Military history


The Rome–Berlin Axis became squeaky that first fall of the war.

Sharp exchanges at various levels took place over several differences: the failure of the Germans to carry out the evacuation of the Volksdeutsche from Italian South Tyrol, which had been agreed upon the previous June; failure of the Germans to supply Italy with a million tons of coal a month; failure of the Italians to ignore the British blockade and supply Germany with raw materials brought through it; Italy’s thriving trade with Britain and France, including the sale to them of war materials; Ciano’s increasingly anti-German sentiments.

Mussolini, as usual, blew hot and cold, and Ciano recorded his waverings in his diary. On November 9, the Duce had trouble composing a telegram to Hitler congratulating him on his escape from assassination.

He wanted it to be warm, but not too warm, because in his judgment no Italian feels any great joy over the fact that Hitler escaped death—least of all the Duce.

November 20…. For Mussolini the idea of Hitler’s waging war, and, worse still, winning it, is altogether unbearable.

The day after Christmas the Duce was expressing a “desire for a German defeat” and instructing Ciano to secretly inform Belgium and Holland that they were about to be attacked. * But by New Year’s Eve he was talking again of jumping into the war on Hitler’s side.

The chief cause of friction between the two Axis Powers was Germany’s pro-Russian policy. On November 30, 1939, the Soviet Red Army had attacked Finland and Hitler had been placed in a most humiliating position. Driven out of the Baltic as the price of his pact with Stalin, forced to hurriedly evacuate the German families who had lived there for centuries, he now had to officially condone Russia’s unprovoked attack on a little country which had close ties with Germany and whose very independence as a non-Communist nation had been won from the Soviet Unionlargely by the intervention of regular German troops in 1918.* It was a bitter pill to swallow, but he swallowed it. Strict instructions were given to German diplomatic missions abroad and to the German press and radio to support Russia’s aggression and avoid expressing any sympathy with the Finns.

This may have been the last straw with Mussolini, who had to cope with anti-German demonstrations throughout Italy. At any rate, shortly after the New Year, 1940, on January 3, he unburdened himself in a long letter to the Fuehrer. Never before, and certainly never afterward, was the Duce so frank with Hitler or so ready to give such sharp and unpleasant advice.

He was “profoundly convinced,” he said, that Germany, even if assisted by Italy, could never bring Britain and France “to their knees or even divide them. To believe that is to delude oneself. The United States would not permit a total defeat of the democracies.” Therefore, now that Hitler had secured his eastern frontier, was it necessary “to risk all—including the regime—and sacrifice the flower of German generations” in order to try to defeat them? Peace could be had, Mussolini suggested, if Germany would allow the existence of “a modest, disarmed Poland, which is exclusively Polish. Unless you are irrevocably resolved to prosecute the war to a finish,” he added, “I believe that the creation of a Polish state … would be an element that would resolve the war and constitute a condition sufficient for the peace.”

But it was Germany’s deal with Russia which chiefly concerned the Italian dictator.

… Without striking a blow, Russia has in Poland and the Baltic profited from the war. But I, a born revolutionist, tell you that you cannot permanently sacrifice the principles of your Revolution to the tactical exigencies of a certain political moment … It is my duty to add that one further step in your relations with Moscow would have catastrophic repercussions in Italy …45

Mussolini’s letter not only was a warning to Hitler of the degeneration of Italo–German relations but it hit a vulnerable target: the Fuehrer’s honeymoon with Soviet Russia, which was beginning to get on the nerves of both parties. It had enabled him to launch his war and destroy Poland. It had even given him other benefits. The captured German papers reveal, for instance, one of the best-kept secrets of the war: the Soviet Union’s help in providing ports on the Arctic, the Black Sea and the Pacific through which Germany could import badly needed raw materials otherwise shut off by the British blockade.

On November 10, 1939, Molotov even agreed to the Soviet government’s paying the freight charges on all such goods carried over the Russian railways.46 Refueling and repair facilities were provided German ships, including submarines, at the Arctic port of Teriberka, east of Murmansk—Molotov thought the latter port “was not isolated enough,” whereas Teriberka was “more suited because it was more remote and not visited by foreign ships.”47

All through the autumn and early winter of 1939 Moscow and Berlin negotiated for increased trade between the two countries. By the end of October Russian deliveries of raw stuffs, especially grain and oil, to Germany were considerable, but the Germans wanted more. However, they were learning that in economics, as well as politics, the Soviets were shrewd and hard bargainers. On November 1, Field Marshal Goering, Grand Admiral Raeder and Colonel General Keitel, “independently of each other,” as Weizsaecker noted, protested to the German Foreign Office that the Russians were demanding too much German war material. A month later Keitel was again complaining to Weizsaecker that Russian requirements for German products, especially machine tools for manufacturing munitions, were “growing more and more voluminous and unreasonable.”48

