Military history

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Nothing is Impossible for the German Soldier!

During that night of 21 June, the diplomats in Berlin and Moscow could only guess at what was happening along the frontier that separated them. Never had foreign ministries been so redundant. Some 3,050,000 German troops, with other pro-Axis armies bringing the total to four million men, awaited the invasion of the Soviet Union from Finland to the Black Sea. ‘The world will hold its breath!’ Hitler had declared at a planning session several months before. The ultimate objective was ‘to establish a defence line against Asiatic Russia from a line running from the Volga river to Archangel’. The last industrial area left to Russia in the Urals could then be destroyed by the Luftwaffe.

It was the shortest night of the year. Wireless silence was maintained for the many hundreds of thousands of troops hidden in the birch and fir forests of East Prussia and occupied Poland. Artillery regiments which had arrived in the eastern frontier regions weeks before, ostensibly to prepare for manoeuvres, were well prepared. In East Prussia, the gun teams, wearing old clothes borrowed from local civilians, had brought forward reserves of shells on farm carts and camouflaged them next to pre-selected fire positions. Most soldiers believed the stories that this exercise was all part of a huge diversion to cover preparations for the invasion of Britain.

At nightfall, when orders were issued, the German Army was left in no doubt. The guns were stripped of their camouflage, or hauled out from hiding places in barns. They were then hitched to teams of horses, to half-tracks or to artillery tractors, with masked headlights, and towed out to their fire positions. Forward observation officers went ahead with the infantry to within a few hundred yards of the frontier posts occupied by the Soviet border guards.

Some officers in second-wave divisions toasted the coming operation with vintage Champagne and Cognac brought from occupied France. A few glanced again through the memoirs of General de Caulaincourt, to whom Napoleon had said on the eve of his invasion in 1812: ‘Avant deux mois, la Russie me demandera la paix.’ Some, trying to imagine what lay ahead, leafed through copies of the phrase book which Dekanozov’s embassy had sent to Moscow with so little effect. A number read the Bible.

Soldiers had built fires in their camouflaged encampments to keep away the mosquitoes. Accordion players struck up sentimental songs. While a few sang, others stayed with their thoughts. Many dreaded crossing the frontier into the unknown land of which they had heard only terrible things. Officers had warned them that if they slept in Russian houses, they would be bitten by insects and catch diseases. Many laughed, however, at comrades who wanted to cut all their hair off as a precaution against lice. In any case, most of them believed their officers when they said that there would be no need to worry about winter quarters. In the 24th Panzer Division, for example, Captain von Rosenbach-Lepinski is said to have told his motorcycle reconnaissance battalion: ‘The war with Russia will last only four weeks.’

Such confidence was, in many ways, understandable. Even foreign intelligence services expected the Red Army to collapse. The Wehrmacht had assembled the largest invasion force ever seen, with 3,350 tanks, around 7,000 field guns and over 2,000 aircraft. The German Army had improved its level of motor transport with French army vehicles; for example, 70 per cent of the trucks in the 305th Infantry Division, another division to perish at Stalingrad the following year, came from France. Yet the Wehrmacht, although famed for its Blitzkrieg, also depended on over 600,000 horses to tow guns, ambulances and ration wagons. With the vast majority of the infantry divisions on their feet, the overall speed of advance was unlikely to be much faster than that of the Grande Armée in 1812.

Many officers had mixed sensations. ‘Our optimism was tremendous after the rather easy victories in Poland, in France and in the Balkans,’ recounted the commander of the first panzer company to reach the Volga at Stalingrad fourteen months later. But, as one of those who had just read Caulaincourt, he had ‘bad feelings about the enormous space of Russia’. It also seemed rather late in the year ‘to start such an ambitious campaign’. Operation Barbarossa had been planned to begin on 15 May. The delay of over five weeks, often blamed entirely on Hitler’s Balkan campaign, was in fact influenced by many other factors, including the exceptionally heavy spring rains, the inability of the Luftwaffe to prepare forward airfields in time, and the allocation of motor transport to divisions.

