Germany to the East I

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With his decision for war with the Soviet Union, Hitler had closed off other strategic options. The Soviet Union, he stressed, posed a long-term threat to Germany that had to be eliminated, and, in any case, the time was right as at the moment the Red Army was poorly trained, inadequately led, and badly equipped. Besides, as Halder recorded his revealing admission, “Once England is finished, he would not be able to rouse the German people to a fight against Russia; consequently, Russia would have to be disposed of first.” The Wehrmacht would launch a mighty blow that would catch the Red Army by surprise and force it to fight as far to the west as possible, thus exposing it to annihilating encirclement battles. After this initial sledgehammer blow, Hitler simply expected the Soviet state, a colossus of clay, to collapse. The resulting operation would merely be to follow up and destroy the broken remnants of the Red Army, a “railroad advance” reminiscent of 1918.

Between July and December 1940, the OKH, and principally General Erich Marcks, had developed a series of ideas on how to conduct a campaign against the Soviet Union. Marcks assumed that the Red Army would have to stand and fight west of the rivers Prut, Dniester, Dnieper, and Dvina in order to defend their main economic and industrial areas as well as the key cities of the western Soviet Union. Since the capture of Moscow, which was seen as the political, economic, and spiritual heart of the Soviet Union, would eliminate a major part of the armaments industry as well as shatter the Soviet command and control system, Marcks made it his main operational goal. The sheer size of the front, however, and the presence of the Pripet Marshes in the middle dictated a second offensive directed toward Kiev, which would then link up with the right flank of the northern force east of the marshes for a joint thrust on Moscow. While agreeing in principle with the Marcks Plan, Hitler also stressed the economic importance of seizing the Baltic states. General Friedrich Paulus, the newly appointed deputy chief of the General Staff, resolved the conflicting visions by distributing much of the army’s reserve units among three army groups, North, Center, and South, each of which would now fight its own separate envelopment battle. What had begun as a single main thrust with a central focus had, by the autumn of 1940, evolved into a three-pronged attack with no clear Schwerpunkt and insufficient forces for any of the three army groups to accomplish their tasks.

During this period, in fact, German planning reflected an odd combination of hubris and wishful thinking as the hope that the enemy would act in the desired manner replaced rational assessment of relevant factors. OKH planners, for example, simply assumed that the Red Army would stand and fight in order to safeguard the principal Soviet economic and industrial centers, thus allowing the Wehrmacht to encircle and destroy it. The General Staff was also aware that the Soviets had built new industrial centers in the Urals that could be strengthened and reinforced by an evacuation of machines and equipment from the western borderlands but never pursued this consideration further. The German military leadership, in fact, displayed a woeful lack of understanding of economic factors. By training and tradition focused almost exclusively on the operational-tactical aspects of planning, the OKH designed a plan based on the lessons of the 1940 French campaign that emphasized a swift, decisive, concentric thrust toward the enemy capital, unconcerned by the fact that the economically vital regions lay in the south.

They thus chose to launch a blitzkrieg not over ground favorable for mobile tank warfare, the rolling countryside of Ukraine, and toward the vital oil supplies of the Caucasus, but through the endless expanse of forest and marsh in central Russia, an area of few roads and unsuitable for motorized warfare. The OKH also defined an operational plan that ignored the fact that it would be impossible to supply the army with the necessary rations, munitions, spare parts, and material for an extended period over long distances and the fact that there was insufficient manpower to safeguard these long, exposed supply lines. Shortages of oil, gasoline, and vehicles, German planners realized, would of necessity reduce German striking power in Russia while demands elsewhere would drain troop strength even as, virtually all the prime manpower having already been conscripted, no large available reserves remained. As a result, the relative punch of German formations available for the Russian campaign would in some respects be lesser than the previous year in the west, even though the army had embarked on a crash program to increase offensive firepower. Moreover, because of production bottlenecks, a large percentage of the troops assembling in the east suffered from noticeable deficiencies in armaments and equipment. Only about a fifth of the available forces possessed capabilities suitable for the envisioned rapid, wide-ranging war of movement. Because of the lack of vehicles, over half the units entered Russia the way Napoléon’s Grand Army did, on foot with horse-drawn supply wagons. The traditional German bias against the intelligence function, as well as the generally poor quality of information coming out of the Soviet Union, also posed a problem. German planners consistently underestimated Soviet strength, Stalin’s ability to maintain control after the initial German blows, the problems of space, terrain, and climate, the difficulties of supply and logistics, and the problems of waging a blitzkrieg in a vast area with few good roads.

More critically, the OKH suffered from a lack of imagination. By and large, operational planners simply took the lessons learned from the successful French campaign and applied them to the completely different context of the Soviet Union. This resulted in a clever tactical scheme but not a clear strategy for achieving a war-winning victory. Significantly, the German approach to Barbarossa overlooked or ignored a number of key factors that contributed to the success of the Sickle Cut plan. The French had been routed because Manstein had delineated a clear focal point for the German attack and advance, one that, if successful, would pin enemy forces against a natural obstacle and give them no possibility other than surrender. It depended for success on daring thrusts deep into the enemy flanks, a risk that could be taken because of the stationary nature of French forces on the Maginot Line. The distances to be covered in the decisive, initial thrust were manageable, while supply posed no insurmountable problems given the excellent road and rail network of Western Europe. In addition, the Germans enjoyed the great advantages of speed and surprise against an enemy that had never encountered the methods of mechanized warfare. Nor were the German forces markedly inferior to those of the enemy in terms of either quality or quantity. Vitally, with no threat to its rear and small distances, the Luftwaffe had been able to concentrate all its forces to provide a decisive edge. Moreover, the French system of command and control faltered almost immediately, while political leaders failed to maintain their nerve or to mobilize the full resources of the French state. Crucially, none of these factors would apply in the Soviet context. Most importantly, perhaps, Sickle Cut had been designed as a war-winning operation, an all-or-nothing gamble in which the outcome rested on German ability to gather all available strength for a stunning knockout blow at the beginning of the campaign. Failure meant not just the loss of a battle but outright disaster, a stark fact that the planners of Barbarossa chose to ignore.

Although these various plans agreed on two broad notions—that Soviet forces needed to be encircled and destroyed as quickly as possible and that the ultimate goal was a line running roughly from Archangel on the Arctic Sea to Astrakhan on the Caspian Sea—the main direction of the attack had been left unresolved, a lapse that reflected fundamental disagreement over the purpose of the operation. To Hitler, the key objective of the campaign, despite his justification of it on strategic grounds, remained the winning of Lebensraum, especially food, oil, and industrial resources, so he gave priority to economic objectives. For Halder, crushing the Soviet state with a single blow in a short campaign took precedence, which meant seizing Moscow. A powerful thrust toward Moscow—the economic, political, ideological, and communications center of a tightly controlled totalitarian regime—would force the Soviets to concentrate their forces, thus assuring their destruction. Hitler, however, dismissed Moscow as “not very important.” He agreed with the aim of rapidly enveloping Soviet forces but suggested that this could best be accomplished by diverting troops from the center to the north and south, rather than merely driving Russian forces back toward Moscow. This would achieve the additional purpose of opening the Baltic coast as a supply route and securing economic and industrial resources in Ukraine but would result in a dispersal of forces.

Typically, given their strained relationship, Hitler and Halder neither discussed nor clarified the points of conflict in their differing operational conceptions. Instead, Hitler assumed that his army chief would simply follow his guideline, while Halder believed that the development of the operation would confirm the correctness of his ideas. Army planners, in fact, seemed to have succumbed to the blitzkrieg myth, fully expecting the campaign to be decided after the first few weeks, and, thus, elected not to choose between the two conflicting views. Instead, they simply assumed that a quick military decision would deny the Soviets the ability to mobilize their resources, that the Wehrmacht could be fed off the land, and that the rapid collapse of the Soviet Union would allow for the easy conquest of the foodstuffs and raw materials vital to the German war economy.

