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Storm Of War,The: A New History Of The Second World Warby Andrew Roberts
From the author of Masters and Commanders, Andrew Roberts' The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War has been hailed as the finest single-volume account of this epic conflict. The Second World War lasted for 2,174 days and claimed the lives of over 50 million people. Why did it take the course that it did? Why did the Axis lose? And could they, with a different strategy, have won? Ranging from the Western front to North Africa, from the Baltic to the Far East, he brings the story of the war - and those who fought it - into focus as never before. 'One of the greatest historians of our time ... His masterpiece'
Oliver Marre, Observer 'An undoubted triumph. This, simply, is the best one-volume history of the Second World War currently available'
Laurence Rees 'Magnificent ... Stylish penmanship, gritty research and lucid reasoning, coupled with poignant and haunting detours into private lives ruined and shortened'
Economist 'Moving, thought-provoking, enlightening'
Roger Moorhouse, Independent 'An exceptional accomplishment ... the definitive single-volume history of the war ... Essential'
Peter Watts, Time Out 'In what might be his best book yet, Roberts gives us the war as seen from the other side of the hill - the German Reich'
Nigel Jones, Sunday Telegraph Andrew Roberts's Masters and Commanders was one of the most acclaimed, bestselling history books of 2008. His previous books include Salisbury: Victorian Titan (1999), which won the Wolfson History Prize and the James Stern Silver Pen Award for Non-Fiction, Hitler and Churchill: Secrets of Leadership (2003), which coincided with four-part BBC2 history series.
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The Storm of WarA New History of the Second World War
By Andrew Roberts
HarperCollinsCopyright © 2011 Andrew Roberts
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFour Invasions
September 1939April 1940
If we lose this war, then God have mercy on us.
Hermann Go¨ ring to Hitler's interpreter,
Paul Schmidt, 3 September 1939
Although the international situation, and his months of saber rattling
against Poland, meant that his invasion of that country could not be
a surprise attack, Hitler hoped, with good reason, that the Wehrmacht's
new Blitzkrieg (lightning war) tactics would deliver a tactical
shock to the Poles. Blitzkrieg tactics, which relied on very close,
radio-controlled contact between fast-moving tank columns,
motorized artillery, Luftwaffe bombers and fighters and truck borne
infantry, swept all before them. Hitler's dislike of static, attritional warfare
was a natural response to his years in the 16th Bavarian Infantry
Regiment between 1914 and 1918. His job as a Meldeganger
(battalion runner) in that conflict involved waiting for a gap in artillery
salvoes and then springing forward in a semi-crouched stance, sprinting
from trench to shell-hole taking messages. He was thus brave
and conscientious, probably never killed anyone himself, and always
refused promotions that would take him away from his comrades
because, as his regimental adjutant Fritz Wiedemann later stated, 'For
Gefreiter [Corporal] Hitler, the Regiment was home.'2 He even won
two Iron Crosses, Second Class and First Class.
Having survived four years of stalemate and attrition, Hitler had learned by
the age of twenty-nine, when the war ended, that tactical surprise was of
inestimable advantage in warfare, and as he was later to write in Mein Kampf:
'Even a man of thirty will have much to learn in the course of his life, but
this will only be a supplement.' Throughout
his political career as a revolutionary, he constantly attempted to
employ surprise, usually with great success. The attempted coup of
1923 known as the Beerhall Putsch had surprised even its titular
leader, General Ludendorff, and Rohm had had no inkling of the
Night of the Long Knives. Yet the Poles were expecting Hitler's sudden
attack, because exactly one week beforehand their country had been
invaded by a tiny detachment of Germans who had not been informed
of the postponement of the invasion originally planned for dawn on
Saturday, 26 August.
