The Defeat of Plan Barbarossa

Were the Germans defeated in Operation Barbarossa and the Battle for Moscow, or were the Russians victorious? The best answer to both is yes. The Soviet Union and the Red Army fought back from the beginning, mobilizing resources and developing skills to save their capital, frustrate the invasion, capture the initiative, demonstrate blitzkrieg’s limits, and begin the still- continuing process of discrediting the myth of an inherently superior German way of war. That is no mean list of accomplishments in six months against any opponent, much less the Wehrmacht.

The long list of specific German mistakes can be conveniently grouped under two headings: comprehensive overextension and comprehensive underestimation. Both reflected the general sense of emergency that had informed Hitler’s Reich from the first days of its existence. Time was always Adolf Hitler’s chief enemy. He was convinced that only he could create the Thousand-Year Reich of his visions, and to that end was willing to run the most extreme risks.

Hitler’s generals, especially the panzer generals, shared that risk-taking mind-set and accepted the apocalyptic visions accompanying it. That congruence shaped Barbarossa’s racist, genocidal nature. From the campaign’s beginning, terror and murder followed in the wake of the panzers. That was worse than a crime. It was a mistake antagonizing broad spectrums of a population that could have been mobilized to work for and with the conquerors, and in some cases act against the Soviet system. To behave differently would have required Nazis to be something other than Nazis—and, perhaps, generals to be something other than generals, at least when confronting Slavic/Jewish Bolsheviks.

The army would have been constrained to recast its institutional mentality. However intense the antagonism between the Führer and his commanders may have become in later years, in 1941 they possessed a common vision in which choices and priorities were unnecessary. Germany’s weaknesses in numbers, equipment, and logistics were sufficiently daunting that reasonably prudent military planners would have advised against the entire campaign to the point of resigning. But partly through their own history, and partly through years of exposure to National Socialism, Germany’s soldiers had come to believe in the “Triumph of the Will.”

It is an overlooked paradox that the failure to reach Moscow may have averted a German catastrophe. Stalin proposed to continue fighting even if Moscow fell, calling on resources from the Urals and Siberia. Aside from that, capturing the city with the resources available—if it could be done at all—would have involved heavy losses, losses that would fall disproportionately on the mobile troops who would be first in and expected to do much of the heavy work. Comparisons with Verdun once again circulated in the armored force. And should the swastika fly over the Kremlin, Army Group Center would be forward-loaded at the far end of a long salient vulnerable to systematic counterattacks, containing a tenuous supply line exposed to constant harassment from a developing partisan movement. Operation Typhoon’s outcome preserved the cadres—or the skeletons—of the panzers to anchor the defense during the winter and prepare for another try in the spring.

They did both well. In January 1942, 18th Panzer Division used its last dozen tanks as the core of a 50-mile thrust into Soviet-occupied territory to rescue an infantry division that had been surrounded for a month. In 6th Panzer Division, Erhard Raus pragmatically employed a series of local counterattacks as tactical training exercises for replacements. Was this heroic professionalism or wishful thinking? Or more like magical thinking, the kind of insanity defined as doing the same thing the same way and expecting different results? In 1807 and again in 1918 the Prussian/German army had responded to defeat with comprehensive self-examination. In 1939 Hitler’s army had responded to victory by an internally initiated tune-up. Nothing remotely similar happened during the winter of 1941-42. Especially for the panzers, whatever energy remained after replacing losses was devoted to improving existing systems.

That situation invites explanation in terms of desperation. As late as the end of February, total tank strength was down to around 150—for the entire Eastern Front. It was not a figure encouraging detached speculation on better ways of war. But even at this relatively early stage, a process of selection was taking place in the regiments and divisions. Eighth Panzer Division’s CO Erich Brandenberger was an old gunner, as calm in demeanor as he was quick to react to emergencies. Heinrich Eberbach took over 4th Panzer—no surprise after his success in making the most of small numbers on the road to Tula. Hans Hube’s loss of an arm in the Great War had not kept him from rising to command of the 16th Motorized Division, staying with it when it was converted to tanks, and building a reputation as a brilliant tactician. Hermann Balck, marked as a comer for his work in France, had been on staff duty during Barbarossa, but would make his mark beginning in May commanding 11th Panzer Division.

One cannot speak of a common personality type in officers who came from everywhere in the prewar army. Some were religious; some were skeptics; some were casually Gottglaubig—the Nazi term for nondenominational. Some were deliberately muddy-boots; others took conscious pains with their grooming. What these officers and their contemporaries similarly marked out for high command was pragmatism. They were hands-on problem-solvers who maximized the material they were given and did their best in the situations they confronted. “I’ll try, sir” was not an acceptable response in the panzer force that emerged from the rubble of Barbarossa. There was no try—only do, or do not.

Another thing the new generation of panzer leaders had in common was a level of bravery and charisma not seen among senior Prussian/ German officers since the Napoleonic Wars. Omer Bartov has made a strong case for the increasing “demodernization” of the German army in the Soviet Union. Its simplified version describes a situation in which material and numerical inferiority, and the resulting high casualties, led to the erosion of primary-group identification and an emphasis on National Socialist ideology as a primary element of morale and fighting power. One might suggest that a tank crew is an automatically self-renewing primary group, as is to a lesser degree the men riding in the same half-track or truck. In the panzers, however, regiment and division commanders to a significant extent also facilitated primary groups by personal leadership.

