By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers
Russia, Germany, and Poland 1917-1945 Part Nine
As Stalin murdered his generals, Hitler gathered his together to plan the next war. On November 5, 1937, he brought together the heads of each of the military services - Werner von Fritsch for the Army, Erich Raeder for the Navy, Hermann Göring for the Luftwaffe, and Werner von Blomberg as minister of war - at the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. They were joined by Neurath, representing the Foreign Ministry, and Hitler’s military adjutant, Colonel Friedrich Hossbach. He began the four-hour meeting, which became known as the Hossbach Conference, by telling them that he was going to share matters of such importance that he had excluded even the Reich cabinet from participating. He went on to say, somewhat melodramatically, that “his exposition be regarded, in the event of his death, as his last will and testament.”1
As Hitler made clear to his five military leaders, his entire policy centered on the necessity of achieving autarky - complete independence. Germany as it currently stood was dependent on other states for critical raw materials, including food, which could not be grown in the “tightly packed racial core” of Germany itself. The solution was conquest. Germany’s greatest opportunities lay in the East, as he had argued for the last twenty years. He then highlighted the immediate gains that were to be made with the conquest of Czechoslovakia and the annexation of Austria. The war to redraw Germany’s borders must take place prior to 1943. He based this upon several facts. First, Germany had a head start in the global arms race that he had started and its equipment and armament were the most advanced. Delaying war meant “the danger of their obsolescence.”2 Further, although Hitler had ordered armaments production to be given top priority in his Four Year economic plan of August 1936 (inspired by the Soviet five-year plans), bottlenecks had begun to appear and armaments production was plateauing.3 By 1943, the rest of the world would have increased their own military readiness to an unacceptable degree; Germany might even face a “food crisis.”4 War must come, and come swiftly.5
The military officers immediately protested. Generals Blomberg and Fritsch both made clear that they thought Germany was incapable of defeating Britain and France, should they intervene. Foreign Minister Neurath echoed the point, suggesting that the opportune circumstances Hitler had envisioned—a civil war in France or a Franco-Italian conflict - were not likely to materialize. The head of the German Navy, Admiral Raeder, sat silently. Only Göring voiced his approval.6
Hitler had outlined his immediate plans and clarified his strategic vision. What drove his proposed timing was his perception of a “technological window,” when Germany would enjoy significant advantages in armament versus its likely opponents. The reasons for this were myriad, but depended upon on three facts. First, the rearmament work that had been conducted prior to 1933 had laid the ground for a rapid expansion of German military power and the rapid commissioning of new technologies of war. Second, Hitler had made rearmament his top priority from the moment he took office; the slowness with which the democracies had responded meant he had a head start that would diminish over time. And third - oddly - was the fact that the Treaty of Versailles had eliminated the normal process of research and development in Germany, resulting in the simultaneous appearance of large numbers of new aircraft and armored vehicle designs.
During the interwar period it took an average of four years to develop an armored vehicle or aircraft frame from specifications to mass production. It usually took another two years to reach maximum production efficiency and fix glaring technical problems. A new engine system took around six years to design from scratch. These developments could rarely be accelerated, even by major infusions of money. For instance, Luftwaffe General Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen pressured engineers to accelerate the speed of innovation in aviation engines in the mid-1930s. But despite pouring funding into the program, it still took five to six years for results - not the two he had hoped for.7 The design, development, and testing process could rarely be sped up.
By the time of the Hossbach Conference, the Luftwaffe had 162 different aircraft designs in production or under development. Many of these had been commissioned for the Air Ministry in 1933 or 1934, hence they were in the middle of their design timeline in the summer of 1936. For instance, the RLM had drawn up specifications for a single-seat fighter in 1933, then issued developmental contracts the following year. Willy Messerschmitt produced the first BF-109 prototypes for testing in the summer of 1935. Test flights indicated engine and structural defects, and the aircraft went through a total redesign in the summer of 1936. One model would be flown over the Olympic Games hosted in Berlin in August 1936, highlighting the rebirth of the Luftwaffe for international audiences.8 But additional teething problems meant that the aircraft would not begin mass production until the following year. Refinements in design would lead the BF-109 F to be the most-produced airframe of the war, but not until 1940.9
Armored vehicles followed a similar timeframe. Oswald Lutz, as we’ve seen, had laid out the Panzer IV’s specifications in January 1934. In 1936, Woelfert and the Krupp team began testing their first Panzer IV prototypes. In October 1937, the first models would enter mass production, with the Wehrmacht receiving its first Panzer IV models in January 1938. A final, major redesign resulted in the most mass-produced variant of the Panzer IV, but not until November 1941, when Operation Barbarossa was fully underway.
