Barbarossa – the biggest invasion in history

David Porter analyses the tense relationship between the two most powerful dictators in Europe during the countdown to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.


Eighty years ago this year, the German Nazis mounted the greatest invasion in history. Napoleon had invaded Russia in 1812 with an army of 685,000 men. Hitler did so in 1941 with more than five times that number.

The Russians, taken by surprise, were outnumbered, outclassed, and outgeneralled. They almost lost Moscow. They almost certainly would have lost it but for vast distance, poor roads, and Hitler’s prioritisation of the conquest of the Ukraine.

In the event, the Germans came within 30 miles of the Russian capital before winter shut down the offensive. Russian losses had been astronomical: five million by December 1941.

A Soviet poster from the Second World War. Russia came perilously close to defeat in the summer of 1941.

Despite ultimate failure, the German military achievement was extraordinary, especially when set against the Soviet Union’s massive military lead as late as 1936. But whereas the Nazis had remilitarised with ruthless determination in the years following, Stalin had turned on and devastated his own army.

The great purges of the late 1930s – a counter-revolutionary terror by a paranoid bureaucratic dictator – destroyed the bulk of the Red Army officer corps, including its most brilliant leaders, notably Mikhail Tukhachevsky, who had been in the vanguard of new interwar theories of armoured warfare.

Power passed to ageing reactionaries and lickspittles like Marshal Budenny, who prioritised cavalry over tanks. The terror paralysed initiative and independence at every level of command. The Red Army was wholly incapable of responding effectively to the demands of the kind of modern, mobile, fast-changing ‘deep’ battle that the Wehrmacht imposed on it.

The Nazi dictatorship embraced a military culture in which senior officers set general objectives and allocated forces but left combat commanders to make the tactical decisions. The Stalinist dictatorship, by contrast, was medieval in its crudity; and this brought it perilously close to disaster in the context of modern industrialised warfare.

The implications of the Soviet collapse in 1941 were huge. It meant the Nazi empire extended from the Atlantic to the gates of Moscow, with control over continental resources of manpower, food supplies, raw materials, and industrial capacity. It meant that four years of gruelling attritional warfare would be necessary to destroy it. It meant that tens of millions would die in the process.

Our guide to this most momentous of military campaigns is David Porter. In his first article, below, he explores the shifting balance of political and military power in the interwar years. In his second, which you can read here, he analyses the key factors that determined the outcome of Operation Barbarossa between June and December 1941.

Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany

As early as the 1920s, Hitler had declared that two primary missions of the Nazi movement were to destroy ‘Jewish Bolshevism’ and to seize Lebensraum (‘living space’ for the German people) from Russia.

Until the Nazis came to power in 1933, however, Germany had been largely exempt from Stalin’s paranoia about the threat posed by ‘the West’, apparent since December 1927 when he made a speech warning of impending ‘capitalist encirclement’.

He insisted that the survival of communism could be ensured only by rapid development of heavy industry. The Soviet Union, he maintained, was ‘fifty to a hundred years behind the advanced countries’ and had to ‘narrow this distance in ten years’. In what was perhaps a foreboding of World War II, he declared, ‘Either we do it or we shall be crushed.’

At that time, Germany was, if anything, a de facto ally, the Weimar Republic having pursued an extensive programme of secret military cooperation with Russia since 1922. The Germans were able to develop and test weapons banned by the Treaty of Versailles on Russian territory, while the Red Army benefited from access to sophisticated German technology. By the mid-1920s, several secret establishments had been set up, including:

  • a Junkers aircraft factory at Fili, near Moscow
  • the Lipetsk fighter-pilot school, which trained future Luftwaffe aircrews
  • the Kama tank school near Kazan, the primary German centre for tank development, where a number of future senior officers were trained, including Model, von Thoma, and Guderian
  • the Tomka chemical warfare centre near Volsk on the River Volga

All these bases were closed and the military cooperation programme wound up soon after Hitler became Chancellor, but the technological input from such establishments had aided Stalin’s modernisation programme.

Five-Year Plans

In a series of ‘Five-Year Plans’, he transformed the Russian peasant-based agrarian economy into his vision of an industrial superpower. By the early 1930s, major industrial complexes had been completed, including Magnitogorsk and Kuznetsk, the Moscow and Gorki car plants, the Urals and Kramatorsk heavy machinery factories, together with the Kharkov, Stalingrad, and Cheliabinsk tractor plants. All these were either built specifically for producing military equipment or could easily be switched to war production.

While representing a tremendous increase in military industrial capacity, the Five-Year Plans imposed brutal conditions on industrial workers. Production quotas could only be met by miners putting in 16- to 18-hour working-days, in the knowledge that failure to fulfil the quotas could result in treason charges. Working conditions were downright hazardous, causing an estimated 127,000 deaths between 1928 and 1932.

