Turning East: Hitler's only option
by Thomas Tripp
“A conqueror must seek new conquests.”
The invasion of the Soviet Union arguably was the most important military decision Adolf Hitler made in his life. In just a little under four years, it destroyed the Thousand Year Reich along with tens of millions of innocent lives. Did this fatal decision go against his belief of avoiding a two-front war or did Hitler feel he had a small window of opportunity to win a campaign in the East, provided it was swift, while the British remained isolated on their island? He felt this would bring about a settlement with Great Britain without the risk of a cross channel invasion. Hitler in one of his last recorded conversations in the Reich Chancellery Bunker in April 1945, stated:
I had always maintained that we ought at all costs to avoid waging war on two fronts, and you may rest assured that I pondered long and anxiously over Napoleon and his experiences in Russia. Why, then, you may ask, this war against Russia, and why at the time I selected.
The aim of this paper is to bring to light the reasons why Hitler invaded the USSR when he did. Four points will be discuss to try and answer this question: The first will deal with Great Britain, although having fought off invasion, she was exiled to her island fortress unable to launch an invasion of the continent in the foreseeable future. The second will deal with Hitler’s belief in a successful coordinated Mediterranean strategy involving Italy and Spain. The next position to be looked at is preventing a British alliance with the Soviet Union. Finally, the forth point will look at the Nazi leader’s concern over the USSR possibility of taking the offensive against Germany given their previous actions in the east.
The first question that needs to be answered is why did Germany invade the Soviet Union. Hitler’s main obsession was Lebensraum in the east. He wrote about this in 1924, in his book Mein Kampf:
...And so we National Socialists... when we speak of new territory in Europe today, we must think principally of Russia and her vassal states. Destiny itself seems to wish to point out the way to us here…. This colossal Empire in the east is ripe for dissolution, and the end of the Jewish domination in Russia will also be the end of Russia as a state.
It was his purpose to destroy it as a nation then rule and subjugate the area for the benefit of the German Master Race. The Soviet Union would supply food, raw materials, and a vast pool of slave labor for Germany. This may have been his sole ambition in the 1920’s however; in the summer of 1940 Hitler was looking at the strategic picture as well. He needed to get Britain out of the war and by eliminating Russia he believed he would accomplish this.
The first step to acquiring living space in the east was the elimination of Poland. On 1 September 1939, Germany invaded Poland. In turn, on 3 September 1939 Britain and France declared war on Germany. These two countries had honored their vow, in words only, to defend Poland if she were attacked. Hitler had thought, mistakenly, that he could isolate Poland from the west by signing a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union on 23 August 1939 averting a war with France and Britain (the pact contained a secret clause partitioning Poland between the two). Yet, as Poland was being carved up the Germens and the Soviets, the Western Allies did little to help. There was the so called Saar offensive by the French, which consisted of a few formations crossing the German border. However, they retreated after a short time without any help from the Germans. Poland finally capitulated on 6 October 1939.
It was out of pure military necessity that Hitler fought a campaign in the west before continuing east to insure his rear was secured. With Poland defeated and a treaty with the USSR in place, Hitler could turn against the west with his back protected. He had removed the threat of a two front war at this stage. Germany launched an invasion of the west by invading Denmark and Norway on 10 April 1940. This successful campaign would protect their northern flank and secure shipments of iron ore, essential for war, from Sweden. On 10 May 1940, operation Fall Gelb (Operation Yellow), the invasion of France and the Low Countries commenced. In only six weeks the Wehrmacht destroyed the French army and drove the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) into the English Channel. On 20 June 1940, seeing no reason to continue, the French signed an armistice.
General Franz Halder, Chief of the German Army General Staff (until September 1942), wrote in his diary after the French capitulated:
His (Fuehrer) continental enemies had succumbed within a brief time and had provided him proof of his prophecies. Without question his intuition had guided his military and diplomatic policies into the correct channels.
Being the professional he was, he still was taken back by the “Austrian Corporal’s” luck. This demonstrated to him that Hitler possessed the ability to guide the German nation through times of peril. The Fuehrer had proved this with his conquest of Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, and now France. Germany’s new technology and tactics in warfare had brought quick success. Long battles of attrition, reminiscent of the First World War, were avoided which compensated for the normal weakness of the German economy (mainly lack of natural resources). At this point Hitler was willing to offer peace overtures, Halder stated, “it put the onus for continued warfare on Great Britain’s leader, Winston Churchill.” Hitler held the destiny of Europe and, in a realistic sense, the world in his hands. Halder in 1949 gave an assessment of the situation in the west in the summer of 1940 where he points out the military victory over the French did not bring a final “decision.” There still was Great Britain who remained active in the air and on the sea. He continued, “also with support from America would without fail become in due course once again effective on land. The Western-Front had been pushed up to the Atlantic, but it remained none the less a front.”
How the British people
held the fort
till those who
hitherto had been half blind
were half ready
Alone the British stood after the fall of France unwilling to come to terms with Hitler. During the campaign in France, the BEF along with a large contingent of French forces, were surrounded on the beaches of Dunkirk with the Germans poised to destroy them. Hitler on 27 May 1940, ordered his armies to halt. As a result 338, 226 allied soldiers were successfully evacuated from Dunkirk. The reason behind this is unclear to this day. One explanation may have been Reich-Marshall Hermann Goering’s (Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe) insistence on his air force’s need of glory. The army up to this point was getting all the credit and the Luftwaffe wanted a share. Through the destruction of the embattled enemy forces from the air Goering presumed they would accomplish this. Moreover, the Luftwaffe was built along National Socialist lines while the army was not, making it an establishment perceived to be outside the Nazi orbit. Hitler was bound and determined to bring the army solely under his control. Thus, it may have been too dangerous to let the army take all the credit for the annihilation of the besieged Allies.
