Barbarossa: The Ultimate Strategic Miscalculation
by Patrick Shrier
By the middle of 1941, Nazi Germany found itself to be the master of
three-fourths of Europe. The only nations unconquered or not subordinate to
them were neutral Sweden and Switzerland, England, and Russia. On June 22, the
invasion of Russia, codenamed Operation Barbarossa, after the twelfth century
Prussian king, began.
After massive initial success, the effort would eventually fail and the Soviets
would capture Berlin in April 1945, after four years of bitter struggle. Hitler
became distracted by the potential if the economic assets of Russia were seized
and diverted forces to seize economic areas instead of destroying Russia's
military. The German failure in the invasion of Russia was in losing focus of
the ultimate objective, which was to knock Russia out of the war, not seize
economic assets, which would follow conquest.
The German War against Russia was almost preordained, as early as 1937 Hitler
was planning on going to war against the Russians in order to gain "Lebensraum"
or living space. In late November 1940, the Russian Foreign Minister Molotov
had a meeting in Berlin at the Germans invitation, with Hitler and the German
Foreign Minister, Ribbentrop. The Germans laid out a proposal to add the
Russians to the Tripartite Pact with Germany, Italy, and Japan. The Russians
refused to join and within two weeks Hitler directed that detailed planning for
Operation Barbarossa begin with the issuance of Fuehrer Directive #21 on 18
Planning proceeded on the basis that an invasion would occur in late April or
early May 1941 as soon as the spring thaw was over and the ground had dried
enough for tanks to move without becoming mired on the muddy terrain. In any
event, the invasion did not begin until the end of June. The invasion was late
getting started because Hitler diverted troops to Africa and the Balkans in
order to prop up failed Italian operations there. Another reason for the Balkan
operation was for the German right flank to be secure from British intervention
through Greece, which could threaten the vital oil fields at Ploesti in Rumania
that provided the fuel necessary for the German army.
The Russian army had been rebuilding since the disastrous purges of the 1930's
when its officer corps had been gutted through executions, imprisonment, and
disgraced in mock trials designed to weed out supposed enemies of the regime.
By the time the purges were over it was necessary for an entire new senior
leadership of the Red Army to be promoted. In June 1940, the Soviets created
479 new Major Generals almost out of whole cloth. These promotions had a
ripple affect throughout the whole army as men who were not qualified but were
politically reliable were promoted to fill vacancies left by the purges. The
Russians realized there were deficiencies in the abilities of their commanders
and instituted a training program to remedy this but at the time the war began
they had been only partially successful in fixing these faults in their
Another area the Russians were inferior to the Germans was in the quality of
armor vehicles they fielded. They had two excellent tanks in the T-34 and KV-1
but production was slow and most Russian mechanized formations were still
either equipped with obsolete T-26's or not at all.
Russian forces were scattered throughout the frontier zone in a somewhat
haphazard manner that was in the process of being rationalized when war
commenced. The Russian army was frantically trying to remedy those deficiencies
in motivation and training that had been laid bare in the recently concluded
Russo-Finnish war of 1939-1940 in which Russian troops had fared very badly
even though they outnumbered their opponents.
The German army that invaded Russia in 1941 was for the most part, filled with,
and commanded by, troops with combat experience of modern war. The Wehrmacht
was flush with the victories over Poland, France, and the Balkan states. They
were heir to the outstanding Great General Staff tradition of the Prussian
army, and they had the proper doctrine for their armored and mechanized forces.
These were all advantages, however, they suffered from severe disadvantages,
which would not manifest themselves immediately but would hurt the German army
later in the campaign.
The largest disadvantage the German army had was Hitler himself, his delusions
of strategic brilliance would seriously hamper German conduct of the campaign
and ultimately bring it to ruin. German tanks were relatively under-gunned,
another thing that would not prove itself until almost too late. Not all the
German army was mechanized, almost two-thirds of the German was still foot
bound and horse drawn, which limited the speed of forces following the armored
spearheads. Lastly, the German Army was vulnerable logistically, as the farther
they advanced, the harder it would be to supply the invading German army.
