The Russian-German War (1996)
The Operation Barbarossa
Videos in this documentary
The Russian-German War
The Russian-German War is a rare look at one of the worst horror stories in the long infamous history of warfare. For decades the Cold War prevented us from looking closely at what really happened between the Russians and the Germans on the Eastern Front during World War II. More than a struggle between nations, it pitted maniacal tyrant against maniacal tyrant, evil ideology against evil ideology. The lives of tens of millions of human beings were consumed by its raging hatreds and appalling indignities. One in every ten Russians died. One in every four Poles died. Whole divisions of Italians, Rumanians, Hungarians disappeared with barely a trace. An average of 17,800 people died on every single day - and this, the war on the Russian German Front, lasted for 1,400 days. The series is narrated with chilling precision by actor Douglas Rain. The script, by producer Jerry Lawton, is dark and powerful. The music, by composer Rick Hyslop, captures every nuance of tragedy with discordant clarity. The series features captured German and Russian film footage, much of which has never been seen in the United States.
I The Politics of Fear
II The Darkness Descends
III The Killing Ground
IV The Tide Turns
V Vengeance Reaped
VI Breakout to Berlin
Operation Barbarossa (German: Unternehmen Barbarossa) was the code name for Nazi Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II that commenced on 22 June 1941. Over 4.5 million troops of the Axis powers invaded the USSR along a 2,900 kilometer front (1800 miles). The planning for Operation Barbarossa started on 18 December 1940; the secret preparations and the military operation itself lasted almost a year, from the spring of 1940, through the winter of 1941.
The operational goal of Barbarossa was the rapid conquest of the European part of the Soviet Union west of a line connecting the cities of Arkhangelsk and Astrakhan, often referred to as the A-A line (see the translation of Hitler's directive for details). At its conclusion in January 1942, the Red Army had repelled the strongest blow of the Wehrmacht. Hitler had not achieved the victory he had expected, but the situation of the Soviet Union remained dire. Tactically, the Germans had won some resounding victories and occupied some of the most important economic areas of the country, most notably in Ukraine. Despite these successes, the Germans were pushed back from Moscow and were never able to mount an offensive simultaneously along the entire strategic Soviet-German front again.
The failure of Operation Barbarossa resulted in Hitler's demands for additional operations inside the USSR, all of which eventually failed, such as continuation of the Siege of Leningrad, Operation Nordlicht, and Battle of Stalingrad, among other battles on the occupied Soviet territory.
Operation Barbarossa remains the largest military operation, in terms of manpower, area traversed, and casualties, in human history. Its failure is considered a turning point in the fortunes of the Third Reich. Most importantly, Operation Barbarossa opened up the Eastern Front, which ultimately became the biggest theater of war in world history. Operation Barbarossa and the areas which fell under it became the site of some of the largest battles, deadliest atrocities, terrible loss of life, and horrific conditions for Soviets and Germans alike - all of which influenced the course of both World War II and the 20th century history.
The Failure of Operation Barbarossa
by Mike Ruzza
"The German Army could have won the Russo-German War if only its leaders had made better decisions at certain key junctions." Illustrated below are clear examples of how the German leadership, not just those of the Army, squandered away opportunities to not only correctly plan the operation, but also to win it. The failure of Operation Barbarossa to achieve its objectives within a limited time frame caused the Germans to lose the war by December 1941—everything after that was just trading ground for time until the eventual defeat. The factors contributing to the failure of Operation Barbarossa are many: political, military, racial, diplomatic and others. All will be explored through a mostly chronological format, beginning with an action as far back as 1918.
According to Hitler, the German General Staff in the Great War (World War 1) were most responsible for the failure and humiliation of Germany over the next 20 years. Thus, he himself had nothing but contempt for and no confidence in those professional officers who made up his own General Staff. Not only had the German General Staff of WW1 made errors of judgment leading to Germany's defeat, but "they bore the responsibility for the most catastrophic single action of the century—the dispatch of Lenin and his colleagues from Switzerland to Russia in the famous 'sealed train.'" Both the seeds of the Soviet state and World War 2 (WW2) were planted in this one foolish move on the European chess board. Who can say what might have been had not the German generals let Lenin and his cronies escape? But the fact remains they did, and the world was changed because of it.