The Treaty of Versailles completely altered the normally staggered process of military-technological commissioning. It bears repeating: all of the research conducted in the 1920s meant that German military engineering did not lag significantly behind ongoing work in France, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union in aircraft and armored vehicle design. Then the bonds of Versailles were very suddenly shed between 1933 and 1935, leading to the initiation of a vast number of design contracts in a relatively narrow period. Given the relatively similar timelines of research and development, this in turn meant the Wehrmacht had a large number of technological systems reaching maturity and mass production simultaneously between 1939 and 1941. None of the other major powers was in that position. Rather than constraining Germany, the ban on military technologies under Versailles guaranteed that it would have a greater percentage of its new military technology reaching combat effectiveness than any other of the great powers. By contrast, Great Britain and France remained reluctant to embrace full-scale rearmament in late 1937. Over the preceding decade, Britain had fallen behind Germany technologically thanks to the “ten-year rule” - that armed forces budgets should be prepared with the assumption that war would not happen in the next decade. This led to the decline of military-industrial expertise and the closure of many of the country’s First World War arms manufacturers. By 1930, the only major, privately owned military-industrial complex left in the country was Vickers-Armstrong.10 Great Britain had raised defense spending very slightly under Stanley Baldwin in 1935, but his successor Neville Chamberlain entered office in 1937 as a fiscal hawk: his first act was to halve the war office budget recommended by the Defence Requirements Committee, impeding efforts at preparing British industry for large-scale military production.11 As a result, Britain lacked prototypes under development in many areas - Chamberlain’s budget cuts halted all tank development, for instance.12
The one branch that had received ample financial support over the previous ten years was the Royal Air Force. As a result, the British had several outstanding aircraft prototypes entering mass production as the European crisis deepened. The Hawker Hurricane fighter was well along in development, and would enter service in small numbers at the end of 1937.13 The famed Spitfire single-seater fighter was not far behind, with the first models planned to arrive at Fighter Command in June 1938.14 The RAF remained several years away from having a heavy bomber, but had several excellent prototypes in early phases of development.15
Ironically, given their lead in armored warfare technology in the 1920s, British tank design lagged behind Germany’s. Armored vehicles had been neglected as the Army focused on imperial policing; the vehicles produced were primarily light tanks and tankettes. In 1936, British specialists attended Soviet tank maneuvers run by Tukhachevsky. These emphasized fast, medium-sized tanks such as the BT series. The Soviets had borrowed from the British, and now the British would return the favor, though it would take some time for usable medium (or “cruiser,” in the British lexicon) tanks to enter their arsenals in large numbers. The first prototypes of a medium British tank that could conceivably match the Panzer IV - the Crusader - remained several years away from mass production in 1938, especially following budget cuts.16 All of this lay behind the eventual British conclusion that more time was needed to bring its military readiness up to par with Germany.17
Even slower to embrace rearmament, the French government greeted news of Hitler’s arrival in power by cutting nearly 30,000 soldiers from its standing army in metropole France - nearly 10 percent of the total.18 Battles over whether or not military industry should be allowed to profit from government contracts caused the stagnation of research and development. In the early 1930s Renault, France’s leading military-industrial giant, debated halting all design work on military projects until its intellectual property rights were guaranteed in some way by the military and the state.19
The first significant efforts to rearm France, begun under the Popular Front (Radical-Socialist-Communist) coalition government, proved disastrous. Prime Minister Leon Blum sought to resolve the Gordian knot of French rearmament by slicing through the problem, attempting to nationalize all of France’s war industries in July 1936. The resultant dislocations, carried out unevenly, hampered mass production and raised costs. By 1942 or 1943, perhaps, these problems might have been rectified. Over the short term, it meant a haphazard mess, hampering efforts to catch the Germans in technological and industrial terms.20 Follow-on efforts, such as a new national rearmament bill in September 1936, proved unsustainable as the Blum government was unable to secure long-term financing.21
Even with additional resources, French technology lagged behind German designs.22 Little had been invested in the Air Force over the previous two decades, meaning there was a shortage of pilots, engineers, and skilled workers.23 These factors all hindered the development of modern aircraft. The French Air Force had issued specifications for a fast, single-seater fighter in 1934, but by 1938 few designs were near readiness. Those aircraft in mass production were inferior to the German aircraft they were likely to face: the main French fighter was 50 mph slower than its German equivalent.24 A better fighter aircraft - the Dewoitine D520 - remained in the development stage.25
