On 5 November 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt was re-elected President of the United States. ‘It is a resounding slap for Hitler and Ribbentrop and the whole Nazi regime,’ William Shirer wrote in his Berlin diary. That regime was nevertheless determined, while the United States remained neutral and her warships passive, to cut off Britain’s transatlantic lifeline. On the very day of Roosevelt’s re-election, a convoy of thirty-seven ships, HX 84, sailing from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Britain, was attacked in mid-Atlantic by the German pocket battleship Admiral von Scheer.
Escorting the convoy was a converted Australian passenger liner, the Jervis Bay, now an armed merchant cruiser. Ordering the convoy to scatter, her Captain, Edward Stephen Fogarty Fegen, took on the unequal contest, determined to delay the German attack on the convoy. Fegen, an Irishman from Tipperary, who had served in the Royal Navy throughout the First World War, continued to direct the fight even after most of his left arm had been torn off by a large fragment of a German shell. Later in the action he was killed. After twenty-five minutes the Jervis Bay went down; 189 of her officers and men were drowned. The commander of the Admiral von Scheer, Captain Krancke, made no attempt to rescue the sixty-five survivors who clung to the wreckage. Later that night, Sven Olander, the master of the Swedish merchant ship Stureholm, returned to pick them up, at great risk to his own vessel. As a result of Captain Fegen’s order to the convoy to scatter, only five merchantmen in the convoy were caught by Krancke and sunk. For the next five months, he was to restrict his destructive efforts to unescorted merchantmen, sinking a further eleven.
Captain Fegen was awarded the Victoria Cross, ‘for valour in challenging hopeless odds and giving his life to save the many ships it was his duty to protect’.
For the people of Britain, each convoy disaster at sea seemed to threaten the possibility of a German invasion of Britain itself. In fact, however, Hitler’s orders to bring all invasion preparations to an end were being carried out, and on November 6 a German Air Force Enigma message was sent from the headquarters of the German Sixteenth Army, giving instructions that a part of the apparatus used for equipping invasion barges in Belgium and northern France ‘should be returned to store’, leaving behind only sufficient apparatus for ‘exercises’.
This message was simultaneously picked up by its intended German recipients and by British Signals Intelligence. A translation of the British interception was sent to the thirty-one people ‘in the know’ early in the evening of November 6. They could now be certain that Hitler’s military plans could not include the invasion of Britain for a long time to come.
There was further good news for those at the centre of British policy on the following day, November 7, when, a mere forty-eight hours after Roosevelt’s re-election as President, the head of the British Purchasing Mission in Washington, Arthur Purvis, discussed with Roosevelt himself the armaments needed by Britain if she were to be able to put a fifty-five division army into action by the middle of 1942. An army on such a scale would be impossible without substantial American help; Roosevelt, now the confident victor of the Presidential election, told Purvis that ‘his rule of thumb’ was to make available to the United Kingdom arms and munitions ‘on a fifty—fifty basis’. He would also help Britain to meet the depredations of German submarine warfare by reconditioning, for Britain, seventy ‘war boats’ which had been kept in store since the end of the First World War, and building, again for Britain, three hundred new merchant vessels. To enable Britain to afford these purchases, Roosevelt said that the United States would bear the cost of building the ships; she would then ‘rent’ them to Britain, a system, he said, which might be extended to cover other arms purchases.
To build and to rent; from this concept, proposed by Roosevelt to Purvis on November 7, was born the solution which enabled Britain to obtain arms from America even after her credit, and her gold reserves, had been exhausted: Lend—Lease. With the knowledge that Roosevelt himself was not only responsive but also inventive in regard to Britain’s needs, the British Government could pursue the war with a confidence far greater than if Britain had been truly ‘alone’.
On November 7, British bombers struck at the Krupp armament factories at Essen. That same day, Operation Coat saw five British warships, headed by the battleship Barham, leave Gibraltar for a voyage the whole length of the Mediterranean to Egypt, to reinforce the naval forces there. They made the journey unmolested. On November 8, Hitler had to bring forward by an hour his speech in Munich on the anniversary of his 1923 attempt to seize power in Bavaria, to avoid the speech being interrupted by British bombers. On the following evening, one of the British pilots who had flown over Munich that night broadcast over the BBC: ‘It was so light that we could see houses and streets quite clearly. It was a bomb-aimer’s dream of a perfect night. Altogether we stooged about for twenty minutes checking up on our target.’ That target was a railway yard. ‘All the way down,’ the pilot added, ‘I could see those big, black locomotive sheds coming up in front of us. And the front gunner was shooting out searchlights, which I thought was a pretty good effort….’
