Military history





On 8 November 1939, at around eight in the evening, Hitler arrived in the Bürgerbräukeller, the Munich beer-hall where he had launched his unsuccessful putsch in 1923. Here he was scheduled to give his annual speech to the Regional Leaders and ‘Old Fighters’ of the Nazi movement. At the 1939 meeting he spoke for just under an hour. Then, to everyone’s surprise, he left abruptly for the railway station to travel to Berlin, where he needed to be in the Reich Chancellery for discussions on the planned invasion of France, postponed only two days previously because of bad weather. The ‘Old Fighters’ were disappointed that he did not follow his usual practice of staying behind for half an hour to chat. Most of them slowly went off, leaving a hundred or so staff to clear up. At twenty past nine, less than half an hour after Hitler had departed the building, a huge explosion ripped through the hall. The gallery and roof fell in, and the blast blew out the windows and doors. Three people were killed outright, five died of their injuries later, and sixty-two were wounded. Many of those who struggled out of the wreckage, coughing and spluttering, bruised, bleeding and covered in dust, assumed that they had been victims of a British air raid. Only gradually did they realize that the explosion had been caused by a bomb concealed in one of the hall’s central pillars.

The news was brought to Hitler when his train stopped at Nuremberg. Initially he thought it was a joke. But when he saw that nobody around him was laughing, he realized that he had only narrowly escaped death. Once again, he declared, Providence had preserved him for the tasks ahead. But many questions remained. Who, the Nazi leaders asked, had been responsible for this dastardly attempt on Hitler’s life? A little over two months into the war, the answer seemed obvious. The British Secret Service had to be behind it. Hitler personally ordered the kidnapping of two British agents whom Heydrich’s SS Security Service intelligence chief, Walter Schellenberg, had been keeping under surveillance on the Dutch border, at Venlo. Surely they would reveal the origins of the plot. Schellenberg made contact with the agents, and persuaded them to meet with SS men they thought were representatives of the German military resistance. The SS men shot a Dutch officer who tried to intervene, and whisked the British agents across the German border before anyone could stop them. But although the British officers were persuaded in Berlin to provide the names of numerous British agents on the Continent, they were unable to shed any light on the assassination attempt.1

Goebbels’s propaganda machine quickly began pumping out denunciations of the British Secret Service. The truth only began to emerge when, in a remote part of south Germany, the border police arrested a thirty-eight-year-old cabinet-maker called Georg Elser, who was trying to cross the Swiss frontier without proper papers. On searching his clothes and effects, they found a postcard of the beer-cellar where the explosion occurred, a fuse and sketches of a bomb. Elser was quickly handed over to the local Gestapo. When news of the explosion reached the Gestapo office, the policemen put two and two together and sent Elser to Munich for interrogation. At first, nobody could believe that the cabinet-maker had worked on his own. Suspects of all kinds were arrested, the process fuelled by a wave of denunciations of characters seen acting suspiciously near the scene of the assassination attempt. Heinrich Himmler arrived at the interrogation centre, kicked Elser repeatedly with his jackboots and had him beaten. But Elser continued to insist that he had acted entirely on his own initiative. The Gestapo even made him build an exact replica of the bomb, which, to their astonishment, he did successfully. In the end, they were forced to admit privately that he had acted alone.2

Georg Elser was an ordinary man from a humble background whose brutal and violent father had aroused in him a powerful dislike of tyranny. At one time a member of the Communist Party’s Red Front-Fighters’ League, he had difficulty in getting work under the Third Reich and blamed Hitler for his misfortunes. In Munich he had reconnoitred the beer cellar where Hitler was to give his annual speech, then set about preparing his assassination attempt. Over many months he pilfered explosives, a detonator and other equipment from his employers, even finding employment in a quarry so that he could have access to the right kind of material. He surreptitiously took measurements in the beer-cellar, though an attempt to get a job there came to nothing. Every evening he would eat his evening meal there at around nine, then hide in a store-room until the cellar closed for the night. During the small hours Elser worked meticulously at the load-bearing pillar he had selected as the best site for the explosion, fitting a secret door into the wooden cladding, hollowing out the bricks, putting in the explosives and the detonator, and fixing the specially made timer. After two months, on 2 November 1939, he inserted the bomb; three nights later he installed the timer, set for 9.20 in the evening of the 8th, when, he thought, Hitler would be in the middle of his speech. Only the fact that Hitler had curtailed his address in order to go off to Berlin prevented the bomb from killing him outright.3

The effect on public opinion, the SS Security Service reported sycophantically, was to provoke a popular reaction against the British. ‘Love of the Leader has grown even more, and attitudes to the war have become even more positive in many parts of the population as a result of the assassination attempt.’4 So widespread was this effect that the American reporter William L. Shirer thought the Nazis themselves had staged the attack in order to win sympathy. Why otherwise, he mused, had the ‘bigwigs . . . fairly scampered out of the building’ instead of staying to chat?5 But this theory, though also believed by some later historians, was as little based in fact as was the Nazis’ own counter-theory of British inspiration for the attempt.6 Elser himself was sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. A formal trial would have brought into the public domain the fact that he had acted alone, and Hitler and the leading Nazis preferred to maintain the fiction that he had been part of a plot hatched by the British Secret Service. Elser refused steadfastly to tell anything but the truth. Just in case he changed his mind, he was kept in the camp as a special prisoner, and given two rooms for his sole use. He was even allowed to use one of them as a workshop so that he could continue practising his craft as a cabinet-maker. He received a regular supply of cigarettes and whiled away the time by playing the zither. He was not allowed to speak to other prisoners or receive visitors. But his death would not have served any purpose without the kind of confession the Nazis wanted, and this was never forthcoming.7


The assassination attempt came at a moment when Hitler was turning his attention to the conflict with Britain and France, after the stunning success of his conquest of Poland. Both countries had declared war on Germany immediately after the invasion. But from the very beginning, they realized that there was little they could do to help the Poles. They were already well armed in the mid-1930s, but had only begun to increase the pace of arms manufacture in 1936 and needed more time. In the beginning, they thought, the war would be a defensive one on their part; only later, when they were a match for the Germans in men and equipment, could they go onto the attack. This was the period of the ‘phoney war’, the drˆle de guerre, the Sitzkrieg, while every combatant nation waited nervously for the start of major action. On 9 October 1939, Hitler told the German armed forces that he would launch an attack in the west if the British refused to compromise. The leadership of the German army warned, however, that the Polish campaign had used up too many resources and it needed time to recover. Moreover, the French and the British would surely be far more formidable opponents than the Poles.8 Hitler was dismayed by such caution, and on 23 November 1939 he reminded a meeting of 200 senior officers that the generals had been nervous about the remilitarization of the Rhineland, the annexation of Austria, the invasion of Czechoslovakia and other bold policies that had turned out to be triumphs in the end. The ultimate goal of the war, he told them, not for the first time, was the creation of ‘living-space’ in the east. If this was not conquered, then the German people would die out. ‘We can oppose Russia only when we are free in the west,’ he warned. Russia would be militarily weak for the next two years at least, so now was the time to secure Germany’s rear and avoid the two-front war that had been so crippling in 1914- 18. England could only be defeated after the conquest of France, Belgium and Holland and the occupation of the Channel coast. This would have to take place as soon as possible, therefore. Germany was stronger than ever before. More than a hundred divisions were ready to go into the attack. The supply situation was good. Britain and France had not completed their rearmament. Above all, said Hitler, Germany had one factor that made it unbeatable - himself. ‘I am convinced of the powers of my intellect and of decision . . . The fate of the Reich depends on me alone . . . I shall shrink from nothing and shall destroy everyone who is opposed to me.’ Destiny was with him, he proclaimed, buoyed up by his escape from the beer-cellar bomb a fortnight before. ‘Even in the present development I see Providence.’9

The leading generals were appalled by this fresh outburst of what they considered Hitler’s irresponsible aggressiveness. Time was needed, they pleaded, to train more recruits, and to repair and replenish the equipment damaged or lost in the Polish campaign. The Chief of the Army General Staff, Franz von Halder, was so alarmed that he took up again the conspiratorial plans he had been hatching with fellow officers, discontented spirits in army counter-intelligence and conservative civil servants and politicians, during a similar confrontation over the proposed invasion of Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1938. For a time he even went around with a loaded revolver concealed on his person, in the hope of shooting Hitler when the occasion presented itself. Only Halder’s ingrained sense of obedience to his oath of loyalty to the Nazi Leader, and the knowledge that he would have little support from the public or indeed his junior officers, prevented him from using it. During November 1939 the conspirators began again to prepare to arrest Hitler and his principal aides, with the idea of putting G̈ring in power, since he was known to have serious doubts about a war with Britain and France. On 23 November 1939, however, Hitler addressed his senior generals. ‘The Leader,’ noted one of them, ‘takes a stand in the strongest manner against defeatism of any kind.’ His speech betrayed ‘a certain mood of ill-humour towards the leaders of the army’. ‘ “Victory,” he said, “cannot be won by waiting!” ’10 Halder panicked, believing Hitler had got wind of the plot, and pulled out of it altogether. It fell apart. Ultimately, the lack of communication and co-ordination between the plotters, and the absence of any concrete plans for the period after Hitler’s arrest, had doomed the conspiracy to failure from the outset.11