That evening, regimental officers were told of certain ‘special orders’ affecting the conflict ahead. They included ‘collective measures of force against villages’ in areas of partisan activity and the ‘Commissar Order’. Soviet political officers, Jews and partisans were to be handed over to the SS or the Secret Field Police. Most staff officers, and certainly all intelligence officers, were told of Field Marshal von Brauchitsch’s order of 28 April, laying down ground rules for relations between army commanders and the SS Sonderkommando and security police operating in their rear areas. Their ‘special tasks’ would form part of ‘the final encounter between two opposing political systems’. Finally, a ‘Jurisdiction Order’ deprived Russian civilians of any right of appeal, and effectively exonerated soldiers from crimes committed against them, whether murder, rape or looting. The order signed by Field Marshal Keitel on 13 May justified this on the grounds ‘that the downfall of 1918, the German people’s period of suffering which followed and the struggle against National Socialism – with the many blood sacrifices endured by the movement – can be traced to Bolshevik influence. No German should forget this.’

When Lieutenant Alexander Stahlberg was privately warned of the ‘Commissar Order’ by his cousin, Henning von Tresckow, later one of the key members of the July Plot, he burst out: ‘That would be murder!’

‘The order is just that,’ agreed Tresckow. Stahlberg then asked where it had come from. ‘From the man to whom you gave your oath,’ answered his cousin. ‘As I did,’ he added with a penetrating look.

A number of commanders refused to acknowledge or pass on such instructions. They were generally those who respected the traditional ethos of the army and disliked the Nazis. Many, but not all, were from military families, now a fast-diminishing proportion of the officer corps. The generals were the ones with the least excuse. Over 200 senior officers had attended Hitler’s address, in which he left no doubts about the war ahead. It was to be a ‘battle between two opposing world views’, a ‘battle of annihilation’ against ‘bolshevik commissars and the Communist intelligentsia’.

The idea of Rassenkampf, or ‘race war’, gave the Russian campaign its unprecedented character. Many historians now argue that Nazi propaganda had so effectively dehumanized the Soviet enemy in the eyes of the Wehrmacht that it was morally anaesthetized from the start of the invasion. Perhaps the greatest measure of successful indoctrination was the almost negligible opposition within the Wehrmacht to the mass execution of Jews, which was deliberately confused with the notion of rear-area security measures against partisans. Many officers were affronted by the Wehrmacht’s abandonment of international law on the Ostfront, but only the tiniest minority voiced disgust at the massacres, even when it became clear that they belonged to a programme of racial extermination.

The degree of ignorance claimed after the war by many officers, especially those on the staff, is rather hard to believe in the light of all the evidence that has now emerged from their own files. Sixth Army headquarters, for example, cooperated with SS Sonderkommando 4a, which followed in its tracks almost all the way from the western frontier of the Ukraine to Stalingrad. Not only were staff officers well aware of its activities, they even provided troops to assist in the round-up of Jews in Kiev and transport them to the ravine of Babi Yar.

What is particularly hard to assess in retrospect is the degree of initial ignorance at regimental level about the true programme, in which perhaps the cruellest weapon of all was to be starvation. Few officers saw the directive of 23 May, which called for the German armies in the east to expropriate whatever they needed, and also to send at least seven million tons of grain a year back to Germany; yet it should not have been hard to guess its basic outline, with the orders to live off the land. Nazi leaders had no illusions about the consequences for civilians deprived of the Ukraine’s resources. ‘Many tens of millions will starve,’ predicted Martin Bormann. Goering bragged that the population would have to eat Cossack saddles.

When the illegal Barbarossa orders were prepared, in March 1941, it was General Franz Haider, the chief of staff, who bore the main responsibility for the army’s acceptance of collective reprisals against civilians. As early as the first week in April 1941, two opponents of the regime, the former ambassador Ulrich von Hassell and General Ludwig Beck, were shown copies of these secret orders by Lieutenant-Colonel Helmuth Groscurth, who was to perish soon after the surrender at Stalingrad. ‘It makes one’s hair stand on end’, wrote Hassell in his diary, ‘to learn about measures to be taken in Russia, and about the systematic transformation of military law concerning the conquered population into uncontrolled despotism – indeed a caricature of all law. This kind of thing turns the German into a type of being which had existed only in enemy propaganda.’ ‘The army’, he subsequently noted, ‘must assume the onus of the murders and burnings which up to now have been confined to the SS.’

