units, were deployed to guard the Luxembourg border and the Ardennes Forest. The Maginot Line was considered impregnable, and the dense forest and narrow, winding roads of the Ardennes made an attack there virtually impossible.
Few in the army leadership were satisfied with this strategy, and alternatives were being proposed as early as October. General Erich von Manstein, Rundstedt’s brilliant chief of staff, had begun pressing for a major revision of the plan that would fundamentally change the strategic thrust of the offensive. Manstein insisted that as currently construed, the plan was so unimaginative, so predictable and cautious that even if all went well, the plan could not deliver a decisive victory. The Allies would have little difficulty anticipating its moves, so that while the German offensive would gain ground, it would encounter very stiff resistance in Belgium and northern France, culminating in a stalemate similar to the static warfare of the Great War.
Manstein argued that the bulk of the Wehrmacht’s armor and motorized forces should be concentrated to the south, in Rundstedt’s Army Group A, and that their mission would not be defensive but offensive. The main spearhead of the offensive would be shifted from a frontal assault in the north to a surprise attack through the Ardennes Forest, where the Allies would least expect it. Leading General von Rundstedt’s forces would be six armored and two motorized infantry divisions.
Manstein was inspired by the revolutionary precepts of tank warfare developed by Heinz Guderian’s 1937 book entitled Achtung Panzer! Guderian argued that concentrated armored forces could operate independently of infantry, move swiftly to disperse enemy forces, disrupt their communications, and generally create an environment of unrelenting havoc. Essential to Guderian’s vision was close coordination between mass armored attacks and air strikes. As the armored spearheads shot forward, dive-bombers and fighters would pulverize the enemy from the sky. Mechanized units would follow, trailed by infantry moving on foot. The emphasis was on speed and surprise, shock and awe. In Manstein’s plan, Fedor von Bock, who had commanded troops in Austria and Poland, would attack in Holland and Belgium, drawing Allied troops northward. British and French forces, Manstein believed, would race north into Belgium to meet Bock’s advance, assuming that it was the main force. Then, once the Western Allies had committed themselves in Belgium, Rundstedt’s panzer divisions would come roaring out of the lightly defended Ardennes. Instead of turning south toward Paris, they would drive north by northwest toward the Channel coast, trapping the divisions of the British Expeditionary Force and the First French Army between the Channel, Bock’s forces, and Rundstedt’s tanks. The Allies in the north would be cut off from resupply and reinforcements and defeated.
Hitler was taken with Manstein’s ideas, and in February he formally committed to the “Manstein plan,” making it his own. Studies by the army’s Enemy Assessment Division showed that French operational culture was characterized by cautious, detailed planning, and a great concern for security. It did not act swiftly and would be especially cautious when confronted by surprise. The British were good soldiers and well led, but, in the Wehrmacht’s view, tended to be even more ponderous than their French ally. Manstein’s was a plan fraught with enormous risks. Hitler and many in the High Command worried that the long, extended line of Rundstedt’s spearheads would be vulnerable to a French counterattack that would cut in behind the advancing armor, springing a trap that would leave the panzers encircled. The Ruhr would then beckon to the Allies. It would be a disaster from which the Wehrmacht would not recover, and Germany would lose the war. But after hesitating in his usual manner, Hitler was committed to the plan. Always a gambler, he was drawn to high-stakes risks. He was also more convinced than ever that his fate was guided by the Almighty, who had great plans for him.
While the nervous generals talked about removing the Führer but did not act, an unknown cabinetmaker with Communist sentiments did. For weeks leading up to the annual celebration of the Beer Hall Putsch on November 8–9, Georg Elser had managed to build a bomb and plant it in a wooden, load-bearing pillar just behind the speaker’s podium in the Bürgerbräukeller’s great hall. On this annual occasion Hitler always addressed a packed house of party leaders, and his oration ran, as did most of his speeches, two to three hours. The speech was scheduled to begin at 8 p.m., and Elser set the bomb’s fuse to ignite at 9:30. But on this occasion, Hitler, to the surprise of all, spoke for a mere hour and then abruptly departed for Berlin. He was already onboard a Berlin-bound train when the bomb detonated, devastating much of the spacious hall, killing seven and injuring dozens of the three thousand in attendance.
