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DEFEAT IN THE WEST
With An Introduction By Major General Sir Ian Jacob, K.B.E., C.B.
Copyright © Milton Shulman
Defeat in the West
Arcadia Press 2017
By Major General Sir Ian Jacob, K.B.E., C.B.
The historian of the future will have an unprecedented opportunity. Not only will he have very complete documentation of the second World War on the Allied side, but he will have the entire political and military archives of Germany to study, since these have fallen intact into our hands. But the ground to be covered in writing a comprehensive history of the war is so extensive that many years must elapse before definitive volumes can be presented to the public. In the meanwhile the world does not stand still, and it is most desirable that interim studies of the great events of the past few years should appear and that in this way some of the lessons that are there to be learnt should be revealed before it is too late to make use of them. This book is just such a study. It describes in admirably lucid fashion the German defeat in the West as seen from the losing side; it traces the causes of that defeat, and it throws a lurid light on Hitler, on the German character and on the strengths and weaknesses of the Wehrmacht. There is no doubt about the essential accuracy of the picture that emerges. Further research may lead to modification of the details, but the main facts and the conclusions that can be drawn from them are likely to remain unchallenged.
Major Shulman was in an excellent position to gather the material for this book. It was his duty as a member of the Intelligence Staff of the Canadian Army to make a detailed study of the German Army before D-Day. He then made close personal contact with it throughout the operations in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany. Finally he was given the task of interrogating a large number of the senior Commanders who had fought for Germany against the Allies in the West, including such notable figures as von Rundstedt, ‘Sepp’ Dietrich and Student. Major Shulman has made the most of his opportunities, and the result is an absorbing tale of what happened "on the other side of the hill.”
Those of us who were closely concerned with the higher direction of the war on the Allied side frequently speculated on the extraordinary mistakes that were made by the Germans. Why was the British Army allowed to escape at Dunkirk? Why did not the enemy attempt the capture of Malta, the key to the Mediterranean campaign and the thorn in Rommel’s flesh, which so tapped his life-blood that he was prevented from driving home his victories? Why did the German armies on the various fronts never make strategic retreats? Why did they throw good money after bad in Tunisia? These and many other questions we asked ourselves. Some of them are directly answered by Major Shulman; the answers to others can now be deduced from the evidence that he has assembled. As Shulman says, it is at the fateful but clumsy feet of Adolf Hitler that we must lay the wreath of German defeat. Hitler, discipline, and ignorance, combined to make the immense sacrifices of the Wehrmacht ineffectual. But the supreme question that has to be answered is, How did one man so master Germany that when he was clearly leading the country to total destruction, when he was issuing impossible orders to formations hundreds of miles away in the line of battle, and when at all costs he should have been overthrown, no force was found with the spirit and cohesion to do the job? The answer lies in the state of degradation to which a nation, wedded to brute discipline and accustomed to military domination, can be reduced by an autocratic regime. Germany is a country that has never known truly democratic existence. The Germans have always responded with alacrity to the call to discipline, to self-sacrifice and to war. Autocratic leaders have always found it easy to fasten their militaristic chains on the docile and patriotic people of the Fatherland. The tradition of the Prussian military caste has thus been firmly established for many years, and has been gladly accepted by the men and women of German race. Its power and luster was in no way diminished by the outcome of the first World War. The myth of the “stab in the back” was cultivated to make the Germans believe that their army had not been defeated. The Wehrmacht, who knew the truth, and saw that Hitler gave promise of restoring their military glory, supported him in his rise to power. But their discipline and their ignorance made them incapable of withstanding his stupidities or of overthrowing him. There is now a real danger that a fresh myth may be built up by the Wehrmacht to put the blame for defeat on other shoulders than those of the German General Staff. “Hitler’s interference” may take the place of “the stab in the back.” Major Shulman’s account shows clearly that although Hitler’s intuition was the greatest single factor in Germany’s defeat, the Wehrmacht contained in itself fatal weaknesses which led to its utter defeat in battle in the West as in the East.
Future generations of Germans may again be taught to believe that the Wehrmacht embodied everything that was glorious in German history. It is essential that the truth about its overwhelming defeat, along with all the other ghastly details of the Nazi era, should not be allowed to disappear, least of all from the consciousness of the German race. Major Shulman performs a valuable service in bringing that truth so vividly to light.
The outstanding lesson that we must learn is that at all costs Germany must remain disarmed and demilitarized, incapable of selling her power to the highest bidder. The effects of militarism ingrained for generations, coupled with the debauchery of the last twelve years, will not easily be eradicated. Constant vigilance will be needed. The urgency of this lesson is apparent when one sees the rapid growth of natural sympathy for the German people in their sufferings. We must never allow the Germans to profit by this sympathy to build up once more the ruthless war machine that so nearly achieved the domination of Europe. Another time there might not be a Hitler to misdirect the strategy, and the General Staff might eradicate its weaknesses. The really formidable power of a nation of soldiers would then be fully developed with fatal results to civilization.
To write the story of the Allied victory in World War II, while not an easy task, is a relatively straightforward one. The documents have all been carefully preserved, the official reports are being written, the personalities are available to contribute their dispatches and memoirs. The historian or reporter needs only to dig amongst the files, find the relevant facts, and present his version of them. To write the story of the German defeat in World War II, at this early stage, is unfortunately a little more complicated. Documents have been destroyed, lost and hidden. Personalities are dead, disappeared or in prisoner-of-war camps. They produce no official reports, no autobiographies, no historical publications. Whatever is therefore written about the Wehrmacht less than two years after its final defeat must of necessity be incomplete. Much is still to be obtained from those Germans alive to tell the tale, and much will yet be derived from the mountains of documents waiting to be translated, classified and analyzed. It will be many more years before a complete history of Germany’s part in the last war will be written.
