A few weeks after Marcks submitted his plan to Halder, in early September, General der Artillerie Alfred Jodl, Chief of the Operations Department in the OKW, ordered Generalmajor Walter Warlimont, his deputy, to prepare an independent plan of invasion of Russia while OKH kept busy developing its own. Jodl, wisely, wanted an unprejudiced perspective to advise Hitler when the Army plan arrived at the dictator’s desk. On 19 September, Warlimont submitted this to Jodl. Regrettably, the new plan differed from Marck’s only in operational detail because it was still based on the same premises of Russia’s strength provided by Kinzel.
Warlimont plan (OKW) proposed three army groups instead of the two suggested by Marcks. Both plans envisaged three main axes of advance: towards Leningrad, Moscow, and Kiev, but Jodl preferred one army group coordinating independently each attack for better mission control. Equally, Warlimont agreed to locate the center of gravity north of the Pripet Marshes. However, the OKW plan envisioned that if the Northern Army Group was not powerful enough to capture Leningrad and to destroy the Soviet forces in the Baltic, the army group to its right would pivot to the north and help it complete its task, before resuming the advance on Moscow. This was an important operational difference, although hardly a strategic one.
Many historians have argued for years that the OKW’s plan spoiled the Army’s concept (implicitly stating that the latter was the better plan), because it influenced Hitler in his decision not to go straight to Moscow, but evidence strongly suggests that neither the OKH nor the OKW concepts would have brought victory to Germany.
If Kinzel’s estimate on Red Army’s strength had been correct, both plans were equally capable of bringing triumph to the German arms. During the actual campaign, utilizing the (modified) OKW concept, the German Army destroyed 229 Soviet divisions between 22 June and 31 December 1941 , much more than Kinzel’s estimate of the Red Army strength (202 divisions) and slightly more than the final estimate used by Paulus (226 divisions). Had the Soviet army not possessed the reinforcement capability that it in fact enjoyed, utter defeat for the USSR was a certainty.
On the other hand, neither of the two plans appear to be drastically better than the other for facing the actual strength the Soviets threw at the Germans. The evident replacement disadvantage of the German army is so blatant that the unmodified OKH plan would have bogged down in the face of insufficient resources and time just as the OKW plan did .
Claiming that Barbarossa’s eventual failure arose directly from Hitler’s decision not to continue immediately the drive to Moscow (after the capture of Smolensk), is a weak unsupported hypothesis that fails to address the fundamental issue of the colossal size of the Red Army: the German effort lacked the resources to win the campaign within 5 months.
What the new OKW plan shows, however, is that for the second time, the planners reached the conclusion that
a rapid victory over the Soviet Union was within the means of the German Army.
Had the OKH and the OKW built a solid case indicating that the size of the Russian Army prevented victory in a lighting campaign and therefore, the German leadership should prepare for a long-protracted war, it is quite likely that Hitler would have pondered cautiously the next move, even to the point of rejecting the invasion. After all, Hitler’s requirement that Barbarossa launching was contingent on the ability to defeat Russia in a short summer campaign, was fundamental in his eyes.
At this stage of the war, The German High Command judgment had satisfactory weight with the dictator if backed up with solid arguments. This influence was in fact, more substantial than that of the OKM or OKL as explained later.
Evidence of this clout is apparent when weeks earlier, Keitel convinced Hitler that an invasion in 1940 was not possible because the Polish road and rail networks were insufficient to permit the assembly of strong-enough forces in time, even though the dictator contemplated this course of action.
Although there is no concrete evidence to suggest that the Germany Army was consciously attempting to fool
Hitler into believing that Russia was ripe for defeat through a lighting campaign, in practical terms the
Generals deceived themselves and thus, they deceived their commander in Chief .
