On 19 January 1941 another war front was opened, with the launching of a British attack against the Italians in Eritrea, Somaliland and Ethiopia. The day of the attack was chosen because British Intelligence had read and decoded the secret Italian instructions to withdraw that week from Kassala, a town inside the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan which had been occupied by the Italians in the summer of 1940.
For five months the British force, numbering in all 30,000 men, advanced in three converging directions, towards the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. Throughout this campaign, from its first day, every secret Italian military instruction was read by British avid eavesdroppers. Every secret operational order sent to, or from, the Italian Viceroy, relating to the daily military moves and problems of the Italian Army, was picked up as it was issued, and used to foil whatever plan had been made, or to exploit whatever weakness had been revealed.
On the first day of the British offensive in East Africa, it was a chastened Mussolini who arrived at Obersalzberg as Hitler’s guest. On Mussolini’s second day at Obersalzberg, British forces entered Kassala. That same day, in Cyrenaica, Australian forces launched their attack on Tobruk, which had already been cut off by the British 7th Armoured Division. Hitler at once agreed, as he had already stated in his Directive to his commanders, that he would send a German force to Tripoli. The troops he chose were those of the 15th Armoured Division, under Rommel. It was none too soon, for on January 22 the British and Australian forces surrounding Tobruk finally entered the port, taking twenty-five thousand Italian soldiers prisoner.
These were encouraging days for Britain. On January 23, in Operation Rubble, five Norwegian merchant ships broke out of the Swedish harbour of Gothenburg, passed the Skaggerak, linked up with a British naval force and, despite several heavy German air attacks, reached Scapa Flow without loss. But in the war at sea the Germans had two formidable weapons, the battle-cruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst. On January 23 they too crossed the North Sea, narrowly missing the British naval force escorting Operation Rubble home, and, reaching the Atlantic, began a career of attacks which resulted in the sinking of twenty-two merchant ships.
The vulnerability of ships, and of port installations, was stressed on 24 January, in connection not with the Atlantic but with the Pacific. For on that day the United States Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, wrote to his opposite number at the War Department to point out that ‘if war eventuates with Japan, it is believed easily possible that hostilities would be initiated by a surprise attack upon the Fleet or the Naval Base at Pearl Harbour’, with, Knox warned, ‘inherent possibilities of a major disaster’.
On January 24, it was the Germans who rejoiced, when one of their fighter pilots, Franz von Werra, who had crashed over southern England in June 1940, and been taken prisoner, turned up in New York to a considerable fanfare of publicity. Two weeks earlier he had been one of more than a thousand German prisoners-of-war who had left Britain on board the Duchess of York, for prisoner-of-war camps in Canada. Of eight escapees from the train that was taking the prisoners-of-war across Canada, von Werra was the only successful one. While he was in New York, Hitler awarded him the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross for an earlier, and as yet unconfirmed, flying exploit. For three months Canada sought von Werra’s extradition from the United States; then, while the legal wrangles continued, it was announced that he had returned to Germany, through Mexico, Panama, Brazil and Spain.
On January 27, while von Werra’s escape was still the talk of the town in New York, a secret gathering of senior British and American officers met in Washington, authorized by Churchill and Roosevelt to determine ‘the best methods by which the armed forces of the United States and the British Commonwealth, with its present Allies, could defeat Germany and the Powers allied with her, should the United States be compelled to resort to war’. These American—British Conversations, given the code name ‘ABC’, went so far as to envisage an eventual ‘unity of field command in cases of strategic or tactical joint operations’.
One area of joint operations did not have to wait until the United States entered the war. Even as the Washington talks continued, and as a direct result of them, six Americans, including Major Abraham Sinkov and Captain Leo Rosten from the Signals Intelligence Service, were crossing the Atlantic with a precious cargo: a ‘Purple’ machine, the Japanese equivalent of the German Enigma. On this machine the Americans, and now the British, could read a series of the most secret Japanese diplomatic, consular, naval and merchant shipping messages. As with the Enigma messages, those received on the Purple machine were decrypted at Bletchley. Two further codebreaking successes were achieved at Bletchley that winter within the Enigma system, first the breaking of the hand cypher of the German Secret Service—the Abwehr—and then of the Enigma key used by the German Railways for their own most secret military transport communications.