Despite their apparent confidence and resolve, however, both Hitler and his army leaders harbored persistent doubts about the strength of the Soviet Union and the ability of the Wehrmacht to carry off a successful offensive. Goering, too, appeared ambivalent, dreading the extension of the war, the enormous size of Russia, and the probable entry of the United States, but hungering for the economic spoils to be gained. The period between January and March 1941, then, as operational plans were prepared and approved by Hitler, was a time of disturbing uncertainties. As preparations intensified, German planners became aware of numerous problems. The presence of the Pripet Marshes dictated that the Ostheer (the Eastern Army) had to be deployed in two largely uncoordinated groups, making a single decisive encirclement battle, such as achieved in France, virtually impossible. The terrain and primitive road network of Russia argued against any rapid thrusts into the interior, while the increasing breadth of the front as the Germans advanced eastward and diverging locations of key targets such as Leningrad, Moscow, and Ukraine threatened a dispersal of forces. The enormous size of Russia put in question the Luftwaffe’s ability to accomplish its tasks. Nor had a clear decision been made as to the Schwerpunkt of the attack: Halder still favored a concerted strike directly at Moscow, while Hitler gave priority to economic targets in the Baltic and Ukraine. Supply and logistic problems also arose, even as the Germans became uncomfortably aware that Soviet strength was considerably greater than expected. In the end, the generals began to suspect that, as in 1914, they did not have sufficient forces to achieve their goals.

As in 1914 and 1940, everything would depend on deciding the battle in the first weeks of the campaign through a rapid thrust and encirclement operation that would trap the Red Army west of the Dvina-Dnieper River line. Unlike Manstein’s encircling blow in 1940, which had not exceeded 150 miles in depth, the Germans would now have to advance some 300 miles in order to bag the Russians. This would tax their rather small and rudimentary supply system to the limit. Organizationally, the German army had always accorded priority to combat formations rather than the administrative tail, but this left a supply system suited only to limited campaigns of short distance and duration. Unlike the French campaign, which had already strained the Germans to the limit, in this campaign supplies could not simply be shuttled to the front by trucks from depots in Germany. The deeper the advance, moreover, the larger amounts of gasoline the trucks would use themselves just to deliver decreasing amounts of supplies. As a result of these greater distances, the German quartermaster corps thus decided to split its motor pool into two segments: one set of trucks would accompany the panzer units and shuttle fuel and supplies from intermediate dumps that themselves would be resupplied by the remainder of the fleet. Since the gauge of the Russian railways differed from the German, little could be expected initially from use of rail transport, and everything depended on the use of trucks. This, however, was a system of diminishing efficiency, as between two-thirds and three-fourths of the truck space would be filled with fuel and rations and the rest with ammunition.

To compound the problem, despite images of a motorized blitzkrieg force, the German army lacked adequate motor vehicle capacity. Halder, in fact, had toyed with the idea of demotorizing the army after the Polish campaign because of a serious lack of vehicles and fuel. Amazingly, the German army used almost twice as many horses in World War II as it had in the previous war, 2.7 million as compared to 1.4 million. The Wehrmacht that attacked Russia was essentially composed of a steel tip mounted on a brittle wooden shaft as only a quarter of the invading force consisted of motorized units. The great mass of German soldiers advanced into Russia in June 1941 as soldiers had done for centuries, on foot and supported by horse-drawn transportation; indeed, the Germans employed some 650,000 horses in their blitzkrieg into Russia. The Wehrmacht, as Adam Tooze has stressed, was essentially a “poor army,” as the Versailles restrictions and years of economic hardship in the 1920s and early 1930s had stifled the development of a large motor vehicle industry.

In order to make good their shortages, the Germans had come to rely on booty from their earlier successes. As a result, they possessed a bewildering variety of vehicles, some two thousand in all, which meant that for their repair a single army group had to stockpile a million different spare parts. Since the Germans could not assume that they would capture large stocks intact, the entire supply system depended crucially on trucks, a fact that preoccupied Halder. “Space—no pause; that alone guarantees victory,” he noted in late January. “Continuous movement is a supply issue. . . . Complications through differing equipment types. . . . Since the railroad . . . cannot be counted on for the desired tempo, the continuous operation depends on motor transport. . . . We must destroy the Russian army without pause over the Dnieper-Dvina line.” If serious fighting extended beyond this initial period, the problems would only multiply as the Wehrmacht would then be dependent on the inadequate Soviet rail system, the speed with which it could be converted and maintained, and the increasingly primitive road network.