PLAN ‘Z’

Stefan Dramiński.

Thus far, construction plans had been conceived in an atmosphere of ‘no war with Britain’. Raeder informed Hitler on several occasions that Germany’s naval development was not sufficient to cope with a war against a major sea power, but each time the Führer replied by saying there would be no war against Britain because such an act would signal the end of the Reich. Not until early 1938 did Hitler tell Raeder that the Kriegsmarine might have to consider meeting the Royal Navy on a war footing. Even then, he stressed that it would not be before 1948 at the earliest.

By 1937, warship development had progressed sufficiently for the first long-term planning policy to be effected. The plan was intended to remain in force for the years from 1938 until 1948, and would see the fleet develop to the limits of the Anglo-German Naval Agreement. All the original demands and suggestions for new warships were evaluated by Kpt.z.S. Werner Fuchs, and put down on paper as Plan ‘X’. (X being the ‘unknown’ from algebraic equations.) This was an immense document and could not be considered under the terms of the Naval Agreement, so he modified the details and reduced the plan to a practical size. His tailored version was designated as ‘Plan Y’ and was laid before the Supreme Naval Command, who modified the ideas still further. The final version then became known as ‘Plan Z’. It has been suggested that the ‘Z’ stood for ‘Ziel’ or ‘goal’ but the sequence simply progressed from the letter ‘X’ – often used for an unknown quantity in algebra – and just happened to end with ‘Z’.)

Plan ‘Z’ had been conceived under the ideal of ‘no war with Britain’, but matters had to be reconsidered after Hitler told Raeder that there were voices in Britain who were clamouring for another war and Germany might have to fight the Royal Navy after all. However, there were no alternative options and plans went ahead the way they had been formulated.

When the ‘Z’ Plan was being formulated, there were two distinct opinions on naval warfare in the German Navy. One idea, which received the backing of the Supreme Naval Command, was to build a powerful surface fleet consisting of mainly battleships and cruisers. The other idea was to develop a navy centred on submarines and small craft such as torpedo-boats.

Plan ‘Z’ was strongly opposed by Kpt.z.S. Karl Dönitz, who could only muster a long list of foul adjectives to describe the decision. Another opponent of Plan ‘Z’ was Fregkpt. Hellmuth Heye who, acting on an instruction from Raeder, produced a thesis on the subject of war with Britain. He concluded that it would not be possible to defeat Britain by pitting German battleships against her merchant shipping. But it appears that nobody took much notice of Heye during the summer of 1938. Perhaps this was because he was an individualist with unconventional and ‘quite mad ideas’ – which he fully demonstrated towards the end of the war by building up the Midget Weapons Unit to a fantastically high standard, against terrific odds and in an incredibly short time. In addition to Heye, there were several other submarine supporters in the Supreme Naval Command: Hermann Boehm, Fleet Commander, and Hermann Densch, Commander-in-Chief of Reconnaissance Forces, were both in favour of U-boats. In fact, Densch had a pet-saying: ‘We must build submarines on every meadow, in every shed and on every stream – it is our only hope of winning.’

But theirs were only faint cries in the wilderness, for the majority were in favour of a battleship navy. Many in the Supreme Naval Command kept repeating their stereotype views that there would be no war with Britain, and that, under war conditions, Dönitz’s submarine tactics would be found wanting. Several powerful men in the High Command maintained their belief that only the mightiest and heaviest battleships would penetrate the shipping lanes of the Atlantic. They considered submarines to be outdated and obsolete weapons.

The High Command also had some knowledge of Britain’s asdic, which, it was thought, might prevent a successful submarine war. Similarly, they pointed to the Prize Ordinance Regulations (pages 41 and 201), which imposed numerous operational limitations on submarines and further restricted their effectiveness.

The final decision on the type of construction policy to adopt was made by Hitler. The Naval High Command gave him two alternatives: either a battleship fleet or a U-boat dominated navy. Hitler chose the surface fleet outlined in the ‘Z’ Plan and, on 27 January 1939, gave the programme top priority – just over six months before the outbreak of the Second World War. So, it is safe to say that the ‘Z’ Plan had little influence on the outcome of the war.

The new capital ships were to be equipped with eight 406mm (16 inch) and twelve 150mm (6 inch) guns; they would carry four aeroplanes, have a top speed of thirty knots, and a range of over 12,000 nautical miles at a cruising speed of just under twenty knots. (Construction of Bismarck and Tirpitz had, of course, already started before the ‘Z’ Plan was formulated.) The Chiefs of Staff also examined what had been Germany’s main weakness during the First World War – that of trying to operate far out in the Atlantic from bases in the German Bight. This problem was solved by planning to put the new long-range battleships based on the Deutschland into the South Atlantic where they would be serviced by supply and repair ships seeking out remote spots in the Southern Ocean for the more lengthy repairs.

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8.8cm serving with user nations other than Germany

The 8.8cm FlaK 18s on parade in this photograph are believed to be part of the batch sold to Argentina in 1938. The tractors are either Pavesi or Fiat/Spa models. 

American gunners emplacing a suitably marked captured 8.8cm PaK 43 for use against its former owners.

During the Second World War 88s served with several user nations other than Germany. Between 1936 and 1945 it was felt necessary to hand out or sell 88s to various nations that were either allied to or sympathetic to Germany’s war aims, despite the ever-increasing need to equip the German armed forces with as many anti-aircraft guns as could be manufactured.

One of the very first transfers of 88s came with the sale of a batch of about eighteen 8.8cm FlaK 18s to Argentina. This was a commercial sale negotiated directly with Krupp AG, which delivered the guns to Buenos Aires in about 1938. Once in Argentina, the guns defended the national capital for many years up to and after 1945 but apparently never fired a shot in anger.

Another pre-1939 transfer involved the guns taken to Spain by the German Condor Legion of ‘volunteers’ fighting alongside the Nationalists during the civil war. They initially took with them four four-gun batteries of 8.8cm FlaK 18s and a fifth battery arrived soon after to form what became known as the FlaK Abteilung 88, or F/88. Contrary to general belief these German-held guns were retained primarily for the air-defence role and rarely fired at ground targets.

More 88s arrived for issue direct to the Spanish Nationalists as the war progressed. It was the Nationalists, always short of up-to-date artillery, who pioneered the use of the 88 against ground targets – German observers duly made note of the fact and reported back to Berlin accordingly. When the Germans left Spain in 1939 they left all their guns in Spain to be adopted as one of the mainstays of Spain’s air defences. By 1945 their numbers, including 88 examples of the FlaK 36, had grown to 140. More were to be added later (see below).

Once Italy entered the war alongside Germany in 1941 it was found necessary to pass large amounts of German war materiel to their new combat ally since the equipment levels of the Italian armed forces were dangerously low and often of poor quality. This particularly applied to anti-aircraft guns for although the Italians already had a gun as good as the German 88 in production, they did not have enough of them and their ability to manufacture more was limited. The Italian gun was the Ansaldo Cannone da 90/53 CA, which was ordered into series production in 1939 but by mid-1943 only 539 had been delivered in static, towed, armoured vehicle and truck-borne forms. Once in service the guns were added to the array of somewhat ancient and varied guns already in the Italian anti-aircraft gun inventory and some were diverted to coast-defence duties. While numbers of Cannone da 90/53 CA did see field service in North Africa, the Germans saw fit to eke out their numbers by handing over a number of 88s to the Italians, who took them over as the Cannone da 88/56 CA modello 18-36. The exact number is not known but all remaining examples still in Italy reverted to German ownership after the Italian armistice of July 1943.

Once the German take-over of Czecho-Slovakia was completed during 1939 the new state of Slovakia came into being already aligned with Germany. The new state assumed their share of the old Czecho-Slovak military inventory, the heavy anti-aircraft gun park being largely made up of Škoda 8.35 cm kanon PL vzor 22/24 pieces from a previous design generation. As the Slovak Army was assigned to duties in support of Operation Barbarossa, the Germans decided to hand over 24 8.8cm FlaK 36 and 37 guns (along with a wide array of other military equipment), the first 4 of them arriving during March 1941, together with the first batches of what would become a total of 17,280 rounds of ammunition. By March 1944 the outstanding twenty guns, all of them /2 carriage static guns, had been added to the original four. Most of these guns were retained for home defence, and served on with the restored Czecho-Slovakian state after 1945.

