Why Germany Failed in the Battle of Barbarossa
Between June and December in 1941, German judgement inhibited achievement in Operational Barbarossa. Strategic indecision in a wider and more specific context was exacerbated by climatic conditions and a widening rift between the reality and the theory of the battle. The Blitzkrieg strategy that had defined German military capacity was inapplicable to the Russian situation in several contexts. Blitzkrieg was intended to avoid stagnant trench and linear warfare, it was intended to prevent enemy forces form arranging a coherent defence, and it depended upon a highly mobile and mechanised form of warfare.
None of these credentials existed in Operation Barbarossa, and the result was a battle of attrition. In commencing Operation Barbarossa, the German prerogative was; ‘Provided everything was over quickly’. Hitler had expected complete strategic freedom within five weeks, an outcome which did not require substantial supplies.
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However, the reality was that supplies were grossly mismatched with the capability and objectives of German infantry and tanks. The subsequent extension of supply lines increased exposure to Russian attack. The changing nature of the Operation had wider ramifications.
Blitzkrieg was not just a tactic, but it was the most fundamental structure of the wider German war plan. Consequently, the entire domestic structure of production was intricately arranged to facilitate a particular warfare. This rendered it incapable of supporting the prolonged warfare of Operation Barbarossa. In November 1941, the Quartermaster General of the German Army reported that; ‘We are at the end of our resources in both personnel and material. We are about to be confronted with the dangers of a deep winter. ’ Hitler was so confident of a rapid victory that he did not prepare for even the possibility of winter warfare.
In the first instance, the campaign was launched too late. Hitler should have invaded in April so that objectives could have been achieved before winter set in. However, Hitler’s decision to fight over Yugoslavia in Operation Retribution delayed Barbarossa by five weeks. German Command was unprepared for winter warfare. The many German weapons that malfunctioned in the climate debilitated German firepower. More significantly, forces were not equipped with adequate cold. Vital supplies such as fuel were consumed in managing the temperature.
Deep mud, followed by snow disrupted supply lines to exacerbate existing logistical problems. Russian equipment was comparatively adapted for these conditions. Soviet soldiers had warm, quilted uniforms, felt-lined boots and fur hats Climatic conditions only exacerbated the morale deficiency that already marred German forces. Depression was rife, and the presence of an intangible enemy starved German soldiers of contact and success. Soviet potential was severely underestimated by German Command. Communist structures were resistant and adaptable in the sense that they pervaded all aspects of Russian existence.
Despite significant losses of land to German forces in the West, the capability of Russia to produce armaments was retained as Communist political structures legitimised the relocation of all industry eastwards. Throughout the duration of the war, the Soviets retained the capacity to rapidly replace its losses and mobilise over 500,000 drafted men each month. The capacity of the Soviet to extract sacrifice from its population was foreign to Western nations. Russian soldiers were reportedly insensible to losses and unmoved by severe attack. A German officer observed that ‘The Russians seem to have a never-ending supply of men. Furthermore, there was little opportunity to interfere with supply columns or communications, because supplies were obtained from the villages through which they advanced. Russian partisans of these same communities would engage in Guerrilla Warfare with advancing German forces. The mismanagement of tactics and climate, and the underestimation of Russian forces was largely the result of Hitler’s detachment from the tactical and logistical realities of Barbarossa. Hitler’s original three-pronged attack was ludicrously ambitious and unrealistic.
Rather, he should have concentrated all forces and supplies on successive breakthroughs. Later, the redirection of the majority of German forces south towards the Caucasus necessitated the displacement of the majority of the 6th Army’s supplies. Despite this, Hitler did not alter the objectives of the Army. Though it was severely incapacitated, particularly in terms of firepower, he insisted that it continue to Stalingrad to isolate the oil fields. Hitler’s decisions were absolute and inflexible, but were undefined and imperceptive to the specifics of the Operation.
Paradoxically, these decisions did not ensure conformity, but depended entirely upon the unpredictable interpretations of those under Hitler. As a result, his intentions were often distorted with significant consequences. Moreover, Hitler’s decisions were actualised within an inefficient system. Hitler did not recognise the vitality of admistrative order and clear lines of authority, frequently interfering in the informed judgements of those in the Operation, including Von Paulus. Rather, Hitler dogmatically pursued his preconceived notions of the inherent weakness of communism and inferiority of the Russian culture.
His response to the mounting failures of Barbarossa was obtuse. He proclaimed; ‘What we need here is national socialist order’. Perhaps it was mentality that resulted in his gross underestimation of the capability of the Soviet Army. Ultimately, the failure of Operation Barbarossa was the result of palpably inappropriate German judgment. It remains the largest military operation in human history in terms of manpower and area traversed, but as a result of these judgments, also in casualties. Barbarossa provided Britain with an invaluable ally, with which Germany was forced to fight the dreaded two-front war.