Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The USA's Biggest Error of World War II

A Useless Objective Taken at Great Cost

The invasion of Iwo Jima was a mistake

"Well, this will be easy. The Japanese will surrender Iwo Jima without a fight." – Admiral Chester W. Nimitz.

Every side makes errors in war. There is no perfect strategy. The basic rule (Clausewitz, I think) is that no plan survives contact with the enemy. But, sometimes you just make boneheaded decisions for all the wrong reasons. The United States won the war and easily benefited the most from the conflict, but it made some real doozies.

The invasion of Iwo Jima was a mistake

There are a lot of candidates for the worst error by the United States. One could point to Operation Avalanche (the invasion of Anzio), the invasion of Peleliu, and pretty much everything that the United States did in the Philippines (a cataclysm of errors). These all involved mistakes, and each of them in its entirety could be called a mistake.

One of these errors was Operation Detachment, the invasion of Iwo Jima.

The invasion of Iwo Jima was a mistake
A female nurse on Iwo Jima. This was a novelty in a war zone, women were not allowed in operational areas before Iwo Jima. Whenever someone says, "Why sure, that victory was worth any price," compare it to scenes like this and really think about whether the benefits were worth the cost.
The United States was well on the road to victory in the Pacific by late 1944. General MacArthur was grinding up slowly from the southwest while Admiral Nimitz was performing his classic “island-hopping” strategy. Everything looked great.

However, sometimes it is when things look a little too good that you develop a muscle-bound condition and do stupid things just because you can.

The invasion of Iwo Jima was a mistake
The massive US invasion fleet off Iwo Jima proved of little value against the dug-in defenders - and was itself a tempting target.
Iwo Jima looked like a simple project. It seemed useful to take, being a relatively short three-hour flight to Japan (half the distance from the main US Army Air Force airbase recently established at Tinian). Its capture certainly would hurt Japanese morale. Since Iwo Jima was close to Japan and might have been useful for Operation Downfall, the proposed invasion of Japan, Admiral Nimitz and his cronies made the decision to take it.

That was a mistake.

The invasion of Iwo Jima was a mistake
The landing plan involved putting men ashore right below the mountain that dominates the island at the extreme left.
Iwo Jima looked useful on the map, but it was a terrible objective. It has no natural harbors and, at the time, it had only three small airfields. However, Japanese morale on the island was considered low and it looked easy to take, given a flat section of the island with only one mountain at the end. Since Nimitz had the ships and men available, the invasion proceeded on 19 February 1945. The Navy spotted no defenses on the beach and so only a light bombardment was ordered before the landing craft set off.

What followed was not a disaster for the Americans. The island was duly captured. The history books don’t really make a big deal about Iwo Jima aside from the famous photograph of the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi. So, chalk up another win and let’s go hit the bars!

The invasion of Iwo Jima was a mistake
The Japanese were firing down on these men from above. That is not a good position to be in.
However, Iwo Jima turned into a hellacious battle. The Japanese had an energetic commander, Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, who raised morale. Kuribayashi built up his positions on the mountain, which was handy because the Americans landed directly below it on beaches with virtually no cover of any kind. The natural caves on the mountain were perfect for hiding artillery that aerial spotting did not locate. Iwo Jima turned into a giant trap.

The invasion of Iwo Jima was a mistake
A kamikaze plane struck the USS Saratoga, shown, off Iwo Jima and caused extensive damage.
The Japanese fought fanatically, which was typical. The fact that the island was a relatively short flight from Japan turned into a liability when Japanese kamikaze planes sank escort carrier USS Bismarck Sea, damaged fleet carrier USS Saratoga (CV-3), and damaged escort carrier USS Lunga Point, along with some smaller vessels. On the Saratoga alone, there were 123 dead or missing crewmen as well as 192 wounded. Thirty-six of her aircraft were destroyed. Sure, the US Navy had a lot of carriers by 1945 - that doesn't mean successful attacks on them were just pesky details.

The Japanese on Iwo Jima were determined. They dug in on both ends of the island and required huge expenditures of effort to dislodge. The scenes became eerily reminiscent of World War I.

The invasion of Iwo Jima was a mistake
Artillery fire rained down from both sides and the troops had no cover. The scenes were reminiscent of World War II trench warfare.
The US lost 26,040 total casualties including 6,821 killed in the capture of Iwo Jima. The Japanese lost about 18,000 men. For what? For a useless island in the middle of the ocean of no great value to anyone.

Say... that's kind of a lot of lives for an emergency airstrip, no?

Iwo Jima was useful for some heroic propaganda photographs, but that was about its only use. The USAAF kept its major bomber base on Tinian (others were on Guam and Saipan) - Iwo Jima was used only occasionally as an emergency landing field for crippled bombers.

The invasion of Iwo Jima was a mistake

As stated above, the United States won the battle of Iwo Jima. Yay team! But every battle involves a cost-benefit analysis, even if it isn't always analyzed that way. The grunts, the guys struggling up the beach, don't have a say on where they go and what they are subjected to. That is a decision made by people in full possession of the relevant information. They need to make decisions in the best interests of everyone, not just their own careers and the empty glory of "victories" that produce no real benefit to the cause.

The invasion of Iwo Jima was a mistake

I do not want to make it sound as if what I'm writing in this article is the "accepted view." In fact, the accepted view is that Iwo Jima was a glorious victory that "saved countless lives." There are pictures! There are statues! It was a glorious victory! Well, to that I respond, Iwo Jima also cost countless lives. It was a victory of taking some worthless ground that meant nothing to the outcome of the war from some defenders who didn't really pose a threat. And the "countless lives saved" actually wasn't that many - though, of course, it was important to the men whose lives were saved. Nobody is arguing that the Japanese should have won the battle or won the war, that is nonsense. The point is that Iwo Jima was a worthless battle that was not worth the cost.

