5

Kicking in the Door

June–December 1941

I’ve always hated snow, Bormann, you know, I’ve always hated it. Now I know why. It was a presentiment.

Adolf Hitler to Martin Bormann, 19 February 19421

On 19 May 1940, just as victory in Belgium and Holland seemed assured, Hitler was given a ninety-two-page study of the life and thought of General Alfred Count von Schlieffen, written by Hugo Rochs in 1921. The donor was Hitler’s jovial factotum, hospitality manager and court jester at the Reich Chancellery, Arthur ‘Willy’ Kannenberg.2 If Hitler had been capable of something as unFührerlike as personal friendship, Kannenberg would have been one of his friends. The choice of gift could not have been more apposite, nor better timed. It had been Schlieffen who, as chief of the German General Staff between 1891 and 1906, had devised the eponymous plan for Germany to win a two-front war by a sweeping movement through Belgium, principally featuring a strong right-flanking enveloping movement that would capture Paris. He had died in 1913, a year before his plan was put into operation, and his last words are said to have been ‘Keep the right flank strong!’ Despite that, it was fatally weakened by his successor Helmuth von Moltke the Younger. The result was the four years of trench warfare of the Western Front in which Hitler had fought, and the two-front war that Germany was to lose.

Hugo Rochs wanted his book to be both a work of strategy and a ‘character study for the German people’, believing the Prussian aristocrat to have embodied the virtues of hard work, self-effacement and decency – Schlieffen had opposed the bombardment of innocent civilians during the Franco-Prussian War, for example – though it was not those lessons that Kannenberg hoped the Führer would glean from his victory gift.3 From the extensive marginalia in the book, it is clear that Hitler read and thought deeply about what Schlieffen and Germany’s past could teach the present. Thirty-two of his pencil marks cover the twenty pages of Chapter 4, entitled ‘The Schlieffen Battle Plan for the Two-Front War’, which warned of the dangers to Germany of fighting two wars simultaneously in east and west. Yet the professionally sycophantic Kannenberg had highlighted a passage which read:

But then again: as long as Schlieffen stood at the head of the general staff, the defence of the Reich lay in good hands. Schlieffen believed that he and his army were equal to any coalition. Rightfully so!… Schlieffen possessed the rare faith in victory that derived from the irresistible, invincible force that is shaped by the effect of a true leader – Führer – who, like a force of nature, crushes all resistance.4

This passage seems to make little sense: why ‘Rightfully so!’, when Germany lost because of the two-front war, and was therefore obviously not ‘equal to any coalition’? But if its ultra-nationalist message, complete with its reference to a ‘Führer’, was the message Hitler took from Rochs’ book, it goes some way towards explaining why he made precisely the same mistake as the Kaiser and Hindenburg in fighting a two-front war, at exactly the same time that he was also emulating King Charles xii of Sweden and Napoleon by invading Russia. For a man who prided himself on his historical knowledge, Hitler learnt little from the past.

The pencil marks the Führer made in the margin of Chapter 4 of the Schlieffen book also highlighted Rochs’ view that ‘Once the situation in France has been decided, the French–English army destroyed, and Germany stands victorious on the Seine, everything else will – according to Schlieffen – follow on its own accord.’ Rochs noted that Schlieffen knew he must ‘reckon with the entire Russian army as an additional enemy’ and fight ‘in the face of a Russian deluge’.5 Since Hitler most probably annotated this before ordering Keitel on 29 July 1940 to draw up plans for the invasion of Russia, these pencil marks, in the opinion of the historian of his bibliophilia, ‘represent the earliest recorded evidence of Hitler’s plan to invade the Soviet Union’, at least since the pretty heavy hints he had made sixteen years earlier in Mein Kampf. So the plans to attack the USSR seem to have been formed in Hitler’s mind in 1940 while he was influenced by the idea that an unnamed Führer could ‘crush all resistance’ largely by the effort of his will to victory, ‘like a force of nature’, making this Führer and his army ‘equal to any coalition’. However unlikely it might sound, that is what happened.

To have attacked the Soviet Union without having first defeated Great Britain was Hitler’s next major blunder of the war. Besides underestimating the ordinary Russian’s capacity for absorbing punishment, one of the reasons why Hitler acted as he did was from a deep consciousness of his own mortality. ‘I know I shall never reach the ripe old age of the ordinary citizen,’ he confided to his coterie one evening, explaining why he did not spend his life ‘smoking and drinking my time away’.6 On the night of 17 October 1941, speaking to Reich Minister Fritz Todt and Gauleiter Fritz Sauckel about the Europeanization of the steppes, he said: ‘I shall no longer be there to see all that, but in twenty years’ time the Ukraine will already be a home for twenty million inhabitants besides the natives.’7 He believed that no one else could achieve the task of delivering Lebensraum, but he had no trust in his own longevity, so the sooner it was undertaken the better. ‘It’s lucky I went into politics at 30,’ he told other cronies at the end of 1941,

became Chancellor of the Reich at 43, and am only 52 today… With age, optimism gets weaker. The spring relaxes. When I suffered my [Beerhall Putsch and subsequent imprisonment at Landsberg] setback in 1923, I had only one idea, to get back into the saddle. Today I’d no longer be capable of the effort which that implies. The awareness that one is no longer capable of that has something demoralising about it.8

It was partly this consciousness of his declining energy levels that impelled Hitler into world war so soon after his fiftieth birthday in April 1939, and the invasion of the USSR was similarly driven.

Hitler was also impelled to invade Russia by each of the three major strands in his political credo. As Ian Kershaw points out, the Führer had ‘a small number of basic, unchanging ideas that provided his inner driving-force’.9 Hitler’s self-reinforcingWeltanschauung (world-view) was based on the need for Germany to dominate Europe, win Lebensraum for herself and come to a final reckoning with the Jews. These views never altered or moderated, and stayed central to his thinking from the 1920s to his death two decades later. All three could be achieved by an invasion of Russia, and none could be achieved without one.

There were other reasons too. On 1 February 1941, Fedor von Bock – who had been raised to field marshal in the mass creation of 19 July 1940 – was ordered to report to the Führer, ‘who received me very warmly’. According to Bock’s extensive war diary, Hitler said, ‘The gentlemen in England are not stupid; they just act that way,’ adding that ‘they will come to realize that a continuation of the war will be pointless for them if Russia too is now beaten and humiliated.’ After Bock had raised the question of ‘whether it would be possible to force [the Russians] to make peace’, Hitler replied, ‘If the occupation of the Ukraine and the fall of Leningrad and Moscow did not bring about peace, then we would just have to carry on, at least with mobile forces, and advance to Yekaterinburg.’10 Since Yekaterinburg (which had in fact been called Sverdlovsk since the 1920s) is 880 miles east of Moscow in the Ural mountains, Hitler’s certainty in total victory was palpable. He then used a curious simile: ‘I am convinced that our attack will sweep over them like a hailstorm.’ In a sense he was right; it was hard and nasty but did not last, and once the worst was over its residue evaporated.

Hitler believed that the huge labour shortage in Germany – the number of men in industry fell from 25.4 million to 13.5 million between 1939 and 1944 – could be ended by a combination of slave labour (7.5 million workers from conquered lands by September 1944) and demobilizing soldiers after victory over Russia.11 Control of the Baku oilfields would furthermore feed Germany’s insatiable need for fuel for her tanks, lorries, warplanes and ships, just as the Ukraine’s agriculture would help feed the Reich.

In 1941 the USSR had more soldiers and more tanks than, and the same number of aircraft as, the whole of the rest of the world’s armed forces combined. Hitler knew this perfectly well, of course; when Halder remarked that the Russians boasted 10,000 tanks, the statement ‘unleashed a more than quarter-hour retort from Hitler, in which he cited from memory the Russians’ annual production for the last twenty years’.12 Inherent in Hitler’s concept of the Aryan master race, however, was the idea that Germans were so superior to Slavs as human beings that mere numerical inferiority meant nothing. This may also explain why when the Japanese Foreign Minister, Yosuke Matsuoka, visited Berlin in April 1941 Hitler threw away a perfect opportunity to force the USSR herself to fight a war on two fronts. Instead of confiding his plans to Tokyo, and offering the Japanese whatever they wanted territorially in the east in exchange for attacking Russia simultaneously with him, he made absolutely no mention of his plan, and made no attempt to recruit the Japanese into what he knew would be the greatest enterprise of his life. Yet drawing off scores of Russian divisions from the Leningrad, Moscow and Stalingrad fronts in order to protect Siberia and other eastern assets from a Japanese attack would have been invaluable to Germany in 1942 and 1943. If Japan had captured Siberia – which was by no means strategically unthinkable – Russia could have been denied her huge fuel deposits there. Japan was a member of the Axis, after all, and one for whom Hitler was willing to go to war with America eight months later. ‘His failure to secure the collaboration of the Japanese against the Soviet Union’, writes Roosevelt’s biographer Conrad Black, ‘must rank as one of Hitler’s most serious errors.’13

Another major handicap was to have invaded as late as 22 June, by which time the days were already starting to shorten, in a campaign where time was going to be of the essence in covering the vast distances before Russia’s autumn mud and winter snow forced an end to movement. The invasion was originally scheduled to be ready for 15 May, although that was not settled upon as the date for the attack. Once Halder had assured him that transport would be ready, Hitler chose 22 June for the attack, since any date much earlier than that would have run up against weather problems in that unusually wet spring. The invasion of Greece had always been planned to take place in conjunction with that of Russia and did not therefore lead to the postponement of Barbarossa. Re-equipping tanks that had driven too fast down bad Balkan roads took time, so in a sense the very speed of the defeat of Greece led to the late date for Barbarossa. Although Hitler was to blame the pushing back of the 15 May date to 22 June as a reason for his defeat, claiming that he could have won before the onset of winter, his biographer Ian Kershaw has rightly described that as ‘simplistic in the extreme’.14 It was too wet to invade very much earlier, with heavy tanks and trucks going down rutted, basic roads. The weather of 1941 was not kind to Adolf Hitler. It is often assumed that he should not have indulged in his Balkan, Greek and Crete campaigns in April and May because they delayed his assault on Russia. In fact it was because he could not invade Russia before June that he was able to indulge himself in south-west Europe and the Mediterranean at all.

At least Hitler cannot be accused of being alone in his desire to ‘settle scores with the Bolsheviks’. When he held his last major military conference before the invasion, at the Reich Chancellery on 14 June – with the generals arriving at different times to allay suspicions – not one of them complained that it would open up a potentially disastrous two-front war along the lines of the one they had all, without exception, fought in and lost less than a quarter of a century before. Perhaps they thought that by then it was too late to alter the Führer’s mind; maybe for career reasons they did not want to seem unenthusiastic; perhaps for each other’s morale they did not want to point out the giant pitfalls; but the fact remains that no doubts or criticisms were expressed, and the Wehrmacht leaders, Brauchitsch and Halder, said not a word.15 ‘All the men of the OKW and the OKH to whom I spoke’, recalled Heinz Guderian, ‘evinced an unshakeable optimism and were quite impervious to criticism or objections.’16 Guderian himself however, especially after the 14 June briefing, claimed to think that a potentially disastrous war on two fronts loomed, and ‘Adolf Hitler’s Germany was even less capable of fighting such a war than had been the Germany of 1914.’17 General Günther Blumentritt, in a hitherto unpublished letter, wrote in 1965: ‘Militarily and politically the war was lost when Hitler attacked Russia in 1941, without having peace in the West.’18 He did not say so at the time, however, even if he thought it.

‘I tried to dissuade Hitler from a two-front war,’ claimed the Luftwaffe armaments chief Erhard Milch at Nuremberg. ‘I believe Göring did, too. But I failed.’19 In fact Göring believed, as he told his psychiatrist in May 1946, ‘The Führer himself was a genius. The plans against Poland and France were also his plans. The plan against Russia was also that of a genius. But its execution was poor. The Russian campaign could have ended in 1941 – successfully.’20 When Göring was told that Rundstedt had been calling the Russian invasion plans ‘stupid’, he frowned and said: ‘The army generals are all suddenly smarter than Hitler. But when he was running things they listened to what he said and were glad of his advice.’21 It was a valid criticism.

The other person who ought to have brought Hitler to confront the realities of invading the world’s largest country – with 193 million inhabitants against Germany’s 79 million pre-war – was the OKW Chief of Staff Wilhelm Keitel, but there was never any danger of that. When asked at Nuremberg why he had gone along with the plans, Keitel explained that the Führer had feared that the USSR might cut off the 150,000 tons of oil that Germany received from Romania every month, almost half of the 350,000 tons that the Reich required for the war, 100,000 of which went to the Luftwaffe alone. ‘The attack on Russia was an act of recklessness,’ he accepted with hindsight, but ‘I believed in Hitler and knew little of the facts myself. I’m not a tactician, nor did I know Russian military and economic strength. How could I?’22 The answer might be that it was Keitel’s most important duty to have known the facts of Russian military and economic strength before invading, and as OKW chief of staff he was one of Germany’s three most senior strategists. He claimed to have told Hitler often that he should have a better tactician than him in that post, ‘but he said it was his responsibility as commander-in-chief’.23

Hitler was perfectly content to have someone as chief of staff with so little belief in his own strategic skills. In stark contrast with Roosevelt, who appointed George Marshall as Army chief of staff, and Churchill, who appointed Sir Alan Brooke as chief of the Imperial General Staff, Hitler did not want an adviser who knew more about grand strategy than he, and might therefore oppose his ideas. ‘I always wanted to be a country gentleman, a forester,’ Keitel said after the war, ‘and look what a muddle I got into merely because I was weak and let myself be talked into things. I am not cut out for a field marshal.’ He also complained that when invited to take over from Blomberg, ‘I was not prepared for this position. I was suddenly called on to take over without having had time to think things over. Developments followed too quickly. That was the way things proceeded.’24

Far from a ‘muddle’, Keitel faced the noose, which he deserved for the brutal orders he signed before the invasion of Russia. A human nullity, Keitel always obeyed his Führer unquestioningly. ‘I had been in many adjutant and junior staff positions,’ he explained, ‘but of course always with professional soldiers, whose education was also my own. Therefore all the things which Hitler told me were, to my viewpoint, the orders of an officer… One had a superior officer who was a politician and not an officer – a man who had quite different basic viewpoints from mine.’25 Yet instead of this encouraging Keitel to stand up for himself and the Army, his thirty-six years in the officer corps had bred an instinct for obedience, which Hitler’s successive coups in the Rhineland, Austria, Sudetenland, Prague, Poland and France turned into slavish devotion. The fact that Keitel was a pathetic excuse for a senior officer is important in establishing how Hitler established such dominance over an officer corps that was, despite the débâcle of 1918, still proud of its long-term heritage and pre-eminent place in German society. Another explanation for the lack of criticism of Operation Barbarossa from the German generals was that, as Liddell Hart wrote having interviewed several of them after the war, ‘like so many specialists, they were rather naive outside their own sphere, and Hitler was able to overcome their own doubts about his Russian adventure with the aid of political “information” designed to convince them of its necessity, and that Russia’s internal weaknesses would affect her military strength.’26 Hitler had long been a master of disinformation, and this time he used it against his own generals.

Hitler needed someone – anyone – in his close circle to remind him of the perils of invading Russia. Yet he believed, as he told Rundstedt, ‘You have only to kick in the door, and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.’ The hubris was tangible; in the Armed Forces Museum in Moscow one can see the two tons of Iron Crosses that were struck to be awarded to those who captured that city. Hitler believed that, on the evidence of Stalin’s Army purges of the 1930s, the inherent inefficiencies and cruelties of Communism and the Red Army’s early defeats in Finland, the USSR would collapse. Yet he had not counted on the sheer bloody-mindedness of the ordinary Russian soldier – the frontovik – who, although ‘abominably led, inadequately trained, poorly equipped, changed the course of history by his courage and tenacity in the first year of fighting’.27 The Red Army soldier was fatalistic about the necessity of sacrifice for Mother Russia, and the political commissars attached to every unit were expert in exploiting the culture of subservience that was a traditionally distinctive feature of Russian life. Their forefathers had suffered horribly in the past for the Romanovs, now they would suffer no less horribly for their Bolshevik successors: ‘Stalinism was indeed Tsarism with a proletarian face.’28

Yet even if Hitler had been surrounded by outspoken opponents, the plan to attack Russia was buried so deep within the Nazi DNA that it could not be stopped. The Führer invaded Russia because he believed that that was what he had been put on earth to do. ‘We National Socialists must hold unflinchingly to our aim in foreign policy,’ he had avowed in Mein Kampf, ‘namely, to secure for the German people the land and soil to which they are entitled on this earth.’29 It was clear where the lion’s share was to be found, when he wrote a few pages later of ‘an eastern policy in the sense of acquiring the necessary soil for our German people’. Nor did this mean just Poland. Elsewhere in the book he wrote of Germany ‘swimming in plenty’ if she controlled Ukrainian grain, the raw materials of the Urals and even Siberian timber. The fourteen countries that Germany occupied or controlled by 1941 would not be enough, for as he also wrote in his political credo: ‘Much as all of us today recognize the necessity of a reckoning with France… it can and will achieve meaning only if it offers the rear cover for an enlargement of our people’s living space in Europe.’30

With France as the rear cover, Hitler believed Russia could be attacked – or ‘kicked in’ – with relative ease. At a Berghof conference on 22 August 1939, Hitler said: ‘We will crush the Soviet Union.’ On 29 July 1940 at Bad Reichenhall, OKW Staff were told by Jodl of the Führer’s ‘express wishes’ that they plan for the invasion forthwith. On 12 November 1940, Führer Directive No. 18 made it clear that the discussions then going on with Molotov in Berlin that same day were a mere smokescreen and that ‘Irrespective of the results of these discussions, all preparations for the East which have been verbally ordered will be continued.’ The objectives were laid out on 18 December in Führer Directive No. 21, the first sentence of which read: ‘The armed forces of Germany must be prepared, even before the conclusion of the war with England, to defeat Soviet Russia in one rapid campaign (“Operation Barbarossa”).’31

One incident that might have discouraged Hitler from invading Russia, for fear that Operation Barbarossa had been compromised, was the bizarre flight of his Deputy Führer, Rudolf Hess, to the United Kingdom at 6.00 on the evening of Saturday, 10 May 1941. Hess, who had been Hitler’s closest confidant and lieutenant through much of the 1920s and 1930s, had been gradually overtaken by several rivals in the Nazi hierarchy in recent years, especially since the start of the war. An ideological Nazi from the earliest days, he did not believe that Britain and Germany should be at war and so, unbeknown to Hitler, he conceived a daring – if unhinged – plan to make peace between the Anglo-Saxon races. The five-hour flight itself, in a Messerschmitt Me-110 with a detachable extra fuel tank, was a remarkable feat of flying and navigation, but once Hess had parachuted near the village of Eaglesham in Renfrewshire in Scotland, his plan started to unravel. His first problem was to find someone in authority with whom to conduct peace negotiations, and his choice of Scotland was actuated by the quaint if utterly misguided notion that the Duke of Hamilton – who he wrongly believed he had met at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 – held significant political power in Britain, owing to his title. Once captured (he had broken his ankle on landing), Hess was interviewed by Lord Beaverbrook and the Lord Chancellor, Lord Simon, among others, and it quickly became clear to him that the Churchill Government had no intention of listening to any kind of peace terms.

Real or feigned amnesia, as well as the onset of other psychological disorders – including paranoia – seem to have descended upon Hess from that point onwards, and stayed with him to a greater or lesser degree for the rest of his life. Although Hitler was furious with him for his ‘treachery’, and German propaganda explained the embarrassment in terms of mental illness, Hess did not betray the secret of Barbarossa. He was interned in the Tower of London for some of the war, after which he was found guilty at Nuremberg of conspiring against peace, but crucially not of war crimes, and was thus given life imprisonment rather than the death penalty that he would assuredly have received had he not flown to Scotland. Owing to Soviet intransigence – Moscow had wanted him hanged in 1945 – Hess stayed in Spandau Prison in Berlin until his suicide aged ninety-two in 1987.

Barbarossa (Redbeard) was the nickname of the cruel, brave and ambitious twelfth-century Hohenstaufen conqueror Frederick I, perhaps the greatest Holy Roman Emperor of the Dark Ages. Yet Hitler failed to spot the paradox in his choice of codename, because after his defeat by the Lombard League at the battle of Legnano in 1176 Frederick altered his policy to one of conciliation and clemency. And while it was true that Frederick undertook the Third Crusade against Saladin and Islam in 1190, just as Hitler proposed to do against Stalin and Bolshevism, during the campaign he had been found drowned, possibly by his own men. Another explanation for Hitler’s choice of the codename Barbarossa, indeed for the very mindset that led him to order the invasion of Russia, might stem from the extraordinary geographical and topographical position of his country house, the Berghof in the village of Obersalzberg, near Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps. There was a local legend that under one of the highest peaks of the Berchtesgadener mountain range, the Untersberg, Emperor Barbarossa lay sleeping, ready to be called upon to rise again to save Germany. Hitler was proud of his long connection with the region, which began when he went on an incognito visit – calling himself ‘Herr Wolf’ – to a fellow Fascist politician Dietrich Eckart before the 1923 Beerhall Putsch. He stayed in several inns in the area over the following years and in 1927 bought a house which became the centre of a huge compound for the Nazi hierarchy. The Nazi Party Secretary Martin Bormann, Hermann Göring and Albert Speer had houses built on the hillside, in order to protect their all-important personal access to the Führer. During the war itself, once 400 villagers had been expelled from their homes, 9,000 feet of concrete bunkers were built for the Nazi hierarchy underneath the hillside.

‘Yes, there are many links between Obersalzberg and me,’ Hitler reminisced to his cronies in January 1942. ‘So many things were born there, and brought to fruition there. I’ve spent up there the finest hours of my life. It’s there that all my great projects were conceived and ripened. I had hours of leisure, in those days, and how many charming friends!’ The Berghof itself was not the architectural masterpiece Hitler believed it to be; the historian Norman Stone describes it as ‘a building fit for an Ian Fleming villain. Huge slabs of red marble adorned it; looted pictures hung on the walls; there was a vast, thick carpet; a huge fire burning in the grate; oversized armchairs were placed an uncomfortable distance apart, in such a way that the guests would have to half shout their platitudes at each other as the sparks leapt from the fire in the gathering twilight.’32

From the Berghof, Hitler could see his beloved Salzburg and all the surrounding countryside. For his fiftieth birthday in April 1939 the Nazi Party presented him with the civil engineering miracle of the Eagle’s Nest, a stone building 6,000 feet up, reached through the interior of a mountain, from which one can view the entire region. Yet the breathtaking scenery did not calm what passed for his soul. Paradoxically, these panoramic views seemed only to have helped him come to his most drastic decisions. It was while he was staying at Obersalzberg that he plotted his most daring coups, including the plan to dismember Czechoslovakia. Joseph Goebbels, a regular visitor, often complained to his diary about the amount of time the Führer spent at Obersalzberg, but was also gratified by the way ‘the solitude of the mountains’ always tended to spur his Führer on to more fanatical efforts. It was in late March 1933, while staying there, that Hitler decided upon a national boycott of all Jewish businesses, services, lawyers and doctors across the whole Reich. Staggeringly beautiful scenery clearly had an effect on Hitler that was opposite to how most other people reacted: rather than softening and humanizing him it hardened his heart and filled him with power-lust.

