Let Europe Hold Its Breath
Hitler entered the new year, 1941, with two distantly related ambitions : to knock out Soviet Russia and thus force Britain to submit with no injury to her empire, and to rescue fascism in Italy from threatened oblivion. All else was subsidiary to these aims. He had no designs on Greece and fervently hoped that now the Greeks had thrown the Italian invaders out they would rid themselves of their British guests as well ; then he could cancel the Marita operation against Greece. Through Admiral Canaris he had offered, using obscure Spanish and Hungarian diplomatic channels, to mediate between Greece and Italy, but in vain. As for the Italian defeats in Africa, he would not have been alarmed by them were it not for the danger that Mussolinis regime might collapse in consequence. The fact is, for better or for worse Germany is tied to the Duce, explained Hitler on January 4. In the long run you can only make history by loyalty, he mused virtuously. Hitlers loyalty to Mussolini is indeed worthy of an odd niche in history.
In North Africa, Hitler saw no problems that a small force of German tanks and aircraft could not put right. In the Balkans, however, a dangerous situation had developed since Italys ill-timed attack on Greece in October. Over Hitlers broad desks at the Chancellery, and now at the Berghof, flowed the dispatches from Ribbentrops experts. Familiar and unfamiliar Balkan potentates and diplomats were ushered pastthe queen mother of Romania, prattling endlessly about the problems of Europes other monarchs, about cousin Christian of Denmark, and about her brother King George II and Crown Prince Paul of Greece ; then in January the prime minister of Bulgaria, followed a week later by King Boris again, still promising to join the Tripartite Pact but genuinely fearing that the Russians, and possibly Turkey too, would invade the moment the Germans set foot in Bulgaria, which the Russians were loudly proclaiming was in their sphere of interest. Here too was Antonescu, reaffirming the Romanian willingness to fight for Hitler but asking now for mines and for big guns to defend his Black Sea port of Constanta (where seven hundred thousand tons of German oil was stockpiled) against Russian attack. Walther Hewel brought Hitler file after file of top-secret Forschungsamt intercepts and surveys. From these sources Hitler gained confidence that Turkey would not as yet intervene. Nonetheless he had ordered that the divisions assigned to Marita be split into three groupsone to protect Romania against Russian invasion, one in southeastern Bulgaria to dissuade Turkey from interfering, and one for the actual operation against Greece.
No terrain could be less promising for a modern army than the Balkans. Before his armies could even get into Bulgaria, they would have to throw pontoon bridges across the swirling Danube River, nearly a mile wide ; the one existing railway bridge could handle only six trains a day. The roads were virtually impassable in winter and became morasses when the snow thawed. The crumbling bridges crossing the countless Balkan streams and dikes would never support the loads an army would impose on them.
Nevertheless, the Wehrmacht overcame all these obstacles : in the remaining weeks before Marita German staff officers in plain clothes and Volkswagens were sent throughout Bulgaria to supervise the strengthening of the bridges and the resurfacing of the roads. And when the campaign was over, Hitler was to relate to the Reichstag : In barely three weeks this triumphant campaign has extinguished the fighting in two countries, following rutted tracks, demolished roads, across jagged slopes and boulders, along the narrowest rocky paths, through raging torrents, over towering mountain passes, across demolished bridges and bare mountainsides !
To Hitler, early in 1941, the Balkans meant two things : the Ploesti oil field in Romania, now well within the reach of the RAF bombers even if the Athens government still refused them the necessary overflight permission ; and Salonika, in northern Greece, from which the Allies had launched their deadly assault on Austria-Hungary in World War I. That must not happen this time. In 1918 there was no great power waiting on the sidelines to benefit. This time there was the Soviet Union, her eyes firmly fixed on the Dardanelles.
