The Desert Fox, as he was called on both sides of the front, had resumed his offensive at El Alamein on August 31 with the intention of rolling up the British Eighth Army and driving on to Alexandria and the Nile. There was a violent battle in the scorching heat on the 40-mile desert front between the sea and the Qattara Depression, but Rommel could not quite make it and on September 3 he broke off the fighting and went over to the defensive. At long last the British army in Egypt had received strong reinforcements in men, guns, tanks and planes (many of the last two from America). It had also received on August 15 two new commanders: an eccentric but gifted general named Sir Bernard Law Montgomery, who took over the Eighth Army, and General Sir Harold Alexander, who was to prove to be a skillful strategist and a brilliant administrator and who now assumed the post of Commander in Chief in the Middle East.
Shortly after his setback Rommel had gone on sick leave on the Semmering in the mountains below Vienna to receive a cure for an infected nose and a swollen liver, and it was there that on the afternoon of October 24 he received a telephone call from Hitler. “Rommel, the news from Africa sounds bad. The situation seems somewhat obscure. Nobody appears to know what has happened to General Stumme.* Do you feel capable of returning to Africa and taking over there again?”20 Though a sick man, Rommel agreed to return immediately.
By the time he got back to headquarters west of El Alamein on the following evening, the battle, which Montgomery had launched at 9:40 P.M. on October 23, was already lost. The Eighth Army had too many guns, tanks and planes, and though the Italian–German lines still held and Rommel made desperate efforts to shift his battered divisions to stem the various attacks and even to counterattack he realized that his situation was hopeless. He had no reserves: of men, or tanks or oil. The R.A.F., for once, had complete command of the skies and was pounding his troops and armor and remaining supply dumps mercilessly.
On November 2, Montgomery’s infantry and armor broke through on the southern sector of the front and began to overrun the Italian divisions there. That evening Rommel radioed Hitler’s headquarters in East Prussia two thousand miles away that he could no longer hold out and that he intended to withdraw, while there was still the opportunity, to the Fûka position forty miles to the west.
He had already commenced to do so when a long message came over the air the next day from the Supreme warlord:
TO FIELD MARSHAL ROMMEL:
I and the German people are watching the heroic defensive battle waged in Egypt with faithful trust in your powers of leadership and in the bravery of the German-Italian troops under your command. In the situation in which you now find yourself, there can be no other consideration save that of holding fast, of not retreating one step, of throwing every gun and every man into the battle … You can show your troops no other way than that which leads to victory or to death.
This idiotic order meant, if obeyed, that the Italo–German armies were condemned to swift annihilation and for the first time in Africa, Bayerlein says, Rommel did not know what to do. After a brief struggle with his conscience he decided, over the protests of General Ritter von Thoma, the actual commander of the German Afrika Korps, who said he was withdrawing in any case,† to obey his Supreme Commander. “I finally compelled myself to take this decision,” Rommel wrote later in his diary, “because I myself have always demanded unconditional obedience from my soldiers and I therefore wished to accept this principle for myself.” Later, as a subsequent diary entry declares, he learned better.
Reluctantly Rommel gave the order to halt the withdrawal and at the same time sent off a courier by plane to Hitler to try to explain to him that unless he were permitted to fall back immediately all would be lost. But events were already making that trip unnecessary. On the evening of November 4, at the risk of being court-martialed for disobedience, Rommel decided to save what was left of his forces and retreat to Fûka. Only the remnants of the armored and motorized units could be extricated. The foot soldiers, mostly Italian, were left behind to surrender, as indeed the bulk of them already had done.* On November 5 came a curt message from the Fuehrer: “I agree to the withdrawal of your army into the Fûka position.” But that position already had been overrun by Montgomery’s tanks. Within fifteen days Rommel had fallen back seven hundred miles to beyond Benghazi with the remnants of his African army—some 25,000 Italians, 10,000 Germans and sixty tanks—and there was no opportunity to stop even there.
This was the beginning of the end for Adolf Hitler, the most decisive battle of the war yet won by his enemies, though a second and even more decisive one was just about to begin on the snowy steppes of southern Russia. But before it did, the Fuehrer was to hear further bad news fromNorth Africa which spelled the doom of the Axis in that part of the world.
