Clutching at Straws
By the spring of 1943 the Axis alliance was a myth, and Hitler knew it. In Tunisia, Montgomerys offensive had succeeded and the Axis bridgehead was being inexorably crushed. Late in February the Italians had already hinted that the loss of Tunis might bring about a new situation, and one month later Churchill had only evasively answered Parliamentary questions about possible Axis armistice feelers. Finland was already searching for a way out of the war. From the decoded messages shown to Hitler, it was clear that both the Hungarian and Romanian governments had in neutral capitals official emissaries who were sounding out the western enemy on the prospects of peace. Now Vidkun Quisling and Gauleiter TerbovenReich Commissar for Norwayseparately warned Hitler that in the event of an enemy invasion of Norway, Sweden would support the Allies. Hitler, who had just personally instructed his new envoy to Stockholm that his sole purpose must be to keep Sweden neutralto safeguard Germanys iron-ore suppliesnow resorted to more drastic measures : after one routine Berghof conference he detained Jodl and a handful of trusted advisers and instructed them to draft outline plans for a lightning invasion of Sweden should need arise. Only the success of Citadel, regaining the initiative on the eastern front, would bring all these peripheral nations back into line.
Romanias Marshal Antonescu, invited to the Berghof on April 12, accepted Hitlers reproaches with a fatalistic air ; for him as for Hitler himself there could now be no compromise between a clear victory or complete annihilation. When Hitler read him the Forschungsamt records of incriminating telephone conversations and other documents proving the disloyalty of Romanian ministersand their clandestine negotiations with the enemy in Ankara, Bucharest, Budapest, Berne, and above all Madridthe marshal made a convincing display of indignation (though he himself had authorized the feelers). Hitler gave the Hungarian regent, Horthy, a far rougher ride a few days later when the admiral flatly denied that the Forschungsamt records could be true ; he supported Prime Minister K·llay to the hilt and thrice denied that Hungary was in contact with the enemy. Hitler with good reason trusted neither Horthy nor K·llay. We are all in the same boat, he said. If anybody goes overboard now, he drowns.
Nor was the language Hitler and Ribbentrop used to prod the Hungarian regent into taking a sterner line over his Jewish citizens very delicate. The Nazis found it intolerable that eight hundred thousand Jews should still be moving freely around a country in the heart of Europeparticularly just north of the sensitive Balkans. For many months Germany had applied pressure for the Hungarian Jews to be turned over to the appropriate German agencies for deportation to reservations in the east. It was argued that so long as they remained, they were potential rumormongers, purveyors of defeatism, saboteurs, agents of the enemy secret service, and contact men for an international Jewry now embattled against Germany.
Events in Poland were pointed to as providing an ugly precedent : there were reports of Jews roaming the country, committing acts of murder and sabotage. The eviction of the Jews ordered by Hitler had recently been intensified by Himmlers order that even those Jews left working for armaments concerns in the Generalgouvernement were to be housed collectively in camps and eventually to be got rid of as well. In Warsaw, the fifty thousand Jews surviving in the ghetto were on the point of staging an armed uprisingwith weapons and ammunition evidently sold to them by Hitlers fleeing allies as they passed westward through the city. Himmler ordered the ghetto destroyed and its ruins combed out for Jews. This is just the kind of incident that shows how dangerous these Jews are.
Poland should have been an object lesson to Horthy, Hitler argued. He related how Jews who refused to work there were shot ; those who could not work just wasted away. Jews must be treated like tuberculosis bacilli, he said, using his favorite analogy. Was that so cruel when one considered that even innocent creatures like hares and deer had to be put down to prevent their doing damage ? Why preserve a bestial species whose ambition was to inflict bolshevism on us all ? Horthy apologetically noted that he had done all he decently could against the Jews : But they can hardly be murdered or otherwise eliminated, he protested. Hitler reassured him : There is no need for that. But just as in Slovakia, they ought to be isolated in remote camps where they could no longer infect the healthy body of the public ; or they could be put to work in the mines, for example. He himself did not mind being temporarily excoriated for his Jewish policies, if they brought him tranquillity. Horthy left unconvinced.
What had prompted the earthier language Hitler now employed ? It is possible to recognize the association in his mind of certain illogical ideas ; half were unconscious or the result of his own muddled beliefs, but half had deliberately been implanted by trusted advisers like Himmler and Goebbels : the Jews had started the war ; the enemy was the international Jew ; the most deadly of the Bolsheviks, like Stalins propagandist Ilya Ehrenburg, were Jews ; Ehrenburg and the Jews behind Roosevelt were preaching the total extermination of the German race. The saturation bombing of German cities, their blasting and burning, was just the beginning.
In his warning to Horthy that the Jewish Bolsheviks would liquidate all Europes intelligentsia, we can identify the influence of the Katyn episodean unexpected propaganda windfall about which Goebbels had just telephoned him. Strange frozen mounds had been pointed out to German soldiers in a forest near Smolensk in February ; now they had thawed and been opened to reveal the mummified remains of twelve thousand Polish army officers. The diaries and letters on the corpses were last dated April 1940when the region was in Russian hands. They had all been shot expertly in the nape of the neck. Hitler warmly approved Goebbelss suggestion that Katyn should be linked in the publics mind with the Jewish question.
But the most poisonous and persuasive argument used to reconcile Hitler to a harsher treatment of the Jews was the bombing war. From documents and target maps recently found in crashed bombers he knew that the British aircrews were instructed to aim only at the residential areas now and to disregard the industrial targets proper. Only one race murdered, he told the quailing Horthy, and that was the Jews, who had provoked this war and given it its present character against civilians, women, and children. He returned repeatedly to this theme as 1943 progressed ; in 1944 it became more insistent ; and in 1945 he embodied it in his Political Testament, as though to appease his own conscience and justify his countrys actions.
