Military history



As it became clear that the German air force was not going to win command over the skies between Britain and the Continent, Hitler cast around for alternative methods of bringing the stubborn British to their knees. His attention turned to the Mediterranean. Perhaps it would be possible to enlist Italy, Vichy France and Spain in the destruction of British sea-power and British naval bases there. But a series of meetings held in late October produced nothing of any concrete value. The canny Spanish leader, General Franco, while thanking Hitler for his support during the Spanish Civil War, made no promises at all, but simply said he would come into the war on Germany’s side when it suited him. In his view the war was still undecided, and he poured open scorn upon the German belief that Britain would soon be defeated. Even if there was a successful invasion, he said, the Churchill government would retreat to Canada and continue the fight from there with the aid of the Royal Navy. Moreover, it was quite possible that the USA would back Churchill; already, indeed, on 3 September 1940 US President Franklin D. Roosevelt had signed an agreement leasing fifty destroyers to the British navy. Given his unwillingness to force Vichy France to surrender any of its colonial territories in North Africa to the Spanish, Hitler had little or nothing of value to offer Franco in return for his entry into the war, and the Spanish dictator knew it. ‘These people are intolerable,’ Franco declared to his Foreign Minister after the meeting. ‘They want us to come into the war in exchange for nothing.’90 The meeting broke up without any concrete result. A furious Ribbentrop railed against Franco as an ‘ungrateful coward’ whose refusal to help was poor thanks for the aid Germany had given him in the Spanish Civil War, while Hitler told Mussolini a few days later that he would rather ‘have three or four teeth taken out’ than go through another nine such hours of negotiations with the Spanish dictator.91

Hitler fared little better with Marshal P’tain and his Prime Minister, Pierre Laval, who wanted a firm promise of new colonial territory for the Vichy regime in return for lending French support to the attack on Britain. The meeting ended without either side having promised anything. Worse still was the situation in Italy. The Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini had come more closely into the German orbit in the late 1930s, but had stayed out of the war when it began in September 1939. His ambition to create a new Roman Empire in the Mediterranean had gained strength, however, from his defeat and annexation of Ethiopia in 1936 and his successful participation on Franco’s side in the Civil War in Spain from 1936 to 1939. By this time, Mussolini had begun to emulate Hitler, introducing German-style racial legislation in the late autumn of 1938.92 Having started his career as Hitler’s teacher, Mussolini was beginning to become his pupil. Every German foreign policy success threatened to put Italian Fascism further in the shade. Soon after the German occupation of rump Czecho-Slovakia in March 1939, therefore, Mussolini invaded Albania, already run by Italy from behind the scenes but never formally annexed. Another piece had been slotted into the jigsaw of the new Roman Empire. Just over a year later, on 10 June 1940, as it became clear that Hitler was achieving complete dominance over Western Europe, Italy finally joined the war in the hope of gaining British and French colonies in North Africa, along the southern shoreline of the Mediterranean. Since Vichy France was, in effect, an ally of the Third Reich, this would not be easy to achieve. The Italian dictator was unceremoniously excluded from the negotiations in the railway carriage at Compiègne, and Hitler rejected his claim on the French fleet even before it was destroyed by the British raid on Mers-el-K’bir.93 Irritated and disappointed, Mussolini looked around for another opportunity to build his new Roman Empire. He found it in the Balkans. On 28 October 1940, without informing Hitler in advance, Mussolini sent an Italian army across the Albanian border into Greece. The German Leader was furious. The terrain was difficult, the weather was atrocious and would inevitably get worse as winter approached, and the whole venture seemed an unnecessary distraction.94

Hitler was right to be concerned. The Italian troops were poorly trained, under-strength and ill prepared. They lacked the winter clothing necessary to brave the rigours of the mountain snows. They were without the naval support that would have made possible amphibious landings of the kind that had proved so effective in Norway and Denmark. They had no maps to help them traverse the largely pathless terrain across the Albanian-Greek border. Italian armour was utterly inadequate to overwhelm the Greek defences. There was no unified line of command. The Italian Foreign Ministry had been unable to prevent information about the invasion leaking out in advance. The Greeks thus had time to take defensive measures. Within a few days the Italians were being repulsed all along the line. On 14 November 1940 the Greeks began a counter-offensive, supported by five squadrons of British planes that bombed key Italian ports and lines of communication. Mussolini’s army had been pushed back deep into Albanian territory within a few weeks. The Italians lost nearly 39,000 men out of just over half a million; more than 50,000 were wounded and over 12,000 suffered from frostbite, while a further 52,000 had to be invalided out of the action for a variety of other reasons.95The invasion was a fiasco. Despite propaganda attempts to paper over the disaster with rhetoric, Mussolini’s humiliation could hardly have been more obvious.

