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Repeating Historical Myths: The Trump Administration and the “Stab in the Back”

stab-in-the-back

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In light of the many flagrant lies, historical myths and conspiracy theories being floated by President Trump and his supporters  is always appropriate to look at examples of the power of those myths in the lives of nations and their influence on citizens.

It is true that some myths can be positive and inspiring so long as they remain recognized as myth. But myths which are believed as truth lead to conspiracy theories, false accusations and the demonization of others. The vast majority of the time this is done for the purpose of inciting hatred against political, social or religious opponents, or to justify indefensible polices at home or abroad.

Myths also can be used to perpetuate false beliefs about other countries that influence policy decisions, including the decision to go to war that ultimately doom those that believe them. There are many times in history where leaders of nations and peoples embrace myths about their history even when historical, biographical and archeological evidence points to an entirely different record.  Myths are powerful in the way that they inspire and motivate people. They can provide a cultural continuity as a people celebrates the key events and people that shaped their past, even if they are not entirely true.  At the same time myths can be dangerous when they cause leaders and people to make bad choices and actually become destructive.

A good example of this is the Stab in the Back myth that began after the armistice that ended the First World War, as well as the false beliefs held by Hitler and other Nazi leaders about the United States.

Just two days ago President Trump’s Chief Economic Advisor Larry Kudlow accused Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of “stabbing President Trump in the back” following the G7 meeting in Quebec. The choice of words was not only unfortunate but buttresses every action that the President has taken to delegitimatize faithful allies and partners since long before his inauguration.  In doing so he embraced an infamous term used so often by the Nazis and others on the German right following the defeat of Germany in the First World War.

After the war the belief that the German Army was not defeated but was betrayed by the German people, especially those of the political left.  Like all myths there was an element of truth in the “stab in the back” myth, there were revolts against the Monarchy of Kaiser Wilhelm II and even mutiny on elements of the German High Seas Fleet and Army units stationed in Germany. However the crisis had been brought about by General Ludendorff who until the last month of the war refused to tell the truth about the gravity of Germany’s position to those in the German government.

So when everything came crashing down in late October and early November 1918 the debacle came as a surprise to most Germans.  The myth arose because the truth had not been told by Ludendorff who was arguably the most powerful figure in Germany from 1916-1918.  In the looming crisis which included Ludendorff’s collapse and relief, General Wilhelm Groener presented the facts to the Kaiser and insisted on his abdication.  The Republic that was proclaimed on the 9th of November was saddled with the defeat and endured revolution, civil war and threats from the extreme left and right.  When it signed the Treaty of Versailles it accepted the sole responsibility of Germany for the war and its damages. Ordered to dismantle its military, cede territory that had not been lost in battle and pay massive reparations the legend of the “stab in the back” gained widespread acceptance in Germany.

Hitler always believed that the defeat of Germany in the First World War was due to the efforts of internal enemies of the German Reich on the home front and not due to the fact that the German army was collapsing, the U-Boat campaign had failed, and the Navy’s High Seas Fleet was hopelessly outnumbered and incapable of defeating the Royal Navy and breaking the blockade that was strangling Germany.

The Stab in the Back was a fundamental belief of Hitler and was expressed in his writings, speeches and actions.  The internal enemies of Germany for Hitler included the Jews, as well as the Socialists and Communists who he believed were at the heart of the collapse on the home front.  Gerhard Weinberg believes that the effect of this misguided belief on Hitler’s actions has “generally been ignored” by historians. (Germany, Hitler and World War II p. 196)

Hitler believed that those people and groups that perpetrated the “stab in the back” were “beguiled by the by the promises of President Wilson” (World in the Balance p.92) in his 14 Points.  Thus for him Americans were in part responsible for undermining the German home front, something that he would not allow to happen again.  In fact Hitler characterization of Wilson’s effect on the German people in speaking about South Tyrol.  It is representative of his belief about not only the loss of that region but the war: “South Tyrol was lost by those who, from within Germany, caused attrition at the front, and by the contamination of German thinking with the sham declarations of Woodrow Wilson.” (Hitler’s Second Book p.221)

While others will note Hitler’s lack of respect for the potential power of the United States, no other author that I am familiar with links Hitler’s actions and the reaction of the German political, military and diplomatic elites to the entry of the United States into the war to the underlying belief in the “stab in the back.”   Likewise Hitler had little regard for the military abilities or potential of the United States. Albert Speer notes that Hitler believed “the Americans had not played a very prominent role in the war of 1914-1918,” and that “they would certainly not withstand a great trial by fire, for their fighting qualities were low.” (Inside the Third Reich: Memoirs by Albert Speer p.121)

Hitler not only dismissed the capabilities of the Americans but also emphasized the distance that they were from Germany and saw no reason to fear the United States when “he anticipated major victories on the Eastern Front.” (Germany Hitler and World War II p.92)   Hitler’s attitude was reflected by the majority of the military high command and high Nazi officials. Ribbentrop believed that the Americans would be unable to wage war if it broke out “as they would never get their armies across the Atlantic.” (History of the German General Staff, Walter Goerlitz, p.408).  General Walter Warlimont notes the “ecstasy of rejoicing” found at Hitler’s headquarters after Pearl Harbor and the fact that the he and Jodl at OKW caught by surprise by Hitler’s declaration of war. (Inside Hitler’s Headquarters 1939-1945 pp.207-209) Kenneth Macksey notes Warlimont’s comments about Hitler’s beliefs; that Hitler “tended to dismiss American fighting qualities and industrial capability,” and that Hitler “regarded anyone who tried to show him such information [about growing American strength] as defeatist.”(Why the Germans Lose at War, Kenneth Macksey, p.153.)

Others like Field Marshal Erwin Rommel record the disregard of senior Nazis toward American capabilities in weaponry.  Quoting Goering who when Rommel discussed 40mm anti-aircraft guns on aircraft that were devastating his armored forces Goering replied “That’s impossible. The Americans only know how to make razor blades.” (The Rommel Papers edited by B.H. Liddell-Hart p.295) Rommel was one of the few German commanders who recognized the folly of Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States noting that “By declaring war on America, we had brought the entire American industrial potential into the service of Allied war production. We in Africa knew all about the quality of its achievements.” (The Rommel Papers p.296)

When one also takes into account the general disrespect of the German military for the fighting qualities of American soldiers though often with good reason (see Russell Weigley’s books Eisenhower’s Lieutenants and The American Way of War) one sees how the myth impacted German thought.  This is evidenced by the disparaging comments of the pre-war German military attaché to the United States; General Boeticher, on the American military, national character and capability. (See World in the Balance pp. 61-62)

The overall negative view held by many Germans in regard to the military and industrial power and potential of the United States reinforced other parts of the myth. Such false beliefs served to bolster belief in the stab-in-the back theory as certainly the Americans could not have played any important role in the German defeat save Wilson’s alleged demoralization of the German population.  This was true not only of Hitler, but by most of his retinue and the military, diplomatic and industrial leadership of the Reich. Hitler’s ultimate belief shaped by the stab-in-the back and reinforced by his racial views which held the United States to be an inferior mongrel people. This led him to disregard the impact that the United States could have in the war and ultimately influenced his decision to declare war on the United States, a decision that would be a key factor in the ultimate defeat of Germany.

Myth can have positive value, but myth which becomes toxic can and often does lead to tragic consequences. All societies have some degree of myth in relationship to their history including the United States.  The myths are not all the same, various subgroups within the society create their own myth surrounding historic events. The danger is that those myths can supplant reason in the minds of political, military, media and religious figures and lead those people into taking actions that work to their own detriment or even destruction.

Today the President leads the way in promoting lies patently false myths in the name of his personal greatness which he shrouds himself while conflating that with making America great again all the while endangering the country. He has been promoting conspiracy theories for nearly a decade and has never stopped doing so or offered an apology for those words.

It is the duty of historians, philosophers and others in the society to ensure that myth does not override reality to the point that it moves policy both domestic and foreign in a manner that is ultimately detrimental to the nation.  The lesson of history demonstrated by myths surrounding the German defeat and role of the United States in that defeat shows just how myth can drive a nation to irrational, evil and ultimately tragic actions not only for that nation and its people, but for the world.

Sadly, it appears that the United States led by President Trump is following the path of Hitler’s Germany in terms of how it views the world and treats other nations and history will not be kind to us.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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A Cautionary Tale of Soldierly Obedience: The Fate of the Desert Fox

rommel

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Some seventy-three years ago in Ulm Germany that a car pulled up to the residence of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. In the car was the driver and two Generals dispatched by Hitler who had orders to give the hero of Germany a choice, death by suicide or a trial before the kangaroo “People’s Court” of judge Roland Freisler.  Rommel was recuperating following being severely wounded in an air attack in Normandy on July 17th 1944.

Rommel had been awarded the Pour le Merite, Imperial Germany’s highest award for valor in the First World War. He was never an official member of the Nazi Party, but like many Germans he believed Hitler’s promises and propaganda. As Hitler rose to power he like many others was carried away by early Nazi successes, the bloodless conquests of the Rhineland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and the spectacle of the Olympics.

Like most other officers he would serve the regime as it spread its dark pall over Europe, and unlike so many others when he suffered a crisis in conscience about the Nazi leadership and their policies he refused to obey orders that he knew were illegal and immoral and then risked his life by joining the conspiracy to kill Hitler.

After years of stalled promotion, Hitler’s expansion of the military allowed Rommel to be promoted, and when Germany went to war he was commander of the unit which guarded Hitler’s headquarters train when he went into Poland. Rommel received command of the 7th Panzer Division after Poland and as a division commander in France he led his troops on some of the most epic advances of the French campaign.

He was then given command of the troops sent to bail out Mussolini’s failed African adventure. His small force and always ill-supplied force, which became known as the Afrika Korps scored impressive victories against British forces. In Africa, Rommel gained fame and earned rapid promotion. Though Africa was a sideshow in the Nazi war effort, Rommel became a poster-child for Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda machine. His fame also earned the resentment of many fellow officers who because he was not an officer of the General Staff regarded him with jealous envy and distain. Even so, Rommel was a soldier’s soldier. He believed in sharing in the suffering of his troops. He once said: “Be an example to your men in your duty and in private life. Never spare yourself, and let the troops see that you don’t in your endurance of fatigue and privation. Always be tactful and well-mannered, and teach your subordinates to be the same. Avoid excessive sharpness or harshness of voice, which usually indicates the man who has shortcomings of his own to hide.”

bundesarchiv_bild_146-1991-031-25a_nordafrika_vor_tobruk_rommel

In Arica Rommel showed himself to be a remarkable tactician and field commander. Likewise, unlike many other German (and sadly Allied) commanders had the ability to recognize the valor and soldierly virtues of his opponents, even those who were not white. A captured South African officer pleaded with Rommel to spare him being imprisoned with Black troops under his command. Rommel told him:

“For me, soldiers are all equal. Those black people wore your same uniform, fought on your side, and so you will be in the same jail.”

That was not until Rommel discovered the reality of Hitler’s promises as the troops of the Afrika Corps were hollow that he began to understand the man he had sworn his allegiance. He and his gallant German and Italian soldiers found themselves subjected to constant privation from lack of supply, air support and reinforcements. As commander of the Afrika Corps and later the Panzer Armee Arfika he and his troops achieved amazing success against an enemy that was always better supplied and equipped and which had air and sea superiority. Battling the British as well as the political machinations of Mussolini and Germany’s Italian Allies as well as opponents in the German government such as Hermann Goering, Rommel saw his troops crushed under the press of the British as well as the Americans who landed in French North Africa. Eventually, sick and worn out, Rommel was sent back to Germany to recuperate.

While visiting Hitler’s headquarters during that leave Rommel was struck by the atmosphere and made this observation:

“During the conference I realised that the atmosphere in the Fuehrer’s H.Q,. was extremely optimistic. Goering in particular was inclined to minimise our difficulties. When I said that British fighter-bombers had shot up my tanks with 4O-mm. shells, the Reichsmarschall, who felt himself touched by this, said: ” That’s completely impossible. The Americans only know how to make razor blades.” I replied: “We could do with some of those razor blades, Herr Reichsmarschall.”

rommel-with-soldier

Rommel had a sense of honor and humanity that many other German generals lacked. He refused to allow anti-Jewish measures in areas occupied by German troops in North Africa, ensuring that the approximately 425,000 Jews living in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco were spared the fate of the Holocaust. He refused to execute Jewish POWs, and refused to follow the notorious “commando order.” In June of 1994 he protested the massacre of the people of the village of Oradour-sur-Glane by units of the 2nd SS Panzer Division directly to Hitler and asked for the authority to punish those responsible, but was his protest was refused.