Finland had a somewhat confusing war posture between 1939 and 1945, at times being allied with Germany and at other times being hostile. In 1941 Finland was on the side of Germany because of their desire to redress their defeat and loss of territory following the 1939–1940 Winter War with the Soviet Union. Germany’s 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union gave Finland the opportunity to participate in what they termed their Continuation War. Over the years the Finnish air-defence arm had managed to accumulate a motley collection of anti-aircraft guns from all over Europe. During 1943 these were supplemented when the Finnish state purchased 18 towed 8.8cm FlaK 37 guns from Germany to equip 3 6-gun, anti-aircraft batteries defending Helsinki. These three batteries were controlled by three imported Kommandogerät 40 fire-control predictors, known locally as the Lambda.

A further seventy-two FlaK 37s were acquired during 1944, this time on /2 static mountings. Of these, 36 guns were assigned to the defence of Helsinki, with Kotka, Tampere and Turku each receiving 2 6-gun batteries. There was also a twelve-gun battery at Kaivopuisto, another part of the defences of Helsinki. All these guns served on until well after 1945. The Finns knew their guns as the 88mm: n ilmatorjuntakanuuna vuodelta 1937 mallia Rheinmetall-Borsig (ItK/37 RMB), for some reason allocating their provenance to Rheinmetall-Borsig (although reference has been found to an alternative RT).

Perhaps the most unusual end-users of the 88 during the war years were the Allies. By late 1944 the Allied land forces in Europe had advanced so far from their cross-Channel supply resources that front-line supply stocks often ran dangerously low during bad weather or when shortages of transport arose. Those supplies included artillery ammunition so it became a common expedient for front-line units to turn the considerable quantities of captured artillery equipments against their former owners and use up any available stocks of captured ammunition.

Both British and American batteries employed such measures, the US Army going as far as forming ‘Z Batteries’, specifically to utilise captured artillery and ammunition, within their field artillery battalions. At one stage, in November 1944, the US First Army’s 32nd Field Artillery Brigade created two provisional battalions that were fully equipped with captured German artillery equipments. Included in the captured haul were 8.8cm FlaK and PaK guns, 10.5cm and 15cm field howitzers and French 155mm GPF guns previously adopted by the Germans. This impressment of captured 88s by the Allies was a battlefield expedient that usually lasted only as long as the captured ammunition stocks lasted. However, as early as June 1943 the US Army did go to the extent of preparing and issuing a service manual for the 8.8cm FlaK 36 (TM E9-369A) following extensive technical studies carried out on equipments captured in Tunisia.

Post 1945

Once the Second World War was over most German 88s were either scrapped or relegated to being war trophies or museum pieces. Yet some European nations, having inherited heaps of weapons once the German armed forces had left the countries they had formerly occupied, decided to arm their newly emergent armed forces with German weapons, at least until something better could be obtained (usually via American military aid). These weapons included the 8.8cm FlaK 18/36/37 series – no PaK 43 series weapons seem to have been adopted by any nation after 1945, although many of their technical innovations were studied and often utilised.

Numerous nations fell into this category. This included Norway, which took over no less than 360 88s out of a total of 505 left behind when the Germans departed, the balance being mostly scrapped before the Allies decided that they might be useful to defend post-war Norway. The Luftwaffe had organised these guns into four FlaK Brigades headquartered at Oslo (173 guns), Stavanger (86 guns), Vaernes (86 guns) and Tromsø (158 guns). Some of the guns involved had a dual air-defence/coast-defence role and where possible the Norwegians simply took over the existing installations.

The Norwegian total of 360 guns included 141 towed FlaK 36, plus 15 in static installations. There were also 55 towed FlaK 37s and 139 static. These guns served on until the early 1950s when they began to be supplemented and then replaced in the air-defence role by numbers of American 90mm Gun M1A1 and M2s. Even then the 88s soldiered on because in 1957 125 88mm guns were transferred to the coast artillery. In this role they lasted only until the mid-1960s when they were withdrawn as part of a policy to limit Norwegian coast-artillery equipments to those with calibres of 105mm, 127mm and 150mm (all former German naval guns) to ease the training and logistic situation. Norway investigated the adoption of the 8.8cm PaK 43/41 (possibly for employment as a coast-defence gun) but it does not appear to have been accepted for their service.

Other post-war user nations included Yugoslavia, where some guns were assigned to coast defence installed in specially constructed concrete bunkers having overhead protection. Another post-1945 user was Czecho-Slovakia, which took in any remaining FlaK 41s in addition to the other FlaK models; all were eventually replaced by Soviet equipments. A few Yugoslav 88s reportedly survived to see limited action during the Balkan Troubles of the 1990s.

France also adopted 88s abandoned once the Germans had left France, sending numbers of FlaK guns to be used in their post-war Indo-China campaigns along with an array of ex-Second World War (and even First World War) artillery relics, including former Japanese artillery pieces. The French 88s had nothing to do with air defence once they got to Indo-China as the local opposition did not have any aircraft assets, so the guns were employed in the direct- or indirect-fire artillery role. As such they were probably the last 88s to take part in a full-scale, live shooting war.

Other nations adopted the 88 as a long-term measure, one of them being Finland. By 1945 that nation had accumulated numerous types of anti-aircraft gun but they regarded the ninety FlaK 37s they had acquired during 1943 and 1944 as the best in their inventory. The guns emplaced around various Finnish cities were retained until 1969 as air-defence weapons (the last personnel assigned to them were trained during 1967) and even then their service careers continued. The guns were passed to the Coast Artillery arm where they soldiered on until the end of the twentieth century. At first they were installed as mobile, low-trajectory coast-defence weapons but gradually they were relegated to training duties and eventually to simply firing during exercises to conserve ammunition that would otherwise have been fired by more modern weapons, a role an ever-decreasing number of 88s is still performing to this day. Many guns are still held in storage as reserve weapons, although their possible utility as such seems more unlikely as the years progress. Ammunition for these guns was manufactured locally by the concern that, after several name changes, became Patria Vammas.

Perhaps the most involved user nation of the 88 after 1945 was Spain. By 1945 the numbers of FlaK 18 and 36 guns sent to Spain, in attempts to keep Spain’s General Franco at least sympathetic to the Germany cause, had reached 140. An additional ploy to keep Spain on the German side was to offer manufacturing licences for various German weapon designs, among them being the 8.8cm FlaK 18. Licence negotiations commenced as early as May 1941 but it took time to establish the required manufacturing facilities, not the least difficulty being obtaining the necessary raw materials and machine tools at a time when Europe was at war.

German Cavalry I

German heavy cavalry. 10th century

For more than three thousand years, whether in enforcing the law or, more importantly, waging war, the horse was the means by which the warrior gained true mobility, range, and striking power. Either by riding the horse or by having it pull his chariots, supply wagons, or, later, machine guns and artillery, he harnessed the strength, endurance, and above all the intelligence of the horse for his own military purposes; and, despite the horse’s flight-response to danger, he even managed make use of its occasional aggressiveness. This latter trait became particularly useful in the massed attack when the horse’s herd-instincts could effectively mask threats from which even cavalry mounts trained to the sound of gunfire might otherwise flee. Equine aggressiveness among stallions and late-gelded males could also be brought to bear in the melee of individual combats wherein the horse would see another mount, and not its rider, as the enemy.7 Such innovations “brought to warmaking the electric concept of campaigning over long distances and, when campaigning resolved itself into battle, of manoeuvering on the battlefield at speed—at least five times the speed of men on foot.” It also brought fear: the fear of an enemy able to appear at times and in places of his own choosing, often completely unexpectedly. Indeed, given the context of the present work, it seems worth noting that this pervasive fear rooted itself very deeply in the European psyche. As late as the 1940s, the German government’s propaganda consciously attempted to evoke the terror still latent in the folk memory of the menace of the steppe horsemen. The purpose was to encourage resistance to the advancing, and by then largely mechanized, Red Army. Emphasis on the specific ideological threat posed by Communism only overlaid and reinforced the much more ancient dread. The essential element was the fear itself, the perception of Germany’s being overrun by “Asiatic hordes.” Ironically, the fact that the Red Army still employed large units of horse-mounted Cossacks only further reinforced the propaganda.

