The Early Campaigns

Germany’s campaigns in World War II are a popular subject for study by historians and military analysts; however, when researching Hitler’s strategies, successes and failures, few take into account the pernicious influence of the resistance movement. Just as turncoats in the diplomatic service helped block an understanding with England in 1939, high-ranking members of the army consistently disrupted the war effort once hostilities opened. Though less than five percent of German army officers identified with those betraying their country,19 the unfaithful few often occupied positions in planning and logistics, enabling them to cause havoc disproportionate to their number. The Gestapo eventually maintained a watch list but generally did not investigate the army. This allowed subversion of combat operations to continue virtually undetected. The Prussian aristocrat Fabian von Schlabrendorff, a staff officer and remorseless saboteur, expressed the spirit of the plotters: “Preventing Hitler’s success under any circumstances and through whatever means necessary, even at the cost of a crushing defeat of the German realm, was our most urgent task."20

Appointments to key posts in the general staff gained the conspirators insight into military strategy as it was formulated, information they communicated to the enemy. The former army chief of staff, Haider, testified in 1955, “Almost all German attacks, immediately after being planned by the OKW, became known to the enemy before they even landed on my desk."21 The German armed forces lacked the element of surprise from the first day of the fighting. On August 30, 1939, two days before Germany invaded Poland, Kleist-Schmenzin delivered the detailed operational orders to the British embassy in Berlin with instructions to “pass this on to Warsaw."22 Chamberlain duly forwarded the document to Colonel Beck.

A few months after the Polish campaign, a member of the Reich’s Foreign Office in Berlin who was smuggling microfilm was arrested by the SD. The film contained precise information about the strength and locations of the German occupational forces in Poland. The former SD chief wrote later, “In the OKW they were more than a little surprised at such an accurate and comprehensive report, especially as the statistics were correct to the smallest detail.” He speculated that “only senior German officers” could have provided the material.23

Among the loosely-affiliated subversive groups, military intelligence, the Abwehr, was especially destructive. Its chief, Canaris, was a master of disinformation. In his memoirs, Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz stated that the Abwehr “delivered not a single useful report about the enemy throughout the entire war."24 Canaris recruited the equestrian monarchist Hans Oster to run the Central Department of the agency. A general staff officer during World War I, Oster had left the army in 1932 for violating its code of honor. Canaris reinstated him as an ersatz lieutenant colonel in 1935. When war broke out anew, Oster began drawing acquaintances hostile to the state into the Abwehr as “specialists.” From October 1939 on, Oster furnished copies of every agency report, plus whatever could be obtained from the OKW, to the Dutch military attaché in Berlin, Colonel Giysbertus Sas. He urged Sas to use the information to reinforce Holland’s defenses against Germany and to relay the reports to the Western powers. On April 3, 1940, Oster provided him the details of the imminent German invasion of Norway in order for him to forewarn Oslo.25

One month later, Oster gave Sas the target date of the German surprise offensive in the West.26 The Dutch disbelieved the information. Similarly instructed, Belgian Ambassador Adrien Nieuwenhuys opined skeptically, “No German would do something like that!"27 Believing to have tipped the Allies off in time, Oster calculated that the abortive offensive would cost the German army 40,000 dead. In his own words, he still considered himself “a better German than all those who run after Hitler."28 German telephone security personnel monitoring the Dutch embassy line knew that Sas had received classified intelligence about the western campaign, but were unable to localize the source. To divert suspicion, Oster tried to frame Baroness Steengracht, the wife of a German diplomat. Only Ribbentrop’s intervention prevented Oster, the son of a pastor, from using the Abwehr’s resources to implicate an innocent woman for treason.29

Canaris not only protected Oster, but betrayed military secrets on his own. The fact that he had served as a U-boat captain during World War I did not prevent Canaris from providing the British Secret Service with details of German submarine development during the 1930’s. Senior Abwehr officers profited from the war, accepting bribes in exchange for draft deferments, and the police arrested Hans von Dohnanyi, a “specialist” recruited by Oster, for public graft. Abwehr directors in Munich sold paintings, tapestries and currencies on the black market. Canaris himself arranged for his agency courier plane to regularly fly in fresh strawberries for himself from Spain.30 Abwehr corruption and incompetence became so rife that Hitler eventually relieved the crafty admiral of his post and placed the agency under Himmler.

The house-cleaning, however, was far off in 1940, when Canaris struck another serious blow to the German cause. After London rejected Hitler’s generous peace offer that July, the Führer contemplated how to continue the war against England. Considering an amphibious invasion of the British Isles too risky, he decided to attack the enemy’s overseas possessions. Capture of the British base at Gibraltar, controlling the nautical lifeline to Egypt and the Suez Canal, was an option. Not only would the conquest virtually cripple England’s position in the Mediterranean, but the operation was within Germany’s resources. Prerequisite was Spain entering the war on the German side, and Madrid already favored Germany and Italy. In July 1940 the Spanish head of state, Francisco Franco, publicly stated, “Control of Gibraltar and expansion into Africa is both the duty and the calling of Spain."31 On the 19th, he announced his willingness to declare war on Britain, adding, “In this case, some support by Germany would be necessary for the attack on Gibraltar.” 32 Hitler could transfer troops to southern Spain to stage the expedition against the strategic English base. Berlin sent Canaris to negotiate the alliance because of his good relations with prominent Spaniards. In collusion with Weizsäcker, however, he accomplished the opposite by privately informing Franco that Germany’s position was desperate, with almost no hope of winning the war. He advised his host to keep Spain neutral, reassuring him that Hitler would not send troops into Spain to force Madrid’s cooperation. Had Canaris persuaded Franco to support the Reich, “It’s more than possible that such a decision by Spain at this moment would have meant the end of the war,” wrote Spanish Foreign Minister Serrano Sũner.33 With Germany’s position thus strengthened, Hitler would have possessed a more formidable hand when dealing with Molotov that November. He may have been able to resolve his differences with the USSR without resorting to arms.

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