The Second World Warby Antony Beevor
Over the past two decades, Antony Beevor has established himself as one of the world's premier historians of WWII. His multi-award winning books have included Stalingrad and The Fall of Berlin 1945. Now, in his newest and most ambitious book, he turns his focus to one of the bloodiest and most tragic events of the twentieth century, the Second World War.
In this searing narrative that takes us from Hitler's invasion of Poland on September 1st, 1939 to V-J day on August 14th, 1945 and the war's aftermath, Beevor describes the conflict and its global reach--one that included every major power. The result is a dramatic and breathtaking single-volume history that provides a remarkably intimate account of the war that, more than any other, still commands attention and an audience.
Thrillingly written and brilliantly researched, Beevor's grand and provocative account is destined to become the definitive work on this complex, tragic, and endlessly fascinating period in world history, and confirms once more that he is a military historian of the first rank.
New York Times Book Review
The Independent on Sunday
"[Beevor's] book is the definitive history. This is World War II as Tolstoy would have described it - the great and the small."
"Glorious, horrifying...D-Day is a vibrant work of history that honors the sacrifice of tens of thousands of men and women."
Praise for D-DAY: "
Glorious, horrifying...D-Day is a vibrant work of history that honors the sacrifice of tens of thousands of men and women."Time"
One of Beevor's strengths is his ability to describe the day-to-day experience of ordinary soldiers: the food, the weather, the smells, the humor, the fear. . . Perhaps this is what makes Beevor's D-Day such terrific reading. It details the shattering reality of D-Day and the months of savage fighting that followed instead of offering empty mythologizing. This is that rare hardcover worth your valuable attention and money."USA Today"
The first impression on seeing D-Day on the bookshelf might be a question, "Why yet another book on D-Day?" The answer comes through in the detailed research and exhaustive treatment of individual stories as the Allies lodged ashore and then advanced on that fateful day and after, all the way to Paris...For anyone with any interest at all in World War II in Europe, especially the time from the landings through the liberation of Paris, D-Day is the book for you."Vice-Admiral Robert F. Dunn, Washington Times"
This is a superb book and a model of the historian's craft. It stands as the best one-volume history of this decisive military engagement."Christian Science Monitor"
His account of atrocities on both sides, of errors committed and of surpassing bravery makes for excellent though often blood-soaked reading. Beevor gets better with each book."Kirkus Reviews"
Beevor's history is becoming World War II's definitive account.Minneapolis Star-Tribune"
Beevor's book is a great look at how we think about "good" and "evil."Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic
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The Second World War
By Antony Beevor
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2012 Antony Beevor
All right reserved.
The Outbreak of War
On 1 June 1939, Georgii Zhukov, a short and sturdy cavalry commander, received an urgent summons to Moscow. Stalin’s purge of the Red Army, begun in 1937, still continued, so Zhukov, who had been accused once already, presumed that he had been denounced as an ‘enemy of the people’. The next stage would see him fed into Lavrenti Beria’s ‘meatgrinder’, as the NKVD’s interrogation system was known.
In the paranoia of the ‘Great Terror’, senior officers had been among the first to be shot as Trotskyite-fascist spies. Around 30,000 were arrested. Many of the most senior had been executed and the majority tortured into making ludicrous confessions. Zhukov, who had been close to a number of the victims, had kept a bag packed ready for prison since the purge began two years before. Having long expected this moment, he wrote a farewell letter to his wife. ‘For you I have this request,’ it began. ‘Do not give in to snivelling, keep steady, and try with dignity to endure the unpleasant separation honestly.’
But when Zhukov reached Moscow by train the next day, he was not arrested or taken to the Lubyanka Prison. He was told to report to the Kremlin to see Stalin’s old crony from the 1st Cavalry Army in the civil war, Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, now the people’s commissar of defence. During the purge, this ‘mediocre, faceless, intellectually dim’ soldier had strengthened his position by zealously eliminating talented commanders. Nikita Khrushchev, with earthy directness, later called him ‘the biggest bag of shit in the army’.
Zhukov heard that he was to fly out to the Soviet satellite state of Outer Mongolia. There he was to take command of the 57th Special Corps, including both Red Army and Mongolian forces, to inflict a decisive reverse on the Imperial Japanese Army. Stalin was angry that the local commander seemed to have achieved little. With the threat of war from Hitler in the west, he wanted to put an end to Japanese provocations from the puppet state of Manchukuo. Rivalry between Russia and Japan dated from Tsarist times and Russia’s humiliating defeat in 1905 had certainly not been forgotten by the Soviet regime. Under Stalin its forces in the Far East had been greatly strengthened.
The Japanese military were obsessed by the threat of Bolshevism. And ever since the signature in November 1936 of the Anti-Comintern Pact between Germany and Japan, tensions on the Mongolian frontier had increased between Red Army frontier units and the Japanese Kwantung Army. The temperature had been raised considerably by a succession of border clashes in 1937, and the major one in 1938, the Changkufeng Incident at Lake Khasan, 110 kilometres south-west of Vladivostok.
The Japanese were also angry that the Soviet Union was supporting their Chinese enemy not just economically but also with T-26 tanks, a large staff of military advisers and ‘volunteer’ air squadrons. The leaders of the Kwantung Army became increasingly frustrated with the Emperor Hirohito’s reluctance in August 1938 to allow them to respond to the Soviets in massive force. Their arrogance was based on the mistaken assumption that the Soviet Union would not strike back. They demanded carte blanche to act as they saw fit in any future border incidents. Their motives were self-interested. A low-level conflict with the Soviet Union would force Tokyo to increase the Kwantung Army, not reduce it. They feared that some of their formations might otherwise be diverted south to the war against the Chinese Nationalist armies of Chiang Kai-shek.
There was some support for the aggressive views of the Kwantung leadership within the imperial general staff in Tokyo. But the navy and the civilian politicians were deeply concerned. Pressure from Nazi Germany on Japan to regard the Soviet Union as the main enemy made them most uneasy. They did not want to become involved in a northern war along the Mongolian and Siberian borders. This split brought down the government of Prince Konoe Fumimaro. But the argument in senior government and military circles did not abate as the approach of war in Europe became self-evident. The army and extreme right-wing groups publicized and often exaggerated the growing number of clashes on the northern frontiers. And the Kwantung Army, without informing Tokyo, issued an order allowing the commander on the spot to act as he thought fit to punish the perpetrators. This was passed off under the so-called prerogative of ‘field initiative’, which allowed armies to move troops for reasons of security within their own theatre without consulting the imperial general staff.
The Nomonhan Incident, which the Soviet Union later referred to as the Battle of Khalkhin Gol after the river, began on 12 May 1939. A Mongolian cavalry regiment crossed the Khalkhin Gol to graze their shaggy little mounts on the wide, undulating steppe. They then advanced some twenty kilometres from the river, which the Japanese regarded as the border, to the large village of Nomonhan, which the Mongolian People’s Republic claimed lay on the frontier line. Manchurian forces from the Kwantung Army pushed them back to the Khalkhin Gol, then the Mongolians counter-attacked. Skirmishing back and forth continued for about two weeks. The Red Army brought up reinforcements. On 28 May, the Soviet and Mongolian forces destroyed a Japanese force of 200 men and some antiquated armoured cars. In mid-June, Red Army aviation bombers raided a number of targets while their ground forces pushed forward into Nomonhan.
Escalation rapidly followed. Red Army units in the area were re inforced by troops from the Trans-Baikal military district, as Zhukov had demanded after his arrival on 5 June. The main problem facing the Soviet forces was that they were operating over 650 kilometres from the nearest railhead, which meant a huge logistic effort with trucks over dirt roads that were so bad that the round trip took five days. This formidable difficulty at least lulled the Japanese into underestimating the fighting power of the forces Zhukov was assembling.
They sent forward to Nomonhan the 23rd Division of Lieutenant General Komatsubara Michitaro and part of the 7th Division. The Kwantung Army demanded a greatly increased air presence to support its troops. This caused concern in Tokyo. The imperial general staff sent an order forbidding retaliatory strikes and announced that one of their officers was coming over to report back on the situation. This news prompted the Kwantung commanders to complete the operation before they were restrained. On the morning of 27 June, they sent their air squadrons in a strike against Soviet bases in Outer Mongolia. The general staff in Tokyo were furious and despatched a series of orders forbidding any further air activity.
On the night of 1 July, the Japanese stormed across the Khalkhin Gol and seized a strategic hill threatening the Soviet flank. In three days of heavy fighting, however, Zhukov eventually forced them back across the river in a counter-attack with his tanks. He then occupied part of the east bank and began his great deception–what the Red Army termed maskirovka. While Zhukov was secretly preparing a major offensive, his troops gave the impression of creating a static defensive line. Badly encoded messages were sent demanding more and more materials for bunkers, loudspeakers broadcast the noise of pile-drivers, pamphlets entitled What the Soviet Soldier Must Know in Defence were distributed in prodigal quantities so that some fell into enemy hands. Zhukov, meanwhile, was bringing in tank reinforcements under cover of darkness and concealing them. His truck drivers became exhausted from ferrying up sufficient reserves of ammunition for the offensive over the terrible roads from the railhead.
On 23 July, the Japanese attacked again head-on, but they failed to break the Soviet line. Their own supply problems meant that they again had to wait some time before they were ready to launch a third assault. But they were unaware that Zhukov’s force had by now increased to 58,000 men, with nearly 500 tanks and 250 aircraft.
At 05.45 hours on Sunday, 20 August, Zhukov launched his surprise attack, first with a three-hour artillery bombardment, then with tanks and aircraft, as well as infantry and cavalry. The heat was terrible. With temperatures over 40 degrees Centigrade, machine guns and cannon are said to have jammed and the dust and smoke from explosions obscured the battlefield.
While the Soviet infantry, which included three rifle divisions and a para-troop brigade, held hard in the centre tying down the bulk of the Japanese forces, Zhukov sent his three armoured brigades and a Mongolian cavalry division from behind in encircling movements. His tanks, which forded a tributary of the Khalkhin Gol at speed, included T-26s, which had been used in the Spanish Civil War to support the Republicans, and much faster prototypes of what later became the T-34, the most effective medium tank of the Second World War. The obsolete Japanese tanks did not stand a chance. Their guns lacked armour-piercing shells.
Japanese infantry, despite having no effective anti-tank guns, fought desperately. Lieutenant Sadakaji was seen to charge a tank wielding his samurai sword until he was cut down. Japanese soldiers fought on from their earth bunkers, inflicting heavy casualties on their attackers, who in some cases brought up flamethrowing tanks to deal with them. Zhukov was undismayed by his own losses. When the commander-in-chief of the Trans-Baikal Front, who had come to observe the battle, suggested that he should halt the offensive for the moment, Zhukov gave his superior short shrift. If he stopped the attack and started it again, he argued, Soviet losses would be ten times greater ‘because of our indecisiveness’.
Despite the Japanese determination never to surrender, the Kwantung Army’s antiquated tactics and armament produced a humiliating defeat. Komatsubara’s forces were surrounded and almost completely destroyed in a protracted massacre inflicting 61,000 casualties. The Red Army lost 7,974 killed and 15,251 wounded. By the morning of 31 August, the battle was over. During its course, the Nazi–Soviet pact had been signed in Moscow, and, as it ended, German troops massed on the Polish frontiers ready to begin the war in Europe. Isolated clashes continued until the middle of September, but Stalin decided in the light of the world situation that it would be prudent to agree to Japanese requests for a ceasefire.
Zhukov, who had come to Moscow fearing arrest, now returned there to receive from Stalin’s hands the gold star of Hero of the Soviet Union. His first victory, a bright moment in a terrible period for the Red Army, had far-reaching results. The Japanese had been shaken to the core by this unexpected defeat, while their Chinese enemies, both Nationalist and Communist, were encouraged. In Tokyo, the ‘strike north’ faction, which wanted war against the Soviet Union, received a major setback. The ‘strike south’ party, led by the navy, was henceforth in the ascendant. In April 1941, to Berlin’s dismay, a Soviet–Japanese non-aggression pact would be signed just a few weeks before Operation Barbarossa, Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union. The battle of Khalkhin Gol thus represented a major influence on the subsequent Japanese decision to move against the colonies of France, the Netherlands and Britain in south-east Asia, and even take on the United States Navy in the Pacific. The consequent refusal by Tokyo to attack the Soviet Union in the winter of 1941 would thus play a critical role in the geo-political turning point of the war, both in the Far East and in Hitler’s life-and-death struggle with the Soviet Union.
Hitler’s strategy in the pre-war period had not been consistent. At times he had hoped to make an alliance with Britain in advance of his eventual intention to attack the Soviet Union, but then planned to knock it out of a continental role by a pre-emptive strike against France. To protect his eastern flank in case he did strike west first, Hitler had pushed his foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop into making overtures to Poland, offering an alliance. The Poles, well aware of the dangers of provoking Stalin, and rightly suspecting that Hitler wanted their country as a satellite, proved exceedingly cautious. Yet the Polish government had made a serious mistake out of sheer opportunism. When Germany moved into the Sudetenland in 1938, Polish forces occupied the Czechoslovak province of Teschen, which Warsaw had claimed since 1920 to be ethnically Polish, and also pushed forward the frontier in the Carpathian Mountains. This move antagonized the Soviets and dismayed the British and French governments. Polish over-confidence played into Hitler’s hands. The Poles’ idea of creating a central European bloc against German expansion–a ‘Third Europe’ as they called it–proved to be a delusion.
On 8 March 1939, shortly before his troops occupied Prague and the rest of Czechoslovakia, Hitler told his generals that he intended to crush Poland. He argued that Germany would then be able to profit from Polish resources and dominate central Europe to the south. He had decided to secure Poland’s quiescence by conquest, not by diplomacy, before attacking westwards. He also told them that he intended to destroy the ‘Jewish democracy’ of the United States.
On 23 March, Hitler seized the district of Memel from Lithuania to add to East Prussia. His programme for war was accelerated because he feared that British and French rearmament would soon catch up. Yet he still did not take seriously Chamberlain’s guarantee to Poland, announced in the House of Commons on 31 March. On 3 April, he ordered his generals to prepare plans for Operation White, an invasion of Poland which was to be ready by the end of August.
Chamberlain, reluctant to deal with Stalin out of a visceral anti-Communism, and overestimating the strength of the Poles, was slow to create a defensive bloc against Hitler across central Europe and the Balkans. In fact the British guarantee to Poland implicitly excluded the Soviet Union. Chamberlain’s government began to react to this glaring omission only when reports came of German–Soviet trade talks. Stalin, who loathed the Poles, was deeply alarmed by the failure of the British and French governments to stand up to Hitler. Their omission the previous year to include him in the discussions over the fate of Czechoslovakia had only increased his resentment. He also suspected that the British and French wanted to manoeuvre him into a conflict with Germany to avoid fighting themselves. He naturally preferred to see the capitalist states engage in their own war of attrition.
On 18 April, Stalin put the British and French governments to the test by offering an alliance with a pact promising assistance to any central European country threatened by an aggressor. The British were uncertain how to react. The first instinct of both Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary, and Sir Alexander Cadogan, his permanent under-secretary, was to consider the Soviet démarche to be ‘mischievous’ in intent. Chamberlain feared that to agree to such a move would simply provoke Hitler. In fact it spurred the Führer to seek his own accord with the Soviet dictator. In any case, the Poles and the Romanians were suspicious. They rightly feared that the Soviet Union would demand access for Red Army troops across their territory. The French, on the other hand, having seen Russia as their natural ally against Germany since before the First World War, were much keener on the idea of a Soviet alliance. They felt that they could not move without Britain, and so applied pressure on London to agree to joint military talks with the Soviet regime. Stalin was unimpressed by the hesitant British reaction, but he also had his own secret agenda of pushing the Soviet frontiers further west. He already had his eye on Romanian Bessarabia, Finland, the Baltic states and eastern Poland, especially the parts of Belorussia and Ukraine ceded to Poland after its victory in 1920. The British, finally accepting the necessity of a pact with the Soviet Union, only began to negotiate towards the end of May. But Stalin suspected, with a good deal of justification, that the British government was playing for time.
He was even less impressed by the Franco-British military delegation which departed on 5 August aboard a slow steamer to Leningrad. General Aimé Doumenc and Admiral Sir Reginald Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax lacked any power of decision. They could only report back to Paris and London. Their mission was in any case doomed to failure for other reasons. Doumenc and Drax faced an insuperable problem with Stalin’s insistence on the right of transit for Red Army troops across Polish and Romanian territory. It was a demand which neither country would countenance. Both were viscerally suspicious of Communists in general and of Stalin above all. Time was slipping away as the fruitless talks continued into the second half of August, yet even the French, who were desperate for a deal, could not persuade the government in Warsaw to concede on this point. The Polish commander-in-chief, Marshal EdwardŚmigły-Rydz, said that ‘with the Germans we risk the loss of our liberty, but with the Russians we lose our soul’.
Hitler, provoked by the British and French attempts to include Romania in a defensive pact against further German aggression, decided that it was time to consider the ideologically unthinkable step of a Nazi–Soviet pact. On 2 August, Ribbentrop first broached the idea of a new relationship with the Soviet chargé d’affaires in Berlin. ‘There is no problem from the Baltic to the Black Sea’, Ribbentrop said to him, ‘that could not be solved between the two of us.’
Ribbentrop did not hide Germany’s aggressive intentions towards Poland and hinted at a division of the spoils. Two days later, the German ambassador in Moscow indicated that Germany would consider the Baltic states as part of the Soviet sphere of influence. On 14 August, Ribbentrop suggested that he should visit Moscow for talks. Vyacheslav Molotov, the new Soviet foreign minister, expressed concern at German support for the Japanese, whose forces were still locked in combat with the Red Army either side of the Khalkhin Gol, but he nevertheless indicated a Soviet willingness to continue discussions, especially about the Baltic states.
For Stalin, the benefits became increasingly obvious. In fact he had been considering an accommodation with Hitler ever since the Munich Agreement. Preparations were taken a step further in the spring of 1939. On 3 May, NKVD troops surrounded the commissariat of foreign affairs. ‘Purge the ministry of Jews,’ Stalin had ordered. ‘Clean out the “synagogue”.’ The veteran Soviet diplomat Maxim Litvinov was replaced as foreign minister by Molotov and a number of other Jews were arrested.
An agreement with Hitler would allow Stalin to seize the Baltic states and Bessarabia, to say nothing of eastern Poland, in the event of a German invasion from the west. And knowing that Hitler’s next step would be against France and Britain, he hoped to see German power weakened in what he expected would be a bloody war with the capitalist west. This would give him time to build up the Red Army, weakened and demoralized by his purge.
For Hitler, an agreement with Stalin would enable him to launch his war, first against Poland and then against France and Britain, even without allies of his own. The so-called Pact of Steel with Italy, signed on 22 May, amounted to very little, since Mussolini did not believe his country would be ready for war until 1943. Hitler, however, still gambled on his hunch that Britain and France would shrink from war when he invaded Poland, despite their guarantees.
Nazi Germany’s propaganda war against Poland intensified. The Poles were to be blamed for the invasion being prepared against them. And Hitler took every precaution to avoid negotiations because he did not want to be deprived of a war this time by last-minute concessions.
To carry the German people with him, he exploited their deep resentment against Poland because it had received West Prussia and part of Silesia in the hated Versailles settlement. The Free City of Danzig and the Polish Corridor which, created to give Poland access to the Baltic, separated East Prussia from the rest of the Reich were brandished as two of the Versailles Treaty’s greatest injustices. Yet on 23 May the Führer had declared that the coming war was not about the Free City of Danzig, but about a war for Lebensraum in the east. Reports of the oppression against the one million ethnic Germans in Poland were grossly manipulated. Not surprisingly, Hitler’s threats to Poland had provoked discriminatory measures against them and some 70,000 fled to the Reich in late August. Polish claims that ethnic Germans were involved in acts of subversion before the conflict began were almost certainly false. In any case, allegations in the Nazi press of persecution of ethnic Germans in Poland were portrayed in dramatic terms.
On 17 August, when the German army was carrying out manoeuvres on the River Elbe, two British captains from the embassy who had been invited as observers found that the younger German officers were ‘very self-confident and sure that the German Army could take on everyone’. Their generals and senior foreign ministry officials, however, were nervous that the invasion of Poland would bring about a European war. Hitler remained convinced that the British would not fight. In any case, he reasoned, his forthcoming pact with the Soviet Union would reassure those generals who feared a war on two fronts. But on 19 August, just in case the British and French declared war, Grossadmiral Erich Raeder ordered the fast battle-cruisers, known as ‘pocket battleships’, Deutschland and Graf Spee, as well as sixteen U-boats, to put to sea and head for the Atlantic.
On 21 August at 11.30 hours, the German foreign ministry on the Wilhelmstrasse announced that a Soviet–German non-aggression pact was being proposed. When news of Stalin’s agreement to talks reached Hitler at the Berghof, his Alpine retreat at Berchtesgaden, he is supposed to have clenched his fists in victory and banged the table, declaring to his entourage: ‘I’ve got them! I’ve got them!’ ‘Germans in cafés were thrilled as they thought it would mean peace,’ observed a member of the British embassy staff. And the ambassador, Sir Nevile Henderson, reported to London soon afterwards that ‘the first impression in Berlin was one of immense relief… Once more the faith of the German people in the ability of Herr Hitler to obtain his objective without war was reaffirmed.’
The British were shaken by the news, but for the French, who had counted far more on a pact with their traditional ally Russia, it was a bombshell. Ironically, Franco in Spain and the Japanese leadership were the most appalled. They felt betrayed, having received no warning that the instigator of the Anti-Comintern Pact was now seeking an alliance with Moscow. The government in Tokyo collapsed under the shock, but the news also represented a grave blow to Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese Nationalists.
