Halford MacKinder's Necessary War
By F. William Engdahl
"An iron-clad Swedish guarantee"
In the north of Sweden, well above the Arctic Circle near Kirunavaara, one of the world's largest reserves of high-grade magnetite ore had been developed, with an extraordinary 68% average iron content, almost three times as rich per ton as the iron ores of Alsace-Lorraine. Kiruna and the nearby mines at Gaellivare, had supplied German steel mills in the Ruhr with the greatest portion of their iron ore, ever since Germany had been largely stripped of her ore resources in Alsace-Lorraine and Silesia, by the 1919 Versailles Treaty.
The dependence of the German steel industry on the Swedish iron ore was no small affair. By 1938, shortly before Hitler marched into Austria, German steel production had tripled in tonnage from 1913, on the eve of the First World War. Ruhr steel mills depended on imported iron ore for almost three-quarters of their steel-making needs, and Sweden provided more than 11 million tons of that in 1939 alone. After 1939, Sweden had to replace lost French iron ore as well. The economic inter-dependency between Swedish iron ore and German steel was strategic in every sense. Without sufficient steel, no tanks would roll; the Luftwaffe would be without planes; no guns, no artillery, in short, all materiel required to execute a major war would lack.
Because of Kiruna's extreme location, there had been only two routes built to get the Swedish ore to export markets. The one route, by rail to the eastern Swedish port of Luleaa, on the Gulf of Bothnia facing Finland, froze over in winter. The only other export route, the only route in fact for almost half the entire year, was across Norway, to the ice-free port of Narvik on the Atlantic, and from there by ship along Norway's coast to the north German ports.
At the beginning of the war in 1939, the two largest importers of the rich Swedish iron ore had been Britain, which took about 10%, and Germany, which took more than 70% of Sweden's ore export. British military intelligence was, therefore, well aware of the logistics of the iron ore deliveries to Germany, and of its vital importance to Germany for any future full-scale war. As well, they had been passed a copy from French intelligence of a confidential report from Fritz Thyssen to Hitler and Goering, in which the German steel industry leader noted that the determination of victory or defeat for Germany lay in the iron ore fields of northern Sweden.
This peculiarity of political geography and the relation it defined between neutral Sweden and the Third Reich, set the stage for England's first so-called battle of the war. That battle was at the time viewed as an utter fiasco, as a failed British attempt to pre-empt control of Narvik from the Germans, in order to cripple Germany's war-making ability.
In reality, Britain's Norway venture in April 1940 was quite something else. Britain's subsequent defeat in Norway, paradoxically, served two vital objectives for British grand strategy. It assured uninterrupted supply of Swedish iron ore to the steel mills of the Ruhr for the duration of the German war effort. This was essential from the standpoint of the overriding Round Table strategy of forcing a war of mutual annihilation between Germany and Russia.
A deliberately bungled British invasion of Norway also provided the convenient pretext for the Round Table to dump the no longer useful Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister, and to bring Churchill in, to run the conduct of the actual war, and the crucial task of winning America to the project.
It was not terribly surprising, given these considerations, that the new First Lord of the Admiralty in Chamberlain's government, the bellicose Winston Churchill, set his sights on neutral Norway in early 1940.
Churchill had been brought into the government by a reluctant Chamberlain, the day the German invasion of Poland had begun, principally to coopt his most vocal critic into the cabinet. Despite the dramatic declaration of war by Britain and France against Germany on September 3 1939, the Allied countries had done nothing of note, as the German dismemberment of Poland proceeded, beyond occasional attacks on German ships, or dropping propaganda leaflets over Poland.
After Russia had joined in the dismemberment of Poland on September 17, that, in accord with the secret protocols arrived at between Ribbentrop and Molotov a month before, Chamberlain's silence became deafening. Despite urgent pleas by Poland's Marshall Smigly-Rydz, that France honor her previous treaty with Poland and initiate some, any, diversionary action against Germany's exposed western borders, to slow the German offensive in Poland, nothing happened from either France or England's side.
General Gamelin's French Army, with its 28 divisions, waited in their barracks, oiling their guns and polishing their boots. German Field Marshall Keitel testified after the war that, had a French attack been launched against Germany's Ruhr industry heartland at that point, it would have "encountered only feeble resistance."
Britain's "phoney war" had begun. The intent of that phoney war as it came to be known, was meant to be a period of British manipulation and maneuver, in order to set the stage for a break of the Russo-German pact, to play Germany and Russia against each other, and at the same time, to maneuver the United States into the war on England's side.
Four days into the Nazi invasion of Poland, the German High Command got highly accurate intelligence on the status of British troop readiness to aid of France against Germany in response to Germany's invasion of Poland. Hitler had been told that England, on the day she declared war against Germany, had no more than 3 divisions in combat readiness, and that she would not deploy to aid France until fully 7 divisions had been made ready, something which could not be done before at least summer 1940.
Further, Hitler learned that France, for her part, would not initiate any military action against Germany, without a full British troop support backing her. Instead of having to redeploy several divisions from the Polish campaign to cover Germany's western flank, Hitler could proceed systematically to carve up Poland, with no fear of attack from Britain or France.
