The Big Leak

Thursday, May 30th, 2013

Just before Pearl Harbor, newspapers leaked details of Rainbow Five, the US war plan that came to be known as the Victory Program:

Contrary to [German Admiral Erich] Raeder’s expectations, neither America’s military leaders nor the President altered the Europe-first cornerstone of the Victory Program. “That’s because it was sound strategy,” says General Wedemeyer, who went on to plan Operation Overlord, better known as D-day.

But for a few weeks the big leak developed yet a third life in Germany. The German army — as distinct from the Führer — greeted the Tribune’s revelations as a gift from on high. Its offensive against Moscow and Leningrad was faltering in the freezing Russian winter. The generals seized on the Roosevelt war plan to reinforce a suggestion they had already made to Hitler: to pull back to carefully selected defensive positions and give them time to regroup and reinforce their decimated divisions.

In his book Inside Hitler’s Headquarters, Col. Walter Warlimont, the deputy chief of the general staff, revealed how little information the generals had on the United States, which made Rainbow Five all the more important to them. He told of receiving a phone call from Jodl in Berlin on December 11, 1941.

Much of the British spy story is fabrication, but it suggests, in a murky way, who may have engineered the leak.

‘You have heard that the Führer has just declared war on America?’ Jodl asked.

‘Yes and we couldn’t be more surprised,’ Warlimont replied.

‘The staff must now examine where the United States is most likely to employ the bulk of her forces initially, the Far East or Europe. We cannot take further decisions until that has been clarified.’

‘Agreed,’ Warlimont said. ‘But so far we have never even considered a war against the United States and so have no data on which to base this examination.’

‘See what you can do,’ Jodl said. ‘When we get back tomorrow we will talk about this in more detail.’ ”

On December 14 the OKW staff submitted to Hitler a study of the “Anglo-Saxon war plans which became known through publication in the Washington Times Herald.” The analysts concluded that to frustrate the Allies’ objectives, Germany should choose a “favorable defensive position” and terminate the Russian campaign. Next Hitler should integrate the Iberian Peninsula, Sweden, and France within the “European fortress” and begin building an “Atlantic wall” of impregnable defenses along the European coast. The “objective of greatest value” should be the “clearing of all British and Allied forces out of the Mediterranean and the Axis occupation of the whole of the northern coast of Africa and the Suez Canal.”

Admiral Raeder and Reich Marshal Göring joined in this recommendation in the most emphatic fashion. They told Hitler that in 1942 Germany and Italy would have “their last opportunity to seize and hold control of the whole Mediterranean area and of the Near and Middle East.” It was an opportunity that “will probably never come again.” To everyone’s delight Hitler agreed to these proposals. On December 16 the German Army’s supreme command issued Directive No. 39, calling for the cessation of offensive operations against Russia and a withdrawal to a winter line.

Between the time he approved these orders and their release by the supreme command, Hitler had returned to the Russian front, where he was astonished and enraged to find his armies reeling back under assaults from Russian armies whose existence his intelligence officers had failed to detect. When Directive No. 39 reached him, he flew into a rage and summoned Col. Gen. Franz Halder, the chief of staff of the German Army, and Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, the commander in chief, and hysterically berated them. He declared that a “general withdrawal is out of the question” and insisted that Leningrad, Moscow, and the Don Basin had to be included in any permanent defensive line. On December 19 he fired Brauchitsch and took over command of the army.

If Hitler had stuck with his original decision and acted to frustrate the objectives of the Victory Program, he could have freed a hundred divisions from the eastern front for a Mediterranean offensive. Against this force the Allies, including the Americans, could not have mustered more than twenty divisions. Germany’s best general, Erwin Rommel, was already in Egypt, demonstrating with a relatively puny force what he could accomplish against the British and Australians.

There is little doubt that Hitler could have turned the Mediterranean into a German lake and frustrated the Allied plan to seize Africa and attack Europe from the south. The catastrophic German defeat at Stalingrad would never have occurred, and the Allied attempt to invade Europe at any point, particularly across the English Channel, would have been much more costly.

