Where Hitler’s Dreams Died: Moscow 1941

1 Jan

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As the sun rose on January 1st, 1941, every nation in Europe shared one common factor: they were all crushed beneath the heel of the oppressive Nazi jackboot. Safe for Great Britain and the Soviet Union, that was an unfortunate reality, and occupation was just beginning. Following the capitulation of France in summer 1940, the only belligerent on continental Europe capable of rivaling Nazi Germany was in shambles. The military had been withdrawn to the British Isles, and the government had either been surrendered or begun collaborating with the enemy. Yet in the face of mounting resistance, Great Britain proved its resilience. In autumn 1940, following Reichmarschall Hermann Goering’s aptly named Adlertag, or “Eagle Day”, the legendary Battle of Britain commenced. Originally begun to precede an amphibious assault of the Isles code named Operation Sea Lion, the assault was designed to ground the British Royal Air Force and decimate the effectiveness of Britain’s Chain Home Radar system, which linked the airfields on the eastern coast together via a massive interconnected radar network. The Royal Air Force was, at that time, the most well trained force of pilots on the planet, yet they were extremely pressed for manpower and aircraft when the Luftwaffe‘s assault began, and soon relied heavily upon American volunteer pilots known as the Eagle Squadron, essentially Great Britain’s Flying Tigers. Although the German pilots possessed experience from combat in Spain during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), and also heavily outnumbered the British, in the end, one factor separated the Germans from success and their ultimate failure. In August 1940, a squadron of ninety five British bombers departed from airfields in southeastern Britain en route to a single target: Berlin, the capital of Germany. Their target was Tempelhof, the primary civilian airport located in Mitte, literally meaning “middle”, the borough resting in the center of the city. At the time, Berlin rested at the extreme range of British medium bombers, and the RAF would be forced to attack at night, giving their aircraft some sense of security against potential German antiaircraft fire, which, without the aid of radar this early in the war, would be incredibly inaccurate. Although only eighty one of those ninety five bombers actually dropped their bombs, and even so the damage was negligible at best, the psychological effect was devastating, especially to Hitler, who had assured the German people that Berlin was untouchable. The attack had the same effect as Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle’s raid on Tokyo on April 18th, 1942. The targets of Hitler’s bombers were shifted from strategic military targets, which, once suppressed, would allow for an amphibious invasion to begin under German air superiority, to highly populated civilian targets, namely London and other major cities including Birmingham and Liverpool. Hitler wished to destroy the British spirit before continuing on with the plans for Operation Sea Lion, yet by spring 1941 it was clear that the British would not break. Having supplies shipped to them from Canada and the United States, the latter’s being untouchable by German U-boats considering the United States remained a neutral combatant, the slender supply line held and so did the British. The bombings of London and other major cities did not break the British. In fact, it made them firmer in their resolve to defeat Nazi Germany.

