Military history


Fomenting World War

Military leadership implies military action. The first public act of Hitler’s political life was to lead a Putsch – an attempted military coup – against the constitutional government of the German republic. He had been contemplating it for five years. ‘I can confess quite calmly’, he disclosed at Munich in 1936, ‘that from 1919 to 1923 I thought of nothing else than a coup d’état.’ During those years Hitler had led a double life. As the leader of a party seeking members and support he had spoken constantly, tirelessly – and electrifyingly – to any audience that he could command throughout the area of his political base in Bavaria. He spoke of the ‘criminals of Versailles’, of Germany’s sufferings in the World War, of her losses of territory, of the iniquity of the disarmament terms, of the presumptions of the new states – Poland most of all – which had been raised on historic German soil, of the extortion of reparations, of the national shame, of the part played by the enemies within – Jews, Bolshevists, Jewish Bolshevists and their liberal republican puppets – in bringing Germany to defeat in 1918. On 25 January 1923, at the first Nazi ‘Party Day’ in Munich, in a speech which might stand for all his others, he proclaimed: ‘First of all, the arch-enemies of German freedom, namely, the betrayers of the German Fatherland, must be done away with. . . . Down with the perpetrators of the November crime [the signing of the armistice]. And here the great message of our movement begins. . . . We must not forget that between us and those betrayers of the people [the republican government in Berlin] . . . there are two million dead.’ This was the central theme of his message: that German manhood had fought honourably, suffered and died in a war that had ended by denying the succeeding generation the right to bear arms. As a result, ‘Germany disarmed was prey to the lawless demands of her predatory neighbours.’ Those neighbours included the Poles, against whom the Freikorps had fought a frontier campaign to defend the Reich territory in 1920, and behind them the Bolshevik Russians and the new Slav states, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, as well as the unstable remnants of the Habsburg Empire, Hungary and Austria, which had been threatened by communist takeover and might be again. They also included the French, the most rapacious of the victors, who had not only taken back the Reich provinces of Alsace-Lorraine, but maintained an army in the Rhineland and openly threatened to use military force to back up their demands for full payment of the costs of the war, which had been determined by the Allies at Versailles in the form of reparations. The menace of these threats and demands, Hitler endlessly reiterated, could only be set aside when Germany had an army once again, not the paltry 100,000-man force allowed it under the Treaty of Versailles, stripped of tanks and aeroplanes and almost of artillery, but a true national army commensurate in size with that of the largest and most populous state on the continent.

This was a message that magnetised Hitler’s audiences, which grew steadily in size throughout 1919-23. He had become a brilliant speaker and, as his power with words increased, so did the numbers who heeded them. ‘I cast my eyes back’, he was to say in 1932, ‘to the time when with six other unknown men I founded [the Nazi Party], when I spoke before eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, twenty, thirty, fifty persons. When I recall how after a year I had won sixty-four members of the movement, I must confess that that which has today been created, when a stream of millions is flowing into our movement, represents something unique in German history.’ The stream of millions had not yet begun to flow in 1923; his followers were still only numbered in thousands. They responded ecstatically, however, to his call for revenge. ‘It cannot be’, he said at Munich in September 1922, ‘that two million Germans should have fallen in vain and that afterwards one should sit down at the same table as friends with traitors. No, we do not pardon, we demand – vengeance!’ Some of them also responded to his call for violent action; for the other side of Hitler’s double life was as an organiser of a ‘parallel’ army within the Weimar Republic as a conspirator against it. By 1923 the Sturmabteilung(SA) numbered 15,000 uniformed men, with access to an ample store of hidden arms, including machine-guns; moreover, Hitler believed it had the promise of support by the legitimate army of the state, the Bavarian division of the Reichswehr. Hitler had been encouraged in that belief by many of the division’s officers, most importantly by Captain Ernst Röhm, the future head of the SA, who until 1923 was also a serving soldier. Through him, but also because of the attitude of the army commander in Bavaria, General Otto von Lossow, Hitler had formed the impression that if the SA and its associated militias, together forming the extreme right-wing Kampfbund (Battle League), were to stage a Putsch the army would not oppose it. What such a Putsch needed was leadership and a pretext for action. Hitler would supply the leadership – though he conceded the role of figurehead to General Erich Ludendorff, the retired First World War chief of staff (technically First Quartermaster General), who had put the Kampfbundunder his patronage. The pretext was provided by the French. In January 1923, in order to force the German government to sustain its reparations payments, which it insisted it was incapable of meeting, the French government sent troops to occupy the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heartland, to extract payment at source.

This intervention intensified a currency crisis within Germany, in part engineered by its own treasury to substantiate the payment difficulties, and it had the effect of fuelling an inflation that destroyed both the working man’s purchasing power and the middle classes’ savings. The value of the mark, which stood at 160,000 to the dollar in July (in 1914 it had exchanged at four), declined to a million to the dollar in August and 130,000 million in November. Gustav Stresemann, the German Chancellor, at first declared a campaign of passive resistance in the Ruhr, but this did nothing to deter the French, while the example of illegality it gave encouraged communists in Saxony and Hamburg, separatists in the Rhineland and former Freikorps men in Pomerania and Prussia to threaten civil disobedience. When, after quelling these disorders, Stresemann announced the end of the passive resistance campaign, Hitler decided his moment had come. On 8 November, at a prearranged public meeting in the Bürgerbräu Keller in Munich, which General von Lossow and the Bavarian Commissioner of State had unwisely agreed to attend, Hitler arrived armed, with armed men outside, put Lossow and the other notables under arrest and announced the formation of a new German regime: ‘The government of the November criminals and the Reich President are declared to be removed. A new National Government will be nominated this very day, here in Munich. A German National Army will be formed immediately. . . . The direction of policy will be taken over by me. Ludendorff will take over the leadership of the German National Army.’

Next day, 9 November 1923, the nucleus of the National Army, the Kampfbund, set out to march on the former Bavarian War Ministry building, with Hitler and Ludendorff at its head. Röhm and the SA had taken possession of the War Ministry and were awaiting their arrival; interposed between were armed policemen, barring Hitler’s way across the Odeonsplatz. Hitler bargained his way through the first cordon. The second held its ground, opened fire, killed the man at Hitler’s side (who pulled Hitler to the ground in his dying grasp), put a bullet into Goering, the future commander of the Luftwaffe, but left Ludendorff untouched. He marched ahead, indifferent to the bloodshed about him, but reached the War Ministry to find only one other at his side. The German National Army had disintegrated.

The immediate consequences of the ‘Beer Hall Putsch’ were banal: nine of the conspirators were tried; Ludendorff was acquitted and Hitler was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment, of which he served only nine months, just long enough to dictate to Rudolf Hess (an old comrade of Hitler’s regiment) the text of his political manifesto, Mein Kampf. The long-term consequences of the trial had a deeper significance. In his closing speech to the court, a speech reported throughout Germany and which made him, for the first time in his career as a demagogue, a national figure, Hitler expressed his relief that it was the police and not the Reichswehr, the army, which had fired on him and the Kampfbund. ‘The Reichswehr’, he said, ‘stands as untarnished as before. One day the hour will come when the Reichswehr will stand at our side, officers and men. . . . The army we have formed is growing from day to day. . . . I nourish the proud hope that one day the hour will come when these rough companies will grow to battalions, the battalions to regiments, the regiments to divisions, that the old cockade will be taken from the mud, that the old flags will wave again, that there will be a reconciliation at the last great divine judgement which we are prepared to face.’

This was both Hitler’s public and his private verdict on his Putsch tactics. ‘We never thought to carry through a revolt against the army,’ he disclosed at Munich in 1933. ‘It was with it we believed we should succeed.’ After the Munich Putsch he changed tactics decisively. He never again undertook illegal action against the state but sought instead to achieve power constitutionally through the ballot box. The point of seeking power, however, though he did not disclose this aim publicly, was to acquire constitutional command of the army and the War Ministry and budgetary authority to vote military credits for rearmament. In the ten years that followed the failure of the Putsch Hitler did nothing to discourage the growth of the SA, which on the eve of his seizure of power in 1933 had reached a strength of 400,000, four times the size of the Reichswehr. Nor did he discourage the stormtroopers from believing that, when the day came, they would put off their brown, put on field-grey and emerge as soldiers of the ‘National Army’ he had promised to bring into being in Munich in 1923. He did, however, take care to see that the SA was kept under strict discipline, that its boasts of being ready to seize power by force were silenced, that its pretensions to be a replacement rather than a reinforcement for the Reichswehr were deflated, and that its leaders were dissuaded from representing themselves as military rather than political figures. After Munich Hitler remained in no doubt that the generals, with their creed of Überparteilichkeit (‘being above party’), were a power in the land he could not afford to alienate.

Hitler and the Nazi revolution

Economic crisis had provided Hitler with a false opportunity in 1923. Economic crisis again provided him with opportunity in 1930, and between then and his assumption of the German chancellorship in January 1933 he used it with discreet and consummate skill. In the six years after the catastrophic inflation of 1923, Germany had made a good recovery. The currency had been stabilised, credit restored, industry revitalised and unemployment successfully contained. The sudden world crisis of 1929, which destroyed credit across central Europe, brought much of that achievement to naught. Unemployment in Germany, a nation of 60 million people, rose from 1,320,000 in September 1929 to 3 million a year later, 4.5 million the year after that and over 6 million in the first two months of 1932. Hardship once again spread through the land and the moderate parties of the Weimar Republic, committed to orthodox, pre-Keynesian policies of budget balancing, could find no means to redress it. The parties of the extreme right and left benefited accordingly at the parliamentary elections called as one government after another collapsed under the pressure of events. In the election of September 1930 the Nazi Party polled 18.3 per cent of the vote, but in July 1932 it increased its share to 37.3 per cent, winning 230 seats and becoming the largest party in the Reichstag. In the words of Alan Bullock, ‘with a voting strength of 13,700,000 electors, a party membership of over a million and a private army of 400,000 SA and SS . . . [Hitler] was the most powerful political leader in Germany, knocking on the doors of the Chancellery at the head of the most powerful political party Germany had ever seen.’ The parallel success of the Communist Party positively reinforced Hitler’s appeal to those voters who were terrified by the spectre of Bolshevism, which they believed had been laid by the violent defeat of the Spartacists in 1919; the Communist Party enormously increased its support in 1930 and again in 1932, when it won 6 million votes and a hundred seats.

