Hitler Takes Command
In the dark months of that winter Hitler showed his iron determination and hypnotic powers of leadership. We shall see how these qualities and the German soldiers legendary capacity for enduring hardship spared the eastern army from cruel defeat that winter. Where his generals saw an ignominious withdrawal as their only salvation, Hitler told them to stand firm until the spring thaw arrived to halt the enemy offensive. When they demurred, argued, and disobeyed, Hitler dismissed and disgraced them, and himself took command of the German army, until a new spirit gradually prevailed along the eastern front.
Hitlers powers to influence were remarkable. A division was reported to be retreating. Hitler telephoned its commander. The generals dejected voice reached himbarely a whisper, from a frozen, inhospitable wilderness hundreds of miles away. Hitler rebuked him : You know perfectly well that its just as cold thirty miles further back ! The eyes of the German people are on you. His few words implanted a new sense of purpose in the general, and the division stood its ground. Soon hardened commanders were swearing they had seen Hitler in the thick of battleWe thought it was all over, but then the F¸hrer toured our sector calling for one last ounce of effort from us, and we pulled through ! But many more months would pass before he risked leaving his headquarters.
I had to act ruthlessly. I had to send even my closest generals packing, two army generals, for example, whose strength was gone and who were at the end of their tether.... n winter one of them came and announced, Mein F¸hrer, we cant hold on any longer, weve got to retreat. I asked him, Sirrrr, where in Gods name are you thinking of retreating to ? How far ? Well, he answered, I dont really know !Do you plan to drop back thirty miles ? Do you think it isnt all that cold there, then ? And do you imagine your transport and supply problems will be any better there ? And if you retreat, do you intend to take your heavy weapons with you, can you take them ? This man answered, No, it cant be done.So youre planning to leave them to the Russians. And how do you think youre going to fight further back if you havent got any heavy weapons ? He responded, Mein F¸hrer, save at least the army, whatever happens to its guns. So I inquired, Are you planning just a retreat to the Reich frontier, or what ? Where do you plan to call a halt ? Well, mein F¸hrer, he rejoined, we probably wont get any choice. I could only tell these gentlemen, Get yourself back to Germany as rapidly as you canbut leave the army in my charge. And the army is staying at the front.
After declaring war on the United States, Hitler remained briefly in Berlin. The public mood was grim. The churches were fulla disturbing sign, but Hitler admitted to his secretaries that there was nothing he could do against the churches until the war was over. As in the case of the Jewish problem, Hitler felt he already had enough on his plate.(1)
In the east military disaster was looming. The Soviet counteroffensive had torn open a thirty-mile-wide gap between Kluges and Guderians armies. Bocks Army Group Center had no more reserves. On December 9 Guderian had warned him : Something like a crisis of confidence has broken out among the troops. More and more Russian troops and tanks poured through the breach. The most effective antitank weapon, the Redhead shell with a hollow-charge warheadwhich Hitler had first seen demonstrated on November 25had immediately been embargoed by him to keep it secret from the enemy. Whenever Russian tanks appeared, the German infantry were taking to their heels. The fear of Russian captivity, and the lack of weapons, fuel, fodder for the horses, and reserves, produced a crushing sense of inferiority.
Hitler sent the armys ailing Commander in Chief von Brauchitsch to the Moscow front to see the situation for himself. Guderian met him on December 14 at Roslavl ; he wrote afterward : It took a twenty-two hours drive through the blizzard to reach him. I think he got the most urgent points I made. Brauchitsch ordered Guderian to hold the line forward of Kursk and Orel, but like Bock and Kluge the tank commander knew only one solution : retreat while the going was still good ! Hitler turned a deaf ear on them all. I cant send everybody home just because Army Group Center is beginning to leak, he argued ; and he was encouraged by anguished appeals from the other sector commanders not to let a general rout begin.
Army Group Centers most urgent need was for reserves. Late on December 14 Hitler ordered Jodl to find out how much could be scraped together in the Reich ; General Friedrich Fromm explained that his Replacement Army had a number of divisions under training, convalescing, or temporarily released to industry. Half an hour after midnight Hitler ordered Fromm to come to the Chancellery. The general undertook to raise four and a half divisions at once from all over Germany, equipped with winter clothing and skis. At 1 P.M. the next day Hitler telephoned Field Marshal Leeb, who was now asking permission to pull back his army group (North) to the Volkhov River ; Hitler pointed out that this would open up the railroad link to Tikhvin for the Russians and enable them to pour more troops and supplies into Leningrad. Again he could not trust Brauchitsch or Halder to make this plain enough. He ordered Leeb to bring General Ernst Buschcommander of the Sixteenth Army besieging Leningradto the Wolfs Lair in person the next day.
As his special train left Berlin that evening, Hitler drafted his first Halt Order to the eastern front. Any large-scale retreat by major sections of the army in midwinter, given only limited mobility, insufficient winter equipment, and no prepared positions in the rear, must inevitably have the gravest consequences. The Fourth Army was ordered not to fall back one foot. This controversial order was hotly debated during the night. Its critics argued that what mattered now was not clinging to frozen territory but preserving the armys fighting power for 1942 ; others, among them Jodl, replied that only such a holding order made sense. A colonel argued that it was time for strategic command of the war to be delegated to an acknowledged expert like General von Manstein ; Jodlemerging from Hitlers conference carpointed out that the F¸hrer could not stand that general too near him. Besides, the F¸hrer has already decided on a different way of resolving the command problem.
It was 11 A.M., December 16, when Hitler arrived back at the Wolfs Lair. His Halt Order was dictated to Bock over the telephone by Halder at 12:10 P.M. Hitler made it obvious that he was going to ignore Brauchitsch and deal directly with the army groups in the future. But the damage had already been done. When Leeb now came, Hitler had to agree to Army Group Norths proposed withdrawal. If you had been given the Third Panzer Group as I wanted, at the time the enemy south of Lake Ladoga was still weak, you would have encircled Leningrad immediately and made land contact with the Finns. This plan the General Staff had prevented.
