David Irving



By November 1939 Adolf Hitler had faced up to the fact that the war would go on.  In mid-October his propaganda ministry had already instructed editors to mute reporting of peace proposals from abroad so that no false hopes would be raised in the German public.  When Alfred Rosenberg came to him on November 1 with nebulous reports of fresh peace moves within the British air ministry, the F¸hrer belittled the prospects :  while he himself would still favor a German-British rapprochement, London was in the grip of a Jewish-controlled, lunatic minority against whom Chamberlain was a characterless and impotent old man.  Hitler said he failed to see what the British really wanted.  “Even if the British won, the real victors would be the United States, Japan, and Russia.”  England, even if victorious, would emerge from a war in ruins, and her fate if she were militarily defeated would be worse.

Early in November, the Belgian and Dutch monarchs appealed to the warring parties to seek ways of restoring a lasting peace, but their well-intentioned appeal was immediately rejected by Lord Halifax in a public speech using language described by Ribbentrop as of such brazenness that he actively discouraged all further unofficial feelers, and the appeal was left unanswered by Berlin.  German propaganda now portrayed the British whom Hitler had unsuccessfully wooed as murderers, liars, hypocrites, and it used a veritable thesaurus of other uncomplimentary terms.  Hitler gathered that the peace party in Britain had lost.  British Fascist leader Oswald Mosley had put up a good fight, but he had been silenced.  The only good Briton, in Hitler’s view, was Lloyd George.  That Britain was continuing the fight was an unpalatable truth he now had to face.

Upon his return from Poland, Hitler had equipped the big Congress Room in his official Berlin residence as a war conference room.  In its center was a large map table.

Here the F¸hrer conducted all his war conferences in Berlin until the chamber was ruined by a bomb five years later.  The OKW generals Keitel and Jodl moved into neighboring rooms vacated by Hitler’s adjutants.  Jodl’s status was still relatively weak.  When he ventured an appreciation of the overall strategic situation, Hitler cut him short after the first few sentences and delivered a lecture on what he thought.  But Hitler’s regard for Jodl grew as his contempt for the army’s representatives became more explicit.  He told Jodl in the middle of October, when they were discussing the new “Yellow” offensive in the west :  “We are going to win this war even if it contradicts a hundred General Staff doctrines—because we’ve got the better troops, the better equipment, the stronger nerves, and a united, resolute leadership !” Throughout that month and the next, the army’s Commander in Chief and Chief of Staff showed equal determination in waging a rearguard action against “Yellow,” and it is not impossible that Hitler got wind of military and political conspiracies constantly being hatched by the army generals and civilian dissidents.  At any rate, that autumn he pithily commented to Luftwaffe officers waiting for one conference to begin, “Here comes my Coward Number One !” as Brauchitsch, the army Commander in Chief, came through the door, and added, “. . . and Number Two !” when Halder, the Chief of Staff, joined him.

On October 19, 1939, the reluctant war department had at Hitler’s behest issued its first hasty directive on “Yellow.”  It envisaged a massive main attack being carried through Belgium by seventy-five divisions whose object it was to meet and destroy the British and French armies on French and Belgian soil.  As a token of their distaste for the whole affair, Brauchitsch and Halder deliberately left it to General Keitel to read out the details to Hitler.  While General von Bock’s Army Group B and the powerful Armeeabteilung Niederrhein (Army Sector Lower Rhine) would deliver the main thrust through Liege and Namur, General von Rundstedt’s Army Group A would follow up with a subsidiary attack on the southern wing ;  Army Group C, commanded by General von Leeb, would remain on the defensive with sixteen divisions behind the West Wall.

The big push into Belgium would involve crossing a fifteen-mile-wide sliver of Dutch territory at Maastricht, but at this stage Hitler hoped it might be possible to avoid hostilities with Holland over this “temporary” claim on Dutch hospitality.  (If the British landed in Holland, of course, the German army must have plans ready to occupy the whole country immediately.)  Meanwhile, to justify invading neutral Belgium the military and Intelligence agencies were instructed to compile detailed summaries of instances of Franco-Belgian collusion and to allow their imaginations free rein in doing so.

The military prospects of this OKH plan did not encourage Bock and Rundstedt, who expressed their pessimism in memoranda to the war department in October.  Leeb added a similar study, questioning the propriety of violating Belgian and Dutch neutrality.  General von Reichenau, commanding the Sixth Army, put his objections to Hitler in person more than once, and when Hitler voiced his own fear that if “Yellow” was not executed forthwith, “one fine winter’s night Britain and France may arrive at the Meuse without a shot being fired,” the general stubbornly retorted, “That would be preferable in my view.”  When Keitel returned from a brief visit to General Staff headquarters at Zossen, impressed by the arguments Brauchitsch and Halder were deploying against “Yellow,” Hitler bitterly accused his OKW chief of “conspiring with the generals” against him.  He insisted that in the future Keitel loyally transmit the F¸hrer’s will to the war department—an order whose implications provoked the upright, traditionalist general into offering Hitler his resignation both orally and in writing ;  Hitler told him not to be so touchy.  Hitler’s staff believed G–ring was behind the F¸hrer’s growing animosity toward the army, but even G–ring was uneasy about launching “Yellow” so soon ;  however, he failed to win Ribbentrop’s support, and after Hitler turned a deaf ear on him, the field marshal privately vowed to be a good soldier and obey orders in the future.