Poland was to serve the same broad aim of British geopolitical strategy as Munich had some months before, if less obviously so. As far back as July 1936, Chamberlain's predecessor as Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, had laid out to a group from the House of Lords, the policy for the coming European war. Baldwin, a director of Lothian's Rhodes Trust, and a member of the inner circle of the Round Table, had told the Lords, "If there is any fighting in Europe to be done, I should like to see the Bolsheviks and the Nazis doing it."
The effort of Churchill and the highest levels of the British establishment between September 1939 and the America's war declaration in December 1941, was anything but phoney, even if it did not produce the war which most, especially the hapless Poles, had expected. Of course, the actual reasons for the strange war conduct could never be admitted publicly, without endangering the entire enterprise.
While she had immediately acted to declare war against Germany for Germany's violation of Polish territorial sovereignty in September, Britain had made only feeble protest against the Soviet's for dismembering Poland. This too was deliberate, part of a grand strategy of the larger war intended by the Round Table. In early October, Churchill had told an astonished Joseph Kennedy, U.S. Ambassador to Britain, that the Russians were justified in taking eastern Poland, arguing that it was, "really Russian territory."
Smelling the power vacuum and the opportunity to act, Stalin ordered the Soviet Red Army to prepare an invasion of Finland at the end of November, two months after he had "liberated" eastern Poland.
By October 10, the Soviet Union had forced the three Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, to sign military assistance pacts with Russia, giving Moscow naval and air bases in Estonia and Latvia, something Hitler accepted reluctantly, in return for guarantees of Soviet oil. The Russian city of Leningrad was a vital industrial center of the Soviet Union, which joined the Baltic Sea by the Gulf of Finland. An opponent, coming from Finland, could launch a devastating strike on Russia through the Karelian Isthmus, in heavy artillery range of entire Leningrad. Under the secret protocols of the August 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact, Stalin had insisted that Finland also become a Soviet sphere of influence, to extend Russia's defensive perimeter.
On November 30 1939, after failing to get the territorial demands from the Finns by negotiation, Stalin renounced the 1932 Finnish-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, and invaded tiny and relatively defenseless Finland, with a force of 30 Red Army divisions, 1,200 tanks, hundreds of aircraft and 28 warships.
England had privately encouraged the Finns to stand firm, and not give in to Russian territorial demands, while at the same time encouraging Stalin by quietly backing a League of Nations resolution to expel Finland from the League, for allegedly firing on Russian soldiers across the border. As the Finns tried to show the League, without success, Stalin had given secret orders for a contingent of Soviet troops to fire on their own Russian men, killing four and wounding ten, giving Stalin the ostensible pretext for invading Finland, in response to "Finnish aggression against the Soviet Union."
Surprisingly determined national resistance by the Finns, under command of the 72-year old General Mannerheim, managed to hold off the Red Army forces, inflicting staggering losses of more than 200 ,000 dead on the Soviet side. Stalin had fully expected the Finns to negotiate a swift surrender, and had not even prepared his troops with winter clothing, causing as many or more deaths by exposure as by Finnish sharpshooters. A second more serious Red Army offensive, in February 1940, led by Marshal Timoshenko, in command of 45 divisions, forced the Finns to sign a treaty of peace with Moscow in March, in which Finland had to cede parts of the Karelian peninsula, and Lappland in the far north.
As Stalin read the map, the Finnish settlement secured a vital part of the Soviet Union from either a Franco-British attack or a future German strike through the Baltic, whenever Hitler were to decide to break his uncertain marriage with Stalin.
As Hitler read the same map, the Russo-Finnish settlement put Stalin's troops precariously near the Swedish iron ore deposits, and the Norwegian ports of Narvik and Luleaa, whenever Stalin were to decide to break the alliance of convenience with Hitler.
Some weeks before the second Soviet assault on Finland, Churchill began an aggressive, and highly public campaign for a British "support" operation to Finland, in which his troops were to pass over Norway and northern Sweden. Churchill never seriously intended to land British soldiers in Finland, or to go to war for Finland, and thus provoke Russia. His stated intent, expressed in private cabinet discussions, was to use Finland as pretext to launch an invasion of Norway, "en route" to Finland.
Churchill chose to ignore a small detail in all this. Norway had declared her strict neutrality, as had Sweden. Under Churchill's plan, the superior British Royal Navy, under the pretext of aiding Finland, would first lay mines in Norwegian coastal waters to hamper German ships, violating international law. Churchill would then occupy the strategic port of Narvik, thereby blocking Swedish iron ore to Hitler's war machine.1
"For God's sakes, go!"
That was at least how Churchill argued his mission. However, Churchill broadcast his Norway intentions loudly and openly, including in discussions in Paris, as well as in Oslo, where the British plans were predictably brought to the attention of former Norwegian Defense Minister, Vidkun Quisling, who relayed the information to Berlin.
The role of Quisling, hanged after the war as a traitor, was a curious one. Leader of Norway's small pro-Nazi party, the Nasjonal Samlung, Quisling had gone to Berlin in December 1939, where Alfred Rosenberg arranged for him to meet with Hitler. Quisling reportedly warned the Germans at that time of British plans to take Narvik and the Norwegian ore route. The same Quisling, during the 1920's, had received an Order of the British Empire for his services in "attending to the British interests in Russia," as Norwegian Military Attache in Leningrad after the Russian Revolution. In those Russian days Quisling also claimed to be an impassioned backer of Lenin's Bolshevik cause.
