Military history


On the Verge

The Threat to Danzig — General Gamelin Invites Me to Visit the Rhine Front — A Tour with General Georges — Some Impressions — French Acceptance of the Defensive — The Position of Atomic Research — My Note on Air Defence — Renewed Efforts to Agree with Soviet Russia — Polish Obstruction — The Military Conversations in Moscow — Stalin’s Account to Me in 1942 — A Record in Deceit — Ribbentrop Invited to Moscow — The Russo-German Non-Aggression Treaty — The News Breaks upon the World — Hitler’s Army Orders — “Honesty Is the Best Policy” — British Precautionary Measures — The Prime Minister’s Letter to Hitler — An Insolent Reply — Hitler Postpones D-Day — Hitler’s Letter to Mussolini — The Duce’s Reply — The Last Few Days.

SUMMER ADVANCED, preparations for war continued throughout Europe, and the attitudes of diplomatists, the speeches of politicians, and the wishes of mankind counted each day for less. German military movements seemed to portend the settlement of the dispute with Poland over Danzig as a preliminary to the assault on Poland itself. Mr. Chamberlain expressed his anxieties to Parliament on June 10, and repeated his intention to stand by Poland if her independence were threatened. In a spirit of detachment from the facts, the Belgian Government, largely under the influence of their King, announced on June 23 that they were opposed to staff talks with England and France and that Belgium intended to maintain a strict neutrality. The tide of events brought with it a closing of the ranks between England and France, and also at home. There was much coming and going between Paris and London during the month of July. The celebrations of the Fourteenth of July were an occasion for a display of Anglo-French union. I was invited by the French Government to attend this brilliant spectacle.

As I was leaving Le Bourget after the parade, General Gamelin suggested that I should visit the French Front. “You have never seen the Rhine sector,” he said. “Come then in August, we will show you everything.” Accordingly a plan was made and on August 15, General Spears and I were welcomed by his close friend, General Georges, Commander-in-Chief of the armies in France and Successeur Eventuel to the Supreme Commander. I was delighted to meet this most agreeable and competent officer, and we passed the next ten days in his company, revolving military problems and making contacts with Gamelin, who was also inspecting certain points on this part of the front.

Beginning at the angle of the Rhine near Lauterbourg, we traversed the whole sector to the Swiss frontier. In England, as in 1914, the carefree people were enjoying their holidays and playing with their children on the sands. But here along the Rhine a different light glared. All the temporary bridges across the river had been removed to one side or the other. The permanent bridges were heavily guarded and mined. Trusty officers were stationed night and day to press at a signal the buttons which would blow them up. The great river, swollen by the melting Alpine snows, streamed along in sullen, turgid flow. The French outposts crouched in their rifle-pits amid the brushwood. Two or three of us could stroll together to the water’s edge, but nothing like a target, we were told, must, be presented. Three hundred yards away on the farther side, here and there among the bushes, German figures could be seen working rather leisurely with pick and shovel at their defences. All the riverside quarter of Strasbourg had already been cleared of civilians. I stood on its bridge for some time and watched one or two motor cars pass over it. Prolonged examination of passports and character took place at either end. Here the German post was little more than a hundred yards away from the French. There was no intercourse with them. Yet Europe was at peace. There was no dispute between Germany and France. The Rhine flowed on, swirling and eddying, at six or seven miles an hour. One or two canoes with boys in them sped past on the current. I did not see the Rhine again until more than five years later in March, 1945, when I crossed it in a small boat with Field-Marshal Montgomery. But that was near Wesel, far to the north.

On my return I sent a few notes of what I had gathered to the Secretary of State for War and perhaps to some other Ministers with whom I was in touch:

The French Front cannot be surprised. It cannot be broken at any point except by an effort which would be enormously costly in life, and would take so much time that the general situation would be transformed while it was in progress. The same is true, though to a lesser extent, of the German side.

The flanks of this front, however, rest upon two small neutral states. The attitude of Belgium is thought to be profoundly unsatisfactory. At present there are no military relations of any kind between the French and the Belgians.