From every point of view it would have made more sense to attack Malta, and possibly Gibraltar and Alexandria as well, rather than Greece, in order to deprive the British of their crucial naval bases in the Mediterranean. But Mussolini was oblivious to this strategic imperative. On 11 November 1940 half the Italian battle fleet was effectively rendered inoperative by a British carrier-based air attack at Taranto. A few months later, on 28 March 1941, alerted by the deciphering of an Italian navy message at the decoding centre in Bletchley Park, the British navy off Cape Matapan in the Mediterranean sank three Italian cruisers and two destroyers on their way to intercept British supply convoys to the Greeks. The British forces lost no more than one aircraft. 96 For the rest of the war, the remainder of the modern and well-equipped Italian fleet stayed close to port for fear of further damage. Well before this time, too, an attempt to invade British-held Egypt from the Italian colony of Libya had been repulsed by a small but well-trained Anglo-Indian force of 35,000 men, who took 130,000 prisoners in December 1940, along with 380 tanks.97 Perhaps the greatest humiliation came in April 1941, when the Italian occupying force in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Abeba surrendered to a mixed Allied force that successfully wrested the colony back from its Fascist masters in a campaign far shorter than the original Italian war of conquest in 1935-6. British intelligence had succeeded in deciphering so many of the Italians’ battle plans and gained such detailed information about their movements and troop dispositions that the British commanders were aware of everything the Italians were going to do well in advance. A force of 92,000 Italian and 250,000 Abyssinian soldiers was comprehensively defeated by 40,000 British-led African troops. The Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie was triumphantly reinstalled on his throne, while Allied forces had overrun Eritrea and Italian Somaliland by May 1941, leaving the whole north-east of Africa in Allied hands.98

So comprehensive was the Italian debacle that Hitler had little choice but to intervene. On 19 January 1941 Mussolini arrived at the Berghof for two days of talks. The Italian failures had completely transformed the relationship between the two dictators. Whilst Hitler had previously shown some deference to his former mentor, now, though he did his best to be tactful, there was no doubt that he and his entourage were beginning to hold the Italian dictator in some contempt. On 6 February 1941 Hitler briefed General Erwin Rommel on the task of rescuing the situation in North Africa. Born in 1891, and of middle-class origin, Rommel was not a typical German general. Highly decorated in the First World War, he had attracted attention by a book on infantry tactics published in 1937. He had distinguished himself by his boldness in leading a tank division in the invasion of France. Appointed to head the newly formed Africa Corps, he arrived in Tripoli on 12 February 1941 with a brief to prevent any further Italian collapse in Libya. Nominally under Italian command, in fact Rommel showed little regard for the Italian generals. His troops were well trained and adapted quickly to the peculiar conditions of warfare in the flat, featureless, sandy terrain. Rommel was able to use German decrypts of ciphers from the US military attache’ in Cairo to anticipate British moves, while the signals he himself sent to his superiors often said something different to what he actually decided to do. Building on their previous experience of combined air and armoured warfare, Rommel’s troops moved swiftly into action, pushing back a British force weakened by the redeployment of many of its best soldiers to defend Greece against the expected German invasion. 99

By 1 April 1941 Rommel had met with such success that he ignored orders from Berlin and drove on hundreds of miles until he was close to the Egyptian border. Halder considered he had gone ‘stark mad’, and thought he had spread his forces too wide and opened himself to a counter-attack. He was sharply critical of Rommel’s ‘pathological ambition’.100 The British sent a new commander, strengthened their forces, and counter-attacked. Rommel had indeed grossly overstretched his supply lines, and had to withdraw. But he eventually managed to obtain more tanks and fuel and finally took the key Libyan seaport of Tobruk in June 1942. The victory prompted Hitler to promote him to the rank of Field Marshal, the youngest in the German army. In this war of rapid movement across vast distances of largely empty desert, Rommel now forced the British back deep into Egypt. He was within striking distance of the Suez Canal, threatening a major British supply route and opening up the enticing prospect of gaining access to the vast oilfields of the Middle East.101

Rommel was widely regarded as a hero not only in Germany but even in Britain. Yet his victories opened up new opportunities for the Nazis and their allies to implement their doctrines of racial superiority on defenceless minorities. The triumphs of the Africa Corps brought terrible suffering to the Jews who lived in often very old-established communities in the major North African cities. 50,000 Jews lived in Tunisia, and as soon as the Germans occupied the country, their homes were raided, their property confiscated, their valuables stolen, and their young men - more than 4,000 of them - sent off to labour camps near the front line. The rape of Tunisian Jewish women by German soldiers was far from uncommon. Walter Rauff, the Gestapo chief in Tunis, transferred from the killing fields of Eastern Europe, quickly instituted a reign of terror against the Jews of Tunis. Many were brutally maltreated; a few were hidden by sympathetic Arabs. The situation of the Jews in the neighbouring Vichy French colonies of Morocco and Algeria was little better. Almost immediately after the regime was established in 1940, some 1,500 Jews serving in the French Foreign Legion were cashiered and imprisoned in a rapidly growing network of labour camps whose number soon exceeded 100. Joined there by internees from a variety of nations, including Poland, Greece and Czechoslovakia, they were forced to work on projects such as the new Trans-Sahara Railway in conditions of considerable brutality. Vichy’s harsh discriminatory laws against Jews in France were applied in French North Africa too. Altogether perhaps 5,000 North African Jews died under Axis occupation, roughly 1 per cent of the total. Their numbers would have been far greater had it been possible to transport them across the Mediterranean to the extermination centres of German-occupied Poland.102

