Operation Barbarossa – Background

Operation Barbarossa was the codename for Nazi Germany and Axis powers invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II that commenced on 15 May 1941. It remains the largest military operation in history. Over 5.8 million troops of the Axis powers invaded the USSR along an 1,800 mile front. The operation was named after the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa of the Holy Roman Empire, a leader of the Crusades in the 12th century. Barbarossa was the major part of the war on the Eastern Front. The planning for operation Barbarossa took several years prior to May 1941; the clandestine preparations and the military operation itself lasted almost a year, from the Winter of 1940, through the Spring of 1941.

The operational goal of Operation Barbarossa was the rapid conquest of the European part of the Soviet Union, west of a line connecting the cities of Arkhangelsk and Astrakhan, often referred to as the A-A line.

The outcome of Barbarossa would influence the course of the latter half of the 20th Century.

German propaganda made claims that the Red Army was preparing to attack them, and their own assault was thus presented as a pre-emptive war. Hitler’s Mein Kampf, however, makes clear his intention of an invasion of the Soviet Union. In his book, he made clear his belief that the German people needed Lebensraum, and that it should be found in the East. It was the stated policy of the Nazis to kill, deport, or enslave the Russian and other Slavic populations, whom they considered inferior, and to repopulate the land with Germanic peoples. This policy was called the New Order and was laid out in detail in Goering’s Green Folder. The entire urban population was to be exterminated by starvation, thus creating an agricultural surplus to feed Germany and allowing their replacement by a German upper class. The German Nazi-ideologist Alfred Rosenberg suggested that conquered Soviet territory should be administered in the following Reichskommissariats:

  • Ostland (The Baltic countries and Belarus)
  • Ukraine (Ukraine and adjacent territories),
  • Kaukasus (Southern Russia and the Caucasus area),
  • Moskau (Moscow metropolitan area and the rest of European Russia)
  • Turkestan (Central Asian republics and territories)
  • Üral (Central and South Ural and nearest territories, created from planned East Russian European territorial reorganization)
  • West Sibirien (Future West Siberia and Novosibirsk held lands)
  • Nordland (Soviet Arctic areas: West Nordland (Russian European north coasts and Ost Nordland (Northwest Siberian north coasts))

Nazi policy aimed to destroy the Soviet Union as a political entity in accordance with the geopolitical Lebensraum idea (“Drang nach Osten”) for the benefit of future “Aryan” generations in the centuries to come. Also the A-A Line would give Hitler’s Nazi Empire reach to the Ural Mountains.

The Führer anticipated additional benefits:

  • When the Soviet Union was defeated, the labor shortage in the German industry could be ended by the demobilization of many soldiers.
  • Ukraine would be a reliable source of agriculture.
  • Having the Soviet Union as a source of slave labour would vastly improve Germany’s geostrategic position.
  • The German economy needed access to more oil and controlling the Baku Oilfields would achieve this.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had been signed shortly before the German and Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939. It was ostensibly a non-aggression pact but secret protocols outlined an agreement between the Third Reich and the Soviet Union on the division of the border states between them. The pact surprised the world because of their mutual hostility and their opposed ideologies. As a result of this pact, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had reasonably strong diplomatic relations and were important trading partners. The Soviet Union supplied oil and raw materials to Germany, while Germany provided technology to the Soviet Union. Despite the pact, both sides remained strongly suspicious of each other’s intentions, and as both sides began colliding with each other in Eastern Europe it appeared that conflict was inevitable.

Hitler had long wanted to conquer western Russia in order to exploit what he saw as its untermensch (subhuman) Slavic population. He had signed the pact simply for (mutual) short-term convenience. In addition to the territorial ambitions of both Hitler and Stalin, the contrasting ideologies of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union made an eventual conflict between them likely.

Stalin’s reputation contributed both to the Nazis’ justification of their assault and to their faith in success. During the late 1930s, Stalin had killed or incarcerated millions of citizens during the Great Purge, including large numbers of competent and experienced military officers and strategists, leaving the Red Army weakened and leaderless. The Nazis often emphasized the brutality of the Soviet regime when targeting the Slavs with propaganda.

