It was early recognized that any radar line, either close in or far to the north, would require extensions out to sea and down the coasts of the United States in order to prevent the possibilities .of an end-run attack on the United States. Three elements came to be involved—airborne radars, naval picket ships, and fixed offshore installations anchored to the sea floor.

1. AEW Systems

The idea of an airborne early warning and control aircraft was first raised in the mid-1940s, before the war ended. The Army Air Forces had no experience in the field, but the Navy had at least an introduction to it through its efforts to intercept Japanese kamikaze attacks on the fleet off Okinawa. Yet, overall experience with the technique was lacking.

The advantages were obvious. Such an extension of the radar system would give at least 30 additional minutes of warning; low-altitude coverage that was overlooked by coastal-based radars, would also be possible—AEW aircraft at altitude could look down and thus reduce the prospect of low-altitude sneak attacks.

Shortly before the end of the war, the AAF had directed the Air Materiel Command to examine the concept of an airborne control center for offensive operations. In 1946, the Air. Staff suggested that the effort be switched to serve air defense purposes. However, because of budgetary constraints, duplication of Navy efforts, and the Navy’s head start in the field, the AAF project was dropped. The final closing out in 1948 of any USAF effort on an airborne facility left the Air Force dependent on the Navy for an offshore radar screen.

In the meantime, in April 1947, a newly formed US-Canadian planning group, which was under the respective Chiefs of Staff, issued a plan for early warning. They proposed an early warning line across Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Newfoundland, and off both coasts. Offshore coverage would be by radar planes and ships. The plan never went anywhere, but it did reflect an early expression of what was to become the ultimate air defense system a decade later. Strangely, the 1947 Air Force plan, SUPREMACY, had not included provision for offshore coverage and had been criticized by both the JCS and the ADC for the inadequacy.

The Navy pursued its AEW development program, adopting radars to Navy Grumman bombers and then to B-17s (PB-1Ws). Lockheed Constellations (C-121s) were also configured for radar. In late 1949, the Air Force directed the ADC to observe Navy experiments.

The basis for interservice cooperation in air defense was established by the Key West Agreements in the spring of 1948. The Navy agreed to provide “sea-based air defense and sea-based means of coordinating control for defense against air attack,” and also to coordinate with other services in the establishment of such systems. However, not until the creation of the Continental Air Defense Command in late 1954 were any jointly approved doctrines or procedures issued by the JCS. In view of this lack of JCS-approved doctrine, the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) in 1949 drew up general principles for Navy cooperation, which were to serve for years. He decreed that the basic principle for naval participation in air defense was that naval forces possessing important air defense capabilities would be trained and prepared for emergency deployment to reinforce those forces that were regularly assigned the air defense mission. He did not intend that there be a routine and permanent commitment of naval forces to the mission. Specific arrangements were to be made between individual commanders of sea frontier and air defense forces.

While it was not until 1951 that an ADC-owned AEW&C force was authorized, the ground work for such a mission had been laid earlier. Late in 1949, the Navy had suggested the possibility of using AEW aircraft for both ASW and air defense in Joint tests, to which the Air Force agreed. The Navy tested its AEW aircraft in both an ASW and a surveillance role with ADC cooperation in July 1950 off the West Coast. Tests of intercepts vectored by Navy PB-1Ws were successful in picking up targets 500 miles out, and of intercepting them 300 miles out.

Finally convinced of the utility of and necessity for AEW, the Air Force established the requirement for 48 RC-121s in July 1951 and then raised the total to 56 by year’s end. The first 10 were slated for 1953 delivery, all by 1955. In actual fact, final deliveries were not made until 1956; and, while the first squadron was activated in October 1953, it was not equipped until a year later. The first plane was delivered in May 1954. An effort was made to offset the time lag by converting some B-29s to an AEW role, but this proved abortive.

The first comprehensive plan for employment of the AEW aircraft was prepared by February 1952. It proposed establishment of barriers off each coast, 800 miles long and 200 miles offshore. Each barrier would be manned by four AEW&C aircraft orbiting on station, with about 200 miles between planes. The ADC estimated that with this spacing the probability of detection at low altitudes would be 80-90 percent. The eastern barrier started about 125 miles southeast of Nova Scotia and ran to about 250 miles northeast of Norfolk. The western barrier ran from 250 miles west of Seattle to 200 miles off San Francisco. The final total of some 60 aircraft would operate 30 from one base on each coast.

2. Picket Ships

The Air Force early recognized the need for shipborne radars to fill the offshore gap until the AEW system was functioning. It also recognized that ships could complement the AEW aircraft by adding a high-level coverage to the aircraft low-level coverage.

The matter had been discussed by the Air Force and the Navy since 1949, bur the Navy was slow to move, despite agreement on the utility of picket ships. In December 1950, the Navy finally volunteered two picket ships to work with the ADC in the event of emergency, but the next month the Air Force told the CNO that vessels for 10 stations were needed as soon as possible. The Navy replied that 10 ships of the type probably would not be available until 1954.

A test of the two proffered picket ships was jointly held by the Eastern Air Defense Force and the Eastern Sea Frontier Force in February and March 1951. The main problem uncovered was that of poor communication from ship to shore. Neither radio-telegraph nor voice contact could be maintained for more than 28 hours without a complete breakdown. Intervals of over three hours occurred during which no contact could be made.

The Air Force tried in vain to have the Navy increase the number of picket ships. Not even the two tested were actually formally approved for that emergency role until September 1952. As a result, no more than one or two stations were manned until 1955.

3. Offshore Stationary Radars

While the concepts of AEW aircraft and picket ships were raised quite early, the offshore stationary radar was a latecomer. The Lincoln Laboratory Summer Study Group in 1952 concluded that an additional means of reinforcing radar coverage was offered by the shoals lying off the northeast coast of the United States. It suggested use of radar platforms, like oil drilling rigs, to be emplanted on five shoals in water 50-100 feet deep, 75-100 miles offshore. The name of Texas tower was soon applied to what seemed a way of bypassing the problem of getting picket ships from the Navy. The ADC endorsed the concept, but as noted earlier, no action was taken until late 1953, when the Air Force included 5 Texas towers in its FY55 funding.


Progress in the development of the substance of a warning system during these years was not matched by improved organization. Throughout the entire period, organization was fragmented.

It will be recalled that the Army Air Forces established the ADC in March 1946, as a first organizational step. The National Security Act of 1947 did not clarify air defense responsibilities, but in the Key West Agreement of 1948 the Air Force was assigned the responsibility for air defense, and the Army and Navy agreed to provide forces as required. Each service was to perform its assigned mission “in accordance with the policies and procedures approved by the JCS.”

In the meantime, the ADC had been dissolved and merged, along with the Tactical Air Command, into the Continental Air Command in December 1948. However, because of the added impetus given air defense at the beginning of the 1950s, the ADC was reestablished in January 1951, with headquarters at Colorado Springs. In April 1951, the Army established an Antiaircraft Command, to be collocated with the ADC. The structure of the organizations was parallel and closely integrated for field operations.

From time to time, the Chief of Naval Operations issued policy statements regarding Navy participation in continental air defense, but no separate command organization was established. The two Sea Frontier commanders were still, in 1953, the principal operating link between the Navy and the Air Force on air defense matters.

The ADC was responsible to the Air Force, the Antiaircraft Command to the Army, and the Sea Frontier commanders to the Navy. Any plan prepared by the ADC, whether it involved solely an Air Force function or required participation by the Army and Navy, had first to be approved by the Chief of Staff of the Air Force. As far as the Air Force portion of the plan was concerned, it had first to compete with the plans of other Air Force commands for its share of the Air Force budget. If the ADC plan did include the other services, the Air Force then had to bargain with them, and quite likely the JCS as well, to get the plan requirement fulfilled. This bargaining ran smoothly so long as no service interests were contradicted.

The Air Force had responsibility for the basic ground radar system for surveillance and control of all weapons, the fighter forces, and the initiation of warning to alert both military and civilian agencies. Within limits, the Air Force established requirements for all the services. In theory, the ADC, through the CSAF, could levy requirements on the other services for participation in a program. In practice, while tactical control of air defense forces of all three services was broadly executed by the ADC, there was no assurance that the ADC could obtain Army and Navy forces as required.

The same situation prevailed in the US-Canadian air defense relationship. There were two coordinated systems, rather than one integrated one.


