Military history

THE LAST GREAT GERMAN OFFENSIVES OF THE WAR

Although the Fuehrer’s folly in refusing to allow the German armies in Russia to retreat in time had led to heavy losses in men and arms, to the demoralization of many commands and to a situation which for a few weeks in January and February 1942 threatened to end in utter catastrophe, there is little doubt that Hitler’s fanatical determination to hold on and to stand and fight also helped to stem the Soviet tide. The traditional courage and endurance of the German soldiers did the rest.

By February 20 the Russian offensive from the Baltic to the Black Sea had run out of steam and at the end of March the season of deep mud set in, bringing a relative quiet to the long and bloody front. Both sides were exhausted. A German Army report of March 30, 1942, revealed what a terrible toll had been paid in the winter fighting. Of a total of 162 combat divisions in the East, only eight were ready for offensive missions. The sixteen armored divisions had between them only 140 serviceable tanks—less than the normal number for one division.9

While the troops were resting and refitting—indeed long before that, while they were still retreating in the midwinter snows—Hitler, who was now Commander in Chief of the Army as well as Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, had been busy with plans for the coming summer’s offensive. They were not as ambitious as those of the previous year. By now he had sense enough to see that he could not destroy all of the Red armies in a single campaign. This summer he would concentrate the bulk of his forces in the south, conquer the Caucasus oil fields, the Donets industrial basin and the wheat fields of the Kuban and take Stalingrad on the Volga. This would accomplish several prime objectives. It would deprive the Soviets of the oil and much of the food and industry they desperately needed to carry on the war, while giving the Germans the oil and the food resources they were almost as badly in need of.

“If I do not get the oil of Maikop and Grozny,” Hitler told General Paulus, the commander of the ill-fated Sixth Army, just before the summer offensive began, “then I must end this war.”10

Stalin could have said almost the same thing. He too had to have the oil of the Caucasus to stay in the war. That was where the significance of Stalingrad came in. German possession of it would block the last main route via the Caspian Sea and the Volga River over which the oil, as long as the Russians held the wells, could reach central Russia.

Besides oil to propel his planes and tanks and trucks, Hitler needed men to fill out his thinned ranks. Total casualties at the end of the winter fighting were 1,167,835, exclusive of the sick, and there were not enough replacements available to make up for such losses. The High Command turned to Germany’s allies—or, rather, satellites—for additional troops. During the winter General Keitel had scurried off to Budapest and Bucharest to drum up Hungarian and Rumanian soldiers—whole divisions of them—for the coming summer. Goering and finally Hitler himself appealed to Mussolini for Italian formations.

Goering arrived in Rome at the end of January 1942 to line up Italian reinforcements for Russia, assuring Mussolini that the Soviet Union would be defeated in 1942 and that Great Britain would lay down her arms in 1943. Ciano found the fat, bemedaled Reich Marshal insufferable. “As usual he is bloated and overbearing,” the Italian Foreign Minister noted in his diary on February 2. Two days later:

Goering leaves Rome. We had dinner at the Excelsior Hotel, and during the dinner Goering talked of little else but the jewels he owned. In fact, he had some beautiful rings on his fingers … On the way to the station he wore a great sable coat, something between what automobile drivers wore in 1906 and what a high-grade prostitute wears to the opera.11

The corruption and corrosion of the Number Two man in the Third Reich was making steady progress.

Mussolini promised Goering to send two Italian divisions to Russia in March if the Germans would give them artillery, but his concern about his ally’s defeats on the Eastern front grew to such proportions that Hitler decided it was time for another meeting to explain how strong Germany still was.

This took place on April 29 and 30 at Salzburg, where the Duce and Ciano and their party were put up in the baroque Palace of Klessheim, once the seat of the prince-bishops and now redecorated with hangings, furniture and carpets from France, for which the Italian Foreign Minister suspected the Germans “did not pay too much.” Ciano found the Fuehrer looking tired. “The winter months in Russia have borne heavily upon him,” he noted in his diary. “I see for the first time that he has many gray hairs.”*

There followed the usual German recital sizing up the general situation, with Ribbentrop and Hitler assuring their Italian guests that all was well—in Russia, in North Africa, in the West and on the high seas. The coming offensive in the East, they confided, would be directed against the Caucasus oil fields.

When Russia’s sources of oil are exhausted [Ribbentrop said] she will be brought to her knees. Then the British … will bow in order to save what remains of the mauled Empire …

America is a big bluff …

Ciano, listening more or less patiently to his opposite number, got the impression, however, that in regard to what the United States might eventually do it was the Germans who were bluffing and that in reality, when they thought of it, “they feel shivers running down their spines.”

It was the Fuehrer who, as always, did most of the talking.