Hitler called together his leading military advisers and Ribbentrop for a council of war at the Berghof. It began on January 7 and ended on the ninth with a major secret speech in which he outlined the reasoning underlying his grand strategy at a length and level of frankness unfamiliar since his harangues of 1939 Keitel and Jodl were already at the Berghof ; they were joined on the eighth by Raeders chief of operations, the studious and intellectual Rear Admiral Kurt Fricke, and Halders deputy, Paulus ; and by the ninth, the afternoon of the speech itself, Brauchitsch and the armys chief of operations, Adolf Heusinger, had also been driven up the snow-covered lanes to the Berghof with General Jeschonnek, the Luftwaffes Chief of Staff.(1) Jeschonnek was a slim, cool-headed, ruthless staff officer of an ability outstanding for his youth : at sixteen he had been an infantry lieutenant in World War I, then a fighter pilot ; still only forty-one, he had a typically Silesian mentalityan abrupt, singleminded attitude with neither the ability nor the inclination to argue with those who disagreed with him. It was Jeschonnek who had confidently predicted that Britain would cave in under the pressure of the Luftwaffe bombing offensive. Now, not even Hitler accepted that : the British peoples toughness was a wholly unexpected factor, he admitted.
As for Britain, Hitler had long since decided that an invasion would be a crime unless the country was so paralyzed that his army would have the kind of walkover the French had had in the Ruhr in 1923 when Germany failed to keep up reparations payments. Terror raids by the Luftwaffe have little point or prospect of success, he explained. The Luftwaffe must concentrate on reinforcing the naval blockade of Britains imports and on attacking bottlenecks in the arms industry. This combined offensive could produce results by July or August 1941 ; Britain was already admitting a 1o percent loss in arms output, and as her aluminum imports were being stifled, Hitler was skeptical about the British air forces prospects of expansion without direct American aid. Rumors of Britains growing military strength could easily be discounted by the simplest analysis of the raw materials position : Germany had produced as much pig iron as Britain and France put together ; at present she was producing twenty-four million tons a year compared with less than eight million in Britain. Germany produced far more aluminum, and as a dictatorship she could marshal far greater reserves of manpower ; in Britain the number of jobless was actually increasinga sure measure of the enemys industrial problems. The German naval blockade was only just beginning : fifty submarines were in training, three would be in service by January, five in February, eight in March ; from June onward, there would be fifteen new submarines a month. The destruction of the English mother country is inevitable in time, Hitler concluded.
Britain, of course, realized this and the fact that Germany could be defeated only here, on the continent. Britain, asserted Hitler, as he had consistently since the fall of France, is propped up by her faith in the United States and Russia. Her wooing of Stalin was betrayed by many clues : Churchill had two weeks before appointed Anthony Eden, whom Hitler suspected of having pronounced pro-Bolshevik sympathies, to the foreign office ; from intercepts and other sources, Hitler was aware of the diplomatic overtures Britain was preparing in Moscow ; Britain had announced her lack of interest in the Dardanelles ; and Russias chorus of increased demands since the summer of 1940 was unlikely to be coincidence. Stalin was infinitely the cleverest and most cautious of Hitlers opponentshe must be seen as an icecold blackmailer who would not hesitate to tear up every written treaty if it served his purposes. Russias Drang nach dem Westen would lead Stalin to exploit every temporary indisposition of Germany or her allies, and the British would do everything to egg him on.
Apart from Russia, Germanys position was now impregnable, at least for the coming year, Hitler noted. Norway was safe from invasionat most the British might launch minor prestige raids for their nuisance value. Occupied France wanted an end to the war ; the unoccupied half still dreamed of a reverse in its fortunes, but he had prepared Operation Attila to occupy this sector and seize or immobilize the French fleet at Toulon should General Weygand, that German hater, declare North Africa for the Allies. He was still undecided about Spain : Franco had more than once broken his promise concerning Gibraltar, and he would still go no further than agree to enter the war once Britain was down and almost outa promise that had come to Britains ears. In the Balkans, only Romania was deliberately and unreservedly friendly ; Antonescu had made the best impression imaginable on Hitler. Bulgaria was loyal, had feared Russian intervention until recently, but would join the Tripartite Pact in good time. Turkey would take no action at this time. Hungary was usable at present. Yugoslavia was cool. Poland was no longer any problem.