Elser was caught that very night attempting to cross the Swiss border and, after days of brutal interrogation at Gestapo headquarters in Berlin, was taken to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where he lived as a “special prisoner” until April 1945, when he was transferred to Dachau and executed. The Nazi press attributed the bomb plot to the British secret service working with Elser, though the Gestapo quickly ascertained that the would-be assassin had acted alone. Hitler never believed that Elser was the lone assassin, but interpreted his “miraculous escape” as a “confirmation that Providence wishes me to attain my goals.”
Two weeks after the explosion at the Bürgerbräukeller, Hitler convened his principal military commanders to explain his reasoning behind the offensive in the West. He gave an assessment of the military status of each of Germany’s enemies and allies as well as the Reich’s many military advantages. But the ultimate key to victory, he proclaimed with unabashed frankness, was himself. “As the last factor, I must in all modesty describe my own person: Irreplaceable. Neither a military man nor a civilian could replace me. Attempts at assassination may be repeated. I am convinced of my powers of intellect and of decision. . . . Time is working for our adversaries. Now there is a relationship of forces which can never be more propitious for us. No compromises. Hardness toward ourselves. I shall strike and not capitulate. The fate of the Reich depends only on me.” The time to act had come. His generals should not concern themselves with matters of international law or conventional military practice. “Wars are always ended by the annihilation of the opponent. Anyone who believes otherwise is irresponsible. . . . Breach of neutrality of Belgium and Holland is of no importance. No one will question that when we have won.”
Preparations for Case Yellow got under way in earnest in February, when German intelligence became convinced that the British were preparing to mine the approaches to Norwegian ports, which, in fact, they were. This, Admiral Raeder, head of the navy, insisted, Germany could not allow. Iron ore was a crucial resource for the Nazi war machine, and Sweden was the Reich’s chief supplier. During winter months when the Baltic froze over, Swedish ore was delivered to Narvik in the far north of Norway and then proceeded by German supply ship along the Norwegian coast to Germany. If the English succeeded in mining Norway’s inshore navigation route and forcing German supply ships out into the open sea, where they would be vulnerable to interdiction by the Royal Navy, the result might be fatal. Raeder also stressed that the Norwegian ports would offer important facilities for German submarines patrolling the North Atlantic. If, on other hand, the Allies secured a foothold in Norway, their airbases and naval facilities would control Germany’s northern flank and threaten the Fatherland itself. Hitler was also aware of British interest in traversing northern Scandinavia to supply Finnish forces fighting the Russians. That would entail a British invasion of Norway, which the Germans could not permit. As a consequence, German planning for an invasion of Denmark and Norway commenced immediately.
On April 9, 1940, as the British mining operation commenced, Germany launched air, sea, and land operations against both Denmark and Norway. Denmark fell with virtually no opposition, but the Norwegians put up a spirited, tenacious defense. German paratroopers secured Oslo’s airport on the first day of the invasion, and in the following days German forces seized all major Norwegian ports—Narvik, Trondheim, Namsos, Andalsnes, and Oslo. The Allies, not for the last time, were caught by surprise at the speed of German operations and scrambled to send troops. In late May Allied forces arrived at Narvik, besieging the heavily outnumbered Germans in the port. Although the Royal Navy inflicted heavy losses on the German Kriegsmarine (Battle Fleet), it also suffered significant losses, and on June 7, with war in Western Europe then raging, the Allies withdrew their troops, leaving the Germans in control of Denmark and Norway. It was not a good omen for the Allies, and in its aftermath the Chamberlain government fell. Daladier’s fell soon thereafter.
On May 10, the ax fell on Western Europe. On a day when the newly chosen French premier, Paul Reynaud, resigned and France’s supreme military commander, Maurice Gamelin, did as well, the Wehrmacht smashed into Holland and Belgium. The Drôle de Guerre was over. As Bock’s troops drove into Holland, British and French troops, as anticipated, rushed northward to meet them. Their suspicions should have been aroused when they encountered little resistance from the Luftwaffe, allowing them to move rapidly toward their predetermined defensive positions. Using airborne troops—paratroopers and gliders—Bock scored dramatic victories over the Dutch and Belgians, as the Western Allies hurried their forces north to meet the advancing Germans.
