France’s agony, Britain’s resolve


On 24 June 1940 the first ship carrying German- and Italian-born internees left Britain for Canada. Churchill and his Government were determined to have no possible fifth column in their midst. Many of those sent across the Atlantic were Jewish refugees from Nazism who had found haven in Britain. But the urgency of the hour did not give time to sort out the harmless from the potentially dangerous. Further south on the same ocean, the French ex-Ministers reached Casablanca on June 24, only to find that the Governor-General of Morocco, General Noguès, who a week earlier had appealed for a continuation of the war from North Africa, had already accepted the armistice. In London, General de Gaulle called for the establishment of a French National Committee to rally all Frenchmen who wished to continue to fight; it seemed a voice in the wilderness.

The future for Britain appeared bleak, even to Churchill at this time. ‘I shall myself never enter into any peace negotiations with Hitler,’ he told the Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King, on June 24, ‘but obviously I cannot bind a future Government, which, if we were deserted by the United States and beaten down here, might very easily be a kind of Quisling affair ready to accept German overlordship and protection.’

In Holland, on June 24, the German Governor-General, Seyss-Inquart, prorogued Parliament; eleven days later he was to make it a criminal offence to listen to British radio broadcasts. In the wake of such a total German victory such orders seemed natural, irresistible. When, in the early hours of June 25, the Franco-German armistice formally came into force, the cost of unsuccessful war had become brutally clear: 92,000 French soldiers had been killed, 7,500 Belgian soldiers and 2,900 Dutch soldiers. The British, fearful now of invasion, had lost 3,500 men. The Germans, now masters of Europe from the North Cape to the Pyrenees, and from the Atlantic Ocean to the River Bug, had lost 45,000 men in this, their third victorious campaign in less than ten months. ‘At last the armistice is in force,’ Rommel wrote to his wife on 25 June. ‘We’re now less than two hundred miles from the Spanish frontier and hope to go straight on there so as to get the whole Atlantic coast in our hands. How wonderful it’s all been.’

Throughout France’s time of agony, the United States had preserved a tenacious neutrality. On June 26 the Government of Turkey, anxious not to be drawn into any widening conflict, announced its ‘non-belligerency’. The Soviet Union, ever mindful of its territorial losses after the First World War, and of Hitler’s power of lightning action now, demanded from Roumania the cession of the province of Bessarabia and of the region of northern Bukovina. Hitler, anxious neither to stir up nor to alarm his Soviet ally, urged the Roumanian Government to agree to the Soviet demands. On the following day, the Roumanians complied.

Hitler had remained at his headquarters at Brûly-de-Pesche throughout June 25. Once more, it was the architectural future of the Reich that was on his mind. ‘Berlin must be reconstructed as soon as possible,’ he wrote that day, ‘so as to reflect the grandeur of the capital of a strong Reich in keeping with the greatness of our victory.’ The same applied, he wrote, to the reconstruction of Munich, Linz and Hamburg, and of the Party Halls in Nuremberg. All Reich officials, local government officials and Nazi Party officials must help the General Building Inspector for Berlin ‘in the implementation of his task’.

Leaving Brûly-de-Pesche on June 26, Hitler visited the Western Front of his First World War service, taking with him two of his former comrades-in-arms. Together, they found the house in which they had been billeted behind the lines. At one moment in the tour, Hitler climbed up an overgrown slope in search of a concrete step behind which he remembered having taken cover in those distant days. It was still there. But driving through Lille, he experienced an unpleasant incident, which he was to recall sixteen months later in conversation with General von Kluge. ‘I still have before me’, Hitler said, ‘the mental picture of that woman in Lille who saw me from her window and exclaimed: “The Devil!”’

That ‘Devil’s’ work was never done. On June 26, while Hitler was revisiting old haunts, his police and Gestapo were shooting down Polish writers, politicians and civic leaders in the Palmiry forest execution site. Among those killed that day was Mieczyslaw Niedzialkowski, the leader of the Polish Socialists, editor of the Socialist newspaper Robotnik and a member of the Polish Parliament.