But if Germany wanted food and oil from Russia, it would have to pay for them in the goods Moscow needed and wanted. So desperate was the blockaded Reich for these necessities from Russia that later, on March 30, 1940, at a crucial moment, Hitler ordered that delivery of war material to the Russians should have priority even over that to the German armed forces.*50 At one point the Germans threw in the unfinished heavy cruiser Luetzow as part of current payments to Moscow. Earlier, on December 15, Admiral Raeder proposed selling the plans and drawings for theBismarck, the world’s biggest battleship (45,000 tons), then building, to the Russians if they paid “a very high price.”51

By the end of 1939 Stalin himself was personally participating in the negotiations at Moscow with the German trade delegation. The German economists found him a formidable trader. In the captured Wilhelmstrasse papers there are long and detailed memoranda of three memorable meetings with the awesome Soviet dictator, who had a grasp of detail that stunned the Germans. Stalin, they found, could not be bluffed or cheated but could be terribly demanding, and at times, as Dr. Schnurre, one of the Nazi negotiators, reported to Berlin, he “became quite agitated.” The Soviet Union, Stalin reminded the Germans, had “rendered a very great service to Germany [and] had made enemies by rendering this assistance.” In return it expected some consideration from Berlin. At one conference at the Kremlin on New Year’s Eve, 1939–40,

Stalin characterized the total price of the airplanes as out of the question. It represented a multiplication of the actual prices. If Germany did not wish to deliver the airplanes, he would have preferred to have this openly stated.

At a midnight meeting in the Kremlin on February 8

Stalin requested the Germans to propose suitable prices and not to set them too high, as had happened before. As examples were mentioned the total price of 300 million Reichsmarks for airplanes and the German valuation of the cruiser Luetzow at 150 million RM. One should not take advantage of the Soviet Union’s good nature.52

On February 11, 1940, an intricate trade agreement was finally signed in Moscow providing for an exchange of goods, during the ensuing eighteen months, of a minimum worth of 640 million Reichsmarks. This was in addition to the trade agreed upon during the previous August amounting to roughly 150 millions a year. Russia was to get, besides the cruiser Luetzow and the plans of the Bismarck, heavy naval guns and other gear and some thirty of Germany’s latest warplanes, including the Messerschmitt fighters 109 and 110 and the Ju-88 dive bombers. In addition the Soviets were to receive machines for their oil and electric industries, locomotives, turbines, generators, Diesel engines, ships, machine tools and samples of German artillery, tanks, explosives, chemical-warfare equipment and so on.53

What the Germans got the first year was recorded by OKW—one million tons of cereals, half a million tons of wheat, 900,000 tons of oil, 100,000 tons of cotton, 500,000 tons of phosphates, considerable amounts of numerous other vital raw materials and the transit of a million tons of soybeans from Manchuria.54

Back in Berlin, Dr. Schnurre, the Foreign Office’s economic expert, who had masterminded the trade negotiations for Germany in Moscow, drew up a long memorandum on what he had gained for the Reich. Besides the desperately needed raw materials which Russia would supply, Stalin, he said, had promised “generous help” in acting “as a buyer of metals and raw materials in third countries.”

The Agreement [Schnurre concluded] means a wide-open door to the East for us … The effects of the British blockade will be decisively weakened.55

This was one reason why Hitler swallowed his pride, supported Russia’s aggression against Finland, which was very unpopular in Germany, and accepted the threat of Soviet troops and airmen setting up bases in the three Baltic countries (to be eventually used against whom but Germany?).Stalin was helping him to surmount the British blockade. But more important than that, Stalin still afforded him the opportunity of fighting a one-front war, of concentrating all his military might in the west for a knockout blow against France and Britain and the overrunning of Belgium and Holland, after which—well, Hitler had already told his generals what he had in mind.

As early as October 17, 1939, with the Polish campaign scarcely over, he had reminded Keitel that Polish territory

is important to us from a military point of view as an advanced jumping-off point and for strategic concentration of troops. To that end the railroads, roads and communication channels are to be kept in order.56

As the momentous year of 1939 approached its end Hitler realized, as he had told his generals in his memorandum of October 9, that Soviet neutrality could not be counted on forever. In eight months or a year, he had said, things might change. And in his harangue to them on November 23 he had emphasized that “we can oppose Russia only when we are free in the West.” This was a thought which never left his restless mind.

