Operation Barbarossa, June 22, 1941, was the greatest single offensive operation in the history of the world. Nazi Germany launched an eventual 4.3 million Axis troops along an 1800-mile front in an attempt to smash the military potential and economic integrity of the world’s biggest federation, the USSR. Its goal was the conquest, in a single season, of the largest area of territory to fall since the decades-long campaigns of the Mongol Khans. The cost of its initial successes, and eventual failure, was the most appalling casualty list ever recorded in a single operation. Debates about Barbarossa stand in a class of their own for controversy and misunderstanding.
Barbarossa actually had three phases. In June and July 1941 the Germans made stunning gains, destroyed tens of thousands of Soviet vehicles and planes, overwhelmed the dozen frontier armies in their path, captured many hundreds of thousands of prisoners, and took several vital objectives. In the “strategic confusion” of August and September Hitler—who had read far too much about Napoleon’s concentration on Moscow while failing to smash forces in the field—was constantly diverting armies from strategic objectives like Leningrad and Moscow to tactical operations all over the place. In October and November came a “last gasp” effort by exhausted and badly depleted Axis troops, who nonetheless came tantalisingly close to breaking Soviet resistance. By December the Russians could counter-attack, and the operation had failed.
This essay appeared in a recent Quadrant.
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Hundreds of books have been written on the subject, many with obvious biases—particularly those by pro-Soviet propagandists. Most summaries available are highly confusing to read, with a number of apparently self-contradictory conclusions. The popular mythology of Barbarossa is that it was a series of mistakes:
1. Hitler was mad to attempt it.
2. Hitler ignored all arguments against it.
3. Stalin was mad to ignore evidence that it was coming.
4. The attack only failed because of Hitler’s interference in the operations.
5. The attack was not compromised by the British intervention in the Balkans.
6. The Soviets successfully traded space for time and were never in danger of total collapse.
7. The Soviets were saved only by “General Winter”.
8. The Wehrmacht had made no preparations for a winter campaign.
9. The Wehrmacht had vastly underestimated the opposition and never stood a chance.
10. Once they had survived the initial attack, the Soviet response would be overwhelming and inevitable.
There is an element of truth in most of these statements, as in most myths, but more that is vastly oversimplified, contradictory, or just plain wrong.
1. Hitler was mad to attempt Barbarossa
Hitler was declared mad by many of his own generals for attacking Poland in 1939, turning his back on the French, and starting a two-front war. Yet Hitler understood the political weaknesses of the Allied position, and rightly believed he had time to finish Poland.
Hitler was declared mad, again, by many of his own generals for attacking France in 1940. Yet he was, again, correct about the political and social weaknesses of France. Divisions in French society encouraged many French voters to say openly, “Better Hitler than Blum” (the French Socialist Party leader). The professional French troops the Germans lured into the Low Countries and cut off were among the best in the world, but the morale of the conscripts behind them collapsed like an undermined building, and the political leadership followed. So Hitler won the military element again, though he was, again, to be disappointed by Britain’s refusal to make peace.
When Hitler turned his attention to the Soviet Union, many generals believed—yet again—that he was mad, this time for re-starting a two-front war. In fact Hitler accepted that his only chance of forcing Britain to peace was defeating their traditional tactic—used against Habsburg, Bourbon, Napoleon, Tsar (Crimea), Kaiser and Fuehrer—of subsidising a continental coalition. By knocking out the only other military power left in Europe, Hitler could build an invulnerable Fortress Europe. (A prime rationale for finishing the Russian threat was also to allow demobilising up to two thirds of the army, while simultaneously releasing more economic and manpower resources for high-technology naval and air combat should the British still prove stubborn.)
2. Hitler ignored all arguments against it
Actually, Hitler assessed the pros and cons remarkably well.
The idea that the Soviet military was stronger than the French was simply unbelievable. Vast numbers of themselves rarely make an effective military, and anyway the Wehrmacht had experience at beating vast numbers in Poland and France. There was no reason to believe that Russian conscripts would not be just as easy. In fact they proved, by their millions, even easier to kill or capture than the Poles or the French.
