The Strategic Context of Operation Barbarossa: June 22nd 1941

With Russia smashed, Britain’s last hope would be shattered. Germany then will be master of Europe and the Balkans. Decision: Russia’s destruction must therefore be made a part of this struggle. Spring 1941…If we start in May 1941, we would have five months to finish the job.1

Operation Barbarossa was Nazi Germany’s final offensive campaign. The Wehrmacht’s 3.8 million soldiers began their onslaught with a number of disadvantages, each one of which cumulatively wrecked their endeavour. The campaign was planned to last five months, ending in mid-October. Hitler’s catastrophic error in rescuing the Italians from their failed adventures in north Africa and Greece, pushed the timetable back by 37 days. Instead of a triumph in October, the optimistic battle plan now ended immediately prior to Christmas. Apart from Hitler, everyone knew that the Russian winter began in November and was ferocious. The Wehrmacht was further debilitated by garrisoning duties in western Europe, which consumed large numbers of combat troops. Although 3.8 million is a very large number, it’s far short of the numbers which should have been available. The Wehrmacht needed every available soldier. They didn’t get them and this was a material advantage for the Red Army making their victory likely. Hitler and his spineless sycophantic generals ignored history, the strategic genius of Bismarck and the implacable logic of logistics before Operation Barbarossa began. Operation Barbarossa failed, not because it was a bad plan, but because of a shortage of manpower. This was apparent immediately after the gratuitous support for Mussolini’s adventures. Unlike Operation Sealion, opportunities for pulling back weren’t taken as imperial considerations triumphed.

The role of Napoleon in Operation Barbarossa

The strategic context of Operation Barbarossa was tragic for Europe’s finest army. The German high command, unusually, had a case study for the invasion of the Soviet Union: Napoleon. Napoleon was one of the world’s greatest generals but was a victim of hubris. Notwithstanding the draining effect of the Peninsular War, 1808-14, which he was losing, he initiated an attack on Russia in 1812. Everything went to plan until the ferocious Russian winter struck. The French reached Moscow and began a long inglorious retreat. Napoleon’s Grande Armee lost roughly two thirds of its manpower, with 500,000 dead, leaving his military reputation in tatters. Europe’s military high commands readily identified Napoleon’s principal error. The Russian campaign was the ultimate in being both demanding and unpredictable, which made it insanity to begin a campaign under-resourced. Napoleon’s strategy depended on the Tsar’s generals advising him to accept defeat alongside an imposed peace treaty. This wasn’t going to happen. The Russians had called for resistance to the French invasion by characterising the war as the Patriotic War. Surrender was therefore pre-emptively made impossible.

The role of Otto von Bismarck in Operation Barbarossa

Germany’s greatest military strategist and politician was Otto von Bismarck, who specifically designed his diplomatic policy around the compelling desire to avoid any possibility of a two-front war. Bismarck’s early career saw him orchestrate crushing victorious campaigns against neighbouring countries with careful exit plans. These victories were quickly achieved (see addendum 1), having made a mortal enemy of the French by humiliating them in 1870. Bismarck spent the remainder of his political life isolating them diplomatically. The secret Reinsurance Treaty, 1887,3 was his final diplomatic triumph. Bismarck’s policy maintained peace for Germany from the end of the campaign in France until 1914. In that period Germany’s industries became the strongest in Europe and they also acquired an empire.

The German high command in 1940 knew all of this. Military history was part and parcel of their education. The sacred Bismarckian dictum avoid two-front wars was challenged by Wilhelm II in 1914, resulting in regime change in 1918. Ignoring Bismarck’s dictum had had fatal results after 1914, where their battle plan was specifically predicated on containing Russia whilst the western European countries were mopped up. Bismarck’s nightmare of a war on two-fronts was actually planned by generals who were novices. They’d never been in a significant battle and their thinking was based on war games and textbooks. The Russians were defeated in 1918 because Russia had imploded in 1917 after the Bolshevik revolution and the subsequent civil war. It was impossible for the new Bolshevik government to simultaneously fight a civil war and continue the war against Germany. The Russians could be said to have defeated themselves.

