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Lucky Hitler's Big Mistakes
A look at Hitler's misplaced belief that gigantic weapons would win him the war
Just published is Lucky Hitler's Big Mistakes - a survey of how luck and good fortune brought Hitler to power and extraordinary early success in the war. The author considers how Hitler narrowly avoided a series of sex scandals and an even longer series of assassination attempts, and consolidated his power by surrounding himself with a group of ‘yes men’.
He then goes on to consider how Hitler‘s downfall came about at his own hand. A catalogue of unforced errors in strategic and military decision-making made defeat inevitable. Not least among these was an obsession with ‘Festungen’ - fortified locations that were to become costly military dead ends. He also considers the wide range of technical projects that Hitler became involved in - from innovative Jet aircraft through to the ‘Wonder Weapons’ that he believed would win the war - the V1 and V2 rockets.
A highly readable survey of key points in Hitler’s career, although much of it will be very familiar to students of Nazi Germany.
The following excerpt considers Hitler’s fascination with big guns and super tanks:
Simpler for Hitler to understand was the V-3 ‘super-cannon’ with a range of up to 100 miles. It could be fired from the European mainland and hit London. An earlier version of this feasible weapon had been developed in the First World War by the German manufacturer Krupps. They had succeeded in building the ‘Paris Gun’ that could fire upon the French capital from the German border. It was famously named ‘Big Bertha’ (after Krupp’s wife) by the Allies.
The French had begun designing an even bigger gun, but the war ended before it could be built. In 1940, however, when Paris was occupied by the Germans, the plans were discovered, and German engineers began working on the new ‘super-cannon’ or V-3. The technical problems mounted, and progress was slow, but Hitler easily understood the impact that such a gun, relentlessly firing 600 high explosives shells every hour on London, would surely have in bringing the British to heel.
A site was created near Calais with a network of tunnels and armoured doors, serviced by an underground railway. Fifty new guns were emplaced despite one of them bursting during the later tests.
The same Lancaster bombers of 617 Squadron that had delivered the ‘bouncing bomb’ then dropped 35 tons of armour-piercing 'Tallboy bombs on the ‘super-cannon’ site and the V-3 was finished - never again to fire a shot.
Locally based British spies worked out what was happening, and the genius design engineer, Barnes Wallis, was able to again resolve the physical problems presented in attacking such a well defended place. Wallis had been the inventor and designer ofthe ‘bouncing bomb’ used successfully in the 'Dambusters raid on the three dams in the Ruhr valley, the year before.
To overcome the problem of dropping a bomb on an underground factory, covered by up to 20 feet of reinforced concrete Wallis produced the 'Tallboy. The same Lancaster bombers of 617 Squadron that had delivered the ‘bouncing bomb’ then dropped 35 tons of armour-piercing 'Tallboy bombs on the ‘super-cannon’ site and the V-3 was finished - never again to fire a shot.
Other giant artillery guns were built by Hitler’s engineers including the spectacular 200-ton K5, the 300-ton K12 Railway guns, and the monstrous 1300-ton Gustav Gerat ‘Dora’.
The K5 did succeed in firing a number of shells 70 miles, but all the giant guns were plagued by technical problems. Impressive though they looked, they never became the Wunderwaffe that Hitler was counting on to turn the tide of the war.
Hitler’s mistake was that when told by his scientists and engineers that it would never be able to fire high explosive shells on London, he ignored them. The result was yet another colossal waste of time, money and valuable resources on wishful thinking by a dreamer, not a leader.
Tanks, Armoured Fighting Vehicles (AFVs), Self-Propelled Guns (SPGs)
Dr. Ferdinand Porsche (grandfather of the man who designed the Volkswagen ‘Beetle’ and later the first Porsche 911 sports car) was ordered by Hitler to come up with new ideas and designs. He was in competition with Henschel & Son, a long-established manufacturer of heavy vehicles including AFVs.
The outcome was the Jagdpanzer Ferdinand and the Tiger. The former was a formidable mobile anti-tank vehicle equipped with a devastating 88mm gun. Henschels’ years of experience building the lighter Panzers no doubt helped them produce the soon to be ubiquitous, and very successful, Tiger tank, which would be continuously upgraded over the next three years.