Hitler was constantly looked down upon by those in power and German society in general. An uncouth, uneducated man of the street rabble, he nevertheless possessed fantastic stamina and a keen eye for organization and a firm belief in leadership. He was much like Roosevelt who was Machiavellian in his need to keep those around him in a state of flux as to who had his ear and could impose influence. Hitler continuously turned the tables on his detractors, and in one case in particular during 1934, his generals. Hitler initiated "[t]he Deutschland Compact, (which) was a classic example of an agreement, not uncommon in history, in which each side (Hitler versus his generals) believes that it has gained the advantage because of its simultaneous (but undeclared) resolve to double-cross the other within the framework of the agreement." Hitler, in fact, consistently outwitted not only his generals but everyone who ever underestimated him, including Stalin. His generals discovered to their chagrin, "[f]rom that day on it was plain that whosoever opposed Hitler risked not simply his career but his life…" By means of this compact, Hitler had gained the upper hand on the Army and its generals; and would never relinquish control to the end of his life. This act dulled the influence of the military masters of war, and long-term contributed to its eventual defeat against the Russians. Just when things went sour several months into Barbarossa, when Hitler really needed sound military advice, he received instead conflicting opinions and platitudes. He listened only to his own muse, a dangerous business that in fact finished him and his Wehrmacht; yet it was the Army who time and again put the sword in Hitler's hand. But before WW2 would really get rolling in September, 1939; several other initiatives by Hitler would help seal the doom of both the Army and the Fatherland.
Hitler issued Fuhrer directives, like a king to his subjects, and "[b]y decree of 4th February, 1938, the three service ministries—of which the Army was naturally the senior—were unified and subordinated to a single commander, Hitler himself." Thus were the seeds of defeat planted even deeper into the harvest of foolishness. The Army—subordinated to the former Corporal Hitler. Field Marshals taking orders from an enlisted man—what madness was this? But it was to get even worse.
Rather than listening to his military experts, Hitler granted audiences to them, "[i]n the place of study and consultation between experts (which in a democracy would yield ultimate results) there were the Fuhrer conferences—little better than audiences at which Hitler, after listening with more or less good grace to "reports," hectored the assembled company with his mind already made up—and the Fuhrer directives…" This was the final nail in the coffin for the generals, and should have left no doubt in any of their minds who really had the power over the military. As the war would grow and expand, the strains of making every battle field decision held in the hands of one person was just too much. This, as in the other points I have already made, would contribute to Germany's difficulties and defeat when victory in Russia was so close at hand. Stalin's purges and his installation of Military Soviets into the chain of command were two more monumental blunders which had Hitler salivating for his lebensraum in the ost (east).
The Communist military 'genius' Stalin introduced "[i]n 1937, 'dual-command' (which) was hammered on with the purge. 'Military Soviets', the command-and-control device of a senior officer flanked by 'political members', blanketed the major commands and institutions." Not only had Stalin shot or imprisoned nearly all of his senior military leaders during the mid-1930s 'purge:' but the idea of adding another layer into an already complicated command structure would prove to be nearly the Russians undoing in the first months of Operation Barbarossa. If not for the size of the country and its armed forces—this might have been the decisive edge the Nazis could have exploited to finish Russia in the early weeks after 22 June, 1941. Again though, these two events caused Hitler to over-estimate the effect it would have on the Russian armed forces and the regular soldier who would do most of the fighting and dying for Mother Russia. It was yet one more factor convincing Hitler that now  was the time to strike! Another factor to consider, and one which has not been fully explored by historians has to deal with Soviet aircraft production.
The Germans knew that Soviet "…aircraft holdings were massive, amounting even in 1938 to some 5,000 machines, with an annual production of 4,000 to 5,000 to boost this." Did Hitler know or even suspect this capability of Soviet industry to mass produce aircraft, and if so; did it contribute to his decision to attack Russia in 1941—before thoroughly finishing off England in the fall of 1940? Also, if the Nazis had this information, it really should have told them that knocking out Soviet industry—all throughout Russia, not just the European portion of it—should have been a main objective of Barbarossa. It should also be noted that the Nazis did not have a fleet of long-range bombers in the Luftwaffe, and this fact about aircraft production in Russia should have awoken them to the fact that perhaps some were needed to finish off Russia once and for all. But perhaps Munich got in the way of any strategic planning vis-à-vis destruction of Soviet aircraft—those existing and those that could be produced in a short period of time to counter losses in combat.
Hitler's threat of action against Czechoslovakia in early 1938 put fear into the hearts of the Western powers. Stalin was busy fighting off the Japanese in an isolated region near the river Khalin-Gol. The defeat of Japan by Russia at "Khalin-Gol had 2 major results: 1) it secured the Soviet back door throughout WW2 (not enough emphasis has been placed on the strategic and tactical impact this had against the Nazis in the fall and early winter of 1941); and 2) Zhukov began his meteoric rise." At the time it did not seem very important; but history has proven this was extremely key to the German failure to break through to Moscow and Leningrad in December, 1941 because Stalin would be able to move all his fresh forces from the Soviet Far East into the battle lines against the combat-weary German troops at the last possible moment before total defeat. But at the time, the Munich Pact was much more newsworthy.
