Should Hitler have attacked USSR and what were his reasons is one of basic questions that have far reaching implications in the way campaign itself unfolded and provides a context for deeper understanding.
Basically we can analyze this question from perspective of hindsight or from local time perspective(with Hitler's eyes).
Let's start with hindsight. There were actually strong reasons in favour of starting the attack. Germany was in war with Britain and could count on America joining in soon, this means they would need raw materials, food and above all oil to endure such continental conflict and naval blockade. Conquest of SU would deal with this problem. Even more importantly if such a juggernaut as SU and a rival was left in the background while struggling with Western allies, there is always a risk if war in the west would go bad that Stalin might take opportunity and invade.(but this doesn't mean Stalin wanted the war,he was cautious, not to aggressive but opportunistic) Also land forces would need to remain strong for deterrence reasons, which would hinder aviation and naval production needed for western war.
On the negative side, they were actually getting all resources through trade as SU had big surpluses of needed materials for export. Secondly,in no eastern war scenario, they could concentrate all their might on GB and maybe seize resource rich areas in Middle east, Africa or even India. Most importantly war in the east was a longshot, winnable but only if strongest possible moves were made by German side and help of some luck or internal weakness of the enemy(which with hindsight we can exclude).
Therefore with hindsight attack was a bad idea since even though it would have brought considerable advantages, the risk was simply too great.Not attacking had some distant looming dangers, but attacking ment clear and present danger,fight to the death with small chance of success.
From Fuhrer's perspective, he was also sure that America was joining the war(he taught that they allready had ,just not yet publicly) but he didn't perceive them as an immediate threat, or a reason for GB holding on. He reasoned that British would agree to his proposal(British dominate their colonies and Reich the continent) if there wasn't a powerful continental player still in game-Stalin's Russia. He believed that elimination of SU would force British to give up. On the other hand he wasn't concerned(probably to reasonable degree) about prospect of Stalin attacking him,he declared on 9/1/41 that Stalin was clever man who would not openly act against them, but if Germany would find itself in difficulties, he would add to those difficulties. This is actually remarkably calm and objective analysis on Hitler's part, especially considering his paranoia and aggressiveness through which he also measured others. Prejudices about low Soviet worth and reports from deputy military attache in Moscow,colonel Krebs that it will take SU 20 years of rebuilding to undone the damage of Stalin’s purges and regression of army , played a role in Hitler’s belief that Stalin wasn’t a threat . Racial and ideological reasons were predominant on other hand in Hitler’s decision making process. He firmly believed that if thousand years Reich was to be created, Germans needed a space in the east to grow (numerically, resources etc.)- Lebensraum. He also considered Soviets inferior to Germans to dangerous degree and when his thoughts of their incompetence were demonstrated in Winter war, Hitler thought that it was very opportune to wage war now and win at relatively low cost. It’s therefore understandable that Hitler wanted war as he saw the biggest reason against it (small chance of winning) as the opposite- opportunity for easy success.
After political decision was made it was up to the army and Reich leaders to decide on the best way to win the war. Year 1941 was all important, it had the potential to bring German victory, but only in case of internal flaw of Soviet state that would bring about its collapse amid brutal blows,but before they were actually physically beaten.It had the potential to allow Germans to still be in the game(possibility for victory) in ’42 even if Soviet state was resilient. But for this scenario, Germans had to make only the best moves. And finally it could leave Germany without chance of winning the war, only prolonging it.
Germans chose to perform Barbarossa. An operation that called for uninterrupted thrust of about 3000 km into SU,with ultimate goal of destruction of Soviet army,state and manpower(as cited in documents-plans for genocide).Operation optimistically envisaged the destruction of great majority of Soviet armies in 4-6 weeks in the westernmost part of SU, before natural barrier that rivers Dnepr and Dvina form.
In any case German military success depended on their Blitzkrieg, for their couldn’t stand the trials of attritional war.Blitzkrieg depended on air force and critically on fast moving mechanized and motorised formations. These units were the ones that did magic, they played with world finest armies at will, crushing them in war of maneuver with unprecedented speed and low casualties. Other German units- infantry divisions were pretty much old news,and even though they were superbly trained and used effective tactics, were more or less only good for war of attrition and couldn’t defeat large armies at any speed or without crippling losses. Fast units made about 20% of units in the east and were invaluable. It was actually the only ace Nazis had upon their sleeve to win against the allies. Those units couldn’t live ‘from the land’ or with basic supply as infantry. Soldiers in those divisions were tanks, APCs, self propelled guns,trucks etc, and they could only eat oil, lubricants, tyres, spare engines and other goods produced in Germany and depended on those being delivered if they were to function at all. There was no room for excessive attrition of these fast units, for if their strength ebbs significantly, Blitzkrieg stops and war of attrition ensues. Having this in mind, their preservation and maintenance should’ve been No 1 priority of military planners.Almost all other variables were totally or partially unknown, but this one was clear and should’ve been built in foundation of any approach.
There were voices of doubt and signs of warning concerning Barbarossa. One of planers of Barbarossa in its embryonic phase, chief of staff of 18th army general Mercks warned that even after complete fulfilment of goals set in Barbarossa, war might continue,even though in lesser intensity.
Next, study of Military geography department of OKH warned that Caucasus oil fields, one of main strategic targets and one of few variables that had the potential to cripple the Red army, were simply unreachable due to logistics.They also warned of Soviet capabilities to wage war from trans Ural and trans Caspian regions,which were no more wilderness as before but industrialized regions with advance agriculture and adequate infrastructure.
Also German military attache in Moscow,although saying that Soviet forces were a far cry from progressive army from its heydays under Tukhachevsky,they were still vast, motivated and capable of great resistance and gave negative recommendation for attack.
Generalfeldmarschall von Bock, one of the smartest man in Wehrmacht, asked what if Red army doesn’t play as we plan and avoids destruction before Dnepr Dvina line? Halder,chief of OKH answered ‘It might just turn out otherwise’, while Hitler said then, we will send mobile forces after them as far as Yekaterinburg, beyond Ural if needed.
General Quartermaster of Wehrmacht submitted report to OKH that they possessed logistical capabilities to sustain thrust of 500-700 km at most of an army as massive as needed to invade SU. This alone should’ve been a deal breaker at least for operation that called for thrust of 3000 km without a pause and impulse to redefine the operation but remarkably no one seemed to care.
As critical as these analysis were, the ultimate warning IMO came from war games conducted by brilliant lieutenant general Friedrich Paulus.He predicted that contrary to army command plans, Red army won’t be destroyed before Dvina Dnieper line, but would withdraw beyond it even if mauled plus approximated generation of 100 new divisions within six months. Most importantly he predicted overextension of armoured and fast units In general, which would be inadequately supplied and fighting alone without infantry support on it’s inner and outer flanks trying simultaneously to prevent encircled troops from breaking free and defending from determined attacks from the outer flanks open on all sides.
These warnings were all very real and clear sighted. In reality they meant that in given frame of operations,with goals defined as in Barbarossa there is unavoidable heavy attrition of fast units and an unavoidable need for substantial pause after 500-700 km(roughly Dvina Dnieper line). Also they suggest that Soviet state will be able to carry on fighting even if galactical goals of Barbarossa were met.Attrition of panzer and motorised formation ment the end of capacity to defeat any substantial remaining armies through maneuver and encirclement, leaving only war of attrition as possibility.Logistical limitations meant that large scale war was only possible (in given time frame) to Dnepr Dvina line and if that doesn’t bring collapse of defence, Barbarossa automatically fails defined as it is.
