At 3:15 am on Sunday 22 June 1941 nearly four million Axis troops – Germans, Austrians, Hungarians, Italians, Romanians, some Norwegians and Finns too – from the Baltic to the Black Sea, invaded the Soviet Union. Operation Barbarossa had begun. It’s easy to understand Hitler’s thinking. He loathed the Russians, all Slavs, calling them "inferior people," and regarded the Soviet government as a "Bolshevik/Jewish conspiracy." The Nazis espoused "lebensraum," the extra "living space" that their "Aryan race" needed, and the fertile Ukraine was perfect for colonising and providing food for the Fatherland.
Two years before Hitler had lulled the Kremlin with the Nazi-Soviet Pact, so he rightly calculated that the USSR would be unprepared for an attack, and his disinformation suggested he was preparing to invade the UK. But his Kriegsmarine was not adequately equipped to take on the Royal Navy, his Luftwaffe had been bloodied in the Battle of Britain and taking and holding an island would have meant a different type of commitment for his Wehrmacht, which was already occupying much of the European mainland.
With Covid-19 having affected the marking of the 75th anniversary of VE Day, particularly in Russia, this year's 80th anniversary of Operation Barbarossa is getting significant attention and rightly so. Stewart Binns puts Barbarossa into his title but looks at the whole of what the Russians call the Great Patriotic War: indeed, his book’s cover photograph is the famous image of Soviet soldiers raising the Red Flag over a conquered Berlin.
Binns’ fascination with Russia began when he holidayed in the Soviet Union with a group of student friends over 50 years ago. His experience as a teacher, TV documentary producer and novelist, as well as non-fiction writer, enhances his survey of what was the bloodiest military campaign the world has ever known. His subject is dramatic, of course, but nonetheless his writing is vivid, personal and adds to the impact of the narrative. The full story of the war on the Eastern Front is still little known but since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the unification of Germany the release of hitherto classified documents and new studies has led to new, illustrative publications. Binns makes full use of these, particularly the testimonies of veterans and others who survived the horrors.
We learn much about the role of Soviet women at war, as doctors, nurses, partisans (guerrilla fighters), pilots, snipers and tank crews. Most poignant are the stories about children. Eleven-year-old Valentina was living in an upstairs room in Stalingrad with her brother younger sister and grandmother. When her grandmother died, they carried her body to a trench and buried her. As the fighting intensified the hungry siblings could only huddle together in bed. One morning they heard heavy footsteps on the stairs and Russian soldiers planning to throw a grenade in case there were still German soldiers in the room. Valentina continues, "We screamed, 'Don’t shoot, we’re Russians!' When the soldiers came in and saw us, they began to cry." Binns understands that it is elements such as these that will hold and affect the reader.
Jonathan Trigg’s approach in Barbarossa Through German Eyes is similar, but with the testimonies and history concentrated on the three months after the date of the invasion itself, up to the Nazis' taking of Kiev at the end of September 1941. A historian and former British Army officer, Trigg has written a dozen books and is a specialist on the German military in World War II. Here, he takes apart key myths: that Operation Barbarossa was a great success at the beginning, that Hitler’s preoccupation with attacks on Yugoslavia and Greece was responsible for the failure to take Moscow and that the German Army itself was never complicit in the Nazis’ war of extermination in the East (the Nuremberg Trials defence, if you like).
He points out that the Wehrmacht had no experience of a long, gruelling war, for six weeks was the longest campaign they had fought before Barbarossa. The previous Panzer-led blitzkriegs had taken place in modern Western European nations, where tanks could speed along metalled roads. The Russian catchphrase, "There are two problems in Russia: fools and roads" turned out to be true.
The tanks could not travel at speed along main roads that were no more than farm tracks. Then there was the weather. It was summer. The roads were dusty. The dust got into the eyes of drivers and motorcycle riders and affected the vehicles’ engines. The Wehrmacht was under-equipped. Many of its vehicles had been taken from defeated armies (including the British Army at Dunkirk) in France and the Low Countries, or were from the Axis partners, and spare parts along with trained mechanics to manage them were in short supply.
The rail gauge in the USSR was different from that of Western Europe, so supplies of food and gasoline had to come by road, often brought by horse-drawn wagons. There were over 600,000 horses in the invasion force, and these had to be fed and watered too. Over and over again in letters home the soldiers mention the dust, illness, the lack of food and safe drinking water.
Each of these factors indicate inadequate intelligence and poor planning on the part of the Nazi and Wehrmacht elite. The invaders had also assumed that the surprise attack would simply decimate the defending armies. To an extent that was true: entire squadrons of aircraft were destroyed while still on the ground and entire divisions overrun, but no one had expected the Soviets to resist as they did, to move their industries to the East, or to continue to replenish their troops with reserves from Siberia. Focusing on Kiev, Trigg devotes two whole chapters to the hideous murders of thousands of Jews, with many non-SS troops and local people also involved. He gives the lie to "we didn’t know what was going on" defence.
There is very little that happened in Operation Barbarossa that does not still have an effect on our lives today. These books make for a sobering but vital read.
Barbarossa, by Stewart Binns, Headline, £12.99. Barbarossa Through German Eyes, by Jonathan Trigg, Amberley, 319pp, £20
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