D day the battle for nor.., p.38
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       D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.38

           Antony Beevor
 

  Speidel had known Rommel since the First World War, when they had served together in the same regiment. On Speidel’s appointment as Rommel’s chief of staff, he had been summoned on 1 April to Führer headquarters at the Berghof. Jodl had briefed him on the ‘inflexible mission of defending the coast’, and told him that Rommel was ‘inclined to pessimism’ as a result of the African campaign. His task was to give Rommel encouragement.

  When Speidel reached La Roche-Guyon two weeks later, Rommel spoke with bitterness about his experiences in Africa ‘and above all about Hitler’s constant attempts at deceit’. He added that the war should be ‘finished as quickly as possible’. Speidel then told him about his contacts with Generaloberst Ludwig Beck, a former chief of the army general staff, and the resistance movement in Berlin who were ‘ready and determined to do away with the present regime’. In subsequent discussions, Rommel condemned ‘the excesses of Hitler and the utter lawlessness of the regime’, but he still opposed assassination.

  On 15 May, Rommel attended a secret conference with his old friend General Karl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel, the military commander of Belgium and northern France. Although a member of the anti-Hitler conspiracy, Stülpnagel was ‘a hardline anti-semite’. If he had not shot himself later, he would probably have faced a war crimes tribunal after the war for his activities on the eastern front and the persecution of Jews in France. The two men discussed ‘measures to be taken immediately for the termination of the war and elimination of the Hitler-regime’. Stülpnagel knew that they could not count on Generalfeldmarschall von Rundstedt, even though the ‘old Prussian’ was well aware of ‘the catastrophic situation’ and loathed the ‘Bohemian corporal’. Stülpnagel believed that in an uprising, ‘Field Marshal Rommel would be the only person who possessed the undisputed respect of the German people and armed forces, and even the Allies’.

  A series of sympathetic visitors came to La Roche-Guyon, which became an ‘oasis’ for the Resistance. Towards the end of the month, General Eduard Wagner of the OKH44 briefed Rommel on the preparations of the resistance group within the army. The extreme nationalist writer Ernst Jünger, who was serving on Stülpnagel’s staff in Paris, presented him with his thoughts on the peace which should be made with the Allies. Speidel returned to Germany at the end of May to meet the former foreign minister Konstantin Freiherr von Neurath and Dr Karl Strölin, the mayor of Stuttgart. Both believed that Rommel’s involvement was essential to gain the confidence of the German people as well as that of the Allies. Speidel felt able to brief General Blumentritt, Rundstedt’s chief of staff, on the discussions.

  Rommel and Speidel had agreed on a list of possible parliamentaries to talk to Eisenhower and Montgomery. It was headed by Geyr von Schweppenburg, who spoke excellent English, but after his dismissal they had to consider others. They would propose a withdrawal to Germany from all occupied territories in the west, while the Wehrmacht held a reduced front in the east. Rommel insisted that Hitler should be tried by a German court. He did not want to be the leader of the new regime. That role he felt should be taken by Generaloberst Beck or Dr Carl Goerdler, the former mayor of Leipzig. Rommel was, however, prepared to take command of the armed forces.

  Few of the plotters appear to have imagined for a moment that the western Allies would reject their offer, even if they had been in a position to make it. Their proposals included an Allied recognition of the German annexation of the Sudetenland and the Anschluss with Austria, as well as the restoration of Germany’s 1914 borders. Alsace-Lorraine should be independent. They had no plans for the revival of a full parliamentary democracy, in fact their solution appeared to be basically a resurrection of the Second Reich, but without the Kaiser. Such a formula would have been greeted with incredulity by the American and British governments, as well as by the vast majority of the German people.

  Speidel and Rommel began to sound out army, corps and divisional commanders. The two most obvious supporters in command of fighting troops were Generalleutnant Graf von Schwerin, the commander of 116th Panzer-Division, and Generalleutnant Freiherr von Lüttwitz of the 2nd Panzer-Division. It was Lüttwitz’s division which had received the German nurses from Cherbourg handed over by the Americans. When Hitler later heard of this contact with the enemy, he was outraged. He had already begun to fear that his generals might make peace overtures to the Americans behind his back.