Regardless of who commanded Quisling's true loyalties, Churchill's preparations to take Norway were done in a remarkably indiscreet and unprofessional manner. Gestapo intelligence would be certain to learn of it, as they did.
That was Churchill's intent. He was no novice in matters of security or intelligence. "If they [the Germans] did invade Norway," he stated in a Cabinet meeting in January 1940, "I would be glad. They would be involved in a serious commitment."
French Prime Minister, Paul Reynaud, wrote years later in his memoirs, "Churchill came to Paris April 5, and at last the British government resolved that the minefields in Norwegian territorial waters would after all be laid. The operation was, however, postponed until April 7, so that Hitler could learn of it and prepare his counter-move." Reynaud continued, "One of the aims of the enterprise was, according to the definition of General Gamelin, to entrap the opponent, by provoking him into making a landing in Norway."
That, of course, was just what Hitler did.
To cultivate the Soviet side in this complex game, at the end of September 1939, days after Stalin's grab of eastern Poland, Lord Halifax had initiated secret back-channel negotiations with Ivan Maisky, an old contact of Churchill, and Stalin's Ambassador in London. The talks were nominally about Anglo-Russian trade. In actual fact, they were designed to open a wedge between Hitler and Stalin. Britain made clear to Moscow in those early days, that a Soviet exercise against Finland would produce little more than verbal protest from the British and French. At the same time, the British urged the Finns to resist, holding out an illusion of international support, and even shipping munitions, small arms and other aid to Helsinki, for use against the powerful Russian foe. They were quietly pouring gasoline on the Finnish fire.
On February 15, Churchill had initiated more active measures. He ordered a British warship in the North Atlantic to seize the German ship 'Altmark.' That, despite the fact the ship was docked in a neutral Norwegian fjord, far from international waters. The German ship was defended by two Norwegian torpedo boats, whose commanders had told the British they had searched and found no alleged British prisoners aboard. On orders from Churchill, the British navy brazenly violated international law, and boarded the German ship in the territorial waters of neutral Norway.
The 'Altmark' incident was a decisive signal to Hitler that, for all her noble claims about defending national sovereign rights, England had no qualms about violating Norwegian sovereignty if she deemed it useful. While Stalin prepared his second offensive into Finland, Hitler had ordered his General Staff to draw up plans for Germany's occupation of Norway and Denmark, Operation Weser, in order to secure his vital supply line from Sweden's north.
As the General Staff finalized plans for occupation of Norway and Denmark, the reliability of Sweden was not even a question in Hitler's mind. There never had been the slightest German preparation for extending the Norwegian invasion into Sweden, nor was there any Swedish mobilization to defend against such possible German invasion.
Sweden's accommodation to Hitler's war aims was assured at the very highest levels, and not only because Hermann Goering's wife, Carin, was the sister of Count Erik von Rosen, scion of one of Sweden's highest-ranking noble families. The favorable disposition to Hitler came as well from Sweden's pro-German King, Gustav V, from the King's personal physician and Capri occultist, Axel Munthe, to Rudolf Hess' close friend, Swedish geopolitician, Sven Hedin.
It also did not harm the relations between the two countries, that Sweden's most powerful banking and industrial families, including Axel Wenner-Gren, owner of the Bofors arms company, and Electrolux, as well as the Wallenbergs, had been engaged in secret German rearmament since well before the war, through Bofors, L.M. Ericsson, SKF ball-bearings, Enskilda Bank and other Swedish companies they controlled.
By the first days of April Berlin had other strong indications of Churchill's plans to launch a pre-emptive strike at Narvik, to confirm Quisling's warning. Churchill's own nephew, a journalist, had arrived in late March in Narvik, preparing to report the imminent British troop arrival. And Churchill had even made a BBC broadcast March 30, announcing Britain intended no longer to honor "pro-German interpretations of neutrality," a clear signal to Hitler and the German General Staff. Other reports came from Helsinki as well as Paris, indicating the same. There was no room for doubt.
On April 9 Hitler gave orders to begin a preemptive blitz invasion of Denmark, which surrendered without so much as a shot fired. The primary goal was Norway, where Norwegians put up more determined resistance, but also capitulated by the end of May.
On news the Germans had reached Narvik before British ships could leave harbor, Churchill was unperturbed. He told cabinet colleagues, including Prime Minister Chamberlain, that the German occupation, "should not be on terms unfavorable to us," insisting that England was, "in a far better position than we had been to date."
In reality it was Churchill who was in the far better position. That was, in position to replace Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister. Churchill's deliberate chaotic bungling of the plans for a Norway invasion had led Chamberlain to assume personal day-to-day responsibility for the Norwegian operation. He had been asked to do so, in a calculated appeal, by Churchill. From that point, the trap had been set against Chamberlain as well.