A basic difference of opinion lay in the Intelligence estimate of the enemy, inadequate because of the Abwehr’s almost total failure to establish a network in the west.  The army put the strength of the French army far too high, in Hitler’s view ;  what perturbed Hitler was the growing British force in France, for he considered each British division was worth three or four French.  But the expert tactical opinions could not be ignored.  Bock warned that the British would land in Antwerp and before the Wehrmacht could prevent it there would again be a long and bloody war of attrition in Belgium.  Other generals pointed out that the winter nights were long and that the combination of long nights and rainy, foggy days would make a war of movement difficult.  But Hitler wanted a war of movement in which his armored and mechanized formations could sweep forward, exploiting the “inflexibility” of the French and the “inertia” of the British armies, and the more he pored over the maps the less he liked the war department’s proposed operational plan.  In the third week of October he commented acidly to Keitel and Jodl that Halder’s plan, with its strong right wing along the coast, was no different from the Schlieffen Plan drafted before World War I :  “You cannot get away with an operation like that twice.  I have something very different in mind.  I will tell you two about it in the next few days and then discuss it with the army.”

This was the alternative possibility—a vast encirclement of the enemy, spearheaded by the armored units thrusting eventually up to the coast between the Meuse River and Arras and Amiens ;  this was terrain he had fought on as a young man, and he knew it would be ideal for the tanks.  Farther to the north, in Flanders, the tanks would get into terrain difficulties.  The idea obsessed him, and at the end of a discussion with the senior “Yellow” generals at the Reich Chancellery on October 25 he tentatively put it to the Commander in Chief.  Bock, who was also present, wrote in his diary that the F¸hrer

said in reply to a question from Brauchitsch that from the very outset he has had the following wish and idea :  to deliver the main offensive only south of the Meuse, perhaps coupled with a subsidiary attack on Liege, so that by our advancing in a roughly westerly and then northwesterly direction the enemy forces already in or pouring into Belgium will be cut off and destroyed.

Brauchitsch and Halder are obviously taken completely by surprise, and a “lively” debate rages to and fro over this idea.

This was the germ of the campaign plan that was to bring about France’s defeat.  But it seemed so bold, staking everything on one card—namely whether the German armies would succeed in breaking through to the Channel coast or not—that Hitler hesitated to order such a radical change of emphasis, the more so since three days before he had provisionally ordered that “Yellow” was to begin on Sunday, November 12.  But he asked the army to look into his idea, and from a side remark it was clear that he was not averse to postponing the offensive until spring if need be.

Hitler was aware that the army’s opposition was not limited to objective debate of the merits of “Yellow.”

There was a clique of as yet unidentifiable officers bent on his forcible removal from power, and their contacts with the western governments made them potentially very dangerous men indeed.  During October he accordingly authorized Heydrich’s secret service to develop its contacts with the British Intelligence network in Holland.  Heydrich’s men were to pretend to represent dissident German army generals willing to risk all in a plot to overthrow the F¸hrer.  If they could secure the British agents’ confidence, the names of the real German conspirators might be revealed, or gleaned from the subsequent radio traffic between the agents and their Intelligence masters in London.  This was the SS plan, and it worked up to a point.  After a convincing series of false starts and unkept rendezvous, the first clandestine meeting between the British agents and Heydrich’s “army generals” took place on Dutch soil in the second half of October ;  certain questions were submitted for the British Cabinet to answer, on the assumption that the generals captured Hitler and ended the war ;  and an additional rendezvous was arranged for early November.  Hitler was intrigued by the possibility of embarrassing the Dutch government by exploiting the evidence of Anglo-Dutch staff collaboration revealed by these SS ploys, and he discussed this with Ribbentrop and Heydrich’s lieutenant, Dr. Werner Best ;  a plan to kidnap the British agents was first considered, then shelved for the time being.

The Abwehr was not consulted by Heydrich.  The Abwehr had its hands full with a very different kind of operation, again at Hitler’s command.  If he invaded Belgium on November 12, the Albert Canal and the nearby fortress of Eben Emael would present serious obstacles to the advance of Reichenau’s Sixth Army.  The canal linked Antwerp to the Meuse ;  at Eben Emael it had been designed from the outset as a moat, an integral part of the Belgian eastern defenses, and it was fortified with bunkers, blockhouses, and walls ramped to steep slopes.  Only three bridges crossed the canal, and these had been built with pillboxes and demolition chambers controlled by detonating squads housed in impregnable blockhouses some distance away.  The Eben Emael fortress had eighteen heavy guns emplaced in casemates and armored turrets and manned by a thousand Belgian troops living underground in the tunnels and bunkers ;  it commanded the Meuse and the southern reaches of the canal.  Since the whole system was some twenty miles from the Reich frontier, the bridges could be demolished long before German army advance parties could reach them ;  the Germans would then have to cross the wide Meuse by the two available bridges on the Dutch side at Maastricht, and these had also been prepared for demolition.

This complex problem occupied Hitler as much as the rest of “Yellow’s” problems put together.  In the last week of October he proposed setting up a camouflaged Abwehr battalion under Reichenau’s control—some four or five hundred Germans under a Captain Fleck and a Lieutenant Hokke, who were skilled in clandestine operations.  This battalion would be rigged out in uniforms used by the Dutch frontier police in the Maastricht enclave.  As Hitler was to say, “In wartime, a uniform is always the best camouflage.  But one thing is vital—that the leaders of Hokke’s shock troops be the spitting image of Dutch police officers as far as language, dress, and behavior go.”  Their job would be to put the detonating cables and charges out of action.