Post-Barbarossa, an infantry colonel appearing in the front line was likely to generate a reaction similar to the one made famous by American cartoonist Bill Mauldin: “Sir, do ya hafta draw fire while you’re inspi rin’ us?” His panzer counterpart, in a radio-equipped tank or half-track, usually with one or two more as escort, could have a decisive effect on events at the sharp end—and had a solid chance of surviving till next time. Such behavior had little to do with ideology, and not much more with “warrior spirit,” but had much to do with mutual expectations. It was what one did when it had to be done. Even for generals it was often a matter of leading as though one’s life depended on it—as it often did literally. And there are few greater boosters of combat morale than the effective presence at a hot spot of someone who seems to know what he is doing and what to do next. In 6th Panzer Division, a familiar catchphrase was “Raus zieht heraus”—“Raus’ll get us out of this.” Hans Hube’s nickname was simply “the man”—not “the old man” but “the man.”

The ethos had serious drawbacks. It led to a focus on “hitting the next target,” a privileging of action at the expense of reflection at all levels and in all aspects of war-making. That pattern was, if not always exacerbated, too often not balanced by the staffs. The abolition of the Great General Staff by the Versailles Treaty combined with the rapid expansion of the army under Hitler conspired to create a chronic shortage of qualified staff officers, and encouraged the development of new ones to meet staff requirements of the new formations. What was important was solving the immediate problems of organizing and training new divisions, and providing equipment and doctrine for new branches—like the panzers.

It is not necessary to reference Nazi anti-intellectualism to understand that considering ramifications and implications was not a quality particularly valued in the post-Barbarossa armored force. It is ironic to think that Versailles, so often excoriated for failing to sustain German rearmament, may have had a decisive “stealth success” in removing a potentially significant counterpoint to the army’s tunnel vision.

The panzer spirit also spread through promotion. Guderian’s advocacy of a flexible, mobile defense against the Soviet winter offensive might be sound in principle, but arguably lay outside the panzers’ current capacities. His successor was corps commander Rudolf Schmidt, whose nickname “Panzerschmidt” suggests determination rather than finesse. Schmidt based his tactics on strong points established in villages that were magnets for Russians no less cold than their opponents, and defended until relieved by battle groups built around whatever was available and could be scrounged. Walther Model commanded a corps during Typhoon, and in January 1942 brought his uncompromising mind-set and a belief in the defensive potential of small armored battle groups to 9th Army. Many other panzer generals would follow the same path.

Reconfiguring the panzers’ command profile would have meant little if the armored force was not restored materially. That was the main challenge during the winter and early spring of 1942. Overall losses during Barbarossa amounted to more than 1,100,000 men, and there was no way they could be entirely replaced before resumed operations enlarged the gap. Halder calculated the resulting loss of combat effectiveness as from half to two-thirds in the infantry. The mobile divisions were better off in personnel terms, but not by much, especially given the loss in specialists incurred by such measures as using dismounted tankers as infantry during the desperate winter months. More than 4,200 tanks had been destroyed or damaged during Barbarossa. There was no way an overextended industrial network and an overburdened repair system could compensate. As late as March, the gap between tables of organization and tanks in unit service was more than 2,000. The corresponding shortfall in trucks was 35,000. A quarter-million horses were dead, a loss no less serious to an army still largely muscle-powered and likely to remain so given an increasingly untenable gap between the Reich’s oil resources and the Wehrmacht’s needs.

Hitler had planned on using new production to expand the army to 30 panzer divisions. The best the overstrained factories and replacement systems could deliver was four: three built around existing army regiments and one formed by converting the 1st Cavalry Division. Grossdeutschland was upgraded to a motorized division, with selected recruits and a guarantee of the latest equipment as it became available. Authorizing tank battalions for the four SS motorized divisions absorbed still more production. Some effort was made to replace quantity by quality. The two light companies of each tank battalion were authorized 17 J or L versions of the Panzer IIIs with the long-barreled 50mm gun. An increasing number of the medium company’s 17 Mark IVs were Fs and Gs, with a 75mm high-velocity gun that was the first clear match for the T-34 to appear in the armored force. These up-gunned tanks were issued to replace losses, so throughout 1942 panzer battalions would operate with mixed establishments of shorts and longs.

Most panzer and motorized divisions were assigned an antiaircraft battalion with eight 88mm towed guns and a couple dozen 20mms. In recognition of the Red Air Force’s exponentially improving ground-attack capacity, the new addition was also a welcome upgrade of the divisions’ antitank capability. The motorized divisions received an even larger direct force multiplier: an organic tank battalion. That gave them a ratio of six to one in infantry and armor, compared to the panzer divisions’ four to two. Given the high casualties the motorized infantry had suffered in 1941, and given the Reich’s limited ability to replace tank losses, the upgrading was more or less a distinction without a difference. It was also a way of increasing the number of tank-equipped divisions without the problems inevitably accompanying new organizations.