In late 1943 and early 1944 Rommel began to learn of the mass killings being orchestrated by Himmler’s SS. His son Manfred asked his father’s permission to join the Waffen SS, which Rommel insisted that he not do, the younger Rommel recounted:

“While, he said, he perfectly well recognised the quality of the S.S. troops, under no circumstances did he want me to be under the command of a man who, according to his information, was carrying out mass killings. ” Do you mean Himmler? ” I asked. ” Yes,” he answered, and instructed me to maintain absolute silence about the whole affair. The war was not going at all well and he had heard that people like Himmler were trying, by actions of this kind, to burn the bridges of the German people behind them. I think he was not at all certain at that time whether Hitler knew anything about what was going on, for no mention of the mass executions had ever been made at the Fuehrer’s H.Q. And perhaps he would never have brought himself to the decision to end the war -by a revolt if necessary -if he had not received further information in the early months of 1944 which confirmed these crimes and gave some idea of their extent. From that moment on, all my father’s inner allegiance to Adolf Hitler, whom he had once admired, was destroyed, and he brought himself, from his knowledge of the Fuehrer’s crimes, to act against him.”

His honest assessments of the chances of the Germans winning the war which he spoke candidly to Hitler and the High Command made him persona non grata in Berlin and Berchtesgaden. In the time before he was posted to France in late 1943 he became a part of the plot to end the war and overthrow Hitler. Rommel’s Chief of Staff at OB West, General Hans Speidel, was a key man in the conspiracy and Rommel had contacts with a number of key conspirators. He believed that the war was lost unless his forces could repel the coming Allied invasion on the beaches and worked feverishly to bolster the beach fortifications. He recommended that the Panzer Divisions be deployed near the coast where they could immediately counterattack Allied invasion forces while they were still vulnerable. But his advice was not taken. He was given command of the Army Group but was not given control of most of the Panzer Divisions, which Hitler kept under his direct control.

When the invasion came Rommel was away from Normandy visiting his wife. On learning of the invasion he sped back to Normandy. When he arrived he fought a desperate battle against the Allied forces. His outnumbered forces were under constant assault from the land, sea and air received paltry reinforcements compared to the Allies. Even so, German troops inflicted many local defeats and exacted a heavy price in allied blood in Normandy but were ground to dust. Even so, many American and British infantry regiments suffered 100% casualties but remained in action because of a continuous stream of replacements. Rommel urged Hitler and the High Command to withdraw German forces from Normandy before the allies broke through his front. By doing so he found that he was now considered a defeatist.

Rommel was severely wounded in an air attack on his vehicle by a just days before the attempt on Hitler’s life. Hitler survived the attempted assassination and exacted a terrible revenge on anyone connected with the plot. Show trials and public hangings of officers who had served valiantly at the front were common. Thousands were killed and thousands more imprisoned.

Eventually, other conspirator’s testimony exposed that Rommel was part of the plot. He was recommended by the “Court of Military Honor” to be expelled from the military and tried by the “People’s Court” of Judge Roland Freisler. During the purge that followed the attempt on Hitler’s life, many noted German military commanders were hauled before this court and humiliated by Freisler before they were sent to their deaths. Freisler, a fanatic Nazi judge has been part of the infamous Wansee Conference which planned the details of the Final Solution was killed when his courtroom was bombed in February 1945.

Because of his fame and popularity in Germany Hitler was decided to offer Rommel a choice of being tried by the People’s Court or committing suicide and ensuring his family’s safety. Hitler dispatched two generals from Berlin to personally deliver the message.

492px-Erwin_rommel_death

Rommel suspected that he would be identified and killed and told that to his friends and family in the days leading up to the arrival of Generals Wilhelm Burgorf and Ernst Maisel from OKW with the ultimatum. They met with Rommel for a short time before giving him the opportunity to say goodbye to his family. Rommel told them of his choice and left his home for the last time. 15 minutes later the Generals called his wife to say that he had died of a heart attack. Rommel was given a state funeral and the German people were lied to about his cause of his death.

Winston Churchill wrote of Rommel:

“He also deserves our respect because, although a loyal German soldier, he came to hate Hitler and all his works, and took part in the conspiracy to rescue Germany by displacing the maniac and tyrant. For this, he paid the forfeit of his life. In the sombre wars of modern democracy, chivalry finds no place … Still, I do not regret or retract the tribute I paid to Rommel, unfashionable though it was judged.”

Rommel was just 52 years old when he died. I find in the story of Rommel some commonality in my own life. Before Rommel went to Africa he believed that Germany would win the war, during his command there he discovered that what he believed was lies and that Hitler had little regard for him or his troops. Before I went to Iraq in 2007 I believed much of the political propaganda promoted by the Bush administration and right wing news media and pundits about that war.

The example of Erwin Rommel is a cautionary tale of what can happen when a brilliant and honorable man comes under the spell of a demagogue. Rommel believed Hitler and blindly followed him until he ran into the hard face of reality in Africa at which point he had the moral courage to do the right thing, but many didn’t.

Sadly there are otherwise honorable men and women in the current United States military who are blindly supporting a delusional and quite probably criminal President;  a man who promises to order soldiers to commit war crimes, who threatens to jail political opponents, who condemns whole races of people and religions, a man who has no respect for the courts, the law, or the Constitution.  Personally as a historian I cannot understand that kind of blind loyalty especially when the the leader in question has no loyalty to anyone other than himself. Not long before he was killed Rommel told his son:

“one thing is quite clear, it’s intolerable that the fate and welfare of a whole nation should depend on the whim of a small group. There must be some limit, otherwise, the most fantastic things can happen without anyone noticing.”

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, leadership, Military, nazi germany, world war two in europe

The Longest Day and Afterwards: D-Day and the Normandy Campaign, an Introduction

The author with Marines at Point du Hoc, Normandy in 2004

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Every year about this time I try to write about D-Day.  This year I spent more time on the Battle of Midway writing or rewriting a total of five articles.

Since we are now about to begin a time of major repairs to our home due to flooding from an plugged air conditioning condensation drains I have decided to do is to re-post a short research paper that I did for one of my Master’s degree courses tonight, actually posting it on Sunday night for publication today, and hope to follow it up with some more articles over the week on specific aspects and personalities of the campaign.  What I hope is that people that are not familiar with the campaign as well as those that are can use this as a portal to other resources on the web and in print.

I have visited Normandy once in 2004 on a trip with the Marines of the Marine Security Force Company Europe that took me to Belleau Wood as well as Normandy.  In both places I had the good fortune to be able to explain aspects of both battles, at Normandy discussing the invasion from the German side of the fence.  The Normandy battlefields are well worth visiting.  Hopefully in the next few years I will get a chance to go back and do some serious exploring.

Introduction

General Dwight D Eisenhower Commander in Chief Allied Forces Europe

The American landings on Omaha Beach were critical to the success of the Allied invasion northwestern Europe in the overall Overlord plan.  Without success at Omaha there would have been a strong chance that the German 7th Army and Panzer Group West could have isolated the remaining beachheads, and even if unsuccessful at throwing the Allies into the sea could have produced a stalemate that would have bled the Allies white.  This quite possibly could have led to a political and military debacle for the western allies which would have certainly changed the course of World War II and maybe the course of history.[i] This is not to say the Germans would have won the war, but merely to state that a defeat on Omaha could have changed the outcomes of the war significantly.   Subsequent to the successful landing there were opportunities both for the Allies and the Germans to change the way that the campaign unfolded, thus the battles leading up to the breakout at Avranches are critical to its development and the subsequent campaign in France.

OVERLORD: The Preparations

Eisenhower’s Key Lieutenants: Patton, Bradley and Montgomery

The planning for the Normandy invasion began in earnest after the QUADRANT conference in Quebec in August 1943.  The timetable for the operation was established at the Tehran conference where Stalin sided with the Americans on the need for an invasion of France in the spring of 1944.[ii] Prior to this there had been some planning by both the British and Americans for the eventual invasion initially named ROUNDUP.  These preparations and plans included a large scale raid at Dieppe in 1942 which ended in disaster but which provided needed experience in what not to do in an amphibious assault on a heavily defended beach.        The failure at Dieppe also darkened the mood of the Allies, the British in particular to the success of such operations, bringing to mind the failed Gallipoli campaign of 1915 as well as the opposed landings at Salerno and the USMC experience at Tarawa.[iii] Despite this the Americans led by General Marshall pushed for an early invasion of northwest Europe. Churchill and the British due to their weakness in land power pushed for land operations in the Mediterranean, and even in Norway as an option to the assault in France. The conflicted mindset of the Allies left them in the position of planning almost exclusively for the success of the initial landings and build up to the near exclusion of planning for the subsequent campaign once they landed. This especially included what one writer described as “the maze of troubles awaiting behind the French shore.”[iv]

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, Commander of Army Group B

Despite conflicts between the Americans and British political and military leadership the planning for the Normandy landings detailed in NEPTUNE and OVERLORD moved ahead.  General Dwight Eisenhower was appointed as the commander of SHAEF with his major subordinates for Land, Air and Sea which caused consternation on both sides of the Atlantic.[v] [vi] The planned operation was expanded from the initial 3 division assault on a narrow front to a minimum 5 division assault on a broad front across Normandy[vii]supplemented by a strong airborne force.[viii] Overall the plan as it developed reflected a distinctly “American willingness to confront the enemy head-on in a collision which Britain’s leaders had sought for so long to defer.”[ix] It is ironic in a sense that the British avoidance of the head on attack was based on their known lack of manpower.  Britain had few infantry reserves to sustain the war effort and the Americans only late recognized their own deficiency in both quantity and quality of infantry forces on which their strategy depended.  That the western allies, so rich in material and natural resources would be so deficient in infantry manpower was a key constraint on the subsequent campaign in France and Germany.  The shortage of infantry forces would cause great consternation among the Allies as the campaign in France wore on.

German Beach Obstacles

The Germans too faced manpower shortages due to the immense losses sustained on the Eastern front, those lost in Africa and those tied down in Italy, the Balkans and Norway as well as the drain caused by Luftwaffe Field Divisions and troops diverted into the Waffen-SS.   The German Army resorted to smaller divisions and the created many “static” divisions manned by elderly or invalid Germans to plug the gaps along the Atlantic wall. The Germans were also forced to recruit “Volksdeutsch” and foreign “volunteers” to fill out both Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS formations.

German fortifications at the Pas de Calais

Prior to the final decision to mount an invasion the Allied planners had contended with the location of the assault in northwestern France.  The Pas de Calais provided a direct route was rejected because it was where the Germans would expect the strike to occur and because it was where the German defenses were strongest.  The fiasco at Dieppe had provided ample proof of what could happen when making an assault into a heavily fortified port.  Likewise the mouth of the Seine near Le Harve was rejected because of the few beaches suitable for landing and because the forces would be split on both sides of the river.  Brittany was excluded due to its distance from the campaigns objectives in Germany.[x]This left Normandy which offered access to a sufficient number of ports and offered some protection from the weather. Normandy offered options to advance the campaign toward the “Breton ports or Le Harve as might be convenient.”[xi] Omaha beach, situated on the center right of the strike would be crucial to the success of the assault situated to the left of UTAH and the right of the British beaches.

Rommel inspecting beach obstacles

Once Normandy was selected as the location for the strike by the Allies, the planning sessions remained contentious.  This was especially true when the Allies debated the amount and type of amphibious lift that could be provided for the landings, particularly the larger types of landing ships and craft to support the Normandy invasion and the planned invasion of southern France, Operation ANVIL.  The increase in OVERLORD requirements for landing craft had an impact in the Mediterranean and resulted in ANVIL being postponed until later in the summer.

“Dummy” Sherman Tank: The Allies created a fictional Army Group to deceive German planners

As part of their preparations the Allies launched a massive deception campaign, Operation FORTITUDE.  This operation utilized the fictitious First Army Group under the “command” of General George Patton. Patton was still smarting from his relief of command of 7th Army following slapping commanded an “Army Group” which incorporated the use of dummy camp sites, dummy tanks, aircraft and vehicles, falsified orders of battle and communications to deceive German intelligence.[xii] The success of this effort was heightened by the fact that all German intelligence agents in the U.K. had been neutralized or turned by the British secret service.  Additionally the Luftwaffe’s limited air reconnaissance could only confirm the pre-invasion build ups throughout England without determining the target of the invasion.[xiii] The German intelligence chief in the west, Colonel Baron von Roenne “was deceived by FORTITUDE’s fantasy invasion force for the Pas de Calais.”[xiv] Despite this Commander of the 7thArmy recognized by 1943 that Normandy was a likely Allied target and efforts were made to shift 7th Army’s center of gravity from Brittany to Normandy.  The one potential German success in getting wind of when the Allied landings would occur was lost when German intelligence discovered two lines of Verlaine’s “Chason d’ Automme” in June 1944 which were to alert the French Resistance of the invasion.  The security section of 15th Army heard them transmitted on the afternoon of 5 June and notified General Jodl at OKW, but no action was taken to alert forces on the coast.[xv] Allied intelligence was aided by ULTRA intercepts of coded German wireless transmissions. However this was less of a factor than during the African and Italian campaigns as more German communications were sent via secure telephone and telegraph lines vice wireless.[xvi] Allied deception efforts were for the most part successful in identifying German forces deployed in Normandy. However they were uncertain about the location of the 352nd Infantry Division which had been deployed along OMAHA and taken units of the 709th Infantry Division under its command when it moved to the coast.[xvii]

USAAF B-17 Bombers and others helped isolate German forces in Normandy by bombing railroads, bridges, and supply lines

