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Seventy-Five Years Ago: The Holocaust in Hungary; November-December 1944 – Raiders & Rescuers.   Leave a comment

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The ‘Hungarista’ Horror:

Still inspired by the obsession of ultimate German victory, the reign of terror inflicted by the Arrow-Cross Party caused immense suffering to the people of ‘Hungaria United Ancient Lands’, as the new masters chose to call the country, practically confined to the capital and Transdanubia. Adolf Eichmann returned, and the Jewish population were now exposed to being systematically exterminated; despite acts of international and Hungarian solidarity, nearly half of the 200,000 Jews of the capital fell victim to horrible mass murder and few of the fifty thousand driven westwards in labour battalions survived. Among the Hungarian civilian population, in early November, armed Arrow Cross men, supporting the ‘Hungarista’ Szalási government, had begun murdering Jews from Budapest who had been sent to forced labour details in and surrounding the capital, on the roads into the city. In addition, large numbers of women and girls were assembled and systematically robbed, beaten and kicked in public.

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A Child Alone:

‘Daisy’ Birnbaum was just ten years old at the beginning of November 1944 when she wound up – alone – in a feather depot in Budapest. Her mother had had to report to the Óbuda brick factory, so she ‘placed’ Daisy with her uncle Dezső, because her father was away in the forced labour camp. Very soon, however, her uncle and his wife, Aunt Ida, sent her with an unfamiliar woman to the cellar of a pillow and duvet factory owned by one of their female friends. This woman was obviously Christian and she left a small basketful of food with Daisy and told her not to turn on the light since the cellar could be seen into from the street. The tiny windows did indeed look out into the street, showing the pavement under the feet of the people passing by. Her uncle and aunt were supposed to come by the evening, but they did not show up. As she later wrote:

Instead, there were innumerable rats, frolicking among the sacks and in the bales of feather. I was terribly scared and knew that I could not spend another night there. I decided to take my chances … and try to get back to my uncle’s apartment … to learn what had happened.

… My only worry was a possible air raid, because without Christian documents I would not have been permitted to enter the raid shelter, whereas no-one was supposed to be outside during a raid. There was no alarm, but – even worse – I suddenly spied a group of Arrow Cross thugs conducting a roundup, rather far away, but still on the next corner.

There was no way out. I had to continue. As if a miracle, an officer in uniform stepped out from a house. Without giving it a second thought, I walked up to him and asked if I could walk with him, because I was scared of a possible air raid. … I… mumbled something about having to pick up that basket, to give him a reason for my being in the street. He took my hand and told me that he was on a furlough from the front where he would return in a week and that he too had a wife and children in Debrecen, to which he could no longer travel, and therefore he too had been staying with relatives in Pest. By then we reached the group of Arrow Crossers. My new friend simply waved and we were immediately let through. At the next corner he said, “Well, good luck to you” and leaving me, turned into the side street.

I will never know whether he believed that I was really close to my destination, or saw through my ploy and decided to save me. I was ten years old … and, … in that fateful second, albeit rashly, I made one of the smartest decisions of my entire life.

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Daisy, as named on her letter of protection

Meanwhile, Daisy’s mother and other Jewish forced labourers at the brickworks were enduring appalling conditions. In his confidential two-page report to Geneva dated 11 November, the Red Cross delegate Friedrich Born described the Óbuda-Újlak brickworks, from his on-the-spot experiences, as a concentration camp. He said that the conditions beggared description, finding a crowd of five or six thousand starving Jewish prisoners in the open works yard, soaked to the skin and frozen to the marrow, in a totally apathetic and desperate condition. Some who had committed suicide lay on the ground. He asked where the group of people including twelve to fourteen-year-old boys were was being taken, and received a shocking reply from the Arrow-Cross guard: They’re going to be boiled down for soap!

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Vice-consul Lutz, attempting to release Swiss protégés, witnessed similar heart-rending scenes. He was profoundly shaken by the way in which many pleaded to be saved, and he saw the final flickerings of the will to live being snuffed out. Those who pushed forward were beaten with dog-whips until they lay with bleeding faces on the ground. Lutz and his wife, horrified at what they saw, could not help at all and were themselves threatened with weapons. In mid-November, Daisy’s mother returned to Pest and the two of them ended up in what had been a placement centre for housemaids, but whose function had changed to being a ‘refugee’ centre for women and children fleeing from the Germans, the Arrow-Cross and the Russians. Daisy and her mother had false Christian papers with false names that they had memorised, but none of the other new ‘tenants’ asked about the details of these ‘refugees from Nyírbátor’, a village or small town in north-eastern Hungary. A couple of days later, an elderly lady arrived and was assigned a bed and nightstand in the same room. She introduced herself, telling them that she had recently arrived from Nyírbátor, fleeing from the Russians. She also asked if there was a chapel in the building because she wanted to say her prayers. Daisy’s mother,

… with a knowing smile on her face, advised the woman that there was indeed a chapel in the basement, and that we too were from Nyírbátor. The poor woman turned pale, staggered slightly, and had to hold on to the iron rail of her bed. But she pulled herself together and said that my mother looked familiar, that they must have seen each other at home, perhaps in church. Even I found this statement silly, since even I knew that Nyírbátor was a village where, most probably, everybody knew one another. … Soon we were given dinner in the common dining hall, and after the meal, the lady went down to pray in the chapel. She returned shortly before the lights went out. … a soft but audible voice from her bed began to chant, “Shma Yisrael, Adonai elochenu…”

A few days after their arrival, a kindly woman began a conversation with Daisy, asking her questions about Nyírbátor and her family. Her mother had told her always to say that they used to live behind the Reformed Church, that her father was at the front and that they had left in order to escape the Russians. However, when it came to further details, she should always tell the truth about her life, to avoid contradicting herself. So, when the woman asked what she missed most from her old home, she mentioned her dolls’ house:

I supposed she thought it would make me feel good to talk about it and urged me to describe it. Slowly, I began telling her that the house had four rooms, a bedroom, a dining room, a living room and a nursery, describing the furniture … In the end, she exclaimed, “Then, this was like a genuine house.” I responded, “Indeed, I even placed the yellow star over the entrance.” I immediately realised what I had done and wished the earth would open and swallow me up. I was ashamed, and afraid of the danger I had brought upon us. But the woman did not say a word, as if she had not heard the last sentence. … It turned that she too was Jewish…

A week later, they became homeless again; we urgently abandoned the house, because someone denounced the manager, claiming that she was hiding Jews in the building, It took a long time, much after the war, until her mother was able to convince Daisy that the manager of the house was not denounced because of her description of the dolls’ house, complete with its yellow star.       

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As a novel form of murder, the party servicemen carried out group executions on the Danube embankment in the night. Incidents of the slaughter of Jews had occurred in October, but from the end of November, they became daily occurrences. People were murdered in the party houses, in the streets and squares of the city, occasionally in hospitals and flats, as well as on the banks of the Danube. It is almost inconceivable that while all this was happening, trams ran, cinema and places of entertainment opened and sporting events were reported in the papers, while in public parks, half-naked corpses could be seen and people were hanged with abusive placards around their necks. This latest form of group killing went on as long as the circumstances of the Soviet siege of Budapest permitted the banks of the river to be approached. At a cautious estimate, between 3,600 and 4,000 people were shot into the Danube.

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Daisy Birnbaum had a narrow escape from this fate, as recorded in an earlier article in this series. As her book recounts, she was accidentally thrown into a column of about thirty people marching toward the lower embankment of the Danube under the guns of two young Arrow Cross hoodlums. With the exception of her parents, she never mentioned this episode to anyone, but in 1996, when the Historical Atlas of the Holocaust first appeared (published by the Holocaust Memorial Museum of Washington), she found an annotated map showing the two spots on the Danube where the Jews were shot into the Danube (see map above). One was close to the Lánchíd (Chain Bridge), where the exhibit of shoes can be seen today, and the other was in Szent István Park, in the vicinity of the houses under international protection.

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The ‘Opposition’:

On 13 November, Edmund Veesenmayer, the ‘agent’ of the Reich in Budapest, reported to Berlin that around 27,000 Jews of both sexes, capable of walking and fit for work, had left on foot. He reckoned to be able to hand over further forty thousand for German purposes and would send them off in daily batches of two to four thousand. After that, it was estimated, 120,000 Jews would be left in Budapest, and their eventual fate would depend on the availability of transport. On 17 November, Danielsson and Angelo Rotta held talks with Szálasi. In a sharp tone, the Papal Nuncio enumerated staggering facts in defence of the Jews who were being forced onto such marches. The Prime Minister and Head of State denied the atrocities but was finally forced to promise to investigate them.

The Cardinal Primate of Hungary, Archbishop Jusztinián Serédi of Esztergom, a member of the upper house of parliament, repeatedly protested to Szálasi about the terror and the constant acts of cruelty. On 20 November, Szálasi – faced with a loud outcry – stopped the deportation of women on foot. If after that a lorry had been sent on an embassy errand and its load had not been confiscated by the Arrow-Cross, it may have helped the Jews of Budapest somewhat as they trudged towards the frontier. On 1 December, however, when Archbishop Serédi raised an objection to the taking of hostages and to the atrocities perpetrated on Jewish citizens, his intervention was brushed aside.

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Meanwhile, the Swedish Embassy had continued to play an important part in gathering together the forced labourers in possession of foreign protective passports or exemptions from the government. Colonel József Herbeck, whose name is preserved in Raoul Wallenberg’s extant notebook, generously arranged the matter. Wallenberg travelled by embassy car round the camps that were digging trenches outside the capital to ‘extricate’ the Jewish forced labourers, the number of whom grew rapidly. These ‘companies’ were under the protection of the Swedish, Swiss, Portuguese and Vatican embassies. Company 701 was attached to the Budapest army corps. Diplomatic notes were also used in the life-saving missions. In a ‘note verbale’ of 26 November to the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, the Swiss Embassy considered it important that…

… persons holding genuine emigration documents should not be taken to the Buda brickworks, and unauthorised persons should not be admitted to those houses which are under Swiss protection. 

The note made it clear, in diplomatic language, that directions on this subject to the Arrow-Cross Party would be most helpful. By then, however, the Germans needed every able-bodied man and Eichmann’s staff cared nothing for their protected status, simply grabbing them off the streets, with the aid once more of the Hungarian gendarmerie. The Óbuda-Újlak brick-works on Bécsi út served as a mustering point for the November deportation march to Hegyeshalom and the fortifications ordered by the Germans in western Hungary and on the frontier. The Arrow-Cross used several buildings on Teleki tér for the same purpose. From there, the forced labourers were quickly and frequently transported from nearby Józsefváros station. At the station, Veres took photographs from Wallenberg’s car. Meanwhile, Wallenberg himself would extract people one by one from the crowd. Wallenberg’s mobility by car in Budapest, and his appearance on the highway and at Hegyeshalom, also gave courage and endurance to Foreign Service officials charged with rescuing Jews.

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Wallenberg on the Road to Hegyeshalom:

On the road between Budapest and Hegyeshalom, he came to the aid of those forced on the deportation march and extricated holders of the Swedish protective document. In his book, Lévai tells of how, on the way, the Swedish secretary carried sacks and tinned food, unloading medicine for the sick and dying. At Mosonmagyaróvár he set up a first-aid post and a field kitchen. At Hegyeshalom he confronted the Arrow-Cross men, who terrorised even the gendarmesThe appearance on the road of foreign diplomats and their activity in helping Jews and rescuing them were reported to SS Obergruppenführer Ernst Kaltenbrunner, head of the Sicherheitspolizei and SD in Berlin. He was also informed that escorting units of the Hungarian army had respected letters of protection issued by the Swiss. In his compilation of documentary evidence regarding several actions, Árje Bresslauer has written:

Without the help and, most of all, the personal courage of Raoul Wallenberg we would not have been able to save the lives of so many of our fellow men. The same goes for our own work.

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One woman who constantly took an active part in the humanitarian work of the Swedish Embassy recalls: Swift decision, lightning action, coupled with keen perception and incredible stamina – such was Wallenberg. Likewise, some of the reports in Lévai’s book of Wallenberg’s activities are rather romanticised and exaggerated. The extant documents of the Hungarian Foreign Ministry contain a more believable account of the movements of Wallenberg and Per Anger on the road to Hegyeshalom on the 23rd-24th November. These are based on a memorandum that they themselves wrote for Baron Kemény, the Foreign Minister. It’s clear from their lines that they observed keenly the shocking sight of the deportation march, including the clothing, physical and spiritual conditions of the Jewish men, military labourers and displaced citizens of Budapest, mostly women, as they were led towards the frontier of the Reich. They refer to Gönyü, Mosonmagyaróvár and Hegyeshalom. It was at these sojourns that they were able to gather information on the circumstances of the eight-day November march. They stated that neither in Budapest nor at the hand-over at Hegyeshalom is 100% respect shown to foreign documents. In the context of an objective but no less shocking description of exhausted people reduced almost to a line of animals, they wrote that:

When the Commission tried to distribute among them some of its own provisions for the journey the crowd simply laid siege to them, people fought just to get the little packet of sandwiches. (It) was repeatedly denied permission to send lorries to feed the people, which only two days previously had been officially permissable.

The motorised life-saving on the Hegyeshalom road was in the historic trial of Adolf Eichmann, which took place in Jerusalem in April 1961. When the mass-murderer was called to account the charge stated that this relief operation in the autumn of 1944 had seriously irritated Eichmann, who had planned and organised the march. I’ll kill Wallenberg, this dog of the Jews, he had burst out, and the Foreign Ministry in Berlin had declared that the Swedish Embassy’s intervention in Jewish affairs is in all respects unlawful. On Wallenberg’s commission, Captain Gábor Alapy travelled a Steyr car with diplomatic markings and performed valuable and very risky life-saving work. In his reminiscences, he recalled how in Hegyeshalom they had managed, with Wallenberg’s help, to extricate another group and sent them back to Budapest. Wallenberg’s colleague Dr Iván Székely used an embassy car with Swedish markings in his rescue activity. In this, he went to workplaces and camps in the provinces and brought back to Budapest Jewish men who qualified as Swedish-protected in some way.  He went into several Arrow-Cross houses, and courageously appeared at the Józsefváros station, at Gestapo HQ on Svábhegy and elsewhere on behalf of protégés.

Rescuing the Jews of Budapest:

The rescue of Jews, or persons considered Jews, from deportation, known as ‘lending’ in the Szálasi period, was a hard and complex task. We can read in the registers of survivors made in 1945 that ‘sending them back’ unescorted was occasionally an exercise in futility. For example, Ferenc Weiss, who had been arrested in hiding, suffered imprisonment in the Csillag fortress at Komárom with a group of two hundred Jews. It members had been rescued from the deportation to Hegyeshalom by means of letters of protection, the arrested by the Arrow-Cross on the way back to Budapest. After they had been robbed they were deported as a ‘transport’ of the Sicherheitspolizei. Weiss and his companions reached Dachau camp by train on 28 November.

At dawn on 28 and 29 November, Hungarian Military Police with fixed bayonets appeared at the Jewish forced labourers’ barracks in Budapest and replaced the companies’ commanders. This was a tried and tested procedure, and without hindrance, the MPs escorted the companies of forced labourers, mostly two hundred strong, to be handed over to the SS at Ferencváros station. Among them now were those under Swedish ‘protection’. According to Jenő Lévai, Wallenberg somehow found out about this unexpected action, followed them in his little car and struggled all day to save them. His agents spent the time reading lists of names and identifying holders of Swedish documents torn up by the Arrow-Cross. He himself looked up the names in the embassy Schutz-Pass registers that were taken to the station. Those destined for deportation who were rescued that day were estimated at 411, while the number of ‘genuine Swedes’ came to 283, the remainder being ‘protégés’ of other embassies. This was reported to Theodor Dannecker, the very experienced officer of the Eichmann-Kommando, who had directed the mass transportation. He threatened Wallenberg with having his car smashed into. Wallenberg continued to drive out early in the morning to the Óbuda brick-works, in addition to appearing constantly on the Pest side and at Teleki tér on rescue missions.

By early December, Wallenberg had been in Budapest for six months and had a range of acquaintances and useful connections. His notebook was full of the names, addresses and telephone numbers of embassies and international aid organisations, and sometimes the contact details of those in charge of them, including Veesenmayer, the Reich’s representative, as well as Hungarian government leaders and high-ranking officials, leaders in public administration and the military, but not the names of leaders of the Hungarian churches. These last, with some notable exceptions, were incapable of responsibly assessing the inhuman, even murderous atmosphere in which they lived, which rejected the basic message of Christianity. Despite this, the spreading terror menaced the churches and their leaders in Budapest and the provinces just as it had the Jews.

Among Wallenberg’s new acquaintances were well-known journalists and newspaper leaders. His military contacts were mainly with those concerned with the Jewish forced labourers, some of which were in some way his ‘partners’ in matters to do with life-saving. Of those listed in his notebook, Lt. Col. Ferenczy frequently played a key role. Talks and negotiations with him and his immediate subordinates required a good deal of patience on the part of Wallenberg and his colleagues. He also noted down a number of the members of the Szálasi government. In addition, he listed numerous Jewish leaders and institutions. He included the telephone numbers of hospitals since he considered the assistance of these among his tasks, especially during the reign of the Arrow-Cross. In his memorandum of 1 December, he set out the unvarnished reality of the Arrow-Cross hegemony:

He sees his task rendered more difficult … he has to state with sincere regret that members of staff of the Royal Swedish Embassy and its protégés alike are constantly subjected a variety of atrocities. 

Even in the case of protected Jews, the threat was immediate, and for that reason, new protective passports were being distributed to those who had not yet received them and to persons of Jewish origin to whom Swedish interests are linked. He reported, without reference to previous talks or limits, the embassy has issued altogether 7,500 protective passports in this way.

The Battle for Zugló:

In the Zugló district of Budapest, a number of startling cases of persecution and rescued occurred. In the winter of 1944, several dozen Jews were hidden in the corner building of the Sisters of Social Service, with its tower, everywhere from the cellar to the attic. Raoul Wallenberg saved the convent, led by Margit Schlachta, and those hidden there. He arrived by car during an Arrow-Cross raid in response to a telephone request, accompanied by a man in army uniform. The convent was surrounded by the Arrow-Cross who had established their district headquarters on the opposite side of Thököly út. An eye-witness reported that Wallenberg glanced across at the convent and then hurried into the Arrow-Cross house:

We don’t know what was said in there, because then Wallenberg came out, got in his car and was immediately driven away. But all the Arrow-Cross men left the convent straight away…     

But other holders of Swedish letters of protection in the district were arrested by the Arrow-Cross, taken to the Danube Embankment and shot. The local Arrow-Cross chief László Szelepcsényi ordered the party servicemen to deny ‘the action’ should there be an enquiry from the embassy. In fact, when the embassy official protested on another occasion, Szelepcsényi ordered sanctioned the massacre of a group of Swedish-protected persons with a gesture of dismissal, maintaining his original position that all who held protective documents had succeeded in obtaining such protection either with their wealth or by conspiring with the enemy. The murderous intent of the Arrow-Cross in Zugló was proved by the fact that shortly afterwards, on the night of 28 November, they hung the bodies of ten Jews who had been shot after interrogation under torture in the party house cellar, head downwards on the convent fence. This appalling sight evoked horror in passers-by. Seventeen Jews were taken from a ‘protected house’ to the party house. The armed party servicemen did not regard the Jews being driven to their deaths as human beings and when tried twelve years later, they admitted to between a thousand and twelve hundred murders.

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In Zugló, a mass life-saving action took place under the leadership of Captain László Ocskay, who had been re-activated from the retired list. The veteran First World War officer, aged fifty-one and closely connected to Wallenberg (with whom he had a meeting on 8 December) sheltered his protégés in an area which constituted a battle-ground between the bloodthirsty Arrow-Cross and the opposition facing them. At the request of his Jewish friends, Ocskay undertook the command of a Jewish labour company, whose ‘cover’ activity was the collection of clothing. This was a front for the Veterans’ Commission (HB), an active association of Jews who had fought in the First World War and when Hungary entered the second had begun collecting clothing for those in the labour corps, who served in their own civilian clothes. After the German occupation, its work extended to the Jews carrying out military work designated by the Hungarian and German authorities. Through the use of Captain Ocskay’s connections members of this unit had avoided deportation and were moved from Dohány utca in central Pest to Zugló, to the building of the Pest Israelite Faith Community Boys and Girls School, which had surrendered its premises to the International Red Cross in November in return for a guarantee of protection.

During the new wave of persecution, the manufacture of small items of military equipment, including clothing, the making and mending of boots, the collecting of worn equipment and its renovation offered many people a more or less secure refuge. They hoped that in the workshops in the Jewish school they would escape the fate intended for them, despatch to the death-camps. The workers were mainly those of the wives and female relatives of the forced labourers. Captain Ocskay authorised their employment, and by these means legalised the residence in the Zugló area of many famous Hungarian artists, musicians, dramatists, writers, translators and journalists. Many from the world of sport also found shelter. Members of the world-famous Hungarian water-polo team were forced into hiding, as was the three-times Olympic fencing champion Endre Kabos. In the immediate neighbourhood of Ocskay’s house in central Budapest, a ‘foreign worker’ company was established in early November. A Red Cross depot also moved into Benczúr utca, where a flag and a wooden plaque indicated the presence and ownership of the International Red Cross. In these ways, a base was established for the ‘protected’ Jewish forced labourers who had been extricated from deportation and to legalise the presence and movement of those in hiding or working in the collection and repair of clothing.

The development of tricks and tactics of survival were essential because the Arrow-Cross men spurned all legality and the admonitions of their superiors and engaged in widespread man and woman hunts. They picked people up at will and murdered them, putting several of their victims on public display in the squares and streets in order to intimidate.  At the end of November and in early December the Zugló detachment of the Arrow-Cross made an attempt to settle accounts with the Red Cross refuge in the Jewish School. They stormed the building and swarmed over it, though those living there were able to telephone Ocskay. He appeared after half an hour with a German Army motor-cycle escort which succeeded in driving off the ‘trouble-makers’. After that, a German guard ensured that ‘war-production’ was undisturbed. During these difficult, tragic weeks, fifteen hundred people lived in the school in fear of daily air-raids and Arrow-Cross massacres. Ocskay’s tactics were ultimately successful. Under the Arrow-Cross régime deportations by cattle-truck continued until Budapest was surrounded by the Soviets, but Ocskay’s protégés and members of the Labour Company 101/359, hidden in the ‘war factory’, escaped.

The Establishment of the Ghettoes:

But during Advent, the ‘Hungarista’ authorities continued to be unrestrainable and arrogant. On 10 December, on Szálasi’s orders, designated streets of central Pest, mostly occupied by Jews, became in their entirety Europe’s last Jewish ghetto. The quarter was marked off by wooden barricades and comprised 0.3 square km of the 207 square km of the capital. It was divided into zones, and the four gates were guarded by uniformed police and armed Arrow-Cross men. The Jews forced into the ghetto, officially 52,688, including 5,730 children, at the beginning of 1945, led a miserable existence, struggling to survive and crammed together in 243 apartment houses, including the cellars and wood-stores. Two of the leaders of the ghetto, Miksa Domonkos and Zoltán Rónai, displayed a Swedish Embassy work permit, according to which they had been on the permanent staff there since 30 November and a repatriation section of the Swedish Red Cross. With Wallenberg’s license, they saved numerous lives. On 2 December, Rónai acted successfully on behalf of the Olympic champion Alfréd Hajós, his family and close relations. Hajós later testified how Rónai had appeared in the central ghetto, as a man of authority. He had the Hajós family assembled by roll-call in the courtyard of the apartment house and marched them off with loud words of command:

He fooled the police and the Arrow-Cross guards by turning up unexpectedly and behaving like a policeman. That’s how he pulled off our escape.

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The protection of the international, or ‘foreign’ ghetto, which had already come into being in mid-November, meant a new task for the Hungarian gendarme detachment under Captain Parádi, who had assisted Wallenberg from early November in his confrontations with the Arrow-Cross. Jews holding protective documents or passports or protection from the neutral nations had had to move there, but they had little peace, as they quickly became the targets of Arrow-Cross thefts and murders. Police or gendarme activity resulted in the saving of many lives every evening, but there were also unsuccessful actions. At the end of November, Parádi was unable to get into Józsefváros station to perform a rescue because, on this occasion, the Germans would not let him in. He aided the protection of Jewish orphanages and refuges and also provided protection for Raoul Wallenberg on his ever more hazardous car journeys. Another outstanding personality in the Hungarian resistance was Staff-Captain Zoltán Mikó, who was later shot by the Soviet terror authorities. He placed at Wallenberg’s disposal gendarmes who provided food and medicines. Before Christmas, he deposited certain papers in bank vaults, including documents on the underground resistance organisations in Poland.

The Rescuers:

In the winter of 1944, Per Anger was also involved in various risky affairs. In racing against time to save life hesitation and delay were out of the question. One night the attaché, responding to a call from Wallenberg’s secretary, undertook to see to the rescue of seven people who had been snatched in Buda:

At the time I had a Steyr car, and she and I went in that. I went into the robbers’ den and began talking to the chief. He was the sort of man that it didn’t do to shout at. Instead I behaved very courteously …

The terrifying conversation was not without its psychological elements and was successful. In the end, the Arrow-Cross man handed over the Swedish protégés – absolutely shattered, injured, bleeding and terrified – against an embassy acknowledgement of receipt. Anger continued his report:

I stood them in line. ‘Quick march,’ I gave the order, and out we went past the lads at the door with their sub-machine guns. I don’t know how, but we squeezed all seven into the car and drove off. I remember having to drive in first gear to Wallenberg’s house otherwise the car wouldn’t have stood the weight.

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In stories of Wallenberg’s appearances on the spot and rescue operations, the name of Vilmos Langfelder (above) often crops up in recollections from mid-December on. The situation of the time and the courageous nature of the rescue operations were graphically summarised by Nina Langlet:

We discovered that the Arrow-Cross were out to get us.Wallenberg, my husband and I therefore became persecuted, and could have reckoned on being snatched on the pretext of questioning and shot in the back of the head. We tried not to think about it and did our best to go on working.

Wallenberg’s intimate associate Hugó Wohl related the events of a rescue on the night of 13 December when at two in the morning, they were informed by telephone that there was trouble at the Swedish Red Cross:

I immediately informed Wallenberg at his home in Buda. Half an hour later he appeared in his car, escorted by his driver Vilmos Langfelder, that loyal, decent engineer, who was for weeks his conscientious tool in the hard work of rescuing people day and night.

Wohl went with Wallenberg and on his orders, he and the driver stayed in the car. When he came back he told them what he had done and told Langfelder to take the car a little further and ‘hide with it’ so that they could tell whether the Arrow-Cross would keep their word. He recalled:

The engine started up quietly, and we waited on the corner of Revicky utca. Suddenly we saw a group of men come out, get into a big police car that was standing waiting outside the house, and drive off. On Wallenberg’s orders we began to follow them, hanging as far back as possible, to see if they were taking the protected persons to the international ghetto in Pozsonyi út.

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György Libik refers to the combination of caution and courage shown by the Swedish Secretary when assisting the occupants of a protected house which was being stormed by the Arrow-Cross. Langfelder was out on another mission so that Per Anger took Wallenberg over Andrássy út into Benczúr utca in his DKW at the time of the nocturnal rescue. Wallenberg did not allow Libik near the building, sending him a hundred metres further on:

He asked me to wait outside; there would be nothing I could do to help, but if anything were to happen  I would at least be able to take back word; we shall get nowhere in this by force, only get myself and them in trouble; I was to take it easy, he would sort it out. 

Decades later, the Hungarian resistance activist continued to admire Wallenberg’s intervention, finding it embarrassing that a foreigner, a Swede, could be a more humane person and a better Hungarian than we. The Calvinist minister József Éliás, who made an important contribution to the rescue of the Jews of Budapest, also spoke of Wallenberg’s cautious nature. On one occasion he arrived unannounced to meet the pastor since he did not want to use the telephone in case it was tapped.

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The Swiss and the Swedes under attack:

Vice-consul Carl Lutz wrote in a situation report dated 8 December that he had had to stop his car on a busy bridge. It was immediately surrounded by an unruly, hostile, whistling crowd. He had to endure his country and its embassy being abused. Curses were hurled, including Jew-loving Swiss rubbish, get out of Budapest! The Swiss diplomat Harald Feller also suffered the depravity and blood-lust of the Arrow-Cross. His movements were watched and he was threatened, and on 29 December was stopped on Rákoczi út. The diplomat produced his authority from Lt. General Vitéz Iván Hindy, permitting him to travel without restriction. This official document made no impression as Feller, Baroness Katalin Perényi and an embassy employee were marched off to Arrow-Cross house on Andrássy út amid furious shouts, heated cries of “Jews” and curses. Feller was stripped “to check whether he was a Jew” and beaten up. They were told that they would soon be done for and were locked in an ice-cold larder for five hours and finally taken out into the courtyard and again threatened with being shot. Humiliated and tormented, they were eventually released.

While violence raged unchecked, Gábor Vajna, Minister for the Interior, called on Himmler. The minutes for 10 December show that on most points the head of the SS in the Reich urged one of the leaders of grave atrocities and organised massacres to even harsher measures. Vajna gave a detailed account of the solution of the Jewish question in Hungary. He drew up a list of the Jews still to be found in Hungary:

Approximately 120,000 Jews in the (central) ghetto.

18,000 in the ‘foreign’ ghetto.

There were still protected Jews, against whom – even before they went to Germany – measures had been instituted.

Jews in hiding in the provinces, number unknown.

Jews granted exemption, approximately 1,000.

