It is recorded of the great Moltke, that when he was being praised for his generalship in the Franco-Prussian War, and was told by an admirer that his reputation would rank with such great captains as Napoleon, Frederick or Turenne, he answered ‘No, for I have never conducted a retreat.’

Frederick von Mellenthin, Panzer Battles (1955), p. 236


Four Invasions

September 1939 – April 1940

If we lose this war, then God have mercy on us.

Hermann Göring to Hitler’s interpreter, Paul Schmidt, 3 September 19391

Although the international situation, and his months of sabre-rattling against Poland, meant that his invasion of that country could not be a surprise attack, Hitler hoped, with good reason, that the Wehrmacht’s new Blitzkrieg (lightning war) tactics would deliver a tactical shock to the Poles. Blitzkrieg tactics, which relied on very close, radio-controlled contact between fast-moving tank columns, motorized artillery, Luftwaffe bombers and fighters and truck-borne infantry, swept all before them. Hitler’s dislike of static, attritional warfare was a natural response to his years in the 16th Bavarian Infantry Regiment between 1914 and 1918. His job as a Meldegänger (battalion runner) in that conflict involved waiting for a gap in artillery salvoes and then springing forward in a semi-crouched stance, sprinting from trench to shell-hole taking messages. He was thus brave and conscientious, probably never killed anyone himself, and always refused promotions that would take him away from his comrades because, as his regimental adjutant Fritz Wiedemann later stated, ‘For Gefreiter [Corporal] Hitler, the Regiment was home.’2 He even won two Iron Crosses, Second Class and First Class.

Having survived four years of stalemate and attrition, Hitler had learnt by the age of twenty-nine, when the war ended, that tactical surprise was of inestimable advantage in warfare, and as he was later to write in Mein Kampf: ‘Even a man of thirty will have much to learn in the course of his life, but this will only be a supplement.’ Throughout his political career as a revolutionary, he constantly attempted to employ surprise, usually with great success. The attempted coup of 1923 known as the Beerhall Putsch had surprised even its titular leader, General Ludendorff, and Röhm had had no inkling of the Night of the Long Knives. Yet the Poles were expecting Hitler’s sudden attack, because exactly one week beforehand their country had been invaded by a tiny detachment of Germans who had not been informed of the postponement of the invasion originally planned for dawn on Saturday, 26 August.

Part of Germany’s plan to invade Poland, Fall Weiss (Plan White), involved small groups of Germans dressed in Räuberzivil (robbers’ civvies) crossing the border the night before and seizing key strategic points before dawn on the day of the invasion. The secret Abwehr (German intelligence) battalion detailed to undertake these operations was given the euphemistic title of Construction Training Company 800 for Special Duties. A twenty-four-man group under the command of Leutnant Dr Hans-Albrecht Herzner was instructed to prepare the way for the assault of the 7th Infantry Division by infiltrating the border and capturing a railway station at Mosty in the Jablunka Pass running through the Carpathian mountains, to prevent the destruction of the single-track railway tunnel which was the shortest connection between Warsaw and Vienna.3 Crossing the border into the forests at 00.30 on 26 August, Herzner’s group got lost and was split up in the dark, but Herzner managed to capture the railway station at Mosty with thirteen men at 03.30 and cut the telephone and telegraph lines, only to discover that the Polish detonators had already been removed from the tunnel by the defenders. Polish tunnel guards then attacked his unit, wounding one of his men. Out of contact with the Abwehr, Herzner could not know that, with only a few hours to go, the previous evening Hitler had postponed Plan White until the following week, and that every other commando unit had been informed of this except his. It was not until 09.35 that the Abwehr finally managed to get through and order Herzner, who by then had lost another man wounded and had killed a Pole in the firefight, to release his prisoners and return to base immediately.

After a further series of incidents Herzner’s group recrossed the border at 13.30. The German Government explained to the Poles that the whole affair had been a mistake due to the lack of a defined border line in the forest. As the operation had not been an official military one, therefore, and had taken place in peacetime, Herzner very Teutonically put in for overnight expenses of 55 Reichsmarks and 86 pfennigs.4 Equally Teutonically, the authorities did not initially want to award him the Iron Cross (Second Class) for exploits that technically took place in peacetime. (They eventually did, but it did him little good: after breaking his back in a motor accident in 1942 Herzner drowned during his swimming therapy.)

On 28 August Hitler had abrogated the 1934 German–Polish non-aggression treaty – a curious and unusual act of legalism from him – so the Poles could hardly have had a clearer indication that Germany was on the verge of invading their country, but they could have had little intimation of Blitzkrieg tactics, hitherto the preserve of certain German and British theoretical tacticians. They could estimate accurately where and roughly when the attack would come, but crucially not how. The Poles therefore chose to place the bulk of their troops close to the German border. The Munich crisis the previous autumn, and Hitler’s seizure of the rump of Czechoslovakia the following spring, meant that Poland’s border with the Reich had been extended from 1,250 to a full 1,750 miles, much further than the Polish Army could adequately defend. Its commander-in-chief, Marshal Edward Śmigły-Rydz, therefore had to decide whether to keep the majority of his forces back behind the natural defensive line formed by the Vistula, San and Narev rivers, or to try to protect Poland’s industrial heartlands and best agricultural land in the west of the country.

Śmigły-Rydz decided to commit his troops to defending every inch of Polish soil, which left them perilously exposed. He attempted to deploy across the whole front from Lithuania to the Carpathians, and even kept a special assault group for invading East Prussia, retaining one-third of his force in Poznia and the Polish Corridor. As so often in the history of poor, martyred Poland, the dispositions were brave: otherwise Śmigły-Rydz would simply have had to abandon cities as important as Kraków, Poznań, Bydgoszcz and Łódź, which all lay to the west of the three rivers. Nonetheless, it is hard not to agree with Major-General Frederick von Mellenthin, then the intelligence officer of the German III Corps, that Polish ‘plans were lacking a sense of reality’.5

At 17.30 hours on Thursday, 31 August 1939, Hitler ordered hostilities to start the next morning, and this time there would be no postponement. So at 04.45 on Friday, 1 September German forces activated Plan White, which had been formulated that June by the German Army High Command, the Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH). The OKH was composed of the commander-in-chief of the Field Army (Feldheer), the Army General Staff, the Army Personnel Office and the commander-in-chief of the Reserve Army (Ersatzheer). Above the OKH in terms of creating grand strategy was the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (Armed Forces High Command, or OKW). Soon after assuming personal command of the German armed forces in February 1938, Hitler had created the OKW to function as his military staff under his direct command, with Keitel as its chief. Whereas Blomberg had been strenuously opposed by the Navy and Army in his efforts to set up a unified high command, Hitler was not to be baulked. In August 1939, when general mobilization went ahead, OKW consisted of the office of the Chief of Staff (Keitel), a central administrative division, the armed forces administration office (under Jodl) which kept Hitler informed of the military situation, an intelligence office under Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, a war production office and various smaller units concerned with military justice and finance.

According to Plan White, on either side of a relatively weak and stationary centre, two powerful wings of the Wehrmacht would envelop Poland, crush its armed forces and capture Warsaw. Army Group North, under Colonel-General Fedor von Bock, would smash through the Polish Corridor, take Danzig (present-day Gdańsk), unite with the German Third Army in East Prussia, and move swiftly to attack the Polish capital from the north. Meanwhile an even stronger Army Group South, under Colonel-General Gerd von Rundstedt, would punch between the larger Polish forces facing it, push east all the way to Lvov, but also assault Warsaw from the west and north. (At the Jablunka Pass, the Poles did at least destroy the railway tunnel, which was not reopened until 1948.)

The Polish Corridor, which had been intended by the framers of the Versailles Treaty of 1919 to cut off East Prussia from the rest of Germany, had long been presented as a casus belli by the Nazis, as had the ethnically German Baltic port of Danzig, but as Hitler had told a conference of generals in May 1939, ‘Danzig is not the real issue; the real point is for us to open up our Lebensraum to the east and ensure our supplies of foodstuffs.’6 Yet much more than mere practicalities drove Hitler. This was to be an existential conflict, fulfilling the prophecies he had made fourteen years before in his political testimony Mein Kampf. The German master race would subjugate the Slavs – Untermenschen (subhumans) according to Nazi precepts of racial hierarchy – and use their territory to nurture a new Aryan civilization. This was to be the world’s first wholly politically ideological war, and it is a contention of this book that that was the primary reason why the Nazis eventually lost it.