The fateful year faded into history in a curious and even eerie atmosphere. Though there was world war, there was no fighting on land, and in the skies the big bombers carried only propaganda pamphlets, and badly written ones at that. Only at sea was there actual warfare. U-boats continued to take their toll of British and sometimes neutral shipping in the cruel, icy northern Atlantic.

In the South Atlantic the Graf Spee, one of Germany’s three pocket battleships, had emerged from its waiting area and in three months had sunk nine British cargo vessels totaling 50,000 tons. Then, a fortnight before the first Christmas of the war, on December 14, 1939, the German public was electrified by the news, splashed in flaming headlines and in bulletins flashed over the radio, of a great victory at sea. The Graf Spee, it was said, had engaged three British cruisers on the previous day four hundred miles off Montevideo and put them out of action. But elation soon turned to puzzlement. Three days later the press announced that the pocket battleship had scuttled herself in the Plate estuary just outside the Uruguayan capital. What kind of a victory was that? On December 21, the High Command of the Navy announced that the Graf Spee’s commander, Captain Hans Langsdorff, had “followed his ship” and thus “fulfilled like a fighter and hero the expectations of his Fuehrer, the German people and the Navy.”

The wretched German people were never told that the Graf Spee had been severely damaged by the three British cruisers, which it outgunned,* that it had had to put into Montevideo for repairs, that the Uruguayan government, in accordance with international law, had allowed it to remain for only seventy-two hours, which was not enough, that the “hero,” Captain Langsdorff, rather than risk further battle with the British with his crippled ship, had therefore scuttled it, and that he himself, instead of going down with her, had shot himself two days afterward in a lonely hotel room in Buenos Aires. Nor were they told, of course, that, as General Jodl jotted in his diary on December 18, the Fuehrer was “very angry about the scuttling of Graf Spee without a fight” and sent for Admiral Raeder, to whom he gave a dressing down.57

   On December 12, Hitler issued another top-secret directive postponing the attack in the West and stipulating that a fresh decision would not be made until December 27 and that the earliest date for “A Day” would be January 1, 1940. He advised that Christmas leaves could therefore be granted. According to my diary, Christmas, the high point of the year for Germans, was a bleak one in Berlin that winter, with few presents exchanged, Spartan food, the menfolk away, the streets blacked out, the shutters and curtains drawn tight, and everyone grumbling about the war, the food and the cold.

There was an exchange of Christmas greetings between Hitler and Stalin.

Best wishes [Hitler wired] for your personal well-being as well as for the prosperous future of the peoples of the friendly Soviet Union.

To which Stalin replied:

The friendship of the peoples of Germany and the Soviet Union, cemented by blood, has every reason to be lasting and firm.

In Berlin Ambassador von Hassell used the holidays to confer with his fellow conspirators, Popitz, Goerdeler and General Beck, and on December 30 recorded in his diary the latest plan. It was

to have a number of divisions stop in Berlin “in transit from west to east.” Then Witzleben was to appear in Berlin and dissolve the S.S. On the basis of this action Beck would go to Zossen and take the supreme command from Brauchitsch’s hands. A doctor would declare Hitler incapable of continuing in office, whereupon he would be taken into custody. Then an appeal would be made to the people along these lines: prevention of further S.S. atrocities, restoration of decency and Christian morality, continuation of the war, but readiness for peace on a reasonable basis …

But it was all unreal; all talk. And so confused were the “plotters” that Hassell devoted a long patch of his diary to the consideration of whether they should retain Goering or not!

Goering himself, along with Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, Ley and other party leaders, used the New Year to issue grandiose proclamations. Ley said, “The Fuehrer is always right! Obey the Fuehrer!” The Fuehrer himself proclaimed that not he but “the Jewish and capitalistic warmongers” had started the war and went on:

United within the country, economically prepared and militarily armed to the highest degree, we enter this most decisive year in German history … May the year 1940 bring the decision. It will be, whatever happens, our victory.

On December 27 he had again postponed the attack in the West “by at least a fortnight.” On January 10 he ordered it definitely set for January 17 “fifteen minutes before sunrise—8:16 A.M.” The Air Force was to begin its attack on January 14, three days in advance, its task being to destroy enemy airfields in France, but not in Belgium and Holland. The two little neutral countries were to be kept guessing about their fate until the last moment.

