In Hitler’s headquarters there was no intimation of these future troubles in the first seven months of 1942, for it looked as if Germany’s two most important opponents would be unable to keep on fighting much longer. In the spring the Afrika Korps, whose first thrust towards Cairo had been stopped by the British Eighth Army in December, started to move again, and in May Rommel captured the important base at Tobruk, causing consternation in England and raising a degree of enthusiasm in Germany that had not been reached since the fall of France. The German troopers celebrated their victory with British beer and tinned South African pineapple and pressed on, crossing the Egyptian border on 23 June, bypassing Sidi Barrani, dispersing the British 13th Corps at Mersa Matruh, and coming to a halt only when they had reached El Alamein, sixty miles west of Alexandria, in July. Here they stopped to regroup and await supplies and new weapons. It did not seem unlikely that they would be in Cairo in the autumn and that the whole British position in the Middle East would be a shambles.
This did not represent the full extent of British troubles. In the course of 1942 it began to look as if the British Isles might be starved into submission because of the effectiveness of German submarine attacks. Although Hitler had started the war with only 56 U-boats (a circumstance that indicates that he had not expected to have to fight an all-out war with Great Britain), he started to correct this in July 1940 with a programme of rapid construction; and by January 1942 249 German submarines were operating in the northern seas against British convoys carrying indispensable materials to Murmansk, and, from well-protected bases on the French and Norwegian coasts, were sallying forth to intercept ships carrying munitions, raw materials, and food from America. When the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor forced the United States Navy to divert to the Pacific vessels that had helped to protect the Atlantic convoys, sinkings mounted sharply. In the first six months of 1942 the Allies lost 4·5 million tons of shipping and, since bombing attacks upon the U-boat bases proved largely ineffective, it appeared that the losses might soon be insupportable.
The Russians too seemed to be in a desperate state, despite the respite given them by the long winter. By the end of 1941 they had already suffered 4,500,000 casualties, and the blood-letting continued in the spring of 1942, when Marshal Timoshenko made an ill-considered thrust toward Kharkhov and found that he had run into the main German striking force. By the end of May, when his badly mangled forces extricated themselves, the Germans had taken 240,000 prisoners, and the offensive capability of the Red Army seemed on the point of extinction. Meanwhile German forces in the south had overrun the Crimea, and on 21 July Hitler was predicting that his armies would soon deprive the enemy of the Caucasus, his most important source of oil, as well as the whole of the Donets industrial basin. Two days later Army Group A took Rostov, and its Sixth and Fourth Panzer Armies closed in on Stalingrad.
In August, when Albert Speer visited Hitler in his headquarters at Vinnitsa in the Ukraine, he found the Führer in a triumphant and expansive mood. ‘For a long time’, he told Speer,
I have had everything prepared. As the next step, we are going to advance south of the Caucasus and then help the rebels in Iran and Iraq against the English. Another thrust will be directed along the Caspian Sea toward Afghanistan and India. Then the English will run out of oil. In two years we’ll be on the borders of India. Twenty to thirty elite German divisions will do. Then the British Empire will collapse. They’ve already lost Singapore to the Japanese. The English will have to look on impotently as their colonial empire falls to pieces.
This may have been Hitler’s last moment of real optimism, for troubles now came upon him, and they came not single spies but in battalions. On 23 October 1942 the British Eighth Army, rested and refitted and with an energetic new commander, Lieutenant-General Bernard Law Montgomery, opened a massive attack upon Rommel’s lines at El Alamein and threw the Afrika Korps into headlong retreat. On 8 November an Allied invasion fleet bore down upon the coast of Morocco and landed British and American troops at Casablanca, Oran, and Algiers. On 19-20 November the Russians mounted attacks north and south of Stalingrad, which had since August been under attack by the German Sixth Army and supporting Romanian units; within two days, in a brilliant Cannae-like operation, they had closed the pincers and encircled the German forces.
These were fatal blows. Forbidden by Hitler to attempt a breakout, the Sixth Army fought bravely against the rigours of winter and incessant enemy bombardment and finally capitulated in February 1943. In the same month the Russians recaptured Rostov, Kursk, and Kharkhov and, before their momentum slowed, had won back 185,000 square miles of territory. In May Rommel’s weary troopers laid down their arms in Tunis, and the victorious British and American armies prepared to cross the Mediterranean. In the same month Admiral Doenitz, who had replaced Raeder as commander of the navy in February and whose energetic direction of the U-boat offensive had cost the Allies half a million tons of shipping within a month, told Hitler that he could no longer press the attack; new Allied detection devices and the use of escort carriers and Liberator bombers had sunk 41 U-boats in May. In July the British and Americans were in Sicily and their planes were bombing the mainland; and, before the month was over, Hitler’s fellow dictator had been deposed and arrested. July also saw the failure of the offensive in the Kursk salient upon which the German high command had placed high hopes, and, at home, a week of fire-raids by British bombers destroyed much of Hamburg, killing 40,000 people, damaging the harbour and ship-building yards, and forcing a million people to evacuate the city. As Albert Speer wrote later in his Spandau diary, a second front had been opened before the invasion of Europe, and from now on the combined bombing offensive was to prove itself ‘the greatest lost battle on the German side’.
Hitler’s reaction to these reverses throws light upon his qualities in the role in which he took much satisfaction, that of Feldherr, lord of the battles, Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. That he possessed undeniable military talents is attested to even by those who resented his having assumed personal command in December 1941. He had an astonishing grasp of detail and a creative fantasy in technical questions and matters of armament; indeed, his personal contributions to weaponry–his suggestion that the Stuka dive-bombers be fitted out with sirens for psychological effect, and his selection of the anti-tank gun used on the Russian front–were highly successful. Manstein, one of his sternest critics, has even admitted that he had ‘a certain vision for operative possibilities’, an opinion that Alfred Jodl expressed more positively in an assessment written at Nuremberg after the war, in which he did not hesitate to call him ‘a great military leader’, citing, as evidence of his strategic gifts, his plan for the Scandinavian campaign, his concept for the offensive against France, and his order in the winter of 1941-2 that there should be no retreat from the positions won. Yet Jodl adds that, at the end of 1942–after the Russian breakthrough at Stalingrad and the beginning of the retreat of the Afrika Korps, when ‘it was clear, not only to the responsible soldiers, but to Hitler also, that the god of war had now turned from Germany and gone over to the other camp’–‘ Hitler’s activity as a strategist was essentially over’, and that, from that point on, he began to interfere with operational matters in a disruptive and eventually disastrous manner.