Having thus sweepingly apologized for what this book does not contain, let me hasten to add what it does contain. Ambitiously enough this volume was begun with a threefold object — to tell the story of the defeat of the German Wehrmacht in the West, to suggest some of the causes that brought about that defeat, and finally to show how men, both great and small, react to the overwhelming, psychological experience of defeat itself. Supplementary to this hydra-headed purpose, but seriously influencing the book’s final shape, was the desire to present it in terms intelligible to the reader whose military vocabulary had been acquired only by the reading of newspapers.
How I have gone about so diverse a task can best be seen by a cursory examination of the Table of Contents. The first section of the book is concerned primarily with examining the causes of the defeat of the Wehrmacht by tracing the story of German militarism from Versailles to Stalingrad. The second, and largest, section of the book is a relatively detailed account of the battles in the West from the invasion of Normandy to the surrender at Rheims. In this latter part I have included the letters, diaries, exhortations and propaganda written by men about to lose, in an attempt to depict the suffering, disillusionment and despair that must be faced by a modern armed force before it goes down to defeat.
For the student of military affairs some explanation as to my source material might be in order. As an intelligence officer serving at the headquarters of First Canadian Army it was my responsibility to read and collate the intelligence summaries and reports issued by Allied formations in Northwest Europe, and from them estimate the strength and location of enemy forces opposing the Canadian army. A list of these Allied intelligence documents is contained in the bibliography at Appendix ‘B.’ The bulk of the German papers quoted in this book were derived from this source.
Following the surrender of the German armed forces I was given the task of interviewing senior German officers who had fought in Germany and France, with the object of acquiring from them their version of what had transpired in the West. This information was to be used to supplement the official historical record of Canadian participation in World War II. The names of the German officers with whom I have spoken in this regard are listed in Appendix ‘A.’ To forestall any objections as to the reliability of statements made by captured enemy officers, I would like to point out that I have included in this volume only such statements as have appeared to me to be accurate on the basis of the available documentary evidence and on an examination of the attendant military circumstances.
While it is true that those who have suffered defeat will tend to excuse their mistakes by blaming someone else, and German generals were no exception to this rule, nevertheless it was possible for me to cross-check most of what they told by comparing it with statements from other German officers, and by the study of contemporary documents. As a matter of fact, most senior officers of the Wehrmacht were eager to relate the stories of their military careers. There were two main reasons for such generous co-operation. In the first place, they were anxious to explain their own particular, personal role to posterity. Since it would be a very long time before German historians would be able to hear their tales, they felt that an Allied version of their experiences was, at least, better than no version at all. The second reason was undoubtedly the sheer relief from boredom afforded by an opportunity to speak to someone other than the regular inmates of their own prisoner-of-war camp.
On the whole I believe it is fair to say that the statements of these men were reasonably truthful. Knowing that it was relatively easy for their interrogators to verify most of the facts, there was little to be gained in lying. Thus they usually told their story as they had seen it, with an occasional coloring of the account so that they personally would appear in the most favorable light. If the facts were much too damaging from their own particular standpoint they merely refrained from discussing them. Whatever juggling that may have been done with the truth was done in the form of acts of omission rather than those of commission.
In these pages I have endeavored sedulously to follow the thin, middle path of literary effort that appeals to both the serious student and the casual layman. The text has been freed, as much as possible, of detailed references to military formations or technical strategical problems which would be of little interest to the non-specialist reader. But for those who are interested in the minutiae of military history, a number of notes and references have been appended.
The folly of war as an instrument for the settlement of national disputes is acknowledged by every intelligent man. Just how senseless and futile an expedient it really is can usually best be judged by those who have lost rather than by those who have won. There were no more fervent worshippers of Mars than the officers of the German Wehrmacht. They represented the disciplined, military mind carried to its logical, uncurbed end. It would be foolish not to recognize that similar minds still exist, not only amongst the defeated, but amongst the victors as well.
It is important therefore to realize what pathetic and petty figures these men really were who masqueraded behind their gaudy uniforms and strutted before the world as conquerors. It is important because we hear today, on all sides, similar narrow and pompous men advocating the use of force to resolve all social and political problems. Because they have been victors once, they are convinced they will be victors always. If moral considerations alone are not capable of curbing such views, perhaps the sobering prospect of defeat might. For it is sometimes forgotten by those who talk glibly of another war that every war entails the risk of defeat. And if there are any who are still in doubt as to what defeat in the twentieth century really means, the rubble of German cities and the plight of the German people should provide a vivid object-lesson.
That lesson would be more impressive still if it could but be appreciated that the pain and destruction suffered by the Third Reich in the second World War is but a fraction of the pain and destruction that awaits both those who win and those who lose a third World War.
This is a story of defeat. It tells of men who fought, who were beaten and who fled. As such it is a gray story. There is no pink mist of glory to color the deeds of the vanquished such as so often envelops the tales of the victors. Defeat brings with it disloyalty, cowardice, brutality, inefficiency and death. Sometimes, but not as often, it displays courage and faith. Usually it produces truth. The winners can afford to conceal their failures; the losers are eager to explain theirs.