The weakness of the Allies was revealed at "[t]he 1938 Munich crisis that began the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia (which) convinced Stalin that Britain and France were unlikely to take effective action against Hitler and would willingly sacrifice the Soviet Union if the opportunity arose." This is a very important fact for three different reasons. One, it convinced Hitler more than anything else that Britain and France did not have the stomach or the will to move against him or Germany. He was emboldened and would continue his ravenous appetite for real estate unchecked for another year. Two, it played a very important role in Stalin's decision in August, 1939, when he entered into the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, that he was better off making a deal with the devil [Hitler] than relying on Britain and France to do anything in the event of a German attack against Russia. Third, it stymied a coup that the German generals had planned to depose Hitler, finally believing that he had gone too far and risked too much; because "[t]he coup was planned for the very last moment of peace, when it was established that Hitler had fixed a zero hour for the attack on the Czechs. It was thwarted (and the whole course of history perverted) by the Franco-British betrayal at Munich…" This was the first, but by no means the last, coup attempt by the Army to move against Hitler. This was the crucial moment though; had Hitler been deposed at this time, WW2 likely would not have happened, or at least may not have been so destructive and global in nature. Operation Barbarossa might well have remained a contingency plan in the Wehrmacht's arsenal, or a war game that never took life but for this pact. Hindsight is frequently 20/20, but the appeasement of Hitler at Munich further fueled his already enormous appetite for more. And that would come in the spring of 1939.
Now fully believing the allies to be spineless and impotent, Hitler occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1939. Finally resolving to halt Hitler's aggression after that happened, the allies (Britain and France) issued Poland an unconditional guarantee of support should Hitler move against them. This guarantee would lead to the outbreak of WW2 in name as well as action.
After absorbing Czechoslovakia in entirety, Hitler next turned his attention to Poland. His generals were appalled at the thought and the timetable involved (Case White, the attack on Poland was scheduled to begin on 1 September, 1939); at least six months earlier than the Army recommended. They were naturally overruled and the plan went forward. The big question was: what would Stalin's reaction be to an attack against Poland? Would he allow the Germans to roll across Poland to the Russian frontier unchecked? To solve this question, Hitler decided to normalize relations with the Soviet Union. Thus was born the cozy deal of odd bed fellows in August, 1939; whereby "[t]he Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact publicly promised friendship and mutual nonaggression, but secretly divided Eastern Europe into spheres of influence [between Hitler and Stalin]."
Stalin had several reasons to enter into this pact. Like the German General staff, he figured when the time came he could outwit and double-cross Hitler, perhaps as early as 1942. He was contemptuous of the Allies for caving in at Munich, and "…the attitude of Poland [in 1939] in refusing to consent to the passage of Russian troops or planes over Poland, and the attitude of the French to stay behind the Maginot Line and let the Soviets bear the full brunt of German hostilities led Stalin to believe that the Allies were weak and vacillating." Why should Russia stand alone against the Nazis? Stalin had no compunction for doing business with Hitler in 1939, and nothing would change his mind or attitude for the next two years. Further, he would gain territory putting him 200 kilometers closer to Berlin without firing a shot. On the flip side of that, the Germans would be 200 kilometers further away from Moscow—a distance that could have proved the difference in 1941 had they not entered into the Pact in 1939.
Russia was militarily weak in 1939, and it's likely that the Germans could have rolled through Poland to the Russian border without any interference from the Soviets. Also, another factor that would weigh heavily against the Nazis in November, 1941 was "…Stalin making his accommodation with Japan, a considerable diplomatic coup…the immediate Japanese threat against the Soviet Far Eastern borders was diminished." As in so many other short-sighted areas of Nazi thinking; their master-race bunkum and belief in the superior manhood of Aryanism, plus their own greed for conquest caused Hitler not to even consider working in tandem with the Japanese for a back-door attack against Russia, in conjunction with Barbarossa. Even a bluff at the very least, would have tied down the entire Soviet Far Eastern Army, and those troops would not have arrived at the front in Europe fresh and ready for battle in November, 1941. Whatever the outcome of the Japanese bluffing or attacking, the chances of Hitler taking Leningrad and Moscow by Christmas would have been very good indeed. Now, the Japanese had their own ideas and may not have thrown in with Hitler, their partner in the vaunted Pact of Steel—but it would have been worth a try and may very well have signaled the death knoll for the Soviet Union in December, 1941. That neither the Germans nor Japanese worked together in planning and conducting both Operation Barbarossa and the Pearl Harbor attack leads to belief in the axiom that "there is no honor among thieves."
One last note from this particular point in time that had an impact later on was the failure of the Russians to translate what the Nazis were doing in the field and adapt this to their own defensive strategy. Just before Hitler invaded Poland, "[i]n August, 1939, the [Soviet] commission reached a compromise that directed the removal of the motorized infantry elements from tank corps and tank brigades, reducing such units to an infantry-support role." This was a great example of hide-bound thinking, and a sure sign that the Russian military planners were still fighting WW1 all over again. Granted, this decision was made before the Blitzkrieg was launched in full force on Poland; but the fact remains that in the nearly two years between the attack on Poland and the launching of Operation Barbarossa—the Russians did nothing to revise either their thinking or tactics vis-à-vis modern warfare. This would cost the Russians dearly during the Finnish War as well.