The Germans had no equivalent success to match the Anglo-American code-breaking triumphs of the Enigma and Purple machines. It was from the far less comprehensive world of local and tactical signals interception, and from individual agents, that they gained much of their secret information. On January 28 the German-born Waldemar Othmer, who had lived in America since the age of ten, sent German Intelligence the details of American shipping sales to Britain. As Agent A.2018, Othmer reported regularly and in detail on American naval preparations on the eastern seaboard of the United States.
The bombing of Britain had continued during January, when 1,500 civilians had been killed. But there was no sense of despair. On January 30, Roosevelt’s emissary, Henry Hopkins, lunched with King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace. At the beginning of the lunch an air-raid warning had sounded, but the lunch had continued uninterrupted. When it reached the coffee and port, however, a bell rang, and the King said: ‘That means we have got to go to the air raid shelter.’ There in the shelter the conversation continued, the Queen telling Hopkins that ‘the one thing that counted was the morale and determination of the great mass of the British people’.
‘There is definitely a much more cheerful spirit than there was a year ago—don’t you think?’ Churchill’s Principal Private Secretary, Eric Seal, had written to his wife on January 25. ‘We really do feel we are getting on with the war, and that we haven’t done so badly since France fell out.’
On January 27, in Eritrea, the 4th Indian Division entered the town of Agordat. Two days later, in the Western Desert, Italian troops evacuated Derna. ‘I am convinced’, Hitler declared in a speech in Berlin on January 30, ‘that 1941 will be the crucial year of the great New Order in Europe.’ For Germany’s espionage efforts, however, there was a further, though smaller setback on the following day, when a would-be German spy, Josef Jakobs, parachuted into Britain with a wireless transmitter, broke his leg so badly on landing that he had to fire a pistol shot in order to attract attention. He was at once arrested. Because of his broken leg, Jakobs had to sit in a chair for his execution by an army firing squad six months later.
Hitler’s generals were confident of success in their design against Russia. On February 2 the German War Council discussed a report by General Halder, estimating that some 211 Soviet divisions and formations would face 190 German and Axis units. This, Halder said, gave the Soviet Union a substantial numerical superiority, but not the technical or strategic advantage needed to avert defeat. In discussing these factors with Hitler on February 3, both Halder and von Brauchitsch found themselves confronted by the Führer’s scepticism about the Russian manpower. Soviet rule was so hated, Hitler argued, particularly by the younger Russians, that Russia itself would crumble under the weight of the first victorious German attack.
Hitler also dismissed General Halder’s concern, in regard to Russian tank superiority, that, despite the obsolete design of many of the tanks, ‘surprises cannot be ruled out altogether’. Hitler was convinced that the Soviet tanks were too thinly armoured to pose a serious threat. Nor did he accept General Halder’s further concern in regard to Russia’s vast manpower reserves and munitions potential.
Confidence was Hitler’s order of the day, based on his contempt for the inferior nature of the Slav. Operation Barbarossa was to go ahead with the transfer of further German forces from the western to the eastern border in mid-March.
In North Africa, Mussolini’s forces continued to be pushed back westwards; on February 5, as they suffered enormous losses after a British attack at Beda Fomm, Hitler wrote to Mussolini expressing his dissatisfaction at the course of the campaign, and offering to send yet more troops, provided what remained of the Italian Army put up a stronger resistance, and did not retreat to Tripoli. But the retreat continued, as British and Australian forces gave the Italians no moment of respite. On February 6, Australian troops entered Benghazi, destroying eighty tanks and capturing seven generals, including General Bergonzoli.
For Hitler, the Italian retreat in North Africa, as well as the failure of the Italian campaign in Greece, created the first spectre of danger, the loss of the southern flank of the Axis. On the day of Benghazi’s fall, he told Rommel, who had gone to see him in Berlin, that all German mechanized units in Libya would be under his command. His task was to hold Tripolitania, and thus prevent the British from breaking through to Tunisia. ‘My head reels to think of all that can go wrong,’ Rommel wrote that night. ‘It will be months before things take effect!’