Nor was Hitler minded to treat even the non-Jewish Russian peoples with kid gloves. Throughout the spring of 1943 a noisy squabble raged between Alfred Rosenberg, the endlessly verbose minister for the eastern territories, and Gauleiter Erich Koch, Rosenbergs primitive and unruly minion in the Ukraine. Hitler had wanted Rosenbergs ministry to confine itself to political guidance in the east ; instead he had established an unwieldy and bureaucratic executive apparatus. Rosenbergsupported by Ribbentrop, Zeitzler, and Goebbelswanted to win the Russian peoples support in the fight against Stalin, and he complained that Kochs brutal methods were incompatible with this. For example : to create a private hunting preserve, Koch had liquidated all the peasants in a certain forest. His pasha lifestyle was incompatible with the spirit of total war. At Christmas he had sent a special plane to Rostov to collect two hundred pounds of caviar at a time when General Pauluss soldiers were starving in Stalingrad. Party dignitaries rose up in arms to demand Kochs expulsion from office and Party alike ; yet Hitler, Bormann, andmore circumspectlyHimmler defended him. Rosenberg and his circle of Baltic emigrÈs might theorize about the future cultural life of the Ukraine, but Kochs harsh duty was to squeeze every ton of grain and every slave laborer he could out of the region. That was what war was aboutand apparently the ability to fulfill this task excused all else.
The idea of harnessing Russians voluntarily to the war against Stalin was a chimera, said Hitler. I have always felt there are only a handful of men who can really keep their heads in a major crisis, without being waylaid by some phantom hope or other. The saying that drowning men clutch at straws is only too true. When Ribbentrop identified himself with General Vlasovs previously mentioned idea for a Russian army of liberation, Hitler rapped his knuckles. There are to be no such political operations. They are useless and unnecessary. They will only result in our people fraternizing with the Russians. Besides, it will be seen as a token of weakness on our part. Field Marshals Kluge and K¸chler were also rebuffed when they supported the Vlasov project. Vlasov and Zeitzlers Colonel Gehlen had put their names to millions of leaflets dropped over the enemy lines ; they announced that the Wehrmacht was fighting only Stalin and not the Russian people, and they spoke of a National Committee in Smolensk as though it were the Russian government being groomed for the post-Stalin era. To Hitler this idea was madness ; as he angrily told Zeitzler, to let the Ukrainians set up their own government would be tantamount to throwing away the Nazis entire war aim. The Russians would start off as a satellite state such as Poland had been in World War I, and Germany would end up confronting an entirely independent state all over again.
On May 19, Hitler brought Rosenberg and Koch face to face and refereed the match himself. Rosenberg firmly repeated that Kochs policies were damaging the Reich and supplying the enemy with thousands of partisans ; Koch was accused of being disobedient, rebellious, and libelous about Rosenbergs conspiring with emigrÈs. Koch defended himself and justified his methods. With a sense of justice worthy of a comic-opera character, Hitler adjudged that both were right, though Koch was righter. In the future only the F¸hrer would authorize any proclamations to the peoples of Russianot some idiot or other in the war ministry or at the front. As for the partisan argument, if Rosenberg were right, there would be fewest partisans where the particularly crafty generals spoke in the most honeyed tones ; this was not the case. Nor could slave labor be procured except by Kochs methods. Only feeble-minded generals imagine we can win any manpower by sweet-talking. And as for Kochs executions in the Ukraine : How many of our compatriots are losing their lives in air raids here at home ? Hitler laid down that in the future neither Koch nor Rosenberg was to employ foreigners as advisers. If they work against their own country, they are devoid of character. If they work for it, they are useless as advisers to us.
The military aspects of the Vlasov Russian army project were analyzed in a heated session between Hitler, Keitel, and Zeitzler some weeks later. Hitler knew that the German armys Georgian and Armenian battalions had deserted en masse to the enemy, and he had little patience for this new project. He did not object to employing hundreds of thousands of Russian volunteers in noncombatant duties (General Lindemanns Eighteenth Army alone had forty-seven thousand). But he would not approve of the Vlasov project beyond its sheer propaganda value in enticing Soviet soldiers to desert : the deserters were to be transported into Germany, decently treated, and employed in the coal mines. Vlasov himself would be needed only for his photograph and signature on the leaflets ; otherwise, his activities were to be curbed. History, said Hitler, had proven that in times of crisis such nationalistic movements only rounded on the occupying power. Keitel accordingly ruled that no National Committee was actually to be set up in occupied Russia ; the F¸hrer would permit Vlasovs propaganda leaflets only on condition that German agencies realized that nobody must take them seriously.
General Zeitzlers prestige with Hitler had risen in the same measure as the OKWs had declined, with the crumbling of its North African theater. Hitler had given the armys General Staff a free hand in devising a plan for Citadel to the success of which he attached considerable importance : a modest offensive victory in Russia would inspire the neutrals and halfhearted allies too ; it would stabilize the front for the rest of 1943, long enough for him to release armored divisions to thwart any enemy molestation of Italy or the Balkans ; in addition, the home economy badly needed the slave labor that Citadel would harvest in its wake.
Even though they were half a continent apart, the interreaction of the Mediterranean and eastern theaters naturally made for a variety of difficulties. During March and early April various operational concepts for Citadel had been examined and cast aside. Zeitzlers final proposal was that the objectivean inviting rectangular salient 130 miles wide and thrusting 80 miles out toward the German Second Armyshould be excised in a classic pincer attack by the Ninth Army from the north and the Fourth Panzer Army from the south, their spearheads meeting just east of Kursk. Zeitzler drafted a pompously worded operational order (The victory at Kursk must shine as a beacon to the whole world) and Hitler signed it on April 15. It made grim provision for the rounding up and smooth westward dispatch of the hundreds of thousands of able-bodied Russians expected to fall into the German net. Citadel was set to begin on the third of May.
Once this much had been settled, Zeitzler flew back to his headquarters in East Prussia, but a few days later he received a telephone call from Hitler : the F¸hrer had thought Citadel over and now felt it would be better to abandon the idea of a pincer attackwhich was so obvious that the enemy would be certain to be ready and waiting for itand instead combine the assault forces of Army Groups South and Center in one frontal thrust, piercing the very center of the bulge and thus splitting the enemys massed strength in two.(1) Zeitzler would not hear of it ; redeploying the two armies would inflict a crippling delay on Citadel, and he made a special flight to Berchtesgaden on April 21 with the maps and statistics to prove it. Hitler yielded. Zeitzler had proved right at Stalingrad ; his own sureness of touch, his strategic instinct, had failed him then. Worse still, now that Citadel had become Zeitzlers baby, Hitlers heart was no longer in it.