The Finnish War was an opposite turning point for both the Germans and Russians. The Soviets displayed their weaknesses against a far lesser opponent after the purges. This emboldened the Nazis into believing that the Red Army would be easy pickings for the mighty German military machine, and "[t]he bumbling, hesitant Soviet military performance undoubtedly encouraged Hitler and his commanders to believe that the Soviet Union was incapable of defending itself." Here too, if the Soviets had made a better show of themselves, the Germans may never have launched Barbarossa; or at least not in 1941.
With the destruction of Poland in short order, the Germans added a new word to the military dictionary—blitzkrieg, or lightning war. After Hitler finally launched Case Yellow (May 1940) against France, the strengths of the German military machine began to reveal themselves. Russian General Romanko analyzed it as "[t]he German blitzkrieg, slicing up the British and French armies, made revision of Soviet views on the organization of armour suddenly essential." Unfortunately, nothing much came of this because the Russians were caught about as off-guard as they could be on 22 June, 1941. General Romanko continued along with "[t]he decisive factor in the success of German operations in the West was the mechanized army…in the final analysis this played a decisive role in the ultimate destruction of France…" These prophetic words by General Romanko reveals that the Russians seized upon the secret of the German success in 1940, but they were unable to analyze and find an answer to it by June, 1941.
Between the first World War and the attack on Poland, "[t]he whole of military science was applied to the problems of devising and perfecting permanent defence systems against which the opponent would batter himself to exhaustion—systems which found their exemplar, if not their most perfect consummation, in the Maginot Line." Unfortunately for the French, and later for the Russians vaunted Stalin Line; it never seemed to occur to them that a mechanized army might find a way around the fortifications, rather than battering themselves up against them. It's inexcusable that the Russians didn't seem to take note of the fact that the Germans cut-off and by-passed the Maginot Line, slicing through the Ardennes Forest with their Panzers; and thereby out flanked and encircled almost the entire French Army and damn near the British Expeditionary Force. Only the "miracle at Dunkirk" would save some of these men to fight another day. As General Patton would famously say later in the war, "fixed fortifications are a monument to the stupidity of man." The French and Russians were still thinking militarily in terms of the Middle Ages. But if Case Yellow revealed how strong and intuitive the Germans were, Operation Sea Lion illuminated a glaring weakness.
Operation Sea Lion, the German attack against England got off to a grand start in the late summer of 1940. After their quick and humiliating defeat of the French, Hitler decided to roll the dice and take the British out of the war and completely claim Western Europe as German lebensraum . But this would be a bit different than the other operations conducted to this point. England was an island, Germany would have to invade across the sea and rely on their airpower much more heavily. Initial Luftwaffe raids were effective at knocking out airfields and airplanes, but "[t]he famous Luftwaffe was basically a tactical air force, suitable for supporting a short-term ground offensive but not for conducting a deep and effective air campaign." This would cost the Germans dearly against the British, then the Russians, and eventually proved to be a major factor in their losing the war as well. The short sightedness of Hitler and Goering cost them dearly! Their failures in England should have led them to shift emphasis to long-range bombers, especially considering that "planning for war with Soviet Russia began on 29 July, 1940." The vastness of the Soviet Union alone should have convinced the Germans that long-range bombers would be necessary; but instead they stuck to their plan of a quick, short campaign, no doubt gambling that they could take whatever airfields they needed along the way and move the Luftwaffe forward after each successful battle. Rather than revise their thinking and learning from their mistakes, they blundered forward. Sea Lion was the first real German setback, and a hugely foolish mistake by Hitler. He should have finished with the west before turning east; because as we know England was left to get stronger, and the entire island was used as a forward base to build up supplies and troops between 1941 and the D-Day attack in 1944. While the Germans were bleeding to death in Russia, the Allies got stronger and stronger in the safe rear area that would become 'Fortress England'. But instead the Germans postponed Sea Lion indefinitely and began to turn their attentions eastward—where Hitler had yearned to go since he wrote "Mien Kampf " nearly 20 years earlier.
On "18th December, 1940, in his famous Directive No. 21, (Hitler) set out the strategic objectives and gave the unborn child conceived that summer a name, Operation Barbarossa, [or Red Beard]." The German Armed Forces were informed that "…the mass of the Red Army stationed in Western Russia is to be destroyed in bold operations involving deep penetrations by armored spearheads, and the withdrawal of elements capable of combat into the extensive Russian land spaces is to be prevented." The Nazis achieved the first part of the order fairly quickly, but the second part proved impossible over time. Over time is emphasized because had the Germans not only knocked out the Red Army quickly, but also prevented the withdrawal of Russians and industry from being moved into the Soviet Far East—the war would have been over in 1941. But for the military planners and intelligence gatherers, it might have been.
