Military history


“Tonight the press talks openly of peace,” I noted in my diary September 20. “All the Germans I’ve talked to today are dead sure we shall have peace within a month. They are in high spirits.”

The afternoon before at the ornate Guild Hall in Danzig I had heard Hitler make his first speech since his Reichstag address of September 1 started off the war. Though he was in a rage because he had been balked from making this speech at Warsaw, whose garrison still gallantly held out, and dripped venom every time he mentioned Great Britain, he made a slight gesture toward peace. “I have no war aims against Britain and France,” he said. “My sympathies are with the French poilu. What he is fighting for he does not know.” And he called upon the Almighty, “who now has blessed our arms, to give other peoples comprehension of how useless this war will be … and to cause reflection on the blessings of peace.”

On September 26, the day before Warsaw fell, the German press and radio launched a big peace offensive. The line, I recorded in my diary, was: “Why do France and Britain want to fight now? Nothing to fight about. Germany wants nothing in the West.”

A couple of days later, Russia, fast devouring its share of Poland, joined in the peace offensive. Along with the signing of the German–Soviet Boundary and Friendship Treaty, with its secret clauses dividing up Eastern Europe, Molotov and Ribbentrop concocted and signed at Moscow on September 28 a ringing declaration for peace.

The governments of Germany and Russia, it said, after having

definitely settled the problems arising from the disintegration of the Polish state and created a firm foundation for a lasting peace in Eastern Europe, mutually express their conviction that it would serve the true interests of all peoples to put an end to the state of war between Germany and England and France. Both governments will therefore direct their common efforts … toward attaining this goal as soon as possible.

Should, however, the efforts of the two governments remain fruitless, this would demonstrate the fact that England and France are responsible for the continuation of the war …

Did Hitler want peace, or did he want to continue the war and, with Soviet help, push the responsibility for its continuance on the Western Allies? Perhaps he did not quite know himself, although he was pretty certain.

On September 26 he had a long talk with Dahlerus, who had by no means given up the quest for peace. Two days before, the indefatigable Swede had seen his old friend Ogilvie Forbes at Oslo, where the former counselor of the Berlin embassy was now serving in a similar capacity in the British Legation in the Norwegian capital. Dahlerus reported to Hitler, according to a confidential memorandum of Dr. Schmidt,14 that Forbes had told him the British government was looking for peace. The only question was: How could the British save face?

“If the British actually want peace,” Hitler replied, “they can have it in two weeks—without losing face.”

They would have to reconcile themselves, said the Fuehrer, to the fact “that Poland cannot rise again.” Beyond that he was prepared, he declared, to guarantee the status quo “of the rest of Europe,” including guarantees of the “security” of Britain, France and the Low Countries. There followed a discussion of how to launch the peace talks. Hitler suggested that Mussolini do it. Dahlerus thought the Queen of the Netherlands might be more “neutral.” Goering, who was also present, suggested that representatives of Britain and Germany first meet secretly in Holland and then, if they made progress, the Queen could invite both countries to armistice talks. Hitler, who several times professed himself as skeptical regarding “the British will to peace,” finally agreed to the Swede’s proposal that he “go to England the very next day in order to send out feelers in the direction indicated.”

“The British can have peace if they want it,” Hitler told Dahlerus as he left, “but they will have to hurry.”

That was one trend in the Fuehrer’s thinking. He expressed another to his generals. The day before, on September 25, an entry in Halder’s diary mentions receipt of “word on Fuehrer’s plan to attack in the West.” On September 27, the day after he had assured Dahlerus that he was ready to make peace with Britain, Hitler convoked the commanders in chief of the Wehrmacht to the Chancellery and informed them of his decision to “attack in the West as soon as possible, since the Franco–British army is not yet prepared.” According to Brauchitsch he even set a date for the attack: November 12.15 No doubt Hitler was fired that day by the news that Warsaw had finally capitulated. He probably thought that France, at least, could be brought to her knees as easily as Poland, though two days later Halder made a diary note to “explain” to the Fuehrer that “technique of Polish campaign no recipe for the West. No good against a well-knit army.”

