Hitler’s HQ staff refuse to consider evacuating Africa

A German artillery crew in Tunisia, April 1943.

A German artillery crew in Tunisia, April 1943.

Even the might Tiger tank, now appearing in limited numbers in North Africa, could not make a difference.

Even the mighty Tiger tank, now appearing in limited numbers in North Africa, could not make a difference.

The German Generals were now well aware that Hitler obstinately refused to give ground no matter what the situation. In North Africa he had been reinforcing his desert army even as they were squeezed between the Eight Army and the U.S. and British forces coming from the west. Senior German officers had thought the campaign to be futile even back in November. Those in command realised they would lose their grip Africa only too soon. The situation was not as grim as at Stalingrad but similar numbers of troops were involved – troops that might yet be evacuated to fight again elsewhere.

Convincing Hitler of the realities of the situation would not be easy. Deciding that a front line officer might be able to sway him, the direct commander in North Africa General von Arnim, endorsed by his commander based in Italy, Albert Kesselring, decided to send an emissary to the Fuhrer HQ. Colonel Hans von Luck was chosen as the man who might have the battle experience and credibility to make the case to Hitler.

So it was that in early April Hans von Luck found himself at the Fuhrer HQ trying to get an audience with Hitler. First he had to contend with the bureaucracy and the senior officers surrounding Hitler himself:

Then, with my large envelope, I was standing before Jodl. We knew he was an experienced staff officer, but we frontline troops didn’t like him, as he was such a toady to Hitler. I explained my mission to him and why von Arnim had chosen me as intermediary.

“Things look very bad, Colonel-General,” I began, “we’re no longer equal to the pressure of the British and the Americans. The RAF, in particular, hinders almost all our movements, except when it’s raining. ‘The long front from Gabes to Tunis cannot anywhere near be covered by us. To prevent a disaster as many men as possible should be evacuated at once, to be available on fronts where the Western Allies are sure to land. For this purpose, I have an evacuation plan to deliver which has been carefully worked out by Rommel and von Arnim and countersigned by Kesselring, Guderian, and Schmundt.”

With that, I handed him the envelope. “I have been sent here,” I went on, “as an insignificant field officer in the hope that this would make some impression on the Fuehrer.”

Jodl looked at me for a long time, without opening the envelope.

“Listen, Luck,” he finally said, “there is absolutely no question of evacuating elements of the Africa Army, or of considering a ‘German Dunkirk,’ as you call it. The Fuehrer is not ready to think of retreat. We won’t even let you see him personally. He would have a fit of rage and throw you out. Besides, we’re glad to have the Fuehrer on the political tack for a few days, as he is just having a state visit by Antonescu of Romania.”

Without pausing, Jodl took my arm and led me to a huge campaign map that covered one whole wall. “Here, you can see the front in Russia, when we were about to lose Stalingrad. What do you think about Stalingrad?”

“Colonel-General, we have so much trouble with our own theater of war, that we have no time to concern ourselves with Stalingrad. We merely ask ourselves whether it is necessary to abandon 200,000 battle-tried men to their fate. The word Stalingrad is, for us, a provocation, as we fear a similar fate, unless an attempt is made to save what is left to save.”

Jodl was silent. After a short pause he gave me his hand.

“I can understand you all, but your ‘mission‘ is of no avail. Inform von Arnim to that effect.” When I left Jodl, I saw in his eyes a helpless sympathy for the Africa Army.

Deeply disappointed, I went to the radio office and sent off my message to von Arnim. “Not admitted to Fuehrer, plan rejected by Jodl, flying back to Rome and from there to Tunisia.”

See Hans von Luck: Panzer Commander. His account suggests that he made the trip at the beginning of April, although the visit of Antonescu to see Hitler happened in February.

The giant Me 323 transport aircraft was being used to bring in supplies, even though it was very vulnerable in a combat zone.

The giant Me 323 transport aircraft was being used to bring in supplies, even though it was very vulnerable in a combat zone.

German troops on the march in Tunisia, they were gradually falling back.

German troops on the march in Tunisia, they were gradually falling back.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Mort April 7, 2014 at 4:24 pm

If you read carefully, it appears that Jodl wasn’t showing a current operations map, but rather one left over from the past: “Here, you can see the front in Russia, when we were about to lose Stalingrad. What do you think about Stalingrad?”

Luck’s reply indicates that he knew what had happened to the men in Stalingrad – surrender. I don’t see any inconsistency at all here.

Kosta April 17, 2013 at 10:39 am

Thank you for the additional information; with von Arnim’s appointment on March 9th and the mention of the front line being at ‘Gabes’ I can see why you dated this episode for April 7th. But Luck’s account of of Jodl discussing the impending loss of Stalingrad is clear an anachronism. It seems that Luck has made some errors in his account — perhaps he visited with Jodl on an earlier occasion and had combined the two visits into a single encounter? Either that, or maybe he fabricated the Stalingrad anecdote?

Editor April 7, 2013 at 6:37 pm

von Arnim only became commander of the Afrika Korps on 9th March. Luck states he was sent to see von Arnim “at the end of March” and then spent time seeing Kesselring in Italy and Rommel in Germany before going to the Fuhrer HQ. He also mentions the German front line in Africa being at “Gabes”, which I why I chose to include the account on the 7th. The Antonescu visit led to a Treaty signed on 20th April, which would presumably be under discussion following the earlier state visit. However I think you are right – it doesn’t completely add up.

Kosta April 7, 2013 at 6:03 pm

At the end of the piece you note that while Luck’s account suggests that he made the trip in April, Antonescu’s visit happened in February. Also, in his passage, Jodl comments that they are about to lose Stalingrad. Paulus, the German commander at Stalingrad, surrendered at the end of January.

By the looks of it, either Luck got the date of his visit wrong, or he’s conflating the events of two different visits.

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