The idea that the Soviet officer class would remain effective after the appalling purges of the 1930s was also inconceivable. With the exception of a small number of standouts like Zhukov, most Soviet officer corps were inexperienced, under-trained, unimaginative, timid, and terrified of being seen to disobey orders.
Hitler’s main nasty surprise was the eventual discovery that the Soviets were developing the next generation of tanks ahead of the Germans. While vast in number, the old-fashioned and badly maintained tanks the Russians initially had available were swept aside even more easily than the technically superior French ones. (Though Hitler later admitted that had he believed Manstein’s figures on Soviet tanks, he might never have attacked.)
Hitler was correct in thinking that the Soviet military was heading for a fall, and in believing that the vast majority of Soviet “citizens” would be delighted to see their monstrous government removed. Tens of thousands of volunteers would come forward from the Soviet satellite states in the Ukraine, the Caucasus, and the recently conquered Baltic states. It could have been millions of volunteers. Field Marshal Alan Brooke, the British CIGS, wrote in his memoirs, “I believe the Germans would have won the war in Russia if they had left it to their front-line soldiers.” But the Nazi hierarchy propagandised and motivated using the concept of ethnic cleansing. The SS and Gestapo troops that followed the army into the new territories quickly convinced the locals that there were worse enemies than the Soviets.
Hitler was possibly less mad for thinking the Soviet Union was an impressive-looking hollow shell, riddled with corruption and disaffection, than for thinking the same about France. Once again his initial military assessment was essentially correct. Most of the Soviet military did collapse like a house of cards. Still he again made the wrong political assessment, by declaring an ethnic-cleansing war rather than a war of liberation.
3. Stalin was mad to ignore evidence it was coming
This myth is easily busted.
Stalin never doubted that he would finish fighting Germany, and was preparing for war. He had received many, many warnings that the Germans were likely to attack: but many earlier attack dates, from the same sources that warned him in May 1941, had passed innocuously.
Stalin honestly believed Germany would not attack before “clarifying” the threat from Britain—ignoring Hitler’s undertaking a two-front war in 1939. He believed that Germany needed to improve its parlous economic conditions by absorbing some of its conquests (the way the Soviet Union was doing)—ignoring Hitler’s previously staving off economic ruin by timely conquests of Austria, Czechoslovakia and France. Stalin believed the German military needed time to modernise its equipment, convincing himself that his observers had been lied to when told that Germany had no new tank designs in production. Stalin believed the German army needed time to train its newly conquered peasant levies in Poland and other places—it’s what he would do!
Stalin was not being unrealistic. He carefully measured the likely responses of a dictator like Hitler against those of the most ruthless dictator he knew—himself. Yet Stalin was an utterly ruthless pragmatist, while Hitler was an utterly ruthless romantic. Hitler genuinely believed the drivel he was spouting about the “master race”, rather than using it as a convenient fig-leaf the way Stalin did with communism. In fact Stalin was very realistic in his assessments, and they probably would have worked against anyone being equally realistic; unfortunately for him, Hitler was a gambler.
Stalin managed to achieve the same balance as Hitler: his military analysis was overall accurate, but he failed on political analysis.
4. The attack failed only because of Hitler’s interference in operations
The most vicious arguments arise over whether the Wehrmacht could have won in 1941 if Hitler had not interfered. As early as June 24 he over-ruled von Bock’s preference to send his Panzers to Smolensk, instead turning them south to the Minsk pocket. He interfered again on July 19 (another diversion south), July 23 (another delay at Smolensk), July 24 (delaying the attack on Leningrad) and September 14 (cancelling all attacks on Leningrad). The most significant was when he diverted key armoured formations of Army Group Centre from attacking Moscow, to help attacks by the Northern and Southern army groups.
The priorities for Barbarossa were never fully agreed. Most field commanders, and many at OKW (German army HQ), wanted to smash the central power base of Moscow, so all else would fall thereafter like ripe fruit. Hitler believed that smashing the Soviet field forces, and capturing the Soviets’ economically vital areas, would lead to the collapse of the regime as the entire federation split apart. Hitler imposed an optimistic compromise, “Leningrad first, the Donetsk Basin second, Moscow third”. He preferred to destroy the structure and power of the Soviet state, and then have a triumphal parade into the surrendered capital, as in Poland and France.