By the end of 1953, 87 radar stations were operational in the US warning net. Of these, 75 represented the US permanent system, 8 were Canadian sites of the Radar Extension Program, and 4 were old LASHUP sites still in operation. Seventy-nine mobile and semimobile stations had been authorized, but would not be in operation until late 1954-early 1955.

The Secretary of the Air Force was able to report in July 1954:

The development of an air defense in depth has been greatly aided by increased radar operations by the Canadians and the resultant extension of our basic radar net. Improvements in the radar net have permitted greater emphasis to be placed on increasing the radar coverage and improving the overall system capability. A major step will be the ultimate transition from a manual system to a high capacity radar net capable of providing the essential elements of detection and control. Additional aircraft control and warning squadrons have been deployed to advanced overseas bases.

The activation of the first airborne early warning and control division of the Air Force on 1 May 1954 marked a major advance in air defense early warning and control systems. This division is being equipped with specially modified versions of the Super Constellation (RC-121). Eventually the Division will operate squadrons off both Atlantic and Pacific coasts on a round-the-clock basis.

At the end of 1953, therefore, the type of air defense system outlined by the commanding general of the ADC in 1946-47 was in place and operating. Plans for Improving range, responsiveness, and kill potential had been approved, but the necessary hardware delivery had not yet begun.

After seven years of consideration, the JCS authorized the creation of a Joint command to control air defense, directing in August 1954 the establishment at Colorado Springs of the Jointly manned Continental Air Defense Command, under the USAF as executive agent. The step was apparently not taken enthusiastically. In response to a request by the CJCS, Admiral Radford, on 16 October 1953, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force had submitted on 16 December a report on command arrangements for defense of the United States (included in JCS 1899/89) in which he concluded that no change was needed or advisable. The CJCS replied that a joint command was both necessary and advisable and recommended that the JCS approve in principle the establishment of a joint air defense command.

The years from 1947 to 1953 had seen the establishment of a system comparable to-that used in World War II. The extended public debate and the final NSC decision in October 1953 directed the creation of a wholly new system. This was the crucial decision. The steps taken in the previous eight years had been both discrete and incomplete. They did not represent a major coordinated effort to develop a continental defense system. The years 1954 and 1955 were to see the construction and integration of new elements of the system. However, the public debate continued over the efficacy of the air defense system, with Congress repeatedly expressing concern over the disproportionate resources being allocated to the strategic striking forces. The irony was that the delays in reaching the decision to create a wholly new system meant that the system was to be rendered obsolescent before it became operational.



The First Three Generations of Modern War

The 1982 Hama Massacre

The Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu said, “He who understands himself and understands his enemy will prevail in one hundred battles.” In order to understand both ourselves and our enemies in Fourth Generation conflicts, it is helpful to use the full framework of the Four Generations of modern war. What are the first three generations?

First Generation war was fought with line and column tactics. It lasted from the Peace of Westphalia until around the time of the American Civil War. Its importance for us today is that the First Generation battlefield was usually a battlefield of order, and the battlefield of order created a culture of order in state militaries. Most of the things that define the difference between “military” and “civilian” – saluting, uniforms, careful gradations of rank, etc. – are products of the First Generation and exist to reinforce a military culture of order. Just as most state militaries are still designed to fight other state militaries, so they also continue to embody the First Generation culture of order.

The problem is that, starting around the middle of the 19th century, the order of the battlefield began to break down. In the face of mass armies, nationalism that made soldiers want to fight, and technological developments such as the rifled musket, the breechloader, barbed wire, and machine guns, the old line-and-column tactics became suicidal. But as the battlefield became more and more disorderly, state militaries remained locked into a culture of order. The military culture that in the First Generation had been consistent with the battlefield became increasingly contradictory to it. That contradiction is one of the reasons state militaries have so much difficulty in Fourth Generation war, where not only is the battlefield disordered, so is the entire society in which the conflict is taking place.

Second Generation war was developed by the French Army during and after World War I. It dealt with the increasing disorder of the battlefield by attempting to impose order on it. Second Generation war, also sometimes called firepower/attrition warfare, relied on centrally controlled indirect artillery fire, carefully synchronized with infantry, cavalry and aviation, to destroy the enemy by killing his soldiers and blowing up his equipment. The French summarized Second Generation war with the phrase, “The artillery conquers, the infantry occupies.”

Second Generation war also preserved the military culture of order. Second Generation militaries focus inward on orders, rules, processes, and procedures. There is a “school solution” for every problem. Battles are fought methodically, so prescribed methods drive training and education, where the goal is perfection of detail in execution. The Second Generation military culture, like the First, values obedience over initiative (initiative is feared because it disrupts synchronization) and relies on imposed discipline.

The United States Army and the U.S. Marine Corps both learned Second Generation war from the French Army during the First World War, and it largely remains the “American way of war” today.

Third Generation war, also called maneuver warfare, was developed by the German Army during World War I. Third Generation war dealt with the disorderly battlefield not by trying to impose order on it but by adapting to disorder and taking advantage of it. Third Generation war relied less on firepower than on speed and tempo. It sought to present the enemy with unexpected and dangerous situations faster than he could cope with them, pulling him apart mentally as well as physically.

The German Army’s new Third Generation infantry tactics were the first non-linear tactics. Instead of trying to hold a line in the defense, the object was to draw the enemy in, then cut him off, putting whole enemy units “in the bag.” On the offensive, the German “storm-troop tactics” of 1918 flowed like water around enemy strong points, reaching deep into the enemy’s rear area and also rolling his forward units up from the flanks and rear. These World War I infantry tactics, when used by armored and mechanized formations in World War II, became known as “Blitzkrieg.”

Just as Third Generation war broke with linear tactics, it also broke with the First and Second Generation culture of order. Third Generation militaries focus outward on the situation, the enemy, and the result the situation requires. Leaders at every level are expected to get that result, regardless of orders. Military education is designed to develop military judgment, not teach processes or methods, and most training is force-on-force free play because only free play approximates the disorder of combat. Third Generation military culture also values initiative over obedience, tolerating mistakes so long as they do not result from timidity, and it relies on self-discipline rather than imposed discipline, because only self-discipline is compatible with initiative.

When Second and Third Generation war met in combat in the German campaign against France in 1940, the Second Generation French Army was defeated completely and quickly; the campaign was over in six weeks. Both armies had similar technology, and the French actually had more (and better) tanks. Ideas, not weapons, dictated the outcome.

Despite the fact that Third Generation war proved its decisive superiority more than 60 years ago, most of the world’s state militaries remain Second Generation. The reason is cultural: they cannot make the break with the culture of order that the Third Generation requires. This is another reason why, around the world, state-armed forces are not doing well against non-state enemies. Second Generation militaries fight by putting firepower on targets, and Fourth Generation fighters are very good at making themselves untargetable. Virtually all Fourth Generation forces are free of the First Generation culture of order; they focus outward, they prize initiative and, because they are highly decentralized, they rely on self-discipline. Second Generation state forces are largely helpless against them.

Fighting Fourth Generation War: Two Models

In fighting Fourth Generation war, there are two basic approaches or models. The first may broadly be called the “de-escalation model,” and it is the focus of this article. But there are times when state-armed forces may employ the other model. Reflecting a case where this second model was applied successfully, we refer to it (borrowing from Martin van Creveld) as the “Hama model.” The Hama model refers to what Syrian President Hafez al-Assad did to the city of Hama in Syria when a non-state entity there, the Moslem Brotherhood, rebelled against his rule.

In 1982, in Hama, Syria, the Sunni Moslem Brotherhood was gaining strength and was planning on intervening in Syrian politics through violence. The dictator of Syria, Hafez al-Assad, was alerted by his intelligence sources that the Moslem Brotherhood was looking to assassinate various members of the ruling Ba’ath Party. In fact, there is credible evidence that the Moslem Brotherhood was planning on overthrowing the Shi’ite/Alawite-dominated Ba’ath government.

On February 2, 1982, the Syrian Army was deployed into the area surrounding Hama. Within three weeks, the Syrian Army had completely devastated the city, resulting in the deaths of between 10,000 and 25,000 people, depending on the source. The use of heavy artillery, armored forces, and possibly even poison gas resulted in large-scale destruction and an end to the Moslem Brotherhood’s desires to overthrow the Ba’ath Party and Hafez al-Assad. After the operation was finished, one surviving citizen of Hama stated, “We don’t do politics here anymore, we just do religion.”

The results of the destruction of Hama were clear to the survivors. As the June 20, 2000, Christian Science Monitor wrote, “Syria has been vilified in the West for the atrocities at Hama. But many Syrians – including a Sunni merchant class that has thrived under Alawite rule – also note that the result has been years of stability.”