The Allied air campaign leading up to the invasion was based on attempting to isolate the invasion site from German reinforcements. Leigh-Mallory the Air Chief developed the “TRANSPORTATION PLAN” which focused efforts on destroying the French railroad infrastructure.[xviii] A more effective effort was led by General Brereton and his Ninth Air Force which was composed of medium bombers and fighters.  Brereton’s aircraft attacked bridges and rapidly achieved success in crippling German efforts to reinforce Normandy.[xix] Max Hastings gives more credit to the American bombing campaign in Germany to crippling the German defense in the west. General Spaatz and the 8th Air Force destroyed German production capacity in oil and petroleum as well as the degraded the German fighter force.  The American daylight raids so seriously degraded the German fighter force that it could not mount effective resistance to the invasion.[xx] Russell Weigley also notes that Albert Speer the Reich Armaments Minister said that “it was the oil raids of 1944 that decided the war.”[xxi]

 

US Navy LST’s being loaded for the invasion

Planning and preparations for OMAHA were based around getting the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions ashore and them securing a beachhead “twenty-five kilometers wide and eight or nine kilometers deep.”[xxii] American preparations were thorough and ambitious, but the American assault would go through the most heavily defended sector of German defenses in Normandy.  The landing beaches were wide and bordered by dunes which were nearly impassable to vehicles and “scrub covered bluffs thirty to fifty meters high…rough and impassable to vehicles even to tracked vehicles except at a few places.  The exits were unimproved roads running through four or five draws that cut the bluffs.”[xxiii] Dug in along those bluffs was the better part of the 352nd Division. The Americans compounded their selection of a difficult and heavily defended landing zone the Americans failed to take advantage of many of the “gadgets” that were offered by the British which in hindsight could have aided the Americans greatly.  The Americans made use of two battalions of DD (Dual Drive) tanks but turned down the offer of flail tanks, flamethrower tanks, and engineer tanks, the “funnies” developed by General Hobart and the British 79th Armored Division.[xxiv]

Dual Drive amphibious tanks were included as part of the US invasion package

Weigley believes that the American view of “tanks as instruments of mobility rather than of breakthrough power.” Likewise the Americans victories in the First World War were won by infantry with little tank support.[xxv] In this aspect the Americans were less receptive to utilizing all available technology to support their landings, something that when considering the fact that Americans were great lovers of gadgets and technology. The British use of the Armor, including the “Funnies” on the beaches to provide direct fire into German strong points lessened their infantry casualties on D-Day. Due to this lack of armor support on the beach American forces on OMAHA had little opportunity to exercise true combined arms operations during the initial landings.[xxvi]

 

Rommel with Artillerymen of the 21st Panzer Division in Normandy

German preparations for an Allied landing in Normandy were less advanced than the Pas de Calais.  However they had made great strides since late 1943. Field Marshal Rommel greatly increased defensive preparations along the front, including the Normandy beaches.  One of Rommel’s initiatives was to deploy Panzer Divisions near the coast where they could rapidly respond to an invasion.  However Rommel did not get everything that he wanted.  The OKW only allotted him two Panzer Divisions to be deployed near the Normandy beaches.  Only one of these the 21st Panzer Division was deployed near Caen in the British sector.  One wonders the result had the 12th SS Panzer Division been deployed behind OMAHA. [xxvii]

OMAHA: The Landings

The venerable USS Nevada, resurrected from the mud of Pearl Harbor bombarding German positions at Utah Beach

Like the rest of the Allied invasion forces the 1st and 29th U.S. Infantry Divisions set sail from their embarkation ports with the intent of landing on June 5th.  General Bradley, commanding the First Army until the American XII Army Group would be activated accompanied the invasion force.  The OMAHA landing was under the command of General Gerow and his V Corps while VII Corps led by the 4th Infantry Division landed at Utah supported by airdrops of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions inland.  American command and control during the invasion was exercised from sea as in the Pacific, although General Officers were to go ashore with each of the American divisions.  A severe channel storm disrupted the plan to land on the 5th and Eisenhower delayed the invasion one day catching a break in the weather and electing to go on the 6th.[xxviii] This delay while uncomfortable for the embarked troops caused the Germans to believe that no invasion would take place until the next favorable tide and moon cycle later in the month.[xxix] The assumption that no invasion was possible ensured that a number of key senior German leaders, including Rommel were absent from the invasion front when the Allies landed.[xxx]

US Troops ride a LCVP toward Omaha 

The landing beaches at OMAHA stretched about 6500 meters from Colleville-Sur-Mer to Vierville-Sur-Mere in the west.  The beaches are wide with bluffs overlooking them and a seawall between the beaches and the bluffs.  Additionally several small towns dot the beach. To the west of the town of Vierville, a prominent height overlooked the entire beachhead.  Named Pont du Hoc, it was believed to house a 150mm battery sighted where it could enfilade the OMAHA landing zones.  The Americans assigned to the 2nd Ranger Battalion to make a seaborne assault to land, scale the cliffs and take the battery.  Companies from this battalion made a heroic landing and scaled the cliffs to capture the strongpoint only to discover that the guns had not been emplaced.  The Rangers took heavy casualties and held their isolated beachhead against German counterattacks until relieved by the 29th Division on the morning of June 8th.[xxxi]

Landing craft passing the USS Augusta in heavy seas heading toward Omaha Beach

H-Hour for OMAHA was 0630.  Unfortunately the assault troops were transferred to their LCVP landing craft 16-20 kilometers from the beach.  The result was a long and dangerous ride in the small craft for the infantry.  Most of the infantry were completely soaked in sea spay and seasick before going ashore and they carried loads far above what they normally would carry into battle.[xxxii] The Armor support was one battalion of DD tanks, the 741stArmored Battalion, supporting the 16th Infantry Regiment of 1st Infantry Division. These were also launched too far out and nearly all of the tanks were swamped and lost before firing a shot in anger.[xxxiii] Other American support units needed to provide firepower on the beach were equally unfortunate. Weigley notes that at OMAHA “at least 10 of the LCVPs sank” as did “the craft carrying almost all of the 105mm howitzers that were to be the first artillery ashore after the tanks.”[xxxiv] The losses would cripple the assault on OMAHA and nearly cause its abandonment.

Bloody Omaha

As the soldiers of the American divisions on OMAHA came ashore they faced German defenders of the 352nd, 716th and a regiment of the 709th Infantry Division, the latter under the tactical command of the 352nd.   Without the bulk of their tanks artillery and lacking close air support the Americans struggled across the beaches and were cut down in large numbers before being pinned down behind the sea wall.[xxxv] With the Americans pinned down on the beach unable to advance, the time tables for the reinforcing waves became snarled amid the German beach obstacles which had not been cleared.  This was in large part due to 40% casualties among the Combat Engineers and the loss of all but five bulldozers.[xxxvi] Naval officers were frustrated in their attempts to provide naval gunfire support by the lack of identifiable targets on the beaches.  Yet German strongpoint’s were “knocked out by either by superbly directed vigorous gunfire from destroyers steaming as close as 800 yards offshore, or by determined action from Rangers or infantry.[xxxvii]

 

US Infantry struggles ashore at Omaha

Soldiers ashore discovered that they were not facing the static 716th Division but the veteran 352nd Division as well.[xxxviii] Only the leadership and actions of Brigadier General Norman Cota the 29th Division’s Deputy Commander and Colonel Charles Canham of the 116th Infantry kept the situation from complete collapse.  They were able to rally their troops. Under their leadership small units from the 116th which had its linage back to the “Stonewall Brigade” as well as elements of the 16th and 18th Infantry Regiments began to move forward.  Surviving junior leaders began to lead survivors through the dunes and up the bluffs to attack German defenders of the roads leading up from the beach from the flank and rear.  A mid-day break in the weather allowed some close tactical air support giving the troops badly needed support.

US 1st Infantry Division Troops at the Omaha sea wall

With the situation desperate General Bradley considered the evacuation of OMAHA.  At sea events were as confused as Bradley and his staff attempted to make sense of what was going on.  Even later in the evening there was discussion of diverting all further reinforcements from OMAHA to the British beaches.[xxxix]At 1330 hours “Gerow signaled Bradley: “Troops formerly pinned down on beaches…advancing up heights behind beaches.”[xl] By the end of the day Bradley’s aid Major Hansen noted Bradley’s comments to Collins: “They are digging in on Omaha beach with their fingernails. I hope they can push in and get some stuff ashore.”  And Montgomery: “Someday I’ll tell Gen[eral] Eisenhower just how close it was for a few hours.”[xli]

German Fallschirmjaeger Trüppen in Normandy, the German Parachute forces fighting in an infantry role were very effective in the Normandy campaign

The landings at OMAHA succeeded at a cost of over 2000 casualties.  Critical to the success of the landings were the German inability to reinforce their defending troops on the beach.  Likewise the weakness of the units available to mount the standard counterattack that was critical to German defensive plans on D-Day itself kept the Germans from driving the Americans back into the Channel. The 352nd Division fought superbly under the full weight of V Corps and the British XXX Corps on its right suffering heavy casualties as they contested every inch of ground.  The 716th Division composed of second rate troops melted under the onslaught.  Allied air supremacy played a key role as sorties by the 8th and 9th Air Forces helped keep German reinforcements from arriving and interdicted counter attacks inland.  Weigley credits the Allied air superiority with the success of the landings and with limiting casualties.[xlii]Von Rundstedt and other German commanders in France were limited by the delay and refusal of Hitler and OKW to release Panzer reserves when needed most early on June 6th.  By the close of D-Day allied forces had secured the five invasion beaches but not achieved their objectives of taking Caen and Bayuex.  Since the forces on the various beachheads had not linked up the beaches would have been extremely vulnerable had the Germans been able to mount a rapid counterattack by Panzers and strong infantry formations as they had at Salerno.

Major Battles to the Breakout at Avranches

Securing the Beachheads

It took the V and VII Corps nearly a week to secure the beachheads. German forces including the stalwart 352nd Division resisted stubbornly and mounted sharp local counterattacks which kept the Americans off balance.  Elements of the 29th Division and the 90th Division began to push inland and to expand the beachhead toward UTAH. Opposed by the 352nd Division and elements of the 91st Airlanding Division and other non-divisional units the fighting revealed the inexperience of the American infantry formations and the uneven quality of their leadership.  As the Americans tackled the Germans in the labyrinth of the Bocage country the defensive skill of the Germans cost many American lives and delayed the joining of the beachheads. On the 13th the link up was solid enough to enabling the Americans to conduct the follow up operations needed to expand the beachhead, secure Cherbourg and clear the Cotentin.

A Panther tank of the Panzer Lehr Division in Normandy

In some American divisions the hard fighting triggered a leadership crisis.  The lack of success of the 90th Division led General “Lightening Joe” Collins of VII Corps relieve the division commander and two regimental commanders of command, a portent of things to come with other American units.[xliii] As the V and VII corps pushed into the “Bocage” they were followed by a massive build up of troops and equipment delivered to the beaches and to the artificial “Mulberry” harbors.  Despite their numeric superiority, air supremacy and massive Naval gunfire support and facing the weakened 352nd, 91st and the 6thParachute Regiment and other less than quality formations, survivors of the static divisions, the Americans made painfully slow progress as they moved off the beachhead and into the Bocage.[xliv]

The Capture of Cherbourg

US Soldiers of the 29th Division surrender to German Fallschirmjaeger in Normandy

Once the beachheads had been consolidated the Americans turned their attention toward Cherbourg. Cherbourg was the major naval port at the far northwest tip of the Cotentin.  D-Day planners counted on its swift capture and rehabilitation to serve as a supply port for the Allied forces. The 9th Division drove south to the coast near Barneville on the 18th of June cutting off the German forces covering the approaches to Cherbourg.[xlv] This put the Germans in a bind as the 7th Army “had to split its forces in the peninsula in order to hold the fortress a little longer and thus to gain time for the establishment of the southern front on the Cotentin peninsula.[xlvi] The German forces arrayed before Cherbourg waged a desperate defense centered around the 243rd Infantry Division and other assorted battle groups of LXXXIV Corps, whose commander General Marcks one of the best German Generals was killed in action on 12 June.[xlvii] The U.S. VII Corps under Collins with the 9th, 4th and 79th Divisions pushed up the peninsula capturing Cherbourg on June 29th.  Bradley pushed hard for the capture of the port as the Mulberries had been ravaged by a severe Channel storm the week prior. The port of Cherbourg was thoroughly demolished by German engineers and would not be fully operational for months. The loss of the Mulberries and delay in Cherbourg’s availability meant that few supplies were landed on the beaches would “hinder the escape from the constricting land of the hedgerows into which the Americans had come in search of a port.[xlviii]

The Battle of Caumont Gap

Panzer IV Tank in Normandy

V Corps under Gerow made a cautious advance by phase lines toward Caumont, St Lo and Carentan.  The deliberate advance by the Corps toward a line weakly held by the Reconnaissance battalion of the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division was directed by Bradley who did not want to divert attention from the effort against Cherbourg.   After capturing Caumont V Corps halted and continued aggressive patrolling to deceive the Germans while digging in.[xlix] The possibility existed that a strong push against the weak German line could have led to an opportunity to envelope the German line west of Caen. This was a missed opportunity that in part led to the bloody and controversial campaign to capture Caen.[l]

British efforts around Caen

German Panzer Ace Waffen SS Captain Michale Wittman single handedly destroyed a British Battalion at Villers Bocage in his Tiger Tank

Montgomery had ambitious plans to break out of Normandy by capturing Caen on D-Day and driving toward Falaise and Argentan.  The British plans for this were frustrated by the rapid reinforcement of the sector by the Germans and the activities of 21st Panzer, Panzer Lehr, and the 12th SS Panzer Divisions.  A flanking maneuver at Villers-Bocage was frustrated by a few Tiger tanks led by the legendary Waffen SS Panzer commander Captain Michael Wittman whose tanks devastated a British Armored battalion.[li]

Wreckage of a British Battalion at Villers Bocage

A series of disastrous attacks toward Caen (EPSOM, CHARNWOOD and GOODWOOD) strongly supported by air strikes and Naval gunfire finally succeeded in taking that unfortunate city on July 18th but failed to take the heights beyond the town.[lii]

British operations like Operation Epsom met setback after setback against dug in German forces outside of Caen

Against crack well dug in German forces the British took heavy casualties in tanks and infantry seriously straining their ability to conduct high intensity combat operations in the future.[liii] The one benefit, which Montgomery would claim after the war as his original plan was that German forces were fixed before Caen and ground down so they could not be used against Bradley’s breakout in the west at St Lo.[liv]

Clearing the Bocage: The Battle of the Cotentin Plain

US M-5 Light Tank in Normandy

Other German forces arrived, and reinforced the Caumont gap which no longer “yawned invitingly in front of V Corps.” [lv] Bradley wished to push forward rapidly to achieve a breakthrough in the American sector.[lvi] Facing the most difficult terrain in France amid the Bocage and swamps that limited avenues of approach to the American divisions committed to the offensive.  The Americans now faced their old foe the 352nd division as well various elements of II Parachute Corps, the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier and Panzer Lehr Divisions.  American tanks and infantry made slow progress and incurred high losses as they dueled the Germans at close range.  In the VIII Corps sector alone the attack “consumed twelve days and 10,000 casualties to cross eleven kilometers of the Bocage…the achievements of the VII and XIX Corps were no better than comparable.[lvii]

St. Lo

US Tanks advancing with German prisoners moving back to US lines at St Lo

St. Lo was a key to Bradley’s breakout efforts.  His Army had to capture it and the roads leading out of it to launch Operation COBRA along the coast.  The task of capturing St. Lo was assigned to GEROW’S V Corps and Corlett’s XIX Corps.  They faced opposition from the tough paratroops of the German 3rd Parachute Division of II Parachute Corps.  The 2nd, 29th, 30th and 83rd Divisions fought a tough battle advancing eleven kilometers again with high numbers of casualties especially among the infantry to secure St. Lo on 18 July.[lviii] They finally had cleared the hedgerows.  St Lo epitomized the struggle that the American Army had to overcome in the Bocage.  Hard fighting but outnumbered German troops in excellent defensive country exacted a terrible price in American blood despite the Allied control of the skies.[lix]

Operation COBRA

US 155mm Howitzers in Normandy, the Germans had profound respect for American Artillery, a respect that they did not share for American Infantry or Armor forces

With the Bocage behind him Bradley desired to push the Germans hard.  COBRA was his plan to break out of Normandy.  Bradley ably assisted by Collins they realized that the better terrain, road networks favored a breakout.  American preparations included a technical advance that allowed tanks to plow through hedgerows. This was the “Rhino” device fashioned by American troops which was installed on 3 of every 5 First Army Tanks for the operation.[lx] VII Corps was to lead the attack which was to begin on July 24th. American planning was more advanced than in past operations.  Collins and Bradley planned for exploitation operations once the breakthrough had been made. A massive air bombardment would precede the attack along with an artillery barrage by Collins corps artillery which was reinforced by additional battalions.   A mistake by the heavy bombers in the 24th resulted in the American troops being hit with heavy casualties and a postponement of the attack until the 25th.[lxi] The following day the attack commenced.  Another mistake by the bombers led to more American casualties[lxii] but VII Corps units pressed forward against the determined resistance of the survivors of Panzer Lehr and the remnants of units that had fought the Americans since the invasion began.  Although it was a “slow go” on the 25th Bradley and his commanders were already planning for and beginning to execute the breakout before the Germans could move up reinforcements.  The 26th of June brought renewed attacks accompanied by massive air strikes.

The Devastated town of St Lo 

While not much progress was made on the 26th, the Americans discovered on the 27th that the German forces were retreating.  The capture of Marigny allowed VIII Corps to begin exploitation down the coastal highway to Coutances.  On the 27th General Patton was authorized to take immediate command of VIII Corps a precursor to the activation of his 3rdArmy.  COBRA ripped a hole in the German line and inflicted such heavy casualties on the German 7th Army that it could do little to stop the American push.[lxiii] As the American forces pushed forward they reinforced their left flank absorbing the local German counterattacks which were hampered by the Allied close air support.

Avranches and Beyond

US Forces advance through the ruins of St Lo

As the breakthrough was exploited the command of the forces leading it shifted to Patton and the newly activated 3rd Army. By the 28th VIII Corps led by the 4th and 6th Armored Divisions had reached Avranches and established bridgeheads over the See River with additional bridges being captured intact on the 30th.[lxiv] The capture of Avranches allowed the Americans to begin exploitation operations into Brittany and east toward the Seine. Weigley notes that for the first time in the campaign that in Patton the Americans finally had a commander who understood strategic maneuver and would use it to great effect.[lxv]

Conclusion

The American campaign in Normandy cost the U.S. Army a great deal. It revealed weaknesses in the infantry, the inferiority of the M4 Sherman tank to most German types, problems in tank-infantry cooperation and also deficiencies in leadership at senior, mid-grade and junior levels. Heavy casualties among infantry formations would lead to problems later in the campaign. Numerous officers were relieved including Division and Regimental commanders.  Nonetheless during the campaign the Americans grew in their ability to coordinate air and ground forces and adapt to the conditions imposed on them by their placement in the Cotentin.  The deficiencies would show up in later battles but the American Army learned its trade even impressing some German commanders on the ground in Normandy.[lxvi]

[i] See the alternative history of by Peter Tsouras Disaster at D-Day: The Germans Defeat the Allies, June 1944, Greenhill Books, London 1994. Tsouras describes the defeat of the Omaha landings and the effect on the course of the campaign leading to the overthrow of Hitler and a negotiated armistice in the west.  While this outcome could be rigorously debated other outcomes could have led to the fall of the Roosevelt and Churchill governments and their replacement by those not committed to unconditional surrender or a continuation of the war that brought about more German missile attacks on the U.K. and the introduction of other advanced German weapons that could have forced such a settlement. Another option could have led to the dropping of the Atomic Bomb on a German city vice Hiroshima.

Notes 

[ii] Weigley, Russell F. Eisenhower’s Lieutenants: The Campaign of France and Germany, 1944-1945, Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN, 1981 p.33

[iii] Ibid pp. 34-35

[iv] Ibid p.35

[v] General Montgomery 21st Army group and Land Forces, Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey as Allied Naval Expeditionary Force and Air Marshall Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory as Commander in Chief Allied Expeditionary Air Force. Weigley p.43

[vi] Max Hastings in Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy Vintage Books, New York, 1984, comments that many in Britain wondered if Eisenhower with the lack of actual battle experience could be a effective commander and that Eisenhower was disappointed in the appointment of Leigh-Mallory and Ramsey, and had preferred Alexander over Montgomery, pp. 28-29.

[vii] Ibid. Weigley p.40.  Montgomery was the first to object to the 3 division narrow front invasion rightly recognizing that seizing Caen with its road junctions could provide a springboard for the campaign into open country.

[viii] Ibid. p.37

[ix] Hastings, Max. Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy Vintage Books, New York, 1984 p.29  Hastings finds the irony in the selection of the British officers to execute the plan that reflected the American way of thinking.

[x] The Germans agreed with this in their planning leaving Brittany very lightly defended.  See  Isby, David C. Ed. “The German Army at D-Day: Fighting the Invasion.” p.27 The report of General Blumentritt, Chief of Staff OB West noted that only 3 divisions were assigned to Brittany.

[xi] Ibid. Weigley, pp. 39-40

[xii] Ibid. p.73

[xiii] See Isby p. 69.  General Max Pemsel of 7th Army noted that “During  the spring of 1944, Seventh Army received only tow good photographs of British southern ports, which showed large concentrations of landing craft.”

[xiv] Ibid. Hastings p.63.  Hastings comments also about the success of using the turned Abwehr agents.

[xv] Warlimont, Walter. “Inside Hitler’s Headquarters: 1939-1945.” Translated from theGerman by R.H. Barry. Presidio Press, Novao CA, English Edition Copyright 1964 Wiedenfeld and Nicholson Ltd. Pp.422-423

[xvi] Ibid. Weigley pp. 53-54

[xvii] Ibid. p. 67

[xviii] Ibid. pp.57-64  Weigley spends a great deal of time on the wrangling between Eisenhower, Leigh Mallory and Spaatz on the nature of the plan, the allocation of forces both strategic and tactical assigned to carry it out and its success, or in the light of postwar analysis the lack of effect that it had on German operations.

[xix] Ibid. p.67-68.

[xx] Ibid. Hastings pp. 43-44 In large part due to the long range P-51 Mustang which accompanied the American bombing raids beginning in 1943.  Another comment is that the campaign drew the German fighters home to defend Germany proper and prevented their use in any appreciable numbers over the invasion beaches.

[xxi] Ibid. Weigley p.69

[xxii] Ibid. p.89

[xxiii] Ibid. pp. 88-89

[xxiv] Ibid. p.87

[xxv] Ibid. Weigley also talks about the rejection of General Corlett’s ideas to use Amtracks used by the Marines in the Pacific to land on less desirable, but less defended beaches to lessen casualties on the beaches and the need for additional support equipment even on smooth beaches.  One of Corlett’s criticisms was that too little ammunition was allotted to supporting the landings and not enough supporting equipment was provided. pp. 46-47

[xxvi] Hastings notes that with the strength and firepower of the German forces on OMAHA that many of these vehicles had they been employed would like have ended up destroyed further cluttering the beachhead. “Overlord” p.102

[xxvii] The battle over the deployment of the Panzer Divisions is covered by numerous historians.  The source of the conflict was between Rommel who desired to place the Panzer Divisions on the Coast under his command due to the fear that Allied air superiority would prevent the traditional Panzer counterthrust, General Gyer von Schweppenburg commander of Panzer Group West (Later the 5th Panzer Army) and Field Marshal Von Rundstedt who desired to deploy the divisions order the command of Rundstedt for a counter attack once the invasion had been launched, a strategy which was standard on the Eastern Front, and Hitler who held most of the Panzer reserve including the SS Panzer Divisions under his control at OKW.  Hitler would negotiate a compromise that gave Rommel the satisfaction of having three Panzer Divisions deployed behind coast areas in the Army Group B area of responsibility.  21stPanzer had those duties in Normandy.

[xxviii] Ibid. p.74-75

[xxix] Von Luck, Hans.  “Panzer Commander“ Dell Publishing, New York, 1989 pp. 169-170.  Von Luck a regiment commander in 21st Panzer noted that General Marcks of 84th Corps had predicted a 5 June invasion at a conference May 30th.

[xxx] Almost every D-Day historian talks about the weather factor and its effect on the German high command’s reaction to the invasion.  Rommel was visiting his wife for her birthday and planned to make a call on Hitler. Others including commanders of key divisions such as the 91st Airlanding Division were off to a war game in Rennes and the 21st Panzer Division to Paris.

[xxxi] Ibid. Weigley p. 96

[xxxii] See Cornelius Ryan, “The Longest Day” Popular Library Edition, New York 1959. pp. 189-193 for a vivid description of the challenges faced by soldiers going from ship to landing craft and their ride in to the beaches.

[xxxiii] Ibid. Weigley. p.78 Weigley talks about the order for the tanks to be carried ashore on their LCTs that did not get transmitted to the 741st.

[xxxiv] Ibid.

[xxxv] Ibid. Weigley  p. 87 The weather prevented the aerial bombardment from being effective. Because the bombers could not see their targets they dropped their bomb loads further inland, depriving the infantry of support that they were expecting.  Naval gunfire support had some effect but had to be lifted as the troops hit the beach leaving much of that support to come from Destroyers and specially equipped landing craft which mounted rockets and guns.

[xxxvi] Ibid. Hastings. pp. 90-91.

[xxxvii] Ibid. p.99

[xxxviii] Ibid. Weigley p.80

[xxxix] Ibid. p.101  Also see Weigley p.80

[xl] Ibid. p.99

[xli] Ibid. Weigleyp.95

[xlii] Ibid. p.94

[xliii] Ibid. p.99 Both Weigley and Hastings make note of the failure of both the Americans and British to train their troops to fight in the bocage once they had left the beaches.