On 23 August, Ribbentrop made his historic flight to the Soviet capital. There were few sticking points in the negotiations as the two totalitarian regimes divided central Europe between them in a secret protocol. Stalin demanded all of Latvia, which Ribbentrop conceded after receiving Hitler’s prompt approval by telephone. Once both the public non-aggression pact and the secret protocols had been signed, Stalin proposed a toast to Hitler. He said to Ribbentrop that he knew ‘how much the German nation loves its Führer’.
That same day, Sir Nevile Henderson had flown down to Berchtesgaden with a letter from Chamberlain in a last-ditch attempt to avoid war. But Hitler simply blamed the British for having encouraged the Poles to adopt an anti-German stance. Henderson, although an arch-appeaser, was finally convinced that ‘the corporal of the last war was even more anxious to prove what he could do as a conquering Generalissimo in the next’. That same night, Hitler issued orders for the army to prepare to invade Poland three days later.
At 03.00 hours on 24 August, the British embassy in Berlin received a telegram from London with the codeword Rajah. Diplomats, some of them still in their pyjamas, began to burn secret papers. At midday a warning was issued to all British subjects to leave the country. The ambassador, although short of sleep from his journey to Berchtesgaden, still played bridge that evening with members of his staff.
The following day, Henderson again saw Hitler, who had come up to Berlin. The Führer offered a pact with Britain once he had occupied Poland, but he was exasperated when Henderson said that to reach any agreement he would have to desist in his aggression and evacuate Czechoslovakia as well. Once again, Hitler made his declaration that, if there was to be war, it should come now and not when he was fifty-five or sixty. That evening, to Hitler’s genuine surprise and shock, the Anglo-Polish pact was formally signed.
In Berlin, British diplomats assumed the worst. ‘We had moved all our personal luggage into the Embassy ballroom,’ one of them wrote, ‘which was now beginning to look like Victoria station after the arrival of a boat-train.’ German embassies and consulates in Britain, France and Poland were told to order German nationals to return to the Reich or move to a neutral country.
On Saturday, 26 August, the German government cancelled the commemoration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Tannenberg. But in fact this ceremony had been used to camouflage a massive concentration of troops in East Prussia. The old battleship Schleswig-Holstein had arrived off Danzig the day before, supposedly on a goodwill visit, but without any notification to the Polish government. Its magazines were filled with shells ready to bombard the Polish positions on the Wester-platte Peninsula near the estuary of the Vistula.
In Berlin that weekend, the population revelled in the glorious weather. The beaches along the Grunewald shore of the Wannsee were packed with sunbathers and swimmers. They seemed oblivious to the threat of war, despite the announcement that rationing would be introduced. At the British embassy, the staff began drinking up the stocks of champagne in the cellar. They had noted the greatly increased number of troops on the streets, many of them wearing newly issued yellow jackboots, whose leather had not yet been blackened with polish.
The start of the invasion had been planned for that day, but Hitler, taken off balance by Britain and France’s resolution to support Poland, had postponed it the evening before. He was still hoping for signs of British vacillation. Embarrassingly, a unit of Brandenburger commandos, who did not receive the cancellation order in time, had advanced into Poland to seize a key bridge. The Poles assumed that this was a Nazi provocation rather than a predatory action for invasion.
Hitler, still hoping to put the blame on Poland for the invasion, pretended to agree to negotiations, with Britain and France and also with Poland. But a black farce ensued. He refused to present any terms for the Polish government to discuss, he would not invite an emissary from Warsaw and he set a time limit of midnight on 30 August. He also rejected an offer from Mussolini’s government to mediate. On 28 August, he again ordered the army to be ready to invade on the morning of 1 September.
Ribbentrop, meanwhile, made himself unavailable to both the Polish and British ambassadors. It accorded with his habitual posture of gazing in an aloof manner into the middle distance, ignoring those around him as if they were not worthy to share his thoughts. He finally agreed to see Henderson at midnight on 30 August, just as the uncommunicated peace terms expired. Henderson demanded to know what these terms were. Ribbentrop ‘produced a lengthy document’, Henderson reported, ‘which he read out to me in German, or rather gabbled through to me as fast as he could, in a tone of the utmost annoyance… When he had finished, I accordingly asked him to let me see it. Herr von Ribbentrop refused categorically, threw the document with a contemptuous gesture on the table and said that it was now out of date since no Polish Emissary had arrived at Berlin by midnight.’ The next day, Hitler issued Directive No. 1 for Operation White, the invasion of Poland, which had been prepared over the previous five months.
In Paris, there was a grim resignation, with the memory of more than a million dead in the previous conflict. In Britain, the mass evacuation of children from London had been announced for 1 September, but the majority of the population still believed that the Nazi leader was bluffing. The Poles had no such illusions; yet there were no signs of panic in Warsaw, only determination.
The Nazis’ final attempt to manufacture a casus belli was truly representative of their methods. This act of black propaganda had been planned and organized by Reinhard Heydrich, deputy to Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler. Heydrich had carefully selected a group of his most trusted SS men. They would fake an attack both on a German customs post and on the radio station near the border town of Gleiwitz, then put out a message in Polish. The SS would shoot some drugged prisoners from Sachsenhausen concentration camp dressed in Polish uniforms, and leave their bodies as evidence. On the afternoon of 31 August, Heydrich telephoned the officer he had put in charge of the project to give the coded phrase to launch the operation: ‘Grandmother dead!’ It was chillingly symbolic that the first victims of the Second World War in Europe should have been concentration camp prisoners murdered for a lie.
‘The Wholesale Destruction of Poland’
In the early hours of 1 September 1939, German forces stood ready to cross the Polish frontier. For all except veterans of the First World War, it would be their first experience of battle. Like most soldiers, they pondered in the isolation of darkness on their chances of survival and whether they would disgrace themselves. As they waited to start their engines, a panzer commander on the border of Silesia described his ghostly surroundings: ‘The dark forest, full moon and a light ground mist provide a fantastical scene.’
At 04.45 hours, the first shells fired came from the sea near Danzig. The Schleswig-Holstein, a veteran of the 1916 Battle of Jutland, had moved during the pre-dawn darkness into position off the Westerplatte Peninsula. It opened fire on the Polish fortress with its 280mm main armament. A company of Kriegsmarine assault troops, who had been hidden aboard the Schleswig-Holstein, later stormed ashore but were bloodily repelled. In Danzig itself, Polish volunteers rushed to defend the central post office on the Heveliusplatz, but they stood little chance against the Nazi stormtroopers, SS and regular forces smuggled into the city. Almost all the Polish survivors were executed after the battle.
Nazi banners appeared on public buildings, and church bells rang while priests, teachers and other prominent Poles in the city were rounded up as well as Jews. Work on the nearby Stutthof concentration camp was to be speeded up to accommodate the influx of new prisoners. Later in the war, Stutthof would supply the bodies for the experiments in the Danzig Anatomical Medical Institute to process human corpses for leather and soap.
Hitler’s postponement of the invasion by six days had given the Wehrmacht the opportunity to mobilize and deploy twenty-one more infantry divisions and two extra motorized divisions. Altogether the German army now mustered almost three million men, 400,000 horses and 200,000 ve hicles. One and a half million troops had moved to the Polish frontier, many with blank cartridges on the pretext that they were on manoeuvres. There was no further uncertainty about their mission once they were instructed to load ball ammunition instead.
Poland’s forces, in stark contrast, were not fully deployed because the British and French governments had warned Warsaw that a premature call-up might give Hitler the excuse to attack. The Poles had delayed the order for general mobilization until 28 August, but then cancelled it again the next day when the British and French ambassadors urged them to hold back in the last-minute hope of negotiations. It was finally issued once more on 30 August. These changes caused chaos. Only about a third of Poland’s 1.3 million badly armed soldiers were in position on 1 September.
Their only hope was to resist until the French could launch their promised offensive in the west. General Maurice Gamelin, the commander-in-chief, had guaranteed on 19 May that the French army would come with ‘the bulk of its forces’ no later than the fifteenth day after his government ordered mobilization. But time as well as geography was against the Poles. It would not take the Germans long to reach their heartland from East Prussia in the north, Pomerania and Silesia in the west and German-dominated Slovakia in the south. Having no knowledge of the secret protocol to the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, the Polish government did not attempt to defend its eastern frontier in strength. The idea of a double in vasion coordinated between the Nazi and Soviet governments still seemed to represent a political paradox too far.
At 04.50 hours on 1 September, as German troops waited for the moment of attack they heard the roar of aircraft coming from behind. And as the waves of Stukas, Messerschmitts and Heinkels passed over their heads, they cheered in the knowledge that the Luftwaffe was about to hit Polish airfields in a pre-emptive strike. German soldiers had been told by their officers that the Poles would fight back with underhand tactics, using civilian sharpshooters and sabotage. Polish Jews were said to be ‘friendly to the Bolsheviks and German-haters’.
The Wehrmacht’s plan was to invade Poland simultaneously from the north, west and east. Its advance was to be ‘swift and ruthless’, using both armoured columns and the Luftwaffe to catch the Poles before they could establish proper lines of defence. Army Group North’s formations attacked from Pomerania and East Prussia. Its priorities were to link up across the Danzig Corridor and advance south-eastwards on Warsaw. Army Group South commanded by Generaloberst Gerd von Rundstedt was to advance rapidly from southern Silesia towards Warsaw on a broader front. The intention was for the two army groups to cut off the bulk of the Polish army west of the Vistula. The Tenth Army, forming the centre of the southern sickle, had the greatest number of motorized formations. To its right, the Fourteenth Army would advance towards Kraków, while three mountain divisions, a panzer division, a motorized division and three Slovak divisions attacked north from the German puppet-state of Slovakia.
In central Berlin on the morning of the invasion, SS guards lined the Wilhelmstrasse and the Pariser Platz as Hitler made his way from the Reichschancellery to the Kroll Opera House. This is where the Reichstag sat after the notorious fire which had burned out the parliament building less than a month after the Nazis came to power in 1933. He claimed that his reasonable demands on Poland, those which he had been careful never to present to Warsaw, had been rejected. This ‘sixteen-point peace plan’ was published that day in a cynical attempt to demonstrate that the Warsaw government was responsible for the conflict. To great cheers, he announced the return of Danzig to the Reich. Dr Carl Jakob Burckhardt, the League of Nations high commissioner in the Free City, was forced to leave.
In London, once certain clarifications had been obtained on the facts of the invasion, Chamberlain issued the order for general mobilization. In the course of the previous ten days, Britain had been taking initial steps to prepare for war. Chamberlain had not wanted full mobilization because that might provoke a chain reaction in Europe, as had happened in 1914. Anti-aircraft and coastal defences had been the first priority. Attitudes had changed dramatically as soon as news of the German invasion arrived. Nobody now could believe that Hitler was bluffing. The mood in the country and in the House of Commons was much more determined than before the Munich crisis of the previous year. The Cabinet and the foreign office nevertheless took most of the day to draft an ultimatum to Hitler demanding that he withdraw his troops from Poland. Yet even when finished, it did not read like a full ultimatum because it lacked a cut-off point.
After the French council of ministers had received a report from their ambassador Robert Coulondre in Berlin, Daladier gave the order for full mobilization the next day. ‘The actual word for “war” is not uttered in the course of the meeting,’ one of those present noted. It was referred to only by euphemisms. Instructions for the evacuation of children from both capitals were also issued. There was a widespread expectation that hostilities would commence with massive bombing raids. A blackout was imposed from that evening in both capitals.
In Paris, news of the invasion had come as a shock, since hopes had risen over previous days that a European conflict could be avoided. Georges Bonnet, the foreign minister and most extreme appeaser of all, blamed the Poles for their ‘stupid and obstinate attitude’. He still wanted to bring in Mussolini as mediator for another Munich-style agreement. But the ‘mobilisation générale’ continued, with trains full of reservists pulling out of the Gare de l’Est in Paris towards Metz and Strasbourg.
Not surprisingly, the Polish government in Warsaw began to fear that the Allies had once again lost their nerve. Even politicians in London suspected from the imprecise note and the lack of time limit that Chamberlain might yet try to evade the commitment to Poland. But Britain and France were following the conventional diplomatic route, almost as if to emphasize their difference to the proponent of undeclared Blitzkrieg.
In Berlin, the night of 1 September remained unusually hot. Moonlight illuminated the darkened streets of the Reich capital now under blackout in case of Polish air raids. Another form of blackout was also imposed. Goebbels introduced a law making it a serious crime to listen to a foreign radio station. Ribbentrop refused to see the British and French ambassadors together, so at 21.20 hours Henderson delivered his note demanding an immediate withdrawal of German forces from Poland. Coulondre delivered the French version half an hour later. Hitler, perhaps encouraged by the unrobust phrasing of the notes, remained convinced that both their governments would still back off at the last moment.
The next day, staff at the British embassy bade farewell to their German servants, before moving into the Adlon Hotel just round the corner. A certain diplomatic limbo seemed to ensue in all three capitals. Suspicions of renewed appeasement resurfaced again in London, but the delay was due to a request from the French who said they needed more time to mobilize their reservists and evacuate civilians. Both governments were convinced of the need to act together, but Georges Bonnet and his allies still struggled to put off the fateful moment. Unfortunately, the famously indecisive Daladier allowed Bonnet to continue to foster notions of an international conference with the Fascist government in Rome. Bonnet rang London to urge British support, but both Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary, and Chamberlain, insisted that no discussions could take place while German troops remained on Polish territory. Halifax also rang the Italian foreign minister, Count Ciano, to remove any doubt on the matter.
The failure to impose a time limit on the vague ultimatum had brought on a Cabinet crisis in London towards the end of that afternoon. Chamberlain and Halifax explained the need to stay alongside the French, which meant that the final decision lay with them. But the sceptics, backed up by the chiefs of staff who were present, rejected this logic. They feared that, without a firm British initiative, the French would not move. A time limit had to be imposed. Chamberlain was even more shaken by his reception in the House of Commons less than three hours later. His explanation for the delay in declaring war was heard in a hostile silence. Then, when Arthur Greenwood, acting as the Labour Party’s leader, rose to reply, even staunch Conservatives were heard to call out: ‘Speak for England!’ Green-wood made it quite clear that Chamberlain should answer to the House the very next morning.
That night, as a thunderstorm raged outside, Chamberlain and Halifax summoned the French ambassador, Charles Corbin, to Downing Street. They rang Paris to speak to Daladier and Bonnet. The French government still did not wish to be hurried, even though Daladier had received full support for war credits in the Chambre des Députés a few hours earlier. (The very word ‘war’ was still superstitiously avoided in French official circles. Instead, euphemisms such as the ‘obligations de la situation internationale’ had been used throughout the debate in the Palais Bourbon.) Since Chamberlain was now convinced that his government would be brought down the next morning if a precise ultimatum was not presented, Daladier finally accepted that France could not delay any longer. He promised that his country’s ultimatum would also be delivered the following day. Chamberlain then summoned the British Cabinet. Shortly before midnight a final ultimatum was drafted and agreed. It would be delivered at 09.00 hours the next day by Sir Nevile Henderson in Berlin and would expire two hours later.
On the morning of Sunday, 3 September, Sir Nevile Henderson carried out his instructions to the letter. Hitler, who had been reassured constantly by Ribbentrop that the British would back down, was clearly stunned. After the text had been read out to him, there was a long silence. Finally, he turned angrily to Ribbentrop and demanded: ‘What now?’ Ribbentrop, an arrogant poseur whose own mother-in-law had described him as ‘an extremely dangerous fool’, had long assured Hitler that he knew exactly how the British would react. Now he was left without an answer. After Coulondre had delivered France’s ultimatum later, Göring said to Hitler’s interpreter, ‘If we lose this war, may heaven have mercy on us.’
After the thunderstorm of the night before, the morning in London was clear and sunny. There was no reply from Berlin to the ultimatum by the time Big Ben rang eleven times. Henderson in Berlin confirmed in a telephone call that he had also heard nothing. In the Chancery, a third secretary on his staff stopped the clock at eleven and pasted a note to its glass front saying that it would not be restarted until Hitler had been defeated.
At 11.15 hours, Chamberlain made his broadcast to the nation from the Cabinet Room in 10 Downing Street. All over the country, people stood up when the national anthem was played at the end. A number were in tears. The prime minister had spoken both simply and eloquently, but many remarked on how sad and tired he sounded. Just after his brief talk had finished, air-raid sirens began their howling. People trooped down into cellars and shelters expecting waves of black aircraft overhead. But it was a false alarm and the all-clear soon sounded. A widespread and very British reaction was to put on the kettle for a cup of tea. And yet the reaction was far from universally phlegmatic, as a report by the research organization Mass Observation showed. ‘Nearly every town of any importance was rumoured to have been bombed to ruins during the early days of the war,’ it stated. ‘Planes had been seen by hundreds of eye-witnesses falling in flames.’
Troops in three-ton army trucks crossing the city were heard to be singing ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’, which despite its jolly tune reminded people of the horrors of the First World War. London was putting on its war apparel. In Hyde Park opposite Knightsbridge barracks, steam shovels began digging truckloads of earth to be poured into the sandbags which would shield government buildings. The King’s Guard at Buck-ingham Palace had changed from bearskins and scarlet tunics. They now wore steel helmets and battledress with knife-edge creases. Silver barrage balloons floated over the city, completely changing the skyline. Red pillar boxes had yellow patches of detector paint sensitive to poison gas. Windows were criss-crossed with strips of sticky paper to reduce the threat of flying glass. The crowds changed too, with many more uniforms and civilians carrying their gas-masks in cardboard cartons. Railway stations were packed with evacuee children, a luggage label tied to their clothes indicating their names and addresses, clutching rag dolls and teddy bears. At night, with the blackout imposed, nothing was recognizable. Only a few drivers ventured forth very cautiously with their car headlights semi-masked. Many simply sat at home listening to the BBC on the wireless behind blackout blinds.
Australia and New Zealand also declared war on Germany in the course of the day. The British-controlled government of India did likewise, but without consulting any Indian political leaders. South Africa declared war three days later after a change of government, and Canada officially entered the war the following week. That night the British liner Athenia was sunk by the German submarine U-30. Out of the 112 lives lost, 28 were North Americans. Overlooked that day was Chamberlain’s less than enthusiastic decision to bring his greatest critic into the government. Churchill’s return to the Admiralty, over which he had presided at the start of the last war, prompted the First Sea Lord to signal all ships in the Royal Navy: ‘Winston is back!’
There was little celebration in Berlin when the news of Britain’s declaration of war was announced. Most Germans were dazed and dejected by the news. They had counted on Hitler’s run of brazen luck, believing that it would give him victory over Poland without a European conflict. Then, despite all of Bonnet’s attempts to prevaricate, the French ultimatum (whose text still avoided the dreaded word ‘war’) expired at 17.00 hours. Although the prevailing attitude in France was the resigned shrug of il faut en finir–‘it must be got over with’–the anti-militarist left seemed to agree with defeatists on the right that they did not want ‘to die for Danzig’. Even more alarmingly, some senior French officers began to convince themselves that the British had pushed them into the war. ‘It’s to present us with a fait accompli,’ wrote General Paul de Villelume, the chief liaison officer with the government, ‘because the English fear we might go soft.’ Nine months later he was to bring a strongly defeatist influence to bear on the next prime minister, Paul Reynaud.
News of the double declaration of war nevertheless produced scenes of fierce joy in Warsaw. Unaware of French doubts, cheering Poles gathered in front of the two embassies. The national anthems of the three Allies were played on the wireless. A wild optimism convinced many Poles that the promised French offensive would rapidly turn the course of the war in their favour.
There were, however, uglier scenes in other areas. Some Poles turned on ethnic German neighbours to exact revenge for the invasion. In the fear, anger and chaos caused by the sudden war, ethnic Germans were attacked in a number of places. On 3 September at Bydgoszcz (Bromberg), random firing against Poles in the streets led to a massacre in which 223 ethnic Germans died, although the official German history puts the figure at 1,000. Estimates of the total number of ethnic Germans killed throughout Poland vary from 2,000 to 13,000, but the most likely figure is around 6,000. Goebbels later inflated the total to 58,000 in an attempt to justify the German programme of ethnic cleansing against the Poles.
On that first day of European war, the German Fourth Army attacking from Pomerania finally secured the Danzig Corridor at its broadest point. East Prussia was physically rejoined with the rest of the Reich. Leading elements of the Fourth Army also seized a bridgehead across the lower Vistula.
The Third Army attacking from East Prussia pushed south-east towards the River Narew in its move to outflank Modlin and Warsaw. Army Group South, meanwhile, forced back the Łódź and Kraków armies, inflicting heavy casualties. The Luftwaffe, having eliminated the bulk of the Polish air force, now concentrated on flying in close support to the Wehrmacht ground forces and smashing cities behind the Polish lines to block communications.
German soldiers soon expressed a horror and contempt for the state of the poor Polish villages they passed through. Many seemed empty of Poles, but full of Jews. Soldiers described the villages as ‘appallingly dirty and very backward’. The reactions of German soldiers were even more intense when they saw ‘eastern Jews’ with beards and kaftans. Their physical appearance, their ‘evasive eyes’ and their ‘ingratiatingly friendly’ manner as they ‘respectfully took off their hats’ seemed to correspond much more closely to the caricatures of Nazi propaganda in the viciously anti-semitic newspaper Der Stürmer than the integrated Jewish neighbours they had come across back in the Reich. ‘Every person’, wrote a Gefreiter (lance corporal), ‘who was not already a ruthless enemy of the Jews, must become one here.’ Ordinary German soldiers, not just members of the SS, took to maltreating Jews with gusto by beatings, cutting off the beards of elders, humiliating and even raping young women (despite the Nuremberg Laws against miscegenation) and setting fire to synagogues.
Above all, soldiers remembered the warnings they had received about the dangers of sabotage and being shot in the back by francs-tireurs. If an isolated shot was heard, suspicion often fell on any Jews around, even though partisan attacks were far more likely to have come from Poles. A number of massacres appear to have been carried out after a nervous sentry opened fire, and everyone else joined in, with German troops sometimes shooting at each other. Officers were appalled by the lack of fire discipline, but seemed powerless to stop what they called this Freischärlerpsychose, an obsessive fear of being shot at by armed civilians. (They sometimes called it a Heckenschützenpsychose–literally an obsession with being shot at from hedgerows.) But few officers did much to stop the blind revenge exacted afterwards. Grenades would be lobbed into cellars, which was where families, rather than partisans, sheltered. Soldiers regarded this as legitimate self-defence, not a war crime.