General Model, commander of the Ninth Army, had originally asked for two days to punch through the Russian defenses, but late in April he raised this estimate to three days. His superior, Kluge, impatiently pointed out that with 227 tanks and 120 assault guns the Ninth Army was stronger than ever before, but Model claimed he still needed 100 more tanks. Zeitzler agreed to rush 50 from the west, with 20 more Tigers and 40 assault guns. But the three-day estimate worried Hitler : three days of uninterrupted battle against an experienced enemy would result in the massacre of the assault troops. When Model told me before Citadel, Hitler said a year later, that hed need three daysthats when I got cold feet. He asked Model to fly to the Berghof. On April 27 the wiry, darkhaired general was standing before him in the Great Hall ; his aerial photographs appeared to confirm the claim that twelve-mile-deep Russian fortifications with immensely powerful antitank artillery had to be overcome before the Ninth Army could advance on Kursk. Moreover, Model warned that even the Mark IV tank was vulnerable to the new Russian antitank rifle. Hitler postponed Citadel to May 5. On April 29 he ordered a further postponement to the ninth, to give the armies a few more days to stockpile tanks and guns.
Out of a few days grew weeks, then months. General Guderian, who began attending the war conferences on May 2 in his capacity as inspector of panzer troops, gave Hitler his own impression of tank production prospects if Citadel could be delayed long enough. At present the Tiger was plagued by gear and steering faults, and the advanced Panther tank production had repeatedly broken down. But Guderian told Hitler that during May two battalions of each of the different tank typesPanthers, Ferdinands, Tigers, and Hornetswould be activated ; the existing tanks on the Russian front would be reinforced with armored aprons against antitank shells ; in addition, tank output itself was increasing. The Speer ministry had promised 939 tanks in April, 1,140 in May, 1,005 in June, and 1,071 in July. In short, suggested Guderian, it was well worth holding up Citadel for a bit. In reality he was opposed to the offensive altogether, for he wanted to conserve German tank strength throughout 1943 in order to meet the enemys operations in the west thereafter.
Hitlerhis own mind already made up for an even longer postponementsummoned his leading generals to Munich for a three-hour conference on May 4. No stenogram survives, and recollections differ as to the standpoints adopted by each general (a common phenomenon after a defeat). However, the Chief of Air Staff, Jeschonnek, rendered a contemporary description to one diarist (Richthofen), and it throws a piquant sidelight on the personalities around the F¸hrer.
[On April 27] General Model declared he was not strong enough and would probably get bogged down or take too long. The F¸hrer took the view that the attack must be punched through without fail in shortest time possible. [Early in May] General Guderian offered to furnish enough tank units within six weeks to guarantee this. The F¸hrer thus decided on a postponement of six weeks. To get the blessing of all sides on this decision, he called a conference [on May 4] with Field Marshals von Kluge and von Manstein. At first they agreed on a postponement ; but when they heard that the F¸hrer had already made his mind up to that effect, they spoke out for an immediate opening of the attackapparently in order to avoid the odium of being blamed for the postponement themselves.
There is nothing to be gained from referring here to the postwar versions of Manstein or Guderian. Jeschonnek, Richthofen, and Zeitzler all opposed any further delay, arguing that time would operate solely in favor of the Russians ; their fortifications, minefields, and artillery emplacements would become more formidable with each passing day. Nonetheless, Hitler now postponed Citadel to mid-June.
Another factor now bore on his decisions : the imminent Axis defeat in Tunisia. Starved of ammunition, food, and fuel, General von Arnims quarter of a million troops had fought a stubborn rearguard action in its ever shrinking bridgehead. Bereft of Italian naval support, supply ships were not getting through ; and enemy fighters were inflicting cruel losses on the Junkers transport planes. By the end of April, Arnim had only seventy-six tanks left and was distilling what fuel he could from low-grade wines and liquors. Dispatching General Warlimont to Rome to renew pressure on the quivering Italian navy, Hitler told him to say that tanks and divisions were just as nice to look at as warships. There are no moral reasons not to fight. The only moral act is to fight and win this war. What is immoral is to lose, and then scuttle your ships without having fought. The appeal availed him naughtthe Italian navy stayed in harbor ; indeed, some days later Hitler heard that the battleship Vittorio Veneto had secretly radioed British headquarters at Malta details of German supply convoys putting to sea. On May 6, overcoming Arnims defense of the mountain passes, the British First Army broke through to Tunis. Two days later the Luftwaffefaced now by forty-five hundred fighter and bomber aircraftabandoned its North African airfields. Keitel wrote that day : The F¸hrer and Duce are determined to continue the fight in Tunisia as long as possible, but one by one Arnims divisions were enveloped as their last ammunition was spent.
Warlimont returned from Rome on May 7 with comforting news about Mussolinis health and his personal assessment that provided Il Duce kept a tight rein on events, the coming loss of Tunis need not spell disaster within Italy. Hitler was not so sure. The Duce and the Fascist party are resolved to stand by Germany through thick and thin, he told his staff at noon. However a section of the officer corpsmore at the top, fewer lower downis inclined to make peace already. Certain influential circles are capable of treachery. He announced that he planned to furnish armed support to the Fascists in Italy to bolster her powers of resisting the enemy. Meanwhile, every week Arnim could fight on was vital to the Axis cause. He asked Field Marshal Rommel to come to see him.
Hitler had slept the last three nights at Martin Bormanns villa outside Munich. On May 6 he turned his back on the Mediterranean and returned by train to Berlin. Viktor Lutze, SA Chief of Staff, had just died in an autobahn accident, and Hitler intended to use the next days state funeral to underline his lingering nostalgia for political militias like the SA. He had had a bellyful of army generalsliars and cheats, they were reactionary and hostile to the dogmas of National Socialism.
It was a good funeral. The routine selection from G–tterd”mmerung stirred him deeply. At four oclock, after banqueting the Party leaders, he gave them a stern if banal warning against the autobahn madness that seemed to go with high office. Then he addressed the Gauleiters on the meaning of the present war. It had begun as a fight between bourgeois and revolutionary states, in which the former had been easily overthrown. But now they were facing in the east a Weltanschauung-state like their own, its Jewish-Bolshevist ideology permeating its army with a zeal and spirit which only his own SS divisions could match. This was why he, Hitler, had decided that the Jews must be thrown out of Europe. He had come to believe that in the great prewar purge Stalin had not ruined the Red Army after all ; quite the contrary. And the introduction of political commissars had vastly increased the armys effectiveness. The Russian solidarity behind Stalin was complete : for twenty-five years he had ruthlessly eliminated his opposition ; he had no Church elements to restrain him as Hitler had in Germany. The F¸hrer often feared that the Herrenvolk could not forever maintain their superiority over the enormous manpower reservoirs of the east. Ghengis Khans hordes had penetrated far into the heart of Europethe glittering jewelwithout Germandom having possessed the strength to hold them back. Now too Germany alone must bear the brunt of the struggle against Asia. Speers gigantic tank program would ensure victory in the east, while D–nitzs U-boats kept the Jewish-fostered warmongers of the West at bay. Hitler told the Gauleiters that Stalin had lost over thirteen million troops since Barbarossa had started. The summer offensive would be modest in scale but carried forward by dependable German troops alone. Postwar Europe would dispense with the present hodgepodge of small states. The time would come, announced Hitler, when Germany would dominate all Europe.