One of Hitler’s major purposes in attacking Russia was to denude Britain of any hope of allies, thus forcing her to make peace. Franz Halder had noted in his diary for 13 July 1940 that ‘The Führer is greatly puzzled by Britain’s persisting unwillingness to make peace. He sees the answer (as we do) in Britain’s hopes for Russia, and therefore counts on having to compel her by main force to agree.’33 A fortnight later at the Berghof, Hitler himself told his generals: ‘With Russia smashed, Britain’s last hope would be shattered. Germany would be the master of Europe and the Balkans. Decision: Russia’s destruction must therefore be made part of this struggle.’34 He wanted, in one historian’s phrase, to conquer ‘London via Moscow’, however geographically absurd that might sound.35 The idea that Hitler invaded vast Russia partly in order further to isolate tiny Britain might seem astonishing until one recalls Hitler’s racial beliefs and mind-set. He had fought and lost to the British on the Western Front, and he admired their imperial successes, especially in India. He considered their racially Anglo-Saxon background as essentially Aryan, which made them worthy opponents and logical allies; far more worthy, for example, than the swarthy, Mediterranean, racially weak French. (France’s defeat of Prussia in 1806 he somewhat pedantically put down as a Corsican victory.) The Russian Slavs would last only six weeks, he told his generals on 14 June 1941, despite their superior numbers and the likelihood that they would try to put up stiff resistance. Although Hitler’s decision to attack Russia as a means of defeating Britain is history’s supreme example of inverting the cart and the horse, it is explicable in terms of his own racial theories, as well as in the light of the Luftwaffe’s defeat in the battle of Britain the previous summer. In 1812 Napoleon had invaded Russia partly in order to force the protectionist Continental System on to a recalcitrant Russia, and thereby to strangle Britain; now Hitler was making the same mistake.

It was not the first time the Germans had unleashed Drang nach Osten (storm to the east): in the Great War it had resulted in the March 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Bolsheviks that had been very advantageous to Berlin, and which gave her control over Poland, Belorussia, the Ukraine and the Baltic. Hitler would also be marching through areas with a higher concentration of Jews than the Holy Land itself and his attack on the Soviet Union was intended to ‘destroy the power of the Jews, embodied in his world-view by the Bolshevik regime’.36 He had fought Communists since his days as a street orator and political agitator in Munich in the early 1920s and he believed implicitly in the Zionist–Bolshevik conspiracy, so here was his chance to destroy both enemy elements in a single blow. Nor would it take long to achieve: Directive No. 21 envisaged that ‘a quick completion of the ground operations can be counted on.’37

Germany’s armed forces – the best in Europe – were under no threat from the Red Army, which were among the worst. Although Keitel claimed that Hitler feared an attack from Stalin, and Russian troops did seem stationed too close to Germany’s borders for effective defence, none was pending, and it is doubtful that Hitler genuinely believed one was. Certainly nothing was further from Stalin’s mind at the time. Furthermore, vast quantities of oil and wheat were being transferred from the USSR to Germany every month under the terms of the Nazi–Soviet Pact, indeed trains full of both were in the process of crossing the German border westwards on the night of 21 June just as German troops crossed it in the opposite direction. From October 1939 the Russians had given a naval base, at Jokanga Bay (or ‘Base North’), for U-boats to refit and resupply on Soviet sovereign territory, and in the summer of 1940 they had even allowed free passage to a German auxiliary cruiser, the Komet, to sail the Arctic route along the north Russian coast and the Siberian Sea all the way to the Pacific Ocean, where it used the element of surprise to sink seven Allied vessels.38

Furthermore there was an admirable alternative strategy beckoning, the one which in retrospect Hitler ought to have adopted. Supported by Halder, Brauchitsch and Raeder, this involved attacking British outposts in the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East. Despite the losses in Greece and on Crete, Malta should have been attacked by Karl Student’s paratroopers and invaded, and the Mediterranean then turned into an Axis lake by an invasion of North Africa with far larger forces than the four divisions Rommel was to be given for the Afrika Korps in 1942. With a mere fraction of the numbers unleashed in Barbarossa, Germany could easily have obliterated the British presence in Libya, Egypt, Gibraltar, Iraq, Palestine and Iran, cutting off Britain’s oil supply and her direct sea route via Suez to India. Supplying a campaign in the Middle East would have been far easier for the Axis, via Italy and Sicily, than it would have been for the defenders via the Cape of Good Hope. Instead, Hitler decided in July 1940 to invade Russia the following spring, and while he was willing to entertain the Mediterranean strategy intellectually – principally out of respect for Admiral Raeder – he never wavered from the plan. He spurned the Mediterranean option and an attack on his supposed racial cousins for the instant gratification of attacking those he vociferously believed to be his racial and political enemies.

On 16 June 1941, in a long conversation with Goebbels at the Reich Chancellery – the Propaganda Minister had to enter by the back door to avoid being noticed – Hitler said that there must be no repeat of Napoleon’s experience in Russia.39 During this in-depth, heart-to-heart discussion they declared that the Greek campaign had ‘cost us dear’; that the Wehrmacht and the Red Army had between 180 and 200 divisions each, although there was ‘no comparison’ in terms of personnel and equipment; that Barbarossa would take only four months – Goebbels thought fewer – and that Bolshevism ‘will collapse like a house of cards’. No geographical limits were set for the operation: ‘We shall fight until Russia’s military power no longer exists.’ The Japanese, although they had not been forewarned, would be supportive because they could not attack America ‘with Russia intact to her rear’. His pre-emptive strike would avoid a two-front war, Hitler believed, and after victory Britain could be dealt with, as ‘the U-boat war will start in earnest. England will sink to the bottom.’ The Luftwaffe would also be used against Britain ‘on a massive scale’ because invasion was ‘a very difficult prospect, whatever the circumstances. And so we must try to win victory by other means.’ Together the two men looked into the smallest details of the operation – the printers and packers of the leaflets to be dropped over Russia would live in total isolation until it had begun, for example – and, as a result of its success, ‘Bolshevism must be destroyed. And with it England will lose her last possible ally on the European mainland.’ Hitler told Goebbels that this was the struggle they had been waiting for all their lives: ‘And once we have won, who is going to question our methods? In any case, we have so much to answer for already that we must win, because otherwise our entire nation – with us at its head – and all we hold dear, will be eradicated. And so to work!’40 They even evolved a plan at that meeting to try to involve Christian bishops in supporting the attack on atheist Bolshevism, something enthusiastically entered into by Alfred-Henri-Marie Baudrillart, the Cardinal-Archbishop of Paris, who sermonized on 30 July 1941 that ‘Hitler’s war is a noble undertaking in defence of European culture.’

If anyone besides Hitler can be blamed for Germany’s ultimately disastrous decision to invade Russia it was his economics minister, Walther Funk, who argued that, under the British naval blockade of the Continent, Germany’s EuropeanGroβraumwirtschaft(sphere of economic domination) ultimately depended on the supplies of food and raw materials that she presently received from the Soviet Union under the terms of the Nazi–Soviet Pact, which could not be counted upon for ever but which needed to be hugely increased. Economic imperatives thus neatly dovetailed with ideological, strategic, racial and opportunistic ones; indeed every factor pointed to an invasion, save one: logistical reality. Although in Directive No. 21 Hitler had made a passing reference to ‘the vastness of Russian territory’, he initially envisaged only swallowing European Russia ‘from the general line Volga–Archangel’, with Russian industry in the Urals being ‘eliminated by the Luftwaffe’.41 The sheer size of the steppes should have given him and his Staff pause for thought, but it does not seem to have done so.

Retaining the initiative had always been the key to Hitler’s many spectacular successes up to June 1941, and he was to keep it for another four months, until he was checked at the gates of Moscow that October. For years he had gambled on his enemies’ indecision and weakness, and again and again he had been proved right. The stakes might have increased exponentially over the years, but his gambler’s instinct never left him. The magnitude of the adventure intoxicated this teetotaller, for as he told Fedor von Bock at their meeting on 1 February: ‘When Barbarossa begins, the world will hold its breath.’42 With four million troops, many of them battle-hardened and with the victories in Poland, Scandinavia, France and the Balkans behind them, the odds did not seem as bad as they did later.

By the summer of 1940, the genius of the Führer as ‘history’s supreme warlord’ was an essential part of Nazi ideology, and part of that genius seemed to have lain in his ability to take decisions without needing to spend large periods of time poring over maps, reading reports and conferring with his Staff. Yet it is not even certain that if he had devoted more study to the issue he would have acted differently. He feared – probably too much, considering the Roosevelt Administration’s isolationist domestic opposition – that the United States was likely to enter the war on Britain’s side in 1942, and deduced from this that he needed to act swiftly. Fortress Europe had to be established, and its full productive capacity harnessed, before the resources of America could be brought to bear against Germany.

In choosing how to invade Russia, it is worth quoting from Führer Directive No. 21 of 16 December 1940, which had been sent to all the most important figures in the Reich and which was adhered to remarkably closely six months later:

The mass of the Russian Army in western Russia is to be destroyed in daring operations, by driving forward deep armoured wedges, and the retreat of units capable of combat into the vastness of Russian territory is to be prevented… Effective intervention by the Russian Air Force is to be prevented by powerful blows at the very beginning of the operation… On the wings of our operation, the active participation of Romania and Finland in the war against the Soviet Union is to be expected… In the zone of operations divided by the Pripet Marshes into a southern and northern sector, the main effort will be made north of this area. Two Army Groups will be provided here. The southern group of these two Army Groups [that is Army Group Centre] will be given the task of annihilating the forces of the enemy in White Russia by advancing from the region around and north of Warsaw with especially strong armoured and motorized units. The possibility of switching strong mobile units to the north must thereby be created in order, in cooperation with Army Group North operating from East Prussia in the general direction of Leningrad, to annihilate the enemy forces in the Baltic area. Only after having accomplished this most important task, which must be followed by the occupation of Leningrad and Kronstadt, are the offensive operations aimed at the occupation of the important traffic and armament centre of Moscow to be pursued. Only a surprisingly fast collapse of Russian resistance could justify aiming at both objectives simultaneously… By converging operations with strong wings, the Army Group south of the Pripet Marshes is to aim at the complete destruction west of the Dnieper of the Russian forces standing in the Ukraine… Once the battles north and south of the Pripet Marshes have been fought, we should aim to achieve as part of the pursuit operation: in the south, the prompt seizure of the economically important Donets Basin; in the north, rapid arrival at Moscow. The capture of this city means a decisive success politically and economically and, beyond that, the elimination of this most important railway centre.43

Führer Directive No. 21 therefore very much envisaged another Blitzkrieg operation, with deep armoured thrusts enveloping and cutting off enormous numbers of Soviet troops, who would then have no choice but to surrender to what they could not know was going to be a genocidal captivity. But instead of a two-month operation over a maximum front of 300 miles, which was what all Hitler’s earlier wars had involved, Barbarossa envisaged a five-month assault over an 1,800-mile front, and against an enemy whose population more than doubled Germany’s, and which was also more than the population of all the Reich’s vassal states combined.

It is noticeable from Directive No. 21 that Hitler did not envisage a race straight to Moscow, that the capture of Leningrad was regarded as key to the operation, that economic and industrial considerations were very high on his agenda and that the city of Stalingrad was not even mentioned. Hitler even told Halder at this time that the capture of Moscow itself ‘was not so very important’, as the Directive itself indicates.44 This needs to be taken into account when Hitler is criticized by his own generals for not concentrating enough on seizing the Russian capital.

Russian geography splits any western invader’s route into going north and south of the Pripet Marshes, a 200-mile-wide impassable bog of reeds and trees. The rail networks servicing the north, leading to Moscow and Leningrad, are separate from those servicing the southern route which passes through the Ukraine into Russia’s rich agricultural, manufacturing and arms-producing centres. The invasion force was therefore split into Army Group North under Field Marshal Ritter von Leeb, which was to enter the Baltic States, link up with the Finns and capture Leningrad, and Army Group Centre under Field Marshal von Bock – this was the strongest, with fifty divisions, including nine Panzer and six motorized – which would take Minsk, Smolensk and ultimately Moscow. Meanwhile, Army Group South, under Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, would capture Kiev and the Ukrainian bread-basket, and then push on to take the huge oilfields of the Caucasus from where the USSR derived much of the fuel that powered her military–industrial complex.

Even though the invasion of Poland by Blitzkrieg had taken place twenty-one months earlier, and France only thirteen months earlier, the Red Army still failed to group its thirty-nine armoured divisions together in independent corps and armies, but rather distributed them evenly among infantry divisions, proving they had learnt nothing whatever about the mechanics of the new German methods of warfare. Yet since the Great War Russian generals had had far more experience than their foreign counterparts, having fought the Whites in the Russian Civil War, the Poles in 1920–21, the Japanese in 1938–9 and the Finns in the Winter War. The Red Army had mobilized 6.7 million men between 1918 and 1920, for example.45 Generals such as Zhukov, Rokossovsky, Budenny, Konev, Voroshilov and Timoshenko certainly did not lack military experience, but they understandably did fear Stalin’s anger if they took bold decisions that later met with failure. Individually they were hard men – Zhukov would strike his officers and personally attended the execution of those accused of cowardice or desertion – but they had their own lives to consider.46 For Hitler to have been able thrice to employ substantially the same tactics over a twenty-month period was an indictment of the Red Army planners and senior commanders.

Stalin’s scavenging acquisition of eastern Poland up to the River Bug, and his occupations of Bessarabia and the Baltic States in June 1940, also meant that the Red Army was positioned much too far forward by the time of Barbarossa, conveniently for Hitler’s plans as outlined in Directive No. 21. In mid-May 1941, 170 divisions, that is more than 70 per cent of the total strength of the Red Army, were stationed beyond the 1939 borders of the USSR.47 If Hitler had personally ordained the Russian dispositions he could scarcely have done a better job. Moreover the Red Army had spent its time in these advanced positions not in training, but in building fortifications that proved worthless and roads and railways that were soon being used by the Germans. The defensive Stalin Line was if anything more impressive even than the Maginot Line, but it did not connect all the way along its 90-mile length.48 Soviet dispositions are all the more inexplicable considering that Barbarossa was the worst-kept secret of the Second World War, and Stalin received no fewer than eighty warnings of Hitler’s intentions over the previous eight months.49 These came from his own spies such as Richard Sorge in the German Embassy in Tokyo – who had the distinction of predicting 22 June as the actual date of attack – and also from counter-intelligence agents in Berlin, Washington and eastern Europe, and latterly from the British Ambassador Sir Stafford Cripps. Even the anti-Nazi German Ambassador to Moscow, Count Friedrich Werner von der Schulenburg, told the Russians what was about to happen. Yet Stalin still believed that the Germans were merely racheting up pressure, and that Churchill was a double-crossing warmonger spreading misinformation – Angliyskaya provokatsiya – in order to provoke a clash in the east, thus saving Britain from isolation and eventual defeat. Churchill’s problem of how to get information from Enigma wireless interception decrypts to Stalin without the Russians guessing their source was solved by Claude Dansey, deputy head of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, or MI6), who infiltrated the Swiss-based Soviet spy ring codenamed Lucy, which in turn also warned Moscow Centre that the attack should be expected around 22 June.50

The day before the invasion, the NKVD reported no fewer than thirty-nine ‘aircraft incursions’ – that is, German reconnaissance flights in Soviet airspace. At last the Russian High Command put out a warning, but many units did not receive it until too late. It is impossible to escape the conclusion that the supposed arch-realist Stalin did not believe the warnings simply because he did not wish to, and the chief of military intelligence, General Filip Golikov, did not want to tell the brutal, unpredictable despot news that he did not want to hear. Never has ‘group-think’ worked more powerfully. ‘We are being fired on,’ reported one Russian unit in the early hours of 22 June. ‘What are we to do?’ The reply from GHQ illustrates perfectly the combination of ill-preparedness and bureaucracy that characterized the Red Army at that time: ‘You must be insane. And why isn’t your signal in code?’51

It was also extraordinary that Hitler managed to retain the advantage of surprise for Operation Barbarossa, given the colossal numbers of troops involved: 3.05 million German troops and almost 1 million in foreign contingents adds up to over 4 million men, stretching along the entire western border of the Soviet Union from Finland to the Black Sea. With 3,350 tanks in twenty armoured divisions, 7,000 field guns and 3,200 aircraft, as well as immense quantities of vehicles and stores captured undamaged from the French, Germany also had 600,000 horses taking part.52 Against Hitler’s 180 divisions, the Red Army had 158 immediately available, along with 6,000 combat planes and more than 10,000 tanks. Much of the Soviet Air Force was obsolete by 1941, and most tanks had no radios.

Attacking at 03.15 hours on Sunday, 22 June 1941, an hour before dawn, the Wehrmacht achieved almost total tactical surprise and virtually raced through Soviet territory. Around 1,200 Soviet aircraft were destroyed on the first morning, drawn up on the ground wing-tip to wing-tip; indeed, the Luftwaffe knocked out more Russian warplanes on the first day of Barbarossa than it did British planes in the entire battle of Britain. Lieutenant-General Ivan Kopets, the chief of Russia’s Bomber Command, shot himself on the second day of the invasion, which under the circumstances in Stalin’s regime counted as a smart career move. By the end of the first week of fighting, nine-tenths of the Red Army’s new Mechanized Corps had also been destroyed.53 Stalin’s total failure to anticipate the invasion is evident from his disbelieving reaction once it had begun. Zhukov telephoned him at 03.30 to tell him of the attacks, but all the general could hear was heavy breathing down the line, so he had to repeat himself and ask, ‘Did you understand me?’ only to be treated to more silence. When the Politburo met at 04.30, Stalin’s face was white and he was unable to grasp the fact that there had been a declaration of war by Germany.54 His initial orders to the Army were ludicrous: to attack along the whole front, but not to infringe German territorial integrity without specific orders.55 More rational, indeed vital, was the command to mobilize every Russian male born between 1905 and 1918 – and 800,000 women – under the narodnoe opolchenie (popular levy) system. In all, five million people were called up immediately, and by December almost 200 new divisions – averaging 11,000 soldiers each – were considered ready for battle. Citizens in their fifties and sixties also formed militia divisions. These reserve divisions would later prove decisive.

Despite a dearth of uniforms and weapons, let alone vehicles, at least at the beginning, these volunteers and levied troops were able to dig defences and were set to work throwing up anti-tank ditches, pillboxes and machine-gun posts, usually working twelve hours a day, often while being bombed. Even those units that were provided with weapons were often badly under-equipped: the 18th Leningrad Volunteer Division of 7,000 men, for example, had a grand total of only 21 machine guns, 300 rifles and 100 revolvers between them (that is, only 6 per cent were armed, not counting grenades and Molotov cocktails).56

Stalin seems to have suffered something akin to a mental breakdown one week into the invasion in the early hours of Sunday, 29 June, unless he was just testing the loyalty of his Politburo colleagues rather as his hero Ivan the Terrible had once withdrawn to a monastery to test the loyalty of his boyars. Stalin’s ‘prostration’, as Molotov put it, during which he could neither undress nor sleep but simply wandered around his dacha at Kuntsevo outside Moscow, did not last long, which was just as well because the whole government machinery seized up in his absence, fearful of initiating anything without his personal imprimatur.57 When a Politburo delegation finally went to visit, he initially suspected they had come to arrest him, whereas in fact they had arrived to ask him to head a new State Committee of Defence (the Stavka) that would supplant the authority of both the Party and the Government, which he agreed to do on 1 July. Two days later he broadcast to the Russian people for the first time, promising that ‘Our arrogant foe will soon discover that our forces are beyond number,’ and concluding: ‘Forward to Victory!’ He became supreme commander on 10 July, by which time the Germans had traversed 400 miles in eighteen days, and the Soviet Union had already lost 4,800 tanks, 9,480 guns and 1,777 planes.58

In the north, German bridgeheads across the River Dvina had been established by 26 June, and the Luga river was crossed on 14 July. Army Group Centre meanwhile snapped shut a giant Panzer pincer movement around Minsk on 29 June, capturing 290,000 Red Army troops in pockets at Białystok and Gorodishche, as well as seizing 2,500 tanks and 1,400 field guns. By destroying Soviet food and ammunition supply lines from the air, disrupting communications and racing around the rear to cut off huge numbers of unmotorized infantry, the Germans induced panic, surrender, self-mutilation and suicide among significant sections of the Russian officer corps.59 Reports of German parachutists in Red Army uniforms – some true, others false – led to many deaths through what is now known as friendly fire. When General Dmitri Pavlov, commander of the Western Front, was unable to communicate with the Tenth Army, he parachuted into the army’s territory two of his aides-de-camp, who were shot as spies because they had not been told of the change of codeword of the previous day.60 Pavlov did not long outlive them, as Stalin soon had him court-martialled and shot for the defeats in his sector.

Almost as quickly as Poland and France, Russia seemed to have been comprehensively defeated by late August 1941, with over half her European territory and nearly half her total population and industrial and agricultural production soon in enemy hands. Fortunately, no one told the ordinary Russian soldier that Russia had apparently lost the war, and he never learnt a truth that otherwise seemed self-evident to the General Staffs of Britain, America, Japan and Germany, and privately to some in the Stavka itself. By the end of July, Smolensk, after initially fierce resistance, had yielded up a further 100,000 prisoners, 2,000 tanks and 1,900 guns. There was now no great conurbation between the Germans and Moscow, which began to be bombed on 21 July. The mass panic that seized the capital was dealt with by the Stavka’s security director, Lavrenti Beria, who set up roadblocks on the exit routes and simply shot those attempting to flee (although Lenin’s embalmed body and the red stars on the turrets of the Kremlin were secretly removed to Siberia for safe keeping).61

In Moscow the bread ration started out at 800 grams per day for manual workers, 600 for non-manual workers and 400 for everyone else (although blood donors got extra). Meat rations were 2.2 kilograms, 1.2 kilograms and 600 grams per month. Anyone whose ration card was lost or stolen faced starvation. The Nomenklatura, the notable and powerful people of the workers’ paradise, and their families, got lavishly preferential treatment, as they had ever since 1917. At a time of siege this often meant the difference between life and death, and the entire Soviet rationing system – despite the inefficiencies and corruption – effectively became a means by which the authorities decided who lived and who died.

Fighting around Smolensk did not end with its fall to Guderian on 15 July, however. As late as the first week in September, the Soviets launched massive counter-attacks under Timoshenko and Zhukov, which the latter with some justification claimed as ‘a great victory’ because it held the Germans back from further advances, at least for the time being. In slowing the German advance towards Moscow as the weather was about to turn, some historians cite Smolensk as the first indication that the war might be approaching a turning point. The Smolensk battle had been fought for sixty-three days over 390 miles of front, and the Soviets had retreated 150 miles, with 309,959 ‘irrecoverable losses’ out of 579,400 taking part. Once the 159,625 sick and wounded are added, this amounted to a staggering 80 per cent casualty rate.62 At the Moscow Defence Museum it is possible to see the records of schools in which only 3 per cent of the male students who graduated in 1941 survived the war. In a sense the scale of Russian losses simply did not matter, since there were always more to fill the gaps, whereas Germans could not be replaced fast enough. As an historian of the Eastern Front writes, ‘the three German Army Groups… had suffered 213,301 casualties, prisoners and missing in the first six weeks, until 31 July, and only received 47,000 new troops. The Soviets had suffered almost ten times as many irrecoverable losses – 2,129,677 – by 30 September, but, unlike the Germans’, the losses seemed not to count.’63

Although Rundstedt’s 1st Panzer Group broke through the Soviet Fifth Army and got to within 10 miles of Kiev by 11 July, it could not take the city. The very successes of the Germans, in hugely extending their lines of communication, caused grave logistical problems for the Wehrmacht, especially once partisans began disrupting supplies in the rear. Originally disorganized and often leaderless, the Soviet partisans became much better equipped and more centrally directed as the war progressed. Their most famous martyr was Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, an eighteen-year-old girl whom the Germans executed for setting fire to stables in the village of Petrishchevo. She revealed nothing under torture, and cried: ‘You can’t hang all 190 million of us!’ before she died.64

Hitler likened the war against the partisans to fighting lice in the trenches. ‘A lice-covered soldier’, he opined, ‘has to start the fight against the lice.’ He believed that gendarmeries stationed in every town should ‘take it by the root… The bands can’t keep forming – even in the towns the bandits have to be fished out individually… But if the British could cope with the nomads in the north-western provinces of India, we can manage this here, too.’65 On 22 July 1941, Hitler had told the Croatian Defence Minister, Marshal Slavko Kvaternik, that Stalin rather than he would meet Napoleon’s fate.66 Clearly, Hitler was well aware of the shade of the Emperor on the steppes. Goebbels had spotted the Bonaparte problem earlier, writing about Barbarossa in late March 1941 that ‘The project as a whole presents some problems from the psychological point of view. Parallels with Napoleon, etc. But we shall quickly overcome these by anti-Bolshevism.’67 Jodl believed that Hitler had chosen his route into Russia specifically because he ‘had an instinctive aversion to treading the same path as Napoleon. Moscow gives him an etwas Unheimliches [weird feeling].’

