WAR CLASSICS – Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict 1941-45

MHM Editor Neil Faulkner recalls one of the great works of military history.

Hitler was a ‘satanic genius’. His military reputation has been tainted by the genocidal nature of the Nazi regime and by the way in which former Wehrmacht generals blamed him for every disaster after the war.

His capacity for mastering detail, his sense of history, his retentive memory, his strategic vision – all these had flaws, but considered in the cold light of objective military history, they were brilliant nonetheless. The Eastern campaign, above all, was his affair, and his violent and magnetic personality dominated its course, even in defeat. Since the war, Hitler has been a convenient repository for all the mistakes and miscalculations of German military policy. But a study of events in the East will show that occasions when Hitler was right and the General Staff wrong are far more numerous than the apologists of the German Army allow.

Thus Alan Clark, in top iconoclastic form, in his Barbarossa, possibly the best single-volume account of the four-year campaign on the Eastern Front of the Second World War.

Take those notorious ‘no withdrawal’ orders. Clark argues convincingly that in early December 1941, with the Wehrmacht stalled in front of Moscow, its offensive power exhausted by thickening Russian resistance and the onset of winter, withdrawal would have spelled disaster.

With temperatures sometimes hitting 40 below zero and almost entirely lacking in winter kit, the Germans were effectively immobilised, the oil in vehicle tanks turning to tar, engines refusing to turn over, frostbite casualties soaring to 100,000.

Alan Kenneth Mackenzie Clark

Born: 13 April 1928
Died: 5 September 1999
Nationality: British

Alan Clark read Modern History at Oxford under Hugh Trevor-Roper. Although he qualified as a lawyer, he is perhaps best remembered for his political career, serving as a minister under Margaret Thatcher. Always a controversial figure, he achieved peak notoriety with the publication of his diaries in 1993 – a source of acute embarrassment to many former colleagues.

The Russians, on the other hand, now organised by Marshal Georgi Zhukov – here beginning his career as Stalin’s ‘firefighter’ – were not only equipped for winter warfare, but had accumulated a huge reserve of first-class soldiers by transferring Siberian units from the Far East. These were poised to launch a massive counter-offensive, a double pincer designed to cut off and destroy the German army threatening Moscow.

Had the Germans attempted withdrawal, it is virtually certain they would have faced destruction, as columns of vehicles broke down and were overrun, and as military units broke up under the combined impact of cold, hunger, demoralisation, and enemy attack.

Standing fast on the defensive, on the other hand, in prepared positions where there was a modicum of shelter and comfort, they endured, absorbing the full shock of Zhukov’s onslaught, until the offensive power of the Red Army was in its turn exhausted. ‘The magnificent divisions of the Far Eastern Command’, Clark writes,

were mere skeletons of their December strength, exhausted by three months’ fighting in the worst winter for 140 years. More serious, as the pace of the attack slackened, the Russians had reverted to their old clumsy frontal tactics against the Igelstellen [hedgehogs], so that by the end of the winter Zhukov’s armies were in almost as parlous a state as those of his opponent…

Space and mass

A willingness to challenge conventional wisdom is only one of the many strengths of Clark’s account. For one thing, he provides historical depth. He analyses the long conflict between Hitler and the generals, and the way in which the former achieved ascendancy by a mix of purge, reward, and a consistent record of success between 1934 and 1941.

Equally important is his analysis of weaknesses on the Russian side. He acknowledges the role of Leon Trotsky in creating the Red Army during the Civil War, and that of Mikhail Tukhachevsky in reforming the army during the late 1920s and early 1930s, making it perhaps the most advanced military in the world at the time.

That pre-eminence was lost in the purges, as most of the senior officer corps was sacrificed to the paranoia of a totalitarian dictator. Brilliant, confident, thrusting officers were replaced by time-servers. Fear destroyed imagination and initiative. The Red Army reverted to linear tactics, to forward concentration, to restricting tanks to an infantry-support role. Thus was the stage set for the disasters of 1941.