He wrote off the Tunis bridgehead in North Africa, even though small bands of Axis troops were continuing to hold out. But he had not turned his back on Mussolini. (He had never forgotten the Duces benevolence over Austria in 1938. I told him then I will never forget you for this ! And I never will, Hitler admonished his less forgiving staff.) He was worried about the Duces health, but he worried far more that treacherous, royalist generals would betray Italy into the enemys hands. This was why he had recalled Rommel from his convalescence to BerlinRommel, rather than the gullible and popular Field Marshal Kesselring, who refused to believe that the Italian generals were as dark-hearted as the F¸hrer sensed them to be, was the one to command Hitlers troops in Italy.
Rommel flew into Berlin on May 9 and reported to Hitler at 1 P.M., looking fit and well. That he was not still in Tunis was a secret Hitler had not yet revealed to his people ; now was the time to dissociate this valuable commander from the debacle in Africa. Hitler kept the ambitious field marshal on tenterhooks. Rommel wrote in his diary : Afterward I attended the war conference. No special job as yet. Field Marshal Keitel hinted at my utilization in Italy with the Duce if things should turn sticky there. Rommel spent the rest of the day being lectured by Goebbels. The next day he recorded : I stressed to both the F¸hrer and Goebbels the meager fighting quality of the Italians and their reluctance to fight. On the twelfth Hitler published the news that Rommel had been in Germany since March, when he had awarded him the highest medal ; but, aware that the field marshal was spurned by the Italians (as G–ring and Kesselring reminded him) as the man who lost Libya, he refrained from releasing the text of his extravagant letter of praise to Rommel. At 6 P.M. that evening, Hitler and his staff flew back to his East Prussian headquarters.
Why he did so is a mystery. Perhaps it was a blind, an attempt to deceive the enemy into believing that Citadel was imminent. He had no fear of an enemy invasion in the west as yetthe Atlantic Wall allayed that peril. No, he knew that the Mediterranean was still the most dangerous theater. As early as May 1 he had believed both the western Mediterranean and the Peloponnesus of Greece most vulnerable to invasion. A week later an adjutant had announced at the war conference a startling Abwehr scoop which seemed to substantiate Hitlers fears : a corpse found floating off the Spanish coast had yielded sealed envelopes bearing ostensibly genuine letters from the British war office and Lord Mountbatten to Admiral Cunningham and General Dwight D. Eisenhower, betraying the enemys most secret plans after the capture of Tunis. Two invasion operations were to be mounted, one in the western Mediterranean and one in the Peloponnesus (code-named, apparently, Brimstone and Husky); these would be covered by dummy invasions of Sicily and the Dodecanese, respectively. The envelopes had been expertly resealed and turned over to the British by the Spanish foreign ministry. Admiral Canaris fell hook, line, and sinker for their contents. Hitler was less gullible, for at the end of the war conference he turned on his heel and spoke his thoughts to Jodls staff officer : Christian, couldnt this be a corpse they have deliberately played into our hands ?(2) There was no way of knowing. Both Zeitzlers Intelligence staff and Canaris ruled out the possibility, and for the next month the Peloponnesus and Sardiniapresumed to be the target of the real assault in the western Mediterraneanattracted most of Hitlers attention.
Albert Speer and his principal arms barons came to see him at the Wolfs Lair on May 13. Hitler bestowed a rare award, the Doctor Todt Ring, on the munitions minister, for his reorganization of the armaments industry had yielded amazing results. Germany was turning out six times as much heavy ammunition as in 1941 and three times as many guns. Between February and May heavy tank production had doubled, testifying to the indomitable spirit of the workers despite the paralyzing air raids. In the autumn, Speer reminded Hitler, you instructed us to deliver specific quantities of arms by May 12. Today we can report that we have met every one of those figures and in some cases far exceeded them.
To Goebbels, Speer afterward commented that the F¸hrer looked worn out with worry : it was the anxiety over Italy. What use indeed were the new weapons Speer had demonstrated within the headquarters compound the next daythe mighty hundred-ton Mouse tank, the new assault guns, and the deadly Blowpipe bazooka (Pusterohr)if Italy changed sides, the enemy landed in the Balkans, and the Romanian oil fields were reduced to ruins ?
The fighting in Tunis was now over. The Afrika Korps last radio emission had arrived : Ammunition spent. Arms and equipment destroyed. The Afrika Korps has fought till it can fight no more, as ordered. A hundred thousand of Hitlers finest troops were being marched into British and American captivity ; some 150,000 Italians had been taken prisoner. The blow was softened in Hitlers eyes by its gradualness, its inevitability given Italian shortcomings, and the realization that these captives would at least be spared the torments that faced prisoners in Soviet hands. Yet the Italian posture now raised fresh alarm. Hitler offered Mussolini five divisions to restore the blood to Italys anemic arteries. The Duces reply, obviously drafted by the devious General AmbrosioKeitels counterpart as chief of the comando supremostated that the three German divisions left on Italian soil as a backlog of the transport movements to Tunisia were quite enough : but he wanted three hundred tanks, fifty antiaircraft batteries, and hundreds of fighter aircraft. When Admiral D–nitz reported back to Hitler on May 14 after personally grilling the Italian commanders in Rome, he could only reinforce Hitlers suspicions. Hitler responded, A man like Ambrosio would be happy to see Italy an English dominion.
