The Rise and Fall of an Infamous Marxist Icon
by Chris Oakley
Summary: In the first six episodes of this series we looked at Hitler’s conversion to Marxism, his rise to the leadership first of the KPD and then of Germany itself, his transformation of Germany into a Communist state, his aggressive expansion of the German armed forces, his intervention in the Spanish Civil War, his involvement in the German-Austrian invasion of Italy, and his decision to attack northern France following the Spanish naval defeat at Sardinia. In this installment we’ll deal with the beginning of Case Gray, the Finnish counteroffensive against the Soviet invasion force in Finland, and the Franco-Italian offensive in the Po Valley that disrupted German plans to take Rome.
Oddly enough, the first shots in the war between the German Peole’s Republic and the French Republic wouldn’t even be fired on French or German soil. They would, in fact, take place in Belgium’s Ardennes Forest region just after 5:30 AM on November 23rd, 1938. In direct violation of international law and his own solemn pledges to respect Dutch and Belgium neutrality, Hitler had ordered that both countries were to be invaded at once and occupied as fast as possible to improve the Volksarmee’s strategic position when the time came to implement the second phase of his master plan for conquering western Europe; knowing that the French general staff would be expecting a direct thrust across the Franco-German border and that financial as well as political difficulties in the West had prevented the Maginot Line’s extension up to the North Sea, the DDVR chancellor had directed that the true axis of the main German assault on northern France should instead come through the Ardennes.
This was not to say that Berlin neglected metropolitan France altogether; even as the first Volksarmee advance columns were plunging into Belgian territory, Volksluftkorps bombers raided Strasbourg in a diversionary offensive meant to keep the French army’s attention focused southward. To further encourage the false impression that the main German attack would come in the Strasbourg area, Volksarmee long-range railway cannons were lobbing shells into the ancient Alsatian city from positions safely ensconced on Germany’s side of the Franco-German border. The French general staff would not deduce the Communist forces’ true intent for almost three days, and by the time they did Liege would be firmly under Communist control and German troops would be marching towards Namur and Brussels.
In Holland the Volksarmee had already made short work of the small and underequipped Dutch army; Stasi execution squads had machine-gunned the entire Dutch royal family within hours after Amsterdam fell. Anton Mussert, general secretary of the Dutch Communist Party at the time, was installed as head of a new German-backed puppet Marxist regime and vowed total and unending support for what he called "the heroic people’s fight by the great German Republic to unite all Europe under the glorious and noble banner of Marxism". Those familiar with the past depredations of Marxist factions could have been forgiven for wondering if Mussert were lying or merely insane.
In any case Belgium’s King Leopold III was determined that, if he had to die, he would do so fighting; he was also intent on preserving some nucleus of a Belgian government so that if worst came to worst a cabinet-in-exile could be formed to carry on the fight from the safety of a foreign capital out of the Communists’ reach. On November 27th, he sent his son Prince Baudoin and the Belgian royal cabinet to London and joined his palace guard in a doomed yet heroic last stand against the Communists outside the palace gates.
Testament to the tenacity with which Leopold and his guard regiments resisted the German assault on the palace is that the units involved in the assault sustained the highest losses of all the Volksarmee troops who took part in the fight for Brussels; one out of every four Volksarmee men killed in the battle were casualties of the struggle for King Leopold’s palace, which finally fell to the Germans on December 1st.
While the Germans might have seized the early advantage on land and in the air, things weren’t quite so easy for the German navy; at 8:00 AM on the morning of November 23rd as they were passing Belgium’s North Sea coastline, the warships of the Rote Sterne task force were confronted by a combined Anglo-French naval squadron which included the battleships King George V, Normandie, Hood, Jean Bart, and Repulse and the aircraft carriers Ark Royal, Glorious, and Courageous. When lookouts in the crow’s nest of the Rote Sterne sighted the Hood, two of the Volksmarine’s own carriers, the 11. Marz-class vessels Nuremburg and Volkesehre("People’s Honor"), scrambled fighters to protect the rest of the task force and and attack aircraft to strike at the Anglo-French flotilla.
Neither side would emerge unscathed from the titanic confrontation that followed. Among the ranks of the Anglo-French ships Jean Bart and Hood were both sunk; Repulse crippled by a torpedo hit to her stern and forced to retire to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where she spent four weeks in drydock undergoing repairs; various patrol boats lost to enemy fire or to accidents caused by the smoke and confusion of the battle; and Ark Royal damaged by enemy planes. On the German side the Friedrich Engels, the Nuremberg, the heavy cruiser M.V. Matushenko1, the battlecruiser Rosa Luxembourg, the Rote Sterne’s sister ship Jan Appel2, and six U-boats all fell prey to Allied bombs and torpedoes; the Volkesehre suffered damage to her flight deck that would require nearly six weeks of repair work; eight escort vessels were put out of action; and even Rote Sterne herself took a few hits to her starboard hull.
