THE POPE? HOW MANY DIVISIONS DOES HE HAVE?
Stalin asked the above question sarcastically in 1935 when a French Prime Minister requested the Russian leader’s help to win favor with the Pope. The question’s implication is that since the Pope has no military power, he can have no significant role to play in the rough and tumble “real world” of geopolitics.
Is this implication true? I would like to note how the prayerful action of the Pope coincided with two large-scale battles which history has come to recognize as key turning points in World War II.
1. Battles in the North African desert
The years 1941-1942 saw battles see-sawing back and forth between Axis and Allies in the deserts of Libya and Egypt. The Allied forces had their headquarters in Alexandria, Egypt. On the Axis side, Italians in Libya combined with German forces in an attempt to drive towards the Suez canal. The Germans were led by a charismatic tank general Erwin Rommel who had won renown in May 1940 during the invasion of France: his panzer division held the record for the longest forward thrust in a single day by tanks, almost 200 miles. Early in 1941, Rommel was appointed to command the Afrika Korps in Libya.
In just 3 months, Rommel succeeded in driving the British out of Libya, pushing most of them over the border into Egypt. The only Allied troops who remained in Libya were in a pocket at the Mediterranean port of Tobruk. Following a year of indecisive back and forth fighting, Rommel marshalled his forces for an attack on Tobruk in June 1942. This time, the city fell to Rommel in a single day, with the capture of a large number (33,000) of defenders. Then Rommel advanced further east into Egypt, taking 6000 more British prisoners on June 29 at the fort of Mersa Matruh.
After losing Mersa Matruh, the Allies fell back to their last available defensive positions at a place called El Alamein. With no more than 100 miles now separating this location from Alexandria, the Axis armies were in a position to offer a serious threat to the Suez canal.
In July 1942, Rommel went on the offensive in the first battle of El Alamein. However, after a few days of frontal assault, this resulted in stalemate. Subsequently, at the end of August, Rommel tried again to make an end run around the allies south of El Alamein, but the resulting battle of Alam el Halfa (August 30 to September 5) also ended in stalemate. Both sides would need many weeks for re-supply before either could hope for success in a restarted battle.
The Allies started their own offensive (the 2nd Battle of El Alamein) on Oct 23, 1942 under the leadership of General Bernard Montgomery. At first, severe fighting raged for a few days. But by Oct 26, the losses of Allied tanks were so alarming to Montgomery that he halted the attack and ordered an extensive re-grouping of his forces. This required a full week to achieve.
Specifically, during the days from October 26 until November 2, the front remained static.
Then on November 2, Montgomery re-opened the attack with Operation Supercharge. The outcome was completely different from that of the Oct 23 attack: in the Nov 2 attack, the Allies achieved a significant penetration of the Axis line on the very first day. A further Allied attack on November 4 opened up an even wider gap in Axis lines, and Rommel was forced to retreat. Not only was he driven back from El Alamein, but he was forced out of Egypt altogether, and then driven out of Libya, and eventually driven all the way into Tunisia. In mid-November, with the arrival of American forces in north Africa, the Tunisia campaign would begin. This would eventually lead to the defeat of all Axis forces in North Africa, with the taking of 230,000 prisoners of war in May 1943.
2. Battles on the Russian steppe
El Alamein was not the only defeat suffered by the Axis armies in November 1942. Fifteen hundred miles away from El Alamein, another battle also swung against the Axis in a significant way at the same point in time.
Starting in June 1941, Axis armies consisting of 4 million soldiers and 600,000 motor vehicles launched the largest invasion in the history of the world. In the course of a year or so, these armies swept across vast areas of Russia, defeating multiple Soviet armies, making prisoners of millions of soldiers, and systematically killing vast numbers of Jewish civilians. On August 22, 1942, the German armies reached the Volga river just north of the city of Stalingrad, more than 2000 miles away from the German border. By September 10, German armies also reached the Volga south of the city, cutting off the city from land-based assistance. By late September, the German attacks led to panic spreading among some of the Soviet militia to such an extent that two brigade commanders and their staffs abandoned their men to seek safety on an island in the middle of the Volga. The militia men quickly followed.