Another explanation may have been the fear of overextending the armor divisions (exposing their flanks). These divisions were in need of rest and refit. In addition the ground in Flanders was usually wet and swampy, which made it difficult for tanks. One must remember that Blitzkrieg was a new method of warfare and its only test had been in Poland and, to a smaller extent, in Norway. Along with this, the men of the Blitzkrieg school of thought, led by General Heinz Guderian were in the minority in the German army. They were controlled by conservative men who practiced restraint, schooled in the traditional fields of infantry and artillery with skeptical regard for new methods.
Finally, it may be reasoned that Hitler wanted to give the British a sort of “golden parachute,” allowing the bulk of their army to escape. This he felt would preserve British pride, which could be construed as a “carrot” to bring them to the peace table. As early as 27 June 1940 Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda, stated in his diary:
The great question: how does it go on against England. The Fuehrer does not want it yet, but perhaps he will have to…. There are two parties (in England): A war party and a peace-party. They struggle for power. Churchill’s stock is not high. Through Sweden and Spain there already are feelers. Perhaps the Fuehrer will make a last offer to London in a Reichstag speech.
These peace “feelers” came to nothing. Also, other channels came up empty to try and arrange a compromised peace. On 28 June 1940, Pope Pius XII through the British and German Catholic Nuncios tried to establish contact, but failed. Hitler finally gave the speech Goebbels alluded to on 19 July 1940; he offered his hand for peace:
I feel obliged, in this hour, by my conscience to direct once more an appeal of reason to England. I believe I can do this not as someone who has been defeated, but as a victor speaking reason. I see no compelling ground for the continuation of this war….|
Herr Churchill may dismiss this declaration of mine, screaming that it is the result of my doubts about our final victory. In that case I have freed my conscience about what is to come.
This may explain his action. After Munich in 1938 Hitler’s word held little merit. However, in this case it did because it would directly benefit him so he could be free to move east. Churchill did not respond, stating to an associate. “I do not propose to say anything in reply to Hitler’s speech, not being on speaking terms with him,” thus no peace. The mastermind behind Fall Gelb (Operation Yellow), General Field-Marshall Erich von Manstein, supported Hitler’s sincerity in his speech by writing in his memoir:
Hitler knew that if the British Empire were destroyed, not he or Germany could be its heir, but the United States, Japan or the Soviet Union. Seen in this realistic perspective, his attitude to Britain does make sense. The point is that he did not want to land in Britain. His political concept was at odds with the strategic requirements that followed from the victory in the west. The disastrous part of it was that this concept of his encountered no sympathy in Britain.
With the British still willing to fight after the fall of France, Hitler was faced with a dilemma. He was not prepared for operations against Great Britain; no plan existed as he was utterly surprised by the swiftness and completeness of his victory in France. After 22 June 1940, precious time was wasted while Britain was at its weakest to improvise a plan of action. Hitler was also taken back by Britain’s stubbornness to continue hostilities. Some generals, Luftwaffe General Field-Marshall Albert Kesselring for example, favored an operation against the island of Britain on the heels of the Dunkirk evacuation. General Field-Marshall von Manstein wrote in his memoirs about this. He stated, “if Hitler jibbed at fighting the battle with Britain in the hour most favorable to himself, Germany must sooner or later land in an untenable situation. The longer the war with Britain dragged on, the greater the danger threatening the Reich in the east must become.” General Halder’s prospective was one of pure arrogance. He wrote on 22 July 1940, “Britain’s position is hopeless. The war is won by us. A reversal in the prospects of success is impossible.”
Almost an entire month passed after the French surrender before Hitler decided to implement an invasion plan of the British Isles. It was time won by the British, which they put to good use fortifying their island, and time lost by the Germans, waiting in vain for a peaceful settlement. During this period Hitler at least occupied the Channel Islands and began to attack Channel convoys. Yet, even though the major air attack on 10 July 1940, on a large convoy between the Thames estuary and the straits of Dover is the official recognized date of the start of the Battle of Britain, Hitler did not issue his war directive until 19 July 1940, the same day of his appeal speech. War Directive # 16, Case Seeloewe, Sea Lion (Appendix I), “Since England, in spite of her hopeless military situation, shows no signs of being ready to come to an understanding, I have decided to prepare a landing operation against England and, if necessary, to carry it out.”
All military heads on both sides knew the Germans would have to gain control of the air over the channel and southern England before an amphibious invasion could be launched. On 13 August 1940, “Eagle Day” was launched, the first large-scale air attack against RADAR stations and coastal airfields. These attacks lasted until 19 August. They were only partially successful due to bad weather and the difficulty in hitting the small targets the RADAR stations presented, the use of grass fields as runways by the RAF, could be patched up quickly, along with the dispersing of planes on the ground to limit aircraft casualties. The Germans next switched to airfield only attacks, leaving the RADAR stations alone, not realizing their great importance. Also, nighttime raids on industrial centers were intensified. These raids were having their effect due to the great numbers of sorties flown by the Luftwaffe. Fighter Command (Britain’s defensive unit of the RAF, a close-knit command consisting of fighter squadrons, anti aircraft batteries and an intricate early warning system which RADAR was it main untried component) had its back against the wall. If one part of this network were knocked out, the entire strategy for defense would cease.
On 24 August 1940, the Luftwaffe inadvertently bombed a suburb of London. In retaliation the RAF mounted five minor raids on Berlin. This infuriated Hitler to the point of him rescinding a prior order not to bomb London. The first attack commenced on 7 September 1940, against the British Capital. This was to be the turning point of the battle. It gave Britain’s Fighter Command the miracle it so desperately needed. If the Germans kept up their attacks against the airfields for another week, they would have probably achieved air superiority. As a result of the recovery by the RAF the land operation of the campaign was postponed indefinitely. General Walter Warlimont, subordinate to General Alfred Jodl Chief of OKW (OberKommando der Wehrmacht, translated Wehrmacht Supreme High Command) attached to the planning section of the OKW, Section L expressed Hitler’s thoughts about the suspension. He stated, “I myself heard him say that he was prepared to see German soldiers die fighting for Germany but that he would not be responsible for sending them in thousands to the bottom of the sea without firing a shot.”
