Behind the Battle of Europe

Aircraft forced to land because of foggy conditions. Shortly after the pilot and the passenger were arrested by the Belgian Gendarmerie, top secret documents were found: the plans for the invasion of the Low Countries. The passenger named Major Reinberger tried several times to destroy the documents, but never succeeded. Pilot Major Hoenemanns.

Between the fall of Poland and the opening of the Norwegian invasion lay one of the strangest periods in history—the months of the “phony war”. Standing on the ruins of Warsaw in September, 1939, Hitler appeared to be satisfied with the carnage he had wrought, but deep within himself he was perplexed. What to do next?

He toyed with both peace and war. On October 6, 1939, he invited Britain and France to talk peace, but was rebuffed. Groping for something else, he kept his generals on pins and needles while he played with half a dozen ideas; for each they had to design a possible campaign. “Sunflower” was the name for a possible campaign in North Africa aimed at Tripoli. “Alp Violet” was to be aimed at Albania. “Felix” contemplated crossing Spain to seize Gibraltar. And “Operation Yellow” was to conquer the Low Countries.

Traveling salesmen flocked to Berlin—native conspirators from Holland, Belgium and Norway—peddling their countries to Hitler. From Holland came a fluffy, shifty-eyed philistine named Anton Mussert, a puppet dangling from strings held by the Abwehr. From Belgium came a scheming, pampered dandy, Leon Degrelle. Before long, Hitler succumbed to their siren songs. He pushed “Yellow” to the top of his shopping list and issued top-secret Order No. 4402/39, instructing Army Group B of General von Bock “to make all preparations according to special orders, for immediate invasion of Dutch and Belgian territory if the political situation so demands”. Shortly after-wards, A-Day (as it was called) was fixed for the invasion. Weather permitting, it was to be November 12. A phony war, indeed!

This pending campaign was consistently jeopardized by the twin scourges of the secret service, delays and leaks. The invasion had to be postponed again and again, and, during the procrastination, details of the design came to be known.

Among the first to learn of the plan were the Italians, many of whom hated the Nazis in spite of their formal alliance. The Italian military attaché in Berlin tipped off both his Belgian and Dutch opposite numbers. (The Dutchman, Colonel Sas, already had the information from Oster.) In Rome, the Foreign Minister, Count Ciano, also warned the Belgians and Dutch. At great personal risk, a leading member of the German opposition, Minister von Buelow-Schwante, went to Brussels and, in a clandestine audience, delivered a warning in person to King Leopold. Both the Belgians and the Dutch skeptically shrugged off the warnings.

Just then something quite extraordinary happened that should have lent weight to these scattered storm signals. On January 10, 1940, a Luftwaffe plane, piloted by a Major Hoenemanns, was on a flight to Cologne with a copy of the Dutch-Belgian deployment plan for the command of Army Group B. Hoenemanns was unaware of the exact nature of the papers he carried and took his mission somewhat lightly. For one thing, he took a hitchhiker along, a General Staff officer; for another, he was somewhat careless in plotting his course. He lost his way and came down in a field near Machelen on the Meuse inside Belgium.

Hoenemanns and his hitchhiker, Major Reinberger, were duly alarmed when they found out where they were and decided to burn the papers. It so happened that both men were non-smokers and they had no matches on hand. The first man to reach the spot was a Belgian and Hoenemanns immediately asked him for matches. He complied and they set to burning the papers. Before the two men could get too far with it, a Belgian patrol closed in, extinguished the blaze and arrested the Germans. Interrogation revealed that Major Hoenemanns belonged to the 7th Luftwaffe Division of parachutists with headquarters in Berlin and that he was attached to the Luftwaffe Unit 220, whose plans were to transport the 22nd Infantry Division by air to points of attack. British combat intelligence identified the division as specially trained for the landing of airborne troops in Belgian territory.

Although badly charred, the documents could still be salvaged. They were three in number, containing instructions for the Luftwaffe’s VIII Aviation Corps, describing in detail the impending attack on Belgium and the role parachutists and airborne infantry were to play. It was a complete blueprint of the campaign.

Although they became somewhat apprehensive, the Belgians were not unduly alarmed. They evaluated their find from all angles and finally decided that the whole incident was a clever ruse staged by the Germans to drive fear into Belgian hearts in order to tighten their neutrality. Anxious to avoid any complications, the Belgians hastily repatriated their unwelcome guests, returned the stray plane and closed the incident.

In Germany, Hoenemanns’ ill-fated mission created understandable consternation and led to another postponement of the operation. What’s more, it induced the High Command to redraft the whole plan.

