Goebbels broadcasts his New Year message

Joseph Goebbels, Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda

This war involves the whole people. It is a war for our national existence. It has not yet seen its full extent on every front.

No one can doubt that the warmongering cliques in London and Paris want to stifle Germany, to destroy the German people. They grant that openly today. They reserve their sanctimonious phrases about defeating Hitlerism, but not the German people, only for the stupid. We know what they are doing from experience, and a child once burned is more cautious the second time. No one in Germany listens to them. They want to attack the Führer through Hitlerism, the Reich through Hitlerism, and the German people through the Reich. All the Führer’s attempts at peace bore no fruit with them.

We 90 million in the Reich stand in the way of their brutal plans for world domination. They hate our people because it is decent, brave, industrious, hardworking and intelligent. They hate our views, our social policies, and our accomplishments. They hate us as a Reich and as a community. They have forced us into a struggle for life and death. We will defend ourselves accordingly. All is clear between us and our enemies. All Germans know what we are doing, and the entire German people is filled with fanatical resolve. There is no comparison here to the World War. Germany today is economically, politically, militarily and spiritually ready to respond to the attack of the enemy.

Reflections on the end of 1939 in Britain

Ed Murrow was an American journalist reporting from wartime London:

The end of 1939 finds Britain near the end of the fourth month of a war which has confounded the experts. Roughly, one million men are under arms in Britain and hundreds of thousands more will probably be asked to register on Tuesday of next week. Homes have been broken up by evacuation. The cost of this war cannot be conveyed by mere figures. Not only the bank clerks are working this year – there are tens of thousands of men and women manning searchlights and anti-aircraft guns, fire engines and ambulances, all over Britain. Many businesses have been ruined. Prices continue to rise. There are no bright lights this year, and there will be no sirens or horns sounded at midnight to-night, lest they be confused with air-raid warnings.

Edward R. Murrow: This is London

John Colville was a private secretary to the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street:

Here at home, at the end of 1939, people seem to be resigned to the war without fully realising the hardships which it must, and the physical terror which it may, imply. Everybody is talking gaily about a changing world, a new social order, a complete revolution of national and international ideals; but do they realise what effect all this, if it comes to pass, will have upon them personally? It is easy to sit in the warmth, beautifully dressed, after an enormous meal, and talk academically about the inevitability of change and the charm of doing one’s own housework, but it may be less easy to accommodate oneself to the grimness of reality.

In general, we seem to be floating on a sea of stagnant waters and in ships not built of the soundest timbers. Whether the much-advertised spring offensive will come off remains to be seen, but it is very doubtful whether we can reach next winter without something drastic happening, and I think the odds are fifty-fifty on peace or the real outbreak of war. The conditions in which the former could be made are at present unforeseeable; but at least each side is aware of its own shortages and weakness and both are afraid to begin the carnage. The consequences of the latter are only too easy to predict.

See John Colville: The Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries 1939-1955 also available from amazon.com and amazon.ca

No fraternisation on the Western Front

British Expeditionary Force troops on the Western Front

The Naval, Military and Air Situation up to 12 noon on 28 December 1939, as reported to the War Cabinet:

Naval situation

General review.

Throughout the week under review the Northern Patrol has been maintained by a strong force of cruisers and armed merchant cruisers. A force of heavy ships has been operating to cover the patrol, the convoys to and from Bergen and their homeward bound convoy from Narvik. These convoys arrived without incident.

2. Strong submarine patrols have also been maintained in the approaches to the Skagerrak and Heligoland Bight, but there has been kept comparatively little enemy activity either of surface ships, U-boats or aircraft, due possibly to the bright moonlight and foggy weather in home waters.

3. No merchant ships, Allied or neutral, have been attacked by U-boat, and losses due to mines are small.

4. The second Canadian troop convoys sailed from Halifax on 23 December with a powerful escort of British and French warships, and the military convoy which left India on 10 December, with four animal transport companies, has arrived at Marseille.

Foreign Waters.

