138 Himmler inspecting a prisoner of war camp

Himmler inspecting a prisoner of war camp.

(June 18, 2021) This week, 80 years ago, German dictator Adolf Hitler declared, “When Barbarossa is launched, the whole world will hold its breath.” On the morning of June 22, 1941, exactly one year after the French armistice, more than 150 divisions with 3.2 million men, 500,000 horses, 3,550 tanks, and 2,000 combat aircraft of the German Wehrmacht launched an attack on the USSR.

Germany’s allies — Finland, Rumania, Hungary and Slovakia — contributed troops for the invasion. Despite countless warnings of German intentions, the Red Army was caught by surprise. Stalin thought a German invasion could happen only after Britain was defeated. The attack was such a surprise to the Red Army that, in the first week of the war, the Luftwaffe destroyed 2,000 Soviet planes and roamed the skies unhindered.

Using their far superior ability to maneuver, the Germans proceeded to defeat the Red Army in great battles of encirclement. These battles produced millions of prisoners for the Germans. By November 1941, 98 of the 170 original Soviet divisions were either destroyed or disbanded due to heavy losses.

The German Blitzkrieg seemed unstoppable during the summer of 1941. Armeegruppe North, under Field Marshal Baron Wilhelm von Leeb, captured the Baltic States and then laid siege to Leningrad.

Under Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, Armeegruppe Center encircled Smolensk, bringing in 300,000 Soviet prisoners and moved into the industrial-breadbasket of the USSR, Ukraine. Armeegruppe South, under Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt’s leadership, laid siege to Odessa, drove into the Crimea, captured Kyiv, and advanced to the Donets River.

At the end of September with the flanks secure, Hitler ordered Operation Typhoon, the attack on Moscow, to begin. By October, the German advance was mired in the mud before Moscow. Nonetheless, panic struck the Soviet capital.

Moscow was put under a state of siege on Oct. 19, and much of the Soviet government evacuated the city. Stalin chose to stay and coordinate the city’s defenses as Soviet resistance began to stiffen. The Germans began new thrusts in November when the mud froze, allowing the motorized columns to advance.

The Red Army, under Gen. Georgi Zhukov, held back reserves while the Wehrmacht attacked until exhausted. On Dec. 6, the Red Army threw its reserves at the depleted and overextended German forces in front of the city. Although Hitler ordered his army to stand fast, the Wehrmancht was forced to retreat from the fresh Red Army reserves from the Soviet Far East. So, why did he Germans fail to conquer Moscow? What stopped the German Blitzkrieg?

Mud.

“On the night of October 6-7… the roads rapidly became nothing but canals of bottomless mud, along which our vehicles could only advance at a snail’s pace and with great wear on our engines.” Gen. Heinz Guderian and other German generals cite this time and time again as the reason why the Blitzkrieg was halted.

Commander of Armeegruppe Center, Field Marshal von Bock, began to take pity on himself during the attack on Moscow when he wrote about the sunny Crimea: “I envy them down there; they are making progress and are knocking the wind out of the Russians. Here we cannot do that. We are bogged downed almost hopelessly in the mud and snow.”

While German historians agree that Operation Typhoon was stopped by the mud, many Soviet historians disagree. Soviet Marshal Zhukov noted that, “Soviet forces had to operate under the same conditions.” Marshal Zhukov also states, “...the roads were impassable for a relatively brief period in October of 1941.” The Germans were stopped by the, “...self-sacrifice of the working people...,” along with the Red Army, defending their capital.

While Marshal Zhukov puts fourth some interesting arguments, he fails to consider the fact that the very basis of the German Blitzkrieg — mobility — was brought to a standstill by the quagmire created by water on the poor Russian roads.

One must look at the accomplishments of the German offensive before the rain and mud to measure its success. In the first fortnight of the Typhoon offensive, Field Marshal von Bock’s Armeegruppe Center destroyed at least 700,000 of the Soviet defenders at little cost to itself and with another three weeks of dry and clear weather would have been in Moscow. No Russian could have stopped it. There is little doubt that it played an important role in stopping the German Blitzkrieg at the gates of Moscow.

Soviet Strength & Resistance

Speaking on the perception of the strength of the Soviet Union, Hitler assured his generals, “We have only to kick in the front door and the whole Russian edifice will come tumbling down.” Of course, Hitler’s assumption was far from correct, but he did have legitimate reason to believe in the hollowness of the Soviet state.

Throughout the 1930s, Stalin purged the leadership of the Red Army. All in all, 55 percent of its officers were killed or imprisoned, including a higher percentage of the top leadership. The purges did not end until June 1941, the month of the German invasion.

Hitler’s view of the ineptness of the Red Army was reinforced by the Soviet attack on Finland in the winter of 1939-1940. The Finns inflicted hundreds of thousands of casualties on the Red Army, until finally succumbing to its overwhelming numbers in March 1940. The Soviet Army appeared to be leaderless and inept in the summer of 1941.