  After Rommel’s humiliating visit with Rundstedt on 29 June to Berchtesgaden, he came to the conclusion that they would have to act. Even Keitel, the worst Hitler lackey of them all, admitted to him in private, ‘I also know that nothing can be done any more.’ And two senior Waffen-SS commanders, Hausser and Eberbach, seem to have come to the conclusion that some form of unilateral action was unavoidable. At the beginning of July, just before the fall of Caen, Hitler’s favourite, Obergruppenführer Sepp Dietrich, the commander of I SS Panzer Corps, came to La Roche-Guyon to ask what the commander-in-chief was intending to do in view of the ‘imminent catastrophe’. According to Speidel, Dietrich assured them that the SS units were ‘firmly in his hands’. It is not clear how much Dietrich was told of the plans afoot. At the same time the new commander-in-chief of the Seventh Army, Obergruppenführer Hausser, also predicted collapse.

  On 9 July, the day the British and Canadians moved into Caen, Oberstleutnant Cäsar von Hofacker, a cousin of Stauffenberg, was sent by General von Stülpnagel in Paris to see Generalfeldmarschall von Kluge. Kluge had been in contact with the German Army resistance group when on the eastern front, but now prevaricated. Hofacker was Stülpnagel’s chief contact with the plotters in Berlin. He tried to persuade Kluge on behalf of the resistance to end the war in the west by ‘independent action’ as soon as possible. The Allies would never negotiate with Hitler or one of his ‘paladins’, such as Göring, Himmler or Ribbentrop, so a change of government and the removal of the Nazi leaders were essential. He asked Kluge how long the Normandy front could hold out, because the decisions taken by the resistance in Berlin depended on his answer. ‘No longer than two to three weeks at best,’ he replied, ‘then a breakthrough must be expected which we will be unable to cope with.’

  Rommel and Kluge met on 12 July to discuss the military situation and the political consequences. Rommel would also sound out his corps commanders one last time, then prepare an ultimatum to be presented to Hitler. While Rommel consulted corps commanders, Speidel went to see Stülpnagel, who was already preparing to eliminate the Gestapo and SS in France. Two days later, Hitler moved from Berchtesgaden to the Wolfsschanze in East Prussia. On the eastern front, the vast Red Army offensive now threatened the whole of Army Group Centre. New bunkers had been built and there were much stronger anti-aircraft defences in the forest around. But the work had not been fully completed, so there were Organisation Todt labourers still on site.

  The next day, Rommel wrote an assessment of the western front for Hitler. This warned that the Allies would soon break through rapidly all the way to the German border. The paper ended with the words, ‘I must request you, mein Führer, to draw the conclusions from this situation without delay. Rommel, Field Marshal.’ After Rommel handed over the message for dispatch, he said to Speidel, ‘I have given Hitler one more chance. If he does not draw the necessary conclusions, we shall act.’

  On 17 July, during their meeting at the headquarters of Panzer Group West, Rommel asked Eberbach for his views on the situation when they were alone. ‘We are experiencing the overwhelming disaster of a war on two fronts,’ Eberbach replied. ‘We have lost the war. But we must inflict on the western Allies the highest possible casualties to bring them to a ceasefire and then prevent the Red Army from breaking through to our Germany.’

  ‘I agree,’ Rommel replied, ‘but can you imagine the enemy engaging in any negotiations with us so long as Hitler is our leader?’ Eberbach had to accept the point. ‘So things cannot continue as they are,’ Rommel continued. ‘Hitler must go.’ The panzer divisions were desperately needed on the eastern front.
In the west they would withdraw to the Siegfried Line while trying to negotiate.

  ‘Would it not then lead to a civil war,’ Eberbach asked, ‘which is worse than anything else?’ This was the great fear of most officers. It brought back memories of November 1918 and revolutionary uprisings in Berlin, Munich and the mutiny of the fleet in Wilhelmshaven. An hour later, Rommel suffered a fractured skull during the attack by Spitfires near Sainte-Foy-de-Montgommery. He had no idea that an assassination was planned for three days later.

  Attempts on Hitler’s life had been made before, but they had failed through bad luck.45 Hitler had evaded death by changing his movements at the last moment, almost as if he had a feral sixth sense. Yet the plotters faced a more fundamental problem of which they seemed to be unaware: what would be the attitude of the Allies?