Russian railway was a different gauge than Western Europe and additionally
there were and still are few suitable all-weather roads in the vastness that is
The Germans assembled over three million troops in four army groups for the
invasion of Russia. The Russian armies assembled on the frontier slightly
outnumbered the Germans not counting the Allied contingents of Rumanians and
Hungarians the German army employed as part of army group south.
The initial German attacks were wildly successful by any standard everywhere
except in army groups south's sector of the front (See Figure 1). By 4 July, the Germans had
surrounded large Russian forces at Bialystok and Minsk, 300 kilometers from the
frontier. Amy Group North meanwhile, was driving north through the Baltic
states toward Leningrad facing only weak resistance. In the south the Germans
and their Rumanian allies had more trouble, not only were they facing
better-equipped forces with more of the new equipment, but the Russian
commanders were more aggressive in launching counterattacks.
After the capture of Minsk, the Germans continued to drive towards Smolensk
aiming to destroy the majority of the Russian forces left in the field and
opening the way to the capture of Moscow. As the advance was resuming a strong
Russian counter-attack into the southern flank of Army group Center caused the
diversion of Third and Second Panzer Groups to the south to deal with the new
threat. The panzers then turned to continue the drive on Smolensk and completed
the encirclement of that city on 18 July with Second Panzer Group pushing
farther east to capture the town of Yelnia on the Dnepr River.
The town of Yelnia would become a block and the center of a salient where the
Russians would ferociously counter-attack the German army. Yelnia would mark
the high point of the initial drive on Moscow. The German army was exhausted
and both vehicle's and men were in desperate need of rest and maintenance.
Supplies of both repair parts and ammunition were desperately low, in fact, on
22 July, the Tenth panzer division had only ten tanks available for battle, the
rest having broken down because of lack of parts or enemy action.
The furious Russian attacks and the German need to refit caused a halt after
the Smolensk battle. The Germans executed a strategic pause in order for the
follow on infantry divisions to catch up to the armored spearheads, but more
importantly, to allow the armor time to refit vehicles worn out from the pace
of the attack. The pause was not to last long as Guderian's Second Panzer Group
was diverted south from Smolensk to assist the first Panzer Group under von
Kleist in a great encirclement battle around Kiev during August. Although the
encirclement at Kiev resulted in the capture of 650,000 prisoners, the
operation caused a two-month delay in the resumption of the drive on Moscow. As
soon as the encirclement of Kiev was complete, the Second Panzer Group was
ordered back to Army Group Center in preparation for the drive on Moscow.
The Germans would not re-launch the drive on Moscow until October 2 in an
operation code-named Typhoon. Typhoon was envisioned as a broad encirclement of
Moscow using elements of three Panzer Groups and three infantry armies of Army
Group Center and Army Group North. Fourth Panzer Group would outflank Moscow on
the north through Klin. Panzer Group Two under Guderian was to drive from the
south through Tula and Kolomna. Both armored Spearheads were to link up east of
Moscow along the line of the Moscow-Gorki highway to complete the encirclement.
The Soviets had consolidated the remnants of the Western and Reserve fronts
defending the city into the Moscow Reserve Front to defend Moscow and its
approaches. Stalin had appointed one of his most effective generals, Georgi
Zhukov to command the Moscow Reserve Front with approximately 90,000 men and
he was adamant about the need to keep the Germans out of Moscow itself.
From the start the German offensive was plagued by problems mainly due to
weather, the fall rainy season set-in and the largely road less county became
virtually impassable to vehicular traffic. When the ground froze enough to
allow movement in November, the Russians had had time to prepare defenses in
front of both Moscow and Tula. As winter approached, the temperatures plummeted
as low as -25° to-30° Celsius and the German troops suffered horrendously
because they were not properly equipped for a Russian winter. The weather was
such a factor in the final stages of the German offensive on Moscow that some
units were reporting weather related casualties at up to five times the rate of
combat casualties. On December 5, the Russians launched a counterattack and
ultimately pushed the German army back from Moscow during bitter winter
fighting. The Germans would never again threaten the Soviet capital during the
The story of Operation Barbarossa and the reason it was folly to attempt in the
first place is wrapped up with the progress of the war on the other fronts
during the fall of 1940 and spring of 1941, but its origins go back farther
than that. In the fall of 1940, the Luftwaffe failed in their attempt to gain
air superiority over the English Channel and possible German invasion beaches,
which led to the cancellation of Operation SeaLion, the German plan for
invading Britain. On the night of November 11-12, 1940, the British crippled
the Italian fleet in a daring raid on their main anchorage at Taranto sinking
one Battleship and severely damaging two more. At the same time,
Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia had gone disastrously wrong and jeopardized
the entire Italian position in North Africa. This led to the commitment of one
Panzer and one Motorized Infantry Division to North Africa in March 1941.