The Bismarckian dictum ‘avoid two-front warswasn’t disproved by Russia’s defeat in 1918. It does however show that unique events can intervene in unusual ways. Incorporating black swan events into a battle plan is unrealistic. Bismarck and his generals, specifically von Moltke the elder, recognised that war is unpredictable but nonetheless plans can be laid out in a meaningful way. A Bismarckian war is limited so that plans have a greater opportunity to come to fruition. Hitler’s plans were chaotic and sabotaged by quixotic changes.

The role of Italy in Operation Barbarossa

Italy and Germany had treaty obligations flowing from the Rome-Berlin Axis, 1936. To everyone’s amazement, Hitler adhered to this pact in the strategically insane north African campaign..4 Mussolini had invaded north Africa but had quickly discovered that his aspirations weren’t matched by the abilities of his generals. He called for help to rescue his army which was in danger of being wiped out by the British. Hitler sent Rommel to Africa in February 1941, after the planning for Operation Barbarossa had begun. Rommel’s Afrika Corps was under-resourced but his military genius made him a formidable opponent for the British. He was adept at manufacturing publicity for himself, which created exciting propaganda opportunities for Goebbels. Panzer units sweeping across deserts are very photogenic. Exciting but pointless, they drained resources from the centre-piece campaign: Operation Barbarossa.

Hitler’s infatuation with Mussolini continued when the Italian campaign in the Balkans also failed. In April 1941, a month before Operation Barbarossa was timetabled to begin, Hitler’s Wehrmacht was directed to rescue the Italians. 680,000 troops were sent5 and they quickly mopped up the Greek army. But these weren’t Bismarckian campaigns. Objectives were achieved without an all important exit plan. Conquered Greece had to be garrisoned, soaking up vital resources for absolutely no strategic purpose. The invasion of Greece and the imperial atmosphere led to Germany attacking Greek islands like Crete. This is the antithesis of a Bismarckian policy. Protecting Italian troops in north Africa and intervening in Greece as a favour would rightly be seen as a dereliction of duty to Bismarck. And especially so when an existential campaign was being planned at that precise moment.

Hitler attempted to appoint a Greek civilian government as he had in France, with Marshal Petain. The Greek government was to be under the leadership of Tsolakoglou. Any hope that there would be cooperation from the general population quickly faded with the brutality of the occupation. The Greek resistance movement was very active and there were numerous reprisals. Greece was a strategic disaster for the Germans on the eve of Operation Barbarossa.

The role of the Occupied Territories in Operation Barbarossa

The rejection of Bismarckian thinking was already storing up trouble in western Europe, which was garrisoned to maintain control. Following defeat in 1940, Europe’s civilian populations were traumatised. A subdued civilian population meant meaningful civil resistance didn’t emerge for an extended period of time. The all conquering Germans appeared invincible. The generalised view, in the early days, was that it would be better to ‘get on with it’ and see how things turned out in practice, notwithstanding that occupied countries had to be garrisoned because there wasn’t an exit policy in place. Strategically important countries like Norway had an occupying force of 300,000 men for the entire duration of the war, whilst France only had 100,000 troops stationed there,6 which demonstrates the importance of the collaboration of Marshal Petain for Germany.

Although France was quiescent in 1941, their resistance movement was being urged on by the exiled General de Gaulle from London. The heady days of spring 1940 had led to unprecedented military success.7 But there was no exit plan because Hitler had an imperial attitude. Hitler was creating a European empire: a Grosse Reich. This was entirely deleterious within the strategic context of Operation Barbarossa because troops on garrison duty in western Europe were unavailable for the attack on the Soviet Union. From May 1941, French resistance gradually became more meaningful. There were similar movements in Norway and Belgium. In 1941 none of them were of military significance but they couldn’t be ignored. They were an invisible flank draining resources from the main military plan.

