The final German plan for the invasion (Operation `Barbarossa’) was contained in Führer Directive 21, issued on 18 December 1940. Its basic concept was one that had already proved successful in the previous campaigns: deep penetrations by pincer movements of armoured and motorised infantry divisions would encircle enemy forces between them and the bulk of the army, the footslogging infantry with mostly horsedrawn equipment, including their artillery, following up behind. The invading forces’ front line was divided by the marshes of the Pripyat River, the largest wetland area in Europe, in southern Belorussia and north-west Ukraine, covering about 240 kilometres (150 miles) from north to south, and twice that distance from west to east, and there Stalin compounded his major error of reluctance to credit even the possibility of invasion with yet another, a misreading of what the Germans’ primary objectives would be if they did nevertheless invade.
The 1940 Soviet General Staff appraisal had correctly assessed those objectives as primarily military and political rather than economic, and therefore anticipated that the major German assault would come north of the Pripyat marshes, with Army Group North aiming at Leningrad and Army Group Centre at Moscow, and only Army Group South moving south of the marshes, heading for Kiev. These cities were not the objectives as such; the General Staff’s judgement was (rightly) based on the view that the Germans expected their political, industrial and symbolic importance would force the Red Army to stand and defend them, being destroyed in the process, rather than try to preserve itself by retreat as its predecessors had done at Moscow in 1812.
Stalin, however, believed that Germany’s main purpose in invading would be economic, to satisfy her driving need for resources for fighting a prolonged war, specifically Ukrainian coal, iron ore and grain, and the oil of Transcaucasus. He therefore rejected the General Staff’s assessment, held that the main German drive would come south of the marshes, and insisted on having more forces deployed there than in the north. Consequently, of the 153 Soviet divisions deployed at the borders in mid- 1941, 83 were south of the marshes and 70 north of them. The German deployment was the obverse of this, with 76 divisions to the north and 41 (plus 14 Romanian) south of the marshes. The disparity in the deployment of tank and motorised infantry divisions was even greater. The Germans had 21 such divisions north of the marshes, only 8 south of them, whereas the Soviets deployed 24 to the north and 30 to the south. The shortest distance from the Baltic coast to the northern edge of the marshes is about 250 miles, that from their southern edge to the Black Sea coast 375 miles, 50 per cent greater. So the German spearheads, the mobile forces, were distributed at an average of about 19 kilometres (12 miles) of front per division north of the marshes and 75 kilometres (47 miles) south of them, whereas the corresponding figures for the Soviet mobile forces were 16.6 and 20 kilometres (10.4 and 12.5 miles). In short, the Germans concentrated their most potent units with a ratio of force to space in the north almost four times that in the south, whereas the Red Army distributed them almost evenly, but with a slightly higher density in the south. Had both sides’ mobile forces been of equal fighting value the balance between them would therefore have favoured the Soviets slightly in the north and overwhelmingly in the south. However, they were then by no means equal. In an interview long after the war Molotov would say, `before the war Stalin considered that we could only meet the Germans on an equal basis in 1943′.
Hitler would briefly espouse Stalin’s reasoning about objectives in August 1941, and in 1942, after the Soviet winter victories and the American entry into the war made prolonged hostilities inevitable, it would totally define the aims of the German summer offensive, but Operation `Barbarossa’ itself was a plan for a short war. The invading forces were expected to destroy the Red Army in a single campaign lasting about five months, and Directive 21 did not specifically mention the economic prizes, clearly because after the expected rapid victory they would be there for the taking. Soviet Intelligence, still recovering from Stalin’s purge of 1937-39 that had destroyed most of its networks and eliminated many of its best operatives, provided several warnings but no convincing correctives for the excessive economic rationalism that Stalin ascribed to Hitler; in fact the then head of GRU (Military Intelligence), Lieutenant-General F. I. Golikov either accepted Stalin’s view or at least pandered to it, in a notorious assessment made in March 1941, and in 1965 admitted, `I distorted the Intelligence to please Stalin, because I feared him’. That was hardly surprising. Golikov’s eight predecessors as Head of Military Intelligence had been arrested during the purges of 1937-39, and all bar one of them had been shot. However, the post-Soviet release of archive material has shown that the much-maligned Beria – from November 1938 head of the NKVD (People’s Commissariat of the Interior), the alternative source of secret Intelligence, and also responsible for the Border Guards – displayed considerably more intestinal fortitude than Golikov.
Although Stalin had had his two immediate predecessors, Yagoda and Yezhov, deposed and shot, Beria risked his leader’s displeasure by regularly sending him detailed Border Guards’ reports about German military preparations along the western frontiers. Beria not only survived, but was given increased wartime status and responsibilities by Stalin, including overseeing the Soviet atomic bomb programme, so Golikov’s caution was perhaps excessive – but at least he survived to die a natural death in 1980, whereas Stalin’s successors had Beria shot on trumped-up charges in 1953. Although Stalin saw war with Germany as ultimately inevitable, he hoped, as he later told Churchill, to postpone it at least until 1942. Several events in the weeks preceding the invasion complicated the Soviet threat assessment process, but the factor that created the greatest problems for the General Staff was Stalin’s strongly held belief that Hitler would not undertake a two-front war, and therefore would not attack while the British remained unconquered and scornful of his peace proposals. On 5 May 1941, in a speech to newly commissioned officers, Stalin said that the Red Army had become able to do more than `defend socialism’, it had acquired the capacity to mount offensives (against whom he did not specify, but probably did not need to), and this speech is prominent among the sources cited by Victor Suvorov to support his argument that Hitler’s invasion pre-empted a planned Soviet full-scale attack on Germany by only 15 days. In his speech Stalin also referred to Germany as being `weak’ in the First World War because it had had to fight on two fronts, the implication being that it would not voluntarily do so again.
The British several times warned Stalin of Germany’s preparations to invade the Soviet Union, but he rejected these as attempts by a desperate government, headed by the dedicatedly anti-Communist Churchill, to relieve the pressure on itself by dragging the USSR into the war. Several Soviet Intelligence `residents’ in German-occupied European countries also provided warnings, but he dismissed them as more British `plants’. He seems to have believed sincerely that Hitler would not voluntarily undertake a two-front war, because he said so on several occasions. Undoubtedly he was encouraged in that belief by the German deception campaign, which included assurances that German army and air force units were being sent to the east only to be out of range of British bombers while they trained for the invasion of England.
It has been claimed that the deception campaign also included at least two letters from Hitler, in December 1940 and May 1941, in which he assured Stalin `on my honour as a chief of state’ that he had no intention of attacking the Soviet Union. No archival evidence has been found for either, but in post-war interviews Zhukov mentioned being shown both letters by Stalin, and indirect evidence of the second’s existence is provided by (1) its date, 14 May, (2) an apology in it for `the method I have chosen for delivering it to you as quickly as possible’, and (3) the surprise landing at Moscow Central Airport on 15 May 1941 of a German Ju52 transport aircraft, which was refuelled and allowed to depart, even though permission for its flight had not been sought beforehand, and several senior Air Defence Force officers were reprimanded for failing to have it intercepted. Both letters are said to have explained the presence of German forces in the east by the need to be beyond the range of British bombers. But the weaknesses in that justification raise several questions to which as yet no answers have been found.