In the fall of 1940, Mussolini, a singularly incompetent individual showcased
his military ineptness with his attempted invasion of Greece through Albania.
The Italians invaded on 28 October 1940 and were almost immediately in trouble.
On 4 November, Hitler determined that the Italian failure in Greece jeopardized
German interests and issued orders for the Wehrmacht to prepare to invade
Greece and issued Fuehrer Directive #18 the plan for the occupation of Greece
on 12 November. Before the plans were put into action, they were modified
several times, first by the refusal of Spain to countenance an invasion of
Gibraltar, then by the Bulgarian and Rumanian refusal to take part in the
invasion over fears of Soviet intervention. This caused the amount of forces
needed in the theater to increase and these were diverted from the forces
massing for Operation Barbarossa.
The invasion of Russia was initially scheduled to begin on May 15, 1941 but was
postponed for five weeks until June 22, partly because of the necessity of
refitting those armored units just returning from participating in the Balkan
campaign; but also because the spring rain in 1941 was later and heavier than
usual. The timing of the rains was of critical importance because of the
nature of the transportation network inside Soviet Russia. Compared to Western
Europe the road network in Russia was nonexistent, there were only 40,000 miles
of paved all-weather roads Russia: a country comprising almost 9,000,000 square
miles of land mass.
General Staff planning for a Russian invasion began as early as July of 1940
after a conference of senior military leaders in which the threat posed by the
communists was discussed. There were several possible plans put forth
advocating different axes of attack, but the Chief of the Oberkommando des
Heers (OKH) Halder advocated an attack with Moscow as the ultimate goal.
As the invasion developed and Army Group South increasingly failed to keep pace
with Army Groups North and Center during the month of July a discussion was
held among members of the high command about the best course of action. There
was much debate and finally Guderian was ordered south with his Panzer Group
but only after they had been attritted by defending against repeated Russian
attacks in the Yelnia pocket. Panzer Group 2 then spent August and September
completing the encirclement of Kiev before to returning north to participate in
Operation Typhoon with minimal time to refit from the summers battles.
At the same time as Guderian was driving hither and yon in the south, Panzer
Group 3 under Hoth was doing the same thing in the north around Leningrad.
Hitler at first decided to capture Moscow, then changed his mind to go after
the encirclement at Kiev while simultaneously attempting to capture Leningrad
whereupon he sent Hoth back to the north. When it became apparent that
Leningrad would require a siege, the plan was changed yet again for a direct
assault towards Moscow. This caused Hoth to come back south to position his
Panzer Group for the drive further east. While the distances in the north were
not as great as those Guderian had to move his group, tanks are not designed to
withstand long movements, those should be accomplished through rail loading
unless in actual combat. Hoth's Group therefore suffered some of the same
refitting issues as Guderian though not to the same extent.
The failure of Hitler and by extension, OKH, to determine the strategic and
operational direction of critical offensive formations such as Panzer Groups 2
and 3, and to use Panzer Group 2 up in the manner in which they did
demonstrates either a lack of clear direction or a change of focus in
midstream. It can be argued quite persuasively that Halder, as Chief of the OKH
should have been more forceful in his argument with Hitler and Brauthsich
against the commitment of Panzer Group 2 to the Kiev operation. While the
staff conferences were under way during July to September debating the
campaigns future direction, the best months of the year were thus wasted in
unnecessary operations. Although the battle at Kiev subsequently yielded
655,000 prisoners, the largest haul ever, there is no reason to think that
the same feat could not have been achieved the next year if Army Group South
had assumed the defensive during a drive on Moscow.