Nevertheless, the OKW optimism did not cause Hitler to make an irrevocable decision yet. Its purpose was merely to provide feedback to the OKH plan, at a time when Halder was improving it. When General Paulus finally occupied his post as head of OKH’s O Qu I in early September, he immediately started to work on a survey of Marcks blueprint to corroborate its feasibility and to delineate operational solutions to any detected problems. During the next two months, he organized intense exercises and wargames that culminated in the formulation of a Preliminary Plan of Operations tendered to Halder on 29 October.
Paulus worried about the repercussions on Germany’s fortunes if Kinzel’s estimate was incorrect. This skeptical posture was prudent, but his follow-up action was feeble at best. Rather than assertively poking holes at Kinzel’s intelligence estimate, he limited himself to adding 10% more division to the appraisal of O Qu IV (from 202 to 226 divisions). Paulus and therefore OKH’s, final estimate of the magnitude of the Red Army strength remained woefully inadequate and divorced from reality. Equally ineffective were the projections of the Red Army Air Force strength set at 8.000 aircraft, of which 6.000 (75%) were in European Russia. In reality, 19.093 combat aircraft were on-hand with the VVS on 22 June 1941 of which 10.869 were in the border districts.
Now, only the best possible set of circumstances could help the Wehrmacht to accomplish its task.
Since the muddy season begins on mid-October, Paulus realized that there would be an enormous pressure on the Wehrmacht to destroy the Red Army in a very short time-frame (the larger the enemy force, the longer the time to destroy it). However, he considered that German qualitative superiority in mobile operations would just make this possible. He also placed enormous trust on the Luftwaffe which would face an even more daunting numerical inferiority.
Had Paulus utilized an estimate 50% larger than Kinzel (instead of 10%), which incidentally, would still be far short of actual strength, it is highly likely that he would have arrived at the conclusion that there was not enough time to defeat the Red Army before the winter. Unfortunately for Germany, lacking supporting data, he did not press the matter further. At the very least, he should have estimated the strength of the Red Army that prevented victory before the muddy season to assess the risks and inform his superiors.
None of this happened, and his report to Halder, presented on 29 October, confirmed that the planned campaign would bring victory in the allowable time and that the Moscow axis was the best choice for the main effort. This would be the third time that the German Army reached the same optimistic outcome (the other two were the proposals of Marcks and Warlimont). On that date, at the latest, the principal individuals in the Germany Army (Marcks and Paulus, Halder and von Brauchitsch) and in the OKW (Warlimont and Jodl) agreed that a lightning war against the Soviet Union would be successful.
The refinement of the OKH plan continued unabated, however. An enormous number of man-hours was ahead of him to polish every detail of the design. Paulus attempted not to leave anything to chance, except the all-important premise of enemy strength. Between November and mid-December, a very thorough series of map exercises and war games carried out concurrently by both, the OKH’s O Qu I and the chiefs of staff of the armies and army groups earmarked for the invasion, culminated with a conference in the Army headquarters on December 13 and 14.
The outcome of this conference, chaired by von Brauchitsch and Halder is extremely relevant because, despite several problems identified during the exercises, the general conclusions was that the Wehrmacht would defeat the Red Army in a campaign lasting no more than 8 to 10 weeks.
The optimism of the German army field and staff commanders was widespread. All the high-ranking ground army experts coincided with this , irrespective of what transpired later. This belief had its justification in many factors that appeared reasonable without hindsight: The deficient performance of the Red Army against Finland, the recent purges of the Soviet army commanders, the disaffection of the population with the communist regime, the expectation that the Russian army was inferior to the French army, and an overall sense of superiority on the capabilities of the Wehrmacht and its blitzkrieg methods. More importantly, based on the historical industrial backwardness of Russia, demonstrated in the last World War, they could not fathom a Soviet Army larger than the one Kinzel projected .
On 5 December , even while the Heer wargames were still on-going, von Brauchitsch and Halder made a verbal presentation to Hitler based on Paulus preliminary plan of 29 October . The Fuehrer accepted the assumptions and conclusions of this plan, including the decision to place the point of main effort to the North of the Pripet marshes and the strength the Germany army required to accomplish the defeat of the Soviet Union (fixed at 130-140 divisions).
