Military history

Part One

The Double-Edged Sword of Barbarossa

Saturday, 21 June 1941, produced a perfect summer’s morning. Many Berliners took the train out to Potsdam to spend the day in the park of Sans Souci. Others went swimming from the beaches of the Wannsee or the Nikolassee. In cafés, the rich repertoire of jokes about Rudolf Hess’s flight to Britain had given way to stories about an imminent invasion of the Soviet Union. Others, dismayed at the idea of a much wider war, rested their hopes upon the idea that Stalin would cede the Ukraine to Germany at the last moment.

In the Soviet Embassy on the Unter den Linden officials were at their posts. An urgent signal from Moscow demanded ‘an important clarification’ of the huge military preparations along the frontiers from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Valentin Berezhkov, the first secretary and chief interpreter, rang the German Foreign Office on the Wilhelmstrasse to arrange a meeting. He was told that Reichsminister Joachim von Ribbentrop was out of town, and that Staatssekretär Freiherr von Weizsäcker could not be reached by telephone. As the morning passed, more and more urgent messages arrived from Moscow demanding news. There was an atmosphere of repressed hysteria in the Kremlin as the evidence of German intentions mounted, adding to more than eighty warnings received over the previous eight months. The deputy head of the NKVD had just reported that there were no fewer than ‘thirty-nine aircraft incursions over the state border of the USSR’ during the previous day. The Wehrmacht was quite shameless in its preparations, yet the lack of secrecy seems only to have confirmed the idea in Stalin’s convoluted mind that this must all be part of a plan by Adolf Hitler to extract greater concessions.

The Soviet ambassador in Berlin, Vladimir Dekanozov, shared Stalin’s conviction that it was all a campaign of disinformation, originally started by the British. He even dismissed the report of his own military attaché that 180 divisions had deployed along the border. Dekanozov, a protégé of Lavrenty Beria, was yet another Georgian and a senior member of the NKVD. His experience of foreign affairs had gone little beyond interrogating and purging rather more practised diplomats. Other members of the mission, although they did not dare express their views too forcefully, had little doubt that Hitler was planning to invade. They had even sent on the proofs of a phrase book prepared for invading troops, which had been brought secretly to the Soviet consulate by a German Communist printer. Useful terms included the Russian for ‘Surrender!’, ‘Hands up!’, ‘Where is the collective farm chairman?’, ‘Are you a Communist?’, and ‘I’ll shoot!’

Berezhkov’s renewed telephone calls to the Wilhelmstrasse were met by the statement that Ribbentrop ‘is not here and nobody knows when he will return’. At midday, he tried another official, the head of the political department. ‘I believe something is going on at Führer headquarters. Very probably everybody’s there.’ But the German Foreign Minister was not out of Berlin. Ribbentrop was busy preparing instructions to the German Embassy in Moscow, headed ‘Urgent! State Secret!’ Early the next morning, some two hours after the invasion began, the ambassador, Count Friedrich Werner von der Schulenburg, was to convey to the Soviet government a list of grievances to serve as the pretext.

As the Saturday afternoon in Berlin turned to evening, the messages from Moscow grew increasingly frantic. Berezhkov rang the Wilhelmstrasse every thirty minutes. Still no senior functionary would accept his call. From the open window of his office, he could see the old-fashioned Schutzmann helmets of the police guarding the embassy. Beyond them, Berliners were taking a Saturday evening stroll on the Unter den Linden. The polarity between war and peace had a bewildering air of unreality. The Berlin–Moscow express was about to pass through the waiting German armies and cross the frontier as if nothing were amiss.

In Moscow, the Soviet Foreign Minister, Molotov, summoned Count von der Schulenburg to the Kremlin. The German ambassador, after overseeing the destruction of the embassy’s secret papers, set off for the meeting called for half past nine. When challenged with the evidence of German preparations, he did not admit that an invasion was about to take place. He simply expressed his astonishment that the Soviet Union could not understand the situation and refused to answer any questions until he had consulted Berlin.

Schulenburg, a diplomat of the old school who believed in Bismarck’s dictum that Germany should never make war on Russia, had good reason to be astonished by the Kremlin’s ignorance. Over two weeks before, he had invited Dekanozov, then back in Moscow, to a private lunch and warned him of Hitler’s plans. The old count clearly felt absolved from any loyalty to the Nazi regime after the Führer had blatantly lied to him, claiming to have no designs against Russia.* But Dekanozov, astonished at such a revelation, immediately suspected a trick. Stalin, reacting in the same way, exploded to the Politburo: ‘Disinformation has now reached ambassadorial level!’ Stalin was certain that most warnings had been ‘Angliyskaya provokatsiya’ – part of a plot by Winston Churchill, the arch-enemy of the Soviet Union, to start a war between Russia and Germany. Since Hess’s flight to Scotland, the conspiracy had grown even more complicated in his mind.