The communists too had their private army, the Red Front, which fought street battles with the SA that frequently ended in death. Nazi street violence tainted the Nazi cause; communist street violence – which in July 1932 alone caused the deaths of thirty-eight Nazis and thirty communists – raised the prospect of communist revolution. Though that could not win Hitler a parliamentary majority – which he failed to achieve by 6.2 per cent even after the seizure of power in 1933 – it could and did frighten the moderate politicians into accepting Hitler as a counterweight who might be used to offset revolutionary with merely radical extremism, as they believed Nazism to be. In January 1933, after a number of makeshift ministries had fallen, President Paul von Hindenburg, the war hero, was advised by his ministers to offer Hitler the chancellorship. On 30 January he was installed.

What followed was one of the most remarkable and complete economic, political and military revolutions ever carried through by one man in a comparable space of time. Between 30 January 1933 and 7 March 1936 he effectively restored German prosperity, destroyed not only opposition but also the possibility of opposition to his rule, re-created, in a spectacularly expanded German army, the principal symbol of the nation’s pride in itself, and used this force to abrogate the oppressive treaties which defeat had imposed on the nation while he was still a humble soldier. He had luck, notably in the timely death of Hindenburg in August 1934, and in the incendiary attack on the Reichstag building in February 1933. The Reichstag fire allowed him to conjure the fiction of a communist threat to parliamentary institutions, and so panic the moderates into voting with the Nazis for a suspension of parliamentary powers: the Enabling Bill they enacted conferred on Hitler the right to pass binding laws by appending his signature to the necessary document. Hindenburg’s death opened the way for him to combine the office of the presidency with his own as Chancellor under the title of Führer, a position in which he exercised the authority of both head of government and head of state. But Hitler did not succeed between 1933 and 1936 purely by luck. His economic policy was not based on theory, certainly not Keynesian theory; but it amounted to a programme of deficit budgeting, state investment in public works and state-guaranteed industrial re-equipment of which Keynes would have approved. This was accompanied by a calculated destruction of the trade-union movement, which removed at a blow all restrictions on free movement of labour between jobs and workplaces, and the effect on unemployment was startling: between January 1933 and December 1934 the number of unemployed declined by more than half, many of the 3 million new workers finding jobs in the construction of the magnificent network of motorways (Autobahnen) which were the first outward symbol of the Nazi economic miracle.

Moreover, he succeeded in his plan to rearm Germany not by rushing bullheaded at the disabling clauses of the Versailles Treaty but rather by waiting until the victor nations gave him pretext. Thus he did not announce the reintroduction of conscription until March 1935, when the French, beset as before the First World War by a falling birth-rate, themselves announced that they were doubling the length of their conscripts’ military service. Hitler was able to represent this move as a threat to German security which justified the enlargement of the 100,000-man army; on 17 March he also announced the creation of an air force – another breach of the Versailles Treaty. Even so he blurred his intentions by offering France a pact which would limit the size of his army to 300,000 men and that of his new air force to 50 per cent of hers. France’s refusal permitted him to fix larger totals.

Hitler and the generals

The reintroduction of conscription gave him by 1936 an army with a skeleton strength of thirty-six divisions, a fivefold increase from the seven of the Reichswehr. Few were as yet fully equipped or manned, and, as his generals warned him, he certainly lacked the strength to resist any armed reaction to his anti-Versailles policies. In seeking to realise his deeply held ambition to remilitarise the Rhineland, therefore, he waited once again until he could find the semblance of a legal cause, which he claimed to see in the French parliament’s ratification of a mutual-assistance pact with the Soviet Union in March 1936. Since the pact bound France to take action against Germany in the event of German aggression against the USSR, Hitler was able to represent it as a unilateral violation of the provision that France would never make war on Germany except by resolution of the League of Nations – a creation of Versailles from which he had withdrawn in 1933 – and to allege that such a violation justified his taking measures to improve Germany’s defence of its frontier with France. On 7 March 1936 he accordingly ordered the reoccupation of the Rhineland, where no German soldier had been stationed since November 1918, correctly confident that the French would not move to expel the force he sent, even though it numbered not even one division but a mere three battalions.

