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“The German Wehrmacht must be prepared to crush Soviet Russia in a quick campaign (Operation Barbarossa) even before the conclusion of the war against England.”
In July 1939 Adolph Hitler reached out to Joseph Stalin with a diplomatic offer. Herr Hitler offered Russia peace between their countries. To sweeten the deal, he also offered Russia parts of Finland and the Baltic states, as well as chunks of Poland and Romania. In August of that same year, the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact was signed at the Kremlin allowing both Russia and Germany to cooperate in the looting of Eastern Europe. While this seemed to be an advantage for both countries, for Hitler, it was merely a stepping stone to achieve his goal. By destroying Eastern Europe, Russian borders would be opened thus allowing Nazi forces to invade.
Further easing the way for a Nazi attack on Russia was the Red Army purge of 1936-1938. Joseph Stalin had not only liquidated much of the leaders in the Red Army but also dismissed all ideas regarding warfare that were not associated with him. During this time Stalin had over 70,000 of his officers killed or sent to the Gulag. The Soviet police force additionally relieved most of the military leadership of their duties. After the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact was signed, the Red Army dismantled most of its armored units.
In June 1940, Nazi forces invaded Russia under the name Operation Barbarossa. Under Directive number 21, Hitler states, “The mass of the Russian Army in western Russia is to be destroyed in daring operations, by driving forward deep armored wedges, and the retreat of units capable of combat into the vastness of Russian territory is to be prevented.” Throughout the summer and early fall Nazi forces pressed forward through Russia capturing city after city. Moscow became a bastion of defense for the Red Army and the Russian people. Then the tide turned in the fall of 1940. After months of victory, Nazi forces fell to the Red Army. How could fortunes have turned so quickly and decisively? Operation Barbarossa failed due to difficult terrain, unpredicted and harsh weather, and unique strategies employed by the Russians.
“Russia is not a country; it is a world.”
Russia is 6.6 million square miles and the success of Barbarossa depended upon a system capable of supplying the German army over these great distances. In 1941, Russia was a land of thick forests, swamps, rivers, and steppes. Further, the roads were often rutted and in poor repair, if there were roads at all. Western Russia, between Europe and the Ural Mountains, already contained a vast amount of land, however, that was only a very small part of the country. Any attack launched from the west must first overcome this initial vast area. That alone is a very big obstacle. Once an army can breach this obstacle, yet another lies ahead. The Pripyat River flows east to west through Russia with many tributaries. These tributaries create a maze of swamps that must be traversed in order to reach the interior of Russia. Except for a few railroads that cross neatly over the swamps and a few roads, Russia was a natural fortress. “Northern European Russia proper, a swampy woodland north and northeast of the Valdai Hills, is not suitable for mobile warfare, particularly not for large armored formations. The crucial blows of an offensive, therefore, have to fall in central and southern European Russia.” Prior to Barbarossa, Germany had increased its motorized artillery regiment by piecing together vehicles and weapons produced during peace times. These vehicles were designed to be used on well-constructed roads and were in no way appropriate for the rugged terrain of Russia. Within nineteen days, German offensives had penetrated far into Russia however, the cost was the loss of twenty-five percent of their vehicles.
Russian forests are thick and most merge with the swamplands. Northern European Russia has just such a terrain while the southern part of Russia is almost devoid of woods displaying arid steppes and desert like sand flats. Army Group North was assigned to march into northern Russia through the Baltics en route to Leningrad. After capturing bridges at Dvinsk during phase one of operations, Manstein’s panzer corps, attempting to move through the forests of northern Russia in early July 1941, became stuck and had to be extracted before moving toward the northeast. Moreover, German forces were never able to gain control of the eastern strip of Russia which was covered in marshland. This situation separated Army Group Center from Army Group North as the swamps prevented coordinated efforts between the two groups. Despite these obstacles, Germany was confident that they could achieve their objectives in Russia before the onslaught of winter.
"One can't put any trust in the meteorological forecasts." Adolph Hitler, October 1941
Despite the above quote, winter was of great concern to the Nazi army and for sound reason. However, there were other weather-related obstacles that they had not foreseen. Army Group South was to strike the Ukraine region and move east toward Kiev. However, in the arid steppes to the south, Rundstedt’s troops were facing horrendous weather conditions during phase two of Operation Barbarossa. On July 3, Hitler ordered Panzers to resume their eastern push after delays caused by interruptions in the supply lines. Through June and July Army Group South experienced scorching heat and dust storms in the desert like terrain. All troops in the steppe region would require its own water truck for drinking water. This was something that the Germans had not considered. The heat was followed by torrential downpours typical of a Russian summer. By mid-July half of their trucks were out of commission. To make matters worse, supply lines were still struggling making any repairs impossible.
The delays caused by weather during the middle phase gave the Red Army time to organize a counter attack against Army Group Center who was to take a straight line targeting Moscow. The Red Army objective was to defend Smolensk and prevent the Germans from gaining the road to Moscow. Unfortunately, the Red Army was surrounded by divisions closing in from the north and south. Once Smolensk was captured, the German army delayed in the hopes of depriving Russian forces of the industrial capacity for war. Fuhrer Directive number 32 states, “The strength of the security forces required in Russia can only be forecast with certainty at a later date.”