Half- and quarter- Jews, numbers unknown.

Seventy-eight Jewish labour companies, each 200 strong, were on their way to the Reich.

Vajna pointed out to the head of the SS in the Reich that recently the Germans, especially Veesenmayer, had not been accepting old and young Jews for labour. In contrast, the Szálasi government was working towards the total removal of Jews from the country. According to the record, Himmler agreed that, on his intervention, that a new chapter would open. In February 1946, Vajna lied to a Hungarian court that he had discussed, in Berlin, the transportation of Jews with Swiss and Swedish letters of protection to Sweden and Switzerland. The Hungarian Jews “could be grateful” to him for not letting the Germans take them out of the country.

At the end of December, a howling Arrow-Cross mob drove the Swedish diplomat Yngve Ekmark, together with the female employees Bauer and Nilsson, into the Radetzky Barracks in Buda. For hours they stood facing the wall, to make them give away the whereabouts of ambassador Danielsson’s home. As they did not know, the two women were dragged over to the central Pest ghetto from where Friedrich Born, the International Red Cross representative, released them. Neither were personalities in the churches spared this sort of intimidation. Jews were hunted day and night and faith organisations were raided more and more often. On 27 December, Sára Salkaházi, a member of the Sisters of Social Service, was shot into the Danube together with her three denounced protégés and the religious teacher Vilma Bernovits.

Protecting the Children:

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The survival of children was, of course, a top priority for the rescuers, and deserves more attention from historians. Daisy Birnbaum’s eye-witness accounts provide a useful primary source in this respect. Wallenberg himself kept a watchful eye on the fate of the orphaned, abused Jewish children. His appearance by car and decisive measures that he took to rescue them are gratefully remembered to this day. Eleven-year-old Vera Kardós and her family had been evicted from their Buda home and were crowded with relatives in the starred house at Csáki utca 14. Her father László Kardos and her family had been kidnapped by the Arrow-Cross on 21 October and was never seen again. They had moved the little girl with her mother and uncle, a forced labourer who enjoyed Swedish protection, over the Danube to work at the notorious Óbuda brickworks. They were enabled, however, to return and find refuge in the Swedish protected house at Katona József utca 21. But they were not left in peace there either, for in an Arrow-Cross raid late at night on 30 December all the occupants, 170 in all, were ordered out into the street, made to undress and shot in groups into the Danube. According to the memoir Wallenberg was informed, and after he arrived the killing stopped. Vera and her mother escaped, but her uncle was killed. After that, they huddled together on an iron bed in a Swiss protected house in Hollán utca. Even there, an Arrow-Cross attack and line-up took place, but by that time Vera was in a Red Cross children’s home. Her mother and two other women escaped as the group was marched off, and after that, she had to find a new refuge every evening. Mother and daughter were eventually reunited under Swedish protection when a heating failure caused the children’s home to be evacuated.

Another memoir, that of Naomi Gur, tells us how their large family was split up in December 1944. Her father was taken to a labour camp and one of his friends obtained a Swiss letter of protection, so the five of them were camping on the floor of a crowded flat in a Swiss ‘protected house’. But an identity check by the SS and Arrow-Cross and all of their letters of protection were declared as forgeries. The little girl was left alone in the house as the other four members of the family were taken outside. She rushed weeping into the street and ran along the long column of Jews, calling out and looking for her mother, who was expecting the worst and so told the policeman escorting the column, this little girl’s gone mad: She thinks I’m her mother, but I’m not… Shoo her off! The policeman ‘obliged’ and the girl made her way back to the flat. The next day there was another raid, this time conducted only by the Arrow-Cross who wasted no time on another identity check but drove everybody into the courtyard and from there into the street. The assembled people were led to the Danube bank. Naomi recalled:

There were a lot of people, there was shoving and noise and it was freezing cold. I was standing there all by myself when a tall man appeared wearing a coat with the collar turned up. He was different from the others. He called out for any with Swedish letters of protection to say so. I knew that one of my aunts, Klára, had one, so I went up to him and told him her name.

I meant to say that I was talking about my aunt, but I couldn’t. The man looked at a piece of paper that he was holding , and said “That’s you.” He didn’t ask, just announced, and I answered ‘Yes’. I was a skinny little thing with pigtails, but my aunt was a married woman. The Arrow-Cross man by him asked for my papers. I hadn’t got them any more, but I looked in my bag. Then the Arrow-Cross man’s name must have been called on the loud-hailer, because he went away. First he said to me, ‘Find your papers. I’ll be back’.

As he turned, … Wallenberg almost grabbed me and rushed with me to the car. He pushed in and off we went straight away. 

I later found out that everybody on the riverside that time was either shot into the Danube or deported. … I’m sure that a miracle happened to me. There was a man who risked his life for me. Since then I’ve believed that everybody can do something of value, and that’s what makes life worthwhile.

It’ll always cause me pain that I did nothing to save Wallenberg.

In the final weeks of December, the armed Arrow-Cross mercilessly and pitilessly assaulted even the children’s homes maintained by the Swedish Red Cross. Wallenberg’s colleagues intervened several times in defence of the children and their carers, rescuing them all over the city. At midday on the 23rd, he tried personally to discover the whereabouts of the children that had been taken from the Swedish children’s home at Szent István körút 29 and of the Swedish Red Cross official Ferenc Schiller who had vanished with them. Per Anger, Vilmos Langfelder and the Swedish Secretary himself set off in Wallenberg’s car, with Langfelder driving. They first called in the Castle District in Buda, at the Foreign Ministry and then went on to see Péter Hain at ‘the Majestic’ on Svábhegy. Hain’s deputy, detective superintendent László Koltay met them there. They also went to the Papal Nuncio’s office, then back to the Foreign Ministry and on to the Buda home of Carl Lutz before going via Wallenberg’s home to the Arrow-Cross bases and the National Unit for Accountability HQ. He stepped unhesitatingly into the lions’ den, a risky business nonetheless. What happened was detailed by a colleague:

Afterwards Wallenberg actually confessed to me in the car that Lutz had told him beforehand that … the Arrow-Cross wanted to have action taken against foreign diplomats by the staff at the National Unit for Accountability HQ.

Both the Swedish Embassy and the International Red Cross were firmly opposed to orphaned children in care being moved from suburban children’s homes into the central ghetto. The Spanish Embassy too had a Hungarian organisation for extricating minors, which continued to function. They used their cars for unofficial rescue work, especially that conducted by their chargé d’affaires, Ángel Sanz-Briz (who left Budapest on 29 November) and his Italian assistant Giorgio Perlasca, together with a few courageous Hungarian Jews, the most zealous of whom was the legal advisor, Dr Zoltán Farkas. Perlasca and Farkas discussed what lies should be told to the Arrow-Cross about personal connections with Spain and how the Spanish-protected houses were to be supplied and supervised. In order to deceive the Arrow-Cross, Perlasca, who worked as a food salesman, became Spanish on paper and used the tactic of driving several times each day to see his protégés. In his notes, he wrote that:

To make my visits even more noticeable I go in the big Ford, on which there is, naturally, a Spanish flag. I chat with the officers on duty and give them presents.

In the ‘nick of time’:

Perlasca and his colleagues drove a five-seater American Buick with CD plates. His active assistant in rescue operations, Frenchman Gaston Tourne, regarded that as an essential means not just of transport but also of offsetting personal risk. On 31 December, just after delivering food, the Buick was damaged beyond repair by the blast from a bomb. Perlasca had some luck on his rescue missions and those whom he supported were certain that he would appear in his car in the nick of time and save those that needed help. By the end of 1944, the Arrow-Cross were hunting him too, and he required the protection of the gendarmerie. Four well-armed gendarmes guarded the embassy building and others defended him from possible attacks whether he went on foot or by car.

A certain distance had been developing between Wallenberg and the Swedish embassy organisation by mid-December. Giorgio Perlasca had noted that on 14 December he could scarcely contact the Swedish diplomats. He repeatedly had the same answer to telephone calls, that either there was no-one in the building or that they were terribly busy. He criticised Danielsson severely, as in his view when so many people expected him to free them he could not just run away, but added that doesn’t apply to Wallenberg, who’s been trying to do everything possible and impossible to help the unfortunate. On 24 December, a Sunday, the Arrow-Cross attacked the Jewish boys and girls orphanage, the children’s refuge.  The International Red Cross flag and the sign indicating protection meant nothing to them. They plundered it on the pretext of an identity check. Several, including children, were shot in the rooms, the courtyard and in the street, by way of intimidation. The desperate but inventive Jewish manager ran down the street with a Christmas tree on his shoulder, in order somehow to inform Wallenberg, who had left the embassy for the Déli (Southern) station because he had heard that a deportation train was being dispatched.

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The rescue operations were also affected by the fact that from 24 December the Hungarian capital was completely surrounded by Soviet forces. The fighting in the air and on the streets was becoming increasingly intense adding to the many sufferings that afflicted the civilian population both in physical and spiritual terms. At this period, during the siege, air-raids and shelling presented a constant danger to traffic. It cannot be ruled out that the security forces would if given the order, have performed a ‘professional’ liquidation of Wallenberg and Langfelder while they were driving around the capital. One of the driving assistants, Tivadar Jobbágy, became a victory of military activity, though not while driving. From Gábor Forgacs’s memoirs we can read:

On 24 December 1944 I was in the Swedish embassy office at Üllői út 2-4 from half past three to half past five. Then the red Studebaker, driven by Tivadar Jobbágy, took Vilmos Forgács, Hugó Wohl and their wives to the Hazai Bank premises at Harmincad utca 6. As Jobbágy’s wife was pregnant, Langfelder took the car over. The Jobbágyes were staying there with other people in hiding. Nine days later shrapnel penetrated the drawn blind  and Jobbágy, who was standing nearby, received fatal injuries. 

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Some of the children that had been turned out of the orphanage were shot the next day by the Arrow-Cross on the Danube embankment in Lipótváros or Újpest. By this time, they were having to conserve ammunition, so they stood several children one behind the other in order to use fewer bullets. Several of the children were not hit or jumped into the river before being shot and swam down the river to the bank by the Parliament building where they climbed out and survived. On the same day, Christmas Day, the Arrow-Cross attacked the Finnish and Swedish embassies. The rabble that went with them vented their spleen in unrestrained acts of robbery and destruction. One of the embassy drivers turned out to be a traitor to the rescue work, a snivelling, low-down type, as he was described by Nina Langlet. She claimed that he was in touch with the German secret police as an undercover informant. On 25 December, after the Arrow-Cross attack on the Swedish mission, he smiled with satisfaction at the sight of the plundered offices. Her feeling was that he was playing along with the SS and the Arrow-Cross and had stolen property deposited with the embassy.

Christmas Present:

Wallenberg’s Hungarian colleagues expressed their affection and regard for him with a Christmas present. They had made a hand-painted coloured album for him entitled, in German, The Schutzpass in the History of Art, a Collection of Reproductions. When Wallenberg appeared in his storm-coat and boots he was surprised to receive the forty-five-page compilation with lively drawings of the Schutzpass in historical settings. The gift contained nineteen full-page illustrations in colour and, as an endpiece, there was a Christmas elegy by Dr Péter Sugár about the Swedish letter of protection, written in excellent, erudite German. In the final section it expressed the hopes of Wallenberg’s protégés:

Though dark our heaven, the star gleams there above.

Now let us cheer him, the man who has brought peace 

To us, and has defended us.

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There are many records of the last days of 1944 in the archives of the German Embassy in Budapest. On 28 December, counsellor Gerhart Feine, one of the embassy staff sent from Budapest to Szombathely, telegraphed to Berlin. He gave an account of the advance of the Soviet motorised units and the capture of the Danube bend at Esztergom by the enemy. Also, he provided details of the Soviet encirclement of the capital. The military attaché at the embassy informed Berlin of German counter-attacks, their purpose, according to the reports, being to maintain contact with Budapest “in all circumstances”. He stated that the Japanese chargé d’affaires had been trapped in the siege and was delayed and that the whereabouts of the Turkish embassy secretary was, for the time being, unknown. He was also aware that Szálasi’s Foreign Minister, Gábor Vajna, had left the city ‘in good time’.

017Gerhart Feine had received information that the Swedish ambassador had gone into hiding in Budapest, his whereabouts unknown. He had also learnt that Wallenberg had placed himself under the protection of the Waffen SS, in connection with certain actions of the Hungarian police and the Arrow-Cross. Wallenberg and Langfelder were spending most of their nights at Captain Ocskay’s apartment. The company commander who had saved 1,500 Jews in Abonyi utca had German military credentials. On 30 December, Wallenberg took part in an official inspection with Dr Pál Hegedűs in the Jewish Council office in the big ghetto, together with police officers and representatives of the local government. Pál Szalai, who had offered Wallenberg secret and effective assistance in preventing any more Arrow-Cross atrocities, was also present. He proposed that Wallenberg should have food and raw materials delivered to the occupants of the ghetto as well as to the public kitchens of the city. On leaving the ghetto, the two men went to inspect the food stocks accumulated by the Swedish Embassy in the warehouse of the Stühmer chocolate factory. This stock, together with that of the Red Cross, helped to provide the two ghettoes with enough food to survive the siege.

The Hungarian staff of the Swedish Embassy’s humanitarian mission were, by now, almost all on the Pest side of the city and their offices had moved to Üllői út, one of the main roads into the city centre. But Wallenberg had also rented a number and variety of properties, parts of apartment houses, offices and flats in a number of places. In the ‘pressure cooker’ atmosphere created by the Arrow-Cross Terror and the Soviet Siege, the embassy staff were now exposed to even greater danger and, to a greater extent, to the vagueries of a war on two ‘fronts’ within the city. This was further complicated by the contrasting cowardice of the Hungarian political élite and the treachery of the Hungarian military staff as well as the stupid expectation of a miracle in which the Szálasi government persisted to the end and in parallel with Hitler, all of which led to the downfall, pillaging and devastation of Hungary.

Sources:

László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz Publishing House.

Marianna D. Birnbaum (2015), 1944: A Year Without Goodbyes. Budapest: Corvina.

Szabolcs Szita (2012), The Power of Humanity: Raoul Wallenberg and his Aides in Budapest. Budapest: Corvina.

 

Seventy-Five Years Ago – The Second World War, East & West; November-December 1944 – The Battle of the Bulge & Roads to Berlin.   Leave a comment

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Undiplomatic ‘Moves’:

In the month following the Second Quebec Conference of 12th-16th September 1944, there was a storm of protest about the Morgenthau Plan, a repressive measure against Germany which Stalin craved. Although he was not present in person at Quebec, Stalin was informed about the nature and detail of the proposals. On 18 October, the Venona code-breakers had detected a message from an economist at the War Production Board to his Soviet spymasters that outlined the plan. This was that:

The Rühr should be wrested from Germany and handed over to the control of some international council. Chemical, metallurgical and electrical industries must be transported out of Germany.

The US Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, was appalled that Morgenthau had been allowed to trespass so blatantly on an area of policy that did not belong to him, and also that the proposed plan would, in his judgment, so clearly result in the Germans resisting more fiercely. With his health failing, Hull resigned in November 1944. The American press was just as antagonistic. Both the New York Times and Washington Post attacked the plan as playing into the hands of the Nazis. And in Germany, the proposals were a gift for Joseph Goebbels, who made a radio broadcast in which he announced:

In the last few days we have learned enough about the enemy’s plans, … The plan proposed by that Jew Morgenthau which would rob eighty million Germans of their industry and turn Germany into a simple potato field.

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Roosevelt was taken aback by the scale of the attack on the Morgenthau Plan, realizing that he had misjudged the mood of his own nation, a rarity for him, and allowed a Nazi propaganda triumph. The Plan for the complete eradication of German industrial production capacity in the Ruhr and the Saar was quietly dropped in the radical form in which it had originally been proposed at Quebec, although the punitive philosophy underpinning it later found expression in the Joint Chiefs of Staff directive 1067, which stated that occupation forces should take no steps looking toward the economic rehabilitation of Germany or designed to maintain or strengthen the German economy. At the same time, Roosevelt, comfortably re-elected on 7 November, confidently replied to Mikolajczyk, the Polish PM in exile, who had accused him of bad faith over the future of his country, that if a mutual agreement was reached on the borders of Poland, then his government would offer no objection. Privately, however, the US President considered the European questions so impossible that he wanted to stay out of them as far as practicable, except for the problems involving Germany. Reading between the lines, Mikolajczyk decided that he had heard and seen enough of the West’s unwillingness to face Stalin down. He resigned on 24 November. Just days after his resignation, Churchill confirmed his support for Roosevelt’s ‘line’. He told the Cabinet that:

No immediate threat of war lay ahead of us once the present war was over and we should be careful of assuming commitments consequent on the formation of a Western bloc that might impose a very heavy military burden on us.

Although his views about the stability of the post-war world were still capable of changing, Churchill felt that, on balance, the Soviet Union would prove a genuinely cooperative member of the international community and he returned from Moscow in an upbeat mood. He wrote to his wife Clementine that he had had …

… very nice talks with the old Bear … I like him the more I see him. Now they respect us and I am sure they wish to work with us.

Over the next few months, however, Stalin’s actions on the eastern front would shatter Churchill’s hopes. On 24 November, the Soviets had established a bridgehead over the Danube and a month later, on Christmas Eve, they were encircling Budapest. Defending Hungary accounted for seven of the eighteen Panzer divisions still available to Hitler on the Eastern Front, a massive but necessary commitment.  Dismantled factory equipment, cattle, and all things moveable were dragged away by the retreating German forces, now mainly interested in entrenching themselves along the western borders of Hungary, leaving it for Szálasi to win time for them. The Leader of the Nation announced total mobilisation, in principle extending to all men between the ages of fourteen and seventy. He rejected appeals from Hungarian ecclesiastical leaders to abandon Budapest after it had been surrounded by the Soviet forces by Christmas 1944. The senseless persistence of the Arrow-Cross and the Germans resulted in a siege of over one and a half months, with heavy bombardment and bitter street warfare, a ‘second Stalingrad’, as recalled in several German war memoirs. The long siege of Budapest and its fall, with an enormous loss of life, occupy an outstanding place in world military history. Only the sieges of Leningrad (St Petersburg), (Volgograd) and the Polish capital Warsaw, similarly reduced to rubble, are comparable to it.

‘Autumn Mist’ in the Ardennes:

Meanwhile, on the Western Front, Allied hopes that the war might be over in 1944, which had been surprisingly widespread earlier in the campaign, were comprehensively extinguished. By mid-November, Eisenhower’s forces found themselves fighting determined German counter-attacks in the Vosges, Moselle and the Scheldt and at Metz and Aachen. Hoping to cross the Rhine before the onset of winter, which in 1944/5 was abnormally cold, the American Allied commander-in-chief unleashed a massive assault on 16 November, supported by the heaviest aerial bombing of the whole war so far, with 2,807 planes dropping 10,097 bombs in ‘Operation Queen’. Even then, the US First and Ninth Armies managed to move forward only a few miles, up to but not across the Rühr river. Then, a month later, just before dawn on Saturday, 16 December 1944, Field Marshal von Rundstedt unleashed the greatest surprise attack of the war since Pearl Harbor. In Operation Herbstnebel (‘Autumn Mist’), seventeen divisions – five Panzer and twelve mechanized infantry – threw themselves forward in a desperate bid to reach first the River Meuse and then the Channel itself. Instead of soft autumnal mists, it was to be winter fog, snow, sleet and heavy rain that wrecked the Allies’ aerial observation, denying any advance warning of the attack. Similarly, Ultra was of little help in the early stages, since all German radio traffic had been strictly ‘verboten’ and orders were only passed to corps commanders by messenger a few days before the attack.

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Suddenly, on 16 December, no fewer than three German Armies comprising 200,000 men spewed forth from the mountains and forests of the Ardennes. Generals Rundstedt and Model had opposed the operation as too ambitious for the Wehrmacht’s resources at that stage, but Hitler believed that he could split the Allied armies north and south of the Ardennes, protect the Rühr, recapture Antwerp, reach the Channel and, he hoped, re-create the victory of 1940, and all from the same starting point. Rundstedt later recalled that:

The morale of the troops taking part was astonishingly high at the start of the offensive. They really believed victory was possible. Unlike the higher commanders, who knew the facts.

The German disagreements over the Ardennes offensive were three-fold and more complex than Rundstedt and others made out after the war. Guderian, who was charged with opposing the Red Army’s coming winter offensive in the east, did not want any offensive in the west, but rather the reinforcement of the Eastern Front, including Hungary. Rundstedt, Model, Manteuffel and other generals in the west wanted a limited Ardennes offensive that knocked the Allies off balance and gave the Germans the chance to rationalize the Western Front and protect the Rühr. Meanwhile, Hitler wanted to throw the remainder of Germany’s reserves into a desperate attempt to capture Antwerp and destroy Eisenhower’s force in the west. As usual, Hitler took the most extreme and thus riskiest path, and as always he got his way. He managed to scrape up a reserve of twenty-five divisions, which he committed to the offensive in the Ardennes. General Model was given charge of the operation and planned it well: when the attack went in against the Americans it was a complete surprise. Eisenhower, for his part, had left the semi-mountainous, heavily wooded Ardennes region of Belgium and Luxembourg relatively undermanned. He did this because he had been receiving reports from Bradley stating that a German attack was only a remote possibility and one from Montgomery on 15 December claiming that the enemy cannot stage major offensive operations. Even on 17 December, after the offensive had begun, Major-General Kenneth Strong, the Assistant Chief of Staff (Intelligence) at SHAEF, produced his Weekly Intelligence Summary No. 39 which offered the blithe assessment that:

The main result must be judged, not by the ground it gains, but by the number of Allied divisions it diverts from the vital sectors of the front.

For all the dédácle of 1940, the Ardennes seemed uninviting for armoured vehicles, and important engagements were being fought to the north and south. With Wehrmarcht movements restricted to night-time, and the Germans instituting elaborate deception plans, the element of surprise was complete. Although four captured German POWs spoke of a big pre-Christmas offensive, they were not believed by Allied intelligence. Only six American divisions of 83,000 men protected the sixty-mile line between Monschau in the north and Echternach in the south, most of them under Major-General Troy Middleton of VIII Corps. They comprised green units such as the 106th Infantry Division that had never seen combat before, and the 4th and 28th Infantry Divisions that had been badly mauled in recent fighting and were recuperating.

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The attack took place through knee-high snow, with searchlights bouncing beams off the clouds to provide illumination for the troops. Thirty-two English-speaking German soldiers under the Austrian Colonel Otto Skorzeny were dressed in American uniforms in order to create confusion behind the lines. Two of the best German generals, Dietrich and Monteuffel led the attacks in the north and centre respectively, with the Seventh Army providing flank protection to the south. As the panzers raced for the Meuse and the Allies desperately searched for the troops they needed to rebuild their line, both armies wondered if Hitler had managed to bring off a stunning ‘blitz’ yet again. Yet even the seventeen divisions were not enough to dislodge the vast numbers of Allied troops who had landed in north-west Europe since D-day. The Allies had the men and Hitler didn’t.  Manteuffel later complained of Hitler that:

He was incapable of realising that he no longer commanded the army which he had had in 1939 or 1940. 

Nevertheless, both the US 106th and 28th Divisions were wrecked by the German attack, some units breaking and running to the rear, but the US V Corps in the north and 4th Division in the south managed to hold their positions, squeezing the German thrust into a forty-mile-wide and fifty-five-mile-deep protuberance in the Allied line whose shape on the map gave the engagement its name: the Battle of the Bulge. The Sixth SS Panzer Army failed to make much progress against the 2nd and 99th Infantry Divisions of Gerow’s V Corps in the north and came close but never made it to a giant fuel dump near the town of Spa. They did, however, commit the war’s worst atrocity against American troops in the west when they machine-gunned eighty-six unarmed prisoners in a field near Malmédy, a day after executing sixteen others. The SS officer responsible, SS-General Wilhelm Mohnke, was never prosecuted for the crime, despite having also been involved in two other such massacres in cold blood earlier in the war.

In the centre, Manteuffel’s Fifth Panther Army surrounded the 106th Division in front of St Vith and forced its eight thousand men to surrender on 19 December, the largest capitulation of American troops since the Civil War. St Vith itself was defended by the 7th Armoured until 21 December, when it fell to Manteuffel. Although the Americans were thinly spread, and caught by surprise, isolated pockets of troops held out long enough to cause Herbstnehel to stumble, providing Eisenhower with enough time to organize a massive counter-attack. By midnight on the second day, sixty thousand men and eleven thousand vehicles were being sent as reinforcements.  Over the following eight days, a further 180,000 men were moved to contain the threat. As the 12th Army Group had been split geographically to the north and south of ‘the bulge’, on 20 December Eisenhower gave Bradley’s US First and Ninth Armies to Montgomery’s 21st Army Group, the latter until the Rhine had been crossed. It was a sensible move that nonetheless created lasting resentment. German loudspeakers blared out the following taunt to troops of the US 310th Infantry Regiment:

How would you like to die for Christmas?

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With Ultra starting to become available again after the assault, confirming the Meuse as the German target, the Supreme Commander could make his own dispositions accordingly, and prevent his front being split in two. Patton’s Third Army had the task of breaking through the German Seventh Army in the south. On 22 and 23 December, Patton had succeeded in turning his Army a full ninety degrees from driving eastwards towards the Saar to pushing northwards along a twenty-five-mile front over narrow, icy roads in mid-winter straight up the Bulge’s southern flank. Even Bradley had to admit in his memoirs that Patton’s ‘difficult manoeuvre’ had been one of the most brilliant performances by any commander on either side of World War II. Patton had told him, the Kraut’s stuck his head in a meat-grinder and this time I’ve got hold of the handle. Less brilliant was the laxity of Patton’s radio and telephone communications staff, which allowed Model to know of American intentions and objectives. But Patton seemed to think he had a direct line to God. In the chapel of the Fondation Pescatore in Luxembourg on 23 December, Patton prayed to the Almighty:

You have just got to make up Your mind  whose side You’re on. You must come to my assistance, so that I might dispatch the entire German Army as a birthday present to Your Prince of Peace.

Whether through divine intervention or human agency, the 101st Airborne Division had already arrived in the nick of time at the town of Bastogne, only hours before the Germans reached its vital crossroads. With eighteen thousand Americans completely surrounded there on 20 December, the commander of the 47th Panzer Corps, General Heinrich von Lüttwitz gave Brigadier-General McAuliffe, a veteran of Overlord and Market Garden, the acting commander of the division, the opportunity to surrender. He refused in characteristic style with the single word ‘nuts!’ Thus, Christmas Day began with a massed German assault on Bastogne, which had to hold out until the US Third Army could come to the rescue from the south. Patton joked that it was…

… a clear, cold Christmas, lovely weather for killing Germans … which is a bit queer, seeing whose birthday it is.

After surviving the spirited attack that broke through the defensive perimeter on Christmas Day, Bastogne was relieved by Patton’s 4th Armored Division on Boxing Day. By then Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army was running short of fuel, and although its 2nd Panzer Division got to within five miles of the town of Dinant on the Meuse, Dietrich had not committed his mechanized infantry. reserves in support of his fellow general’s advance, because such a manoeuvre was not in Hitler’s orders and he had been instructed to obey his instructions to the letter. Contrary to Model’s advice, Hitler had insisted that Dietrich, ‘Hitler’s SS pet’ should deliver the decisive blow, even though he had only advanced a quarter of the distance covered by Manteuffel. The German commanders having wasted this opportunity, an improvement in the weather allowed the Allied planes to harry the Panzer columns with fifteen thousand sorties flown in the first four days after the skies had cleared. Later, when being debriefed by Allied interrogators, Rundstedt put the defeat down to three factors:

First, the unheard-of superiority of your air force, which made all movement in daytime impossible. Secondly, the lack of motor fuel – oil and gas – so that the Panzers and even the Luftwaffe were unable to move. Third, the systematic destruction of all railway communications so that it was impossible to bring one single railroad train across the Rhine. 

Hitler’s Offensive Folly:

By 8 January, the great offensive had petered out. The Allies resumed their advance and gradually forced their way towards the Rhine. After the war was over, Rundstedt strongly objected to this stupid operation in the Ardennes being referred to as ‘the Rundstedt Offensive’, saying that, instead, it should be called ‘the Hitler Offensive’ since it came to him as an order complete to the last detail. According to him, Hitler had even written on the plan in his own handwriting, Not to be Altered. The Führer had been warned by both Rundstedt and Model that the offensive would achieve only a drastic weakening of the Reich’s power to resist the Russians on the Eastern Front, without any concomitant advantage in the west. Nonetheless, he was willing to gamble all, as so often before.  The hopes that many Germans still had that the Red Army could be kept back were thus sacrificed on an offensive in the west, against an enemy far less vicious and rapacious than the one bearing down on their homeland from the east. As the military historian, Max Hastings has concluded:

Only Hitler’s personal folly maintained the Ardennes battle, encouraged by Jodl, who persuaded him that maintaining pressure in the west was dislocating the Anglo-Americans’ offensive plans.

This may well have been the case, at least temporarily, but the greater cost was born by Germany’s defensive plans, and Hitler was no longer able to undertake a major counter-offensive again. The battle of the Bulge cost the Germans 98,024 battlefield casualties, including over twelve thousand killed. They also lost seven hundred tanks and assault guns and sixteen hundred combat aircraft. There were eighty-one thousand Allied casualties, mainly American, including over ten thousand killed. They lost a slightly higher number of tanks and tank-destroyers than the Germans. The great difference was that whereas the Allies could make up their losses in matériel, the Germans no longer could. This had a powerful effect on Allied morale, as a British tank commander fought in the battle testified later:

The Germans were going to be defeated, and not only in their Ardennes adventure but in their whole mad attempt to dominate the world. 