The invasion of Iwo Jima was a mistake
A grunt on Iwo Jima, just trying to survive.
I do not expect everyone to agree with me about Iwo Jima. But maybe it will cause even the skeptics to at least ponder the true value of operations versus their cost.

The invasion of Iwo Jima was a mistake
"Hey, Joe, we're in the middle of a glorious victory! Joe? Joe?"
There are a lot of ways to make mistakes in a war - some lose wars, some lose battles, some just show stupidity - but worthless objectives that consume thousands of lives are among the worst. A lot of good men did not return home - for nothing. All by underestimating the enemy and pursuing a flawed strategy.

I talk more about the details of the battle of Iwo Jima here.

The invasion of Iwo Jima was a mistake
The glorious culmination of Operation Detachment.


Sunday, January 19, 2020

Major U-boat Victories of World War II

Admiral Doenitz's U-boat Fleet Scored Some Dramatic Victories

Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal after being torpedoed on 13 November 1941
Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal after being torpedoed about 30 nautical miles east of Gibraltar on 13 November 1941 (colorized).
The U-boat menace lasted throughout World War II. The Kriegsmarine scored a lot of dramatic victories, some of which haven’t received a lot of publicity. Here are some major successes of the U-boat campaign.

Royal Navy battleship HMS Royal Oak
A representation of HMS Royal Oak after being sunk by U-47 on 14 October 1939.

Top Single Ship Sinkings by U-boats

On 14 October 1939, U-47, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Günther Prien, sank Royal Navy battleship Royal Oak after a daring entry into Scapa Flow. From the German perspective, this was probably the single greatest victory of the entire U-boat campaign because it served as a real morale boost to the entire Reich. An interesting aspect of this success is that Prien actually may have destroyed two old battleships, but one loss apparently was covered up by the British. This sinking caused a scandal in the UK because of the large number of teenagers who perished, leading to some service reforms.

USS Navy destroyer USS Reuben James after being torpedoed
USS Reuben James sinking after being torpedoed by U-552.
On 31 October 1941, U-552, commanded by Erich Topp, sank US Navy destroyer USS Reuben James. On 17 October 1941, U-568 (Kptlt. Joachim Preuss) badly damaged USS Kearny, which was guarding Convoy SC-8 (nine ships lost). While these attacks were relatively minor in terms of tonnage lost and men killed, they almost led to war between the United States and the Reich. Hitler had a deep hatred of President Franklin Roosevelt and the United States because of their illegal (as he saw it) support of the United Kingdom, so these attacks greatly pleased him.

Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal after being torpedoed on 13 November 1941
"[This photo was taken] From onboard HMS LEGION, the destroyer that took off the survivors, showing some of the last to leave ARK ROYAL." 13 November 1941 (© IWM (A 6315)).
U-81 (Kptlt. Friedrich Guggenberger) torpedoed Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal on 13 November 1941. It rolled over and sank on 14 November 1941. Ark Royal was often called a "lucky ship," and it proved that nickname correct when only one man of the crew of 1488 perished.

Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Courageous after being torpedoed on 17 September 1939
British aircraft carrier HMS COURAGEOUS sinking after being torpedoed by U-29 off the southwest coast of Ireland on 17 September 1939. 518 men were lost, as were all Fairey Swordfish aircraft of 811 and 822 Naval Air Squadrons.
On 17 September 1939, U-29 (Kptlt. Otto Schuhart) torpedoed and sank the aircraft carrier HMS Courageous (Capt W.T. Makeig-Jones, RN) about 350 miles west of Lands End, England. Struck by two torpedoes, Courageous sank within 17 minutes. While about 515 men perished in this sinking, the sinking did not receive a lot of publicity because it happened on the same day that the Soviets invaded Poland. The British were not eager to publicize these types of losses in any event and actively worked to suppress news about some of them in the media.

View from a U-boat

There were a lot of convoy battles, too many to list here. Probably the most successful for the Germans was the attack on PQ-17, an Arctic convoy. The threat was so bad that the PQ-17 convoy was ordered to scatter, which was very unusual and considered a move of last resort. It also was, at least in the opinion of many historians and some Royal Navy officers guarding the convoy, a mistake. However, the order came straight from the First Sea Lord Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound and could not be disobeyed.

U-boat using a Focke-Achgelis Fa 330 manned rotor kite
A U-boat crew using a Focke-Achgelis Fa 330 manned rotor kite (towed, no engine) being used for observation purposes in the Indian Ocean.
The Allies lost 24 merchant ships sunk and 153 merchant mariners killed in PQ-17, while the Luftwaffe lost only five planes and no submarines. The tide turned quickly against the U-boat fleet, however, when they lost four U-boats attacking the next Arctic convoy, PQ-18 in September 1942 while sinking 13 freighters. However, the menace remained and even 13 ships were a lot: the Allies canceled the next Arctic convoy, PQ-19, which was a positive for the Reich and irked Stalin.

Top U-boat Achievements Against Individual Convoys

U-boat Captain Trojer
Oblt. Hans-Hartwig Trojer.
The most devastating attack by a single U-boat was by U-221 under the command of Oblt. Hans-Hartwig Trojer. On its very first patrol out of Kristiansand, U-221 sank an astonishing 15 ships from Convoy SC-104 during October 1942. On 13 October 1942, U-221 sank three ships, and on 14 October 1942, it sank an additional dozen ships. Total tonnage sunk by U-221 against this convoy was 30,440 tons, which actually was not an extraordinarily large tonnage for a successful U-boat attack against a convoy (it was exceeded six times). That leads to an explanation of this attack. The "ships sunk" total is vastly inflated because ten of the vessels sunk (759 tons altogether) were actually landing craft being transported on other ships. Thus, Trojer only actually torpedoed and "sank" five ships. That's a lot of ships, but far fewer than 15. Still, while the sunken ship total merits an asterisk, that was a tremendous contribution to the Axis war effort anyway. One must ascribe this feat to talent and perhaps a bit to "beginner's luck."

