Portugal dealt with problems as well, when Field Marshal Keitel ordered a sabotage of outgoing flights from Portugal in early 1942. The Luftwaffe ended up shooting down hundreds of flights from Lisbon to London. After the Americans landed in North Africa, the Portuguese Azore territory became a vital area for air bases for the British to use. They let the British use them but not the Americans out of fear of losing their neutrality. Germany became increasingly upset with Spain and Portugal’s attitudes towards the war but by this point they were starting to stretch their men and machines thin and did not have the time or resources to deal with them.
GERMAN COMMERCE RAIDERS
Despite the success of German submarines, they could not cripple the Allied shipping lines alone. Instead, Germany turned to armed merchant ships to supplement their U-boats, a practice first applied in WWI. In the 1930s, the Kriegsmarine emphasized battleships and battlecruisers, called panzerschiffe, with the ultimate goal of isolating Britain into surrender. Still, Hitler knew he could not build a fleet large enough to contend with the powerful British Royal Navy and instead focused on airpower and armor. As a result, the Kriegsmarine was the weakest link of the German military and they had to rely heavily on their limited supply of U-boats. At the beginning of the war, Germany only had 57 combat ready submarines. Admiral Raeder remembered that armed merchant boats, disguised as commercial vessels, could pose a serious threat to Allied shipping and dispatched a fleet of ten. These "commerce raiders" sailed for the south seas, where British naval defenses were weak. With names like Komet, Michel, Moewe, Stier, and Thor, they took on the identity of Allied or neutral ships and waited for the right opportunity to fire upon an unsuspecting victim. One infamous commerce raider, the Pinguin, masqueraded as a Soviet craft and went on a killing spree, alerting the British to dispatch air patrols to hunt her down. By the end of 1940, the Pinguin had sunk or captured 11 Allied ships, earning her skipper, Captain Kruder, the Knight’s Cross. By the summer of 1941, however, the British had learned their lesson. The legendary code-breakers of Bletchley Park, increased air patrols and escorted merchant convoys made it increasingly difficult for the Germans to exploit Allied shipping lanes. The Pinguin had the misfortune of meeting the HMS Cornwall in open waters and despite being outgunned, opened fire on the British ship. Captain Kruder knew he had no chance but wanted to end the Pinguin’s career honorably—in about one year she had sunk 200,000 tons of Allied shipping. The Cornwall fired back in retaliation and sent the Pinguin to the bottom of the ocean. Captain Kruder was not one of the 82 survivors.
Another bold commerce raider was the Atlantis, commanded by Captain Bernhard Rogge. While the boat did not sink as much tonnage as the Pinguin, by a twist of fate she ended up having more of a direct impact on the war. On 11 November 1940, the Atlantis captured the SS Automedon, a British ship carrying top secret documents about the British situation in the far east. They described in detail where the British were weak, a vital piece of intelligence for the Axis powers. The British believed the records were destroyed, but once copies of these documents were in the hands of the Japanese, Britain’s vulnerabilities in the Pacific were exposed. Particularly devastating was Britain’s dire position in Singapore. They lacked sufficient tanks and fighter planes to defend their garrison, and the Japanese used this knowledge when they captured the territory in February 1942. The Americans suffered because of this costly blunder. Japan knew it could not confront both the British and American navies, but after learning how thin the British were spread in the Pacific, Japan could concentrate their forces against the US. This was applied in swift and deadly force at Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Japan’s Emperor Hirohito was so grateful for the help of the Atlantis that he bestowed the ultimate honor on Captain Rogge: a samurai sword. His ship, however, was assigned to a tragic fate. On 23 November 1941 the HMS Devonshire (ironically the sister ship of the Cornwall) attacked the Atlantis and destroyed her. The 351 survivors were rescued, thanks to lifeboats and a friendly U-boat. The defeated sailors then tried to board the German ship Python, but she too was sunk by the tenacious British. Miraculously the survivors made it back to Germany, where Admiral Raeder presented every sailor with a special naval badge for enduring the long, perilous journey. One other notable commerce raider was the Kormoran, who was the only one of her kind to sink an Allied warship, the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney, but the engagement also destroyed the Kormoran and took the lives of 85 Germans. Tragically, the Sydney went down with all hands—645 sailors. This was a testament to how effective these ships could be at disrupting the Allied navies. Half of the tonnage sunk by German surface ships was perpetrated by the small but lethal fleet of commerce raiders.