On the Greek—Italian front, the Italian divisional commander of the Julia Division had picked up that night a BBC broadcast announcing that the Italian Alpine Division, which was in fact next to his in the Line, ‘will be crushed by three Greek divisions’. He at once ordered his own division back towards the Italian frontier. Two days later, on November 11, twenty-four British torpedo bombers, flying from the aircraft carrier Illustrious in the Ionian Sea, 170 miles off the Italian coast, carried out Operation Judgement, striking with their aerial torpedoes at the Italian fleet, then at anchor in the port of Taranto. The Italian battleship Duilio was sunk, and two other battleships, as well as two cruisers, badly damaged.
That night, four Italian merchant ships were sunk by British warships in the Straits of Otranto. Over Britain, thirteen Italian bombers were among the twenty-five aircraft shot down during the day. ‘The Italians fell very quickly out of the sky,’ King George VInoted in his diary. ‘I will not try to be vindictive, but this news has pleased me.’
Unknown to the King, November 11 was also a day of bad omen for the British, when, in the Indian Ocean, the steamer Automedon was attacked by the German raider Atlantis. Twenty-eight shells were fired at the bridge. Not only were the Captain of the Automedon and many of his officers and crew killed in the encounter, but a bag, carefully sealed, and weighted so as to be thrown overboard in case of danger, was found intact on the steamer’s bridge when the Germans boarded her. Inside were a number of secret documents, including a copy of the British Merchant Navy code book valid from January 1, and a Chiefs of Staff appreciation that, in the event of war with Japan, it would be impossible to hold Hong Kong, Malaya or Singapore. Rushed to the German Embassy in Japan, the Chiefs of Staff appreciation was then radioed back in code to Berlin, where it was handed over to the Japanese Naval Attaché. The Automedon bag was an important success for German Intelligence, and a sign to Japan of the vulnerability of the British in South-East Asia.
Not only the secrets of the Automedon, but the British naval victory at Taranto, gave comfort, and inspiration, to Japan. The successful use of aerial torpedoes was noted at once in Tokyo, where Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet, saw a means of eliminating America’s power at sea, by striking at Pearl Harbour, at a fleet at anchor, as Britain had done. This was Operation Z. From the day after Taranto, its planning was given priority above all other naval projects. One American, too, took note of the part played by aerial torpedoes in the Taranto victory. ‘The success of the British aerial attack against ships at anchor’, wrote the Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, ‘suggests that precautionary measures be taken immediately to protect Pearl Harbour against surprise attack in the event that war should break out between the United States and Japan.’ The ‘greatest danger’, Knox added, ‘will come from aerial torpedoing’.
At Dachau concentration camp north of Munich, in the Bavarian heartland, November 11 saw the first official mass execution. The victims were fifty-five Polish intellectuals, who had been deported earlier from Cracow to Germany. In Paris, on the morning of November 11, individual Frenchmen laid wreaths at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and groups of Parisians gathered in the streets to remember the dead of both wars. By the afternoon, the Germans had begun to disperse the demonstrators, and 123 arrests were made, among them ninety schoolchildren. In the scuffles, four people were hurt. ‘Presently’, Churchill had told the people of France in his broadcast three weeks earlier, ‘you will be able to weight the arm that strikes for you, and you ought to do so.’ That time had not yet come. Two days later however, in Central Africa, Free French forces entered Libreville; within forty-eight hours, the whole of Gabon had been wrested by de Gaulle from Vichy.
Hitler had already decided that the invasion of Britain was a virtual impossibility. On November 12, in Directive No. 18, he proposed, for the consideration of his commanders, Operation Felix, to bring Spain into the war on Germany’s side. ‘Felix’ envisaged, first and principally, the seizure of Gibraltar, then the use of the Spanish Canary Islands, the Portuguese island of Madeira and parts of Spanish Morocco, in order to ‘drive the English from the western Mediterranean’. As to Russia, the new directive stated, ‘all preparations for the East for which verbal orders have already been given will be continued’, and further directives would follow ‘on this subject, as soon as the basic operational plan of the Army has been submitted to me and approved’.
This clear indication that an invasion of Russia remained Hitler’s goal coincided with the visit to Berlin of the Soviet Foreign Minister, Vyacheslav Molotov. In a talk with Hitler on November 12, Molotov wanted to know what Russia’s part would be in the New Order of Germany, Italy and Japan, as created by the Tripartite Pact, and where matters stood in the Balkans and Roumania, with regard to Russia’s interests. Hitler had no answer, telling Molotov that they must break off their discussion, ‘Otherwise we shall be caught by the air raid warning.’
On November 13, Molotov continued his talks with Ribbentrop, who proposed that the Soviet Union become a partner in the Tripartite Pact. Molotov was dubious of Soviet adherence to the Axis, referring to Italy’s setbacks in Greece and at Taranto, and telling Ribbentrop he thought that ‘the Germans were assuming that the war against England has already been won’. Ribbentrop’s discomfiture was increased when British bombers came over Berlin yet again, and they had to break off a celebratory dinner in the Soviet Embassy, and to continue their talks in Ribbentrop’s own air-raid shelter at home. Rubbing salt in the wound, Molotov said that ‘he did not regret the air raid alarm’, as it had provided the occasion for an ‘exhaustive’ discussion. When Ribbentrop insisted that Britain was beaten, and her Empire therefore up for partition among the Axis powers, whom Russia ought therefore to join, Molotov remarked acerbicly: ‘If that is so, why are we sitting in this air-raid shelter? And whose bombs are those that are falling so close that their explosions are heard even here?’