In German-occupied France, on June 27, the Germans set up two radio stations, one at Brest and one at Cherbourg, to send out radio beams along which their bombers could be directed to targets in Britain. The Germans used their most secret communications system, the Enigma, to transmit the instructions setting up those two stations; as a result, the British learned of the stations that same day. There was also a continuing sense of relief in Britain that she was alone. ‘Personally’, King George VI wrote to his mother, Queen Mary, on June 27, ‘I feel happier now that we have no allies to be polite to and to pamper.’

From Italy came news on the following day that Marshal Italo Balbo, the Governor of Libya, and a renowned aviator, had been killed in the air above Tobruk; returning from a reconnaissance flight, on the border with Egypt, his aeroplane was shot down by mistake by Italian anti-aircraft fire.

On June 28 the Enigma messages alerted British Intelligence to the fact that most of the German long-range bombers, their work above France completed, would end their refitting by July 8. A bomber offensive on Britain was thus an imminent possibility. On June 30 German troops landed on British soil: the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey, off the French coast. They were unopposed. That same day, in distant Bessarabia, Soviet airborne forces landed near the Danube port of Izmail. They too were unopposed.

The Germans, masters of so much territory, did not delay in planning how best to exploit it. On June 30, Hitler issued instructions to the German military authorities in Paris ‘to take into custody all objects of art, whether state-owned, or in private Jewish hands’. This was not, he explained, an expropriation, ‘but a transfer to our safekeeping, as a security for eventual peace negotiations’. Not only were the museums ransacked, but also the main Jewish private collections, and the stock of the principal Jewish art dealers.

Stock of a different kind was discussed that day by Hitler, when he was shown by Himmler a further plan for settling the German-annexed areas of Poland with ‘strong German stock’. What Himmler proposed was for one-eighth of the Polish population of these areas to be transferred to Germany as ‘racially acceptable stock’, while the other seven-eighths would be expelled into the General Government. German soldiers and SS men, after two and four years’ service respectively, would be sent to the annexed areas to work the land for eight years, then marry and take over a farm or estate. Poles from the General Government would provide the labour force. Poles who had sexual relations with their masters would be sentenced to death, or given long prison sentences. ‘The Führer said that every point I made was right,’ Himmler noted.

On the day after this conversation, it was announced in Berlin, by the Ministry of the Interior, that at the psychiatric instititute at Görden, ‘under the direction of specialists, all therapeutic possibilities will be administered according to the latest knowledge’. Behind this bland formality, the killing of children judged mentally defective was instituted without delay, according to the ‘T.4’ euthanasia programme. Death usually occurred within twenty-four hours of the child’s arrival at Görden. Under a rule laid down by Dr Viktor Brack, the head of the euthanasia department of Hitler’s Chancellery, the actual killing had to be done by a doctor.

Some killings were carried out by injections, four to six patients at a time; but, increasingly, gas was used, and the patients led in groups of eighteen to twenty to false ‘shower’ rooms, where they sat on benches while the gas was inserted along the water pipes. Dr Irmfried Eberl, head of the euthanasia department at Brandenburg, had perfected this technique of gassing; both Dr Brack and Hitler’s personal physician, Dr Brandt, expressed themselves satisfied by it. Those who were to be gassed had to be certified according to certain criteria: mental deficiency, schizophrenia, long hospitalization or total incapacity to work. German Jews who were patients in mental homes did not have to meet these criteria. Even before the Ministry of the Interior announcement, the first gassings of Jews had taken place at Brandenburg, when two hundred Jews, men, women and children, had been brought in six buses from a Berlin mental institution.

While Hitler and Himmler discussed racial purity, and their staff took steps, as they believed, to secure it, the British Government continued to prepare for the German air bombardment which it believed to be inevitable, if not imminent. On June 30 the merchant ship Cameronia left New York for Glasgow with sixteen American aircraft on board, destined for Britain. On the following day, as a sign of British determination to take the war against Hitler back to Europe, Cabinet Ministers and officials examined a proposal to establish an organization to control all sabotage, subversive activities and black propaganda in enemy, enemy-controlled and neutral countries. Thus was born the Special Operations Executive, known by its initials SOE; Churchill was to give it a motto and an aim when he told its first political head, the Minister of Economic Warfare, Hugh Dalton: ‘Set Europe ablaze!’