Defeat in the Air and at Sea – The Allied Bombing Campaign:

They were also being defeated in the air. The Royal Air Force had continued with its general area bombing throughout 1944, with its chief of staff, Commander Harris, genuinely believing that this would bring victory soonest. Churchill, Brooke and Portal all complained privately about this, wanting to pursue precision bombing. They could have simply ordered ‘Bomber’ Harris to alter his targeting policy, to the point of sacking him if he refused, but they did not give the order and they didn’t sack him either. In fact, Bomber Command certainly did hit precision targets, most famously hitting the battleship Tirpitz on several occasions between September and November 1944, on the last occasion succeeding in sinking it.

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Above: The North Atlantic & Arctic Convoy System, showing the naval bases & the location of the battleship Tirpitz.

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This final British attack on Tirpitz (right) took place on 12 November. The ship again used her 38 cm guns against the bombers, which approached the battleship at 09:35; Tirpitzs main guns forced the bombers to disperse temporarily, but could not break up the attack. A force of 32 Lancasters from Nos. 9 and 617 Squadrons dropped 29 Tallboys on the ship, with two direct hits and one near miss. Several other bombs landed within the anti-torpedo net barrier and caused significant cratering of the seabed; this removed much of the sandbank that had been constructed to prevent the ship from capsizing. One bomb penetrated the ship’s deck between turrets Anton and Bruno but failed to explode. A second hit amidships between the aircraft catapult and the funnel and caused severe damage.

Black and white aerial photograph showing an overturned ship

A very large hole was blown in the ship’s side and bottom; the entire section of belt armour abreast of the bomb hit was completely destroyed. A third bomb may have struck the ship on the port side of turret Caesar. Operation Catechism was undertaken by 29 Royal Air Force heavy bombers that attacked the battleship at its anchorage near the Norwegian city of Tromsø. The ship capsized after being hit by at least two bombs and damaged by the explosions of others, killing between 940 and 1,204 members of the crew; the British suffered no casualties.

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Meanwhile, although the Nazi war machine was still producing as much throughout 1944 as it had the previous year, at the end of January 1945 Albert Speer found that in 1944 Allied bombing had meant that Germany produced thirty-five per cent fewer tanks than he had wanted to build and Germany required, as well as thirty-one per cent fewer aircraft and forty-two per cent fewer lorries. In a sense, these statistics justify the Allies’ CBO (Combined Bomber Offensive) as the Battle of the Bulge had demonstrated what the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe were capable of achieving in counter-attack when they had enough tanks and aircraft. The tragic reality was that area-, as well as precision-bombing, was necessary to halt Speer’s miracle, although by 1944 the RAF should perhaps have switched to concentrating more on factories, which could be targeted with greater accuracy than in 1940.

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The estimation that the entire CBO of 1944 reduced German gross industrial production by only ten per cent seems damning, in view of the sacrifices of Allied airmen, the loss of 21,000 bombers and the deaths by bombing of around 720,000 German, Italian and French civilians in the course of the entire war. Yet the entire campaign took up only seven per cent of Britain’s material war effort, and on those grounds could be justified militarily. Through the development of the Mustang to escort Allied bombers as far as Berlin and back, the British had produced an aircraft which could establish dominance over German skies, shooting down a large number of Messerschmitts flown by experienced Luftwaffe pilots, thereby allowing Allied bombers to destroy Luftwaffe factories, including those producing synthetic oil.

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After D-day, efforts had been made by the Americans, as large numbers of B-24 bombers joined the B-17s, to shift concentration towards attacking German synthetic-oil supplies. Harris had opposed this as well, yet by then the Luftwaffe was somehow surviving on ten thousand tons of high-octane fuel a month when 160,000 had once been required. Harris won, and between October 1944 and the end of the war more than forty per cent of the 344,000 tons of bombs dropped by the RAF on Germany hit cities rather than purely military targets, even though the Allies had already achieved complete aerial superiority and the RAF could bomb their targets in daylight once again. On his seventieth birthday on 30 November, Churchill interrupted Portal’s report to criticise the bombing of Holland: Eight to Nine Hundred German casualties against twenty thousand Dutch – awful thing to do that. This led to a row between Portal and Harris, with Harris spiritedly protecting his policy. Portal wanted Bomber Command to concentrate on oil and transportation targets, which Harris still considered mere ‘panacea targets’. Yet the debate was only ever about the efficacy of the bombing offensive, not its morality, over which neither man had any doubts.

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001Berliners greeted their deprived and dangerous Christmas of 1944 with black humour in the form of joke advice as to how to ‘be practical’ in their choice of presents by giving a coffin; a further piece was to enjoy the war while you can, the peace will be terrible. The constant Allied air raids were bad, but worse was the knowledge that a 6.7 million-strong Red Army was massing on the Reich’s borders from the Baltic to the Adriatic, with their city as the ultimate goal. This was significantly larger than the army with which Hitler had invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, a great achievement for sure, but one which was aided by the United States’ Lend-Lease Scheme, under which more than five thousand aircraft, seven thousand tanks, many thousands of lorries, fifteen million pairs of boots and prodigious quantities of food, supplies, arms, and ammunition were shipped to the Soviet Union. Valued at $10 billion in total, representing seven per cent of the USSR’s total output, this allowed the Soviets to concentrate production on areas where they were most efficient. So, when they wished each other Prosit Neujahr! for 1945, few Berliners clinked glasses. The irony was not lost on them that, before the war, their ‘liberal’ city had been the most anti-Nazi place in Germany, yet now it faced destruction because of its most prominent resident, who had returned from the Wolfschanze on 20 November.

By contrast, as the year ended in Moscow, it was hailed as ‘The Year of Ten Victories’ by the Soviets, who had an unbroken run of victories since the relief of Leningrad in January 1944. The Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had been liberated from Hitler’s yoke by Christmas, only to fall beneath Soviet rule once more, and this time until 1989. Hitler continued to insist that the bridgehead between Memel and Kurland enclaves must be held by an entire army. Thus his forces were trapped in the Kurland pocket, which the Red Army came to regard as a gigantic POW camp maintained for them by the Wehrmacht, and so did not force it to surrender until the end of the war. Hitler’s refusal to countenance Guderian’s pleas to rescue Army Group Centre in East Prussia and Army Group North in Latvia put the German in dire ‘straits’ on the Baltic coastline. The much-vaunted new generation of U-boats, supposedly faster, indefinitely submersible and undetectable, did not come on stream in sufficient quantities to maintain the supplies of Swedish iron ore, or to maroon the Allies on the continent without their convoys’ supplies. As the Western Allies advanced slowly to the Rhine, the Soviets burst across the Vistula and then, after clearing Pomerania and Silesia, reached the Oder-Neisse line by the spring. Hitler continued to conduct all operations from a bomb-proof bunker deep beneath the Chancellery in Berlin. His orders were always the same: stand fast, hold on, shoot any waverers and sell your own lives as dearly as possible. The German army’s total losses in 1944 were already immense, adding up to the equivalent of more than a hundred divisions.

Statistical Appendix:

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Sources:

Andrew Roberts (2009), The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War. London: Penguin Books.

Laurence Rees (2008), World War Two: Behind Closed Doors.  London: BBC Books (Ebury Publishing).

Colin McEvedy (1982), The Penguin History of Recent History. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Hermann Kinder & Werner Hilgemann, The Penguin Atlas of World History, vol. II. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Richard Overy (1996), The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Third Reich. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

September 1939 (II): All at Sea – Naval Developments & Diplomacy; Appendices – Documents and Debates.   Leave a comment

Political Reaction to the Polish War in Britain:

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Even at the very late hour of August 1939, there were some ministers who publicly argued for the continuation of the appeasement policy. War is not only not inevitable, said Sir Thomas Inskip, the Minister for Defence Co-ordination, seeking to reassure the British public, but it is unlikely. R A (Richard Austen) Butler, later responsible for the 1944 Education Act, then Under Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, praised Harold Nicolson’s Penguin Special book as a work of art and perfectly correct. As the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax sat in the Lords, Butler was the Government’s spokesman in the Commons, valiantly defending its policy. An enthusiastic Chamberlainite, he regarded Munich not as a means of buying time but as a way of settling differences with Hitler. An unrepentant appeaser down to the outbreak of war, Butler even opposed the Polish alliance signed on 25 August, claiming it would have a bad psychological effect on Hitler. Critics of Chamberlain’s post-Prague policy for ignoring the necessity of encirclement thus found common cause with the ardent appeasers, though Butler himself remained loyal to Chamberlain, even after his final fall from grace. He blamed the Prime Minister’s demise and ultimate disgrace on the growing influence of Sir Horace Wilson at this time, as, for different reasons, did Nicolson.

However, even the tiny window of ‘encirclement’ was soon shut and shuttered by the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. For those on the Left of British politics, both inside Parliament and out,  this represented an unthinkable nightmare and spelt the immediate decapitation of the idea of a Popular Front with communism against the Fascist threat. In particular, Nicolson’s argument for an alliance with the Soviet Union was suddenly invalidated. When he heard of it, Harold Nicolson was, like Drake at the time of the Spanish Armada, on Plymouth Sound. He rushed back to London, to hear Chamberlain’s statement to the House. The PM was like a coroner summing up a murder case, Harold suggested. Although sympathetic to Chamberlain’s hopeless plight, he agreed with the verdict of Lloyd George and Churchill that the PM was a hopeless old crow… personally to blame for this disaster. 

002As Hitler wasted no time in crossing the border into Poland at daybreak on 1 September, the moral and diplomatic disaster became a military reality. Later the same day, Churchill was asked to join a small War Cabinet, a sign to all that Chamberlain had finally accepted that reality and now meant business. When the PM addressed the House that evening, visibly under tremendous emotional stress, he read out the allied dispatch sent to Berlin. This contained the familiar words that unless Germany gave a firm pledge to suspend all military activities and to withdraw its troops from Poland, Britain would instantly honour its obligations. However, there was no time limit attached to the word ‘instantly’ at this stage, so the dispatch could not be read as anything more than a warning. It was not an ultimatum. Apparently, this was largely due to the procrastination of the French Government, which, even at this late hour, was hoping for another Munich Conference to be held within 48 hours.

When the House met again the next evening, Chamberlain’s statement was still loosely-phrased.  Was there to be another Munich? was the unspoken question in everyone’s mind, if not on their lips. When the opposition spokesman, Arthur Greenwood, rose to speak, there were shouts from the Tory benches urging him to Speak for Britain. Chamberlain turned around to his own backbenches as if stung. The House adjourned in indescribable confusion and the Cabinet reconvened in Downing Street on what, by all accounts, was literally a very stormy night. The Cabinet decided to present the ultimatum at nine in the morning in Berlin, to expire two hours later. Chamberlain ended the meeting with the words Right, gentlemen..this means war, quietly spoken, after which there was a deafening thunderclap.

As Chamberlain himself remarked soon afterwards, no German answer to the allied ultimatum was forthcoming before 11 a.m. on the third. Harold Nicolson attended a gathering of the Eden group. At 11.15 they heard Chamberlain’s announcement. For them, as for the masses of British people listening, it seemed like the present did not exist, only the future and the past. What could any of them, with all their grandness and wealth, do now? In a strained and disgusted voice, Chamberlain told a benumbed British people that, after all, they were now at war with Germany. As if a harbinger of the nine-month ‘phoney war’ which was to follow, the air-raid siren sounded the last of the Thirties’ false alarms. In the chamber of the House of Commons, an ill-looking Prime Minister made a ‘restrained speech’. As Nicolson drove out of London towards his home at Sissinghurst in Kent, a convoy of evacuees overtook them. From one of the trucks, an elderly lady accompanying the children leaned out, shook her fist, and shouted, it is all the fault of the rich.  There was a real sense in which both the war itself and its aftermath, became a class war in which the aristocratic control of politics which had helped to cause it, was jettisoned by the British people.

British diplomats were even less enthusiastic about the prospect of conflict with the Soviet Union than the politicians. In a secret telegram to the Foreign Office, the British ambassador to Moscow, Sir William Seeds, wrote:

I do not myself see what advantage war with the Soviet Union would be to us, though it would please me personally to declare it on M. Molotov. …the Soviet invasion of Poland is not without advantages to us in the long run, for it will entail the keeping of a large army on a war footing outside Russia consuming food and petrol and wearing out material and transport, thus reducing German hopes of military or food supplies.

In a public statement on 20 September, however, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain spoke to the House of Commons about the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland:

For the unhappy victim of this cynical attack, the result has been a tragedy of the grimmest character. The world which has watched the vain struggle of the Polish nation against overwhelming odds with profound pity and sympathy admires their valour, which even now refuses to admit defeat. … There is no sacrifice from which we will not shrink, there is no operation we will not undertake provided our responsible advisers, our Allies, and we ourselves are convinced that it will make an appropriate contribution to victory. But what we will not do is to rush into adventures that offer little prospect of success and are calculated to impair our resources and to postpone ultimate victory.

Fine words, but not matched by action. After the signing of the German-Soviet border treaty in Moscow a week later, Sir William revised his opinion in a telegram of 30 September:

It must be borne in mind that if war continues any considerable time, the Soviet part of Poland will, at its close, have been purged of any non-Soviet population or classes whatever, and that it may well be consequently impossible, in practice, to separate it from the rest of Russia. …our war aims are not incompatible with reasonable settlement on ethnographic and cultural lines.

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On the face of it, this was an incredible suggestion. The Soviet Union had just invaded and was subjugating the eastern territories of a nation to which Britain had given its pledge of protection, yet a senior diplomat was privately suggesting that this aggression should be immediately rewarded. Back in London, another senior diplomat, Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick endorsed Seeds views in a report produced on 1 October to which he appended a sketch map of Poland, pointing out that the new Soviet-imposed border mostly followed the ‘Curzon Line’ proposed by the British Foreign Secretary in 1919, which had been rejected by both the Poles and Bolsheviks at the time.

The picture on the right shows German officers discussing with a Soviet officer (far left) the demarcation line between their various pieces of conquered territory after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact and the invasion of Poland from west and east. 

Nevertheless, there were many among the general population in Britain who were bemused as to why their country had not declared war on the Soviet Union. If the British treaty to protect Poland from aggression had resulted in war with the Germans, why hadn’t it also triggered a war with the USSR? What they were not aware of was that it was not only the Nazi-Soviet pact which had a secret clause, but also the 1939 Anglo-Polish treaty. That clause specifically limited the obligation to protect Poland from ‘aggression’ to that initiated by Germany.

The ‘Phoney War’ and the War at Sea:

The sixth-month hiatus between the end of the Polish campaign in October 1939 and Hitler’s sudden invasion of Denmark and Norway on 9 April 1940 is known as ‘the Phoney War’. With little going on in the West on land and in the skies, the British and French publics were lulled into thinking that the war was not truly a matter of life and death for them in the way it obviously was for the Poles, and their daily existence was carried on substantially as usual, in all its bureaucracy, inefficiency and occasional absurdity. The National Labour MP Harold Nicolson recorded in his war diaries that the Ministry of Information censors had refused to publish the wording of a leaflet, of which two million copies had been dropped over Germany, on the grounds that… We are not allowed to disclose information that might be of value to the enemy.

The map below shows the full details of the war at sea, 1939-45:

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There was nothing phoney about the war at sea, however. It was perfectly true that the British Air Minister Sir Kingsley Wood made the asinine remark that the RAF should not bomb munitions dumps in the Black Forest because so much of it was private property, but at sea, there were no such absurdities. As early as 19 August, U-boat captains were sent a coded signal about a submarine officers’ reunion which directed them to take up their positions around the British Isles in readiness for imminent action. Within nine hours of the declaration of war, the British liner SS Athenia was torpedoed on its way from Glasgow to Montreal, with 1,400 passengers on board, the captain of U-30 mistaking the ship for an armed merchant cruiser. Had they hit the radio mast, and the SOS signal not been transmitted, many more than the 112 passengers would have perished. A Czech survivor recalled:

There was a column of water near the ship and a black thing like a cigar shot over the sea towards us. There was a bang, and then I saw men on the submarine turn a gun and fire it.

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above: a poster recruiting for the German submarine service. Submarine attack was the main activity of the German Navy during the war, and it succeeded in reducing allied tonnage substantially. Submariners were often absent for up to eighteen months and returned weather-beaten and bearded. Casualties were very high. Some seventy per cent of all submariners were killed.

Neither side was prepared for sea warfare in 1939, but neither could ignore the lessons of the 1914-18 sea war: the German High Seas Fleet had remained largely inactive, while the U-boats had brought Britain perilously close to catastrophe. In the U-boat, Germany had deployed a potentially war-winning weapon, and there was no reason not to attempt to use it more decisively in a second war. For Britain, the Battle of the Atlantic was the longest and most critical of World War Two; defeat would have forced Britain out of the war and made US intervention in Europe impossible. Airpower was also crucial in the battle of the Atlantic. German spotter aircraft could locate convoys and guide U-boats to their targets, while land-based air patrols and fighters launched by catapult from convoy ships provided essential protection. While Germany had entered the war with a number of particularly capital ships, including three purpose-built ‘pocket battleship’ commerce raiders and two powerful modern battleships, there were always too few to challenge the Royal Navy directly. Instead, Germany was once again to use its limited naval resources to attack Britain’s sea communications. The capital ships were used as raiders against British commercial vessels. Nevertheless, tracking down and destroying these threats severely stretched British naval resources. The pocket battleship Graf Spee enjoyed considerable success at the beginning of the war.

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Just as in the previous war, however, it was the U-boat that was to provide the greatest danger to Britain’s supply lines, causing Churchill intense anxiety as First Lord of the Admiralty. Had Hitler given first priority in terms of funding to his U-boat fleet on coming to power in 1933, rather than to the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe, he might have built a force that would have strangled and starved Britain into surrender. As it was, the navy was the weakest of Germany’s armed services when war broke out. Against the twenty-two battleships and eighty-three cruisers of the French and British navies, Germany had only three small ‘pocket’ battleships and eight cruisers. Early in the war, the German Navy under Admiral Erich Raeder recognised that the submarine offered the only effective German action at sea. In 1939 there were only 57 U-boats available, and not all of these were suitable for the Atlantic.  They had limited underwater range and spent most of their time on the surface, where they were vulnerable to Coastal command bombers. However, under Admiral Karl Dönitz the submarine arm expanded rapidly and soon took a steady toll of Allied shipping. To Dönitz, as commander of the U-boat fleet, it was a simple question of arithmetic: Britain depended on supplies that were carried by a fleet of about three thousand ocean-going merchant ships, and these could carry about seventeen million tonnes. If he could keep sufficient U-boats at sea and sink enough of this tonnage, Britain would be forced to capitulate. He had devised tactics to overcome the convoys, based on the simple concept of overwhelming the escorts. Dönitz introduced a new tactic to undersea warfare, with the ‘wolf packs’ hunting at night linked by radio, often attacking on the surface and at close range. But Dönitz simply did not have enough boats to launch sufficient attacks in groups.

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above: Convoy with escorts, seen at sunset in the Atlantic in July 1942. The adoption of the convoy system was a key element in defeating the U-boat threat.

At the same time, the British had made very few preparations. The first of hundreds of Atlantic convoys left Halifax, Nova Scotia, on 15 September. Learning the doleful lessons of the Great War, the convoy system was adhered to rigidly by the British between 1939 and 1945, even for ships moving along the coastline between Glasgow and the Thames. Destroyers, frigates and corvettes used an echo-sounding device called ASDIC (named after the Allied Submarine Detection Investigation Committee) to try to track U-boats, while the convoys’ merchantmen sailed together within a protective cordon. But although it was initially seen as a complete solution to the U-boat threat, it proved less than perfect and was only really effective at ranges of two hundred to a thousand metres, when most U-boats were operating on the surface in any case. Britain’s escort fleet had been allowed to run down to such an extent that Churchill was prepared to trade valuable bases in the West Indies and Newfoundland in return for fifty obsolete American destroyers. Perhaps even more damaging was the misuse of resources: the Royal Navy insisted on largely futile attempts to hunt down U-boats instead of concentrating on escorting convoys.

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above: a depth charge explodes astern of a Royal Navy ship hunting for a submerged U-boat. Dropped from surface ships, depth charges could cause fatal damage to a submarine, but they had a limited effective range.

The convoys also adopted a zig-zagging route, the better to outfox their submerged foes. Overall the system was another success, but when a waiting U-boat ‘wolf-pack’ broke through, the losses among the huddled merchantmen could be correspondingly high, and on one occasion as many as half of the vessels were sent to the bottom. The Royal Navy started the war with only five aircraft carriers and so merchant shipping lacked essential air protection out at sea. RAF Coastal Command was left critically short of aircraft because of the priority given to Bomber Command, and the flying boats it received did not have enough range – there remained a gap in the central Atlantic where no air patrols were possible; the ‘Greenland gap’, where U-boats could congregate in relative safety. This was the period that the Germans referred to as the ‘happy time’ when their losses were slight and successes high. In a desperate attempt to extend the range of Britain’s air patrols, Churchill offered the Irish government unification with Northern Ireland in exchange for the use of bases in Lough Swilly, Cobb and Berehaven, but it insisted on maintaining its strict neutrality in the war.

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above: as in the First World War, German leaders gambled on knocking Britain out of the conflict by a submarine blockade. The map above shows the details of the first phase of this.

On 17 September the veteran HMS Courageous was sunk in the Western Approaches by two torpedoes by two torpedoes from U-29, which had already sunk three tankers. She slipped beneath the Hebridean waves in less than fifteen minutes, with only half of her thousand-strong crew being saved, some after an hour in the North Atlantic, where they kept up their morale by singing popular songs of the day such as ‘Roll out the Barrel’ and ‘Show Me the Way to Go Home’. One survivor recalled that the sea was so thick with oil we might have been swimming in treacle.

Why Britain was at War:

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After motoring home to Sissinghurst with Victor Cazalet on 3 September, Harold Nicolson found his sons waiting for him. Ben, aged twenty-five, thought the news ‘a tragedy’, an unwelcome interruption to his studies; Nigel, three years younger, who had just ‘come down’ from Oxford, ‘was immensely exhilarated’. Both were of an age to serve in the army; and both did, until final victory in the spring of 1945. In a symbolic act for what lay ahead, the flag flying above the Elizabethan Tower in the Sissinghurst garden was lowered. No sooner had the war started than Harold Nicolson was asked by Allen Lane, head of Penguin Books, to explain to the nation Why Britain is at War. He wrote the fifty-thousand-word Penguin Special in three weeks. Michael Sadleir, Harold’s regular publisher, called it ‘a masterpiece’. An instant success, it soon sold over a hundred thousand copies. Harold denied that the iniquities of the Versailles treaty had propelled Hitler to power, as so often presumed, claiming that by 1922 a majority of the German people had reconciled themselves to the treaty. By recklessly occupying the Ruhr in 1923, against British advice, French President Poincaré’s adventurism had galvanised German nationalist fervour, destroyed the German middle class and paved the way for the rise of Hitler. These arguments took little account of the first German economic miracle of the mid-twenties or the devastating effects of the world economic crisis of 1929. Nor was it prudent to reproach past leaders of Britain’s only ally in its war of survival against Nazi Germany, even if it was partly blameworthy.

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Harold was on firmer ground when he moved away from contemporary German history to justifying Britain’s motives for going to war. He wrote of a small island nation dependent for its survival not only on protecting the sea lanes to its imperial possessions but also on preserving the balance of power on the European mainland. Germany, then and now, threatened to violate these immutable principles. Britain’s reaction by going to war was prompted by a sound biological instinct … the instinct of self-preservation. By vividly contrasting the savage nature of the Nazi dictatorship, its ‘ruthless nihilism’, with the British conception of ‘decency and fairness’. Harold introduced a moral dimension to the conflict:

We entered this war to defend ourselves. We shall continue to, to its bitter end, in order to save humanity. … Only by imposing a just peace, one that does not outrage their pride or drive them to desperation can we guarantee thirty years to establish a new world order so powerful that even Germany will not dare to defy it.

But what kind of ‘new world order?’ It turned on rectifying the defects of the League of Nations, of organising its own armed forces and the need for its members to sacrifice a degree of national sovereignty. Harold looked forward optimistically to a ‘United States of Europe’, but whether Britain would play an active part in it remained a moot point. On one point, however, Harold was crystal clear: a social revolution was pending. Whatever the outcome of the war, we can be certain that the rich will lose … Their privileges and fortunes will go. His premonition that the war would generate ‘class warfare’, that the prerogatives of his class would be severely eroded, if not entirely swept away, haunted him throughout the war. Nicolson’s critique of Chamberlain’s diplomacy, and in particular the ruinous influence of Sir Horace Wilson may have found praise from R. A. Butler as wholly valid. But Butler remained loyal to Chamberlain, even after the PM’s downfall, describing Churchill as the greatest political adventurer of modern political history. Harold may have felt flattered, temporarily, by Butler’s words, but he would gain a more lasting satisfaction from knowing that his record of Britain’s misguided diplomacy had struck a sympathetic chord in hundreds of thousands of readers.

Harold wanted to find a wartime job commensurate with his talents. The Foreign Office, impressed by the success of Why Britain is at War, was keen that he should strengthen its Political Intelligence Department. Halifax was enthusiastic to make the appointment, but it was opposed by Horace Wilson, whom Nicolson had identified as a ‘chief sinner’ in the failure of British diplomacy. Nor did Harold make a significant impact in Parliament, where he had been elected as a National Labour MP in 1935. Apart from occasional questions about the activity of German propagandists in Britain, he remained silent. The Eden Group made up of Conservative dissidents, but with Harold in constant attendance, still functioned, usually over dinner at the Carlton Club. The general feeling of the company as autumn progressed was that Chamberlain had to be removed and replaced by Churchill. It remained an ineffectual group, however, which would only act when exceptional circumstances left it no option. Like many of his associates, Nicolson was in despair at Chamberlain’s lacklustre leadership. When urged to attack ‘these people at the helm’, he wavered, unwilling to disrupt national unity at that stage. Even so, no-one could deny that the war was going badly. Poland had fallen in less than a month, partitioned along the old Curzon line between Germany and the Soviet Union. In the west, the Allies were reluctant to take offensive action and Nicolson grew increasingly gloomy about the prospects of Britain, with France, emerging victorious from the conflict. However, even Harold could not help but be encouraged by immediate British successes at sea. He prematurely recorded that we have won the war at sea.

Appendices:

Historical Interpretation: Why was British resistance to Hitler left so late?

The historian Arthur Marwick emphasised the assumption, made by Chamberlain and others, that, regardless of their hateful ideologies and propaganda, Hitler and Mussolini were basically rational men who would keep their word, provided their main grievances were met. This assumption was not finally shaken until the occupation of Prague in March 1939. Borrowing a phrase from A J P Taylor’s Origins of the Second World War, he suggests that the Western statesmen believed that once the cloud of phrases which enveloped Fascist policy had been pushed aside there would be a foundation of goodwill on which a modus vivendi might be built. Both the dictators and the Western statesmen moved in the fog of their own beliefs and systems so that there was little fundamental understanding of each side’s position and precious little real communication. Sooner or later, therefore, a collision was almost inevitable. Arnold Toynbee, who had himself met Hitler, summed up this psychological gulf between the dictators and the Western statesmen:

An English observer who paid frequent visits to Germany during the span of six and three-quarter years that intervened between Hitler’s advent to power in Germany…and the outbreak of war…had the uncanny impression, as he made the short physical journey…that within these narrow limits of space and time, he was travelling between two worlds which were momentarily both in existence side by side, but which could not go on thus co-existing because they were morally so far apart as to be incompatible in the long run.

At the same time, the democracies were themselves divided between Left and Right just at the time when national unity was most needed in Britain and France. Although after the Prague coup the Pacifist tide was in sudden retreat, it is impossible to overestimate its significance prior to that event. The revulsion felt towards war was so strong that not even the series of German and Italian successes from 1935 onwards was enough to bring about the fundamental division in European opinions which manifested itself after the occupation of Prague. These divisions, especially in France, help to explain why there was no real attempt to resist Nazi Germany until 1939, and further encouraged Hitler in his belief that the Western powers were too weak to resist him. Added to this, the ideological conflict in Spain had served to distract attention from Hitler’s designs in central and eastern Europe in the previous three years.

Partly as a result of the Spanish conflict, a strategic alliance with the Soviet Union was not seen as a realistic possibility until after Hitler’s Prague coup of 14-15 March. Prior to this turning point, Soviet communism was still viewed as the greater of the two ideological evils. Hence Neville Chamberlain’s persistent attempts from May 1937 onwards to woo first Mussolini and then Hitler. Direct bilateral negotiations with the dictators seemed to be the only way to break the diplomatic deadlock. To resurrect the traditional alliance system, including Russia, would, it was argued, play into Hitler’s hands by allowing him to claim that Germany was being encircled again. However, it was this fear that actually played into his hands, because it enabled him to isolate and deal separately with his potential opponents. Moreover, it was the rumours of war which followed Prague, of impending German action against Poland and Romania, now entirely believable, which helped to reinforce the sea-change in mood which hardened and grew firmer throughout the summer of 1939.

It is also arguable whether, after the Munich Agreement, the rump Czechoslovak state was at all viable, never mind defensible. Relations between Czechs and Slovaks, who had never had more than the similarity of their languages in common, had reached a low point. The harsh reality was that the experimental state of Czechoslovakia, brought into being at Versailles out of the ruins of the Hapsburg Empire, had to be written off. The only consolation for Chamberlain was that he had been able to demonstrate to important non-European opinion, that he had gone to the limits of reasonableness in pursuing the course that they had wanted, that Europe should work out its own salvation without calling on them to intervene, either diplomatically or militarily. After the Prague coup, the attitude of the British Dominions also began to change from the detachment shown six months earlier. This was crucial, as Britain could not go to war with the rearmed Reich without its Empire, especially at sea.

