The German invasion of the Soviet Union, launched on 22 June 1941, was the largest military operation in history. Borne out of Hitler's desire to conquer the Soviet territories and defeat Bolshevism, Operation Barbarossa was part of Hitler's racial fantasy of establishing 'lebensraum' (living space) in the east
The operation pitted two utterly opposed armed forces against one another: the Wehrmacht, the world’s most advanced military force, and the downtrodden and humiliated Soviet armed forces, most of which had little military education. The ultimate failure of German troops to defeat Soviet forces in the campaign signalled a crucial turning point in the Second World War.
Christer Bergström dispels many myths surrounding the campaign. Here, writing for History Extra, he explores nine of the most popular misconceptions…
1) Stalin’s collapse
In his famous speech to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in February 1956, first secretary Nikita Khrushchev said: “After the first severe disaster and defeat at the front Stalin thought that this was the end. In one of his speeches in those days he said: ‘All that Lenin created we have lost forever!’ After this Stalin, for a long time ceased to do anything whatever.”
Thanks to this statement, the idea of Stalin slipping into a state of paralysation in the early days of the campaign has transferred into one of the most long-lasting misunderstandings surrounding Operation Barbarossa. However, according to research by Steven Main of the University of Edinburgh into Stalin’s appointments diaries, this quote was nothing but disinformation on behalf of Khrushchev.Main shows that Stalin’s official working day on 22 June 1941 began at 05:45am and ended at 16:45. On 23 June, when the Soviet dictator was supposed to have suffered from his ‘collapse,’ he worked for 22 hours and 35 minutes. Following such an exhausting day, Stalin’s shortest working day was 24 June, lasting a little over five hours. This might be the nucleus of Khrushchev’s allegations.
However, for 25/26 June, Stalin held 24 hours of meetings. On 27 June, according to Main, “his recorded working days ran to a little over 10 hours and, possibly as a result of this physically and mentally punishing schedule. His working day for 28 June again lasted a little over 5 hours”.
Thus, far from ceasing to “do anything whatever”, Stalin worked for 168 hours during the entire week of 22–28 June.
2) Mass surrenders by Soviet soldiers
The German attack began on 22 June 1941. By 11 July 1941, the Germans had taken more than 400,000 prisoners of war on the Eastern Front. However, contrary to popular belief, there never were any mass surrenders. Owing to Stalin’s orders that the troops remain in place, large units were enveloped. But most of the multitude of isolated units fought on stubbornly until running out of ammunition. At the Brest fortress on the border in the west, a small garrison held out against an enemy widely superior in troops and artillery, inflicting more than 1,000 casualties on German 45th Infantry Division.
“The enemy is fighting with the utmost stamina and courage,” Heeresgruppe Mitte [German Army group centre] reported to the German Army High Command on 28 June. German 4th Army described the Soviet soldiers as “exceptionally tough and stalwart.” “White” émigres who had fled Russia after the October Revolution were used to try to convince the encircled Red Army troops to surrender and join the anti-Bolshevik side, but this was “categorically refused,” according to a German Army report. Another German account reads: “What has become of the Russian of 1914–17, who ran away or approached us with his hands in the air when the firestorm reached its peak? Now he remains in his bunker and forces us to burn him out, he prefers to be scorched in his tank, and his airmen continue firing at us even when their own aircraft is set ablaze. What has become of the Russian? Ideology has changed him!”
3) Master spy Sorge contributed to the alleged relocation of the Soviet Far East armies that are supposed to have saved Moscow
It is often said that back on 14 September 1941 the Soviet spy in Tokyo, Richard Sorge, had informed Stalin that Japan would not attack the Soviet Union until Moscow was captured by the Germans. It is commonly asserted that this information saved Moscow in the sense that it allowed the Red Army to release large numbers of troops – often depicted as well-equipped and highly trained – from the Russian Far East to Moscow. But this must be dismissed as a myth, based purely on speculation. What Sorge actually found out was that Japan would not attack the Soviet Union unless “the USSR transfers troops on a large scale from the East”.
In fact, no more than three divisions were dispatched from the Far East to the Moscow sector during the whole period October–December 1941, the 32nd and 78th Rifle divisions and the 58th Tank Division. Two more divisions, the 93rd Rifle and 82nd Mechanised, arrived from the Trans Baykal Military District, and three – the 18th and 20th Mountain Cavalry divisions and the 238th Rifle Division – came from the Central Asian Military District. These were just eight out of hundreds of divisions employed by the Red Army along the front on 1 December 1941.