In the end, in any case, the confrontation proved unnecessary, for Hitler was forced to postpone the offensive time and again through the winter of 1939- 40 because of poor weather conditions. Constant heavy rain turned the ground to mud across large tracts of Western Europe, making it impossible for German tanks and heavy armour to move with the rapidity that had played such a key part in the Polish campaign. The months of delay proved beneficial to German war preparations as Hitler brought about major changes in the armaments programme. In the later 1930s he had been demanding the building of an air force on an enormous scale. But Germany lacked sufficient supplies of aircraft fuel. And by the summer of 1939 shortages of steel and other raw materials, as well as of qualified construction engineers, were leading to a drastic scaling-back of the construction programme. Aircraft production also had to compete for priority with tanks and battleships. In August 1939 Hitler was persuaded by intensive lobbying on behalf of the Air Ministry to put the production of Junkers 88 bombers back on the top of the agenda. A cutback in the naval building programme also allowed Hitler to demand a massive increase in the manufacture of ammunition, especially artillery shells. From this point on, airplanes and ammunition always took up two-thirds or more of arms production resources. But these changes were slow to work their way through the planning and production systems, as fresh blueprints had to be drawn, machines retooled, equipment built, existing factories redeployed and new ones opened. Labour shortages were compounded by the call-up of workers to the armed forces, while under-investment in the German railway system meant that there was not enough rolling-stock to carry armaments, components and raw materials around the country, and coal supplies for industry began to be seriously held up. All these factors took time to overcome.12

It was not until February 1940 that ammunition output began to increase significantly. By July 1940 German production of armaments had doubled.13 By this time, however, Hitler had already lost patience with the armaments procurement system run by the armed forces under the leadership of Major-General Georg Thomas. On 17 March 1940 he set up a new Reich Ministry for Munitions. The man he put in charge of it was Fritz Todt, his favourite engineer, who had masterminded one of Hitler’s pet projects in the 1930s, the construction of the new motorway system.14 So dismayed was the head of the army’s procurement office, General Karl Becker, at this development, and the accompanying whispering campaign against the alleged inefficiency of his organization, orchestrated in part by representatives of arms companies like Krupps, who saw an opportunity in the new arrangement, that he shot himself. Todt immediately set up a system of committees for different aspects of arms production, with industrialists playing the leading role. The surge in arms production that took place over the following months was largely the achievement of the previous procurement regime in unblocking supply bottlenecks of vital raw materials such as copper and steel. But the credit went entirely to Todt.15


The Nazi- Soviet Pact and further negotiations surrounding the invasion of Poland had resulted in a German assignment to the Russian sphere of influence not only of Eastern Poland and the Baltic states but also of Finland. In October 1939, Stalin demanded that the Finns cede to Russia the area immediately north of Leningrad, and the western part of the Rybachi peninsula, in return for a large area of eastern Karelia. But negotiations broke down on 9 November 1939. On 30 November the Red Army invaded, installed a puppet Communist government in a Finnish border town, and got it to sign an agreement ceding the territory that Stalin had been demanding. At this point, however, things began to go seriously wrong for the Soviet leader. Many of the senior Soviet generals had been eliminated in the purges of the 1930s, and the Soviet troops were unprepared and poorly led. Winter had already set in, and white-clad Finnish troops, moving swiftly about on skis, outmanoeuvred raw Soviet conscripts who had not been trained for fighting in deep snow. Indeed, some Soviet officers regarded such camouflage as a badge of cowardice and refused to employ it even when it was available. Trained only to attack, whole Red Army units went to their deaths as they ran straight at machine-gun nests built into the defensive bunkers of the Mannerheim Line, a lengthy series of concrete trenches named after the Finnish Commander-in-Chief. 16

‘They are swatting us like flies,’ a Soviet infantryman on the Finnish front complained in December 1939. By the time the conflict was over, more than 126,000 Soviet troops had been killed and another 300,000 evacuated from the front because of injury, disease or frostbite. Finnish losses were also severe, indeed proportionately even more so, at 50,000 killed and 43,000 wounded. Nevertheless, there was no doubt that the Finns had given the Soviets a bloody nose. Their troops showed not only courage and determination, fuelled by strong nationalist commitment, but also ingenuity. Borrowing from the example of Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War, the Finns took empty bottles of spirits, filled them with kerosene and other chemicals, stuck a wick in each of them, then lit them and threw them at incoming Soviet tanks, covering them with flames. ‘I never knew a tank could burn for quite that long,’ said a Finnish veteran. They devised a new name for the projectile, too: in honour of the Soviet Foreign Minister they called them ‘Molotov cocktails’. 17 In the end, however, numbers told. After a second offensive thrust had failed, Stalin called in huge reinforcements, at the same time dropping his puppet Finnish government and offering negotiations to the legitimate Finnish regime in Helsinki. On the night of 12- 13 March 1940, recognizing the inevitable, the Finns agreed a peace deal which allotted to the Soviet Union a substantially larger amount of territory in the south than it had originally demanded. Despite their eventual defeat, however, and the opening of a Soviet military base on their territory, the Finns had retained their independence. Their tough and effective resistance had exposed the weakness of the Red Army and convinced Hitler that he had nothing to fear from it. For Stalin, Finland would now serve as a subservient buffer-state to insulate Russia against any conflict between Germany and the Allies that might be fought out in Scandinavia. The many setbacks and disasters of the war persuaded Stalin to recall purged and disgraced former officers to active service in senior positions. They also prodded his generals into embarking on sweeping military reforms that they hoped would ensure that the Red Army would put on a better performance the next time it went into action.18

5. Soviet Territorial Gains, 1939-40

In the meantime, however, the conflict in Finland, and the Anglo-French failure to intervene, turned Hitler’s attention to Norway. The country’s coastal ports could be sites for vital bases for German submarine operations against Britain. They could also provide an essential channel for the export of much-needed iron ore from neutral Sweden to Germany, especially during winter, when Narvik remained ice-free. The lack of any immediate prospect of invading France and the evident possibility of a pre-emptive invasion by the British made a strike against Norway all the more urgent in Hitler’s eyes. The head of the German navy, Grand Admiral Raeder, mindful of the consequences of Germany’s failure to control the north-west European coast in the First World War, was already pressing such a course upon Hitler in October 1939. To prepare the ground, Raeder made contact with the leader of the Norwegian Fascist Party, Vidkun Quisling. Born in 1887, Quisling, son of a pastor, had passed out from the military academy with the highest marks ever achieved, and joined the army General Staff at the age of twenty-four. In 1931-3 he served as Minister of Defence in a government led by the Agrarian Party, a nationalist group formed not long before to represent small farming communities in this country of 3 million people. Rapid industrialization had led to the rise of a radical, pro-Communist labour movement in the cities, which created great alarm among the peasantry. By this time, Quisling was openly proclaiming the superiority of the Nordic race and warning against the threat of Communism. He presented himself as an advocate of peasant interests. In March 1933, when the government fell, he founded his own National Unity movement, adorning it with ideas such as the leadership principle, borrowed from the newly installed Nazi regime in Germany.19

Quisling’s movement failed to make any headway in the 1930s. It was undermined by the turn of the Norwegian Social Democrats to a centrist position, based on reconciling the interests of workers and peasants. This brought the Social Democrats a parliamentary majority from 1936 onwards. Quisling took up contacts with the Nazis, visiting Hitler early in 1940 to try to persuade him to back a fascist coup led by himself. The Germans were sceptical, in view of the evidently complete lack of support for Quisling among the Norwegian population. However, Quisling did convince Hitler that an Allied invasion of Norway was likely, and two days after their meeting, Hitler ordered planning for a pre-emptive German strike to begin. Quisling travelled to Copenhagen on 4 April 1940 and met a German staff officer to whom he provided details of Norway’s defensive preparations and indicated the best places to invade. Disastrous though it was Quisling’s treachery was to prove useful to Allied propaganda in one respect: perhaps because his name was easy to pronounce, it quickly became a handy term for traitors of every kind, replacing the more cumbersome ‘fifth columnist’, first used in the Spanish Civil War, which British propagandists thought most people had probably already forgotten.20