While this was going on, Allied intelligence preoccupied itself with fantastic projects rather than with the business at hand. Some efforts were made to establish the order of battle of the German Army, but virtually nothing was seriously undertaken to discover the intentions of Hitler or to cover the movements of his forces and to conclude from these movements the direction in which he planned to go. While Germany was feverishly preparing for the campaign in the West, Allied intelligence concluded, from the apparent idleness of the Wehrmacht, that Hitler had shot his bolt and was bogged down in melancholy confusion, accompanied by growing dissidence within the Wehrmacht High Command.

French Service de Renseignement was now headed by General Rivet, an excellent and a gallant officer, but a stranger to the specific problems of a secret service at war. The deficiencies of the organization baffled those in the field. “To be perfectly frank,” wrote the historian Marc Bloch, then serving as a reserve officer in the field, “more than once, I found myself wondering how much of this muddled thinking was due to lack of skill, how much to conscious guile. Every officer in charge of an Intelligence section lived in a state of constant terror that, when the blow fell, events might blow sky-high all the conclusions that he had told the general in command were ‘absolutely certain’. To put before him a wide choice of mutually contradictory inferences ensured that no matter what might happen, one could say with an air of triumph—’If only you had listened to my advice!’ Officers whose job resembled mine never got any information at all about the enemy, save what they were lucky enough to pick up in general conversations, or as a result of some chance meeting—in other words, almost exactly nil.”

French combat intelligence officers in the field tried to take matters into their own hands, but their efforts were sabotaged from above. For example, it was imperative to establish what stocks of motor fuel the French could expect to find on the spot should they be forced to move into Belgium to meet the Germans. The Belgian General Staff, inspired by the King’s devotion to strict neutrality, proved highly un-cooperative. A French intelligence officer with General Blanchard’s army heard of a certain Belgian fuel dump and established contact with a confidential informant who gave him the required data about the capacity of the tanks. Moreover, the man volunteered to keep the tanks filled to capacity if that was what the French General Staff wanted. “This would make your supply problem easier,” he said, “in the event of your finding yourselves constrained, some day, to move your troops into the territory in which they are situated. Alternatively, I can maintain the bare minimum necessary for the requirements of peaceful commerce, thereby avoiding the danger of having to abandon the valuable resources to the Germans. It is for the French General Staff to decide. As soon as I know what they want done, I will take the necessary steps.”

The matter was referred to a higher echelon of intelligence, but the officer in charge said, “Our job is to collect information, not to make decisions”, and refused to have anything to do with the matter. The young officer was shunted from one office to another and in each he heard the same formula. Thus rebuffed, the young man decided to resolve the issue on his own level. He sent his contact a coded message, “Don’t fill the tanks,” justifying his insubordination with a melancholy rationalization: “Unbroken silence on our part,” he said, “would have betrayed to this foreigner the shilly-shallying state of mind of the French General Staff. It was bad enough to know it ourselves.”

The German preparations, of course, were moving rapidly ahead. One problem plagued the top brass: how could the Germans prevent the bridges over the River Maas and the Albert Canal from being destroyed? If they could be seized intact, the army could sweep over them and seal the fate of the Low Countries in a matter of days. Early in November, a conference was held in the Chancellery to discuss this problem. Hitler presided and Canaris was in attendance. The Abwehr was ordered to prepare a plan for the seizure of those bridges by a ruse de guerre, by sabotage troops dressed in Dutch and Belgian uniforms.

Back in the Fuchsbau, Canaris called the keeper of his depot at Quenzsee to inquire how the Abwehr stood with Dutch army uniforms. He was told Quenzsee had some, but they were out of date. The Abwehr needed a few up-to-date pattern uniforms to enable the tailors (inmates of concentration camps) to make enough uniforms for the adventurous admiral’s little land army.

The problem was referred to Commander Kilwen, head of the Dutch desk of the Abwehr, and he in turn got in touch with Mussert in Holland. The Dutch Fuehrer decided to steal the uniforms, but to camouflage the theft as common, garden-variety burglary. Mussert handed the job to a trusted member of his bodyguard who was a professional burglar in private life.

The raid on the Dutch army depot was reminiscent of what New York burglars call a “Seventh Avenue heist.” Mussert’s burglars got what Canaris needed, but the thief was caught on Belgian soil with the uniforms in his possession and the cat was out of the bag: he confessed that he had been in the process of doing a “job” for the Germans and that Canaris was the mastermind behind the burglary.

