Hitler in Paris

Hitler pictured alongside Speer, Breker and Giesler. The Eiffel Tower can be seen in the background.

On Sunday 23 June 1940 Adolf Hitler returned to France for his infamous visit to Paris. He was accompanied by his favoured architects Albert Speer and Hermann Giesler. The artistic aspect of the party was completed by the addition of Arno Breker, Hitler’s most favoured sculptor. Both Giesler writing in ‘Ein Anderer Hitler’ and Breker in his memoirs state that the trip took place on Sunday 23 June. However, writing in his book ‘Inside the Third Reich’ Speer erroneously cites the date as 28 June 1940, but as he describes the moment when the armistice came into effect as part of the trip the date of 28 June is clearly an error on his part. Giesler later recalled how surprised he was to be stopped by the Viennese police and escorted to Vienna airport where he was placed on a courier aircraft bound for France. However there was a purpose behind Hitler’s decision to include the artists. At a personal level Hitler cared nothing for the legendary city and was only interested in Paris for its architecture. The civilian members of his entourage were there to envision how the city could be outdone by the new Berlin visualised by Hitler as the greatest and most imposing city in the world. In order to blend into the background the artist and architects were equipped with military uniforms.

Accompanied by this unusual entourage and a film crew Hitler toured the deserted streets of the French capital in the early hours of that infamous Sunday morning.

We are fortunate to have a complete record of the day which was published in the book ‘Ein Anderer Hitler’ by Hermann Giesler which contains a full eye-witness description of his famous visit to Paris on 23 June, 1940. In the process Giesler also provides a full account of his own personal conversations with Hitler concerning sweeping architectural plans for the cities of Berlin, Munich and Linz which it was envisaged would embody the concept Grossdeutschland (Greater Germany).

Giesler begins when he was stopped by a police detail on 22 June, 1940 when on his way to a building site near Vienna, and ordered to drive to the Vienna airport. There, he boarded a waiting Ju. 52 courier airplane which landed on an airstrip in northern France, after which he was driven to Adolf Hitler’s headquarters at Brûly-de-Peche, north of Sedan. The armistice was set to begin the following day at midnight. As soon as they met Hitler lost no time in relating his personal views to Giesler concerning his great triumph and his desire to see Paris as soon as possible.

‘All right, Giesler, at that time you had no way of knowing, but I was confident of my strategic plan, the essential tactical details, and my belief in the fighting power of the German armed forces. From there, the wisely planned timetable advanced naturally. I recall that during the winter [of 1939] I invited you to go with me to Paris; I’ve invited Breker and Speer to come along. With my artists, I want to look at Paris. We will set off early in the morning.’

In company with Arno Breker and Albert Speer, Hitler, along with his staff and aides-de-camp, enjoyed a simple dinner together at two long tables in a simple cottage. Giesler was struck by the lack of triumphalism.

‘There was no triumphant attitude, no booming voices – only sombre dignity. The faces of those in authority still bore the signs of the strain of the past weeks. I considered myself undeserving of the honour of sitting with them.’

The party set off from Brûly-de-Peche at 4 a.m. in the Führer’s private Ju. 52 and landed at Le Bourget airport, where a fleet of open-topped Mercedes awaited them. Hitler took his usual place in the front passenger seat and was joined by Speer, Breker, Giesler, SS Adjutant Schaub and his ordinance officer, Colonel Speidel.

‘The former military attache in Paris drove ahead of us as guide. With our dimmed lights we could only see the silhouettes of the buildings. We passed check points – the guards stepped out and saluted; one could detect that the armistice was not yet fully in force. Adolf Hitler sat in front of me and I remembered the past winter evening when he talked about Paris, and I recalled his confidence that he would view the city soon. Now his wish was coming true. But he did not come to Paris as the Supreme Commander of the German Wehrmacht – he arrived as the Bauherr (construction chief) of the new German cities which he already envisioned with their new aspects. He came here to compare architecture, to experience the atmosphere of the city in the company of his two architects and one sculptor, even though we were accompanied by a military entourage – soldiers who had certainly gained the honour of seeing the French capital with him.’

The stop on the brief tour of Paris was the Imperial Opera House. This magnificent structure was designed by the architect Garnier. Adolf Hitler had familiarised himself with the plans of the building and seemed keen to show off his knowledge. Inside the building, Giesler recalled that it was Hitler who led the way, pointing out noteworthy features of the building.

‘It might be that the disparity between the simple atmosphere of the Führer headquarters in the tiny village of Bruly to this splendid display of the historic Empire amplified the impression it made. Till that point, I was only familiar with the Opera façade and was astonished by the well thought out notion of the basic plan, impressed by the lay out of the expansive rooms: the entry halls, the lavish staircase, the foyers and the splendid, lustrous, gold inner theatre. We were standing in the middle loge. Adolf Hitler was captivated – delightful, remarkably attractive proportions, and what festivity! It was a theatre with a distinct charisma, regardless of its extravagance of the “Belle Epoque” and a stylish diversity including a hint of over-the-top baroque. Hitler repeated that its main reputation rests on these beautiful proportions. “I would like to see the reception room, the salon of the President behind the proscenium box,” said Hitler. A certain amount of hesitation took place. “According to Garnier’s plan, it must be about here.” The guard was at first muddled, but then he recollected that following a renovation the room was removed. Hitler acidly observed, “The democratic republic doesn’t even favour its President with his own reception salon.”

Hitler and his entourage then came out the front entrance in order to view the famous façade in daylight. They then moved on to the Madeleine, which did not move Hitler and the entourage was soon on the move through the deserted streets. ‘Slowly, in a wide circle, we drove around the fountains and the Luxor obelisks at the Place de la Concord. Adolf Hitler stood up in his car to obtain a panoramic view. He gazed across the large square toward the Tuileries and the Louvre, then across the Seine River to the building of the Chambre des Députés. At the beginning of the Champs-Élysées, he asked to stop. Gazing at the walls of the Admiralty, he could now observe the column gable of the Madeleine through the short street space of the Rue Royal, it was now really effective.

Adolf Hitler took his time to absorb all this – then a brief signal with his hand and we drove slowly along the somewhat rising Champs-Élysées towards the Étoile with its commanding Arc de Triomphe. Critically appraising everything, his eyes looked at the road construction, which he could see through the tree-lined streets around the Round Point. All his absorbed concentration was on the Arc and the road system on which the surrounding area of the Étoile was planned. He took in the reliefs on the right and left side of the Arc with one short glance (they capture the story of the Marseillaise), and the chiselled inscriptions (the French would not forget any of their victorious battles). He knew every detail from historical literature.

Adolf Hitler shared his thoughts about this early morning journey with Geisler who later recorded what Hitler had said to him.

‘The well-appointed expanse of the Place de la Concord impresses naturally since the square extends to the Tuileries Gardens to the Louvre, with views over the lower course of the Seine all the way to the ministries and the Chambre des Députés. Optically, it also includes the development towards the Madeleine and the wide open space of the start of the Champs-Élysées. From a man’s perspective, that’s nearly limitless. The view from the Concorde was beautiful, with its fountains and obelisk in the foreground, toward the Admiralty, the rue Royal with the Madelein in the background.’

From the Étoile they drove to the Trocadero, viewing the colossus of the 19th Century, the Eiffel Tower, across the Seine from the large terrace of the Palais Chaillot. It was here that Hoffmann took his iconic photographs which feature Geisler and Hitler. Giesler recalled that he entered into a long conversation with Hitler at that point in the proceedings.

‘Adolf Hitler told me that he considers the Eiffel Tower not only as the beginning of a new standard of buildings, but also as the start of an engineering type of tectonics. “This tower is not only synonymous with Paris and the world exhibition at that time, but it will stand as an example of classicism, and marks the commencement of a new era.” By this he meant the era of modern technology with new horizons and dimensions (Groessenordnungen), at that time unachievable. What came next were wide-spanned bridges, buildings with large vertical dimensions which because of exact engineering calculations could now form iconic structures. But only through harmonisation between engineers, artists and architects could he see the possibility of enhanced creativity. Classicism, which we have to aim at, can only be reached by tectonics with new materials – steel and reinforced concrete indeed being definitive and essential.

‘We drove on and stopped briefly at a well-proportioned city palais, which was to be the future German embassy. Adolf Hitler gave particular orders for its renovation with the support of French conservators.

‘Adolf Hitler next showed his disappointment with the Pantheon at the top of the Latin Quarter by leaving the building abruptly. Out in the open again, he shook his head and heaved a sigh.

‘“My God, it does not deserve its name, if you think about the Roman Pantheon with its classical interior, the unique lighting from the wide open ceiling – it combines dignity with gravity. And then you look at that” – and he pointed back – “more than sombre even on this bright summer day.” As they returned to their car, a few women spotted them, crying out: c’est lui – that’s him.

‘We turned around and drove through the rue de Castiglioni to the Place Vendôme, with its famous column on this magnificently shaped square, then the rue de la Paix to the Place de l’Opéra, with a lofty view of the vivid, although somewhat theatrical, facade of the Opera, now in bright light. “Certainly,” he said to me later; “it is very decorative, a bit too rich, but obviously conforming to the style taste of that era. In planning our architecture, we will aim at a classicism of sterner, sharper forms, according to our character. What I have seen in Paris forces me to compare the achievements of the German architecture of the same period: Gilly, Schinkel, Klenze, Hansen and Semper, and Siccardsburg with his Vienna Opera – I am of the opinion that they can hold their place. Not to mention the great creations of the baroque architects like Lukas Hildebrandt, Fischer von Erlach, Balthasar Neumann, Prandtauer and others. What the Germans miss is continuity and persistence in their architectural aims, but this is still recognizable in the Germany of the Middle Ages with cathedrals and domes of the city communities, and the baroque buildings of the royal houses.”’

Geisler next recalled the trip to Montmartre where Hitler barely glanced at the Sacré Cœur. From the elevated terrace in front of the church, he wanted to consider the vista of Paris he had just visited. ‘Adolf Hitler believed that, as far as he could view the concentration of Paris from here, the monuments and places stood out only weakly from the monotony of living quarters and functional buildings. The great cohesion from the Louvre to the Étoile, the Île-de-France with the Notre Dame, the flowing of the Seine to the Eiffel tower is just barely maintained. Actually, only this tower, meant and built for an exhibition, maintains – regardless of its filigree transparency seen from here – its reputation. What he said is that the Tower justifies its existence in this city only by the deliberately planned vertical tendency – an astonishing feature for that epoch. Naturally, for the city of Paris it meant a symbolic novelty, a city with such a deep historical tradition from the Romans to the very significant eras of the kings, the revolution, the empire, the buildings of the republic after Napoleon III; they are all meaningless, of no importance for the overall structure of the city – with the exception of the Eiffel Tower.’

2 JULY 1942 – ROMMEL TRIES AGAIN Part II

As the story reached the bemused but doubting Germans, British bombers and British tanks added to the woes of the men in ‘The Hotbox’, and Pienaar was reported to have called Auchinleck and said that if he was to be treated as an enemy he could take Alexandria within 48 hours.