Stalin, who had refused to accept the possibility of an invasion until that Saturday afternoon, still remained terrified of provoking Hitler. Goebbels, with some justification, compared him to a rabbit mesmerized by a snake. A succession of reports from frontier guards told of tank engines being warmed up in the woods across the border, of German army engineers constructing bridges across rivers and removing barbed-wire entanglements in front of their positions. The commander of the Kiev Special Military District warned that war would begin in a matter of hours. Reports arrived that in Baltic ports, German ships had suddenly stopped loading and sailed for home. Yet Stalin, the totalitarian dictator, still could not come to terms with the idea that events might be outside his control.

That night, after long discussions in his study with senior commanders of the Red Army, Stalin agreed to the dispatch in code of a signal to all military-district headquarters in the West. ‘In the course of 22–23 June 1941, sudden attacks by the Germans on the fronts of Leningrad, Baltic Special, Western Special, Kiev Special and Odessa Military Districts are possible. The task of our forces is not to yield to any provocations likely to prompt major complications. At the same time troops… are to be at full combat readiness, to meet a possible surprise blow by the Germans and their allies.’ The navy and some senior officers in the Red Army had quietly ignored Stalin’s orders against mobilization. But for many units, the warning order, which did not go out until after midnight, arrived too late.

In Berlin, Berezhkov had given up any hope of getting through to Ribbentrop’s office as the night wore on. Suddenly, at around three in the morning, the telephone beside him rang. ‘Herr Reichsminister von Ribbentrop’, announced an unfamiliar voice, ‘wishes to see representatives of the Soviet government at the Foreign Office in the Wilhelmstrasse.’ Berezhkov explained that it would take time to wake the ambassador and order a car.

‘The Reichsminister’s motor car is already waiting outside your embassy. The Minister wishes to see Soviet representatives immediately.’

Outside the embassy, Dekanozov and Berezhkov found the black limousine waiting at the kerb. An official of the foreign ministry in full uniform stood beside the door, while an SS officer remained seated beside the driver. As they drove off, Berezhkov noted that, beyond the Brandenburg Gate, dawn was already spreading a glow in the sky above the trees of the Tiergarten. It was midsummer’s morning.

When they reached the Wilhelmstrasse, they saw a crowd of people outside. The entrance with its wrought-iron awning was lit by camera lights for newsreel crews. Pressmen surrounded the two Soviet diplomats, momentarily blinding them with the flashbulbs of their cameras. This unexpected reception made Berezhkov fear the worst, but Dekanozov appeared unshaken in his belief that Germany and Russia were still at peace.

The Soviet ambassador, ‘barely five feet tall, with a small beak nose and a few strands of black hair plastered across a bald pate’, was not an impressive figure. Hitler, when he first received him, had him flanked by two of his tallest SS guards to emphasize the contrast. Yet the diminutive Georgian was dangerous to those in his power. He had been known as the ‘hangman of Baku’ from his repressive activities in the Caucasus following the Russian civil war. In the Berlin embassy, he had even had a torture and execution chamber constructed in the basement to deal with suspected traitors in the Soviet community.

Ribbentrop, while waiting for them to arrive, paced up and down his room ‘like a caged animal’. There was little sign of the ‘statesmanlike expression which he reserved for great occasions’.

‘The Führer is absolutely right to attack Russia now,’ he kept repeating as if trying to convince himself. ‘The Russians would certainly themselves attack us, if we did not do so.’ His subordinates were convinced that he could not face the prospect of destroying what he saw as his most important achievement, the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. He may also have started to suspect that Hitler’s reckless gamble could turn into the greatest disaster in history.

The two Soviet representatives were shown into the Reichsminister’s huge office. An expanse of patterned parquet floor led to the desk at the far end. Bronze statuettes on stands lined the walls. As they came close, Berezhkov was struck by Ribbentrop’s appearance. ‘His face was scarlet and bloated, his eyes were glassy and inflamed.’ He wondered if he had been drinking.

Ribbentrop, after the most perfunctory of handshakes, led them to a table to one side where they sat down. Dekanozov started to read a statement requesting reassurances from the German government, but Ribbentrop broke in to say that they had been invited to attend a meeting for very different reasons. He stumbled through what amounted to a declaration of war, although the word was never mentioned: ‘The Soviet Government’s hostile attitude to Germany and the serious threat represented by Russian troop concentrations on Germany’s eastern frontier have compelled the Reich to take military counter-measures.’ Ribbentrop repeated himself in different ways, and accused the Soviet Union of various acts, including the military violation of German territory. It suddenly became clear to Berezhkov that the Wehrmacht must have already started its invasion. The Reichsminister stood up abruptly. He handed over the full text of Hitler’s memorandum to Stalin’s ambassador, who was speechless. ‘The Führer has charged me with informing you officially of these defensive measures.’

Dekanozov also rose to his feet. He barely reached to Ribbentrop’s shoulder. The full significance sank in at last. ‘You’ll regret this insulting, provocative and thoroughly predatory attack on the Soviet Union. You’ll pay dearly for it!’ He turned away, followed by Berezhkov, and strode towards the door. Ribbentrop hurried after them. ‘Tell them in Moscow’, he whispered urgently, ‘that I was against this attack.’

Dawn had broken by the time Dekanozov and Berezhkov climbed into the limousine for the short ride back to the Soviet Embassy. On the Unter den Linden, they found that a detachment of SS troops had already cordoned off the block. Inside, members of the staff, awaiting their return, told them that all their telephone lines had been cut. They tuned the wireless to a Russian radio station. Moscow was an hour ahead of German summer time, so there it was now six o’clock on the morning of Sunday, 22 June. To their amazement and consternation, the news bulletin concentrated on increased production figures for Soviet industry and agriculture. It was followed by a keep-fit broadcast. There was no mention of the German invasion. The senior NKVD and GRU (military intelligence) officers in the embassy immediately proceeded to the top floor, a restricted area sealed off with reinforced steel doors and steel-shuttered windows. Secret documents were fed into the special quick-burning ovens, installed in case of emergency.


In the Russian capital, the anti-aircraft defences had been alerted, but the bulk of the population still had no idea of what was happening. Members of the nomenklatura ordered into their offices felt paralysed from a lack of guidance. Stalin had not spoken. No dividing line between ‘provocation’ and full-scale war had been defined and nobody knew what was happening at the front. Communications had collapsed under the onslaught.

The hopes of even the most fanatic Kremlin optimist were crumbling. Confirmation was received at 3.15 a.m. from the commander of the Black Sea Fleet of a German bombing raid on the naval base of Sevastopol. Soviet naval officers could not help thinking of the surprise Japanese attack against Port Arthur in 1904. Georgy Malenkov, one of Stalin’s closest associates, refused to believe the word of Admiral Nikolay Kuznetsov, so he telephoned again himself in private to check that it was not a trick by senior officers to force the Leader’s hand. At half past five – two hours after the assault began on the western frontiers – Schulenburg had delivered Nazi Germany’s declaration of war to Molotov. According to one person present, the old ambassador had spoken with angry tears in his eyes, adding that personally he thought Hitler’s decision was madness. Molotov had then hurried to Stalin’s office, where the Politburo was assembled. Stalin, on hearing the news, apparently sank into his chair and said nothing. His succession of obsessive miscalculations offered much material for bitter reflection. The leader most famed for his ruthless trickery had fallen into a trap which was largely of his own making.

The news from the front was so catastrophic over the next few days that Stalin, whose bullying nature contained a strong streak of cowardice, summoned Beria and Molotov for a secret discussion. Should they make peace with Hitler, whatever the price and humiliation, just like the Brest-Litovsk deal in 1918? They could give up most of the Ukraine, Belorussia and the Baltic States. The Bulgarian ambassador, Ivan Stamenov, was later summoned to the Kremlin. Molotov asked him if he would act as intermediary, but to their astonishment he refused. ‘Even if you retreat to the Urals,’ he replied, ‘you’ll still win in the end.’


The vast majority of the population in the hinterland of the Soviet Union knew nothing of the disaster which had befallen their country. As befitted a day of rest, the centre of Moscow was empty. Admiral Kuznetsov, the chief of naval staff, reflected on the peaceful scene in his car on the way to the Kremlin. The population of the capital ‘still did not know that a fire was blazing on the frontiers and that our advance units were engaged in heavy fighting’.

Finally, at midday on 22 June, Molotov’s voice, not Stalin’s, emerged from the wireless. ‘Today at four o’clock in the morning, German troops attacked our country without making any claims on the Soviet Union and without any declaration of war.’ His statement gave little detail. ‘Our cause is just,’ he concluded woodenly. ‘The enemy will be beaten. We will be victorious.’

Molotov’s choice of words was uninspired and his delivery awkward, but this announcement created a powerful reaction throughout the Soviet Union. The city of Stalingrad on the Volga may have been far from the fighting, but this did not diminish the effect. ‘It was as if a bomb had fallen out of the sky, it was such a shock,’ remembered a young female student. She promptly volunteered as a nurse. Her friends, especially Komsomol (Communist Youth) members, began collections for the war effort.

Reservists did not wait for mobilization orders. They reported at once. Within half an hour of Molotov’s speech, the reservist Viktor Goncharov set out from home for the centre, accompanied by his old father, whom he assumed was coming to see him off. His wife, working out at the Stalingrad tram park, could not get back to say goodbye. He had no idea that his father, an eighty-one-year-old Cossack who had ‘fought in four wars’, was planning to come along to volunteer. But old Goncharov was furious when the staff at the centre rejected him.

In Stalingrad Technical University, near the huge Stalingrad tractor factory, students put up a large map on the wall, ready to mark with flags the advance of the Red Army into Germany. ‘We thought’, said one, ‘that with a huge, decisive blow we’d smash the enemy.’ Countless newsreels of tank production and aviation achievements had convinced them of the Soviet Union’s immense industrial and military strength.

The images had proved doubly impressive in a country which, until recently, had been technologically backward. In addition, the domestic omnipotence of the Stalinist system made it appear unshakeable to those inside it. ‘Propaganda fell on a well prepared soil,’ acknowledged another of the Stalingrad students. ‘We all had this powerful image of the Soviet state and therefore of the country’s invincibility.’ None of them imagined the fate that awaited the Soviet Union, even less the one in store for the model city of Stalingrad, with its engineering plants, municipal parks and tall white apartment blocks looking across the great Volga.

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