The diversion of resources to industry was a factor in the major famine throughout the Ukraine in 1932-1933, in which up to 4.5 million died.

The Five-Year Plans provided the resources for the modernisation of the Red Army, an achievement that was largely due to the remarkable drive and determination of Mikhail Tukhachevsky, who served as Chief of Staff of the Red Army (1925-1928) and as Deputy Commissar for Defence.

He attempted to transform the ill-trained conscripts of the Red Army into a well-drilled, professional military force. In particular, he strongly advocated replacing cavalry with powerful armoured forces. Such radical views aroused the enmity of traditionalists in the Soviet military establishment and his ideas were rejected by Stalin, leading to his removal from the Red Army staff and censure for encouraging ‘Red militarism’.

Tukhachevsky’s army

Despite this official hostility, an experimental Mechanised Brigade was formed during the summer of 1929, comprising a tank regiment, a motor-rifle regiment, an artillery battalion, and support units. Its success led to the concept of ‘deep operations’, using all-arms formations in strikes far behind enemy lines to destroy HQs and rear-area services. Tukhachevsky was given a chance to put his ideas into practice in 1931, following Stalin’s grudging acceptance of the need for a modernised military.

His theories, though still resisted by conservative senior officers, had been largely adopted by the Red Army by the middle of the 1930s. They were first expressed as a concept in the Red Army’s Field Regulations of 1929, and then more fully developed in the 1935 Instructions on Deep Battle. The doctrine finally appeared in definitive form in the Provisional Field Regulations of 1936.

During this period, annual tank production figures soared, which allowed the creation of two larger armoured formations, the Mechanised Corps, each of which included two Mechanised Brigades totalling 430 tanks and 215 armoured cars, plus a lorried infantry brigade and support units.

ABOVE A Five-Year Plan poster from 1931. It gives full expression to the breakneck speed of Russia’s forced industrialisation. This was the basis for the creation of what had become, by 1935, the most powerful army in the world.
A Five-Year Plan poster from 1931. It gives full expression to the breakneck speed of Russia’s forced industrialisation. This was the basis for the creation of what had become, by 1935, the most powerful army in the world.

This expansion allowed the new theories of warfare to be tested in ever-larger annual manoeuvres, which culminated in the huge 1935 exercises held in the Kiev Military District. Western observers at these manoeuvres were staggered to see the hundreds of AFVs deployed and a mock airborne assault by two parachute battalions. They would have been even more amazed had it been known that the Russians had three full airborne brigades and more tank units (and indeed more AFVs) than the rest of the world’s armies combined.

Many of these AFVs were highly advanced – the T-26 Model 1933 light tank had a high-velocity 45mm gun, in contrast to the machine-gun armament of its Western counterparts, whilst the BT-5 fast tank (also armed with a 45mm gun) had a 350hp engine and Christie suspension which gave it a top speed of 45mph.

Fascist lag

This was in marked contrast to the situation in Germany, where Hitler did not dare openly reject the military restrictions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles until 16 March 1935, when he formally announced the reintroduction of conscription and a rearmament programme.

Although the first three Panzer divisions were formed in October 1935, they had to be equipped with machine-gun-armed Panzer I light tanks, as German design teams struggled to develop truly battle-worthy medium tanks.

The Red Army’s massive technological superiority was dramatically demonstrated during the Spanish Civil War, when Russia supplied weapons to the Republican forces. An estimated 600 aircraft, 350 tanks, 60 armoured cars, 1,200 field guns, and 350,000 rifles were supplied from Red Army stocks. In addition, roughly 700 Russian military personnel – mainly air and tank crew – were sent to Spain under assumed foreign names as ‘volunteers.’

Mussolini and Hitler committed far larger Italian and German contingents in support of the Nationalists, but their AFVs – 150 Italian tankettes and 121 Panzer Is – were hopelessly outclassed by the 300 T-26s and 50 BT-5s of General Pavlov’s Soviet armoured contingent. At one stage, desperate Nationalist commanders were offering their men large cash rewards for every serviceable T-26 captured.

Despite the technological superiority of the Soviet tanks, however, their armoured operations were crippled by poor communications and a lack of properly integrated infantry and artillery.

In contrast to the poor showing of their tanks, the Germans demonstrated a clear advantage in the air – the 800 or so aircraft flown by the Condor Legion underwent prolonged operational testing, giving several thousand Luftwaffe air crew invaluable combat experience.