In June 1941 there was a minimum of half a million combat troops tied up in garrison duties (about 18% of the troops involved in Operation Barbarossa) because Hitler wasn’t satisfied with German hegemony in western Europe. The accommodation with Marshal Petain in France showed that conquered territories had politicians who would negotiate with Hitler after defeat. The Vichy zone could have been a template for a German withdrawal from all of the occupied territories.8 Tame compliant politicians would self-police their territories leaving the Wehrmacht available for the onslaught on the Soviet Union.

The role of the British in Operation Barbarossa

The German invasion campaign was abandoned notwithstanding the absolute imperative of defeating Britain and securing the western European flank. The English Channel acted as gigantic moat shielding Britain from the Wehrmacht. Goering’s Luftwaffe failed to defeat the British RAF and therefore couldn’t provide cover for Operation Sealion. The British felt that the Royal Navy was sufficient to keep the German navy at bay and German Admiral Raeder agreed. He wouldn’t countenance an amphibious attack without comprehensive air cover. Operation Sealion was due to begin in September 1940 but was first postponed and then cancelled on Admiral Raeder’s advice. This decision contrasts sharply with the Wehrmacht’s high command who capitulated to Hitler’s rages.

Under Churchill’s charismatic leadership the British didn’t sue for peace or accept an armistice, leaving the Germans with a potent enemy across the English Channel. The 1940 strategic bombing of British military infrastructure abruptly changed into attacks on the soft targets of Britain’s cities. London became a target after Hitler’s rage at the ineffectual bombing of Berlin. Bombing civilian populations into submission was a well worn military trope. There was no evidence that it was even possible, but that didn’t stop Goering, and from 1942 it didn’t stop the British Air Marshal ‘Bomber’ Harris either. Populations could be intimidated but that was a long way from them rising up and overthrowing their government and initiating surrender talks. In a medieval siege situation this was just about plausible, but for an island with a military force fuelled by patriotic propaganda this was impossible.

Goering’s failure mattered a great deal. The Battle of Britain ended with the opening salvoes of Operation Barbarossa. This immediately took pressure off the British government who exploited the German failure in their propaganda. The ‘invincible’ Germans had had their first failure since their rampant expansion began in 1938. The transfer of 65% of the Luftwaffe to the eastern front meant that the British could reconfigure the RAF from defensive objectives to the offensive.9 Britain became a giant aircraft carrier based a short distance from the German empire. If London could be bombed, then so too could Berlin, which was roughly a 1200 mile round trip. British bombing was for both strategic and, regretfully, reprisal reasons. The shift to bombing as an offensive tactic was to cost Germany a great deal. This began in 1941 when the tonnage dropped was 2.4 times more than in 1940.10 And this was, as Donald Rumsfeld poetically said in a different context, a known known. Germany’s population was now in the front line, whilst the Luftwaffe focused entirely on the eastern front. Operation Barbarossa opened up German skies to the British from June 1941. British propaganda filmed German cities ‘getting a pasting’, as the popular phrase went.

Britain also became a beacon for the conquered peoples of Europe. Many governments had escaped to Britain in 1940 and became proactive in the development of resistance movements. This was especially the case for France with General de Gaulle’s inspirational leadership, which helped to create the France Libre movement. Although unimportant in June 1941, it hinted at the direction of travel.

The role of Stalin in Operation Barbarossa

Stalin’s actions in the period 1937-9, can be said to have been so bizarre as to ‘invite’ an attack. It was almost a truism, in 1939, that the Red Army had been materially damaged by Stalin. And, as a consequence, the Soviet Union was a weak military power who could be swept aside just as the western democracies had been in Spring 1940. Europe’s high commands felt that the Red Army was second rate. They held this view because of Stalin’s purges of the Red Army in the 1930s.11

Between May 1937 and September 1938, some 36,700 men had been purged in the army and 3,000 in the navy: 90% of the district chiefs of staff and deputies, 80% of corps and divisional commanders and 90% of staff officers and chiefs of staff…..By the time of the German attack 75% of the officers had been in active service for less than one year.12

The Soviet’s Winter War against Finland, November 1939-March 1940, sustained the belief that the Red Army was mediocre.

