BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
From the wartime archives
, April 13, 2013
Whitehall’s Secret Report on Why Hitler Lost the War
edited by Paul Winter
Hardcover: 432 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
A year after the defeat of Nazi Germany, a top-secret report, entitled Some Weaknesses in German Strategy and Organisation 1933-1945, was produced by the British government’s highest intelligence body, the Joint Intelligence Sub-Committee. The report, which was circulated among Britain’s military chiefs of staff, analysed German weaknesses that contributed to the country’s defeat in World War II. Although declassified in 1991, it has never been published in its entirety before now.
The report was based upon the considerable quantity of information gathered by British intelligence during World War II from various sources, including intercepted German radio communications, interviews of captured German personnel and seized documents, particularly the incredible volume of material that fell into British hands in the last phase of the war and after Germany’s capitulation.
Although the report was not in the public domain until decades after the war and as a consequence historians lacked access to it until the 1990s, Paul Winter, a specialist in wartime intelligence, accurately describes it as a “first draft” in assessing Germany’s failures in World War II.
Defeating Hitler contains an introduction by Dr Winter. Then follows the 1946 report itself. The bulk of the book, however, consists of appendices which expand upon the main details summarised in the report.
The 1946 report begins by examining the Third Reich’s pre-war annexations and the major phases of World War II. It asserts that Hitler was initially broadly successful in achieving his foreign policy aims because he took on only one opponent at a time. By contrast, what led to Germany’s defeat was that it ended up fighting more than one major opponent simultaneously in a war waged on multiple fronts, something Hitler had wanted to avoid.
Hitler had realised from the start that France would ultimately oppose him and that he would need to defeat France; but he was convinced that Britain would avoid involvement in such a conflict.
Hitler’s first major mistake was to attack the Soviet Union in 1941 without having first eliminated Britain. Hitler had planned to launch Operation Sealion, his plan to invade Britain, in 1940, but called it off in September of that year after the German Luftwaffe had failed to gain air superiority. Instead, Hitler turned to a strategy of attempting to knock out Britain through U-Boat attacks on its shipping.
Hitler was impatient to invade the Soviet Union, as he believed that delaying an attack would enable the Soviets time to build up their armed forces. His failure to eliminate Britain meant that not only was he fighting more than one major adversary at the same time, but that Britain itself could now provide the base from which a whole series of military actions, particularly bombing raids and the 1944 D-Day landings, were able to be launched against Germany and Axis-controlled territory.
Another major German failure was the lack of co-ordination of its military actions with those of its allies, particularly Japan. Hitler hoped that Japan would attack Singapore, Britain’s major military base in South-East Asia, while he launched Operation Barbarossa, on June 22, 1941, against the USSR.
Instead, Japan’s strategy involved a massive strike against the United States in December of that year with its attack on Pearl Harbor. (Singapore fell to the Japanese in February the following year). Thus, instead of Japan tying down British forces during Hitler’s campaign of 1941, Japan’s pre-emptive strike on the U.S. served only to bring in another major power into the war on the side of the Allies.
The report analyses Hitler’s personality. One of his chief weaknesses was his refusal to listen to advice he did not like. This trait became more pronounced as the war turned against Germany. Hitler had a loathing for and distrust of the German officer class and dismissed military leaders who either failed to achieve his objectives, which became more unrealistic as the war progressed, or who stood up to him.
Hitler’s earlier successes, such as the annexations of Austria and Czechoslovakia, and the invasions of Poland and France, only reinforced his belief that he was a master strategist and superior in judgement to his military advisers, some of whom had urged caution before these actions. Hitler surrounded himself with sycophants who told him what he wanted to hear. The British report also contends that, instead of delegating responsibilities to experts, he took on more and more work, and the pressure of the work ended up clouding his judgement.
The report notes that Albert Speer, one of Hitler’s henchmen, believed that the biggest mistake Hitler made was in making himself commander-in-chief in 1941. Sound military decisions by experienced generals were overruled by Hitler’s schemes. One of his major weaknesses as a strategist was his lack of contingency plans in the face of adversity, for example (as discussed above), his failure to eliminate Britain. This weakness became more pronounced as the tide of the war turned against him.
Another major failure was that of German intelligence. While the British report acknowledges some of its successes, particularly in counter-espionage and in infiltrating resistance networks in countries such as the Netherlands, Germany’s failures to gain vital information, particularly on experiencing reversals, were critical.
This was compounded by deficiencies in the analysis of material gathered as well as by the lack of co-ordination between various organisations, particularly the Abwehr (German military intelligence) and the Gestapo. Senior officers of the Abwehr despised the Nazis, with many of them being complicit in the plot to kill Hitler.
The priority Germany gave before the war to building up its army at the expense of the navy was to prove advantageous to Britain, particularly in 1940. Germany embarked on a massive increase in weapons production only after the war got underway. Furthermore, Germany was beset by labour shortages. Unlike his opponents, Hitler did not utilise Germany’s female population, but instead relied on less-than-willing foreign and slave labourers.
One deficiency in the 1946 report, noted by Dr Winter, is the scant attention it paid to one major primary source document, namely Hitler’s 1924 autobiography and blueprint for Nazi rule, Mein Kampf.
Defeating Hitler is a fascinating book. Although there has been extensive analysis and research into Nazi Germany since then, the report’s major conclusions have stood the test of time surprisingly well. The material presented is accessible to the average reader, while the dryer subject matter, such as the technical details of German armaments, have been wisely put into the book’s appendices.