The German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, Operation Barbarossa, led to a number of major defeats of the Red Army. Consequently, the Red Army suffered heavy losses in man and materiel. Nevertheless, the Wehrmacht also had sustained considerable losses. “Operation Barbarossa exacted a huge toll on the German army with more men killed in July 1941 than in any other month of the war until December 1942.” Thus, the Red Army wasn’t a defenseless child, which begs the question: “what factors led to those high amount of losses?” But first, let’s look at the prewar situation. Following the problems of the Red Army during the Invasion of Poland, and especially during the Winter War, major reorganizations were set in motion. Additionally, the Red Army was also expanded quite significantly. This meant that new units were raised, existing units restructured, new equipment introduced, and many more actions. Now, as the Canadian psychologist Jordan B. Peterson put it very well recently, “One of the rules for making an organization is that it’s a lot easier to make a functional organisation worse than it is to make a dysfunctional organization better.” Thus, the major reorganization combined with a major expansion would have considerable impact, yet there were more problems. Namely, that the Soviet defensive line was moved forward in early summer 1941. The previous defensive line, the Stalin Line, was partially deconstructed and to be used in the new Molotov Line. Thus, “Soviet deployments in their first strategic echelon opposite Army Group Centre were set well forward, with only the most rudimentary of prepared defences and, owing to Stalin’s intransigence, received no warning of the impending invasion until it was literally underway.” Now, I’m aware that some people suggested Barbarossa was a preemptive war and, since my interest in that debate is extremely limited, I will quote from the most current assessment from an expert. Namely, Canadian military historian Alexander Hill who writes in his book on the Red Army from 2017, published by Cambridge University Press, “Although Suvorov’s suggestion that the Red Army was preparing for war against Germany in July 1941 is certainly untenable, given the evidence available, in 1941 the Red Army was undoubtedly mobilizing for war against Germany, just not a war in 1941. We can only speculate that in May 1941, when plans for a preventative strike against German forces massing on the border were considered, that Stalin deemed, in many ways correctly, that the Red Army was simply not ready for such an operation.” Now let’s look at the situation of equipment. Although the Red Army is often portrayed as a mass of men and material, this picture is certainly too simplified for the situation in 1941. Even though the Red Army possessed a large amount of tanks and other equipment, they were often outdated, in bad shape, not properly distributed, or simply lacking the proper support infrastructure. This had many reasons. One of them was that the Red Army focused a lot on acquiring more weapons, whereas transport vehicles were of lesser priority. Logistical problems were already encountered during the attacks on Poland and Finland, yet the production wasn’t shifted. For instance, the number of tractors necessary for transporting artillery was around 94 thousand, but in June 1941, only around 43 thousand were available, so about 45 percent. There was also a lack of ammunition, but the lack of fuel and lubricants was even worse. For instance, we have data for two tank divisions: the 33rd Tank Division had 15 percent of first grade petrol, four percent of automobile fuel, and zero percent of diesel; and for the 31st Tank Division, it was even worse. They had two percent of automobile fuel and zero percent of diesel. Considering also the huge logistical and supply problems with the Wehrmacht during Barbarossa, it seems in Soviet Russia one doesn’t have a logistical problem, but one IS a logistical problem. Yet another very crucial element was missing in the Red Army, namely communication equipment, especially radios. Even before the major expansion of the Red Army, there was a serious lack of it, and it didn’t get better. “As of first January, 1941, provision of the regimental
5-AK set had not reached 50 percent for the Red Army as a whole based on requirements upon mobilisation, and it was expected that only 57 percent provision would be achieved by the beginning of 1942.” So to summarize the pre-war situation, we can say that, “by early summer 1941, on the eve of the start of Operation Barbarossa, many units and formations of the Red Army that existed as meaningful combat-capable entities on paper only were sitting inadequately equipped, supplied, trained, and often undermanned in poorly prepared positions or camps along the Soviet western border, including the mechanised corps. As you can see, there were plenty of problems present. Now you can imagine what happens when you add the Wehrmacht, probably the most veteran and effective fighting force at that point in time. The German attack caught most of the units off-guard. Although many commanders near the front lines suspected a war, and sometimes even gave orders to increase combat readiness despite explicit orders from superiors not to do so, because Stalin and the senior leadership didn’t want to provoke the Germans. Thus, basically every warning of the imminent attack was ignored. Besides being off-guard, the