Indeed, Hitler no longer trusted Brauchitschs judgment. On December 16 he had his chief adjutant, Rudolf Schmundt, flown to the Moscow front ; and that afternoon Schmundt returned with an accurate account of Guderians litany of worries, told him in an hour-long conference on Orel airfield. At last the truth was reaching Hitler. Waiting for the F¸hrer to telephone him about reinforcements that evening, Guderianracked by sciaticawrote to his wife : I only hope its not too late. The consequences dont bear thinking about. Weve been put in a hideous position by our total underestimation of the enemy and the haphazard preparation for a winter campaign in Russia. Heaven knows how were going to extricate ourselves.... Im just glad that the F¸hrer at least knows whats happening, and I hope hell come to grips with his customary verve with the bureaucratic wheels of the war department, railroad, and other machinery. ... I lie awake at night racking my brains about how I can help my poor men, who have no protection against this fierce winter weather.
Toward midnight Bock telephoned Schmundt with the text of his three-day-old report to Brauchitsch, openly warning that a momentous decision would shortly confront them. It read : The F¸hrer must decide for himself whether my army group must stand and fight, thereby risking its total destruction, or retreat, entailing precisely the same risk. If he decides on retreat, then he must realize that it is unlikely that enough troops will ever get back to the new line to hold it, and that it will be unprepared for them and not all that much shorter. Brauchitsch had suppressed this report rather than show it to Hitler. Over the phone Bock now added that his 267th Infantry Division had that very day been forced to abandon its entire artillery in the retreat. Hitler telephoned him in person. In this situation there is only one answer, and that is not to yield one inchto plug the gaps and hold on ! Bock grimly replied that his front might cave in any moment. Hitler responded clearly, That is a risk I must just take.
There is only one thing that ails our front, he explained to Brauchitsch and Halder a few moments later. The enemy just has more soldiers than us. This was why they must rush the simplest reinforcementsriflemen, each provisioned with eight or ten days canned food, alcohol, and chocolateby train to the Russian front. A thousand trucks must be supplied to Bock as well, and two thousand SS troops must be flown east from Cracow. At 3 A.M. he telephoned Guderian with details of the reinforcements that he was airlifting to the front.
Later that day, December 17, General von Richthofen came to the Wolfs Lair with G–ring. The Luftwaffe corps commander wrote in his diary :
Jeschonnek and I went in to see the F¸hrer. Hes a bundle of nerves, but clearheaded and confident.... I kept emphasizing that what matters now is keeping our troops alive and fighting where they are. What the front lacks is riflemen, winter gear, and food, but above all the will to stand fast. . . . I emphasized the need for him to appeal to each soldier in person, then it will be all right.... The F¸hrer listened with enormous interest and concentration. Hes planning a major proclamation. Reichsmarschall [G–ring] and I were very persuasive. F¸hrer swears loudly about the army commanders responsible for much of the foul-up. Is grappling with big reshuffle. Brauchitsch already out, Halder, Keitel, etc. are to follow him. He asks my opinion on various army commanders : not a pleasant job, but I spoke my mind bluntly while stressing my own bias.
Hitler himself signed the famous order that now went out to the eastern front. After minor frontline corrections, Army Group North was to stand fast to the last man. Army Group South was also to stand fast. The same went for Bocks Army Group Center.
Major withdrawal movements cannot be made. They will result in the complete loss of heavy weapons and equipment. Under the personal leadership of commanders and officers alike, the troops are to be forced to put up a fanatical resistance in their lines, regardless of any enemy breakthrough in their flanks and rear. Only this kind of fighting will win the time we need to move up the reinforcements I have ordered from the home country and the west.
Richthofen was to receive one long-range fighter and four bomber squadrons from the west. The chief of air training was to release five transport squadrons to the front, and the aircraft pools of every ministry and headquarters unit were to be ruthlessly stripped of all but the most essential transport planes as well. The most important thing is to furnish riflemen (in simple replacement battalions) to the weakest of the divisions. There is less urgency for the transport of tanks.
This was no time to respect personal feelings, either. If Bock was unwell, then a tougher commander must replace him : Hitler ordered Field Marshal von Kluge to take over Army Group Center. Hitler attached no blame to Bock and asked Schmundt to make this plain to the field marshal.
Less cordial was his parting now with Field Marshal von Brauchitsch, the armys Commander in Chief. Hitler clearly held him responsible for withholding from him, whatever the motives, urgent and serious messages from frontline commanders. The impression he had gained on his visit to Rundstedts army group two weeks earlier was confirmed by the inexplicable suppression of Bocks alarming message of the thirteenth. Later in December, Hitler issued a Basic Order to all Wehrmacht commands, reminding them of the need to respect such reports as an indispensable instrument of leadershipIt is the duty of every soldier to report unfulfilled orders and his own errors truthfullyand to report without exaggeration or dangerous embellishment.
More serious were the recent indications of Brauchitschs inability or reluctance to execute Hitlers orders. According to Major von Below, Hitlers Luftwaffe adjutant, the incident that was the last straw had occurred in Berlin, in that midnight conference between Hitler and General Fromm. Here Hitler found out that the orders that had reached the Replacement Army were different from those he had issued. After this nocturnal conference Hitler decided that Brauchitsch would have to resign his command of the army. Several days had followed in which Hitler thought of appointing another general in his place. By December 19, however, his mind was made up : he would follow Schmundts advice and take command of the army himself. He knew of no general capable of instilling the National Socialist spirit into the army, he explained to Brauchitsch in a loud voice that day, and he added almost inaudibly, We will remain friends.
He repeated to Halder his motives for taking command himself. He explained that Halder would have to carry on as before, while Keitel assumed the ministerial functions of the war ministry. It surprised many that Halder had not shared the fate of Brauchitsch ; but Hitler needed the Chief of General Staff for his ability and experience, and the ambitious general learned to swallow his aversion as a professional to the upstart dictator. Meanwhile, Hitler and Schmundt composed an Order of the Day to the soldiers of the army and the Waffen SS : Our countrys struggle for freedom is approaching its climax. We are faced by worldshaking decisions. The prime bearer of the struggle is the army. As of today I have therefore taken command of the army myself. As a soldier in many battles of World War I, I share deeply with you the determination to win through. A second document he signed that day was a letter to the commanders of the Luftwaffe and the navy in which he formalized his action :
As of today I have decided to take command of the army myself.
The Chief of the Army General Staff will be subordinated directly to myself.