The strategy of having a weak centre and two powerful flanks was a brilliant one, and was believed to have derived from Field Marshal Count Alfred von Schlieffen’s celebrated pre-Great War study of Hannibal’s tactics at the battle of Cannae. Whatever the provenance it worked well, slipping German armies neatly between Polish ones and enabling them to converge on Warsaw from different angles almost simultaneously. Yet what made it irresistible was not German preponderance in men and arms, but above all the new military doctrine of Blitzkrieg. Poland was a fine testing ground for Blitzkrieg tactics: although it had lakes, forests and bad roads, it was nonetheless flat, with immensely wide fronts and firm, late-summer ground ideal for tanks.

Because the British and French Governments, fearful that Germany was about to invade at any moment, had given their guarantee to Poland on 1 April 1939, with the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain formally promising her ‘all support in the power’ of the Allies should she be attacked, Hitler was forced to leave a large proportion of his hundred-division Army in the west, guarding the Siegfried Line, or ‘West Wall’ – a 3-mile-deep series of still-incomplete fortifications along Germany’s western frontier. The fear of a war on two fronts led the Führer to detail no fewer than forty divisions to protect his back. However, three-quarters of these were only second-rate units and they had been left with only three days’ ammunition.7 His best troops, along with all his armoured and mobile divisions and almost all his aircraft, Hitler devoted to the attack on Poland.

Plan White was drawn up by the OKH planners, with Hitler merely putting his imprimatur on the final document. At this early stage of the war there was a good deal of genuine mutual respect between Hitler and his generals, aided by the fact that he had not so far interfered too closely in their troop dispositions and planning; his two Iron Crosses gave him some standing with his generals. Hitler’s own self-confidence in military affairs was singular. This may have come in part from the sense of superiority of many veteran infantrymen that it was they who had borne the brunt of the fighting in the Great War. Both the OKW Chief of Staff Wilhelm Keitel, and his lieutenant the Chief of the Wehrmacht Operations Staff, Alfred Jodl, had been artillerymen and Staff officers in the Great War: their battle had been an indirect one, although Keitel had been wounded. General Walther von Reichenau, Colonel-General Walther von Brauchitsch and General Hans von Kluge were also artillerymen, and General Paul von Kleist and Lieutenant-General Erich Manstein had been in the cavalry (although Manstein too had been wounded). Some generals, such as Heinz Guderian, had been in Signals, and others such as Maximilian von Weichs had spent most of the war on the General Staff. Whatever the reason, Hitler was not as cowed as an ex-corporal would usually have been among generals. Although he had been a mere Meldegänger, he would also have learnt something about tactics. It is possible that had Hitler been a German citizen he would have been commissioned; knowing this himself, he might well have emerged from the war with a sense of being capable of commanding a battalion, which only a technicality had prevented.8 Many of the generals of 1939 had spent the 1920s in the paramilitary militia known as the Freikorps and the tiny ‘Treaty’ Army that was permitted under Versailles. Before Hitler came to power, this had involved little more than Staff work, training and studying. That would not have overly impressed Hitler, whatever titular rank those serving in it had achieved. For all that former Lieutenant-Colonel Winston Churchill was to mock ‘Corporal’ Hitler for his lowly Great War rank in the trenches, the Führer seems to have been under no inferiority complex when dealing directly with soldiers who had wildly outranked him in the previous conflict.


Plan White devoted sixty divisions to the conquest of Poland, including five Panzer divisions of 300 tanks each, four light divisions (of fewer tanks and some horses) and four fully motorized divisions (with lorry-borne infantry), as well as 3,600 operational aircraft and much of the powerful Kriegsmarine (German Navy). Poland meanwhile had only thirty infantry divisions, eleven cavalry brigades, two mechanized brigades, 300 medium and light tanks, 1,154 field guns and 400 aircraft ready for combat (of which only 36 Łoś aircraft were not obsolete), as well as a fleet of only four modern destroyers and five submarines. Although these forces comprised fewer than one million men, Poland tried to mobilize her reservists, but that was far from complete when the devastating blow fell from 630,000 German troops under Bock and 886,000 under Rundstedt.

As dawn broke on 1 September, Heinkel He-111 bombers, with top speeds of 350kph carrying 2,000-kilogram loads, as well as Dorniers and Junkers Ju-87 (Stuka) dive-bombers, began pounding Polish roads, airfields, railway junctions, munition dumps, mobilization centres and cities, including Warsaw. Meanwhile, the training ship Schleswig Holstein in Danzig harbour started shelling the Polish garrison at Westerplatte. The Stukas had special sirens attached whose screams hugely intensified the terror of those below. Much of the Polish Air Force was destroyed on the ground, and air superiority – which was to be a vital factor in this six-year conflict – was quickly won by the Luftwaffe. The Messerschmitt Me-109 had a top speed of 470kph, and the far slower Polish planes stood little chance, however brave their pilots. Furthermore, Polish anti-aircraft defences – where there were any – were inadequate.

In charge of the two armoured divisions and two light divisions of Army Group North was General Heinz Guderian, a long-time exponent of – indeed passionate proselytizer for – the tactics of Blitzkrieg. Wielding his force as an homogeneous entity, by contrast with Army Group South where tanks were split up among different units, Guderian scored amazing successes as he raced ahead of the main body of the infantry. Polish retaliation was further hampered by vast numbers of refugees taking to the roads. Once they were bombed and machine-gunned from the air in further pursuance of Blitzkrieg tactics, chaos ensued.

Hitler needed the Polish campaign to be over quickly in case of an attack in the west, but it was not until 11 a.m. on Sunday, 3 September that Neville Chamberlain’s Government finally declared war on Germany, with the French Government reluctantly following six hours later. It soon became clear to everyone – except the ever hopeful Poles – that the Western Allies were not about to assault the Siegfried Line, even though the French had eighty-five divisions there facing forty German. A fear of massive German air attacks devastating London and Paris partly explained Allied inaction, but even if Britain and France had attacked in the west Poland could probably not have been saved in time. As it was, although the RAF Advanced Air Striking Force reached France by 9 September, the main British Expeditionary Force (BEF) under Lord Gort vc did not start to arrive on the Continent until the next day.

What was not appreciated by the Allies at the time was the ever present fear that Hitler had of an attack from the west while he was dealing with matters in the east. In a letter to the Deputy Prison Governor at Nuremberg in 1946, Wilhelm Keitel averred that ‘What the Führer most feared and repeatedly brought up’ was firstly the possibility of a ‘Secret agreement between the French and Belgian general staffs for a surprise thrust by the French high-speed (motorized) forces through Belgium, and over the German frontier, so as to burst into the German industrial zone in the Ruhr’, and secondly the possibility of a ‘Secret agreement between the British Admiralty and the Dutch general staff for a surprise landing of British troops in Holland, for an attack on the German north flank’.9 In the event, Hitler needn’t have worried about either development, as neither France nor Britain, let alone neutral Belgium and Holland, was so much as contemplating anything so imaginative and vigorous. It was true that Chamberlain brought the long-term anti-Nazi prophet Winston Churchill into his government as first lord of the Admiralty, with political responsibility for the Royal Navy, but that was going to be Britain’s most bellicose act for the moment, except for one unsuccessful bombing raid on the Wilhelmshaven naval base and the dropping of twelve million leaflets on Germany, urging her people to overthrow their warmongering Führer. It was unlikely that this would happen just as he was about to pull off one of Germany’s greatest victories.

