Chapter Twelve

Armed Forces, Strategy, and Foreign Policy (2): Italy, Germany, and the Soviet Union

In Britain and France, there were grave doubts as to whether war was still an instrument of policy, and little understanding that war and peace were part of a single process. In Italy, Germany, and the USSR a very different view prevailed. It is true that they dressed up their attitudes to war in different ways. The Soviets created a Red Army, with people's commissars alongside the officers, and spoke of peoples' wars. The fascist and Nazi regimes talked in exalted and cloudy terms of the purifying and ennobling nature of war. Strikingly, a strong tide of nationalist, martial books and films was running in Germany even before the Nazis came to power. This began in 1929, and reached two high points in 1930 and 1933.1 For all three totalitarian states, force was something to be used without inhibitions as an instrument of policy. It might be in the service of ideology, to carry revolution across Poland on the bayonets of the Red Army. It might be a straightforward border conflict: Stalin had no hesitation in fighting a serious battle with the Japanese in the summer of 1939 on the frontiers of Outer Mongolia. It might be a war of colonial conquest, such as the Italians waged in Ethiopia; or of conquest nearer home, like the German invasion of Poland. Moreover, Hitler was a master of the fluid tactics of subversion and undeclared war, blurring the line between peace and war.

In all three states, force was simply regarded as part of life, and was used whenever it was thought necessary or advantageous. This had an important effect on their foreign policies.


There was a striking contrast between some of Mussolini's claims for the Italian forces and the reality. In 1927 Mussolini claimed that he could mobilise an army of 5 million men, and by 1936 his slogan was ‘eight million bayonets’. In practice, when Italy went to war in June 1940, the mobilised strength of the army was 1.6 million. Similarly, Mussolini asserted in 1927 that he would build an air force whose planes would blot out the sun. In 1939 he claimed to have 8,500 aircraft; the Air Ministry figure was 3,000; and an enquiry carried out by the sceptical Naval Staff could not find even 1,000.2 The disparities were bizarre, but the consequences of both the inflated claims and the exiguous reality were very serious.

The Italian Army was based on conscription with a cadre of regular soldiers. The period of military service was fixed in 1923 at eighteen months; but in 1926 this was amended to six months for those with family commitments or for men with a brother already serving in the army. Conscripts were largely drawn from the rural population, and were often barely literate and ill-suited to the demands of mechanised warfare. Up to 1937, the main body of the army was made up of thirty-eight infantry divisions, each comprising three regiments. In that year, General Pariani proposed to reduce this complement to two regiments, aiming at greater manoeuvrability in the expectation of further campaigns in Africa. Reorganisation began in December 1938, and by 1940 the army included 73 of the smaller infantry divisions instead of the 38 larger ones. The change disrupted the army at what proved to be a crucial period.

In 1940 the Italian Army also included three armoured divisions, but these were more formidable in name than in fact. Their main equipment was a light tank, thinly armoured and armed only with machine-guns. A new medium tank was in production, but only a few were in service. A programme to modernise the artillery was begun in 1937, but made only slow progress. Production of heavy guns in 1939 was only seventy per month, and much of the artillery remained of the 1914–18 vintage. The supply and transport services were weak.3

The air force was always the pride of the fascist regime, and projected a suitable image of modernity and dynamism. Its aircraft competed successfully for records in speed and altitude. It produced spectacular displays, such as a formation flight across the Atlantic. However, during the Ethiopian crisis of 1935–36 it appeared that the air force was unready for a European war, and a programme of expansion was begun. Between 1935 and 1939, 8,700 combat aircraft were ordered, but actual production fell far short of these figures. The Spanish Civil War proved a drain on resources, with over 700 aircraft being sent to Spain and some losses being incurred. In September 1939 the Italian Air Force had 1,796 combat-ready aircraft, including 783 bombers and 594 fighters, plus another 325 aircraft in East Africa.4 Effort was dispersed among too many types of aircraft; and the planes themselves were often unsatisfactory. When Italy entered the war in June 1940, many of the fighters were still biplanes, and none were equal in performance to the British Hurricane and Spitfire. The main strike aircraft was a three-engined medium bomber, the Savoia-Marchetti S79, which was to prove more successful as a torpedo-bomber than against land targets.

The best equipped of the Italian services was the navy. In June 1940 the Italian fleet comprised 4 battleships, 7 heavy cruisers, 12 light cruisers, 125 destroyers and torpedo boats, and 113 submarines. Numerically, the fleet compared well with British and French naval forces in the Mediterranean, and had the geographical advantage of a central position.5

Some of the defects in the equipment of the army and air force arose from weaknesses in Italian industry, but some arose from lack of proper direction. The motor-car industry, for example, was perfectly capable of producing a good medium tank if specifications and orders had been provided in good time. There was a lack of direction and consistency in Italian strategic policy, despite the fascist regime's claims to provide drive and decisiveness. In theory, there was ample machinery for central direction. Mussolini himself held the three posts of Minister for the Army, Navy, and Air Force from 1925 to 1929, and again from 1933 onwards. General Badoglio, as Chief of the General Staff, gave advice to Mussolini on the affairs of all three services. In practice, this apparent centralisation produced little co-ordination. For Mussolini to hold all three service ministries as well as being head of the government simply meant that he did none of the work properly, and no inter-service staff was developed to give substance to Badoglio's position.

