Germany … has the capability of preempting us in deploying and mounting a surprise attack. In order to prevent this from happening while destroying the German Army, I consider it necessary that in no way should we yield the initiative to the German command. We should preempt the enemy by deploying and attacking the German Army at the very moment when it has reached the stage of deploying but has not yet organized itself into a front….”S. Timoshenko, Commissar of Defense
G. Zhukov, Chief of the General Staff
15 May 1941
Hitler broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-aggression Pact on 22 June 1941 with an all-out assault on the Soviet Union. The Red Army was not able to launch the preemptive strike on the Germans called for in Timoshenko and Zhukov’s 15 May Memorandum. Because the Russian government is still holding back documents, we do not know exactly why the Red Army failed to carry out its preferred plan. We only know that the Red Army was badly defeated on the frontier, and the Soviet Air Force was massacred.
For many years historians believed that Stalin lost his nerve as the military disaster of June 1941 unfolded; that Stalin left the Kremlin and started drinking; that a delegation of officials had to beg him to resume his post. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian researchers located Stalin’s day calendar and discovered that Stalin went to work every day following the German attack. Thus, it turns out that the memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev were intentionally misleading – and prejudicial to Stalin. Of course, it was Khrushchev who denounced Stalin in his not-so-secret secret speech of 25 February 1956. We should not be surprised, as well, to see General Georgi Zhukov’s account of the war depicting Stalin as the fool who was “taken in by Hitler.” After all, Zhukov had reason to hide his mistakes, given the failure of the 15 May Memorandum. As Russian Defense Ministry historian Pavel Bobylev explained, Stalin was “correct in placing the blame on the military for failing to carry out in time the assigned deployments to the western [military] districts.”
Zhukov and Khrushchev were not, by any means, the only falsifiers of the historical record. Stalin built a huge propaganda myth which would grant legitimacy to the Soviet government for decades. It was all about defeating what Stalin called “the fascist hordes.” John Mosier pointed out in his book, Deathride: Hitler vs. Stalin, The Eastern Front, 1941-1945, that Stalin’s greatest achievement was not in winning the war, but in successfully establishing the prevailing interpretations of the war. According to Mosier, “Stalin’s role [in the war] was entirely improbable, but it was also of a piece with the legend Stalin had [previously] created. Moreover, like the other fabrications about the Soviet state, the Stalinist account of the war has proven to be remarkably durable, despite its improbability.” Mosier outlined four reasons why Stalin’s false account of the war has become integral to the understandings of Western historians: (1) Stalin’s account is clear and compelling; (2) Stalin’s account “resonates with the idealism of socialism that people find attractive”; (3) Stalin’s account is consistent with other Soviet myths which were successfully circulated in the West; (4) Stalin’s facts were carefully manipulated to fit a larger narrative that most Western observers could not see through and had no reason to distrust.
Following the death of Stalin, Khrushchev and Zhukov merely modified Stalin’s myth by mixing it with a touch of anti-Stalinism. As it stands, Soviet official histories of the war are not trustworthy. Professor Albert Weeks has pointed out, “The distortions introduced into Soviet historiography, including military history, have been so potent – and convincing – as to mislead not only Soviet citizens but also Western observers, who … still rely on Soviet interpretations of major events.”
One might, in the Soviet context, exaggerate Napoleon’s quip on history into the following parody: “History is something that didn’t happen, told by people who were not there.” Indeed, Gaston de Pawlowski did exactly that when he wrote, “Military history is nothing but a tissue of fictions and legends, only a form of literary invention; reality counts for little in such an affair.” Insofar as modern man is deluded in so many areas of thought, we find he is especially deluded when it comes to wars and battles, since these are the special province of great lies and great liars.
Even now, Western historians uncritically cling to Soviet accounts of the war. Book after book yet holds to the line that Stalin was surprised by Hitler’s attack. This is part of the legend which invokes Stalin’s innocence – distinguishing the Soviet dictator as Hitler’s victim rather than as Hitler’s partner in aggression. We must question, indeed, which dictator ultimately victimized the other. In his advanced old age Vyacheslav Molotov gave an interview in which he said, “No, Stalin saw through it all. Stalin trusted Hitler? He didn’t trust his own people! … Hitler fooled Stalin? As a result of such deception Hitler had to [shoot and] poison himself, and Stalin became the head of half the world!” When challenged about the Soviet Union’s initial battlefield losses, Molotov insisted, “In essence, we were largely ready for war.”