Already on November 3, when the first reports had come in of Rommel’s disaster, the Fuehrer’s headquarters had received word that an Allied armada had been sighted assembling at Gibraltar. No one at OKW could make out what it might be up to. Hitler was inclined to think it was merely another heavily guarded convoy for Malta. This is interesting because more than a fortnight earlier, on October 15, the OKW staff chiefs had discussed several reports about an imminent “Anglo-Saxon landing” in West Africa. The intelligence apparently came from Rome, for Ciano a week before, on October 9, noted in his diary after a talk with the chief of the military secret service that “the Anglo–Saxons are preparing to land in force in North Africa.” The news depressed Ciano; he foresaw—correctly, as it turned out—that this would lead inevitably to a direct Allied assault on Italy.
Hitler, preoccupied as he was with the failure of the Russians to cease their infernal resistance, did not take this first intelligence very seriously. At a meeting of OKW on October 15, Jodl suggested that Vichy France be permitted to send reinforcements to North Africa so that the French could repel any Anglo–American landings. The Fuehrer, according to the OKW Diary, turned the suggestion down because it might ruffle the Italians, who were jealous of any move to strengthen France. At the Supreme Commander’s headquarters the matter appears to have been forgotten until November 3. But on that day, although German agents on the Spanish side of Gibraltar had reported seeing a great Anglo–American fleet gathering there, Hitler was too busy rallying Rommel at El Alamein to bother with what appeared to him to be merely another convoy for Malta.
On November 5, OKW was informed that one British naval force had sailed out of Gibraltar headed east. But it was not until the morning of November 7, twelve hours before American and British troops began landing in North Africa, that Hitler gave the latest intelligence from Gibraltar some thought. The forenoon reports received at his headquarters in East Prussia were that British naval forces in Gibraltar and a vast fleet of transports and warships from the Atlantic had joined up and were steaming east into the Mediterranean. There was a long discussion among the staff officers and the Fuehrer. What did it all mean? What was the objective of such a large naval force? Hitler was now inclined to believe, he said, that the Western Allies might be attempting a major landing with some four or five divisions at Tripoli or Benghazi in order to catch Rommel in the rear. Admiral Krancke, the naval liaison officer at OKW, declared that there could not be more than two enemy divisions at the most. Even so! Something had to be done. Hitler asked that the Luftwaffe in the Mediterranean be immediately reinforced but was told this was impossible “for the moment.” Judging by the OKW Diary all that Hitler did that morning was to notify Rundstedt, Commander in Chief in the West, to be ready to carry out “Anton.” This was the code word for the occupation of the rest of France.
Whereupon the Supreme Commander, heedless of this ominous news or of the plight of Rommel, who would be trapped if the Anglo–Americans landed behind him, or of the latest intelligence warning of an imminent Russian counteroffensive on the Don in the rear of the Sixth Army atStalingrad, entrained after lunch on November 7 for Munich, where on the next evening he was scheduled to deliver his annual speech to his old party cronies gathered to celebrate the anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch!*
The politician in him, as Halder noted, had got the upper hand of the soldier at a critical moment in the war. Supreme Headquarters in East Prussia was left in charge of a colonel, one Freiherr Treusch von Buttlar-Brandenfels. Generals Keitel and Jodl, the chief officers of OKW, went along to participate in the beerhouse festivities. There is something weird and batty about such goings on that take the Supreme warlord, who by now was insisting on directing the war on far-flung fronts down to the divisional or regimental or even battalion level, thousands of miles from the battlefields on an unimportant political errand at a moment when the house is beginning to fall in. A change in the man, a corrosion, a deterioration has set in, as it already had with Goering who, though his once all-powerful Luftwaffe had been steadily declining, was becoming more and more attached to his jewels and his toy trains, with little time to spare for the ugly realities of a prolonged and increasingly bitter war.
Anglo–American troops under General Eisenhower hit the beaches of Morocco and Algeria at 1:30 A.M. on November 8, 1942, and at 5:30 Ribbentrop was on the phone from Munich to Ciano in Rome to give him the news.
He was rather nervous [Ciano wrote in his diary] and wanted to know what we intended to do. I must confess that, having been caught unawares, I was too sleepy to give a very satisfactory answer.
The Italian Foreign Minister learned from the German Embassy that the officials there were “literally terrified by the blow.”
