Barbarossa and Oil

3 mins read

Philip Andrews responds to Mark Corby’s analysis of the failure of Operation Barbarossa in MT 9.

 The failure of Barbarossa is really quite straightforward: in the end, it all depended on petroleum.

Moscow was not important to Stalin. He was quite prepared, and had indeed planned, to retreat with as much industry as possible behind the Urals, and continue the fight from there – so long as he was able to receive petroleum supplies from the Caucasus across the Caspian.

The Germans knew about Moscow’s unimportance to the Soviets (Leningrad was far more symbolic, having been the birthplace of the Revolution). The German military attaché in Moscow had told the German high command as much, but they ignored him. The German high command had a fixation with major cities, and was determined to waste time and resources besieging cities that had no intrinsic military value to Stalin.

The Germans never had enough resources for the kind of war they went to fight in the Soviet Union. Firstly, most of their army was horse-drawn, and most of the transport that was mechanised was requisitioned from the occupied countries. Germany, at the start of the war, had the lowest level of transport mechanisation of any Western power. They relied far more on horses than France, Britain or the US. They did not have resources to mechanise their army sufficiently to launch a strategic war against Russia.

Secondly, in order to cripple Soviet industry and the transport infrastructure, they would have had to have developed a strategic bomber force on the lines of the British and Americans. After the death of General Wever, just before the war, they abandoned the idea of the strategic bomber altogether in favour of the Ju 88, which was never intended for strategic bombing. Thus, they never had the ability to bomb behind the Urals or to reach the Caucasus.

Thirdly, they would have needed a much stronger armoured mechanised force than the mere 20 or so panzer divisions with which they invaded Russia. Also, they should have designed their armour with wide tracks for Russia’s road-less conditions, and with sufficient armament to have taken on the T-34 and the KV-1. As it was, their intelligence on the Soviet Union and its resources, especially manpower potential, was abysmal to non-existent.

One possible winning strategy for them would have been to have invaded only the Ukraine, with a blocking force at the Pripet marshes. They could have granted independence to the Ukrainians, set up an anti- Communist puppet government, and used the Ukrainians to help fight the Soviet army. Meanwhile, German armoured and mechanised forces could have had to make a dash for the Caucasus and the oilfields.

The strategic bombers the Germans never had, could have been used to destroy the oil transfer points on the Caspian to prevent Stalin from receiving oil supplies – without, however, destroying the fields themselves. Once the panzer forces had arrived in the Caucasus, say about six months after the invasion, they may have been able to capture the fields intact, or at least to deny them to the Soviets.

At that time, the Caucasus oilfields were the only source of oil the Soviets had. If this ‘Ukrainian’ strategy had been planned for from the outset – with an appropriate build-up of bomber and panzer forces – the Germans may have been able to force Stalin to the negotiating table by denying him his oil supplies. They should have done this rather than waste good pilots and aircraft in futile battles over Britain.

This at least is my take on Barbarossa. I believe that Hitler had a very strong intuition about the importance of going for the Caucasus straightaway, but his tunnel-visioned and hidebound generals believed in conventional warfare and conventional targets like cities. It was they, rather than he, who believed that the Russians would collapse under the weight of the blitzkrieg and that the war would be over in a few months.

This was based more on ideology, wishful thinking, and a total underestimation of the Soviet system than on any rational appraisal of such intelligence as they had. Barbarossa as it was fought was doomed from the start, because Hitler and his generals had completely divergent views on the Soviet Union and how to tackle it. German generals, perhaps like generals anywhere, were trained to plan and think about tactics on the battlefield, not the overall strategy of the war. In the latter, they were especially hidebound. They had not learnt from the First World War that fighting the Russians was primarily a matter of strategy, not of tactics.

Had the Germans in 1941 prepared for, and applied the Soviet strategic concept of ‘offensive in depth’ – the basis of the spectacularly successful Soviet invasion of occupied Eastern Europe in 1944-1945 – Barbarossa might have succeeded.
Philip Andrews is a Second World War researcher and Military Times subscriber.

1 Comment

  1. Your analysis is pretty much spot on, but I doubt that the Ukrainian strategy was viable. The Germans had enormous difficulty maintaining supply lines to Stalingrad (Volgograd). The difference in railway gauge coupled with the lack of mechanized transport were the death knell for German adventures in Azerbaijan. Even if they had taken Stalingrad, they would still have needed to cross the Caucasus, where the Panzers would have given up their mobility advantage. And, as repeated engagements in Afghanistan, Ossetia, and other mountains regions in south Asia have demonstrated, it is extremely difficult and costly to conquer an enemy entrenched in mountainous strongholds.

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