None of the three Italian services had a clear set of strategic principles to guide its development. From 1925 onwards the main task of the army was conceived as a defensive war in northern Italy against France and Yugoslavia. In 1937 General Pariani, the new Army Chief of Staff, took up a proposal made by his predecessor in 1936 to create motorised divisions and assault brigades, but by 1940 this change had not gone far, and the attempt to graft an offensive element on to a basically defensive system does not appear to have succeeded. The air force hesitated between ideas of strategic bombing and co-operation with the army. The navy had a large number of submarines, but no plan for making use of them. For a long time it had regarded the French fleet as its main rival, and it developed no plans for a war against France and Britain together.

There was in fact a wide gap between foreign and strategic policy. The Rome-Berlin Axis was likely to lead to a war alongside Germany against Britain and France, but no strategy for such a war was developed. If, on the other hand, foreign policy was to be adapted to the actual state of Italy's armed forces, then the intervention in Spain, especially the despatch of over 700 aircraft from an inadequate air force, was ill-judged. The Italian forces were ill-prepared for serious war in Europe and the Mediterranean in 1940. Badoglio was cautious and pessimistic, and he advised Mussolini against going to war in 1940, but was overruled. Mussolini did not anticipate a serious war, but a military promenade, for which Italian preparation was doubtless adequate.

Yet it is dangerous to be too preoccupied with the faintly absurd air that envelops Italian military policy and preparations. The Italian forces scored real successes during the 1930s. They conquered Ethiopia more rapidly than most observers expected. In Spain, they sustained a defeat at Guadalajara; but this was less serious than republican propaganda made out, and afterwards they fought with some success, notably round Bilbao. Moreover, for a long time the appearance of Italian strength was more important than reality. The French set great store by their military agreements with Italy in 1935. The British Mediterranean fleet withdrew from Malta to Alexandria in 1935, during the Ethiopian crisis, for fear of Italian air attack. In 1937–38 Italy was courted by both Britain and Germany, partly because of the valuation put upon her armed forces. As long as Mussolini kept up a balancing act, and allowed himself to be courted by all and sundry, all was well; the error was to come down on one side and commit himself to war. Mussolini himself predicted in 1930 that the Second European War would break out between 1936 and 1940, and that Italy could play a decisive role in it. ‘Because of its geographic and historical position, if Italy will know how to remain alone, it will be the arbiter of the huge conflict…. That day Italy will be truly great.’6 Looking back, it is easy to see the gap between image and reality in the Italian armed forces, and to recognise that Mussolini deceived himself in thinking that he could intervene with decisive weight. But he was not the only one to be deceived, and the fact that others took Italian strength at Mussolini's valuation played some part in the coming of the war.


The German armed forces

No one smiled at the German armed forces. The German Army and the Luftwaffe swept all before them and conquered almost the whole of Europe between 1939 and 1941. The German Navy, the weakest of the services, launched an astonishing sea-borne invasion of Norway, and then fought a long and often successful submarine campaign in the Atlantic. Indeed, there was for a long time a tendency to exaggerate the quality and degree of preparedness of the German war machine. It was more than a match for its opponents, failing only in the air over Britain in autumn 1940 and then at the last stretch in Russia in the winter of 1941–42. Despite this remarkable record, the German forces had more weaknesses than appeared on the surface; which explains the profound ambiguities in German attitudes towards the prospect of war in the late 1930s. On the one hand, Hitler and the Nazi leadership were full of confidence and daring; on the other, many of the professionals in the Army General Staff were doubtful and cautious. Both had sound reasons for their views, though it was Hitler who emerged triumphant, to the extent of making the more cautious among the generals appear hidebound, if not actually cowardly.

The German Army expanded with extraordinary rapidity between 1933 and 1939.7 The restrictions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles had been secretly evaded under the Weimar Republic, which prepared outline plans for trebling the size of the army from 100,000 to 300,000. In December 1932 these plans were set in motion, and by 1935 Germany's seven infantry divisions had been translated into twenty-one. On 16 March 1935 the Nazi government announced the reintroduction of conscription, with the term of service set at one year. (It was extended to two years in August 1936.) At the same time, the army was reorganised into thirty-six infantry divisions, involving serious problems of administration and training. In October 1935 the first three armoured (Panzer) divisions were created, in rudimentary form and equipped only with light tanks.8