[xliv] Ibid. Hastings. pp.152-153

[xlv] Ibid. Weigley p.101

[xlvi] Isby, David C., Ed. “Fighting in Normandy: The German Army from D-Day to Villers-Bocage.” Greenhill Books, London,  2001.  p.143

[xlvii] Ibid. Hastings p.173 Allied fighter bombers exacted a fearful toll among German commanders. The Commanders of the 243rd and 77th Divisions fighting in the Cotentin were also killed by air attacks on the 17th and 18th.   Further east facing the British the commander of the 12th SS Panzer Division, Fritz Witt on the 17th.

[xlviii] Ibid. Weigley. p.108

[xlix] Ibid. p.111-112.

[l] Ibid.

[li] The efforts of the 51st Highland Division and 7th Armored Division were turned aside by the Germans in the area and were dramatized by the destruction of  a British armored battalion by SS Captain Michael Wittman and his platoon of Tiger tanks.  See Hastings pp.131-135.

[lii] The British 8th Corps under General O’Connor lost 270 tanks and 1,500 men on 18 July attempting to crack the German gun line on the ridge beyond Caen. Weigley, pp.145-146.

[liii] Hastings comments about the critical British manpower shortage and the pressures on Montgomery to not take heavy casualties that could not be replaced. Overlord. pp.241-242.

[liv] Ibid. Weigley pp.116-120

[lv] Ibid. p.122

[lvi] Ibid. p121 Bradley told Eisenhower “when we hit the enemy this time we will hit him with such power that we can keep going and cause a major disaster.”

[lvii] Ibid. 134

[lviii] Ibid. Weigley. pp. 138-143.  Weigley notes of 40,000 U.S. casualties in Normandy up to the capture of St. Lo that 90% were concentrated among the infantry.

[lix] Weigley quotes the 329th Regiment, 83rd Division historian “We won the battle of Normandy, [but] considering the high price in American lives we lost. P.143. This is actually a provocative statement that reflects America’s aversion to massive casualties in any war.

[lx] Ibid. p.149

[lxi] Ibid. p. 152

[lxii] Ibid. pp. 152-153.  Among the casualties were the command group of the 9th Division’s 3rd Battalion 47th Infantry and General Leslie McNair who had come to observe the assault.

[lxiii] Ibid. pp.161-169. Weigley notes the advances in U.S. tactical air support, the employment of massive numbers of U.S. divisions against the depleted German LXXXIV Corps, and the advantage that the “Rhino” device gave to American tanks by giving them the ability to maneuver off the roads for the first time.

[lxiv] Ibid. pp.172-173.

[lxv] Ibid. p.172

[lxvi] Ibid. Isby, David C. “Fighting in Normandy,” p.184, an officer of the 352nd Division referred to the American soldier “was to prove himself a in this terrain an agile and superior fighter.”

Bibliography

Carell, Paul. “Invasion: They’re Coming!” Translated from the German by E. Osers, Bantam, New York 1964.

Hastings, Max. Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy Vintage Books, New York, 1984

Isby, David C. Ed. “The German Army at D-Day: Fighting the Invasion.” Greenhill Books, London 2004

Isby, David C., Ed. “Fighting in Normandy: The German Army from D-Day to Villers-Bocage.” Greenhill Books, London, 2001.

Ryan, Cornelius, “The Longest Day” Popular Library Edition, New York 1959

Tsouras, Peter. “Disaster at D-Day: The Germans Defeat the Allies, June 1944,”Greenhill Books, London 1994.

Von Luck, Hans.  “Panzer Commander“ Dell Publishing, New York, 1989

Warlimont, Walter. “Inside Hitler’s Headquarters: 1939-1945.” Translated from theGerman by R.H. Barry. Presidio Press, Novao CA, English Edition Copyright 1964 Wiedenfeld and Nicholson Ltd. Warlimont, Walter. “Inside Hitler’s Headquarters: 1939-1945.” Translated from theGerman by R.H. Barry. Presidio Press, Novao CA, English Edition Copyright 1964 Wiedenfeld and Nicholson Ltd.

Weigley, Russell F. Eisenhower’s Lieutenants: The Campaign of France and Germany, 1944-1945, Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN, 1981

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The Death of the Pride of the Royal Navy: The Sinking of HMS Hood

hms-hood-sinking11Artist rendition of the Loss of the HMS Hood

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Seventy-seven years ago today the “Mighty Hood” was sunk by the German Battleship Bismarck. The news was broken to most of the world by American journalist Edward R. Murrow who in his radio broadcast reported:

“This is London, Ed Murrow reporting. This island, which is no stranger to bad tiding, received news today that HMS Hood largest warship in the British fleet and pride of the British navy, has been sunk by the German battleship Bismarck. From the Hood’s compliment of 1500 men, there were three survivors.”

The news of the sinking of the great ship stunned the world, and it is a tragic anniversary that I always mark. I first read about this battle in C.S Forrester’s little book Hunting the Bismarck when I was in 4th grade. That book was used as the screenplay for the 1960 film Sink the Bismarck.

This essay is in honor of the gallant HMS Hood and her crew.  It is fitting although the HMS Hood and her killer, the German battleship Bismarck were not American. Both were great ships manned by gallant crews and the loss of both ships was tragic, especially from the aspect of the great loss of human life. I do hope and pray that we never forget the sacrifice of these men and all others who have gone down to the sea in great ships.

hood-malta1HMS Hood at Malta

There are some warships and naval engagements which assume legendary proportions.  The Battle of the Denmark Strait on 24 May 1941 between the two largest battleships in commission at the time, the pride of the British Royal Navy the HMS Hood and the German behemoth Bismarck is legendary as are those two mighty ships.  The battle came at a critical time as the Britain stood alone against the seemingly invincible German Blitzkrieg.

hood-at-san-francisco1Hood in San Francisco on 1920s goodwill tour

Britain had been driven from Western Europe and was being bombed regularly by Herman Goering’s Luftwaffe while a British expeditionary force that had been sent to Greece had been defeated and the Germans were assaulting Crete with airborne forces.  In the Western Desert the Afrika Korps under Field Marshall Erwin Rommel had driven off a British counter-offensive on the Libyan-Egyptian frontier and were laying siege to Tobruk and in the Atlantic German U-Boats sank 66 Allied Merchant Ships of over 375,000 tons and the Royal Navy would lose 25 warships not including the Hood.

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The Hood was the pride of the Royal Navy and was world famous due to her inter-war international presence and goodwill visits.  Displacing 47,430 tons full load she was armed with eight 15” guns in four twin turrets.  Designed as a battle cruiser she was less heavily armored than contemporary battleships and had very weak vertical protection from plunging shellfire.  This was a fault which was known but never rectified between the wars and when the war came the Royal Navy could ill-afford to take her out of service for the necessary improvements to her protection system.  She was fast with a designed speed of 31 knots which been reduced to 28 knots by 1939 as a result of modifications which increased her displacement.   This was further reduced by the wear and tear on her propulsion plant to 26.5 knots by 1940.

Hood was designed before the battle of Jutland (May 1916) where the weaknesses in the armor protection of British Battlecruisers was exposed as three, the HMS Invincible, HMS Queen Mary and HMS Indefatigable were destroyed by plunging fire which exploded their magazines.  Though her design was modified during construction she still was vulnerable to plunging fire. She was scheduled for a major refit which would have included significant improvement in armor protection in 1941, but the war prevented Hood from receiving anything more than improvements to her anti-aircraft batteries.

Combat1lgHood (nearly hidden by falling shells) in action at Mers-El-Kebir

During the war Hood was engaged in patrol and search operations against German raiders in the North Atlantic and in June 1940 joined Force “H” in the Mediterranean.  As Flagship of Force “H” she took part in the sinking of French Fleet Units including the Battleship Bretagne at Mers-El-Kebir on 3 July 1940 following the French surrender to the Germans and remained in operation searching for the German Pocket Battleship Admiral Scheer and the Heavy Cruiser Admiral Hipper until she was withdrawn for a brief refit in January 1941.

Following another brief refit in mid-March, Hood was underway from mid-March searching for the German raiders Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and also false report of Bismarck breaking out into the Atlantic in April 1941. She returned to Scapa Flow on 6 May 1941.

bismarck1Bismarck

When the British discovered that Bismarck had entered the Atlantic, Hood the flagship of Vice Admiral Lancelot Holland, was dispatched to find and sink her with the newly commissioned battleship HMS Prince of Wales.  The battleships were to join the Heavy Cruisers HMS Suffolk and HMS Norfolk at the entrance to the Denmark Strait.  When the cruisers discovered Bismarck along with her consort the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen the two British battleships steamed into naval history.

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Bismarck was slightly larger than Hood and mounted the same main armament but that was about all the two ships had in common. If the battle was a battle between heavyweight prize fighters Hood was the valiant but crippled champion and Bismarck the young and overpowering challenger.  Bismarck was slightly faster than the limping Hood and was one of the most well protected ships ever built.  Her gunnery officers and the men that manned her deadly 15” guns were like previous generations of German sailors, gunnery experts, working with some of the finest naval guns ever made.

Schlachtschiff Bismarck, Seegefecht

Bismarck firing on Hood

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The German ships were shadowed at a distance by the Norfolk and Suffolk. The German task force under the command of Admiral Gunther Lütjens emerged from the strait and were sighted by the British at 0537.  Knowing his ships weakness in regard to plunging fire Admiral Holland desired to steer a direct course at the German ships in order to close the range quickly in order to narrow the range and prevent being hit by the same kind of plunging fire that doomed the British battle cruisers at Jutland.

However, events dictated otherwise and the British were forced to close the range much more slowly than Admiral Holland desired, and exposed both Hood and Prince of Wales to German plunging fire for a longer period of time.  As such Holland then turned and tried to close the German ships faster. The result was that his gunnery was degraded by wind and spray coming over the bows of his ships compounded by his inability to bring his after turrets to bear on the German ships.

hood0231Hood, photographed from Prince of Wales moments before being hit and sunk by Bismarck

At 0553 Holland ordered his ships to open fire. Unfortunately, he dis so without the benefit of Suffolk and Norfolk being in position to engage the Prinz Eugen.  Due to the similar appearance of the German ships Hood initially concentrated her fire on Prinz Eugen assuming her to be the Bismarck while Prince of Wales engaged Bismarck.

During the initial exchange of fire Prince of Wales drew first blood by hitting Bismarck three times with her 14″ guns. One hit damaged Bismarck’s seaplane catapult. A second did minor damage to machinery spaces, and a third which passed throughBismarck’s bow near the waterline and severed the fuel lines from her forward fuel tanks to her engines. The third hit would prove the might German Leviathan’s undoing.

prinzeugen-21Prinz Eugen

Both German ships opened fire at 0555 and concentred their fires on the Hood.  Prinz Eugen immediately hit Hood with at least one 8” shell which set a large fire among the ready to use 4”ammunition stored in lockers near the mainmast. The hit started a large fire which Hood’s damage control teams raced to contain.  At 0600, Admiral Holland ordered his ships to turn to port in order to bring the rear turrets of his battleships into the fight.

As the squadron executed the turn Hood was straddled by a salvo from Bismarck and observers on Prince of Wales observed an explosion between “X” turret and the mainmast of Hood. The hit set off the 4″ magazine and the resultant explosion consumed the Hood causing her bow to jut sharply out of the water before sinking beneath the waves in under 3 minutes time. Witnesses on both sides of the engagement were stunned by the sudden and violent end of the Hood.

With Hood now destroyed the Germans rapidly shifted their fire to the Prince of Wales, crippling the battleship and knocking her out of the action.  Bismarck was now in a perfect position to finish off Prince of Wales but she did not do so. Against the advice of Bismarck’s Captain Ernst Lindemann, Admiral Lütjens refused to follow up his advantage to sink the crippled British battleship and instead broke off the action.

hood_explosion_sketch1Hood blows up. Drawing by the Captain of HMS Prince of Wales J.C. Leach

Only three crewmen for Hood, Petty Officer Ted Briggs, Seaman Bob Tilburn and Midshipman Bill Dundas survived the cataclysm out of a total of 1415 souls embarked. They were rescued 4 hours later nearly dead of hypothermia. They stayed awake by singing  “Roll out the Barrel” until they were rescued by the destroyer HMS Electra.

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Briggs who died in 2008 recounted the sinking:

“Then she started listing to starboard. She righted herself, and started going over to port. When she had gone over by about 40 degrees we realised she was not coming back…” Briggs was sucked under the water “I had heard it was nice to drown. I stopped trying to swim upwards. The water was a peaceful cradle – I was ready to meet my God. My blissful acceptance of death ended in a sudden surge beneath me, which shot me to the surface like a decanted cork in a champagne bottle. I turned, and 50 yards away I could see the bows of the Hood vertical in the sea. It was the most frightening aspect of my ordeal, and a vision which was to recur terrifyingly in nightmares for the next 40 years.” (The Daily Telegraph 5 October 2008)

briggs1Ted Briggs

tilburn4111Bob Tilburn

The Admiralty reported the loss of the Hood later in the day saying Hood received an unlucky hit in a magazine and blew up.”  The official report of the sinking released later in the year said:

That the sinking of Hood was due to a hit from Bismarck’s 15-inch shell in or adjacent to Hood’s 4-inch or 15-inch magazines, causing them all to explode and wreck the after part of the ship. The probability is that the 4-inch magazines exploded first.”