The size of Operation Barbarossa dwarfs everything else in the history of warfare. As one historian records:

Within a day, German attacks had demolished one-quarter of the Soviet air force. Within four months, the Germans had occupied 600,000 square miles of Russian soil, captured 3 million Red Army troops, butchered countless Jews and other civilians, and closed to within 65 miles of Moscow. But four months after that, more than 200,000 Wehrmacht troops had been killed, 726,000 wounded, 400,000 captured and another 113,000 had been incapacitated by frostbite.68

An astonishing number of Soviet aircraft losses – 43,100 out of a wartime total of 88,300 – came not as a result of combat but through accidents due to insufficient training, the hasty introduction of new plane types, air-crew indiscipline, lax flight procedures during training, structural failings and manufacturing defects.69 Half of all Russian planes during the war, therefore, were not destroyed by bombing or shot down by the Germans, but were rather lost due to avoidable mistakes by the Soviets themselves.

The Russians were also unfortunate with their tanks, at least until they concentrated production on the excellent T-34. The 75–95mm armour of the KV-1 (designed in 1941 and named after Klementi Voroshilov) made them impervious to the attacks of most German tanks, but they were highly vulnerable from the air – as were almost all tanks throughout the Second World War – and were often outmanoeuvred in the early stages of Barbarossa and had to be destroyed by their own crews. They had only 76mm cannon and moved at no more than 35kph, but had crews of five and three 7.62mm machine guns. Equally slow at 34kph was its 1940 predecessor, confusingly called the KV-2, which was a 52-tonne, six-crew monster, with 75mm armour, three machine guns and a vast 152mm howitzer gun. Unfortunately, there were only a thousand ever made. Lighter and thus slightly faster was the 46-tonne IS-2 (named after Josef Stalin), despite its 90–120mm armour and 122mm cannon. Self-propelled cannon were similar to tanks except they were much cheaper to build because they did not have movable turrets. The SU-152 fired a 49-kilogram shell which, with its 20-kilogram case, was so heavy that it could blow the turret off a Tiger or Panther tank and have it land 15 yards away, thus earning its soubriquet Beast-killer. It was designed in less than a month in January 1943, when Stalin emphasized to the tank designer Josef Kotin – in the threatening way he knew best – how desperately it was needed. (The Panther was a specific marque of German tank and should not be confused with Panzer, which is the generic term for all German tanks.)

The most dire threats were also employed to try to prevent Red Army soldiers surrendering to the Germans. On 28 July 1941, Stalin’s ‘Not One Step Back’ Order No. 227 ordained that anyone who retreated without specific orders or who surrendered was to be treated as a ‘traitor to the Motherland’, and his family therefore liable to imprisonment. Even Stalin’s own son, First Lieutenant Yakov Dzhugashvili, battery commander of the 14th Howitzer Artillery Regiment of the 14th Armoured Division, who was captured near Vitebsk in mid-July, was not excluded; his wife spent two years in a labour camp.70 (Yakov was shot in 1943, when he entered the perimeter zone of his POW camp, either in an escape attempt or, just as likely, as suicide-by-escape.)

As though the citizens of Occupied Poland, the Ukraine and the Baltic States did not have enough to be terrified of during the German advance, the NKVD also unleashed on them an orgy of sadistic violence quite unlike its normal murder sprees. After Stalin had ordered Beria to purge the Army, wipe out defeatism and rumour-mongering and investigate with maximum distrust anyone who had escaped from the Germans, horrific scenes took place in Russian-held areas just before the Wehrmacht’s arrival. ‘When the prisons were opened up after the Soviet retreat there were scenes of indescribable horror,’ records Richard Overy. ‘Bodies had been savagely mutilated; hundreds of prisoners had been tortured to death rather than dispatched with the usual bullet in the back of the head. In one incident in the Ukraine the NKVD dynamited two cells filled with women prisoners. In another prison the floor was strewn with the tongues, ears and eyes of the dead prisoners.’71 Overy concludes that the NKVD guards had been ‘convulsed by a spasm of retributive violence induced by fear, desperation and rage’. In Lvov alone, 4,000 people were shot, including almost everyone in the city’s prison, which was then burnt down.

Small wonder, therefore, that when the Germans arrived in many parts of western Russia, the Ukraine and the Baltics, the village elders came out to greet the invaders with their traditional welcoming offers of bread and salt.72 Briefing Hitler on 4 August 1941, Bock was able to ‘plead the cause of the helpful and friendly population’.73 After the Germans had allowed the churches to be reconverted from cinemas and atheist exhibition centres back into places of Orthodox worship, Bock noted in his diary that:

The population had come, often from far away, cleaned the churches and decorated them with flowers. Many pictures of Christ and icons which had been hidden for decades were brought out. When the military services were over, the people – not just the old, but many young as well – streamed into the churches and kissed the holy objects – including the crosses around the necks of the [German] armed forces chaplains – and often remained there praying till evening. This people will not be difficult to lead!74

If the German Army had been instructed to embrace this anti-Bolshevik behaviour, and do all in its power to encourage anti-Soviet nationalism, the story of Barbarossa might have been very different. Yet that was not the Nazi way; these regions were earmarked forLebensraum, so wholesale ethnic cleansing followed, and naturally forced the local populations into outright opposition and partisan activity.

The Einsatzgruppen that followed the Wehrmacht sacked and burnt villages, enslaving the inhabitants as Slavic Untermenschen, creating implacable enemies among those they did not shoot. Here was yet another crucial instance of Nazi ideology interfering with Germany’s military best interests. ‘One reason why Hitler’s brutal “realism” in fact served him poorly’, observes the historian of the Nazi empire in Europe, ‘was that it deprived the Germans of the chance of exploiting nationalism as a tool of political warfare.’75When in September 1941 the Abwehr suggested to OKW that a Ukrainian army be raised to fight against the Red Army, the idea was turned down with contempt. It was brought up again in June 1943, but the Führer told Keitel that there was no use ‘claiming that now we just need to establish a Ukrainian state and everything will be all right, and then we’ll get one million soldiers. We won’t get anything – not even one man. That’s a figment of the imagination, just as it was in the past. But we would totally give up our war objective’ – by that he meant Lebensraum and the enslavement of the Slavs.76 Far from nurturing Slavic nationalism, therefore, Hitler merely crushed it.

Yet such were the cruelties and inefficiencies of the Bolshevik regime that there were many Russians who would have embraced non-Communist, nationalist puppet states if Hitler had set them up, rather than his relying on the same system of direct rule as the Government-General in Poland or the Occupied region of France. Leninism, collectivization, state atheism, the Civil War, repression and the Gulag system of prisons and penal colonies had left a bitter hatred against the Bolsheviks that the Germans ought to have used to their advantage. The nationality question had been decided in favour of the Russians over the 119 other nationalities of the Soviet Union, leaving the proud Ukrainians – several million of whom had been deliberately starved to death in the early 1930s – almost powerless. Many of these nationalities had been part of Greater Russia for less than a century anyway, and had cultures, languages and identities that had somehow survived vicious Bolshevik persecution.

Although the Germans did initially attempt to pose as liberators to some of these peoples, especially those in the Baltics, the Ukraine, Armenia and Georgia and the Crimean Tatars, this was merely for propaganda purposes and their behaviour on the ground soon made it clear that they simply regarded themselves as conquerors. Yet wherever the Germans did allow a measure of local autonomy – such as to Bronislav Kaminski’s brutal RONA (the Russian National Liberation Army) in the so-called Lokoty Self-Governing District, and to the Cossacks – they tended to fight well. The Cossacks even had autonomous ministries for education, agriculture and healthcare.77 In the Ukraine, for example, the German IL Mountain Corps asked local city leaders to guard their own communities, something that freed up troops for the front line. It worked for a while. The Nazis ought also to have promised the peasants of southern Russia massive agrarian decollectivization, reawakening the hopes of 1917 that they would be allowed their own land and the freedom to cultivate it and to sell their produce for their own profit.

Good, or at least reasonable, treatment of the immense numbers of Soviet POWs captured in the early stages – over 2 million by November 1941 and 3.6 million by the following March – was also a necessary prerequisite for mass collaboration. Yet here the Nazis, whose plans were for large-scale liquidation, proved themselves incapable of even pretending to act out the role of liberators rather than genocidal conquerors. Lebensraum required annexations, mass executions and the utter enslavement of all Slavic peoples, and this was deemed irreconcilable with a policy of liberation from Stalinism, whatever military advantages beckoned. A more cynical plan would have been to offer Stalin’s subject peoples autonomy until the Bolsheviks were defeated, and only then to put the extermination and Lebensraum plans into operation. Yet the sheer numbers of POWs being captured, the overconfidence inspired by the initial crushing victories, and the food shortages that were already developing in the east made that impractical. With four million soldiers to feed in Russia, almost all of whom were expected under OKW rules to live off the land – despite its being subjected to a scorched-earth policy by the Russians themselves – mass starvation of civilians in western Russia and the Ukraine was probably the only likely outcome, even if the Reich had tried to adopt a conciliatory policy towards Russia’s subject peoples.

In all, 3.3 million Red Army prisoners were to die in German captivity, or 58 per cent of the total of 5.7 million that were taken. This had even been anticipated in the original German war plans. The Wehrmacht’s Central Economic Agency stated on 2 May 1941 that all German forces involved in Barbarossa would have to ‘be fed at the expense of Russia… thereby tens of millions will undoubtedly starve to death if we take away all we need from the country’.78 This was underlined by the Nazi ideologist Alfred Rosenberg, who on 20 June 1941, on the very eve of the invasion, told the bureaucrats who would soon staff the Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories (Ukraine and Ostland): ‘The southern territories and northern Caucasia will have to make up the deficit in food supplies for the German people. We do not accept that we have any responsibility for feeding the Russian population… from these surplus-producing regions.’79 In fact it was crueller even than that. ‘The purpose of the Russian campaign is to decimate the Slavic population by thirty millions,’ Himmler told colleagues at a weekend party just before Barbarossa.80 With the final Russian death toll at twenty-seven million, he almost reached his target. Hitler’s concept of the Völkerkrieg (clash of peoples) was always intended to end in genocide in the east, or at least in enough ethnic cleansing (as it would later be called) to clear the necessary areas for the Aryan farmer–soldiers who were going to colonize the rich agricultural areas. In this as in so much else, the Nazi way of fighting the war triumphed over the most efficient way of finding victory.