A heavy bombardment hit the South Africans in ‘The Hotbox’ at 4.00pm, and at 4.20pm 30 tanks and infantry of 21st Panzer advanced from Deir el Shein under cover of smoke. Artillery and machine-gun fire from ‘The Hotbox’ and from Robcol on Ruweisat Ridge brought them to a halt, and 1st Armoured Division’s artillery gave support. The Germans tried again at 6.00pm and again at 7.20pm, with 90th Light joining in from the north west. Just before last light both the South African brigadier and brigade major were wounded, and a new crisis developed.

We come here to a parting of the ways between the contemporary written record in the form of the divisional war diary, and events as they were remembered by Dorman Smith

1st Brigade now came under command of what the official South African history calls ‘a makeshift staff’ of a battalion commander and an intelligence officer, who ‘clamoured’ for permission to withdraw, though the divisional war diary says only that at 10.00pm they asked for tanks to help ward off a threatened enemy attack. Pienaar, equally concerned, called up the 30th Corps commander, Norrie, and told him the brigade’s flank was wide open and its position untenable unless flank protection from armour could be provided or some armour placed under command. He said bluntly that if help was not forthcoming he would pull the brigade back. He would not, he said, allow it to be overrun.

An unsympathetic Norrie said tanks couldn’t be provided, and he saw no need to withdraw the brigade. Pienaar thereupon moved up the ladder to Dorman Smith, and from him to Auchinleck. Diplomatically, Auchinleck said he would talk it over with Norrie, and for the moment that was that. Not that it was of any comfort to the temporary 1st Brigade commander, anxiously waiting in the desert, who kept asking Pienaar for a decision, pointing out that if a withdrawal was to be carried out it should be done at night, rather than in daylight.

Around midnight Norrie came back on the line with what to him might have seemed a good compromise; 1st Brigade could be pulled back and placed in reserve, but another unit would be put in its place. At this implied slur Pienaar bridled and said that if this was to be done he would regard it as a sign of a lack of confidence and he would be forced to ask to be relieved of his command. All he wanted, he said, were some tanks or, failing this, permission to move the brigade to a position further back.

Midnight is the time when decisions are made by attrition, and a weary Norrie said Pienaar could use his discretion as to where he moved 1st Brigade, but that in any case a column of the 3rd Royal Horse Artillery would be put in its place, or just to the rear of where it had been. Pienaar pulled back 1st Brigade to a less hazardous position. At dawn South African armoured cars took a look at the old 1st Brigade positions, found some 90th Light men there and took them prisoner. At 9.30am the 3rd RHA column moved into The Hotbox, but not for long. After receiving 30 minutes’ heavy shelling, it withdrew and settled down in a position to the south and a little to the rear of 2nd Brigade, where it continued to suffer from enemy shelling. South African honour was satisfied.

Dorman Smith remembered the incident differently. As he later told the story, Pienaar rang him late at night and said he intended to withdraw his division to avoid encirclement. Dorman Smith told him in no uncertain terms that he would have to stay where he was, and Auchinleck added the weight of his authority to this. Later, according to Dorman Smith, he spoke with Norrie, who said he had had a similar conversation with Pienaar.

It would have to be said that the South African version of events is more likely to be accurate, and accords with what actually happened, and the Dorman Smith version is mentioned only because it has gained some currency. Either Dorman Smith’s memory is at fault – and an instance of this occurs later – or at this late hour of the night the tired Dorman Smith simply misunderstood what Pienaar was saying. And for that matter, Pienaar may not have been entirely clear in his request. If it was a misunderstanding it was another of July’s small tragedies, because the incident further undermined confidence in the South Africans, who were left to fight in their static position all month, and when plans were made for the hoped for pursuit of the Axis forces they were assigned the sedentary task of staying behind to man the Alamein positions.

All in all it turned out to be much ado about nothing, but it was a pointer to the cross-currents and personality conflicts that bedevilled the Eighth Army right up to the closing days of the ‘old’ army.

So, looking at all that, how can it be said that one army had attacked another without the defenders really noticing, particularly when it is remembered that 1st Armoured Division and Royal Artillery had been going hammer and tongs with the panzers on Ruweisat Ridge from late afternoon? The short answer may be that despite some fairly violent exchanges, the German thrusts may have had the appearance of probing rather than attacking.

Consider the conditions, with heat haze and dust obscuring observation and objects swimming into and out of view.

In the far north the Italians were supposed to attack the west face of the Alamein Box, but the South Africans saw no great concentration of troops, merely groups who disappeared when fired on.

In the area of 90th Light’s dawn attack, troops of two South African brigades would be standing to as the sky became light behind them and in a few minutes had flooded the desert with the full glare of day. Not much heat haze yet but probably a fair amount of dust, and out of the dust emerges some enemy transport. Nothing massive. Not the menacing force covering half the desert that usually precedes a German attack. Just a largish gaggle of trucks. As the shells fall among them, the enemy lorries turn about and disappear again. Then figures of men are seen. Shell bursts balloon around them and the Vickers guns chatter, and the figures disappear, too. After a while, the British artillery, denied visible targets, gives up.

Though the air force is fairly busy, shuttling back and forth across the sky and creating havoc at unseen targets somewhere west, the rest of the day is fairly quiet until around 3.30pm, when incoming shells suddenly begin to blossom. The South Africans become watchful and wait. Outgoing shells moan overhead with a hollow roar, the sound diminishing in comforting reassurance that each projectile is aimed the other way. Dust begins to rise out there and moving figures are seen. The eager Vickers gunners let go a few belts. The Hotbox receives a pasting from shell fire, but no tanks or infantry advance towards them.

Further south, British guns and tanks sight the familiar outline of panzer turrets – ten, twenty, maybe forty of them, not the usual hordes that intimidate the infantry and terrorise rear echelons. Turret covers clang shut and the single band radio communication network buzzes with orders, requests and information. Everyone can hear so everyone knows what’s happening. And then it’s all on. Solid shot flies, bouncing off hulls or plunging a white hot lance through toughened steel and into explosively receptive shell racks and petrol tanks. A tank glows and smokes as the men inside cook, and then a blast tosses off a turret, which falls to the ground beside the blackened hull like some grotesque, huge egg cup. Other crews are luckier. Their tank slews and stops, and they know they’ve lost a track. The hatch is thrown open and they clamber out with frantic haste, and run for dear life.

There’s something odd here, though. The Jerries don’t seem as aggressive as usual, not quite as pushy, not really wanting to come through. They usually fight as though they own the place. They don’t seem to be trying too hard today.

And then at last the sun goes, a red ball that slips with visible haste behind the western horizon obscured by the dust of battle. There’s little twilight and no cool of the evening, just a rush from day to night as though darkness, the only decency left, should not be delayed.

Tanks still burn, and occasionally there’s an eruption from within. The survivors move away and form into laager and signal their supply columns to bring up more fuel and ammunition.

And what was it all about? Where were the Jerries going, if anywhere? Were they just testing, looking for a weak spot?

At his spartan headquarters, Auchinleck writes a review of the day’s events, and tells London that ‘the expected attack had not developed by last light though some enemy tanks were seen’. And the truth is that the German thrust was not what the Eighth Army was used to.

Timid infantry and tentative armour were not the stamp of the German army, not the bold assault expected of a general reaching for Cairo.

Rommel’s perception was rather different and his optimism less assured.

He wrote of the British falling back in the south and then launching a heavy counter-attack on his open flank, and of ‘violent defensive fighting’. He still hadn’t given up, but his orders for the next day, 3 July, were more restrained. He instructed his army to attack from daybreak to 10.00am to seek out weak points – an order to probe and search. Not his style at all, though he did not abandon his southern encirclement plan and he ordered Ariete and Trieste to carry out the drive to attack 13th Corps in the rear. But if there had been little of 13th Corps in the first place, there was even less now as the Eighth Army, preparing for the next day, carried out some minor reorganisation. The Indians in their remote outpost at Naqb Abu Dweis in the far south were doing no good there and were totally exposed. Auchinleck sent them back to Qarat el Himeimat to reorganise as a battle group under 5th Indian Division. He felt, also, that Kaponga Box might now become a liability, and the New Zealanders were instructed to withdraw, leaving a battle group to hold out for another day to destroy the defences and stores. Some of the brigade pulled back under cover of darkness, leaving two battalions in charge. Auchinleck wanted 6th Brigade infantry sent back to the New Zealand base camp at Maadi because under his battle group policy he considered them ‘surplus’. But a cautious Inglis decided to keep them with the division until the situation became clearer.

One day remained in this first attempt by Rommel to break through the Alamein defences – a day in which the pattern of battle changed ominously for Rommel, hopefully for Auchinleck.

It was on this day, 2 July, that it had been planned to despatch the first troop convoy from Taranto to Alexandria to make secure the Axis occupation of Egypt.

Hungarian Armed Forces 1944-45 I

Hitler and the OKH were determined to hold Hungary within the Axis. Hitler was personally fixated on the oil fields at Nagykanizsa, and he was in any case committed to a Haltebefehl strategy in the east in 1944. Operation MARGARETHE thus brought German forces into Hungary on March 19, while the Red Army was still advancing through Ukraine. The main results of this operation were to bring Hungary’s 400,000 Jews within reach of the Schutzstaffel (SS) and to ensure that Hungary would become a battleground that fall and over the next winter. Adolf Eichmann personally led a new Einsatzgruppen that entered the country and began deporting Jews to Auschwitz . As the Red Army approached Budapest, Eichmann hoarded transport and men to ship Hungarian Jews to the great death camp in Poland. When that ceased to be possible, he took tens of thousands on death marches into western Hungary.

Operation « Margarethe » Panzer IV “Panzer-Lehr-Division”

Meanwhile, another Hungarian Army was destroyed during Operation BAGRATION in June–August, 1944. As the center of the Eastern Front collapsed and the Red Army moved into Rumania and Bulgaria that summer and fall, Hungary sought unsuccessfully to negotiate a separate peace with Moscow. In the “Debrecen offensive operation,” Soviet forces penetrated to the Pustyna plain starting on October 6, 1944. The Red Army penetrated nearly 80 miles in two weeks, against strong opposition. On the 11th a secret ceasefire was agreed. Horthy announced publicly on the 15th that he was seeking a permanent armistice with Moscow. That provoked a coup by the domestic fascist organization Arrow Cross, which was supported by German special forces. The internal conflict briefly threatened to split apart the 25-division strong Hungarian Army. One commander went over to the Soviet side, but his officers did not follow. Most Hungarian troops continued to fight alongside the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS against the Red Army. In part, loyalty to the Axis was sustained by the fact that an ancient enemy, the Rumanian Army, had already switched sides and sent troops into Hungary in the company of the Soviets.

The defence lines of Hungary 1944-45

The Arrow Cross Regime

Following the failed armistice and his initial refusal, Horthy – practically being in Waffen-SS custody – was eventually persuaded by the Germans to name Ferenc Szálasi as the new prime minister. Soon after the new prime minister was officially inaugurated in power, he and his new Minister of War, General Beregfy, reviewed the first Honvédség unit which had changed allegiance to him, greeting the troops with the straight-arm Nazi salute. Soon, other units of the Budapest Garrison pledged allegiance to the new leader. Only sporadic fights took place between German and Hungarian units due to improper information flow, mostly in countryside, with few casualties from both sides. The political and military takeover in the Honvédség was carried out smoothly, as the Hungarian soldiers were educated not to mix with politics and to strictly follow orders from their official leaders.

