On the morning of 30 November 1939 the Red Army launched a massive military assault across the Soviet—Finnish border. To those in Western Europe who had already been at war for nearly three months, it seemed certain that Finland would quickly succumb; twenty-six Soviet divisions, totalling about 465,000 men, had thrown themselves against nine Finnish divisions, totalling 130,000 men. At the same moment, a thousand Soviet aircraft went into action against 150 Finnish aircraft, none of them modern. So confident was the Soviet High Command of a rapid victory that many of its troops wore summer uniforms, despite the imminent onset of winter.
As Hitler’s Air Force had earlier bombed Warsaw, so Stalin’s Air Force bombed Helsinki. On that first day of war, as a result of a Soviet air raid, sixty-one Finns were killed in the capital. The hospitals were overwhelmed with casualties. ‘One dying woman,’ a New Zealand born journalist, Geoffrey Cox, later wrote, ‘was brought in clutching a dead baby in her arms. One girl, Dolores Sundberg, twelve years old, had both her legs smashed to ragged stumps, and died on the operating table.’
This air raid, and the photographs of it which were reproduced throughout Finland for many weeks to come, convinced the Finns of the need to resist. ‘On every front I was to visit later,’ Geoffrey Cox recalled, ‘man after man spoke angrily of this afternoon of November 30. I saw newspapers and photographs of the burning streets of Helsinki in peasants’ homes and workers’ flats all over the country. Not a little of the steel strength of Finnish morale in this war was due to the raid on Helsinki.’
On December 2 the Soviet news agency Tass announced the establishment of a People’s Government of Finland. But on the frontiers, Finnish resistance was formidable. Small units of Finnish soldiers were able to move rapidly by bicycle and on skis along narrow forest paths. Finnish defenders threw bottles filled with petrol, with lighted rags in their necks, into the turrets of Soviet tanks: this simple but devastatingly effective incendiary grenade was quickly dubbed the ‘Molotov cocktail’.
Momentarily, the Russian assault on Finland captured the main headlines of the world’s press. In Britain, France and the United States, even in Germany, there was admiration for a small country striving to withstand so massive an attack. But behind the diversion of attention caused by this new war, the cruelties initiated by the old war and the tightening of the Nazi grip continued unabated. By the first week of December, every Polish inmate of the Stralsund mental hospital had been taken to Stutthof camp near Danzig, and shot. Their bodies were then buried by Polish prisoners, who were themselves shot once their gruesome task had been completed. On the new German—Soviet border, at Chelm, in the General Government, patients in the local asylum were lined up and shot by SS troops; those patients who managed to run off were chased through the asylum grounds, hunted down and killed.
Those who supervised these killings were not soldiers, but doctors. On December 2, following complaints to the Reich Ministry of Justice that two SS surgeons, Dr Karl Genzken and Dr Edwin Jung, had conducted successful experiments at Sachsenhausen for sterilizing professional criminals, the head of the concentration camp system, Richard Glueks, pointed out, in a letter to SS General Wolff, the chief of Himmler’s personal staff, first that the medical experiments were justified in view of the dangerous nature of the criminals involved, and second that neither doctor could be questioned by the Ministry of Justice, because both had been transferred to the Death’s Head Division and were at that very moment serving ‘at the front’. It was of course a front on which all fighting had ceased more than two months earlier. Dr Genzken was soon to leave eastern Poland to take up a post in the Medical Inspectorate of the Waffen SS, the medical service of which he was later to become the head.
The work of the SS in Poland was discussed on December 5, in Berlin, by Hitler and Goebbels, who had just returned from Poland. ‘I tell him about my trip’, Goebbels wrote in his diary. ‘He listens to everything very carefully and shares my opinion on the Jewish and Polish question. We must liquidate the Jewish danger. But it will return in a few generations. There is no panacea for it. The Polish aristocracy deserves to be destroyed. It has no links with the people, which it regards as existing purely for its own convenience.’ Hans Frank, who had travelled to Berlin with Goebbels, was present during this meeting. ‘He has an enormous amount to do,’ Goebbels noted, ‘and is framing a series of new plans.’ Two days later, Hitler issued a new decree, entitled ‘Night and Fog’, authorizing the seizure of ‘persons endangering German security’. Those seized were not to be executed immediately, but were to ‘vanish without a trace into the night and fog’. In the concentration camp lists, the German initials ‘NN’—Nacht und Nebel—against an inmate’s name were to signify—execution.