Hitler might have been right, and his efforts might have achieved the desired results, had he stuck to the plan. Fatally, after a setback at Leningrad, he reversed himself, deciding to leave his (difficult) top priority to concentrate on his (easier) third priority, Moscow.
His reversal on the primacy of Leningrad was not the first time Hitler’s impatience led him to abandon his prime objective for what looked like an easier path. His whole justification for taking the risk of a two-front war was that the Soviet Union’s defeat would undermine Britain’s hopes, and encourage it to accept the inevitable.
Hitler’s hubris resulted from the success of his generals: Czechoslovakia, Poland and France were beaten when their armies collapsed on the frontiers. Hitler knew from experience that if you destroy the armies and grab the best bits of the country, the rest folds. His generals had taught him this very well.
Hitler possibly made logical choices, given his experiences. The diversions to destroy the armies in the south finished the last reserves his (incorrect) intelligence services identified as the total number of troops available to the Soviets. It should have been enough. Even after the failure at Leningrad, the troops still in his path to Moscow were decimated by his next attack. Perhaps it’s true he was only beaten by “General Winter”.
5. The attack was not compromised by the British intervention in the Balkans
Operation Barbarossa started later than was planned; that is incontrovertible.
Many historians follow then British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden in pointing to the two-month campaign in the Balkans as a key reason for the Germans being “too late and too slow” in Barbarossa. John Keegan for instance, claims that this “immensely assisted” the survival of the Soviet Union. The Nazis’ film-maker Leni Riefenstahl said Hitler had told her, “If the Italians hadn’t attacked Greece and needed our help, the war would have taken a different course. We could have anticipated the Russian cold by weeks and conquered Leningrad and Moscow. There would have been no Stalingrad.”
This view has been disputed, not least by the Soviets and their apologists. Apparently, diverting dozens of crack divisions to a hard campaign, in incredibly difficult terrain, where they suffered significant losses, really had no effect whatsoever on Barbarossa?
Amongst the dross is one very good point: spring was late in Russia in 1941; this caused the Germans to delay the attack until good weather. This excellent suggestion even has supporting evidence from repeated delays in the attack on France the previous year, most due to poor weather. The parallels are far from identical: Germany was already at war with France, which was mobilised and ready for combat. Notably, Germany paid much less attention to weather when mounting surprise attacks on countries with whom it was at peace—Poland, Denmark, Norway, Yugoslavia, Greece.
We might assume (for argument’s sake) that OKW convinced Hitler to hold back for better conditions, which actually caused faster and more effective attacks, and better logistical support to maintain momentum. That is still far short of saying the Balkans campaign did not hinder the success of Barbarossa.
Despite remarkable successes, the Balkans campaign caused substantial casualties of men and machines on the ground, in the air and at sea. Significantly, these were overwhelmingly to the Nazis’ most experienced, best-trained, crack assault troops (50 to 60 per cent of the divisions in the Balkans campaign were armoured, motorised, or paratroop specialists, compared with only 15 to 20 per cent in Barbarossa).
Losses in the assault on Crete were particularly horrific. The elite assault infantry (5th Mountain Division) were massacred at sea by the Royal Navy. Worse, the remains of the elite paratroops were so decimated that Hitler declared they would never risk an airborne attack again. This was a grave blow to Barbarossa’s Directive 21 plan that “Russian railways will either be destroyed … or captured at their most important points (river crossings) by the bold employment of parachute and airborne troops”. Kurt Student, the General of Paratroops, dubbed Crete “the graveyard of the German paratroopers … a disastrous victory”. Fortunate Soviets!
Imagine the impact of those extra divisions of elite ground and parachute troops at Leningrad or Moscow. Is it possible to believe that the loss or weakening of those units had no effect? For the rest of the war there was also an increasing need to garrison the Balkans against insurrection and Allied counterattacks. Did that have no effect either?
Next comes the issue of wear and tear. Most of the 600,000 trucks available for Barbarossa had been refurbished since the French campaign, or indeed were of French origin (which increased spare-parts problems), and many had suffered from being driven the length of Europe to the start lines. It seems likely that tanks and trucks which broke down several hundred miles into the Soviet steppes might have made it a bit further had they not done several hundred miles through the Balkan mountains first. Kleist’s 1st Panzer Group—which suffered a particularly slow advance—had detoured to the Mediterranean before starting Barbarossa. Von Weich’s Second Army, the one that ran out of steam in the western suburbs of Moscow, had also toured the Balkans first. No effect?
