When Operation Barbarossa Is Launched, The World Will Hold Its Essay

“breath!” – Adolf Hitler
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.

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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


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