On 8 November 1942 the Allied invasion of North Africa, "Operation Torch," began, sending 107,000 soldiers to North Africa (roughly 75% American, 25% British) to secure 3 main beachheads, then move east to Tunisia before the Axis got there. Using 500 ships, the invasion was met from French resistance, because Morocco and Algeria were under the Nazi-controlled Vichy regime. The landing was perilous: vehicles fell overboard, ships landed at the wrong beaches and soldiers drowned from heavy packs, in addition to taking heavy fire. After an initial struggle, the Allies captured Algiers within 24 hours. At Oran the Allies took heavy fire from French ships and coastal batteries, but concentrated armor and infantry captured the city on 10 November. In response to losing North African territory adjacent to France, 10 German and 6 Italian divisions marched into Vichy France to guard against southern invasion.
After such a quick defeat, Hitler lost his ambivalence about the war in the Mediterranean and realized after Rommel’s defeat that he would have to defend the southern regions. Reinforcements poured into Tunisia to meet the Allies, who had left Algiers and reached Souk el Arba, 80 miles from the Germans in Tunis. On 27 November the Germans and American armor clashed for the first time in WWII and the powerful Panzer IVs chewed up the light M3s. Since the Germans were effectively dug into the mountains, British General Kenneth Anderson told General Eisenhower that they needed a break. On 22 December under a rainstorm the Allies fought in a ferocious hand-to-hand battle up a hill and had to be replaced with another battalion the next day. The rains came harder, creating mud that was impossible to walk in or drive through. The Allies fought through Christmas and were beaten enough to withdraw. Eisenhower called for a time-out on the campaign to reinforce, knowing his soldiers simply were not ready for such combat.
THE RETREAT OF THE GRAND FLEET
On 13 September, the convoy known as PQ-18 was attacked by German torpedo planes and 8 ships were sunk in 8 minutes. U-Boats sank another 5, but the Luftwaffe lost 20 planes in the process. In the last week in December a new convoy with dangerously few escorts teased the Germans into pursuit. Hitler was enthusiastic about establishing naval dominance, but he emphasized the need to avoid any unnecessary risks. When the German navy met up with the convoy, a smokescreen was put up to defend against the German warships Admiral Hipper and Lützow. British Captain Robert Sherbrooke, aboard the destroyer Onslow bravely kept the Admiral Hipper at bay for 2 hours by defiantly attacking it. Even after having half of his face ripped off from an enemy shell, Sherbrooke hit the Admiral Hipper 3 times, and consequently the Germans called off the attack for fear of losing their precious warships. Hitler was livid about the retreat and told them that German warships were useless and only U-Boats and the Luftwaffe would defend Norway. He also replaced Admiral Raeder with Admiral Karl Dönitz, who convinced Hitler to save the fleet, but to scrap old ships like the Admiral Hipper.
Stalingrad, now known as Volgograd, is an industrial city in southern Russia on the Volga River, and became a primary target for Hitler. His main concern at the time was to capture as much of the region as possible to obtain the Caucasian oil fields. The actual city of Stalingrad had very little strategic value, but in Hitler's mind, its namesake alone was worth its capture to destroy Soviet morale. The attack on Stalingrad was made by the German 6th Army, led by General Friedrich Paulus, and the 4th Panzer Army, led by General Hermann Hoth. Initially the German advance on Stalingrad had been fairly easy. They had complete superiority of both air and ground and very little stood in their way, especially after the massive air strike on 23 August. The wooden buildings were all destroyed and the Soviets were left without any kind of defensive position. However, once they moved past the suburbs and into the city, the Germans came up against a labyrinth of brick, concrete and steel. One victim of this frustration was German General Doerr, who said, "Despite the concentrated activity of aircraft and artillery, it was impossible to break out of the area of close fighting. The Russians surpassed the Germans in their use of the terrain and in camouflage and were more experienced in barricade warfare for individual buildings."