Munitions have to be an issue too. The profligate use of carefully built-up supplies during the Balkan campaign would not have been easy to replace on the Russian front. Even if German factories could replace them in time, they had to get them to the front line in Russia.
This brings up the biggest issue: logistics. Redirecting vast quantities of supplies from the Barbarossa supply dumps into the Balkans put an even greater strain on transport services and their trucks than it did on the fighting troops. There are, of course, other ways to fill up gaps in the logistics train; transport aircraft spring to mind, but see above regarding the huge losses at Crete. The German army also needed 750,000 horses for Barbarossa, creatures even less likely to be fresh after a side trip to the Balkans.
It is simply unreasonable to imagine that the Balkans campaign did not make a significant difference to the chances of survival of the Soviet Union.
6. The Soviets successfully traded space for time
The Germans underestimated the Soviets: the number of Soviet troops, the strength of their morale, the quality of their equipment, the capabilities of their officers, their loyalty to the regime, and the sacrifices they were willing to make. Having said that, there were good reasons for German assumptions.
German strategy was to smash the field armies, leaving the regime nowhere to turn. Prior to Barbarossa, this was a successful strategy. But Soviet acceptance of minimal training had allowed them to field vastly more so-called “soldiers” than the Germans, with their scientific methods of training effective soldiers, could imagine possible.
The Germans—accurately—believed most Soviet conscripts, drawn from violently repressed ethnic and social groups, would not be highly motivated or loyal soldiers. They were very poorly trained and equipped by German standards, and their morale was also a weakness—particularly for offensive operations. The repeated collapses of Soviet divisions against vastly inferior numbers on the Finnish front were not an accident. The conscripts didn’t want to invade anyone, and were not willing to strive to overcome opposition.
But the real issue for the Nazis was that this conflict was not to be one of Russian offence. It was one of defence—often the defence of the conscripts’ own families, farms and villages.
The Nazis failed to recognise the cynical insincerity of Stalin’s attachment to communist ideology. The second that Stalin realised that his dictatorship was in a hole, he switched back to a tried and tested technique—resistance to an evil invader. It was an inspired move. Insincere waffle about righteous workers was abandoned for the straightforward concept of the noble peasant fighting for his (or her) home. Class warfare was abandoned for race warfare, ideals for pragmatism. It worked; the German war in Russia—and even in some other parts of the Soviet Union—became a “Great Patriotic War”.
The Nazis could not have expected this speculative reversal of doctrine. Such hypocrisy was incomprehensible to them. As a result, the Nazi declaration of a war of relocation, subjugation and genocide was the greatest single mistake of the entire German war effort.
Another weakness in German planning was their failure to realise how much punishment a peasant population will face, and survive. Previous victories against the effete Danes and Dutch and Belgians, and the psychologically scarred defeatist French, had involved little more than kicking in the front door and waiting for the grovelling host to dust off the furniture. The gentle countryside of such countries hampers serious guerrilla activity. The Germans were yet to experience the partisans of the Balkan mountains and the Russian steppes.
The Germans also believed that most of the Soviet equipment was crudely made, obsolescent technology, wielded by poorly educated simpletons with little idea of how to maintain or repair it. They relied on this, often correctly. Vast amounts of it was captured or destroyed during the early months of the war.
The Germans’ worst failure was not believing that the Soviets were working hard to overcome the deficiencies of their equipment. Between the defeats in the Spanish Civil War and the Finnish war, the Soviet high command actually had a better understanding of their equipment weaknesses than the Germans had of their own. Superb equipment like the 76.2mm anti-tank gun, and Yak-I, MiG-1 and MiG-3 fighters, were starting to reach units; and the first T-34 and KV-1 tanks would be on the battlefield within weeks.
