In late May of 1940, German panzers were within a few miles of the defeated and disorganized British milling about the beaches of Dunkirk. Then Hitler ordered them to halt for 48 hours to rest and refit. His generals loudly protested, but to no avail. What happened next proved them right: the British used the breather to organize a defense, that eventually allowed them to evacuate about 338,000 Allied soldiers to safety.
Most historians dismiss the fanciful notion of a merciful Hitler allowing the British to escape as a sporting or goodwill gesture: no evidence supports such a thesis. However, crackpot revisionists have embraced the notion that Hitler had let the British go so he could look like a magnanimous gentleman, and thus draw Britain into peace negotiations.
Hitler was notoriously irrational, but deliberately allowing the British to escape from Dunkirk was too irrational even for him. Considering that he wanted to bring Britain to the peace table, holding hundreds of thousands of British POWs would have been quite a bargaining chip. More so than if those soldiers were back in Britain, armed and defiant.
The fatal halt order had not even originated with Hitler. A panzer unit commander who had lost half his armored forces and needed time to regroup, requested a halt from Army Group A’s commander, Gerd von Rundstedt. Rundstedt agreed, and passed it up to Hitler, who rubber-stamped the order to halt. After the war, German generals – including Rundstedt – pinned the blame on Hitler for ruining their chance to win the war in 1940.
One of WWII’s more persistent myths revolves around Germany purportedly being miles ahead of the Allies in technological advancements. In reality, while the Nazis did develop and deploy some cutting-edge weapons, they were far from being across the board advanced when compared to the Allies. The Germans had flashes of technological brilliance in some areas, but in the workday everyday life of their military, they were technologically average, or even backward when compared to the Allies.
Even in those areas in which the Germans exhibited technological brilliance, the result was often the deployment of weapons that not only failed to advance the German war effort but actually ended up impeding it. Nothing better illustrates that than Germany’s “Vengeance Weapons”, particularly the V2 rocket.
The V2, or “Vengeance Weapon 2”, was the world’s first ballistic missile. It carried a ton of explosives to the edge of space, then plunged at unstoppable speeds to explode over its target. It was a revolutionary technological feat. It was also one of history’s most wasteful weapons. V2s inflicted relatively little damage that did not justify the vast resources devoted to their production. Those resources would have better aided the German war effort had they gone to more effective weapons programs or other uses.
Roughly three thousand V2s were fired between September, 1944, and Germany’s surrender nine months later. They did not all reach their targets, but even if they had, at one ton of explosives per V2 warhead, that would have been 3000 tons of explosives dropped on enemy cities over nine months. During the same period, the RAF routinely dropped over 3000 tons of explosives on a German city in a bombing raid. The US Air Force also frequently exceeded that 3000 ton total in single bombing raids.
While the Germans tried to blast Allied cities with rockets, the Allies blasted German cities far more thoroughly with bombers, which were reusable, and thus far more economical. Most Allied bombers returned to base, reloaded, and returned the next day or night. Each Allied bomber dropped more explosive tonnage on a German city than a V2 dropped on an Allied city, and unlike the V2, most Allied bombers repeated the process dozens of times.
During its nine months of use, the 3000 tons of explosives dropped by V2s killed 2754 people. Most were not soldiers, but civilians whose deaths, while tragic, did not impede the Allied war effort by much. By contrast, it is estimated that over 20,000 workers, mostly slave laborers, died while manufacturing the V2. That gave V2s the tragic distinction of being the only weapons system in history whose production cost more lives than did its actual use.
One of WWII’s most dramatic stories revolves around a soccer match that took place in German-occupied Kiev on August 6th, 1942. The game pitted Ukrainian side Start FC, composed mainly of Dynamo Kiev and Lokomotiv Kiev professional players, against a German team named Flakelf. The locals won 5 – 1.
Three days later, the two teams met for a rematch, that once again ended in the Ukrainian side beating the Germans, this time 5 – 3. The Germans turned out to be sore losers: upset that Slavic Untermenschen had trounced Aryan ubermensch, they rounded up and arrested the Ukrainian players, and had them executed. It is a gripping story, but it did not happen.
4. Snitching, Not Sore Losership, Doomed the Ukrainian Soccer Players
German side Falkelf and Ukrainian team Start FC – whose players worked in a factory under Nazi management – actually did meet for two matches on August 6th and 9th, 1942. About a week later, the Gestapo arrested eight Start FC players. Five of them were eventually executed.
However, the arrests had nothing to do with the matches against Flakelf. Members of another Ukrainian team, that had been humiliatingly trounced by Start 8 – 0, had snitched to the German authorities, informing them that several Start players were former members of the NKVD (the KGB’s forerunner).
Five of the eight Start FC players picked up by the Gestapo were eventually executed. However, their deaths were unrelated to their performance on the pitch against a German, and had more to do with their activities off the pitch against the German occupation authorities. Some of the Start FC players, as former NKVD agents, were suspected of having engaged in recent sabotage activities against the German occupation.
Engaging in resistance against the Nazis was heroic in of itself, but it was not nearly as dramatic as the “Death Match” narrative. Soviet authorities, eager to portray the heroism of the civilian populace during the war, decided to improve upon and embellish the story. After the war, the “Death Match” theme inspired a popular Soviet novel, and a hit movie, Third Time. As the murdered Start FC players, they are commemorated in a statue in front of Dynamo Kiev’s stadium.
Early in WWII, the Germans swept through Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, and France. The blitzkrieg’s speed and fury, and reports of “Nazi Super Soldiers”, alarmed observers. German success owed much to innovative tactics that integrated infantry, armor, and air, into a seemingly irresistible juggernaut. However, the Allies were baffled by the inexplicable energy and tirelessness of the German soldiers, who seemed indefatigable, advancing and fighting day and night, with little or no rest.
The reason was crystal meth, or Pervitin, which German troops were encouraged to pop in order to fight fatigue. The packaging read “Alertness Aid“, to be taken “to maintain wakefulness“. It was accompanied by a warning that it should only be used “from time to time“. However, once they began popping Pervitin, few heeded the warning. Things got worse when medical authorities realized that the effects of cocaine overlap substantially with those of amphetamines, with the added “benefit” that cocaine produces greater euphoria. So cocaine was added to Pervitin.
1. German Soldiers Were Not Indefatigable: They Were Tweaking
The German military authorities’ spicing of Pervitin with cocaine resulted in an even more addictive drug cocktail. Millions in the German military could not get enough of their crystal meth, and especially not enough of their crystal meth after it got laced with cocaine. Many wrote home, requesting their loved ones to send them Pervitin via military mail.
A typical example was Heinrich Boll, a German postwar author who won the 1972 Nobel Prize for literature. In a May 20th, 1940 letter to his parents, 22-year-old Boll begged them to send him some Pervitin, which he said not only kept him alert but also chased away his worries.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading