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Germans advance in USSR

Germans advance in USSR

One week after launching a massive invasion of the USSR, German divisions make staggering advances on Leningrad, Moscow and Kiev.

Despite his signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin knew that war with Nazi Germany–the USSR’s natural ideological enemy–was inevitable. In 1941, he received reports that German forces were massing along the USSR’s western border. He ordered a partial mobilization, unwisely believing that Nazi leader Adolf Hitler would never open another front until Britain was subdued. Stalin was thus surprised by the invasion that came on June 22, 1941. On that day, 150 German divisions poured across the Soviet Union’s 1,800-mile-long western frontier in one of the largest and most powerful military operations in history.

Aided by its far superior air force, the Luftwaffe, the Germans raced across the USSR in three great army groups, inflicting terrible casualties on the Red Army and Soviet civilians. On June 29, the cities of Riga and Ventspils in Latvia fell, 200 Soviet aircraft were shot down, and the encirclement of three Russian armies was nearly complete at Minsk in Belarus. Assisted by their Romanian and Finnish allies, the Germans conquered vast territory in the opening months of the invasion, and by mid-October the great Russian cities of Leningrad and Moscow were under siege.

However, like Napoleon Bonaparte in 1812, Hitler failed to take into account the Russian people’s historic determination in resisting invaders. Although millions of Soviet soldiers and citizens perished in 1941, and to the rest of the world it seemed certain that the USSR would fall, the defiant Red Army and bitter Russian populace were steadily crushing Hitler’s hopes for a quick victory. Stalin had far greater reserves of Red Army divisions than German intelligence had anticipated, and the Soviet government did not collapse from lack of popular support as expected. Confronted with the harsh reality of Nazi occupation, Soviets chose Stalin’s regime as the lesser of two evils and willingly sacrificed themselves in what became known as the “Great Patriotic War.”

The German offensive against Moscow stalled only 20 miles from the Kremlin, Leningrad’s spirit of resistance remained strong, and the Soviet armament industry–transported by train to the safety of the east–carried on, safe from the fighting. Finally, what the Russians call “General Winter” rallied again to their cause, crippling the Germans’ ability to maneuver and thinning the ranks of the divisions ordered to hold their positions until the next summer offensive. The winter of 1941 came early and was the worst in decades, and German troops without winter coats were decimated by the major Soviet counteroffensives that began in December.

In May 1942, the Germans, who had held their line at great cost, launched their summer offensive. They captured the Caucasus and pushed to the city of Stalingrad, where one of the greatest battles of World War II began. In November 1942, a massive Soviet counteroffensive was launched out of the rubble of Stalingrad, and at the end of January 1943 German Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus surrendered his encircled army. It was the turning point in the war, and the Soviets subsequently recaptured all the territory taken by the Germans in their 1942 offensive.

In July 1943, the Germans launched their last major attack, at Kursk; after two months of fierce battle involving thousands of tanks it ended in failure. From thereon, the Red Army steadily pushed the Germans back in a series of Soviet offensives. In January 1944, Leningrad was relieved, and a giant offensive to sweep the USSR clean of its invaders began in May. In January 1945, the Red Army launched its final offensive, driving into Czechoslovakia and Austria and, in late April, Berlin. The German capital was captured on May 2, and five days later Germany surrendered in World War II.

More than 18 million Soviet soldiers and civilians lost their lives in the Great Patriotic War. Germany lost more than three million men as a result of its disastrous invasion of the USSR.

READ MORE: How Did the Nazis Really Lose World War II?


World War II Europe: The Eastern Front

Opening an eastern front in Europe by invading the Soviet Union in June 1941, Hitler expanded World War II and started a battle that would consume massive amounts of German manpower and resources. After achieving stunning success in the early months of the campaign, the attack stalled and the Soviets began to slowly push the Germans back. On May 2, 1945, the Soviets captured Berlin, helping to end World War II in Europe.


Hitler’s Insane Invasion of Russia Forever Changed World History

What would have happened if Hitler had not invaded Russia? The dynamics of the Third Reich and Hitler meant that Germany would not remain passive.

Here's What You Need to Remember: Smashing Russia would also be the apocalyptic climax for what Hitler saw as an inevitable showdown with the cradle of communism. Or, he could have turned towards the Mediterranean and the Middle East

One of the most momentous decisions in history was Adolf Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.

Operation Barbarossa transformed Nazi Germany's war from a one-front struggle, against a weakened Britain and a still-neutral United States, into a two-front conflict. The Eastern Front absorbed as much as three-quarters of the German army and inflicted two-thirds of German casualties.

So what would have happened if Hitler had not invaded Russia? The dynamics of the Third Reich and Hitler meant that Germany would not remain passive. In fact, it is hard to imagine Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union not at war, though the question is when this would have happened.

One possibility was invading Britain in 1941, and thus either ending the European war or freeing up the Third Reich to fight a later one-front war in the East. Thus Operation Sealion, the proposed 1940 amphibious assault on southern England, would merely have been postponed a year. The problem is that the Kreigsmarine—the German navy—would still have been badly outnumbered by the Royal Navy, even with the addition of the new battleship Bismarck. The British would have enjoyed an additional year to reinforce the Royal Air Force and to rebuild the divisions battered during the Fall of France. Britain would also have been receiving Lend-Lease from the United States, which by September 1941 was almost a belligerent power that escorted convoys in the North Atlantic. A few months later, America did formally enter the conflict despite the Japanese advance in the Pacific, the United States would certainly have concentrated its growing strength on keeping Britain unconquered and in the war.

A more likely possibility is that Hitler could have chosen to move south instead of east. With most of Western Europe under his control after the summer of 1940, and Eastern Europe either subdued or allied with Germany, Hitler had a choice by mid-1941. He could either follow his instincts and ideology and move against the Soviet Union, with its rich resources and open spaces for Nazi colonists. Smashing Russia would also be the apocalyptic climax for what Hitler saw as an inevitable showdown with the cradle of communism.

Or, he could have turned towards the Mediterranean and the Middle East, as his naval chief Admiral Erich Raeder preferred. In the real World War Two, Rommel's North African campaign was a sideshow to the main event in Russia. In the alternate scenario, North Africa becomes the main event.

One possibility would be to pressure Franco to drop Spanish neutrality and allow German troops to enter Spain and capture Gibraltar, thus sealing off the direct route from Britain to the Mediterranean (if Franco was stubborn, another possibility would be to invade Spain and then take Gibraltar anyway.) Another option would be to reinforce Rommel's Afrika Korps, drive across Libya and Egypt to capture the Suez Canal (which Rommel almost did in July 1942.) From there the Germans could advance on Middle Eastern oil fields, or should Germany attack Russia in 1942, move through the Caucuses in a pincer operation that would squeeze Russia from the west and south. Meanwhile, steel and other resources would have been switched from building tanks and other land armaments to building massive numbers of U-boats that would have strangled Britain's maritime lifeline.

