«Военная Литература»
Военная история

Chapter Two.

German Calculation of the Rigors of an Attack Against the Soviet Union:
Accurate Appraisal or Underestimation?


"It is of decisive importance for the breakthrough to push forward as far as possible without regard to the danger from the flanks, with maximum use of the mobility afforded by our tank engines, without rest or rest days, with movement at night, and mobility limited only by the distance which fuel supplies will allow.{1}

Army Group Center, Panzer Group 2. XXXXVIIth Panzer Corps, Order Number 1 for the attack against the Soviet Union, dated 13 June 41

HISTORIANS and analysts today interpret the Second World War as one that the Germans could never have won. In September 1939. Germany faced a gloomy crisis, in which Hitler blundered into a war with Britain and France while simultaneously fighting in Poland. But in July 1940, when Hitler decided to attack the Soviet Union, circumstances in Europe had changed so radically to the advantage of the Germans that Hitler had the historic opportunity to make a decision that could have led to German victory. Observing the Second World War through conventional sources but a unique perspective, one can see that Germany's trumps in war were few but formidable. The most important were Adolf Hitler's political decisiveness and the battle-winning capabilities of the German army. In July 1940, Hitler had to make the right political decision, and the German army had to plan and concentrate effectively to give Germany a reasonable chance of winning a Russian campaign.

The Unique Synthesis of Hitler and the German Army: 1939-1941

Hitler showed impressive decisiveness in ordering the attack against the Soviet Union, an indomitable will for which he has not received adequate recognition for the potential consequences. In historical parallels, when the Japanese launched their surprise attack against Russia in February 1904, the operation comprised an attack by naval and amphibious forces against Imperial Russian forces in northeast China to seize and hold territory far from the heartland of Russia and only recently occupied. In contrast, Hitler ordered an all-out attack across a land boundary into the heartland of the state, with the intention to destroy it. Hitler employed the army as the instrument of decision against the Soviet Union, providing it with the advantages of surprise and concentration of effort, factors that ensured the quick success of the German army even over a large, well-armed country like the Soviet Union. By making the decisive political decision. Hitler gave the German army the parallel opportunity to make decisive gains, exploiting surprise and concentration into victory.

Historians have inadequately correlated Hitler's political daring in Poland, the west, and the Balkans with the stunning military victories, tending to suture off the periods during which the campaigns developed into one compartment of political considerations and another filled with the gunsmoke of battles. Blockaded by British sea power. Hitler made a dramatic political decision, with few parallels in boldness, to seize Norway from Larvik to Narvik and presented the German armed forces the opportunity to execute a daring surprise attack. My point is that the sensational attack in Norway was possible only because of Hitler's political will. In short, without a politically decisive Hitler, there would be no brilliantly decisive military success. A subtle extension of my point is that the attack's success depended almost solely on the offensive will and daring of the German army and the fundamental operational style transferred to the German navy and air force. Without battle-winning German commanders and combat soldiers there could be no successful battles, no brilliantly decisive political victory.{2} Against Soviet Russian land power in July 1940, the delicately balanced synthesis of Hitler and the German army faced the great test of defeating the Soviet armed forces in the brief summer campaigning season of high-latitude Europe.

The Germans Gauge the Strength of Rußland; July 1940-June 1941

Serious German planning for the attack on the Soviet Union began as early as 22 July 1940, when Generaloberst Franz Halder, chief, Army General Staff, began to study the problems of an offensive in the east. In one brief week, from 22 to 29 July 1940, Halder devised perhaps the most effective scheme of maneuver possible for a rapid conquest of the Soviet Union-simple, direct, and remarkably concentrated for a front expanding in breadth as one pushed eastward into Russia. Having studied the problem briefly, Halder assigned the talented chief of staff of the 18th Army on the Dutch front in the west, Generalmajor Erich Marcks, to study the problem further. Marcks completed a plan by 5 August 1940 that was the basis for the final army plan submitted to Hitler on 5 December 1940, "Halder concluded that an attack launched from assembly areas in East Prussia and northern Poland toward Moscow would offer the best chances of success."{3} After destroying the Soviet armies defending Moscow and seizing the city, the attacking German field armies would compel Soviet forces pinned in the Ukraine to fight battles with reversed fronts. The initial German attacks would be concentrated on surprisingly narrow fronts, and the main attack, in the center, would remain that way on the advance toward Moscow. Wisely, Halder knew that for success the German plan would depend heavily on the Soviet reaction to it. He felt that if the Soviet military high command had a strategy of immediate, systematic withdrawal into the hinterland, the German field armies could not intercept its forces enroute to Moscow. Then, the war would drag out somewhere in European Russia to the detriment of the Germans. In the event, with astonishing good luck for Halder, Hitler, and the Germans, the Soviets chose to de-fend strongly everywhere, as far forward as possible, retreating only when forced by tactical disintegration or when breaking out of several large encirclements set by the Germans.