Hassell’s pessimism was justified. Although a few army commanders were reluctant to distribute the instructions, several others issued orders to their troops which might have come straight from Goebbels’s office. The most notorious order of all came from the commander of the Sixth Army, Field Marshal von Reichenau. General Hermann Hoth, who was to command the Fourth Panzer Army in the Stalingrad campaign, declared: ‘The annihilation of those same Jews who support Bolshevism and its organization for murder, the partisans, is a measure of self-preservation.’ General Erich von Man-stein, a Prussian guards officer admired as the most brilliant strategist of the whole of the Second World War, and who privately admitted to being partly Jewish, issued an order shortly after taking over command of the Eleventh Army in which he declared: ‘The Jewishbolshevik system must be rooted out once and for all.’ He even went on to justify ‘the necessity of harsh measures against Jewry.’ There was little mention of this in his post-war memoirs, Lost Victories.

The acceptance of Nazi symbols on uniform and the personal oath of allegiance to Hitler had ended any pretence that the army remained independent from politics. ‘The generals followed Hitler in these circumstances’, Field Marshal Paulus acknowledged many years later in Soviet captivity, ‘and as a result they became completely involved in the consequences of his policies and conduct of the war.’

In spite of all the Nazis’ attempts to reshape the German Army, it was not as monolithic at regimental level in June 1941 as some writers have made out. The difference in character between a Bavarian, an East Prussian, a Saxon, and above all an Austrian division, would be remarked upon immediately. Even within a division from a particular region, there could be strong contrasts. For example, in the 60th Motorized Infantry Division, which was later trapped at Stalingrad, many young officers in its volunteer battalions came from the Technische Hochschule in Danzig, and were caught up in the heady atmosphere of the city’s return to the Fatherland: ‘For us,’ wrote one of them, ‘National Socialism was not a Party programme but the very essence of being German.’ On the other hand, the officers in the division’s reconnaissance battalion, 160 Aufklärungs-Abteilung, a sort of mechanized yeomanry cavalry, came mainly from East Prussian landowning families. They included Prince zu Dohna-Schlobitten, who had served in the Kaiser’s Garde du Corps in the Ukraine in 1918.

The 16th Panzer Division was firmly in the tradition of the old Prussian Army. Its 2nd Panzer Regiment, which spearheaded the dash to Stalingrad the following summer, was descended from the oldest Prussian cavalry regiment, the Great Elector’s Life Guard Cuirassiers. The regiment had so many members of the nobility that few were addressed by their military rank. ‘Instead of Herr Hauptmann or Herr Leutnant’, one of their tank crewmen remembered, ‘it was Herr Fürst or Herr Graf. The regiment had suffered such low losses in the Polish and French campaigns that its peacetime identity remained virtually untouched.

Traditions from an earlier age offered an advantage. ‘Within the regiment’, observed an officer from another panzer division, ‘it was safe to talk. Nobody in Berlin could joke like us about Hitler.’ Officer conspirators on the general staff were able to talk about deposing Hitler, even to uncommitted generals, without risking denunciation to the Gestapo. Dr Alois Beck, the Catholic chaplain of 297th Infantry Division, was convinced that ‘of the three Wehrmacht services, the army was the least influenced by National Socialist ideology’. In the Luftwaffe, those who disliked the regime remained silent. ‘You could not entirely trust any German in those days,’ said a lieutenant in the 9th Flak Division who was captured at Stalingrad. He dared to talk freely with only one fellow officer, who had once admitted in private that the Nazis had exterminated a mentally ill cousin of his.

One historian has pointed out that although ‘the Wehrmacht should not be regarded as a homogeneous entity’, the degree to which its different elements were ‘willing to participate in a war of extermination against the Soviet Union, be it as an anti-Russian, anti-Bolshevik, or anti-Jewish crusade, is an area of research that needs to be pursued’. Prince Dohna, with the 60th Mechanized Infantry Division, was ‘shocked by my own callousness’, when he reread his diary many years later. ‘Today it seems impossible to understand that I could have allowed myself to have been caught up unprotesting in this megalomania, but we were dominated by the feeling of being part of a tremendous war machine, which was rolling irresistibly to the east against Bolshevism.’