The German army’s long-standing obsession with francs-tireurs produced a pattern of summary executions and burned-down villages. Very few units bothered to waste time with legal procedures. In their view, Poles and Jews simply did not deserve such niceties. Some formations murdered civilians more than others. The SS division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, from which the Führer’s bodyguard came, appears to have been the worst. Much of the killing, however, was carried out behind the lines by the SS Einsatzgruppen, the Security Police and the Volksdeutscher Selbstschutz militia (Ethnic German Self-Defence), who longed for revenge.
German sources state that more than 16,000 civilians were executed during the five-week campaign. The true figure may be much higher, as it came close to 65,000 by the end of the year. Some 10,000 Poles and Jews were massacred in gravel pits near Mniszek by ethnic German militia, and another 8,000 in a wood near Karlshof. Houses and occasionally entire villages would also be torched as collective reprisals. Altogether over 500 villages and towns were burned to the ground. In some places, the line of German advance was marked at night by the red glow on the horizon from blazing villages and farms.
Soon Jews as well as Poles hid themselves when German troops arrived. This made the soldiers even more nervous, since they became convinced not only that they were being watched from cellar windows and skylights, but that unseen weapons were pointed at them. At times it almost seems as if many soldiers longed to destroy what they saw as these insalubrious and hostile villages so that the infection they represented in their minds could not spread to neighbouring Germany. This did not, however, stop them from looting at every opportunity–money, clothes, jewellery, food and bedding. In yet another confusion of cause and effect, the hatred they encountered during their invasion somehow seemed to justify the invasion itself.
The Polish army, although fighting often with desperate bravery, was severely handicapped not just by its obsolete weaponry, but above all by its lack of radios. The withdrawal of one formation could not be communicated to those on its flanks, with disastrous results. Marshal Śmigły-Rydz, the commander-in-chief, was already convinced that the war was lost. Even if the French were to launch their promised offensive, it would come too late. On 4 September, an increasingly confident Hitler told Goebbels that he did not fear an attack from the west. He foresaw a Kartoffelkrieg there–a stationary ‘potato war’.
The ancient university city of Kraków was taken on 6 September by the Fourteenth Army, and the advance of Rundstedt’s Army Group South continued apace as the Polish defenders stumbled in retreat. But three days later the army high command–the OKH or Oberkommando des Heeres–became concerned that the Polish armies might be evading the planned encirclement west of the Vistula. Two corps from Army Group North were therefore ordered to push further east, if necessary to the line of the River Bug and beyond to trap them on a second line.
Near Danzig, the heroic Polish defenders of the Westerplatte positions, having run out of ammunition, were finally battered into submission on 7 September by Stukas and the heavy guns of the Schleswig-Holstein. The old battleship then turned north to help in the attack on the port of Gdynia, which held out until 19 September.
In central Poland resistance had hardened as the Germans came closer to the capital. A column from the 4th Panzer Division reached the edges of the city on 10 September, but was forced to make a rapid retreat. The Poles’ determination to fight for Warsaw was shown by the concentration of their artillery on the east bank of the Vistula ready to fire into their own city. On 11 September, the Soviet Union withdrew its ambassador and diplomatic personnel from Warsaw, but the Poles still had little idea of the stab-in-the-back being prepared from the east.
Elsewhere, German encirclements of Polish troops using their mechanized forces had already started to produce large numbers of prisoners. On 16 September, the Germans began a massive encirclement battle eighty kilometres east of Warsaw, having trapped two Polish armies in the fork of the Rivers Bzura and Vistula. Polish resistance was finally broken by massive Luftwaffe strikes on troop concentrations. Altogether around 120,000 prisoners were taken. The brave Polish air force, with just 159 old-fashioned fighters did not stand a chance against the sleek Messerschmitts.
Any remaining Polish illusions of being saved by an Allied offensive in the west were soon dashed. General Gamelin, with the support of the French prime minister Daladier, refused to consider any move until the British Expeditionary Force had deployed and all his reservists were mobilized. He also argued that France needed to purchase military equipment from the United States. In any case French army doctrine was fundamentally defensive. Gamelin, despite his promise to Poland, shied away from any idea of a major offensive, believing that the Rhine Valley and the Germans’ Westwall line of defence could not be breached. The British were scarcely more aggressive. They called the Westwall ‘the Siegfried Line’: the one on which, according to their cheerful Phoney War song, they wanted to hang out their washing. The British felt that time was on their side, with the curious logic that a blockade of Germany was their best strategy, despite the obvious flaw that the Soviet Union could help Hitler procure whatever his war industries needed.
Many British people felt ashamed at the lack of aggression shown to help the Poles. The RAF began flying over Germany, dropping propaganda leaflets, which led to jokes about ‘Mein Pamph’ and the ‘confetti war’. A bombing raid on the German naval base at Wilhelmshaven on 4 September had proved humiliatingly ineffective. Advance parties of the British Expeditionary Force landed in France the same day, and over the next five weeks a total of 158,000 men crossed the Channel. But there were no clashes with German forces until December.
The French did little more than advance a few kilometres on to German territory near Saarbrücken. At first the Germans feared a major attack. Hitler was particularly concerned, with the bulk of his army in Poland, but the very limited nature of the offensive showed that this was no more than a token gesture. The armed forces high command–the OKW or Oberkommando der Wehrmacht–soon relaxed again. No troops had to be transferred. The French and British had failed in their obligations shamefully, especially since the Poles in July had already handed over to Britain and France their reconstructions of the German Enigma enciphering machine.
On 17 September, Poland’s martyrdom was sealed when Soviet forces crossed its long eastern frontier in line with the secret protocol signed in Moscow less than a month before. The Germans were surprised that they had not moved before, but Stalin had calculated that if he attacked too soon the western Allies might feel obliged to declare war on the Soviet Union as well. The Soviets claimed, with perhaps predictable cynicism, that Polish provocations had forced them to intervene to protect ethnic Belorussians and Ukrainians. In addition, the Kremlin argued that the Soviet Union was no longer bound by its non-aggression treaty with Poland because the Warsaw government had ceased to exist. The Polish government had indeed left Warsaw that very morning, but purely to escape before it was trapped by Soviet forces. Its ministers had to race for the Romanian frontier before their route was cut by Red Army units advancing from Kamenets-Podolsk in south-western Ukraine.
The traffic jams of military vehicles and civilian motorcars backed up from the border posts were immense, but eventually the defeated Poles were allowed through that night. Almost all had taken a handful of earth or a stone from the Polish side before they left. Many were in tears. Several committed suicide. The ordinary Romanian people were kind to the exiles, but the government was under pressure from Germany to hand the Poles back. Bribery saved the majority from arrest and internment, unless the officer in charge was a supporter of the fascist Iron Guard. Some Poles escaped in small groups. Larger parties organized by the Polish authorities in Bucharest shipped out of Constanza and other Black Sea ports to make their way to France. Others escaped through Hungary, Yugoslavia and Greece, while a smaller number, who faced greater problems, made their way north into the Baltic states and then across to Sweden.
On Hitler’s instruction, the OKW rapidly issued orders to German formations beyond the Bug to prepare to pull back. Close cooperation between Berlin and Moscow ensured that German withdrawals from the areas allocated to the Soviet Union under the secret protocol were coordinated with the advancing Red Army formations.
The first contact between the unlikely allies took place north of Brest-Litovsk (Brześć). And on 22 September the great fortress of Brest-Litovsk was handed over to the Red Army during a ceremonial parade. Unfortunately for the Soviet officers involved, this contact with German officers later made them prime targets for arrest by Beria’s NKVD.
Polish resistance continued as surrounded formations still tried to break out, and isolated soldiers formed irregular groups to fight on in the less accessible areas of forest, marsh and mountain. Roads to the east were choked with refugees, using farm-carts, dilapidated vehicles and even bicycles in their attempt to escape the fighting. ‘The enemy always came from the air,’ wrote a young Polish soldier, ‘and even when they flew very low, they were still beyond the range of our old Mausers. The spectacle of the war rapidly became monotonous; day after day we saw the same scenes: civilians running to save themselves from air raids, convoys dispersing, trucks or carts on fire. The smell along the road was unchanging too. It was the smell of dead horses that no one had bothered to bury and that stank to high heaven. We moved only at night and we learned to sleep while marching. Smoking was forbidden out of fear that the glow of a cigarette could bring down on us the all-powerful Luftwaffe.’
Warsaw meanwhile remained the chief bastion of Polish defiance. Hitler was impatient for the subjugation of the Polish capital, so the Luftwaffe began intensive bombing raids. It faced little opposition in the air and the city lacked effective anti-aircraft defences. On 20 September, the Luftwaffe attacked Warsaw and Modlin with 620 aircraft. And the next day, Göring ordered both the First and the Fourth Air Fleets to mount massive attacks. The bombing continued at maximum strength–the Luftwaffe even brought in Junkers 52 transport planes to drop incendiaries–until Warsaw surrendered on 1 October. The stench from corpses buried by rubble and the bloated bodies of horses in the streets became overwhelming. Some 25,000 civilians and 6,000 soldiers had been killed in these raids.
On 28 September, while Warsaw was under attack, Ribbentrop flew to Moscow again and signed an additional ‘boundary and friendship treaty’ with Stalin making various alterations to the demarcation line. This allowed the Soviet Union almost all of Lithuania in return for a slight increase in German-occupied Polish territory. Ethnic Germans in Soviet occupied territories would be transferred to Nazi areas. Stalin’s regime also handed over many German Communists and other political opponents. Both governments then issued a call for an end to the European war now that the ‘Polish question’ had been resolved.
There can be little doubt about who gained most from the two agreements which formed the Nazi–Soviet pact. Germany, threatened with a naval blockade by Britain, was now able to obtain all it needed to prosecute the war. Apart from everything supplied by the Soviet Union, including grain, oil and manganese used in steel-making, Stalin’s government also acted as a conduit for other materials, especially rubber, which Germany could not purchase abroad.
At the same time as the talks in Moscow, the Soviets began to apply pressure to the Baltic states. On 28 September, a treaty of ‘mutual assistance’ was imposed on Estonia. Then, over the next two weeks Latvia and Lithuania were forced to sign similar treaties. Despite Stalin’s personal assurance that their sovereignty would be respected, all three states were incorporated into the Soviet Union early the following summer, and the NKVD proceeded to deport some 25,000 ‘undesirables’.
While the Nazis accepted Stalin’s takeover of the Baltic states and even his seizure of Bessarabia from Romania, they found his ambitions to control the Black Sea coast and the mouth of the Danube close to the Ploesti oilfields not merely provocative but threatening.
Isolated Polish resistance continued well into October, but the scale of the defeat was savage. The Polish armed forces fighting the Germans are estimated to have lost 70,000 killed, 133,000 wounded and 700,000 captured. Total German casualties ran to 44,400, of whom 11,000 were fatal. The small Polish air force had been annihilated, but the Luftwaffe’s losses of 560 aircraft during the campaign, mainly from crashes and ground-fire, were surprisingly heavy. The available casualty estimates from the Soviet invasion are chilling. The Red Army is said to have lost 996 men killed and 2,002 wounded, while the Poles are said to have suffered 50,000 fatal casualties, without any figure for wounded. Such a disparity can perhaps only be explained by executions, and may well include the massacres perpetrated the following spring, including that of the Katyń Forest.
Hitler did not declare the death of the Polish state immediately. He hoped that October to encourage the British and the French to come to an agreement. The lack of an Allied offensive in the west to help the Poles made him think that the British and especially the French did not really want to continue the war. On 5 October, after taking the salute at a victory parade in Warsaw with Generalmajor Erwin Rommel beside him, he spoke to foreign journalists. ‘Gentlemen,’ he said. ‘You have seen the ruins of Warsaw. Let that be a warning to those statesmen in London and Paris who still think of continuing the war.’ The next day, he announced a ‘peace offer’ in the Reichstag. But when this was rejected by both Allied governments, and once it became clear that the Soviet Union was determined to eradicate any Polish identity in its zone, Hitler finally resolved to destroy Poland completely.
Poland under German occupation was divided between its General-gouvernement in the centre and south-west and those areas which were to be incorporated into the Reich (Danzig-West Prussia and East Prussia in the north, the Wartheland in the west and Upper Silesia in the south). A massive programme of ethnic cleansing began to empty the latter ‘Germanized’ areas. They were to be colonized by Volksdeutsche from the Baltic states, Romania and elsewhere in the Balkans. Polish cities were renamed. Łódź was called Litzmannstadt after a German general killed near there in the First World War. Poznań returned to its Prussian name of Posen, and became the capital of the Warthegau.
The Catholic Church in Poland, a symbol of the country’s patriotism, was relentlessly persecuted through the arrest and deportation of priests. In an attempt to eliminate Polish culture and destroy a future leadership, schools and universities were closed. Only the most basic education would be permitted, sufficient only for a helot class. The professors and staff at Kraków University were deported in November to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Polish political prisoners were sent to a former cavalry barracks at Oświe˛cim, which was renamed Auschwitz.
Nazi Party officials began selecting large numbers of Poles for labour in Germany as well as young women to work as domestic servants. Hitler told the army commander-in-chief General Walther von Brauchitsch, they wanted ‘cheap slaves’ and to clear the ‘rabble’ out of the newly acquired German territory. Blond children who corresponded to Aryan ideals were seized and sent back to Germany for adoption. Albert Förster, the Gauleiter (or regional leader) of Danzig-West Prussia, however, outraged Nazi purists when he permitted a massive reclassification of Poles as ethnic Germans. For the Poles concerned, however humiliating and distasteful, this redesignation of their origins offered the only way to avoid deportation and the loss of their homes. The men, however, soon found themselves conscripted into the Wehrmacht.
Hitler issued an amnesty order on 4 October to troops who had killed prisoners and civilians. They were presumed to have acted ‘from bitterness over atrocities committed by Poles’. Many officers were uneasy at what they saw as a loosening of military discipline. ‘We have seen and witnessed wretched scenes in which German soldiers burn and plunder, murder, and loot without thinking about it,’ an artillery battalion commander wrote. ‘Grown men, who without being conscious of what they were doing–and without any scruples–contravene laws and instructions and the honour of the German soldier.’
Generalleutnant Johannes Blaskowitz, the commander-in-chief of the Eighth Army, protested vehemently at the killing of civilians by the SS and their auxiliaries–the Sicherheitspolizei (Security Police) and the Volksdeutscher Selbstschutz. Hitler, on hearing of his memorandum, said in a fury that ‘you can’t run a war on Salvation Army lines’. Any other objections from the army were also dealt with in scathing terms. Yet many German officers still believed that Poland did not deserve to exist. Hardly any had objected to the invasion on moral grounds. As former members of the Freikorps in the violent chaos which followed the First World War, some of the older officers had been involved in bitter fighting against the Poles in frontier battles, especially in Silesia.
In a number of ways the Polish campaign and its aftermath became a trial run for Hitler’s subsequent Rassenkrieg, or race war against the Soviet Union. Some 45,000 Polish and Jewish civilians were shot, mainly by ordinary German soldiers. The SS Einsatzgruppen machine-gunned the inmates of mental asylums. An Einsatzgruppe had been allocated to the rear area of each army, under the codename Operation Tannenberg, to capture and even kill aristocrats, judges, prominent journalists, professors and any other person who might provide some form of leadership for a Polish resistance movement in the future. On 19 September, SS Obergruppenführer Heydrich told General der Artillerie Franz Halder, the army chief of staff, quite openly that there would be ‘a clear-out: Jews, intelligentsia, priesthood, aristocracy’. At first the terror was chaotic, especially that carried out by the ethnic German militia, but towards the end of the year it became more coherent and directed.
Although Hitler never wavered in his hatred of the Jews, the industrial genocide which began in 1942 had not always been part of his plan. He exulted in his obsessive anti-semitism and established the Nazi mindset that Europe had to be ‘cleansed’ of all Jewish influence. But his plans before the war had not included a murderous annihilation. They had concentrated on creating an unbearable oppression which would force Jews to emigrate.
Nazi policy on the ‘Jewish question’ had fluctuated. In fact the very term ‘policy’ is misleading when one considers the institutional disorder of the Third Reich. Hitler’s dismissive attitude towards administration permitted an extraordinary proliferation of competing departments and ministries. Their rivalries, especially those between the Gauleiters and other Nazi Party officials, the SS, and the army, produced an astonishingly wasteful lack of cohesion which was totally at variance with the regime’s image of ruthless efficiency. Seizing on a random comment from the Führer, or trying to second-guess his wishes, competitors for his favour would initiate programmes without consulting other interested organizations.
On 21 September 1939, Heydrich issued an order laying down ‘preliminary measures’ for dealing with Poland’s Jewish population, which, at about three and a half million before the invasion, had represented 10 per cent of the population, the highest proportion in Europe. The Soviet zone held about one and a half million, a figure which was increased by the 350,000 Jews who had fled eastwards in front of the German armies. Heydrich ordered that those who still remained on German territory were to be concentrated in larger cities with good rail links. A massive movement of population was envisaged. On 30 October, Himmler gave instructions that all Jews in the Warthegau were to be forcibly transported to the Generalgouvernement. Their houses would then be given to Volksdeutsche settlers, who had never lived within the borders of the Reich and whose spoken German was often said to be incomprehensible.
Hans Frank, the overbearing and corrupt Nazi bully who ran the Generalgouvernement for his own profit from the royal castle in Kraków, was angry when told to prepare for the reception of several hundred thousand Jews as well as displaced Poles. No plan had been made to house or feed the victims of this forced migration, and nobody had thought what to do with them. In theory, those Jews fit enough would be used for forced labour. The rest would be confined in temporary ghettos in the larger cities until they could be resettled. Jews trapped in the ghettos, deprived of money and with little food, were in many cases left to die of starvation and disease. Although not yet a programme of outright annihilation, it represented an important step in that direction. And as the difficulties of resettling Jews in an as yet undesignated ‘colony’ proved greater than imagined, the idea soon began to grow that killing them might be easier than moving them around.
While the looting, killing and chaotic conditions in Nazi-occupied areas made life appalling, it was scarcely better for Poles on the Soviet side of the new internal frontier.
Stalin’s hatred of Poland went back to the Soviet–Polish War and the defeat of the Red Army at the Battle of Warsaw in 1920, which the Poles referred to as the Miracle on the Vistula. Stalin had been strongly criticized for his part in the failure of the 1st Cavalry Army to support the forces of Marshal M. N. Tukhachevsky, whom he had executed on false charges in 1937 at the start of his purge of the Red Army. During the 1930s, the NKVD targeted as spies the large number of Poles in the Soviet Union, mostly Communist.
Nikolai Yezhov, the head of the NKVD during the Great Terror, became obsessed with imagined Polish conspiracies. Poles in the NKVD were purged, and in Order 00485 of 11 August 1937 Poles were implicitly defined as enemies of the state. When Yezhov reported after the first twenty days of arrests, torture and executions, Stalin praised his work: ‘Very good! Keep on digging up and cleaning out this Polish filth. Eliminate it in the interests of the Soviet Union.’ In the anti-Polish drive during the Great Terror, 143,810 people were arrested for espionage and 111,091 executed. Poles were about forty times more likely to be executed during this period than other Soviet citizens.
Under the Treaty of Riga in 1921, which had ended the Soviet–Polish War, victorious Poland had incorporated western parts of Belorussia and Ukraine. It then settled them with many of Marshal Józef Piłsudski’s legionaries. But following the Red Army’s invasion in the autumn of 1939, more than five million Poles found themselves under Soviet rule, which treated Polish patriotism as counter-revolutionary by definition. The NKVD arrested 109,400 people, most of whom were sent to the labour camps of the Gulag, while 8,513 of them were executed. The Soviet authorities targeted all those who might play a role in keeping Polish nationalism alive, including landowners, lawyers, teachers, priests, journalists and officers. It was a deliberate policy of class warfare and national decapitation. Eastern Poland, occupied by the Red Army, was to be split and incorporated into the Soviet Union, the northern region becoming part of Belorussia and the southern joined to Ukraine.
Mass deportations to Siberia or central Asia began on 10 February 1940. The NKVD rifle regiments rounded up 139,794 Polish civilians in temperatures below 30 degrees Centigrade. The first wave of families selected were roused by shouts and the banging of rifle butts on their door. Red Army soldiers or Ukrainian militia, under the command of an NKVD officer, would barge in and point their guns, yelling threats. Beds were overturned and cupboards searched, allegedly for hidden weapons. ‘You are Polish elite,’ the NKVD man told the Adamczyk family. ‘You are Polish lords and masters. You are enemies of the people.’ A more frequent formula of the NKVD was ‘Once a Pole, always a kulak’–the Soviet term of abuse for a rich and reactionary peasant.
Families were given little time to prepare for the terrible journey, abandoning their homes and farms for good. Most felt paralysed by the prospect. Fathers and sons were forced to kneel facing the wall, while the womenfolk were allowed to gather possessions, such as a sewing machine to earn money wherever they were taken, cooking utensils, bedding, family photographs, a child’s rag doll and school books. Some Soviet soldiers were clearly embarrassed by their task and murmured apologies. A few families were allowed to milk their cow before they left or to kill some chickens or a piglet as food for the three-week journey in cattle wagons. Everything else had to be left behind. The Polish diaspora had begun.
From Phoney War to Blitzkrieg
SEPTEMBER 1939–MARCH 1940
Once it became evident that massed enemy bombers were not going to flatten London and Paris immediately, life returned almost to nor mal. The war had ‘a strange, somnambulistic quality’, wrote a commentator on daily life in London. Apart from the risk in the blackout of walking into a lamp-post, the greatest danger was being run down by a motorcar. In London, over 2,000 pedestrians were killed in the last four months of 1939. The absolute darkness encouraged some young couples to have sexual intercourse standing up in shop doorways, a sport which soon became a subject for music-hall jokes. Cinemas and theatres gradually reopened. In London, pubs were packed. In Paris, cafés and restaurants were full as Maurice Chevalier sang the hit of the moment, ‘Paris sera toujours Paris’. The fate of Poland had almost been forgotten.
