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Operation Barbarossa

LAURENCE REES: I seem to remember a story about Field Marshal Montgomery (perhaps it's apocryphal), that he said 'there is only one rule in war - don't invade Russia.'  So how should we see Hitler’s decision to invade the Soviet Union in the context of the time?

ROBERT CITINO: I think the German military staff and the British military staff, already at war with Hitler, and the neutral US army staff looking at the situation, probably felt like Hitler did that this would be a relatively easy campaign. Certainly it didn’t turn out to be that way and so with the benefit of hindsight we can say the craziest decision in World War Two was to invade Russia. I would merely say of course to Field Marshal Montgomery he should ask the Mongols about that because they did it quite effectively from a different direction and a long time ago. The Germans had overrun first Poland and then of course the Western powers so easily, and then had just had a string of continued successes, and we then go to 1941. Hitler’s ally Mussolini invaded Greece in October 1940, that went badly, and Hitler felt that he had to support his ally. There was action in North Africa where Italian armies had invaded Egypt from Libya, got 100 miles inside the country, a place called Sidi Barrani, and then hunkered down and fortified themselves. They had been beaten very badly by the British under General O’Connor - in fact been destroyed at Beda Fonn.

So there was an Italian component now, which Hitler felt he had to prop up in both the Balkans and North Africa. As any student of World War Two knows, in early 1941 Rommel shows up in North Africa and also in early 1941 action is planned in the Balkans to save the Italian’s bacon, as it were. Now to get to Greece you had to go through Yugoslavia and so operations were also drawn up for that. There was an anti-German coup in Yugoslavia that wanted to keep Yugoslavia remaining at least neutral and perhaps loyal to the allies' cause. And so Yugoslavia had to be invaded as well. That went very smoothly. Operation 25, it was called - the aerial assault on Belgrade - ‘Operation Punishment’, quite appropriately named. Yugoslavia overrun in record time.  German Armies then entering Greece, and the British came into Greece to defend it and the British were booted off the continent once again for the second time in less than a year - the Dunkirk and now the Greek evacuation.  They evacuated to Crete and the Germans hit them with a true bolt out of the blue, the world’s first all airborne operation, Operation Mercury, which overran Crete and forced the British into yet another hasty evacuation, this one back to Egypt where they ran into Rommel. A bad time for the allies. So it hadn’t just been in France in the summer of 1940 that there had been a string of successes. Sure the Germans had been stalemated in the air over Britain, but on the ground they seemed to be supreme, and so the thought would be to keep fighting campaigns on the ground. There will be peace eventually through enough operational victories when our enemies realise that we are invulnerable. I really do think that by now a kind of rough strategy had been worked out, at least in Hitler’s mind, and in the mind of the very small Staff around him.

Now there are certainly tensions between the Germans and the Soviets by late 1940. We should recall that for all the demands for a second front from Stalin that would be coming up within a year, he had a second front at one time and it was France, and at the time he was Hitler’s ally, feeding the German war machine with everything it wanted and everything it asked for and then some. And in fact those supply trains were crossing the border to the very last second before the opening of Operation Barbarossa. Certainly there were tensions, but certainly no tensions that were so insurmountable that they could only be met by the complete destruction of the Soviet state. Here I think many historians will argue that there was something different about the characteristics of this campaign - and they are on some pretty firm ground. This perhaps was Hitler’s first truly ideological campaign, one that didn’t come out of German traditions, because after all the Germans had been at war with Russia before, they’d never tried to overrun the entire country in the manner that they were going to try to do now. They had beaten Russia in 1917 but had not destroyed the Russian state, though they did assist in one regime’s collapse and the formation of another one in 1917. But now they’re trying to do something differently, and I think we can only really come back to Hitlerian notions here of Lebensraum, living space.