The Chief of the Wehrmacht High Command, Field Marshal Keitel, will exercise on my behalf the remaining powers of the army Commander in Chief as the supreme commanding and administrative authority of the army ...Adolf Hitler.
General Guderian was the next to go. It had slowly dawned on his superiors that he was ignoring Hitlers Halt Order and preparing his Second Panzer Armys retreat ; this was clear to Halder from the way the tanks were being regrouped around Orel and the army being echelonned in depth. Kluge, who had succeeded Bock, was no friend of Guderian, and when the panzer general arrived at Hitlers headquarters on December 20 Kluge angrily telephoned Halder and Schmundt to warn them that Guderian had obviously lost his nerve.
Guderian dramatically set out to the F¸hrer the condition of the Second Panzer Army : his troops were exhausted and outnumbered ; it was impossible to dig in, as the ground was frozen solid. Hitler retorted, Then use your heavy artillery or mortars to blast out craters and install trench heaters in them. At one stage he caustically inquired of Guderian : Do you believe that Frederick the Greats grenadiers enjoyed dying for their country either ? Guderian for his part hinted that it was high time for Hitler to rid himself of chairbound experts like Keitel, Jodl, and Halder, who had never seen the front line. (He had just written in a private letter : They simply signal impossible orders to us and turn down all our requests and demands. What gets on my nerves is the feeling that Im not getting through to themthat Im powerless to prevent my being sacrificed to these conditions.) He flew back to Orel the next day and briefed his commanders on Hitlers renewed Halt Order. But his tanks stealthy withdrawal still continued. Finally, on December 25, Kluge refused to work with Guderian any longer : one or the other of them must go. Shortly before midnight Hitler telephoned Kluge back : Guderian was being relieved of his command forthwith.
Something of the loneliness of absolute power must have gripped him in these weeks. Could he be certain that his single-handed decisions were rightor would the ultimate blame for military disaster now attach to him ? There was nobody to whom he could unburden himself. With Eva Braun he could not discuss the war, and anyway she was far away in Bavaria. The women on his staff occasionally glimpsed the inner man. A few days earlier a record player had been installed in the F¸hrers Bunkerthe concrete blockhouse in which he lived, in case of an enemy bombing raid or paratroop assaultand every evening he listened to Richard Strauss and Hugo Wolf Liederand of course to Wagner. How the girls loved to listen to Strausss Heimliche Aufforderung as Heinrich Schlusnuss sang it, or to the gentle tenor voice of Peter Anders. How beautiful these Lieder are, wrote one of the secretaries. They envelope you in warmth and love, and even the Chief seems touched by them, because yesterday evening he told us two girls, Children, you must use every hour thats given you !
But with the command of the German army, an avalanche of work descended on him. He had ordered Halder to attend his war conferences each day in person with his staff, but Halder was no glutton for responsibility, and it was this that weighed so heavily. For weeks on end Hitler knew no regular routine. His midday meal used to start at 2 P.M.; now it was taken hours lateronce as late as 6 P.M. This in turn dislocated the supper times, and the tea-party routine which previously had begun regularly in his bunker at 10 P.M. now never started before midnight. Once that winter it started after 2 A.M., which meant that his weary partners were unable to retire to bed before four or five. There was no exercise for anybody : the bunkers were warm, but outside it was cold and the roads were blocked by snow or treacherous with ice. While his secretaries preferred the warm, cozily furnished offices, Hitler slept in his bunker, with the ventilation system humming all night and the draft blowing on his head.
At the conference Guderian had attended on December 20, Hitler had issued a string of further draconian orders to steady the ragged eastern front. He told Halder : The will to hold out must be brought home to every unit ! He recognized the troops natural tendency to cling to the sheltering villages, but he demanded that heated dugouts be improvised between them too : the men must learn to dig in and put up with enemy breakthroughs. Any Russians who did penetrate must be mopped up by hunting parties in the rear. Indeed, the rear area must become one vast defense zone in which the enemy would be forced again and again to stand and fightevery field bakery must learn to defend itself, as must the Luftwaffes ground organization. The attacking Russians must find no shelter, no stone standing atop another. This was the ruthless policy Stalin had employed in his retreat that summer ; how much more effective it would be in winter. Every village the Germans had to abandon must be burned down regardless of its inhabitants. Their warm clothes were to be taken from them. Any villages or woodlands falling into Russian hands were to be methodically destroyed by the Luftwaffe. The enemy must live from hand to mouth. Above all the morale of the troops had to be restored, and their fear of the Russian enemy and winter dispelled.
He embodied these principles in a new order to the three army groups in the east. Every officer and man must realize one thing : a retreating army must expect a far crueler winter than the army that held out where it washowever ramshackle its positions. The Russians will follow hard on the heels of any withdrawing army, allowing it no respite, attacking and assailing it again and again ; nor will such an army come to any halt, as it lacks any kind of prepared positions in the rear. The phrase Napoleonic Retreat is threatening to come true. Hitler held out one hope to his commanders : the Russians would slowly bleed to death in their own offensive. They were already throwing their very last reserves into the fight, and these were no match for the German soldier.
Hitlers message was distributed to every officer on the eastern front. If his armies could only hold out long enough, he would transport to them fresh riflemen and ammunition, and they would win time to salvage precious equipment disabled near the Russian lines.
Christmas at Hitlers headquarters was always a cheerless affair, very different from that celebrated at the Berlin ministries, for example. Hitler received his staff in turn, handed them an envelope containing a small sum in Reichsmarks, and sometimes sent them a packet of coffee with a typed note of good wishes. Hewel wrote in his diary on the twenty-fourth : A dejected Christmas. F¸hrers thoughts are elsewhere. No candles lit. Two days before, Hitler had learned from Kluge that the General Staff were sending hundreds of half-frozen troops by air to Smolensk without weapons or winter gear. He had shouted into the telephone : Another Schweinerei ! I was told that everybody going to the eastern front was being equipped with machine guns and rifles. Kluge warned him : I have a feeling we shall be facing a major decision tomorrow. Hitler confidentially gave him the authority to withdraw sectors of his army group if need bea measure of his trust in this field marshal. More important, Hitler also lifted the embargo on the Redhead hollow-charge antitank shells.