Part of Germany's plan to invade Poland, Fall Weiss (Plan White),
involved small groups of Germans dressed in Rauberzivil (robbers'
civvies) crossing the border the night before and seizing key strategic
points before dawn on the day of the invasion. The secret Abwehr
(German intelligence) battalion detailed to undertake these operations
was given the euphemistic title of Construction Training Company
800 for Special Duties. A twenty-four-man group under the command
of Lieutenant Dr Hans-Albrecht Herzner was instructed to prepare the
way for the assault of the 7th Infantry Division by infiltrating the
border and capturing a railway station at Mosty in the Jablunka Pass
running through the Carpathian mountains, to prevent the destruction
of the single-track railway tunnel which was the shortest connection
between Warsaw and Vienna.3 Crossing the border into the forests at
00.30 on 26 August, Herzner's group got lost and was split up in the
dark, but Herzner managed to capture the railway station at Mosty
with thirteen men at 03.30 and cut the telephone and telegraph lines,
only to discover that the Polish detonators had already been removed
from the tunnel by the defenders. Polish tunnel guards then attacked
his unit, wounding one of his men. Out of contact with the Abwehr,
Herzner could not know that, with only a few hours to go, the
previous evening Hitler had postponed Plan White until the following
week, and that every other commando unit had been informed of this
except his. It was not until 09.35 that the Abwehr finally managed to
get through and order Herzner, who by then had lost another man
wounded and had killed a Pole in the firefight, to release his prisoners
and return to base immediately.
After a further series of incidents Herzner's group recrossed the
border at 13.30. The German Government explained to the Poles that
the whole affair had been a mistake due to the lack of a defined border
line in the forest. As the operation had not been an official military
one, therefore, and had taken place in peacetime, Herzner very
teutonically put in for overnight expenses of 55 Reichsmarks and
86 pfennigs. Equally teutonically, the authorities did not initially
want to award him the Iron Cross (Second Class) for exploits that
technically took place in peacetime. (They eventually did, but it did
him little good after breaking his back in a motor accident in 1942
Herzner drowned during his swimming therapy.)
On 28 August Hitler had abrogated the 1934 GermanPolish
non-aggression treaty a curious and unusual act of legalism from him
so the Poles could hardly have had a clearer indication that Germany
was on the verge of invading their country, but they could have had
little intimation of Blitzkrieg tactics, hitherto the preserve of certain
German and British theoretical tacticians. They could estimate
accurately where and roughly when the attack would come, but crucially
not how. The Poles therefore chose to place the bulk of their troops
close to the German border. The Munich crisis the previous autumn, and Hitler's
seizure of Therumpof Czechoslovakia the following spring,
meant that Poland's border with the Reich had been extended from
1,250 to a full 1,750 miles, much further than the Polish Army could
adequately defend. Its commander-in-chief, Marshal Edward
S´migły-Rydz, therefore had to decide whether to keep the majority of his forces
back behind the natural defensive line formed by the Vistula, San and
Narev rivers, or to try to protect Poland's industrial heartlands and
best agricultural land in the west of the country.
S'migły-Rydz decided to commit his troops to defending every inch
of Polish soil, which left them perilously exposed. He attempted to
deploy across the whole front from Lithuania to the Carpathians, and
even kept a special assault group for invading East Prussia, retaining
one-third of his force in Poznia and the Polish Corridor. As so often
in the history of poor, martyred Poland, the dispositions were brave;
otherwise S´migły-Rydz would simply have had to abandon cities as
important as Krako´w, Poznan´, Bydgoszcz and Ło´dz´, which all lay to
the west of the three rivers. Nonetheless, it is hard not to agree with
Major-General Frederick von Mellenthin, then the intelligence officer
of the German III Corps, that Polish 'plans were lacking a sense of
At 17.30 hours on Thursday, 31 August 1939, Hitler ordered hostilities
to start the next morning, and this time there would be no
postponement. So at 04.45 on Friday, 1 September German forces
activated Plan White, which had been formulated that June by the
German Army High Command, the Oberkommando des Heeres
(OKH). The OKH was composed of the commander-in-chief of the
Field Army (Feldheer), the Army General Staff, the Army Personnel
Office and the commander-in-chief of the Reserve Army (Ersatzheer).
