Chamberlain-Prudent Appeasement I

In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was highly criticized by Winston Churchill and others for his “appeasement policy” regarding Nazi Germany’s threatened annexation of the Sudetenland, a border area of northern Czechoslovakia mostly inhabited by ethnic Germans. The truth was that Britain lacked the military might to meaningfully challenge the hostilities then threatening them by Japan (in Asia), Germany (in Europe), and Italy (the Mediterranean and Africa). Their major European allies at the time (France and Poland) were also ill-prepared for a war with Nazi Germany, and the United States was staunchly neutral. It was clear that little military assistance would be forthcoming from Britain’s allies to confront the Nazis. Throwing down the gauntlet to resolve the Sudetenland issue could’ve been seen as morally legitimate, but likely would have led to militarily disaster.

Instead, Chamberlain, along with representatives from France and Italy, signed the Munich Agreement with Hitler in September 1938. It permitted Germany a peaceful annexation of the Sudetenland. As Hitler had earlier threatened to return that area to Germany by force, Chamberlain announced to a relieved Britain that the Munich Agreement brought “peace for our time.” The “our time” part lasted for about a year, a period during which Chamberlain’s critics felt vindicated when Hitler’s territorial appetite became clearly evident.

Although the appeasement policy had failed per se, it gave Britain valuable time to build Spitfire and Hurricane fighters as well as acquire airfields, pilots, and ground crews needed to win the Battle of Britain. It also allowed time for Britain to fine-tune their air raid early warning tactics, particularly the Filter Room at Bentley Priory that integrated the information from Chain Home radar stations, Home Guard Spotters, and signal intelligence into a remarkably efficient air defense system.

The Munich Agreement was Chamberlain’s pragmatic alternative to the folly of entering a war when military resources to wage a successful campaign were unavailable. Chamberlain was neither timid nor naive, as his political critics intimated. In fact, he had motivated Britain to begin war preparations a full two years before the Munich Agreement was signed. He also had consummated military alliances (weak as they were) to discourage Nazi expansionism. But without the Munich Agreement, Britain may have faced the Luftwaffe onslaught in 1938 instead of 1940, and Germany would then have more likely gained the air superiority it needed to open the door for a successful invasion of the British Isles.

OR!?

In “Omens of 1936,” published in the Fortnightly Review in January of that year, historian Denis Brogan predicted that 1936 would be the year that faith in Never Again began to falter. And events would prove Brogan more right than wrong. In addition to the Rhineland coup, 1936 was the year civil war broke out in Spain, Hitler and Mussolini formed the Rome-Berlin Axis, Germany and Japan signed the Anti-Comintern Pact, and the European press began to report regular sightings of the death ship. Not coincidentally, 1936 was also the year when the diplomatic visit became a staple of the cinema newsreel. Typically, the newsreel would open with a panning shot of dignitaries standing on a railway platform, the politicians in top hats and frocks, the soldiers in gold-braided comic opera uniforms. A whistle is heard, heads turn, and a mighty engine appears, black as the African night, its swept-back nose creating the impression of great speed even as the train crawls into the station at ten miles per hour. Pulling to a halt in front of the platform, the pistons emit a snake-like hiss, and the waiting dignitaries disappear into a vapor of white steam. After the cloud dissipates, a flower girl appears and presents the visiting diplomat with a bouquet; pleasantries are exchanged on the platform; then the diplomat vanishes into the backseat of a big five-liter Horsch limousine with gull wing fenders or into a black Renault sedan with silver chevrons on the grille.

If the newsreel is set in the Balkans, the diplomat is French and he is there to shore up the troubled Little Entente, the alliance France has formed with Czechoslovakia, Romania, and the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (Yugoslavia). If the newsreel is set in Spain, the diplomat could be a German—or an Italian, visiting Generalissimo Francisco Franco, leader of rebel Nationalist forces—or a Russian, visiting members of the Republican government in Madrid. If the newsreel is set in Berlin, the diplomat is Japanese, and he is in the German capital to witness the signing of the Anti-Comintern Pact between Japan and Germany. And if the newsreel is set in Rome, the diplomat could be German, or, even more likely, British, in which case he is in Italy to do the bidding of the new prime minister, Neville Chamberlain.

The House of Chamberlain, founded by the prime minister’s father, Joe, lord mayor of Birmingham, and long presided over by older half brother Austen, a foreign secretary, had a history of producing able, ambitious, thrusting personalities. And Joe Chamberlain’s youngest son would more than live up to that standard. When his turn to lead the family came, Neville would not only raise the roof, he also would put a new wing on the House of Chamberlain. As minister of health, Chamberlain was dynamic and innovative, and as chancellor of the Exchequer (Treasury secretary) he was very nearly great; under his guidance, Britain emerged from the Depression several years earlier than the United States. In every office he occupied, including prime minister, Neville Chamberlain delighted civil servants who admired his competency, his organized, orderly mind, and his ability to firm up the flaccid machinery of government. Among political colleagues, he was less popular. Cross the prime minister, they knew, and he would throw you to his minions in the press for a public savaging. Remarkably, this dynamic figure is completely absent from the newsreels and newspapers of the time, which gave us an image that continues to resonate to this day—Chamberlain as the undertaker on holiday: umbrella in hand, homburg on head, face pale, back slightly bent, eyes anxiously scanning the sky for signs of rain.

A photo of Chamberlain taken shortly after he became prime minister is truer to the real man. Here, the eyes are penetrating and intelligent, the sharp arc of the nose gives the face a hawk-like handsomeness, and the smile is inviting, with a hint of the warmth that always eluded the photographers but delighted intimates. The bold, almost aggressive way the prime minister addresses the camera catches another often overlooked trait. Like the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Neville Chamberlain’s ego was a wonder of the world. In his weekly letters to his spinster sisters, Hilda and Ida, the vanity is so guileless it is almost charming. “This year has seen a record for social invitations,” the prime minister notes in a weekly letter to Ida. “The Queen . . . remarked on the confidence everyone had in me,” he tells Hilda in another letter. In public dealings, however, the vanity became hubris, not in the ancient Greek sense of someone who takes pleasure in shaming and humiliating, but in the sense of the book of Proverbs, “a pride that blinds.” Chamberlain’s view of himself as more than a match for any opponent allowed him to be played time and again by Mussolini, who thought him an old fool “not made of the same stuff as Francis Drake and the other magnificent adventurers who created the Empire,” and by Hitler, who referred to the prime minister as “that silly old man with . . . the umbrella.” Still, any fair assessment of Chamberlain’s relations with the dictators is incomplete unless it also takes into account the decline of British power.

In 1937, when Chamberlain took office, Britain, a small island state, was sinking under the enormous military and economic burdens of a global empire, and the domestic burdens of the Depression and pacifism, and it was increasingly menaced by technological change. The advent of airpower had called into question the strategic advantages hitherto provided by the English Channel and the Royal Navy; and the fragile, spotty economic recovery from the 1929 crash had limited British rearmament. Aircraft production was rising, though not fast enough to build and equip an air force capable of fighting a European enemy; and the plan to create an expeditionary force capable of fighting a war on the Continent had fallen victim to budget cuts (including by Chamberlain) and to Never Again. The British public, said one senior politician, would be “strongly suspicious of any preparations made in peacetime with a view to large-scale military commitments on the Continent.” In addition the dominions, which had contributed so much to the British war effort in 1914–18, were either growing isolationist—Canada and South Africa—or becoming burdens themselves. Australia and New Zealand looked to Britain for protection against Japan. Finally, there was the empire: the work of three centuries, the source of Britain’s global power, and, now with the “hot winds of nationalism” blowing from Cairo and Calcutta, increasingly a deadweight, militarily and economically. By the mid-1930s it had become almost impossible to imagine any eventuality under which Britain could fight a major European war and emerge with the empire still intact.

In December 1937, the Chiefs of Staff addressed the consequences of British weakness in a forceful memorandum: “We cannot foresee the time when our defense forces will be strong enough to safeguard our trade, territory, and vital interests against Germany, Italy, and Japan at the same time. [We cannot] exaggerate [the importance] from the point of view of imperial defense of any political or international action which could be taken to reduce the number of our potential enemies.”

Chamberlain was already thinking along similar lines: “Prepare for the worst, hope for the best”—his foreign policy—rested on two pillars: continued rearmament to deter Germany, Italy, and Japan, and appeasement to assuage their grievances. Supporters of the prime minister hailed the policy as a masterstroke. One or two of the potential enemies might be won over by appeasement, and, should the strategy fail, the year or two consumed in negotiating grievances would buy Britain time to build up its defenses, especially its air defenses, which Chamberlain, like Baldwin and Churchill, viewed as the key to victory in a modern war. The policy also had the important advantage of being in tune with public feeling.