Therefore Russia must be Britains last hope. They will only give up when we have smashed this last hope on the continent to smithereens. The British were no fools, said Hitler ; they must realize that if they lost this war they would no longer have the moral authority to hold their empire together. On the other hand, if they can pull through and raise forty or fifty divisions, and if the United States and Russia help them, then Germany will be in a precarious situation. That must not be allowed to happen. He had always believed in destroying the enemys most powerful positions first. That is why Russia must now be defeated. If Britain did not give in even then, Germany need leave only some fifty divisions in the east ; her army could be cut back to provide manpower for the Luftwaffe and naval construction programs, for the antiaircraft defenses, and for the dispersal of industry out of reach of the British bombers. Meanwhile Russias defeat would enable Japan to put pressure on the United States, and Roosevelt would have second thoughts about attacking Germany.
Since Russia must be defeated, it must be defeated now. True, the Russian forces are a clay colossus with no head, but who knows how they will develop in the future ? He believed the Russian arms industry was still hamstrung by development problems.(2) The defeat of the Soviet Union must be swift and final ; under no circumstances must the Russians be allowed to regroup after the first, brutal breakthrough. Again he called for the rapid occupation of the Baltic coast first of all. The generals strategic targets were the annihilation of the Russian army, the capture of the most important industrial regions and the destruction of the rest, and the occupation of the oil fields at Bakuon the Caspian Sea. Though immense and new, this latter demand should not, however, daunt them ; their armies had also covered immense distances in the few weeks of the French campaign, Hitler reminded them. He concluded, Germany will then be unassailable. The vast spaces of Russia will yield hoards of incalculable wealth. Germany must dominate them economically and politically, without annexing them bodily. Thus we will have all we need to be able to fight whole continents in the future, if need be ; we will be invincible. When we fight this campaign, let Europe hold its breath ! From now until June 1941, Hitler made no mention whatsoever of Russia in his public speeches.
Mussolini was still loath to meet with Hitler. Small wonder, for on January 5 a small British force had captured the Italian fortress of Bardia in Libya, taking forty-five thousand Italians prisoner. There were now only five Italian divisions left in Cyrenaica and five more in Tripolitania. Meanwhile the Luftwaffe corps Hitler had transferred to the Mediterranean had opened its attack on January 6, sinking a British cruiser and damaging an aircraft carrier. Mussolini finally agreed to come to a meeting later in January but stipulated that there must be no fuss and no photographershe even suggested their two trains should meet somewhere in the open countryside.
Hitler sought for ways of helping the Italians out of their self-created mess without hurting Mussolinis prestige at home. He considered sending a mountain division to Albania and a small blocking force of German tanks and engineers to help the Italians hold on to Tripoli ; his ambassador in Rome accompanied Ribbentrop to the Berghof on the ninth and urged that Germany exert a greater influence on Italian strategy in the Mediterranean, but Hitler characteristically refused to do anything that would damage the Duce and thus impair the most valuable link in the Axis, the mutual trust between Mussolini and himself. Two days later he signed the directive ordering the army and Luftwaffe to prepare to support the Italian defense of Albania and Tripolitania.
Hitler collected Mussolini from a small railroad station near Salzburg at 10 A.M. on January 19. Two days of conferences and strolls about the snow-clad Obersalzberg followed. Hitler had one 90-minute talk privately with the Duce, but from the record of the other conferences it is clear he revealed nothing he had not already stated to his own generals on the ninth, except that he made no mention of his plan to attack Russia soon. Indeed, he again averred that so long as the wise and prudent Stalin was alive Russia would adhere to her treaties. (On January 9, according to a note taken by Admiral Fricke, Hitler had explained he had no intention of revealing his own plans to the Italians because of the very real danger that the Italian monarchy would forward this Intelligence to Britain.) He did, however, reveal that in the British Cabinets secret meetings Churchill referred to the helping hand Russia would perhaps one day lend, in addition to America. Britain, however, would lose the war before then. The British may get used to living a troglodyte existence, or to having no windows in their houses and the like, states the record of Hitlers comments, but when their food imports are no longer safe they will have no option but surrender. This is why Germany is trying to sink as much shipping as possibleparticularly refrigerated vessels, as they take a long time to build. In the three such ships sunk in recent weeks Britain has lost two whole weeks meat supplies.
