Military history


FOR THREE SUCCESSIVE WAR YEARS when summer came, it had been the Germans who had launched the great offensives on the continent of Europe. Now in 1943 the tables turned.

With the capture in early May of that year of the Axis forces in Tunisia, all that remained of a once mighty army in North Africa, it was obvious that General Eisenhower’s Anglo–American armies would next turn on Italy itself. This was the kind of nightmare which had haunted Mussolini in September of 1939 and which had made him delay Italy’s entry into the war until neighboring France had been conquered by the Germans and the British Expeditionary Force driven across the Channel. The nightmare now returned, but this time it was rapidly turning into reality.

Mussolini himself was ill and disillusioned; and he was frightened. Defeatism was rife among his people and in the armed forces. There had been mass strikes in the industrial cities of Milan and Turin, where the hungry workers had demonstrated for “bread, peace and freedom.” The discredited and corrupt Fascist regime itself was fast crumbling, and when Count Ciano at the beginning of the year was relieved as Foreign Minister and sent to the Vatican as ambassador the Germans suspected that he had gone there to try to negotiate a separate peace with the Allies, asAntonescu, the Rumanian dictator, was already urging.

For several months Mussolini had been bombarding Hitler with appeals to make peace with Stalin, so that his armies could be withdrawn to the West to make a common defense with the Italians against the growing threat of the Anglo–American forces in the Mediterranean and of those which he believed were assembling in England for a cross-Channel invasion. The time had come again, Hitler realized, for a meeting with Mussolini in order to buck up his sagging partner and to put him straight. This was arranged for April 7, 1943, at Salzburg, and though the Duce arrived determined to have his way—or at least his say—at last, he once more succumbed to the Fuehrer’s torrents of words. Hitler later described his success to Goebbels, who jotted it down in his diary.

By putting every ounce of energy into the effort, he succeeded in pushing Mussolini back on the rails … The Duce underwent a complete change … When he got out of the train on his arrival, the Fuehrer thought, he looked like a broken old man; when he left [after four days] he was in high fettle, ready for any deed.1

But in point of fact Mussolini was not ready for the events which now followed in quick succession. The Allied conquest of Tunisia in May was followed by the successful Anglo–American landings in Sicily on July 10. The Italians had little stomach for battle in their own homeland. Reports soon reached Hitler that the Italian Army was “in a state of collapse,” as he put it to his advisers at OKW.

Only barbaric measures [Hitler told a war council on July 17] like those applied by Stalin in 1941 or by the French in 1917 can help to save the nation. A sort of tribunal or court-martial should be set up in Italy to remove undesirable elements.2

Once again he summoned Mussolini to discuss the matter, the meeting taking place on July 19 at Feltre in northern Italy. This, incidentally, was the thirteenth conference of the two dictators and it followed the pattern of the most recent ones. Hitler did all the talking, Mussolini all the listening—for three hours before lunch and for two hours after it. Without much success the fanatical German leader tried to rekindle the sunken spirits of his ailing friend and ally. They must continue the fight on all fronts. Their tasks could not be left “to another generation.” The “voice of history” was still beckoning them. Sicily and Italy proper could be held if the Italians fought. There would be more German reinforcements to help them. A new U-boat would soon be in operation and would deal the British a “Stalingrad.”

Despite Hitler’s promises and boasts the atmosphere, Dr. Schmidt found, was most depressing. Mussolini was so overwrought that he could no longer follow his friend’s tirades and at the end asked Schmidt to furnish him with his notes. The Duce’s despair worsened when during the meeting reports came in of the first heavy daylight Allied air attack on Rome.3

Benito Mussolini, tired and senile though he was only going on sixty, he who had strutted so arrogantly across Europe’s stage for two decades, was at the end of his rope. When he returned to Rome he found much worse than the aftermath of the first heavy bombing. He faced revolt from some of his closest henchmen in the Fascist Party hierarchy, even from his son-in-law, Ciano. And behind it there was a plot among a wider circle that reached to the King to overthrow him.

The rebellious Fascist leaders, led by Dino Grandi, Giuseppe Bottai and Ciano, demanded the convocation of the Fascist Grand Council, which had not met since December 1939 and which had always been a rubberstamp body completely dominated by the Duce. It convened on the night of July 24–25, 1943, and Mussolini for the first time in his career as dictator found himself the target of violent criticism for the disaster into which he had led the country. By a vote of 19 to 8, a resolution was carried demanding the restoration of a constitutional monarchy with a democratic Parliament. It also called for the full command of the armed forces to be restored to the King.

The Fascist rebels, with the possible exception of Grandi, do not appear to have had any idea of going further than this. But there was a second and wider plot of certain generals and the King, which was now sprung. Mussolini himself apparently felt that he had weathered the storm—after all, decisions in Italy were not made by a majority vote in the Grand Council but by the Duce—and he was taken completely by surprise when on the evening of July 25 he was summoned to the royal palace by the King, summarily dismissed from office and carted off under arrest in an ambulance to a police station.*

So fell, ignominiously, the modern Roman Caesar, a bellicose-sounding man of the twentieth century who had known how to profit from its confusions and despair, but who underneath the gaudy façade was made largely of sawdust. As a person he was not unintelligent. He had read widely in history and thought he understood its lessons. But as dictator he had made the fatal mistake of seeking to make a martial, imperial Great Power of a country which lacked the industrial resources to become one and whose people, unlike the Germans, were too civilized, too sophisticated, too down to earth to be attracted by such false ambitions. The Italian people, at heart, had never, like the Germans, embraced fascism. They had merely suffered it, knowing that it was a passing phase, and Mussolini toward the end seems to have realized this. But like all dictators he was carried away by power, which, as it inevitably must, corrupted him, corroding his mind and poisoning his judgment. This led him to his second fatal mistake of tying his fortunes and those of Italy to the Third Reich. When the bell began to toll for Hitler’s Germany it began to toll for Mussolini’s Italy, and as the summer of 1943 came the Italian leader heard it. But there was nothing he could do to escape his fate. By now he was a prisoner of Hitler.