Immediately after the Arrow Cross takeover, reprisals followed. Colonel General Lajos Veress, commanding officer of the Hungarian Second Army, an old fashioned Szekler officer loyal to Horthy, was arrested on the orders of Generaloberst Gotthard Heinrici, commander of the 1. Panzerarmee stationed in Hungary, and interned. Veress had earlier been nominated by Horthy as Homo Regius, i.e. the King’s Trustee, in the event that the Regent was incapacitated, to perform the duties of the head of state, and thus it was important for the Germans that he be quickly eliminated. Command of the Second Army was taken over by Major General vitéz Jenő Major (born Mayer), commander of the 1st Armoured Army Corps and Chief Inspector of all armoured units. The commanding officer and the Chief of Staff of First Army, Colonel General Béla Miklós and Colonel Kálmán Kéri, avoided arrest only by crossing the frontline over to the Fourth Ukrainian Front. Command of First Army was taken over by Lieutenant General vitéz Dezső László (born Laucsek), while Colonel László Csettkey was hastily named to the position of Chief of the General Staff. The commanding officer of the Honvédség’s last army, the Third, Lt. Gen. vitéz József Heszlényi, was a well-known nationalist and anti-Soviet. Therefore, he was not even initiated by Horthy into his plans. Upon hearing the Regent’s proclamation, he took a firm position against switching sides and co-operating with the Soviets. Therefore, Heszlényi was the sole army commander allowed by the Germans to retain command of his army after 16 October. He was even promoted to full general (colonel general) on 1 November.

Besides the key military men, many political figures were also arrested and thrown into jail – often trading places with freshly released Arrow Cross and other far-right sympathisers as well as common criminals. A total of ten Honvédség generals were arrested, including retired high officers – Vilmos Nagy and Ferenc Szombathelyi, former Minister of Defence and Chief of Staff of the Honvédség – Horthy’s trusted men, known also for their pro-Western stances. Others, such as General Lajos Csatay and his wife, committed suicide while under arrest. Some others, such as General János Vörös, managed to avoid arrest by defecting to the Soviets. Finally, there were a handful of officers who, as a protest against the new rule, asked to be relieved from their respective posts and placed in reserve. Their wish was duly granted. Most Honvédség officers, however, obeyed the new leader’s orders, and believed that their country must be defended against the Soviet Army at any costs. They reluctantly pledged allegiance to Szálasi and carried on with their respective duties after taking a new oath, mandatory from 20 October. It has to be stressed again that even if most Magyar officers continued to serve under Szálasi’s regime, it does not necessarily mean that they were Nazis or extremists – a notable exception being Colonel General Beregfy, the new Minister of War, an open follower of the Nazis. As officers, they were educated not to mix with politics, and to follow the orders given by the country’s rulers. They were also ready to continue to defend their country until the very end, as this was their duty.

Szálasi’s new Government of National Unity – which proclaimed him Nemzetvezető (the Nation’s Leader), on 3 November – was made up by fifteen people. Theoretically, the government was a coalition of four far-right parties; however, practically all powers were concentrated in the hands of Szálasi. All but five were Arrow Cross and so-called Hungarist Movement members. The role of deputy prime minister (without portfolio) was taken over by Jenő Szőllősi (born Naszluhácz), a pharmacist from Makó, and Szálasi’s long-time follower. Gábor Vajna became Interior Minister.

The young baron Gábor Kemény was charged with Foreign Affairs. As mentioned, Colonel General Károly Beregfy took over the Ministry of Defence as both commanding officer and Chief of Staff – a novelty in the Honvédség. The economic portfolio was handed over to Lajos Reményi-Schneller, a long time Member of Parliament, who was always Germany’s trusted man in the Budapest Parliament. Szálasi’s right hand, Emil Kovarcz, headed a new institution, tasked with the ‘nation’s total mobilization for war’. Colonel General Vilmos Hellebronth was tasked with organising the (war) industrial production. The Kingdom of Hungary was renamed the Hungarist Labour State (Hungarista Munkaállam) and restructured, liberally intertwining far-right (fascist and nationalist-extremist), as well as left (socialist) and far-left (communist) ideologies. The Germans did not assist Szálasi in his political restructurings, being interested only in the total military mobilization and economic exploitation of Hungary for the joint war effort. Berlin had no particular interest in the ‘specifically Hungarian fascism’.

Along with the traditional national red–white–green flag, the Party’s red–white striped flag – based on another traditional Hungarian symbol, the so-called Árpád-striped flag, in use from the eleventh century by the House of King Árpád – with the four-arm Arrow Cross symbol in its centre became official. Even the country’s traditional coat-of-arms was changed to reflect the new reality, introducing an Arrow Cross and a large ‘H’ for ‘Hungarism’.

As Hungary’s new leader, Szálasi became the head of the Honvédség as well. He did not assign any rank to himself, calling himself a rank-less Honvéd or private. In fact, he was a well-decorated officer in the First World War, who achieved the rank of major. He renounced his rank in 1935 when he entered politics. Accordingly, when he first visited Hitler in Berlin in December 1944, he showed up in a common Honvéd’s uniform, with no rank or decorations – in sharp contrast to most other foreign dignitaries. This attitude was reportedly appreciated by Hitler, who also did not take any military rank, or wear any medals except the few ones he was awarded with during WWI. Despite the first positive impression, Hitler was unimpressed by Szálasi and his incoherent line of thought. Nevertheless, he had no choice but to deal with him on the few issues he wanted to share with the Hungarians.

Under the direct supervision of Szálasi, the Honvédség was fundamentally restructured. In direct contrast to the army’s traditional non-political stance, emphasis was placed on the soldiers’ ideological re-education, in line with the new doctrine. The Honvédség Headquarters’ 6th Department was reorganized and charged with controlling printed media (censorship) and spreading party propaganda. The usage of the word ‘Sir’ and all other ‘old-fashioned’ courteous appellations – many dating from the k.u.k. Austro-Hungarian Monarchy era – were abolished, every soldier being called only by his rank. From late December 1944 on, the straight-arm Nazi salute was ordered to be used in the army, along with shouting a slogan, ‘Persistence! Hail to Szálasi!’ (Kitartás! Éljen Szálasi!). However, this order had little, if any, effect among the Honvédség rank and file. In many units it was not even officially announced, let alone applied. This Nazi salute was therefore used only by a handful of party members and ardent followers of the extremist ideology. It has to be noted that a few progressive elements were introduced in the army as well. Among them was a more significant emphasis on the NCOs, offering to the worthy and skilled a better chance for promotion to officer rank. Their living conditions improved somewhat as well. Several anachronistic traditions were also abolished. These few progressive steps were overshadowed by the retrograde manner of Szálasi’s vision, however.

In late October 1944, a new government office was established to oversee the total mobilization of industry and agriculture on behalf of the war effort, headed by Colonel General Ferenc Farkas. As of 10 December 1944, a general mobilization was proclaimed. Later on, with the war situation turning to the worse for Hungary, all able-bodied men between fourteen and seventy were ordered for duty, most employed as workers in the ‘Hungarist Labour Army’, established on 15 February 1945. Selected men were sent to Germany, to be trained in German-style warfare and equipped with modern German weapons. Szálasi and his entourage envisaged raising not less than twenty new army divisions, placed under direct command of the party – denoting their deep distrust of the traditionalist Honvédség. In parallel – as detailed earlier – in accordance to Berlin’s wishes, four Hungarian Waffen-SS divisions were to be raised as well. The Germans promised to use these main units solely on Hungarian soil, against the Red Army. Needless to say, these grandiose plans lacked any substance, as there was no manpower left in the still unoccupied part of Hungary to man these ‘paper’ divisions.

Under the leadership of opposition leftist Parliament Member Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky, a new underground resistance organization called The Liberation Committee of the National Hungarian Uprising (Magyar Nemzeti Felkelés Felszabadító Bizottsága) was formed on 9 November 1944. The organization was made up of the left-leaning parties, which had earlier united in the so-called Patriotic Front, as well as a variety of leftist civilian and military resistance groups. The military wing of the committee was led by Lieutenant General (retired) János Kiss, a pre-war infantry commissioner assigned to the Honvédség’s commanding officer. The committee’s intention was to issue a proclamation to the nation, the Soviet government and the Allies and to establish contact with Red Army commanders approaching the Hungarian capital. The resistance movement’s final goal was to persuade the Honvédség to turn arms against the Germans and to assist the Soviets in taking over Hungary. This ill-organized group lacked any proper support; thus it was doomed from the start. Csendőr detectives of the National Accountability Detachment (Nemzeti Számonkérő Különítmény) soon begun to track its members’ movements. In the end, the committee was betrayed by one of its members. The leaders, including Lieutenant General Kiss, were captured on 22 November and hanged on 8 December following a court-martial. The resistance movement’s leader, Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky, was executed on Christmas Eve at Sopronkőhida, after the Parliament refuged at Sopron revoked his immunity.

On 4 December, the Hungarian leader, accompanied by the Hungarian Minister of Home Defence and the Foreign Minister and other officials, paid an official visit to Berlin. Initially, the Führer was visibly relieved to welcome the new Hungarian leader instead of Horthy. He shared with them his unabated belief that soon there would be a sharp turn in the war’s outcome with the introduction of the so-called wonder weapons, including the V1, V2 and the mysterious V3. Hitler reaffirmed his trust in Hungary and his plans for a massive counter-attack in south-west Hungary, which would drive the Red Army out of the country. However, the series of talks, which also involved von Ribbentrop and Guderian, ended with no concrete results, Hitler not promising anything to the new Hungarian leader. At the end, both men had developed mistrust in each other. Nevertheless Szálasi sought a new round of talks in April–May 1945. He also planned to meet Mussolini in February–March 1945, which obviously did not materialize either.

Despite the disappointment on a personal level, the Hungarian leader left Berlin firmly trusting in the ‘final victory’. However, by then, the Red Army was already at the gates of Budapest.

Hungarian Armed Forces 1944-45 II

On 29 October 1944, the Red Army started its offensive against the city. More than 1,000,000 men, split into two operating maneuver groups, advanced. The plan was to cut Budapest off from the rest of the German and Hungarian forces. On 7 November 1944, Soviet and Romanian troops entered the eastern suburbs, 20 kilometers from the old town. The Red Army, after a much-needed pause in hostilities, resumed its offensive on 19 December. On 26 December, a road linking Budapest to Vienna was seized by Soviet troops, thereby completing the encirclement. The “Leader of the Nation” (Nemzetvezető), Ferenc Szálasi, had already fled on 9 December.

The Siege of ‘Fortress Budapest’

The day following the last wartime Christmas Eve, Soviet troops completely encircled the Hungarian capital. Hitler named SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS und Polizei Karl Pfeffer-Wildenbruch as commanding officer of what he had earlier declared ‘Fortress Budapest’, which had to be defended at all costs. Besides approximately 800,000 civilian inhabitants and refugees, Budapest was defended by less than 100,000 armed men. To the 51,000 regular Hungarian and 41,000 German soldiers, several hundred policemen, gendarmes and guards, approximately 2,000 men of Arrow Cross special detachments as well as party members can be added, the number being completed by ad hoc defence units formed from the civilian population. Soviet Army commanders trusted with the speedy capture of Budapest seriously inflated the number of defenders, mentioning 188,000 combatants, to better explain to Stalin the reason for the long siege of over two months, and in order to justify the considerable number of civilian citizens taken prisoner, or pressed into forced labour after the fall of Budapest (a total of 138,000 prisoners were reported taken during the fight for Fortress Budapest, exceeding by far the total number of armed men, about half of which died or were wounded during the fighting). The defenders faced a total of approximately 157,000 Soviet and Rumanian soldiers, assembled in the ‘Budapest Group’. Additionally, a similar number of other Red Army troops were also indirectly committed to the assault.