Also on February 6, Hitler issued his Directive No. 23, calling for an acceleration of operations against the British war economy. It was by an ever greater increase in the sinking of merchant shipping, he wrote, that Germany ‘can bring about the collapse of British resistance in the foreseeable future’. At the same time, continued air attacks on armaments factories ‘must lead to a considerable fall in production’. But, Hitler warned, the ‘least effect of all’ of Germany’s operation against England so far ‘has been upon the morale and will to resist of the English people’.
It was at sea that Hitler now wanted the war to be concentrated and intensified. ‘The sinking of merchantmen is more important than attacks on enemy warships,’ he wrote. By reducing Britain’s available tonnage ‘not only will the blockade, which is decisive to the war, be intensified, but enemy operations in Europe and Africa will be impeded’.
To impede those operations was clearly not going to be easy; on February 7 the Italian forces at Beda Fomm surrendered to the British. A total of 20,000 Italian soldiers, 200 artillery pieces and 120 tanks were captured, for the loss of nine British soldiers killed. On the following day, in Washington, the House of Representatives passed the Lend—Lease Bill by 260 votes to 165. It still had to be passed by the Senate, and approved by the President, but a major hurdle had been surmounted. ‘It seems now to be certain’, Churchill declared in a broadcast on February 9, ‘that the Government and people of the United States intend to supply us with all that is necessary for victory.’ It was not the two million men whom America sent across the ocean ‘in the last war’ that Britain now needed, ‘gallant’ though the armies were that America was again creating, but weapons and ammunition. ‘Give us the tools,’ Churchill declared ‘and we will finish the job.’
The Lend—Lease Bill was still not law. But Hitler’s directive against British merchant shipping was already being put into effect, and the danger was immediately apparent. ‘Herr Hitler will do his utmost’, Churchill had warned in his speech of February 9, ‘to prey upon our shipping and to reduce the volume of American supplies entering these islands. Having conquered France and Norway, his clutching fingers reach out on both sides of us, into the ocean.’ That day, even as Churchill spoke, a British homeward-bound convoy from Gibraltar, HG 53, lost two of its ships to a single German submarine, and six to aircraft which the U-boat commander, Captain Oerhn, summoned to the unequal battle. On the following day, Oerhn sank another merchantman. Later that month, in two further attacks on convoys in which German submarine ‘packs’ and air forces combined, nine merchant ships, and then twelve, were sunk.
On February 10 the British launched their first airborne attack of the war, Operation Colossus, dropping thirty-eight paratroops against a railway viaduct at Trignano, near Potenza in southern Italy. Although the paratroops reached the viaduct, the damage they did was soon repaired, and they themselves were captured. This setback was minor, however, compared with the ominous news which was given to the Defence Committee in London on February 11, by the Director of Military Intelligence, that the number of German forces then in Roumania, twenty-three divisions, with twelve more arriving in the near future, made it almost certain that Germany intended to secure the capitulation of Greece, not by diplomacy but by war. On learning this, the Defence Committee instructed the British Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East to give priority to preparations for British military aid to Greece, over and above his continuing advance towards Tripoli. The defence of an Ally was to take precedence over the defeat of a foe; but it was an Ally whose defeat would bring the German Army and Air Force to within striking distance of Palestine, Egypt and the Suez Canal.
On February 12, Rommel arrived in Tripoli to stiffen the Italian resistance. Since the opening of the British offensive three months earlier, 20,000 Italians had been killed or wounded, and 130,000 taken prisoner. They had also lost 850 guns and 400 tanks. The British and Australian losses, by comparison, were very small, 500 dead and 1,400 wounded. There was now to be a pause; on the day of Rommel’s arrival in North Africa, as a result of the switching of British resources to Greece, only a single squadron of fighters remained available to the British in Cyrenaica.
For more than a month, the situation in the Western Desert had remained static. It was the struggle in Greece that would determine Germany’s future in the Mediterranean. But on February 14, Hitler failed to persuade the Yugoslav Prime Minister, Dragisa Cvetković, to join the Axis. In Rome, two days earlier, Mussolini had been equally unsuccessful in persuading General Franco to reconsider his neutral stance.