A fragment of another famous diary, that of Canaris, graphically portrays the atmosphere :
December 24, 1941.A grave crisis is looming up on the eastern front, particularly for Army Group Center. If the Russians keep up their pressure it may end in catastrophe. Fateful consequences are now arising from the fundamental errors made in planning the operations of October 15 (no single main point of effort) and in allocating our forces (no tactical reserves anywhere, let alone strategic), and above all from our downright criminal underestimation of the enemy. General Schmundt is drawing comparisons with 1812 and talks of the moment of truth for National Socialism. The equipment losses are horrifying : trucks, guns, and aircraft have to be destroyed or abandoned because we lack the fuel to bring them back.
All this has a grim effect on our soldiers fighting morale, as they suddenly realize that they are being badly led. The F¸hrers actions (retiring von B[rauchitsch] and a number of commanders) are quite right and have befallen those who are by no means blameless, whatever people may say about them....
Our own treatment of Russian prisoners is having awful consequences. In the retreat from Moscow we had to abandon German field hospitals as well. The Russians dragged out the sick and injured, hanged them upside down, poured gasoline over them, and set them on fire.(2) Some uninjured German soldiers had to watch this torture ; they were then kicked in the groin and sent back to the German lines with instructions to describe how the Bolsheviks were reacting to news of the mass executions and barbaric treatment meted out to their comrades in German captivity. On another occasion German prisoners were beheaded and their heads laid out to form the SS symbol.
The Russian army communiquÈ never reports numbers of prisoners taken, but just registers laconically that fifty officers and two thousand enlisted men were liquidatedmeaning the modes of execution described above.
Hitler also received ample evidence from the Forschungsamt intercepts that the Red Army was shooting German prisoners of war. When the International Red Cross now proposed that both sides return to the accepted conventions, Hitler refused, telling Keitel and Jodl that he did not want his troops to get the idea that the Russians would treat them decently in captivity ; besides, if he had to furnish lists to the enemy, the Russians would soon observe that many of their prisoners in German hands were no longer alive (a consequence of the heartless neglect and epidemics to which they had been exposed).
The years end had come. They had attained none of their strategic objectives. Almost hourly Hitler was to be seen clinging to the long-distance telephone linking him with Kluge and the eastern front. The dam might break at any moment. Kluge was again asking for minor withdrawals, and Hitler was grimly observing that they might just as well fall back on the Dnieper or even the Polish frontier. The Russians were not even first softening up the Germans with artillery bombardment. Hitler related to the field marshal how as a simple infantryman in Flanders he and his comrades had withstood ten days of ceaseless bombardment and nevertheless had held the line. Kluge rejoined that Hitler had not been fighting at twenty-five degrees below zero. My corps commander has told me that if the 15th Infantry Division is ordered to stand fast, the troops are so exhausted they will not obey. Hitler angrily said, If that is so, then it is the end of the German army, and he ended the conversation.
None of Hitlers staff would forget the New Years Eve that followed. In the far south, Mansteins first assault on the fortress Sevastopol had failedindeed, General Hans von Sponeck had surrendered Kerch to the enemy. Throughout the day Kluge had been on the phone to General Halder, begging for permission to withdraw the Fourth Army, the right wing of Hoepners Fourth Panzergruppe, and the Ninth Army into a new line. Hitler flatly refused. Any strategic retreat was bound to touch off a general collapse ; he demanded a fight to the finish in order to win time until the reinforcements arrived. Kluge phoned Halder soon afterward : if General Strausss Ninth Army stood fast, it would be wiped out in the next two or three days. Then they would have no alternative but to witness the honorable collapse of the entire army group within a week.
Supper was again served late. Hitler dozed off afterward, exhausted, while the last minutes of the old year ticked away. His staff gathered expectantly in the mess and waited for him. But at eleven-thirty Kluge phoned urgently from the front, and for the next three hoursthe time is graven in the diaries of Bormann, Hewel, and the army group itselfHitler wrangled with the field marshal, arguing and cajolingstopping only for a half-hour debate with Halderon the need to stand fast. Kluge argued for a compromisesomething between the extremes represented by Guderians stealthy retreat and the F¸hrers adamant orders, as he put it. He asked Hitler to trust him. Halder, however, supported Hitler completely. Hitler refused outright to grant Kluge freedom to withdraw what amounted to a ninety-mile section of the front over twenty miles. Again Kluge was ordered to hold the front. Not until 2:30 A.M. did Hitler arrive for tea with his intimate staff. I am glad I know how to overcome even the greatest difficulties, he said. Lets hope 1942 brings me as much good fortune as 1941. The worries can stay. So far the pattern has always been this : the hardest times come first, as a kind of preparation for the really great events. Turning to Hewel, who had shared his captivity in Landsberg prison, he added, You have been through times like this yourself ! In the corner the phonograph was playing Bruckners Seventh, but nobody was in a mood to appreciate it.(3)
It was on this occasion that Ribbentrop first broached with Hitler the possibility of an armistice with Russia. But Hitler merely replied that only a clear victory or defeat was now possible in the east. Over the next weeks and months there were to be many attempts at mediation, but Hitler ignored them all. On January 1, 1942, he was shown an intercepted Italian dispatch from Tokyo indicating that Japan wanted to mediate. The problem remained Britain : she had sworn never to negotiate a peace with Hitler, and only the severest military setbacks would make her reverse this decision ; Ribbentrops officials also argued that Germany must show she was a fit partner to negotiate with, and this meant an end to the barbarism in Europe. If Britain would now concede, Germany would leave the British Empireminus the conquests by Japanintact ; however, in the future Britain must keep her nose out of Europe. As for France, Hitler quoted Bismarcks sentiments after the French capitulation at Sedan : the individual Frenchman might nurture some friendly feelings for the Germans ; the French as a nation would always hate them. He proposed therefore to leave France outside the New Europe, outside the three great walls he was now thinking ofan East Wall from Leningrad to Rostov, a North Wall along the Norwegian coast, and a West Wall along the new frontier with France.
Hitlers ruthless leadership stabilized the front for just long enough. In mid-January 1942 he could authorize Kluge to withdraw the more exposed sections of his army group. But by now a new defensive line had been prepared, reserves were arriving, warm clothing had been contributed by the German public, and most of the heavy equipment could be salvaged in time.