The new policy did not bring an end, however, to the public executions, which were intended to terrify and to deter. On December 8 thirty-one Poles were shot in Warsaw, six of them Jews. It was alleged that they had been involved in ‘acts of sabotage’. ‘There is no strength left to cry,’ Chaim Kaplan wrote in his diary, ‘steady and continued weeping finally leads to silence. At first there is screaming; then wailing; and at last a bottomless sigh that does not even leave an echo.’
The Russo-Finnish War, November 1939–March 1940
In Finland, the Red Army continued its advances along an 800-mile front from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Finland. In the far north, the Arctic port of Petsamo was overrun, but at Nautsi, at the Norwegian end of the Arctic highway, the Soviet forces were halted. They were also halted at Kuhmo and Ilomantsi. Three Soviet naval assaults, launched across the Gulf of Finland against the three southern Finnish port cities of Turku, Hango and Porvoo, were repulsed.
In Britain and France, the struggle of Finland to stave off the Soviet attack had aroused strong sympathy. On December 7 the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, announced that thirty fighter aircraft were being sold to Finland. Four days later, in Geneva, the League of Nations began an emergency debate, which ended with the expulsion of the Soviet Union from the League, and a plea that all possible aid should be given to the Finns. Edouard Daladier, the French Prime Minister, later listed the military aid which France had sent: 145 planes, 496 heavy guns, 5,000 machine guns, 200,000 hand grenades, 400,000 rifles and 20,000,000 rounds of ammunition. British, French and Italians volunteers offered their services to fight, and travelled to Helsinki, where they were welcomed with enthusiasm by the Finns.
On December 12, Finnish troops east of the town of Suomussalmi were in action against a far larger Soviet assault force. Lacking artillery or anti-tank weapons, the Finns were able nevertheless to hold the line for five days, in temperatures that had fallen far below zero. Soviet reinforcements under General Vinogradov, caught along a narrow earth road hemmed in by dense trees, were attacked in fierce hand to hand fighting, by Finnish troops determined not to yield. On other sectors of the front as well, the Red Army tanks were unable to make progress against Finnish mines and Molotov cocktails; Finnish soldiers even used logs to wrench tracks off tanks.
Watching the course of the Finnish battle with admiration for the fight being put up by the Finns, Hitler was busy preparing for his own Western battle. On December 12 he ordered a substantial increase, almost double, in German artillery ammunition, as well as the mass manufacture of naval mines. He had already ordered a substantial increase in submarine construction. But the war at sea did not always go in his favour; in the South Atlantic on December 13, the German pocket battleship Graf Spee, having sunk three British merchant ships in five days, was tracked down by three British cruisers, Achilles, Ajax and Exeter and, having been hit more than fifty times, sought sanctuary in Uruguayan territorial waters. Four days later, she was scuttled by her captain, Hans Langsdorff. Two days later, Langsdorff shot himself in a hotel room in Montevideo.
The British public, still puzzled that it had not been possible to save Poland, and sceptical of the efficacy of the ‘confetti war’—the total number of propaganda leaflets now printed had risen to 118,500,000—rejoiced at a naval victory. In German-occupied Poland, however, the scourge of tyranny grew ever more severe. On December 11 all Jews living within the borders of the General Government became liable to two years’ forced labour, with a possible extension ‘if its educational purpose is not fulfilled’. The tasks were supervised harshly: clearing swamps, paving roads and building fortifications along the new Soviet border. On December 14, when 1,500 Jews were deported from Poznan into the General Government, they were told that they could bring with them as much luggage as they wished. That evening the luggage was loaded into special goods wagons on their train. Just before the train was about to leave, the goods wagons were uncoupled. The Jews were deported with only the clothes they were wearing.
What the fate of the Jews in the General Government would be, no one knew, not even the Germans. ‘We cannot shoot 2,500,000 Jews,’ Hans Frank wrote in his diary on December 19, ‘neither can we poison them. We shall have to take steps, however, designed to extirpate them in some way—and this will be done.’