The German failure to enlist Yugoslav help against Greece was a serious one; on February 14, the day of Hitler’s unsuccessful confrontation with the Yugoslav Prime Minister, Roosevelt sent personal messages of support both to the Turkish President, Ismet Inönü, and to Prince Paul, the Prince Regent of Yugoslavia. Roosevelt’s messages were sent because an American officer, Colonel Donovan, after a tour of the Balkans and Middle East, had informed Washington that Greece offered a field of operations in which Britain could defeat the German armies, but only on condition that Turkey and Yugoslavia, and also if possible Bulgaria, were to co-operate with the Anglo-Greek forces.
On February 16, the Nazis celebrated the fiftieth birthday of Hans Günther, the leading ideologist of Nazi racial policy. That day, Günther was awarded the Goethe Medal, and his work praised by Alfred Rosenberg as being of the ‘utmost importance’ for the safeguarding and developing of the Nazi philosophy. It was Günther who, in his book on the ethnology of the German people, first published in 1929, had described those whom he called the ‘non-European’ Jews as being among the ‘fomentors of disintegration’ of Nordic culture.
On the day after Günther’s birthday, the results of his teachings were seen, though only by a few, at Fort Breendonk, in Belgium. There, an elderly German Jew, suffering from asthma, was unable, on his second day in the camp, to continue to push his wheelbarrow, and, against the regulations, stopped to take a rest. Seized by the German Commandant of his barrack, he was locked up, and by nightfall was dead. Six days later, in Holland, when strikes broke out among the workers of Amsterdam in protest against the round-up of nearly four hundred Jews, the head of the SS in Holland, Hanns Albin Rauter, ordered SS troops and German police to open fire on the strikers; eleven were killed. The Jews, 389 in all, were deported to Buchenwald. There, twenty-five died from the brutal treatment, or were shot; two months later, the rest were sent to the stone quarries of the Mauthausen camp; by the autumn, there were no survivors.
Poles as well as Polish Jews suffered cruelly as the Nazi grip tightened; on 22 February, it was announced that a Polish woman, Pelagia Bernatowicz, had been sentenced to death in the town of Grudziadz for listening to a Polish radio broadcast from London.
In the Soviet Union, the senior generals were pressing for a swifter pace of preparation. On 18 February, General D. G. Pavlov, the commander of the Western Military District, sent a telegram to Stalin, Molotov and Marshal Timoshenko, asking for considerable allocations for road-building. ‘I believe’, Pavlov warned, ‘that the western theatre of operations must be organized during 1941 by all means. Therefore it is utterly impossible to drag out the construction over several years.’ In reply to Pavlov’s request, Stalin stated that, although his demands were ‘legitimate’, nevertheless ‘we are not in a position to meet them’. A week later, on February 25, the new Chief of Staff of the Soviet forces, General Zhukov, issued a secret directive naming Germany as the probable enemy, and instructing the frontier regions to make ‘appropriate preparations’. On the following day, the Soviet Baltic Fleet received its directive of assignments in the event of war with Germany. Minefields were to play a prominent part in the defensive plan; unfortunately for the plan’s rapid implementation, there was a grave shortage of mines as well as a lack of sufficient minesweepers to deal with German counter-measures.
The Moscow staff discussions of February 25 and 26 had indicated the scale of the defensive measures needed, and the difficulties in pursuing them. At Zhukov’s urging, it was decided to organize twenty new mechanized army corps, and to create many more aviation regiments, equipped with new machines, and with the necessary support and servicing facilities. As Pavlov had earlier been told, however, in regard to road-building, so in regard to Army and Air Force expansion, and naval preparations, the problem was a considerable shortage of materials of all types. Nor, for the Soviet Air Force, did adequate ground facilities yet exist; of more than a thousand airfields, only two hundred were operationally serviceable.
There was now no doubt in Moscow of the danger. German reconnaissance flights over the Baltic had become an almost daily occurrence. Hitler told the Soviets that this was a deception measure, designed to lull the British into thinking that Britain was not in fact the next on the list for invasion. But the Soviet state security services had already obtained information, possibly from Sorge or Trepper, that the German attack on Britain had been postponed indefinitely—until the end of the war against Russia.
With the Western Desert quiet, and preparations for the war against Russia proceeding behind a mask of secrecy, it was in the Atlantic that the main German war effort was taking place. On 22 February, 650 miles off Newfoundland, Vice-Admiral Lütjens, Commander-in-Chief of the German Fleet, sailing in the Gneisenau, and accompanied by the Scharnhorst, found himself in sight of a group of Allied merchant ships which, because of a shortage of escort vessels, was sailing unescorted. Five of them were sunk. Admiral Lütjens then set sail back across the Atlantic, to the Cape Verde Islands and the coast of Africa.