U-boat Captain Joachim Schepke
Kapitänleutnant Joachim Schepke returns to port aboard U-100. While U-boat crews generally exhibited the highest military discipline, shaving was not feasible on long journeys. Thus, crewmen were allowed to break military protocol and grow beards.
Another devastating single attack by a U-boat on a single convoy was by U-100 under the command of Joachim Schepke. He sank a total of seven ships against Convoy HX-72 in the fall of 1940, three on 21 September 1940 and the rest on 22 September 1940. Many people would probably consider this feat more outstanding than Trojer's sinking five ships carrying a bunch of landing craft, but you can draw your own conclusions. Schepke's total tonnage sunk during his attacks on HX-72 set a record of 50,340 tons. U-99 under the command of Kptlt. Otto Kretschmer sank two ships of the same convoy and received partial credit for the sinking of a third. There were several early-war convoys that suffered similarly, but with the victories spread out a bit more.

U-boat Captain Werner Henke
Werner Henke (left) on board U-515, writing in the war diary (KTB).
Schepke's record of seven ships sunk was tied by Kptlt. Werner Henke during attacks on Convoy TS-37 two and a half years later (30 April - 1 May 1943). During these attacks, Henke sunk 43,255 tons of shipping, just under Schepke's record. Henke's brilliant performance turned out to be the last great single success by any U-boat. The highest single total after Henke's performance was three ships sunk by Oblt. Alfred Eick in U-510 against Convoy PA-69 on 22 February 1944. The reduced success of the U-boats as time went on reflected the increased effectiveness of Allied convoy operations and escorts, technological innovations, and growing Allied supremacy on the ocean surface.

U-boat Captain Otto Kretschmer
Otto Kretschmer in November 1940 (Federal Archives Figure 183-L16644).
Kptlt. (later Admiral) Otto Kretschmer in U-99 deserves special mention for sinking multiple ships in the same convoy the most times (he did this at least five times). Kretchmer was perhaps the greatest threat to convoys during World War II. In addition to the ships mentioned above from HX-72, Kretschmer sank six ships from Convoy SC-7 (18 October 1940 - 19 October 1940), five ships from Convoy HX-112 (16 March 1941), two ships in Convoy OB-293 (7 March 1941), and two ships of Convoy HX-90 (2 December 1940 - 3 December 1940). All told, Kretschmer sank 47 Allied ships for a total of 274,333 tons. Incidentally, Kretschmer survived the war and passed away in 1998.

The era of convoy destruction was over by May 1943, when the U-boat menace was considered defeated. However. as shown by Oblt. Alfred Eick's success in 1944, U-boats continued to score scattered victories for the remainder of the war.

Another U-boat victim goes down


Saturday, January 18, 2020

Hitler's Two Letters to Stalin

Hitler's Classic Deception and Misdirection

Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler.
During the period between the 18 December 1940 directive authorizing the invasion of the Soviet Union, code name Operation Barbarossa, and the actual invasion on 22 June 1941, Adolf Hitler sent Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin two letters. They are of great historical interest for a variety of reasons. Their contents are shown below.

The most important thing to know about these two letters is that they appear to be genuine. They were hidden in Soviet and Russian government archives for decades. However, they exist in official government files. Marshal Georgy Zhukov, in an interview conducted in 1965-66, recalled discussing the first of the two letters with Stalin in January 1941. So, they are not recent forgeries and there is a verification of their authenticity. However, the originals remain in restricted Russian files and are not independently verified.

The second most important thing to understand is that these letters is that, while containing a veneer of truth and believable on their face by Stalin, they constitute classic disinformation and deception. They are not truthful letters. They should not be taken at face value in the sense of showing what Hitler actually thought or intended to do.

Instead, the two letters are full of falsehoods, phony reasoning, and misdirection. That obviously was the intent behind them. Hitler wanted to mislead Stalin about his intentions. From the results, Hitler was successful (though some might dispute that and assume that Stalin was playing his own game).

These two letters are reproduced in Murphy, David E., What Stalin Knew: The Enigma of Barbarossa. New Haven, CT; London: Yale University Press, 2005 (hardcover, ISBN 0-300-10780-3); 2006 (paperback, ISBN 0-300-11981-X).

Adolf Hitler

Hitler's First Letter to Stalin

December 31, 1940

Dear Mr. Stalin,

I am using the occasion of sending New Year’s greetings and my wishes for success and prosperity to you and the people of Soviet Russia to discuss a series of questions that were raised in my conversations with Mr. Molotov and Mr. Dekanozov.

The struggle with England has entered a decisive phase, and I intend not later than the summer of the coming year to put an end to this rather drawn-out question by seizing and occupying the heart of the British Empire—the British Isles. I am aware of the difficulty of this operation but believe that it can be carried out, for I see no other way of ending this war.

As I wrote to you earlier, the approximately seventy divisions that I must keep in the Government General are undergoing reorganization and training in an area inaccessible to English aviation and intelligence. I understood from my discussions with Messrs. Molotov and Dekanozov that this has aroused in you understandable anxiety. Beginning in approximately March, these troops will be moved to the Channel and the western coast of Norway, and in their place, new units will be assembled for accelerated training. I wanted to warn you of this in advance.

In addition, I intend to use these troops to force the English out of Greece, and for this, it will be necessary to move them through Romania and Bulgaria. Those troops that will carry out the invasion of England from Norwegian territory will continue to utilize transit rights through Finland. Germany has no interests in Finland or Bulgaria, and as soon as we achieve our goals in this war, I will immediately withdraw my troops. . . . 

