Military history


The news of Chamberlain’s guarantee of Poland threw the German dictator into one of his characteristic rages. He happened to be with Admiral Canaris, chief of the Abwehr, and according to the latter he stormed about the room, pounding his fists on the marble table top, his face contorted with fury, and shouting against the British, “I’ll cook them a stew they’ll choke on!”22

The next day, April 1, he spoke at Wilhelmshaven at the launching of the battleship Tirpitz and was in such a belligerent mood that apparently he did not quite trust himself, for at the last moment he ordered that the direct radio broadcast of his speech be canceled; he directed that it be re-broadcast later from recordings, which could be edited.* Even the re-broadcast version was spotted with warnings to Britain and Poland.

If they [the Western Allies] expect the Germany of today to sit patiently by until the very last day while they create satellite States and set them against Germany, then they are mistaking the Germany of today for the Germany of before the war.

He who declares himself ready to pull the chestnuts out of the fire for these powers must realize he burns his fingers….

When they say in other countries that they will arm and will keep arming still more, I can tell those statesmen only this: “Me you will never tire out!” I am determined to continue on this road.

Hitler, as his cancellation of the direct broadcast showed, was cautious enough not to provoke foreign opinion too much. It was reported in Berlin that day that he would denounce the Anglo–German naval treaty as his first reply to Chamberlain. But in his speech he merely declared that if Great Britain no longer wished to adhere to it, Germany “would accept this very calmly.”

As so often before, Hitler ended on an old familiar note of peace: “Germany has no intention of attacking other people … Out of this conviction I decided three weeks ago to name the coming party rally the ‘Party Convention of Peace’”—a slogan, which as the summer of 1939 developed, became more and more ironic.

That was for public consumption. In the greatest of secrecy Hitler gave his real answer to Chamberlain and Colonel Beck two days later, on April 3. It was contained in a top-secret directive to the armed forces, of which only five copies were made, inaugurating “Case White.” This was a code name which was to loom large in the subsequent history of the world.

Case White

The present attitude of Poland requires … the initiation of military preparations to remove, if necessary, any threat from this direction forever.

1. Political Requirements and Aims

… The aim will be to destroy Polish military strength and create in the East a situation which satisfies the requirements of national defense. The Free State of Danzig will be proclaimed a part of the Reich territory at the outbreak of hostilities, at the latest.

The political leaders consider it their task in this case to isolate Poland if possible, that is to say, to limit the war to Poland only.

The development of increasing internal crises in France and the resulting British cautiousness might produce such a situation in the not too distant future.

Intervention by Russia … cannot be expected to be of any use to Poland … Italy’s attitude is determined by the Rome–Berlin Axis.

2. Military Conclusions

The great objectives in the building up of the German armed forces will continue to be determined by the antagonism of the Western democracies. “Case White” constitutes only a precautionary complement to these preparations …

The isolation of Poland will be all the more easily maintained, even after the outbreak of hostilities, if we succeed in starting the war with sudden, heavy blows and in gaining rapid successes …

3. Tasks of the Armed Forces

The task of the Wehrmacht is to destroy the Polish armed forces. To this end a surprise attack is to be aimed at and prepared.

As for Danzig:

Surprise occupation of Danzig may become possible independently of “Case White” by exploiting a favorable political situation … Occupation by the Army will be carried out from East Prussia. The Navy will support the action of the Army by intervention from the sea.

   Case White is a lengthy document with several “enclosures,” “annexes” and “special orders,” most of which were reissued as a whole on April 11 and of course added to later as the time for hostilities’ approached. But already on April 3, Hitler appended the following directives to Case White:

1.     Preparations must be made in such a way that the operation can be carried out at any time from September 1, 1939, onward.

As in the case of the date Hitler gave long in advance for getting the Sudetenland—October 1, 1938—this more important date of September 1, 1939, would also be kept.

2.     The High Command of the Armed Forces [OKW] is charged with drawing up a precise timetable for “Case White” and is to arrange for synchronized timing between the three branches of the Wehrmacht.

