Military history

SIX MONTHS OF FRUSTRATION

And yet, after all the tumultuous victories of the spring and early summer of 1940, there had been a frustrating six months for the Nazi conqueror. Not only the final triumph over Britain eluded him but opportunities to deal her a mortal blow in the Mediterranean had been thrown away.

Two days after Christmas Grand Admiral Raeder saw Hitler in Berlin, but he had little Yuletide cheer to offer. “The threat to Britain in the entire eastern Mediterranean, the Near East and in North Africa,” he told the Fuehrer, “has been eliminated … The decisive action in the Mediterranean for which we had hoped therefore is no longer possible.”38

Adolf Hitler, balked by a shifty Franco, by the ineptitude of Mussolini and even by the senility of Marshal Pétain, had really missed the bus in the Mediterranean. Disaster had struck the Italian ally in the Egyptian desert and now in December confronted it in the snowy mountains ofAlbania. These untoward happenings were also turning points in the war and in the course of history of the Third Reich. They had come about not only because of the weaknesses of Germany’s friends and allies, but, in part, because of the Nazi warlord’s incapacity to grasp the larger, intercontinental strategy that was called for and that Raeder and even Goering had urged upon him.

Twice in September 1940, on the sixth and the twenty-sixth, the Grand Admiral attempted to open up new vistas in the Fuehrer’s mind now that the direct attack on England seemed out of the question. For the second conference Raeder cornered Hitler alone and, without the Army and Air Force officers to muddle the conversation, gave his chief a lengthy lecture on naval strategy and the importance of getting at Britain in other places than over the English Channel.

The British [Raeder said] have always considered the Mediterranean the pivot of their world Empire … Italy, surrounded by British power, is fast becoming the main target of attack … The Italians have not yet realized the danger when they refuse our help. Germany, however, must wage war against Great Britain with all the means at her disposal and without delay, before the United States is able to intervene effectively. For this reason the Mediterranean question must be cleared up during the winter months.

Cleared up how? The Admiral then got down to brass tacks.

Gibraltar must be taken. The Canary Islands must be secured by the Air Force.

The Suez Canal must be taken.

After Suez, Raeder painted a rosy picture of what then would logically ensue.

An advance from Suez through Palestine and Syria as far as Turkey is necessary. If we reach that point, Turkey will be in our power. The Russian problem will then appear in a different light … It is doubtful whether an advance against Russia from the north will be necessary.

Having in his mind driven the British out of the Mediterranean and put Turkey and Russia in Germany’s power, Raeder went on to complete the picture. Correctly predicting that Britain, supported by the U.S.A. and the Gaullist forces, eventually would try to get a foothold on Northwest Africa as a basis for subsequent war against the Axis, the Admiral urged that Germany and Vichy France forestall this by securing this strategically important region themselves.

According to Raeder, Hitler agreed with his “general trend of thought” but added that he would have to talk matters over first with Mussolini, Franco and Pétain.39 This he proceeded to do, though only after much time was lost. He arranged to see the Spanish dictator on October 23, Pétain, who was now the head of a collaborationist government at Vichy, the next day, and the Duce a few days thereafter.

Franco, who owed his triumph in the Spanish Civil War to the massive military aid of Italy and Germany, had, like all his fellow dictators, an inordinate appetite for spoils, especially if they could be gained cheaply. In June, at the moment of France’s fall, he had hastily informed Hitler that Spain would enter the war in return for being given most of the vast French African empire, including Morocco and western Algeria, and provided that Germany supplied Spain liberally with arms, gasoline and foodstuffs.40 It was to give Franco the opportunity to redeem this promise that the Fuehrer arrived in his special train at the Franco-Spanish border town of Hendaye on October 23. But much had happened in the intervening months—Britain had stoutly held out, for one thing—and Hitler was in for an unpleasant surprise.

The crafty Spaniard was not impressed by the Fuehrer’s boast that “England already is decisively beaten,” nor was he satisfied with Hitler’s promise to give Spain territorial compensation in French North Africa “to the extent to which it would be possible to cover France’s losses from British colonies.” Franco wanted the French African empire, with no strings attached. Hitler’s proposal was that Spain enter the war in January 1941, but Franco pointed out the dangers of such precipitate action. Hitler wanted the Spaniards to attack Gibraltar on January 10, with the help of German specialists who had taken the Belgian fort of Eben Emael from the air. Franco replied, with typical Spanish pride, that Gibraltar would have to be taken by Spaniards “alone.” And so the two dictators wrangled—for nine hours. According to Dr. Schmidt, who was present here too, Franco spoke on and on in a monotonous singsong voice and Hitler became increasingly exasperated, once springing up, as he had done with Chamberlain, to exclaim that there was no point in continuing the conversations.41

“Rather than go through that again,” he later told Mussolini, in recounting his ordeal with the Caudillo, “I would prefer to have three or four teeth yanked out.”42

After nine hours, with time out for dinner in Hitler’s special dining car, the talks broke up late in the evening without Franco’s having definitely committed himself to come into the war. Hitler left Ribbentrop behind that night to continue the parley with Serrano Suñer, the Spanish Foreign Minister, and to try to get the Spaniards to sign something, at least an agreement to drive the British out of Gibraltar and close to them the western Mediterranean—but to no avail. “That ungrateful coward!” Ribbentrop cursed to Schmidt about Franco the next morning. “He owes us everything and now won’t join us!”43

Hitler’s meeting with Pétain at Montoire the next day went off better. But this was because the aging, defeatist Marshal, the hero of Verdun in the First World War and the perpetrator of the French surrender in the Second, agreed to France’s collaboration with her conqueror in one last effort to bring Britain, the late ally, to her knees. In fact, he assented to put down in writing this odious deal.

The Axis Powers and France have an identical interest in seeing the defeat of England accomplished as soon as possible. Consequently, the French Government will support, within the limits of its ability, the measures which the Axis Powers may take to this end.44

In return for this treacherous act, France was to be given in the “New Europe” “the place to which she is entitled,” and in Africa she was to receive from the fascist dictators compensation from the British Empire for whatever territory she was forced to cede to others. Both parties agreed to keep the pact “absolutely secret.”*

Despite Pétain’s dishonorable but vital concessions, Hitler was not satisfied. According to Dr. Schmidt, he had wanted more—nothing less than France’s active participation in the war against Britain. On the long journey back to Munich the official interpreter found the Fuehrer disappointed and depressed with the results of his trip. He was to become even more so in Florence, where he arrived on the morning of October 28 to see Mussolini.

They had conferred but three weeks before, on October 4, at the Brenner Pass. Hitler, as usual, had done most of the talking, giving one of his dazzling tours d’horizon in which was not included any mention that he was sending troops to Rumania, which Italy also coveted. When the Duce learned of this a few days later he was indignant.

Hitler always faces me with a fait accompli [he fumed to Ciano]. This time I am going to pay him back in his own coin. He will find out from the newspapers that I have occupied Greece. In this way the equilibrium will be re-established.45

The Duce’s ambitions in the Balkans were as rabid as Hitler’s and cut across them so that as far back as the middle of August the Germans had warned Rome against any adventures in Yugoslavia and Greece. “It is a complete order to halt all along the line,” Ciano noted in his diary on August 17. Mussolini scrapped, for the moment anyway, his plans for further martial glory in the Balkans and confirmed this in a humble letter to Hitler of August 27. But the prospect of a quick, easy conquest of Greece, which would compensate to some extent for his partner’s glittering victories, proved too big a temptation for the strutting Fascist Caesar to resist, false though the prospect was.