The conduct of the British campaign against Norway was ludicrous, and Churchill was directly responsible for the disaster. He personally countered orders of the military chiefs of staff, without even informing them. He sent troops of the 24th Guards brigade by boat, without artillery, engineers or transport, with orders to capture Narvik, after it had been firmly secured by German forces.
Even the Finnish pretext for Britain's military move on Norway had dissolved on March 12, when Finland signed an armistice with the Soviets in Moscow, but the Norway adventure proceeded despite this inconvenience.
The British troops heading for snow-bound Narvik, moreover, had no training in winter warfare, nor did they have proper equipment for the cold climate. A total of eight British battalions were being sent to dislodge a region defended by fifty-one well-equipped, specially-trained Wehrmacht units, which included elite military ski-patrols from Austria.
While the Round Table's own London 'Times' directed attacks on Chamberlain for the predictable debacle in Norway, Churchill was hailed as the only one with a will to fight, but for his being hamstrung by Chamberlain.
On May 7, the House of Commons began a debate on the Norway fiasco. Following a feeble defense by Chamberlain of his government's conduct of the battle, a leading Round Table Member of Parliament, Leopold Amery, delivered the fatal blow to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Using the damning words of Oliver Cromwell to the Long Parliament three centuries before, Amery told Chamberlain, "You have sat too long for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!" The Round Table had secretly been preparing the move weeks before.
When it became obvious that he must step down, Chamberlain sought to put the name of his Foreign Minister, Lord Halifax, to the King as his successor, a move which Halifax, the leading Round Table figure in the Cabinet, deftly declined in favor of Churchill.
"Churchill's hour had come"
On May 10, just in the hours the German Wehrmacht launched the blitzkrieg against Holland and Belgium, Churchill was called by the King to form a new government.
Winston Spencer Churchill, then 66, had been promoted by the Round Table at that critical juncture, not because he especially appreciated the need to mobilize Britain for war against Germany, though this was a necessary precondition; nor because he was pragmatic enough, contrary to Chamberlain, to be willing to strike an alliance with Stalin to defeat Hitler, though this was also a necessary precondition.
Churchill was chosen, above all, because the chief aim of Round Table policy was the clash between Russia and Germany. That, in order to draw the United States into the war their geopolitics had brought about. Chamberlain's role in setting Germany against Russia had exhausted its usefulness, once the secret German-Soviet Friendship Treaty had been signed.
A new ploy, other than playing up to Hitler through appeasement, was now required to advance the game. That ploy was called Winston Churchill.
For years Churchill had carefully cultivated the attentions of Moscow, as Britain's most vocal opponent of appeasing Germany, through, among others, London ambassador Ivan Maisky. Maisky apparently never quite realized how he and Moscow were merely being maneuvered by the sly Churchill, to lead the Soviet Union into a bloodbath with Germany, in pursuit of British geopolitical strategy. Chamberlain had merely represented another way to accomplish the same bloody goal, a German-Soviet war, by playing to the German side against the Soviet Union.
Churchill, whose own mother was American, had also started secret and highly unusual correspondence, that, as a mere First Lord of the Admiralty in Chamberlain's government, with an old acquaintence from the period of the First World War, when both men had occupied leading posts in their respective navies. The Churchill correspondence with U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, done secretly in sealed diplomatic pouch to avoid Foreign Office or State Department mediation, was calculated in every way by the cunning Churchill, who signed his cables, "Former Naval Person," to play on the earlier common bond with Roosevelt, who had been U.S. Navy Assistant Secretary during the Great War, when Churchill was British First Lord.2
Hitler's blitz occupation of Denmark and Norway had necessitated his interrupting planning for an invasion of the Low Countries and France. In November 1939, just after the Polish invasion, Hitler had begun arguing with his generals over the necessity to protect Germany's Rhine and Ruhr industrial centers from danger of a combined French and British attack through the Low Countries. "Time is working for our adversary," Hitler told the generals. "We have an Achilles' Heel--the Ruhr. If Britain and France push through Belgium and Holland into the Ruhr, we shall be in the greatest danger."
The moment success for the Norwegian occupation was clear, Hitler turned his full energies again to the Low Countries and France. At dawn on May 10, he gave the order to launch "Case Yellow," the simultaneous invasion of Holland, Belgium and France.
Germany committed 136 divisions to the operation, with Goering's Luftwaffe deploying more than 3,600 fighters and bombers to support the invasion. They faced combined Allied forces totalling 135 divisions. But those numbers belied the lack of combat readiness of especially the French soldiers. There were 94 French, 10 British, 22 Belgian and 9 Dutch divisions.
France at that time had mobilized one in eight of its adult male population, Britain only one in forty-eight. The French troops however were mostly poorly trailed unwilling conscripts, with little or no combat experience. France's Air Force was wholly unprepared for war, with fewer trained pilots even than planes, which numbered only some 350. Prime Minister Edouard Daladier's Air Minister, Guy la Chambre, had just been exposed before the National Assembly in a closed-door session, for concealing the grim reality.
On May 11, in an ingenious operation, German glider-borne paratroops captured the most powerful defensive fortification at the junction of the Albert Canal and the Meuse River on the Belgian border with Holland, near Maastricht, the fortress at Eben-Emael. Eighty men captured the 1,200 man garrison, previously thought impregnable, by a surprise landing on the roof, and silenced the mightiest guns on the Meuse. The defeat was a devastating blow to morale of the Belgians and the Dutch. The Dutch Army formally surrendered on May 15. By May 17 German forces had entered Brussels, and Belgian King Leopold surrendered on May 28.
