Alternate Second World Wars

Axis Power: Could Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan have won World War II? Paperback – September 23, 2012


The Second World War is the most popular period for alternate histories. This post is a list of possible points of divergence during and before the Second World War, along with some suggested consequences. Basically, it’s about sixty alternate history essays, each about one paragraph long.

This document is intended as a very broad-brush discussion of the field, which others can use as a foundation for more detailed alternate histories. The times during World War Two discussed below are the times of important consequences: the most elegant choice of a point of divergence may be earlier.

The Militarisation of the Rhineland, 1936

The piece of Germany on the left bank of the Rhine had been kept demilitarised since the end of the First World War. Moving troops in was arguably the first thing Hitler did that flaunted its inconsistency with the Versailles treaty. What if France had decided to respond with force? Germany didn’t have an army capable of fighting France, and would have had to back down. Would the blow to Hitler’s prestige be sufficient to topple him? Would France’s name be mud in all peace-loving countries? The point of divergence would have to create a lot more political will in France, or at least a lot more anti-German feeling.

Stalin’s Purge

Stalin had several purges, but I’m talking about the one in the late 1930s. It was a key reason why the Soviet Union’s army put up such a poor showing in the Winter War with Finland and the weeks after Barbarossa.

Case I: The purge doesn’t happen: The army will be stronger. Tukachevsky, a brilliant theorist and field commander, will still be alive: he may end up in the job that Zhukov had historically.

Case II: The purge is worse: The army will be weaker: maybe weak enough that they lose. Zhukov joins Tukachevsky in an unmarked grave. Morons may command the Red Army.

Case III: Stalin’s enemies depose him: Just because Stalin was paranoid doesn’t mean nobody was out to get him. Let’s imagine that without the purge there would have been a coup of Red Army generals and politburo political enemies. The new leader might be Tukachevsky, Zhukov, or one of Stalin’s political enemies.


German annexation of Austria was popular in both countries. It’s hard to see who would intervene to stop it, though Mussolini had in 1934. When asked why he didn’t intervene the second time, he said that in 1934 he would have won. If the war starts over this there’ll be a lot of anti-war sentiment in the west.

The Sudeten Crisis

The Sudetenland was a mountainous border region of what’s now the Czech Republic, mostly populated by Germans (it might be better to think of them as Austrians). Nationalist principles implied that they should be joined to Germany. But if they were, Czechoslovakia would become indefensible: the Sudetenland had the best defensive terrain, a lot of smokestack industries and the Czech version of the Maginot line. Historically, Czechoslovakia was forced to give them up because France and Britain wouldn’t back them up and they couldn’t beat Germany on their own.

Case I: France and Britain back Czechoslovakia: Hitler probably would have had to back down: Germany wasn’t ready for war yet.

Case II: Poland backs Czechoslovakia: Historically, Poland acquiesced in the dismemberment of their only nearby natural ally in return for the town of Teschen. A seriously bad bargain. But by the standards of 1938 Poland and Czechoslovakia together have a pretty good army. Even without a western declaration of war they may just be able to force the Germans to back down: especially if great power intervention (from the west or the east) is always a possibility.

Case III: Poland, France and Britain back Czechoslovakia: Hitler definitely has to back down.

Case IV: The USSR and Poland back Czechoslovakia: This assumes Poland at least allows the USSR to rail troops and supplies across Polish territory. Not sure how plausible it is, or what the result would be. You can think of this as Poland jumping at a chance to let Russia and Germany fight somewhere that isn’t Poland. I don’t see that Russian soldiers locked into railway cars, by the way, are a security threat to Poland.

Occupation of the Czech Rump State, May 1939

Germany occupied what was left of Czechoslovakia too fast for anyone to do anything about it. The action gave Germany a big increase in its military strength: a third of the tanks that attacked France in 1940 were made in Czechoslovakia (before or after the conquest). But the action cost Germany a lot diplomatically: this is arguably the first time Germany did something for which it had no real excuse, and it made it clear that Hitler could not be trusted. As a result, it’s the last major piece of intimidatory expansion Hitler got away with.

I doubt there’s much of a point of divergence here, unless it’s Germany not occupying the rump. Which requires a different approach to diplomacy on Hitler’s part: he doesn’t seem to have realised that the western powers took the Munich agreement seriously.

Russia attacks Poland, ahistorical

One of the USSR’s aims seems to have been to recover the territory lost in the collapse of the Russian Empire, and Poland holds a lot. Edward Stasiak suggests an August 1936 trigger. As a general remark, the earlier the war happens the better chance the minor country has: major powers like Russia, Germany, France, Britain and Italy mostly built up their militaries much faster than the minor powers could.

Germany attacks Poland, September 1939

Germany’s immediate claim was on the so-called Polish corridor, around Danzig, but in the long run Poland had to fight or surrender. What if Poland had given up the corridor and become a German minion? It’s not crazy: fear of Russia could be a motive, and realistically the Poles had missed their best chance to resist a year ago when they let the Czechs be devoured. Surrender removes the trigger for a western entry into the war (see below) and it creates a border between the Third Reich and the Soviet Union. A war between them may follow, since it’s much closer to what Hitler wants than a war with the west, and Poland will fight as a German ally. Certainly Russia will react to the appearance of the Wehrmacht in Poland with fear and loathing. The Baltic States now become interesting, and a good trigger for the Russo-German war. Who would win that war is very hard to guess.

France and Britain declare war on Germany, September 1939

Hitler thought they wouldn’t. After all, what sort of idiot would let powerful, well-defended democratic Czechoslovakia be destroyed without a fight, then fight to defend the militarily and morally indefensible military dictatorship of Poland?

What if Hitler had been right? Poland is rapidly demolished, and whatever parts of Eastern Europe haven’t fallen into the German or Soviet camps do so swiftly. War between Germany and the Soviet Union is then likely, to general western schadenfreude.

Sitzkrieg: The Phoney War, Winter 1939-40

After and during the fall of Poland, France and Britain remained almost entirely passive, despite facing a very weak German garrison. What if they’d taken the offensive?

Case I: Across the Franco-German border: Not much of a frontage, and straight into the Siegfried line. I don’t think France has the strength to get anywhere, though it was probably worth a try.

Case II: By Invitation Through Belgium: I don’t know what it would take to make Belgium join the allies. This offensive might get somewhere, though I’m sceptical it would bring down Germany.

Case III: By Invasion Through Belgium: I can’t see this happening: if it does, the France and Britain will look very bad indeed. Perhaps if we assume the Belgians had done some deal with the Germans beforehand?

The Winter War, Winter 1939-40

This was a revanchist land grab (Finland had been part of the pre-revolutionary Russian Empire) by the USSR against Finland. Finland did very well, or the USSR did very badly, depending on your point of view. But eventually the USSR’s huge numerical advantage ground the Finns down, and Finland had to make peace by giving up a larger chunk of border land than the original Russian demand. The war motivated Finland to make a vague and desultory attack on the USSR alongside Germany: they wanted the stolen territory back, but never really had their heart in an attempt to destroy the USSR. When the tide turned against Germany, Finland shrugged, gave the territory back up, and made a separate peace.

Case I: Finland wins: Stalin gets bored with attacking Finland and makes some face-saving deal. Finland presumably never enters the war. This is a POD of interest to Finns, but probably of little impact on the big picture.

Case II: It never happens: Stalin doesn’t attack. He may go and do something else violent instead. Otherwise, neither Germany nor Stalin finds out just how awful the Red Army is. It’s arguable that this reduces the chance of Barbarossa happening, or even of a Russo-German war of any kind happening. On the other hand, if there is a Russo-German war the Germans are likely to do very well, because nobody’s been fixing all the things that are wrong with the Red Army. Finland won’t be involved, even to the limited extent it was historically.

Case III: Finland surrenders quickly: Finland realises it can’t win, so it doesn’t fight. Russia takes a slice of territory, not as much as historically. And Finland will have a grudge. Otherwise it’s just like Case II.

Case IV: Finland gets steamrolled: Deprive Finland of Mannerheim’s leadership, make a few other adjustments, and assume they have some bad luck. Finland is rapidly and cheaply defeated. Everybody thinks the Russian army pretty competent. Finland attacks Russia in Barbarossa, and recovers the territory. When (if) the war turns against Germany, Finland tries to make peace. But the Russians have no great respect for Finnish skill at arms and decide to make a finish of it (no pun intended). Post-war Finland is just another Eastern European satellite with a communist government. Sweden finds itself on the front line and perhaps joins the NATO analogue.

Case V: The allies support Finland: I don’t know how to make this happen, but it was talked about. This brings the USSR in as an active ally of Germany, at least for a while. I don’t know how the allies get there but they’ll probably be talking to Norway and Sweden, as well as directly landing at Petsamo.

Norway, April 1940

Historically Norway was invaded almost simultaneously by Germany and Britain: each saw it as important, each feared (rightly) that the other would attack and each (rightly) thought the Norwegians incapable of defending themselves. Germany also overrun Denmark in the process of getting to Norway. The main reason was the iron ore shipments that run (at least part of the year) from Kiruna in Sweden by rail to Narvik in Norway, then down the coast to German ports. By being fractionally later, the allies got the diplomatic credit for defending Norway rather than attacking it.

Case I: No invasion: Germany lost half its navy in the Norwegian campaign, that won’t happen. Various British losses won’t happen either but I’m not sure of their importance.

Case II: The allies attack first: The allies look like bullies, that may affect American support. The allies may do slightly better in the fighting but probably not much.

Case III: The allies get bogged down: The saving grace for the allies was that Norway was all over quickly. If the commitment had been more severe that could have an effect on the battle for France.

The Fall of France, May-June 1940

There were three sectors to the French-German effective border: a southern sector covered by the Maginot line; a central sector that the French thought impenetrable due to the Ardennes forest; and a northern sector where the French expected to be attacked and massed their best armies. The French plan was to advance through the northern sector to save as much of Belgium as possible. The Germans attacked through the centre, demonstrating that the Ardennes were not impassable after all. This left the bulk of the French army hopelessly outflanked and rapidly pocketed, and led to a swift German victory. Almost any POD gives the French a better chance than what happened historically.

Case I: Germans attack in the north: They were planning to do this, but changed their minds at the last minute, partly because the plans fell into allied hands. This leads to a German attack straight into the teeth of the French defence: the best case the French can possibly hope for, even so I’m not sure they will win.

Case II: Germany and France both concentrate in the centre: This probably requires an intelligence leak, perhaps an intercept decoded by the British. Same comments apply, if anything this is better for France since the forest will favour the defence.

Case III: Belgium joins the allies: Belgium remained neutral, but surely understood that Germany was the main threat. If Belgium concludes it’s for the chop in any case it may agree to allow French and British troops to enter its territory: say, during the Phoney War. That changes the campaign a lot and I’d only be guessing if I said how. Once again, it’s hardly likely to be worse than history.

Dunkirk, June 1940

What if the Anglo-French armies trying to evacuate from Dunkirk get wiped out? Deprived of this core the British army will lack the cadres needed to train new recruits. As a result its army will be of much lower quality throughout the war, a bit like it was in the first world war after its expeditionary force was wiped out in August 1914.

Vichy France, 1940

Vichy France was set up by the Germans to neutralise French resistance and hopefully produce an ally. The territories of France tended to sign up to the Vichy government unless they were immediately exposed to allied pressure (e.g. New Caledonia). In practice the only significant achievement of the Vichy French armed forces was to defeat an allied attack on Senegal, in West Africa. In 1942 it became clear that the Vichy French could not be relied upon to achieve anything for the German cause, and Hitler ended the farce, occupying the Vichy part of the country as the allies rolled up North Africa.

Case I: Active French participation in axis: There was some anti-British feeling on the part of the French, partly due to the British attack on French fleet elements they feared would fall into German hands. Suppose France was even more irritated with Britain for some reason. French troops could help to bolster Germany in the east, the way Rumanians, Hungarians etc. did historically. The SS will also recruit more successfully from France. The French navy becomes available to the Germans, except for whatever the British have already sunk.

Case II: Stronger Free France: Suppose Vichy France is seen by the French with contempt. Perhaps Petain refusing to support it would be an aspect of the POD. The most important areas are Senegal, Northwest Africa and Syria. If all these go Free French then all of Africa will fall rapidly.

Battle of Britain, late 1940

This could go differently, but I’m not sure what the impact would be. Worst case for Britain is that the fighters get driven out of Southern England and the Germans pound London and the southern cities with impunity. For a while, at least.

Sea Lion, late 1940

The German invasion of Britain. Others have written as to why this could never work. Strictly, of course, that’s a meaningless statement in alternate history. Let’s rephrase by saying that the point of divergence required to make Sea Lion possible will be so large and/or early that the alternate history resulting will be too different from real history to justify using the same name.

If you’re determined anyway, you’ll need every POD you can scrape up. Have the bulk of the Danish, Norwegian, Dutch and French navies fall intact into German hands, preferably with their crews carrying grudges against perfidious Albion. Chop the British navy up in an invasion of Norway or something. Wipe out the British army: Dunkirk is a popular place for that. Inflict much higher losses on the Royal Air Force during the fall of France. Have the Germans see the attack on Britain not as a separate campaign but as a natural continuation of the defeat of France, and have them draw up the plans before they even attack France. Let the Germans have a clever idea as to how to get the troops across: something to supplement the Elbe-Rhine barge fleet. Let the British make a bad mistake when guessing where they’ll land: they did historically. Give the Germans some experience (off Norway?) bombing ships, so they get good at it. Transfer the best of the Regia Aeronautica to the channel to assist the Luftwaffe. Best of luck, you’ll need it.

Spain, ahistorical

Franco liked to say that he fought as a German ally on the eastern front of the European war, as an American ally in the Pacific, and stayed neutral in the west. Spain traded with Germany from the fall of France until late in the war.