The centrality, the emotional pre-eminence, of the mounted warrior even down to the twentieth century’s beginnings was not quite as old as the Western way of war itself. From approximately the fifth century BC to the fifth century AD, that way of warfare consisted primarily in the face-to-face fight to the death of the infantry phalanx with cavalry acting (occasionally brilliantly, as under Alexander’s command, or as with the Thebans at Leuctra in 371 BC) as an adjunct to the main battle. Nevertheless, the transmission of the mounted warrior’s role from the Eurasian steppe and Persia via Greece and Rome to Europe proper created a powerful impetus for the future. This force found its first true expression in the post-Roman, Germanic successor-kingdoms of early medieval Europe. In them the Greco-Roman tradition combined itself with the power of the horse to create an essentially new style of mounted warfare, one aiming at the immediate destruction of the enemy rather than hit-and-run harassment and graduated attrition typical of the steppe warrior.

To the extent that Western cavalry now gave primacy to rapidly closing with and destroying the enemy, the widespread use of the stirrup constituted an important contributory technology. As with the idea of the cavalry itself, the stirrup’s use also gradually migrated from East to West. By the tenth century AD it was commonly used by Western European horsemen and, among cavalrymen, helped provide a more stable platform from which to drive home attacks with a couched lance or to strike heavier, downward blows with handheld weapons such as the mace, sword, or axe. It is also suggested that the increased striking power made possible through the combination of effective bits, stirrups, and deeper-seated saddles encouraged the breeding of heavier horses in Western Europe from the Carolingian period forward, ones capable of withstanding the greatly increased collision-impact of lance-wielding heavy cavalry. It should, for example, be remembered that two armored knights’ chargers, each weighing at least one thousand pounds (not including the weight of the rider, his weapons, and armor) and moving at speeds approaching 15–20 mph (25 km/h), would generate a tremendous shock. As such face-to-face combat became the idealized norm in Western mounted warfare, breeds possessing a heavier, though not necessarily “cobby” or “carty,” conformation followed. Indeed, they helped drive the cycle: the heavier the horse, the greater the weight of man and armor it could carry and impact it could withstand. This capability, in turn, necessitated still heavier breeds to absorb ever-greater collisions, and so on.

Insofar as German cavalry is concerned (but not only there), the long-term consequence of this equid-and-technology evolutionary spiral in the early-modern period was the increasingly rigorous and state-supported breeding program of the sort that produced such fine military horses as the Hanoverian and the Trakehner. And, though lance-on-shield combat eventually disappeared, the essential physical dynamics of Western European cavalry combat from AD 870 to 1870 did not. As a result, into the twentieth century Western European cavalry horses, German horses among them, would remain generally taller and of heavier conformation than, for example, their Cossack counterparts. Nevertheless, one never really sees a clear break between a Western way of war involving nothing but infantry and a Western way of war wholly dominated by mounted knights by circa AD 750–800. Rather, there appears to have been a steady, and steadily growing, influence of the concept of mounted warfare permeating Western Europe from the East, undergoing modification and culminating in the full flowering of the chivalric ideal in the High Middle Ages and then continuing through the early-modern period with its introduction of gunpowder weaponry.

In the latter age, however, one of the primary conundrums facing cavalrymen in the Western world was what their role would become given the advent of firearms. The employment of long-range missileweapons by horsemen was, of course, already of ancient lineage. The tactically successful use of such weapons against riders was a crucial military evolution even before the common use of gunpowder. One need only mention Crecy (1346) and Agincourt (1415). The introduction and rapid refinement of firearms merely compounded the range at which common foot soldiers might visit destruction upon their chivalric social betters. To a certain extent, firearms also added to the perceived insidiousness of the foot soldier’s shooting the rider from the saddle before the latter could even strike a blow or, more likely, simply killing his horse. The horse did, after all, present a much larger target than the man riding it, and killing the horse automatically stopped the cavalry charge. For example, the nobly born Gaston de Foix, commander of the French army at Ravenna in 1512, and some twenty of his courtly fellows were unceremoniously “gunned down to a man” when they sportingly attempted to pursue already defeated Spanish arquebusiers. Furthermore, if such factors were not already sufficient to make socially refined horsemen unsure about facing mere mechanics on a gunpowder dominated battlefield, there was the occasional accusation that gunmen used an early equivalent of dum-dum bullets in the form of rounds dipped in poisonous substances such as green vitriol (likely an oily metallic sulfate), a charge specifically made during the siege of the English city of Colchester in 1648.

Cuirassiers giving fire with their pistols (cuirassiers of en:Gottfried Heinrich Graf zu Pappenheim).

In the late fifteenth and throughout the sixteenth century the principal firearm was, in one version or another, the arquebus. For the time being this weapon, though dangerous, did not truly threaten to displace cavalry from the battlefield. The arquebus did not, for example, possess a high rate of fire. Estimates range from one shot every thirty to forty seconds under ideal conditions (unlikely in a battle) to one shot every “several minutes.” Perhaps the best estimate is one shot every two minutes, though this, too, may be generous. Under such circumstances, cavalry could very likely close with opposing infantry before the latter’s arquebuses inflicted unacceptable losses of men and horses. Moving at the trot, cavalry on sound horses could cover perhaps 270 yards (approximately 250 meters) per minute, while at the gallop the distance covered would approximately double. Consequently, infantry armed with arquebuses faced unpalatable options. They could fire a volley at the weapon’s maximum effective range of about one hundred yards and hope to reload and fire again before the horsemen were upon them. Conversely, they could wait until the range had decreased to a much more lethal fifty yards or so, fire, and then see whether the horsemen survived in sufficient numbers and with sufficient impetus to ride them down. Precisely for this reason, pikemen remained an integral feature of infantry formations throughout the period. The pike—as much as eighteen feet in length—provided close-in protection for arquebusiers who were otherwise doomed, as were artillerymen, if the cavalry got in amongst them. The pikemen were therefore essential to the infantry’s survival until the invention of the socket bayonet. That device transformed the shoulder-fired weapon into a means by which infantrymen could defend themselves from cavalry attack while reloading, provided they had the nerve. Large numbers of horses moving at the gallop not only present a tremendous visual spectacle. For anyone standing nearby, they also literally shake the earth. A wall of such creatures, hundreds or even thousands strong, ridden by shouting cavalrymen and running full tilt directly into one’s face, would certainly seem to be unstoppable. The adverse psychological effect upon infantrymen, even when they formed the vaunted infantry square, could be enormous.

Of course, the cavalry forces of European armies also attempted to adapt themselves to the use of firearms, most notably in the form of the pistoleers of the mid-sixteenth century. The caracole, through a complicated tactical evolution, resulted precisely from the effort by cavalrymen to make use of firearms themselves to break up opposing infantry formations and thus render possible a battle-winning charge with cold steel. “Cavalry,” writes historian Jeremy Black, thus continued to provide “mobility, and that was crucial for strategic, logistical, and tactical reasons. It enabled forces to overcome the constraints of distance, to create equations of numbers, supplies and rate of movement that were very different to those of infantry, and also to force the pace of battle in a very different fashion to that of infantry.” The arquebus, the wheel-lock horse-pistol, and, eventually, the eighteenth-century flintlock musket did not render that utility nugatory. Indeed, if the carbine musket and cannon could be fully incorporated into the cavalry, as in fact they were, then the cavalry would continue to have, as in fact it did, a viable combat role on the battlefields of Europe.