Following the collapse of Yugoslavia in late April 1941 following the bombing of Belgrade and Operation Punishment, as well as the fall of Greece in May 1941 following Germany’s Unternehmen Merkur (Operation Mercury) paratrooper landings on Crete, in the Wolfsschanze, Hitler’s East Prussian headquarters, the German dictator swiveled his attention to face a new foe: the Soviet Union. Having a perpetual abhorrence for communism, as well as for those he deemed inferior, including Jews, Slavs, and the Romani people, commonly known by their alternative moniker as “gypsies”, who’s demographics made up the populace of the Soviet Union, Hitler’s acrimony for the Slavic Bolshevik Russians had been allowed to quell for a singular reason: the invasion of Poland. Although Hitler despised the Russians and those who made up their population, he was capable of gaining a position of leverage not against the Soviets, but against the Allied powers of France and Great Britain, if he decided to ally himself temporarily with Stalin, his mortal nemesis. In August 1939, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s Reich Minister of Foreign Affairs, met with Vyasheslav Molotov, Stalin’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, in Moscow, the USSR’s capital. Following deliberations, the dual signatories signed an eponymous document known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The pact foreshadowed a potential war between the USSR and Nazi Germany, as although it allied the twin superpowers, it did not force them off their inevitable collision course of differing ideals, ideals so different that they rested on opposite extremes of a lengthy and confusing political spectrum. It was a nonaggression pact, though, and regarded the territory of Poland with extreme interest. Following the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, Poland had been created out of land taken from Russia and Germany, who, up to that point, had actually shared a border. Aside from the removal of the port of Gdansk (Danzig) from German territory, the land that had been taken had been of almost no value whatsoever to either party, but it had been more ideological than physical that the Russians and Germans had resisted. In the pact, the nation was partitioned almost in two, and each party was entitled to the land within their respective partition, although the western split, which contained Warsaw and Gdansk, went to Germany, while the eastern portion, which contained nothing of real value, went to the Soviet Union. Under international law, Poland was granted protection from foreign invasion by the governments of France and Great Britain, similar to Britain’s 1839 treaty of Belgium, that granted it protection from foreign invasion of caused Britain’s entry into the First World War in 1914, although the agreement with Poland was merely verbal and possessed no written documentation. Following the German invasion on September 1st, 1939, France and Great Britain held true to their foreign obligation and declared war two days later, an act that sparked yet another European war, which caused the United States the possess an attitude of neutrality, wishing to keep itself removed from a European conflict unless neutrality should prove impossible, such being the case if one of the belligerents declared war or attacked the United States, both of which would happen before New Year’s Eve 1941. Following the collapse of France in July 1940, as well as the collapse of the Netherlands and Belgium in May and Denmark and Norway in April, Western Europe, aside from Great Britain, was now effectively gone. Following a winter of a vigilant peace in Europe, offensive operations recommenced in the spring, April 9th, 1941, the one year anniversary of Unternehmen Weserzeit (Operation Weser Time), Germany’s dual invasion of Denmark and Norway. On the one year anniversary of that day, Germany launched yet another dual invasion, Operations Punishment (Yugoslavia) and Marita (Greece). Yugoslavia had originally been a signatory of the Tripartite Pact alongside Hungary, Finland, Bulgaria, and Romania, yet following a coup by Yugoslav military officers against the collaborationist government in Belgrade led by 49-year-old Josip Broz, who would later adopt the moniker “Tito” and become a legendary Communist partisan leader combating the collaborationist Croatian Ustase and Serbian Chetniks. Punishment was named so denoting to Germany’s new found disdain for the Yugoslavs, who were seen as traitors following their self-removal from the Tripartite Pact, which immediately sought the hatred of the German High Command. In Greece, the situation was better yet simultaneously, the Greek Hellenic Army was no match in either manpower or material to resist the onslaught of the German Wehrmacht. Throughout 1940, Ioannis Metaxas, Greece’s Prime Minister, had refused allowing British troops to enter Greece to bolster the Greek military. He viewed British presence as an attempt by the West to colonize his nation, yet at the behest of one his leading commanders, General Alexandros Papagos, he acquiesced and allowed British naval task forces to man the Aegean Sea in preparation for a German assault. Throughout 1940, the Hellenic Army had been bogged down in brutal mountain combat with the Italian military, which had invaded the mountainous northern Greece through its colony of Albany in October 1940, yet the Italians had proven an incredibly simple enemy to combat, as their manpower was low and the standard of their commanders and material was abysmal. Following the death of Metaxas in January 1941, Papagos succeeded him as Prime Minister, and granted the British Army access to the Greek mainland, yet it was already too late. By late April, the sheer mass of German tanks and infantry linked together in Major General Heinz Guderian’s ingenious Blitzkrieg had overrun and overwhelmed the already beleaguered defenders, and pushed them from the mainland onto Crete, the largest of the Aegean islands. In May, Karl Student, the commanding officer of Germany’s Fallschirmjaeger, its paratrooper corps, which had seen combat in every operation except France and Yugoslavia, was allowed to invade Crete during Unternehmen Merkur, Operation Mercury, to crush the last of the Greco-British defense. Following a costly Pyrrhic victory at Crete, all of Europe was crushed beneath the Nazi jackboot, safe for two nations, Great Britain, which had successfully proven its mettle during the trying Battle of Britain, and the Soviet Union, which rested content, believing itself an ally of Nazi Germany. Yet the tides were shifting right below their feet. 

