In May 1940 Adolf Hitler stood at the apogee of his power. The self-styled artist and architect visited Paris as a tourist, gawked at the Eiffel Tower, and stood silently before the tomb of Napoleon I. But the conqueror of Poland and France had exhausted the strategic inheritance of the Reichswehr. Hitler was virtually clueless about what to do next. The obvious option was to cross the English Channel as soon as possible, but few of Hitler’s senior commanders—air, land, or naval—seemed enthusiastic about an invasion of England. Nor could the führer be certain of the assurances offered by the Luftwaffe’s pompous and vainglorious commander, Reichsmarshal Herman Göring, who had assured Hitler that the British would never escape from Dunkirk. Admiral Erich Räder favored a guerre de course and the extension of the war to the Mediterranean, but the commander-in-chief of the Kriegsmarine spoke a language all but foreign to the continental-minded former army corporal, and the prospects of a prolonged war did not hold much appeal for Hitler. Alternatively, he could fall back on the vapid, pseudogeopolitical rantings he had published in his own Mein Kampf and strike east against the Soviet Union to crush Bolshevism and gain the Lebensraum—“living space”—that the German people neither needed nor wanted.
Hitler initially directed the Wehrmacht to prepare for a cross-Channel invasion, given the unwillingness of Great Britain, led by Winston Churchill since 10 May, to make peace. But the führer also toyed with the idea of shifting operations to the Mediterranean or to the east. In July, planners began sketching out a preliminary scheme for an invasion of the Soviet Union. In the midst of this strategic debate, the Germans began demobilizing their army, and the armaments industry remained uncertain about its priorities. Should industry be producing ships and aircraft for a war with England, or tanks and guns for a ground war in the east?
Hitler’s three strategic options were all viable. It is impossible to say which he ought to have chosen. What can be said with certainty is that the decision should have been made before the French campaign, and the fact that it was not demonstrates a failure of strategic foresight. The German navy had begun preliminary planning for an invasion of Britain in November, but the army, air force, and the armed forces high command had remained focused on tactical and operational issues. The Germans had failed to ask the obvious question: if we win in France, what then? After the French armistice, Hitler only gradually moved toward a final decision, at times drifting in all three strategic directions at once.
In mid-July, the OKW directed the armed services to prepare for an invasion of Great Britain, codenamed Operation See Löwe (“Sea Lion”). While German preparations were real, the historical record remains less than clear about Hitler’s commitment to launch the invasion. If he was sincere, he was also extremely reticent and eager to grasp any excuse to cancel the planned invasion.
What became known as the Battle of Britain began in July when the Luftwaffe undertook preliminary operations against British shipping and ports, meant also to test the response of the RAF’s Fighter Command. The main operation would begin on Adler Tag (“Eagle Day”), initially scheduled for 9 August 1940. The Germans expected to destroy British fighter defenses in the south in four days and shift their effort north as British defenses crumbled. Once they gained air superiority, a task estimated to take four weeks, the invasion would begin, as the Luftwaffe prevented interference by the Royal Navy.
The British air-defense system was formidable. A state-of-the-art radar net warned of approaching German aircraft. A superb command and control system, linked to those the radar sites, ground spotters, airfields, and squadrons, allowed the selective and advantageous response to incoming raids. As a result, the British did not need to keep planes on patrol and RAF fighters were hard to catch on the ground. Fighter Command also possessed nearly 600 modern fighters—Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires, armed with eight .303 Browning machine guns.
German planning for the campaign was flawed, strategically, operationally, and tactically. The Germans were using the Luftwaffe, however superb, for a mission for which it was not designed. The problem was not that the German air force was incapable of strategic warfare, but that operationally the Luftwaffe was woefully unprepared for the campaign. The Germans lacked accurate intelligence. They could count aircraft well enough, locate most of the British airfields, and mark the sites of the British radar stations on a map. But the Luftwaffe’s senior leadership had little appreciation of how the British defensive system worked. And they were not aware that British factories were already producing more fighters than German industry. Tactically, the Germans’ greatest weakness was their lack of escorts for the bombers. The Messerschmitt Bf-109E was an excellent fighter, superior to the Hurricane and on par with the Spitfire. But the Bf-109 had limited range and could just reach London. The German twin-engine destroyer, the Bf-110C, possessed the necessary endurance, but could not compete with the more nimble British fighters.
