Military history





At the end of July 1943, when the cleaning-up squads were sifting through the ruins of Hamburg after the Allied bombers had departed, they pulled a fifteen-year-old schoolboy out of the rubble, alive and unharmed. Thanking his rescuers, Ulrich S. joined a column of refugees making their way out of the city and after a few days found refuge with an uncle who lived in the nearby countryside. The child of passionately Social Democratic parents, he wanted nothing more to do with the war, and hid himself away in the attic of his uncle’s house in the woods to evade the attentions of the Hitler Youth. He followed events by listening on the radio to the BBC and wrote a diary to ward off the inevitable sense of isolation, giving it the title: ‘The Enemy Speaks!’ His diary entry on the failed assassination attempt of 20 July 1944 was typical of its tone in general: ‘Unfortunately, as if by a miracle, the pig-dog was not wounded . . . Hitler might have escaped his just punishment this time, but this mass-murderer will get what he deserves before too long.’1 After the first trials, he wrote of the condemned conspirators: ‘Their enterprise will be carried on to the end. The Nazis want to sacrifice an entire people just to postpone their own downfall a little longer.’2

The boy’s reactions were extreme, to say the least. It is of course impossible to know how far they were shared in a milder form by other members of former Social Democratic and Communist families. For many men from such backgrounds fighting at the front, however, the attempt seemed like a betrayal; for if they approved of it, what then were they fighting for? ‘We know,’ wrote one soldier on 7 August 1944, ‘that these soundrels are all Freemasons and thus in cahoots with, or, better put, in thrall to, international Jewry. A pity that I couldn’t take part in the action against these rogues.’3 Convinced Nazis were deeply shocked. The long-term Austrian brownshirt Alfred Molter, who served on the ground staff with the German air force, wrote to his wife Inge on 20 July 1944 from Vienna, where he was visiting his mother:

Darling, have you heard the news about the attempt to assassinate the Leader? Darling, I had the feeling I just had to run somewhere and pray. Thank heavens that the Leader has been preserved for us. Inge, if the Leader was killed, then the war would be lost, and Goring would surely be killed as well. And that’s what the bandits were looking to achieve. What venal pig must have raised his hand to do this! When I heard about it, I couldn’t be alone. So I waltzed off to the SA.4

Here, reminiscing with an old brownshirt comrade about the days when they had fought together against the Austrian dictator Schuschnigg, he found reassurance. ‘Nothing can shake our belief in the Leader.’5 Yet many troops mixed feelings of shock and outrage with other sentiments too. The paratrooper Martin Pöppel, by now promoted from the ranks to the officer corps, did not approve of the assassination attempt. Soldiers had a duty to carry on fighting. But, he thought by now, Hitler had let them down badly. He should have left the conduct of the war to the professionals. As the Allied troops advanced, the situation of Pöppel’s unit in northern France became steadily more hopeless. But, when he told his men they would have to surrender, many of them felt ashamed at the prospect. ‘As paratroopers,’ they asked, ‘how will we be able to look our wives in the face if we surrender voluntarily?’ Eventually Pöppel was able to persuade them that they had no alternative. But their despairing question indicated the power of the sense of military duty and masculine honour that were among the factors that kept many German soldiers fighting on the Western Front to the bitter end.6

Reactions on the home front were mixed as well. On 28 July 1944, the Security Service of the SS dutifully claimed general popular relief that Hitler had escaped with his life, and the determination of the German people to carry on fighting. ‘We hear again and again the view expressed that, if the attempt had succeeded, the only result would be the creation of another 1918.’ People were anxious to know more. How long had the conspiracy been brewing? Who was behind it? Were British secret agents involved? For some, the leading role taken by Prussian aristocrats was a cause for anger. They were reported as saying ‘that the aristocracy should be completely exterminated’. The involvement of so many army officers suggested to many an explanation for Germany’s continuing defeats - they had been sabotaging the German war effort for months by holding back troops and munitions. Some even alleged that the problems of the war economy were also the result of sabotage.7 These views were strongly encouraged by Goebbels, who told Nazi Party officials on 8 August 1944 that the bomb plot explained why the German armies had been doing so badly over the past months. It was clear that traitorous generals had not wanted to win. They had been in league with the Allies to bring about Germany’s defeat.8 The public meetings that Goebbels had called for attracted large crowds, anxious to hear more details of the attempt. They were indeed described in one report as an implicit plebiscitary endorsement of Hitler and his regime. Goebbels himself concluded that the failed coup had had a cleansing effect, doing the regime more good than harm.9

It was hardly surprising, however, that convinced Nazis and agents of the regime rushed to declare their faith in Hitler, in a situation in which anyone who showed the slightest sympathy with the conspirators was liable to be arrested, tortured, tried and executed. There was no possibility of an open reaction to the attempt. As the gendarmerie in the rural Bavarian district of Bad Aibling and Rosenheim reported on 23 July 1944:

When the evening news was broadcast at 8 o’clock on Thursday the 20.7.1944 and before it the special announcement of the violent attack was made, there were among others some twelve farmers from the present reporting area sitting in a local inn. They listened to the special announcement quietly and with rapt attention. After the announcement, nobody dared say anything, and everyone sat silently at the tables.10

In Berchtesgaden, the Security Service of the SS reported that women in particular were desperate for the war to come to an end, and that some thought that Hitler’s death might bring this about. ‘In an air-raid bunker, after the alarm had sounded, one could hear a female voice in the dark: “Well, if only it had got him.” ’11 People could only trust themselves to say such things under cover of anonymity. In general, despite a temporary upsurge of relief, the attempt had no general effect on popular morale. ‘Nobody believes any more,’ the gendarmerie report continued, ‘that the war can be won.’ And the popular mood was ‘the worst imaginable’.12 Most people had more important things to worry about than the coup attempt. Two days after Stauffenberg exploded his bomb, the SS Security Service reported that the worsening military situation was causing a continuing deterioration in morale. Worse still, ‘a kind of creeping mood of panic has gripped numerous national comrades, especially a large number of women. The comments we have collected predominantly reflect dismay, perplexity and despondency.’13

Even in western Germany, events on the Eastern Front were said to be putting everything else into the shadow. At best, people were still expressing their confidence in Hitler; at worst, they were saying that the military situation was more desperate than they could imagine - ‘and,’ one report noted, ‘the pessimists are in the majority’.14 Letters from soldiers on the Eastern Front, and reports from those invalided out, were making clear that the German forces were not engaged in a planned withdrawal but a wholesale retreat. Entire units were running away or giving themselves up to the enemy, and the troops ‘already have no more desire to fight’.15 ‘The mood in many troop units is said by men on leave to be even worse than at home because the great majority of the soldiers do not believe in victory any more.’16 The deterioration in popular morale continued through the remaining months of the war unaffected by the news of the bomb plot. People were beginning to flee from the territories that lay in the path of the advancing Red Army, taking their money and possessions with them. On 10 August 1944 the SS Security Service was reporting ‘war-weariness amongst the majority of national comrades’, alongside a willingness (the reporter felt perhaps obliged to add) to fight on to victory in what he revealingly called the ‘final battle’.17 Hitler and Goebbels might have blamed the generals for systematically undermining the war effort for years, but if this had been the case, some asked, then either the Nazi leaders had been extremely stupid or careless in allowing this to happen or they had known about it but not chosen to let the German people into their confidence. The consequence, so the Security Service of the SS reported from Stuttgart at the beginning of August 1944, was ‘that most national comrades, even those who up to now have believed unwaveringly, have now lost all faith in the Leader’.18 By November 1944, the same office was reporting that Hitler’s reputation had, if possible, declined still further. One citizen said: ‘It’s always being claimed that the Leader was sent to us by God. I don’t doubt it. The Leader was sent to us by God, not to rescue Germany but to destroy it. Providence has decided to annihilate the German people, and Hitler is its executioner.’19