There was a small group of 2,534 Hungarian volunteer soldiers who fought alongside the Soviets in capturing the western district of Budapest. Six hundred additional soldiers joined them later on. These men, mainly former prisoners of war and deserters, were assembled in the ‘Volunteer Regiment of Buda’ – the only Hungarian unit that officially fought alongside the Allies against the Axis – placed under direct command of the Red Army and not the pro-Allied Interim Hungarian government, formed earlier at Debrecen. These Hungarian volunteers, led by former Lieutenant Colonel Oszkár Variházy, suffered appalling losses. Over six hundred men, representing almost one quarter of the regiment’s initial strength, were killed, and many more wounded. Ironically, after the siege of Budapest ended, most of the pro-Soviet survivors were disarmed by the Soviets and transported into the USSR as prisoners of war, along with Budapest’s surviving defenders and captured civilians.

Despite stiff resistance offered to the attackers, failed repeated German counter-attacks from the west and the desperate efforts to supply the Axis troops with ammunition and other supplies via a massive air bridge, the defenders’ situation became desperate by mid-January 1945. The last Axis troops withdrew from Pest to Buda, the capital’s western district, and blew up behind them all standing bridges spanning the Danube river. Soon, most of Buda also fell to the Soviets. On 11 February the survivors finally decided to defy Hitler’s order and tried to break out of the encirclement. The desperate attempt was a complete failure, as communication had either been intercepted, or someone had betrayed the plans to the Soviets, who massacred most of the weakened escapees. Eventually, of the approximately 14,000 German, and 2,000 Hungarian soldiers, along with about 2,500 Arrow Cross members and civilians who attempted to break out, only 785 people managed to escape death or Soviet capture and reach the Axis lines. The actual fight for the Hungarian capital ended on 13 February.

During the fifty-one days the actual operation to capture Budapest lasted, more than half of the capital’s armed defenders were either killed or wounded. Officially, 19,718 inhabitants died during the siege and 32,753 houses were destroyed. The attackers lost an estimated 75–80,000 soldiers.

 Officially, Soviet (and contemporary Russian) history, along with a handful of current Hungarian left-leaning politicians and historians, label the fall of Budapest as a ‘liberation’. In fact, for most Hungarians, it was merely an occupation – one occupying force being replaced by another one. However, while the German occupation lasted only one dreadful year, the Soviet occupation of Hungary lasted until 1991.

The territory taken over by the Soviet Army and the so-called Ideiglenes Nemzeti Kormány (INK, Interim National Government), was formed on 22 December in Debrecen, eastern Hungary. The members of the new pro-Soviet government were chosen from leftist politicians, high-ranking officers who had earlier defected to the Soviet side or had been sent by Horthy to negotiate the failed armistice, as well as respected local personalities who were willing to deal with the Soviets. Initially, the communists – some in exile in Moscow for many years – received only second-ranking portfolios. However, they had the real power behind the scenes. General Béla Miklós became the prime minister, General János Vörös the Minister of Defence with Colonel Kálmán Kéri the Chief of Staff, General Gábor Faragho the Minister of Public Affairs, and Ferenc Erdei the Minister of the Interior. In its first public declaration, the INK ascertained legal continuity with Horthy’s deposed old government. The next major step was to declare war on Germany. This bold declaration – most probably made under Soviet pressure – was, in fact, hollow, as the INK did not possess any troops. Moreover, even the so-called ‘democratic Hungary’ was technically still in a state of war with the Allies for a short while, as the official armistice between Moscow and Debrecen was signed only on 20 January 1945. The actual forming of the envisaged new Hungarian armed force, officially known as Magyar Honvédség (thus devoid of the royal appellation) – what the left-wing press called ‘Democratic Honvédség’ – could thus only be started after the armistice became official.

Building, training, arming and then engaging in combat, the new army took high priority for the Interim National Government. The Hungarians hoped that by taking an active part in the closing stages of the anti-German war they could obtain favours from the Soviets, and could thus influence the final outcome of the Hungary’s post-war status – particularly her borders. However, Stalin was not interested in a rapid building of a ‘democratic’ Hungarian Army, so the efforts by members of the INK were in vain. Unaware of the Soviet dictator’s intentions, the Hungarian delegations signed the armistice, which stipulated, among other things, the forming of eight heavily equipped infantry divisions. However, this was quite unrealistic, as the chance of enlisting approximately 150,000 men in a war-ravaged country – half of which was still in Axis hands – was virtually impossible. Nevertheless, Vörös, Kéri and other high-ranking officers in charge started fervently to raise the first two divisions (the 1st and the 6th) in early February 1945. Both new divisions were formed at Jászberény, some 120 kilometres west of Debrecen and 70 kilometres east of Budapest. The 1st Infantry Division was placed under command of Colonel Tibor Szalay, while the 6th Infantry Division was commanded by Colonel László Székely. The soldiers came from various prisoner of war camps and local volunteers. Soon, more than 50,000 men had been assembled under the flag of the new Magyar Honvédség. Therefore, the INK started to form two additional divisions. The main problem now was not the manpower, but the armament, supposed to be delivered exclusively by the Red Army. However, deliveries did not arrive, being delayed for various reasons. When some armament finally arrived in March, with further time necessary for training, the first combat-ready units started to deploy to the front, already located in Austria, only in mid-April. By the time the Hungarian soldiers arrived in the actual front zone, the war was over. Therefore, they saw no combat, and thus could not achieve any war merits on behalf of the new ‘democratic’ Hungary.

Parallel to the forming of the new ‘democratic’ Honvédség, the old Royal Honvédség still held under its control the western part of Hungary and kept fighting the intruders. Of the three armies, only two existed in mid-February: the First Army under the command of General Dezső László, deployed in the area north of Danube, in the Felvidék region, and the Third Army, under the command of General József Heszlényi, controlling parts of the Transdanubia (western Hungary). At this stage, the total manpower of the Honvédség stood at less than 210,000 men, down from the over one million soldiers available prior to Horthy’s proclamation of armistice.

Following the fall of Budapest, the increasingly irrelevant Hungarian Parliament sought refuge in Sopron, the last major city in western Hungary, located just a few kilometres from the Third Reich’s borders. The office of the prime minister and the Ministry of Defence relocated to Kőszeg, while the Ministries of the Interior, External Affairs and Finance moved to Szombathely, also close to the German borders. Szálasi set up his quarters at a villa close to Velem village. From there, he regularly toured the remaining areas of Hungary still under Axis control, trying to persuade the soldiers and civilians for continued resistance to the ‘Soviet menace’. Despite these desperate measures, defections among the rank and file were commonplace. Many soldiers, mostly from the First Army, tired of the war, believed the Soviet propaganda and crossed the frontline, in hope of a quick return to their homes. However, despite the Soviets’ promise, most found themselves in closed railway cattle cars on the way to the USSR as prisoners of war.

In the meantime, Hitler decided on a last stand in south-western Hungary in early March. The Axis counter-attack between Lake Velence and Lake Balaton, known as ‘Operation Spring Awakening’, was to be the last large Axis offensive and the last major tank battle of the war. The goal was to secure the vital oilfields in Zala County and cut the Soviet frontline in two. A total of 140,000 German and Hungarian soldiers, supported by an impressive one thousand tanks and assault guns, 3,200 guns and mortars, as well as around 850 aircraft, were amassed for Hitler’s last large-scale offensive. The attack, launched on 6 March, initially surprised the Red Army. However, after a promising start for the Axis, the operation proved to be a failure in less than two weeks. Although an armoured spearhead did reach River Danube at Dunapentele, one of the offensive’s main goals, it could not keep this achievement due to lack of sizeable supporting infantry. After only eleven days, the Germans were driven back to the positions they held initially.

The failed offensive was followed by a hasty retreat beyond the Reich’s borders, into Austria (Ostmark). Hungary’s second largest city, Győr, fell on 28 March. A day earlier, the last Crown Council was held on Hungarian soil. The Minister of Home Defence, Beregfy, was still optimistic, although his troops controlled only a fraction of the country. Next day, Szálasi and his government abandoned the headquarters and moved it into German-held Austria. On 12 April 1945, the last shots were fired in Hungary proper. Hungary was completely overrun by the Red Army.

Finnish Air Force WWII

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Finnish Air Force: Messerschmitt Bf 109 G-2 fighter at Helsinki Malmi airport in June 1943.

The Finnish Air Force (FAF or FiAF) is one of the branches of the Finnish Defence Forces. Its peacetime tasks are airspace surveillance, identification flights, and production of readiness formations for wartime conditions. As a separate branch of the military, the Finnish Air Force was founded on 4 May 1928, having existed officially since 6 March 1918 as the Army Corps of Aviation.

In the 1930s, two controversies hindered Finnish aircraft acquisition. The first was the issue of whether fighters or bombers should have priority (the need for fighters seeming paramount). The second was the country from which to purchase aircraft. The head of the Defense Council, Carl Mannerheim, favored Germany, and the air force commander, Colonel Jarl Lundquist (later a lieutenant general), favored Britain. Mannerheim stressed the danger of air attacks on Finnish cities when arguing for more funds for the air force, but he gave priority to air support for ground forces when war came. In September 1939, the Finnish Air Force (FAF) had only 36 modern interceptors (Dutch Fokker D-XXIs) and 21 bombers (14 Bristol Blenheims and 7 Junkers K430s). Lundquist deployed his limited fighter assets forward to protect the army and defend as much Finnish air space as possible. Following the Soviet invasion of Finland in November 1939, Finnish bombers attacked airfields and supported ground forces. In late December 1939, the FAF was able to purchase additional Fokker fighters, but its best aircraft came in the form of Morane-Saulnier MS-406s purchased from France. The Finns purchased additional Blenheims, U. S. Brewster F2A Buffalos (the Finns enjoyed considerable success with this much-maligned aircraft), Italian Fiat G-50s, and additional MS 406s. Most arrived too late for the war.

During this Finnish-Soviet War of 1939-1940, also called the Winter War, the FAF supposedly accounted for approximately 200 Soviet aircraft, and more than 300 others were destroyed by antiaircraft fire or on the ground. Finnish losses during the war amounted to 62 aircraft.

In 1941, when Finland again went to war with the Soviet Union (the Finnish-Soviet War of 1941-1944, also called the Continuation War), Finland’s air force had increased substantially. It possessed 144 modern fighters (a mixture of U. S., British, French, Dutch, and Italian planes); 44 British and ex-Soviet bombers; and 63 mostly British and German reconnaissance planes. Once the Continuation War began, Finnish access to aircraft from other nations except Germany was cut off. The Finns did have their own aircraft industry, which produced limited numbers of aircraft including the VL Myrsky II fighter.