What distinguishes the Hama model is overwhelming firepower and force, deliberately used to create massive casualties and destruction, in an action that ends quickly. Speed is of the essence to the Hama model. If a Hama-type operation is allowed to drag out, it will turn into a disaster on the moral level. The objective is to get it over with so fast that the effect desired locally is achieved before anyone else has time to react or, ideally, even to notice what is going on.

There is little attention to the Hama model because situations where the Western states’ armed forces will be allowed to employ it will probably be few and far between. Domestic and international political considerations will normally tend to rule it out. However, it could become an option if a Weapon of Mass Destruction were used against a Western country on its own soil.

The main reason we need to identify the Hama model is to note a serious danger facing state-armed forces in Fourth Generation situations. It is easy, but fatal, to choose a course that lies somewhere between the Hama model and the de-escalation model. Such a course inevitably results in defeat, because of the power of weakness.

The military historian Martin van Creveld compares a state military that, with its vast superiority in lethality, continually turns its firepower on poorly-equipped Fourth Generation opponents to an adult who administers a prolonged, violent beating to a child in a public place. Regardless of how bad the child has been or how justified the beating may be, every observer sympathizes with the child. Soon, outsiders intervene, and the adult is arrested. The power mismatch is so great that the adult’s action is judged a crime.

This is what happens to state-armed forces that attempt to split the difference between the Hama and de-escalation models. The seemingly endless spectacle of weak opponents and, inevitably, local civilians being killed by the state military’s overwhelming power defeats the state at the moral level. That is why the rule for the Hama model is that the violence must be over fast. It must be ended quickly! Any attempt at a compromise between the two models results in prolonged violence by the state’s armed forces, and it is the duration of the mismatch that is fatal. To the degree the state-armed forces are also foreign invaders, the state’s defeat occurs all the sooner. It occurs both locally and on a global scale. In the 3,000 years that the story of David and Goliath has been told, how many listeners have identified with Goliath?

In most cases, the primary option for state-armed forces will be the de-escalation model. What this means is that when situations threaten to turn violent or actually do so, state forces in Fourth Generation situations will focus their efforts on lowering the level of confrontation until it is no longer violent. They will do so on the tactical, operational, and strategic levels. The remainder of is therefore focused on the de-escalation model for combatting insurgency and other forms of Fourth Generation warfare.

Alternate Second World Wars

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


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

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

The Militarisation of the Rhineland, 1936

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

Stalin’s Purge

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

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

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

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


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

The Sudeten Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

Occupation of the Czech Rump State, May 1939

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

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

Russia attacks Poland, ahistorical

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

Germany attacks Poland, September 1939

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

France and Britain declare war on Germany, September 1939

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

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

Sitzkrieg: The Phoney War, Winter 1939-40

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

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

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

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

The Winter War, Winter 1939-40

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

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

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

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

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

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

Norway, April 1940

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

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

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

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

The Fall of France, May-June 1940

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

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

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

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

Dunkirk, June 1940

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

Vichy France, 1940

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

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

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

Battle of Britain, late 1940

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

Sea Lion, late 1940

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

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

Spain, ahistorical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turkey, ahistorical

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

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

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

Soviet Pre-Emptive Attack

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

Balkans Diversion, May 1941

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

Barbarossa, June 1941

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

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

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

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

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

Strike North, 1941

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


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


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

Strike South, December 1941

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

Pearl Harbour, December 1941

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

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

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

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

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

Germany Declares War on the United States, December 1941

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

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

Battle of Moscow, late 1941

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

Midway, June 1942

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

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

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

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

Stalingrad and Baku, Winter 1942-3

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

Kursk, 1943

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

Normandy, June 1944

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

Jet Fighters

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

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

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

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

The K-Bomb

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

Atoms for Germany, 1945

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

Hiroshima, August 1945

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

World War Three

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

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

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

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

BY David Bofinger

The Inter-World Wars Military Thinkers

General Erich Ludendorff

Throughout history, all too often the conclusion of one armed conflict has served as a prelude to the next. Never was this more true than at the end of World War I, which, although it was sometimes described as “the war to end all wars,” provided only a temporary respite. Scarcely had the guns fallen silent than people started looking into the future on the assumption that the Great Powers of this world had not yet finished fighting one another. Which gave rise to the question: How was this to be done?

To virtually all of those who tried, the point of departure was the need to avoid attrition, reopen the way toward decisive operations, and reduce the number of military casualties on the battlefield. The casualties themselves had been the direct result of the superiority of the defense as brought about by modern firepower, hence the most pressing problem was to find ways to bypass or overcome it. One of the first serious theoretical treatises to look at the problem was written by an Italian general, Giulio Douhet. An engineer by profession, during the early years of the century Douhet had become fascinated with the military applications of the internal combustion engine. A little later he was also found dabbling in futurist ideas concerning the spiritual qualities allegedly springing from those two speedy new vehicles, the motorcar and the aircraft, claiming that they possessed the ability to rejuvenate the world and Italy in particular.

As a staff officer in 1915–18, he was in a position to observe, and reflect on, the twelve abortive offensives the Italian army had launched across the River Isonzo. Surely there had to be a better way of doing things—one that, in fact, he had already promoted during the war itself, arguing in favor of the creation of a massive bomber force and its use against the enemy. His masterpiece, Il Commando del Aereo (the command of the air), was published in 1921 and, as the title suggests, tried to do for the air what Mahan had done for the sea. In his own words, “the form of any war … depends upon the technical means of war available.” In the past, firearms had revolutionized war; then it was the turn of small-caliber rapid-fire guns, barbed wire, and, at sea, the submarine. The most recent additions were the air arm and poison gas, both of which were still in their infancy but possessed the potential to completely upset all forms of war so far known.

Douhet surmised correctly that as long as war was fought only on the surface of the earth, it was necessary for one side to break through the other’s defenses in order to win. However, those defenses had become stronger and stronger until the ability to maneuver past them and take strategically important targets such as cities and industrial areas became impossible. Sheltered by this reality, the civilian population carried on almost undisturbed. As we saw, it was by mobilizing that population that the belligerents were able to produce what it took to wage total war and sustain the fight for years on end.

The advent of aircraft changed this situation. Capable of flying over battle lines and natural obstacles, and possessing a comparatively long range, aircraft were free to attack centers of population and industry. Because no effective defense against such attacks was possible—given that the air could be traversed in all directions with equal ease and there was no predicting which target would be hit next—any war would have to start with a massive attack on the enemy’s air bases so as to establish “command of the air.”

That having been achieved, and extrapolating from the events of 1916–18, Douhet suggested that forty aircraft dropping eighty tons of bombs might have “completely destroyed” a city the size of Treviso. A mere three aircraft, he calculated, could deliver as much firepower as a modern battleship in a single broadside, whereas a thousand aircraft could deliver ten times as much firepower as could the entire British navy—counting thirty Dreadnoughts—in ten broadsides. The kicker was that the price tag of a single battleship would buy about a thousand aircraft. As Douhet pointed out, moreover, even these calculations failed to take account of the fact that the science of military aviation had just begun and that aircraft capable of lifting as much as ten tons of bombs would soon be built. Carrying Douhet’s views further, investments in armies and navies would by necessity come to a halt, and given that the new weapon was inherently offensive in nature, most of the aircraft ought to be not fighters but bombers. And instead of being grafted on to the army and navy, such air fleets would be formed into an independent air force. At the outbreak of the next war, that air force would be launched like a shell from a cannon. Having obtained command of the air in this sense by destroying the enemy’s airfields, the attackers would switch from military to civilian objectives. Using gas as the principal weapon, the aim should be not merely to kill but to demoralize. Leaping over the enemy’s ground defenses, a war waged by such means might be over almost before it had begun. By minimizing the casualties of both the attacker and the defender (whose population, feeling the effects of war directly, would force the government to surrender) represented a humane alternative to an endless battle of attrition. To carry out the air offensive, Douhet proposed a comparatively small force made up of elite warriors, a vision that meshed well with the anti-democratic, fascist ideas he also entertained.

The dream of avoiding warfare by attrition was also alive in the great prophet of mechanized land warfare, John Frederick Fuller. Even as a young officer, Fuller had given evidence of a formidable intellect expressed by an interest in everything from Greek philosophy to Jewish mysticism. In the years before World War I, he made great effort to discover the principles of war, of which he settled on nine: direction, concentration, distribution, determination, surprise, endurance, mobility, offensive action, and security.’