On October 22 he set the date for a surprise Italian assault on Greece for October 28 and on the same day wrote Hitler a letter (predated October 19) alluding to his contemplated action but making it vague as to the exact nature and date. He feared, Ciano noted that day in his diary, that the Fuehrer might “order” him to halt. Hitler and Ribbentrop got wind of the Duce’s plans while they were returning in their respective special trains from France, and at the Fuehrer’s orders the Nazi Foreign Minister stopped at the first station in Germany to telephone Ciano in Rome and urge an immediate meeting of the Axis leaders. Mussolini suggested October 28 at Florence and, when his German visitor alighted from the train on the morning of that day, greeted him, his chin up and his eyes full of glee: “Fuehrer, we are on the march! Victorious Italian troops crossed the Greco-Albanian frontier at dawn today!”46

According to all accounts, Mussolini greatly enjoyed this revenge on his friend for all the previous occasions when the Nazi dictator had marched into a country without previously confiding to his Italian ally. Hitler was furious. This rash act against a sturdy foe at the worst possible time of year threatened to upset the applecart in the Balkans. The Fuehrer, as he wrote Mussolini a little later, had sped to Florence in the hope of preventing it, but he had arrived too late. According to Schmidt, who was present, the Nazi leader managed to control his rage.

Hitler went north that afternoon [Schmidt later wrote] with bitterness in his heart. He had been frustrated three times—at Hendaye, at Montoire, and now in Italy. In the lengthy winter evenings of the next few years these long, exacting journeys were a constantly recurring theme of bitter reproaches against ungrateful and unreliable friends, Axis partners and “deceiving” Frenchmen.47

Nevertheless he had to do something to prosecute the war against the British, now that the invasion of Britain had proved impossible. Hardly had the Fuehrer returned to Berlin before the need to act was further impressed upon him by the fiasco of the Duce’s armies in Greece. Within a week, the “victorious” Italian attack there had been turned into a rout. On November 4 Hitler called a war conference at the Chancellery in Berlin to which he summoned Brauchitsch and Halder from the Army and Keitel and Jodl from OKW. Thanks to Halder’s diary and a captured copy of Jodl’s report to the Navy on the conference, we know the warlord’s decisions, which were embodied in Directive No. 18 issued by Hitler on November 12, the text of which is among the Nuremberg records.48

The German Navy’s influence on Hitler’s strategy became evident, as did the necessity for doing something about the faltering Italian ally. Halder noted the Fuehrer’s “lack of confidence” in Italian leadership. As a result it was decided not to send any German troops to Libya until Marshal Rodolfo Graziani’s army, which in September had advanced sixty miles into Egypt to Sidi Barrâni, had reached Mersa Matrûh, a further seventy-five miles along the coast, which was not expected before Christmas, if then. In the meantime plans were to be made to send a few dive bombers to Egypt to attack the British fleet in Alexandria and mine the Suez Canal.

As for Greece, the Italian attack there, Hitler admitted to his generals, had been a “regrettable blunder” and unfortunately had endangered Germany’s position in the Balkans. The British by occupying Crete and Lemnos had achieved air bases from which they could easily bomb theRumanian oil fields and by sending troops to the Greek mainland threatened the whole German position in the Balkans. To counter this danger Hitler ordered the Army to prepare immediately plans to invade Greece through Bulgaria with a force of at least ten divisions which would be sent first to Rumania. “It is anticipated,” he said, “that Russia will remain neutral.”

But it was in regard to destroying Britain’s position in the western Mediterranean that most of the conference of November 4 and most of the ensuing Directive No. 18 was devoted.

Gibraltar will be taken [said the directive] and the Straits closed.

The British will be prevented from gaining a foothold at another point of the Iberian peninsula or the Atlantic islands.

“Felix” was to be the code name for the taking of Gibraltar and the Spanish Canary Islands and the Portuguese Cape Verde Islands. The Navy was also to study the possibility of occupying Portugal’s Madeira and the Azores. Portugal itself might have to be occupied. “Operation Isabella” would be the cover name for that, and three German divisions would be assembled on the Spanish–Portuguese frontier to carry it out.

Finally, units of the French fleet and some troops were to be released so that France could defend her possessions in Northwest Africa against the British and De Gaulle. “From this initial task,” Hitler said in his directive, “France’s participation in the war against England can develop fully.”