It is difficult today to judge what the German military planners thought of their chances of success in a war against the Soviet Union. Historians and analysts tend to judge, beclouded by Germany's defeat in the Second World War. Influenced by the ultimate German defeat and the initial German timetable of approximately ten weeks for victory over the Soviet Union, commentators usually generalize that the German army underestimated both the Russian armed forces and campaign conditions, falling prey to naive overconfidence. German veterans of Barbarossa, many of whom experienced the misdirected culmination of the offensive at Moscow in December 1941 and took part in almost four years of half-victories and full defeats on the eastern front, complicate the scene by generalizing that the Soviet Union could never have been defeated.{4} Analysis of the planning for Barbarossa and the course of the offensive itself do not support a contention that the German army underestimated the Russian armed forces or that it could not have defeated them.{5} Personal diaries and other documents of the time show the Germans soberly gauging the challenges of a campaign in Russia.{6} Many middle- and senior-ranking German officers had fought on the eastern front during the First World War, and virtually all were impressed by the physical hardness, primitive stoicism, and resistance of the Russian forces and their willingness to take casualties.

Contrary to the prevalent interpretation that the Germans underestimated the Soviet armed forces and the rigors of a campaign in Russia, the German High Command (OKH) approached the campaign with respect and trepidation, evidenced by such details as its purchase of 15.000 Polish light wagons and horses suited to the unpaved tracks posing as roads in Russia and hiring 15,000 Poles to energize the primitive but effective, eastern-style transportation system.{7} Similarly, Hitler discovered in the early stages of planning that the Luftwaffe surprisingly intended to maintain a significant number of its antiaircraft guns (Flak, or Fliegerabwehrkanone) in a reserve pool in the German home defense area. With his inimitable decisiveness in many situations, he ordered every gun in the pool to be turned over to the army and used in the east against both ground and air targets, commenting that every available gun would be used against the Soviets.{8} These details of German planning for Barbarossa do not support the interpretation that the Germans underestimated the Soviets.

Franz Halder, chief, Army General Staff, kept a personal diary covering the preparations for Barbarossa from 22 July 1940 to 22 June 1941, and it does not contain a single remark on the pending eastern campaign that can be read as underestimating its rigors.{9} Approximately two weeks into the campaign, on 3 July 1941, Halder noted that "after two weeks of war the Soviets have in fact been beaten," and this comment has been lifted by numerous historians to illustrate the German underestimation of the Soviet Union in war. Halder's comment is equated naturally, but not necessarily correctly, with an assumed parallel underestimation of the Soviets by Halder and Germans in general. A more effective interpretation of Halder's remark is that it was accurate, alerting us to some almost incredible resurgence by Soviets and Russians or some catastrophic blunder at the highest level in the German command, a Titanesque mistake in both timing and direction, in the opening weeks of the Russian campaign.

German military planners displayed a healthy respect for the Russians and accurately sensed the challenges of a war against them. Heinz Guderian, who led the largest armored group in the east directly toward Moscow in the Schwerpunkt (point of main effort) of the Halder plan, published a book on tank warfare in 1937 in which he estimated the size of the Russian tank force at approximately 10,000.{10} Guderian had visited a Soviet tank factory in 1933 that produced 22 tanks daily of the Christie-derived, fast-cavalry type, and he had few delusions about the size of the Soviet tank force and the qualities of most of the vehicles. Guderian must have been prepared to face the actual number of Soviet tanks available for combat in June 1941, based on his realistic appreciation of the numbers in the late 1930s.{11} Other German planners displayed similar realism. The junior Major Rudolf Loytved-Hardegg, a Luftwaffe intelligence officer, who for reasons of deception, secrecy, and achieving surprise was responsible for estimating the size and quality of the Soviet air force and creating the target folders for every Luftwaffe target planned for attack on 22 June 1941 north of the Pripyat Marshes, passed on his responsible, "front line" estimate of the size of the entire Soviet air force as 14,000 military aircraft, a remarkably accurate figure, not an underestimate.{12}

Hitler Calculates Russian Strength

These accurate estimates reflect solid realism among the German military planners of Operation Barbarossa in appraising the important dimensions of the Soviet armed forces. The OKH led the planning for Barbarossa, which would be an immense ground forces operation, and OKM (Navy High Command) and OKL (Air Force High Command) fell in smoothly with the overall scheme of maneuver of the ground forces, notwithstanding in the latter the special Influence and sensitivity of Hermann Goring, designated successor to Hitler in the event of Hitler's demise or incapacity. The sober and realistic appraisals of a wide range of military planners, represented by Halder, Guderian, and Hardegg, contrast with some statements and actions by at least one key figure. Hitler can be quoted to prove that he underestimated the Soviets, but equally decisive comments can be produced to show his perceptive concerns for the dangers of a campaign in the east. At a conference on 9 January 1941, Hitler was quoted in a war diary as saying, "The Russian Armed Forces are like a headless colossus with feet of clay but we cannot with certainty foresee what they might become in the future. The Russians must not be underestimated. All available resources must therefore be used in the German attack."{13} The first part of the first sentence has been quoted misleadingly by writers anxious to buttress the idea that the Germans underestimated the challenges of a campaign in the east. Quoted in its entirety, the estimate comprises a remarkably succinct and effective analysis of the dangers and necessities of an attack against the Soviets.