In numerous publications—Fuller was a prolific writer who, however, often tended to overstate his case—he argued that war, like every other field of human life, was decisively affected by the progress of science. Like Douhet, he considered the most important fruits of science to be the internal combustion engine (on which depended the airplane and the tank) and poison gas. For him, future warfare on land would center on the tank and the mechanization of artillery, reconnaissance, engineering, signals, supply, and maintenance units. Fully mechanized, an army would enjoy almost as much freedom of movement as did ships at sea. Now armies could once again maneuver against each other, concentrating against select sections of the enemy front, breaking through, and bringing about victory at comparatively low cost.

In the debates about tanks and mechanization, his views, coming as they did from an ex–chief of staff of the most advanced mechanized force in history, commanded particular respect. Yet even barring his most extreme ideas—say, that armies should consist of tanks alone and every infantryman provided with his individual tankette—many of his suggestions have come to pass. Considering himself not merely a military reformer but a philosopher as well, Fuller went on to spin an immensely complicated network of intellectual propositions on the nature of war, life, history, and whatever. Combining all these different strands, many of his historical writings were decidedly brilliant. However, much of his theorizing was decidedly half-baked, tied as it was to his interest in mysticism and the occult.

In the history of twentieth-century military thought, Fuller’s name is almost always associated with that of his younger contemporary and friend Basil Liddell Hart.’ Unlike Fuller, Liddell Hart was not a professional soldier, but rather studied history at Cambridge before enlisting, received a commission, and fought in France. Gassed at the Somme, Captain (throughout his life he enjoyed emphasizing the military rank he had attained) Liddell Hart spent the rest of the war in England training infantry recruits. It was in this capacity that he first started thinking seriously about the best way to prepare for, and wage, armed conflict.

Concerning his intellectual development, two points are worth noting. First, like so many of his generation who were educated in public schools, Liddell Hart was brought up on the notion that war was akin to sport and games. In his memoirs, he explains that he was good at football—not because his coordination and technique were in any way outstanding, but because he could envisage all various combinations of play and foresee where the ball was likely to end up. Second, and again like so many of his contemporaries, Liddell Hart ended the war as a fervent admirer of the British military establishment, which after all had just fought and won the largest armed conflict in history to date.

However, within a few years he reversed himself, joining the then fashionable trend of disillusionment with the war in general and with its conduct at the hand of the British high command in particular. In criticizing that conduct, his stature as the popular journalist he became after the war and interest in sports were to come in handy. Like Fuller, Liddell Hart concluded that sending men into the maws of machine guns had been the height of folly, the origin of which was to be found not in simple bloody-mindedness but in the writings of the greatest of all military philosophers, Carl von Clausewitz. To Liddell Hart, this was the prophet whose clarion call had misled generations of officers into the belief that the best, indeed almost the only, way to wage war was to concentrate the greatest possible number of men and weapons and launch them straight ahead against the enemy. In 1914–18 the “Prussian Marseillaise” had borne its horrible fruit.

To restore the power of the offensive and save casualties, in his early writings Liddell Hart recommended “the indirect approach.” Rather than attacking the enemy head-on, he should be thrown off balance, achieved by combining rapidity of movement with secrecy and surprise, with attacks carried out by dispersed forces (so as to conceal the true center of gravity for as long as possible), coming from unexpected directions, and following the least expected route, even if this meant overcoming topographic obstacles. Above all, every plan had to possess “two branches”—drawn up in such a way as to keep the opponent guessing concerning one’s true objectives. Any plan should also be sufficiently flexible to enable an objective to be changed if it turned out to be too strongly defended.

All such maneuvers were to be carried out in two-dimensional space, along lines of communications, overcoming all natural and artificial obstacles, while trailing “an umbilical cord of supply,” and against an enemy who presumably was both intelligent enough to understand what was going on and capable of engaging in countermaneuvers. War, consisting essentially of movement, was presented almost as if it were some kind of sophisticated game played between opposing teams. This was particularly true of Liddell Hart’s mature work. The older he became, the more pronounced his tendency to give tactics a short shrift. Other subjects such as mobilization, logistics, intelligence, command, communication and control, and questions of killing and dying were also lightly skipped over. Reading his most famous and oft-reprinted book, Strategy: The Indirect Approach, one might be excused for thinking war was about operational movement and very little else.

During the early 1920s, Liddell Hart also became interested in mechanization, and in this so much of his thinking was “borrowed” from his mentor, Fuller, that their friendship suffered for it. Thus it was little surprise that Liddell Hart’s vision of mechanized armed forces, as set forth in his Paris, or the Future of War (1925) as well as The Remaking of Modern Armies (1927), employed a combination of aircraft, tanks, and poison gas as weapons with which defenses could be skipped over or overcome, resulting in the war brought to a swift and cheap, if violent, end.

What prevented Liddell Hart from making a detailed forecast of the Blitzkrieg, with its characteristic combination of armored divisions and tanks, was his abiding revulsion for the horrors of World War I and his determination, which he shared with so many of his generation, that they not be repeated. From about 1931 on, this caused him to switch from attempts to devise more effective ways to win toward thinking about less costly ways to avoid defeat. Following Julian Corbett without bothering to acknowledge the master, he now claimed that the “British Way in Warfare” had always been to stay out of massive Continental commitments. Instead the kingdom had relied on its navy to keep the enemy at bay (and harass and weaken him by means of well-directed strokes at selected points) and on Continental allies to deliver the coup de main. By 1939, Liddell Hart had convinced himself that “the dominant lesson from the experience of land warfare, for more than a generation past, has been the superiority of the defense over attack”; even in the air, as experiences in Spain had shown, “the prospects of the defense are improving.” Therefore, instead of Britain repeating its World War I error—which had led to so many casualties— it could safely trust the “dauntless” French to stop the Germans. Britain itself, its armed forces thoroughly modernized and mechanized, should revert to its traditional strategy, relying primarily on blockade on the one hand and airpower on the other. This had the additional advantage that it would make universal conscription and mass armies unnecessary—a preference for small professional forces that Liddell Hart, a liberal, shared with some thinkers like Douhet.

Compared with Douhet, Fuller, and Liddell Hart, Erich Ludendorff was a towering figure. Much more than the first two, he understood what modern war was like from the top, and unlike the last-named he did not regard it as some kind of field game; “the war has spared me nothing,” he would write, having lost two sons. On the other hand, and again unlike Liddell Hart in particular, neither did he shrink from its horrors.

At first, Ludendorff was perhaps no more bigoted than was required of a German officer of his generation. Indeed, during the war he once opened a proclamation to the Jewish population of occupied Poland with the words, “Meine liebe Jidden.” In the 1920s, however, influenced by his second wife, he started dabbling with anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, and anti-freemasonry (he could never make up his mind which of the three international forces posed the greatest danger to Germany). He also took a part in the 1923 Nazi Putsch; for all this he has been rightly condemned. However, this should not obscure the fact that his vision of future war was more nearly correct than any of the rest.

Having spent more than two years in charge of Germany’s war effort, Ludendorff did not believe that a first-class modern state could be brought to its knees rapidly and cheaply by aircraft dropping bombs, or by fleets of tanks engaging in mobile operations, however brilliantly. In part, his Der Totale Krieg merely continued the work of some pre-1914 militarist writers, such as Colmar von der Goltz and Theodor von Bernhardi, who had advocated total mobilization and mass armies. And up to a point, his book recounted his own experience, which by attacking many of his less cooperative colleagues sought to explain why Germany had lost the war. Yet whatever the book’s precise origins and purpose, Ludendorff’s main thesis was that the developing technologies of production, transportation, and communication made modern war into much more than merely a question of armed forces maneuvering against one another for mastery of some battlefield. Instead, war would now demand a nation’s total effort, and therefore a total devotion of all resources to its execution.

To be sure, the next war would make use of all available weapons, including poison gas. Both civilians in their cities and soldiers in their trenches would be targeted, and the resulting casualties, destruction, and suffering would be immense. Therefore, by necessity, as important as the total mobilization of material resources would be the spiritual mobilization of the people—a point on which, as Ludendorff and many of his countrymen saw it, imperial Germany with its old-fashioned, authoritarian system of government and its neglect of the working classes had been sadly deficient.