Case I: Spanish Republicans win unassisted: They’ll be friendly to the USSR, which means they will trade with the Germans from the fall of France to Barbarossa, then cut off relations. Unless invaded by the Germans they will offer themselves as a launching platform for the second front. If they are invaded then Britain gets to fight a twentieth century version of the Napoleonic peninsular war.

Case II: Spanish Republicans win with Russian assistance: As Case I, but more so.

Case III: Spanish Republicans win with western assistance: Spain may fight on the allied side in the war. But perhaps not, they are tired of fighting and still more aligned with the USSR than the west.

Case IV: Spanish civil war drags on: What if the Spanish civil war were still in progress when France declared war on Germany? There’s a German army of “volunteers” fighting alongside Franco. Spain would become the first theatre of war in the west.

Case V: Spain allies with Germany: Say, just after the fall of France. Historically Spain demanded so much as its price that Hitler said forget it. Germany can use Spain as a launching pad to attack Gibraltar and close one end of the Mediterranean. The loss of Gibraltar and Spain would make it very hard for the allies to take the offensive in North Africa, to carry out operations like Torch, or later to land in Italy. So the landings aimed at the liberation of France move up to 1943.

Case VI: Germany invades Spain: Would Franco really fight the Germans, when he has the chance to acquiesce? I assume the Germans win, and Spain becomes even more devastated. But it may not be pleasant, peninsulas with tough terrain and poor transport infrastructure, like Spain, are vulnerable to allied sea power.

Turkey, ahistorical

Turkey stayed out of the war and traded with Germany until very near the end, when it made a token declaration.

Case I: Turkey as a German victim: Same comments apply as to Spain. Idea is for Germany to directly threaten the Caucasus. It also gives the axis control of the Bosphorus-Dardanelles but I’m not sure that’s important. I’m not sure I really believe this idea.

Case II: Turkey as a German ally: As above, but no need for an invasion and the Turkish army as an ally. Turkey can influence events in the Caucasus, Syria, Iraq, maybe Greece.

Soviet Pre-Emptive Attack

The Soviet Union did have a plan for this, one was drawn up by Zhukov. It was sort of like a larger version of the German invasion of France, pushing through the centre then hooking north to pocket Army Group North (to borrow a term from Barbarossa) against the Baltic. Who knows how well it would have worked: probably not really well, but also probably better than Barbarossa was for the Russians. The two obvious times are early 1941 and mid-1940. The latter is probably more interesting. Either way the Russians will have struck first, which increases the chance the Russian people will blame Stalin for the war. The Russian buildup during 1940 was huge, so both sides will be weaker in numerical terms.

Balkans Diversion, May 1941

The German attack on Yugoslavia and Greece may have delayed Barbarossa. Or may not, depending on who you believe about the weather. It certainly diverted British troops from North Africa, letting Rommel achieve impressive things. The root POD here may be the Italian attack on Greece.

Barbarossa, June 1941

Always a good subject for debate. Barbarossa was a brilliant tactical success, though it didn’t quite achieve its optimistic objectives. In the long run, of course, it was a strategic catastrophe for Germany. A key question is whether Germany had a choice: would the USSR have attacked eventually anyway?

Case I: It doesn’t happen: This leaves Germany facing a powerful but quiescent USSR in the east, and a belligerent but largely helpless Britain in the west. When and if the US enters the war the allies can probably win the Battle of the Atlantic, but it’s going to be a terrible drain: every unit of resources allocated by Germany to submarines requires far more allocated by the west to anti-submarine warfare and replacement of shipping losses. The allies can’t kick Germany out of France, or knock Italy out of the war, without Russia taking the brunt of the fighting. The three possibilities obviously worth looking at here are: a negotiated peace in the west; an eventual USSR attack on Germany; and the development and use of nuclear fission bombs by one or both sides.

Case I: Germany does better: Just having the Germans prepare better

Case I: USSR does better: Easy to arrange, just let Stalin listen to a few of the warnings he historically ignored. It’s not clear it’s a very interesting POD, though. The war will presumably be shorter, and Russia less exhausted, perhaps the USSR will control more of Europe.

Case II: Single main objective: Some thinkers have attacked Barbarossa as being unfocused. Each army group had a separate objective: Leningrad in the north, Moscow in the centre and Stalingrad in the south. There are some what-ifs you can play here assuming that the Germans identify one of these as the Russian centre of gravity, the most popular choice being Moscow. This isn’t an easy plausibility argument, if you want to start from a small have a good grasp of military logistics.

Strike North, 1941

Japan attacked Russia in 1939 and had the dreadful bad luck to run into a Russian general called Zhukov. (Who’d been exiled there by Stalin in order to put him on tenure track for a gulag and an execution, so if you stop Zhukov’s arrest there’ll be someone else in the theatre. This makes Zhukov’s arrest a rather elegant POD.) The result was a modest but quite dramatic Japanese defeat at Nomonhan. POD that away and the Japanese may be willing to attack the USSR in alliance with the Germans. They probably won’t do all that well, they really never did against European armies except in jungles. But the distraction could be very serious, and the lend lease that historically flowed on Russian ships from America to Vladivostok will cease.


Life in Stalin’s idea of a socialist Utopia wasn’t fun. So when the Germans arrived in places like the Ukraine they were initially hailed as liberators by a significant percentage of the population. By their nature, however, Nazis cannot be put in contact with Slavs without a high risk of massacre. The Third Reich rapidly ran through its fund of good will and achieved an amazing thing: turned the Ukrainians into supporters of Russia. Changing this will take a big POD: racist brutality isn’t a detachable aspect of Nazism, it’s a central element. But letting the Germans keep a few friends would go some way toward any German victory scenario you wanted to construct. Ironically, the big winner from the change would be the SS, which could recruit Ukrainians, etc.; yet the SS is the historical worst offender.


The Germans diverted significant resources into killing people they didn’t really need to. Jews are the famous example, but Gipsies, educated Poles, commissars, etc. are all worth remembering as well. (Apologies for anyone I left out, but that just underlines the point that this document is intended as a brief outline.) A Germany that harnessed those people’s talents would be really scary, but that’s probably too much to hope. (When I say “hope”, of course, what I really mean is fear.) A Germany that just used them as brute slaves might at least be slightly more efficient. The most interesting consequences might be in having all those educated, creative people still alive after the war. Add four million or so Jews, still alive and mostly wanting to leave Europe, and see what Israel turns into, or New York.

Strike South, December 1941

The Japanese felt themselves forced into war with the US, because their oil supplies had been cut off. This was the result of a sort of accidental diplomatic blockade: the US cut off their oil to protest Japanese occupation of French Indochina, and the Dutch and British cut off theirs because they thought it would please the Americans. It doesn’t seem the Americans wanted to hurt the Japanese quite as badly as they did. American terms for a resumption of oil supplies were withdrawal from China. Nobody in Japan knew whether meant just China south of the great wall, which they might be willing to do, or Manchuria and/or Taiwan as well, which they wouldn’t. There are plenty of PODs here for keeping Japan out of the war. The post-war implications of a powerful nationalist state in East Asia are fascinating.

Pearl Harbour, December 1941

After Pearl Harbour Japan rampaged across the western Pacific for six months. Something that should be made clear: Japan can’t win against a serious America. Historically the US crushed Japan using about a fifth of its strength, the rest going to Europe. Make Japan tougher and you just force the US to allocate a little more or take a little longer. If you want Japan to win it has to be mostly a political change.

Case I: It doesn’t happen: It was always a risky plan, so let’s assume it never happened. The old American battleships survive, which is a mixed blessing because they’re too slow to keep up with the carrier fleet. The Japanese carriers that struck Hawaii are off doing other things and so Japanese expansion goes a little faster.

Case II: The carriers are sunk: This could make a big dent in the American response. Japan’s rampage will last significantly longer. American counterattacks will have to wait for the Essex-class carriers, but maybe Japan will have pushed further out by the time they come. Which won’t clearly be good news for Japan.

Case III: The fuel supplies are wiped out: This will slow the Americans down a lot, but I doubt the implications are very interesting. Ships will go to Europe instead, which will help the Atlantic war.

Case IV: The carriers are spotted: A battle at sea follows, which the Japanese almost certainly win. Ships that get sunk in this battle won’t rest on the bottom of the harbour waiting for salvage: they’re gone for good.

Germany Declares War on the United States, December 1941

Hitler underestimated the United States in particular and the importance of convertible civilian industry in general. He may also have overestimated the long term importance of Operation Drumbeat, the mugging of a hopelessly ill-prepared US merchant fleet by U-boats. And he probably figured that with the US and Britain cooperating closely in the Pacific against Japan, they would also cooperate closely in the Atlantic. Even so, gratuitously declaring war on the United States was the action of a loon.

So what if he doesn’t? FDR is going to find it hard to ask for a declaration of war against Germany, now that the US has a real live actively evil empire to fight and no desire for distractions. He’ll have to sell it by claiming the axis is a real alliance, but will congress believe him? Hitler can make that especially hard through speeches declaring solidarity with the Aryan people of America. In fact, a declaration of war on the Empire of Japan would cost very little and is probably worth every pfennig’s worth of ink in the pen he uses. And why not go the whole hog: offer the United States the services of, say, a brigade of German volunteers (they may even actually have volunteered!). The eastern front will never notice the loss of a single brigade, and even when the US turns the offer down it’s all ammunition to the “Japan first!” crowd in congress. If you want to contemplate some less plausible options, what if the US says yes? Then there’ll be US soldiers serving alongside Wehrmacht: improving US doctrine, building personal links and making the US army realise that these guys are really capable and really evil. Germany may ask the American congress to send over that Joe Kennedy chap to help mediate peace between Germany and Britain. Sound fellow.

Battle of Moscow, late 1941

In my opinion, the pivotal moment of the war. German forces reached the outskirts of Moscow, and advanced elements even circled behind it to cut rail lines. Historically a Russian counteroffensive drove the Germans back, but what if the Germans had taken Moscow? This is an enormous blow to the USSR: the loss of Moscow’s industry; its importance as a transportation hub; the disruption to war planning; and morale. Comrade Stalin might just find himself up against a wall in front of a firing squad, with the new government making whatever deal they can. It isn’t easy to take a city that’s stubbornly defended, so we’re looking for a POD that worsens the Russian’s historical level of surprise.

Midway, June 1942

The American victory at Midway ended the historical Japanese rampage. The attack was partially triggered by the Doolittle raid, so that’s a possible POD.

Case I: No attempt: The Japanese are obviously stronger. The Americans will have to kill their fleet honestly. Which they will, by overwhelming force. But not before the Essex-class carriers arrive.

Case II: The US doesn’t respond: Perhaps because the Japanese change their codes. Midway falls, and the US will have to respond somehow, which leads to the battle on Japanese terms that the Japanese wanted.

Case III: Japanese victory: Not out of the question, the initial American attacks did get savaged. The point of divergence could be to take Spruance out of the picture (as a submariner he’s an unlikely candidate for carrier command) and replace him with someone of less competence. Results are as for Cases I and II, but more so.

Stalingrad and Baku, Winter 1942-3

An easy German occupation of Stalingrad, for whatever reason, might have some impact but probably not a huge one. Pushing through to cut off and (perhaps eventually) occupy the Caspian oil sources could be very important. I’m unsure how important Stalingrad was.

Kursk, 1943

Mentioned mostly so I can dismiss it: the Germans are too far gone by this stage for any single battle to save them.

Normandy, June 1944

Normandy was a spectacularly brilliant deception operation and a logistical triumph. Even so, there was one beach, Omaha, where it all went horrible. What if everything that historically went right had gone wrong, and there’d been five beaches like Omaha? What if the invasion had turned into a bloodbath, pinned against the channel and eventually evacuated in disgrace, or even overrun? It would be the end of any significant allied effort for 1944. By the time they were ready to try again the Russians would be knocking on the door of Berlin.

Jet Fighters

The Me-262 was a primitive jet fighter. Its production and development were held up by Hitler’s odd obsession with converting it into a strike aircraft.

Case I: Germans develop jets earlier: It’ll hurt, but it can’t really turn the war around. The US, Britain and USSR will presumably accelerate their own jet programs in response.

Case II: Germans fail to develop jets: This may retard jet aircraft.

Case III: Allies develop jets sooner: P-80s, MiG-somethings and/or Gloucester Meteors battle Me-262s and Arabo blitzbombers. All good fun, and jet technology may be accelerated, but probably not a huge impact on history.

The K-Bomb

The Germans had most of what they needed to produce a nuclear fission bomb. The big problem was resources generally, it’s hard to see Germany funnelling the vast sums into their program the Americans could into theirs, unless Hitler gets obsessed with the idea. They had Werner Heisenberg to run it, but they’d also lost a lot of brilliant scientists like Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi, and made no visible effort to recruit Nils Bohr. Their concept was completely wrong (they thought they’d need to build a reactor and make it go supercritical, which rules out bombs small enough to be transported in aircraft) but that can be taken away by POD. If the Germans get the K-bomb early enough (from kern, the German word for nuclear) they’ll probably drop the first one on London or Moscow. A later target might be Antwerp, or some critical centre of communications on the Eastern front.

Atoms for Germany, 1945

Nuclear weapons were invented for the purpose of attacking Germany. Let Germany hold on six months more and they may be. The postwar consequences are probably the most interesting: Germans may have stronger negative feelings about nuclear power, nuclear weapons and Americans.