Rarely in history has an armed force been as thoroughly beaten as was the German Wehrmacht in the years from 1939 to 1945. The record of that defeat has been left in the exhortations, the oaths, the orders, the diaries, the letters, the speeches and the confessions of the men who suffered it. And it is in these words, from the mouths and the pens of German soldiers from private to field marshal, that the real account of the military collapse of the Third Reich can be found. For they disclose not only the errors and mistakes by which Germany blundered to defeat, but they also reveal the reactions of a modern armed force to defeat. How men accept victory is a tale often told. How they accept failure is less often told for it is seldom as heroic or as significant. The story of why Germany lost World War II and how it felt to lose it, as it was told and felt by those who were a part of the defeated Wehrmacht, is the purpose of this book.
It is inevitable that the physical and spiritual demands made on men who are losing are far more exacting than they are on those who are winning. In the same way that we can only be certain of the amount of air a rubber balloon can hold by pumping into it sufficient air to burst it, a man’s faith and ability can only be truly tested when he has been subjected to enough pressure to destroy that faith and ability. If this be true then it follows that a defeated Wehrmacht should provide a better picture of its real worth than a victorious one would have done. For here one should be able to see just how capable were the men who made it up, and what sacrifices they were willing to make for the cause for which they fought.
It is obvious that men make wars. The corollary that men lose wars is a truism that is often forgotten. The popular tendency at the moment is to identify all man’s military achievements with the machine. The aeroplane, the tank, the battleship, radar and the atom bomb amongst others are all credited by various proponents with having been the decisive factor in winning the war for the Allies. It seems to be felt, in some quarters, that given enough aeroplanes, or enough battleships or enough atom bombs, any power could guarantee for itself ultimate victory in a future war. But the story of Germany’s defeat in World War II convincingly destroys such theories.
Germany had sufficient machines to have assured victory for herself more than once during this war, yet she failed. This view has been expressed over and over again by leading military personalities in the Wehrmacht. They propound it every time they talk about Germany’s greatest military mistakes— and each general suggests a different one. Some say it was allowing the British to escape at Dunkirk, others the failure to invade England in 1940, others the refusal to invade Spain and seize Gibraltar, others the attack on Russia, others the failure to push on and take the Suez when Rommel was at El Alamein, others the stupidity at Stalingrad, and still others the disastrous strategy adopted at Normandy. At each of these decisive phases, except perhaps the last, Germany had sufficient material strength to have enabled her to defeat her immediate enemy or to have prevented that enemy from defeating her.
Yet why did the superior power of these machines not prevail? Because the men who controlled them lacked either the courage or the faith or the imagination or the ability to make them prevail. It is a fundamental principle of war that to win battles superiority of machines and men must be brought to bear at the right time and the right place. German strategists failed to carry out this tenet time and time again. Why, then, did these men who guided Germany’s destiny make blunder after blunder until victory became impossible? In the answer to that question, rather than in the quantity and quality of machines, is the real reason for the fall of Germany in World War II.
The causes of the defeat of the Reich were substantially either political or military. The evidence and judgment of the Nuremberg Tribunal has done much to clarify the political reasons behind Germany’s collapse. The military reasons, while obviously subordinate to political events, have not been given the same searching scrutiny and therefore still remain relatively obscure. The discriminating and scientific study of psychologists, sociologists and soldiers will undoubtedly produce the answers. But what evidence have we now on hand to help the historians and students of the future? The men of the Wehrmacht themselves. And their evidence is both interesting and important.
If men make wars, what manner of men were these who led the armed forces of the Reich to its worst defeat in history? What fundamental causes forced the military leaders of Germany to act as they did for five years of war? Why did a group of men with more training, more experience and more passion for the art of warfare than any other contemporary group of similarly trained men fail to ensure the victory that was so often within their reach? It is suggested that at least three weaknesses existed in the framework of the Wehrmacht which combined to produce a defeated, rather than a victorious, Germany. These weaknesses might be summed up in three words — Hitler, discipline and ignorance. Let us discuss each in turn.
The incredible situation of the political head of a state personally directing the tactical moves of an armed force fighting on fronts as far removed from each other as France, Italy and Russia was the military position revealed in Germany when the curtain of war was lifted in Europe. Brooding over a large-scale map in Berlin, Hitler had for five years made every important decision taken by the Wehrmacht. This fact was both the strength and the weakness of German military power. It gave to Germany astonishing victories in the early years; it was the prime factor in Germany’s ultimate defeat. It was Adolf Hitler’s genius that brought military success to the Wehrmacht. But it was from that self-same success that failure in far greater measure stemmed. Look which way you will, there is only one ultimate place to lay the wreath of German defeat — at the fateful but clumsy feet of Adolf Hitler.
How was it possible that a man, whose military career ended at the rank of corporal, was nevertheless able to command over 300 divisions in battle? How was an untrained visionary able to accept and reject the advice of field marshals as he alone saw fit? The story of the struggle between National Socialism and the German army provides the answer. Once the Reichstag had been dissolved and a fascist dictatorship had become a political reality, the one organization still able to furnish effective opposition to National Socialism was the officer corps. Hitler was determined to either convert it or break it. He partially, but not completely, achieved the conversion. He definitely succeeded in breaking it. But by forcing the German General Staff to yield to him, Adolf Hitler subjugated and rendered impotent the only body of men capable of shielding and saving him. With the National Socialist victory over the traditional military hierarchy, Germany’s fate was sealed. For it convinced the Fuhrer that he was a soldier.