On 1 March 1940, Hitler issued a formal order for the invasion (dubbed ‘Weser Exercise’), which for obvious geographical reasons was to encompass not only Norway but also Denmark as well. Brushing aside the objection that the Norwegians and Danes were neutral and likely to remain so, he noted that only a relatively small force would be necessary in view of the weakness of the enemy defences. On 9 April 1940, German forces crossed the land border into Denmark from the south at 5.25 in the morning, while an airborne landing at Ålborg secured the principal base of the Danish air force, and a seaborne invasion took place at five different points, including Copenhagen, the defenders of which were taken completely by surprise. The only problem occurred when the battleship Schleswig-Holstein ran aground. At 7.20 a.m., recognizing the inevitable, the Danish government ordered resistance to cease. The invasion had been successfully completed in less than two hours.21 In Norway, however, the invading forces encountered more serious resistance. German transport ships on their way to Trondheim and Narvik managed to evade the waiting British, but bad weather scattered the accompanying fleet of fourteen destroyers, two battleships (the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau) and a heavy cruiser, the Admiral Hipper. The British battle cruiser Renown encountered the two German battleships and damaged them severely enough to cause them to withdraw, but crucially, the British ships were too far away from the Norwegian coast to stop the main German force from entering the Norwegian fjords. Some damage was caused by coastal batteries, and a newly launched battle cruiser, the Blücher, was sunk, but this was not enough to stop German troops taking over all the major Norwegian towns, including the capital. Even so, it was not all plain sailing, and two attacks by the British fleet sank ten German destroyers anchored in and around Narvik on 10 and 13 April 1940. The Germans also lost fifteen transport vessels, forcing them to use a fleet of 270 merchant ships to carry the back-up force of 108,000 troops and their supplies across from Denmark while a further 30,000 were airlifted in. Dependence on airlifting and lack of troop ships meant that the initial invasion was unable to use the overwhelming force it really needed. Coupled with the difficulties of Norway’s mostly mountainous terrain, this gave the Norwegians the chance to put up a fight against the invading German forces.22

The difficulties of the invasion were compounded by the decision to proclaim Quisling head of a new pro-German government as soon as Oslo was occupied on 9 April. Several of the erstwhile supporters he named as his ministers refused publicly to join him, and the legitimate government roundly condemned his action. The King called for resistance to continue, and left Oslo with the cabinet. He was supported by the army and the great mass of the Norwegian people, outraged by the installation of an obvious German puppet who lacked any kind of significant electoral support. Quisling’s proclamation of a ‘national revolution’ on May Day 1940, when he branded the King and the government as traitors who had sold out to the Jews who ran Britain, and dedicated Norway’s future to what he called the ‘Germanic Community of Fate’, met with nothing but derision.23 Norwegian troops played a significant part in the fighting around Narvik and the other western ports in the wake of the German invasion. Things were clearly not going as planned for the Germans. But they were even more disastrous for the British. On 14 and 17 April, British forces landed at two points midway along the coast, supported by troops from the French Foreign Legion and a number of Polish units. But there was confusion about where they should go. Many of the soldiers were poorly equipped for winter fighting, and had no snowshoes: others were so overburdened by their winter equipment that they could hardly move. Crucially, they had no effective air support. German airplanes bombarded them mercilessly. After many delays, the Allies occupied Narvik on 29 May 1940, but German reinforcements now finally began to arrive, and a surprise attack that sank the British aircraft-carrier Glorious on 4 June along with all the aircraft on board underlined the difficulties of the British position. The Allied forces to the south of Narvik had already withdrawn, and after destroying the harbour, the force occupying Narvik itself sailed for home as well, on 8 June 1940. The day before, the King of Norway and his government had gone into exile on the cruiser Devonshire, leaving orders for a ceasefire behind, but making it clear that a state of war would continue between their country and the Third Reich until further notice.24

Despite the difficulties they had encountered, the Germans had triumphed through an unprecedented, co-ordinated attack by air, sea and land. They now held a large part of the north-western coast of the Continent, where they established a series of major naval bases, especially for the submarines that were so vital to the disruption of British supplies from America. Not only were Swedish ore deliveries to Germany now assured, but Sweden itself, still nominally neutral, had effectively been reduced to the position of a German client state. Even during the Norwegian campaign the Swedish authorities had allowed German supplies to be transported across Swedish territory; subsequently they permitted the transit of hundreds of thousands of German troops as well. Swedish shipyards built warships for the German navy, and the Swedish economy became the source of supply for practically anything the Germans chose to demand so long as they had it. By contrast, the entire Allied operation had been, as William L. Shirer noted in his diary, a ‘debacle’. British plans to lay mines outside the key Norwegian harbours had been repeatedly postponed until it was too late. Co-ordination between the British army and the Royal Navy had been poor. Military planning had been confused and inconsistent. The British forces had been forced to undertake a humiliating withdrawal shortly after landing. In Narvik they had dithered fatally before advancing, thus surrendering the element of surprise and allowing the Germans to bring in reinforcements. None of this seemed to bode well for the future of the British war effort.25 Indeed, as early as 21 March 1940, the army officer Hans Meier-Welcker noted in his diary a general optimism amongst ordinary Germans that the war would be over by the summer.26

Recriminations in London were swift. Defending his conduct of the war in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, sounded lame and unconvincing. The leader of the Labour Party opposition, Clement Attlee, came straight to the point. ‘It is not Norway alone,’ he said. ‘Norway comes as the culmination of many other discontents. People are saying that those mainly responsible for the conduct of affairs are men who have had an almost uninterrupted career of failure. Norway followed Czechoslovakia and Poland. Everywhere the story is “too late”.’ Attlee’s typically blunt assessment of the situation was shared by many. The opposition Labour Party decided to force a vote on the issue. 486 members out of 615 voted: some 80 Conservatives were thought to have abstained by staying away from the debate, while 40 of them who were present voted with the Opposition. A government majority of 213 was slashed to 80. The next day, bowing to the inevitable, Chamberlain decided to resign, a broken man. Within a year he was dead.27 The politician regarded by most as his obvious successor, Foreign Secretary Edward, Lord Halifax, a member of the Upper House, declined to serve because he considered, rightly, that it would be impossible to lead the country from the House of Lords. The choice therefore fell on Winston Churchill. As First Lord of the Admiralty Churchill had been formally responsible for the Norwegian debacle, but, despite having had to defend the government’s record during the crucial debate, he had largely escaped criticism because of a widespread feeling that his boldness had been hamstrung by the caution of others. Aged sixty-five at the time of his appointment, Churchill had seen action in the Sudanese War at the end of the nineteenth century and 1914-18. He had held many government offices over the years, but, by the time the Second World War broke out, he had been sitting on the back benches for the best part of a decade, isolated from the government by his reputation as a maverick, and above all by his strident criticisms of the Third Reich and his relentless advocacy of rearmament. He immediately broadened the government into one of national unity. His message to the House of Commons in his first speech after his appointment was uncompromising. Britain, he declared, would fight to the end.28


The German assault on Denmark and Norway heralded the launching of a far larger operation against France and the Benelux countries. Discussed over many months, the armed forces’ initial, rather conventional, plan for a three-pronged attack on France, Belgium and Holland was reduced to a two-pronged attack, then had to be amended again when the plan fell into enemy hands after the capture of a staff officer who had made a forced landing in Belgium and failed to destroy the documents before he was arrested. Going back to the drawing-board, Hitler began to argue for a single, concentrated, surprise thrust through the Ardennes, a wooded, hilly area generally considered unsuitable for tanks and as a consequence only lightly defended by the French. This would have the advantage of avoiding having to attack strong French defensive emplacements in the heavily fortified Maginot Line, which stretched for many miles along the Franco-German border. The initial doubts of the army high command were overcome when the detailed advocacy of the new, improvised plan by General Erich von Manstein was confirmed by war games and simulations carried out by the General Staff. An officer whose ambition was so irritating to General Halder that he had him transferred to field duties in Stettin, Manstein, born in 1887, was a close aide of General Gerd von Rundstedt, who had led the planning for the invasion of Poland. One of the secondary aims of his new plan was to give Rundstedt’s Army Group South the lion’s share of the invasion of France. Meeting with Hitler on 17 February 1940, Manstein demonstrated that it was possible with careful planning to move a major motorized force through the Ardennes. Once through, the main body of the German forces should head for the Channel, cutting the Allied forces off from the south. Meanwhile another invasion force further north would enter Belgium and Holland, deceiving the Allied armies into thinking that this was where the main thrust was coming. The British expeditionary force and the French army would thus effectively be surrounded from the north and south and pinned up against the sea.29