D–nitz stated that the Italians expected the British to invade Sicily next. Obviously forgetting his earlier suspicions, Hitler replied that the letters on the British corpse indicated that the target would be Sardinia ; Sicily was too heavily defended, and it would take up to four weeks to sweep the Strait clear of the Axis minefields. One thing was clearcolossal enemy bombardments of the ports and railway networks of Sardinia, Sicily, and Corsica had begun. D–nitz had tried to impress on the Italians that if they did not employ every available shipbig and smallto pump troops and stores into these islands now, the dismal story of North Africa would be repeated all over again. Mussolini had weakly accepted this ; Ambrosio had notsubmarines and cruisers were there to fight, not act as transport vessels. When D–nitz quoted Mussolini as saying that the British press was bragging that the capture of Sicily would release two million tons of shipping presently obliged to detour around the Cape, Hitler irritably interrupted . . . and then our fine submarines must sink them. And on top of that, continued D–nitz, we are coming up to our worst U-boat crisis, since the enemy has new detecting gear which makes submarine warfare impossible for the first time. Suddenly they were losing over fifteen U-boats a month. The losses are too high, exclaimed Hitler. We cant go on like this.
His insomnia returned. If he lost the Balkans, he would lose his last allies, forfeit Romanias oil, and lose the bauxite, chrome, and copper mines on which Speers factories depended. Zeitzler, jealously husbanding his divisions massed for Citadel, refused to release a panzer division for possible use in the Balkans ; but the road and rail network in the Balkans was so primitive that Hitler knew he could not leave it until the last moment. With Italy the problem was less acute : the railways were better, and if worse came to worst he could always barricade Italy off from the Reich ; but not the Balkans. He ordered the Luftwaffe field division on the Isthmus of Corinth strengthened, and a panzer division transferred to the Balkans from the west.
The next fortnight in Italy would be crucial. Rommel might have to storm the Italian frontier and go to the Duces rescue if his generals betrayed him. After the noon conference on May 15, Hitler made a two-hour secret speech to his generals, including Rommel, on the dangerous situation left by the defeat in North Africa. It is so important that the note taken by one officer present, Captain Wolf Junge, is quoted here at length :
The enemys victory in Africa has not only opened up the east-west passage through the Mediterranean for him, but released eighteen to twenty divisions and considerable air and naval forces. They will also exploit the new situation for a political offensive designed to use bluster and blandishments to persuade Germanys weak allies to defect. Quite apart from the military position, this is particularly dangerous in Italy and Hungary. Bulgaria and Romania can be regarded as secure....
In Italy we can rely only on the Duce. There are strong fears that he may be got rid of or neutralized in some way. The royal family, all leading members of the officers corps, the clergy, the Jews, and broad sectors of the civil service are hostile or negative toward us. Their motives are partly deliberate enmity, partly shortsighted incompetence and blind egoism. The broad masses are apathetic and lacking in leadership.
The Duce is now marshaling his Fascist guard about him. But the real power is in the hands of the others. Moreover he is uncertain of himself in military affairs and has to rely on his hostile or incompetent generals (Ambrosio!!!) as is evident from the incomprehensible replyat least as coming from the Duceturning down or evading the F¸hrers offer of troops.
In the present situation a neutral Italy would not be bad at all ; but it could not be neutral nowit would defect voluntarily or under pressure to the enemy camp. Italy in enemy hands is the Second Front in Europe we must avoid at all costs ; it would lay open the western flank of the Balkans too. Our main purpose now must be to prevent a Second Front in Europe. Europe must be defended in its outfieldwe cannot allow a Second Front to emerge on the Reichs frontiers. It is for this objective that we may have to make sacrifices elsewhere.
It is good that we have not yet attacked in the east [Citadel] and still have forces available there ; because the decision has been taken to act as soon as a crisis breaks out in Italy. To this end, of the eighteen mobile divisions available in the east, eight armored and four infantry divisions will have to be rushed to Italy to get a firm grip on her and defend her against the Anglo-Americans (or throw them out again). No resistance of note is expected from the Italians (according to Rommel). Collaboration of the Fascist political forces is hoped for.
At the same time Hungary will be occupied.
The consequences on eastern front will be : defensive evacuation of the Orel Bend ; acceptance of risk to the Donets region ; if worse comes to worst even withdrawal in the north to the Luga line. Zeitzler demanded that the bridgehead on the Kuban should also be given up ; but the F¸hrer did not express an opinion on that.
Zeitzler was instructed to work out a timetable for the troop movements [from Russia to Italy]. The next one or two weeks are crucial.... Every week is vital to us, because after about eight weeks the newly activated Stalingrad divisions in the west will become operational, which would obviate the need to raid the eastern front for divisions.
Thus the main points of the F¸hrers remarks.
It was certainly a remarkable speech. Quite apart from the first hint at enforced German occupations of Italy and Hungary, it destroys the myth that Hitler always refused to abandon territory voluntarily in Russia, when it was strategically necessary. It also puts Citadel, the Battle of Kursk, into its proper perspective in history : it was subordinated to the need to prop up a crumbling dictatorship in a country whose military value was nil.
All eyes turned to Italy. Hitler began planning an urgent personal meeting with Mussolini again.
Out of regard for Mussolinis feelings he scrapped the official communiquÈ on the Tunis fighting, which put the blame on the Italians. When British newspapers, week after week, mocked the German soldiers for surrendering, Ribbentrop begged the F¸hrer to publish the war diaries and documents proving how heroically they had fought against impossible odds in Tunisia. Hitlers stubborn refusal was telephoned by Hewel back to Ribbentrop : We have to be clear that we have suffered a painful defeat in Africa. If you have taken a knock, you mustnt try and talk your way out of it or pretty things up. You will soon end up like the Italianswho make a veritable saga of every defeat they suffer until the whole world laughs at them. There is only one thing to do at times like this : Hold your tongue and prepare to counterattack. Once the counterattack is delivered, all talk of any insufficiency in German soldiers vanishes. Stalingrad is an example : the stories that the German divisions morale was collapsing stopped the moment we struck back hard at the Russians again, at Kharkov.
Before leaving for the Berghof again, Hitler conferred in detail with Keitel, Kesselring, and L–hr on the defense of the Mediterranean position ; his aim was to prevent a boundless bankruptcy from loosening their stranglehold on the Balkans the moment the Schweinerei in Italy began. Rommelgiven his deep personal hatred of them nowwould be the ideal commander to confront the Italian generals with.