The implication of such mobilization was an end to democracy and the liberties it entailed, including not only freedom of the press but workers’ rights and capitalist enterprise as well. For either industrialists or union leaders (during the war, Ludendorff had had his troubles with both) to insist on their own privilege was intolerable. Along with the entire financial apparatus available to the state, they, too, were to be subjected to a military dictatorship. And having experienced the process firsthand, Ludendorff was under no illusion that the nation’s spiritual and material mobilization could be improvised. Hence the dictatorship he demanded, and for which he no doubt regarded himself as the most suitable candidate, was to be set up in peacetime and made permanent.

The next war would be a life-and-death struggle to be won by the belligerent with the greatest resources and the strongest will to mobilize and deploy them—which incidentally disposed of any childish illusions concerning small, professional, and highly mobile, let alone chivalrous, armed forces. Anything that did not serve the war effort would have to be ruthlessly suppressed. Politics would, in effect, be swallowed by the war. Ludendorff was never one to mince his words. “All of Clausewitz’s theories should be thrown overboard…. Both war and policy serve the existence of the nation. However, war is the highest expression of the people’s will to live. Therefore politics must be made subordinate to war.” Or else, to the extent that this did not happen, treated as superfluous and, indeed, treasonable.

In the decades after 1945, Ludendorff’s military ideas were often attacked by featherweight commentators who mistook their world—in which nuclear weapons had made total warfare as he understood it impossible—for his. During these years, it was Liddell Hart and Fuller who, whether rightly or not, were celebrated as the fathers of the Blitzkrieg. Nevertheless, the fact remains that it was not their vision of World War II but Ludendorff’s that turned out to be only too horribly true.

To be sure, fleets of aircraft, though they did not drop gas, did fly over fronts and bombed cities on a scale that, had he been able to envisage it, might have made even Ludendorff blanch. The combination of airpower, armor, mobility, and wireless restored operational mobility, laying the groundwork for some spectacular campaigns in which countries the size of Poland and France were knocked down at a single blow. The Second World War also demonstrated the reestablishment of the balance between defense and offense, although events were to show that both tanks and aircraft were equally as capable of preventing a breakthrough as they were of helping one take place.

Where Ludendorff proved most correct, however, was in his insistence that the Second World War—a term, of course, that he did not use—would be broadly like the first, and like its predecessor would develop into a gigantic and prolonged struggle. As was the First World War, it would be waged on many fronts, at sea and in the air as well as on land. Like its predecessor, it would both demand and make possible the mobilization of all resources. He was also proved right in that even democratic Britain found it necessary to curtail the role of politics by setting up a national coalition government—which meant that, as long as the conflict lasted, there was no parliamentary opposition, and elections were postponed. Ludendorff’s posthumous triumph may, indeed, be seen in the fact that, by the time the war was over, a continent had been devastated and an estimated forty million people lay dead.


Der Halte Befehl – France, 21 May 1940 Part I

‘We have lost the battle for France.’

French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud

to Winston Churchill, 15 May 1940

In the evening hours of 10 January 1940, a German Junkers-52 transport plane made an emergency landing in a field near Mechelen-sur-Meuse. On board was a staff officer of the 7th German Infantry Division, who carried on him detailed plans of the invasion of France. He was captured before being able to burn his maps. These showed the German plan for a spring attack through the Ardennes with a crossing of the Meuse (Maas) south of the Belgian border. The captured plans were rushed to General Maurice Gamelin, Commander-in-Chief of Allied armies.

He didn’t believe it, as much as he didn’t believe his chief of espionage, Colonel Payol of the Deuxième Bureau, who had confirmation from their source deep in Berlin, ‘Bertrand’, an official in the German Ministry of War.

No, decided General Gamelin, no army could ever cross the Ardennes, although, only two years before, during French Army manoeuvres conducted by himself, General Prétalat had used exactly the same breakthrough route as was shown on the captured German plans. Finally, the French military attaché in Bern informed Gamelin to expect a German push on Sedan by 8 May. He was only two days out.

On the morning of 10 May 1940, a special unit of German paratroopers, which had practised their assault on a mock-up model of their target, dropped on Fort Eben Emael, which controlled three vital bridges along the border between France and Belgium. Within twenty minutes, this strategic junction was in the hands of the Germans, and the road into France laid open.

On 1 September 1939, the world was given its first taste of Germany’s Blitzkrieg strategy. It was based on lightning thrusts by panzer forces in combination with tactical air strikes, a technique developed during the inter-war years by the German panzer genius, Heinz Guderian. While Germany had developed an élite tank force, the British Army had Mark I tanks equipped with a machine gun, and even their heavier Matildas were no match for the fast German armour. The French were even worse, their tanks lumbered along at 4 m.p.h. to allow their fantassins (foot soldiers) to follow the attack. The German panzers moved at 60 km p.h.

Despite the Polish demonstration, the men who dominated Allied military planning were ossified and locked into a static defence. Major General Sir Louis Jackson’s view was typical of their thinking when he referred to the decisive battle of the First World War, the breakthrough by British armour at Amiens: ‘The tank was a freak. The circumstances which called it into existence were exceptional and are not likely to recur. If they do, they can be dealt with by other means.’

The short-sighted view of the Imperial General Staff was matched by the French. ‘We are not Poles,’ stated General Gamelin, ‘it couldn’t happen here.’ The French General Staff counted on the invulnerability of the Maginot Line. The main flaw of this highly sophisticated defence system was that it did not reach all the way to the sea but stopped at the Belgian border! The French assumed, wrongly as it turned out, that it would invite German forces to push through Holland, where the might of French, Belgian and British armies could crush their advance along the fortified Dyle River line. It was precisely this concentration of Allied forces in Flanders which led to the French debacle.

The plan for their lightning march to victory was presented to Hitler by the chief of staff of General von Rundstedt’s Heeresgruppe A (Army Group A), General Erich von Manstein. He suggested a surprise thrust with the bulk of German panzers, seven divisions, through the weakest point in the French defences, the heavily wooded Ardennes mountain range, leaving it to General Bock’s Heeresgruppe B (Army Group B) to fake the expected advance into Holland along the established invasion routes of the First World War. The French fell into the trap, even the ageing Marshal Henri Pétain, the hero of Verdun, who stated: ‘The Ardennes are impenetrable, this sector is not dangerous.’

One hundred and fifty kilometres of dense woodland separated the Maginot Line from the fortified Dyle River line in Belgium. For this – the key to the German attack plan, General Gamelin allotted only fourteen reserve divisions. Against these stormed forty-five crack German divisions, including all their heavy panzer units.

Myths surround the swift and conclusive German conquest. One is that victory was achieved by German tank superiority. This assertion is false. The Germans had 2,574 tanks to the Allies’ 3,254. Also, the Allies’ armour-plating and guns were superior to those of the German Mark II and Mark III models. The French were simply out-generalled. They had developed a Maginot mentality, basing their entire plan on an inflexible concept, outdated battle strategy and, most of all, an exaggerated confidence in static defence. (The Maginot Line was handed intact to the Germans the day following the French surrender!)

Yet, history tends to overlook a relatively minor action fought by seventy-four British tanks near Arras which was to prove of major significance to the continuation of the war.

After only two days of fighting, the leading German panzers had reached Sedan and the Meuse. On 12 May, an erroneous report that German panzer units had already crossed the Meuse reached General Corap, commander of the French Ninth Army. Corap panicked and ordered a precipitated withdrawal. He was replaced by General Giraud who was captured the following day.

On the 13th, General Erwin Rommel’s 7th Panzers did cross the river on a hastily assembled pontoon bridge. They were unopposed and quickly overran a new French defence line before it could even be manned. This rout opened a gaping hole in the French line. The panzer advance was so lightning fast that the Germans did not bother to stop and take prisoners. Long lines of surrendering French soldiers marched alongside the speeding panzers, many still carrying their weapons. Sometimes a German tank would stop, collect their rifles and crush them under the cleats of the panzer.

The French still had at their disposal three armoured divisions capable of stopping the German steamroller. Though their military Intelligence had by now established that the German panzers were definitely not headed towards Belgium, Gamelin, a man never prepared to change his preconception and beset by an inability to adapt to a rapidly changing situation, was at the root of the military debacle. When General Weygand replaced Gamelin, and a decision was taken – already too late – to move the three tank units into position, the 1st French Armoured Division of General Bruneau was simply wiped out by Guderian’s 19th Panzer Corps, assisted by the Luftwaffe’s Sturzkampfbombers (aka Stuka) near Beaumont, the 2nd Tank Division (General Bronché) unloaded at the wrong place, owing to a faulty train schedule, and the 3rd Tank Division ran out of fuel on their way to the front.

