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Operation Barbarossa
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Operation Barbarossa Articles
Barbarossa - by Patrick Shrier
Failure of Barbarossa - by Mike Ruzza
Barbarossa - by Bevin Alexander

Patrick Shrier Articles
The Hundred Years War: An Analysis
Operation Barbarrosa

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Operation Barbarossa: The Ultimate Strategic Miscalculation
Operation 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.[1] 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 December 1940.[2]

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[3] 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 command structure.

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 European Russia.

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.[4]

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.[5]

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,[6] 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[7] 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[8] 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.[9] 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 war.

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.[10] 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.[11] 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.[12]

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.[13] 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.[14]

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.[15] 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.[16] 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,[17] 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 forward divisions.

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.[18] 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.[19][20] 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.[21] 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.[22]

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.[23] 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.[24] 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 Center.

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 support.

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 Gagarin-Vokolokamsk-Klin-Sofrino-Elektrogorsk.

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.

Once 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.[25]

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 force.

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 conquest.

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Show Footnotes and Bibliography

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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.
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