SOLDIERS GO HOME
At the end of the Great War the armies went home, and it was the attitudes and actions of these returning soldiers which created the world that went to war in 1939. Communists had conspicuously associated themselves with pacifism and anti-militarism. Returning soldiers despised the men who had stayed at home preaching against the war.
Despite its democratic government, a defeated Germany was convulsed in a series of localized revolutions as left-wing and right-wing political parties fought for power. There were violent uprisings in many German cities and for a few days Bavaria had a ‘Soviet Republic’. The government of this fragile republic saw its prime tasks as protecting the government from Communist takeover and keeping public order. To do this it came to terms with the highly organized veterans’ organization: most notably the Freikorps, a huge patchwork of small armies, illicitly armed and ready to fight all- comers. Such units were used as an armed frontier guard against Polish incursions and as a secret supplement to the army permitted by the peace treaty. In Russia Lenin had not waited for an end to hostilities before harnessing the energies of the soldiers to his Communist revolution. In Italy Benito Mussolini offered such men a uniformed Fascist state. But it was Adolf Hitler, in Germany who most skillfully designed a political party that could manipulate the ex-servicemen. The declared aims and intentions of the National Socialist German Workers’ party swept away their cynical disillusion with politics and transformed such veterans into ardent Nazis.
ADOLF HITLER, EX-SOLDIER
Entering politics, Hitler’s coarse regional accent and wartime lowly rank were appealing to thousands of ex-servicemen who heard their thoughts about war-profiteers and self- serving politicians voiced by a man with natural skills as an orator. The Nazis were fiercely xenophobic: Germany’s troubles were blamed on foreigners. Socialists and Communists owed their true allegiance to Moscow, the Nazis said. Capitalists were equally unpatriotic, for they used cheap overseas labour for their imported goods and sent their profits to foreign banks overseas. Hitler’s anti-Jewish tirades were well received in Bavaria, the Nazi party’s home, where both Lutheranism and the Catholic Church provide soil in which deep-rooted prejudice had flourished over hundreds of years.
HITLER AND ANTI-SEMITISM
Hitler was not the first politician to foment anti- Jewish hatreds for political ends. In 1887 an International Anti-Jewish Congress had been organized in Dresden. More such gatherings had taken place in Kassel and Bochum in 1886 and 1889. By 1895 anti- Semites were virtually a majority in Germany’s lower house, while in Vienna, Karl Lueger’s anti-Jewish Christian Socialists had 56 seats against 71 Liberals. In France the persecution of Captain Alfred Dreyfus revealed anti-Semitism no less deeply seated. A motion in the Senate that would have banned Jews from public service in France was defeated 268:208.
Hitler’s vaguely defined anti-Semitism enabled the small farmer to hate the bank to which he owed money, the small shopkeeper to hate the department store against which he competed. More intelligent Germans were convinced that these rabble- rousing simplifications were temporary measures. They firmly believed that once the Nazis turned their eyes away from Munich, Bavaria, to focus attention on the real seat of power in Berlin, such vicious anti-Semitism would tone down and fade away. These hopes that Hitler and his Nazis would become moderate and statesmanlike were illusory. Hatred of Jews was Hitler’s whole motivation. His campaign against Jews became more and more murderous and demented right up to the time of his death. He fanned ancient irrational fears of Jewish international conspiracies; this gave him the excuse to put peacetime Germany into a permanent state of emergency.
THE BRITISH AND THEIR PRIME MINISTER: CHAMBERLAIN
It has become convenient to think of the war as a confrontation between Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill, but Britain’s leader in the years leading up to the war was Neville Chamberlain. Although very much in the minority, there are still those who say that Chamberlain was an astute statesman. They prefer to believe that Chamberlain, by appeasing Hitler and letting him march into Austria and then Czechoslovakia, gained time for Britain to rearm. There is nothing to support this contention.
By 1937 Hitler had provided Germany with formidable fighting forces. His troops had reoccupied the demilitarized Rhineland in open defiance of the peace treaty. In Britain there were no signs of a resolve to confront Germany. According to the foreign minister, Anthony Eden, the elder men of the cabinet were not convinced of the need to rearm. Chamberlain thought armaments were a wasteful form of expenditure and saw no reason to believe that war was bound to come. In the previous cabinet, Chamberlain had been Chancellor of the Exchequer. He knew how much a government’s popularity depended upon keeping income taxes low. Opposition politicians were certainly not demanding rearmament. Prominent churchmen and intellectuals said little about the persecution of German Jews, even though refugees brought ever more appalling stories of what was happening.
Chamberlain was concerned with his personal popularity and he spoke of it frequently. The welcoming crowds he saw on his visits to Munich and Rome were reassuring to him. Chamberlain’s ego led him to believe that his personal negotiations with Hitler were a statesmanlike contribution to world peace. In fact he did little but give way to Hitler’s bullying, and ratify and assist the aggressions he claimed to be stopping. In addition Chamberlain’s well publicized meetings with Hitler encouraged the more extreme Nazis while demoralizing the few influential Germans who opposed Hitler’s methods.