The march on Kiev in July 1941 provided the occasion for one of Hitler’s most controversial decisions of the war, when he opted to take the Ukrainian rather than the Russian capital, although of course he did not see it in those terms at the time. The Soviet Fifth Army had pulled back, but was still capable of threatening the north flank of the German advance into the Ukraine, so OKW determined that as soon as the Red Army near Smolensk had been destroyed, Guderian’s 2nd Panzer Group and the Second Army from Army Group Centre should break off their march on Moscow and swing due south behind the Pripet Marshes to destroy the Soviet Fifth Army and take Kiev in conjunction with the 1st Panzer Group already engaged there. Bock and Guderian opposed this change to the original plan, fearing – rightly as it turned out – that critical momentum would be lost in the drive on the Russian capital, but they were overruled by Hitler. By 11 August 1941 the truth had already dawned upon Franz Halder, as he recorded in his diary:

The whole situation makes it increasingly plain that we have underestimated the Russian colossus… At the outset of war, we reckoned with about 200 enemy divisions. Now we have already counted 360. These divisions indeed are not armed and equipped according to our standards, and their tactical leadership is often poor. But there they are, and if we smash a dozen of them, the Russians simply put up another dozen. The time factor favours them, as they are near their own resources, while we are moving farther and farther away from ours.81

In fact the Russians were to field many more divisions than merely 360; some historians have enumerated as many as 600.82

The war diary of Fedor von Bock, the commander of Army Group Centre, shows how crucial Hitler was to the fateful decision not to push on to Moscow at full strength and speed in August and September 1941. A hint of the Führer’s thoughts came after Generals von Kluge and von Bock had dinner together on 28 July, and Hitler’s chief Army adjutant Rudolf Schmundt arrived at Bock’s headquarters at Novy Borissov late that evening to say of the Führer’s plans that ‘the main thing is to eliminate the area of Leningrad, then the raw materials region of the Donets Basin. The Führer cares nothing about Moscow itself. The enemy at Gomel is to be wiped out to clear the way for future operations.’ Bock’s understandable reaction was: ‘That differs somewhat from what is said in the Army Command’s directive!’83 Directive No. 21 had in fact been ambiguous, giving as equal priorities ‘the prompt seizure of the economically important Donets Basin’ and a ‘rapid arrival at Moscow’.

A week later, on 4 August, Hitler arrived at Novy Borissov himself, and said that he saw the Crimea as a primary objective, otherwise it might become ‘a Soviet aircraft carrier operating against the Ruman ian oil-fields’. He congratulated Bock on his ‘unprecedented success’ so far, but Bock gleaned from the discussion after his briefing that ‘it appears that he is not yet clear on how the operations should now proceed.’84 Heinz Guderian (2nd Panzer Group) and Hermann Hoth (3rd Panzer Group) explained that relief and repairs necessitated by their rapid advance would take time, which Hitler accepted. The Führer then spoke of ‘an attack to the east’, with which Bock ‘happily agreed and said that in this way we should surely meet the Russian strength and decision against what was probably his last forces to be hoped for there’. In fact of course the Russians had plenty more forces, but a massive assault on Moscow seems therefore still to have been contemplated in early August. This was thought of as the greatEntscheidungsschlacht(decisive battle) as prescribed by Clausewitz.

The early nineteenth-century Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz was the acknowledged guru of the German High Command, but was he actually read by them? Kleist thought not. ‘Clausewitz’s teachings had fallen into neglect by this generation,’ he told Liddell Hart after the war. ‘His phrases were quoted but his books were not closely studied. He was regarded as a military philosopher, rather than as a practical teacher.’ Kleist believed that Schlieffen’s writings ‘received much greater attention’, which was undoubtedly true in Hitler’s case. As for Clausewitz’s maxim that ‘War is nothing but the continuation of politics by other means,’ Kleist believed that ‘Under the Nazis we tended to reverse Clausewitz’s dictum, and to regard peace as a continuation of war.’85Certainly, Clausewitz’s many Cassandrine warnings about the dangers of invading Russia – he had personally witnessed Napoleon’s nemesis in the retreat from Moscow from the Russian side – went unheeded. In his chapter on the ‘Interdependence of the Elements of War’ in his magnum opus On War, he had written:

Within the concept of absolute war, then, war is indivisible, and its component parts (the individual victories) are of value only in relation to the whole. Conquering Moscow and half of Russia in 1812 was of no avail to Bonaparte unless it brought him the peace he had in view. But these successes were only a part of his plan of campaign: what was still missing was the destruction of the Russian army. If that achievement had been added to the rest, peace would have been as sure as things of that sort ever can be. But it was too late to achieve the second part of his plan; his chance had gone. Thus the successful stage was not only wasted but led to disaster.86

It was a vital part of Clausewitz’s message, but not one quoted by many generals – including Kleist – in 1941–42 when it needed to be.

Hitler was having severe doubts about the wisdom of prioritizing the drive on Moscow over what were – for him – some even more important targets. ‘Modern warfare is all economic warfare,’ he stated, ‘and the demands of economic warfare must be given priority.’87 His desire to take the cereal crops of the Ukraine, the oil of the Caucasus and the coal of the Donets region – and thus simultaneously deny them to Stalin – led him to make the key error of not pushing on to Moscow, but instead driving south to take Kiev. The Clausewitzians on his General Staff wanted to defeat the enemy’s main force, and take Moscow as soon as possible, but Hitler’s more economics-based grand strategy prevailed. By dispersing his forces for these various tasks, he threw away his chance of taking Moscow, but he did not suspect so at the time, believing that that too was attainable before the onset of winter. Yet Moscow was the nodal point of Russia’s north–south transport hub, was the administrative and political capital, was vital for Russian morale and was an important industrial centre in its own right.

On 21 August, Hitler sent Bock a new directive stating that:

The army’s proposal for the continuation of the operations… does not correspond with my plans. I order the following… The most important objective to be achieved before the onset of winter is not the occupation of Moscow, but the taking of the Crimea, the industrial and coal region of the Donets Basin and the severing of Russian oil deliveries from the Caucasus area, in the north the encirclement of Leningrad and link-up with the Finns.88

This Directive was, in Halder’s view, ‘decisive to the outcome of this campaign’. The next day, on 22 August, OKW telephoned Bock with the details, informing him that ‘on orders from the Führer, strong elements of the 2nd Army and the Guderian Group were to be diverted south, in order to intercept the enemy retreating east in front of the inner wings of Army Groups South and Centre and ease the crossing of the Dnieper by Army Group South.’ Bock immediately telephoned Brauchitsch ‘and made clear to him the questionable wisdom of such an operation’. Yet he does not appear to have made himself clear at all, because when that afternoon someone else attempted to talk him out of the operation, Brauchitsch had said: ‘Bock isn’t at all unhappy about the affair.’ Bock then called Halder, telling him that he considered the new plan:

unfortunate, above all because it placed the attack to the east in question. All the directives say that taking Moscow isn’t important!! I want to smash the enemy army and the bulk of this army is opposite my front! Turning south is a secondary operation – even if just as big – which will jeopardize the execution of the main operation, namely the destruction of the Russian armed forces before winter.

That evening the Directive came through unaltered, however, and Bock concluded of his protest to Halder: ‘It did no good!’89

Guderian flew off to see Hitler personally, but was greeted by Brauchitsch with the words: ‘It is all decided and there’s no point in griping!’ Guderian nonetheless described the seriousness of the situation to Hitler, but when he was told ‘how decisive to the war the advance to the south was’, he buckled and told the Führer, in Bock’s astonished words, ‘that an immediate advance by XXIV Panzer Corps and other armoured forces was possible!’ Bock, who wanted to be the general who captured Moscow, and despaired of having such large forces removed from his army group, can be forgiven his overuse of the exclamation mark considering the circumstances, noting of OKW on 24 August: ‘They apparently do not wish to exploit under any circumstances the opportunity decisively to defeat the Russians before winter!’90 He later added that ‘the objective to which I devoted all my thought, the destruction of the main strength of the enemy army, has been dropped.’

Clausewitz would not have approved, but in Hitler’s defence neither Halder nor Brauchitsch – who supported Bock – seems to have put up much resistance to the diversion southwards of Guderian’s crack units, and thus almost the emasculation of Army Group Centre’s forward thrusting power at such a critical stage. ‘In our private circles,’ Keitel recalled, ‘the Führer had often cracked jokes at Halder’s expense and labelled him a “little fellow”.’91 Bock contented himself with writing a pre-emptive I-told-you-so in his diary: ‘If, after all the successes, the campaign in the east now trickles away in dismal defensive fighting for my Army Group, it is not my fault.’92 Sacked in December 1941, recalled in March 1942 and then sacked again that July, Bock died with his family in an air raid only three days before the end of the war in Europe.

Subsequent events show that Hitler ought to have ordered Army Group Centre to continue its attack on Moscow in August 1941. Almost all the senior Wehrmacht officers outside OKW supported this, as did almost all within OKW, except Keitel and Jodl. ‘Hitler made the most important decision of his life’, writes one historian, ‘against the professional judgment of virtually every German soldier who had an opportunity to comment.’93 The Allied committee system, for all its time-consuming debates and profound disagreements, was a far superior way of arriving at grand strategy than the method by which each general scrambled for the ear of a dictator who was not always listening anyway.

The Smolensk pocket had been eliminated by 5 August, and when the German Second Army and 2nd Panzer Group came south, behind Kiev, and linked up with the 1st Panzer Group coming north from Kremenchug, they annihilated the Russian Fifth and Thirty-seventh Armies of around half a million men at Gomel by 17 September. This operation has been described as ‘arguably the greatest single German victory in the Eastern war’, opening the way for the conquest of the Donets industrial basin.94 These Blitzkrieg victories had been huge, well supported by the Luftwaffe, conducted at great speed over dry ground against bewildered opposition, but nonetheless with serious losses, owing to the fortitude of the ordinary Russian soldier.

The fall of Kiev, which cost the Soviets 665,000 prisoners, made it possible for the OKW to concentrate once again on the capture of Moscow, which it was hoped would force the Soviet Government and the Red Army behind the Ural mountains, and knock the USSR out of the war as an effective power. The Luftwaffe could then be given the task of confining the Russians to a deindustrialized Siberian outpost that could only at best conduct minor border resistance operations against a German Volk in complete control of the whole European land mass. Britain would then have no hope and would have to come to terms, as the Reich geared itself up for the coming world-historical struggle against the United States, a war it could not fail to win because – as Hitler regularly averred at the Berghof – that country was internally rotten from the influence of so many Jews and blacks. In retrospect, it is possible to see how just such a nightmare world might have indeed come about had Moscow fallen in October 1941, and we now know that on the 16th Stalin even had his personal train made ready to evacuate him from the city.

The assault on Moscow was formidable. From the south came the Panzer Group Guderian via Orel, Bryansk and Tula. Army Group Centre provided the major thrust with the Second Army going via Kaluga and Hoepner’s 4th Panzer Group from Roslavl via Yukhnov. Army Group North meanwhile contributed Hoth’s 3rd Panzer Group which went via Vyazma and Borodino (another place with powerful Napoleonic connotations). Up in the very north of the sector, the Ninth Army made its way towards Kalinin. In all the Wehrmacht devoted no fewer than forty-four infantry divisions, eight motorized divisions and fourteen Panzer divisions to the assault, starting out on 30 September in Guderian’s case, 2 October in the others’.95 ‘Today’, declared Hitler, ‘begins the last great offensive of the year!’ As they converged on their target, the Wehrmacht worked closely together in cutting off vast Russian formations, so that by 7 October Hoth and Hoepner had surrounded the Russian Thirty-second Army at Vyazma, and Guderian and the Second Army had sliced off the Russian Third Army at Bryansk, destroying these trapped armies on 14 and 20 October respectively. In time, the Russians learnt to retreat and not get cut off, but they could not retreat beyond Moscow without losing the capital, so they threw up three huge defensive lines west of the city, and tried everything in their power to slow down the onslaught.

Meanwhile, in the north of Russia, Army Group North reached Novgorod by 16 August, and on 1 September was close enough to begin bombarding Leningrad. The Finns had joined the German invasion enthusiastically, hoping to avenge their defeat in the Winter War, and they managed to recapture Viipuri and much of the rest of the Karelian Isthmus, besieging Leningrad from the north-west. By 15 September, the second city in the Soviet Union was cut off, and the German decision to try to starve it into surrender, rather than simply to storm it, turned out in retrospect to have been crucial. It was a rational stance to take – 11,000 civilians starved to death in Leningrad in the month of November 1941 alone, for example, as opposed to 12,500 killed by shelling and bombing in the first three months of the siege – yet somehow Leningrad survived its gruelling 900-day ordeal, despite suffering over one million deaths, or an average of more than 1,100 people a day for nearly three years. It was by far the bloodiest siege in history, and more Russians died in Leningrad alone than British and American soldiers and civilians during the whole of the Second World War.

