German Plans and Attack of USSR- 1941


Exactly when Hitler decided that he would have to fight the Soviet Union is a moot question. The idea of an inevitable clash between nazism and Soviet communism was one of the least ambiguous tenets of his political philosophy. If, during the period of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, he did not talk about it, he also did not renounce it. On the other hand, it cannot be assumed that, in turning against the Soviet Union when he did, Hitler was merely executing part of a preconceived program. As in nearly all of his decisions, there was a progression involving the original idea, a specific strategic concept, events and circumstances that seemed to him to confirm the validity of the first two steps, and, finally, a period in which he developed an unshakable determination to see the enterprise through.

The idea of inevitable conflict with the Soviet Union Hitler had expressed in Mein Kampf. In July 1940, the apparent stalemate in the war with Britain brought the Soviet Union to the forefront of his strategic thinking as an inviting target in itself, as the last obstacle to German hegemony on the Continent, and as the lever with which to bring Britain to terms. At the same time, by acting as an equal-even an independent-partner, the Soviet government appeared to confirm the line of thought which he had begun to follow. In June 1940, during the week before the Franco-German armistice, Soviet troops occupied Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. The secret protocol to the 1939 pact placed the three Baltic states in the Soviet sphere of influence, but the Russians’ timing was a disquieting sign that they intended to take their share of every German victory. At the end of June, the Russians forced Rumania to cede Bessarabia and northern Bucovina to them, a step that brought them closer to the Rumanian oilfields, on which the Wehrmacht was heavily dependent. Then, in July, the Soviet government renewed its pressure on Finland. By treaty Finland was in the Soviet sphere of influence, but in occupying Norway Germany had secured an access route to the Finnish nickel-mining region near Petsamo (now Pechenga) on the Arctic coast, and in July 1940 the German firm I. G. Farbenindustrie signed a contract for the entire output of the Finnish mines.

As early as June of that year, the German Army General Staff was speaking of the USSR as the possible next scene of operations. On July 21, toward the end of a conference regarding the projected invasion of the British Isles, Hitler instructed the commander in chief of the army, Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, to begin planning a campaign against the Soviet Union. Ten days later, on July 31, in another conference concerned mostly with the war against Britain, Hitler declared that a reckoning with the Soviet Union was necessary. He said that he had wanted to proceed with it that fall, but because of the severe Russian winters had decided to wait until May 1941. The operation would have to be swift and final, and he was allowing five months for its completion. Any longer period would involve the army in winter warfare and might give the British and Americans time to intervene. In these two almost casual statements, Hitler, if he had not made an irrevocable decision (and perhaps he had not), at least set a course from which he never later saw any reason to deviate.

On August 1, Col. Gen. Franz Halder, chief of the Army General Staff, described to Gen. Erich Marcks a campaign against the Soviet Union employing two army groups, one striking toward Moscow (Moskva) and the other toward Kiev. He assigned to Marcks the task of developing the details. By August 5, Marcks had completed a plan that called for a main effort directed toward Moscow, a secondary effort in the south in the direction of Kiev, and a subsidiary thrust toward Leningrad. There was still much planning to be done, but the Marcks program did establish the army’s concept of Moscow as the outstanding strategic objective.

A visit by Foreign Commissar Vyacheslav M. Molotov to Berlin on Nov. 12-13, 1940, produced the first overt signs of a rift between Germany and the USSR. The purpose of the visit was to discuss the Soviet Union’s joining Germany, Italy, and Japan in a four-power alliance. Molotov came armed with demands and complaints. He wanted to know whether Germany intended to honor her treaty obligations with respect to Finland. Lately, in his opinion, the Germans had shown too great an interest in that nation, and the Soviet Union intended to intervene there as it had in the Baltic states. The Soviet government also wanted bases in Bulgaria and control of the Dardanelles. Hitler, on the other hand, talked glowingly of Soviet expansion to the east, into India for instance, and he issued a thinly veiled warning that he would not tolerate further Soviet encroachments in Europe. Concerning Finland, he stated that any new disturbance in the Baltic area would place a heavy strain on German-Soviet relations. The meeting had a definite, if subtle, effect on both partners. The Russians continued to maneuver diplomatically but carefully avoided overt acts. Hitler was thoroughly annoyed at the Russians’ display of grasping independence, and he believed that they would not have dared to assert themselves as they had without a secret agreement with the British.

