Operation Barbarossa in WWII


"When Operation Barbarossa is launched, the world will hold its 
breath!" - Adolf Hitler

 On the night of June 22, 1941, more than 3 million German 
soldiers, 600 000 vehicles and 3350 tanks were amassed along a 2000km 
front stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Their sites were 
all trained on Russia. This force was part of 'Operation Barbarossa', 
the eastern front of the greatest military machine ever assembled. 
This machine was Adolf Hitler's German army. For Hitler, the 
inevitable assault on Russia was to be the culmination of a long 
standing obsession. He had always wanted Russia's industries and 
agricultural lands as part of his Lebensraum or 'living space' for 
Germany and their Thousand Year Reich. Russia had been on Hitler's 
agenda since he wrote Mein Kampf some 17 years earlier where he 
stated: 'We terminate the endless German drive to the south and the 
west of Europe, and direct our gaze towards the lands in the east...If 
we talk about new soil and territory in Europe today, we can think 
primarily only of Russia and its vassal border states'i Hitler wanted 
to exterminate and enslave the 'degenerate' Slavs and he wanted to 
obliterate their 'Jewish Bolshevist' government before it could turn 
on him. His 1939 pact with Stalin was only meant to give Germany time 
to prepare for war. As soon as Hitler controlled France, he looked 
east. Insisting that Britain was as good as defeated, he wanted to 
finish off the Soviet Union as soon as possible, before it could 
significantly fortify and arm itself. 'We only have to kick in the 
front door and the whole rotten edifice will come tumbling down'ii he 
told his officers. His generals warned him of the danger of fighting a 
war on two fronts and of the difficulty of invading an area as vast as 
Russia but, Hitler simply overruled them. He then placed troops in 
Finland and Romania and created his eastern front. In December 1940, 
Hitler made his final battle plan. He gave this huge operation a 
suitable name. He termed it 'Operation Barbarossa' or 'Redbeard' which 
was the nickname of the crusading 12th century Holy Roman emperor, 
Frederick I. The campaign consisted of three groups: Army Group North 
which would secure the Baltic; Army Group South which would take the 
coal and oil rich lands of the Ukraine and Caucasus; and Army Group 
Centre which would drive towards Moscow. Prior to deploying this 
massive force, military events in the Balkans delayed 'Barbarossa' by 
five weeks. It is now widely agreed that this delay proved fatal to 
Hitler's conquest plans of Russia but, at the time it did not seem 
important. In mid-June the build-up was complete and the German Army 
stood poised for battle. Hitler's drive for Russia failed however, and 
the defeat of his army would prove to be a major downward turning 
point for Germany and the Axis counterparts. There are many factors 
and events which contributed to the failure of Operation Barbarossa 
right from the preparatory stages of the attack to the final cold 
wintry days when the Germans had no choice but to concede. Several 
scholars and historians are in basic agreement with the factors which 
led to Germany's failure however, many of them stress different 
aspects of the operation as the crucial turning point. One such 
scholar is the historian, Kenneth Macksey. His view on Operation 
Barbarossa is plainly evident just by the title of his book termed, 
'Military errors Of World War Two.'iii Macksey details the fact that 
the invasion of Russia was doomed to fail from the beginning due to 
the fact that the Germans were unprepared and extremely overconfident 
for a reasonable advancement towards Moscow. Macksey's first reason 
for the failure was the simply that Germany should not have broken its 
agreement with Russia and invaded its lands due to the fact that the 
British were not defeated on the western front, and this in turn 
plunged Hitler into a war on two fronts. The Germans, and Hitler in 
particular were stretching their forces too thin and were 
overconfident that the Russians would be defeated in a very short 
time. Adolf Hitler's overconfidence justifiably stemmed from the 
crushing defeats which his army had administered in Poland, France, 
Norway, Holland, Belgium and almost certainly Great Britain had the 
English Channel not stood in his way.iv Another important point that 
Macksey describes is the lack of hard intelligence that the Germans 
possessed about the Russian army and their equipment, deployment 
tactics, economic situation and communication networks. They had not 
invested much time and intelligence agents in collecting information 
from a country which was inherently secretive by nature and kept 
extremely tight security. He also states that it was far from clever 
that the General Staff officer in charge of collecting information 
about the Soviet Union had many other duties, was not an expert on 
Russia or the Red Army and he couldn't even speak Russian.v Therefore 
it was hardly surprising that the only detailed intelligence reports 
concerned the frontier regions of Russia that were frequently 
patrolled by German patrols and spied upon by airborne reconnaissance. 
These were the products of over-confidence. The German army plunged 
into Russia under the impression that there were 200 Russian divisions 
! in tot al; only to discover in the following months that there were 
360 and this figure was later revised to over 400 divisions. The 
Germans also knew that the Russian roads were inferior for their 
vehicles and that the Russian railway tracks were of a different size 
than what they were using yet, no department or planning logistics 
ever took these factors into account before the invasion took place. 
Before the German army was poised to strike towards Moscow, one of the 
vital units of Operation Barbarossa was diverted. Army Group South, 
which was to secure the Ukraine and Romania was partly diverted to 
join in the theatres of battle in the Balkans and the Mediterranean. 
Initially, the Army Group South had been safeguarded by Hitler as he 
used power diplomacy instead of force to take Hungary, Romania and 
Bulgaria into the German fold yet, now he was unwittingly using these 
countries as a spring board for the diplomatic takeover of Yugoslavia 
and an invasion of Greece. At the same time, two mechanized divisions 