The persistent belief that war could be avoided by appeasement made Chamberlain reluctant to form an alliance with Stalin’s USSR. He and his colleagues shared a well merited distaste for Stalin’s violent and repressive empire, and yet an alliance with Russia-as the British chiefs of staff pointed out-might be the only practical way to stop Hitler. Many military men said that an alliance with the USSR would only be an encumbrance. Britain’s ambassador in Berlin added to Chamberlain’s confusion with a ridiculous warning that a British alliance with Russia would provoke Germany into an immediate war. (To prepare peacetime Germany for a war against Russia would have taken many months.) While Chamberlain vacillated it was Hitler who saw the advantages that a pact with Russia could provide. Hitler’s occupation of the Rhineland and then Austria had been welcomed by virtually the whole population of those German speaking regions. But the people of Czechoslovakia-apart from the vociferous Volksdeutschen who lived in the border regions- had no love for the Germans.
CZECHOSLOVAKIA-THE MUNICH CRISIS
Within Czechoslovakia’s boundaries remained many of the old Empire’s munitions factories. With the newly minted Czech crown unwanted on the international money markets, the Czechs were pleased to find their armaments could be sold for hard currency. The new government strongly supported the armaments industry-Skoda at Plzen and Zbrojovka at Brno- and chemical plants too. Within a decade Czech arms salesmen had 10 per cent of the world arms market. The German army greedily eyed the Czech arsenals. Rightly so: tanks and guns of Czech design and manufacture were to serve that army throughout the war. Czechoslovakia’s production of aero engines and aircraft components was to prove even more important. Hitler’s claim to Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland was based upon spurious complaints that the German community residents there were being harshly treated by the government in Prague. It was not true, but German newspapers manipulated by Goebbels, told the story the way the Nazis wanted it told. The Sudeten Germans lived in the borderlands, an area well fortified against German attack. The Czech stood firm and mobilized their army. Chamberlain convinced that Hitler was a rational individual with whom an agreement could be reached, offered to meet him. There were more fruitless meetings and for a time outsiders began to think that war was inevitable. Then at the last moment Chamberlain sent a secret message to Italy’s leader, Benito Mussolini asking him to intercede.
In September 1938 Hitler, Chamberlain, Mussolini and Daladier, the French PM, met in Munich to discuss Hitler’s claim. Hitler, Daladier and Chamberlain had no common language. Mussolini delighted in the fact that he could manage all their languages. Chamberlain came back from Munich waving the agreement, and a supplementary joint declaration renouncing war, and saying it meant peace for our time. The meeting was a futile attempt to preserve the dignity of France and Britain, while allowing Hitler to seize the Czech border regions. By occupying the fortified border the Germans rendered the rest of Czechoslovakia defence less. The only consolation for the Czechs, who were given no say about the dismemberment of their land, was that Britain and France guaranteed the new frontiers against unprovoked aggression. Germany was also asked to do so, but never did. Any last idea that Chamberlain, and his colleagues, were temporizing, permitting Hitler to march into Sudetenland to give Britain time to rearm, is refuted by Chamberlain himself. When after the Munich meeting, Lord Swinton ( one-time secretary of state for Air) said to Chamberlain: ‘I will support you, Prime Minister, provided that you are clear that you have been buying time for rearmament,’ Chamberlain would have none of it. He took from his pocket the declaration that Hitler had so cynically signed and said: ‘But don’t you see, I have brought back peace.’
On 9 October 1938, only days after his triumph at Munich, Hitler made a speech at Saarbrucken in which he attacked the Western powers and forecast that soon warmongers would take control of Britain. It was a reference to Churchill and any others who objected to Chamberlain’s appeasement policy. In those days before worldwide electronic communications, such as satellite telephones, the role of an ambassador could be vital. It was unfortunate for all concerned that so many of the ambassadors involved were men of low calibre. America’s man in London was Joseph Kennedy, father of the future US President. He was rabidly anti-British and had long since decided (not without some reason) that Britain would not long survive a clash with Germany. The American ambassador in Paris was a man who saw Bolshevik conspiracies everywhere he looked. Britain’s cabinet had to depend upon Neville Henderson of whom William Shirer-an American journalist and historian who was at the time resident in Berlin- wrote as a footnote in his memories:
I have tried to be as objective as possible about Sir Neville Henderson, but it has been difficult. From the moment of his arrival in Berlin he struck me as being not only sympathetic to Nazism but to Nazism’s aims. The ambassador did not try to hide his personal approval of Hitler’s taking Austria and then Czechoslovakia- he seemed to loathe the Czechs as much as Hitler did.
By the end of 1938 the threat of war was giving the British government economic worries. In April that year Britain was holding a healthy reserve of £800 million in gold, but appearances were deceptive. The money belonged largely to foreigners seeking a safe haven for their funds. The threat of war and the fact that Britain seemed unready for it caused some £150 million in gold to move out of the country between April and September. Britain’s economy was not resilient enough to cope with such swings of fortune. The cost of the First World War was still a burden on the taxpayer; despite the fact that war debt to the United States was never paid. The Treasury had repeatedly warned that Britain could not afford to fight a major war lasting three years or more. The armed services all needed money and the government’s headache was made worse by the ever growing cost of modern armaments.
Having occupied the Sudetenland, Hitler encouraged Slovakia-a large section of the dismembered country- to demand autonomy. Nazi demands upon the Prague government became more and more outrageous: Czechoslovakia must leave the League of Nations, reduce the size of its army, turn over part of its gold reserves to the Reichsbank, outlaw the Jews in line with the Nuremberg laws the Nazis had passed.