Strangely enough, the incident struck the Dutch and the Belgians as extremely funny. They were far more amused at the plight of the clumsy burglar than alarmed by the implications of the burglary. A Flemish newspaper published a cartoon showing a grinning Goering, dressed in the uniform of a Brussels street car conductor, admiring himself in front of a mirror.

Canaris was called on the carpet by Hitler and Goering. He went to the meeting well prepared, with newspaper clippings and agent reports, assuring his bosses that the Dutch and the Belgians suspected nothing or else they wouldn’t have treated the whole thing as a joke.

But Canaris still did not have the uniforms. He sent to Holland one of his best agents, whose specialty was surreptitious entry. Where the burglar failed, the Abwehr thief succeeded brilliantly. With the help of the Mussert organization, he sneaked into the depot—on a night when it was guarded by a Dutch soldier who was a Nazi sympathizer—picked a full selection of Dutch uniforms and sent them, in the German Military Attache’s bulging pouch (which, of course, enjoyed immunity from search), to Quenzsee. From there on, General von Lahousen, a former Austrian intelligence officer who was taken over by the Abwehr after the Anschluss, did the planning. Lahousen had his own sabotage troops, the Brandenburg Regiment, but it was not big enough to handle such a complex operation. Lahousen flew to Breslau and from that location with Abwehr volunteers organized Special Battalion 100 to take care of the Maastricht bridges, with one of his officers, Lieutenant Hocke, in command. From his regular sabotage troops he then formed Special Battalion 800, with Lieutenant Walther in command, to carry out the operation at Gennep.

At Gennep a platoon of Battalion 800 was to be “captured” by agents of Mussert disguised as Dutch frontier guards; the German “prisoners” were then to be escorted to the bridges, which they were to seize with the active co-operation of their hosts. On A-Day, May 10, 1940, well before zero hour, Walther led his Battalion 800 to the rendezvous with the Mussert agents. The Dutch traitors apparently disarmed their “prisoners”, but left with them handgrenades and automatic pistols concealed under unseasonable greatcoats. With the help of their “captors”, these “prisoners” pounced upon the Dutch guards at the Gennep bridges, who did not even know the war was on. The operation was a resounding success.

Things did not go as well at Maastricht, perhaps because (1) those Abwehr volunteers from Breslau did not have the savvy of the men of Battalion 800; (2) they lacked the assistance of Mussert’s men; and (3) because the Dutch regulars guarding the bridges were not paralyzed by the sudden appearance of transparently phony Dutch soldiers driving up in cars. The bogus Dutchmen were greeted by volleys of shots. Lieutenant Hocke was killed and, in the ensuing confusion, the real Dutchmen managed to blow up the three bridges.

The mishap stunned Canaris. He drove to the spot and was visibly depressed when he realized he could not hand up to Hitler this special invasion-day gift. He found whole columns of German tanks and trucks jammed on the roads, waiting while engineers were building pontoon bridges. Even so, Dutch resistance was crumbling rapidly. The fiasco was forgiven and forgotten when, only five days later, Dutch resistance collapsed and the campaign was over.

Canaris had been busy elsewhere, too: his Abwehr organized an attempt to abduct Queen Wilhelmina. She was to be quarantined at the moment of the invasion to prevent her from leaving Holland. Hitler had been gravely disturbed by King Haakon’s flight from Norway, an unexpected move that led to certain political complications, serious in aspect, during the consolidation of that conquest. Now, in the Netherlands, he was determined to foil any such attempt on Queen Wilhelmina’s part, lest she become, like the King, the focal point of resistance. Commander Protze in Wassenaar and Klewen of the Abwehr’s Dutch desk were ordered to pin down the Queen at The Hague. The plans went astray; she was gone by the time a delegation of Protze’s thugs reached her palace to carry out Hitler’s order.

The Queen had no intention of leaving Holland and was absent by a misunderstanding. She had asked the British to send some fighter planes to go into action against the German bombers. Her telegram was garbled in translation and in London it was thought she was asking for a plane to fly her out of Holland. No plane could be sent, but a destroyer was diverted to take the Queen on board.

The Queen embarked and told the captain to take her to Flushing in Holland; no matter how he tried, however, the captain could not enter the harbor. In the end, he told the Queen there was nothing to do except to head for a British port. She arrived at Buckingham Palace at 5 p.m. on May 10, wearing a tin hat, bedraggled and worn, still moaning that she could not stay with her people in their darkest hour. So if anybody succeeded in kidnaping Wilhelmina, it was the British, but whether or not there was any premeditation in the act, nobody will say, even today.