Expansion and reorganisation were pressed forward at a great pace. By the middle of 1939 the army consisted of a total of 103 divisions, 52 active and 51 reserve, including 86 infantry and 6 armoured divisions. There were 730,000 men under arms in the peacetime army, and mobilisation brought the total to 3.7 million.9 In this enlarged army, all the officers except about 3,200 remaining from the pre-1933 force, were recruited under the Nazi regime.10 (This simple fact placed a serious obstacle in the way of any military plot against Hitler, though it is usually left unmentioned by writers on ‘lost opportunities’.) The sheer speed of the expansion brought its difficulties. The army's equipment fell short of its commanders’ requirements. The armoured divisions in September 1939 were mainly equipped with light tanks, and only about 300 of the 3,200 armoured vehicles were the new and well-armed medium tanks. Even by the time of the German invasion of France and the Low Countries in May 1940, only about a quarter of their tanks were medium tanks.11 There were also problems of personnel, notably in the officer corps, which grew headlong in six years to over 100,000 with inevitable defects in training and integration. The German Army of 1939–40 fell short in equipment, training, and cohesion of the standards of its predecessor in 1914. That despite these limitations it won such extraordinary victories was a tribute to the way it was handled and to its fighting powers — the armoured divisions in particular rose far above the deficiencies of their equipment. It was also a reflection upon its opponents.

The pace of the German Army's expansion remains astonishing, and its defects and deficiencies were of secondary importance. When Germany's neighbours often exaggerated the size of the German Army in their intelligence reports, this was not unnatural, because the rate of change was such that the exaggeration of one year tended to become the truth of the next. The central fact stood out with stark clarity: Germany moved in six years from being one of the weakest land powers in Europe to being one of the strongest.

The same was true, with very similar qualifications, of the German Air Force. Under the terms of the Versailles Treaty, Germany was forbidden all military aircraft, but this restriction was clandestinely evaded on a small scale throughout the Weimar period. Notably, there was a useful scheme of collaboration with the USSR, where the Germans operated an aircraft factory and a training base. The results were valuable without being substantial. In February 1932 the German Army possessed 228 aircraft, 36 military and 192 converted civilian planes. The aircraft industry was tiny, employing only 3,200 workers at its lowest point in 1932, with firms going out of business in the depression.12

This situation was transformed by the Nazi regime. The Luftwaffe was the Nazi service par excellence. The Nazi leaders included airmen, Goering and Hess; and Hitler grasped both the popular appeal and the potential power of the air arm. The new government determined at once to set up an independent air force and a separate Air Ministry. Through government orders and finance (mainly disguised at the start — out of 30 million RM for airframes, 26.6 million appeared under the unemployment relief programme), the aircraft industry grew at a prodigious speed, and by mid-1936 it employed nearly 125,000 workers.13

In 1933 the new Air Ministry embarked on a programme to build 1,000 aircraft. This was rapidly superseded, and the ‘Rhineland Programme’ of July 1934 aimed to produce 4,021 aircraft by the end of September 1935, with an emphasis on bombers — 822, as against 245 fighters. By the time the existence of the Luftwaffe was publicly announced on 10 March 1935, nearly 2,500 aircraft had been delivered. Of these, a large proportion were trainers, and many of the combat planes were obsolescent models. But it was a remarkable start, and the basis had been laid for mass production.14

Thereafter, new production programmes succeeded one another with bewildering speed. During 1936 there were as many as three in the year. After a very steep rise between 1933 and 1935, actual production levelled off at an average of between 5,000 and 5,500 aircraft per year in 1936–38. During this period, there were problems in production with the introduction of new types, and shortages of raw materials. In 1938 there was a slight fall in aircraft production (from 5,606 in 1937 to 5,235 in 1938), and government pressure to increase production was stepped up. On 8 July Goering held a conference of aircraft manufacturers at his country estate at Karinhall, telling them that they must get on to a war footing and concentrate on producing fewer types of aircraft in longer runs. In August the Air Ministry introduced yet another new programme (Plan 8), aiming at the production of over 3,700 fighters and over 3,000 bombers in the next eighteen months. Within two months this was superseded. On 14 October Goering announced Hitler's new armaments programme, including a fivefold increase in the size of the Luftwaffe, requiring the production of 45,700 aircraft by spring 1942. (This programme, an interesting sequel to the Munich agreement, referred specifically to building long-range bombers to operate against England.) The resources for such a prodigious expansion were simply not available, and in practice the plan was quietly set aside in favour of more modest, though still considerable, objectives.15

On 5 August 1939, with war with Poland very close, Goering held a conference with his principal Luftwaffe officers, and worked out with them a plan to prepare the air force for a general European war in 1942, notably to achieve higher production by concentrating on only four types of combat aircraft, two bombers and two fighters. Orders to this effect were given in September, development projects were sharply reduced, and the Luftwaffe staked its future on four types, of which two (the He177 and Me210) were untried and proved to be failures.

As events turned out, the Luftwaffe had to face general European war before 1942. In September 1939, to wage real war on Poland and phoney war with Britain and France, the Germans had a first-line strength of 3,374 combat aircraft, of which 75 per cent were serviceable. Transports and seaplanes raised the total to just over 4,000.16 The quality of the force was at this stage good. The principal fighter was the excellent Me109.17 The medium bombers were the Do17 and He111, the latter being a particularly adaptable and successful aircraft; and the Ju87 dive-bomber had been effective in Spain and was to be so again in Poland and France. In May 1939 a Luftwaffe staff paper argued that Germany was the only country with a conception of total aerial warfare, both offensive and defensive. By May 1940 the German Air Force would have a decisive lead over its British and French rivals, but its advantage would not last long.18 For the Luftwaffe, therefore, 1939-40 was a favourable opportunity to go to war.