Two former Soviet officers, General Oleg Sarin and Colonel Lev Dvoretsky, had an astute way of describing the outbreak of war between the two dictators: “Hypocritically smiling at each other and keeping up false pretenses, [Hitler and Stalin] had diabolical ideas relative to each other. Hitler was preparing for ‘Operation Barbarossa,’ the invasion of the Soviet Union, and Stalin was preparing a preventive strike at Germany.”
Stalin and his colleagues lied about the war for several reasons. The Soviet Union was preparing an armored force of over 26,000 tanks with which to invade Europe. This was something, in retrospect, the Soviets needed to hide. To explain how big this number is, one only has to point out that Hitler deployed only 3,500 tanks at that time. From this we can read Soviet intentions. Given the extent of his war preparations, Stalin believed that Hitler was a dead man. As Molotov’s later statements show, it did not really matter which side attacked first. Stalin calculated that he was going to win either way.
The June 1941 disaster did not unfold because Stalin was “innocently” surprised, but because the Soviet generals failed to get their act together. The evidence is now overwhelming. Stalin knew of Hitler’s plans from Soviet secret agents and foreign friends. Stalin was handed detailed intelligence reports from Winston Churchill, whose codebreakers had cracked the German Enigma machine and were reading German military communications in real time. The idea that Stalin knew nothing of the impending attack, and flatly refused to believe all these reports, with intelligence pouring in from every side, is laughable. Yet mainstream historians have believed in this myth even as small children believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.
Of course, it served Stalin well to play the innocent. It is better to appear as a trusting dupe than a cunning manipulator. After all, a trusting statesman is a fine gentleman, while a treacherous aggressor is the Devil incarnate. The astute military historian J.F.C. Fuller, writing in 1956, was one of the first Western historians to see through Stalin’s charade. Fuller pointed to the work of Swedish journalist Arvid Fredborg, then working in Berlin, who learned that the original date for the Barbarossa attack was 12 June 1941, “but, on account of the Hungarians refusing to march against Russia, for certain minor adjustments, it was put [back] to the 22nd.” Fuller wrote, “That it came as a political surprise to the Kremlin is unlikely; but that it was a tactical surprise is all but certain.”
Fuller put his finger on the truth. The problem was not that Stalin didn’t know of Hitler’s plan to invade. The problem was, his generals didn’t know the exact date of the invasion, since Hitler’s plans changed; and this introduced an element of tactical uncertainty as Timoshenko and Zhukov placed their divisions in precarious forward positions vainly attempting to follow through on their 15 May Memorandum. Here the Soviet side faced a deeper problem than bad timing. It had to do with the bureaucratic rot that typically underlies communist regimes.
To understand the extent of the “communist rot” in the Red Army, consider what happened when the Soviets attempted to blitz Finland on 30 November 1939. The Finns didn’t have a single anti-tank gun and were low on artillery shells. How could Finland have survived against overwhelming Soviet attacks involving tanks and massed artillery? And yet, thanks to the appalling inefficiency of the Red Army, the Finns wiped out many Soviet divisions, including tank divisions. Famously, the Finns used “Molotov” cocktails, logs and even pistols to disable Soviet tanks. They shot the ice out from under motorized columns crossing frozen lakes. When Soviet infantry sought protection by following behind tanks during an assault, the Finnish artillery overshot the tanks and wiped out the advancing infantry. One Finnish soldier said, “They are so many and we are so few. Where will we find the room to bury them all?” (The Russians and Finns signed a peace agreement on 12 March 1940, the background of which is shrouded in the Scandinavian intrigues of the Soviets, British and French.)
Winston Churchill, who was a keen observer of military affairs, commented on the Red Army’s failures in Finland. “Everyone can see how communism rots the soul of a nation,” said Churchill, “how it makes it abject and hungry in peace, and proves it base and abominable in war.” Hitler also drew a lesson from the disastrous Red Army performance against Finland. In early 1941 he applied his usual racial epithets: “The Russian himself is inferior. His army has no leaders.” However, at a 7 January 1941 meeting of his military advisors, Hitler added one of his prophetic asides: “True, the Russian forces are a clay colossus with no head, but who knows how they will develop in the future?” He saw the possibility that the Red Army’s inept performance of the Winter War might one day be remedied.
