Military history

“THE WORLD WILL HOLD ITS BREATH!”

Mussolini was summoned by Hitler to the Berghof for January 19 and 20. Shaken and humiliated by the Italian debacles in Egypt and Greece, he had no stomach for this journey. Ciano found him “frowning and nervous” when he boarded his special train, fearful that Hitler, Ribbentrop and the German generals would be insultingly condescending. To make matters worse the Duce took along General Alfredo Guzzoni, Assistant Chief of Staff, whom Ciano in his diary described as a mediocre man with a big paunch and a little dyed wig and whom, he thought, it would be positively humiliating to present to the Germans.

To his surprise and relief, Mussolini found Hitler, who came down to the snow-covered platform of the little station at Puch to greet him, both tactful and cordial and there were no reproaches for Italy’s sorry record on the battlefields. He also found his host, as Ciano noted in his diary, in a very anti-Russian mood. For more than two hours on the second day Hitler lectured his Italian guests and an assembly of generals from both countries, and a secret report on it prepared by General Jodl55 confirms that while the Fuehrer was anxious to be helpful to the Italians in Albania andLibya, his principal thoughts were on Russia.

I don’t see great danger coming from America [Hitler said] even if she should enter the war. The much greater danger is the gigantic block of Russia. Though we have very favorable political and economic agreements with Russia, I prefer to rely on powerful means at my disposal.

Though he hinted at what he intended to do with his “powerful means,” he did not disclose his plans to his partner. These, however, were sufficiently far along to enable the Chief of the Army General Staff, who was responsible for working out the details, to present them to the Supreme Commander at a meeting in Berlin a fortnight later.

This war conference, attended by the top generals of OKW and of the Army High Command (OKH), lasted from noon until 6 P.M. on February 3. And though General Halder, who outlined the Army General Staff’s plans, contended later in his book56 that he and Brauchitsch raised doubts about their own assessment of Soviet military strength and in general opposed Barbarossa as an “adventure,” there is not a word in his own diary entry made the same evening or in the highly secret OKW memorandum of the meeting57 that supports this contention. Indeed, they disclose Halder to have made at first a businesslike estimate of the opposing forces, calculating that while the enemy would have approximately 155 divisions, German strength would be about the same and, as Halder reported, “far superior in quality.” Later, when catastrophe set in, Halder and his fellow generals realized that their intelligence on the Red Army had been fantastically faulty. But on February 3, 1941, they did not suspect that. In fact, so convincing was Halder’s report on respective strengths and on the strategy to be employed to annihilate the Red armies* that Hitler at the end not only expressed agreement “on the whole” but was so excited by the prospects which the General Staff Chief had raised that he exclaimed:

When Barbarossa commences, the world will hold its breath and make no comment!

He could scarcely wait for it to commence. Impatiently he ordered the operation map and the plan of deployment of forces to be sent to him “as soon as possible.”

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