By early May the rains had ceased, the Norwegian campaign was clearly drawing to a victorious close, and the moment had come. German troops invaded Holland on 10 May 1940, some being dropped by parachute, the majority simply crossing the land border from Germany itself. The Dutch army retreated, pulling away from the Anglo-French forces in the south. With only eight divisions, it was no match for the massively larger German invading army. A German bombing raid on Rotterdam on 14 May 1940, destroying the centre of the city and killing many hundreds of its civilian inhabitants, persuaded the Dutch that, to avoid further carnage, it was advisable to surrender. They did so the next day. Queen Wilhelmina and the government escaped to London to continue the struggle from across the Channel. At the same time, German paratroopers and glider-borne special forces seized key bridges and defensive emplacements and secured the main routes into Belgium, where the defending troops, failing to co-ordinate their actions with the British and French advancing to assist them, were quickly driven back. The onslaught was sudden and terrifying. William L. Shirer was amazed at the speed of the German advance. Driving into the country with a group of reporters, Shirer saw ‘railroad tracks all around torn and twisted; cars and locomotives derailed’ around the heavily bombed railway station in the town of Tongres. ‘The town itself was absolutely deserted. Two or three hungry dogs nosed sadly about the ruins, apparently searching for water, food, and their masters.’30

Further on, they passed lines of refugees trudging along the roads, ‘old women,’ as Shirer noted, ‘lugging a baby or two in their old arms, the mothers lugging the family belongings. The lucky ones had theirs balanced on bicycles. The really lucky few on carts. Their faces - dazed, horrified, the lines frozen in sorrow and suffering, but dignified.’ Reaching Louvain, he found that the university library, burned in a deliberate act of reprisal by German soldiers in the First World War for the resistance they had encountered, later reconstructed and restocked with the help of American funds, had been destroyed again. ‘The great library building,’ Shirer noted on 20 May 1940, ‘is completely gutted. The ruins still smoulder.’ Goebbels’s propaganda machine rushed to claim it had been destroyed by the British, but the local German commander, shrugging his shoulders, told Shirer ‘there was a battle in this town . . . Heavy fighting in the streets. Artillery and bombs.’ All the books had been burned, he said.31 The German advance continued amidst heavy fighting. With twenty-two divisions at its command, the Belgian army could put up a tougher resistance than the Dutch. But it too was overwhelmed. On 28 May 1940 the Belgian king, Leopold III, without consulting the British or the French, surrendered. Rejecting his government’s advice to follow it into exile in London, Leopold stayed on. He was kept in confinement by the Germans for the rest of the war.32

The Belgian king’s decision to surrender was heavily influenced by events that had been occurring further south. On 10 May 1940, at the same time as German armies invaded Belgium and Holland, a large German force began advancing secretly through the Ardennes. The French felt confident of their ability to withstand a German invasion. Rearmament had been proceeding apace, and by early 1940 the French had around 3,000 modern and effective tanks with which to confront a German armoured force of about 2,500 tanks of generally inferior quality, and around 11,000 artillery pieces to the Germans’ 7,400. Altogether, 93 French and 10 British divisions faced a total of 93 German divisions. The French had 647 fighters, 242 bombers and 489 reconnaissance planes at their disposal in France in the spring of 1940, and the British 261 fighters, 135 bombers and 60 reconnaissance planes, making a total of nearly 2,000 combat aircraft altogether; the German air force had around 3,578 combat planes operational at this time, but when the Belgian and Dutch air forces were thrown into the balance this was not enough in itself to overwhelm its opponents. However, despite the recent delivery of 500 modern American aircraft, many of the French planes were obsolete, and neither the British nor the French had learned how to use their planes as tactical support for ground forces in the way that the Germans had in Poland. The result was that in Holland, Belgium and France, German dive-bombers were able to destroy enemy anti-aircraft defences, batter enemy communications and establish air superiority before Allied air forces could react. Moreover, the Allies kept many of their planes in reserve, while the German air force threw almost its entire operational strength into the fray. This was a bold gamble, in which the Germans lost no fewer than 347 planes, including most of the paratroop carriers and gliders used in Holland and Belgium; but it was a gamble that paid off spectacularly.33

French intelligence altogether failed to predict how the German invasion would take place. Some preparations were noticed, but nobody put all the information together into a coherent picture, and the generals still assumed that the now obsolete captured plans were the operative ones. Drawing on their experience of the First World War, the French military failed to grasp just how fast and how far the German armoured divisions could move. Since the stalemate of trench warfare in 1914-18, the arrival of air power and tanks had shifted the advantage in warfare from defence to attack, a development which few on the Allied side had followed to its logical conclusion. Locating themselves many miles behind the front line so as to get a better overview, the French generals suffered from poor communications and were slow to react to the fast-moving pace of events. 57 divisions were soon concentrated in the north to fight back the German invasion expected to come via Holland and Belgium. But the German forces here numbered only 29 divisions, and while the French deployed another 36 divisions along the Maginot Line, the Germans only confronted them here with 19 divisions. The strongest German force, 45 divisions, including many of their best-trained and best-equipped forces, was focused on the push through the Ardennes. Not surprisingly, initially at least the French defence in the north held firm, pushing back the Germans in the first tank battle in history, at Hannur. The real issue, however, was being decided further south, where General Ewald von Kleist was leading 134,000 soldiers, 1,222 tanks, 545 half-track armoured vehicles, and nearly 40,000 lorries and cars through the narrow wooded valleys of the Ardennes in what has been called ‘the greatest traffic jam known to that date in Europe’.34

The enterprise was extremely risky. It left virtually no German armour in reserve. Failure would have opened up Germany to devastating counter-attacks. As Fedor von Bock, the able if conservative general commanding Army Group B to the north, had noted on first learning of the planned invasion through the Ardennes, it was clear that ‘it must run into the ground unless the French take leave of their senses’.35 But the Germans’ luck held. Slowly and painfully, four slow-moving columns, each nearly 400 kilometres long, crawled along narrow roads towards the river Meuse (Maas). They frequently ground to a halt. Traffic managers flew up and down the columns in light aircraft to identify spots where gridlock threatened. The tanks were dependent on fuel stations set up by the advance units at previously designated spots en route. All the crews and drivers had to keep going for three days and nights without a break; crack combat units were dosed up with amphetamines (dubbed ‘panzer chocolate’ by the troops) to keep them awake. Vulnerable and exposed, the columns were sitting ducks for Allied air attacks. Yet they got away with it because the Allies failed to recognize them for the main German force. Reaching the river Meuse on 13 May 1940, the German forces came under fire from the first real French attempt to stop them. Kleist called up no fewer than 1,000 planes to bombard the French positions, which they did in waves of attacks lasting some eight hours, forcing the French to take cover or withdraw and severely denting their morale. Hundreds of rubber dinghies were now thrown into the river by the Germans, and German troops landed on the other side in three places, destroying French defensive positions and creating a foothold on the left bank large enough for engineers to build a bridge over which the German tanks could start to cross.36

This was the crucial breakthrough. True, at this point the German forces were still vulnerable to counter-attack, but the French were again too slow to react, and they were once more surprised when, instead of turning east to assault the Maginot Line from behind, as they expected, Kleist’s men turned west, in Manstein’s famous ‘sickle-cut’, designed to pin the Allied forces in Belgium up against the invading German army in the north and jointly drive them into the sea. By the time they got to the Meuse, the French tanks were heavily outnumbered by their German counterparts. Many of them ran out of petrol. Most were destroyed. Allied aircraft were far away, in central and northern Belgium, and when they finally arrived, they found the ground targets difficult to pinpoint. They were also heavily damaged by German anti-aircraft fire: the British lost 30 bombers out of a force of 71. Meanwhile German tanks powered their way rapidly westward across the open plain. In many cases, the German commanders, carried away by the momentum of the attack, advanced farther and faster than their more cautious superiors had intended. French troops marching to the front were amazed to find the Germans so far west. The French army leadership was in despair. At staff headquarters, generals burst into tears when they learned of the speed and success of the German advance. On the morning of 15 May 1940 the French Prime Minister, Paul Reynaud, telephoned Churchill. ‘We have been defeated,’ he said. The French had deprived themselves of reserves to throw into the battle by over-committing themselves in Belgium. On 16 May 1940 Churchill arrived in Paris for a hurried conference with the French leaders. ‘Utter dejection was written on every face,’ he later reported. The French Commander-in-Chief, General Maurice Gamelin, reported despairingly that he could not stage a counter-attack: ‘inferiority of numbers, inferiority of equipment, inferiority of method,’ he said, accompanying his words, as Churchill later noted, with ‘a hopeless shrug of the shoulders’.37