What grievances should be appeased? In the case of Japan, no legitimate grievances suggested themselves, but Japan posed a threat to Australia and New Zealand, so Chamberlain swallowed hard and ignored Japanese infringements on British concessions in China. Italy, which was behaving menacingly in Spain and North Africa, felt aggrieved that the Mediterranean was a British, not an Italian, sea. Chamberlain swallowed hard and turned a blind eye to Italian attacks on British ships delivering goods to civil war Spain. However, lingering British guilt about the Treaty of Versailles gave German grievances a special standing in Chamberlain’s eyes. Hitler was a beast, of course—a vicious anti-Semite and mad, to boot. Nonetheless, mad or not, Germany had been roughly handled at Versailles: stripped of its army, its Rhine borders, and several historic German regions. By the late 1930s, some of the injustices had been corrected, though Danzig, a historically German city, was still in Polish hands and the Sudetenland, another historic German region, was still in Czech hands. Austria was not a lost territory, but it was shrunken almost to insignificance by Versailles, and many Germans felt its rightful place was inside a Greater Reich.

In November 1937, Lord Edward Halifax, a member of the Chamberlain cabinet and one of the prime minister’s most trusted advisers, met with Hitler. This was Halifax’s second visit to the “new” Germany. After the first one, he returned to London sounding like a botanist who had discovered a bizarrely florid but probably benign new species of plant life during his travels. Halifax “told me he . . . was much amused by the visit,” a friend said. “He thinks the regime absolutely fantastic, perhaps too fantastic to be taken seriously.” In late 1937 Halifax still thought the Hitler regime fantastic, but he was becoming aware of its dangers, and, like millions of his countrymen, he did not want Britain dragged into a war on the far side of Europe over issues that did not affect its security and that, in British eyes, had a measure of legitimacy. During his second visit, Halifax told Hitler that, provided peaceful means were employed, Britain would be prepared to accept “possible alterations in the European order, which might be destined to come about with the passage of time. Amongst these questions were Danzig, Austria, and Czechoslovakia.”

Hitler assured Halifax that Germany wished to have good relations with all its neighbors. Four months later, the Wehrmacht marched into Vienna and Austria became a part of the Reich. Two months after the Anschluss—May 1938—rumors began to circulate that ten German divisions had been moved to the Reich border opposite the Sudetenland. “Those d——d Germans have spoiled another weekend for me,” Chamberlain complained to his sister Hilda on May 22. Britain issued a mild warning; Germany denied that it had troops on the Sudetenland border; then, in an inspired piece of diplomacy, it was decided to blame the crisis on the Czechs, the only party to the dispute incapable of starting a world war on its own.

June and July of 1938 passed calmly, but it was not the normal calm of summer. In the Rhineland, construction crews worked double and triple shifts under arc lights to complete the West Wall, a new defensive system that the Allied powers called the Siegfried Line. In Paris Georges Bonnet, the French foreign minister, scrutinized the French-Czechoslovakian treaty for loopholes. In Moscow Stalin, who also had a treaty with the Czechs, watched carefully to see who would emerge victorious from the Sudeten confrontation, Germany or Britain and France. In Washington the Roosevelt administration prepared an appeal for moderation. And in London the Chiefs of Staff issued a new warning: In the event of an Anglo-German war over Czechoslovakia, “it is more than probable that both Italy and Japan would seize the opportunity to further their own ends and that in consequence the problem we have to envisage is not that of a limited European war but of world war.” In July, when Chamberlain spoke at Birmingham’s centenary celebration, the Chiefs’ warning was still on his mind. “The government of which I am at present the head intends to hold on its course, which is set for the appeasement of the world.”

The Essex village of Tolleshunt D’Arcy took note of the speech, though to one Tolleshunt resident, Margery Allingham, Czechoslovakia remained a faraway country with an all but unspellable name until the end of July, when Margery and a group of friends gathered in her yard one afternoon to plan the annual village cricket party. It was a lovely Saturday, the air heavy with the smell of freshly cut grass, and overhead, a few fat cumulus clouds drifting idly eastward toward the sea—just the kind of day that always made Margery feel smug about abandoning a glamorous London publishing career for life in an obscure Essex village whose sole distinction was its possession of one of the two surviving Maypoles in England. The state of the village cricket field dominated most of the afternoon’s discussion, but toward evening one guest brought up the Czech crisis, and Margery, who was thirty-four, found herself thinking back to her childhood in the Great War. She remembered a recurring dream she had had then: “a soldier galloping up on a great grey horse to kiss [a] tearful nurse goodbye . . . then death . . . and not ordinary dying either . . . but death final, empty and away somewhere.” She remembered other things about that time: “the women and old people all in black . . . standing about in the village street reading the enormous casualty lists . . . ; [and] the village boy on a bike with not one telegraph spelling tragedy but sometimes two or even three.” Then an astonishing thought occurred to Margery: war, which had savaged the generation before hers, now seemed about to savage the generation after hers. The thought was so staggering, she found it “hardly to be borne.”

Chamberlain and appeasement

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Chamberlain-Prudent Appeasement II

By early September 1938, reminders of 1914 were everywhere. Poland and Hungary, eager to participate in the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, were massing troops along the Czech border; in Prague the Czech government proclaimed martial law; in Nuremberg, Hitler pledged unshakable support for those “tortured creatures,” the Sudeten Germans; and in Britain the Royal Navy was put on partial alert. Passing the Cenotaph in Whitehall that Munich summer, Alec Douglas-Home, a Chamberlain aide and future prime minister, noticed that several fresh bouquets had been placed at its base.

“Well, it has been a pretty awful week,” Chamberlain wrote his sister Ida on September 11. Four days later, the prime minister was flying down the Thames on his way to visit Hitler. Approaching Bavaria, the British Airways’ Lockheed Electra swooped under a heavy storm and set down smoothly at the Munich airport. The cabin door was flung open and, to the tattoo of drums and the snap of swastika flags flapping in a sharp wind, Neville Chamberlain stepped into Hitlerland.

A few hours later, the prime minister was standing in Hitler’s enormous Berchtesgaden office, admiring the Wagnerian view; across the valley, a range of high mountains was half shrouded in a late-afternoon mist. He turned and examined the office. There was a huge globe next to the desk and an oak conference table at the far end of the office. “I have often heard of this room, but it is much larger than I expected,” Chamberlain said, hoping to ease the tension with a little small talk.

“It is you who have big rooms in England,” Hitler replied. Then, having exhausted his store of small talk, he demanded the return of the Sudetenland.

“I’d rather be beat than dishonored,” Alexander Cadogan, permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, said upon hearing that Chamberlain had acquiesced to Hitler’s demand. In the days following the prime minister’s return to London, there was much talk of national honor in certain quarters of Whitehall, Westminster, and the press. But what was national honor to “he that died on Wednesday”? To Chamberlain, such talk only led to more Sommes and Passchendaeles. The Sudeten crisis had to be viewed through the lens of national interest. Was it worth going to war for a small country on the other side of Europe? The prime minister did not believe it was, and it quickly became apparent that most of the British public agreed with him, as did the dominions: Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and especially Canada. “I approve wholeheartedly of the course [Chamberlain] has adopted,” said Mackenzie King, the Canadian prime minister. After several weeks of intense pressure from the British and the French, who also favored a peaceful resolution of the crisis, the Czechs agreed to cede to Germany the regions of the country that were more than 50 percent ethnically German. On September 22, Chamberlain returned to Germany, expecting to sign an agreement. Instead, Hitler handed him a new set of demands: incorporation of the Sudetenland into the Reich and the annexation of several strategic regions beyond the German-speaking parts of Czechoslovakia.

“Hitler has given Chamberlain the double cross . . . [And] it looks like war,” William Shirer, the CBS correspondent in Berlin, wrote on the twenty-third. By the end of the week, Shirer’s premonition seemed about to come true. The British fleet and the RAF were on full alert, searchlights scanned the London sky, every significant building in the imperial capital was cordoned off with sandbags, territorials (reservists) were digging trenches in Hyde Park and St. James Park, and the government was requisitioning cellars and basements as air raid shelters. Shocked Londoners felt as if they had stepped through the looking glass into Things to Come. This “is like a nightmare in a film,” Rob Bernays, a junior government minister, wrote. “We are like people waiting for Judgment.” At a dinner party, Bernays made a joke to lighten the somber mood and was immediately cut off by another guest, who snapped, “Damn you! [Don’t] you realize we may be dead next week?”