Hitler foolishly sent Hoth to the Caucasus, allowing the Soviets to put up a good fight against the 6th Army. By the time Hitler ordered Hoth back to Stalingrad, he had run out of supplies 100 miles from the city. Paulus stalled on the outskirts of Stalingrad, but linked up with Hoth on 2 September. The Volga ferries, which gave the Soviets most of their men and supplies, would be the focal point of the battle. If the Soviets could keep the lifeline open, they would theoretically be able to resupply the west bank indefinitely. If the Germans could stop the boats from commuting, the Soviets would be cut off from reinforcements and be strangled. The problem was the geography of the Volga: between the banks were dozens of small islands, cluttering the heavily curved river flow. This made it virtually impossible for the Germans to identify and destroy all of the ships traveling back and forth, even more so at night when the traffic was heaviest. Legendary Soviet General Vasili Chuikov remarked, "anyone without experience of war would think that in the blazing city there is no longer anywhere left to live, that everything has been destroyed and burnt out."
The Germans broke the Soviet lines on 14 September, leading them to believe the hardest part was over. One Soviet soldier commented "We saw drunken Germans jumping down from their lorries, playing mouth organs, shouting like mad-men and dancing on the pavements." Though the Germans thought victory was days away, nothing could be further from the truth. When Paulus made it to the northern industrial region, Chuikov repelled him on 29 September. On 4 October, General Paulus made a regretful decision to attack the Soviet strongholds in Stalingrad, including the infamous tractor factory. Within a few weeks he had captured many of these targets except the factory, which was divided between the two armies. On 14 October the Germans tried again, but within 10 days it was a stalemate. Paulus readied for a southern attack, but ended up losing many men sent to the North African campaign to deal with the Allied invasion.
The Soviets wisely held their fire on advancing German armor until the best possible moment, usually from a distance under the protection of a building. The Germans would then spot the anti-tank gun or T-34 and blast away at the building it lay in. There was considerable destruction, but this only made it harder for any tank or vehicle to roll into the city. There was also a dilemma with the panzer's ammunition: high-explosive shells could take down a building, but would only bounce off a T-34's exterior. Armor piercing rounds could knock out the T-34, but would pass through a building like a bullet through paper. In the heat of battle it could be difficult to switch ammunition back and forth, and a mistake or delay might prove fatal. Additionally, most tanks could not raise their main guns high enough to take out anything but the first or second floor. Soviet anti-tank gunners and snipers could set up on the roof or upper stories, destroying and demoralizing any German progress. One German remembers learning the hard way: "We would spend the whole day clearing a street, from one end to the other, establish blocks and fire-points at the western end...but at dawn the Russians would start up firing from their old positions at the far end! They had knocked communicating holes through between the garrets and attics and during the night they would run back like rats in the rafters, and set their machine guns up behind some topmost window or broken chimney." Flamethrower units became essential to root out the dug-in defenders, although one well-aimed shot could engulf the operator and anything near him in flames--volunteers were in short supply.
All in all, it was a frustrating time for the Germans, who outnumbered the Soviets in infantry, armor and aircraft. This was largely due to Zhukov's stoic decision to only send five replacement divisions across the river between 1 September and 1 November. Many German commanders thought the Soviets had used their last full measure, but in reality 27 infantry divisions and 19 armored brigades had been created and were awaiting orders. Standard Soviet practice was to deploy new units then rotate them out until they had a substantial reserve force with combat experience. On the other hand, the Germans had no shortage of wounded, sick and exhausted troops. The great summer offensive had turned into an autumn quagmire comparable to Verdun of the First World War. Frustrated, Hitler fired several of his commanders. General von Wietersheim, commander of the 14th Panzer Korps was one of the most aggressive commanders of the French campaign, but was banished to Germany in shame, eventually being demoted to Private. General List, commander of Army Group A, was ordered to storm across the Caucasus but his reinforcements were sent to the Crimea instead, and his inability to capture the oil fields was seen as failure. Hitler's bitter disagreement with General Halder over intelligence had Halder replaced with General Zeitzler. Hitler also wanted OKW Chief of Staff Alfred Jodl removed but his rage eventually calmed down and Jodl stayed. General von Schwedler, commander of the 4th Panzer Korps had notions of the Soviets launching a counterattack, an unthinkable idea with treasonous implications. This was partly because of the consensus that the Soviets' counterattack would be to the north, against Army Group Center. In actuality, the Germans mistook Soviet training tactics on the static central front for a massive buildup.