Hitler’s new plans, as enunciated to the generals on November 4 and laid down in the directive a week later, went into considerable military detail—especially on how Gibraltar was to be taken by a daring German stroke—and apparently they impressed his Army chiefs as bold and shrewd. But in reality they were half measures which could not possibly achieve their objectives, and they were based partly on his deceiving his own generals. He assured them on November 4, Halder noted, that he had just received Franco’s renewed promise to join Germany in the war, but this, as we have seen, was not quite true. The objectives of driving the British out of the Mediterranean were sound, but the forces allotted to the task were quite insufficient, especially in view of Italy’s weaknesses.

The Naval War Staff pointed this out in a toughly worded memorandum which Raeder gave Hitler on November 14.49 The Italian disaster in Greece—Mussolini’s troops had now been hurled back into Albania and were still retreating—had not only greatly improved Britain’s strategic position in the Mediterranean, the sailors pointed out, but enhanced British prestige throughout the world. As for the Italian attack on Egypt, the Navy told Hitler flatly: “Italy will never carry out the Egyptian offensive.* The Italian leadership is wretched. They have no understanding of the situation. The Italian armed forces have neither the leadership nor the military efficiency to carry the required operations in the Mediterranean area to a successful conclusion with the necessary speed and decision.”

Therefore, the Navy concluded, this task must be carried out by Germany. The “fight for the African area,” it warned Hitler, is “the foremost strategic objective of German warfare as a whole … It is of decisive importance for the outcome of the war.

But the Nazi dictator was not convinced. He had never been able to envisage the war in the Mediterranean and North Africa as anything but secondary to his main objective. As Admiral Raeder elaborated to him the Navy’s strategic conceptions in their meeting on November 14, Hitler retorted that he was “still inclined toward a demonstration with Russia.”50 In fact, he was more inclined than ever, for Molotov had just departed Berlin that morning after so arousing the Fuehrer’s ire. When the Admiral next saw his chief a couple of days after Christmas to report on how the bus had been missed in the Mediterranean, Hitler was not unduly perturbed. To Raeder’s argument that the victory of Britain over the Italians in Egypt and the increasing material aid which she was receiving from America necessitated the concentration of all German resources to bring the British down, and that Barbarossa ought to be postponed until “the overthrow of Britain,” Hitler turned an almost deaf ear.

“In view of present political developments and especially Russia’s interference in Balkan affairs,” Hitler said, “it is necessary to eliminate at all costs the last enemy remaining on the Continent before coming to grips with Britain.” From now on to the bitter end he would stick fanatically to this fundamental strategy.

As a sop to his naval chief, Hitler promised to “try once more to influence Franco” so that the attack against Gibraltar could be made and the Mediterranean closed to the British fleet. Actually, he had already dropped the whole idea. On December 11 he had quietly ordered, “Operation Felix will not be carried out as the political conditions no longer exist.” Nagged by his own Navy and by the Italians to keep after Franco, Hitler made one final effort, though it was painful to him. On February 6, 1941, he addressed a long letter to the Spanish dictator.

… About one thing, Caudillo, there must be clarity: we are fighting a battle of life and death and cannot at this time make any gifts …

The battle which Germany and Italy are fighting will determine the destiny of Spain as well. Only in the case of our victory will your present regime continue to exist.51

Unfortunately for the Axis, the letter reached the Caudillo on the very day that Marshal Graziani’s last forces in Cyrenaica had been wiped out by the British south of Benghazi. Little wonder that when Franco got around to replying—on February 26, 1941—though protesting his “absolute loyalty” to the Axis, he reminded the Nazi leader that recent developments had left “the circumstances of October far behind” and that their understanding of that time had become “outmoded.”

For one of the very few times in his stormy life, Adolf Hitler conceded defeat. “The long and short of the tedious Spanish rigmarole,” he wrote Mussolini, “is that Spain does not want to enter the war and will not enter it. This is extremely tiresome since it means that for the moment the possibility of striking at Britain in the simplest manner, in her Mediterranean possessions, is eliminated.”