Perhaps Ciano penetrated Hitler’s mind best when he had a long talk with the Chancellor in Berlin on October 1. The young Italian Foreign Minister, who by now thoroughly detested the Germans but had to keep up appearances, found the Fuehrer in a confident mood. As he outlined his plans, his eyes “flashed in a sinister fashion whenever he talked about his ways and means of fighting,” Ciano observed. Summing up his impressions, the Italian visitor wrote:

   … Today to offer his people a solid peace after a great victory is perhaps an aim which still tempts Hitler. But if in order to reach it he had to sacrifice, even to the smallest degree, what seems to him the legitimate fruits of his victory, he would then a thousand times prefer battle.*16

To me as I sat in the Reichstag beginning at noon on October 6 and listened to Hitler utter his appeal for peace, it seemed like an old gramophone record being replayed for the fifth or sixth time. How often before I had heard him from this same rostrum, after his latest conquest, and in the same apparent tone of earnestness and sincerity, propose what sounded—if you overlooked his latest victim—like a decent and reasonable peace. He did so again this crisp, sunny autumn day, with his usual eloquence and hypocrisy. It was a long speech—one of the most lengthy public utterances he ever made—but toward the end, after more than an hour of typical distortions of history and a boastful account of the feat of German arms in Poland (“this ridiculous state”) he came to his proposals for peace and the reasons therefore.

My chief endeavor has been to rid our relations with France of all trace of ill will and render them tolerable for both nations … Germany has no further claims against France … I have refused even to mention the problem of Alsace-Lorraine … I have always expressed to France my desire to bury forever our ancient enmity and bring together these two nations, both of which have such glorious pasts …

And Britain?

I have devoted no less effort to the achievement of Anglo–German understanding, nay, more than that, of an Anglo–German friendship. At no time and in no place have I ever acted contrary to British interests … I believe even today that there can only be real peace in Europe and throughout the world if Germany and England come to an understanding.

And peace?

Why should this war in the West be fought? For restoration of Poland? Poland of the Versailles Treaty will never rise again … The question of re-establishment of the Polish State is a problem which will not be solved by war in the West but exclusively by Russia and Germany … It would be senseless to annihilate millions of men and to destroy property worth millions in order to reconstruct a State which at its very birth was termed an abortion by all those not of Polish extraction.

What other reason exists? …

If this war is really to be waged only in order to give Germany a new regime … then millions of human lives will be sacrificed in vain … No, this war in the West cannot settle any problems …

   There were problems to be solved. Hitler trotted out a whole list of them: “formation of a Polish State” (which he had already agreed with the Russians should not exist); “solution and settlement of the Jewish problem”; colonies for Germany; revival of international trade; “an unconditionally guaranteed peace”; reduction of armaments; “regulation of air warfare, poison gas, submarines, etc.”; and settlement of minority problems in Europe.

To “achieve these great ends” he proposed a conference of the leading European nations “after the most thorough preparation.”

   It is impossible [he continued] that such a conference, which is to determine the fate of this continent for many years to come, could carry on its deliberations while cannon are thundering or mobilized armies are bringing pressure to bear upon it.

If, however, these problems must be solved sooner or later, then it would be more sensible to tackle the solution before millions of men are first uselessly sent to death and billions of riches destroyed. Continuation of the present state of affairs in the West is unthinkable. Each day will soon demand increasing sacrifices … The national wealth of Europe will be scattered in the form of shells and the vigor of every nation will be sapped on the battlefields …

One thing is certain. In the course of world history there have never been two victors, but very often only losers. May those peoples and their leaders who are of the same opinion now make their reply. And let those who consider war to be the better solution reject my outstretched hand.

He was thinking of Churchill.