know as the Africa Corps (Lt.General Erwin Rommel) were sent to 
Tripoli to help the defeated and panicking Italian Army in North 
Africa, and later, a costly invasion of the island of Crete would 
further detract from the German effort because of the heavy losses 
suffered by thousands of elite troops. These deployment were 
significant because each expansion ! to the south was a subtraction 
from the troops of Barbarossa as well as a cause of delay in its 
execution. This troop subtraction was brought to alarming levels when 
the British, through diplomatic intrigue, managed to ins tigate a coup 
d'etat in Yugoslavia which overthrew the government and canceled out 
the agreement the country had with the Germans for unresisted 
submission. With every indication that British bombers and troops 
would be within range of Romania and the Barbarossa supply lines, a 
major invasion of Yugoslavia as well as Greece had to take place at 
short notice.vi This invasion however distracting, added fuel to 
Hitler's confidence when his forces conquered both Yugoslavia and 
Greece in a matter of weeks, but, these delays would eventually prove 
costly as the unprepared and poorly supplied German troops marched on 
towards Moscow. While Macksey gives several valid reasons for the 
failure of Barbarossa before the action is conducted, authors Nicholas 
Bethell and Michael Wright both stress the fact that the operation 
failed due to the Russian peoples tenacity and the harsh weather and 
terrain conditions during the invasion. They do not agree that the 
attack was doomed from the start as Macksey contests. In Wright's book 
'The World At Arms' , he describes many factors which led to the 
failure of Hitler's plan. The first was the ferocious fighting zeal of 
the Russian troops. This fighting spirit had little to do with the 
communist regime's inspiration but with the fact that the Russian 
people had been so used to intimidation and suffering under Stalin's 
iron fist that they had absolutely nothing to lose by fighting to the 
death, particularly if your only alternative was to be executed by 
your own government for treason. When Stalin addressed his people, he 
spoke to them as fellow citizens and brothers and sisters and not with 
the demands of obedience and submission which was commonplace in 
earlier times. He spoke of a 'national patriotic war...for the freedom 
of the motherland' and he initiated his scorched earth policy which 
would not leave 'a single railway engine, a single wagon, a single 
pound of grain, for the enemy if they had to retreat.vii To the 
Germans, t! his staunch and often sui cidal determination was 
unnerving and it had a negative effect on their fighting morale. 
Stories of this Russian tenacity spread widely among the Germans. 
Tales of Russian fighter pilots who wouldn't bail out if shot down but 
would crash into German fuel trucks; of tanks that were on fire but 
the burning troops driving would press on into battle. It was said 
that Russian women had even taken up arms and that troops would find 
pretty teenage girls dead on the battlefield still clutching weapons. 
The Germans started to complain about Russians who were fighting 
unfairly. They said soldiers would lie on the ground and pretend they 
were dead and then leap up and shoot unsuspecting Germans who were 
passing byviii. Or they would wave white flags of surrender and then 
shoot the soldiers who came to capture them. Having heard these 
actions, many Germans would kill anyone who tried to surrender. These 
tales became battlefield horror stories and raised the wars already 
high le! vel of hatred and barbarity. Hitler wrote to Mussolini 
shortly after the invasion and said: " They fought with truly stupid 
fanaticism...with the primitive brutality of an animal that sees 
itself trapped"ix As a result, in the opening weeks of Barbarossa the 
Germans lost some 100 000 men which was equal to the amount lost in 
all their previous campaigns so far. Another significant factor 