Hitler talks, talks, talks [Ciano wrote in his diary]. Mussolini suffers—he, who is in the habit of talking himself, and who, instead, practically has to keep quiet. On the second day, after lunch, when everything had been said, Hitler talked uninterruptedly for an hour and forty minutes. He omitted absolutely no argument: war and peace, religion and philosophy, art and history. Mussolini automatically looked at his wrist watch … The Germans—poor people—have to take it every day, and I am certain there isn’t a gesture, a word or a pause, which they don’t know by heart. General Jodl, after an epic struggle, finally went to sleep on the divan. Keitel was reeling, but he succeeded in keeping his head up. He was too close to Hitler to let himself go …12

Despite the avalanche of talk or perhaps because of it, Hitler got the promise of more Italian cannon fodder for the Russian front. So successful were he and Keitel with all the satellites that the German High Command calculated it would have 52 “Allied” divisions available for the summer’s task—27 Rumanian, 13 Hungarian, 9 Italian, 2 Slovak and one Spanish. This was one quarter of the combined Axis force in the East. Of the 41 fresh divisions which were to reinforce the southern part of the front, where the main German blow would fall, one half—or 21 divisions—were Hungarian (10), Italian (6) and Rumanian (5). Halder and most of the other generals did not like to stake so much on so many “foreign” divisions whose fighting qualities, in their opinion, were, to put it mildly, questionable. But because of their own shortage of manpower they reluctantly accepted this aid, and this decision was shortly to contribute to the disaster which ensued.

At first, that summer of 1942, the fortunes of the Axis prospered. Even before the jump-off toward the Caucasus and Stalingrad a sensational victory was scored in North Africa. On May 27,1942, General Rommel had resumed his offensive in the desert.* Striking swiftly with his famedAfrika Korps (two armored divisions and a motorized infantry division) and eight Italian divisions, of which one was armored, he soon had the British desert army reeling back toward the Egyptian frontier. On June 21 he captured Tobruk, the key to the British defenses, which in 1941 had held out for nine months until relieved, and two days later he entered Egypt. By the end of June he was at El Alamein, sixty-five miles from Alexandria and the delta of the Nile. It seemed to many a startled Allied statesman, poring over a map, that nothing could now prevent Rommel from delivering a fatal blow to the British by conquering Egypt and then, if he were reinforced, sweeping on northeast to capture the great oil fields of the Middle East and then to the Caucasus to meet the German armies in Russia, which already were beginning their advance toward that region from the north.

It was one of the darkest moments of the war for the Allies and correspondingly one of the brightest for the Axis. But Hitler, as we have seen, had never understood global warfare. He did not know how to exploit Rommel’s surprising African success. He awarded the daring leader of the Afrika Korps a field marshal’s baton but he did not send him supplies or reinforcements.* Under the nagging of Admiral Raeder and the urging of Rommel, the Fuehrer had only reluctantly agreed to send the Afrika Korps and a small German air force to Libya in the first place. But he had done this only to prevent an Italian collapse in North Africa, not because he foresaw the importance of conquering Egypt.

The key to that conquest actually was the small island of Malta, lying in the Mediterranean between Sicily and the Axis bases in Libya. It was from this British bastion that bombers, submarines and surface craft wrought havoc on German and Italian vessels carrying supplies and men to North Africa. In August 1941 some 35 per cent of Rommel’s supplies and reinforcements were sunk; in October, 63 per cent. By November 9 Ciano was writing sadly in his diary:

Since September 19 we had given up trying to get convoys through to Libya; every attempt had been paid for at a high price … Tonight we tried it again. A convoy of seven ships left, accompanied by two ten-thousand-ton cruisers and ten destroyers … All—I mean all—our ships were sunk … The British returned to their ports [at Malta] after having slaughtered us.13

Belatedly the Germans diverted several U-boats from the Battle of the Atlantic to the Mediterranean and Kesselring was given additional squadrons of planes for the bases in Sicily. It was decided to neutralize Malta and destroy, if possible, the British fleet in the eastern Mediterranean. Success was immediate. By the end of 1941 the British had lost three battleships, an aircraft carrier, two cruisers and several destroyers and submarines, and what was left of their fleet was driven to Egyptian bases. Malta had been battered by German bombers day and night for weeks. As a result Axis supplies got through—in January not a ton of shipping was lost—and Rommel was able to build up his forces for the big push into Egypt.

In March Admiral Raeder talked Hitler into approving plans not only for Rommel’s offensive toward the Nile (Operation Aïda) but for the capture of Malta by parachute troops (Operation Hercules). The drive from Libya was to begin at the end of May and Malta was to be assaulted in mid-July. But on June 15, while Rommel was in the midst of his initial successes, Hitler postponed the attack on Malta. He could spare neither troops nor planes from the Russian front, he explained to Raeder. A few weeks later he postponed Hercules again, saying it could wait until after the summer offensive in the East had been completed and Rommel had conquered Egypt.14 Malta could be kept quiet in the meantime, he advised, by continued bombing.

But it was not kept quiet and for this failure either to neutralize it or to capture it the Germans would shortly pay a high price. A large British convoy got through to the besieged island on June 16, and though several warships and freighters were lost this put Malta back in business. Spitfires were flown to the island from the U.S. aircraft carrier Wasp and soon drove the attacking Luftwaffe bombers from the skies. Rommel felt the effect. Three quarters of his supply ships thereafter were sunk.

He had reached El Alamein with just thirteen operational tanks.* “Our strength,” he wrote in his diary on July 3, “has faded away.” And at a moment when the Pyramids were almost in sight, and beyond—the great prize of Egypt and Suez! This was another opportunity lost, and one of the last which Hitler would be afforded by Providence and the fortunes of war.

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