Not a gun was fired—not even by the Fascist militia—to save him. Not a voice was raised in his defense. No one seemed to mind the humiliating nature of his departure—being hauled away from the King’s presence to jail in an ambulance. On the contrary, there was general rejoicing at hisfall. Fascism itself collapsed as easily as its founder. Marshal Pietro Badoglio formed a nonparty government of generals and civil servants, the Fascist Party was dissolved, Fascists were removed from key posts and anti-Fascists released from prison.

   The reaction at Hitler’s headquarters to the news of Mussolini’s fall may be imagined, though it need not be—for voluminous secret records abound as to what it was.4 It was one of deep shock. Certain parallels were immediately evident even to the Nazi mind, and the danger that a terrible precedent might have been set in Rome greatly troubled Dr. Goebbels, who was summoned posthaste to Rastenburg headquarters on July 26. The Propaganda Minister’s first thought, we learn from his diary, was how to explain the overthrow of Mussolini to the German people. “What are we to tell them, anyway?” he asked himself, and he decided that for the moment they were to be told only that the Duce had resigned “for reasons of health.”

Knowledge of these events [he wrote in his diary] might conceivably encourage some subversive elements in Germany to think they could put over the same thing here that Badoglio and his henchmen accomplished in Rome. The Fuehrer ordered Himmler to see to it that most severe police measures be applied in case such a danger seemed imminent here.

Hitler, however, Goebbels added, did not think the danger was very imminent in Germany. The Propaganda Minister finally assured himself that the German people would not “regard the crisis in Rome as a precedent.”

Though the Fuehrer had observed the signs of cracking in Mussolini at their meeting but a fortnight before, he was taken completely by surprise when the news from Rome began to trickle in to headquarters on the afternoon of July 25. The first word was merely that the Fascist Grand Council had met, and Hitler wondered why. “What’s the use of councils like that?” he asked. “What do they do except jabber?”

That evening his worst fears were confirmed. “The Duce has resigned,” he announced to his astounded military advisers at a conference that began at 9:30 P.M. “Badoglio, our most bitter enemy, has taken over the government.”

For one of the last times of the war Hitler reacted to the news with that ice-cold judgment which he had displayed in crises in earlier and more successful days. When General Jodl urged that they wait for more complete reports from Rome, Hitler cut him short.

Certainly [he said], but still we have to plan ahead. Undoubtedly in their treachery they will proclaim that they will remain loyal to us, but that is treachery. Of course they won’t remain loyal … Although that so-and-so [Badoglio] declared immediately that the war would be continued, that won’t make any difference. They have to say that, but it remains treason. We’ll play the same game while preparing everything to take over the whole crew with one stroke, to capture all that riffraff.

That was Hitler’s first thought: to seize those who had overthrown Mussolini and restore the Duce to power.

Tomorrow [he went on] I’ll send a man down there with orders for the commander of the Third Panzergrenadier Division to the effect that he must drive into Rome with a special detail and arrest the whole government, the King and the whole bunch right away. First of all, to arrest the Crown Prince and to take over the whole gang, especially Badoglio and that entire crew. Then watch them cave in, and in two or three days there’ll be another coup.

Hitler turned to the OKW Chief of Operations.

HITLER: Jodl, work out the orders … telling them to drive into Rome with their assault guns … and to arrest the government, the King, and the whole crew. I want the Crown Prince above all.

KEITEL: He is more important than the old man.

BODENSCHATZ [a general of the Luftwaffe]: That has to be organized so that they can be packed into a plane and flown away.

HITLER: Right into a plane and off with them.

BODENSCHATZ: Don’t let the Bambino get lost at the airfield.

At a later conference shortly after midnight the question was raised as to what to do with the Vatican. Hitler answered it.

I’ll go right into the Vatican. Do you think the Vatican embarrasses me? We’ll take that over right away … The entire diplomatic corps are in there … That rabble … We’ll get that bunch of swine out of there … Later we can make apologies …

That night also Hitler gave orders to secure the Alpine passes, both between Italy and Germany and between Italy and France. Some eight German divisions from France and southern Germany were hastily assembled for this purpose and established as Army Group? under the command of the energetic Rommel. Had the Italians, as Goebbels noted in his diary, blown the Alpine tunnels and bridges, the German forces in Italy, some of them already heavily engaged in Sicily by Eisenhower’s armies, would have been cut off from their source of supplies. They could not have held out for long.

But the Italians could not suddenly turn on the Germans overnight. Badoglio had first to establish contact with the Allies to see if he could get an armistice and Allied support against the Wehrmacht divisions. Hitler had been correct in assuming that that was exactly what Badoglio woulddo, but he had no inkling it would take as long as it did. Indeed, this assumption dominated the discussion at a war conference at the Fuehrer’s headquarters on July 27 attended by most of the bigwigs in the Nazi government and armed forces, among them Goering, Goebbels, Himmler, Rommel and the new Commander in Chief of the Navy, Admiral Karl Doenitz—who had succeeded Grand Admiral Raeder in January, when the latter had fallen from favor.* Most of the generals, led by Rommel, urged caution, arguing that any contemplated action in Italy be carefully prepared and well thought out. Hitler wanted to move at once even though it meant withdrawing key panzer divisions from the Eastern front, where the Russians had just launched (July 15) their first summer offensive of the war. For once the generals seem to have had their way and Hitler was persuaded to withhold action. In the meantime as many German troops as could be rounded up would be rushed over the Alps into Italy. Goebbels took a dim view of the hesitancy of the generals.