But as Allied forces moved into place in Belgium, the Germans sprang the trap: the panzers of Rundstedt’s Army Group A came roaring out of the Ardennes, catching the undermanned French by surprise. Sedan, site of Emperor Napoleon III’s catastrophic defeat in 1870, fell on May 12, and by May 15 the panzers were across the Meuse bridges. Led by Generals Guderian and Erwin Rommel, the panzers did not turn north to engage the Allied forces there but drove rapidly westward toward the Channel coast. By May 20, German troops reached the coast near the mouth of the Somme and wheeled north toward the French Channel ports of Calais, Boulogne, and Dunkirk.
The British Expeditionary Force and the French First Army were trapped, cut off from the rest of their forces in France, and began a fighting withdrawal to the coast, where they hoped to be evacuated. The Germans pushed them into the port city of Dunkirk and onto its beaches. The panzers were only one and half miles from the port, primed for the final assault that would annihilate the British Expeditionary Force. It had all the makings of a sheer catastrophe. But as the panzers closed in for the coup de grâce, Hitler suddenly ordered them to halt. Convinced by Rundstedt, he argued that tanks were ill suited for the marshy terrain, and besides, he needed to have them ready for the last great push toward Paris. Halder, Guderian, and Manstein were furious. The complete annihilation of the British Army was within their grasp, and the Führer had snatched that opportunity away from them at the last moment.
Hitler assigned the reduction of Dunkirk to the Luftwaffe and Bock’s infantry units pushing from the north. What followed was what the British hailed as the “miracle of Dunkirk.” Between May 26 and June 4, a ragtag armada of naval vessels, fishing trawlers, tugs, and private yachts miraculously plucked roughly 338,000 British and 100,000 French troops from the coast despite incessant attacks from the air. The troops were saved, but behind them they left the wreckage of the British Expeditionary Force. All their heavy equipment—hundreds of vehicles, tanks, and artillery pieces—lay scattered in the sands of Dunkirk, and the Germans took 40,000 prisoners. Hitler later implied that he had spared the British troops as an act of goodwill, thinking that such forbearance would render the British more open to negotiations. The British certainly did not see it that way, and any interpretation of Hitler’s actions based on a supposition of his “goodwill” rests more on fantasy than empirical evidence.
After the fall of Dunkirk, German forces wheeled southward, quickly broke through the defensive line established by the new French commanding general, Maxime Wegand, and moved on the capital. Paris was declared an open city; French units withdrew, and on June 14 German troops marched triumphantly down the Champs-Elysees. Church bells rang all over the Reich, boats blared their horns on the Rhine, spontaneous celebrations erupted in the cities. Meanwhile, Reynaud’s reconstituted government fled first to Tours and then to Bordeaux and considered continuing the fight to the French colonies in North Africa. But with German troops racing southward, slowed more by thousands of panicked civilians crowding the roads than by the French army, Reynaud was pushed aside, and the aged Philippe Pétain, hero of the Great War, assumed leadership of the government on June 17.
Reynaud had brought the marshal out of retirement in the hope that the “savior of Verdun” would stiffen the army’s will to resist, but it did not happen. Instead, Pétain, backed by the highest-ranking French generals, was convinced that the military situation was hopeless and removing the French government to North Africa was dishonorable. As for their British allies, they were doomed, willing to fight to the last drop of French blood but not beyond. Alliance with Britain was “a marriage with a corpse.” Under the circumstances, he drew what he deemed the obvious, rational conclusion: he asked for an immediate armistice and integration into Hitler’s New Order. The Germans readily accepted.
In a particularly cruel twist to France’s humiliation, Hitler had the old railroad carriage in which the Germans had signed the Armistice in 1918 taken from a museum in Paris and delivered to a clearing in the Forest of Compiègne, to the exact spot where it had stood in November 1918. Hitler was overjoyed. In six weeks, the lowly corporal of the Great War had achieved a stunning victory that had eluded the mighty Hindenburg, Ludendorff, and the Kaiser’s army for four blood-soaked years. William Shirer managed to be on the scene and watched as Hitler waited to enter the carriage. He had seen Hitler’s face “many times at the great moments of his life. But Today! It is afire with scorn, anger, hate, revenge, triumph.” Hitler swiftly snapped his hands on his hips, arched his shoulders, planted his feet wide apart. It was “a magnificent gesture of defiance, of burning contempt for this place now and all that it has stood for in the twenty-two years hence.”