Would this alternative German strategy have worked? A German Mediterranean option would have been very different than invading the Soviet Union. Instead of a huge Axis land army of 3 million men, the Mediterranean would have been a contest of ships and aircraft, supporting relatively small numbers of ground troops through the vast distances of the Middle East. With the Soviet Union remaining neutral (and continuing to ship resources to Germany under the Nazi-Soviet Pact,) Germany would have been able to concentrate the Luftwaffe in the Mediterranean. German aircraft mauled the Royal Navy in 1941–42, even while supporting the campaign in Russia. The full weight of the Luftwaffe would have been devastating.

On the other hand, the logistics of a Middle Eastern offensive would have been daunting, due to the great distances and lack of Italian shipping capacity to transport fuel. Germany had an efficient air force and navy, but it was primarily a continental power whose strength rested on its army. Assuming that America entered the war in December 1941, then it is possible that the focal point of the European theater in 1942 would have been German–Italian air and naval forces supporting a reinforced Afrika Korps, versus British and American land, air, and naval forces defending or counterattacking in the Near East.

Which in turn raises another question: what if Hitler didn't cancel Operation Barbarossa, but rather postponed it until the summer of 1942? Assuming the Axis were successful in the Middle East, the Soviets would have faced a German–Italian expeditionary force advancing north through the Caucasus (perhaps Turkey would have joined the rising Axis tide.) Another year would also have given Germany more time to loot and exploit the resources of conquered Western Europe.

On the other hand, the Red Army in June of 1941 was caught terribly off-balance, still reeling and reorganizing from Stalin's purges. The extra year would have given the Soviets time to finish regrouping the Red Army as well as absorbing formidable new equipment such as the T-34 tank and Katyusha rocket launcher. Delaying Barbarossa until 1942, assuming Britain hadn't surrendered, would have meant that Germany would begin its attack on Russia while still needing to bolster its western defenses against the inevitable Anglo-American counterattack.

Superior German tactical and operational skills, as well as greater combat experience, would have given the Wehrmacht the edge in the opening days of Barbarossa 1942. Yet the catastrophic losses the Red Army suffered in 1941 would probably have been lower, leading to the possibility that Barbarossa delayed would have been a gift to the Soviets.

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

This article first appeared in 2016 and is reprinted due to reader interest.


The colonies of Großliebental

Overall, more than 500 colonies were founded in present-day region of Odessa east of the Dnjepr River and approximately 40 in the area of Nikolajew and approximately 150 in Bessarabia. The colonists often named the villages after their home towns. Thus, the villages of Baden, Rastadt, Kassel, München, Straßburg and others originated in South Russia. As the growing colonies needed more land, daughter colonies&mdashwhich carried the name of the mother colony with the prefix 'new'&mdashemerged. Later the colonies had to be partially renamed. In 1819, under Alexander I, the German villages got names in memory of Napoleon's victory, such as Tarutino or Borodino.

The colonies of Großliebental were in close proximity to the city of Odessa. Großliebental (today Welikodolinskoje) was the center of the region densely populated by Germans it included the colonies of Lustdorf (Tschernomorka), Kleinliebental (Malodolinskoje), Alexanderhilf (Dobroalexandrowka), Franzfeld, Neuburg (Nowogradowka), Mariental (Marjanowka), Josefstal (Jossipowka) and Peterstal (Petrodolina). The colonies maintained close ties to the city of Odessa. As of 1907, a street car line connected the town with Lustdorf, the charming resort town by the Black Sea which attracted many people seeking rest and relaxation. [. ]


What If the Germans Had Captured Moscow in 1941?

O ne of the classic “what ifs” of the Second World War centers on how—or if—the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, code-named Operation Barbarossa, could have achieved a quick victory. Hitler certainly believed that it could. All one had to do, he insisted, was to “kick in the door” and the “whole rotten structure” of Stalin’s Communist regime would come tumbling down. In many respects, Barbarossa was a stunning success. The Germans took the Soviets completely by surprise, advanced hundreds of miles in just a few weeks, killed or captured several million Soviet troops, and seized an area containing 40 percent of the USSR’s population, as well as most of its coal, iron ore, aluminum, and armaments industry. But Barbarossa failed to take its capstone objective, Moscow. What went wrong?

Some historians have pointed to the German decision to advance along three axes: in the north toward Leningrad, in the south toward Ukraine, and in the center against Moscow. But the Wehrmacht had force enough to support three offensives, and its quick destruction of so many Soviet armies suggests that this was a reasonable decision. Others have pointed to Hitler’s decision in August to divert most of the armored units attached to Field Marshal Fedor von Bock’s Army Group Center, whose objective was Moscow, and send them south to support an effort to surround and capture the Soviet armies around Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. The elimination of the Kiev pocket on September 26 bagged 665,000 men, more than 3,000 artillery pieces, and almost 900 tanks. But it delayed the resumption of major operations against Moscow until early autumn. This, many historians argue, was a fatal blunder.

Yet, as historian David M. Glantz points out, such a scenario ignores what the Soviet armies around Kiev might have done had they not been trapped, and introduces too many variables to make for a good counterfactual. The best “minimal rewrite” of history must therefore focus on the final German bid to seize Moscow, an offensive known as Operation Typhoon.

Here is how Typhoon might have played out:

When the operation begins, Army Group Center enjoys a substantial advantage over the Soviet forces assigned to defend Moscow. It has at its disposal 1.9 million men, 48,000 artillery pieces, 1,400 aircraft, and 1,000 tanks. In contrast, the Soviets have only 1.25 million men (many with little or no combat experience), 7,600 artillery pieces, 600 aircraft, and almost 1,000 tanks. The seeming parity in the number of tanks is misleading, however, since the overwhelming majority of Soviet tanks are obsolescent models.

Initially, Army Group Center runs roughshod over its opponents. Within a few days, it achieves the spectacular encirclement of 685,000 Soviet troops near the towns of Bryansk and Vyazma, about 100 miles west of Moscow. The hapless Russians look to the skies for the onset of rain, for this is the season of the rasputitsa—literally the “time without roads”—when heavy rainfall turns the fields and unpaved roads into muddy quagmires. But this year the weather fails to rescue them, and by early November frost has so hardened the ground that German mobility is assured. With Herculean efforts from German supply units, Army Group Center continues to lunge directly for Moscow.

Thoroughly alarmed, the Stalin regime evacuates the government 420 miles east to Kuybyshev, north of the Caspian Sea. It also evacuates a million Moscow inhabitants, prepares to dynamite the Kremlin rather than have it fall into German hands, and makes plans to remove Lenin’s tomb to a safe place. Stalin alone remains in Moscow until mid-November, when the first German troops reach the city in force. And in obedience to Hitler’s order, Fedor von Bock uses Army Group Center to surround Moscow, instead of fighting for the city street by street. Nonetheless, the Soviet troops withdraw rather than fall prey to yet another disastrous encirclement, and on November 30—precisely two months after Operation Typhoon begins—it culminates in the capture of Moscow.