A large portion of the failure to successfully execute Operation Barbarossa must go to the planners and those involved with German intelligence. Many key failures of either or both directly led to the Germans being stalled in the snows just outside Moscow in December, 1941. As far as horse cavalry was concerned, the mighty "German accounts tended to ridicule cavalry units as hopeless anachronisms. During the winter of 1941-42, when all mechanized units were immobilized by cold and snow, the horse cavalry divisions (and newly created ski battalions and brigades) [of the Russians] proved effective…" Here the Germans stubbornly clung to their belief in a quick war that would be long over before the snows of October could set in. It would appear that no thought was given in the time leading up to the attack for contingencies based on failures to meet objectives. For instance, how could the planners not have drawn up contingency plans to cover cold weather operations? Flexibility is a major key to successful warfare. Yet two more failures had to do with German lack of any knowledge of new Russian tanks and their under-estimation of Russian military strength.
The Wehrmacht was unaware that "…the 1941 Red Army was just beginning to field a new generation of tanks (T-34 mediums and KV heavies) that were markedly superior to all current and projected German vehicles." This was definitely a bad omen for the Germans, and not one they could do much about at this point in the struggle. But much worse news already pervaded OKH headquarters as "[y]et the greatest German intelligence error lay in underestimating the Soviet ability to reconstitute shattered units and create new forces from scratch. …the Red Army's ability to create new divisions as fast as the Germans smashed existing ones was a principal cause of the German failure in 1941." The Germans could not afford to trade body for body with the Soviet Union. They never imagined that "[b]y the time of the German invasion, the Soviet Union had a pool of 14 million men [which Germany could not match] with at least basic military training. This…gave the Red Army a depth and resiliency that was largely invisible to German…observers." Would Hitler have given the order to attack had he known all this, because "…prewar German estimates had postulated an enemy of approximately 300 divisions, (and) by December the Soviets had fielded twice that number. This allowed the Red Army to lose more than 100 divisions in battle and continue the struggle." The sheer mass of numbers alone ensured no easy conquest of Russia. No other country besides China could have done something like this, and at the time they were under assault by Japan and split between a communist faction and another led by Chiang Kai Shek who ruled the country. The Russians were not worn down, demoralized and defeated quickly—like the Poles and French had been. Truly, this was a monumental error, and something the Germans had not counted on either. Another key mistake was the Germans believing their own racist propaganda.
The racist Nazi doctrine preached that "[w]ithin a leaderless army operated the 'inferior' (minderwertig) Russian, a military version of the racist, Nazi notion of the 'sub-human,' the Untermensch, which unleashed so much fiendishness in the east." This, along with other lunacy only increased the resistance against the Germans by others who might have been persuaded to help; but instead it only served to fortify the Russian populace and give them a good reason to fight the Nazis. This was an extremely foolish, short-sighted and narrow-minded way to plan a campaign. One of the principles set forth by Sun-Tzu was that of "not underestimating your enemy." The Nazis completely violated this principle, and it contributed heavily to the Germans losing the war as well. On the contrary, as the Germans would learn to their chagrin; the Russians were a hardy race and the ordinary Russian soldier was a fierce, tough warrior when aroused, thereby fortifying the Soviet bear as the world's image of Russia.
Most of the Nazi propaganda laid out described "[t]he 'ordinary Russian,' (as) it was claimed, would show himself only too anxious to escape, by laying down his arms, from the menacing supervision of the commissars." He might well have except for the fact that the brutality exhibited by the Nazis put the 'ordinary Russian' between a rock and a hard place. It also gave weight to Stalin's later call to rally around the flag and not the party. Hitler conveniently and foolishly played right into Stalin's hands and let the communists have a large issue to hang their propaganda on and turn the people against the Germans. Again, this propensity to underestimate your enemy would play havoc with the German war goals; all the way up to the level of Hitler.
The 'supreme military genius', "Hitler…believed that the Soviet military machine was so riddled with Communism, insecurity, suspicion, and informers, and so demoralized by the purges that it could not function properly." This certainly seemed the case for the first several months of the campaign at any rate, when "[a] large portion of the Wehrmacht regarded the Soviet people as bumbling and potentially treacherous sub-humans…this unofficial German attitude produced widespread instances of brutality and murder. Quite apart from the moral implications of such conduct, the German behavior served to alienate potential allies and to spark widespread resistance." More cleverness from the supposed "Master Race." Naturally, amongst any nest of communist vipers lurked the 'evil Jew,' as "…the first troops to enter a Russian town frequently executed several people in an attempt to deter any resistance…Nazi propaganda held that many Communists were Jewish." A sound military and/or diplomatic policy might have saved the day; but naturally it was over ruled by mindless racism and ridiculous propaganda. And yet, this hatred of Jews and a belief in their own superiority was a key ingredient to being a Nazi, and was the basis for both their domestic and military policy decision making.