Hitler emphasized the need to destroy as many Soviet units as close to the border as possible and his opinion that Moscow was not extremely relevant. Therefore, he did not want to commit himself to attack the capital until the destruction of the projected northern and southern pockets. These pockets were likely to develop because Army Group Center would initially have the bulk of the armor and Luftwaffe support and thence it would gain ground faster than the adjoining Army Groups. Since the objective of the Campaign was the destruction of the Red Army, it made sense to destroy these vulnerable forces first (vulnerable because they would find German forces behind their front). He would decide the next step based on existing conditions on the ground when that happened.
Neither the Commander in Chief of the army nor his Chief of Staff presented any objections because they perceived this as non-critical. Their expectation was that by that time, the German forces would have destroyed the bulk of the Russian army, and it would be obvious that the advance on Moscow could proceed.
The widespread optimism in ground army circles contrasted vividly with the apprehension in the Navy (Kriegsmarine) and in the Air Force (Luftwaffe). The supreme commanders of both branches, Admiral Erich Raeder, and Field Marshal Herman Goering, respectively, attempted vehemently to dissuade Hitler from attacking the Soviet Union until after the defeat of Great Britain.
Admiral Raeder first approached Hitler on 26 September 1940 and suggested to support the Italian attempts to seize the Suez Canal and follow up with an advance across Palestine and Syria. Besides the considerable impact that the losses of oil and the Eastern Mediterranean positions would have on the British empire, Turkey would become vulnerable and therefore agreeable to the new world order. He insisted that the Soviet Union was not an immediate danger because she was afraid of Germany’s power.
Hitler approved Raeder ideas, coincided with the Admiral opinion that Russia was afraid of Germany and added that the Soviet Union should be tempted to turn towards Persia and India to gain access to the open sea . By doing so, there would not be a cause of conflict between Germany and Russia (because both would be expanding towards the South and not towards each other borders) and no possibility of an agreement between London and Moscow (because Russia would be participating in the destruction of the British Empire).
At around that time, Field Marshal Goering also presented objections to the interruption of the air war against Britain that the new conflict would bring about and proposed a similar course of action as Raeder’s . Several Luftwaffe top commanders, besides Goring, opposed the new war. General Otto Hoffmann von Waldau in the Luftwaffe operations department and General Hans-Georg von Seidel, the Luftwaffe Quartermaster General, both indicated that a multi-front war was beyond the Luftwaffe capabilities .
Hitler, who at the time was attentively listening to the different points of view, could perceive the risks that the new war implied and the advantages of reaching an agreement with Stalin. Despite months of planning, the Fuhrer’s goal remained to end the war on victorious terms, and the day after the discussion with Raeder, the Reich’s government signed the tripartite pact with Japan and Italy. The intention of this pact was to announce to the World the intention of the revisionist powers to prevent the expansion of the war and to bring other Countries to accept the New World Order .
Hitler’s next move was consistent with this path: he would extend Stalin an invitation to eliminate the reasons for a probable war between both countries and the visit of Molotov to Berlin on November 12 and 13 would be the time to do it.
The discussions between Molotov and Hitler went disastrously wrong. Molotov essentially rejected Hitler’s proposals and instead, insisted on an agreement that not only meant losing face for Germany in front of her allies but more importantly, allowed the USSR to expand her possessions in the Balkans and Finland, simultaneously threatening the most crucial raw material sources the Germans had. His demands (rather than proposals) were obviously threatening the Germans as Hitler unequivocally pointed out during the talks . The conference ended in a tense atmosphere. The only hope of averting a complete break up between the allies was the Soviet foreign minister’s promise to present Hitler’s proposals to Stalin with the expectation that the latter would reconsider the whole situation and respond more constructively.
The day after Molotov’s departure, Raeder went to see Hitler once again and unsurprisingly, found the dictator quite pessimistic. However, Raeder had a good strategic mind and wanted to avert serious risks for Germany. Once more, he warned Hitler not to attempt the invasion of Russia until the successful defeat of Great Britain using substantive arguments. First, he indicated that Great Britain was gaining strength with the aid of the United States, but Germany was already strong enough to defeat her if Berlin focused all its resources towards that objective.