Inevitably, in March 1939, the Germans took over the whole of Czechoslovakia. Bohemia and Moravia were declared a German ‘protectorate’. Slovakia became a separate state. The newly acquired riches made Germany the greatest industrial power in the world after USA. All the Balkan nations, from Yugoslavia to Turkey, were equipped with Czech weapons. From this time onwards, all foreign powers using Czech armaments would depend upon Hitler’s good will for spare parts and replacements. Czech steel was so much better than Britain’s that during the Thirties Britain was importing Czech armoured plate for building its warships.
In London the news that German troops had driven into Czechoslovakia and occupied Prague came as a shock. Under the terms of the Munich Pact, it was time now for Britain to fight for the Czech borders. The cabinet looked to Lord Halifax, Chamberlain’s foreign secretary, for a reaction. He received the news calmly. Britain hadn’t guaranteed the Czechs against the exercise of moral pressure, explained Halifax. In the circumstances which had arisen, Britain’s guarantee had come to an end. Chamberlain agreed and blamed the Slovaks for wanting a separate state, what was what precipitated the risks, he said.
Yet despite these self-abasing reactions to it, the German occupation finally persuaded Chamberlain and his cabinet that Hitler might be seeking world domination. Chamberlain aired these thoughts in a speech. Now he began to look for allies who would actively oppose the next act of aggression. Britain’s foreign secretary was hardly the man to put backbone into Chamberlain. An intensely religious former viceroy of India, the first Earl of Halifax was an elitist of the old school, a snob who recoiled at any prospect of true democracy. As more and more was known of his behaviour, he was to emerge as the personification of appeasement. Halifax was prepared to go to extreme lengths to appease Hitler, even to giving Germany some African colonies. It was Halifax who tried to muzzle British newspapers which he thought too critical of the Nazis. It is certainly chilling to consider how near he came (in 1940) to getting the premiership instead of Churchill.
Any coalition to resist Hitler would have to include Poland’s formidable army and Romania’s oil wells. Both countries shared frontiers with Germany and were likely to be attacked, but the Poles and Romanians were not friends and didn’t want to be allies. Both felt closer in spirit to Germany than to Soviet Russia. Political creeds made it difficult to put together an agreement that included Russia with such anti-Communist governments as those of Spain, Portugal, Poland and Romania. The recurring problem was that countries with short-term fears of German military actions also had long term fears about Soviet Communism. The shape of Poland provided Hitler with an excuse for action. The Poland created after the First World War, with its ‘corridor’ through Germany to the sea, cut East Prussia away from the rest of Germany. Danzig (present- day Gdansk) was a coastal town on the corridor and the centre of the crisis. Largely German, it had been made a ‘free city’ under international control in the hope of avoiding such conflicts. In October 1938, even before his troops occupied Prague, Hitler was demanding that Danzig be incorporated into his Third Reich.
In March 1939 the British cabinet was receiving convincing reports that Hitler was planning to attack Poland. One came from America’s ambassador in Warsaw and was delivered by the abrasive Joseph Kennedy, the US ambassador in London. Another came via Ian Colvin, Berlin correspondent of the News Chronicle, who had just been expelled from Germany because of his continuing contacts with anti-Hitler groups. Colvin’s detailed report of German intentions was a mixture of hard secret information, inferences and wild exaggerations. Some of the material originated from General Franz Halder, chief of the army staff. It had been concocted by someone with access to Hitler’s 25 March directive to Brauchitsch, the Army C-in-C, and was given to Colvin in the hope of provoking resistance to Hitler’s aggressive plans. On 29 March Colvin took his story to the Foreign Office and was immediately asked to recount it first to Lord Halifax and then to Prime Minister Chamberlain, who decided that some sort of undertaking to aid Poland was needed while they continued to seek a coalition of anti-Hitler nations. An ‘ interim’ statement was cobbled together by 31 March. It simply said that in event of a threat to Poland which that country resisted by force, Britain would go to Poland’s support. ‘The French Government have authorized me to make plain that they stand in the same position’, Chamberlain added, and a crowded House of Commons echoed with cheers at this more positive news. Chamberlain looked sick. A mortal illness had begun to take its grip on him, and he seemed not to understand the extent of his momentous undertaking.
Less than a week after Chamberlain’s momentous statement, news came that Italy- until this time regarded by Chamberlain as an opponent of German expansion- had invaded Albania, a small country that was in any case virtually an Italian mandate. The news sent ripples of alarm across Europe. In those days European governments were even more secretive than they are today, and rumours mushroomed in the darkness of official silence. Concerted attacks by the German and Italian dictators were expected any minute. The scaremongers said that war would start with bombing raids on London and Paris.
The attacks did not come, but during that winter of 1938-39 the mood in Britain changed. Ways ahead of politicians, the British public was starting to believe that war was inevitable. Few people anywhere in the world realized that Britain lacked the financial resources needed for a major war. Everyone assumed that Britain, with the backing of a vast empire, must be strong and rich enough to play policeman to the world. In any case a future war would be fought in France, which possessed the world’s most formidable army and the Maginot Line defenses.