Hitler's conversations, speeches, and decisions during the planning and concentration of forces for Operation Barbarossa reflect a realistic appraisal of the chances of success. It is also easy to forget that Hitler made the right decision, the only decision that gave him a realistic opportunity to win, dependent almost completely on playing Germany's trumps rather than awaiting certain defeat by losing the initiative and eventually encountering the strength of an overwhelming enemy coalition. Hitler played the trumps- his political decisiveness and audacity in ordering a timely 1941 attack on the Soviet Union and the superior operational style of the German army to beat the Soviets-and it must be assumed that he had alternate fits of pessimism and optimism about the whole business reflected in both moderate and immoderate statements on the outcome of the invasion. The obvious criticism that Hitler should have finished Britain first is not convincing, for when Sea Lion was cancelled indefinitely on 17 September 1940, he faced a six-month wait before launching an amphibious operation against a high-technology, Athenian-style state, which would have regained its psychological balance after the disasters in France and Norway. Hitler displayed correct instinct and reason in the choice of a surprise attack, but in doing so he decided to engage a colossus and must be suspected of having a clear appreciation of the risk.

German Timetables of Advance

Writers dedicated to the proposition that the Germans had little chance of success in Barbarossa point to the timetables of 6 to 10 to 17 weeks to conquer the Soviet Union as perhaps the strongest evidence of a gross underestimate of Soviet Russia. Personalities as different as the mercurial Hitler and the sober-minded Halder estimated during the planning for Barbarossa that the campaign would be over in from 6 to 10 weeks. Taking the estimate of 6 weeks as a base for consideration, one must be struck by the actual 195 additional weeks the war continued beyond German estimates.

The cutting edge of analysis cuts several ways in this case: If the Soviets were so much stronger than the Germans estimated, why did it take them 195 additional weeks after Barbarossa, with the notable assistance of Britain and the United States, to defeat the underestimators? Almost any answer to such a question must imply that even if the Germans failed in Barbarossa, they caused enough widespread and extensive damage to the Soviets in the course of the eastern campaign to restrain the eventual Soviet victory and reduce it to frustratingly indecisive proportions. After all, Hitler and Halder, representing Germany politically and militarily, respectively, envisioned the goal of Barbarossa as the conquest of European Russia, One cannot be certain of the goals of Josef Stalin and the Soviet Communist party in the war, into which they blundered and which took so long to finish, but the Soviet leadership achieved nothing as decisive as the Germans almost achieved in a few weeks. Instead, after four years of war, the Soviet leaders found themselves in control of only half the continent and, most importantly, not occupying Germany and France.

Citing German estimates of 6 to 10 weeks to defeat Soviet Russia, conventional views proffer no convincing argument that the German advance fell behind schedule and conclude that the capabilities of the Soviets were underestimated. The interpretation sees in the continuation of fighting beyond 6 to 10 weeks, and the defeat of the Germans 195 weeks later, a natural, essentially gradual decline of the Germans toward inexorable defeat. The first weeks of Barbarossa, however, instead of showing German under-estimation of the Soviets, demonstrates that the Schwerpunkt army group of the German invasion met the most sanguine expectations of the hardheaded and restrained Halder, Army Group Center had advanced toward the Moscow-Gorki space and inflicted striking casualties and damage to the defending Soviet field armies. great enough to equate with impending defeat of the Soviet Union.

Hitler's Fundamental Underestimation of the Offensive Capabilities of the German Army

A revisionist comment about Hitler and Barbarossa is that in the planning and in the execution of the invasion, the more important decisions he made reflect a fundamental underestimation of the offensive capabilities of the German army and a concomitant over-estimation of Soviet armed forces. This generalization is juxtaposed against the main weight of the opinion that the Germans underestimated the Soviets, and, largely for that reason, a campaign they planned to last six to ten weeks dragged on for almost four years and ended in (German) defeat. Besides this general view, the more detailed conventional interpretations offer supporting evidence that Hitler underestimated the Soviets, marshalling his words in conferences, conversations, and written directives.