The above scenario is historically correct in many respects. The three major departures are the absence of the rasputitsa, which did indeed bog down the German offensive for two crucial weeks the headlong drive toward Moscow rather than the diversion of units to lesser objectives in the wake of the victory at Bryansk and Vyazma—a major error and, of course, the capture of Moscow itself.

But would the fall of Moscow have meant the defeat of the Soviet Union? Almost certainly not. In 1941 the Soviet Union endured the capture of numerous major cities, a huge percentage of crucial raw materials, and the loss of four million troops. Yet it still continued to fight. It had a vast and growing industrial base east of the Ural Mountains, well out of reach of German forces. And in Joseph Stalin it had one of the most ruthless leaders in world history—a man utterly unlikely to throw in the towel because of the loss of any city, no matter how prestigious.

A scenario involving Moscow’s fall also ignores the arrival of 18 divisions of troops from Siberia—fresh, well-trained, and equipped for winter fighting. They had been guarding against a possible Japanese invasion, but a Soviet spy reliably informed Stalin that Japan would turn southward, toward the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines, thereby freeing them to come to the Moscow front. Historically, the arrival of these troops took the Germans by surprise, and an unexpected Soviet counteroffensive in early December 1941 produced a major military crisis. Surprised and disturbed, Hitler’s field commanders urged a temporary retreat in order to consolidate the German defenses. But Hitler refused, instead ordering that German troops continue to hold their ground. Historically they managed to do so. However, with German forces extended as far as Moscow and pinned to the city’s defense, this probably would not have been possible. Ironically, for the Germans, the seeming triumph of Moscow’s capture might well have brought early disaster.


How Nazi Germany Could Have Crushed Russia During World War II

In our last installment, we discussed how Germany could have forced Britain to accept one of his peace offers and keep the United States out of the war. In this article, we shall examine how Germany might have not only avoided total defeat at the hands of the Red Army, but even might have achieved a measure of victory against her much larger and more powerful Soviet adversary, which was over forty times larger than Germany at its greatest extent.

Don’t invade Yugoslavia and Greece in April 1941.

In actual history, Yugoslavia agreed to join the Axis powers in late April 1941 but days later a coup brought new leadership to power more sympathetic to the Allies. While the new Yugoslav leaders promised the Germans to remain aligned with the Axis as previously agreed while remaining neutral in the war, Hitler viewed the coup as a personal insult and vowed to make Yugoslavia pay, diverting German Panzer divisions from Poland and Romania to invade Yugoslavia and Greece. This ended up delaying the planned German invasion of USSR by five and a half crucial weeks from May 15 to June 22, 1941. In retrospect, there was no military necessity for Hitler to invade Yugoslavia in April 1941. He could have merely sent a few German infantry divisions to reinforce Albania to prevent it from being overrun by Greek troops but he feared potential British reinforcements in Greece, which could threaten his southern European flank. Of course, had Britain and France not still been at war with Germany, it is unlikely that Italy would have invaded Greece in 1940–1941 and risked a British Declaration of War so in that case Operation Barbarossa could have kicked off on May 15, 1941 as originally planned, greatly increasing the chances of a German capture of Moscow in 1941. Combined with Hitler’s subsequent decision to divert his two central Panzer Armies to capture Soviet armies on their northern and southern flanks, this five and a half week delay to the start time of Operation Barbarossa proved fatal to German prospects for victory in the war. Even if Hitler hadn’t pursued a Moscow-first military strategy as his generals wisely advised, invading Russia five and a half weeks earlier might well have been sufficient to enable the Germans to capture Moscow by November 1941, albeit at considerable cost in men and material.

Don’t halt the advance on Moscow of the two Panzergruppen (tank armies) of Army Group Center for two crucial months.

While many historians view the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 as Hitler’s biggest blunder, evidence from Soviet archives uncovered following the Soviet collapse in 1991 suggests it was successful in preventing a Soviet invasion of Poland and Romania, which had been planned for July 1941. As it turned out, Hitler was correct in his assessment that his invasion of the Soviet Union was necessary as a preemptive attack against Soviets who were planning to attack Germany. In preparation for his planned invasion of Europe, Stalin had, between August 1939 and June 1941, overseen a massive military buildup of the Red Army increasing its total active-duty manpower from 1.5 million to 5.5 million. This expansion more than doubled their total numbers of divisions from 120 to 303 divisions including an increase in the number of Soviet tank divisions from from zero to sixty-one tank divisions as opposed to only twenty total Panzer divisions available in the German Army at the time of Operation Barbarossa. By June 1941, the Red Army boasted seven times more tanks and four times more combat aircraft than invading German forces. The first objective of this planned Soviet invasion of Europe was to occupy Romania to cut off Germany from its access to Romanian oil fields to immobilize the German armed forces and force their capitulation. Then after conquering Berlin and forcing a German surrender, the Red Army was to occupy all of continental Europe to the English Channel, which noted British author, Anthony Beevor, states that Stalin seriously considered doing at the end of the war as well. Viewed in this light, Operation Barbarossa was not a mistake at all but rather an operation which succeeded in destroying the over 20,000 Soviet tanks and thousands of combat aircraft concentrated at the border to invade German territory and postponed the Red Army subjugation of Germany and Europe by nearly four years. Soviet defector, Viktor Suvorov in his groundbreaking book Chief Culprit goes so far as to credit Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union as saving Western Europe from being conquered by the Red Army.

Rather, Hitler’s biggest mistake with regards to his war against the Soviet Union was his decision in early August 1941 to divert the two Panzer Armies of Army Group Center to help Army Group North and Army Group South to overrun and encircle Soviet armies on the flanks of its advance resulting in a two month delay in advancing on Moscow when the Soviet capitol was open for the taking. If Hitler had pursued a Moscow first strategy, he could have captured Moscow by the end of August or early September at the latest. He might even have pushed the Red Army back to the Archangel Volga Astrakhan line by October 1941 or by summer 1942 forcing Stalin to accept an armistice recognizing most of Germany’s hard won gains. In his excellent book Hitler’s Panzers East, R.H.S. Stolfi estimated that would have taken away up to 45 percent of the Soviet industrial base and up to 42 percent of her population making it extremely difficult for the Soviets to recover and take back lost territory. While the Soviets could have relocated many of their industries east of the Urals as in actual history, their industrial production would have been much more crippled than it was in actual history without U.S.-UK military industrial assistance. Had the Germans captured Moscow before winter 1941 and held it through the Soviet winter late-1941, early-1942 counteroffensive, Stalin might have requested an armistice on terms much more favorable to Germany than the ones he offered in actual history. Those terms might have included the transfer of much, if not all, of the oil-rich Caucasus region to Germany in exchange for the return of their all-important capitol city to Soviet control. With the Soviets so gravely weakened, Japan likely would have joined the fight to take their share of the spoils and occupy Eastern Siberia as Japanese Army generals had wanted to do all along. Thus, if Hitler had allowed his generals to capture Moscow first, the Germans likely have won the war.