British propaganda attributed tremendous black fires in the port of Rotterdam to a revenge bombing of Hitler against Dutch resistance. In actual fact, the fires had been the work of a British sabotage commando unit sent by Churchill to blow up the large oil refineries of Royal Dutch Shell and Standard Oil, in order to deny the huge oil stores to Hitler's Wehrmacht. The sabotage oil fires were largely contained and the saboteurs taken prisoner.
At that point one of the most brilliant military campaigns of the war was launched, ironically, over the vehement objections of the German General Staff. General Erich von Manstein, in consultation with the equally iconoclastic General Heinz Guderian, author of a widely-studied textbook on the new potentials of tank warfare, had formulated an alternative to the German General Staff battle plan for the invasion of France.
The General Staff's plan called for a more or less predictable repeat of the von Schlieffen Plan of 1914, fighting the new war with the ideas of the last, by sweeping from Belgium south, into a head-on clash with combined British and French forces, and risking a repeat of the prolonged trench warfare debacle of the First World War. Ironically, the French General Staff held equally tenaciously to the same view as their German counterpart, convinced a repeat of 1914 through Belgium was the only practical German option. This rigidity, over the fierce protests of a young French tank commander, Charles de Gaulle, was to have fatal consequences for France.
Von Manstein, buttressed by Guderian's ideas, argued within the General Staff for an audacious surprise attack through the heavily-wooded hilly Ardennes in the northeast France, where French defenses were weakest. Before advent of mobile tanks, such terrain had been impassable for a major assault. The French never bothered to correct the defense defect, apparently assuming nothing had changed since 1914.
Once they had broken through the Ardennes, the rapid mobile Panzer forces could then cross the River Meuse at Sedan, and move onto the plains of northern France, driving directly to the Atlantic, putting Guderian's theory of deep strategic penetration into practice, which is precisely what occurred.
His presumed arrogance in challenging the German High Command won von Manstein an immediate demotion to a field command, in an effort by Generals Halder and von Brauchitsch to silence him. But through a meeting with Hitler in January 1940, von Manstein was able to win the Fuehrer to his bold plan. That was the vote that counted.
The invasion of Holland and Belgium had been primarily a feint, to deceive the French and British forces, who fully expected the German forces then to come down through Leige in Belgium into France. The French divisions fell into the trap by moving the bulk of their best fighting divisions, joined by eight divisions of the British Expeditionary Forces, under command of Lord Gort, north into Belgium. This left the way clear for Guderian's forces coming from the east.
Shortly before dawn on the morning of May 10 the greatest concentration of tank forces ever seen in warfare stood poised on the border of Luxembourg, ready for a seventy mile strike to Sedan on the French side, through the Ardennes forest. Behind them were 46 divisions of the German Army, set to follow behind the armored phalanx. The main flank of German Panzer Corps was led by General Guderian, in an assembly of armor stretching an awesome hundred miles from head to tail.
French defense at Sedan was not serious. Guderian's tanks had sped across the River Meuse before the startled French had time to appreciate what was happening. German reconnaissance had discovered that in this area French fortifications had not even been completed. Through a combination of luck, boldness and ingenuity, Guderian's Panzer forces rolled ahead with devastating effect, spreading panic among French troops. German tanks then broke into a full race across the river and onto the flat plains of northern France, on their way to isolate the main body of French and British forces.
To the astonishment of the Germans, the French had been so unprepared for such a strike through the Ardennes, that they had not even installed the most minimal anti-tank guns to resist, something the Germans later admitted would have been devastating to their vulnerable Mark I tanks leading their assault. By May 15 Guderian's forces had broken through limited French resistance, collapsing their defenses, opening the way for the push to the Channel coast, to encircle the greatest concentration of French and British forces.
The political leadership in France at that moment was as catastrophic as the military one. Paul Reynaud, an intimate friend of Churchill, had just come in as Prime Minister replacing his bitter rival, Edouard Daladier, the man who had only a few months before signed the Munich Pact with Chamberlain and Hitler, to create "peace in our time.
Daladier remained in the Reynaud government as Minister of War until the government's collapse. Cabinet meetings were at times more preoccupied with internal power intrigues between Reynaud and Daladier than with saving the nation. General Gamelin, Daladier's earlier choice as Commander-in-Chief, a 68-year old military bureaucrat, was hopelessly tied to the rigid formalisms of the First World War, and was utterly paralyzed by the devastating German offensive. On May 19, as the Germans penetrated the Western front, Reynaud finally fired Gamelin and replaced him with the 73-year old General Maxime Weygand. Disarray and friction were evident at every level of the French institutions.
By May 16, Guderian's three Panzer divisions were joined by two divisions from General Reinhardt and two more divisions of General Hoth, all now pushing forward to the French Atlantic coast with devastating force. Repeatedly, as his tanks advanced, Guderian had to fight with his own command, who had little grasp of the dynamic of the revolutionary tank methods, and feared losing control. Through a combination of near insubordination and deception of his own leadership, Guderian had pulled the German General Staff into its most impressive military victory of the century, despite itself.