Finnish Air Force strategy stressed aggressiveness; isolated fighters usually attacked no matter the number of Soviet aircraft. The FAF employed a blue swastika marking (no relation to the Nazi version) for national identification. The Luftwaffe and FAF cooperated in this conflict, although neither could prevent Soviet air raids into Finnish territory nor completely screen the Finnish army from air attacks.

Finnish Air Force (in Russo-Finnish Wars)

Seeds of tradition were sown in the Ilmailuvoimat (the Finnish Air Force) during the Winter War (30 November 1939-12 March 1940) against the Soviet Union. Finnish air operations hit their stride during the Continuation War, so called because it continued the conflict begun by the Soviets in 1939. The first real combat for the Ilmailuvoimat occurred during the Soviet invasion of Finland. In this war, the Finns scored 190 confirmed kills and more than 100 probables. They achieved a 16:1 ratio with the Soviets-in aerial combat, the Finns shot down 16 Soviets for every one of theirs the Soviets downed.

The small and ill-equipped Ilmailuvoimat followed certain principals to ensure success. First, by concentrating its fighter power and using the element of surprise, it achieved temporary air superiority. Second, it flew in small, flexible formations. Next, it demanded that its pilots be skilled in aerobatics and combat maneuvers. Finally, Finnish pilots were continuously trained until they were masters in shooting accuracy.

Although Finland did not share the Nazi political ideology, it still formed an alliance with Germany to defend itself against the Soviet Union. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, Finland went to war. The air force began the Continuation War with 120 fighters (Brewsters, Fiats, Curtisses, Morane-Saulniers, and Hurricanes) and 58 mostly obsolete reconnaissance planes.

Initially, the Finns were quite successful against the Soviets, achieving a 32:1 exchange ratio. As the war went on, the Finnish forces became less effective despite the acquisition of limited numbers of German Messerschmitt Bf 109Gs and Junkers Ju 88s.

The Battle of the Gulf of Finland is the best example of air operations during the war. The Finnish fighter pilots were successful, attaining an average exchange ratio of 25:1. Their strategy of focusing on aerial combat made the difference; raids on Soviet air bases were not worth the risk. The Soviets had no shortage of aircraft but lacked experienced pilots. By focusing on eliminating these trained Soviet pilots, the Finns achieved air superiority.

The Soviets did not wish to spend what was necessary to defeat the Finns militarily, so on 4 September 1944 a peace agreement was signed. The Ilmailuvoimat again finished a war with more fighters than it started with. Finland ended with the largest proportion of aces in the world in relation to population. Most of the Finn aces survived the war.

References Kirby, D. G. Finland in the Twentieth Century. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1979. Tillotson, H. M. Finland at Peace and War, 1918-1993. Wilby, UK: Michael Russell, 1993. Trotter, William R. A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish War of 1939-40. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 1991. Nikunen, Lieutenant General (ret.) Heikki. The Finnish Air Force (FAF): A Historical Review. Helsinki: Finnish Air Force, 1993.

Operation Axis

Moltke also said something else that became famous. Writing in his History of the 1870 War (Geschichte des Krieges 1870), he claimed that

It is an illusion to believe that one can work out a plan of campaign far in advance and then carry it through to the end. The first collision with the enemy’s main body, and the outcome of that clash, creates a new situation (Lage).

Usually shortened in military discourse to “no plan survives contact with the enemy,” it has become one of the most quoted aphorisms in the canon. The condensed version usually leaves off the important qualifier about “the first collision with the enemy’s main body” (der erste Zusammenstoss mit der feindlichen Hauptmacht), but it works nonetheless as a general truism, warning the commander that the enemy will have something to say about how things go.

The only problem with this famous quote is that it is not true. Sometimes—rarely, to be sure, but sometimes—your plans go off exactly as you draw them up, or even succeed beyond your wildest dreams. The Wehrmacht had already had a few such moments in this war: Case Yellow in 1940, for example, or Operation 25, the campaign in Yugoslavia in 1941. Another wildly successful undertaking was Operation Axis. In any operation, so much depends on the attitude of the enemy. Some fight tooth and nail, some put up a good appearance, and some disappear altogether. In response to Operation Axis, the Italian army chose the third option.

Operation Axis deserves more scholarly attention than it has gotten. The operation was of immense scope and vast complexity and could have gone wrong at virtually any point. Even a casual glance at the operational plan would seem to uncover any number of places where it could have collapsed. Beyond that, it was something completely new. Military history knows no operation quite like it: a murderous and bloody assault on an erstwhile ally in which the casualties would run into the tens of thousands. Perhaps only the Wehrmacht, one of the most ruthless military organizations of all time, one that executed tens of thousands of its own soldiers in the course of the war, could have run it as effectively.

The Germans had two army groups in Italy. Army Group B (under Rommel) was in upper Italy, with its headquarters at Garda. Despite its designation as an army group, Rommel’s command was essentially the size of a small army, with eight divisions grouped into four corps: Corps Witthöft (44th and 71st Infantry Divisions); LXXXVII Corps (76th and 94th Infantry Divisions); II S.S. Panzer Corps (S.S. Panzergrenadier Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler and 24th Panzer Division); and LI Mountain Corps (65th and 305th Infantry Divisions, still in the process of arriving in September). Overseeing this relatively modest array, Rommel’s mission was to disarm no fewer than three Italian armies. They included the 8th Army, headquartered in Padua (XXIII, XXIV, and XXXV Corps); the 5th Army, headquartered in Viterbo (II and XVI Corps); and the 4th Army, headquartered in Sospel in southern France (I, XII, and XV Corps). The task of disarming the 4th Army would also involve units from the German 19th Army, currently occupying the region as part of Army Group D.

The second main grouping of German forces in Italy was Kesselring’s OB-Süd. He too had eight divisions, grouped into three corps: XI Parachute Corps (Fliegerkorps) in the vicinity of Rome (2nd Fallschirmjägerdivision and 3rd Panzergrenadier Division); XIV Panzer Corps (1st Parachute Panzer Division Hermann Göring, 15th Panzergrenadier Division, and 16th Panzer Division), in the region of Naples; and LXXVI Panzer Corps (26th Panzer Division, 29th Panzergrenadier Division, and the 1st Fallschirmjäger Division) in the far south. Once again, the mission was daunting: to disarm the Italian forces around Rome and points south. The sector around Rome itself was Kesselring’s biggest worry because it included the heaviest formations in the Italian army: the Corpo d’Armata motocorazzato (literally a “motorized army corps,” but usually described in German sources, quite rightly, as a “Panzer corps”). It included the Centauro and Ariete armored divisions, the motorized infantry division Piave, as well as the Granatiere de Sardegna (“Sardinian Grenadiers”) infantry division; the XVII Corps (motorized infantry division Piacenza, infantry divisions Re and Lupi di Toscana, and the 220th and 221st Coastal Divisions); and the Corpo d’Armata de Roma (the “Rome Army Corps”), including the infantry division Sassari, the light infantry division Podgora, and an armored infantry regiment. Further to the south lay the Italian 7th Army (headquartered in Potenza), including the IX, XIX, and XXXI Corps. Kesselring was also responsible for disarming Italian forces on the islands of Corsica, Sardinia, and Elba. He had the Reichsführer-S.S. Brigade on Corsica, as well as the 90th Panzergrenadier Division on Sardinia. But here, too, German forces were vastly outnumbered, with two Italian corps on Sardinia (the XIII and XXX) and one on Corsica (the VII). As for Elba, it had only a single Italian coastal regiment in occupation, along with garrison troops—some 6,000 men in all. The German contingent on this beautiful little island numbered a mere 80 men, however, and they couldn’t have been feeling very comfortable.

We could say the same for the entire Wehrmacht in Italy. There is no German documentation to show that anyone was particularly confident that Operation Axis would go smoothly. On the contrary, the entire operation took place in a state of the highest consternation on the German side, especially with the Allies about to descend somewhere on the Italian coast. Kesselring, Rommel, and the rest thought that they could handle the Italians, and probably give a decent accounting against the Allies. No one was excited about trying to do both at the same time.

There was one last element of uncertainty. Although everyone agreed that the mission was to “disarm” the Italians, Entwaffnung was an undefined term at best. In the course of the operation, which commenced on the evening of September 8, 1943 Entwaffnung came to mean almost anything, from surrounding Italian barracks with tanks and issuing a bold pronunciamento demanding the surrender of the unit, to protracted negotiations between the German and Italian commanders, to German appeals to their old comrades and brothers in arms from North Africa. Kesselring used all of those stratagems in order to induce the Italian formations guarding Rome—the Centauro and Ariete armored divisions and the motorized infantry division Piave—to lay down their weapons on September 9, a crucial factor in keeping open the German lines of communication to the formations stranded in southern Italy.

It didn’t always go so peacefully, however. The first attempt by the 3rd Panzergrenadier Division to rush the capital came up against tough resistance at Manziana and Monterosi, and there would be fighting up and down the peninsula and in the islands: Naples, Barletta, Monterotondo, and Corsica. This was low-intensity stuff, but a few spots witnessed full-scale pitched battles. The most notable was the Greek island of Cephalonia, where German mountain troops (Gebirgsjäger) under General Hubert Lanz had to overcome tough Italian resistance from the Acqui Division. The fighting here lasted until September 21, with Acqui surrendering and the Germans shooting thousands of Italian prisoners who fell into their hands.

The Wehrmacht carried out the entire operation with maximum speed and maximum brutality—its standard calling cards. When first drawn up, Operation Axis had been a fairly sober theoretical exercise dealing with the problems that might arise as a result of an Italian surrender. Now, however, Hitler had declared the surrender to be an act of treachery, with his ire directed personally at Badoglio and the Italian king, Victor Emmanuel III. What had begun as an objective operational study now morphed into what one source calls “a murderous act of revenge, marked by resentment and accentuated by racism.” Kesselring may appear to us as “Smiling Albert” in all those photographs and Wochenschau newsreels, but a smile can mask many emotions. He supposedly told an associate at the time that he “only had hatred left for the Italians,” and he described the Italian capitulation as “the most dastardly treachery” and “a truce with the enemy behind our backs.” Although he wasn’t averse to appealing to the Italians to continue the fight against the Allies or disarming them if they refused, that is where his spirit of charity ended: “No quarter can be given to turncoats,” he ordered, and urged his men to “mow down” anyone who resisted German power in Italy. Hitler rarely smiled in photographs, and no one should be surprised that his anger exceeded even that of Kesselring. As far as the Führer was concerned, the entire “clique of traitors” around Badoglio deserved to be shot.

It is difficult in reading accounts of Operation Axis in action to avoid the conclusion that the Wehrmacht carried it out with an unseemly enthusiasm. If the German army were a person, we might be tempted to psychoanalyze him. Perhaps this was a case of transference, the shifting of anger from the enemy it could not really hurt to a helpless partner within easy reach. The numbers are not easy to come by, but the Germans killed somewhere between 7,000 and 12,000 Italian officers and men in the course of Operation Axis, many of them shot after they had surrendered. Moreover, the operation resulted in over 600,000 “military internees” (Militärinternierte), a term chosen deliberately so that their German captors could evade the rules of the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war. Most became slaves in the armaments factories serving the Reich.