I especially want to warn you of the following. The agony of England is accompanied by feverish efforts to save it from its inevitable fate. For this purpose, they are fabricating all possible foolish rumors, the most important of which can be crudely divided into two categories. These are rumors of planned invasions by the USSR into Germany and by Germany against the USSR. I do not wish to dwell on the absurdity of such nonsense. However, on the basis of information in my possession, I predict that as our invasion of the [British] Isles draws closer, the intensity of such rumors will increase and fabricated documents will perhaps be added to them. 

I will be completely open to you. Some of these rumors are being circulated by appropriate German offices. The success of our invasion of the Isles depends very much on the achievement of tactical surprise. Therefore, it is useful to keep Churchill and his circles in ignorance of our precise plans.

A worsening of the relations between our countries to include armed conflict is the only way for the English to save themselves, and I assure you that they will continue efforts in this direction with their characteristic slyness and craftiness. . . .

For a final solution of what to do with this bankrupt English legacy, and also for the consolidation of the union of socialist countries and the establishment of new world order, I would like very much to meet personally with you. I have spoken about this with Messrs. Molotov and Dekanozov.

Unfortunately, as you will well understand, an exceptional workload prevents me from arranging our meeting until the smashing of England. Therefore, I propose to plan for this meeting at the end of June–beginning of July 1941 and would be happy if this meets with your agreement and understanding.

Sincerely yours, 

Adolf Hitler

Marshal Zhukov
Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov verified the existence of the 31 December 1940 letter from Adolf Hitler to Joseph Stalin.
Marshal Zhukov said that Stalin had told him in January 1941 that this letter from Hitler was in response to an earlier letter from Stalin (not yet disclosed) inquiring as to the reason for German troop transfers to Poland which seemed to be a hostile act directed at the USSR. This Hitler letter evidently was intended to allay those fears and explain their supposed purpose.

There are several things to note about this 31 December 1941 letter from Hitler to Stalin. For one, the "conversations with Mr. Molotov and Mr. Dekanozov" that he references took place in Berlin during early November 1940. Those discussions did not go well and no agreement was reached at them. The Germans made proposals about a "new world order" that would divide the world between the Axis powers (which at that point purportedly included the Soviet Union, though it was not a signatory to the actual Tripartite Pace). The Soviets responded with drastically different counterproposals. At the time of this letter, Stalin was still expecting a response to those counterproposals but did not receive one here.

Another interesting aspect is Hitler's assertion that he intended to invade "the British Isles." He had no such intent and already had suspended Operation Sea Lion, the projected invasion of England.

A third interesting aspect is Hitler's deliberate lie that he had sent "approximately seventy divisions" to Poland for "reorganization and training" and to keep them away from "English aviation and intelligence." While those reasons had a veneer of truthfulness, the real reason for the Germans' continuing troop transfers to the East was to prepare for Operation Barbarossa.

Joseph Stalin
Joseph Stalin.
The most chilling aspect of this letter is that Hitler uses the phrase "final solution" regarding "what to do with this bankrupt English legacy." His reference to "a new world order" is exactly the phrase that he and Foreign Minister Joachim Ribbentrop had used during their discussions with Molotov in November 1940. This was a subtle indication that Hitler was not changing those ideas despite the Soviet counterproposals which envisaged no such new world order. This could have served as a warning to Stalin, but evidently did not.

While Hitler likely did not write these letters himself, and they were either the product of German intelligence services or the Foreign Ministry, he certainly had to sign and approve them. So, they reflect the thoughts that Hitler wished to convey while he built up the Wehrmacht for Operation Barbarossa.

Rudolf Hess preparing for his 10 May 1941 flight
Rudolf Hess prepares for his flight to England on 10 May 1941.

Hitler's Second Letter to Stalin

Below is Hitler's second letter to Joseph Stalin.

May 14, 1941

Dear Mr. Stalin,

I am writing this letter at the moment of having finally concluded that it will be impossible to achieve lasting peace in Europe, not for us, not for future generations, without the final shattering of England and her destruction as a state. As you well know, I long ago made the decision to carry out a series of military measures to achieve this goal.

The closer the hour of a decisive battle, however, the larger the number of problems I face. For the mass of the German people, no war is popular, especially not a war against England, because the German people consider the English a fraternal people and war between them a tragic event. I will not conceal that I have felt the same way and have several times offered England humane peace terms, taking into consideration England’s military situation. However, insulting replies to my peace proposals and the continuing expansion by the English of the field of military operations with the obvious intention of drawing the entire world into war persuade me that there is no other way out of this situation except for an invasion of the Isles and the decisive destruction of that country.

English intelligence, however, has very cleverly begun to use the concept of ‘‘fraternal peoples’’ for its own purposes, applying it to its own propaganda, not without success.

Consequently, opposition to my decision to invade the Isles has drawn in many elements of German society, including individual members of the higher levels of state and military leadership. You are certainly aware that one of my deputies, Mr. Hess, in a fit of insanity, I suppose, flew to London, taking this unbelievable action, to the best of my knowledge, to awaken the English to common sense. Judging by the information in my possession, similar moods have struck several generals of my army, particularly those who have distinguished relatives in England descending from the same ancient, noble roots.

In this connection, a special warning is raised by the following circumstance. In order to organize troops for the invasion away from the eyes of the English opponent, and in connection with the recent operations in the Balkans, a large number of my troops, about eighty divisions, are located on the borders of the Soviet Union. This possibly gave rise to the rumors now circulating of a likely military conflict between us.

I assure you, on my honor as a chief of state that this is not the case.

From my side, I also react with understanding to the fact that you cannot completely ignore these rumors and have also deployed a sufficient number of your troops on the border. 

In this situation I cannot completely exclude the possibility of an accidental outbreak of armed conflict, which given the conditions created by such a concentration of troops might take on very large dimensions, making it difficult if not impossible to determine what caused it in the first place.

I want to be absolutely candid with you.

I fear that some of my generals might deliberately embark on such a conflict in order to save England from its fate and spoil my plans.