Hitler was again taken by surprise during Operation Barbarossa, not only by the vast numbers of T34s that Stalin had been able to produce so quickly but by their superior performance. The V12 engine was faster, the 76mm turret gun more powerful, the sloping armour more resistant, and the wider track better able to deal with the Russian terrain. Once again, Hitler’s reaction was to order, as a matter of urgency, a bigger, heavier tank with sloping armour and fitted with the well-proven 88mm anti tank gun.
His enduring mistake was that he constantly interfered. No sooner was one design underway than he insisted on some modification - sometimes large, sometimes small — but every time it meant halting production and delaying delivery to the battlegrounds.
Hitler began to explain the defeats in Russia (ch.16) and Italy (ch.19) by claiming that all would soon be reversed when the next improved versions of his Panzers were available. The final attempt at a super-tank was quite successful - the Panzerkampfwagen Tiger Ausf. B or Konigstiger or King Tiger. It was bigger, heavier and had thicker armour but the Maybach petrol engine, reused from earlier models, did not have the increased power to match the increased weight.
Due mainly to Hitler’s repeated interferences, it did not get into action until 1944 in Normandy and the numbers produced were severely limited by the huge increase and improved accuracy in the Allied bombing of the Henschel factories by the RAF and USAF.
They could not be moved on rail or on the road as they would be destroyed by the sheer weight, as would any bridges. If that could be overcome then they would also be so slow-moving that they would be easy targets for enemy aircraft attack.
Many other variants of tanks, AFVs and self-propelled guns were ordered, redesigned and rushed through production; so many, that this became part of the problem. Hitler’s obsession with ‘bigger means better’ had a detrimental effect on the advantages his armies could have enjoyed had he kept focused on one improvement at a time.
One excellent development was the Jagdtiger (Hunting Tiger) project. This was to be the heaviest armoured vehicle used during the war, the final version being based on the Tiger II tank, heavily armoured with its 128mm Pak 44 L/55 gun that had a greater range and power than any Allied tank.
Delays again meant that only 88 ever got into battle over the winter of 1944/45 and at 78 tons there were a number of tactical and mobility shortcomings. Nevertheless, its accuracy on the battlefield was such that they were soon recognised as the deadliest opposition to any Allied tank.
The Jagdtiger was still lightweight compared to Hitler s other ambitions. The Porsche-built Panzer VIII Maus (Mouse) was huge at over 10 metres in length and made of 170 tons of thick steel. But even more outrageous was the Landkreuzer P-100 Ratte (Rat). Hitler was most excited by this design and truly believed that the Ratte would win the war for him.
In reality, the proposed 1,000-ton, 35-metre-long goliath was to be five times heavier than the Maus which was already twice the size of a Soviet T-34. Few generals supported Hitler’s dream ‘tank’ - Guderian, said, disparagingly, ‘Hitler’s fantasies sometimes shift into the gigantic.
Not content with the Ratte notion, Hitler proved Guderian's observation accurate when he backed the idea for the appropriately named Landkreuzer P.1500 Monster. This was to be a self-propelled gun weighing more than 1,500 tons - 500 tons bigger than the Ratte. The Maus and the Ratte had already revealed the many problems of these gigantic steel machines - transportation was the first.
They could not be moved on rail or on the road as they would be destroyed by the sheer weight, as would any bridges. If that could be overcome then they would also be so slow-moving that they would be easy targets for enemy aircraft attack. After wasting so much time and money on Hitler's outrageous fantasies, his brilliant armaments minister, Albert Speer, (Ch.8) finally convinced Hitler to cancel the Maus, Ratte and Monster with not even a prototype of the latter being built.
All these ideas, projects and fantasies — and the resulting waste of vast sums of money, resources and production time - were wholly Hitler’s responsibility. If he had focused on perfecting the Jagdtiger, then he might have had a super weapon to improve his prospects of winning, or at least extending, the war.
The supply of raw materials was a never-ending difficulty. Hitler was forced to keep a third of a million troops in Norway, just to protect his only supply of iron ore. Later he had to divert a large part of his Panzer armies invading Russia towards the oil fields of the Caucasus. Manufacturing so many different AFVs with so many different specifications meant logistical and delivery problems.
This excerpt from Lucky Hitler's Big Mistakes appears by kind permission of Pen & Sword Books Ltd. Copyright remains with the author.