Hiroshima, August 1945

The US didn’t realise it, but Japan was ready to surrender when the Hiroshima bomb was dropped. A translation error was partially responsible for the confusion: nobody should discuss sensitive subjects with foreigners in a language as deliberately obscure as Japanese. The final straw had been the USSR’s entry into the war, since the Japanese had been hoping the USSR would mediate. If America realised Japan was about to surrender, or if Japan surrendered sooner, maybe just a few weeks sooner, there might never have been a nuclear weapon used in anger. The post-war issues could bear a lot of scrutiny: America thinks the bomb is a secret, but it isn’t. The USSR knows about the bomb, but maybe Stalin will be skeptical of his scientists’ apparently hyperbolic descriptions. Both sides will capture German scientists from Heisenberg’s project, who will think the project very difficult. But maybe not say so, since they’re all unemployed and in danger of becoming slave labourers if they can’t prove themselves useful. What if Russia builds a nuclear arsenal in secret? How long before scientists and science fiction writers start wondering aloud why nobody’s been working on this? Or before the news leaks: scientists are very bad at keeping secrets, at least amongst themselves.

World War Three

At the end of world war two the allied and Soviet armies met across a vanquished Germany. What if the meeting had been violent? The Russians have a huge army, but not much manpower left in reserve. The western allies have the arsenal of democracy, lots of airpower and the sympathies of any German military units that have survived (e.g. the Norway garrison, von Kesselring’s army of Italy and that division that got stuck on a channel island) or can be formed (e.g. from POWs). Best of all there are nuclear weapons in the pipeline. The Russians must win fast, or they won’t win at all: of course, the best they can possibly hope to do is overrun Germany, France and just maybe Italy, so there’ll always be a base for the allies to come back or at least strike back. The French, Yugoslav and Italian communist partisans will presumably fight as allies of the USSR. The Japanese have a glimmer of hope that they never deserved: if they get an offer of peace from the allies short of total humiliation they will accept; if they don’t they will fight without real hope, notionally alongside the Russians.

Case I: The western allies start it: I don’t see how to arrange this, it probably requires a conspiracy between, at a minimum, deranged analogues of Roosevelt, Churchill and lots of other people. Let us never speak of it again. OK, maybe a deranged analogue of Patton starts it and it gets out of hand. But sooner or later someone will try to pull the plug, if Stalin will agree. Not a really plausible POD.

Case II: The USSR starts it: Stalin’s paranoia points outward for a while, instead of inward. Maybe the POD is a clever Red Army general who deliberately redirects Stalin’s attention as the only way to prevent another purge. A lot of people in Russia will be unhappy and they’ll take any good opportunity to depose Stalin if they think they can make terms. Or maybe Stalin realises what nuclear weapons can do and thinks he has to strike now, which is a really dumb way to think but who knows the mind of a mad dictator.

Case III: Both sides think the other started it: Probably the most likely POD. This makes for a bitter conflict, both sides are crying infamy and are in no mood to accept anything less than unconditional surrender. The blue glow of Cerenkov radiation replaces street lights in many Russian cities.

BY David Bofinger


From Warsaw to the Oder: Planning for the Inevitable II

Lacking manpower, materiel, and suitable fortifications, Army Group A cracked apart on the first day of the Soviet offensive (within hours, actually). As always, the Soviets staggered the start. Coordinated front-level offensives on this continental scale require more than a starter’s pistol. Local variations in weather, the ground, and the state of preparations can lead to delays. In previous weeks, the Stavka had been the recipient of urgent requests from the western powers to advance the date of the offensive, scheduled originally for January 16. Stalin had obliged. Indeed, there was nothing he seemed to enjoy more than advancing a starting date on his commanders. The result was a certain amount of last-second scrambling that some commanders handled more smoothly than others:

January 12th       1st Ukrainian Front (Konev)

January 13th       1st Baltic Front (Bagramyan)

2nd Byelorussian Front (Rokossovsky)

3rd Byelorussian Front (Cherniakhovsky)

January 14th       1st Byelorussian Front (Zhukov)

At any rate, staggering the attacks brought a benefit—as the Soviets well knew by now. With German field commanders confused as to the location of the Soviet Schwerpunkt, they were uncertain or tentative in their reactions and often inserted their meager reserves prematurely or into the wrong place. The impact of receiving one massive blow after another also had a paralyzing effect on the High Command, including both Hitler and the OKH alike.

The Vistula-Oder operation, then, began as Marshal Konev’s show, with Zhukov’s front following two days later. Konev’s assault out of the Baranow-Sandomierz bridgehead married brute force to a sophisticated tactical approach, and it remains a model of modern offensive operations. The offensive opened with a brief but monstrous 15-minute bombardment at 4:45 a.m., with 300 guns per kilometer arranged quite literally hub to hub, targeting 4th Panzer Army opposite the bridgehead. Joining in at 5:00 a.m. were the “forward battalions,” probing the German front for weak spots and driving ahead 600 meters into the German defensive zone over the next few hours, occupying the German frontline trenches and even parts of the second. Most of the defending German infantry thought that they were facing the main attack by now, and they came up from their bunkers, where they’d been waiting out the Soviet bombardment, to engage the Soviet assault troops. That decision was fatal, leaving them open and vulnerable to the big one: an all-guns-at-once, 107-minute plastering of every worth-while target at and behind the German front. Soon the entire battlefield was a seething mass of high explosives, deadly chunks of shrapnel, and clods of frozen dirt, covered in a thick, choking, acrid smoke. A whole series of direct hits destroyed the headquarters of 4th Panzer Army, and the commander, a shaken General Gräser, might as well have been back in Berlin for all the control he was able to exert on the battle. And now, just before noon, it was the turn of the main body of Soviet infantry, moving up in 150-meter-wide sectors deliberately left untouched by the bombardment. Within hours they had penetrated as deep as five miles, and Konev hadn’t even played his trump card: the more than 2,000 tanks of the 3rd Guards and 4th Tank Armies. They came up at 2:00 p.m., passing through their own infantry and driving deep, smashing German defenses beyond hope of repair. By nightfall, they had torn a 25-mile-wide gash and in some sectors had penetrated up to 20 miles deep.

Through it all 4th Panzer Army hadn’t reacted and, indeed, hadn’t been able to react. Like a patient lying on an operating table, the initiative was out of its hands. The formation in the front line, XXXXVIII Panzer Corps, had three divisions stretched very thinly, and the opening Soviet attack had vaporized it. Analysts who have studied German dispositions carefully note that the reserve Panzer formations of 4th Panzer Army (the 16th and 17th Panzer Divisions belonging to General Walther Nehring’s XXIV Panzer Corps) were deployed too close to the front line. The decision belonged to Hitler, suspicious as ever of his commanders’ operational intentions and willingness to retreat. Located just a few thousand yards behind the Hauptkampflinie, however, Nehring’s corps suffered mightily in the opening bombardment, especially in terms of command, control, and radio facilities. Within an hour, Nehring was out of communication with his divisions, and as much as General Gräser, he was commanding blindly for the entire opening sequence. He finally received orders in the late afternoon to close up his two divisions to the town of Kielce—dead center in the path of the onrushing Soviet tank armies. His signal troops had restored communications with his divisions by now, but it hardly mattered: the orders were already obsolete. Soviet armor had already overrun the assembly areas for his Panzers, catching one Tiger tank battalion being refueled out in the open and destroying it completely. The two divisions struggle gamely toward Kielce in disconnected and isolated fragments, and the commander of 17th Panzer Division, Colonel Albert Brux, was wounded in a Soviet bombardment and taken prisoner.

Not that it mattered. Soviet armored spearheads had already taken Kielce. Nehring’s corps never did manage to launch a counterattack. Rather, it found itself fighting for its life against superior forces from the start. Soon, 4th Panzer Army had ceased to exist as a military formation. It had degenerated into an onrushing stream of men and vehicles, along with thousands of ethnic German refugees, all heading west and northwest, desperately trying to get to safety. This almost always meant off-road movement, however, since Soviet armor was prowling all the good highways. In the course of the first few days, small groups of survivors from the neighboring XXXXII Corps and XXXXVIII Panzer Corps coalesced around the remnants of Nehring’s Panzer corps to form Gruppe Nehring—all that was left of the army.

Nehring was a tested commander and managed to form the motley command into a “roving Kessel” (wandernden Kessel). Surrounded on all sides by Soviet units heading west at top speed and barely thinking it worthwhile to stop and fight a pitched battle with German forces who were already obviously defeated, under constant air attack, and low on supplies and ammunition, Nehring’s little band (fewer than 10,000 men all told) managed to thread the needle again and again over the next ten days. Unbeknownst to him, he had hit the seam between the two Soviet fronts, Zhukov to his north and Konev to his south. Moving mainly by night, hiding the tanks and vehicles among the houses and barns of this rural land, Nehring avoided Soviet concentrations, launching the occasional attack only when absolutely necessary and crashing through roadblocks. Kielce to Piotrków, Lask to the crossing over the Warthe River at Sieradz, and finally crossing the Oder River to safety at Glogau: Gruppe Nehring had traveled nearly 200 miles to safety. Like the Rückkämpfer of 1944, Nehring had beaten the odds—but his saga is impressive only within the context of yet another miserable German operational collapse.

On January 14, Zhukov’s 1st Byelorussian Front joined in the offensive. Coming out of the Magnuszew bridgehead, Zhukov meted out the same punishment to German 9th Army as Konev had to 4th Panzer. Here, too, the Soviet commander displayed finesse along with crushing strength. He opened with a furious 25-minute barrage and followed it up with a massive reconnaissance actions. It was of such size, scope, and ferocity (thirty-two reinforced rifle battalions and twenty-five additional rifle companies to reduce German strongpoints) that most of the German defenders believed once again that the main attack had begun. Soon they were falling back, abandoning the front line and then the second. A simultaneous attack out of the Pulawy bridgehead had equal success, and by the end of the day Zhukov’s armor was 20 miles inside the German defenses. The commander of 9th Army, General Lüttwitz, inserted his Panzer reserves with impressive dispatch, and 19th and 25th Panzer Divisions duly entered the fray on the first day. Given the collapse of the defenses in front of both bridgeheads, however, Lüttwitz had no choice but to split the divisions, directing 19th Panzer toward the Pulawy bridgehead and the 25th against Magnuszew. Here, too, the impression was not so much of being defeated as simply being swallowed up, and both Panzer divisions were soon reeling back with heavy losses. The next day, Zhukov directed 47th Army to begin its envelopment of Warsaw from the north, while 61st Army and 1st Polish Army drove up from the south. A few days of fighting and it was over: German troops evacuated Warsaw on January 17, and the victorious Polish formations were parading through their liberated capital.

With both 4th Panzer and 9th Armies in tatters, and both Soviet fronts pushing hard, the Vistula-Oder Offensive entered its travelogue phase. Warsaw began the parade, and now the cities and towns fell in a rush: Kraków and Czeţstochowa to Konev, Łódź to Zhukov. While there was the occasional skirmish, this was top-speed movement, limited only by logistical constraints and supply, ammunition, and fuel. By January 31, the two Soviet fronts had overrun the entire vast Posen Bulge, known as the Reichsgau Wartheland or Warthegau during Nazi occupation. On January 12—the very night that Soviet forces had smashed the German 4th Panzer Army—the provincial Gauleiter, Arthur Greiser, had promised the local population that victory was certain, that “the Bolshevist flood would bleed itself to death on the borders of the Warthegau,” and that “the Bolshevist marauders (Soldateska) would not set a single foot on our land.” But these had been empty words, and Greiser knew it. Sitting on a flat, featureless plain, he had done nothing to fortify the Warthegau, and only very late in the game, on January 20, did he approve an evacuation of the civilian population. While desperate families—women, children, and the elderly—loaded themselves and their possessions onto wagons and sleighs and scurried in the freezing cold, Greiser had a berth on a safe private train to Frankfurt on the Oder, one of many despicable flights carried out by party officials in those last days. Fighting an overmatched military and an utterly negligent civilian authority, the Soviet campaign had been one of the most successful and dramatic in history. Elements of the 1st Tank Army, part of Zhukov’s front, were already on the Oder River near Küstrin and Frankfurt, having lunged nearly 250 miles in just over two weeks. Konev’s spearheads likewise had driven deep into Silesia, reaching the Oder and seizing sizable bridgeheads on the left bank of the river at Steinau and Ohlau, northwest and southeast of the provincial capital, Breslau. Silesia, Prussia’s ur-conquest from two hundred years before, now stood under threat. The Wehrmacht’s losses in all this had been colossal: no fewer than 300,000 men. “The catastrophe at the front was coming down on us like an avalanche,” as Guderian put it.

Under Guderian’s continual urging, Hitler did finally order reinforcements to the front: five divisions and a corps headquarters from the Courland Pocket, the Grossdeutschland Panzer Corps from East Prussia. The former involved evacuation by sea and would take time, if it happened at all. The latter had minimal impact. Grossdeutschland began to detrain at Łódź on January 16 and immediately sent one of its divisions, the Hermann Göring Fallschirmjäger Panzer Division, into action east of the city. But the division had massive Soviet forces hurtling at it from all directions and had no choice but to fall back. Łódź itself fell to elements of Chuikov’s 8th Army—largely consisting of infantry but moving just as rapidly as the tank armies—on January 19. Subsequent Soviet attacks caught the German trains carrying much of the Grossdeutschland Corps’s equipment and destroyed them. Within days of arriving at the front, the corps commander, General Dietrich von Saucken, saw his force reduced to the size of a battlegroup. And like Nehring, he sound found himself surrounded and in command of a wandering cauldron (Gruppe Saucken), heading south and west toward the Warthe. Nehring’s group was all that was left of 4th Panzer Army, Saucken’s the remnant of the 9th.