German propaganda, controlled by Dr Joseph Goebbels, a man who fully deserves the cliché ‘evil genius’, had long claimed that the Reich had a fifth column of supporters inside Poland, further adding to the atmosphere of terror and mistrust there. It was to be a tactic used often in the future, although on this occasion it was to lead to around 7,000 ethnic Germans being massacred by their Polish neighbours and retreating Polish troops.10 This baleful aspect of racial Total War was to be acted out on a monstrous scale across the Continent, but while on this occasion the Poles did it from terror of betrayal, soon the Nazis were to respond in cold blood, and on a far, far larger scale.

By 5 September the Polish Corridor was cut off entirely. The Polish Pomorze Army was encircled in the north by 8 September and the German Tenth Army under General Walther von Reichenau and the Eighth Army under General Johannes Blaskowitz had soon broken over and around the Polish Kraków and Łódź armies by the 17th. The Polish Government fled first to Lublin and thence to Romania, where they were initially welcomed, but then, under pressure from Hitler, interned.

On the night of 6 September, France invaded Germany, at least technically. Hoping to give the Poles some respite, the French Commander-in-Chief, General Maurice Gamelin, ordered an advance 5 miles into the Saarland along a 15-mile-wide front, capturing a dozen abandoned German villages. The Germans retreated behind the defences of the Siegfried Line and waited. As France was still mobilizing, no further action was taken, and five days later the French returned to their original positions with orders simply to undertake reconnaissance work. It was hardly ‘all support in the power’ of the Allies, and there is no evidence that Hitler removed a single man from the east to counter it.

On 8 September, Reichenau’s Tenth Army reached the outskirts of Warsaw, but was initially repulsed by fierce Polish resistance. Despite years of threats by Hitler, the Poles had not built extensive fixed defences, preferring to rely on counter-attacks. This all changed in early September when the city centre of Warsaw witnessed makeshift barricades being thrown up, anti-tank ditches dug and turpentine barrels made ready for ignition. Hitler’s plan was to seize Warsaw before the US Congress met on 21 September, so as to present it and the world with a fait accompli, but that was not quite to happen.

‘The Polish Army will never emerge again from the German embrace,’ predicted Hermann Göring on 9 September. Until then, the Germans had operated a textbook attack, but that night General Tadeusz Kutrzeba of the Poznań Army took over the Pomorze Army and crossed the Bzura river in a brilliant attack against the flank of the German Eighth Army, launching the three-day battle of Kutno which incapacitated an entire German division. Only when the Panzers of the Tenth Army returned from besieging Warsaw were the Poles forced back. According to German and Italian propaganda, some Polish cavalry charged German tanks armed only with lances and sabres, but this did not in fact happen at all. Nonetheless, as Mellenthin observed, ‘All the dash and bravery which the Poles frequently displayed could not compensate for a lack of modern arms and serious tactical training.’11 By contrast, the Wehrmacht training was completely modern and impressively flexible: some troops could even perform in tanks, as infantry and as artillerymen, while all German NCOs were trained to serve as officers if the occasion demanded. Of course it helped enormously that the Germans were the aggressors, and so knew when the war was going to start.

In 1944 the Guards officer and future military historian Michael Howard went on a course ‘learning everything that was to be known about the German army: its organisation, uniforms, doctrine, personnel, tactics, weapons – everything except why it was sobloody good’.12 Part of the answer goes back to the way that the Junker state of Prussia in the seventeenth century had allowed bright middle-class youths to win advancement in the Prussian Army: Voltaire said, ‘Where some states have an army, the Prussian army has a state!’ and his contemporary the Comte de Mirabeau agreed, quipping that ‘War is the national industry of Prussia.’ Status, respect and prestige attached to officers in uniform. The lesson of the great national revival of 1813 was discipline, and it was not forgotten even in the defeat of 1918. Hindenburg, even though a defeated general, was elected president. The Germans were fighting their fifth war of aggression in seventy-five years, and, as Howard also records, when it came to digging deep slit-trenches or aiming howitzers they were simply better than the Allies. Blitzkrieg required extraordinarily close co-operation between the services, and the Germans achieved it triumphantly. It took the Allies half a war to catch up.

With only three Polish divisions covering the 800-mile-long eastern border, it came as a complete surprise when at dawn on 17 September the USSR invaded Poland, in accordance with secret clauses of the Nazi–Soviet Pact that had been agreed on 24 August. The Russians wanted revenge for their defeats at Poland’s hands in 1920, access to the Baltic States and a buffer zone against Germany, and they opportunistically grasped all three, without any significant resistance. Their total losses amounted to only 734 killed.13 Stalin used Polish ‘colonialism’ in the Ukraine and Belorussia as his (gossamer-thin) casus belli, arguing that the Red Army had invaded Poland ‘in order to restore peace and order’. The Poles were thus doubly martyred, smashed between the Nazi hammer and the Soviet anvil, and were not to regain their independence and freedom until November 1989, half a century later. In one of the most despicable acts of naked viciousness of the war, in the spring of 1940 the Red Army transported 4,100 Polish officers, who had surrendered to them under the terms of the Geneva Convention, to a forest near Smolensk called Katyń, where they were each shot in the back of the head. Vasily Blokhin, chief executioner of the Russian secret service, the NKVD, led the squad responsible, wearing leather overalls and an apron and long leather gloves to protect his uniform from the blood and brains, and using a German Walther pistol because it did not jam when it got hot from repeated use.14 (Nonetheless he complained he got blisters on his trigger finger by the end of the third day of continuous executions.) In all, 21,857 Polish soldiers were executed by the Soviets at Katyń and elsewhere – an operation which, after the Germans had invaded Russia, Stalin’s police chief Lavrenti Beria admitted had been ‘a mistake’. When the Germans uncovered the mass graves on 17 April 1943, Goebbels broadcast the Katyń Massacre to the world, but Soviet propaganda made out that it had been undertaken by the Nazis themselves, a lie that was knowingly colluded in by the British Foreign Office until as late as 1972, even though charges against the Germans over Katyń were dropped at the Nuremberg Trials.

Because by mid-September the Germans had already moved into several areas behind Warsaw, and had indeed taken Brest-Litovsk and Lvov, some fighting inadvertently broke out between Russians and Germans, with two Cossacks killed in one incident and fifteen Germans in another. Ribbentrop, the German Foreign Minister, flew to Moscow in order to agree the lines of demarcation, and after an evening at the Bolshoi watching Swan Lake, and tough negotiations with his Russian counterpart, Molotov, lasting until 5 o’clock the next morning, it was agreed that the Germans would get Warsaw and Lublin, and the Russians the rest of eastern Poland and a free hand in the Baltic. The Germans withdrew from towns such as Brest-Litovsk and Białystok in the new Russian sector, and the fourth partition in Poland’s history was effectively complete. Molotov would have done well, however, to take note of Hitler’s statement made many years before in Mein Kampf: ‘Let no one argue that in concluding an alliance with Russia we need not immediately think of war, or, if we did, that we could thoroughly prepare for it. An alliance whose aim does not embrace a plan for war is senseless and worthless. Alliances are concluded only for struggle.’15

After a full day of bombing on 25 September, with no prospect of meaningful help from the Western Allies, a full-scale assault from the Russians in the east, communications cut between Śmigły-Rydz and much of his Army, and with food and medical supplies running dangerously low, Warsaw capitulated on the 27th. It was then three days before the Germans agreed to help the wounded in the city, by which time for many it was too late. Field kitchens were set up only for as long as the newsreel cameras were there. By 5 October all resistance had ended; 217,000 Polish soldiers passed into Russian captivity and 693,000 into German. Fortunately between 90,000 and 100,000 managed to escape the country via Lithuania, Hungary and Romania, to make their way westwards and join the Free Polish forces under General Władysław Sikorski, the Prime Minister in exile, who was in Paris when the war broke out and who set up a government in exile in Angers in France. About 100,000 Poles in the Russian sector – aristocrats, intellectuals, trade unionists, churchmen, politicians, veterans of the 1920–21 Russo-Polish War, indeed anyone who might form the nucleus of a new national leadership – were arrested by the NKVD, and sent to concentration camps from which virtually none emerged.

