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An Analysis of Adolf Hitler’s Directive no. 18

by Fred Leander

What Was Hitler’s Directive No.18

Hitler’s Directive no. 18 was issued on 12 November 1940. It mainly concerned eventual future German participation in the support of the Italian operations in and around the Mediterranean. The Hitlerite directives were a mixture of general information, warning of eventual future actions and orders for planning and preparations. Several dozen directives were issued during the war.

adolf hitler directive no.18

Colorized image of Adolf Hitler

For the German war machine, it all started with General Jodl’s, Chief of Operations in the German Superior Command (Chef des Wehrmachtsführungstabes), ponderings over what should take place after the fall of France. What to do now? The German quick victory over the French and British forces came as a surprise not only to the Allies but to the German leadership as well. It should take several weeks before Hitler jumped onto the Sea Lion bandwagon. More like an afterthought, Jodl speculated on the possible advantages of a peripheral effort in the South, to attack the Empire in its soft underbelly, so to speak. Gibraltar, with its dominating position at the Western exit of the Mediterranean, was central in this theme.

Between Jodl’s report and the issuing of Directive no. 18 went several months with hectic planning activity and many “study” travels to the Iberian peninsula for German officers and specialists. We shall return to that. In the meantime let us take a look at the directive itself and note the points which can have relevance, may be somewhat overlooked, to the later events.

Directive No. 18

The preparatory measures of the High Command for the conduct of the war in the near future will be made on the following lines :

1. Relations with France.

The aim of my policy towards France is to co-operate with that country in the most effective manner possible for the future conduct of the war against England. For present France will assume the role of a ‘non-belligerent power’ and will thus be required to allow German war measures on French territory and particularly in the African colonies. She will also be required to support these measures with her own forces as far as may be necessary. The most urgent duty of the French is to secure their African possessions (West and Equatorial Africa), offensively and defensively, against England and the de Gaulle movement. From this, the full participation of France in the war against England may develop.

The conversations with France begun at my meeting with Marshal Pétain will, apart from the day-to-day work of the Armistice Commission, be carried out exclusively by the Foreign Office, in liaison with the High Command of the Armed Forces.

Further instructions will be issued when these conversations are concluded.

Author remark: These are interesting statements: “…and will thus be required to allow German war measures on French territory and particularly in the African colonies. She will also be required to support these measures with her own forces as far as may be necessary….from this the full participation of France in the war against England may develop”.

Hitler obviously knew something we don’t. He could “use French territory for war measures” and “From this, the full participation of France in the war against England may develop”.

Had Petain indicated that the French at some point actually would consider joining into an Axis partnership? If so, why did it not happen?

2. Spain and Portugal.

Political measures to bring about the entry into the war of Spain in the near future have already been initiated. The aim of German intervention in the Iberian peninsula (cover-name ‘Felix’) will be to drive the English from the Western Mediterranean. To this end—

(a) Gibraltar is to be captured and the Straits closed.

(b) The English are to be prevented from gaining a footing at any other point on the Iberian peninsula or in the Atlantic Islands.

Author remark: With other words, everything going his way, Hitler had decisively decided on assaulting Gibraltar. As things developed he used much more energy on “Felix” than he ever did on “Sea Lion” which, after all, being a success would have had much larger consequences than the mere conquest of a British foothold in the Mediterranean approaches.

Gibraltar, 1941. Operation Felix Directive no.18

Gibraltar, 1941.

The preparation and execution of this operation are planned as follows :

Phase 1

(a) Reconnaissance parties (officers in plain clothes) will draw up the necessary plans for action against Gibraltar and for the capture of airfields. With regard to cover and collaboration with the Spaniards, they will conform with the security measures of the Chief, Armed Forces Intelligence Division [Ausland Abwehr].

Author remark: At this time several German intelligence-gathering missions had already been in the Gibraltar area. Canaris had been in Spain several times.