Before the war began it is extremely doubtful that Hitler considered himself a military leader. But on climbing the ladder to total domination of the Reich he was forced to make political decisions which involved important military considerations. Up until February 1938 the General Staff had still to be treated with the caution and regard due to a dangerous adversary. But in that month by the dismissal of Field Marshal von Blomberg, the Minister of War, and Colonel General von Fritsch, Commander-in-Chief of the German army, the officer corps was relegated to the role of a tool, to be wielded by Adolf Hitler in the shaping of a National Socialist Germany. By this move the Wehrmacht had been purged of the leaders of the aristocratic Prussian army who resented Hitler, not so much for his ambition, as for his being a crude Austrian paper hanger whose coarse methods they could not stomach.
One of the first political matters before the Fuhrer that contained serious military problems was the crisis of the Sudetenland in 1938. A number of senior officers were concerned that Hitler’s policy towards Czechoslovakia would bring about a war with France. Colonel General Ludwig Beck, Chief of the General Staff, along with a number of others compiled a report showing that German military strength could not possibly stand up to the large French armies then in existence, and recommended that the aggressive attitude of Hitler be modified lest it lead to war. In the summer of 1938 Beck was dismissed. The Four-Power Conference at Munich thoroughly vindicated Hitler’s view that the Sudetenland affair would not set off a major war. Such ‘unjustified’ opposition confirmed in Hitler’s mind his opinion that the officer corps was a reactionary group that was neither as courageous nor as able as himself.
Then followed Poland where again a political and a military problem were combined. Politically Hitler was completely wrong in his assumption that England would not go to war over the Polish Corridor. But in the military sphere he again confounded his military advisers by a lightning victory over Poland during which the French provided no trouble in the West. By now Hitler was prepared to rely on his own intuition in military matters, although he still pretended to listen to the advice of the experts about him. The feasibility of launching an attack against Norway was questioned by the General Staff and once more Hitler proved it could be done. In the plan to invade the Low Countries and France, Hitler again insisted that the offensive be taken and actually changed the military plan by which the forces were to carry out this large operation. There was deep resentment amongst senior officers against such brash and reckless behavior, but when France collapsed those who had opposed his plan could only shake their heads and admit that he had been right.
These matters will all be discussed at greater length in a subsequent chapter, but they are reviewed here to explain the stages by which Hitler’s domination in military affairs became complete. He had proved brilliantly successful in his ability to recognize merit in military theories. He adopted Colonel General Guderian’s radical new theories on armored warfare and encouraged their adoption in the face of a traditional backwardness in regard to technical improvement on the part of the General Staff. He was able to pick out the bold plan and force it to a successful conclusion without the reserve and caution of the expert. Staff officers began to admit that it was his recklessness and dash which were behind the German strategic moves of the time. They even began to believe that he possessed some inexplicable intuition which enabled him to guess right when the cold logic of the facts seemed to indicate he was wrong. What was worse. Hitler began to believe all this himself. A huge propaganda campaign in the press and radio extolled the Fuhrer as the greatest military genius of all time. This thunderous eulogy, besides convincing the German public, also convinced Hitler that he was another Alexander or Napoleon. From then on he was always right. Whenever his senior officers cautioned him against any course of action, he always had the perfect answer, “Remember Czechoslovakia! Remember France!”
With the fall of France Hitler’s military career had reached its zenith. The next five years were all downhill. He made mistake after mistake, but like a losing gambler at a gaming-table he kept frantically tossing the dice hoping that the winning number would turn up again. It never did. But he never really believed that his luck had left him. The abandonment of the plan to invade England in 1940, the declaration of war against Russia, the fiasco at Stalingrad, the childlike strategy in France, were all the personal decisions of the Fuhrer. They were often made in the face of the most strenuous opposition of the commander on the spot, and were rarely supported by any logical military considerations.
As failure followed failure Hitler became more morose and alone. He began to suspect that he was being betrayed by those under him, and he came to rely more and more on his own judgment even in the most minor matters. On one occasion Hitler, quite oblivious of what he was doing, ordered a concentration of armored units in a town in Russia. The result was a fantastic number of tanks in a very small sector. In the confusion that followed, Hitler ordered the court-martial of the corps commander concerned. It was pointed out to the Fuhrer that he, himself, had planned the manoeuvre. “Where did you read that?” snarled Hitler of the officer who had made the observation. “In the war diary,” came the reply. That ended the matter. But on the same day the historical section of Hitler’s headquarters was told that in future no reference was to be made to Hitler’s operational orders in the war diary, nor was his interference in operations ever to be referred to even by implication. Six stenographers were henceforth employed to take down all discussions, briefings and orders in the operations room and to type out one copy only. This, in the special large type designed for Hitler’s farsightedness, was kept locked in his own personal safe to which he alone had access. This transcript of the conversations held in the operations room often came in useful to Hitler when dealing with recalcitrant generals.
From broad, sweeping decisions involving major strategy, Hitler was soon delving into detailed tactical matters which concerned relatively minor formations and unimportant sectors. His belief in his own infallibility was so firm that if an operation like the order to capture Moscow failed, his only explanation for the failure was the incompetence or the cowardice of the commander conducting the operation. It rarely occurred to him that the strategical plan might have been impossible in the first place. As a result he not only made the big decisions but tried to ensure that the methods by which they were carried out conformed with his own views. By the time the Allies were ready to invade the Continent every senior German officer was so hamstrung with restrictions and threats from Berlin that any initiative could only be exercised on the very lowest levels. In Normandy this interference reached such a stage that operational orders began to arrive from Berlin setting out, not only the units to be involved in an attack, but the sectors they were to occupy and the routes they were to use. By the time the Germans had been forced back to the Rhine, Hitler had taken over personal and complete command of all fighting in the West. On the 21 January 1945 Field Marshal von Rundstedt issued the following top secret order.