On 19 May 1940 Reynaud dismissed Gamelin, whose reputation for caution had proved so fatally well merited, and replaced him with General Maxime Weygand, a much-admired veteran of the First World War who had retired in 1935. It was too late. The next day, the first German tanks reached the Channel. The Allied armies in Belgium were now surrounded by German divisions on three sides, with the sea on the fourth. Weygand decided that the German panzer advance could be broken by a simultaneous attack from north and south, but it soon became clear that the situation had become so chaotic that a co-ordinated offensive was impossible. Meeting with the Belgian king, Weygand concluded correctly that Leopold had already given up the struggle. Communications between the British and French effectively broke down. All attempts to locate the British Commander-in-Chief, Lord Gort, failed.38 The French general in overall command of the northern forces was killed in a car crash, and no satisfactory replacement could be found. The planned counter-attack foundered amidst a welter of mutual recriminations. The British began to feel that the French were incompetent, the French that the British were unreliable. Things only got worse with the Belgian capitulation on 28 May. On hearing the news, Reynaud was said to be ‘white with rage’, while Britain’s prime minister in the First World War, David Lloyd George, wrote that it would be hard ‘to find a blacker and more squalid sample of perfidy and poltroonery than that perpetrated by the King of the Belgians’. As the three-pronged German panzer attack swept up north and west to meet the other German forces advancing through Belgium from the east, the British and French began to fall back on the port of Dunkirk.39

6. The German Conquest of Western Europe, 1940

On the day of Gamelin’s dismissal, the British government, anticipating these events, began to assemble a fleet, consisting of almost any boats and ships that could be found along the English coast and could get to the area in time, to carry out the evacuation. Strafed and pounded by German dive-bombers, 860 vessels, some 700 of them British, made their way to the Dunkirk beaches and took off nearly 340,000 soldiers to England. Nearly 200,000 of them were British, the rest mostly French. Far fewer would have escaped had Hitler not personally ordered the German advance to halt, reassured by Göring’s boast that his planes would finish off the Allied troops, and advised by Rundstedt to give his tired troops a respite before they turned southwards towards Paris. Neither Brauchitsch, the army chief, nor Fedor von Bock, the commander of Army Group B, on the northern front, could understand it. Bock told Brauchitsch that the attack had to be urgently resumed, ‘otherwise it could happen to us that the English can transport whatever they want, under our very noses, from Dunkirk’. But Hitler backed Rundstedt, seeing in this a chance of asserting his authority over the top commanders. By the time Brauchitsch had persuaded Hitler to resume the attack, the evacuation was under way, and the fierce resistance of the defending troops was too much for the weary Germans. ‘At Dunkirk, ’ noted Bock with evident irritation on 30 May 1940,

the English are continuing to leave, even from the open coast! When we finally get there, they will be gone! The Supreme Leadership’s halting of the tank units has proved to be a serious mistake! We continue attacking. The fighting is hard, the English are as tough as leather, and my divisions are clapped out.40

As the battle finally drew to a close, Bock paid a visit to the scene. He was surprised by the quantity of concrete bunkers and barbed-wire defences that guarded Dunkirk, and dismayed by the quality of the enemy’s equipment:

The English line of retreat presents an indescribable appearance. Quantities of vehicles, artillery pieces, armoured cars and military equipment beyond estimation are piled up and driven into each other in the smallest possible space. The English have tried to burn everything, but in their haste have only succeeded here and there. Here lies the mate’riel of a whole army, so incredibly well equipped that we poor devils can only look on it with envy and amazement .41

Two days later, Dunkirk finally surrendered. 40,000, mostly French, troops, who formed the rearguard, were left behind to be taken prisoner. Weygand blamed the British for leaving his men behind, though the evacuation had in fact continued for two days after the last British soldiers had left the beach. In any event, the choice of the French to form the rearguard was a natural one given their relatively late arrival on the scene. Nevertheless, Weygand raged bitterly at Churchill’s refusal to send any more aircraft or troops to the defence of France. The British in their turn, determined now not to compromise the defence of the British Isles by sacrificing any more of their armed forces or planes, were contemptuous of the French generals and political leaders, whom they regarded as over-emotional, weak and defeatist. British generals did not burst into tears, however dire the situation they were in. Relations were approaching rock-bottom. They were not to recover for some time.42

After regrouping, repairing and recovering, the Germans began advancing south with 50 infantry divisions and 10 admittedly somewhat depleted panzer divisions. Forty French infantry divisions and the remnants of three armoured divisions stood in their way. On 6 June 1940 German forces crossed the Somme. Three days later they were in Rouen. The French government had been evacuated to a series of chaˆteaux dotted around the countryside south of Paris, where communications were difficult, working telephones rare, and travel made almost impossible by the endless columns of refugees now clogging the highways. On 12 June 1940, at their first meeting since leaving Paris, the shocked ministers were told by Weygand that further resistance was useless and it was time to request an armistice. In Weygand’s view, the British would not be able to hold out against a German invasion of the United Kingdom, so evacuating the French government to London was pointless. Moreover, like an increasing number of other generals, Weygand was beginning to think that it was the civilian politicians who were to blame for the debacle. So it was the army’s duty to make an honourable peace with the enemy. Only in this way would it be possible to prevent anarchy and revolution breaking out in France as it had after the previous defeat by the Germans, in 1870, and spearhead the moral regeneration of the country. The hero of the Battle of Verdun in the First World War, the aged Marshal Philippe P’tain, had been brought in as a military figurehead by Reynaud, and he now backed this idea. ‘I will not abandon the soil of France,’ he declared, ‘and will accept the suffering which will be imposed on the fatherland and its children. The French renaissance will be the fruit of this suffering . . . The armistice is in my eyes the necessary condition of the durability of eternal France.’43

On 16 June 1940, after the government had reconvened in Bordeaux, Reynaud, isolated in his opposition to an armistice, resigned as Prime Minister. He was replaced by Pe’tain himself. On 17 June 1940 the new French leader announced on public radio that it was time to stop the fighting and sue for peace. Some 120,000 French soldiers had been killed or been reported missing in the conflict (along with 10,500 Dutch and Belgian, and 5,000 British), showing that many did fight and belying claims that French national pride had been destroyed by the politics of the 1930s. But after Pe’tain’s announcement, many gave up. Half of the 1.5 million French troops taken prisoner by the Germans surrendered after this point. Soldiers who wanted to fight on were often physically attacked by civilians. Conservatives like P’tain who abhorred the democratic institutions of the Third Republic did not see in the end why they should fight to the death to defend them. Many of them admired Hitler and wanted to take the opportunity of defeat to re-create France in Germany’s image. They were soon to be given the opportunity to do so.44


Meanwhile France was descending into almost total chaos. A vast exodus of refugees swept southwards across the country. An ’migr’ Russian writer, Irène N’mirovsky, who had fled the Bolshevik Revolution to go to France in 1917 at the age of fourteen with her Jewish businessman father, vividly described ‘the chaotic multitude trudging through the dust’, the luckiest pushing ‘wheelbarrows, a pram, a cart fashioned of four planks of wood set on top of crudely fashioned wheels, bowing down under the weight of bags, tattered clothes, sleeping children’. 45 Cars tried to move along the clogged roads, ‘full to bursting with baggage and furniture, prams and birdcages, packing cases and baskets of clothes, each with a mattress tied firmly to the roof’, looking like ‘mountains of fragile scaffolding’. ‘An endless, slow-moving river flowed from Paris: cars, trucks, carts, bicycles, along with the horse-drawn traps of farmers who had abandoned their land’.46 The speed and scale of the German invasion meant there were no official plans for evacuation. Memories of German atrocities in 1914 and rumours of the terrifying effect of bombing created mass hysteria. Whole towns were deserted: the population of Lille is thought to have fallen from 200,000 to 20,000 in a few days, that of Chartres from 23,000 to 800. Looters broke into shops and other premises and took what they wanted. In the south, places of safety were swollen to bursting with refugees. Bordeaux, usually home to 300,000 inhabitants, doubled in population within a few weeks, while 150,000 people crammed into Pau, which normally housed only 30,000. Altogether it is thought that between 6 and 8 million people fled their homes during the invasion. Social structures buckled and collapsed under the sheer weight of numbers. Only gradually did people begin to return to their homes. The demoralization had a devastating effect on the French political system, which, as we have seen, fell apart under the strain.47