It was something else, however, that Molotov said to Ribbentrop in the shelter, which convinced Hitler that he would only be put further and further in difficulties by Soviet ambitions if the Molotov—Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939 were to remain the basis of German policy; at one point in their underground discussion Molotov went so far as to tell Ribbentrop that Russia could never entirely give up its interest in the western approaches to the Baltic: the waters of the Kattegat and Skagerrak, between Denmark, Norway and Sweden, once under Danish, but under German control since May.
Hitler was indignant; but his own plans to move against Russia had proceeded without interruption. On November 13, when Goering warned that the German Air Force might not have the strength to destroy Russia’s industrial power, Hitler told him that the long term needs of the war against Britain meant that German control of the Caucasian oilfields was essential. The war against Russia could be won in a few months. Goering should prepare his air forces to begin it on May 1.
British Intelligence was aware of these plans. By November 13 it had learned that Germany planned to motorize one third of all her divisions, making a total of seventy armoured and motorized divisions, and that she was also increasing her paratroop and motorized divisions. It was already known that there were plans to increase the number of German divisions in Roumania to eighteen, far more than were needed to train the Roumanian Army or protect the Roumanian oilfields at Ploesti.
British Intelligence was not alone in seeing Hitler’s preparations to move against Russia; on November 18 Richard Sorge, Stalin’s German spy in Tokyo with close contacts in the German Embassy there, sent his first messages to Moscow reporting on German preparations for an eastern front.
Hitler had been much angered by Britain’s ‘pretty good effort’ in bombing Munich on his festive anniversary on November 8. On November 14, as five hundred German bombers set off once more across the North Sea, they were told that neither Hitler nor Goering was ‘willing to let an attack on the capital of the Nazi movement go unpunished’.
The bombers’ target was Coventry. Their raid was so successful that twenty-seven vital war factories were hit, and production halted for many months. But in the course of the bombardment, a firestorm was started, which burned out much of the city centre. In all, 60,000 out of 75,000 buildings were destroyed or badly damaged, and 568 men, women and children killed. More than four hundred of those killed were too badly burned to be identified; they were buried in a communal grave.
For more than a square mile, Coventry’s city centre was in ruins, giving a new verb to the German language, ‘Koventrieren’, to ‘Coventrate’, that is, to annihilate, or to raze to the ground. At the Air Ministry in London, Air Marshal Harris, who was eventually to be made the head of Bomber Command, later observed that the German raid on Coventry had taught the British the ‘principle’ of starting ‘so many fires at the same time’ that no fire-fighting services could get them under control. Meanwhile, the German air raids continued nightly; in the following week, as a result of bombing raids on the Coventry scale, 484 civilians were killed in London and 228 in Birmingham: the total number of British civilians killed that November was 4,588. Four days after the Coventry raid itself, thirty-one soldiers were killed at Theydon Bois, north of London by a German parachute mine, a weapon which, floating to the ground on the wind, could make no pretence of being directed upon a specific target.
The British response to these raids was swift. On November 16, two days after Coventry, during a raid on Hamburg, where cloud and severe icing made an accurate attack on military targets impossible, the bombs were dropped nevertheless, and 233 German civilians killed.
For the Italians, the Greek campaign had proved a fiasco. On November 15, Greek forces broke through the Italian line, taking many prisoners. At Menton, the French town just beyond the Italian border, posters appeared with the words: ‘This is French territory. Greeks, do not advance further!’ To assist the Greeks yet further, British air and artillery reinforcements were on their way, including twenty fighter aircraft and twenty-four field guns. On November 18, at Obersalzberg, Hitler expressed to Count Ciano his anger at the failure of the Greek campaign. If, as a result of Italy being at war with Greece, the British were to acquire an airbase in Athens, they would be able, Hitler warned, to bomb the Roumanian oil wells and installations at Ploesti. To prevent such an outcome, it would be necessary for Germany to intervene; but this she could not do before mid-March.
The Italians had succeeded only in turning Greece into a power at war; one, in addition, that was allied with Britain. In his talk with Ciano, and that same day with the Spanish Foreign Minister, Serano Suner, Hitler stressed the urgent need to close the Mediterranean, isolating the British in Egypt and Malta, and preventing them from using the Mediterranean as a base from which to attack Italy itself. To do this, Spain would have to attack Gibraltar, and close the Straits of Gibraltar.