Hitler lamented his army generals’ inability to come up with ideas like these.  “These generals are too prim and proper,” he scoffed after one such conference.  “They haven’t got a ruse de guerre among the lot of them.  They ought to have read more Karl May !”(1)  He had a solution for the fortress of Eben Emael as well :  at the same time as the “Trojan horse” policemen were silencing the Dutch guards on the bridges, some three hundred airborne troops would silently cross the Maastricht enclave in squadrons of gliders and land within the fortress walls in the darkness before dawn ;  they were to be equipped with deadly fifty-kilo “hollow-charge” explosives capable of knocking out the big guns there.  At the beginning of November, the Seventh Air Division commanded the immediate activation of an airborne assault unit for the glider operation ;  its orders were to seize the bridges, knock out the fortress, and hold these positions until the army’s advance guards had fought their way up from the Reich frontier.  The unit was to be ready for action by the twelfth.

There was much that could, and did, go wrong.  Canaris’s Abwehr bungled the preparatory work :  an official of the Munster Abwehr office was detected purchasing large quantities of Dutch police uniforms in the province of Groningen; he was arrested trying to smuggle them across the frontier, and by November 5 there was a public uproar in Holland.  For several days Dutch newspapers featured cartoons speculating on the manner in which the Nazi invaders would be dressed when they came.  One cartoon that reached the Chancellery in Berlin showed G–ring skulking in the uniform of a Dutch streetcar conductor ;  another had him preening himself in a mirror as a Dutch policeman.

With the attack on France and Belgium ostensibly just one week away, the German army command was in a high state of nervousness.  Generals who attempted to remonstrate with Hitler had been sent away unheeded or unheard.  At noon on November 5, General von Brauchitsch himself secured an audience with the F¸hrer, and the next hour saw one of the strangest encounters in the history of their uncomfortable partnership.  The General Staff was now on a different tack :  with facts and figures supplied by the quartermaster general, they were trying to point up the army’s unreadiness and unwillingness for a new campaign.  Brauchitsch himself wrote out in longhand his answer to Hitler’s memorandum of October 9.

His main concern was the state of the army in the west.  In the Polish campaign the infantry had shown little verve in attack, the general contended, and at times the NCOs and officers had lost control.  Brauchitsch even spoke of “mutinies” in some units, and he recounted acts of drunken indiscipline at the front and on the railways during the transfer west that invited comparison with the uglier scenes of 1917 and 1918.  Reports from railway officials and of resulting courts-martial had reached Brauchitsch.  On hearing this, Hitler, who had listened in silence, lost his temper and, interrupting the Commander in Chief, demanded the identities of the units involved.  His hoarse, angry voice could be heard by the secretaries outside.  Snatching Brauchitsch’s memorandum from his hands, he tossed it into his safe and thundered at the general that it was quite incomprehensible to him how an army commander could blacken and condemn his entire army because of a handful of excesses.  “Not one frontline commander mentioned any lack of attacking spirit in the infantry to me.  But now I have to listen to this, after the army has achieved a magnificent victory in Poland !”  He insisted that Brauchitsch furnish him with the reports he had mentioned, and with details of the death sentences passed in the east and west in consequence.  He would fly to the units concerned immediately.  Sweeping out of the room, Hitler slammed the door behind him and left Brauchitsch trembling.

Keitel afterward suggested to Hitler that it was the older recruits—the oftmentioned “white years” of young men who because of Versailles Treaty prohibitions had not undergone early conscription and intensive training—who were to blame for these acts of indiscipline.  Hitler agreed ;  he had fought in vain against the refusal of Brauchitsch’s predecessor to train these men in good time.  Later that evening he angrily discussed with his adjutants Schmundt and Engel this “army sabotage” of his plans.  He dismissed General von Brauchitsch’s written memorandum as a pack of lies, and Captain Gerhard Engel, Hitler’s army adjutant, was ordered to visit the front and report to him on the “mutinying army units.”  To Fr”ulein Schroeder he dictated an aide-mÈmoire on the ugly scene with Brauchitsch ;  this too was locked away in the safe for future use.  He also dictated a document dismissing Brauchitsch, but Keitel talked him out of this.  There was no suitable successor for the courtly and pliable Commander in Chief of the German army.  The Brauchitschs had served their country as officers and servants of the state for many centuries, and Nietzsche’s aphorism could have been their family motto :  “Rebellion is the distinguishing mark of the slave ;  let your mark be obedience.”  A Herr von Brauchitsch would not rebel.

Two days later Hitler provisionally postponed “Yellow” by three days, giving the weather as the reason.

That evening, November 7, his special train left for Munich—his first return to Bavaria since he had departed from the Berghof to confront an uncertain future in August.  He was loath to leave Berlin, but the annual Party anniversary of the 1923 beer-hall putsch was the next day, and he must speak to the “Old Guard” at the B¸rgerbr”ukeller.  He was uneasy about the security risks involved in annual public appearances—the best safeguard against assassination was always an irregular routine.  This B¸rgerbr”u assembly and the long march through Munich’s narrow streets were annual opportunities no less inviting to an assassin than the Nuremberg rally or that approach road to the Kroll opera house in Berlin.  On November 9, 1938, a Swiss waiter named Maurice Bavaud had trained a gun on him on this very march through Munich, but Bavaud’s aim had been spoiled by the sudden forest of hands raised in salute.  Hitler learned of the attempt only when Bavaud was stopped by railway police at Augsburg—as he was attempting to leave Germany—for not having a valid ticket.  He was found to be carrying an envelope addressed to the F¸hrer, and under interrogation he also confessed to having stalked Hitler with a gun during his daily walks on the Obersalzberg mountain in October.  Bavaud was to come up for secret trial by the People’s Court in December 1939.(2)

Hitler was supposed to remain in Munich until the ninth and then, after further ceremonies, fly back to Berlin ;  however, on the morning of the eighth his residence was telephoned from Berlin that the army was demanding a fresh decision on the next day’s deadline for “Yellow,” and since his chief pilot warned him that the weather forecast was against flying, he sent an adjutant to arrange for his private coaches to be attached to the regular express leaving Munich that same evening.  His adjutant returned with word that this train would get him to Berlin by 10:30 the next morning, but it would be cutting things fine if he was to catch it after his speech.  Hitler irritably asked if there were no later trains, but the next express to Berlin would not arrive there until too late for the army’s purposes.  He therefore brought forward the beginning of his speech by five minutes, to 8:10 P.M., and ordered Hess to stand in for him during ceremonies scheduled for the next day.