Despite the initial successes of the Germans in the opening months of Barbarossa, the surprise factor wore off before they could declare victory. That they had planned for a short summer campaign itself was a major factor in their eventual defeat; but what follows is a list of errors that when compounded add up to not only the failure of Barbarossa to achieve objectives; but also Germany's defeat in the war itself.
The Germans "…found it very difficult to assemble sufficient forces to actually seal off the encircled Soviets, and thus large numbers of soldiers escaped…" This situation repeated itself after every initial routing of Russian troops, and of course slowed down the rapid Nazi advance just when it should have kept on rolling towards Moscow. The Chief of Staff of the Wehrmacht, "General Franz Halder…also noticed that Soviet troops generally fought to the death and that German intelligence had misidentified numerous large Red Army units." Both of these factors were very bad omens for the Germans. The Soviet troops turned out to be anything but the sub-humans the Germans thought they were; and the failure to identify large Red Army units caused an extreme miscalculation during the planning and early execution phases of Barbarossa. In essence, Germany was not prepared to deal with the large numbers of Russian personnel that would eventually be brought to bear against them because of their inability to quickly end the war in the east. The Soviet fighting spirit turned out to be quite an astonishing thing as well.
The Russian populace as a whole, displayed as "…early in July, 30,000 civilians laboured night and day on the Luga 'line', spread out on a broad front, one half digging anti-tank ditches, the others building fire-points from concrete blocks…" As would rear itself again in Leningrad and Moscow a few months down the road, the Russian spirit and will to fight and live was indomitable. I believe this helped finish the Germans as much as or possibly even more than the poor leadership provided at the top levels of the Soviet government. In November, "Panzer Group 4…was definitely being drained away from Leningrad…in order to take part in Operation Typhoon against Moscow."
By drawing forces away from Leningrad, when the Army was on the outskirts of the town, the Wehrmacht ensured that neither Leningrad nor Moscow would be taken by Christmas. This is a classic text book example of concentration of force not being applied tactically in the field. The Germans thought they could starve Leningrad out, "…but Leningrad was completely cut off, except for the lake Ladoga route." This lake would be used to re-supply the city throughout the winter when it froze over, and then vehicles and eventually a train track were laid across it. The Germans misguided faith in an ally (Finns) and the lack of will on the part of the Finns to press their attack against Leningrad in congruence with the German movement, proved to be a glaring weakness in this case. Leningrad was holding out because "…the Finns, in spite of intense German prodding showed no inclination to press the assault to Leningrad; [thus allowing] 12,000 men of the 'Vyborg Group' to be brought off from Kolivisto back to Leningrad." This not only put more troops in the city to defend it, but it also led to the lake being left open as the back door to Leningrad to get supplies and food. Another key failure for the Germans in the battle for Leningrad was the Luftwaffe not being able to effectively bomb and disable this route because their bombers were not useful for long-range tactical strikes. Goering's Luftwaffe also came up short and allowed the Russians to move entire factories out of reach of the vaunted Nazi Air Force, when "8,000 railcars were used to move just one major metallurgy complex…more than 500 firms and 210,000 workers left the Moscow area in October and November alone." Where was the Luftwaffe while this was going on? Why did they allow this to happen? "In total, 1,523 factories, including 1,360 related to armaments, were transferred…between July and November, 1941. Almost 1.5 million railcars were involved." This massive relocation and reorganization of heavy industry was an incredible accomplishment of endurance and organization [especially considering the weather and hardships involved]. The Luftwaffe's inability to stop this was just one factor contributing to defeat. Another factor to consider here is if Japan had been involved as a full partner in Barbarossa, it's likely that the Russians would not have been able to move their factories at all. They then would have been destroyed and/or captured and utilized by the Germans, and the outcome of the campaign might well have ended in German [and Japanese] victory. From the German perspective, "…captured Soviet factories had promised an easy solution to overcrowding and labor shortages in Germany. This, in turn, meant that the Germans had to convert large portions of the captured rail network to their own narrower gauge, instead of using the existing, broader Russian gauge." In sum, the Soviet evacuation effort not only preserved industrial potential for future campaigns and gave hope to the Russians for eventual victory; but it also posed a continuing and unexpected drain on the German economy. Essentially, this ended up being a double-edged sword against the Germans, which when totaled up spelled d-e-f-e-a-t. Another key factor was the spring 1941 crises in Yugoslavia, Greece and the Balkans.