The Red Army had been expected to mop up the tiny Finnish army in a few weeks but were fought to a standstill in an adroit campaign. Eventually the Red Army won but it wasn’t a triumph. Hitler drew the conclusion that if tiny, Aryan, Finland could take on the Soviet Union then the ‘invincible’ Wehrmacht would have no difficulties at all. His reductionist thinking coloured any discussion of the challenges that an attack on the Soviet Union could have. Hitler belittled those who suggested that the Soviets might be a formidable enemy.

Stalin’s willingness to negotiate with Hitler in 1939 was an act of Bismarckian genius. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty, 23rd August 1939 eliminated the ideological chasm that separated the Nazi and Communist dictatorships. In all important essentials Bismarck’s Reinsurance Treaty of 1887 was resurrected, ensuring that Germany wouldn’t face a two-front war once the planned attack on western Europe began. The Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty had a bonus attached to it. The Nazi-Soviet pact cynically unravelled the Versailles Treaty by partitioning Poland. The cordon sanitaire which Poland provided, was obliterated. Germany and the Soviet Union now shared a frontier.

The role of Jews and other minorities in Operation Barbarossa

Nazi ideological beliefs ensured that Jews13 and other minorities couldn’t serve in the armed forces. This further reduced the numbers available. The German-Jewish population was about 200,000 in 1941, so maybe 40,000 Jewish men could have been available if they’d been drafted. That figure isn’t the end of the potential loss to the Wehrmacht. The repressive policies of the Nazis meant that Jews not only lost their civic rights but they were also ‘punished’. Infamously the Nazis developed the Gestapo as a tool for repressive actions. Although relatively small in numbers, they were a vital cog in the Nazi system.14 Additionally the Nazis also developed a concentration camp system, which weren’t yet death camps, all of which needed manning by the SS, another branch of the Nazi repressive state. The Nazi police state probably soaked up about 100,000 combat soldiers with a further 50,000 military age prisoners. (These figures were insignificant in June, 1941 but increased in significance once the Final Solution, 1942, was formulated.)

Discussion: the logistical nightmare

Three destinations and 100s of thousands of square miles

The strategic context of Operation Barbarossa was the setting within which the attack was launched. Generals have to be satisfied that any offensive campaign has a good chance of success given the range of probabilities. The invasion of Britain was cancelled on 13th February, 194115 because Admiral Raeder believed that without comprehensive air protection his amphibious invasion force would be massacred. The invasion of Britain was vital to the military ambitions of Hitler. Leaving a potent enemy a few miles off-shore was more than a loose end, it was a strategic disaster. Yet Raeder won his point. Operation Sealion was cancelled leaving Britain undefeated and preparing to launch airborne counter-attacks. Hitler knew this because Berlin had been ineffectively bombed in 1940 after the British had penetrated the German air defences. They had ‘got through’, as the phrase went.

Leaving Britain undefeated and proceeding with Operation Barbarossa meant defying the Bismarckian dictum ‘avoid two-front wars’. This was a powerful strategic consideration but not necessarily one which trumped his campaign plan. However the strategic context was more than the open flank represented by the failure to defeat Britain. There were other considerations piling pressure on the decision makers. Side-shows in north Africa and the Balkans not only drained the Wehrmacht of combat troops from Operation Barbarossa, they also introduced delays. A delay of 37 days doesn’t seem critical but it pushed Germany’s tight timetable from mid-October to Christmas, 1941. Late December in the Soviet Union is a period of ferocious winter weather, whereas October is merely a period of significant cooling. Taken together these were compelling reasons for cancellation.