Part of the success of the German attacks on Allied convoys arose from the work of German spies in the ports and dockyards of the Atlantic seaboard. The information which these spies gathered was sent back to Germany through the German Naval Attaché in Washington, a member of the Embassy which was a constant reminder in the American capital that Germany and the United States still maintained diplomatic relations, more than thirteen months after Hitler’s invasion of Poland. One such message from the Naval Attaché informed Berlin of ‘convoy rendezvous February 25, two hundred sea miles east of Cape Sable; thirteen cargo boats, four tankers, 100,000 tons aeroplane parts, machine parts, motor lorries, munitions, chemicals; probably the number of the convoy is HX 114’.
By one of the ironies of wartime espionage, this particular message, sent across the Atlantic by secret radio signal, was picked up and decoded both in Berlin—by those for whom it was intended—and at Bletchley, enabling the British Admiralty to take successful evasive action. Old fashioned espionage had been defeated by Signals Intelligence, the agent by the eavesdropper.
As a result of a report from Greece by the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, the British Chiefs of Staff advised the despatch to Greece of a British Expeditionary Force of 100,000 men. This decision was endorsed by Churchill and his War Cabinet. Its aim was to establish a ‘Balkan front’, hopefully of Greece, Yugoslavia and Roumania, to prevent a German march southwards, and to enable British bombers to strike more effectively at Germany’s principal supply of oil, the Roumanian oil installations and refineries at Ploesti. On February 28, in a decisive forward step towards invading Greece from the east, German Army engineers threw three bridges across the Danube, from the Roumanian to the Bulgarian shore. On the following day, March 1, the first German Army units entered Bulgaria. That same day, in Vienna, Hitler watched while King Boris of Bulgaria signed his country’s allegiance to the Axis.
While King Boris was in Vienna, accepting German troops on his soil, and the probability of joining a German attack on Greece, the American Ambassador to Moscow was instructed to seek an interview with Molotov, in order to give him, ‘orally and confidentially’, the following message: ‘The Government of the United States, while endeavouring to estimate the developing world situation, have come into the possession of information, which it regards as authentic, clearly indicating that it is the intention of Germany to attack the Soviet Union.’
Before the Ambassador could deliver this message, it was passed on in Washington by the Under-Secretary of State, Sumner Welles, to the Soviet Ambassador, Umanskii. Unknown to either the Americans or the Russians, on March 3 Hitler discussed with General Jodl the nature of a future administration of the German-occupied regions of Russia. The ‘Jewish—Bolshevik intelligentsia’, Jodl noted, ‘must be eliminated’.
It was to be more than three and a half months before this plan of mass murder could be put into effect. But the spirit that animated it had already been at work for a year and a half, and knew no rest. On March 3, the very day of Hitler’s discussion with Jodl, a German Jew who had earlier sought refuge in Holland, Ernst Cahn, was executed by a German firing squad in Amsterdam, for accidently dousing a group of German soldiers with a small protective spray which he had installed in his cafe. No one had been hurt by the spray. But Cahn had to be ‘punished’. He was the first person to be shot by a firing squad in Holland since the German occupation the previous May. Two days later, a Dutch Communist, Leen Schijvenschuurer, who had been caught distributing leaflets calling for a second strike, was arrested. Within twenty-four hours, he too had been shot.
That week, a special decree was issued to all senior German military commanders. Known as the ‘Commissar Decree’, and signed by Hitler, it declared in blunt terms: ‘The war against Russia cannot be fought in knightly fashion. The struggle is one of ideologies and racial differences, and will have to be waged with unprecedented, unmerciful and unrelenting hardness.’
Hitler’s new decree went on to explain: ‘The Commissars hold views directly opposed to those of National Socialism. Hence these commissars must be eliminated. Any German soldier who breaks international law will be pardoned. Russia did not take part in the Hague Convention, and therefore has no rights under it’.
Coming direct from Hitler, this Commissar Decree was sufficient to lead to the brutal deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, without right of appeal for its victims, and without remorse on the part of the perpetrators.