At the other end of the line, about which I was able to learn a good deal, the French have done everything in their power to prepare against an invasion through Switzerland. This operation would take the form of a German advance up the Aar, protected on its right by a movement into or towards the Belfort Gap. I personally think it extremely unlikely that any heavy German attempt will be made either against the French Front or against the two small countries on its flanks in the opening phase.

It is not necessary for Germany to mobilise before attacking Poland. They have enough divisions already on a war footing to act upon their eastern front, and would have time to reinforce the Siegfried Line by mobilising simultaneously with the beginning of a heavy attack on Poland. Thus, a German mobilisation is a warning signal which may not be forthcoming in advance of war. The French, on the other hand, may have to take extra measures in the period of extreme tension now upon us.

As to date, it is thought Hitler would be wise to wait until the snow falls in the Alps and gives the protection of winter to Mussolini. During the first fortnight of September, or even earlier, these conditions would be established. There would still be time for Hitler to strike heavily at Poland before the mud period of late October or early November would hamper a German offensive there. Thus this first fortnight in September seems to be particularly critical, and the present German arrangements for the Nuremberg demonstration – propaganda, etc. – seem to harmonise with such a conclusion.

* * * * *

What was remarkable about all I learned on my visit was the complete acceptance of the defensive which dominated my most responsible French hosts, and imposed itself irresistibly upon me. In talking to all these highly competent French officers, one had the sense that the Germans were the stronger, and that France had no longer the life-thrust to mount a great offensive. She would fight for her existence – voilà tout! There was the fortified Siegfried Line, with all the increased fire-power of modern weapons. In my own bones, too, was the horror of the Somme and Passchendaele offensives. The Germans were, of course, far stronger than in the days of Munich. We did not know the deep anxieties which rent their High Command. We had allowed ourselves to get into such a condition, physically and psychologically, that no responsible person – and up to this point I had no responsibilities – could act on the assumption – which was true – that only forty-two half-equipped and half-trained German divisions guarded their long front from the North Sea to Switzerland. This compared with thirteen at the time of Munich.

* * * * *

In these final weeks my fear was that His Majesty’s Government, in spite of our guarantee, would recoil from waging war upon Germany if she attacked Poland. There is no doubt that at this time Mr. Chamberlain had resolved to take the plunge, bitter though it was to him. But I did not know him so well as I did a year later. I feared that Hitler might try a bluff about some novel agency or secret weapon which would baffle or puzzle the overburdened Cabinet. From time to time Professor Lindemann had talked to me about atomic energy. I therefore asked him to let me know how things stood in this sphere, and after a conversation, I wrote the following letter to Kingsley Wood, with whom my fairly intimate relations have been mentioned:


Mr. Churchill to Secretary of State for Air.

August 5, 1939.

Some weeks ago one of the Sunday papers splashed the story of the immense amount of energy which might be released from uranium by the recently discovered chain of processes which take place when this particular type of atom is split by neutrons. At first sight this might seem to portend the appearance of new explosives of devastating power. In view of this it is essential to realise that there is no danger that this discovery, however great its scientific interest, and perhaps ultimately its practical importance, will lead to results capable of being put into operation on a large scale for several years.

There are indications that tales will be deliberately circulated when international tension becomes acute about the adaptation of this process to produce some terrible new secret explosive, capable of wiping out London. Attempts will no doubt be made by the Fifth Column to induce us by means of this threat to accept another surrender. For this reason it is imperative to state the true position.

First, the best authorities hold that only a minor constituent of uranium is effective in these processes, and that it will be necessary to extract this before large-scale results are possible. This will be a matter of many years. Secondly, the chain process can take place only if the uranium is concentrated in a large mass. As soon as the energy develops, it will explode with a mild detonation before any really violent effects can be produced.1 It might be as good as our present-day explosives, but it is unlikely to produce anything very much more dangerous. Thirdly, these experiments cannot be carried out on a small scale. If they had been successfully done on a big scale (i.e., with the results with which we shall be threatened unless we submit to blackmail), it would be impossible to keep them secret. Fourthly, only a comparatively small amount of uranium in the territories of what used to be Czechoslovakia is under the control of Berlin.