Drafting civilians into the armed services was a painful step for the British. Compulsory military service had been used in the previous war, but it was very distasteful to them. Chamberlain was opposed to the draft because his predecessor had promised the voters that on no account would it come before the next election, and Chamberlain had repeated the promise. By 23 April 1939 cabinet and Treasury approval for some of the army’s urgent needs produced some money, but that was not the same as having equipment on hand. The list of urgently needed items that could not be simply be bought off the shelf makes chilling reading now that we can see how close Britain was to war. Tanks were in short supply: even guns had to be borrowed from the Indian army.
In response to questions raised by the British ambassador in Moscow the cabinet was astonished to receive on 18 April a long proposal from Maxim Litvinov, Stalin’s foreign minister. Litvinov, an urbane and widely travelled Jewish diplomat of long experience, had an English-born wife and was an advocate of stronger Soviet ties with Britain and France. Now he proposed a five-or ten-year military pact with Britain and France, providing for mutual assistance in the case of aggression by Germany.
The British cabinet was thrown into disarray by such plain language. The British guarantee to Poland had deliberately not mentioned Germany by name; wouldn’t a Russo-British agreement upset Hitler? Surely it would upset all the other East European countries threatened by Hitler. The Poles would scorn a Russo-British pact: they had already made it clear that they would not permit Red Army units to cross their frontier, even to help fight German invaders. What about the Baltic States? What about the United States and the Dominions? An agreement with the Soviets would bring change to just about every international relationship the British enjoyed.
The French government was ready to explore the Russian proposals, and try to form some form of words that would satisfy London, while Chamberlain was frightened that the news would leak and become known to the British voters. When he told the leaders of the Labour Party, he swore them to secrecy.
The Russian proposals challenged the intelligence and understanding of the men in the British cabinet. They consulted their army, navy and air force chiefs not once but twice. The military chiefs modified their views considerably for the second report but the cabinet ended up as baffled up as they ever were. In a private letter Chamberlain said he had ‘the most profound distrust of Russia’. As war drew closer, Lord Halifax summed up the dismal confusion of these men, to whom the British people looked for wisdom and leadership, with the words: ‘we ought to play for time.’
The British got deeper and deeper into a quagmire of words, producing counter- proposals which seemed ever more complex and unsatisfactory to Stalin. The Foreign Office mandarins realized that if they continued to leave Germany unnamed in their agreements, Britain could end up guaranteeing everyone in the world against everyone else. The Russians could see that the British were in no hurry and suspected that they were trying to keep the negotiations going ad infinitum. Stalin, who had traitors spying for him in the high levels of virtually every European government, became convinced that Britain and France would never fight anyone until they were directly attacked. He decided that Russia’s salvation might after all be a pact with his declared enemy, Nazi Germany.
Whether Hitler or Stalin was first in suggesting a non-aggression pact is still disputed. Before Hitler came to power, Germany had been a major buyer from the Soviet Union and was supplying almost half of their imports. Hitler’s doctrine and his noisy and vituperative propaganda had strangled that trade. Since then Hitler’s rearmament programme had drained the German economy so that in January 1939 every director of the Reichsbank had signed a warning memo to Hitler. The Germany economy was dangerously over extended and, for reasons both economic and political, it had become more and more difficult for Germany to get foreign credit. The Soviet Union on the other hand had never ceased to hint that a return to the volume of trade they had enjoyed with pre-Hitler Germany would suit them very well. It was this mutual need to trade that drew the two great powers together.
Perhaps Hitler’s calculations concerning the contribution that Austria and Czechoslovakia could make to the German economy lessened his enthusiasm for a pact with Stalin, for it was not until Good Friday 7 April that Joachim Von Ribbentrop, Germany’s foreign minister, told Peter Kleist, an expert on his personal staff, to make contact with Soviet diplomats and push for negotiations along. Within a few days Kleist was drinking tea with Georgi Astakhov, the bearded Soviet charge d affairs in Berlin, who had the rarely granted power to receive a foreigner and be alone with him. At the May Day parade in Moscow, Stalin gave his foreign minister a noticeably chilly reception. Ivy Litvinov, the Minister’s English-born wife said ‘damn that fool Chamberlain!’ and others capable of recognizing subtle fore tokens of Soviet foreign policy changes guessed that Stalin’s eyes were now turned towards Berlin.
The delegation of British and French negotiators the Allies sent to Moscow confirmed all Stalin’s fears. It lacked the sort of high ranking figure that the Russians thought appropriate. When Astakhov went to the Berlin Foreign Office to get the official answer about the Skoda exports he pointed out that Stalin’s new foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, was also prime minister, second in power only to Stalin himself. Unlike his predecessor he was not a Jew, and this too was a signal to the Nazis. In fact he did have a Jewish wife, and this became a closely guarded secret. Molotov was a man of ‘outstanding ability and cold-blooded ruthlessness’ Churchill wrote in his war history. His appointment was a sign that from now on the Nazis were dealing with Stalin himself. The next sudden lurch in negotiations came when Ribbentrop told Hitler that the Soviets might be considering a military pact with the British and French. The Nazis had never got beyond discussing trade, and this development caused Ribbentrop to again bypass the usual channels by sending a personal representative to hurry things along. From now onward it was the Germans who pushed the talks forward urgently, and the Soviets who met most of their wishes. When Astakhov became suspicious of German motives he was recalled and put into prison, where he remained until he died in 1941. There was a good reason for German eagerness. The pact would have to be announced before a German invasion of Poland, and military action there would have to be complete before the winter rains started.