The winter crisis had been mastered. But the cost in officers was highousted by Hitler pour encourager les autres. General Otto Forster, the engineer-general who had already incurred Hitlers displeasure once in a 1938 dispute over fortifications, was dismissed for withdrawing his corps ; General von Sponeck, who had abandoned Kerch, was sentenced to be shot (though Hitler later commuted this sentence). General Hoepner, who prematurely withdrew his panzergruppe to the winter line on January 8, was dismissed from the army in disgrace. (He and Sponeck were both executed three years later in another context.) Field Marshal von Leeb was retired from Army Group North. General Strauss was sacked from the Ninth Army. Many lesser commanders shared their fate. The Luftwaffe, and particularly Richthofen, kept Hitler zealously briefed on the army generals shortcomings. Field Marshal von Reichenau was killed by a stroke ; Bock, his health miraculously recovered, was appointed to replace him at Army Group South.
One new face drew Hitlers attention. In January the First Panzer Armys Chief of Staff lunched with him one day and reported on the imaginative emergency measures he had taken to protect the armys southern flank, suddenly exposed when the Sea of Azov froze hard enough for the enemy to cross : he had improvised squads of soldiers convalescing along the coast, fitted them out with guns and ammunition and even ice yachts for patrolling the sea. The panzer army has really done everything it could ! said Hitler in congratulation. Eight months later it was this generalKurt Zeitzlerwhom he selected to replace Halder as the Chief of General Staff.
Over the next weeks, Hitler rejected every effort made to lighten his burden by relaxing his direct control. On January 16 he refused to sign two decrees drafted by Lammers to that effect. Indeed, he shouldered still more authority. General Hoepner, outraged at the loss of his well-earned pension rights, instituted a lawsuit against the Reich in the Leipzig courts and won. Hitler, enraged by the blindness of the legal profession to the disciplines of war, declared himself above the law and summoned the Reichstag on April 26 to endorse a decree to that effect. The decree gave him powers over every person in the Reich regardless of their so-called well-earned rights. It puzzled many Germans that an absolute dictator should need to arrogate seemingly superfluous powers to himself, but as Goebbels learned, Hitlers aim was to legalize in advance the radical steps he planned against reactionaries, civil servants, lawyers, and certain sections of the officer corps.
The tactical withdrawal he had ordered in mid-January in Russia was followed a month later by an immensely more dramatic withdrawal in the west, as the navys battleships at Brest were forced to abandon the Atlantic theater on Hitlers orders.
Here his motive was primarily one of preventive strategy. Throughout December and January, Intelligence reports had trickled into his headquarters indicating an Anglo-American plan to invade northern Norway in the spring. The sources were ominously similar to those proven accurate in the anxious spring of 1940 : on December 25, Berlin learned from a decoded dispatch that the Finnish envoy in Washington had quoted his colleagues there about Allied preparations to invade northern Norway. A British raid on the Lofoten Isles soon after was regarded by Hitler not only as a personal insult but as a forerunner of a later invasion. It also reminded him of his reliance on Swedish iron and Finnish nickel supplies from Petsamo (Penchenga). He suspected that the enemy had secretly promised Narvik to Sweden ; while Swedens king and army were said to be pro-Hitler, her financial institutions and Social Democrats were not and might well cut off all the iron ore if Britain ever did occupy Narvik.
With this in mind Hitler ordered the reinforcement of Norway, particularly by his navy. The time for sweeping forays into the Atlantic was over anyway. The battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, still denied access to French North African and Spanish ports, had been bottled up at Brest on Frances Atlantic coast since the spring and had been regularly crippled by bomb damage ever since. Hitler was impatient at their enforced idleness. On December 26 his naval adjutant put to him the admiraltys request for extra air support for their next exercises. This was the last straw. I was always a champion of big ships before, Hitler announced. My heart was in them. But theyve had their day. The danger of air attack is too great. He sent for Raeder to discuss withdrawing the battleshipsto Norway, where, out of RAF bomber range, they would have a new lease on life. On December 29 he told Raeder to bring them back from Brest. Since routing them around the British Isles would invite certain disaster, Hitler suggested taking the British channel defenses by surprisesailing the warships back through the English Channel. The navy was aghast ; but Hitler bluntly gave them the alternative of that or decommissioning the warships where they lay and employing their armament and crews elsewhere.
Hitler explained to his naval adjutant on January 4 that surprise was of the essence. Therefore any steps which might somehow alert the British must be avoided, the adjutant noted. If the withdrawal comes off, he would like to see every ship possible transferred to Norway. This is the only step likely to have a deterrent effect on the British. Since Churchill has stated that the British still have the bloodiest sacrifices to bear, he considers an invasion of Norway quite likely. Naturally Churchill may have meant something else, but he, the F¸hrer, will not rest in this respect until our fleet is there. The navy outlined its plan to him a week later, while Colonel Adolf Galland, the famous fighter ace and commander, explained how he proposed to give the warships air cover during their Channel dash. Hitler was taken aback by Vice Admiral Otto Ciliaxs insistence on reaching the seventeen-mile-wide Dover Straits at high noon, but this was inevitable if the warships were to slip out of Brest under cover of dusk. Raeder was unhappy about the whole venture, but the alternative did not bear thinking about. The attempt would be made in one months time.
It was probably not until early February 1942 that Hitler could form any realistic picture of the Moloch of defeat from which he had snatched his army. By January to the army had registered 30,000 frost casualties, with 2,200 soldiers suffering amputation, but this proved only an interim figure ; by February 20 the army had counted 112,627 frost victims, of which no fewer than 14,357 were amputees. Barbarossa had now cost the German forces close on 1,000,000 casualties, including 200,000 dead. The bitterness within the armys ranks was directed not at Hitler but at his generals.
One vivid narrative by an ordinary soldier filtered up through SS channels to Martin Bormann and probably reached Hitler too. It recounted how his battalion had marched about aimlessly for some three hundred miles before being hurled into action on the Donets, where the Russians had already overwhelmed the defenses.
