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A Chacun Son Boche:

The Allied Push On Berlin, 1917

 

 

by Chris Oakley

 

 

Part 7

 

 

 

Summary: In the previous six episodes of this series we followed the events leading from the capture of vital German military papers in 1914 to the folding of the Second Reich in 1917; the Versailles-Geneva peace treaty that ended the First World War; the Spanish flu epidemic that wiped out much of the human race in the first months after the war was over; the establishment of the League of Nations and Woodrow Wilsonís failed attempts to get the United States into the League; the American shift towards isolationism during the 1920s; the start of the Great Depression; the rise to power of fascist regimes in Germany and Italy; the resurgence of Communism in 1930s Russia; the start of World War II; the Soviet campaign in Poland in the spring and summer of 1939; the Allied landings in mainland Italy; and the fall of Mussolini. In this chapter weíll review the Polish governmentís efforts to reach safety in Romania, Allied preparations to invade Austria, and the beginning of the final decline in US-Japanese relations that would culminate in the outbreak of war between the United States and Japan in 1941.

******

The loss of Warsaw was a bitter pill for the Polish people and their government to swallow. Up to the very last moment, it had been hoped that the Soviet assault on Polandís storied capital could be thrown back; when the Kazprzycki administration finally gave public acknowledgement that the battle for Warsaw was over and the Polish army had lost, it felt to many of Kazprzyckiís fellow Poles like he was announcing a death in their family. With Warsaw now in Soviet hands, it seemed like just a question of time before the Red Army successfully completed its campaign to conquer Poland. And indeed, within hours after Prime Minister Kazprzycki issued his confirmation of the fall of Warsaw, the Soviets captured another historic Polish city, Krakow.

At Prime Minister Kazprzyckiís temporary headquarters in Lodz, the mood among his cabinet ministers was one of worry if not sheer panic-- though in public they continued to put on a brave face. The wolf was literally and figuratively almost at their door, and the task of finding asylum outside Polandís borders had become a matter of life and death. Eventually the Kazprzycki government succeeded in cutting a secret deal with Romania to let the ministers and what was left of the Polish army claim asylum there before moving on to Great Britain and France.

On July 28th, 1939 Kazprzyckiís cabinet began evacuating in small groups to Bucharest; by then Soviet artillery was in shelling range of the suburbs of Lodz and the Polish air force could count its available combat aircraft on one hand. What was left of Polandís army was desperately short on most vital supplies and also suffering a steadily increasing desertion rate. In those sectors of Poland already under Red Army control, Polish Communists were being trained by the NKVD for sabotage and propaganda missions intended to further undermine the Polish armed forcesí already badly shaken morale; in the shrinking part of the country still governed by the Kazprzycki administration rumors of pillage, rape, and murder by the advancing Soviet troops ran rampant and had the civilian population in a full- blown state of terror; and in all sectors of Poland a growing belief was emerging that the Soviet-Polish conflict had effectively reached its climax.

A similar consensus was emerging in the halls of the Kremlin; with the Polish government and army continuing to disintegrate and refugees fleeing by any means they could to sanctuary elsewhere in Europe, Joseph Stalin decided that the time was at hand to set up a pro-Moscow Polish Peopleís Republic. So he hosted a series of high- level meetings with Polish Communist officials to lay the foundation for a Marxist puppet regime in Warsaw; the Soviet strongman hoped to establish such a regime as soon as the last traces of the existing Polish government had been eliminated.

Some of his cronies in the Politburo felt he shouldnít even wait that long, and they found a strong advocate for their point of view in Vycheslav Molotov. On August 1st the Soviet foreign minister drafted a letter to Stalin recommending the puppet government be started within seven to ten days whether the Polish campaign was over by then or not. To delay on this matter, he warned, would be giving the Kazprzycki administration an opportunity to revive itself and go back on the attack against the Red Army.

Not surprisingly, Stalin came to agree with Molotovís viewpoint on this matter. He and Molotov had been political allies for years, and his own personal inclination in any case when it came to weaker countries was to cut them off at the knees the first chance he got. Within 48 hours after he received Molotovís letter, Stalin gave the Polish Communist Party the green light to announce the founding of the new Polish Peopleís Republic; the next morning Radio Warsaw, now under Marxist control, issued a terse bulletin proclaiming the birth of the Polish Communist state and the abolition of the Kazprzycki government.

******

After that, what was left of Polish resistance to the Soviets soon fell apart. On August 7th, three days after the new Communist regime in Poland took power, the Red Army overran Lodz, capturing in the process a few of Kazprzyckiís deputies who had the misfortune to still be trapped in the city when the Soviet advance columns broke through the ill-equipped remnants of the Polish army units defending it. By August 9th the only major Polish city which was still holding out against the Red Army was Poznan, and it was sealed off from the rest of the world by an ever-tightening siege cordon.

The four-day siege of Poznan was the final grim chapter in the Soviet conquest of Poland. Poznanís defenders were in effect facing the Red Army with one hand tied behind their backs and two fingers on the other hand broken; in spite of the disadvantages under which they labored, however, they put up a courageous fight against the Soviets before their battle lines collapsed late on the afternoon of the fourth day. And even after the collapse, many Polish soldiers would elude the Red Armyís clutches to join the anti-Stalin partisan bands which would be organized in the winter of 1939-1940.

******

On August 12th, the day after the siege of Poznan ended, British prime minister Winston Churchill went before the House of Commons to give what some consider the most brilliant speech of his political career. He warned that "an iron curtain of Marxist oppression" was descending across eastern Europe and urged his fellow MPs to support him in taking whatever steps were necessary to eject the Red Army from the territories it had occupied. With the Nazis still posing a threat to Anglo-French security in western Europe, there was hardly very much Churchill could do just then; still, the speech served a valuable purpose in reminding the prime ministerís peers about the importance of winning the war against Germany as soon as possible and also in reinforcing Churchillís reputation as a diehard enemy of tyranny whether of the left or of the right.

Before he could do anything about the Soviet occupation forces in Poland, Churchill first had to drive the Wehrmacht from Austria. Fortunately for the Allies this particular task wasnít an onerous as it might have appeared at first blush; with Italy squarely in the Allied camp after the fall of Mussolini and having declared war on the Third Reich shortly after the Grandi government made peace with the Allied powers1, the Anglo-French coalition had a perfect base from which to launch a combined ground-air thrust at the southern regions of Austria once the necessary troops and equipment had been assembled. And with the Allies continuing to hold the initiative on the Franco-German front, the Wehrmacht couldnít afford to transfer too many men to its Austrian frontier defenses.

Benito Mussolini, now running an Italian Fascist "government in exile" based in Munich, and Nazi governor-general of Austria Artur Seyss-Inquart were both justifiably worried that if the Allies got a foothold on Austrian soil they would more than likely wind up in a prison cell-- or the gallows. Churchill had said, and many of his fellow Allied leaders agreed, that once the war had been won and the fascist threat smashed all the highest-ranking Nazi and Fascisti political leaders should be tried for crimes against humanity and put to death if they were found guilty. In hopes of reassuring his fellow dictators, Hitler pointed out that the rugged terrain along  the Italian-Austrian border constituted a daunting natural obstacle to any potential invasion force; he also reminded them of the many troubles the Allies had encountered in trying to push into Austria during World War I.

Last but not least, the Nazi overlord boasted of "unbreakable" German land and air defenses on the Austrian side of the Austrian- Italian frontier. He personally pledged to Seyss-Inquart that the Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS would "drown the Anglo-French plutocrats and the puppets of the traitor Victor Emmanuel in their own blood".2 Seyss-Inquart fervently hoped the FŁhrer could make good on that promise; he did not particularly relish the prospect of winding up at the dock-- or on the gallows.

******

Throughout the latter half of August 1939 and well into the first half of September, the Allied armies continued to stockpile materiel and gather troops in preparation for the coming invasion of Austria; among those who would be in the advance guard of the assault on the Reichís southern borders were thousands of Italian soldiers whoíd been captured by the British during the North African campaign and subsequently repatriated to Italy under the terms of the peace treaty between the Allies and the Grandi government.

General Montgomery and his second-in-command at the time, Lt. General Harold Alexander, couldnít help but be amused by the irony that many of the same Italian soldiers once held prisoner by their army would now be fighting side-by-side with that same army to rid Austria of Hitlerís occupation forces. Hitler and Mussolini, for their part, found nothing funny about it whatsoever; Mussolini above all viewed the new Italian armyís participation in the campaign as a personal betrayal, and told Hitler that when he regained power in Italy his first official act would be to have all Italian soldiers who supported the British campaign lined against a wall and shot.

In hindsight, Mussoliniís talk of returning to power seems like extreme denial of the reality of his downfall; at the time, however, the Duce still cherished a glimmer of hope he could once more become ruler of Italy. He didnít know about Hitlerís and Goebbelsí gloomy perspective on his political future, or grasp the true depth of the hate most of his fellow Italians now felt towards him. And he most certainly had little comprehension about the true strength of the hammer blow the Allies were about to land on the Reichís southern border.

On September 21st, General Montgomery cabled this message to Prime Minister Churchill: "You asked me, Mr. Prime Minister, to notify you when I was ready to begin my attack against the German forces in Austria. Well, sir, I am ready NOW." Just over two hours after sending that cable, Montgomery received this jovial response from Churchill: "Have at it!" With those three simple words, the Allied campaign to liberate Austria began.

******

Shortly after Montgomery started his assault on Austria, the already frosty diplomatic relationship between the United States and Japan started to become downright glacial. Since the 1937 Japanese invasion of China the Roosevelt administration had been applying all the diplomatic and economic pressure that it could to force Tokyo to withdraw its troops from Chinese soil; naturally Japanís militarist government took considerable exception to this and looked for ways to get around the sanctions Washington imposed on it.

Some of the Imperial Armyís generals argued that the solution to breaking the US-sponsored embargo of Japan lay in seizing British and French colonies in Southeast Asia. Advocates of this approach argued that Britain and France would be too preoccupied by their war with Germany to put up more than token resistance against Japanese forces; critics of this approach countered that the burdens placed on the Anglo-French military by the war in Europe hadnít prevented the Allies from waging a successful campaign to kick Mussolini out of the Mediterranean.

Another proposed solution was a northern thrust into the Soviet Unionís Siberian territories to attain control of the mineral wealth known to exist in that region. This idea too was fraught with risk; the Japanese had fought a short but heated border war against the Soviets along the Manchurian frontier in late July and early August of 1939, a war they lost decisively. A second such defeat at the Red Armyís hands could spell the end of the Japanese Empire. Besides, said those disagreed with the proposal to invade Siberia, even if such a campaign succeeded it would constitute a distraction from the vital business of crushing China.

Throughout October and November of 1939, as the Wehrmacht fought Montgomeryís troops along Austriaís southern border while the Allied ground forces in western Germany struggled to cross the Rhine River, the Imperial Japanese Army general staff continued to quarrel with each other and with the admirals of the Imperial Navy about how to free Japan from the increasingly tight noose with which it was being strangled by the West. Abroad, Japanís diplomats tried urgently but fruitlessly to convince the Western powers, in particular the United  States, to give Japan a free hand in dealing with the Chinese.

The debates within the Imperial Army general staff in Tokyo took on renewed urgency in January of 1940 when Roosevelt made good on a long-standing threat and imposed an oil embargo on Japan. There was only an 18-month reserve fuel supply on the Japanese home islands, which left Emperor Hirohitoís government with one of two clear and equally unpleasant alternatives: either 1)capitulate to US demands for a total Japanese withdrawal from China and lose face in the eyes of the world and Hirohitoís fellow countrymen or 2)try to break the embargo by force of arms and risk touching off a long and costly war with the United States which Japan might very well lose.

Shortly after the embargo went into effect an Imperial Navy carrier warfare specialist, Commander Minoru Genda, presented his superiors with the results of a six-month-long study project heíd been working on at their behest. The projectís topic, naturally, was the dilemma of how to secure the raw materials Japan needed while at the same time avoiding a protracted conflict with the United States or other Western powers. Genda concluded that before the empire could make any new strategic moves in mainland Asia, the US Pacific Fleet would have to be lured into a showdown with the IJN in open waters and destroyed; the surest way to accomplish that aim, according to him, was to encourage the impression that the Japanese planned to invade US outposts in the Pacific region, such as Wake Island or the Philippines. That would, according to Gendaís theory, compel the US fleet to put to sea to counter the perceived threat-- at which point the Imperial Navy could then pounce on the Americans with its carrier planes like a lion on a gazelle.

With the US Pacific Fleetís battleships and carriers annihilated or crippled, the American naval presence in the Pacific would for all practical purposes be neutralized and the Imperial Army and Navy would be free to concentrate the bulk of their forces on seizing the European colonial holdings in southeast Asia; as for the USSR, Genda suggested, it could be bought off with a non-aggression pact in the short term. A senior Imperial Navy officer and former Japanese naval attachť, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, was sufficiently impressed with Commander Gendaís theories that he appointed Genda to his staff when Yamamoto was named commander-in-chief of the Imperial Fleet in April of 1940.

Gendaís logic was theoretically impeccable, and it might have worked to perfection but for the diligence of a team of American cryptographers who had been working nonstop since the fall of 1939 to crack Japanís diplomatic and naval codes...

******

At the time Roosevelt proclaimed the US oil embargo on Japan, the war on the Rhine front had stagnated and dwindled to a series of low-level tactical skirmishes between Allied and German infantry squads, leading a New York World-Telegram war correspondent to make the observation that "Thereís something kind of phony about this war". The phrase "phony war" quickly became part of the everyday American lexicon and constituted a fairly accurate description of the military situation along the Rhine front-- for a while, at any rate. But on a cold Saturday morning in early April of 1940, the so- called "phony war" would become dramatically and indisputably real to the fighting men on both sides of the Rhine River...

 

To Be Continued

 

Footnotes

1 See Part 6 for further details.

2 Excerpt from a telegram by Hitler to Seyss-Inquart dated August 14th, 1939.

 

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