At seven-thirty the Munich police chief arrived to escort him to the beer hall, and an adjutant telephoned the B¸rgerbr”u with instructions that the speeches must begin punctually, as they now had a very tight schedule.  At eight o’clock sharp, the F¸hrer entered the cavernous beer hall, the local Party band stopped playing in mid-march, and Christian Weber (a former horse-dealer who was now one of the Party’s leading figures in Bavaria) spoke a few brief words of welcome.

Normally Hitler spoke for about ninety minutes, but this time he spoke for just under an hour, standing at a lectern in front of one of the big, wood-paneled pillars.  Many of the Old Guard were away at the front, so the hall was filled with other senior Party members and local dignitaries as well as the next of kin of the sixteen Nazis killed in the 1923 putsch.  Hitler’s speech was undistinguished, a pure tirade of abuse against Britain, whose “true motives” for this new crusade Hitler identified as jealousy and hatred of the new Germany, which had achieved in six years more than Britain had in centuries.  Julius Schaub, who was responsible for seeing to it that his chief reached the railroad station on time, nervously passed him cards on which he had scrawled increasingly urgent admonitions :  “Ten minutes!” then “Five!” and finally a peremptory “Stop!”—a method he had previously had to use to remind his F¸hrer, who never used a watch, of the passage of mortal time.  “Party members, comrades of our National Socialist movement, our German people, and above all our victorious Wehrmacht :  Siegheil !”  Hitler concluded, and stepped into the midst of the Party officials who thronged forward.  A harrassed Julius Schaub managed to shepherd the F¸hrer out of the hall at twelve minutes past nine.  The express was due to leave from the main railway station in nineteen minutes.

At the Augsburg station, the first stop after Munich, confused word was passed to Hitler’s coach that something unusual, though as yet undefined, had occurred at the B¸rgerbr”u.  At the Nuremberg station, the local police chief, a Dr. Martin, was waiting with more detailed news :  just eight minutes after Hitler had left the beer hall a powerful bomb had exploded in the paneled pillar right behind where he had been speaking.  There were many dead and injured.  Hitler’s Luftwaffe aide, Colonel Nicolaus von Below, later wrote :  “For a moment Hitler refused to believe it.  He had been there himself and nothing had happened then.... The news made a vivid impression on Hitler.  He fell very silent, and then described it as a miracle that the bomb had missed him.”(3)  He spoke by telephone with SS General von Eberstein, the Munich police chief (who had been flatly forbidden to encroach on this strictly Party preserve with regular police security measures), and consoled the anguished SS general :  “Don’t worry—it was not your fault.  The casualties are regrettable, but all’s well that ends well.”  By 7 A.M. the news was that six people had been killed (the death toll later rose to eight) and over sixty injured.

At the Anhalt station in Berlin, Hitler’s chauffeur persuaded him at last to inspect the bulletproof Mercedes limousine he had ordered for the motor pool.  The vehicle was driven into the Chancellery’s entrance hall for Hitler’s approval ;  its windshield was of quarter-inch laminated glass, its body of toughened steel armorplate, and its floor was extra thick in order to protect the occupants against mines.  Turning to Martin Bormann, Hitler said, “In the future I will only ride in this car.  You can never tell when some idiot may lob a bomb in front of you.”

At first the SS security agencies ran around in circles.  Himmler reported that the manager of the B¸rgerbr”u was known to the Heydrich office as a highranking freemason who “dealt only with Jews, freemasons, and other sinister elements.”  The Abwehr indulged in even wilder flights of fancy and suspected that the perpetrators would be found among old Party luminaries whose noses had been put out of joint.  Perhaps they had even been in league with G–ring !  Hitler evidently hoped it would prove to be the work of agents of a foreign power.  The people who feared Hitler’s renewed disfavor hurried to dissociate themselves from the outrage at Munich, and for several days afterward his adjutants Br¸ckner and W¸nsche brought to the ruffled F¸hrer telegrams of congratulation from people like Admiral von Horthy, the king and queen of Italy, Benito Mussolini, the still-exiled Kaiser Wilhelm, and Field Marshal von Blomberg.  Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands cabled Adolf Hitler :

Herr Reich Chancellor, may I send to you my most heartfelt congratulations on your escape from the abominable attempt on your life.