For all these reasons the fear that this new discovery has provided the Nazis with some sinister, new, secret explosive with which to destroy their enemies is clearly without foundation. Dark hints will no doubt be dropped and terrifying whispers will be assiduously circulated, but it is to be hoped that nobody will be taken in by them.

It is remarkable how accurate this forecast was. Nor was it the Germans who found the path. Indeed, they followed the wrong trail, and had actually abandoned the search for the atomic bomb in favour of rockets or pilotless airplanes at the moment when President Roosevelt and I were taking the decisions and reaching the memorable agreements, which will be described in their proper place, for the large-scale manufacture of atomic bombs.

I also wrote in my final paper for the Air Defence Research Committee:

August 10, 1939.

The main defence of England against air raids is the toll which can be extracted from the raiders. One-fifth knocked out each go will soon bring the raids to an end…. We must imagine the opening attack as a large affair crossing the sea in relays for many hours. But it is not the first results of the air attack which will govern the future of the air war. It is not child’s play to come and attack England. A heavy proportion of casualties will lead the enemy to make severe calculations of profit and loss. As daylight raiding will soon become too expensive, we have chiefly to deal with random night-bombing of the built-up areas.

* * * * *

“Tell Chamberlain,” said Mussolini to the British Ambassador on July 7, “that if England is ready to fight in defence of Poland, Italy will take up arms with her ally, Germany.” But behind the scenes his attitude was the opposite. He sought at this time no more than to consolidate his interests in the Mediterranean and North Africa, to cull the fruits of his intervention in Spain, and to digest his Albanian conquest. He did not like being dragged into a European war for Germany to conquer Poland. For all his public boastings, he knew the military and political fragility of Italy better than anyone. He was willing to talk about a war in 1942, if Germany would give him the munitions; but in 1939 – No!

As the pressure upon Poland sharpened during the summer, Mussolini turned his thoughts upon repeating his Munich rôle of mediator, and he suggested a World Peace Conference. Hitler curtly dispelled such ideas. On August 11, Ciano met Ribbentrop at Salzburg. According to Ciano’s Diary:

The Duce is anxious for me to prove by documentary evidence that an outbreak of war at this time would be folly…. It would be impossible to localise it in Poland, and a general war would be disastrous for everyone. Never has the Duce spoken of the need for peace so unreservedly and with so much warmth…. Ribbentrop is evasive. Whenever I ask him for particulars about German policy, his conscience troubles him. He has lied too many times about German intentions towards Poland not to feel uneasy now about what he must tell me, and what they are really planning to do…. The German decision to fight is implacable. Even if they were given more than they ask, they would attack just the same, because they are possessed by the demon of destruction…. At times our conversation becomes very tense. I do not hesitate to express my thoughts with brutal frankness. But this does not move him. I am becoming aware how little we are worth in the opinion of the Germans.2

Ciano went on to see Hitler the next day. We have the German minutes of this meeting. Hitler made it clear that he intended to settle with Poland, that he would be forced to fight England and France as well, and that he wanted Italy to come in. He said, “If England keeps the necessary troops in her own country, she can send to France at the most two infantry divisions and one armoured division. For the rest she could supply a few bomber squadrons, but hardly any fighters because the German air force would at once attack England, and the English fighters would be urgently needed for its defence.” About France he said that after the destruction of Poland – which would not take long – Germany would be able to assemble hundreds of divisions along the West Wall, and France would thus be compelled to concentrate all her available forces from the colonies and from the Italian frontier and elsewhere on her Maginot Line for the life-and-death struggle. Ciano in reply expressed his surprise at the gravity of what he had been told. There had, he complained, never been any previous sign from the German side that the Polish quarrel was so serious and imminent. On the contrary, Ribbentrop had said that the Danzig question would be settled in the course of time. The Duce, convinced that a conflict with the Western Powers was unavoidable, had assumed that he should make plans for this event during a period of two or three years.

