24 Jun 21

Members of the NR will be familiar with the general outline of Operation BARBAROSSA, Hitler’s doomed invasion of the Soviet Union 80 years ago in the summer of 1941. However, as Jonathan Dimbleby so elegantly sets out in his 595-page history of the campaign, there is far more to this tale that just an account of a military disaster.  This magnum opus is the literary equivalent of a grand, sweeping mural, full of highly detailed vignettes that hold the reader’s attention, and which serve to illustrate the central theme. Dimbleby’s proposition is that BARBAROSSA marked the true turning point of WWII, a theory that has been espoused by some historians in relation to certain other events.  However, your reviewer, as an amateur student of the rise and fall of Nazi Germany, has been left inclined to agree with him.

BARBAROSSA was conceived by Hitler, against the better judgment of some of his senior Wehrmacht commanders, and was the product of a flawed assessment of Soviet military capability as well as overriding Nazi ideology that envisaged what was described by them as the eradication of ‘the Jewish bacillus’, the extinction of ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’ and, almost above all, the Nazi view that the Slavic peoples belonged to the ‘Untermensch’ and, as such, would lack the moral component to resist the German onslaught. Nevertheless, having put on hold the idea of invading Britain following events in 1940, and, believing that, in light of the notorious Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, neither Britain nor the USA would come to the aid of a duplicitous Communist dictatorship, the purely military elements of the German estimate did not look particularly unfavourable. An added factor in German thinking was the lamentable Russian performance in the 1940 ‘Winter War’ against Finland which led merely to the Russians winning a costly but decisively Pyrrhic victory where, superficially at least, the correlation of forces had initially been in their favour.

Dimbleby clearly demonstrates how the key principle of war, selection and maintenance of the aim, became increasingly disregarded as Hitler bullied his generals into courses of action and ever-changing priorities which, one imagines, Clausewitz would have used as counterexamples to his largely timeless and enduring logic as set out in Vom Krieg and, to this day, widely understood and taught. In parallel with the purely military narrative, the author delves deeply into the grand strategic background, examining the agonising indecision and internal political and diplomatic contortions at the highest levels in London and Washington following Germany reneging on their short-lived pact with Russia.  He demonstrates the difficulty of rules-based democracies supping at the table of a bellicose, cunning and blood-stained dictator like Stalin, a man with clear longer-term priorities: rid the motherland of the Nazis and then re-establish the Soviet Union’s western borders, at least as they were at the start of 1941 and, thereafter, as far west as possible. Parallels with modern-day Russia, China and North Korea spring to mind.

But, back to BARBAROSSA. The blitzkrieg tactics that had worked so well in 1939-40 were initially successful as a 3-million-stong German force, organised in three huge army groups, rolled relentlessly eastwards, in excellent summer weather on a 1,000km front stretching from the Baltic to the Danube. The Soviet Army, enfeebled by Stalin’s repeated purges of the officer corps, was routed until ‘General Mud’ in the autumn and the bitter Russian winter conditions that followed, finally took their toll on the over-extended and exhausted invaders. As is well known, the advance finally stalled well before the gates of Moscow compounded by increasingly determined Russian resistance, by a debilitated logistics supply line and, from the top down, by a demoralising sense of impending doom.  By that time, the Soviet Army had significantly improved its capability and, despite Hitler’s exhortations to his generals to hold ground at any cost, a disorganized German retreat began.

Along the way, the book examines the nature and scale of the atrocities committed by both sides and, in the German case, is scathing about the subsequent claims by senior Wehrmacht officers that they had no knowledge of the activities of the Einsatzgruppen that followed their brutal, murderous path in the wake of the regular troops. Nor is the impact on Russian civilians lost in this account. The late mobilisation of the entire population underpinned the Soviet Army’s efforts to dig defensive lines before Moscow. First-hand accounts illuminate the Russian determination, for various reasons including extreme patriotism, ideology and fear, to drive back their enemy, if necessary, fighting to the last man, woman and child.  We are told of their ability to fight through the depths of winter against an enemy still wearing the light summer uniforms issued for their rapid advances in July, August and September.

The book is replete with statistics which make for chilling reading.  By December 1941, barely 6 months after the start of the operation, the German Army had lost, by their own estates, some 800,000 men killed, wounded or missed in action along with 2,700 tanks, 41,000 trucks, 13,600 artillery pieces, around 5,000 aircraft and 200,000 horses. Later studies show that these figures were probably much higher.  However, these numbers pale when compared with those of the Soviets. Over the same period, they lost some 3 million troops, almost 5,000 tanks, nearly 12,000 aircraft and 7,000 artillery pieces.  More significant though was the ability of a rapidly developing Soviet military-industrial capability east of the Urals to generate replacement equipment at a staggering rate.  Similarly, deploying vast numbers of largely untrained troops as battle casualty replacements to cover their agonising losses, the Soviet push westwards was maintained, despite continued high levels of attrition.  As Dimbleby observes, “In every relevant respect, the Nazis underestimated the strength and resolve of the Soviet Union”.

And so, to the sub-title of the book, “How Hitler Lost the War”.  It is worth remembering that, following the debacle that BARBAROSSA turned out to be, the war in Europe still had over three years to run and, it could be argued, the scale of German losses might have been made good.  Nevertheless, despite some German successes in 1942 which took Hitler’s armies to the banks of the Volga and into the Caucasus, the crushing defeats in 1943 at Kursk and Stalingrad, as Dimbleby succinctly says, “…. served merely to illustrate that 1941 was the decisive year of the war.  Operation Barbarossa marked the zenith and nadir of Hitler’s attempts to destroy Bolshevism, the beginning and the end of his psychotic fantasy that the Thousand Year Reich’s Lebensraum could be established on the soil of the Soviet Union”.

It is interesting to note from first-hand German sources how the beleaguered Nazi armies in the winter of 1941 began to compare their plight with that of Napoleon, 130 years earlier.  General Winter had joined the battle and gross failures in logistics and strategic planning had left them stranded – old lessons bitterly re-learned.  Another general observation is the malign effect that direct political intervention in operational decision making can have, particularly when coupled with repeated changes of strategic priorities.  Hitler, and to a lesser extent Stalin, were culpable on these counts.  However, such traits were not confined only to dictators, cf. Churchill, the Dardanelles and Norway.

This book may be weighty, but it tells an eminently readable, indeed engrossing story which an armchair historian like your reviewer finds most convincing. As with so many accounts in which geography plays such a key role, fold-out maps would have been a boon. Pace professional academics who may have different analyses of the grand strategic progress and outcome of WWII and it’s possible turning points, but I for one am persuaded by Jonathan Dimbleby’s underlying thesis.

I commend it to NR members, particularly those whose interests stray beyond the purely naval aspects of the Second World War.