(b) Special detachments of the Armed Forces Intelligence Division, in secret collaboration with the Spaniards, will undertake to secure the Gibraltar area against any attempts by the English to enlarge the area they control or to discover and interfere prematurely with our preparations.

(c) Formations detailed for the operation will be concentrated at a considerable distance from the Franco-Spanish frontier and without previous briefing of troops. Three weeks before troops are timed to cross the Spanish-French frontier (and after the conclusion of preparations for the occupation of the Atlantic Islands) a warning order will be issued.

In view of the low capacity of Spanish railways, the Army will detail chiefly motorized formations for this operation, so that the railways are available for supplies.

Author remark: German army and air force units had already been earmarked for “Felix”. Even their training areas in France had been decided upon.

Phase II

(a) Units of the Air Force, summoned through observation in the Algeciras area, will set out from French bases and make a well-timed air attack on English naval forces in Gibraltar harbor. After the attack, they will land in Spanish airports.

(b) Shortly after this attack units detailed for operations in Spain will cross or fly over the Franco-Spanish frontier.

Author remark: Since Franco was not coming along this particular point could not be adhered to. But, what if French bases had been used instead.

Phase III

(a) An attack will be made with German troops to seize Gibraltar.

(b) Forces will be made ready to invade Portugal should the English gain a footing there. Formations detailed for this purpose will enter Spain immediately behind the forces intended for Gibraltar.

Author remark: Since the Germans were not willing to consider more imaginative solutions than a rough ride with all their heavy equipment through the whole of Spain the plan, after many twists and turns, fell to the ground due to Franco’s unwillingness to cater to the German demands and Hitler’s lack of will to curl up to Franco’s behind to more than a certain extent, so to speak. But it took several years before it was finally shelved.

Phase IV

After the capture of the Rock, the Spaniards will be assisted to close the Straits; if necessary, from Spanish Morocco also.

The strength of the formations destined for ‘Operation Felix’ will be as follows :

Army: Formations detailed for Gibraltar must be strong enough to capture the Rock even without Spanish support. A smaller force must also be available to support the Spaniards in the improbable event of an attempted English landing on another part of the coast. Motorized forces will be employed in the main for a possible invasion of Portugal.

Air Force: The forces detailed for the attack on Gibraltar harbor must be sufficient to ensure a resounding success. Dive-bomber units, in particular, are to be transferred to Spain to engage naval targets and to support the attack on the Rock. Army formations will be allotted sufficient anti-aircraft artillery to allow them to engage targets on the ground also.

Navy: Submarines will be used to engage the English Gibraltar squadron, particularly when it leaves the harbor, as is likely after the attack. To support the Spaniards in closing the Straits, preparations are to be made, in conjunction with the Army, to bring over single coastal batteries.

Italian participation in the operation is not expected.

Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler.

Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler.

Author remark: This last paragraph can only be seen as a serious lapse by Hitler, but it very well describes the lack of imagination on Hitler’s side and, furthermore, the lack of affinity between the two partners. Mussolini knew about Hitler’s wish to conquer Gibraltar, as he had urged Mussolini also to try to persuade Franco to play along with the Axis partners. But Mussolini never urged as he did with the Corpo Aero Italiano and later the large contingent in Russia, to participate in this operation.

They each had their reasons. Hitler, of course, wanted to be the best boy in the class, one who didn’t need anybody’s help. Also, as it turned out he was neither impressed by the Italian air force nor its navy. Mussolini, through his naval commanders, had a healthy respect for the Royal Navy. In November when Directive 18 was issued the Italians had that very night received a serious blow with the British carrier attack on the Italian battle-fleet in the port of Taranto. At the same time, the going was rough on the Albanian-Greek border and there was a stalemate in the desert. The Italians had dug in well inside the Egyptian border, Marshal Graziani refused to take any chances. Hitler wrote “Italian participation not expected” but he really didn’t want any of it.

The Atlantic Islands, especially the Canaries and Cape Verde Islands, will assume additional naval importance after the operations against Gibraltar, both for the English and for ourselves. Commanders-in-Chief Navy and Air Force are to consider the best means of supporting the defense of the Canaries by the Spaniards and the occupation of the Cape Verde Islands.