According to Michael Roberts, the Swedish king and royal innovator Gustavus Adolphus nevertheless forbade the caracole and instead insisted that the cavalry always charge home with swords drawn, relying on the combined weight of man and horse for tactical success. In place of his horsemen’s firearms, or at least supplementing them, he also “was able to arm his units with a light and transportable field piece designed to supply close artillery support for infantry and cavalry alike.” Herein one may see the beginnings not only of the vaunted horse-artillery of the Napoleonic era but also what late-twentieth-century military writers would have termed an organic artillery capability for the cavalry. Unsurprisingly, however, not all historians agree that this incorporation of artillery with the cavalry constituted a solution to the cavalry’s problem of how to break up firearms-carrying infantry formations. David A. Parrott, for one, maintains that Gustavus Adolphus’ effort created no real solution. On the contrary, he writes that the Swedish king’s artillery was not “capable of the same degree of mobility as cavalry.” While the Swedes had developed cannon firing 3-pound shot over an effective range of some three hundred yards, these “were not mobile as a matter of course” owing to a lack of good-quality horses and easily portable stocks of ammunition. Therefore, “the vaunted reforms of Gustavus Adolphus produced nothing capable of approaching this [mobility] requirement.” Parrott therefore concludes that, absent the aforementioned and truly revolutionary innovation that highly mobile horse-artillery would have provided in smashing prepared infantry formations, the cavalry’s tactical importance became increasingly that of turning the flanks of opposing armies so that the latter could be taken from the side or rear while pressure was maintained front and center by one’s own infantry. Of course, the opponent’s own cavalry would be tasked with preventing just such a turning movement, thus setting up the continued face-to-face clash of horsemen employing not only handheld firearms but cold steel, both at pointblank range. It would, therefore, not be “new” tactics deciding the issue in a given cavalry battle but the resolution of the combatants, and at least implicitly the quality of the winners’ mounts. In precisely this respect, the importance of secure, high-quality breeding stock for supplying large numbers of remounts assumed a strategic significance.

In Germany the eighteenth century witnessed the establishment or expansion of a number of State studs whose mission was to develop and maintain breed-stock suitable for military and agricultural employment. Two of the most famous of these would eventually play major roles in the breeding of the modern German military horse. These were the East Prussian State Stud at Trakehnen and the Hanoverian State Stud at Celle. These studs and others contributed greatly to the establishment of a solid breed-stock of horses that, if not quite as finely athletic as the English Thoroughbred of the day, were nonetheless very well suited for employment as cavalry mounts. To that extent, they helped revamp the capabilities of a Prussian and, later, German cavalry that no less an observer than Frederick the Great dismissed upon his accession as being “not even worth the devil coming to fetch it away.” Nevertheless, the development of more stringent breeding standards, combined with more effective training in individual and close-formation galloping and other exercises by Frederick’s cavalry commanders such as Johann Joachim “Papa” von Ziethen and Friedrich Wilhelm von Seydlitz, soon honed the Prussian cavalry into a force of European renown. No longer would the Prussian cavalry be good only for parading, a fact demonstrated for all to see in battles such as Seydlitz’ crushing victory over the French at Rossbach in 1757.

German Cavalry II

Major General von Seydlitz pipe Prussian cavalry Battle of Rossbach – Richard Knötel

Firearms of all kinds had indeed made the battlefield more lethal. That was true enough. Cavalrymen, such as the Prussians at Rossbach, recognized “that a well-timed musket volley could destroy an entire regiment.” They also knew, however, that musketry, rifle-fire, or artillery could create opportunities for the cavalry’s decisive engagement, provided that cavalry commanders appreciated “the complexity of the [late eighteenth-century] battlefield.” More than ever before, “precise maneuvers, speed, boldness, and timing” would determine the mounted arm’s success on battlefields where “the margin of error separating cavalry success and failure” grew ever narrower. This lesson applied not only to Prussian or other German cavalry, but to all the military horsemen of Europe.

These issues became acute between 1800 and 1815, for European cavalry “reached its apotheosis” during the reign of Napoleon I. In his campaigns, cavalry performed those functions—often with consummate skill—that still remained to it on battlefields now coming to be dominated by the emperor’s beloved artillery, if not quite yet by truly accurate, long-range volleys from rifled firearms. These roles consisted of screening the French armies’ movements and strength from spies and opposing forces. The cavalry also carried out reconnaissance and prepared the conditions for the concentration of divergent French columns at the point of contact with the enemy. Finally, the French horsemen became the ultimate pursuers of broken enemy formations, though the latter were almost never broken by the cavalry itself. Despite the awful psychological effect of a massed cavalry attack made at the gallop, Napoleonic-era infantry squares, bristling with bayonet-tipped muskets and often supported by guns, could only rarely be smashed by direct mounted assault. Nevertheless, Napoleon may be said to have resurrected the cavalry’s operational role from its relative diminution in the eighteenth century as reflected in the declining ratio of cavalry to infantry, despite the cavalry’s contributions in such famous early eighteenth-century battles as Blenheim (1704) and, later, Rossbach. Napoleon added skirmishing to the cavalry’s remit and, in the 1790s, was one of the first French commanders to employ effective horse-artillery. The latter innovation gave genuine speed and mobility to the “king of battle,” greatly increasing the striking power of mounted formations. Furthermore, by disrupting the enemy infantry’s formations, a properly coordinated artillery barrage, whether from field guns or horse batteries, could still make possible the European cavalry’s ultimate self-expression, namely the pressing home of attacks with the arme blanche. At the very least, it was assumed that dragoons and carabiniers could close sufficiently to employ their own shoulder-fired weapons or pistols. Nevertheless, even Napoleon’s superb cavalry could not overcome the iron logic of gunpowder weaponry, as demonstrated with such terrible magnificence in the futile attack by fully 10,000 French horsemen against the allied squares at Waterloo. Not even such a grand failure, however, served to dislodge the cavalry from the armies of Europe, if for no other reason than that no substitute for it existed in the missions noted above. Only the cavalry could rapidly execute the vital tasks of long-range reconnaissance, screening, flanking, liaison, and pursuit. Nothing less than the advent of reliable wireless communications and internal-combustion propulsion would truly change that calculus; and even then, the cavalry’s departure from the scene “was slow, uneven, and reluctant.”

Thus, throughout the second half of the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century, the cavalry—indeed military horsepower generally—could still claim a place on the battlefields of Europe. In the last great cavalry war of Western European history, the Franco-Prussian War, both France and the German States routinely employed light and heavy cavalry at both the tactical and the operational level, though not, as shown below, with equal effectiveness. Later, in World War I, all of the major European armies still marched with huge numbers of cavalry fully integrated into their combat formations, though as the reader will see, nascent motorization (particularly armored cars)—not to mention more effective, long-range artillery and machine guns—vastly restricted what the cavalry might still accomplish, at least on the Western Front. By contrast, on the Eastern Front from Courland and East Prussia to Rumania, horsemen still enjoyed a considerable prestige and found themselves usefully employed both tactically and operationally.

Charge of the 1st Bavarian uhlans, 1914

Nevertheless, not even the events of 1914–1918 completely removed cavalry and horse-powered transport from European armies. We are particularly concerned with the fact that this remained so in Germany. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the Reichsheer of the Weimar years and, later, the Heer still conceived of important tactical and operational roles for the horse, both in combat and in logistics. Both organizations would plan accordingly, notwithstanding a great deal of propaganda to the contrary. Consequently, when Hitler’s government willfully plunged Europe into the greatest war in its history, the German Army still possessed hundreds of thousands of horses in its establishment and not just for pulling supply-wagons, field-kitchens, artillery, and ambulances. German cavalry also went to war in 1939, not as a mere horse-mounted anachronism but as a matter of some necessity.

One might well argue that that reliance on horses by the Reichsheer and the Nazi-era Heer was misplaced. Germany’s military leaders, so the argument would run, ought to have done otherwise. Such an objection is fair enough in the abstract. In this matter, however, as in all historical inquiry, the primary question—as formulated by a noted authority in German military history—should not necessarily address what the German army ought to have done regarding the cavalry’s employment. Rather, the question should account for why the German army did what it did. Why still use horse-mounted troops after 1918? Why after 1925, when motorization was becoming a reality? Why after 1935, when the first panzer divisions were being raised? Why, ultimately, even in 1945, when literally thousands of horse-soldiers still found themselves in action?

Of course, cavalrymen were only as good as their horses, and this treatment of the German cavalry therefore also touches upon one of the great and enduring bonds in the human experience: that between the horseman and his mount. Having moved steadily away from regular, close contact with large animals since the middle of the twentieth century—except among a continuously dwindling number of farmers or perhaps from the safe side of a zoo’s enclosures—Western society has become largely ignorant of the profound interaction between horses and humans. Notwithstanding the undoubted commercial successes of recent occasional books, plays, and feature films (the British National Theatre’s 2009 triumph War Horse and the U.S. films Seabiscuit and Secretariat come most immediately to mind), horses since 1945 have become the perceived preserve of a “horsey set” of racing owners and/or breeders, huntsmen, or the simply rich. This perception remains current despite the fact that in the United States alone the equine population stood at well over five million at the beginning of the twenty-first century. In the United Kingdom the figure totaled perhaps one million at the same date, though it remains somewhat unclear whether that number resulted from recent natural accretion or severe undercounting in earlier surveys. Given such numbers, particularly in the United States, and based upon the author’s own experience, it seems clear that very substantial numbers of horses certainly do not live a life of luxury in racing stables and hunt clubs, nor do they live quite so far apart from their human companions as one might think. Nevertheless, actual contact between those huge numbers of horses and the larger human population in whose midst they live remains minimal for human society as a whole.

Of all the ties binding humans and horses, surely the most poignant and nearly the oldest is the one existing between the military horse and the mounted warrior. If not quite as ancient as warfare itself, this bond is nearly so. But war remains, and has always been, a hard business. Physical destruction abounds. Men, women, children—and animals—die. Of course, no moral equivalence between the death of a horse and that of a man, woman, or child is intended. The assertion of any such equivalence would be grotesque. Nevertheless, the deaths of horses can be piteous. They know real fear. They feel real pain. They seem to suffer real loss. Their size and their very nearness to their riders make their suffering all too palpable, all too visceral, when they are seriously or mortally injured. That nonquantifiable but vivid characteristic called “heart,” the inner quality possessed by so many horses that drives them on even at the risk of injury or death, can show itself most heroically when they die. Horses worn out by their lives’ exertions can be utterly composed and evidently ready when they go to their graves. The author has seen this firsthand. Those not yet ready to die can fight for life and very often do. The author has seen this as well. Cavalry horses’ training could itself sometimes be brutal, but so was the task to which they were set by their human masters. The numerous instances of those same horses’ noble behavior in combat (other words simply do not fit) nevertheless attest to a quality far beyond simple, enforced obedience. Just as many of their riders did, just as many soldiers have always done, such horses often showed their most profound dignity when their own lives hung in the balance. Is this mere cavalry romanticism, mere horseman’s anthropomorphism? Perhaps it is. Certainly many cavalrymen viewed their mounts merely as equipment to be discarded without further ado when injured or to be replaced without a second thought when killed. Others evidently felt differently. If not, why have war horses, so far as we can reckon, always had individual names from the earliest times down to the vast mounted forces of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century? Beginning in the Napoleonic period, most cavalrymen were literate. Consequently, it was “the first period where the personal relationship between the military horse and the soldier was recorded” in substantial numbers of accounts. The relationship could prove, and was shown to be, as intense as any between humans. Those accounts also provide the first substantive indication of a tale quite likely as old as the military horse itself, a tale of a very special bond forged in the crucible of war, a tale of fierce joy in life and unbearable heartache in death.

The Decision not to Drop the German Bomb


Hitler had set himself, or been set, specific guidelines for the introduction and use of new weapons. In 1940 he had given Ohnesorge the impression that he was not interested in having an atom bomb. Two years later, within a few weeks of taking office, Armaments Minister Speer accepted that Hitler “did not want the bomb for doctrinal reasons”.

During a conversation with Field Marshall Keitel, Foreign Minister Ribbentrop and the Rumanian Head of State Marshal Antonescu on 5 August 1944 only a fortnight after the 20 July attempt on his life, Hitler spoke of the latest German work on new explosives “whose development to the experimental stage has been completed”. He added that, to his own way of thinking, “the leap from the explosives in common use to these new types of explosive material is greater than that from gunpowder to the explosives in use at the outbreak of war”. When Marshal Antonescu replied that he hoped personally not to be alive when this new substance came into use, which might perhaps bring about the end of the world, Hitler recalled reading a German writer who had predicted just that: ultimately it would lead to a point where matter as such would disintegrate, bringing about the final catastrophe. Hitler expressed the hope that the scientists and weapons designers working on this new explosive would not attempt to use it until they were quite sure that they understood what they were dealing with.

There can be little doubt that the subject under discussion was fissionable weapons material and, if that is so, then Hitler confirmed that the Germans had the weapon and that it was ready for testing in August 1944. The actual test took place two months later.

The difficulty with all these new weapons was the same, Hitler said. In general, he had ruled that a weapon should be brought into use immediately if it was guaranteed to bring the war to a victorious conclusion forthwith. This rule held good even if no counter-measure had yet been devised. In the majority of cases, however, the probability existed that the enemy would eventually obtain the same substance for himself, so the counter-measure was essential. Accordingly he had ordered that no weapon should be deployed by Germany first until Germany had developed the counter-measure to it.

SS-Obersturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny stated that when he saw Hitler in November 1944 their conversation came round to the atom bomb. Hitler said,

“Of course! But even if the radioactivity could be controlled, and you used fission as a weapon, then the effects would be terrible … it would be the Apocalypse. And how would one keep such a thing a secret? Impossible! No! No nation, no group of civilised people could take on such a responsibility. The first bomb would be answered by a second and then humanity would be forced down the road to extinction. Only tribes in the Amazon and the primeval forests of Sumatra would have a chance of survival.”

We must now place ourselves in the shoes of the 20 July plotters determined at some stage to overthrow Hitler. The U-boat offensive in the Atlantic had been defeated. German cities and industry were being pounded day and night by bomber fleets which roamed across Reich airspace with impunity. The Army and Waffen-SS were close to exhaustion, defending the ever-shrinking perimeter of Greater Germany. The situation was not completely hopeless, but it would not be long before it was.

Ernst von Weizsäcker, the father of Heisenberg’s close colleague, was Under-Secretary of State at the German Foreign Office, where he was one of the opponents of the Nazi regime. In 1938 he had informed the British Foreign Office of the existence of a group of civilian and military leaders ready to overthrow the Nazi Government if Hitler should go to war over Czechoslovakia, and was himself a major conspirator in what appears to have been the best-prepared coup ever planned against Hitler.

But Chamberlain and Lord Halifax, who had been asked to provide a strong demonstration of their determination not to tolerate the assimilation of the Czech state, disregarded the request, believing that an accord with Hitler was still possible. The German plotters were dismissed as Jacobites. The elder von Weizsäcker remained a focus of resistance in the Nazi State at war but was ultimately convicted at Nuremberg for alleged war crimes on the basis of his signature to certain documents.

According to Hitler’s Luftwaffe ADC Nicolaus von Below, the SS interrogations of the July 1944 plotters reported widescale treason by military leaders throughout the preceding four years: the preparations for the French campaign, the dates of the attack and the objectives of the first operations: even the beginning of the Russian campaign had been betrayed.

Long before the attempt on Hitler’s life the plotters had approached the Allied camp to establish terms for peace. Unconditional surrender was obviously not acceptable, yet, beyond that, all they got was encouragement to carry through their plans to overthrow Hitler. The Soviet author and former ambassador to Bonn, Valentin Falin, demonstrated by reference to Russian secret archives that the resistance movement penetrated to the highest military level in Germany and had contributed substantially to the success of the Allied invasion of occupied France in June 1944.

Professor Heisenberg, who in June 1944 had turned down an invitation by a Professor of History of his acquaintance, Adolf Reichwein, to participate in a plot against Hitler, frequented a social group known as the Mittwochgesellschaft(Wednesday Club). This was an intellectual forum of conservative opposition to Hitler composed of academics, civil servants and industrialists. Its members included the diplomat Ulrich von Hassell: General Ludwig Beck, the nominal head of the military conspiracy against Hitler; the philosopher Spranger; the Prussian Finance Minister Popitz; Ferdinand Sauerbruch, the Chief Surgeon of the German Army, and Rudolf Diels, the founder of the Gestapo. Reunions were held at the Harnack House in Berlin-Dahlem, the headquarters of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute.

At the meeting of 12 July 1944 Heisenberg addressed the forum with a talk entitled “What are the Stars?” which appears to have been a cover for a discussion about nuclear fission. Spranger observed that these scientific developments promised to change the way men thought about the world, General Beck was more explicit and said that if atomic energy could be used for bombs then “all the old military ideas would have to be changed”. This implies that the question of the atom bomb must have been discussed. Just before leaving Berlin for his home at Urfeld on 19 July, Heisenberg delivered minutes of the meeting to Popitz. The attempt on Hitler’s life was made the next day.