It is a question of no more than a month.

By approximately June 15–20 I plan to begin a massive transfer of troops to the west from your borders.

In connection with this, I ask you, as persuasively as possible, not to give in to any provocations that might emanate from those of my generals who might have forgotten their duty. And, it goes without saying, try not to give them any cause. If it becomes impossible to avoid provocation by some of my generals, I ask you to show restraint, to not respond but to advise me immediately of what has happened through the channel known to you. Only in this way can we attain our mutual goals, on which, it seems to me, we are clearly in agreement.

I thank you for having agreed with me on the question known to you and I ask you to forgive me for the method I have chosen for delivering this letter to you as quickly as possible.

I continue to hope for our meeting in July.

Sincerely yours, 

Adolf Hitler

Wreckage of the Rudolf Hess plane
British soldiers examine the wreckage of the plane flown by Rudolf Hess on 10 May 1941.
This second letter by Hitler to Stalin appears in many ways to be a rehash of the first. Once again, Hitler vows to invade the British Isles. However, the tone has changed. Rather than simply assert that the British must be crushed, Hitler gives a list of reasons.

These reasons include British rejection of Hitler's peace offers (which already had been done prior to the first letter), heightened British military resistance (the war in North Africa was proving more difficult than anticipated), and the looming presence of the United States ("the obvious intention of drawing the entire world into war.").

In addition, Hitler crafts an entire phony argument about supposed internal opposition to an invasion of England. This was the result of "English intelligence" that had "drawn in many elements of German society." Hitler would have known that Stalin understood internal opposition and appears to have been trying to create a bond with the Soviet leader.

Hitler tries to turn the recent flight by Rudolf Hess to England into a positive effort to "awaken the English to common sense." The Hess flight, in fact, likely was the reason for this letter. There were strong suspicions at the time that Hess had embarked on an official mission. Stalin was always suspicious about the "Imperialist powers," and Hitler perhaps figured that he had better nip any suspicions that Stalin had about the Hess flight in the bud.

Hitler is very crafty when he suggests that there might be an "accidental outbreak of armed conflict" between the Reich and the Soviet Union. This might delay Stalin's reaction to the actual invasion. The date that Hitler gives of "June 15-20" for the supposed troop transfers west for the invasion of England suggests that, by the date of this letter, Hitler had a very good idea that Operation Barbarossa would commence around that time.

The final line, "I continue to hope for our meeting in July," probably provoked quite a bit of laughter in the Berlin Chancellery. Hitler no doubt did wish to see Stalin in July - imprisoned in a steel cage.


Friday, January 17, 2020

Was Stalin Planning to Attack Germany?

There Was A Plan...

Joseph Stalin.
One of the lingering controversies of World War II is whether Joseph Stalin was planning to attack Adolf Hitler's Reich when Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, began. This is a highly political question for some people and a matter of great national interest in several countries. There is an answer, but it gives ammunition to both sides of the controversy. Let's look at whether Stalin was planning to invade Germany in 1941.

Let me give you the short and dirty answer to that question right here: Yes. The backup to that answer is below.

What Stalin knew about Hitler's invasion plans and what he himself planned are interrelated, so let's go through both for clarity.

Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler had plans for the Soviet Union. Big plans. Big.

What Stalin Knew About German Intentions Pre-Barbarossa

Adolf Hitler issued his directive for Operation Barbarossa on 18 December 1940. While the details of the directive changed over time, it remained in effect until the invasion on 22 June 1941. While one would think that having a written document stating his intentions would be helpful to spies telling Stalin what was going to happen, it actually undermined some of their attempts to warn him.

The reason the Barbarossa directive undermined warnings is that it specified a target invasion date of 15 May 1941. This changed during the spring, however, as the Wehrmacht worked up its actual invasion plans. The fact that it was pushed back to mid-June, though, was not put in the directive, which remained unaltered. Thus, spies who knew about the Barbarossa directive and warned Stalin that an invasion was coming on or about 15 May were discredited when Soviet intelligence services gave information showing that date was wrong. Of course, the date came and went with no invasion, further undermining warnings.

Directive for Operation Barbarossa
An original typewritten copy of Othe directive for Operation Barbarossa. Only about a dozen of these were prepared and circulated to top generals.
The Soviets had a host of extremely credible parties giving it warnings. Let's go through them to see what Stalin was working with during the spring of 1941. These are not in chronological order but in a rough approximation of reliability.

The British were reading German codes, but they could not disclose the source of their knowledge in order to maintain the security of their Ultra decoding operation. Thus, while Churchill issued a direct warning about German troop movements in Poland to Stalin via Sir Stafford Cripps, who was in Moscow, they could not show why this information was accurate. Churchill sends a memo to Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden on 18 April 1941 asking, asking, "Has Sir Stafford Cripps yet delivered my personal message of warning about the German danger to Stalin?" The answer is yes, but Stalin does not believe the British. Cripps later returns to London on 11 June 1941, which Stalin notices. This, along with similar incidents such as the German ambassador sending his dog home to Germany around this time sets him to wondering whether these war warnings might be true after all.

Hitler with Japanese Ambassador Oshima
Adolf Hitler with Baron Hiroshi Ōshima, the Japanese ambassador to Berlin.
On 4 June 1941, the British intercept a message from Japanese Ambassador Ōshima to Tokyo concerning a meeting held with Adolf Hitler the previous day. Hitler, Oshima cables, had told him about the plans for Operation Barbarossa. The British have broken the Japanese diplomatic codes, but British intelligence did not forward the coded translation to The Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) for decoding until the 12th.

The United States officially warned Stalin, too. Under-Secretary of State Sumner Welles passed along information in his possession about a coming attack on the Soviet Union on 1 March 1941. On 15 April 1941, United States Ambassador Laurence Steinhardt followed up that warning with a reiteration of the Welles warning. Stalin ignored these warnings, too.