Even as Hitler had been speaking at the B¸rgerbr”u, however, a man had been apprehended at Konstanz, attempting to cross illegally into Switzerland.  On the night of November 13 this man, Georg Elser, a thirty-six-year-old Swabian watchmaker, confessed that he had single-handedly designed, built, and installed a time bomb in the pillar.  In his pockets were found a pair of pliers, sketches of grenade and fuse designs, pieces of a fuse, a picture postcard of the B¸rgerbr”u hall’s interior ;  a badge of the former “Red Front” Communist movement was found concealed under his lapel.  Under Gestapo interrogation a week later the whole story came out—how he had joined the Red Front ten years before but had long lost interest in politics, and how he had been angered by the regimentation of labor and religion as well as by the relative pauperization of craftsmen such as himself in the early years of Nazi rule.  The year before he had resolved to dispose of Adolf Hitler and had begun work on an ingenious time-bomb controlled by two clock-mechanisms for added reliability.  After thirty nights of arduous chiseling at the pillar behind the paneling, he installed the preset clocks in one last session on the night of November 5, the evening after Hitler’s furious altercation with Brauchitsch in Berlin.  The mechanism was soundproofed in cork to prevent the ticking from being heard, and Elser’s simple pride in his craftmanship was evident from the records of his interrogations.  He refused to agree he had been acting on higher orders, even though the customs officials who had arrested him both described how they saw a man in a light-colored overcoat apparently waiting for him just inside the Swiss frontier.  He probably was telling the truth, and there is no doubt that one watchmaker acting alone had nearly accomplished what after years of debate, planning, and self-indulgent conspiracy a platoon of officers and intellectuals were to fail to do five years later.

To Hitler it seemed an impossible coincidence that his archenemy, the Nazi renegade Otto Strasser, was at that time in Switzerland, and he later claimed that the Dutch prime minister and Anthony Eden had known of the plot.  In private he assured his staff that one day he would publish the whole story but not yet, as he also wanted to round up those who had pulled the strings.  Security measures were tightened.  General Rommel, commandant of Hitler’s headquarters, wrote on November 9 :  “Six feet of rubble cover the spot where the F¸hrer spoke yesterday evening.  That was how strong the explosion was.  One dare not think what would have happened if the assassination had succeeded.  My only hope is that now in the F¸hrer’s headquarters too the security precautions will be better organized with everything in one person’s hands (mine).  Because if anybody is going to take this responsibility, he cannot share it with anybody else.”  And on the fifteenth, referring to “Operation Yellow,” Rommel wrote :  “The F¸hrer’s mind is absolutely made up.  The assassination attempt in Munich has only made his resolution stronger.  It is a marvel to witness all this.”

November 13 he further instructed that the offensive would not begin before the twenty-second.

There is some reason to believe that Hitler himself did not intend these deadlines to be serious—that they were designed to keep the army at maximum readiness in case the western powers should themselves suddenly invade the Low Countries.  Nor would the western powers have to violate Belgian and Dutch sentiment in so doing, for with the exception of Flemish minority elements, popular sympathies in the Low Countries lay with the West ;  the Belgian armed forces were concentrated almost wholly against the German frontier, where British and French forces could join them virtually overnight, leaving Germany’s “Achilles heel,” her Ruhr industrial zone, in a precarious situation indeed.  Hitler did not doubt that the West had economic means enough to pressure the Low Countries into “appealing for help” at a propitious moment.  “Let us not credit the enemy with a lack of logic,” Hitler said later in November.  “If we respect their [the Low Countries’] neutrality, the western powers will just march in during the spring.”

Hitler was also under pressure from G–ring and the Luftwaffe’s Chief of Staff to occupy the whole of Holland rather than just temporarily violate the Maastricht enclave :  possession of Holland would be vital for the future air war between Britain and Germany.  After the Munich bomb attempt, Hitler came around to this view.

The time had come to compromise the Dutch.  He instructed Heydrich to wind up the cat-and-mouse game being played with the British agents in Holland.  Heydrich’s “army officers”—who had not shown up at the agreed rendezvous on November 8—now appeared on the ninth at Venlo, just inside the Dutch frontier.  The British agents drove up, there was a rapid exchange of gunfire, and they were dragged across the border into Germany together with the driver and another officer, mortally wounded ;  this latter turned out to be a Dutch Intelligence officer accompanying them.  The Dutch government formally requested the return of the body ;  that was “Holland’s biggest blunder,” Hitler afterward ominously said.  This was proof that the ostensibly neutral Dutch were working hand in glove with the British.  “When the time comes I will use all this to justify my attack,” he told his generals.  “The violation of Belgian and Dutch neutrality is unimportant,” he explained.  “Nobody will ask about such things after we have won.”(4)  On November 12, Hitler personally presented the Iron Cross to the SS major who had directed the kidnapping.

One unexpected bonus from the Venlo incident was that the British agents turned out to be Britain’s top agents in Holland ;  from them Heydrich’s officers learned that the British secret service was evidently in touch with genuine Wehrmacht officers who were planning a revolt against Hitler.  But Heydrich’s ambition to establish a direct link between the B¸rgerbr”u explosion in Munich and the British secret service remained unfulfilled (which did not prevent Himmler from claiming later in November that proof to that effect had been obtained). On November 13, General Jodl instructed the war department that a new F¸hrer Directive was on its way :  the army must be prepared to occupy as much of Holland as possible to improve Germany’s air defense position.  This was on the assumption that the British, who had already eroded Holland’s neutrality by repeated overflying of RAF planes, would attempt to set foot in Holland as soon as Hitler’s troops marched across the Maastricht enclave.  Hitler would justify his violation of Dutch neutrality by claiming the involvement of the Dutch General Staff in the Venlo incident.  Three days later he again postponed “Yellow,” this time to November 26 at the earliest ;  on the twentieth the operation was postponed to December 3.  On November 20, meanwhile, Hitler issued a further directive to the services which finally ranked the attack on Holland equal to those on Belgium and France :

In variation of the earlier directive, all measures planned against Holland are authorized to commence simultaneously with the beginning of the general offensive, without special orders to that effect.  The reaction of the Dutch forces cannot be estimated in advance.  Where no opposition is encountered, the invasion is to be given the character of a peaceful occupation.