The commission’s findings have been challenged by a number of naval historians and there are several theories of how the magazines might have exploded. However, all theories point to a massive magazine explosion which may not have be caused by a plunging round but from a hit which detonated the unprotected 4” magazines or a hit from Bismarck that struck below Hood’s waterline and exploded in a magazine.

For forty years the Hood’s wreckage lay undiscovered. Her wreck was located in 2001 lying across two debris fields. The post mortem examination revealed that Hood’s after magazines had exploded.  Hood’s resting place is designated as a War Grave by Britain and protected site under the Protection of Military Remains Act of 1986.

bismarck-sinking1Bismarck sinking

Bismarck and her crew did not long survive her victory.  When close to refuge in the French port of Brest on May 26th the great ship was crippled by a lucky aerial torpedo hit from a Fairley Swordfish bomber flying from the HMS Ark Royal. 

The hit damaged Bismarck’s rudders and forced her to steer a course towards the approaching British fleet. Throughout the night Bismarck fought off attacks by British and Polish destroyers on the morning of May 27th 1941, after absorbing massive damage from the HMS King George V, HMS Rodney and several cruisers including HMS Dorsetshire, he plucky and persistent Norfolk and several destroyers, Bismarck was scuttled by her crew. When she went down she took with her all but 115 souls of her crew of over 2200 which included the Fleet Staff of Admiral Lütjens.

hms-prince-of-wales1HMS Prince of Wales

A few months later, Prince of Wales would take Winston Churchill to Argentia Bay Newfoundland to meet with Franklin Roosevelt. At the conference that took place in August 1941, the Atlantic Charter was drafted. With the increased threat of Japanese expansion Prince of Wales reported to the Far East where she was sunk along with the Battlecruiser HMS Repulse on 9 December 1941 by a force of land based Japanese aircraft.  The Prinz Eugen was the only heavy ship of the German Navy to survive the war and was taken as a prize by the US Navy when the war ended. She was used as a target during the Able and Baker nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll, but did not sink. She was too radioactive to be repaired and her hulk was towed to Kwajalein Atoll where she capsized and sank on 22 December 1946. Her wreck is still visible.

The loss of the Hood traumatized the people of Britain and the Royal Navy; she had been the symbol of British Naval power for over 20 years and people around the world were likewise stunned at her demise. The sinking of the Hood and the loss of her crew was a tragedy which all sailors assigned to large and prestigious ships and the nations that they sail for need to keep in mind.

No matter how mighty any ship may be, every ship has an Achilles heel and no ship is unsinkable, and human beings bear the brunt of such tragedies.  Of the over 3600 officers and crew of the Hood and the Bismarck only 118 survived.

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I will continue to remember the gallant Hood, her brave crew, especially my very distant relative Midshipman Bill Dundas who I never met.  He left the Royal Navy with the rank of Lieutenant Commander in about 1960, and was killed in a car wreck in 1965. According to the Hood Association website he was troubled by the sinking for the rest of his life.  I think that I could understand as I am still troubled by my far less traumatic experience of war in Iraq.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, nazi germany, World War II at Sea

The Cautionary Tale of the Desert Fox: The Murder of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel

rommel

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It was 72 years ago in Ulm Germany that a car pulled up to the residence of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. In the car was the driver and two Generals dispatched by Hitler.  Rommel was recuperating following being severely wounded in an air attack in Normandy on July 17th 1944.

Rommel had been awarded the Pour le Merite, Imperial Germany’s highest award for valor in the First World War. He was never an official member of the Nazi Party, but like many Germans he believed Hitler’s promises and propaganda. As Hitler rose to power he like many others was carried away by early Nazi successes, the bloodless conquests of the Rhineland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and the spectacle of the Olympics.

Like most other officers he would serve the regime as it spread its dark pall over Europe, and unlike so many others when he suffered a crisis in conscience about the Nazi leadership and their policies he refused to obey orders that he knew were illegal and immoral and then risked his life by joining the conspiracy to kill Hitler.

After years of stalled promotion, Hitler’s expansion of the military allowed Rommel to be promoted, and when Germany went to war he was commander of the unit which guarded Hitler’s headquarters train when he went into Poland. Rommel received command of the 7th Panzer Division after Poland and as a division commander in France he led his troops on some of the most epic advances of the French campaign.

He was then given command of the troops sent to bail out Mussolini’s failed African adventure. His small force and always ill-supplied force, which became known as the Afrika Korps scored impressive victories against British forces. In Africa, Rommel gained fame and earned rapid promotion. Though Africa was a sideshow in the Nazi war effort, Rommel became a poster-child for Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda machine. His fame also earned the resentment of many fellow officers who because he was not an officer of the General Staff regarded him with jealous envy and distain. Even so, Rommel was a soldier’s soldier. He believed in sharing in the suffering of his troops. He once said:Be an example to your men in your duty and in private life. Never spare yourself, and let the troops see that you don’t in your endurance of fatigue and privation. Always be tactful and well-mannered, and teach your subordinates to be the same. Avoid excessive sharpness or harshness of voice, which usually indicates the man who has shortcomings of his own to hide.”

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That was until he discovered the reality of Hitler’s promises as the troops of the Afrika Corps found themselves subjected to constant privation from lack of supply, air support and reinforcements. As commander of the Afrika Corps and later the Panzer Armee Arfika he and his troops achieved amazing success against an enemy that was always better supplied and equipped and which had air and sea superiority. Battling the British as well as the political machinations of Mussolini and Germany’s Italian Allies as well as opponents in the German government such as Hermann Goering, Rommel saw his troops crushed under the press of the British as well as the Americans who landed in French North Africa. Eventually, sick and worn out, Rommel was sent back to Germany to recuperate.

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Rommel had a sense of honor and humanity that many other German generals lacked. He refused to allow anti-Jewish measures in areas occupied by German troops in North Africa, ensuring that the approximately 425,000 Jews living in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco were spared the fate of the Holocaust. He refused to execute Jewish POWs, and refused to follow the notorious “commando order.” In June of 1994 he protested the massacre of the people of the village of Oradour-sur-Glane by units of the 2nd SS Panzer Division directly to Hitler and asked for the authority to punish those responsible, but was refused.

His honest assessments of the chances of the Germans winning the war which he spoke candidly to Hitler and the High Command made him persona non grata in Berlin and Berchtesgaden. In the time before he was posted to France in late 1943 he became a part of the plot to end the war and overthrow Hitler. Rommel’s Chief of Staff at OB West, General Hans Speidel, was a key man in the conspiracy and Rommel had contacts with a number of key conspirators. He believed that the war was lost unless his forces could repel the coming Allied invasion on the beaches and worked feverishly to bolster the beach fortifications. He recommended that the Panzer Divisions be deployed near the coast where they could immediately counterattack Allied invasion forces while they were still vulnerable. But his advice was not taken. He was given command of the Army Group but was not given control of most of the Panzer Divisions, which Hitler kept under his direct control.

When the invasion came Rommel was away from Normandy visiting his wife. On learning of the invasion he sped back to Normandy. When he arrived he fought a desperate battle against the Allied forces. His outnumbered forces were under constant assault from the land, sea and air received paltry reinforcements compared to the Allies. Even so, German troops inflicted many local defeats and exacted a heavy price in allied blood in Normandy but were ground to dust. Even so, many American and British infantry regiments suffered 100% casualties but remained in action because of a continuous stream of replacements. Rommel urged Hitler and the High Command to withdraw German forces from Normandy before the allies broke through his front. By doing so he found that he was now considered a defeatist.

Rommel was severely wounded in an air attack on his vehicle by a just days before the attempt on Hitler’s life. Hitler survived the attempted assassination and exacted a terrible revenge on anyone connected with the plot. Show trials and public hangings of officers who had served valiantly at the front were common. Thousands were killed and thousands more imprisoned.

Eventually, other conspirator’s testimony exposed that Rommel was part of the plot. He was recommended by the “Court of Military Honor” to be expelled from the military and tried by the “People’s Court” of Judge Roland Freisler. During the purge that followed the attempt on Hitler’s life, many noted German military commanders were hauled before this court and humiliated by Freisler before they were sent to their deaths. Freisler, a fanatic Nazi judge has been part of the infamous Wansee Conference which planned the details of the Final Solution was killed when his courtroom was bombed in February 1945.

Because of his fame and popularity in Germany Hitler was decided to offer Rommel a choice of being tried by the People’s Court or committing suicide and ensuring his family’s safety. Hitler dispatched two generals from Berlin to personally deliver the message.

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Rommel suspected that he would be identified and killed and told that to his friends and family in the days leading up to the arrival of Generals Wilhelm Burgorf and Ernst Maisel from OKW with the ultimatum. They met with Rommel for a short time before giving him the opportunity to say goodbye to his family. Rommel told them of his choice and left his home for the last time. 15 minutes later the Generals called his wife to say that he had died of a heart attack. Rommel was given a state funeral and the German people were lied to about his cause of his death.

Winston Churchill wrote of Rommel:

“He also deserves our respect because, although a loyal German soldier, he came to hate Hitler and all his works, and took part in the conspiracy to rescue Germany by displacing the maniac and tyrant. For this, he paid the forfeit of his life. In the sombre wars of modern democracy, chivalry finds no place … Still, I do not regret or retract the tribute I paid to Rommel, unfashionable though it was judged.”

Rommel was just 52 years old when he died. I find in the story of Rommel some commonality in my own life. Before Rommel went to Africa he believed that Germany would win the war, during his command there he discovered that what he believed was lies and that Hitler had little regard for him or his troops. Before I went to Iraq in 2007 I believed much of the political propaganda promoted by the Bush administration and right wing news media and pundits about that war.

The example of Erwin Rommel is a cautionary tale of what can happen when a brilliant and honorable man comes under the spell of a demagogue. Rommel believed Hitler and blindly followed him until he ran into the hard face of reality in Africa at which point he had the moral courage to do the right thing, but many didn’t. Sadly there are otherwise honorable men and women in the current United States military who are blindly supporting a delusional madman for President, a man who promises to order soldiers to commit war crimes, who threatens to jail political opponents, who condemns whole races of people and religions, a man who has no respect for the courts, the law, or the Constitution.  Personally as a historian I cannot understand that. Thankfully I am glad that I am not one of them for I know if Donald Trump ever became President that I would become a target.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, History, leadership, Military, world war two in europe

The Unspeakable Taboo: Evil, Genocide & Human Nature

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This is the final section of the article that I have been posting over the last six days.

The material in this article that I have spread over the past six days is often troubling. At least it is to me because while I earnestly want to believe that humanity is essentially good, I cannot get around the fact that people in every clime and place throughout history often choose to either participate in, or to ignore evil committed against when it is in their own self-interest.  I can see into the darkness and I can understand it.

Joyce Carol Oates wrote, “And this is the forbidden truth, the unspeakable taboo – that evil is not always repellent but frequently attractive; that it has the power to make of us not simply victims, as nature and accident do, but active accomplices.” That is one of the things that makes the Holocaust, but even more so, the actions of those murdered millions of people up close and personal as members of the Einsatzgruppen, the Police battalions, the Romanian Army, or the locally recruited Eastern European militias.

While this of itself is troubling, the fact that many high ranking military and civilian officials in Germany, and some of their allied countries knew about it, and even if they disapproved did nothing to try to stop it. But even more damning is the fact that many other nations, including the United States knew what was happening and before the war would not accept Jewish immigrants who were being forced to leave Germany and Austria, and then during the war did little or nothing to attempt to stop the mass killings in the extermination camps. The fact is that people are people and most of the actors in this ghastly drama were much like us. That is what makes the period so troubling.

Peace

Padre Steve+

einsatzgruppen trial

Otto Ohlendorf at the Einsatzgruppen Trial

The German war against Poland and the Soviet Union was heavily dependent on the racist ideology of Adolf Hitler. He was the true spirit behind the atrocities committed by his nation as one Nazi leader noted in Russia, “Here too the Führer is the moving spirit of a radical solution in both word and deed.” 187Hitler saw the war in the East as “the chance to stamp out everything that stands against us.” 188Belief in Germany’s right to Lebensraum, was predicated on increasing the standard of living for Germans even if it meant destroying others to do it. The need for food security was one of Hitler’s biggest concerns, and he believed that need would be provided by the conquest of the Soviet Union and the exploitation of the breadbasket of the Ukraine. Hitler’s quest for unlimited natural resources to sustain his Thousand Year Reich and his belief in the racial superiority of the German Volk were combined with his belief in the necessity to settle the Jewish problem. These ideological and economic beliefs provided a fertile ground for Hitler’s followers.

But it was German military doctrine, especially its anti-partisan doctrine and plans for total warfare which allowed Hitler to realize so many of his goals. Without the Army’s support and compliance Hitler could never have succeeded. The post-war and early Cold War myth that the German military had no knowledge of and were not involved in the Holocaust committed against the Jews and others has been shattered as more and more records, correspondence, and testimony emerge.

It is now quite clear that many officers in the Wehrmacht were in agreement with Hitler’s ideology of racial war, including men who have been idolized by military historians and history buffs who marvel at their planning skills and operational precision, but ignore the uncomfortable truth that many either participated in or meekly acquiesced to Hitler’s agenda.