Throughout the 1930s, the Soviet Union had been almost completely revamped, and in one of the most brutal and sanguine ways possible. Following the death of the Soviet Union’s creator and premier in 1924, Josef Stalin, Lenin’s left-hand man, seized power after removing any potential power from the hands of his adversary, Lenin’s preferred Bolshevik disciple, Leon Trotsky. From then on, while he remained in power, Stalin was increasingly distrustful of those around him, and some of his generals noted that the closer you became to Stalin, the more likely you were to be executed. Throughout the 1930s, Stalin launched a program of purging fully the contents of his military high command, men he deemed as distrustful and disloyal, Stalin’s version of Hitler’s infamous “Night of the Long Knives” in 1934, in which he executed those he deemed not only disloyal, but also removing those who he feared were gaining too much power, including Ernst Roehm’s Sturmabteilung, which was then absorbed into Heinrich Himmler’s Schutstaffel. Although Stalin’s purging effectively removed any disloyal members of his Stavka, those he feared were planning coups or those alienated from communism and its ideals, he also effectively removed those in a position of power with worthwhile combat experience. Safe for a few, including Georgi Zhukov, who had gained notoriety at Khalkhin Gol in Mongolia in 1939 against the Japanese, the Russian Stavka was dominated by high ranking generals of low ranking experience and tactical ardor, this unfortunate fact being proven during the Russo-Finnish War of 1939-1940 against the Finnish forces of Field Marshal Carl Gustav Emil Mannerheim, who was only forced to capitulate after his forces on the Karelia Peninsula were surrounded. Combined with the fact that Stalin had more men than he could supply and feed, the logistical issues facing his army were immense and insurmountable. Yet Stalin had one thing Hitler did not: time. Prior to Hitler’s offensive operations into the Balkans, Hitler’s commanders had already been drafting offensive plans directed against the Soviet Union. Even before assaults into France and the Low Countries, offensive plans had been drafted. In the end, the Soviet Union remained as Germany’s true nemesis. Hitler’s commanders had warned the Fuehrer openly against delayed offensive operations into the Soviet Union, citing Napoleon’s disastrous 1812 invasion that had begun in June. Even so early in the summer, the operation had cost Napoleon the majority of his Grande Armee, and Hitler’s commanders knew that delayed operations into the Soviet Union would run into the devastating Russian winter, which would drop temperatures significantly below freezing. Yet Hitler’s overconfidence in his ability to overcome the Soviet defenses and reach Moscow by the end of year, New Year’s Eve 1941, had caused him to delay operations into the Soviet Union until the summer of 1941 only after Greece and Yugoslavia had been crushed. The operational plans had been finalized in the spring, and were code named Operation Barbarossa after Frederick Barbarossa, the German king who had led German crusaders into the Holy Land during the Third Crusade alongside Richard I of England and Philip II of France. The operation was set to launch on June 22nd, 1941, two days prior to Napoleon’s invasion in 1812. On the morning of June 22nd, the largest land battle in the history of mankind commenced with a massive artillery barrage before a three million man army, partitioned into three army groups, Army Groups North, South, and Center, with the northern branch directed at the metropolitan center of Leningrad, with the center directed at Moscow and the southern branch directed at Rostov, Sevastopol, and the oil rich fields of the Soviet Union around Grozny and Baku in the Caucasus mountains. The assault would fall under the overall command of Field Marshal Walther von Brauchistch, the chief of staff of Germany’s High Command. Launched on a strict timetable, within two weeks, the Ostheer, Germany’s eastern army, had captured 2.5 million Red Army troops, who had not been properly prepared for combat against the lightning rapidity of the Blitzkrieg, as well as having their strategic preparedness being severely hampered by Stalin’s complacency regarding Germany. In the winter and throughout the spring of 1941, Richard Sorge, a Soviet spy operating out of Tokyo, had supplied Stalin with intelligence regarding a German invasion of the Soviet Union that was set to occur in the summer, yet Stalin promptly disregarded the intelligence has false, stating that his ally would never stab him in the back, and left his army completely unprepared. By December 1941, citizens of Moscow could hear the screech of metal tank treads outside the city, and German commanders were capable of viewing the spires of the Kremlin through their binoculars. Yet one fatal factor had set the German advance on Moscow fatefully behind schedule: the Ukraine.

Regarded as the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, the Ukraine was also the chief highway between the German Army Group South and the vital oil fields of the Caucasus. If the Ukraine fell, the German armies would be amply fed, and their advance would be swift and brutal. Hitler had chosen in the late summer to shift his attention away from Moscow, which could have fallen in one swift drive by the armored spearhead of Army Group Center. By the early autumn, Army Group Center was still far from the city, while armored elements of Army Group South were driving rapidly in the direction of the River Volga and the metropolitan center of Stalingrad. But by winter, the ground began to freeze, and the snow began so thick, that roads became impassible by armor. The temperature became so frigid that armored crews were forced to get beneath their tank engines with stoves in the morning to force the oil to liquefy. Hitler’s overconfidence in his invasion and his crushing of Moscow and the Soviet spirit also caused him to keep his men from being properly supplied for winter combat, and many of his men were equipped with only summer uniforms too thin to protect against the singing cold. Men succumbed to hypothermia and frostbite hourly, and soon enough, the Soviets were in a position to counterattack. Handpicked by Stalin, Marshal of the Soviet Union Georgi Zhukov commanded an assault force of Russian troops trained for winter combat in the brutal reaches of Siberia, counterattacked in early December, forcing the German troops back following their failed assault code-named Operation Typhoon. Although the counterattack gained little ground, it had pushed the Germans back and had proven them not unstoppable, but also not easily beaten. Following this immense failure, which would never be recovered from, Hitler seized command of the Germany Army, and immediately set about offensive plans for 1942, yet the Soviet Union had begun to show Hitler that his inability to take Moscow was the beginning of the end. Combined with the annihilation of the German 6th Army at Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-43, the invasion of the Soviet Union would never be defined the history books as a German victory. It was over.  

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