Mussolini’s African follies
Before we cover Hitler’s invasion of the Balkans and the Soviet Union, we must narrate events in Africa. The “Dynamic Duo” of Hitler and Mussolini was not so dynamic where Mussolini was concerned. When the Italians entered the war in June 1940, the British commander in Africa, General Wavell, had 36,000 men (with 9,000 in Sudan, 5,500 in Kenya, 1,475 in Somaliland, and 27,000 in Palestine). Across the border in Libya the Italians had 215,000 troops (with another 200,000 in Italian East Africa). In terms of numbers, the British were in trouble. But it was worse than that. Wavell’s air contingent was small and obsolete. He had only one armored division, consisting of two partly equipped brigades. But he had one advantage. He was facing Marshal Italo Balbo.
Italy became a belligerent on 10 June 1940. In July the Italian forces of East Africa invaded partway into Sudan, Kenya and Somaliland. Balbo’s air units also bombed the British island fortress of Malta in the Mediterranean. Having won these “Chinese victories,” wrote J.F.C. Fuller, “[the Italians] passed away into siesta.” In North Africa the siesta was not a peaceful one.
General Wavell decided to attack Balbo’s “ponderous” Libyan army in what became the “First Libyan Campaign.” Wavell’s idea was to frighten the Italians, making them believe he had a much bigger army. British war correspondent Alan Morehead explained: “this little Robin Hood force, being unable to withstand any sort of determined advance by the half-dozen Italian divisions across the border, did the unpredicted, unexpected thing – it attacked.” When the British began surrounding the Italian forts and harassing them, Marshal Balbo thought he was being attacked by five British armored divisions instead of one. He kept his army locked down in fortifications and called Rome for help. Being killed at Tobruk when his plane was shot down by friendly fire on 28 June 1940, he was replaced by Marshal Rudolfo Graziani who, Fuller tells us, had previously distinguished himself during the Italo-Abyssinian War as “a veritable snail.”
With Mussolini breathing down Graziani’s neck, the Italian “snail” pushed his forces across the Egyptian border in September 1940. The British could not resist such a large force and fell back. Instead of continuing his eastward march and capturing Alexandria, Graziani spent the month of October building forts – what Fuller called “monuments to his approaching defeat.” The Italian deployment was so idiotic, Major General R. N. O’Connor, now commanding the reinforced British Western Desert Force, attacked on 7 December 1940 in what became the “Second Libyan Campaign.” The British Navy supported the operation with coastal bombardments. Because of his passiveness, Graziani’s large army was destroyed as O’Connor’s force advanced over 500 miles across the Egyptian and Libyan desert. Speed of movement was O’Connor’s secret. As Graziani was a “snail,” most of his army was surrounded and the last remnants fled in panic toward Tripoli.
Hitler now had two reasons to be annoyed with Mussolini. Just as he was considering a move against the Soviet Union, he had to save the Italian army in Albania and Libya. Hitler therefore sent General Irwin Rommel with a panzer division and attached elements to Tripoli. With the addition of another panzer and motorized infantry division, this became the famous “Africa Korps.” The Italians rallied to Rommel, who put an end to the British advance. Now the fighting devolved into a battle of wits and maneuver in which Rommel outwitted the British, earning himself the nickname of “desert fox.” His daring was accompanied by old-fashioned chivalry, making the war in the desert more humane than the war on the Eastern Front. (We will not cover Rommel’s victories and eventual defeat at El Alamein, for this theater of operations was a sideshow. In strategic terms, Hitler did not send Rommel to conquer Egypt. Hitler didn’t care about Egypt. Hitler sent Rommel to keep Italy’s position in Libya from collapsing, and supplied him accordingly.)
Meanwhile, the Italian “siesta” in East Africa ended as the British attacked from Kenya and Sudan. Carrying the Battle into Abyssinia in early 1941, the British drove the Italians out of East Africa.