While these dramatic events were in progress, the Germans tried to gain access to vital oil supplies in the Middle East by fomenting unrest against British rule in Iraq. But the British managed to quell the unrest without too much trouble in the summer of 1941, and built on this success by taking over Syria, a French colony, from the Vichy regime. Thus frustrated, Hitler was reduced to making promises that he had at the moment no chance of fulfilling. The Islamic cleric Haj Amin al-Husseini, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, fled to Berlin on the defeat of the uprising in Iraq, and Hitler greeted him on 28 November 1941 with an empty promise to destroy Jewish settlements in Palestine.103 Indeed, in an attempt to avoid offending the Arabs, the Propaganda Ministry for a time recommended replacing the term ‘antisemitic’ with the more specific ‘anti-Jewish’ in the media - the Arabs, after all, were Semites too.104 Yet Rommel’s victories ensured that the dream of gaining access to the massive oilfields of the Middle East was still not dead.


The search for oil was not confined to North Africa and the Middle East. On 27 May 1940, in the wake of its stunning successes in the west, the Third Reich secured a monopoly over Romanian oil supplies. By July Romanian oil deliveries to Britain, which had previously made up nearly 40 per cent of the output of the Ploesti oilfield, had been completely cut off.105 But the dictatorship of King Carol of Romania, which had negotiated these deals, ran into trouble when he was forced by Hitler to cede northern Transylvania to Germany’s ally Hungary and surrender further territory in the south to Bulgaria (promised because German troops had to pass through Bulgaria to reach Greece). Carol had also been obliged to cede Bessarabia and northern Bukovina to the Soviet Union as part of the deal struck by the Nazi-Soviet Pact the previous year. On 6 September 1940 Carol was forced to abdicate in the face of popular outrage at these concessions, driven out by the army under its leader General Ion Antonescu in alliance with the fascist Iron Guard. Antonescu became Prime Minister in a new coalition government heavily backed by the military. Early in 1941, however, the Iron Guard staged a violent uprising against the new government, directing its fury especially against the country’s 375,000 Jews, whom it blamed, absurdly, for the cession of the lost territories. Under its leader, Horia Sima, the Iron Guard rampaged through Bucharest, hunting down Jews, taking them out into the woods and shooting them. Sima’s men also took 200 Jewish men into a slaughterhouse, stripped them naked, made them go through the whole process of the slaughter-line normally used for animals, and hung their corpses up by their throats from meat-hooks, labelling the bodies ‘fit for human consumption’. There was some evidence that the SS had backed the revolt in the hope of gaining tighter control over the turbulent Balkan state. But after two days the rebellion was quickly crushed by Antonescu, who now became the country’s military dictator. Horia Sima was forced to flee and took refuge in Germany. A rigged plebiscite confirmed the new order. Antonescu, a professional soldier from a military family, now in his fifties, had already established good relations with Hitler, who was deeply impressed with him on a personal level; among other things, the Romanian leader persuaded the Nazis to stop supporting the Iron Guard, thus leaving them at the government’s mercy. Hitler in return held out the prospect of assisting the Romanians to recover the substantial territory they had lost to the Soviet Union and maybe more besides. A close alliance emerged between the two countries. German troops entered Romania but the country remained more than merely nominally independent. By 1941 nearly 50 per cent of Romania’s crude oil output was produced by German-owned companies and exports of petroleum products nearly tripled in comparison to the previous year. It was not least in order to secure these supplies that Hitler decided it was necessary to extricate the Italians from their problems in neighbouring Greece.106

In the composite multinational Kingdom of Yugoslavia, however, the situation had become more difficult for Hitler. On 25 March 1941, the Yugoslav government had yielded to German pressure (which had included the summoning of the Prince Regent Paul to the Berghof for a characteristic piece of bullying by Hitler) and allied itself formally with Germany, thus putting in place another piece of the diplomatic background for the forthcoming invasion of Greece. The reluctant Yugoslav government managed to obtain assurances that no German troops would pass through their country on their way to Greece, and that it would not be asked to provide any military support. As a reward for its goodwill it obtained a commitment that it would be given the Greek port of Salonika once the German conquest of the country was complete. But a German alliance was anathema to the Serb element in the Yugoslav officer corps, who saw in it evidence of excessive Croatian influence in the cabinet and had in any case been deeply committed to the Allied cause and hostile to Germany and Austria since the First World War. In the early hours of 27 March 1941, Serb officers staged a coup d’état, overthrew the Prince Regent and proclaimed Peter II, aged only seventeen, as king. The event was greeted by ecstatic Serbian demonstrations in the streets of Belgrade. An all-party government was formed, for the moment papering over the serious divisions between Serbs and Croats in the face of the likely reaction from Berlin.107 That reaction was not slow in coming. Hitler was furious. He summoned the leaders of the German army and air force and declared that, in view of this betrayal, Yugoslavia would be smashed. The country must be attacked ‘in a lightning operation’ and ‘with merciless harshness’. Italy, Hungary and Bulgaria would all make territorial gains from the defeated country. The Croats would be given their independence. The plans for the invasion of Greece would have to be revised in the shortest possible time so as to include a parallel invasion of Yugoslavia. Here was another state, like Poland, that had dared to defy him, another state, therefore, that had to be utterly destroyed.108