The forward movement by French and British reinforcements faced another serious problem, one not ‘Made in Germany’. Thousands of refugees streamed out of Eastern France and Belgium, and choked the main roads with their human flood. They came with every sort of transport imaginable – baby prams, wheelbarrows, pushcarts – piled with everything they owned or thought indispensable, useless items grabbed in panic – guitars, pictures and umbrellas. Automobiles soon ran out of gas, or their owners were pulled from them by others trying to reach safety, and now these vehicles lay in the middle of the road, adding to the traffic jam. Hungry people picked unripe corn and green fruit from trees, and then suffered the consequences. A child, clinging to her mother’s skirt, stumbled along on legs stiff from tiredness; the mother dumped what she was carrying to caress her child. A momentary scene of caring amidst a crowd in panic. Many sat down next to the road and waited for the inevitable to happen. They were a mass of ragged, tired people stumbling past the rotting corpses killed by strafing aircraft. The continued harassment by the German Stukas hung as a dark cloud over the scenes of tragedy along the road.

These refugees accomplished what ten additional German divisions couldn’t hope to achieve – they effectively blocked the badly needed Allied reserves from reaching their prepared defensive positions. By the evening of 15 May, the three German Panzer Corps of Hoth, Reinhardt and Guderian were pushing unopposed into France and a gallant attempt by a quickly assembled 4th French Armoured Division under a young colonel, Charles de Gaulle, had no effect on Guderian’s progress. The Battle for France had begun only five days before and France was already stumbling towards a humiliating surrender.

OKW (German Supreme Command), 15 May, afternoon. The two-week Polish campaign had been achieved through the talent of Hitler’s tank commanders, but the political leader of Germany sadly lacked the military experience to grasp the complexity of modern tank warfare. With the Führer’s conviction of his special mission in history, surpassed only by his belief in his unique military genius, he had surrounded himself with generals who were as incompetent as their French counterparts, yes-men like Keitel and Jodl. The Germans’ real strength lay in their front-line commanders, men such as Guderian and a young divisional general, Erwin Rommel. He was to become the best of German generals, since he alone managed to overcome the rigid German military spirit. He was never a party man, and, like his superior, Guderian, considered the generals at OKW incompetent and useless worriers. His intense dislike of men like Himmler, Jodl and Keitel was well known and he never became hypnotised by the political structure on which his personal security depended. The admiration he initially carried for Hitler was quickly transformed into deception and disgust. And for a valid reason. When the three tank corps had broken out of the Meuse bridgehead, and pushed ever deeper into France, driving the defeated armies before them, Hitler’s nerves gave and his anxiety grew in direct relation to the speed of the panzers’ advance. On that spring afternoon, a barrage of messages from their advance units flooded into OKW. The generals in the map room could hardly keep up with the movements of the arrows and flags. Hitler studied the general map and became highly fidgety. Keitel saw his Führer’s worries and agreed with him. ‘I agree with your appreciation of the present situation, mein Führer. We are over-extending our panzer forces. We must expect a counter-offensive.’

16/5 OKW: Der Franzose führt anscheinend aus seinem Reservoir Dijon-Belfort Kräfte nach der linken Seite des Durchburchkeils heran. (The French are bringing up from their Dijon-Belfort reserves new forces against the left flank of our breakthrough.)

The generals Keitel and Jodl accepted their leader’s assessment of the situation. Only Halder, the brilliant strategist, argued that the advance was much too rapid for the British to adjust to and that French morale had collapsed outright. He was right. But Hitler would only listen to his yes-men. On 17 May the initial order went out to stop the 19th Panzers.

HQ, 19th Panzer Corps. ‘But, general, it’s an order from OKW, a personal order from the Führer himself.’

‘I don’t care if it comes from the Pope. Get General List at 12th Army on the line, tell him I’m resigning my commission’, fumed Guderian. More than just another general, List proved an astute diplomat, and a compromise was reached. He allowed Guderian to carry out a ‘reconnaissance in force’. It was a farce. To conceal his moves from his Füher, Guderian had a telephone wire strung from his advancing command car to the place where OKW had stopped him. And thus it happened that the German panzers raced for the Channel coast before Hitler knew what was going on.

General Gamelin’s Directive No. 12 was issued at 09.45 hours on the 19th. It ordered all Northern Armies to head southwards at all costs and not find themselves encircled and pushed towards the Channel ports. While General Georges and his forces were to attack from the north in a southerly direction, the French 2nd and 6th Armies would attack northwards from Mezières. An event precipitated this order. At 19.00 hours that day, General Gamelin, greatly suffering from depression brought about by an advanced stage of syphilis, was replaced by Maxime Weygand. Weygand’s new plan, worked out with General Georges, his North-East Army Group commander, was for a pincer movement against the exposed German advance units. Georges, a mentally and physically unfit leader who, after the debacle on the Meuse had burst into tears, visited General Gort at his headquarters. He asked Gort, Commander-in-Chief BEF, (British Expeditionary Forces), to throw in his remaining tank reserves and cut off the two lead panzer divisions which had outrun their support infantry. BEF was to establish a new defence line Arras–Cambrai–Bapaume. In exchange, Georges promised a powerful French tank attack from the south.

BEF Commander Gort did not bother to inform General Georges that he was already considering a withdrawal towards Dunkirk. However, he did advise his Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who ordered plans for ‘Operation Dynamo’ to be drawn up, a move which was to save the British Army from annihilation.

While the French and English wasted precious time negotiating who should attack and where, Rommel’s 7th Panzers were racing hell-bent for the heart of France. His panzers moved along a front only 3 km wide and 50 km from his nearest resupply unit. He took a considerable risk, since both his flanks were held by sizeable Allied forces. On the 18th, he pushed them on again. ‘Weiterer Marschweg: Le Cateau-Arras. Auftanken! Antreten!’ (Next direction: Le Cateau–Arras. Fill up! Stand at ready!’)

Soon he had no more petrol for his panzers. (It has been said that some filled up at local gas stations.) This made him furious until he discovered the reason, one of his own making. His advance had been so fast that his support division was still in Belgium! When Hitler heard about this, it gave him stomach cramps and his OKW generals, a sleepless night. Rommel’s daring was amply rewarded. For only 35 killed and 50 wounded, his division had taken 10,000 prisoners and captured or destroyed over 100 enemy tanks.

On 20 May, the day that the first units of Guderian’s panzers pushed into Abbeville, BEF Commander Gort put General Sir Harold Franklyn in charge of the Arras sector. In the corps command centre, a farmhouse near St Eloi, General Franklyn gathered his chief staff officers. Opinions were hopelessly different and no clear picture emerged. According to the latest reports from their retreating units, German panzers had already crossed the Scheldt at Cambrai and were approaching the final defensible water barrier, the Canal du Nord. The Germans were obviously trying to envelop Franklyn’s corps, and with it the whole Allied North-East Command of the French First and Seventh Armies, the Belgian Army, and the British Expeditionary Force.

Gort told Franklyn that he could not count on aerial support. He had to rely on his own ground forces – two divisions, the 5th and the 50th, plus the 1st British Tank Brigade, made up of units of the 4th and the 7th Royal Tank Regiments. The plan was for a concentrated thrust by infantry and tanks along the Arras–Bapaume highway to sever the head of the viper, Rommel’s 7th Panzers before the German support infantry could link up. Franklyn’s tank units were strong enough to carry out this objective as long as they didn’t meet up with Rommel’s main force. What finally put the scheme into operation before a unified plan could be worked out was an urgent cable by Churchill to Prime Minister Reynaud: ‘… The tank columns in the open must be hunted down by numbers of small mobile columns with a few cannons …’

General Gort set D-hour for 21 May at 14.00 hours. General Martel was put in command. The first wave was composed of the 13th and 151st Infantry Brigades plus sixty-five Mark I and eighteen Mark II tanks. Martel was promised flank support of seventy light tanks of the French 3rd Mechanised Division – but no air cover. There was one problem, and not a small one at that. Though Intelligence had correctly identified the 7th Panzers of General Rommel, they missed out on the 8th Panzers, the 5th Panzers, as well as a mechanised SS Panzergrenadier Division which was following Rommel’s Blitz – 400 tanks and 20,000 men.

A few days earlier. The moustachioed commander of the 1st British Tank Brigade was sitting in his command truck. A message arrived. Unit under heavy attack from the south–west. How could that be? South-east, yes, but south-west? His men were still holding the river line. Had the Germans managed to cross over the Dyle in the south, perhaps at their junction point with the First French Army?