13. Following the destruction of the Admiral Graf Spee off Montevideo on 17 December, the forces which had been hurrying towards the Plate and from northward carried out a sweep to locate the German tanker Altmark (20,000 tons), from which the Admiral Graf Spee had fuelled on 7th December. The Altmark is believed to have on board about 300 prisoners, the remainder of the crews of the merchant vessels sunk by the Admiral Graf Spee. This sweep has now been completed without success. The French have disposed a number of submarines and armed merchant cruisers to intercept the Altmark should she work towards the north Atlantic. The area to be covered is a very large one.

Military Situation

British Expeditionary Force

29. Headquarters and ancillary units of the fifth division had now arrived in France, thus completing that formation.

Reports from the British sector of the Saar front state that there has been no activity apart from patrolling.

Western front

30. No major operations have taken place. On the Rhine-Moselle found several minor German attacks were launched on French positions and successfully repulsed.

On the Rhine front a tentative attempts by the garrison of a German casemate to fraternise with French troops was interrupted by French machine gun fire.

Air Situation

Royal Air Force Operations.

Bomber command

Operations against German Naval forces

35. During the week under review a number of reconnaissances have taken place with a view to locating and attacking enemy naval forces.

On the 24th December seventeen Wellingtons made a reconnaissance of an area off the west coast of Denmark and sighted several patrol ships in a position 40 miles north west of Horn Reefs. The ships were steaming in pairs and, after challenge and counter challenge, they opened fire on the aircraft with pom-poms. Three Wellington was attacked, dropping eight 500 lb. bombs from a height of 4000 feet. Observations were rendered difficult by clouds and it is not known if any hits were made.

Russo- Finnish Operations

Situation on land.

50. Information received during the period under review shows that the situation of the Finnish armies has improved considerably in all sectors.

51. On the Karelian Isthmus a major Soviet offensive which took place between the 19th and 21st of December failed to make any impression on the Finnish defences, though it was accompanied by very heavy bombardment by artillery and aircraft. Lack of success appears to have reacted unfavourably on the morale of the Red Army; and, though the offensive has been continued, it has achieved nothing.

52. On the eastern frontier Finnish troops have scored a number of successes, helped by severe weather and by increasing Soviet maintenance difficulties.

53. These successes have greatly improved Finish morale and the High Command are now very confident. They find the enemy’s leadership feeble, his tactics poor and wasteful, his troops inferior. They express themselves as able to hold the Karelian Isthmus against any attack the Soviet can make and consider that maintenance difficulties will prevent attacks in other sectors developing on a dangerous scale. In spite of Finnish confidence it is doubtful whether it would be physically possible to hold any position against the weight of artillery which the Soviet could deploy against the Karelian Isthmus position, unless the defenders possess large quantities of artillery and aircraft to carry out counter battery bombardments on a large scale. It is, therefore to be hoped that Finnish optimism will not lead them to undertake any dangerous counter offensive, which might well result in losses of men and material the country could ill afford. It should be remembered that the Russian soldier always gives a much better account of himself in defence than in attack.

On the Soviet side it appears that the High Command have been attempting to reverse the course of events by bringing out further reinforcements, a doubtful remedy in a war where the lack of communications and limited frontages are the decisive factors. There is, however, some chance that Russian numbers may tell in the south, once the ice on Lake Ladoga and the Gulf of Finland become thick enough for Soviet troops to operate across them.

The latest reports suggest that there are 11 Soviet infantry divisions in the Karelian Isthmus and 16 divisions between Lake Ladoga and the Arctic Ocean. A partial evacuation of Leningrad is reported to have taken place so as to facilitate the working of the principal base of these large forces.

See TNA CAB 66/4/28

King George VI broadcasts to the Empire

It was 1939 that firmly established the Royal Christmas Broadcast as a British tradition. Dressed in the uniform of the Admiral of the Fleet, sitting in front of two microphones on a table at Sandringham, King George VI spoke live to offer a message of reassurance to his people. It was to be a landmark speech and was to have an important effect on the listening public as they were plunged into the uncertainty of war:

“A new year is at hand. We cannot tell what it will bring. If it brings peace, how thankful we shall all be. If it brings us continued struggle we shall remain undaunted.”