The German Navy received the lowest priority among the three services in the allocation of resources. Moreover, Hitler assured Admiral Raeder, the commander of the navy, in 1935 that war was not to be expected until 1944, and construction planning proceeded accordingly. At the outbreak of war in September 1939, the strength of the navy stood at 2 battle-cruisers, 3 pocket battleships, 6 cruisers, 17 destroyers, 17 torpedo-boats, and 56 submarines. Of these last, only 26 were ocean-going vessels, capable of operating in the Atlantic; and only 46 out of the total were actually operational. On the other hand, Hitler's armaments proposals of October 1938 included large-scale naval building, and early in 1939 a plan (Plan Z) was adopted which was to provide Germany, over a period of years, with a powerful battle-fleet, 4 aircraft-carriers, and about 250 U-boats. Most of this was abandoned when war came, to concentrate on what could be completed quickly. However, two formidable battleships, the Bismarck and the Tirpitz, had been laid down in 1936 and were nearing completion.19 It was a fleet which was not yet ready for surface operations in the North Sea (though it was to achieve some daring successes in the Norwegian campaign in 1940). Nor was its submarine arm yet adequate for sustained warfare against commerce in the Atlantic.

The doctrines of war professed and practised by the German armed forces have been the centre of keen interest ever since the striking victories of 1939-41 attracted both admiration and the desire to explain how they came about. For a long time the explanation was that the German Army had whole-heartedly put into practice ideas of mobile armoured warfare, including the tactical use of the dive-bomber as flying artillery. Such ideas were widely current between the wars, starting in Britain with J. F. C. Fuller and Liddell Hart; propounded rather vaguely by de Gaulle in France; taken up by the Red Army in the forming of mechanised brigades; and brought to fruition in Germany through the advocacy of General Guderian. The Germans concentrated their tanks in Panzer divisions, capable of rapid movement and deep penetration into enemy territory; and in the campaign of 1940 their armoured divisions outnumbered the French by ten to four — of which the fourth was only being formed in the course of the battle.

In substance, this remains the key to the German success, even though the victory of the ‘armoured idea’ within the army was much less complete than was once thought. A more traditional strategy, emphasising manoeuvre but retaining the key role of the infantry, persisted alongside the new ideas. There was a strong school of thought which advocated the use of tanks primarily in support of the infantry. The German Army of 1940 was mainly modelled on that of 1914, and comprised a large proportion of horse-drawn transport. Karl-Heinz Frieser has emphasised the limitations of the Blitzkrieg concept in the conduct of the Battle of France in 1940, when the Germans owed much of their success to improvisation and French mistakes.20

Luftwaffe doctrine was also less clear-cut than has often been assumed. The Nazi government decided at once in favour of a separate air force; but what was to be its role? An early answer was put forward by Robert Knauss, a pilot in the First World War and later a Lufthansa official, who prepared a memorandum in May 1933 for Erhard Milch, State Secretary at the Air Ministry, and a key figure in the new Luftwaffe. Knauss saw the immediate problem as that of deterring France and Poland from attacking Germany during the early stages of her rearmament, and he proposed the rapid building of 400 heavy bombers to act as a deterrent. Milch agreed in principle, but the scheme posed too many practical difficulties, not least that the creation of a heavy bomber force could only be a slow process.

The result was a compromise. The Germans sought the deterrent effect of a bomber fleet, but tried to secure it with the types of aircraft it had to hand. The idea of a heavy bomber force was not entirely abandoned. General Walther Wever, the first head of the Air Staff, had read Mein Kampf and prepared seriously for a war with Russia by putting in hand in 1934 a project for a ‘Ural-bomber’, capable of reaching the furthest points of European Russia. Two prototype four-engined bombers were produced, but their development was suspended in 1937 after Wever's death, and the project never achieved significant priority. Messerschmitt began work on an ‘Amerika-bomber’ in 1939, opening up some far-reaching possibilities which were never pursued.

The Luftwaffe's thinking on the conduct of air war, set out in a manual of 1936 prepared under Wever's supervision, was based on the concept of a balanced air force equipped for a number of roles. The Luftwaffe would secure air supremacy by destroying an enemy air force and aircraft industry, bomb centres of war production and communications, and give direct support to the army and navy in battle. During the next few years, an emphasis on direct support for the army developed more by chance and experience than as a matter of theory. The Luftwaffe's first officers mostly came from the army. The experience of the Spanish Civil War showed the value of close air support for ground troops. (The bombing of cities was spectacular, but of no great military importance.) Existing types of aircraft were well adapted to support the land forces. It therefore came about that, though the first intention was to create a balanced air force with a strategic bombing component, what actually developed was a force directed mainly towards co-operation with the army, though with functions much wider than that of providing ‘flying artillery’, which caught so many eyes in 1940.