In the four-week campaign the Germans had lost 8,082 killed and 27,278 wounded, whereas 70,000 Polish soldiers and 25,000 civilians had been killed, and 130,000 soldiers wounded. ‘The operations were of considerable value in “blooding” our troops,’ concluded Mellenthin, ‘and teaching them the difference between real war with live ammunition and peacetime manoeuvres.’ It had indeed been ‘lightning war’, and on 5 October a triumphant Adolf Hitler travelled to Warsaw in his special train, for some reason named Amerika, to visit his victorious troops. ‘Take a good look around Warsaw,’ he told the war correspondents there. ‘That is how I can deal with any European city.’16 It was true.

What was to be called the policy of Schrecklichkeit (frightfulness) had begun as soon as the Germans had entered Poland. For the master race to have their living space, large numbers of Slavic and Jewish Untermenschen had to disappear, and during the war Poland lost a staggering 17.2 per cent of her population. The commander of three Totenkopf (Death’s Head) SS regiments, Theodor Eicke, ordered his men to ‘incarcerate or annihilate’ every enemy of National Socialism that they found as they followed the troops into Poland.17 Since Nazism was a racial and political ideology, that meant that huge swathes of the Polish people were automatically classed as enemies, to whom no mercy could be shown. The Wehrmacht took active part in the violence: the country was handed over to civilian administration on 26 October, only eight weeks after war broke out, but by then the German Army had, without special orders needing to be given, burnt 531 towns and villages and killed thousands of Polish POWs.18 The claim made by many German soldiers to Allied re-education officers, and to each other, that they had been simple soldiers who had known nothing of the genocide against the Slavs and the Jews – or at best had heard only rumours – was a lie.

The Schutzstaffel (defence unit, or SS) was originally the protective guard of the National Socialist Party. It was formally described as an independent Gliederung (formation) of the Party, led by its Reichsführer-SS (Chief of the SS), Heinrich Himmler. Yet by the time of the outbreak of war it had grown, and by 1944 could be described accurately by an Allied briefing book as ‘a state within a state, superior both to the Party and the government’. Officially described after Hitler came to power as ‘protecting the internal security of the Reich’, the SS revelled in the terror its ruthlessness and cruelty inspired. ‘I know that there are millions in Germany who sicken at the sight of the black uniforms of our SS,’ wrote Himmler in a brochure for his organization entitled Die Schutzstaffeln, in 1936. ‘We understand that well, and we do not expect to be loved by too many.’19

From the early days when it provided the bodyguards for Nazi street and beerhall speakers, the SS grew – especially after it wiped out the leadership of its rival the SA – into an organization that was intimately involved in many aspects of the state. As well as providing ‘the Führer’s most personal, selected guard’, the SS promoted the doctrine of ‘Race and Blood’; dominated the police force; set up a military section – the Waffen-SS – numbering 830,000 by 1945, which fought in every campaign except Norway and Africa, and the Totenkopf Verbände, a self-contained entity which ran the concentration and extermination camps; ruled the state security service, the Sicherheitsdienst (SD); and had its own depots and notoriously tough training establishments, as well as having departments covering economics, supply, works and buildings, finance, legal affairs, industrial and agricultural undertakings, medical matters, personnel, racial quality, the family, resettlement, discipline, camp construction, the regions, liaison, pardons and reprieves, the strengthening of Germanism, signals and communications, education, folk schools and the repatriation of racial Germans. These SS entities were quite separate from the rest of the German state.20 Hitler devised their motto: Meine Ehre heisst Treue(My honour is loyalty) in 1931, neatly encapsulating his need to have a force that he could trust to put allegiance to him before any system of morality.

The nature of their operations became immediately apparent. On 5 September 1939, a thousand civilians were shot by the SS at Bydgoszcz, and at Piotrków the Jewish district was torched. The next day nineteen Polish officers who had surrendered were shot at Mrocza. Meanwhile, the entire Jewish population began to be herded into ghettos across Poland. This happened even to Jewish farmers, despite the pressing need for efficient food production in the new eastern satrapy of the Third Reich – early evidence that the Nazis would be willing to put their war against the Jews even before their war against the Allies. On the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in their calendar, thousands of Jews were locked into the synagogue in Bydgoszcz and refused access to lavatories, forcing them to use their prayer shawls to clean themselves. Worse was to come.

Both the Nazi–Soviet Pact of 24 August 1939 and its coda in Moscow the following month gave Stalin a completely free hand in the north, and he moved swiftly to capitalize on it. Hoping to protect Leningrad against any future German attack, he tried to turn the Gulf of Finland into a Soviet seaway, even though its northern shore was Finnish and most of its southern shore Estonian. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were bullied into agreements that allowed the Red Army to be stationed at key points on their territory, and in June 1940 their sovereignty was extinguished altogether by effective annexation. Surrounded on three sides by mighty Russia, they had no real choice but to acquiesce. Finland was another matter, even though she had a tiny fraction of Russia’s population and an 800-mile border with her.

In October Stalin summoned the Finns to Moscow to be presented with Soviet demands. They sent the leader of the Social Democrat Party, Väinö Tanner, who has been described as ‘tough, tactless, stubborn and frequently bloody-minded’, a curious choice of representative when the survival of one’s nation was at stake. Meanwhile, they mobilized. Stalin and Molotov wanted a thirty-year lease on the naval base of Cape Hanko, the cession of the Arctic port of Petsamo and three small islands in the Gulf, as well as the moving back of the frontier on the Karelian Isthmus, which was presently only 15 miles from Leningrad. In return for these 1,066 square miles of territory, the Russians were willing to give Finland 2,134 square miles of Russian Karelia around Repola and Porajorpi.

On the face of it, the deal did not look unreasonable, but when considered strategically the key nodal points the Bolshevik leaders were demanding made it clear that Finnish sovereignty would be hopelessly compromised, and the Finns decided to fight rather than submit. Matters were not helped when Tanner mentioned his and Stalin’s supposedly shared Menshevik past, a libel on the Bolshevik leader. On 28 November the USSR abrogated its 1932 non-aggression treaty with Finland and two days later, without declaring war, the Russians bombed Helsinki and invaded Finland with 1.2 million men, opening a bitter 105-day struggle that some have likened to the Spartans’ stand at Thermopylae.

The world prepared to watch another small nation being crushed by a totalitarian monolith. The Finnish Army comprised ten divisions, with only thirty-six artillery pieces per division, all of pre-1918 vintage, and inadequate small arms (although they did have the excellent 9mm Suomi machine pistol), supported by few modern aircraft. ‘They lacked everything,’ one historian has noted, ‘except courage and discipline.’21 The Russians, by contrast, came across the border with 1,500 tanks, 3,000 aircraft and a complete assumption of a quick victory, as in Poland.22 The Red Army divided its attack into four parts: the Seventh and Thirteenth Armies would smash through the Finnish defences on the Karelian Isthmus known as the Mannerheim Line and capture Viipuri (Viborg), the second city of Finland. Meanwhile the Eighth Army would march round the northern shore of Lake Lagoda to fall on Viipuri from the north. The Ninth Army would attack the waist of Finland, slicing it in two, and in the far north the Fourteenth Army would capture Petsamo and Nautsi, cutting the country off from the Arctic Sea. The comprehensiveness of the plan has been described by one military historian as ‘imaginative, flexible and totally unrealistic’.23

Although the Fourteenth Army took its objectives in the first ten days, nothing else went right for the Russians for the next two months. The Seventh Army, comprising twelve divisions, three tank brigades and a mechanized corps, could not break through the wilderness of barbed wire, gun emplacements, anti-tank ‘dragons’ teeth’ and well-camouflaged pillboxes of the Mannerheim Line, which was fiercely defended. The frozen ground was so hard that the Red Army occasionally had to use dynamite to move enough earth to build makeshift trenches. Even though the Finns had never faced tanks before, and were woefully under-equipped with anti-tank weapons – at least until they captured them from the Russians – they devised makeshift ways of stopping their advance, including, ironically enough, ‘Molotov cocktails’ (bottles of petrol lit with rags).24 This proved easier in the early stages when Russian tanks were not supported closely enough by Russian infantry, and in the dark that descended early in the Arctic winter and stayed till late.