It is therefore shocking that almost by consensus Barbarossa was adopted, a haphazard operation that rested entirely on presumption that Soviet state will collapse after initial blows instead on careful planning, logistical feasibility study and cautious assessment of enemy potential. It was a disgrace for traditionally ultra professional General staff. Stahel here offers among others some plausible explanations. Hitler set the general tone with his overarching racial prejudices and firm believe that Soviets were paper tiger reap for defeat. He form his beliefs on indirect facts such as poor performance of Russia in WW1 and generally it’s traditional technological backwardness that prevented them from winning wars against industrialized first grade powers like in Crimea against British and French in 1850s or against Japan in 1905. Experience from WW1 suggest that the real nemesis comes from the west,and since French and British armies were beaten in stellar manner , cumbersome, untrained,unequipped and oppressed masses of the Red army didn’t stand any chance in Fuhrer’s mind. On top of this came Stalin’s purges and degeneration of army, consequences of which cannot be overestimated. Utter impotence of Red army against puny Finnish army only demonstrated this preconceptions.Fuhrer referred to coming war as ‘child’s play’ or ‘colonial conquest’. Hitler, even though a talented military amateur is one thing, but one could only wonder how come professional staff officers indulged themselves in such way, to tailor the plans for single most important operation (in history?) to fit some more or less arbitrary preconceptions instead of hard facts or analysis and what’s more to consciously discard any info that doesn’t fit in this paradigm. Great majority of officer corp had no doubts about success of Barbarossa in its given form,even those most talented and informed like Paulus, Bock, Halder or Guderian believed in fast victory and some distant worries they did have,were never publicly expressed, even though exactly that was their duty. Some of explanations say that Zieg Euphoria’ after fall of France was all-pervasive and profound.Furthermore many shared some of prejudices championed by Hitler and some just fell under his spell. Some like Paulus,Halder or Brauchitsch and many of the more conservative among top ranks didn’t want to repeat their perceived cowardness and over cautiousness from campaign in France when Hitler overruled the general staff plans for main thrust through Low countries and sanctioned a bold plan made by colonel! Manstein to invade through rugged terrain of Ardens,a plan deemed too risky by top commanders. This time they wanted to be on board with this optimistic and bold plans, not to lose face again or lose Hitler's favour.
So, prospect of victory was shared by all. But still why choose Barbarossa, which is all about speed, speed, neck breaking, incautious speed, and also prepared very much amateurishly? As one American general from second gulf war said, ‘amateurs think of strategy, professionals think of logistics.’ Considering prevailing euphoria many were probably reluctant to question the grandiosity and optimism of operation.Others maybe knew that planning was sluggish, but didn’t think it was necessary for everything to be perfectly set and predicted due to enormous perceived advantages of Heer, Luftwaffe and German people over Soviet people and army.
There were also objective reasons that called for speed of operations. Slower advance could allow the Soviets to pursue the strategy of Kutuzov in Napoleonic wars and withdraw the army to interior in order to avoid battle before overextension takes toll of the invaders. German planners were afraid of this scenario, but here Stalin was firmly on their side and out ruled any such possibility. There was also danger of Soviet generation of new forces and creation of new coherent and continuous defensive lines if pressure wasn’t maintained. Threat of western pressure or some form of massive assistance to Soviets also dictated speed. Finally there was raw material shortage that threatened with crisis and bottlenecks in some sectors. Most notably rubber for tires and oil were in short supply, these threatened to compromise mobility of the army and called for shorter campaign.
Post war explanations of defeated German generals that state Hitler’s interference, mud, winter etc, where primal reasons for failure, are today known to be myths and exculpations that flourished in cold war environment. However, even modern western authors that expose those myths, mostly preoccupy themselves with German side. What mistakes they made and which obstacles they heroically surpassed. Even top researchers like Stahl who expose German weaknesses and debunk myths still take Soviet endeavour and sophistication of entire development from their side as given, and largely ignore unperceivable complexities of that side that could decidedly influence the whole outcome one way or the other, just as much as German side could.
Even though Barbarossa was flawed and far from carefully planned, we mustn't forget what was Wehrmacht then and what impact Blitzkrieg had on societies it hit, SU included. Wehrmacht was despite all our modern, hindsight shaped quibbling, a force of nature at the time. Where they hit, nations fell in weeks. Combined French and British armies,the main strength of western democracies, utterly beaten in few weeks. Such military domination wasn’t seen from time of Mongols who similarly played with their opponents in war of maneuver and firepower. Shock that hit Soviet state and society during Barbarossa is unimaginable.During first six months of war only, Soviet state lost 6 million soldiers; about 70 million of its inhabitants, were living in occupied territories, lost for Soviet cause and even forcibly feeding and sustaining enemy armies and deported to sustain Reich’s economy; great part of raw material acquiring areas were lost, as well as massive percentage of industries, concentrated in western part of country, Ukraine, the breadbasket of SU was also lost. Worse of all, no victories were grasped, no way found to beat this seemingly inhuman adversary. Foreigners shared gloomy prospects for Soviet survival. British intelligence estimated that Germany will defeat SU in four weeks, US secretary of war and general Marshall gave them 1 month, maximum three, Italians expected the same as well the Japanese.(notably Japanese naval intelligence had more careful approximations). How Soviets than endured such hardship against the odds?
There were number of Soviet strengths. Primal Soviet achievement was industrialization, achieved during the late twenties and early thirties. Soviet industrialization overshadowed even great developments of Germany and Japan in late nineteenth century and transformed Soviet state from post feudal, agrarian society to great economic and industrial power second only to US. This quantum leap came at terrible price though, millions died of hunger as Stalin exported non surplus food in order to buy machine tools and experts, also millions of real and imagined enemies of the state worked and died in swarms working as slave labourers. Nevertheless many thousands of factories were built, production of pig iron, coal, oil and so on multiplied, industrial military complex was created. This enabled Soviets to produce more than 100 000 tanks, more than 500 000 artillery pieces, more than 130 000 combat aircraft, and equip and sustain 35 000 000 men that served in the Red army. In second half of 1941(during Barbarossa) in spite of struggle for survival ,loss to the enemy of thousands factories and amid the translocation of industries to the east, Soviets managed to multiply it’s peace time production from first half of the year and heavily out produce German economy. This was maybe single most important factor that held SU in the game in 1941. Of course movement of industry from endangered territories in the west to Urals, Siberia and Central Asia must be mentioned as one of most incredible feats generally. More than 15 hundred critical armament factories were hastily disassembled, often with enemy approaching or under bombardment, put to trains(despite the fact that railways were in chaos, simultaneously used for mobilization, troop movements, withdrawal of army and civilians etc.) and transported eastward where reassembled started working again within days, even without roofs or basic conditions.