On 12 September the food commissar of Leningrad, D. V. Pavlov, set the ration for non-workers and children at one-third of a pound of (25 per cent edible cellulose) bread a day, plus a pound of meat and 1.5 pounds of cereals and three-quarters of a pound of sunflower-seed oil per month. It was a meagre figure that was nonetheless destined to be cut several times before the end of the war. On 20 November, front-line troops got 500 grams of bread per day, factory workers received 250, and everyone else 125 (that is, two slices). ‘Twigs were collected and stewed,’ records an historian of the siege. ‘Peat shavings, cottonseed cake, bonemeal was pressed into use. Pine sawdust was processed and added to the bread. Mouldy grain was dredged from sunken barges and scraped out of the holds of ships. Soon Leningrad bread was containing 10% cottonseed cake that had been processed to remove poisons.’96 Household pets, shoe leather, fir bark and insects were consumed, as was wallpaper paste which was reputed to be made with potato flour. Guinea pigs, white mice and rabbits were saved from vivisection in the city’s laboratories for a more immediately practical fate. ‘Today it is so simple to die,’ wrote one resident, Yelena Skryabina, in her diary. ‘You just begin to lose interest, then you lie on your bed and you never get up again.’97 Yet some people were willing to go to any lengths in order to survive: 226 people were arrested for cannibalism during the siege. ‘Human meat is being sold in the markets,’ concluded one secret NKVD report, ‘while in the cemeteries bodies pile up like carcasses, without coffins.’98

Even on those brief occasions when Soviet counter-offensives allowed small quantities of food to get into the city and the bread ration could be temporarily increased, the situation was never better than completely desperate. In October 7,500 shells, 991 explosive bombs and 31,398 incendiaries fell on Leningrad; in November 11,230 shells and 7,500 bombs; in December 6,000 shells and 2,000 bombs. On Christmas Day 1941, when supplies were being brought along an ice road over Lake Ladoga, 3,700 people still died of starvation. (The drivers of trucks crossing the frozen lake kept their doors open, despite the sub-zero temperatures, in order to jump out if their vehicle was hit or plunged through the ice.) The Russian Baltic Fleet was ice-bound at Leningrad and so took part in its anti-aircraft defence. They could hardly leave in any case, since the Baltic Sea was dominated by the German Navy. As the snow thawed in Leningrad in the spring of 1942, thousands of frozen bodies were dug up from the streets before the putrefaction could start epidemics.

The heavy rains that fell on Wednesday, 8 October 1941 were the first in a series of climatic changes that were ultimately to wreck Hitler’s ambitions in Russia. The Russians called it rasputitsa (the time when roads dissolve). Thick mud slowed the pushes towards Kalinin, Kaluga and Tula, the key staging posts on the way to Moscow. Although the Vyazma Defence Line failed to hold back the Wehrmacht, the Mozhaysk Defence Line fared much better, so that by 30 October the Germans had stalled between 45 and 75 miles from the capital. Years later Rundstedt looked back at the likelihood of victory in Barbarossa:

Long before winter came the chances had been diminished owing to the repeated delays in the advance that were caused by bad roads and mud. The ‘black earth’ of the Ukraine could be turned into mud by ten minutes’ rain, stopping all movement until it dried. That was a heavy handicap in a race with time. It was increased by a lack of railways in Russia for bringing up supplies to our advancing troops. Another adverse factor was the way the Russians received continual reinforcements from their rear areas, as they fell back. It seemed to us that as soon as one force was wiped out, the path was blocked by the arrival of a fresh force.99

As the weather worsened and barometers fell, however, the ground hardened, which for a short period gave the Germans another opportunity to encircle the city. By then, however, their original two-to-one superiority on the ground and three-to-one in the air had evaporated as the Soviet state threw everything into the defence, with Stalin making an uplifting address from the Kremlin on the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, 7 November, in which he mentioned Alexander Nevsky, Michael Kutuzov and Lenin, as well as the help promised by the British and Americans. (When the speech had to be refilmed later on for propaganda purposes, it was noticed by observant Russians that no condensation came from Stalin’s mouth, as would have been the case if it had been filmed in Red Square in freezing November.)

Relatively few buildings were destroyed in Moscow by German bombing during the war – only about 3 per cent of the total. This was because of the size and accuracy of Russian anti-aircraft units, as well as good anti-bomber cover provided by Ilyushin and Airacobra fighters and the barrage balloons over the capital. Until 1943 it even served the Red Air Force deliberately to ram into enemy planes. The AZP-39 anti-aircraft guns of 37mm calibre that ringed Moscow weighed 2,100 kilos, fired 730-gram shells at a speed of more than 908 yards per second at 180 rounds a minute to a maximum height of 19,500 feet, and were accurate up to 9,000 feet. The Katyusha (Little Kate) BM-13 mobile rocket was first used in the defence of Moscow, launched from the back of a truck (often an American-donated Studebaker). With their 132mm calibre, 1.41-metre length, 42.5-kilogram weight (and 4.9-kilogram weight of explosive) and 8.5-mile range, they were a terrifying weapon, despite their affectionate nickname, especially when up to sixteen were fired at once. The Germans had great trouble in capturing one for research, as they were rigged up to enable their commanders to destroy them easily. The Soviets had drastic plans in readiness for a German seizure of Moscow. In 2001, some 270 pounds of explosives were found during renovation work under the Hotel Moscow, next to the Kremlin, which had been placed there in 1941 by the NKVD in case Moscow had to be destroyed, and subsequently forgotten about.100

The next direct assault on Moscow began on 15 November, with elements of the 3rd Panzer Group coming within 19 miles of the city, on the Volga Canal, by the 27th. Meanwhile, Guderian reached Kashira on the 25th, but could not get any further. The Germans were unlucky with the weather, it is true, but they did not devote enough troops to this great assault on Moscow, and they had already lost 750,000 casualties, including 8,000 officers and nearly 200,000 men killed, since the launch of Barbarossa. It is no exaggeration to state that the outcome of the Second World War hung in the balance during this massive attack, but by 5 December the 3rd and 2nd Panzer Groups had to be withdrawn to the Istria–Klin and Don–Ulla Lines respectively and put on to the defensive. Could the Germans have taken Moscow if Hitler had not drawn Guderian’s Second Panzer Army and the Second Army more than 250 miles south between 23 August and 30 September? We cannot know for certain, but must suspect so.

On the same day that Guderian had finally moved northwards towards Moscow – 30 September 1941 – General Paul von Kleist’s 1st Panzer Group in Army Group South crossed the Dnieper and Samara rivers in the direction of Rostov-on-Don. Part of the force cut south to capture Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov on 6 October, thus trapping a large Russian pocket of 100,000 troops of the Soviet Eighteenth Army, despite much the same onset of rain and snow that had affected the German advance on Moscow further north. The momentum was somehow kept up with the capture of Kharkov on 24 October and then Rostov itself on 20 November. Nonetheless, it had all but run out. When on 29 November the hastily reconstructed Soviet Thirty-seventh Army threatened to cut the Germans off in Rostov, Rundstedt ordered Army Group South to withdraw to the Mius and Donets rivers. Hitler attempted – too late – to countermand the order, and Rundstedt wired a message on 30 November to say: ‘It is madness to attempt to hold. In the first place the troops cannot do it and in the second place if they do not retreat they will be destroyed. I repeat that this order be rescinded or that you find someone else.’101 The next day Hitler dismissed Rundstedt, who had suffered a mild heart attack, but quickly forgave him once apprised of the facts on the ground and gave him a large sum of money as a golden handshake. Embarrassed, Rundstedt accepted but never touched it.102

By Saturday, 6 December, the Germans were on the defensive along a vast front that began outside Rostov on the Sea of Azov in the south (with most of the Crimea in German hands) and wound up through Izium, Yelets (in German hands), Tula and Moscow (in Russian hands), Kalinin (in German hands) and up to Leningrad (in Russian hands). On that day, Zhukov – who had brought up forty Siberian divisions – began his winter offensive. This great counter-attack resulted in a spectacle that the world had not yet witnessed in more than two years of war: German soldiers surrendering en masse.

Keitel later narrowed the date of Germany’s reversal of fortune down to 11 December 1941, explaining that ‘the weather had drastically changed from the period of mud and slime to that infernal cold, with all the attendant and catastrophic results for our troops, clad as they were only in improvised winter clothing.’103 The railway system had broken down as ‘German locomotives and their water towers had just frozen solid.’ Keitel thought Hitler’s blanket refusal to countenance any withdrawals was nonetheless the right one, ‘because he had correctly realized that to withdraw even by only a few miles was synonymous with writing off all our heavy armaments’. Tanks, artillery, anti-tank weapons and vehicles ‘were irreplaceable. In fact there was no other solution than to stand fast and fight’. When a general asked Hitler for permission to retreat 30 miles, he was asked whether he thought it would be any warmer there, and whether, if the Wehrmacht carried on retreating, the Russians would stop at the borders of the Reich. For all his sarcasm, these were legitimate questions. As the year came to an end, Keitel recorded, ‘We spent a cheerless Christmas at the Führer’s headquarters.’104

The same day that Keitel chose as the turning point in Russia – Thursday, 11 December 1941 – also saw Hitler declare war on the United States, an insane decision that will be examined in the next chapter. Its effect on the Eastern Front was hugely to increase the quantity of arms and other supplies of all kinds that the Americans donated to the Soviet war effort, which included, on top of a vast amount of tanks, planes, trucks, ammunition and military supplies, no fewer than 15,000 saws and 20,000 knives for use in amputations.105

*

Contrary to the old adage, Napoleon had not been beaten in Russia by Generals Janvier and Février, because his Grande Armée had in fact been comprehensively defeated by the first week in December; however, those two old soldiers were indeed pressed into service against Hitler 130 years later. Although the Luftwaffe and Waffen-SS had provided winter greatcoats for their men, much of the Wehrmacht had not. So much for the celebrated Teutonic efficiency and General Staff foresight. Furthermore, although Russian Mosin rifles and PPSh sub-machine guns did not freeze up, the oil used to grease German Schmeisser sub-machine guns sometimes did. ‘It is a delusion to imagine that a plan of campaign can be laid down far ahead and fulfilled with exactitude,’ said Helmuth von Moltke the Elder. ‘The first collision with the enemy creates a new situation in accordance with the result.’ This is true of military campaigns in general and of Operation Barbarossa in particular, but one thing the OKH could have laid down with some exactitude was the certainty of a very cold winter in Russia, a matter of common sense and logistical foresight of the kind at which the High Command was supposed to excel. The Russians have a saying that there is no such thing as cold weather, only the wrong kind of clothing. The German commissariat had hubristically not transported anything like enough woollen hats, gloves, long-johns and greatcoats to Russia, and suddenly there was a desperate need for millions of such items, over and above what could be looted from the Russians and Poles. On 20 December 1941, Goebbels broadcast an appeal for warm clothing to send to the troops: ‘Those at home will not deserve a single peaceful hour if even one soldier is exposed to the rigours of winter without adequate clothing.’ Yet two years of clothes rationing meant that there was little to give.

In his table-talk at Berchtesgaden, Hitler let drop a number of remarks that might provide a clue to why he had not sufficiently concerned himself with his men’s welfare when it came to the great Russian freeze. ‘One can’t put any trust in the meteorological forecasts,’ he told Bormann and others on the night of 14 October 1941, arguing that the weathermen ‘ought to be separated from the Army’. Although he considered that Lufthansa had a first-class meteorological service, the military organization was ‘not nearly as good’. Believing himself to be an expert in meteorology as much as he was in everything else, this world-class know-all went on to state:

Weather prediction is not a science that can be learnt mechanically. What we need are men gifted with a sixth sense, who live in nature and with nature – whether or not they know anything about isotherms and isobars. As a rule, obviously, these men are not particularly suited to the wearing of uniforms. One of them will have a humped back, another will be bandy-legged, a third paralytic. Similarly, one doesn’t expect them to live like bureaucrats.106

These ‘human barometers’, as Hitler dubbed them – who don’t much sound like exemplars of the master race – would have telephones installed in their homes free of charge and would predict the weather for the Reich and ‘be flattered to have people relying on [their] knowledge’. They would be people ‘who understand the flights of midges and swallows, who can read the signs, who feel the wind, to whom the movements of the sky are familiar. Elements are involved in that kind of thing that are beyond mathematics,’ said Hitler. Or indeed parody.