Specifically, the production of submarines and aircraft should have priority to support army and navy
operations in the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Middle East and for strangling British imports. Second, the
war against the USSR would entail a great expenditure of German strength. Third, it was not possible to say
with any certainty how long this war would last and finally, there was no impending risk of a Soviet attack
on Germany because the Soviet Union needed German technology to modernize its navy and she would not attack
in 2 or 3 years.
His advice did not sway Hitler much because the dictator had just learned of Stalin’s ambitions through Molotov and knew that the Red Army and air force had deployed in force at the common border. Therefore, the Fuhrer had to contend with the possibility that the USSR might try to seize the vital raw material centers in Sweden and Romania or that the USSR would declare war on Germany in the not-too-distant future when the conditions were least favorable to Berlin.
Within days of the discussion with Raeder, General Georg Thomas, who led the Military Economy Division in the OKW, presented Hitler a study requested by Field Marshall Hermann Goering. The latter’s position was that Germany should not invade the USSR before defeating England and he felt obliged to present convincing arguments to the Fuhrer to counter the Army’s optimistic posture.
Thomas approach was to present two what-if scenarios that contemplated the effect on the German economy in the case of a short-war and long-war with the USSR.
In 1940, the British blockade was not affecting Germany. This happy state-of-affairs was the result of two factors: the control of large reserves of strategic raw material acquired by direct conquest or through importation from minor allies giving Germany considerable capacity to feed its military-industrial complex. Even this large pool of resources, however, was insufficient in the case of several strategic supplies that were unavailable in occupied Europe, but, and this was the other factor, Berlin imported the balance from the Soviet Union.
The Soviets delivered several key goods, like grain and oil, from their own stocks and imported others from outside of the Soviet Union for latter re-exporting to Germany (rubber for instance).
The study showed that Germany would suffer in case of war under both scenarios. In the case of a short war, exports of grains, oil, and other key raw materials would stop immediately, so unless the Germans captured large stocks of these supplies, seized intact the Caucasus oil fields, and somehow found how to transport the stores to Germany (a grave difficulty, since German commanders expected that the Soviets would destroy the rolling stock), the Third Reich would be worse off. Safety stocks would cushion the impact, but they would last only a few months if not replenished.
In the case of a long war, the after-effects would be awfully serious. Germany’s failure in reestablishing the Ukrainian agricultural supply chain meant its permanent loss with the consequence of famine in Russia and deficit of foodstuffs for the Germans and Europeans. To prevent this distressing scenario, it would be necessary to replace the destroyed agricultural machinery, to substitute lost railroad rolling stock to transport the food surpluses to Germany, and to find fertilizers for the fields and foodstuff for the animal farms. All that effort would be in vain if simultaneously the Germans did not earmark POL (petroleum, oil, and lubricants) for farming production and its related transportation and finally, it would be necessary for farmers to stay to work the fields.
Since without Russian oil, Germany was barely able to obtain fuels for self-sufficiency, allotting some of it for agriculture production in the conquered Russian lands was a net drain of petroleum products that would only get worse the longer the war lasted.
Likewise, 75% of Soviet military-industrial potential and 100% of precision tools and optical industries were in western Russia , but to use this industrial capacity Germany had to seize the enemy factories in undamaged condition and rebuild the industrial supply chain: they had to capture undamaged power plants and furnish them with fuel for power generation. To complicate matters even more, many manufacturing plants depended on raw materials sourced from Asiatic Russia and thus it would not be possible to find substitutes for them.
In general, oil became the most critical bottleneck because Germany did not have extra capacity and Thomas established the absolute necessity to capture the Caucasus oil fields in working condition as the only alternative. Hitler would later extend the objective line from Rostov-Gorki-Archangelsk as originally established by Marcks to the Volga River-Archangelsk to include the Caucasus.