On 20 August Hitler sent a telegram to Stalin asking him to receive Foreign Minister Ribbentrop in Moscow. This direct personal appeal, and the way in which it recognized Stalin as head of state while technically he was only the secretary of the Communist party, arrived at exactly the right time. During that summer, for the second year, fighting had broken out between the Red Army and Japanese troops in the Far East. Stalin, like Hitler, feared a two-front war and to avoid it he was prepared to trust even Hitler.
Warnings about a forthcoming Hitler-Stalin pact, and the way in which the two dictators planned to slice Poland in two and gobble it up, were received in both London and Paris. General Karl Bodenschartz, a wartime comrade of Goring in the old Richthofen squadron and now his liaison officer at Hitler’s headquarters, disclosed an outline of the German plans to the French air attaché in Berlin, and to the Foreign Office in London. Dr Karl Goerdeler, one of the most active anti-Nazis, also sent warnings. The Foreign Office ignored them, preferring to believe that the stories were planted to spoil Britain’s negotiations with the Russians.
Hitler was confident that Molotov would sign a non-aggression pact with him. Indeed so certain was he that on 22 August, at his mountain home in Berchtesgaden, he briefed his military chiefs about the coming attack on Poland: ‘Our opponents [the French and the British] are little worms. I saw them in Munich . . . The victor is not asked afterwards whether or not he has told the truth . . . Close your hearts to pity. Proceed brutally . . . the stronger is in the right.’
On the following day the German-Soviet pact was signed in Moscow. In keeping with the devious and feudal nature of both powers, many of the pact’s most important clauses remained closely guarded secrets. Ribbentrop was reassured by the warm welcome he and his team received from the Russians. Like Chicago gangsters, Hitler and Stalin had split Eastern Europe into two spheres of influence in which each could do more or less as they liked. Stalin’s territory included the Baltic States and Finland, while Poland was to be invaded by both armies and divided down the middle. When the pact was announced Life magazine cabled the exiled Leon Trotsky, who had lost to Stalin in the struggle to inherit Lenin’s Russia, asking for his views. From Mexico City came a prescient reply: ‘[Stalin] sees clearly for a short distance, but on a historical scale he is blind. A shrewd tactician, he is not a strategist . . .’
Stalin honored the German-Soviet pact in a way that Hitler never did. Russian grain and oil soon began moving to Germany. So did iron- ore, manganese and cotton. All over the world, members of the Communist party ( many of them secret members) obediently changed their political opinions and switched activities to line up with the new pact.
HITLER ATTACKS POLAND
Hitler had arranged everything for action against Poland with uncanny skill. He had become convinced that Britain and France would never fight him, and his demands on the Polish government were based upon that belief. Some historians say that Hitler did not look for concessions from the Poles; what he wanted was a short sharp war that would establish his military skills.
When he heard that a Stalin-Hitler pact was about to be ratified, Chamberlain summoned Parliament back from its summer recess. In a speech on 24 August he told the Commons: ‘I do not attempt to conceal from the House that that announcement came to the government as a surprise, and a surprise of a very unpleasant character’. Chamberlain described how an Anglo-French mission had been welcomed in Moscow on 11 August while the Soviets were actually conducting their secret talks with the Nazis.
The Germans had failed to appreciate that even Chamberlain could not be pushed for ever. The time had come to stand firm and, if need be, to fight. Yet Britain was not prepared enough, strong enough to fight; it was an insoluble dilemma. Chamberlain was worried about the way in which events had prompted a drain on gold reserves; £30 million was withdrawn in one day. Currency exchange control (to prevent anyone converting sterling to other currencies) was discussed, but the government contented itself with doubling the bank rate to 4 per cent and asking businessmen not to purchase foreign exchange or assets, nor move capital out of the country. Despite all his misgivings Chamberlain tried to make his position absolutely clear. To Hitler he wrote:
apparently the announcement of a German-Soviet Agreement is taken in some quarters in Berlin to indicate that intervention by Great Britain on behalf of Poland is no longer a contingency that need be reckoned with. No greater mistake could be made. Whatever may prove the nature of the German -Soviet Agreement, it cannot alter Great Britain’s obligation to Poland, which His Majesty’s Government have stated in public repeatedly and plainly and which they are determined to fulfil.
It has been alleged that if His Majesty’s Government had made their position more clear in 1914, the great catastrophe would have been avoided. Whether or not there is any force in that allegation, His Majesty’s Government are resolved that on this occasion there shall be no such tragic misunderstanding. If the need should arise they ate resolved and prepared to employ without delay all the forces at their command, and it is impossible to foresee the end of hostilities once engaged . . . I trust that Your Excellency will weigh with the utmost deliberation the considerations that I have put forward before you.
Even this did not persuade the Germans that Britain was determined to fight.
BRITAIN AND FRANCE GO TO WAR
The German army invaded Poland in the early hours of Friday 1 September 1939. All through that day and the next London was pressing Paris to declare war. By Saturday afternoon rumours about more appeasement were being circulated.
On Sunday morning Chamberlain broadcast to the nation, telling them that war had begun and that ‘It is evil things that we shall be fighting against, brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression and persecution’.
Winston Churchill appointed to be first lord of the Admiralty that Sunday morning, went with his wife to the Westminster apartment of his son-in- law, a stand up comic named Vic Oliver. They drank champagne and toasted ‘victory’, after which Churchill took a short nap and then went to the Admiralty to start work.
With conscription as a way of life, France entered the war with an army of 2.7 million men. Most of these were draftees or reservists. Their job was to defend France, and many were assigned to the subterranean fortresses of the Maginot Line, which were proving an uncomfortable and unhealthy environment. Neither draftees nor reservists were well trained or well equipped, and almost all were unhappy at their plight. In 1939 the Hotchkiss and Somua tanks used by the French army were as good as any in the world, and the 4.7-cm gun mounted on the Somua was better than anything the Germans had in use. The French tank force was equal to the Germans in numbers too. But the French generals did not agree on how to use this weapon. In 1939 they were still experimenting, not only with the constituents of the armoured division but also with the method of its deployment. They spread thinly, assigning them to scouting and reconnaissance duties, or gave them to infantry units. When in 1939 three real armoured divisions were formed, there was an overreaction and the high ratio of tanks made these units unwieldy and vulnerable. To form an effective armoured force it was vital to have the constituents mixed in right proportions.
The German armoured divisions were like very mobile miniature armies, incorporating infantry regiments, combat engineers, anti- tank guns (Pak), artillery and their own Flak. Such wheeled or tracked elements were able to react quickly to the changing situations that battle brings. Germany had ten such divisions ready for action in Poland.
France’s professional army was quite different to, and mostly separated from, the mass of drafted soldiers. The regulars were more likely to be stationed abroad in colonies, such as Africa or Indo-China, where careers were made. The officer corps was a small elite element of the population which did not consider it desirable that the army should distance itself from political ideas and political movements. Few officers thought the Socialist government that ruled France in the Thirties was in any way successful, and monarchists and extreme right wing organizations had sympathizers in the highest ranks. Many officers thought that eventually the army would be compelled to take a more active part in the nation’s political life.
France was a divided nation where Fascists, Communists, Socialists and monarchists were numerous at all levels of society. Since the signing of the German-Soviet pact, in August, Moscow had been instructing Communists not to join the fight against Hitler. These differences of outlook meant that the French began hostilities without the sense of purpose that by this time had unified Britain to a remarkable degree. The French government went to war under pressure from Britain and with considerable misgiving. The National Assembly was not invited to vote on the matter of declaring war. Members were simply asked to vote credits to ‘fulfill our treaty obligations’ and no debate was permitted. Some leftists members who wanted to speak were silenced. As soon as the war was declared, political extremists, and some not very extreme opponents of the war, were taken into custody.
When war began France’s agreement with Poland called for substantial French military action in the west. This was an undertaking made by General Maurice Gamelin, the 68 year old commander-in-chief of the French army, whose influence in shaping his country’s foreign policy during the interwar years was disastrous. ‘Small, plump, slightly puffy, with his hair tinted, he might, but for the uniform, be an abbé, a fashionable abbé . . . He had virtually forbidden any discussion of motorization and mechanization of the army, by saying that all lectures and articles with such subjects must be submitted to authority. Although those in contact with him found him lacking in both intelligence and ‘guts’, the wider world rated him as a high-grade military expert. For this reason perhaps he had decided to manage without the aid of a proper staff.
March 1936, when Hitler occupied the Rhineland in defiance of the Versailles treaty, had been the time to confront the Nazis. Despite the fears expressed by the British government at that time, France’s Prime Minister Sarrault and Foreign Minister Flandin had urged Gamelin to eject the Germans, but he would not do so, explaining that Germany had 22 divisions on a war footing. In fact they had three. Afterwards, it was discovered that the Germans had orders to withdraw if they were opposed, and Eden’s memoirs said this was the act of appeasement he most regretted.
Gamelin decided what he wanted to do and invented the reasons afterwards. It was his low opinion of the Czechoslovak army that influenced the Allies to give way to Hitler at Munich. He told his political masters and the British too, that the ‘West Wall’-Germany’s concrete fortifications, which the British press, liked to call the ‘Siegfried Line’-would possibly halt him and force him to withdraw to his Maginot defenses. When asked about the strength of his army he boasted of what it could do, while artfully adding such alarming asides as ‘initially ( it) will be a modern version of the battle of Somme.’ It was enough to make the politicians sign anything Hitler gave them.
But when the next crisis came Gamelin expressed no such reservations about the Polish army. He thought it was formidable, and this had persuaded him to agree that in the event of war he would attack Germany three days after France’s mobilization. Such a two- front war was calculated to divide Germany’s effort and give the Poles a chance to defend themselves. And on 7 September 1939, eight divisions of the French army- including two motorized divisions and five tank battalions- moved forward into the region between the Maginot Line and the West Wall. The Germans pulled back, leaving unoccupied some 200 square kilometers of ground and about 50 German villages mined and extensively booby- trapped. Newspaper correspondents exulted, telling of great French victories and deep penetrations into Germany. Photographs and newsreel footage appeared to back up the claims. As September ended the ‘Saar offensive’ could be seen for what it really was: a propaganda exercise. The French withdrew having suffered 27 killed and 22 wounded and the loss of a number of aircraft. By the end of October both sides were back in the positions from which they had started. From what we know now of Gamelin’s spirit and mentality it seems not impossible that the ‘Saar offensive’ as staged to prove that the cautions he’d expressed to his government about going to war in aid of Czechoslovakia were correct.