On May 18, Hitler ordered him to set up the skeleton staff of a new army group for what was, after all, the occupation of Italy. Rommel would report directly to him. His interim headquarters would be in Munich. The operationcode-named Alarichwas so secret that Hitler declined even to sign the OKWs draft directive. This time weve got to be fanatically careful with bits of paper, he said. A similar directive, Konstantin, provided for filling the vacuum in Greece and Croatia should the Italian army suddenly pull out. Initially, Rommels worry was that the Alpine fortifications being hastily completed by the Italians against the Reich frontier might be manned, especially on the Brenner Pass, to keep German divisions outthus deliberately letting Italy fall into the enemys hands. Rarely can two ostensibly allied armies have contemplated each other with such veiled mistrust.
Zeitzler had calculated for Hitler that the first reinforcements could be flooding from the Russian front into Italy within ten days of any trouble there. Every two days would then bring a fresh infantry division, spearheaded by three SS armored divisionsthe troops with the closest ideological ties to the Fascist leaders. A speech by Mussolinis Foreign Minister Bastianini early on May 20 convinced the F¸hrer that dirty work was afoot. We must be on our guard, like a spider in its web. Thank God Ive a good nose for things like this, so I usually get wind of anything long before it breaks out.
How far Admiral Canaris reliably warned of the treason blossoming in Italy is uncertain from the records. But Himmlers officials left Hitler in no doubt. SS Specialist [Sonderf¸hrer] von Neurath brought hair-raising details back from Sicily : the local people hated the German troops and were making unabashed preparations for postwar; government officials were turning a blind eye on anti-German outrages ; the Italian Sixth Army based on Sicily was now commanded by General Roatta of Balkan ill-repute, and Roatta obviously regarded defeat as certain. Perhaps he even relished the prospect. His staff were anglophiles ; some had even married Englishwomen. Crafty ? exclaimed Hitler, on hearing Roattas name. He is the FouchÈ of the Fascist revolution, a spy totally devoid of character. A spy is what he is ! Hitlers field marshals shared this view. Curiously enough, the attachÈ reports from Rome spoke only in the highest terms of both Roatta and Ambrosio ; this may have been because one of Canariss assistants, Colonel Emil Helfferich, was attached to the attachÈs staff.
At 1 P.M. on May 21, 1943, Hitler flew from East Prussia to Berchtesgaden, after a brief treatment session with his personal surgeon, Dr. Karl Brandt. His health was still impaired : ten days earlier, a fresh electrocardiogram had revealed no improvement in the rapid progressive coronary sclerosis affecting his heart vessels. He had discussed his stomach problems with Romanias Marshal Antonescu, and the latter recommended to him a Viennese dietician, Frau Marlene von Exner. Much against her will, Dr. Morell induced her to cook exclusively for the F¸hrer by paying her a two thousand-Reichsmark bribe and a tax-free salary of eight hundred marks a month as a reward. Young, attractive, and good-natured, she soon shared the F¸hrers table with the other female headquarters staff. She brought back memories of old Vienna to her new employer, and he humored her cheerful protests at the way National Socialism favored Linz above Vienna. But whereas she had been able to display her culinary talents to Antonescu in a welter of oysters, mayonnaise, and caviar delicacies, with Hitlers austere meals she was at her wits end. A typical Berghof menu was that on June 7, 1943 : orange juice with linseed gruel ; rice pudding with herb sauce ; crispbread with butter and nut paste. Hitler adored her.
Mussolini could not come and see him ; the records do not explain why. Probably he feared to leave Italy even for a few hours. According to Jodls deputy, Warlimont, Himmler submitted to Hitler a detailed plan for launching an operation against Italy if need arose. Hitlers own plan was to infiltrate four divisions into Italy more or less by stealth ; at least sixteen more were to follow under Rommel the moment an enemy invasion occurred. But Rommel greatly feared that enemy bombersor for that matter Italian officer renegadeswould block the Alpine frontier passes. Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe to furnish antiaircraft batteries for the Brenner Pass ; if the Italians demurred, then British air raids were to be faked, using refurbished unexploded RAF bombs hauled out of the ruins of German cities. On June 5, Warlimont briefed Canaris on this at Berchtesgaden. Canaris offered Brandenburg Division commandos who would become members of the gun crews and so be in a position to combat any attempted sabotage on the Alpine passes. But Jodls deputy warned that no measure casting doubt on Italys will to fight must ever become public ; not even the general commanding the Brandenburgers must know. Canaris mouthed agreement ; he was willing to risk acting disloyally toward the Italians, but he doubted whether the true objectives of the military preparations could be totally concealed from them. To Keitel he suggested that OKW fears of Italian defection were exaggerated, and he persuaded the guileless field marshal to cancel the antisabotage provisions. He also asked for Hitler to attach an Abwehr representative to Rommels top-secret working party. Then he flew to Rome.(3)
Hitlers June 1943 sojourn at the Berghof was dismal and depressing. What price victory now ? Bormann brought him a seventy-six-page speech Goebbels was planning to deliver to Berlin munitions workers on the fifth. Hitler crossed out whole pages or inked in spidery alterations. Where Goebbels proclaimed that their long-suffering fellow citizens would all receive generous compensation for their sacrifices when victory is ours, Hitler thoughtfully altered this to read after this struggle is over.
The black outlook in both the submarine campaign and the air war contributed to this subtle distinction. At the end of May, D–nitz had frankly outlined the catastrophic U-boat situation in the North Atlantic to Hitler : enemy air patrols had been stepped up, and they were evidently using some secret device to detect the U-boats ; in May, 38 submarines had been lost compared with 14 in April. As recently as March submarines had been able to destroy 875,000 tons of enemy shipping, and Hitler had spoken highly of their future prospects to the Gauleiters in Berlin on May 7 : but the very next day 5 U-boats had been destroyed in one convoy battle, and on the twenty-fourth D–nitz had had to call off his attack in the North Atlantic if he was not to lose his entire front line. It was a tragedy for the German navy. Their Intelligence departments were successfully cracking the enemy codes that told D–nitz precisely where the convoys would be routed ; there was talk of a Hedgehog in some messages, but this appeared to be just a patterned release of depth charges. The Germans had learned of the enemys advances in centimetric radar after examining the remains of a bomber shot down near Rotterdam in February. D–nitzcorrectlybelieved the same equipment lay behind his submarine losses, but there was no evidence. Keitel instructed Canaris to find out as a matter of urgency.
