Operation Felix I

In early 1945, a month or two before he shot himself, Adolf Hitler tried to work out where it had all gone wrong. His thoughts turned back to the peak of his career, five years earlier.

On 23 June 1940, having conquered Poland in twenty-one days, Norway in a month and France in six weeks, the Führer was able to take a three-hour early morning ‘art-tour’ through the streets of Paris, accompanied by his favourite architect, Albert Speer, the sculptor Arno Breker and his official photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann, the civilians all wearing grey feldgrau uniforms to blend in with the greatcoated military entourage. They travelled from the Paris Opera House, down the Champs-Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe, pausing for a long meditative moment at the tomb of Napoleon at Les Invalides, then on past the Panthéon, Notre Dame, the Tuileries and finally up the steps of Sacré Coeur in Montmartre, where the Führer could look out, for the first and only time, over the beautiful grey and silver city that the artist manqué in him had long dreamed of seeing. ‘I cannot say how happy I am to have that dream fulfilled today,’ he said to Albert Speer. But Hitler was ‘not in the mood’ for a victory parade in Paris, because ‘We aren’t at the end yet.’

In fact, Hitler did not know what move to make next. The summer of 1940 became what General Warlimont called a ‘morass of uncertainty’, and headquarters planning became ‘woolly, aimless and paralytic’. The German Field Marshal Erich von Manstein put his finger on Hitler’s problem in his well-titled memoirs, Verlorene Siege (Lost Victories): ‘When the head of a State or a war machine has to ask himself “What next?” after his military operations have far exceeded his expectations … one cannot help wondering whether such a thing as a “war plan” ever existed on the German side.’

In June 1940 the German Supreme Command had to contend with an unbeaten Britain and the threat from the Soviet Union. We know, of course, that in 1941 Hitler repeated Napoleon’s fatal mistake of invading Russia. But the real error had happened a year earlier, when Germany’s prime task was, in Field Marshal von Manstein’s words, ‘to rid herself of her last opponent, England, by force of arms’. There were three ways to do this – a quick invasion of Great Britain (Operation Sealion), a slow strangulation by naval and submarine blockade, or a geostrategic move on Britain’s periphery, cutting out the Mediterranean links of Gibraltar, Malta and Suez, starting with Gibraltar (Operation Felix). Instead, Hitler havered between these choices, never quite committing his forces.

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The Royal Navy’s devastating attack on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir on 3 July 1940 drew Hitler’s attention back to the strategic importance of the mouth of the Mediterranean. On 7 July, in talks with the Italian Foreign Minister, Count Ciano, Hitler said that Spain was indispensable, ‘should one wish to make an attempt on Gibraltar’. A conquered Rock would open the gates of the Mediterranean and liberate Italy from its captive sea. Over lunch, Hitler’s chief of staff, General Keitel, too, ‘insisted at length on the necessity of striking at Gibraltar as a means of dislocating the British imperial system’.

12 July 1940 was the day when General Jodl presented Hitler with a preliminary study for invading England, but it was also the day when the German Naval Staff recommended a reconnaissance mission to Gibraltar, working through the German naval attaché in Madrid. On 13 July, General Franz Halder, the Chief of the German General Staff, reported to the Führer on the invasion of Britain, but Halder’s war diary also had the first mention of Hitler wanting ‘to draw Spain into the game’.

On 14 July, Winston Churchill gave a defiant speech: ‘And now it has come to us to stand alone in the breach … But be the ordeal sharp or long … we shall seek no terms, we shall tolerate no parley; we may show mercy – we shall ask for none.’ Two days later, Adolf Hitler issued his War Directive No. 16, ‘On preparations for a landing operation against England’ with the cover name Seelöwe or Sealion. Invasion was to be a last resort; Hitler expected England to seek peace terms, so the order was more of a threat than a plan. Directive No. 16 begins: ‘Since England, in spite of her hopeless military situation, shows no signs of being ready to come to an understanding, I have decided to prepare a landing operation against England, and, if necessary, to carry it out.’ (Both Peter Fleming and Ian Kershaw have pointed out how half-hearted this sounds.)

In a speech to the Reichstag on Friday 19 July, where he rewarded all kinds of officers with promotions and elevated Göring to Reichsmarschall des Grossdeutschen Reiches, Hitler made what Erich von Manstein called ‘his far-too-vague peace offer’ to England: ‘I feel it my duty before my own conscience to appeal once more to reason and common sense. I can see no reason why this war must go on. I am grieved to think of the sacrifices which must claim millions. I should like to avert them, also for my own people.’ A Last Appeal to Reason became a German propaganda leaflet to be dropped over English fields at the start of August.

To Germans, the Führer seemed magnanimous in victory, but the speech fell flat across the Channel. Within an hour, a completely unauthorised reply came from the BBC’s German Service (German citizens were forbidden to listen to it, but many did). It happened to be the first performance at the BBC microphone by the thirty-six-year-old Daily Express reporter Sefton Delmer, a robust hack who was fluent in both high and vulgar German, and had known Adolf Hitler personally since February 1929, long before he was famous.

‘Herr Hitler,’ said Delmer politely in his most deferential formal German Hochdeutsch, ‘you have on occasion in the past consulted me as to the mood of the British public. So permit me to render your excellency this little service once again tonight. Let me tell you what we here in Britain think of this appeal of yours to what you are pleased to call our reason and common sense. Herr Führer und Reichskanzler, we hurl it right back at you, right in your evil-smelling teeth …’

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On 22 July, Wilhelm Canaris reappeared in Spain. The Abwehr KO (Kriegesorganisation or war station) in Madrid was alerted that Canaris, code-named ‘Uncle’, was in town. Always sly and secretive, the great spymaster was now disguised as an Argentine called Señor Juan Guillermo (Guillermo is the Spanish equivalent of Wilhelm) and was relishing the leadership of a small high-level staff group exploring the possibilities of assaulting the Rock of Gibraltar. For a time, Canaris had wondered whether his own special forces, the Abwehr Section II commandos in the 3rd Battalion of the Brandenburg Regiment, might carry out the task unaided. His commandos were foreign language-speakers who put on enemy uniforms to infiltrate Poland, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Holland and France ahead of the main German infantry assaults, seizing bridges and crossroads, eliminating sentries and sabotaging installations. But Canaris decided the Rock was too tough a nut for them to crack. He needed the advice of gunners, engineers and parachutists.

Canaris’s team had all travelled to Madrid by different routes in civilian clothes. Colonel Hans Piekenbrock, the competent and humorous deputy chief of the Abwehr, was posing as his chauffeur and factotum. Also in the mission were a paratroop captain called Osterecht, a gunner called Langkau, and two men who were crucial in taking the key Belgian Fort Eben Emael on 10/11 May, and who had been awarded the Knight’s Cross by Hitler himself. They were forty-two-year-old Colonel Hans Mikosch, leader of the 51st Engineer Battalion, and twenty-three-year-old Captain Rudolf Witzig, the resourceful assault leader who had commandeered a replacement aircraft to tow his glider into battle. Soon after getting his medal from Hitler, Witzig had been assigned for three months as an adjutant to the head of the Luftwaffe, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring. Men like Göring often choose to surround themselves with handsome war heroes and to reward them with perks: Witzig was given a BMW two-seater sports car. As the victor of Fort Eben Emael, Witzig was exactly the right man to judge whether airborne forces could pull off the same success at Gibraltar.

The German reconnaissance group met with General Juan Vigón, the new Minister for Air, and Colonel Martínez Campos, the head of Spanish military intelligence. Canaris told them the Germans were planning to attack Gibraltar. ‘The already famous parachutists’ led by Mikosch and Witzig would spearhead the assault, but first they wanted permission to make a detailed recce of the area. Canaris asked for Spanish help in mapping the British defences on Gibraltar and estimating the military requirements for an assault.

Then Canaris went to see Franco, who moaned about Spain’s economic woes and the meagre oil supplies from the USA. He said that of course he wanted el Peñon, the peninsula of Gibraltar, back, but was this the best time to do it? Gibraltar had just been reinforced by the British army and the Royal Navy still packed a mighty punch. Franco said he was worried that a provocation in Gibraltar might lead the British to seize las islas Canarias, the Canary Islands.

What Franco did not tell his German visitor was that the British, for their part, were also offering blandishments. A fortnight earlier, R. A. Butler, deputy head of the Foreign Office, had suggested to the Spanish ambassador, the Duke of Alba, that were Spain to stay neutral, at the end of the war all Spanish aspirations could be discussed, including the restoration of Gibraltar.

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