Finally, the loot was prodigious. The Italian fleet got away, making for Malta and the Balearic Islands, but the Germans captured the equipment of the Regio Esercito and Regia Aeronautica nearly in toto: 977 tanks, armored cars, and assault guns; 5,568 guns; 8,736 mortars; 1,173 antitank guns; and much more. Italian equipment wasn’t up to the standards of the other powers, but it was good enough for a weapons-strapped Wehrmacht. Just as with previous generations of “booty weapons” (Beutewaffen) from Czechoslovakia in 1939 and France in 1940, Italian weaponry would play a crucial role in equipping second-line German formations and garrison troops.

The operation was a signal triumph, perhaps even the “the last victory of the German Wehrmacht,” as some wags called it. The question must still arise, however: Why was it so easy? The numbers were imposing enough. By the summer of 1943, there were 3,488,000 Italians in uniform in Italy, southern France, or the Balkans, facing about 600,000 Germans. After a few short days of Operation Axis, the attackers had disarmed about a million men. The other two and a half million had disappeared, seemingly without a trace. It was an unprecedented event in modern military history.

In attempting to explain the collapse, historians have customarily assigned blame to Marshal Badoglio and the king. Neither one had informed the armed forces in advance of the surrender negotiations. Secrecy was absolutely essential if the Germans were not to find out. Having delivered his belated radio announcement, Badoglio fled Rome, taking the king with him and heading for the safety of Allied lines in the south. They made good their escape, resurfacing in Brindisi a few days later. It was arguably correct for the king to try and flee, as a way of maintaining some sort of political continuity, but the disappearance of the high command was a catastrophe. We cannot overestimate the surprise to the rank and file. The last time Badoglio had been on the radio was in July, just after deposing Mussolini. Back then, he had announced, “The war goes on and Italy remains faithful to its word” (La guerra continua e l’Italia resta fedele alla parola data). He had been silent ever since. Now he had reappeared suddenly to announce that it was all over. The disappearance of higher authority left the army in the worst possible position, blindsided and leaderless, without higher orders or strategy. It also had an adversary breathing down its neck, one who was fully prepared, heavily armed, and as ruthless as they come.

Perhaps, however, the mangled surrender of Italy was the result of systemic factors, deeper reasons that go beyond personality, beyond Badoglio’s double-dealing and the king’s waffling. Negotiating the surrender of a wartime power was a highly complex undertaking for everyone concerned. It had to balance Italian sensibilities, Allied strategic imperatives, and the presence of the Wehrmacht all at once. The notion of treating it as a closely held affair, in essence a plot by a small cabal of Allied and Italian officers, was naive in the extreme. So was the belief that both the military forces and public opinion of a modern Western state could simply turn around on a dime in wartime. These are all factors to weigh in the balance when evaluating the Italian surrender and the lightning success of Operation Axis, and not all of them were Badoglio’s fault.

In theory, surrender should be the easiest thing in the world. What happened in Italy is yet another illustration of the vast gulf separating war in theory from war in reality. Let us leave the final words on Operation Axis to the pertinent eighth volume of the German official history, Germany and the Second World War (Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg). Like all of this imposing work, the section on Operation Axis is magisterial, sober in tone, and certainly not given to overstatement or breathlessness. This is one of those times that it slips out of character, however. The attempt to work out a smooth Italian exit from the Axis and a seamless switching of sides was a worthy one, the official history argues. It collapsed, however, “in a jungle of illusion, fraud, deception, misunderstanding, incompetence, cowardice, dilettantism, and indecision.” That just about covers it.

The Malta Submarines

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General view of HMS TALBOT, submarine base at Malta.

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Submarines and harbour craft making a smoke-screen to cover their base, HMS TALBOT.

Before the outbreak of war, the Admiralty saw Malta as a base for submarines and other forces able to attack the Italian supply lines supporting their forces in North Africa. Yet, the battle was far from one-sided and within three days of Italy entering the war on 10 June 1940, three British submarines, Grampus, Odin and Orpheus, had been sunk by Italian warships. As the bombing of Malta intensified, submarines in port had to lie submerged on the harbour bed in the hope of being missed.

In 1941 Malta became an operational base for submarines. This was not without difficulty as most of the necessary supplies had been taken to Alexandria, but submarines operating from Gibraltar to Malta overloaded with torpedoes and other supplies until stocks were built up. The use of Malta as an offensive base was helped by the introduction of the new U-class submarines, smaller than many of the other classes but ideal for the clear waters of the Mediterranean in which, all too often, sonar is not needed to spot a submerged submarine.

These clear waters often proved fatal for larger submarines, but the U-class was better suited to the conditions, although the class had had its origins in plans for a smaller training submarine. Nine of the U-class were deployed to Malta as the 10th Submarine Flotilla: Undaunted, Union, Upholder, Upright, Utmost, Unique, Urge, Ursula and Usk. Usk and Undaunted did not survive long, but their place was soon taken by others of the same class. In addition to attacking Axis convoys and warships, these submarines were also ideal for landing raiding parties on the Italian coast and on one occasion wrecked a railway line along which trains carrying munitions for the Luftwaffe bases in Sicily travelled.

The submarines were based at Manoel Island, which lay in the Marsamxett Harbour and was approached by a causeway off the main road from Valletta to Sliema, the island effectively dividing Sliema Creek from Lazaretto Creek. Originally a fort designed to cover the outskirts of Valletta which towered over the other side of the harbour, Manoel Island became a naval base with workshops and accommodation for resting submariners and for artificers, the Royal Navy’s term for skilled tradesmen, who were often senior ratings. The submarines were moored alongside. Substantial anti-aircraft defences were placed on Manoel Island, as being on the opposite side of Valletta from the Grand Harbour did not spare the base from heavy aerial attack.

Offensive submarine operations based on Malta started in February 1941 with patrols by Unique, Upright and Utmost. The first significant engagement was later that month when Upright, commanded by Lieutenant E.D. Norman, sank the Italian cruiser Armando Diaz, one of two cruisers escorting a large Axis convoy. No doubt the Italians had put on two cruisers to impress their German allies, but there were no major British warships in the area and the cruiser, which posed no threat to a submarine, proved an ideal target.

Reconnaissance reports of large-scale shipping movements were received on 8 March and resulted in three boats being sent to sea. This was despite Utmost, commanded by Lieutenant Commander R.D. Cayley, having only been in harbour for twenty-four hours. The following day she found and sank the Italian merchantman Capo Vita. On 10 March Unique sank another merchantman, the Fenicia. Later in the month these submarines were at sea again, with Utmost finding a convoy of five ships on 28 March and torpedoing and sinking the Heraklia, while the Ruhr had to be towed into port. The return voyage for the depleted convoy was no less eventful when Upright torpedoed and severely damaged the Galilea, reported as being a straggler.

In April Upholder joined the Malta flotilla, and for almost a year she and her commander, Lieutenant Commander Malcolm Wanklyn, played havoc with the Axis convoys. From April 1941 to March 1942, this one submarine accounted for three large troop-carrying liners each of more than 18,000 tons, seven other merchant ships, a destroyer and two German U-boats, as well as damaging a cruiser and three merchant ships. The first two troopships had been in a convoy of three approached by Wanklyn steering on the surface and skilfully firing a spread of four torpedoes at the ships. Two of the troopships managed to zigzag into the path of the torpedoes with one sinking immediately, leaving the other to be finished off by Wanklyn when he returned the following morning. Ursula missed the third troopship which managed to reach Tripoli safely. For his time in the Mediterranean Wanklyn was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest British service decoration, and the DSO. It was a sad day when Upholder was lost off Tripoli with all hands in April 1942.

So successful was the Malta-based 10th Flotilla in disrupting the supplies for Rommel’s Afrika Korps in the Western Desert campaign that his chief of staff, Lieutenant General Fritz Bayerlein, later admitted: ‘We should have taken Alexandria and reached the Suez Canal had it not been for the work of your submarines.’

For about a year the Malta-based submariners exacted a high price from the enemy, but even so, opportunities were missed. More than any other type of warship, submarines needed to practise ‘deconfliction’, largely because of the difficulty of recognizing other submarines. Deconfliction is the deliberate separation of friendly forces. In British submarine practice, this meant placing submarines to operate independently within designated patrol zones known as billets, and any other submarine found in that area was to be regarded as hostile. Off Malta there were often so many British submarines that it was necessary to impose an embargo on night attacks on other submarines because of the difficulty in accurate recognition.

Early one morning in 1942, Upright was on the surface when her lookouts spotted another larger submarine on a reciprocal course and it was not until the two boats had passed that they realized the other submarine was a large U-boat. There were many U-boats off Malta at the time and no one will ever know whether the Germans were working to the same rules or whether their lookouts failed to spot the smaller British submarine. This almost certainly wasn’t the only occasion on which two submarines from opposing navies met and passed each other by. Another instance was when an Italian and a British submarine encountered one another on the surface at night and after exchanging mutually unintelligible signals, both dived.

Even with such missed opportunities, the submarines from Manoel Island accounted for 54,000 tons of Axis merchant shipping between October 1941 and February 1942, as well as a destroyer, two submarines and two other ships off Taranto.

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British T class submarine HMSM TRUANT underway, coastal waters. Assigned to the Mediterranean in mid 1940, Truant went on to sink a number of enemy ships, including the Italian merchant vessels Providenza, Sebastiano Bianchi and Multedo, the Italian tankers Bonzo and Meteor, the Italian auxiliary submarine chaser Vanna, the Italian passenger/cargo ship Bengasi and the German merchantman Virginia S. Truant also damaged the small Italian tanker Prometeo and the Italian torpedo boat Alcione, which was later declared a total loss. She also unsuccessfully attacked the Italian merchant vessels Utilitas, Silvia Tripcovich, Bainsizza and Arborea, the small Italian tanker Labor and the German merchantman Bellona.

The ‘Magic Carpet’

During the First World War, the Germans had established a company to operate merchant submarines to carry much-needed strategic materials and bring them past the increasingly effective British blockade of German ports. While there was no equivalent British submarine ‘line’, given the strategic importance of Malta and the desperate plight of the islanders and the forces garrisoned there, British submariners were keen to show just what they could do. The submarine supply line that was established became known as the ‘Magic Carpet’.

While at first the Axis hold on Malta had been relatively light, by 1941 the situation was becoming increasingly difficult. Many convoys did not get through at all, and all suffered serious losses. It became the practice for every submarine heading to Malta from Gibraltar or Alexandria to carry at least some items of stores in addition to their usual torpedoes or mines. The true Magic Carpet submarines were the larger vessels, especially the mine-laying submarines Cachalot and Rorqual, as well as the fleet submarine Clyde and the larger boats of the ‘O’, ‘P’ and ‘R’ classes. An even better supply-carrying submarine would have been the Royal Navy’s sole aircraft-carrying submarine, M2, whose aircraft hangar would have made a good cargo hold, but she had been lost in an accident some years before the war. An alternative could have been the French submarine Surcouf, a large 2,800-ton boat also with a hangar and in service with the Free French, but she was eventually lost in the Caribbean.

The ‘P’ or Porpoise-class minelayers and Clyde all proved to be especially efficient supply vessels with plenty of room between their casing and the pressure hull for stores, and sometimes one of the batteries would be removed to provide extra space; the mine stowage tunnel was another good cargo space. Rorqual on one occasion carried 24 personnel, 147 bags of mail, 2 tons of medical stores, 62 tons of aviation spirit and 45 tons of kerosene. Inevitably there was also much unofficial cargo, such as gin for the wardrooms and other officers’ messes on Malta, and even Lord Gort, the island’s austere governor, was not above having a small consignment of gramophone records brought out to him in this way. Cargo was sometimes carried externally in small containers welded to the casing of a submarine.