The radio ended his doubts: … Lead units of German 39th Panzer Corps have crossed Dyle … we suffer heavy casualties …’ Followed by: ‘Attention all units. Hoth’s 5th and 7th Panzers seen general heading Maubeuge–Le Cateau …’

That was yesterday. Today he saw them. The panzers were fanning out, heading for his position. This time he couldn’t expect anyone else to solve the problem for him. He couldn’t retreat; for that it was too late. Bullets whipped past, slapped into trees and earth. All along the line his men were firing their rifles at armoured vehicles. Not much of a contest.

‘Need artillery support. Over.’ A distant bang. Another bridge went up before the enemy’s panzers got to it. ‘What’s happening?’ he enquired.

A tired voice came over the speaker. ‘We’re being clobbered, govn’or, dat’s wot.’

‘Blue 14, this is Foxtrot 7, do you read?’

‘Go on, Foxtrot 7.’

‘Blue 14, request permission to pull back.’

‘Foxtrot 7, permission denied. You hold with whatever you’ve got. Out.’

He knew that he had just sealed the fate of a battalion, but he had no choice. If they’d pulled back, it would leave the division’s, and, with it, the BEF’s entire flank wide open for the panzers. An officer stumbled in, his face grey and sweaty. ‘Sir, we cannot raise division headquarters, they’re either down or dead. We need tanks. Those Matildas of the 4th Royal would do us nicely.’

‘All right.’ He turned to his radio operator.’ Forget division, patch me through to GOC.’

‘I’ll give it a try, sir.’

‘You do better than that, son, or you’ll walk from here to there by foot.’

He had to launch a counter-attack, and very soon. For that he needed those heavy Royal tanks before the whole division was mashed under the cleats of German armour. The main railway bridge was already blown, but Jerry pioneers had thrown an assault bridge across the water. And now their panzers were streaming across, supported by heavy artillery. He turned to his radioman, headphones clamped to his head, listening to messages relaying firing orders and enemy positions.

‘Sir, confirmation, the Germans are across the river at Wavre.’

‘What about our sector?’

‘Sir, GOC orders a holding action, no further orders.’

The noise of distant shelling increased, explosions were creeping towards his positions. From across the river, an 88 scored a direct hit on a position of Alpha Company. Five men were killed. ‘Sir, GOC on the line.’

‘Hand me the mike. This is Blue 14 …’

The room was lit by a ball of yellow, followed by a mind-blowing crash. The radio operator tumbled forward, a big hole in his tunic. ‘This is Blue 14 …’ yelled the brigadier into the mike. It was no use. The splinter that had killed his radioman had also smashed the radio tubes. The brigadier jumped from the command truck. Had to get to another radio. Alpha Company had one. It wouldn’t carry far, but his message could be relayed down the line. When he reached the men of Alpha, he was told that their commander had been killed.

‘You there, sergeant …’

‘Yes, sir.’ The man saluted smartly.

‘Take over Alpha Company.’

‘Very good, sir.’

Finally he established contact with GOC only to hear that the Germans were already deep behind everybody, behind the French to the south, the Belgians to the north and now moving behind the British. Divisional commanders ordered places to be held that had already fallen. It was those cursed panzers. There was only one solution. Throw at them all the tank reserves in one single blow, and try to cut the Germans’ thrust in two. For this, his unit was ideally placed: the main panzer force had passed directly to his south and now their flank was open to his brigade. He passed the proposal through to GOC. The reply he got was not what he had expected. It wasn’t for attack, but another ‘disengage from the enemy’. ‘All units withdraw to Delta Blue line. Immediate.’ He checked his Michelin road map. Just like the Germans, his side also depended on these fabulous French road maps one could purchase at any petrol station. It showed that the Germans were racing for the Dendre, another river, already west of the Dyle. They had to move back. But not in panic. If he could achieve an orderly withdrawal his men would be available to fight another battle another day. He had to work out a scheme to extract his forward companies from their exposed position. They had to sneak back quiet like, leaving behind only a thin covering screen.

‘Major, we’re moving out. The guns are mechanised, the men are not. A problem?’ The major turned to the Regimental Sergeant Major who came to attention, stiff as a ramrod. Nothing would perturb this man, not even German panzers. ‘Try and organise us something with wheels for the boys.’

‘Yessah. There’s the equipment and food trucks.’

‘Dump it, we need men, not tents’, said the brigadier. ‘Here’s the plan. The guns move at 03.00 hours, the men at 03.20 hours. No lights. We head for the Dendre River. As soon as the last man is across, blow that bridge.’ He would be helped by artillery support. Shells from a German field battery screamed overhead. The last British unit along the Dyle line managed the move out without losses. They drove and walked and stumbled until they reached a forest. The troops were exhausted and wanted to sleep. Instead, they were ordered to dig in.

‘Sir,’ argued a company commander, ‘the men are a bit tired.’

‘Bloody hell, who isn’t?’ replied the brigadier.

Messages crackled over the ether: 30 German tanks, 60 half tracks, 20 guns, five miles east of Grosart, heading north-west at 0715 hours.

Dendre River line under heavy attack. Request permission …

By the time they had fixed one defence line the Germans were already past them. The brigade faced the threat of being completely cut off.

18 May, 22.00 hours. Heavy panzer units advancing rapidly along Le Cateau–Cambrai and Valenciennes–Douai axis.

Which meant that the Germans had already broken through to his south and were coming straight at his unit. The Germans expected to roll up the entire British Expeditionary Force from the rear. A barrage from some 25 pounders whistled overhead, ranging in on the advancing panzer column. A new order from GOC superseded the last: BEF to establish by 1200 hours May 19 along Escaut line, Oudenarde-Maulde.

Pull back again! The men were worn out. And another message.

1916: Change of OHL’s Leader[s]

German casualty figures for World War I remain notoriously difficult to reconstruct. The sheer scale of losses challenged record-keeping at every level. The problem was further exacerbated by, let us say, flexible standards for defining a wound. Those points made, it can reasonably be stated that almost a million German soldiers were killed in action or died of wounds in 1916, at Verdun, on the Somme, and everywhere else from East Africa to Lake Naroch that the tides of war carried them.

Casualties do not of themselves determine who is winning or losing a war. Nor do they determine the competence of commanders or the effectiveness of governments. But neither can they be dismissed as collateral damage, the cost of doing business. As early as midsummer 1916, Falkenhayn was showing signs of stress. The vultures in Berlin and at OHL headquarters were beginning to circle. And the Russian high command tried once more for a conclusion in the field. Russia had made an unexpected recovery from the debacles of 1915. Domestic production of weapons and ammunition reduced dependence on Allied imports. Grain reserves had more than doubled. Over six million men were under arms. And as the French calls to relieve the pressure at Verdun grew more strident, a new general offered a new plan. Alexei Brusilov, commanding the Southwestern Front, proposed to attack along the entire 350 miles of his four-army sector, each army in a particular zone. This would give the enemy no idea of which was the main effort or where the next blow would be struck. An overextended and demoralized Austro-Hungarian defense collapsed almost immediately. Falkenhayn scraped up ten divisions and enough artillery to stabilize the front, taking de facto charge not merely of the immediate fighting but virtually the entire Habsburg war effort.

The military and economic responsibilities accompanying that shift had little time to manifest before they were compounded by Romania’s August entry into the war on the Allied side. That kingdom hoped to gnaw the Dual Monarchy’s carcass in the wake of Brusilov’s successes. Its army proved spectacularly ill-prepared for the kind of war the Central Powers had learned how to wage, but it was Germany that was constrained to provide the bulk of the forces and planning for the Central Powers’ offensive against Romania. It furnished the commander as well.

The initial success of Brusilov’s offensive had led to increasing pressure from Bethmann-Hollweg and the Foreign Office, and within the High Command, which had relocated to Pless in Silesia, to turn over full command in the East to Hindenburg/Ludendorff. Falkenhayn resisted successfully-as long as he had the support of the Kaiser and those of his immediate advisors who as late as mid-July saw Falkenhayn as “a card . with which one either wins or loses,” whose sacrifice meant the end of William’s remaining credibility. Romania’s decision for war tipped the balance. At 11 pm on August 28 Falkenhayn received Imperial notice of his relief. The next morning Hindenburg appeared at High Command headquarters. At precisely 1:26 pm Erich von Falkenhayn boarded a train out of Pless.