On November 19, Suner told Hitler that Spain would need 400,000 tons of grain before it could declare war on Britain. Hitler understood that this demand was merely a tactic to delay, and in the end to avoid any commitment. Meanwhile, the British had kept up their bombing raids on a regular schedule, bombing industrial targets in Hamburg on November 15, and the Skoda armaments works at Pilsen, in Czechoslovakia, four days later, and striking, from Egypt, at Italian bases in Libya, including Benghazi, on November 21. On the following day, Greek forces, still advancing, reached Koritsa, fifteen miles inside the Albanian border, capturing 2,000 Italian troops, 135 artillery pieces and 600 machine guns, thus securing a far greater armament than Britain had been able to provide.
The Greek President, General Metaxas, exhilarated by the crossing of the Albanian border, told his people: ‘We fight, not only for our own existence, but also for the other Balkan peoples and Albania’s liberation as well.’ By his invasion of Greece, now so ignominiously repulsed, Mussolini had dealt the Axis its first blow. But the signs elsewhere were still of an Axis triumph; on November 23, Roumania signed the Tripartite Pact. That night, German bombers made a heavy night attack on the British port of Southampton.
On November 24, Slovakia joined the Tripartite Pact. That night, over Britain, German bombers struck at the city of Bristol, while, from Libya, Italian bombers raided the British naval base at Alexandria. On November 25, however, despite the appearance of a large Italian naval force, three fast British merchantmen sailed without loss from Gibraltar, in Operation Collar, bringing essential war supplies to Malta and Alexandria. This was the first time that British merchant ships, as opposed to warships, had successfully traversed what Mussolini had boastfully described as the ‘Italian lake’. Two days later, as the merchantmen approached their destinations, British warships damaged an Italian cruiser and two destroyers in action off Sardinia.
In German-occupied Europe, the German authorities worked without respite that November to impose their will. In the Warsaw ghetto, Emanuel Ringelblum wrote in his diary: ‘Today, November 19, a Christian, who had thrown a sack of bread over the wall, was shot dead.’ In Holland, on November 27, after protests by teachers and students at Delft University against new anti-Jewish laws, the Germans closed the university and forbade the students to enrol elsewhere. From Berlin on November 28 the Ministry of Propaganda sent a memorandum to Otto Abetz, the German Ambassador in Paris: ‘The result of our victorious struggle should be to smash French predominance in cultural propaganda, in Europe, and in the world.’ Any support given to French culture would be a ‘crime’ against the German nation. Also in Berlin that day, a second anti-Semitic film, The Eternal Jew, received its first showing. Purporting to explain the destructive part played by the Jews in world history, the film juxtaposed scenes of Jews and rats; the Jews, it explained, like rats, were carriers of disease, ‘money-mad bits of filth devoid of all higher values—corrupters of the world’.
Such was the Nazi ideology; on the day of the film’s première, the chief Nazi ideologue, Alfred Rosenberg, setting up his task force for the pillaging of French art, chose as its headquarters the house of a Jew who had managed to escape abroad, and took over four large warehouses, including a Jewish-owned department store, in which to hold the stolen works.
For the captive Poles, a daily revenge was being exacted over the skies of Britain, as Polish pilots flew with the Royal Air Force against the continuing German bombing offensive. On November 28, one of those pilots, Sergeant Zigmund Klein, crashed into the Channel and was never seen again. ‘It appears that we have lost a very gallant pilot and ally,’ the British record noted.
In the Atlantic, a pack of four German submarines sank eleven merchant ships and an armed merchant cruiser on December 1. That month, in the Pacific, two German commerce raiders sank five Australian merchant ships, and shelled the phosphate plant at Nauru Island. But Hitler’s mind was now set on Russia; at a four-hour conference with his commanders on December 5, he spoke in some detail of the plan and direction of the attack, stressing the importance of capturing Leningrad and Stalingrad, the ‘Bolshevik breeding grounds’, rather than Moscow, which Field Marshal von Brauchitsch argued was the central point both of Soviet communications and of munitions manufacture. ‘Moscow is not all that important,’ Hitler insisted. Only after Leningrad had been captured should his armies turn against Moscow. ‘Hegemony over Europe’, Hitler added, ‘will be decided in battle against Russia.’ It was the defeat of the Soviet Union which would help to bring Britain to her knees.
Whatever the strategy, all those at the conference were clear on one thing: the Russians would be defeated easily. ‘The Red Army is leaderless,’ General Halder told the gathering. The Russian soldier was ‘mindless’. The Red Army was as inferior in weapons as the French Army had been. The lack of modern Russian field batteries gave the German panzer a free hand. The Russians had nothing but ‘badly armoured’ units to oppose the German armour. The German Army would split the Russian forces into separate pieces, thereupon ‘strangling’ them by encirclement.
‘Leaderless’, ‘mindless’, ‘strangling’; these were confident words that December 5. The Russians had been relegated to the ranks of an inferior and hopeless people, whose Army mirrored their inadequacies. On the day after this conference, General Jodl instructed his deputy, General Warlimont, to prepare a detailed draft plan for the invasion of Russia; known initially as Operation Fritz, Hitler quickly changed its name to Barbarossa.
The Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa—Red Beard—had marched eastward with his Army in AD 1190 to conquer the Holy Land from the infidel. His descendants were already resorting to methods as vicious as any which Frederick had used 750 years earlier, before the veneer of Christian civilization had subdued, or at least momentarily suppressed, the baser instincts of mankind. ‘There have been cases’, Chaim Kaplan wrote in his diary in Warsaw on December 6, ‘when courageous Jews were shot in full view of their entire family, and the murderers were not held responsible, because the excuse was that the “filthy Jew” cursed the Führer and it was their duty to avenge his honour.’ Four days later, also in Warsaw, Emanuel Ringelblum wrote in his diary of how, on December 9, a German soldier ‘sprang out of a passing automobile and hit a boy on the head with an iron bar. The boy died.’
Since September 13, Italian forces had been on Egyptian soil, occupying a band of desert coastline from Sollum to Sidi Barrani, and constituting a potential threat to Alexandria and the Suez Canal.
Working in Cairo, the British Army’s cryptographers had broken the cyphers used by all Italian military formations down to brigade level for both their tactical communications and their Intelligence work. By the first week of December, it was known to the British commanders exactly where the Italian forces were strong and where they were weak. Based on this Intelligence, plans were made to strike at the Italian positions on 9 December. On the night of December 7, a special patrol by an armoured car unit verified details of a gap in a particular Italian minefield.
On December 9 the British offensive began. Two British divisions, totalling 36,000 men, a half of them Indian troops, attacked seven Italian divisions. The 75,000 Italians were overwhelmed, for the loss of less than a hundred British and Indian dead. The Italian Army, after its first serious engagement in the Western Desert, was in retreat.
This serious setback for the Italians in the eastern Mediterranean was followed within hours by a serious setback for the Germans at the western end. For on December 10, after General Franco had refused for the second time an appeal from Hitler to allow German troops to cross Spain and seize Gibraltar, Hitler was forced to issue a Directive cancelling Operation Felix. Franco’s refusal was made particularly galling because the Spanish leader had added to his refusal an agreement to enter the war against England ‘when England was ready to collapse’. Hitler now outlined plans to avert a further setback by including in his Directive No. 19 of 10 December—Operation Attila—the eventual occupation of Vichy France, in order to control the French naval base at Toulon and the French airfields on the Mediterranean. The war, which six months earlier had seemed confined to northern Europe, had now spread, entirely as a result of Italy’s unsuccessful initiatives, to the Mediterranean.
That December, the war of bombers reached a new intensity, with British bombers flying eastwards and German bombers flying westward almost every night, their missions identical; to destroy each other’s war-making capacity and will. On December 7, British bombers had struck at the German industrial city of Düsseldorf. On December 12, the Germans had bombed the British steel town of Sheffield. That day, the British War Cabinet, still sharing the popular indignation at the destruction of Coventry, as well as the secret knowledge of the German use of mines dropped indiscriminately by parachute, authorized ‘the maximum possible destruction in a selected town’. The town chosen was Mannheim. Four days later Mannheim was bombed, but with far less than Coventry’s devastation, and only twenty-three civilians were killed. Ironically, the day of the bombing of Mannheim was also the day on which a secret British Government report advised that Bomber Command give primacy in future to German oil targets; a directive to this effect was to be issued on 13 January 1941.
The cruelty of the bombing was matched on both sides of the North Sea by the courage of those who had to help its victims. On December 13, in the course of trying to make safe an unexploded bomb at Manor Park in East London, two bomb disposal experts, Captain M. F. Blaney and Lieutenant James, were blown up. The explosion was so great that it also killed a staff sergeant, a lance-corporal, five sappers and a superintendent of police, who were watching the bomb disposal operations from across the road. For his courage, Captain Blaney was posthumously awarded the George Cross.
On December 13, determined both to pursue his plans against Russia and not to have them undermined by Italian failures in the Mediterranean, Hitler issued Directive No. 20, ordering a further reinforcement of his troops in Roumania in order to be able to occupy northern Greece. This was Operation Marita, part of which, as outlined by Hitler that day, included the seizure of British bases in the Greek islands. At the conclusion of Operation Marita, Hitler informed his commanders, ‘the forces engaged will be withdrawn for new employment’.
That ‘new employment’ was Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia. In Russia, on 16 December, Marshal Voroshilov gave orders for the preparation of the land defence of the naval base of Sevastopol. Hitler’s preparations, however, were on a far more extensive scale. On December 18, in Directive No. 21 to his senior military commanders, he instructed them to make preparations ‘to crush Soviet Russia in a quick campaign’. These preparations were to be started at once, and to be completed by 15 May 1941. Both Finland and Roumania could be expected to fight alongside the Germans. ‘It is of decisive importance, however,’ Hitler warned, ‘that the intention to attack does not become discernible.’