While the war on land and in the air languished, the war at sea intensified. For the British, it had begun with a tragedy. On 10 September 1939, the submarine HMS Triton sank another submarine, HMS Oxley, in the belief that it was a U-boat. The first German U-boat was sunk on 14 September by the escort destroyers to the carrier HMS Ark Royal. But on 17 September the U-39 managed to sink the obsolete carrier HMS Courageous. Nearly a month later, the Royal Navy suffered a far greater blow when U-47 penetrated the defences of Scapa Flow in the Orkneys and sank the battleship HMS Royal Oak. Britain’s confidence in the strength of its navy was deeply shaken.
The two pocket battleships loose in the Atlantic, the Deutschland and the Admiral Graf Spee, had meanwhile been given permission to start the war in earnest. But the Kriegsmarine made a grave mistake on 3 October, when the Deutschland seized an American freighter as a prize of war. Following the brutal invasion of Poland, this helped to swing public opinion in the United States against the Neutrality Act, which forbade the sale of arms to a belligerent, and in favour of the Allies who needed to purchase them.
On 6 October, Hitler announced in the Reichstag his offer of peace to Britain and France, assuming that they would accede to his occupation of both Poland and Czechoslovakia. The very next day, without even waiting to hear their reply, Hitler began discussions with commanders-in-chief and General der Artillerie Halder on an offensive in the west. The army high command, the OKH, was instructed to draw up a plan, Case Yellow, for an attack in five weeks’ time. But the arguments of his senior commanders about the difficulties of redeployment, provisioning and the lateness of the season for such an operation exasperated him. He must also have been put out when, on 10 October, a wild rumour swept Berlin that the British were agreeing to peace terms. The spontaneous celebrations in street market and Gasthaus alike turned to dejection when Hitler’s eagerly awaited speech on the radio showed that this was a wishful fantasy. Goebbels was furious, above all at the lack of enthusiasm for the war which had been revealed.
On 5 November, Hitler agreed to see Generaloberst von Brauchitsch, the army commander-in-chief. Brauchitsch, who had been urged by other senior officers to stand firm against an early invasion, warned Hitler not to underestimate the French. Because of ammunition and equipment shortages the army needed more time. Hitler interrupted him to express his contempt for the French. Brauchitsch then tried to argue that the German army in the Polish campaign had shown itself to be ill disciplined and badly trained. Hitler exploded, demanding examples. A very rattled Brauchitsch was unable to cite any off the top of his head. Hitler sent his commander-in-chief away shaking and thoroughly humiliated, with the threatening remark that he knew ‘the spirit of Zossen [OKH headquarters] and was determined to crush it’.
Halder, the army chief of staff, who had toyed with the idea of a military coup to remove Hitler, now feared that this remark of the Führer’s indicated that the Gestapo knew of his plans. He destroyed anything which might be incriminating. Halder, who looked more like a nineteenth-century German professor with his hair en brosse and his pince-nez, would bear the brunt of Hitler’s impatience with the conservatism of the general staff.
Stalin, during this period, had wasted little time in seizing the gains offered by the Molotov–Ribbentrop agreements. Immediately after the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland had been completed, the Kremlin had imposed its so-called ‘treaties of mutual assistance’ on the Baltic states. And on 5 October, the Finnish government was asked to send envoys to Moscow. A week later Stalin presented them with a list of demands in another draft treaty. These included the leasing to the Soviet Union of the Hanko Peninsula and the transfer to the Soviet Union of several islands in the Gulf of Finland, as well as part of the Rybachy Peninsula near Murmansk and the port of Petsamo. Another demand insisted that the border on the Karelian Isthmus above Leningrad should be moved thirty-five kilometres to the north. In exchange the Finns were offered a largely uninhabited part of Soviet northern Karelia.
The negotiations in Moscow continued until 13 November without a final agreement. Stalin, convinced that the Finns lacked international support and the will to fight, decided to invade. His unconvincing pretext was a puppet ‘government-in-exile’ composed of a handful of Finnish Communists calling for fraternal aid from the Soviet Union. Soviet forces provoked a frontier incident near Mainila in Karelia. The Finns turned to Germany for help, but the Nazi government refused any support and advised them to concede.
On 29 November, the Soviet Union broke off diplomatic relations. The next day, troops of the Leningrad military district attacked Finnish positions and Red Army aviation bombers raided Helsinki. The Winter War had begun. Soviet leaders assumed that the campaign would be a walk-over, like their occupation of eastern Poland. Voroshilov, the commissar of defence, wanted it to be finished in time for Stalin’s sixtieth birthday on 21 December. Dmitri Shostakovich was ordered to compose a piece to celebrate the event.
In Finland, Marshal Carl Gustav Mannerheim, a former officer of the Tsar’s Chevalier Gardes and the hero of the war of independence against the Bolsheviks, was called out of retirement as commander-in-chief. The Finns, with fewer than 150,000 men, many of whom were reservists and teenagers, faced Red Army forces over a million strong. Their defences across the Karelian Isthmus south-west of Lake Ladoga, known as the Mannerheim Line, consisted mainly of trenches, log-lined bunkers and some concrete strongpoints. The Finns were also aided by the forests and small lakes which funnelled any lines of advance towards their carefully laid minefields.
Despite heavy artillery support, the Soviet 7th Army received a nasty shock. Its infantry divisions were at first delayed by screening forces and snipers close to the border. Lacking mine-detectors and under orders to push forward without delay, Soviet commanders simply marched their men forward through the snow-covered minefields in front of the Manner-heim Line. For Red Army soldiers, who had been told that the Finns would welcome them as brothers and liberators from their capitalist oppressors, the reality of the fighting sapped their morale as they struggled through the snowfields towards the birchwoods which concealed parts of the Manner-heim Line. The Finns, masters of winter camouflage, mowed them down with machine guns.
In the far north of Finland, Soviet troops from Murmansk attacked the mining area and the port of Petsamo, but their attempts further south to slice through the middle of Finland from the east to the Gulf of Bothnia proved the most spectacularly disastrous. Stalin, astonished that the Finns had not immediately given in, ordered Voroshilov to crush them with the Red Army’s numerically superior forces. Red Army commanders, terrified by the purges and hamstrung by the stifling military orthodoxy which ensued, could only send more and more men to their deaths. In temperatures of minus 40 degrees Centigrade, Soviet soldiers, ill equipped and untrained for this sort of winter warfare, stood out in their brown great-coats as they stumbled through the deep snow. Amid the frozen lakes and forests of central and northern Finland, the Soviet columns could only follow the few roads through the woods. There, they were ambushed in lightning attacks by Finnish ski-troops armed with Suomi sub-machine guns, grenades and hunting knives to finish off their victims.
The Finns adopted what they called ‘log-cutting’ tactics, slicing enemy columns into sections and cutting off their supply routes so that they starved. Appearing silently out of a freezing fog, their ski-troops would hurl grenades or Molotov cocktails at the Soviet tanks and artillery, then disappear just as swiftly. It was a form of semi-guerrilla warfare for which the Red Army was totally unprepared. Farms, byres and barns were burned down by the Finns to deny the Red Army columns any shelter as they advanced. Roads were mined and booby-traps prepared. Anyone wounded in these attacks froze to death rapidly. Soviet soldiers had started to refer to the camouflaged Finnish ski-troops as belya smert–or ‘white death’. The 163rd Rifle Division was surrounded near Suomussalmi, then the 44th Rifle Division, advancing to its relief, was split up in a series of attacks and also fell victim to the white ghosts flitting between the trees.
‘For four miles,’ wrote the American journalist Virginia Cowles when visiting the battlefield later, ‘the road and forests were strewn with the bodies of men and horses; with wrecked tanks, field kitchens, trucks, gun carriages, maps, books and articles of clothing. The corpses were frozen as hard as petrified wood, and the colour of the skin was mahogany. Some of the bodies were piled on top of each other like a heap of rubbish, covered only by a merciful blanket of snow; others were sprawled against the trees in grotesque attitudes. All were frozen in the positions in which they huddled. I saw one with his hands clasped to a wound in his stomach; another struggling to open the collar of his coat.’
A similar fate had met the 122nd Rifle Division advancing south-westwards from the Kola Peninsula towards Kemijärvi, where they were surprised and massacred by the forces of General K. M. Wallenius. ‘How strange were these bodies on this road,’ wrote the first foreign journalist to see the effectiveness of the Finns’ brave resistance. ‘The cold had frozen them into the positions in which they fell. It had, too, slightly shrunken their bodies and features, giving them an artificial, waxen appearance. The whole road was like some huge waxwork representation of a battle scene, carefully staged… one man leant against a wagon wheel with a length of wire in his hands; another was fitting a clip of cartridges into his rifle.’
International condemnation of the invasion led to the Soviet Union’s expulsion from the League of Nations, its final act. Popular feeling in London and Paris was almost more outraged by this incursion than by the attack on Poland. Stalin’s German ally also found itself in a difficult position. While receiving an increased volume of supplies from the Soviet Union, it now feared damaging its relations and trade with Scandinavian countries, especially Sweden. Above all, the Nazi leadership was disturbed by the calls in Britain and France for military aid to be sent to Finland. An Allied presence in Scandinavia risked disrupting Swedish iron-ore deliveries to Germany, whose high quality was vital for its war industries.
Hitler, however, was serenely confident at this time. He had been confirmed in his belief that providence was on his side, preserving him for the accomplishment of his great task. On 8 November, he had made his annual speech in the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich from where the Nazis’ failed 1923 Putsch had been launched. Georg Elser, a cabinet-maker, had secretly filled a pillar with explosives close to the platform. But for once Hitler had cut his visit short to return to Berlin, and twelve minutes after his departure a huge explosion had wrecked the place, killing a number of his Nazi ‘Old Fighters’. According to one commentator, the reaction in London to the news was ‘summed up in a calm British “Bad luck”, as though someone had missed a pheasant’. With misplaced optimism, the British comforted themselves with the idea that it was simply a matter of time before the Germans would get rid of their own ghastly regime.
Elser was arrested that evening trying to cross into Switzerland. Even though he had clearly worked entirely alone, Nazi propaganda immediately blamed the British Secret Intelligence Service for the attempt on the Führer’s life. Himmler had the perfect opportunity to exploit this fictitious link. Walter Schellenberg, an SS intelligence expert, was already in contact with two British SIS officers, having convinced them that he was part of an anti-Hitler conspiracy in the Wehrmacht. The next day, he persuaded them to meet him again at Venlo on the Dutch frontier. He promised to bring an anti-Nazi German general with him. But the two British officers instead found them themselves surrounded and seized by an SS snatch party. It was led by Sturmbannführer Alfred Naujocks, who had commanded the fake attack on the Gleiwitz transmitter at the end of August. It would not be the only British secret operation to go horribly wrong in the Netherlands.
This debacle was concealed from the British public, who at least had their pride restored in the Royal Navy later that month. On 23 November, the armed merchant cruiser HMS Rawalpindi fought back against the German battle-cruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst. In a hopeless engagement of great bravery, which was inevitably compared to Sir Richard Grenville in the Revenge taking on vast Spanish galleons, guncrews fought on until they were killed. The Rawalpindi, blazing from bow to stern, went down with her battle ensign still flying.
Then, on 13 December off the coast of Uruguay, Commodore Henry Harwood’s squadron, with the cruisers HMS Ajax, Achilles and Exeter, sighted the pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee, which had already sunk nine ships. Kapitan Hans Langsdorff, her commander, was highly respected because of his good treatment of the crews of his victims. But Langsdorff mistakenly thought that the British ships were only destroyers and so did not avoid battle as he should have done, even though he outgunned his adversaries with his 11-inch main armament. The Exeter, drawing the Graf Spee’s fire, suffered heavy damage, while the Ajax and the New Zealand-crewed Achilles attempted to close within range to fire torpedoes. Although the British squadron was badly battered, the Graf Spee, which had also been hit, broke off the action under a smokescreen and headed for Montevideo harbour.
Over the following days, the British bluffed Langsdorff into believing that their squadron had been heavily reinforced. And on 17 December, having first disembarked his prisoners and most of the crew, Langsdorff took the Graf Spee out into the estuary of the River Plate and scuttled her. He committed suicide soon afterwards. The British celebrated this victory at a time when morale needed a boost. Hitler, afraid that the Deutschland might suffer the same fate, ordered that her name should be changed to Lützow. He did not want headlines round the world proclaiming that a ship called ‘Germany’ had been sunk. Symbols were of paramount importance to him, as would become even more evident when the war turned against him.
Having been told by Goebbels’s propaganda ministry that the Battle of the River Plate had been a victory, Germans were then shaken to hear that the Graf Spee had been scuttled. The Nazi authorities tried to make sure that the news did not spoil their ‘war Christmas’. Rationing was eased for the festivities and the population was encouraged to contemplate the devastating victory over Poland. Most convinced themselves that peace would soon come since both the Soviet Union and Germany had called on the Allies to accept the reality of Poland’s destruction.
With newsreel film showing children round Christmas trees, the propaganda ministry produced a sickly feast of German sentimentality. But many families were haunted by a terrible disquiet. Although officially informed that a disabled child or elderly relative had died from ‘pneumonia’ in some institution, suspicions had started to grow that they were in fact being gassed in a programme run by the SS and members of the medical profession. Hitler’s order on euthanasia had been signed in October, but was backdated to the outbreak of war on 1 September to cover the first SS massacres of around 2,000 Polish asylum inmates, some of them shot in their straitjackets. The Nazis’ covert assault on ‘degenerates’, ‘useless mouths’ and ‘lives unworthy of life’ represented their first step in the deliberate annihilation of those they categorized as ‘sub-human’. Hitler had waited for the start of the war to cover this extreme programme of eugenics. More than 100,000 mentally and physically disabled Germans would be killed in this way by August 1941. In Poland, the killings continued, mainly by shooting in the back of the head, but sometimes in sealed trucks with the exhaust fumes piped in, and also, for the first time, in an improvised gas chamber in Posen: a process which Himmler himself came to observe. As well as the disabled, a number of prostitutes and Gypsies were also murdered.
Hitler, who had forsworn his passion for the cinema for the duration of the war, also gave up Christmas. Over the holiday period, he paid a number of highly publicized surprise visits to Wehrmacht and SS units, including the Grossdeutschland Regiment, Luftwaffe airfields and flak batteries, and also the SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, now relaxing after its murderous campaign in Poland. On New Year’s Eve he addressed the nation over the radio. Proclaiming a ‘New Order in Europe’, he said: ‘We shall only talk of peace when we have won the war. The Jewish capitalistic world will not survive the twentieth century.’ He made no reference to ‘Jewish Bolshevism’, having so recently sent sixtieth-birthday greetings to Stalin, a message which also offered best wishes ‘for the prosperous future of the peoples of the friendly Soviet Union’. Stalin replied that ‘The friendship of the peoples of Germany and the Soviet Union, cemented by blood, has every reason to be lasting and firm.’ Even under the hypocritical requirements of their unnatural relationship, the phrase ‘cemented by blood’ in reference to their dual attack on Poland constituted a pinnacle of shamelessness as well as an ill omen for the future.
Stalin can hardly have been in a good mood as the year came to an end. Finnish forces had now advanced on to Soviet territory. He was forced to accept that the disastrous performance of the Red Army in the Winter War had been partly the fault of his incompetent crony Marshal Voroshilov. The humiliation of the Red Army in the eyes of the world had to be stopped, especially since he had been alarmed by the devastating effectiveness of German Blitzkrieg tactics in the Polish campaign.
He therefore decided to bring in Army Commander S. K. Timoshenko to head up a North-Western Front. Like Voroshilov, Timoshenko was another veteran of the 1st Cavalry Army in which Stalin had served as commissar in the Russian Civil War, but he was at least slightly more imaginative. New weapons and equipment were issued, including the latest rifles, motorized sledges and heavy KV tanks. Instead of massed infantry attacks, the Soviet forces would rely on smashing Finnish defences with artillery.
A new Soviet offensive began against the Mannerheim Line on 1 February 1940. The Finnish forces buckled under the onslaught. Four days later, their foreign minister made an initial contact with Mme Aleksandra Kollontay, the Soviet ambassador in Stockholm. The British and especially the French hoped to maintain Finland’s resistance. They accordingly made approaches to the Norwegian and Swedish governments to obtain transit rights for an expeditionary force to help the Finns. The Germans were alarmed and began to study the possibility of sending troops to Scandinavia to pre-empt an Allied landing.
Both the British and French governments also considered the possibility of occupying Narvik in Norway and the mining areas of northern Sweden to cut off iron-ore supplies to Germany. But the Swedish and Norwegian governments were afraid of being drawn into the war. They refused the British and French requests to cross their territory to aid the Finns.
On 29 February the Finns, with no hope of foreign help, decided to seek terms on the basis of the Soviet Union’s original demands, and on 13 March a treaty was signed in Moscow. The terms were harsh, but they could have been far worse. The Finns had shown how resolutely they were prepared to defend their independence, but most importantly Stalin did not want to continue a war which might yet drag in the western Allies. He was also forced to accept that Comintern propaganda had been ludicrously self-deluding, so he dropped his puppet government of Finnish Communists. The Red Army had suffered 84,994 killed and missing, with 248,090 wounded and sick. The Finns had lost 25,000 killed.
Stalin, however, continued to take his revenge upon Poland. On 5 March 1940, he and the Politburo approved Beria’s plan to murder Polish officers and other potential leaders who had refused all attempts at Communist ‘re-education’. This was part of Stalin’s policy to destroy an independent Poland in the future. The 21,892 victims were taken in trucks from prisons for execution at five sites. The most notorious was in the forest of Katyń near Smolensk in Belorussia. The NKVD had noted the addresses of its victims’ families when they had been allowed to write home. They too were rounded up and 60,667 were deported to Kazakhstan. Soon afterwards, more than 65,000 Polish Jews, who had fled the SS but refused to accept Soviet passports, were also deported to Kazakhstan and Siberia.
The French government, meanwhile, wanted to pursue the war as far from its own territory as possible. Daladier, exasperated by French Communist support for the Nazi–Soviet pact, thought that the Allies could weaken Germany by attacking Hitler’s ally. He advocated a bombing raid on Soviet oil installations at Baku and in the Caucasus, but the British persuaded the French to abandon the idea because it risked bringing the Soviet Union into the war on the German side. Daladier later resigned and was replaced by Paul Reynaud on 20 March.
The French army, which had borne the brunt of the Allied effort in the First World War, was widely considered to be the strongest in Europe and certainly capable of defending its own territory. More perceptive observers were less convinced. As early as March 1935, Marshal Tukhachevsky had predicted that it would not be able to stand up to a German onslaught. Its fatal flaw, in his view, was that it was too slow to react to an attack. This came not just from a rigidly defensive mentality, but also from an almost complete lack of radio communications. In any case, the Germans had broken the antiquated French codes in 1938.
President Roosevelt, who had paid close attention to despatches from his embassy in Paris, was also well aware of French weaknesses. The air force was only starting to replace its obsolete aircraft. The army, although one of the largest in the world, was cumbersome, old-fashioned and excessively reliant on its Maginot Line of defence along the German border, which imbued it with an immobile frame of mind. Its huge losses in the First World War, with 400,000 casualties in the Battle for Verdun alone, lay at the root of this bunker mentality. And as many journalists, military attachés and commentators observed, the country’s political and social malaise after so many scandals and fallen governments had sapped any hope for unity and determination in a crisis.
Roosevelt, with admirable far-sightedness, saw that the only hope for democracy and the long-term interests of the United States was to support Britain and France against Nazi Germany. Finally, on 4 November, 1939, the ‘cash and carry’ bill passed by Congress was ratified. This first defeat for the isolationists allowed the two Allied powers to purchase arms.
In France, the air of unreality persisted. A Reuter’s correspondent visiting the inert front asked French soldiers why they did not shoot at the German troops wandering about in clear view. They looked shocked. ‘Ils ne sont pas méchants,’ replied one. ‘And if we fire, they will fire back.’ German patrols probing along the line soon discovered the ineptitude and lack of aggressive instinct of most French formations. And German propaganda continued to encourage the idea that the British were getting the French to bear the brunt of the war.
Apart from some work on defensive positions, the French army undertook little training. Their troops just waited. Inactivity led to bad morale and depression–le cafard. Politicians started to hear of drunkenness, absence without leave and the slovenly appearance of troops in public. ‘One can’t spend one’s whole time playing cards, drinking and writing home to one’s wife,’ wrote one soldier. ‘We lie stretched out on the straw yawning, and even get a taste for doing nothing. We wash less and less, we don’t bother to shave any more, we can’t raise the effort to sweep the place or clear the table after eating. Along with boredom, filth dominates in the base.’
Jean-Paul Sartre in his army meteorological station found the time to write the first volume of Chemins de la liberté and part of L’Être et le néant. That winter, he wrote, it was ‘a question only of sleeping, eating and not being cold. That was all.’ General Édouard Ruby observed: ‘Every exercise was considered a vexation, all work a fatigue. After several months of stagnation, nobody believed any more in the war.’ Not every officer was complacent. The outspoken Colonel Charles de Gaulle, a fervent advocate of creating armoured divisions as in the German army, warned that ‘to be inert is to be beaten’. But his calls were dismissed by irritated generals.
All the French high command did to maintain morale was to organize front-line entertainment with visits from famous actors and singers such as Édith Piaf, Joséphine Baker, Maurice Chevalier and Charles Trenet. Back in Paris, where the restaurants and cabarets were full, the favourite song was ‘J’attendrai’–‘I’ll wait’. But more alarming for the Allied cause were those right-wingers in influential positions who said ‘Better Hitler than Blum’, a reference to the socialist leader of the 1936 Popular Front, Leon Blum, who was also Jewish.