Although Hitler’s generals had been apprehensive about the Rhineland adventure, they were not fundamentally disposed to argue with his diplomatic or strategic judgements, since the armed forces, among all the other institutions of state, had up to that moment been the principal beneficiaries of the National Socialist revolution. They had been spared Gleichschaltung, the process by which every organ of German life was brought directly under Nazi control; moreover, the leaders of the body which had threatened them withGleichschaltung, the SA, had been summarily and brutally killed in June 1934. Hitler’s half-formulated promise that the stormtroopers would one day become soldiers of the new Germany had been made good only in the sense that after March 1935 the younger of them received their call-up papers and found themselves embodied in the Wehrmacht as conscripts among hundreds of thousands of others who had never worn the brown uniform. The armed forces had also benefited more generously than any other body from the programme of state investment. Tanks and aeroplanes – enough to equip a Panzer force of six divisions (soon to be raised to ten) and a Luftwaffe of 2000 combat aircraft – were now coming out of the new armaments factories in a steady stream. The design work which underlay their development had been done in Russia during the brief period of Russo-German friendship in the 1920s. In an ill-calculated act of appeasement in 1935 the British Admiralty had agreed that the German navy should also be partially liberated from the provisions of the Versailles Treaty, and it had begun to acquire capital ships and even U-boats, in numbers equivalent to 33 and 60 per cent respectively of the Royal Navy’s fleets. This material largesse enormously enhanced the institutional amour propreof the Wehrmacht which, after fifteen years in which it had starved for both men and equipment, suddenly found itself advanced to the front rank of the armed forces of Europe, almost as strong as the largest and better armed than any. Professionally, moreover, Hitler’s rearmament programme transformed the career prospects of individual officers: in 1933 the average age of a colonel was fifty-six; by 1937 it had been reduced to thirty-nine, while many in the Reichswehr who had reconciled themselves to retirement found themselves by 1937 commanding regiments, brigades, even divisions.

Hitler’s seduction of his professional officers was as calculated as any other part of his programme, though he rightly attached more importance to it than the rest. His attitude to the SA had always been duplicitous; though he had needed and been glad to use the political fighting force it had given him in the ‘time of struggle’ before 1933, he was himself too much the true veteran, the seasoned ‘front fighter’, to reckon its street bullies proper military material. Hitler was, in many respects, a military snob – and with reason: he had fought in the First World War from beginning to end, suffered wounds and won a high decoration for bravery. The army he wished to re-create would be a model of the one in which he had served, not a disorderly political militia reclothed in field-grey. The Blood Purge of June 1934, when Hitler organised the murder of Röhm and the rest of the paramilitary radicals who had thought to leap to general’s rank by political hopscotch, had ensured that he had his way. One consequence of the purge of the SA was the rise of the rival military arm of the Nazi Party – the blackshirted Schutzstaffel (SS), a highly disciplined elite corps led by Heinrich Himmler.

Although the generals had been careful to know nothing of the 1934 murders, the results had none the less put Hitler high in their favour; but the reverse was not the case. There was a strict limit to Hitler’s military snobbery. He was a combat snob, not a worshipper of rank or title. As he well knew, many of the Wehrmacht’s elite, the Great General Staff officers who were now senior commanders, had not fought at the front in the First World War, their brains being thought too valuable to be risked beyond headquarters. Their military as well as their social hauteur therefore grated with him. One of the innumerable rancours that he nursed dated back to the Munich trial, when General von Lossow, his fainthearted ally, had testified that he regarded him as no more than ‘a political drummer boy’; the wound had been salted by the state prosecutor’s statement that the drummer boy had ‘allowed himself to be carried beyond the position assigned to him’. It was Hitler who now assigned positions everywhere – except within the army, which retained control of its own promotion structure. However, since the generals continued to choose officers as timorous as they themselves had been over the remilitarisation of the Rhineland, Hitler decided to end the system. He wanted a war army, led by commanders determined to take revenge on the victors of 1918 and their creature states erected on the back of Germany’s defeat.

Werner von Fritsch, the army commander-in-chief, was a particular bugbear among the fainthearts; in November 1937 he sought a private interview with Hitler to warn against policies that might provoke war. Two months later, the indiscreet remarriage of the Minister of War, General Werner von Blomberg, provided Hitler with an opportunity to get rid of both men: Blomberg’s young bride was discovered to have been a prostitute; while the unmarried Fritsch, his obvious successor, fell speechless when confronted by trumped-up charges of homosexual behaviour. Their enforced retirement did not immediately bring him generals of the bellicose temper he wanted; but it provided him with the pretext to establish a new supra-service command in place of the War Ministry, theOberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), of which Hitler made himself the head, and the OKW was given responsibility for the highest level of strategic planning. This was a crucial move, for 1938 was to be the year in which Hitler moved from rearmament to the diplomatic offensive. He had already outlined his intentions to his service commanders on 5 November 1937, when he had argued that Britain and France were unlikely to oppose with military force German moves to strengthen its military position in the east. His first priority was to take advantage of the enthusiasm among German nationalists in Austria for union (Anschluss) with the Reich; his second was to attempt the annexation of the German-speaking parts of Czechoslovakia, the Sudetenland. Further, he hoped that Italy, Austria’s protector, would shortly be brought to Germany’s side by a formal alliance with Mussolini, his fellow dictator. Poland, on which he had longer-term designs, he believed would be immobilised by the speed of Germany’s action.