The seventy-two-year-old ‘Defender of Finland’ after whom the Line was named, Field Marshal Baron Carl von Mannerheim, proved an inspired leader throughout the campaign, keeping his reserves in the south and correctly predicting the Russians’ next moves, possibly because he had been an officer in the Tsarist Army throughout the Great War. Told by Moscow that the Finnish proletariat would welcome them as liberators, the Russian soldiers were shocked when the entire nation united behind ‘the Defender of Finland’ instead.

It was the five divisions of the Russian Ninth Army in the centre of the country that suffered the most. Although on the map the vast wastes might seem to favour an invader, the many forests and lakes channelled the Russian forces, unfamiliar with the terrain, into a series of ambushes as temperatures dipped in that unusually cold winter to as low as –50 Celsius. The Leningrad–Murmansk railway line had only one siding going off towards the Finnish border, and although the Russians took Salla in central Finland, they were flung back before they reached Kemijärvi. The Finns burnt their own farms and villages, booby-trapped farm animals, destroyed anything that could provide the Russians with food and shelter, and, equipped with skis and local knowledge, laid mines on tracks through the forests that were soon covered in snow. Wearing white camouflage uniforms, which inexplicably the Russians were not given, the Finns were nicknamed Bielaja Smert (White Death) by their bewildered enemy.

Further south, the Russian 163rd and 44th Divisions were annihilated around the ashes of the village of Suomussalmi, in a ferociously brilliant Finnish operation that ranks with any of the Second World War. A logging, fishing and hunting community of 4,000 people before the war, it was captured by the 163rd (Tula) Motorized Rifle Division on 9 December, but was then cut off by the Finnish 9th Brigade under Colonel Hjalmar Siilasvuo. Because their leaders had assumed an easy victory, many of the Russians had been sent into sub-Arctic Finland in December lacking winter clothes and felt boots, as the Finns discovered by listening to their radio transmissions, which were equally astonishingly sent en clair rather than in code. Freezing, starving and cut off from retreat by the Finnish 9th Brigade for a fortnight, the morale of the 163rd Division broke on Christmas Eve and they fled eastwards across the frozen Lake Kiantajärvi. The Finns then sent up two Bristol Blenheim medium bombers to smash the ice, sending tanks, horses, men and vehicles tumbling into the freezing water below. As the historian of the Russo-Finnish Winter War laconically records: ‘They are still there.’25 The Russian 44th Division that had come to rescue the 163rd were within earshot of the débâcle, and could hear their comrades dying, but they were not given orders to move. On the night of New Year’s Day they became the next victims of the White Death, as the barometer dipped again to –30 Celsius. By constantly mortar-bombing their sixty field kitchens at mealtimes, the Finns kept the Russians short of hot food, and when the Russians lit fires the Finns machine-gunned them from the treetops, ‘easily picking out the dark silhouettes of the men against the snow’.26 The standard Red Army rifle, the single-shot bolt-action 7.62mm 1902 Moisin-Nagant, became inoperable when its gun-oil lubricant froze in conditions below –15 Celsius, and armoured vehicles either had to be kept running, at ruinous expense in fuel, or they would seize up and block the narrow passageways through the forest.

‘We don’t let them rest,’ said General Kurt Wallenius of the Finnish Northern Army; ‘we don’t let them sleep. This is a war of numbers against brains.’ Sleep for the 44th was next to impossible because of the vehicle engines, terrified horses, Finnish professional trackers and hunters who made excellent snipers, and even ‘the sharp reports of the trees as their very sap froze’. Those who resorted to vodka found that, despite the initial sense of warmth, body heat was ultimately lost. The slightest wounds exposed to the air froze and went gangrenous. Frozen corpses were piled up, one on top of the other, as the Finns methodically moved from sector to sector, wiping out Russian resistance. By 5 January, a thousand Russian prisoners had been taken, a further 700 soldiers had escaped back to the Russian lines, and over 27,000 had been killed, all for the loss of 900 Finns. As one of his officers remarked to Colonel Siilasvuo, ‘The wolves will eat well this winter.’ The Finns captured 42 tanks, 102 field guns and 300 vehicles at Suomussalmi, as well as thousands of the conical-shaped Red Army hats (budenovka) that they later used in deception operations. Indeed, they captured more military hardware than they received from outside sources, however much the League of Nations supported Finland’s struggle (expelling the USSR from its ranks on 14 December) and however much the Western Allies’ Supreme War Council debated sending aid (they agreed to it only on 5 February, by which time it was too late).

The loss of the two divisions at Suomussalmi, when compounded with the reversals at the Mannerheim Line and the victory of General Paavo Talvela, who destroyed the 139th and 75th Red Army Divisions at Tolvajärvi on Christmas Eve, sent a humiliating message around the globe for the USSR, even though the Finns could not follow up these successes for lack of troops (they were conscripting fifteen-year-olds as it was). Hitler in particular believed he learnt lessons about the performance of the Red Army that were to affect his decision to invade Russia the following year. Yet they were substantially the wrong ones.

Stalin’s purging of the officer corps in 1937 had seriously weakened the Red Army. The former Chief of Staff Marshal Tukhachevsky was shot, and with him died new thinking about the development of mass armoured formations operating deep inside enemy territory. General Konstantin Rokossovsky, one of those who were tortured during that time – though not shot despite his Polish origins – later said that purges were even worse for morale than when artillery fired on one’s own troops because it would have to have been very accurate artillery fire to achieve such damage. Three out of the five Soviet marshals were purged in 1937–8, thirteen of the fifteen army commanders, fifty-seven of the eighty-five corps commanders, 110 of the 195 divisional commanders and 220 of the 406 brigade commanders.27 In total, around 43,000 officers were killed or imprisoned, although 20,000 were later released. Yet no fewer than seventy-one out of the original eighty-five senior members of the USSR’s Military Council were dead by 1941.28 When Rokossovsky, who had been beaten so badly in prison that he lost eight teeth and had three ribs broken, reported to Stalin for duty after being reinstated, Stalin asked him where he had been. Rokossovsky told him, whereupon Stalin laughed and said, ‘A fine time you chose to go to prison!’ before getting down to business.29

Although the Soviet forces were staggeringly badly led at the outset of the Winter War, they learnt quickly. A trusted member of the Supreme Soviet from its creation in 1937, General Semyon Timoshenko was sent to take over on 8 January, and after four or five attacks a day he broke through the Mannerheim Line on 13 February. In Finland the Soviets came to understand the importance of co-ordinating armour, infantry and artillery. However heavy the Russian losses, there were always fresh troops to fling into the struggle. As one Finn put it after the battle of Kuhmo, ‘There were more Russians than we had bullets.’ When the fighting became purely attritional on the Isthmus, the Finns simply could not carry on bleeding like the Russians could. Furthermore, the Winter War showed that men fought harder when patriotically defending the Soviet Motherland than when in attack. (That was eventually to apply to the German Fatherland too.) Instead of these lessons, Hitler learnt the almost banal one that Stalin had shot a lot of good generals in the late 1930s. He was not the only one, however; on 20 January 1940 Churchill said that Finland ‘had exposed for all to see the incapacity of the Red Army’.

On 11 February the Russian 123rd Division broke through the Mannerheim Line close to Summa, leading much of the Seventh Army through two days later. They then moved on to Viipuri. With neutral Norway and Sweden denying access across their territory to the Allies, Petsamo in Russian hands and Hitler closing off the eastern Baltic, no significant help was likely from the West. Since by March as much as one-fifth of his army had become casualties, and there were only 100 Finnish planes left to fight 800 Russian, Mannerheim urged the Government to negotiate, and the Treaty of Moscow was signed on 13 March, while Russian and Finnish troops were still engaged in hand-to-hand combat in central Viipuri. Except for the loss of the whole Karelian Isthmus, the terms were not very much worse from those demanded by Stalin and Molotov in November, before around 200,000 Russians and 25,000 Finns had died, and 680 Russian aircraft and 67 Finnish had been destroyed.30 Yet Russian military prestige had been severely damaged, and Stalin had created a situation on his north-western border that would require fifteen divisions to police. The moment that Finland sniffed her opportunity for revenge, at the time of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, she seized it.