The Red Army never fully recovered. Clark charts its growing strategic and tactical sophistication in the cauldron of war, but stresses that it never matched the professionalism of the Wehrmacht. What really mattered to the final outcome was space, mass, resilience, and technology.

We get a vivid sense not only of the vastness of the steppe stretching ahead of the invaders, but also of the vastness behind them, where they were dependent on a handful of roads and railways extending for hundreds of miles. And we learn, in this context, of the role of the Partisans – and of the role of Nazi bestiality in fanning a guerrilla insurgency in the rear into a conflagration.

The Battle of Stalingrad (1942-1943), one of the three turning points in Clark’s history. The Germans were first fought to a standstill, then held fast so that they could be destroyed by Russian pincers.

The Partisan war was one aspect of Russian mass and Russian resilience. Even more telling was the swelling of the Red Army into a force of many millions, and of the willingness of the Red Army soldier to endure exceptional levels of privation and trauma.

Tenacity and technology

Clark’s account pivots on three signal turning-points: the Battle of Moscow, the Battle of Stalingrad, and the Battle of Kursk. The second of these was the supreme measure of the endurance, tenacity, and cunning of the Russian rank-and-file. Here, in the rubble of a modern industrial city, the Germans were first fought to a standstill, then held fast so that they could be destroyed in another of Zhukov’s pincers.

Clark’s account is visceral and packed with insight. ‘No army which rests its quality on training, technology, and firepower – as the German Army did – should ever allow itself to be drawn into terrain where this quality is at a discount.’ Stalingrad was the victory of the Red infantryman with tommy-gun or anti-tank rifle waiting in a cellar.

Kursk – no less decisive – could not have been more different: the greatest tank battle in history, it was a struggle of armour, artillery, and airpower on open plains. And here, as Clark explains, in addition to greater Russian mass – Kursk was a battle of attrition, an armour-plated Somme – a key technological advantage was also an ingredient in the Soviet victory.

In a telling digression, he contrasts the privatised chaos of German tank-production with the state-run efficiency of the Russians. By 1943, the Panzer force was in ‘very poor shape’, and this was ‘due as much to muddle and indecision on the quartermaster and industrial side as to operational mishandling’.

The Germans placed orders with too many different contractors and ended up with too diverse an equipment inventory. The Russians deployed one main battle tank throughout the war – the T34 – producing almost 60,000 of them in a single, massive, centralised effort.

The T34 was basic and therefore easy to manufacture, but it was also reliable, durable, thickly armoured, and heavily armed with a 75mm gun. The later German tanks – the Panther and the Tiger – were better, largely because they were designed to be, but that could not compensate for the sheer mass of Russian armour. Clark quotes a Wehrmacht officer at Kursk:

We had been warned to expect resistance from Pak [anti-tank guns] and some tanks in static positions, also the possibility of a few independent brigades of the slower KV type. In fact we found ourselves taking on a seemingly inexhaustible mass of enemy armour. Never have I received such an overwhelming impression of Russian strength and numbers as on that day. The clouds of dust made it difficult to get help from the Luftwaffe, and soon many of the T34s had broken past our screen and were streaming like rats all over the battlefield…

Once the tide had turned, space played in reverse. The Russians achieved enduring supremacy in armour, artillery, and airpower on the battlefield in the summer of 1943, backed, of course, by vast reserves of manpower, but as they surged forward they repeatedly exhausted their offensive spearheads and brought their supply-lines to breaking point. So the war, though increasingly hopeless, dragged on for two years more.

Clark is as good on the final campaigns – the surge across Poland, the invasion of East Prussia, the descent on Berlin – as on the earlier ones, though he deals with them in more summary fashion. A focus in his discussion of the last year of the war is the disintegration of the Nazi regime and the effective collapse of any rational decision-making.

The literature on the Eastern Front of the Second World War is vast. But I am not aware of another single-volume account as gripping, as intelligent, and as clear as Alan Clark’s Barbarossa. •

Images: Wikimedia Commons.