This article was first published in the June 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine
It was one of the biggest cock-ups in modern history. By noon on day one about a quarter of the Red Air Force, over 1,200 planes, had been destroyed – many of them still sitting on their runways, wing to wing.
Operation Barbarossa, named for the legendary 12th-century emperor, began just before dawn on 22 June 1941. Over three million German troops surged into the Soviet Union along a front of more than one thousand miles. Hitler’s Panzers thrust through unprepared defences and curled, pincer-like, around shocked and leaderless Soviet troops: hundreds of thousands surrendered en masse. In Soviet Cold War military doctrine, Barbarossa was characterised as a surprise attack, yet the German build-up had been evident for months before June 1941. The real intelligence failure was not one of information but assumptions, and the errors were made at the very top – by the veteran Soviet leader Josef Stalin.
Stalin had no illusions about the underlying enmity between Nazism and communism or about Hitler’s appetite for living space in the east. He had tried to divert the führer westward against Britain and France through the Nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939 but this apparently brilliant act of Realpolitik – which earned him Time magazine’s accolade of ‘Man of the Year’ – boomeranged spectacularly when the Wehrmacht smashed the French army in May 1940. Although Britain still held out, Hitler was now free to turn east, years earlier than Stalin had expected.
Stalin could see what was coming but he got the timing all wrong. In 1938 Hitler had waged a war of nerves for months over Czechoslovakia, similarly in 1939 before he invaded Poland, and Stalin expected something similar in 1941. Desperately playing for time, he was determined not to give the führer any excuse to invade – hence his failure to put Soviet defences on full alert. Instead Barbarossa began without warning. When General Georgii Zhukov phoned at 4am with the news, all he heard was heavy breathing. “Comrade Stalin,” he kept asking, “do you understand?”
Sunday 22 June 1941 was the start of a brutal struggle that took the German army to the gates of Moscow and deep into the Caucasus before ending up, in1945, in the ruins of Berlin. In the process, about 28 million Soviet citizens died, roughly one-seventh of the prewar population. In the siege of Leningrad alone more Russians lost their lives than the total British and American war dead put together.
Yet Russia’s war is still poorly understood in Britain and the west. Epic battles such as Stalingrad and Berlin have become celebrated but, for the most part, the eastern front remains a sideshow to our familiar story of Dunkirk, Alamein, Normandy and Arnhem. Yet Winston Churchill had no doubt that Russia’s survival was vital for Britain in the dark days of 1941 and 1942.
Britain’s new friend
On the day Barbarossa began Churchill spoke on BBC radio, reiterating his detestation of communism but insisting that any enemy of Hitler was Britain’s friend. Or, as he put it more colourfully to an aide: “If Hitler invaded Hell, I would at least make a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.” His justification was partly moral – Hitler was “a monster of wickedness” – but he warned listeners that there was a “deeper motive” than mere “blood-lust” behind the führer’s unprovoked attack: “His invasion of Russia is no more than a prelude to an invasion of the British Isles,” which could be mounted with impunity once the Soviet state had been destroyed.
Today we assume that the Battle of Britain had been decided in 1940 but Churchill wasn’t so confident in 1941. On 1 July he told President Roosevelt in a top-secret telegram: “I am asking that everything here shall be at concert pitch for invasion from 1 September.” British intelligence reckoned that the Russians would survive only three to six weeks against the army that had sliced through France.
We now know that, although the Germans made it to the outskirts of Moscow (marked today by a monumental tank-trap), Russia survived the onslaught of 1941. In retrospect it’s tempting to assume that Hitler’s Wehrmacht would inevitably meet the same fate as Napoleon’s Grande Armée – overwhelmed by the vastness of Russia and by the country’s greatest military supremo, ‘General Winter’.
But the story of 1941 was repeated the following year. Stalin believed that the successful counterattack outside Moscow in December 1941 presaged the disintegration of the invaders. Predicting “the total defeat of the Nazi forces in 1942,” he ordered massive offensives all along the front. His Hitler-like hubris exposed and exhausted his army, laying it open to new German offensives from May 1942.
This time Hitler followed his instinct, avoiding Moscow and driving south-east into the Caucasus. Again the Red Army reeled back. Despite Stalin’s frantic order “Not One Step Back” – brutally enforced by blocking battalions – the encircled Soviet troops surrendered in droves.
Although today our eyes tend to focus on Stalingrad, what worried Churchill and Whitehall in the summer of 1942 was the possibility that the Wehrmacht would thrust on to Iraq and the Persian Gulf, threatening Britain’s oil supplies. If that happened, neutral Turkey would probably throw in its lot with Hitler, maybe allowing a link-up with Rommel’s Afrika Korps which was steamrollering towards the Suez Canal. The rampaging Germans might even join forces with the Japanese, to threaten India from the west as well as the east.
Nightmares perhaps, but all too vivid in the fevered atmosphere of that summer. In 1941 Russia’s collapse would have exposed the British Isles to the Nazi war machine; in 1942 the whole British empire seemed in jeopardy.
This was why Churchill made an epic trip to Moscow in August 1942. Stalin had been demanding a Second Front – a cross-channel attack to relieve the pressure on the Red Army. Having concluded even before the disaster of the Dieppe Raid that this would be a suicide mission, Churchill believed he had to give Stalin the bad news face-to-face – and then sweeten it with a confidential briefing about the landings planned as an alternative in Morocco and Algeria. But he and his key military adviser General Sir Alan Brooke also wanted to make their own assessment of whether the Caucasus would hold. Brooke, in particular, was far from confident, judging that the door “seemed to be wide open for the Germans to walk through” into the Middle East.