This meeting brought to an end Mussolinis dream of fighting an independent war, parallel to Hitlers, in the Mediterranean. He accepted the offer of a blocking force for Tripoli but could not accept the mountain division for Albania, as he needed the Albanian port space for his own reinforcements. On January 22, Tobruk with twenty-five thousand Italians fell into British hands. The whole of Tripolitania was now in peril. The panzer specialist General Hans von Funck, sent to North Africa in mid-January, reported to Hitler on February 1 in the most pessimistic terms at the Chancellery in Berlin : the Italians had no will to resist the British onslaught in North Africa. What was needed was not a defensive blocking force, but a force capable of launching a determined counterattack on the extended British mechanized units. The crazy feature is, said Hitler afterward to his staff, that on the one hand the Italians are shrieking for help and cannot find drastic enough language to describe their poor guns and equipment, but on the other hand they are so jealous and childish that they wont stand for being helped by German soldiers. Mussolini would probably like it best if our troops could fight in Italian uniforms there, and our aircraft flew with the Italian fasces on their wings !
In conference with his army and Luftwaffe chiefs two days later, Hitler again declared that militarily the loss of Italian North Africa would mean little ; however, its political and psychological effects could be devastating, for Britain could then deal with Mussolini at pistol point and force him to make peace. Conversely, if Hitler could win quick successes for the Axis in Libya, this might speed a peaceful settlement in the Balkans. He decided to send more than just a blocking force to North Africa ; he would send a light infantry and a panzer division to Libya, with a German corps staff. Who should command this Afrika Korps ? Erich von Manstein and Erwin Rommel were suggested to him. He chose Rommel. (In August 1942 he explained to Italys Ambassador Alfieri : I chose Rommel because hes like Dietlhe knows how to carry his troops forward with him ; and this is absolutely vital for the commander of an army fighting under extremes of climate, be it in North Africa or in the Far North.) Son of a W¸rttemberg schoolmaster, Rommel had won the Pour le MÈrite medal fighting the Italians in World War I. Between the wars he had written a brilliant manual, Infantry Attack. In the French campaign of 1940 he had fought his 7th Panzer Division through to the Channel coast heedless of personal risk and exhaustion ; as recently as December, Schmundt had shown Hitler an illustrated divisional history Rommel had devised of the French campaignfor the future desert fox was nothing if not a capable public relations man, too.
On February 6, 1941, Rommel and General Enno von Rintelen, the military attachÈ in Rome, were briefed by Hitler in Berlin. Rintelen was instructed to ask Mussolini to put all the Italian mechanized units in Libya under Rommels new command. That evening Hitler leafed through the British and American illustrated weeklies to show Rommel what his enemies in Cyrenaica looked like. These magazines and boys adventure books were Hitlers main source of information. (Your experts should read more Karl May and attend fewer courses, he said in rebuke to the Luftwaffes Field Marshal Milch in October 1942. Then theyd be of more use in this war!) Rommel was instructed to hold Tripolitania for the Axis powers, tying down the British and preventing them from breaking through to the French in Tunisia. Saw armys Commander in Chief [Brauchitsch] first, wrote Rommel in his hotel afterward. Then the F¸hrer. Theres no time to be lost. My luggage is being sent on afterward.... My head reels to think of all that can still go wrong. It will be months before things take effect ! On February 9, Mussolinis agreement to hand over tactical command to Rommel arrived, and after some delay Rommels first troops and equipment began disembarking at Tripoli on the twelfth. It was a beginning, but it would be April or May before the last of his corps was finally assembled there.
Spurred on by Admiral Raeder, by the ambiguous attitude of Vichy, and by the deteriorating situation in the Mediterranean, during January 1941 Hitler put renewed pressure on General Franco to revise his views on Gibraltar. He could not understand why the Spanish dictator had rejected his offers of material aid, for the British were certainhe arguedto let Spain down in the end. When Mussolini came to the Berghof, Hitler also persuaded him to pressure Franco at a forthcoming personal meeting : Gibraltar in the hands of the Axis would put a new complexion on the whole North African dilemma. Air bases and two German divisions in Spanish Morocco would soon keep General Weygand in his place.