Still the air war continued unabated throughout out the fall and winter of 1940-41. In April major raids continued, however, during a meeting with Hitler’s Luftwaffe commanders Lieutenant General Adolf Galland leader of Jagdgeschwader 26 (fighter wing) during the battle gives insight into Hitler’s mindset at that time. In a meeting in April 1941 in which the Fuehrer assembled all his commanders in France he discussed for two hours Part II of the Battle of Britain. Galland stated, “He told us later, two of us…. That it has only been in order to camouflage the offensive against Russia. This has been in April 41. The German Fighter ace continued, “Later on the 10th of May (1941) can only be considered as camouflage for the beginning of the Russian campaign.
“We shall keep a steady eye on the east.”
The battle of Britain was to be the first air only battle in history. It was launched reluctantly by Hitler with his eyes and interests elsewhere, mainly to the east. It is commonly accepted that by failing to gain air superiority over southern England, Hitler was forced to postpone his invasion indefinitely. This is true, however, there are other reasons why the Fuehrer acted as he did. If the cross channel invasion had failed, from a purely military perspective the disaster would have been huge but not catastrophic to the German military. There would have been a far-reaching effect on the political side. First, of all any failure would have given the British even more determination to continue the struggle, while at the same time affecting the attitudes of the United States and the Soviet Union. General Field-Marshall von Manstein in regards to this wrote, “Most of all, a spectacular military failure of this kind would have gravely damaged the dictator’s prestige, both in Germany and the world as a whole.” Hitler was aware of these international and domestic implications and probably felt that this risk was too great, as it would jeopardize his eastern ambitions. Franz Halder wrote years later: “The military leader must see to it that the politician has left no doubt as to the limits of what he can achieve by military action. These limits must determine the war aim of the politician.” Yet, Hitler was not able to see the limits in the east. With his thoughts turning eastward, he was pushing his military “limits” to the very edge.
Franz Halder’s diary entry on 13 July 1940 sheds light on the fact that it was not in Germany’s best interest to bring about a collapse of the British Empire. He wrote:
The Fuehrer is greatly puzzled by Britain’s persisting unwillingness to make peace. He sees the answer (as we do) in Britain’s hope on Russia, and therefore counts on having to compel her by main force to agree to peace. Actually that is much against his grain. The reason is that a military defeat of Britain will bring about the disintegration of the British Empire. This would not be of any benefit to Germany. German blood would be shed to accomplish something that would benefit only Japan, the United States, and others.
As the battle of Britain was just getting underway, Hitler was making his decision to turn east regardless of the outcome in the west. He felt that the British army was bottled up in its island citadel no matter if he invaded or not. His main concern was what the Soviet Union was up to. In a meeting with his commanders Hitler expressed his readiness for what might come. He stated:
In any case I am glad he said, that we have continued to arm to the point where we are ready for anything. Materially we are well off and already have to think about a conversion of some factories. In terms of personnel the armed forces are better off than at the start of the war; economically we are absolutely solid.
Regarding this train of thought in the early part of the summer of 1940, Guderian made a remark that conveyed the belief of Hitler and his cronies in their own invisibility. He wrote, “Our successes to date, however, and in particular the surprising speed of our victory in the west, had eliminated the word “impossible’ from their vocabulary.” Halder was also weary of this course; he entered into his diary on 30 July 1940, the need to prevent a two front war. He wrote:
The question whether, if a decision cannot be forced against Britain, we should, in the face of a threatening British-Russian alliance and the resulting two-front war, turn first against Russia, must be answered to the effect that we should keep on friendly terms with Russia. A visit to Stalin would be desirable…. With the aid of Russia, consolidate the Reich, which we have created in western and northern Europe. That much accomplished, we could confidently face war with Britain for years.
Just one day later in a meeting at the Fuehrer’s mountain retreat in the German Alps, the Berghof, Halder heard Hitler’s decision to deal with Russia with its massive consequences. He wrote:
Decision: Russia’s destruction must therefore be made a part of this struggle. Spring 1941…. The sooner Russia is crushed the better. Attack achieves its purpose only if Russian state can be shattered to its roots with one blow. Holding part of the country alone will not do. So it is better to wait a little longer, but the resolute determination is to eliminate Russia…. If we start in May 1941, we would have five months to finish the job.
Was the decision to attack in the east without Britain defeated a major mistake or a calculated gamble? Or did Hitler allow his own dogma to take precedence over the strategic military situation by striking at his ideological enemy? In the summer of 1940 Hitler saw a small window of opportunity. He felt that if he did not take a chance, his prospect for success would be lost. This course of attack was an all or nothing move. Hitler knew this was to be his most important decision of the war.
His first reason to move east was his argument that Britain was isolated on her island and could not launch a major landing on the continent for the foreseeable future. Hitler continued at his meeting with Halder at the Berghof on 31 July 1940, by stating:
In the event that invasion does not take place, our action must be directed to eliminate all factors that let England hope for a change in the situation. For all intents and purposes, the war is won. France is no longer part of the setup protecting British convoys. Italy is pinning down British forces.
He further stated that the Luftwaffe and the Kreigsmarine (navy) could carry on the war against Britain. “Submarine and air warfare may bring about a final decision, but this may be one or two years off.”