Hitler moved the date for Barbarossa back to 22 June from 15 May because of "[t]he German invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece during April and May, 1941…also caused a series of delays in the attack on Russia itself." At the time, it likely seemed the sensible thing for Germany to do; but by December, with their armies poised to finish off Russia and take Moscow, it can be seen as a key contributor to Nazi defeat. This delay of five weeks would prove to be crucial! Had Barbarossa started in May instead of June, they would have arrived in Moscow and Leningrad sooner and would have taken both cities. This was yet another in a long line of German errors and miscalculations that contributed to their defeat against the Russians in the war; but logistics might have been the key area that really broke the Nazis back.
The Germans "…supply of fuel was one of the principal problems in regulating the operations of armoured and mechanized troops." As was noted by Glantz and House, "Germany's main weakness lay in the field of logistics." Still another school of thought was that "[p]erhaps the fundamental weakness was the German economy, which had not yet been mobilized for war." Two of these three statements dealing with fuel and the lack of economical mobilization for war were heavy reasons for Germany's defeat. "The infantry was running short on boots, and staff officers began to plan for large quantities of winter clothing." This honestly should have been done and laid into storage near the front before 22 June. Despite the rhetoric and propaganda of a short summer campaign, good logistics planners would have known to do this regardless. Was Hitler really to blame for this not being accomplished? Worst of all was that "[b]oth vehicle and aircraft engines had to be heated for hours before attempting to start them." Again, this is poor planning and support of combat troops. Construction battalions should have built temporary structures to house vehicles and aircraft to keep them out of the cold and bypass the hours waiting for them to heat. Also, why didn't they have the necessary lubricants to run their vehicles without warming them up? These small details all added up and doomed the offensive before it ever started frankly.
The Germans seemingly had no answers for their supply issues, and "[a]s the battle rolled across European Russia, the Soviet supply lines became steadily shorter and easier to support, while the Germans were faced with ever lengthening lines of communications…" This was a huge problem and one the Germans either gave no thought to prior to beginning Barbarossa, or never really solved after it became a problem for them. This was yet another contributing factor to the slow down in advance that led to the end of the offensive in early December, and in reality the end of the war for the Germans. Two other factors worth considering here are the condition of the roads, and of course the weather.
The Germans obviously knew that weather would be a problem for them, which is why Barbarossa was initially planned for 15 May instead of 22 June. The weather caused multiple problems for the German advance, and not all of it related to cold and snow. For instance, "[f]all rains turned the Russian roads into canals of mud, reducing Luftwaffe support even further…" Yet again, the notion that had the Germans started the attack on the original schedule, and had they gotten better intelligence, they could have finished off the Russians well before Christmas. Road conditions were another concern, because "[p]oor roads made it difficult for wheeled vehicles, let alone foot infantry, to keep pace with the dwindling number of tanks in the spearheads." Here again, the abject failure of German intelligence was a very key point. Couldn't their pilots observe during over flights that these roads were not modern and paved? Nearly 100% of the time they were narrow, dirt style roads that would play havoc with tanks and armored vehicles. This was completely inexcusable and very poor preparation for a major attack. That plus the fact that these lousy roads turned into mud holes in the fall rains were two huge factors in Germany's stall in 1941 and eventual defeat in 1945. Lastly on the topics of roads and weather, "[w]ith temperatures well below freezing and troops running out of fuel, ammunition and functioning vehicles, the German advance slowly shuttered to a halt just 20 kilometers from Moscow. Dogged Soviet defenses did as much to stop the Germans as did bad weather and supply lines." The severe winter weather also allowed the Russians to refit and to move reserves up into the line in preparation for a spring offensive. Stalin also had an ace in the hole outside of the weather, and that was a mole in the German Embassy in Japan—Richard Sorge.
In March of 1941, "Richard Sorge sent Moscow, in an astonishing compilation of data about 'Barbarossa,' the objectives, the 'strategic concepts,' the strength of the German troops to be committed and the opening date for the attack on the Soviet Union." Why Stalin refused to see the writing on the wall is one of the great mysteries of history. Again, "[a]t the beginning of May, yet another supplementary report from Sorge underlined the reality of the threat of war…yet Molotov on 14 May dismissed talk of a Soviet-German collision as 'British and American propaganda.'" Stalin, like Nero before him, literally fiddled while any chance he might have had to blunt the initial assault melted away with the days of spring and early summer. The Soviet leader's refusal to grasp the changing reality was perhaps the result of the power of propaganda. They were so good at fabricating lies and spreading them around, that they likely figured this was just more of the same, despite the excellent advance intelligence they received from Sorge. Stalin himself should have been taken out and shot for being an imbecile. Only the tough resourcefulness of the Russian people preserved the Soviet Union.