Too late and without any heavy guns, without even a single antitank gun our battalion was thrown into the breach as a so-called stopgap force. The Russians came at us, of course, with heavy tanks and enormous masses of infantry and pushed us back. Our machine guns wouldnt fire because of the bitter cold, and our ammunition ran out. For one whole day our battalion was encircled in a village where we had dug in. We tried a breakout by night as a last hope, an act of madness, but it came off. Meantime the entire front was beginning to cave in, about sixty miles across. Everywhere troops were flooding back in disorder, losing their heads. In vain officers confronted them at pistol point trying to restore order in this chaos ; panic had broken out everywhere.... You saw scenes we had never witnessed even with the Russians, and only rarely with the French in France : columns of troops streaming back, often several side by side on one road ; steel helmets, guns, gas masks, and equipment littered the whole area. Hundreds of trucks set on fire by our own troops because they could not move them for lack of gasoline or because of the frost and snowdrifts ; blazing ammunition dumps, clothing stores, food depots. The roads of retreat strewn with dead horses and broken-down vehicles. Upon this scene of chaos there pounced German dive-bombers, adding the final touches of perfection to the destruction. . . . The injured lay where they fell. Shapeless huddles of misery, swathed in blankets, their legs wrapped in rags and bandages, hobbled along the roads looking like something from scenes of Napoleons retreat. For four days our battalion fought on, screening this hideous retreat. By the fifth day the Russian tanks had overtaken us, shot us to pieces, and wiped out the rest of our battalion. I myself escaped the tankswhich took a fiendish pleasure in hounding down each of our men until he was flattened beneath the tank tracksby running into a deep pit where the snowdrifts barred the tanks pursuit....
With his own eyes this man had seen the three divisions in his sector wiped out. We, the survivors of this catastrophe, have only one wish : that the F¸hrer wreak a terrible judgment on the guilty ones.
Long before the passing of the old year, Hitlers thoughts had been with the coming spring offensive. He hoped to begin advancing Army Group South into the Caucasus as soon as the weather clearedperhaps late in April 1942. As he explained to the Japanese, from whom he concealed none of his true ambitions, a southern thrust rather than the capture of Moscow offered many advantages : it would cure the oil problem, it would keep Turkey neutral, and if all went well the autumn of 1942 might see the Wehrmacht advancing on Baghdad. He disclosed his strategic plan to Field Marshal von Bock on January 18, before Bock flew to take command of his Army Group South at Poltava, seven hundred miles away. But Hitler already realized that the war would continue into 1943 : on February 9, G–ring conferred with him on responsibility for the prompt provision of locomotives for the winter of 1942-43; the equipment was to be of a kind capable of surviving the Russian winter.
Hitlers allies were initially unenthusiastic about a spring offensive. Finland feared war with the western powers. Mannerheim virtually declined to advance on the vital Murmansk railroad ; he demobilized 180,000 of his troops that spring and went over to the defensive. But Field Marshal Keitel in an undoubted feat of diplomacy persuaded both Romania and Hungary to increase their contingents on the eastern front. Romania agreed to restore her expeditionary force to its previous strength, and Hungary, not to be outdoneand fearing that Hitler would favor the Romanians in the inevitable postwar struggle for the Transylvania regionfollowed suit, offering a complete Hungarian army of two hundred thousand men. Italy also agreed to send more divisions east. Hitler for his part tactfully respected everybodys feelings : the allied armies would not come under German command ; and the Hungarians and Romanians would nowhere find themselves adjacent, so they could not get at each others throats. Bulgaria, with its strong pro-Russian currents of sympathy, remained nonaligned. Her king, although an admiring follower of Hitlers, was pleased that the F¸hrer expected nothing more of Bulgarias army than that it dissuade Turkey from foolish undertakings. Turkeys feelings were evidently warming toward Hitler anyway, even as the spring thaws melted northward across Russia ; the Turkish president privately assured Franz von Papen that he was as convinced as ever of Germanys ultimate victory and was resolved to withstand British pressure on Turkey to abandon her neutrality. Learning from Forschungsamt intercepts that a disgruntled Britain was discontinuing her arms supplies to Turkey, in April Hitler agreed that Germany would supply the Turks with tanks, guns, submarines, and aircraft.
Neutral nations and Germanys allies were not the only ones demanding the products of the German arms industry. The catastrophic material losses of the German army that winter had to be made good. Anticipating a swift defeat of Russia, in mid-1941 Hitler had ordered production effort switched to the navy and Luftwaffe, and now the armys needs, particularly in ammunition, could barely be covered. In November 1941 the economics ministry had declared its virtual bankruptcy : General Hermann von Hanneken saw no way of increasing arms production on the present raw materials basis. Hitler himself had to devise the ways and means of rationalizing arms production and surmounting red tape. Seated in his private plane on December 3, while flying to the eastern front, he had dictated to Munitions Minister Fritz Todt a three-page decree ordering the simplification and expansion of arms production. Basically, future arms manufacture was to be concentrated in the most efficient factories, turning out standardized and unsophisticated weapons by mass-production means. Todt initiated a radical reform of the arms industrys structure. On January 10 Hitler ordered the industry to revert to its earlier preferential treatment of the armys needs at the expense of the Luftwaffe and navy (although the long-term objectives remain unaltered, i.e., the focus of the fighting effort of the latter two services was to be directed against the western Allies). At the end of January, Todt outlined to Hitler his detailed proposalsbasically the arms combines would supervise their own projects and a fixed contract price system would be introduced to dispose of the current iniquitous cost-plus-profit system, with its inherent deterrent to any factory to cut weapons production costs. As a result of Todts reforms, between February and July 1942 German arms production was to increase by 55 percent. On February 7, Todt reported to Hitler and dined with him at the Wolfs Lair ; by 9:45 A.M. the next morning he was dead, his charred remains lying in the wreckage of his Heinkel which had crashed on takeoff at Rastenburg airfield.
Hitler was desolate at the loss of this old friend. He ordered the air ministry to design a cockpit-recorder, to install in future planes, to register the cause of any accidents. His Luftwaffe adjutant witnessed Hitlers receipt of the news from the airfield. He showed the barest flicker of emotion. The only thing he said was, after a few minutes, that only Albert Speer could be considered a suitable successor. As that day wore on, and more frequently with the passing years, he talked of Dr. Todt and how grievous a blow his death was for him. Speer had just arrived the previous evening from a hazardous tour of the construction gangs he had late in December supplied to the eastern front to speed up the relaying of railroad track and reconstruction of transport installations. Hitler called him into his office and informed him of his selection as Todts successor.