Dr Kurt Diebner and ten assistants had set up an atomic laboratory in the cellar of a school at Stadtilm in the Harz, about thirteen kilometres from Ohrdruf, where Oberst Graf von Stauffenberg, the ringleader of the conspiracy, stayed regularly on the Wachsenberg, which was a favourite meeting place for officers and scientists working in the Ohrdruf area. Frau Cläre Werner, a watchtower lookout who resided on the mountain, recalled Stauffenberg visiting on a number of occasions and she still had possession of items of property he had left with her on his final visit. Why should Stauffenberg have come so often to Ohrdruf when he worked in Berlin? Did the German resistance movement have more than a passing interest in what was going on at Stadtilm and its subterranean environs?

The German author Harald Fäth reported that in the 1960s Gerhard Rundnagel, a master plumber who worked in the Stadtilm atomic research laboratory, gave evidence to a DDR judicial enquiry about the wartime activities there. In the depositions Rundnagel made a statement that the Stadtilm Research Institute had not been properly plumbed in and so was not really up and running. As far as he could see the scientists there were not actually working on anything. This left a lot of time for talk and Rundnagel described conversations he had had at the beginning of July 1944 with Dr Rehbein, a scientist at Stadtilm. Rehbein is alleged to have told Rundnagel that what was under development there was a type of bomb which had a greater explosive power than anything that an old weapons engineer such as himself could possibly envisage. Rehbein then went on to say, “Within a few days you will hear a decisive announcement on which will depend the outcome of the war.” On 20 July 1944 the unsuccessful attempt was made on Hitler’s life. When Rundnagel asked Dr Rehbein later if that was what he had meant, the scientist laughed and replied, “Now it will never be used. The war is lost.” There are two ways of looking at this statement. Rehbein may have been suggesting that once Germany could make the official announcement that an atom bomb had been successfully tested, Hitler would be in a strong position to negotiate with at least one of his enemies. Because of the conspiracy against him, however, the evidence of disunity and betrayal perceived by foreign governments abroad would reduce figuratively the bomb’s impact.

But there is an alternative interpretation. Along with other scientists in Dr Diebner’s entourage, Dr Rehbein may have been an associate of the anti-Hitler faction who wanted the Führer out of the way so that the German military could use the bombs physically to negotiate peace on terms more favourable than unconditional surrender. If it had become known to the resistance that, once tested, Hitler was resolved not to deploy the small atom bombs operationally, this would explain not only why the plotters struck when they did, but would justify Rehbein’s remark that the war was lost, for with Hitler remaining as leader the atom bombs would never be used, or at least would be used only in response to the enemy’s first use; yet the atom bomb, used in quantities, was, in the view of the plotters, Germany’s last hope. 95 The sense of the words attributed to Dr Rehbein seem to favour the latter interpretation.

The fantastic idea current in 1944 of the effect of even a small atomic explosion is conveyed by an article in the Swedish newspaper Stockholms Tidningen in August 1944, and reported in Germany by the TranSozean Innendienst news agency:

“In the United States scientific experiments are being carried out with a new bomb. Its explosive substance is uranium, and when the elements within its structure are liberated, a force of hitherto undreamed-of violence is generated. A 5-kilo bomb could create a crater one kilometre deep and of forty kilometres radius.”

In all the foregoing we have a possible explanation for Professor Heisenberg’s activities. Throughout the Hitler period he was opposed to the regime. He had remained in Germany in 1939 in order to sabotage the atom bomb and radiological warfare projects. In September 1941 he had taken a philosophical standpoint that a regime is to be considered evil by reference to the means it uses to impose its policies, and the atomic bomb was evil. In 1943 the United States had begun work on its atomic arsenal, a fact of which he would probably have been aware. In Germany a strong military resistance was developing of which Heisenberg had knowledge. He knew from von Weizsäcker that terms for an honourable conclusion to hostilities other than unconditional surrender were not available to Germany if that resistance succeeded in overthrowing Hitler. Heisenberg was a patriot. War was war, and, with Hitler removed, what German wanted Stalin or Roosevelt running the country? Therefore the idea of building a bomb of some description had been forced on him, for there had to be some sort of bomb, a bomb inevitably designed and built during the chancellorship of Hitler as Führer, but intended for use in diplomacy by those who would succeed him.

This pre-supposed, of course, that Hitler actually could be got rid of. The suggestion has been made in various quarters that he was in some way under the protection of higher powers determined that he should see his mission through. No assassination attempt could ever succeed because there would always be the hand to re-position the offending attaché case with its bomb, or Hitler would change his schedule unexpectedly and leave the building minutes before a bomb went off. As was referred to in the Introduction, two well-placed authorities who observed Hitler pre-war had the impression that he was a medium, and mediums do claim that nothing can harm them seriously during the times when they are possessed by gods or spirits.

If the plotters had succeeded on 20 July 1944, and the SS had not taken over the running of the country in the aftermath, the death camps would presumably have been abolished, but one sees no easy way how a continuation of the war against the Western Powers could have been avoided. Probably Germany would have found Stalin willing to re-align the Soviet Union in some manner with the new Reich and possibly Japan, particularly if a demonstration of the new explosives or the nerve gases could have been arranged. Whether that was something which the supporters of the plot against Hitler would have found acceptable as the price of removing him we have no means of knowing.

‘Bring England to its knees’ I

Operation “Sea Lion” – Invading England In 1940? [Part One]

In their urgent preparations against invasion during the last weeks of May 1940, the British military and civil authorities laboured under a profound delusion. At this time, the Germans had no detailed plans whatsoever to invade England. When the Chiefs of Staff warned on 28 May that ‘an attack is imminent’ they were mistaken. All the energies of the Wehrmacht were concentrated on the defeat of France and the Low Countries. Operations across the Channel by sea or air had never come under serious consideration before the western offensive was launched on 10 May.

The lack of any comprehensive German strategy for invasion reflected Hitler’s own ambivalence towards England, which oscillated between hatred and admiration. On one hand he saw Britain as potentially the biggest obstacle to his dreams of European domination. On the other, he cherished a deep respect for Britain’s achievements, especially in building her empire and defeating her continental enemies, and was inclined to see the British establishment, including the class system, Oxbridge and the elite public schools, as a bulwark against Bolshevism. On one occasion, the German army’s chief of staff General Franz Halder entered the Führer’s office to find him happily leafing through a copy of the Illustrated London News. Hitler looked up from the magazine and said, ‘That we have to make war against such personages, isn’t it a pity?’ Mixed with this high regard for Britain’s record was his belief, so characteristic of his racially fixated ideology, that the Anglo-Saxon people were essentially of the same ethnic stock as the Germans.

Apart from his contradictory attitudes towards British nationhood, there were two more practical factors that had prevented him developing any invasion plan during the first nine months of the war. One was his lack of interest in naval policy. Filled with visions of conquest by land to expand the Lebensraum, or living space, for the German people, he treated the army and the Luftwaffe as far greater military priorities than the Kriegsmarine. On a personal level, Hitler felt little attraction to nautical activities. Forests and mountains were where he liked to relax, not by the sea, which he regarded as alien, even intimidating territory. ‘On land I feel like a lion but at sea I am a coward,’ he once admitted. Just as importantly, he believed that Britain would capitulate if France were defeated. With the Reich all-powerful on the continent, he did not see any reason why the war would continue since Britain’s cause would have become so hopeless. The collapse of France would force the British government to seek terms. Indeed, one of the key goals of the western offensive, he said, was ‘to bring England to its knees’.

According to Hitler, if Britain refused to surrender in the event of France’s collapse, then she could be strangled into submission by cutting off her supplies, making invasion unnecessary. He told a conference of his commanders in May 1939, ‘Britain can be blockaded from western France at close quarters by the Luftwaffe, while the Navy with their submarines can extend the range of the blockade.’

When the commander-in-chief of the Kriegsmarine, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, met Hitler on 23 September 1939 to discuss naval operations in the West, the Führer again made no reference to any amphibious landings on the English coast, urging instead an aggressive naval blockade if the war continued against France and Britain. ‘The quicker the start and the more brutal, the quicker the effect and the shorter the war,’ he told Raeder. Nevertheless, for all Hitler’s indifference, Raeder recognised that the Reich might well have to mount an invasion.

