|Russian troops at Stalingrad|
Operation Barbarossa had a number of very ambitious goals that indicated the degree of contempt Hitler held for the military capability of the Soviet Union. The primary goal was the destruction of the Red Army itself. This would require rapid armored thrusts to envelope entire Soviet armies, preventing them from escaping into Russia’s interior by first crossing the Dvina and Dnieper Rivers. Hitler was well aware of Napoleon’s mistake in capturing Moscow without first destroying the Russian army.
The German Wehrmacht would itself be divided into three armies. The northern-most command, Army Group North, would have the task of capturing Leningrad – depriving Stalin of an important arms production center and providing Germany with a port to supply its offensive operations. Army Group Centre would have the preponderance of Panzer divisions which would be used to envelope Russian forces around Minsk and aid Army Group North in capturing Soviet forces in the Baltic region. Army Group South would push towards Kiev then move south along the Dnieper River, encircling Russian forces in the Ukraine and destroying them. Once these goals were achieved the three army groups would then converge on Moscow and destroy the remaining Red Army reserves used to defend the Russian capital.
The Barbarossa campaign, launched in June 1941, was intended to achieve all its goals in the few short months prior to the Russian winter. If time remained an effort would be made to capture the industrial region of the Donets Basin near the Black Sea and the oil fields of the Caucasus. An achievement of this magnitude would require Soviet incompetence of epic scale and a literal implementation of lightening warfare. The German use of Blitzkrieg tactics had its basis in strategic necessity. Germany could not succeed in fighting long wars of attrition. It hadn’t the resources. Hitler gambled Britain and France would not declare war over his quick capture of Poland. The surprise attack through the Ardennes was a plan designed to avoid a prolonged war with France in 1940. Now Hitler counted on similar results when his forces smashed into Russia in 1941.
As spectacular as the Wehrmacht’s successes were on the eastern front they fell well short of their needed goals. Leningrad would be surrounded but never captured. Moscow would remain out of reach of German troops and Army Group South struggled with unexpected resistance in the Ukraine. The broad scope of Hitler’s expectations for Barbarossa proved unrealistic and would set the stage for the disastrous German summer campaigns of 1941 and 1942.
Hitler’s focus in 1941 was economic. The grain and mineral wealth of the Ukraine was vital to Germany’s success. Hitler wanted the vast oil wealth beyond the Caucasus to fuel his own army and to deprive the Red Army of the energy needed to power a modern military. His venture south led to the crushing defeat at Stalingrad where the entire German 6th Army was destroyed. It was a demoralizing loss for Hitler and his troops as well as a victory that energized Stalin, the Red Army and the Russian people.
The decision by Hitler to launch an attack on the Kursk salient in 1942 was more a political decision than one driven by military opportunity. The chances for German success in the operation were greatly reduced by Red Army preparedness for the attack and its vast increase in strength and skill. The defeat at Stalingrad the previous year undermined the resolve of Axis allies to stand with Germany. Hitler was particularly concerned with losing the support of Italy. Britain and American forces were driving Rommel from North Africa and an Allied invasion of Western Europe seemed inevitable.
German armored power was destroyed at Kursk. The Wehrmacht would no longer be the equal of Soviet military forces. The initiative would be forever lost to the Red Army. The war in Europe would continue nearly another two years but, for Germany, there was no hope of a victorious military outcome. Hitler’s military actions were aimed at driving apart the alliance of Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union. He desperately needed a political solution because his depleted army was being crushed by wars being fought on two fronts. It was what he and his generals had dreaded most and now it had come to pass.