While the front disintegrated, not just between the Vistula and the Oder but in East Prussia as well, business as usual went on at Führer Headquarters. The same interminable situation conferences took place. Guderian and Hitler continued to argue over the same trivial particulars of operations, administration, and personnel, all of which the general describes in detail in his memoirs. They even redesignated their army groups, hardly the most pressing need at the moment:

Old Army Group (Oder Front)                     =======>              New Army Group Center

Army Group Center (East Prussia)               =======>             Army Group North

Army Group North (Courland Pocket)         =======>            Army Group Courland

And in his by now traditional response to disaster at the front, Hitler fired his generals in droves. General Harpe, the commander of Army Group A, got the axe first, followed by General Lüttwitz, commander of 9th Army. The ostensible reason was the hasty evacuation of Warsaw—yet another fallen city that Hitler had ordered held to the last man. After the fall of the fortress complex of Lötzen in East Prussia on January 23 essentially without a fight, the dismissals gained momentum. General Reinhardt, commanding Army Group Center, went next, followed by General Hossbach of 4th Army. The new army group commanders were Field Marshal Ferdinand Schörner, perhaps Hitler’s most fanatic servant, at Army Group A (now redesignated Army Group Center) and General Lothar Rendulic for Army Group Center (now Army Group North).

Their appointments continued a long-standing devolution within Hitler’s marshalate. Like Field Marshal Model in the west, neither Schörner nor Rendulic could make a claim to any particular operational brilliance or innovative style of leadership. Both were loyal to the core, however. Schörner, in particular, viewed terrorizing the men underneath him as a legitimate tool of National Socialist command, executed thousands of his own soldiers to keep the others in the line, and would remain with his command until the end of the war. Rendulic managed to touch all the command bases: Army Group Courland, Army Group North, back to Courland, and then Army Group South until the end of the war (with one last redesignation at Army Group Ostmark), all in the course of four months. They were men upon whom the Führer could rely: ruthless, grim commanders who were determined to throw their men into the fire by the hundreds of thousands for as long as Hitler felt they should.

The Axis in Iraq 1941 I

Two weeks into the campaign and the British were secure in Basra and had lifted the siege of Habbaniya. They had also degraded the Iraqi air force, which had been reduced, the War Cabinet were told, to about fifty aircraft, of which only six were first-line operational types. But though the Iraqi army had suffered a demoralizing reverse, it was still largely intact, with 20,000 troops in and around Baghdad and 15,000 in the north. Rashid Ali’s government still ruled unmolested in Baghdad and the Indian Army troops decanted into Basra were bogged down and making exceedingly slow progress in their endeavours to move north to threaten the capital. Most worryingly, German forces and ammunition trains had started to arrive. The British government believed that the Germans might send up to sixty fighters and bombers. About thirty Luftwaffe aircraft were reported to have landed in Aleppo and Damascus en route to Iraq. By this stage, British objectives had crystallized around the overthrow of Rashid Ali, the removal of the Golden Square and the return of Prince Abdulillah as regent.

The Chiefs of Staff remained distinctly worried, despite the success at Habbaniya. Dill confided to Auchinleck on 21 May: ‘If we cannot quickly scotch the trouble that has started with Rashid Ali it is difficult to see where it will all end’. There were wider implications, too, the longer the situation in Iraq remained unresolved. As Eden wrote to Churchill on 19 May, ‘these developments cause me most concern on account of their influence on Turkey’s policy [as to whether to remain neutral or actively assist Germany]. The Turks are concentrating troops on the Iraqi and Syrian frontiers and are asking us in return for our plans for dealing with the situation in these recalcitrant countries’.

A message from Churchill to Roosevelt on 14 May reflected the finely balanced situation, as well as allied ambitions. ‘In Iraq,’ the British prime minister told the American president, ‘we are trying to regain control and anyhow we are making a large strong bridgehead at Basra where later on in the war American machines may be assembled and supplies unloaded.’ But, Churchill cautioned, ‘there is no doubt’ that Admiral Darlan, leader of Vichy Syria, ‘will sell the pass if he can, and German aircraft are already passing into Iraq’.4 The unfolding situation was difficult to read, and the British needed a quick resolution, not least so that Iraq could play its part in the wider war effort. It was infuriating to be fighting the locals – who were supposed to be allies – when there was a world war to be won. For both sides, it was a race against time: for the British, to get more troops into Iraq and onto the battlefield, and for the Iraqis, to get the Germans in and crush British resistance before it was fully mobilized.

Fevered Iraqi appeals to Berlin had been made from the start of hostilities. On 4 May a coded radio message had been picked up by the British. ‘This is Baghdad,’ the announcer repeated three times. ‘This is a message to the Iraki legation in Ankara [repeated]. It is the Iraki Foreign Office.’ The message instructed Iraq’s Ankara legation to keep the pressure on German officials to send military aid forthwith. War Minister Naji Shawkat also travelled to Ankara ‘to impress upon the German authorities Iraq’s urgent need for military assistance’. But the Iraqi government was simultaneously exploring options for a return to peace. On 13 May the American ambassador in Ankara, John Van Antwerp MacMurray, reported that Shawkat had ‘sought to obtain [the Turkish] Government’s assistance in formulating acceptable basis of understanding with the British’. In response, Turkish officials made plain their conviction that Iraq had violated the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty and taken a ‘course whose successful outcome could only place it and [the] Moslem world at [the] mercy of [a] power far less indulgent and more oppressive’. Rashid Ali also sent his Foreign Minister to Saudi Arabia, where he was given short shrift by King Ibn Saud. The British also appealed for the Saudi king’s aid, on 2 May telegramming Jeddah to ask him to make a public statement ‘deploring the situation, to which Rashid Ali’s disastrous policy has brought Iraq, and expressing the hope that Iraqis would disown him’.

Intelligence decrypts kept London informed about the build-up of Fliegerkorps XI in the Balkans, for a time entertaining the idea that the threat to Crete might be a cover for an operation in Iraq. On 9 May, Ultra had revealed that an alternative had been chosen. From Luftwaffe cyphers it was learned that an airfield near Athens had been set aside for special operations and that bombers and fighters, stripped of their Luftwaffe markings, were being ferried through Syria to Iraq. The War Cabinet’s weekly resumé reported that:

French authorities are known to have sent two train loads of ammunition eastwards but deny this destined for Iraq on German demands . . . Enemy agents are believed to be entering Iraq from Turkey and Iran, presumably assisted by Fifth Column already organized there to prepare for reception German airborne troops . . . By advancing through Turkey into Syria and at the same time renewing their offensive in North Africa they could develop once again the pincer movement which they have used so consistently in all their recent campaigns.

It was on this day, 9 May, that the Foreign Office in Berlin announced Germany’s military aid package to Iraq. Major Axel von Blomberg was on his way to conduct a reconnaissance of Iraqi airfields for Luftwaffe use, the first twenty aircraft were due to arrive soon and supplies were moving through Syria. Though in the end it did not transpire, the original plan was also to deploy a reinforced battalion containing at its core elements of the Brandenberg Regiment, a specialist unit controlled by the Abwehr and used on intelligence and sabotage operations. General Hellmuth Felmy was in overall command. He had retired as an air force general in January 1940, but had been recalled in May 1941 and appointed head of Sonderstab Felmy, the German military mission to Iraq. It would perform the role of a ‘central agency for all Arab questions applying to the Wehrmacht’. Luftwaffe colonel Werner Junck was the officer tasked with taking Fliegerführer Irak to Mosul, from where its aircraft would operate bearing Iraqi air force markings. The force initially comprised a squadron of twelve Messerschmitt Bf 110s, a squadron of twelve Heinkel He 111s and thirteen Junker transport aircraft. A squadron of Italian Fiat CR.42s also arrived from Rhodes. German forces made their presence felt as soon as they arrived in theatre. On 12 May a Heinkel bombed men of the 1st Battalion the Essex Regiment, part of Habforce, as they began their journey towards Habbaniya, and the following day a Blenheim was attacked by a Messerschmitt over Mosul. On 14 May six Messerschmitts were seen at Erbil and three Heinkels were also reported. By this time, the bulk of Junck’s force had arrived in theatre. The deployment of German forces was intended to provide ‘what the Germans tellingly described as “spine straightening” for the Iraqi army, much of which had become terrified of bombing by British aircraft’.

Crucial to the outcome of the campaign would be how well German forces could be integrated with their Iraqi allies, and the extent to which these unlikely bedfellows could agree upon and execute an effective joint plan of action. Major von Blomberg was charged with the task of supervising this integration, and travelled to Baghdad on 15 May to arrange a council of war with the Iraqi leadership. Unfortunately for both him and the nascent German–Iraqi alliance, an Iraqi soldier ‘guarding a bridge in Baghdad, not recognizing the shape and silhouette of the He 111, and believing it to be British, placed a few well-aimed rounds into the fuselage as it cruised low overhead’. Von Blomberg was discovered to be dead on arrival, a bullet through his neck. Following this inauspicious start, Junck himself flew to Baghdad the following day to confer with Rashid Ali, Chief of the General Staff Major-General Amin Zaki, Colonel Nur ed-Din Mahmud and Colonel Mahmud Salman (of the Golden Square). It was agreed that the German priority should be to prevent Habforce arriving at Habbaniya, followed by the capture of the RAF base. Only a few days later, however, Habforce arrived at its destination unmolested, the Germans having arrived too late.

While in Baghdad, Junck conferred with Fritz Grobba, reinstalled as Berlin’s representative after a ‘triumphal return’. His party had flown in from Rhodes via Aleppo and Mosul in Heinkels accompanied by Messerschmitt fighters. His mission was to prepare for a new German–Iraqi alliance after the British had been ejected. As part of this initiative, the Germans were quick to get a team to Baghdad to examine the Iraqi oil industry with a view to its transfer to Nazi use. The German Petroleum Mission, a group of ‘reputable scientists’, came well prepared with equipment and supplies, and were led by a very able petroleum technologist, surmised by the British to be one Colonel Geissman: he informed staff at the Baghdad Chemical Laboratory ‘that he had been in charge of the immediate utilization of seized petrol supplies in most of the major German campaigns’ to date. Geissman’s immediate object was the production of the maximum quantity of aviation spirit of at least 87 octane rating. The German scientists ‘succeeded in blending all spirits in Baghdad derived from Abadan up to about 92 octane rating’.

The Germans were also sending weapons. An agreement with the Vichy authorities allowed the Syrian government in Damascus to recover a quarter of the weaponry impounded under the terms of the French armistice in return for turning over the remainder to the Iraqis. The agreement had also permitted Axis forces to use Syrian airfields and facilities, and provided for the establishment of a Luftwaffe base at Aleppo. The first trainload of ex-Syrian weapons had arrived in Mosul on 13 May via Turkey, and included 15,500 rifles, 200 machine-guns and four 75-millimetre field guns, all with ammunition and shells.

Junck attacked Habbaniya on 16 and 17 May using six Messerschmitts and three Heinkels operating from Mosul. The problem for the Germans was that the British had forces up and running inside Iraq and were imbued with an offensive spirit, determined not to allow the Germans the chance to get a grip on the situation. Air Vice-Marshal D’Albiac, now directing British air operations, was quick to take the attack to the Germans, sending aircraft against their Mosul stronghold. Attempts were also made to disorganize the German movement of supplies by bombing Mosul railway station and the railway lines and sidings surrounding it. On 17 May British reinforcements arrived in the shape of four Gladiators from 94 Squadron and six Blenheims from 84 Squadron.

Although the nine remaining Wellingtons in Basra had been withdrawn to Egypt on 12 May to assist in operations against Rommel in the Western Desert, two new long-range cannon-firing Hurricanes had also arrived from Aboukir in Egypt. Together with the Blenheims, they made a daring, long-range sortie to hit back at the Luftwaffe at Mosul on 17 May, destroying two and damaging four aircraft for the loss of a Hurricane. On the same day, two Gladiators from Habbaniya, loitering around Rashid Airfield at Baghdad, encountered two Bf.110Cs attempting to take off, and destroyed them both.

All in all, this represented a disturbing rate of attrition for the newly arrived Germans.

Nevertheless, the Foreign Office in London urged a quick solution. Eden wrote to Churchill, again raising the fear that if Germany was successful in Iraq and Syria, Turkey would ‘be effectively surrounded and it would indeed be difficult then to count upon her enduring loyalty’. In connection with this, the Foreign Secretary noted that ‘the mobile brigade [Habforce] had evidently had difficulties in its approach to Habbaniya’. He had not, he continued, ‘appreciated when the Defence Committee recommended this move that its development would take so long. The delay has enabled German arrivals to hearten the Iraqis.’19 Meanwhile, in Baghdad and several Iraqi outposts incarcerated American and British subjects also wondered at the delay, none more so than those crammed into the diplomatic compounds.


The British Embassy stood on the west bank of the Tigris, its gardens set about with buddleia, hibiscus and pomegranate. ‘Passing through the gates in the high wall,’ wrote John Masters, ‘I entered Arnold’s Rugby, with rooks cawing in immemorial elms and chestnut trees spreading their gaunt branches across gravelled paths; and there was a big grey English country house, and the smell of tea and crumpets in the Counsellor’s study.’ Freya Stark’s memoir offers a vivid account of the month-long incarceration of the ‘small Lucknow of imprisoned British’; 350 men, women and children, as well as the ambassador and his staff, crammed into the embassy compound living in dormitory-style makeshift accommodation. Overflowing with European refugees, the embassy’s ballroom was ‘like pictures of the first emigrant ships’. Each defending his or her own privacy, she wrote, we ‘vainly try to make small barricades of our boxes and belongings’. Anticipating ‘Ash Wednesday’, the famous occasion on which secret documents were burnt by the British Embassy and Middle East Command headquarters as Rommel closed on Cairo, official papers were destroyed.