When the Germans entered Paris on 14 June 1940, therefore, they found large parts of it deserted. Instead of the usual cacophony of car horns, all that could be heard was the lowing of a herd of cattle, abandoned in the city centre by refugees passing through from the countryside further north. Everywhere they went in France, German troops looted the deserted towns and villages. ‘Everything’s on offer here, just like in a big department store, but for nothing,’ reported Hans Meier-Welcker from Elbeuf on 12 June 1940:

The soldiers are searching through everything and taking anything that pleases them, if they are able to move it. They are pulling whole sacks of coffee off lorries. Shirts, stockings, blankets, boots and innumerable other things are lying around to choose from. Things that you would otherwise have to save up carefully for can be picked up here on the streets and the ground. The troops are also getting hold of transport for themselves right away. Everywhere you can hear the humming of engines newly turned on by drivers who still have to become familiar with them.48

The French humiliation seemed complete. Yet there was worse to come. On Hitler’s personal orders, the private railway carriage of the French commander in the First World War, Marshal Foch, in which the Armistice of 11 November 1918 had been signed, was tracked down to a museum, and, after the museum walls had been broken down by a German demolition team, it was moved out and towed back to the spot it had occupied in the forest of Compiègne on the signing of the Armistice. As the Germans arrived, William L. Shirer noted Hitler’s face ‘brimming with revenge’, mingled with the triumph observable in his

‘springy step’. Taking the very same seat occupied by Foch in 1918, Hitler posed for photographs, then departed, contemptuously leaving the rest of the delegation, including Hess, G̈ring, Ribbentrop and the military leaders, to read out the terms and receive the signatures of the dejected French.49 In accordance with this agreement, all fighting ceased on the morning of 24 June 1940. France was divided into two, an occupied zone in the north and west, with a nominally autonomous state in the south and east, run from the spa town of Vichy by the existing government under Marshal P’tain, whose laws and decrees were given validity throughout the whole of the country.50

German forces had performed the greatest military encirclement in history. No subsequent victories were to be as great, or as cheap in terms of German lives, of which fewer than 50,000 were lost (killed or missing). More prisoners, almost a million and a half, were taken than in any other single military action of the war. The success persuaded Hitler and the leading generals that similar tactics would bring dividends in future actions, notably, the following year, in the invasion of the Soviet Union.51 Germany’s hereditary enemy had been humiliated. Versailles had been avenged. Hitler was beside himself with elation. Before dawn on the morning of 28 June 1940, he flew secretly to Paris with his architect Albert Speer and the sculptor Arno Breker on a brief, entirely personal sight-seeing trip. They visited the Ope’ra, specially illuminated for his benefit, the Eiffel Tower, which formed the backdrop for an informal photo of the three men taken at first light, the Invalides and the artistic quarter of Montmartre. ‘It was the dream of my life to see Paris,’ Hitler told Speer. ‘I cannot say how happy I am to have that dream fulfilled today.’ Pleased with the visit, he revealed to the architect that he had often thought of having the city razed to the ground. After the two men’s grandiose building plans for the German capital had turned it from Berlin into the new world city of Germania, however, he said later, ‘Paris will only be a shadow. So why should we destroy it?’52

Hitler never returned to the French capital. The victory parade was to take place at home. On 6 July 1940 vast, cheering crowds lined Berlin’s streets, upon which people had strewn thousands of bouquets of flowers along the route to be taken by the Leader from the station to the Chancellery. Upon arriving there, he was repeatedly called out onto the balcony to receive the plaudits of the thousands gathered below. There had, as William L. Shirer noted, been little excitement when the news of the invasion of France had been announced. No crowds had gathered before the Chancellery, as usually happened when big events occurred. ‘Most Germans I’ve seen,’ he noted on 11 May 1940, ‘are sunk deep in depression at the news.’53 As in previous foreign crises, there had been widespread anxiety about the outcome, underpinned by a general fear at the possibility of Allied bombing raids on German cities. But as on previous occasions too, relief at the ease with which Hitler had achieved his objective flowed together with feelings of national pride into a wave of euphoria. This time it was far greater than ever before. Not untypical was the reaction of the middle-class history student Lore Walb, born in 1919 in the Rhineland and now at Munich University. ‘Isn’t that tremendously great?’ she asked rhetorically as she recorded the victories in her diary on 21 May 1940. She put it all down, as many did, to Hitler: ‘It’s really only now that we can truly estimate our Leader’s greatness. He has proved his genius as a statesman but his genius is no less as a military commander . . . With this Leader, the war cannot end for us in anything except victory! Everyone’s firmly convinced of it.’54

7. The Partition of France, 1940

‘Admiration for the achievements of the German troops is boundless,’ reported the SS Security Service on 23 May 1940, ‘and is now felt even by people who retained a certain distance and scepticism at the beginning of the campaign.’55 The capitulation of Belgium, the reports continued, ‘prompted the greatest enthusiasm everywhere’, and the entry of German troops into Paris ‘caused enthusiasm amongst the population in all parts of the Reich to a degree that has not so far been seen. There were loud demonstrations of j oy and emotional scenes of enthusiasm in many town squares and on many streets.’56 ‘The recent enthusiasm,’ it was reported on 20 June 1940, ‘gives the impression every time that no greater enthusiasm is possible, and yet with every fresh event, the population gives its joy an even more intense expression.’ Pe’tain’s announcement that the French were throwing in the towel was greeted by spontaneous demonstrations on the squares of numerous German towns. Veterans of the First World War were amazed at the speed of the victory. Even those opposed to the regime confessed to a feeling of pride, and reported that the general atmosphere of j ubilation made it impossible to continue their underground resistance activities, such as they were.57 The Catholic officer Wilm Hosenfeld, who had been so critical of German policy in Poland that he had written to his wife that ‘I have sometimes been ashamed to be a German soldier’,58 was swept away by the news: ‘Boy oh boy,’ he wrote to his son on 11 June 1940, ‘who wouldn’t have been happy to have taken part in it!’59 In Hamburg, the conservative schoolteacher Luise Solmitz shared in the general euphoria: ‘A grand, grand day for the German people,’ she wrote in her diary on 17 June 1940 on hearing the announcement that P’tain was suing for peace. ‘We were all exhilarated by happiness and enthusiasm.’ The victory was

‘an unbelievably great national change of fortune, the fulfilment of long-held nationalist dreams’. In comparison with this, the daily cares of wartime, which had dominated her diary up to this point, faded into the background. Only when she remembered the persecution to which she and her Jewish husband Friedrich were subject, despite living in what was classified as a ‘privileged mixed marriage’, did she pause for thought: ‘The successes are so tremendous that the shadow cast by this light is becoming ever darker and more threatening.’60


The conquest of France marked the highest point of Hitler’s popularity in Germany between 1933 and 1945. People confidently expected that Britain would now sue for peace, and that the war would be over by the end of the summer. Yet the problem of what to do next was not a simple one. Moreover, Hitler’s attitude to the British was fundamentally ambivalent. On the one hand, he admired the British Empire, which in the 1930s and 1940s was the world’s largest, still covering an enormous area of the globe; and he regarded the English as ‘Anglo-Saxon’ cousins of the Germans, who in the end would be impelled by the logic of racial destiny to make common cause with them. On the other hand, he realized that there were powerful forces in British politics that regarded Germany under his leadership as a profound threat to the Empire that had to be stopped at all costs. The previous September, these forces had prodded the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain into declaring war on Germany immediately after the invasion of Poland. Hitler was aware of the fact that a number of leading figures in the Conservative Party, notably the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, still hankered after a peaceful solution to the conflict and hoped that he could somehow persuade them to start negotiating a peace settlement. For most of the first months of the war Hitler’s policy towards Britain vacillated between aggression and conciliation. Even after Churchill’s appointment as Prime Minister made a separate peace much less likely, Hitler continued to hope for one, while preparing invasion plans in case he was unsuccessful.61