In 1955 the historian and former intelligence officer Cap. Tracy B. Kittredge reviewed these probabilities in an article in Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute . From the evidence he presented one can conclude that the leak of Rainbow Five almost lost World War II. This may be overstating the case. But captured documents make it clear that some of the best brains in the German army and navy tried to use the information to alter the course of the war and that only Hitler’s stubborn fury thwarted them.


  1. These sorts of arguments can almost always be boiled down to “If only Hitler had been Frederick II then…”

    Of course he was not, and if he were then Germany would likely not have found itself in the situation it did in 1942.

    Still very interesting information, though.

  2. Isegoria says:

    One fascinating element of Hitler’s story is how often he does something unreasonable and turns out to be right. Early in the war he defies his top generals, takes unreasonable risks, and… everything works out splendidly. Then, once he establishes the power of his intuition, his genius deserts him. To what degree was it ever there?

  3. Madera Verde says:

    And how would 100 divisions in North Africa have been supplied? This is what halted the Afrika Korps: convoys under attack in the med, a small port in Libya and a 1000 miles of poor desert road. Naval and Air power are the key to the mediterranean, not more ground forces.

  4. Isegoria says:

    Once you’ve taken Gibraltar and the Suez, supplying North Africa gets easier. That said, I’m not sure how halting a failed advance into Russia frees up many divisions. The counter-attack is coming, and it’s not like it’s forced through some bottleneck a small force might hold.

  5. Buckethead says:

    One would assume that along with moving 100 divisions of ground troops to the Mediterranean theater, the Germans would also have transferred significant Luftwaffe forces. The Germans by 1942 had several unsinkable carriers stationed in the Mediterranean — Sicily, Crete, etc. — and the Luftwaffe had not yet been worn down by a resurgent Red Air Force.

    Unlike naval combat in the North Atlantic or the Pacific, any ship in the Mediterranean is in range of land-based air power.

  6. Buckethead says:

    Really, stopping the fight against the Russians would have only helped the Soviets. Unless a semi-permanent peace could have been made, the Soviets would have made better use of any pause to regroup and rearm.

  7. Isegoria, my impression is that many of the things he did that turned out well (for him) only did so because they were unreasonable, and were thus completely unexpected by his enemies. Once the Allies got a feel for him and the war had developed to the point where the opportunity for big sweeping strategic decisions declined, this ceased to be a major factor. I also think it’s related to the fact that many of those early decisions were mainly political rather than military in nature and Hitler, for all his faults, was a brilliant politician.

    I agree that the only way for a pause on the Eastern Front to free up a strategically important number of divisions would be a semi-permanent peace. However, I’m sure any such peace with Stalin would have had the emphasis on the “semi-” aspect.

  8. Lucklucky says:

    Hitler always gambled and since the Allies always caved in since 1933, his reputation increased to such heights that no General had capability to stop him before war start.

    Then we had the French disaster.

    Once again the Generals advised not to attack France — if we look at numbers only there is no chance that Germany could defeat France — but he was successful with that gamble too. So he got all power.

    I don’t think Hitler was mentally flexible enough, plus, he would lose reputation choosing to abandon Soviet invasion. Even if by miracle the Soviets would accept peace.

  9. Sam says:

    I read Göring by David Irving and my conclusion from reading that is Göring lost the war. At Stalingrad Göring promised Hitler that a certain tonnage of supplies could be delivered, even though his subordinates told him he would only be able to supply half that amount in perfect conditions. Of course conditions were not perfect and if I remember correctly only one-quarter of the promised supplies came at first and as the war went against the Germans even less.

    What if the needed supplies had been available? What if Hitler had won Stalingrad? The loss to the Russians would have been immense. They would have continued to pour resources into a losing situation. Could have changed the war and then Hitler would have been declared a genius.

    Of course Hitler kept Göring even when he let him down. Should have cashiered him. Hitler’s mistake.

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