They don’t take into account [he wrote in his diary after the war powwow] what the enemy is going to do. Undoubtedly the English won’t wait a week while we consider and prepare for action.

He and Hitler need not have worried. The Allies waited not a week, but six weeks. By then Hitler had his plans and the forces to carry them out ready.

In his feverish mind he had in fact hastily conceived the plans by the time the war conference on July 27 convened. There were four of them: (1) Operation Eiche (“Oak”) provided for the rescue of Mussolini either by the Navy, if he were located on an island, or by Luftwaffe parachutists, if he were found on the mainland; (2) Operation Student called for the sudden occupation of Rome and the restoration of Mussolini’s government there; (3) Operation Schwarz (“Black”) was the code name for the military occupation of all of Italy; (4) Operation Achse (“Axis”) envisaged the capture or destruction of the Italian fleet. Later the last two operations were combined under the code name of “Axis.”

   Two events early in September 1943 set the Fuehrer’s plans in operation. On September 3 Allied troops landed on the boot of southern Italy, and on September 8 public announcement was made of the armistice (secretly signed on September 3) between Italy and the Western Powers.

Hitler had flown to Zaporozhe in the Ukraine that day to try to restore the sagging German front, but, according to Goebbels, he had been seized “by a queer feeling of unrest” and had returned that evening to Rastenburg headquarters in East Prussia, where the news awaited him that his principal ally had deserted. Though he had expected it and prepared for it, the actual timing took him by surprise and for several hours there was great confusion at headquarters. The Germans had first learned of the Italian armistice from a BBC broadcast from London, and when Jodl put through a call from Rastenburg to Field Marshal Kesselring at Frascati, near Rome, to ask if it were true the commander of the German armies in southern Italy confessed that it was news to him. However, Kesselring, whose headquarters that morning had been destroyed by an Allied bombing and who was preoccupied with rounding up troops to meet a new Allied landing somewhere on the west coast, was able to get out the code word “Axis,” which set in motion the plans to disarm the Italian Army and occupy the country.

For a day or two the situation of the German forces in central and south Italy was extremely critical. Five Italian divisions faced two German divisions in the vicinity of Rome. If the powerful Allied invasion fleet which had appeared off Naples on September 8 moved north and landed near the capital and was reinforced by parachutists seizing the nearby airfields, as Kesselring and his staff at first expected, the course of the war in Italy would have taken a different turn than it did and final disaster might have overtaken the Third Reich a year earlier than happened. Kesselring later contended that on the evening of the eighth Hitler and OKW “wrote off” his entire force of eight divisions as irretrievably lost.5 Two days later Hitler told Goebbels that southern Italy was lost and that a new line would have to be established north of Rome in the Apennines.

But the Allied Command did not take advantage of its complete command of the sea, which permitted it to make landings almost anywhere on both coasts of Italy, nor did it exploit its overwhelming air superiority, as the Germans had feared. Moreover, no effort seems to have been made by Eisenhower’s Command to try to utilize the large Italian forces in conjunction with its own, especially the five Italian divisions in the vicinity of Rome. Had Eisenhower done so—at least such was the contention of both Kesselring and his chief of staff, General Siegfried Westphal, later—the predicament of the Germans would have become hopeless. It was simply beyond their powers, they declared, to fight off Montgomery’s army advancing up the peninsula from the “boot,” throw back General Mark Clark’s invasion force, wherever it landed, and deal with the large Italian armed formations in their midst and in their rear.*6

Both generals breathed a sigh of relief when the American Fifth Army landed not near Rome but south of Naples, at Salerno, and when the Allied parachutists failed to appear over the Rome airfields. Their relief was all the greater when the Italian divisions surrendered almost without firing a shot and were disarmed. It meant that the Germans could easily hold Rome and, for the time being, even Naples. This gave them possession of two thirds of Italy, including the industrial north, whose factories were put to work turning out arms for Germany. Almost miraculously Hitler had received a new lease on life.*

Italy’s withdrawal from the war had embittered him. It was, he told Goebbels, who had again been summoned to Rastenburg, “a gigantic example of swinishness.” Moreover, the overthrow of Mussolini made him apprehensive of his own position. “The Fuehrer,” Goebbels noted in his diary on September 11, “invoked final measures to preclude similar developments with us once and for all.”

In his broadcast to the nation on the evening of September 10, which Goebbels had persuaded him to make only after much pleading—“The people are entitled to a word of encouragement and solace from the Fuehrer in this difficult crisis,” the Propaganda Minister told him—Hitler spoke somewhat defiantly on the subject:

Hope of finding traitors here rests on complete ignorance of the character of the National Socialist State; a belief that they can bring about a July 25 in Germany rests on a fundamental illusion as to my personal position, as well as to the attitude of my political collaborators and my field marshals, admirals and generals.

Actually, as we shall see, there were a few German generals and a handful of former political collaborators who were beginning once more, as the military setbacks mounted, to harbor treasonable thoughts, which, when the next July rolled around, would be translated into an act more violent but less successful than that carried out against Mussolini.