Successive reports could only note a further decline in morale as the Red Army moved ever further towards, and then into, Germany itself. A seemingly endless series of defeats against the invading Allied armies in the west only added to the deepening gloom. Diplomatically, too, the Reich was becoming increasingly isolated. Turkey broke off diplomatic relations with Germany on 2 August 1944 and Bulgaria declared war on Germany as Soviet troops entered the country on 8 September 1944. After the remnants of the Romanian army disintegrated in the face of the Soviet advance, leading to the annihilation of eighteen German divisions in Romania by the Red Army, Marshal Antonescu was ousted from power on 23 August 1944 and Romania went over to the Allies, hoping to regain the territory it had lost to Hungary in 1940. All this threatened to cut off German forces in Greece, and on Hitler’s authorization they withdrew into Macedonia in October, also evacuating Albania and southern Yugoslavia. The defection of Turkey in particular caused yet further demoralization in Germany itself.20 The loss of Romania brought the Red Army to the borders of Hungary, where the ruler, Admiral Hórthy, organized fierce resistance to the invaders. Hórthy realized, however, that the game was up and wrote to Stalin claiming, somewhat implausibly, that he had joined the war on the German side in 1941 as a result of a misunderstanding. On 15 October 1944 he announced that Hungary was no longer allied to the Reich.21

Hitler had already planned his counter-move to this long-anticipated defection. On the same day as Hungary left the alliance, Otto Skorzeny, acting on Hitler’s orders, broke into the fortress in Budapest where Admiral Hórthy and his government were ensconced, and kidnapped the Hungarian leader’s son, also called Miklós, rolling him up in a blanket and rushing him out of the building to a waiting lorry. Within a short time, the younger Hórthy was incarcerated in the concentration camp at Mauthausen. Hitler now informed Hórthy that his son would be shot and the fortress stormed unless he surrendered. The admiral gave in, resigned and was taken off to a relatively comfortable exile in a Bavarian castle. In the meantime, Ferenc Szálasi, the leader of the fascist Arrow Cross, seized power with the backing of the Germans. Szálasi lost no time in passing new laws reconstructing the state along fascist-style, corporate lines. His men began murdering surviving Jews across Budapest, assisted in some cases by Catholic priests, one of whom, Father Kun, got into the habit of shouting ‘In the name of Christ, fire!’ as the Arrow Cross paramilitaries levelled their guns at their Jewish victims. As 35,000 Jewish men who had been rounded up into labour battalions to construct fortifications around the Hungarian capital started crossing the Danube into the city in a hasty retreat before the oncoming Red Army, Arrow Cross units blocked their way, killed them on the banks or bridges and threw the bodies into the water. So many bodies were found lying around in the streets that even the police complained. On 18 October 1944 Adolf Eichmann arrived in Budapest again and organized the arrest of another 50,000 Jews, who were sent out of the city on foot in the direction of Vienna with the idea of working on fortifications there: they were poorly provisioned and brutally maltreated, and many thousands died on the futile march - so many, indeed, that Szálasi stopped the deportations in mid-November, perhaps now fearing, justifiably enough, that he would be held to account for them. In Budapest itself the remaining Jews were confined to ghetto quarters. By January 1945 there were 60,000 living in just 4,500 dwellings, sometimes fourteen to a room. Subject to repeated raids by Arrow Cross murder squads, the inhabitants were also soon starving, disease-ridden and suffering rapidly escalating death rates. A small group of international diplomats in the Hungarian capital, among whom the Swedish representative Raoul Wallenberg was particularly prominent, made strenuous and partially successful attempts to protect the Jews, and succeeded in getting nearly 40,000 sets of exemption papers - many of them forged - recognized by the Arrow Cross.22

This was not quite the last major extermination of Jews in a European country. In August 1944 it became clear that the Slovakian military, led by the Defence Minister, were plotting to overthrow the puppet government that had run the country under German tutelage since 1939, and switch sides to the Allies. As a consequence, German troops occupied Slovakia on 29 August 1944. A full-scale uprising ensued. The nationalist and pro-Soviet insurgents could not co-ordinate their activities, however. The Western Allies thought it unnecessary to fly in support since the Red Army was already on the border. The Soviet forces failed to move quickly enough to come to the partisans’ aid. By October 1944 the uprising had been brutally suppressed. Meanwhile the German occupiers had lost no time in ordering the resumption of the deportation of the country’s remaining Jews, which the collaborationist regime there had brought to a halt in October 1942 after some 58,000 had been taken away to the extermination camps. The first trainloads left in September 1944 and continued until March 1945. By this time, almost 8,000 Slovakian Jews had been rounded up and deported to Auschwitz, more than 2,700 to Sachsenhausen and over 1,600 to Theresienstadt.23 Not only Himmler’s SS but also the German civilian and military authorities thus continued to pursue the Jews long after it had become clear to most of them that the war was lost. Revenge for the Jews’ imagined role in the imminent defeat had become their prime motivation, and they pursued it to the bitter end.


A popular joke told in the summer of 1944 had a naive young man being shown a globe, on which, it was explained, the large green area was the Soviet Union, the huge red area the British Empire, the enormous mauve area the United States and the vast yellow area China. ‘And that little blue spot?’ he asks, pointing to the middle of Europe. ‘That is Germany!’ ‘Oh! Does the Leader know how small it is?’24 The rapid deterioration of the Reich’s military situation in 1943-4 was obvious to everyone. As the self-proclaimed greatest military leader of all time, Hitler felt instinctively that Germany would still be winning if the generals had not been constantly undermining his strategy, disobeying his commands and deliberately retreating in the face of an enemy he alone knew how to defeat. Only a last effort, and everything would come right. He appointed Goebbels Reich Plenipotentiary for the Total War Effort on 18 July 1944, an initiative stemming from Goebbels himself, who was claiming his reward for his loyalty and presence of mind during the coup attempt. Goebbels’s rival, Hermann Göring, felt himself outflanked, and sulked on his estate at Rominten for several weeks afterwards. In alliance now with Martin Bormann, Goebbels unleashed a flurry of measures, many of which were to be implemented not by the cumbersome bureaucracy of the state but by the Party Regional Leaders in the provinces. They concentrated in particular on trying to draft yet more men into the armed forces. This brought him up against Speer, who wanted more men for the arms industry. But Hitler overruled his former favourite. With the Leader’s backing, Goebbels and Bormann summoned the Armaments Minister and told him bluntly that he was under their command. He was to make no further attempts to influence Hitler directly.25

Goebbels’s renewed drive to ‘total war’ produced a series of labour-saving measures, as three-quarters of the staff of the Reich Culture Chamber were made redundant, and theatres, orchestras, newspapers, publishing houses and other institutions deemed inessential to the war effort were cut back or closed down. There was a fresh clampdown on consumer goods industries. Hitler himself vetoed Goebbels’s suggestion to stop sending newspapers and magazines to soldiers at the front on the grounds that this would damage morale, but other cuts in the postal service went ahead, and redundancies in local government and administration brought further efficiency savings. The upper age-limit for women to be drafted into war industries was raised from forty-five to fifty-five, and some 400,000 women, most of them foreign, were moved out of domestic service into war-relevant areas of the economy. The attempt to merge the Prussian Ministry of Finance, over which the bomb plot conspirator Popitz had presided, into the Reich Finance Ministry proved too complex to resolve, but overall, the measures freed up more than 450,000 additional men for the war. With further men taken out of reserved occupations in war industries, all of this helped send a million more men to the front from the beginning of August to the end of December 1944. Yet over the same period, more than a million soldiers were killed, captured or wounded, and the area the Reich covered, and hence the number of people it could call upon, were shrinking fast. The Reich was running faster and faster to try to stay in the same place.26