After making the necessary arrangements with Germany’s allies Hungary and Italy, the German Twelfth Army entered southern Yugoslavia and northern Greece on 6 April 1941. On 8-10 April 1941 German, Hungarian and Italian forces invaded northern Yugoslavia. With superior numbers and more modern armour and equipment, and backed by 800 aircraft, the German forces overwhelmed their opponents. The Yugoslav army, although over a million strong, was badly equipped, poorly led and riven by ethnic divisions. It crumbled rapidly. As waves of German bombers devastated the Yugoslav capital, Belgrade, German panzer divisions and infantry moved forward rapidly. They took the city on 12 April 1941, leading the Yugoslav government to capitulate five days later. 344,000 Yugoslav troops were captured. German losses amounted to 151 dead. Meanwhile, the Greeks, backed by a British expeditionary force, had put up stiffer resistance, but here too, the tried and tested combination of air command and modern armour overwhelmed the opposition. Split from the Greek army, the retreating British forces decided to evacuate, and a hurriedly assembled naval force, harried by German airplanes, managed to take off about 50,000 troops from the beaches by the end of April, though a number of ships were lost in the process. In despair at the course events were taking, the Greek Prime Minister shot himself on 18 April 1941. German troops entered Athens on 27 April 1941.109

8. The War in the Mediterranean, 1940-42

The King and the government had already left for Crete, to where the remaining Greek, British and other Allied forces had retreated. But on 20 May 1941 German airborne forces landed on the island and quickly seized the main airfields, where further German troops now landed. The British commander on the island had not appreciated the importance of air defences. Without fighter planes he was unable to intercept the incoming airborne troops. By 26 May he had decided the situation was hopeless. A chaotic evacuation began. With complete command of the skies, German aircraft sank three British cruisers and six destroyers. They forced the Allies to abandon the evacuation on 30 May 1941, leaving some 5,000 men behind. Despite advance warning of these operations from German military signal traffic decoded at Bletchley Park, the British commander simply did not have enough strength on the ground or in the air. He was forbidden to redeploy his troops to the anticipated points of attack in case this should cause the German commanders to suspect their signals were being intercepted. More than 11,000 British troops were captured and nearly 3,000 soldiers and sailors killed. The whole operation was a disaster for the British. Churchill and his advisers were forced to concede that it had been a mistake to send troops to Greece in the first place.110

Yet the German victories, spectacular as they were, came at a heavy price. The Greeks and their allies had fought determinedly, and the invading Germans had not escaped without casualties. In Crete, 3,352 out of a total of 17,500 invading German troops had been killed, persuading the German armed forces not to mount a similar airborne operation against Malta or Cyprus.111 ‘Our proud paratroop unit,’ wrote one soldier after the victory, ‘never recovered from the enormous losses sustained on Crete.’112 More seriously, the occupation of the conquered territories soon proved to be far from a simple matter. While Bulgaria moved into eastern Macedonia and western Thrace, expelling over 100,000 Greeks from the area and bringing in Bulgarian settlers in a brutal act of ‘ethnic cleansing’, a puppet government was installed in Greece to maintain the fiction of independence. However, the real power lay with the German army, which occupied key strategic points on the mainland and some of the islands, especially Crete, and the Italians, who were given control over most of the rest of the country. As German troops entered Athens, tired, hungry and without supplies, they began to demand free meals in restaurants, to loot the houses in which they were billeted, and to stop passers-by in the streets and relieve them of their watches and jewellery. One inhabitant of the city, the musicologist Minos Dounias, asked:

Where is the traditional German sense of honour? I lived in Germany thirteen years and no one cheated me. Now suddenly . . . they have become thieves. They empty houses of whatever meets their eye. In Pistolakis’s house they took the pillow-slips and grabbed the Cretan heirlooms from the valuable collection they have. From the poor houses in the area they seized sheets and blankets. From other neighbourhoods they grab oil paintings and even the metal knobs from the doors.113

While the ordinary troops were stealing what they could, supply officers were seizing large quantities of foodstuffs, cotton, leather and much else besides. All available stocks of olive oil and rice were requisitioned. 26,000 oranges, 4,500 lemons and 100,000 cigarettes were shipped off the island of Chios in the first three weeks of the occupation. Companies such as Krupps and I. G. Farben sent in agents to effect the compulsory purchase of mining and industrial facilities at low prices.114