Foreign Minister Ribbentrop was all in favour of an invasion. After Britain had been invaded and conquered, he envisaged the restoration of the former King Edward VIII, who had been forced to abdicate in 1936 in favour of his younger brother, after declaring his intention of marrying an American divorce’e and, gone into exile with the title Duke of Windsor. The Duke had visited Germany not long after renouncing the throne, and was said to have greeted officials with a modified version of the Nazi salute. On more than one occasion he had made it clear that he appreciated what he thought the Nazis were trying to do in Germany. By 1940 he was telling anyone who would listen that Britain had virtually lost the war and it was time to make peace with the Nazis. In the early summer of 1940, the Duke and his wife were residing in Portugal, and Ribbentrop commissioned Walter Schellenberg, the SS intelligence officer who had already made his mark in the Venlo affair, to kidnap them and bring them to Germany via Spain. Pursuing his own agenda, Ribbentrop also thought that kidnapping the Duke of Windsor would make a separate peace with Britain more difficult. The Nazi plot depended on persuading the couple that they were in danger of being kidnapped and perhaps assassinated by British secret agents to stop them falling into German hands. Spanish fascists were recruited behind the back of the neutralist Franco government, which would have been appalled by the damage done to relations with Britain, to spirit the Windsors away once they crossed the border. Inevitably, however, the plot became entangled in the webs of internal Nazi power politics, and neither Schellenberg nor anyone else tried too hard to make it succeed, in case it delivered a major triumph to the hated Ribbentrop. The Duke and Duchess finally sank the plot by acceding to Churchill’s suggestion that the Duke should go to the Bahamas as Governor-General of the islands. This put himself and his wife thousands of miles away from intrigues of this kind. Schellenberg’s superior, Reinhard Heydrich, congratulated the young intelligence officer on handling his commission from Ribbentrop with just the right mixture of apparent enthusiasm and practical incompetence.62

In the meantime, Hitler had been consulting with his army and navy chiefs about the practicalities of an invasion. The German fleet had sustained heavy losses in the Norwegian campaign. Three cruisers and ten destroyers had been sunk, and two heavy cruisers and one battleship had been severely damaged and so were out of action. In the summer of 1940 Admiral Raeder had only one heavy and two light cruisers and four destroyers at his command. This was a woefully inadequate force with which to attempt to win command of an English Channel protected by five Royal Navy battleships, eleven cruisers and thirty destroyers, backed by another major naval force that could sail from Gibraltar at a moment’s notice.63 Moreover, the Germans had failed to add the French fleet to their own naval strength after the capitulation of France. On 3 July 1940, in a bold move that further outraged French opinion, British ships attacked the French naval base at Mers-el-K’bir, near Oran, in French-controlled Algeria, damaging a number of warships and killing 1,250 French sailors, in order to stop the French navy falling into German hands. Raeder was thus left with far too few warships at his disposal. So it would be necessary as a minimum to gain complete air superiority over the English Channel by destroying the Royal Air Force. Only in this way could the potential obstacle posed by British naval dominance be more or less neutralized.64

After much deliberation, Hitler signed a directive on 16 July for an invasion, but only ‘in case of necessity’, and three days later, at an elaborately stage-managed occasion in the Reichstag, he renewed his earlier offer of peace to the British. So vague were the terms in which it was cast, however, that it was rejected by Churchill’s government within the hour. Listening to the news of the British rejection of the offer on the radio with a group of military and civilian officials, William L. Shirer was struck by the consternation the announcement produced. The officials, he noted, ‘could not believe their ears. One of them shouted at me: “Can you make it out? Can you understand those British fools? To turn down peace now?” ’ ‘The Germans I talk to,’ Shirer commented the following day, ‘simply cannot understand it. They want peace. They don’t want another winter like the last one. They have nothing against Britain . . . They think they can lick Britain too, if it comes to a show-down. But they would prefer peace.’65 Amongst some Germans, the British refusal to sue for peace unleashed bitter feelings of hatred and revenge, born of disappointment that the war was evidently not coming to an end after all. ‘I have never had terrible feelings of hatred,’ wrote the student Lore Walb in her diary on 17 June 1940, ‘ - but one thing I do want: this time, the Leader must not be so humane, and he should teach the English a real lesson - for they alone are responsible for all the misfortune and misery into which so many peoples have been plunged.’66

Hitler still hoped that Churchill would be overthrown by the advocates of a separate peace in his own government. In reality, however, there was no chance of this happening. Not only Churchill but also his cabinet knew that a peace with a Germany now dominant in Western Europe would open up the way to increasing German interference in Britain’s domestic affairs, growing demands for a tougher policy towards the Jews, German backing for the potential British equivalent of Quisling, the fascist politician Sir Oswald Mosley and, in the long run, the undermining and destruction of British independence, especially if in the meantime Germany had managed to conquer the Soviet Union. Time and again Hitler’s peace offers had proved to bring not ‘peace for our time’ but only further demands, as the experience of Czechoslovakia had shown, and by July 1940 few British politicians had any illusions about this fact.67

With a reluctance that was obvious to his entourage, therefore, Hitler began preparations for the invasion of Britain. Planning had begun the previous winter for ‘Operation Sealion’. A fleet of 2,000 flat-bottomed river barges was assembled in the Channel and North Sea ports (most of them entirely unsuitable for a sea-crossing except in conditions of flat calm), landing manoeuvres were held, and signs erected along the Channel coast showing soldiers the way to the embarkation points.68 Walter Schellenberg prepared a handbook for German troops and officials as a guide to the British institutions they would encounter.69 Senior figures in the armed forces were sceptical. The navy, Raeder warned, would not be ready until mid-September at the earliest, but the best course of all would be to wait until the following May. The Chief of the General Staff, Franz Halder, debated interminably with the naval planners on the best place for a landing. While the army wanted to land on a broad front so as to maximize the military advantage, the navy wanted to land on a narrow front so as to minimize the danger of attack by the Royal Navy. But in any case, in order to clear the way for the invasion, Britain’s aerial defences had to be destroyed. On 1 August, therefore, Hitler signed the order for the launching of air strikes against Britain. Events in Norway and France had given Hitler the confidence that a mixed airborne and seaborne invasion was in principle feasible provided his planes possessed unchallenged domination of the skies. The British naval control of the Channel and the North Sea might pose an obstacle of a kind not encountered in a land invasion, but without aircraft to protect them, the ships of the Royal Navy would surely be easy prey for German dive-bombers.70

German planes had already carried out small-scale bombing raids on British targets from 5-6 June 1940 onwards; the raids became heavier from 10 July, and then intense after 18 August 1940. Although there were scattered raids on a large number of towns and cities, the main thrust of the attack from mid-August onwards was against the airfields of the Royal Air Force’s Fighter Command. Contrary to the British myth of ‘the few’, the two forces were evenly matched: in mid-August 1940 there were 1,379 British fighter-pilots in a state of operational readiness, as against some 870 German pilots, although of course the British pilots were stationed all over the country, while the Germans were concentrated along the Channel coast. German bombers depended on fighter-planes for protection, and were ill equipped to outmanoeuvre and shoot down the British fighter-planes sent to intercept them. The British deployed two of the fastest and most advanced fighter-planes in the world, the Hurricane and the Spitfire, which had been and were being mass-produced at breakneck speed to strengthen Britain’s defences. They were ‘scrambled’ into the air well before the attacking German force arrived, thanks to the invention and deployment of radar, first developed in 1935, to British interception of German radio messages, and to thousands of observers stationed along the Channel coast. Thus the German planes never arrived in time to catch the British fighters on the ground.71

As the skies above south-eastern England began to be crisscrossed by the brilliant white vapour trails of aerial dogfights, it gradually became clear that the Germans were not going to achieve their aim. Although the principal German fighter plane, the Messerschmitt Me109, was arguably better than its British equivalents at heights of over 20,000 feet, it lost its advantage because it had to protect the bombers by remaining at lower altitudes, where the Spitfire and Hurricane were more manoeuvrable and could turn and bank more quickly. The Messerschmitt Me110, a heavy fighter designed to escort the bomber squads, was even less capable of evading the attacks of the fast-moving British fighters. The German air force in general was also built to give ground forces close support, and found it difficult to adapt to protecting squadrons of bombers in the air. Air bases from which to launch the attack had to be hurriedly improvised in the recently conquered areas of northern France, supplies were difficult to organize, and repairs often took too long to carry out. There was no difference in skill or standards between the fighter-pilots of the two forces, but both were in relatively short supply. However, while many British pilots whose planes were shot down managed to parachute safely on to British soil and rejoin the fray later on, the same, obviously, was not true of their German counterparts. The outcome of the battle can be read off the casualty figures: almost 900 German planes, including at least 443 fighters, shot down between 8 and 31 August 1940, as against 444 British planes in the slightly longer period from 6 August to 2 September. The British had no difficulty in making good their losses, with 738 Hurricanes and Spitfires operational on 6 September 1940 as against 672 on 23 August. By early September, the British had more than twice as many pilots ready to fly as the Germans did.72 Crucially, too, German aircraft production by this time was lagging substantially behind that of the British. Immediately after the German annexation of Austria, in April 193 8, the British government had pushed through a massive acceleration that was designed to build 12,000 new combat aircraft over the following two years. By the second half of 1940, the British were producing twice as many fighter-planes as the Germans.73