The traditional response to this is to suggest that the Germans were foolish not to suspect Russian developments, thus waiting to develop and mass-produce their own second-generation tanks and guns before starting the attack. Even had the Germans known what was in store, maybe they should have gone ahead? If you discover that your enemy is about to bring into production equipment that makes much of your own obsolete, you can make a good argument for striking first. (The Soviets had several hundred MiG-1 and MiG-3 deployed to units already, but had apparently only trained four pilots to handle them! What better time to strike?) Considering the results in the field, it is fair to argue that had the Wehrmacht been able to knock the Soviets out with Barbarossa, history would praise their foresight.
The Germans were well aware that the Soviet officer class had been decimated by Stalin in the 1930s, which helped to explain the terrible failings of the Soviet armies in Finland. The Germans expected this to work to their advantage, and it did. Most Soviet corps commanders were ten or twelve years younger than German divisional commanders, a huge shortfall in experience. They were also too terrified to question or even “flexibly interpret” their orders, which led to inevitable results.
As with equipment, an argument may be made that the Germans attacked at the moment of maximum effectiveness against the weakness of the Soviet officers. Had Barbarossa worked out otherwise, staff schools would be citing this as a brilliant example of taking advantage of your enemies’ weaknesses in a timely manner! David Glantz argues in his 2001 book Barbarossa: Hitler’s Invasion of Russia 1941:
In retrospect, the most serious Soviet failure was neither strategic surprise nor tactical surprise, but institutional surprise. In June 1941 the Red Army and Air Force were in transition, changing their organization, leadership, equipment, training, troop dispositions, and defensive plans. Had Hitler attacked four years earlier or even one year later, the Soviet Armed Forces would have been more than a match for the Wehrmacht. Whether by coincidence or instinct, however, the German dictator invaded at a time when his own armed forces were still close to their peak while his arch-enemy was most vulnerable.
7. The Soviets were saved by “General Winter”
Of all the myths about this campaign, this one comes closest to reality. The Soviets were in desperate straits before winter gave them a breather. The Germans were still achieving some significant successes when winter slowed them down. Lack of suitable winter campaign clothing had terrible effects on German troop availability and effectiveness. Lack of suitable oils and anti-freeze had appalling effects on German weapons and vehicles, crippling their ability to fight back, and causing the abandonment of much otherwise unharmed equipment to Soviet counter-attacks. The lack of heating resources alone led to the profligate use of desperately needed fuel. Meanwhile, the arrival of experienced Siberian troops with snow combat skills gave the Soviets their first genuine advantages in both tactics and performance.
It remains simplistic to suggest that winter was the only thing going on here. The Germans experienced their first serious setbacks before the onset of winter: defeats in the field, failed attacks on key cities, and dreadful casualties from clearing pockets of Soviet troops. German troop availability and effectiveness were falling steadily well before winter, so the increase due to weather may not be the determining factor in the campaign running out of steam. Equipment, too, had begun failing more regularly as maintenance declined and spares ran out. Lack of heat was important, but it affected the Soviets as well, and there is no suggestion that either side was forced to abandon all fighting during the season. And the arrival of the Siberian troops was the serendipitous result of the Japanese threat being redirected south rather than the arrival of winter.
Germans in wintry Russia faced the same dilemma that repeatedly stopped advances by both sides in the North African desert: as you get further from your supply bases, the enemy gets closer to theirs. You weaken, they recover, and the Benghazi Handicap repeats in the opposite direction. This pendulum in the desert had nothing at all to do with snow.
Nonetheless to deny that “General Winter” assisted the Soviets would be as foolish as to deny that the Balkans campaign did too. The effects may have been incremental, but they certainly helped tip the balance.
8. The Wehrmacht had made no preparations for a winter campaign
This is plain incorrect. The Wehrmacht prepared significant quantities of clothing and equipment for fighting and surviving a Russian winter; they just hadn’t been able to transport it, so most of the clothing sat in factories and warehouses in Germany when needed at the front.
Such failure to get what was needed to the front-line soldiers reinforces previous points. First, German intelligence failed to realise how bad Soviet infrastructure was, and never really recovered from this perceptual error. Second, the Balkans campaign ate vast quantities of both supplies and transport, which needed replacing. Third, the Soviet scorched-earth policy was far more ruthless than anything experienced in the effete West. Given inadequate resources, Hitler and OKW prioritised fuel and ammunition, not clothes and tents: another unfortunate case of generals preparing for “the last war”. Blitzkrieg in small countries with good communications and almost no willingness to raze everything to the ground was poor preparation for facing Russia.
