Operation Barbarossa are two words that emnate pure terror to any European. It would start a war between Germans and Russians that would end with tens of millions dead (either on the battlefield, massacre or as POWs). On the 68th anniversary of this battle I figured I’d talk a little bit about it. This particular post and map focuses on the military aspects of the campaign (in the future I’ll talk about the horrifying aspect of Barbarossa involving the Nazi death squads).
After Hitler could not subjugate Britain by either air supremacy or coastal invasion (Operation Sea Lion was postponed, and eventually cancelled), he turned his sights eastward toward Russia.
There were definitely huge advantages for Germany if they did win. The Soviet Union had the largest army and air force in Europe, some of the richest territory in terms of resources, and the last great meance to Nazi dominance of the continent. If Germany were to crush the Russians in combat, they could be overlords of the European mainland for years to come.
They also believed they would have the superior tacticians on the field, thanks largely in part due to Stalin’s Great Purge. The embarrassing performance by the Soviet Union against Finland in 1939 reinforced that notion. It would bear out during the early months of Barbarossa, when Soviet commanders, afraid of the NKVD squads if they gave ‘retreat’ orders, would rather they and their soldiers face encirclement and imprisonment from the German Panzers.
However war against Russia needed to be won swiftly. The German economy was not in the shape to fight a long, protracted war, which was certainly what Barbarossa would entail. A decisive military victory would have to come in the first year or two of the invasion if Germany was going to have any chance to win in the Eastern Front.
Moreover, while he respected the British as a people and longed for a coalition of both the empires, Hitler expressed malice for the Russians almost as tantamount as his hatred for the Jews. Indeed, the main reasons for the invasion were probably ideological, which overruled strategic orthdoxy from the outset. Hitler outlined his stark and frightening thoughts on Russia early on in his famous testament, Mein Kampf:
Here Fate itself seems desirous of giving us a sign. By handing P ussia to Bolshevism, it robbed the Russian nation of that intelligentsia which previously brought about and guaranteed its existence as a state. For the organization of a Russian state formation was not the result of the political abilities of the Slavs in Russia, but only a wonderful example of the state-forming efficacity of the German element in an inferior race.
For centuries Russia drew nourishment from this Germanic nucleus of its upper leading strata. Today it can be regarded as almost totally exterminated and extinguished. It has been replaced by the Jew. Impossible as it is for the Russian by himself to shake off the yoke of the Jew by his own resources, it is equally impossible for the Jew to maintain the mighty empire forever. He himself is no element of organization, but a ferment of decomposition. The Persian I empire in the east is ripe for collapse. And the end of Jewish rule in Russia will also be the end of Russia as a state. We have been chosen by Fate as witnesses of a catastrophe which will be the mightiest confirmation of the soundness of the folkish theory.
Indeed, the campaign would be full of such barbaric overtones, and would eventually rob the Germans of the strategic advantages they had enjoyed in their biggest battles in Europe (we can talk about that later).
As for the Soviets, they were in good shape to anticipate the attack; they received NUMEROUS intelligence reports that indicated, even a report that indicating an attack for June 22. However, Stalin refused to believe any of this; whether he had wholly deluded himself to believe this or simply shrank from the moment can be debated for ages.
As you can see from the map above, the plan was for the Germans to center their attacks on Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev, with one army group in charge of each case. The northern most group (Army Group North) would advance through the Baltic states with minimal help from the Finns looking to recapture lost territory from the Winter War. The southern most group (Army Group South) attacking the Ukraine would advance with the help of Rumanian and Hungarian satellite troops. The middle group, Army Group Centre, would be assigned the most tanks (two of the four Panzer groups), charged with encircling the bulk of the Soviet troops and opening the road to Moscow. Eventually they would try to take the territory between the Russian cities of Astrakahan in the Caucasus, which would occupy practically all of European Russia.
The Germans would engage nearly four million soldiers to the initial attack with 3600 tanks and 4400 aircraft; although they’d be outnumbered 4 to 1 in tanks and 3 to 1 in aircraft, those numbers would mean less compared to the inability for the Red Army troops to manuever, the fear of Stalin by Red Army commanders, and the inferiority of the equipment to defend with (the Soviets would not start producing T-34s en masse until very late in 1941, and Soviet aircraft was of barely average quality throughout the Second World War and was generally outclassed by the Luftwaffe until late in the European campaign).
Ultimately, each side (one fueled with ideological motivations, the other wandering with willful ignorance of the situation about to unfold) would collide into circumstances that would ensure the maximum number of casualties. It would leave a generation of men from Europe’s largest countries ravaged. To think it could all have been avoided.
1. Germany should not have prosecuted the war in Russia until they had finished off Britain. Had Hitler finished off the British by either overwhelming the Royal Air Force or achieving total economic blockade with the U-Boat campaign, the worry of persisting in a two-front War would have dissipated. Unfortunately, Hitler remained deluded that the British would welcome a partnership with Germany to help govern the world. This viewpoint seemingly made even less sense considering their leader Winston Churchill was one of the most vehmently anti-Nazi leaders BEFORE the war even begun.
2. Hitler’s paranoia about Jews and Bolsheviks ultimately led to his undoing. Hitler’s inability to reconcile his perceptions of the ‘Jewish conspiracy’ would force him to conduct the war with Russia from ideological rather than pragmatic purposes (although he did turn the war into an economic one). It would end tragically for the Jews in Eastern Europe, especially in the Ukraine and Belarus, but it would also ultimately lead to the destruction of their Gideon.
The ideology against Slavs would alienate and antagonize many Baltics, Ukranians and White Russians. These peoples were no friends of Stalin and Communism; they weren’t even very friendly to the Jews. However, instead of collaborating, recruiting local troops from these territories, and setting the resources of these occupied territories to the Third Reich, the Nazis would treat those occupied as inferior peoples not worthy of anything but slave labor or extermination. Thus a potential pool of soldiers and resources was severly drained and those who survived were lost to the partisan movement or the prisoner camps of the East.
3. Stalin’s stubbornness to reconcile himself with reality would end up costing Russia millions of its finest soldiers. The Red Army would only mobilize in the hours before the invasion when it was far too late to face the attack head-on. Interestingly, while Hitler’s personal feelings about Russia would color the portrait of the war that was about to unfold, without Stalin’s co-operation (by his ignoring all warnings of war coming to the Motherland) the Red Army would never have been brought as close as it was to near breaking point.
4. Germany would have to win quick. Letting the war drag on would ultimately lead to a war of attrition, one the Soviet Union was bound to win. The Germans would have to rely more than ever on their Panzers to outmanuever and envelop the slower, plodding Russian armies.
5. Germany still had a decent shot to destroy Russia. I’ll talk about this later on.
In the next few posts I’ll get into the nitty gritty of Operation Barbarossa, and then in a post after that I’ll talk more about the darker side of the battle.
Source: John Keegan, The Second World War (The best one volume novel on World War II around. I’m sure there are better books out there, but this books does a great job of breaking down the big picture, of how these stories fit into broader history and gets us deep into the mindsets of the people prosecuting the war. There are probably fine books breaking down the intricacies of warfare, but if you want the best book to learn about the overaching nature of World War II, Keegan is for you. Keep in mind he does not like Clausewitz.)