Ambitious, eccentric and puritanical, the grand admiral was also methodical and well organised. What he feared was a sudden demand from Hitler or the Wehrmacht Chief of Staff for the provision of an invasion fleet, complete with troop transports and convoy protection. Although the possibility of invasion might seem remote, Raeder felt he should be prepared for it, particularly since, throughout the autumn of 1939, Hitler was plotting an assault on France, code-named Case Yellow. As Raeder later wrote of the preliminary analysis by the naval war staff:

It was clear to us that studies should be made in case developments of the war suddenly presented us with a new twist to the English problem … Although the British people had been haunted from the first by the spectre of invasion, there had been not the slightest thought of this on the German side. It was only natural, however, that this problem would one day be given attention by the armed forces command, and I wanted to have some soundly reasoned particulars on hand when that time came, so that the thinking could at least begin on a firm basis. The Navy would be the first of the armed forces to be concerned with an invasion, since it would be a question of overseas transport on a colossal scale.

To carry out this technical study, on 15 November Raeder appointed a small team under Rear Admiral Otto Schniewind. The naval planners went to work with speed rather than enthusiasm. Within a fortnight they had produced the tentative outline of an invasion scheme, code-named Study Red, which envisaged a landing area about 60 miles wide on the southern English coast between Portland in Dorset and Yarmouth. The attacking force, which was to number only 7,500 men carried in about fifteen ships, could theoretically embark from the French Channel ports if they had been seized, but that would leave it highly exposed to enemy fire, as well as depriving it of the element of surprise. Therefore, said the planners, embarkation from Germany would be preferable, despite the longer sea route, although an alternative would be to use Antwerp and Amsterdam.

Study Red was essentially pessimistic, with a strong emphasis on the difficulties that any invading force would encounter, such as the strength of British coastal artillery, the mobility of defensive British troops, the threat from Royal Navy submarines, the large amount of shipping required and, above all, the need to establish air superiority over the RAF. As the naval planners pointed out, the paradox was that if all the conditions were achieved to make an invasion possible, especially the defeat of the RAF and the Royal Navy, then Britain would have already been beaten: ‘thus a landing, followed by occupation, will scarcely be necessary.’

This negativity was important, setting the tone for the naval staff’s attitude towards Operation Sea Lion. Throughout the summer of 1940, Raeder and his senior officers remained highly dubious about the whole enterprise, always pushing for a postponement in the invasion or the use of an alternative strategy to subjugate England. Halder noted in his diary on 30 July 1940 after one unproductive conference, ‘The navy in all probability will not provide us this autumn with the means for a successful invasion.’ However, the army was more bullish, as was shown when Schniewind sent his Study Red to the Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH), the supreme command of the German army under Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch.

In late 1939, having received the naval plan, von Brauchitsch ordered a counter-study to be conducted by one of his officers, Helmuth Stieff, who was renowned for his organisational skills, although Hitler disliked him, calling him ‘a poisonous little dwarf’. Adopting a more optimistic, less hesitant approach than the naval staff, Stieff drew up an invasion plan, code-named Study North-West, which proposed a series of landings, not on the southern coast, but on the East Anglian shoreline between the Thames Estuary and the Wash. Speed and surprise were the scheme’s key elements. The proposed initial assault would be made up of three or four infantry divisions, along with the 7th Parachute Division, followed by a second wave of two panzer divisions and one motorised division. There would also be a diversionary attack by two divisions north of the Humber to draw British troops away from Norfolk and Suffolk. As the first two invasion strikes moved inland from the coast, a third wave of troops would be landed in East Anglia to ensure the defeat of the British army and to help cut off London from the rest of the country. In contrast to the small invasion force proposed by the Kriegsmarine, Stieff’s plan involved roughly 100,000 men.

The response to his proposal demonstrated the serious lack of unity within the top echelons of the German military, something that was to hinder the preparations for Sea Lion in the months ahead. Raeder’s staff regarded the OKH scheme as completely unrealistic, both in scale and in geography.

As they explained in their reply of 8 January 1940, they believed that the East Anglian ports of Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth were too small for major unloading operations, as well as being heavily defended by the Royal Navy. Moreover, the idea of a diversionary operation in the north would only further weaken the Kriegsmarine’s already limited resources. Indeed, the fleet stipulated in Stieff’s plan far exceeded German maritime strength. ‘The transport required for the forces specified by the General Staff amounts to 400 medium-sized steamers, with in addition a large collection of auxiliary vessels of the most varied nature, some of which must first be constructed.’ The Kriegsmarine estimated that it would probably take a year for such construction work. What made the OKH plan even less feasible, declared Raeder’s staff, was the power of the Royal Navy. ‘The British Home fleet will always be able to appear in greater strength than our own fleet, if the will is there.’

Just as dismissive of Stieff’s scheme was the Luftwaffe, headed by the gargantuan, egocentric figure of Herman Goering. Even more than the Kriegsmarine, the Luftwaffe was always averse to the concept of invasion, partly because Goering, an ideological believer in the pivotal influence of modern air power, thought that his own force could single-handedly overwhelm Britain. This same attitude prevailed in December 1939, when the Luftwaffe staff responded to Stieff’s scheme: ‘The planned operation can only be considered under conditions of absolute air superiority, and even then only if surprise is ensured.’ In conclusion, the Luftwaffe argued that ‘a combined operation with a landing in England as its object must be rejected. It would only be the last act of a war against England which had already taken a victorious course, as otherwise the conditions required for the success of a combined operation do not exist.’

‘Bring England to its knees’ II

In the month following the Norway campaign of April 1940, the speed of the German advance through the Low Countries and France revived the concept of a British invasion. By 20 May the panzer force led by General Heinz Guderian, the pioneering tank commander and one of the architects of blitzkrieg warfare, had reached Abbeville at the mouth of the Somme. This remarkable dash to the English Channel had brought German troops within sight of the White Cliffs of Dover. Concerned that the Führer, fired by his success on land, might impulsively want to send his victorious divisions across the sea, Raeder sought a private meeting with him. As he later explained: ‘The time had come when I had to raise the question of an invasion with Hitler. I was afraid that otherwise some irresponsible person would make the obvious suggestion to invade. Hitler would take up the idea, and the Kriegsmarine would then suddenly find itself faced with an insurmountable problem.’ Hitler agreed to Raeder’s request. The next day the grand admiral travelled to the Felsennest (or ‘rocky eyrie’), the Führer’s remote, craggy headquarters in the Eifel mountain range of western Germany.

Some of Hitler’s generals remember him as hesitant and anxious at this time. As Halder wrote in his diary for 16 May, ‘An unpleasant day. The Führer is terribly nervous. Frightened by his own success, he is afraid to take any chances and so would rather pull the reins on us.’ In another entry, Halder recorded that Hitler ‘rages and screams that we are about to ruin the whole campaign and that we are leading up to defeat’.

At the meeting, Raeder set out his deep reservations about the possibility of invading England, stressing the strength of the Royal Navy, the lack of open ports and the need for absolute command of the air. He also put forward another argument that had not previously been aired. ‘The diversion of a huge percentage of Germany’s ocean, coastal and river shipping for transport of the invasion troops, I pointed out, would greatly impair Germany’s domestic economy.’ Adopting a non-committal, almost indifferent attitude, Hitler seemed to accept this, telling the grand admiral that once France had fallen, he would strangle England through the submarine war and aerial bombardment. It was wise to get ready for a long war, the Führer said, although he believed that England ‘would soon come round to peace’. To Raeder’s relief, he ordered that no preparations for an invasion should be made for the time being.

At the very moment when the Felsennest meeting was under way, in England invasion fever was reaching new levels of intensity, as reflected in the surge of recruits to the LDV, the round-up of enemy aliens, the creation of makeshift roadblocks, the establishment of coastal batteries and the spread of barbed wire across the beaches. Little did the British military staff and politicians know that the idea of invasion was far from the Führer’s mind, which was then wholly focused not on a future campaign in Britain but the present one in France. To Hitler, so aggressive yet so paranoid, the sheer speed of the German attack brought its own dangers and doubts. From his deliberations with a few of his generals emerged one of the most extraordinary decisions of the early war, one that was to have a huge influence over Britain’s ability to survive.