outlined by Bethell and Wright was the fact the Russian troops were 
well aware of the advantages they had in their climate and rugged 
terrain. Bethell outlines excellent examples of this in the dense 
Forests of Poland and the soggy lands of the Pripet Marshes. No German 
tanks could operate in these hazardous areas and there was ample cover 
for small groups. Russian infantry would superbly camouflaged 
themselves and infiltrate the German positions through the forests and 
they even displayed their resourcefulness by communicating to each 
other by imitating animal cries. They would dig foxholes and dugouts 
which provided a field of fire only to the rear and when the 
unsuspecting German infantry walked pass them , the Russians would 
pick them off from behind. In open battle, the Russian people would 
devise ingenious weapons with what little resources they had 
available. They made 'Molotov cocktails' which were flammable liquid 
in bottles which were lit and thrown at German tanks. The glass would 
break and the flaming liquid would flow into the tank and ignite the 
interior.x Combined with the willingness to fight at any odds and the 
intimate knowledge of their own terrain it is plain to see that the 
Russian were definitely not going to fall as easily as Hitler had 
first thought. Besides the brutal tenacity of the resistance, Germany 
had another problem, the climate. In the summer of 1941, the Ukraine 
was suffered a scorching summer which saw a large amount of rainfall. 
In the intense heat, the German tank tracks ground the baked earth to 
powdery fine dust which clogged machinery, eyes and mouths and made it 
hard for troops to function. When it rained, it brought short relief 
to the heat but, the roads turned into axle-deep mud paths that halted 
all movement while horses got stuck in mud and troops had their boots 
sucked right off them only to stay in the ground. Thousands of 
vehicles had to be left as they were because they ran out of fuel to 
get out of the mud and the supply paths were choked as well. These 
road conditions combined with partisan forces behind German lines 
stifled supply lines by destroying railway tracks and making all kinds 
of re-armament and food delivery impossible.xi While the Germans were 
being delayed and they struggled to get a solid foothold, figuratively 
and literally, in Russia, the months passed by and eventually gave way 
to the harsh 'general winter' which froze everything to the core. As 
Germany pressed on towards Moscow, the cold weather really took its 
toll. All too often the Germans didn't have enough supplies to survive 
let alone fight. Some units only had about 1/4 of their ammunition 
while shipments of coats used to combat the cold, only provided 1 coat 
per crew. The food supplied was often frozen solid in the -40(C cold 
and one night spent by German soldiers in their nail studded boots and 
metal helmets could cripple a man for life. Machine guns froze, oil 
turned thick, batteries died and vehicle engines had to be kept 
running which wasted precious fuel supplies. One German officer wrote 
home to his wife: "We have seriously underestimated the Russians, the 
extent of the country and the treachery of the climat! e...th is is 
the revenge of reality."xii At this stage, the Russians had the 
obvious advantage. On December 5 1941, with troops that were used to 
the cold weather all their lives and had the proper clothing to stay 
outdoors for days on end, the Russians counter-attacked along a 960 km 
front and had great success. The 'do-or-die' Russian troops would send 
out groups of darkly clad men to sacrifice themselves and draw German 
fire while white-clad, camouflaged Russian troops would come in along 
the snow and attack. While the German suffered great losses, they were 
able to hold on to key towns that they had previously occupied and the 
war in Russia swung back and forth. As the front settled into a 
stalemate, the Red Army could be satisfied with what it had 
accomplished. Despite the numerous defeats it had suffered in the 
early part of the invasion, Russia had managed to somehow survive, 
pulling back and regrouping long enough for the German Army to 
overextend itself and allow the winter to take its toll. It is said 
that hindsight is 20/20, and it is simple to point out the many 
factors which led to the failure of Barbarossa and we can see that the 
authors, Bethell, Macksey and Wright all had valid points but they 
just emphasized different aspects and time frames which all fit 
together to construct a much larger picture. It is fair to say that 
not one particular circumstance contributed to the failure but, a 
culmination of all the events mentioned. Hitler truly was confident 
that the delay in launching the invasion was of no consequence and he 
had no way of knowing just how fiercely the Russians would oppose him. 
The combination of! these factors led to the failure. Near the end, 
Moscow and Leningrad had been saved, and enough reinforcements had 
been scraped together to enable the Red Army to go on the offensive. 
Operation Barbarossa had been halted, and the myth of German military 
invincibility had been shattered forever.


i Whaley, Barton, pg. 12

ii Wright, Michael, pg. 104

iii Macksey, Kenneth, "Military Errors Of World War II", Stoddard 
Publishing Co., Ontario, Canada, 1987

iv ibid, pg. 47

v ibid, pg. 48

vi ibid pg.51-54

vii Wright, Michael, "The World At Arms", Readers Digest Association 
Ltd., London, 1989. Pg. 108

viii Bethell, Nicholas, "Russia Besieged", Time-Life Books, Canada, 
1977 pg. 72

ix Wright, Michael, pg. 107 

x Wright, Michael, pg. 108-109

xi Bethell, Nicholas, pg . 90

xii Wright, Michael, pg. 118


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