As a result of this massive assault on the country’s economy, unemployment in Greece rocketed and food prices, already high because of the damage caused by military action, went through the roof. Looting and requisitioning led to peasant farmers hoarding their produce and attacking agents sent from the towns to collect the harvest. Local military commanders tried to keep produce within their region, disrupting or even cutting off supplies to the major cities. Rationing was introduced, and while the Italians began to send in extra supplies to Greece to alleviate the situation, the authorities in Berlin refused to follow suit, arguing that this would jeopardize the food situation in Germany. Soon hunger and malnutrition were stalking the streets of Athens. Fuel supplies were unavailable, or too expensive, to heat people’s houses in the cold winter of 1941-2. People begged in the streets for food, ransacked rubbish bins for scraps, and in their desperation started to eat grass. German army officers amused themselves by tossing scraps from balconies to gangs of children and watching them fight for the pieces. People, especially children, succumbed to disease, and began dying in the streets. Overall death rates rose five- or even sevenfold in the winter of 1941-2; the Red Cross estimated that a quarter of a million Greeks died as a result of hunger and associated diseases between 1941 and 1943.115

In the mountainous areas of northern Greece armed bands attacked German supply routes and there were some German casualties; the regional German army commander burned four villages and shot 488 Greek civilians in reprisal. In Crete, stranded British soldiers took part in resistance activities, in the course of which a German general was kidnapped. Whether or not the savage reprisals of the German army had any effect is uncertain. The general state of hunger and exhaustion of the Greek people meant that there were few attempts at armed resistance in the first year or so of the occupation, and no co-ordinated leadership.116


The situation in occupied Yugoslavia was dramatically different. An artificial creation that had bound together in a single state a variety of ethnic and religious groups since the end of the First World War, Yugoslavia was torn by bitter inter-communal feuds and rivalries that broke out in full force as soon as the Germans invaded. The German Reich annexed the northern part of Slovenia, south of the Austrian border, while Italy incorporated the Adriatic coast down to (and including some of ) the Dalmatian islands and took over the administration of the bulk of Montenegro. Albania, an Italian possession since April 1939, occupied a large chunk of the south-east, including much of Kosovo and western Macedonia, as well as ingesting part of Montenegro, while the voracious Hungarians gobbled up the Backa and other areas they had ruled until 1918, and the Bulgarians, as well as seizing most of Macedonia from the Greeks, marched into the Yugoslav part of Macedonia. The rest of the country was split into two. Hitler was determined to reward his allies and to punish the Serbs. On 10 April 1941, the day that German forces entered Belgrade, the Croatian fascist leader Ante Paveli’, with German encouragement, declared an independent Croatia, encompassing all areas inhabited by Croats, including Bosnia and Hercegovina. The newly independent state of Croatia was far larger than rump Serbia. Paveli’ immediately allied himself with Germany and declared war on the Allies. Like his equivalent, Quisling, in Norway, Paveli’ was an extremist who had little popular support. A nationalist lawyer, he had formed his organization when King Alexander had imposed a Serb-dominated dictatorship in 1929 following demonstrations in which Serb police had killed a number of Croatian nationalists. Known as the ‘Ustashe’ (insurgents), Pavelić’s movement had scored its most spectacular coup in 1934 when its agents had collaborated with Macedonian terrorists in the assassination of the Yugoslav king, along with the French Foreign Minister, during a state visit to France in 1934. The subsequent repression of his organization had meant that Paveli’ had been obliged to run it from exile in Italy, where he had converted it into a fully fledged fascist movement, complete with a racial doctrine that saw the Croatians as ‘western’ rather than Slav. He gave it the mission of saving the Catholic, Christian West against the threat posed by Orthodox Slavs, atheistical Bolsheviks and Jews. By the beginning of the 1940s, however, he is estimated to have won the support of no more than 40,000 out of 6 million Croats in Yugoslavia.117

Hitler initially wanted to appoint the leader of the moderate Croatian Peasant Party, Vladko Maˇek, as head of the new state, but when he refused, the choice fell on Paveli’, who returned from exile and proclaimed a one-party state of Croatians.118 Paveli’ set about recruiting young men from the urban sub-proletariat for the Ustashe, and almost immediately set in motion a massive wave of ethnic cleansing, using terror and genocide to drive out the new state’s 2 million Serbs, 30,000 Gypsies and 45,000 Jews or turn them at least into nominal Croats by converting them to Catholicism. Ultra-nationalist students and many Croatian-nationalist Catholic clergy, especially Franciscan monks, joined in the action with gusto. Already on 17 April 1941 a decree proclaimed that anyone guilty of offending against the honour of the Croat nation, either in the past, present or future, had committed high treason and thus could be killed. Another decree defined the Croats as Aryan and banned intermarriage with non-Aryans. Sexual relations between male Jews and female Croats were outlawed, though not the other way round. All non-Croats were excluded from citizenship. While the new treason law was at least paid lip-service in the towns, the Ustashe did not bother even with the appearance of legality in the countryside. After shooting dead some 300 Serbs, including women and children, in the town of Glina in July 1941, the Ustashe offered an amnesty to the inhabitants of the surrounding villages if they converted to Catholicism. 250 people turned up at the Orthodox Church in Glina for the ceremony. Once inside, they were greeted not by a Catholic priest but by Ustashe militia, who forced them to lie down and then beat their heads in with spiked clubs. All over the new Croatia, similarly terrible scenes of mass murder were enacted during the summer and autumn of 1941. On several occasions, Serb villagers were herded into the local church, the windows boarded over, and the building burned to the ground along with everybody in it. Croatian Ustashe units gouged out the eyes of Serbian men and cut off the women’s breasts with penknives.119