Bad weather delayed Alder Tag until the afternoon of 13 August. The Germans struck with two air fleets based along the Channel coast and another, smaller air fleet in Norway. The Luftwaffe had nearly 2,800 aircraft at its disposal, including 1,300 bombers, 280 Stuka dive bombers, and 250 twin-engine and 760 single-engine fighters.
The initial operations did not proceed as planned. The Germans hit British airfields in the southeast, but dirt airfields were easy to repair, and the British had backup facilities prepared. The Stukas, which for the first time met serious opposition in the air, proved to be so antiquated and vulnerable that they had to be withdrawn from the campaign. The armament of the German medium bombers was inadequate, leaving them vulnerable to British fighters. The presence of Spitfires or Hurricanes often forced German Bf-110 long-range escorts to form defensive circles to save themselves. The Bf-109s performed well, but usually at a disadvantage, operating at the limits of their endurance and tethered to the bombers they escorted. British losses were heavy, but German losses were even heavier. Nor did Fighter Command appear to be on the verge of collapse.
On 2 September, the Luftwaffe switched its operational focus and began the day and night bombing of cities, especially London. The new goal was to terrorize Britain into surrender. But this effort failed as well. Luftwaffe medium bombers could not deliver the heavy payloads necessary for such tactics. Fighter Command, now spared attacks against its infrastructure, recovered and soon made the German daylight attacks too expensive to continue. On 17 September, Hitler postponed See Löwe. By October, the Germans had given up their daylight raids, but the Blitz, as the night bombing became known, continued until May 1941.
In late September, Hitler turned his attention to the Mediterranean. He planned a diplomatic offensive to bring Spain and Vichy France into a collaborative front in the Mediterranean.
The momentum the Germans had possessed in the summer had already dissipated. On 4 October, Hitler met Mussolini at the Brenner Pass and discussed the details of the new strategy. The führer met next with Franco on 23 October, but the caudillo set an extremely high price for Spain’s entry into the war—one Hitler chose not to pay. The next day, Hitler met with Marshal Henri Phillippe Pétain, the Vichy leader and hero of Verdun. Pétain offered verbal support, but was likewise reluctant to pursue active operations. Shortly after the meeting, Hitler learned that the Italians were poised to attack Greece, an action that would upset the führer’s plans. He met with Mussolini in Florence on 28 October, but that morning the Italian army invaded Greece.
Mussolini blundered, simultaneously launching two offensives: the first from Libya into Egypt in September, and now the second from Albania into Greece. The Italians lacked the resources to ensure victory on either front and risked defeat on both. The attack in the Balkans, launched on the eve of winter, was likely to provoke the dispatch of British ground and air forces to Greece, providing the RAF with bases from which it could bomb the Romanian oil fields, Germany’s primary source of petroleum.
Mussolini’s actions might have drawn Hitler into an expanded war in the Mediterranean basin. But the failure of the Italian offensive against Greece, reports from a German military mission in Libya of Italian incapacity in North Africa, and Hitler’s disgust with Mussolini’s actions led to a decision against direct support for the Italians. Hitler did, however, set in motion a military buildup in Bulgaria, from which he could attack Greece.
Hitler was already beginning to lean toward his eastern option when on 12–13 November he met with Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister, in Berlin. Hitler’s goal was to convince the Russians to push south in order to threaten the British imperial positions in the Near East and South Asia. But in meetings punctuated by British air raids, the acerbic Soviet foreign minister remained unconvinced of ultimate German victory. While the Soviets had expansion in mind, they were focused on Finland and the Baltic, Turkey and the Dardanelles, and Romania and Bulgaria. The talks failed to produce agreement, and thereafter Hitler leaned inexorably toward the east. On 18 December 1940, he signed Directive Number 21—Operation Barbarossa—committing the Third Reich to an invasion of the Soviet Union.
Hitler’s fatal decision was not made as part of any comprehensive analysis of available options. The failure to identify a strategic course in July, or preferably earlier, allowed German policy to drift for six crucial months. Hitler ultimately adopted an eastern strategy by default, as his other options seemed to evaporate. But he never pursued either of his strategic alternatives—an invasion of Britain or a shift of operations to the Mediterranean—with the relentless focus so evident in his earlier policies toward Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and France.