One of Hitler’s measures to quash any incipient treason was to order all German princes discharged from the Wehrmacht. Prince Philip of Hesse, the former messenger boy of the Fuehrer to Mussolini, who had been hanging around headquarters, was arrested and turned over to the tender mercies of the Gestapo. His wife, Princess Mafalda, the daughter of the King of Italy, was also arrested and, with her husband, incarcerated in a concentration camp. The King of Italy, like the kings of Norway and Greece, had escaped the clutches of Hitler, who took what revenge he could by arresting his daughter.*

   For several weeks the Fuehrer’s daily military conferences had devoted a great deal of time to a problem that burned in Hitler’s mind: the rescue of Mussolini. “Operation Oak,” it will be remembered, was the code name for this plan, and in the records of the conferences at headquarters Mussolini was always referred to as “the valuable object.” Most of the generals and even Goebbels doubted whether the former Duce was any longer a very valuable object, but Hitler still thought so and insisted on his liberation.

He not only wanted to do a favor to his old friend, for whom he still felt a personal affection. He also had it in mind to set up Mussolini as head of a new Fascist government in northern Italy, which would relieve the Germans of having to administer the territory and help safeguard his long lines of supply and communication against an unfriendly populace from whose midst troublesome partisans were now beginning to emerge.

By August 1, Admiral Doenitz was reporting to Hitler that the Navy believed it had spotted Mussolini on the island of Ventotene. By the middle of August Himmler’s sleuths were sure the Duce was on another island, Maddalena, near the northern tip of Sardinia. Elaborate plans were made to descend upon the island with destroyers and parachutists, but before they could be carried out Mussolini had again been moved. According to a secret clause of the armistice agreement he was to be turned over to the Allies, but for some reason Badoglio delayed in doing this and early in September the “valuable object” was spirited away to a hotel on top of the Gran Sasso d’Italia, the highest range in the Abruzzi Apennines, which could be reached only by a funicular railway.

The Germans soon learned of his whereabouts, made an aerial reconnaissance of the mountaintop and decided that glider troops could probably make a landing, overcome the carabinieri guards and make away with the Duce in a small Fieseler-Storch plane. This daring plan was carried out on September 13 under the leadership of another one of Himmler’s resourceful S.S. intellectual roughnecks, an Austrian by the name of Otto Skorzeny, who will appear again toward the very end of this narrative in another daredevil exploit.* Virtually kidnaping an Italian general, whom he packed into his glider, Skorzeny landed his airborne force a hundred yards from the mountaintop hotel, where he espied the Duce looking out hopefully from a second-story window. Most of the carabinieri, at the sight of German troops, took to the hills, and the few who didn’t were dissuaded by Skorzeny and Mussolini from making use of their arms, the S.S. leader yelling at them not to fire on an Italian general—he pushed his captive officer to the front of his ranks—and the Duce shouting from his window, as one eyewitness remembered, “Don’t shoot, anybody! Don’t shed any blood!” And not a drop was shed.

Within a few minutes the overjoyed Fascist leader, who had sworn he would kill himself rather than fall into Allied hands and be exhibited, as he later wrote, in Madison Square Garden in New York, was bundled into a tiny Fieseler-Storch plane and after a perilous take-off from a small rock-strewn meadow below the hotel flown to Rome and from there, the same evening, to Vienna in a Luftwaffe transport aircraft.7

Though Mussolini was grateful for his rescue and embraced Hitler warmly when they met a couple of days later at Rastenburg, he was by now a broken man, the old fires within him turned to ashes, and much to Hitler’s disappointment he showed little stomach for reviving the Fascist regime in German-occupied Italy. The Fuehrer made no attempt to hide his disillusionment with his old Italian friend in a long talk with Goebbels toward the end of September.

The Duce [Goebbels confided to his diary after the talk] has not drawn the moral conclusions from Italy’s catastrophe that the Fuehrer had expected of him … The Fuehrer expected that the first thing the Duce would do would be to wreak full vengeance on his betrayers. But he gave no such indication and thereby showed his real limitations. He is not a revolutionary like the Fuehrer or Stalin. He is so bound to his own Italian people that he lacks the broad qualities of a world-wide revolutionary and insurrectionist.

Hitler and Goebbels were also incensed that Mussolini had had a reconciliation with Ciano and seemed to be under the thumb of his daughter, Edda, who was Ciano’s wife—both of them had found refuge in Munich. They thought he should have had Ciano immediately executed and Edda, as Goebbels put it, whipped.* They objected to Mussolini’s putting Ciano—“that poisoned mushroom,” Goebbels called him—in the forefront of the new Fascist Republican Party.

For Hitler had insisted that the Duce immediately create such a party, and on September 15, at the Fuehrer’s prodding, Mussolini proclaimed the new Italian Social Republic.

It never amounted to anything. Mussolini’s heart was not in it. Perhaps he retained enough sense of reality to see that he was now merely a puppet of Hitler, that he and his “Fascist Republican Government” had no power except what the Fuehrer gave them in Germany’s interests and that the Italian people would never again accept him and Fascism.

He never returned to Rome. He set himself up at an isolated spot in the extreme north—at Rocca delle Caminate, near Gargnano, on the shores of Lake Garda, where he was closely guarded by a special detachment of the S.S. Leibstandarte. To this beautiful lake resort Sepp Dietrich, the veteran S.S. tough, who was detached from his reeling 1st S.S. Armored Corps in Russia for the purpose—such were the goings on in the Third Reich—escorted Mussolini’s notorious mistress, Clara Petacci. With his true love once more in his arms, the fallen dictator seemed to care for little else in life. Goebbels, who had had not one mistress but many, professed to be shocked.

The personal conduct of the Duce with his girl friend [Goebbels noted in his diary on November 9], whom Sepp Dietrich had to bring to him, is cause for much misgiving.