For the second time in two weeks Hitler returned to Berlin, this time to bury his loyal friend, Munitions Minister Fritz Todt.
These were momentous hours. As his train pulled into the Reich capital, his battleships were in the English Channel. At noon they would be passing through the Straits of Dover, and still the British seemed totally unaware of them. In the Far East, the final Japanese assault on Singapore, bastion of the British Empire there, had just begun. It looked like the end of India, too. In North Africa, General Rommels corps, nourished with fresh tanks and men, had gone over to the counteroffensive and thrown the British back three hundred miles and out of Cyrenaica. From decoded British foreign office instructions to missions abroad Hitler could savor the harsh mood of realism now again pervading London in view of the German armys unbroken powers of resistance and his imminent spring offensive. Yet his feelings on the coming British disgrace were mixed. To the Japanese he seemed to relish every moment. If Britain loses India, their world will cave in on them. India is the heart of the British Empire. It is from India that Britain has won her entire wealth. But to his staff he showed a different face. To Goebbels on January 29 he had lamented the sad losses being inflicted on the White Man in the Far East. In speaking to Antonescu on February 11 he referred to the latest dispatch from Singapore as perhaps a somewhat melancholy piece of news. It was rumored that he privately went so far as to admit he would dearly like to send the British twenty divisions to help them throw the Yellow invaders out.
Yet the clock could not be turned back. Hitler mentioned to Goebbels that every Englishman he had met before the war had agreed that Churchill was a nincompoopeven Chamberlain took that view. The propaganda minister did not share Hitlers and Ribbentrops evident belief that these February disgraces would lead to Churchills final downfall, though both would have liked to see Sir Stafford Cripps take his place.(4) Hitler believed Cripps even more inept than Churchill (Its not enough to be called Cripps, youve got to have Grips [brains] as well, he wisecracked). Goebbels agreed that in any normal country a Churchill would long ago have got his just deserts ; but the British were an odd folk, and probably too inert to take action.
By the early hours of February 13, the German fleets strategic withdrawal from the Atlantic to northern waters had been successfully completed. The Scharnhorst had reached Wilhelmshaven, despite minor damage from two mines. The Gneisenau had reached Kiel, also dented by a mine. The Prinz Eugen had got through completely unscathed. In the belated air battles the British had lost twenty bombers, sixteen fighters, and six torpedo planes ; Galland had lost only seven fighters. The London Times commented hotly : Vice Admiral Ciliax has succeeded where the Duke of Medina Sidonia failed.... Nothing more mortifying to the pride of sea power has happened in home waters since the seventeenth century. Hitler, who had remained in hourly contact with the admiralty, and who had trembled for the safety of our ships, as Goebbels witnessed, now breathed again.
Next day he spoke to ten thousand newly commissioned lieutenants assembled in Berlins Sportpalast. The photographs show himlooking stern and flanked by Keitel, Milch, and Himmlergripping the speakers lectern. He made every officer present believe that in this hour of crisis he alone could turn the tide. Normally such speeches ended in silence, but as he left the platform a thunderous cheering broke out, and out of the clamor swelled ten thousand voices united in the national anthem. Despite the reverses in Russia, his prestige was at its height. The next evening, February 15, his train bore him back toward his headquarters East Prussia. Toward midnight, Joachim Ribbentrop came along the swaying corridor with news that Churchill had just broadcast the fall of Singapore : Lieuitenant General A.E. Percival had capitulated that evening with his seventy thousand men to General Tomoyuki Yamashita, commander of the Japanese Twenty-fifth Army. To Fr”ulein Schroeder, Hitlers secretary, the foreign minister dictated a gloating draft communiquÈ for the Axis press to publish next morning. Hitler read it with an expression of distaste. Then shaking his head he advised Ribbentrop : We have to think in terms of centuries. Who knows, in the future the Yellow Peril may well be the biggest one for us.(5) He tore the document in half.
1 After discussing a proposed Sportpalast speech with Hitler on December 14, 1941, Rosenberg noted : I said I took the view that I shouldnt mention the stamping out of Judaism. The F¸hrer took my point and commented that as they had thrust this war onto us and brought about all this destruction, it was no wonder if they were the first to feel the consequences.
2 Jodls naval staff officer, Commander Wolf Junge, described similar reports, adding : When a major German field hospital had to be abandoned to the enemy at Kaluga in December 1941, our troops laid a pistol on each invalids bed ; we left them the choice of whether or not to fall alive into Russian hands (unpublished memoirs of Junge).
3 One of Hitlers secretaries wrote two weeks later : On New Years Eve we were all in a cheerful enough mood at supper in the No. 2 mess. After that we were ordered over to the regular tea session, where we found a very weary Chief, who nodded off after a while. So we accordingly kept very quiet, which completely stifled what high spirits we had been able to summon up. After that the Chief was away for three hours in conference, while the menfolk who had been mustered to offer New Year greetings hung around with doom-laden faces not daring to allow a smile to pass their lips. I just cant describe itat any rate it was so ghastly that I broke down in tears in my bunker, and when I went back over to the mess I ran into a couple of the lads of the Escort Command, who of course saw at once that I had been cryingwhich set me off all over again, whereupon they tried to comfort me with words and alcohol, successfully. And then we all sang a sea chantey at the tops of our voicesAt Anchor off Madagascar, and Weve Got the Plague Aboard !
4 The German admiralty also believed Churchill impregnable. Etzdorf recorded : In Ambassador [Karl] Ritters view, the political leadership has certain hopes that the loss of Singapore might have far-reaching effects on the British public as far as the dropping of Churchill and a willingness for peace are concerned. The naval staff thinks otherwise. There is no hope whatever of the British suddenly giving way to make peace. The admiralty felt that even if Australia and India were lost, Churchill, in view of his ties to the United States, would probably reform the Empire as a British Commonwealth of Nations with Canada as its centerpiece.