At this time one has to look at the predicament the British were in after the postponement of Seeloewe. In the summer of 1940, Great Britain was feverishly preparing for defense. There were no plans for any large-scale offensive operations. Fighter Command under Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding was given top priority with armaments and men. They were able to manufacture 446 fighters a month compared to 140 constructed by the Germans. However, Germany was producing 800 pilots a month compared to the British 200. Bomber Command under Air Chief Marshal Richard Peirse was relegated to a secondary role; sorties were limited to bombing German barge concentrations and presumed embarkation points in northern France and the Low Countries. Nonetheless, they did fly a few missions against Germany proper, inflicting only little damage. The RAF was definitely in a defensive posture.
The British Army under the command of General Sir Edmund Ironside, thanks to the miracle of Dunkirk, was able to field 1.8 million men (with little training) by September 1940. This number went up to 2.2 million by September 1941. Yet, in equipment the British were in a desperate situation since over ninety percent was left on the beaches of France and munitions plants could not keep up with the increased demand. Only two armor divisions could be placed in the field, the 1st and the 2nd, which together only contained 224 light and medium tanks, the full strength of the two divisions were 501. In artillery they could scrape together 786 field guns and 167 anti tank guns. This was the extent of the front line strength the British could muster in the summer and fall of 1940. It would take a long time to bring the Army up to strength both in training and material, which presented an opportunity for Hitler.
The Royal Navy, the strongest component of the British military, in the European theatre was divided into two commands, the Home Fleet commanded by Admiral Charles M. Forbes and the Mediterranean Fleet commanded by Admiral Andrew B. Cunningham. Both commands’ strategy in the summer of 1940 was one of defense. The Home fleet had three missions:
1. To contain, neutralize, and destroy the surface forces of the Kreigsmarine and thereby deny it an opportunity to raid British shipping or attack England.
2. To impose a maritime or economic blockade of Germany.
3. To protect British maritime assets from German submarines.
All these strategies were a replication of the First World War. The Royal Navy far outnumbered the German Navy but paled in comparison to its former self. For example, ten out of the twelve battleships were of World War I vintage. With the conquest of France, the Germans acquired direct access to the Atlantic Ocean, granting Hitler bases for his U-boat arm under the command of Admiral Karl Doenitz. This would make it extremely difficult to “blockade” and prevent the ever-growing Kreigsmarine from gaining access to the high seas. In the meantime, a successful campaign in the east would make the blockade obsolete. All of Germany’s material needs would be found in the former Soviet Union.
The British, feeling the need to take the offensive, created the Combined Operation Command, whose mission was to deal with joint operations carried out by all three branches of the service. This was essential, since Great Britain was an island. Churchill gave an example:
Plans ought to be made for coming to the aid of the conquered populations by landing armies of liberation when the opportunity is ripe. For this purpose it will be necessary not only to have great numbers of tanks, but also of vessels capable of carrying them and landing them direct onto the beaches.
As early as the summer of 1940, the Combined Operation Command started experiments with amphibious landing crafts. The war in the Mediterranean and a potential return to the continent were based on a successful creation of such crafts. However, it would be years before a large-scale operation could take place. Churchill pointed this out by stating:
By the end of 1940 we had a sound conception of the physical expression of amphibious warfare…. In the summer of 1941, the Chiefs of Staff pointed out that the program of landing—craft construction was related only to small-scale operations and that our ultimate return to the Continent would demand a much greater effort than we could afford.
The Germans were well aware of the time needed by the British to offer any serious threat to the continent.
The opportunity to complete their dominion on the continent was at hand. From the Reich Chancellery on 30 March 1941, in a speech Hitler gave to his future commanders of the eastern campaign General Field-Marshall von Bock reiterated the Fuehrer’s belief without raising the question of a landing in England. He wrote:
On the other hand the English landing on the continent is not considered possible at the present, primarily on account of the great shortage in shipping space…. The possibility now exists to strike down Russia with our own back free; such opportunity will not soon come again. It would be a crime against the future of the German people if I did not seize the opportunity!
With the British exiled to their own island the potential for them to conduct any serious offensive operations was impossible in the near future. The only place where they could cause some minor damage was on the German extreme southern flank, namely Africa and the Mediterranean. This was in the Italian’s sphere of influence as agreed upon in the Tripartite Pact of 7 September 1940 signed by Germany, Italy, and Japan. If General Francisco Franco of Spain and Benito Mussolini of Italy with Hitler’s help could tie up large British resources in this theater, then the German position would be secured for the foreseeable future.
“War is mainly a catalogue of blunders.”
With the postponement of Seeloewe Hitler was persuaded by Grand Admiral Raeder, Commander-in-Chief of the Kriegsmarine, to consider a Mediterranean strategy against the British. This policy would accomplish two goals. First, it would considerably weaken the British by cutting off the Mediterranean. This would deny access to her Far-Eastern Empire by cutting off the main sea route though the Straits of Gibraltar and the Suez Canal. The second aim would secure the entire southern flank of Germany, allowing her to turn all available resources against the Soviet Union.
In late September of 1940, Grand Admiral Raeder was able to convey his argument to Hitler. He started by stating that the British where starting to build up their strength in the Mediterranean. This he thought was a prelude to a historically traditional campaign to obliterate the weaker member of the belligerent alliance, in this case Italy. He states:
Vis-à-vis the military aspects of our alliance with Italy, these bear comparison with the Austro-Hungarian Empire alliance during the last war. In those days, you will recall that we spoke of being shackled to a corpse. With great respect, Fuehrer, I suggest that a similar situation exist today… Italy seems quite oblivious of her danger. Germany, however, must wage war against Britain with every means at her disposal, before American assistance restores British capacity for offensive action. For this reason the Mediterranean question must be cleared up over the winter months.