After these interchanges Ciano returned gloomily to report to his master, whom he found more deeply convinced that the Democracies would fight, and even more resolved to keep out of the struggle himself.

* * * * *

A renewed effort to come to an arrangement with Soviet Russia was made by the British and French Governments. It was decided to send a special envoy to Moscow. Mr. Eden, who had made useful contacts with Stalin some years before, volunteered to go. This generous offer was declined by the Prime Minister. Instead, on June 12, Mr. Strang, an able official but without any special standing outside the Foreign Office, was entrusted with this momentous mission. This was another mistake. The sending of so subordinate a figure gave actual offence. It is doubtful whether he was able to pierce the outer crust of the Soviet organism. In any case all was now too late. Much had happened since M. Maisky had been sent to see me at Chartwell in August, 1938. Munich had happened. Hitler’s armies had had a year more to mature. His munition factories, reinforced by the Skoda Works, were all in full blast. The Soviet Government cared much for Czechoslovakia; but Czechoslovakia was gone. Benes was in exile. A German Gauleiter ruled in Prague.

On the other hand, Poland presented to Russia an entirely different set of age-long political and strategic problems. Their last major contact had been the Battle of Warsaw in 1919, when the Bolshevik armies under Ensign Krylenko had been hurled back from their invasion by Pilsudski aided by the advice of General Weygand and the British Mission under Lord D’Abernon, and thereafter pursued with bloody vengeance. During these years Poland had been a spearpoint of anti-Bolshevism. With her left hand she joined and sustained the anti-Soviet Baltic States. But with her right hand, at Munichtime, she had helped to despoil Czechoslovakia. The Soviet Government were sure that Poland hated them, and also that Poland had no power to withstand a German onslaught. They were, however, very conscious of their own perils and of their need for time to repair the havoc in the High Commands of their armies. In these circumstances, the prospects of Mr. Strang’s mission were not exuberant.

The negotiations wandered around the question of the reluctance of Poland and the Baltic States to be rescued from Germany by the Soviets; and here they made no progress. In the leading article of June 13, Pravda had already declared that an effective neutrality of Finland, Esthonia, and Latvia was vital to the safety of the U.S.S.R. “The security of such states,” it said, was of prime importance for Britain and France, as “even such a politician as Mr. Churchill” had recognised. The issue was discussed in Moscow on June 15. On the following day the Russian press declared that “in the circles of the Soviet Foreign Ministry results of the first talks are regarded as not entirely favourable.” All through July the discussions continued fitfully, and eventually the Soviet Government proposed that conversations should be continued on a military basis with both French and British representatives. The British Government, therefore, dispatched Admiral Drax with a mission to Moscow on August 10. These officers possessed no written authority to negotiate. The French Mission was headed by General Doumenc. On the Russian side Marshal Voroshilov officiated. We now know that at this same time the Soviet Government agreed to the journey of a German negotiator to Moscow. The military conference soon foundered upon the refusal of Poland and Rumania to allow the transit of Russian troops. The Polish attitude was, “With the Germans we risk losing our liberty; with the Russians our soul.” 3

* * * * *

At the Kremlin in August, 1942, Stalin, in the early hours of the morning, gave me one aspect of the Soviet position. “We formed the impression,” said Stalin, “that the British and French Governments were not resolved to go to war if Poland were attacked, but that they hoped the diplomatic line-up of Britain, France, and Russia would deter Hitler. We were sure it would not.” “How many divisions,” Stalin had asked, “will France send against Germany on mobilisation?” The answer was: “About a hundred.” He then asked: “How many will England send?” The answer was: “Two and two more later.” “Ah, two and two more later,” Stalin had repeated. “Do you know,” he asked, “how many divisions we shall have to put on the Russian front if we go to war with Germany?” There was a pause. “More than three hundred.” I was not told with whom this conversation took place or its date. It must be recognised that this was solid ground, but not favourable for Mr. Strang of the Foreign Office.