Despite the evidence of his critics, after the Prague debácle, Chamberlain became more defiant and determined in public, and his Cabinet was less nervous at the prospect of war than they had been at the time of the Munich Crisis. The military and intelligence reports were more encouraging and the Anglo-French relationship was better and more active than it had been.  At the end of 1936, Lord Vantissart had written, privately, that it was the job of the Foreign Office to hold the ring until 1939. They now felt confident enough to give a guarantee to the Polish government. This was a remarkable reversal of an attitude to central Europe held by all previous British governments. Perhaps it was given because, unlike Czechoslovakia, the Polish corridor meant that Poland was not land-locked and was therefore of direct interest to the British Empire, over which it now gained a measure of influence. However, there was little more, in reality, that Britain could do to preserve the independence or integrity of Poland in the event of a German attack. Moreover, the guarantee was not given in order to preclude German-Polish negotiation, but as a general warning to Hitler that Britain intended to make a stand. This warning was still vague enough for Hitler to believe that when it came to a crisis, Britain would back down, just as it had done over the Sudetenland.

If Britain and France had not pursued appeasement so vigorously for so long, there might have been some chance of an Anglo-French-Soviet alliance, though the price demanded by the Russians might have been too high.  Nevertheless, one further step Chamberlain had authorised after Prague was the opening of negotiations with Moscow.  All his instincts had previously recoiled from this step, both because of his dislike for the Soviet state and a belief that ‘encirclement’ would be counter-productive. The Anglo-Soviet discussions were slow and protected over the summer. There were sticking points, among them the status of the three independent Baltic republics and Polish concerns about Moscow’s intentions. A greater sense of urgency might have brought success, but the effort came to a dramatic halt on 23 August with the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in Moscow.

Until that point, Stalin and Molotov were still prepared to consider a treaty of mutual assistance with Britain and France. But there were problems from the very start, since – in contrast to the attitude of Ribbentrop – the Western Allies were perceived as dawdling through the process of negotiations. The Soviet Ambassador to London had asked whether British Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, would go to Moscow that summer to discuss matters directly with Molotov, but the British despatched a minor official and an obscure admiral instead who left England on a merchant ship at the beginning of August which took four days to arrive in Leningrad. Once the British delegation arrived in Moscow, the Soviets soon found evidence to confirm their London ambassador’s report that the delegates will not be able to make any decisions on the spot. … This does not promise any particular speed in the conduct of the negotiations. In fact, before he left for Moscow, Admiral Drax had been specifically told by Chamberlain and Halifax that in case of any difficulties with the Soviets he should try to string the negotiations out until October when winter conditions would make a Nazi invasion of Poland difficult. The British hoped that the mere threat of an alliance with the Soviet Union might act as a deterrent to the Germans.

Laurence Rees (2003) has suggested that it is not hard to see what caused the British to take their lackadaisical approach to negotiations with the Soviets. In the first place, British foreign policy had been predicated for years on the basis that a friendly relationship with Germany was of more value than an accommodation with the Soviet Union. Not only did many British loathe Stalin’s régime on ideological grounds, but there was also little confidence, in August 1939, in the power and utility of the Soviet armed forces. Moreover, the question of Poland was an obstacle in itself to the British reaching any kind of comprehensive agreement with the Soviet Union, as it was to in 1944. The British knew that for any military treaty to have meaning, the Soviets would have to be given permission to cross the Polish border to fight the Germans if, as looked likely, the Nazis decided to invade. But the Poles themselves were against any such idea. In the face of this impasse, the British delegation adopted the understandable, but ultimately self-defeating tactic of simply ignoring the subject whenever the question of Poland and its territorial integrity came up in discussion. When the Soviet Marshal Voroshilov asked directly on 14 August if the Red Army would be allowed to enter Poland in order to engage the Nazis, the Allied delegation made no reply.

However, Rees has also argued out that we must not run away with the idea that Stalin and the Soviet leadership were somehow driven into the hands of the Nazis by British and French misjudgment. Ultimately, the Western Allies had very little to offer the Soviets at the bargaining table. Stalin had no motivation for the Red Army being ‘drawn into conflict’ to help out other, unsympathetic régimes out of their self-created difficulties. He was just as much opposed to Britain and France, dominated by big business and oppressing the working people, as he was to Nazi Germany. On the other hand, the Nazis could offer something the Western Allies never could – the prospect of additional territory and material gain. So the meeting between Ribbentrop and Schulenberg for the Germans, and Stalin and Molotov for the Soviets whilst not a meeting of minds, was certainly a meeting of common interests. 

Through the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Germany succeeded in bringing the Soviet Union into the European conflict, thereby giving Hitler the assurance of Soviet neutrality in an attack on Poland. The Pact lifted an enormous burden from Hitler. He was free to attack Poland if he wished and British support was likely to be of little assistance to the Poles. There was some suspicion that Britain and France might decide, after all, not to go to war. However, the British hesitation in declaring war resulted more, in the event, from Chamberlain’s desire to act in concert with France than by any doubt about honouring its obligations. Chamberlain was forced by his Cabinet to declare the war he had consistently tried to avoid since 1937. Even after its outbreak, there was no anticipation of protracted conflict and he still hoped that there might be a place for negotiations, even if they must take place in the context of war.

That is not to suggest that Chamberlain’s psychological understanding and tactical methods were without blame. He did not understand either the nature and dynamics of the Nazi régime or the beliefs and practices of National Socialism. However, even Churchill displayed considerable naivety in this respect, describing Hitler as an old-fashioned patriot, determined to restore his country following its defeat. Lloyd George’s analysis of Hitler’s mind and intentions was no better.  Another set of men in power, or in power earlier, may have made some difference to the policies which were followed, but this would probably not have been vastly notable. Moreover, it was possible for many British people simultaneously to suffer anguish at the prospect of another war and to feel intense remorse at what they believed to be their leaders’ callous indifference to the plight of Czechoslovakia. However, Chamberlain and his colleagues, in common with the majority of British public opinion, supposed that it was quite reasonable to believe in a world in which there was an underlying harmony between nations. It was surely unbelievable that governments would set out deliberately to use force. After 1939, world politics evolved in a way that few observers could have predicted with confidence, even projecting from the events of 1938-1939.

Keith Robbins has argued that the policy of appeasement in Europe needs to be seen in the context of the decline of the British Empire in the thirties. However, the anxiety about the state of the Empire might have been excessive, in turn accelerating its decline. Certainly, Churchill saw signs of defeatism in government policies and believed that a display of resolution and self-confidence would bring its own reward. It is also possible that a greater willingness to threaten intervention might have deterred Hitler, at least in the short-term. In the longer term, however, Robbins concludes that it seems entirely likely that Hitler would have gone to war in circumstances which might have been as favourable as those of 1939.

In his diaries, at the beginning of November, Edmund Ironside reflected ironically on the military machine of command which was the War Cabinet. Men like Kingsley Wood and Belisha, together with Chamberlain, Halifax and Hoare had no military conception of any sort, even lacking ‘general knowledge of how to fight a campaign. Whilst the Army was under French command, the Air Force was not, and the Cabinet loved directing its operations, rather than allowing the Chief of Staff to do so. Later the same month, he admitted to being ‘perturbed’ at the lack of a plan in Cabinet. The ‘wait and see’ attitude to events in Europe, the lack of any plan for the Middle East, and the long and tedious discussions upon all and sundry, all added to the sense of inertia which stemmed from the leadership of the weary old man who dominated the ‘mediocrities’ around him who were supposed to bear the responsibilities of war government with him. Only Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, revealed any talent for the task, partly because he was managing the worse things that by then were happening at sea…

Documents:

A. Parliamentary Debates, House Of Commons (fifth series), vol 351 cols 293-4 (1939):

The Prime Minister’s Announcement of War:

‘…we decided to send our Ambassador in Berlin instructions which he was to hand at 9 o’clock this morning to the German Foreign Secretary and which read as follows:

‘Sir, In the communication which I had the honour to make to you on the 1st September, I informed you… that unless the German Government were prepared to give… satisfactory assurances that (it) … had suspended all aggressive action against Poland and were prepared promptly to withdraw their forces from Polish territory, His Majesty’s Government would, without hesitation, fulfil their obligations to Poland.

‘Although this communication was made more than twenty-four hours ago, no reply has been received but German attacks on Poland have continued and intensified. I have… to inform you that, unless not later than 11 a.m. British Summer Time today, 3rd September, satisfactory assurances… have been given… a state of war will exist between the two countries from that hour.’

‘This was the final note. No such undertaking was received by the time stipulated, and, consequently, this country is at war with Germany.’

B. Francis Marshall,  London West (1944) 

Recollections of the first days of the war:

Entering London from the Great North Road the day after war had been declared, was rather like entering a besieged city. Terrible air attacks had been expected and London was considered the most likely target.

The barrage balloons overhead emphasised the difference between London and the country; notice boards at Hendon and Mill Hill giving notice of air raids seemed to mark the entrance. The motor coaches filled with evacuated children and occasional cars filled with luggage, all going in the opposite direction, added to the impression of impending danger…

Air raid shelters, sandbags and barrage balloons were, of course, already familiar, but the War Rescue Police came as a surprise. They wore ordinary clothes, and a blue tin hat, armlet and service respirator was their only uniform. Everybody was busy doing little odd jobs, sticking brown paper tape on windows, collecting precious papers and valuables together with a first-aid kit, and some spare clothes in a suit-case, just in case… When they had finished work and made their simple preparations, they walked out in the brilliant sunshine that seemed to have accompanied the outbreak of war, and tried to realise that this was it. But however short a walk they took, the gas marks were inevitably with them, uncomfortable and a nuisance, but from Prime Minister to charwoman everybody carried one.

We expected air raids on the H G Wells’ scale after nerving ourselves to expect Apocalypse after dark, felt almost disappointed when day brought the usual round of milkmen, newspaper boys, and the ordinary routine…

I found myself circling a church at 4 a.m. in the dark, vainly trying to find the way in to relieve the warden on duty inside. When I got in, I found him in the crypt sitting on a coffin reading a thriller… 

C. René Cutforth, Later Than We Thought (1976)

A Journalist’s personal account of the final year of the thirties:

Oddly enough, this great tide of woes seemed to put a new spirit into the British people. The news was so bad that none of the old attitudes was relevant any more. Peace Pledge Unions and Popular Fronts were now beside the point, like a man on the scaffold deciding to mount a ‘No more Hanging’ movement. The illusions of the Thirties gradually melted away, and there had been many. In the new cold light, the ‘committed’ could be seen as the self-licensed liars and con-men so many of them had become, whether Left or Right, whether Hitler’s ‘new manliness’ had held them mesmerised or Stalin’s ‘workers’ paradise’.

The last to go were the illusions about the power of Britain in the world. We might survive, we now knew, and that was all. Conscription came in on 1 July. In August there was a trial blackout and, since the whole world had now gone mad, the Russians signed a non-aggression pact with Germany.  If you felt like being funny. it was a bit of a joke to listen to the Communists trying to find something nice to say about their new ally. 

The present seemed not to exist, we only had a past and a future. Works of art were being stored in the caves of Derbyshire and the mine shafts of Wales. From Canterbury, we evacuated the stained glass and from our great cities the children. We’d ‘bought it’ as the phrase then was, and at eleven o’ clock on 3 September, we heard Mr Chamberlain, speaking in a strained and disgusted voice, tell us that we were at war with Germany. We were surprised by how little we felt. A minute later, the air-raid siren sounded. It was the last of the Thirties’ false alarms.

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On 3 September, Chamberlain made his famous broadcast to tell the British nation that it was at war with Germany. An air-raid siren sounded in earnest for the first time, though it was a false alarm; a Royal Proclamation was issued calling up the Reserves and Churchill was at last brought in. (Picture: Radio Times Hulton Picture Library, published in Cutforth’s book).

D.  September 1, 1939, by W. H. Auden

A British poet reflects on a ‘low, dishonest decade’ from New York:

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Wystan Auden was the leader of a group of poets named after him, but all they had in common was a Marxist frame of mind which characterised the ‘new voice of the period’ (Cutforth). They launched the revolutionary movement which was to create the intellectual climate of the time, and from the start, Auden’s was the voice of the decade. They wanted to bring on the death of the old gang, the death of us. He always sounded as if ten thousand revolutionaries were fighting to snatch his words from the press as they appeared. In fact, their audience was so small that it often seemed that they were writing to each other. Auden’s line, It is later than you think, might have been the motto of the whole group. George Orwell criticised their slavish worship of the Soviet Union, and regarded them as divorced from humanity: they had never met anybody from outside their own social class, he said, and this annoyed them greatly because he was right. Auden himself had left Britain with Christopher Isherwood for China in 1938 (pictured above, with Auden on the right), and was in New York in September 1939 when he wrote his famous and often misused poem on the outbreak of war. It begins in despair:

I sit in one of the dives

On Fifty-Second Street

Uncertain and afraid

As the clever hopes expire

Of a low dishonest decade:

Waves of anger and fear

Circulate over the bright

And darkened lands of the earth,

Obsessing our private lives;

The unmentionable odour of death

Offends the September Night.

And ends in hope:

Defenceless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

Sources:

René Cutforth (1976), Later Than We Thought. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.

Matthew Hollis & Paul Keegan (2003), 101 Poems Against War. London: Faber & Faber.

Richard Overy (1996), The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Third Reich. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Laurence Rees (2008), World War Two Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West. London: BBC Books (Ebury Publishing).

John Swift, Asa Briggs (ed.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books (chapter on ‘The Atlantic War, 1939-45’).

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (eds.) (1972), Portraits & Documents: Twentieth Century, 1906-1960. London: Hutchinson Educational.

Andrew Roberts (2010), The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War. London: Penguin Books.

Keith Robbins (1997), Appeasement (Historical Association Studies). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers

Norman Rose (2006), Harold Nicolson. London: Pimlico.

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September 1939 – Blitzkrieg & Spheres of Influence: A Narrative of Actions & Reactions…   Leave a comment

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Chronology of The First Week of War; September 1-8:

1   German invasion, blitzkrieg, of Poland began.

2   Chamberlain’s second statement to the House of Commons; emergency Cabinet meeting issued an ultimatum to be presented on 3rd.

3   Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand declared war on Germany. Within nine hours, 1,400 passengers aboard a blacked-out British liner SS Athenia were torpedoed on their way from Glasgow to Montreal by U-30, whose captain mistook the ship for an armed merchant cruiser. 112 passengers perished. Chamberlain’s War Cabinet formed, with Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty.

5   The Polish Corridor entirely cut off; the Polish government fled to Lublin and then to Romania. A thousand civilians were shot by the SS at Bydgoszcz, and the Jewish district of Piotrków was torched. The entire Jewish population began to be herded into ghettos across Poland.

6   France invaded Germany in the Saarland; Germans retreated to Siegfried Line. No further action was taken by either France or Britain.

8   The Polish Pomorze Army encircled in the north; Reichenau’s Tenth Army reached Warsaw but was repulsed by the Polish resistance.

A Short Summary of Events from June to September:

At the end of June, Hitler’s demand that Poland agrees to the incorporation into his Reich of the City of Danzig, overwhelmingly German, and the territory cutting off East Prussia, produced a crisis. The Poles refused to negotiate and were backed up by Britain and France. They also refused to allow Soviet troops into their country. Again, however, Hitler wrong-footed them the Western Allies. In August, he signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, despite his previously unwavering antipathy to communism, neatly sidelining the one country he took to be his most serious enemy. Thus guaranteed, on 1 September Germany invaded Poland. When their demands for German withdrawal were ignored, Britain and France declared war. Surprised, but not undaunted, Hitler continued with the invasion. The Danzig corridor, separating East Prussia from the rest of Germany, was bridged and the land-grab was augmented by the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland in mid-September. By 29 September, Germany and Soviet Russia had partitioned Poland between them. Apart from a ‘rump’ area of central Poland, ruled from Kraków, the country was annexed either by Germany or the Soviet Union.

The Final Steps to European War:

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At the start of 1939, Hitler had had no plans for war even against Poland. Since the Munich crisis, diplomatic pressure had been put on Poland to consider the return of the Prussian city of Danzig to the Reich, and to discuss possible readjustments to the status of the ‘Polish Corridor’ which separated East Prussia from the rest of Germany.

In March, the Polish Foreign Minister, Josef Beck, had given a firm refusal to these requests. Stung by what he saw as intransigence on the part of the Poles, Hitler ordered the armed forces to prepare for war against Poland. At the end of April, the Polish-German Non-Aggression pact of 1934 was abrogated by Germany, and across the summer months, German forces prepared ‘Plan White’, the planned annihilation of the Polish resistance. But Lord Halifax, the British Foreign Secretary was not so taken aback. Four months previously, he had warned the British Cabinet of the possibility of a deal between Stalin and Hitler. Both the British and French governments now realised that the agreement between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany freed Hitler’s hands for an invasion of Poland – and so it proved.

On 1 September, German troops crossed into Poland and two days later, Britain, in accordance with its treaty obligations with Poland, declared war on Germany. Hitler had expected a local war with Poland, lasting a matter of weeks. Instead, he now faced, at least potentially, a major European war with Britain and France.

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The Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, 23 August:

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above: Molotov (seated), Ribbentrop (standing, left) and Stalin at the moment of the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact in the Kremlin in August 1939. Stalin, as this picture shows, was happy and at ease with the Nazi Foreign Minister.

Laurence Rees (2008) has pointed out that, by the summer of 1939, pragmatism had taken precedence over principle. Hitler wanted the German Army to invade Poland within a matter of days. As he saw it, there were German territories to retrieve – the city of Danzig, West Prussia, and the former German lands around Posen, as well as the rest of Poland’s valuable agricultural lands to conquer. But he knew that any into Poland risked war with Britain and France. Moreover, from the Nazi point of view, a vast question hung over their plan to invade Poland; what would be the reaction of the Soviet Union, Poland’s neighbour to the east? If the Soviet Union formed an alliance with the French and the British, how would the Germans react to encirclement by enemies?

So, that summer, off the back of trade talks that were happening in Berlin, the Germans began to sound out the Soviets about a possible treaty of convenience. By 2 August, the urgency of the Germans was palpable. The economic treaty between Germany and the Soviet Union was signed on 19 August in Berlin. Ribbentrop then pressed the Soviets to allow him to come to Moscow to sign a non-aggression treaty. When the Soviets seemed to dither, Hitler stepped in personally and wrote an appeal to Stalin to allow Ribbentrop to go to Moscow. The Soviets relented and Ribbentrop arrived there on the 23rd. The motivation of the Germans was not difficult to fathom. Hitler’s long-term policy was still to view the Soviet Union as the ultimate enemy. As far as he was concerned, its Slavic people were not ‘worthy’ of owning the rich farmland they currently possessed. His almost messianic vision was that one day soon there would be a new German Empire on that land. But he was not concerned, for now, to pursue visions. This was the time to deal with the urgent, practical problems of neutralising a potential aggressor. The Nazi régime acted with at a speed that impressed even the Soviets, as Molotov testified in a speech in September:

The fact that Mr Ribbentrop acted at a tempo of 650 kilometres an hour called forth the Soviet government’s sincere admiration. His energy and his strength of will were a pledge to the firmness of the friendly relations that had been created with Germany.

Yet whilst it was relatively easy to see what the Germans were getting out of the deal, it was, initially, far less simple to explain the attitude of the Soviets. Unlike the Germans, they had a choice and could have accepted the offer of an alliance with the British and the French. At a cursory glance, that seemed to be the logical course of action, not least because they had signed a non-aggression treaty with Poland in July 1932 and neither of the two western democracies was as vehemently antipathetic to the USSR as the Nazis. In addition, the British had already made peaceful overtures towards Moscow. But Stalin knew that Britain had preferred a policy of appeasement to the Germans to an alliance with the Soviets, and he still felt insulted by Chamberlain’s failure to consult him about the Munich Agreement of a year earlier. Moreover, the fact that it had taken the British until the Nazi occupation of the Czech lands on 15 March 1939 to realise the potential benefits of a treaty with the Soviet Union did not impress Stalin. Five days earlier, he had made a speech to the 18th Party Congress in Moscow in which he talked of a war being waged by…

aggressor states who in every way infringe upon the interests of the the interests of the non-aggressive states, primarily Britain, France and the USA, while the latter draw back and retreat, making concession after concession to the aggressors. Thus we are witnessing an open redivision of the world and spheres of influence at the expense of the non-aggressive states, without the least attempt at resistance, and even with a certain connivance, on their part. Incredible, but true.

‘Spheres of Influence’:

Ribbentrop began the negotiations with the following statement:

The Führer accepts that the eastern part of Poland and Bessarabia as well as Finland, Estonia and Latvia, up to the river Duena, will all fall within the Soviet sphere of influence.

Stalin objected at once to these proposals, insisting that the entire territory of Latvia fall within the ‘Soviet sphere of influence’. The meeting was immediately adjourned until Ribbentrop had contacted Hitler about this request. The Führer was waiting for news of the negotiations at the Berghof, his retreat in the mountains of Bavaria. Herbert Döring, the SS officer who administered the Berghof and witnessed the events of that day, noted the reactions of the commanders meeting there to the news that Ribbentrop was about to sign a non-aggression pact with the Soviets:

The generals were upset, they were looking at each other… It took their breath away that such a thing could be possible. Stalin the Communist, Hitler the National Socialist, that these two would certainly unite. What was behind it, nobody knew.

Suddenly, the call came through from Ribbentrop with the news of Stalin’s demand. Döring recalled:

Hitler was speechless during the phone call, everybody noticed. Stalin had put a pistol to his head. 

Hitler agreed to ‘hand over’ the whole of Latvia to Stalin. The main details of the ‘spheres of influence’ were enshrined in a secret protocol to the pact. Then the conversation in Moscow became more discursive as Stalin revealed his frank views about his ‘dislike and distrust’ of the British:

… they are skilful and stubborn opponents. But the British Army is weak. If England is still ruling the world it is due to the stupidity of other countries which let themselves be cheated. It is ridiculous that only a few hundred British are still able to rule the vast Indian population.

Stalin went on to assert that the British had tried to prevent Soviet-German understanding for many years and that it was a ‘good idea’ to put an end to these ‘shenanigans’. But there was no open discussion in Moscow of the Nazi’s immediate plans to invade Poland, nor what the Soviet response to it was expected to be. The nearest Ribbentrop came to outlining Nazi intentions was when he said:

The government of the German Reich no longer finds acceptable the persecution of the German population in Poland and the Führer is determined to resolve the German-Polish disputes without delay.

The Polish Corridor, which had been intended by the framers of the Versailles Treaty to cut off East Prussia from the rest of Germany, had long been presented as a ‘casus belli’ by the Nazis, as had the ethnically German Baltic Port of Danzig, but as Hitler had told a conference of generals in May 1939,

Danzig is not the real issue, the real point is for us to open up our ‘Lebensraum’ to the east and ensure our supplies of foodstuffs.

Yet Hitler was driven by more than simple practicalities. The forthcoming war over Poland was to be an existential conflict, fulfilling the promises he had made fourteen years before in his political testimony Mein Kampf. The German master race would subjugate the Slavs – Untermenschen  (subhumans) according to Nazi precepts of racial hierarchy – and use their territory to nurture a new Aryan civilization. This was to be the world’s first wholly ideological war, and, as Andrew Roberts has written, the reason why the Nazis eventually lost it. By August 1939, Danzig and the Polish Corridor had become the focal point for Nazi propaganda.

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The Non-Aggression Pact between the Soviet Union and Germany was finally signed in the early hours of 24 August 1939. German and Soviet photographers were allowed into the room to immortalise the unlikely friendship that had blossomed between the two countries. But Stalin’s last words to Ribbentrop were spoken with apparent sincerity:

I assure you that the Soviet Union takes this pact very seriously. I guarantee on my word of honour that the Soviet Union will not betray its new partner.

Back at the Berghof, the atmosphere grew ever more anxious in the hours before news of the signing of the pact came through. Herbert Döring watched that evening as Hitler and his guests stared at a dramatic sky over the high mountain peaks. He recalled that:

The entire sky was in turmoil. It was blood-red, green, sulphur grey, black as the night, a jagged yellow. Everyone was looking horrified – it was intimidating. … Everyone was watching. Without good nerves one could easily have become frightened.

Döring observed Hitler’s reaction to the remark of one of his guests, a Hungarian woman:

“My Führer, this augers nothing good. It means blood, blood, blood and again blood.” Hitler was totally shocked. … He was almost shaking. He said, “If it has to be, then let it be now.” He was agitated, completely crazed. His hair was wild. His gaze was locked on the distance. Then, when the good news that the pact had been signed finally arrived, Hitler said goodbye, went upstairs and the evening was over.

The reaction in Britain to the rapprochement between Germany and the Soviet Union might have lacked the drama on the terrace at the Berghof, but it was certainly one of immense surprise. It was a new and incomprehensible chapter in German diplomacy, as one British newsreel declared, asking what has happened to the principles of ‘Mein Kampf’?… what can Russia have in common with Germany? All over the world, Communist parties, who had been campaigning for a ‘Popular Front’ against Fascism, struggled to make sense of the new reality. In Germany, the Nazis were equally non-plussed by the news. SS officer Hans Bernhard heard of the news of the signing of the pact as he waited with his unit to invade Poland. For him, it came as…

… a surprise without doubt. We couldn’t make sense of it. …in German propaganda for years it had been made clear that the Bolsheviks were our main enemy. … (it was) politically unnatural.

Blitzkrieg & the Partition of Poland:

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The German armed forces made meticulous preparations for the Polish war. They committed fifty-two divisions (against Poland’s thirty), organised into five armies surrounding Poland on three sides. They included five Panzer divisions of three hundred tanks each, four light divisions, with fewer tanks and some horses, and four fully motorised divisions, with lorry-borne infantry. These tank and motorised divisions spearheaded the attack, supported by 1,500 aircraft. Altogether, they had 3,600 operational aircraft and much of the ‘Kriegsmarine’, the German navy. Poland had only thirty infantry divisions, eleven cavalry brigades, two mechanised brigades, three hundred medium and light tanks, 1,154 field guns and four hundred combat-ready aircraft, of which only thirty-six were not obsolete. They had a fleet of only four modern destroyers and five submarines. Although these forces comprised fewer than a million men, Poland tried to mobilise its reservists, but that was far from complete when the devastating blow fell at the hands of 630,000 German troops under Bock and 886,000 under Rundstedt.

Polish forces planned to fight a holding action before falling back on the defence of Warsaw. When the campaign opened German forces moved with great speed and power, quickly penetrating the defensive screen and encircling Polish troops. At 17:30 hours on 31 August, Hitler ordered hostilities to commence the next morning, and at 04:45 on Friday, 1 September, German forces activated Plan White, which had been formulated that June by the German Army High Command (OKH), with Hitler merely putting his imprimatur on the final document.  At this early stage in the war, there was a good deal of genuine mutual respect between Hitler and his generals, so that the Führer did not interfere too closely in the troop dispositions and planning. Neither was he cowed by his generals, as he knew that, had he been a German citizen, he would have been commissioned and have emerged from the Great War in command of a battalion. Moreover, his two Iron Crosses gave him some standing with his generals. Despite being mocked as ‘Corporal Hitler’ by the former Lieutenant-Colonel Churchill, he showed no inferiority complex when dealing directly with soldiers who had outranked him by far in the previous conflict.

According to ‘Plan White’, on either side of a relatively weak and stationary centre, two powerful wings of the Wehrmacht would envelop Poland and crush its armed forces. Army Group North would smash through the Polish Corridor, take Danzig, unite with the German Third Army in East Prussia and move swiftly capture Warsaw from the north. Meanwhile, an even stronger Army Group South, under von Rundstedt, would punch between the larger Polish forces facing it, push east all the way to Lvov, but also assault Warsaw from the west and north. As dawn broke on 1 September, Heinkel bombers, with top speeds of 350kph carrying two thousand kilogram loads, as well as Dorniers and Junkers (Stuka) dive-bombers, began pounding Polish roads, airfields, railway junctions, munitions dumps, mobilisation centres and cities, including Warsaw. Meanwhile, the ship Schleswig Holstein in Danzig harbour started shelling the Polish garrison at Westerplatte. The Stukas had special sirens attached whose screams hugely intensified the terror of those below. Much of the Polish Air Force was destroyed on the ground, and air superiority was quickly won by the Luftwaffe. The Messerschmitt Me-109 had a top speed of 470kph, and the far slower Polish planes stood little chance, however brave their pilots. Furthermore, Polish anti-aircraft defences, where there were any, were wholly inadequate.

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The strategy of having a weak centre and two powerful flanks was a brilliant one, believed to have derived from the pre-Great War Schlieffen Plan. Whatever the provenance, it worked well, slipping German armies neatly between the Polish ones, enabling them to converge on Warsaw from different angles almost simultaneously. Yet what made it irresistible was not the preponderance in men and arms, but above all the military doctrine of ‘Blitzkrieg’. Poland was a fine testing ground for these tactics. Although it had lakes, forests and bad roads, it was nonetheless flat, with immensely wide fronts and firm, late-summer ground ideal for tanks. Since the British and French governments had given their guarantee to Poland on 1 April 1939, with the British PM Neville Chamberlain formally promising ‘all support in the power’ of the Allies, Hitler was forced to leave a large proportion of his hundred-division Army on the Siegfried Line or ‘West Wall’, a three-mile-deep series of still-incomplete fortifications along  Germany’s western frontier. The fear of a war on two fronts led the Führer to leave no fewer than forty divisions to protect his back. His best troops, however, along with all his armoured and mobile divisions and almost all his aircraft, he devoted to the attack on Poland.