Richard Sorge
Richard Sorge (Federal Archive Picture 183-1985-1003-020).
Beginning in late 1940, Soviet sleeper spy Richard Sorge (code name Ramsay) began sending warnings of an attack from his post in Japan. These continue throughout the spring right up to the actual invasion, with increasing specificity. Sorge follows this up with a warning on 6 May 1941 that states:
Possibility of outbreak of war at any moment is very high…. German generals estimate the Red Army’s fighting capacity is so low…[it] will be destroyed in the course of a few weeks.
Stalin, however, has a very low opinion of Sorge. He refers to Sorge as a "procurer of women" and worse and disregards these warnings. However, they are quite accurate and come straight from Sorge's sources within the German embassy in Tokyo.

The Sorge warnings were of such concern to some that Stalin addressed them at a 21 May 1941 Central Committee War Section meeting in the Kremlin. Incredibly, Air force General Proskurov, former head of Soviet military intelligence who had been replaced by sycophant General Filipp I. Golikov, spoke up and told Stalin he was wrong and that the Germans were about to attack. Proskurov was arrested after the invasion along with many other generals, perhaps for this breach of etiquette. Proskurov was shot in October 1941.

Sorge, meanwhile, sent further warnings on 30 May and 1 June with details about German strength that Stalin also disregarded. The 1 June warning set 15 June as the invasion date. Sorge further states that German Lt. Colonel Edwin Scholl has told him that the Germans had massed 170-190 divisions along the Soviet border. Stalin is furious at Sorge's continuing to send warnings. He has the latter Sorge transmission marked "suspicious and provocative." The message then is filed.

Spy Rudolf von Scheliha
Rudolf von Scheliha aka "Ariets."
On 28 February 1941, Soviet agent Rudolf von Scheliha (code name Ariets) issued a warning. Von Scheliha was a German diplomat who became radicalized by the horrors he witnessed in late 1939 while serving with the German Embassy in Warsaw. He was a leading member of the "Red Orchestra," a group of highly placed German dissidents who funneled military information to the Soviets via Switzerland. Stalin ignored this warning.

A spy ring centered in Prague (the mysterious "Lucy" ring) reported on or about 5 April 1941 that the invasion would begin on 15 May. The fact that this was Hitler's original intention as set forth in his 18 December 1940 Fuhrer Directive suggests that the Lucy ring had highly placed sources within the Wehrmacht. By now, however, Operation Marita in the Balkans was the top German priority and Operation Barbarossa was postponed past the original date. The Lucy ring followed this up with another warning on 23 April.

Karl Bömer with WIlliam Randolph Hearst
Karl Bömer is the second from the right (in German uniform) in this press photo featuring William Randolph Hearst.
At a diplomatic reception in the Bulgarian Embassy in Berlin on 13 May 1941, Professor Karl Bömer, head of the Foreign Press Department of the NSDAP, gets drunk and commits a major security breach. He states in a drunken stupor to diplomats and journalists that he was in line to be promoted to Gauleiter of Crimea. Considering that Crimea was well within Soviet territory, this comment draws a lot of attention. Bömer quickly was brought up on charges and sentenced by the People's Court for "negligent treason" to three years in prison. Bömer later was sent to the army to serve in Russia, where he perished in 1942.

The Soviets had one unquestionably reliable source that things were going wrong. Trade between the USSR and Germany was proceeding according to agreements reached in 1939 and 1940. They provided, in general terms, for shipment by the Soviets to Germany of raw materials such as grain. The Reich, in turn,  would ship finished goods to the USSR. This data was known by both sides. The German embassy in Moscow noted on 5 April 1941, without elaboration, that the Soviet exports to Germany increased during March 1941, while shipments in the other direction fell precipitously. This was an inescapable fact.

Hitler, of course, already was using trade as a weapon, He did not want to ship equipment to the Soviets that they could later use against the Wehrmacht. For some reason, the Soviets did not read any meaning into this trend. They scrupulously adhered to their trade obligations with the Reich. This comported with Stalin's rule that the Soviet Union should not give the Germans a valid reason to claim a breach of the trade agreements.

Ambassador von der Schulenburg with Stalin
German Ambassador Friedrich-Werner Graf von der Schulenburg, right, witnessed the signing of the 23 August 1939 pact between the Soviet Union and Germany. However, he opposed Operation Barbarossa and ultimately turned against Hitler.

Problems with the Warnings to Stalin

Somewhat paradoxically, one of the main problems with the Soviet military intelligence about Operation Barbarossa was that there were simply many warnings. Everyone was claiming that an invasion was imminent. The different sources, however, gave different dates and other particulars, and sometimes the same sources change their basic particulars such as the date.

The Germans themselves did not know when the invasion would occur - and there always remained an exceedingly slim possibility that it may not occur at all. There was a lot of opposition to Operation Barbarossa from Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering on down. It was all up to Hitler, and nobody knew what he would do. As late as 28 April 1941, Foreign Minister Ribbentrop had German Ambassador Count Schulenburg give Hitler a memorandum arguing against Operation Barbarossa. Hitler angrily ends the interview with Schulenburg after half an hour, angrily shouting that Stalin had supported the recent anti-German "putsch" in Yugoslavia and already was an enemy.

Since the Germans were uncertain about Operation Barbarossa, the spies certainly could not be. They could report on intentions and probabilities, but the facts were fluid and unverifiable.

Heinrich Himmler gathers daisies with is family 19 June 1941
Heinrich Himmler picks daisies by the roadside on 19 June 1941.

The German Disinformation Campaign

The Germans went to great pains to allay any suspicions that Stalin might have about a German attack. These involved both direct and direct strategies.

In the direct category, Adolf Hitler himself sent Stalin personal letters denying any evil intent. The first was dated 31 December 1940, the other was dated 14 May 1941.

