"When Operation Barbarossa is launched, the world will hold its breath!"
On the night of June 22, 1941, more than 3 million German soldiers, 600 000 vehicles and 3350 tanks were amassed along a 2000km front stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Their sites were all trained on Russia. This force was part of 'Operation Barbarossa', the eastern front of the greatest military machine ever assembled. This machine was Adolf Hitler's German army. For Hitler, the inevitable assault on Russia was to be the culmination of a long standing obsession. He had always wanted Russia's industries and agricultural lands as part of his Lebensraum or 'living space' for Germany and their Thousand Year Reich. Russia had been on Hitler's agenda since he wrote Mein Kampf some 17 years earlier where he stated: 'We terminate the endless German drive to the south and the west of Europe, and direct our gaze towards the lands in the east...If we talk about new soil and territory in Europe today, we can think primarily only of Russia and its vassal border states'i Hitler wanted to exterminate and enslave the 'degenerate' Slavs and he wanted to obliterate their 'Jewish Bolshevist' government before it could turn on him. His 1939 pact with Stalin was only meant to give Germany time to prepare for war. As soon as Hitler controlled France, he looked east. Insisting that Britain was as good as defeated, he wanted to finish off the Soviet Union as soon as possible, before it could significantly fortify and arm itself. 'We only have to kick in the front door and the whole rotten edifice will come tumbling down'ii he told his officers. His generals warned him of the danger of fighting a war on two fronts and of the difficulty of invading an area as vast as Russia but, Hitler simply overruled them. He then placed troops in Finland and Romania and created his eastern front. In December 1940, Hitler made his final battle plan. He gave this huge operation a suitable name. He termed it 'Operation Barbarossa' or 'Redbeard' which was the nickname of the crusading 12th century Holy Roman emperor, Frederick I. The campaign consisted of three groups: Army Group North which would secure the Baltic; Army Group South which would take the coal and oil rich lands of the Ukraine and Caucasus; and Army Group Centre which would drive towards Moscow. Prior to deploying this massive force, military events in the Balkans delayed 'Barbarossa' by five weeks. It is now widely agreed that this delay proved fatal to Hitler's conquest plans of Russia but, at the time it did not seem important. In mid-June the build-up was complete and the German Army stood poised for battle. Hitler's drive for Russia failed however, and the defeat of his army would prove to be a major downward turning point for Germany and the Axis counterparts. There are many factors and events which contributed to the failure of Operation Barbarossa right from the preparatory stages of the attack to the final cold wintry days when the Germans had no choice but to concede. Several scholars and historians are in basic agreement with the factors which led to Germany's failure however, many of them stress different aspects of the operation as the crucial turning point.
One such scholar is the historian, Kenneth Macksey. His view on Operation Barbarossa is plainly evident just by the title of his book termed, 'Military errors Of World War Two.'iii Macksey details the fact that the invasion of Russia was doomed to fail from the beginning due to the fact that the Germans were unprepared and extremely overconfident for a reasonable advancement towards Moscow. Macksey's first reason for the failure was the simply that Germany should not have broken its agreement with Russia and invaded its lands due to the fact that the British were not defeated on the western front, and this in turn plunged Hitler into a war on two fronts. The Germans, and Hitler in particular were stretching their forces too thin and were overconfident that the Russians would be defeated in a very short time. Adolf Hitler's overconfidence justifiably stemmed from the crushing defeats which his army had administered in Poland, France, Norway, Holland, Belgium and almost certainly Great Britain had the English Channel not stood in his way.iv Another important point that Macksey describes is the lack of hard intelligence that the Germans possessed about the Russian army and their equipment, deployment tactics, economic situation and communication networks. They had not invested much time and intelligence agents in collecting information from a country which was inherently secretive by nature and kept extremely tight security. He also states that it was far from clever that the General Staff officer in charge of collecting information about the Soviet Union had many other duties, was not an expert on Russia or the Red Army and he couldn't even speak Russian.v Therefore it was hardly surprising that the only detailed intelligence reports concerned the frontier regions of Russia that were frequently patrolled by German patrols and spied upon by airborne reconnaissance.