In charge of the two armoured divisions and two light divisions of Army Group North was General Heinz Guderian, a long-time exponent of the tactics of Blitzkrieg. Wielding his force as a homogeneous entity, by contrast with Army Group South where tanks were split up among different units, Guderian scored amazing successes as he raced ahead of the main body of the infantry. Polish retaliation was further hampered by vast numbers of refugees taking to the roads. once they were bombed and machine-gunned from the air, chaos ensued. It soon became clear to everyone, except the ever hopeful Poles, that the Western Allies were not about to assault the Siegfried Line, even though the French had eighty-five divisions facing the forty German. Fear of massive German air attacks devastating London and Paris partly explained Allied inaction, but even if they had attacked in the west, Poland could not have been saved in time. Although the RAF had reached France by 9 September, the main British Expeditionary Force (BEF) did not start to arrive until the next day.

What the Allies did not fully appreciate at this stage was the ever-present fear in Hitler’s calculations that there would be an attack in the west before Poland was defeated. In particular, he thought there might be a secret agreement between the French and Belgian general staffs for a surprise thrust by the French high-speed motorised forces through Belgium and over the German frontier into the industrial zone of the Ruhr. In addition, he suspected that there might also be an agreement between the British and the Dutch for a surprise landing of British troops in Holland in order to attack the German north flank. In the event, it turned out that no such agreements were in place. As the Poles retreated, seven thousand ethnic Germans in Poland were massacred by their Polish neighbours and the retreating troops. The Poles did this on the basis of their fear of betrayal, but the Nazis soon responded in cold blood, and on a far larger scale.

By 5 September, the Polish Corridor was completely cut off. On the night of 6 September, France made a token invasion of Germany, advancing five miles into the Saarland along a fifteen-mile-wide front, capturing a dozen abandoned German villages. The Germans retreated behind the Siegfried Line and waited. As France was still mobilising, no further action was taken and five days later, the French troops returned to their original positions with orders only to undertake reconnaissance over the frontier. This was hardly the all-out support of the Allies, and Hitler did not have to remove a single soldier from the Polish front. Meanwhile, by the eighth, the Polish Pomorze Army was encircled in the north and the German Tenth Army reached the outskirts of Warsaw but was initially repulsed by the fierce Polish resistance.  Despite years of threats by Hitler, the Poles had not built extensive fixed defences, preferring to rely on counter-attacks. This all changed in early September when the city centre of Warsaw witnessed makeshift barricades being thrown up, anti-tank ditches dug and turpentine barrels made ready for ignition. However, at the same time, the Eighth Army had soon broken over and around the Polish Kraków and Lodz armies by the 17th. The Polish Government fled first to Lublin and then to Romania, where they were welcomed at first, but were later interned under pressure from Hitler. Hitler’s plan had been to seize Warsaw before the US Congress met on 21 September, so as to present it and the world with a fait accompli, but that was not quite what was to happen.

On 9 September, Hermann Göring predicted that the Polish Army would never emerge again from the German embrace. Until then, the Germans had operated a textbook attack, but that night General Tadeusz Kutrzebra of the Poznán Army took over the Pomorze Army and crossed the Bzuta river in a brilliant attack against the flank of the German Eighth Army, launching the three-day battle of Kutno which incapacitated an entire German division. Only when the Panzers of the Tenth Army returned from besieging Warsaw were the Poles forced back. According to German propaganda, some Polish cavalry charged German tanks armed only with lances and sabres, but this did not, in fact, happen at all. Nonetheless, as Mellenthin observed:

All the dash and bravery which the Poles frequently displayed could not compensate for a lack of modern arms and serious tactical training.

By contrast, the Wehrmacht training was completely modern and impressively flexible: some troops could even perform in tanks, as infantrymen and artillerymen, while all German NCOs were trained to serve as officers if the occasion demanded. Of course, it helped enormously that the Germans were the aggressors, and so knew when the war was going to start. In fact, they were fighting their fifth war of aggression in seventy-five years, and they were simply better at it than the Allies. Blitzkrieg required extraordinarily close co-operation between the services, and the Germans achieved it triumphantly. It took the Allies half a war to catch up.

But as the Germans invaded Poland from the west, the Soviet Union made no more to invade from the east. Consequently, Ribbentrop was concerned about Stalin’s reaction to any German incursion into eastern Poland, the region that adjoined the Soviet Union and that it had just been agreed was within the Soviet sphere of influence. He cabled Schulenberg, the German ambassador in Moscow, on 3 September:

We should naturally, however, for military reasons, have to continue to take action against such Polish military forces as are at that time located in the Polish territory belonging to the Russian sphere of influence. Please discuss this at once with Molotov and see if the Soviet Union does not consider it desirable for Russian forces to move at the proper time against Polish forces in the Russian sphere of influence and, for their part, to occupy this territory. In our estimation this would not only be a relief for us, but also, in the sense of the Moscow agreements, be in the Soviet interest as well.

But the Western Allies had just declared war on Germany because they had agreed by treaty to protect Poland against aggression. If the Red Army moved into eastern Poland, would they now decide to fight the Soviet Union as well? The Soviet leaders were concerned that a pact which, from their point of view, was designed to keep them out of European war might now drag them into it. But there remained strong arguments in favour of military action. The Soviets recognised the material benefits to be gained from annexing a large chunk of the neighbouring country with which they had historical scores to settle. Stalin was still bitter about the war the Bolsheviks had fought with the Poles after the Revolution and the Treaty of Versailles, and before the USSR came into being. The Curzon Line, the proposed border at that time between Poland and its neighbours, was used to agree on the spheres of influence in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Moreover, ethnic Poles were not in a majority in these eastern territories. Around forty per cent of the population were of Polish origin, thirty-four per cent were Ukrainian and nine per cent Belarusian. This, the Soviet propagandists realised, allowed any incursion to be couched as an act of ‘liberation’, freeing the ‘local’ population from Polish domination. A combination of all these factors meant that on 9 September, Molotov finally replied to Ribbentrop’s cable of the 3rd, to say that the Red Army was about to move into the agreed Soviet ‘sphere’ in Poland. At a meeting in Moscow the following day with the German ambassador, Molotov told Schulenburg that the pretext for the invasion would be that the Soviet Union was helping Ukrainians and Belarusians. This argument, he said, …

… was to make the intervention of the Soviet Union plausible and at the same time avoid giving… it the appearance of an aggressor. 

With only three Polish divisions covering the eight-hundred-mile-long eastern border, it came as a complete surprise when at dawn on 17 September, in accordance with the secret clauses of the Nazi-Soviet Pact that had been agreed on 24 August. The Russians wanted revenge for their defeats at Poland’s hands in 1920, access to the Baltic States and a buffer zone against Germany, and they opportunistically grabbed all three, without any significant resistance. Soviet forces began to cross the frontier in the east against only light resistance, led by Marshal Kovalov in the north on the Belarusian front and Marshal Timoshenko in the south on the Ukrainian front. In a radio broadcast the same day, Molotov justified the Soviet action by the ‘plausible’ argument he had outlined to Schulenberg. Caught between the two great powers, Polish fighting power evaporated. Warsaw surrendered on 27 September. The following day all Polish resistance ceased. The Red Army was initially welcomed in many places and there was confusion in some places as to whether this was an actual invasion at all. Perhaps, some thought, the Soviet troops had really come to ‘help’. Maybe they would just motor through the flat countryside of eastern Poland and confront the Germans, who had already captured most of the west of the country. The photograph below reveals that there was little panic on the streets.

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The total losses of the Red Army in Poland amounted to only 734 killed. Stalin continued to use Polish ‘colonialism’ in the Ukraine and Belorussia as his casus belli, arguing that the Red Army had invaded Poland in order to restore peace and order. The Poles were thus doubly martyred, smashed between the Nazi hammer and the Soviet anvil, and were not to regain their independence and self-government until November 1989, half a century later. By mid-September, the Germans had already moved into several areas behind Warsaw and had indeed taken Brest-Litovsk and Lvov, but some fighting had broken out between Cossacks and Germans, with two of the former killed in one incident and fifteen Germans in another. The campaign cost 8,082 German lives with 27,278 wounded and the loss of 285 aircraft, whereas seventy thousand Polish soldiers and twenty-five thousand civilians had been killed, with 130,000 soldiers wounded. Mellenthin concluded that:

The operations were of considerable value in “blooding” our troops and teaching them the difference between real war with live ammunition and peacetime manoeuvres.

The whole of western Poland came under German control. On 28 September, Soviet and German representatives met to draw up a demarcation line which gave Warsaw to the Germans and the Baltic states as a sphere of interest to the USSR. Almost at once the German authorities began to break Poland up. Silesia and the Corridor became parts of the Reich, and a central Polish area called the General Government was placed under a Nazi administrator, Hans Frank. Thousands of Polish intellectuals were rounded up and murdered. Peasants were removed from their villages in parts of western Poland and replaced by German settlers. Hitler had been right to calculate that Britain and France would give Poland little help, but he was wrong about localising the conflict. Although Britain and France declared war on 3 September, there were only isolated raids by Allied scouting parties and aircraft. After the defeat of Poland Hitler wanted to wage a winter campaign in the west, but was prevented from doing so by bad weather, and both sides sat through the winter and early spring of a ‘phoney war’.

In eastern Poland, casual abuse of the ‘class enemies’ of the Communist system turned into a widespread and systematic arrest. On 27 September, just ten days after Red Army troops had crossed into Poland – the Soviets came for Boguslava Gryniv’s father. He was a prominent lawyer and head of the regional branch of the Ukrainian National Democratic Party (UNDO), a legally constituted organisation. When there was a knock at their door the Gryniv family were surprised to see a member of the local Soviet authority, as it was a church holiday and they were about to celebrate with a family meal. But they took his father away anyway, leaving the family to pray for him not to be punished and to be returned to them. He was one of the first of many to suffer at the hands of the Soviets in eastern Poland. Altogether, between September 1939 and June 1941, around 110,000 people were arrested during the reign of terror facilitated by the occupation of eastern Poland. Aristocrats, intellectuals, trade unionists, churchmen, politicians, veterans of the 1920-21  Russo-Polish War, anyone who might form the nucleus of new national leadership, were arrested by the NKVD and sent to concentration camps from which virtually none emerged.

As in the case of Boguslava Gryniv’s father, individual arrests of members of the intelligentsia and others thought of as a threat to the new régime began from the moment the Red Army arrived in mid-September. Gryniv was sent to the local jail immediately upon arrest, a small cell that usually held drunks and petty criminals. All the most important people who had remained in the town were in this prison. They thought it was simply a ‘misunderstanding’. However, about three weeks later he was taken to Chertkov, where he discovered that all he was accused of was membership of UNDA, a legal organisation before the invasion which was by no means anti-Bolshevik. However, in reality, he was seen as a dangerous member of the previous ‘ruling class’. He disappeared from the prison towards the end of 1939 and fifty years later his family finally learnt that he had been murdered by the NKVD in the spring of 1940.

On the same day that Boguslava Gryniv’s father was arrested, the Soviet government’s new best friend, Joachim von Ribbentrop returned to the Kremlin to finalise the exact borders that would exist between them. After tough negotiations lasting until five in the morning, it was agreed that the Germans would get Warsaw and Lublin, and the Russians the rest of eastern Poland and a free hand in the Baltic. The Germans withdrew from towns such as Brest-Litovsk and Bialystock in the new Russian sector, and the fourth partition in Poland’s history was effectively complete. The Soviets had obtained the lands in their ‘sphere’ without meeting any serious opposition and without even making a formal declaration of war on Poland. Molotov would have done well, however, to take note of Hitler’s statement made many years before in Mein Kampf:

Let no one argue that in concluding an alliance with Russia we need not immediately think of war, or, if we did, that we could thoroughly prepare for it. An alliance whose aim does not embrace a plan for war is senseless and worthless. Alliances are concluded only for struggle.

The Germans had faced fierce Polish resistance in the west, but they had completely consolidated their hold on these lands. After a full day of bombing on 25 September, with no prospect of meaningful help from the Western Allies, a full-scale ‘invasion’ from the Russians in the east, and communications cut between Smigly-Rydz and much of his army, and with food and medical supplies running dangerously low, Warsaw capitulated on 28 September. It was then three days before the Germans agreed to help the wounded in the city, by which time it was too late for many of them. Field kitchens were set up only for as long as the newsreel cameras were there. By 5 October, all resistance had ended; 217,000 Polish soldiers were taken captive by the Russians, and 693,000 by the Germans. On that day, Hitler travelled to Warsaw in his special train to visit his victorious troops. Take a good look around Warsaw, he told the war correspondents there, … that is how I can deal with any European city.

What was to be called the policy of  Schrecklichkeit (frightfulness) had begun as soon as the Germans had entered Poland. For the master race to have their ‘living space’, large numbers of Slavic and Jewish Untermenschen had to disappear, and during the rest of the war, Poland lost 17.2 per cent of its population. The commander of three Totenkopf (Death’s Head) SS regiments, Theodor Eicke, ordered his men to ‘incarcerate or annihilate’ every enemy of National Socialism they found as they followed the troops into Poland. Since Nazism was a racial ideology, that meant that huge swathes of the Polish people were automatically classed as enemies of the Reich, to whom no mercy could be shown. Fortunately, between ninety and a hundred thousand Polish combatants managed to flee the country via Lithuania, Hungary and Romania, eventually making their way to the west to join the Free Polish forces under General Wladyslaw Sikorski, the Prime Minister in exile, who was in Paris when the war broke out and set up a government in exile in Angers in France.

The Wehrmacht took an active part in the violence, burning down 531 towns and villages, and killing thousands of Polish POWs. The claim made by German soldiers that they had been simple soldiers who had known nothing of the genocide against the Slavs and the Jews, was a lie. The nature of the SS had become immediately apparent upon the invasion of Poland. On 5 September 1939, a thousand civilians were shot by them at Bydgoszcz, and at Piotrków the Jewish district was torched. The next day nineteen Polish officers who had surrendered were shot at Mrocza. Meanwhile, the entire Jewish population began to be herded into ghettos across Poland. Even Jewish farmers were forced into ghettos, despite the obvious need for efficient food production in the new eastern satrapy of the Third Reich, early evidence that the Nazis were willing to put their war against the Jews even before their war against the Allies. In Bydgoszcz, they were locked in their synagogue on the Day of Atonement and denied access to lavatories, forcing them to use prayer shawls to clean themselves. Far worse was to come…

(to be continued…)

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Annihilation & Liberation in Warsaw & Paris: August – October 1944 (I).   Leave a comment

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above: a street in Warsaw. The Germans destroyed the city in the summer and autumn of 1944.

Introduction – An Appalling Martyrdom:

The approach of the Red Army to Warsaw at the end of July had encouraged the anti-Communist ‘Armia Krajowa’, the Polish Home Army, to attempt an uprising at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, 1 August 1944, under their Generals Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski and Antoni Chrusciel. As a consequence of this decision, for more than the full two months of August and September 1944, Warsaw suffered an appalling martyrdom as the SS moved in to destroy the Polish insurgents with every kind of inhumane warfare. The result was a desperate and tragic struggle by the Warsaw Poles, just as the Warsaw Ghetto Rising of April 1943 had been for the Polish Jews. The Uprising was crushed with maximum ferocity by the SS in just sixty-three days, which was nonetheless a remarkable length of time for resistance when it is considered that only fourteen per cent of the Home Army were even armed when it began, with only 108 machine guns, 844 sub-machine guns and 1,386 rifles. Warsaw became a city reduced to ruins, where even the ruins were blasted by German guns and aircraft: the dead lay entombed in the ruins and the wounded lay untended on roads or suffered their last agonies in gloomy cellars. Those fighting from the sewers were finished off by gas grenades flung on them by German troops.

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The Poles, understandably, had wanted to wrest control of their capital and the sovereignty of their country, away from the Germans before the arrival of the Russians, who they correctly assumed to have no more desire for genuine Polish independence than the Nazis. So, while the Uprising was aimed militarily against the Germans, it was also aimed politically at the Soviets, something that Stalin understood only too well. Appeals for Soviet aid fell on deaf ears, giving the impression at first of glacial indifference and latterly of unbending hostility. The Soviet policy seemed to soften somewhat in mid-September, but by that time the underground army had been throttled. Meanwhile, of lesser note but no less tragic, the rising in Slovakia petered out, though on this occasion Soviet troops fought as best they could to bring direct military aid to the insurgents: the gamble did not come off, however, as Koniev failed to break through to rebel-held territory and Soviet units were left to fight gruelling battles in the Carpathians until late November 1944.

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Laurence Rees’ recent book Behind Closed Doors (2008), drawing on material only available since the opening of the Kremlin archives, provides a detailed account of the Moscow meeting between Prime Minister Mikolajczyk and other representatives of the Polish government in exile in London on the one side and Stalin and Molotov on the other. Given the entrenched positions of each of the parties and the massive disparity in real power, the meeting held on 3rd August was destined to be a failure. What was most remarkable, however, was the manner in which Mikolajczyk misjudged the situation. He knew that, as he talked with Stalin in the Kremlin, the fate of millions in Warsaw rested on the result. But despite the urgency of the situation there, the Uprising was the fourth point on his agenda, following a series of points referring back to the Soviet invasion of 1941. Even then, it was dealt with within the context of the exiled Poles’ desire to carry out elections in Poland based on universal suffrage. However, at the end of this all this verbiage, Mikolajczyk finally came directly to the most pressing point: I now have to ask you to order help to be given to our units fighting in Warsaw.  Stalin replied that he would ‘give the necessary orders’, by which he meant that he alone would decide what was required, and he then remarked that he had noticed the absence in Mikolajczyk’s remarks of any reference to the Lublin Poles, the Committee of National Liberation, with whom the Soviets had already concluded an agreement. Mikolajczyk gave a lengthy and emotional response to this, including the plea that:

The four main Polish political parties which are represented in this government (the London Poles) and have for five years carried on the struggle against Germany should have a say in the matter.

Stalin dismissed this view, saying that he had agreed to meet the London Poles, at Churchill’s request, in order to discuss a ‘union’ with the Lublin Poles. Mikolajczyk then made the extraordinary request that he be allowed ‘to go to Warsaw’. Stalin had to remind him that ‘the Germans are there’. The two men then reiterated their respective positions. Stalin wanted the London Poles to deal with the Lublin Poles, and Mikolajczyk restated that, though he would co-operate with the Lublin Poles, they represented a very small section of Polish opinion. While the two ‘sides’ may have been talking to each other, there was certainly no meeting of minds. Stalin spoke increasingly more directly, openly revealing his scorn for the Polish Home Army:

What is an army without artillery, tanks and an air force? They are often short of rifles. In modern warfare such an army is of little use. They are small partisan units, not a regular army. I was told that the Polish government had ordered these units to drive the Germans out of Warsaw. I wonder how they could possibly do this – their forces are not up to that task. As a matter of fact these people do not fight against the Germans, but only hide in woods, being unable to do anything else.

He added, ominously, that ‘the Poles quarrel among themselves’ and that this was something that, in the future, the Soviets would not allow to continue. Of course, there was no real comparison to be made between the representatives of the Polish government in exile and the group that the Soviets had set up in Lublin. But Stalin became so intransigent on the question of the recognition of the Lublin Poles that the minute-taker felt compelled to write: There is a general feeling that the discussion has become futile… The meeting ended just before midnight. Mikolajczyk was partly to blame for his own humiliation at Stalin’s hands, simply because instead of focusing the agenda on the one practical measure that needed at that moment, support for the Warsaw Uprising, he tried to pretend that he was dealing with an equal and to discuss matters which the Soviet leadership did not want to discuss. In sharp contrast to Stalin’s reticence to help the Poles, Churchill reacted quickly to the plight of Warsaw’s inhabitants. Their fight in the streets and parks of the city was precisely the sort of romantic endeavour that appealed to him. On 4th August, the day after Stalin’s meeting with the Polish delegation in Moscow, Churchill sent a cable to the Soviet leader which read:

At the urgent request of the Polish underground army, we are dropping, subject to the weather, about sixty tons of equipment and ammunition into the south-western corner of the city where, it is said, a Polish revolt against the Germans is in fierce struggle. They also say that they appeal for Russian aid, which seems very near. They are being attacked by one and a half German divisions.  This may be of help to your operations. 

Heroes and Villains:

Tadeusz Roman was one of the Polish RAF pilots who tried to help the insurgents in Warsaw. Twenty-five years old, he had served time in a Soviet prison after being caught trying to flee from eastern Poland. After the armistice of 1941, he had made his way west and joined RAF Bomber Command. Now based at Brindisi in southern Italy as part of the Polish Flight, it was not just a matter of honour to help the insurrection. His brother was in the underground army, and Tadeusz thought, mistakenly as it happened, that he was in Warsaw, but, in any case, all the Polish pilots volunteered to take part in the long flight, one of the most dangerous of the war, taking between ten and eleven hours. Starting on 4th August, flights left both Bari and Brindisi, with the airmen of the Polish Flight initially dominating the operation. Between then and the end of September more than two hundred flights were made, dropping a total of more than a hundred tons of supplies. Around eighty Polish airmen lost their lives in the operation, together with more than a hundred other Allied flyers, many of whom were South African. The dangers confronting the bombers were not just from the air defences around Warsaw but from the lengthy and tortuous route over German-occupied territory on the way to the Polish capital and back. Tadeusz’s own luck ran out on 28 August, just after he and his comrades had dropped their supplies over Warsaw. Flying low, at two thousand feet, anti-aircraft fire smashed into one of their engines. Over Krakow, they were hit again, but they managed to coax the plane back to Italy, where they crash-landed on the airport’s perimeter. The other three planes that accompanied him on that night’s mission never returned.

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Meanwhile, Mikolajczyk had left Moscow and returned to London. At his last meeting with Stalin, in the Kremlin on the evening of 9 August, he told the Soviet leader that his talks with the Lublin Poles had convinced him that they would eventually reach an agreement. But when he asked Stalin again for ‘immediate assistance’ for Warsaw, he was met with obfuscation: It would be different if our armies were approaching Warsaw, Stalin told him, but unfortunately, this is not the case. He went on to explain that a vigorous counter-attack by the Germans had forced the Red Army to delay their move on the Polish capital. He was sorry for your men who started the battle in Warsaw prematurely. The discussion then moved on to examine the practicalities of an airdrop, about which Stalin was sceptical, but he nevertheless again promised to help the Home Army in Warsaw. However, towards the end of the meeting, when the Polish PM asked if Stalin would tell us something to comfort the Polish hearts at this difficult time, Stalin replied that Mikolajczyk that he was attaching too much importance to words: One should distrust words. Deeds are more important than words. Just four days later the TASS news agency announced that, since the London Poles had not notified the Soviets in advance about the uprising, all responsibility for what was happening in the city lay with them. On the night of 15 August, the American Ambassador had a meeting at the Kremlin with Soviet Foreign Ministry officials, after which he sent a cable back to the USA, reporting:

The Soviet Government’s refusal (to help the uprising) is not based on operational difficulties, nor on a denial of the conflict, but on ruthless political calculations.

Clearly, as far as ‘deeds’ were concerned, Stalin failed the Poles in Warsaw. But it is still possible that when he had met Mikolajczyk on 9 August, he had not definitely made up his mind. He had, as yet, given no reply to the Western Allies about his position on the uprising. One possible interpretation is that between the meeting and the TASS statement on the 13th, he changed his mind. On 9th he was inclined to help, but by 13th he had decided that he wouldn’t. Although he had already demonstrated that his determination to disband the Home Army, in these days he knew he faced battles ahead with the Western Allies over the composition of any future Polish administration. He had no reason to expect at this point that the Allies would eventually go along with his wishes and recognize a modified version of his puppet government, and may have calculated in early August that, if he was to be successful in getting the London Poles to agree to be subsumed by the Lublin Poles, he would need to offer some kind of assistance to the Warsaw Uprising. Laurence Rees has concluded that Stalin was always inclined to act as he did and refuse to help the Poles in Warsaw, a refusal which fitted a pattern of behaviour in which the Soviet leader had demonstrated time and again his distrust of the Poles and his desire to see the Home Army ‘neutralised’.

In any event, by 13 August, Stalin had made up his mind and, during the rest of August, the crucial period of the rising, the Soviets gave no assistance, not even with dropping air supplies. Although it is arguable whether the Red Army would have reached Warsaw in August, they faced a counter-attack from the Germans on the 2nd on the front line east of the city, they could have made the air bridge more successful if they had wanted to. In fact, a statement from the Soviet Commissariat for Foreign Affairs to the US’ Moscow Ambassador on 18 August made their policy quite clear:

The Soviet government cannot, of course, object to British or American aircraft dropping arms in the region of Warsaw, since this is an American and British affair. But they decidedly object to British or American aircraft, after dropping arms in the region of Warsaw, landing on Soviet Territory, since the Soviet Government do not wish to associate themselves either directly or indirectly with the adventure in Warsaw. 

Finally, on 22nd, Stalin himself reiterated this message in the clearest, most strident and insulting terms possible. He described the Home Army as a ‘bunch of criminals’, and stated that the Soviets would refuse to help the Western Allies with the airlift. Churchill tried to enlist Roosevelt’s support in sending a combative reply, only to be told by the American President on 26 August that he did not consider that it would prove advantageous to the long-range general war prospect for me to join you in the proposed message to UJ (‘Uncle Joe’ or Stalin). Hugh Lunghi, a member of the British military mission to Moscow, went with the chief of staff of the mission to the Soviet Ministry of Defence to try to get the Soviets to help with the air supplies:

I must have gone there with him almost daily for the first two weeks, and afterwards it became sort of hopeless. We realised they were not going to allow either us or the Americans to land on Soviet territory. And this seemed to us to be the most terrible betrayal, not only of the Poles, but of the Allies. And again, another example of Stalin cutting off his nose to spite his own face, because it meant the Germans would put down this uprising more easily and then the remaining Germans would be available to oppose the Soviet Army. So it seemed quite crazy to us, but also terrible. We were fuming. We were absolutely furious in the military mission.

In reality, however, Stalin had calculated that if he stood back and did nothing, the Home Army would almost certainly be annihilated. And that was what was then happening inside Warsaw. During August, German SS soldiers, supported by various collaborators – including Cossacks from the 15th Cossack Cavalry Corps – conducted a brutal house to house war in the Polish capital. The most notorious SS unit in Warsaw was led by Oskar Dirlewanger. Although he himself had gained a PhD in political science in the 1920s, he presided over a gang of ill-disciplined and bloodthirsty soldiers, most of whom were convicted criminals released from captivity. They were already notorious for their mistreatment of civilians in the occupied Soviet Union. Matthias Schenk, an eighteen-year-old Belgian conscripted into the German Army, served as a demolition engineer in Warsaw alongside Dirlewanger’s Sturmbrigade. In 2008, he was still haunted by what he saw:

Once we went towards a house (which served as a school) with 350 children. We went upstairs and the children came down – children of nine to thirteen years old. They held up their hands … “Nicht Partisan!” … and they stood on the steps. And the SS started to shoot. And then the commander said: “No ammunition – use the butt of the gun!” And the blood spilled down the stairs.

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This was by no means an isolated crime, for the Axis units in the city committed a whole series of atrocities. Many of those witnessed by Matthias Schenk seem purely sadistic, like the point-blank shooting of a little girl and the blowing-up of a thirteen-year-old disabled boy by placing hand grenades in his pocket. Every day in Warsaw, women and children were slaughtered by the occupiers out of their warped sense of ‘fun’. When a hospital held by the Home Army was stormed by the Dirlewanger brigade, Schenk saw, in the aftermath, Polish nurses being sexually assaulted by the SS:

They tore the clothes off these women and jumped on top of them, held them down by means of force … then they were raped … Then Dirlewanger drove them through the (German) crowd, which cajoled and applauded them to the gallows.

These appalling actions were part of a systematic Nazi plan to crush the uprising with brutality. Under the overall command of SS General Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, who had previously supervised the shooting of Jews and partisans in the occupied Soviet Union, the Germans targeted civilians as well as members of the Home Army. By 8 August, in one district of the city alone, the Germans had killed at least forty thousand civilians. The overall atmosphere of the German action against the Poles was captured by the SS commander-in-chief Heinrich Himmler, who later stated that he had told Hitler at the time of the rising that:

From the historical point of view the action of the Poles is a blessing … Warsaw will be liquidated; and this city which is the intellectual capital of a sixteen to seventeen million strong nation that has blocked our path to the east for seven hundred years … will have ceased to exist. By the same token… the Poles themselves will cease to be a problem, for our children and for all who follow us. 

Himmler’s use of language is significant. It is reminiscent of the ‘justification’ he gave to senior Nazis for the extermination of Jewish children. They had to be killed along with their parents, he said, because otherwise, they would only cause problems for future German generations. He had previously told SS officers that there was no point in killing Jewish men and allowing the avengers in the shape of the children to grow up for our sons and grandsons. On 2 September, German troops and their auxiliaries stormed a makeshift hospital treating wounded Home Army fighters. At first, the soldiers took valuables from the wounded, such as gold crosses and watches, but those that followed, many of whom were drunk, raped the women. Twenty-year-old Danuta Galkowa, hiding on a stretcher in the basement, under a blanket, heard the horror being enacted all around her:

It was for them entertainment. They were excited by the fact that the people were yelling. … I was in despair, I was afraid only of rape, because I wouldn’t be able to live through that. 