It was judged necessary by Stalin and Molotov for bargaining purposes to conceal their true intentions till the last possible moment. Remarkable skill in duplicity was shown by Molotov and his subordinates in all their contacts with both sides. As late as August 4, the German Ambassador Schulenburg could only telegraph from Moscow:

From Molotov’s whole attitude it was evident that the Soviet Government was in fact more prepared for improvement in German-Soviet relations, but that the old mistrust of Germany persists. My over-all impression is that the Soviet Government is at present determined to sign with England and France if they fulfil all Soviet wishes. Negotiations, to be sure, might still last a long time, especially since the mistrust of England is also great…. It will take a considerable effort on our part to cause the Soviet Government to swing about.4

He need not have worried: the die was cast.

* * * * *

On the evening of August 19, Stalin announced to the Politburo his intention to sign a pact with Germany. On August 22, Marshal Voroshilov was not to be found by the Allied missions until evening. He then said to the head of the French Mission:

The question of military collaboration with France has been in the air for several years, but has never been settled. Last year, when Czechoslovakia was perishing, we waited for a signal from France, but none was given. Our troops were ready…. The French and English Governments have now dragged out the political and military discussions too long. For that reason the possibility is not to be excluded that certain political events may take place…. 5

The next day Ribbentrop arrived in Moscow.

* * * * *

We now possess, in the Nuremberg Documents and in those captured and recently published by the United States, the details of this never-to-be-forgotten transaction. According to Ribbentrop’s chief assistant, Gauss, who flew with him to Moscow: “On the afternoon of August 22, the first conversation between Ribbentrop and Stalin took place…. The Reich Foreign Minister returned very satisfied from this long conference….” Later in the day an agreement on the text of the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact was reached quickly and without difficulties. “Ribbentrop himself,” says Gauss, “had inserted in the preamble a rather far-reaching phrase concerning the formation of friendly German-Soviet relations. To this Stalin objected, remarking that the Soviet Government could not suddenly present to their public a German-Soviet declaration of friendship after they had been covered with pails of manure by the Nazi Government for six years. Thereupon this phrase in the preamble was deleted.” In a secret agreement Germany declared herself politically disinterested in Latvia, Esthonia, and Finland, but considered Lithuania to be in her sphere of influence. A demarcation line was drawn for the Polish partition. In the Baltic countries, Germany claimed only economic interests. The Non-Aggression Pact and the secret agreement were signed rather late on the night of August 23.6

* * * * *

Despite all that has been dispassionately recorded in this and the foregoing chapter, only totalitarian despotism in both countries could have faced the odium of such an unnatural act. It is a question whether Hitler or Stalin loathed it most. Both were aware that it could only be a temporary expedient. The antagonisms between the two empires and systems were mortal. Stalin no doubt felt that Hitler would be a less deadly foe to Russia after a year of war with the Western Powers. Hitler followed his method of “One at a time.” The fact that such an agreement could be made marks the culminating failure of British and French foreign policy and diplomacy over several years.

On the Soviet side it must be said that their vital need was to hold the deployment positions of the German armies as far to the west as possible so as to give the Russians more time for assembling their forces from all parts of their immense empire. They had burnt in their minds the disasters which had come upon their armies in 1914, when they had hurled themselves forward to attack the Germans while still themselves only partly mobilised. But now their frontiers lay far to the east of those of the previous war. They must be in occupation of the Baltic States and a large part of Poland by force or fraud before they were attacked. If their policy was coldblooded, it was also at the moment realistic in a high degree.

The sinister news broke upon the world like an explosion. On August 21/22, the Soviet Tass Agency stated that Ribbentrop was flying to Moscow to sign a Non-Aggression Pact with the Soviet Union. Whatever emotions the British Government may have experienced, fear was not among them. They lost no time in declaring that “such an event would in no way affect their obligations, which they were determined to fulfil.” Nothing could now avert or delay the conflict.