Georges Bonnet, the arch-appeaser of the Quai d’Orsay, had a nephew who before the war had served as a conduit for Nazi money to subsidize anti-British and anti-semitic propaganda in France. The foreign minister’s friend Otto Abetz, later the Nazi ambassador in Paris during the occupation, had been deeply implicated and expelled from the country. Even the new prime minister Paul Reynaud, a stalwart believer in the war against Nazism, had a dangerous weakness. His mistress, Comtesse Hélène de Portes, ‘a woman whose somewhat coarsened features exuded an extraordinary vitality and confidence’, believed that France should never have honoured its guarantee to Poland.
Poland, in the form of a government-in-exile, had arrived in France, with General Władysław Sikorski as prime minister and commander-in-chief. Based in Angers, Sikorski set about reorganizing the Polish armed forces from the 84,000 who had escaped mainly through Romania after the fall of their country. A Polish resistance movement had meanwhile begun to develop back in the homeland; in fact it was the most rapidly organized of any occupied country. By the middle of 1940, the Polish underground army numbered some 100,000 members in the Generalgouvernement alone. Poland was one of the very few countries in the Nazi empire where collaboration with the conqueror was virtually unknown.
The French were determined not to share the fate of Poland. Yet most of their leaders and the bulk of the population had totally failed to recognize that this war would not be like earlier conflicts. The Nazis would never be satisfied with reparations and the surrender of a province or two. They intended to reorder Europe in their own brutal image.
The Dragon and the Rising Sun
Suffering was not a new experience for the impoverished mass of Chinese peasantry. They knew all too well the starvation which followed flood, drought, deforestation, soil erosion and the depredations of warlord armies. They lived in crumbling mud houses and their lives were handicapped by disease, ignorance, superstition and the exploitation of landowners who exacted between a half and two-thirds of their crop in rent.
City dwellers, including even many left-wing intellectuals, tended to see the rural masses as little more than faceless beasts of burden. ‘Sympathy with the people is utterly useless,’ a Communist interpreter said to the intrepid American journalist and activist Agnes Smedley. ‘There are too many of them.’ Smedley herself compared their lives to those of ‘peasant serfs of the Middle Ages’. They existed off tiny portions of rice, millet or squash, cooked in an iron cauldron, their most valuable possession. Many went barefoot even in winter and wore reed hats when working in the summer, bent over in the fields. Life was short, so old peasant women, wrinkled with age and hobbling still on bound feet, were comparatively rare. Many had never seen a motorcar or an aeroplane or even electric lighting. In much of the countryside warlords and landlords still ruled with feudal powers.
Life in the cities was no better for the poor, even for those with jobs. ‘In Shanghai,’ wrote an American journalist out there, ‘collecting the lifeless bodies of child labourers at factory gates in the morning is a routine affair.’ The poor were also oppressed by greedy tax-collectors and bureaucrats. In Harbin, the traditional beggar cry was ‘Give! Give! May you become rich! May you become an official!’ Sometimes the cry changed to: ‘May you become rich! May you become a general!’ Their fatalism was so inherent that real social change was beyond imagination. The revolution of 1911 which had marked the collapse of the Qing dynasty and brought in Dr Sun Yat-sen’s republic was middle class and urban. So at first was Chinese nationalism, aroused by the flagrant designs of Japan to exploit the country’s weakness.
Wang Ching-wei, who briefly became leader of the Kuomintang after the death of Sun Yat-sen in 1924, was the chief rival of the rising general Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang, proud and slightly paranoid, was deeply ambitious and determined to become the great Chinese leader. A slim, bald man with a neat little military moustache, he was a highly skilled political operator, but he was not always a good commander-in-chief. He had been commandant of the Whampoa Military Academy and his favoured students were appointed to key commands. Yet because of rivalries and factional infighting within the National Revolutionary Army and between allied warlords, Chiang tried to control his formations from afar, often provoking confusion and delay as a result.
In 1932, the year after the Mukden Incident and the Japanese seizure of Manchuria, the Japanese moved marine detachments into their concession in Shanghai with conspicuous belligerence. Chiang foresaw a far worse onslaught to come and began to prepare. General Hans von Seeckt, the former commander-in-chief of the Reichswehr during the Weimar Republic, who arrived in May 1933, advised on how to modernize and professionalize the Nationalist armies. Seeckt and his successor, General Alexander von Falkenhausen, advocated a drawn-out war of attrition as the only hope against the better-trained Imperial Japanese Army. With little foreign exchange available, Chiang decided to trade Chinese tungsten for German weapons.
Chiang Kai-shek was a tireless modernizer and at this time inspired by genuine idealism. During what was known as the Nanking decade (1928– 37), he presided over a rapid programme of industrialization, roadbuilding, military modernization and improvements to agriculture. He also sought to end the psychological and diplomatic isolation of China. Yet, being well aware of China’s military weakness, he was determined to avoid a war with Japan for as long as possible.
In 1935, Stalin, through the Comintern, instructed the Chinese Communists to create a common front with the Nationalists against the Japanese threat. It was a policy which Mao Tse-tung in particular hardly welcomed after Chiang’s attacks on Communist forces which had forced him to embark in October 1934 on the Long March to avoid the destruction of his Red Army. In fact Mao, a large man with a curiously high-pitched voice, was viewed as a dissident by the Kremlin, because he saw that the interests of Stalin and those of the Chinese Communist Party were not the same. He believed along Leninist lines that war prepared the ground for a revolutionary seizure of power.
Moscow, on the other hand, did not want a war in the Far East. The interests of the Soviet Union were seen as far more important than a long-term victory for the Chinese Communists. The Comintern therefore accused Mao of lacking an ‘internationalist perspective’. And Mao came close to heresy by arguing that Marxist-Leninist principles of the primacy of the urban proletariat were unsuitable in China, where the peasantry must form the vanguard of the revolution. He advocated independent guerrilla warfare, and the development of networks behind the Japanese lines.
Chiang sent representatives to meet the Communists. He wanted them to incorporate their forces within the Kuomintang army. In return they would have their own region in the north and he would cease attacking them. Mao suspected that Chiang’s policy was to push them into an area where they would be destroyed by the Japanese attacking from Manchuria. Chiang, however, knew that the Communists would never compromise or work with any other party in the long term. Their only interest was in achieving total power for themselves. ‘The Communists are a disease of the heart,’ he once said. ‘The Japanese a disease of the skin.’
While trying to deal with the Communists in southern and central China, Chiang could do little to stem Japanese incursions and provocations in the north-east. The Kwantung Army of Manchukuo argued with Tokyo, claiming that this was no time to compromise with China. Its chief of staff, Lieutenant General Tōjō Hideki, the future prime minister, stated that preparing for war with the Soviet Union without destroying the ‘menace to our rear’ in the form of the Nanking government was ‘asking for trouble’.
At the same time, Chiang Kai-shek’s policy of caution toward Japanese aggression produced widespread popular anger and student demonstrations in the capital. In late 1936, Japanese forces advanced into Suiyuan province on the Mongolian border, intent on seizing the coal mines and iron-ore deposits in the region. Nationalist forces counter-attacked and forced them out. This strengthened Chiang’s position, and his conditions for a united front with the Communists became tougher. The Communists with the North-Western Alliance of warlords, attacked Nationalist units in the rear. Chiang wanted to suppress the Communists completely while negotiations with them still continued. But at the beginning of December he flew to Sian for discussions with two Nationalist army commanders who wanted a strong line against Japan and an end to the civil war with the Communists. They seized him and detained him for two weeks until he agreed to their terms. The Communists demanded that Chiang Kai-shek should be arraigned before a people’s tribunal.
Chiang was released and returned to Nanking, having been forced to change his policy. There was genuine national rejoicing at the prospect of anti-Japanese unity. And on 16 December, Stalin, deeply alarmed by the Anti-Comintern Pact between Nazi Germany and Japan, put pressure on Mao and Chou En-lai, his subtle and more diplomatic colleague, to join a united front with the Nationalists. The Soviet leader feared that if the Chinese Communists made trouble in the north, then Chiang Kai-shek might form an alliance with the Japanese against them. And if Chiang was removed, then Wang Ching-wei, who did not want to fight the Japanese, might take over leadership of the Kuomintang. Stalin encouraged the Nationalists to believe that he might well side with them in a war against Japan, purely to make sure that they resisted. And he continued to dangle that carrot without any intention of committing the Soviet Union to war.
An agreement between the Kuomintang and the Communists had still not been signed when the clash between Chinese and Japanese troops took place at the Marco Polo Bridge south-west of Peking on 7 July 1937. This incident marked the start of the main phase of the Sino-Japanese War. The whole incident was a black farce which demonstrates the terrifying unpredictability of events at a time of tension. A single Japanese soldier had become lost during a night exercise. His company commander demanded entry to the town of Wanping to search for him. When this was refused, he attacked it and the Chinese troops fought back, while the lost soldier found his own way back to barracks. An added irony was that the general staff in Tokyo were at last attempting to control their fanatical officers in China who were responsible for the provocations, while Chiang was now under strong pressure from his side not to compromise any more.
The generalissimo was uncertain about Japanese intentions and called a conference of Chinese leaders. At first, the Japanese military were themselves divided. Their Kwantung Army in Manchuria wanted to widen the conflict, while the general staff in Tokyo feared a reaction by the Red Army along the northern frontiers. There had been a clash on the Amur River just over a week before. Soon afterwards, however, the Japanese chiefs of staff decided on an all-out war. They believed that China could be knocked out rapidly before a wider conflict developed, either with the Soviet Union or with the western powers. Like Hitler with the Soviet Union later, Japanese generals made a grave error in grossly underestimating outrage among Chinese and their determination to resist. And it did not occur to them that China’s answering strategy would be to wage a drawn-out war of attrition.
Chiang Kai-shek, well aware of his own army’s deficiencies and the unpredictability of his allies in the north, knew the immense risks that war with Japan entailed. But he had little choice. The Japanese issued and repeated an ultimatum, which the Nanking government rejected, and on 26 July their army attacked. Peking fell three days later. Nationalist forces and their allies fell back, offering only sporadic resistance as the Japanese advanced southwards.
‘Suddenly, the war was upon us,’ wrote Agnes Smedley, who landed by junk on the north bank of the Yellow River at the ‘rambling mud town of Fenglingtohkow. This little town, in which we hoped to find lodgings for the night, was a mass of soldiers, civilians, carts, mules, horses and street vendors. As we walked up the mud paths towards the town, we saw on either side long rows of wounded soldiers lying on the earth. There were hundreds of them swathed in dirty, bloody bandages, and some were unconscious… There were no doctors, nurses or attendants with them.’
Despite all of Chiang’s efforts to modernize Nationalist forces, they, like those of his warlord allies, were not nearly as well trained or as well equipped as the Japanese divisions they faced. The infantry wore blue-grey cotton uniforms in summer, and in winter the luckier ones had padded quilt cotton jackets or the sheepskin coats of Mongolian troops. Their footwear consisted of cloth shoes or straw sandals. Although silent in their shuffling run, they provided no protection against the sharp bamboo pungi stakes, tipped with excrement to cause blood poisoning, which the Japanese used to defend their positions.
Chinese soldiers wore rounded peaked caps with ear flaps tied over the top. They had no steel helmets, except those they took from dead Japanese soldiers and wore with pride. Many also wore tunics taken from enemy soldiers, which became confusing at times of crisis. The most prized trophy was a Japanese pistol. In fact it was often easier for Chinese soldiers to get more ammunition for captured Japanese weapons than for their issued rifles, which came from a wide variety of countries and manufacturers. Their greatest deficiencies were in medical services, artillery and aircraft.
In and out of battle, Chinese troops were directed by bugle calls. Wireless communications existed only between major headquarters, and even they were unreliable. The Japanese were also able to break their codes with ease and thus knew their dispositions and intentions. Chinese military transport consisted of some trucks, but most units in the field relied on mules beaten on with traditional curses, Mongolian ponies and bullock-drawn carts with solid wooden wheels. There were never enough and this meant that soldiers often received no food. And since their pay was almost always months in arrears, and sometimes embezzled by their officers, morale suffered badly. But there can be no doubt about the bravery and determination of Chinese troops in the Battle of Shanghai that summer.
The origins and motives which led to this great clash are still debated. The classic explanation is that Chiang, by opening up a new front at Shanghai while continuing to fight in the north and centre, wanted to split Japanese forces to prevent their concentration for a quick victory. This would be his war of attrition, as advised by General von Falkenhausen. An attack on Shanghai would also force the Communists and other allied armies to commit themselves to the War of Resistance, even if there was always the danger that they would withdraw rather than risk their forces and power base. It also ensured a declaration of Soviet support, with the despatch of military advisers, and the supply of fighters, tanks, artillery, machine guns and vehicles. This would be paid for with raw materials exported to the Soviet Union.
The other explanation is certainly compelling. Stalin, deeply alarmed by Japanese successes in northern China, was the one who really wanted to move the fighting down to the south and away from his far eastern borders. This he was able to do through the regional Nationalist commander General Chang Ching-chong, who was secretly a Soviet ‘sleeper’. On several occasions Chang tried to persuade the generalissimo to launch a pre-emptive strike on the Japanese garrison of 3,000 marines in Shanghai. Chiang told him to make no move without specific orders. An attack on Shanghai also carried huge risks. It was only 290 kilometres from Nanking, and defeat there close to the mouth of the Yangtze might lead to a rapid Japanese advance on the capital and into the centre of China. On 9 August, Chang sent a picked group of soldiers to Shanghai airfield, where they shot down a Japanese marine lieutenant and a soldier with him. On Chang’s own account, they then shot a Chinese prisoner condemned to death to pretend that the Japanese had fired first. The Japanese, also reluctant to start a battle round Shanghai, did not at first react, except to call for reinforcements. Chiang again told Chang not to attack. On 13 August, Japanese warships began to bombard the Chinese quarters of Shanghai. Next morning, two Nationalist divisions began their assault on the city. An air attack was also launched against the flagship of the Japanese Third Fleet, the old cruiser Izumo anchored off the Bund in the centre of the city. It was an inauspicious start. The warship’s fire drove off the obsolete aircraft. Some rounds hit the bomb racks of one of them, and as it flew over the international settlement its load dropped on the Palace Hotel, on Nanking Road and on other places crowded with refugees. Some 1,300 civilians were thus killed or injured by their own plane.
Forces on both sides began to build up in a rapid escalation which turned the battle into the largest engagement of the Sino-Japanese War. On 23 August the Japanese, having reinforced their troops in Shanghai, made landings on the coast to the north to outflank Nationalist positions. Their armoured landing craft put tanks ashore, and Japanese naval gunfire was all the more effective when Nationalist divisions had almost no artillery. Nationalist attempts to blockade the Yangtze also failed and their tiny air force stood little chance against Japanese air supremacy.
From 11 September, Nationalist forces directed by Falkenhausen fought with great bravery despite terrible losses. Most divisions, especially Chiang’s elite formations, lost more than half their strength, including 10,000 junior officers. Chiang, unable to make up his mind whether to fight on or withdraw, then sent in even more divisions. He hoped to draw international attention to China’s fight, just before a meeting of the League of Nations.
Altogether, the Japanese fielded nearly 200,000 men on the Shanghai front, more than they deployed in northern China. In the third week of September they began to achieve breaches in the Nationalist defences, forcing them in October to retreat to the line of the Soochow Creek, an effective water obstacle despite its name. One battalion was left behind to defend a godown or warehouse, to give the impression that the Nationalists still had a foothold in Shanghai. This ‘lone battalion’ became a great propaganda myth for the Chinese cause.
At the beginning of November, after more desperate fighting, the Japanese crossed the Soochow Creek using small metal assault boats and established bridgeheads in several places. Then, with another amphibious landing on the coast to the south, they forced the Nationalists to retreat. Discipline and morale, which had held up well during the savage fighting and heavy losses, now collapsed. Soldiers threw away their rifles, and refugees were trampled underfoot in the panic caused by Japanese bombers and fighters. During the three months of fighting round Shanghai, the Japanese had suffered more than 40,000 casualties. The Chinese figure was just over 187,000, at least four and a half times more.
In a headlong advance, torching villages along the way, Japanese divisions raced each other towards Nanking. The Imperial Japanese Navy sent minesweepers and gunboats up the Yangtze to bombard the city. The Nationalist government began to depart up the Yangtze mainly by river steamer and junk for Hankow, which was to be the temporary capital. Chungking on the upper Yangtze in Szechuan would take over the role later.
Chiang Kai-shek could not decide whether to defend Nanking or abandon it without a fight. The city was indefensible, and yet to abandon such an important symbol would be a humiliation. His generals could not agree. In the event the worst of both worlds was achieved, with an incomplete defence which simply angered the attackers. Japanese commanders were in fact planning to use mustard gas and incendiaries on the capital if the fighting was likely to approach the intensity of what they had experienced at Shanghai.
The Chinese certainly had an idea of their enemy’s ruthlessness, but even they could not imagine the degree of cruelty to come. On 13 December, Chinese forces evacuated Nanking, only to be trapped outside in a sudden encirclement. Japanese troops entered the city with orders to kill all prisoners. A single unit in the 16th Division killed 15,000 Chinese prisoners, and just one company slaughtered 1,300. A German diplomat reported to Berlin that ‘besides mass executions by machinegun fire, other more individual methods of killing were employed as well, such as pouring gasoline over a victim and setting him afire’. Buildings in the city were looted and set alight. To escape the murder, rape and destruction civilians tried to shelter in the designated ‘international safety zone’.
The furia japonica shocked the world with its appalling massacres and mass rapes in revenge for the bitter fighting at Shanghai, which the Japanese army had never expected from the Chinese they despised. Accounts of civilian casualties vary widely. Some Chinese sources put them as high as 300,000, but a more likely figure is closer to 200,000. The Japanese military authorities, in a series of inept lies, claimed that they were killing only Chinese soldiers who had put on civilian clothes and that the death toll was little more than a thousand. The scenes of massacre were hellish, with corpses rotting on every street and in every open space, many of them chewed by semi-feral dogs. Every pond, stream and river was polluted with decomposing bodies.
Japanese soldiers had been brought up in a militaristic society. The whole village or neighbourhood, paying homage to these martial values, would usually turn out to bid farewell to a conscript departing to join the army. Soldiers thus tended to fight for the honour of their family and local community, not for the emperor as westerners tended to believe. Basic training was designed to destroy their individuality. Recruits were constantly insulted and beaten by their NCOs to toughen them up and to provoke them, in what might be called the knock-on theory of oppression, to take their anger out in turn on the soldiers and civilians of a defeated enemy. All of them had also been indoctrinated since elementary school to believe that the Chinese were totally inferior to the ‘divine race’ of Japanese and were ‘below pigs’. In a typical case-history of post-war confessions, one soldier admitted that although he had been horrified by the gratuitous torture of a Chinese prisoner, he had asked to be allowed to take over to make up for a perceived insult.
At Nanking, wounded Chinese soldiers were bayoneted where they lay. Officers made prisoners kneel in rows, then practised beheading them one by one with their samurai swords. Their soldiers were also ordered to carry out bayonet practice on thousands of Chinese prisoners bound or tied to trees. Any who refused were beaten severely by their NCOs. The Imperial Japanese Army’s process of dehumanizing its troops was stepped up as soon as they arrived in China from the home islands. A Corporal Nakamura, who had himself been conscripted as a soldier against his will, described in his diary how he and his comrades made some new Japanese recruits watch as they tortured five Chinese civilians to death. The newcomers were horrified, but Nakamura wrote: ‘All new recruits are like this, but soon they will be doing the same things themselves.’ Shimada Toshio, a private second class, recounted his ‘baptism of blood’ on reaching the 226th Regiment in China later. A Chinese prisoner had been tied by his hands and ankles to a pole on each side of him. Nearly fifty new recruits were lined up to bayonet him. ‘My emotion must have been paralyzed. I felt no mercy on him. He eventually started asking us, “Come on. Hurry up!” We couldn’t stick the right spot. So he said “Hurry up!” which meant that he wanted to die quickly.’ Shimada claimed that it was difficult because the bayonet stuck in him ‘like [in] tofu’.
John Rabe, a German businessman from Siemens, who organized the international safety zone in Nanking and showed both courage and humanity, wrote in his diary: ‘I am totally puzzled by the conduct of the Japanese. On the one hand, they want to be recognized and treated as a great power on a par with European powers, on the other, they are currently displaying a crudity, brutality and bestiality that bears no comparison except with the hordes of Genghis Khan.’ Twelve days later he wrote: ‘You can’t breathe for sheer revulsion when you keep finding the bodies of women with bamboo poles thrust up their vaginas. Even old women over 70 are constantly being raped.’
The group ethos of the Imperial Japanese Army, instilled by collective punishment in training, also produced a pecking order between experienced troops and newcomers. Senior soldiers organized the gang-rapes, with up to thirty men per woman, whom they usually killed when they had finished with her. Recently arrived soldiers were not permitted to take part. Only when they had been accepted as part of the group would they be ‘invited’ to join in.
New soldiers were also not permitted to visit ‘comfort women’ in the military brothels. These were girls and young married women, seized off the street or designated by village headmen under orders from the feared Kempeitai military police to provide a fixed quota. Following the Nanking massacre and rape, the Japanese military authorities demanded another 3,000 women ‘for the use of the army’. More than 2,000 had already been seized from the city of Soochow alone after its capture in November. As well as local women carried off against their will, the Japanese imported large numbers of young women from their colony of Korea. A battalion commander in the 37th Division even took three Chinese women slaves along with his headquarters for his personal use. To make them look like men, their heads were shaved in an attempt to disguise their role.
The idea of the military authorities was to reduce cases of venereal disease and to restrict the number of rapes publicly carried out by their own men which might provoke the population into resistance. They preferred that women slaves should be raped perpetually in the secrecy of ‘comfort houses’. But the notion that the provision of comfort women would somehow stop Japanese soldiers from raping at will proved to be utterly false. Soldiers clearly preferred random acts of rape to queueing up at the comfort house, and their officers felt that rape contributed to their martial spirit.