The wounded men of the Home Army who were present in the cellar could do nothing to protect the women. They had serious stomach wounds, broken legs and arms, and could not move. The horror lasted from eight in the morning until dark, when the troops finally left, setting fire to the hospital as they went. Danuta tried to escape, dragging the wounded Home Army officer who had protected her on the stretcher. She pulled him to the entrance, where the Nazis were shooting those trying to escape. A German auxiliary turned his gun on Danuta but it jammed, and in the smoke, darkness and chaos she managed to get away, over the bodies of those who had been murdered in the courtyard, together with the wounded fighter. Eventually, this man who had saved her life became her husband.

Conflict Among Allies:

The summer and early autumn of 1944 were, therefore, a time of conflict between the Allies, not only over what seemed to be the eternal question of Poland but also over the post-war shape of Europe, and, most particularly, Soviet intentions towards the eastern European countries that they were shortly to occupy. Towards the middle of August 1944, the Soviet general offensive began to slacken, Soviet armies outrunning their supplies since behind them lay an advance of some 350 miles. Soviet troops were on the East Prussian frontier and had bridgeheads on the Vistula and the Narew, while the Soviet command planned to wipe Army Group North off the map. The Finns
had already abandoned the German-Finnish compact and late in August were suing for peace, harsh though the terms proved to be.
In the event, the Romanians beat the Finns in the race to make peace. The Soviet hammer having battered three German Army Groups (North Centre and North Ukraine), it was now the turn of Army Group South Ukraine to fall under it. Even before a shot was fired, however, this Army Group faced disaster, hemmed in as it was between the
Red Army eager to fall on it and the Romanians, who were even more eager to betray it.

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On 20 August, Malinovskii’s 2nd Ukrainian Front launched its attack, encircling five German corps in the Jassy-Kishinev operation, while Tolbukhin’s forces trapped the Romanian 3rd Army. But defeat
in the field was outmatched and outpaced by political events when on August 23rd a coup in Bucharest knocked Romania out of the war with King Michael’s unconditional surrender to the Allies. Romania’s declaration of war on Germany followed in a trice and Romanian troops were ordered not to open fire on the Red Army. The Romanian defection had cataclysmic consequences for Germany with far more
than the fate of an Army Group involved: the fortunes of war in the entire south-eastern theatre had changed virtually overnight. With a German army hopelessly trapped and what was left of two Romanian armies laying down their arms, the whole of southern Bessarabia, the Danube delta and the Carpathian passes lay open to the Red Army. Henceforth neither the Danube nor the Carpathians could bar the Soviet advance and ahead of the Soviet armies lay the route to the Hungarian plains, the gateway to Czechoslovakia and Austria, as well as a highway to Yugoslavia and Bulgaria.

While these battles and the battle for Warsaw raged on, Winston Churchill met with General Wladyslaw Anders, Commander-in-Chief of the free Polish Army, at Polish military headquarters in northern Italy. In the context of the controversy over the future of Poland, this meeting, on 26 August, was one of the most revealing of the war. Churchill began by congratulating Anders on the performance of the Polish II Corps during the campaign in Italy. He also enquired about the ‘mood’ of the soldiers, given what they are going through at the moment. Anders replied that, while the spirit of his men was ‘excellent’, their great concern is for the future of Poland, and at the moment, the current situation in Warsaw. Churchill said that he and President Roosevelt had asked Stalin to help those fighting in Warsaw, but their request had met with a negative response. Churchill assured him that while they were not ready for joint action over Warsaw, the Allies were doing everything they could to provide aid via the air route. After some argument over the future of Poland’s eastern borders with the Soviet Union, Churchill promised that…

… since Great Britain entered this war to defend your independence, then I can assure you that we will never abandon you.

These words were similar to those he had used at the previous meeting of the two men in Cairo, immediately after the Tehran Conference. Anders himself had been imprisoned in Moscow’s Lubyanska prison during the earlier partition of Poland in 1939, and was under no illusions: as he told Churchill, Stalin’s declarations that he wants a free and strong Poland are lies and fundamentally false. Once again, Anders voiced his serious concerns about Soviet intentions based on current as well as past experience, including the massacre at Katyn:

As they enter Poland, the Soviets arrest and deport our women and children deep into Russia as they did in 1939; they disarm the soldiers of our Home Army, they shoot dead our officers and arrest our civil administration, destroying those who fought the Germans continuously since 1939 and fight them still. We have our wives and children in Warsaw, but we would rather they perish than have to live under the Bolsheviks. All of us prefer to perish fighting than to live on our knees.

According to the minutes recorded by camp, Lieutenant Prince Eugene Lubomirski, Churchill was ‘very moved’ by Anders’ words and added to his earlier declaration:

I know that the Germans and Russians are destroying all of your best elements, especially intellectual spheres. … But you must trust – we will not abandon you and Poland will be happy.

Anders, not surprisingly, was somewhat suspicious of Churchill’s words. He was right to be, not because Churchill was being disingenuous, but because Anders knew he was no longer in a position to make such a promise, considering that a Red Army of 6.7 million was already marching into his country. He reminded the British PM that the Soviet Union would be immensely strong after the war; he was sceptical of Churchill’s view that Britain and the United States would be able to restrain the USSR after the war through their superior supplies of planes, tanks and guns. Churchill was not promising that the Western Allies would be prepared to go to war with the Soviet Union if Stalin refused to guarantee Poland’s independence, but his reply implied the possibility of military action, something that he had explicitly ruled out earlier in the year.

Collapse, Courage and Conflict:

By the beginning of September, the entire German defensive system was on the point of collapse. At that point, Bulgaria, which up to this point had been at war solely with Britain and France, made the inexplicable and suicidal decision also to declare war against the USSR on 5 September, only to collapse within twenty-four hours after the Russians crossed the Danube. Bulgaria, Axis ally of Germany but at heart pro-Russian and Slavophile, received Soviet armies without a shot being fired and duly declared war on Germany on 8 September. Hitler still fed on hopes that the entry of Soviet troops into Bulgaria might well speed an Anglo-Soviet collision, as the Red Army made for the Dardanelles – whereupon German troops in Army Group E might act as a ‘kind of police’ (with British approval) to hold the line against Bolshevism. There was certainly Anglo-Soviet rivalry in the Balkans, involving both Yugoslavia and Greece, but nothing to precipitate outright conflict.

The courage and ingenuity of the Poles during the Uprising were truly remarkable. When the Germans cut off the water supply to the city, the Poles bored wells by hand. Then, on 1 September 1,500 defenders had to retreat from a position at State Miasto (Old Town), using the sewers accessible from a single manhole in Krasinski Square. This lay only two hundred and fifty metres from German positions, and General Bór-Komorowski, the Home Army commander, knew that a few gas-bombs through the manholes or an outbreak of panic in the tunnels would prevent anyone from getting out alive. He nonetheless gave the order, since the defenders had nothing more to lose. So, leaving the Old Town completely defenceless in the event of a surprise German attack, the entire force, along with five hundred civilians, including the wounded and a hundred German prisoners, went down the manhole. As Bór-Komorowski wrote:

Slowly, very slowly, the queue of waiting people disappeared … Each person held on to the one ahead. The human serpent was about one and a half miles in length. … There was no time for rest periods, because room had to be made for others who were waiting by the manhole. It was only with the greatest difficulty that the line moved forward, for the water had now almost completely drained away and the mud had been replaced by a thick slime which gripped their legs up to the calf. The soldiers had no sleep at all for several days and their only food had been dry potato flakes. The rifles slung around their necks seemed unbearably heavy and kept clattering along the tunnel walls … The last soldier in the queue entered the manhole just before dawn.

When the Stukas, artillery, tanks and finally infantry attacked the positions the next morning, initially believing the Poles’ silence to be merely a ruse to conserve ammunition, the Germans found their quarry gone. The Poles had escaped, at least for the present.

By this time, and in contrast with Warsaw’s impending fate, the Allied forces had succeeded in liberating Paris, though not without cost in terms of both men and machinery. The Americans had poured forward through gaps in the German defences which had been created by the carpet bombing of Brittany at the end of July. Collins’ VII Corps took Avranches and allowed US forces to attack westwards into the Breton hinterland and eastwards towards Le Mans, proving the value of Patton’s eve-of-battle observation to his Third Army that flanks are something for the enemy to worry about, not us. 

Better communications and better inter-personal relations might have led to an even greater victory at ‘the Falaise Gap’, the mouth of an area eighteen miles wide by ten miles deep known as the Falaise-Argentan pocket, than the one gained by Montgomery, Bradley and Patton between 13 and 19 August. It was the news of a large Allied invasion of the south of France on 15 August, Operation Anvil, with 86,000 troops going ashore on the first day alone. That had persuaded Field Marshal von Kluge to withdraw from the Falaise pocket. The next day, Kluge ordered a general retreat out of the pocket, warning Jodl at the Army Headquarters that it would be a disastrous mistake to entertain hopes that cannot be fulfilled. Panzer Group West, comprising the Seventh and Fifth Panzer Armies, sustained around fifty thousand casualties, while the Allies lost twenty-nine thousand at the Falaise. Eisenhower visited the pocket forty-eight hours after the battle and later described the scene it as…

… unquestionably one of the greatest “killing grounds” of any of the war areas … It was literally possible to walk for hundreds of yards, stepping on nothing but dead and decaying flesh.

With Allied fighter-bombers flying three thousand sorties a day, the twenty thousand German soldiers who did escape, the shattered remnants of the hitherto formidable Panzer Armies including Group Eberbach, did so with their 88mm guns intact. After the war, Bradley and Montgomery blamed each other for the over-caution at Falaise, but Kluge’s defeat there led to his replacement by Field Marshal Model on 17 August and enabled the Allies to make for the Seine and to liberate Paris, which had risen on 23 August. Out of the thirty-nine divisions which took part in the Normandy landings, just one was French, 2e Division Blandée (Armoured) under General Leclerc. It fought very bravely in the battle to close the Falaise Gap, and entered Paris first on 25th, as part of the US Fifth Army, although this did not elicit any noticeable gratitude from the Free French leader, General de Gaulle. He had set foot in France for the first time since 1940 on 14 June, more than a week after D-Day, and only then for a one-day visit to Bayeux, after which he had left for Algiers and did not return to French soil until 20 August. In the meantime, Patton’s Third Army had broken out of Avranches at the end of July and had driven through Brittany.  While the French Resistance, the résistants and maquisards, under a separate command from the Free French forces were hampering German armoured retaliation, de Gaulle played little part in any of this from his base in North Africa.

In Paris, the German commander General Dietrich von Choltitz took the humane and historic decision not to set fire to the city. Hitler had demanded of him that Paris must be destroyed from the top to the bottom, that he should not leave a single church or monument standing. The German High Command earmarked seventy bridges, factories and national landmarks – including the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe and Notre-Dame Cathedral – for destruction. But Choltitz deliberately disobeyed these barbaric instructions and continued to ignore Hitler’s enquiries as to whether Paris was burning. The Germans did not, therefore, fight in the French capital the battle of extirpation that they were simultaneously fighting in Warsaw, bringing about the utter destruction of the Polish capital and two hundred thousand of its people. Instead, Choltitz surrendered and went into captivity as soon as he decently could once the Allied forces arrived. He told the Swedish diplomat who negotiated the terms that he had no wish to be remembered as the man who destroyed Paris. In all, the French lost only seventy-six soldiers in the liberation of Paris, although 1,600 inhabitants were killed in the uprising, six hundred of whom were non-combatants. De Gaulle had asked Eisenhower to allow the French troops to be the first to into the capital, and the Supreme Commander duly gave the order to Leclerc to advance on the city on 22 August.

In any case, the Allies did not see Paris as a prime military objective rather than a purely political one. Eisenhower could spare the French 2e Division from the far greater battles that were taking place right across northern and southern France, fought by British, American and Canadian forces against crack German units. Omar Bradley in his memoirs dismissed Paris as a pen and ink job on the map. The first of Leclerc’s Sherman tanks rolled up the rue de Rivoli at 9.30 a.m. on Friday, 25 August. In the surrender document signed that afternoon by Choltitz and Leclerc, there was no mention of either Great Britain or the United States; the Germans surrendered the city to the French alone. De Gaulle arrived in Paris soon afterwards to make a speech at the Hotel de Ville in which he proclaimed that Paris had been liberated by her own people, with the help of the armies of France, with the help and support of the whole of France, … eternal France. The Allied contribution was summed up in a single phrase. Putting the ‘Liberation’ in context, however, the historian of the Occupation, Ian Ousby, later wrote:

Paris’s concentration of both people and cultural monuments ruled out aerial bombardment and heavy artillery barrages, so taking the city would soak up time and lives in a campaign already behind schedule and high in casualties. Besides, the capture of Paris was not tactically essential.

On the morning of 26 August, de Gaulle led a parade from the Arc de Triomphe down the Champs-Elysées to a thanksgiving service in Notre-Dame. When the head of the National Council of Resistance, Georges Bidault, came up abreast in the parade he hissed, ‘A little to the rear if you please.’ The glory was to be de Gaulle’s alone. Since he did not wish to steal de Gaulle’s limelight, Eisenhower himself did not enter the capital until the following day, five days after he had given the order for the 2e Division to take it.

The Challenge of Leadership:

For his part, although Stalin had decided by the middle of August that the Soviet forces would not support the Home Army in Warsaw, his policy towards the uprising was still not entirely transparent. On 18 September the Soviet authorities overturned their earlier decision and allowed one flight of American bombers en route to Warsaw to refuel on Soviet territory. Also, in the two weeks from 14-28 September, the Soviets themselves dropped supplies on Warsaw. However, since these drops did not involve the use of parachutes, much of the fifty tons of aid provided was destroyed on landing. They were conducted mainly for propaganda purposes so that Stalin could counter the growing outcry of world opinion about Soviet inaction in the face of the destruction of Warsaw, enabling him to demonstrate his public support to the Home Army without offering any effective assistance. Halina Szopinska, a twenty-four-year-old fighter with the Home Army in Warsaw, later testified as to how the airdrops had been a sham:

They had these small planes and would throw dry bread without a parachute and when it fell down it would just break into powder. … They would drop guns without a parachute – ammunition as well. There was no way we could repair it. So they pretended they were helping. They were doing it in such a way that it wouldn’t really help us.

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Above: Halina Szopinska, a member of the Polish underground Home Army (AK), who was captured and tortured by the NKVD in December 1944. She then served ten years in prison.

By the end of August, the NKVD had been told to detain and interrogate all Poles who had taken part in the uprising and who had managed to ‘escape’ into the Soviet part of occupied Poland. These interrogations included brutal beatings and humiliations, such as those endured and testified to by Halina Szopinska. The NKVD regarded them as spies for ‘the English’ as well as for the Germans. Halina was sentenced to ten years in prison and in Lublin Castle, she learnt how former members of the Home Army were executed by firing squad as traitors ‘to the motherland’.

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In the West, on 1 September, Eisenhower took over day-to-day control of all ground forces from Montgomery, much to the latter’s chagrin. Eisenhower’s plan was for a broad advance into Germany, whereas Montgomery wanted a narrow ‘single thrust’ into the heart of the Reich, spearheaded by his 21st Army Group. On the same day that Montgomery put forward his plan, Patton produced one in which his Third Army led the way instead, with characteristic immodesty, calling it the best strategical idea I’ve ever had. Omar Bradley, meanwhile, felt that his drive on Frankfurt ought to be the centre of operations. It is sadly impossible to believe that the best demands of grand strategy, rather than their own egos, actuated these soldiers, and Eisenhower had the difficult task of holding the ring between them and imposing his own view. His greatness, though doubted by Brooke and Montgomery, stems partly from his success in achieving that. Montgomery’s scheme would have required the Scheldt estuary to have been used as a direct supply route into the Rhine, but the Germans continued to hold it long after the fall of Antwerp in September, with the largely undamaged Fifteenth Army to the north of it. His plan to strike off across the North German Plain towards Berlin, crossing the Weser and the Elbe, made little military sense considering the level of resistance offered by the Germans until as late as April 1945 in this territory. It would also have reduced the US Third Army to the minor role of protecting the flank of the British forces.

Instead, the Supreme Commander stuck with his ‘broad front’ approach to the invasion of the Reich, which he believed would bring all our strength against the enemy, all of it mobile, and all of it contributing directly to the complete annihilation of his field forces. Partly because of the efficacy of the V-weapon flying bomb and rocket campaign against Britain, which could be ended only by occupying the launching sites, the main part was still to be the 21st Army Group’s advance through Belgium north of the Ardennes forest and into the Ruhr Valley, which would also close off Germany’s industrial heartland, and thus deny Hitler the resources to carry on the fight. Eisenhower split the 12th Army Group commanded by Bradley in two and sent most of the First Army north of the Ardennes to support Montgomery, leaving Patton’s Third Army to march on the Saar, covered to the south by the 6th Army Group which had made its way up from the Anvil landings in the south of France. By the end of August, Patton had crossed the Marne and was soon able to threaten Metz and the Siegfried Line. To his intense frustration, his advance was halted by running out of petrol due to the four-hundred mile supply lines to Cherbourg. However, Brussels fell to the 21st Army Group on 3 September and Antwerp the next day, but, as already mentioned, Antwerp was useless to the Allies without the control of the Scheldt estuary.

In September, two months after his sacking, Rundstedt was recalled as Commander-in-Chief West. Watching the Hitler Youth Division retreating over the River Meuse near Yvoir on 4 September, Rundstedt said what many German officers were thinking, but few dared state, that it is a pity that this faithful youth is sacrificed in a hopeless situation. On 11 September, the Allies set foot on German soil for the first time, when American troops crossed the frontier near Trier, yet Hitler still had armies numbering several million men, albeit far too widely dispersed. His ‘Western Wall’, the Siegfried Line, seemed formidable, and his reappointment of Rundstedt was good for the Wehrmacht’s morale, with Field Marshal Model remaining in charge of Army Group B, Rommel and Kluge both having committed suicide, after having been implicated in the Bomb Plot. Later in the month, Churchill – convinced that Hitler was a hopeless strategist – ridiculed him in the House of Commons:

We must not forget that we owe a great debt to the blunders – the extraordinary blunders – of the Germans. I always hate to compare Napoleon with Hitler, as it seems an insult to the great Emperor and warrior to connecthim in any way with a squalid caucus boss and butcher. But there is one respect in which I must draw a parallel. Both these men were temperamentally unable to give up the tiniest scrap of any territory to which the high water mark of their hectic fortunes had carried them. … he (Hitler) has successfully scattered the German armies all over Europe, and by obstination at every point from Stalingrad and Tunis down to the present moment, … has stripped himself of the power to concentrate his main strength for the final struggle.

Yet even while the House of Commons was laughing at Hitler’s strategic blunders, the Führer was planning a concentration of German forces in the Ardennes that would once again astonish the world. Montgomery’s bold scheme to use the British 1st and the US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions to try to capture the bridges over the Meuse and Rhine and thereby ensure the encirclement of the Ruhr to the north came to grief in mid-September in and around the Dutch towns of Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem. Despite the highest order of heroism, mistakes were made in the planning stages which meant that it was doomed before it began. It was the largest airborne assault in history, but the intelligence that should have warned the 1st Airborne Division of two Panzer divisions that were refitting near Arnhem was given insufficient weight so that it did not take enough anti-tank weaponry to the drop zones. Operation Market, the airborne assault of Friday, 17 September, was initially successful, but the simultaneous ground attack, Operation Garden, reached Eindhoven and Nijmegen on the 18th and 19th respectively, but could not break through determined German resistance in time to relieve the paratroopers at Arnhem.

(to be continued…)

 

Posted August 22, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in American History & Politics, anti-Communist, Axis Powers, Balkan Crises, Baltic States, Belgium, Berlin, Black Country, Britain, British history, Bulgaria, Canada, Compromise, Conquest, Crucifixion, Egypt, Ethnic cleansing, Europe, Flanders, France, Genocide, History, Holocaust, Hungarian History, Hungary, Jews, liberal democracy, Marxism, Middle East, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, North Africa, Paris, Poland, Refugees, Russia, Second World War, Serbia, Socialist, tyranny, USA, USSR, War Crimes, Warfare, Warsaw Uprising, Women at War, Women's History, World War Two, Yugoslavia

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The Conquest of Normandy & The Red Army’s Advance to Warsaw, June-July 1944.   1 comment

After D-Day – The Battle for Normandy:

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The landings of 6th June were, of course, ‘just’ the beginning of the campaign to liberate Western Europe from the occupation of the Third Reich. Having got into the fields behind the beaches, the Americans, in particular, were dismayed to find themselves among the bocage, the thick, high and wide hedgerows that provided ideal cover for defence. From the German perspective, General Blumentritt wrote to a correspondent in 1965, saying that the German soldier had bled to death through wrong politics and dilettante leadership of Hitler. In particular, Normandy had been lost, he claimed, because Hitler ordered a rigid defence of the coasts. That was not possible over two thousand kilometres, especially when considering the Allied mastery of the air, the Allied masses of ‘matérial’, and the weakened German potential after five years of war. General Rundstedt wanted to give up the whole of France south of the Loire in order to  concentrate on fighting a fast-moving tank battle around Paris instead, but he was prevented from doing this by Hitler and Rommel who intended to carry out the defence with all forces on the beach and to use all tank-corps right in front, at the coast.

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Timetables were vital to the Germans, and in reinforcing Normandy as quickly as possible they were severely hampered by the destruction of road and rail routes by the bombing campaigns and by heroic acts of resistance by the French Maquis, who attacked the Germans and destroyed bridges and railways in the path of the Panzers. This led to horrific reprisals, the best known of which were carried out by the fifteen-thousand-strong 2nd SS Das Reich Panzer Division, frustrated by losses and delays as it attempted to drive from Montauban in southern France to repel the invader in Normandy. The 450-mile journey lasted three weeks after they had set out on 8 June, as opposed to the few days it would have taken had they been left unharried. In retaliation for the killing of forty German soldiers in one incident, Das Reich exacted widespread reprisals in the town of Tulle in the Corréze. One woman recalled how…

I came home from shopping on 9 June 1944 to find my husband and son hanging from the balcony of our house. They were just two of a hundred men seized at random and killed in cold blood by the SS. The children and wives were forced to watch while they strung them up to the lamp-posts and balconies outside their own homes. What is there for me to say?

Yet worse was to come the following morning, 10 June, at the small village of Oradour-Sur-Glane, where Major Adolf Dickmann’s unit murdered 642 people, including 190 schoolchildren; the men were shot, the women and children were burnt alive in the church and the village was razed. The village can be visited today, left deserted and destroyed as a memorial and a stark reminder of man’s inhumanity to man. This was featured in a special episode of ITV’s ground-breaking documentary series, The World at War in the 1970s. Yet, as Max Hastings has pointed out…

It is important to remember that if Oradour was an exceptionally dreadful occurrence during the war in the West, it was a trifling sample of what the German Army had been doing on a national scale in the East, since 1941. 

It was, however, a stark reminder, if one were needed, of exactly what the Allied troops were fighting both for and against if one were needed. It also showed the lengths and depths the Nazis were prepared to go in resisting the Allied advance. Hardly surprising then that German resistance around Carentan on 13 June and Caen on 18 June prevented Montgomery from taking either town, although the US VII Corps under Major-General J. Lawton Collins took Cherbourg on 27 June after five days of heavy fighting and the destruction of the harbour by the Germans, which the Allies could not then use until 7 August. The Germans in Caen, which Montgomery called the ‘crucible’ of the battle, held out until 9 July, and the town was little more than rubble when it finally fell. Despite this fierce fighting continuing until more than a month after the initial landings, the London Evening News was not prevented from claiming its capture on the day after D-Day, perhaps an example of how ‘fake news’ was already part of war-time propaganda campaigns. Basil Liddell Hart was proved right in his description of Overlord as having gone according to the plan, but not according to the timetable.

The Coup Attempt Against Hitler:

Years after the war, Dönitz stated that it was the defeat of the German U-Boat which had enabled the success of the Anglo-American invasion of Normandy in July 1944. That was the point at which the German High Command knew they had no chance of winning the war. Some in that High Command, though not the ultra-loyal Dönitz, decided that they had to try to assassinate Hitler. Far from acting out of any kind of democratic conscience, the vast majority of the plotters were simply determined to remove, as they secretly saw him, an incompetent upstart corporal who had by then become the major obstacle to a negotiated peace which was the only objective alternative to accepting, sooner or later, a Soviet occupation of Germany.

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So it was that on Thursday 20 July a two-pound bomb planted by the Swabian aristocratic war hero Colonel Count Claus von Stauffenberg ripped through one of the conference huts at ‘Wolf’s Lair’ in East Prussia (now Poland), only six feet from where Hitler was studying an air-reconnaissance report through his magnifying glass. Despite extensive minor injuries, he survived. Churchill described the July Plotters as the bravest of the best, but in reality, they were extreme German nationalists, if not Nazis, and very far from the idealist democrats depicted by Hollywood.

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The hope of the Plotters that they could make peace with Britain and America was flawed since the war was now being fought by an Anglo-Russian-American coalition so that it was unthinkable that Britain could enter into negotiations with Germany and/or its axis allies behind her allies’ backs. As one of the senior officials in the German Department of the Foreign Office, Frank Roberts, put it in his autobiography:

If Stalin got the impression we were in contact with the German generals, whose main aim was to protect Germany against Russia, he might well have been tempted to see whether he could not again come to terms with Hitler.

Re-balancing the Record – The Russian Contribution:

Following the collapse of the ‘Eastern Bloc’, historians such as Laurence Rees have been able to re-balance our understanding of the final year of the Second World War. When he was taught the history of the War in the early 1970s, his teachers got around the moral and political complexities of the Soviet Union’s part in the war by the simple expedient of largely ignoring it. My teachers taught us nothing at all about the Second World War; nor even very much about the First World War. At the time, in the depths of the Cold War, that was how most people dealt with the awkward legacy of the West’s relationship with Stalin. The focus was on the heroism of the Western Allies – on Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and D-Day. None of this, of course, is forgotten, and neither should it be. But it is not the whole story. Before the fall of Communism, the role of the Soviet Union in the Second World War was, to a large extent, denied a proper place in our culture because it was easier than facing up to a variety of unpalatable truths. The D-Day commemorations we have just been through, important as they were for both the veterans who took part and for the western leaders, reverted to a self-conscious western triumphalism, failing to involve contemporary Russian leaders and almost completely ignoring the ‘Russian’ contribution, however controversial it may remain. Neither has there (yet) been any reference to the role of Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe in resisting and ultimately defeating the Reich.

Képtalálat a következőre: „quebec conference 1943”The Western Allies had agreed to launch Operation Overlord, the long-awaited ‘second front’ in the spring of 1944, following the first Anglo-American Conference in Quebec in August 1943 (pictured right). But because of the slow progress of the Italian Campaign, Churchill had wanted to revisit the whole schedule in October 1943. He had on several previous occasions announced that despite agreeing with the second front in principle, in practice there was always one more operation that needed to take precedence; the Americans had at last run out of patience with him. It was a matter that Roosevelt and the American military leadership, including Eisenhower, did not want to reopen.

Képtalálat a következőre: „quebec conference 1943”Besides which, there were precious few landing craft in Europe that were not already committed for D-Day. At a meeting on 24 November in Cairo, Churchill had finally seized his opportunity to plead with Roosevelt and the American generals for more resources for the Mediterranean. But, predictably, the Americans would not countenance a delay to Overlord.

Towards the end of the meeting, Roosevelt had reminded Churchill of the relative troop numbers now committed to the overall conflict: very soon more Americans would be involved in the war than troops under British command. On 26 November, Roosevelt and Churchill left for Tehran. In the plane, Churchill had gloomily confided to his doctor, Charles Wilson, that the campaign in Italy had been put ‘in jeopardy’ by the US President’s desire to invade France on the schedule drawn up in Quebec. Wilson (later Lord Moran) had a revealing conversation just before the conference in which Roosevelt’s close advisor, Harry Hopkins, told him that…

The President is convinced that even if he cannot convert Stalin into a good democrat he will be able to come to a working arrangement with him. After all, he had spent his life managing men. And Stalin at bottom could not be so very different from other people. Anyway, he has come to Tehran determined… to come to terms with Stalin, and he is not going to allow anything to interfere with that purpose.

Képtalálat a következőre: „quebec conference 1943”

Above: The three Allies at the Tehran Conference.

On the Eastern Front – Operation Bagration:

As the soldiers of the Western Allies battled to establish a foothold in Normandy, the Red Army prepared to launch a massive attack on German Army Group Centre in an attempt to recapture Minsk and push the Wehrmacht back out of the Soviet Union. This operation, which had been agreed at Tehran, dwarfed D-Day in scale. The Germans had thirty divisions in the West to face the Allied onslaught following D-Day but concentrated 165 divisions against the Red Army in the East. Over two million Red Army soldiers took part in their June offensive, codenamed Operation Bagration after the Georgian military hero who had fought against Napoleon. Veniamin Fyodorov, a (then) twenty-year-old soldier with the Soviet 77th Guards infantry regiment recalled his experiences in this assault on 22 June, as he watched the initial bombardment from his own side:

For Bagration we were preparing very carefully. Whatever resources the Soviet Union had were concentrated in this direction. Big numbers of artillery, tanks and ammunition. And big numbers of infantry. … When you look ahead, you see bits of earth flying up into the air and you see explosions. As if you light a match. Flashes, flashes. One flash, another flash. And bits of land are thrown up in the air. After the bombardment, planes came, flying low. We felt more cheerful because we had a lot of military equipment. 

