When Hitler launched operation Barbarossa, in June 1941, to conquer the Soviet Union. He thought that the Soviet Union would crumble under the overwhelming German Army of 3 million soldiers. Believing that the Soviet Union’s purge of most of their Army's officers, after an embarrassing campaign against Finland, left their country weak and susceptible to attack. In past wars, Soviet soldiers proved to be good warriors despite poor leadership from their officer corps. The officers that remained after the purge had “the self confidence to act with decision and energy on the battlefield” (Keegan pg. 173). The Soviets also had, thanks to Stalin’s industrialization program, modern tanks, aircraft, radios and radar. Stalin was provided with many clues to the invasion but persisted in believing that Germany would not break the Molotov-Ribentrop Pact.
With the German Army advancing past the Soviet defenses, General Halder wanted to drive straight to Moscow, destroying the Russian Army in the process. Hitler did not agree with Halder. He wanted to capture all the territory he could in a massive operation against the encircled Russian Armies. In Hitler's Fuhrer Directive Number 33, two Panzer Groups were to be taken from the drive towards Moscow and sent to Kiev and Leningrad. To further halt the drive, Hitler ordered what remained of the Army Group Center to the Ukraine to destroy the Soviet Fifth Army. General Guderian's divisions were battle weary and being only 220 miles from Moscow he believed he could march into Moscow before the fall rains hit. Bock was in favor of the initial plan to take Moscow and "embarked on a delaying operation to frustrate Hitler's reordering of the Barbarossa strategy" (Keegan pg. 194). Guderian fought the Russians at Roslavl, delaying his advance to assist General Rundstadt. He wanted to delay his march south with the hope that Hitler would change his mind and let him resume his drive towards Moscow. Hitler reconsidered his Fuhrer Directive Number 33 and issued Fuhrer Directive Number 34a reestablishing the march to take Moscow. Hitler was uneasy with his new directive and changed his mind three days later. He returned to his original plan because he did not like the Russian army's position between his Army Group Center and South. Hitler did not think that taking Moscow was as important as completely wiping out the Russian Army in the field. He was trying to avoid the destruction that befell Napoleon in 1812 after he had taken Moscow only to be defeated by a counter-attack by the remaining Russian Army. This Nineteen-day interregnum of indecision by Hitler and his Generals saved Moscow from destruction but also proved costly the Soviets who lost 650,000 soldiers at Kiev. Hitler wanted to capture the area between Kiev and Kharkov due to its economic importance. The drive towards Moscow could only be resumed if the southern campaign was completed before the harsh Russian winter set in.
The Army Group North's attempt to take Leningrad began on 8 August. They ran into many obstacles on their advance. Leningrad had a lake to its rear serving as a natural barrier and the citizens of Leningrad had built many miles of anti-tank ditches, earthworks and over 5,000 pillboxes. General Hoepner lost General Hoth's Panzers which were sent back to the Army Group Center. This left Hoepner's Panzer Group 4 "by itself to breach Leningrad’s fortifications and take the city" (Keegan pg. 197). The attempt to take Leningrad was failure for Hoepner, who could not successfully breach the trenches dug by the citizens of Leningrad. During his final assault he was short of many of his tanks that had been sent South to take part in Operation Typhoon. Hitler in sending the bulk of Hoepner's Panzers to the south cost him the taking of Leningrad in 1941. If Hoepner had the troops that he needed he might have broke through the defense fortifications and taken the city.
With the completion of operations in the Ukraine, Hitler wanted to mount a massive offensive to take Moscow before the arrival of winter would hamper operations. The Army Group Center was somewhat weaker than it was at the beginning of the summer. It had suffered many casualties in the Ukraine and on the eve of Operation Typhoon it was a battered and under supplied army. On November 16, Hitler kicked off the final stage of Operation Typhoon. After some initial success the German Army maneuvered itself to positions only a few miles outside the city. By now the harsh winter had struck and they were short of supplies. The Russians took Hitler by surprise by launching a counter offensive forcing the German Panzer Groups to fall back and “by Christmas Day 1941 the Russian armies had retaken almost all the territory won by the Germans in the culminating stages of their drive on Moscow” (Keegan pg. 206). Hitler had grossly underestimated the Russians troop strength and was taken completely by surprise when their 100 divisions launched the counterattack. Although this was only the first major setback for the Germans. Hitler lost faith in his Generals and dismissed Brauchitish along with many others naming himself new leader of the Army.
