The Defeat of Plan Barbarossa

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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