Jonathan Dimbleby: The inside story of the barbaric battle that really lost Hitler the war

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Jonathan Dimbleby
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Jonathan Dimbleby: 'Like many of my generation, I was brought up to assume that it was the British, supported by the Americans, who beat Hitler' - Getty
Jonathan Dimbleby: 'Like many of my generation, I was brought up to assume that it was the British, supported by the Americans, who beat Hitler' - Getty

Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 was the biggest, bloodiest and most barbarous military enterprise in the history of warfare. The purpose of Operation Barbarossa, as the Führer codenamed it, was also the most decisive campaign of the Second World War. Had he achieved its objective – the annihilation of the Soviet Union – he would have been the master of Europe’s destiny. As it was, by the time his armies had reached the gates of Moscow less than six months later, any prospect he might once have had of realising his delusional vision of a Thousand Year Reich had already vanished.

Nazi Germany’s armed forces, the Wehrmacht, would go on to launch further major offensives, which secured dramatic victories. But these were ephemeral triumphs. By the end of 1941 at the very latest, the Nazis had already lost any realistic chance of winning the war, thanks to the failure of Operation Barbarossa.

For three and a half more years, the soil of Eastern Europe would be saturated in the blood of tens of millions of people, but they were victims of a hideous endgame the outcome of which had already been ordained.

My father, Richard Dimbleby, was a brave BBC war correspondent who served in the Middle East in the months that led up to the First Battle of El Alamein in 1942. He kept diaries and wrote a book about his experiences. I wanted to know more.

My first book about the Second World War, Destiny in the Desert, was the result. This took me directly to my next, The Battle of the Atlantic, in which I highlighted the fraught relationship between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin. What I discovered in researching both these books made me profoundly uncomfortable.

War correspondent Richard Dimbleby talking to Lance Sergeant Philip Budgen, c1942 -  Bridgeman Images
War correspondent Richard Dimbleby talking to Lance Sergeant Philip Budgen, c1942 - Bridgeman Images

Like many of my generation, I was brought up to assume that it was the British, supported by the Americans, who beat Hitler. The Soviet Union was barely mentioned. But, by now, it was glaringly obvious to me that this narrative entailed a grave distortion of the evidence that still colours our outlook today. That is why I wrote my new book, Barbarossa: How Hitler Lost the War. I am not sure what my father would think of my views but, as he favoured truth-telling, I like to think he would understand.

Disconcerting though it may be for those who – for understandable reasons – believe that Hitler was defeated by those valiant men who landed on the Normandy beaches in June 1944, the evidence is otherwise. Operation Overlord assuredly accelerated Stalin’s victory over Hitler but the Wehrmacht had already been fatally wounded by the Red Army long before the Allied landings. The historic debt owed to those who fought their way across France to Berlin is not that they defeated the Nazis but that they saved Western Europe from Stalin’s tyranny.

The start of Operation Barbarossa

In the early summer of 1941, the Nazis seemed invincible. Although the Luftwaffe had been defeated in the Battle of Britain, and Operation Sealion (Hitler’s plan for a cross-channel invasion) had been put on indefinite hold, the Wehrmacht had overrun almost all Western Europe. But Hitler was far from satisfied. As he had made clear in Mein Kampf, his demonic vision for the Third Reich was, among other things, to destroy the Soviet Union.

Stalin, on the other hand, was desperate to avoid war with Germany – so much so that he angrily dismissed an avalanche of unambiguous intelligence warnings that Hitler’s forces were mustering on the western side of the border. Even on the eve of the invasion the Red Army was not on full alert, let alone prepared for the speed and scale of the attack that Hitler unleashed in the pre-dawn light of the midsummer morning that marked the start of Operation Barbarossa.