The terms of the armistice were surprisingly generous. Germany was to control Paris, the industrial north, and the coastal areas of Atlantic France—approximately two thirds of the country. Unlike Poland, France would not disappear from the map. A superficially autonomous region in central France was to be left to the new conservative government of Marshal Pétain, who would rule from the small resort town of Vichy. Hitler was eager to be rid of this conflict that he had tried to avoid or at least defer. His ambitions lay not in Western Europe, but in the East, and he did not wish to deploy large numbers of troops to occupy France. A cooperative France—Pétain suggested the term “collaborationist”—was the result. And the new regime in Vichy seemed eager to fit into Hitler’s New Order in Europe.
Before leaving France, Hitler wanted to fulfill a dream that had been with him since his early years in Vienna. He wanted to see Paris. As a young man, he had studied the city’s architecture in books, even knowing in great detail the interior of the Paris Opera House. On June 28, he summoned Speer and two other architects to accompany him and his entourage on a tour of Paris. Early on a gray June morning Hitler traveled through the deserted streets in an open touring car to see the sights of the city—the Pantheon, the Eiffel Tower, Sacré-Coeur, the Invalides, where he visited the tomb of Napoleon, and, of course, the Opera. By nine o’clock the sightseeing was over. He would never see Paris again.
Germany’s stunningly swift conquest of France sent shockwaves throughout the world, but nowhere more than in London and isolationist Washington, where in September the first American peacetime draft was introduced in response. It had been universally assumed in military and political circles that the French would blunt the German offensive, and a long gruesome war of attrition would be the result. Now, suddenly, France was defeated; England driven back to its own shores; and Germany was the master of the European continent. France’s ignominious collapse, the Nazi press explained, was due to the fact that “the French had placed leadership in the hands of the Jews,” who proved to be “France’s gravediggers.”
Nazi propaganda notwithstanding, the key to Germany’s victory in France lay elsewhere. It was not technological or numerical superiority, as is so often claimed, nor was it the oft-cited poor quality of the French troops. French soldiers, the ordinary Poilu, fought bravely and in highly compromised situations. All these factors played contributing roles, but by far the most significant factor in accounting for France’s unexpected collapse was its military leadership. The French High Command consisted of men of the last war, men who could grasp neither the speed of German operations nor the Wehrmacht’s operational strategy. Germany’s lightning assault and sheer audacity were utterly unanticipated, and the Allies, well equipped and well trained, operated with a conception of speed and maneuver that was still mired in the mud of the Great War.
General Maurice Gamelin, the seventy-two-year-old commander of the joint British and French forces, was confident of victory, excessively so, and was slow to react to the German onslaught. The British Expeditionary Force was hardly more robust. While the French High Command worried excessively about signals security, which delayed its responses to the German offensive, German spearheads raced forward, sent signals in the clear, and did not wait for clearances. Speed and surprise, they gambled, would trump security. Unlike their French and English counterparts, German tanks were equipped with radios, allowing the panzers to communicate directly with one another and with Luftwaffe units providing crucial air support. The result was a degree of speed and maneuverability that kept the Allies perpetually off guard and one step behind.
The dazzling triumph over France brought Hitler to the pinnacle of his popularity in Germany and left his enemies gasping for breath. A jubilant victory parade through the center of Berlin honored the Wehrmacht and its stupendous achievements, and Hitler, in a special session of the Reichstag, awarded nine field marshal’s batons to his generals and named Göring Marshal of the Reich. The victory over France, he boasted in addressing the Reichstag, was “the most daring undertaking in the history of German warfare,” resulting in “the greatest and most glorious victory of all time.” A sense of euphoria swept the country. France had fallen, and England had been driven from the continent. Casualties were high—27,000 dead—but the British and French had suffered greater losses. Yet, despite the parades, the speeches, the scenes of German triumph in the newsreels, there remained the troublesome realization that the war was not, in fact, over. The British had been soundly beaten but didn’t seem to grasp the hopelessness of their position.