The revamped structure of the motorized divisions was also a recognition that the hard-hammered marching infantry—some divisions were two-thirds short of authorized strength as late as May—were going to require mobile backup, “corset stays,” even in what passed for quiet sectors. The status of the motorized infantry was acknowledged when, in October 1942, they were redesignated as grenadiers. In March 1943 they became panzer grenadiers. In June the motorized divisions were retitled panzer grenadiers as well.

The honorifics would gladly have been exchanged for a few dozen more half-tracks: a battalion’s worth of those valuable vehicles was the best most mobile divisions could expect. Firepower was nevertheless increased, with the commander’s track in each platoon sporting a 37mm gun, which was still useful in many ways. Other half-tracks carried a variety of increasingly heavy guns and mortars on improvised mounts. The 50mm antitank gun became a battalion weapon, and panzer grenadier battalions also had as many as eight infantry guns for direct support—substituting for towed field artillery too often bogged down, out of contact, or out of range.

The resulting amalgam of weapons and vehicles continues to delight war-gamers and order-of-battle hobbyists. In fact, the plethora of crew-served heavy weapons reflected the continuing shortage—or better said, absence—of tanks and assault guns. Another indication of the patchwork nature of the armored force’s reconstruction is that the tank battalions for the motorized/panzer grenadier divisions were transferred from the panzer divisions: another institutionalized dispersion of a scarce and wasting asset.

The battle group system remained basic to the employment of the mobile troops, but experience produced modifications. Regiments evolved toward task force headquarters, with battalions becoming increasingly autonomous, transferred among them as needed for building blocks. In the offense or for counterattacks, battle groups were usually built around the tank battalions, the half-tracked rifle battalion, and the reconnaissance battalion. On the defensive the panzer grenadier regiments did the heavy work with the tanks in reserve—if they were available—for gap-plugging and counterattacks. Improvements in forward fire control in principle allowed the panzers’ artillery to be centralized at divisional level, its fire allocated where most needed or most promising. In fact, battalions were often attached to battle groups for the sake of quick reaction.

The Eastern Front’s major contribution to tactics was added emphasis on speed. The ability to form, commit, and restructure battle groups to match changing situations was often the major German force multiplier against a materially and numerically superior enemy that, even as its flexibility improved, was still structured around orders from above. The success of these formations, time and again, against all odds and obstacles, in turn fostered a sense of operational superiority that inevitably manifested itself in racial as well as military contexts. The results could range from triumph to disaster—but at division level and below the disasters, tended to be dismissed as the chance of war rather than signs of a fundamental shift in the balance of fighting power.

The developed battle group system was also a tactical response to a Soviet strategy that during the winter of 1941-42 sought to decide the war by breaking the German defenses along the entire front. Stalin and his key military advisors agreed that it was best done by hammering as hard as possible in as many sectors as possible, on the principle that something had to give somewhere. The plan had a political dimension as well: to restore domestic morale still far too labile for Stalin’s peace of mind by providing at least small-scale victories.

A more prudent approach might have involved structuring military objectives to buy time: time for promised American assistance to arrive; time to restabilize an industrial base physically transferred east of the Urals; and above all, time to shake down a still- rebuilding Red Army as yet unable to translate strategic planning into operational and tactical success. Instead, recovered from the shocks of December, the Germans proved well able to parry, block, and then halt a series of ambitious offensives from Leningrad to Rzhev-Vyazma and south to Orel and Kursk.

Those successes were primarily achieved by the well- applied economy-of-force tactics indicated above: mutually supporting strong points backed by relatively small armored battle groups. They validated infantry officers’ assertions that with minimal direct infusions of the right kind of support, they could take care of both themselves and the Russians. Beginning in 1942, the Army Weapons Office began mounting captured Soviet 76mm and German 75mm high-velocity guns on Panzer II chassis. These 10.5-ton Marder tank destroyers, though open-topped and lightly armored, were potent killers of T-34s. They went first to the infantry. So did most of the increasing number of independent assault-gun battalions formed during 1942 whose low-slung Sturmgeschütz IIIs were armed with short and long 75mm guns in combinations depending on availability. A mobile division lucky enough to have one of these battalions attached for a time usually employed it with the panzer grenadiers, where its flexible firepower was no less welcome than among ordinary Landser.

The Red Army was not the only one able to restore itself under emergency conditions. With winter turning to spring, the Germans in Russia emerged as a combination of an ideologically motivated citizen army and a seasoned professional fighting force. The months in Russia had pitilessly exposed weak human and material links. New weapons still existed mostly on drawing boards, but officers and men knew how to use what they had to best advantage. A counterattack in late April relieved 100,000 men cut off in the Demyansk Pocket since January. Infantry, artillery, and pioneers, with substantial support from the Romanians, began the final attack on the Crimean peninsula on May 8. Most of the mobile divisions had been refitted. Some especially hard-tried ones like the 6th and 7th Panzer Divisions were sent all the way to France. The rest remained in Russia but out of the line for a few weeks. They would be ready by the time the rasputitsa, the spring thaw, ended.

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