An Alternative Strategy I

WWII: The Struggle for Europe

The Axis triggered the Turks to declare war, quickly reinforced them and created a Southern Caucasus front against the Soviets in Spring 1942. . . going to be a challenging game for the Russians. . .

‘What if, in the summer of 1941, Hitler had chosen to make his major attack not into Soviet Russia but across the Eastern Mediterranean, into Syria and the Lebanon?’ John Keegan

When Göring was asked by Ivone Kirkpatrick1 in June 1945 what Germany’s greatest mistake was, he replied: ‘Not invading Spain and North Africa in 1940.’

There are two great rules of strategy which have endured throughout history. Each is dependent on the other. The first is to select your primary object correctly. This is the master rule. The second rule is so to concentrate and deploy your forces that you achieve the object. From 1941 onwards these rules were honoured by Hitler more in the breach than in the observance. That Hitler was faced with a strategic dilemma after his direct attack on England had failed is not to be denied. It was in failing also to comprehend where the war’s centre of gravity had shifted to, where the true line of operations lay, that Hitler contravened the two great strategic principles. Had he considered the whole situation, not only from his own point of view, but from the British position too, he might have come to a different conclusion.

Even before the Battle of Britain, whereas Churchill with, of course, a much simpler strategic aim – that of survival – was clear as to what had to be done, Hitler was confusing the issue with reasoning, which might be politically comprehensible but was militarily flawed. Thus we find Churchill making one of his most memorable speeches in the House of Commons, a speech which was later broadcast to the nation. It was 18 June 1940:

Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free, and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands . . . Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth lasts for a thousand years men still will say. ‘This was their finest hour.’

Look here upon this picture and on this. Hitler was certainly conscious of the need to subdue Britain. Yet in his arguments to his Commanders-in-Chief a month after Churchill’s peroration, in July 1940, the Führer turned the priorities upside down:

In the event that invasion does not take place, our efforts must be directed to the elimination of all factors that let England hope for a change in the situation . . . Britain’s hope lies in Russia and the United States. If Russia drops out of the picture, America, too, is lost for Britain, because the elimination of Russia would greatly increase Japan’s power in the Far East . . . Decision: Russia’s destruction must therefore be made a part of this struggle . . . The sooner Russia is crushed the better . . . if we start in May ’41, we will have five months in which to finish the job.

Of course there are those who have argued that Hitler’s primary object was always clear – to defeat Russia – and that he concentrated his forces to do so, thereby conforming to the two great strategic rules. The argument falls down when set against the strategic circumstances of the time. In late 1940 and early 1941 he was not at war with Russia, and either would not or could not see that England’s subjection was not subsidiary to an attack on Russia. It was an indispensable condition of victory.

Whether Hitler could see it or not, there were others who did. One of them was his Naval Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Raeder. He had produced and went on producing reasons why Germany should concentrate on war against England, particularly in the Mediterranean, which, he maintained, was the pivot of their world empire. Since Italy was weak, Britain would be bound to try to strangle her first, and to make her attacks on Italy easier would aim to get control of North-west Africa. Therefore Germany must take steps to forestall any such move. In cooperation with Spain and Vichy France, Gibraltar must be seized and French North Africa secured. Then, together with the Italians, German forces should capture the Suez Canal and advance through Palestine and Syria to Turkey. ‘If we reach that point,’ Raeder concluded, ‘Turkey will be in our power. The Russian problem will then appear in a different light. Fundamentally Russia is afraid of Germany. It is doubtful whether an advance against Russia in the north will then be necessary.’

In short, conquer Egypt, get control of the whole North African coast and Middle Eastern oil, strike a blow at British sea power, which enabled Britain to preserve a degree of initiative, and how would she be able to conduct offensive operations, other than by air? It is just as well that Hitler did not take this view for his failure to do so allowed British forces to build up a new centre of gravity of their own. From this would develop a Mediterranean strategy, essentially subsidiary, it is true, to the defeat in Europe of the German armies – which alone could bring the war to an end – but providing none the less a stepping-stone to this eventual undertaking.

Michael Howard summed the whole matter up when he wrote that

if there were no prospect of a successful decision against Germany herself there was a subsidiary theatre where British forces could be employed to harass the enemy and perhaps inflict serious damage. Italy’s entry into the war had turned the Middle East into an active theatre of operations. As a centre of gravity of British forces it was second only to the United Kingdom itself.

Although Hitler was contemplating his attack on the Soviet Union as early as July 1940, it was clear from his War Directive No. 18, dated 12 November 1940, that he had not altogether overlooked other theatres of strategic importance, for this directive included references to French North Africa, Gibraltar, Libya and Greece. The French must secure their African possessions against Britain and de Gaulle’s forces, while the actual participation of France in the war with Britain might develop. Measures to bring Spain into the war would be pursued with a view to capturing Gibraltar and driving the English from the Western Mediterranean. Even more significant, German forces would be prepared to assist the Italian offensive against Egypt. A Panzer Division would stand by ready for service in North Africa and the necessary shipping would be positioned in Italian ports. The Luftwaffe would make plans for attacks on Egypt and the Suez Canal. This directive, however, was soon overtaken by two more. War Directive No. 21, issued in mid-December, might be said to have determined the outcome of the whole war. Its opening sentence must have sent a shiver down the spines of those who read it at Hitler’s HQ and the three Service HQs, in fact of all those who remembered a former war on two fronts: ‘The German Armed Forces must be prepared, even before the conclusion of the war against England, to crush Soviet Russia in a rapid campaign.’ Operation Barbarossa, as it was called, would start on 15 May 1941.

But there was another factor to be considered which to some extent thwarted the Führer’s planned timetable, yet paradoxically presented him with an opportunity which, despite the other strategic distractions, might, if seized, have spelled out a war-winning formula. The armed forces of his ally, Mussolini, were not doing well either in Tripolitania or on the Albanian-Greek front. Accordingly German support for battles in the Mediterranean area would be forthcoming. Rommel’s Afrika Korps went to Libya, X Fliegerkorps remained in Sicily, and an entire Army Corps would assist the Italians to break through the Greek defences. This move in turn caused Churchill to support Greece, and in doing so gravely weakened Wavell’s winning hand in his campaign in the Western Desert, which up until then had been triumphantly successful. Not strong enough either in Greece or Tripolitania, British forces were obliged to evacuate the former and withdraw from the latter. Yet amidst all these defeats, one glimmer of comfort could be discerned. Hitler had declared in November 1940 that the Mediterranean question must be liquidated during that winter, so that he would get his German troops back in the spring, not later than 1 May. In fact, he did not get them back then and Barbarossa did not begin until 22 June 1941, more than a month later than Hitler had intended. Although the effect of this delay was not felt immediately, it was a different story in November 1941, with the drive on Moscow bogged down and the icy winter threatening to turn this particular version of Blitzkrieg into another retreat from Moscow. It was the turn then of the Wehrmacht to experience something like despair and paralysis.

It was also in May 1941, well before the attack on Russia, that Raeder renewed his proposal for a ‘decisive Egypt-Suez offensive for the autumn of 1941 which would be more deadly to the British Empire than the capture of London’. Raeder and his staff accepted Hitler’s priorities but insisted that while the attack on Russia ‘naturally stands in the foreground of the OKW [Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (High Command of the Armed Forces)] leadership, it must under no circumstances lead to the abandonment of, or to delay in, the conduct of the war in the Mediterranean’. Rommel and his panzers had brought a new set of rules to desert fighting and in March and April 1941 had bundled the British right out of Cyrenaica back into Egypt, leaving only Tobruk in their hands, and Rommel too was clear as to what Germany should have done – keep her hands off Greece and concentrate on North Africa to drive the British right out of the Mediterranean area. Malta should have been taken, thus robbing the British of the base from which they harassed Rommel’s supply lines. Capture of the whole British-held coastline would have isolated south-east Europe. It could all have been done for no more than the cost of the Balkan campaign. The prize would have been not just the Balkans but oil and bases for attacking Russia. When we think what Rommel was able to do with a mere handful of German divisions, the prospect of his having, say, an extra Panzerkorps from the huge force which attacked Russia, must give us pause.

Churchill himself was in no doubt about the grave consequences of losing Egypt and the Middle East. In a telegram to Roosevelt earlier that same month he did not endorse the President’s view that such a loss would be ‘a mere preliminary to the successful maintenance of a prolonged oceanic war’. Even if the United States entered the war, exclusion of the Allies from Europe and much of Africa and Asia would mean that a war against this mighty agglomeration would be a hard, long, and bleak proposition. Therefore the British would fight ‘to the last inch and ounce for Egypt’. The desert flank was in Churchill’s view ‘the peg on which all else hung’ and he was soon to urge Wavell to return to the attack there once more. But Wavell and his fellow Commanders-in-Chief were harder pressed and more stretched in their resources at this time than perhaps at any other. The East African campaign was not quite finished; Greece and Crete had taken their toll of men and material; Malta must be maintained, Tobruk turned into a fortress and supplied; Rashid Ali’s pro-German revolt in Iraq had to be suppressed; Syria, where the Vichy French were being difficult, had to be invaded and occupied, and Rommel attacked. What might not have been achieved by the Wehrmacht if they had been allowed to concentrate their might against the British at this moment?

Churchill had surely been right in his prognostication to Roosevelt. If British forces had been turned out of the Middle East, by what means – no matter how defiant our spirit and staunch our leadership – would we have prosecuted the war against Germany? We were still virtually alone. Any attempt to engage German armed forces on land in Europe was out of the question. No doubt the growing strength of the Royal Air Force would have permitted the bombing of German targets. No doubt the Royal Navy would still have preserved integrity of the British Isles. But what would our strategy have been if we had been turned out of the Mediterranean and the Middle East? As the war progressed, with Germany so involved in Russia that the stuffing of the Wehrmacht was gradually knocked out of it, our entire strategic posture was based not merely on strengthening our Middle East position but reinforcing it – first, by taking on Rommel’s Panzerarmee and eventually inflicting severe losses on it; second, in conjunction with the United States and the Free French, by occupying North-west Africa and so becoming masters of the North African shores and of the Mediterranean; third, by using Africa as a stepping-stone to Sicily and Italy, thus knocking Italy out of the war, and by sheer attrition, as opposed to free manoeuvre, tying down sufficient German forces to enable Anglo-American armies to invade north-west Europe. All this was feasible only because the bulk of the Wehrmacht was engaged in a titanic struggle with the Red Army. None of it would have been possible if Hitler had paid more attention to Raeder.

Yet Hitler had not put the idea out of his mind. War Directive No. 30 read:

Whether, and if so how, it may be possible, in conjunction with an offensive against the Suez Canal, finally to break the British position between the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf is a question which will be decided only after Barbarossa.

Raeder’s whole point was that had it been done first, Barbarossa in the form it took would not have been necessary. Even as late as eleven days before Barbarossa was launched on 22 June 1941, Hitler issued one more Directive relating to this matter, No. 32, remarkable not for its execution but for its conception. It laid down how the war was to be conducted after Russia had been conquered. Hitler was actually planning to fulfil his former promise to Raeder to finish Britain off. The British position in the Middle East would be strangled by converging attacks from Libya through Egypt, from Bulgaria through Turkey, and from Transcaucasia through Iran. In addition, the Western Mediterranean would be closed by seizing Gibraltar. Planning was to begin ‘so that I may issue final directives before the campaign in the east is over’. It may sound like an exercise in ‘making pictures’ – as Marmont commented on Napoleon’s unrealistic imaginings – yet there was to be one more opportunity, one more chance, for Hitler to have struck a deadly blow to the British position in the Middle East, and this was to come when the campaign in Russia was already a year old.

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