  The British were far from convinced that removing Hitler would be an advantage. His direction of military affairs since just before the Battle of Stalingrad had been disastrous for the Wehrmacht. Six weeks before D-Day, 21st Army Group summed up the position: ‘The longer Hitler remains in power now, the better are Allied chances.’ Yet during June, there was a subtle shift. ‘The Chiefs of Staff,’ Churchill was informed, ‘were unanimous that, from the strictly military point of view, it was almost an advantage that Hitler should remain in control of German strategy, having regard to the blunders that he has made, but that on the wider point of view, the sooner he was got out of the way the better.’ Special Operations Executive took this pronouncement as a green light to start planning Operation Foxley, their own assassination attempt on Hitler. The idea was to ambush Hitler near the Berghof, but it was never seriously pursued. Hitler had in any case left Berchtesgaden, never to return, but, more importantly, Churchill became convinced that this time Germany had to be utterly defeated in the field. The Armistice in November 1918, and the consequent failure to occupy Germany itself, had provided the opportunity for the stab-in-the-back myth among nationalists and Nazis. They had convinced themselves that the German Army had been betrayed at home by revolutionaries and Jews.

  In 1943, Stalin had cancelled his own plans to assassinate Hitler, although for rather different reasons.46 After Stalingrad, the Soviet Union no longer faced defeat, and he had suddenly begun to fear that if Hitler were removed, the western Allies might be tempted to come to a separate peace with Germany. There is absolutely no evidence that this was ever considered, but right up to the end of the war Stalin, who tended to judge others by himself, was haunted by the idea of a Wehrmacht rearmed by American industry, turning back the victorious advance of the Red Army. In fact, Churchill and Roosevelt were totally committed to the principle of forcing unconditional surrender on Germany.

  Stauffenberg, Tresckow and most of their comrades might be considered naïve for expecting the western Allies to enter into negotiations on the death of Hitler. Their planning and preparation were also astonishingly amateur, when one considers their general staff training. A few had been early admirers of Hitler, until they were forced to face the criminal reality of the regime. Yet nobody can cast doubt on their courage and self-sacrifice. They longed somehow to preserve their idealized image of Germany, a high-minded, less nationalistic version of the pre-1914 Wilhelmine era. And they may have hoped to save family estates from Soviet destruction, although they probably recognized it was far too late. Their overriding motive, however, had become a moral compulsion. They knew that there would be very little popular support for this act, so they and their families would be treated as traitors by everyone, not just the Gestapo. The chances of success were slim. But, as Stauffenberg put it, ‘Since the generals have up to now managed nothing, the colonels have now to step in.’ It was their duty to attempt to salvage the honour of Germany and the German Army, despite the danger of laying down another stab-in-the-back legend for the future.

  During his interrogation by Allied intelligence officers at the end of the war, General Walter Warlimont described events in East Prussia on 20 July. The midday situation conference took place as usual in the long wooden hut. Hitler entered at about 12.30. The room was bare save for a few chairs and a heavy oak table twenty feet long which ran the length of the room. Among those present were Field Marshal Keitel, Generaloberst Jodl, General Warlimont, General Buhle, Gruppenführer Fegelein and Hitler’s adjudants: General Schmundt, Admiral von Puttkamer and Oberstleutnant von Below.

  General Heusinger, representing the chief of the army general staff, had begun his briefing when Stauffenberg entered. He was the chief of staff of the Replacement Army, the Ersatzheer. Stauffenberg, according to Warlimont, was carrying a ‘strikingly large briefcase’, which he placed under the oak table not far from Hitler, who had his back to the door. Because of the briefing, nobody noticed that Stauffenberg left the room a few minutes later.47

  At 12.50 hours, ‘There suddenly occurred a terrific explosion which seemed to fill the whole room in dust, smoke and fire, and throw everything in all directions.’ When Warlimont recovered his senses, he saw Hitler being ‘led backwards through the door, supported by several attendants’. Casualties were remarkably few, only because the blast was dissipated through the windows and the thin walls. Hitler had been saved by Stauffenberg’s failure to arm the second bomb and by the heavy oak table support between the briefcase and him when the explosion took place.