German military and air doctrines were thus less clear-cut and coherent than was widely believed at the time of their greatest successes, when everything seemed to point to a highly developed system of armoured attack with close air support. There was a good deal of compromise and much difference of opinion. None the less, it was still the case that Germany possessed, in the period 1938–41, an army and air force which were far better adapted to offensive warfare than those of any other European country; and this had significant effects on German foreign policy.

The Luftwaffe in particular played a vital role in foreign policy by providing Germany with the power to threaten. For some time, the very existence of the Luftwaffe was as far as possible concealed, so as not to provoke intervention from foreign powers; but from the moment of the open announcement of its existence in March 1935, this caution was replaced by the diametrically opposite policy of exaggerating German air strength. Hitler started this with his claim to have already reached parity with the RAF in March 1935, and thereafter everything possible was done to display the Luftwaffe. Its planes appeared at international air shows; they flew past at party rallies and at the Berlin Olympics; they were written up, with official encouragement, in foreign aviation journals; they were shown off to foreign visitors — Balbo, Lindbergh, Vuillemin. Goering told his officers in 1936 that the important thing was ‘to impress Hitler and enable Hitler, in turn, to impress the world’.21

The world was only too ready to be impressed. Lindbergh was over-whelmed by what he saw, and with the prestige of his Atlantic flights behind him, he proceeded to overwhelm others. The British were already afraid of the bomber, and their fears were easily exploited. During the Spanish Civil War, the bombing of Guernica on 26 April 1937 was not

Terrifying symbol of German power: dive-bomber in action.

Source: Bettman/Corbis

publicised by the Germans, but by the opponents of General Franco, whose propaganda seized on the episode as a symbol of German brutality and the power of the bomber. The Germans thus reaped the benefits of terror spread by their enemies.

The greatest triumph of the menace of the Luftwaffe came in the Czechoslovakian crisis of 1938. At the time, the British Air Staff believed the combat-ready German bomber force to be twice its actual strength. Neville Chamberlain, flying back from one of his meetings with Hitler, looked down on London and its defenceless inhabitants, whom he sought to preserve from the horrors of air attack. In large part, Munich was a victory for the terror which the Germans inspired by displaying the Luftwaffe with panache, and letting their opponents’ nerves do the rest. The method was highly successful, and it may in the long run have tempted Hitler to overreach himself. He appears to have relied heavily on air power in deciding to go to war in 1939 and to extend that war in 1940; and it may well be that he did not grasp the deficiencies which lay behind the Luftwaffe's fear-some appearance. He got most of his information and impressions from Goering, who was certainly not given to underestimating the force that he commanded. An interesting symptom of this was the order, on 24 May 1940, to leave the closing of Dunkirk and the destruction of the British Expeditionary Force to the Luftwaffe. This order was the result of a direct intervention by Goering on the 23rd, when he telephoned Hitler to insist that his air force would destroy the BEF. Goering told Milch, when he had secured agreement to this plan: ‘The Luftwaffe is to wipe out the British on the beaches…. The Führer wants them taught a lesson they will never forget.’22 There was no question of Hitler wanting to allow the British to get away — he wanted them destroyed, but agreed to let the Luftwaffe do it. In doing so, he overrated its power: it failed to do the job, with far-reaching consequences. Similarly, and on a larger scale, it seems at least likely that an overestimate of German air power predisposed Hitler to take risks in 1939 and 1940, and so played a part in bringing about the war.

In relation to the army, the evidence is that Hitler did not proceed from calculations of military preparedness, still less from the advice of the General Staff, but from his own convictions as to what the army should be made ready to do. Shortly after becoming Chancellor, in February 1933, he addressed a meeting of high-ranking army and navy officers, and outlined his general ideas with surprising frankness: to get rid of the Versailles settlement, and then to go for the conquest of living space in the east, which would be ruthlessly Germanised. For all this, large-scale rearmament would be necessary. The service chiefs welcomed rearmament, but appear to have thought that war in the east was a long way off, and that they could impose a cautious approach on Hitler.

In this they were mistaken. During the next few years, Hitler pushed his generals into a series of rapid moves, brushing aside their caution. The high command thought the occupation of the Rhineland in March 1936 was too risky. When the Spanish Civil War began, Generals Blomberg and Fritsch opposed German intervention, on the ground that it would risk a European war for which Germany was not ready. During the Czechoslovakian crisis, General Beck was strongly opposed to Hitler's policy, which he again believed was courting general war when Germany was unprepared; and he urged General Brauchitsch, the Commander-in-Chief, to organise collective opposition by senior officers. (This was when Hitler exclaimed, ‘What kind of generals are these which I as head of state may have to propel into war? By rights I should be the one seeking to ward off the generals’ eagerness for war.’)23 There was one exception to this rule — the Anschluss with Austria in March 1938. On 10 March Hitler asked for an operational plan for an occupation of Austria. None had been pre-pared, but the army staff set to work to produce one in short order. There were no objections, even from Beck. The Anschluss was part of German sentiment, and was welcome even to otherwise cautious generals.

