Axis Nations After Stalingrad

Germany’s defeat at Stalingrad and the evident imminence of a strategically comparable debacle in North Africa was causing some urgent rethinking among her allies. Italy had not stood to gain any territory or much economic benefit from Germany’s war with the Soviet Union, and Mussolini’s main reason for committing the Italian 8th Army to that war was the hope of ensuring that Hitler would respond in kind, after the expected rapid crushing of the Red Army, by making major forces available to help achieve the Duce’s primary ambition, victory over the British in the campaign to dominate the Mediterranean basin and North Africa. A quarter of a million Italians served on the Eastern Front; about 80,000 of them died in battle or captivity, and over 43,000 suffered wounds or frostbite; the survivors cursed the Duce for sending them to Russia, and their German ‘brothers in arms’ for their arrogance and uncooperativeness. Mussolini had already in November 1942 begun urging Hitler to make peace with Stalin so as to concentrate Axis forces against the anticipated Anglo-American invasions, first of Italy and eventually of the rest of German-occupied Western Europe. An indication of senior Italian military opinion was that General Ambrosio, the Army Chief of Staff, who had been insisting since November that all remaining Italian troops in Russia must be brought home, was promoted on 1 February 1943 to head the Commando Supremo, and before the end of May all the surviving members of the 8th Army had arrived back in Italy. With the surrender in the middle of that month of all German and Italian forces in North Africa, the Berlin–Rome ‘Axis’ effectively became a dead letter, with Mussolini’s dictatorship under threat and Italy beginning to seek a way out of the war.

Equally strong effects on other sufferers from the Stalingrad debacle, Romania and Hungary, would soon become apparent. By the opening of the battle of Kursk all Romanian forces had been withdrawn from Soviet territory, except from Moldova and Transdnistria, adjacent to and claimed by Romania, and only two divisions of the Hungarian 2nd Army remained with Army Group South, which employed them on occupation and anti-partisan duties, not as front-line troops.

The ‘Conducator’ of Romania, Marshal Antonescu, and the ‘Regent’ of Hungary, Admiral Horthy, had both begun covertly seeking contact with the British and Americans, in hopes of making peace with the West while continuing to fight against the approach of Communism from the East. Mussolini, on the other hand, continued to advocate coming to terms with the Soviet Union in order to concentrate forces against the expected Anglo-American invasion of Italy, and again wrote to Hitler to that effect on 17 March. But his grip on power and Fascism’s hold on Italy were already loosening; on 25 July he was deposed and arrested.

At the other extremity of the Eastern front, Finland hitherto had been Germany’s militarily most competent and reliable ally, but maintained that its war, unlike Germany’s, was defensive, a continuation of the ‘winter war’ of 1939–40, aiming not to destroy the Soviet Union but merely to recover the territories lost by that war. Marshal Mannerheim, who had been a lieutenant-general in the pre-revolutionary Russian Army, was well aware of the dangers of over-provoking Finland’s giant neighbour, and had agreed to resume the post of Commander-in-Chief only on condition that Finnish forces would on no account take part in any attempt to capture Leningrad. As early as August 1941 President Ryti, on Mannerheim’s insistence, had twice rejected requests from Keitel for the Finnish Army to advance north and east of Lake Ladoga, to link up with German forces advancing along its south shore, and thereby isolate Leningrad. To exercise more pressure Keitel sent his deputy, Jodl, to Finland on 4 September 1941, but Mannerheim remained firmly uncooperative, so exasperating Jodl that he burst out, ‘Well, do something, to show goodwill!’ To get rid of him, and not prejudice Finland’s negotiations with Germany for 15,000 tonnes of wheat, Mannerheim agreed to arrange a small diversionary offensive, but in the event did not make even that limited gesture.

The main constraint on Finland’s independent posture was its dependence on Germany for food and fuel. This dependence became even greater after the United Kingdom, an important pre-war trading partner, bowed to Soviet pressure and declared war on Finland on 6 December 1941, a day ironically significant in two ways: first, it was Finnish Independence Day, and secondly, it was the day that Mannerheim ordered the Finnish Army to go on to the defensive on all sectors immediately after capturing Medvezhegorsk, which it was about to do. He had already begun demobilising older soldiers at the end of November, and by the spring of 1942 had released 180,000 of them. Coincidentally, Zhukov launched the counter-offensive at Moscow on the day before Mannerheim ordered his army to cease attacking, and the day after he did so, Japan brought the United States into the war.