But on January 13 the Nazi warlord suddenly postponed the onslaught again “on account of the meteorological situation.” The captured OKW file on D Day in the West is thereafter silent until May 7. Weather may have played a part in the calling off of the attack on January 13. But we now know that two other events were mainly responsible—an unfortunate forced landing of a very special German military plane in Belgium on January 10 and a new opportunity that now appeared to the north.

   On the very day, January 10, that Hitler had ordered the attack through Belgium and Holland to begin on the seventeenth, a German military plane flying from Muenster to Cologne became lost in the clouds over Belgium and was forced to land near Mechelen-sur-Meuse. In it was Major Helmut Reinberger, an important Luftwaffe staff officer, and in his briefcase were the German plans, complete with maps, for the attack in the West. As Belgian soldiers closed in, the major made for some nearby bushes and lit a fire to the contents of his briefcase. Attracted by this interesting phenomenon the Belgian soldiers stamped out the flames and retrieved what was left. Taken to military quarters nearby, Reinberger, in a desperate gesture, grabbed the partly burned papers, which a Belgian officer had placed on a table, and threw them into a lighted stove. The Belgian officer quickly snatched them out.

Reinberger promptly reported to Luftwaffe headquarters in Berlin through his embassy in Brussels that he had succeeded in burning down the papers to “insignificant fragments, the size of the palm of his hand.” But in Berlin there was consternation in high quarters. Jodl immediately reported to Hitler “on what the enemy may or may not know.” But he did not know himself. “If enemy is in possession of all the files,” he confided to his diary on January 12, after seeing the Fuehrer, “the situation is catastrophic.” That evening Ribbentrop sent a “most urgent” wire to the German Embassy in Brussels asking for an immediate report on the “destruction of the courier baggage.” On the morning of January 13, Jodl’s diary reveals, there was a conference of Goering with his air attaché in Brussels, who had flown posthaste back to Berlin, and the top Luftwaffe brass. “Result: Dispatch case burned for certain,” Jodl recorded.

But this was whistling in the dark, as Jodl’s journal makes clear. At 1 P.M. it noted: “Order to Gen. Halder by telephone: All movements to stop.”

The same day, the thirteenth, the German ambassador in Brussels was urgently informing Berlin of considerable Belgian troop movements “as a result of alarming reports received by the Belgian General Staff.” The next day the ambassador got off another “most urgent” message to Berlin: The Belgians were ordering “Phase D,” the next-to-the-last step in mobilization, and calling up two new classes. The reason, he thought, was “reports of German troop movements on the Belgian and Dutch frontiers as well as the content of the partly unburned courier mail found on the German Air Force officer.”

By the evening of January 15 doubts had risen in the minds of the top brass in Berlin whether Major Reinberger had really destroyed the incriminating documents as he had claimed. They were “presumably burned,” Jodl remarked after another conference on the matter. But on January 17 the Belgian Foreign Minister, Paul-Henri Spaak, sent for the German ambassador and told him flatly, as the latter promptly reported to Berlin, that

the plane which made an emergency landing on January 10 had put into Belgian hands a document of the most extraordinary and serious nature, which contained clear proof of an intention to attack. It was not just an operations plan, but an attack order worked out in every detail, in which only the time remained to be inserted.

The Germans were never quite sure whether Spaak was not bluffing. On the Allied side—the British and French general staffs were given copies of the German plan—there was a tendency to view the German papers as a “plant.” Churchill says he vigorously opposed this interpretation and laments that nothing was done about this grave warning. What is certain is that on January 13, the day after Hitler was informed of the affair, he postponed the attack and that by the time it again came up for decision in the spring the whole strategic plan had been fundamentally changed.58

But the forced landing in Belgium—and the bad weather—were not the only reasons for putting off the attack. Plans for a daring German assault on two other little neutral states farther to the north had in the meantime been ripening in Berlin and now took priority. The phony war, so far as the Germans were concerned, was coming to an end with the approach of spring.

† On October 9 this writer journeyed by rail up the east bank of the Rhine where for a hundred miles it forms the Franco–German frontier and noted in his diary: “No sign of war and the train crew told me not a shot had been fired on this front since the war began … We could see the French bunkers and at many places great mats behind which the French were building fortifications. Identical picture on the German side. The troops … went about their business in full sight and range of each other … The Germans were hauling up guns and supplies on the railroad line, but the French did not disturb them. Queer kind of war.” (Berlin Diary, p. 234.)

* Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, disclosed the general figures in the House of Commons on September 26. He gives the corrected official figures in his memoirs. He also told the House that six or seven U-boats had been sunk, but actually, as he also notes in his book, the figure was later learned to be only two.

