Beverley Baxter's LONDON LETTER

The Brenner Plot

May 15 1940
Beverley Baxter's LONDON LETTER

The Brenner Plot

May 15 1940

The Brenner Plot

Beverley Baxter's LONDON LETTER

LONDON, April 19 (By Cable). This is a difficult article to write, but I want to write it if only to cleanse my bosom of much perilous stuff. Though it will be cabled to arrive as near publication date as possible, there will be a lapse of time in which much that I now must treat as mystery will be solved, and careful deductions possibly proved to be no more than conjecture.

On the other hand the swirl of events may cause me to lose sight of all the important moves which have taken place within the last few days and which are profoundly influencing the immediate and even ultimate future.

Let me reconstruct the situation at this moment. The Germans are in full possession of Denmark and southern Norway, while they are hanging on grimly to their positions in northern Norway. The Swedes are stubbornly preparing to defend their neutrality, and Italy is showing every sign of intending to intervene in behalf of Germany.

The Italian press has been prejudiced, and offensive to a degree, and the pose of neutrality has seemingly disap¡>eared and been replaced-by threatening belligerency. The British fleet is on the prowl after its magnificent exploits in northern waters, while Holland, Denmark,

Roumania and Jugoslavia watch the skies, wondering in what direction the lightning will strike. Nearly half Germany’s naval strength is at the bottom of the sea, and there are alternate rumors that Hitler is in a frenzy of delight at the progress of the war, and that he is plunged into gloom.

It is from such a hodgepodge that the editor of Maclean s asks me to extract the sweet roots of truth. I shall do my best.

To begin with, it will be necessary to go back to the meeting of Mussolini and Hitler on the Brenner Pass. No one knows exactly what happened there, for the bulletproof train intended to save dictators from the love of their people was also soundproof. But at least we know Sumner Welles’ visit had just drawn to a close and that both Hitler and Mussolini knew that peace by negotiation was no longer a possibility. Despite the maintenance of an enforced secrecy, it is known in official circles that when the two great men met. Hitler addressed his junior partner somewhat as follows: “If you come in with us now, and we are victorious, the spoils will be divided between us. You shall become a great African power; we shall make our empire in Central Europe. If you don’t come in, and we win, there will be other nations which will have to be rewarded instead of you. If you come in, and we lose, what does it matter? There is nothing the democracies can take from you, and when the war is over they would have to put you on your feet again. So, my dear Benito, you have everything to gain by gamble and nothing to lose.”

Mussolini listened to the end. but then pointed out that it was all very well for Hitler to advise Italian intervention, but that Italy would get knocked about by the British and French navies while the German Army continued to sit quietly and comfortably behind the Siegfried line.

It is said that Hitler was expecting some such protest, and at once produced his super plan for early victory. Germany would invade Scandinavia, obtaining necessary supplies and thus drawing the British fleet away from the Mediterranean. Russia would make further demands upon Finland, thus intensifying the Allies’ worries in the north. Threats and army movements would be made against Holland and Belgium to distract France. Italy could then

advance on Jugoslavia, enforcing her protection upon that country, and, once athwart the Balkans, she could join forces with Germany and crush the Allies, knowing that the supplies of the Axis were now secure.

I have no doubt that Mussolini, with the instinct of his race for the sea, pointed out the grave danger of the Scandinavian adventure, but that Hitler replied that the Allies would be caught asleep and he would be presented overnight with Norway, Denmark having accepted Nazi domination.

And no doubt, with that frankness which so often characterizes the discussions of successful men, Hitler explained how his agents had already corrupted the honor of those Scandinavian officials and officers who would open the gates to their countries’ enemy.

Ever since the war began, Mussolini has been living a queer unnatural existence. He has brooded over his advancing years and forbidden any mention of his birthday in the

Italian press. He has not even seen the ambassadors accredited to the court of King Victor Emmanuel, not even the French or British. The one exception has been German —Von Mackenzen, who has been admitted to his presence on three or four occasions.

Hitler’s Northern Invasion

MUSSOLINI has brooded on worldwide taunts that Italy never honors her bond, but always plays the role of opportunist in war. He had put his signature to a military alliance with Germany. In spite of that, when Germany went to war Italy stayed out. Would history record

again that Italy refused to meet her commitments? I Iuman vanity being what it is, there is no doubt that the portly little Italian Dictator was at least as concerned with history’s verdict on himself as on his country. Nor has he ever forgotten or forgiven the harsh attacks on him in the British press and

