OPERATION BARBAROSSA was the codename given by Adolph Hitler to the invasion of the Soviet Union launched on Sunday 22 June 1941.
In the preface to this book Dimbleby describes this as ‘the biggest, bloodiest and most barbarous military enterprise in the history of warfare. The purpose of Operation Barbarossa, as the Führer codenamed it, was also the most decisive campaign of the Second World War. Had he achieved its objective – the annihilation of the Soviet Union – he would have been the master of Europe’s destiny. As it was, by the time his armies had reached the gates of Moscow less than six months later, any prospect he might once have had of realising his delusional vision of a Thousand Year Reich had already vanished.’
Dimbleby goes on that despite further offensives launched by Nazi Germany’s armed forces following their abject defeat at the hands of the Red Army and the Russian people ‘these were ephemeral triumphs. By the end of 1941 at the very latest, the Nazis had already lost any realistic chance of winning the war, thanks to the failure of Operation Barbarossa.’
Dimbleby is aware that this incontrovertible fact will sit badly with the narrative pushed even to this day that the Nazis were defeated principally by the Allied Alliance between Britain and the US while the heroic role and sacrifices made by the Soviet people have been pushed very much into the background, consigned to a footnote in histories that glorify the imperial might of Britain and its ‘great’ war leader Churchill and the belated intervention of America.
He writes: ‘Disconcerting though it may be for those who, for understandable reasons, assert that the valiant Allied troops who landed on the Normandy beaches in June 1944 became the principal agents of the victory over Hitler, the evidence is otherwise.’
The other great myth that Dimbleby explodes is that of Joseph Stalin as the great war leader of the Soviet Union.
As he states, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union came as a complete shock and surprise to Stalin.
In August 1939 Stalin and Hitler had agreed a non-aggression pact (the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) between Germany and the Soviet Union.
A pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union shocked those who harboured the belief that Stalin was the heir to the great revolutionary Lenin and Stalin’s apologists, many to this day, seek to excuse Stalin’s criminal betrayal of Bolshevism as a ‘tactical’ issue to gain the Soviet Union time to prepare for any aggression from Hitler.
In fact, Stalin’s preparations for any attack consisted on systematically liquidating the leadership of the Red Army during his ‘great purges’.
Dimbleby writes that in December 1934 ‘using the pretext provided by the assassination of Sergei Kirov, a leading member of the Soviet Politburo (in circumstances so murky as to implicate Stalin himself)’ Stalin unleashed what became known officially as the Great Purge.’
Along with leading members of the Politburo under Lenin, the Red Army was purged.
In total 90% of generals, 80% of colonels and 35,000 officers were liquidated by Stalin including Marshall Tukhachevsky, army chief of staff and recognised as a brilliant military leader whose only crime was to be seen by Stalin as a threat to his authority.
‘Within a month of his execution more than 1,000 senior officers had been “exposed” as conspirators in a “military-fascist” plot.’
While the leadership of the Red Army was being murdered, accused of being involved in fascist plots, Stalin was prepared to enter into a pact with real fascists in Germany.
Leon Trotsky, co-leader with Lenin of the Russian Revolution, stood alone in analysing what lay behind the Stalin-Hitler pact.
In a statement to the British press a month after its signing, Trotsky, who was living in exile in Mexico pursued by Stalin’s assassins, wrote:
‘From 1933 on I declared continually in the world press that the fundamental aim of Stalin’s foreign policy was the reaching of an agreement with Hitler. But my voice was too modest to convince the masters of fate. Stalin staged his low comedy, “the struggle for democracy,” and this comedy was believed, at least in part.’
Trotsky went on:
‘Painfully instructive is the fact that the Stalinist parliament ratified the German-Soviet pact on the very day that Germany invaded Poland!’
But Trotsky points out: ‘It is not at all that the Kremlin feels closer to the totalitarian states than to the democratic. This does not determine the choice of orientation in international affairs. Despite all his aversion for the Soviet regime, the conservative parliamentarian Chamberlain tried with all his might to gain an alliance with Stalin. The alliance was not realised because Stalin fears Hitler. And it is not by accident that he fears him.’
Trotsky continues: ‘The Red Army is decapitated. This is not phraseology but a tragic fact … In the “purged” military staff not a single name remains in which the army could place confidence. The Kremlin fears the army and fears Hitler. Stalin requires peace – at any price.’
Trotsky cuts through all the confusion around the Stalin-Hitler pact writing:
‘The simpletons who are “pro-Soviet” deem it self-evident that the Kremlin hopes to overthrow Hitler. The case is otherwise. Without revolution the overthrow of Hitler is inconceivable. A victorious revolution in Germany would raise the class-consciousness of the broad masses in the USSR to a very high level and render impossible the further existence of the Moscow tyranny. The Kremlin prefers the status quo, with Hitler as its ally.’ (Trotsky ‘On War and on the Soviet-Nazi Pact’ September 1939).
