Why Hitler failed to defeat Russia

Operation Barbarossa was the code name for Adolf Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union. Beginning in June 1941, this blitzkrieg attack on Russia and its leader Joseph Stalin would ultimately decide the Second World War. Despite early success against an unprepared Soviet army, the invasion began to slow down and eventually ground to a halt in December just 20km short of Moscow. At that moment the Russians struck back with a surprise winter counter-attack, bringing the offensive to an end. In this episode of IWM Stories, John Delaney takes a look at why Operation Barbarossa failed with the help of archive film, photographs and battle maps.

On the 22nd of June 1941, Adolf Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union. It was the beginning of a campaign that would ultimately decide the Second World War.

At first, the Germans enjoyed stunning success, the panzers forged ahead, while the Luftwaffe ruled the skies. Hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers were killed or captured in huge encirclement battles. Germany seemed to be on the brink of another major victory.

But the Soviet Union did not crumble as expected and despite terrible losses, their will to fight remained strong. German casualties mounted as they came agonizingly close to taking Moscow. Just 20 miles short of their objective, the Soviets launched a sudden counter-attack forcing the Germans onto the defensive. It was Hitler's first defeat on land in the second world war.

But how did it happen? Why did Operation Barbarossa come so close to success before falling at the final hurdle? Well, before we answer that question, a reminder to subscribe to the Imperial War Museum's YouTube channel for more videos just like this every two weeks.

Adolf Hitler begins planning to invade the Soviet Union as early as July 1940 before the Battle of Britain actually takes place. Even back in 'Mein Kampf' in the mid-1920s, he's planning to attack the Soviet Union. This is going to be the battleground on which National Socialism's ideology either wins out or flounders.

One of the tenets of that ideology was the idea of 'lebensraum or 'living space'. The creation of a Germanic Aryan Empire in Eastern Europe that would grant the resources needed for self-sufficiency. Having defeated France and the Low Countries in just six weeks, Germany was confident of capturing that land from the Soviet Union. Hitler believed that communist society was fundamentally weak and that it wouldn't take much to defeat it.

His famous quote is that 'all we've got to do is kick the door in and the whole edifice will come crumbling down'. The Germans are not only planning on a fast Blitzkrieg campaign that's going to knock the Soviet Union out of the war in six to eight weeks, but they need a fast victory. They can't have a slow attritional war because there's not enough reserves of men and material to turn this into a long war we need to win quickly.

To achieve that victory Germany mustered over three million men, the largest invasion force in the history of warfare to that point. Three army groups set out for three different targets, Army Group North heading for Leningrad, Army Group Centre aiming for Moscow, and Army Group South heading for Kyiv.

The whole strategy is a resumption of the Blitzkrieg idea that's been so successful in France, that is you win by not fighting. If you want to find out more about Blitzkrieg and how it works I've put a link to our video on the subject in the description.

When the operation commenced on the 22nd of June 1941 those tactics worked perfectly, the advance exceeding all expectations. Hundreds of thousands of troops were captured as German tanks steamed through the Soviet defences.

The Germans begin the campaign by basically destroying the Soviet Air Force on the ground, they catch them by surprise the Soviet Air Force is basically destroyed. Which enables the German army to move freely across the battlefield, thrust deep into the Russian interior and encircle the frontier armies.

The Soviet army was taken completely by surprise and had not had time to fortify their new border in Poland. While Stalin's purges of the Soviet Officer Corps left his army poorly led.

Whereas in the Battle of France the French and British armies would see themselves just about to get cut off and would decide 'oh time to retreat'. She Soviet armies are so slow, so badly led, that they don't have time to pull back. They get encircled completely cut off, hundreds of thousands of men. However, there is a problem.

By the time they reached this point Germany expected to have destroyed the Russian field armies and that the remaining surge towards Moscow would be more of a parade than a battle. But the Germans had completely underestimated the size of the Soviet army.

They're going to invade with about 3 million men and they expect the total Soviet army to be roughly the same. Whereas in actual fact by Christmas 1941, German armies have captured three million Soviet soldiers and they're still fighting.

Those vast distances covered by the German panzers made them more and more difficult to supply, while Soviet soldiers unexpectedly continued to fight.

So actually these big encirclements behind the German lines became a real problem in that they could now attack into the German lines of communication and cut them off from the front line. So at this point, Hitler said 'well hang on stop'.

Despite protests from the German generals, Army Group Center stopped its attack on Moscow and peeled off to the left and right to help destroy the Soviet pockets that were still fighting, killing or capturing hundreds of thousands more Soviet soldiers in huge battles of annihilation. By mid-September, the Soviet field armies were finally finished and the drive on Moscow could begin.

This pause to look behind and clear up behind, to allow everybody to catch up. It gives a breather for the Soviets to redefine their own front line and bring up more units into the front line dig in before Moscow. So there's now a completely new defence line that the Germans have to break through when they recommence the offensive.

And that wasn't the only problem for Germany. Though these new troops were undersupplied and under-trained, new supplies were beginning to arrive from Britain.