Red Army had major issues with communication and reconnaissance. This situation was a result of many factors. As mentioned before, the Soviet units lacked radios and even telephones. In some regions in the first days of Barbarossa, communication systems broke down. This happened sometimes even without the attacks from the Luftwaffe, but also due to the fact that sometimes civilian infrastructure was used, and the networks were just overloaded. In some cases, the communication problem got worse, since after the initial phases, the Soviet headquarters weren’t static anymore. Another quite curious problem was that the Soviets actually encoded too much. Hill quotes an exchange that was intercepted by the Germans in the early morning of Barbarossa, when some still didn’t accept that the Germans were attacking. “We are being fired on, what shall we do?”, the response from the headquarters being, “You must be insane. And why is your signal not in code?” Yet, even in October 1941, when the Germans were deep into Soviet territory, the problems weren’t properly solved yet. “Indicative of poor Soviet reconnaissance and communications, as well perhaps of fear of being the bearer of terrible news or being seen to be responsible for it, was the fact that Stavka was not aware of deep German penetrations of Soviet lines until German forward elements were more than 100 km behind where the front line was supposed to be on fifth of October as encirclement loomed for so many units and formations.” As a result, the Soviets often didn’t know where the Germans were and even if they did know, they couldn’t coordinate their troops properly. Yet the Soviet leadership made this even worse because, for a very long time, Stalin and his commanders insisted on counterattacks. Numerous counterattacks. Yet one major issue with the “if in doubt, counterattack” approach: you need to know where to attack, or else you just drive up your tanks and can watch some trees or even worse, get ambushed. Considering that the Luftwaffe had, for the most part, air superiority, troop movement, especially with vehicles, was also dangerous. “Disorganised counterattacks by Soviet armoured forces blundered headlong into enemy units and anti-tank defences. As suggested by Kamentsev, a veteran of the first days of war, ‘during the early battles, we took terrible losses in tanks and personnel because of lack of knowledge of, and ability to conduct manoeuvre. We only knew one thing: forward!'” Yet even in September 1941, often such attacks were performed with understrength units and/or even untrained ones. For instance, in the 142nd Tank Brigade, many crews had no experience
operating their KV and T-34 tanks. Note that this behaviour changed over time. Around October, the Soviets used tanks in high concentration and also used ambushes more frequently. Another major problem besides the counterattacks were the “no retreat” orders, even if holding their ground made little sense. Probably the best example was the encirclement of
600 000 troops of Kiev in September 1941. Now most of you will know the stories of a few KV-1’s and KV-2’s delaying far larger German formations and shooting up loads of Panzers. Now those were usually isolated incidents, but they were isolated in two ways: first, usually conducted by a small number of tanks, and second, usually without any supporting arms like infantry, artillery, and/or airforce. In contrast, the Germans were leading in terms of combined-arms warfare. This also explains the anti-tank tactics for German infantry described in one of my earlier videos. Quite often, Soviet tanks attacked in small numbers and without infantry support. “During autumn of 1941, Soviet tanks were still, all too frequently, used not only in isolation from infantry support, but all other arms.” Now to wrap this up: although the Red Army suffered heavy losses in men and material during Barbarossa, the Red Army didn’t break as the German leadership had anticipated. And although the German successes seem decisive at first glance, they also came at a high price. Whereas the Red Army was losing mostly old tanks and unexperienced troops, the Wehrmacht was losing its best equipment, specialists, and veterans from previous campaigns. And since the Red Army didn’t break, the war turned into a war of attrition, yet Germany’s resources, manpower, logistical systems, and industry were not ready for such a war. “Of course, Germany was still capable of major offensives on certain sectors of the front and could achieve impressive successes at the operational level, but none of this could change the fundamental disparity between Soviet staying power and German offensive strength. As soon as Germany ceased to threaten a knockout blow and a longer, grinding war ensued, economic factors came into play which favoured the allied war effort even before the direct entry of the United States into the conflict.” This probably becomes more apparent if you look at the German summer offensives in 1941, 1942, and 1943: the width of the attack area decreased with each year considerably. As always, all sources are in the description. If you want to learn more about Barbarossa, check out this video about German blunders, or maybe you want to know more about Erwin Rommel. Then check out this video. Thanks to Bismark for helping me out on this video, and special thanks to my Patreons for financing two main sources for this video. Thank you for watching, and see you next time.