In tank production, the picture was only slightly less gloomy. The French Army possessed some excellent anti-tank weapons, but most of its armored vehicles were either old, mechanically problematic, or not yet ready for mass production.26 The French armored forces consisted primarily of light tanks and tankettes. Its medium and heavy tanks - the Char B1, B1 bis, and Somua medium tank - had some significant advantages over their German opponents, including heavier armor and main armament. But the Char designs were old (first produced in 1924), slow, and mechanically outdated, while the Somua had significant mechanical and design problems.27 Tactically, extremely conservative French armor doctrine and plans to remain on the defensive consigned the tank to a secondary role.28
The nature of French rearmament was only part of the strategic problem. The internecine French culture wars have received a great deal of attention as a cause of later French defeat. Pacifism, the disastrous state of labor relations, the low birth rate, and other such factors certainly played a role in perceptions of national weakness. But there were the hard realities: Germany had 20 million more people than France in 1936. Germany’s industrial capacity was more than twice that of France. France also imported key resources essential for its war industries, including nearly all of its petroleum, rubber, lead, copper, tin, manganese, sulfur, and pyrites.29 French dependence on Great Britain was the essential conclusion drawn from these facts. France could not hope to defeat Germany by itself. Of the other states on the continent, only the Soviet Union possessed both economic and demographic resources to pose a strategic threat to Germany’s rearmament plans. But the Soviets lacked both a common border with Germany and the partners necessary to reach Germany - they faced decidedly hostile regimes all around their periphery. And German military intelligence assessed the Red Army as functionally useless in the immediate aftermath of the purges.30 As a result, Hitler felt safe to ignore Soviet military capabilities by the time of Hossbach Conference.
The essence of the problem was that it took time to reorient a modern economy to war production, and even longer to develop the engineering and industrial capacity to produce large quantities of effective military materiel. In November 1937, German factories were already producing the new generation of aircraft and tanks commissioned in 1933 and 1934, and based upon the preceding years of secret rearmament work. Twenty-three medium Panzer IIIs would be produced by the end of 1937. The first tanks of the Panzer IV design - the project headed by Erich Woelfert at Krupp - rolled off of assembly lines by the end of 1937.31 The Messerschmitt Bf 109 first entered mass production in February 1937. The new, fast Do-17 light bombers had begun arriving at Luftwaffe squadrons in the same month, with the new He-111 E series of medium bombers following not long after.
Thanks to the combination of secret rearmament measures - particularly those conducted in the Soviet Union - and his all-out embrace of rearmament, Hitler believed he was winning the European arms race, temporarily. That lead had enabled him to overturn Versailles at shockingly little cost. He also concluded that his aggressive rearmament program had provided the tools necessary for a quick victory in a future war, provided it was fought before the British and French had caught up militarily.32 Convinced that his military forces were strong enough to deter the French and British for a few years, he sought to isolate and quickly conquer other states in Eastern and Central Europe. First and second on his list were neighbors Austria and Czechoslovakia. A month after the Hossbach Conference, the Wehrmacht amended its war plans to give precedence to an invasion of Czechoslovakia.33 Hitler wanted war. Now he was prepared to start one.
Part One: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part One
Part Three: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Three
Part Four: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Four
Part Five: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Five
Part Six: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Six
Part Seven: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Seven
Part Eight: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Eight
Part Ten: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Ten
Part Eleven: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Eleven
Part Twelve: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Twelve
Part Thirteen: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Thirteen
Part Fourteen: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Fourteen
Part Fifteen: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Fifteen
1. No. 19, DGFP, D:I, 29.
2. Ibid., 34.
3. Tooze, Wages of Destruction, 203, 230–241.
4. No. 19, DGFP, D:I, 34.
5. Ibid., 38.
6. Ibid., 39.
7. Deist, “The Rearmament of the Wehrmacht,” 493.
8. Forsgren, Messerschmitt Bf 109, 32.
9. Ibid., 127.
10. Brian Bond and Williamson Murray, “The British Armed Forces, 1918–1939,” in Military Effectiveness, Volume II: The Interwar Period, eds. Allan R. Millett and Williamson Murray (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1988), 98–130, 102.