At Salzburg on January 18, Ribbentrop briefed his ambassador to Madrid on the tough line to adopt with the Caudillo, but this new approach did not bring possession of Gibraltar any nearer. Franco, of course, had no inkling of the strict timetable Hitler had already drawn up for the attacks on Greece and Russia, a timetable into which Felix, the attack on Gibraltar, must be slotted, if it was to take place at all ; this explains the increasing irritability of Ribbentrops telegrams to Madrid over the next two weeks. On the twentieth the ambassador cabled from Madrid that Franco had cleverly skirted around the central issueAs to whether Spain would enter the war there is no question, that was settled at Hendaye ; it is only a question of when. If Germany would not send food supplies until Spain entered the war, they would arrive too late. The ambassador had replied that if Germany was expected to send food shipments in advancefor example, the one hundred thousand tons of grain tantalizingly held up in ships in Lisbonthen Germany must be permitted to stipulate the date of Spains entry into the war, and Franco must agree to it in advance.
Ribbentrops ploy was not likely to flatter Francos self-esteem. The ambassador was instructed to read out to Franco six points, of which the first was : Without the help of the F¸hrer and the Duce there would not be any Nationalist Spain today. Nor any Caudillo. If Franco did not abandon his vacillating attitude, then the end of Nationalist Spain was only a matter of time. Franco angrily denounced this as unjust : he had never vacillated, and he still intended to enter the war ; but the ambassador cabled Ribbentrop that the Caudillo seemed more hesitant than before. Ribbentrop cabled him to see Franco yet again and read out a message beginning : Only the immediate entry by Spain into the war is of any strategic value to the Axis. (This was the harsh truth.) Given the necessary promise Germany would at once release one hundred thousand tons of grain from Lisbon. In a lengthy reply to Ribbentrops earlier demarche the Spanish government amiably reminded Berlin of the German foot-dragging the previous summerGermany had still not sent the economic experts Spain had asked for in September ; the Spaniards also suggested the German High Command had taken little account of the extremes of weather encountered in southern Spain in the winter. Ribbentrop now concentrated his venom on his ambassador, for having allowed Franco to slither away from a clear Yes or No answer to the question of whether or not he was willing to enter the war at once.
On January 28, Jodl pointed out to Hitler that even if they could resume preparations for Felix on February 1, it would be impossible to launch the actual assault on Gibraltar before mid-April, which meant that the hundreds of artillery pieces and troops involved could not be released for Barbarossa in mid-May. Hitler told Jodl they must dispense with Felix, but evidently he still pinned some hopes on Mussolinis talks with the Caudillo on February 12. A few days beforehand he wrote the Caudillo a personal letter suggesting that in times of crisis nations could be saved less by prudent foresight than by a bold heart. This poetic appeal made no impression on Spains realistic leader. On the fourteenth Ribbentrop telephoned to the Berghof a message from the Duce, which the Italian charge in Berlin had just delivered to the foreign ministry. Hitlers senior secretary, Fr”ulein Wolf, took the telephone message down in shorthand. By raising demands which it was clear Hitler would not accept, Franco had made it abundantly clear that Spain would not join the war. Spain was to be given military and economic aid ; the Hendaye secret protocol was to be reworded more precisely, so as to grant Spain the whole of French Morocco ; and the assault on Gibraltar was to be executed by Spanish forces, perhaps with German support. Mussolinis general impression was that Spain was in no position to declare war. To Hitler, however, Franco was failing to honor a promise. Walther Hewel, Ribbentrops liaison with Hitler, wrote in his diary that day : Telegram from Rome on Mussolinis meeting with Franco. Negative, as we expected. The F¸hrer is going to drop Spain. They will just go under.