The Axis armies that poured across the border into the Soviet Union numbered some 3.3 million men, equipped with a formidable array of tanks, artillery, trucks, horses and warplanes. On paper they faced an immensely powerful force: more than four million men – 170 divisions – with a much larger supply of armaments. But Stalin’s troops were ill-prepared for warfare, inadequately trained, poorly led and hobbled by outmoded and badly maintained armaments. The German high command had little doubt that the Red Army was so cumbersome and incompetent that it would crumble within weeks – a view that was shared by the rest of the world and, notably, by Washington and London.

Within a fortnight of the invasion, the panzers (armoured divisions of the Wehrmacht) were heading eastwards at such a rate that the army’s chief of staff, General Franz Halder, confidently proclaimed victory: ‘The Russian campaign was won,’ he noted in his diary.

But doubts soon began to surface. Instead of surrendering, Stalin’s troops stood their ground and fought, despite being mown down in their thousands. Whether from patriotism, the prospect of facing a firing squad for cowardice, or to avoid being taken prisoner by an enemy who regarded them as a subhuman species, their resistance was fanatical. But gallantry alone did not suffice. By mid-July, the Germans had advanced nearly 400 miles into the Soviet Union and were a little over 200 miles from Moscow.

Hitler's first mistake

At this point, though, Hitler made his first mistake: he dithered. Unable to decide whether to continue the drive on Moscow or to concentrate on seizing the southern heartlands of the Soviet Union to secure the rich mineral reserves and the industrial areas around Kiev, he did neither. For almost a month, to the deepening dismay of his front-line generals, he was unable to make up his mind. These precious weeks gave the Soviet high command breathing space to bind the wounds of its shattered armies, to repair broken vehicles and reconstruct defensive lines.

Eventually Hitler settled on Moscow, and the advance recovered its momentum. By early October, the astute and usually cautious General Gotthard Heinrici, commanding a German infantry corps, was confident. Writing home to his wife, he noted that ‘by and large it must be said that the opponent is already beaten and that he will now lose the remaining core of his army, which is supposed to defend Moscow’. Heinrici’s overall commander, Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, whose Army Group Centre was spearheading the attack on Moscow, similarly allowed himself a moment of uncharacteristic hubris. On 19 October, he announced ‘the collapse of the Russian Front’.

Soviet prisoners of war pass attacking Nazi troops - AP
Soviet prisoners of war pass attacking Nazi troops - AP

If there was any basis for such triumphalism, it lay in the long columns of starving Soviet prisoners of war, who had been seized on the battlefield or encircled in their hundreds of thousands during the rapid German advance. Those exhausted and wounded soldiers in ragged clothes stumbled westwards for hundreds of miles. Abused, beaten and denied medicines, they had barely enough food or water to survive the day.

Thousands died before they reached the makeshift prison camps into which they were herded like animals to huddle behind barbed wire. Lacking shelter or sanitation or any other of the most basic means of survival, some prisoners resorted to cannibalism. The majority starved to death.

A most barbaric battle

The inhumanity on the Eastern Front was in part down to the fact that Slavs were regarded by the Nazis as a subhuman species. Fuelled by the adrenalin of battle, the savagery of the fighting was unconstrained. One young German officer, Robert Rupp, described the horror of what happened in one typical village in the bleak Soviet steppe. The peasants living there were suspected of harbouring Russian partisans who had killed five German soldiers in the nearby countryside, and Rupp’s unit was ordered to surround the village.

‘Then I heard sounds of gunshot and children screaming. I realised that we were about to commit a massacre,’ Rupp recalled. The villagers huddled in their cottages as the soldiers hurled grenades on to the thatched roofs, which caught light almost immediately. Soon all 50 houses were ablaze. ‘We heard the terrible roaring of cattle, the shrieks of women and children – and then the cries faded away… We drove off away from the village and behind us the sky was glowing dark red.’

German soldiers move into a burning Russian village - Alamy
German soldiers move into a burning Russian village - Alamy

Atrocity begat atrocity. In the Russian case, though, the barbarism was ignited by a deep anger that the invaders had stolen their land, torched their homes and barns, bombed their villages, killing untold numbers of innocent people. The depravity shocked even the participants.

A Soviet rifleman, Boris Baromykin, recalled, ‘Once, towards the end of October, the enemy pushed us out of the village we were holding and began shooting us down. But we regrouped – then took the village back. We seized five of the German soldiers and literally ripped them apart with our bare hands, our teeth, anything – one man was even using a table leg to smash a skull in. We killed those men in a frenzy of hatred.’

After the weather turned

By the end of October, as the Wehrmacht’s foot soldiers began to close on Moscow, the weather turned. General Heinrici, until recently optimistic, was gloomy. ‘All day long it was snowing, which turned all roads into a black, bottomless swamp… I could see a long line of sunken, gridlocked and broken lorries, hopelessly stuck.

'Almost as many dead horses lay in the mud next to the vehicles,’ he noted. The annual rains had started and, with them, the roads became almost impassable.

German infantrymen following a tank towards Moscow in the snow - Print Collector/Getty Images
German infantrymen following a tank towards Moscow in the snow - Print Collector/Getty Images

Heavy vehicles slid into shell craters concealed by pools of water. Tyres spun as they dug themselves deeper into the mud until they were irretrievably bogged down. Not only were greater quantities of increasingly scarce fuel burned in often fruitless efforts to extract the trapped machines, but the wear and tear rapidly made them unfit for service. The advance slowed to a crawl.

In the weeks that followed, temperatures plummeted towards -30C. While the Soviet armies were used to these conditions, the invaders, who had never experienced such weather before and were still wearing their summer uniforms, began to freeze. Frostbite became endemic. Toes, feet and, in some cases, legs were severed by army surgeons as the alternative to gangrene. Many froze to death.

In a letter to his wife, Heinrici wrote: ‘No one can really imagine what every single man here has to endure in this weather, this terrain, the state of the country and the challenges the war forces on him…

Three German soldiers covered in snow and ice during winter on the Eastern front - Getty Images
Three German soldiers covered in snow and ice during winter on the Eastern front - Getty Images

'Only someone who has experienced this himself can understand what it means to be on watch all night long without warm clothes… with wet feet, in the forest without shelter, freezing, without hot drink, possibly with a hungry stomach.’

For some time, Heinrici, like other front-line commanders, had implored his superiors to issue suitable winter clothing, only to be sharply rebuked and told ‘categorically’ that ammunition and food were greater priorities. ‘In my view,’ he noted drily, ‘“categorical” decisions are mostly wrong.’

Failure of German high command

After the war, the Wehrmacht’s top generals blamed weather for what ensued on the Eastern Front. This does not stand scrutiny. The weather conditions did not so much cause as magnify the multiple errors of judgment. The Soviet armies faced the same conditions but were better prepared.

While Hitler raged, insisting that the Russian capital should be in Nazi hands before Christmas, by late October Field Marshal Fedor von Bock’s men were, by his own account, close to exhaustion.

Field Marshal Fedor von Bock -  ullstein bild via Getty Images
Field Marshal Fedor von Bock - ullstein bild via Getty Images

The German high command had not only underestimated the resilience of the Red Army but the Russian people too. As their letters and memoirs – some of which have only recently been recovered from the secret depths of the Soviet archives – reveal, Soviet soldiers and civilians alike were dogged and stubborn, ready to face death to save the ‘Motherland’.

Moscow had been swathed in camouflage to conceal its iconic buildings, including the Kremlin and the Bolshoi Theatre, from the Luftwaffe’s nightly raids. Thousands of factories were dismantled and carted further east, and a ‘Moscow Defence Zone’ was created, sheathing the city with tank traps, ditches and barbed wire.

Every citizen, with the exception of those who were disabled or infirm, was commanded to join the effort. Within days, a ramshackle army of 600,000 labourers, both men and women, had been established, armed with spades, axes, crowbars and whatever tools they possessed.