3.     The plans of the branches of the Wehrmacht and the details for the timetable must be submitted to OKW by May 1, 1939.23

   The question now was whether Hitler could wear down the Poles to the point of accepting his demands, as he had done with the Austrians and (with Chamberlain’s help) the Czechs, or whether Poland would hold its ground and resist Nazi aggression if it came, and if so, with what. This writer spent the first week of April in Poland in search of answers. They were, as far as he could see, that the Poles would not give in to Hitler’s threats, would fight if their land were invaded, but that militarily and politically they were in a disastrous position. Their Air Force was obsolete, their Army cumbersome, their strategic position—surrounded by the Germans on three sides—almost hopeless. Moreover, the strengthening of Germany’s West Wall made an Anglo–French offensive against Germany in case Poland were attacked extremely difficult. And finally it became obvious that the headstrong Polish “colonels” would never consent to receiving Russian help even if the Germans were at the gates of Warsaw.

Events now moved quickly. On April 6 Colonel Beck signed an agreement with Great Britain in London transforming the unilateral British guarantee into a temporary pact of mutual assistance. A permanent treaty, it was announced, would be signed as soon as the details had been worked out.

The next day, April 7, Mussolini sent his troops into Albania and added the conquest of that mountainous little country to that of Ethiopia. It gave him a springboard against Greece and Yugoslavia and in the tense atmosphere of Europe served to make more jittery the small countries which dared to defy the Axis. As the German Foreign Office papers make clear, it was done with the complete approval of Germany, which was informed of the step in advance. On April 13, France and Britain countered with a guarantee to Greece and Rumania. The two sides were beginning to line up. In the middle of April, Goering arrived in Rome and much to Ribbentrop’s annoyance had two long talks with Mussolini, on the fifteenth and sixteenth.24 They agreed that they “needed two or three years” to prepare for “a general conflict,” but Goering declared that if war came sooner “the Axis was in a very strong position” and “could defeat any likely opponents.”

Mention was made of an appeal from President Roosevelt which had arrived in Rome and Berlin on April 15. The Duce, according to Ciano, had at first refused to read it and Goering declared that it was not worth answering. Mussolini thought it “a result of infantile paralysis,” but Goering’s impression was that “Roosevelt was suffering from an incipient mental disease.” In his telegram to Hitler and Mussolini the President of the United States had addressed a blunt question:

   Are you willing to give assurance that your armed forces will not attack or invade the territory of the following independent nations?

   There had followed a list of thirty-one countries, including Poland, the Baltic States, Russia, Denmark, the NetherlandsBelgium, France and Britain. The President hoped that such a guarantee of nonaggression could be given for “ten years at the least” or “a quarter of a century, if we dare look that far ahead.” If it were given, he promised American participation in world-wide “discussions” to relieve the world from “the crushing burden of armament” and to open up avenues of international trade.

“You have repeatedly asserted,” he reminded Hitler, “that you and the German people have no desire for war. If this is true there need be no war.”

In the light of what now is known, this seemed like a naïve appeal, but the Fuehrer found it embarrassing enough to let it be known that he would reply to it—not directly, but in a speech to a specially convoked session of the Reichstag on April 28.

In the meantime, as the captured German Foreign Office papers reveal, the Wilhelmstrasse in a circular telegram of April 17 put two questions of its own to all the states mentioned by Roosevelt except Poland, Russia, Britain and France: Did they feel themselves in any way threatened by Germany? Had they authorized Roosevelt to make his proposal?

“We are in no doubt,” Ribbentrop wired his various envoys in the countries concerned, “that both questions will be answered in the negative, but nevertheless, for special reasons, we should like to have authentic confirmation at once.” The “special reasons” would become evident when Hitler spoke on April 28.

By April 22 the German Foreign Office was able to draw up a report for the Fuehrer that most of the countries, including Yugoslavia, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Luxembourg “have answered both questions in the negative”—a reply which would soon show what an innocent view their governments took of the Third Reich. From Rumania, however, came a tart answer that the “Reich Government were themselves in a position to know whether a threat might arise.” Little Latvia up in the Baltic did not at first understand what answer was expected of it, but the Foreign Office soon put it right. On April 18 Weizsaecker rang up his minister in Riga

to tell him we were unable to understand the answer of the Latvian Foreign Minister to our question about the Roosevelt telegram. While practically all the other governments have already answered, and naturally in the negative, M. Munters treated this ridiculous American propaganda as a question on which he wished to consult his cabinet. If M. Munters did not answer “no” to our question right away, we should have to add Latvia to those countries which made themselves into willing accomplices of Mr. Roosevelt. I said that I assumed that a word on these lines by Herr vonKotze [the German minister] would be enough to obtain the obvious answer from him.25

It was.

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