The Admiral put forth a proposal in order to secure Germany’s southern flank with the capture of Gibraltar with the assistance of the Spanish. Taking the island of Malta, which would give the Germans control over the central Mediterranean sea-lanes, would follow. Then a suitable force could be shipped to North Africa to assist the Italians in a drive to capture the Suez Canal. By an additional drive through Palestine and Syria the Turkish frontier would be reached which would bring Turkey under German influence. This would allow the Germans to strike at the oilfields of Iraq and Persia. Reader then concludes; “The Russian problem will then appear in a quite different light…. This will avoid the necessity of a protracted war on two fronts.” The idea was far reaching in scope. Yet the premise seemed to be a practical solution to the British problem resulting from the delayed Seelowe operation. General Halder at this time stated. “Britain probably needs one more demonstration of our military might before she gives in and leaves us a free hand in the east.” On 12 November 1940, as the cross channel invasion was put off at least until the spring of 1941, Hitler issued War Directive No. 18 Case Felix (Appendix II). The dictate covered the whole southern flank emphasizing on the co-operation of Petain’s Vichy France, Franco’s Spain and Mussolini’s Italy against Great Britain These countries were the weakness of this decree. Hitler had to use all his political cunning to persuade these nations to fall into line. The most important was the persuasion of both Spain and Italy. If the Axis were successful in capturing both the Suez Canal and Gibraltar, it would close the Mediterranean to the British. This was one of the main concerns in Hitler’s mind in the last months of 1940.
On two separate occasions the Fuehrer urged the Italians to seize Egypt and other British-held areas in the Mediterranean in the summer of 1940. Hitler even offered the Italians 250 heavy tanks for North Africa before the German invasion of France; in fact he order two armor divisions to be trained in desert fighting. Yet, Mussolini was determined to fight his “parallel” war alone without any assistance or coordination from his Axis partner. This was to be catastrophic in Hitler’s plans for the Mediterranean theatre.
After finally taking the offensive in North Africa in mid September 1940, the large Italian force was soon thrown back given chase by a much smaller, highly trained British Western Desert Force. By the end of the year the Italians were on the verge of being thrown out of North Africa. On 28 October the Italians invaded Greece from occupied Albania, which took Hitler by complete surprise. It did not take long for the Greeks to push the ill equipped and trained Italians back; again Mussolini had put himself into a predicament in which the Fuehrer would have to come to the rescue. If Mussolini had only let Hitler send him tanks and men, which he had offered before the campaign began; the outcome of things would have been different. In the end Hitler did send troops but the quick victory sought by Germany was lost. General Heinz Guderian writes years after the war about Mussolini’s blundering, stating; “Italy’s uncoordinated action and mistakes in the Balkans resulted in strong German forces being committed in Africa and Bulgaria and subsequently in Greece and Serbia. This led to a weakening of our strength in the decisive theatres of war.”
The Fuehrer felt that Franco would declare war on Britain as a sort of payment for Germany’s vast assistance to him during the Spanish Civil War. On 23 October 1940, a meeting between Hitler and Franco in the French Pyrenees did not give the Fuehrer what he wanted. Franco was playing hard to get; he would present Hitler with impossible demands for his commitment to bring Spain into the war and the allowance of German troop movement though his country, essential for a conquest of Gibraltar. Hitler told General Guderian as soon as he found out about the Italian’s Balkan adventure. He writes:
The first result of Mussolini’s arbitrary gesture… was that Franco immediately withdrew from any sort of collaboration with the Axis powers. He plainly had no intention of becoming involved in a common policy with such unpredictable partners.
Spain would continue to hold Germany at arm's length by not climbing on board the Axis war machine. Even though with Mussolini’s clumsiness in his “parallel war” and Franco’s evasiveness, Hitler had already set into motion the plans for his eastern campaign. He felt he could deal with these setbacks before the timed engagement in the east.
In February of 1941, Hitler sent to Africa his newly created Deutsches Afrika Korps (DAK) consisting of two divisions, one armor and the other a “light” motorized. Its role was to bolster the crumbling Italian 10th Army. General Erwin Rommel (the Desert Fox) the former commander of the 7th panzer division, whose exploits in the French campaign had won him high praise, was to command. Yet, the opportunity to win a quick victory in the desert had passed. The Desert Fox gave the British a great run for their money but the fighting dragged on into 1943 with the Axis finally being thrown out.
On 6 April 1941, operation Marita (Retribution) the German invasion of Greece and Yugoslavia began. The reasoning behind this distraction was again to rescue the beleaguered Italians in their ill-fated invasion of Greece, and stop the up rising in Belgrade that forced the Nazi favored government out. Yet, this sideshow set the eastern campaign’s initial timetable back four weeks. Many regard this to be the fatal reason for the failure of the eastern operation. However, the weather in the spring of 1941 was extremely wet and ground operations in the east could not have started until middle June at the earliest. However as General Guderian stated earlier, it led to a “weakening of strength in the decisive theatres of war.” If things had turned out in the way Hitler first planned in the summer of 1940, his distractions from his ultimate ambition of lebensraum would have been neutralized.
“The gentlemen in England are not stupid; they just act that way.”
Before the signing of the non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin, the French and British were close to a similar agreement with the Soviet Union. Stalin was ready to join the west after the Munich conference. However, the Soviet leader felt snubbed by the West for not taking his interest seriously. Stalin was taken back by the British response. He told President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s special envoy to Great Britain and the Soviet Union, Averall Harriman, in September of 1941, his feeling about this. He said; “We expected one of their (British) statesmen to come, one of your principal political figures to come (to Moscow).”  Anthony Eden a well-known British politician, offered to go, though then British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain rejected this, and Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax declined in the end. They sent an unknown Foreign Service Officer, William Strang, whom Stalin described as a “clerk,” and so he became convinced that the British were not serious and that Chamberlain maybe was attempting to direct German “aggression” at him.