Defences were improvised around the perimeter, including sandbags in case the compound was shelled or bombed. There were loopholes in the sandbag wall at the front entrance, and barbed wire connected the cypress trees to form an inner defensive ring. To create more obstacles, cars were parked on the lawn. Improvised bombs were stockpiled at various locations throughout the compound. Known as the ‘general’s bombs’, the arsenal included petrol tins of sand and beer cans filled with paraffin with cotton-wool fuses. Iraqi policemen ensured no one left the compound, and a drum-beating, war-chanting ‘mob’ sometimes gathered outside. Its efforts appear to have been rather desultory, however, the result of official encouragement and the passion of a small group of enthusiastic nationalists, rather than a reflection of a seething anti-British population. Though most of the British people affected indifference and good cheer, it was a worrying time. Stark described the ‘pathetic look of dog-like trust of Indians; gloomy look of Iraqis; imperturbable, hot, but not uncheerful looks of the British’. Attempts were made to fashion a receiving set, and activities were planned to sustain morale, such as a concert, during which the audience was ‘not allowed to applaud, fearing that the sound of it across the river might be thought of as rejoicing over the air raid’.

The inmates were cheered by RAF activity overhead. A large V was marked out on the lawn in white sheets ‘to tell the air that we are lost to news’, and Union Jacks were spread out on the roof to prevent British aircraft attacking their own embassy. With increasing regularity the throttle of ‘British bombers, black in the blue sky’, was heard. On one occasion Stark observed the ‘very beautiful sight’ of a Wellington bomber ‘slowly sailing along at about 1,000 feet, up the river from south to north, very dark against the green sky and the sleeping houses’. An aspect of the British campaign that Stark found less impressive was the propaganda material dropped by the RAF, a ‘dead sort of animation of Arabic leaflets’. Ambassador Cornwallis agreed that their tone was ‘insulting’. They had a threatening tenor that Britain’s precarious position hardly justified. Stark wrote scathingly of the ‘monstrous leaflet drop by the British Government to say they will bomb Government buildings in Iraq, so condemn all here to destruction – and of course it can’t be carried out. Why spread empty threats? HE [His Excellency] telegraphs urgently to stop violent leaflets written by ourselves.’

To replenish the embassy larder, the Iraqi guards would escort a lorry to the shops. During and after RAF raids this was impossible as the shops were shut, their owners ‘terrified by our bombing’. As stocks dwindled, rationing was introduced. Portions were ‘quite sufficient though one could easily eat every meal twice over’. A typical day’s rations might comprise, for breakfast, ‘cocoa, one sardine on bread, one bread-slice and jam. Lunch: rice, corned beef, half tomato, two small bread bibi; two prunes and half slice pineapple. Evening: fish, curry and stewed fruit: very little of each.’

A mantle of depression settled on the embassy as the realization set in that the siege might last a long time. We ‘must admit that in the map of the whole Middle East we are not so very important, but console ourselves by reflecting that our neighbourhood to Oil will prevent us from being forgotten’. Furthermore, it was not just the RAF that was active in the skies above Baghdad; on 15 May, German aircraft were spotted for the first time. The Iraqi police outside the embassy became less amiable and ‘call the inside Iraqis Ingliz and promise massacre’, inspired by the Grand Mufti’s speeches. One of the policemen guarding the compound told Stark that if she became a Muslim he would keep her himself: ‘I am sorry that their minds dwell on loot and rapine – evidently the result of the Mufti’s preaching of a holy war last night’. She worried about the embassy’s Iraqi and other non-British servants and attendants, for a death sentence had been placed upon them. There were also threats directed specifically at the women, a policeman telling Stark that he could not imagine what use ‘the harim’ about to be murdered had for so many items of cosmetics. ‘I mean to be killed, if it comes to that, with my face in proper order.’ Things were little better at the American legation nearby, to the anger of Paul Knabenshue. His mission, he wrote, had to deal with ‘a hostile gangster fifth column illegal government under the direction of Grobba, the former German Minister to Iraq’. The Iraqi police guard deployed around the American compound ‘for our protection’ had, in fact, ‘made us prisoners’.

The Axis in Iraq 1941 II

Frank Wootton’s painting “The Battle of Habbaniya, May 1941” shows Hawker Audaxes and Airspeed Oxfords bombing Iraqi artillery along a high plateau within firing range of the Royal Air Force’s No. 4 Service Flying Training School. (Wealdown Limited Editions, UK)

Fallujah was strategically important because the main Baghdad–Habbaniya road, 4 miles west of Fallujah, had been flooded over a stretch of 2 miles, presenting an impassable obstacle. The British needed, therefore, to approach Baghdad by way of Fallujah’s bridge over the Euphrates, a steel-girder structure of five spans’ width, 177 feet in length. The British troops assaulting it were divided into five small columns of about 100 each with supporting weapons, one being a section of RAF armoured cars and another including captured artillery. One was to move up along Hammond’s Bund, wading through the waters of the breach, three to cross the Sin al-Dhibban ferry with guns and armoured cars, the fifth to be landed by four Bombays and two Valentias at dawn in a position astride the road, to cover the main Fallujah–Baghdad artery with fire. This would seal all roads from Fallujah bar the track leading south-east to the Abu Ghuraib regulator, and this track was to be covered by a Kingcol troop of 25-pounders.

Once the columns were in position around Fallujah, air attacks commenced at 0500 on 19 May. During the day an RAF aircraft cut all telephone communications with the town, the crew landing, chopping down poles with hatchets and using wire clippers to cut the lines. Pamphlets calling for surrender were then dropped after an hour’s bombing, though they failed to induce the Iraqis to give up. Thus it was decided to try to capture the bridge using the column facing it from the west. The town was subjected to dive-bomb attacks, 134 sorties dropping 10 tons of bombs. The position was secured after it was bombed, machine-gunned and shelled by 25-pounders and the town was captured, together with 300 prisoners of war.

The British propaganda machine set to work immediately: ‘The rebel Iraq Army fled in disorder from Fallujah yesterday when they were attacked from three sides by British and loyal Arab troops,’ the British-controlled Basrah Times declared. ‘There were no British casualties. The inhabitants of Fallujah welcomed the troops and the restoration of law and order.’ ‘Things were beginning to look a lot more promising,’ wrote Freya Stark: at four o’clock on 20 May, news was received in the embassy compound that ‘Fallujah is taken, bridge, town and all. Thank God.’

But the Iraqis were not done yet. As the British cleared over 1,500 civilians from key parts of the town, on 22 May they launched a counterattack with the 6th Iraqi Brigade supported by Fiat tanks. Their main purpose was to blow the bridge to prevent the British advancing on the capital. Imperial forces in the town had been reduced since its capture and some intense combat followed, including house-to-house fighting, in which the King’s Own Royal Regiment suffered fifty casualties. A lorry containing gun cotton intended for the destruction of the bridge was hit and ‘blown to minute fragments’. The RAF Iraq Levies were to the fore in this engagement, with the role of the Assyrian soldiers particularly noted by their commander. D’Albiac told the British ambassador that the ‘determination of the Assyrians at FALLUJAH when a weak company defied an ‘Iraqi Brigade, supported by tanks, and one platoon counter-attacked and cleared the town when full of ‘Iraqi soldiers was one of the most important factors in breaking the morale of the ‘Iraqi army which certainly was broken at Fallujah’. The fighting had been hard. ‘In daylight,’ wrote de Chair, ‘the damage to the town, after consistent shelling by both sides, was an impressive sight and recalled pictures from youthful memory of the battered towns of Flanders in the Great War’.

Victory at Fallujah was a campaign turning point. Demonstrating the disconnect between German grand strategy and operations on the ground, it was not until the fourth week of the conflict that Hitler articulated his ambitions for Iraq. Directive 30, issued on 23 May, stated that:

The Arab Freedom Movement is, in the Middle East, our natural ally against England. In this context, the uprising in Iraq is of special importance. This strengthens the forces which are hostile to England in the Middle East, interrupts the British lines of communication, and ties down both English troops and English shipping space at the expense of other theatres of war. For these reasons I have decided to push the development of operations in the Middle East through the medium of going to the support of Iraq. Whether and in what way it may later be possible to wreck finally the English position between the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf, in conjunction with an offensive against the Suez Canal, is still in the lap of the gods.

The directive promised to help support the Iraqis with an air contingent, a military mission and arms deliveries. In addition, a German-led Arab Brigade would be formed using volunteers from Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Saudi Arabia. This was an extension of Sonderstab F (Special Staff F – ‘F’ standing for its commander, Hellmuth Felmy), a German–Arab unit for deployment in Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab world in conjunction with invading German armies, with a prospective strength of 6,000.

But ideas and plans for the future were one thing. What the Iraqis needed was immediate military assistance. The problem for the Germans was that they were too confident of eventual success in the war to invest properly in this operation. And, like the British, they were also hampered by distance, terrain and the demands upon resources. The Luftwaffe had strafed Fallujah on 23 May, but to little effect, and the Iraqis were mounting little more than nuisance raids and employing delaying tactics. On 21 and 22 May, for instance, they made an attempt, ‘frustrated by our patrols, to breach the bunds protecting Ashar [the business district of Basra] and Shuaiba aerodrome’. An operation on 25 May by a British battalion with Royal Navy and RAF support was successfully mounted against enemy troops 6 miles up the Tigris from Basra as efforts continued to push Iraqi forces back from the port. All of this ground activity was accompanied by ceaseless RAF sorties, recorded in the daily operational summaries. On 25 May Habbaniya-based aircraft flew 82 sorties, dropping 8 tons of bombs in the Ramadi area and bombing Mosul aerodrome. On the same day, 94 Squadron mounted standing patrols over Habbaniya and fighter escorts over Ramadi, and machine-gunned Iraqi vehicles discovered on the Baghdad road. Four enemy aircraft were machine-gunned at Mosul, and two of the five seen at Baqubah set on fire in a low attack. Habbaniya itself, meanwhile was bombed on that day by two Heinkel He 111s and three Messerschmitt Bf 110s. A successful attack on the Iraqi army and air force reserve petrol dump at Cassels Post destroyed a million gallons of fuel.


On 29 May Kingstone’s troops were engaging Iraqi positions in front of Baghdad.55 Fortunately, Iraqi opposition was only slight and by nightfall on 30 May the column had reached a point only 3 miles from the iron bridge over the Washash Channel on the outskirts of Baghdad West. It had been assisted by constant air reconnaissance and occasional close support bombing, and on 30 May very heavy bombing attacks with screaming bombs were launched on the Washash and Rashid camps, and on Iraqi troop positions in the vicinity of the Kadhimain railway station.

Air power remained a decisive factor. The RAF’s close air support had been vital in the campaign so far, and had had a devastating effect on morale as Iraqi resistance weakened. On 29 May there was some air combat and enemy transports north-west of Ramadi were machine-gunned, along with boats observed on Lake Habbaniya. On the following day RAF Habbaniya flew forty-two sorties, bombing troop concentrations and transports around Kadhimain in support of forward British formations on Baghdad’s outskirts. There was a mass leaflet drop over the capital, and a large fire was started at the motor transport depot at Rashid airbase. On 30 May Habbaniya’s aircrew flew twenty-nine sorties concentrating on a heavy bombing attack on Rashid and Washash, attacks made with screaming bombs ‘which proved most effective’, with aircraft of 94 Squadron escorting the bombers. 84 Squadron, meanwhile, performed reconnaissance flights over Ramadi, Hit, Mahmudiya, Musayyib and Karbala, and conducted a photo reconnaissance of Mosul and the K2 pumping station.

As British forces approached the capital, the rebel Iraqi regime disintegrated. With the city seemingly surrounded, Rashid Ali, the Grand Mufti, Grobba and the officers of the Golden Square scattered. It was left to the Mayor of Baghdad to sue for peace, and wireless sets were returned to the embassy. ‘After this,’ wrote Freya Stark, ‘in a sort of golden mist of sunset our bombers and fighters came sailing: they came in troops and societies, their outline sharp in the luminous sky: they separated and circled and dived, going vertically down at dreadful speed, like swordfish of the air’. A message was received at RAF Habbaniya from the British Embassy, just reconnected, requesting that an Iraqi flag of truce accompanied by an embassy representative should be received as soon as possible at the iron bridge. ‘As soon as we got this message,’ wrote Smart, ‘both the GOC [General Clark] and I decided to go ourselves to the Iron Bridge to meet the Iraqi Envoys’, the commanding officers keen to be in at the kill. A signal was sent to the ambassador fixing a time of 0400 on 31 May for the car with the flag of truce to be at the rendezvous. It was in this vehicle that de Chair entered the capital and pulled up at the embassy. Cornwallis, stirred from sleep, greeted him in his dressing gown and cummerbund, but he was soon kitted out in a white drill suit topped with solar topee and they were speeding back to the iron bridge.

The Mayor of Baghdad led the Iraqi delegation, accompanied by Cornwallis. In the cold light of dawn, the terms of the armistice were agreed. The Iraqi army was permitted to retain its weapons though was to return forthwith to its normal peacetime stations, and Ramadi was to be evacuated. All POWs and civilian internees were to be released, and all German and Italian personnel and equipment were to be detained by the Iraqi government. Fighting ceased at 0430, and the armistice was signed. Prince Regent Abdulillah and his entourage had already returned to Iraq in a procession of vehicles purchased in Palestine with the intention of drumming up support for his return to Baghdad, and were waiting in the wings at RAF Habbaniya, where the party was billeted in the Imperial Airways building that had been smashed up by the Iraqi army. Now, Abdulillah returned to Baghdad and resumed the regency. The Iraqi army was allowed to retire, ‘many of them deceived by their leader and not in fact disloyal’. This was a wise move, and made ensuing relations better than they might otherwise have been.

Knabesnhue reported on events to Washington. At 1430 on 30 May the Mayor of Baghdad ‘telephoned to inform me Rashid Ali and Axis group had left Iraq and that he headed a temporary Government to bring [the] conflict to an end’. He invited foreign diplomatic chiefs to his office. ‘I went first accompanied by Commandant Police to see the British Ambassador and thence with his Counsellor to the Mayor’s office.’ At the British Embassy, the armistice led to an ‘absolute orgy of activity all over the Chancery with typists flying in and out’. The embassy resembled ‘a railway station: officers from Habbaniya, colonels from Basra, Cawthorn from Cairo, Iraqis, people here leaving, cars scrunching, cawasses returning’. Members of the embassy community were told to wear their solar topees, presumably in an attempt to bolster British prestige rather than as a precaution against sunstroke.

