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This edited article about the Second World War originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 654 published on 27 July 1974.
Nazi Germany’s ten year treaty of non-aggression and neutrality organised with Stalin’s Russia was the safeguard that had allowed Hitler to start the war. During the campaign against France, the Germans had only ten divisions on their Eastern frontier, facing a hundred divisions of the Russians. It took nerve on Hitler’s part, to trust that his partner in the treaty would keep faith.
After the fall of France, came the carve-up. As we have seen, Russia had already seized control of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as well as Finland. In November, 1940, the Russian Foreign Minister arrived in Berlin to discuss further moves. Considering that Hitler was already contemplating the invasion of Russia, the talks had a certain macabre unreality. It was like Chicago in the early twenties: the rival gangs agreed on their territories; Dion O’Banion stayed east of the river, the Touhy Gang kept to the west – and Al Capone had nearly everywhere else. The European super-gangsters of 1940 agreed that Hitler should control Rumania in return for Russia’s free hand in Bulgaria; while Germany would step aside in favour of Stalin’s ambitions in the Dardanelles.
In both situations, the gangster leaders kept up a facade of mutual agreement and understanding.
And while this was going on, the hoodlums in the back rooms oiled their guns for the coming battles!
Britain was a thorn in Hitler’s side. She refused to accept defeat and scorned his peace proposals. The Battle of Britain had scotched the myth of the invincible Luftwaffe and his Italian allies had fared badly from British arms in the Western Desert. He became convinced that Britain’s continued confidence and aggressiveness stemmed from a secret agreement she must have with Russia.
The very thought drove Hitler wild. He, who had no intention of honouring the non-aggression and neutrality pact one moment longer than it served his needs, was furious that his partner might be contemplating a similar double-cross. So he gave orders that the subjugation of these islands could wait till the bigger enemy was destroyed. He told his generals to prepare a plan for the invasion of Russia – and he called it “Operation Barbarossa,” after the famous Holy Roman Emperor of the twelfth century. Russia was to be knocked out in a quick campaign before the end of the war with Britain. Stalin (who the Fuhrer described as ‘an ice-cold blackmailer’) must be eliminated.
Before launching “Barbarossa,” Hitler made his right flank safe in the Balkans by swallowing up Rumania and Bulgaria as his allies. Greece and Yugoslavia resisted his approaches, so he invaded them. The gallant resistance of the Greeks and Yugoslavs delayed “Barbarossa” for only five weeks – but they were five fatal weeks that saved Russia.
Early on the Sunday morning of June 22, the Germans attacked across the frontier with three army groups comprising 116 infantry, one cavalry and nineteen armoured divisions. Despite very precise warnings from British Intelligence as to the date and strength of the coming invasion, the Russians were completely taken by surprise. Frontier guards had no inkling of trouble till they were awakened by the clatter of tank tracks and the rattle of small arms; they were mown down as they rushed out of their huts, buttoning up their tunics and loading their rifles.
June 22 was only a day in advance of the anniversary of Napoleon’s invasion of Tsarist Russia in 1812. The two campaigns make an interesting comparison: both of them led to the eventual destruction of the invader.
Hitler should really have profited from Napoleon’s earlier campaign. The lesson was there, plain for all to see. The Russian technique was to retreat deeper and deeper into their endless wastes, luring the invaders after them. When the Russians were on their home ground, they then fought a delaying action until “General Winter” came to their aid and the despoilers paid a fearful price.
Hitler should have realised all this but up until then, his career had been one of unbroken success. So much so that people began to regard him as not just a dictator but as a supreme military genius.
The Fuhrer would have done well to reflect on the wisdom of an ancient Greek proverb. It said: “Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.”
Russia was saved by her very unpreparedness for lightning war. If her roads had been up to the roads in Northern France, the panzers must have carved a quick path to Moscow as quickly as Guderian’s armour had raced for the Channel and the cutting-off of the B.E.F. in May, 1940.
The roads, however, were few and badly surfaced. Most were mere earth tracks that quickly turned to ooze at the first onset of rain.
The panzer divisions were each made up of a striking arm of about 300 tracked vehicles – light and medium tanks, self-propelled guns and support vehicles – backed up by wheeled transport numbering around 3,000. It was these latter cars, trucks, vans and lorries that slowed down the Germans on the Russian roads. The tracked vehicles could go anywhere, but the wheeled transport had to make what shift it could with the dreadful roads.
The Germans struck in three prongs, to the North, the Centre and the South. The main effort was concentrated on the Centre, facing distant Moscow. And the spearhead of the Army Group of the Centre was the 2nd Panzerarmee, commanded by the king of tank experts, General Guderian. He it was who had led the encirclement of the British Expeditionary Force before Dunkirk.
Guderian’s idea was to drive deeply into the enemy’s front and keep going, leaving the follow-up infantry formations to mop-up the remnants of any resistance. It was a method that had served him well in France.
His seniors were for the more classic method of eating away the enemy resistance by means of successive “pincer movements” – like gobbling up large formations piecemeal. Guderian suffered the fate of a lot of advanced thinkers, and his views were over-ridden. His own superior, Field-Marshal von Kluge, tartly commented that “Guderian’s operations always hang by a thread.” Hitler shared this opinion. There was too much at stake for the Fuhrer’s taste, and he ordered the invasion to proceed on the classic lines of “pincer movements.”
The method – though probably the wrong one from the German point of view – cost Russia dearly in manpower.
On June 27, Guderian reached Minsk, and 300,000 Russian prisoners were taken in the battle of encirclement that followed. Near Smolensk, another 200,000 prisoners fell into the Germans’ hands. The Russians fought with a stubborn disregard for life and hope that made for prolonged resistance, and a consequent slowing-down of the advance. And one thing the Germans did not have plenty of was time.
And then the rains came, turning the primitive roads into quagmires, so that the German wheeled transport became bogged down.
Despite the weather, Guderian was convinced that his panzers could win through to Moscow well before the winter set in, provided that the pressure of the advance was kept up. In August, however, Hitler intervened and ordered the panzers to break off and wheel to the assistance of Army Group South. It was a fatal move. Not till late September was the drive to Moscow resumed. 600,000 Russians were encircled and captured before Kiev, and another 600,000 around Vyasma; but November was soon upon the attackers, and with November came the snow.
On December 2, spearhead detachments actually reached the outer suburbs of the capital and claimed to see the towers of the Kremlin reflecting the setting sun. This was as far as they went.
The Russian blizzards began to blow that same night. With the driving snow came low temperatures that froze boiling soup in the time it took for a soldier to fumble in his kitbag for a mislaid spoon.
Only a bus ride from the centre of Moscow – but Hitler had missed the bus.