The war at sea continued; on December 17 five passenger liners, converted into troopships, and escorted by a battle-cruiser, a battleship and an aircraft-carrier, arrived safely in Britain from across the Atlantic. On board were 7,500 men, Canadians, all volunteers in the war against Germany. Two days after their arrival, the German Navy launched the 7,860 ton armed cruiser Atlantis, converted from a freighter. For the next three and a half months she was to be prepared for a dramatic mission. The ship was to contain a special compartment, capable of holding ninety-two magnetic mines. Also being prepared was a camouflaged armament of six six-inch guns and two anti-aircraft guns. The Atlantis was to be given the task of sinking or capturing Allied merchant shipping. To help her do so, she would also carry various national flags to fly as a deceptive friendly greeting whenever she came across a merchantman; these flags included the British, Dutch and Norwegian.
The Atlantis was to prove a successful raider, one of Germany’s deadliest. But the ‘secret weapon’ of the magnetic mine was about to lose its terror. On December 19 the British Admiralty was able to report to the War Cabinet that a system had been devised, whereby individual ships could be demagnetized by means of a coil wrapped around the ship. Once demagnetized, the ship’s resistance to the magnetic mine was greatly increased. In order to keep this success secret from the Germans, Churchill gave instructions that whenever a ship was sunk by an ordinary mine, ‘it will be well to state that they are sunk by magnetic mines whenever this possibility exists’. And to President Roosevelt, Churchill telegraphed with understandable relief: ‘We think we have got hold of its tail.’
December 22 was Stalin’s sixtieth birthday. Among the telegrams of greeting which he received was one from Hitler. Two days later, Hitler left Berlin for Munich. There, in conversation with Else Brückmann, a friend of twenty years, he spoke of how he would force Britain to her knees over the next eight months by using magnetic mines. Travelling to the Western Front, he was able, opposite the French village of Spicheren, to cross over the frontier at a point where the Germans had pushed the French back during a brief skirmish in September.
As Hitler toured his military units in the West, joining in their Christmas celebrations, his rule in the East was marked by yet another lurch into barbarism. In the small Polish town of Wawer, across the River Vistula from Warsaw, two German soldiers had been killed by two Polish common criminals seeking to evade arrest. Two hours later, 170 men and boys were rounded up in Wawer and in the neighbouring village of Anin. One woman was forced by the Germans to chose which of her menfolk should be taken—her father, her brother or her son. All 170 of those seized were taken to a nearby railway tunnel, where they had to stand for several hours with their hands above their heads. They were then taken out in groups of ten and shot. The last ten were reprieved; they had to dig the graves of those who had been murdered. Among the dead was a twelve-year-old boy, Stefanek Dankowski, and two American citizens, whose American passports were of no avail to them, a man named Szczgiel and his sixteen-year-old son.
While Hitler’s police and Gestapo consolidated their cruel grip on Poland, Stalin’s Army was facing a weaker enemy that nevertheless would not give up its resistance. The Finns not only were trying to hold the line, but were also trying to drive the Russians out of Finland altogether. The day of the Wawer massacre near Warsaw was also the day of a Finnish counter-attack at Suomussalmi which, after four days, in temperatures of thirty-five degrees centigrade below zero, drove the Soviet 163rd Division and General Vinogradov’s 54th Division back across the Soviet frontier. More than 1,500 Russian troops were buried by the Finns. But 25,000 more lay dead under the snow, either killed in action, or dying, wounded, in the frozen air. General Vinogradov was later executed for his failure.
For the Finnish troops on other sectors of the front, the victory at Suomussalmi was a powerful boost to their morale. Colonel Hjalmar Siilasvuo, who had commanded the Finnish defenders, was promoted general and sent sixty miles further south, in pursuit of another Russian division, pinned down in the woods at Kuhmo. After the war, he was to write, of the defenders of Suomussalmi: ‘They showed the road of glory to the people, which was full of hardship, but the only way.’
Returning to Berlin, Hitler was confronted with a letter, sent from Switzerland on December 28, from Fritz Thyssen, the industrialist who had so strongly supported him between 1932 and 1935. Thyssen had protested in 1937 about the persecution of Christianity in Germany and in 1938 about the persecution of the Jews. ‘Now’, he wrote, ‘you have concluded a pact with Communism. Your Propaganda Ministry even dares to state that the good Germans who voted for you, the professed opponents of Communism, are, in essence, identical with those beastly anarchists who have plunged Russia into tragedy and who were described by you yourself as “bloodstained common criminals”.’