Captain Sowerby of the 2nd Battalion the Essex Regiment, part of Habforce, had what he termed an ‘exciting night’ on the day the armistice was signed. In a letter to a friend he boasted that he ‘had had the satisfaction of being blooded in this war, though against the Iraqi rebels and not the Hun’. Arriving in Iraq his battalion had marched 50 miles in three days in full service marching order. ‘Then we had a few weeks of civilization and when the Iraqi show burst forth we were the first Company away and left barracks within an hour of receiving notice and were front line troops until after Rutbah and again later on . . . We had several scraps with very few casualties.’ On the eve of the armistice, Sowerby:

had to get a message to the Hq outside Baghdad, with the instructions for the reception of the envoys. I had two hours to do 25 miles of desert and 8 miles of flooded tarmac and then find the Hq which I was given to understand would probably be near the road and somewhere near Baghdad! Just as I got into the floods an outpost sentry told me that the road had been under heavy shell and MG fire all day, to cheer me up I suppose! I nearly overshot our front line but luckily spotted an Ambulance in time.

Finally locating the headquarters, Sowerby ‘panted in to the Brigadier’, Joe Kingstone, only to discover that his message had already been received as wireless communications had been re-established. ‘I managed to scrounge some tea though!’ he wrote.

Sowerby’s cheery tone reflected the fact that imperial ground forces had had a relatively easy campaign and suffered minimal losses. ‘For us it was but another campaign along the eastern marches of our Empire,’ wrote de Chair; ‘for them it was a war against the whole distracted might of Britain.’ British land and air forces had carried the day through resolute action, speed and deception. The armistice was finally forced by the small British contingent of approximately 1,400 men that had come from Habbaniya to Baghdad, with very little artillery or armour. As Freya Stark wrote, ‘we have done this with only two battalions’: the battle had been won by a ‘colossal bluff’.


Though Baghdad had been taken by legerdemain, the British had fought an excellent campaign and many factors accounted for the final result. The campaign’s most striking feature was the remarkable stand of the RAF’s No. 4 Flying Training School at Habbaniya. Using obsolete aircraft, a handful of experienced pilots and their inexperienced pupils lifted a siege by about 9,000 Iraqi troops, crippled German aircraft sent to the country and destroyed most Iraqi air assets before taking the fight to Baghdad via Fallujah. By holding out and then going over to the offensive, RAF Habbaniya bought crucial time for imperial relief forces from Palestine and India to concentrate and then deploy. In achieving this, Habbaniya was ably assisted by the air assets based at RAF Shaibah: the RAF had flown 1,600 sorties. Special forces had also played a role, with agents from the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and Special Operations Executive (SOE), and even Palestinian Jews recruited by SOE from the Irgun, undertaking sabotage missions: fuel dumps were targeted and sixteen newly arrived, American-built Northrop aircraft belonging to the Iraqi air force were destroyed on the ground. The Arab Legion played an unobtrusive but important role:

Glubb’s desert patrol was a talisman among the bedouin [sic], who would otherwise have molested our straggling supply column, thin-drawn out across the blinding desert, and have raided our solitary outposts along the route. In the event, we had no trouble from the tribes, who remained amicable with so many cousins under our flag, while the town dwellers of Iraq were loathing us with deadly passion.

To stand any chance of winning, the Iraqis needed to have eliminated the British at Habbaniya. As it was, though the airbase’s Assyrian and British churches were damaged along with messes and billets, the all-important water tower and power generator escaped unscathed and RAF aircraft never ceased using its runways for offensive purposes. Perhaps more importantly, if the Iraqis could have removed the British from Basra and blocked the Shatt al-Arab, they could have prevented British reinforcement by sea. Mahmood al-Durrah, a member of Rashid Ali’s government, ascribed defeat to a range of interconnected factors. The four members of the Golden Square, each in command of a major army unit or air force group, had pursued their own political ambitions and tribal interests. ‘As there was no overall command and control of Iraqi forces,’ he wrote, ‘their military fate was sealed.’ There was then the fact that no clear objectives had been provided to army group commanders except to be prepared to defend their regions. In contrast ‘the British had clear objectives that included securing Basra first and secondarily the airfield at Habbaniya’. There were other reasons for defeat, stemming in part from ministerial indecision at the beginning of May, which enabled the British to break out of Habbaniya before the Germans arrived. The Germans had warned Ali that they could not act to full effect before they had wound up their occupation of Crete and built up their air force and associated supply lines to Iraq. This indecision was caused by a split in the Iraqi ruling clique and also within the army. Essentially, the Iraqis went to war a month too early, and thus had to do without the German assistance that they were depending upon. Al-Durrah also highlighted the quality of British intelligence about the Iraqi forces, particularly as British officers had been employed in the army and air force as advisers and instructors until only weeks before fighting broke out.

A mordant critic of the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty, Rashid Ali was later to write that he saw German battlefield success as a golden opportunity. ‘Believe me, I was ready for an alliance with the devil to get hold of the weapons I needed for the army to fight British troops.’ But he blamed failure on the lack of Axis support, and ‘bitterly concluded that as a puppet in Germany’s game he was not even of sufficient importance to receive her whole-hearted support’.

The Allies Take Tunisia

The desert pendulum had at last stuck, pointing west. There were now only two more battles for 8th Army to fight, and by this time the Allied air forces were so strong–during March an average of more than 700 sorties were flown every day– that the Luftwaffe was unable seriously to challenge them for mastery of the air. Allied superiority was not confined to one particular sphere of operations. It was all-embracing. Attacks on Axis aircraft on the ground, in the air, neutralizing airfields, sinking convoys at sea, to say nothing of the support given to the advancing Armies. ‘Never before,’ said de Guingand, ‘had our Desert Air Force given us such superb, such gallant, and such intimate support.’ The Axis command was compelled to admit that they could put up no effective fight against such relentless concentrations.

While 8th Army was battling its way through the Mareth Line, Patton’s II US Corps was not idle. Indeed they greatly helped Montgomery by drawing 10th Panzer Division away from Mareth. By 17 March II Corps had occupied Gafsa. Patton’s unconventional and flamboyant methods were recalled by Alan Moorehead. When he first saw Patton he noted the weather-beaten face, the pearl-handled revolver and the remark he made to his ADC–‘Go down that track until you get blown up, and then come back and report.’ In fact the Germans had already evacuated Gafsa, and the Americans simply motored into it. El Guettar, 15 miles further east, was entered next day, and Maknassy on 22 March. A week later Alexander directed II Corps to drive forward to the Gabes road, a mission well suited to Patton’s thrusting spirit. He in turn gave the job to the 1st us Armoured Division. The United States Official History shows how the Americans were to learn, as the British had before them, that armoured strength, however courageously pressed forward, could not prevail in the face of a properly organized anti-tank defence.

The task was given to Benson Force which contained two tank battalions, a reconnaissance unit, two artillery battalions, some engineers, two infantry battalions and a tank destroyer unit. The attack began on 30 March, but did not get far. It was a familiar story. The German artillery and anti-tank weapons, well sited, mobile and used in conjunction with minefields, were just too strong. By day the leading American tanks were knocked out, and the only way to get on was to clear lanes through the mines with infantry at night

Even Patton was reluctant to order tanks to advance against such successful and expensive enemy tactics, although he toyed with the idea of sacrificing a complete tank company to blast a hole in the defences. Instead he instructed Benson to wait for air support and coordinate his attacks accordingly. In fact Benson made slow, costly progress in a series of tank-infantry actions, but the fact was that in ground so totally unsuitable for decisive fire and movement, sheer weight of artillery and numbers of tanks could not do the trick. Such skilled and determined resistance imposed on the Americans a bit by bit advance. There was no question of grand armoured exploitation.

The fact that Patton’s Corps did not make much progress was less important than the threat which they offered to the right flank of General Messe’s 1st Panzer Army, a threat which brought about the move of 21st Panzer Division to reinforce 10th Panzer Division opposite Patton, and so lighten the defensive capacity of Wadi Akarit, which Montgomery now had to overcome. The dividend of Alexander’s ability to ring the changes, thrust right-handed, left-handed or both-handed as he chose, was about to be reaped.

8th Army closed up to the Wadi Akarit position on 29 March. Montgomery decided on yet another set-piece attack by 30th Corps with 10th Corps held ready to dash forward once the last natural obstacle to his breaking into the Tunisian coastal plain had been removed. His proposal to attack on the night 4–5 April fitted well with Alexander’s plans for getting hold of the Gabes gap. Alexander intended first that Montgomery should be assisted once more by pressure from US II Corps, and then to use his main reserve, 9th Corps, to capture the Fondouk gap and get behind von Arnim’s southern corps. As might have been expected at a time when things were going badly for them, Axis counsels were divided. Kesselring wanted to hold Akarit as the last defence line in the south, and beat off any threat to the area east of Maknassy-El Guettar with armoured counter-attacks. Mussolini, on the other hand, had already authorized withdrawal to Endfidaville. Von Arnim meanwhile declared that without the fuel and ammunition, which, like Rommel before him, he so urgently needed–on 1 April he mentioned 8,000 and 10,000 tons for these two commodities as being essential requirements by German forces alone–defeat was unavoidable. He even admitted to ‘squinting over his shoulder for ships’. Like Rommel he had to make do with promises. Nevertheless the Akarit position was held, and strongly. In addition to two Panzer Grenadier Regiments, 90th and 164th Light Divisions were in the line together with four Italian divisions. 15th Panzer Division was in reserve.

The ground was mountainous, and once again it was necessary to blast a hole through the defences. Manoeuvre by itself would not do the trick. Here in these mountains was to be seen yet another change in the conduct of a battle. Montgomery’s History of Warfare contains a curiously relevant passage in which he discusses Greek tactical ideas in relation to mountainous country. He condemns the battles as mere slogging matches in which fire and movement played no part. There was no opportunity for manoeuvre, no master planning, no skilful generalship. This is not inapposite when we examine what happened at Wadi Akarit, except, of course, that there was, as customary in a Montgomery battle, plenty of fire–450 guns’ worth–and that at the lower level, notably General Tuker’s with his famous 4th Indian Division, generalship was sound. Tuker did not like Leese’s Corps plan, which was to go for and seize Roumana, and pointed out that Djebel Tebaga Fatnassa, being the key to the whole position, must be taken first. Furthermore, since the enemy was weak in infantry, the very thing needed to hold these mountainous features, whereas 8th Army was strong, and his own 4th Indian Division peculiarly suited by temperament and training to mountain fighting, Tuker guaranteed that he would take Fatnassa. 50th and 51st Divisions could then capture Roumana and the positions between Roumana and Fatnassa. All this was good advice. It was adopted, and as things turned out the decision to attack Fatnassa first, then the other objectives, with three divisions at night with no moon and as early as 5–6 April surprised the enemy. Montgomery’s signal to Churchill of 6 April contained this sentence: ‘I did two things not done by me before, in that I attacked centre of enemy position, and in the dark with no moon.’ The Nelsonian ace of using his subordinates’ ideas was up Montgomery’s sleeve too, and much of the credit both for the concept of this attack and its execution must go to Tuker and his magnificent Division.

1/2 Gurkhas were in the van of 7th Brigade and almost at once struck into the Italians of Pistoia Division. In helping to open the door which led to Axis defeat, Subedar Lalbadur won the Victoria Cross:

The dense darkness of that boulder-studded ravine hid a great feat of arms. Under command of Subedar Lalbadur Thapa, two sections of Gurkhas had moved forward to secure the only pathway which led over the escarpment at the upper end of the rocky chimney. This trail reached the top of the hill through a narrow cleft thickly studded with enemy posts. Anti-tank guns and machine guns covered every foot of the way, while across the canyon, where the cliffs rose steeply for some 200 feet, the crests were swarming with automatic gunners and mortar teams. Subedar Lalbadur Thapa reached the first enemy sangar without challenge. His section cut down its garrison with the kukri. Immediately every post along the twisted pathway opened fire. Without pause the intrepid Subedar, with no room to manoeuvre, dashed forward at the head of his men through a sheet of machine gun fire, grenades and mortar bombs. He leapt inside a machine gun nest and killed four gunners single-handed, two with knife and two with pistol. Man after man of his sections were stricken until only two were left. Rushing on, he clambered up the last few yards of the defile through which the pathway snaked over the crest of the escarpment. He flung himself single-handed on the garrison of the last sangar covering the pathway, striking two enemy dead with his kukri. This terrible foe was too much; the remainder of the detachment fled with wild screams for safety. The chimney between the escarpments was open, and with it the corridor through which 5th Brigade might pass. It is scarcely too much to say that the battle of Wadi Akarit had been won single-handed several hours before the formal attacks began.

By 0830 on the morning of 6 April most of Fatnassa was in the hands of 4th Indian Division. On their right 51st Highland Division’s attack had also gone according to plan, and Roumana was captured. 50th Division’s progress had been slower, but even so Horrocks, commanding 10th Corps, was sufficiently satisfied that a big enough hole had been made by 30th Corps for his own to pass through. He asked Montgomery for permission to do so, permission that was granted, yet it did not happen, at least not in time to finish off 1st Panzer Army at Wadi Akarit. Once again they were allowed to get away. German skill in plugging gaps with tanks and anti-tank guns obliged 10th Corps to pause, and as so often before the Axis commander authorized withdrawal just at the time when 8th Army issued orders for continuing the advance. It was a story often repeated during 8th Army’s successful exit from Alamein. Time after time the door seemed to have been pushed open by one formation for another, and equally time after time they somehow or other did not manage to get through it. There were three explanations possible for such failure. Either the door had not been properly opened, or the exploiting units were not sufficiently pushing, or the problem of dealing with the enemy’s rapidly thrown together anti-tank screen, well beyond the door, unsuspected, unanticipated and thus unplanned for, simply had not been tackled, still less solved. Of the three, the last is most likely to hold water. This omission reflected two weaknesses in the higher echelons of command–inability either to cope rapidly with the unexpected or to call for their almost overwhelming close air support at the critical moment which arbitrated between partial and complete success.