During the winter, Hitler built up his army and was convinced that he could conquer Russian after the spring thaw was over. In the spring of 1942, the Germans launched Operation Blue into the Caucasus led by Army Group South. They hoped to link up with Rommel, who was coming over from the North African coast. If this operation was successful Germany would have control over most of the Russian and Middle East Oil fields. With the German army pushing south, Hitler made a change in plans. He sent Bock to Voronezh to destroy the Russians there and Bock was then to move along with Paulus’s Sixth Army to Stalingrad. If he could take Stalingrad this would prevent an Russian flanking attacks on the German forces moving into the Caucuses. At Voronezh, Bock became entangled with the Russians and was ordered by Hitler to move out to link up with the Sixth Army advancing on Stalingrad. This move by Hitler enable most of the Russians at Voronezh to escape.
On August 19, Hitler launched the attack on Stalingrad with the Sixth Army and 4th Panzer Army. The Russians had built strong defenses for the city, comparable to the defenses at Leningrad and Moscow. In the attack on Stalingrad, Hitler’s troops fought a tough battle before the Russians finally breached their defenses. Hitler’s mistake was that he had become obsessed with taking and destroying a city that was not all that important in his grand campaign.
Hitler’s biggest mistake at Stalingrad was placing the weaker Romanian, Hungarian and Italian armies on the outer circle around Stalingrad leaving the Germans in and around the city. This gave Stalin the opportunity to “surround and overcome the South Army without having to fight it directly” (Keegan pg. 234). The Russian counterattack easily destroyed the weaker armies on the outer circle. Hitler then gave orders for the Sixth Army to hold their position in Stalingrad. He then unsuccessfully sent General Manstein’s Army Group Don in to try to link up with the encircled Sixth Army. As winter arrived the Germans were under siege in Stalingrad and desperately running short of supplies. On January 30, Paulus was forced to surrender after being overrun. This was the turning point in Hitler’s Russian Campaign “over 300,000 men had been wantonly sacrificed in a vain attempt to hold an untenable position” (Carr, William History of Germany: 1815 - 1990, pg. 362).
The aim of the Russian counter-attack was to capture Kharkov and to cut off any Germans retreating from the Caucasus. After retaking Kharkov and Kursk their army was short of the tanks and men needed to continue the offensive. General Manstein requested more tanks and men to fill his panzer divisions. On March 10, Manstein drove the Russians out of Kharkov. Instead of sending in reinforcements, Popov sent them to hold a position just south of Kursk. The Russians held this ground throughout the spring thaw, while the Russian war machinery at home was churning out tanks twice as fast as the Germans. During the Kursk salient, the Russians built defenses to protect what Stalin thought would be the path that Hitler would take to Moscow. Luckily for the Russians Hitler delayed Operation Citadel, to take back winter losses, long enough for their armies to re-supply and regroup themselves. Hitler doubted that Operation Citadel would succeed but did nothing to cancel it. He believed that if the Russians continued to build up their armies they would be able to launch a massive offensive in 1944.
Operation Citadel kicked off on July 5, with the Ninth Army attacking from the North. The Russians were able to repel four attacks until a fifth attack broke through six miles on a narrow front. The Germans tried again the next day, using fresh troops, to break through but Russian resistance prevented them from breaking through the Russian second defense line. After two more days of fighting the Germans failed to make progress and were forced to put up a defense, failing in their mission. South of Kursk, the Forth Panzer Army and Task Force Kampf attacked. They succeeded in breaking through the first defense line before the Russian First Tank Army joined the battle putting up a fierce resistance. During the seven day battle, the Germans failed to progress more than twenty-two miles. The Russians launched a large counter-attack on July 12 near the village of Prokhorovk and the largest tank battle in history took place involving 800 Russian and 400 German tanks. This battle forced the Germans back to the positions they occupied before they launched Operation Citadel.
Hitler's Russian campaign failed due to his underestimation of the Russian Army’s strength. He dismissed the Generals who argued or failed to achieve his lofty objectives. Failing to reach his objectives before the fall rains and spring thaws allowed the Russians to rebuild their armies, enabling them to take back lost territory during the summer months. I believe one of Hitler's biggest errors during the campaign was his over stretching German supply and communication lines, making such a offensive extremely difficult to successfully accomplish.