This was the situation when Hitler tore up the pact and launched the surprise invasion of Soviet Russia much to the shock of Stalin.
That it shouldn’t have been a surprise is clear. Stalin was given enough warnings about Hitler’s intentions, all of which he dismissed as ‘provocations’.
Dimbleby writes that warnings of an imminent invasion were pouring in.
One of the most accurate warnings came from Soviet master-spy Richard Sorge.
Sorge who was based in Tokyo under the cover of a German newspaper correspondent had remarkable contacts amongst German diplomats stationed in Japan.
Dimbleby recounts how in May Sorge sent a microfilm transcript phone call between Ribbentrop (German foreign minister) and the German ambassador to Japan during which he was recorded saying ‘Germany will begin a war against the USSR in the middle of June 1941.’
Dimbleby adds that ten days later, 15 May, Sorge actually pinpointed the very day the invasion had been fixed – the 20-22 June.
Dimbleby records Stalin’s response to this information which was to denounce Sorge calling him ‘a little shit’.
Intelligence reports detailing the massive build-up of ‘three motorised divisions, six infantry divisions, nine or ten artillery’ were pouring to the Kremlin all of which Stalin either ignored or denounced as provocations designed to push the Soviet Union into war with his ally Nazi Germany.
Stalin even ordered his generals not to take any steps that might be interpreted as a provocation to the German army massing on the borders.
Dimbleby records that the two most senior Red Army commanders were in complete despair at Stalin’s refusal to face the facts.
While Stalin deliberately ignored the imminent invasion, Hitler was making it clear exactly what his strategy was to his senior commanders with Operation Barbarossa and his supreme confidence that the might of the German military would crush Soviet Russia in a matter of weeks.
Dimbleby records that in an hour-long meeting on 14 June Hitler told his military leaders;
‘We will have the worst of the fighting behind us after about six weeks.’ He reiterated that for ‘every soldier what it is we are fighting for. It is not territory we want, but rather that Bolshevism is destroyed.’
As Dimbleby notes: ‘It was a familiar refrain: the troops were engaged in a “war of extermination” in which the traditional rules of engagement would have no meaning.’
As Goebbels said: ‘Once we have won, who is going to question our methods?’
In fact, Hitler was very interested in seizing territory alongside destroying Bolshevism and smashing the Soviet state.
As Dimbleby says, Hitler had a craving for the ‘Soviet Union’s bountiful supply of raw materials and its huge supplies of oil in the Caucasus; his hunger for the rich food-producing soils of Western Russia and Ukraine; and overarching all those territorial ambitions, his compulsive urge to create an Aryan empire for the Third Reich, cleansed of all Bolsheviks, in which the Slavs would either perish or become a servant class and from which the Jewish “bacillus” would be eliminated by whatever means might be required.’
The belief that ‘Bolshevism will collapse like a pack of cards’ and that victory for the Nazis was a foregone conclusion was not confined to Hitler and the German military.
It was also shared by Churchill and the British government.
Although Churchill nominally recognised the USSR as an ally in the war against Hitler he saw the invasion as leading to the inevitable collapse of the Red Army and the subsequent conquest of the country.
The only good thing as far as British imperialism was concerned was that it would tie up the German army for weeks and exhaust them.
Demands for military support in terms of troops and equipment made by the USSR during the invasion were met with diplomatic expressions of support but no military support was forthcoming.
Dimbleby makes clear that Churchill would not divert any military support away from his main goal of defending the remains of the British Empire in the Middle East from the Nazis.
On the face of it, Hitler had great cause for optimism, as Dimbleby writes: ‘Under his orders the Wehrmacht had mobilised the greatest invasion force in history.’
While Red Army troops on the border were completely unaware and criminally left unprepared on Sunday June 22 1941, this massive invasion force rolled across the borders.
The size of the German forces was huge.
Some 3.3 million soldiers equipped with 3,350 tanks, 7,184 pieces of artillery, 600,000 trucks and 600,000 horses all supported by 2,500 war planes.
148 troop divisions were formed into three army groups, one to take Moscow, one to seize Leningrad and the other to occupy Ukraine.
Stalin, when confronted with the reality of invasion and still recovering from shock and bewilderment, issued a summary of the invasion claiming that it had been ‘beaten off and losses inflicted on the enemy’, a statement Dimbleby describes as a ‘breathtaking catalogue of delusional falsehoods.’
The reality was that this invasion in the opening stages did sweep through the borders.
For three months the German armies advanced over 500 miles into the USSR but despite their assumed superiority over the ill-prepared Red Army, they were meeting heroic resistance.
Testimony recorded in the book reveals that soviet soldiers separated from their units were still attacking and killing German troops while those surrounded refused to surrender and fought to the last, leaving German troops astounded that an enemy they had been indoctrinated to believe would run away at the first signs of war were in fact determined to sacrifice all to defend their land and the Soviet Union.
The German army inflicted barbaric vengeance on Soviet soldiers and civilians who refused to concede defeat.
Dimbleby meticulously writes at great length drawing on personal and official records to bring out the harrowing stories of the atrocities inflicted on the Russian people by the Nazi invaders.
Exterminating Jewish-Bolshevism and destroying the inferior races was the ideological driving force of the entire Nazi military machine from the top down.
But despite the unbounded optimism of Hitler and his general staff, the reality on the ground was that German troops were suffering.
The extended supply lines and the constant attacks from the Red Army brigades depleted both manpower and armaments.
The Nazis interpreted the bitter resistance of the Russians ‘as evidence of a quasi-Neanderthal reaction to a superior civilisation rather than evidence of an unbreakable will to defend the Motherland’.
They were buoyed by the knowledge that Soviet troops had suffered enormous losses at the start of the invasion losing no fewer than one million soldiers either killed or taken prisoner.
But these losses would soon be made up as the strength of the Soviet Union started to reassert itself.
By September 1941, the German advance was stalling.
The notorious Russian winter was beginning to set in with ‘General Mud’ causing havoc as troops and vehicles floundered in mud, unable to make anything like the steady advance that Hitler promised them would put the German army in Moscow by Christmas.
They also found themselves up against a superior adversary in the form of the Russian T-34 tank which inflicted huge losses on the German Panzers.
The Red Army, which had to suffer the same weather conditions as the German, also demonstrated a superior grasp of tactics.
By October, the conditions facing the Germans were deteriorating fast with food and equipment supplies running out and its army without winter clothing as the sub-arctic weather of winter gripped the country.
Decisively, the strength of the socialised property relationships came to the fore, with the USSR mobilising millions to tear down factories near the front line and swiftly reassemble them further away to produce an astounding amount of weaponry which the Germans could not match.
By the end of 1941, the German army had lost an estimated 2,700 tanks, 41,000 trucks, 13,600 artillery pieces and 4,900 aircraft along with 6,000 horses.
In the same period, despite all the destruction, the Soviet Union produced 6,540 new tanks, 11,776 aircraft and 7,000 artillery pieces.
In addition, the Red Army was bolstered by the release of fresh troops from Siberia where they had been kept in case of an invasion from the east by Japan.
Germany had been urging Japan to open a front against the USSR but the Japanese military were split on the advisability of invasion.
In the event, they opted against an early attack on the USSR.
This information was crucial and it was delivered to the Kremlin in the form of a coded message from Tokyo stating that Japan had ‘decided not to launch the war within this year, repeat, not launch this year’.
The author of this cryptic message was none other than Richard Sorge, only this time the ‘little shit’ was believed.
Stalin repaid Sorge for his massive contribution to Soviet victory by condemning him to death at the hands of the Japanese.
Sorge was arrested by the Japanese and sentenced to death as a spy. However, they contacted Soviet authorities and offered to swap him for Japanese nationals held in the USSR.
Stalin ignored this offer that would have spared Sorge’s life and left him to be hanged.
It was not until 13 years after Stalin’s death that Sorge’s contribution and sacrifice were recognised and he was declared ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’.
Hitler’s dream of cutting the head off Bolshevism by seizing Moscow by Christmas 1941 failed catastrophically for Nazi Germany along with his dream of a Thousand Year Reich empire dominating Soviet Russia and the entire continent of Europe.
Instead, the German army never reached Moscow or seized Leningrad or occupied and kept Ukraine, but were driven back a broken force.
Dimbleby has rightly been praised for producing a masterly historic work in this book.
Over 500 pages of carefully researched material that traces every aspect of Operation Barbarossa, utilising previously unrecorded letters and communications of those involved as well as meticulous analysis of the diplomatic manoeuvres behind the scenes in Washington and London.
But this is much more than a military history.
Dimbleby has set the historic record straight once and for all.
As he insisted from the start, this defeat didn’t immediately halt the carnage and millions of lives lost in the following years of imperialist war but Hitler lost the war on the soil of the Soviet Union in 1941 at the hands of the Soviet masses prepared to sacrifice everything to defend their land and the gains of the October Revolution.