Hitler had long expected just this setback to the U-boatshe was surprised they had done so well so long. Thus he did not reproach the navy. D–nitz had immediately fitted his submarines with multiple-barreled 20-millimeter antiaircraft guns and ordered that in the future they were to stand and fight back when aircraft approached. Ten U-boats were equipped to carry only antiaircraft guns. But these were improvisations. Until the acoustic homing torpedoes entered service in October as destroyer busters, the U-boats would be restricted in their usefulness. Hitler knew that unless D–nitz could sink enemy shipping faster than it could be built, the war could not be won. He ordered D–nitzs submarine program increased from thirty to forty new boats a month, and he approved D–nitzs suggestion that all naval construction work be transferred to Speers ministry. On June 15, however, the admiral arrived at the Berghof with a staggering demand for nearly 150,000 men to implement this naval expansion. Hitler told him : I just dont have the men. The antiaircraft and night-fighter defenses have got to be increased to protect our cities. The eastern front has got to be strengthened. The army needs divisions for its job defending Europe.
D–nitzs energy was in stark contrast to G–rings indolence and lethargy that summer. From Gestapo morale reports, Hitler knew that his people were prey to a growing conviction that nothing could halt the enemy bombing campaign. Every night the British bombers visited a different town or city of the Ruhr, methodically heralded their arrival by chilling showers of colored pyrotechnic flares, and unloaded one or two thousand tons of bombs over the streets and houses. Their losses, sometimes thirty or forty bombers in one night, seemed not to deter them. A handful of bombers breached the Ruhr dams, unleashing the reservoirs on the sleeping populaces below. (Goebbels informed Hitler that the enemy press gave credit for this diabolical plan to a former Berlin Jew.) By day the American bomber formations completed the destruction in the ports or bombed targets in France and Italy. Sometimes the British sent small fast bombers by daylight deep into Germany, causing more insult to public morale than injury to industry. Or lone Mosquitoes, each with a one-ton sting, would circle for hours on end above Berlin, forcing its millions of inhabitants to take refuge until the all clear sounded. Though Milch warned that when Berlins time really came, the people would no longer heed the sirens, Hitler still commanded that the sirens must sound each time, even if they saved only one or two lives thereby. G–rings solution was to propose that Germanys bombed-out citizens be evacuated to Burgundybut this was hardly likely to commend itself to the Ruhr workers. Besides, in one night over a hundred thousand people lost their homes in Dortmund alone. Not until November could the Luftwaffe expect to strike back in force. Milch hoped to be manufacturing over three thousand fighters and bombers every month by then.
Unquestionably air superiority was the key to this war. This was why Hitler now ordered bomber squadrons transferred from the west to the Mediterranean and why he placed Field Marshal von Richthofenhis most trusted air commanderin command of the Second Air Force there. This incidentally was further proof that Citadel ranked lower in his order of priorities than keeping the enemy at bay in the Mediterranean. But even Richthofen could not prevent the huge enemy air onslaught that preceded each ground operation there. Six thousand tons of bombs were discharged over the tiny fortified island of Pantelleria, commanding the shipping routes in the Strait of Sicily. The Italian defenders suffered few casualties but were so demoralized that without firing a shot they offered to capitulate. On June 11 the Germans heard the islands commandant, Admiral Parvesi, radioing to the enemy in Malta : We offer surrender ; out of water. By that evening the island was firmly in Allied hands. That the Italian soldiers had been unable to withstand the kind of bombardment German civiliansmen, women, and children alikewere enduring night after night certainly did not augur well for the coming Mediterranean campaigns, Hitler noted.
1 In postwar captivity, General Johannes Friessner met one of Hitlers adjutants and asked why the F¸hrer had not mounted just such an offensive. Given the comparative weakness of the Russian defenses in the center of the bulge, Friessnerwho had commanded a corps under Models Ninth Armybelieved it would have succeeded.
2 The stenographerhimself a close aide of the famous Intelligence chief Colonel Nicolai in World War Irecalls the scene vividly. The corpse was indeed a brilliant if gruesome ploy of the British secret service.
3 At this point the surviving fragments of Canariss diary end.
p. 508 For the contingency planning for an invasion of Sweden, see Wolf Junges manuscript ; the naval staff plans in its war diary annex, Part C, Vol. III ; the naval staff war diary, October 23, 1943 ; and the OKW war diary.
p. 509 According to the manservants register, Hitler saw Horthy three times : at 5:30 P.M. on April 16, and at 12:10 and 5 P.M. on the 17th ; three corresponding records exist, by interpreter Paul Schmidt, but as both Horthy and Schmidt claim in their memoirs that the interpreter was absent during at least the first meeting, it is probable that as in 1944 (see Jodl diary, March 17, 1944) the conference room at Klessheim was bugged with hidden microphones.
p. 509 On the deportation of Hungarys Jews, see the AAs letter to Bormann, March 9, 1943 (Serial 5231 pages E310707 et seq.), and the Abwehrs security objectionsin a letter to the AAagainst allowing large units of Hungarian Jews to come near German military movements (ibid., K206893). According to Schmidts notes, Ribbentrop went even further than Hitler in one outburst to Horthy, exclaiming that the Jews must either be destroyed or put in concentration campsthere is no other way (a wording which caused Ribbentrop some discomfiture in the witness box at Nuremberg). Horthy copied the wording into his 1953 memoirs (page 254) but put them in Hitlers mouth ! Secret Hungarian records do not echo the wording in such bluntness. In a draft letter to Hitler on May 7, Horthy included a sentencelater deletedYour Excellency further reproached me that my government does not proceed with stamping out Jewry with the same radicalism as is practiced in Germany. And in his discussion with the Hungarian envoy SztÛjay a few days later Ribbentrop went no further than to remind him that Hitler had (in the summer of 1942) decreed that by the summer of 1943 all Jews of Germany and the German occupied countries are to be moved to the eastern, i.e., Russian, territories. Ribbentrop added that for security reasons Germany required her allies to conformMussolini had, for instance, just undertaken to intern the Jews in Italy (documents in National Archives, Budapest).