Hitler was certainly proud of his own hardiness in the cold, boasting on 12 August 1942:

Having to change into long trousers was always a misery to me. Even with a temperature of 10 below zero I used to go about in lederhosen. The feeling of freedom they give you is wonderful. Abandoning my shorts was one of the biggest sacrifices I had to make… Anything up to five degrees below zero I don’t even notice. Quite a number of young people of today already wear shorts all the year round; it is just a question of habit. In the future I shall have an SS Highland Brigade in lederhosen!107

If Hitler was under the impression that the Wehrmacht could withstand sub-zero temperatures in sub-standard winter clothing, he was soon proved wrong. In some areas the Germans were well prepared for Barbarossa; they had printed a German–Russian phrasebook, for example, with questions such as ‘Where is the collective farm chairman?’ and ‘Are you a Communist?’ (It was inadvisable to answer the latter in the affirmative.) Yet when it came to something as basic as proper clothing in a winter campaign in one of the world’s coldest countries, there was simply not enough, and what they did provide was often not warm enough either. All this springs directly from Hitler’s belief that the campaign would be over in three months, by late September 1941, before the weather turned.

The consequences of this lack of warm clothing were often horrific. The Italian journalist Curzio Malaparte recalled in his novel Kaputt how he had been in the Europeiski Café in Warsaw when he watched German troops returning from the Eastern Front:

Suddenly I was struck with horror and realized that they had no eyelids. I had already seen soldiers with lidless eyes, on the platform of the Minsk station a few days previously on my way from Smolensk. The ghastly cold of that winter had the strangest consequences. Thousands and thousands of soldiers had lost their limbs; thousands and thousands had their ears, their noses, their fingers and their sexual organs ripped off by the frost. Many had lost their hair… Many had lost their eyelids. Singed by the cold, the eyelid drops off like a piece of dead skin… Their future was only lunacy.108

This was the pass to which its ludicrous failure to prepare had brought the Wehrmacht. The title of the autobiography of Ribbentrop’s private secretary, Reinhard Spitzy, was How We Squandered the Reich. For the Germans to be defeated in the field of battle was one thing – and it took another year for it to happen on any significant scale – but for them to have been improperly provided for by their own leadership and General Staff was quite another.

Churchill used the opportunity of the second anniversary of his taking the premiership to mock Hitler over his ‘first blunder’ of invading Russia, for ‘There is a winter, you know, in Russia. For a good many months the temperature is apt to fall very low. There is snow, there is frost, and all that. Hitler forgot about this Russian winter. He must have been very loosely educated. We all heard about it at school; but he forgot it. I have never made such a bad mistake as that.’109 As well as hearing of it at school, Hitler owned a library with many books on Napoleon and his campaigns, which were covered in extensive marginalia in his own handwriting, as well as several biographies of generals of the Napoleonic era.110 Although the only time that Hitler ever mentioned Napoleon at his Führer-conferences was when he complained of the Wehrmacht’s slow promotion policy – ‘If a Napoleon could become a First Consul at the age of 27 [sic], I don’t see why a 30-year-old man here can’t be a general or lieutenant-general: that’s ridiculous’ – there is plenty of evidence that he thought a great deal about the man who had preceded him as Russia’s scourge.111

When he captured Paris in 1940, Hitler hastened to pay his respects at Napoleon’s tomb at Les Invalides, and ordered the remains of the King of Rome to be disinterred from Vienna and laid to rest with those of his father. ‘A gesture that will arouse a grateful response,’ thought Goebbels, though without much evidence for it.112 At the Berghof, Hitler often spoke of ‘that unique military genius, the Corsican Napoleon’, and discussed Napoleon’s supposed lack of threat to Britain, his error in assuming the imperial purple, his leadership qualities, and so on. Yet after his remark to the Croatian Defence Minister of July 1941, Hitler tended to stay off the subject of the glaring parallels between his own and the earlier invasion of Russia by Napoleon (and incidentally also that of Charles xii of Sweden which had ended in a similar disaster at Poltava in 1709).113 On 19 July 1942, at the Berghof, Hitler complained that ‘Just when our difficulties of the eastern winter campaign had reached their height, some imbecile pointed out that Napoleon, like ourselves, had started his Russian campaign on 22nd June. Thank God, I was able to counter that drivel with the authoritative statement of historians of repute that Napoleon’s campaign did not, in fact, begin until 23rd June.’114 Hitler’s historians were correct; it was at 22.00 hours on 23 June 1812 that Napoleon’s army began crossing the River Niemen.115 Yet the unnamed imbecile’s point was made, and he might also have mentioned that, unlike Hitler, the Corsican Ogre won a battle outside Moscow and captured the city – in the era before motorization too.

Hitler took over personal command of the Wehrmacht from Brauchitsch on 19 December 1941, in addition to his role as supreme commander of the armed forces. Although Brauchitsch had opposed the weakening of Army Group Centre and had been overruled by Hitler, he was made to accept responsibility for the resulting failure to seize Moscow. Yet from the moment Hitler assumed the commandership-in-chief of the Wehrmacht, all errors made could be directly blamed on him rather than on his myrmidons. ‘Anyone can do the little job of directing operations in war,’ he stated. ‘The task of the Commander-in-Chief is to educate the Army to be National Socialist. I do not know any Army general who can do this in the way that I want it done. I have therefore decided to take over command of the Army.’116 Eastern operations were now to be directed exclusively through OKH, the Army High Command based at Zossen outside Berlin, while the responsibilities for other theatres were devolved entirely upon OKW, Hitler’s planning staff in overall control of the German armed forces. This had the (wholly foreseeable) effect of making the two organizations compete for resources for their respective theatres, rather than acting in relative tandem as hitherto. Hitler had long used this method of playing off Reich institutions and individuals against one another in peacetime – the Four Year Plan Office versus the Economics Ministry, for example, and Göring versus Himmler. This led sometimes to creative tension and useful competition, and sometimes to inefficiency and difficulties, but never to disaster. In wartime, however, the policy was far more dangerous. The very next day, 20 December, Hitler issued a ‘Stand or die’ order to Army Group Centre, admitting that ‘Talk of Napoleon’s retreat is threatening to become reality.’117Like Napoleon, he had managed to wound and anger the Russian bear, but not to kill it.

For ordinary German soldiers, the sheer scale of Russia was hard to comprehend. There were rivers so wide that the average German artillery piece could only just fire across them. The weather alternated from blistering heat to wind-chilled blizzards rolling off the endless steppes. The vast distance from home demoralized all but the most fanatical German stormtroopers, many of whom had to march on foot for thousands of miles. They had been victorious so far, it was true, but as one German tank commander commented as they drove further and further into that enormous country: ‘If this goes on, we will win ourselves to death.’118

The Russians also had some technical advantages. The excellent Katyusha mortar had come into service on 15 July 1940, the same month as their standard battle tank, the T-34, which Guderian thought ‘the best battle tank in any army up to 1943’. The T-34 was just about capable of taking on the Panzer Mark IV, and there were to be a much greater number of them made. Otherwise the obsolete Russian tanks were no match for the German (and captured French) tanks, even though the German Army Ordnance Office had ignored the Führer’s direct order to provide the Panzer III with a 50mm cannon. Sometimes Soviet tank crews had only had a few hours’ training before being flung into battle. (At the time of Barbarossa, three-quarters of Russian officers had been with their units for less than a year.) 119 The Russian cavalry horse, described as the ‘shaggy little Kirkhil ponies from Siberia’, could withstand temperatures of –30 Celsius. Moreover, Russian field artillery was generally superior to German. The Soviets also had a tactical doctrine that trusted to the steady application of heavy pressure by infantry and tanks working in conjunction. This is what had broken the Mannerheim Line, and what had won General Zhukov the battle of Khalkin Gol against the Japanese in 1939. The Russians had not had the opportunity to practise it against the Germans so far, having been in retreat for so long, but in December 1941 all that was about to change.

The Russians also had the inestimable advantage of Stalin’s sheer ruthlessness. In the first six months after Barbarossa, the Soviet Government moved 2,593 industrial concerns eastwards in 1.5 million railway wagons and trucks, at the same time that 2.5 million troops were being moved in the opposite direction. The operation has been described as an ‘economic Stalingrad’ in its sheer size and importance. Industrial centres were being founded so fast that the Russians ran out of things to call them, and a town actually entitled Bezymyanny (Nameless) was built outside Kuybyshev, 500 miles east of Moscow. To shift a large part of Russia’s industrial base, along with food, tools, equipment and prisoners, as well as twenty-five million Russians, so far eastwards, and then impose an eighteen-hour working day with one day’s rest per month, probably required completely totalitarian power. Factory production began behind the Urals even before builders had constructed the roofs and walls of the factories. Managers were given targets, and were made to appreciate that meeting them was a life-and-death matter, for them personally as much as for the nation. Of course conditions were often unspeakable; at one factory 8,000 female workers lived in holes bored into the ground. Every industrial concern that could be turned over to war production was turned over. A factory producing champagne bottles, for example, was appropriately enough reassigned to the production of Molotov cocktails.120 (There were two basic types of Molotov cocktail: the K-I that had a fuse and the K-S whose chemicals exploded on impact. Both could produce flames of 1,500 Celsius.)

At the heart of the Second World War lies a giant and abiding paradox: although the western war was fought in defence of civilization and democracy, and although it needed to be fought and had to be won, the chief victor was a dictator who was as psychologically warped and capable of evil as Adolf Hitler himself. Nor did the Red Terror end with the German invasion. Between June and October 1941, the NKVD arrested 26,000 people, of whom 10,000 were shot.121 There were four million prisoners languishing in the Gulag, even in the year 1942. No fewer than 135,000 Red Army soldiers – the equivalent of twelve divisions – were shot by their own side during the war, including many who had surrendered to the Germans and been recaptured. The death penalty was imposed for panic-mongering, falling asleep on duty, cowardice, drunkenness, desertion, loss of equipment, refusing to charge through a minefield, destroying a Party membership card on capture (even though carrying one meant a death sentence from the Germans), striking an officer, ‘anti-Soviet agitation’, and so on and so on.

Under Stalin’s ‘Not One Step Back’ order several generals were sentenced to death in absentia, and on one occasion the sentence was not carried out until 1950, when the soldier in question, General Pavel Ponedelin, foolhardily reminded Stalin of his existence by writing to him to protest his innocence. Marshal Zhukov ordered retreating Soviet troops to be machine-gunned, and even wanted to shoot the families of those who surrendered, but that was one act of brutality too far, even for the Stavka. Some 400,000 Russians served in the various punishment battalions that were set up to impose absolute obedience on the Red Army. Yet had the slightest backsliding been permitted, the Soviets could never have persuaded rational human beings to undergo the hell of the Great Patriotic War, especially for a regime that was widely (if necessarily privately) detested. ‘Probably only a dictatorship as savage as Stalin’s, and a people as inured to barbarism as the Russians, could have broken Hitler’s power,’ is Max Hastings’ verdict. ‘The story of how they did so has never been one for weak stomachs.’ At one point in 1941 Stalin ordained that the entire ethnic German populations of the Volga, Rostov and Moscow regions of Russia, numbering over half a million people, simply be relocated to collective farms far to the east – Kazakhstan and beyond – in order to prevent them from welcoming their distant cousins to Russia. At the very same period in Britain, there were strikes over pay and conditions even in the aircraft-production factories, something that in Russia would have been inconceivable (although instantly resolvable).122

Although Britain could hardly have ‘broken Hitler’s power’ on her own, if the Germans had been able to invade Britain or the United States, there is every indication that the inhabitants would have defended themselves just as bravely – even on occasion suicidally – as did the Russians. Churchill’s plan was to broadcast an invocation on the radio when the Germans landed on the theme ‘You Can Always Take One with You’, whose peroration was to be simply: ‘The hour has come; kill the Hun.’123 The 1.75 million men of the Home Guard would then have attempted to do just that, whatever the cost.

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