Supreme H.Q. West, G-3 No. 595/45. 21 Jan. 45.
The following order by the Fuhrer is quoted in its original text:
1. The Commanders of Armies, Corps and Divisions will be personally responsible for all of the following types of decisions or intentions reaching me early enough to enable me to exercise my influence on such decisions and for a possible counter-order to reach the front-line troops in time:
(i) any decision involving an operational movement,
(ii) any projected attack of divisional size or larger which is not covered by general orders issued by Supreme Headquarters,
(iii) any offensive action on an inactive front exceeding normal patrol activity and apt to draw the enemy’s attention to that sector,
(iv) any projected movement of withdrawal or retreat,
(v) any contemplated abandonment of a position, a fortified town or a fortress.
2. The Commanders of Armies, Corps and Divisions, the Chiefs-of-Staff and every single General Staff officer or staff officers will be personally responsible to me to see to it that any report addressed to me directly or through channels will contain nothing but the blunt truth. In the future I will drastically punish any attempt at veiling facts, whether done on purpose or through negligence…
/s/ ADOLF HITLER.
To such a pass had come the proud German officer corps. Their field marshals and generals virtually could not move their troops backwards or forwards without first obtaining the permission of the corporal they had despised. Never had military commanders been so stripped of authority nor so ruthlessly and contemptuously treated. It was the price they had to pay for helping to sabotage the Weimar Republic in order to satisfy their ambitions for a nationalist, militant Germany. In their eagerness to destroy democracy they spawned a child destined to commit parricide.
It is interesting to speculate on what might have occurred had the political head of a democratic state attempted to interfere with or override his military leaders. Let us assume that Churchill had insisted that Field Marshal Montgomery attack at El Alamein two months before the latter thought it advisable. In the first place Field Marshal Alanbrooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, would probably have approached Churchill on Montgomery’s behalf and suggested that the field commander knew best. If this failed, a meeting of the Chief-of-Staff Committee representing the heads of all the services would have asked Churchill to back down. Meanwhile someone might have approached Attlee, as Leader of the Opposition, or some other member of the War Cabinet to ask him to use his influence in getting the Prime Minister to reverse his decision. By that time, Churchill would undoubtedly have seen he was wrong and yielded, but probably not before some newspaper had hinted at differences of opinion within the War Cabinet and awkward questions had been asked in the House. All this would have brought heated and eloquent denials of any dissension and the operation would have gone on as originally planned.
This would be the cumbersome and irritating process of democracy at work. Not so imaginative and dramatic as the bold wave of the dictator’s hand galvanizing a nation into disciplined action. But it provided those restraints that prevented a single man’s mistakes from catapulting a state into disaster. The virtue of the democratic method is that judgments reached under the illumination of free discussion are usually both comprehensive and sound. There is seldom the need to reverse a decision as so often happens when that decision is based on intuition alone. True, a democracy will often be slower to act than a dictatorship. But in the long run, as most German generals will now agree, it is by far the wiser way.
Without discipline an army cannot function. Too much discipline, on the other hand, is likely to strangle it. The German army had too much discipline. Both its officers and men obeyed blindly and without question the orders of their superiors. This they continued to do even when faith in victory had gone and logic told them their efforts were useless. Very rarely did a subordinate revolt against a command or refuse to obey a senior officer. Even when circumvention of a command was the only sane course to take — particularly towards the end of the war when Hitler took over complete control — military leaders always managed to obey the letter of the order even though they avoided its spirit. So ingrained was the German soldier’s submission to authority that any sidestepping of this kind was always accompanied by a rationalization in which the officer concerned justified his conduct as having literally conformed to the orders he had received. It was only by the knowledge of the fact that he had not disobeyed a command that his professional soldier’s conscience could be clear. It was of secondary importance that he had acted humanely and had thereby saved men’s lives.
It was this rigid discipline within the Wehrmacht that enabled the army to fight on for so long. But it was this same discipline that prevented it from taking the necessary steps to overthrow the forces driving Germany to destruction. Months before the war was over the bulk of senior officers realized that to go on was senseless. Yet so powerless had they become, and so incapable were they of opposing the political authority, that the best they could produce in the way of a real protest was a bungled assassination plot a bare nine months before the end of the war.
Since the Versailles Treaty had restricted the new German army to only 100,000 men, its new leaders were determined to make up in quality what they lacked in quantity. Setting themselves up as a caste apart, they formed a small, select inner circle of military experts with a moral and social code of their own. The commander and chief designer of this clique, Colonel General Hans von Seeckt, firmly believed that an efficient army must be completely divorced from politics. This view tended to isolate the professional soldiers from contemporary civilian thought. Although born to protect the Weimar Republic, it soon became obvious that the officer corps was in no way in accord with the principles of social democracy sponsored by the foundling government. In fact most of the officers were contemptuous of such principles as being weak and un-German. The army became a vocation and its officers came to owe their allegiance to it rather than to the government which it was supposed to serve. When Hitler abolished the constitution of the Weimar Republic, the German officer corps acquiesced in this political murder by doing nothing to prevent it. They believed that their ambition to enlarge the army and free themselves from the humiliating bonds of Versailles was far more likely to be achieved through Adolf Hitler than through the democratic Reichstag. Their loyalty followed their ambition.