On the rare occasions that the Japanese were forced to abandon a town, they would slaughter the comfort women out of anti-Chinese vengeance. For example, when the town of Suencheng not far from Nanking was temporarily retaken, Chinese troops entered ‘a building in which the nude bodies of a dozen Chinese civilian women had been found after the Japanese were driven out. The sign on the door-frame facing the street still read: “Consolation [Comfort] House of the Great Imperial Army”.’
In northern China, the Japanese experienced some setbacks almost entirely at the hands of Nationalist troops. Communist forces from the Eighth Route Army, who claimed to be able to march more than a hundred kilometres in a day, were kept out of the worst of the fighting on Mao’s strict orders. But by the end of the year the Kwantung Army controlled the towns of Chahar and Suiyuan provinces and the northern part of Shansi. South of Peking they seized the province of Shantung and its capital with ease, largely due to the cowardice of the regional commander, General Han Fu-chu.
General Han, who had fled in an aeroplane, taking with him the contents of the local treasury and a silver coffin, was arrested by the Nationalists and sentenced to death. He was made to kneel and then a fellow general shot him through the head. This warning to commanders was widely acclaimed by all parties and contributed greatly to Chinese unity. The Japanese were increasingly dismayed to find how determined the Chinese were to fight on, even after losing their capital and almost all their air force. And they were exasperated by the way the Chinese managed, after the Battle of Shanghai, to avoid the sort of decisive engagement which would destroy them.
In January 1938, the Japanese began to advance north up the railway line from Nanking towards Suchow, a major communications centre and of great strategic value since it was linked to a port on the east coast and lay astride the railway line to the west. If Suchow fell, then the great industrial agglomeration of Wuchang and Hankow (today’s Wuhan) would be vulnerable. As in the Russian Civil War, railway lines in China were of immense importance for the movement and supply of armies. Chiang Kaishek, who had long known that Suchow would represent a key objective in a Japanese invasion, assembled some 400,000 troops in the region, a mixture of Nationalist divisions and those of warlord allies.
The generalissimo was well aware of the importance of the coming battles. The conflict in China had attracted many foreign journalists and was seen as a counterpart to the Spanish Civil War. Some of the same writers, photographers and film-makers who had been in Spain–Robert Capa, Joris Ivens, W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood–arrived to witness and record Chinese resistance to the Japanese onslaught. The forthcoming defence of Wuchang was compared to the Republican defence of Madrid against Franco’s Army of Africa in the autumn of 1936. Doctors who had treated Spanish Republican wounded soon began to arrive to help Nationalist and Communist forces in China. The most notable was the Canadian surgeon Dr Norman Bethune, who died in China from blood poisoning.
Stalin also saw certain parallels with the Spanish Civil War, but Chiang was misled by his representative in Moscow, who was far too optimistic in his belief that the Soviet Union would enter the war against Japan. While the fighting continued, Chiang opened indirect negotiations with the Japanese through the German ambassador partly in a bid to force Stalin’s hand, but their terms were too harsh. Stalin, presumably well briefed by one of his agents, knew that the Nationalists could not possibly accept them.
In February, Japanese divisions of the 2nd Army coming from the north crossed the Yellow River to encircle the Chinese formations. By the end of March, the Japanese had entered the city of Suchow, where furious fighting continued for several days. The Chinese had few weapons to deal with Japanese tanks, but Soviet armament had begun to arrive, and counterattacks were made sixty kilometres to the east at Taierchuang, where the Nationalists claimed a great victory. The Japanese rushed in reinforcements from Japan and Manchuria. On 17 May, they believed that they had trapped the bulk of the Chinese divisions, but, splitting into small groups, 200,000 Nationalist troops escaped the encirclement. Suchow was finally lost on 21 May and 30,000 prisoners taken.
In July, the first major border clash between the Japanese and the Red Army took place at Lake Khasan. Again the Nationalists hoped that the Soviet Union would enter the war, but their expectations were dashed. Stalin even tacitly recognized Japanese control of Manchuria. With Hitler’s designs on Czechoslovakia, he was deeply concerned about the German threat in the west. But Stalin did begin to send military advisers to the Nationalists. The first had arrived in June, just before the departure of General von Falkenhausen and his team, who had been ordered back to Germany by Göring.
The Japanese then planned to attack Wuchang and Hankow, as Chiang had feared. They also decided to set up their own Chinese puppet government. To slow the enemy advance, Chiang Kai-shek gave orders for the Yellow River dikes to be breached, or, in the words of the high command decision, to ‘use water as a substitute for soldiers’. This drowned-earth policy delayed the Japanese by about five months, but the destruction and civilian deaths that it caused over 70,000 square kilometres were horrific. There was no high ground on which people could seek shelter. The official death toll from drowning, starvation and illness reached 800,000, while more than six million people became refugees.
Once the ground was finally dry enough to take their vehicles the Japanese resumed their advance on Wuchang and Hankow, with Imperial Navy forces operating on the Yangtze, and the 11th Army either side following both the north and the south bank. The Yangtze became a vital supply line for their forces, immune to guerrilla attack.
The Nationalists had by then received some 500 Soviet aircraft and 150 ‘volunteer’ Red Army pilots, but since they served for only a three-month tour they were gone as soon as they had gained vital experience. Between 150 and 200 served at a time, and altogether 2,000 of them flew in China. They had mounted a successful ambush on 29 April 1938, when they correctly guessed that the Japanese would launch a large raid on Wuchang for the Emperor Hirohito’s birthday, but overall the Imperial Japanese Navy pilots imposed their superiority in central and southern China. Chinese pilots, despite flying unsuitable aircraft, tended to go for spectacular attacks on warships which led to their own destruction.
In July, the Japanese bombed the river port of Kiukiang, almost certainly using chemical weapons which they euphemistically called ‘special smoke’. On 26 July, when the town fell, the Namita Detachment carried out another terrible massacre of civilians. But in the intense heat the 11th Army advance slowed, due to the bitter resistance of Chinese forces and large numbers of Japanese soldiers succumbing to malaria and cholera. This gave the Chinese time to dismantle factories and ship them up the Yangtze towards Chungking. On 21 October, the Japanese 21st Army captured the great port of Canton on the south coast in an amphibious operation. Four days later the 6th Division of the 11th Army entered Wuchang as the Chinese forces withdrew.
Chiang Kai-shek railed at the deficiencies in staff work, liaison, intelligence and communications. Divisional headquarters tried to avoid orders from higher command to attack. There was never any defence in depth, just a single line of trenches which could easily be broken, and reserves were seldom deployed in the right place. But the next disaster was largely the fault of Chiang himself.
After the fall of Wuchang, the city of Changsha appeared vulnerable. Japanese aircraft bombed it on 8 November. The next day, Chiang ordered that the town should be prepared for demolition by fire in case the Japanese broke through. He gave the example of the Russians destroying Moscow in 1812. Three days later completely mistaken rumours spread that the Japanese were about to arrive, and in the early hours of 13 November the city was set ablaze. Changsha burned for three days. Two-thirds of the city including the warehouses filled with rice and grain were utterly destroyed. Twenty thousand people died, including all the wounded soldiers, and 200,000 were made homeless.
In spite of its victories, the Imperial Japanese Army was far from complacent. Its commanders knew that they had failed to deliver a knockout blow. Their supply lines were over-extended and vulnerable. And they were only too conscious of Soviet military support for the Nationalists, with Red Army pilots now shooting down many of their planes. The Japanese wondered uneasily what Stalin might be planning. These concerns prompted them in November to propose a general withdrawal of their forces to behind the Great Wall in the north, providing that the Nationalists changed their government, conceded Japan’s right to Manchuria, allowed the Japanese exploitation of their resources and agreed to form a joint front against the Communists. Chiang’s rival, Wang Ching-wei, left for Indochina in December and made contact with the Japanese authorities in Shanghai. He felt that, as the leader of the peace faction within the Kuomintang, he was their obvious candidate to replace Chiang. But few politicians followed him when he left to join the enemy. Chiang’s powerful appeal to national redemption won out.
The Japanese, having abandoned a strategy of shock attack to obtain a rapid victory, now followed a more cautious path. With war in Europe approaching, they suspected that they would soon have to redeploy part of their vast forces in China on other fronts. They also believed, rather obtusely after the atrocities their troops had committed, that they could win over the Chinese population. So although the Nationalist forces and Chinese civilians continued to suffer huge casualties–some twenty million Chinese would die before the war ended in 1945–the Japanese turned to smaller-scale operations, mainly suppressing guerrilla groups in their rear.
The Communists recruited large numbers of local civilians into their guerrilla militias, such as the New Fourth Army along the valley of the central Yangtze. Many of these peasant partisans were armed with little more than farm implements or bamboo spears. But following the Central Committee plenum in October 1938, Mao’s policy was strict. Communist forces were not to fight the Japanese, unless attacked. They were to conserve their strength for seizing territory from the Nationalists. Mao made clear that Chiang Kai-shek was their ultimate opponent, their ‘enemy No.1’.
Japanese raids into the countryside used massacre and mass rape as a weapon of terror. Japanese soldiers began by killing any young men in a village. ‘They roped them together and then split their heads open with swords.’ Then they turned their attention to the women. Corporal Nakamura wrote in his diary in September 1938 of a raid on Lukuochen, south of Nanking: ‘We seized the village and searched every house. We tried to capture the most interesting girls. The chase lasted for two hours. Niura shot one to death because it was her first time and she was ugly and was despised by the rest of us.’ Both the rape of Nanking and countless local atrocities provoked a patriotic anger among the peasantry unimaginable before the war when they had had little idea of Japan or even China as a nation.
The next major battle did not take place until March 1939, when the Japanese moved large forces into Kiangsi province to attack its capital of Nan-chang. Chinese resistance was fierce, despite the Japanese using poison gas again. On 27 March the city fell after house-to-house fighting. Hundreds of thousands more refugees moved westwards, bent under the heavy bundles on their backs, or pushing wooden wheelbarrows with their worldly possessions–quilts, tools and rice bowls. The hair of their women folk was matted with dust, and the old ones had to hobble painfully on their bound feet.
The generalissimo ordered a counter-attack to recapture Nanchang. This took the Japanese by surprise and the Nationalists fought their way into the town in late April, but the effort was too much. Chiang Kai-shek, having threatened commanders with death if the city was not taken, then had to agree to a withdrawal.
Soon after the Soviet–Japanese clashes in May on the Khalkhin Gol, which prompted Stalin to send Zhukov there as commander, the chief Soviet military adviser with Chiang Kai-shek urged him to launch a major counter-offensive to retake the city of Wuchang. Stalin misled Chiang with the idea that he was about to conclude an agreement with the British, when in fact he was already moving towards an arrangement with Nazi Germany. But Chiang stalled, suspecting rightly that Stalin simply wanted pressure to be taken off the Soviet border regions. The Nationalists were alarmed by Communist expansion and by Stalin’s increasing support for Mao. Yet Chiang calculated that Stalin’s main aim was to keep the Kuomintang in the war against Japan, so he felt he could resist the encroachment of Communist forces. This led to many murderous engagements, in which according to Chinese Communist figures over 11,000 people were killed.
Although Changsha had been half destroyed by the tragic fire, the Japanese were still determined to capture the town because of its strategic position. Changsha was an obvious target as it lay on the railway line between Canton and Wuchang, both of which were now occupied by strong Japanese forces. Its capture would seal off the Nationalists in their western stronghold of Szechuan. The Japanese launched their attack in August, at the same time as their comrades in the Kwantung Army were fighting General Zhukov’s forces far to the north.
On 13 September, while German forces advanced deep into Poland, the Japanese advanced on Changsha with 120,000 men in six divisions. The Nationalist plan was to withdraw slowly at first in a fighting retreat, then to allow the Japanese to advance rapidly to the city, before striking with an unexpected counter-attack on their flanks. Chiang Kai-shek had already noted the Japanese tendency to over-extend themselves. Rival generals, keen to gain glory, pushed on without taking account of neigh-bouring formations. His programme of training since the loss of Wuchang had had an effect, and the ambush worked. The Chinese claimed to have inflicted 40,000 casualties on the Japanese.
Stalin’s main priority that August while Zhukov was winning the Battle of Khalkhin Gol was to avoid broadening the conflict with Japan while he began secret negotiations with Germany. Yet the announcement of the Nazi–Soviet pact shook the Japanese leadership to the core. They found it almost impossible to believe that their German ally could come to an agreement with the Communist devil. At the same time, Stalin’s refusal to fight the Japanese after Zhukov’s victory was naturally a major blow to the Nationalists. The ceasefire agreement on the Mongolian and Siberian borders allowed the Japanese to concentrate on fighting the Chinese without having to look over their shoulder to the Soviet north.
Chiang Kai-shek feared that the Soviet Union and Japan might come to a secret agreement to carve up China, like the Nazi–Soviet partition of Poland in September. Mao, on the other hand, welcomed the possibility as it would greatly increase his power at the expense of the Nationalists. Chiang was also alarmed when Stalin reduced the amount of military aid he supplied to the Nationalists. And the start of the war in Europe in September meant that there was even less chance of assistance from the British and French.
For the Nationalists, the lack of outside help became increasingly grave, especially as they had lost their major industrial bases and tax revenues. The Japanese invasion had not just created a military threat. Harvests and food supplies had been destroyed. Banditry became even more widespread, with deserters and stragglers roaming as gangs. Tens of millions of refugees were trying to escape westwards, if only to save wives and daughters from the cruelty of Japanese troops. Unsanitary overcrowding in cities led to outbreaks of cholera. Malaria had spread to new regions with the mass movement of population. And typhus, the lice-borne curse of fleeing troops and refugees, became endemic. Although great efforts were made to improve Chinese medical services, both military and civilian, the few doctors could do little to help refugees, who suffered from ringworm, scabies, trachoma and all the other burdens of poverty exacerbated by severe malnutrition.
Yet, greatly encouraged by their success at Changsha, the Nationalists launched a series of counter-attacks in a ‘winter offensive’ right down the length of central China. They intended to cut the supply lines of exposed Japanese garrisons by impeding river traffic on the Yangtze and severing railways communications. But as soon as the Nationalist attacks began in November, the Japanese invaded the south-western province of Kwangsi with an amphibious landing. On 24 November, they took the city of Nanning and threatened the railway line to French Indochina. The few Nationalist troops in the area were taken by surprise and retreated quickly. Chiang Kai-shek rushed in reinforcements, and the fighting which lasted for two months was savage. The Japanese claimed to have killed 25,000 Chinese in one battle alone. Other Japanese offensives further north seized regions important to the Nationalists for grain supplies and recruitment. They also built up their bomber force in China to raid deep into the Nationalists’ rear areas and batter their new capital of Chungking. The Communists, meanwhile, secretly negotiated a deal with the Japanese in central China under which they would not attack the railways providing the Japanese would leave alone their New Fourth Army in the countryside.
The world situation was very unfavourable to the Nationalists, since Stalin was in an alliance with Germany and warned Chiang Kai-shek off any dealings with Britain and France. The Soviet leader feared that the British as well as the Chinese wanted to manoeuvre him into a war with Japan. In December 1939, during the Winter War against Finland, the Nationalists faced a terrible dilemma when the Soviet Union was faced with expulsion from the League of Nations for its invasion. They did not want to provoke Stalin, yet could not use their veto to save him as that would anger the western powers. In the end, their representative abstained. This angered Moscow without satisfying the British and French. Soviet deliveries of military material dropped significantly and were not restored to their previous level for a year. To put pressure on Stalin to relent, Chiang Kai-shek made noises about pursuing peace talks with the Japanese.
Even so, the Nationalists’ main hope for the future now lay increasingly with the United States, which had started to condemn Japanese aggression and to reinforce its own bases in the Pacific. But Chiang Kai-shek also faced two internal challenges. The Chinese Communist Party under Mao was becoming much more assertive, increasing its hold on territory behind Japanese lines, and claiming that it would defeat the Kuomintang at the end of the Sino-Japanese War. And on 30 March 1940, the Japanese established Wang Ching-wei’s ‘National Government’ of what was called the Reformed Kuomintang in Nanking. The real Nationalists referred to him simply as ‘the criminal traitor’. They were concerned that his regime might be recognized not only by Germany and Italy, Japan’s only European allies, but by other foreign powers as well.
Norway and Denmark
Hitler had originally wanted his attack on the Low Countries and France to begin in November 1939, as soon as German divisions could be transferred from Poland. Above all he wanted to seize Channel ports and airfields to strike against Britain, which he regarded as his most dangerous enemy. He was in a desperate hurry to achieve a decisive victory in the west before the United States was in a position to intervene.
German generals were uneasy. They believed that the size of the French army might lead to another stalemate as in the First World War. Germany possessed neither the fuel nor the raw materials for an extended campaign. Some were also reluctant to attack neutral Holland and Belgium, but such moralistic qualms–like the few protests over the killing of Polish civilians by the SS–were furiously dismissed by Hitler. He was even angrier when told that the Wehrmacht was dangerously short of munitions, especially bombs, and of tanks. Even the brief Polish campaign had exhausted their stocks and emphasized the inadequacy of the Mark I and Mark II tanks.
Hitler blamed the army’s procurement system for the failure and soon brought in Dr Fritz Todt, his construction chief, to run it. And in a characteristic decision, Hitler decided to use up all raw-material reserves ‘without regard to the future and at the expense of later war years’. They could be replenished, he argued, as soon as the Wehrmacht captured the coal and steel areas of the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Luxembourg.
Mists and fogs in the late autumn of 1939 had in any case forced Hitler to accept that the Luftwaffe could not provide the vital support needed for his November target date. (It is tantalizing to speculate how differently things might have turned out if Hitler had launched his attack then rather than six months later.) Hitler then ordered plans to be drawn up for an assault on neutral Holland in mid-January 1940. Astonishingly, both the Dutch and Belgians received warnings of this from the ministry of foreign affairs in Rome. This was because many Italians, especially Mussolini’s foreign minister Count Ciano, had been made both nervous and angry by Germany’s rush to war in September. They feared that they would be attacked first in the Mediterranean by the British. In addition, Oberst Hans Oster, an anti-Nazi in the Abwehr (German military intelligence), tipped off the Dutch military attaché in Berlin. Then, on 10 January 1940, a German liaison plane, which had become lost in thick cloud, crash-landed on Belgian territory. The Luftwaffe staff officer on board, who had a copy of the plans to attack Holland, tried to burn the papers, but Belgian soldiers arrived before they were all destroyed.
Paradoxically, this turn of events would prove to be most unfortunate for the Allies. Assuming that a German invasion was imminent, their formations in north-eastern France destined to defend Belgium were immediately moved to the frontier, thus giving away their own plan. Hitler and the OKW felt obliged to rethink their strategy. The replacement plan would be Generalleutnant Erich von Manstein’s brilliant project of attacking with panzer divisions through the Ardennes, then striking for the Channel behind the backs of the British and French armies due to advance into Belgium. All the postponements lulled the Allied forces languishing on the French frontiers into a false sense of security. Many soldiers, and even planners in the War Office, began to believe that Hitler would never summon up the courage to invade France.
Grossadmiral Raeder, unlike the senior army commanders, was in complete agreement with Hitler’s aggressive strategy. He went even further and urged the Führer to include the invasion of Norway in his plans to give the German navy a flank from which to operate against British shipping. He also used the argument that the northern Norwegian port of Narvik should be seized to secure the supply of Swedish iron ore, so vital for Germany’s war industries. He had brought Vidkun Quisling, the pro-Nazi leader in Norway, to meet Hitler, and Quisling helped persuade the Führer that a German occupation of Norway was essential. The threat of British and French intervention in Norway, as part of a plan to support the Finns, had disturbed him. And if the British established a naval presence in southern Norway, they might cut off the Baltic. Himmler also had his eye on Scandinavia, but as a recruiting ground for his Waffen-SS military formations. Yet Nazi attempts to infiltrate the Scandinavian countries had not been as successful as they had hoped.
The Nazis did not know that Churchill had originally wanted to go much further than just seal off the Baltic. The pugnacious First Lord of the Admiralty had originally wanted to take the war right into the Baltic by sending a surface fleet there, but, fortunately for the Royal Navy, Operation Catherine was thwarted. Churchill also wanted to halt the supply of Swedish ore transported to Germany from the port of Narvik, but Chamberlain and the War Cabinet were firmly against the violation of Norwegian neutrality.
Churchill then took a calculated risk. On 16 February, HMS Cossack, a British tribal-class destroyer, intercepted the Graf Spee’s supply ship, the Altmark, in Norwegian waters to release some British merchant navy prisoners held on board. The famous cry of the bluejacket boarding party to the prisoners below–‘The Navy’s here!’–thrilled a British public who had been suffering the inconveniences of war with little of its drama. In response, the Kriegsmarine increased its presence at sea. But on 22 February two German destroyers were attacked by Heinkel 111s because the Luftwaffe had not been informed in time that they were in the area. The destroyers were hit and struck mines. Both sank.
German warships were then called back to harbour, although for another reason. Hitler issued orders on 1 March to prepare for the invasion of Denmark and Norway, an operation which would require all available surface ships. His decision to attack the two countries alarmed both the German army and the Luftwaffe. They believed that they faced a hard enough problem already with the invasion of France. A diversion in Norway just beforehand might prove disastrous. Göring especially was furious, but mainly out of pique. He felt that he had not been properly consulted first.
On 7 March, Hitler signed the directive. It then seemed to take on a greater urgency, because air reconnaissance reported that the Royal Navy was concentrating its forces at Scapa Flow. This was presumed to be in preparation for a landing on the Norwegian coast. Yet the news a few days later of the Soviet–Finnish accord to end their conflict produced mixed feelings in the German high command. Even Kriegsmarine planners, who had been pressing all along for intervention in Norway, now thought that the pressure was off, since the British and French had no further excuse to land in Scandinavia. But Hitler and others, including Grossadmiral Raeder, felt that preparations were so far advanced that the invasion had to go ahead. A German occupation would also be a very effective way of maintaining pressure on Sweden to maintain its deliveries of iron ore. And Hitler liked the idea of Germany having bases which faced the eastern coastline of Britain and offered access to the northern Atlantic.