Above the OKH in terms of creating grand strategy was the
Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (Armed Forces High Command, or OKW).
Soon after assuming personal command of the German armed forces
in February 1938, Hitler had created the OKW to function as his
military staff under his direct command, with Keitel as its chief.
Whereas Blomberg had been strenuously opposed by the Navy and
Army in his efforts to set up a unified high command, Hitler was not
to be baulked. In August 1939, when general mobilization went ahead,
OKW consisted of the office of the Chief of Staff (Keitel), a central
administrative division, the armed forces administration office (under
Jodl) which kept Hitler informed of the military situation, an
Intelligence office under Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, a war production office
and various smaller units concerned with military justice and finance.
According to Plan White, on either side of a relatively weak and
stationary center, two powerful wings of the Wehrmacht would
envelop Poland, crush its armed forces and capture Warsaw. Army
Group North, under Colonel-General Fedor von Bock, would smash
through the Polish Corridor, take Danzig (present-day Gdan´sk), unite
with the German Third Army in East Prussia, and move swiftly to
attack the Polish capital from the north. Meanwhile an even stronger
Army Group South, under Colonel-General Gerd von Rundstedt,
would punch between the larger Polish forces facing it; push east all
the way to Lvov, but also assault Warsaw from the west and north.
(At the Jablunka Pass, the Poles did at least destroy the railway tunnel,
which was not reopened until 1948.)
The Polish Corridor, which had been intended by the framers of
the Versailles Treaty of 1919 to cut off East Prussia from the rest of
Germany, had long been presented as a casus belli by the Nazis, as
had the ethnically German Baltic port of Danzig, but as Hitler had
told a conference of generals in May 1939, 'Danzig is not the real
issue; the real point is for us to open up our Lebensraum to the east
and ensure our supplies of foodstuffs.' Yet much more than mere
practicalities drove Hitler. This was to be an existential conflict,
fulfilling the prophecies he had made fourteen years before in his political
testimony Mein Kampf. The German master race would subjugate the
Slavs Untermenschen (subhumans) according to Nazi precepts of
racial hierarchy and use their territory to nurture a new Aryan
civilization. This was to be the world's first wholly politically
ideological war, and it is a contention of this book that that was the primary
reason why the Nazis eventually lost it.
The strategy of having a weak center and two powerful flanks was
a brilliant one, and was believed to have derived from Field Marshal
Count Alfred von Schlieffen's celebrated pre-Great War study of
Hannibal's tactics at the battle of Cannae. Whatever the provenance
it worked well, slipping German armies neatly between Polish ones
and enabling them to converge on Warsaw from different angles almost
simultaneously. Yet what made it irresistible was not German
preponderance in men and arms, but above all the new military doctrine of
Blitzkrieg. Poland was a fine testing ground for Blitzkrieg tactics:
although it had lakes, forests and bad roads, it was nonetheless flat, with
immensely wide fronts and firm, late summer ground ideal for tanks.
Because the British and French Governments, fearful that Germany
was about to invade at any moment, had given their guarantee to
Poland on 1 April 1939, with the British Prime Minister Neville
Chamberlain formally promising her 'all support in the power' of the
Allies should she be attacked, Hitler was forced to leave a large
proportion of his hundred-division Army in the west, guarding the
Siegfried Line, or 'West Wall' a 3-mile-deep series of still-incomplete
fortifications along Germany's western frontier. The fear of a war on
two fronts led the Fu¨hrer to detail no fewer than forty divisions to
protect his back. However, three-quarters of these were only second
rate units and they had been left with only three days' ammunition.
His best troops, along with all his armored and mobile divisions and
almost all his aircraft, Hitler devoted to the attack on Poland.