In his directive of December 18, Hitler set out in eleven pages of detailed description the parts which his Army, Air Force and Navy were to take, the lines of attack and the sequence of objectives, first Leningrad, then Kiev, then Moscow. The ‘final objective’, he explained, was to ‘erect a barrier against Asiatic Russia’ on the geographic line ‘Volga—Archangel’.
For Hitler and the Nazis, the word ‘Asiatic’ was synonymous with ‘barbarian’. Yet inside Germany there were many people, doctors and priests among them, who had begun to characterize Germany’s own euthanasia programme as barbaric. Some written protests had reached Hitler; others had been circulated clandestinely. Vexed, Heinrich Himmler told Dr Brack and Dr Bouler on December 19: ‘If Operation T4 had been entrusted to the SS, things would have happened differently. When the Führer entrusts us with a job, we know how to deal with it correctly, without causing useless uproar among the people.’
This ‘useless uproar’ was soon to force Hitler to abandon the euthanasia programme, though not before as many as 50,000 ‘defectives’, including several thousand children, had been put to death. But Himmler and his SS men were to get another ‘job’ to do before half a year had passed.
In North Africa, British forces reached the Libyan border on December 17. ‘Your first objective now’, Churchill telegraphed to their Commander-in-Chief, ‘must be to maul the Italian Army and rip them off the African shore to the utmost extent.’ In Norway, on December 21, all members of the Supreme Court, including the Chief Justice, resigned rather than continue to administer German-dictated justice. On December 23, in Paris, the Germans executed a civil engineer, Jacques Bonsergent, who had been caught up inadvertently in the demonstration of November 11, and had been jostled by German soldiers who had arrested him. He had been in Paris for the wedding of a friend.
On the day of Bonsergent’s execution, Hitler was in France, visiting military units on the Channel coast. His train, Amerika, was at Boulogne that day; it had to be shunted into a tunnel when British bombers began bombing German military installations nearby. Two nights earlier, British bombers had struck at Berlin, leaving forty-five civilians dead. ‘So considerable losses, after all,’ Goebbels commented in his diary on December 24.
In Warsaw, throughout the week before Christmas, several hundred telegrams had arrived in Polish homes, reporting the deaths of husbands, fathers or sons who had earlier been taken off to concentration camps. The majority of these deaths were at the punishment camp in Auschwitz.
In the sphere of Intelligence, several things had become known at the end of December which were not at all welcome to their recipients. On December 28, British Bomber Command learned that its repeated bombings of German oil installations at Gelsenkirchen had not been at all effective, despite no fewer than twenty-eight raids over seven months. That same day, from Tokyo, the Soviet spy Richard Sorge reported to Moscow that a new German reserve army of forty divisions was being formed in Leipzig. On December 30, British Intelligence, mostly from its readings of the German Air Force Enigma messages, accurately calculated the scale of the German build-up in Roumania, and also in Bulgaria, in preparation for the attack on Greece. Another source, an informant said to have ‘proved reliable in the past’, gave the beginning of March as the date for the German onslaught.
On December 29, President Roosevelt broadcast to the American people: ‘The people of Europe who are defending themselves’, he said, ‘do not ask us to do their fighting. They ask us for the implements of war, the planes, the tanks, the guns, the freighters, which will enable them to fight for their liberty and for our security.’ Roosevelt added: ‘We must be the great arsenal of democracy.’ That night, in Britain, the Germans dropped incendiary bombs on the City of London on an unprecedented scale, creating a swathe of fire on both banks of the River Thames. Many famous buildings, including the Guildhall, and eight Wren churches, were destroyed or severely damaged. Vigilant fire-fighters were able to save St Paul’s Cathedral from being engulfed in the flames, but an exceptionally low tide made fire fighting even more difficult than it would otherwise have been. It was a raid which brought the total British civilian deaths that December alone to 3,793.
The new year of 1941 began with a considerable British attack against the Italian strongpoint of Bardia, on the Libyan frontier. British and Australian soldiers began their advance on January 1, assisted by a considerable naval bombardment. Among the bombarding ships was the battleship Valiant, on board which was a nineteen-year-old Midshipman, Prince Philip of Greece, son of Prince Andrew of Greece, later to become Duke of Edinburgh. ‘The whole operation was a very spectacular affair,’ he wrote in his log. On January 5 the fortress of Bardia fell, and with it 35,949 Italian prisoners. Retreating westward, the Italian commander, General Bergonzoli, managed to reach Tobruk with a few thousand men.
While preparing to drive the Italians even further westward, the British also continued with the despatch of reinforcements to Greece. Valiant, with Prince Philip of Greece on board, was among the ships which escorted British troops to the island of Crete. Encouraged by Britain’s victory, and help, on 4 January the Greek Army had renewed its advance into Albania, pitting its own thirteen divisions against sixteen Italian divisions, and driving the Italians back across the border towards Klissura. Two days later, the British launched Operation Excess, sending three merchant ships, with an escort of five warships, from Gibraltar to Athens, laden with military supplies. The merchant ships were to reach Greece safely.
