Hitlers favourite architect Albert Speer had been an odd choice to take over as Armaments Minister. He was now applying himself energetically to keeping the Germans arms industry productive – and being remarkably successful. Even as thousands of previously exempt workers were now conscripted into the Wehrmacht and large swathes of Germany fell victim to the bombers, somehow the factories kept churning out the new weapons.
In late December Speer decided to get away from the war as far as possible – which proved to be the Finnish front, allies of Germany because they had joined the war against Soviet Russia. After the war Speer was to claim that he was just a technocrat who knew little about the realities of the war, or about the the appalling conditions suffered by the slave labourers who kept the German factories churning out armaments. Here was one example of what he did see of the war, and an insight into Hitler’s dominant influence on weapons production:
The very next day we drove two hundred and seventy-five miles north in an open car until we reached the small Arctic port of Petsamo. The landscape had a certain high-alpine monotony, but the changes of light through all the intervening shades from yellow to red, produced by the sun moving below the horizon, had a fantastic beauty.
In Petsamo we held several Christmas parties for workers, soldiers and officers, and even more on the following evenings in the other barracks. The following night we slept in the personal blockhouse of the commanding general of the Arctic front. From here we visited advanced bases on Fisher Peninsula, our northernmost and the most inhospitable sector of the front, only fifty miles from Murmansk.
It was an area of depressing solitude. A sallow, greenish light slanted down through a veil of fog and snow upon a treeless, deathly rigid landscape. Accompanied by General Hengl, we slowly worked our way on skis to the advance strongpoints. At one of these positions a unit demonstrated to me the effect of one of our 15 centimeter infantry howitzers on a Soviet dugout. It was the first “test-firing” with live ammunition I had really witnessed.
For when one of the heavy batteries at Cape Griz-Nez was demonstrated to me, the commander said his target was Dover but then explained that in reality he had ordered his men to fire into the water. Here, on the other hand, the gunners scored a direct hit and the wooden beams of the Russian dugout flew into the air.
Immediately afterward a lance corporal right beside me collapsed without a sound. A Soviet sharpshooter had hit him in the head through the observation slit. Oddly enough, this was the first time I had been confronted with the reality of the war. I had been acquainted with our infantry howitzers only as technical items to be demonstrated on a shooting range; now I suddenly saw how this instrument, which I had regarded purely theoretically, was used to destroy human beings.
During this inspection tour both our soldiers and officers complained about our lack of light infantry weapons. They particularly missed an effective submachine gun. The soldiers made do with captured Soviet weapons of this type. Hitler was directly responsible for this situation. The former First World War infantryrnan still clung to his familiar carbine.
In the summer of 1942 he decided against a submachine gun that had already been developed and ruled that the rifle better served the ends of the infantry. One lingering effect of his own experience in the trenches was, as I now saw in practice, that he promoted the heavy weapons and tanks he had then admired, to the neglect of infantry weapons.