* * * * *

It is still worth while to record the terms of the Pact:

Both High Contracting Parties obligate themselves to desist from any act of violence, any aggressive action, and any attack on each other, either individually or jointly with other Powers.

This treaty was to last ten years, and if not denounced by either side one year before the expiration of that period, would be automatically extended for another five years. There was much jubilation and many toasts around the conference table. Stalin spontaneously proposed the toast of the Fuehrer, as follows, “I know how much the German Nation loves its Fuehrer, I should therefore like to drink his health.” A moral may be drawn from all this, which is of homely simplicity – “Honesty is the best policy.” Several examples of this will be shown in these pages. Crafty men and statesmen will be shown misled by all their elaborate calculations. But this is the signal instance. Only twenty-two months were to pass before Stalin and the Russian nation in its scores of millions were to pay a frightful forfeit. If a Government has no moral scruples, it often seems to gain great advantages and liberties of action, but “All comes out even at the end of the day, and all will come out yet more even when all the days are ended.”

* * * * *

Hitler was sure from secret interchanges that the Russian Pact would be signed on August 22; even before Ribbentrop returned from Moscow or the public announcement was made, he addressed his Commanders-in-Chief as follows:

We must be determined from the beginning to fight the Western Powers…. The conflict with Poland was bound to come sooner or later. I had already made this decision in the spring, but I thought I would first turn against the West and only afterwards against the East…. We need not be afraid of a blockade. The East will supply us with grain, cattle, coal…. I am only afraid that at the last minute some Schweinhund will make a proposal for mediation…. The political aim is set further. A beginning has been made for the destruction of England’s hegemony. The same is open for the soldier, after I have made the political preparations.7

* * * * *

On the news of the German-Soviet Pact, the British Government at once took precautionary measures. Orders were issued for key parties of the coast and anti-aircraft defences to assemble, and for the protection of vulnerable points. Telegrams were sent to Dominion Governments and to the colonies, warning them that it might be necessary in the very near future to institute the precautionary stage. The Lord Privy Seal was authorised to bring The Regional Organisation onto a war footing. On August 23, the Admiralty received Cabinet authority to requisition twenty-five merchantmen for conversion to armed merchant cruisers (A.M.C.), and thirty-five trawlers to be fitted with Asdics. Six thousand reservists for the overseas garrisons were called up. The anti-aircraft defence of the radar stations and the full deployment of the anti-aircraft forces were approved. Twenty-four thousand reservists of the air force and all the air auxiliary force, including the balloon squadrons, were called up. All leave was stopped throughout the fighting services. The Admiralty issued warnings to merchant shipping. Many other steps were taken.

* * * * *

The Prime Minister decided to write to Hitler about these preparatory measures. This letter does not appear in Mr. Feiling’s biography, but has been printed elsewhere. In justice to Mr. Chamberlain it should certainly be widely read:

Your Excellency will have already heard of certain measures taken by His Majesty’s Government and announced in the press and on the wireless this evening.

These steps have, in the opinion of His Majesty’s Government, been rendered necessary by the military movements which have been reported from Germany, and by the fact that apparently the announcement of a German-Soviet Agreement is taken in some quarters in Berlin to indicate that intervention by Great Britain on behalf of Poland is no longer a contingency that need be reckoned with. No greater mistake could be made. Whatever may prove to be the nature of the German-Soviet Agreement, it cannot alter Great Britain’s obligation to Poland, which His Majesty’s Government have stated in public repeatedly and plainly, and which they are determined to fulfil.

It has been alleged that if His Majesty’s Government had made their position more clear in 1914, the great catastrophe would have been avoided. Whether or not there is any force in that allegation, His Majesty’s Government are resolved that on this occasion there shall be no such tragic misunderstanding. If the need should arise, they are resolved and prepared to employ without delay all the forces at their command, and it is impossible to foresee the end of hostilities once engaged. It would be a dangerous delusion to think that, if war once starts, it will come to an early end, even if a success on any one of the several fronts on which it will be engaged should have been secured.