Soviet forces did not fall as easily as the British and French did in 1940. The Red Army offered stiff and suicidal resistance when all seemed lost. The Red Army left behind a rear guard to cover its retreat. Soviet soldiers fought with skill, and when overrun, they tried to link up with partisan units to continue the battle in the enemy’s rear.

The Wehrmacht soon learned to respect the Soviet soldier. The Soviets had shown far more capacity for fighting than had the forces of western and southeastern Europe in earlier Blitzkrieg campaigns. Marshal Zhukov notes the heroism and contribution to the struggle of an encircled army west of the Vyazma.

“They continued to fight valiantly, attempting to break through to rejoin the main force of the Red Army and thus holding down large enemy formations that would otherwise have pursued the drive toward Moscow.”

The new Soviet T-34 medium tank was an important factor in stopping the Germans, for they had no comparable tank on the battlefield. The great Soviet fortress of Tula, south of Moscow, was defended by the T-34, causing heavy casualties for the Germans, forcing them to abandon their attack. Marshal Zhukov concludes that the Battle of Tula stopped Germany’s advance on the capital. Soviet troops, “... repulsed all attacks, causing heavy losses to the enemy.”

On Nov. 29, advance German units reached Tushino, a sector of Moscow proper. The Germans encountered civilians fighting alongside soldiers in house-to-house fighting. Tushino was not an isolated incident. On Dec. 4, the Germans entered Kuntsevo, a southeastern suburb of Moscow. Again the Germans were met by soldiers and civilians (including women and children), fighting a guerrilla-type war. One can only contemplate the resistance the Germans would encounter if they had to battle street by street, as in Stalingrad, to capture the capital.

Responding to Gen. Guderian’s estimate of Soviet tank strength, Hitler said, “If I had known that the figures … you gave in your book were in fact the true ones, I would not, I believe, ever have started this war.”

Guderian used a conservative estimate of 10,000 Soviet tanks in his book “Achtung! Panzer!” German intelligence estimated there were 141 Soviet divisions in European Russia in July 1940. By June 1941, their estimate jumped to 216.5 divisions.

German Army Commander-in-Chief, Franz Halder, stated, “... at the beginning of the war we reckoned with about 200 (Soviet) divisions. We have already counted 360!” The Germans re-estimated Soviet tank strength at 15,000, but it was probably closer to 25,000. Also, the thickness of the Soviet armor surprised the Germans.

Russia’s Sheer Vastness

Looking at the sheer size and unknown military strength of Russia, Field Marshal von Bock believed even before the invasion that the Wehrmacht might encounter serious difficulties. Compared to France, the distances in the USSR were five times as great.

There were 10 German aircraft for each kilometer of front in France compared to only one in Russia. In addition, the front was funnel shaped, initially being 1,300 miles wide rapidly increasing to 2,500 miles. The dispersion of troops hurt the momentum of the advance. “Furthermore, the need for the deep penetrating thrusts that characterized the Blitzkrieg operations added the problem of dispersion in depth to that of extension in width.”

By December 1941, according to Marshal Zhukov, the Germans in front of Moscow were exhausted and overextended. Drawing on fresh reserves from the interior, the Red Army had 4,196,000 soldiers ready to meet the exhausted and dispersed Germans.

In addition, the Germans were poorly supplied and equipped. It was extremely difficult for German logistics to supply the Wehrmacht at the front over poor and sparse Russian roads, and railways that were not of European gauge. The long supply lines of the Wehrmacht became susceptible to partisan attack.

Ammunition and winter clothing shortages continued to plague the German Army. Gen. Guderian stated that, “... the difficulties of supplying us by railroad are constantly increasing — that is the main cause of our shortages, since without fuel, the trucks can’t move. If it had not been for this we should by now be much closer to our objectives.”

The End of the Blitzkrieg

While many factors contributed to stopping the Germans before Moscow, they all centered on the underestimation of the Soviet situation. Hitler and his generals underestimated Soviet strength and resistance, the vastness of the country and the weather’s effect on mobility.

Field Marshal von Bock well understood what stopped the Blitzkrieg. He cited the muddy autumn season, the USSR’s vastness and its effect on supply, and underestimating, “...the strength of the enemy, his ability to recuperate after suffering losses that would have toppled almost any other nation, and his great reserves in manpower and material.”

Misled by grossly inaccurate intelligence on the Soviet military situation, Hitler and his generals did not know what they were actually facing. Thus, Germany’s underestimation of a variety of factors brought Operation Barbarossa to a halt. Nearly four years later as a result of Germany’s great miscalculation, the “Hammer and Sickle” was raised over the ruins of the German Reichstag marking the end to Hitler’s “1000 Year” Reich.

Next week: Minsk Falls

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