The Leavenworth Way of War

History Discussion at CGSC

The Failure of Barbarossa

Russland-Süd (Don, Stalingrad), Panzer IIIGerman army doctrine in World War II, famously known as Blitzkrieg, contributed to rapid and decisive victory in Poland and France, 1939-1940.  Encouraged by the validation of their doctrine, German leaders embarked on a campaign to conquer the Soviet Union in 1941:  Operation Barbarossa.  Begun in June 1941, the campaign to defeat the USSR was a failure by December 1941 when the Soviet counterattack drove the Germans back from the approaches to Moscow.  A number of reasons are cited for the failure of the campaign:  lack of a clear strategic end state; lack of a clear military objective; failures of intelligence to understand the size and adaptability of the Soviet Army; the logistics failure to support the troops rapid movement, bridge the geographic distances, and support winter operations; a cultural inability of the German high command to think in global strategic terms; and the ability of the Red Army to trade space for time to replenish losses of the opening months of the war.  Which reason do you think is the single most important to the failure of the German campaign and why?


January 9, 2014 - Posted by | H200, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , ,


  1. I think the single most important to the failure of Barbarossa was the German high command to think in global strategic terms. The German high command was, in a sense, a victim of its own earlier successes in Czechoslovakia, Poland, and France. As mentioned in class discussion, their tactical and operational successes were so resounding that any strategic shortfalls were concealed in swift victory. Hitler spoke of the need for ‘lebensraum’ for the German people; it was a large part of his motivation for war. Had he and the German high command correctly developed what strategic success looked like on the Russian Front, especially in terms of ‘living space’ for Germans, he may have decided to capitalize on the tactical and operational successes of Barbarossa in 1941. German forces could have taken a defensive posture with the Soviet Union and held the large amount of Russian territory the blitzkrieg initially gained. Whether or not a German defense against the Soviet Union’s massive army would have been ultimately successful or not is another discussion, but pressing the attack into Russia as he did, Hitler doomed the campaign.

    Comment by Seth | January 11, 2014

  2. Operation BARBAROSSA’s failure is an example of the importance of a robust planning process which stresses risk assessment, center of gravity analysis, measures of effectiveness, identification of objectives and end state and red cell input and intelligence/estimation (as we have seen in JOPP and MDMP).

    The German high command seemed at odds with the military objectives, which is directly related to an inability to identify to think in global strategic terms. From the readings, clips and in class discussion, it seems that the military commanders did not see the same objectives and operational end state as Hitler did. My impression was that Hitler prioritized enemy casualties as a measure of success and his operational end state and objectives were prejudiced and sought to increase these enemy casualties as an indicator of overall success. Conversely, the military commanders put emphasis on enemy territory captured and worked Moscow early in the campaign. Hitler’s view seems to hold that the strategic Russian CoG was the Red Army while the military commanders were more in line with Moscow as the seat of government as the strategic CoG.

    These differences in analysis created two very different operational views and I think ensured failure of the German invasion of the USSR. Hitler’s direction to reroute German forces south to engage Red Army forces rather than continuing to an under fortified Moscow gave the USSR maneuver room and time to dig-in. The vast distances took significant time to cover and stretched supply lines thin and were further hampered by bad weather early in the winter season. Hitler’s focus on casualties led him to abandon the advance to Moscow that the military was fairly successful in executing up to that point. Without the military and government leadership being on the same page for major operations, the military forces is likely to be ineffective in achieving any ends as no unified plan can exist. Following BARBAROSSA, as we discussed, Hitler directed forces from the main effort of Operation BLUE (Army Group A) in order to continue the siege on Stalingrad with Army Group B despite the lack of strategic or operational importance of the city.

    The world will never know what would have transpired had Hitler allowed his military commanders to continue to Moscow to capture the city, winter over and strengthen LOCs west of Moscow to prepare for an offensive toward the Caspian region and oil fields in the spring and summer to battle an enemy who had lost their capital and seat of government if not the actual government. BARBAROSSA was a failure because of a complete failure in the German planning process (intelligence and analysis due to hidden traps) and the dichotomy between Hitler and senior military commanders.

    Comment by LCDR Matthew Krull | January 12, 2014

  3. Arrogance…which led to under-empasizing intelligence, that resulted in not knowing, nor understanding Russian strengths and capacity to fight.

    Comment by MAJ Troy Feltis | January 27, 2014

  4. I agree with Seth – the single most important reason the German campaign ultimately failed in the Soviet Union was lack of strategic vision. Tactically, the Germans were the best on the battlefield. Their tactical success was unprecedented, but it also seemed to give the greater German staff a sense of arrogance with respect to what the German Army was capable of and what would be important in terms of developing a great strategic end state. A review of the campaign nearly seems as if the German leadership simply attacked into Russia with little to no understanding of what they were embarking upon and how they would define ‘success.’ Though their initial battles were successful, as the campaign continued and they made various decisions that seemed to indicate they were not taking into account the full measure of what they were attempting to accomplish, it became quite clear that the Germans were not going to be successful. Pivoting to Stalingrad instead of heading straight into Moscow was the first of many strategic errors that would prove disastrous for the Germans. It gave the Russian people time to defend their capital city and, furthermore, enabled the winter months to arrive, which would prove devastating to the German soldiers, their equipment, and their overall ability to continue to fight.
    The lack of strategic vision can even be argued if they had won in Moscow, because it is still not clear what they were attempting to accomplish. Given the sheer size of the Russian nation and the amount of people in the country, had the Germans won in Moscow, how much more of the country did they intend to invade? The further the German Army advanced in Russia, the more difficult it was to logistically support and the easier it made for the Allies to exploit their successes on the Western front. The Germans failed campaign in Russia is a perfect example of how tactical, and even operational, success does not constitute winning a war. It must be tied together by a clear strategic vision and end state that is nested with their overall objectives for the war. This seems to have never happened during this particular campaign.

    Comment by Jeff Pickler | February 2, 2014

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