Furthermore, even doing the above, Germany would be short of jute, asbestos, zinc, platinum, copper,
rubber, and tungsten until the establishment of a link with the Far East was in place.
The probability that Germany could meet all of Thomas’ requirements simultaneously was low and thus the risks of attacking the Soviet Union were glaringly obvious. This was a sobering report.
Overall, to the military-strategic warnings of Raeder and Goering relative to the risk of embarking in a two-front war, Thomas added economic considerations that underscored the grave risks of this course of action.
Hitler faced a dilemma. He wanted to reach an agreement with Stalin o prevent these colossal risks. He wanted to limit the scope of the war and focus his efforts on defeating Great Britain , but he had to consider the possibilities of a Soviet attack (he was, after all, concerned with the massive Soviet military force deployed at the border, including the frenetic construction of dozens of airfields close to the frontier which were filled with attack aircraft ). He also faced the danger of the Soviet Union switching sides (Great Britain’s main diplomatic goal).
On 26 November 1940, a bombshell landed on Hitler’s desk: the expected response of Stalin to his proposals was negative which translated into an impossible-to-ignore risk of war .
Stalin’s unfriendly response coupled with Brauchitsch reassurances of 5 December 1940, that promised a swift German victory in case of war with Russia, almost surely convinced Hitler to attack (see figure below). The German government did not respond to the new Soviet Government counterproposal ever.
This is not an illogical posture because if Moscow switched sides or declared war, the risks that Raeder, Goering, and Thomas had underlined, would materialize regardless.
Hitler’s situation at the end of 1940 was not unlike the one he faced in 1939. Back then, Stalin was a threat: he was negotiating a possible alliance with German enemies. And the Red Army was more dangerous then, because it was large, its performance unknown and more importantly, Germany had to cope with the Polish, French, and British armies simultaneously, making the Red Army relatively more powerful vis-à-vis the Wehrmacht because only a fraction of the German army was available to counter the Soviets. In 1939, Hitler took the rational course of reaching an agreement with Stalin in very favorable terms to the latter.
In December 1940, the Fuehrer faced a similar scenario again. Stalin knew the strength of the Soviet army. His staff could also play war games to predict a future clash and with the expected ratio of forces, he likely resolved that any war would be long . Consequently, in his eyes, Germany faced the mighty risk of engaging in a two-front war. This led him to the logical conclusion that he had a very strong hand and the Fuehrer would have to negotiate on his terms as in 1939. Molotov’s position during the negotiation and Stalin’s subsequent rejection of German terms are consistent with this view. Hitler’s decision to attack was also logical based on the assumptions that the German army was much stronger than its adversary and that the Soviet Union presented a clear and present danger .
With hindsight, we can appreciate that the failure of the Hitler-Molotov negotiation on 12-13 November 1940 and Stalin’s government subsequent letter of rejection (26 November) set the stage for the grimmest conflict humanity had ever seen. It ironically hastened the auto-destruction of the two systems that challenged capitalism in the 20th Century . This was the last direct communication at the highest level between both governments. The miscalculation of both dictators would terribly affect the lives of 170 million Soviets and 76 million Germans and would send to their deaths more than 20 million of the former and 7 million of the latter . It would also destroy the lives of an enormous number of other foreigners.
Had they decided to reach an agreement, the course of history would have been completely different.
Even though Hitler’s decision is understandable, it was arguably his worst decision during the whole war. There are two reasons for this, one, already explained, is the completely mistaken assumption of the strength of the Red Army as part of a faulty process that established that the smashing of the USSR was almost certain. The other was his extremely inadequate implementation strategy.
War should only be waged if it can be won. The risks of a protracted armed conflict with Moscow were so
evident (as Hitler recognized thanks to the arguments put forth by the Kriegsmarine and the Luftwaffe
) that the German leader should
have left absolutely no stone unturned to minimize them.
His failure to do so was not only the result of the broken Barbarossa plan but it encompassed additional strategic blunders he perpetrated.