Parliament, over Abyssinia and the Spanish Civil War. Mussolini is an Italian. He comes of a race that is swift to love, but slow to give up a hatred. All these considerations played on his mind after the impact of the Brenner Pass conference. But he is wily. He knew his people were well disciplined to obey, but that they hated the Germans. He could not risk war unless the temperature was raised. Not only would he bring upon himself the hostility of the King, and the Crown Prince, not only would millions of his people regard intervention as a blunder and a tragedy, but there was that quiet determined figure in the Vatican—that ex-diplomat. Pacelli, now Pope Pius XII. The German dash into Norway gave Mussolini his chance to show his hand, while cunningly hiding the real pur|x>se from his people. The Italian press was ordered to give all prominence and exaggeration to German successes and practically nothing to any British retaliation. As it happened, the fates were on Germany’s side. I can offer no explanation of how these German shi|>s ever steamed the 1,500 miles that tcx>k them to Bergen and Narvik without the Admiralty intelligence or the British Secret Service knowing. All that is hidden in the impene* trable fog of official reticence. Some who pretend to understand everything, wag heads and say the British Secret Service knew all about it, and that Churchill wanted to lure the Germans into a trap. That is comforting and soothing, but falls down badly on one point. The Norwegian Government was taken completely by surprise. Had the British Secret Service known what was going on. King Haakon and his Prime Minister would have been informed at once by us. Thus we woke up to read the staggering news that Denmark had surrendered without a struggle and that the Germans, with complete and reckless disregard of history’s lessons, had landed forces in northern territories which would be at the mercy of our sea power. Many of us were jubilant. We felt that Hitler had struck out like a suffocating man gasping for air. Our blockade was choking him and he could endure it no longer. Nor do I doubt that this is true. Also, we felt that the retaliation would be instantaneous and that in a matter of hours Bergen and Narvik would be cleared of Germans. I still do not understand the delay. It is true that Captain Warburton-Lee turned up with five destroyers, and on his own decision battled through the miles of fjords that lead to Narvik harbor. It was a gallant action, and he gave his own life. But he was outnumbered and outgunned. It was a glorious action and he inflicted heavy damage on the enemy. But it cost us four destroyers, and Narvik was still in the enemy’s hands. The British press mistakenly ran Stockholm reports that told of British victories everywhere; but they were untrue. For reasons not yet apparent, we wasted valuable hours. But when the Navy was ready it went gloriously mad. The old Warspite, with her whiskers bristling and her brood of destroyers in attendance, managed to penetrate

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Narvik. Seven German destroyers were sunk in the engagement. One German ship after another went down. Nothing could hold the British fleet as it steamed into action wherever the Swastika flew.

When the lull came, the German Navy was a collection of shadows. Hitler was still in Norway, but he had paid a terrific price. Mussolini hesitated. He advanced to the edge of the precipice, but drew back. “Continue your newspaper hatred,” he cried to his obedient press as a distraction.

A number of us in Westminster found ourselves in a dilemma. Some weeks ago we had arranged a dinner at the House of Commons for Signor Bastianini, the comparatively new Italian ambassador. As the date drew near and the situation with Italy grew more acute, our committee decided as an act of courtesy to enquire from the ambassador whether he intended to come.

With tact and good humor Bastianini replied that the decision rested with the committee. So the dinner will take place tonight. I hope it will not prove too memorable an occasion.

Mussolini’s Quandary

GOERING is on the telephone to Mussolini every few hours, telling him that the Scandinavian adventure has succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Hitler also telephones. “The hour has struck,” he cries.

Mussolini looks out on his long, long seaboard and thinks of that half of Germany’s Navy that is lying at the bottom of the sea. The very spray from the furious attacks of the British fleet in northern waters seems to sting his face. He gazes afar at his colonies and African conquests. What could save the Italians in Abyssinia once the British and French blockaded the Suez Canal? What of Libya?

“Sea power is a myth,” screams Hitler on the telephone.

Mussolini may well mutter to himself, “Not with a seaboard like mine, Adolf.” That is the crux of the drama being played out before our eyes at this hour, even if it is somewhat obscured by certain of the leading actors huddling together in the wings instead of coming before the footlights. On the one hand there are the three dictators, Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin, bound together by mutual fear that

if one goes, the others follow. The vast ¡ millions of human souls whom they have enslaved count less than the cattle on the hills. The multitudes’ destinies are deterj mined for them, with no more considera* tion than is shown selecting what cattle shall be sent to an abattoir.

Opposed to this combination is the might of the French and British Empires, with the British Navy as the symbol of world power. In this island country we look at our navy these days with eyes that are not ashamed of proud tears. Not Nelson himself, nor Drake, showed greater courhge or audacity. Whether it is the Rawalpindi fighting it out to the end without chance of victory, or the three cruisers closing on the Graf Spee while so outgunned and outranged that at first they could not fire a gun in answer to the German’s mighty shells, or whether it is Warburton-Lee sending his laconic message, “Going into action at Narvik.” and dying as he ordered his men to fight on, there is no rest for the fleet. They are at war by day and night, and their spirit is like a gale that sweeps over the seas.

No wonder Mussolini holds back. Like the captain of the Graf Spee, he must be saying to himself, “They are tough, these British.”

In spite of the experts and prophets, the instinct of Britons is to put their faith in sea power. I believe they are right. It will turn the Norwegian adventure into a German disaster, and I should think it will give Mussolini furiously to pause—for quite a long time. Thus I come to the conclusion that the British fleet has foiled the Brenner plot, or at least jjostponed it.

Later: We had a very pleasant dinner with the Italian ambassador. Everyone wore tails or military uniform, and the whole thing was done in style. We toasted the Kings of Britain and Italy, and the atmosphere was most cordial and graceful. Bastianini, who is a most debonair and good-looking chap, made a speech of engaging frankness in which he said nothing at all. The evening was, in fact, a great success. From the Thames we could hear , the hooting of tugs as they neared the bridge. Far off in the Mediterranean we could hear the hooting of the Italian press, keeping up the noise while a solitary figure in the Palazzo Venetia thinks and thinks, then thinks again.