Just one week into the war the British cabinet were told some harsh facts by the Chancellor of the Exchequer: Britain’s financial position was desperate; far worse than it had been in 1914. Her ally France was also far weaker in every respect and three other allies of that previous war- Russia, Italy and Japan-were now potential enemies. Britain’s total resources were about £700 million with little chance of adding to that figure. And, because the government had defaulted on its First World War debts to the United States, purchases there would in future have to be paid in cash. Surely no one in the cabinet room that day could have missed the implication: America’s entry into the war was the Allies only chance of salvation. And it would have to come very soon.
For two weeks the world watched the Germans smash their way into Poland. Then there came a grotesque finale as the Red Army occupies came rolling across Poland’s eastern frontier. It was clear to anyone who looked at a map that if Germany and Russia were friendly enough to mount a combined attack on Poland, they would be friendly enough for the German army to leave only a token force along that Polish frontier when they regrouped and came clubbing their way westwards.
THE GERMAN CAMPAIGN IN POLAND
For the first time, the new German army was seen in action, using techniques and weapons old and new. The Polish campaign was decided by the fact that the German army went to war by railway. The railheads near the border had to be the jumping-off points for the invaders. The armoured and motorized units that spearheaded the assault constituted only about one-sixth of the invading force; the rest of it was the same plodding horse- drawn German army that had fought in the previous war. Of the whole army only about 10 per cent had been equipped with wheels and tracks. Even this attempt to mechanize the army had been achieved only after 16,000 German civilians vehicles were commandeered in 1939.
Germany’s auto-industry was big but it never came near to supplying the quantity of vehicles needed. Neither was the quality good enough. Few, if any, German trucks were robust enough for military use. But in ‘lightning war’ such failures did not matter. By the time the hardware of war fell apart the enemy had surrendered.
The Germans used bases in Czechoslovakia to attack Poland from north and south, as well as from the west. Poland’s geography and the historic threat from both west and east, precluded effective defensive woks. Like the French, the Poles would not build any defence lines that relinquished large areas of the country to the enemy, and they tried to hold the Germans along the frontier. It was hoped that this would provide time for the country to mobilize its army and mount a counter-offensive, and for France and Britain to attack Germany from the west.
For the first time, the world saw the sort of opening air attacks that nowadays are the way in which most wars begin. German intelligence- both on the ground and by photo reconnaissance- had prepared the target lists, and hampered as they were by bad weather, the Luftwaffe managed to destroy much of the Polish air force in the first hours of war. Medium- range bombing attacks on Polish towns disrupted mobilization of the army. At the fighting front Stuka dive- bombers served as efficient artillery, for the Stukas training schools produced men able to get at least 50 per cent of their bombs within 25 metres of the target. (Stuka is an abbreviation of Sturzkampfflugzeug, a dive bomber. The name could be applied to any aircraft used in this role, but was often used to refer specifically to the Junkers Ju87.)
The Polish army and its air component, proved a dauntless opponent, but it was not equipped to fight a modern war. The Germans used armoured divisions to pierce the front. Following them, conventional armies converged to surround the Poles in two vast encirclements, one inside the other. It was the seventeenth day of the campaign when the second set of pincers met at Brest-Litovsk in the middle of eastern Poland. On the same day, the Red Army moved across Poland’s eastern frontier. The fighting continued but the war was decided.
The Germans, always ready to learn, studied their campaign. The supply of fuel and ammunition to the fast advancing units must be improved. Battalion and regimental commanders were urged to keep closer to the fighting men. Artillery must be pushed forward more quickly. The lighter tanks- the Mark Is and Mark IIs- had suffered 89 per cent and 83 per cent losses, bile the heavier ones-Mark IIIs and Mark IVs- had suffered only 26 per cent and 19 per cent casualties. The factories must shift to the production of heavier tanks.
NORWAY: THE ALLIES START FIGHTING
In November 1939 Stalin, quick to utilize his allotted sphere of influence under the pact with Hitler, effectively took control of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. Faced with the demands for their territory, the Finns refused to fall in with Russia’s demands. On 30 November 1939 the Red Army attacked with five armies, against which the Finns put up stout resistance. Still smarting from the way in which Stalin had done deal with Hitler, the men in London and Paris impulsively offered aid to the Finns. Without consulting the British, the French Premier Daladier said he’d send 50,000 volunteers and 100 bombers to Finland via northern Norway and Sweden. Britain followed suite and said it would send 50 bombers. Landing at the (iron ore) port of Narvik, the troops would travel by railway through the mountains to the Sweden iron-ore region, and thus to Finland. Behind these altruistic offers there lurked a cynical plot. On the pretext of aiding the Finns, the Allies planned to seize neutral Sweden’s iron-ore fields and prevent them exporting to Germany. It is strange to record that the same Allied leaders who were frightened to attack Germany’s Western Front, and were forbidding their air forces to bomb German towns were planning to send soldiers and bombing planes to fight the Red Army and bring Russia into the war against them. Before this ill-conceived operation could begin, the Red Army, despite grievous casualties, broke through the Finnish fortified defenses. The Finns asked for a cease fire.