Guderian's tank forces were pulling tight a fatal net around the core of French and British troops, driving them towards the port of Dunkirk on the sea, when one of the most extraordinary events of the war occurred.
"A fundamental miscalculation"
General Guderian had advanced an astonishing 250 miles across enemy terrain in only 11 days. Then, with his Panzer forces at Gravelines, only ten miles from Dunkirk, orders came down on May 24, that his tanks were to halt.
Guderian's forces had been within hours of capturing more than 300,000 of the best-trained professional soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force, along with some 100,000 of France's best -trained and equipped men. Guderian at first read the order with disbelief. His commander, General von Kleist, stated that, on receiving the order, "I decided to ignore it, and to push on across the canal. But then came a more emphatic order that I was to withdraw behind the canal. My tanks were kept halted there for three days."
The order had come directly from Hitler. The three days pause was intended, though Hitler did not tell his generals at the time, to allow Britain's best fighting force escape by ship across the Channel to England. He intended it as a clear gesture of good will towards his British adversary.
That was the "miracle of Dunkirk," which Churchill's strictly censored wartime press propaganda in England portrayed as divine providence smiling down on the chosen British people. The British population would have been no doubt quite surprised, had they been allowed to learn the truth, that the one who had smiled on their army at Dunkirk had in fact been Hitler.
A week later, referring to this "miracle of Dunkirk," Churchill told the House of Commons and the entire nation over the BBC radio, "We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be; we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender..."
It wasn't exactly the response Hitler had in mind.
What Churchill left out of his rousing speech, was the fact that his commander in France, Lord Gort, had ordered his British forces to proceed to Dunkirk, as rescue boats were being readied across the Channel, while Churchill had promised Prime Minister Reynaud and General Weygand, after a visit to Paris some days before, that Gort's forces, together with British Royal Air Force air cover, would join a reinforced French counter-offensive against the over-extended and highly exposed German lines.
Churchill's promised air support never appeared. Instead, he deployed a contingent of the RAF in a highly ineffective mission to bomb sites in the Ruhr, a move with another intent altogether. Lacking sufficient support from both ground and air, the French offensive collapsed in disarray and demoralization.
As hundreds of British ships, large and small, shuttled back and forth from Dover to Dunkirk over the three days of pause, they were filled first and foremost with British soldiesrs, despite agreements from Churchill to Reynaud that French and British would be treated equally in the evacuation operation. Field-Marshall Gort at one point personally refused a boat pass to a French general, arguing, "Two French going means two less British," leading France's Admiral Darlan later to question the wisdom of entrusting the defense of Dunkirk to the British who, he said, had only one thought, namely, "To the boats." Only 36,000 Frenchmen managed to escape by boat at Dunkirk with the more than 338,000 British troops.
Dunkirk was to be only one of several unusual military decisions by the German Fuehrer in those critical days. His message each time was intended as a clear signal to his opponents. He was determined to give England convincing proof of his ultimate good will towards the British Empire, by allowing the elite of Britain's fighting forces to escape to England. Ribbentrop's adviser on France, Otto Abenz, remarked caustically of the Dunkirk decision, "If Hitler had not been consumed by a diseased Anglophilia, everything would be different and easier." It was perhaps more a perverse love-hate attitude toward British power. The effect on the vital decisions of the war was nonetheless to be catastrophic for the Germans.
Hitler ordered von Kleist and Guderian to turn their Panzers south, after the evacuation of British Expeditionary Forces at Dunkirk. Guderian's Panzers rolled on towards the exposed rear of Maginot Line. On June 14, the Germans entered an abandoned Paris, which the French had just declared an "open city." There was no significant resistance, no street fighting, not even destruction of vital gasoline stores by the French, a major gift, giving the German Panzer's extraordinary mobility. Of some five million Parisians, fewer than 700,000 remained. The rest had fled in panic. Reynaud's government had itself fled some days before to Tours.
At the tiny airport at Parcay near Tours, an unscheduled flight had landed the morning of June 13 with no advance notice. Out of two small British planes stepped British Prime Minister Churchill, his new Minister for Aircraft Production Lord Beaverbrook, Foreign Minister Lord Halifax, and Chief of General Staff Sir William Ironside. They had come to get a first-hand report on the situation in France directly from Prime Minister Reynaud, General Weygand, and Marshal Petain.
What they heard didn't inspire optimism. Weygand outlined in detail the grim state of their combined forces, then told his British guests, "The only thing which can save France is English aid. We immediately need British infantry divisions, artillery, and above all fighter planes, and again, fighter planes."
Churchill reportedly replied, "We can immediately send you three divisions." Weygand was furious. "Is that all?" Churchill then tried a different tack. "General, think about the last war. What enormous problems we fought through together, how it then turned to victory."
With barely controlled emotion, Weygand replied, "You perhaps mean Mr. Prime Minister, the time in Spring 1918 when the Germans had broken through the English Front. I permit myself to recall that we sent you immediately 25 divisions to help, and after that, another 15 divisions, and we held ten more in reserve. Today I have in total as reserve one regiment, and that will be deployed in the next hours. This afternoon our last tanks will be sent into the battle, fresh from the factory, not even painted."