The six-month hiatus on land between the end of the Polish campaign in October 1939 and Hitler’s sudden invasion of Denmark and Norway on 9 April 1940 is known as the Phoney War. With little going on in the West on land and in the skies, the British and French publics were lulled into thinking that the war was not truly a matter of life and death for them in the way that it obviously was for the Poles, and their daily existence was carried on substantially as usual, in all its bureaucracy, inefficiency and occasional absurdity. The National Labour MP Harold Nicolson recorded in his war diaries that the Ministry of Information censors had refused to publish the wording of a leaflet, of which two million copies had been dropped over Germany, on the grounds that ‘We are not allowed to disclose information that might be of value to the enemy.’31

There was nothing phoney about the war at sea, however. It was perfectly true that the British Air Minister Sir Kingsley Wood made the asinine remark that the RAF should not bomb munitions dumps in the Black Forest, because so much of it was private property, but at sea no such absurdities pertained.32 As early as 19 August, U-boat captains were sent a seemingly anodyne signal about the scheduling of a submarine officers’ reunion, which was the coded order to take up their positions around the British Isles in readiness for imminent action. Within nine hours of the declaration of war, the 1,400 passengers aboard a blacked-out British liner SS Athenia were torpedoed on their way from Glasgow to Montreal by U-30, whose captain mistook the ship for an armed merchant cruiser. ‘There was a column of water near the ship,’ recalled a Czech survivor, ‘and a black thing like a cigar shot over the sea towards us. There was a bang, and then I saw men on the submarine turn a gun and fire it.’ Had they hit the radio mast, and the SOS signal not been transmitted, many more than 112 passengers would have perished.

The first of hundreds of Atlantic convoys left Halifax, Nova Scotia, on 15 September 1939. Learning the doleful lessons of the Great War, the convoy system was adhered to rigidly by the British between 1939 and 1945, even for ships moving along the coastline between Glasgow and the Thames. Destroyers, frigates and corvettes used an echo-sounding device called Asdic (named after the Allied Submarine Detection Investigation Committee) to try to track U-boats, while the convoys’ merchantmen sailed together within a protective cordon. They also adopted a zig-zagging route, the better to outfox their submerged foes. Overall the system was a success, but when a waiting U-boat ‘wolf-pack’ broke through, the losses among the huddled merchantmen could be correspondingly high, and on occasion as many as half of the vessels were sent to the bottom.

The Royal Navy started the war with only five aircraft carriers, and on 17 September the veteran HMS Courageous was sunk in the Western Approaches by two torpedoes from U-29, which had already despatched three tankers. She slipped beneath the Hebridean waves in less than fifteen minutes, with only half of her thousand-strong crew being saved, some after an hour in the North Sea, where they kept up morale by singing popular songs of the day such as ‘Roll Out the Barrel’ and ‘Show Me the Way to Go Home’. The sea, recalled a survivor, ‘was so thick with oil we might have been swimming in treacle’. The following month the Kriegsmarine scored an almost equally spectacular success near by when Lieutenant-Commander Günther Prien’s U-47 got through a 50-foot gap in the defences of Scapa Flow and fired seven torpedoes at the 29,000-ton battleship HMS Royal Oak. Three hit, capsizing the ship and killing 810 of her 1,224 crew in only thirteen minutes.

One task of the U-boats was to place magnetic mines in the sea-lanes around the British Isles; this could also be done by parachute by low-flying Heinkel He-111s and by E-boats (motor torpedo boats) and destroyers. By the end of November these had sunk twenty-nine British ships, including the destroyer HMS Gipsy, and had also put the brand-new cruiser HMS Belfast out of action for three years. Through the immense bravery of bomb-disposal experts Lieutenant-Commanders R. C. Lewis and J. G. D. Ouvry, who removed the two detonators, one of which was ticking audibly, from a mine spotted in the Thames Estuary, the secrets of the steel-hull-activated device were discovered. Within a month, Admiralty scientists had discovered a way of counteracting the mines by fitting electric cables around ships’ hulls, to create a negative magnetic, or ‘degaussed’, field. Soon afterwards a means of blowing up the mines, using wooden-hulled trawlers towing buoyant electrical cables, was also invented.

It was the spotting, disabling and eventual forced scuttling of the German pocket battleship the Admiral Graf Spee that was the Royal Navy’s greatest victory during the so-called Phoney War. Operating off South America, Captain Hans Langsdorff had sunk ten ships totalling more than 50,000 tons. The term ‘pocket’ battleship is somewhat misleading; although a limit of 10,000 tons had been imposed on German warships by the Versailles Treaty, once the Graf Spee was loaded up with her six 8-inch, eight 5.9-inch and six 4.1-inch guns, as well as ammunition and stores, she weighed more than half as much again. In the battle of the River Plate on 13 December she took on the 8-inch guns of the cruiser HMS Exeter, along with the 6-inch guns of the light cruisers HMS Ajaxand the New Zealander-crewed HMS Achilles, badly damaging the first two ships.

When the Graf Spee was forced into the harbour of Montevideo, capital of neutral Uruguay, on 15 December by the pounding she had received, Langsdorff magnanimously released the Allied sailors he had captured from the ships he had sunk, who reported that they had been well treated. Trusting to BBC radio broadcasts about the imminent arrival of the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and the battle cruiser HMS Renown, and unable to hire a small plane to see whether this was in fact so, Langsdorff sailed the Graf Spee to the entrance of Montevideo harbour just before dusk on Sunday, 17 December and scuttled her. The explosions were watched by over 20,000 spectators on the shore, and heard on the radio by millions around the world. In fact only the cruiser HMSCumberland had managed to reach Montevideo; the BBC had patriotically taken part in a giant bluff. Five days later, Langsdorff shot himself.

By the end of 1939, Britain had lost 422,000 tons of shipping (260,000 by mines) against Germany’s 224,000, but as a proportion of their total tonnages Germany at 5 per cent had lost more than Britain at 2 per cent. In the naval war of attrition that this was going to be, the relative proportions were more important than the sheer overall tonnages. Had Hitler given first priority in terms of funding to his U-boat fleet on coming to power in 1933, rather than to the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe, he might have built a force that would have strangled and starved Britain into surrender. Perhaps realizing this, on 15 February 1940 the Führer issued a directive to all U-boat captains stating that any ship, neutral or otherwise, sailing towards a British-controlled war zone, such as the English Channel, must be sunk without warning. For all the protests this new policy engendered from the neutral ship-owning countries such as Denmark, Sweden and Norway, it was if anything surprising that such orders had not been issued earlier. Besides, the level of respect that Germany felt for Scandinavian neutrality was to be spectacularly demonstrated only three weeks later.

If Poland and Finland had merely demonstrated the impotence of Britain and France – with many Britons and Frenchmen concluding that the appeasing spirit of the 1930s had not been entirely expunged from their Governments’ souls – the Norway campaign represented a definite defeat for the Western powers. Grand Admiral Erich Raeder urged Hitler as early as 10 October 1939 to consider invading Norway as a way of protecting the transportation of iron ore from the Gällivare mines in northern Sweden to Germany, and establishing U-boat bases along the fjords, especially at Trondheim. Hitler ordered the OKW to start planning for an invasion in late January 1940. At that point Hitler did not want to divert troops from the attack he was planning in the west, and was persuaded to do so only by signs that the Allies were planning to invade Norway themselves, possibly using aid for Finland as a cloak for their actions.

An incident on 16 February, in which the neutral Norwegians seemed to have taken the Royal Navy’s side when HMS Cossack daringly rescued 299 British prisoners from a German vessel, the Altmark, also persuaded the Führer of Norway’s iniquity. Telling General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst, the commander of the corps which was to lead the expedition, that a British invasion of Norway ‘would lead them into the Baltic, where we have no troops nor coastal fortifications’ and eventually to Berlin itself, Hitler decided to strike.33 In order to simplify lines of communication, and prevent the Royal Navy operating in the Skagerrak and Kattegat Straits, Denmark would be invaded also.

