Barbarossa – the biggest invasion in history

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Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany, 1933-1941

Eighty years ago this year, the German Nazis mounted the greatest invasion in history. Napoleon had invaded Russia in 1812 with an army of 685,000 men. Hitler did so in 1941 with more than five times that number.

The Russians, taken by surprise, were outnumbered, outclassed, and outgeneralled. They almost lost Moscow. They almost certainly would have lost it but for vast distance, poor roads, and Hitler’s prioritisation of the conquest of the Ukraine.

The burning of villages and the murder of civilians were typical of Barbarossa – a campaign fought with medieval ferocity.

In the event, the Germans came within 30 miles of the Russian capital before winter shut down the offensive. Russian losses had been astronomical: five million by December 1941.

Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia, evolved from General Marcks’ plan of August 1940, which prioritised the destruction of the bulk of the Red Army in Belorussia (modern Belarus) and the capture of Moscow. This plan was heavily amended in successive studies, with Hitler downgrading the importance of taking Moscow in favour of capturing Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and the Ukraine. As finalised, the objectives of the three army groups were:

• Army Group North was to advance from East Prussia through the Baltic States and join with the Finns to take Leningrad.

• Army Group Centre’s initial operations from its concentration areas around Warsaw were intended to clear the traditional invasion route to Moscow as far as Smolensk, before swinging north to support the attack on Leningrad. After the city was taken, the advance on Moscow was to be resumed.

• Army Group South, including Romanian and Hungarian divisions, was tasked with taking the rich agricultural lands of the Ukraine and clearing the Black Sea coast.

The overall aim was to trap and destroy the bulk of the Red Army in a series of encirclements in western Russia, before finally securing a line from Archangel to Astrakhan.

The invasion’s chances of success depended on the 19 Panzer divisions concentrated in four Panzergruppen, which also incorporated the 14 motorised divisions. These were to form the cutting edge of the German offensive and had the daunting task of cutting through the massive forces that the Red Army could deploy in European Russia, which totalled perhaps 170 divisions, including up to 60 tank divisions and at least 13 motorised divisions.

A simplified plan of Operation Barbarossa – which almost succeeded, thanks to the massive self-inflicted wound of the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s.

Most of these units were deployed close to the frontier. The accepted explanation for this has been Stalin’s obsession with securing his newly conquered territories. German wartime claims that they invaded to pre-empt a Russian attack have almost always been dismissed as crude propaganda, but this view has been challenged as new material has emerged from Soviet archives.

Despite ultimate failure, the German military achievement was extraordinary, especially when set against the Soviet Union’s massive military lead as late as 1936. But whereas the Nazis had remilitarised with ruthless determination in the years following, Stalin had turned on and devastated his own army.

The great purges of the late 1930s – a counter-revolutionary terror by a paranoid bureaucratic dictator – destroyed the bulk of the Red Army officer corps, including its most brilliant leaders, notably Mikhail Tukhachevsky, who had been in the vanguard of new interwar theories of armoured warfare.

Power passed to ageing reactionaries and lickspittles like Marshal Budenny, who prioritised cavalry over tanks. The terror paralysed initiative and independence at every level of command. The Red Army was wholly incapable of responding effectively to the demands of the kind of modern, mobile, fast-changing ‘deep’ battle that the Wehrmacht imposed on it.

Snapshots of war. Note the vast steppes of much of Russia. The enormous distances involved were a key factor in the outcome of the 1941 campaign.

The Nazi dictatorship embraced a military culture in which senior officers set general objectives and allocated forces but left combat commanders to make the tactical decisions. The Stalinist dictatorship, by contrast, was medieval in its crudity; and this brought it perilously close to disaster in the context of modern industrialised warfare.

The implications of the Soviet collapse in 1941 were huge. It meant the Nazi empire extended from the Atlantic to the gates of Moscow, with control over continental resources of manpower, food supplies, raw materials, and industrial capacity. It meant that four years of gruelling attritional warfare would be necessary to destroy it. It meant that tens of millions would die in the process.

Our guide to this most momentous of military campaigns is David Porter. He first explores the shifting balance of political and military power in the interwar years. Then, he analyses the key factors that determined the outcome of Operation Barbarossa between June and December 1941.

This is an extract from a special feature on Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia, in the latest issue of Military History Matters. Read the full article in the magazine, which you can subscribe to here, or here via an online subscription at The Past website.

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