According to the diary of a member of Jodl’s staff, during a conference in the OKW’s map room Hitler expressed the opinion that “the planned attack in the west would lead to the biggest victory in the history of the world.”

In the east, meanwhile, the “devil’s work” was well in hand.  Gruesome reports of massacre and persecution began to filter up through army channels.  Not all of them reached Hitler, since Brauchitsch had in September tacitly agreed that Heydrich should have free rein for his special tasks ;  for Brauchitsch to have protested now would have been hypocritical, and besides, his row with Hitler on November 5 had made him reluctant to set foot in the Chancellery again.  But consciences had to be salved, and the reports were dutifully shuttled about between the adjutants.  Thus, soon after the Munich plot, Captain Engel received from Brauchitsch’s adjutant a grisly set of eyewitness accounts of executions by the SS at Schwetz.  An outspoken medical officer addressed to Hitler in person a report summarizing the eyewitness evidence of three of his men :

Together with about 150 fellow soldiers they witnessed the summary execution of about 20 or 30 Poles at the Jewish cemetery at Schwetz at about 9:30 A.M. on Sunday, October 8.  The execution was carried out by a detachment consisting of an SS man, two men in old blue police uniforms, and a man in plain clothes.  An SS major was in command.  Among those executed were also 5 or 6 children aged from two to eight years old.

Whether Engel showed this document and its attached eyewitness accounts to Hitler is uncertain.  He returned it to Brauchitsch’s adjutant almost immediately with a note :  “The appropriate action to be taken at this end will be discussed orally.”  Apparently he asked Himmler to investigate the executions.  A few days later, however, Brauchitsch’s adjutant submitted a further report, this time by General Blaskowitz, the military commander in the east, protesting at the wave of illegal executions.  Engel later recorded :  “I showed this report, which is absolutely objective in tone, to the F¸hrer that same afternoon.  He took note of it calmly enough at first but then began another long tirade of abuse at the ‘childish ideas’ prevalent in the army’s leadership ;  you cannot fight wars with the methods of the Salvation Army.”

If Hitler still regretted having kindled this holocaust, it was not because of the horrors that were beginning to spread like a medieval plague across eastern Europe :  they were inevitable byproducts of his program, and he was more concerned to justify them inwardly than to prevent them.  What unsettled him was the unscheduled delay the war would inflict on his grand plans for the reconstruction of Germany.  On nocturnal drives through the deserted, blacked-out streets of Berlin he would mentally survey and supervise the architectural reshaping of the city.  One night he ordered his driver to stop outside the half-completed “House of Tourism” near Potsdam Bridge and sadly commented that it was a pity the war had to put a stop to so many of these fine building projects throughout the Reich.

In the Reich Chancellery, the large table in the old Cabinet Room, where Bismarck’s Berlin Congress had assembled, was now dominated by a huge relief map of the Ardennes—the mountainous, difficult region of Belgium and Luxemburg that was twice to be the scene of Hitler’s unorthodox military strategy.  The Chancellery cleaning women must have dusted around the contoured models of Belgium and Luxemburg without realizing the map’s significance.  Many an hour Hitler stood alone in the evenings, tracing the narrow mountain roads and asking himself again and again whether his tanks and mechanized divisions would be able to get through.

By now he had been provided with the original construction plans of the bridges across the Albert Canal ;  previously he had only aerial photographs and picture postcards of these important targets.  The blueprints showed where each demolition chamber had been built into the bridges and pinpointed each detonation fuse and bunker.  From other sources he had similar details on the toughness of the concrete and armorplate of the fortress at Eben Emael.  Belgian deserters proved particularly useful.  A scale model of the fortress had been built, and intensive training of the glider crews had begun under top security conditions.

The bridges, and particularly those in the Dutch town of Maastricht, presented the most intractable problem, the more so since the Dutch had evidently been warned by anti-Nazi agents in Berlin and even alerted to the date originally set for the attack, for on November 12 extensive security precautions had suddenly been introduced at the Maastricht bridges.(5)  Had the Abwehr’s four hundred special duties agents infiltrated the border in Dutch uniforms, they would have been slaughtered.  Hitler discussed the operations with Canaris and his chief of sabotage operations, Colonel Erwin Lahousen, on November 16 ;  but he did not believe they would capture the bridges over the Albert Canal by surprise alone, and he began casting around for other means of preventing the bridges’ destruction.  Though he asked to meet the two Abwehr officers who would lead the clandestine operation, he also reflected that should the bridges be blown the most urgent need would be to displace the army’s mechanized units from the northern to the southern wing, for it was in this thrust through the Ardennes that the main chance lay.  The British and French were expecting Hitler to attack through Holland, so all their best units were in the north.  He ordered a full-scale secret conference on the bridges plan, starting at 3 P.M. on November 2o, and directed that Brauchitsch should come too.

General von Reichenau made it clear from the outset that since the invasion of Holland had already been compromised once, he had no faith in the Abwehr’s “Trojan horse” plan.  The “Dutch policemen” must not cross the frontier before the glider operations had begun.  Since the Dutch authorities were now expecting the police uniforms to be used, as was shown by the fact that they had issued special armbands to their police, there was little prospect of the Abwehr getting away with it.  Hitler replied, “Then the entire operation as at present planned is pointless !”  Canaris did what he could to salvage the plan (according to Lahousen, he lied) by suggesting that the Dutch were still in the dark, as the Munster agent who had been arrested had not himself known the purpose of the uniform purchases.  Hitler was unconvinced.  “None of the plans is bound to succeed.”  But after they had surveyed the large relief map and all the other possibilities had been scrutinized—including attacking the bridges with light bombs to destroy the demolition cables, and rushing them with tanks and 88-millimeter guns(6)—he had to fall back on the Trojan horse.  “There must be some means of getting these bridges into our hands,” he complained.  “We have managed to solve even bigger problems before.”