As the British ships set off through the Mediterranean on January 6, with their precious war cargo, President Roosevelt spoke in Washington of the ‘four essential human freedoms’ upon which a future world ought to be founded: freedom of speech and expression, freedom to worship God, freedom from want and freedom from fear, which, he said, ‘translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbour, anywhere in the world’.
This kind of world, Roosevelt added, was ‘the very antithesis of the so-called New Order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of the bomb’. In London, one such bomb fell that week on the Bank Underground station, killing 111 of those who had sought refuge in the apparent safety of its deep tunnels. In the Mediterranean, German bombers, based in Sicily, struck on 10 January at a convoy on its way from Gibraltar to Malta. Two merchant ships were sunk, and the aircraft carrier Illustriousbadly damaged. The cruiser Southampton was so crippled that the British were forced to sink her themselves; during the German bombing attack, eighty of her crew had been killed. This was the first German air action in the Mediterranean, and boded ill for the British, at the very moment of Italy’s severe discomfiture.
On January 7, the British and Australian forces now on Italian soil in Libya had begun their onward march towards Tobruk. On the following day, also on Italian soil, in Albania, the Greeks attacked the Italian garrison at Klissura, which was captured on January 10, the day on which the Lend—Lease Bill was introduced into the American Congress.
The Greek and British successes led Hitler, on January 11, to issue his Directive No. 22, in which he finally recognized that he must come to Mussolini’s help, or face grave problems from the south. ‘Tripolitania must be held’, he wrote, ‘and the danger of a collapse on the Albanian front must be eliminated.’ German troops would therefore be sent to Tripoli, while German aircraft ‘will continue to operate from Sicily’, attacking British naval forces and sea communications. German troops would also be made ready to move into Albania, in order to enable the Italian Army ‘to go over to the offensive at a later date’.
Hitler’s new directive brought Britain and Germany into direct conflict in the Mediterranean. Coming only a day after the German bombing of the Illustrious, it was followed a day later by a British air raid, by aircraft from Malta, on German airbases in Sicily. In an attempt to strengthen his position in these hitherto Italian dominated regions of the Balkans, on January 13 Hitler invited King Boris of Bulgaria to Berlin, insisting that Bulgaria join the Axis, open her borders to German troops for their attack on Greece, and take an active part in military operations alongside the Germans. Like General Franco before him, however, King Boris declined.
That same day, January 13, in conference with his commanders in Moscow, Stalin spoke of the possibility of a two-front war, with Japan in the West and Germany in the East. It was for this, he said, that Russia must prepare. The future war would be one of rapid manoeuvre. Infantry units should therefore be decreased in size and increased in mobility. The war when it came would be a mass war; it was essential to maintain an overall superiority of at least two to one over a potential enemy, if a breakthrough were to be possible. For this, it would be necessary to create fast-moving motorized units, equipped with automatic weapons. Such units would need exceptional organization of their supply sources and a great reserve of materials which ‘must flow to the front from all parts of our country’. Food stocks, too, should be prepared on a substantial scale. The Tsarist Government’s decision to stockpile rusks, for example, was, he said, a ‘wise decision’, and he went on to explain to his generals: ‘A sip of tea and a rusk, and you’ve got a hot meal’.
On the day of Stalin’s talk to his commanders, setting out the tasks that would face them in the event of war, one of Stalin’s most successful spies, Leopold Trepper, set up his offices in Paris, under the cover of a textile import—export house. Trepper, a Jew who had been born in the Polish provinces of the Tsarist Empire, gathered around him a small band of largely Jewish Communists, including Hillel Katz, also Polish-born, who had earlier been expelled by the British from Palestine because of his Communist activities. In the course of his ‘import—export’ work, Trepper befriended Ludwig Kainz, an engineer employed by Organization Todt. It was from Kainz that Trepper learned of German preparations along the German—Soviet borderland, and arranged for this information to be passed back, by radio to Moscow, as and when he received it.
The American Ambassador to Britain, Joseph Kennedy, had, in the last months of 1940, been sending reports to Washington in which he stressed the possibility of Britain’s defeat, and the damaging impact of the Blitz not only on buildings but on morale. In an attempt to discover whether Britain really could remain at war, and would not merely receive American-manufactured weapons in order later to surrender them to the Germans, Roosevelt had sent a personal emissary, Harry Hopkins, to Britain. ‘The people here are amazing, from Churchill down,’ Hopkins wrote to Roosevelt on January 14, ‘and if courage alone can win, the results are inevitable. But they need our help desperately, and I am sure you will permit nothing to stand in the way.’