At this time I confess I can see no other way to avoid a catastrophe that will involve Europe in war. In view of the grave consequences to humanity which may follow from the action of their rulers, I trust that Your Excellency will weigh with the utmost deliberation the considerations which I have put before you. 8

Hitler’s reply, after dwelling on the “unparalleled magnanimity” with which Germany was prepared to settle the question of Danzig and the Corridor, contained the following piece of lying effrontery:

The unconditional assurance given by England to Poland that she would render assistance to that country in all circumstances, regardless of the causes from which a conflict might spring, could only be interpreted in that country as an encouragement henceforward to unloose, under cover of such a charter, a wave of appalling terrorism against the one and a half million German inhabitants living in Poland.9

On August 25, the British Government proclaimed a formal treaty with Poland, confirming the guarantees already given. It was hoped by this step to give the best chance to a settlement by direct negotiation between Germany and Poland in the face of the fact that if this failed, Britain would stand by Poland. Said Goering at Nuremberg:

On the day when England gave her official guarantee to Poland, the Fuehrer called me on the telephone and told me that he had stopped the planned invasion of Poland. I asked him then whether this was just temporary or for good. He said, “No, I shall have to see whether we can eliminate British intervention.” 10

In fact, Hitler postponed D-Day from August 25 to September 1, and entered into direct negotiation with Poland, as Chamberlain desired. His object was not, however, to reach an agreement with Poland, but to give His Majesty’s Government every opportunity to escape from their guarantee. Their thoughts, like those of Parliament and the nation, were upon a different plane. It is a curious fact about the British Islanders, who hate drill and have not been invaded for nearly a thousand years, that as danger comes nearer and grows, they become progressively less nervous; when it is imminent, they are fierce; when it is mortal, they are fearless. These habits have led them into some very narrow escapes.

* * * * *

A letter from Hitler to Mussolini at this time has recently been published in Italy:


For some time Germany and Russia have been meditating upon the possibility of placing their mutual political relations upon a new basis. The need to arrive at concrete results in this sense has been strengthened by:

1. The condition of the world political situation in general.

2. The continued procrastination of the Japanese Cabinet in taking up a clear stand. Japan was ready for an alliance against Russia in which Germany – and in my view Italy – could only be interested in the present circumstances as a secondary consideration. She was not agreeable, however, to assuming any clear obligations regarding England – a decisive question from the German side, and I think also from Italy’s….

3. The relations between Germany and Poland have been unsatisfactory since the spring, and in recent weeks have become simply intolerable, not through the fault of the Reich, but principally because of British action…. These reasons have induced me to hasten on a conclusion of the Russian-German talks. I have not yet informed you, Duce, in detail on this question. But now in recent weeks the disposition of the Kremlin to engage in an exchange of relations with Germany – a disposition produced from the moment of the dismissal of Litvinov – has been increasingly marked, and has now made it possible for me, after having reached a preliminary clarification, to send my Foreign Minister to Moscow to draw up a treaty which is far and away the most extensive non-aggression pact in existence today, and the text of which will be made public. The pact is unconditional, and establishes in addition the commitment to consult on all questions which interest Germany and Russia. I can also inform you, Duce, that, given these undertakings, the benevolent attitude of Russia is assured, and that above all there now exists no longer the possibility of any attack whatsoever on the part of Rumania in the event of a conflict.11

To this Mussolini sent an immediate answer:

I am replying to your letter which has just been delivered to me by Ambassador Mackensen.

1. As far as the agreement with Russia is concerned, I completely approve.

2. I feel it would be useful to avoid a rupture or coolness with Japan and her consequent drawing together with the group of democratic states….

3. The Moscow Pact blocks Rumania, and may change the position of Turkey, who has accepted an English loan, but who has not yet signed the alliance. A new attitude on the part of Turkey would upset the strategic disposition of the French and English in the Eastern Mediterranean.

4. About Poland I understand completely the German position and the fact that such a tense situation cannot continue indefinitely.

5. Regarding the practical attitude of Italy in the event of military action, my point of view is the following:

If Germany attacks Poland and the conflict is localised, Italy will give Germany every form of political and economic aid which may be required.