By 20 November 1944 the Red Army had come within striking distance of Hitler’s field headquarters at Rastenburg, and Hitler, yielding to the entreaties of Martin Bormann, left it for good, making his way back to the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. Yet the Red Army’s advance now slowed down as it reached Germany itself, where the front narrowed between the Baltic and the Carpathians, and the German forces had interior communication lines. The Soviet forces were exhausted after their rapid advances, they had to regroup and reorganize themselves, and it took some time to solve the supply problems caused by the narrower gauge of the railway lines in the areas they were now entering, compared to the broad gauge used in the Soviet Union and the Balkans. The pause allowed Hitler to undertake one last attempt to reverse the situation in the west, where supply and manpower difficulties had also slowed down the Allied advance. By early December, the German armies had been forced back behind the fortifications of the West Wall. Hitler planned to break out with thirty freshly formed and equipped divisions, spearheaded by an armoured punch through the defences of the Americans, for whose fighting qualities he had nothing but contempt. This was to be a repeat in many ways of the campaign of 1940, dividing the enemy forces, pinning them against the sea and destroying them in a massive encirclement. The blow this would strike was intended to keep the Western Allies at bay while a new generation of ‘wonder-weapons’ was developed that would decisively turn the fortunes of war in Hitler’s favour. If the offensive was really successful, indeed, and managed to capture Antwerp, Hitler and Jodl thought that it might even bring the Western Allies to the negotiating table. The generals and commanders to whom Jodl put the plans on 3 November 1944 dismissed it as wholly unrealistic. A rapid advance to the coast in 1940, against a confused and unprepared enemy, was one thing; under the conditions of December 1944, with a massively superior force ranged against them, and hampered by shortages of men, munitions and above all fuel, it was quite another. But Jodl told them there was no alternative. A mere tactical victory such as the recapture of Aachen would not suffice.27

On 11 December 1944, Hitler arrived at his new field headquarters near Bad Nauheim, close to the launch-point for the offensive. On 16 December 1944 the attack began. Aided both by surprise and by bad weather that prevented Allied planes from flying, 200,000 German troops and 600 tanks with 1,900 artillery pieces broke through the American lines, which were defended by 80,000 soldiers and 400 tanks, and pushed forwards 65 miles towards the river Meuse. But they soon began running out of petrol, and on Christmas Eve American armour fought them to a halt, supported by continual bombardment of the German lines by 5,000 Allied aircraft once the weather improved. Although the British, under the over-cautious Bernard Montgomery, failed to react quickly enough to cut off the German forces now occupying a large salient that gave the encounter its name - the ‘Battle of the Bulge’ - the Americans under George Patton mounted a successful armoured counter-attack from the south. The German air force tried to neutralize Allied air supremacy by launching a series of raids with 800 fighters and bombers on Allied airfields on 1 January 1945, but this operation cost as many German planes as Allied ones - about 280 - and failed in its objective. A subsidiary German attack in Alsace also came to nothing. Frustrated by their failure to make the decisive breakthrough, the men of the SS First Panzer Division massacred a large number of American prisoners of war at Malmédy on 17 December 1944. This simply served to enrage the American forces now resuming their advance towards Germany. Altogether some 80,000 German and 70,000 American troops were killed, wounded or reported missing in the battle, and each side lost around 700 tanks and armoured vehicles. For the Germans, these losses were irreplaceable. The Americans made good their losses with ease from the vast quantities of men and equipment continually being transported across the Channel into the combat zone. Hitler’s last major counter-attack had failed. On 3 January 1945 he recognized reality and withdrew his main forces from the battlefield to defensive positions further east.28 Defeat now seemed inevitable. On 15 January 1945 Hitler boarded his special train and returned to Berlin.29

Increasingly, Hitler and the Nazi leadership turned their thoughts not to victory, but to revenge. In particular, Hitler hoped to develop the means to pay back the Allied bombing campaign in its own coin, and some more. Although he had from the very beginning of his career regarded terror as a key means of fighting his enemies, he had not initially regarded bombing raids on Rotterdam, London and other cities as what Allied propaganda referred to as ‘terror raids’. Even the Blitz on London was aimed above all at the docks, while the notorious attack on Coventry was mounted because of the city’s key function in armaments production. The purpose of such raids was to weaken the British war economy and bring Churchill to the negotiating table, not, as Hitler explicitly noted, to terrorize the civilian population. In April 1942, following the British raid on Lübeck, he had ordered the beginning of ‘terror raids’ on Britain. For many months, however, he lacked the means to undertake them to any effect. Meanwhile the rapidly intensifying Anglo-American raids on German towns and cities, during which - in 1943 - up to 70 per cent of high-explosive bombs and 90 per cent of incendiaries fell on residential areas - had created a widespread popular desire for retaliation, not in order to wreak revenge on the British but in order to force them to bring the destruction to a halt. Propaganda Minister Goebbels was particularly exercised by the effects of the raids on popular morale. If Göring (‘a disaster’ in Goebbels’s view) had failed to provide adequate protection against the raids, then something needed to be done to convince people that the regime had not failed altogether. Somewhat callously, Hitler initially took the view that the destruction offered the opportunity for urban improvement (‘From the aesthetic viewpoint,’ he opined, ‘the towns do not present all that good a picture. Most industrial cities are badly laid out, fusty and abominably built. Here, the British air raids will give us space’).30 Nevertheless, he too became increasingly angered by the destruction, and declared that ‘the British will stop only if their cities are destroyed . . . Terror is broken by terror.’31

Characteristically, Goebbels favoured bombing the parts of British cities ‘where the plutocrats live’.32 To demand this degree of precision, however, was clearly unrealistic. Moreover, the German air force had no four-engined bombers, no high-altitude bombers, and no specialized night-bombers. Senior officers were delaying production of new models by demanding that they should be capable of dive-bombing enemy infantry and tanks. Göring declared in September 1942 that Germany’s lack of long-distance bombers made him ‘weep’.33 Nevertheless, the air force scraped together some 440 bombers, mostly older models like the Ju88, for a raid on London on the night of 21-2 January 1944, derisively nicknamed the ‘Baby Blitz’ by the British. About 60 per cent of the 475 tons of bombs carried as payload were incendiaries: this was to be a retaliatory raid, causing maximum damage to the English capital city’s housing stock. In the event, however, only 30 tons fell on the target, and indeed only half the bombs managed to hit the English mainland at all. Another raid a week later was no better. More than 100 planes suffered mechanical problems and had to turn back. Half the new Heinkel 177s were lost, four of them when their engines caught fire. The machine still had not been properly tried and tested. Hitler called it a ‘crap machine . . . probably the worst machine that was ever produced’.34 Two dozen or so further raids followed on a variety of targets from Portsmouth to Torquay, each involving around 200 aircraft, until losses and mechanical failures reduced the numbers to little more than 100 towards the end of the campaign, in April and May 1944. The damage done was not very significant. Except in the successful raids on London on 18, 20 and 24 February and 21 March 1944, most bombs failed to reach their target, and the total tonnage dropped was tiny compared to what was hitting Germany. Long before the offensive came to an end in May 1944, it was clear that something new was required. A range of ‘miracle’ or ‘wonder-weapons’ was under development already. Hitler and Goebbels held out the promise that these would soon reverse the fortunes of war and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.35