Manufacture three million thick winter coats and other winter clothing for the German army before Invading the Soviet Union.

Due to Hitler’s rosy predictions for a swift Soviet collapse and an end to the war in the East by December 1941, Germany failed to produce winter clothing for his invading troops. According to some accounts, as many as 90 percent of all German casualties from November 1941 to March 1942, totaling several hundred thousands, were due to frostbite. Only in late December 1941 did the Nazi leadership admit their mistake and urgently collect as much winter gear from German civilians to send to German troops as possible.

Allow national independence and self-rule for all of the Soviet territories liberated by German forces.

Perhaps the biggest key to winning their war against the Soviet Union (other than not fighting the United States and the UK, of course) was for the Germans to not only be seen as liberators from Soviet Communist control, as they initially were when they invaded the Soviet Union, but to actually be liberators from Soviet Communist oppression. The Germans should have used nationalism to rally the people of Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic States to fight not for the Germans or against Stalin but rather to liberate their own countries from Soviet captivity. They should have allowed self-rule for all of these liberated nations just as Imperial Germany had granted them after defeating the Russian Empire in March 1918 as part of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. In actual history, the Germans captured 5.6 million Soviet troops and captured Red Army Lieutenant General Vlasov offered to lead a Russian Liberation Army to help fight the Soviets while other leaders offered to lead Ukrainian and Cossack Liberation Armies but Hitler would not allow them to be used in combat on the Eastern Front, believing them to be unreliable. If the Germans had treated the citizens of liberated Soviet territories and Soviet Prisoners of War (POW’s) fairly, millions of additional captured Soviet soldiers might have volunteered to fight on the German side. As it turned out, Stalin ended up using the nationalism of Ukraine and other Soviet republics to defeat the Germans instead of the other way around which represented a major missed opportunity for Germany that helped ensure they lost the war.


Devil’s Bargain: Germany and Russia Before WWII

In 1920 any well-informed observer would have found it highly improbable, if not impossible, that Germany and Russia would pose a military threat to the world for decades to come. Both countries were in desperate shape after World War I. Germany had suffered a catastrophic defeat, and its new democratic government had to con- tend with an economic crisis, a communist revolution, and the loss of 10 percent of its territory. Things were even worse in Russia. Millions of Russians had died in the war. The civil war between the Reds and the Whites—and intervention by the Western powers—had further devastated the country.

Yet just over a decade later, Germany and Russia were fielding cutting-edge air and mechanized forces. More remarkably, by the outbreak of World War II, the defeated powers of the First World War had surpassed the victors in their ability to wage modern, mechanized warfare. This transformation lay in a feat of military secrecy on a grand scale: a period of cooperation in which the Soviet Union helped Germany circumvent international law by allowing it to rebuild its armed forces in Russia, and in which Germany gave Russia an evolutionary boost in technology and training. The end result had two past and future adversaries effectively sharpening each other’s sabers—sabers that they would shortly draw against one another.

Desperate conditions can lead to imaginative thinking. In the aftermath of World War I, the armed forces of both Germany and Russia were in desperate straits indeed. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles restricted Germany to a 100,000-man army, with no aircraft or tanks. Its navy was reduced to a squadron of small ships, and strict restrictions were placed on German industry to prevent the manufacture and stockpiling of modern weapons. To see to it that Germany complied with these restrictions, more than 1,000 officers and officials of the Inter-Allied Military Control Commission (IAMCC) set up headquarters in Berlin in the summer of 1919. The IAMCC teams fanned out through the country to shut down arms factories and seek out hidden weapons caches. The intent was to leave Germany permanently at the mercy of the Allied powers. To enforce their will, the Allies would occupy a large portion of western Germany for more than a decade after World War I.

The Russian regime under Vladimir Lenin was an isolated pariah state, surrounded by hostile neighbors and cut off from trade with the major powers. Although the Red Army had prevailed against the White Russians, Poles, and the Western powers that had intervened in the civil war (Britain, France, and the United States), it was in bad shape in 1920. The army had little modern weaponry, with obsolete artillery and only a handful of airplanes of 1917 and 1918 vintages. Russia produced few motor vehicles, and the Red Army had only a paltry assortment of 1918-model Renault light tanks captured from White Russian forces during the civil war. Its officers had performed well as small-unit commanders, but the newly created army lacked officers with higher command and staff experience.

The two nations were still major powers, however. Germany had the world’s second largest industrial economy after the United States and remained on the cutting edge of technology development. And even a weakened Russia still had a large population and vast unexploited natural resources. Both countries saw the Western Allies as their primary threats, and both believed that the only means of national survival was in building superior military forces.

The earliest stages of the German-Russian postwar relationship remain murky. Immediately after the First World War, the German government had little thought for long-term foreign policy as it contended with one internal crisis after another. But a few individuals were able to look beyond the short term. One of them was the visionary Col. Gen. Hans von Seeckt, newly appointed commander of the German army. Seeckt was interested in developing military cooperation with the new Soviet regime and saw Russia as a place where Germany could secretly produce weapons far from the prying eyes of the Allied disarmament inspectors. In early 1920 Seeckt began sending out feelers to the Russian regime through Turkish contacts he had made during the war. These initial forays were conducted privately, without the knowledge or consent of the German government.

Seeckt was not alone in seeing Russia as a place where Germany might pursue military production. Officials in the German Foreign Office also considered developing economic and military contacts with the Soviet Union, and by 1920 members of the Foreign Office began secret discussions with the Soviet War Ministry about selling German weapons and technology to the Soviet regime.

It might seem strange for Germany to establish relations with a communist revolutionary state just after brutally suppressing a Soviet-supported rebellion by German communists—which it did in 1919—but both sides saw a certain logic to it. Germany had the expertise and modern technology that Russia urgently needed Lenin saw these diplomatic and military efforts as a means of breaking the Western Allies’ economic and military stranglehold on Russia. And Russia, for its part, could offer the Germans plenty of space to build secret factories to produce the modern weapons the Western Allies had denied them, without fear of discovery by the IAMCC.

With both nations desperately needing to reestablish themselves as military powers, their governments entered into secret negotiations. General von Seeckt carefully laid the groundwork for the alliance, creating in late 1920 an office under his direct control within the Reichswehr staff: “Special Group R,” the R for Russland—Russia. Seeckt later dispatched Col. Hermann von der Lieth-Thomsen, a highly regarded general staff officer who had been chief of the air service in the First World War, to serve as the German army’s secret representative in Moscow.