If, however, the opinions of Messrs. Churchill and followers should prevail, this statement will have been my last. Then we shall fight … There will never be another November, 1918, in German history.

   It seemed to me highly doubtful, as I wrote in my diary on my return from the Reichstag, that the British and French would listen to these vague proposals “for five minutes.” But the Germans were optimistic. On my way to broadcast that evening I picked up an early edition of Hitler’s own paper, the Voelkischer Beobachter. The flamboyant headlines said:


The Wilhelmstrasse, it is now known from the secret German documents, was encouraged to believe by the reports it was getting from Paris through the Spanish and Italian ambassadors there that the French had no stomach for continuing the war. As early as September 8, the Spanish ambassador was tipping the Germans off that Bonnet, “in view of the great unpopularity of the war in France, is endeavoring to bring about an understanding as soon as the operations in Poland are concluded. There are certain indications that he is in contact with Mussolini to that end.”17

On October 2, Attolico handed Weizsaecker the text of the latest message from the Italian ambassador in Paris, stating that the majority of the French cabinet were in favor of a peace conference and it was now mainly a question of “enabling France and England to save face.” Apparently, though, Premier Daladier did not belong to the majority.*18

This was good intelligence. On October 7, Daladier answered Hitler. He declared that France would not lay down her arms until guarantees for a “real peace and general security” were obtained. But Hitler was more interested in hearing from Chamberlain than from the French Premier. On October 10, on the occasion of a brief address at the Sportpalast inaugurating Winterhilfe, Winter Relief, he again stressed his “readiness for peace.” Germany, he added, “has no cause for war against the Western Powers.”

Chamberlain’s reply came on October 12. It was a cold douche to the German people, if not to Hitler. Addressing the House of Commons, the Prime Minister termed Hitler’s proposals “vague and uncertain” and noted that “they contain no suggestions for righting the wrongs done toCzechoslovakia and Poland.” No reliance, he said, could be put on the promises “of the present German Government.” If it wanted peace, “acts—not words alone—must be forthcoming.” He called for “convincing proof” from Hitler that he really wanted peace.

The man of Munich could no longer be fooled by Hitler’s promises. The next day, October 13, an official German statement declared that Chamberlain, by turning down Hitler’s offer of peace, had deliberately chosen war. Now the Nazi dictator had his excuse.

Actually, as we now know from the captured German documents, Hitler had not waited for the Prime Minister’s reply before ordering preparations for an immediate assault in the West. On October 10 he called in his military chiefs, read them a long memorandum on the state of the war and the world and threw at them Directive No. 6 for the Conduct of the War.20

The Fuehrer’s insistence toward the end of September that an attack be mounted in the West as soon as possible had thrown the Army High Command into a fit. Brauchitsch and Halder, aided by several other generals, had consorted to prove to the Leader that an immediate offensive was out of the question. It would take several months, they said, to refit the tanks used in Poland. General Thomas furnished figures to show that Germany had a monthly steel deficit of 600,000 tons. General von Stuelpnagel, the Quartermaster General, reported there was ammunition on hand only “for about one third of our divisions for fourteen combat days”—certainly not long enough to win a battle against the French. But the Fuehrer would not listen to his Army Commander in Chief and his Chief of the General Staff when they presented a formal report to him on Army deficiencies on October 7. General Jodl, the leading yes man on OKW, next to Keitel, warned Halder “that a very severe crisis is in the making” because of the Army’s opposition to an offensive in the West and that the Fuehrer was “bitter because the soldiers do not obey him.”