Impressive though the efforts of the submariners were, they could not compare with a merchant ship which at this time could carry as much as 7,500 tons of cargo compared with the 200 tons or so of a large submarine. For the submariners, there were problems as well, as the cargo gave rise to problems with buoyancy. Once Cachalot had so much sea water absorbed by wooden packing cases that her first lieutenant (i.e. on a smaller warship, the second-in-command) had to pump out 1,000 gallons of water from her internal tanks to compensate. Fuel was another hazard. In July 1941, Talisman carried 5,500 gallons in cans stowed beneath her casing, while on other occasions fuel could be carried in external fuel tanks. When carrying petrol in cans, submarines were not allowed to dive below 65 feet, while high-octane aviation fuel in the external tanks meant that fumes venting in the usual way constituted a fire hazard so smoking was banned on the conning tower and pyrotechnic recognition signals were also banned. These problems were in addition to conditions in the Mediterranean favouring smaller submarines rather than larger.

A good example of what could be done was the case of Saracen. She reached Malta via Gibraltar, sailing with a Malta-bound convoy. Smaller than the mine-laying submarines, Saracen had two of her fuel tanks cleared of diesel and filled with aviation fuel instead, while every space aboard was filled with food with priority being given to medical supplies and powered or tinned milk for children and babies. After reaching Malta, Saracen left to search for Italian merchantmen, but instead sank a destroyer and an Italian submarine.

In peacetime, Malta had been one of the most popular postings for the Royal Navy and an equally popular place to call. In wartime, despite the miserable conditions aboard submarines that had to remain submerged during daytime when in harbour, there was little enthusiasm for a ‘run ashore’, visiting the bars and other attractions of Valletta. Ashore, there was little to eat and not much to drink. Things were so bad that one army officer recalled his pleasure at being invited to dinner aboard a submarine.

In addition to the tradition of flying her ‘Jolly Roger’ at the end of a successful patrol, Porpoise added a second flag beneath the Jolly Roger’s tally of ships sunk. This was marked ‘PCS’ for ‘Porpoise Carrier Service’ with a white bar for each successful supply run, and this boat alone had at least four of these.

After delivering supplies to Malta, the Magic Carpet submarines would take mines from the island’s underground stores and proceed north to lay them off the main Italian ports, such as Palermo, before returning to Egypt or Gibraltar. They also torpedoed Axis shipping, and on one occasion an Italian submarine was torpedoed and sunk before an Italian merchant ship was also torpedoed, and as this stubbornly refused to sink, the submarine surfaced and sank her with gunfire.

The arrival of the famous Malta convoy Operation PEDESTAL in August 1942 reduced the pressure on the submarines to supply Malta and allowed increased offensive patrolling.

Despite this, by October 1942 the situation was again becoming difficult, with a renewed German air offensive. At this time, five submarines – Unbending, Unbroken, United, Utmost and Safari – attacked a convoy of five merchant ships including a tanker escorted by seven destroyers south of the Italian island of Pantelleria, co-ordinating the attack with aircraft from Malta.

The role of the submarine was varied. On 21 April 1941, the British Mediterranean Fleet ventured west for an attack on the Italian-held port of Tripoli. Accuracy was usually a great difficulty when attacking a land target from the sea in the dark, so Cunningham had the submarine Truant positioned exactly 4 miles off the harbour, showing a light to seaward as a navigation mark for the bombardment. Then in July, two submarines helped to confuse the enemy and assist a convoy en passage to Malta. The convoy was code-named Operation SUBSTANCE. While the Mediterranean Fleet steamed west from Alexandria to Malta and Force H escorted the convoy east from Gibraltar, the two submarines were west of Crete making fleet signals to indicate that the Mediterranean Fleet was operating in the area while the fleet itself maintained radio silence.

Truant was one of the new ‘T’-class submarines intended for operation in distant waters, which was to prove useful once Japan entered the war. The class could handle the long Pacific distances. It displaced 1,571 tons while submerged and had eight bow torpedo tubes as well as another aft and two amidships, with a 4in gun and light anti-aircraft weapons. Surface speed was just over 15 knots, but while submerged these boats could manage 9 knots, although the batteries needed to be recharged after an hour so the usual submerged speed was around 2 or 3 knots.

Originally Truant and her sisters had a range of 8,000 miles but on later boats this was extended to 11,000 miles by the use of welding to strengthen the boats during construction and by using some of the ballast tanks to carry fuel. However, this still compared badly with the range of more than 32,000 miles of the German Type IXD U-boat.

Alternative WWII: Alamein to Basra, 1942 Part I

The White House, Washington

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed the telegram announcing the fall of Tobruk to his distinguished guest in the Oval Office, he was taken somewhat aback by the depth of feeling with which the information was greeted. “Defeat is one thing; disgrace is another,” gloomily intoned Winston S. Churchill, the British Prime Minister, who was visibly shaken by the news. He went on to compare the loss of the desert fortress—together with some 33,000 prisoners of war and immeasurable logistic resources—with the equally bitter humiliation of Singapore a mere four months earlier. Even more than Singapore, perhaps, Tobruk had been held up as a symbol of determined resistance, since it had successfully withstood an eight-month siege all through the summer of 1941, effectively halting a brilliant German offensive dead in its tracks. Now, on June 20-21, 1942, the same fortress had fallen within the space of just thirty-six hours, almost before anyone noticed that it was again being attacked. From symbolizing the British bulldog spirit, it had instantly been transformed into a telling icon of unfocused British ineffectiveness; of feebleness, congenital bumbling, and apparently unending defeat. The general public reaction in Britain would be demonstrated within a week, when the government lost the Maldon by-election, after which a vote of no confidence was moved in the House of Commons.

It was no consolation to Churchill that Erwin Rommel, the tireless “Desert Fox,” was promoted field marshal (the youngest in the German Army) just one day after he had accepted Tobruk’s surrender. Nor did it help the British Prime Minister that his generals had repeatedly warned him that they never had any intention of holding Tobruk once the main Gazala position, farther to the west, had been broken. A series of military experts had carefully itemized all the gaping deficiencies in the Tobruk defenses, which had been comprehensively pillaged to strengthen the front line. Finally, it was very cold comfort to be told that 2nd South African Division, assigned as the Tobruk garrison, had been raw, inexperienced, and far from the high-fighting efficiency of the veteran Australians who performed the same duty so staunchly in the previous year. The division lost in Tobruk represented no less than one-third of the total manpower contributed to the war by the Dominion of South Africa, and its capture dealt a shattering blow to the already shaky solidarity of the Commonwealth worldwide.

Far from lessening the force of the blow, the many preparatory warnings about Tobruk made its dramatic but obviously inevitable fall all the more difficult for Churchill to swallow. He was only too well aware that he was personally directly responsible for the scale of the debacle. In his heart of hearts he well knew that he had ignored all the warnings, out of personal pride and a misguided view of press relations. From Washington, some 4,000 miles distant, he had tried to will the success of Tobruk’s defenders, as if he could somehow create minefields, ditches, antitank guns, and high-fighting morale solely by the prodigious charismatic force of his thought waves. In the case of Tobruk, this technique had failed in the most signal and public manner possible, with the result that Churchill now knew that he should never have attempted it at all. He had almost unilaterally overruled his military experts, throwing a monkey wrench into their plans with his last minute insistence that Tobruk should be defended. He must secretly have seen himself as a man who demanded bricks to be made without straw, and who caused the 8th Army’s smooth evacuation eastward to be fatally disrupted by a politically motivated attempt to hold an untenable town merely because its name was known to the public.

When President Roosevelt tried to probe the inner mood of his distinguished guest, he was quickly met with an outward wall of optimism and reassurance. Churchill might have been suffering from personal turmoil and even guilt, but he’d been active in public life long enough to cover such setbacks with the minimum of detectable consternation. Having made his acid observations on how closely Tobruk reminded him of Singapore, he quickly returned to the business that had brought him to the Second Washington Conference in the first place; namely, the vital plans for an early U.S. amphibious landing somewhere within the German area of operations. The Americans and Russians wanted this to be in France, but to Churchill, such an attempt appeared both premature and highly dangerous. His preference was for the landing to be made in Morocco and Algeria, as a means of hastening the complete conquest of North Africa. Once that had been achieved, the whole “soft underbelly” of southern Europe, east as well as west, would lie open to allied attack. Indeed, if it were not achieved, the awful news from Tobruk suggested that the whole British position in Egypt might itself be in dire jeopardy.

With considerable difficulty, Churchill would eventually manage to secure American agreement for the landing in Algeria, but he was always acutely aware that his more urgent business was to stop the rot in the desert, and sooner rather than later. The developing news was far from reassuring. As early as June 23 the proposed Sollum position to cover the Egyptian frontier had been outflanked and abandoned without a fight, as Gen. Neil Ritchie’s battered 8th Army determined instead to make its all-out stand at Mersa Matruh, some 120 waterless miles farther to the rear. On this same day, Ritchie’s immediate superior, Gen. Claude Auchinleck, the Commander in Chief, Middle East (CinC ME), offered his resignation to Gen. Sir Alan Brooke, the chief of the Imperial General Staff. The “Auk” by now had little confidence in either Ritchie or the Matruh plan, and he was acutely aware that this supposed “coastal fortress” was no more than a dangerous cul-de-sac that could easily be bypassed on the landward side, and in which a large force could all too easily be imprisoned. It could boast a number of aging minefields and a plentiful infantry garrison, but its essential armored backup was hastily assembled, badly coordinated, and—perhaps most important—weighed down by a crushing awareness of defeat at Gazala and the vast distances that had subsequently been covered in the retreat. Auchinleck knew that the responsibility for all the recent defeats ultimately rested on his own shoulders, so he felt he should now ask for either an official endorsement of his position or a replacement.

Auchinleck’s letter arrived on Churchill’s desk during the trickiest part of the American negotiations, so it was not perhaps accorded the full reflection it deserved. What Churchill did know was that he had been mightily disappointed by the fall of Tobruk, and so was psychologically ready to accept the offer of a new broom in the Middle East. Auchinleck’s resignation was therefore duly accepted, and Gen. Sir Harold Alexander, who fortuitously happened to be on his way through Cairo on his way to the UK from India, was made CinC ME in his place. Alexander in turn dismissed Ritchie on June 26, replacing him in the 8th Army command by Gen. W.H.E. “Strafer” Gott, a veteran desert hand who was currently commanding XIII Corps outside Matruh.

The “Alamein Line,” Egypt

“Strafer” had an enviable and a bellicose fighting record—as his nickname suggested—which extended back through the whole of the Libyan campaign since the start of the war. He was in many ways the ideal savior for the flagging 8th Army, and even, in his own solid British way, a warrior who sprang from much the same mold as Rommel himself. But by late June 1942 even his friends found Gott tired and mentally oppressed by defeat and by the scale of his responsibilities—he had, after all, risen from command of a brigade to that of an army corps within a short eight months. As a corps commander he had perhaps been promoted one rank above his competence, or at least above the arena in which his sense of aggressive maneuver could operate freely. Maybe it was simply that he had always enjoyed a certain brand of intermittent success when commanding a brigade or a division, but no such result had been accorded to him in the bruising Gazala battle, when he commanded a corps.