The first concentration camp in Croatia opened at the end of April 1941, and on 26 June a law was enacted providing for a network of camps across the country. The purpose of the camps was not to hold opponents of the regime, but to exterminate ethnic and religious minorities. In the Jasenovac camp system alone, more than 20,000 Jews are thought to have perished. Death was due above all to disease and malnutrition, but Ustashe militia, egged on by some Franciscan friars, frequently beat inmates to death with hammers in night-long sessions of mass murder. At the Loborgrad camp, 1,500 Jewish women were subjected to repeated rape by the commander and his staff. When typhus broke out in the camp at Stara Gradiska, the chief administrator sent sufferers to the disease-free camp at Djakovo so the inmates there could be infected too. On 24 July 1941, the curate of Udbina wrote: ‘Up to now, my brothers, we have been working for our religion with the cross and the breviary, but the time has come when we shall work with a revolver and a rifle.’120 The head of the Catholic Church in Croatia, Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac, a bitter opponent of Orthodox ‘schismatics’, declared that the hand of God was at work in the removal of the Serbian Orthodox yoke. Paveli’ was even granted a private audience with the Pope on 18 May 1941. Eventually, however, Stepinac was moved to protest against forced conversions that were all too obviously achieved through terror, though his condemnation of the killings did not come until 1942, when Father Filipovi’, who had led murder squads at Jasenovac, was expelled from the Franciscan order. By 1943 Stepinac was condemning the registration and deportation to extermination camps of the remaining Croatian Jews. But this was all rather late in the day. By this time, probably about 30,000 Jews had been killed, along with most of the country’s Gypsies (many of whom died working in inhuman conditions on the Sava dike construction project), while the best estimates put the number of Serb victims at around 300,000. Such was the horror generated above all in Italy by these massacres, as reports of the atrocities were publicized by the thousands of Serbian and Jewish refugees who crossed the border into Dalmatia, that the Italian army began to move on to Croatian territory, declaring that it would protect any minorities it found there. But it was too late for most. In the longer term, the Croatian genocide created memories of deep and lasting bitterness among the Serbs. It still had not been forgotten by the time Serbia and Croatia eventually regained their independence after the collapse of the postwar Yugoslav state, in the 1990s.121


The half-hearted nature of Hitler’s preparations for the seaborne invasion of Britain reflected not least the fact that already before the end of July 1940 his mind was turning to a plan far closer to his heart: the conquest of Russia. This had been at the very centre of Hitler’s thinking since the early 1920s. Already in his autobiographical political tract My Struggle he had declared in uncompromising terms the necessity of acquiring ‘living-space’ for the Germans in Eastern Europe. He had repeated this in numerous addresses to his military staff, most notably on 3 February 1933, when he had explicitly promised the army chiefs that he would launch a war to Germanize Eastern Europe some time in the future.122 Meeting the chiefs of the armed forces towards the end of July 1940, Hitler said that it was time to begin planning for this event. Eighty to 100 divisions would be needed to crush the Red Army. It would be child’s play in comparison to the invasion of France.123 In fact, the army had already carried out feasibility studies and concluded that an invasion was not practicable before the following spring. Further studies were prepared with a view to launching an attack in May 1941.

The prospect of a war on two fronts did not alarm Hitler. France had been eliminated, Britain seemed close to collapse. As for the Red Army, it had been decimated by Stalin’s purges, and it had proved hopelessly incompetent in the war with Finland. Slavs in any case were subhumans incapable of putting up serious resistance to a superior race. Bolshevism only made them weaker. Hitler regarded it as a tool of the world Jewish conspiracy, which had succeeded in enslaving the Slavs and bending them to its will. There were, of course, many reasons why this view was little more than a fantasy, not the least of them being the fact that Stalin was himself antisemitic and had dismissed his Foreign Minister, Litvinov, in 1939, among other things because he was a Jew. Still, thought Hitler, if the racially superior Western European nations had been crushed so easily, then what chance did the Slavs stand? ‘The Russians are inferior,’ Hitler told Brauchitsch and Halder on 5 December 1940. ‘The army is leaderless.’ The German armed forces would require no more than four or five months to crush the Soviet Union.124

Aside from the ideological primacy of ‘living-space’ there were also pragmatic reasons for attacking the Soviet Union. Throughout 1940 and the first half of 1941, the Third Reich depended heavily on supplies from Eastern Europe. The non-aggression pact signed between Ribbentrop and the Soviet Foreign Minister, Molotov, on 24 August 1939 was still in force at this time, of course.125 Indeed, on 12 November 1940 Molotov himself arrived in Berlin at Hitler’s invitation to discuss future co-operation. On 10 January 1941 the Soviet Union signed a new trade agreement which doubled the quantity of grain exports from the Ukraine to the Third Reich, thus ironically convincing Hitler, if he needed convincing, that the Soviet Union possessed almost limitless supplies of foodstuffs, which would be essential for the further conduct of the war and the general future of the Third Reich. Stalin’s concessions to German trade demands thus did little or nothing to affect the timing of the German invasion.126