A couple of other items worth mentioning have to deal with the infamous Commissar Order, and the destruction of non-Jewish Slavs. The "German occupation policy appeared deliberately intended to alienate the (local) populace. The Commisar Order" declared that Soviet political officers were not prisoners of war and should be shot out of hand. This was interpreted broadly. A second order specified that, in the event a German soldier committed offenses against civilians or prisoners, disciplinary action was optional, at the discretion of the unit commander." Never before in the recorded annals of combat throughout history had an invading Army been given instructions like this in writing. This was nothing more than a license to loot, pillage and plunder at will, and not have to worry about any consequences later. The German Army leaders should have known or suspected that this type of order would in the end loose a Pandora's Box and make it harder to maintain good order and discipline; and yet there it was in writing for all to see clearly.
Another monstrous act deals with the near extermination of Slavic nationals, and "[w]hat is often overlooked [after the Holocaust] in the horror of this crime is the related brutality of German policies toward the non-Jewish, Slavic population…3 million were enslaved as forced laborers…3,300,000 Soviet prisoners of war died in German hands through starvation, disease and exposure." One can only speculate on what other horrors awaited other peoples of the world had Hitler been successful in the conquest of Russia and beyond. And yet, they nearly won.
Despite all the limiting factors, failures of intelligence and logistics, the Germans came mighty close to defeating the Russians in a quick campaign in 1941. Had the Germans managed to overcome even just a few of these things; victory would have been theirs. Let us not forget that on 5 December, 1941, when Hitler ordered the offensive to cease for the winter, "…the Soviet military machine was so desperately and terribly strained, though not yet actually smashed, the conditions for the defense of the Soviet capital were all too disastrously plain: the reserves had vanished!" Here then the crucial moment in Operation Barbarossa had been reached—had the Germans been able to make one last determined push on all fronts—victory would have been theirs!!
Both sides were staring into the abyss, and the Germans blinked first. This was a truly historical moment that maybe comes only every thousand years or so; and it sums up the whole Russo-German war. The loss of the initiative that ended on 5 December, 1941 was in actuality the end of the German war against Russia. That it took nearly 3 ½ more years to finish it off was inevitable. The Germans lost their one and only chance to smash the Soviet Union in the snows outside Leningrad and Moscow in that freezing December; and they would never have the chance to reclaim it. That Hitler made another huge mistake three days later by declaring war on America after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is a story for another day.
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. Clark, Alan, Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict, 1941-45 . (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1985), 18.
. Clark, 8.
. Clark, 9.
. Clark, 14.
. Clark, 15.
. Erickson, John. Road to Stalingrad: Stalin's War with Germany . (Yale University Press, 1999), 22.
. Erickson, 34.
. Erickson, 14.
. Erickson, 15.
. Clark, 19.
. Glantz, David M., and House, Jonathan. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler . (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998), 16.
. Erickson, 76.
. Erickson, 76.
. Glantz and House, 13.
. Glantz and House, 13.
. Erickson, 24.
. Erickson, 42.
. Clark, 30.
. Glantz and House, 37.
. Clark, 24.
. Clark, 25.
. Glantz and House, 31.
. Glantz and House, 66.
. Glantz and House, 36.
. Glantz and House, 67.
. Glantz and House, 68.
. Glantz and House, 68.
. Erickson, 47.
. Clark, 28.
. Clark, 43.
. Glantz and House, 56.
. Glantz and House, 56.
. Glantz and House, 53.
. Glantz and House, 53.
. Glantz and House, 147.
. Erickson, 195.
. Erickson, 195.
. Erickson, 194.
. Glantz and House, 71.
. Glantz and House, 78.
. Glantz and House, 73.
. Glantz and House, 43.
. Erickson, 44.
. Glantz and House, 29.
. Glantz and House, 30.
. Glantz and House, 74.
. Glantz and House, 85.
. Glantz and House, 34
. Glantz and House, 77.
. Glantz and House, 74.
. Glantz and House, 85.
. Erickson, 87.
. Erickson, 87.
. Glantz and House, 56.
. Glantz and House, 57.
. Glantz and House, 57.
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Clark, Alan. Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict, 1941-45 . New York: William Morrow and Company, 1985.
Erickson, John. Road to Stalingrad: Stalin's War with Germany . New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.
Glantz, David M., and House, Jonathan. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler . Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.
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Copyright © 2006 Mike Ruzza.
Written by Mike Ruzza. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Mike Ruzza at: [email protected]
About the Author:
Mike was born in Washington, DC and spent 26 years on active duty in the U.S. Air Force. He completed his A.A. in Liberal Arts with St. Leo University in 2000; and his B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies with American Military University in 2005. Mike is currently pursuing his Master's Degree in Military Studies, concentration on the American Revolution. Mike is a DoD contractor, supporting Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom in the South West Asia theater. He is married with two children.