Yet the German air force commanders, in particular the two most immediately involved, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring and the former head of the Condor Legion in Spain, Field Marshal Hugo Sperrle, had received very different intelligence about the outcome of the battle. According to the information they were given, 50 per cent of all British fighters had been lost as against only 12 per cent of their German counterparts, or 791 planes as against 169. Many German pilots believed they had won. Already on 17 August 1940, William L. Shirer, encountering a Messerschmitt fighter-pilot in a Belgian caf’ - not, he thought, an inherently boastful character - was impressed when the young man said quietly: ‘ “It’s a matter of another couple of weeks, you know, until we finish with the RAF. In a fortnight the British won’t have any more planes.” ’74 Ulrich Steinhilfer, a young Me109 pilot, wrote to his mother with unbridled enthusiasm about his missions. On 19 August 1940, attacking an airfield at Manston, he told her, ‘I aimed at a fuel tanker which was filling a Spitfire, then at two other Spitfires, one after the other. The tanker exploded and everything began to burn around it. My other two Spitfires began to burn on their own. Only now do I realise what power is given to a pilot with these four guns.’75On the last day of August his optimism was undiminished. ‘One of the missions today,’ he wrote to his mother, ‘was a ground-attack on Detling with two sessions of dog-fighting as well. Our squadron bagged three without loss and the Group score was ten. This is the way it should go on with our fighting experience and skill growing. Tally-Ho!’76

Such optimism was accepted at face value in Berlin. The moment had come in early September, therefore, it was thought, to launch the next phase of the attack, namely the destruction of British industry, transport and morale by the mass bombing of major British cities. Bombing raids of this kind had already begun, though not in any co-ordinated way, and an attack on the East End of London on 24 August 1940 had prompted the Royal Air Force to launch a counter-raid on Berlin the following night. Although it was not very effective in terms of destructive power, it caused dismay in the German capital, and outraged Hitler, who declared at a public meeting held in the Berlin Sports Palace on 4 September 1940 that if the Royal Air Force dropped a few thousand kilograms of bombs on German cities, ‘then we will drop . . . one million kilograms in a single night. And should they declare they will greatly increase their attacks on our cities, then we will erase their cities!’77 Yet neither the British nor the German raids at this stage of the war, however, were what Hitler on 1 August called ‘terror attacks’. He referred to this tactic only in order to insist that it should not be employed except on his explicit orders, which he did not in fact issue until 4 April 1942, after the first major British air raid on a non-military target, the north German city of Lübeck.78

Whatever the propagandists said, aircrews on both sides were under orders only to release the bombs when they could see a suitable target of economic or military significance - such as, for example, the London docks. In practice, of course, such instructions were less than wholly realistic, given the impossibility of accuracy with the bombing equipment of the time. Moreover, the bombing of London had begun almost a fortnight before Hitler’s speech of 4 September. What was different now was the frequency and intensity of the raids. On 7 September, 350 bombers attacked the London docks in a daylight raid, causing massive damage. Both the bombers and the accompanying fighter squadrons had to fly at high altitude to avoid anti-aircraft fire, so the British withdrew their fighter squadrons westward from the coastal airfields so as to gain time to scramble, and maintained a permanent roster of airborne patrols in anticipation of German raids. As they climbed, the British pilots gave false estimations of their altitude over the radio, so as to fool the German fighter-pilots into staying relatively low. All of this reduced British losses, while the Germans were soon forced to carry out raids mainly at night in an attempt to minimize theirs. Between 7 September and 5 October 1940, the German air force carried out 35 large-scale raids, 18 of them on London. In the week from 7 to 15 September 1940 alone, 298 German aircraft were shot down as against 120 British. On 15 September, more than 200 bombers attacked London, accompanied by a substantial fighter escort. 158 bombers made it to their target, some being shot down before reaching the city, others being forced to turn back for one reason or another. 300 Hurricanes and Spitfires engaged them over the capital, shooting down 34 bombers and 26 fighters and damaging many more.79

The Junkers 88, mainstay of the German bomber force, was slow-moving, it was too small to carry a really effective payload, and it lacked the manoeuvrability and the defensive capacity to ward off the British fighters. Other bombers such as the Heinkel 111 and the Dornier 17 were not only relatively small in size but were also antiquated in many respects; indeed they were being replaced by the Junkers 88 over time despite its defects. The German bomber force was simply inadequate to achieve its task. A quarter of the original 200 bombers did not return from the 15 September raid alone. Losses on such a scale were unsustainable. 80 Fighter planes and, still more, pilots were in increasingly short supply. Escorting a ‘large raid’ over London on 17 September, Ulrich Steinhilfer, in a new, upgraded Me109, ‘met amazingly strong fighter opposition’.81 On 29 September 1940, ‘when we got to London and the dog-fighting started I suddenly found that there were only the five aircraft from our squadron with me and about thirty to fifty Spitfires against us’. He only escaped because the British fighters flew off to attack a more important target. By October, he was telling his father that in his Group ‘there are only twelve left from the old crew’; they could not take inexperienced newcomers into battle for fear of losing them and there was a new type of Spitfire so fast that ‘our Me can hardly keep up with it . . . there is no more talk of absolute superiority’.82 ‘The leadership of our air force,’ Chief of the Army General Staff Franz Halder noted after a situation report on 7 October 1940, ‘has underestimated the British fighters by about 100% . . . We need 4 times as much to beat the English down.’83 By the time Steinhilfer himself was shot down, baling out on 27 October 1940, to spend the rest of the war in captivity, the fighter battle had effectively been lost.

On 14 September 1940, the eve of the original deadline for the launching of ‘Operation Sealion’, the invasion of Britain, Hitler convened a meeting of the leaders of the armed forces to concede that ‘on the whole, despite all our successes, the preconditions needed for Sealion are not yet there . . . A successful landing means victory; but this requires total command of the air’, and this had not been obtained. ‘Operation Sealion’ was postponed indefinitely.84 Hitler was persuaded by Raeder to continue with night raids, especially over London, to destroy the city’s military and economic infrastructure. Increasingly also the raids were justified in terms of their impact on civilian morale. The decision was welcomed by many in Germany. ‘The war of annihilation against England has now really begun,’ wrote Lore Walb with satisfaction in her diary on 10 September 1940: ‘Pray God that they are soon brought to their knees!’85 This ‘war of annihilation’ was known in London as ‘the Blitz’. In all, some 40,000 British civilians were killed during the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. But morale did not break down. A new German ploy of sending fighters and fighter-bombers flying at high altitudes - 253 such raids were carried out in October 1940 alone - was designed to wear down both civilian morale and British fighter strength. In October 1940, some 146 Spitfires and Hurricanes were lost. But the Royal Air Force had adapted its tactics by mounting high-flying patrols, and in the same month the Germans lost another 365 aircraft, mostly bombers. In November one raid on the midland city of Coventry by a fleet of almost 450 bombers destroyed the entire city centre, including the medieval cathedral, killing 380 civilians and injuring 865; British intelligence had failed to anticipate the raid, and the city had been left effectively without protection.86

But this was a rare lapse. Mostly, the German bombers met heavy and well-prepared resistance. Deciding that such attacks achieved little, Raeder persuaded Hitler to switch the bombing campaign to Britain’s seaports from 19 February 1941, but while many raids were mounted, Britain’s night-time defences quickly became effective here too, as radar and radar-controlled guns came into operation. By May 1941 the raids were being scaled down. British civilian morale, though shaky during the initial phase of the bombing campaign, had not collapsed. Churchill had not come under any significant domestic pressure to sue for peace. British aircraft production had not been seriously affected. 600 German bombers had been shot down. Ordinary Germans began to get depressed about the outcome of the conflict. ‘For the first time since the war began,’ wrote Lore Walb in her diary on 3 October 1940, ‘my constant optimism has begun to waver. We are making no progress against England.’87 And in December 1940 Hans Meier-Welcker was forced to conclude privately, as many others had already done, that there was no sign of ‘a collapse of morale among the English people’.88 For the first time, Hitler had lost a major battle. The consequences were to be far-reaching.89

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