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Alfred Jodl

These men, like so many in Germany were products of their culture. They were immersed in cultural prejudices against Jews and Slavs. When we examine the long traditions of racist ideology, coupled with military doctrine, the “Prussian and in later German military must be regarded as a significant part of the ideological background of the Second World War.189 General Walther Von Reichenau’s orders to his troops at the beginning of Operation Barbarossa are revealing in this regard, “The most important goal of the campaign against Jewish-Bolshevism is the complete destruction of its grip on power and the elimination of the Asian influence from our European cultural sphere.” 190 Reichenau’s superior, Field Marshal Gerd Von Rundstedt appeared to agree with von Reichenau’s orders, but wanted to keep the hands of the Army clean of the actual dirty work of the mass killings. Rundstedt had no problem with the “use the partisan threat as excuse for persecuting Jews, so long as the dirty work was largely left to SS Einsatzgruppen.” 191

On the whole the Army command…on the whole acquiesced in the extermination of the Jews, or at least closed its eyes to what was happening.” 192 This is absolutely true, but that being said, and as guilty as many of the Generals were, there are factors involved that if are honest might have influenced us to make the same choices as them if we stood in their shoes. This is not an excuse, it is reality and it is borne out by history. The sad truth is that most people act in accordance with their self-interest, especially their economic well-being and social status. We accommodate evil when it serves our needs, especially if we do not actually have to do the dirty work. Their actions show the truth of Primo Levi’s comment “Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.”

Die feierliche Vereidigung der Reichswehr auf den neuen Reichspräsidenten Adolf Hitler auf dem Kasernenhof der Wachtruppe in Berlin 1934 Offiziere und Mannschaften leisten den feierlichen Eid durcherheben der rechten Hand. Die Reichswehr trägt Trauerflor für den verstorbenen Reichspräsidenten.

Officers and men of the Reichswehr take the Oath to Hitler in 1934 following the death of President Hindenburg

Had the Generals had been more forceful in their opposition, they would have most likely been opposed by the highly Nazified youth that made up the bulk of their Army, especially many of the junior officers, NCOs and enlisted men. Likewise there was the matter of their oath and this is something that many Americans do not understand. During the Kaiser Reich German officers swore an oath to the Kaiser, during Weimar that was changed to the Constitution, when Hitler took power and assumed both the Presidency and Chancellorship following the death of President von Hindenburg, the officer corps swore a new oath, that to Hitler as President and Chancellor. While many saw the danger, almost all officers took the oath, in a sense it was a throwback to the old way of doing things in the Kaiser Reich, and most officers hated the Republic. To them the oath embodied their honor, to break it was to dishonor themselves and their family. When war came it became more than that, to break the oath was considered treason. General Alfred Jodl told American Army psychologist Gustave Gilbert at Nuremberg that “In war the moral pressure of obedience and the stigma of high treason are pretty hard to get around.” 193

Jodl’s superior Keitel stated his helplessness before Hitler saying to Gilbert “What could I do? There were only 3 possibilities: (a) refusal to follow orders, which naturally meant death; (b) resign my post, or (c) commit suicide. I was on the point of resigning my post 3 times, but Hitler made it clear that he considered my resignation in time of war the same as desertion. What could I do?” 194 This was obviously an after the fact excuse by Keitel who had been present in Hitler’s headquarters since the beginning and had witnessed the explosive General Heinz Guderian explode in rage against Hitler in 1945. Following that violent outburst in which Guderian and Hitler engaged in a lengthy heated argument in which those present thought would come to blows and the enraged dictator and general shouted at each other and were held back from contact by others in the conference room. Instead of arrest or imprisonment Hitler ordered Guderian to take extended sick leave and never accosted him afterwards.

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Reinhard Heydrich

Himmler, Heydrich, Eichmann and other SS leaders fanatically executed Hitler’s policies and were aided by the civil administration, including the leaders of the Reichsbank, and the proponents of long term economic plans. Genocide was to bring the Reich “long term economic gains and trading advantages” and was seen as a way of “financing the war debt without burdening the German taxpayer.” 195

The willing participation of Army commanders is hard to get around. Otto Ohlendorf, commander of Einsatzgruppe D testified at the Einsatzgruppe Trial that Einsatzgruppen reported all of their tasks to the army commanders, and that together, they and the army agreed on the time, place, and possible support of the troops for any particular “liquidation action[s].” 196

Some individuals did attempt to resist the most brutal aspects of the Nazi campaign against the Jews, but few had the fortitude to make more than half-hearted attempts. Wilhelm Kube, the Reichskommissar for White Russia, himself a fanatical Nazi and a virulent anti-Semite was shocked at the mass murders of the Jews taking place in his region. He called them “unworthy of the German cause and damaging to the German reputation.” During his administration Kube would later attempt to spare Jews by employing skilled Jews in war industries, however, Kube’s efforts were “defeated by Himmler’s zealots.” 197

Army officers who objected to the killing of Jews, like Blaskowitz and Külcher in Poland were relieved of command or were reassigned. Others like Field Marshal Ritter von Leeb took their protests to Hitler. Such protests were readily dismissed and those who made them usually took no further action. Leeb was told by Hitler to “in so many words told to mind his own business.” Leeb later stated, “the only thing to do is to hold oneself at a distance.” 198 Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, who had burned the notorious Commando Order in front of his staff in North Africa could not bring himself to believe that Hitler was to blame. While commanding Army Group B in France Rommel heard of the crimes being committed against the Jews and others through information provided by Blaskowitz, and members of his own staff who had served in Russia. But Rommel, who became part of the plot of overthrow Hitler, was then still in the thrall of the Fuhrer and blamed the crimes “on Hitler’s subordinates, not Hitler himself.” 199

Of the men mentioned in this article who survived the war, only four, Wilhelm Keitel, Alfred Jodl, Otto Ohlendorf and Adolf Eichmann paid for their crimes with their lives Keitel and Jodl were found guilty in the major War Crimes Trials at Nuremberg. Ohlendorf at the Einsatzgruppen trial, while Eichmann was caught by the Israelis, tried, convicted and put to death in 1962. Blaskowitz committed suicide while being tried with thirteen other generals during the final Nuremberg trial, that of the generals. Of those eleven were convicted and none served out their full sentence.

keitel-jodl-hitler

Hitler with Jodl

Hitler’s ideology permeated German military campaigns and administration of the areas conquered by his armies. No branch of the German military, police or civil administration in occupied Poland or Russia was exempt guiltless in the crimes committed by the Nazi regime. It is a chilling warning of the consequences awaiting any nation that allows it to become caught up in hate-filled political, racial or even religious ideologies which dehumanizes opponents and of the tragedy that awaits them and the world. In Germany the internal and external checks that govern the moral behavior of the nation and individuals failed. Caught up in the Nazi system, the Germans, especially the police and military abandoned the norms of international law, morality and decency, banally committing crimes which still reverberate today and which were seen in the ethnic cleansing actions in the former Yugoslavia, and now throughout much of the Middle East.

In light of the fact that there is a growing food shortage in the world which will only get worse due to a factors including the global rise in population, the shrinking of the amount land which can be farmed due to climate change.  There are many other factors as well which could such a situation could bring about another Holocaust.  In such a case leaders will decide that the lands and resources of less developed people are theirs for the taking in order to maintain the standards of living of their people, and that the indigenous people who they will victimize are less than human and thus have no rights. The terminology used by them will be very neutral and full of euphemisms which will allow many people to maintain the illusion that any evil carried out is for the good. Politicians, pundits and preachers will talk of problems, and of solutions, and in trying to find a resolution yearn for a conclusive solution, a final solution.

arbiet macht frei

I return to the quote from the movie Judgment at Nuremberg which I included in the first section of this article because it is worth repeating and all too true:

“Janning, to be sure, is a tragic figure. We believe he loathed the evil he did. But compassion for the present torture of his soul must not beget forgetfulness of the torture and the death of millions by the Government of which he was a part. Janning’s record and his fate illuminate the most shattering truth that has emerged from this trial: If he and all of the other defendants had been degraded perverts, if all of the leaders of the Third Reich had been sadistic monsters and maniacs, then these events would have no more moral significance than an earthquake, or any other natural catastrophe. But this trial has shown that under a national crisis, ordinary – even able and extraordinary – men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination….”

That quote might be applied to many of the people who participated in this genocide. Sadly, the fact is that in truth we are not really all that much different than the victims, the perpetrators and the bystanders who lived and died in the Holocaust, and similarly every other act of genocide.

History serves as a guide and a warning. We must always be alert and we must always when the truly difficult times come, in the midst of crisis, not to take the easy path and denude ourselves into the commission of such crimes.

Notes

187 Ibid. Bracher. The German Dictatorship p.430

188 Ibid. Megargee War of Annihilation p.65

189 Ibid. Wette. The Wehrmacht p.293

190 Ibid. Wette. The Wehrmacht p.97

191 Messenger, Charles. The Last Prussian A Biography of Field Marshal Gerd Von Rundstedt 1875-1953 Brassey’s London, 1991 p148

192 Ibid. Bracher The German Dictatorship pp.430-431

193 Gilbert, Gustave Nuremberg Diary DaCapo Press 1995 copyright G.M. Gilbert 1947 p.290

194 Ibid. Gilbert p.26

195 Ibid. Aly and Heim Architects of Annihilation p.242

196 Ibid. Hebert p.92

197 Ibid. Padfield Himmler pp.341-342

198 Ibid. Megargee War of Annihilation p.97

199 Fraser, David. Knight’s Cross: A Life of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel Harper Perennial, New York 1995, first published by Harper Collins in Britain, 1993. p.536

Bibliography for the series

Aly, Gotz and Heim, Susanne. Architects of Annihilation: Auschwitz and the Logic of Destruction Phoenix Paperbacks, London, 2003, originally published as Vordenker der Vernichtung, Hoffman und Campe, Germany 1991, English translation by Allan Blunden. First published in Great Britain Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 2002

Arendt, Hannah, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Revised and Enlarged Edition. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, England and New York, NY 1965. Originally published by Viking Press, New York, NY 1963

Blood, Philip. Hitler’s Bandit Hunters: The SS and the Occupation of Europe. Potomoac Books Inc. Washington, DC 2008

Bracher, Karl Dietrich. The German Dictatorship: The Origins, Structure, and Effects of National Socialism. Translated by Jean Steinberg, Holt Rinehart and Winston, New York, NY 1979. Originally Published under the title Die Deutsche Diktatur: Entstehung, Struktur,Folgen des Nationalsocialismus. Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch. Koln and Berlin, 1969

Browning, Christopher R. Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. Harper Perennial Books, New York, New York 1993 reissued 1996.

Burleigh, Michael and Wippermann, Wolfgang. The Racial State: Germany 1933-1945 Cambridge University Press, New York NY and Cambridge UK 1991

Condell, Bruce and Zabecki, David T. Editors. On the German Art of War: Truppenführung , Lynn Rienner Publishers, Boulder CO and London 2001

Craig, Gordon A. The Politics of the Prussian Army 1640-1945. Oxford University Press, London and New York, 1955

Davidowicz, Lucy S. The War Against the Jews 1933-1945 Bantam Books, New York, NY 1986.

Di Nardo, Richard L. Germany and the Axis Powers: From Coalition to Collapse. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, KS. 2005

Erickson, John. The Road to Berlin. Cassel Military Paperbacks, London, 2003. First Published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1983

Evans, Richard J. The Coming of the Third Reich Penguin Books, New York 2004. First published by Allen Lane 2003

Evans, Richard J. The Third Reich in Power 1933-1939. Penguin Press, New York, NY 2005

Ferguson, Niall. The War of the Worlds: Twentieth Century Conflict and the Descent of the West.

The Penguin Press, New York, 2006

Fest, Joachim, Hitler. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, San Diego, New York, London, 1974. German Edition by Verlag Ullstein 1973

Fraser, David. Knight’s Cross: A Life of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel Harper Perennial, New York 1995, first published by Harper Collins in Britain, 1993

Friedlander, Saul Nazi Germany and the Jews 1939-1945: The Years of Extermination. Harper Perennial, New York, NY 2007

Fritz, Stephen G. Frontsoldaten: The German Soldier in World War II. The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, KY 1995

Geyer, Michael. German Strategy 1914-1945 in Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age. Peter Paret, editor. Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ. 198

Gilbert, Gustave Nuremberg Diary DaCapo Press 1995 copyright G.M. Gilbert 1947

Giziowski, Richard. The Enigma of General Blaskowitz. Hppocrene Books, New York 1997

Glantz, David M. and House, Jonathan. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, KS. 1995

Goerlitz, Walter. History of the German General Staff.” Translated by Brian Battershaw, Westview Press, Boulder and London, 1985. Originally published as Die Deutsche Generalstab Verlag der Frankfurter Hefte, Frankfurt am Main, 1953

Goerlitz, Walter. The Memiors of Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel: Chief of the German High Command 1938-1945. Translated by David Irving. Cooper Square Press 2000, First English Edition 1966 William Kimber and Company Ltd. German edition published by Musterschmnidt- Verlad, Gottigen 1961.