5 Yet a few weeks later the same Hitler privately scoffed at the foreign journalists who accused him of betraying his own race and conjuring up a Yellow Peril through his alliance with Japan. It was the British who appealed to the Japanese in World War I to give us the coup de gr’ce ... the essential thing is to win, and to that end we are quite ready to make an alliance with the Devil himself.
pp. 355-56 Commander Wolf Junge and General Ivo-Thilo von Throtha both referred in their unpublished memoirs to frontline rumors of Hitlers presence. The long quotation is from Hitlers remarks to Speer and Milch on May 24, 1942 (in Milchs papers).
p. 357 There is an OKW record of Hitlers midnight conference with Fromm (T77/792/1485) ; I also used the diary of Fromms Chief of Staff, General Karl-Erik Koehler, and Halders diary.
p.358 On December 16, 1941, Richthofen had already referred to the grapevine reports in his diary. F¸hrer seems to have made up his mind on major reshuffle : Brauchitsch, Halder, Keitel, and Bock are outat last. (Warlimont confirmed under interrogation that Halder was also originally earmarked for dismissal.) But on January 18, 1942, Richthofen wrote : According to Jeschonnek, Keitel and Halder are unfortunately staying on for the time being.
p. 360 Halders satisfaction with Hitler as the new Commander in Chief was evident for many months. On March 25, 1942, Greiner, the OKW war diarist, quoted Warlimont thus in a private diary : [Hitlers] marriage to Halder is good, Halder has developed a freer hand since Brauchitschs departure ; Jodl has adopted the roll of joint adviser at the daily war conferences. General Wagner, who accompanied Halder daily to the F¸hrers HQ, wrote on January 21, 1942 : I dont get away from my desk or telephone before 2:30 A.M. each day, and three hours are taken up each midday by the war conference and journeys to and from the F¸hrer ... The F¸hrer looks well, and working directly with him is a pleasure. Two years later both Halder and Wagner were among the anti-Hitler conspirators.
p. 362 Hitlers scorched earth policy can be traced back to December 8, 1941, when Keitel telephoned to Army Group North the F¸hrers instruction that every kind of accommodation was to be ruthlessly destroyed before regions were evacuated : In the interests of the military operations there is to be no respect whatever for the populations situation. Hitlers remarks on December 20 were communicated by telegram to the three army groups the next day (NOKW-539); and see the OKW signal to the OKH (T77/792/1489), Halders diary, and Mansteins order to the Eleventh Army, December 23, 1941 (NOKW-1726).
p. 364 Hitlers telephone conversations with Kluge are reported in Army Group Centers war diary ; I also used the diaries of Hewel and Bormann, and postwar testimony of the adjutants Puttkamer and Below.
p. 366 The Luftwaffe General von Richthofen, whose reports had caused Foersters downfall, was himself given command of his Sixth Army Corpsa command of which he hurriedly divested himself. (See Richthofens papers.)
p. 366 For Hoepners dismissal from the army with all legal consequences see Halders diary, Keitels memoirs (page 290), and the unpublished memoirs of Weichs. In Hoepners papers (N51/7) is a 1944 memo by a Major Frankenberg. Schmundt had told him how he had reproached the F¸hrerYouve sacked one of our most capable army commandersto which a remorseful Hitler replied, I had to make an example of him. Have him told that the family will be taken care of. But on January 13, 1942, Hoepner sent to Schmundt a piËce justificative (N51/3), listing his many vain attempts to contact Halder by telephone on the eighth before issuing the order to retreat ; Hoepner demanded a court-martial. After the July 20, 1944, bomb plot Hitler lost what little sympathy he had for him (War Conference, August 31, 1944) and allowed his execution. A thoughtful analysis of the legal aspects of the Hoepner, Sponeck, and related cases was published by the German senior assize-court judge Dr. G¸nter Gribbohm in the judges journal, Deutsche Richterzeitung, May 1972 and February 1973.
p. 367 In narrating the withdrawal of the German battleships from Brest, I used Puttkamers memoirs and his letters to Raeder on December 26, 1941 (PG/31780), and January 4, 1942 (PG/31762e), Junges memoirs, the naval staff war diary, the diary of Luftwaffe General Karl Koller, and Captain Wolfgang K”hlers article in WR, 1952, pages 171 et seq.
p. 368 In a private letter on April 12, 1942, Greiner described the casualties on the Russian front up to March 20 as tolerable : 6.63 percent fatalities, 1.5 percent missing, 23.43 percent injured. Frost casualties number 133,000, including 17,500 third-degree cases [amputees]. By March 31 the latter figure had risen to 18,337 (Goebbels, diary, April 17, 1942).
pp. 368-69 The original letter of February 10, 1942 is on microfilm, T175/125/9983 et seq.
pp. 369-70 On June 5, 1942, Hitler explained : Fanatical loyalty toward your alliesthats the secret behind keeping them in line (war diary, OKW historical division).
p. 370 Todt himself stressed that the plan to simplify arms production resulted from one of the F¸hrers own ideas (naval staff war diary, January 22, 1942). My narrative here is based on Saurs files (FD-1434/46 and 3049/49), Milchs files (MD51/435 et seq.), and the microfilms T77/194, /313,/441, and /545 ; on Goebbelss and Bormanns diaries, February 6-7, 1942, and Speers Chronik.
p. 371 Hitlers order for a black box type cockpit-recorder to be designed is referred to in Milchs conferences on February 28 (MD 34/1954) April 14, and October 16, 1942 (MD 13/130 and 34/2300).
p. 372 According to Goebbelss unpublished diary, Hitler still expected the sudden overthrow of Churchill by the British. (Goebbels did not.) On February 8, 1942, Weizs”cker argued in his diary : Isnt Britain the all-ways loser in this war ? Wont the loss of Hongkong, soon of Singapore, and perhaps Burma too rouse spirits against Churchill ? Wont there soon be a crack in London, and a peace offer to us ? He himself did not expect to hear such a crack until Russia had been defeated, for the peace Germany is envisaging would be a calamity for Britain. There is a similar passage in Etzdorf s papers, April 1942.
p. 373 Weizs”cker mirrored Hitlers uneasiness at events in the Far East. We express great joy at the fall of Singapore. And yet our feelings are mixed. The European yearning for great achievements with the British awakes in us (diary, February 13, 1942).