Hitler's two secret letters to Stalin (view them here) explained away all the intelligence reports as misunderstandings of what Hitler was actually doing. These letters are not fabrications. General Georgy Zhukov, in a 1965-66 interview session with Konstantin M. Simonov, confirmed discussing one during a meeting with Stalin in January 1941. He was there to discuss the large and growing German troop concentrations in Poland. Stalin told Zhukov he had “turned to Hitler in a personal letter, advising him that this was known to us, that it surprised us, and that it created the impression among us that Hitler intended to go to war with us.”

Soviet General Georgy Zhukov
Georgy Zhukov later verified that Hitler had written personally to Stalin.
Stalin told Zhukov that Hitler had replied in his own letter denying any evil intentions. Hitler explained to Stalin state that he was only moving troops to the East to protect those troops from British bombing. Stalin would have been well aware of such bombing because Molotov had been forced to take shelter from it during his visit to Berlin.

In addition, Hitler claimed, a little less believably, that the troop movements were actually preparations for the invasion of the British Isles. Hitler swore “on my honor as a head of state” that Germany would not attack the Soviet Union (Murphy, David E. What Stalin Knew: The Enigma of Barbarossa. New Haven, CT; London: Yale University Press, 2005 (hardcover, ISBN 0-300-10780-3); 2006 (paperback, ISBN 0-300-11981-X)). If Stalin actually believed Hitler, that would have been very unusual for the ruthless Soviet leader, but it's certainly possible and events suggest even likely.

The German disinformation campaign continued right up to the invasion. On 19 June 1941, SS leader Heinrich Himmler gathered some cameramen and went to Valepp Valley with his family. There, he ostentatiously got out of his vehicle with the "SS-1" plates into a field and picked daises with his wife and daughter. This un-warlike activity received major play in the Reich media.

Whether Stalin was actually deceived or not is debatable. However, he was uncertain enough about a German attack to keep defensive preparations at a very low level considering the gravity of the threat.

Soviet T-34 tanks in winter camouflage
A Soviet convoy with T-34/76 tanks in winter camouflage.

Stalin's War Plans

The Soviet Stavka, or military high command, entered 1941 without plans to invade the Reich. The Soviet doctrine was to have an aggressive defense. The standard plan which had been in place for years was to mount a counteroffensive into the West (with the opponent presumed but not actually stated to be German forces). This gradually morphed into an outright attack plan. Let's go through events within the Soviet hierarchy to see what happened.

On 11 March 1941, the Stavka issued a new Strategic Deployment Plan. Upon the outbreak of war, Deputy Commander of the Operations Directorate of the General Staff Aleksandr Vasilevsky proposed to put the main Soviet weight in the direction of southern Poland. Somewhat prophetically, the plan envisaged hostilities beginning on 12 June 1941. General Timoshenko, Zhukov, and Molotov meet with Stalin upon issuance of the report to discuss how to orient the troops.

Unbeknownst to the Soviets, the Germans were arming their north and south prongs heaviest, while leaving the center - the area Vasilevskiy proposes to attack the hardest - relatively weak. This was a subject of much debate throughout the spring, with a strong contingent of generals preferring a massive thrust straight to Moscow. Because Hitler had the final say and wanted to leave Moscow for last, though, they were overruled.

Stalin began hedging his bets as the warnings mounted. On 12 April 1941, he issued a secret directive to construct fixed defenses along the western frontier. This was somewhat contrary to established Soviet doctrine to mount a quick counterpunch to any attack rather than depend on holding a defensive line.

On May Day 1941, always a day of speeches and parades in the Soviet Union, Stalin ramps up his rhetoric slightly. He says:
The Red Army is ready, in the interests of the socialist state, to ward off every blow struck by the imperialists. The international situation is full of unexpected events. In such a situation the Red Army must step up its defensive readiness.
On the same day, the German military attache in Moscow noted that the Red Army had begun calling up recruits in the lowest age cohort six months earlier than usual. The Soviets also instituted a new rule that foreign diplomats could no longer travel freely but had to be escorted. These facts suggested that the Red Army was preparing for some kind of action.

A destroyed Soviet T-34 tank
German soldiers march by an abandoned soviet T-34/76 tank.
Stalin finally tips his hand on 5 May 1941. He delivers two secret speeches at a military function that are the basis for theories that he intended to attack the Reich. There is no way to sugar-coat these speeches, they are bellicose and threatening. They are done in an informal setting, with the vodka flowing freely.

In the first speech, Stalin states:
New tank models, the Mark 1 and 3, are on their way;  these are excellent tanks, whose armor can withstand 76-millimeter shells. In the near future there will also be a new tank graced with my own name. This tank will be a veritable fortress. Today we have up to a hundred armored and mechanized divisions which still need to be organized into an entity. Our war plan is ready, we have built the airfields and landing grounds, and the frontline aircraft are already there. Everything has been done by way of clearing out the rear areas: all the foreign elements have been removed. It follows that over the next two months we can begin the fight with Germany. Perhaps it surprises you that I tell you of our war plans. But we have to take our revenge for Bulgaria and Finland.
Stalin also said:
A good defense signifies the need to attack. Attack is the best form of defense... We must now conduct a peaceful, defensive policy with attack. Yes, defense with attack. We must now re-teach our army and commanders. Educate them in the spirit of attack.
Basically, Stalin was saying that the best defense is a good offense. Later, after some more drinking, Stalin gave a second speech that expanded on his earlier one:
The slogan of peaceful policies is now obsolete—it has been overtaken by events. During the years of the capitalist encirclement of the Soviet Union we were able to make good use of the slogan while we expanded the Soviet Union’s frontiers to the north and west. But now we must discard this slogan for the reactionary and narrow-minded slogan that it is, as it will not serve to win us one more square inch of territory. It is time to stop chewing that particular cud, Comrade Chosin:  stop being a simpleton! The era of forcible expansion has begun for the Soviet Union. The people must be schooled to accept that a war of aggression is inevitable; they must be in permanent mobilization.
These speeches did not become known to the Germans until after the outbreak of war when prisoners revealed them under interrogation. If Hitler had known, he probably would have pulled forward the start date of Operation Barbarossa.

