The Führer’s pronounced intention to invade the West as soon as Poland had been taken might well have led to an offensive in November had not a combination of internal Wehrmacht politics and bad weather conspired to prevent it. Both the air force and tank force experts, upon whom all hope of attaining a quick and absolute result depended, were adamant in their insistence upon good weather to accompany their efforts. Kesselring, of course, had nothing to do with these deliberations, occupied as he was in the East where he might have remained had not chance taken a hand. However, the mistaken landing in Belgium of an aeroplane from Luftflotte II on 10 January had repercussions outreaching a mere breach of neutrality. Its passenger was carrying the invasion plans and nobody could be sure if they had been destroyed in time. From Hitler, enraged at this serious breach of security, there came a sharp rebuke for the humiliated Göring, who had little option except to sack the commander of Luftflotte II, the Old Eagle, Hellmuth Felmy. Into his place stepped Kesselring but not, it seems, as an automatic choice. When announcing the appointment Göring gave nothing away: Kesselring got the job ‘because I have nobody else’, yet he could have given it to Milch since Milch had asked for it and Göring was agreeable. But once more the General Staff displayed its dislike for Milch, its Chief, Jeschonnek, insisting upon putting in his friend Kesselring.
The compromising of the invasion plans acted as a blessing in disguise for the Germans in several different ways. The existing scheme had to be scrapped thus making way for a new, more imaginative strategy with incalculable consequences for the future. Kesselring would take up his new task (in collaboration with von Bock of Army Group B with whom he had worked so well in Poland) in the hope of imposing his own ideas on an existing plan he distrusted. He found that not only was Luftflotte II to cover the invasion of Holland by the Army and also act as the spearhead of attack on land as well; this part of the attack was to be a Luftwaffe benefit of which the aim was the rapid occupation of the Netherlands through the first large-scale airborne invasion ever undertaken. Felmy, with Student (Kesselring’s old comrade of Reichswehr days) had hatched the initial scheme, but Hitler, too (ever enthralled by dramatic and large-scale projects), had made a contribution and, as Kesselring soon discovered, was not prepared to allow revision. Kesselring could have argued openly against the Supreme Commander’s will, as was his right. Instead he employed what was to become, from then on, an ingrained technique, a process of gradually chipping away the rough edges until the main edifice of the plan had taken a manageable shape. Acting as a sort of Chairman of Governors, he resolved the many differences in technique that had to be settled in order to co-ordinate the air assault with supporting land operations under von Bock, whose troops would have to link up as quickly as possible with Student’s men after they had landed deep in enemy territory. In these discussions it was as much the soldier as the airman in Kesselring who participated.
The revolutionary campaign in the Netherlands is an important landmark in the development of Kesselring’s career, and probably a turning point. For the first of many occasions he was compelled to take a serious operational risk against his better judgement – launching an unproven airborne army and being ordered to do so before the requisite local air superiority had been won. It made him strain every sinew to cultivate surprise by trying to have the transport aircraft reach their drop points before the small Dutch and Belgian air forces could intervene – an almost impossible mission and one that depended as much on luck as anything else. It is therefore interesting to observe Kesselring’s main departure from the plan of his predecessor, Felmy, who was cheerfully prepared to rely on air power alone to achieve his objectives. Kesselring was to wrestle fiercely with von Bock for close collaboration of the land forces, as the record of their discussions and those with the other army leaders shows – but in the struggle it was as a soldier that he argued. While guarding Luftwaffe interests he took the Army’s part and rejected the Luftwaffe’s dreams of total independence. Göring and Jeschonnek were arrogantly promoting the invasion of Holland mainly as a way of seizing air bases to facilitate attacks on Britain. In their minds they relegated the Army to a subsidiary role in the forthcoming operations. Kesselring was thoroughly realistic. He protested that the relief force was too small, and therefore was bound to be too late in linking up with the airborne troops. This contention was brushed aside to begin with, but was eventually upheld after he remorselessly pressed his point. On the other hand he was as one with Göring in insisting that the Luftwaffe should take all the credit possible and with this in mind he demanded the full commitment of all its resources, including the ground anti-aircraft units.
Kesselring also had strong reservations about the methods employed by the Air Landing Group commander, Kurt Student, particularly to Student flying, in person, with the assault – though Student was only acting in the prescribed German tradition of the day by insisting upon leading from the front. Mainly, however, Kesselring was worried about despatching so many vulnerable aircraft to such a precise schedule in the face of potentially heavy opposition and petulantly he groused about Student’s habit of going straight to Hitler whenever his intentions looked like being thwarted – a short-circuiting habit which, to those who recall the Wingate and Churchill relationship, seems to have been endemic among inspired airborne forces commanders the world over. It was orthodoxy in command procedures that was at stake and this disturbed the precise nature of Kesselring’s dedication to a formal command system. Already Kesselring was grappling with the intractable problem of keeping Hitler’s more bizarre ideas in check. Now he began to understand that, although control of the dictator was impossible and there would be many occasions when to accede was the only course open (even by feeding the Führer with facts he liked), it was possible to exert a measure of restraint by providing this extraordinary man with digestible facts prior to stating a case. It became necessary to have the ear of the entourage of younger military liaison officers who were ever in close attendance on Hitler as well as on Göring. In the German corridors of power affairs were settled with quite as much dexterity of secret manoeuvre as in those of other countries – and Kesselring had long been a master of that technique as well.