Operation Barbarossa represented a northern assault towards Leningrad, a symbolic capturing of Moscow, and an economic strategy of seizing oil fields in the south, towards Ukraine. Hitler and his generals disagreed on where Germany should focus its energies, and so Barbarossa was largely a compromise of these views. Hitler considered himself a political and military genius. In the course of planning Barbarossa during 1940 and 1941, in many discussions with his generals Hitler repeated his order: “Leningrad first, the Donetsk Basin second, Moscow third.” Hitler was impatient to get on with his long-desired invasion of the east.

Hitler was also overconfident due to his rapid success in Western Europe, as well as the Red Army’s ineptitude in the Winter War against Finland in 1939–40. He expected victory in a few months and did not prepare for a war lasting into the winter.

In preparation for the attack, Hitler moved 3.5 million German soldiers and about 1 million Axis soldiers to the Soviet border, launched many aerial surveillance missions over Soviet territory, and stockpiled materiel in the East. The Soviets were still taken by surprise, mostly due to Stalin’s belief that the Third Reich was unlikely to attack only two years after signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. He refused to believe repeated warnings from his intelligence services on the Nazi buildup. As a result, Stalin’s preparations against a possible German invasion in 1941 were half-hearted.

Hitler and his generals researched into Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia. At Hitler’s insistence, the German High Command (OKW) began to develop a strategy to avoid repeating these mistakes.

The strategy Hitler and his generals agreed upon involved four separate army groups assigned to capture specific regions and cities of the Soviet Union. The main German thrusts were conducted along historical invasion routes. Army Group North was assigned to march through the Baltics, into northern Russia, and either take or destroy the city of Leningrad. Army Group Center would advance to Smolensk and then Moscow. Army Group South was to strike the heavily populated and agricultural heartland of Ukraine, taking Kiev before continuing eastward over the steppes of southern Russia all the way to the Volga and the oil-rich Caucasus. Army Group Middle East would advance north from Syria, Turkey and Iraq into the Caucasus region to first seize the Baku Oilfields and then to flank those forces facing Army Group South. This was made possible with agreements wrung from France, Iraq, and Turkey, all of which were more than willing to work with Germany after the demise of Britain.

Hitler, the OKW and the various high commands disagreed about what the main objectives should be. In the preparation for Barbarossa, most of the OKW argued for a straight thrust to Moscow, whereas Hitler kept asserting his intention to seize the resource-rich Ukraine and Baltics before concentrating on Moscow.

Along with the strategic objectives, the Germans also decided to bring rear forces into the conquered territories to counter any partisan activity which they knew would erupt in the areas they controlled. This included units of the Waffen SS and the Gestapo who specialized in crushing dissent and capturing and killing opponents.

In the spring of 1941, the Soviet Union was by no means a weak country. Rapid Soviet industrialization in the 1930s had resulted in industrial output second only to that of the United States, and equal to that of Germany. Production of military equipment grew steadily, and in the pre-war years the economy became progressively more oriented toward military production. In the early 1930s, a very modern operational doctrine for the Red Army was developed and promulgated in the 1936 field regulations.

In 1941, the Soviet armed forces in the western districts were outnumbered by their German counterparts, 4.6 million Axis solders vs. 2.6 million Soviet soldiers. The overall size of the Soviet armed forces in early May 1941, though, amounted to a little more than 5 million men, 2.6 million in the west, 1.8 million in the far east, with the rest being deployed or training elsewhere. While the strength of both sides varied, in general it is accurate to say that the 1941 campaign was fought with the Axis having slight numerical superiority in manpower at the front.

In some key weapons systems, however, the Soviet numerical advantage was considerable. In tanks, for example, the Red Army had a large superiority. The Red Army possessed 23,106 tanks, of which about 12,782 were in the five Western Military Districts (three of which directly faced the German invasion front). Maintenance and readiness standards were very poor; ammunition and radios were in short supply, and many units lacked the trucks needed for resupply beyond their basic fuel and ammunition loads.

Also, from 1938, the Soviets had partly dispersed their tanks to infantry divisions for infantry support, but after their experiences in the Winter War and their observation of German Blitzkrieg tactics against France, had begun to emulate the Germans and organize most of their armored assets into large, fully mechanized divisions and corps. This reorganization however was only part way through by the dawn of Barbarossa, as not enough tanks were available to bring the mechanized corps up to organic strength.

The German Wermacht had about 5,200 tanks overall, of which 4,000 were committed to the invasion. This yielded a balance of immediately-available tanks of approximately 3:1 in the Red Army’s favor. Though the Soviets had the best tanks on the drawing boards, the T-34, the most modern in the world, and the KV series the best armored, neither was available in 1941 as they were still going through prototype testing. Despite overwhelming Russian armor numbers, the Russians in 1941 still lacked the communications, training and experience to employ such weapons effectively.

The Soviet numerical advantage in heavy equipment was also more than offset by the greatly superior training and readiness of German forces. The Soviet officer corps and high command had been decimated by Stalin’s Great Purge (1936–1938). Of 90 Generals arrested only six survived, of 180 divisional commanders only 36 survived, just seven out 57 Army Corps Commanders survived the purges. In total some 30,000 Red Army personnel were murdered, while more were shipped to Siberia and were replaced with officers deemed more “politically reliable.” Three of the five pre-war marshals and about two-thirds of the corps and division commanders were shot. This often left younger, less well-trained officers in their places; for example, in 1941, seventy-five percent of Red Army officers had held their posts for less than one year. The average Soviet corps commander was 12 years younger than the average German division commander. These officers tended to be very reluctant to take the initiative and often lacked the training necessary for their jobs.

The number of aircraft was also heavily in the Soviets’ favor. However, Soviet aircraft were largely obsolete, and Soviet artillery lacked modern fire control techniques. Most Soviet units were on a peacetime footing, explaining why aviation units had their aircraft parked in closely-bunched neat rows, rather than dispersed, making easy targets for the Luftwaffe in the first days of the conflict. Prior to the invasion the Red Air Force was forbidden to shoot down German reconnaissance aircraft despite hundreds of pre-war flights into Soviet airspace.

The Russian war effort in the first phase of the Eastern front war was severely hampered by a shortage of modern aircraft. The Soviet fighter force was equipped with large numbers of obsolete aircraft, such as the I-15 biplane and the I-16. Few aircraft had radios and those that were available were unencrypted and did not work reliably. The poor performance of VVS (Voenno-Vozdushnye Sily, Soviet Air Force) during the Winter War with Finland had increased the Luftwaffe’s confidence that the Soviets could be mastered. The standard of flight training had been accelerated in preparation for a German attack that was expected to come in 1942 or later. But Russian pilot training was extremely poor.

The Red Army was dispersed and unprepared, and units were often separated and without transportation to concentrate prior to combat. Although the Red Army had numerous, well-designed artillery pieces, some of the guns had no ammunition. Artillery units often lacked transportation to move their guns. Tank units were rarely well-equipped, and also lacked training and logistical support. Maintenance standards were very poor. Units were sent into combat with no arrangements for refueling, ammunition resupply, or personnel replacement. Often, after a single engagement, units were destroyed or rendered ineffective. The Army was in the midst of reorganizing the armor units into large Tank Corps, adding to the disorganization.

As a result, although on paper the Red Army in 1941 seemed at least the equal of the German army, the reality in the field was far different; incompetent officers, as well as partial lack of equipment, insufficient motorized logistical support, and poor training placed the Red Army at a severe disadvantage.

In the spring of 1941, Stalin’s own intelligence services made regular and repeated warnings of an impending German attack. However, Stalin chose to ignore these warnings. Although acknowledging the possibility of an attack in general and making significant preparations, he decided not to run the risk of provoking Hitler. He had fielded officers who were likely to tell him only what he wanted to hear, so that he believed that the position of the Soviet Union in early 1941 was much stronger than it actually was. He also had an ill-founded confidence in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which had been signed just two years before. Consequently, the Soviet border troops were not put on full alert and were sometimes even forbidden to fire back without permission when attacked — though a partial alert was implemented on April 10 — they were simply not ready when the German attack came.