The quotation was from Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf, first published in 1925. But Hitler had no intention of breaking his pact with Stalin, until, at least, he had brought Britain to her knees. Nor did he intend to moderate in any way his attitude to the Jews. ‘The Jewish—capitalistic world’, he declared on December 30, in a New Year’s message to the German people, ‘will not survive the twentieth century.’ For the Jews in German-occupied Poland, this did not seem an idle prophecy. During the first week of January 1940, as many as seventy Jews were dying of starvation each day in Warsaw alone. On January 2, in an attempt to conceal the scale of these deaths, the General Government forbade the posting of obituary notices.
Strict curfews were enforced throughout the General Government. In Warsaw, Jews had to be in their houses by eight at night. Those who were not, even if they had a special pass, could be shot. For Poles, the beginning of January saw yet another tragedy on the scale of the Wawer shootings of mid-December. At one of the Warsaw stations, sealed cattle trucks arrived. In them, thirteen days earlier, had been locked 2,000 Polish prisoners-of-war being sent back from a camp in East Prussia. When the trucks were unlocked, 211 of the soldiers were found frozen to death. The survivors were emaciated; several more died within hours of their arrival. Others had been driven insane by their thirteen day ordeal. That same week, on January 7, at Plaszow station just outside Cracow, in a cattle truck which arrived from the Warthegau, carrying Poles expelled from that German-annexed province, twenty-eight bodies were found. At Debica station, eighty miles further east, thirty children were found frozen to death in a single truck.
Hitler’s war was about to spread from East to West, with the planned invasion of Britain, Operation Yellow, waiting only for a clear spell of good weather to be set in train. Preparations for Britain’s defeat continued without respite. On January 3, German naval Intelligence had received a report from one of its agents in the United States, Marie Koedel, reporting on those American military supplies purchased by Britain which were being loaded at Hamilton dock in Brooklyn, on the ships being loaded, and on their sailing schedules. Marie Koedel was even able to enlist the services of a British sailor who had jumped ship, Duncan Scott-Ford; later he was uncovered, captured, brought back to Britain, tried and hanged. But the information he sent back, as that of Mary Koedel, added to the German understanding of British shipping operations. A considerable amount of German information also came, not from any individual spy, but from a careful reading of the uninhibited American press.
Along the Norwegian coast, German merchant ships were flouting Norwegian neutrality to bring Swedish iron-ore, vital for the German war effort, from the railhead at Narvik to the German North Sea ports. On January 6 the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, warned the Norwegian Government of Britain’s intention to lay mines in Norwegian waters in order to force these German ships out to sea, where they could be attacked. The warning was noted, but the mines were not laid, and the German ore ships continued on their way unmolested. Two days later, uncertain how long its Atlantic lifeline could be kept open, the British Government extended food rationing, hitherto limited to meat, to butter and sugar. But a sense of confidence, or at least of lack of danger, permeated Britain; that same day, January 8, saw the return to their homes in London of the last of 316,192 children, almost half of those who had been evacuated to the countryside on the outbreak of war.
One man who did fear a German attack on Britain was the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini. On January 8 the Italian Ambassador in Berlin handed Hitler a letter from Mussolini, asking if it was really worthwhile ‘to risk all—including the regime—and to sacrifice the flower of German generations, in order to hasten the fall of a fruit which must of necessity fall and be harvested by us, who represent the new forces of Europe’. The ‘big democracies’, Mussolini added, ‘carry within themselves the seeds of their decadence’.
Hitler made no reply. Mussolini made no further protest. Two days later, on the afternoon of January 10, at a meeting with his commanders-in-chief, Hitler set January 17 as the date for the attack on the West. Saturation bombing of French airfields would begin on January 14. Two million German soldiers were in position along the borders with Holland, Belgium, Luxemburg and France. Ten to twelve days of clear weather were forecast. Operation Yellow could go ahead. But on the following day Hitler was told of a possible setback to his plans; a light German Air Force plane had strayed across the Belgian frontier and crash-landed near the Belgian town of Mechelen-sur-Meuse. One of its passengers, Major Helmut Reinberger, had with him in his briefcase the operation plans for the airborne attack on Belgium. While burning the plans, the Major was seized by Belgian soldiers. ‘It is things like this that can lose us the war!’ was Hitler’s frank comment on learning of the crash landing. That afternoon, however, he confirmed that the invasion of the West was to proceed as planned on January 17.