These were the products of over-confidence. The German army plunged into Russia under the impression that there were 200 Russian divisions ! in tot al; only to discover in the following months that there were 360 and this figure was later revised to over 400 divisions. The Germans also knew that the Russian roads were inferior for their vehicles and that the Russian railway tracks were of a different size than what they were using yet, no department or planning logistics ever took these factors into account before the invasion took place. Before the German army was poised to strike towards Moscow, one of the vital units of Operation Barbarossa was diverted. Army Group South, which was to secure the Ukraine and Romania was partly diverted to join in the theatres of battle in the Balkans and the Mediterranean. Initially, the Army Group South had been safeguarded by Hitler as he used power diplomacy instead of force to take Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria into the German fold yet, now he was unwittingly using these countries as a spring board for the diplomatic takeover of Yugoslavia and an invasion of Greece. At the same time, two mechanized divisions know as the Africa Corps (Lt.General Erwin Rommel) were sent to Tripoli to help the defeated and panicking Italian Army in North Africa, and later, a costly invasion of the island of Crete would further detract from the German effort because of the heavy losses suffered by thousands of elite troops.
These deployment were significant because each expansion ! to the south was a subtraction from the troops of Barbarossa as well as a cause of delay in its execution. This troop subtraction was brought to alarming levels when the British, through diplomatic intrigue, managed to ins tigate a coup d'etat in Yugoslavia which overthrew the government and canceled out the agreement the country had with the Germans for unresisted submission. With every indication that British bombers and troops would be within range of Romania and the Barbarossa supply lines, a major invasion of Yugoslavia as well as Greece had to take place at short notice.vi This invasion however distracting, added fuel to Hitler's confidence when his forces conquered both Yugoslavia and Greece in a matter of weeks, but, these delays would eventually prove costly as the unprepared and poorly supplied German troops marched on towards Moscow. While Macksey gives several valid reasons for the failure of Barbarossa before the action is conducted, authors Nicholas Bethell and Michael Wright both stress the fact that the operation failed due to the Russian peoples tenacity and the harsh weather and terrain conditions during the invasion. They do not agree that the attack was doomed from the start as Macksey contests. In Wright's book 'The World At Arms' , he describes many factors which led to the failure of Hitler's plan. The first was the ferocious fighting zeal of the Russian troops. This fighting spirit had little to do with the communist regime's inspiration but with the fact that the Russian people had been so used to intimidation and suffering under Stalin's iron fist that they had absolutely nothing to lose by fighting to the death, particularly if your only alternative was to be executed by your own government for treason. When Stalin addressed his people, he spoke to them as fellow citizens and brothers and sisters and not with the demands of obedience and submission which was commonplace in earlier times. He spoke of a 'national patriotic war...for the freedom of the motherland' and he initiated his scorched earth policy which would not leave 'a single railway engine, a single wagon, a single pound of grain, for the enemy if they had to retreat.vii To the Germans, t! his staunch and often sui cidal determination was unnerving and it had a negative effect on their fighting morale. Stories of this Russian tenacity spread widely among the Germans. Tales of Russian fighter pilots who wouldn't bail out if shot down but would crash into German fuel trucks; of tanks that were on fire but the burning troops driving would press on into battle. It was said that Russian women had even taken up arms and that troops would find pretty teenage girls dead on the battlefield still clutching weapons. The Germans started to complain about Russians who were fighting unfairly. They said soldiers would lie on the ground and pretend they were dead and then leap up and shoot unsuspecting Germans who were passing byviii. Or they would wave white flags of surrender and then shoot the soldiers who came to capture them. Having heard these actions, many Germans would kill anyone who tried to surrender. These tales became battlefield horror stories and raised the wars already high le! vel of hatred and barbarity.
Hitler wrote to Mussolini shortly after the invasion and said: " They fought with truly stupid fanaticism...with the primitive brutality of an animal that sees itself trapped"ix As a result, in the opening weeks of Barbarossa the Germans lost some 100 000 men which was equal to the amount lost in all their previous campaigns so far. Another significant factor outlined by Bethell and Wright was the fact the Russian troops were well aware of the advantages they had in their climate and rugged terrain. Bethell outlines excellent examples of this in the dense Forests of Poland and the soggy lands of the Pripet Marshes. No German tanks could operate in these hazardous areas and there was ample cover for small groups. Russian infantry would superbly camouflaged themselves and infiltrate the German positions through the forests and they even displayed their resourcefulness by communicating to each other by imitating animal cries. They would dig foxholes and dugouts which provided a field of fire only to the rear and when the unsuspecting German infantry walked pass them , the Russians would pick them off from behind. In open battle, the Russian people would devise ingenious weapons with what little resources they had available. They made 'Molotov cocktails' which were flammable liquid in bottles which were lit and thrown at German tanks. The glass would break and the flaming liquid would flow into the tank and ignite the interior.x Combined with the willingness to fight at any odds and the intimate knowledge of their own terrain it is plain to see that the Russian were definitely not going to fall as easily as Hitler had first thought. Besides the brutal tenacity of the resistance, Germany had another problem, the climate. In the summer of 1941, the Ukraine was suffered a scorching summer which saw a large amount of rainfall. In the intense heat, the German tank tracks ground the baked earth to powdery fine dust which clogged machinery, eyes and mouths and made it hard for troops to function. When it rained, it brought short relief to the heat but, the roads turned into axle-deep mud paths that halted all movement while horses got stuck in mud and troops had their boots sucked right off them only to stay in the ground.
Thousands of vehicles had to be left as they were because they ran out of fuel to get out of the mud and the supply paths were choked as well. These road conditions combined with partisan forces behind German lines stifled supply lines by destroying railway tracks and making all kinds of re-armament and food delivery impossible.xi While the Germans were being delayed and they struggled to get a solid foothold, figuratively and literally, in Russia, the months passed by and eventually gave way to the harsh 'general winter' which froze everything to the core. As Germany pressed on towards Moscow, the cold weather really took its toll. All too often the Germans didn't have enough supplies to survive let alone fight. Some units only had about 1/4 of their ammunition while shipments of coats used to combat the cold, only provided 1 coat per crew. The food supplied was often frozen solid in the -40(C cold and one night spent by German soldiers in their nail studded boots and metal helmets could cripple a man for life. Machine guns froze, oil turned thick, batteries died and vehicle engines had to be kept running which wasted precious fuel supplies. One German officer wrote home to his wife: "We have seriously underestimated the Russians, the extent of the country and the treachery of the climat! e...th is is the revenge of reality."xii At this stage, the Russians had the obvious advantage.
On December 5 1941, with troops that were used to the cold weather all their lives and had the proper clothing to stay outdoors for days on end, the Russians counter-attacked along a 960 km front and had great success. The 'do-or-die' Russian troops would send out groups of darkly clad men to sacrifice themselves and draw German fire while white-clad, camouflaged Russian troops would come in along the snow and attack. While the German suffered great losses, they were able to hold on to key towns that they had previously occupied and the war in Russia swung back and forth. As the front settled into a stalemate, the Red Army could be satisfied with what it had accomplished. Despite the numerous defeats it had suffered in the early part of the invasion, Russia had managed to somehow survive, pulling back and regrouping long enough for the German Army to overextend itself and allow the winter to take its toll. It is said that hindsight is 20/20, and it is simple to point out the many factors which led to the failure of Barbarossa and we can see that the authors, Bethell, Macksey and Wright all had valid points but they just emphasized different aspects and time frames which all fit together to construct a much larger picture. It is fair to say that not one particular circumstance contributed to the failure but, a culmination of all the events mentioned. Hitler truly was confident that the delay in launching the invasion was of no consequence and he had no way of knowing just how fiercely the Russians would oppose him. The combination of! these factors led to the failure. Near the end, Moscow and Leningrad had been saved, and enough reinforcements had been scraped together to enable the Red Army to go on the offensive. Operation Barbarossa had been halted, and the myth of German military invincibility had been shattered forever
i Whaley, Barton, pg. 12
ii Wright, Michael, pg. 104
iii Macksey, Kenneth, "Military Errors Of World War II", Stoddard Publishing Co., Ontario, Canada, 1987
iv ibid, pg. 47
v ibid, pg. 48
vi ibid pg.51-54
vii Wright, Michael, "The World At Arms", Readers Digest Association Ltd., London, 1989. Pg. 108
viii Bethell, Nicholas, "Russia Besieged", Time-Life Books, Canada, 1977 pg. 72
ix Wright, Michael, pg. 107
x Wright, Michael, pg. 108-109
xi Bethell, Nicholas, pg . 90
xii Wright, Michael, pg. 118