Hitler’s paranoiac notions that there was a kind of Jewish conspiracy which had succeeded in installing the Bolsheviks in power in Russia. And so the 'final confrontation' and the 'smashing' of a sort of 'Judeo Bolshevik state' are terms that are used repeatedly in Hitler’s own 'Table Talk', in planning documents, and even in army and Corps level planning documents which are sent down to the troops. So I think here we really are into a different realm altogether, when a European War was clearly about to become something bigger than that. But when a standard strategic war is fought for ideological reasons - from basic strategic stakes it is about to become an ideological war - then, of course, as a result of the onset of this ideology, in an ideological war, the casualties are about to be ramped up considerably.

LAURENCE REES: But at the time, the invasion of the Soviet Union made sense?

ROBERT CITINO: Well, it arguably made a certain kind of strategic sense if we accept these premises: that Britain would only stay in the war as long as there was the possibility of a large ally on the Continent, and that certainly was part of Hitler’s thinking in 1940 that Britain, as was its historical tradition, would always look for Continental swords to raise against whoever happened to be the most powerful state at the time, and it had done this very successfully in past wars. It had done it successfully in World War One as a matter of fact, with both French and Russian armies at its side, and eventually American armies. You know back in 1916 a German General Falkenhayn decided to launch the great Verdun Offensive to bleed France white, and knock France out of the war for precisely the same reasons, the language and the planning documents are almost exact. That once Britain realizes the strongest sword has been knocked out of its hand it will be forced to come to the table and enter into some kind of negotiations with Germany.  Even if the Soviet Union had been smashed it is still difficult for me to imagine Churchill opening up negotiations with Hitler.

LAURENCE REES: And yet Hitler makes this extraordinary assertion in the summer of 1940 that it’s the Soviet Union that Britain’s relying on?

ROBERT CITINO: Hitler had very little knowledge of the inner workings of Great Britain or the British Empire and I think equally marginal notions of exactly how American policy was made as well. I think he was a Continental thinker. I mean Operation Sealion is not undertaken beyond really the planning stages, I think for the same sorts of reasons. Hitler looked at Europe essentially as the Continent, with Britain floating offshore and attending to its Empire, and then a very powerful United States, but who would always have a relatively difficult time imposing its will over the Atlantic Ocean on continental Europe. We often hear that Hitler underestimated the United States and certainly his so-called Second Book, his secret book on foreign policy would belie that notion. He talks about American policy, the power of the American Union as he calls it at the time, repeatedly in the course of that book. But I think he had very marginal notions of exactly what was up; he thought there was a small ruling clique in the Soviet Union, also Jewish influenced, and clearly Jewish influence in America had to be towering as well in Hitler’s mind, it’s really how he saw the world, and by definition these states could no longer be great military powers. So if you drop Britain out and drop out the United States, the last possibility of a threat on the Continent would be the Soviet Union and I think that, more than anything, led Germany into the greatest military adventure and of course the greatest military catastrophe of all time.

LAURENCE REES: In the early autumn of 1941 the Germans actually announced that they had pretty much won against the Soviet Union, didn't they?

ROBERT CITINO: Yes. The Germans announced victory in the Soviet Union, or at least felt they had victory in the Soviet Union, or wrote it down in their diaries, on numerous occasions in the course of that first year and even into 1942. Headlines in German newspapers that the Soviet Union was finished became kind of proverbial.

I’m not one who really takes much to the notion of anything being doomed from the start and I certainly don’t think Barbarossa was doomed from the start. I think a number of things happened, and I think a number of decisions were taken that unhinged Barbarossa just enough to halt the German Armies outside of Moscow where they were then smashed by a vast Soviet counteroffensive in December 1941. The principle decision that is usually brought forth, the classic mistake Hitler made, so say many historians, was the decision in late August to call a halt on the road to Moscow to detour vast armoured forces into Ukraine and thus to carry out an encirclement of Soviet forces in the Ukraine.