It was against this background that Hitler convoked the generals at 11 A.M. on October 10. They were not asked for their advice. Directive No. 6, dated the day before, told them what to do:


If it should become apparent in the near future that England, and under England’s leadership, also France, are not willing to make an end of the war, I am determined to act vigorously and aggressively without great delay …

Therefore I give the following orders:

a. Preparations are to be made for an attacking operation … through the areas of Luxembourg, Belgium and Holland. This attack must be carried out … at as early a date as possible.

b. The purpose will be to defeat as strong a part of the French operational army as possible, as well as allies fighting by its side, and at the same time to gain as large an area as possible in Holland, Belgium and northern France as a base for conducting a promising air and sea war against England …

I request the Commanders in Chief to give me, as soon as possible, detailed reports of their plans on the basis of this directive and to keep me currently informed …

The secret memorandum, also dated October 9, which Hitler read out to his military chiefs before presenting them the directive is one of the most impressive papers the former Austrian corporal ever wrote. It showed not only a grasp of history, from the German viewpoint, and of military strategy and tactics which is remarkable but, as a little later would be proved, a prophetic sense of how the war in the West would develop and with what results. The struggle between Germany and the Western Powers, which, he said, had been going on since the dissolution of the First German Reich by the Treaty of Muenster (Westphalia) in 1648 “would have to be fought out one way or the other.” However, after the great victory in Poland, “there would be no objection to ending the war immediately” providing the gains in Poland were not “jeopardized.”

It is not the object of this memorandum to study the possibilities in this direction or even to take them into consideration. I shall confine myself exclusively to the other case: the necessity to continue the fight … The German war aim is the final military dispatch of the West, that is, the destruction of the power and ability of the Western Powers ever again to be able to oppose the state consolidation and further development of the German people in Europe.

As far as the outside world is concerned, this eternal aim will have to undergo various propaganda adjustments … This does not alter the war aim. It is and remains the destruction of our Western enemies.

The generals had objected to haste in taking the offensive in the West. Time, however, he told them, was on the enemy’s side. The Polish victories, he reminded them, were possible because Germany really had only one front. That situation still held—but for how long?

By no treaty or pact can a lasting neutrality of Soviet Russia be insured with certainty. At present all reasons speak against Russia’s departure from neutrality. In eight months, one year, or even several years, this may be altered. The trifling significance of treaties has been proved on all sides in recent years. The greatest safeguard against any Russian attack lies … in a prompt demonstration of German strength.

As for Italy, the “hope of Italian support for Germany” was dependent largely on whether Mussolini lived and on whether there were further German successes to entice the Duce. Here too time was a factor, as it was with Belgium and Holland, which could be compelled by Britain and France to give up their neutrality—something Germany could not afford to wait for. Even with the United States, “time is to be viewed as working against Germany.”

There were great dangers to Germany, Hitler admitted, in a long war, and he enumerated several of them. Friendly and unfriendly neutrals (he seems to have been thinking mainly of Russia, Italy and the U.S.A.) might be drawn to the opposite side, as they were in the First World War. Also, he said, Germany’s “limited food and raw-material basis” would make it difficult to find “the means for carrying on the war.” The greatest danger, he said, was the vulnerability of the Ruhr. If this heart of German industrial production were hit, it would “lead to the collapse of the German war economy and thus of the capacity to resist.”

It must be admitted that in this memorandum the former corporal showed an astonishing grasp of military strategy and tactics, accompanied though it was by a typical lack of morals. There are several pages about the new tactics developed by the tanks and planes in Poland, and a detailed analysis of how these tactics can work in the West and just where. The chief thing, he said, was to avoid the positional warfare of 1914–18. The armored divisions must be used for the crucial breakthrough.

They are not to be lost among the maze of endless rows of houses in Belgian towns. It is not necessary for them to attack towns at all, but … to maintain the flow of the army’s advance, to prevent fronts from becoming stable by massed drives through identified weakly held positions.

This was a deadly accurate forecast of how the war in the West would be fought, and when one reads it one wonders why no one on the Allied side had similar insights.

This goes too for Hitler’s strategy. “The only possible area of attack,” he said, was through Luxembourg, Belgium and Holland. There must be two military objectives first in mind: to destroy the Dutch, Belgian, French and British armies and thereby to gain positions on the Channel and theNorth Sea from which the Luftwaffe could be “brutally employed” against Britain.

