19 June 2011

The Biggest War in History, Part Two: Sowing the Wind

Part One
Soviet gun crew in action at Odessa, 1941 (via Wikipedia)

The Book of Hosea in the Old Testament has this famous passage:

"They that sow the wind, shall reap the whirlwind"

Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 was definitely a case of this - the decision to launch "Fall Barbarossa" (Operation Barbarossa) would cost Germany the war and millions of Germans their lives.

Yet, it could have succeeded had not Hitler made some massive mistakes.

The invasion gained complete surprise; the Soviet Union completely ignored the signs. Forces were in the wrong place (while they were aligned for an invasion of Ukraine, they still would have had a problem against Panzer spearheads), training was poor and tanks weren't used properly. However, they did get something right elsewhere; they correctly figured Japan was not going to attack them in the Far East and were able to transfer troops that made a key difference.

It is no surprise that the Red Army was thrown back reeling, with industry dismantled in a rush and millions affected by scorched earth policies. Admittedly this was a major help for the Soviets in preventing Germany from gaining key resources, but the human cost was still huge.

In two months, the Germans and their allies had advanced hundreds of miles. Millions of Soviet troops were dead or captured (which in many cases the latter meant you were becoming the former fairly quickly). However, this progress was illusory. Hitler did not focus on one single target - the best one, in military terms, was probably the Caucasus (where the oil was). Instead he tried to get that, Leningrad and Moscow. He would get none of them. Key delays, including the assault on Kiev that took several key weeks, despite the huge Soviet losses during what was ultimately a German victory, cost the Germans time and prevented them from finishing the campaign before winter hit - rendering the roads impassable and turning life for the Wehrmacht into absolute frozen misery.

Also the Germans vastly underestimated the numbers and tenacity of their opponents; they were not weak sub-humans by any stretch of the imagination - and they were fighting on their own turf.

However, there is one more important reason why Barbarossa failed - the Nazi policy of extermination. A significant percentage of the people of the Western USSR initially viewed the Germans as liberators from repressive Russian rule. When local nationalists and SS Einsatzgruppen started massacring Jews, such as at Babi Yar, and those also they suspected of being "Commissars", this made things worse for the Germans. Not only did these acts of mass murder take up German forces that could actually be on the front, they created a partisan movement that caused the Germans even more problems, especially when the Germans reacted to said partisans in their usual vicious manner.

As December 1941 began, both sides were heavily battered, suffering massive losses. While the Germans were now stuck, the Soviets had their "breadbasket" (Ukraine) under enemy occupation, Moscow under threat and Leningrad under siege.

The last thing you would expect under these cold winter conditions was for the Soviets to launch an offensive.

Which is precisely what they did. I'll cover this tomorrow.

Part Three 

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