A few days before, Goebbels had noted that Hitler had begun “to write off the Duce politically.” But not before, it should be added, the Fuehrer forced him to “cede” TriesteIstria and the South Tyrol to Germany with the understanding that Venice would be added later on. Now no humiliation was spared this once proud tyrant. Hitler brought pressure on him to arrest his son-in-law, Ciano, in November, and to have him executed in the jail at Verona on January 11, 1944.

By the early autumn of 1943, Adolf Hitler could well claim to have mastered the gravest threats to the Third Reich. The fall of Mussolini and the unconditional surrender of the Badoglio government in Italy might easily have led, as Hitler and his generals for a few crucial weeks feared, to exposing the southern borders of Germany to direct Allied attack and opening the way—from northern Italy—into the weakly held Balkans in the very rear of the German armies fighting for their lives in southern Russia. The meek departure of the Duce from the seat of power in Rome was a severe blow to the Fuehrer’s prestige both at home and abroad, as was the consequent destruction of the Axis alliance. Yet within a couple of months Hitler, by a daring stroke, had restored Mussolini—at least in the eyes of the world. The Italian areas of occupation in the Balkans, in Greece,Yugoslavia and Albania, were secured against Allied attack, which OKW had expected any day that late summer; the Italian forces there, amounting to several divisions, surrendered meekly and were made prisoners of war. And instead of having to write off Kesselring’s forces, as he had first done, and retreating to northern Italy, the Fuehrer had the satisfaction of seeing the Field Marshal’s armies digging in south of Rome, where they easily halted the advance of the Anglo–American-French troops up the peninsula. There was no disputing that Hitler’s fortunes in the south had been considerably restored by his daring and resourcefulness and by the prowess of his troops.

Elsewhere, though, his fortunes continued to fall.

On July 5, 1943, he had launched what was to prove his last great offensive of the war against the Russians. The flower of the German Army—some 500,000 men with no less than seventeen panzer divisions outfitted with the new heavy Tiger tanks—was hurled against a large Russian salient west of Kursk. This was “Operation Citadel” and Hitler believed it would not only entrap the best of the Russian armies, one million strong—the very forces which had driven the Germans from Stalingrad and the Don the winter before—but enable him to push back to the Don and perhaps even to the Volga and swing up from the southeast to capture Moscow.

It led to a decisive defeat. The Russians were prepared for it. By July 22, the panzers having lost half of their tanks, the Germans were brought to a complete halt and started to fall back. So confident of their strength were the Russians that without waiting for the outcome of the offensive they launched one of their own against the German salient at Orel, north of Kursk, in the middle of July, quickly penetrating the front. This was the first Russian summer offensive of the war and from this moment on the Red armies never lost the initiative. On August 4 they pushed the Germans out of Orel, which had been the southern hinge of the German drive to capture Moscow in December 1941.

Now the Soviet offensive spread along the entire front. Kharkov fell on August 23. A month later, on September 25, three hundred miles to the northwest, the Germans were driven out of Smolensk, from which city they, like the Grande Armée, had set out so confidently in the first months of the Russian campaign on the high road to Moscow. By the end of September Hitler’s hard-pressed armies in the south had fallen back to the line of the Dnieper and a defensive line they had established from Zaporozhe at the bend of the river south to the Sea of Azov. The industrial Donets basin had been lost and the German Seventeenth Army in the Crimea was in danger of being cut off.

Hitler was confident that his armies could hold on the Dnieper and on the fortified positions south of Zaporozhe which together formed the so-called “Winter Line.” But the Russians did not pause even for regrouping. In the first week of October they crossed the Dnieper north and southeast of Kiev, which fell on November 6. By the end of the fateful year of 1943 the Soviet armies in the south were approaching the Polish and Rumanian frontiers past the battlefields where the soldiers of Hitler had achieved their early victories in the summer of 1941 as they romped toward the interior of the Russian land.

This was not all.

There were two other setbacks to Hitler’s fortunes that year which also marked the turning of the tide: the loss of the Battle of the Atlantic and the intensification of the devastating air war day and night over Germany itself.

In 1942, as we have seen, German submarines sank 6,250,000 tons of Allied shipping, most of it bound for Britain or the Mediterranean, a tonnage which far outstripped the capacity of the shipyards in the West to make good. But by the beginning of 1943 the Allies had gained the upper hand over the U-boats, thanks to an improved technique of using long-range aircraft and aircraft carriers and, above all, of equipping their surface vessels with radar which spotted the enemy submarines before the latter could sight them. Doenitz, the new commander of the Navy and the top U-boat man in the service, at first suspected treason when so many of his underwater craft were ambushed and destroyed before they could even approach the Allied convoys. He quickly learned that it was not treason but radar which was causing the disastrous losses. In the three months of February, March and April they had amounted to exactly fifty vessels; in May alone, thirty-seven U-boats were sunk. This was a rate of loss which the German Navy could not long sustain, and before the end of May Doenitz, on his own authority, withdrew all submarines from the North Atlantic.

They returned in September but in the last four months of the year sank only sixty-seven Allied vessels against the loss of sixty-four more submarines—a ratio which spelled the doom of U-boat warfare and definitely settled the Battle of the Atlantic. In 1917 in the First World War, when her armies had become stalled, Germany’s submarines had almost brought Britain to her knees. They were threatening to accomplish this in 1942, when Hitler’s armies in Russia and North Africa had also been stopped, and when the United States and Great Britain were straining themselves not only to halt the drive of the Japanese in Southeast Asia but to assemble men and arms and supplies for the invasion of Hitler’s European empire in the West.