Along with this, in August 1939, when tension was at its height, the British mission bound for Russia sailed on a slow cruiser (it took five days) in a time when they could either have flown or at the least taken a fast cruiser to meet with the Soviet leader. Stalin thought the “thick-headedness” of the British was the straw that broke the camel’s back. At least Germany was taking a serious position with regards to an agreement by flying their Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop to Moscow. Stalin’s Foreign Minister V. M. Molotov sent a message to his envoys in Paris and London. It stated:
The fact that France and England would like to prod Germany to take action against the east is quite understandable and is well known. It is also true that they would like to direct the aggression exclusively against us, so that Poland should not be affected.
With this Soviet feeling the discussions with the British and France fell apart.
This disenchanted response by the West; Stalin saw usefulness in a pact with his rival Hitler. The Allies saw this as a betrayal. Stalin claimed, after Hitler betrayed him in 1941, that the Soviet Union gained valuable time to prepare for war and they also received equipment and technology which the Western Powers did not possess, which contributed immensely to the Soviet war industry.
The day after the official start of the Battle of Britain 11 July 1940, General Halder made an entry in his dairy pertaining to a British-Soviet understanding. He writes:
Britain and Russia are both seeking a rapprochement. Possibility of an understanding on Iran is not out of the question and could provide basis for an overall understanding between the ‘bear and the whale,’ as in 1908.
He was referring to the agreement reached between Britain and (then) Czarist Russia, which settled the dispute over Persia (Iran) in August of 1907. This settlement brought Britain into the Franco-Russian coalition which encircled the Central Powers, namely Germany, and Austria-Hungry. This finalized the Allied side before the outbreak of the World War I. The new alliance became known as the Triple Entente. Talk like this was becoming common around Hitler’s close circle. General Alfred Jodl spoke to his operation staff, on 19 July 1940; present was General Walter Warlimont who states:
The struggle against England was not necessarily to be concluded first but that on the contrary, victory over Russia, the last ‘force on the continent’, was supposed to be the best method of forcing England to make peace if this had not proved possible by other means.
There was a fear building of a potential pact between Britain and the USSR. Whether it was proven or not, the seeds of alarm was spreading throughout the hierarchy of the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe. Hitler confirmed this feeling in a speech he made at the Berghof less than two weeks later on 31 July:
Russia is the factor by which England sets the greatest store…. If Russia is beaten, England’s last hope is gone. Germany is then master of Europe and the Balkans…. As a result of this argument, Russia must be dealt with. Spring 1941.
Britain, during the summer and fall of 1940, perceived the Soviet Union as cohort of Nazi Germany. In the preceding winter, they tried in vain not only to interdict German iron ore shipments from Sweden, but also set up a supply base to help the hard-pressed Finns, who were fighting a bitter war against a Soviet invasion. Securing bases along the Norwegian coast could accomplish this. Yet the British, especially Churchill, knew and prayed that these ideological enemies (Hitler and Stalin) would show their teeth and turn on each other and, in this case, open a second front which Britain failed to secure in 1939 before the German invasion of Poland.
Hitler’s intuition told him that Britain’s only hope would be a falling out between him and Stalin and time was on both the British and the Soviet sides. They would become stronger and their combined power would be too much for Germany to overcome. The time was now to take from Britain her last hope, the Soviet Union. As late as one week before the invasion of the USSR the Fuehrer spoke at the Reich Chancellery to his top generals. Present was General Field-Marshall von Bock who writes:
The more he had thought about the decision to attack Russia during the months, the more determined he became. Russia posed a grave threat to Germany’s back and we now have to have our back free; as soon as she is cast down, England will have no ally left to win over the continent, and Germany can only be beaten on the continent…. England will see all this, and it is to be assumed that it will then abandon the hopeless struggle. The Fuehrer hopes that this will come to pass in the first months after the end of the eastern operation.
Along these lines the specter of American intervention was discussed. Hitler with his generals tied the existence of the USSR to a possible United States entry into the war on the allied side. From a meeting at the Berghof on 31 July 1940, General Halder recalled:
Britain’s hope lies in Russia and the United States. If Russia drops out of the picture, America, too, is lost for Britain, because elimination of Russia would tremendously increase Japan’s power in the Far East.
Even as early as 20 March 1940, the idea of a connection between the US, USSR and Britain are referred to along with the situation in the Far East. The Japanese, a signer of the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy, were looked upon to tie down American, Soviet, and British forces. Hitler was seeing a bigger picture and knew that he must take action in the east as soon as he could. General Field-Marshall von Bock records this in his dairy. He states:
There are said to be contacts between Russia and America; a Russia-England link is therefore also likely. To wait for the outcome of such a development is dangerous. But if the Russians were eliminated, England would have no hope left of defeating us on the continent, especially since an effective intervention by America would be complicated by Japan, which would keep our rear free.
After the chance to launch a decisive blow against the island of Britain had passed, General Field-Marshall von Manstein reiterated his opinion:
He could no longer play at seeing how long he could hold his breath. It was at this point that he was forced to venture the attempt to eliminate the Soviet Union by a preventive war while there was still no enemy in the west capable of menacing him on the Continent.
Hitler thought the time had come to move east. If not undertaken at this time, the hope for a successful conclusion of the war would be lost. The USSR, during Germany’s involvement in the west, was consistently strengthening their position in the east. Hitler knew he had to put a stop to this, he stated on 31 July 1940, “with Russia smashed, Britain’s last hope would be shattered. Germany then will be master of Europe and the Balkans.”
“I am convinced that our attack will sweep over them like a hailstorm.”
Not only was Hitler concerned about a potential alliance between the Soviet Union and Great Britain but also was concerned with the threat of an attack from the east by the Soviets with or without and agreement with Britain. The decision to invade the USSR was reinforced by the Fuehrer’s qualms that they were taking advantage of Germany’s preoccupation in the west. During this period Stalin began to take territory that was allotted to him in the secret protocol of the 1939 non-aggression pact with Germany, however, he did not stop there.