Meanwhile, in Downing Street, Chamberlain was facing a cabinet revolt. After explaining at some length his indignant reaction to Hitler’s new terms, he recommended that the terms be accepted. This was too much, even for Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary and Chamberlain’s closest ally in the cabinet. “Personally, I believe Hitler has cast a spell over Neville,” he told a colleague. Other cabinet members felt that Chamberlain had been undone by his vanity. And, unquestionably, Chamberlain’s desire to be hailed as a peacemaker did cloud his judgment, though other factors also went into his thinking. On September 20, two days before Chamberlain returned to Germany, a memo by General Hastings Ismay of the Imperial General Staff had counseled prudence: If “war with Germany has to come,” Ismay wrote, “it would be better to fight her in, say, 6 to 12 months than to accept the present challenge.”

In late September, the Czech crisis resolved itself at the Munich Conference, which was convened at Mussolini’s suggestion and was the source of some of the most evocative images of the prewar years: There is a famous photo of Chamberlain, looking more the coroner than the undertaker as he poses reluctantly for photographers in front of the two-engine Lockheed Electra that will fly him to Germany. There is one of Édouard Daladier, the French premier, at the Munich airport, looking physically massive but with vacant eyes that suggest that the premier’s nickname, the Bull of Vaucluse, may overstate the case; and there is one of Hitler standing at the conference table, his expression a compound of all his favorite words: “unshakable,” “invincible,” “triumphant,” “decisive”; and there is one of Mussolini, arms crossed, head tilted at an odd angle to hide the mole on his bald skull. And the most famous photo of all: Chamberlain, on his return from Munich, standing in front of a bank of microphones, promising “peace in our time” under a gray autumn sky. Lost among the lesser footnotes of the Munich Conference are two appeals from President Roosevelt, one urging Hitler to attend the conference, the other an appeal for a peaceful resolution of the Sudeten crisis.

Such was the residual strength of Never Again, not just in Britain but globally, that the morning after promising “peace in our time,” Chamberlain awoke to find himself a world hero. In Munich, Germans, some with tears in their eyes, flocked to the hotel where the prime minister had stayed, like pilgrims to a shrine. In France a subscription was raised to build the prime minister a country house and a trout stream. In Britain streets were named after Chamberlain. Dinners were held in his honor; crowds followed him to Buckingham Palace, where he appeared on the balcony with the king, and on fishing holidays in the Highlands crowds followed him through Scottish railway stations. Babies were named after him, there were Chamberlain dolls, and Chamberlain bouquets with the inscription “We Are Proud of You.” In Brussels a medal was struck in his honor; from Holland came tulips by the thousands; and from the people of New York and the people of South Africa, grateful thanks for the prime minister’s work on behalf of peace.

“All this will be over in early October,” Chamberlain told Halifax not long after his return from Munich. He was right about the fleeting nature of fame, wrong about how quickly it could flee.

A new Gallup poll taken less than a month after Munich indicated that public support for an antiappeasement government had risen sharply. Another new poll found that 71 percent of the respondents favored keeping the German colonies awarded to Britain at Versailles, even at the risk of war. The sudden stiffening of public resolve owed less to an upsurge in patriotism than to post-Munich disillusionment. Chamberlain had gotten a piece of paper at Munich, and Hitler had gotten the Sudetenland. Emotionally exhausted by two and a half years of lurching from crisis to crisis, people began to rethink their position on war. The pacifism of the interwar years had been driven by the conviction that European civilization had come very close to self-immolation on the battlefields of the Great War. All the peace ballots, debates, and pacifist marches of the thirties were energized by the belief that such a thing must never be allowed to happen again. Munich became the midwife to a new perception among the French and British elites: Terrible as war was, it might be the only way to prevent Hitler and his regime from plunging Europe into a “new dark age.” Munich also gave birth to a new perception among ordinary people, but it was more prosaic. “Living with Hitler,” said one man, “was like living in a neighborhood with a wild animal on the loose.”

In March 1939, when Germany occupied the non-German parts of Czechoslovakia, public opinion hardened further. Lingering guilt about the Treaty of Versailles had restrained Britain’s reaction to Hitler’s earlier occupations. Austria, the Rhineland, and the Sudetenland were historic German lands. In Hitler’s place, Bismarck—or almost any German statesman—would have made it his goal to reconstitute the historic Germany dismembered at Versailles. There was no explanation for the occupation of the ethnic Czech rump except pure, naked aggression. In late March, when the Chamberlain government extended a guarantee to Poland, there was broad public support for the decision.

In late August, after Hitler and Stalin signed a nonaggression pact, and a German attack on Poland became all but certain, the News Chronicle, one of the big London dailies, decided to test the strength of Never Again. The poll the paper commissioned found that only 11 percent of the British public still remained resolutely pacifist—that is, willing to embrace peace even on German terms. Yet anyone with a feel for public opinion knew the requiems for Never Again were premature. There remained a significant, if hard to quantify, substratum of antiwar feeling in Britain. “It was a vague body almost nebulous . . . and fortunately [had] no leader,” recalled Alfred Duff Cooper, who was on the opposite side of the war debate, having resigned from the Chamberlain cabinet to protest the prime minister’s appeasement. The substratum, said Duff Cooper, “was composed of disparate entities. The left wing of the Labour Party . . . whose detestation of war was so intense that they doubted anything was worth fighting for, . . . the right wing of Conservatism, . . . [whose members] believed that Communism was the greater danger and felt that Hitler had rendered his country a service by suppressing the Communists and might render Europe one by protecting it from the red peril.

“There existed also an attitude even less definite and harder to define, originating probably in the fact that the public mind was ill prepared for war. People had been told recently by ministers, and some sections of the press never ceased to tell them, that there was no longer any danger of war, so that when it [became imminent] they could hardly believe it . . . and clung obstinately to the hope that the whole thing could somehow be patched up.”

Duff Cooper’s list omits one other important center of antiwar feeling: the small but influential section of the British establishment who had grave reservations about risking the British economy and empire in a second conflict with Germany. Members of the group included former prime minister David Lloyd George and Montagu Norman, governor of the Bank of England, and several peers of the realm, among them Lord Londonderry and the Duke of Westminster. Though not members of the group, two powerful press barons, Lord Rothermere, publisher of the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror, and Lord Beaverbrook, publisher of the Daily Express and the London Evening Standard, also feared that the British Empire would not survive another total war.

Should war come, the government would have to take these various strains of opinion into account in making decisions about war aims, defense spending, rationing, and a host of other related issues. And should the war go badly for Britain, the government would have to be prepared for the eventuality that all or some of these strands of opinion would coalesce and demand a negotiated peace settlement to save the country from another four years of “death and death and death.”

At 5:00 p.m. the French ultimatum went into effect.

“Thus we tumbled into Armageddon without heart, without songs, without an ally except France (and she lukewarm), without aircraft, without tanks, without guns, without rifles, without even a reserve of raw commodities and feeding stuffs,” wrote Bob Boothby. A week later, when Italy and Japan announced their neutrality, the gravest threat to British security, a world war, receded. For now only Germany would have to be confronted, and, while it would be poked and prodded, it would not be poked and prodded hard enough to incite the holocaust of total war for a second time. Under Chamberlain, Britain would fight a limited war for limited ends and with limited means.

While the pace of rearmament would be quickened, for the time being the prime minister planned to emphasize two other components of his war plan. The first was propaganda. During the autumn of 1939, thousands of copies of dozens of different propaganda pamphlets were dropped on Germany, including Hitler and the Working Man, the best, though not the only, example of why the academics and literary figures the Ministry of Information employed to write propaganda were too genteel for the job. Hitler and the Working Man began by describing national socialism as “an honorable experiment” and noted that its early leaders had had many “fine ideals.” The second component of the Chamberlain war plan was economic blockade. Chamberlain believed—and it was a belief shared by the British intelligence services and many senior civil servants—that the huge cost of rearmament had overstretched the German economy, leaving Hitler incapable of fighting anything but the kind of short, sharp war he was fighting in Poland. Historians would later dismiss the belief in German economic weakness as a myth, but new research has shown that Chamberlain was at least half right. Until the summer of 1940, when the wealth of Western Europe fell under Hitler’s control, the German war machine was under intense economic pressure. In 1939, Britain was spending only 12 percent of its national income on defense, while Germany was already spending 23 percent and its economy was operating at 125 percent of capacity, while the British economy had yet to fully mobilize.

Chamberlain’s miscalculation was in thinking that Germany’s financial weakness would make it even more vulnerable to a British blockade than it had been in the Great War. Blockades, which are intended to deny the enemy resources, only work if they are airtight. And, as Lloyd George, Britain’s prime minister in the Great War, lost no opportunity to point out, this time, unlike last time, the British blockade had a gaping hole. The German-Soviet pact had given Hitler access to Russian oil, to copper—to enough raw materials to sustain a ten-year war. Indeed, when it came to his successor’s faults as a war leader, Lloyd George did not know where to begin or end. The previous March, Chamberlain had blithely handed Poland a security guarantee unenforceable without Russian help; then, when an opportunity arose to strike an alliance with Stalin, he had let it slip away. And because Chamberlain refused to put British industry on a full wartime footing, Britain would not have ten divisions in France until the spring of 1940, and had only 1,270 first-line aircraft and a few hundred tanks, many outdated models. Against this force, Germany could field up to 157 divisions—10 of them armored—nearly 4,000 modern warplanes, and 3,000 modern tanks. It was true that 90 to 94 of France’s 117 divisions also faced Germany, but the French army’s 3,254 tanks and 1,562 aircraft were in the hands of soldiers and airmen preparing a 1939 army with 1918 training and strategies.