A destroyed Soviet KV-1 tank
Soldiers with a destroyed Soviet KV-1 tank.
The Germans, though, quickly get a hint that things are changing. On 13 May 1941, a German consul in Chungking, China, spots revealing information in secret Soviet diplomatic circular. The circular stated that, on 7 May, the Soviets had instructed all missions to ascertain the probable attitude of other countries in the event of a German-Soviet conflict. Since the Soviets were presumed not to know about Operation Barbarossa, this suggests to the Germans that the Soviets were planning an attack of their own.

Coincidentally on the same day, 13 May 1941, the Soviet military makes several changes that suggested the Stavka was beginning to react in accordance with dramatic Stalin's 5 May speeches. Chief of General Staff Georgi Zhukov ordered four armies sent to the Western and Kyiv army groups. These troops were poorly equipped and understrength and not fit for offensive operations. The Soviet western border was roughly 2000 miles long, and four armies could only man isolated strong points, so this was only a gradual escalation in preparedness.

On 15 May 1941, General Zhukov submitted a plan of attack against the Soviet Union. In the Zhukov Plan of May 15, 1941, the Southwestern and Western Fronts (centered around Zhukov's former command at Kyiv) would be the axis of advance to the west. The objective of the invasion was to destroy the opposing Wehrmacht defense and advance across Poland toward the Reich border. This, Zhukov believed, would force the Wehrmacht to abandon Greece and Yugoslavia and cut the Germans off from their essential Romanian, Hungarian and Bulgarian allies (Romania was important more for its oil fields than its military). Once the Red Army had broken through, it could turn north and northwest to encircle the northern wing of the German defenses. Furthermore, the Red Army would invade Finland and complete the unfinished business from the Winter War.

There are several things to consider about the 15 May Zhukov Plan. Unlike an actual plan of attack such as Hitler's directive for Operation Barbarossa, it had no projected start date. It also reflected the poor state of Soviet military intelligence at this time. Zhukov was under the impression that the main Wehrmacht forces were across the border from Kyiv rather than further north, and that defeating them would eliminate the Wehrmacht's ability to resist. This was an easy mistake to make because Hitler preferred to place more emphasis on this sector than the Baltic states and Moscow, which he thought were pointless political objectives. The Wehrmacht generals, however, were of the opinion that taking Moscow was the top priority, so the OKW subtly has been orienting the main attack further north.

Soviet commissar Vsevolod N. Merkulov
Vsevolod N. Merkulov, the people's commissar for state security.
The low state of Soviet anxiety was illustrated on 13 June 1941, when Soviet Generals Timoshenko and Zhukov sought permission to alert troops at the border of an invasion threat and begin deploying forces. Stalin refuses. A few days later, on 17 June, Pavel M. Fitin, chief of the NKVD Foreign Intelligence sends Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin a report which asserts in part:
all preparations by Germany for an armed attack on the Soviet Union have been completed, and the blow can be expected at any time.
NKVD man Fitin knew this report was valid: his source was within Reichsmarschal Hermann Goering's own Air Ministry, which he included in the report. In the margin of the report, Stalin scrawled this note to Fitin’s boss, the people’s commissar for state security, Vsevolod N. Merkulov: “Comrade Merkulov, you can send your ‘source’ from the headquarters of German aviation to his [expletive] mother."

On 19 June 1941, Stalin grudgingly signed a decree authorizing the construction of camouflage over installations. However, he continued to prohibit Luftwaffe reconnaissance flights over Soviet territory, flights that continued right up until the day of the invasion.

Soviet defector "Viktor Suvorov"
Soviet defector “Viktor Suvorov” has fed many conspiracy theories about the invasion of the Soviet Union.

Post-War Claims

Russian sources have disputed the common belief that Stalin was deceived or ignorant about German invasion plans. The claim is that Stalin was not deceived at all.

“Viktor Suvorov,” a pseudonym for a former Soviet staff officer now resident in the West (Vladimir B. Rezun, a GRU officer who defected in 1978), wrote in the 1980s that Stalin was busy preparing his own invasion of Germany. Suvorov stated that the German attack on the Soviet Union only just preempted a planned Soviet attack on the German Reich. The Soviets themselves were building up forces near Germany, a well-known fact, but the strategic objective behind this, Suvorov claims, has been misunderstood. The Stavka built up its forces pursuant to the “State Frontiers Defense Plan 1941,” which put Soviet troops on the borders. This actually was for offensives purposes, according to Suvorov.

As shown above, there is some support for the argument that Stalin was contemplating an attack himself. However, there are many reasons for troop movements. Stalin may simply have been trying to impress Hitler with his own power. This would have flowed from the discussions during Molotov's Berlin trip in November 1940 about setting spheres of influence between the two regimes. Moving troops ostentatiously forward perhaps was an attempt to improve the Soviet Union's own bargaining position. This argument is supported by the fact that Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov repeatedly asked his counterpart, Ribbentrop, for a response to the Soviet's own negotiating proposals throughout the spring of 1941.



Stalin indicated prior to the German invasion that he intended to invade the Reich himself. The Stavka took some actions in accordance with this plan. For instance, it moved some troops to the border and General Zhukov submitted a plan of attack on 15 May 1941.

However, there is a long distance between preliminary planning for an invasion along with some secret speeches and an actual invasion. The Red Army was in no condition for an invasion during the spring of 1941. Preparation would have involved massive troop movements to the western frontiers that simply did not happen. The indications are that a Soviet invasion of the Reich was contemplated, but certainly not imminent when the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa.