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Operation Barbarossa In WWII Essay Research Paper

Operation Barbarossa In WWII Essay, Research Paper

“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