In the evening, we sat for a long time with the F¸hrer around the fireside, continued Hewels diary. The F¸hrer talked about his pensionthat of a middle-grade civil servant ! He is going to write booksa third volume of Mein Kampf . . . entitled Collected Broken Promises, and books on Frederick the Great, Luther, and Napoleon. Earlier that afternoon he had spent two-and-a-half hours nervously trying to persuade the Yugoslav prime minister to join the Tripartite Pact. By now Field Marshal Sigmund Wilhelm Lists Twelfth Army preparations in Romania were so far advanced that bridge-building across the Danubethe frontier with Bulgariacould begin the next day if need be. But so many uncertainties were involved in occupying Bulgaria, let alone attacking Greece, that Hitler was still looking for alternatives ; not until the end of the month would he finally allow the bridge-building to begin.
The Yugoslav prime minister indicated that his country was no keener to join the Axis than it had been in November. The most he would offer was to mediate between Italy and Greece. Hitler suggested that it was illusory to expect the British to evacuate their foothold in Greece now. Only when our dive-bombers and armored corps appear will they get out of Greece as hastily as they have on every other occasion we employed these means. Germany has no demands whatever against Greece. Here as elsewhere Britain is the root cause of all the difficulties.(3) Of course, added Hitler, he was aware from the Allied documents captured in France (which were duly published) of the extent to which the Greeks had offered their country as a front for Britain. What he did not say was that a recently intercepted French diplomats report from Belgrade recounted a conversation with the state secretary in the Yugoslav foreign ministry : Yugoslavia is trying to gain time until May. Britain has assured her that from May onward Britains military strength and the entry of the United States into the war will change the whole situation.
England will be annihilated, Hitler warned his Yugoslav visitors. If the British now announce they are a country of long wars and adduce the course of the Napoleonic wars as evidence for this theory, then let me point out that the only reason the British could hold out so long then was because they had the Prussians fighting for thema reference to Bl¸chers opportune arrival at the battle of Waterloo. The Yugoslavs offered one suggestionthat they form a Balkan bloc with Bulgaria and Turkeybut this would have made impossible any attack designed to oust the British from Greece ; Hitler dismissed it privately as a British insinuation. When the Yugoslavs left the Berghof they said they would report to the prince regent in Belgrade and let Hitler know. On the outcome would depend Marita, and Hitler had reason to be nervous.
The first wave of divisions was now moving toward the frontier with Russiaonly a slow procession as yet ; not until mid-March would the second wave begin. As Lossberg had pointed out, the German railway network was so superior to the Russian system that when the real race began, Germany could muster seven divisions a day and the Russians only five ; the farther west the Barbarossa divisions waited the betterthe bigger will be the Russian surprise when the German troop concentration begins. The whole military jigsaw puzzle would be fitted together, each piece numbered and timetabled by the General Staff, in the last weeks before the attack. Only when the puzzle was unveiled would Stalin find Hitler ready to attack Russia.
When Field Marshal von Bock reported to Hitler on February 1, their conversation drifted through the problems of basing great decisions on the rackety foundations provided by Italys disasters. The attack on Russia would divert world attention from the African calamity. Britain was proving a tough nut to crack ; there was no talk of invasion now. But the people in Britain arent fools, said Hitler. They just act like fools ! They will realize there is no point in fighting on once Russia too is beaten and eliminated. Bock agreed that if the Russians stood their ground and fought, they would be defeated ; and he wondered whether they could be forced into an armistice ? This might be one consequence of the German capture of the Ukraine, Moscow, and Leningrad, replied Hitler ; otherwise the Wehrmacht must advance toward Yekatarinburg. Anyway, he concluded, I am glad that we carried on with arms manufacture so that we are now strong enough to be a match for anybody. We have more than enough material and we already have to begin thinking about converting parts of our industry. Our Wehrmacht manpower position is better than when war broke out. Our economy is absolutely firm. The F¸hrer rejected out of hand any idea of yieldingnot that Bock had hinted at it. I am going to fight, he said ; and I am convinced that our attack will flatten them like a hailstorm.