Operation Barbarossa was Hitler’s signature campaign. It was bold to the point of being foolhardy, but it wasn’t insanity. The boldness of Hitler’s attack on western Europe in spring, 1940 was richly rewarded. Western Europe collapsed like a pack of cards just as Hitler had predicted and this gave the untutored Hitler an aura of invincibility. On a personal level it encouraged hubris. Boldness is one thing but logistical facts are another. It’s an irreversible fact that Operation Barbarossa was a logistical stretch.1,16 Such an attack meant that even if the enemy collapsed, garrison duties would soak up tens of thousands of troops all of whom needed to be supplied across hostile territory. The German population in 1939 was 78 million. This included the incorporated territories of Austria and German Czechoslovakia, whilst the Soviet population was 170 million. Germany’s population was 46% of the size of the Soviet’s. Unless the conquered Soviet population could be wooed and made compliant there would be a huge hostile population across the extended logistical route from Germany to the invading/garrison army.

Berlin in 1939 had a population of about 4.24 million. This was slightly larger than the Wehrmacht’s invading force. Supplying the Wehrmacht was a nightmare. Tactically this was well understood but ignored for ideological reasons. The Soviet population wasn’t wooed, in fact they were treated brutally. The local Jewish populations were slaughtered and anyone with allegiance to Communism was shot. As a consequence there wasn’t a delay in the development of a resistance movement. Soviet Partisans operated behind the German lines sabotaging the vital delivery of supplies.17 Worse, they sucked troops away from the front-line. Hitler’s delusional plans are often highlighted in the failure of Operation Barbarossa but as we have seen with Operation Sealion, a courageous presentation could deflect him. That he wasn’t deflected can be laid at the feet of the generals in the high command. They knew that the Soviets needed to be crushed in a ‘shock and awe’ campaign and the 37 days lost to the quixotic support of Mussolini wrecked that possibility.

The September, 1939 campaign in Poland and the spring, 1940 campaign in western Europe were triumphs. They were short decisive campaigns brushing the enemy to one side. The timetable for the campaign against the Soviets was precisely this but with more-or-less the same number of troops. The overwhelming superiority of the Wehrmacht in every respect was decisive, with France crushed in seven weeks for example. The geography of that victory is instructive. Crushing the western democracies in a few weeks with overwhelming force couldn’t be repeated in Operation Barbarossa. The Wehrmacht needed to be doubled to be an overwhelming force within a Soviet strategic context.

The conquered area was planned to be hundreds of thousands of square miles, all of which were hostile. A rough calculation suggests Operation Barbarossa was planned to control more than a million square miles of Soviet territory. The invading force was insufficient. The 3.8 million invading force weren’t all German, they included 800,000 coalition troops, some of whom were Italians, who were despised by the German military.18 The force also included Finnish troops who were admired within Wehrmacht circles because of the Winter War.

This strategic analysis of Operation Barbarossa is one of manpower. The Wehrmacht was under-resourced for the titanic struggle they entered. The under-resourcing amounted to a compelling reason to cancel the invasion. Cancellation, even at the last moment, was an option no matter how remote. Notwithstanding the culpability of the generals, Hitler’s imperial aspirations and his passionate ideological beliefs, made him less susceptible to persuasion. The Wehrmacht was betrayed by their generals and political leaders. Napoleon’s ruinous 1812 campaign shouldn’t have been repeated but was, because the strategic context was belittled.


Addendum one: Bismarck’s campaigns 1864- 1870

All of Bismarck’s campaigns were short with clear-cut objectives. They were not territorial land grabs unless there were linguistic connexions (Holstein from Denmark) and strategic reasons (Alsace- Lorraine from France). These territorial gains were minor in relation to the crushing victories Bismarck orchestrated.

Denmark 1864– a nine month campaign resulting in Bismarck achieving his objectives over the Schleswig- Jutland question

Austria 1866– a seven week campaign resulting in Bismarck achieving his objective over the primacy of German speaking northern Germany.

France 1870– effectively a one month campaign, which was Bismarck’s greatest and final victory leading to the creation of Germany unified under his Prussian leadership.


1 Ian Kershaw Fateful Decisions: Ten decisions that changed the world 1940-1 p54 This was the announcement by Hitler to his astonished generals. They were even more astonished when they discovered the additional campaigns that Hitler would inflict on them in the period immediately prior to the unleashing of the attack on the Soviet Union.

2 Moscow’s temperature drops to 0c from early November. See

3 See for a quick summary.

4 Led by Rommel who was one of Germany’s greatest generals who would have been better used in Europe. For the Rome-Berlin Axis see

5 The forces sent to Greece is about 17% of the number of soldiers used in Operation Barbarossa. Or, to put it another way the Wehrmacht could have been increased in size by 17%. This might have been significant.

6 The Wehrmacht therefore had circa 10% of the Operation Barbarossa attack force on garrison duties in Norway and France alone. There were fewer numbers in Denmark, Holland and Belgium. This might have added a further 2-3% of the attack force.

7 Western Europe was effectively conquered in three months in 1940. From Norway in the north through Denmark, Belgium and France the Wehrmacht had uninterrupted success. The only piece of Bismarckian real politik was the sub-division of France into Occupied and Vichy zones.

8 For Vichy France see

9 The iconic status of Berlin made it a prime target even though it was at the outer limits of British bombers in 1941. From 1940 Berlin had been ineffectively bombed but with the transfer of the Luftwaffe to the eastern front Britain took the campaign to Germany. See

10 See–45

11 A very quick summary here

12 Gabriel Gorodetsky The Grand Delusion: Stalin and the German Invasion of Russia p115

13 ‘Jews’ is used as a short-hand for all minorities in this section. The Nuremberg Laws were part of the attack on the Jewish community. For a timeline see

14 See this very good book review

15 The irony of this date is that the excellent decision to release troops from staring at Britain across the English Channel and allocate them to Operation Barbarossa had been vitiated the previous day when Rommel’s Afrika Corps was sent to rescue the Italians who were facing defeat.

16 The western European campaign was different in scale to Operation Barbarossa. It’s a classic case of availability bias to compare things which apparently are similar but are dramatically different. The western European campaign was in terms of climate (note 2), transport infrastructure and demography utterly different.

17 See

18 This might be unkind. See


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6 Responses to The Strategic Context of Operation Barbarossa: June 22nd 1941

  1. Pingback: When did the Second World War Begin? | Odeboyz's Blog

  2. Pingback: Hitler’s Invasion Plan: Operation Sea Lion, 1940 | Odeboyz's Blog

  3. Pingback: Nazi Germany’s Agricultural Sector and Lebensraum | Odeboyz's Blog

  4. Ray emmett says:

    Another brilliant piece with details of the grand political alliances and empire building that Hitler managed to construct

  5. odeboyz says:

    I wrote on the Winter War a few months ago.

    I hadn’t realised at that time just how committed the Finnish government were to getting revenge for the Winter War. Finnish troops were the major force in the northern group as can be seen from the map. Their contribution was very significant but they ended up on the losing side and were punished at the end of the war.

  6. delsmith444 says:

    Yes I enjoyed reading this very informative essay and it all seems sound to me. I don’t have any serious knowledge base that would allow me to challenge any of the opinions expressed. So sadly as long as my memory holds whenever I argue about anything related to this essay I will be expressing the opinions of Purnell. As you can imagine it will be galling for me but I will have no option other than reading a pile of books. That will not happen. Being incapable of arguing any contrary position I resorted to finding fault elsewhere. So…. packs of cards don’t collapse houses of cards do.

    There was a passing reference to the Finnish “winter war” a forgotten war if ever there was. How about that for the next essay? Best Wishes Del Smith

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