"We have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down."
Hitler chose to take Kiev before focusing on taking Moscow, Leningrad, and Stalingrad. According to Hitler, regarding defeating these three key cities, "We have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down." The final phase of Barbarossa was to take place beginning on October 2nd. German troops were only 15 miles outside of Moscow by this time. However, Autumn rains began to fall over Russia in October resulting in a sea of mud which engulfed the German Army. The Wehrmacht was trapped, and all advances halted until the mud began to freeze in November. The hard freeze of November 7, 1941 was both a blessing and a curse for the German Army. While they could move again, they lacked winter clothing.
The goal of taking Russia before winter failed and Nazi forces were ill prepared for the weather to come. First and foremost, soldiers did not have winter clothing. Due to supply line problems, the priority was to arm the soldiers with ammunition rather than warm uniforms. Moreover, German equipment was not made for such frigid temperatures. Guns froze, and some soldiers froze to death next them. Tanks would not start without building a fire underneath them first to heat the engines, something that could not be done in the steppe region as wood was scarce. Unlike the Germans, the Russian Army was equipped for fighting in cold weather. A Moscow radio broadcast in October jeered “You call this winter? To us Russians, winter comes later. We are going to stay in Moscow.” The Red Army had used many surprising offensive tactics throughout Operation Barbarossa which aided in delaying German forces until winter.
“The divisions are admittedly not armed and equipped in our sense, and tactically they are badly led. But there they are; and when we destroy a dozen the Russia
The Red Army had called upon 5.3 million reservists by the end of June, something that the German army had not anticipated. Further, the Soviets created at least 194 new divisions and eighty-four separate brigades. Moreover, the Soviet people stepped in to aid in the fight. In an address on July 3, 1941, Stalin told Russian citizens “The Soviet people must realize this and abandon all heedlessness, they must mobilize themselves and reorganize all their work on new, wartime lines, when there can be no mercy to the enemy.” As such, Russian civilians all had some form of military training. Factories were armed fortresses and when young people leave school and entered the factories, they became part of the armed workers group.
Even the Red Army employed unexpected tactics. As previously mentioned, the marshes and swamps had greatly hindered German advances. This natural feature was used to the advantage of the Red Army. Within the vast marshes of Pripet were a network of guerilla style military bases. Further, the dense forests were also strongholds for “irregulars”. When Russian divisions had been encircled by German forces, they would then divide into smaller groups thus outsmarting the German army.
“I look up into the dark sky, close my eyes and picture myself as a girl at the controls of my bomber." Nadya Popova
As the Russian supply of available soldiers declined, Russia did something completely unexpected by welcoming women into the front lines. During the course of Operation Barbarossa, over one million women fought along the front lines. They were partisan guerillas, anti-aircraft gunners, and fighter pilots. Joseph Stalin gave the order to deploy three all-female air force units on October 8, 1941, making the Soviet Union the first nation to allow women to engage in combat. The women were the 558th Night Bomber Division. They became known as the Night Witches. They flew night missions over German troops, idled their engines and then dropped their bombs as they glided over German encampments. The only sound German troops heard before the bombs fell was the whoosh of the plane gliding overhead. The night Witches instilled fear into the German army.
“The severe winter weather which has come surprisingly early in the east, and the consequent difficulties in bringing up supplies, compel us to abandon immediat
Operation Barbarossa officially ended in December 1941 with the Battle of Moscow. Germany had staked everything on Operation Barbarossa. Nazi forces assumed that they could invade Russia in the summer of 1941 and gain a victory before the arrival of winter. Plagued by difficult terrain, harsh weather, and unique tactical strategies by the Russians, Operation Barbarossa failed. Rather than a quick victory, as expected, Operation Barbarossa stretched into December culminating in the Battle of Moscow. German defeat at Moscow in 1941 clearly defined the scale of their misjudgment for a speedy victory. Germany had failed to properly plan for Operation Barbarossa and their expectations were unrealistic from the very beginning.
However, although Operation Barbarossa had ended, the war between Russia and Germany would last another three years. The losses experienced by the Nazi forces during Operation Barbarossa inflicted a loss of moral in the Wehrmacht and as a result, diminished their confidence. This played a crucial role in future operations ultimately leading to Nazi defeat during WWII. The losses Germany sustained in Operation Barbarossa, became the turning point that allowed the Allies the traction they needed to win the war. As the Wehrmacht had taken such a beating over the winter of 1941, they were unable to mount an extensive offensive therefore leaving the Eastern Front lightly defended. They relied upon their allies to shore up the lines, but it was not enough. Thus, Axis forces eventually collapsed at the Eastern Front as Russia retook their borders. The resulting loss not only struck a blow in the German army, but also allowed Allied forces to defeat the Axis powers and declare victory.
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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