The last thing that crippled the German offensives both early in the campaign
and later in the fall and winter was logistics. The German general staff
apparently made many false assumptions about the adequacy of the Wehrmacht's
logistic system and the state of infrastructure in Russia itself. Russian
railways operated on a different gage from that of Western Europe, which
required that rail lines be re-laid before Germany could bring supplies forward
by rail. Until rail conversion was complete, the Germans were dependent upon
motorized, horse-drawn transport, and the Luftwaffe to get supplies to the
Supplies were a critical issue, especially for the panzer and motorized rifle
divisions. A panzer division at full complement comprised 2900 trucks and 165
tanks while a motorized rifle division had 2800 trucks and 82 armored fighting
vehicles. The amount of fuel, ammunition, and spare parts required to keep
these divisions fighting was staggering. A German panzer division could consume
somewhere between 400-550 tons of supplies of all types daily. With the
relative paucity of all-weather, roads and limited rail capacity there were
several times during the campaign that the armored divisions were forced to
stop due to lack of supplies.
The final shortcoming that proved fatal to the German drive on Moscow was the
Germans lack of proper clothing and equipment to deal with the Russian winter.
The German field armies were not issued winter clothing, reportedly, Hitler
claimed that the war would be won by winter and therefore winter clothing was
not necessary. Winter clothing was a necessity in snow and ice where
temperatures dropped to -7° to -10° Celsius in December 1941 during the Russian
counter-offensive outside Moscow.
In recounting all the errors leading up to the failure of the German assault on
Moscow let us not forget the pivotal role played by Hitler in the planning and
execution of Operation Barbarossa. Hitler laid down the broad outlines of the
campaign in Fuehrer Directive 21 of December 18, 1940. In Directive 21, Hitler
himself recognized the importance of White Russia as the heartland of European
Russia and ordered that it be the focus of the main effort. The German army
advanced rapidly and was on the verge of achieving the first of the goals of
this directive in July 1941, when Hitler and the high command diverted Panzer
Group 2 south to the encirclement of Kiev. Ostensibly, this move was to set the
conditions for the following spring offensive into the Caucasus.
This diversion of troops south in pursuit of long range goals while short term
objectives had not been met must be considered the turning point of the
campaign. If Panzer Group 2 had not been in the south the advance on Moscow
would not have been delayed for so long. Army Group Center may have been able
to continue the advance eastward which would have indirectly helped Army group
North in their effort to capture Leningrad by diverting Soviet forces to
protect the route to the capital, Moscow. Once Leningrad fell the forces of
Army group North would have been free to continue east with more units because
a siege would not have been necessary.
Fuehrer Directive 21 called for the destruction of Soviet Russia in one
campaign. This was most likely beyond the resources of Germany in 1941 or any
other year, however, an alternative plan could have made it possible to set the
conditions in 1941 for a decisive campaign in 1942. One of the beauties of
history is the what if game, below, the outline of such a what if campaign will
be presented with a discussion of the reasons why it may have succeeded where
Barbarossa and Typhoon did not.
Given the strategic situation in the spring of 1941, and the distribution of
German and Soviet forces, it was imprudent of the Germans to attack along a
broad front. It would have been easier and better for the German army to assume
the strategic defensive but tactical offensive south of the river Bug in order
to tie down large Russian forces. This operation should have started two to
three days prior to offensive operations north of the bug and along the Baltic
coast. This would have set the conditions for a northern offensive.
Diplomatic efforts to entice the Turks could also be made in a public way to
further the strategic deception. In the realm of strategy, politics goes hand
in hand with military planning, and overtures to Turkey would not have seemed
out of place given the Rumanians, Finns, Hungarians, and Bulgarians alliance
with Germany. In fact, in the spring of 1941 the Russians were busy attempting
to bring Turkey under their influence. Given the ascendancy of Germany in
1940 and a Turkish desire to maintain their independence, overtures such as
these may not have been spurned by Turkey, especially following the fall of
Greece in the spring of 1941.
The tactical offensives all along the southern front a few days before the
attack in the north would have caused the Russians to begin to shift forces to
deal with the threat, especially if troop concentrations north of the Bug could
have been kept concealed. The troop concentration in the south could be
exaggerated to Russian intelligence and a disinformation campaign could have
begun with the wars outbreak. The German deployments and attacks should have
been made to appear as though they are aimed at the Crimea and Caucasus.
By maintaining the strategic defensive in the southern part of the front, the
Germans could have released more infantry formations to take part in the
attacks by Army Groups North and Center. This additional infantry could be fed
into the battle as needed not only to complete the encirclement of enemy armies
but also to relieve divisions in need of refitting, therefore helping to
maintain the drives momentum. Army Group South could lunge to capture territory
if the situation presented itself but its main task would be as a strategic
threat to cause the Soviets to alter their deployments to guard against a new
offensive in the south.
The forces in the south would send Sixth Army to Army Group Center and attack
to the line of the Dnieper, but after they had secured this line, they would
not be reinforced. Once the Dnieper line had been secured, Army group south
would be responsible for maintaining strategic pressure in the south by
continuing tactical, division sized offensive action. This pressure would
continue to tie down the Russian South and Southwest Fronts and deny them the
ability to shift forces north to deal with the blows of Army Groups North and
The initial German task organization would change in the German deployments
north of the Bug. Panzer Group 4 in Army Group North's Area of Operations (AO)
would lose two divisions, one Panzer and one Motorized Infantry to Army Group
Center. Panzer Group 2, more specifically XLVIth Panzer Corps would be
reinforced by the divisions from Army Group North to bring this corps to normal
strength. This would allow Panzer Group 2 to play the lead role in the advance
on Moscow. Sixth Army would be echeloned behind Panzer Groups 2 and 3 in direct
Army Group North would be ordered to attack along the line
Tilsit-Riga-Pskov-Novgorod. Once reaching Novgorod, they would refuse their
right flank and wheel with infantry formations to encircle Leningrad. Panzer
Group 4 would be the offensive arm of Army Group used as a mobile attack and
penetration unit. Every effort should be made to take Leningrad by storm and
failing that Leningrad should be completely besieged through coordination with
the Finns to ensure complete blockade. The primary goal of Army Group North
just as that of Army Group South would be supportive of the main effort in the
center of the front.
The German main effort would consist of a combined drive on Moscow by the two
Panzer Groups of Army Group Center. All other action should be subservient to
the goal of capturing and holding Moscow through the winter of 1941-1942.Panzer
Group 2 with Panzer Group 3 echeloned on its left flank would attack along the
line Bialystok-Minsk-Smolensk-Vyazma, attempting to drive a spear straight
through the Russian front towards Moscow. Upon reaching Vyazma the Panzer
Groups would split Panzer Group 2 moving straight ahead and attacking along the
line Kaluga-Kolomna-Elektrogorsk and Panzer Group 3 attacking along the line
The Luftwaffe would be required to maximize their efforts in the first few days
of the campaign establishing air superiority over the front. Subsequently their
main effort would be in support of Army Group Center, especially efforts to
disrupt and disorganize the Soviet rear to assist Army Group Center in their
advance on Moscow.
Moscow was taken, the main effort would switch to Army group North and their
effort to take Leningrad and move forward to a line adjacent to Moscow in
the north. As the elements of Sixth Army arrived to consolidate the Moscow
lodgment, Panzer Group 3 would be released to commence mobile operations in
support of Army Group North and would pass to that formations operational
control. Panzer Group 2 would remain under Army group Center and take up
positions to the rear of the battlefront for refitting and use as a mobile
reserve in the Moscow salient.
If this scenario were followed, even given the later start date, Moscow could
have been taken by the middle of September at the latest. The Germans would
have planned from the outset for the requirements to wage winter warfare and
while they may not have been prepared for the unusually cold winter of 1941,
they would have been in position prior to the start of the fall rains and long
before Russian reserves could be brought up to attack them. The Siberian
reserves would not have made such a decisive difference, as it is unlikely
Stalin would have released them earlier even given the loss of his capital.
There was still a credible threat of Japanese attacks in the Far East and
strong forces were necessary there without good intelligence of Japanese
intentions, which Stalin did not receive before early October.
The strategic advantages of a drive on Moscow in strength outweigh the risks,
and it is a risky plan. Moscow was and still is the nerve center for
communications in European Russia, possession of those transport links
effectively cuts the country in half. Once the Germans had taken Moscow, they
could then concentrate and defeat the Russian forces in Europe in detail with
plenty of time to prepare for the inevitable counterattacks. While the plan of
campaign proposed would probably not result in any massive prisoner hauls such
as at the battle of Kiev, it would have destroyed the Red Army as a coherent
Follow-up campaigns would have been necessary in 1942 and maybe into 1943 but
by severing the rail links through Moscow, the Russians would have not have
been in a position to replace as much of their material losses as they did. The
quick capture of Moscow and Leningrad and cutting off White Russia would have
also starved the Red Army of replacements as 90% of the Russian population
lived in European Russian.
The German Army had a chance to deal a lethal blow to the Soviet Union in 1941
and threw it away because of the indecision of the German leadership. Guderian
counseled a continued drive on Moscow in July of 1941 but was overruled. The
great encirclement battle at Kiev was a bitter loss for the Russians but one
they could overcome. It was only Hitler's greed for the resources of the
Caucasus that and the blind obedience of OKH that allowed Panzer Group 2 to be
diverted south, this was the true turning point of the war.
Had the German High Command listened to the commanders in the field the war may
well have dragged on longer than it did. Given the way the campaign played out
in 1941 there was no way that Germany could match the economic resources of the
Russians even though they maintained the initiative into 1943. Once the Russian
juggernaut got under way and America entered the war on the allied side the war
was as good as lost. The argument can be made that Germany should have never
invaded Russia in the first place but Hitler was right in that war was
inevitable, better war on his terms than war on Stalin's. The German failure in
the invasion of Russia was in losing focus of the ultimate objective, which was
to knock Russia out of the war, not seize economic assets, which would follow
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. The History Place. "The Hossbach Memorandum"
. Erickson, John. The Road to Stalingrad. Reading, (Berkshire, UK:
Cox & Wyman Ltd., 2003). pp.39, 40
. Ibid. p. 19
. The Learning Site. "Operation Barbarossa – June 1941".
. Fugate, Bryan I. Operation Barbarossa: Strategy and Tactics on the Eastern
Front, 1941. (Novato, CA, Presidio Press, 1984). p. 132
. Arnold-Forstner, Mark. The World at War. (New York, NY: Stein and
Day, 1973), p. 129
. Erickson. p. 218
. Ibid. p. 273
. Arnold-Forstner, pp. 131-132
. Wikipedia. "Battle of Taranto".
. United States Army Center of Military History. DA Pam 20-260: The German
Campaigns in the Balkans (Spring 1941). (Washington D.C., United
States Army Center for Military History, 1953). p. 4
. Ibid. pp. 149-150
. Fugate. P. 89
. Alexander, Bevin. "Barbarossa" Military History Online
. Fugate. p. 61-62
. Von Manstein, Erich. Lost Victories: The War Memoirs of Hitler's Most
Brilliant General. (Novato CA: Presidio Press, 1994) p. 177
. Fugate. pp. 347-348
. Carter, William R. Colonel USAF. "Air Power in the Battle of the Bulge: A
Theater Campaign Perspective" Aerospace Power Journal. Winter 1989
. The tonnage figures are for a division of 1944, of which the
establishment was slightly smaller than in 1941, but it can be accepted as
reasonably accurate when combat and mechanical losses are taken into account.
. Arnold-Forstner, p. 131
. Zhukov, G.K. The Memoirs of Marshal Zhukov. (London, UK:
Jonathan Cape, Ltd., 1971) p. 345
. Ibiblio.org, "Soviet Resistance to the German Advance in the Balkans,
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. Erickson, p.75
. Ibid., p. 218
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Copyright © 2006 Patrick Shrier.
Written by Patrick Shrier. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Patrick Shrier at:
About the author:
Patrick Shrier is a 19D Armored Cavalry Scout and 16-year Army veteran currently assigned to the
US Army Operational Test Command. He holds a BA in World Military History and is currently working
on an MA in European History. He plans on teaching at the university level and writing when he
retires from the military.
Published online: 08/06/2006.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.