On July 2, Marshal Pétain moved his Government from Bordeaux, where it had been formed in the last moments of the French retreat, to Vichy, designated the capital of the ‘Unoccupied Zone’. Among Pétain’s Ministers was Admiral Darlan who, as head of the Navy under Reynaud, had been determined not to allow the French Fleet to fall under German control, but who, as Minister of Marine in the Government which had signed the armistice, seemed equally determined not to break the armistice terms by sailing that same Fleet to neutral or British waters. Afraid that the French Fleet would be taken over by the Germans and used as part of a German invasion fleet, the British Government launched Operation Catapult, the despatch of a British naval force from Gibraltar, to the French naval base of Mers-el-Kebir, at Oran, to persuade the French naval commander there to sail his ships away from German reach, or to scuttle them.

Before there could be a naval confrontation off Oran, disaster struck for some of the civilian internees whom Britain was shipping across the Atlantic to Canada; their ship, the Arandora Star, formerly a Blue Star luxury liner, was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland with the loss of 714 lives. Most of those drowned were Italian and German nationals. The Germans included several Jewish refugees who were still technically enemy aliens, and more than a hundred German merchant seamen who had earlier been captured at sea. Also drowned were thirty-seven guards and four crewmen, as well as a former German spy, No. 3528 in the German Intelligence listing. His brother, code named ‘Charlie’, formerly spy No. 3725, had earlier agreed to work for the British. No. 3528, having proved less co-operative than his brother, had been assessed as a category A alien, interned, and then sent across the Atlantic. A Canadian destroyer rescued the remaining 868 passengers. Churchill, reading a report of the sinking which detailed several rescue efforts, wrote: ‘The case of the brave German who is said to have saved so many raises the question of his special treatment, by parole or otherwise.’ Unfortunately, there was no evidence of his identity.

The U-boat commander whose torpedoes sank the Arandora Star was Günther Prien, who had earlier sunk the Royal Oak. But, despite Prien’s success, the internee ships continued to cross the Atlantic. On July 2 it was the turn of another liner, the Ettrick, to set off for Canada. It arrived safely. On board was a twenty-nine-year-old refugee German physicist, Klaus Fuchs, who was to return to Britain within six months to continue his work on the secrets of atomic physics; later he was to betray those secrets to the Soviet Union, to whose cause, even while on board the Ettrick, he was committed.


On July 2 Hitler ordered his Army, Navy and Air Force to prepare detailed plans for the invasion of Britain. He set no date, but stated that a landing was possible ‘provided that air superiority can be attained and certain other necessary conditions fulfilled’. Air superiority could not be taken for granted; each week saw an increase in the flow of munitions from the United States to Britain. On July 3, the Britannic sailed from New York to Britain, with more than ten million rounds of rifle ammunition, 50,000 rifles and a hundred field guns in its cargo holds, followed six days later by the Western Prince. Both crossed unmolested. Nor was British Intelligence unaware of the gist of Hitler’s intention; on July 3 the British Chiefs of Staff concluded that it was probable that an invasion attempt would be preceded by a major air battle.

Not a German action, however, but a British one, dominated that first week of July; for it was on July 3 that Britain put into force Operation Catapult, the plan to seize, or at least to neutralize, all French warships wherever they might be, and to prevent them being taken over by Germany. The largest single concentration of such warships was at Mers-el-Kebir; some had fled there from ports in continental France to escape seizure by the Germans. The British gave the ships at Mers-el-Kebir four choices: to sail to British harbours ‘and fight with us’, to sail them into a British port and hand them over to British crews, to demilitarize them, or to scuttle them in such a way that the Germans could not use them. The French refused. Britain then gave a fifth choice, to sail them to the French West Indies, where they would either be disarmed, or handed over to the United States until the end of the war. Again, the French refused, whereupon the British naval forces encircling Mers-el-Kebir opened fire. The bombardment lasted for five minutes. When it was over, more than 1,250 French sailors, Britain’s allies a mere two weeks earlier, had been killed.

During that five minute bombardment, the French lost the modern battle cruiser Dunkerque and the old battleships Provence and Bretagne. But a second battle cruiser, the Strasbourg, the aircraft carrier Commandant Teste, and five destroyers, managed to raise steam, pass the encircling force, and cross the Mediterranean to Toulon.