At 3.15 a.m. German time, on 22 June, the first artillery barrages began. Bridges over rivers were seized before the NKVD border guards reacted. The guards’ families, who lived at the frontier posts, died with them. In some cases, demolition charges had been removed earlier by silent raiding parties. German commando groups from the ‘Sonderverband Brandenburg’ (named after their barracks on the edge of Berlin) were already to the rear of Russian frontier units, cutting telephone lines. And since late April, small teams of anti-Communist Russian and Ukrainian volunteers had been infiltrated with radio sets. As early as 29 April, Beria had been informed of three groups of spies caught crossing the border with radio sets. Those taken alive, had been ‘handed over to the NKGB for further interrogation’.

The first sign of dawn on 22 June appeared ahead of the infantry on the eastern horizon as point units facing water obstacles clambered into assault boats. Many infantry regiments, as they advanced the last few hundred yards to their start lines, could hear waves of bombers and fighters approaching from behind. Gull-winged Stukas, flying at a lower altitude, were off in search of tank parks, headquarters and communications centres behind the lines.

A Red Army engineer officer at 4th Army headquarters was awoken by the sound of massed aero engines. He recognized the sound from the Spanish Civil War, in which he had served as an adviser. ‘The bombs were falling with a piercing shriek,’ he recorded. ‘The army headquarters building we had just left was shrouded in smoke and dust. The powerful blasts rent the air and made our ears ring. Another flight appeared. The German bombers dived confidently at the defenceless military settlement. When the raid was over, thick black pillars of smoke billowed up from many places. Part of the headquarters building was in ruins. Somewhere a high-pitched, hysterical female voice was crying out.’

The main Luftwaffe effort was directed against the Red Army’s aviation regiments. Pre-emptive sorties over the next nine hours destroyed 1,200 Soviet aircraft, the vast majority on the ground. Messerschmitt pilots could hardly believe their eyes when, banking over aerodromes, instantly recognizable from photoreconnaissance, they glimpsed hundreds of enemy planes neatly lined up at dispersal beside the runways. Those which managed to get off the ground, or arrived from airfields further east, proved easy targets. Some Soviet pilots who either had never learned aerial combat techniques or knew that their obsolete models stood no chance, even resorted to ramming German aircraft. A Luftwaffe general described these air battles against inexperienced pilots as infanticide.

The panzer divisions, with the engines of their tanks and half-tracks running, heard little except through their headphones. They received the order to advance as soon as the infantry had secured the bridges and crossings. The task of the panzer formations was to cut through and then encircle the bulk of the enemy’s army, trapping it in a Kessel, or cauldron. This is how the Wehrmacht planned to destroy the Red Army’s fighting strength, then advance virtually unopposed on its three major objectives: Leningrad, Moscow and the Ukraine.

Army Group North under Field Marshal Ritter von Leeb was primarily responsible for the advance from East Prussia into the Baltic States to secure the ports, and then on to Leningrad. Army Group Centre under Field Marshal Fedor von Bock was to follow Napoleon’s route to Moscow once it had encircled the main concentrations of the Red Army in its path. Brauchitsch and Haider were deeply disturbed, however, when Hitler decided to weaken this central thrust, in order to bolster what they saw as subsidiary operations. The Führer believed that once he seized the agricultural wealth of the Ukraine and the Caucasian oilfields, the Reich’s invincibility was guaranteed. Army Group South under Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, soon supported on his right by a small Hungarian army and two Romanian armies, was entrusted with this task. The Romanian dictator, Marshal Ion Antonescu, had been delighted when told of Operation Barbarossa ten days before its launch. ‘Of course I’ll be there from the start’, he had said. ‘When it’s a question of action against the Slavs, you can always count on Romania.’

On the anniversary of Napoleon’s proclamation from his imperial headquarters at Wilkowski, Hitler issued a long justification of the breakdown of relations with the Soviet Union. He turned the truth inside out, claiming that Germany was threatened by ‘approximately 160 Russian divisions massed on our frontier’. He thus started the ‘European crusade against Bolshevism’ with a shameless lie to his own people and to his own soldiers.

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