The Soviet victory at Moscow made a prolonged war inevitable, hence even more straining Finland’s limited resources, and this was further intensified after Stalingrad. On 3 February, the day after the last German units there surrendered, and four days after the end of Operation ‘Iskra’ at Leningrad, President Ryti took the prime minister and two other ministers to confer with Mannerheim about ‘the general situation’. They all agreed that Finland must seek a way out of the war, but that it could not do so immediately because of its economic dependence on Germany. On 9 February, at the defence minister’s request, Mannerheim’s Head of Intelligence, Colonel Paasonen, addressed a closed session of Parliament, ending his speech by advising the members to ‘get used to the possibility that we shall once again be obliged to sign a peace treaty with Moscow’. On the 15th the opposition Social-Democratic Party brought the issue into the open with a public statement that ‘Finland has the right to get out of the war at the moment it considers it desirable and possible’. An American offer of mediation was conveyed through the US embassy in Helsinki, and Foreign Minister Ramsay was sent to Berlin to tell the Germans of the American approach and try to extract a promise that German forces in Northern Finland would withdraw voluntarily if Finland requested their removal. No such promise was forthcoming; on the contrary, Foreign Minister Ribbentrop demanded that Finland not only reject the American approach, but also undertake to conclude neither truce nor armistice with Moscow without German consent. Ramsay conceded neither demand, so Ambassador Bluecher suggested applying pressure by restricting supplies of food and fuel, but for the time being Ribbentrop declined to go that far.

Hitler had already summoned the leaders of Hungary, Romania and Slovakia to meetings to pull them into line, and Bluecher demanded that President Ryti, re-elected on 15 February 1943, make the same journey, but Ryti refused. Germany showed its displeasure by temporarily recalling Bluecher, then, from the beginning of June, stopping all deliveries of food to Finland and halving deliveries of fuel and lubricants. However, Germany could not risk antagonising its only ally with proven ability to fight the Red Army successfully (and with a record at that better in some respects than Germany’s own). So the restrictions were lifted at the end of June, even though Finland had still made no concessions.

Most Finnish political and military leaders resisted even the thought of a lost war until at least the end of 1942, but Mannerheim had recognised the possibility much earlier, and throughout the year the Finnish Army not only undertook no offensives of its own but also refused to participate in German ones, such as the attempt to cut the railway along which about a quarter of Allied Lend-Lease supplies were transported from Murmansk and Archangelsk to central Russia.

The Finnish government periodically sounded public opinion by surveys, the results of which were published only after the war. The differences in results of two surveys, one in September 1942, the other in January 1943, indicated how public opinion shifted in response to the Soviet victory at Stalingrad and, on Finland’s own doorstep, to the success of Operation ‘Iskra’ in partially lifting the blockade of Leningrad. The surveys asked simply ‘Do you believe Germany will win?’ The results, in percentages, were as follows:

Finland had been stressed by its war effort to the extent of calling up 45-year-olds, and continued throughout 1943 to explore, quietly, so as not to arouse German suspicions, the possibilities for negotiating a way out of the war. In July the Soviet embassy in Stockholm conveyed a message through the Belgian ambassador, indicating willingness to negotiate, provided the initiative came from the Finnish side, but that approach was not followed up. Unlike the UK, the USA had not yet declared war on Finland, so during the summer of 1943 the Finnish government made a desperate attempt to secure American rather than Soviet or German occupation by notifying the State Department, via the US embassy in Lisbon, that if American forces landed in northern Norway and invaded Finland from there, the Finnish army would not resist them. However, the United States military had no interest in such a diversion, so nothing came of this. Finland did not in fact leave the war until September 1944, but that its leaders began seeking a way out on the very day of the final surrender at Stalingrad was evidence of that event’s impact on Germany’s allies, even on one that had no forces involved in the disaster.

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