In an attempt to stem the tide, the Soviets counter-attacked in mid-September 1942 by launching three armies against the Germans from the north. The Soviet forces amounted to 22 divisions (each with about 13,000 men), 2 tank brigades, and one Tank Corps. But by September 18, this Soviet attack had been repulsed by the Germans. A second Soviet attack also failed a day later.
Meanwhile, the Germans continued to mount new offensives along various section of the front. One of these started on October 14, and in the course of six days, reached the banks of the Volga in the middle of the city, cutting the Russian defenders into separate smaller pockets. In an attempt to retaliate, Soviet diversionary attacks were mounted from the north-west and from the south. But these failed after a few days, and the Russians were not able to drive the Germans back.
So great was the pressure of the continuing German attacks in the city that on October 25, a whole section of one of the Special Militia Brigades of the Soviet army defending Stalingrad crossed over to the German lines and surrendered.
However, on November 1 1942, the Germans hitherto great good fortune in battle stalled. The last German attack by an infantry division against the largest building in Stalingrad collapsed on November 1. Another German division attacking in another section of the city was also ground down at the same time.
Also in the early days of the month of November 1942, a very different cause for serious concern arose among the German army. Although the total number of sick German soldiers in the Stalingrad area in November 1942 was roughly the same as it had been when the German armies were fighting the previous November (1941), the number of soldiers who died from infectious diseases was very different: in 1942, the death rate was found to be five times larger than in 1941. Why this should have happened has not been fully explained by the medical staff which attended to the sick German soldiers.
The final German assault began on November 11, with more than six infantry divisions thrown against the last pockets of resistance. But within a matter of a few days, the vaunted German army had been brought to a complete halt, short of its goals.
Meanwhile, the Russians had been planning their own counter-attack. Their last major attack in mid-September (mentioned above), with its 22 divisions of infantry plus some tanks, had ended in failure. The month of October was used to plan for a new attack. This time, the Russians would use fewer divisions of infantry (only 18) , but more tanks (3 corps plus 3 regiments). They would even call upon cavalry corps! Although it seems entirely out of place in modern warfare, it is amazing to read how, once the Soviet offensive against the Germans started, “The Soviet cavalrymen, with sub-machine guns slung across their back, cantered on their shaggy little Cossack ponies over the snow-covered landscape almost as fast as the tanks” (Anthony Beevor, “Stalingrad”, p. 241).
When would the Soviets launch their attack? That was a closely held secret until almost the day arrived. But as a significant component in the preparations for the coming attack, orders were sent out that civilians were to be evacuated from all regions within 15 miles of the front line. The date by which the evacuation of civilians was ordered to be complete was specified: October 29. This indicates that no attack would occur until October 30 or later. In the event, the Soviets waited until the final German assault petered out in mid-November. Then the attack (Operation Uranus) was launched on a massive scale: within a matter of 3 days (by November 22), the Germans in Stalingrad were surrounded and their fate was sealed.
The high point of German advances in Stalingrad occurred in a clearly defined period of time: late October and early November 1942. And then the Soviets, who had failed miserably to make any gains against the Germans in an attack as recently as mid-September 1942, decided to mount a second attack. The timing of the second attack was such that it could occur no earlier than October 30. When the Soviet attack did eventually come, the attack succeeded beyond the wildest expectations of those who had been pummeled by Germans for many months: the November attack resulted, within 3 days, in a complete envelopment of almost 300,000 Axis soldiers.
The war was not over: far from it. More than two further years of hard fighting remained. But following the defeat of the Germans at Stalingrad, the Soviets were able to begin their inexorable march to push the enemy out of their country, and out of Poland, until finally in 1945, they closed in on Berlin for the end.
3. What happened to make early November so different from late October?
It seems that the last few days of October 1942 and the first few days of November 1942 coincided with a significant change of fortune in two important battle zones. The question I raise here is the following: Did anything significant happen in the world during the week of Oct 26-Nov 2?