By the time the attack on Poland came round, the opposition of the generals was over. Nothing succeeds like success. Hitler had delivered the goods so often when the generals had warned of failure and danger that they could no longer sustain the role of Cassandra. Moreover, Hitler had by 1939 established complete control over the German high command. The process started on the Night of the Long Knives on 30 June 1934, when amid the purge of the SA two army generals (von Schleicher and von Bredow) were murdered, without investigation and without protest from their fellows. There followed in August 1934 the oath of unconditional obedience to Hitler in person, taken by all members of the army, after which the officer corps in particular was bound to Hitler by its own old-fashioned code of honour.

Much later, in February 1938, Hitler exploited the indiscretion of General Blomberg in marrying a former prostitute, and a false charge of homosexuality brought against General Fritsch, to get rid of both these officers. They had both been at the so-called Hossbach Conference on 5 November 1937, at which Hitler had set out his ideas for expansion, and both had expressed doubts. Fritsch was replaced as Commander-in-Chief by Brauchitsch, who has been neatly described as ‘an anatomical marvel, a man totally without backbone’.24 Hitler also took the opportunity of these changes to reorganise the command structure. The Ministry of War was abolished, and the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW — High Command of the Armed Forces) put in its place. Hitler became Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, with authority to issue orders to all three, and the wholly pliable General Keitel became his Chief of Staff. Keitel's younger brother became head of the Army Personnel Office, which gave Hitler a means of influence over appointments within the army. In all these ways, an institutional control over the army was added to the psychological effects of repeated success. By 1939 there was no question of caution on the part of the high command having any restraining effect on German policy.

What sort of war?

Where was this policy leading, and what was the object of the headlong increase in the German armed forces that has been described? It was possible to want rearmament simply to restore Germany's prestige and security, and to re-establish the status of the armed forces in German society. If this was all that Hitler wanted, he did not need to part company with Schacht by pushing rearmament at such a hectic pace nor to force his own ideas upon a cautious General Staff. Hitler wrote and said repeatedly that he needed rearmament in order to go to war, and his actions were suited to his words. The only question worth asking is what sort of war was intended as the object of the forced march of German rearmament. On this, there have been divided opinions.

One view is that Hitler sought a series of short wars, to be fought and won by rapid movement — the strategy we have come to call Blitzkrieg. In January 1937 the British military attaché in Berlin reported that the development of the German military machine suggested just such an intention — short wars with limited objectives, probably in eastern Europe but possibly in the west as well. In retrospect, some historians have put forward a general picture of German policy, in which a Blitzkrieg strategy was matched by a Blitzkrieg economy.25 Short wars would deal with the weaker powers around Germany, which could be picked off one by one; and short wars would also suit the state of the German economy, because they could be waged on existing stocks of oil and raw materials, and would pay for themselves by capturing new stocks and sources of supply. This scenario has the virtue of corresponding with what actually happened between September 1939 and mid-1941, when Germany won a whole series of rapid victories and captured vast territories and quantities of booty. In this thesis, Germany was preparing for the sprint, not the marathon, and in fact won one sprint after another.

This view confronts another, supported by weighty evidence, that Hitler constantly envisaged and was preparing for a long and large-scale war — even a war of continents.26 Hitler repeatedly stated that this was his intention — in one example out of many, he told a gathering of service chiefs in May 1939 that Germany must prepare for a war of 10-15 years’ duration. This intention was matched by practice. The programmes for synthetic oil and rubber were long-term in their nature. The naval programme of 1939, which set out to build both a battle-fleet and a large submarine force, was geared to a naval war to be waged in 1943 or 1944. Plans for the Luftwaffe in 1939 envisaged a large-scale war no earlier than 1942. On this view, Hitler was preparing both the economy and the armed forces for a long war, probably between 1942 and 1944; but then got himself into a general war at a time and place which he had not expected.

Of these two interpretations of German policy, the second is the more convincing. And yet, in the context of the origins of the Second World War, we should recognise that the two are not entirely exclusive of one another. Wilhelm Deist has argued strongly that Hitler envisaged both short wars and a long war for living space.27 He also expected quick results even from long-term projects — for example, the synthetic oil programme was at first intended to make Germany self-sufficient in oil by as early as 1939. He anticipated rapid victories in the attacks he launched against Poland in 1939 and the western powers in 1940 — though even he was surprised when France was defeated in a mere six weeks. This encouraged an almost unlimited optimism; and in the planning for an attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, the time-scale for victory grew shorter and shorter as time went on. Moreover, German armaments, though being prepared for a large-scale war, were also remarkably effective in the short run. They gave Germany, for a brief but vital period in 1938–41, the ability to terrify some of her opponents, to strike with great speed, and to crush one country after another. The historical debate as to the nature of German policy is interesting and important. But when we put ourselves back into the circumstances of the time, what matters most is what the Germans could do. They had the power to strike terror and win quick victories; and in the possession of that power, and the will to use it, lies a major explanation of the coming of war in Europe.


During the 1930s, the Soviet Union maintained very large armed forces. In 1935 the Red Army had a peacetime strength of some 940,000 men. It included 90 infantry (or rifle) divisions, and 16 cavalry divisions. (These latter were almost entirely horsed cavalry, and were actually increased to 30 divisions by 1941 — the Red Army was the only European army to retain so large a cavalry force.) Its armour included at least 3,000 tanks (some estimates went as high as 10,000), organised into heavy tank brigades and mechanised brigades, some of which were grouped into mechanised corps. These very large numbers of tanks were sustained by factory production which, according to Soviet figures, ran at over 3,000 per year between 1935 and 1937. The tanks themselves were mostly light, and many were obsolescent. The medium tanks of the period, designed with several gun-turrets, proved unwieldy and unsatisfactory. The highly successful T-34 medium tank only came into production in 1940, and about 1,000 were with the armoured units in June 1941.28

The Soviet Air Force was not a separate service like the RAF or the Luftwaffe, but an extension of the army under military command. Its numbers were very large, outstripping any other European air force in the late 1930s: in 1938 it comprised about 5,000 aircraft, with production figures of about 4,000-5,000 per year in support. Most of its aircraft, however, were obsolescent. Many of the fighters were biplanes; a four-engined bomber whose prototype flew in 1936 encountered serious problems, and began to come into service only in 1940. The same was true of modern types of fighters and ground attack aircraft, which were delivered to units only in small numbers during 1940.29

The doctrines professed by the Soviet armed forces were an uneasy combination of technical and ideological considerations. In 1929, for example, a staff paper emphasised the importance of equipment, weaponry and manpower, but the Central Committee of the Communist Party insisted on the supremacy of political orthodoxy — all future wars would be class wars and must be fought accordingly. Strategic theory therefore stressed the importance of the offensive, which it was assumed would be assisted by risings of the proletariat in countries at war with the Soviet Union. When the USSR was attacked, the Red Army would move at once to the offensive and win a decisive victory at low cost in casualties. In 1934 the requirements of this strategy were met by dividing the Red Army into two parts: a partly mechanised ‘shock army’, including tanks, aircraft and parachute troops; and a mass infantry army. By 1939 seven mechanised corps were in existence; but during that year, applying what were taken to be the lessons of the Spanish Civil War, these corps were broken up and the tanks dispersed to support the infantry. The German victories of 1940 brought a rather laggardly reconsideration of this policy, and in late 1940–41 mechanised corps were reconstituted, on the model of the German Panzer divisions. This change, which could not be accomplished rapidly, was actually in progress when the German blow fell in June 1941.30

The capacity of the Red Army to take the offensive to which it was theoretically dedicated was also limited by the effects of the great purges, which swept away the high command and part of the officer corps, leaving a shaken staff structure manned by inexperienced officers. Moreover, the standard of training of the army was poor, a fault recognised after the disasters of the Finnish campaign of 1939–40, when the Soviet infantry suffered heavy losses in mass attacks. The results were seen in new training directives and a new code of discipline in the summer of 1940.

Soviet foreign policy was only partially inhibited by considerations of strategy. The Red Army remained an instrument of policy, even in the direst period of the purges. Soviet territory, even in far distant parts of the empire, was defended with tenacity and success. In July-August 1938 a serious battle was fought against the Japanese round Lake Khasan, about 110 kilometres south-west of Vladivostok, even though the Soviet commander in the Far East, Marshal Blyukher, was actually removed from his post in the course of the action; he was sent to Moscow and later shot. Between May and September 1939 an even bigger battle, involving up to 35 Soviet infantry battalions, 500 tanks, and 500 aircraft, was fought at Khalkin-Gol, near the border with Manchuria and Outer Mongolia.31After some reverses and heavy casualties, the Soviet forces won an important victory, and drove the Japanese back across the frontier. In September 1939 the Red Army occupied eastern Poland, against minimal opposition. At the end of November, it attacked Finland to secure territorial gains, this time with disastrous results in the short run, though victory was eventually secured by weight of numbers and reorganisation.

The army, therefore, though weakened by the purges and ill-judged changes in its mechanised forces, was used with success to defend, and sometimes to extend, Soviet territory. Despite these successes, the army was of dubious value for large-scale offensive purposes outside the frontiers of the Soviet Union, and for participation in a general European war except in self-defence. In 1939 the prospect of a war on two fronts, against Japan in the Far East (where battle was already joined) and Germany in Europe, was certainly unwelcome; and the influence of this simple calculation on the making of the Nazi-Soviet Pact should not be underrated. The state of the Soviet armed forces, and the strategic problems of the USSR, made it much more desirable to stay out of a European war than to enter one.


1. Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt, Germany and the Second World War, vol. I, The Build-up of German Aggression (Oxford 1990), pp. 77–82; Gerhard L. Weinberg, Germany, Hitler and World War II (Cambridge 1995), pp. 51, 76.