9. The Wehrmacht had vastly underestimated the opposition
Many writers like to claim that it was only the surprise of the German attack that allowed them to achieve as much as they did. They confidently state that after the Soviets had absorbed the first shock, they were inevitably going to be able to stop whatever else the Germans threw at them. Rot.
True, German intelligence had identified only about half the actual divisions available to the Soviets, and this led them to critical mistakes—diverting Panzer forces from Moscow to take out the “last reserves” down south is the classic example. This mistake is partially redeemed by Germany then overestimating the strength and resilience of most of those divisions. The vast losses of men and equipment in the early days of Barbarossa occurred because Soviet troops were so badly trained, equipped, supplied and led. Various studies quote the surprise of the Germans at finding more and yet more divisions appearing; few quote their surprise at how easily what appeared could collapse.
Stalin’s dictatorial ability to move entire factories and towns, more or less at whim, was also a shock. The communists squeezed more military production out of what was left of Russia after Barbarossa’s initial successes than the Germans could have dreamed. Still, it is possible to suggest that, had Hitler not interfered, the German high command might have knocked Moscow out in 1941, and finished the Russians off in 1942.
10. Once they had survived the initial attack the Soviet response would be overwhelming
Another claim common to all too many writers is that the Soviet Union was simply too big a challenge for Nazi Germany, and while surprise allowed them some success, the end result was inevitable. Again, rot.
Had Germany not been fighting Britain and its Allies (including the US from 1942), it could have concentrated the resources needed to defeat Russia and cause the collapse of the Soviet Union. (Note the distinction between the imperial power and the subjugated satellites.) During the key campaign seasons of 1941-42 nearly all the Kriegsmarine, up to half of the Luftwaffe, and a significant portion of the higher-tech Heer, were all too busy fighting the British to concentrate on Russia. Literally millions of men and hundreds of thousands of tons of munitions and resources that could otherwise have helped in Russia were expended in other campaigns. Even in the later years of the war, the cream of German forces—including the majority of the higher-tech Panzer forces, Paratroops and Waffen SS—were fighting Western soldiers, not Soviet ones.
German anti-aircraft resources alone could have provided thousands of extra guns and crews to operate as anti-tank forces on the Eastern front. The vast material resources and fuel poured into the U-boat campaign could have been redirected to shipping, barges and railroads for the Eastern front—possibly solving a large part of the logistical problem. The bomber formations operating over Britain and Malta and Libya could have been concentrating on finishing off Russian resistance instead. The fighter wings vainly attempting to thin out ever-increasing Allied bombers could have held onto air superiority over Russia.
Nor should we ignore the importance of Allied supplies to the Soviets. In 1941 alone the Soviets received, just from Britain, thousands of Valentine tanks and Hurricane fighters (a mere 10 per cent of which would have saved Singapore), and hundreds of thousands of tons of other supplies (right down to two million pairs of boots!). For much of the war Canada and America were effectively supplying one meal per day for every man, woman and child in the Soviet Union. It is sheer fantasy to imagine that the Soviets had sufficient resources to defeat a Germany not distracted elsewhere.
The fundamental reason for the failure of Barbarossa appears not to relate to numbers or equipment or time or space at all. Instead it was the truly stunning fact that the Russians and their subject peoples refused to break under pressure.
Unlike the Poles or the French, many Soviet citizens kept fighting even when surrounded, kept escaping to fight again, or kept fighting as partisans behind German lines. Could any Western European have predicted this? Not really. Truthfully, it is still hard to believe that those Soviet “citizens” who survived the horrors of the 1930s would have wanted to fight for such a regime. But there is a reason. Having the virtue of their vices, the Nazis honestly pronounced their viewpoint: a race war. Stalin’s opportunistic response of abandoning decades of communist philosophy for a Great Patriotic War was a desperate gamble, which paid off. Amazingly, the two coincided to demonstrate conclusively the dictum often attributed to Napoleon, the previous great dictator to fail in Russia: “The moral is to the physical as three to one.”
Nigel Davies is a Melbourne educator and historian. He contributed “Ten Myths about the Phoney War” in the January-February 2017 issue.