The Course of Rearmament before the Second World War

British rearmament and military production

ANGLO-FRENCH NAVAL CONFLICT 1514

French raid on Brighton, 1514 Anglo-French naval conflict in the early sixteenth century was a period of transition from medieval naval warfare, which had been dominated by coming alongside and boarding, to stand-off tactics in which warships put more of an emphasis on firepower and did not come into direct contact. In the war of 1512–14, the English and French fleets fought in the Channel in the traditional fashion, whereas off Portsmouth in 1545 they engaged in a gunnery duel. This shift had important implications for naval tactics (although truly effective ways of deploying naval firepower were not found until the next century), and it further encouraged the development of warships primarily as artillery platforms. Carvel building (the edge joining of hull planks over frames) replaced the clinker system of shipbuilding using overlapping planks, contributing to the development of stronger hulls better able to carry heavy guns. The Anglo-French War of 1512–14 saw Henry VIII support Spain, Venice and the Pope, and naval operations were a part of this wider struggle, one ultimately determined by developments in Italy. The Channel was in practice a sideshow.

The precise date of the attack is uncertain, but it is believed to have taken place in the first few days of June. In his book Life in Brighton, Clifford Musgrave, a former director of the Royal Pavilion and Museums, notes that ‘State Papers dated from Calais 5 June 1514… speaks of arrangements for a raid to be carried out in France “in revenge for the burning of Brighthelmstone”‘

The attack was led by a feared foe of the English, a French naval commander known by various forms of ‘Prior John’. An account of the raid was published in Holinshed’s Chronicles, a popular Tudor history book that was used as a reference by Shakespeare and others.

According to Holinshed, Prior John and his men succeeded in burning and looting most of the village before English reinforcements arrived. The invaders were attacked by a hail of arrows, and Prior John was struck in the eye. Miraculously, Prior John survived the wound, and as a gesture of thanks, presented a wax image of his face, also depicting the arrow in his eye, to a church in Boulougne.

In spite of this moment of piety, Prior John and his men seem to have had little respect for religious buildings: the Priory of Bartholomew, which has given its name to a street next to Brighton Town Hall, was mostly destroyed by the raiders. St Nicholas’ Church was one of the few buildings to survive the raid, and this may be because it stood at the top of the hill overlooking the old town. If Holinshed’s account is correct (it was first published in 1577, over sixty years after the original attack), the invaders may have been unable to reach it before English reinforcements arrived.

Although the town was almost completely destroyed, it was rebuilt along the lines of the original streets, and the layout of the Lanes still reflects the shape of the town prior to the invasion.

War of the League of Cambrai

 

Genoa Naval Strength 15th Century

Genoa, 1481, by Cristoforo Grassi. A display of naval strength in a celebration of the recapture of Otranto from the Ottomans. Genoa was a major maritime power but, like Venice, was under pressure from the Ottomans, losing its bases of Amasra (1460) and Kaffa (1475) on the Black Sea, and Samos (1550) and Chios (1560) in the Aegean, although Corsica was retained until sold to France in 1768. Genoa focused on galley warfare and in the sixteenth century aligned with Spain, providing much of its naval power, as at the Battle of Preveza in 1538. Captured by the Ottomans in 1480, Otranto, in south-east Italy, threatened to be a base for expansion but the new sultan Bayezid II faced opposition from his brother Jem and therefore adopted a cautious international stance. Otranto was abandoned in 1481.

The seeming inevitability of the advance of Turkish power in the Balkans was made plain to the rulers of Europe by the crushing defeat of a crusading army, mainly made up of French and Hungarian contingents, at Nicopolis in 1396. Most Bulgarian and Serb lands were now ruled by the Ottomans with the Byzantine Empire confined to small areas around their cities of Salonica and Constantinople. At first this confirmation of the establishment of a major new power in the area seemed to have little influence on the rivalries of naval powers. Venice benefited from extending her rule over coastal towns which sought her protection rather than that of the declining Empire. In this way Venice became the ruler of Durazzo and Scutari in Albania, Lepanto, Patras, Argos, Nauplia and even briefly Athens. To many Venetians an important reason for undertaking the task of governing these places was to prevent them falling into the hands of the Genoese, who were still seen as hostile to Venice.

Venice was able to recover her dominant position in trade in the Levant and enjoy the prosperity this brought, not because of her `command of the seas’ or the superiority of her galley fleet but because the Turkish advance in the West was halted by the need to deal with the forces of Tamerlane in Central Asia. In the first years of the fifteenth century, therefore, naval warfare in the eastern Mediterranean, apart from the continuing problem of widespread, low-level commerce raiding, consisted largely of shows of force by both Venice and Genoa each intending to overawe the other. Documents from the archives of both Genoa and Venice reveal clearly the degree of mutual suspicion which existed. Throughout 1403 the Venetian Senate was authorising its galley captains to keep a close eye on the Genoese fleet which, or so the Senate believed, had sailed from Genoa. Carlo Zeno, who was now captain general of the Gulf, was given special permission to pursue his own course rather than one prescribed by the Senate for this purpose. He was also given permission to take any Genoese property or vessels if they did harm to the property of Venetians to the value of more than 10,000 ducats. This was the sum of the damage already suffered by merchants in Rhodes and Cyprus which was the subject of negotiations. Later in June 1404, the news of a fleet of three cogs and two galleys being prepared in Genoa, led the Senate to forbid the ships of Pietro Contarini and Fantino Pisani from leaving Venice till 8 July when they might expect to have more information and be able to make better arrangements for the vessels’ security. A month later in Genoa one Niccolo da Moneglia was given permission by the governor of the city to take reprisals against Venetian ships. The most revealing of this series of documents is the deposition of Costantino Lercari taken in February 1407 when the Genoese authorities were investigating the loss of three of their galleys, part of the expedition of Marshall Boucicaut, off Modon in 1404. Lercari was the patronus of the galley on which Boucicaut sailed and therefore was an eyewitness of the events he describes. From his account, on one level relations between the cities were cordial. He describes the Venetian fleet coming out to meet the Genoese with every sign of honour and the two fleets then sailing together into the harbour and anchoring together. He himself was then involved in discussions with Carlo Zeno, the Venetian leader on the possibility of some joint action presumably against the Turks, though the details of this are not made clear. Zeno declined on the grounds that he could not exceed the very tightly drawn terms of his commission from the Signoria, making the remark that his `lordship did not give such long reins to its captains as was the custom of the Genoese’. The Genoese then left Modon but the seeming amity did not last with both sides becoming suspicious of the other; Lercari in fact has a story that the Venetian bailus in Nicosia was sending the Saracenos (the Turks) news of the Genoese movements. Finally when the Genoese wished to go into Zonchio to take on water, Zeno refused to let them enter the port and appeared with all his galleys ready for battle with lances and crossbows to hand. Boucicault then ordered his men also to arm but not to strike the first blow. When the Venetians attacked with cannon (bombardis) and crossbows battle was joined and in the ensuing melee the Genoese lost three galleys.

The use of cannon in fact is probably the most significant feature of this encounter almost the last in this area between the rival cities. As the century progressed the ability to deploy artillery was increasingly the deciding factor in war at sea. This did not only mean guns mounted onboard ships but shore batteries which could greatly hinder the use of galleys and other vessels to support or bring relief to the besieged in coastal towns. This was made abundantly clear during the siege of Constantinople in 1453. Venetian galleys were unable to contribute effectively to the defence of the city because of the weight of the Turkish onshore guns deployed against them. The fall of the Byzantine Empire stimulated the development of an Ottoman navy. Using the port and dockyard facilities which had long been in existence in or near the city and largely Greek seamen and shipwrights the Ottoman Empire came to dominate the waters of the eastern Mediterranean as it already dominated the land. The Venetians who, with the Knights of St John from Rhodes, the only other naval power of consequence active in these waters, were faced with a new and aggressive opponent; an opponent who, unlike the Genoese, controlled the greater part of the interior of the Balkans. Venetian bases in the area, without which the operation of galleys was more or less impossible, were vulnerable to attacks both from the sea and from the land. The predominantly amphibious character of naval warfare which is clear from the beginning of our period perhaps became even more noticeable in the second half of the fifteenth century, with battles fought in close conjunction with the taking of port towns and their hinterland.

Genoa and the Sea: Policy and Power in an Early Modern Maritime Republic, 1559–1684 (The Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science) Paperback – December 17, 2012

Genoa played an important and ever-changing role in the early modern Mediterranean world. In medieval times, the city transformed itself from a tumultuous maritime republic into a stable and prosperous one, making it one of the most important financial centers in Europe. When Spanish influence in the Mediterranean world began to decline, Genoa, its prosperity closely linked with Spain’s, again had to reinvent itself and restore its economic stature.

Thomas Allison Kirk reconstructs the early modern Mediterranean world and closely studies Genoa’s attempt to evolve in the ever-changing political and economic landscape. He focuses on efforts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to revive shipbuilding and maritime commerce as a counterbalance to the city’s volatile financial sector.

“This book treats a neglected subject―the maritime policy of an early modern Mediterranean state―with a new and refreshing approach.”―American Historical Review

“The essence of this book is Kirk’s detailed understanding of the economics of shipbuilding and trade, as they affected the diplomatic and economic fortunes of the city of Genoa.”―English Historical Review

“Genoa and the Sea succeeds in reintegrating the Genoese republic with its citizen bankers, its galley slaves, its competing clans and moneyed families in a fascinating, if dense, narrative of transition and transformation… Kirk has demonstrated the rich resources available for sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Genoa, and should inspire much further research.”―Historian

“Not only a valuable contribution on the history of the republic of Genoa but also a new perspective on the changing Mediterranean world and the relationship of the Mediterranean with the rest of Europe during a period of sweeping transformations.”―International Journal of Maritime History

“An important contribution to the historiography of early modern Italy and its decline in the seventeenth century.”―Journal of Modern History

Air Conflict – Stalingrad Part I

August began poorly for the powerful Sixth Army, heading across flat steppes in scorching heat towards Stalingrad. On the first of the month, Generaloberst Halder bitterly complained in his diary (as he had several times in the last two weeks): “Our attack can’t proceed because of fuel and ammunition shortages”. The following day, von Richthofen, whose air transport units relieved some of those shortages, noted in his own diary that Sixth Army sat “bogged down” in front of Stalingrad, partly because of stiff opposition but mainly because of acute logistical problems. Unlike the ever-pessimistic army chief, the latter remained confident, adding light-heartedly that “the enemy attempts to fling troops from every point of the compass into the Stalingrad sector. He’s hell-bent on holding the city. This means that, when the city falls, Stalin will have to sue for peace. Well, well!” He was not the only senior commander to believe that the fali of the city was the key to German success in the east. Three days earlier, Jodi had trumpeted (with a prophetic resonance that would later haunt him): “the fate of the Caucasus will be decided at Stalingrad”.

During the first weeks of August, Sixth Army advanced fitfully, frequently crippled by fuel and ammunition shortages. As noted earlier, von Richthofen did everything possible to improve the army’s supply situation. He requested the OKL to send additional Ju 52 groups, transferred north most of Pflugbeil’s (and his road transport companies), created a special Stalingrad “transport region”, and ordered immediate increases in transportation levels through intensified effort and improved procedures. The army undertook its own measures to improve its supply situation. The efforts of both service branches bore fruit, particularly those of the Luftwaffe, which continued flying forward large amounts of ammunition and provisions and smaller amounts of fuel (dangerous and difficult to airlift because of its flammability and huge volume). By the third week of August, Sixth Army began receiving sufficient supplies for it to carry out most of its missions without hardship.

Generalleutnant Fiebig’s Fliegerkorps VIII, meanwhile, provided the army with effective air support. It struck enemy troops, vehicles, guns and fortified positions on the battlefield, as well as logistics and mobilization centres and road, rail and river traffic behind the front. The guns of Genera/major Pickert’s 9th Flak Division smashed field fortifications and enemy vehicles and generally kept the airspace above Sixth Army free of the enemy fighters and Shturmoviks that frequently eluded Fiebig’s own fighters. The division’s actions did not pass unnoticed.

On 8 August Pickert personally received Paulus’ “praise … for the close co-operation between the army and the flak teams”. On 6 August, Hitler ordered von Richthofen to support Sixth Army’s renewed attack across the Don at Kalach, due to start the following day. The air chief immediately flew to Paulus’ command post, where he found the army commander “confident”, and then to Army Group B’s headquarters, where he found an equally-optimistic von Weichs furiously raging about the lethargic efforts of his Italian and Hungarian components. They discussed their plans for the coming weeks and carefully co-ordinated a joint Schwerpunkt at Kalach, which, the air leader noted in his diary, “we’re going to hit tomorrow with all our forces”.

Schwerpunktbildung-the creation of individual points of maximum effort-had not been possible throughout most of July, when widely-dispersed army formations advanced at different rates in different directions with different objectives. Moreover, von Richthofen lacked sufficient aircraft to concentrate substantial numbers in support of all those formations. Instead, he had to dissipate his forces by deploying smaller numbers alternately in support of various army efforts, sometimes in two or three separate regions at a time. Things were now different. His fleet was still divided-one air corps supported the drive to Stalingrad, the other the drive to the Caucasus oilfields-but at least he could create a single Schwerpunkt at the Kalach bridgehead for Fiebig’s entire close-support force.

Early on 7 August, Paulus’ Fourteenth and Twenty-Fourth Panzer Corps sliced into that bridgehead from north and south, their armoured vanguards receiving massive support from Fiebig’s air corps and elements of Pflugbeil’s, Late in the afternoon, the pincers clamped tight near the west bank of the Don, opposite Kalach, trapping the main body of the Soviet Sixty-Second Army. Joined by the Fifty-First Army Corps, the Panzer corps began methodically cleaning out the pocket. Hitler was ecstatic; he had envisaged a series of classic double envelopments like this when planning Blau, but this was the first encirclement of any significance actually accomplished so far. His booty was impressive, as von Richthofen privately noted on 10 August: “Fliegerkorps VIII finally clears out the Kalach pocket in conjunction with Sixth Army, capturing 50,000 prisoners and 1,100 tanks.”

Throughout this period, Fiebig’s dive bombers and ground attack units encountered steady, but rarely powerful, VVS opposition as they smashed troops, vehicles and field positions in the pocket. Bombers, escorted by fighters, also encountered little air opposition as they pounded trains and railway installations south of Stalingrad and airfields south” west of the city (claiming the destruction of 20 enemy aircraft on the ground on 10 August alone). General T. T. Khriukin’s Eighth Air Army had done all it could in recent weeks to stem the German advance, but its strength had been drastically reduced in savage air combat and its valiant efforts against Fiebig’s technically and numerically superior force achieved nothing. The Stavka dispatched a constant stream of reinforcements to Khriukin’s force-447 aircraft between 20 July and 17 August-but the vastly “outclassed and still” outnumbered Eighth Air Army failed to prevent a steady deterioration of the situation around beleaguered Stalingrad. In fact, the air army’s attrition rate ran almost as high as the reinforcement rate, so little improvement in strength occurred.

On 5 August, the Stavka substantially bolstered the VVS’s local strength when it split the Stalingrad Front into two separate commands: the Southeastern Front, supported by Eighth Air Army, and a new Stalingrad Front, supported by General P. S. Stepanov’s hastily formed Sixteenth Air Army. Both air armies received a steady flow of reinforcements, including Yak-1s, Yak 7-bs, Il-2s, Pe-2s and other newer models. However, most units arrived at the front well below strength. The 228th Shturmovik Air Division, for example, commenced combat operations with only one-third of its prescribed complement. Most units also arrived with inexperienced aircrew-no match for their German counterparts as well as poor logistical networks and dismal army-air communication and liaison systems. Prematurely assigned to frontline airfields, these units began reconnaissance and combat operations immediately. As a result, they suffered severe losses and failed to rob the Luftwaffe of its overwhelming air supremacy. For instance, if its daily reports are accurate, Fliegerkorps VIII suffered no losses as it destroyed 25 of the 26 Soviet aircraft that attacked German airfields on 12 August It destroyed 35 out of 45 the following day, again for no losses.

With much of the Soviet Sixty-Second Army now marching westwards into captivity, Paulus struck for Stalingrad. He did not choose the most direct route, due east from Kalach. That route was criss-crossed by deep gullies that would provide the enemy splendid defensive opportunities and frequently force tanks to make lengthy detours. Instead, the army commander decided to send his two Panzer corps to the “northeast corner” of the great Don bend, where they would establish bridgeheads for the advance on Stalingrad.

The loss of 50,000 troops and a thousand tanks, coupled with the collapse of the Kalach bulwark, which he prayed would hold back the rising Axis tide, threw Stalin into panic. He cast more reserves into the region and, on 13 August, placed both the Stalingrad and the Southeastern Fronts under the authority of one of his most trusted field commanders, Colonel-General Yeremenko. Directing the actions of two Fronts was, the latter once remarked, “an extremely heavy burden”, especially as it involved conducting operations through two deputies, two chiefs of staff and two staffs.

Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army, meanwhile, had made excellent progress in the last two weeks. Its drive northwards from the Caucasus brought its right-flank vanguards up to Abganerovo Station on the railway 70 kilometres south of Stalingrad. The VVS had unsuccessfully tried to blunt its advance by diverting the bulk of its combat forces south, but ‘frantically had to rush it back to the Don bend when Sixth Army began its attack across the Kletskaya-Peskovatka line on 15 August. In two days, Fourteenth and Twenty-Fourth Panzer Corps cleared the entire Don bend and Eighth Army Corps captured two small bridgeheads near Trekhostrovskaya, at the bend’s easternmost point. Unfortunately for Paulus, the marshy terrain in this sector proved unsuitable for tanks and Yeremenko threw First Guards Army into the battle. By 18 August, it had pushed divisions westwards across the Don and re-established a 35-kilometre-long bridgehead from Kremenskaya to Sirotinskaya.

Unwilling to waste time and suffer unnecessary losses in a prolonged contest for the Don bend, an uncharacteristically-daring Paulus thrust Fifty-First Army Corps across the Don towards Vertyachiy on 21 August. Although this attack left his left flank dangerously exposed, it succeeded brilliantly. Surprised by their enemy’s daring, the Soviet defenders fell back helplessly. By next morning, Fourteenth Panzer Corps’ tanks were rolling over two massive bridges thrown across the Don by German engineers.

These were favourable days for Fiebig’s Fliegerkorps VIII. It deployed most of its bombers against Black Sea ports and shipping and its powerful ground attack and dive bomber groups against the Soviet formations resisting both Paulus’ advance across the Don and Hoth’s drive on Stalingrad from the south. The air corps notched up excellent tallies of enemy aircraft: it claimed 139 victims in 3 days. It also inflicted heavy damage on enemy troops and armour contesting the battlefield. On 21 August, for instance, von Richthofen flew over the Don bend north of Kalach and found himself staring down at “extraordinarily many knocked-out tanks and dead [Russians]”. Later that day, Ju 88s of K. G. 76 massacred two reserve divisions caught in the open 150 kilometres east of Stalingrad, prompting the delighted air fleet commander to scrawl excitedly in his diary: “Blood flowed!” (Von Richthofen’s original text says “Blut gerühlt!’, not “beautiful bloodbath!”

(toiles Blutbad) as both Williamson Murray and Richard Muller assert, basing their statements on the few subjectively-edited and frequently-inaccurate diary extracts found in the “Karlsruhe Collection”. Two days later-while Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army barely moved in the south because of acute shortages of fuel and ammunition-General der Panzeltruppen von Wietersheim’s Fourteenth Panzer Corps surged across the land bridge between the Don and Volga rivers, reaching the latter in Stalingrad’s northern suburbs at 1600 hours. Generalleutnant Hans Hube’s 16th Panzer Division, the corps’ mailed fist, smashed more than thirty artillery batteries in those suburbs. The enemy gunfire was woefully inaccurate. After the one-armed Hube’s men closed in on the wrecked batteries, they learned why: the guns had been “manned” by hastily-deployed and totally-untrained civilians, mostly women, now lying dead in their blood-stained cotton dresses.

Von Wietersheim’s corps accomplished its remarkable advance (which deeply shocked the Soviet leadership) by moving up closely behind a deluge of shrapnel and high explosives rained down on enemy positions by Fliegerkorps VIII, now permanently reinforced by units stripped from Fliegerkorps IV. “Since early morning we were constantly over the Panzer Spearheads, helping them forward with our bombs and machine-guns,” recalled Hauptmann Herbert Pabst, commander of a Stuka squadron. “We landed, refuelled, received bombs and ammunition, and immediately took off again. It was ‘all go’ and splendid advances. As we took off, others landed. And so it went.” During 1,600 nonstop sorties, Fiebig’s units dropped 1,000 tons of bombs on the enemy troops and defensive positions in the corps’ advance path, destroying all opposition (as von Richthofen wrote, “totally paralyzing the Russians”). Apparently suffering only three losses the entire day (certainly not 90, as several post-war Soviet accounts absurdly maintain), they also ravaged VVS forces desperately trying to destroy Don crossings and halt von Wietersheim’s advance. They claimed 91 aircraft destroyed in what even the Soviets acknowledged were “fierce battles”.

Air Conflict – Stalingrad Part II

Von Richthofen was delighted (as Hitler was, when informed that day), but did not stop there. Late in the afternoon, Fiebig’s corps carried out what the fleet chief called his “second great attack of the day”: an immense raid on Stalingrad itself. Bombers smashed buildings to rubble with high explosives and torched various residential areas with incendiaries, leaving houses, schools and factories wildly burning. In some suburbs, the only structures left standing were the blackened brick chimneys of incinerated wooden houses. “Never before in the entire war had the enemy attacked in such strength from the air”, wrote Lieutenant-General Vasili Chuikov with pardonable exaggeration, not having witnessed the even-heavier annihilation raids on Sevastopol. The abrasive but talented commander of the Sixty-Second Army was not exaggerating at all, however, when he added that “the huge city, stretching for nearly thirty-five miles along the Volga, was enveloped in flames. Everything was blazing, collapsing. Death and disaster descended on thousands of families.”

Estimating fatalities is difficult because of a paucity of reliable statistical data. Yet this hellish attack caused at least as many deaths as similar-sized Allied raids on German cities. For example, it certainly claimed as many victims as the Allied attack on Darmstadt during the night of 11 and 12 September 1944, when the Royal Air Force unloaded almost 900 tons of bombs and killed over 12,300 citizens. The Stalingrad death total may, in fact, have been twice that of Darmstadt, due to tile fact that the Russian city was poorly provided with air-raid shelters. Recent popular accounts have advanced a figure of around 40,000, although this seems extravagant when compared to the death tolls in German cities hit by similar bomb tonnages. The post-war official Soviet history merely states: “In one day, scores of thousands of families lost a member, and thousands of children, their mothers and fathers.”

Raids continued almost without pause for another two days, although with steadily decreasing intensity. Von Richthofen flew over Stalingrad on the morning of 25 August, in order to watch that day’s “great fire-attack”. The city, he later noted in his diary, was “destroyed, and without any further worthwhile targets”. He then landed at the forward airfield of one of his bomber units, 25 kilometres from the ruined metropolis. The sky was full of “thick, black fire-clouds reaching all the way from the city.” After another heavy bombing attack in the afternoon, he added, the dense volcano-like clouds climbed 3,500 metres into the sky. The level of destruction was impressive (except, of course, to the tormented souls who tied the holocaust and now huddled in deep ravines outside the city). Flames leapt from huge oil storage containers and fuel tankers on the Volga, across the surface of which spilled oil burned. That evening, Generalmajor Pickert, head of the 9th Flak Division, recorded his own impressions in his diary: “At dusk I went on another 14 kilometres, then spent the night in the open … against a backdrop of magnificent smoke and flames, with Stalingrad burning and Russian searchlights blazing. A fantastic picture in the moonlight.”

Aside from these massive raids, the Axis advance on Stalingrad stalled for several days. Hube’s troops encountered stiff resistance from the Soviet Sixty-Second Army and the citizens’ militia. Their morale intact despite Fliegerkorps VIII’s best efforts, these courageous defenders refused to allow Germans to bulldoze through the rubble-strewn streets of Rynok, Stalingrad’s northern-most suburb, into the Spartakovka industrial region. Powerful Soviet attacks inflicted punishing blows on Hube’s division. It had raced to the Volga with such speed that it now found itself stranded at the river, separated from other German divisions by over 20 kilometres and surrounded by enraged enemy forces seeking revenge for the destruction of their city. On 26 August, a particularly strong attack sliced a chunk off Fourteenth Panzer Corp’s northern flank in the Kremenskaya region. This, and Hube’s constant panicky requests for supplies and reinforcements, prompted von Wietersheim to request that his corps withdraw from the Volga. Paulus refused, but frantically directed Fifty-First and Eighth Army Corps to close the gap between themselves and von Wietersheim’s corps, bolster the vulnerable northern flank and push supplies forward to Hube’s encircled division, still suffering heavy losses as it clung to the Volga. Fliegerkorps V/IJ effectively supported these endeavours, pinning down enemy troops assailing Hube’s division and repelling repeated Soviet attempts to stab into Fourteenth Panzer Corps’ exposed northern flank from the Kremenskaya bridgehead. In its brief daily report on air operations, the German Naval Staff’s war diary for 28 August was unusually generous in its praise of Fiebig’s units: “The supply road for our forces which reached the Volga River was freed and attacks against it were repulsed, thanks to the splendid support of the Air Force. Tank attacks south of Kremen[skaya] were repulsed with particularly severe losses.”

Von Richthofen, always aggressive and prepared to take risks-unlike Paulus, whom the air chief accurately described two weeks later as “worthy but uninspiring” -insisted that the army could take Stalingrad even now if it launched an all-out assault. Losses would be high, but, in the present circumstances, acceptable. He was disgusted by what he called the army’s lack of fighting spirit and its unwillingness to suffer losses to obtain major goals. He had made similar complaints during the assault on Sevastopol. On 22 June, he had grumbled in his diary: “I wish that everyone would just push a little more energetically. The view that advancing cautiously avoids losses is simply not correct, because small losses each day SOOI1 mount up the longer it takes.” History, he now believed, was clearly repeating itself. Therefore, on 27 August, he sent his operations officer, Oberst Karl-Heinz Schulz, to express in no uncertain terms to Goring and Jeschonnek his intense frustration “at the army’s weakness in nerves and leadership”. Schulz returned the next day, informing von Richthofen that Goring had responded sympathetically to his views. In fact, both the Reichsmarschall and the Fuhrer had expressed anger at the army’s slow progress and granted von Richthofen permission, as a “morale booster’, expressly to “request” it to act more aggressively.

The following day, this “morale booster” flew to Hoth’s command post to pass on the Fuhrer’s sentiments and, hopefully, to spur him on in a friendly manner. Hoth, meanwhile, had heard from the army group that even he had been included in von Richthofen’s self-righteous accusations to the High Command. The Panzer commander was outraged that he, of all people, whose army frequently sat idle for want of fuel, not courage, should be accused of lacking fighting spirit. He confronted von Richthofen immediately. Shocked by the Panzer leader’s anger, the airman emphatically denied that he had mentioned him to the High Command. This should be taken with a large measure of salt, given that the previous month he had privately described Hoth as “ageing and doubtless weary” and only a few days earlier had commented harshly that Fourth Panzer Army had “worn-out leadership and feeble troops”. Highly embarrassed, he blamed Goring for “twisting” his complaints about army leadership and even unfairly bawled out Jeschonnek on the telephone. Hoth was apparently satisfied; at least von Richthofen believed so. This was the first open clash between the arrogant airman and his army colleagues; it would not be the last.

As it happened, Hoth’s army surged forward that very day, in an operation that clearly demonstrated his courage and ability. For the last week or so, his army had been stuck halfway between Tinguta and Kransarmeysk, unable to advance past a line of heavily fortified hills guarding Stalingrad’s southern approaches. His Panzers and guns hammered away at those positions and the Soviet Sixty-Fourth Army’s constantly-attacking troops and armour. The loss of thousands of men and scores of tanks for only minor gains proved to Hoth that he could not advance on Stalingrad from his present position. He had to regroup and strike towards the city from a sector held less tightly by the enemy. as Under cover of darkness and light but steady attacks by Fiebig’s Stukas and ground attack aircraft, he slowly pulled the bulk of his tanks and other mobile units from the front, replacing them with infantry formations (including numerous elements of the Rumanian Sixth Army Corps) to camouflage his actions. Regrouping his armoured units behind Tinguta, almost fifty kilometres behind their earlier positions, he prepared them for their new drive to Stalingrad. Assisted by a strong concentration of aircraft, they raced forward on 29 August, sweeping northwest for 20 kilometres before wheeling northeast towards the city with considerable momentum. Flanking the strongly-defended hills that had cost them dear in lives and time, they smashed through the surprised enemy forces vainly trying to block their path. Late that day they reached the Karpovka river. The next day-as von Wietersheim finally opened the pocket in which Hube’s division lay trapped and pushed forward supplies-they crossed the Karpovka and took a bridgehead at GavriIovka, less than thirty kilometres southwest of Stalingrad. The Soviet Sixty-Second and Sixty-Fourth Armies, rightly fearing encirclement, withdrew to the suburbs and hastily erected new positions amongst surviving buildings and piles of rubble. The former prepared to defend the ruined metropolis from attack against its northern and northwestern suburbs, whilst the latter guarded its southern precincts.

“Everything’s going well,” von Richthofen excitedly wrote on 30 August, momentarily forgetting his recent bout of bitter frustration. Believing Stalingrad’s capture to be imminent, and determined to shatter the enemy’s will to resist-an unrealistic goal, as his experiences at Sevastopol should have shown-he ordered fresh terror attacks on the city. Throughout that day and the next, Fiebig’s corps struck the city with everything available, diverting aircraft only occasionally to smash enemy airfields east of the Volga.

The army, meanwhile, made pleasing progress. When Fourth Panzer Army pushed forward from the Karpovka river on 31 August, von Weichs ordered Hoth to meet Paulus’ Sixth Army at Pitomnik (fifteen kilometres east of the city), having crushed the enemy forces currently between them. From Pitomnik, they would together drive into the centre of Stalingrad, roughly following the line of the Tsaritsa river. However, Hoth reported on 2 September that virtually no enemy forces lay between his army and Voroponovo Station (only ten kilometres from Stalingrad), prompting von Weichs to instruct the Panzer commander to swing east into the city without waiting for Paulus. Determined to provide them with maximum support, von Richthofen had Fiebig pound enemy positions in and around Stalingrad with his entire corps. The latter responded with characteristic gusto, launching a 24-hour, relentless raid against the already-ruined city on 3 September (which Hermann Plocher wrongly claimed was the “first heavy air raid on the city”). This crushing attack, similar in scale to that of 23 August, destroyed Sixty-Second Army’s command centre and almost killed Chuikov, its commander. As he vividly recalled:

The enemy’s air reconnaissance must have detected our command post and promptly sent in bombers…. After sitting like this [in a tiny earth bunker] under bombardment for several hours, we began to grow accustomed to it and took no notice of the roar of engines and the explosive of bombs. Suddenly our dug-out seemed to be thrown into the air. There was a deafening explosion. Abramov [the Member of the Military Council] and I found ourselves on the floor, together with the overturned desks and stools. Above us was the sky, choked with dust. Lumps of earth and stone were flying about, and around us people were crying out and groaning. When the dust had settled a little, we saw an enormous crater some six to ten yards from our dug-out. Round it lay a number of mutilated bodies, and scattered about were overturned trucks and our radio transmitter, now out of action. Our telephone communications had also been destroyed.

Behind the Luftwaffe’s downpour of steel, which pinned the Soviets to the ground and temporarily ended their resistance, Fourth Panzer Army established contact with Sixth Army at Gonchary, near Voroponovo. Paulus and von Richthofen-the hatchet apparently buried after recent tension over the latter’s accusations to the High Command-studied the burning ruins through field glasses from the relative safety of an infantry command post. Despite the fact that the Soviet Sixty-Second and Sixty-Fourth Armies had escaped capture and withdrawn into the city (where they would later offer tenacious resistance), both commanders concluded that victory at Stalingrad was only days away. Back in his Ukrainian headquarters, the Fuhrer, whose own concerns about progress evaporated as soon as his troops reached the city’s outskirts, also claimed that Stalingrad was as good as won. The entire male population, he informed a disgusted Halder, would have to be “disposed of” as soon as possible, because it constituted a dangerous, fanatical Communist element.

Air Conflict – Stalingrad Part III

Stalin, meanwhile, also believed that the city would fall at any moment, unless he could organize an immediate counter-offensive. On 3 August, during the height of the Stalingrad blitz, he sent an urgent message to General Georgi Zhukov, who had arrived in the burning city only two days earlier to take over its seemingly-impossible defence. “The situation at Stalingrad has deteriorated further,” he told Zhukov, recently promoted to Soviet Deputy Supreme Commander. “The enemy stands two miles from the city. Stalingrad may fall today or tomorrow if the northern group of forces [First Guards, Twenty-Fourth and Sixty-Sixth Armies] does not give immediate assistance…. No delay can be tolerated. To delay now is tantamount to a crime. Throw all your airpower to the aid of Stalingrad.” Zhukov winced when he read his chief’s order, knowing that ammunition had not yet reached the armies ear-marked for the counter-offensive. He immediately telephoned Stalin, stating that he would indeed attack, but could not do so until 5 September, by which time sufficient ammunition should have arrived and effective inter service co-operation would be arranged. In the meantime, he added, he would order his air forces to pound the Axis troops with all their strength. Stalin reluctantly agreed, but insisted that “if the enemy begins a general offensive against the city, attack immediately. Do not wait for the troops to be completely ready. Your main job is to keep the Germans from taking Stalingrad and, if possible, to eliminate the German corridor separating the Stalingrad and Southeast fronts.”

After a day of small gains by Paulus’ army, Zhukov’s counter-offensive north of Stalingrad started at dawn on 5 September. First Guards, Twenty-Fourth and Sixty-Sixth Armies drove forward after a joint air and artillery barrage. The barrage was too weak to damage German forces substantially or even pin them down for long. Zhukov watched the action from an observation post at the front, and “could tell from the enemy’s counterfire that our artillery bombardment had not been effective and that no deep penetration by our forces was to be expected”. Indeed, within two hours the already-disappointed Soviet commander learned from combat reports that German troops had thrown back their advance and were themselves counter-attacking with infantry and armour. Zhukov’s only consolation was that he had forced Paulus to cancel a major thrust into the city planned for that day and divert forces north to hold back the Soviet advance. Although still disappointed by his army’s poor showing that day, Stalin was also consoled by this news. The diversion of German forces gave his armies time to strengthen the city’s inner defensive positions.

Throughout 5 September, Fliegerkorps VIII’s bombers and dive-bombers inflicted heavy losses on Soviet troops and armour. That night, Hauptmann Pabst described in his diary the operations of his Stuka squadron: “The Russians throw in everything. Always masses of huge tanks. Then we come, circle, search and dive. They camouflage their tanks fabulously, digging them in to protect them from blasts, sparing no effort. But we find and smash most of them.” The Luftwaffe certainly contributed significantly to Axis defensive battles that day, as the German Naval Staff’s war diary testifies: “Massed enemy attacks from the north, which were launched after an intensive artillery barrage, were dispersed with the assistance of strong air forces formations.” Similarly, Zhukov informed Stalin that when his troops attacked, “the enemy was able to stop them with his fire and counter-attacks. In addition, enemy planes had superiority in the air and bombed our positions all day.” That night, Soviet air units managed partially to restore their pride, bombing Axis positions along the front. Combat groups of the still-understrength Eighth and Sixteenth Air Armies carried out the bulk of these missions. They were joined on many attacks by bombers of Lieutenant-General Golovanov’s long-range bombing force, divisions of which had been operating in the Stalingrad region since mid-August.

For the next five days or so, intense fighting continued around Stalingrad, with both sides suffering heavy losses for slight Axis gains. Only on 10 September did Hoth’s Panzers manage to drive a wedge between Sixty-Second and Sixty-Fourth Armies, tighten the noose around the city and isolate Sixty-Second Army inside the suburbs. Hoth immediately ordered General der Panzertruppen Werner Kempf, commander of the Forty Eighth Panzer Corps, to bulldoze into the southern suburbs the following day, taking them “piece by piece”. Now disgusted again by the army’s failure to exploit recent opportunities or quicken the offensive’s tempo, the exasperated von Richthofen complained in his diary of the city’s “slow strangulation”. Even when German troops finally entered the city on 13 September and began clearing it street by street, the air chief remained unhappy. In the last days of August, he claimed (rightly so, in the present writer’s opinion), Fourth Panzer and Sixth Armies had blown their chance of encircling the Soviet Sixty-Second and Sixty-Fourth Armies in the city’s outer defensive zones; instead, they permitted those enemy formations to withdraw into the ruined suburbs, where the former had since fought fanatically for every street (having been isolated from the latter, the remnants of which fought south of the city). To capture Stalingrad was now going to take a great deal of time and cost many lives, and the inevitable close proximity of opposing forces was already making air attacks extremely difficult.

This appalling situation resulted from weak and indecisive army leadership, von Richthofen ranted to anyone who would listen. On 13 September, he even phoned Goring to demand that one single army commander take over the Stalingrad sector, and he did not mean the “uninspiring” Paulus. Three days later, by which time only a few small regions of the city had been cleared in bitter fighting for high losses, the fleet chief vented his anger in his diary: “The ‘combing’ of Stalingrad is progressing very slowly, despite the fact that the enemy is weak and in no shape for hard fighting. This is because our own troops are few in number, lack fighting spirit and their commanders’ thoughts are elsewhere.” Army leaders simply fail to drive their troops hard enough, even though the capture of a major objective is tantalizingly close. Doubtless comparing von Weichs’, Hoth’s and Paulus’ bland and cautious leadership styles to his own-aggressive and daring to the point of recklessness-he added harshly: “From the highest levels down, attempts at motivation are only theoretical and, as a result, totally ineffective. The generals merely issue orders, but lead neither by example nor by any rousing actions whatsoever.”

Believing that he had to practice what he preached, von Richthofen also demanded more aggression from Fliegerkorps VIII, telling Fiebig that he had not deployed his corps “actively or flexibly enough” in recent weeks. Not only had operations “lacked focus and zeal”, but the corps had yet to overcome several major supply difficulties.” The fleet chief then issued what he called “some really sharp orders,” and explained to Fiebig the reason for his unhappiness: the army’s poor performance at Stalingrad, which naturally influenced the Luftwaffe’s ability to make a decisive impact on the battle. “Because the army is a lame duck,” he said, “we can do little ourselves.” If everyone would only operate more aggressively, Stalingrad would fall in two days.

Fiebig’s corps-indeed, the entire fleet-had performed as well as could be expected in recent weeks, given its logistical difficulties, limited resources, mounting attrition rate, vast combat zone and wide range of tasks. Still, von Richthofen was right; the Luftwaffe’s performance had dropped. Between 5 and 12 September, for instance, Luftflotte IV conducted 7,507 sorties (an average of 938 per day). When Blau had commenced almost three months earlier, the fleet was conducting around 10,750 in the same number of days (a daily average of 1,343). The main reasons for this substantial operational decrease were a quicker-than-expected consumption of reserves stocks of spare parts and equipment, supply difficulties and high attrition rates. When Blau began, the fleet possessed approximately 1,600 aircraft, of which over 1,150 were operational. After 11 weeks of non-stop operations, with insufficient replacement aircraft and spare parts arriving at forward airfields, it now possessed about 950 planes, a mere 550 of them operational. That is, the fleet’s total strength had decreased by 40 per cent and its operational rate by 14 per cent (from 71 to 57). Its bomber fleet had been hardest hit, mainly due to VVS fighter attacks and a lack of engine parts (naturally, twin-engined aircraft need more spares than single-engined). Back in June, the air fleet had 480 bombers, 323 of which were operational. On 20 September, it had no more than 232, only 129 of them air worthy.

Despite Luftflotte IV’s plummeting strength and Hitler’s craving for victory at Stalingrad and in the Caucasus, the OKL made no large-scale aircraft transfers from the other, supposedly-“quiet” sectors of the eastern front (at least not before the Soviet counter offensive in November). When Blau began, Luftflotte IV possessed 60 per cent of all German aircraft in the Soviet Union. On 20 September, after 11 weeks of combat, its dramatic drop in strength left it operating in the “decisive” sector with only 38 per cent of all aircraft in the east. The OKL was unable to transfer units south to adjust the ratio in Luftflotte IV’s favour because strong air forces were also sorely needed in the “quiet’ central and northern sectors of the front. Constant Soviet probing attacks and attempted offensives in those sectors kept local Luftwaffe forces extremely busy. When critical situations arose, groups-sometimes whole wings-were hastily shifted between the commands in those regions. For example, when a Soviet attack in the far north threatened to hack off the German “bottle-neck” south of Leningrad late in August, Luftwaffenkommando Ost (operating in Army Group Centre’s combat zone) dispatched two bomber groups, a Stuka group and a fighter group to Luftflotte I. Accordingly, although the only major Axis offensive operations in the Soviet Union took place at Stalingrad and in the Caucasus, the OKL could not draw reinforcements for the rapidly shrinking Luftflotte IV from the other two combat sectors, where air commands were hard pressed to fulfil their defensive duties. Whereas the Luftwaffe’s strength in southern Russia was quickly decreasing, the VVS’s strength increased at a slow but steady pace. The Soviet improvements resulted from greater numbers of aircraft and crew replacements and diminishing kill levels by German fighters. (On General Rudenko’s wise instructions, Soviet fighter pilots avoided duelling with their German counterparts, attacking bombers and reconnaissance planes instead). According to German records, the VVS air armies in LuftfJotte IV’s immense combat zone carried out only 2,834 sorties between 5 and 12 September, or an average of 354 per day (compared to the German fleet’s poor total of 7,507 and daily average of 938). Between 16 and 25 September, though, those air armies carried out 4,589 sorties, or 458 per day. This operational increase of 30 per cent did not, of course, even remotely challenge the Luftwaffe’s air superiority. In the same period, the German fleet carried out twice as many sorties (9,746 in total). Yet it was the start of an operational increase that would continue steadily for several more months until the VVS was, in fact, able to challenge the Luftwaffe for its command of the skies over Stalingrad.