4) The wearing down of the Wehrmacht through relentless Soviet counter-attacks
It is often said that one of the main reasons the Germans were defeated [by the Soviet Union] in the battle of Moscow in December 1941 is the worn out state of their forces. Indeed, in late November 1941 the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front was a mere shadow of what it had been five months previously. Losses had brought down the strength of army and Luftwaffe units to 30 or 40 per cent, or even less, of their original strength. The veteran front-line Landser were badly effected by battle fatigue after five months of intense, incessant combat.
However, the Red Army was in a far more worn-down state. Its armies were in tatters after taking huge losses in the double envelopment battles at Vyazma and Bryansk in October 1941. Divisions were down a couple of thousand men, often completely untrained recruits, and all kind of equipment was lacking. In fact, while the Germans were able to increase their tank strength on the Eastern Front between September and December 1941, the Soviet tank force was cut in half. This brings us to the next myth…
5) The vast numerical superiority enjoyed by the Soviets
Nazi propaganda nurtured the image of Germans fighting against “innumerable masses from the East”, but this is just a racist propaganda. In actual fact, the war on the Eastern Front in 1941 was characterised by a Soviet inferiority in pure numbers. On 22 June 1941, the four Soviet western military districts between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea had 2.3 million men, opposed to nearly 4.5 million Axis troops. The Wehrmacht had amassed 3.35 million troops. To this the Romanian army contributed 600,000, and in the north, Finland had already mobilised its army and could muster 530,000 men.
When the Red Army counter-attacked at Moscow in December 1941, the Soviet numerical inferiority was even larger. Soviet strength returns in archives show that on 1 December 1941, the Soviets were able to muster 576,500 soldiers and 574 tanks against German Army Group Centre – which at the time had between 1.9 and 1.2 million troops with 1,800 tanks and assault guns. The Germans not only enjoyed a three-fold numerical superiority in tanks, but of the Soviet tanks employed against them at Moscow, only around 30 per cent were T-34s or KVs, with the remainder being completely obsolete tankettes.
As the war continued, the Germans gradually lost their numerical superiority – which reflects the greater Soviet industrial capacity – but their most brilliant victories in 1941 were achieved with a convincing numerical superiority.
6) It was the Arctic cold that halted the German offensive
Much of western historiography on Operation Barbarossa, based in the main on German sources, emphasises the murderous freezing temperatures and cite them as a dominant reason for the German defeat. But this is not borne out by meteorological data.
The Soviet offensive coincided with an unusual temperature drop, to below minus 35 degrees Celsius on 5 and 6 December. But in fact, the Germans were able to ward off the Soviet attacks during these incredibly low temperature days. On 6 December, in a record minus 38 degrees below zero, German 9th Army counter-attacked at Kalinin with heavy support from Panzergruppe 3 [Panzer Group 3, a tank army consisting of several corps] and pushed back Soviet 31st Army across River Volga again. In the process, Soviet 250th Rifle Division was completely routed and had to be withdrawn from combat.
Between 5 and 7 December, the German High Command reported that the Soviet attacks in general were warded off. “We failed during the first days,” admitted Zhukov, the most acclaimed Soviet military commander of the Second World War.
But on 8 December a low pressure ridge that brought thaw and heavy downfalls covered the Moscow region. The entries in the German High Command’s Diary show that this weather would continue to hold the area in its grip for several days. On 8 December the German High Command’s Diary noted “Sudden weather change. Temperatures during day up to +4 degrees [Celsius], roads soft.” Interestingly, it was on that day that the Soviet troops achieved the first real breakthroughs.
On the same day, General Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, the commander of German Army Group Centre, desperately reported that his troops were in no position to withstand the concentrated Soviet attack. On 9 December, with temperatures ranging between minus 5 and 0 degrees Celsius, von Bock sent an urgent request to the Army High Command: “Army Group needs more men!” A deeply concerned Generaloberst Franz Halder at the Army High Command wrote in his diary: “Phone talk with General Field Marshal von Bock: [General] Guderian reports that the condition of his troops is so critical that he does not know how to fend off the enemy.”
In rain and thaw on 12 December, German 2nd Panzer Division was ousted from Solnechogorsk – having been pushed back 40 km since the Soviet counter-offensive began. That day, an increasingly desperate von Bock phoned the OKH [the German Army High Command] again, reporting that the situation for Heeresgruppe Mitte [German Army group centre] had “reached an acutely critical stage.” The Southwestern Front’s penetration in 2nd Army’s front was further deepened through Livny in the direction of Orel. The 45th Infantry Division was encircled and partially destroyed. “Very serious situation in 2nd Army,” Halder noted in his diary.