In November 1937 Mussolini did indeed accept a German alliance, the Anti-Comintern Pact against the Soviet Union (originally signed by Germany and Japan a year earlier), thus reinforcing the ‘Rome-Berlin Axis’ agreement of October 1936. By March 1938 Hitler felt free to act against Austria. He first demanded that Austrian Nazis should be installed in key government posts. When Kurt von Schuschnigg, the Austrian Chancellor, refused, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, the Austrian Nazi leader, was instructed to declare himself the head of a provisional government and request German intervention. On 12 March German troops marched in, Anschluss was declared the following day, and on 14 March Hitler made a triumphal entry into Vienna, where he had spent his unhappy and aimless youth. Britain and France protested but did no more. Their inactivity was the confirmation Hitler needed that he could safely proceed to his diplomatic offensive against Czechoslovakia. In April he ordered OKW to prepare plans for a military operation, meanwhile instructing the Nazi groups among the Sudetenland Germans to sustain demands for secession. In August he fixed October as the date for military action and on 12 September, when he delivered a fiery anti-Czech speech at Nuremberg, German troops moved to the frontier.

This ‘Czech crisis’ seemed to threaten war, even though it was not clear who would fight it. The Czechs were not powerful enough to resist the rearmed Wehrmacht without help, but the Red Army, the only nearby source of assistance, could come to their aid only by crossing Polish territory (or Romanian, but the Romanians were pro-German), a manoeuvre which the Poles, with their deep hostility to and well-founded suspicion of the Russians, were not disposed to permit. The British and the French were also disinclined to see Russia intervening in central Europe and, though France had a treaty with Czechoslovakia, and both Britain and France recognised that honour and prudence demanded that they should not allow Czechoslovakia to be dismembered, they could see no way of protecting her except by military action of their own in the west, from which government and people in both countries shrank. Neither had yet modernised their forces, though they had begun reluctantly to rearm; more to the point, neither had yet developed the will to back protest with force, as was lamentably demonstrated by their succession of failures to implement collective action against aggressors through the League of Nations machinery – against Japan for its aggression in Manchuria in 1931 and in China in 1937, against Italy for its aggression against Ethiopia in 1936. Edouard Daladier and Neville Chamberlain, the French and British Prime Ministers, therefore counselled President Eduard Beneš of Czechoslovakia to acquiesce in Hitler’s demands, even though the cession of the Sudetenland meant the cession also of the country’s frontier fortifications; once surrendered, Czechoslovakia would have no protection whatsoever against further German demands. Nevertheless Benesβ felt obliged to agree, since the Western democracies would not stand by him. The crisis seemed to be settled, but on 22 September Hitler decided to harden his terms. Instead of waiting for an international commission to delimit the revised frontier, he demanded the Sudetenland at once. It was this turning of the screw which provoked the crisis called ‘Munich’, since it was there that Chamberlain and Daladier went to treat with Hitler again on 29-30 September, in a series of craven meetings that conceded him even more than he had initially demanded.

Munich, it is generally said, marked ‘the end of appeasement’; certainly it sent Daladier and Chamberlain home, superficially relieved, but convinced – Chamberlain more strongly than Daladier – that rearmament must henceforth proceed apace. More accurately, however, Munich marked the moment when Hitler abandoned caution in his campaign of aggressive diplomacy and began to take the risks which would stiffen the will of the Western democracies to meet challenge with firm response and eventually force with force. The turning-point was Hitler’s treatment of browbeaten Czechoslovakia. Having seized the Sudetenland only six months before, on 11 March 1939 he arranged for the pro-German separatist party in the Slovakian half of what remained of the country to announce their secession and request that he become their protector. When the new Czech President, Emil Hacha, arrived in Berlin to protest, he was physically bullied into requesting a German protectorate over the whole of Czechoslovakia. The following day, 15 March, German troops marched into Prague just in time to form a guard of honour and a protective screen for Hitler when he entered the city on their heels.

The rape of Czechoslovakia drove the democracies to act. The French cabinet agreed that when Hitler next moved he must be stopped. On 17 March Chamberlain publicly announced that if there were further attacks on small states Britain would resist ‘to the utmost of its power’, a clear warning that Hitler now risked war. Hitler did not believe or did not fear the threat. Since January he had been menacing Poland, to which belonged the largest slice of territory that had been German before 1918, in particular the ‘corridor’ which divided East Prussia and the German-speaking Free City of Danzig from the Reich heartland. The Poles doggedly resisted his threats and continued to do so even when on 23 March, as an earnest of intentions, he occupied the port of Memel, a former League of Nations territory on Poland’s border which had been German until 1918. They were chiefly sustained by the knowledge that Britain and France were now preparing to extend them a guarantee of protection; and on 31 March, eight days after publicly announcing that they would defend Belgium, Holland or Switzerland against attack, Britain and France issued a joint declaration guaranteeing the independence of Poland. Two weeks later, on 13 April, to demonstrate the general hardening of their attitude, they issued similar guarantees to Romania and Greece after Mussolini, in imitation of Hitler, annexed Albania.