Second great Soviet strength was resilience of it’s people, soldiers and the state itself. Perhaps no other country in the world would withstand such blows without collapse. France collapsed even though it’s armies weren’t all destroyed, nevertheless their mighty fleets were intact and colonial empire offered plenty of options for continuing fight from there. They collapsed because of shock, not because last soldier was killed or last mean of resistance removed. Even Japan surrendered without enemy on home islands and with most of land army and industrial base on mainland China/Korea intact. They broke because of shock of atomic bombs, even though such devastation was seen before, as single bombing of Tokyo six months before produced more than double number of casualties and much more destruction than both atomic bombs combined(more than 300 000 people and 2 millions flats). Barbarossa was Hitler’s atomic bomb designed for maximal impact to the very heart of Soviet people and state. Soviet political system,however was monolithic and there was little danger of some dissent there, even though Stalin himself in July contemplated separate peace with Germany. Entire society was militarised, and under firm totalitarian grip. This certainly helped control things,but all this wouldn’t mean much without genuine will to resist and endure all suffering of Soviet people, without complete devotion to defend the motherland through any hardship or even with bare lives. This attitude was impossible to teach or much less force on people. Widespread support for war effort went beyond devotion to Stalin or state. Some were fighting for socialism, but most out of nationalistic zeal and for their homeland threatened by Nazis who they rightly feared. Alexander Werth in his ‘Russia at war’ (British journalist who was in SU during the war and was allowed to move freely and even alone and visit the front) writes :’In the fearful days of 1941-42 I never lost the feeling that this was a genuine People’s war; first a war waged by a people fighting for their life against terrible odds, and later a war fought by a fundamentally unaggressive people , now roused to anger and determined to demonstrate their own military superiority’. Stalin’s propaganda accepted and promoted these feelings, returning some long lost liberties of national or religious expressing and pride. Of course, while those served purpose. With such national enthusiasm and iron grip of the Party over formal structures, there was to be no surrender, no easy way out for the Germans, who pretty much needed to destroy physically entire army and any means of resistance if they wanted to conquer their intended victim.
Deriving from previous preconditions we come to the point that was most directly responsible for fighting chance in the beginning and victorious advance later on. Generation of forces. Paulus as one of most careful and thoughtful German officers predicted that Soviets could raise 100 divisions in six months. This far exceeded accepted estimates of intelligence and army command. The reality was pure fantasy even compared with Paulus's numbers. Soviets manage to create 27 (!!!) new armies in July/august alone and about 500(!!!) divisions in first six months. These figures were possible because of militarisation of society which was in constant fear of war and invasion of capitalist powers on ‘world’s only socialist state’. A fear not that unfounded considering experience from civil war where broad international coalition tried to strangle Soviet state at birth and constant hostile stance of most powers since then. Cadre army expanded by massive mobilisation and supported wit huge military industrial complex enabled such army generation.
Next we come to the point of courage, resilience and devotion of ordinary Soviet soldier and the damage this, in settings of modern mobile, mechanised war, seemingly unpretentious character inflicted to German army and plans. Germans were very much surprised with fighting spirit, endurance and self sacrifice of Red army. Usually when Blitzkrieg magic was done, and enemy units found themselves cut off from their supply, command and partly or totally encircled, this would pretty much mean the end of resistance and break the will of the defendants. Soviet army, unlike German experience in the west routinely fought on while encircled and preferred to perish in desperate break out charges or turned to partisans rather than surrender. This was great unexpected drain on German power, especially for fast units that routinely formed eastern part of encirclements, blocking the way to beleaguered Red army units. Furthermore by passed units(but not encircled) not only retreated, or disintegrated as expected but actively attacked the flanks of advancing armies, even though not retreating ment they were left deep behind lines and had no chance of survival. Notable example is stubborn active defence of Soviet 5th army on the extreme left flank of AGS, a significant bother and delaying factor for entire AG advancement. The thing was that Wehrmacht calculated that in conventional battles where Germans dominated with firepower, mobility, maneuverability, command and control, tactics, training etc., Soviets wouldn’t be able to significantly erode German power. And they were right, but as general Heinrici said during Barbarossa (not meaning to be funny, but ridiculous he was for sure), ‘Russian fights in devious ways’..For example, few isolated Red army soldiers would wait until German column came at point blank and then fire, ensuring hits, but almost disabling any possibility of escape; or soldiers would play dead and then kill one or two soldiers, before they themselves were killed; ramming tactics for aircrafts (Taran) and tanks were usual, as was resistance to the last man in various towns and fortresses like Brest Litovsk, Orsha and Mogilev, the Hero city among many others. These countless acts of heroism (mass heroism as described by some authors) and devotion to cause steadily eroded German strength and slowed their advancement, bringing at least some punishment to largely untouchable and elusive German forces. As modest as this contribution was, cumulatively and persistently it wasn’t even that modest, especially since Germans went in campaign with ‘barely sufficient forces for the task’ as Paulus commented after war games and with army reserves of just few hundred thousand men, a mere drop for enormousness of enterprise (all these reserves were used up in about month of fighting, and army without reserves is an army without chance for exploiting opportunities or ability to react to crisis). One German officer wrote how a lone Soviet soldier from a broken unit emerged from corn field and shot a one of Wehrmacht men marching on the road. He was immediately killed, but this incident left him unsettled. Another Luftwaffe pilot described how dealing with Red air force in the beginning of the war was like ‘infanticide’, considering their obsolete machines and rudimentary tactics and skills. He described an instance when they intercepted with their Bf 109s a formation of old, slow moving Soviet bombers that were desperately sent to attack advancing German columns without any air cover. Bombers didn’t even have machine guns for self protection. They leisurely sent one by one down in flames, freely dancing around them. Still Soviet airmen held formation bravely and fatalistically to the last and no one tried to break off or retreat. The event for some reason sent shivers down his spine. These Germans were right to feel uneasy because it meant that if game ever becomes something even remotely fair contest, they will have a relentless and toughest enemy possible to deal with.
Last but certainly among paramount Soviet achievements was their ability to learn and adapt. The state of Red army in the eve of war was beyond normal people’s comprehension. Overy and Glantz have most informative works on this subject. Usual perception is that army was leaderless due to Stalinist purges, and it sure was but that is only the tip of an iceberg. Stalin during his thorough purge of army didn’t just kill and imprison/repress about 40 000 officers(including more than 90% of top officers) he purged the military thought these progressive officers stood for and made it a taboo under silent threat of loss of career if one was born under lucky star. Marshal Tukhachevsky and his colleagues developed Soviet version of Blitzkrieg in the late 20s and 30s called the Deep battle. Doctrine envisaged creation of mechanised mobile independant formations with tanks, motorised or even mechanized infantry and lots of specialized units like engineer, self propelled artillery, anti aircraft, anti tank, chemical and so on. These forces were supposed to concentrate on some 30 km sektor and break through entire depth of enemy defences, defeat its reserves and exploit to the rear. Emphasis was on mechanization of the army and the air force. Stalin’s purges hit the army hard in 1937 dismissing combined arms mechanized formations and distributing tanks evenly among infantry, which their effectiveness, mechanized infantry became cavalry again just as Vozd and his cronies liked it, reminiscing their heydays in 1st cavalry army during civil war. Linear deployment and evenly distributed attack pattern were reintroduce and ideas of concentrated breakthroughs and exploitment abandoned. Worse all training or perfection in any of those directions was forsaken, production of tanks and to lesser degree aircrafts dropped, masses of tanks even removed from service as unnecessary, development of advanced hardware was stopped or much slowed, with many constructors sharing the fate of purged officer corp. Massive promotions of junior officers without experience or proper education took place in pathetic attempt to fill the places of destroyed military elite, while their places were filled by even greener soldiers. Entire army was terrified, no one dared to do anything that wasn’t checked and double checked with higher authority, effectively destroying any initiative, innovations and most of the time common sense itself. It was a task of intimidated and repressed officers that survived and remembered how to think and act in terms of modern war to make complete makeover of the amorphous mass that the Red army became and turn it into deadly force capable of taking on the best army world has seen for centuries. Success in this task amid constant nearly mortal blows and perpetual state of crisis and urgency is thoroughly amazing and deserves greatest respect.
Operation Barbarossa started spectacularly, with western districts airforce obliterated almost immediately (commander of western front’s air force committed suicide after inspection of results of first day of war), and German armoured forces slicing through linearly and evenly deployed Soviet forces like through butter. Soviet defences were on Stalin’s orders deployed extremely forward in first strategic defensive echelon, with rifle armies to the front and mechanized corps as reserves. These corps were hasty attempts of command to return to progressive roots after witnessing success of Blitzkrieg in the west and pathetic performance of Red army in Winter war. Still those weren’t even shadows of units that deep battle called for,although each was a behemoth with more than thousand tanks, they were without mobile infantry support(hardware for that was non existent), insufficient specialised units, no air cover, no command and control means, no training of personnel(drivers had few hours of training and knew only to drive on roads and in column), no tactics and finally no logistics for resupply and maintenance(most of those tanks were broken or ran out of fuel and had to be abandoned even before they could reach battlefield). All they had were masses of tanks that were rushed from infantry formations to form these helpless and useless entities.
Soviet plan of defence predicted that first strategic echelon will hold and wear down the invaders with ‘stubborn defence’ and ‘determined counterattacks’ for few months, giving country time to mobilise and deploy its second strategic echelon roughly following natural barriers of rivers Dvina and Dnepr some 400-550 km to the east. Plans envisaged also for third strategic echelon to be formed further to the east if necessary. In five days armies of AGC(Army group center) encircled 3rd, 4th, 10th and 13th armies and destroyed 6th and 11th mechanised corps,while in the north AGN(Army group north)cut off 8th and 11th armies,and destroyed 3rd and 12th mechanised corps. Manstein’s LVI panzer corps captured Daugavpils and bridges over Dvina in four days, more than 400 km to the east , an intended location for Soviet second strategic defensive echelon! Capital of Belorussia fell in 6 days, while in Ukraine 8th, 15th and 19th mechanised corps tried to counter attack the invaders as ordered, but they were soon shattered. Still 22nd and 9 mechanised corps managed to inflict some appreciable losses on German forces, including 11th, 13th and 14th panzer divisions. (commander of 9th was major general. Konstantin Rokossovsky who despite orders to recklessly attack ambushed German armoured columns on route to Rovno and gave them hell with concentrated artillery fire and in subsequent battle.) Therefore in less than a week of fighting 90 percent of Soviet mechanized forces were destroyed and entire first strategic echelon north of Pripet marshes was devastated. AGC had two fast armies (Panzer groups 2 and 3), while other groups had only one, also those two in AGC were largest and best equipped. This related to all importance of the task AGC, it had to destroy rapidly entire Soviet army in front of it, do depth of some 500-600 km and then it would be in a position to render assistance both in northern or southern direction, as needed. Hitler and some Generals (notably Kluge, Rundstedt, Leeb, Keitel) championed this idea, to help AGN and AGS(Army group south)with taking Leningrad and Ukraine if needed before advance eastward would resume, while Halder, Guderian, Bock, Hoth, Brauchitsch and people around them advocated straight drive for Moscow. In any case AGC was central in plans for victory and army group’s mobile forces were central for it’s ability to fulfill its missions. First phase of operation was booming success, still there were already some troubles on horizont. Panzer and motorized divisions almost immediately got separated from infantry divisions and thus had to bear the brunt of the fighting and taking objectives like cities etc., they also had to endure for several days, until infantry units came to relive them, determined attempts of desperate encircled troops to brake to the east. Fast units have their organic fleets of motor transport which were crucial for maintaining mobility and functionality. Those fleets were in theory predicted to bridge the distance between the frontline and the nearest railheads. By middle 20th century dense rail network was given thing in European countries, but in SU, eventhough rails were main mean of transport, network wasn’t so dense, the gauge of railway treks was broader than German standard and Soviet locomotives were bigger and with greater range than German ones. This meant that not only railway treks had to be relayed but denser network of maintenance stations had to be build etc. Therefore until this was done, organic motor transport of Panzergruppen would have to take on itself the task of keeping fast moving mechanized armies in supply. Trucks can hardly replace railways in anyway, but if they try it means non stop round trips,which combined with extremely poor roads in SU (especially in border regions) meant that serious wear of Grosstransportraum(organic transport fleets) had already begun. Not only that motor vehicles were fast approaching expected distances of their durability, tires were also consumed too fast on bad roads and great distances, and rubber for tires was something that was in critical short supply in nazi Reich, dependant on deliveries by blockade runners from South America and far east. Also Wehrmacht was attempting something very risky, never tried before; poorly defended supply columns were advancing after Panzer Gruppen through basically enemy territory. True, enemy in that area was outmaneuvered and largely confused, but they were yet un beaten and more than a match for logistic units.
After a short operational pause to allow infantry to take over the eastern part of Kessel (encirclement) and leaving them to finish trapped Soviet armies, Guderian(PG2) and Hoth(PG3) on 3rd of July raced forward again hoping to keep enemy bewildered and off balance and to fulfill it’s mission of rapid destruction of Soviet armies before Dnepr Dvina line. As panzer groups went for second leap to destroy Soviet second strategic echelon their liabilities were mounting, as supply lines were about to become critically overstretched and accompanying infantry from 2nd,4th and 9th armies would this time take much more than several days to follow after them,as they were fully engaged with reduction of encirclements to the west. Still they bravely went on their own, meeting heavier resistance than before.
Soviet second strategic echelon, now in front of AGC included 16th, 19th, 20th,21st, and 22nd armies of Timoshenko's western front plus the remnants of of shattered old Western front. First serious opposition was counter attack by 5th and 7th mechanized corps against 17th panzer division spearheading Guderian’s advance. Corps attack was suicidal and after some minor success they were destroyed, still 7 th panzer reported heavy casualties in these battles. Now Guderian closed on Dnepr and decided contrary to orders from his superior Field marshall von Kluge and pleas from his corp commander general von Schweppenburg, forced the river on 10th July with no infantry except organic. 3rd and 17th panzer divisions frontally assaulted Mogilev and Orsha to secure vital bridges, but were repulsed with losses. (Mogilev held until 27th July holding first Guderian’s forces and later almost 4 divisions of 2nd army, referred by historians as Belorussian Madrid-3year siege of Madrid in Spanish civil war). Guderian then bypassed these points with his main force and continued east, only to be hit again this time on his southern flank on 13th July by 21st army and a cavalry group south of Bobruisk. Even Though this tied entire Schwepenburg’s XXIV panzer corps(eventually for weeks) Guderian pressed on with the rest. Guderian’s second corps, Lemelsen’s XXXXVII was soon also entirely committed to holding his northern flank, that is the southern encirclement arc of forming Smolensk pocket that now partly enveloped 16th,19th and 20th armies. This left his last corps, Vietinghoff’s XXXXVI to carry on and close the pocket around Smolensk. Instead of aiming to close the pocket by weeling XXXXVI corps to the northeast, Guderian sent it to capture Yelnia to south east(strategic position for advance toward Moscow), which fell after heavy battles on 17th. Now as all of Guderian’s forces were engaged in fierce fighting, he tried to form a strike force from different corps to force its way northward to seal Smolensk pocket. However Guderian’s strength was dissipated and there was no point of main effort or any powerful concentrations of armour anywhere. Strike to the north was an exhausted crawl.
To the north Hoth’s Panzer gruppe 3 crossed the Dvina with more ease and took Vitebsk and its bridges on 9 th July. Now his panzers poured into operational depths of Soviet defences anchored on Dvina, position of which became hopeless. Still Timoshenko’s armies refused to go down quietly and Konev’s 19th and 20th army fiercely attacked Vitebsk with no avail but bloodying German forces. Hoth now split his two panzer corps and sent them in diverging directions. Schmidt’s XXXIX maneuvered from the north in long arc and descended toward Yartsevo on main Smolensk-Moscow highway on 15th July, thus half encircling Soviet armies around Smolensk, only southern, Guderian’s arc was still missing ashe went for Yelnia first.Hoth tried to close the gap himself with 7th panzer, but they ran into Rokossovsky’s group consisting of some stragglers, cadre of 38th Rifle division and 40 obsolete tanks(T-26), which despite Luftwaffe's concentrated support held the 7th for almost a week. Second Hoth’s corp, Knutzen’s LVII was sent in northeasterly direction and captured important transportation center of Velikie Luky on 19th of July. Isolated and containing only two fast divisions the corps was badly mauled by multiple Soviet counter attacks and had to withdraw only day later.
Therefore by 21 of July all of AGC panzer and motorised divisions were engaged in heavy fighting, dispersed and largely isolated, fighting defensive and offensive battles on all sides. Their supply lines were by now so strained that it definitely strongly affected mobility and even firepower through shortages of fuel and ammo.In this moment general Zhukov decided to bring forward newly deployed 24th, 28th, 29th and 30th armies from third strategic defensive echelon and attempt a strategic counter offensive on stalled German forces with goal of checking the advance east and relieving trapped armies at Smolensk. Due to huge problems in logistics, timely deployment and concentration and lack of tanks and air support offensive ultimately failed but close quarter engagement and massive artillery bombardments caused frightful losses on stranded panzer divisions.
Only on 27 th of July Germans closed the Smolensk pocket from the east, only to be temporarily pierced from the east five days later. Of course during all this time numerous Soviet forces escaped the encirclement. By the last days of July infantry armies finally took on themselves to crush Soviet forces trapped north of Smolensk and gradually started to relieve panzer forces on eastern front from furious Zhukov’s attacks. This gave time for fast units for some resupply and refitting, although some were still heavily engaged in defensive battles into September. Although inflicting unsustainable damage to the Wehrmacht, Soviets payed dearly for their performance, as Smolensk battle costed them about 300 000 prisoners, more than 1500 tanks, and thousands of artillery pieces.
Operational pause ensued, famous not for rebuilding panzer divisions (as it was impossible) but for highest level arguing over which grandiose task shall befall the fast units next. Halder, Hoth, Guderian, Bock and others called for immediate attack on Moscow after shortest possible respite, and Hitler, Kluge, Rundstedt, Keitel, Lebb advocated clearing the flanks first. AGS and AGN were stalled long way to the west on the defences of second strategic echelon, which was pierced and destroyed in central part of the front by AGC. Although Moscow was better strategic target (beside usual reasons of political,moral affecting and transportation significance, main advantage that actually had a potential to be game changing factor was importance of Moscow as troop generation center-by far the biggest in USSR), military logic (and Clausewitz's maxims to eliminate enemy army before strategic goals) dictated to move to flanks, to dodge heaviest and most prepared enemy concentrations in the center of the front and opportunistically take vast Soviet armies in north and south from the back. Even notwithstanding any of the mentioned it was mathematically impossible for German logistical system to support offensive on Moscow for at least few months and then only partially. Even very optimistic(reckless) general quartermaster of the army, general Wagner stated that only mechanised forces or infantry armies can be supplied toward Moscow, but not both.
And so after some mostly cosmetical refitting Guderian’s PG 2 went south linking with Kleist’s PG 1 on 16th of September near town of Lokhvitsa.Even though general Zhukov warned,long time ago, in second half of July that position on the Dnepr in Ukraine is unattainable and should be withdrawn to more defensible positions, Stalin for mainly political reasons procrastinated this decision for more than month and a half until it was much too late. Entire Southwestern front was consequently destroyed while it’s commander general Kirponos, fell in combat. This move netted another 600 000 prisoners for the Germans, and destroyed second defensive echelon in Ukraine. Third Panzer group’s XXXIX panzer corps went north to assist AGN which was stranded on second echelon forces anchored on Luga line. By 31st of August Soviet defences were breached and final encirclement of Leningrad begun. Zhukov took over defence of Leningrad amid greatest crisis in September from Stalin’s inept crony marshal Voroshilov. He canceled his command to destroy factories and scuttle the Baltic fleet and ordered factories to continue supplying the city and the fleet to turn their cannons to the enemy. Galvanized and reorganized defences of the city held, and Germans set for long siege that would be a thorn in their flank, tying many divisions for the rest of the war, that is until lifting of the siege in 1944.
Finally after reduction of Kiev encirclement and start of positional warfare around Leningrad, it was Moscow’s turn, as all panzer groups of AGC returned to its command plus reinforced with panzer group 4 from AGN and a panzer corp from PG 1. On 2nd October operation Typhoon begun, three panzer armies (groups) and three infantry armies attacked forces of Soviet third strategic defensive echelon in direction of Moscow. This front had been static for two and a half months. In only a week, Soviet defences were completely breached and two great encirclements formed. Bigger around Vyazma created by panzer groups 3 and 4 surrounded Soviet 19th, 24th, 30th and 32nd armies and somewhat smaller southern around Bryansk made by second panzer group(augmented with one panzer and two motorised divisions from panzer group 1) containing 3rd and 13th armies. By the end of first phase of operation Germans captured more than 650 000 prisoners,and captured or destroyed more than 1200 tanks and 5500 artillery pieces. Stunning as this victory was, its proportions actually masked that panzer armies were completely spent force(in many units losses of equipment and personnel run over 80%) and logistics for entire AGC were so overextended that battle performance and all important mobility begun to be greatly impaired. Fanatical Soviet resistance inside of Kessel as well to the east and the beginning of mud season and cold significantly added to the sticky situation. To German command, however view on the situation was through pink glasses, drunk with victories, spoils of war and ability of its armies to fulfil any mission like the enemy had no saying there. It seemed to not only German command but also field commanders, many Soviet commanders and foreign leaders that Soviet defences were about to crumble and Moscow was lost. This was only a mirage and Zhukov, now called from Leningrad to save Moscow was feeding just enough troops to the front not to allow complete collapse. Most of the new arriving and forming forces,though, were kept behind the front while being equipped and organized for counter blow. For the first time in the war this was possible as Stalin backed down for once and didn’t insist on immediate, uncoordinated, piecemeal and unsupported attacks. Zhukov wouldn’t squander this opportunity. With German armies entering deeper and deeper into trap(perhaps not conceived as a trap from the beginning, but turned out to be one none the less), willingly overextending themselves in anticipation of collapse just like at Smolensk, Zhukov hit AGC on 5th of December with 58 divisions belonging to four fronts, achieving complete shock and surprise. Number of Soviet soldiers (1 100 000) just slightly outnumbered German forces, but were carefully deployed and coordinated against stretched and poorly mobile German forces. The battles were messy and bloody,and world could see Germans fleeing for their lives for the first time. AGC suffered grievous losses(Soviets even more) but didn’t disintegrate due to poor tactical abilities of many Soviet field commanders, dismal logistics and general incompetence of Soviets to properly understand and conduct modern war, from forces composition to command and control,lacking equipment to tactical and operational naivety. German survival on the other hand is at least as much owed to inner professionalism and effectiveness of German army even in adverse circumstances.
Failure of Barbarossa not only meant failing to subdue Soviet Union in a single campaign but crucially, crippled the Wehrmacht for the rest of the war.
There are different answers about turning point of the war in the east. Klaus Reinhardt in ‘Moscow the turning point’ , claims battle for Moscow; Overy claims Stalingrad in ‘Why allies won’, and Kursk in ‘Dictators’; Geoffrey Roberts in ‘Victory at Stalingrad’ advocates Stalingrad; Mark Haley in ‘Kursk 1943:Tide turns in the east’ and Winston Churchill in his ‘Second world war’ both claim Kursk battle. More recently different views emerge, Glantz in ‘Barbarossa derailed’ and Stahel in ‘Operation Barbarossa and Germany’s defeat in the east’ both reason that turning point happened during battle of Smolensk in July/August 1941. I believe there are very strong arguments for latter case even though the claim might seem outrageous at first.
Resources, industrial output, manpower and size of the economy were all on the side of enemies of German Reich even before US entered the war, and thus nazis had to avoid scenario where these numbers come to bare, that is war of attrition, because when it comes down to math, they cannot win. What they had was an extraordinary strong military factor and had to keep that factor disproportionately important in the overall equation and not let it become ‘usual’ war , with usual balance of importance between purely military and economic/industrial/manpower etc. factors. In this they succeeded before Barbarossa, French and British armies(and those of many smaller nations) were defeated with speed and ease, with very few casualties and material losses which would burden German economy and industrial capacity/ manpower reserves. Even though allied armies were larger (and technically better in many aspects) they were outmaneuvered and forced to surrender even without the need to physically destroy them, while economies of the western Europe didn’t even have a chance to demonstrate its dominance. What enabled this dominance, was so called Blitzkrieg, a revolutionary change in way wars were waged. The concept envisaged combined arms mechanised armies as it’s most important instrument. Armour was used in breakthroughs and exploration in the deep, accompanied by mobile infantry used for storming fortified positions,populated areas, holding territory and flanks of the advance. Mobile artillery was also always at hand and close support air force as real Blitzkrieg mobile artillery. Units were adequately equipped with anti armour and anti aircraft weapons, ingenieur units(Pionire), and strong reconnaissance arm, with organic recc aircrafts. Units also had strong organic logistical support(workshops, organic resupply truck fleets etc). This made them independent units capable of dealing with all opposition and of exploitation of enemy rear. All other armies (except British to some degree) didn’t concentrate their armoured, mobile and air force units, but instead distributed all this modern hardware evenly in support of linearly deployed infantry units to give them more ‘teeth’ for anticipated style of combat- broad advances with no clear points of concentrated effort. In contrast Germans concentrated their mobile mechanized groups and achieved breakthroughs on narrow sectors where they vastly outnumbered and outgunned their opponent. Next, they run through entire operational depth of enemy front, defeating reserves, but ideally avoiding any confrontations to preserve forces, while fulfilling their mission of cutting command, supply and retreat lines of linearly positioned enemy armies. Blitzkrieg worked like a charm, it was superb, sophisticated and delicate machine. This machine, were in fact experienced and highly trained men and their hardware from tanks and halftracks to trucks, vital for functioning of these mobile units. These soldiers and this hardware were irreplaceable for Wehrmacht due to impossibility of German industry to meet demands of prolonged world war on sea, land and air and irreplaceability of experienced cadre for this type of war and for maintaining leverage Wehrmacht enjoyed. From this it can be concluded that greatest advantage Germans had was that very army, more precisely mobile mechanized units of that army. If or when those units become blunted enough, war of maneuver, of unseen possibilities and outcomes ends and war of attrition, war of numbers sets in, and those numbers are implacable. Germans mustn't have risked this army for any goal, not for some strategic aims, not for destruction of enemy armies, not if price the fast units would have to pay was too great.
By plunging themselves forward toward Smolensk, to fulfill Barbarossa’s unrealistic time table mobile forces willingly overextended themselves and allowed that their isolation and reduced mobility and firepower due to insufficient logistics, put them in a position that much much more suited the blunt instrument that was Red army at the time. Position of messy, static,close quarter massive battles where panzer groups were outnumbered, pinned and pounded with powerful artillery barrages, as Red army now had time to bring heavy guns and often wasteful and suicidal attacks, which were very costly for the Soviets, but loses inflicted to German mechanized forces were completely unacceptable. Basically panzer groups race to Dnepr Dvina line was a leap of fate in anticipation of collapse of Soviet defences or state, but when they surrounded Soviet second strategic defensive echelon, only to be hit at most vulnerable, by totally unforeseen 3rd echelon,(Zhukov’s offensive starting on 21st July-September) the game was up. By 21st of July even before Zhukov’s massive counter offensive hit them, PG 3 was reduced to just above 40 % of it’s Panzers and on 29th July,just as infantry was taking over, PG 2 had less than 30% of combat ready tanks and more than 20 000 irreplaceable casualties. Another paramount problem was wear and tear of trucks which by the end of July created logistical bottleneck that hampered mobility even of these remnants of units, not to mention prospect of having to supply somehow rebuilt panzer forces. But neither panzer forces or transport fleets will never again be fully rebuilt, only for a very small part. Bringing units up to strength was from then more matter of reshuffling of existing units then real growth and rebuilding.(new units were barely enough to catch up with new losses). In this light it’s not that strange why some see Smolensk battle as turning point, as it definitively ‘Derailed Barbarossa’ and permanently crippled the Wehrmacht. Even contemporary foreign powers saw it this way. For instance, on 4th of August 1941,Japanese government, after seeing results of Smolensk finally dropped any plans for invasion of SU and sanctioned the southern drive. Finland also in August made decision to suspend any further active operations against Soviets( already creating an exit strategy?)
My opinion about turning point is twofold. I believe that arguments for Smolensk are compelling,still I would say that it was a turning point in a sense that Germans lost the ability to hold the outcome in their hands, from then on course of war depended, not only on them making best moves, but on enemy making bad ones. In other words I believe that Soviets could still lose(or at least fail to win), that they weren’t safe until they learned how to fight. This maturation was first demonstrated almost year and a half later during Battle for Stalingrad.