I also request that the problem of occupying Madeira and the Azores should be considered, together with the advantages and disadvantages which this would entail for our sea and air warfare. The results of these investigations are to be submitted to me as soon as possible.

Author remark: This would have been a tough nut and could hardly have been put into practice without the use of German bases in French or Spanish Marocco. Raeder was, of course, very critical to such a hazardous adventure. A lot of time was used to study the problem.

3. The Italian offensive against Egypt.

The employment of German forces will be considered, if at all, only after the Italians have reached Mersa Matruh. But even then, the use of German air units will only be considered if the Italians will provide the necessary air bases.

The preparations of the Armed Services for operations in this theatre or in any other North African theatre of war will be made on the following basis:

Army: One Armoured Division (composition as already laid down) will stand by for service in North Africa.

Navy: German ships in Italian ports which are suitable as troopships will be converted to carry the largest possible forces either to Libya or to North-west Africa.

Air Force: Plans will be made for attacks on Alexandria and on the Suez Canal to close it to English warships.

Author remark: As we see, even before the upcoming setback for the Italian colors in the desert, Hitler was looking into the possibility of reinforcing the Italian ground and air forces. A “composition of forces” had already been laid down.

4. The Balkans.

Commander-in-Chief Army will be prepared, if necessary, to occupy from Bulgaria the Greek mainland north of the Aegean Sea. This will enable the German Air Force to attack targets in the Eastern Mediterranean, and in particular those English airbases which threaten the Rumanian oilfields.

In order to be capable of fulfilling all tasks, and to keep Turkey in check, planning and march tables will assume the employment of an Army Group in a strength of about ten divisions. The use of the railway line running through Yugoslavia will not be assumed in planning the movement of these forces. In order to reduce the time required for the movement, the German Military Mission in Rumania will be shortly reinforced to an extent about which I require advice.

In conjunction with the proposed land operations, Commander-in-Chief Air Force will prepare to post air force units to the Southeastern Balkans and to set up an Air Force Signal Service on the southern frontier of Bulgaria.

Author remark: So, long before the British started arriving in Greece, Hitler had started planning an eventual attack on Greece. Only on February 23rd 1941 did the Greeks, after heavy British pressure, accept the assistance of their forces to stop the Italians and counter the German build-up in the Balkans. Hitler was, as always, worried about the oil supply situation of the Rumanian oilfields. In the back of his head lingered the possibility of reaching out towards the Suez canal to block this important avenue of British supplies.

The German Air Force Mission in Rumania will be reinforced to the extent proposed to me.

Requests by Bulgaria for equipment for its army (weapons and ammunition) will be met sympathetically.

5. Russia.

Political discussions for the purpose of clarifying Russia’s attitude in the immediate future have already begun. Regardless of the outcome of these conversations, all preparations for the East for which verbal orders have already been given will be continued.

Further directives will follow on this subject as soon as the basic operational plan of the Army has been submitted to me and approved.

6. Landing in England.

Since changes in the general situation may make it possible, or necessary, to revert to ‘Undertaking Sea-Lion’ in the spring of 1941, the three branches of the Armed Forces will make every effort to improve in every way the conditions for such an operation.

Author remark: with other words, Sea Lion was still not off. At least not officially (internal, that was).

7. I await reports from Commanders-in-Chief on the operations laid down in this directive. I will then issue orders on the manner of execution and the timing of individual operations.

In the interests of security, special measures are to be taken to limit the number of those working on these plans. This applies particularly to the undertaking in Spain and to the plans relating to the Atlantic Islands.


So, what’s the essence of all this? There is no doubt here – Hitler wanted Gibraltar badly. He came a long way since Jodl’s ponderings at the end of June and much groundwork had been done. Preliminary reconnaissance at Gibraltar, along the transport route, units, and training areas assigned, equipment and supplies were in an advanced stage of assembly.

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