Hitler Invades the Balkans
Since Stalin knew a German attack was coming, he played for time to advance his own war preparations. Mussolini’s failed invasion of Greece meant that Hitler would have to send his own forces to Greece in the spring of 1941. To do this, however, Hitler needed an alliance with Yugoslavia and Bulgaria (countries that border Greece). Stalin therefore sought to upset Hitler’s diplomacy in the Balkans. Already Hitler had secured alliances with Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. If Stalin could prevent Hitler from allying with Yugoslavia and/or Bulgaria, he would complicate Hitler’s rescue of Mussolini’s army in Albania (hard-pressed by the Greeks). Therefore, a fierce diplomatic battle between Moscow and Berlin erupted over Bulgaria – a country whose people loved the Russians, but whose monarchy favored Germany.
Meanwhile, General Wavell in Alexandria was pouring British troops into Greece. This upset Hitler since the British were now setting up shop within bombing range of the Romanian oil fields. To expedite his strategy, Hitler met with the King of Bulgaria. They came to an understanding which would allow German troops to use Bulgarian territory for an attack on Greece. On 25 March 1941 Hitler also persuaded Yugoslavia to align itself with Germany. But then, on 27 March a group of military officers took control of the Yugoslav government, signing a “friendship treaty” with Stalin on 6 April. The Communist Party of Yugoslavia took to the streets of several cities, signaling support for what was, in essence, a pro-Allied military coup supported by the British. At the signing of the Soviet-Yugoslav friendship treaty in Moscow, Stalin told Ambassador Gavrilovic: “We are brothers of the same blood and the same religion. Nothing can separate our two countries from each other. I hope that your army can hold up the Germans for a long time….” After the treaty was signed, Stalin shook Gavrilovic’s hand firmly and made the sign of the cross in the Orthodox manner. An attending diplomat barely managed to choke back a laugh by pressing a handkerchief to his mouth.
Even as Stalin was fooling Gavrilovic by making the sign of the cross in Moscow, German 12th Army, which was then deploying via Hungary to attack Russia through Romania, pivoted and invaded Serbia and Macedonia (then provinces of Yugoslavia). Other German divisions advanced from German territory into Croatia and on to Belgrade. Yugoslavia was defeated a matter of days. Simultaneously, German divisions that were prepositioned in Bulgaria invaded Greece, flanking the Greek forces operating against the Italians in Albania. The Greek command decided to hold the Metaxas Line along the eastern Rhodope Mountains with help from the New Zealand Division, 6th and 7th Australian, the British 1st armored brigade and a Polish brigade. The Allied line was improperly balanced, and as the Germans maneuvered toward a weak point, the British saw the danger, abandoned their positions and retreated toward the Pass of Thermopylae. This uncovered the right flank of the Greek forces withdrawing from Albania, leaving them to be cut off. Consequently, the Army of Epirus surrendered on 21 April. The British evacuated their troops to the Island of Crete as Greece fell to the Germans. Due to Hitler’s fear that the British would base long-range bombers in Crete and strike at the Romanian oil, the Germans then launched a massive glider and paratroop assault on Crete in May 1940, and forced the British to evacuate Crete.
Hitler Attacks the Soviet Union
With victory in the Balkans Hitler could now turn his attention on Stalin. Some historians have suggested that Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union was delayed by his conquest of Yugoslavia and Greece, but this is untrue. A small panzer group and German 12th Army, which were originally going to attack the Soviet Union through Romania, were detained in the Balkans; other than that, Russia and eastern Poland suffered from heavy rains in May, and German forces would not have been able to attack even if they had been ready. This weather may also explain the Red Army’s delayed mobilization schedule (and the resulting catastrophe).
The German attack on the Soviet Union began on 22 June 1941, with panzer divisions piercing the Soviet lines in several areas. Three German army groups attacked the Soviet Union: (1) Army Group North (with Panzer Group 4) would strike toward Riga and Leningrad; Army Group Center (with panzer groups 2 and 3) would advance along the line of Minsk-Smolensk-Moscow; (3) and Army Group South (with Panzer Group 1) would strike toward the area between Tarnopol and Kiev. Army Group North and Center broke through in depth, forming pockets of trapped Soviet armies. Army Group South hit heavy resistance and made slower progress.