Two days later Field Marshal von Brauchitsch brought Chief of the General Staff Halder to the Chancellery to outline the armys operational directive on Barbarossa. Halder put the Russian strength confronting them at about 155 divisionsin short, numerically a little more than the German strength but vastly inferior in quality. Although army Intelligence believed the Russians might have as many as 10,000 tanks, compared with their own 3,500, the Russian armored vehicles were a motley collection of obsolete design. Even so, surprises cannot be ruled out altogether, warned Halderwith some perspicacity, for by June 1941 the Red Army had 967 ultramodern T-34 tanks on the front, and the Germans did not have an antitank gun powerful enough to use against that model. As for the Russian soldier, Halder believed the Germans were superior in experience, training, equipment, organization, command, national character, and ideology. Hitler naturally agreed, but he challenged the armys estimate of Russias huge manpower reserves and arms potential. He was convinced, however, that the Soviet dictatorship was so hated, particularly by the young Russians, that it would crumble under the first victorious German onslaught. As for Soviet armament, he was something of an expert on arms production, he said ; and from his memory he unlocked a ten-minute statistical lecture on Russian tank production since 1928, proving in the process just how thinly armored each type was.
Hitler approved the armys directive but once again emphasized the capture of the Baltic coast and of Leningrad. The latter was particularly important if the Russians were falling back elsewhere, as this northern stronghold would provide the best possible supply base for the second phase of the campaign. Finland would assist in the northern theater, dividing her forces for operations against the Murmansk railway in the far north and against Leningrad on the Baltic. Hitler knew that Halder had just had a first round of talks with his Finnish counterpart, General E. Heinrichs, in Berlin. Hitler was convinced the Finns would make ideal allies, although Finlands political strategy would be problematical as she wished to avoid a complete rupture with the United States and Britain. Hitler had said to his staff. They are a plucky people, and at least I will have a good flank defense there. Quite apart from which, it is always good to have comrades-in-arms who are thirsting for revenge....
The armys timetable produced some interesting side-effects which had obviously not occurred to Hitler up to now. Once the second wave of divisions started eastward from western Europe in mid-March, Attila (the emergency occupation of Vichy France) would become virtually impossible. With the third wave in mid-April the maximum-capacity transport plan began, and the troop concentrations could no longer be concealed except as a vast decoy operation to distract from an invasion of Britain; but when the fourth and final wave of panzer divisions that had been reequipping and resting in central Germany started rolling eastward from April 25 onward, an invasion of Britain would become an obviously impossible cover story. Hitler admiringly agreed with all that Halder had said. When Barbarossa gets going, the whole world will hold its breathit wont move a muscle !
The army directive was forthwith issued. The next day, Admiral Raeder set out the navys somewhat smaller role (the navys main enemy was still Britain). Afterward, Raeder told the admiralty that the navys principal task in Barbarossa would be to establish a supply line to Leningrad.
On Sunday February 16, Hitlers chief Wehrmacht adjutant, Rudolf Schmundt, who had flown to North Africa with Rommel the week before, reported back to the Berghof with photographs of Rommels arrival and a first analysis of the position.
Hitler saw a possible crisis zone in Libya, for if the Italians were driven out altogether, the British could transfer forces to Syria with complex side-effects on Marita and Barbarossa. Not surprisingly, he awaited Rommels operations feverishly, as Schmundt wrote a few days later. Colonel Schmundt described the enthusiasm with which Rommel had thrown himself into his task. Hitler sanctioned all his requestsfor antitank guns, mines, and Luftwaffe reconnaissance and close-support aircraft. Rommels first troops had disembarked at Tripoli in one night and then covered the 350 miles to the Italian front west of El Agheila in twenty-six hoursan accomplishment not without effect on the demoralized Italian troops. Rommel organized a military parade of his troops, whose new tropical helmets and gear gleamed in the African sun. Before he left Tripoli he set up the rapid manufacture of scores of dummy tanks mounted on Volkswagen chassis to dupe the British into thinking he had a powerful armored force. By the twenty-first, the first 35 dummy tanks had arrived at his headquartersanother 170 were being built. His troops had already withstood their first howling ghibli (sandstorm) and were advancing on El Agheila. The British were withdrawing from their position there, and the Italians were already acquiring new heartthough their fighter pilots still lacked verve. The letters Rommel sent to Schmundt (which the colonel undoubtedly showed to Hitler) exuded optimism from every line. Hitler decided to send out the 15th Panzer Division as soon as he could.
