Hitler’s invasion of Russia on 22 June 1941 – Operation Barbarossa – initiated a campaign of epic proportions.
While the format of recounting a campaign through the recollections of individual participants is well established, the author does an exceptionally good job of using a host of letters and diary entries to produce a clear account of events from the early stages of planning the invasion in 1940 to the beginning of Operation Typhoon in September 1941.
One of the most valuable aspects of the book is the way in which it highlights the often-neglected weaknesses of the German war economy, especially its limited agricultural base, which struggled to feed the civilian population and even the Wehrmacht. The importance of the Soviet foodstuffs and raw materials supplied under the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact is rightly emphasised, together with Hitler’s determination to seize the agricultural and mineral resources of the Ukraine and Donets Basin.
However, the impression is given that this, plus the Nazi’s visceral hatred of ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’ was the primary motivation for Operation Barbarossa. Unfortunately, there is no real acknowledgement of the increasing Soviet threat to Germany as Stalin exploited the Pact to occupy much of Eastern Europe. His seizure of the Romanian provinces of Northern Bukhovina and Bessarabia in June 1940, for example, posed a direct threat to the Ploesti oilfields, which were essential for the German war effort.
Coverage of the campaign itself is generally very good, drawing on accounts by generals, infantrymen and aircrew. These vividly illustrate day-to-day operations – in many respects the infantrymen experienced the worst conditions, with repeated forced marches of 40km or 50km per day. One recalled how: ‘Battling both stifling heat and thick clouds of dust, we plodded countless miles. There were few breaks from our march… after a while a kind of hypnosis would set in as you watched the steady rhythm of the man’s boots in front of you. Utterly exhausted, I sometimes fell into a quasi-sleepwalk… I somehow managed to keep pace, waking only briefly whenever I stumbled into the body ahead of me.’
The often fanatical, but ill-coordinated Soviet resistance could be less of a problem than the daunting challenges posed by extremes of climate and the appalling roads. In dry weather, these roads clogged engines and imposed a heavy maintenance burden on transport units of the Panzer and motorised divisions. They also dramatically increased fuel consumption – each Panzer regiment had a standard allocation of 60,000 litres per day, but, even in dry weather, twice this amount was needed, while the thick mud caused by heavy rain brought the requirement up to a staggering 180,000 litres. Insuperable German supply and transport problems crippled the Wehrmacht’s capability to exploit its battlefield victories.
If there is a weakness in the book, it is a relentless emphasis on the undoubted widespread atrocities committed by German forces against both civilians and POWs combined with a somewhat grudging acceptance of the extent of Soviet war crimes. Despite these criticisms, this highly readable study is a valuable addition to existing histories of Operation Barbarossa.
Review by David Porter.
Barbarossa Through German Eyes, Jonathan Trigg, Amberley Publishing, £20.00 (hbk), ISBN 978-1398107229.