The Wehrmacht’s Campaigns of 1939, 1940 and 1941: A Guide

“It is said that God is always on the side of the big battalions.” Voltaire

The fast-striking motorized element of the German army in 1941 consisted of only 35 divisions out of 130. Three-quarters of the German army continued to rely on more traditional traction: foot and horse. The German army in 1941 invaded the Soviet Union with somewhere between 600,000 and 750,000 horses…The vast majority of Germany’s soldiers marched into Russia, as they had into France, on foot.1 (my emphasis)

The Wehrmacht’s three European campaigns between 1939 and 1941 in Poland, western Europe and the USSR escalated in complexity and ambition. The first two were triumphs with rapid victories. This led Hitler to believe the Wehrmacht was ‘invincible’. His brilliant propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, stoked that belief with gusto. Dramatic Blitzkrieg footage fed a narrative arc of motorised army units sweeping enemy forces to one side.

Analysing the basics of the three military campaigns reveals the chasm between 1939, 1940 and 1941. There was a no military equivalence, though Hitler believed there was. His conceptual misunderstanding should have been corrected by his generals but they were too spineless to disagree with him.

The partition of Poland, 1939

This campaign was the least ambitious of the three campaigns. In a brilliant diplomatic coup Hitler engineered a treaty with the USSR.2 The treaty secretly partitioned Poland after coordinated attacks from east and west. Hitler,”…demanded that Poland be conquered in six weeks, but German planners thought that it would require three months.3 That Hitler was correct and his advisors wrong became significant. Advisors who differed from Hitler were side-lined in the future.

Hitler’s triumphs made him difficult to advise. General Manstein said,

Whenever [Hitler] perceived he was not making any impression with his opinions on operational matters, he immediately produced arguments from the political or economic sphere. Since he had knowledge of the political situation or economic circumstances which a front-line commander did not possess, his arguments on such matters were generally irrefutable.4

The Basics
German army:
5 1.5 million; USSR army: 0.5 million; Polish army: 0.75 million (active); Therefore, the Polish army was massively outnumbered and they were fighting on two-fronts.

German target territory: 75,000 sq.miles (48% of Poland’s territory in1939)

Outcome: The partition of Poland by Germany and USSR

Comment: Polish defenders kept the invading armies at bay for 35 days, which was only seven fewer than the Allies managed in 1940. Their air force dramatically escaped to western Europe. Those who joined the RAF became the most successful pilots in the battle of Britain.6


1940: An Unrepeatable Triumph

The German triumph was the best prepared in military history. Preparation ‘began’ in the 1860s, which led to the 1870 triumph. Further invasion plans were written in the 1890s and early 1900s ending with the Schlieffen Plan, 1906. Crass modifications ruined the Plan in 1914-8. The attack petered out in trench warfare instead of being a war of mobility. In 1940 Germany’s Panzer units implemented Schlieffen’s plan. They routed the Allies in six weeks.

The logistics were impeccable. France was mapped in minute detail. Their excellent road network and compatible railway gauge facilitated the invasion. The conquest was a technocrat’s dream. Every variable was a reviewed and critically appraised known known prior to the invasion.

Because the invasion of France had been planned one way or another for 70 years, Hitler’s views were tinkering.

The Basics

German army: 136 divisions (about two million men); France, Britain, Belgium and Holland: 145 divisions

German target territory: 258,283 sq.miles (France, Belgium, Holland and Denmark)

Outcome: The Allies lost in six weeks

Comment: On every single metric Germany’s 1940 campaign was a stunning success. The sheer incompetence of the French is breath-taking because they too had 70 years to review and analyse the predicted invasion. They poured resources into a 1930s version of trenches: the Maginot Line. Static defence is the ultimate counsel of despair. Germany just about doubled with these conquests.


1941: Operation Barbarossa

Operation Barbarossa was more ambitious than Napoleon’s 1812 invasion. Hitler had three principal objectives, which sub-divided the Wehrmacht. Hitler’s targets were Leningrad, Moscow and Stalingrad. Assuming a straight north-south frontline, that’s a distance of 962 miles. It’s impossible to defend this without overwhelming manpower, which the Germans didn’t have.