Many of these divisions don't have uniforms they're just civilian clothes, some of the divisions they have to share rifles there's not enough rifles to go around. At the same time, the first arctic convoys are arriving in Murmansk and Archangel bringing supplies from Britain, just giving enough equipment for the soviets to sort of stay in the field.

On top of that, the Soviets had managed to relocate their factories from in front of the advancing Germans to the Ural Mountains. That meant war production was actually kicking up and they were able to get more tanks like the new T-34 into the front line. Worst of all though was the rapidly deteriorating Russian weather.

Through October is the Soviet autumn. So what happens is you have snowfalls, thaw, snowfall, thaw, you get a completely muddy morass across all of central Russia. So the German offensive begins to grind to a halt both because they're coming up against this new defensive line that they didn't really expect. Plus the Soviet weather's getting in the way, plus the fact that now most German formations especially the armoured formations at the tip of the spear are now down to about 50 strength. They get to 20 kilometers away from Moscow and by that stage, the weather is now turned completely it's now full-blown Soviet winter. By the end of November, you've got more German troops in hospital with frostbite than you have with wounds.

The offensive was over, but looking at the whole picture as Barbarossa came to a halt Germany still seemed to be in a good position. Army Group North was sure that the besieged Leningrad was about to fall. Army Group Centre were at the gates of Moscow and Army Group South had taken the Ukraine and Kiev. When the new year came they planned to finish the job, however little did they know the Soviets had an ace up their sleeve.

They've managed to transfer the majority of those Russian divisions which were on the eastern side of the Soviet Union, those that had been facing Mongolia and the Japanese because they'd learned that the Japanese were not going to attack. These weren't green untrained troops, these were proper Soviet field divisions and many of them had been trained for winter warfare because they're from Siberia.

Unlike the exhausted Germans they would be facing, these troops had winter camouflage and weapons that could survive the extreme cold. On December 6th they counter-attacked.

And they launched this big Soviet counter-offensive in front of the gates of Moscow and catch the Germans completely by surprise and force them onto the retreat and that's the end of Barbarossa.

Hitler's ideological assumption that Soviet society would collapse when they kicked the door in could not have been further from the truth. The Germans needed a quick victory, but the Soviets had managed to stay in the fight and turn the Blitzkrieg Barbarossa into a war of production.

The Germans are now being forced into a war of attrition. A long, grinding, slow war in the Soviet interior, in this case in wintertime, and things are looking bad for the Germans because they haven't got the men and material to face up to the soviet armies on a one-to-one basis.

Despite Barbarossa's failure to finish the Soviets quickly, a new German offensive began in 1942. Under Hitler's direct orders the target was the Caucasus in the south and a city called Stalingrad. The German generals wanted to resume the push on Moscow, but Hitler insisted that Germany needed the oil fields in Azerbaijan to supply their armies. Though it escaped his generals Hitler had now realized this was a war of attrition and material whether he liked it or not.

More Second World War

Photographs of an irate Adolf Hitler and smiling Josef Stalin and superimposed onto an Eastern Front battlefield.
Second World War

Operation Bagration: The greatest military defeat of all time?

In the summer of 1944, Germany suffered arguably the greatest military defeat of all time. This defeat came on the Eastern Front and was known as Operation Bagration. Join IWM Curator Helen Upcraft at IWM London to explore the Soviet Union's greatest military victory. 

German motorcycle troops and infantry pass a long column of Russian prisoners during the advance into the Soviet Union, 1941.
© IWM (HU 111371)
Second World War

Operation 'Barbarossa' And Germany's Failure In The Soviet Union

In August 1939, as Europe slid towards another world war, Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression treaty. The Nazi-Soviet Pact came as a complete surprise to other nations, given the ideological differences between the two countries.

Russian soldiers hoist the Red Flag over a recaptured factory, Stalingrad.
© IWM (MOI) FLM 1501
Second World War

What You Need To Know About The Battle Of Stalingrad

Stalingrad was one of the most decisive battles on the Eastern Front in the Second World War. The Soviet Union inflicted a catastrophic defeat on the German Army in and around this strategically important city on the Volga river, which bore the name of the Soviet dictator, Josef Stalin.

Erwin Rommel superimposed onto a map of North Africa with red arrows pointing towards the town of Tobruk.
Second World War

How Erwin Rommel became The Desert Fox

In this episode of IWM Stories, John Delaney explores Rommel's first campaign in the desert. How did he pull off such a stunning reversal? How did the British stop him at Tobruk? And is Rommel’s reputation deserved?

A map showing the furthest German during the Battle of the Bulge. Adolf Hitler is superimposed on top. The text reads: "Why the bulge failed".
Second World War

Why the Ardennes Offensive was Hitler's last

The Battle of the Bulge was Hitler’s final throw of the dice. With Germany in retreat across all fronts and a worsening situation at home, Hitler hoped to force the Western Allies out of the war. But almost nothing went to plan. German forces were able to create a bulge in the Allied line, but by the end of January that bulge was closed. In this episode of IWM Stories, curator Adrian Kerrison takes an in-depth look at the Battle of the Bulge and why it failed.

Visitors exploring the Second World War exhibition
Permanent Gallery

Second World War Galleries

IWM London