The first of these weapons to be deployed was a pilotless ‘flying bomb’. It was named, with Hitler’s immediate approval, the V-1 by Hans Schwarz van Berkl, a journalist on Goebbels’s organ The Reich, on 17 June 1944. The name signified its function as a means of retaliation against the Allies, in revenge for the destruction of German towns and cities by Allied bombs, in a situation where raids by piloted bombers were clearly having no significant effect. The ‘V’ stood for Vergeltung, retribution, an appellation that already betrayed an unspoken assumption that their moral purpose was greater than their military effectiveness could ever be. The V-1 resulted from experimental projects developed in the mid-1930s, when the engineer Paul Schmidt had begun work on a pulsejet system that would operate through rapid intermittent explosions. To speed up progress, the Air Ministry had asked the Argus air-engine company to take the project over in 1939, and the pulsejet engine was tried out on a small fighter plane in 1941-2. However, its extreme noisiness and the vibrations it caused made it impossible to use in manned aircraft. The alternative was an ‘aerial torpedo’, or what would now be called a cruise missile, and in June 1942 the Air Ministry gave its formal approval to a full development programme to be carried out by the aircraft manufacturing firm of Fieseler. It took another two years to reach the production stage. On 13 June 1944, at Hitler’s urgent command, the first ten V-1 flying bombs were catapulted from their coastal launch ramps towards London. Their fuel was calculated to run out over the British capital, when they would fall to the ground and explode. Londoners listened to the throbbing of the motors as the V-1s came over, waiting anxiously for them to cut out, then counting the seconds till the explosion. The psychological effect was considerable. Hitler ordered a massive boost in production late in June 1944. A total of 22,384 of the missiles were fired (1,600 from aircraft, the rest from launch ramps), but between a third and a half failed to reach their target. Some ran out of fuel too soon, while others were shot down by anti-aircraft fire or by fighter planes that could outfly the slow-moving missiles, whose speed of 375 mph they could easily better. Speer later thought that Hitler and his entourage, including himself, ‘far overestimated its effects’. As the Allies overran the launch-sites, increasing numbers of V-1s were launched from Germany at Belgium, and particularly at Antwerp, which was hardly the purpose for which they had been designed. By September 1944 it was clear that the V-1 had failed to break British morale, and the programme was scaled back; the few that were launched at London from within Germany itself in 1945 had to carry much smaller warheads to enable them to cover the longer distance, and had little effect.36

The second and more technically sophisticated of the two ‘V’ weapons was a ballistic rocket developed by the army as a rival to the air force’s V-1. Scientists had first begun working on liquid-fuel rockets at the end of the 1920s, in part inspired by a Fritz Lang film, The Woman in the Moon. A variety of groups, some backed by aircraft manufacturers like Hugo Junkers, experimented with various kinds of fuel, some of them dangerously volatile. By the late 1930s, a wealthy young aristocrat, Wernher von Braun, had emerged as the most important of the rocketry pioneers. Born in 1912, the young von Braun had grown up in a conservative, nationalist family; his father had lost his job as a civil servant as a result of supporting the Kapp putsch in 1920 and subsequently become a banker. In 1932 von Braun senior had become Minister of Agriculture in the reactionary government of Franz von Papen, but he had lost this job too when Hitler had come to power. The older von Braun’s right-wing politics, however, provided his son with a set of attitudes that made it easy for him to enter the service of the Nazi government. After studying mechanical engineering at the Technical University of Berlin and completing a Ph.D. in applied physics, on liquid-fuel rocketry, Wernher von Braun got funding from the army and the air force, and set up a testing range at Peenemünde, a remote wilderness of beaches, marshes and dunes on the northern end of the island of Usedom, on the Baltic coast, where his grandfather had spent holidays many years before, hunting ducks. Joining the Nazi Party in 1937 and the SS three years later, von Braun possessed the credentials, connections, charm and charisma needed to persuade the military to increase the funds they devoted to this improbable project. The problems von Braun and his expanding team had to solve were formidable: the fuel had to be stable as well as powerful, the aerodynamics of the rockets had to be reliable, the guidance systems effective. Von Braun had to fight for allocations of key equipment like steel and indispensable components like gyroscopes, transmitters and turbopumps, and he had to acquire scientific experts and skilled workers against competition from areas of the war economy with a higher priority than the testing and development of experimental rockets.37

Crucially, however, von Braun managed to convince Albert Speer of the importance of the project. ‘I liked mingling with this circle of non-political young scientists and inventors headed by Wernher von Braun - twenty-seven years old, purposeful, a man realistically at home in the future,’ Speer later recalled.38 Visiting Peenemünde shortly after his appointment as Armaments Minister, along with General Fromm, Field Marshal Milch and a representative of the navy, Speer watched the first firing of a remote-controlled rocket. ‘With the roar of an unleashed giant,’ he later recalled, ‘the rocket rose slowly from its pad, seemed to stand upon its jet of flame for the fraction of a second, then vanished with a howl into the low clouds. Wernher von Braun was beaming.’ Deeply impressed by this technical wizardry, Speer was being told by the technicians the ‘incredible distances the projectile was covering, when, a minute and a half after the start, a rapidly swelling howl indicated that the rocket was falling in the immediate vicinity. We all froze where we stood. It struck the ground only a half a mile away.’39 Not surprisingly, on hearing reports of the trial, Hitler was not convinced of the project’s future. But his initial scepticism was overcome after Speer reported the first successful trial, on 14 October 1942, when one of the rockets travelled 120 miles and fell within two and a half miles of its target. Now it was Hitler’s turn to be enthused. With a disregard for reality that was becoming obvious in other fields as well, he declared that 5,000 missiles had to be produced for launching against the British capital. A film presentation by von Braun convinced Hitler that the rocket would become ‘the decisive weapon of the war’.40

With this backing, the rocket programme now prospered. Before long, however, it became necessary to shift production away from Peenemünde to somewhere more secure. Allied intelligence and reconnaissance flights had provided alarming information about this and other secret weapons sites, and a fleet of almost 600 bombers had been sent to the rocket development complex at Peenemünde to destroy it. The site survived the raid on 18 August 1943, but a good deal of damage had been caused none the less. Keen to extend his own power over the programme, Himmler persuaded Hitler that production should be relocated to an underground site well away from the destructive attention of Allied bombers. Himmler commissioned a senior SS officer, Hans Kammler, to set up this new manufacturing centre. Kammler had an engineering background and had played a significant role in the Air Ministry before moving across to help manage the building of the extermination camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek and Belzec. From early in 1942 he was in charge of the construction department of the SS Economy and Administration Head Office.40 Speer thought he bore an uncanny resemblance to Reinhard Heydrich, ‘blond, blue-eyed, long-headed, always neatly dressed, and well bred’, but also ‘a cold, ruthless schemer, a fanatic in the pursuit of a goal, and as carefully calculating as he was unscrupulous’. Yet, at first, Speer got on well with Kammler, describing him as ‘in many ways my mirror image’, a middle-class university graduate who ‘had gone far and fast in fields for which he had not been trained’, a man whose ‘objective coolness’ he found attractive.41 After scouting various possibilities, Speer, Kammler and the rocket team settled on a complex of old gypsum mines near the town of Nordhausen in the Harz mountains in Thuringia. Kammler quickly began arranging the conversion of the mines into a new rocket production centre, known as the ‘Central Works’ (Mittelwerk) in a vague allusion to their geographical position, and organized the transfer of the salvageable equipment and papers from Peenemünde.42