The French Commander-in-chief, who unlike his predecessor Gamelin, was anything but defeatist by disposition, then told Churchill that, lacking decisive support from England, France might well have no alternative but to sue for a separate peace with Germany. Petain concurred, to Reynaud's distress.
Some minutes later Churchill and his entourage slipped out of Tours and flew back to London, without giving the French any commitment, leaving not only Reynaud and Weygand, but all France in the lurch.
On June 16, Prime Minister Paul Reynaud resigned, refusing to agree to an armistice and facing a militarily hopeless situation. The 84-year old hero of Verdun, Marshal Petain, formed a new government, now relocated to Vichy, near Lyon in south-central France.
Pierre Laval, the string-puller behind Petain, was a former French foreign minister, with friendly ties to Mussolini. For years, Mussolini had channeled money to Laval and through Laval, to a group of some 15 Deputies close to Laval in the French National Assembly. Laval's links to Fascist Italy were based on a bit more than abstract ideology.
Pierre Laval soon became vice-premier in the Petain Cabinet, which was voted absolute powers as parliament was dissolved, and the Third Republic along with it. Laval saw Petain as a French von Hindenburg, an ageing but popular war hero, whom he could use, against the left, to build beneficial political and economic cooperation with the victorious Germans. Both Laval and Petain regarded Germany as the winning side and sought to strike a favorable deal with it. Laval himself had been backed by a group of private banks led by Banque Worms and Banque de l'Indochine, as well as by factions of French heavy industry which had been in secret cartel negotiations with German chemical and industry groups.
On June 22 Petain's government signed an armistice with Germany, followed on June 24 with Italy. Mussolini, once certain of the outcome in France, confident that this was the moment for Italy to forcefully join with the victor, had pompously declared war against France and Britain on June 10, finally joining with Germany in the war. Mussolini had launched a disastrously ineffective attack into the Alpine region of France from the Italian Piedmont, which was contained by courageous French forces under General Orly, despite their being outnumbered by the Italians more than two to one.
Once France had proposed armistice, yet again, Hitler refused to follow the logic of the military situation to its conclusion. He agreed to the basic French terms of Petain, and allowed two-fifths of France to the south, including the major Mediterranean port city, Marseilles, to remain unoccupied Vichy France, under Petain and Laval and their own French military and police control. The colonies and the formidable French naval fleet were left untouched by Hitler, in his bizarre gesture of good will.
Allowing Petain's Vichy government to hold the colonies in French North and West Africa was an astonishing concession from any military standpoint. Had Germany taken the African colonies in the fall of France, that would have closed the Mediterranean to British ships, allowing Italy free-hand to invade Egypt from Libya, blocking the Suez Canal and the route to the Mideast, as well as India. German U-boats, operating out of the French colonial port of Dakar on the west coast of Africa, could have blocked British ships en route to India via South Africa. That would have choked off vital British oil supplies from Iran and the Middle East, and cut off her access to goods and soldiers from India, placing her naval fleet and her economy in a devastating disadvantage at a time when many in top British political circles, even some in Churchill's Cabinet such as Beaverbrook, were resigned to the inevitability of a peace deal with Hitler.
At a meeting June 17 in Munich, the day France's armistice offer was received, Hitler told Mussolini that he would not impose oppressive conditions on France. When Mussolini suggested the demand that France turn over its naval fleet, Hitler rejected that idea outright as well.
This concession too, allowing the Petain government to hold on to the French fleet, was no small thing. At the time, the French naval fleet, unlike other parts of its defense arsenal, was of high quality. Two new battleships, 'Richelieu' and 'Jean Bart' had just been built. Were the French fleet to be added to the combined Naval capacities of Italy and Germany, it could quite well have destroyed British sea defenses and likely have forced a British surrender within months. The entire American fleet, even had they wanted to come to England's aid, was unavailable. It had been shifted early in 1940 to Hawaii and the Pacific, far away from Europe, in order to defend against a growing Japanese threat.
What could be of such over-riding importance in Hitler's thinking as to justify so extraordinary concessions as the colonies, the fleet and almost half of French territory?
Hitler, after refusing Mussolini's demand for the French fleet, turned to the real subject on his mind -- England. In a discussion witnessed by Hitler's official interpreter, Paul Schmidt, Hitler told Mussolini, he was convinced it would not serve any useful purpose to destroy the British Empire. "It is, after all, a force for order in the world," insisted Hitler.
Hitler's thoughts seemed to be returning to the early lessons in geopolitics he had learned from Karl Haushofer and Rudolf Hess almost two decades before, in 1924, in his jail cell at Landsberg near Munich. Hitler had written then in "Main Kampf," about Germany's future and the need for Lebensraum. "If one wanted land and soil in Europe, then by and large this could only have been done at Russia's expense, and then the new Reich would again have to start marching along the road of the Knights of the Order of former times.
"For such a policy, however," wrote Hitler, "there was only one single ally in Europe--England. With England alone, one's back being covered, could one begin the new Germanic invasion...To gain England's favor, no sacrifice should have been too great. Then one would have had to renounce colonies and sea power, but to spare British industry our competition."