Preparation of Operation Barbarossa

On Dec. 18, 1940, Hitler signed Fuhrer Directive No. 21, subtitled “Operation Barbarossa.” The directive, which was based on the work of several planning groups, was the strategic outline for a campaign against the Soviet Union. It laid down a plan for a two-phase operation. In the first phase the German Army was to engage the Soviet main force as close to the western border of the Soviet Union as possible, cut it up by encircling movements, and destroy it and so prevent the Russians from fighting a delaying action across the vast spaces of their country. The second phase would take the form of a rapid pursuit to a line running north and south from the Volga River to Arkhangelsk (Archangel). The destruction of the Urals industrial area farther east could be left to the Luftwaffe.

The directive divided the German forces into three army groups, two north of the Pripet (Pripyat) Marshes and one to the south. The northernmost army group would strike toward Leningrad, the one in the center toward Smolensk, and that in the south toward Kiev. The central army group would be the strongest, but after the attack began, it might be required to divert some of its strength to help its neighbor on the north toward Leningrad. Hitler had included this idea over the almost unanimous opposition of his generals, but in a sense he was taking the more orthodox view. Leningrad, Smolensk, and Kiev were situated at nearly equal distances from the frontier; therefore, in the light of the over-all strategy, they should have been taken before the army drove deeply into the interior. The generals, on the other hand, had the better argument. In their opinion the main force had to be directed without any diversions toward the primary objective, Moscow, for it was there that the decisive battle would be fought after the Russians had been forced to concentrate all of the forces they could assemble to defend the capital and hub of the country’s communications systems.

In the directive, Hitler also stated that Rumania and Finland were to be considered prospective allies in the war against the Soviet Union. Arrangements would be made with both countries in due course. Hitler instructed the German Army of Norway to be prepared to occupy the Petsamo region and to conduct an offensive from Finland to cut the Murmansk (Kirov) Railroad.

Toward the end of January 1941, the Army General Staff completed an operations order that assigned specific missions to the various army groups. Army Group North, commanded by Field Marshal Wilhelm von Leeb, was to attack from East Prussia toward Leningrad. It would place its greatest strength on its right flank and turn to the left, driving the Russian defenders back against the Baltic coast. Army Group Center, under Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, operating north of the Pripet Marshes, would employ strong tank f .ces to complete two giant encirclements, one closing near Minsk and the other east of Smolensk. The final decision as to whether this group would continue directly toward Moscow or halt at Smolensk and divert forces to Army Group North could be avoided, since it was contrary to German staff practice to carry definitive planning past the first phase of an operation. Army Group South, commanded by Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, was to attack from southern Poland and Rumania, its flank armies converging on -Kiev to trap the Soviet armies in the western Ukraine in a great pocket west of the Dnieper (Dnepr) River. (In March, Hitler became convinced that the southern flank army would not be able to fight its way across the Dniester or Dnestr River; consequently, he assigned to the army on the north the mission of striking toward Kiev and then sweeping southward inside the great bend of the Dnieper.) At a conference on February 3, General Halder summarized the plan for Hitler and informed him that the first echelon of troops was moving into assembly areas behind the frontier. At the close of the conference, Hitler approved the operations order and declared, “The world will hold its breath when Operation Barbarossa begins.”

The first starting date set for Operation Barbarossa was May 15. The plans had provided time for a preliminary campaign in Greece, but when Yugoslavia was added to the Balkan campaign after the anti-Axis coup of March 26-27, the timetable had to be revised. Barbarossa was postponed to June 22.

Within the small circle of high-ranking officers and government officials who knew about Barbarossa, opinions varied. Although some of the generals occasionally expressed random doubts, once the planning was well under way, most of them came to share the view of General Haider that the campaign would be completed in 8 to 10 weeks. A notable exception was the military attache in Moscow, who believed that Soviet industrial capacity, particularly that east of the Urals, was being greatly underestimated. Members of the German Foreign Office contended that so much could be obtained from the Soviet Union by political means that a military conquest was superfluous. The German ambassador to the Soviet Union told Hitler that Joseph Stalin “would give the shirt off his back” to avoid a war with Germany. Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, because he regarded the Nazi-Soviet Pact as the crowning achievement of his career, and Reich Marshal Hermann Goering because he thought that the Luftwaffe would be overstrained, both tried to dissuade Hitler from the venture.

While Hitler honed and polished his military plans, the first objective of Soviet policy was to avoid provocation. From the beginning the Nazi Soviet Pact had hardly been an instrument of mutual faith and confidence, but the Soviet government became even more conciliatory as it came to realize that it was alone with Hitler on the Continent. After badgering Finland through the winter of 1940-1941, the Russians moderated their tone in the spring. They did not renounce their aspirations in the Balkans, but on the eve of the German sweep into that area they refrained from giving the Yugoslav government the mutual assistance pact which it desired and on April 5, 1941, signed instead an innocuous treaty of friendship and nonaggression. In the light of subsequent events the most significant Soviet step was the conclusion on April 13 of a treaty of neutrality with Japan.

In the last week before the attack, Stalin remained desperately committed to the hope that he could avoid war by not giving Hitler an excuse for an attack. He ignored warnings from Britain and the United States, and shipments of strategic materials from the Soviet Union to Germany continued until the hour when the German armies crossed the border. The worst effect of Stalin’s attitude was that it left the Soviet Army and people psychologically unprepared for war. The German attack came as a devastating surprise. In the closely controlled Soviet society few outside the highest governmental circles had even suspected that a conflict was brewing.

Opposing Forces

The German Army High Command (Oberkommando des Heeres or OKH) assigned 148 divisions, including 19 panzer divisions, to the invasion of the USSR. Total personnel strength was 3,050,000 men. Initially the armies had 3,350 tanks, 7,184, artillery pieces, 600,000 motor vehicles, and 625,000 horses, and the Luftwaffe provided 2,500 aircraft of all types. The Finnish Army added 500,000 men, and Rumania furnished 14 divisions or about 250,000 men. After the invasion started, Hungary, Italy, and the puppet state of Slovakia also furnished contingents of troops. An additional 5 German divisions under the direct control of the High Command of the Armed Forces (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht or OKW) were earmarked for the attack out of northern Finland to cut the Murmansk Railroad. The most significant assets of the German Army on the eve of the Soviet campaign were its skill and experience in conducting mobile warfare. The highly successful panzer corps of the French campaign had been succeeded by an even larger mobile unit, the panzer .group. Four of these were to spearhead the advance into the USSR. The panzer groups were in fact powerful armored armies, but until late 1941 lingering conservatism among some senior generals prevented their being given the status of full-fledged armies.

Figures on the strength of the Soviet armed forces during World War II and earlier periods remain military secrets. German estimates, which were approximately correct, placed the total initial strength of the Soviet Army at 203 divisions and 46 motorized or armored brigades. Of these, 33 divisions and 5 brigades were in the Far East, while the rest were either on the western frontier or at stations in European Russia. By this reckoning total Soviet personnel strength on hand in Europe to meet the invasion was about 2,300,000 men. The number of Soviet military aircraft was at least twice and possibly as much as three times that of the Germans, but most of the planes were obsolete models. Newer designs were just going into production. The Russians may have had as many as 10,000 tanks, most of them mechanically not inferior to the German types and one, the T-34 Stalin tank, heavier and more powerful than any tank the Germans had until late 1943. The T-34, however, was not as yet in full production.

The Winter War of 1939-1940 against Finland had revealed many deficiencies in the Soviet Army. The most serious of these were also ones which could not be corrected easily or quickly. Much of the time, Soviet leadership had been very bad. Incompetence in the lower and middle officer grades had been matched by rigidity and lack of imagination at higher levels. Although the troops had displayed some good qualities, including stubborness and indifference to hardship, they had proved unskilled and lacking in initiative. The war with Finland had severely damaged Soviet military prestige abroad, but the poor showing made in the conflict did not provide an absolute index of Soviet military potential. In a nearly all-out war, Soviet troops had successfully withstood a Japanese attempt to thrust into Outer Mongolia between May and September 1939.

In June 1941, the defense of the western border was assigned to the Leningrad, Special Western, Special Kievan, and Odessa military districts. If war broke out, these were to become front headquarters and hold the attackers until the forces in the interior could be mobilized. ( The Russian term “front” is translated as “army group,” but in terms of strength and of the size of sector that it usually occupied, the Soviet front in World War II was more nearly equivalent to a German or American army.) The recently acquired western territories provided a buffer but also forced the army to meet an attack in front of the Stalin Line, the fortified line built in the 1930’s behind the pre-1939 border.

German Campaign: June 22-Dec. 5, 1941

Shortly before midnight on June 21, telegraphic orders were dispatched from the Soviet People’s Commissariat for Defense, instructing the frontier military districts to place themselves on a war footing. By then it was too late. Many units never received the orders, and among those that did, few were capable of responding effectively in the two or three hours remaining to them.

