Myths and Small Margins: Lessons of Command from Operation Barbarossa

When society thinks of key moments in human history, we are often reminded of how so much can be decided by the smallest of margins.

Jonathan Jackson
Teaching Fellow in Criminology

Small Margins 1200x450 - Tanks on a battlefield (black and white)

Battles can be won and lost, tyrants can form or fall and continents can be plunged into periods of great prosperity or chaotic violence. This recurring attitude of what if can give rise to myths of history, in which societies can suggest that things would have been different, if only for the smallest of margins. One of the greatest of these is that the victorious German Wehrmacht of 1940 would have been successful in the invasion of the Soviet Union, codenamed Operation Barbarossa, if only the German forces had been able to take Moscow, thus providing shelter from the appalling Russian winter.

With the fall of the Soviet Union in the last decade of the 20th century, greater access was granted to previous classified archives, giving historians the opportunity for further documentary analysis. What has become clear through this analysis is that, rather than small margins, the Wehrmacht was structurally and politically beaten in Russia before the first round was fired.  What lessons can thus be drawn for commanders carrying out operations in distant lands? Operation Barbarossa can cast light on the realities of invasion planning and the problems that strategists face.

The foe from the east had always been a key ideological enemy of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party since the mid 1920’s. With the invasion of Poland in 1939, Europe was once again plunged into war. The technical and strategic superiority of the German forces meant that they quickly defeated the Polish military and directed the Nazis’ genocidal practices against its civilian populations. Much of this military success was due to the German use of ‘blitzkrieg’, which combined airpower, infantry and armoured vehicles to punch holes in battle fronts, forcing sweeping encirclements and trapping forces into pockets of destruction. This tactic proved successful in Poland, France and the Low Countries between 1939 and 1940, seeing the swastika flying from Warsaw to Paris. 

In the enthusiasm of victory, Hitler decided to turn his attentions to the east, even though Britain had yet to be defeated, ensuring enemies on two fronts. With short memories, commanders forget how such a strategy had proven to be key factor in their defeat in the first war of 1914-1918. However, Hitler and his army general staff were convinced that the transitional period that the Red Army was experiencing would prove to be an ideal opportunity to kick in the doors of the Soviet infrastructure and ‘the rotten structure would collapse’.

It was true that the transitional period being experienced by Russian military was due to Stalin’s purges of the 1930’s, in which NKVD units identified potential enemies of the state and executed large numbers of experienced military officers. This would mean that many of the Russian units that German forces would face in 1941 were commanded by political strategists, rather than proven battle commanders. The first mistake with this perception of their enemy was that they could not imagine that the Red Army may recover from such a transition. This glaring oversight and failure to imagine a possibility of improvements would prove to be disastrous.

Recent documentary evidence has shown that German military commanders were very aware that, if they failed to destroy the Red Army within the first six weeks of the operation, the Wehrmacht would be unable to ever defeat the industrial might and production capabilities of the USSR. A famous communist quote of the 1930’s states “Quantity has a quality all of its own”. Many logistics officers noted in the planning stages of Barbarossa that the supply lines would be simply stretched too far for a sustained military campaign. The poor quality of roads and rail tracks would mean that many of the armoured spearhead units would quickly loose impetus once the five hundred mile mark had been reached.

The sweeping encirclements of blitzkrieg were hugely effective in the campaigns in France and Low Countries, but would struggle in the vast tracts of the USSR. Logistically and strategically the German Armed forces would never have been able to have achieved the success that they craved during the invasion of the USSR, because they lacked the physical means in which to ensure victory.

Much of these misgivings were ignored by the German High Command. By failing to listen to those advising the campaign, Germany pursued movements which were unsuitable for the terrain in which they were fighting.  In reality, it was true that the shock and awe of blitzkrieg tactics did achieve huge successes in June and July 1941, but as predicted, they quickly began to slow due to the issues of maintaining supply. A second and often common issue faced by invading forces is having the ability to sustain combat operations and hold the territory that has been conquered.

In a contemporary context, the Islamic State group were exposed to this fact after their conquest of territory in 2015. As in 1941, the group achieved sweeping victories in Northern Iraq and Syria, but as we have seen, as territorial expansion increased, so did the operational management of these areas. Fixed positions meant that targets could be more easily identified and destroyed by coalition air power, seeing the occupied area shrink and fade.

On the Eastern Front in later months of 1941, German supply conveys were being constantly harassed behind the lines by local partisan groups, often using brutal techniques on local villages and Axis forces. Many of these partisans were inspired as a consequence of the racist ideology of the Nazis themselves. Counter-Insurgency to the partisan problem was centred on the mass shooting of civilians, followed by the burning of villages. These approaches had the adverse effect and proved to be ideal recruiting tool for many militias. The vile and deplorable ideology was ingrained into all aspects of military doctrine and could not be removed from the rank and file or the officer corps. The very reason that troops were fighting in the east itself was to pursue the genocidal policies of Hitler’s regime.

To build relationships with civilian populations would never have been a possibility, meaning the Axis supplies would always be at risk during transit and thus delaying military operations further. Even if the German forces had been able to successfully take Moscow, as did Napoleon in 1812, the vast swathes of territory would still have to be been managed and maintained, a task not fitting of the German military by December 1941.

Policing a state is often seen as something which is outside the military role. However commanders must realise that the support of local populations is vital in ensuring control of territory. To simply dismiss cultures as barbaric or incapable of governing themselves creates tensions and hostilities.  It is true that in the case of the Nazi war in the east, defined by Hitler as focused on annihilation, friendly relations was not on the agenda. However conflicts which have liberation as the core objective must not allow themselves to forget that prejudices have consequences.

The points above argue a distinctive course of historical events which are often at odds with the memoirs of the German generals in the 1950’s. Rather than the Wehrmacht being cheated out of victory by small margins, the armed forces of the Reich were politically, strategically and operationally incapable of sustaining the campaign in the USSR and many generals new it. Operation Barbarossa also shows that good tactics may win battles, but they don’t not necessarily win wars.

The ability to maintain an army thousands of miles from your state requires huge logistical support and a willingness of the state to continue even when success becomes much more unclear. Hitler and his inner circle would often refer to a sense of destiny and the victory would be ensured because it was divine right to rule over those defined as sub-human.  Such racist perceptions and misjudgements by commanders of their enemies’ capabilities often lead to disaster. The importance of constantly working on a premise of planning for the worse will ensure that command stays current and adaptive to specific situations.