Their failure to seriously disrupt the North Atlantic shipping lanes during 1943 was a bigger disaster than was realized at Hitler’s headquarters, depressing though the actual news was.* For it was during the twelve months of that crucial year that the vast stocks of weapons and supplies were ferried almost unmolested across the Atlantic which made the assault of Fortress Europe possible in the following year.

And it was during that period too that the horrors of modern war were brought home to the German people—brought home to them on their own doorsteps. The public knew little of how the U-boats were doing. And though the news from Russia, the Mediterranean and Italy grew increasingly bad, it dealt after all with events that were transpiring hundreds or thousands of miles distant from the homeland. But the bombs from the British planes by night and the American planes by day were now beginning to destroy a German’s home, and the office or factory where he worked.

Hitler himself declined ever to visit a bombed-out city; it was a duty which seemed simply too painful for him to endure. Goebbels was much distressed at this, complaining that he was being flooded with letters “asking why the Fuehrer does not visit the distressed air areas and why Goering isn’t to be seen anywhere.” The Propaganda Minister’s diary authoritatively describes the growing damage to German cities and industries from the air.

May 16, 1943…. The day raids by American bombers are creating extraordinary difficulties. At Kiel … very serious damage to military and technical installations of the Navy … If this continues we shall have to face serious consequences which in the long run will prove unbearable …

May 25. The night raid of the English on Dortmund was extraordinarily heavy, probably the worst ever directed against a German city … Reports from Dortmund are pretty horrible … Industrial and munition plants have been hit very hard … Some eighty to one hundred thousand inhabitants without shelter … The people in the West are gradually beginning to lose courage. Hell like that is hard to bear … In the evening I received a [further] report on Dortmund. Destruction is virtually total. Hardly a house is habitable …

July 26. During the night a heavy raid on Hamburg … with most serious consequences both for the civilian population and for armaments production … It is a real catastrophe …

July 29. During the night we had the heaviest raid yet made on Hamburg … with 800 to 1,000 bombers … Kaufmann [the local Gauleiter] gave me a first report … He spoke of a catastrophe the extent of which simply staggers the imagination. A city of a million inhabitants has been destroyed in a manner unparalleled in history. We are faced with problems that are almost impossible of solution. Food must be found for this population of a million. Shelter must be secured. The people must be evacuated as far as possible. They must be given clothing. In short, we are facing problems there of which we had no conception even a few weeks ago … Kaufmann spoke of some 800,000 homeless people who are wandering up and down the streets not knowing what to do …

Although considerable damage was done to specific German war plants, especially to those turning out fighter planes, ball bearings, naval ships, steel, and fuel for the new jets, and to the vital rocket experimental station at Peenemunde on which Hitler had set such high hopes,* and though rail and canal transport were continually disrupted, over-all German armament production was not materially reduced during the stepped-up Anglo–American bombings of 1943. This was partly due to the increased output of factories in the occupied zones—above all, those in Czechoslovakia, France, Belgium and northern Italy, which escaped bombing.

The greatest damage inflicted by the Anglo–American air forces, as Goebbels makes clear in his diary, was to the homes and the morale of the German people. In the first war years they had been buoyed up, as this writer remembers, by the lurid reports of what Luftwaffe bombing had done to the enemy, especially to the British. They were sure it would help bring the war to an early—and victorious—end. Now, in 1943, they themselves began to bear the full brunt of air warfare far more devastating than any the Luftwaffe had dealt to others, even to the populace of London in 1940–41. The German people endured it as bravely and as stoically as the British people had done. But after four years of war it was all the more a severe strain, and it is not surprising that as 1943 approached its end, with all its blasted hopes in Russia, in North Africa and in Italy, and with their own cities from one end of the Reich to the other being pulverized from the air, the German people began to despair and to realize that this was the beginning of the end that could only spell their defeat.

“Toward the end of 1943 at the latest,” the now unemployed General Halder would later write, “it had become unmistakably clear that the war was militarily lost.”9

General Jodl, in a gloomy off-the-record lecture to the Nazi gauleiters in Munich on November 7, 1943—the eve of the anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch—did not go quite so far. But the picture he painted of the situation at the beginning of the fifth year of the war was dark enough.

What weighs most heavily today on the home front and consequently by reaction on the front line [he said] is the enemy terror raids from the air on our homes and so on our wives and children. In this respect … the war has assumed forms solely through the fault of England such as were believed to be no longer possible since the days of the racial and religious wars.

The effect of these terror raids, psychological, moral and material, is such that they must be relieved if they cannot be made to cease completely.

The state of German morale as the result of the defeats and the bombings of 1943 was vividly described by this authoritative source, who on this occasion was speaking for the Fuehrer.

Up and down the country the devil of subversion strides. All the cowards are seeking a way out, or—as they call it—a political solution. They say we must negotiate while there is still something in hand …*

It wasn’t only the “cowards.” Dr. Goebbels himself, the most loyal and faithful—and fanatical—of Hitler’s followers, was, as his diary reveals, seeking a way out before this year of 1943 was ended, racking his brains not over whether Germany should negotiate for peace but with whom—with Russia or with the West. He did not talk behind Hitler’s back about the necessity of searching for peace, as certain others had begun to do. He was courageous and open enough to pour out his thoughts directly to the Leader. On September 10, 1943, while at the Fuehrer’s headquarters at Rastenburg, whither he had been summoned on the news of Italy’s capitulation, Goebbels broached the subject of possible peace negotiations for the first time in his diary.

The problem begins to present itself as to which side we ought to turn to first—the Muscovite or the Anglo–American. Somehow we must realize clearly that it will be very difficult to wage war successfully against both sides.

   He found Hitler “somewhat worried” over the prospect of an Allied invasion in the West and the “critical” situation on the Russian front.