Now first of all I think there’s a number of things we can say here. Hitler did not decide to halt German armies on the path to Moscow, they had been halted after the great Kesselschlacht, encirclement battle, outside Smolensk. There had been just enough Soviet resistance in that battle and a new Soviet line forming. A number of very tight armoured battles were fought east of Smolensk that had temporarily halted the German Army on the road to Moscow.  The flanks were lagging and the drive on Leningrad had stopped altogether in some very difficult forested and swampy terrain. Forces in the Ukraine had proved patently insufficient for their tasks. Essentially one panzer group overrunning this vast agricultural space, and that drive too was lagging behind. So seen on a map you had a great drive towards Moscow and then a halted drive through Leningrad and a halted drive in the Ukraine. Now even an amateur could look at a map and say that’s dangerous. Our main forces are sitting out on a limb with 500 mile dangling flanks on both sides. And there was support within both the Staff, and even in the field commanders, for the turn into the Ukraine.

Let me also say that the turn into the Ukraine resulted in the greatest encirclement battle of all time. You read estimates of 600,000 to 750,000 Soviet POWs taken in the smashing of multiple Soviet armies in and around Kiev. I would submit that any military operation that results in three quarters of a million casualties, roughly the entire population of Pittsburgh Pennsylvania at the time, is very difficult to label an error of any sort. Certainly time was lost on the road to Moscow but that time might have been lost at any rate as the Germans had momentarily outrun their logistical train on that drive to Moscow. What they did was find an immense target of opportunity and close on it. Granted, by the time General Guderian’s forces regroup, and he had been the principal wing going down to the Ukraine, by the time his forces had regrouped on the drive to Moscow time had been wasted and it was not till October that the Germans were ready to launch Operation Typhoon.

Operation Typhoon got off to an amazing start with massive encirclement battles and another 600 or 700,000 Soviet prisoners taken. The Soviets seemed to be putting one defensive line up after another which the Wehrmacht smashed.

Now, they were still in the field.  They were relentlessly counterattacking and whatever you want to say about this Red Army in 1941, and it certainly had a relatively high level of ineptitude in many levels, it never stopped counterattacking. It was quite aggressive in the field and those counterattacks cost the Germans time, blood and material all of which were becoming increasingly unrecoverable as October stretches on.

The rains hit and General Mud makes his appearance, that was a lost couple of weeks. By November the snows and the freeze hit, and the Germans can get motoring again because the ground is harder, but of course the winter is striking and that’s causing all sorts of problems of its own. It will never be a part of the military manuals of any great nation to tell tank crews that they should keep fires lit under the oil pan to keep the oil melted in the pan, which is precisely what some German tank crews were doing by late November 1941. They too kept moving forward and, say what you will, they kept going till they too ground to a halt just outside of Moscow by the last week of November or the first week of December. The war of movement, which the Germans called Bewegenskreig, had become the Stellenskreig, the war of position, almost within sight of the Kremlin’s spires.

LAURENCE REES: And so, in your analysis, there is no single mistake Hitler's making, it just didn’t work out?

ROBERT CITINO: Yes, I don’t believe that every military campaign is judged by the mistakes of the General. I think military campaigns, especially modern, gigantic, even metastasized ones like Operation Barbarossa, are so complex that to reduce them to a series of magic moments and arguing about what Hitler could have done or should have done, whether General A should have zagged not zigged, General B turned left when he should have turned right, is arguably a less sophisticated approach than this topic deserves.

LAURENCE REES: We now know, in mid-October 1941, that there is chaos in Moscow and there’s panic among the politburo…

ROBERT CITINO: There’s burning of documents…..

LAURENCE REES: There’s burning of documents. And on the night of October 16th it seems like Stalin is going to flee and leave Moscow. How crucial a moment do you think that was in this history?

