Already on November 3, when the first reports had come in of Rommel’s disaster at Second Battle of Alamein (between 23rd October -11th November , %55 of manpower and %96 of tank strength in Panzer Army Army was totally destroyed in Egypt by Eighth Army and Montgomery’s forces were reconquering Libya in full pursuit of retreating Axis forces remnants) , the Fuehrer’s headquarters had received word that an Allied armada had been sighted assembling at Gibraltar. No one at OKW could make out what it might be up to. Hitler was inclined to think it was merely another heavily guarded convoy for Malta. This is interesting because more than a fortnight earlier, on October 15, the OKW staff chiefs had discussed several reports about an imminent “Anglo-Saxon landing” in West Africa. The intelligence apparently came from Rome, for Italian Foreign Minister Count Ciano a week before, on October 9, noted in his diary after a talk with the chief of the military secret service that “the Anglo–Saxons are preparing to land in force in North Africa.” The news depressed Ciano; he foresaw—correctly, as it turned out—that this would lead inevitably to a direct Allied assault on Italy.
Hitler, preoccupied as he was with the failure of the Russians to cease their infernal resistance, did not take this first intelligence very seriously. At a meeting of OKW on October 15, Jodl suggested that Vichy France be permitted to send reinforcements to North Africa so that the French could repel any Anglo–American landings. The Fuehrer, according to the OKW Diary, turned the suggestion down because it might ruffle the Italians, who were jealous of any move to strengthen France. At the Supreme Commander’s headquarters the matter appears to have been forgotten until November 3. But on that day, although German agents on the Spanish side of Gibraltar had reported seeing a great Anglo–American fleet gathering there, Hitler was too busy rallying Rommel at El Alamein (Panzer Army Afrika was being crushed at this point with Monty’s breakthrough at El Alamein) to bother with what appeared to him to be merely another convoy for Malta.
On November 5, OKW was informed that one British naval force had sailed out of Gibraltar headed east. But it was not until the morning of November 7, twelve hours before American and British troops began landing in North Africa, that Hitler gave the latest intelligence from Gibraltar some thought. The forenoon reports received at his headquarters in East Prussia were that British naval forces in Gibraltar and a vast fleet of transports and warships from the Atlantic had joined up and were steaming east into the Mediterranean. There was a long discussion among the staff officers and the Fuehrer. What did it all mean? What was the objective of such a large naval force? Hitler was now inclined to believe, he said, that the Western Allies might be attempting a major landing with some four or five divisions at Tripoli or Benghazi in order to catch Rommel in the rear. Admiral Krancke, the naval liaison officer at OKW, declared that there could not be more than two enemy divisions at the most. Even so! Something had to be done. Hitler asked that the Luftwaffe in the Mediterranean be immediately reinforced but was told this was impossible “for the moment.” Judging by the OKW Diary all that Hitler did that morning was to notify Rundstedt, Commander in Chief in the West, to be ready to carry out “Anton.” This was the code word for the occupation of the rest of France.
Whereupon the Supreme Commander, heedless of this ominous news or of the plight of Rommel, who would be trapped if the Anglo–Americans landed behind him, or of the latest intelligence warning of an imminent Russian counteroffensive on the Don in the rear of the Sixth Army at Stalingrad, entrained after lunch on November 7 for Munich, where on the next evening he was scheduled to deliver his annual speech to his old party cronies gathered to celebrate the anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch!The politician in him, as Halder noted, had got the upper hand of the soldier at a critical moment in the war. Supreme Headquarters in East Prussia was left in charge of a colonel, one Freiherr Treusch von Buttlar-Brandenfels. Generals Keitel and Jodl, the chief officers of OKW, went along to participate in the beerhouse festivities. There is something weird and batty about such goings on that take the Supreme warlord, who by now was insisting on directing the war on far-flung fronts down to the divisional or regimental or even battalion level, thousands of miles from the battlefields on an unimportant political errand at a moment when the house is beginning to fall in. A change in the man, a corrosion, a deterioration has set in, as it already had with Goering who, though his once all-powerful Luftwaffe had been steadily declining, was becoming more and more attached to his jewels and his toy trains, with little time to spare for the ugly realities of a prolonged and increasingly bitter war.
Anglo–American troops under General Eisenhower hit the beaches of Morocco and Algeria at 1:30 A.M. on November 8, 1942, and at 5:30 German Foreign Minister Von Ribbentrop (a dunce really) was on the phone from Munich to Ciano in Rome to give him the news.