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For the Germans, by contrast, the Operation marked the lowest point in their military fortunes on the Eastern Front to date – lower even than Stalingrad in terms of military losses. Seventeen divisions were completely destroyed, with another fifty enduring losses of fifty per cent. And it was Hitler who was largely to blame for this defeat since he no longer trusted his generals to take the initiative on the battlefield as he had done during the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. He now gave direct tactical orders to the commanders of the 9th Army who faced Operation Bagration, orders which were increasingly disconnected from the realities of the modern battlefield. On the eve of Bagration, General Jordan, commander of the 9th Army, wrote these words:

… The Army believes that even under the present conditions, it would be possible to stop the enemy offensive, but not under the present directives which require an absolutely rigid defence. … The Army considers the orders establishing “Feste Platze” (Fortified Places) particularly dangerous. The army looks ahead to the coming battle with bitterness, knowing that it is bound by order to tactical measures which it cannot in good conscience accept as correct and which in our earlier victorious campaigns were the cause of enemy defeats.

This sense that the Germans were contributing to their own defeat now pervaded even the most junior ranks. A twenty-two-year-old private with the 9th Army, Heinz Fielder, recalled the demoralising effects of these nonsensical orders received from the division or the army corps:

I remember once that one position had definitely to be taken back again, and the young second lieutenant had refused to attack again because more than half his men had already died and they were all just sacrificed. They attacked again and again until the very last one died and that of course makes you wonder. But those were the men of the General Staff. They had their little flags and they put them on the map and then they say, this absolutely has to be restored, no what the sacrifices are.

Fielder was one of the Germans ordered to defend the Feste Platz of Bobruisk in the wake of the Red Army attack. He recalled:

Everywhere dead bodies are lying. Dead bodies, wounded people, people screaming, medical orderlies, and then there were those who were completely covered, who were not taken out at all, who were buried there straight away by the bunkers and trenches that collapsed. You don’t have any feeling any more for warmth or coldness or light or darkness or thirst or hunger. You don’t need to go to the loo. I can’t explain it. It’s such a tension you’re under … Everything was simply shit. Everything was shit.

Only after the Feste Platz was completely encircled and had been subjected to continuous bombardment was Fielder’s unit, at last, told it could try to escape.

And then the last command arrived. Destroy vehicles, shoot horses, take as much hand ammunition and rations with you as you can carry. Every man for himself. Well, now go on and rescue yourself.

Fielder joined a group of other German soldiers who were trying to fight their way through the Red Army troops ahead of them and reach the retreating German line. He headed West – towards the setting sun, and saw sites which continued to haunt him sixty years later:

There was a private, a young boy, who sat at a very big birch tree … from his tummy his intestines were streaming  and he was crying, “Shoot me! Shoot me!” and everybody just ran past him. I had to stop – but I could not shoot him. And then a young lieutenant from the sappers came. He took off his headgear and gave him the ‘coup de gráce with a 7.65 into the temple. And that’s when I had to cry bitterly. I thought if his mother knew how her boy ended, and instead she gets a letter from the squadron saying, “Your son fell on the field for great Germany”.

In July 1944, the German Army on the Eastern Front lost nearly two hundred thousand men killed or wounded; in August it was nearly three hundred thousand.  In total, German losses as a result of Operation Bagration would be calculated at around 1.5 million. This was an unprecedented defeat for Hitler and his generals and was unparalleled by anything occurring in the same period on the Western Front. By comparison with the Western Allies, the Red Army had made rapid progress against the Wehrmacht, retaking Minsk, capital of Belarus, on 3 July. Fyodor Bubenchikov, a twenty-eight-year-old Red Army officer, remembered that…

… gradually the Germans were losing morale and losing their belief in victory; Germans no longer cried “Heil Hitler!” On the contrary, they were surrendering. They were crying: “Hitler kaputt!”

That summer, Bubenchikov said he felt as if he were “flying”, as did all the Red Army units engaged in the action, from the ordinary soldier to the commander. Operation Bagration, still not known as well in the West as it should be, marked the end of a transformation in the fortunes of the Red Army. The Soviets had managed to increase their manufacture of military equipment and were now out-performing the Germans. In both 1943 and 1944, they produced more tanks and self-propelled guns than their enemy. Added to the increased Soviet output, of course, were the benefits of aid from the Western Allies, the bulk of which came from the USA. Although this remained only a small percentage of the total equipment of the Red Army, it was important because of the superior technology it contributed. For example, the Studebaker US6 truck was used by the Red Army for launching of Katyusha rockets.

The Polish Dimension & Dilemma:

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But elsewhere in Eastern Europe, as the Red Army moved forward at speed, some of the people whose lives had been changed for the worse by this reoccupation of ‘Soviet territory’ were just beginning their new and bitter existence under an army which, for them at least, was far from being one of liberation. In the wake of the attack on German Army Group Centre in Operation Bagration, the Red Army moved forward into eastern Poland and mounted the Lwów-Sandomierz assault. This powerful thrust involved over a million Soviet soldiers of the first Ukranian front under Michael Konev. In July 1944, the Red Army approached Lwów, a city they had first seized in September 1939 in agreement with the Nazis. Anna Levitska, then a teenager living in the city recalled:

In 1944, when the Red Army came for a second time, it was, of course, worse, because we already had an idea of what the consequences might be, because of all the arrests there had been in 1939 and 1940. … So of course it was terrifying.

Anna also recalled one old man coming up to her and her family in 1944 saying, this is the second time. It was better the first time. When they asked him why, he replied: Because the first time, they came and they went. But this time when they come, there is no way they will be leaving. Vyacheslav Yablonsky was part of the great Soviet assault on Lwów that summer. But he was in no sense an ordinary soldier: as a member of an élite NKVD squad, he had a very specific role. Together with two dozen other members of the secret police, and a squad of Red Army soldiers, he entered Lwów just before the Germans retreated from the city. Travelling in American Studebaker trucks they plotted a route via the back streets of the city to the Gestapo headquarters. The location was familiar to them since the German Secret police had simply replaced the NKVD in the building, which had been used previously by the Austro-Hungarian intelligence agency.

The task facing Yablonsky and his comrades was straightforward but considered vital. They had to capture the headquarters before the Germans left, and steal intelligence information that their superiors hoped would reveal just who had been collaborating with the Nazis. They arrived just as the Nazis were packing their files into trucks. The Soviet force scaled the wall surrounding the Gestapo HQ, shot the German guards and prevented the trucks from leaving. Hurrying into the building, they made straight for the cellars, where they knew the intelligence files were stored. While the remaining Germans, panic-stricken, sought to escape, the NKVD swiftly made the building secure and started examining the files they had found. They then immediately sought out anyone whom the German documents had named as an informer. Yablonsky also relied on pro-Soviet informers to tell him who had been collaborating with the Germans or was simply ‘anti-Soviet’. Once arrested for making comments against the Soviet occupation, like that of the old man above, the ‘normal’ sentence was fifteen years hard labour. Looking back over sixty years later, he commented:

Now I think it was cruel, but at that time, when I was young, … twenty-three years old, I didn’t. … Now I understand that it’s cruel because I’m older. I don’t think it was a very democratic time. Now you can say anything, but at that time you couldn’t. At that time most things were censored and nobody could say anything bad about the Soviet Union and I’m proud I was part of it and brave enough to go through the war and not let my country down.

Soldiers like Yablonsky believed they were reclaiming Lwów as a part of Soviet territory, which should never be surrendered again. It was members of the underground Polish Home Army who were some of the first to comprehend this dispiriting truth. These were the volunteer soldiers who had remained hidden under the Nazi occupation, waiting for the moment to strike back, and they played an important part in the battle for Lwów. Around three thousand soldiers led by Colonel Wladyslaw Filipowski had supported the Red Army during the fierce fighting that had lasted from 23 to 27 July. But once the battle was won the Soviets arrested the officers and forced the ordinary soldiers to join units of the Red Army. In parallel with the elimination of the underground Polish Home Army, the Soviet authorities immediately sought to re-establish the institutions of control that they had created during their first occupation. Anna Levitska remembered how…

They organised schools according to their own system. It was obligatory that every student belonged to the Young Communists. And, of course, there were no religious classes. Just those lectures on atheism. And studying the history of the Communist Party was obligatory. The fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism – those were the main subjects. We felt betrayed because we had hoped that the West would react differently. … We were even hoping that England and France (would help us), but that didn’t happen.

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On 26 July 1944, while the battle for Lwów still raged, at Perugia in Italy Lieutenant General Anders (above) was presented to King George VI. Wladyslaw Anders was the commander of the Polish II Corps in the British Army. He had successfully negotiated the release of thousands of his fellow Polish soldiers from the Soviet Union. The British monarch had flown to Italy under the pseudonym, ‘General Collingwood’ in order to congratulate Allied forces on their progress there. During dinner, he listened to the regimental band of the II Polish Army Corps and remarked that he found one song particularly attractive. He was told that the song was called, And if I ever have to be born again, then let it happen only in Lwów. But two days later, on 28 July, the Soviets transferred to Chem in Poland a collection of little-known Polish politicians from exile in the Soviet Union. They were to form a puppet government in western Poland, a territory that he had never claimed as belonging to the Soviet Union. This group of collaborators, officially called the Polish Committee of National Liberation, later known as the Lublin Poles after the city they moved to in early August 1945, had declared in a ‘manifesto’ issued in Moscow on 2 July that they were in favour of leftist policies such as nationalisation, as well as a ‘fair’ border with the Soviet Union, which actually meant the ‘Curzon Line’. As far as they, and their Soviet masters were concerned, they were now the ‘de facto’ government of ‘liberated’ Poland. Nikolai Bulganin, a leading member of the Soviet State Committee of Defence, was sent from Moscow to be Stalin’s representative to the puppet Polish government, which effectively reported to him.

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Of course, the imposition on Poland of a régime controlled by Stalin was not something that either the Western Allies or the official Polish government in exile could accept. The situation was further complicated by the presence of four hundred thousand members of the Polish underground, the Armia Krajowa (Home Army) who, though disarmed by the Red Army, owed their allegiance to the government in exile in London. Also that July, the Home Army units that had helped the Soviets to capture Vilnius were disbanded, the officers arrested and the men sent off to join collaborating Polish units within the Red Army. It was against this background that the focus of all the various competing parties turned to the fate of the capital, Warsaw, which rose up against the German occupiers in the summer and early autumn of 1944, exposing to the world the tensions and conflicts within the Allied ‘camp’ which Churchill, Roosevelt and their respective propaganda machines tried so hard to hide.

As Andrew Roberts has written, the war had to be won by the Allies, of course, but it also needed to be lost, as it was, comprehensively and personally, by Hitler himself, both in the West and the East. It is doubtful, however, if the death of Hitler in the summer of 1944, would have shortened the war. Before June 1944, Germany had wreaked far more damage on the Allies than they had inflicted on Germany. If Himmler had taken over and not made the many strategic blunders perpetrated by Hitler in the final months, Germany might even have fought on for longer. A negotiated peace would have let the German people off the hook, although it would have saved millions of lives in Europe, including those who fell victim to the Nazis ‘Final Solution’ conducted by Hitler and Eichmann right up to the very final months of the war, drawing vital troops and resources away from the front lines. Besides, to have concluded an armistice on the demonstrable fallacy that the war was begun and carried on by one man’s will, rather than through the wholehearted support and enthusiasm of the German people, would hardly have produced the most durable and profound period of peace Europe has ever known.

The Race Against the Rockets & Operation Cobra:

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Above: The Liberation of Europe, January 1944-March 1945.

On 24 July 1944, Churchill had warned his War Cabinet that Rockets may start any minute, referring to the Germans’ wonder-weapon, the supersonic V-2 missile. Its sister-weapon, the V-1 flying bomb, had been terrorising southern England for six weeks, even though fifty-eight of the ninety-two V-1 launching sites had been damaged. After receiving an encouraging report on the Normandy campaign, Churchill also reported on his trip to Cherbourg, Arromanches and Caen during the previous three days, saying that he…

Saw great many troops – never seen such a happy army – magnificent looking army – only want good weather. Had long talks with M (Montgomery) … frightful bombing of Caen … remarkable clearing of mines in Cherbourg harbour. 

Admiral Cunningham wrote in his diary that Churchill was full of his visit to France and was more inclined to talk than to listen. But, in contrast with Hitler, the British PM was capable of listening to, and even asking for, news and advice which was unpalatable. After the Bomb Plot, Hitler became highly suspicious of the veracity of what his generals told him, suspecting that many more had actually been involved than those discovered, and than in fact had been. By 24 July, the Allies had lost 112,000 men killed, wounded or captured in France, to the Germans’ losses of 114,000, including forty-one thousand taken prisoner. The more competent and aggressive General Günther von Kluge, who had recovered from injuries sustained in Russia, took over from Rundstedt and Rommel on 17 July.

‘Overlord’ having ended, the next phase of the invasion was known as Operation Cobra and was intended to break out from the linked beach-heads and strike south and east into central France. The ‘hinge’ was to be the British Second and Canadian First Armies in the area east of Caen, which kept the main weight of the German Army occupied while bold thrusts were made cross-country by Omar Bradley’s US First Army and General Patton’s US Third Army. The Allied offensive began with the carpet bombing of Saint-Ló and areas to the west of it in which 4,200 tons of high explosive were dropped by Spaatz’s heavy bombers. Despite Hitler giving Kluge some of the Fifteenth Army’s divisions on 27 July, the Americans poured forward through gaps in the German defences created by the bombing, and by the end of the month, Collins’ VII Corps had taken Avranches. This allowed US forces to attack westwards into Brittany and eastwards towards Le Mans, proving the value of Patton’s eve-of-battle observation to his Third Army that flanks are something for the enemy to worry about, not us.

The Warsaw Conundrum:

Of all the myths that would grow up around the Warsaw Uprising, the most prevalent was that the Poles had been lured into insurrection by direct blandishments and promises of assistance from the Soviets. But although it’s certainly true that radio broadcasts were made at the end of July under Soviet auspices that encouraged the people of Warsaw to believe that liberation was near, it is not true that this was a direct attempt by the Soviet military to agree on a joint attack on the Polish capital with the Home Army. The appeals were much less specific. On 29 July, for instance, Radio Moscow announced that, for Warsaw…

… the hour of action has already arrived… those who have never bowed their heads to the Hitlerite power will again, as in 1939, join the struggle against the Germans, this time for a decisive action.

In addition, a broadcast from a Soviet-authorised radio station the following day announced that Soviet forces were approaching and were coming ‘to bring you freedom’. But this fell far short of a direct instruction to the Home Army to rise up in Warsaw in a coordinated way in order to link up with the advancing Red Army. So far, it was all just encouraging rhetoric. The Home Army in Warsaw, together with the Polish government in exile in London, faced a difficult political dilemma. They knew that if they did nothing, and the Red Army liberated Warsaw before they could rise up, then the Soviets would be in a far stronger position to dictate the terms of a post-war settlement. On the other hand, if the Home Army rose up long before the Soviets arrived, then they would be annihilated by the Germans. The timing of any rising was therefore crucial. Obviously, it was critically important to try to coordinate any rising with the imminent arrival of the Red Army. But the distrust between the two sides was so great that this was the one thing that the Polish government in exile did not feel able to do. On 26 July, the leader of the Poles in London, Prime Minister Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, authorised the Home Army in Warsaw to pronounce the Rising at a time to be determined by you. But this was an instruction which went directly against the advice of the Polish commander-in-chief in London who had argued that:

Insurrection without a fair understanding with the USSR and honest and real cooperation with the Red Army would be politically unjustified and militarily nothing more than an act of despair.

Mikolajczyk knew better than most that the Warsaw Uprising could not succeed without the practical assistance of the Allies, but he decided that it was best to approve the insurrection first and then, effectively as a ‘fait accompli’, to push for cooperation. He ought to have known beforehand that this was a strategy which was doomed to failure with Stalin. Mikolajczyk was only forty-three, though he had been active in the Polish Peasants’ Party since the 1920s. He travelled to Moscow to meet Stalin after authorising the uprising on 30 July before it had been launched. Nonetheless, the commander of the Home Army in Warsaw had already ordered ‘W’ hour, the launch of the uprising, to take place (without notifying the Soviets beforehand) at 5 p.m. on 1 August. He was aware that not only were the Red Army closing on Warsaw but that on 27 July the Germans had called for a hundred thousand Polish civilians to surrender themselves to help build the capital’s defences. The Home Army was, quite naturally, suspicious of this German order and urged people not to come forward. It thus made sense to the leaders of the Polish resistance to start the uprising at this moment. It was a huge gamble, of course. In Moscow, Mikolajczyk urgently needed to obtain an agreement from Stalin that the Red Army would help the insurgents in Warsaw. Unfortunately, both for him personally and the Home Army generally, Stalin did not see it that way. Besides the fact that he did not recognise the government-in-exile, his commanders were trying to break the power of the Home Army in the sections of Poland that the Red Army had ‘liberated’ so far.

Although the Marshal realised that it would be seen as offensive by his Allies for him to refuse to meet the London Poles, he also knew that he was under no obligation to be accommodating when he did meet them. They were treated with great rudeness from the moment of their arrival, snubbed at the airport, and then told that Stalin was ‘too busy’ to see them. Meanwhile, Churchill was giving a relatively upbeat assessment of the situation in the House of Commons. He talked of having done ‘our best’ to get Stalin to receive the Polish PM, pointing out that the Russian Armies… bring the liberation of Poland in their hands while we have several gallant Polish divisions fighting the Germans in our Armies. Now, he said, Let them come together. But a necessary precondition of this togetherness, he went on to say, was the old proviso that there should be a Poland friendly to Russia. Given the gulf between the Polish government in exile, who regarded the Lublin Poles as Stalin’s stooges, and Stalin himself, who had asserted that the London Poles were Nazi collaborators, Churchill’s Commons statement was wishful thinking to say the very least. When Molotov met the London Poles on 31 July he simply asked, Why have you come? He suggested that they should meet with the Lublin Poles instead. They didn’t manage to get an audience with the Soviet leader until the evening of 3 August, by which time, of course, the rising was already in progress and lightly armed Poles were dying on the streets of Warsaw, desperately in need of help.

(to be continued… )

Sources:

Andrew Roberts (2009), The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War. London: Penguin Books.

Laurence Rees (2008), Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West. London: BBC Books (Ebury Publishing).

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A Century Ago: Britain & the World in 1919 – ‘The Year of Victory’: Part One.   Leave a comment

Part One – January-June: A Tale of Five Cities.

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The Winding Road to World Peace:

The New Year’s Eve of 1918 that hiccupped a welcome to the first year of peace began a long procession of almost hysterically happy crowds which took possession of London on every possible excuse. Life was not yet back to normal (it never got back to whatever ‘normal’ was): food was only beginning to be de-restricted – meat, sugar and butter coupons were no abolished until August; five million men were taking time to demobilize and were not finding jobs easily, and money was short. Any spare money was needed by the country, as the photograph of Trafalgar Square at the top of this article shows. The Victory, or “Peace and Joy” loan brought in forty million pounds in three days, and the smallest amount that could be invested was five pounds. The total collected was seven hundred million. By November 1919 there would be just 900,000 still in ‘khaki’ uniforms. The wounded, like those photographed above, later in the year, were given blue uniforms. More than two million were wounded, and in January one man died as a result of a bullet wound received in 1918.

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At the beginning of 1919, “Hang the Kaiser!” was the cry in Britain. The newspapers discussed who would be his judges when he was brought from Holland to the Tower of London, and what they would do with him. Those who suggested that his life should be spared were considered unpatriotic, unless they also argued that, like Napoleon, he should be sent to St. Helena for the rest of his life. Despite an application for his surrender, he remained in the Netherlands. A Daily Express reporter who had first seen him at close quarters before the war said that over the previous four years, his hair had turned completely white.

At 11 a.m. on 3 January, Harold Nicolson (pictured below), a thirty-two-year-old diplomat at the Foreign Office, left Charing Cross station for Paris. He arrived at the Gare du Nord twelve hours later and drove without delay to the Hotel Majestic on the Avenue Kléber, where the British delegation to the Peace Conference was due to be housed.

Alwyn Parker, a Middle East specialist who had been made responsible for the well-being of the British delegates, had instituted a security-conscious, home-cooking environment consistent with sound British standards. Staffed by British domestic servants and reinforced by nameless security agents, the catering standards were, apparently, tasteless in the extreme.

 

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Overworked and underpaid, Nicolson served as a technical adviser on the committees that were drawing up the new maps of central Europe and the Balkans. Sketching in fresh boundaries for Czechoslovakia, Romania, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Greece and Turkey consumed his working hours. Although he found the work ‘passionately interesting’, it was not all plain sailing. His letters reveal how at times he was conscience-stricken by the burdens imposed on him:

How fallible one feels here! A map – a pencil – tracing paper. Yet my courage fails at the thought of people whom our errant lines enclose or exclude, the happiness of several thousands of people. … Nobody who has not had experience of Committee work in actual practice can conceive of the difficulty of inducing a Frenchman, an Italian, an American and an Englishman to agree on anything.

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Harold Nicolson & Vita Sackville-West at the Paris Peace Conference, 1919.

These committees were not concerned with constructing the framework of the newborn League of Nations, President Wilson’s obsessive brainchild. Still, they stood at the heart of the conference’s deliberations, dealing with the fate of national minorities, reconciling the all-too-often conflicting and exaggerated claims of the great and the small powers. It was approvingly noted that the French Premier, M. Clemenceau, always audible, was equally rude to both. And as the plenary sessions of the conference, the politicians had neither the time nor the knowledge to challenge the recommendations of the ‘experts’, they became, in effect, the arbiters of these disputes, the final court of appeal. It was a responsibility that Harold Nicolson could have done without. Interminable committee meetings, drafting endless position papers, irregular hours, hurried meals, late nights and competing with closed-minded politicians, all put Harold under an intolerable strain. Exhausted, he had reached the point when he found himself reading sentences twice over. He sought advice from Arthur Balfour, the Foreign Secretary, whom he usually found languid in his habits, usually draped over a chair, ‘always affable and benign’, at his apartment in the rue Nitot. Balfour told him to…

… return at once to the Majestic – arrived there, you will go to bed. For luncheon you will drink a bottle of Nuits St George and eat all you can possibly swallow. You will then sleep until four. You will then read some books which I shall lend you. For dinner you will have champagne and foie grás – a light dinner. You repeat this treatment until Sunday at three, when you drive alone to Versailles and back. In the evening of Sunday you dine – again alone, that is essential – at Larue and go to a play. By Monday you will be cured.

He did as he was told and on Monday he noted in his diary that he felt again a young and vigorous man. Refreshed, he returned to his duties which, of course, included faithfully serving Balfour’s needs. Harold worked in close tandem with Allen Leeper, an Australian graduate of Balliol College, Oxford with a working knowledge of French, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Flemish, Russian, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Serbo-Croatian and Ladino. In keeping with the Zeitgeist, he was in favour of creating compact nation-states, to unite the Poles, Yugoslavs, Romanians, the Arabs and the Greeks, a process which would pave the way for the demise of the old, discredited system ruled by the Great Powers and lead to a new era regulated by the League of Nations and Wilsonianism. To Nicolson, at the time, these ideas were admirable, but later, writing in 1935, he thought they might appear utopian, but added even then that to many of us it still remains the most valid of all our visions.

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Thirty nations met at Paris to discuss the post-war world. Bolshevik Russia and the defeated Central Powers were excluded. On the fifth anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, the Treaty of Versailles was signed. Each of the other four which were signed subsequently was also named after an area or landmark of Paris. The Conference opened officially on 18 January 1919 at the Quai d’Orsay. Raymond Poincaré, the French President, greeted the delegates, but his Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau soon took command in his typical high-handed, machine-gunning fashion:

Y a-t-il d’objections? Non? … Adopté!”

Edvard Beneš.

Harold Nicolson continued to be absorbed by the minutiae of the territorial commission’s deliberations, niggling questions that at a distance seem esoteric to an extreme, but which at the time took on grave importance. He explained to Balfour why the Italians should not be awarded Fiume, a judgement that was upheld by Wilson and Lloyd George. He was also considered something of a Czech expert and was impressed by Benes, the Czech Foreign Minister (pictured right), whom he described as altogether an intelligent, young, plausible little man with broad views. Benes based his case not so much on securing national rights as on sustaining the stability of central Europe. Nicolson agreed with this view and confidently told the Supreme Council that the historical border of Bohemia and Moravia needed to be respected, in spite of the fact that many Germans would be included. Teschen, Silesia, Oderburg were to be included in the new Czechoslovakia, along with Hungarian Ruthenia.

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All the Allies were invited to the Peace Conference which met at Paris in January 1919, but the important decisions were made by the ‘Big Four’, pictured below. The German government had accepted the terms of the Armistice of 11 November 1918 because the Allies made a solemn promise that the principles which US President Woodrow Wilson had set out in the ‘Fourteen Points’ of his War Aims (see the map above) which he, and they, thought would form the basis of the peace settlement.

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The ‘Four Big Men’ were (left to right), the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George; the Italian Prime Minister, Signor Orlando; France’s Premier, M.Clemenceau; and Woodrow Wilson, President of the USA. They were the big figures at the Paris Peace Conference.

Wilson’s ideas were, therefore, the hope of victors and vanquished alike, and he was sincerely anxious to carry out his promises. But he lost influence because he had few practical plans to offer upon which his ideas of a just settlement could be built. By the time John Buchan published his account of these events in 1935, many histories of the Peace Conference had already been written in detail in many volumes. Its work had been bitterly criticised, and on it had been blamed most of the later misfortunes of Europe. But, as he observed, …

… it is probable that our successors will take a friendlier view, and will recognise more fully the difficulties under which it achieved. Its position was very different from that of the Congress of Vienna in 1814. Then the victors held most of Europe and had armies ready and willing to carry out their commands: now they were so weary that the further use of force was almost unthinkable. Then a little group of grandees, akin in temper, met in dignified seclusion. Now a multitude of plenipotentiaries sat almost in public, surrounded by hordes of secretaries and journalists, and under the arc-lamp of suspicious popular opinion. 

The difference in the complexity and scale of the two conferences is shown by the resulting treaties. The hundred and twenty articles of the Treaty of Vienna were signed by seventeen delegates; the Treaty of Versailles contained 441 articles and seventy signatures. The business was so vast that the mechanism was constantly changing. At first, the main work was in the hands of a Council of Ten, representing the five great Powers; then it fell to the US President and the European Prime Ministers; at the end, the ‘dictators’ were Wilson, Clemenceau and Lloyd George. Had the three ‘architects of destiny’ been fully in agreement, or had they been men with broader personalities and more open minds, both the peace process and its products might have been better. To be fair to them, however, all three had to take different circumstances into consideration besides the merits of each case.

Wilson, who had been detached from the actual conflict, might have been expected to bring a cool and dispassionate mind to the deliberations, as well as a unique authority. But he found himself, quite literally, on unfamiliar territory, and his political mistakes in his own country had made it doubtful that Americans would ratify his conclusions. In diplomatic skill, he was not the equal of the other statesmen. Because he believed that the establishment of the League of Nations was the only hope of permanent world peace, he soon had to compromise on matters where the views of the practical statesmen conflicted with the ideals of his fourteen points in order to secure their acceptance of the Covenant. Moreover, he had the support of only a small minority of his fellow Americans; those who upheld the traditional policy of non-intervention in European affairs were hostile to him. This hostility back home also weakened his prestige at the Conference. Eventually, the Senate of the USA refused to ratify his work in establishing the League of Nations so that the country did not join the organisation, and at the election following the treaties, he failed to be re-elected. It soon appeared to John Buchan, that Wilson’s was …

… the voice of one crying in the wilderness, and not the creed of a great people. His self-confidence led him to cast himself in too high a part, and he failed to play it … The framers of the Treaty of Vienna a century before were fortunate in that they were simpler men, whose assurance was better based, and who were happily detached from popular passions: “There are times when the finest intelligence in the world is less serviceable than the sound common sense of a ‘grand seigneur’.” (F.S. Oliver, The Endless Adventure: III, 109.)

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Georges Clemenceau (left), French Premier & Woodrow Wilson, President of the USA.

As Chairman of the Peace Conference, Georges Clemenceau was a realist and had no faith in Wilson’s ideals. He was also an intense nationalist, whose policy was to give absolute priority to the security of France, and he translated every problem into the terms of an immediate and narrowly conceived national interest. He worked for the interests of France and France alone. He knew exactly what he wanted, which was to crush Germany while he had the chance. He regarded Franco-German hostility as natural and inevitable and wanted revenge not just for the Great War but also for the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 in which Paris was occupied and Alsace-Lorraine was surrendered. Had Germany won, he believed, France would not have been spared destruction. Now that Germany had been utterly defeated, he had the opportunity he had desired, to destroy its power to threaten the security of France. He dominated the conference and his uncompromising attitude earned him the epithet, ‘Tiger’.

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David Lloyd George (above) was subtler and more far-sighted, taking broader views, but his power was weakened in his colleagues’ eyes by the election he had just fought and won on intransigent terms. Nevertheless, he recognised the need for a peace settlement that would help restore German prosperity as an important trading partner. He, therefore, favoured more moderate terms, but gave only limited support to Wilson’s ideals because Britain was bound by treaties concluded during the war for the satisfaction of her Allies at the expense of the defeated powers, and he was bound by his election pledge by which he had promised to ‘Make Germany Pay’, demanding penalties from the enemy. At least 700,000 British servicemen had perished in the Great War, and a million and a half had been wounded. Another 150,000 were lost to the influenza pandemic of 1918-19. Some 300,000 children had lost at least one parent. One in ten of an entire generation of young men had been wiped out. By 1919, the euphoria of victory was tempered with the reality as ex-servicemen returned to the fields and factories to seek their old jobs. If anything, As Simon Schama has put it, …

… this had to be the moment, perhaps the last, when the conditions that had produced the general massacre were removed. Away with the preposterous empires and monarchs and the tribal fantasies of churches and territories. Instead there would be created a League of Free Nations … This virtual international government, informed by science and motivated by disinterested guardianship of the fate of common humanity, must inaugurate a new history – otherwise the sacrifice the sacrifice of millions would have been perfectly futile, the bad joke of the grinning skull. 