Around 3:45 PM that afternoon both sides retired to lick their wounds and prepare for their next confrontation at sea. While in tactical terms the Volksmarine might have achieved little, in strategic terms they’d won a substantial victory; not only had the Anglo-French forces been obliged to divert ships from the Mediterranean and the North Atlantic to counter the Rote Sterne task force, but they’d lost two of their most important battleships in one stroke. Adding insult to injury for the West was the fact that HMS Glorious had been torpedoed by German U-boats while in the process of providing air cover for her sister ships in the battle’s final moments as both sides were recalling their surviving surface ships; the carrier’s demise would have a telling and detrimental effect on Western seapower as the war between the Communist powers and the Anglo-French coalition escalated.
Both sides knew that it was just a question of time before the German People’s Republic attempted to strike at Calais again-- and when it did, the Anglo-French alliance would have a much harder time thwarting that second attack....
There was, however, one thing the Germans knew that the British and French didn’t-- the DDVR’s next blow at Calais would come not from the sea, but from the air. Heinrich Stuckart, having expected that the naval strike on Calais might not come off as planned, had sought and received Hitler’s permission to launch a massive bomber strike against the French port. At dawn on November 23rd eleven Volksluftkorps long-range bomber squadrons took off for Calais, flying as low as possible to frustrate anti-aircraft gunners and elude enemy air combat patrols that might be watching for intruders; the bombers, escorted by Bf109 fighter planes, managed to make it within less than a mile of the outskirts of the city before they were spotted by French air defense observers. At least 30 German planes were subsequently lost to enemy action3, while five others were destroyed in weather-related accidents. But the planes that survived to reach their targets were able to catch Allied military personnel in Calais largely asleep at the switch, as it were, and inflict horrific damage before the city’s main Allied air base could start scrambling its fighter complement.
By the time the bombers left around 9:45 AM, Calais’ primary dock and naval facilities had been largely destroyed and a third of Calais itself lay in flames. The Anglo-French coalition had another lost two dozen warships, making the already nerve-racking task of protecting Allied sea corridors that much more difficult. In a cable to Stalin that night, a jubilant Hitler crowed that "we have kicked in the front door of the the so-called ‘Anglo-French alliance’, and soon the whole rotten edifice will come crashing down!"
While the Germans and their Anglo-French foes were fighting in the waters of the North Sea, the Soviet expeditionary force in Finland had gotten a rude awakening from the seemingly helpless Finns. The Finnish army, under the leadership of Field Marshal Karl Gustaf Mannerheim, had at last stopped retreating and gone over to the attack in a four-pronged offensive that threw a monkey wrench into Stalin’s war plans.
The leader of the Soviet invasion contingent in Finland, Marshal Semyon Budenny, was caught flat-footed by the Finnish offensive and badly bungled the Red Army’s response to the attack. In contrast to the professionalism and coolness under fire that were the hallmarks of the Volksarmee soldier’s conduct in the West, the Soviet troops fell back in a disorganized rout exacerbated by panic; most of the ordinary Red Army soldiers in Finland were conscripts forcibly drafted into service by Moscow, and in some cases these conscripts came from ethnic groups more sympathetic to the Finnish cause than that of Marxist-Leninist solidarity.
Stalin was not the type to suffer fools gladly, especially when said fools held positions of high responsibility in his armed forces. On the morning of November 27th Stalin relieved Marshal Budenny of his command and summoned him to Moscow, where he received a savage dressing down by the CPSU leader before being taken by the NKVD to the notorious Lubianka Prison and executed by firing squad for his incompetence. Stalin then drafted a telegram to his protégé Georgi Zhukov requesting him to take charge of the Red Army front in Finland at once and halt the Finnish onslaught. Zhukov, not one to turn his back on a challenge or pass up a chance to win Stalin’s favor, immediately complied with the request and on November 30th accepted a temporary transfer from the Far East to the field headquarters of the Red Army’s Finnish expeditionary force.
The Finns would soon learn much to their dismay that General Zhukov was not as easily panicked as Marshal Budenny had been-- in fact, Zhukov was hardly the type to panic at all. Within 24 hours after taking up his new command, the general had issued his famous "not a step back" order instructing Red Army troops to hold their positions at all costs; sacked a half-dozen battalion and division commanders he felt weren’t fit for their posts; and written up the preliminary draft of a plan for a three-column attack against the Finnish army.
On December 4th, 1938 the Soviets unleashed their new offensive, code-named Operation Winter Frost, with a predawn artillery barrage on the most vulnerable sections of the Finnish front line. This barrage, supplemented by punishing tactical air attacks, threw off the timing of Finnish ground operations and allowed Red Army ski troops to exploit gaps in the Finnish right flank in order to mount a surprise assault on the Finns’ rear echelon. The Finnish advance towards the Soviet border, which had been going like gangbusters until then, slowed to a crawl and then stopped as the Soviets got their second wind.
By December 7th the Soviets had regained at least a quarter of the territory they’d previously lost to the Finnish counteroffensive and Soviet bombers were raiding Helsinki on an hourly basis. Finland’s Scandanavian neighbors, Sweden and Norway, nervously watched this turn of events and wondered whether they too might become targets of Soviet aggression in the near future. Their responses to this danger, however, were as different as night and day: while the Norwegians resolutely followed a pacifistic foreign policy and sought at all costs to avoid a showdown with Moscow, the Swedes prepared to defend their homeland tooth and nail should the Red Army seek to violate Stockholm’s neutrality in the European war.
But Stalin had no interest in Sweden, except as a possible conduit through which the Communist bloc might make cease-fire approaches to the West once victory over Britain and France was certain. As for Norway, it could wait for the time being; the important things at the moment, the Soviet dictator thought, were to complete the vanquishing of the Finns and gain a foothold for the Red Army in eastern Europe. While Zhukov was busy smashing the Finnish army, his peer and rival Ivan Konev was busy putting the crowning touches on the battle plan for the upcoming Soviet invasion of Finland, code-named Operation Watch on the Vistula.
On the other side of the Soviet-Polish border, Polish war minister Tadeusz Kasprzycki ordered his top air and ground commanders to redouble their vigilance against attack lest the Red Army tried to do to Poland what the Volksarmee had already done to Belgium and Holland and was doing to Italy and France. Kasprzycki’s caution was well-founded: on December 11th Stalin gave the Red Army the go-ahead to begin Operation Watch on the Vistula at the earliest possible date following the end of the war with Finland.
Around this same time the French and Italian general staffs hastily drew up battle plans for a joint attack through the Po Valley aimed at cutting the German-Austrian ground forces in Italy in two. The Heimwehr and the Volksarmee had been steadily working their way south since the Italian invasion began, and they had progressed sufficiently far that by now Hitler’s generals were beginning to seriously contemplate an all-out push to take Rome starting after New Year’s Day. But the Communist forces had paid a dangerous price for their territorial gains; they’d seriously overextended themselves and their supply lines, and now the Allied powers hoped to exploit that strain in order to seriously disrupt the Communist war effort.
Though the Anglo-French-Italian coalition had taken a severe beating in the opening days of the war against the Communist bloc, they still had a great many military resources to draw upon-- not the least of these being 10 French army divisions held in reserve near the Franco-Italian border. Originally they’d all been intended to play a defensive role, acting as a deterrent against German incursions into southern France, but the French general staff had now decided that five of these divisions should instead serve as a battering ram for cracking open the Volksarmee’s defenses in the Po Valley and gaining a toehold for the Allies in northern Italy. The French forces, expected to number at least 100,000 men, would be backed up by an Italian expeditionary corps of five divisions under the command of Marshal Rodolfo Graziani.
The Italian liaison to the French general staff, General Eduardo "Electric Whiskers"4 Bergonzoli, was known to be a great admirer of French armored strategist Charles de Gaulle; he was especially keen on de Gaulle’s notion of using armor in mass numbers supported by tactical air raids5. He convinced the French and Italian high commands to increase the number of combat planes committed to the offensive, and in so doing made what may have been the greatest strategic contribution to the Po Valley campaign.
The Po Valley assault, code-named Operation Kraken, began just after 5:00 AM Paris time on December 14th, 1938 with a surprise infantry attack on the Valle d’Aosta provincial capital of Aosta. The Communist forces in the area immediately rushed to halt the offensive, but they were sharply outnumbered and stretched paper-thin; hastening to capitalize on their initial success in breaching the Germans’ defenses, the Franco-Italian expeditionary troops moved to liberate Turin and encircle Milan, known to be one of the major Volksarmee strongholds in Italy at the time. Thoughts of capturing Rome were temporarily forgotten as the Germans and their Austrian comrades-in-arms battled to stem the Franco-Italian tide. For a Western public which had gotten little more than bad news for the past few months, news of the success of the first phase of Operation Kraken was a welcome tonic; some of the more optimistic commentators in the Western press were even bold enough to start making predictions of an thrust into Austria during the coming spring.
This galled Hitler, who had hoped to see his armies conquer Rome and Paris by New Year’s Day; he ordered the Volksarmee general staff to turn back the Franco-Italian expeditionary force at all costs and flooded the Soviet embassy in Berlin with telegram after telegram urging Stalin to send help before it was too late....
To Be Continued
1Named after the Russian sailor who launched the famous 1905 Potemkin mutiny.
2Named in honor of a veteran revolutionary and deputy KPD secretary who died in a plane crash shortly before the German invasion of Italy.
3Most of these were shot down by RAF Hurricanes or French fighters; in 1938 anti-aircraft guns on both the Allied and Communist sides tended to be wildly inaccurate.
4So nicknamed by the British press because of his rather generous beard and mustache.
5Which, incidentally, put him and de Gaulle in the same philosophical camp with Achtung Panzer! author and Volksarmee tank warfare specialist Col. Heinz Guiderian.