11. Bond, Murray, “The British Armed Forces, 1918–1939,” 103; John Paul Harris, “The War Office and Rearmament 1935–1939” (unpubl. diss., King’s College London, 1983), 148.
12. Murray, “Armored Warfare,” 11.
13. Angelucci, Encyclopedia of Military Aircraft, 217.
14. Ibid., 218.
15. For the process of British heavy bomber development, see Colin S. Sinnott, The RAF and Aircraft Design: Air Staff Operational Requirements, 1923–1939 (London: Routledge, 2001), 157–216.
16. John Paul Harris, “The War Office and Rearmament 1935–1939,” 268; see also Benjamin Coombs, British Tank Production and the War Economy, 19341945 (London: Bloomsbury, 2013).
17. Harris, “The War Office and Rearmament 1935–1939,” 241. British officer Colonel Giffard Martel attended the Soviet maneuvers with General Wavell in 1936. He noted after witnessing more than a thousand Soviet vehicles performing in the maneuvers that “Unless we can improve the A9 [medium tank] to a considerable extent I cannot help feeling dismay at the idea of our building any large number of these tanks which will be inferior to existing Russian tanks.” So impressed was he that Martell immediately sought to find Christie, the designer whose suspension and chassis had proven to be the foundation of the success of the BT line. The Soviets refused to supply a vehicle, so Martel tracked down Christie himself. Christie had not fared well, was nearly bankrupt, and had only one prototype left, which he had mortgaged. Martel bought the vehicle, paid off the mortgage, and - to avoid American government attempts to block the export of the vehicle - had it shipped in crates labeled “grapefruit and tractor.” This would mark the beginning of the development of Britain’s Cruiser tank concept. Harris, “The War Office and Rearmament 1935–1939,” 241–242.
18. Robert J. Young, In Command of France: French Foreign Policy and Military Planning, 1933–1940 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978), 36.
19. Jeffrey J. Clarke, “The Nationalization of War Industries in France, 1936–1937: A Case Study,” Journal of Modern History, 49:3 (Sep., 1977), 411–430.
20. Ibid., 420.
21. Martin Thomas, “French Economic Affairs and Rearmament: The First Crucial Months, June–September 1936,” Journal of Contemporary History, 27:4 (Oct., 1992), 660.
22. Maiolo, Cry Havoc, 236; Robert Doughty, “The French Armed Forces, 1918–1940,” in Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, eds. Williamson Murray and Allan Millett (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 51.
23. Doughty, “The French Armed Forces, 1918–1940,” 45–46.
24. Ibid., 51.
25. Julian Jackson, The Fall of France: The Nazi Invasion of 1940 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2003), 20.
26. Doughty, “The French Armed Forces, 1918–1940,” 45.
27. See Stephen J. Zaloga, Panzer III vs. Somua S35: Belgium 1940 (London: Bloomsbury, 2014); Steven Zaloga, Panzer VI versus Char B1 Bis: France 1940 (Oxford, UK: Osprey, 2011), 8–9.
28. See Doughty, The Seeds of Disaster, 1–5, 161–162. French doctrine stated that “Tanks are only supplementary means of action placed temporarily at the disposition of the infantry.” Doughty, The Seeds of Disaster, 147.
29. Young, In Command of France, 17, 19.
30. Andreas Hillgruber, “The German Military Leaders’ View of Russia Prior to the Attack on the Soviet Union,” in From Peace to War, 178–179.
31. Doyle, Chamberlain, and Jentz, Panzertruppen, 58–60, 88–90.
32. As John Mearsheimer has argued, examining the origins of the Second World War in Europe, conventional deterrence breaks down when policymakers in one state think that changes in the material balance of power offer them the prospect of a quick and decisive victory. John Mearsheimer, Conventional Deterrence (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983), 63.
33. Robertson, Hitler’s Pre-war Policy and Military Plans, 109.