Plan White was drawn up by the OKH planners, with Hitler merely
putting his imprimatur on the final document. At this early stage of
the war there was a good deal of genuine mutual respect between
Hitler and his generals, aided by the fact that he had not so far
interfered too closely in their troop dispositions and planning; his two
Iron Crosses gave him some standing with his generals. Hitler's own
self-confidence in military affairs was singular. This may have come
in part from the sense of superiority of many veteran infantrymen
that it was they who had borne the brunt of the fighting in the Great
War. Both the OKW Chief of Staff Wilhelm Keitel, and his
lieutenant, the Chief of the Wehrmacht Operations Staff, Alfred Jodl, had
been artillerymen and Staff officers in the Great War: their battle had
been an indirect one, although Keitel had been wounded. General
Walther von Reichenau, Colonel-General Walther von Brauchitsch
and General Hans von Kluge were also artillerymen, and General Paul
von Kleist and Lieutenant-General Erich Manstein had been in the
cavalry (although Manstein too had been wounded). Some generals,
such as Heinz Guderian, had been in Signals, and others such as
Maximilian von Weichs had spent most of the war on the General
Staff. Whatever the reason, Hitler was not as cowed as an ex-corporal
would usually have been among generals. Although he had been a mere
Meldeganger, he would also have learnt something about tactics.
It is possible that had Hitler been a German citizen he would have
been commissioned; knowing this himself, he might well have emerged
from the war with a sense of being capable of commanding a battalion,
which only a technicality had prevented.
Many of the generals of 1939 had spent the 1920s in the paramilitary
militia known as the Freikorps and the tiny 'Treaty' Army that was permitted under
Versailles. Before Hitler came to power, this had involved little more
than Staff work, training and studying. That would not have overly
impressed Hitler, whatever titular rank those serving in it had
achieved. For all that former Lieutenant-Colonel Winston Churchill was to mock
'Corporal' Hitler for his lowly Great War rank in the trenches, the Fuhrer
seems to have been under no inferiority complex when dealing directly with
soldiers who had wildly outranked him in the previous conflict.
Plan White devoted sixty divisions to the conquest of Poland, including
five Panzer divisions of 300 tanks each, four light divisions (of
fewer tanks and some horses) and four fully motorized divisions (with
lorry-borne infantry), as well as 3,600 operational aircraft and much
of the powerful Kriegsmarine (German Navy). Poland meanwhile had
only thirty infantry divisions, eleven cavalry brigades, two mechanized
brigades, 300 medium and light tanks, 1,154 field guns and 400
aircraft ready for combat (of which only 36 Łos´ aircraft were not
obsolete), as well as a fleet of only four modern destroyers and five
submarines. Although these forces comprised fewer than one million
men, Poland tried to mobilize her reservists, but that was far from
complete when the devastating blow fell from 630,000 German troops
under Bock and 886,000 under Rundstedt.
As dawn broke on 1 September, Heinkel He-111 bombers, with
top speeds of 350kph carrying 2,000-kilogram loads, as well as
Dorniers and Junkers Ju-87 (Stuka) dive-bombers, began pounding Polish
roads, airfields, railway junctions, munition dumps, mobilization
centers and cities, including Warsaw. Meanwhile, the training ship
Schleswig Holstein in Danzig Harbor started shelling the Polish
garrison at Westerplatte. The Stukas had special sirens attached whose
screams hugely intensified the terror of those below.
Excerpted from The Storm of War by Andrew Roberts Copyright © 2011 by Andrew Roberts. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Andrew Roberts's Masters and Commanders was one of the most acclaimed, bestselling history books of 2008. His previous books include Salisbury: Victorian Titan (1999), which won the Wolfson History Prize and the James Stern Silver Pen Award for Non-Fiction, Hitler and Churchill: Secrets of Leadership (2003), which coincided with four-part BBC2 history series. He is one of Britain's most prominent journalists and broadcasters.
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