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.