One immediate effect of the crash of Major Reinberger was an order, issued by Hitler on January 11, to be put up in every military headquarters, that ‘No one—no agency, no officer—is permitted to learn more about a matter that is to be kept secret that he absolutely needs to know for official purposes.’ Not any breach of security, but the possibility of fog, led, on the afternoon of January 13, to Hitler ordering a three day postponement of the offensive, to January 20. But that same evening it became clear in Berlin that both the Dutch and Belgian armies had begun to mobilize their troops on the border. Also on the evening of January 13, Colonel Hans Oster, the deputy chief of the German Secret Service, passed on details of the imminent assault to the Dutch Military Attaché in Berlin, Major Sas, who in turn passed them on to his Belgian colleague, Colonel Goethals, who sent them by coded message to Brussels. As German Intelligence was reading the Belgian codes, this particular leak must have become known in Berlin on the morning of January 14. Even so, it would seem to have been the worsening weather, rather than any fear of an alerted resistance, that finally persuaded Hitler, on the afternoon of January 16, just before the postponed air strikes would have had to begin, to postpone the offensive yet again. ‘If we cannot count on at least eight days of fine and clear weather,’ Hitler informed his staff, ‘then we will call it off until the spring.’
War in the West had been postponed yet again; in Finland, Soviet strategists had embarked upon a new method, heavy air bombardment of road and rail junctions, Army depots and docks, in the hope of being able to launch an effective military strike later in the month. On January 14 alone, thirty-five different towns and villages were bombed. Aid from the West, promised in the first days of December, was now beginning to reach the Finns in significant quantities. Volunteers, too, were starting to arrive. Despite a strong Soviet protest, on January 13 the Swedish Government agreed to a British request to allow volunteers to pass through Sweden, provided they travelled unarmed, without uniforms and without being on active service with the Allied armies.
The British Government waited uneasily for some intimation of when the German blow in the West might fall. Hitherto, it was from last-minute tips from men like Colonel Oster, or the chance of mislaid documents such as those of Major Reinberger, that dates and details might become known. But, during January, a remarkable Intelligence success was, in due course, to transform British Intelligence-gathering, and Britain’s war-making capacity. During that month British cryptographers began to read, with some frequency, messages sent by the most secret system of German communication, the Enigma machine.
This crucial development of the war was not a British effort alone; for many months French cryptographers had been equally active in what was essentially a joint Anglo—French effort against the clock. Both the British and the French were indebted to pioneering work done for more than a decade by Polish mathematicians. It was above all a Pole, Marian Rejewski, helped by material obtained by a French secret agent, Asché, who made the crucial breakthrough in Poland before the war. On 16 August 1939, two weeks before the outbreak of war, Polish Intelligence handed its British counterparts the latest model of a rebuilt Enigma machine.
The breakthrough of January 1940 was one of method; it had no immediate benefit for the Allied cause. The cypher which had been broken, after prodigious effort, was a German Army Enigma key used on October 28, more than two and a half months earlier. It was to take nearly nine months before the first of several Enigma keys, the one used by the German Air Force, was to be broken regularly, and at times almost simultaneously with the despatch of the message from Berlin to the field commanders. Nevertheless, the success of mid-January, for all its limitations, was one which was in due course to have a profound influence on the conduct of the war.
There was nothing secret about the German terror in the East. Details of most atrocities were smuggled to the West within days. Neutral diplomats in Berlin were well informed. Public wall posters throughout Poland openly publicized the executions.
Mass executions had become the method both of seeking to cow the Polish population and of destroying those Germans who were considered unworthy of life. On January 9, the Chief of the SS and Police of Greater Danzig—West Prussia, Dr Hildebrandt, informed Himmler that the two units of stormtroopers at his disposal had carried out ‘the elimination of about 4,000 incurable patients from Polish mental hospitals’, as well as a further 2,000 German mental patients at a mental hospital in Pomerania.
Reprisals, publicly announced, were also a feature of the new terror. On January 18, following the capture of Andrzej Kott, the leader of a clandestine youth association in Warsaw—a young man whose family had converted from Judaism to Catholicism long before—the Gestapo arrested 255 Jews at random, took them to the Palmiry woods outside Warsaw, and shot them. Four days later, as the death toll of Polish civilians since the outbreak of war was estimated at 15,000, the Pope broadcast from the Vatican: ‘The horror and inexcusable excesses committed on a helpless and a homeless people have been established by the unimpeachable testimony of eye-witnesses’.