On March 4 the British launched Operation Claymore, a naval raid against the Lofoten Islands, just off the Norwegian coast and inside the Arctic Circle. To the British public, the operation was a daring episode which boosted morale; a German armed trawler, the Krebs, was damaged, fourteen German sailors were killed, twenty-five German combatants were captured, and Germany’s local oil stocks destroyed. The aim of the operation had not been to sink ships, however, but to capture a German Enigma machine used by the Navy, whose code keys had been proving virtually impossible to break.
One such Enigma machine was on board the Krebs; its commander, Lieutenant Hans Küpfinger, had managed to throw his machine overboard before he was killed. He had insufficient time, however, to destroy other elements of the Enigma message procedure, including his coding documents, so that after three weeks’ intensive work at Bletchley, it became possible for British Intelligence to read all German naval traffic in home waters for the last week of April and much of May, with only a relatively short delay of between three and seven days.
The Norwegians were to suffer for the Lofoten Islands raid, Josef Terboven setting up at once, as Goebbels wrote in his diary five days later, ‘a punitive court of the harshest kind’. The farms of ‘saboteurs’ were to be burned, and hostages taken. ‘This fellow Terboven is all right,’ Goebbels added. ‘One does not need to pussyfoot with him; he knows himself what he must do.’
On March 5, the British launched their second expedition in two days; this was Operation Lustre, the ferrying of British forces to Greece, despite Italian air attacks launched from airbases in Rhodes and the Dodecanese Islands. Every three days a convoy left Egypt; altogether, twenty-five ships were sunk, all but seven of them in Piraeus and Volos, after the troops had disembarked. A total of 60,364 men were carried across the eastern Mediterranean; four divisions in all, two of them armoured. Even as these troops arrived, Hitler’s plans to invade Greece were nearly ready; he was confident that any British reinforcements could be overwhelmed and pushed aside. It was the Russian campaign on which his energies were focused. But the secrecy which he had enjoined on his senior commanders could not be maintained. Unknown to Hitler, on March 5, from Tokyo, Richard Sorge was able to send his masters in Moscow the microfilm of a telegram from Ribbentrop to the German Ambassador to Japan, giving the likely date of the German attack on Russia as mid-June.
Ironically, although the date sent by Sorge proved in the end to be the correct one, it was at the time only a skilful guess by Ribbentrop; the actual date was not to be finalized for more than two weeks.
In Holland, on March 6, the Germans sentenced eighteen members of the Dutch resistance to death; they were executed seven days later. On their way to the place of execution in the sand dunes, they sang, alternating psalms with the Dutch national anthem. To show the Dutch people that they were not forgotten, British aircraft dropped more than four thousand tons of Dutch tea from Batavia, in two ounce bags. Each bag bore the message: ‘Greetings from the Free Netherlands Indies. Keep a good heart. Holland will rise again.’
In Poland, after the murder by Polish patriots on March 7 of a Warsaw actor, Igo Sym, who had declared himself to be an ethnic German, the Germans seized 160 hostages. When those who had killed Sym did not give themselves up, seventeen of the hostages were shot, among them two former teachers at Warsaw University, Professor Kopec, a biologist, who was executed with his son, and Professor Zakrzewski, an eminent historian.
Also in Poland, or in what had been Poland until September 1939, death was now the punishment even for singing the Polish anthem. On March 14 the local German newspaper in Poznan reported that two Poles had been sentenced to death for this ‘crime’; they were Edward Lembicz, a thirty-six-year-old saddler, and Jan Mikolajczyk, a twenty-five-year-old carter.
Official looting, too, had continued throughout German-occupied Europe, at times on a substantial scale. In February and March 1941, Goering visited Paris four times; during the course of his visits he removed fifty-three works of art from private Jewish collections, including one painting each by Goya, Rembrandt, Teniers, Rubens, Boucher and Frans Hals. When a local German official objected that this was illegal, Goering replied: ‘The highest jurist in the State is me’.