He did not exactly vanish into obscurity. As a consolation prize and an opportunity for rehabilitation, Falkenhayn was given command of the Ninth Army, the assignment of driving the Romanians back across the border, and the constraint of completing the campaign before winter. Falkenhayn responded by emphasizing “speed and relentless attack.” Movement and assault would keep the Romanians so off balance that they could neither plan nor react before the next sequence shifted the paradigm again. This proto-blitzkrieg, implemented in one case by an improvised mechanized force, ranks with the Serbian campaign of 1915 as a tactical and operational cameo: the German Army at its best. On the other hand, like its predecessor, its scale was small. Its enemy was even more obliging in terms of decisions taken and blunders made. Nor did Falkenhayn’s cauterizing of a single running sore proffer guidelines to the comprehensive military and political challenges confronting Germany’s new command team.

The Hindenburg-Ludendorff appointment reflected and projected Germany’s situation. They were worked in as a command and planning team. Hindenburg described their relationship as like a successful marriage: neither party consistently dominant, each bringing something vital to the mix. Ludendorff was a manager and an organizer, talents reflected in his official title of First Quartermaster-General. Intelligent and industrious, a master of detail yet able to maintain a sense of general situations, he was at his best as a problem-solver with no time left over to indulge the irritability and anxiety that were the negative sides of his character. To an army badly shaken by Verdun, the Somme, and their aftermaths, Erich Ludendorff provided a sense of grip as welcome as it was badly needed.

If Ludendorff was a serious version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “model major general,” Hindenburg modeled a traditional Prussian general, arguably to the point of caricature. Solid of body, with a near-literally square head and appropriate facial hair and facial expression, he looked the part-a point to be neither overlooked nor mocked in an era of photography and newsreels. He projected an air of imperturbability: nothing seemed able to bring him out of countenance. And Hindenburg was popular, both as a public figure and in the corridors of power.

But were they hommes connetables, capable of fulfilling the military responsibilities they were assigned and the economic and political ones they would assume? The overwhelming consensus is that their inheritance was poisonous, nurturing an already potential combination of militarism and expansionism at the expense of wisdom and caution. Too often overlooked is a counterpoint: Germany in 1916 had no one else. When the army is specifically considered, there is an obvious void in the second generation, the mid-levels of staff and command. A first-rate crop of third-generation figures were emerging: Seeckt, Lossow, Rohr, Leith-Thomsen, and those yet unidentified, like the recycled reservist who would revolutionize artillery tactics in the next year, and the infantry captain whose feint-and-strike tactics in the mountains of northern Italy prefigured the methods of a later, greater war. But these were junior ranks: majors and lieutenant colonels. Their counterparts among the movers and shakers in the High Command, officers like Max Bauer and Gerhard Tappen, suffered from over-tempering: an involvement in situations beyond their maturity and judgment that began in the war’s early weeks. With the exception of Max von Gallwitz, it is difficult to identify, much less recall, any field commanders who began the war as colonels or Generalmajoren and had risen, or would rise, much above the level of what the British called “good plain cooks” and “safe pairs of hands.” Germany’s war was unlikely to end well in safe pairs of hands.

Though it took time and lives, Britain and France eventually produced significantly deeper pools of senior military leadership that were unspectacular but able to shape the situation they confronted. Some, like Pétain, Foch, and Douglas Haig, grew incrementally into their responsibilities. Others-Fayolle and Mangin, Currie, and Monash-emerged from the ruck of war. Even Italy came out of the Caporetto disaster militarily revitalized, with Armando Diaz succeeding Luigi Cadorna. The parliamentary states, Britain and France, developed as well a body of effective second-generation political leaders. Lloyd George and Clemenceau had no counterparts in the Second Reich. Italy’s Vittorio Orlando is less familiar, but he rallied Italy and oversaw the destruction of an enemy army-something neither of the transalpine premiers achieved.

None of these men were especially pleasant-intriguers, manipulators, and schemers all, often with private lives to match. They were, however, competent relative to circumstances. In contrast, compared to Britain’s George V, William II cut an abysmal figure as a figurehead. Bethmann-Hollweg’s successors as chancellor remain obscure even to doctoral students. And so it goes. Wherever one looks in Germany after 1916, the images are of cut-and-paste, of second- and third-rate people with first-line responsibilities. The structural reasons for that phenomenon are outside the scope of this book, except to note the development of similar phenomena in the other war-making empires, and suggest it was hardly coincidental. For present purposes, a case can be made that the Hindenburg-Ludendorff team filled vacuums as well as arrogated power in what was in good part a response to a comprehensive emergency that bade fair to escalate into a general crisis.

The new command team turned first to the Western Front. Hindenburg and Ludendorff had been too focused on events in the east-and on intrigues within the High Command- to be au courant with recent details and developments in what, mirabile dictu, was proving after all to be the war’s vital theater. It was his duty, Ludendorff stated, to adapt himself to the new conditions. He and Hindenburg began with a tour of inspection, visiting as many front-line units as possible, contacting others by phone, and demanding accurate information rather than eyewash and whitewash. Ludendorff came away convinced that the first months of the coming year would bring a battle deciding “the existence or nonexistence of the German people.” To meet that challenge, Ludendorff asserted, it was necessary to begin with the basics. German tactics must be revised on two levels: a general shift in emphasis to the defensive, and a specific set of coping mechanisms to check the increasingly effective Allied infantry and artillery team. In early September the High Command began systematically collating and evaluating recent frontline reports. On December 1, it issued Principles of Command in the Defensive Battle in Position Warfare. Ludendorff credited two relatively obscure and even more junior staff officers with constructing the manual that shaped German doctrines of defense in every theater for the rest of the war. But the fundamental ideas were Lossberg’s. Max Bauer and Hermann Geyer had previously served under him and absorbed his ideas. This was General Staff procedure at its best. Ludendorff’s ego was as large as anyone’s who held his kind of post is likely to be, but he applied it to generating and sustaining a corporate effort that had been less evident under Falkenhayn, who preferred keeping his own counsel. Bauer, a difficult man and a difficult subordinate, noted that Ludendorff’s style “lifted a great weight” from his working group. That opinion was as general in the High Command as any was likely to be among strong-willed men. It owed something to the Hawthorne effect generated by “an iron will and a firm determination.” It owed more to abandoning definitively the increasingly costly, increasingly futile, policy of holding and regaining the forward line at all costs.

The objective of defense was described in the new Principles as making the attacker exhaust himself by establishing positions in depth, defended in echelons. As the Allied infantry advanced it would become disorganized. Its communications would be disrupted. It would eventually outrun the range of even its heavy artillery, to find itself caught in a combination maze and net. A complementary accompanying manual on Principles of Field Construction gave details: a three-tiered system with a lightly held outpost zone as a tripwire; a battle zone that could be as much as three thousand meters deep with a forward trench position, a network of strong points; and a second trench line protecting the artillery and the reserves in the rear zone which would mount the final counterattacks to destroy or throw back the enemy before he could consolidate his temporary gains and restore the original position, or as much of it as made no difference.

Firepower was the revamped system’s framework: machine guns in the battle zone, artillery underwriting the counterattacks that were “the soul of the German defense.” Flexibility was the principle: “resist, bend, and snap back.” “Elastic defense” is a good capsule definition. So is “offensive defense.” But the system’s key and its core was human: “stout hearted men with iron nerves”-and individual initiative. Since 1914 falling back from a position had been defined as defeat, and carried an aura of disgrace. But by August 1916 it had become standard German operating procedure on the Somme to establish machine-gun positions outside the trench lines, in shell holes, to provide some protection from Allied barrages. Withdrawal was becoming instrumental, pragmatic: a means to the immediate ends of evading shell fire and wearing down attacking infantry, and to the ultimate one of setting the stage for the counterattacks that would reverse enemy gains.

Promulgating the doctrine did not mean its automatic implementation. Senior officers and their chiefs of staff were expected and accustomed to think for themselves, and the circumstances of the Western Front in 1916 fostered coping more than conformity. Lossberg himself believed the new regulations gave front-line troops and junior officers too much leeway in deciding when and how far to fall back. Ludendorff responded positively to that kind of criticism, asserting that the new system was a work in progress, to be modified when the Allies attacked again. Arguably more important to the reform’s credibility was the extent that it codified and systematized much of what was already being done, and proving effective, on the Somme. The point was reinforced in mid-December, when the final French offensive at Verdun owed part of its success to the failure of German sector reserves to respond effectively because they were held too far behind the front.

An Alternative Strategy I

WWII: The Struggle for Europe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Howard summed the whole matter up when he wrote that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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