The simultaneous invasion of Norway (Weserübung North), with six divisions, and Denmark (Weserübung South), with two divisions and a motorized rifle brigade, was fixed for 9 April. Transport ships escorted by the Kriegsmarine would land their forces at several points, including Narvik, Trondheim and Bergen. The Luftwaffe’s X Fliegerkorps would fly paratroopers and airlanding units to other places, especially Oslo. Copenhagen and seven other key towns in Denmark would be attacked by land and from the sea. The OKW suspected that they were in a race for Norway against the British, but they were in fact comfortably ahead.
Chamberlain, unaware of German plans, had stood down the Anglo-French expeditionary force for Norway and Finland after the Soviet– Finnish pact was signed. This was against the advice of the chief of the imperial general staff, General Sir Edmund Ironside. Chamberlain, who dreaded extending the war to neutral Scandinavia, just hoped that Germany and the Soviet Union would now drift apart. But Allied inaction and pious hopes that they could conduct the war according to League of Nations rules were unlikely to impress anyone.
Daladier, when still French prime minister, advocated a much more forceful strategy, providing it kept any fighting away from France. As well as bombing the Baku and mid-Caucasian oilfields, an idea which horrified Chamberlain, Daladier also wanted to occupy the mining area of Petsamo in northern Finland near the Soviet naval base of Murmansk. In addition, he argued strongly for landings on the Norwegian coast and complete control of the North Sea to prevent Swedish iron ore from reaching Germany. The British, however, suspected that he wanted to divert the war to Scandinavia to reduce the chances of a German attack on France. They believed this partly because Daladier obstinately opposed the British plan to block shipping on the Rhine by dropping mines. In any case, Daladier was forced to resign as prime minister on 20 March. Paul Reynaud took over and in the reshuffle Daladier became minister for war.
Haggling between the Allies over their rival operations wasted precious time. Daladier forced Reynaud to continue to oppose the mining of the Rhine. The British agreed to the French plan to mine the waters off Narvik, which was carried out on 8 April. Churchill wanted to have a landing force ready, as he was certain that the Germans would react, but Chamberlain remained too cautious.
Unknown to the British, a large German naval force with infantry on board had already set sail from Wilhelmshaven on 7 April for Trondheim and Narvik in northern Norway. The battle-cruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst were accompanied by the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper and fourteen destroyers. Another four groups headed for ports in southern Norway.
A British aircraft sighted the main task force under Vice Admiral Günther Lütjens. RAF bombers launched an attack, but failed to score a single hit. The British Home Fleet under Admiral of the Fleet Sir Charles Forbes put to sea from Scapa Flow, but it was well behind. The only naval force in a position to intercept was the battle-cruiser HMS Renown and its escorting destroyers acting in support of the mining operation off Narvik. One of these destroyers, HMS Glowworm, sighted a German destroyer and gave chase, but Lütjens sent in the Hipper, which sank the Glowworm as she attempted to ram her.
The Royal Navy, determined to concentrate its forces for a major naval battle, ordered the disembarkation of troops on other warships ready to sail to Narvik and Trondheim. Yet the Home Fleet was having little success in intercepting the main German task force. This gave Lütjens time to send his destroyers into Narvik, but his battle squadron then sighted the Renown at dawn on 9 April. The Renown, with impressively accurate fire in the heavy seas, battered the Gneisenau and damaged the Scharnhorst, forcing Lütjens to withdraw while his ships carried out emergency repairs.
The German destroyers, having sunk two small Norwegian warships, landed their troops and seized Narvik. Also on 9 April, the Hipper and her destroyers landed troops in Trondheim, and another force entered Bergen. Stavanger was also taken by paratroops and two airlanded infantry battalions. Oslo proved a much harder task, even though the Kriegsmarine had sent the new heavy cruiser Blücher and the pocket battleship Lützow (the former Deutschland). Norwegian shore batteries and torpedoes sank the Blücher; the Lützow had to withdraw after also suffering damage.
At Narvik the following morning, five British destroyers managed to enter the fjords unseen. A heavy snowfall had hidden them from the offshore screen of U-boats. As a result they surprised five German destroyers in the process of refuelling. They sank two of them, but were then attacked by other German destroyers from side-fjords. Two Royal Navy destroyers were sunk and a third badly damaged. Unable to break out, the surviving ships had to wait until 13 April, when the battleship HMS Warspite and nine destroyers came to their rescue and finished off every German warship remaining.
In other actions down the coast, two German cruisers, the Königsberg and the Karlsruhe, were sunk, the former by bombs from carrier-launched Skuas and the latter torpedoed by a submarine. The Lützow was so badly damaged that it had to be towed back to Kiel. But the Royal Navy’s partial successes did nothing to stop the transport of over 100,000 German troops to Norway in the course of the month.
The occupation of Denmark proved even easier for the Germans. They managed to land troops in Copenhagen before the shore batteries could be alerted. Denmark’s government felt obliged to accept the terms dictated by Berlin. The Norwegians, however, rejected any notion of a ‘peaceful occupation’. The King, withdrawing with the government from Oslo on 9 April, ordered mobilization. Although German forces seized many bases in their coups de main, they found themselves isolated until reinforcements arrived in strength.
Because of the Royal Navy’s decision to disembark troops on 9 April, the first Allied troops did not put to sea until two days later. The situation was not helped by an impatient Churchill changing his mind and interfering constantly in operational decisions, to the exasperation of General Ironside and the Royal Navy. Norwegian troops meanwhile attacked the German 3rd Mountain Division with great bravery. But with German forces already established in Narvik and Trondheim, the Anglo-French landings had to be made on their flanks. A direct assault on the harbours was considered too dangerous. Only on 28 April did British troops and two battalions of the French Foreign Legion begin to land, reinforced by a Polish brigade. They captured Narvik and were able to destroy the port, but the Luftwaffe’s air supremacy ensured that the Allied operation was doomed. In the course of the next month the German onslaught on the Low Countries and France would force an evacuation of Allied troops from the northern flank and thus the surrender of Norwegian troops.
The Norwegian royal family and the government sailed to England to continue the war. Raeder’s obsession with Norway, with which he had infected Hitler, was however to prove a very mixed blessing for Nazi Germany. The army continued to complain throughout the war that the occupation of Norway tied down far too many troops, who would be of much greater use on other fronts. From an Allied point of view, the Norway campaign was far more disastrous. Although the Royal Navy managed to sink half the Kriegsmarine’s destroyers, the combined operation was the worst example of inter-service cooperation. Many senior officers also suspected that Churchill’s misdirected enthusiasm had been influenced by a secret desire to blot out the memory of his ill-fated Dardanelles expedition in the First World War. Responsibility for the Norway debacle, as Churchill privately acknowledged later, rested much more with him than with Neville Chamberlain. Yet, with the cruel irony of politics, the reverse would bring him to replace Chamberlain as prime minister.
Along the French frontier, the Phoney War, or drôle de guerre, or Sitzkrieg as the Germans called it, lasted far longer than Hitler had planned. He despised the French army and he was certain that Dutch resistance would collapse immediately. All he needed was the right plan to replace the one passed to the Allies by the Belgians.
The most senior army officers did not like General von Manstein’s daring project and tried to suppress it. But Manstein, when finally given access to Hitler, argued that a German invasion of Holland and Belgium would draw the British and French forces forward from the Franco-Belgian frontier. They could then be cut off by a thrust through the Ardennes and across the River Meuse towards the Somme estuary and Boulogne. Hitler grabbed at the plan, because he needed a knock-out blow. Characteristically, he later claimed that it had been his idea all along.
The British Expeditionary Force with four divisions had taken up positions along the Belgian frontier the previous October. By May 1940, it had been increased to one armoured and ten infantry divisions under General Lord Gort. Gort, despite the considerable size of his command, had to take orders from the French commander in the north-east, General Alphonse Georges, and the strangely diffident French commander-in-chief, General Maurice Gamelin. There was no joint Allied command as in the First World War.
The greatest problem both Gort and Georges faced was the obstinate refusal of the Brussels government to compromise Belgium’s neutrality, even though it knew that the Germans planned to attack. Gort and his neighbouring French formations would thus have to wait for the German invasion before they could move forward. The Dutch, who had managed to stay neutral in the First World War, were even more determined not to provoke the Germans by making joint plans with the French or the Belgians. Yet they still hoped that Allied forces would come to support their small and under-equipped army when the fighting started. The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, although sympathetic to the Allies, knew that it could do no more than close its border and point out to the German invaders that they were violating its neutrality.
There was another fatal flaw in French planning. The Maginot Line stretched only from the Swiss border to the southernmost point of the Belgian frontier opposite the Ardennes. Neither the French nor British staffs imagined the Germans attempting a thrust through this heavily wooded region. The Belgians warned the French that this was a danger, but the supercilious Gamelin dismissed the possibility. Reynaud, who called Gamelin ‘the nerveless philosopher’, wanted to sack him, but Daladier, as minister of war, insisted on keeping him. The paralysis of decision extended right to the top.
The lack of support in France for the war was barely concealed. German claims that Britain had forced the French into the war, and then would leave them to face the bulk of the fighting, were effectively corrosive. Even the French general staff led by General Gamelin showed little enthusiasm. The utterly inadequate gesture of a limited advance near Saarbrücken in September had represented almost an insult to the Poles.
France’s defensive mentality affected its military organization. The majority of its tank units, although not technically inferior to the German panzers, were insufficiently trained. Apart from three mechanized divisions–a fourth was hurriedly put together under the command of Colonel Charles de Gaulle–French tanks were split up among its infantry formations. Both French and British forces were short of effective anti-tank guns–the British two-pounder was generally referred to as a ‘pea-shooter’–and their radio communications were primitive to say the least. In a war of movement, field telephones and landlines would prove to be of little use.
The French air force was still in a lamentable state. General Vuillemin had written to Daladier during the Czechoslovak crisis in 1938 to warn him that the Luftwaffe would rapidly destroy their squadrons. Only marginal improvements had been made since then. The French therefore expected the RAF to take on most of the burden, but Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, the head of Fighter Command, was deeply opposed to deploying aircraft to France. Fighter Command’s primary role was the defence of the United Kingdom, and in any case French airfields lacked effective anti-aircraft protection. In addition, neither the RAF nor the French air force had trained to act in close support for their own ground forces. The Allies had failed to learn this lesson of the Polish campaign, as well as others, such as the Luftwaffe’s skill at ruthless pre-emptive strikes against airfields, and the German army’s ability with sudden armoured thrusts to disorientate the defenders.
After several more postponements, partly due to the Norwegian campaign and partly, in the last few days, to unfavourable weather forecasts, the German invasion in the west was finally set. Friday, 10 May was to be ‘X-Day’. Hitler, with his customary lack of modesty, predicted the ‘greatest victory in world history’.
Onslaught in the West
Thursday, 9 May 1940 was a beautiful spring day in most of northern Europe. A war correspondent observed Belgian soldiers planting pan sies round their barracks. There had been rumours of a German attack, with reports of pontoon bridges being assembled close to the border, but these were discounted in Brussels. Many seemed to think that Hitler was about to attack south into the Balkans, not westwards. In any case, few imagined that he would invade four countries–Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and France–all in one go.
In Paris, life continued as usual. The capital had seldom looked so beautiful. Chestnut trees had burst into leaf. Cafés were full. Without any apparent irony, ‘J’attendrai’ continued as the hit song. Race meetings went on at Auteuil, and smart women thronged the Ritz. Most striking of all were the many officers and soldiers in the streets. General Gamelin had just reinstated permission to go on leave. By a curious coincidence, Paul Reynaud, the prime minister, had offered his resignation that morning to President Albert Lebrun, because Daladier had again refused to sack the commander-in-chief.
In Britain, the BBC news announced that the night before, thirty-three Conservatives had voted against Chamberlain’s government in the House of Commons following a debate on the Norway fiasco. Leo Amery’s speech attacking Chamberlain would prove fatal for the prime minister. He ended it with Cromwell’s dismissal of the Long Parliament in 1653: ‘Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!’ Amid tumultuous scenes, with chants of ‘Go! go! go!’, a shaken Chamberlain left the chamber, trying to conceal his emotions.
Throughout that sunny day, politicians in Westminster and the clubs of St James’s discussed the next step in either hushed or heated tones. Who would succeed Chamberlain: Churchill or Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary? For most Conservatives, Edward Halifax was the natural choice. Many still distrusted Churchill as a dangerous, even unscrupulous maverick. Yet Chamberlain still tried to hold on. He approached the Labour Party, suggesting a coalition, but was told brusquely that they were not prepared to serve under him as leader. That evening he was forced to face the fact that he had to resign. Thus Britain found itself in a political limbo on the very eve of the great German offensive in the west.
In Berlin, Hitler dictated his proclamation for the morrow to the armies of the western front. ‘The battle beginning today will decide the fate of the German nation for the next thousand years,’ it concluded. As the moment approached, the Führer was increasingly optimistic, especially after the success of the Norwegian campaign. He predicted that France would surrender within six weeks. The audacious glider assault on the principal Belgian fortress of Eben-Emael near the Dutch border excited him the most. His special armoured train, the Amerika, steamed off that afternoon to take him to a new Führer headquarters, designated the Felsennest (or Cliff Nest), in the forested hills of the Eifel close to the Ardennes. At 21.00 hours, the codeword Danzig was sent to all army groups. Meteorological reports had confirmed that the next day would provide perfect visibility for the Luftwaffe. Secrecy had been maintained so carefully that, after all the postponements of the attack date, some officers had been away from their regiments when the order to move out came through.
In the north, astride the Rhine, the German Eighteenth Army was ready to strike into Holland towards Amsterdam and Rotterdam. A third force would head north of Tilburg and Breda towards the sea. Just to their south was Generaloberst Walther von Reichenau’s Sixth Army. Its objectives were Antwerp and Brussels. Generaloberst von Rundstedt’s Army Group A, with forty-four divisions in all, contained the main panzer forces. Generaloberst Günther von Kluge’s Fourth Army would strike into Belgium towards Charleroi and Dinant. The thrust by all these armies into the Low Countries from the east would bring the British and French forces racing northwards to join up with the Belgians and Dutch. At this point, Manstein’s Sichelschnitt, or sickle-cut, plan would come into play. Generaloberst Wilhelm List’s Twelfth Army would advance across northern Luxembourg and the Belgian Ardennes to cross the River Meuse south of Givet and near Sedan, the scene of France’s great disaster in 1870.
Once over the Meuse, the panzer group commanded by General der Kavallerie Ewald von Kleist would head towards Amiens, Abbeville and the Somme estuary on the Channel. This would cut off the BEF, the British Expeditionary Force, and the French Seventh, First and Ninth Armies. The German Sixteenth Army would meanwhile advance through southern Luxembourg to protect Kleist’s exposed left flank. Generaloberst Ritter von Leeb’s Army Group C, with two more armies, would maintain pressure on the Maginot Line to the south so that the French would feel unable to send forces north to rescue their forces trapped in Flanders.
Manstein’s left-hook Sichelschnitt was thus a reversal of the version of the right-hook Schlieffen plan attempted in 1914, which the French now expected them to try a second time. Admiral Wilhelm Canaris of the Abwehr mounted a very effective disinformation campaign, spreading rumours in Belgium and elsewhere that this was precisely what the Germans were planning. Manstein was confident that Gamelin would send the bulk of his mobile forces into Belgium, because they had promptly moved towards the border following the capture of the documents after the plane crash. (Many senior Allied officers subsequently believed that the plane crash had been a clever plant by the Germans, when it had really been a genuine accident, as Hitler’s fury at the time confirmed.) In any case, Manstein’s plan to draw the Allies into Belgium played to another French preoccupation. General Gamelin, like most of his countrymen, preferred to fight on Belgian territory rather than in French Flanders, which had suffered such destruction in the First World War.
Hitler was also keen that airborne troops and special forces should play a part. He had summoned Generalleutnant Kurt Student to the Reichschancellery the previous October and ordered him to prepare groups to seize the fortress of Eben-Emael and key bridges on the Albert Canal, using assault groups in gliders. Brandenburger commandos in Dutch uniforms were to secure bridges while others disguised as tourists would infiltrate Luxembourg just before the offensive began. But the main airborne coup de main would consist of an assault on three airfields round The Hague, with units from the 7th Fallschirmjäger Division and the 22nd Luftlande Division under Generalmajor Hans Graf von Sponeck. Their objective was to seize the Dutch capital and take prisoner the government and members of the royal family.
The Germans had produced a lot of diversionary ‘noise’: circulating rumours of a concentration on Holland and Belgium, attacks on the Maginot Line and even the suggestion that they might circumvent its southern end by violating Swiss neutrality. Gamelin was certain that the Germans’ onslaught on Holland and Belgium would be their main attack. He paid little attention to the sector facing the Ardennes, convinced that its thickly wooded hills were ‘impenetrable’. The roads and forest tracks were large enough for the German tanks while the canopy of beech, fir and oak provided perfect concealment for Kleist’s panzer group.
Generaloberst von Rundstedt had been reassured by the photo-reconnaissance expert attached to his headquarters that the French defensive positions covering the Meuse were far from finished. Unlike the Luftwaffe, which mounted constant photo-reconnaissance flights over the Allied lines, the French air force refused to send aircraft over German territory. Yet Gamelin’s own military intelligence–the Deuxième Bureau–possessed a remarkably accurate picture of the German order of battle. They had located the bulk of the panzer divisions in the Eifel just beyond the Ardennes and had also discovered that the Germans were interested in the routes from Sedan towards Abbeville. The French military attaché in Berne, tipped off by the very effective Swiss intelligence service, warned Gamelin’s headquarters on 30 April that the Germans would attack between 8 and 10 May, with Sedan lying on the ‘principal axis’ of advance.
Gamelin and other senior French commanders nevertheless remained in a state of denial about the threat. ‘France is not Poland’ was their attitude. General Charles Huntziger, whose Second Army was responsible for the Sedan sector, had only three third-rate divisions on that part of the front. He knew how unprepared and unenthusiastic his reservists were for the fight. Huntziger begged Gamelin for four more divisions because his defences were not ready, but Gamelin refused. Some accounts, however, accuse Huntziger of complacency and say that General André Corap, commanding the neighbouring Ninth Army, was more aware of the threat. In any case, the concrete positions overlooking the River Meuse built by civilian contractors did not even have embrasures facing in the right direction. Minefields and barbed-wire entanglements were totally inadequate, and suggestions that trees should be felled across the forest tracks on the east bank of the river were rejected because the French cavalry might want to advance.
In the early hours of Friday, 10 May, word of the impending attack reached Brussels. Telephones began ringing all over the city. Police rushed from hotel to hotel to tell night porters to wake any military personnel they had staying there. Officers, still struggling into their uniforms, ran to find taxis to rejoin their regiments or headquarters. As dawn broke, the Luftwaffe appeared. Belgian biplane fighters took off to intercept, but their antiquated machines stood no chance. Civilians in Brussels awoke to the sound of anti-aircraft fire.
Reports of enemy movement had also reached Gamelin’s headquarters in the very early hours, but they were dismissed as an overreaction after so many false alarms. The commander-in-chief was not woken until 06.30 hours. His Grand Quartier Général in the medieval fortress of Vincennes on the eastern edge of Paris was far from the battlefield but close to the centre of power. Gamelin was a politician’s soldier, adept at maintaining his position in the byzantine world of the Third Republic. Unlike the ferociously right-wing General Maxime Weygand, whom he had replaced in 1935, the Delphic Gamelin had avoided an anti-republican reputation.
Gamelin, credited with planning the Battle of the Marne in 1914 as a brilliant young staff officer, was now a small, fastidious man of sixty-eight in immaculately cut breeches. Many remarked on his surprisingly limp handshake. He enjoyed a rarefied atmosphere with his favourite staff officers who, sharing his intellectual interests, discussed art, philosophy and literature as if they were acting in a high-brow French play cut off from the real world. Since Gamelin did not believe in radio communications and possessed none, the orders to prepare to advance into Belgium were passed by telephone. The French commander-in-chief that morning exuded confidence that the Germans were playing into his hands. One staff officer watched him humming a martial tune as he strode up and down the corridors.
Word of the attack had also reached London. A Cabinet minister went to see Winston Churchill in the Admiralty at 06.00 hours only to find him smoking a cigar while eating eggs and bacon. Churchill was waiting to hear the outcome of Chamberlain’s deliberations. Chamberlain, like the King and many Conservative grandees, wanted Lord Halifax to succeed him if he had to go. But Halifax, who had a profound sense of public service, guessed that Churchill would make a better war leader and refused the premiership. Churchill had also emphasized the point that Halifax, as a member of the House of Lords, could not effectively run the government from outside the Commons. In Britain that day, the drama of political change overshadowed the far more serious events across the Channel.
Gamelin’s plan was for General Henri Giraud’s Seventh Army on the extreme left to advance rapidly up the coast past Antwerp and join up with the Dutch army round Breda. This addition to his advance into the Low Countries would prove a major element in the disaster to follow, because the Seventh Army was his only reserve in north-eastern France. The Dutch had hoped for more assistance, but this was wildly over-optimistic after their refusal to coordinate plans and given the distance to be covered from the French frontier.
According to Gamelin’s so-called Plan D, a Belgian force of twenty-two divisions would defend the River Dyle from Antwerp to Louvain. Gort’s BEF with nine infantry divisions and one armoured division would join their right and defend the Dyle east of Brussels from Louvain to Wavre. On the BEF’s southern flank, General Georges Blanchard’s First French Army would hold the gap between Wavre and Namur, while General Corap’s Ninth Army would line the River Meuse south from Namur to west of Sedan. The Germans were aware of every detail, having broken the French codes with great ease.