p. 510 Many sources exist highlighting the Rosenberg-Koch squabble over policies in Russia : the Goebbels diaries and Himmler files (T175/124 and /171) ; BDC file SS 981 ; Richthofens diary, May 24, 1943 ; the stenogram of Hitlers conference with Keitel and Zeitzler on June 8 ; Etzdorfs note of April 13 ; Ribbentrops memo on the Vlasov operation, April 6 (Etzdorfs file, Serial 1247); Bormanns memo of May 19 (BA file R 58/1005); Gehlens files, containing Hewels memo of May 24 (T81/219/9474 et seq.); the diary of Colonel Heinz-Danko Herre, of Gehlens staff ; Kluges conference with General Reinhardt of the Third Panzer Army, June 17 (in the Armys war diary, annexes, H 12-33/5); Etzdorfs teletype to the AA, June 17 (Serial 364), and Lahousens diary, June 21, 1943.
p. 512 The best history of Citadel so far is unquestionably the German official historian Dr. Ernst Klinks Das Gesetz des Handelns (Stuttgart, 1966); it supersedes earlier studies by Generals F.W. Hauck and Gotthard Heinrici in WR, 1965, and by Eike Middeldorf, ibid., 1953. Klink kindly read and commented on my own Citadel narrative, which benefits from a number of sources not available to himnotably the Richthofen diary and the manservants diary, which helps, for example, to pinpoint the date of Zeitzlers visit as April 21, 1943.
p. 513 On Models visit : Ninth Army war diary, April 27-28, (BA, 34739/2) and annexes, Vol. VIII (35212/2); Models appreciation, April 25 (35939/12); Junge diary, April 27, 1943 ; war conference, May 18, 1944 (stenogram); and Guderians manuscript, March 1949 (IfZ, ZS-57).
Hitlers order of April 29 is mentioned in the OKW war diary, July 5 ; the resulting OKH order of April 30 is in the Fourth Panzer Armys war diary, annexes (34888/23) and the Ninth Armys war diary, annexes (34890/1); for the Luftwaffe view, Richthofens diary contains an appreciation dated May 1, 1943.
p. 513 Guderians notes on his tank conferences with Hitler are on microfilm T78/622. I also used Saurs testimony (FD-3049/49).
p. 514 Richthofen glued a lengthy memo on Jeschonneks account of the May 4, 1943, Munich conference into his diary, May 25. On the fifth Richthofen himself wrote : Rumor has it that some kind of conferences between Guderian and the F¸hrer and Zeitzler have brought an element of uncertainty into opinions. Perhapsand the interpolation of Guderian indicates thisit is hoped that minor technical improvements will result in major military changes. Of course this is pure rubbishthey havent resulted in decisive victories in any war yet, but again and again they are tried for by us. On May 24, Richthofen flatly told Jeschonnek that the Russians would build far more by way of defensive positions in six weeks than the Germans could hope to increase their striking power.
There is no evidence that either Guderian or Manstein opposed the delay. In 1958 correspondence with Zeitzler, General Theodor Busse loyally quoted Manstein as telling Hitler, The attack will be tough, but I think itll succeed. But Kempf clearly recalled in 1958 telephoning Zeitzler three days later, furious at the delay ; Zeitzler had replied that the generals call was grist to his mill. He [Zeitzler] had desperately opposed any further postponement of Citadel, but only Field Marshal von Kluge had supported him (N63/12). This is supported by Kempfs memo on the telephone conversation in the Eighth Army war diary (36188/20).
p. 515 Hitlers words to Warlimont are quoted in a naval staff memo on Hitlers Berghof conference, May 1, 1943 (PG/31747).
p. 515 On Hitlers speech of May 7, 1943, I used the diaries of Junge, Bormann, Himmler, and Goebbels.
p. 516 From May 1943 onward, a diary, kept by Rommel, exists in British handsas far as I know I am the first to have exploited it (AL/1708). For Rommels fierce anti-Italian feelings, see also the Goebbels diary, May 10-13, and Rommels letters of May 10-13 (T84/R274).
p. 517 Connoisseurs of British Intelligence operations will find the complete file on the corpse and its documents in German naval archives, PG/33216 ; they should also read the naval staff diary, May 1943, and microfilm T78/343. On May 25, Goebbels wrote in his diary that Canaris energetically refuted his hypothesis that the documents were deliberately planted. The duty stenographer who noted that Hitler shared Goebbelss skepticisminitiallywas the late Ludwig Krieger, who described the scene in his private papers in 1945 and to me in a 1972 interview.
p. 518 D–nitzs famous admission to Hitler on May 14, 1943 that his U-boat offensive had collapsed, caused a sensation at the Wolfs Lair ; see Goebbelss diary, and Rommels diary and private letters (T84/R275/0324).
For Hitlers plan to strengthen the Balkans, see his war conference on May 20 (Heiber, pages 238 et seq.); the date of this is now firmly established by the manservants diary.
p. 519 Captain Wolf Junges handwritten account of Hitlers conference of May 15 is in naval archives (PG/31747). Rommels diary also refers to it. Following the situation report the F¸hrer speaks on probable developments in Italy and Greece. There are prospects for my early employment.
p. 520 An early meeting with Mussolini was probably the topic raised by Hitler with Prince Philip of Hesse at 4:45 P.M. on May 20, 1943 ; the princewho had married Princess Mafalda, daughter of the king of Italy, in 1923was frequently used by Hitler as a special courier to Rome.
p. 520 Hewels memo for Ribbentrop, June 25, 1943, is in Ritters AA file (Serial 1462). See also Scherfls letter to Jodl, June 25 (T77/1035/7945), and the naval staffs indignant protests at aspersions cast by Hitler on German shortcomings in supplying North Africa (war diary, June 29 and August 5). Hitler even summarily deleted three pages of Goebbelss proposed speech of June 5 because they referred to North Africa (NS-6/129).
p. 521 The quotations are from Hitlers conference with Konstantin von Neurathson of the famous pre-1938 foreign ministeron May 20, 1943 (Heiber, pages 220 et seq.); see also Rommels diary. Winston Churchill alleged with his characteristic attention to accuracy (The Second World War, Vol. V, page 29) that Neurath, the foreign secretary, was present.
p. 522 The Berghof menu is pasted into Eva Brauns album (NA, 242-EB-22-33a). In his unpublished diary Goebbels wrote on June 25 after a day with Hitler : Little is left of the physical fitness we always used to marvel at in him.
pp. 522-23 Canariss record of his talks with Warlimont and Rommels chief of staff General Alfred Gause is in the Canaris diary file AL/1933, which unfortunately ends at this point ; see also the Lahousen diary, June 4.