2. Denis Mack Smith, Mussolini's Roman Empire (London: Peregrine Books 1979), pp. 177–178; MacGregor Knox, Mussolini Unleashed, 1939–1941 (Cambridge 1982), p. 32.

3. Knox, Mussolini Unleashed, pp. 25–26: P. Milza and S. Berstein, Le fascisme italien, 1919–1945 (Paris 1980), p. 396; Shepard B. Clough, The Economic History of Modern Italy (New York 1964), p. 261.

4. Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt, Germany and the Second World War, vol. III, The Mediterranean, South-east Europe and North Africa, 1939–1941 (Oxford 1995), p. 84.

5. Ibid., p. 89. A number of other vessels were under construction or refitting.

6. Quoted in Brian R. Sullivan, ‘The strategy of the decisive weight: Italy, 1882–1922’, in Williamson Murray, Macgregor Knox and Alvin Bernstein (eds), The Making of Strategy (Cambridge 1994), p. 349.

7. For detailed accounts of German rearmament, see Germany and the Second World War, vol. I, pp. 408–456 (army), 456–80 (navy), 480–504 (air force).

8. J. Defrasne, ‘L'événement du 7 mars 1936’, in Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Les Relations franco-allemandes, 1933–1939 (Paris 1976), pp. 250–251; Wilhelm Deist, The Wehrmacht and German Rearmament (London 1981), p. 41.

9. Matthew Cooper, The German Army 1933–1945 (London 1978), pp. 131, 164–5, Appendix.

10. McGregor Knox, Common Destiny: Dictatorship, Foreign Policy and War in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany (Cambridge 2000), p. 209.

11. Ibid., pp. 154–155, 209.

12. Edward L. Homze, Arming the Luftwaffe: the Reich Air Ministry and the German aircraft industry, 1919–39 (Lincoln, Nebraska 1976), pp. 33–4, 46–7; Germany and the Second World War, vol. I, pp. 498–9.

13. Ibid., pp. 109–110.

14. Ibid., pp. 79, 93; Matthew Cooper, The German Air Force, 1933–1945 (London 1981), pp. 35–36.

15. For figures in this paragraph, see Homze, Arming the Luftwaffe, pp. 157–158, 222–6; Cooper, German Air Force, pp. 76–80.

16. Cooper, German Air Force, pp. 92–93. This total included 1,179 fighters, 1,176 bombers, and 366 dive-bombers.

17. Strictly, this aircraft should be referred to as the Bf109 (Bayerische Flugzeugwerke); but popular usage in Britain has long referred to it as the Me109, and it seems best to keep to this.

18. Germany and the Second World War, vol. I, p. 691.

19. S. W. Roskill, The War at Sea 1939–1945, vol. I (London 1954), pp. 56–59, Appendix G. For German naval rearmament, see Charles S. Thomas, The German Navy in the Nazi Era (London 1990).

20. Cooper, German Army, pp. 113–166; Williamson Murray, The Change in the European Balance of Power, 1938–1939 (Princeton 1984), pp. 30–8; Germany and the Second World War, vol. I, pp. 431–7; Karl-Heinz Frieser, The Blitzkrieg Legend: The 1940 Campaign in the West (Annapolis Md. 2005), especially chapters 1, 2, 10 and 11.

21. Quoted in Homze, Arming the Luftwaffe, p. 106.

22. Quoted in Cooper, German Air Force, p. 118; see the account of the whole episode, pp. 116–118.

23. Quoted in K. D. Bracher, The German Dictatorship (London: Penguin Books 1973), p. 489.

24. Gerhard Weinberg, ‘The German generals and the outbreak of war, 1938–1939’, in Adrian Preston (ed.), General Staffs and Diplomacy before the Second World War (London 1978), p. 34.

25. The classical statements of this interpretation may be found in A. S. Milward, The German Economy at War (London 1965), and the same author's War, Economy and Society, 1939–1945 (London 1977), especially pp. 26–30.

26. See Overy, War and Economy in the Third Reich, especially pp. 177–179, 189–95, 233–56; and Frieser, Blitzkrieg Legend, chapters 1 and 2.

27. Wilhelm Deist, ‘Blitzkrieg or Total War? War Preparations in Nazi Germany’, in Roger Chickering and Stig Förster (eds), The Shadows of Total War (Cambridge 2003), pp. 271–284.

28. John Erickson, The Soviet High Command: a military-political history, 1918–1941 (London 1962), pp. 389–390, 766, 304; John Erickson, The Road to Stalingrad (London 1975), p. 93; Albert Seaton, The Russo-German War 1941–45 (London 1971), pp. 93–4.

29. Erickson, Road to Stalingrad, pp. 34–35; Seaton, Russo-German War, pp. 86–7.

30. See the succinct analysis of Soviet strategic thought in Earl F. Ziemke, ‘Strategy for class war: the Soviet Union, 1917–1941’, in Murray, Knox and Bernstein (eds), Making of Strategy, pp. 498–533.

31. Erickson, Soviet High Command, pp. 518–537.

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