With complete advantage of hindsight, was there a course Germans could’ve taken to change the outcome or at least augment their chances? IMO the biggest mistake German command made was to much insistence on speed. (Halder: ‘What we need is speed, speed and speed.’) Possible reasons to insist on such speed were: fear from exhaustion from fighting on multiple fronts, fear of Western help upgrading Soviet fighting capabilities,bottlenecks of raw materials,fear of Soviets creating new coherent defensive lines, fear of maturation of Soviet forces.
To avoid trap of multiple fronts, SU must have been eliminated, but this doesn’t necessarily dictate the exact time frame for this to be done, and time range was certainly bigger than 2-6 months that Barbarosa envisaged, for there wasn’t really a good reason for major commitment in the west until at least second half of 1943, but more realistically, until second front opened in 1944.
Fear of Western help to SU shouldn’t also have been that important. For practical reasons, it was only in 1943 that land lease was being felt as any significant contribution, and any time far from decisive(even though, very important).
Shortages of raw materials, especially oil and rubber were real problem indeed. They threatened to curtail mobility of German armies, and called for sooner conclusion of campaigns. Still the reports that predicted catastrophic shortages were clearly not precise, since none of dire predictions actually realised, not even close.
Possibility and fear of Soviets generating new units and creating new coherent defensive lines is definitely millitary sound. Still by reckless charging that permanently crippled their mobile forces, Germans didn’t prevent creation of any significant amount of new units as industrial and population centers lay further east. Anyway, the only chance Germans had was to strictly follow optimal military objectives aiming to keep inflicting massive damage to the enemy and preserving it’s fast units. No operational(like Yelnia, Velikie Luki etc.) or strategic objectives(like Moscow or Caucausus), industry or population centers shouldn’t have primacy to this strategy. Creation of coherent and organized defences by the enemy is for sure something to be avoided if possible. But these conservative, linearly deployed defences, manned with(still) low quality army were very ineffective against new style of mechanized warfare Germans conducted. It wasn’t until 1943 that Soviets were able to resist concentrated and well supplied German attack.In 1941 ironically, it was almost like Soviet concentration of forces and continuous packed defensive lines worked in German hands, as they brought masses of pretty much helpless masses of army in one place to be destroyed in limited operations, without need for German overextension. Good example is beggining of operation Typhoon.Wehrmacht was on the defence for almost two and a half months on central part of the front, while conducting offensive operations on northern and southern flanks. Therefore Soviet defences toward Moscow were continuous, dense and organized, but when armoured groups attacked, entire central strategic direction(consisting of multiple fronts on approaches to capital) was destroyed in days- incredible 650 000 man captured for minor losses, as panzer corps were in supply, and mobile, able to avoid any costly encounters, as predicted in Blitzkrieg doctrine.
Fear of Soviet maturation could’ve been a reason for anxiety, but this was out of German calculations. Because of their racism and prejudices, and completely reassured by purges and dismal performance of Red army, German command believed that their current status is beyond repair for many years(deputy of military attache in Moscow estimated 20 years!) Still it was this stunning rebirth of Red army from abys in impossible circumstances, IMO one of the most remarkable feats in history of war, that fundamentally enabled Soviet victory. Stalin and his cronies became aware that something was deeply wrong with the army after Winter war catastrophe. Clumsy attempts of mending situation begun soon after. For instance reintroduction of mechanized corps. As war started large and cumbersome Red army formations(large armies and mechanised corps) were dismantled and mechanized units were downsized usually to brigade level and armies to several divisions, but with elimination of corp level structure, about 5-7 small divisions directly subordinated to army. This was attempt to fix and also admission of catastrophic level of command and control level Red army possessed at the time. Composition of forces was deeply flawed with bad ratio of armour and infantry ,very insufficient specialized units such as reconnaissance, engineers anti tank and aircraft etc., and badly organized and lacking rear services(supply, repair, maintenance etc.).Air force was subordinated to ground forces and dispersed, preventing them to concentrate on critical points or in pursue of some Air force doctrine aims(like efficient air superiority struggle, attack on enemy air bases and so on). During 1942 Red army struggled with creation of larger mechanized units,necessary for modern mobile war( tanks corps and tank armies), trying to fix mentioned problems. Also somewhere around summer of 1942 after series of catastrophes that squandered all leverage gained with stopping Barbarossa and victory at Moscow(insisting on spent Moscow counteroffensive much after it’s limits were reached which brought immense losses, lost of few armies in reckless and ill prepared attempts to relieve Leningrad, disaster at Kharkov-attempt to preempt German summer offensive, lost of Crimea and huge losses there), Stalin started to rely less on his rigid and inadequate military intellect and more on new generation of Soviet commanders, disciples of Tukhachevsky and deep battle, some brought straight out of camps to command armies. Rise to highest prominence of Zhukov, Konev, Rokossovsky, Vatutin, Vasilevsky, Voronov, Antonov, Novikov and many others as well as fall of dreaded and powerful inquisitor of the army commissar Meklis, heralded the new age where, honor and respect were returning to the military and professionalism was finally replacing blind loyalty as only criteria for command and influence. Soviet military science divides the war in three periods, with first not by chance ending on 19th of November 1942.(start of operation Uranus). Battle of Stalingrad is by any measure a game changing milestone of ww2. First heroic, innovative and sophisticated defence of Stalingrad that tied most powerful German army right where it shouldn’t be. Then reforms of general Novikov that created air armies and new air force doctrines, finally founded independent air arm, that soon became a real menace for Germans and challenged Luftwaffe. And finally, but crucially Red army demonstrated with distinction, birth(rebirth) of it’s mobile mechanized warfare. At last tank corps (size of smaller panzer divisions) were designed with right rate of tanks(mostly modern) and mobile infantry, many specialized units were added to form true combined arms force and crucially, great improvements were finally made on for long time Achilles's heel of Soviet mobile forces, rear services, logistic and supply arms. Such units were still too small for independant operational use(primarily exploitation of enemy rear), so,( also as reflection of great advance in command and control abilities) tank armies were created from multiple tank corps, finally creating truly independant, mobile, mechanized unit. Tank armie were an equivalent to panzer corps, which were also by German doctrine, smallest adequate units for independant operational use.Demonstrations of sustainable, effectively controlled, mobile operations and more and more implementation of new, less rigid and less wasteful low level tactics finally sounded death knells for nazi armies. Third period of the war started on 1st of January 1944 as a recognition to final calibration and maturation of army, that afterwards knew only advance and victory, and probably in recognition for overcoming the great barrier that was Dnepr river and hellish battles waged to cross it.
Considering the above, there were real reasons for haste of operations on German side. Even though, critical reasons like maturation of Red army wouldn’t occur until late 1942(first serious signs and completion even year later), and greater pressure from the west ( directly and indirectly(land lease)), wouldn’t materialize at least until second half of 1943 and really 1944. The main reason for haste was great contempt and under appreciation of Red army and Russian and slavic people capabilities in general. Drunkenness with constant victories contributed to this mood and perception was that Soviets would collapse easily and surely, so why not do it as fast as possible.