In April 1922 Germany and the Soviet Union signed a treaty of trade and friendship at Rapallo, Italy. The published version of the treaty established friendly relations between the two nations that included trade and investment. But the treaty also had a secret annex, signed two months later, that established close military cooperation between the two powers. Under the treaty’s secret provisions, Germany would establish joint ventures with the Soviet government to build weapons factories in Russia. These included aircraft manufacturing plants, ammunition factories, and a poison gas plant. Russia would also set up tank and gas warfare schools, and provide the Germans with bases where they could train airmen. German officers of the elite general staff were assigned to teach in the Soviet army and air force staff academies. Soviet officers were allowed to take the German army’s general staff course—probably the finest advanced officer course in the world.

The Rapallo agreement was a diplomatic and military masterstroke: the public part of the agreement alone took the Allied powers by complete surprise. The secret part of the agreement—the allying of the Weimar Republic’s new army, the Reichswehr, with the Soviet Union—was something they could not even have imagined.

To keep it that way, every effort was made to deceive the Allies as the extensive military activities got underway. German airplanes were flown across borders into Russia at night, and shipments of military goods were sent by roundabout routes and boxed as “farm machinery.” The military training bases were set up in remote areas, and German military personnel assigned to training in Russia were officially discharged from the army and sent under assumed names. Upon completing their training they were reinstated in the army as if they had never left.

Some accounts of the secret German military testing in Russia finally did leak out in the late 1920s. By that time, none of the Allied powers wanted to confront Germany over what appeared to be minor breaches of the Versailles Treaty. As long as Germany was ostensibly disarmed, the Western powers did not want to provoke a crisis.

The earliest efforts to rearm were inauspicious ones, however. From 1921 to 1923, a series of industrial cooperative programs involving weapons production—among them an ammunition factory and a small poison gas factory—were set up on Soviet soil. These proved to be the least successful of the joint ventures. The Russians hoped for much, but in the early 1920s the new Soviet state was too poor to order weapons, ammunition, or aircraft in sufficient quantities to cover the cost of the German investment. After a short period of joint production, the German armaments firms closed their factories.

One industrial enterprise did have a lasting impact. The German army sponsored a deal with Junkers Aircraft Company to build a secret factory in Russia in the village of Fili, just outside Moscow, in 1922. At the time, Junkers had the most advanced all-metal aircraft designs in the world. Dozens of Germany’s top aircraft designers and technicians traveled secretly to Russia to help the Russians set up aircraft and engine factories to build the latest Junkers designs.

To work on the Junkers project, the Soviets assembled an aircraft design team under the brilliant young engineer Andrei Tupolev. The Germans liked Tupolev and his team, and admired their desire to learn. But the factory languished because the Soviet regime was unable to buy more than a handful of aircraft. After manufacturing only 150 airplanes in two years, and losing a great deal of money in the process, Junkers pulled out and turned the plant over to the Russians.

Yet, by providing the Russian designers and engineers with access to the latest western technology and ideas, this brief cooperation provided a major boost to the fledgling Soviet aircraft industry. Tupolev and his team took over the Fili factory and began manufacturing the TB-1 and TB-3 bombers—both of which showed a strong similarity to the Junkers designs of the era. By the early 1930s the Soviet aircraft industry was growing at an astounding rate, and by the middle of the decade, the Soviet Union possessed one of the largest and most modern air forces in the world.

The air force training programs established in Russia came far closer to achieving what German visionaries had in mind. The Germans had created a large and technically advanced air force during World War I, and they were determined to maintain a secret force that could be expanded as soon as the hated Versailles Treaty was renounced. To do so, the German army needed a place to train its airmen and develop new technologies and tactics. The Russians offered the Germans a base at the spa town of Lipetsk, 300 miles southwest of Moscow. It proved ideal, and became the focus of a secret Luftwaffe rearmament and training program in the late 1920s.

The Lipetsk base, which opened in 1925, was home to 60 to 70 permanent German personnel, including instructors, technicians, and test pilots. Between 1925 and 1933, several dozen Reichswehr personnel a year were officially “retired” from the army and sent to Russia as civilians. At Lipetsk they either took a six-month course in advanced fighter aircraft, or were enrolled in the aerial observer’s course. After completing the rigorous training program, as thorough as any offered in the world at the time, the airmen would return to Germany and be officially reinstated in the army. During the eight years it was in operation, more than 450 Reichswehr airmen were trained in Russia.

To ensure the training was as modern as possible, the Reichswehr managed to quietly obtain one of the hottest fighter planes of the era: the Fokker D XIII. During the crisis of 1923, when France and Belgium occupied the Ruhr valley following Germany’s failure to make required reparations payments, the German army made secret war preparations that included ordering 50 of the new fighters from its old friend, Dutch aircraft manufacturer Anthony Fokker. The D XIII, powered by a British 450 hp Napier engine, was one of the fastest airplanes of its time and set several speed records in the early 1920s. When the crisis passed, the Reichswehr’s air staff shipped the D XIIIs to Lipetsk. There the planes served as trainers for the advanced fighter course and as fighter-bombers used to train German pilots in dropping bombs and attacking ground targets.

During the next few years the base also acquired several Heinkel HD 21 and Albatros L 68 trainers, and some Junkers transports that were used for the observer and navigator courses. With plenty of aircraft (the school had 66 planes in 1929), the Germans were able to mount relatively large air exercises. The German air wing also carried out air support for Red Army maneuvers, and the Germans and Russians gained experience in the complicated art of air-ground operations. By 1929 the German instructor staff had developed a cadre of fighter experts and a fighter tactics manual that were the equal of any major air force’s.

By the late 1920s, the Lipetsk school had expanded to include a flight test center. Although the Versailles Treaty had forbidden the Germans an air force, they were still allowed civil aviation, and in the 1920s companies such as Junkers, Dornier, and Heinkel were producing some up-to-date and even innovative designs. Some of these were not the transport or sport planes they purported to be, but were designed as bombers or reconnaissance planes. The Junkers K-47 dive-bomber, a forerunner of World War II’s famous Ju 87 Stuka the Do 11 bomber the He 45 light bomber and the Ar 65 fighter were all tested at Lipetsk between 1929 and 1931. In 1931, the peak year for training and testing at Lipetsk, 300 German trainers, instructors, and testing personnel were stationed there.

A similar success story was unfolding with armor development. One of the most painful mistakes the German General Staff made in World War I was its belated appreciation of the role of armored vehicles on the battlefield. In contrast to the Allies, who had fielded tanks by the thousands in 1918, Germany started late and had manufactured only a handful of tanks by the end of the war. Although denied tanks by the Versailles Treaty, the Germans made the development of modern armored forces a high priority in the 1920s.

In 1925, the Reichswehr’s weapons office contracted the engineering firms of Daimler, Rheinmetall, and Krupp to build prototype heavy tanks, each armed with a large-caliber gun, several machine guns, and thick armor. The tank prototypes were to incorporate the most advanced engines and transmissions, be gas-proof, and be able to cross rivers. In 1927 the order was followed up by contracts to produce light tanks, also with all the latest engineering features. In keeping with the highly secret nature of the program, the Germans used code names for the armor in all military correspondence: “large tractors” for the heavy tanks and “light tractors” for the light tanks.