In 1940, Hitler's outlook had changed very little. Rudolf Hess was constantly at his side to remind him as well of his earlier lessons in geopolitics. As Holland, Belgium, Norway, Denmark, half Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, and now most of France all had been incorporated into the New European Order of the Third Reich, Italy, and Spain bound to it by alliance, Hitler came back to the idea of recarving the world between a land empire of Eurasia dominated by Germany, and a global oceanic empire dominated by Britain.
Hitler was preparing for the great battle, and it was to be in the east, not the west. He wanted England's assurance that she would "cover Germany's back," or at least not embroil the Reich once more in a catastrophic two front war.
Von Rundstedt's senior staff officer, General Gunther Blumentritt, described a private meeting of Hitler with his military command in the days after Dunkirk, and his surprisingly generous settlement with Vichy France. At the discussion, Hitler had told the officers the war with France would be over in some few weeks.
"After that he wished to conclude a reasonable peace with France, and then the way would be free for an agreement with Britain. He then astonished us," Blumentritt recalled, "by speaking with admiration of the British Empire, of the necessity for its existence and of the civilization that Britain had brought into the world." Hitler told his generals, "all he wanted from Britain was that she should acknowledge Germany's position on the Continent. The return of Germany's lost colonies would be desireable but not essential, and he would even offer to support Britain with troops if she should be involved in any difficuties anywhere."
Von Rundstedt told Blumentritt after that meeting, "Well, if he wants nothing else, then we shall have peace at last." Von Rundstedt was as naive about the agenda of his adversary, England, as was Hitler. It was a fatal flaw they both shared with the entire leadership of the anti-Hitler opposition within the German General Staff and Foreign Office.
Fritz Hesse, an adviser to Ribbentrop in the Foreign Ministry, recounted a discussion he had held with Foreign Office Undersecretary Ernst von Weizsaecker. Von Weizsaecker had told Hesse, referring to England, that the circle of Hitler opponents in high places was convinced that, "while no understanding with Hitler would be possible, that they--the conservative, christian and highly influential circles--they would be able to reach such an understanding.
"What a tragic error!" Hesse noted. "No one in Berlin seemed to grasp that for the Anglo-Saxons it was fully irrelevant who ruled Germany." Hesse cited Halford Mackinder's quote about 'Who rules east Europe rules the Heartland,' and its implications for British geopolitical policy, as support for his argument.
He continued, "No one in the opposition in Germany understood that Germany could have peace only if she rejected most, in fact all, that Hitler had gained, and that then, a reintroduction of the entire Versailles System had to be expected. And Beck, Goerdeler, and many others in the opposition were in no way prepared to accept that."
Hitler had won the Battle of France. What he did not grasp however, was that he had also just lost the larger war.3
1 Lenz, Friedrich, "Der Ekle Wurm," Heidelberg, 1952. Lamb, Richard, "The Drift to War: 1922-1939," St. Martin's Press, New York, 1992. Blake, Robert and Louis, W.R., "Churchill," Oxford University Press, 1994, and Charmley, John, "Churchill: The End of Glory," Hodder & Stoughton Ltd., London, 1993 give details of Churchill's manipulations of the Norway affair.
2 The official British account of the Russo-Finland war of 1940 can be found in Woodward, Sir Llewellyn, "British Foreign Policy in the Second World War," Her Majesty's Stationery Office, London, 1962. Knudsen, H. F., "I Was Quisling's Secretary," Britons Publishing Co., London, 1967 gives some interesting background to the man whose name has become synonymous with treason. Higham, Charles, "Trading with the Enemy," Dell Publishing Co., New York, 1983 contains documentation on the wartime role of the Wallenbergs and Wenner-Gren, as does, Unger, Gunnar, "Axel Wenner-Gren: En vikingasaga," Bonniers, Stockholm, 1962. Birger Dahlerus, the Swedish businessman who made the last minute mediation attempt to broker a deal between Chamberlain and Hitler in August 1939 to avoid war between Germany and England, was an executive of Wenner-Gren's Electrolux Ltd. in England. Maisky, Ivan, "Who Helped Hitler?" Hutchinson, London, 1964, gives an account of the former Soviet diplomat's version of his relationship with Churchill.
3 Hart, Sir Basil Liddell, "The Other Side of the Hill," Macmillan, London, 1993 . Hesse, Fritz, "Das Spiel um Deutschland," Paul Munch Verlag, Munich, 1953 contains invaluable direct accounts of the internal discussions inside the Hitler inner-circle, from the person who was responsible for evaluation of British intentions for Ribbentrop, as does Schmidt, Paul, "Hitler's Interpreter," Wm. Heinemann Ltd., London, 1950. The details of the British demolition operation against the Rotterdam oil refineries and port is found in the cabinet papers of Sir Maurice Hankey, May 10, 1940 in CAB 63/162. Callahan, Raymond A., "Churchill: Retreat from Empire," Scholarly Resources Inc., Wilmington, 1984. Hitler, Adolf, "Mein Kampf," Reynal & Hitchcock, New York, 1941, pp.182-3.