Italy, not Spain, however, was the key to defeating Britain in the Mediterranean, but the Duce’s creaky empire was not equal to the task of doing it alone and Hitler was not wise enough to give her the means, which he had, to accomplish it. The possibility of striking at Britain either directly across the Channel or indirectly across the broader Mediterranean, he now confessed, had been eliminated “for the moment.” Though this was frustrating, the acknowledgment of it brought Hitler relief. He could now turn to matters nearer his heart and mind.

On January 8–9, 1941, he held a council of war at the Berghof above Berchtesgaden, which now lay deep in the winter’s snow. The mountain air seems to have cleared his mind, and once more, as the lengthy confidential reports of the meeting by Admiral Raeder and General Halder52disclose, his thoughts ranged far and wide as he outlined his grand strategy to his military chiefs. His optimism had returned.

The Fuehrer [Raeder noted] is firmly convinced that the situation in Europe can no longer develop unfavorably for Germany even if we should lose the whole of North Africa. Our position in Europe is so firmly established that the outcome cannot possibly be to our disadvantage … The British can hope to win the war only by beating us on the Continent. The Fuehrer is convinced that this is impossible.

It was true, he conceded, that the direct invasion of Britain was “not feasible unless she is crippled to a considerable degree and Germany has complete air superiority.” The Navy and Air Force, he said, must concentrate on attacking her shipping lanes and thereby cut off her supplies. Such attacks, he thought, “might lead to victory as early as July or August.” In the meantime, he said, “Germany must make herself so strong on the Continent that we can handle a further war against England (and America).” The parentheses are Halder’s and their enclosure is significant. This is the first mention in the captured German records that Hitler—at the beginning of 1941—is facing up to the possibility of the entry of the United States into the war against him.

The Nazi warlord then took up the various strategic areas and problems and outlined what he intended to do about them.

The Fuehrer is of the opinion [Raeder wrote] that it is vital for the outcome of the war that Italy does not collapse … He is determined to … prevent Italy from losing North Africa … It would mean a great loss of prestige to the Axis powers … He is [therefore] determined to give them support.

At this point he cautioned his military leaders about divulging German plans.

He does not wish to inform the Italians of our plans. There is great danger that the Royal Family is transmitting intelligence to Britain!!*

Support for Italy, Hitler declared, would consist of antitank formations and some Luftwaffe squadrons for Libya. More important, he would dispatch an army corps of two and a half divisions to buck up the retreating Italians in Albania—into which the Greeks had now pushed them. In connection with this, “Operation Marita” would be pushed. The transfer of troops from Rumania to Bulgaria, he ordered, must begin at once so that Marita could commence on March 26. Hitler also spoke at some length of the need to be ready to carry out “Operation Attila”—the German cover names seem almost endless—which he had outlined in a directive of December 10, 1940. This was a plan to occupy the rest of France and seize the French fleet at Toulon. He thought now it might have to be carried out soon. “If France becomes troublesome,” he declared, “she will have to be crushed completely.” This would have been a crude violation of the Compiègne armistice, but no general or admiral, so far as Halder and Raeder noted—or at least recorded—raised the question.

It was at this war conference that Hitler described Stalin as “a cold-blooded blackmailer” and informed his commanders that Russia would have to be brought to her knees “as soon as possible.”

If the U.S.A. and Russia should enter the war against Germany [Hitler said, and it was the second time he mentioned that possibility for America], the situation would become very complicated. Hence any possibility for such a threat to develop must be eliminated at the very beginning. If the Russian threat were removed, we could wage war on Britain indefinitely. If Russia collapsed, Japan would be greatly relieved: this in turn would mean increased danger to the U.S.A.

Such were the thoughts of the German dictator on global strategy as 1941 got under way. Two days after the war council, on January 11, he embodied them in Directive No. 22. German reinforcements for Tripoli were to move under “Operation Sunflower”; those for Albania under “Operation Alpine Violets.”54

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