To carry out the construction work, the SS established a sub-camp of Buchenwald, known as ‘Work Camp Dora’, at the site. By October 1943, 4,000 prisoners, most of them Russian, Polish and French, were at work in the mine, blasting, digging and mixing and pouring concrete; by the end of November 1943 their number had doubled. ‘Pay no attention to the human cost,’ declared Kammler. ‘The work must go ahead, and in the shortest possible time.’43 Rather than spend time and money on building barracks to house the prisoners outside the mines, as originally intended, Kammler had the SS wall off cross-tunnels 43 to 46 and got the prisoners to put together wooden bunk-beds, each of them four levels high. The damp atmosphere of the cold tunnels, where the temperature never rose above 15 degrees Celsius (59 degrees Fahrenheit), was made worse by constant dust from blasting work. There were no proper sanitary facilities, the water supplies were in no way sufficient, and the prisoners were unable to wash. Makeshift toilets consisted of large oil-drums sawn in half, with wooden boards placed over them. It was one of the SS guards’ favourite jokes to approach the workers from behind as they sat on the boards and push them in. The prisoners, sleeping two or more to a bed, quickly became dirty, unkempt and lice-ridden.44 One French prisoner described his arrival at the site on 14 October 1943:

The Kapos and SS drive us on at an infernal speed, shouting and raining blows down on us, threatening us with execution . . . The noise bores into the brain and rends the nerves. The demented rhythm lasts for fifteen hours. Arriving at the dormitory . . . we do not even try to reach the bunks. Drunk with exhaustion, we collapse onto the rocks, onto the ground. Behind, the Kapos press us on. Those behind trample over their comrades. Soon over a thousand despairing men, at the limit of their existence and racked with thirst, lie there hoping for sleep which never comes; for the shouts of the guards, the noise of the machines, the explosions and the ringing of the bell reach them even there.45

Prisoners were kept in the tunnels all the time, only seeing the light of day once a week, when they had to stand outside for hours on end during the weekly roll-call. Many had dysentery; those who were too weak to make their way to the parade-ground were beaten mercilessly by the SS, often until they were dead.46

At his subsequent trial in Nuremberg, Speer denied ever having visited a labour camp of any kind, and did not mention the Dora-Central Works complex.47 In fact, however, as his Ministry’s chronicle reveals, Speer visited the new V-2 production centre on 10 December 1943. He later professed himself appalled by the conditions under which the prisoners worked. According to his memoirs, he had immediately ordered the construction of proper accommodation for the prisoners, the improvement of sanitary facilities and the upgrading of their rations.48 But his office chronicle made no mention of any protest; on the contrary, on 17 December 1943 Speer wrote to Kammler congratulating him on his success in setting up the new production centre in two months, an achievement ‘that far exceeds anything ever done in Europe, and is unsurpassed even by American standards’.49 It was not until 13 January 1944 that the Armaments Ministry’s chief physician reported the terrible health situation at the camp, which led to a Ministry investigation. Deaths rose from eighteen in October 1943 to 172 in November 1943 and 670 in December 1943; within six months of the camp’s opening, 2,882 prisoners had died. By March 1944 a crematorium had been installed to deal with the bodies. Only with the arrival of warmer weather and the completion of outside dormitories in May 1944 did the death rate begin to decline.50 Eventually, 20,000 of the 60,000 men forced to work at the V-2 production plant and live in Dora or one of no fewer than thirty sub-camps dotted around the site died of disease, starvation and maltreatment. 51

Meanwhile, no sooner had Speer fallen ill, on 18 January 1944, than Himmler moved in to try to take the enterprise over completely and turn it into yet another division of the burgeoning economic empire of the SS. Just over two months later, having failed to persuade Wernher von Braun to go along with his plans, Himmler had the rocketeer, his brother and two of his closest collaborators arrested on charges of belonging to a (completely fictional) left-wing resistance organization and trying to sabotage the rocket programme. Within a short time, however, Speer had pleaded with Hitler, during the Leader’s visit to his sickbed, to order their release. Energetic pressure was also put on the Nazi Leader by Walter Dornberger, the army officer with overall responsibility for the V-2 programme. Himmler was obliged to order the rocketeers’ release on the grounds of their scientific and technical indispensability, and his attempt to take the enterprise over came to nothing. Von Braun’s arrest was to prove convenient when he came to defend his record during the Nazi years after the war by presenting himself as an unpolitical technical expert. His expertise was severely put to the test in the following months, as the rockets kept on blowing up during test flights and the first production models, rushed off the assembly-line at the Central Works, proved equally unsatisfactory. Not surprisingly, the poor physical condition, maltreatment and lack of expertise of the slave-workers led to workmanship of the poorest quality. Constant adjustments and refinements meant that no fewer than 65,000 changes were made to the blueprints by the end of the war. Even when conditions at Dora were improved by the provision of barracks and various amenities, the murderously brutal treatment of the prisoners by guards and overseers continued unabated, and there is no evidence that either Dornberger or von Braun, or for that matter Speer, ever did anything to try to improve the situation. Only in September 1944, when the teething troubles were finally solved, were the first rockets launched against London. Soon the factory was producing more than twenty a day, or up to 700 a month.52

By this time, the management of the production programme had been turned over from the army, which had lost enormously in power and influence after the July 1944 bomb plot, to a limited company set up by the rocketeers to try to forestall the growing influence of Kammler and the SS. Conditions at the Dora camp grew even worse with the arrival on 1 February 1945 of a new commandant, Richard Baer, who had previously served as the last commandant of Auschwitz, with orders to suppress the now-active resistance movement among the inmates. Baer had former German Communists bludgeoned to death and staged a number of mass executions, including one of 162 inmates in March 1945, which the other prisoners were forced to watch. Shortly afterwards the camp was evacuated. Only 600 workers, too sick to be moved, were left at Dora when Allied forces arrived, along with another 405 at a nearby sub-camp. The factory, together with the Peenemünde facility, had succeeded in constructing about 6,000 rockets by this time; the Central Works factory also made several thousand V-1 flying bombs. Altogether, 3,200 V-2 rockets had been successfully fired, most of them not at Britain but at targets in Belgium. There was no defence against them: they came down almost vertically at an unstoppable speed, something like 2,000 miles an hour. But they could not carry more than a small conventional payload of a ton of high explosive, and so were unable to cause significant destruction. The total number of people killed by the rocket was no more than 5,000. The V-2 was thus, as its historian Michael Neufeld has remarked, ‘a unique weapon: more people died producing it than died from being hit by it’.53


As early as the spring of 1942, as we have seen, General Fromm, who was to be arrested for his complicity in the bomb plot just over two years later, was already pessimistic about the outcome of the war. But Fromm did not despair completely. He was convinced that the only thing that could win the war in the face of the massive arms programmes being implemented by Britain, America and the Soviet Union would be a super-bomb being developed by a group of physicists under the leadership of the leading theoretical physicists Otto Hahn and Werner Heisenberg. The attempt made by some extreme Nazi scientists in the 1930s to reject theoretical physics, and especially the theory of relativity, as ‘Jewish’ had been successfully rebuffed by the physics community at a dramatic confrontation in Munich on 15 November 1940.54 Theory, it had resolved, was not Jewish but quintessentially German. A good deal of damage had been done in the meantime, however. The physicists pointed out that, while German scientists in 1927 had published forty-seven articles on nuclear physics, American and British scientists between them had managed only thirty-five. By 1939, however, the ratio had changed dramatically, and the Germans managed only 166 to the Anglo-Americans’ 471. By this time, too, there were thirty particle accelerators in the USA against only one in Germany.55 The potential military consequences were serious. As Hahn had discovered in 1938, if uranium was bombarded by neutrons, it released enough energy to set up a chain reaction with an almost incalculable destructive power. Yet Germany had clearly fallen behind in the race to turn this discovery to practical military use.56

Nevertheless, Heisenberg persisted in trying to develop a nuclear bomb. In doing so, however, he faced insurmountable problems. Although the Danish scientist Niels Bohr had worked out before the war that uranium-235 was the best material for this purpose, Heisenberg and Hahn never managed to calculate the quantity needed for a bomb, nor how to keep the fission process under control during production. They were right in thinking that ‘heavy water’ (an isotope of ordinary water) was needed for this latter purpose, and things looked set for success when the only factory in the world that could produce major quantities of it was captured in Norway in April 1940. But Allied intelligence realized its importance and effectively destroyed the factory in a series of raids by commandos and bomber planes in 1943. Even without this setback, Heisenberg’s team failed to recognize the importance of graphite as well as heavy water in controlling nuclear fission. And even with a massive investment of money and resources it would take two, perhaps three years before an ‘atomic bomb’ could be ready. Like the army generals, Speer knew that the Third Reich simply did not have the leisure to wait. The investment needed would simply divert much-needed resources from meeting the immediate needs of the war economy: aircraft, guns, tanks, ammunition, submarines, men and supplies that were required to inflict total defeat on the Red Army within the next few months, cut off the Atlantic supply-lines of the British, and get ready to meet the onslaught that was undoubtedly coming from the Americans. When lobbied by Heisenberg, Speer was impressed by the idea and gave it some financial resources. But these did not go nearly far enough. As early as the summer of 1942 the basic decision had been made only to allow development on a relatively small scale because Hitler and the leading German economic managers did not expect the war to last more than a few months more, so that the atom-bomb would have to wait until after it was over. The army, which in 1940 had taken over the main centre of research in this area, the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics, where Heisenberg was based, handed it back to the Reich Research Council, since it no longer seemed to be of direct military relevance. 57

Had such a bomb existed, Speer thought later, Hitler would not have had any doubts or hesitations about using it. Watching a newsreel on the bombing of Warsaw in September 1939, ending with a montage showing a plane diving towards a map of the British Isles, which were then blown into the sky, Hitler had remarked to Speer: ‘That is what will happen to them! That is how we will annihilate them!’ Using funds provided by Speer, Heisenberg and his team built a cyclotron that succeeded in splitting an atomic nucleus by the summer of 1944. But there was not enough uranium available to go much further, particularly in view of the fact that Germany’s stocks of the element were needed to provide cores for solid ammunition after supplies of wolframite from Portugal were cut off in 1943.58 Moreover, in any case, the usual infighting within the regime militated against the concentration of effort needed. For there was another team besides Heisenberg’s. It was led by the young physicist Manfred von Ardenne, backed, somewhat improbably, by Reich Postal Minister Wilhelm Ohnesorge. The latter’s friend the court photographer Heinrich Hoffmann persuaded Hitler to take a personal interest in the research. Ardenne was assisted by Kurt Diebner, an army physicist, and a team of about 100 other researchers spread across seventeen different institutions. They made some progress in developing a tactical nuclear weapon of a different kind to Heisenberg’s super-bomb, using enriched plutonium. Later claims that Ardenne’s team succeeded in carrying out test explosions on the Baltic island of Rügen in October 1944 and later in Thuringia on 3 and 12 March 1945 have met with some scepticism from historians, however. Here too, concentration camp prisoners were used in the construction process, and several hundred died while building the test site in March 1945. Whether or not Ardenne and Diebner were successful, it was all too late to make a difference. By this stage, the necessary supplies of uranium and plutonium could not be obtained.59 Hitler’s backing was also no more than half-hearted, because he still believed at bottom that nuclear physics was a Jewish discipline, as did the Ministry of Education, which did nothing to support research in this area. In any case, even if the money, the men and the materials had been available, time was not. Germany lacked the resources that the United States devoted to the creation of the atomic bomb; and even there, it took until 1945 before the Manhattan Project, with its billions of dollars, huge numbers of scientists and limitless supply of materials, came up with a usable weapon.60

Potentially just as destructive were the nerve gases being developed by the I. G. Farben combine. In 1938 I. G. Farben scientists Schrader, Ambros, Rüdiger and Van der Linde had synthesized an extremely deadly organiphosphorus compound which they christened Sarin, after their surnames. As a director of I. G. Farben and head of the special committee in Speer’s Ministry responsible for poison gas, Ambros was in a particularly strong position to develop such chemical agents, of which there was another one, called Tabun, ready to manufacture, and a third, called Soman, synthesized by scientists at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry, led by Richard Kuhn, early in 1944. By 1942, factory production of Sarin and Tabun had begun at a site north of Breslau. 12,000 tonnes of Tabun had been produced by June 1944. These nerve agents were tested on animals, and it has been alleged that they were also tried out on concentration camp inmates, though there is no hard evidence for this. But there were serious problems to overcome before they could be deployed. During the development stage, the nerve gases, which were lethal if even a tiny amount came into contact with the skin, had caused convulsions or other injuries in over 300 workers (many of them forced labourers) and at least ten fatalities. The Nazi leader of the German Labour Front, Robert Ley, a chemist by training, was none the less enthusiastic about the new chemical weapons: Albert Speer later recalled him saying at this time, over the inevitable glasses of strong wine, stammering with excitement: ‘You know we have this new poison gas - I’ve heard about it. The Leader must do it. He must use it. Now he has to do it! When else! This is the last moment. You too must make him realize that it’s time.’ Hitler did indeed consider using nerve gas against the Red Army. But Speer knew that the factories producing basic ingredients had been damaged so badly in Allied bombing raids that this idea could not be put into practice.61

In any case, there was no known effective protection against the gases. It was simply too dangerous to deploy them on the battlefield. Supposing the wind turned and blew them back on the German troops? Putting them into bombs or missiles was almost as dangerous. Mistakes always occurred, and nobody could be certain of the direction the gas cloud would take when a gas-bomb went off. Hitler’s Plenipotentiary for Chemical Warfare, Karl Brandt (who was also his personal doctor), was convinced, like other scientists, that the Allies’ superior resources must mean that they were more advanced in the development and production of nerve gases. If Germany started to use them, he reasoned, then Allied air supremacy would mean that there would be no defence if the Allies decided to retaliate. In the autumn of 1944, reflecting this thinking, gas-mask production in Germany was rapidly increased, and millions of masks were manufactured within the space of a few months. In fact, the Allies did not possess modern nerve gases, though they did have stocks of phosgene and mustard gas. They too were well equipped with gas masks, which had been distributed in their millions to the British population even before the war began. Whether such simple devices would have offered any protection against Sarin or Tabun, however, is extremely doubtful.62

Flying-bombs, rockets, atom-bombs and nerve gases were far from being the only technologically advanced devices under development in Germany during the war. As Speer remarked, by 1944 there was a whole variety of wonder-weapons in preparation:

We possessed a remote-controlled flying bomb, a rocket plane that was even faster than the jet plane, a rocket missile that homed on an enemy plane by tracking the heat rays from its motors, and a torpedo that reacted to sound and could thus pursue and hit a ship fleeing in a zigzag course. Development of a ground-to-air missile had been completed. The designer Lippisch had jet planes on the drawing board that were far in advance of anything so far known . . . We were literally suffering from an excess of projects in development. Had we concentrated on only a few types we would surely have completed some of them sooner.63