By 21 May, with the leading German units surrounding them at the coast, the British Expeditionary Force was isolated and facing defeat. Churchill’s private secretary John Colville noted in his diary, ‘The situation in France is extraordinary. Owing to the rapid advance of armoured troops, the Germans are in many places behind the Allied lines,’ adding ominously, ‘Preparations are being made for the evacuation of the BEF in case of necessity.’ Ironside, in his last week as Chief of the Imperial Staff, thought that the only hope was for the BEF to counter-attack by moving southwards. However, during a visit to see General Gort, the commander of the BEF, he was disturbed by the lack of fighting spirit among the French, writing in his diary on 21 May, ‘Situation desperate … God help the BEF, brought to this state by the incompetence of the French.’

On that same day, due to the Allies’ disorganisation and poor communications, a planned major counter-offensive against the Germans fizzled out after a brave strike near the north-eastern French town of Arras by two divisions and a tank brigade under Major General Harold Franklyn. But the Germans soon regrouped, forcing the BEF into headlong retreat towards the Channel ports of Calais and Dunkirk. Trapped in the northernmost corner of France, short of supplies and air cover, Gort’s force looked doomed as the panzer divisions seized the port of Boulogne on 23 May just south of Calais, thereby depriving the Royal Navy of a vital facility for any evacuation. ‘I cannot see that we have any hope of getting the BEF out,’ wrote Ironside that night, an opinion shared by Lieutenant General Alan Brooke, the Commander of II Corps, who recorded, ‘Nothing but a miracle can save the BEF now and the end cannot be far away.’

Yet just as disaster appeared to be inevitable, the British were to be given a glimmer of hope by Hitler and some of his generals, who were suddenly gripped by uncertainty. That evening, Generals Heinz Guderian and Paul von Kleist were leading their panzer forces in a blitzkrieg-style pursuit of the BEF towards Dunkirk when they suddenly received an order from Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, the head of Army Group A, to halt for thirty-six hours. Guderian was furious, believing that a chance to annihilate the BEF was being thrown away. After the war, he wrote, ‘My repeated protests went unheard. On the contrary, the cursed order became repeated. The order allowed the British army to escape for if we could have continued our rush on Dunkirk, we would have probably been there before the British.’

Von Rundstedt’s decision was driven by concerns about overextended supply lines, the strain on the panzer divisions, the risk of exposing his divisions at the rear and the need to conserve his armour for the final push south against the French. His stop order was endorsed by Hitler, who visited Army Group A headquarters the following morning, 24 May.

After the war, it became common among the surviving German generals to heap all the blame on Hitler for the move. He had acted entirely against their wishes, they said, which just indicated how poor he was as a military strategist. General Wilhelm von Thoma, head of the tank section, said that he ‘begged for permission to let the tanks push on’, but his appeals were fruitless because of the Führer’s influence. As he wrote in 1950, ‘You can never talk to a fool. Hitler spoilt the chance of victory.’ The panzer commander von Kleist, who was just 18 miles from Dunkirk when the stop order was issued, argued that the BEF were able to reach Dunkirk ‘only with the personal help of Hitler’. Similarly the operations officer of Army Group A, General Günther Blumentritt, claimed that ‘Hitler was quite alone in his decision to give the order to stop.’ Senior officers, said Blumentritt, ‘remonstrated strongly but in vain’.

Two vital factors played on Hitler’s mind. The first was the role of the Luftwaffe, whose chief Hermann Goering was Hitler’s closest ally. Revelling in his pre-eminence but jealous of the army’s success in France, he told his leader that, rather than put the German armoured divisions at further risk, given the soft terrain around Dunkirk, the job of annihilating the BEF should be given to the Luftwaffe. The British, he claimed, would be easy prey for his fighters and bombers, declaring grandly, ‘The great mission of the Luftwaffe is imminent: to wipe out the British in northern France. All the army has to do is occupy.’

Hitler’s willingness to indulge Goering’s vanity was partly driven by the second, more political, reason for the stop order, one that highlighted his ambivalence towards the war against Britain. Believing that the British government was anxious to reach a peace deal, he was reluctant to waste his valuable armour in the treacherous Flanders marshes in what he perceived as a pointless fight. Whether the BEF surrendered in the Pas de Calais or returned to Britain as the bedraggled remnant of an army, he was certain that Churchill would have to negotiate terms once France fell, telling his generals at one point, ‘It’s always good to let a broken army return home to show the civilian population what a beating they’ve had.’

On a deeper level, because of his respect for Britain, for a moment he lacked the ruthlessness that he usually showed towards his enemies. Blumentritt later claimed that he and his planning staff had been amazed at their leader’s attitude on 23 May. ‘He astonished us by speaking of his admiration for the British Empire, of the necessity for its existence and of the civilisation that Britain had brought to the world.’ This was also the recollection of von Rundstedt, who said that, at their Charleville meeting, Hitler had explained his hopes to ‘make an earlier peace with the England’ by letting the BEF escape. According to the general’s testimony, written in 1949 with the benefit of hindsight, the Führer said, ‘The British empire could not be destroyed even in 100 years. England must only keep her hands off the European continent and return our colonies to us.’

Whatever its justification, the order had a crucial impact on the BEF’s chances of survival. By the time it was lifted on 26 May and the German tanks began to move again, much of Lord Gort’s force had managed to reach Dunkirk. Added assistance was given to the retreat by the heroic resistance put up by the British garrison at Calais, where units of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps and the 30th Motor Brigade under Brigadier Claude Nicholson tied up a large number of panzers and troops. Essentially, Nicholson’s brave band was sacrificed in order to protect the BEF, since he was instructed by Churchill not to withdraw but to fight to the bitter end. General Pug Ismay, Churchill’s aide, witnessed the prime minister’s anguish at this moment. ‘It is a terrible thing to condemn a body of splendid men to death or captivity. The decision affected us all very deeply, especially perhaps Churchill. He was unusually silent during dinner that evening, and he ate and drank with evident distaste. As we rose from the table, he said, “I feel physically sick.” ’

That same evening, as the first Germans came within artillery range of the British and French troops now based in Dunkirk, the War Cabinet agreed to order the start of the evacuation, code-named Operation Dynamo. The following morning Churchill wrote to Gort, his letter revealing his sense of foreboding. ‘At this solemn moment, I cannot help sending you my good wishes. No one can tell you how it will go. But anything is better than being cooped up and starved out.’ It seemed a forlorn hope at the beginning of Dynamo that many of the BEF troops would indeed be rescued from Dunkirk. Ironside predicted that no more than 30,000 would be saved, little more than a tenth of the entire BEF.

Nor were spirits high among the exhausted and surrounded British troops, their mood darkened by what they perceived to be the lack of air cover, although in reality the Spitfires and Hurricanes of Fighter Command were engaged in ferocious aerial battles with the Luftwaffe high in the sky over northern France. Sandy Frederick, serving in the 2nd Fife and Forfar Yeomanry, left a vivid description of his struggle to reach Dunkirk aboard his unit’s Bren gun carrier: ‘It was frightening to be under air attack. We didn’t seem to have any defence. We were in a real panic. There was no control whatsoever. Wrecks of British vehicles were everywhere. We were getting fired on from every side. By now I had about 20 men hanging on to my Bren carrier as we retreated.’

For Lieutenant General Alan Brooke, the commander of II Corps, the scenes of chaos on the road to Dunkirk were all too indicative of the madness that gripped France as she faced collapse under the German onslaught. Passing through a heavily bombed town, he came across a group of inmates from a mental asylum that had been demolished. ‘With catastrophe on all sides, bombarded by rumours of every description, flooded by refugees and a demoralized French army, and now on top of it all lunatics in brown corduroy suits standing at the side of the road, grinning at one with an inane smile, a flow of saliva running from the corner of their mouths and dripping noses! Had it not been that by then one’s senses were numbed with the magnitude of the catastrophe that surrounded one, the situation would have been unbearable.’

Brooke’s sense of despair would have been all the greater had he known that, at the very moment the BEF was trying to reach safety, back in London a faction within the heart of the British government was plotting to give up the fight and negotiate a settlement with the Reich. For all the retrospective condemnation heaped on him by some of his generals, Hitler had been partially correct: there was indeed one very senior British politician who was all too anxious to reach a peace deal. Convinced that the BEF was lost, that the triumph of Germany was inevitable and that Churchill was hopelessly deluded, this self-styled realist believed that the continuation of war would ultimately destroy the empire. The retreat to Dunkirk was his opportunity to strike. While the British troops hoped for salvation, one of their political masters plotted surrender. And it took all of Churchill’s skill and determination to outmanoeuvre him.