As the campaign evolved, the Germans ended the summer by enveloping the armies of the Soviet Kiev military district in a giant pincer attack from Kleist’s panzers in the south and Guderian’s panzers in the north, trapping 64 Soviet divisions of which 665,000 men were taken prisoner. As a result, the Germans captured the Ukraine with its cities, mineral wealth and agriculture. In the north the Germans reached the outskirts of Leningrad.
As fall approached the Germans relocated most of their panzer forces (now depleted) for a final attack on Moscow. This latter attack made tremendous headway initially, pocketing or destroying several hundred thousand Soviet troops. When Orel was captured by the Germans, the citizenry of Moscow panicked. According to John Mosier’s account, “the streets of Moscow exploded in a series of riots that gripped the city for days as terrified citizens, including officials and party members, tried to seize whatever they could and then flee. Stores closed, the transportation system came to a halt, the British Embassy was sacked, and the metropolitan police lost control.” As luck would have it, the fall rains began and the advancing German columns were mired in mud. Once the ground froze by mid-November, they picked up the pace as two mighty pincers converged on Moscow. The Soviet government was evacuated from Moscow to Kuybyshev. The Russians were out of reserves. Stalin tasked L. Beria to find a friendly country to which they might flee. Stalin even sent peace feelers to Hitler, who ignored them. One last intrigue was successful in the political sphere, which had long been prepared in Tokyo and Washington. It was called “Operation Snow,” and produced excellent results which brought Japan into conflict with the United States. Thus, anticipating the Japanese attack against Hawaii and the Philippines, Stalin ordered armies from the Soviet Far East to reinforce Moscow – stripping his defenses in Siberia. These fresh reserves began reaching Moscow in time to bolster the Soviet line.
On 30 November the 2nd Panzer Division reached Himki, Ozeretskoye and lobnya, 10-11 kilometers from Moscow. Stalin made a symbolic gesture by staying in the Kremlin, hoping his Siberian armies would hold. And then, on 5 December 1941, the city of Moscow was saved by a miracle. A cold front descended on Russia that day, and temperatures dropped to 40 degrees below zero. Untreated Petrol turned to sludge, German guns became brittle without winterized gun oil, Army Group Center – which was invincible the day before – turned into a freezing rabble that only wanted to do one thing: RETREAT. On 7 December the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States entered the war.
Thus, the drama of 1941 ended with a shocking reversal of fortune. Stalin had trapped Hitler, politically. He had outwitted him. But Stalin had not realized the military efficiency of the Wehrmacht and the comparative incompetence of his own army. If not for the sudden change in weather, Moscow probably would have fallen and the Soviet Union almost certainly would have lost the war. Now, the war would be prolonged and Hitler would have only one more chance to destroy the Soviet Union in 1942.
EAST FRONT 1941 ANIMATION
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Links and Notes
Albert L. Weeks, Stalin’s Other War, p. 169.
John Mosher, Deathride: Hitler vs. Stalin, the Eastern Front, 1941-45 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010), opening quotation and introduction.
Weeks, p. 164.
Ibid, p. 111.
Ibid, p. 91.
Fuller, The Second World War, p. 115.
Erkki Hautamaki’s Finland in the Eye of the Storm Part II. (Fragments from Volume I sent from a Danish friend, and advanced excerpts from Volume 2 sent from sources in Finland. Here is a review of Volume II — Suomi myrskyn silmässä, 2 osa | PROMERIT.NET -<- klikkaa tästä.
Jonathan Clements, Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy (London, Haus Publishing, 2009), pp. 246-254.
Fuller, pp. 90-103.
Special note: When Marshal Balbo was killed by friendly fire over Tobruk, the Commander-in-Chief of the RAF Middle East Command sent a special mission over Tobruk to drop a wreath with a note of condolence. It read as follows: “The British Royal Air Force expresses its sympathy in the death of General Balbo – a great leader and gallant aviator, personally known to me, whom fate has placed on the other side. [signed] Arthur Longmore“
Topische, Stalin’s War, pp. 92-95.
Mosier, Chapter VI, “The Campaign of Compromises.”
John Koster, Operation Snow: How a Soviet Mole in FDR’s White House Triggered Pearl Harbor (2012).