Poland, however, was the focus of the growing crisis, which France and Britain now hoped best to solve by drawing the Soviet Union into a protective agreement, even though they knew the Poles were reluctant to accept any help from their traditional enemy. The French and British were themselves mistrustful of the Soviets, besides harbouring a deep dislike of their political system, feelings which were exactly reciprocated. Without Polish resistance, however, an agreement might have been reached; but the Poles adamantly refused to contemplate the Red Army operating on their soil, since they rightly suspected that the Russians desired to annex large parts of Polish territory and might hold these under occupation as their reward for intervention. The British and French could offer Stalin no compensatory inducement to act with them in a hypothetical crisis; during the summer of 1939 the negotiations between the Western democracies and Stalin hung fire.

Hitler, on the other hand, could offer powerfully tempting inducements. He too had been negotiating desultorily with Stalin during the spring and summer, encouraged by hints that Russia had no taste for risking war, even over the future of a country as important to the security of its western border as Poland. The discussions seemed to make no progress, since neither side would reveal its hand. Then in late July Hitler decided to gamble with a thinly veiled offer to let Stalin take a slice of eastern Poland if he agreed not to impede a German invasion of the country from the west. The Russians responded with keen interest and on 22 August the two Foreign Ministers, Molotov and Ribbentrop, signed a nonaggression pact in Moscow. Its secret clauses effectively permitted the Soviet Union, in the event of a German-Polish war, to annex eastern Poland up to the line of the Vistula and the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

Poland was now doomed. On 15 June the German army staff, the Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH), had settled on a plan which provided for two army groups, North and South, to attack simultaneously with their objective as Warsaw. Because northern Poland was dominated by the German province of East Prussia, while southern Poland bordered on Czechoslovakia, now an extension of German territory (as the Protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia and the puppet state of Slovakia), Poland was deeply outflanked across the whole length of its two most vulnerable frontiers. Its fortified zone lay in the west, covering the industrial region of Lower Silesia, and since Germany’s annexation of Czechoslovakia time had not allowed for new fortifications to be built. The Polish government was naturally concerned to protect the richest and most populous region of the country; it remained ignorant of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and so of the Russian threat to its army’s rear; and it counted on the French, with British assistance, to attack Germany’s western border in order to draw off German divisions from the east as soon as the Wehrmacht marched.

Hitler’s calculations were different. He believed, correctly as it turned out, that the French would not move against him in the west, which he left defended by only forty-four divisions – to oppose the nominal hundred of the French army – and that the British could do little to hurt Germany during the brief span of time he intended the Polish campaign to fill. He had the advantage of being mobilised, whereas the British and French were not. He had the even more important advantage of deploying superior numbers and immeasurably superior equipment against the Poles. The German Army Group North and South together numbered some sixty-two divisions, of which six were armoured and ten mechanised, supported by 1300 modern combat aircraft. Although the Poles had begun to mobilise in July as war became imminent, they had not fully deployed all their men by 1 September. Together they formed forty divisions, of which none was armoured; the few Polish tanks were old, light models, sufficient to equip only a single brigade; and half the 935 aircraft of the air force were obsolete.

The campaign in Poland

Hitler nevertheless still needed a pretext to attack. He was briefly deterred on 25 August by the news that Britain had entered into a formal alliance with Poland which guaranteed protection against aggression by a third party, and a few days of inconclusive diplomatic sparring followed. On 28 August, however, he formally abrogated the 1934 non-aggression pact with Poland, signed at a time when her army far outnumbered the Wehrmacht, and on the evening of 31 August received news of Polish aggression near the Silesian border town of Gleiwitz; the incident had in fact been carefully staged by his own SS. Next morning, at 4.45 am, his tanks began to cross the frontier. Since it was Hitler’s pretence that Germany had been attacked by Poland, he issued no declaration of war.

By the end of 1 September the Polish air force had largely ceased to exist, many of its aircraft having been caught on the ground and destroyed by the Luftwaffe, which also bombed Polish headquarters, communications and cities. All the Wehrmacht ground forces made rapid progress. On 3 September the French and British governments delivered separate ultimatums demanding the withdrawal of German troops from Poland; both ultimatums expired that day and a state of war therefore existed between them and Germany. By that date, however, the Fourth Army advancing from Pomerania had made contact with the Third advancing from East Prussia and had cut off the ‘Polish Corridor’ to Danzig and Gdynia, Poland’s outlet to the sea. By 7 September, after a Polish attempt to stand on the line of the river Warta, west of Warsaw, had failed, the Tenth Army had advanced from the south to within thirty-six miles of the capital, while the Third Army, driving down from the north, was on the river Narew, twenty-five miles away. There was now a German change of plan. It had been expected that most of the Polish army would be entrapped west of the Vistula, on which Warsaw stands. By rapid disengagement, however, large numbers of troops got across the river and marched to concentrate on the capital to fight a defensive battle there. The German commanders therefore ordered a second and deeper envelopment, aimed at the line of the river Bug, a hundred miles east of Warsaw. While it was in progress, the one and only crisis for the Germans occurred. The Polish Poznan Army, one of those entrapped west of the Vistula, turned and attacked the German Eighth and Tenth Armies from the rear, inflicting heavy casualties on the surprised 30th Division in the first impact. A bitter encirclement battle ensued, ending with the capture of 100,000 Polish troops on 19 September.