How eerily different was this new battlefield for Rommels soldierscity dwellers or farmers for the most part. The Cyrenaican desert was an almost treeless, shadowless lunar landscape baked by a fierce sun ; however, as soon as darkness fell, the temperature plummeted toward zero. There were few valleys, and the monotonous expanse of white or reddish-yellow sand was broken only by occasional herds of sheep and camels tended by migrant Arab tribes. At the end of February Rommel had lost only one mankilled in the dark by his own troops. In mid-March he reported to Hitler in person and then returned to Africa. He detected the weakness of the British forces opposing hima weakness resulting from the dispatch of over sixty thousand British troops to Greece ; without waiting for the new armored division to arrive, and against the explicit instructions of both the German war department and the Italian Supreme Commander, Italo Gariboldi, he launched a bold assault in early April ; he did not halt until he had reached the Egyptian frontier and taken three thousand British prisoners, including five generals.
By March the last major crisis before Barbarossa had been overcomeor so Hitler believed. At 7 A.M. on February 28, since Greece still proudly refused to offer peace terms to Italy, the German Wehrmacht began throwing three mighty army bridges across the mile-wide, fast-flowing Danube from Romania into Bulgaria.
After several false starts, Hitler dictated to Fr”ulein Wolf an important letter assuring Turkeys President Ismet In–n¸ that he saw no reason, either now or in the future, why Germany and Turkey should ever be enemies. He assured In–n¸ that the Wehrmacht would stand many miles off the Turkish frontierunless of course Turkish measures forced him to revise this attitude. (The General Staff and OKW had both worked out contingency plans for a tank campaign against European Turkey in alliance with Bulgaria.) Inonu replied calmly that Turkeys sole desire was to safeguard her integrity, and he warmly recalled her comradeship with Germany in World War I. Hitler was well pleased.
On March 1 we find him in Vienna, where the German-speaking King Boris signed Bulgarias formal entry into the Tripartite Pact. Who could then have foreseen that this document would prove the death warrant of the king, poisoned by an unknown hand in 1943 ; or that Fr”ulein Wolfs shorthand pad with the letter to In–n¸ would be found by American soldiers raking through the ruins of the Berghof in 1945 ? So far, however, all Hitlers calculations were again proving correct ; within one week, by March 7, 1941, the first German soldiers would be standing on the Greek frontier, facing British and Greek troops as they had in 1918. This time would surely be different : neither Turkey nor Russia would move a muscle. Nothing could save Greece.
1 Jeschonnek is presumably the author of the hitherto unpublished note on Hitlers speech of January 9, 1941, which I found among the papers of his deputy, Hoffmann Waldau.
2 In April 1941, Hitler learned for the first time how advanced the huge Soviet arms industry was.
3 Had Italy not attacked Greece, the difficulties would not have arisen. But Hewel was echoing his masters views when he wrote to a friend on January 23, 1941 : It is actually regrettable that we are forced to smash and destroy so much that we do not want to smash and destroy and that should not have been destroyed for European culture and the mastery of the Germanic races.
p. 200 I have used Erwin Rommels memoirs, Krieg ohne Hass (Heidenheim, 1950) and his private correspondence (T84/R274 et seq.).
p. 206 The oil factor in the Barbarossa campaign is emphasized in the war diary of Keitels OKW economics staff (T77/668).
p. 207 Besides other standard sources on the North Africa fighting, like the war diaries of Rommels various commands, I have used his writings and correspondence with his wife, Lucie, and with Colonel Schmundt, which reveal his strong dependence on Hitler. Thus on March 3, 1941, he wrote : Major Gr¸now brought back from Berlin the F¸hrers greetings and news that he is delighted at the change in our fortunes since my arrival and intervention here. He supports my actions to the hilt. That pleased me, it gives me strength to do greater deeds. And on April 4 : F¸hrer congratulates me on the unexpected successes, sends guidelines for continuation which wholly conform with my own ideas (T84/R274).