But none of these came to anything. The regime’s inability to prioritize, based partly on in-fighting between different agencies, partly on a general overestimation of its ability to finance and construct such programmes, partly on a general underestimation of the time and resources needed to get from research and development to production, doomed them to failure. Instead of concentrating on the ‘Waterfall’ ground-to-air missile, for example, which in Speer’s view would have played a vital role in reducing the impact of Anglo-American bombing raids, Hitler ordered a concentration of resources on the V-I flying bomb and then the V-2 rocket. This left the missile programme to stagger on from one problem to another, denied the workforce and equipment that might have hastened its development to a point where it could actually have come into operation.64 Speer and others were aware of the lack of co-ordination; some projects were being continued despite their obvious lack of practical military relevance. Yet the perpetual struggle for power within the regime meant that no one could do anything about it. The costs of these projects were enormous: there were more operational staff employed at the V-2 site in Peenemünde, for example, than there were on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. In the end, all these schemes imposed a huge financial burden on Germany without having any effect on the outcome of the war.65

It was a similar story with the jet-engined fighter, which might also have helped defend Germany’s cities. The scientific and technological expertise was certainly available. By 1941 Ernst Heinkel had succeeded in developing and testing a jet engine, which was to be put into a revolutionary new fighter plane, the twin-engined Me262, giving it a speed of over 500 miles per hour. It first flew in July 1943. Speer was enthusiastic about the new aircraft, and blamed the subsequent failure to bring it into mass production on repeated interventions by Hitler, who first ordered a halt, then changed his mind but declared that it had to be a bomber instead of a fighter. Speer and many others, including the top commanders of the air force, tried to convince Hitler that the Me262 would be able to inflict enormous damage on the British and American bombers now devastating Germany’s towns and cities if it was developed and deployed as a fighter plane. But Hitler took this as criticism of his military and technical expertise and became so irritated with these repeated attempts to get him to change his mind that he banned all discussion of the Me262 from the autumn of 1944 onwards. In any case, Allied bombing was disrupting the plane’s development and manufacturing sites well before this stage had been reached. Thus few were produced. Fuel supplies were being destroyed, the necessary supplies of metal alloys to construct the plane in large numbers were lacking, and the time and facilities for training pilots to fly the plane were absent. Most important of all, however, much more time was needed to test and refine the design until the inevitable teething troubles were dealt with and the plane could be flown safely and effectively. The Air Ministry committed itself whole-heartedly to developing the aircraft; Messerschmitt simply lacked the time and resources to bring the project to fruition.66

High hopes were entertained for a new generation of submarines, equipped with powerful batteries that would enable them to remain submerged for long periods so that they could not be detected by radar. The new craft were built for speed so that they could overtake convoys and sink them before the accompanying destroyers could steam into action. The first of the new U-boats was delivered in June 1944, and over 150 had been built by February 1945. But they had been rushed into production before being properly tried and tested, and many of them succumbed almost immediately to teething troubles. In any case, without aerial reconnaissance they would have found it difficult to locate their targets. A crash programme of construction of a long-range reconnaissance aircraft, the Ju290, had to be called off in the summer of 1944 after the damage inflicted by Allied air raids on production centres had made the futility of the project clear. Soon afterwards, the U-boat bases on the French coast fell into Allied hands. The new U-boats did not succeed in sinking a single ship, though the priority given to the construction programme, and the hopes held out for its success, convinced Hitler that the commander of the U-boat fleet, Admiral Dönitz, was one of the few remaining leaders in the armed forces who still possessed the will to victory that he demanded.67

Another wonder-weapon, dubbed the V-3, was intended purely as a measure of revenge against the British. An enormous gun with a barrel over 150 metres long, it was intended to shoot shells all the way from the Continent to the middle of London, boosting them with small explosions as they went up the barrel and so increasing their velocity. It was still under development when Allied bombs destroyed the firing site, and by the time the facilities had been repaired the war was irrevocably lost.68 Yet another wonder-weapon, a four-stage rocket with powder instead of liquid fuel, was to lead eventually to the multi-stage, solid-fuel rockets of the postwar era, but the army never succeeded in producing more than a handful, which were launched from the end of 1944 against Antwerp, but overshot and fell into the sea. The only damage done by this weapon was when a trial firing sent a rocket whizzing towards a nearby farm, killing several chickens and a dog and injuring two cows.69 The list of wonder-weapons was seemingly endless. In early April 1945 Albert Speer encountered the Labour Front leader Robert Ley with Martin Bormann and others deep in discussion:

Ley came rushing towards me with the news: ‘Death rays have been invented! A simple apparatus that we can produce in large quantities. I’ve studied the documentation; there’s no doubt about it. This will be the decisive weapon!’ With Bormann nodding confirmation, Ley went on, stuttering as always, to find fault with me. ‘But of course your Ministry rejected the inventor. Fortunately for us, he wrote to me. But now you personally must get this project going. Immediately. At this moment there’s nothing more important.’70

Speer’s team soon found that the inventor was an eccentric amateur who was asking for equipment so out of date that it had not been manufactured for forty years.71

In the end, the main significance of the wonder-weapons was as a propaganda device that offered hope to those who still wanted Nazism to win. The German media carried lurid stories of the devastation caused by the V-1 and V-2, trying to satisfy people’s demand for effective retaliatory action on the British that would bring the bombing raids to an end. Many of these were invented. In all, fewer than 6,000 V-Is fell on Britain and just over 1,000 V-2s. 31,600 houses were destroyed, mostly in London, and nearly 9,000 people were killed by the two weapons, with 24,000 being injured. This damage did not compare to the devastation inflicted by Allied bombing in Germany, and in no way met the demand for massive retaliation. People called the V-I the Volksverdummer Nr 1 (Stultifier of the People Number 1) or the Versager Nr 1 (Failure Number 1). Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry was aware of this scepticism. So the co-ordinated media pumped out vague promises of new, as yet unspecified wonder-weapons of a far greater destructiveness. As early as 19 February 1943 Hitler was talking in public of ‘hitherto unknown, unique weapons’ that were on the way and would turn the tide of war.72 Yet such promises soon lost any potency they might have had. Even in November the same year, a joke about them was doing the rounds. It revealed how well people knew that Germany’s lack of resources was losing the war. ‘1950,’ so went the imaginary report. ‘Meeting in the Leader’s headquarters about the date fixed for Vengeance. It is postponed once more because there is no agreement on whether the two airplanes should fly side-by-side or one in front of the other.’73

Towards the end of the war even the most optimistic and convinced followers of Nazism were beginning to have their doubts about the wonder-weapons. On 3 September 1944 Inge Molter wrote to her husband Alfred:

Fred, darling, we’ve got to keep going until the new weapons are ready, it can’t be that the enemy will force us on to our knees before that happens. Darling, I simply can’t believe that. Will it all have been in vain, will there be no more Germany? No, darling, I can’t believe that. But unfortunately this view is very gradually trickling through into the shops and everywhere that one sees several people gathered together .74

On 12 November 1944 a concerned radio listener sent a letter to the head of the news service in the Propaganda Ministry, Hans Fritsche, asking: ‘Why haven’t at least some of the new weapons been put into action, when the enemy is standing so close before our borders to the west and the east?’ He did not receive an answer.75 By March 1945, Germany’s situation, wrote the university student Lore Walb, was ‘unspeakably bitter’:

And in this situation the government is still talking of victory! In my innermost heart I too do not want to believe that our people are destined to downfall. But if you only think about them just a little, things look very black. You can’t see any chink of light any more. The new weapons haven’t turned up, and will most likely never turn up. I certainly believe that they were planned and that construction of them was begun, but at this point they won’t succeed in getting them ready any more.76

