Saturday, 27 March 2010

HItler turns to the West, winter 1939

With the conquest of Poland complete, Hitler could turn to deal with the unwanted war in the West. The declarations of war by Britain and France had provoked the Fuhrer to one of his rages and, for once, he was in complete agreement with his generals about the dangers of a war on two fronts. The speed of victory in Poland and the slow rate of French mobilisation had saved Hitler from such a prospect. The war in the East was over before that in the West got under way.

Hitler now hoped that the fait accompli in Poland would lead to peace with Britain and France, for the Reich was not yet ready for this war. The Army High Command, the OKH or Oberkommando Heer, was wary of attacking France, convinced that even if victory were gained it would only be at enormous cost in bloodshed and material. The Navy was even more dubious of gaining victory in the autumn of 1939. There were only 39 U-boats fit for sea and many of the larger warships, including Bismarck, were incomplete. Navy chief Grand Admiral Erich Raeder believed the Kriegsmarine would not be ready for war until 1943, and would not be able to face the Royal Navy with any confidence until 1946.

Hitler, as usual, was more optimistic than his military professionals though this optimism was based more on political than military considerations. He held the French in utter contempt after they had failed to intervene when Germany had reoccupied the Rhineland in 1936. He believed that the Wehrmacht needed only to achieve one swift victory for the entire French army to collapse. The invasion of France was given the code name Operation Yellow.

The British, he considered, were quite different. Hitler did not expect them to collapse like the French, but he did believe them to be a pragmatic people. His experience of the British government to date had been that it mouthed fine principles, but was willing to accept realities. If France could be crushed, thought Hitler, Britain would accept the generous and honourable peace he would then offer.

Even so, it would be better for Hitler’s long term aim of attacking Russia if war with Britain could be avoided. With this in mind Hitler sent his unofficial envoy Birger Dahlerus to Britain. “The British can have peace if they want it,” Hitler briefed Dahlerus on 26th September, “but they will have to hurry.” On October 5th Hitler followed this clandestine approach with a very public one. At a speech in Berlin, Hitler portrayed himself as a reasonable man seeking only to reach a just and lasting settlement in Europe to replace the unfair and flawed arrangements of Versailles. He went on to offer to meet Britain and France at the conference table “before millions of men are uselessly killed and billions of riches destroyed”.

Three days later Hitler issued War Directive No.6 which outlined a plan for invading France and again set the date for implementation as 12 November 1939. The OKH was aghast by the imminent date and even Göring was taken aback. Hitler argued that peace in the East was only temporary and that Stalin remained unpredictable and dangerous. Moreover the French and British were rearming with modern weapons at an alarming speed. Time was on the side of the enemy, said Hitler, so even if the Wehrmacht was not perfectly prepared it was better to strike now than to wait.

Although the timing of the attack caused consternation among the generals, the strategy laid out in War Directive No.6 was welcomed as being sensible and pragmatic.

“An offensive will be planned on the northern flank of the Western Front, through Luxembourg, Belgium and Holland,” the Directive read. “The purpose of this offensive will be to defeat as much as possible of the French Army and of her allies, and at the same time to win as much territory as possible in Holland, Belgium and northern France to serve as a base for the successful prosecution of the air and sea war against England.” This was sensible strategic thinking which made no undue demands on the abilities of the German war machine.

This is an extract from Hitler, Military Commander by Rupert Matthews

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