If Germany attacks Poland and the allies of the latter counter attack Germany, I must emphasise to you that I cannot assume the initiative of warlike operations, given the actual conditions of Italian military preparations which have been repeatedly and. in timely fashion pointed out to you, Fuehrer, and to von Ribbentrop.

Our intervention could, however, be immediate if Germany were to give us at once the munitions and raw materials to sustain the shock which the French and British would probably inflict upon us. In our previous meetings war was envisaged after 1942, and on this date I should have been ready on land, by sea, and in the air, according to our agreed plans.12

From this point Hitler knew, if he had not divined it already, that he could not count upon the armed intervention of Italy if war came. Any last-minute attempts by Mussolini to repeat his performance of Munich were brushed aside. It seems to have been from English rather than from German sources that the Duce learnt of the final moves. Ciano records in his Diary on August 27, “The English communicate to us the text of the German proposals to London, about which we are kept entirely in the dark.” 13 Mussolini’s only need now was Hitler’s acquiescence in Italy’s neutrality. This was accorded to him.

* * * * *

On August 31, Hitler issued his “Directive Number 1 for the conduct of the war.”

1. Now that all the political possibilities of disposing by peaceful means of a situation on the eastern frontier which is intolerable for Germany are exhausted, I have determined on a solution by force.

2. The attack on Poland is to be carried out in accordance with the preparation made for “Fall Weiss” [Case White] with the alterations which result, where the Army is concerned, from the fact that it has in the meantime almost completed its dispositions. Allotment of tasks and the operational targets remain unchanged.

The date of attack – September 1, 1939. Time of attack – 04.45 [inserted in red pencil].

3. In the West it is important that the responsibility for the opening of hostilities should rest unequivocally with England and France. At first purely local action should be taken against insignificant frontier violations.14

* * * * *

On my return from the Rhine front, I passed some sunshine days at Madame Balsan’s place, with a pleasant but deeply anxious company, in the old château where King Henry of Navarre had slept the night before the Battle of Ivry. Mrs. Euan Wallace and her sons were with us. Her husband was a Cabinet Minister. She was expecting him to join her. Presently he telegraphed he could not come, and would explain later why. Other signs of danger drifted in upon us. One could feel the deep apprehension brooding over all, and even the light of this lovely valley at the confluence of the Eure and the Vesgre seemed robbed of its genial ray. I found painting hard work in this uncertainty. On August 26, I decided to go home, where at least I could find out what was going on. I told my wife I would send her word in good time. On my way through Paris I gave General Georges luncheon. He produced all the figures of the French and German Armies, and classified the divisions in quality. The result impressed me so much that for the first time I said: “But you are the masters.” He replied: “The Germans have a very strong army, and we shall never be allowed to strike first. If they attack, both our countries will rally to their duty.”

That night I slept at Chartwell, where I had asked General Ironside to stay with me next day. He had just returned from Poland, and the reports he gave of the Polish Army were most favourable. He had seen a divisional attack-exercise under a live barrage, not without casualties. Polish morale was high. He stayed three days with me, and we tried hard to measure the unknowable. Also at this time I completed bricklaying the kitchen of the cottage which during the year past I had prepared for our family home in the years which were to come. My wife, on my signal, came over via Dunkirk, on August 30.

* * * * *

There were known to be twenty thousand organised German Nazis in England at this time, and it would only have been in accord with their procedure in other friendly countries that the outbreak of war should be preceded by a sharp prelude of sabotage and murder. I had at that time no official protection, and I did not wish to ask for any; but I thought myself sufficiently prominent to take precautions. I had enough information to convince me that Hitler recognised me as a foe. My former Scotland Yard detective, Inspector Thompson, was in retirement. I told him to come along and bring his pistol with him. I got out my own weapons, which were good. While one slept, the other watched. Thus nobody would have had a walkover. In these hours I knew that if war came – and who could doubt its coming?  a major burden would fall upon me.

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