Hebert, Valerie Genevieve, Hitler’s Generals on Trial: The Last War Crimes Tribunal at Nuremberg University of Kansas Press, Lawrence Kansas 2010

Hitler, Adolf Mein Kampf translated by Ralph Manheim. Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, NY 1999. Houghton Mifflin Company 1943, copyright renewed 1971. Originally published in Germany by Verlag Frz. Eher Nachf. GmbH 1925

Höhne, Heinze. Canaris: Hitler’s Master Spy. Traslated by J. Maxwell Brownjohn. Cooper Square Press, New York 1999. Originally published by C. Bertelsmann Verlag Gmbh, Munich 1976, first English edition by Doubleday and Company 1979

Höhne, Heinze. The Order of the Death’s Head: The Story of Hitler’s SS. Translated by Richard Barry. Penguin Books, New York and London, 2000. First English edition published by Martin Secker and Warburg Ltd. London 1969. Originally published as Der Orden unter dem Totenkopf, Verlag Der Spiegel, Hamburg 1966.

Hughes, Daniel J. editor. Moltke on the Art of War: Selected Writings, translated by Harry Bell and Daniel J Hughes. Presidio Press, Novato CA 1993

Liddell-Hart, B.H. The German Generals Talk. Quill Publishing, New York, NY. 1979. Copyright 1948 by B.H. Liddell-Hart

Lieber, Franz Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field, prepared by Francis Lieber, LL.D., Originally Issued as General Orders No. 100, Adjutant General’s Office, 1863, Washington 1898: Government Printing Office. Retrieved from http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/lieber.asp 6 May 2014

Lindqvist, Sven Exterminate All the Brutes: One Man’s Oddessy into the Heart of Darkness and the Origins of European Genocide Translated from the Swedish by Joan Tate, The New Press , New York and London 1992

Macksey, Kenneth. Why the Germans Lose at War: The Myth of German Military Superiority. Barnes and Noble Books, New York 2006, originally published by Greenhill Books, 1996

Manstein, Erich von. Forward by B.H. Liddle Hart, Introduction by Martin Blumenson. Lost victories: The War Memoirs of Hitler’s Most Brilliant General. Zenith Press, St Paul MN 2004. First Published 1955 as Verlorene Siege, English Translation 1958 by Methuen Company

Shirer, William L. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. A Touchstone Book published by Simon and Schuster, 1981, Copyright 1959 and 1960

Megargee, Geoffrey P. War of Annihilation: Combat and Genocide on the Eastern Front 1941.Bowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc. Lanham, Boulder, New York. 2007

Messinger, Charles, The Last Prussian: A Biography of Field Marshal Gerd Von Rundstedt 1875-1953 Brassey’s (UK) London England 1991

Newton, Steven H. Hitler’s Commander: Field Marshal Walter Model-Hitler’s Favorite General

DaCapo Press a division of Perseus Books Group, Cambridge MA 2005 Novatny, Alfred. The Good Soldier. The Aberjona Press, Bedford, PA 2003 Padfield, Peter. Himmler. MJF Books, New York. 1990

Reitlinger, Gerald. The SS: Alibi of a Nation. The Viking Press, New York, 1957. Republished by Da Capo Press, New York, NY.

Rhodes, Richard. Masters of Death: The SS Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust.

Vintage Books a division of Random House, New York, NY 2002

Shepherd, Ben. War in the Wild East: The German Army and Soviet Partisans. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA 2004

Sofsky, Wolfgang. The Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp. Translated by William Templer. Princeton University Press. Princeton, NJ 1997. Originally published as Die Ordnung des Terrors: Das Konzentrationslager. S. Fischer Verlag, GmbH, Frankfurt am Main, 1993

Speer, Albert. Inside the Third Reich. Collier Books, a Division of MacMillan Publishers, Inc. New York, NY 1970.

Strachan, Hew. European Armies and the Conduct of War. George, Allen and Unwin, London, UK 1983

Stein, George H. The Waffen SS 1939-1945: Hitler’s Elite Guard at War. Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 1966

Stern, Fritz. Gold and Iron: Bismarck, Bleichroder and Building of the German Empire. Vintage Books a division of Random House, New York 1979 First published by Alfred a Knopf 1977

Sydnor, Charles W. Soldiers of Destruction: The SS Death’s Head Division, 1933-1945. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NY 1977

Taylor, Fred, Editor and Translator. The Goebbels Diaries 1939-1941, Penguin Books Ltd, Harmondsworth UK and New York NY 1984.

Tooze, Adam. The Wages of Destruction Penguin Books, New York, NY, 2008. First Published by Allen Lane Books, Penguin Group, London UK, 2006

Trevor-Roper, H.R. Hitler’s Table Talk 1941-1944 with an introduction by Gerhard L Weinberg, Translated by Norman Cameron and R.H. Stevens, Enigma Books, New York, NY 2000. Originally published in Great Britain by Weidenfeld & Nicholoson, London 1953.

Warlimont, Walter. Inside Hitler’s Headquarters 1939-45. Translated by R.H. Berry, Presido Press, Novato CA, 1964.

Weinberg, Gerhard L. Germany Hitler and World War II . Cambridge University Press, New York, NY 1995

Weinberg, Gerhard L. Ed. Hitler’s Second Book: The Unpublished Sequel to Mein Kampf by Adolph Hitler. Translated by Krista Smith, Enigma Books, New York, NY 2006. Originally published as Hitlers zweites Buch, Gerhard Weinberg editor, 1961.

Weinberg, Gerhard L. Visions of Victory: The Hopes of Eight World War II Leasers. Cambridge University Press, New York, NY 2005

Westermann, Edward B. Hitler’s Police Battalions: Enforcing Racial War in the East.

University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, KS. 2005

Wette, Wolfram. The Wehrmacht: History, Myth, Reality. Translated by Deborah Lucas Schneider. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA 2006. Originally published as Die Wehrmacht: Feindbilder, Vernichtungskreig, Legenden. S. Fischer Verlag, GmbH, Frankfurt am Main, 2002

Wheeler-Bennett, John. The Nemesis of Power: The German Army in Politics 1918-1945. St. Martin’s Press Inc. New York, NY 1954

 

 

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The Stab in the Back: The Destructive Power of Myth in the Life of a Nation

stab-in-the-back

In light of the many historical myths and conspiracy theories being floated by pseudo “historians” like the infamous David Barton it is always appropriate to look at examples of the power of those myths in the lives of nations and their influence on citizens. Some myths can be positive and inspiring, but others can lead to conspiracy theories, false accusations and the demonization of others for the purpose of inciting hatred against political, social or religious opponents. They also can be used to perpetuate false beliefs about other countries that influence policy decisions, including the decision to go to war that ultimately doom those that believe them. A good example of this is the Stab in the Back myth that began after the armistice that ended the First World War, as well as the false beliefs held by Hitler and other Nazi leaders about the United States.

There are many times in history where leaders of nations and peoples embrace myths about their history even when historical, biographical and archeological evidence points to an entirely different record.  Myths are powerful in the way that they inspire and motivate people. They can provide a cultural continuity as a people celebrates the key events and people that shaped their past, even if they are not entirely true.  At the same time myths can be dangerous when they cause leaders and people to make bad choices and actually become destructive. Such was the case in Germany following the First World War.

After the war the belief that the German Army was not defeated but was betrayed by the German people, especially those of the political left.  Like all myths there was an element of truth in the “stab in the back” myth, there were revolts against the Monarchy of Kaiser Wilhelm II and even mutiny on elements of the German High Seas Fleet and Army units stationed in Germany. However the crisis had been brought about by General Ludendorff who until the last month of the war refused to tell the truth about the gravity of Germany’s position to those in the German government.

So when everything came crashing down in late October and early November 1918 the debacle came as a surprise to most Germans.  The myth arose because the truth had not been told by Ludendorff who was arguably the most powerful figure in Germany from 1916-1918.  In the looming crisis which included Ludendorff’s collapse and relief, General Wilhelm Groener presented the facts to the Kaiser and insisted on his abdication.  The Republic that was proclaimed on the 9th of November was saddled with the defeat and endured revolution, civil war and threats from the extreme left and right.  When it signed the Treaty of Versailles it accepted the sole responsibility of Germany for the war and its damages. Ordered to dismantle its military, cede territory that had not been lost in battle and pay massive reparations the legend of the “stab in the back” gained widespread acceptance in Germany.

Hitler always believed that the defeat of Germany in the First World War was due to the efforts of internal enemies of the German Reich on the home front and not due to battlefield losses or the entry of the United States.  This was a fundamental belief for him and was expressed in his writings, speeches and actions.  The internal enemies of Germany for Hitler included the Jews, as well as the Socialists and Communists who he believed were at the heart of the collapse on the home front.  Gerhard Weinberg believes that the effect of this misguided belief on Hitler’s actions has “generally been ignored” by historians. (Germany, Hitler and World War II p. 196)

Hitler believed that those people and groups that perpetrated the “stab in the back” were “beguiled by the by the promises of President Wilson” (World in the Balance p.92) in his 14 Points.  Thus for him Americans were in part responsible for undermining the German home front, something that he would not allow to happen again.  In fact Hitler characterization of Wilson’s effect on the German people in speaking about South Tyrol.  It is representative of his belief about not only the loss of that region but the war: “South Tyrol was lost by those who, from within Germany, caused attrition at the front, and by the contamination of German thinking with the sham declarations of Woodrow Wilson.” (Hitler’s Second Book p.221)

While others will note Hitler’s lack of respect for the potential power of the United States, no other author that I am familiar with links Hitler’s actions and the reaction of the German political, military and diplomatic elites to the entry of the United States into the war to the underlying belief in the “stab in the back.”   Likewise Hitler had little regard for the military abilities or potential of the United States. Albert Speer notes that Hitler believed “the Americans had not played a very prominent role in the war of 1914-1918,” and that “they would certainly not withstand a great trial by fire, for their fighting qualities were low.” (Inside the Third Reich: Memoirs by Albert Speer p.121)

Hitler not only dismissed the capabilities of the Americans but also emphasized the distance that they were from Germany and saw no reason to fear the United States when “he anticipated major victories on the Eastern Front.” (Germany Hitler and World War II p.92)   Hitler’s attitude was reflected by the majority of the military high command and high Nazi officials. Ribbentrop believed that the Americans would be unable to wage war if it broke out “as they would never get their armies across the Atlantic.” (History of the German General Staff, Walter Goerlitz, p.408).  General Walter Warlimont notes the “ecstasy of rejoicing” found at Hitler’s headquarters after Pearl Harbor and the fact that the he and Jodl at OKW caught by surprise by Hitler’s declaration of war. (Inside Hitler’s Headquarters 1939-1945 pp.207-209) Kenneth Macksey notes Warlimont’s comments about Hitler’s beliefs; that Hitler “tended to dismiss American fighting qualities and industrial capability,” and that Hitler “regarded anyone who tried to show him such information [about growing American strength] as defeatist.” (Why the Germans Lose at War, Kenneth Macksey, p.153.)

Others like Field Marshal Erwin Rommel record the disregard of senior Nazis toward American capabilities in weaponry.  Quoting Goering who when Rommel discussed 40mm anti-aircraft guns on aircraft that were devastating his armored forces Goering replied “That’s impossible. The Americans only know how to make razor blades.” (The Rommel Papers edited by B.H. Liddell-Hart p.295) Rommel was one of the few German commanders who recognized the folly of Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States noting that “By declaring war on America, we had brought the entire American industrial potential into the service of Allied war production. We in Africa knew all about the quality of its achievements.” (The Rommel Papers p.296)

When one also takes into account the general disrespect of the German military for the fighting qualities of American soldiers though often with good reason (see Russell Weigley’s books Eisenhower’s Lieutenants and The American Way of War) one sees how the myth impacted German thought.  This is evidenced by the disparaging comments of the pre-war German military attaché to the United States; General Boeticher, on the American military, national character and capability. (See World in the Balance pp. 61-62)

The overall negative view held by many Germans in regard to the military and industrial power and potential of the United States reinforced other parts of the myth. Such false beliefs served to bolster belief in the stab-in-the back theory as certainly the Americans could not have played any important role in the German defeat save Wilson’s alleged demoralization of the German population.  This was true not only of Hitler, but by most of his retinue and the military, diplomatic and industrial leadership of the Reich. Hitler’s ultimate belief shaped by the stab-in-the back and reinforced by his racial views which held the United States to be an inferior mongrel people. This led him to disregard the impact that the United States could have in the war and ultimately influenced his decision to declare war on the United States, a decision that would be a key factor in the ultimate defeat of Germany.

Myth can have positive value, but myth which becomes toxic can and often does lead to tragic consequences. All societies have some degree of myth in relationship to their history including the United States.  The myths are not all the same, various subgroups within the society create their own myth surrounding historic events. The danger is that those myths can supplant reason in the minds of political, military, media and religious figures and lead those people into taking actions that work to their own detriment or even destruction.

It is the duty of historians, philosophers and others in the society to ensure that myth does not override reality to the point that it moves policy both domestic and foreign in a manner that is ultimately detrimental to the nation.  The lesson of history demonstrated by myths surrounding the German defeat and role of the United States in that defeat shows just how myth can drive a nation to irrational, evil and ultimately tragic actions not only for that nation and its people, but for the world.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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