Hitler’s special train from East Prussia did not arrive in Munich until 3:40 that afternoon and the first reports he got about the Allied landings in Northwest Africa were optimistic.22 Everywhere the French, he was told, were putting up stubborn resistance, and at Algiers and Oran they had repulsed the landing attempts. In Algeria, Germany’s friend, Admiral Darlan, was organizing the defense with the approval of the Vichy regime. Hitler’s first reactions were confused. He ordered the garrison at Crete, which was quite outside the new theater of war, immediately strengthened, explaining that such a step was as important as sending reinforcements to Africa. He instructed the Gestapo to bring Generals Weygand and Giraud* to Vichy and to keep them under surveillance. He asked Field Marshal von Rundstedt to set in action Anton but not to cross the line of demarcation in France until he had further orders. And he requested Ciano† and Pierre Laval, who was now Premier of Vichy France, to meet him in Munich the next day.
For about twenty-four hours Hitler toyed with the idea of trying to make an alliance with France in order to bring her into the war against Britain and America and, at the moment, to strengthen the resolve of the Pétain government to oppose the Allied landings in North Africa. He probably was encouraged in this by the action of Pétain in breaking off diplomatic relations with the United States on the morning of Sunday, November 8, and by the aged French Marshal’s statement to the U.S. chargé d’affaires that his forces would resist the Anglo–American invasion. The OKW Diary for that Sunday emphasizes that Hitler was preoccupied with working out “a far-reaching collaboration with the French.” That evening the German representative in Vichy, Krug von Nidda, submitted a proposal to Pétain for a close alliance between Germany and France.23
By the next day, following his speech to the party veterans, in which he proclaimed that Stalingrad was “firmly in German hands,” the Fuehrer had changed his mind. He told Ciano he had no illusions about the French desire to fight and that he had decided on “the total occupation of France, a landing in Corsica, a bridgehead in Tunisia.” This decision, though not the timing, was communicated to Laval when he arrived in Munich by car on November 10. This traitorous Frenchman promptly promised to urge Pétain to accede to the Fuehrer’s wishes but suggested that the Germans go ahead with their plans without waiting for the senile old Marshal’s approval, which Hitler fully intended to do. Ciano has left a description of the Vichy Premier, who was executed for treason after the war.
Laval, with his white tie and middle-class French peasant attire, is very much out of place in the great salon among so many uniforms. He tries to speak in a familiar tone about his trip and his long sleep in the car, but his words go unheeded. Hitler treats him with frigid courtesy …
The poor man could not even imagine the fait accompli that the Germans were to place before him. Not a word was said to Laval about the impending action—that the orders to occupy France were being given while he was smoking his cigarette and conversing with various people in the next room. Von Ribbentrop told me that Laval would be informed only the next morning at 8 o’clock that on account of information received during the night Hitler had been obliged to proceed to the total occupation of the country.24
The orders for the seizure of unoccupied France, in clear violation of the armistice agreement, were given by Hitler at 8:30 P.M. on November 10 and carried out the next morning without any other incident than a futile protest by Pétain. The Italians occupied Corsica, and German planes began flying in troops to seize French-held Tunisia before Eisenhower’s forces could get there.
There was one further—and typical—piece of Hitlerian deceit. On November 13 the Fuehrer assured Pétain that neither the Germans nor the Italians would occupy the naval base at Toulon, where the French fleet had been tied up since the armistice. On November 25 the OKW Diary recorded that Hitler had decided to carry out “Lila” as soon as possible.* This was the code word for the occupation of Toulon and the capture of the French fleet. On the morning of the twenty-seventh German troops attacked the naval port, but French sailors held them up long enough to allow the crews, on the orders of Admiral de Laborde, to scuttle the ships. The French fleet was thus lost to the Axis, which badly needed its warships in the Mediterranean, but it was denied also to the Allies, to whom it would have been a most valuable addition.
Hitler won the race against Eisenhower to seize Tunisia, but it was a doubtful victory. At his insistence nearly a quarter of a million German and Italian troops were poured in to hold this bridgehead. If the Fuehrer had sent one fifth as many troops and tanks to Rommel a few months before, the Desert Fox most probably would have been beyond the Nile by now, the Anglo–American landing in Northwest Africa could not have taken place and the Mediterranean would have been irretrievably lost to the Allies, thus securing the soft undercover of the Axis belly. As it was, every soldier and tank and gun rushed by Hitler to Tunisia that winter as well as the remnants of the Afrika Korps would be lost by the end of the spring and more German troops would be marched into prisoner-of-war cages than at Stalingrad, to which we must now return.*