The answer is Yes: Pope Pius XII made a highly unusual radio broadcast on October 31, 1942.
4. The Pope’s broadcast: the Fatima message
The Pope’s broadcast was directed to pilgrims who had assembled in Portugal in October 1942 to honor the 25-year jubilee of the apparitions of Our Lady in Fatima. Those apparitions had been reported by three children as having occurred on the 13th day of each month from May to October 1917. The Pope used his broadcast from Rome to address the pilgrims in Lisbon in their native language.
The high point of the Pope’s broadcast consisted of a lengthy and remarkable prayer: he formally consecrated the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Why would the Pope do such a thing in the context of a broadcast to Portugal? The last surviving Fatima seer (Sister Lucia) had written to Pius XII in 1940 to inform him that “Our Lady asked for the consecration of Russia to Her Immaculate Heart, promising its conversion through this means”. She added that “Our Lord promises a special protection to Portugal in this war (World War II), due to the consecration of the nation by the Portuguese Bishops, to the Immaculate Heart of Mary; as proof of the graces that would have been granted to other nations, had they also consecrated themselves to Her”.
Why did the Pope attach importance to Fatima? Partly because the apparitions had received official approval from the local bishop of Leiria (in whose diocese Fatima is situated) after careful examination of the events of 1917. And partly because the Pope himself had been consecrated bishop on the very day of the first apparition in Fatima (May 13, 1917). Supposing that an Act of Consecration could do good for Russia (as Sister Lucia suggested), then the best kind of good which could happen to Russia in October 1942 would be for the German armies to cease imposing their all-out warfare on the Russian peoples.
One way for this to occur would be for the German/Axis armies to face defeat. Such an eventuality appeared almost impossible in October 1942. During the preceding 36 months, the German armies had enjoyed unbroken success, with victories in Poland, Denmark, Norway, France, Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Yugoslavia, Byelorussia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Greece. Even Britain was being slowly brought to its knees as a result of submarine activity in the Atlantic Ocean. In October 1942, the German juggernaut seemed unstoppable.
In this context, the Pope’s act of consecration occurred at a pivotal event. From Stalin’s perspective, the answer to his 1935 question to the French Prime Minister might now be stated as follows: with the help of Our Lady of Fatima, the Pope on October 31 1942 apparently was provided with access to enough “divisions” to make a significant difference in two large-scale battles.
Although Stalin would not have put it this way, it was as if the Pope had, on October 31 1942, called upon heavenly armies to assist in the German defeats in the Egyptian desert and the Russian steppe. From such a perspective, those armies were not available to Montgomery on Oct 23-26 when his first attacks had proved unsuccessful, nor to the Russians when they struck in vain at the Germans during September 1942. But the Pope’s decisive and public action made those armies available when Montgomery launched his second attack on November 2, and when the Russians launched their Operation Uranus in mid-November.
5. Days of blessing in the midst of total war
Something significant happened to the world on October 31 when Pope Pius XII followed the wishes of Our Lady of Fatima and consecrated the world (including Russia) to her Immaculate Heart. Since such a consecration had succeeded in keeping Portugal free of war, why might not the consecration of the world by Pius XII have contributed to widespread peace?
And the first step towards peace required that the aggressor Germans be stopped in their tracks. The events which happened at El Alamein and at Stalingrad were the first time that the German armies had suffered significant defeat in World War II. In this regard, Winston Churchill is famously quoted as saying “Before the battle of El Alamein, we never had a victory. After El Alamein, we never had a defeat.”
Those blessed days following October 31 1942 were truly a turning point in the war. And the blessings “arrived” on two separate fronts which were separated by 1500 miles.
Maybe those battles at El Alamein and at Stalingrad went the way they did because some divisions of (unseen) warriors had been thrown into the fray as a result of Pope Pius XII’s dramatic act of consecration in response to Our Lady of Fatima’s request.
As Alfred Lord Tennyson has written: “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.”
By DJMullan 7/19/2015