   The depressing thing is that we haven’t the faintest idea as to what Stalin has left in the way of reserves. I doubt very much whether under these conditions we shall be able to transfer divisions from the East to the other European theaters of war.

Having put down some of his own ideas—which would have seemed treasonably defeatist to him a few months before—in his confidential diary, Goebbels then approached Hitler.

I asked the Fuehrer whether anything might be done with Stalin sooner or later. He said not for the moment … And anyway, the Fuehrer believes it would be easier to make a deal with the English than with the Soviets. At a given moment, the Fuehrer believes, the English would come to their senses … I am rather inclined to regard Stalin as more approachable, for Stalin is more of a practical politician than Churchill. Churchill is a romantic adventurer, with whom one can’t talk sensibly.

It was at this dark moment in their affairs that Hitler and his lieutenants began to clutch at a straw of hope: that the Allies would fall out, that Britain and America would become frightened of the prospect of the Red armies overrunning Europe and in the end join Germany to protect the old Continent from Bolshevism. Hitler had dealt at some length on this possibility in a conference with Doenitz in August, and now in September he and Goebbels discussed it.

The English [Goebbels added in his diary] don’t want a Bolshevik Europe under any circumstances … Once they realize that … they have a choice only between Bolshevism or relaxing somewhat toward National Socialism they will no doubt show an inclination toward a compromise with us … Churchill himself is an old anti-Bolshevik and his collaboration with Moscow today is only a matter of expediency.

Both Hitler and Goebbels seemed to have forgotten who collaborated with Moscow in the first place and who forced Russia into the war. Summing up the discussion of a possible peace with Hitler, Goebbels concluded:

Sooner or later we shall have to face the question of inclining toward one enemy side or the other. Germany has never yet had luck with a two-front war; it won’t be able to stand this one in the long run either.

But was it not late in the day to ponder this? Goebbels returned to headquarters on September 23 and in the course of a morning stroll with the Nazi leader found him much more pessimistic than a fortnight before about the possibility of negotiating for peace with one side so that he could enjoy a one-front war.

The Fuehrer does not believe that anything can be achieved at present by negotiation. England is not yet groggy enough … In the East, naturally, the present moment is quite unfavorable … At present Stalin has the advantage.

That evening Goebbels dined with Hitler alone.

I asked the Fuehrer whether he would be ready to negotiate with Churchill … He does not believe that negotiations with Churchill would lead to any result as he is too deeply wedded to his hostile views and, besides, is guided by hatred and not by reason. The Fuehrer would prefer negotiations with Stalin, but he does not believe they would be successful …

Whatever may be the situation, I told the Fuehrer that we must come to an arrangement with one side or the other. The Reich has never yet won a two-front war. We must therefore see how we can somehow or other get out of a two-front war.

This was a task far more difficult than they seem to have realized, they who had so lightly plunged Germany into a two-front war. But on that September evening of 1943, at least for a few moments, the Nazi warlord finally shed his pessimism and ruminated on how sweet peace would taste. According to Goebbels, he even said he “yearned” for peace.

He said he would be happy to have contact with artistic circles again, to go to the theater in the evening and to visit the Artists’ Club.11

Hitler and Goebbels were not the only ones in Germany who, as the war entered its fifth year, speculated on the chances and means of procuring peace. The frustrated, talkative anti-Nazi conspirators, their numbers somewhat larger now but still pitifully small, were again giving the problem some thought, now that they saw the war was lost though Hitler’s armies still fought on foreign soil. Most of them, but by no means all, had come reluctantly, and only after overcoming the greatest qualms of conscience, to the conclusion that to get a peace for Germany which would leave the Fatherland with some prospect for decent survival they would have to remove Hitler by killing him and at the same time wipe out National Socialism.

As 1944 came, with the certainty that the Anglo–American armies would launch an invasion across the Channel before the year was very far along and that the Red armies would be approaching the frontiers of the Reich itself and that the great and ancient cities of Germany would soon be reduced to utter rubble by the Allied bombing,* the plotters in their desperation girded themselves to make one final attempt to murder the Nazi dictator and overthrow his regime before it dragged Germany over the precipice to complete disaster. They knew there was not much time.

* “I was completely free of any forebodings,” Mussolini wrote later in describing his state of mind as he set out for the palace. King Victor Emmanuel lost no time in bringing him down to earth.

“My dear Duce,” Mussolini quotes him as saying at the outset, “it’s no longer any good. Italy has gone to bits … The soldiers don’t want to fight any more … At this moment you are the most hated man in Italy …”

“You are making an extremely grave decision,” Mussolini says he replied. But even by his own account he made little attempt to induce the monarch to change his mind. He ended by “wishing luck” to his successor. (Mussolini, Memoirs, 1942–1943, pp. 80–81.)

* Hitler had become furious with Raeder, who had commanded the German Navy since 1928, for the Navy’s failure to destroy Allied convoys to Russia in the Arctic Ocean and for heavy losses suffered there. In a hysterical outburst at headquarters on January 1, the warlord had ordered the immediate decommissioning of the German High Seas Fleet. The vessels were to be broken up for scrap. On January 6 there was a stormy showdown between Hitler and Raeder at the Wolfsschanze headquarters. The Fuehrer accused the Navy of inaction and lack of the will to fight and take risks. Raeder thereupon asked to be relieved of his command, and his resignation was formally and publicly accepted on January 30. Doenitz, the new Commander in Chief, had been commander of U-boats, knew little of the problems of surface vessels and henceforth concentrated on submarine warfare.

* According to Captain Harry C. Butcher, Eisenhower’s naval aide, both the American and British chiefs of staff, General George C. Marshall and Field Marshal Sir John G. Dill, complained that Eisenhower was not showing sufficient initiative in pressing forward in Italy. Butcher points out, in defense of his chief, that insufficient landing craft limited Eisenhower’s plans and that to have launched a seaborne invasion as far north as the vicinity of Rome would have put the operation beyond the range of Allied fighter planes, which had to take off from Sicily. Eisenhower himself points out that after the capture of Sicily he was ordered to return seven divisions, four American and three British, to England in preparation for the Channel invasion, which left him woefully short of troops. Butcher also states that Eisenhower originally planned to drop airborne troops on the Rome airfields to help the Italians defend the capital against the Germans, but that at the last minute Badoglio begged that this operation be “suspended temporarily.” General Maxwell D. Taylor, who at great personal risk had secretly gone to Rome to confer with Badoglio, reported that because of Italian defeatism and German strength the dropping of an American airborne division there appeared to be suicidal. (See Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe, p. 189, and Butcher, My Three Years with Eisenhower, pp. 407–25.)

* The King, Badoglio and the government, much to Hitler’s anger, escaped from Rome and a little later established themselves in Allied-liberated’ southern Italy. Most of the Italian fleet also got away to Malta despite intricate plans of Admiral Doenitz to capture or destroy it.

* Hitler had never cared for her personally. “I had to sit next to Mafalda,” he told his generals during a military conference at headquarters in May that year. “What do I care about Mafalda? … Her intellectual qualities aren’t such that she would charm you—to say nothing of her looks.” (From the secret records of Hitler’s daily military conferences, in Felix Gilbert’s Hitler Directs His War, p. 37.)

* Skorzeny had been summoned to the Fuehrer’s headquarters for the first time in his life the day after Mussolini’s fall and personally assigned by Hitler to carry out the rescue.

 Just before Mussolini was liberated Captain Harry Butcher reported receiving a cablegram at Eisenhower’s headquarters from a theater chain in Cape Town offering to donate ten thousand pounds to charity “if you arrange for Mussolini’s personal appearance on the stages of our Cape Town theatres. Three weeks’ engagement.” (Butcher, My Three Years with Eisenhower, p. 423.)

 Actually, or at least according to a letter which Ciano later wrote to King Victor Emmanuel, he was tricked into coming to Germany in August by the Germans, who had informed him that his children were in danger and that the German government would be happy to convey him and his family to Spain—via Germany. (The Ciano Diaries, p. v.)

* “Edda Mussolini,” Goebbels wrote in his diary, “is acting like a wildcat in her Bavarian villa. She smashes china and furniture on the slightest provocation.” (The Goebbels Diaries, p. 479.)

 Ciano’s last diary entry is dated “December 23, 1943, Cell 27, Verona Jail.” It is a moving piece. How he smuggled this last note as well as a letter of the same date to the King of Italy out of his death cell I do not know. But he remarks that he had hidden the rest of the diary before the Germans got him. The papers were smuggled out of German-occupied Italy by Edda Ciano, who, disguised as a peasant woman and concealing the papers under her skirt, succeeded in getting over the border into Switzerland.

All the other Fascist leaders who had voted against the Duce in the Grand Council and whom the Duce could get his hands on were tried for treason by a special tribunal and, with one exception, sentenced to death and shot along with Ciano. Among them was one of the Duce’s erstwhile staunchest followers, Marshal Emilio de Bono, one of the quadrumvirate who had led the march on Rome which put Mussolini in power.

* “There can be no talk of a letup in submarine warfare,” Hitler had stormed at Admiral Doenitz when on May 31 the latter informed him that the U-boats had been withdrawn from the North Atlantic. “The Atlantic,” he added, “is my first line of defense in the West.”

It was easier said than done. On November 12 Doenitz wrote despairingly in his diary: “The enemy holds every trump card, covering all areas with long-range air patrols and using location methods against which we still have no warning … The enemy knows all our secrets and we know none of his.”8

* In May 1943, an R.A.F. reconnaissance plane had photographed the Peenemunde installation following a tip to London from the Polish underground that both a pilotless jet-propelled aircraft (later known as the V-l, or buzz bomb) and a rocket (the V-2) were being developed there. In August British bombers attacked Peenemunde, badly damaging the installation and setting back research and tests by several months. By November the British and American air forces had located sixty-three launching sites for the V-l’ on the Channel and between December and the following February bombed and destroyed seventy-three of the sites, which by that time had increased to ninety-six. The terms “V-l” and “V-2” came from the German word Vergeltungswaffen, or weapons of reprisal, of which Dr. Goebbels’ propaganda was to make so much of in the dark year of 1944.

* Jodl’s lecture, entitled “The Strategic Position in the Beginning of the Fifth Year of the War,” is perhaps the most exhaustive firsthand account we have of the German predicament at the end of 1943 as seen by Hitler and his generals. It is more than a mere confidential lecture to the Nazi political leaders. It is studded with dozens of highly secret memoranda and documents stamped “Fuehrer’s GHQ” to which Jodl referred in his talk and which, taken together, give a revealing history of the war as it appeared to the Fuehrer, who seems to have supervised the preparation of the lecture. Gloomy though he was as to the present, Jodl was even more discouraging about the future, correctly predicting that the coming Anglo–American invasion in the West “will decide the war” and that “the forces at our disposal will not be adequate” to repel it.10

* “The work of a thousand years is nothing but rubble,” wrote Goerdeler to Field Marshal von Kluge in July 1943, after visiting the bombed-out areas in the west. In his letter Goerdeler beseeched the vacillating general to join the conspirators in putting an end to Hitler and his “madness.”

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