The newer German types, such as the Bf 109 and Heinkel He 111, had a clear edge over their Russian counterparts, and the war accelerated the Luftwaffe’s development of techniques that became an essential component of blitzkrieg, notably close air- support and dive-bombing.

Stalin’s purges

Just as it seemed that the Red Army was establishing an unassailable technological lead over other European armies, that lead was swept away by Stalin’s paranoia. Tukhachevsky’s very ability proved fatal, as Stalin came to see him as a threat to his power, a view that may have been influenced by information planted by German intelligence.

Stalin began a series of bloody purges of the Communist Party in 1936, and turned his attention to the Red Army the following year. On 9 June 1937, Tukhachevsky and his most prominent supporters were suddenly arrested on treason charges, tried by a special military court on 11 June, and shot at dawn the next day.

LEFT Mikhail Tukhachevsky (1893-1937), the brilliant military innovator murdered in the Stalinist purges.
Mikhail Tukhachevsky (1893-1937), the brilliant military innovator murdered in the Stalinist purges.

The surrealism of the show trial was typified by the intervention of the old cavalryman Marshal Budenny, who screamed that the creation of armoured formations was an attempt to ‘wreck’ the Red Army. Tukhachevsky was understandably bemused by the outburst, and could only mutter, ‘I feel that I’m dreaming.’

Over the next year or so, the total of those executed or imprisoned included three of the five Marshals of the Soviet Union, plus 14 of the 16 army commanders, 60 of the 67 corps commanders, 136 of the 199 divisional commanders, and 221 of the 397 brigade commanders. Thousands more junior officers were shot or imprisoned, and the wave of terror spread out to include the heads of the defence industries and even weapons design teams.

Stalin’s iron grip on the Red Army was strengthened by the reintroduction of a system of dual command in May 1937, under which each unit had its ‘commissar’, a political officer whose effective rank was equal to that of the military commander and who had the authority to countermand his orders.

The overall effect of the purges was to stifle innovation and professionalism throughout the Red Army, as the survivors were understandably terrified of the secret police, the NKVD.

The terror also prevented any objective assessment of the lessons of the Spanish Civil War. Pavlov and his staff were all too aware that many of the Russian veterans of the war had been shot in the purges, and sheer self-preservation ensured that their reports played down any problems, blaming setbacks on poorly trained Spanish troops rather than failings in Soviet doctrine or equipment.

Although large armoured formations remained, the traditionalists regained their former influence. Marshal Budenny ensured that his beloved cavalry remained a major component of the Army, and in 1938 it reached its greatest strength, with the establishment of seven cavalry corps (more than 32 divisions).

German rearmament 1936-1939

The shock of encountering superior Russian AFVs in Spain added urgency to the development of improved German tanks, but getting them into service was a slow business. It proved difficult enough to produce the Panzer II in quantity, while it was even harder to turn early hand-built, craftsman-finished pre-production versions of the Panzer III and Panzer IV into serviceable vehicles.

ABOVE The prototype Ju 89 heavy bomber a potentially highly effective long-range strategic bomber, cancelled in favour of medium bombers and dive-bombers that would operate primarily in the close air-support role.
The prototype Ju 89 heavy bomber a potentially highly effective long-range strategic bomber, cancelled in favour of medium bombers and dive-bombers that would operate primarily in the close air-support role.

The German occupation of the rump of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 provided an invaluable boost to German armoured strength with the acquisition of Czech tanks – a total of more than 350 served as the Panzer 35(t), and 150 as the Panzer 38(t), both of which were comparable to contemporary versions of the Panzer III.

Other Czech weapons were equally good, especially the 47mm anti-tank gun, which was kept in production for the Wehrmacht until 1942, as it was far more formidable than the standard German 37mm Pak 36.

RIGHT The German Condor Legion played a key role in ensuring Nationalist air supremacy for much of the Spanish Civil War. The conflict allowed the Luftwaffe to undertake extensive combat testing of new aircraft types such as this Ju 87A ‘Stuka’ dive-bomber.
The German Condor Legion played a key role in ensuring Nationalist air supremacy for much of the Spanish Civil War. The conflict allowed the Luftwaffe to undertake extensive combat testing of new aircraft types such as this Ju 87A ‘Stuka’ dive-bomber.

A major weakness was that the vast majority of German infantry divisions were reliant on horse-drawn artillery and supply wagons until 1945, as over-stretched factories could barely produce sufficient trucks to support the Panzer divisions and a handful of motorised infantry formations.

This was to have major repercussions in 1941, when German infantry became exhausted after repeated forced marches attempting to keep up with the rapid Panzer advances deep into Russia. Despite Herculean efforts, most infantry divisions would lag behind the Panzer spearheads, allowing many surrounded Red Army units to break out through thin German cordons.