To maintain such allegiance an iron discipline was imposed within the officer corps which brooked nothing but subservience to authority. Orders of a superior were to be obeyed without question, and any break from tradition was seriously frowned upon. Not only was their military life strictly supervised, but their personal life was also subject to an unrelenting social code. This adherence to a rigid standard of customs and morals was used by Hitler with startling results in his struggle to subject the German General Staff to his will.
The marriage of Field Marshal von Blomberg to a woman of questionable reputation created the crisis by which Hitler was able to rid himself of both von Blomberg and von Fritsch, both of whom had strenuously opposed him. A less publicized instance when Hitler took advantage of the officer corps’ impeccable moral code was in the case of the divorce of Field Marshal von Brauchitsch. The rule was that if an officer was divorced because of his own misconduct he would be expelled from the corps. Von Brauchitsch fell in love with another woman and he asked his wife to provide the necessary grounds so that he could divorce her. She refused. He went to Hitler with his problem. The Fuhrer told the wife that it would be advisable for her to do as she had been asked, and he also made a financial settlement with her. The result was an expensive moral obligation which was owed to Hitler by one of the leading members of the officer corps. Hitler did not hesitate to remind von Brauchitsch of this debt on subsequent occasions.
This high standard of social conduct was demanded even during the war. It was always the aim of the German General Staff to create all officers in the same mould so that their reactions would be unvaried and therefore reliable. Even as late as April 1943 a school for artillery officer cadets published an order on behavior in society which contained items such as these:
(1) Paying a Visit.
Visiting hours 11.30-13.00 hours on Sundays, 17.00-18.00 hours on week-days. Never later and never in the afternoon…
On entering a room carry hat in left hand. On taking a seat lay the hat down…
Coming and going: Length of visit should be about ten minutes. Do not look at your watch. No reason should be given for termination of visit. On leaving do not turn your back on the company when opening the door.
Wine: White wine to be drunk from tall glasses, red wine from short glasses.
Dances: First dance and quadrilles always with dinner partner. Never dance continually with one and the same lady.
Flowers: To be unwrapped in the hall. Never presented with the paper round them. In presenting flowers hold the stalks downwards…
At races, the officer himself must never approach the totalizator…
That these methods succeeded in producing loyalty and discipline within the army is undoubted. But these automatic and impersonal creatures of the officer corps were so obsessed with the omnipotence of authority that they were hypnotized by its very presence. To live was to obey. There was no other end in life. To challenge the Supreme Commander of the armed forces, Adolf Hitler, was unthinkable. And in any event their training prevented them from even knowing how.
Since it was improbable that opposition to the political authority would come from within the officer class of the army, the question remains whether some such initiative might not have come from the rank and file. The Russian Revolution of 1917, although its initial impetus came from civilian sources, showed that modern armies may turn against the constituted authority even in defiance of their military leaders. It was confidently expected by many military leaders that disintegration of the forces in the field would follow in the wake of an unsuccessful war. This result was based upon the historic examples of Austria in 1918 and Russia in 1917. But it is fair to say that although the Wehrmacht suffered a military defeat such as has not been equaled in modern history, at no time was there any suggestion of an organized revolt amongst the men in the ranks. This, despite the fact that they were badly led in a hopeless cause, and suffered catastrophic casualties and incredible hardships. The combined ingredients of Prussian discipline and Nazi propaganda produced this result. The reason that the German soldier did not revolt is not to be found in his loyalty. He did not revolt because he was bullied, threatened, drugged and duped so intensely and so persistently that his powers to resist or object were utterly destroyed. It was discipline and ignorance, not loyalty, that kept the German soldier in the field until May 1945.
For this achievement the officer corps must take their due share of credit. Being prepared to obey blindly themselves, they also demanded obedience of those whom they led. The German, ever since the days of Frederick the Great, has feared and respected the military class. It was therefore natural that a conscripted German soldiery should very easily accept the discipline demanded by a cult of professional soldiers. The philosophy of complete submission to a leader had, indeed, been strengthened by the advent of National Socialism and its theory of the ‘Fuhrerprinzip.’ The officer corps made a fetish of discipline and therefore killed any latent resistance that might have sprung from the ranks of a soldiery raised by universal conscription.
The ‘Duties of the German Soldier’ proclaimed by Hindenburg in 25 May 1934, and re-issued unaltered in 1942, was to be known by heart by every soldier. The first four paragraphs of this catechism ran as follows:
(i) The Wehrmacht is the arms-bearer of the German people. It protects the German Reich and Fatherland, the people united in National Socialism, and its living space. The roots of its strength lie in its glorious past, in German nationhood, German soil and German labor. Service in the Wehrmacht is honorable service for the German people.
(ii) The soldier’s honor is embodied in the unconditional surrender of his person for people and Fatherland even to the sacrifice of his fife.
(iii) The highest soldierly virtue is martial courage. It demands hardiness and determination. Cowardice is disgraceful, hesitation unsoldierly.