As mentioned before, I believe that to increase chances of winning, Germans had to conduct their operations more carefully and gradually, in spite of risks involved, all with aim to preserve mechanized forces as much as possible. As long as panzer and motorised forces were in sufficient strength,in supply and supported by infantry armies, no defensive lines or clumsy counter attacks could stop them for a long time( about year and a half). Pyrrhic victory at Smolensk and defeats at Moscow and to a degree Stalingrad were all consequences of German optimism and recklessness that lead to overextension, isolation of forces that could be defeated piecemeal and lack of supply that curtailed paramount precondition for Blitzkrieg, mobility. Without mobility to outmaneuver, outflank, or avoid the enemy, attrition of mechanized forces multiplies immediately. So these Soviet victories weren’t fundamentally results of Red army’s military proves( more bravery, tenacity and endurance), but of Wehrmacht offering themselves in underestimation.
If German command opted for slower and staged advance, they would save fast units, irreplaceable and the only real instrument of Blitzkrieg and almost equally important, they would preserve their transport fleets which were also irreplaceable and a precondition for functioning of fast units. During initial phase of Barbarossa, and destruction of Soviet first strategic defensive echelon(encirclements of Bialystok and Minsk) panzer divisions were in supply which enabled them to maneuver past Soviet defences and get into open rear within hours. Next they mostly evaded counterattacks by massive and potentially dangerous Soviet mechanized corps, and let infantry with anti tank weapons and the Luftwaffe deal with them, fighting them only rarely if there was no other way. Secondly with entire army group advancing, there weren’t many unengaged Soviet units to counter attack German spearheads.Thirdly when armoured pincers closed around their victims, it was only few to several days until following infantry( normally covering some 30-40 km a day) catched up and relieved them from fighting defensive battles to contain the pockets and in reducing them. This greatly left fast units undamaged, with also low tear in their transport fleets.Trucks already at that stage had to cover one way distances of 300-400 kilometers as railway infrastructure wasn’t compatible. But as infantry took over and active operations of mobile units came shortly to a halt, tonnage of supplies needed drastically dropped and tear of trucks with it.
In the next phase which Guderian bravely and recklessly initiated only days after completing first encirclements, despite orders of his superior von Kluge and pleas of his subordinate corp commander von Schweppenburg to wait for infantry, panzer groups headed for Dnepr Dvina line and Soviet second echelon alone. Soon after crossing of rivers panzer forces were forced to fight forward as well defend from counter strokes coming from all sides as there was no general advance(only panzer armies) and Timoshenko verged all available, unengaged units toward German spearheads. This forced panzers to fight all the time instead of their favourite way of dodging costly engagements whenever possible. When next encirclement around Smolensk finally materialised then they had to deal with determined attempts of trapped forces to escape and massive and unexpected Zhukov’s offensive from the east to relieve them, with no infantry to relieve them this time for almost a month from the beginning of second leap( from Minsk to Smolensk). As demonstration how spent fast units were, it took them almost two weeks to close last 60 km gap between PG 2 and 3, despite all effort and torrent of requests and commands to do so asap as Soviets were escaping east through it. All this spelled doom for the future, but as it wasn’t enough, all important transport fleets went through similar ordeal. This further diminished embattled panzer’s mobility and effectiveness, but also bore stern predicaments for the future. Trucks were expected to make runs of about few hundred km in a round trips from rail heads to the front lines, and their number and life expectancy, as well as tire and fuel consumption were thus calculated. In condition of terrible Soviet roads, moving through unsecured territory with only bypassed enemy units and roundtrips raging, due to railway inadequacy, from minimum 300 to staggering 1400 kilometers, attrition of transport fleets happened at tens fold faster speed than expected and could be tolerated.
Possible solution to mentioned problems was to allow a sufficient pause after first stage,or at least after securing bridgeheads over Dnepr and Dvina, for infantry to reduce pockets and free themselves to advance immediately behind fast units, and also for building of railway infrastructure and forward depos. This would’ve allowed infantry to take attrition on themselves( also not great solution, because infantry was also insufficient, but far less important and more replaceable) much sooner and spare fast units. Also during advance in this case, many Soviet units would be engaged with advancing infantry and unable to maneuver freely and concentrate on advancing panzers. Wear of trucks created a bottleneck at Smolensk already, which could’ve been also possibly avoided with spearing them if railheads were brought forward and distances(and opportunities for enemy interceptions)reduced. After battle of Smolensk german panzer forces stood at 25-50 percent strength and heavily damaged transport fleets, extremely thinning prospects for nazi victory. Some contemporary German officers recognized partly the need for such approach. General Paulus warned that far reaching armoured spearheads will be attacked from all sides. He also recommended an infantry army corps to be subordinated to every panzer group, in recognition of infantry support problem. OKH’s department for logistics warned that current transport capabilities can support invasion for maximum 500-700 km after which major pause will be necessary in order to bring forward railroads and create forward depos. General Hoth, commander of panzer group 3 commented as early as 13th July( two weeks before Smolensk pocket closure; ‘The expenditure of strength is greater than succes!’ Or to paraphrase other officer:’We are winning ourselves to death!’ Some of them knew..
After Smolensk bloodletting, German command could have created an educated guess about Soviet strength, terrain difficulties and own limitations. They did not, and continued in same neck breaking manner to charge eastward, certain of victory. Their chances would IMO increase even after Smolensk if they recognized that Barbarossa failed, allocated maximum resources to the east in a bid to win war next year and implemented staged advance approach . They could have stopped after destruction of Soviet third strategic defence echelon at Vyazma-Bryansk and waited until they could resume advance with support from infantry, logistics and weather conditions. If they entrenched at Vyazma -Bryansk and started refitting with maximum effort, they would most likely easily defeat Soviet winter counter offensive that would under Stalin’s pressure strive to push Germans back from Moscow. With another million casualties to the Red army, Moscow would then fall in spring when weather would allow. This would free some units to deal with Leningrad and free army group north besieging it. As there would be still time left before Soviet military maturation,advance east could then continue, again in stages and carefully, with military opportunism as higher priority than strategic goals, but in general direction of Caucasus oil rich regions. Loss of these fields would be grave blow to Soviet industry and army as it counted for 80% of Soviet oil production. All this, of course is just educated guess, a hypothetic scenario, that also had very small chances of success, but greater than with actual historic approach.
German ignoring of logistical predicaments and Soviet titanic generation of forces coupled with resoluteness to use them decisively and heroic bearing of individual soldiers saved Soviet state from quick collapse in 1941 and stopped German juggernaut. Still victory (and survival) of Soviet people were only assured when Red army learned how to fight. For this they had their own progressive military thought from 30’s to look to, as well as deadly lessons from the enemy. Talented, educated and resolved generation of officers championed this rize, again backed by enduring, motivated and gallant Soviet soldiers.
Literature used: David Stahel : Operation Barbarossa and Germany’s Defeat in the East, Operation Typhoon; David Glantz: Barbarossa Derailed, When Titans Clashed, Operation Barbarossa, Stumbling Colossus, Colossus Reborn; John Delaney: The Blitzkrieg Campaigns; Richard Overy: Dictators; Mary Habeck: Storm of Steel; Russel Miller: The Soviet Air Force at War; Ian Allan: War without Garlands: Operation Barbarrossa; Mark Harrison: Economics of World War Two; Chriss Belamy: Absolute War; Alan Clark: Barbarossa