Indeed, the turning point at Moscow is a most peculiar event. In fact, the German troops, who had believed that their enemy was on the verge of collapsing, were psychologically totally unprepared for such a violent onslaught by highly motivated Red Army soldiers. They began to fall back, and soon the withdrawal turned into a flight.
A mass psychosis had gripped the Wehrmacht soldiers. This fuelled combat spirits on the Soviet side even further. In many places, the battle developed into Red Army troops, drunk with success and eager for revenge, pursuing scattered Wehrmacht formations fleeing along the icy roads. It was a collapse in morale on the German side, nothing less. “Serious break of confidence in the field commands,” was noted on the German side.
7) The vast differences in troop casualties between the two sides on the Eastern Front
Over the years, an image has prevailed of the differences in losses between the two warring sides during Operation Barbarossa as being something exceptional. It is not uncommon to see totally unsupported claims of a difference between Soviet and German losses as 10 to 1 or even 20 to 1. A closer study, however, reveals this as just another myth, probably based on German accounts coloured by racist prejudices.
A comparison between the loss relations during Operation Barbarossa and the German Western Campaign in 1940 shows that the Germans actually inflicted higher losses on their Western enemies, in relation to their own losses, than they did to the Red Army. The relation between total casualties were 19 to 1 in favour of the Germans during the Western Campaign, and between 3.2 to 1 and 4.8 to 1 in favour of the Germans and their allies during Operation Barbarossa.
Even if the prisoners of war of Germany’s opponents are discounted, the ratios are still not better for the Germans on the Eastern Front: 2.3 to 1 in favour of the Germans during the Western Campaign, and between 1.9 to 1 and 2.4 to 1 in favour of the Germans and their allies during Operation Barbarossa.
8) The Soviet partisans
The history of the Soviet partisans is to a large degree clouded by extremely biased German reports and a glorification by Soviet official historiography. In his famous radio broadcast speech on 3 July 1941, Joseph Stalin urged the population to form guerilla units in the areas occupied by the enemy. However, in reality Stalin and the Soviet leadership feared individual initiative beyond their own control more than anything else, and during the first 15 months of the war “actual Soviet policy discounted and even discouraged popular initiative and participation”.
The national directives for partisan activity, issued on 18 July 1941, stated that partisan members were to include only “participants in the Civil War and those comrades who have already showed their worth in the destruction battalion [NKVD – the Soviet Secret Police and State Security Organisation – sabotage units], the people’s militia, and also workers from the NKVD”.
In fact, the main task assigned by the Soviet leadership to the partisans was not so much to fight the occupants but to carry out the political tasks assigned to them, ie to reinstate and uphold the authority of the Soviet government in the occupied territories. In the first years, most people killed by the partisans were Soviet civilians accused of being opposed to the Soviet system. Only in 1943 did the partisan movement begin to become a military force to count on.
9) The unknown wave of mass rape on the Eastern Front
Western writers have been quite successful in establishing the terrible wave of rapes committed by Soviet soldiers in Germany and Poland towards the end of the war as a general public knowledge. For instance, in his epic book on the battle of Berlin, historian Antony Beevor deals with the rape of German or Polish women by Soviet soldiers on 28 different pages. When dealing with rape, the victim’s perspective must of course dominate, and thus it is absolutely justified and a moral obligation to deal with these atrocities. What makes the whole matter even more tragic is that German rapes of Polish and Soviet women, probably on an even larger scale and definitely preceding these Soviet rapes, are ignored by nearly all Western historians. Although probably millions of Soviet citizens, primarily women and girls, became rape victims, the topic has been grossly understudied.
There is also a widespread myth that Jews were not sexually assaulted by Germans. Evidence from all over Europe, including the occupied territories and the concentration camps, prove that this is not true. The Nazi laws against having sex with a Jewish woman only pertained in cases of consensual sex.
Even in spite of their official military and racial laws and rules, Germans of the Wehrmacht, the SS, the police, the civilian administration and their allies engaged in mass rape, including gang rape on an enormous and routine scale, in the occupied territories of the Soviet Union and Poland. The victims were Jews as well as gentiles; women and girls as well as men and boys; and victims were from the youngest of ages. There are examples of a 90-year old female rape victim as well as nine- or eight-year-old girls.