The evidence is a mixed bag to be handled with care in considering the possibilities of Barbarossa to end the war in Europe in the summer of 1941. Discussions and directives show Hitler organizing part of European Russia for occupation and ordering reductions in armaments in anticipation of a successful conclusion to the campaign. Historians offer such evidence to support the view that the Germans were out of touch with reality in planning and executing the invasion. Many writers comment that the Germans failed to provide winter clothing for their field armies and offer this as evidence of underestimation of Soviet resistance. The logic is strained, however, because the Germans are accused of under-estimation when they planned in advance for occupation of the Soviet Union and underestimation when they did not plan in advance.

The most effective analysis of this situation probably shows Hitler inefficiently and overoptimistically dissipating the German effort in Barbarossa instead of concentrating on achieving a quick victory. Regarding winter clothing, neither Hitler nor the Army General Staff can be criticized fairly for not having ready stocks of winter clothing. In planning for Barbarossa it would have been reasoning from false and irrelevant premises to stock special clothing for a winter campaign. Beyond the initial six to ten weeks of battle, and by the autumn offensive in early October 1941, the Germans can be criticized for failing to gather clothing for winter field operations but not for underestimating the rigors of a campaign in Russia. By October 1941, Barbarossa had miscarried because of Hitler's fear and uncertainty earlier in the campaign. By then, the Germans can be criticized only for not adjusting to the actual circumstances. Even in October, however, and concerned with a factor categorized under "weather," the Germans might have been better served by concentrating on a special effort to get through the autumn rains en route to Moscow rather than tying up transportation and personnel to get winter clothing. Operation Typhoon of October 1941 was a late, finely tuned effort to push into the Moscow-Gorki space and destroy the Soviet forces defending it. Gathering a mass of agricultural and engineer-style tractors might well have pulled the Germans through the mud of October.{14}.

Earlier, during the time of the final planning for Typhoon and still within the expanded context of Barbarossa, Hitler set some objectives for the German field armies and made comments that betray unrealistic optimism. When he should have been concerned with the defeat of the Soviet armies defending Moscow and the seizure of the capital and communications center of the Soviet Union, he was assigning unrealistic territorial targets divorced from the strategic reality of October 1941 (although, interestingly, not from the earlier reality of July). Hitler set targets for the field armies in several cases that were so outlandish that one must suspect that he based them on some combination of wishful thinking and sublimation of his own doubts on the capabilities of the army to reach the "assigned" territorial objectives. The stated objectives nevertheless stand as a kind of monument to Hitler's underestimation of the rigors of the campaign by October, that is, when under the Halder Plan it probably would have been completed successfully.

The OKH plan of 5 December 1941{15} was presented to Adolf Hitler as the basis for the directive for the invasion of the Soviet Union signed by him on 18 December 1941. It can be referred to as the Halder plan. For an undertaking as vast as the land invasion of the Soviet Union, the Halder plan was monumentally simple and direct. As such, it contained no inherent flaws such as over-complexity or misdirection and was within the capabilities and style of the German army to accomplish in the necessarily short time required to prevent the recovery of the Soviets from the initial trauma and head off the development of a lengthy two-front war. Under the Halder plan, German Army Group Center was to advance quickly and directly into the Moscow-Gorki space-just as simple as that.

The arrival of Army Group Center at and beyond Moscow on roughly 28 August 1941 in the communications center of European Russia would have disintegrated the resulting isolated Leningrad and Ukrainian fronts. The Germans would have interrupted rail communications there and forced the Soviet armies to fight with reversed fronts while simultaneously pressed on their original fronts by Army Groups North and South. With a stroke of the pen, on 17 December 1941, Hitler modified the Halder plan by halting Army Group Center after it had broken the Soviet armies in White Russia and turning its mobile forces north to annihilate the Soviet forces in the Baltic area.{16} The Germans were committing themselves to a battle, however, in which surprise, speed, and daring would be the indispensable necessities for victory, and such timidity and scattering of force were out of place. Halder never varied from his position before (or after) this time that "major operations should have been directed exclusively toward Moscow."{17} but he failed to enforce his view on Hitler.

In Operation Barbarossa, the Germans had the capability to win the Second World War in Europe in 1941. Hitler's planning decision to halt the Schwerpunkt army group to assure the progress of Army Group North-a side showforce from the viewpoint of the defeat of the Soviet Union-was the planning decision of the war. This assertion is made in the face of the great Allied planning decisions made later in the war that led eventually to coalition victory. Those decisions, in effect, were made possible by the earlier unforced error of Hitler in the planning of Barbarossa and, after some reversals and tortuous gyrations, in the execution of the campaign. How is it possible that a man of Hitler's daring and aggressiveness politically could apparently have been so indecisive and confused within the framework of the planning and execution of the accompanying military campaigns? One purpose of this book is to suggest an answer to this intriguing question in later chapters, but first, it is necessary to point out on the basis of such a question that Hitler, from the moment he engaged in military campaigning, showed exaggerated, indecisive, and irrelevant concerns in executing blitz campaigns.