Churchill’s speech was marked by an amusing anecdote in which he told how a U-boat commander had signaled him personally the position of a British ship he had just sunk and urged that rescue should be sent. “I was in some doubt to what address I should direct a reply,” Churchill said. “However, he is now in our hands.” But he wasn’t. This writer interviewed the submarine skipper, Captain Herbert Schultze, in Berlin two days later in a broadcast to America. He produced from his logbook his message to Churchill. (See Churchill, The Gathering Storm, pp. 436–37; Berlin Diary, pp. 225–27.)

* The next day, September 4, all U-boats were signaled: “By order of the Fuehrer, on no account are operations to be carried out against passenger steamers, even when under escort.”

† Apparently not in code. A copy of the naval attaché’s cable to Washington showed up in the German naval papers at Nuremberg.

* The italics are the Admiral’s.

† The officers, including Lemp, and some of the crew were transferred to the U-110 and went down with her on May 9, 1941. One member of the crew was wounded by aircraft fire a few days after the sinking of the Athenia. He was disembarked at Reykjavik, Iceland, under pledge of the strictest secrecy, later taken to a POW camp in Canada, and after the war signed an affidavit giving the facts. The Germans appear to have been worried that he would “talk,” but he didn’t until the war’s end.12

* Mussolini did not share Hitler’s confidence in victory, which Ciano reported to him. He thought the British and French “would hold firm … Why hide it?” Ciano wrote in his diary October 3, “he [Mussolini] is somewhat bitter about Hitler’s sudden rise to fame.” (Ciano Diaries, p. 155.)

* A little later, on November 16, the Italians informed the Germans that according to their information from Paris, “Marshal Pétain is regarded as the advocate of a peace policy in France … If the question of peace should become more acute in France, Pétain will play a role.”19 This appears to be the first indication to the Germans that Pétain might prove useful to them later on.

† The day before, on October 11, there had been a peace riot in Berlin. Early in the morning a broadcast on the Berlin radio wave length announced that the British government had fallen and that there would be an immediate armistice. There was great rejoicing in the capital as the rumor spread. Old women in the vegetable markets tossed their cabbages into the air, wrecked their stands in sheer joy and made for the nearest pub to toast the peace with Schnaps.

* According to the official Dutch account, which came to light after the war, the British car, with Stevens, Best and Klop in it, was towed by the Germans across the frontier, which was only 125 feet away. Starting on November 10, the next day, the Dutch government made nine written requests at frequent intervals for the return of Klop and the Dutch chauffeur of the car and also demanded a German investigation of this violation of Dutch neutrality. No reply was ever made until May 10, when Hitler justified his attack on the Netherlands partly on the grounds that the Venlo affair had proven the complicity of the Dutch with the British secret service. Klop died from his wounds a few days later. Best and Stevens survived five years in Nazi concentration camps.29

* Later at Dachau Elser told a similar story to Pastor Niemoeller, who since has stated his personal conviction that the bombing was sanctioned by Hitler to increase his own popularity and stir up the war fever of the people. It is only fair to add that Gisevius, archenemy of Hitler, Himmler and Schellenberg, believes—as he testified at Nuremberg and in his book—that Elser really attempted to kill Hitler and that there were no Nazi accomplices. Schellenberg, who is less reliable, states that though he was suspicious at first of Himmler and Heydrich, he later concluded, after questioning the carpenter and after reading interrogations made while Elser was first drugged and then hypnotized, that it was a case of a genuine attempt at assassination.

* It was found in May 1945 by Lieutenant Walter Stein of the U.S. Seventh Army in Frank’s apartment at the hotel Berghof near Neuhaus in Bavaria.

* Ciano conveyed the warning to the Belgian ambassador in Rome on January 2, noting the action in his diary. According to Weizsaecker the Germans intercepted two coded telegrams from the ambassador to Brussels containing the Italian warning and deciphered them.44

* On October 9, 1918—this is a little-known, ludicrous tidbit of history—the Finnish Diet, under the impression that Germany was winning the war, elected by a vote of 75 to 25 Prince Friedrich Karl of Hesse to be King of Finland. Allied victory a month later put an end to this fantastic episode.

* After the conquest of France and the lowlands, Goering informed General Thomas, the economic chief of OKW, “that the Fuehrer desired punctual delivery to the Russians only until the spring of 1941. Later on,” he added, “we would have no further interest in completely satisfying the Russian demands.”49

* The day before the scuttling Goebbels had made the German press play up a faked dispatch from Montevideo saying the Graf Spee had suffered only “superficial damage” and that British reports that it had been severely crippled were “pure lies.”

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