A rare image from the operation; Germans on the Eastern Front; the retreat from Moscow -  Alamy Stock Photo
A rare image from the operation; Germans on the Eastern Front; the retreat from Moscow - Alamy Stock Photo

As he toured the perimeter of the city, General Georgy Zhukov, a ruthless commander to whom Stalin turned at moments of grave crisis, was awed by the resolve displayed by the labourers and especially the women: ‘I saw thousands and thousands of Moscow women, who were unused to heavy labour and who had left their city apartments lightly clad, work on those impassable roads, in that mud, digging anti-tank ditches and trenches, setting up anti-tank obstacles and barricades.’

The day of the Great Panic

By the middle of October, artillery could be heard clearly in the distance, and enemy aircraft droned in the sky. Rumour piled upon rumour: the Germans had reached the outskirts of the city; their spies were disguised as Soviet soldiers; paratroopers had landed in Red Square; Stalin had already left the Kremlin; the city was about to fall.

On 16 October – the day of the ‘Great Panic’ – order gave way to anarchy. As party functionaries and bureaucrats fled Moscow in their official cars, thousands started to leave on foot with their possessions in carts or crowded the railway stations: anything to escape the city. People fought in the queues outside bread shops. One journalist, whose job was to parrot the Party line, noted privately, ‘The hysteria reached down to the masses… Can a city really hold out when it’s in such a mood?’

That Moscow did hold out owed a great deal to the swift and ruthless action ordered by Stalin three days later. On 19 October, Moscow was placed under a night curfew. People were forbidden to leave the city without permission, and the Kremlin warned, ‘Violators of order will be quickly brought to answer before the court of military tribunal, and provocateurs, spies and other enemy agents attempting to undermine order will be shot on the spot.’

It worked. Almost overnight order was restored while the city waited in trepidation for the arrival of the enemy.

They never made it. The stubborn resistance of the Soviet armies slowed the Wehrmacht’s final assault to a crawl. A rapidly worsening shortage of combat-ready troops and a critical shortfall in the supply of replacement armour, trucks, spare parts, fuel, food and winter clothing combined to expose a catastrophic failure of forethought and logistical organisation that was irreparable.

The incessant stream of German traffic retreating from Moscow turned the snow into a quagmire of slush -  Getty Images
The incessant stream of German traffic retreating from Moscow turned the snow into a quagmire of slush - Getty Images

Responsibility for this military disaster lay directly with the founder of the Third Reich and the supine deference of Hitler’s closest advisors, who either shared his delusions or dared not challenge them.

It is possible that a few German soldiers caught a glimpse of the Moscow skyline in the far distance but they never got closer than 15 miles from the city. By early December, after five months, three weeks and five days, Operation Barbarossa reached its fateful terminus. Retreat was inevitable.

‘The occurrences of the day have again been heartbreaking and humiliating,’ Bock wrote on 7 December as his men began the long trudge back to a defensive line that was hastily drawn up almost 100 miles from Moscow. After a campaign in which 1.5 million German soldiers were killed, wounded or taken prisoner, the Wehrmacht would never again be able to muster the strength to pose a significant threat to the Soviet Union.

Though Hitler’s armies recovered enough to secure notable victories in 1942, these were ephemeral successes followed by devastating defeats, notably at Stalingrad in January 1943. The Red Army suffered far heavier losses than the Wehrmacht but the Soviet Union’s reserves of manpower were vastly superior in number and growing rapidly in quality and experience. Despite pouring all their reserves into the production of weaponry, the German armed forces were unable to match the Soviet Union’s output either in scale or firepower. Month by month, year by year, the Soviets grew stronger as the Axis powers grew weaker.

The war was to drag on for another three and half years but it was on the killing grounds of the Eastern Front between June and December 1941 that the fate of Nazi Germany was sealed. Operation Barbarossa was Hitler’s first and last chance to destroy the Soviet Union. He failed, and in the process lost any prospect of winning the Second World War.

Barbarossa: How Hitler Lost the War, by Jonathan Dimbleby, is out on 15 April (Viking, £25); pre-order a copy at books.telegraph.co.uk