(iv) Obedience is the foundation of the Wehrmacht, confidence the basis of obedience…
The individual is nothing; the state is all. This was the creed to which both National Socialism and the German armed forces subscribed. If obedience was ‘the foundation of the Wehrmacht’ then it follows that discipline was the means by which that foundation was built. The officer corps ensured that the discipline they cherished so much in themselves was also rooted in the men who served under them. It was achieved by a rigorous insistence on military form and bearing which never relaxed even when the inevitability of defeat was all about them. Thus in 1944 in France it was possible for a Colonel Gollnitz to issue a German district order, a part of which read:
Again and again I meet soldiers in the department of Eure who, as cyclists, do not keep their legs stiff when saluting. This is against orders when the bicycle is free-wheeling and the journey is not uphill.
Or for a Major General Conradi to drive through the streets of Krivoi Rog in Russia and force all soldiers who failed to salute him or who were improperly dressed to run behind his car. It was said that there were always thirty to forty soldiers running after the general’s car. After two or three kilometres Conradi would stop, take down the names of the defaulters and put them all on a charge.
Instances of this kind could be cited again and again. But let us compare what effect such actions as the two mentioned above would have had on a democratic army. In England an incredible clamor was raised by press and public when it was discovered that an officer was insisting that his men shout “Ho de ho” each time he cried “Hi de hi.” And in America the slapping of a private soldier by General Patton created a crisis which almost forced General Eisenhower to fire his most successful commander.
The difference lies, of course, in the fact that while Englishmen and Americans are prepared, if necessary, to give up their lives for their ideals, they are never ready to give up their dignity as human beings. A fascist state like Germany was the perfect breeding ground for an army which thrived on discipline. For there was never any danger of interference with the army’s methods from an indignant civilian population. And National Socialism demanded as much obedience as did the Wehrmacht. Once the German soldier had learned to obey instinctively and blindly it mattered not who gave the orders. The German General Staff, like Frankenstein, had built a monster of discipline which later helped destroy its master. They themselves could do nothing but follow the commands of their Fuhrer, and the soldier they had created in their own image was as helpless as they were. There being no opposition from those who led the German armies, and none from those who formed them, the Austrian corporal was able to play madly at war with the sure knowledge that whatever he ordered would always be obeyed.
That even Prussian discipline will disintegrate if sufficiently pummeled was shown by the attempt to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944. Although the active participants in this revolt were relatively few in number, it proved that Hitler had not acquired absolute obedience from all those who surrounded him. It is less a mystery that such a revolt occurred than that so few men took part in it. It is doubtful if any other government in modem times could have made so many mistakes and still have raised no more overt opposition than this ineffectual bomb plot against Hitler.
Once it is conceded that discipline is not an absolute thing and can be broken, then why were there so few generals involved in the affair of July 20? For if, as they now assert, they had the interests of their country at heart, why did they not oppose Hitler when it became obvious that he was leading Germany to destruction? Because when it did become obvious to them months before the end, it was then far too late. If discipline and loyalty to an oath prevented the German officer from rebellion, it was ignorance that cemented that discipline and loyalty so hard that it was almost impossible to crack. Rarely in modern warfare has there been a group of commanders so uninformed about both their own troops and those of their enemy as were the generals of the Wehrmacht in the second World War. It is because this ignorance played so vital a part in maintaining the discipline which kept Adolf Hitler in power, that it is included here as one of the major causes of the final defeat of Germany.
It is a primary principle of military tactics that a commander, in order to carry out his plan, must know as much as possible about his own troops and as much as is available about the enemy. In the Wehrmacht it was a deliberate policy to give a commander as little information as possible about his own side, and what was attainable about the other side was seldom adequate or seldom accurate. It is interesting to consider the circumstances which brought about such a state of affairs.
The war was hardly a few months old when a fortuitous event occurred which had far-reaching repercussions on the activities of German commanders. On the night of January 9, 1940, a German plane lost its way in a thick fog and landed at Mechelen-sur-Meuse in Belgium. The plane was on its way to Cologne from the headquarters of the Fourth Army in Munster. One of its passengers, a Major Rheinberg of the Luftwaffe, was carrying detailed plans for the invasion of the Low Countries. These papers revealed the part that the German air force and German parachutists were to play in the proposed attack. When the plane landed, Rheinberg ran behind a hedge and desperately tried to set fire to the documents, but a Belgian soldier snatched them away. Subsequently when he was being questioned at a Belgian headquarters Rheinberg again tried to destroy the papers by seizing them from off the commandant’s desk and throwing them into a coal stove. But a quick-witted Belgian soldier plunged his hand into the red-hot stove and retrieved them before they had been badly damaged. From the scorched documents it was possible to piece together a fairly complete picture of the entire German plan for the invasion of the Low Countries.
As a result of this incident a large-scale revision of the invasion plans had to take place. But a much more important result was an order which came from Berlin stating that under no circumstances was any commander to be informed of any operation which did not immediately concern him. As the war progressed the terms of this order were taken more and more literally. A divisional commander knew only that which affected his own particular division. He would only be informed of what the divisions on his flanks were doing if their actions involved his operation. This restriction went all the way up the line from division to corps, to army, to army group. And it even held true for commanders-in-chief of the various fronts. Thus Field Marshal Kesselring in Italy never knew what reserves were available to Field Marshal von Rundstedt in France, and neither knew what was happening in Russia or how many reinforcements were still left in Germany.