The invasion of Holland on 10 May was destined to fulfil both the hopes and fears of Kesselring. Though surprise was far from being achieved (since British Intelligence as well as Count Ciano, the Italian Foreign Secretary, were able to warn the Dutch of the exact day danger was threatened), the German parachute and glider troops speedily secured their objectives – the bridges over the River Maas and the Albert Canal, the long bridge at Moerdijk, the airfields at Rotterdam and the Hague. About fifty Dutch aircraft were destroyed on the ground but most of their fighters were airborne early and, as the day progressed (in collaboration with the British RAF) exacted a heavy toll. The slaughter of Ju 52 transports was appalling, each to go down carrying with it a good crew that was an essential part of the training organisation, the cadre upon which the incomplete Luftwaffe depended for its maximum expansion in the future. On the 10th on all fronts (including that in Norway), the Luftwaffe sustained the heaviest losses it was ever to suffer in a single day – 304 destroyed and 51 damaged – of which no less than 157 were Ju 52s. Some were hacked down in the air (39 in one interception at dawn), more were bombed on the ground. It was a massacre. Moreover the paratroop lodgement at the Hague was eliminated by a Dutch counter-attack long before it could be relieved, and so the only airfield remaining to Student for resupply and reinforcement was at Rotterdam. Kesselring, reinforcing success in the classical manner, instantly and ruthlessly abandoned the Hague project and sent everything he could to help Student at Rotterdam. At the same time he provided the maximum possible bomber and fighter support, though this was attenuated on the 12th when, according to plan, the dive-bombers were diverted to support the main Army offensive as it debouched from the Ardennes and crossed the River Meuse at Sedan.
Time was precious at Rotterdam. Though the land relief forces were nearing the airborne bridgehead on the 13th, and the Dutch were on the verge of collapse, the Germans feared a British seaborne landing and therefore wished quickly to occupy the city and complete the Dutch capitulation. The Germans on the spot threatened the Dutch plenipotentiaries with ‘all means necessary’ to break resistance if a surrender was not forthcoming on the 14th. The Dutch prevaricated. Meanwhile Kesselring was having a row with Göring over the C-in-C’s cavalier approach to bombing Rotterdam, and taking meticulous precautions in briefing the bomber crews who, prior to a final assault by the paratroops, were to carry out a heavy bombardment of the Dutch troops defending the northern perimeter of the city. Radio procedures for stopping the attack if the Dutch had previously given up were arranged as well as the firing of red signal flares by the ground troops if the Dutch surrendered in time and all other communication failed. At the last moment agreement on a cease-fire seemed imminent. But by then the aircraft, high-level bombers with none of the accuracy of dive-bombers, were on their way and, with dreadful portent due to technical reasons, had lost radio contact with control. Moreover haze and smoke in the target area obscured the red signal flares. So the attack went ahead and the centre of Rotterdam was crushed and set alight by fires that grew quite beyond the capacity of the antiquated fire service to prevent. Although there is fairly general acceptance today that Kesselring and many Luftwaffe officers really did try their best to prevent the disaster, their C-in-C, Göring, was less scrupulous than his underlings. It was he, against Kesselring’s protests, who insisted upon the attack. Of more significance (though it is still accorded far too little weight in assessing the main reasons for the subsequent failure of the Luftwaffe, and, indeed, of Germany) was over-reliance upon radio as a means of communication. This not only contributed strongly to the disaster at Rotterdam (which played into the hands of the enemy’s propagandists) but was to handicap the Germans thereafter in almost every operation they were to undertake.
Devastating though these air attacks on cities were and provocative of enemy counter-measures against Germany as they were to prove, there is nothing to suggest that Kesselring, the man who was to lead the attack on Coventry, looked upon missions of this kind other than dispassionately. The hatred this bombardment and that previously of Warsaw had helped generate was of far greater magnitude than he can have reckoned with that May. At that time he earnestly believed that a war which was prosecuted to victory by lightning methods would win a more economic and humane solution than one prolonged, as carried on in 1918. To him the air weapon, used with psychological discrimination, was the right, indeed the essential, instrument to help achieve a quick conclusion. For he apprehended that Germany was fighting a poor man’s war against opponents who were rich and only temporarily at a disadvantage. They had to be crushed at once; to delay and give them time to recover would be fatal for Germany. These things he told his son Rainer.