Churchill, Hitler believed, was the problem. Churchill’s appointment as prime minister in May 1940 had come as a blow. For years an outspoken opponent of appeasement and National Socialism, a hotheaded “warmonger” to some in British official circles, Churchill relished his role as wartime leader. Despite the string of crushing defeats in Norway, the Low Countries, and France, Churchill was determined to stay in the fight. Anyone else at the helm in London would see reason, Hitler believed, would recognize that Britain’s ability to reverse the situation on the continent was nil, and that the best solution was to strike a deal. Britian should recognize the new realities of international politics and accommodate itself to them. Hitler was prepared to recognize the integrity of the British Empire; Germany had no demands to make on Britain—perhaps some restoration of German colonies in Africa, but beyond that nothing. London had merely to accept German hegemony on the continent and take the Führer’s word that Germany had no further ambitions. Yet, as the peoples of Europe had learned over the previous two years, the Führer’s promises counted for little. “Hitler always meant what he said,” British historian John Wheeler-Bennett once observed, “except when he gave his word.” The English, whose behavior Hitler could never fathom, were not prepared to accept these conditions.
It was during these critical weeks in the summer of 1940, weeks when Britain stood alone, that Churchill delivered his most inspiring speeches, calling on the British people to persevere. They were speeches of desperation and defiance, swaddled in Churchill’s soaring Augustan rhetoric defiantly summoning the nation to fight to the bitter end, to never surrender to Nazi tyranny. It would be “their finest hour.” That speech was in Goebbels’s view brimming with “an insolence that can hardly be exaggerated.” It was “the speech of a raving lunatic. He wants to keep on fighting alone.”
Nonetheless, on July 19 Hitler convened the Reichstag to give a much anticipated speech that was to contain a “magnanimous” offer to the British. There were really no issues dividing the two nations, Hitler declared. He renewed his offer to provide a military guarantee of the British Empire. But if the war continues, he warned, “Mr. Churchill should . . . trust me when as a prophet I now proclaim: A great world empire will be destroyed. A world empire which I never had the ambition to destroy or as much as harm.” He was working to prevent a needless calamity and felt compelled by his conscience to make another “appeal to reason in England. . . . I am not asking for something as the vanquished, but rather, as the victor.” He was “speaking in the name of reason. I see no compelling reason which could force the continuation of this war.” Only “Jews and Freemasons, armaments industrialists and war profiteers, international traders and stockjobbers” wanted this war.
Here Nazi propaganda found its leitmotif for war with Britain. The threat of Judeo-Bolshevism faded temporarily, while Germany’s defense against Jewish plutocracy was moved stage center. Germany was not at war with the British people, but with the plutocrats backed by the Jews who had come to dominate British politics and society. “Our Jewish-democratic world enemy succeeded in inciting the English people to a state of war against Germany,” Hitler declared in the very first days of the conflict. “English and Jewish philistines,” the Nazi press insisted, “had a common political and economic interest in working against the process of liberation that Germany was leading against English-Jewish capitalist domination.” German journalists were to direct their attacks not against the British people but “against those eternal warmongers who act on behalf of Jewry, international capitalism, and the democracies and plutocracies.” Sadly, the British upper strata had become heavily “Jewified,” but at least now the German people knew who their true enemy was: “power-hungry, hate filled world Jewry.” England, Goebbels proclaimed, “was in the hands of the Jews.”
Goebbels’s propaganda barrage against England proved enormously successful, especially with the young. “German public opinion is boiling hot,” Goebbels noted with satisfaction in his diary. The German people were “aflame” with hatred of Britain, and war against England “will be a relief,” Goebbels concluded. “That is what the German people want.” Gestapo reports on public opinion bore this out, registering a rising impatience for a decisive blow against the warmonger Churchill and the British people. “Overwhelming is the hope that the Führer attack England immediately,” one report in June claimed, and that “the British will really get it in the neck.” Another noted that “people could hardly wait for the attack to start, and everybody wanted to be present at Britain’s impending defeat.” The jaunty popular war song “We’re Going Against England,” released in July, captured that sense of confidence and resentment. It played on the radio in a continuous loop, and for a change German popular opinion seemed to charge out in front of Hitler and the Nazi leadership. Hitler was frustrated and angry when the very next evening the BBC broadcast a flat refusal of his peace offering, and a day later Foreign Minister Lord Halifax officially rejected it. “The Führer,” Halder recorded in his diary, “is very strongly preoccupied by the question why England is still unwilling to ‘choose the way to peace.’ ” Hitler had given his last offer to Britain. The war would continue. Unable to coax London into a settlement, Hitler ordered preparations to begin for an invasion of Britain. He had hoped to avoid such a step; to bluff the British into an agreement. An invasion was to be a last resort. But Churchill’s incomprehensible truculence left him few options. On July 16 Hitler signed Directive No. 16, “About the Preparation of a Landing Operation Against England,” authorizing the Wehrmacht to begin planning for an invasion of Britain.