Whatever the Soviets might offer, Hitler had no intention of abandoning his plans. On 18 December 1940 he ordered the armed forces to be ready to crush the Soviet Union in a rapid campaign to begin the following spring. His comparative haste was not least a consequence of his failure to defeat Britain. By 1942, he thought, the USA might well have entered the war on the Allied side. Defeating the Soviets would put Germany in a strong position to deal with the Americans. It would encourage Japan to come into the war against America by eliminating a major threat to Japan’s west. And it would isolate the British still further and perhaps finally force them to the negotiating table. This was indeed the primary initial reason for launching the invasion in 1941. ‘But if Russia is smashed,’ Hitler told his generals on 31 July 1940, ‘it is the end of any hopes that might move England still to hope for a change in the situation.’127 ‘The gentlemen in England aren’t stupid, you know,’ he told Field Marshal Fedor von Bock in early January 1941. ‘They’ll realize there’s no purpose for them carrying on the war when Russia has been beaten and eliminated from it.’128 Moreover, he added some weeks later, it was necessary to launch the invasion before Britain was defeated; if it came afterwards, the German people would not support it. The code name for the invasion, supplied by Hitler himself, was ‘Operation Barbarossa’, named after Frederick Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor and German crusader in the twelfth century.129

As plans became more detailed, the number of divisions to be used in the invasion fluctuated but was eventually set at around 200. The Red Army forces arrayed against the invaders were of a roughly comparable size, but in the minds of Hitler and his military leaders they were far inferior in quality. To be sure, in terms of equipment, the Red Army in the combat zone far outgunned its opponents, with nearly three times as many artillery pieces and the same advantage in tanks. Even in the air, Soviet forces had a strong numerical superiority, with twice as many combat aircraft as the Germans and their allies. But many of these machines were obsolescent, new tank models and new artillery pieces were not yet being produced in any numbers, and Stalin’s purges of the 1930s had seriously affected aircraft and munitions production managers and designers, military commanders and senior air force officers.130 Moreover, German preparations were thorough. Elated by the success of the armoured divisions in the invasion of France, Hitler ordered arms production to focus on tanks. The number of panzer divisions in the German army doubled between the summer of 1940 and the summer of 1941, backed by a corresponding increase in the number of half-track vehicles with which to move the divisions of highly mobile infantry swiftly in behind the tanks to press home the advantage. German arms production in the year before the invasion of the Soviet Union really did concentrate on providing the means to fight a classic war of lightning movement, as it had not done before the invasion of France. To back this up, production was switched from ammunition, of which there were now plentiful supplies, to machine-guns and field artillery. Despite continued bureaucratic infighting between different procurement and economic management agencies under the control of Fritz Todt, Georg Thomas and Hermann G̈ring, the arms industry of the Third Reich did therefore operate with some effectiveness in the run-up to Operation Barbarossa.131

Over the first half of 1941, railway and other communications in German-occupied Poland were improved, and supplies stockpiled in the border area. Strategic plans finally envisaged cutting off and destroying Soviet forces on the border and advancing rapidly to a line from Archangel to Astrakhan. In the north, Finland, bitterly resentful at the loss of territory to the Soviet Union at the end of the ‘Winter War’ in 1940, agreed to mobilize its sixteen-division army, newly organized and provided with the latest German equipment, though its objectives went no further than the recovery of the lost territory.132 In the south, Romania supplied eighteen divisions to the invading forces.133 Romanian troops were joined by a small force of Hungarians, but the two forces had to be kept apart because of the poor relations between the two countries. Most of the Hungarian forces’ equipment was obsolete, the rifles used by the infantry frequently jammed, they had only 190 tanks, which were also out of date, and six of the ten ‘Alpine’ battalions that joined in the invasion of Russia were mounted on bicycles. Far more important was the fact that Hungary was rapidly becoming an important source of petroleum oil for the Germans, until by the middle of the war it was the second-most important supplier after Romania.134 The participation of the Hungarians was not least the consequence of the anxiety of the Hungarian ruler Admiral Mikl’s H’rthy that the Romanians would steal a march on him and get back some of the territory they had lost to Hungary in 1940. In similar fashion, the participation of the German client state of Slovakia, which sent two divisions intended mainly to provide security behind the front, was intended to gain German goodwill in the face of further Hungarian demands on its territory. By contrast, Mussolini’s contribution of 60,000 Italian troops did not take part in the invasion itself, and was made in the vague hope that the Germans would look favourably on Italian aspirations in the postwar peace settlement. 45,000 anti-Communist Spanish volunteers went to join the fray on the Leningrad front, inspired by ideological commitment and sanctioned by Franco as a gesture of gratitude to Hitler for his help in the fighting that had brought him to power. The volunteers cannot have been amused when they were greeted on their arrival by a German air force band mistakenly playing the national anthem of the Republicans, their defeated opponents in the Civil War.135

