Friday, October 4, 2013

Was Barbarossa derailed by the Balkans Campaign?

This is a short extract from a 15,000 word article on Operation Barbarossa that I wrote for the special annual edition of  "Against the Odds" Magazine a couple of years ago. I offer it here as a fun bit of speculation. I look forward to your comments.

Operation Barbarossa started later than was planned, that is incontrovertible.

Many historians follow then British Foreign Minister AnthonyEden in pointing to the diversion of large numbers of Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe forces into a two month campaign in the Balkans, as a key reason for the Germans being ‘too late and too slow’ in Barbarossa. Historian John Keegan for instance, claims that Germany’s response to the Britain landing troops to support Greece’s fight against Mussolini, diverted resources which “immensely assisted” the survival of the Soviet Union. Filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl claimed that Hitler had told her “if the Italians hadn’t attacked Greece and needed our help, the war would have taken a different course. We could have anticipated the Russian cold by weeks and conquered Leningrad and Moscow. There would have been no Stalingrad”.

This view has been disputed, not least by the Soviets and their apologists. Many and varied claims explain how diverting dozens of crack divisions to a hard campaign, in incredibly difficult terrain, where they suffered significant losses, really had no affect whatsoever on the effectiveness of Barbarossa.

Amongst the dross is one very good point: spring was late in Russia in 1941; this caused the Germans to delay the attack until good weather. This excellent suggestion even has supporting evidence from repeated delays in the attack on France the previous year, most due to poor weather. The parallels are far from identical: Germany was already at war with France, which was mobilized, fully entrenched, and combat ready (and attempting counter-attacks in some places). Notably, Germany paid much less attention to weather when mounting surprise attacks on countries with whom it was at peace – Poland, Denmark, Norway, Yugoslavia, Greece etc.

We will assume (for argument’s sake) that HQ convinced Hitler to hold back for better conditions as they had the previous year (dubious given Hitler’s growing confidence that he was a military genius who knew better than his sluggard generals.) We will further assume that the Wehrmacht was better off waiting for the clearer weather, because it allowed faster and more effective attacks, and better logistic support to maintain momentum. That is still far short of saying the Balkans campaign did not negatively impact the success of Barbarossa.

The first and most obvious way the Balkans campaign negatively impacted the success of Barbarossa is casualties: casualties amongst men and machines on the ground, but also in the air and at sea. The Yugoslav and Greek elements of the campaign, despite remarkable successes, cost a significant number of men and machines. The most experienced, and best-trained, crack assault troops are damaged, not the slow moving infantry who form the vast bulk of the Barbarossa assault.

The German order of Battle for the Balkans campaign shows that the vast majority of the forces diverted to the Balkans were crack troops. Of the 33 odd divisions listed 10 were Panzer, two were Light, 4 were Mountain, 2 were SS, with only 15 infantry divisions (several of these the rare and elite motorized ones). Indeed six of the ten army corps involved was motorized, meaning 50‑60% of the divisions in the Balkans campaign armored or motorized compared to 15‑20% in Barbarossa as a whole.

The actual casualties the Germans suffered in most of their Balkans campaign were not all that heavy, with one exception...

Losses in the assault on Crete are truly horrific. Probably 284 aircraft lost, and several hundred damaged. To quote the Wipedia Crete articleThe major loss of transport aircraft would later seriously affect attempts to re-supply German forces in Stalingrad. The elite assault infantry (5th mountain division) were massacred at sea by the Royal Navy. Worse, the remains of the elite paratroops were so decimated that Hitler declared they would never risk an airborne attack again. This was a grave blow to the Directive 21 plan that “Russian railways will either be destroyed… or captured at their most important points (river crossings) by the bold employment of parachute and airborne troops”. General of Paratroops Kurt Student dubbed Crete, “the graveyard of the German paratroopers… a disastrous victory”. Fortunate Soviets!

Imagine the impact of those extra divisions of elite ground and parachute troops at, for example, Moscow. Is it possible to believe that the loss or weakening of those units had no effect? 

In addition, the rest of the war would see an ever increasing need to garrison the Balkans against insurrection and Allied counterattacks. (The Wehrmacht was in such a hurry to get back to the Barbarossa start lines, that it did not ‘clean up’. An estimated 300,000 armed Yugoslav troops simply headed to the mountains.) An ever increasing number of divisions were no longer available for the Russian front. Did that have no effect either?

Next comes the issue of wear and tear. The divisions first assembled for Barbarossa were, in the main, either completely new formations, or veteran formations at least partly re-equipped with more powerful and more modern tanks and guns. Most of the 600,000 trucks available were refurbished since the French campaign, or indeed were of French origin (increasing spare parts problems), and many had suffered from being driven the length of Europe to the start lines. It seems likely that tanks and trucks which broke down several hundred miles into the Soviet steppes might have made it a bit further had they not done several hundred miles through the Balkan mountains a couple of months earlier? Kleist’s 1st Panzer Group in particular, the group that achieved such a comparatively slow advance at Army Group South, had detoured most of the way to the Mediterranean before reaching its start point for Barbarossa. Von Weich’s Second Army, the one that ran out of steam in the western suburbs of Moscow, was another army that had toured the Balkan Mountains first. No effect?

Munitions have to be an issue too. The profligate use of carefully built up supplies during the Balkan campaign would not have been easy to replace on the Russian front. Even if German factories could replace them in time, they had to get them to the front line in Russia.

This brings up the biggest issues: logistics. Germany had limited access to the logistical support necessary to move the vast quantities of material needed to keep an army in the field and fighting. In many campaigns you find reports of German generals (Rommel for instance), practically going down on their knees in gratitude when they capture a supply dump, which allows them to keep moving a few more days. (General Patton later reported similar feelings in his advance through France.) Redirecting vast quantities of supplies from the Barbarossa supply dumps into the Balkans must have put an even greater strain on transport services and their trucks, than it did on the fighting troops. There are, of course, other ways to fill up gaps in the logistics train... transport aircraft spring to mind but see above re losses at Crete. The German army also had 750,000 horses for Barbarossa, creatures even less likely to be fresh after a quick trip to the Balkans than trucks.

It is simply unreasonable to imagine that the Balkan campaign did not make a significant difference to the chances of survival of the Soviet Union.


  1. The dispute on whether the Balkans campaign disrupted Barbarossa comes down to the original date of the invasion was planned for May 15, but delayed until June 22. The original postponement came because the weather was rainy, and Russia was too muddy to begin operations.

    The question I always had is whether June 22 was really the earliest date that Barbarossa could have commenced, or if the ground was solid enough earlier that the operation could have been launced. If so, why not - was the delay caused by the Balkans? Nothing I've read has been of use to answer that question although all your points are excellent.

    Regardless, I think Barbarossa would have failed for one big reason that had nothing to do with the Balkans: the entire operation was predicated on the idea that the Soviet Union would collapse ala 1917. Even a more spectacular Barbarossa that saw Leningrad and Moscow taken was going to fail in that regard. The Soviet Union was going to continue the war, although in this scenario it would likely have cost them more men and saw the final front lines where the Western Allies met the Soviet Union farther east. The Germans did not intend nor had prepared for a multi-year campaign.

    - Chris

    1. Dear Chris

      I have avoided the starting date debate, because I find it pretty pointless. Go earlier and slower, or go latter and faster. Big Deal. Just debating in circles. Enjoy by all means, but I don't think that is really very important.

      My interest is how much wear and tear undermined the offensive. Simply that.

      Without most of the best German troops having to detour to the Mediterranean before kick-off, Moscow probably would have fallen (despite Hitler's best efforts to slow that down). Fresher armies, moving faster, with proper supplies, could have achieved that little bit more.

      For myself, I believe that the loss of the central nexus at Moscow would have had a terrible, and possibly fatal, effect on Russian resistance.

      My research on the White Russian wars of the 1920's indicate that only the possession of the central nexus of Moscow allowed the Soviets to beat the White Russians. Had Moscow fallen, so would the Soviets. Full stop.

      Amateurs talk of strategy, but experts discuss logistics. Moscow was the logistical key point of the Eastern Front. Whoever held Moscow, its transport links, and its industries had a huge, huge advantage.

    2. That always seemed like blame shifting to me.

    3. I really like your point on the long term costs associated with occupying the Balkans. We tend to think of conquest as though its simply finding and sitting on a bunch of loot. But conquest always has costs, and they often are hidden as well as sustained. A thorough cost benefit analysis of that occupation would be interesting. Take those resources (and they are as much "soft" ones - i.e. political, diplomatic, intelligence, etc. - as hard, materials ones) and invest them elsewhere and what might happen?

      Very provocative blog! Thanks!

  2. I think the point was to go in early AND fast.

  3. General Halder's comments are telling; Those six weeks we spent moving our army on a single track railway line cost us the war.