Having made his decision, Hitler now rushed to prepare for what he knew would be a life-and-death struggle. The OKW concentrated German forces in the east, while Hitler lined up his allies—Italy, Finland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia—for a spring offensive in the Balkans against Greece and the summer offensive against Russia. But in December, in Egypt the British drove Mussolini’s army back west toward Tripoli. The Greeks drove the Italians back into Albania. In February, Hitler ordered the dispatch of a force of two panzer divisions, under the command of Erwin Rommel, to Libya. Thus was born the famed Afrika Korps. But the British had already halted their offensive and in early March began sending troops to Greece. Then, on 27 March, a British-sponsored coup in Yugoslavia, which had just joined the Axis, further complicated the Balkan situation.
German operational and tactical excellence allowed Hitler to master a deteriorating situation. In April, Rommel drove the British to the Egyptian border, besieging, but failing to take, Tobruk. In the Balkans, the Germans struck on 6 April and in eleven days crushed Yugoslavia. By 30 April, Greece had been overrun and the British forced to evacuate. The Germans followed their victory with a costly, but successful, airborne invasion of Crete (from 20 to 30 May).
While operations in the Balkans and Libya once again demonstrated the capabilities of Hitler’s ground and air forces, limitations remained. Logistic constraints brought Rommel’s offensive to a halt in the desert. Hitler was unable to concentrate his army for the coming decisive blow as he had a year earlier. In May 1940, Hitler had concentrated 136 (87 percent) of his 157 divisions—all ten panzer divisions, 2,400 tanks, and 3,600 aircraft—against France and the Low Countries. Of the remaining 21 divisions, most were fighting British and French troops in Norway. By late June 1941, the German army had expanded to 205 divisions, but 38 divisions were garrisoned in France, 13 in Scandinavia, and 7 in the Balkans. Two of Hitler’s panzer divisions were with Rommel in Libya. Hitler deployed 145 divisions (70 percent) against the Soviet Union and only 2,770 aircraft. The Germans had more than doubled the number of panzer divisions from 10 to 21, but the 19 panzer divisions earmarked for Russia possessed only 3,200 tanks—only a third more than had invaded France the year before.
Nor was the German plan for Operation Barbarossa, despite its grandiose title, as well developed as Operation Gelb. Planning for Barbarossa revealed the Wehrmacht’s strengths (operational and tactical expertise) and weaknesses (strategy, logistics, and intelligence). The Germans knew little about the Soviet Union; maps were poor, and the output of Soviet factories was a matter of guesswork. The Germans estimated that the bulk of Soviet industry lay in the south, and that if those areas were overrun, Stalin would be unable to wage a protracted war. The Soviet army was known to be large, about 150 to 160 divisions, but it was also believed to be ineffective. The qualitative estimate was close to the mark, although the quantitative was off by more than 200 percent.
Within this context, German planners began their work. They quickly identified the peculiar logistical problems they faced. The Soviet Union was enormous, and the area to be occupied was huge. Hitler planned to advance to a line that ran from Archangel in the far north to Astrakhan on the Caspian Sea. The terrain in the south favored armored operations, but most of the roads and railroads were in the north. Most of the economic objectives also lay in the south, but the political objectives—Leningrad and Moscow—were in the north. As the Germans advanced, they would face two other problems: the limitations of motorization already evident in the Polish and French campaigns, and the fact that Soviet railroads were not that well developed and were built to a different gauge than the German railroads. This track would have to be relaid. Given these logistic constraints, the Germans could expect to drive about 300 miles before their offensive ground to a halt.
Since the Germans believed that the bulk of the Soviet army was concentrated near the border, an offensive along the entire front would lead to the encirclement and destruction of the enemy before it could withdraw into the interior. The Germans concluded that, despite logistical handicaps, they could defeat the Soviet Union in a single campaign. The Bolshevik regime would collapse, and a reduced force of sixty to eighty divisions would mop up and push east to the Archangel-Astrakhan line.
But the Germans failed to consider several possibilities. What if Stalin’s army avoided destruction? What if Stalin’s reserves were more numerous than expected? What if the Soviet government did not collapse? If subsequent operations were necessary, what objectives would guide the advance? The German armed forces were totally unprepared for any of these contingencies. Armaments production remained far below capacity. Preparations for winter were limited, given the estimate that less than half the troops would remain in the east. If further operations became necessary, Hitler favored an advance in the south to seize the Soviet economic region. The army high command—Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH)—favored a drive on Moscow, the Soviet Union’s political-military center of gravity and the state’s primary rail hub. The Germans deferred a final decision. Not only Hitler, but also his generals, were awestruck by their own successes.