Yet Wadi Akarit had once more taken heavy toll of the Axis forces. Messe had withdrawn them back to Enfidaville, but in admitting to serious losses gave his view that it had not been una bella battaglia. From 8th Army’s position in the ring, it might have been a good battle; the three divisions of 30th Corps had all fought well. But of them all it was the Indians’ exploits in the mountains which rang loudest through the world. Even Tuker, who knew his men so thoroughly, marveled at their skill and courage. Good battle though it was, however, it was another win on points. The knock-out eluded them still.

But the ring was tightening. It was Army Group Africa which was at bay now. 1st and 8th Armies had linked up near Gafsa on 7 April and again near Kairouan four days later. Their operations became even more closely reciprocal, and with the Axis forces thus besieged, one of the questions facing Alexander was with which hand the final blow should be delivered. Montgomery understandably enough wanted his own Army to be the one, and as he closed up to Enfidaville on 11 April, he sent a signal to Alexander asking for another armoured division so that he would be strong enough to direct the next main operation. He requested that 6th Armoured Division be put under his command at once. Alexander thought differently. He wished to make use of the easier country in front of 1st Army and go for Tunis from the west. By this means he hoped to cut the Axis forces in half, drive some of them to the south to be further mauled by 8th Army, and allow the remainder to be mopped up in the north. His reply to Montgomery, therefore, far from giving 8th Army another division, took one away, 1st Armoured Division was to reinforce 9th Corps for part of the main effort by 1st Army, while 8th Army exerted maximum pressure to help. Alexander’s directive of 16 April laid down that offensive operations to destroy or take all enemy forces in Tunisia would now get under way, and that the pressure would be such that together with naval and air forces, no enemy would be able to withdraw by air or sea.

Alexander’s plan was that, whilst 8th Army contained Messe’s forces at Enfidaville, 5th and 9th Corps of 1st Army would conduct the main attack up the Medjerda Valley to Tunis; meanwhile II US Corps would make for Bizerta and the French for Pont du Fahs. 1st Army, in short, and more particularly 5th Corps, was to provide the relentless pressure, although before it was all over, 8th Army had to hand over still more reinforcements. Naval and air forces had a good deal to congratulate themselves on. It was not just that they were now required to prevent the enemy’s withdrawal–a mission they accomplished with almost total success; it was that they had been of infinite consequence in bringing about the very situation where the enemy had no alternative, except annihilation, but to attempt the withdrawal which they were to prevent. All Hitler’s efforts to increase the monthly tonnage of supplies to Tunisia failed. The principal reason for more and more sinkings was that the Allied air forces, notably those of the United States, had grown so strong that in March 1943 two thirds of the Axis ships sunk by air attacks were accounted for by us aircraft. Allied submarines also enjoyed many kills off Sicily and the west coast of Italy. Nor was this all. British and American aircraft were savaging the Axis air transport fleet. On 22 April, for example, out of 21 of the huge Messerschmitt 323s carrying ten tons of fuel each, losses from the interception of Allied fighters were so heavy–16 of them were ‘hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky’–that Göring vetoed all transport flights to Africa, until Kesselring persuaded him to relax so absurd a ruling. But only a quarter of the former sortie rate was ever again realized. The effect of all this was that in March and April sea tonnages transported were 43,000 and 29,000 compared with an average of 60,000 to 75,000 in previous months. The measure of the shortfall becomes clear when we read that even these latter, higher figures were as much as 100,000 tons per month lower than what was actually needed. Air transport, which managed 8,000 tons in March, 5,000 in April, could not make up the sum. Some reinforcements of soldiers got to Africa, but far from being able to turn the Axis tide, they at once created the need for yet more supplies, and in the end simply swelled the Prisoner of War camps.

On the other hand Allied supplies flowed in with a regularity that spoke highly of their leaders’ cooperation and machinery. Malta’s days of starvation were over for good, and having been so instrumental in winning the battle for North Africa, the island was now to figure largely in the next great Allied enterprise in the Mediterranean–the invasion of Sicily. If by severing Axis sea communications, whilst preserving their own, Allied naval and air forces had made an overwhelming contribution to the armies’ operations, their reward was in sight. The armies’ clearing of the North African shores, the opening of the Mediterranean to Allied shipping, not having to sail to the Middle East and India via the Cape of Good Hope, the advantage gained from those precious commodities, time and tonnage–the value of these prizes was incalculable. Naval forces under Admiral Cunningham had yet one more great moment of triumph just ahead of them. They stopped the enemy escaping. The entirety of Cunningham’s success is recalled for us on the last page of Heinz Schmidt’s memoirs: Six hundred and sixty three escaped. They went by air.

Before they went, however, and before the gigantic haul of men and material fell into Allied hands, there were three weeks of hard fighting to be done. This was to be an Army Group battle –the first in North Africa. In fact it was a series of smaller ones. Alexander’s general offensive, Operation Vulcan, allotted these tasks to his subordinates:

First Army will:

(a) Capture Tunis.

(b) Cooperate with 2 US Corps in the capture of Bizerta.

(c) Be prepared to cooperate with Eighth Army should the enemy withdraw to Cap Bon Peninsula.

2nd US Corps will:

(a) Secure suitable positions for the attack on Bizerta, covering the left flank of First Army.

(b) Advance and capture Bizerta with the cooperation of First Army on the right flank …

Eighth Army will:

(a) Draw enemy forces off First Army by exerting continuous pressure on the enemy.

(b) By an advance on the axis Enfidaville-Hammamet-Tunis prevent the army withdrawing into the Cap Bon Peninsula. …

This was what was supposed to happen and very broadly it was what did happen, but not without much shifting of weight, pausing, re-grouping and trying again. 8th Army took Enfidaville on 20 April, 1st Army re-took Longstop Hill on 26 April, and the 1st us Armoured Division captured Mateur on 3 May. Then Alexander made his arrangements for the last attack. In the north was the whole of II US Corps, in the south 8th Army less 4th Indian Division, 7th Armoured Division and 201st Guards Brigade, and in the centre 1st Army, with 9th Corps comprising the three formations taken from 8th Army, plus the 4th Infantry and 6th Armoured Divisions. It was 9th Corps under Horrocks which was to deal the final blow. On 6 May, it did, supported by over 2,000 bomber and fighter bomber sorties and more than 1,000 guns. It was blitzkrieg on the grand scale. Ironmongery of this sort could hardly miscarry. Tunis was occupied the same day, Bizerta the next. Finally 6th Armoured Division broke through the Hammam Lif to Hammamet.

8th Army’s battle for Djebel Garci and Enfidaville preceded Vulcan by four days, and in these actions 4th Indian Division and the New Zealanders showed again what matchless soldiers they were. At Garci 5th Indian Infantry Brigade was invited to capture the Djebel itself, and during the savage fighting for it, Jemadar Dewan Singh sustained one of the bloodiest and most exciting encounters which even the famed Gurkha warriors could boast. It was while he was scouting forward by himself:

I was challenged in a foreign language. I felt it was not the British language or I would have recognized it. To make quite sure I crept up and found myself looking into the face of a German. I recognized him by his helmet. He was fumbling with his weapon so I cut off his head with my kukri. Another appeared from a slit trench and I cut him down also. I was able to do the same to two others, but one made a great deal of noise, which raised the alarm. I had a cut at a fifth but I am afraid I only wounded him. Yet perhaps the wound was severe, for I struck him between the neck and the shoulder.

I was now involved in a struggle with a number of Germans, and eventually, after my hands had become cut and slippery with blood, they managed to wrest my kukri from me. One German beat me over the head with it, inflicting a number of wounds. He was not very skilful, however, sometimes striking me with the sharp edge but oftener with the blunt.

They managed to beat me to the ground where I lay pretending to be dead. The Germans got back into their trenches.… My platoon advanced and started to hurl grenades among the enemy. But they were also falling very near me, so I thought that if I did not move I really would be dead. I managed to get to my feet, and ran towards my platoon. Not recognizing me, I heard one of my platoon call: ‘Here comes the enemy ! Shoot him!’ I bade them not to do so. They recognized my voice and let me come in.

My hands being cut about and bloody, and having lost my kukri, I had to ask one of my platoon to take my pistol out of my holster and put it in my hand. I then took command of my platoon again.

Battles for Tunisian Djebels were apt to be costly, and the Garci-Enfidaville affair caused 8th Army many casualties. All battalion commanders in Kippenberger’s brigade, for example, were wounded. Nor did 1st Army find the steep, bare hills north of Medjez, such memorable features as Tangoucha, Longstop, the Kefs and the Djebel Ang, easier going. 38th Infantry Brigade, part of the renowned 78th Division, had much savage fighting to do there. The brigade commander, Russell, described the battle area as a series of ‘impossible fortresses’. When he later went over the battle-field accompanied by the Corps Commander, the general asked him how on earth the men had managed it. He found himself equally at a loss, but was convinced that it never would have been done at all but for first class troops led by the very best junior commanders.

Brigadier Russell might have added that his brigade was composed of Irish riflemen and fusiliers.

Further north II US Corps advanced and went on advancing. The US 1st Armoured Division, off the leash at last, swept into Mateur on 3 May, with its eye on Ferryville and beyond, whilst the 9th Infantry Division was directed on Bizerta. Perhaps the most spectacular and tactically valuable stroke was that of the British 6th Armoured Division in penetrating the German defences at Hammam Lif and driving on to Hammamet, so frustrating enemy hopes of evacuation from the Cap Bon Peninsula. Even before this was done, scenes of victory, so often to be repeated in the towns of Europe, were being enacted. A troop leader of the 17th/21st Lancers remembered being amongst the first British soldiers to reach St Germain. The fact that the enemy were only 2,000 yards away and sending shells at them and that he in his tank was firing back did not deter the French civilians. They climbed on to his tank, put flowers round it, thrust roses and bottles of wine at him. One girl even embraced him from behind while he was giving a fire order to his gunner. Outside the tank delighted watchers picked up the empty shell cases as they were thrown through the revolver port and sent a flow of wine bottles back in. Flags waved, tricolours were unfurled, women wept, firearms were discharged in the air. The hysteria of liberation took over.

Hitler’s Counter-Measures in Italy – 1943

On 18 May 1943, Adolf Hitler launches Operation Alaric [later called Operation Achse], the German occupation of Italy in the event its Axis partner either surrendered or switched its allegiance.

This operation was considered so top secret that Hitler refused to issue a written order. Instead, he communicated verbally his desire that Field Marshal Erwin Rommel should assemble and ultimately command 11 divisions for the occupation of Italy to prevent an Allied foothold in the peninsula.

The Salerno landing (Operation Avalanche) was not the first by the Allies on the Italian mainland. On 3 September Montgomery’s Eighth Army had crossed the Straits of Messina to take Reggio Calabria as a preliminary to the occupation of the toe of Italy. Hitler had nevertheless decided to discount this move as unimportant, a view shared by Montgomery, who was disgruntled at being shunted into a secondary role. The Salerno landing, by contrast, stirred Hitler to order Operation Alarich to begin. Although he failed to prevent the sailing of the Italian fleet to Malta as required by the armistice terms, the Luftwaffe did succeed in sinking the battleship Roma en route by release of one of its new weapons, a guided glider bomb. In almost every other respect, Operation Alarich (now codenamed Achse) worked with smoothness.

Washington was reluctant to commit forces to Italy because it was determined the Alliance should launch an invasion of north-west Europe without avoidable delay. Accordingly, it was very much to Hitler’s advantage that Eisenhower’s lack of landing craft and divisions had obliged him to go ashore so far to the south. In consequence Hitler was able to use the divisions which had escaped from Sicily to concentrate against the Avalanche forces, while he deployed those brought from France and elsewhere (the 1st SS Panzer Division was temporarily transferred from Russia for the mission) to occupy Rome and subdue the Italian army in the centre and north of the peninsula. Before the invasion he had received contradictory advice: Rommel, one of his favourites, had warned against trying to hold the south; Kesselring, the general on the spot and an acute strategic analyst, had assured him that a line could safely be established below Rome. He now employed both men’s talents. While Rommel took charge of the divisions which had been rushed through the Alps to put down military and civilian resistance in Milan and Turin (and to recapture the tens of thousands of Allied prisoners liberated from captivity on Italy’s defection), Kesselring organised the Tenth Army in the south to check and contain the Salerno landing.

German troops elsewhere moved rapidly to disarm and imprison Italian troops or extinguish their resistance when it was offered. The areas of Yugoslavia under Italian occupation were brought under German control or that of their Croat (Ustashi) puppets. Italian-occupied France was taken over by German troops (with tragic consequences for the Jews who had found refuge there). Sardinia and Corsica, regarded as indefensible, were both skilfully evacuated, the former on 9 September, the latter by 1 October after a Free French invading force had come to the rescue of the local insurgents, who had risen in revolt on news of the armistice. In the Italian-occupied sectors of Greece the Germans actually scored a remarkable success against the run of strategic events. Encouraged by an outbreak of fighting between the Germans and the Italian garrison of the Ionian islands on 9 September (brutally put down by the Germans, who shot all the Italian officers they captured), the British, in the teeth of strong and wise American discouragement, invaded the Italian-occupied Dodecanese islands on 12 September and, with Italian acquiescence, took Kos, Samos and Leros. Sensing an easy success, offered by their local command of the air – as the Americans had perceived but the British refused to acknowledge – the Germans assembled a superior triphibious force, retook Kos on 4 October, forced the evacuation of Samos and seized back Leros by 16 November. The Dodecanese operation, painfully humiliating to the British, was then extended into the Cyclades. By the end of November the Germans directly controlled the whole of the Aegean, had taken over 40,000 Italian and several thousand British prisoners, and had actually set back the likelihood of Turkey’s entering the war on the Allied side – Churchill’s justification for mounting his second Greek adventure in the first place.