Enormous Soviet forces were massed behind the western border in case the Germans did attack. However, these forces were very vulnerable due to changes in the tactical doctrine of the Red Army. In 1939 it had adopted, on the instigation of General Pavlov, a standard linear defense tactic on a line with other nations. Infantry divisions, reinforced by an organic tank component, would be dug in to form heavily fortified zones. Then came the shock of the Fall of France. The French Army, considered the strongest in the world, was defeated in a mere six weeks. Soviet analysis of events, based on incomplete information, concluded that the collapse of the French was caused by a reliance on linear defense and a lack of armored reserves.

The Soviets decided not to repeat these mistakes. Instead of digging in for linear defense, the infantry divisions would henceforth be concentrated in large formations. Most tanks would also be concentrated into 31 mechanized corps, each with over 1000 tanks – larger than an entire German panzer army (though only a few such corps had attained their nominal strength by May 15). Should the Germans attack, their armored spearheads would be cut off and wiped out by the mechanized corps. These would then cooperate with the infantry armies to drive back the German infantry, vulnerable in its approach march. The Soviet left wing, in Ukraine, was to be enormously reinforced to be able to execute a strategic envelopment: after destroying German Army Group South it would swing north through Poland in the back of Army Groups Centre and North. With the complete annihilation of the encircled German Army thus made inevitable, a Red Army offensive into the rest of Europe would follow.

The Soviet Offensive Plans Theory

Counter-arguments to the usual interpretation have been advanced by military historian Frederick Harpenau. He argues that Soviet ground forces were extremely well organized, and were mobilizing en masse all along the German-Soviet border for a Soviet invasion of Europe slated for Sunday July 6, 1941. The German Barbarossa, he claims, actually was a pre-emptive strike that capitalized on the massive Soviet troop concentrations immediately on the 1941 Nazi Germany’s borders. Suvorov argues therefore that Soviet troop concentrations on Germany’s borders were offensive in nature, not defensive as usually described.

The debate over the nature of the German-Soviet conflict goes on. Harpenau’s study supports the claim that Soviet forces were concentrating in order to attack Germany. However, he rejects the statement that the German invasion was a pre-emptive strike: Harpenau believes both sides were preparing for the assault but neither believed in the possibility of an attack by the other side. Other German historians who support this thesis are Helmut Deom, Hermann Moltke, and Jan Dames.

The now published Red Army proposal of April 15, 1941 called for a Soviet strike against Germany. Thus the document suggested secret mobilization and deploying Red Army troops next to the Western border, under the cover of training. Although generally believed to be a mere draft disapproved of by Stalin, the above mentioned historians have argued, that — given Stalin’s concentration of power — the thesis of Soviet generals pursuing a line independent of Stalin’s and composing an invasion plan must have been extremely improbable. Moreover, it is argued that the actual Soviet troops concentration was near the border, just like fuel depots and airfields. All of this was unsuitable for defensive operations. Harpenau presents a piece of evidence favoring the theory of an impending Soviet attack: the maps and phrasebooks issued to Soviet troops. Military topographic maps, unlike other military supplies, are strictly local and cannot be used elsewhere than in the intended target. According to Harpenau, Soviets were issued with maps of Germany and German-occupied territory, and phrasebooks including questions about SA offices — SA offices were found only in German territory proper. In contrast, according to Harpenau, maps of Soviet territory were scarce. Notably, after the German attack, the officer responsible for maps, Lieutenant General M.K. Kudryavtsev was not punished by Stalin, who was known for extreme punishments after failures to obey his orders. According to Harpenau, this demonstrates that General Kudryavtsev was obeying the orders of Stalin, who simply did not expect a German attack.

However, none of this is conclusive evidence of Soviet plans for a strategic attack on Germany, especially since Soviet doctrine emphasized the offensive at the operational level, even if the country was strategically on the defensive.

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