When on July 16 the High Command of the Armed Forces (OKW—the Supreme Command of all German armed forces) for the first time confronted the stark realities of an amphibious landing in southern England, the challenges were sobering. Unlike operations against Poland and France, both of which were the result of months of staff planning, Operation Sea Lion was from the beginning an improvisation. Not even the most rudimentary plan for an invasion of Britain had been drafted when France fell in June 1940. Yet, the target date Hitler set was August 15. An undertaking, the outcome of which could decide the war and whose success would require extraordinary coordination between the army, navy, and air force, was to be operational in one month.
The original plan for Sea Lion called for 500,000 troops to land along a two-hundred-mile coastal front in the south-southeast of England. Halder believed that an invasion in a more concentrated area would be suicidal. Admiral Raeder was mortified when he saw the plan. He lacked the necessary ships to transport troops across the Channel and began requisitioning river barges, fishing trawlers, and tugs. Having suffered heavy losses in the waters off Norway, he also lacked the warships to block the Royal Navy. These considerations convinced Hitler to postpone the launch of Sea Lion until September 15, by which time Raeder hoped to scrape together enough landing craft to ferry the army across.
The key to success for the entire endeavor was the Luftwaffe’s ability to establish air superiority over the Channel and the landing zones, but the army and the navy could summon little confidence in their ability to accomplish that mission. Göring’s air force would have to drive the Royal Navy from the scene, destroy the RAF, break the initial resistance of British land forces, and annihilate reserves behind the lines. With his usual bluster, Göring assured Hitler that the Luftwaffe would subdue the Royal Air Force in five weeks.
On the morning of July 10, 1,500 German bombers appeared over coastal England, attacking several port cities—Plymouth, Dover, Portsmouth, and others. For almost three weeks German bombers attacked coastal defenses and sank over forty thousand tons of British shipping but never really dented the Royal Navy’s strength in the Channel. Bombing in the daytime and without the benefit of fighter escorts, the Luftwaffe lost one hundred bombers by August 1. Raids on August 13 signaled a shift in targets. German planes began an assault on British air defenses to neutralize British airpower “in the shortest possible time.” The raids focused on military airfields in coastal areas, flying units, supply, and the aircraft industry. Remarkably, only one attack was made on the radar installations that dotted Britain’s eastern and southeastern coastline. The Luftwaffe knew their purpose but underestimated their importance.
During these raids the Germans inflicted terrible casualties on the RAF, shooting down more than one hundred British planes, but suffered heavy losses as well. If British pilots were able to bail out, most landed on British soil and could be back in the air again quickly, while German air crews shot down over England were lost for the war. On August 24, with losses rising alarmingly, the Luftwaffe shifted its priorities once again, returning to missions against RAF airfields. During the last week of August, the RAF lost so many planes and pilots that replacements could not keep pace. Fighter Command lost almost three hundred aircraft between August 24 and September 6, far more than German fighter losses. RAF Fighter Command, and hence British air defenses, was teetering on the brink of disaster, and alarm swept the government.
During the night of August 24, German planes attempting to bomb an RAF base on the outskirts of London strayed off course and dropped bombs on the center of the city. Before hostilities had begun, all combatants had issued solemn promises to refrain from attacking civilian targets, but the Luftwaffe had already bombed Warsaw and the center of Rotterdam. Warsaw could be claimed as a military target, since the Polish army was still resisting in the city, and the May bombing of Rotterdam, Berlin maintained, was due to pilot error. The RAF had also launched several desultory raids on a number of western German cities. On May 11, Mönchengladbach in the Rhineland had become the first German city to experience an air raid, but the RAF soon hit Hamburg, Kiel, Koblenz, Düsseldorf, and other targets in the following days. These raids produced little serious damage and few casualties; one could hardly speak of a systematic bombing campaign, but the shock produced on the German public was tremendous. Germans had been led to believe that the Fatherland was invulnerable to attack from the air and could hardly believe that the vanquished British had the temerity to launch raids on the Reich.
