Britain was the only remaining active opponent of Nazi Germany. But she was left in the most perilous situation, militarily naked while menacingly enveloped by a 2000-mile stretch of enemy coastline.
Her army had only reached Dunkirk and avoided capture through Hitler’s strange action in halting his panzer forces for two days when they were a bare ten miles from the last remaining escape-port, then almost unguarded – a halt order inspired by a complex of motives, including Goring’s vainglorious desire that the Luftwaffe should take the final trick.
Even though the bulk of the British army had got away safely, it had lost most of its arms. While the survivors of the sixteen divisions that came back were being reorganised, there was only one properly armed division to defend the country, and the Fleet was kept in the far north out of reach of the Luftwaffe. If the Germans had landed in England any time during the month after the fall of France there would have been little chance of resisting them. But Hitler and his service chiefs had made no preparations invade England – nor even worked out any plans for such an obviously essential follow-up to their defeat of france. He let the vital month slip away in hopeful expectation that Britain would agree to make peace. Even when disillusioned on that score, the German preparations were half-hearted. When the Luftwaffe failed to drive the RAF out of the sky in the “Battle of Britain,” the Army and Navy chiefs were in fact glad of the excuse thus provided for suspending the invasion. More remarkable was Hitler’s own readiness to accept excuses for its suspension.
The records of his private talks show that it was partly due to a reluctance to destroy Britain and the British Empire, which he regarded as a stabilising element in the world, and still hoped to secure as a partner. But beyond this reluctance there was a fresh impulse. Hitler’s mind was again turning eastward. This was the key factor that proved decisive in preserving Britain.
Had Hitler concentrated on defeating Britain, her doom would have been almost certain. For although he had missed the best chance of conquering her by invasion, he could have developed such a stranglehold by combined air and submarine pressure, as to ensure her gradual starvation and ultimate collapse.
Hitler, however, felt certain that he could not venture to concentrate his resources on the sea and air effort while the Russian army stood poised on his eastern border, as a threat to Germany on land. So he argued that the only way to make Germany’s rear secure was to attack and defeat Russia. His suspicion of Russia’s intentions was all the more intense because of hatred of Russian – style Communism had so long been his deepest emotion.
He also persuaded himself that Britain would agree to peace once she could no longer hope for Russian intervention in the war. Indeed, he imagined that Britain would have made peace already if Russia were not inciting her to fight on, when, on 21 July, Hitler held his first conference to discuss the hastily drafted plans for invading England, he revealed the turn of his mind, saying: “Stalin is flirting with Britain to keep her in the war and tie us down, with a view to gain time to take what he wants, knowing he could not get it once peace breaks out.” From this came the further conclusion: “Our attention must be turned to tackling the Russian problem.”
Planning was initiated immediately, though it was not until early in 1941 that he took the definite decision. The invasion was launched on 22 June- a day ahead of Napoleon’s date. The panzer forces quickly overran the Soviet armies that were immediately available and within less than a month had driven 450 miles into Russia – three quarters of the way to Moscow. But the Germans never reached there.
What were the key factors in their failure? The autumn mud and snow were the obvious ones. But more fundamental was the Germans’ miscalculation of the reserves that Stalin could bring up from the depths of Russia. They reckoned on meeting 200 divisions, and by mid-August had beaten these. But then a further 160 had appeared on the scene. By the time these in turn had been overcome, autumn had arrived, and when the Germans pushed on towards Moscow in the mud, they again found fresh armies blocking the route.Another basic factor was Russia’s continued primitiveness, despite all the technical progress achieved since the Soviet Revolution. It was not only a matter of the extraordinary endurance of her soldiers and people, but the primitiveness of her roads. If her road system had been developed comparably to that of the West, she would have been overrun almost as quickly as France. Even as it was, however, the invasion might have succeeded if the panzer forces had driven right on for Moscow in the summer, without waiting for the infantry – as Guderian had urged, only to be overruled on this occasion by Hitler and the older heads of the army,
The winter in Russia proved a terrible strain and drain on the German forces – and they never fully recovered from it. Yet is evident that Hitler still had a quite a good chance of victory in 1942, as the Red Army was seriously short of equipment, while Stalin’s grip on it had been shaken by the heavy initial defeats. Hitler’s new offensive swept quickly through to the edge of the Caucasus oilfields – on which Russia’s military machine depended. But Hitler split his forces between the double objectives of Caucasus and Stalingrad. Narrowly checked here, he wore down his army in repeated bull-headed efforts to capture the “City of Stalin,” becoming obsessed with that symbol of defiance. Forbidding any withdrawal when winter came, he doomed the army attacking it to encirclement and capture when Russia’s newly raised armies arrived on the scene late in the year.
The disaster at Stalingrad left the Germans with a far longer front than they could hold with their depleted strength. Withdrawal was the only saving course, as the generals urged, but Hitler obstinately refused to sanction it. Deaf to all arguments, he constantly insisted on “No retreat.’ That parrot cry could not stem the tide, and merely ensured that each eventual retreat would be enforced by a heavy defeat, at higher cost because it was delayed too long.
Hitler’s forces were suffering, increasingly, the consequences of strategic overstretch – which had proved the ruin of Napoleon. The strain was all the worse because in 1940 the war had been extended to the Mediterranean- by Mussolini, plunging into the war to take advantage of France’s downfall and Britain’s weakness. That had offered the British a chance for counterattack, in an area where sea power could exert its influence. Churchill was quick to seize the chance – in part, too quick. Britain’s mechanised force in Egypt, though small, soon smashed the out of date Italian army in North Africa, besides conquering Italian East Africa. It could have driven on to Tripoli, but was halted in order that a force could be landed in Greece – a premature and ill-prepared move that was easily repulsed by the Germans. But the Italian breakdown in North Africa led Hitler to send German reinforcements there , under Rommel. However, having his eyes fixed on Russia, Hitler sent only enough to bolster up the Italians, and never made a strong effort to seize the eastern, central and western gates of the Mediterranean – Suez, Malta and Gibraltar.
So in effect he merely opened up a fresh drain on Germany’s strength, which ultimately offset the success of Rommel’s counter-thrusts in postponing for over two years the clearance of North Africa. The Germans were now stretched out along both sides of the Mediterranean, and the whole coastline of Western Europe, while trying to hold a perilously wide front in the depths of Russia.
The natural consequences of such general overstretch were postponed, and the war prolonged by Japan’s entry into the war – in December 1941. But this proved more fatal to Hitler’s prospects in the long run, because it brought America’s weight into the war. The temporary effect of the Japanese surprise stroke at Pearl Harbour which crippled the US Pacific Fleet, enabled the Japanese to overrun the Allied positions in the Southwest Pacific – Malaya, Burma, the Philippines, and the Dutch East Indies. But in this rapid expansion they became stretched out far beyond their basic capacity for holding their gains. For Japan was a small Island state with limited industrial power.
Courtesy of: History of the Second World War by B.H. Liddell Hart, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York.