Gamelin had assumed that the Belgian troops defending the Albert Canal from Antwerp to Maastricht would be able to hold off the Germans long enough for the Allies to advance to what they imagined would be previously prepared positions. On paper, the Dyle plan appeared to be a satisfactory compromise, but it utterly failed to predict the speed, ruthlessness and deception of the Wehrmacht’s combined operations. The lessons of the Polish campaign had simply not been absorbed.
Once again, the Luftwaffe sent in pre-emptive dawn attacks against airfields in Holland, Belgium and France. Messerschmitts managed to shoot up French aircraft lined up at dispersal. Polish pilots were horrified by ‘the French insouciance’ and lack of enthusiasm to engage the enemy. RAF squadrons scrambled when ordered up, but once in the air they had little idea where to go. With no effective radar, ground control was of little help. Even so, on that first day the RAF Hurricanes still managed to bring down over thirty German bombers, but they had not had to contend with German fighter escorts, and the Luftwaffe did not make that mistake again.
The bravest pilots were those flying the obsolete Fairey Battle light bombers sent to attack a German column advancing through Luxembourg. Slow and inadequately armed, they were dangerously vulnerable to both enemy fighters and ground fire. Thirteen out of thirty-two were shot down and all the others damaged. The French lost fifty-six aircraft destroyed on that day out of 879 and the RAF forty-nine out of 384. The Dutch air force lost half its strength in a morning. But the battle was far from one-sided. The Luftwaffe lost 126 machines destroyed, of which most were Junkers 52 transports.
The bulk of the Luftwaffe effort was concentrated against Holland in the hope of knocking the country out of the fight rapidly, but also to re inforce the impression that the main attack was coming in the north. This was all part of what the military analyst Basil Liddell Hart later called the ‘matador’s cloak’ tactic to draw Gamelin’s mobile forces into the trap.
In a new development in warfare, Junkers 52 transport planes, escorted by Messerschmitts, began dropping the airborne assault troops. The main objective, to seize The Hague with units of the 7th Fallschirmjäger and the 22nd Luftlande Divisions, was however a costly failure. Many of the slow transport planes were shot down en route to the target and less than half the force reached the three airfields around the Dutch capital. Dutch units fought back, inflicting many casualties on the paratroopers, while both the royal family and the government made their escape. Other detachments from the same two divisions managed to seize the Waalhaven airfield near Rotterdam as well as key bridges. But to the east Dutch troops had reacted very quickly and blown the bridges round Maastricht before German commandos, dressed in Dutch uniforms, could seize them.
Hitler at the Felsennest is said to have wept with joy when he heard that the Allies were starting to march into the Belgian trap. He was also thrilled that the assault group of paratroopers in gliders had managed to drop exactly on to the glacis of the Eban-Emael fortress at the confluence of the Meuse and the Albert Canal. They trapped the large Belgian garrison beneath them until the Sixth Army arrived the following evening. Other paratroop detachments seized bridges over the Albert Canal, and the Germans rapidly breached the first main lines of defence. Even if the principal airborne operation against The Hague had failed, the landing of paratroopers deep inside Holland created fearful panic and confusion. It started the wild rumours of paratroops coming down dressed as nuns, of poisoned sweets dropped for children and of fifth columnists signalling from attic windows: a phenomenon which infected Belgium, France and later Britain.
In London, the War Cabinet met no fewer than three times during that day, 10 May. Chamberlain had at first wanted to stay on as prime minister, insisting that there should be no change of government while the battle across the Channel continued, but when confirmation came through that the Labour Party refused to support him, he knew that he had to resign. Halifax again rejected the premiership, so Chamberlain was driven to Buckingham Palace to advise King George VI to send for Churchill. The King, depressed that his friend Halifax had turned down the post, had no alternative.
Now that Churchill’s position was confirmed, he wasted no time in turning his attention back to the war and the advance of the BEF into Belgium. The 12th Royal Lancers in their armoured cars had moved out first as a reconnaissance screen at 10.20 hours. Most other British units followed during the day. The 3rd Division’s leading column was halted at the border by an uninformed Belgian official demanding a ‘permit to enter Belgium’. A truck simply smashed open the barrier. Almost every road into Belgium was filled with columns of military vehicles heading north to the line of the River Dyle, which the 12th Lancers reached at 18.00 hours.
The Luftwaffe’s concentration first on airfields and then on Holland had at least meant that the Allied armies advancing into Belgium were spared from air attack. The French appear to have been slower off the mark. Many French formations did not start moving until the evening. This was a grave mistake as the roads rapidly became clogged with refugees coming in the other direction. Their Seventh Army, on the other hand, hurried forward along the Channel coast towards Antwerp, but soon suffered from concentrated Luftwaffe attacks when they reached southern Holland.
Along the route on that hot day, Belgians emerged from cafés to offer mugs of beer to the red-faced marching soldiers, a generous gesture which was not universally welcomed by officers and NCOs. Other British units crossed through Brussels at dusk. ‘The Belgians stood cheering,’ wrote an observer, ‘and the men in the trucks and Bren carriers waved back. Every man was wearing lilac, purple on his steel helmet, in the barrel of his rifle, stuck in his web equipment. They smiled and saluted with thumbs up–a gesture which at first shocked the Belgians, to whom it had a very rude significance, but which they soon recognised as a sign of cheerful confidence. It was a great sight, one to bring tears to the eyes, as this military machine moved forward in all its strength, efficiently, quietly, with the British military police guiding it on at every crossroads as if they were dealing with rush-hour London.’
The great battle, however, was about to be decided well to the south-east in the Ardennes, with Rundstedt’s Army Group A. His huge columns of vehicles snaked through the forests which hid them from Allied aircraft. Overhead, a screen of Messerschmitt fighters flew ready to attack enemy bombers or reconnaissance aircraft. Any vehicle or tank which broke down was pushed off the road. The march-table was rigidly adhered to, and despite the fears of many staff officers the system worked far better than expected. All the vehicles in Panzer Group Kleist had a small white ‘K’ stencilled back and front to give them absolute priority. Marching infantry and all other transport had to get off the road as soon as they appeared.
At 04.30 hours, General der Panzertruppen Heinz Guderian, the commander of XIX Corps, had accompanied the 1st Panzer Division as it crossed the Luxembourg border. Brandenburger commandos had already seized some important crossroads and bridges. Luxembourg gendarmes could do little more than point out that the Wehrmacht was violating the country’s neutrality before they were taken prisoner. The Grand Duke and his family just managed to escape in time, unrecognized by the Brandenburgers.
To the north, XLI Panzer Corps advanced in the direction of the Meuse at Monthermé, and even further north on their right General der Panzertruppen Hermann Hoth’s XV Corps, led by Generalmajor Erwin Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division, headed for Dinant. But several of the panzer divisions, to their dismay–and Kleist’s alarm–found themselves delayed by bridges blown by Belgian sappers attached to the Chasseurs d’Ardennes.
At first light on 11 May, Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division, with the 5th Panzer Division behind and to his right, pushed forward again and reached the River Ourthe. The French cavalry screen managed to blow the bridge just in time, but then retreated after a brisk exchange of fire. Divisional pioneers soon constructed a pontoon bridge, and the advance continued towards the Meuse. Rommel noted that, in his division’s clashes with the French, the Germans came off best if they immediately opened fire with everything they had.
To the south, Generalleutnant Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s XLI Panzer Corps, heading for Bastogne and then Monthermé, had been held up by part of Guderian’s force crossing their front. Guderian’s XIX Corps itself suffered confusion partly due to a change in orders. But the French cavalry screen, consisting of mounted units and light tanks, was also in disarray. Although the strength of the German drive towards the Meuse was increasingly evident, the French air force mounted no sorties. The RAF sent in eight more Fairey Battles. Seven were destroyed, mostly by ground fire.
Allied aircraft attacking the Maastricht and Albert Canal bridges to the north-west also suffered heavily, but these attempts were too little and too late. The German Eighteenth Army was by now deep into Dutch territory, where resistance was crumbling. Reichenau’s Sixth Army was across the Albert Canal, bypassing Liège, while another corps advanced on Antwerp.
The BEF, now established along the pitifully narrow River Dyle, and the French formations advancing to their positions received little attention from the Luftwaffe. This worried some of the more perceptive officers who wondered whether they were being drawn into a trap. The most immediate concern, however, was the French First Army’s slow progress, now made infinitely worse by the growing volume of Belgian refugees. There were many more waves to come as scenes observed in Brussels indicated. ‘They walked, they rode in cars and carts or on donkeys, were pushed in bathchairs, even in wheelbarrows. There were youths on bicycles, old men, old women, babies, peasant women, kerchiefs covering their heads, riding on farm carts piled with mattresses, furniture, pots. A long line of nuns, their faces red with perspiration under their coifs, stirred the dust with their long grey robes… The stations were like drawings from those of Russia during the revolution, with people sleeping on the floor, huddled against the walls, women with weeping babies, men pale and exhausted.’
On 12 May, both in Paris and in London, newspapers gave the impression that the German onslaught had been halted. The Sunday Chronicle announced ‘Despair in Berlin’. But German forces had crossed Holland to the sea, and the remnants of the Dutch army had pulled back into the triangle of Amsterdam, Utrecht and Rotterdam. General Giraud’s Seventh Army, having now reached southern Holland, continued to suffer heavy attacks by the Luftwaffe.
In Belgium, General René Prioux’s Cavalry Corps, the advance guard of the delayed First Army, managed to beat back the over-extended German panzer units advancing on the Dyle line. But again Allied squadrons attempting to bomb bridges and columns were massacred by German light flak units with their quadruple 20mm guns.
To the slight resentment of the German forces fighting to cross the Meuse, German news broadcasts emphasized only the battles in Holland and northern Belgium. Little was said about the main attack in the south. This was a deliberate part of the deception plan to distract the Allies’ attention from the Sedan and Dinant sectors. Gamelin still refused to acknowledge the threat to the upper Meuse despite several warnings, but General Alphonse Georges, the commander-in-chief of the north-eastern front, a sad-faced old general much admired by Churchill, intervened to give air priority to Huntziger’s sector around Sedan. Georges, who was detested by Gamelin, had never quite recovered from serious wounds to the chest in 1934 inflicted by the assassin of King Alexander of Yugoslavia.
Matters were not helped by the confusing chain of command in the French army, largely designed by Gamelin in his determination to undermine the position of his deputy. But even Georges had reacted to the threat too late. French units north-east of the Meuse were pulled back across the river, some in complete disorder. Guderian’s 1st Panzer Division entered the town of Sedan against little opposition. The withdrawing French troops at least managed to blow the bridges at Sedan, but already German pioneer bridging companies had demonstrated their speed and skill.
That afternoon, Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division also reached the Meuse downstream near Dinant. Although the Belgian rearguard blew up the main bridge, grenadiers from the 5th Panzer Division had discovered an old weir at Houx. Concealed by a heavy river mist that night, several companies managed to cross and establish a bridgehead. Corap’s Ninth Army had failed to get troops forward in time to defend the sector.
On 13 May, Rommel’s troops began to force a crossing of the Meuse at two other points, but came under heavy fire from well-positioned French regulars. Rommel came to the crossings near Dinant in his eight-wheeled armoured car to assess the situation. Finding that his armoured vehicles had no smoke shells with them, he ordered his men to set some houses on fire upwind of the crossing point. Then, bringing in some heavier Mark IV Panzers, he had them firing across the river at the French positions to cover the infantry in their heavy rubber assault boats. ‘Hardly had the first boats been lowered into the water than all hell broke loose,’ wrote an officer with the 7th Panzer’s reconnaissance battalion. ‘Snipers and heavy artillery straddled the defenceless men in the boats. With our tanks and our own artillery we tried to neutralize the enemy, but he was too well screened. The infantry attack came to a standstill.’
This day marked the start of the Rommel legend. To his officers it appeared as if he was almost everywhere: climbing on to tanks to direct the fire, accompanying the combat pioneers, and crossing the river himself. His energy and bravery kept his men going, when the attack might have flagged. At one stage he took command of an infantry battalion across the Meuse when French tanks appeared. Perhaps it is part of the myth, but Rommel is supposed to have ordered his men, who had no anti-tank weapons, to fire signal flares at them. The French tank crews, thinking they were armour-piercing shells, promptly withdrew. German losses were heavy, but by the evening Rommel had two bridgeheads established, the one at Houx and the other at the heavily contested crossing at Dinant. That night his pioneers built pontoon bridges to take the tanks across.
Guderian, preparing his own crossings either side of Sedan, had been involved in a furious row with his superior, Generaloberst von Kleist. Guderian took the risk of ignoring him and persuaded the Luftwaffe to support his plan with a massive concentration of aircraft from II and VIII Fliegerkorps. The latter was commanded by Generalmajor Wolfram Frei-herr von Richthofen, a younger cousin of the First World War air ace the ‘Red Baron’ and the former commander of the Condor Legion responsible for the destruction of Guernica. Richthofen’s Stukas, screaming down with their ‘Jericho trumpets’, would shake the morale of the French troops defending the Sedan sector.
Astonishingly, the French artillery, which had a great concentration of German vehicles and men to aim at, had been ordered to limit their fire, to save ammunition. The divisional commander had expected the Germans to take another two days to bring up their own field guns before crossing the river. He still had not realized that the Stukas were now the flying artillery of the panzer spearheads, and the Stukas attacked his gun positions with remarkable accuracy. As the town of Sedan burned furiously from heavy shelling and bombing, the Germans rushed the river in their heavy rubber assault boats, paddling furiously. They suffered many casualties, but eventually assault pioneers were across and attacking the concrete bunkers with flamethrowers and satchel charges.
As dusk was falling, a wild rumour spread among the terrorized French reservists that enemy tanks were already across the river and that they were about to be cut off. Communications between units and commanders had virtually collapsed as a result of the bombs severing field telephone lines. First the French artillery, then the divisional commander himself, began to retreat. A spirit of sauve qui peut took hold. The ammunition stockpiles which had been hoarded for another day fell to the enemy without a fight. The older reservists, nicknamed ‘crocodiles’, had survived the First World War and did not wish to perish now in what they saw as an unfair fight. The anti-war tracts of the French Communist Party had influenced many, but German propaganda claiming that the British had got them into this war was the most effective. Reynaud’s pledge in March to the government in London that France would never seek a separate peace with Germany had only increased their suspicions.
French generals, with their mindset from the great victory of 1918, were completely overtaken by events. General Gamelin, during his visit that day to the headquarters of General Georges, still expected the main thrust to come through Belgium. Only in the evening did he discover that the Germans were across the Meuse. He ordered Huntziger’s Second Army to mount a counter-offensive, but by the time the general had redeployed his formations it was too late to launch anything more than local attacks.
In any case, Huntziger had completely misunderstood Guderian’s intentions. He assumed that the breakthrough was intended to strike south and roll up the Maginot Line from behind. As a result he strengthened his forces on the right when Guderian was advancing through his far weaker left. The fall of Sedan, with all its echoes of Napoleon III’s surrender in 1870, struck horror into the hearts of French commanders. In the early hours of the next morning, 14 May, Captain André Beaufre, accompanying General Doumenc, entered the headquarters of General Georges. ‘The atmosphere was that of a family in which there had been a death,’ Beaufre wrote later. ‘Our front has broken at Sedan!’ Georges told the new arrivals. ‘There has been a collapse.’ The exhausted general flung himself into a chair and burst into tears.
With three German bridgeheads established round Sedan, Dinant and a smaller one in between near Monthermé, where Reinhardt’s XLI Panzer Corps was starting to catch up after a tough fight, a breach nearly eighty kilometres across was about to open in the French front. There would have been a good chance of crushing the German spearheads if French commanders had reacted more rapidly. On the Sedan sector, General Pierre Lafontaine of the 55th Division had already been given two extra infantry regiments and two battalions of light tanks, but he did not issue his orders for the counter-attack for nine hours. The tank battalions were also slowed by fleeing soldiers from the 51st Division blocking the roads and by poor communications. During the night, the Germans had wasted no time in getting more of their panzers across the Meuse. The French tanks finally went into action in the early morning, but the vast majority were knocked out. The collapse of the 51st Division had meanwhile triggered panic in neighbouring formations.
The Allied air forces sent in 152 bombers and 250 fighters that morning to attack the pontoon bridges over the Meuse. But the targets proved too small to hit, Luftwaffe Messerschmitt squadrons were out in force and the German flak detachments put up a murderous fire. The RAF suffered its worst casualty rate ever, with forty bombers out of seventy-one shot down. The French, in desperation, then sent in some of their most obsolete bombers which were massacred. Georges ordered forward an untested armoured division and a motorized infantry division under General Jean Flavigny, but they were delayed by lack of fuel. Flavigny was directed to attack the Sedan bridgehead from the south because, like Huntziger, Georges thought that the main threat was on the right.
Another counter-attack was attempted to the north by the 1st Armoured Division against Rommel’s bridgehead. But again delays proved fatal due to Belgian refugees blocking roads and petrol bowsers unable to get through. The next morning, 15 May, Rommel’s spearhead surprised the division’s heavy B1 tanks as they were refuelling. A confused battle began, with the French tank crews at a severe disadvantage. Rommel left the 5th Panzer Division to continue the battle while he surged on ahead. If they had been ready, the French tanks could have scored a significant victory. In the event, although the French 1st Armoured Division managed to destroy nearly a hundred German tanks, it was virtually annihilated by the end of the day, mainly by German anti-tank guns.
The Allied forces in the Low Countries still had little idea of the threat to their rear. On 13 May, General Prioux’s Cavalry Corps fought a determined withdrawal to the line of the Dyle, where the rest of Blanchard’s First Army was getting into position. Although Prioux’s Somua tanks were well armoured, German gunnery and manoeuvre were far better, and the lack of radios in the French tanks proved a major handicap. Having lost nearly half its strength after a valiant battle, Prioux’s corps was withdrawn. It was in no state to attack south-east against the Ardennes breakthrough as Gamelin wanted.
The French Seventh Army began to withdraw towards Antwerp after its fruitless advance to Breda to link up with the isolated Dutch forces. Although ill trained and badly armed, the Dutch troops fought bravely against the 9th Panzer Division fighting its way towards Rotterdam. The German Eighteenth Army commander was frustrated by their resistance, but finally that evening the panzers broke through.
The next day, the Dutch negotiated the surrender of Rotterdam, but the German commander had failed to inform the Luftwaffe. A major bombing raid was mounted on the city. Over 800 civilians were killed. The Dutch foreign minister claimed that evening that 30,000 had been killed, an announcement which caused horror in Paris and London. In any case, General Henri Winkelman, the Dutch commander-in-chief, decided on a general surrender to avoid further loss of life. Hitler, on hearing the news, promptly ordered a triumphal march through Amsterdam with units from the SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler and the 9th Panzer Division.
Hitler was both amused and exasperated when he received a telegram from the former Kaiser Wilhelm II, still in his Dutch exile at Apeldoorn. ‘My Führer,’ it read, ‘I congratulate you and hope that under your marvellous leadership the German monarchy will be restored completely.’ Hitler was amazed that the old Kaiser expected him to play Bismarck. ‘What an idiot!’ he said to his valet, Linge.
The French counter-attack planned against the eastern part of the Sedan salient for 14 May was first delayed and then called off by General Flavigny, the commander of XXI Corps. He made the disastrous decision to split up the 3rd Armoured Division simply to create a defensive line between Chémery and Stonne. Huntziger was still convinced that the Germans were heading south behind the Maginot Line. He accordingly pivoted his army round to bar the route to the south. This succeeded only in opening up the route to the west.
General von Kleist, when informed of the arrival of French reinforcements, ordered Guderian to halt until more forces came up to protect that flank. After another fierce row, Guderian managed to convince him that he could continue his advance with the 1st and 2nd Panzer Divisions, providing he sent the 10th Panzer Division and the Grossdeutschland Infantry Regiment under the Graf von Schwerin against the village of Stonne, high on a commanding hill. Early on 15 May, the Grossdeutschland went straight into the attack without waiting for the 10th Panzer. Flavigny’s tank crews fought back, and the village changed hands several times in the course of the day with heavy casualties on both sides. In the narrow streets of the village, the Grossdeutschland anti-tank guns finally knocked out the heavy B1 tanks, and the exhausted German infantrymen were reinforced by panzergrenadiers from the 10th Panzer. The Grossdeutschland had lost 103 men killed and 459 wounded. It was the heaviest German loss in the whole campaign.
General Corap began to withdraw his Ninth Army, but that sparked a rapid disintegration and further widened the gap. Reinhardt’s Panzer Corps in the middle had not only caught up with the other two on 15 May, its 6th Panzer Division outpaced them dramatically, with an advance of sixty kilometres to Montcornet which split the hapless French 2nd Armoured Division in two. It was this deep strike into the French rear which convinced General Robert Touchon, who was trying to assemble a new Sixth Army to plug the gap, that they were too late. He ordered his formations to fall back to south of the River Aisne. There were now very few French forces left between the German panzers and the Channel coast.
Guderian had been instructed not to advance until sufficient infantry divisions had been brought across the Meuse. All his superiors, Kleist, Rundstedt and Halder, were deeply nervous about an over-extended panzer spearhead exposed to a major French counter-attack from the south. Even Hitler was fearful of the risks. But Guderian sensed that the French were in chaos. The opportunity was too good to miss. Thus what has erroneously been described as a Blitzkrieg strategy was to a large degree improvised on the ground.
Excerpted from The Second World War by Antony Beevor Copyright © 2012 by Antony Beevor. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Antony Beevor served as a regular officer in the 11th Hussars in Germany. He is the author of Crete-The Battle and the Resistance, which won a Runciman Prize, Paris After the Liberation, 1944-1949 (written with his wife Artemis Cooper), Stalingrad, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize, the Wolfson Prize for History and the Hawthornden Prize for Literature, Berlin-The Downfall, which received the first Longman-History Today Trustees' Award, The Mystery of Olga Chekhova and, most recently, the bestseller, D-Day. He lives in London.
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