He went on to quote from Minnie Haskins’ poem “The Gate of the Year” (1908) :

I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year,
‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’
And he replied, ‘Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be better than light, and safer than a known way.’

A cold winter arrives in Europe

Loading torpedos into a U-boat in Wilhelmshaven

The winter of 1939/1940 was one of the coldest on record, with persistent cold weather from 22nd December through January. Temperatures were the lowest for at least 100 years in many parts of Europe. It is now theorised that the intense military activity in the North Sea was responsible for disturbing the sea temperature and therefore the climate. The movement of ships in convoys, the laying of huge mine fields by both Britain and Germany, the sinking of ships and the widespread use of explosives to sink mines, and in the use of depth charges to seek to destroy submarines were responsible for ‘mixing up’ the warm and cold water layers of the sea. Up to 10,000 depth charges a month were being used to systematically hunt for submarines, using patterns of explosives designed to cover wide areas and different depths. The loss of heat from the sea led to more cold air from the arctic being pulled into the European region, resulting in much colder weather overall. See seaclimate.com.

Captain Langsdorff commits suicide

Captain Langsdorff, after making arrangements for his crew, retired to his room, and wrote his final letters. He then lay down on a German battle flag and shot himself in the head.

The letter left by Langsdorff, addressed to the German ambassador, Buenos Aires:

Dec. 19, 1939

Your Excellency,

After a long struggle I reached the grave decision to scuttle the Admiral Graf Spee, in order to prevent her from falling into enemy hands. I am still convinced that under the circumstances this decision was the only one left, once I had taken my ship into the trap of Montevideo. For with the ammunition remaining, any attempt to fight my way back to open and deep water was bound to fail. And yet only in deep water could I have scuttled the ship, after having used the remaining ammunition, thus avoiding her falling to the enemy.

Sooner than expose my ship to the danger that after a brave fight she would fall partly or completely into enemy hands. I decided not to fight but to destroy the equipment and then scuttle the ship. It was clear to me that this decision might be consciously or unwittingly misconstrued by persons ignorant of my motives, as
being attributable entirely or partly to personal considerations. Therefore I decided from the beginning to bear the consequences involved in this decision. For a captain with a sense of honor, it goes without saying that his personal fate cannot be separated from that of his ship.

I postponed my intention as long as I still bore responsibility for decisions concerning the welfare of the crew under my command. After today’s decision of the Argentine government, I can do no more for my ship’s company. Neither will I be able to take an active part in the present struggle of my country. I can now only prove by my death that the fighting services of the Third Reich are ready to die for the honor of the flag.

I alone bear the responsibility for scuttling the Admiral Graf Spee. I am happy to pay with my life for any possible reflection on the honor of the flag. I shall face my fate with firm faith in the cause and the future of the nation and of my Führer. I am writing this letter to Your Excellency in the quiet of the evening, after a calm deliberation, in order that you may be able to inform my superior officers, and to counter public rumors if this should become necessary.

Kapitän zur See Hans Langsdorff

The Battle of the Heligoland Bight

RAF reconnaissance photo of Wilhelmshaven German Naval Base, 1939

A, existing harbour (entrance and lock-gates); B, capital ship; C, new mole; D, entrance to harbour will be cut through here; E, new locks under construction; F, north harbour; G, coffer dam; H, dredger sucking silt out of future channel and pumping it out in reclaimed area; I, pipe line; J, barracks; K, new dry dock under construction; L, causeway carrying light railways to service construction work; M, large area being reclaimed from the sea; N, barracks.

The largest air engagement of the war so far took place when 24 Wellington bombers were ordered to attack the Schillig Roads and Wilhelmshaven German Naval Base. Or rather to attack ships nearby, since they were ordered not to attack ships within the harbour in case they hit civilians. In fact there were no ships in the Schillig Roads but ‘one battleship, one pocket battleship, one cruiser and five destroyers [were sighted] in Wilhemshaven Harbour’: a target they were forced to refrain from bombing. By this time they were under sustained attack from Luftwaffe ME 110 and ME 109 fighters.