When the conference ended four hours later, Hitler had provisionally adopted the sequence proposed by G–ring :  at X-hour proper, fifteen minutes before dawn, the gliders would land silently on the fortress at Eben Emael and the bridge at Canne ;  five minutes later dive-bombers would attack the other Albert Canal bridges to disrupt the demolition charges ;  the bombers would be followed five minutes later by the arrival of more glider-borne troops just east of the bridges themselves.  At the same time the Abwehr’s disguised advanced party would seize the Maastricht bridges ;  for this they would have to cross the frontier in Dutch uniform forty-five minutes before X-hour.  Within the first hour after X, it was hoped, the tanks and artillery of the Sixth Army would be close enough to relieve them.  A special liaison officer with the army would at once radio back to Hitler’s staff a report on the fate of the bridges, for on this would depend the course of the rest of the campaign.

The weather was still against “Yellow.”  Each day the Luftwaffe’s chief meteorologist was consulted on the long-term forecast.  G–ring, indeed, expended large sums on a charlatan who claimed to have developed an electronic machine capable of influencing the weather.  (It proved on investigation to be a broken radio.)  General Halder, ignoring the fact that the F¸hrer had never consulted horoscopes, unrealistically proposed bribing Hitler’s soothsayer, since he no longer heeded his generals’ prophecies of doom.  (When Hitler later learned the role astrology had played in persuading his own deputy, Rudolf Hess, to fly to the enemy he clamped down on astrologers in general.)

Every morning, Berlin was in the grip of icy frost and fog, which lifted in the afternoons to let a weak sun filter through.  On November 21 the F¸hrer issued surprise orders for his leading generals and admirals to hear an exposure of his views two days later.  Had not Frederick the Great summoned his defeatist generals to just such a talk before the battle of Leuthen ?  To the large audience that packed the Great Hall of the Chancellery at noon on the twenty-third Hitler depicted the coming battle as the operation that would finally ring down the curtain on the world war that Germany had been fighting ever since 1914.  He repeated the compelling arguments for early action that he had first marshaled in his October memorandum.  He recited the many occasions since having first decided on the arduous life of a politician in 1919, when aided only by Providence he had ignored the grim prophecies of others to exploit the brief opportunities that opened to him.  How many opportunities the politicians and generals had lost in the years since Moltke’s death in 1891 !  At that time, too, the generals had claimed that they were unready.

He, Adolf Hitler, had now provided the generals with a strategic situation unparalleled since 1871.  “For the first time in history we have only to fight on one front.  The other is at present open.  But nobody can be certain how long it will remain so.”  His own indispensibility had been forcefully impressed on him by the recent assassination attempt ;  that there would be other attempts was probable, for what the enemy called a fight against “Hitlerism” was, he warned, nothing less than a war against the presence of any powerful, determined government in Germany.  In the same degree the immediate future depended on the lifespans of Mussolini and Stalin, for if the Duce died, the basically hostile monarchy would convert Italy’s imperialist strategy into a fundamentally anti-German one ;  and if the Russian dictator died, the treaty with Russia might become worthless.  Thus there was no time to be lost.  This was why the defensive strategy his cowardly army generals were calling for was shortsighted ;  had Moltke in his studies of 1871 and after proposed defensive strategies ?  On the contrary, Moltke had clearly shown that only through offensives could wars be decided.  Germany’s present enemies were weak and unready :  here, he illustrated his point by listing in turn the number of French tanks and guns, and British ships.  The United States might on the other hand prove dangerous in one or two years’ time.  He was convinced that Italy would join in as soon as Germany made the first move against France, just as Russia had waited before joining in against Poland.

His speech bristled with concealed barbs against the army generals.(7)  While he praised the “aggressive spirit” of the navy and Luftwaffe, in an evident reference to Brauchitsch, he sneered :  “If our commanders in chief are going to have nervous breakdowns as in 1914, what can we ask of our simple riflemen ?”  He had been “deeply wounded” by suggestions that the German army was inferior insofar as infantry was concerned, and that the officers had had to precede their men into battle, with consequently disproportionately high officer losses.  He dismissed this curtly.  “That is what the officers are there for.”  He recalled how in 1914 after months of training the infantry attack on Liege had broken up in panic and disaster ;  nothing like that had happened in the Polish campaign.  “I will not hear of complaints that the army is not in shape.  It is all a matter of military leadership.  Give the German soldier proper leadership and I can do anything with him.”

It was not as though Germany had a real choice between armistice and war.  The West wanted war, Hitler said, therefore Germany must fight on until victory.  A more tortuous argument he deployed was that since the German people had already sacrificed so much to rebuild the Wehrmacht, it would be irresponsible not to make the fullest use of it now.  “People will accuse me :  war and yet more war !  But I regard fighting as the fate of all the species.  Nobody can opt out of the struggle, unless he wants to succumb.”  He had spent his whole life preparing for this fight.  A few minutes later he said, “Victory or defeat !  And it is not a matter of the future of National Socialist Germany, but of who will dominate Europe in years to come.  For this it is worth making a supreme effort.”  In a dark reference to conspirators, Hitler warned that wars could not be ended except by destroying the enemy.  “Anybody who thinks differently is irresponsible.”  He believed the present favorable strategic situation would last perhaps six more months, but then the British troops, “a tenacious enemy,” would vastly strengthen their foothold in France, and “Yellow” would be a different proposition altogether.