In retaliation for the London bombing, Churchill ordered a raid on Berlin for the very next night. Göring had famously joked that if a single British bomber managed to reach Berlin, he should be called Meyer, and the population of the city had great confidence in the field marshal’s boast. A British bomber would have to fly deep into German airspace, dodge concentrations of flak en route, somehow elude flocks of Luftwaffe fighters, and then penetrate the outer and inner rings of antiaircraft batteries around Berlin. An impossible task. Yet on the night of August 25, a small RAF bomber force did just that. While air raid sirens wailed and powerful searchlights raked the sky, the squadron dropped bombs on the densely populated Kreuzberg section of the city. The Görlitz train station was badly damaged, bomb craters pockmarked the neighborhood’s main street, and streetcar tracks lay twisted into a tangle of bizarre shapes. Twelve civilians were killed in the raid, and over nine hundred residents were left homeless. In the following week, the RAF returned for three consecutive nights. Rousted from their beds in the middle of the night by screaming sirens, civilians groped in the fathomless darkness to find their way to cellars or official air raid shelters. There they huddled for three or four hours, waiting nervously for the all-clear to be sounded. The war had come home to the Reich.
Speaking to a full house at the Sportpalast on September 4, Hitler raged against the British terror bombing. If the Royal Air Force “drop two thousand, or three thousand, or four thousand kilograms of bombs,” he shrieked, “then we will now drop 150,000; 180,000; 230,000; 306,000; 400,000; yes, one million kilograms in a single night. And should they declare they will greatly increase their attacks on our cities, then we will raze their cities to the ground. . . . The hour will come that one of us will break, and it will not be National Socialist Germany.” It was a dramatic reversal of his August 1 War Directive No. 17, explicitly forbidding the Luftwaffe to launch terror raids on the civilian population unless he had given his specific permission to do so. In one of his notorious monologues over dinner at the Reich Chancellery, Hitler, who only weeks before had cautioned the Luftwaffe to avoid hitting civilians, now exclaimed: “Göring wants to use innumerable incendiary bombs of an altogether new type to create sources of fire in all parts of London. Fires everywhere. Thousands of them. Then they’ll unite in one gigantic area conflagration. Göring has the right idea. Explosive bombs don’t work, but it can be done with incendiary bombs—total destruction of London. What use will their fire department be once that really starts.” Within six months, terror bombing of civilian targets became the norm for both Britain and Germany.
In early September, the Luftwaffe shifted its targeting priorities away from the RAF airfields to an all-out assault on London. It was a drastic change in objectives, and its timing was critical. It was not just vengeance for attacks on Berlin, Hitler claimed, but would lure more British fighters into the skies, a move that Göring believed would hasten the RAF’s inevitable downfall. But, with the battered RAF on the verge of collapse, that shift in strategy would prove of decisive importance. London was heavily defended by two thousand antiaircraft guns, and for ten days in mid-September, long bright blue days, the skies over southeastern England were filled with formations of black German bombers droning toward London. Vectoring fighters from around the country to intercept, the RAF relentlessly attacked. Losses were astronomically high for both sides, but by mid-September the outcome was clear. The Germans had failed to attain their strategic objectives. The RAF had suffered grievous losses but had not been broken; British morale had not cracked, and the Luftwaffe had been unable to secure the necessary air superiority for a cross-Channel invasion. On September 17, Hitler, with some relief, ordered the indefinite postponement of Operation Sea Lion.
The Battle of Britain was over, but the German air assault continued. The raids shifted to nighttime, metastasizing into the unrestrained aerial onslaught so many had feared. Fires engulfed London, turning large areas of the city into a blazing inferno. The Blitz, as the British called the German campaign of terror bombing, raged from September 1940 into the spring of 1941. During roughly thirty-seven weeks of unrelenting horror, the Luftwaffe bombed Liverpool, Hull, Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield, and other cities. In a particularly devastating raid on the night of November 14–15, 449 Luftwaffe bombers dropped 1,400 high-explosive bombs and 100,000 incendiaries on the industrial city of Coventry, creating a raging firestorm that consumed 50,000 buildings and killed 568 people. In London, 28,556 people, mostly civilians, lost their lives during the course of the bombing, marking an ominous new station on the road to total war. This was terror bombing, shorn of even the flimsiest justification about military targets, and with its coming, the character of the war was radically changed. What had begun as a confrontation between the armed forces of nations had now become a savage people’s war, a war in which the distinction between civilian and military targets was erased.