A furious battle ensued with the Wellingtons maintaining their formation as far a practicable – the tactic being that they could better defend themselves as a group. Both sides massively over-claimed. German pilots claimed 34 Wellingtons shot down whereas only 22 Wellingtons took part in the mission (two had turned back with engine trouble). Actual RAF losses were 10 shot down, 2 ditched on the return run and 3 crash landed at base. The British rear gunners claimed 12 German fighters as well as another dozen severely damaged. Actual German losses were three plus many more damaged. Only a few bombs were dropped on auxiliary ships.

The British learnt many lessons. Formation flying did not offer the mutual protection that had been assumed, and possibly even offered a more concentrated target to attacking fighters. A German post combat report concluded ” Their maintenance of formation and rigid adherence to course made them easy targets to find”. Nor was the speed of the Wellington sufficient for it to avoid attack from the beam, in fact they were very vulnerable to such attacks without side mounted gun turrets. And there was a vital need for self sealing petrol tanks to limit the damage that could be done once an aircraft had been hit. In fact the whole viability of daylight bombing was now to become the subject of debate within the RAF.

The accepted philosophy that ‘The bomber will always get through’ was now looking rather dubious. Such lessons did not emerge for some time, however. The real scale of the disparity in losses did not emerge till after the war. The Luftwaffe authorities only rejected seven of the 34 ‘kills’ claimed by their pilots. The British had to put out a propaganda story of a great air victory over German fighters, whereas within the RAF it was acknowledged as a disaster.

See Cajus Bekker: The Luftwaffe War Diaries: The German Air Force in World War II also available from amazon.com and amazon.ca.

Stalin’s 60th birthday telegrams

Please accept my most sincere congratulations on your sixtieth birthday. I take this occasion to tender my best wishes. I wish you personally good health and a happy future for the peoples of the friendly Soviet Union.

Remembering the historic hours in the Kremlin which inaugurated the decisive turn in the relations between our two great peoples and thereby created the basis for a lasting friendship between us, I beg us to accept my warmest congratulations on you birthday.
Minister of Foreign Affairs

The Kremlin, Moscow.
On behalf of the working people of Finland, who are fighting shoulder to shoulder with the heroic Red Army to liberate their country from the yoke of the whiteguard hangmen and hirelings of foreign warmongers, for the victory of the independent Democratic Republic of Finland, the Peope’s Government of Finland on the occasion of the sixtieth birthday of Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin expresses its profoundest esteem to the great friend of the people of Finland. Stalin, whose name will always be the symbol of friendship and brotherhood of the peoples of the Soviet Union and of Finland, as well as of all the peoples of the world.
On behalf of the People’s
Government of Finland,

Otto Kuusinen was the Finnish Communist Party member appointed head of the puppet regime, ‘The Democratic Republic of Finland’, that Stalin intended to impose on Finland. He had lived in Soviet Russia since the Finnish civil war of 1918 and was one of the few Finnish communist party members to escape Stalin’s purges.

Captain Langsdorff believes he is trapped

Battle Damage to the Graf Spee

Captain Langsdorf of the Graf Spee believed he was trapped in Montevideo harbour by a strong Royal Naval task force. He telegraphed Germany:

1. Strategic position off Montevideo: Besides the cruisers and destroyers, Ark Royal and Renown. Close blockade at night. Escape into open sea and break-through to home waters hopeless.
2. Propose putting out as far as neutral boundary. If it is possible to fight our way through to Buenos Aires, using remaining ammunition, this will be attempted..
3. If a break-through would result in certain destruction of Graf Spee, without opportunity of damaging enemy, request decision on whether the ship should be scuttled in spite of insufficient depth in the estuary of the La Plata, or whether internment is to be preferred.
4. Decision requested by radiogram..
(signed) Captain, GRAF SPEE.

The reply came later that day:

1. Attempt by all means to extend the time in neutral waters in order to guarantee freedom of action as long as possible.
2. With reference to No.2: Approved.
3. With reference to No.3: No internment in Uruguay. Attempt effective destruction if ship is scuttled.

(signed) RAEDER

MaritimeQuest has an excellent collection of images of the Admiral Graf Spee.