Not only was an officer not to know of what was happening on other sectors, but he was to make no attempt to find out. The appalling lack of knowledge of the average senior commander of affairs which did not affect him operationally is sometimes incredible. No one was ever sure of what anyone else was doing and orders were carried out with nothing but the tactical information required for the immediate job. Divisions held fast in Normandy with no knowledge that the front on their left had been torn open and that they were being encircled; the Luftwaffe carried out sorties without notifying the troops over whom they flew, so that the men on the ground spent time and ammunition trying to knock down their own planes; officers in Italy were shocked to find that the vaunted Atlantic Wall was made of tissue paper and that Paris was empty of plentiful reserves. Colonel General Student, commander of Army Group ‘H,’ flanking the Ardennes offensive, knew nothing of the offensive until eight days before it occurred, while divisional commanders only heard of it when it was announced over the German radio.
Compare this with Allied methods where Field Marshal Montgomery told every man under his command of his intentions twenty-four hours before the battle of El Alamein. Or try to imagine, if you can, General Bradley, commanding Twelfth Army Group in France, not being told that Montgomery was to carry out the parachute drops at Nijmegen and Arnhem until a few days before the operation was to take place. The constant and speedy flow of information between commanders about daily operations and future intentions was the lifeblood of Allied operations in Northwest Europe. Even relatively junior officers were aware of the broad strategical position at all times. This curtailment of news about their own troops in the German armies is therefore all the more difficult to understand.
It had two immediate results. It meant that no matter how high a rank was held, no officer in the field could approach Hitler and suggest a proposed operation was impracticable because of lack of resources. Since no one, other than a small group of Hitler’s immediate advisers, knew the true overall picture, no officer could produce a reasonable argument against a future operation since he would not have the required facts or statistics to support his contentions.
The second result of this policy of officially maintained ignorance was that, not having any other information to rely upon, all officers turned to Dr. Goebbels for their news. They listened faithfully to his assurances that the German armed forces were strong and intact, that the Allies were suffering catastrophic losses and that important secret weapons were on the way. A man like General Alfred Schlemm, commander of First Parachute Army, admits that when he heard of the assassination attempt of 20 July he recoiled with indignation at the news. Here, he reasoned, was another stab in the back by traitors on the home front. What reason was there for such treachery when the situation was stabilized in Italy, when the Allies were being bled white in Normandy, when the Russians were being held in the East and when plentiful reserves were in hand? So thought Schlemm.
“I realize now how ignorant I was of the truth,” Schlemm says today. “I see now that all the assurances of Goebbels were nothing but lies, and that by July 1944 the war was already well lost. Hitler alone knew this and he kept it from us. Had I known then what I know now I would have had every sympathy with the assassins.”
In addition to being kept in ignorance of what was happening on their own side of the line, German commanders were woefully misdirected as to what was happening on the enemy’s side. This was due more to inherent defects in the training and methods of the Wehrmacht than it was to design. It combined with the policy of limiting operational information to produce one of the most badly-informed groups of generals that ever conducted a major war. For one of the most surprising, and at the same time most reassuring, post-war revelations has been the fact that German military intelligence was astonishingly inaccurate and ineffectual.
The omnipotence of the Fifth Column and the cunning of the German agent have for years been the favorite topic of the adventure novelist and the movie thriller. Both before and during the war the shadow of a super-spy organization centralizing the work of such dreaded agencies as the Gestapo, the Abwehr, the Sicherheitsdienst, the Auslands organization, threatened the world with its ramifications and power. It should come, therefore, as a pleasant shock to discover that seldom has a body of men been so overrated as the German Secret Service under Admiral Canaris at Berlin. If it was the ultimate function of the thousands of agents employed by the Nazis to provide information which could be used by their military leaders to conduct the war, they singularly failed in their purpose. Rarely was an armed force so badly served by its intelligence service as was the Wehrmacht during World War II.
The list of blunders is almost as long as the list of decisions that had to be made. Even the German victories were won by disregarding military intelligence rather than by heeding it. One common denominator that characterized almost all German generals was their astonishing ignorance of the strength and intentions of their enemies during the various campaigns of the war. There was hardly an important battle that was not marred by faulty intelligence. The Czechs would fight for the Sudetenland; the French were too strong behind the Maginot Line; the English were too powerful to attack after Dunkirk; the Russians could not stand up to modern mechanized warfare; the defenders of Stalingrad were too weak to stage a counter-offensive; the Anglo-American invasion of the Continent would come in the Pas de Calais rather than Normandy. These are only some of the wrong guesses made by the intelligence organization before whose reputation the whole world had trembled.
The failure of German intelligence can be attributed to two main factors. The first is the methodical Teutonic mind obsessed with detail but never developing the ability to distinguish the true from the false. Having successfully used the secret attaché case-champagne bottle technique of the romantic spy story in their Fifth Column activities on the Continent, they carried these methods over into the military sphere. Agents by the score, masquerading behind false beards and forged passports, worked feverishly in every capital city of the world. The information they gathered flooded into Berlin where it was tabulated, card-indexed and filed in the most thorough Germanic manner. But the German never learned to evaluate sources. Every item that was received was kept, even if it was originally false, until if it was reported often enough, it somehow became true through the sheer force of repetition. Volume became more important than reliability; the more facts the greater their accuracy. The result was a fund of innumerable details neatly catalogued but having little real worth because they had never been properly sifted.
A typical example of this process is the following excerpt from an intelligence report sent by Army Group Southwest to the Tenth and Fourteenth Armies in Italy. It deals with the interpretation of the words ‘Blighty establishment,’ which in this instance was simply a soldier’s expression to describe establishments which could be found in formations stationed in England. Here is how German intelligence goes about it: