Germany Could Have Defeated USSR in WW II
In our last installment, we discussed how Germany could have forced Britain to accept one of his peace offers and keep the United States out of the war. In this article, we shall examine how Germany might have not only avoided total defeat at the hands of the Red Army, but even might have achieved a measure of victory against her much larger and more powerful Soviet adversary, which was over 40 times larger than Germany at its greatest extent.
Don’t invade Yugoslavia and Greece in April 1941.
In actual history, Yugoslavia agreed to join the Axis powers in late April 1941, but days later a coup brought new leadership to power more sympathetic to the Allies. While the new Yugoslav leaders promised the Germans to remain aligned with the Axis as previously agreed while remaining neutral in the war, Hitler viewed the coup as a personal insult and vowed to make Yugoslavia pay, diverting German Panzer divisions from Poland and Romania to invade Yugoslavia and Greece. This ended up delaying the planned German invasion of USSR by five and a half crucial weeks from May 15-June 22, 1941. In retrospect, there was no military necessity for Hitler to invade Yugoslavia in April 1941. He could have merely sent a few German infantry divisions to reinforce Albania to prevent it from being overrun by Greek troops but he feared potential British reinforcements in Greece, which could threaten his southern European flank.
Of course, had Britain and France not still been at war with Germany, it is unlikely that Italy would have invaded Greece in 1940–41 and risked a British Declaration of War, so in that case Operation Barbarossa could have kicked off on May 15, 1941 as originally planned, greatly increasing the chances of a German capture of Moscow in 1941. Combined with Hitler’s subsequent decision to divert his two central Panzer Armies to capture Soviet armies on their northern and southern flanks, this five-and-a-half week delay to the start time of Operation Barbarossa proved fatal to German prospects for victory in the war. Even if Hitler hadn’t pursued a Moscow-first military strategy as his generals wisely advised, invading Russia five and a half weeks earlier might well have been sufficient to enable the Germans to capture Moscow by November 1941, albeit at considerable cost in men and material.
Don’t halt the advance on Moscow of the two Panzergruppen (tank armies) of Army Group Center for two crucial months.
While many historians view the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 as Hitler’s biggest blunder, evidence from Soviet archives uncovered following the Soviet collapse in 1991 suggests it was successful in preventing a Soviet invasion of Poland and Romania, which had been planned for July 1941. As it turned out, Hitler was correct in his assessment that his invasion of the Soviet Union was necessary as a preemptive attack against Soviets who were planning to attack Germany. In preparation for his planned invasion of Europe, Stalin had, between August 1939 and June 1941, overseen a massive military buildup of the Red Army increasing its total active-duty manpower from 1.5 million to 5.5 million. This expansion more than doubled the total number of divisions from 120 to 303, including an increase in the number of Soviet tank divisions from from 0 to 61 tank divisions as opposed to only 20 total Panzer divisions available in the German Army at the time of Operation Barbarossa. By June 1941, the Red Army boasted seven times more tanks and four times more combat aircraft than invading German forces.
The first objective of this planned Soviet invasion of Europe was to occupy Romania to cut off Germany from its access to Romanian oil fields to immobilize the German armed forces and force their capitulation. Then after conquering Berlin and forcing a German surrender, the Red Army was to occupy all of continental Europe to the English Channel, which noted British author, Anthony Beevor, states that Stalin seriously considered doing at the end of the war as well. Viewed in this light, Operation Barbarossa was not a mistake at all but rather an operation which succeeded in destroying the over 20,000 Soviet tanks and thousands of combat aircraft concentrated at the border to invade German territory and postponed the Red Army subjugation of Germany and Europe by nearly four years. Soviet defector, Viktor Suvorov in his groundbreaking book Chief Culprit goes so far as to credit Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union as saving Western Europe from being conquered by the Red Army.
Rather, Hitler’s biggest mistake with regards to his war against the Soviet Union was his decision in early August 1941 to divert the two Panzer Armies of Army Group Center to help Army Group North and Army Group South to overrun and encircle Soviet armies on the flanks of its advance resulting in a two month delay in advancing on Moscow when the Soviet capitol was open for the taking. If Hitler had pursued a Moscow-first strategy, he could have captured Moscow by the end of August or early September at the latest. He might even have pushed the Red Army back to the Archangel Volga Astrakhan line by October 1941 or by summer 1942 forcing Stalin to accept an armistice recognizing most of Germany’s hard won gains. In his excellent book Hitler’s Panzers East, R.H.S. Stolfi estimated that would have taken away up to 45 percent of the Soviet industrial base and up to 42 percent of her population making it extremely difficult for the Soviets to recover and take back lost territory. While the Soviets could have relocated many of their industries east of the Urals as in actual history, their industrial production would have been much more crippled than it was in actual history without U.S.-UK military industrial assistance. Had the Germans captured Moscow before winter 1941 and held it through the Soviet winter late-1941, early-1942 counteroffensive, Stalin might have requested an armistice on terms much more favorable to Germany than the ones he offered in actual history. Those terms might have included the transfer of much, if not all, of the oil-rich Caucasus region to Germany in exchange for the return of their all-important capitol city to Soviet control. With the Soviets so gravely weakened, Japan likely would have joined the fight to take their share of the spoils and occupy Eastern Siberia as Japanese Army generals had wanted to do all along. Thus, if Hitler had allowed his generals to capture Moscow first, the Germans likely have won the war.
Due to Hitler’s rosy predictions for a swift Soviet collapse and an end to the war in the East by December 1941, Germany failed to produce winter clothing for his invading troops. According to some accounts, as many as 90 percent of all German casualties from November 1941-March 1942, totaling several hundred thousands, were due to frostbite. Only in late December 1941 did the Nazi leadership admit their mistake and urgently collect as much winter gear from German civilians to send to German troops as possible.
Allow national independence and self-rule for all of the Soviet territories liberated by German forces.
Perhaps the biggest key to winning their war against the Soviet Union (other than not fighting the United States and the UK, of course) was for the Germans to not only be seen as liberators from Soviet Communist control, as they initially were when they invaded the Soviet Union, but to actually be liberators from Soviet Communist oppression. The Germans should have used nationalism to rally the people of Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic States to fight not for the Germans or against Stalin but rather to liberate their own countries from Soviet captivity. They should have allowed self-rule for all of these liberated nations just as Imperial Germany had granted them after defeating the Russian Empire in March 1918 as part of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. In actual history, the Germans captured 5.6 million Soviet troops and captured Red Army Lieutenant General Vlasov offered to lead a Russian Liberation Army to help fight the Soviets while other leaders offered to lead Ukrainian and Cossack Liberation Armies but Hitler would not allow them to be used in combat on the Eastern Front, believing them to be unreliable. If the Germans had treated the citizens of liberated Soviet territories and Soviet Prisoners of War (POW’s) fairly, millions of additional captured Soviet soldiers might have volunteered to fight on the German side. As it turned out, Stalin ended up using the nationalism of Ukraine and other Soviet republics to defeat the Germans instead of the other way around which represented a major missed opportunity for Germany that helped ensure they lost the war.
Accept one of Stalin’s offers for an armistice.
After Germany invaded the Soviet Union, they quickly discovered the Soviets had thousands more tanks and a couple hundred more divisions than the Germans had realized before the war. Hitler himself is reported to have remarked that if he had realized how many tanks the Soviets had before the war, he would never have invaded the Soviet Union. However, after the invasion began, he should have realized that the best hope for Germany had they failed to capture Moscow in 1941 or 1942 and achieving his objectives of reaching the Archangel-Volga-Astrakhan line was no longer achievable, was to have concluded a negotiated peace with Stalin ending the war with limited German gains. In actual history, Stalin made a series of peace offers from 1941–1944. The first in July 1941 offered to cede the Baltics, Ukraine (presumably including the Crimean peninsula which was not then part of Ukraine) to Germany. The second in May 1942 added Belarus to sweeten the pot. Stalin’s third peace offer in May 1943 was a proposed ceasefire along the Soviet Union’s 1938 borders which would have effectively reversed the Hitler-Stalin Pact, while leaving the Germans in control of the Baltic states, eastern Finland, the eastern half of Poland and northeastern Romania all of which had been annexed by the Soviets from 1939–1940. This is the only peace offer that Stalin might have been willing to honor long-term. Had Hitler conquered the Caucasus region or more plausibly captured Moscow and ceded it back to Stalin in exchange for the oil rich Caucasus, the Turks would have likely joined the Axis given his promises to turn over the Soviet Caucasus republics (which had briefly won their independence following the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918) to Turkish control following his planned victory over the Soviet Union.
The apparent rationales behind Stalin’s armistice proposals was to wait until the Western Allies had opened up a Second Front or until Hitler had demobilized and/or redeployed his forces from the Eastern front (as the historical record indicates he planned to) as well as to buy time for the Red Army to rebuild its forces before reinitiating hostilities. At the very least, Hitler’s acceptance of one of Stalin’s peace offers might have served to substantially delay the defeat of Nazi Germany or else potentially enable the Western Allies to occupy all of Germany before the Soviets did, preventing it from being divided into West and East Germany as in actual history.
The reason that Hitler failed to avail himself of this opportunity to end the war with the Soviet Union on favorable terms to Germany is that he deluded himself into believing the German Army could successfully conquer Soviet territories far beyond the German gains of World War I instead of accepting more realistic and achievable gains and objectives. Even in June 1943 when Hitler had given up any plans for further offensives, had ordered the construction of a defensive line in the east and sent his foreign minister to meet with his Soviet counterpart to try to negotiate a peace agreement with the Soviets, he still refused the Soviet peace offer. In retrospect, the wisest thing Germany could have done would have been to complete their encirclements of Soviet forces and/or capture Moscow first and then negotiate a Second Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Stalin beginning in early October 1941 after they succeeded in capturing or destroying the vast majority or the Red Army’s tanks and combat aircraft. Then the Germans could have constructed a fortified defense line to protect their hard-won gains.
© David T. Pyne 2019
Part 5 will focus on how Adolf Hitler was his own worst enemy.