|The Failure of Operation
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
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
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
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
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.
Show Footnotes and
. 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),
. 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.
Clark, Alan. Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict, 1941-45
York: William Morrow and Company, 1985.
Erickson, John. Road to Stalingrad: Stalin's War with Germany
Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.
Glantz, David M., and House, Jonathan. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army
. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.
Copyright © 2006 Mike Ruzza.
Written by Mike Ruzza. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Mike Ruzza at:
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.
Published online: 07/04/2006.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.