The first move was an attack on Finland on 30 November 1939. The Finnish government would not comply with territory concessions placed on them by the Soviets. The Finns fought with great tenacity and dealt the USSR many serious reverses. Yet the enormous numbers of the Red Army forced Finland to sue for peace. On 12 March 1941, a treaty was signed between Finland and the Soviet Union. Stalin’s peace agreement gave him more territory than his pre-war demands. The Karerlian isthmus, northern territory of Lake Ladoga and other lands totaling 22.000 square miles were ceded over to the Soviets. Total causalities were 23,000 Finns and 68,000 Soviets dead.
By the middle of June 1940, the Soviet Union occupied the three Baltic States, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. This was done on a pretext of unanswered ultimatums. The Soviets even subjugated the portion of Lithuania allotted to Germany in the Non-aggression Pact. This caused great alarm in Berlin, however, with all of German’s military committed to the western campaign, Hitler could only watch.
The Soviets did not stop with the Baltic States. Next on their agenda was Bessarabia, an eastern principality of Madavia in Romania, which was in the secret protocol of the 1939 German Soviet Pact. This area was under Czarist Russian rule from 1812 though 1918. On 26 June 1940, the Romanians received an ultimatum demanding the turn over of Bessarabia along with the area of Northern Bukovina, which was not part of the German Soviet treaty of 1939. Romania appealed to Hitler, however, with his current commitment in the west, he told them to give into their demands. The Fuehrer was well aware of the implications of the Soviets edging closer to the Rumanian oil fields at Ploesti. Hitler said, “If we lose the oilfields, we can no longer win the war.”
Nevertheless, by Stalin’s forced augmentation of the Baltic States and seizure of Romanian territory General Jodl informed General Warlimont what Hitler’s reaction to this was. He states on 19 July 1940:
Jodl… without any preamble, disclosed to us that Hitler had decided to rid the world “once and for all” of the danger of Bolshevism by a surprise attack on Soviet Russia to be carried out at the earliest possible moment, i.e. in May 1941.
In a meeting three days earlier the Chief of the OKW explained to General Warlimont Hitler’s reasoning for the proposed campaign against the USSR:
The collision with Bolshevism was bound to come and that it was better therefore to have this campaign now, when we were at the height of our military power, than to have to call the German people to arms once more in the years to come. Secondly, when he said that as the latest by the autumn of 1941 the full strength of the Luftwaffe, brought to a new pitch of efficiency by further victories in the east, would once more be available for employment against England.
General Halder expressed his view towards the recent Soviet activities; he states this in his diary on 22 July 1940. He writes:
Stalin is flirting with Britain to keep her in the war and tie us down, with a view to gain time and take what he wants, knowing he could not get it once peace breaks out. He has an interest in not letting Germany become too strong.
In the fall of 1940 with German-Soviet relations were pushed to the limit. Stalin’s Foreign Minister Molotov went to Berlin to clarify the situation. While there he met with Hitler, he asked him why were the Germans becoming close to the Finns and what was the purpose of the increasing presence of German troops in Romania and Bulgaria. These areas the Soviets felt were in the Russia sphere of influence, not the German. Hitler retaliated with the excuse that he was keeping his army out of the range of the RAF and put on the table an invitation to join the Tripartite Pact, if the Soviets would direct their territorial interest south to the India Ocean away from Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Molotov was taken back but did not give an answer. He left Berlin without a clear clarification of the current relationship. It was the final meeting between the two powers. After the conference Hitler spoke his true feelings, stating:
Political conversations designed to clarify the attitude of Russia in the immediate future have been started. Regardless of the outcome of these conversations, all preparations for the East previously ordered orally are to be continued. (Written) directives on that will follow as soon as the basic elements of the army’s plan for the operation have been submitted to me and approved by me.
Hitler’s mind was made up, that war with the USSR was unavoidable and the sooner the better was his feeling before they become too powerful. General Field-Marshall von Bock was present at two separate meeting at the Reich Chancellery; the first one was on 30 March 1941 and expressed Hitler’s reasoning for the eastern invasion. He writes:
The pact concluded with Russia at the start of the war cannot justify moral reservations against the attack. Stalin had entered into it voluntarily in the hope of enticing Germany into the war, so that when it was at the point of being bled dry he could fall upon it with bolshevism. In spite of numerous grounds to do so, as long as we were tied down in the west he, the Fuehrer, had avoided anything that might have led to friction with Russia. But this has in no way reduced the irreconcilable differences between us and bolshevism. (Harsh action. Commissars.) All in all plans and goals which the Fuehrer himself describes as gigantic.
The second meeting took place on the eve of the campaign 14 June 1941, in which von Bock writes:
He (Hitler) had posed the question to Russia some time ago, whether she was ready to make common cause with Germany. Russia had responded with evasive counter questions, which showed clearly that it was only intent on increasing its power. Furthermore experience has shown that Russia becomes bold as soon as it knows that Germany is occupied elsewhere.
A preventive war from a German perspective was a reasonable assumption given the evidence of the rapid take over of territory the Soviets achieved after the destruction of Poland and the pressure put on the Balkans. And since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, many documents show that Stalin had plans of his own for a preventive strike against Germany. Russian Colonel Valery Danilov in the Austrian Military News published one such document in 1993. The article was titled, Reflections on the Plan of Strategic Concentration by the Armed Forces of the Soviet Union in case of War with Germany and its Allies. This article includes a document that shows that Stalin indeed had a plan for an offensive against Nazi Germany (Appendix III). The only question is, would he have executed it if Hitler did not attack him first. The answer will never be known.