German panzer units began melting into infantry companies until there were no infantry units to be seen--eventually they all burrowed under the city. It seemed only the sewers offered protection from the shells and bombs that turned the buildings to rubble. On 11 November Paulus tried another offensive in these new battlefields, but it was hopeless. Men on both sides were physically and psychologically stretched to the breaking point: starving, sleep-deprived and injured, Stalingrad was no longer a campaign but a series of isolated, aimless, and bloody skirmishes. For a week it appeared that the stalemate would carry through the bitter winter...until 19 November. For 4 straight days the Soviets pounded German positions until their lines were irreparably cracked. Zhukov infiltrated six armies of troops through these fissures like water through a sieve. The Soviets overran the Romanian divisions protecting the Germans' flank, leaving the 6th Army vulnerable to a Red Army encirclement. The Romanian divisions, under General Dumitrescu, were hardly equipped to stop the Soviets. They carried the gear the French had surrendered two years before, and only one puny 37mm anti-tank gun per division. They finally received German 75mm guns in October but these were limited to 6 for each division. Supplies of every kind were dwindling down to nothing. For the Germans, the situation degraded from hopeless to chaotic. One German of the 24th Panzer division lieutenant described it: "Stalingrad is no longer a town. By day it is an enormous cloud of burning, blinding smoke." The Soviets had learned from their mistakes the previous winter, that it was wasteful to attack in a massive haphazard force. This time, in Stalingrad, they were sharply focused on surrounding and eliminating the German 6th Army--nothing could shake Zhukov's resolve.
On 23 November a column of German vehicles rolled up to the Kalach bridge, which provided Paulus' men with access to supplies from the west. It was guarded by a platoon of engineers who had orders to blow it up should the Soviets try to capture it, and when the German lieutenant saw German vehicles, he let them pass. Suddenly the vehicles stopped, and a team of Soviet troops jumped out. They gunned down the Germans and captured the bridge, thereby effectively cutting off the 6th Army. Hitler received a plea from Paulus the same day asking to "shorten" the Stalingrad front--a late and undoubtedly futile request. Within 24 hours the Germans were surrounded. The German commanders sensed danger and asked to reposition themselves before the Soviets get a chance to reinforce. Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring boasted he could fly 500 tons of supplies in daily, so Hitler ordered the troops to remain where they were. This was a fateful decision because the Luftwaffe could not deliver more than 100 tons of supplies even on a good day. Field Marshal von Manstein was then put in charge to rescue Paulus' troops, code named Wintergewitter, or "winter storm." The Soviets were in strength along the Chir river, something the Germans could not possibly hope to hold back. Manstein's plan to save Stalingrad was hinged on reinforcements and supplies arriving in December. Even though he was issued substantial reinforcements, he wanted Hoth's forces to be the rescuing spearhead. Hoth attacked on 12 December and advanced successfully over a three day period. However, Hoth could not be expected to drill into Soviet territory all the way to Paulus and back again. Paulus himself had become uncooperative, complaining that Hoth could never reach him in time, and surrender was not an option. Manstein was ordered to stabilize the line but realized it would be best for Paulus to break out and regroup with him later. Paulus feared Hitler’s orders and did not listen to von Manstein and as a result the Soviets tightened the noose on the 6th Army with their attacks. 250,000 soldiers were cut off when the Soviets swung around and General Rokossovsky and General Yeremenko met up.