In this letter, Hopkins reported Churchill’s warning that the German bombers in the Mediterranean ‘make the Fleet’s operation more difficult’; two days later, more than seventy German dive bombers, taking off from their bases in Sicily, attacked Malta’s Grand Harbour of Valetta in an attempt to sink the aircraft-carrier Illustrious. In the course of the attack, considerable damage was done to the port. In addition, two hundred public and private buildings in Valetta were destroyed, and more than fifty civilians killed. In this, the first of a series of raids which the Maltese nicknamed the ‘Illustrious Blitz’, ten of the German attacking aircraft were shot down. But the German onslaught was not at an end; two days later, in a surprise German raid on the airfield at Luqa by eighty-five dive bombers, six British bombers were destroyed on the ground, and the airfield itself made unserviceable. Through all this, however, the Illustrious suffered only minor additional damage, and was able, before the end of the month, to leave the perils of Malta for the safety of Egypt.
The Battle of Britain had lasted for less than two months. The Battle of Malta was to last for more than two years. Under continual bombardment from the air, the people of Malta referred to their ordeal as the second siege, the first having taken place nearly four hundred years earlier, in 1565.
On January 17, as news of the first day of the Battle of Malta reached Britain, Harry Hopkins was the guest of honour at a banquet in Glasgow. ‘I suppose you want to know’, he said to Churchill that evening, ‘what I am going to say to President Roosevelt on my return.’ Churchill did indeed want to know. The answer was a quotation from the Book of Ruth: ‘Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.’ Then, very quietly, Hopkins added: ‘Even to the end’.
That winter, in German-occupied Europe, the bonds of tyranny continued to tighten. On January 10 all Dutch Jews were required to register—a simple, orderly, bureaucratic act, which nevertheless boded ill. On January 13, in the German city of Brandenburg, the local newspaper had announced sentences of between fifteen and eighteen months in prison for three German women who had given food and cigarettes to Polish prisoners-of-war.
On 20 January, the German Security Service compiled a series of reports on the reception inside Germany of the film The Eternal Jew. According to the report from Munich, ‘there was immediately relief and enthusiastic applause at the point in the film where the Führer appears and in his speech announces that a new war can only bring about the final annihilation of Jewry’. For many people, the Security Service stated, ‘The repulsive nature of the material and in particular the ritual slaughter scenes are repeatedly cited in conversation as the main reason for not seeing the film.’ According to reports from western Germany, and from Breslau, people had often been observed ‘leaving the cinema in disgust’ in the middle of the performance, with statements like ‘We’ve seen Jud Süss and we’ve had enough of Jewish filth.’
In Paris, on January 21, the Gestapo arrested Roger Langeron, the former Prefect of Police whom the Germans had made Police Chief in the first days of the occupation, seven months earlier. Now he was to serve them no more; his patriotism had prevailed over German blandishments and threats. That same day, in the Roumanian capital, Bucharest, the anti-Jewish hatred of the Iron Guard legionnaires led to the hunting down of Jews in the streets. Thousands of Jews were caught and savagely beaten; 120 were killed. Many of those murdered were taken to cattle slaughterhouses and killed, as one report had it, ‘according to the Jews’ own ritual practices in slaughtering animals’. These were the very ‘practices’ which had been shown and pilloried in The Eternal Jew.
In Norway, helped by Norwegian informers, the Germans had arrested members of a resistance group centred upon the town of Haugesund; in February ten of the young men involved were imprisoned ‘for life’, only escaping the death penalty after four of them had undertaken to work at the dismantling of unexploded bombs. In Paris, on February 11 Rudolf Hilferding, a leading German Social Democrat between the wars, and twice Minister of Finance in the Weimar Republic, died in prison from injuries brutally inflicted by the Gestapo. Both as a Socialist and as a Jew, he had fled from Germany to Denmark in 1933, and then to Switzerland, finally settling in southern France in 1938; constantly warning, as in 1934 in the Prague Programme of his exiled party, of the dangers which the rulers of Nazi Germany posed for the world. Now he had become yet another of their victims. The Vichy French police, having promised him immunity, had then brought him to the border of the occupied zone and handed him over to the Gestapo.
In the sealed and guarded ghettos throughout Poland, the Germans had imposed such severe restrictions on food supplies that hundreds of Jews died every month of starvation. In Warsaw, in January 1941, the death toll that month from hunger had reached two thousand. The February toll was just as high. ‘Almost daily’, Emanuel Ringelblum wrote in his diary on February 28, ‘people are falling dead or unconscious in the middle of the street. It no longer makes so direct an impression.’
The power of the German occupation authorities to tyrannize through hunger, fear and terror was unlimited. In his diary, Ringelblum also recorded the case of a deportation of Jews into Warsaw. During a halt in the journey, a German guard threw a three-year-old child into the snow. ‘Its mother jumped off the wagon and tried to save the child. The guard threatened her with a revolver. The mother insisted that life was worthless for her without her child. Then the Germans threatened to shoot all the Jews in the wagon. The mother arrived in Warsaw, and here went out of her mind.’
After five hundred days of war, that woman’s madness testified to the triumph, not only of armies, but of evil.