In these circumstances, Churchill’s high hopes for his radical hand-over of command were not, alas, destined to be gratified. Alexander was still very new to the theater, and essentially an infantry general coming from the relatively slow moving and tank-free warfare in the Burmese jungle, so he was still feeling his way in this totally novel mechanized environment. In contrast, Gott, who had previously been holding the XIII Corps armor ready to strike from the inland flank, was a true armored warrior, but he was fatally distracted at a critical moment in the battle. He found himself brusquely called into the coastal town of Matruh, introduced to a whole new staff and modus operandi, and in particular was suddenly and disorientatingly invited to share in all the anxieties of W. G. Holmes’s inexperienced, infantry-heavy X Corps. No good could possibly come from this mixture, and in fact Rommel’s first spearhead of just twenty tanks in 21st Panzer Division almost effortlessly managed to bluff the British (who had a total of over 150 tanks in the area) into a precipitate and undignified withdrawal from the Matruh area. By the morning of June 29, after “a night of chaos,” Gott’s totally disorganized command had escaped eastward out of the clutches of its heavily outnumbered attackers, leaving behind some 6,000 prisoners and over forty tanks. In strictly military terms, this actually represented a far more shameful and humiliating outcome than the far bigger loss of Tobruk, which had been a politically designed battle, fought against the advice of the soldiers.

The next supposedly “impregnable” position east of Matruh was the El Alamein line, which was also the final defensible line before Cairo, Alexandria, and the delta. It extended some thirty-eight miles southward from the railway station of Alamein, and it was noteworthy because—unlike its predecessors at Gazala, Sollum, or Matruh—it could not be turned by the inland, or desert, flank. The vast Quattara Depression prohibited the movement of armies south of the line, thereby giving the British a rare opportunity to stand firm and consolidate on a narrow front. It was known that Rommel was by now short of fuel, water, and armored striking power, with a greatly extended line of communication that was under constant bombardment by the RAF. His men were exhausted, and driven forward solely by his own single-minded willpower. In essence, Rommel knew that he would get only one honest shot at the Alamein position, after which—if he failed to break through—he would be doomed to an everlasting logistic deficiency in the face of a rapidly escalating British buildup. If he did succeed in carrying off the coup, however, he would win through to the fabulously supply-rich Nile delta base area, all his replenishment problems solved. Everything therefore depended on the speed with which the Germans could mount their assault, as compared to the skill with which Alexander and Gott could patch together their last minute defenses.

Unfortunately for the British, very little had been prepared on the ground at Alamein, where the famous “line” existed only on maps and the ground itself was often too rocky to allow the rapid digging of trenches. The position rested primarily on a fortified, well-mined, and partially wired “box,” manned by the 3rd South African Brigade, with the battered remainder of 1st South African Division in rear. The box was anchored firmly on the coast and covered a radius of about four miles around the Alamein rail station. The 6th New Zealand Brigade held a smaller box at Bab el Quattara, some thirteen miles farther south, although it had no minefield; and finally, the 9th Indian Brigade held a poorly fortified position at Naqb Abu Dweis, perched on the rim of the Quattara Depression on the extreme left flank. In the wide gaps between these three firm points there was little more than a shifting population of disorganized units still coming in from the west, mixed with a mobile screen of light forces, including all that remained of the once mighty 7th Armored Division. Also, the 18th Indian Brigade, newly arrived from Iraq, was now digging in at Deir el Shein, halfway between the Alamein and Bab el Quattara boxes. In the rear there was little more than the remainder of the New Zealand Division, the two demoralized tank brigades of the 1st Armored Division, commanded by the (equally demoralized) Herbert Lumsden, and then, scattered around Gott’s new HQ at El Imayid, some hastily assembling columns made up of the numerous defeated and unorganized men whom Alexander did not want to continue their retreat any farther back toward the delta.

The new CinC ME was no less well aware than Rommel himself that the coming battle would be decisive for the whole theater, and in order to help him win it, Alexander was particularly anxious to restore morale both at the front and in the rear areas, where rumors were spreading that further withdrawals were already being planned. His personal experience in both France and Burma had been in the management of humiliating retreats, and he was determined not to preside over yet another one now. He therefore cancelled all movement toward the rear, as well as all building of defenses behind the front line, and issued a famously stark general order on the evening of June 30 that decreed that “Alamein will be defended to the last. There will be no further retreat.”

For his part, Rommel instinctively, albeit recklessly, opted not to spend time in careful preparations or reconnaissance, but began his attack as soon as he could, at 0300 on Wednesday, July 1—perhaps the most ominous of all anniversaries for the British Army. He hoped to encircle the Alamein box with the 90th Light Division, while the main striking force, with fifty-five tanks, would advance level with it at first, but would then turn south to drive through the center and rear of the British positions. It was an essentially sound and typically aggressive plan, but it soon bogged down because of poor going and the unexpected discovery of the 18th Indian Brigade directly in the path of the advancing Deutsches Afrika Korps (DAK), whose commander, Gen. Walther Nehring, decided to make a frontal assault. This led to a fierce battle that continued throughout the day until the brave but inexperienced defense eventually succumbed before the Germans’ overwhelming force and incomparable familiarity with desert combat tactics. Meanwhile, the 90th Light Division, farther north, received a rude shock when it encountered the massed fire of the entire South African divisional artillery and was pinned down. Then, while the Axis forces were attempting to maintain and replenish their vehicles overnight, they and their supply echelons were illuminated by flares and subjected to almost continuous bombing.

On the credit side, however, Rommel noted that not only wasn’t the “Alamein line” a line at all, but that the British 1st Armored Division had remained apparently supine and inactive all day. He was also gratified to receive news that the Mediterranean fleet had shown prudence, not unmixed with indecent haste, by abruptly removing itself from Alexandria, which was now just ninety miles away from the most advanced Axis airstrips. Also on this day came news that the assault by the 2nd Panzer Army in the Ukraine had caused the Russian front to break “like glass under a hammer,” thereby posing a major long-term threat to the strategic rear of the British Middle East Command.

On his side, Gott might admire and be grateful for the gallant last stand of the 18th Indian Brigade, but he was seriously alarmed by the thirteen-mile gap that its fall had opened in his front line. His staff urged him to pull back the 6th New Zealand and 9th Indian Brigades from the exposed left flank before they could be picked off in turn, but mindful of Alexander’s firm determination to stand and fight, he refused permission for any withdrawal. Instead he urged the 1st Armored Division, which had again been made up to a total of almost 150 tanks, to smash the DAK—now reduced to just thirty-seven tanks—by a frontal assault designed to retake the area of Deir el Shein, after which it would turn north to cut the coast road that fed the Axis rear. In making these decisions, Gott demonstrated that he had not entirely lost his old opportunistic fighting instincts; yet by his apparently resigned and unquestioning acceptance of Alexander’s brutally simplistic “stand firm” order, he once again offered evidence to historians that he was tired. Very tired.

If a sharper team had been available to tide the 8th Army through the battle of Alamein, the final result might well have been different, but both parts of Gott’s plan for July 2 turned out to be badly misjudged. In the first place, Rommel made the shrewd analysis that the plight of the 90th Light Division near the coast was not in fact the key issue that it at first seemed. He was prepared to leave it without fuel and unsupported (except by the Italian “Trento” Division) as a “gambit” to absorb the attention of the British artillery and reserves. Meanwhile, he correctly identified the more southerly allied boxes as the true schwerpunkt, so he sent most of the DAK and the remaining Italian forces against them. At the same time, in order to cover his center and the continuing mopping up at Deir el Shein, he left a strong force of infantry, artillery, and antitank guns to hold that position. This force successfully absorbed the eventual attack by Lumsden’s 1st Armored Division, while the DAK’s own armor completed the investment of the two infantry boxes at Bab el Quattara and Naqb Abu Dweis.

Lumsden committed the classic 8th Army error of sending the tanks of the 22nd Armored Brigade forward against unsuppressed antitank guns, while his preliminary artillery barrage fell in the wrong place. The tanks were badly mauled and made no progress against the enemy position. Meanwhile the 4th Armored Brigade suffered from all the usual problems of soft sand and poor radio communication, together with a certain unacknowledged “combat shyness,” with the result that it penetrated only a little way into the notional enemy “front line” and failed to find any significant enemy force to attack. By the end of the day, the 1st Armored Division had achieved practically nothing, but had seen its 150 tanks fall to a total of about ninety, of which only one squadron was still operating the famous American Grants.

Meanwhile, Nehring’s DAK, with Rommel motoring at its head, had failed to overrun the 6th New Zealand Brigade in its first attack on Bab el Quattara, but it succeeded in surrounding and masking it with what remained of the Brescia Division and the Italian XX Armored Corps. The German armor then pushed on relentlessly farther to the south, and by a felicitous mixture of speed, surprise, and shock action managed to pull off a brilliant coup de main against the 9th Indian Brigade at Naqb Abu Dweis, which was overrun in classic style. By nightfall the DAK was encamped on the lip of the Quattara Depression and had effectively turned the flank of the 8th Army’s supposedly “flankless” position. It had also destroyed or neutralized almost 40 percent of the effective allied fighting strength and—still more precious to the new German field marshal—it had captured a large convoy of fuel wagons intact.

On the morning of July 3, Rommel again had his men up and moving early, heading northeast directly toward the rear elements of the New Zealand Division and the remnants of the 7th Armored Division. He was relieved to note that ever since he had moved inland away from the distinctive coast road, he was able to enjoy the anonymity of the trackless desert and could therefore be located far less readily by allied airpower. As for the concentrated artillery that had stymied the 90th Light Division on the Alamein perimeter, it had remained stolidly in place, and only small mobile artillery columns remained in contact with the DAK itself; more a nuisance than a serious threat. The only stiff resistance the Germans encountered came from the New Zealand Division box at Deir el Munassib, which had to be surrounded, masked, and immobilized in the same manner that 6th New Zealand Brigade had been on the previous day. A significant part of its essential transport was cut off and destroyed, leaving its infantry stranded until it could be relieved by the main British armored striking force.

On the “fireworks day” of July 4, the Germans were poised and ready to beat off precisely such a relief attempt. They had reorganized themselves and set up an antitank ambush along the line of the prominent Alam Nayil ridge, which ran east to west on a line some four miles north of the beleaguered New Zealanders. With horrible predictability, Lumsden’s armor duly arrived from the north around noon, and attacked directly into the sun. The result was a turkey shoot in which the twenty remaining German tanks did not need to participate at all. The lurking 50mm and 88mm guns were sufficient to pick off over half the attackers before they retired back to the Ruweisat Ridge from which they had started, leaving only a few medical Dingoes and tracked carriers to pick up the wounded. At 1600, Rommel ordered the pursuit to start, but not due north into the heavily defended Ruweisat area. Instead, he would use his last fuel reserves to drive east-northeast to seize the crucial Alam el Haifa feature, which dominated the deep rear of the British and from which a shrewd artilleryman could even lob a 105mm shell straight onto Gott’s HQ caravan at El Imayid. By nightfall all this had indeed been achieved, and to all intents and purposes the decisive Battle of Alamein had been won.