Germany Army officers were among those eye-witnesses: on the day of the Pope’s broadcast, Major General Friedrich Mieth, Chief of Staff of the German First Army, told his assembled officers: ‘The SS has carried out mass executions without proper trials,’ executions which had ‘besmirched’ the honour of the German Army. Hitler was informed of Mieth’s speech, and Mieth was dismissed.
On January 25, from his headquarters in Cracow, Hans Frank issued an order for the remodelling of the Polish economy within the General Government ‘for the immediate reinforcement of the military power of the Reich’. Poland was henceforth to provide Germany with the wood, the raw materials, the chemicals and even the manpower that she needed. One item of Frank’s order authorized ‘Preparations and transportation into the Reich of not fewer than one million male and female agricultural and industrial workers, including approximately 750,000 agricultural workers, at least fifty per cent of whom must be women—in order to safeguard agricultural production in the Reich and supply the deficiency of industrial labour in the Reich.’
Thus the slave labour system, already applied to Jews, was extended to Poles, just as it already applied to Czechs. ‘A hundred thousand Czech workmen’, Churchill told a public audience in Manchester on January 27, ‘had been led off into slavery to be toiled to death in Germany.’ But what was happening to the Czechs, Churchill added, ‘pales in comparison with the atrocities which, as I speak here this afternoon, are being perpetrated upon the Poles’. From the ‘shameful records’ of the Germans’ mass executions in Poland, Churchill declared, ‘we may judge what our fate would be if we fell into their clutches. But from them also we may draw the force and inspiration to carry us forward on our journey and not to pause or rest till liberation is achieved and justice is done.’
On January 30, three days after Churchill’s speech, Reinhard Heydrich established in Berlin a new government department, IV-D-4, whose task was to complete the deportation plans of Jews from the annexed regions of western Poland, and to handle all future deportation of Jews from wherever they were to be brought, and to whatever destination.
On January 29, confronted by continued Finnish military resistance, the Soviet Government began secret negotiations in Sweden, based upon a willingness to abandon the ‘People’s Government of Finland’, made up of Communist nominees, and to talk instead with the existing Government of Risto Ryti. From that moment it was clear that some form of compromise could be reached; that the war, savage though it still was at the front, was now a war, not about the introduction of Communism into Finland, but about borders and fortresses; an attempt to satisfy the Soviet desire for a longer coastline on the Gulf of Finland for the protection of Leningrad, as well as some measure of control at the entrance to the Gulf, and a greater measure of Soviet territorial control in Karelia.
The way was now clear for peace. Two days later, it was announced in Helsinki that 377 Finnish civilians had been killed in Soviet air raids since the beginning of the war two months earlier.
Despite the opening of secret talks, the Russo-Finnish war continued. On February 1, under the command of General Timoshenko, the Red Army launched a large-scale offensive against the principal Finnish defences, the Mannerheim Line. But despite a combination of simultaneous tank, infantry and air attack, the line still held; by February 3 it was clear that the Soviet Union would not be able to secure an early victory. Two days later, on February 5, the British and French Prime Ministers, meeting in Paris as the Supreme War Council, agreed to intervene militarily in Finland, and to send an expeditionary force of at least three divisions. ‘Finland’, said Neville Chamberlain, ‘must not be allowed to disappear off the map.’ It was also agreed in principle that the Allies should take control of the Swedish iron ore fields at Gällivare. If this were done by landing a force at Narvik, which could then cross Sweden to Finland, as part of the British help to Finland, this would offer the preferred prospect, as Chamberlain expressed it, ‘of killing two birds with one stone’. In fact, a decision was reached to effect the initial help to Finland by a landing at three Norwegian ports, Stavanger, Bergen and Trondheim, an operation to be carried out by Force ‘Stratford’, and to begin on March 20. Only by beginning then, Chamberlain explained to the War Cabinet on February 7, would Britain and France ‘be sure of forestalling the Germans’.
Whether such help would come in time was cast into jeopardy three days later, when Soviet forces attacked the Mannerheim Line in such strength that the line was breached. But by a supreme effort of martial vigour, within forty-eight hours the Finns had fallen back in good order to a second defensive line, which held. It was not to be a very long respite, however. On February 13, a further Soviet attack led to a half mile long break in the second line. The Finnish troops thrown into the breach, from Finland’s crack regiment, the Tavast Light Horse, were almost completely wiped out. Wave after wave of Soviet troops now exploited the gap; this was the tactic devised by the Soviet Minister of Defence, Marshal Voroshilov, of the ‘crescendo offensive’. In a communiqué issued on the evening of February 13, the Finnish High Command admitted to the loss of ‘a few of our most advanced positions’. Geoffrey Cox, the British journalist who had been with the Finnish Army since early December, later recalled: ‘It was the first of the bulletins of gradual defeat which were to come steadily, day after day, till the end of the war.’
Numbers had proved decisive. By February 16 the Finnish troops were exhausted. Their reserves had been used up. No serious counter-attack was any longer possible. The Red Army still had men to spare.
The day of gloom in Finland was a day of satisfaction in Britain; for on February 16, in Jösing Fjord, just south of Egersund, sailors from a British destroyer, the Cossack, violating Norwegian neutrality, boarded a German supply ship sheltering in Norwegian waters, before making a dash through the Skagerrak to the Baltic. The German ship was the Altmark; locked below her hatches were 299 British sailors and merchant seamen who had been taken prisoner in the South Atlantic. There was a short fight, four German sailors were killed, and the British prisoners-of-war were released.
As a reward for this exploit, the Captain of the Cossack, Philip Vian, was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. German propagandists denounced the British violation of Norwegian neutrality. But Hitler took the view that history judged only between successes or failure; nobody asked the victor if he had been in the right or in the wrong. The British Government, in answer to a formal protest from Norway about the violation of its territorial waters, replied that Norway itself had violated international law by allowing its waters to be used by the Germans to transport British prisoners to Germany.
The greatest violation of international law that February was not, however, taking place in a Norwegian fjord. On February 2, in Poland, General Ulex, the German Commander-in-Chief of the Frontier Sector South, had written in protest to his senior officer, General Blaskowitz: ‘The recent increase in the use of violence by the police shows an almost incredible lack of human and moral qualities; the word “brutish” is almost justified.’ General Ulex continued: ‘The only solution I can see to this revolting situation which sullies the honour of the entire German people, is that all police formations together with all their senior commanders, should be dismissed in a body and their units disbanded.’
Blaskowitz now drew up a list of SS crimes, citing in detail thirty-three incidents of the murder and rape of Poles and Jews, and the looting of Polish and Jewish property. As to the German Army officers and men under his command, their attitude to the SS and German police, Blaskowitz noted on February 6, ‘alternates between abhorrence and hatred. Every soldier feels disgusted and repelled by these crimes committed in Poland by nationals of the Reich and representatives of our State.’
Angered by these accusations, on February 13 Hans Frank travelled to Berlin to ask Hitler to dismiss Blaskowitz. Two days later, Blaskowitz reiterated his charges in a letter to General von Brauchitsch. His protest was to no avail; incidents such as those of which he had complained continued on a daily basis, against individuals, and against those dragooned into forced labour gangs. ‘The humiliations and tortures inflicted upon the Jewish workmen’, the Manchester Guardian reported on February 18, ‘who are compelled by their Nazi overseers to dance and sing and undress during their work, and are even forced to belabour each other with blows, show no signs of abating.’
Not only Polish Jews, but all Poles, were to be subjected to the harshest cruelty. On February 21, Richard Gluecks, head of the German Concentration Camp Inspectorate, informed Himmler that he had found a suitable site for a new ‘quarantine’ camp, in which Poles could be held, and punished, and put to work, for any acts of rebellion or disobedience. The site was a former Austro-Hungarian cavalry barracks, a series of imposing, well-built brick buildings, on the outskirts of the Polish town of Oswiecim, now, having been annexed to the German Reich, known once more by its German name, Auschwitz.
It was not intended to use Auschwitz as a place of incarceration for Jews; its sole initial purpose was as a punishment camp for Poles. Work began at once to convert the barracks to a camp, and to find, from the existing German concentration camps, suitable personnel to administer and supervise a regime which was intended from the outset to be of the utmost severity.