Although the Allies had lost any Finnish excuse for intervention in mid-March after the Treaty of Moscow was signed between Finland and the USSR, they did indeed plan to invade neutral Norway in order to deny the Gällivare ore fields to Germany, and had actually boarded troops at Scapa Flow, the Royal Navy’s base in the Orkney Isles, in order to do so, when the German attack began only twenty-four hours beforehand. (The British military historian Captain Basil Liddell Hart later called the race to invade Norway a ‘photo-finish’.) Starting on 8 April, Allied planes dropped mines into the Norwegian Leads, the deep, sheltered waterways between the fjords and the islands along the coast from Stavanger to the Northern Cape, hoping to force German ore ships out into the Norwegian Sea where the Royal Navy could sink them. Operation Wilfred was a blatant incursion into Norwegian territorial waters that preceded Germany’s own, and was to lead to the sinking of twenty Norwegian vessels as well as twelve German ones, and when at the end of the Nuremberg Trials Admiral Raeder was given a life sentence for, in part, violating Norway’s neutrality, the hypocrisy led to accusations of ‘victors’ justice’.

The British Admiralty believed that with Britain’s naval superiority in the Norwegian Sea it was impossible for the Germans to effect an amphibious invasion of Norway, and so were caught utterly by surprise when at dawn on Tuesday, 9 April Operation Weserübung (Weser Crossing) successfully landed troops – initially no more than 2,000 in each location – and soon secured Oslo, Kristiansand, Bergen, Trondheim and Narvik (the railway terminus for the Gällivare iron-fields). It was one of the great coups of the Second World War. Paratroopers also captured Oslo and Stavanger airfields by daybreak. The British simply could not believe the news that a place as far north as Narvik – 1,200 miles from Germany – had fallen, thinking it must be a mistransmission of the name Larvik, a town near the mouth of the Oslo fjord. The Norwegians, who at the time were concentrating more on the threat to their sovereignty from the Allies than on that from the Axis, were caught by surprise as much as anyone and had no time to mobilize. The Norwegian defence budget of the early 1930s was 35 million kroner, which had increased to only 50 million (£2.5 million) by the time she was invaded. Her Navy was entirely for coastal defence and the Army was small too.34 Employing only three divisions – although one of those was General Eduard Dietl’s crack 169th Mountain Division – but supported by 800 warplanes and 250 transport planes, the Germans had achieved every objective by the end of their first day. The hazy weather, intricate coastline and Germaninter-service co-ordination and efficiency, as well as the considerable distances involved, meant that the Allies were unable to interdict the German operation.

Bergen was taken by the light cruiser Köln tricking its way into the harbour by using British radio signals. Two brave Norwegian coastal vessels fought back at Narvik, but were sunk. At Trondheim, the Admiral Hipper blinded coastal batteries with searchlights, and destroyed one that managed to open fire. Off Bergen, the Luftwaffe’s X Air Corps sank the destroyer HMS Gurkha and damaged the cruisers HMS Southampton and HMS Glasgow and the battleship HMS Rodney. Allied strategists took this, and the further battering the Royal Navy was to receive from the Luftwaffe during this campaign, as the foremost lesson of Norway: that power had tilted towards the air and away from the sea. With only one of its four active aircraft carriers, HMS Furious, in the region – and for reasons of time she had sailed with her torpedo bombers on board but without her fighter squadron – the British could not match the Luftwaffe. Although HMS Ark Royal and HMS Glorious were sent post-haste from Alexandria to assist the Allied counter-attack, they didn’t arrive until 24 April.

The RAF never managed to deploy more than a hundred planes during the campaign, against more than a thousand German, flying from aerodromes as close as Oslo and Stavanger. When the RAF did set up makeshift airfields in Norway its planes had to be kept running around the clock, and ‘had to be refuelled with jugs and buckets’.35 The news that the two battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were supporting the operation in the Norwegian Sea also distracted Admiralty minds from the possibility of sinking smaller troop-carrying warships.36 The Allied response to Germany’s invasion was swift enough, but haphazard and badly disorganized, and the plans changed more than once as they were being put into practice, with confusion and occasionally chaos resulting. The British troops who were embarked for the invasion of Norway had to be disembarked in Scotland so that the battle cruisers could be chased, leading one military historian to argue that ‘the Admiralty saw the whole operation through blinkers’.37 When they were later re-embarked for the counter-invasion, but without the correct equipment, a sense of incompetence began to attach itself to the campaign which was only to get worse, and which was eventually to help bring down the Chamberlain Government.

Although on 9 April artillery from the Oscarburg fortress near Oslo sank the cruiser Blücher – one of the very few victims of coastal guns during the Second World War – the Norwegian capital fell. It nonetheless gave King Haakon VII and his Government time to escape and make a long, brave fighting retreat northwards, with the impressive Otto Ruge being appointed the new Army chief of staff in the process. By contrast, King Christian x of Denmark had no opportunity to flee. As he woke up at 5.15 a.m. that day, he was handed a list of thirteen ultimata by the German Minister (soon to be Plenipotentiary) Cecil von Renthe-Fink. After the deaths of twelve Danes, and appreciating that his country was encircled and unable to resist in any meaningful way, he and the Cabinet prevented a massacre by ordering a general surrender. A fiction was concocted by which it was announced that Denmark had agreed ‘to place her neutrality under the protection of the Reich’, a somewhat tautological construction but one that allowed the country to retain her non-Nazi government. When the Führer’s appeal to Denmark was about to be read over Danish radio, it was discovered that the appeal to Norway had been provided instead, one of the only inefficient aspects of the whole operation, so the announcer had to rewrite it hurriedly just before going on air.38 With Denmark’s collapse in under four hours, the vital Aalborg airfield in North Jutland could now be used by the Luftwaffe to pour supplies and troops into Norway. It also meant that the Royal Navy could not enter the Skagerrak with anything other than submarines.

The Royal Navy could punish the Kriegsmarine once it had landed the invasion force, and in two battles in the fjord off Narvik, on 11 and 13 April, no fewer than nine German destroyers were sunk or put out of action, most of them by the battleship HMSWarspite. But the fear that Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were at Bergen or Trondheim meant that the chance of recapturing the ports early on was lost, even though, as it transpired, the German battle cruisers were not there. Instead the Allies landed 125 miles north of Trondheim at Namsos on the night of 18 April, and 190 miles south of it at Åndalsnes the same day, hoping to cross the snowy wastes in between and take it from the land. After being briefed on this operation at the Admiralty, its designated commander, Major-General Frederick Hotblack, had a heart attack on the Duke of York’s Steps on the Mall, on his way back to his club. His successor’s plane then crashed on its way to Scotland.

After the Allied force landed at Namsos, under Major-General Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart vc, ceaseless heavy pounding from Heinkel bombers ended hopes that it might take Trondheim. ‘The town was destroyed, the timber houses burned, the railhead and everything on it obliterated. Electricity and water supplies were cut off, even the wharves were wrecked,’ records one who was there. ‘Namsos had ceased to exist.’39 The bombing in ‘the land of the midnight sun’ seemed to be round the clock, and was demoralizing for the Allied troops, as was the fact that a French ship carrying skis, snow-shoes, guns and tanks proved too large to get into the harbour.40 The one-handed, one-eyed, sixty-year-old de Wiart was one of the bravest British officers of the twentieth century. Wounded during earlier wars in the ankle, hip, ear and leg, his body was a virtual scrap-metal yard. He even had shrapnel lodged in his head that he said tickled every time his hair was cut. Yet even he saw no possibility of moving southwards without any RAF support. Namsos was evacuated on 2 May, by which time the British force had already evacuated Åndalsnes.

Up at Narvik the Allied force, which had landed at Harstad in the Lofoten Islands on 14 April, soon numbered 20,000 to the Germans’ 4,000. Although inter-Allied co-operation worked well, relations between the British Army and Navy collapsed at Narvik because they were, incredibly enough, acting under contradictory instructions. Admiral of the Fleet the Earl of Cork and Orrery had been ordered to take Narvik whatever happened, whereas the commander of the land forces, Major-General Pierse Mackesy, had been authorized to wait for the thaw before taking the town. While the admiral and the general argued, and Mackesy tried to pull Cork out of the battle, German supplies reached the town, gun emplacements were built and enemy morale soared. Mackesy, whose troops had inexplicably had their snow-shoes offloaded in Scotland, had a point, however, as Cork discovered for himself when he went out to reconnoitre the position and slipped up to his waist in snow.41 These inter-service problems were soon dealt with, but reflected badly on the Chamberlain Government at the time.