  At first, suspicion focused on the Organisation Todt workers, but during the early afternoon, a sergeant on the staff mentioned that Oberst von Stauffenberg had arrived with a briefcase and had been seen to leave without it. He had flown back to Berlin.

  Stauffenberg, convinced that nobody could have survived the blast, had driven straight to the airfield. Meanwhile, a garbled message from a co-conspirator at the Wolfsschanze left the conspirator generals waiting in Berlin in a terrible state of uncertainty. They had congregated at the Bendlerblock, the headquarters of the Replacement Army in the Bendlerstrasse. Nobody knew for sure whether the bomb had gone off or not, or whether Hitler was alive or dead. Generaloberst Friedrich Fromm, the commander of the Replacement Army, refused to trigger the coup with the codeword ‘Valkyrie’ until he was sure that Hitler was dead. Without his certain elimination, a coup d’état stood virtually no chance of success.

  To make matters worse, there was no car waiting at Tempelhof airfield to collect Stauffenberg, which delayed his return to the Bendlerblock for a further hour. Stauffenberg’s assistant rang through from the airfield to say that Hitler was dead. Stauffenberg also insisted that this must be true when he finally arrived, but Keitel had rung Fromm, demanding where Stauffenberg was. Keitel insisted that Hitler’s injuries were not serious. Fromm refused to act as a result, but other officers in the conspiracy went ahead. They sent out signals to different headquarters announcing that Hitler was dead.

  The plan was to exploit an existing mechanism specifically designed to suppress a revolt in Berlin against the Hitler regime. The authorities feared an uprising, because there were ‘over a million foreign workers in Berlin, and if any revolution did start, these people would be a very great menace’. The codeword to set this counter-insurgency plan in motion was ‘Gneisenau’. It appears that somebody in the Bendlerblock had already jumped the gun, perhaps as a result of the telephone call from Tempelhof airfield to say that Hitler was dead. Because at 15.00 hours, Major Otto Remer, the commander of the Grossdeutschland Guard Regiment, was summoned with the codeword ‘Gneisenau’ to the offices of another senior member of the conspiracy, Generaloberst Paul von Hase, the military commander of Berlin.

  At exactly the same time, the plot was triggered in Paris. General Blumentritt, Kluge’s chief of staff, was told by one of his own officers that Hitler had been killed in a ‘Gestapo riot’. He rang La Roche-Guyon to speak to Kluge, but was told that he was visiting the front in Normandy. Generalmajor Speidel asked Blumentritt to come immediately, as Kluge would be back that evening. Blumentritt, however, had no idea that General von Stülpnagel, the military commander, was issuing orders for t
he arrest of all Gestapo and SS officers in Paris.

  There were many senior officers involved in the plot and so little organization or effective communication that the uncertainty over Hitler’s death was bound to cause delay and chaos. When Remer reached Hase’s office he noticed that the atmosphere was very nervous. Remerwastoldthat the Führer had died in an incident,thatarevolution had broken out and that ‘executive powers had been passed to the army’. Remer claimed later to have asked a series of questions. Was the Führer dead? Where was the revolution, as he had seen no sign of anything on his way? Were the revolutionists foreign workers? Why had executive power passed to the army rather than to the Wehrmacht? Who was to be Hitler’s successor and who had signed the orders passing control to the army?

  Evidently, the plotters had not prepared themselves for such questions. Their answers were evasive and lacked confidence. Remer was suspicious, but still confused. He returned to his headquarters and summoned his officers. He ordered them to set up a cordon round the government buildings right down the Wilhelmstrasse. Remer’s suspicions were further aroused when he heard that a general who had been dismissed by Hitler had been sighted in Berlin. Then Remer received an order from General von Hase to arrest Goebbels. He refused, as Goebbels had been patron of the Grossdeutschland division. In the meantime, an officer, Leutnant Hans Hagen, who was even more suspicious than Remer of what was afoot, had been to see Goebbels to find out the truth. Hagen then convinced Remer that Goebbels, as Reich Commissioner of Defence for Berlin, was his direct superior. Even though General von Hase had specifically forbidden him to see Goebbels, Remer went to the propaganda ministry. He was still confused by the conflicting stories, and did not entirely trust Goebbels.

 
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