By 1929 the German companies had produced six prototype heavy tanks and four light tanks and shipped them to the Russian industrial city of Kazan to be tested. These tanks, in addition to prototype armored cars produced by the Daimler and Büssing companies, helped equip the German tank officer school, which opened the same year. Along with military personnel, dozens of German engineers were secretly brought to Russia to oversee the armored experiments. Ferdinand Porsche—who would go on to design the most notorious heavy tank of World War II (and possibly of all time), the Tiger Mk IV—had his first experience in tank design as head of Daimler’s “large tractor” project and observed the German army’s first armored maneuvers in Kazan.

The Soviets were just beginning to organize mechanized forces in 1929, so they were especially eager to support the German tank school and testing station. With tank production beginning in the Soviet Union, the Red Army’s top priority was to develop a force and doctrine for armored warfare Red Army leaders saw the Germans, admired as masters of operational-level warfare, as the best means to get the program going. That year, the German General Staff sent three officers to the Red Army to help advise in the creation of the Red Army’s first tank units.

To ensure the Germans had the support they needed for their armor school and testing center, the Red Army gave the Germans 30 brand new tanks—one-third of the Red Army’s tank production for 1929. Along with 10 German tanks, the Germans could now practice battalion-sized and larger operations. Although the armored warfare course was only for German officers, Soviet technicians were allowed to examine and test-drive the German prototype equipment, and more than 60 carefully selected Red Army officers were allowed to participate in the exercises and war games. As the Soviet tank force expanded, the Red Army formed its new tank units near Kazan so they could conduct large-scale maneuvers with the Germans in 1930 and 1931.

Between 1929 and 1933, 30 German officers went through the months-long armored warfare course at Kazan another 20 served as instructors. Although small, the course was very thorough and certainly the equal of any offered by the other major powers. Theo Kretschmer, an officer at Kazan and later a major general of panzer troops, noted that the course “had turned the participating officers into fully trained armored soldiers.”

Its alumni would be largely responsible for the Wehrmacht’s armor might in World War II. Cols. Ludwig von Radelmeier and Josef Harpe, who commanded at Kazan, became the first commandants of the panzer school established in late 1933 in Zossen-Wünsdorf, near Berlin. Col. Ernst Volkheim, who wrote the army’s armor doctrine in the 1930s, was a Kazan school graduate. Some of Germany’s most able panzer commanders, including Gens. Wilhelm von Thoma, Walter Nehring, and Georg-Hans Reinhardt, first learned about tanks at Kazan. It was at Kazan in 1930 that Heinz Guderian, the legendary general behind the development of Germany’s blitzkrieg tactics, saw his first larger-scale armored maneuvers.

For the Soviets, the greatest benefit of the alliance was in German officer training. In the 1920s, the German army had the well-deserved reputation of having the best officer training in the world. Conversely, a German officer visiting the Soviet army in the mid-1920s had summed up the state of the Russian forces as: “Basic Soldier training—Good. Equipment: Lacking. Officer Competence: Low.”

War minister Leon Trotsky understood the urgent need to establish a truly professional officer corps and was enthusiastic about cooperation with the Germans to achieve this. Between 1926 and 1933 the Red Army sent many of its most promising officers to courses in Germany. The Allies had placed no restrictions on foreign officers training in Germany, and the Germans and Russians exploited this opportunity to the fullest. The Red Army used the German army courses as a means of polishing the men who had been selected for high command. Each year from 1926 to 1933, 25 to 45 Russian officers visited Germany, some to take short courses or to observe German maneuvers and war games. An elite few—17 in all—were sent to the German army’s general staff course.

To help establish a general staff course for the new Soviet air force, the Germans sent a small team to Russia headed by Capt. Martin Fiebig, who would, in 1942, command a Luftwaffe air corps in Russia. Fiebig was a veteran of the Imperial Air Service in World War I and a graduate of the general staff course. From 1926 to 1928 he and his fellow Germans were the lead instructors for the men who led the Soviet air force. In a long report to his superior in Berlin, Fiebig described that air force in its infancy, calling the Russians “intelligent and eager to learn, but possessing little in the way of a formal education.” Despite the drawbacks of an officer corps that had been hastily recruited and trained in the midst of a civil war, Fiebig noted that the Russians were making progress—but had a long way to go.

The same could be said of the Red Army in the 1920s. German officers routinely observed the Red Army’s war games and maneuvers and provided comprehensive criticism. They found the Russian operations characterized by poor coordination of infantry, artillery, and air support. And, because Soviet tactics did not take into account the technological advances ushered in since 1918, Red Army planning and operational doctrine was also deficient.

The Russians were eager to learn from their erstwhile enemies, and took the criticism seriously. The German doctrine of the 1920s, which emphasized rapid maneuver and combined arms in the offense, appealed greatly to the Russians, and the Soviet officers worked to adapt the German approach to war to their own conditions. During the next few years the Germans noted a steady improvement in Soviet tactics and doctrine. Ultimately, the German army had a huge influence on the development of the Soviet armed forces in the 1920s and 1930s. By 1935 the German military attaché in Russia noted that the use of German army textbooks and tactical manuals was pervasive throughout the Russian army.

While they remained likely enemies, the Germans came to have a high respect for many of the Russian commanders on a personal level. In 1930, a secret assessment by the German General Staff characterized Marshal Klimenti Voroshilov, the Soviet war commissar, as “an outstanding officer with a strong and positive character, well educated, clever, modern and capable.” The up-and-coming Gen. Mikhail Tuchachevsky, soon to be Red Army chief of staff, was seen as “fresh and youthful in his views, very personable.” The Germans noted Tuchachevsky’s first-rate mind while observing war games with the Germans “he put forward many very thoughtful critiques of our operations and tactics.”

However, the Germans were uneasy about many aspects of the alliance. Part of its price was allowing the Soviets to examine, and likely copy, Germany’s latest armor and aircraft technology. And though the German and Russian armies had developed a healthy professional respect for each other, beneath the veneer of civility the officers of both nations understood that a capitalist and a communist nation could not easily coexist. At home, the Reichswehr readily shot Marxist rebels in Russia, other Germans were training Marxist officers to a high professional standard.

In 1930 the Inter-Allied Military Control Commission formally issued its final report and declared that Germany had been disarmed according to the terms of the Versailles Treaty. Without Allied inspectors on German soil, the German military no longer had to worry as much about having its illegal weapons programs exposed. It became just a matter of time until the Germans ended their cooperation with the Soviets.

In 1931, Gen. Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord, the Reichswehr’s commander, explained his distaste for the Russian alliance to a group of German officers: “We will work with Moscow as long as the West is not prepared to accept Germany on an equal status. The relationship with Moscow is a pact with the Devil— but we have no choice.”