Above all, he said, returning to tactics, improvise!

The peculiar nature of this campaign may make it necessary to resort to improvisations to the utmost, to concentrate attacking or defending forces at certain points in more than normal proportion (for example, tank or antitank forces) and in subnormal concentrations at others.

As for the time of the attack, Hitler told his reluctant generals, “the start cannot take place too early. It is to take place in all circumstances (if at all possible) this autumn.”

   The German admirals, unlike the generals, had not needed any prodding from Hitler to take the offensive, outmatched though their Navy was by the British. In fact all through the last days of September and the first days of October Raeder pleaded with the Fuehrer to take the wraps off the Navy. This was gradually done. On September 17 a German U-boat torpedoed the British aircraft carrier Courageous off southwest Ireland. On September 27 Raeder ordered the pocket battleships Deutschland and Graf Spee to leave their waiting areas and start attacking British shipping. By the middle of October they had accounted for seven British merchantmen and taken in prize the American ship City of Flint.

On October 14, the German U-boat U-47, commanded by Oberleutnant Guenther Prien, penetrated the seemingly impenetrable defenses of Scapa Flow, the great British naval base, and torpedoed and sank the battleship Royal Oak as it lay at anchor, with a loss of 786 officers and men. It was a notable achievement, exploited to the full by Dr. Goebbels in his propaganda, and it enhanced the Navy in the mind of Hitler.

The generals remained, however, a problem. Despite his long and considered memorandum to them and the issuance of Directive No. 6 to get ready for an imminent attack in the West, they stalled. It wasn’t that they had any moral scruples against violating Belgium and Holland; they simply were highly doubtful of success at this time. There was one exception.

General Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, commander of Army Group C opposing the French on the Rhine and along the Maginot Line, not only was skeptical of victory in the West; he, alone so far as the available records reveal, opposed attacking neutral Belgium and Holland at least partly on moral grounds. The day after Hitler’s meeting with the generals, on October 11, Leeb composed a long memorandum himself, which he sent to Brauchitsch and other generals. The whole world, he wrote, would turn against Germany,

which for the second time within 25 years assaults neutral Belgium! Germany, whose government solemnly vouched for and promised the preservation of and respect for this neutrality only a few weeks ago!

Finally, after detailing military arguments against an attack in the West, he appealed for peace. “The entire nation,” he said, “is longing for peace.”21

But Hitler by this time was longing for war, for battle, and he was fed up with what he thought to be the unpardonable timidity of his generals. On October 14 Brauchitsch and Halder put their heads together in a lengthy conference. The Army chief saw “three possibilities: Attack. Wait and see. Fundamental changes.” Halder noted them in his diary that day and, after the war, explained that “fundamental changes” meant “the removal of Hitler.” But the weak Brauchitsch thought such a drastic measure was “essentially negative and tends to render us vulnerable.” They decided that none of the three possibilities offered “prospects of decisive successes.” The only thing to do was to work further on Hitler.

Brauchitsch saw the Fuehrer again on October 17, but his arguments, he told Halder, were without effect. The situation was “hopeless.” Hitler informed him curtly, as Halder wrote in his diary that day, that “the British will be ready to talk only after a beating. We must get at them as quickly as possible. Date between November 15 and 20 at the latest.”

There were further conferences with the Nazi warlord, who finally laid down the law to the generals on October 27. After a ceremony conferring on fourteen of them the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, the Fuehrer got down to the business of the attack in the West. When Brauchitsch tried to argue that the Army would not be ready for a month, not before November 26, Hitler answered that this was “much too late.” The attack, he ordered, would begin on November 12. Brauchitsch and Halder retired from the meeting feeling battered and defeated. That night they tried to console one another. “Brauchitsch tired and dejected,” Halder noted in his diary.

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