Warsaw had been encircled by 17 September; in an effort to reduce its garrison’s resistance by terror, it was heavily bombed until 27 September, when the defenders finally capitulated. All hopes of escaping eastward into the remote and difficult country bordering the Pripet Marshes were ended when the Red Army, after appeals for assistance from the Germans on 3 and 10 September, finally moved its White Russian and Ukrainian Fronts across the frontier on 17 September. Some 217,000 of the 910,000 Poles taken prisoner in the campaign fell into Russian hands. By 6 October all Polish resistance had ended. Some 100,000 Poles escaped into Lithuania, Hungary and Romania, whence many would make their way to France and later Britain, to form the Polish armed forces in exile and continue the struggle – as infantrymen in the Battle of France, as pilots in the Battle of Britain, and later on other fronts – until the last day of the war.

At the conclusion of the campaign the Wehrmacht, which had suffered 13,981 fatal casualties in Poland, immediately began to turn its victorious divisions westward to man the Siegfried Line or West Wall and prepare for a campaign against the British and French, who had made no attempt at all to divert German forces, except for a small flurry of activity between 8 September and 1 October known as the ‘Saar Offensive’. The only immediate military outcome of the Polish campaign lay not in the west but in the east. There Russia at once capitalised on the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact to demand basing rights for its troops in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, a manoeuvre which eventually led to the annexation of all three countries to the Soviet Union in June 1940.

The Winter War

Stalin also moved against Finland, though with altogether less convenient results. Finland had been Russian territory between 1809 and 1917; when it won its independence after fighting against Russian and local Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War, it had obtained a frontier demarcation which Stalin decided ran too close for strategic comfort to Leningrad and the Soviet Baltic ports. On 12 October 1939, a week after Latvia had signed its dictated treaty, the Soviet Union confronted the Finnish government with demands for naval basing rights and the cession of a large strip of Finnish territory in the Karelian isthmus leading to Leningrad. The Finns stonewalled until 26 November, when the Soviet Union staged a border incident. On 30 November the Russians attacked with four armies, deploying thirty divisions; for this blatant act of aggression they were expelled from the League of Nations on 14 December. The Soviet Union was eventually to commit a million men to the campaign. The Finns, though their total mobilised strength never exceeded 175,000, fought back with skill and success. Perhaps the most warlike of all European peoples, and certainly the hardiest, the Finns made circles around their Russian attackers in the snowbound wastes of their native forests, employing so-called motti or ‘logging’ tactics to cut off and encircle their enemies, who were regularly disorientated and demoralised by a style of warfare for which their training had not prepared them. While the main strength of the Finnish army defended the Karelian isthmus on the Mannerheim Line, named after the country’s commander-in-chief, who had won the war of independence in 1918, independent units attacked, encircled and destroyed Soviet divisions on the long eastern flank between Lake Ladoga and the White Sea.

In December the Finns actually counter-attacked from the Karelian isthmus, after a series of operations by the Soviets described by Mannerheim as ‘similar to a performance by a badly directed orchestra’. By January, however, the Russians had taken the measure of their opponents, recognised their own underestimation of the Finns’ military prowess, and brought up sufficient forces to overwhelm them. During February they broke their way through the Mannerheim Line by main force, inflicting casualties which the Finnish government recognised its tiny population could not bear. On 6 March it treated for peace and on 12 March signed a treaty which conceded the demands Russia had made in October; they had lost 25,000 dead since the war had begun. The Red Army, however, had lost 200,000, of whom perhaps the majority had died of exposure while surrounded or out of touch with base. The experience of the ‘Winter War’, which would be renewed as the ‘Continuation War’ after June 1941, conditioned the Soviet Union’s carefully modulated policy towards Finland when the issue of peace came round again.

Finland had briefly been an inspiration to all enemies of the Axis powers, with which, following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Soviet Union was identified during 1940. Britain and France had even considered affording her military assistance, and winter-warfare units from both countries were earmarked to join the Finnish army; fortunately for the future of Soviet-Western relations, the Finns had sued for peace before they were sent.

The Scandinavian campaign

The end of the Winter War did not, however, terminate Anglo-French military involvement in northern Europe. According to the German navy, which kept a close watch on Scandinavian affairs, Western military assistance for Finland would most probably have passed through Norway, and in doing so would not only have violated Norwegian neutrality but menaced German access to the Kiruna-Gällivare iron ore fields in Sweden which supplied Germany’s war economy with a vital commodity. Hitler’s Grand Admiral, Erich Raeder, was in any case anxious to acquire north Norwegian bases from which to operate against the Royal Navy, and therefore urged Hitler throughout the autumn and winter of 1939 to pre-empt the Allies by authorising an intervention in Norway. Preoccupied by his plans for the forthcoming attack in the west, Hitler would not allow his interest to be aroused, though in December, after Raeder had arranged for the Norwegian Nazi leader, Vidkun Quisling, to be brought to Berlin, he did authorise OKW to investigate whether Norway would be worth occupying. In mid-February his indifference was dissipated by a blow to his pride.