‘Until the last few days,’ reported the Security Service of the SS at the end of March 1945, ‘people retained a remnant of the belief in a miracle that has been so skilfully and purposefully nurtured by the propaganda about the new weapons.’ But this small residue of hope had to be seen as a kind of psychological defence mechanism to cope with the despair that was now overwhelming the German people. The report concluded: ‘Nobody believes that we can still escape a catastrophe with the methods and possibilities of waging war that have existed up to now. The last spark of hope remains rescue from outside, or a completely exceptional set of circumstances, or a secret weapon of enormous power. This hope too is being extinguished.’77


If new weapons could not rescue Germany, then perhaps new soldiers could. Already at the end of 1943 the call-up of increasingly older age-cohorts of men to the armed forces was prompting a variety of popular jokes. ‘Vengeance will come,’ so one went, ‘when you see notices on the old people’s homes: “Closed because of the call-up”.’78 On 26 September 1944, in a desperate attempt to deal with the shortage of military personnel, Hitler ordered the creation of the ‘People’s Storm’ (Volkssturm), in which all men from the ages of sixteen to sixty were required to take up arms, and to undergo training for a final stand. They were to be organized by the Party, with the aim, Hitler said, of defending the German people against the attempt of its ‘Jewish-international enemies’ to annihilate them. All of them had to swear a personal oath of allegiance to Hitler, allegiance unto death. The official date for the launch of the People’s Storm was chosen by Himmler as 18 October, the anniversary of the defeat of Napoleon’s army in the ‘Battle of the Nations’ at Leipzig in 1813. This was to be a national uprising just like the one that - in popular legend - had ended French rule over Germany just over 130 years before. But the reality fell far short of the rhetoric. The men of the People’s Storm were never going to be a very effective fighting force. They had no uniforms - there was no way of providing them by this stage - and had to come in their own clothes, bringing with them a rucksack, a blanket and cooking equipment. The arms and ammunition they needed were never fully forthcoming, and by the final stage of the war they were little more than a poor imitation of an army. Wandering out from his woodland hiding-place one day, the Social Democratic schoolboy Ullrich S. noted 400 men of the People’s Storm come into the nearby village. ‘Tired and exhausted, most of them were wearing uniforms borrowed from the air force, or plundered. A few only had their mufti. I only saw 5 soldiers in all who were bearing arms, the rest were not even carrying a bayonet.’ With the characteristic disdain of the adolescent for the middle-aged, he added: ‘Most of them were between 45 and 60 years of age. The whole crowd made a very pitiable impression on us. They almost looked like an old people’s home on an outing.’79 This view was widespread. ‘Two men with shovels are walking across the graveyard,’ went one popular joke of the day. ‘An old man shouts after them: “So you want to dig out reinforcements for the People’s Storm?” ’80 For the men of the People’s Storm, however, enlistment was more than a joke. No fewer than 175,000 were eventually killed fighting against the professional armies of the Russians and the Western Allies.81

The draft for the People’s Storm was deeply unpopular. People were well aware of its futility in military terms, and the sacrifices they were being asked to make were bitterly resented. In Stuttgart, the red posters put up around the city on 20 October 1944 advertising the creation of the People’s Storm reminded citizens of the red placards used to announce executions. ‘It’s announcing an execution too,’ people were reported saying, ‘namely the execution of the German people.’82 Recruitment was completely indiscriminate. The draft for the People’s Storm thus caught many unsuspecting and reluctant men in its net. One of its victims was the theatre critic, writer and pseudo-aristocratic fantasist Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen. When the People’s Storm was set up he was living peacefully on his little estate in the Bavarian hills with his second wife, Irmgard, whom he had married in March 1935, and their three daughters, born in 1939, 1941 and 1943. At this point, his own history of lies and deceptions came back to haunt him. Reck had boasted widely of having enjoyed a heroic military career during the First World War as a Prussian officer, so it was scarcely surprising that the leadership of the People’s Storm in the nearby town of Seebruck asked him to enlist. Reck, who had in fact never been on active service and never fired a shot at anybody in his life, ignored the request. Four days later, on 13 October 1944, he was arrested on the orders of the military recruitment office in Traunstein for undermining the German military effort and imprisoned for a week. The Gestapo now had their eye on Reck. They knew him apart from anything else as the author of books whose thrust was unmistakeably anti-Nazi, such as his study of the Anabaptists’ reign of terror in sixteenth-century Münster (subtitled ‘History of a Mass Delusion’) and his account of Charlotte Corday’s assassination of the French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat, both published in 1937.

Unable to get at him on the basis of such subversive books because they had after all been published perfectly legitimately in Germany, with the approval of Goebbels’s censorship apparatus, the Gestapo acted instead upon a denunciation passed to them by the director of the publishers Knorr and Hirth, in Munich, Alfred Salat, who had seen a letter sent to his colleague Fritz Hasinger by Reck on 10 July 1944 about his royalties. An aside in the letter that referred to the ‘Mark of today’ as being worth ‘only half of what you get elsewhere for a more powerful coinage’, coupled with general if rather vague complaints about the way publishers had treated their authors since 1933, was enough to have Reck arrested on 29 December 1944 on the charge of ‘insulting the German currency’ and ‘statements denigrating the state’. When the jail where he was being held in Munich was destroyed by bombing, on 7-8 January 1945, Reck was transferred with the other prisoners to the concentration camp at Dachau, where the Gestapo ordered him to be kept for further interrogation. Conditions in the camp worsened rapidly in the last months of the war, and Reck soon fell ill. He was transferred to the block reserved for the sick, and, though he recovered sufficiently at one time to be released back into normal custody in the camp, he became sick again, and died at 8.30 a.m. on 16 February 1945. The death certificate gave the cause of death as enterocolitis, but a number of witnesses, including Reck’s neighbour in the hospital block, the camp doctor who attended him in the final days and saw him die and the medical clerk in the camp, subsequently testified that he had died of typhus, a disease the presence of which in the camp officials even at this late stage were eager to deny.83

Not only older civilians like Reck, but also young boys and, increasingly, girls, were drafted in to man anti-aircraft guns and searchlights during bombing raids and take part in the war effort in other ways. Even Party officials were complaining in October 1944 of the ‘recruitment of age-cohorts that are scarcely able to carry out any practical tasks’, as adolescents from the Hitler Youth were called up for work on building defences ‘on almost all borders of the Reich’.84 On 17 March 1945, for example, all fourteen-to-sixteen-year-old pupils of the elite Napola secondary school at Oranienstein were enlisted to man the western defences. Five days later an SS instructor arrived to teach the other pupils how to use hand-held anti-tank guns.85 Women too were drafted into the armed forces as auxiliaries and subjected to military discipline. One young East Prussian woman told how her unit of raw recruits had been together for three weeks, learning how to use a pistol, when enemy fighter-planes strafed their training camp. One girl who was on guard outside the camp ran for cover. For this she was condemned to death:

We were all forced to stand by the fence and watch our comrade being shot . . . A whole series of girls fainted. Then we were driven back to the camp . . . The impression that this execution had made on us was indescribable. All of us did nothing but stay in bed and cry for the whole day. None of us went to work. For this we were all locked into cells . . . We had to stay there for 4 days on nothing but bread and water. We were allowed to take a copy of My Struggle or the Bible with us, but I declined the offer.86

The futility of this final draft of young women into the armed forces was nowhere clearer than in the case of the twenty-three-year-old Rita H., a seamstress, whose duties consisted of little more than helping the evacuation of army administrative offices, including the burning of incriminating documents. As the women tried to light a fire in the pouring rain, ‘the singed papers and files were lying around the whole area, for the wind was repeatedly rummaging through our little heaps of paper. It was strange,’ she added, writing as a pious Catholic, ‘and yet wonderful to stand there like that and in a way to experience the downfall of a Godless government.’87

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