These are now the forgotten ‘what ifs’ of the Second World War because Hitler never made it across the Caucasus mountains. Instead he was sucked into the epic battle in the cauldron of Stalingrad which turned into a monumental disaster, one that could not be concealed from his people. Having trumpeted the imminent conquest of Stalingrad, the Nazi media suddenly had to admit that the German Sixth Army had surrendered. For Germans, writes historian Ian Kershaw, “Stalingrad was the greatest single blow of the war” – a psychological as well as a military turning point.
The battle of Alamein – the long-awaited victory of British empire forces over Rommel’s Afrika Korps – had been fought a couple of months earlier, in November 1942. But Stalingrad was a much greater conflict, involving nearly two million men, not 300,000, and it mattered more in the overall balance of the war. To make the point in another way: in the three years between June 1941 and June 1944, from the opening of Barbarossa until D-Day, 90 per cent of the German army’s battle casualties (killed, wounded, missing and prisoners) were inflicted by the Red Army.
So the battle for Russia was vitally important for Britain and its empire. Just how important for the outcome of the war compared with other factors remains a matter of debate among scholars. For instance, Britain might have gone under without American financial aid via Lend-Lease, which covered more than half of its balance of payments deficit during the war. On the other hand, if Britain had succumbed in 1940, the Second World War might have turned out very differently for Russia and even America. And the British and American bomber offensive, whatever its impact on German production and morale, forced Hitler to divert much of the Luftwaffe to home defence, so denying vital air cover to his armies in the east as well as the west.
The debate will go on but it is clear that Operation Barbarossa, which began so dramatically 70 years ago this month, deserves a central place in any reckoning. And that raises a larger point about the way our country marks the great anniversaries of the Second World War. As we commemorate the heroism of British veterans – in the Battle of Britain or the Battle of the Atlantic, in the deserts of north Africa or the mud of France and Germany – we should remember our allies as well. Seventy years on, we need an international perspective on this truly global war.
Professor David Reynolds’s books include In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War (Penguin 2005). His film Uncle Joe, about Stalin and Churchill, will air on BBC Four in June.
Five key moments in Russia’s war
From terror in Moscow to triumph in Berlin
1) The battle for Moscow was a close-run thing. Panic gripped the capital in mid-October 1941 – and Zhukov’s successful counterattack in December was only possible because Stalin knew, from agents in Tokyo, that Japan would remain neutral. This enabled him to move fresh divisions from Siberia.
2) Stalingrad is now a byword for heroism: holding the city was vital for Russia’s war. But Zhukov’s counterattack around the rear of Hitler’s Sixth Army was equally important, not least because Stalin – hitherto a bungling meddler – had finally learnt to let his generals fight in their own way and their own time.
3) Kursk in July 1943 is rarely remembered in the west, compared with Stalingrad but this was the biggest tank battle in history. And Soviet victory marked the beginning of the Red Army’s inexorable drive west. Stalingrad turned the tide; Kursk opened the floodgates.
4) Bagration was the Soviet offensive in Belarus, launched in June 1944. In the west it is overshadowed by D-Day, which took place two weeks earlier, but it was at least as important. In a month the Red Army advanced 400 miles to the edge of Warsaw.
5) The battle for berlin was a gut issue for Russians. Three army groups blasted through ferocious German resistance in three weeks. While Stalin stripped the city of its wealth, his soldiers were free to loot and rape. Berlin was payback time for all that the Soviet peoples had suffered from the Germans.
Britain and Russia’s war
Stalin had dug his own hole and Britain could do little to help
Soviet-era historians, guided by the regime, took a fiercely nationalist view of the ‘Great Patriotic War’, playing down the contribution of Russia’s allies. But it is now clear that American and British aid amounted to ten per cent of Soviet GDP in 1943 and 1944 – a not insignificant contribution.
Much of this assistance was shipped hazardously in some 40 British convoys to Russia’s Arctic ports, costing 92 merchant vessels and 18 warships. So serious was the sea and air threat from the Germans that Churchill stopped the convoys on several occasions in 1942 and 1943 – much to Soviet anger.
But Stalin never understood the importance of the Royal Navy and the merchant marine to the survival of Britain, an island empire. Similarly, he and his generals tended to underestimate the challenge of mounting a ‘Second Front’ on the beaches of France, sometimes comparing a crossing of the English Channel to vaulting over a big river such as the Dnieper.
In the summer of 1942 British opinion polls regularly indicated 60 per cent support for an invasion of Hitler’s Europe that year to aid “our gallant Russian allies”. But the public did not appreciate the weakness of the British army, which had to be invented as a major fighting force almost overnight after the fall of France. It took years to mobilise and train effective combat troops, not to mention producing supplies and equipment, especially good tanks. And the US army had started to gear up for war a year later than Britain.
So ‘Second Front Now’ was an easy slogan but very hard to deliver. Churchill was probably too wary about crossing the channel. Even in June 1944 he feared another Dunkirk. But an invasion of France in 1943 could easily have been a disaster.
Russia’s war mattered vitally to the British but there was little that Britain could do to decide the outcome. Stalin had dug his own hole in 1939-41; he then had to dig himself out of it, at a huge cost to the peoples of the Soviet Union.