At the outbreak of the war the Graf Spee, one of Germany’s ‘pocket battleships’, had undertaken a commerce-raiding campaign against British merchant shipping in the South Atlantic but had eventually been cornered off the coast of Uruguay by three British cruisers. Its commander had been forced to scuttle it at Montevideo after the Battle of the River Plate on 13 December 1939. The British people were heartened and Hitler consonantly infuriated by this humiliation of the German surface fleet. On 16 February Hitler was even more outraged when the Altmark, a supply ship which had tended the Graf Spee during its cruise, was intercepted by HM Destroyer Cossack in Norwegian territorial waters and 300 British merchant seaman taken by the Graf Spee were liberated. He at once decided that Norwegian territorial waters must be denied to the British for good, preferably by invasion and occupation, and instructed General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst, a mountain-warfare expert, to prepare a plan. Falkenhorst quickly concluded that it would be desirable also to occupy Denmark as a ‘land bridge’ to Norway, and by 7 March Hitler had assigned eight divisions to the operation. Intelligence then indicated that Allied plans to intervene in Norway, providing the legal pretext for aggression on which Hitler normally insisted, had been called off. Raeder nevertheless succeeded in persuading him that the operation was strategically necessary and on 7 April the transports sailed.

Denmark, quite unprepared for war, almost unarmed and with no suspicion that Germany harboured hostile intentions against her, surrendered under the threat of an air bombardment of Copenhagen on the morning of the troops’ landing on 9 April. The Norwegians were also taken by surprise. They were, however, ready to fight and at Oslo the ancient guns of the harbour fort held the invaders at bay – sinking the German cruiser Blücher – long enough for the government and royal family to escape and make their way to Britain. The survivors of the small Norwegian army then gathered as best they could to oppose the German advance up the coast towards the central cities of Andalsnes, Trondheim and Namsos, and to counter the German landing in the far north at Narvik. They did not, however, have to fight alone. Because of the preparations made to intervene in Finland, both the British and the French had contingents ready to move and debark. Between 18 and 23 April 12,000 British and French troops were put ashore north and south of Trondheim and advanced to meet the Germans who were making their way north from Oslo up the great valleys of the Gudbrandsdal and the Osterdal. The Germans defeated the leading British brigade in the Gudbrandsdal on 23 April and compelled it to withdraw by sea from Andalsnes, then made contact with their own landing party at Trondheim and forced the evacuation of the rest of the Allied troops through Namsos on 3 May.

In the north the fortunes of war swung the other way. The German navy suffered a serious defeat in the two battles of Narvik, fought on 10 and 13 April between a superior British force and the destroyers transporting General Eduard Dietl’s mountain troops. Ten of the destroyers, with a high proportion of Dietl’s force, were sunk in the Narvik fiords. Dietl escaped ashore with only 2000 mountain infantry and 2600 sailors with whom to oppose 24,500 Allied troops, including the resolute Norwegian 6th Division. He found himself besieged in Narvik from 14 April onwards and was eventually forced to break out and retreat to the Swedish border, which he reached at the end of May. The collapse of the Allied front in France, however, then brought the campaign to an end, since both the French and the British ordered their troops home through Narvik to replace the losses suffered in the Blitzkrieg battles with the Wehrmacht which began on 10 May.

Dietl, though in many respects the least successful of the German generals of 1939-40, was to become Hitler’s favourite; his death in an aeroplane crash in June 1944 was regarded by the Führer as a wounding personal tragedy. By then he had come to regard Dietl as irreplaceable and he attempted to conceal the news of his death from the Finns, among whom Dietl had established a towering reputation during the Finnish ‘Continuation War’ of 1941-4, lest it discourage them further at a time when defeat by the Russians again stared them in the face. Hitler liked Dietl because he argued with him in an explosive, soldierly way that perhaps reminded the Führer of his own army service. He liked him even more because at Narvik he had rescued him from humiliation. So alarmed had Hitler been by the miscarriage of the landing that he had been on the point of ordering Dietl to escape into Sweden and intern his soldiers rather than risk having to surrender them to the British. He had eventually been dissuaded from sending the signal, and in any case Dietl’s dogged conduct of the siege and retreat made it unnecessary. Dietl was the model of what Hitler wished every German soldier to be, the type he had looked forward to recruiting and training in thousands from the moment he embarked on the creation of the Wehrmacht. The proof of his quality was his snatching of victory from the jaws of defeat in the mountains of north Norway in June 1940, and so sustaining unblemished the record of German military success since the beginning of the war. To the campaign simultaneously unfolding in the west, however, not even a Dietl could have added a jot to the dimensions of German victory. There Blitzkrieg seemed a magic which had taken possession of the army itself.

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