In the war at sea, March 7 saw the sinking of the German submarine U-47, and the death, together with his whole crew, of its commander, Günther Prien, whose exploit in sinking the Royal Oak had been one of the first German successes of the war. But Prien’s death was eclipsed in significance for Britain on the following night by the passage through the United States Senate of the Lend—Lease Bill, by sixty votes to thirty-one. Under the Bill, both Britain and Greece were to get immediate military aid. It was, said Roosevelt six days later, ‘The end of compromise with tyranny’.
In Greece itself, troop reinforcements were rushed to the Albanian front on March 9, as the Italians launched an offensive aimed, at least, at driving the Greeks out of Albania; but after five days of battle the Italian thrust was halted.
Not so fortunate as the Greeks were the British; heavy German air attacks had been renewed over London, and several other cities, and several thousand more civilians killed. The war at sea had also continued to take its toll; on March 15, Admiral Lütjens’ warships, the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, began a two-day chase of merchant ships, in which sixteen were sunk.
The Atlantic sinkings gravely threatened Britain’s ability to survive. But the counter-measures were continuous. Not only were Günther Prien and his U-47 sunk that month, but three more U-boats were destroyed. Two of Germany’s leading submarine commanders, ‘aces’ in the destruction of merchant shipping, were also victims of a vigilant British naval response that March, Captain Joachim Schepke being drowned and Captain Otto Kretshchmer captured.
Another British initiative that March was on a small scale, but of significance for the future. On the evening of March 15, the Special Operations Executive, SOE, flew five French soldiers from Britain to France, where, with two containers of small arms and a specially designed road block, they parachuted at midnight near Vannes. Code-named Operation Savannah, their task was to blow up a bus in which German Air Force pilots were known to travel to Vannes airport. In fact, German pilots no longer travelled by bus, but by car in twos and threes, so the commandos could not carry out their mission. Those who wished to return to Britain were taken off three weeks later by submarine.
Although Operation Savannah had failed in its aim, it had achieved one considerable success; it had shown, as the official historian of SOE in France has written, ‘that subversive agents could be dropped into occupied France quite unobtrusively, move about inside it with reasonable ease, be welcomed by a decent French population, and—given time, bravery, trouble, and luck—be extricated’.
The leader of Operation Savannah, Georges Bergé, brought back to England much important information about living conditions in German-occupied France, including details of curfew rules, ration cards and identity papers, which were to be of great value to the agents who were soon to follow in his footsteps.
On March 17, as part of his preparations to invade Russia, Hitler moved the armoured units of Army Group South to Cracow. This move was known to the British through their reading of the Enigma messages. That same day, when German aircraft appeared over the Soviet Baltic port of Libava, the Soviet Naval Commander, Admiral Kuznetsov, gave orders for them to be fired on. But Stalin personally ordered Kuznetsov to revoke the order, and, when a German reconnaissance plane made a forced landing just outside Libava harbour, its pilot was rescued, given a dinner, his plane towed in and refuelled, and he was waved back on his way to Germany. Stalin wanted no provocation. Commanders of the border regions were specifically instructed not to fire on German planes that crossed the frontier. Caution was to be Stalin’s watchword. He had every reason to be alarmed; on March 20, three days after the forced landing of the German plane at Libava, Ambassador Umanskii was told by Sumner Welles in Washington of a series of messages, passed on by the Greek Government, and emanating from Swedish diplomatic missions in Berlin, Bucharest and Helsinki, of definite German intentions to attack the Soviet Union.
All that remained unknown to Stalin was the precise date of the German invasion. But, even here, the Chief of the Intelligence Division of the Soviet General Staff, General Golikov, submitted on March 20 a report with an accurate description of the three-pronged German plan of attack, and the names of its commanders, ending with the comment: ‘The tentative date for beginning the attack on the USSR is May 20’. In his conclusion however, Golikov stated: ‘Rumours and documents that war against the USSR is inevitable this spring should be regarded as misinformation coming from the English or perhaps even the German Intelligence service.’
Golikov’s interpretation was wrong. Substantial German troop movements were taking place from the central region of Germany to southern Poland. Nor was it only Hitler who was making plans to extend the war; on March 22 a Japanese agent in Hawaii, Nagai Kita, was instructed by Tokyo to obtain Intelligence about United States Fleet movements in and out of Pearl Harbour. He was to get this information, he was told, ‘even by bribing informants’. Kita’s instructions were intercepted by American Signals Intelligence, and read. But they did not cause alarm.