Those 962 miles illustrate the challenges for the Wehrmacht. Assuming they began the invasion in Warsaw, the Germans were committed to huge distances. The minimum distance between Warsaw and Leningrad is 633 miles; Warsaw – Moscow 713 miles and Warsaw – Stalingrad 1049 miles. This gigantic arc radiated from Warsaw. As Tooze said (see header), “The vast majority of Germany’s soldiers marched into Russia…on foot.” Goebbels propaganda showed the Wehrmacht as motorised; the actuality was very different. They had to control an area bigger than western Europe, but the USSR created a uniquely hostile environment with their Scorched Earth policy.7 This is in complete contrast to the French who collaborated with Hitler with a pro-Nazi government at Vichy.

Hitler’s military experts should have pointed out that the conquest of western Europe wasn’t equivalent to an invasion of the Soviet Union. They didn’t because it was a core objective of Hitler dating back to Mein Kampf, 1925. Their reticence was probably fuelled by vivid memories of The Night of the Long Knives, 1934. Hitler’s political enemies were murdered in that event.8 It’s dangerous critiquing a murderer.

The Basics

German army 1941:  Germany 5 million; USSR 2.94 million

Germany (including Austria and Czechoslovakia): 255,283 sq. miles; European USSR: 1,855,821 sq. miles. (This is seven times larger than Germany.)

Outcome: German defeat in 1945, or just under four years (Hitler’s estimate, of victory, was five months)

Comment: The Germans reduced their military capacity by garrisoning western Europe. Worse, their army was further reduced by their grim internal strategies. These included a repressive police state and concentration camps, both of which saw manpower seeping away unproductively. Germany had a superior army to the USSR in 1941 but the USSR had triple the manpower. In 1945 their Soviet Union’s army stood at 13.2 million, whilst the Wehrmacht had shrunk. 


This simplistic analysis is useful but it doesn’t feed the narrative that the Wehrmacht’s ultimate fate was sealed once Operation Barbarossa began. There were many things which could have happened. The Ukraine could have been utilised, building on the outcomes of the 1930s Great Terror,

On the one hand, the massacres reinforced hatred against Soviet rule and enhanced Ukrainian enthusiasm for Germany. Since the opening of the prisons coincided with Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, it was easy to associate Germany with liberation and the Soviet Union with oppression.9 (my emphasis)

But ‘What if’ history is a form of novel writing. Nazi Germany operated on ideological tramlines and certain decisions couldn’t be contemplated. Closing concentration camps and freeing up ‘stored’ manpower was sensible but irrational to the Nazi mentality. Therefore, they were doomed to fight with one hand behind their back, as it were. Even less rational, to the non-Nazi, was their attitude to women.10

The three campaigns showed that the Wehrmacht was a great army but they were doomed by poor leadership.


1 Quote by Voltaire: “It is said that God is always on the side of th…” ( And also,

Adam Tooze The Wages of Destruction: The making and breaking of the Nazi economy p454 About 2.85 million German soldiers either walked or were on horseback at the beginning of Operation Barbarossa.

2 The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact 1939: Bismarck’s Final Triumph | Odeboyz’s Blog (

3 Invasion of Poland – Wikipedia Poland was defeated in 35 days

4 Manstein and Sichelschnitt – The History Reader : The History Reader

5 WW2 Germany Population, Statistics, and Numbers – Feldgrau

6 See The Polish Air Force 1939- 40 | Odeboyz’s Blog (

7 Scorched earth – Wikipedia

7 6 WW2 Germany Population, Statistics, and Numbers – Feldgrau

8 Night of the Long Knives – Wikipedia

9 The 1941 NKVD Prison Massacres in Western Ukraine | The National WWII Museum | New Orleans (

9 Kinder, Kuche, Kirke  Nazi women should concentrate on these aspects of life (Children, Kitchen, Church) and stay out of the workplace.

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