Sunday, August 21, 2005

Europe Plunged Into War

In the early morning hours of Sept. 1, 1939, the German armies marched into Poland. On September 3 the British and French surprised Hitler by declaring war on Germany, but they had no plans for rendering active assistance to the Poles.
Dominance of The Axis Man for man, the German and Polish forces were an even match. Hitler committed about 1.5 million troops, and the Polish commander, Marshal Edward Smigły-Rydz (1886–1943), expected to muster 1.8 million. That was not the whole picture, however. The Germans had six panzer (armored) and four motorized divisions; the Poles had one armored and one motorized brigade and a few tank battalions. The Germans’ 1600 aircraft were mostly of the latest types. Half of the Poles’ 935 planes were obsolete. The Blitzkrieg in PolandPolish strategic doctrine called for a rigid defense of the whole frontier and anticipated several weeks of preliminary skirmishing. It was wrong on both counts. On the morning of September 1, waves of German bombers hit the railroads and hopelessly snarled the Polish mobilization. In four more days, two army groups—one on the north out of East Prussia, the other on the south out of Silesia—had broken through on relatively narrow fronts and were sending armored spearheads on fast drives toward Warsaw and Brest. This was blitzkrieg (lightning war): the use of armor, air power, and mobile infantry in a pincers movement to encircle the enemy.
Between September 8 and 10, the Germans closed in on Warsaw from the north and south, trapping the Polish forces west of the capital. On September 17, a second, deeper encirclement closed 160 km (100 mi) east, near Brest. On that day, too, the Soviet Red Army lunged across the border. By September 20, practically the whole country was in German or Soviet hands, and only isolated pockets continued to resist. The last to surrender was the fortress at Kock, on October 6. The Phony WarA French and British offensive in the west might have enabled Poland to fight longer, but until enough British arrived, it would have had to be mounted mainly by the French; French strategy, however, was defensive, based on holding the heavily fortified Maginot line. The quick finish in Poland left both sides at loose ends. Dismayed, the British and French became preoccupied with schemes to stave off a bloody replay of World War I. Hitler made a halfhearted peace offer and at the same time ordered his generals to ready an attack on the Low Countries and France. The generals, who did not think they could do against France what they had done in Poland, asked for time and insisted they could only take Holland, Belgium, and the French channel coast. Except at sea, where German submarines operated against merchant shipping and the British navy imposed a blockade, so little was going on after the first week in October that the U.S. newspapers called it the Phony War. The Soviet-Finnish War On November 30, after two months of diplomatic wrangling, the Soviet Union declared war on Finland. Stalin was bent on having a blitzkrieg of his own, but his plan faltered. The Finns, under Marshal Carl G. Mannerheim, were expert at winter warfare. The Soviet troops, on the other hand, were often badly led, in part because political purges had claimed many of the Red Army’s senior officers. Outnumbered by at least five to one, the Finns held their own and kept fighting into the new year. The attack on Finland aroused world opinion against the Soviet Union and gave an opening to the British and French. They had long had their eyes on a mine at Kiruna in northern Sweden that was Germany’s main source of iron ore. In summer the ore went through the Baltic Sea, in winter to the ice-free Norwegian port of Narvik and then through neutral Norwegian waters to Germany. The Narvik-Kiruna railroad also connected on the east with the Finnish railroads; consequently, an Anglo-French force ostensibly sent to help the Finns would automatically be in position to occupy Narvik and Kiruna. The problem was to get Norway and Sweden to cooperate, which both refused to do. In Germany, the naval chief, Adm. Erich Raeder (1876–1960), urged Hitler to occupy Norway for the sake of its open-water ports on the Atlantic, but Hitler showed little interest until late January 1940, when the weather and the discovery of some invasion plans by Belgium forced him to delay the attack on the Low Countries and France indefinitely. The first studies he had made showed that Norway could best be taken by simultaneous landings at eight port cities from Narvik to Oslo. Because the troops would have to be transported on warships and because those would be easy prey for the British navy, the operation would have to be executed while the nights were long. Denmark, which posed no military problems, could be usefully included because it had airfields close to Norway. Denmark and NorwayStalin, fearing outside intervention, ended his war on March 8 on terms that cost Finland territory but left it independent. The British and French then had to find another pretext for their projected action in Narvik and Kiruna; they decided to lay mines just outside the Narvik harbor. This they thought would provoke some kind of violent German reaction, which would let them spring to Norway’s side—and into Narvik. Hitler approved the incursions into Norway and Denmark on April 2, and the warships sailed on April 7. A British task force laid the mines the next morning and headed home, passing the German ships without seeing them and leaving them to make the landings unopposed on the morning of April 9. Denmark surrendered at once, and the landings succeeded everywhere but at Oslo. There a fort blocked the approach from the sea, and fog prevented an airborne landing. The Germans occupied Oslo by noon, but in the meantime, the Norwegian government, deciding to fight, had moved to Elverum. Although the Norwegians, aided by 12,000 British and French, held out in the area between Oslo and Trondheim until May 3, the conclusion was never in doubt. Narvik was different. There 4600 Germans faced 24,600 British, French, and Norwegians backed by the guns of the British navy. The Germans had an advantage in the ruggedness of the terrain and a greater one in their opponents’ slow, methodical moves. Thus, they held Narvik until May 28. In the first week of June they were backed against the Swedish border and close to having to choose surrender or internment, but by then, military disasters in France were forcing the British and French to recall their troops from Narvik. The Low CountriesBy spring, Hitler had found a new and better way of handling the campaign against France and the Low Countries. The first plan had been to have the main force go through Belgium, as it had in World War I. Gen. Erich von Manstein (1887–1973) and some other advisers, however, had persuaded Hitler to shift the main force south to the area of Luxembourg and the Ardennes Forest. The Ardennes was hilly, wooded, and not the best country for tanks, but Manstein argued that the enemy would not expect a big attack there. The tanks could make a fast northwestward sweep from the Ardennes, behind the Belgians and British and part of the French. After reaching the coast and defeating the enemy in Belgium, they could make an about-face and strike to the southeast behind the French armies along the Maginot line. When the attack began, on May 10, 1940, the two sides were approximately equal in numbers of troops and tanks; the Germans were superior in aircraft. The decisive advantage of the Germans, however, was that they knew exactly what they were going to do. Their opponents had to improvise, in part because the Belgians and Dutch tried to stay neutral to the last. The British and French, moreover, had failed to learn from the example of Poland, having attributed that country’s defeat to its inherent weakness. Consequently, they were not prepared to deal with the German armor. Their tanks were scattered among the infantry; those of the Germans were drawn together in a panzer group, an armored army. On May 10 German airborne troops landed inside Belgium and Holland to seize airfields and bridges and, most notably, the great Belgian fortress Eben-Emael. The Dutch army surrendered on May 14, several hours after bombers had destroyed the business section of Rotterdam. Also on May 14 the German main force, the panzer group in the lead, came out of the Ardennes to begin the drive to the sea behind the British and French armies supporting the Belgians.


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