Also on July 3, all French ships in British ports were boarded and captured without a shot being fired, except on board the submarine Surcouf where, due to a misunderstanding, a French and a British sailor were shot and killed.

The deaths at Mers-el-Kebir caused considerable bitterness in France. As to the judgment of Britain’s action, Churchill told the House of Commons on July 4: ‘I leave it with confidence to Parliament. I leave it also to the nation, and I leave it to the United States. I leave it to the world and to history.’ It was Britain’s action at Oran, Churchill was told six months later by an American emissary, that had convinced Roosevelt that Britain had the will to continue the fight, even if she were alone.

On July 5, two days after the sinkings at Mers-el-Kebir, Marshal Pétain’s Government at Vichy broke off diplomatic relations with Britain. In south-eastern Europe, Roumania, stripped by Russia of the eastern province of Bessarabia, opted to join the German—Italian Axis. In the Far East, Japan had asked Pétain’s Goverment for military, naval and air bases in French Indo-China; then, while negotiations were still in progress, occupied strategic points along the coast. In reaction to this, on 5 July the United States Congress passed the Export Control Act, forbidding the export of aircraft parts, minerals and chemicals to Japan without a licence. This was followed three weeks later by the establishment of a licence system for the exports of aviation fuel, lubricants, iron and scrap steel to Japan. The very existence of Vichy territory in the Far East opened up the spectre of a Pacific war; a war in a region where two European states, France and Holland, both overrun by Germany, had substantial and now virtually indefensible colonial territories coveted by Japan, and where German commerce raiders had begun the systematic sinking of British merchant ships.

The British Government, whose imperial responsibilities included Burma, Malaya and Hong Kong, had now to consider a demand by Japan to close the main overland supply route of arms for China, the Burma road. On July 6 the British Ambassador to Japan was instructed to resist the demand, on the ground that it was discriminatory against China. He replied, however, that if the road was not closed, there was a real danger of a Japanese attack. The road was closed, but, as a result of British insistence, only for three months. Nevertheless, this act of appeasement testified to Britain’s inability to take on a third enemy.

There was encouraging news, however, for the inner circle of British policy makers, when on July 6 it became clear, following a scrutiny of the German Air Force’s Enigma messages, that the German first-line bomber strength was not as great as had been believed. Air Intelligence had earlier estimated that the Germans could launch 2,500 bombers against Britain, with a daily bomb delivery capacity of 4,800 tons. The Enigma revealed that the true figure was 1,250 bombers, with a daily capacity of 1,800 tons of bombs.


Two days after learning that the German bomber strength had been exaggerated, Churchill set down his thoughts on how the war would develop. If Hitler were to be ‘repulsed here or not try invasion, he will recoil eastward, and we have nothing to stop him. But there is one thing that will bring him back and bring him down, and that is an absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland.’

That homeland itself was in the midst of a period of rejoicing. On July 6, Hitler returned to Berlin for the first time since the opening of the war in the West nearly two months earlier. A million swastika flags had been distributed free to the vast crowds which turned out to cheer him. All the States against whom his armies had marched on May 10 had surrendered. Britain alone remained unconquered, but apparently defenceless. Even as Hitler’s cavalcade made its triumphal drive through Berlin, German bombers were beginning their daylight raids over Britain; on July 6, high-explosive bombs, dropped at Aldershot, killed three soldiers of the Royal Canadian Ordnance Corps.

There was shock in Britain at the vulnerability of a peaceful public, even of soldiers who could be killed far from the battlefield. But there was also a battlefield far from Britain which was beginning to impinge upon British public awareness; that July 6, as a result of successful aerial photographic reconnaissance, British carrier-based aircraft attacked Italian naval targets in the Libyan port of Tobruk. On the following day, the French Admiral in command of the French naval vessels then in the Egyptian port of Alexandria, agreed to neutralize his ships as Britain requested; there was to be no second Mers-el-Kebir in the Mediterranean. At the Atlantic ports of Casablanca and Dakar, however, the French naval authorities remained loyal to Vichy. As a result, British motor torpedo boats and torpedo-carrying aircraft attacked the battleship Richelieu and Jean Bart, putting them out of action for several months.

War on land had given way almost entirely to war at sea. On July 9, British and Italian naval forces clashed off the toe of Italy. Flying from the aircraft carrier Eagle, British aircraft dominated the skies above the action, which ended when the Italian flagship, the battleship Giulio Cesare, was badly damaged by the British flagship, the Warspite, and had to seek refuge in Messina harbour. Also on July 9, the German commerce raider Komet sailed northwards from Germany and, helped by Soviet icebreakers, completed the long and arduous North-East passage to debouch through the Bering Strait into the northern Pacific; she was to sink six merchant ships before returning to Germany.

Briefly, Hitler contented himself with other concerns than war. It was on July 9, at his mountain retreat of Obersalzberg, near Berchtesgaden, that he did a series of pencil sketches for a new opera house at Linz, as part of his plan to transform this provincial town in which he had lived as a young man into a major city. But on the very day that he was musing and sketching, a German protestant Pastor, Paul-Gerhard Braune, the administrator of a medical institution in Berlin, was writing him a letter, protesting against the euthanasia programme. That programme, Braune wrote, constituted a ‘large-scale plan to exterminate thousands of human beings’; the killings ‘gravely undermine the moral foundations of the whole nation’; they were ‘simply unworthy’ of institutions dedicated to healing. The killings, Braune added, had already been extended to people who were ‘lucid and responsible’. They endangered ‘the ethics of the people as a whole’. And he went on to ask: ‘Whom if not the helpless should the law protect?’

Braune was informed by the head of Hitler’s Chancellery, Hans Lammers, that the euthanasia programme could not be stopped. A month later he was arrested. The arrest warrant, signed by Heydrich, charged him with having ‘sabotaged measures of the régime in an irresponsible manner’. Held for ten weeks in the Gestapo prison in Berlin, he was released on condition that he would undertake no further actions against the policies of the Government or the Party.


On July 10 a formation of 120 German bombers and fighters attacked a British shipping convoy in the English Channel. At the same time, a further seventy German aircraft bombed dockyard installations in South Wales. The British had only six hundred serviceable fighter planes to oppose these raiders; urgent measures were needed to raise this figure to what was felt to be a minimum for safety, at least a thousand. Even the public were asked to contribute to the new priority for aircraft production by sending whatever aluminium it could find to the Ministry of Aircraft Production, which declared on July 10: ‘We will turn your pots and pans into Spitfires and Hurricanes, Blenheims and Wellingtons. Everyone who has pots and pans, kettles, vacuum cleaners, hat pegs, coat hangers, shoe trees, bathroom fittings and household ornaments, cigarette boxes, or any other articles made wholly or in part of aluminium, should hand them over at once…’.

In an attempt to maintain British morale, and to discomfort the Germans, on July 14 a further raid by the special Striking Companies of British commandos was launched against the Channel Island of Guernsey, where 469 Germans were stationed. Code named Operation Ambassador, it carried out a few demolitions, but one of the commandos was drowned and two taken prisoner of war. ‘Let there be no more silly fiascos like those perpetrated at Guernsey’ was Churchill’s comment.

That July 14, Bastille Day in France, was for Frenchmen a time of national mourning and grave reflection. In London, General de Gaulle and other leaders of his new Free French movement laid wreaths at the Cenotaph and pledged to fight on until France was liberated. ‘A year ago, in Paris,’ Churchill broadcast to Britain and to France, ‘I watched the stately parade down the Champs Élysées of the French Army and the French Empire. Who can foresee what the course of other years can bring?’ There were ‘vast numbers’, Churchill said, not only in Britain but in every land, ‘who will render faithful service in this war, but those names will never be known, those deeds will never be recorded. This is a War of the Unknown Warrior, but let all strive, without failing in faith or in duty, and the dark curse of Hitler will be lifted from our age.’

Two days after Churchill’s speech, Hitler issued Directive No. 16, ‘on preparations for a landing operation against England’, code name ‘Sea Lion’. An air offensive was to begin on August 5, with its main objective to make it impossible for the Royal Air Force ‘to deliver any significant attack against the German crossing’. As to that crossing itself, Hitler gave no date, though he asked for ‘preparations’ to be completed by mid-August.

Air attacks were now a frequent feature of British life, and danger. In the first seventeen days of July, 194 British civilians were killed. On July 19, three days after his ‘Sea Lion’ directive, Hitler made a speech in Berlin in which he outlined his ‘peace offer’ to Britain. ‘If the struggle continues’, he warned, ‘it can only end in annihilation for one of us. Mr Churchill thinks it will be Germany. I know it will be Britain,’ and he went on to declare: ‘I am not the vanquished begging for mercy. I speak as a victor. I can see no reason why this war must go on. We should like to avert the sacrifices that claim millions.’ It was possible, Hitler added, ‘that Mr Churchill will once again brush aside this statement of mine by saying that it is merely born of fear and doubts of victory. In this case I shall have relieved my conscience of the things to come.’

Not only Churchill, but also Roosevelt, dismissed Hitler’s offer. There was only one way to deal with a totalitarian country, Roosevelt declared later that same day, ‘by resistance, not appeasement’. Also on July 19, Roosevelt signed the Two-Ocean Navy Expansion Act, authorizing a substantial increase in American naval strength in both the Pacific and the Atlantic. With 358 warships already in service, and 130 being built, the Act provided for a further seven battleships, eighteen aircraft-carriers, twenty-seven cruisers, forty-two submarines and 115 destroyers.

Although only Britain was now at war with Germany, a sense of global conflict pervaded the nations of the Western world; the closing of the Burma Road and the Two-Ocean Navy Expansion Act were clear signs of this. So also, on July 21, was the Soviet Union’s formal annexation of the three Baltic States, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. This action by Stalin was more timely than he knew, for it was on that very day that Hitler summoned his military commanders to Obersalzberg and told them of his intention to invade the Soviet Union.

Hitler’s words were not mere musing; on the following day he instructed General Halder to begin the detailed planning, and a special staff, headed by General Erich Marcks, was set up to prepare a working plan, to be ready for submission to Hitler two weeks later. To those whom he had summoned to Obersalzberg, Hitler also spoke of the invasion of Britain, but he did so with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm, telling them that without air superiority there could be no landings; yet unless the first wave of landings could be completed by mid-September, worsening weather would make it impossible for the German Air Force to provide adequate air cover. ‘If preparations cannot be completed with certainty by the beginning of September,’ Hitler warned, ‘it is necessary to consider other plans.’

It was certain that Britain did not intend to give up the struggle. ‘We never wanted the war,’ the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, declared on 22 July, in answer to Hitler’s ‘peace proposal’ of three days earlier, ‘certainly no one here wants the war to go on for a day longer than is necessary. But we shall not stop fighting till freedom for ourselves and others is secure.’ That day in Tokyo, a new government came to power, headed by Prince Fumimaro Konoye. It began at once to put increased pressure on Vichy France to cede military bases in French Indo-China. The new Government warned that it did not rule out the use of force to achieve its aim. That aim, it declared nine days later, was ‘the setting up of a New Order in greater East Asia’.

The moralities of Prince Konoye’s New Order, like that of Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich, were those of a ‘master race’ for whom the end always justified the means. That end was supremacy, discipline and unanimity; the means were as brutal as circumstances dictated. When therefore, on July 24, a German motor torpedo boat sighted an unarmed French merchant steamer, the Meknès, sailing from Southampton at night with 1,179 repatriated French naval personnel on board, her French ensign spotlighted by a searchlight, her sides illuminated, her portholes lit up, it nevertheless attacked. When the Captain of the Meknès brought his ship to a standstill, signalled by a siren to that effect, and flashed her name and nationality by Morse, the only answer was a torpedo. The Meknès sank; 383 French sailors drowned.

In Britain, it was not only de Gaulle who had set up the standard of defiance. On July 23 a Czechoslovak Provisional Government had been formed in Britain. Two days later, Churchill authorized the Polish forces then in Britain, 14,000 in all, to be given American rifles direct as they arrived from the United States. Other forces then under military training in Britain were 4,000 Czechs, 3,000 anti-Nazi Germans, 2,000 Frenchmen, 1,000 Dutchmen, 1,000 Norwegians and 500 Belgians. But Britain’s principal need remained aircraft. On July 25 Churchill learned of the signature in Washington on the previous day of an agreement whereby American aircraft would be allocated according to British as well as American needs; indeed, of the 33,000 aircraft being manufactured in the United States, 19,092 would be kept for the American Army Air Force, and 14,375 delivered to Britain. Similar ratios were being worked out for all American rifles, tanks, field guns, anti-tank guns and their ammunition. These agreements would cover Britain’s needs as calculated up to the end of 1941.


For the peoples of German-occupied Poland, there was no abatement of tyranny. Two thousand Jews, sent from the town of Radom to the German—Soviet border to dig anti-tank ditches, died within a few months as a result of the harsh treatment. On July 26, in the stone quarries of Mauthausen concentration camp, near Linz, Dr Edmund Bursche, former Dean of the Faculty of Protestant Theology at the University of Warsaw, died from the relentless work and beatings. He was seventy-nine years old.

The deaths of the Jews from Radom, as of Profesor Bursche, were kept secret; but other aspects of the German New Order were widely publicized. In a published review of the German sterilization laws, Ernst Rudin, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Munich, and a pioneer of the Nazi ‘racial science’, praised Hitler’s political leadership for having had the courage to break ‘the terror of the inferior kind of people’ by means of ‘racial-hygienic measures’.

It was easy to impose racial policy on conquered lands. It was proving less easy to extend the areas of conquest. On July 29 German Naval Headquarters informed Hitler that a landing on the British coast would not be possible until the second half of September, and that even then the German Navy would not be able to support it against any sustained British counter-attack from the sea. ‘It is impossible’, wrote Admiral Schniewind, the Navy’s Chief of Staff, ‘to accept responsibility for any such operation during the current year.’

It was not only towards a Western offensive that the German professional military men were hesitant. It was also on July 29 that general Jodl informed the chief of the planning section of the German Army Staff, Colonel Walther Warlimont, of Hitler’s plan to attack Russia ‘as soon as possible’. Jodl mentioned May 1941 as the likely date. Warlimont and others in his planning section protested that this was the very two-front war that had led to Germany’s defeat in 1918. But Jodl gave them an answer which allowed no counter-argument. ‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘it is not a question for discussion but a decision of the Führer!’

Europe from Norway to Egypt, summer 1940

On July 21, a total of fifteen ships set sail from American ports with arms and equipment for Britain. As they proceeded on their slow journey eastward, Hitler called the High Command, Navy and Army chiefs to Obersalzberg, to discuss invasion. Admiral Raeder, the Commander-in-Chief of the Navy, who had flown from Berlin, first suggested a postponement of ‘Sea Lion’ from September 13 until at least September 19; but then expressed his preference for a much more distant date, May 1941. In May 1941, Raeder pointed out, Germany would have two new battleships, the Tirpitz and the Bismarck, to augment her existing two battleships. There would also be many more smaller warships by then.

Hitler could not easily dispute Admiral Raeder’s arguments. Yet he put up a show of determination. The invasion would take place on September 15, he said, provided that a week-long bombing attack on southern England could do substantial damage to the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force and essential harbours. ‘Otherwise,’ he conceded, ‘it is postponed until May 1941.’

Admiral Raeder flew back to Berlin. General von Brauchitsch and General Halder, who had flown from General Staff headquarters at Fontainebleau, remained with their chief. To them, Hitler spoke of his plans to invade Russia. Even the future of Britain fitted into these plans. If Russia was ‘smashed’, Hitler told his two Generals, ‘England’s last hope is extinguished, and Germany will be master of Europe and the Balkans.’

Hitler went on to explain to Halder and von Brauchitsch that the invasion of Russia could take place in the spring of 1941. ‘The sooner we smash Russia the better,’ Hitler said, and he added: ‘The operation only makes sense if we smash the State to its core in one blow. Mere conquest of land areas will not suffice.’ A total of 120 German divisions, out of the 180 planned to be in existence by then, would launch a triple attack, the first against Kiev, the second through the Baltic States to Moscow, and, once these two had linked up, a third operation would advance against the Baku oilfields.

On July 31, while Hitler briefed his senior officers on the planned invasion of Russia, the British took a small but important step to secure their Mediterranean lifeline, launching Operation Hurry, whereby the aircraft carrier Argus, having steamed from Gibraltar to a point off Sardinia, released twelve fighter planes to fly the two hundred miles to Malta, the British island already under persistent Italian air attack. The operation was almost entirely successful, marred only by the shooting down of one of the twelve fighter pilots, Lieutenant Keeble, killed in a dogfight over Malta’s Grand Harbour. His Italian adversary was also killed. Over Germany, over Britain, over France until the armistice, and over the Mediterranean, during the two months of June and July 1940, 526 British pilots had been killed in action.


Hitler now issued Directive No. 17, ‘for the conduct of air and sea warfare against England’. Following up what he had told Admiral Raeder, he stated that a successful German air offensive was a prerequisite of a seaborne landing. Dated August 1, the directive called for an ‘intensification of the air war’ on or after August 5. This was to be ‘The Day of the Eagle’. British Intelligence knew the code-name but not what it stood for. The attacks were to be directed ‘primarily against flying units, their ground installations and their supply organizations, but also against the aircraft industry, including that manufacturing anti-aircraft equipment’. That day, while a German pilot reported to Goering that the British Spitfires which he had encountered over England were fully as good as the German fighter planes, Goering replied: ‘If that is so, I will have to send my Air Inspector General before the firing squad.’ The Air Inspector General, the First World War flying ace Ernst Udet, who was present, smiled politely; but he was unable to forget the insult.

A less effective insult was hurled by radio on August 2, by William Joyce, now known derisively to his British listeners, on account of his accent, as Lord Haw-Haw. ‘The glorious Royal Air Force’, Joyce broadcast that evening over Radio Bremen, ‘was too busy dropping bombs on fields and graveyards in Germany to have any time available for the Battle of France.’

The British were in no mood to be abused, or wooed. When, on August 2, King Gustav of Sweden secretly offered his services to both Hitler and King George VI in order to set up contacts with a view to a negotiated peace, George VI noted in his diary: ‘Until Germany is prepared to live peaceably with her neighbours in Europe, she will always be a menace. We have got to get rid of her aggressive spirit, her engines of war, and the people who have been taught to use them.’

On August 3, a large contingent of Canadian troops arrived in Britain. Among them were several United States citizens, who had volunteered for service. On the following day, a further draft of Australian troops arrived. Two days later, it was a contingent of pilots and aircrew from Southern Rhodesia. None of this boded well for Hitler’s invasion plans, if indeed he still believed his Air Force could really create the necessary conditions for a landing which would be unopposed from the air. On August 5 the German air offensive against British air targets was postponed because of bad weather. That day, Hitler was presented with a plan that was clearly much closer to his instinct and ambition, the plan which he had asked General Erich Marcks to draw up, for the invasion of Russia.

The plan presented by General Marcks envisaged an eventual German advance to the line Archangel—Gorky—Rostov (see map). In all 147 divisions would attack, with Leningrad, Moscow and Kiev—Rostov as the first objectives; 44 divisions would be held in reserve. Surprise and speed were to be the key to victory, which General Marcks envisaged would be secured between nine and seventeen weeks after the attack had begun.

On August 8, three days after receiving the Marcks plan, Hitler appointed Colonel Warlimont to prepare the deployment areas in East Prussia and German-occupied Poland for the coming offensive; above all, nothing must be done to arouse Stalin’s suspicions. Let him be led to believe that these troops were being moved east to get them out of range of Britain’s bombers.

Even before the start of the German air onslaught envisaged in Hitler’s directive of August 1, aerial dogfights over Britain were a daily occurrence, as were British bombing raids on German industrial targets, particularly in the Ruhr. On August 8 a Polish pilot-officer was one of those killed on an operational flight. ‘Poor fellow,’ another Polish pilot wrote, ‘he will never see Poland again. He will be missing from his Flight when one day, by God’s mercy, it lands again on the Deblin airfield. Well, he was not the first to go, and he won’t be the last.’

On August 9, three hundred German aircraft flew over South-East England and the Channel coast. Their targets were the radar stations at Portland Bill and Weymouth. In battle with British fighters sent to intercept them, eighteen German aircraft were shot down. On August 11, and again on August 12, there were further attacks on radar targets. These were the final preliminaries for the main assault; on August 13, with Britain’s radar defences still essentially intact, the German Air Force launched ‘The Day of the Eagle’, a day on which wave after wave of German aircraft, 1,485 in all, flew in search of the air stations and aircraft factories which had now to be destroyed, and to be destroyed quickly, if invasion were to follow.

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