“He was rather nervous [Ciano wrote in his diary] and wanted to know what we intended to do. I must confess that, having been caught unawares, I was too sleepy to give a very satisfactory answer.”
The Italian Foreign Minister learned from the German Embassy that the officials there were “literally terrified by the blow.”
Hitler’s special train from East Prussia did not arrive in Munich until 3:40 that afternoon and the first reports he got about the Allied landings in Northwest Africa were optimistic. Everywhere the French, he was told, were putting up stubborn resistance, and at Algiers and Oran they had repulsed the landing attempts. In Algeria, Germany’s friend, Admiral Darlan, was organizing the defense with the approval of the Vichy regime. Hitler’s first reactions were confused. He ordered the garrison at Crete, which was quite outside the new theater of war, immediately strengthened, explaining that such a step was as important as sending reinforcements to Africa. He instructed the Gestapo to bring Generals Weygand and Giraud (who already escaped to Gibraltar) to Vichy and to keep them under surveillance. He asked Field Marshal von Rundstedt to set in action Anton but not to cross the line of demarcation in France until he had further orders. And he requested Ciano and Pierre Laval, who was now Premier of Vichy France, to meet him in Munich the next day.
For about twenty-four hours Hitler toyed with the idea of trying to make an alliance with France in order to bring her into the war against Britain and America and, at the moment, to strengthen the resolve of the Pétain government to oppose the Allied landings in North Africa. He probably was encouraged in this by the action of Pétain in breaking off diplomatic relations with the United States on the morning of Sunday, November 8, and by the aged French Marshal’s statement to the U.S. chargé d’affaires that his forces would resist the Anglo–American invasion. The OKW Diary for that Sunday emphasizes that Hitler was preoccupied with working out “a far-reaching collaboration with the French.” That evening the German representative in Vichy, Krug von Nidda, submitted a proposal to Pétain for a close alliance between Germany and France.
By the next day, following his speech to the party veterans, in which he proclaimed that Stalingrad was “firmly in German hands,” the Fuehrer had changed his mind. He told Ciano he had no illusions about the French desire to fight and that he had decided on “the total occupation of France, a landing in Corsica, a bridgehead in Tunisia.” This decision, though not the timing, was communicated to Laval when he arrived in Munich by car on November 10. This traitorous Frenchman promptly promised to urge Pétain to accede to the Fuehrer’s wishes but suggested that the Germans go ahead with their plans without waiting for the senile old Marshal’s approval, which Hitler fully intended to do. Count Ciano has left a description of the Vichy Premier, who was executed for treason after the war :
“Laval, with his white tie and middle-class French peasant attire, is very much out of place in the great salon among so many uniforms. He tries to speak in a familiar tone about his trip and his long sleep in the car, but his words go unheeded. Hitler treats him with frigid courtesy…The poor man could not even imagine the fait accompli that the Germans were to place before him. Not a word was said to Laval about the impending action—that the orders to occupy France were being given while he was smoking his cigarette and conversing with various people in the next room. Von Ribbentrop told me that Laval would be informed only the next morning at 8 o’clock that on account of information received during the night Hitler had been obliged to proceed to the total occupation of the country.”
The orders for the seizure of unoccupied France, in clear violation of the armistice agreement, were given by Hitler at 8:30 P.M. on November 10 and carried out the next morning without any other incident than a futile protest by Pétain. The Italians occupied Corsica, and German planes began flying in troops to seize French-held Tunisia before Eisenhower’s forces could get there.
There was one further—and typical—piece of Hitlerian deceit. On November 13 the Fuehrer assured Pétain that neither the Germans nor the Italians would occupy the naval base at Toulon, where the French fleet had been tied up since the armistice. On November 25 the OKW Diary recorded that Hitler had decided to carry out “Lila” as soon as possible.* This was the code word for the occupation of Toulon and the capture of the French fleet. On the morning of the twenty-seventh German troops attacked the naval port, but French sailors held them up long enough to allow the crews, on the orders of Admiral de Laborde, to scuttle the ships. The French fleet was thus lost to the Axis, which badly needed its warships in the Mediterranean, but it was denied also to the Allies, to whom it would have been a most valuable addition.
The Rise and Fall of Third Reich - William Shrier