Before dawn on June 22, the German armies had crossed the border. Army Group North, striking northward from East Prussia, encountered only 7 divisions on the border, and its advance through the Baltic states was swift. By the end of the month, having destroyed an estimated 12 to 15 Soviet divisions, the army group drew up to the Dvina (Western Dvina) River. On July 10, it reached Pskov and Opochka on old Soviet territory. On that day the Finnish Army opened its attack southward into the Karelian Isthmus. Meanwhile, Army Group Center, advancing north of the Pripet Marshes, had completed one large encirclement around Bialystok in the first week and another around Minsk in the second. The two pockets, which had been cleaned out by July 11, yielded 290,000 prisoners of war. Army Group South, meeting greater resistance than had been expected and slowed by heavy rains, was nevertheless making progress
toward Kiev.

The German intention was to destroy the Soviet Army west of the Dvina and Dnieper rivers. On July 3, General Halder believed that this was being accomplished. He predicted that the German forces would meet only scattered resistance east of the rivers, and Hitler concluded that the Russians had lost the war.

When they had a chance to do so, the Russian troops fought well, but their commanders generally displayed little or no familiarity with the tactical principles of concentration and maneuver. They spread their tanks and infantry equally over the entire front, and they seldom attempted a mobile defense, partly because in those days. the officer suspected of having abandoned a position voluntarily was a prime candidate for the firing squad.

The Soviet government faced the staggering task of mobilizing and organizing its armed forces to meet an invader already across the border and advancing into the interior at an average rate of nearly 20 miles a day. The first step was to convert the border military districts to fronts. On June 30, the State Defense Committee was created with Stalin as its chairman. It assumed all political, economic, and military power in the country. Then, on July 10, three strategic high commands, designated as the Northwest, West, and Southwest forces, were formed. From the first these forces were no match for the comparable German echelon, the army group headquarters, for their staffs lacked the capacity to direct very large forces and the lesser commands performed so erratically that coordinated operations were hardly worth attempting. The fronts proved to be the largest units which the Soviet commanders and staffs were able to handle effectively, and they were gradually reduced in size as new ones were added.

In a radio address on July 3, Stalin announced that the Soviet government would welcome aid from the West. He also proclaimed a “scorched earth” policy, which would leave the invaders “not a kilogram of grain nor a liter of gasoline.” Most important, he called on the people to fight for Russia and so placed himself and the far from popular Communist system at the head of a great national movement. In the long run, Russian nationalism decided the war. It was not automatically ranged on the side of the Soviet government, but Hitler, bent on conquest, rejected it and Stalin cultivated it.

Through July and the first week in August, the German armies continued their advance. Army Group North was slowed by the swampy, heavily forested country between Lakes Peipus and Ilmen, but it planned to launch its final drive to Leningrad on August 10. By August 5, Army Group Center had taken 100;000 Russian prisoners in a pocket around Smolensk. Three days later, it captured another 38,000 prisoners near Roslavl, where it had trapped a force moving to relieve Smolensk. The army group then took its two panzer groups, which had traveled more than 350 miles, out of the front for refitting, which was expected to require about two weeks. Army Group South, on August 5, eliminated a pocket around Uman, in which it had trapped between 16 and 20 Soviet divisions, and then swept into the Dnieper bend, destroying all the Soviet units that could not escape across the river.

By mid-August, the first phase of the offensive was nearly ended: Before the Army Group Center panzer groups were ready to move again, the German High Command would have to decide whether Moscow was to be the main objective. The generals had no doubts; they were convinced that the Soviet Army could be forced to fight the decisive battle of the war before Moscow. Hitler appeared not to have made up his mind, but he insisted that to him Moscow was not a military objective: it was only, as he put it, a geographical expression. At the end of July, he regarded Leningrad as the most important objective and wanted to divert a panzer group from Army Group Center to hasten the advance northward, but the generals persuaded him to transfer only a corps. After considering the problem and arguing with the generals several weeks longer, Hitler announced his final decision on August 21. He intended to give priority to the flanks, in the south taking the Crimea and the Donets Basin industrial region and cutting the Russians off from the Caucasus oil, and in the north taking Leningrad and joining forces with the Finns. Only after Leningrad had been secured and Army Group South was well on its way would the advance toward Moscow resume. In the meantime, Army Group Center would divert strong forces to assist Army Group South.

On August 25, the Second Army and the 2d Panzer Group turned southward from the Army Group Center flank. Three weeks later, on September 16, the spearheads of the 2d Panzer Group and the 1st Panzer Group, which had moved northward from the Dnieper bend, met 150 miles east of Kiev. Rain and mud slowed the German attack, but with misguided determination elements of seven Soviet armies remained in the closing pocket. Army Group South took 665,000 prisoners.

On the northern flank, in the second half of August, the Finnish Army and Army Group North closed in rapidly on Leningrad. On August 31, the Finns reached their pre-1940 border on the Karelian Isthmus 30 miles north of Leningrad, and on the same day an Army Group North division arrived at the Neva River 10 miles southeast of the city. Four days later, the Finnish Army opened an offensive east of Lake Ladoga toward the Svir River, where it expected to make contact with German forces coming from the southwest. On September 8, Army Group North took Shlisselburg (Schliisselburg, now Petrokrepost) on Lake Ladoga and severed Leningrad’s land connections with the interior of the Soviet Union. The city probably could have been taken in a few weeks despite exceptionally stiff Soviet resistance had it not been for several unusual circumstances. In the first place, Hitler decided that Leningrad was to be surrounded and not entered, and the army group therefore had to try to maneuver into the narrow isthmus to the east. Secondly, the Finnish commander in chief, Field Marshal (later Marshal of Finland) Baron Carl G. E. Mannerheim, refused to cross the border and close in from the north. Apparently he did not want to do what he conceived to be the Germans’ work for them, and he also did not want to lend substance to the old Soviet argument that the Finnish border on the Karelian Isthmus was a threat to Leningrad. Finally, in the second week of September, Hitler removed Army Group North’s armor. He left the army group one motorized corps, and demanded that it be withheld for a thrust toward the east to meet the Finns on the Svir when the time was ripe.

Hitler had decided on September 6 to concentrate German strength on Moscow after all. Army Group Center was to be reinforced at the expense of its two neighbors, and Army Groups North and South were to complete their missions with the forces remaining to them. On October 2, after a fateful six weeks’ pause, Army Group Center returned to action. Rested and refitted, it was in first-class condition. Within two weeks it had completed three large encirclements, two near Bryansk and the other west of Vyazma. Together these operations brought in 663,000 Russian prisoners. The chief of the operations branch of OKW, Col. Gen. Alfred Jodl, stated that the complete military collapse of the Soviet Union in the near future appeared “not unlikely.” Hitler stopped the advance of the Army of Norway to the Murmansk Railroad, which had been going slowly, as no longer necessary. Then, before Army Group Center finished clearing the three pockets, the fall rains set in, and for a month the advance toward Moscow slowed to a crawl as the Russian dirt roads dissolved into ribbons of mud.

In the south, Army Group South made good progress, carrying its advance on the north to Kharkov and the line of the upper Donets River, and striking along the coast of the Sea of Azov for Rostov-on-Don. On October 27, the Eleventh Army forced its way into the Crimea across Perekop Isthmus. By mid-November, it possessed all of the peninsula except Sevastopol. Then, on November 20, troops of Army Group South took Rostov. During the next week, however, briefly but ominously the tide turned. The Russians opened their first successful offensive, and by the end of the month had forced the Germans from Rostov and back to the Mius River.

Army Group North, on October 16, attacked across the Volkhov River toward Tikhvin and the Svir River, which the Finnish Army had reached at the end of September. After the first two or three days the fall rains overtook the operation, and before the end of the first week the troops were leaving their tanks and trucks behind, bogged down on muddy roads. On November 8, German troops broke into Tikhvin, but there they stayed until mid-December, when Russian units closing in on all sides forced them back to the Volkhov.

In the Army Group Center sector freezing weather set in during the second week of November, and while the troops chopped their tanks, guns, and vehicles out of the frozen mud, the German High Command had to decide whether to make the final thrust to Moscow immediately or wait until the next spring. No one wanted to fight in the Russian winter. Field Marshal von Bock, the army group commander, thought that he could still finish in time, and his decision apparently tipped the balance. On November 15, in cold, clear weather, the army group pushed forward and immediately began developing a sweeping double envelopment, which it intended to close east of Moscow. Two panzer groups struck north of the city, while a third approached it from the south.

The good weather lasted a few days, but before the month ended the temperature fell below zero, and snowstorms and fog reduced visibility to a few feet. In the first days of December, the northern force came within 21 miles of Moscow, while the southern spearhead stood 40 miles south of the city.

On December 5, Col. Gen. Hans Reinhardt, who was in command of the force north of Moscow, reported that his troops were exhausted: he could hold his sector only if the Russians did not attack, for he had no reserves. On the same day, Col. Gen. Heinz Guderian, commanding the spearhead armor on the south, recommended that the offensive be halted. His forward units were meeting massive resistance from the Russians, and the cold had become too severe for the troops and the vehicles.

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