“We only have to kick in the door, and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.”
With the Luftwaffe intensifying its attacks on London, the Italians retreating in Africa and Greece and Franco’s non-commitment Hitler felt he could no longer wait on the conquest of the Soviet Union. Such an immense campaign would take a lot of time to prepare. Even with the war against Britain unresolved and the floundering of his Axis partner the decision to head east was decided. The Fuehrer’s War Directive #21 issued 18 December 1940, states as follows:
The bulk of the Russian Army stationed in western Russia will be destroyed by daring operations led by deeply penetrating armored spearheads. Russian forces still capable of giving battle will be prevented from withdrawing into the depths of Russia.
The enemy will then be energetically pursued and a line will be reached from which the Russian Air Force can no longer attack German territory. The final objective of the operation is to erect a barrier against Asiatic Russia on the general line Volga-Archangel. The last surviving industrial area of Russia in the Urals can then, if necessary, be eliminated by the Air Force.
In this Hitler believed he could obtain two goals, first, conquer and destroy the USSR and secondly swipe from Great Britain, their last hope of a potential ally on the continent able to threaten Germany. The Mediterranean theatre was the only area where his intentions were not being carried through; Hitler was not going to let this set back affect his main goal of
Lebensraum in the east. Also, he would prevent the Soviets from taking the initiative against Germany. The Fuehrer gambled everything on this move; all would be lost if he did not succeed. Hitler, although fully aware of the risks, was willing to take them.
Case Seelowe (Sea Lion)
Since England, in spite of her hopeless military situation, shows no signs of being ready to come to an understanding, I have decided to prepare a landing operation against England and, if necessary, to carry it out.
The aim of this operation will be to eliminate the English homeland as a base for the prosecution of the war against Germany and if necessary, to occupy it completely.
The Army will draw up the operational and crossing plans for all formations of the first wave of the invasion.
The Navy will procure the means for invasion and will take them, in accordance with the wishes of the Army, but with due regard to navigational considerations, to the various embarkation points. Use will be made, as far as possible, of the shipping of defeated enemy countries.
(c) Air Force:
1) To prevent interference by the enemy Air Force.
2) To destroy coastal disembarkation points, to break the first resistance of the enemy land forces, and to disperse reserves on their way to the front.
3) Also, to destroy important transport highways by which enemy reserves might be bought up, and to attack approaching enemy naval forces as far as possible from our disembarkation points.
1. Relations with France
The aim of my policy towards France is to co-operate with that country in the most effective manner possible for the future conduct of the war against England. For the present France will assume the role of a ‘non-belligerent power’ and will thus be required to allow German war measures on French territory and particularly in the African colonies. She will also be required to support these measures with her own forces as far, as may be necessary.
2. Spain and Portugal
Political measures to bring about the entry into the war of Spain in the near future have already been initiated. The aim of German intervention in the Iberian Peninsula will be to drive the English from the western Mediterranean. To this end—
a. Gibraltar is to be captured and the Straits closed.
b. The English are to be prevented from gaining a footing at any other point on the Iberian Peninsula or in the Atlantic Islands.
… After the capture of the Rock, the Spaniards will be assisted to close the Straits; if necessary, from Spanish Morocco also.
3. Italian offensive against Egypt
The employment of German forces will be considered, if at all, only after the Italians have reached Mersa Matruh. But even then, the use of German air units will only be considered if the Italians will provide the necessary air bases. The preparations of the Armed Services for operations in this theatre or in any other North African theatre of war will be made on the following basis:
Army: One Armoured Division (composition as already laid down) will stand by for service in North Africa.
Navy: German ships in Italian ports which are suitable, as troopships will be converted to carry the largest possible forces either to Libya or to Northwest Africa.
Air Force: Plans will be made for attacks on Alexandria and on the Suez Canal to close it to English warships.
4. The Balkans
Commander-in-Chief Army will be prepared, if necessary, to occupy from Bulgaria the Greek mainland north of the Aegean Sea. This will enable the German Air Force to attack targets in the Eastern Mediterranean, and in particular those English air bases, which threaten the Rumanian oilfields.
Political discussions for the purpose of clarifying Russia’s attitude in the immediate future have already begun. Regardless of the outcome of these conversations, all preparations for the East for which verbal orders have already been given will be continued.
(A reevaluation of the notion of aggressive-preventive war.)
The initial strategic objective of the troops of the Red Army is to destroy the main forces of the German army massed south of Demblin and by the 30th day of the operation achieve a general front line of Ostroleka, Narew River, Kreuzburg, Oppeln and Olmiuts, in order to:
(a) Conduct the main assault with the left wing of the western front in the direction of Siedice-Demblin, in order to tie down the grouping of Cracow-Kattowitz and completely cut off Germany from her southern allies:
(b) Conduct the secondary assault with the left wing of the western front in the direction of Siedlce-Demblin, in order to tie down the grouping of forces around Warsaw and support the southwestern front in the destruction of the enemy groupings of forces;
(c) Conduct a mobile defense against Finland, East Prussia, Hungary and Romania; in order to be ready to carry out a strike against Romania when the situation is impossible…
The following measures must be implemented in a timely fashion in order to assure the implementation of the plans outlined above, with out which the conduct of a surprise attack on the enemy from the air as well as on the mainland is impossible…
The Chief of the General Staff of the Red Army
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Shabad, Harper & Row, Publishers, New York, 1969.
Copyright © 2012 Thomas Tripp
Written by Thomas Tripp. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Thomas Tripp at:
About the author:
Thomas Tripp is a graduate with honors from American Military University with a Masters in Military Studies in Land Warfare.
His emphasis was on German militarism from Frederick the Great through the Second World War.
He currently tutors history and math at Monroe Community College in Rochester, NY.
Published online: 01/07/2012.