The standard historical view of Operation Barbarossa, Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, is that the German military was a magnificent war machine armed with advanced weapons like Panzer tanks and functioned with a unity of purpose by employing excellent strategies and tactics.
The same view holds that the Germans, with their many motorised and Panzer divisions, would have swiftly defeated the Soviets if they had not been slowed down by a brutal Russian winter.
This, coupled with Adolf Hitler’s continuous interference in the direction of the war by German general staff, and his erratic decision-making, apparently allowed the Soviet hordes to overwhelm the German army.
In general opinion, the turning point of the German invasion, and the war, is the titanic battle of Stalingrad (August 1942 to February 1943).
However, historian David Stahel argues in his seminal work, Operation Barbarossa and Germany's Defeat in the East, that the German military and high command were not united, that the motorised spear was a very small element, with the bulk of the army moving on foot, and that even a week into the invasion, the best German tank at the time, the Panzer Mk 4, was already being out-ranged, and out-gunned, by Soviet tanks.
According to Stahel, the turning point in the war was not the German failure to capture Moscow, nor the Battle of Stalingrad, but the opening weeks of Operation Barbarossa itself.
His argument rests on five pillars:
Pillar 1 — Germany lacked a cohesive strategic directive
General Franz Halder, chief of the army general staff, was convinced that Moscow was the centre of gravity of the Soviet Union, and accordingly drew up plans to capture it.
However, Hitler rejected outright the importance of Moscow and instead mandated the capture of Leningrad (in the north) before any move was made on Moscow, or the south (Ukraine and the oil fields of the Caucasus).
Halder, who never directly challenged Hitler, nonetheless resorted to duplicitous means to keep his own plan in play, by agreeing with Hitler on one hand but tweaking the operational plans to ensure a tilt towards Moscow on the other.
Thus, the seeds of a massive conflict between Hitler and his military staff were sown even before the invasion was launched.
There was also massive insubordination across layers. Halder disobeyed Hitler, his army group commander had his own policy, and the leaders of the two leading Panzer elements, Herman Hoth and Heinz Guderian, also had their own agendas.
At times, they would outright ignore orders from the high command and dare their superiors to sack them.
Pillar 2 — German 'technical superiority' was illusory
Germany's much-vaunted officer corps devised this entire invasion on delusional thinking, wherein any problems involving logistics, manpower, or industrial capacity were brushed away by invoking racial superiority.
Yet, the truth is that the bulk of the German tanks were obsolete Panzer Mk 1s and German intelligence failed to learn that the Russian medium T34 tank, and the heavy KV1, were advanced models that could withstand hits from German tanks and anti-tank weapons.
Pillar 3 — The average German soldier walked at the same pace as the average Roman soldier
The German army had its spearheads motorised, but the bulk of its army walked and used horse-driven modes of transport.
So, while the overall figure of 3.8 million invading German soldiers looked impressive on paper, only 400,000 of these were in the armoured and motorised divisions.
As a result, even as the Germans made spectacular gains in the early days of the invasion (thanks to Soviet incompetence), the armoured elements soon began to outrun the infantry, meaning they went so far ahead that while the infantry struggled to catch up, the armoured units, the rapier of the German army, were forced to fight positional battles — a task they were eminently unsuited for.
This caused a dramatic, and swift, decline in the combat efficiency of the armoured elements, which in turn led to a slowing of the German advance.
Pillar 4 — German logistics fell woefully short
An army, and especially its armoured units, requires fuel, ammunition, and supplies on time, and in sufficient quantities, if it is to maintain its invasion schedules.
Bearing in mind the vast distances to be traversed across Russia, the German planners’ solution to this requirement was the assumption that they would capture large quantities of Russian railway stock.
However, the Germans managed to capture only around a thousand Russian locomotives in the opening stages of Barbarossa, which was hugely insufficient.
This was compounded by the Germans’ worst enemy — dust.
The untarred Russian roads kicked up so much dust that the German engines choked, reducing fuel efficiency and increasing fuel requirements on already-overstretched supply lines.
As per Stahel, Guderian’s Panzer group reported on 22 June 1941 that it fielded 963 tanks of all model types. But by 29 July, only 286 tanks were combat-ready.
What is telling is a war diary entry, which noted that the key causes for this level of attrition were long distances, dust, and bad roads. Combat was not even mentioned here.
Pillar 5 — German industrial capacity in 1941 was insufficient to carry out Operation Barbarossa
"Nervi belli pecunia (Money, the Sinews of War)," as Cicero famously said, was as valid in 1941 as it was in 50 BCE.
Money in 1941 meant industrial capacity — the ability of the state to transform itself into a war economy, and produce the planes, trucks, guns, and ammunition that its armies needed to prosecute the war.
The German generals went ahead with an invasion of the Soviet Union knowing this reality.
But the German industry manufactured only 3,623 tanks in 1941 (of which only a tenth were the advanced Mk 4s), and 5,530 in 1942 (of which only a quarter were Mk 4s). In contrast, the Soviet Union made 4,200 frontline tanks in 1941, and a staggering 12,700 the next year.
A war diary entry by Guderian’s Panzer Group in July 1941 observes that the entire army received only 45 replacement tank engines during the month!
Faced with these crippling shortages, German engineers had to resort to cannibalising machines to restore a semblance of fighting strength. This was to have catastrophic effects on the future conduct of operations.
Thus, Stahel argues that Barbarossa simply could not succeed, as Germany lacked the planning, manpower, supply lines, and sheer industrial capacity to defeat the Soviet Union.
The entire plan was a foolhardy venture predicated on a one-stroke knockout plan written to a strict timetable, whereby Leningrad was to be occupied by 1 August 1941, Moscow by 15 August, Stalingrad by September, and the oil fields in the Caucasus by November.
This timetable went off course a week into the invasion and none of these objectives were achieved. Leningrad was never taken, Moscow was reached only by December but never occupied, Stalingrad only a year later, in September 1942, and the oilfields only barely by November 1942, before they were pushed out by the Russians.
Eighty-eight years later, a fresh conflict is raging in the region, and in a supreme twist of irony, both sides are making the same mistakes the Germans did in 1941.
Like Germany, Russia deployed long chains of armour and mechanised infantry along key roads, advanced along three fronts, and occupied a large swathe of land.
But it simply didn’t have the boots on the ground to defend these territories and had to give up most of it, either voluntarily in a controlled withdrawal (as in the south) or by a pressure retreat under fire, as at Izyum.
Like Napoleon and Hitler, Ukraine has learned at a bitter cost that a Russia on the defensive is a formidable foe. Like in 1941, Russia today maintains an overwhelming advantage in artillery, and air superiority too.
Generals on both sides would do well to read Stahel’s thesis before they commit more strategic blunders because whatever the outcome of the West’s proxy war in Ukraine, human life is precious.
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