However, the German technological disadvantage was offset by an immense superiority in command and control at the operational and tactical levels – even junior ranks were expected to follow the principle of mission tactics (Auftragstaktik), by which the commander determines the objective of an operation and allocates the forces to be used, while the subordinate on the spot decides how to achieve the objective.

This was in stark contrast to the command structure of the Red Army, in which officers were thoroughly cowed and would passively await detailed written orders, which were then followed to the letter, regardless of changing battlefield conditions.

LEFT & INSET Soviet armour during the Spanish Civil War. The Soviet T-26 was superior to any Italian or German tank during what was, in effect, the training ground for the Second World War.
Soviet armour during the Spanish Civil War. The Soviet T-26 was superior to any Italian or German tank during what was, in effect, the training ground for the Second World War.

The expansion of the Luftwaffe was also badly managed. Its first Chief of Staff, General Wever, was a supporter of strategic bombing and initiated the Ural Bomber Project to produce heavy bombers capable of striking at war industries deep inside Soviet territory. Prototypes of two four- engine bombers, the Dornier Do 19 and the Junkers Ju 89, were flown.

But after Wever’s death in an air crash, production of both types was cancelled in 1937 in favour of medium bombers and dive-bombers, which required much less material, manpower, and aviation production capacity. German industry could build two medium bombers for each heavy bomber, and the attitude of the Luftwaffe’s senior officers was typified by Göring’s remark that ‘the Führer will not ask how big the bombers are, but only how many there are’.

The Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact

Germany’s Anti-Comintern Pact with Japan, signed in 1936, exemplified Hitler’s innate hostility towards Russia. But his opportunistic nature never let dogma overrule realpolitik. By 1939, a rapprochement with Stalin was clearly beneficial – it would (at least temporarily) free Germany from the risk of a prolonged war on two fronts, and open up a new source of foodstuffs and raw materials to compensate for the blockade that was certain to be imposed if Britain and France went to war in support of Poland.

Stalin was equally eager for an agreement with Germany after the failure of low-level negotiations with Britain and France, especially as it offered a unique opportunity for Soviet expansion into eastern Europe.

As a result, the Russo-German Non-Aggression Pact of August 1939 was agreed within a matter of weeks – to the profound shock of governments across the world, who could not imagine such fierce enemies making a lasting treaty.

The German war economy certainly benefited from massive quantities of raw materials, including at least:

  • 1,600,000 tons of grain
  • 900,000 tons of oil
  • 200,000 tons of cotton
  • 140,000 tons of manganese
  • 200,000 tons of phosphates
  • 20,000 tons of chrome ore
  • 18,000 tons of rubber
  • 100,000 tons of soya beans
  • 500,000 tons of iron ore
  • 300,000 tons of scrap metal and pig iron
  • 2,000 kilograms of platinum
Allies? Vyacheslav Molotov (1890-1986), an Old Bolshevik who became a leading Stalinist, served as Soviet foreign minister from 1939 to 1949.
Joachim von Ribbentrop (1893-1946) was the Nazi foreign minister from 1938 until the end of the war. Molotov and Ribbentrop signed the Russo-German Non-Aggression Pact of August 1939 that sealed the fate of Poland and set the scene for Barbarossa two years later.

The pact allowed Hitler to concentrate his forces for the campaigns in Norway and France, though he was understandably concerned by Stalin’s seizure of a great arc of territory, ostensibly to protect his western frontiers, including eastern Poland (September 1939), eastern Finland (March 1940), the Romanian provinces of Northern Bukhovina and Bessarabia (June 1940), and Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia (July 1940).

The annexation of the Romanian provinces was especially serious, as it posed a direct threat to the Ploes‚ti oilfields, which were essential for the German war effort. This prompted Hitler to begin formulating plans for an attack on Russia. An initial contingency study was drawn up by General Marcks in August 1940, but attempts to draw Stalin in as a full member of the Axis alliance continued until November 1940.

Negotiations broke down over Soviet insistence on acquiring bases in the Balkans, and on 18 December 1940 Hitler issued Führer Directive 21 ordering preparations for the invasion of Russia – Operation Barbarossa – to be completed by 15 May 1941.

Click here to read the second part of David Porter's analysis of the German invasion of Russia.
Further information
‘Lies, damned lies, and statistics.’ Although every effort has been made to check the figures quoted in these articles, Soviet sources were notorious for faking statistics for just about everything. The practice originated with the brutal industrialisation of Russia under Stalin’s Five-Year Plans, which set impossible production targets. Failure to meet these quotas was regarded as treasonous, with those held responsible either being shot or sent to a living death in the labour camps of the Gulag.
All images: WIPL.