Some fine Polish mountain troops, two battalions of the French Foreign Legion and General Béthouart’s Chasseurs Alpins, as well as the British and the Norwegians, were finally to take Narvik on 27 May, capturing a well-equipped airfield with wire-mesh landing strips and camouflaged shelters. However, after Hitler’s victories in France and the Low Countries, such a tiny Scandinavian foothold was untenable, and the Narvik force was evacuated between 2 and 7 June, along with the Norwegian royal family and Government, but not Otto Ruge, who decided to stay with his men and was imprisoned. The Germans ran Norway directly until February 1942 when the Norwegian Nazi Vidkun Quisling was appointed minister-president and was permitted to run the most autonomous of all the Reich’s puppet governments, because the Germans knew they could trust him ideologically. He had made his name as a humanitarian during the Russian famines and Armenian refugee crises of the 1920s, although his dreams of world federation under Nordic leadership never appealed to the Norwegian electorate, and his small Nasjonal Samling party was only ever a marginal force in the 1930s.42 The Norwegians despised him throughout his period of rule, and had the court trying him for high treason somehow not imposed the death penalty upon him in 1945, his prison guards had agreed among themselves to murder him anyhow.

On 8 June, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau intercepted the British aircraft carrier Glorious (carrying two squadrons of aircraft, including Hurricanes) and her escort destroyers Acasta and Ardent, and sank all three, although not before the skipper of Acasta, Commander C. E. Glasfurd, had sailed his ship straight at the enemy and managed to launch a torpedo that damaged Scharnhorst moments before she was herself sunk by a salvo from the cruiser’s 11-inch guns. The only man in Acasta to survive the sinking, after three days on a raft in the North Sea, Leading Seaman C. G. ‘Nick’ Carter, recalled: ‘When I was in the water I saw the captain leaning over the bridge, take a cigarette from a case and light it. We shouted to him to come on our raft, he waved “Goodbye and good luck” – the end of a gallant man.’43

A number of factors had coalesced to make the Norway campaign a disaster for the Allies, including frequent changes of plan, radio sets that General Sir Claude Auchinleck thought worse than the ones used on India’s North-West Frontier, and 1919-era Arctic boots that were several sizes too large, meaning that ‘days were devoted to doctoring’.44 Although the Allies were humiliated in Norway, and the myth of the invincibility of the Führer and his master race that had been sedulously promoted since the remilitarization of the Rhineland was further boosted, the German victory came at a high cost. Compared to the 6,700 British, Norwegians, French and Polish killed (1,500 on Glorious) and the 112 aircraft destroyed, the Germans lost 5,660 killed and 240 aircraft in the Norwegian campaign. While the Royal Navy lost one aircraft carrier, one cruiser (with three more damaged), eight destroyers and four submarines, and the Poles and French one destroyer and one submarine each, the Germans lost three cruisers, ten destroyers, four U-boats and several months in which Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were out of action. These figures may seem almost even, but the much smaller Kriegsmarine could ill afford such losses compared to the Allies, especially when General Franz Halder’s plans to invade southern England on a wide initial front, codenamed Operation Seelöwe (Sealion), required much naval support.

Once France fell in June 1940, the Germans had the Alsace-Lorraine iron-ore fields and the Atlantic ports that took the place of Gällivare and Trondheim. But 125,000 square miles of Norway still needed to be garrisoned for much of the rest of the war by at least twelve German divisions, totalling around 350,000 men. Hitler expected an attack on Norway for several years after 1940, and kept an inordinate number of troops idle there who could have been far better employed on the Eastern Front; it was not until after D-Day in June 1944 that they were brought south. He was right to fear an attack there, however, as Churchill always wanted to secure northern Norway for the Allies and prevent its use by the Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe in their interdicting of the convoys that were sent to Murmansk after Hitler had invaded Russia. The ice-free ports of the Northern Cape were certainly useful to Germany in that respect.

The German invasion of Denmark legitimized the Allies’ capture of Reykjavik and the Faroe Isles the following month, which were to yield air bases vital to the anti-submarine campaigns of the battle of the Atlantic. Furthermore, no fewer than 4.6 million tons of shipping – Norway had the fourth-largest merchant navy in the world in 1939 – were added to Allied resources, and used from Murmansk to the Pacific.45 Since the entire aggregate of all Allied losses by submarines did not exceed that figure until December 1941, the Germans had to pay a high price for violating Norwegian sovereignty twenty-four hours before the Allies did.

Speaking of Adolf Hitler in the Central Hall, Westminster on 4 April, only five days before the German invasion of Norway, Neville Chamberlain said: ‘One thing is certain – he missed the bus.’ Along with his prophecy of ‘Peace in our time’ after meeting Hitler at Munich, it was one of his less impressive predictions, but he was not the only person to have spoken too soon. Churchill also told the House of Commons on 11 April that ‘We are greatly advantaged by… the strategic blunder into which our mortal enemy has been provoked.’ The Norway campaign was a serious setback for the Allies, but if it achieved nothing else, the two-day House of Commons debate on the subject on 7 and 8 May 1940 did at least destroy the Chamberlain Government, and bring to power an energetic coalition under the premiership of Churchill, ironically enough the Briton most directly responsible for the Norway expedition and the Admiralty’s unimpressive part in it.

Winston Churchill’s most important, most dangerous but ultimately his most constructive characteristic had always been his impatience. He had exhibited impatience throughout his life, both with himself and with the world around him, especially during the imperial and world wars in which he had risen to prominence in British public life. By May 1940 he was sixty-five years old, yet still at the height of his very considerable intellectual and oratorical powers. His long years of largely unheeded warnings about the rise of Nazism had given him an unassailable moral right to the premiership during the parliamentary crisis that month, and he grasped it as soon as it became clear that Chamberlain could not carry on without the support of the Labour and Liberal parties and a small but growing band of Conservative rebels. Churchill was impatient for the premiership, and he took it, bluntly telling his rival for the post, the Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, that he could not be prime minister from the House of Lords.46 (He later invented a story in which Halifax almost offered him the premiership out of embarrassment after a long period of silence.)

Churchill had a certain idea of heroism – both his own and that of the British people – and in 1940 the two came together in what in retrospect was a sublime way, but which struck many in the British Establishment at the time as dangerously romantic. For over the past forty years there had hardly been a major subject of domestic or international politics in which Churchill had not been intimately involved, very often on the losing side. His judgement had been called into question over such important issues as votes for women, the Gallipoli disaster, sterling rejoining the Gold Standard, the General Strike, Indian self-government, the Abdication crisis and very many more. He had crossed the floor of the House of Commons not once, but twice. Yet now his monumental impatience, especially once he had invented for himself the post of minister of defence immediately after King George VI had appointed him prime minister, was precisely what the nation needed. He demanded, in the wording of the red labels that he was to attach to urgent documents, ‘Action This Day’, and he got it.

Churchill’s preternatural eloquence and world-historical sense, as well as a self-belief that bordered on the messianic, had brought to the fore in Britain a leader who could frame the global struggle in profoundly moving, almost metaphysical terms. In his unpublished essay of 1897 entitled ‘The Scaffolding of Rhetoric’, Churchill had written:

Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king. He is an independent force on the world. Abandoned by his party, betrayed by his friends, stripped of his offices, whoever can command this power is still formidable.47

Almost throughout the 1930s – what he called his Wilderness Years – Churchill’s opposition to Indian self-rule and latterly his warnings about Hitler’s revanchism had left him abandoned by his party, let down by his friends and out of office. Now, however, he was about to wield ‘a power more durable than that of a great king’, but would it be enough? For, on the very same day that Churchill became prime minister, Friday, 10 May 1940, Hitler unleashed Blitzkrieg on the West.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!