ROBERT CITINO: I think it is a crucial moment. I think the Germans would still have probably ground to a halt somewhere outside of Moscow. Whether there would have been that urgency to drive it back with a massive counteroffensive, whether or not General Zhukov would have still be operating in front of Moscow or trying to protect the Stalinist regime in Gorky or in some place further to the south or to the east, those are all questions which we’ll never really be able to answer. But I think Stalin did a couple of things [right] in 1941 - after a bad couple of early weeks when Barbarossa first hit when he may well have been suffering from some kind of emotional debilitation and his cronies went out and saw him in his dacha outside of Moscow and told him to get back in the game, and in fact he did. As you may know, he believed that Beria, the Head of the Secret Police, had come to arrest him, and when that wasn’t happening he suddenly realised that perhaps there was still something that could be saved. He made an appearance on Soviet radio and those who were there will never forget hearing Stalin’s voice and a sense of, well, the boss was back on the job and I think somehow we’ll be alright.

I think his second great decision was to remain in Moscow from late October-early November when it appeared that there was nothing that could stop the Wehrmacht. Who knows, we may never know, there still may have been last second flight plans if the Wehrmacht had broken into Moscow city limits, I know of no documents that would establish that one way or the other. But there was still a sense that as long as Stalin was there, the regime would survive. He had erased all his enemies in the previous 15 years and it is impossible to imagine the Soviet regime as constituted in late 1941 surviving without Stalin’s presence, and Stalin’s presence at the centre of the political centre of gravity in the Soviet state, and Stalin remained there.

LAURENCE REES: Was there still a sense in 1942 that the Germans believed that with the winter behind them, now they could achieve victory? 

ROBERT CITINO: You know for the German officer corps Staff and Field officers alike, early 1942, the time when the worst winter passes and the Soviet winter counter offensive has now clearly been brought to a halt was a time to breathe deeply and savour the joy of being alive, because I don’t think many of them still expected they would be. Visions of Napoleon had danced in front of their heads in December of 1941 when the Soviets launched their counteroffensive and improbably the Wehrmacht had survived it. Now it had survived barely. It had survived partly because of Hitler’s halt order that the Wehrmacht was not to retreat but was to defend in place wherever it stood, to kind of go into hedgehogs, with all around defensive positions wherever they happened to be found, and thus ward off the momentum of the Soviet blow. The Germans had been horribly blooded in that campaign and the Wehrmacht had taken a million plus casualties in the course of that campaigning season in the Soviet Union, the vast majority of them in the Soviet winter counteroffensive. 

1942 was 1941 redux, but even more so as you put it, and in this way:
1941 had been a gamble - the knocking out of the Soviet Union in a single campaigning season. A lot of things could go wrong and just enough of them arguably did to prevent the Germans from triumphing. In 1942 I think many German officers at all levels knew that this was going to be much more the character of the last gasp, the last time they would really be able to engage the Soviet Union all by itself. America was in the war now and it would take a while for America to physically get into the war, but America was in the war to stay. Britain had survived the worst that Germany could throw at it from the air, and it was the last time that the Wehrmacht could be concentrated against the Soviet armies. Now in order to win the war in 1942 the Germans were forced to do a number of things; to scrape the bottom of their own manpower barrel, like draft the class of 1923 a full year early, so 18 and 19 year olds are going to fill out the rostra for this operation in the Southern Soviet Union which will be called Operation Blue. Besides that they were forced to call upon more and more the strength of their allies. Britain and the Soviet Union had an ally of course, the United States of America, with nearly unlimited industrial potential. Germany’s allies in this world were Hungary, Romania and Italy. Of 41 new divisions raised for this operation in the south in 1942, 21 of them were non-German. These armies had many brave men in the ranks, and they had many good officers, but they also lacked modern equipment. They were also deficient in their industrial base, to supply themselves, and they had weaknesses at various levels. They were certainly not going to destroy the Soviet Union - [but] they would hold the place.

What the Germans were going to do was to drive far East to clear the great bend of the Don River, to cross the Don, to reach the Volga, to take Stalingrad, to turn south, and then to enter the Caucasus. Now in the Caucasus of course was the great prize, the oil cities, Maykop, Groszny and especially Baku. If the Germans could control the oil fields of the Caucasus in this first great oil campaign, they could remain in the war, they felt, indefinitely. Now it was a long shot, but it might have been the only shot they had.