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Above: The Menin Road (detail), by Paul Nash, 1919

Fit for Heroes? – Boom-time Britain & the ‘Bolshevists’:

Britain was experiencing a post-war boom in trade, evidenced by the fact that the number of trade unionists rose to an unprecedented figure of almost eight million. As the unions flexed their muscles, thirty-five million days were lost by strikes and lock-outs, the highest figure since 1912. Trade unionists in Belfast and Glasgow fought bravely to reduce the working week to help absorb the demobbed servicemen. In Scotland, their demonstrations, which included (for the first time) serious demands for Home Rule, were viewed as ‘riots’ by the authorities. The demands were fuelled in part by the astonishingly disproportionate numbers of Scots casualties in the War: over a quarter of the 557,000 Scottish servicemen had been killed, compared with a rate of one in eight among the rest of the British army. Ironically, it was the long tradition of being the backbone of the imperial army, from the American Revolution to the Indian Mutiny, that had resulted in them being put in front line positions during the Great War, often in the ‘vanguard’ of some suicidal lurch ‘over the top’.

Despite this contribution, in Glasgow, an eighth of the population was still living in single-room accommodation and the Clydeside economy was especially vulnerable to retrenchment in the shipyards. As men were demobilized, unemployment rose and the unions responded with demands for a shorter working week, to spread the work and wages available as broadly as possible. The campaign for a 40-hour week, with improved conditions for the workers, took hold of organised labour. They also demanded the retention of wage and rent controls. When they were met with stark refusal, a forty-hour general strike was called, culminating on 31 January in a massive rally, organised by the trade unions, which took place on George Square in the city centre of Glasgow. Upwards of ninety thousand took part. A red flag and calls were made, for the first time, for the setting up of a separate Scottish workers’ republic. The police read the ‘Riot Act’ and their lines charged the demonstrators and, mindful of having been caught by surprise in Dublin by the Easter Rising of 1916, the government claimed that the demonstration was a ‘Bolshevist’ uprising, sending twelve thousand troops and six tanks (pictured above) to occupy what became known as ‘Red Clydeside’.

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Many of these ‘Red Clydesiders’ soon found themselves ‘victimized’, out of work and on the road to England and its ‘new’ engineering and manufacturing centres. By 1919, for example, Coventry’s population had continued to grow from 130,000 in 1918 to 136,000, partly due to the delayed expansion of the British motor industry, inhibited during the War as manufacturing industry turned its attention to meeting wartime demand. As soon as hostilities were over the production of motor vehicles was again embraced with enthusiasm as both old and new contenders entered the market amongst the heavy competition. In 1919 and 1920 at least forty new car producing firms emerged. Many of these firms later failed and their names disappeared or were taken over by companies like Singer in Coventry, but in 1920 the President of the City’s Chamber of Commerce reflected on its recent growth:

Few towns and cities can point to a growth as quick and extensive as that which has been the lot of Coventry in the last two decades … The way Coventry has moved forward is more characteristic of a new American city fed by immigrants, than of one of the oldest cities in Great Britain.

Growth and immigration were beginning to have an effect on local politics. In 1919, as the city enjoyed its boom, so the fortunes of the Labour movement also prospered, with Labour capturing a third of the seats on the City Council. The short but strong national economic boom funded some, at least, of  Lloyd George’s promise to make ‘a country fit for heroes to live in’. Christopher Addison, the minister of reconstruction, oversaw the building of 200,000 homes, effectively marking the beginning of council house construction in Britain. Again, in 1920, the Coventry Chamber of Commerce was keen to advertise the fact that the Corporation had already, since the war, built a thousand houses for its workers at rates varying from six to ten shillings per week which were regarded as ‘comparatively low’.

Lloyd George’s only obvious rival was Winston Churchill. Having banged away in the 1918 election campaign about making Germany pay through the nose, Churchill then made appeals for greater flexibility and leniency, opposing the continuation of the naval blockade. But his calls to strangle the Russian Revolution at birth seemed to spring from a deep well of sentimental class solidarity with the Russian aristocracy and the Tsars which marked him out, in the view of many, as an aristocratic reactionary himself. Churchill was reckless as well as tireless in calling for a commitment of men and money to try to reverse the communist revolution in Russia by supporting the pro-Tsarist White Army, which was certainly no force for democracy. But if he was deliberately goading British socialists by harping on about the Bolsheviks as dictatorial conspirators, it turned out that his diagnosis of what had actually in Russia in October 1917 was exactly right. There was ample reason to feel gloomy about the fate of liberty in the new Soviet Russia. By 1919, anyone could see that what had been destroyed was not just the Constituent Assembly but any semblance of multi-party democracy in Russia. After the war, British, as well as American troops, occupied parts of Russia. There was disagreement within the Cabinet as well as in the country as to what the British attitude toward Russia ought to be. Lloyd George felt that the perpetuation of the civil war by foreign intervention would give the revolutionary leader, Vladimir Lenin, the perfect pretext to institutionalize his police state and find reinforcements for the Red Army, and he wrote to Churchill pointing this out to him in February 1919:

 Am very alarmed at your… planning war against the Bolsheviks. The Cabinet have never authorised such a proposal. They have never contemplated anything beyond supplying armies in anti-Bolshevik areas in Russia with necessary equipment to enable them to hold their own, and that only in the event of every effort of peaceable solution failing. A military enquiry as to the best method of giving material assistance to these Russian armies is all to the good, but do not forget that it is an essential part of the inquiry to ascertain the cost; and I also want you to bear in mind that the War Office reported to the Cabinet that according to their information intervention was driving the anti-Bolshevik parties in Russia into the ranks of the Bolshevists. 

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The Empire – Nationalists Strike Back:

With the evaporation of the authority of the US President in Paris, and the limited tenure of the French wartime prime minister, his fellow peacemakers, it was Lloyd George who grew in stature as the future arbiter of the European settlement and world statesman. While France sought military security, Britain sought naval and commercial superiority through the destruction of the German Empire. The British Empire, as Curzon had boasted the previous year, had never been so omnipotent. But despite Curzon’s complacency, all was not well in the far-flung imperial posts. First of all, however, and closer to home, trouble was brewing again in Ireland. Following the 1918 general election, in which the old Nationalist party disappeared and Sinn Féin won most of the Irish seats. The members of Sinn Féin who had been elected to the Westminster parliament decided to set up their own Irish parliament, called Dáil Éireann, in Dublin, which first met in January 1919. It declared the Irish Republic in defiance of the British Crown for a second time. Eamon de Valera, who had escaped from an English jail, became its President and the King’s writ ceased to run in Ireland. At the same time, the Irish Volunteers, who now called themselves the Irish Republican Army (IRA) became increasingly violent.

In themselves, the pledges Britain made on imperial matters during the war did not determine anything that happened afterwards. Britain gave no one self-government simply because it had promised it to them. If it kept its promise, it was because the promise had raised expectations that could not be denied, making the plaintiffs stronger and even more resolute claimants. But if it had not had this effect, and if Britain could prevaricate or break a promise with impunity, it would. The colonial settlement when it came after the war, and as it was subsequently modified, was determined much more by the conditions of that time; the interests, strengths and weaknesses of different parties then, than by pledges and declarations made, cynically or irresponsibly, in the past. The conditions of 1919 determined that, initially, Britain would get a great deal out of the war for itself. In the first place, the fact that there were outright winners and losers meant that there were, suddenly, a large number of colonies ‘going begging’ in the world, with only Britain, France, Italy, the United States and Japan in a position to ‘snaffle them up’. Japan was satisfied with controlling the north Pacific, America didn’t want colonies and Italy, whose contribution to the Allied victory was seen as negligible, was not thought to deserve any. That left the German colonies in Africa and the Turkish territories in the Middle East as ‘gift horses’ for the British and the French if they wanted them, which they did.

Any British government of that era, of any colour, would probably have wanted its share, but the fact that the coalition government in 1919 was basically the same as the one that had fought the war and was full of imperialists made it even more probable. Balfour, Curzon and Milner (as Colonial Secretary) were not the kinds of men to look gift horses in the mouth and exercise colonial self-restraint, and neither were the Dominions which had fought, represented by Smuts in the Cabinet. Lloyd George himself was not much bothered about the empire either way and put up little resistance to his imperialists’ accepting extra colonies. If he had any qualms, Leopold Amery quieted them by writing to him at the end of the war, that whereas they had fought it over Europe, they would also…

… find ourselves compelled to complete the liberation of the Arabs, to make secure the independence of Persia, and if we can of Armenia, to protect tropical Africa from German economic and military exploitation. All these objects are justifiable in themselves and don’t become less so because they increase the general sphere of British influence. … And if, when all is over, … the British Commonwealth emerges greater in area and resources … who has the right to complain?

In 1919, the British empire seemed secure enough from external threats, but it was more vulnerable than ever to attacks from within. It might be able to deal with one at a time, but what if it were challenged by nationalists on three or four fronts simultaneously? The first of these opened up in North Africa in March, when Egyptian nationalists, inflamed by Britain’s refusal to allow them to put their case for independence to the Paris peace conference and by the arrest and exile of their leaders, began a series of demonstrations, riots, acts of sabotage, and assassinations of British army officers.

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M. K. Gandhi

Meanwhile, in India, there was a series of boycotts, walk-outs and massacres led by the lawyer and hero of the campaign against the ‘pass laws’ in South Africa, M. K. Gandhi, who had recently arrived ‘home’. Nearly a million Indian troops had been in service, both in the ‘barracks in the east’ in Asia itself, on the Western Front, and, earlier in the war, in the disastrous campaign in Mesopotamia. Before the war, there had been violence and terrorism, but mainstream colonial nationalism had been represented by Gokhale’s Congress; moderate in its aims, not embracing absolute national independence, and in its aims, which were constitutional. ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi’s movement, however, worked unconstitutionally, outside the system. His distinctive contribution to the nationalist struggle was ‘non-cooperation’. This spelt danger for the empire: danger which even in peace-time it might not be able to contain. In April there was a rash of rebellions in Punjab serious enough to convince General Dyer that the Indian Mutiny was about to be repeated: which persuaded him to open fire on a crowd of unarmed Indians in a public square outside the Sikh ‘Golden Temple’ in Amritsar, and to continue to firing into their backs until his ammunition ran out, killing at least 380 and wounding 1,200. Also in April, the first serious Arab-Jewish clash occurred in Palestine. In May, Britain was at war with Afghanistan, and about to go to war again, it seemed, with Turkey.

Towards the Treaties – The Big Three & The Council of Ten:

As the Paris conference moved forward, Harold Nicolson became increasingly depressed by the self-centred, ill-informed, arrogant behaviour of the world’s leaders who had gathered in Paris.

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Ion Bratianu, the Romanian Prime Minister was a bearded woman, a forceful humbug, a Bucharest intellectual, a most unpleasing man who aspired to the status of a Great Power; the Baron Sidney Sonnino, the Italian Foreign Minister, emerged as the evil genius of the piece, obstructing everything with a breathtaking obstinacy and malevolence, while Signor Vittorio Orlando (pictured right), the Italian Prime Minister, was never able to rise to the level of his own intelligence. When the Italians decided to leave Paris in protest at their allies’ refusal to meet them half-way on their demands, Nicolson waved them off with a hearty “good riddance”, but they returned a fortnight later.

During the rest of the conference, Orlando remained interested only in securing an expansion of Italy’s territory and in discussions which concerned the satisfaction of these ambitions. Nicholson soon concluded that the conference was proceeding in a rather irresponsible and intermittent way. For this sorry state of affairs, ‘the Big Three’ were culpable, as far as he was concerned, especially Wilson. Hampered by his spiritual arrogance and the hard but narrow texture of his mind, he appeared conceited, obstinate, nonconformist … obsessed, in fact no better than a presbyterian dominie (schoolmaster/ pedagogue). Nicolson was not alone in this opinion: Wilson’s traits were soon picked up on by the Parisian press. Bitter at these public assaults on his character, Wilson contemplated moving the conference to Geneva, where he hoped to benefit from the more Calvinistic, sober and sympathetic Swiss. Paris was an unfortunate choice for a peace conference, as passions among the people were inflamed by close contact with the War and its miseries. Statesmen could not free themselves from the tense atmosphere that prevailed.

Wilson, Nicolson believed, was also responsible for what he and others regarded as a totally impracticable agenda and timetable. The three main subjects were territorial adjustments, reparations, and the provision of machinery to ensure peace. Under the first, the map of Europe was to be redrawn, and some parts of the map of the world. The Conference did not, of course, with a clean slate; the Austrian Empire had collapsed and fallen into pieces, and Poland and Czechoslovakia had already come into being. A number of treaties, not just that of Versailles, would be needed to lay down the new boundaries – St Germain, Trianon, Neuilly and Sévres. Mandates dealing with territories taken from enemy states were to be settled later by Allied Ministers sitting in the Supreme Council. But instead of giving top priority to the main purpose of the conference, the peace settlement with Germany, Wilson kept his colleagues busy playing word games in drafting the Covenant of the League of Nations, his pet cause, and by fiddling with the maps of central and eastern Europe and Asia Minor.  In this way, the German treaty was effectively put on hold until the end of March, nine weeks after the conference had opened.

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David Lloyd George, British Prime Minister in 1919, at the height of his power, the man who won the war. As the head of the Conservative-Liberal-Labour wartime coalition, his government was returned at the General Election in December 1918, with an overwhelming majority of more than three hundred in the House of Commons. The majority in the total of votes was strangely less marked – five million for the government and 4.6 million against.

Neither did Lloyd George escape Nicolson’s criticism. Dressed in a bedint grey suit, the British PM hadn’t the faintest idea of what he is talking about, Nicolson complained. He tried to prime Balfour to protest against his Premier’s ‘madcap schemes’, but Balfour proved ‘infinitely tiresome’ and fobbed him off: Yes, that’s all very well, but what you say is pure aesthetics! But before long, Nicolson came to appreciate Lloyd George’s uphill struggle at the conference against those who were more extreme: Quick as a kingfisher, in Harold’s view, as he saw Lloyd George fending off excessive Italian or French demands, not always with complete success. He fought like a Welsh terrier, he told his father, as Lloyd George strove to modify the ‘punitive’ terms of the German treaty. Invited to attend meetings of ‘the Big Three’ in his capacity as an expert, Nicolson witnessed their capricious handling of affairs, which he recorded in his letters to his wife Vita:

Darling, it is appalling, those three ignorant and irresponsible men cutting Asia Minor to bits as if they were dividing a cake, and with no one there except Hadji … Isn’t it terrible – the happiness of millions being decided in that way?

When he politely protested, Nicolson was condescendingly put down by Clemenceau: “Mais, voyez-vous, jeune homme … il faut aboutir.” But there were opportunities to advise and influence, or educate the three men, usually over a huge map on the carpet of a nearby study. Already dispirited at the way the conference was, or rather was not, proceeding, by mid-February Nicolson was beginning to despair, as he wrote to his father:

The Council of Ten are atrophied by the mass of material which pours in upon them … We are losing the peace rapidly and all the hard work is being wasted. The ten haven’t really finished off anything, except the League of Nations, and what does that mean to starving people at Kishinev, Hermannstadt and Prague? It is despairing.

In a similar vein to Oliver’s statement above, Nicolson added that What we want is a dictator for Europe and we haven’t got one: And never will have! As the conference ‘progressed’, both Europe and the Middle East continued in a state of confusion. The old empires had fallen; new nations had already set up governments. Starvation and disease aggravated the horrors resulting from war. The statesmen were forced to act quickly. They had to consider not only what they believed ought to be done, but also what their electorate demanded. On April Fool’s Day, Harold Nicolson and Leeper left Paris on a special mission headed by General Jan Smuts, the South African member of Britain’s War Cabinet. They were bound for Budapest where Nicolson had spent part of his childhood during his father’s diplomatic posting there and where, on 21 March, a communist revolution led by Béla Kun had taken place; their assignment was to investigate its ramifications. For the world’s leaders gathered in Paris, the spectre of Bolshevism was truly haunting Europe: it threatened widespread starvation, social chaos economic ruin, anarchy and a violent, shocking end to the old order. Harold wrote to his wife, Vita, about how the Germans made use of this threat:

They have always got the trump card, i.e. Bolshevism – and they will go Bolshevist the moment they feel it is hopeless to get good terms.

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This was one of the main themes of Lloyd George’s cogently argued but largely ignored Fontainebleau memorandum. Small wonder, then, that Béla Kun’s strike for communism in Hungary registered many anxious moments for the Supreme Council. I have written more about Smuts’ mission to Budapest elsewhere on this site. During Nicolson’s absence from Paris, the prospects for a settlement based on Wilson’s new world order had receded. The French put forward extreme ideas that would extend French sovereignty or influence into the Rhineland. Lloyd George and Wilson hotly opposed these demands, seeing in them the seeds of another war. Eventually, a compromise was worked out that called for an allied occupation of the Rhineland with staged withdrawals, backed by an Anglo-American guarantee of the French frontiers. But Nicolson and many others harboured a ‘ghastly suspicion’ that the United States would not honour the signature of its delegates: it became the ghost at all our feasts, he wrote. From mid-May to mid-June the German treaty hung on a razor’s edge. Word reached Paris that the German government was prepared to sign it but that public opinion would not allow it without allied concessions. Nicolson agreed with the German public:

The more I read (the treaty), the sicker it makes me … If I were the Germans I shouldn’t sign for a moment. … The great crime is the reparations clauses, which were drawn up solely to please the House of Commons.

The peace treaties which resulted reflected the spirit of the conference, in which were represented opposing forces demanding, on the one hand, the rewards of victory, and on the other, the magnanimous settlement of conflicting claims designed to secure permanent peace. The result was a decisive triumph for the victors, but the influence of the need for a permanent peace was not entirely lost. On the one hand, there was no open discussion, and the main points of the settlement were secretly decided and imposed by the ‘Big Three’. The defeated Powers were disarmed, but the victors maintained their military strength.  On the other hand, it may be claimed that the map of Europe was redrawn to correspond with national divisions, to some extent at least and that the ‘Covenant of the League of Nations’ seemed to be a definite step towards the preservation of international peace. It formed the first part of each treaty, followed by territorial changes and disarmament clauses, such as the following from section one of the Treaty of Versailles:

By a date which must not be later than 31 March 1920, the German Army must not comprise more than seven divisions of infantry and three divisions of cavalry. 

By this article, the German Army was limited to a hundred thousand men and committed to the maintenance of order within the territory and to the control of frontiers. The long list of other restrictions included the prohibition of German use of submarines, tanks and poison gas. The disarmament of Germany was to be strictly enforced, but it was combined with a solemn pledge by the other nations themselves to disarm, which promised trouble in the future. In spite of Wilson’s principles, penal clauses were added to the treaties. The penal proposals, which had played so great a part in the ‘khaki’ election in Britain, were reduced more or less to the matter of reparations. Reparations were to be exacted from Germany alone; she had to undertake to pay the cost of the War, as her Allies were bankrupt. John Buchan commented on the futility of this exercise:

No victor has ever succeeded in reimbursing himself for his losses, and a strange blindness seemed on this point to have overtaken the public mind. 

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While rich in capital wealth, this could not be ‘extracted’ for its creditors, and its exportable surplus had never been great and was now likely to be very small. It could only pay large sums by borrowing from one or other of the Allies. At Paris, there was no agreement on the total sum of reparations to be paid, but there was much talk about what items should be included in the reparations bill. Smuts, whom Harold Nicolson considered a splendid, wide-horizoned man, now showed that his character, though ‘simple’, was also exceptionally ‘intricate’. Concerned that the bulk of the reparations would go to France, he concocted a creative formula to include separation allowances for soldiers’ families, as well as pensions for widows and orphans. His prescription effectively doubled the potential bill, however, and would not have been to Nicolson’s liking. Yet a special committee of solemn ‘pundits’ in Britain had fixed its capacity to pay at the preposterous figure 24,000 million pounds sterling. The Conference reduced this sum to less than half, and in 1921 a special allied commission whittled it down to 6,600 million, then to two thousand, and in 1932 further payments were dropped. But more unfortunate still was the clause which extorted from Germany a confession of her sole responsibility for the War. This was article 231 of the Treaty, the notorious ‘war guilt’ clause, that compelled Germany and her allies to accept full responsibility for…

… causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed on them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.  

It was not, Buchan suggested in 1935, …

… the business of any conference to anticipate the judgment of history, and to force a proud nation to confess that her sacrifice had been a crime was a breach of the human decencies. 

The Final Week – Scuttling Ships & Salvaging the Settlement:

Could anyone salvage something from this mess? Surprisingly, perhaps, Nicolson looked to Lloyd George for this. Hitherto, he had been quite critical of Lloyd George’s policies, especially in Asia Minor, which eventually to lead to his downfall. As he sought to scale down the reparations bill, which he saw as ‘immoral and senseless’; to revise the territorial settlement in Silesia to Germany’s advantage; and to grant Germany membership of the League of Nations, Nicolson’s admiration grew, particularly as he fought alone. The French were, quite naturally, furious at him for what they considered to be a betrayal of their interests. By contrast, Wilson’s passivity infuriated Harold, who couldn’t understand why the US President would not take the opportunity to improve the draft treaty. He wrote again to his father, voicing the view of the younger generation of British diplomats:

There is not a single person among the younger people here who is not unhappy and disappointed at the terms. The only people who approve are the old fire-eaters.

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After much hesitation, and under the threat of renewed force, the German government accepted the treaty. Despite his disappointment with its terms, Harold Nicolson breathed a huge sigh of relief that there would be no return to hostilities. Exactly a week before the treaty was due to be signed, however, there was a dramatic turn of events when Admiral von Reuter ordered the scuttling of the German fleet blockaded at Scapa Flow off Orkney, eight months after its surrender. This is shown in the pictures above and below. Of the seventy-four warships interned, forty-eight sank within an hour when the German sailors opened the sea-cocks on the Admiral’s order. He said that he was obeying the Kaiser’s orders, given to him before the war, that no German battleship should be allowed to fall into enemy hands, and denied that he was in breach of the Armistice terms, since he had had no notice of its extension beyond 21 June, the day of expiry. The German sailors risked their lives in carrying out von Reuter’s orders. At noon on the 21st, the German ensign was run up, the battleships began to settle, and their crews crowded into boats or swam for it. Some of the British guardships, uncertain of what was happening, opened fire, and there were over a hundred casualties.

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The treaty was signed on 28 June 1919 in the Galerie des Glaces (‘Hall of Mirrors’) at the palace of Versailles, where half a century before the German Empire had been founded on the degradation of France. Harold Nicolson witnessed the occasion and recorded it in careful detail. The ‘Galerie’ was crowded, with seats for over a thousand. Clemenceau, small and yellow, orchestrated the proceedings. “Faites entrer les Allemands,” he called out. Dr Hermann Müller and Dr Johannes Bell, heads held high, eyes studying the ceiling, one looking like “the second fiddle” in a string ensemble, the other resembling “a privat-dozent“, were led to the table to sign the treaty. No-one spoke or moved. Having committed Germany to the treaty, they were escorted from the hall “like prisoners from the dock”. Over the “breathless silence”, Clemenceau rasped: “Messieurs, la séance est levée.”  Outside, salvoes were fired, while a squadron of aeroplanes flew overhead. Crowds cheered and yelled, “Vive Clemenceau … Vive l’Angleterre.” After the ceremony Clemenceau, with tears in his eyes, was heard to say: “Oui, c’est une belle journée.” Exhausted at the end of an extraordinary day, Nicolson lamented that it has all been horrible … To bed, sick of life.

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General Smuts signed the Versailles Treaty only on the grounds that something of the kind, however imperfect, was needed before the real work of peace-making could begin. But, according to John Buchan, the Treaty proved to be a grave hindrance in that task. For John Maynard Keynes, the British economist, the ‘peace’ was a ‘Carthaginian’ imposition. In The Economic Consequences of the Peace, first published in 1919, he wrote a damning indictment of both the process and product of the Treaty:

Moved by insane delusion and reckless self-regard, the German people overturned the foundations on which we all lived and built. But the spokesmen of the French and British peoples have run the risk of completing the ruin. … Paris was a nightmare. … A sense of impending catastrophe overhung the frivolous scene. … Seated indeed amid the theatrical trappings of the French Saloons of State, one could wonder if the extraordinary visages of Wilson and Clemenceau, with their fixed hue and unchanging characterisation, were really faces at all and not the tragi-comic masks of some strange drama or puppet-show. …

010For John Buchan, the hopeful element in what had been signed lay in its prefix – the Covenant of a new League of Nations, the one remnant left of Wilson’s dreams; the hope was that the reaction against the horrors of war might result in an abiding determination for peace. Machinery was provided to give a system to fulfil this desire. Membership of the League was open to any self-governing state which accepted its principles; it required its members to refrain from war until the quarrel had been submitted to its judgement and to take corporate action against any breaker of the peace. It was not a super-state with a military force as its sanction, but a league of states whose effectiveness in a crisis would depend upon how far its members would be prepared to act collectively. There was no abandonment of sovereign rights, except to a very minor extent. It began as a league of the victorious and neutral Powers, but the defeated Powers were given the right of delayed entry.

 

Above (Right): a facsimile of some of the signatures on the Treaty.

Concluding Versailles – A Toothless Treaty? The Covenant & Council of the League of Nations:

From the start, the League was handicapped by the facts that it was widely regarded as the caretaker of the Peace treaties and therefore suspect to those who found them difficult to come to terms with, and by the fact that the USA refused to join, thereby weakening any chance of collective action. But it was the best that could be done at that juncture by way of international cooperation, and even its flawed and modest beginnings were soon seen as an advance in peacemaking and peacekeeping in the world. It was often said in the 1920s and ’30s that a fundamental weakness of the League of Nations that it ‘lacked teeth’, that it was not prepared to threaten potential and actual aggressors with military force. However, the original clauses in the Covenant contradict this contention. They state that in the case of aggression or threat of aggression, the Council of the League should advise upon how this threat should be met: military action was not excluded. Moreover, if any member of the League did resort to war, the Council would recommend to the governments concerned what effective military, naval and air force the members of the League should contribute. Members of the League were expected to permit the passage through their territories of the armed forces of other members of the League. These articles, therefore, totally envisage the possibility of military action by the League in order to deter aggression. Although the requirement of unanimity on the part of the Council could effectively negate these provisions in certain circumstances, the ‘teeth’ were there, if only the principal Powers were willing to put them to work. In his course notes for the Open University, prepared in 1973, Arthur Marwick pointed to the scope of the problems facing the peacemakers in 1919:

A war on such an unprecedented scale obviously left problems of an unprecedented nature. Insulated as we have been in these islands, we can easily forget the immense problems involved in the collapse of old political frontiers, from the mixing of races in particular areas, from the reallocation of territorial boundaries, and from the transfer of populations…

The Treaty of Versailles altogether consists of 440 articles and it takes up 230 pages of Volume LIII of the ‘Parliamentary Papers’ for 1919. From the document itself, we can see the very real complexities and difficulties which faced the peacemakers. From the detail in some parts of the Treaty, we can see what peacemaking is really like, as distinct from the brief text-book accounts which merely summarise the broad principles; we can see what is involved in putting those principles into practice. The Treaty of Versailles expressed certain intentions about settling the map of Europe. But, as with all historical documents, we do learn things from it about the fundamental assumptions of the men who drafted it. And throughout the entire Treaty, there is a good deal of ‘unwitting testimony’ about the political events, social conditions and cultural attitudes in Europe in 1918-19. A rapid glance at the map below will show that a serious attempt was made in 1919 to arrange the frontiers of the states so that the main boundaries coincided with the national divisions of the European peoples. As a result of the treaties, only a small minority, about three per cent, was still under the subjection of other nationalities. In many cases, the peoples themselves had taken the initiative and proclaimed their independence and the peacemakers simply had to accept what had already been accomplished. Their task was ‘simply’ to fix the new boundaries of these ethnic groups. But in doing so, they were responsible for some gross injustices, as the map also shows.

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(to be continued).

Posted January 24, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in Abdication, Affluence, anti-Communist, Arabs, Armistice Day, Assimilation, Belfast, Berlin, Britain, British history, Britons, Christian Faith, Christianity, Churchill, Colonisation, Commemoration, Commonwealth, Communism, Compromise, Coventry, David Lloyd George, democracy, Demography, Education, Egalitarianism, Egypt, Elementary School, Empire, English Language, Europe, Factories, First World War, Flanders, France, George V, Great War, Gulf War, History, Home Counties, Humanism, Hungarian History, Hungary, Imperialism, India, Integration, Iraq, Ireland, Irish history & folklore, Italy, Japan, Jerusalem, Labour Party, liberal democracy, liberalism, manufacturing, Marxism, Mediterranean, Middle East, morality, Mythology, Narrative, nationalisation, nationalism, Nationality, Navy, Normalcy, Palestine, Paris, Population, privatization, Proletariat, Scotland, Security, Serbia, south Wales, Trade Unionism, Turkey, Unemployment, Unionists, United Kingdom, USA, Versailles, War Crimes, Warfare, World War One, Yugoslavia

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