These were not the only chestnuts plucked by Hitler from the fire raised by Italy’s defection. On 16 September an airborne task force, led by an SS officer, Otto Skorzeny, rescued Mussolini from the mountain resort in the Gran Sasso where he was currently confined. Mussolini at once proclaimed the existence of an ‘Italian Social Republic’ in the north of the country; after 9 October it was to have its own army, formed from soldiers still loyal to him and led by Marshal Rudolfo Graziani, once governor of Libya and Wavell’s opponent in Egypt. The creation of Mussolini’s successor state to fascist Italy ensured that the growing resistance to German occupation of the north would swell into a civil war, with brutal and tragic consequences. To those consequences Hitler was entirely indifferent. Italy’s change of alliance relieved him of the obligation to supply a large part of the country with the coal on which it depended for energy; it added a captive labour force to the body of Italian volunteer workers in German industry; and it brought him nearly a million military prisoners who could also be set to work for the Reich.

Meanwhile the strategic effort to minimise the effect of the Allied invasion of the mainland was developing to his satisfaction. Rommel’s deprecation of the chances of defending Italy south of Rome had proved ill founded. Kesselring, by affiliation an officer of the Luftwaffe but by training and background a product of the general staff elite, had correctly argued that the Italian terrain lent itself admirably to defence. The peninsula’s central mountain spine, rising in places to nearly 10,000 feet, throws numerous spurs east and west towards the Adriatic and Mediterranean. Between the spurs, rivers flow rapidly in deep valleys to the sea. Rivers, spurs and mountain spine together offer a succession of defensible lines at close intervals, made all the more difficult to breach because the spine pushes the north-south highways into the coastal strip, where the bridges that carry them are dominated by natural strongpoints on the spurs above.

Salerno, the spot chosen by the Central Mediterranean Force staff for the main landing in Italy, falls exactly within this topographical pattern. Although the coastal strip is unusually wide and level (the factor recommending the beaches to the planners), it is dominated on all sides by high ground and the exit northward is blocked by the massif of Mount Vesuvius. Had Kesselring had sufficient force available at the outset, he might have formed the line across the peninsula that he had assured Hitler was militarily feasible, perhaps as far south as Naples. Commanding as he did, however, only seven divisions in his Tenth Army, of which the 16th Panzer alone was at full strength, he was obliged to commit what strength he had against the northern edge of the bridgehead with the aim of denying the invaders a swift exit towards Naples, and thus win time to construct a front above the city (eventually to be known as the Winter Position).

Despite the Tenth Army’s immediate weakness, it nevertheless gave the Avalanche force a bad time in the first week of the invasion. Mark Clark, the American general commanding the Fifth Army, had two corps under his command, the British X and US VI. Supported by overwhelming naval and air bombardments, both got easily ashore on 9 September. They were slow to exploit their initial superiority, however, and next day came under heavy counter-attack from German reserves, including those from the toe of Italy who had escaped Montgomery’s army. Counter-attacks by the 16th Panzer Division were particularly effective. On 12 September it retook from the British the key village of Battipaglia, close to their boundary with the Americans; the next day, together with 29th Panzergrenadier Division, it redoubled the pressure, threatening to break the bridgehead in half and cut the British off from the Americans who lost Altavilla and Persano and were preparing to re-embark their assault divisions. The Allies managed to stabilise the bridgehead by unleashing a tremendous weight of firepower on the advancing Germans. While the infantry of the US 45th Division took to their heels, the division’s artillerymen stuck to their guns and, with naval and air support, eventually halted the German Panzergrenadiers in their tracks.

By 15 September, thanks to the landing of British armour and American airborne infantry in the bridgehead, the crisis had passed. General Heinrich von Vietinghoff, in direct command of the Tenth Army, recognised that the balance of force had now shifted against him, and Kesselring accordingly sanctioned a fighting withdrawal towards the first of his chosen mountain lines further north. Montgomery’s Eighth Army had been reinforced by the British 1st Airborne Division, which on 9 September had landed at Taranto. On 16 September spearheads of the Eighth Army, advancing from Calabria, made contact with the Americans in the bridgehead south of Salerno. Two days later the Germans began their withdrawal, covering it by blowing the bridges in their rear as the Fifth Army pursued them. On 1 October British troops entered Naples. Meanwhile the Eighth Army had pushed two divisions, including the 1st Canadian, up the Adriatic coast to capture the complex of airfields at Foggia, from which it was intended to mount strategic bombing raids into southern Germany. In early October the Fifth and Eighth Armies established a continuous line across the peninsula, 120 miles long, running along the Volturno river north of Naples and the Biferno river which flows into the Adriatic at Termoli.

The Dimensions of German Aid to Japan

Japanese Type B submarine visits Germany in 1942 

To give a quantitative picture of German assistance to the Japanese is impossible. It is clear that German deliveries were drastically limited by the shipping problem, just as were shipments from the Far East to Europe. The chief means of transport, in the absence of Japanese vessels, were the German and Italian blockade-breakers which went to the Far East to pick up raw materials for Germany. There is evidence that some of these ships departed for the Far East without being fully loaded. Presumably, the delay in negotiating the Japanese requests in Berlin or in obtaining delivery from the German manufacturer explained this situation. Since the ships were German and Italian and not Japanese, it is understandable that they followed a shipping schedule determined by German rather than Japanese needs and departure times.

During the 1941-1942 shipping season, eight ships reached the Far East; they carried a total cargo of 32,500 tons. During the 1942-1943 season, another eight ships reached the Far East, with a total cargo of 24,447 tons. No tabulation of losses incurred en route to the Far East is available. Originally, seven ships were slated to leave for the Far East during the 1943-1944 season, but in view of the heavy losses of ships returning from Asia during the previous shipping season and the general hazards of blockade breaking at the time, it is unlikely that more than one or at most two ships left. Whether any arrived is not known.

After the second half of 1943, a total of twenty submarines reached the Far East in order to take cargo back to Europe. As some of the boats carried out assignments in the Indian Ocean before going to Japan, they could not have carried a full load of cargo. Nor did any of the Japanese submarines used in blockade breaking succeed in making the return trip to Japan. The total number of boats being limited, their capacity small, and the imports desired by the Japanese difficult to crate and pack on a submarine, Japan must have derived little benefit from this phase of blockade breaking.

The maximum freight that reached Japan by sea during the period 1941-1944 was therefore in the neighborhood of 60,000 tons, roughly two-thirds of the amount that reached Germany on the more numerous voyages from the Far East. How much Germany had sent to Japan over the Siberian route prior to its closing is not known, but the amount probably did not match what the Germans received, since the Japanese government’s program was only presented in early 1941 and not acted upon for another fifteen months.

Because of the kind of commodities acquired by the Japanese, a description in terms of amounts would be less informative than similar information about the German imports. A full description by type, though it would mean more, cannot be given, since the German and Japanese data are incomplete. It is possible, however, to indicate the general areas in which Japanese purchases were strongest, to list some of the more important German products disclosed and sold to the Japanese, and to indicate in very general terms the value which these purchases seem to have had for the Japanese war economy.

The Germans shared with Japan a number of manufacturing techniques useful to the Japanese war economy—such as a special Krupp process for making cartridge steel and methods for the construction of barrel linings and for electric welding in the construction of naval vessels. Among finished war implements, the Japanese requested and obtained several pieces of artillery—the 10.5-centimeter and the 12.8-centimeter antiaircraft guns, Germany’s famous 8.8-centimeter antiaircraft and antitank guns, and a 7.5-centimeter antitank piece. Some lighter artillery, including two types of machine guns, was also acquired by the Japanese. In view of Japan’s general inferiority to Germany in artillery, all these acquisitions had great potential value to Japan. The value of the 10.5-centimeter antiaircraft gun was enhanced when Germany made available to her ally the combination radar-optical range finder and director which went with this caliber and which the Japanese could not match in quality.

Though it is not known what use Japan made of them, articles from the German optical industry must have been of great value to her. The German records disclose that numerous Leica cameras were given to the Japanese for reconnaissance, especially air reconnaissance, though manufacturing licenses and blueprints seem not to have been divulged, at least not by Leitz. The Japanese acquired a bombsight (specifications unknown), which was probably better than their own, though not as good as American models. A German stereoscopic range finder was also of great potential value.

Germany shared with Japan some of her developments in the radar field and in anti-enemy radar devices. Copies of the Würzburg and Rotterdam sets were turned over to the Japanese as was a homing device (unidentified).

In 1944, a Tiger tank was sold to Japan. The Allies commanded the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic, so underwater shipping was the only way to get the Tiger to Japan, but few vessels could carry a 30-ton hull. Submarine aircraft carriers that had corresponding characteristics were not complete, and the Tiger would have trouble reaching Japan. Most optimistic estimates put its arrival in December of 1944.

Despite these difficulties, the tank was sent to a Bordeaux port In February 1944, and the Japanese paid for the order: officially coming into possession of the Tiger, but not able to use or reverse engineer it. With no way to ship it, the tank remained in France until the summer of 1944, when the Allies landed in Normandy and put Germany on the spot.

On September 21 1944, on the authority of the Supreme High Command of the German Army, the Japanese Tiger was leased (or requisitioned, according to other sources) and passed to the field forces where it was lost somewhere on the Western Front. In view of Japan’s inferiority in armor, reproduction of the Tiger tank in Japan might have become significant in the event of an Allied landing and protracted fighting on the Japanese home islands.

Among items for the Japanese navy, the Germans turned over a gun stabilizer for surface ships. This should have been very beneficial to the Japanese, who, though generally competent in gun control, were outclassed in this respect by the Germans. For that reason, too, the Japanese may have benefited from a torpedo fire control unit for surface ships which should have enabled them to make better use of their already excellent torpedoes. Further, Germany made available a 750-ton submarine hull, which probably aided Japanese ship designers since the German model was more pressure-resistant than any Japanese design. Finally, the Japanese acquired the German navy’s automatic E-switch, a control device for computing and adjusting fire against enemy aircraft. Its use would have remedied a pronounced Japanese weakness.

Equipment for the Japanese air force would seem to have been of less value. Japan acquired specimens of the fighter planes Me-109 and FW 120, which probably were better than her own comparable types, although the United States had learned halfway through the war to cope with these planes on the European theater. A pursuit plane, the Me-163, and the jet Me-263 were also given to Japan. However, like Germany herself, Japan did not obtain and produce the jet early enough in the war to enable its superiority to offset the enemy’s greater numbers.

During the early war years, the Germans released to Japan only those items which had passed beyond the development stage. Japan was offered access to V-1 and V-2 data but refused the latter. Whether she acquired data on the submarine Schnorchel is not known.

It is difficult to measure the benefit which Japan derived from the German samples she acquired and the occasional manufacturing data she procured. Reproduction of the German-made items in Japan seems to have presented greater difficulties than either Germany or Japan at first expected. Possibly this was because Japanese engineers were not skillful enough and German technicians were sent to Japan only in rare cases. Shortages in labor and raw materials may also account for Japan’s failure to make better use of the German samples and data.

Two examples illustrate this point. In 1943 Germany had presented Japan with two submarines. These were to be examined and copied to enable Japan to wage a more effective warfare against enemy merchant shipping, presumably mainly in the Indian Ocean. Of the two boats one was lost en route to the Far East, the other one was gratefully received, and even acknowledged in a personal telegram from Hirohito. Production of the boat, however, was never begun in Japan.

Another notable example of the failure of technological assistance is the case of the German jet plane Me-263, then the only military jet in the world. A specimen of the Me-263 was acquired by the Japanese in 1944. When the plane and the accompanying Messerschmitt technicians were lost en route from Singapore to Japan, the Japanese tried to construct the plane from the blueprints, which had been flown ahead. Numerous delays occurred and instead of having the plane in production by March 1945, as they expected, the Japanese only flight-tested the first craft in July. It crashed. The story is told best in the words of the director of Mitsubishi’s aircraft production division:

Investigation disclosed that the engine failure was due to fuel feed stoppage. This was explained as follows: Because of the need for hurrying the test, Yokosuka airfield was used. This was known to be too small for safety so a minimum of fuel was loaded. So small an amount was loaded that, with high acceleration and steep angle-of-climb soon after take-off, the fuel surface dropped below the outlet level and the flow of fuel failed. As a result of this finding the whole fuel system had to be redesigned. The drain part was relocated and enlarged and a jet pump was installed. Before the next prototype engine could be built, however, the Japanese surrender occurred.

Perhaps the Japanese were more successful in copying German products of less revolutionary design. Their representatives in Berlin certainly continued right up to early 1945 to send samples and blueprints to Japan—either by submarine or eventually by military courier via Turkey and the Soviet Union. Since the Japanese did not have to pay for manufacturing licenses and data after March 1944, however, it may well be that their sustained interest in German manufacturing methods reflected what the Germans chose to call “industrial espionage” rather than the expectation of concrete military benefits.

If German technical aid was of limited value to the Japanese services and Japan’s wartime industry, one explanation can certainly be found in the lateness of the aid. The attempt to make up for lost time played a fatal role in the crash of the test jet. Loss of time and delay of negotiations in Berlin also meant that the German designs reached Japan when she was no longer able to take full advantage of them. By 1944, when many of the most important German designs reached Japan, her industry was already too badly disrupted by her disastrous supply situation and the massive American air raids to permit her to put German-made items into serial production.


How Germany’s Victories weakened the Japanese in World War 2