“My own life is of no importance,” he concluded.  “I have led the German people to great achievements even if we are now an object of hatred in the outside world.”  His was the choice between victory or annihilation.  “I have chosen victory.”  If he had to die, he would do so honorably, because he did not propose to survive the defeat of his country.  Germany would neither capitulate to the enemy nor dissolve in internal revolution.

The speech lasted two hours.  Afterward, Hitler instructed his principal generals and admirals to join him in his study.  According to one of them, Hitler explained that he realized it was unusual for the supreme commander to explain his decisions and orders to his subordinates.  He had made this exception because he had detected the negative mood prevailing among the generals.  He ended this little speech with the words :  “ This will be the last war Germany fights against France, because I am going to smash France to smithereens.  I can clearly see that coming, with my prophetic eye.”  Then he shook each of them by the hand and released them from the Chancellery.

General von Brauchitsch reappeared in the evening and stiffly informed the F¸hrer that if he had no confidence in him he ought to replace him.  Hitler retorted that the general must do his duty like every other soldier ;  he was not oblivious to “the spirit of Zossen” prevailing in the army, and he would stamp it out.  Zossen was the headquarters of the General Staff and seat of the conservative and conspiratorial elements of the German army.

1 German author of popular and ingenious American Indian stories.

2 He was beheaded.

3 Below’s account goes on to say that Hitler often excitedly repeated the circumstances that had led to his leaving the B¸rgerbr”u early (see also Rosenberg’s diary, November it).  “He joked that this time the weather expert had saved his life.  Otherwise, commented the F¸hrer, the expert was pushing him into an early grave with his weather forecasts, for the weather outlook was black and likely to continue so.”

4 This was an argument of some force.  Who later questioned the various Allied encroachments on neutral nations :  the planned invasions of Norway and Eire in 1940 (see below) and the actual occupation of Iceland that same year ?

5 Colonel Hans Oster, Canaris’s Chief of Staff in the Abwehr, had himself warned the Belgian and Dutch legations that Hitler planned to attack on November 12.  The uniform scheme was not mentioned.
      Oster had been cashiered from the Reichswehr over a morals scandal in 1934 and immediately conscripted into the Abwehr by Canaris.  Both men were hanged in April 1945.

6 “ If it can’t be accomplished by trickery,” Hitler said, “then brute force must do.”

7 Rommel wrote the next day :  “The F¸hrer spoke very bluntly.  But that seems quite necessary, too, because the more I speak with my comrades the fewer I find with their heart and conviction in what they are doing.  It is all very depressing.”


p. 48   The earlier assassination attempts are touched on in Hitler’s Table Talks on September 6, 1941 (Koeppen’s note) and May 3, 1942 (Heim’s note);  Peter Hoffmann, who investigated them in Swiss archives, informs me that Bavaud was beheaded in May 1942.

p. 50   Dr. Anton Hoch published a study on the B¸rgerbr”u murder attempt in VfZ, 1969, pages 383 et seq., effectively demolishing the many postwar legends by referring to the Gestapo interrogation of Georg Elser, the lone assassin (now in BA file R 22/3100).  I also used the diaries of Bormann and Groscurth, the day’s detailed program (NS-10/126), and testimonies of Below, Grolmann, Schaub, and Baron Karl von Eberstein ;  the Gestapo finally listed eight dead and sixty-three injured (T175/473/4876).  On Hitler’s orders later trials of Elser and his former employer, whose negligence enabled him to steal the quarry explosives, were adjourned sine die (file R22/4087), and Elser was executed in April 1945.

p. 53   Jodl’s diary and postwar testimony, coupled with his adjutant Wilhelm Deyhle’s notes (1786-PS), show that until November 13 Hitler was convinced he could amicably come to terms with Holland.  An entry in the diary of Halder’s Intelligence chief, General Kurt von Tippelskirch (BA file III H36/1), on November 12 proves that Hitler himself ordered the kidnapping of the two British agents, and he himself decorated the SS officers who achieved this at a Reich Chancellery ceremony two days later (BDC file on SS Major Helmuth Knochen).

pp. 54-55   Admiral von Puttkamer first told me of the Ardennes relief map ;  it was also observed by Lieutenant Colonel Lahousen in the Chancellery on November 20, 1939, as he testified under interrogation six years later, and Hitler himself referred to the relief map “we used at that time in Berlin” in a war conference on September 17, 1944 (Heiber, page 660).

p. 55   The two Abwehr officers were Captain Fleck and Lieutenant Hokke, according to the diaries of Groscurth, Lahousen, Jodl, and Halder.  Lahousen noted :  “The F¸hrer has asked for every demolition charge’s touch-hole [Z¸ndloch] to be described to him.”  A full record of the secret conference of November 20, 1939, is in the Canaris-Lahousen fragments (AL/1933).

p. 57   The completest records of Hitler’s harangue of November 23, 1939 (Milch’s diary called it a “spunk-jab”), are the shorthand note in General von Leeb’s diary and the anonymous ND, 789-PS, which agrees well with a text in Groscurth’s files (N104/3).  I also found a summary in the diary of Colonel Hoffmann von Waldau—Deputy Chief of Air Staff and the diaries of Bock and Halder.  General Hoth used it as the basis for a speech to the Fifteenth Army Corps’ generals (BA file W.2005/2), and Admiral Raeder likewise for his section heads (PG/31762a).