However, changing political conditions and the departure of Allied inspectors gave the Germans a choice. In 1932 the German military leaders decided to shut down the Russian operations the following year. Weapons testing and training could be carried out on German soil at far lower cost. The Soviets, who wanted the cooperation to continue and who offered the Germans various incentives, were markedly disappointed at the end of the German presence in Russia. During top-level staff discussions between the German and Soviet general staffs, the Russians made several proposals to continue military cooperation the Germans rejected all of them.

Ultimately, it was Germany that profited the most from the 13- year cooperation with the Soviet Union. Hitler could never have rearmed the nation so quickly without the testing programs in Russia. In its secret bases, the German army and secret air force developed and tested prototypes of new weapons that were ready for production when he came to power in 1933 and began largescale rearmament. The Russian venture left the German army and air force doctrinally ahead of the other major powers.

Likewise, the courses at Lipetsk and Kazan provided Hitler with a small but very capable inner circle from which to build the Luftwaffe and a panzer force: a group of officers who were well trained in the latest doctrines and tactics, had practiced them extensively in large-scale maneuvers and realistic exercises, and were able to quickly train a large army to a high standard.

The Lipetsk and Kazan schools were “schools for generals” for the Wehrmacht. Of 40 officers in the 1928 Lipetsk course, 12 became Luftwaffe generals, while Kazan provided it with a small but superbly trained cadre of panzer experts. It was largely thanks to Lipetsk and Kazan that Germany went from having no official air arm and armored force in 1933 to—just six years later—a highly modern Luftwaffe and panzer force capable of bringing down Poland in a mere three weeks.

The Soviets might have gained far more advantage from their relationship with Germany had it not been for Stalin’s murderous purge of the Red Army leadership between 1936 and 1940. The German advisors and teachers and the joint maneuvers at Kazan had been invaluable in getting the Red Army’s first mechanized units organized. The German general staff training and specialist courses for Red Army officers had provided the Soviets with a well-trained nucleus of leaders. The Russians had proven to be adept learners, and by the early 1930s the Soviets were taking a lead role in the doctrine and technology of mechanized maneuver warfare.

But Stalin killed off this invaluable cadre of trained leaders. The top ranks of the Soviet military, most of whom had worked closely with the Germans, were specifically targeted for liquidation. The brilliant Marshal Tuchachevsky and eight other senior officers who were all connected with the training and cooperation with Germany were sent before one of Stalin’s notorious show trials in 1937. They were charged with numerous crimes, including being “agents of Nazi Germany”—as evidenced by their cooperation with the Germans in the 1920s. That the cooperation had been carried out under Stalin’s orders and with his approval was no defense, and Tuchachevsky and his colleagues were all quickly executed. They were followed by the commanders of the Soviet air force, Gens. Yak I. Alksnis and Nikolai Baranov, who were also executed in 1937. That same year, aircraft designer Andrei Tupolev was arrested and imprisoned for his work with the Germans 15 years earlier.

Officers who had been trained in Germany were arrested and liquidated. The NKVD, Stalin’s dreaded secret police, even formed a special squad “to find and root out the cells of fascist sympathizers [fascist meaning German] in the Red Army.” Since the German army had long been a model for the Russians, it was an easy task. Hundreds of officers were arrested and executed simply for possessing German military manuals and textbooks.

This destruction nearly doomed Stalin’s regime. From the start of the purge until the German invasion in 1941, the Soviet army and air force were in complete disarray, their leadership weakened and demoralized. Indeed, while the Russians were well armed at the outbreak of the war and greatly outnumbered the Germans in troops, tanks, artillery, and airplanes—including much equipment that was superior to the Wehrmacht’s, such as the T-34 tank—the Soviet forces lacked competent leadership.

Without a core of competent leaders, especially officers such as Tuchachevsky who had trained and worked with the Germans, the Red Army almost fell to pieces when the Germans invaded. In one disaster after another, whole armies were surrounded and destroyed during the relentless German advance of 1941. Had Stalin not taken such care to eliminate his German-trained officers in the great purge, one can easily imagine that a well-led Red Army might have stopped the Germans and sent the Wehrmacht reeling back in the early stages of the eastern campaign.

Originally published in the March 2009 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.


How Hitler’s Invasion of Russia Forever Changed World History

Here's What You Need to Remember: Superior German tactical and operational skills, as well as greater combat experience, would have given the Wehrmacht the edge in the opening days of Barbarossa 1942. Yet the catastrophic losses the Red Army suffered in 1941 would probably have been lower, leading to the possibility that Barbarossa delayed would have been a gift to the Soviets.

One of the most momentous decisions in history was Adolf Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.

Operation Barbarossa transformed Nazi Germany's war from a one-front struggle, against a weakened Britain and a still-neutral United States, into a two-front conflict. The Eastern Front absorbed as much as three-quarters of the German army and inflicted two-thirds of German casualties.

So what would have happened if Hitler had not invaded Russia? The dynamics of the Third Reich and Hitler meant that Germany would not remain passive. In fact, it is hard to imagine Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union not at war, though the question is when this would have happened.

One possibility was invading Britain in 1941, and thus either ending the European war or freeing the up the Third Reich to fight a later one-front war in the East. Thus Operation Sealion, the proposed 1940 amphibious assault on southern England, would merely have been postponed a year. The problem is that the Kreigsmarine—the German navy—would still have been badly outnumbered by the Royal Navy, even with the addition of the new battleship Bismarck. The British would have enjoyed an additional year to reinforce the Royal Air Force and to rebuild the divisions battered during the Fall of France. Britain would also have been receiving Lend-Lease from the United States, which by September 1941 was almost a belligerent power that escorted convoys in the North Atlantic. A few months later, America did formally enter the conflict despite the Japanese advance in the Pacific, the United States would certainly have concentrated its growing strength on keeping Britain unconquered and in the war.

A more likely possibility is that Hitler could have chosen to move south instead of east. With most of Western Europe under his control after the summer of 1940, and Eastern Europe either subdued or allied with Germany, Hitler had a choice by mid-1941. He could either follow his instincts and ideology and move against the Soviet Union, with its rich resources and open spaces for Nazi colonists. Smashing Russia would also be the apocalyptic climax for what Hitler saw as an inevitable showdown with the cradle of communism.

Or, he could have turned towards the Mediterranean and the Middle East, as his naval chief Admiral Erich Raeder preferred. In the real World War Two, Rommel's North African campaign was a sideshow to the main event in Russia. In the alternate scenario, North Africa becomes the main event.

One possibility would be to pressure Franco to drop Spanish neutrality and allow German troops to enter Spain and capture Gibraltar, thus sealing off the direct route from Britain to the Mediterranean (if Franco was stubborn, another possibility would be to invade Spain and then take Gibraltar anyway.) Another option would be to reinforce Rommel's Afrika Korps, drive across Libya and Egypt to capture the Suez Canal (which Rommel almost did in July 1942.) From there the Germans could advance on Middle Eastern oil fields, or should Germany attack Russia in 1942, move through the Caucuses in a pincer operation that would squeeze Russia from the west and south. Meanwhile, steel and other resources would have been switched from building tanks and other land armaments, to building massive numbers of U-boats that would have strangled Britain's maritime lifeline.

Would this alternative German strategy have worked? A German Mediterranean option would have been very different than invading the Soviet Union. Instead of a huge Axis land army of 3 million men, the Mediterranean would have been a contest of ships and aircraft, supporting relatively small numbers of ground troops through the vast distances of the Middle East. With the Soviet Union remaining neutral (and continuing to ship resources to Germany under the Nazi–Soviet Pact,) Germany would have been able to concentrate the Luftwaffe in the Mediterranean. German aircraft mauled the Royal Navy in 1941–42, even while supporting the campaign in Russia. The full weight of the Luftwaffe would have been devastating.

On the other hand, the logistics of a Middle Eastern offensive would have been daunting, due to the great distances and lack of Italian shipping capacity to transport fuel. Germany had an efficient air force and navy, but it was primarily a continental power whose strength rested on its army. Assuming that America entered the war in December 1941, than it is possible that the focal point of the European theater in 1942 would have been German–Italian air and naval forces supporting a reinforced Afrika Korps, versus British and American land, air and naval forces defending or counterattacking in the Near East.

Which in turn raises another question: what if Hitler didn't cancel Operation Barbarossa, but rather postponed it until the summer of 1942? Assuming the Axis were successful in the Middle East, the Soviets would have faced a German–Italian expeditionary force advancing north through the Caucasus (perhaps Turkey would have joined the rising Axis tide.) Another year would also have given Germany more time to loot and exploit the resources of conquered Western Europe.

On the other hand, the Red Army in June of 1941 was caught terribly off-balance, still reeling and reorganizing from Stalin's purges. The extra year would have given the Soviets time to finish regrouping the Red Army as well as absorbing formidable new equipment such as the T-34 tank and Katyusha rocket launcher. Delaying Barbarossa until 1942, assuming Britain hadn't surrendered, would have meant that Germany would begin its attack on Russia while still needing to bolster its western defenses against the inevitable Anglo-American counterattack.

Superior German tactical and operational skills, as well as greater combat experience, would have given the Wehrmacht the edge in the opening days of Barbarossa 1942. Yet the catastrophic losses the Red Army suffered in 1941 would probably have been lower, leading to the possibility that Barbarossa delayed would have been a gift to the Soviets.

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

This article first appeared in 2016 and is reprinted due to reader interest.


The Germans’ summer offensive in southern Russia, 1942

The German plan to launch another great summer offensive crystallized in the early months of 1942. Hitler’s decision was influenced by his economists, who mistakenly told him that Germany could not continue the war unless it obtained petroleum supplies from the Caucasus. Hitler was the more responsive to such arguments because they coincided with his belief that another German offensive would so drain the Soviet Union’s manpower that the U.S.S.R. would be unable to continue the war. His thinking was shared by his generals, who had been awed by the prodigality with which the Soviets squandered their troops in the fighting of 1941 and the spring of 1942. By this time at least 4,000,000 Soviet troops had been killed, wounded, or captured, while German casualties totaled only 1,150,000.

In the early summer of 1942 the German southern line ran from Orël southward east of Kursk, through Belgorod, and east of Kharkov down to the loop of the Soviet salient opposite Izyum, beyond which it veered southeastward to Taganrog, on the northern coast of the Sea of Azov. Before the Germans were ready for their principal offensive, the Red Army in May started a drive against Kharkov but this premature effort actually served the Germans’ purposes, since it not only preempted the Soviet reserves but also provoked an immediate counterstroke against its southern flank, where the Germans broke into the salient and reached the Donets River near Izyum. The Germans captured 240,000 Soviet prisoners in the encirclement that followed. In May also the Germans drove the Soviet defenders of the Kerch Peninsula out of Crimea and on June 3 the Germans began an assault against Sevastopol, which, however, held out for a month.

The Germans’ crossing of the Donets near Izyum on June 10, 1942, was the prelude to their summer offensive, which was launched at last on June 28: Field Marshal Maximilian von Weichs’s Army Group B, from the Kursk–Belgorod sector of the front, struck toward the middle Don River opposite Voronezh, whence General Friedrich Paulus’ 6th Army was to wheel southeastward against Stalingrad ( Volgograd) and List’s Army Group A, from the front south of Kharkov, with Kleist’s 1st Panzer Army, struck toward the lower Don to take Rostov and to thrust thence northeastward against Stalingrad as well as southward into the vast oil fields of Caucasia. Army Group B swept rapidly across a 100-mile stretch of plain to the Don and captured Voronezh on July 6. The 1st Panzer Army drove 250 miles from its starting line and captured Rostov on July 23. Once his forces had reached Rostov, Hitler decided to split his troops so that they could both invade the rest of the Caucasus and take the important industrial city of Stalingrad on the Volga River, 220 miles northeast of Rostov. This decision was to have fatal consequences for the Germans, since they lacked the resources to successfully take and hold both of these objectives.

Maikop (Maykup), the great oil centre 200 miles south of Rostov, fell to Kleist’s right-hand column on August 9, and Pyatigorsk, 150 miles east of Maikop, fell to his centre on the same day, while the projected thrust against Stalingrad, in the opposite direction from Rostov, was being developed. Shortage of fuel, however, slowed the pace of Kleist’s subsequent southeastward progress through the Caucasian mountains and, after forcing a passage over the Terek River near Mozdok early in September, he was halted definitively just south of that river. From the end of October 1942 the Caucasian front was stabilized but the titanic struggle for Stalingrad, draining manpower that might have won victory for the Germans in Caucasia, was to rage on, fatefully, for three more months (see below Stalingrad and the German retreat, summer 1942–February 1943). Already, however, it was evident that Hitler’s new offensive had fallen short of its objectives, and the scapegoat this time was Halder, who was superseded by Kurt Zeitzler as chief of the army general staff.


In 1943, in Kursk, Hitler ordered a large-scale offensive. He did this when the Russians clearly knew that Hitler was going to launch an attack. The last great offensive of the German armies was epic with the Russians presenting a fierce resistance, since they knew how to prepare thoroughly. In fact, the Battle of Kursk was the longest tank battle of all military history and ended in the defeat of Germany.

Adolf Hitler’s last attempt to win the Second World War. He tried to repeat the success of 1940 by attacking the Allies using the exact same strategy. The German forces were significantly smaller than in 1940, they did not have enough fuel and were to face an enemy far superior to the 1940 French army.

It would certainly have been more sensible to attack the Russians and try to slow down their advance, as the Battle of the Bulge was doomed from the start.


Watch the video: Battle of Moscow 1941 - Nazi Germany vs Soviet Union HD (January 2022).