GERMAN ARMS OUTSTRETCHED
When the Germans marched into Denmark, resistance collapsed so quickly that it became the only occupied nation not to have a properly constituted government in exile. Norway was not so quickly conquered, but it was a German triumph nevertheless and one in which the German Luftwaffe played a vital role. Within six weeks the Germans had Norway. Like the Polish campaign, it was a victory largely attributable to the efficiency-and sometimes improvisation-of the German supply services. The most serious German setback was the German naval losses. Raeder recklessly committed his battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst to unnecessary forays in the north where both were seriously damaged and out of commission for many months. So the German navy found itself with only three cruisers and four destroyers fit for sea duty. Admiral Erich Raeder needed all the goodwill he could get from Hitler. His navy was now quite unfitted to support and protect a seaborne invasion of England.
The Anglo-French failure in Norway could not be glossed over. It caused considerable public disquiet, and Chamberlain’s Conservative government came under fierce attack even from its own supporters. There was a two-day debate about the debacle in Norway. The vote brought the government’s majority down from more than 200 to 81. The way in which so many of his own party had either voted against him or abstained was enough to convince even the egoistic Chamberlain that he could not remain as prime minister. The Labour party, which most people now thought should be represented in wartime government, refused in any circumstances to serve under Neville Chamberlain. Many thought his replacement would have to be Lord Halifax, and yet several people noticed that feeling in the House was veering towards Winston Churchill. Chamberlain, who had been the target of so much of this criticism, had no affection for Churchill. King George VI, who consistently tried to influence political decisions, declared Halifax to be his preference. Fellow Conservatives had no great love for Churchill, who had changed his political allegiance more than once, who had attacked them again and again with uncomfortably accurate warnings of the need for rearmament, and had in the end proved right. The Socialists had made him into their bogey man for using troops in the Welsh mining strikes of 1911, and for his role in the General Strike of 1926. Anyone no listened to the debate could see that many of the failures of the Norwegian campaign had been Churchill’s fault.
So why did Churchill get his position of ultimate power? His speech had proclaimed him his own man; endearingly loyal to the wretched Chamberlain, fiercely combative with his political opponents, ready to admit mistakes but bending his knee to no one. Certainly a large section of the British public thought a man who had, during the 1930s, constantly opposed Hitler, and had urged rearmament to stop him, must be the best ma now to confront him. But the opinions of the man in the street do not count for much in such a situation. It seems that Chamberlain favoured Churchill as the lesser of two evils. For him to say openly would have brought displeasure of his party, so he conspired to get Churchill into the job. Possibly Chamberlain hoped that Churchill’s tenure would be short, and he himself would return before long to number ten Downing Street. Some said that the cabinet seat, and the job as party chairman, that Churchill let Chamberlain keep was the offer that tipped the balance. Chamberlain’s remarks to his colleagues suggest that he knew that Churchill’s elevation to the premiership had been only a matter of time once war began. One recent history says Chamberlain feared that if Lord Halifax gained power he would immediately start armistice negotiations with Hitler.
There is plenty of evidence to support such allegations. Britain’s acute financial difficulties meant that continuing the war would involve going to the United States cap in hand. This was not a task that would appeal to Halifax, who had great doubts about the wisdom of continuing the war in any case. Winston Churchill never showed any doubts about confronting dictators of the left or the right. He championed individual freedom to the point of being a maverick. Having an American mother, the daughter of a tycoon, provided Winston with a realistic view of the disposition of power of the United States at a time when most of those around him were patronizing and smugly superior about that nation.
In 1900 Churchill embarked on the long and restless political career that was to bring him infinite joy and pain. He was elected to Parliament as a Conservative but four years later his beliefs in free trade took over to the Liberals, who in 1911 made him first lord of the Admiralty (a post he held again in 1939). His decision to keep the fleet mobilized after exercises in the summer of 1914 was an important one an widely applauded, but he took the blame for what proved a disastrous attempt to seize Turkey’s Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915. Some said his ideas had been changed too much for him to be the guilty party. But dejected and almost 40 years old, he resigned from office an went to serve as an infantry colonel on the Western Front. Later he had other important jobs, secretary for war and colonial secretary, before rejoining the Conservative party in 1922. They made him Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1824 until 1829. But after that his political past caught up with him and he became an obstinate outcast whose career seemed to have ended. All through his life he suffered from the bouts of melancholy but his capacity for reading, writing and working was undiminished.
Churchill’s restless political history, and radical ideas, had left him with powerful enemies and few friends. Yet in practical terms he was never an extremist: extremism was more likely to be revealed in his critics. As a Liberal minister in 1909 he’d attacked the gulf between rich and poor, and ‘the absence of any established minimum standard of life and comfort among the workers‘, and at the other end, ‘the swift increase in vulgar, joyless luxury’. In 1918 he demanded lenient terms for the defeated Germans. It was an extraordinary coincidence that Chamberlain’s enforced decision to step down should come at the same hour that the Germans attacked France and the Low Countries
With courtesy, excerpts from: Blood, Tears and Folly by Len Deighton. Published by Castle Books, Edison NJ, 1999.