Germany’s Balkan ally Bulgaria took a more cautious line than the Hungarians and Romanians. King Boris III, who ran the country’s military and foreign policy and much else besides, was realistic enough to recognize that his army of peasant conscripts was not suited for modern warfare and had no interest in fighting far from home. Boris had to perform a delicate balancing act. He once remarked: ‘My army is pro-German, my wife is Italian, my people are pro-Russian. I’m the only pro-Bulgarian in this country.’136He had eagerly joined in the dismemberment of Greece and Yugoslavia, and begun the Bulgarization of the education system and other aspects of public life in the areas occupied by his forces. But the Bulgarian annexation of Thrace sparked serious resistance, leading to a major uprising at the end of September 1941. Boris claimed with some justification that the army was needed there to put it down, which it did in the following months, killing between 45,000 and 60,000 Greeks and ordering the expulsion or resettlement of many more. Just as important from the king’s point of view, however, was the threat of internal revolt by fascist republicans. Partly to ward this off, but also yielding to German pressure, he had introduced antisemitic legislation in October 1940, banning sexual relations between Jews and non-Jews and ousting Jews from a variety of professions and industries. But the Bulgarian legislature had been careful to define Jews in religious terms, and many Jews were able to escape the effects of the legislation by converting, often merely on paper, to Christianity. In addition, the legislation was not very rigorously enforced. Jews were required by law to wear the ‘Jewish star’ on their clothes, for example, but the government factory commissioned to make them produced so few that the small number of Jews who had started wearing them soon took them off because nobody else was wearing them. The King was also obliged to dissolve the country’s Masonic lodges, a favourite target of Nazi and fascist conspiracy theorists, much to the irritation of his ministers, many of whom were Freemasons themselves. But, mindful of the looming power of the Russian colossus on his doorstep, he adamantly refused to provide any troops for the Soviet front, and indeed, although Bulgaria declared war on the Western Allies, it never declared war on the Soviet Union.137 Half-exasperated, half-admiring, Hitler called him ‘a very intelligent, even cunning man’, while Goebbels, more bluntly, called him ‘a sly, crafty fellow’.138

For all its multinational trimmings, therefore, ‘Operation Barbarossa’ was thus in essence to be a German operation. As the winter snows of East-Central Europe melted and the ground thawed, the German armed forces began moving vast masses of men and equipment up to the Soviet border. Throughout May and early June 1941, Zygmunt Klukowski recorded endless columns of German troops and vehicles passing through his region of Poland, noting the passage of between 500 and 600 vehicles on 14 June alone, for example.139 Stalin hurriedly launched a futile policy of trying to appease the Germans by stepping up Soviet deliveries of Asian rubber and other supplies under the trade agreement signed in January 1941. As a dogmatic Marxist-Leninist, Stalin was convinced that Hitler’s regime was the tool of German monopoly capitalism, so that if he made available everything German business wanted, there would be no immediate reason to invade. Already, under trade provisions agreed under the Nazi-Soviet Pact early the previous year, the Soviet Union was supplying nearly three-quarters of Germany’s requirement of phosphates, over two-thirds of its imported asbestos, only a little less of its chrome ore, over half its manganese, over a third of its imported nickel, and, even more crucially, more than a third of its imported oil.140 Stalin personally vetoed proposals to disrupt the German military build-up by attacking across the Polish demarcation line. Reports from Soviet agents and even from members of the German embassy in Moscow that an invasion was imminent only convinced him that the Germans were playing hard-ball in their drive to extract economic concessions from him.141

At the same time, Stalin realized that, as he told graduating military cadets in Moscow on 5 May 1941, ‘War with Germany is inevitable.’ Molotov might be able to postpone it for two or three months, but in the meantime it was vital to ‘re-teach our army and our commanders. Educate them in the spirit of attack.’142 Delivered to young officers as a rhetorical message for the future, this was not a statement of intent. Stalin did not believe that the Red Army would be ready to deal with the Germans until 1942 or perhaps even 1943. Not only had the General Staff not drawn up any plans for an attack on the German forces, it had no plans for a defence against them either.143 Although the Germans mounted a large and sophisticated deception plan to conceal the true nature of their intentions, Soviet intelligence began to send in accurate reports that the invasion was planned for around 22 June 1941. But Stalin would not listen. Earlier reports that the invasion plans were to become operational on 15 May 1941, though correct at the time, proved wrong when the Germans delayed Barbarossa in order to mount the invasion of Greece and Yugoslavia. Hitler later blamed Mussolini for the consequences, but in fact the weather in East-Central Europe in these weeks would have made an invasion of the Soviet Union inadvisable even had the German Leader not been obliged to step in to rescue his Italian ally from the imbroglio in Southern Europe. The Soviet agents who had made the prediction lost all credibility as a result.144 The capitalist forces in Britain, including the exiled Polish government, seemed to Stalin’s narrow and suspicious mind to be feeding false information to him about German intentions in order to lure him into a battle. Surely in any case the German Leader would not invade while the conflict with Britain was still unresolved. When an ex-Communist soldier deserted the German forces on 21 June 1941 and swam across a river to tell the Russians on the other side that his unit had been given orders to invade the following morning, Stalin had him shot for spreading ‘disinformation’.145

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