Ever since the end of the Cold War and the brief opening of the Russian archives, the narrative of the Second World War has, quite rightly, shifted and the role played by the Soviet Union has had a far greater part in our ever-evolving understanding of that extraordinary global conflict. Historians have pointed out that in terms of manpower, the epic battles of the Eastern Front were unprecedented in the history of the world; and with vast armies and millions of soldiers, so the casualty figures inevitably rose. The loss of human life on that front are so huge as to be almost beyond comprehension.
But historians should be careful. Scale does not necessarily equate to strategic importance; in terms of Germany’s ability to defeat Britain and the USA, for example, the most strategically important theatre was unquestionably the Atlantic, and yet the numbers of men involved was a fraction of that of the Eastern Front. Similarly, no-one could seriously question that the Battle of Britain was one of the key turning points in the war and yet that too was fought by a few thousand men only rather than the millions involved in BARBAROSSA the following summer.
I wonder whether historians have now gone too far the other way in their emphasis of the Eastern Front. Yes, it was an undoubtedly decisive clash of arms, and the front, above all, that bled dry the blood of Germany’s armies, but I’m not certain it is right to suggest that the Allies would have lost without the Soviet Union. The catastrophic German loss in the Battle of Britain, the disastrous failure in the Atlantic, the withering destruction caused by the Allied strategic air campaign, and the loss of Normandy and then Northwest Europe should in no way be underplayed and in those campaigns Britain was either the sole perpetrator or playing a leading part, notwithstanding the enormous contribution, both materially and in manpower, of the United States.
What has to be understood is this: that the narrative of the war has been told almost entirely through the strategic and tactical perspectives rather than the operational as well – in other words, from the view of the war leaders and the men at the coal-face of the fighting. The nuts and bolts, the supply of war – economics and resources – have largely been omitted from this wider narrative, which has massively distorted our view of the conflict. Give the operational level the prominence it deserves and a quite different picture emerges.
With this in mind, it must be remembered that Germany was resource-poor, largely land-locked with poor access to the world’s sea-lanes. It was, in 1939, one of the least automotive of the first-world powers, and had a growing population supported by inefficient and backward agriculture. It was because of its limited access to resources – coal, iron, oil, bauxite, copper, and, above all, food, that it had traditionally (and I include Prussia), fought short, sharp wars in which tactical and operational brilliance and ingenuity were the key to victory. This applied to Frederick the Great as much as it did to Nazi Germany.
The victories against Poland, Norway and the West were prime examples of this very German approach to war, but the moment they failed to bring Britain to heel, Germany faced terrible problems. The oilfields of Romania were never going to provide enough, their shipping capacity was woeful, overseas possessions non-existent, and the riches from the occupied territories swiftly and carelessly milked so that all too soon these countries were costing Germany more than they were providing. For all their strategic value, these territories became a financial and resource hindrance.
Germany invaded the USSR in June 1941 because it had no choice. There was no other means of providing the manpower, resources and, most importantly, food needed – and even though during the German-Soviet alliance, the USSR had been providing Germany with a number of much-needed supplies. This, however, could not be relied upon indefinitely and nor was it enough; both Germany and the USSR were aware of the cynical nature of the alliance and that it would not last. Who attacked first and when was the only matter of debate. Food, though, was the biggest problem. As General Georg Thomas, the head of the General Staff Economic Department, noted in March 1941, ‘The war can only be continued if the entire Wehrmacht is fed from Russia in the third year of the war.’ Since the outbreak of war, Britain had been very successfully blockading Germany from the rest of the world, so it was unable to export or import enough of the resources it needed. It simply could not sustain itself without getting its hands on more and with Britain still in the war producing ever-more war material and building more and more factories, and with the burgeoning armaments factories in the USA, the clock was ticking decidedly against Germany. In other words, unless Nazi Germany went into the Soviet Union, it was, ultimately, going to lose the war. This was why Hitler decided to invade the USSR several years earlier than he had originally planned, and even though that meant fighting a war on two fronts – what many leading German commanders believed was what had scuppered them in the last war. Yet, for Hitler it was a very black and white strategic conundrum: the successful invasion and conquest of the Soviet Union or sue for peace with the west. And that was, to Hitler’s mind, was out of the question.
The German way of war was based on operational speed: overwhelming their enemies with concentrated force at the main point of attack and knocking them off balance, encircling them and then destroying them. This was all very well, but there was a geographical limit for this kind of operation. In the Second World War, it was around 350 miles or an absolute limit of about 500 miles. After that, the wheels literally began to come off. Motor vehicles began to break down, the gap between foot-infantry and mechanised units grew, and supply lines became over-extended. At that moment, the all-important weight of force combined with speed began to falter. This was why nothing less than complete annihilation of the Soviet forces could ever give them victory on the Eastern Front. Capturing several army groups was not enough because in World War II terms, the Soviet manpower was limitless; so was their depth of territory.
A couple of months after BARBAROSSA, Germany was also reaching the limit of its own manpower and had only managed to put as many men as it did into the Eastern Front by taking them from the factories. They replaced them with captured troops and slave labour, but these were, of course, not as efficient as well-fed British and American workers. Rationing was severe in Germany – far more so than in Britain – but rations for slaves was even worse than it was for ordinary German folk. The worse the rations, so productivity went down. What’s more, because of Soviet scorched-earth policy, the promised farmlands of the Ukraine were never the fields of riches Germany had hoped and planned for. Nor did they ever reach the oilfields of Azerbaijan in the Caucasus, and even if they had, it wouldn’t have been much use because there were no pipelines back then and nor would Germany’s already over-stretched railway capacity have been able to cope. Nor did they have the shipping – the most obvious way of transporting oil – or shipping lanes to get it to Germany.
Thus the vast number of divisions Germany was able to put into the Eastern Front was possible only because they put men far older than those of the other major combatant nations into uniform and because they manned their factories with slave labour. And that was only possible because of the staggering numbers of prisoners captured from the Red Army. The Eastern Front enabled Germany to stay in the war but once they had failed to defeat the Soviet Union within 500 miles and within a couple of months from the launch of BARBAROSSA, the chances of them winning the war were now very limited despite the victories of the following spring and summer and despite other brief upsurges in fortunes. Think of this: on the eve of BARBAROSSA, Germany had one enemy in Great Britain (and her Dominions); six months on, she had three: Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States. Together, they were truly unbeatable.
But let’s just consider the situation in June 1941. France, the great jewel of Germany’s early victories, was operating at an industrial capacity of 92% less than it had before its defeat in June 1940. Britain had already gone from producing only 15% of its food at home to almost self-sufficiency, which meant the monthly target of 500,000 tons of Allied shipping to be sunk by the u-boat force was already well under what was needed to bring Britain to her knees. Furthermore, Britain was already winning the Battle of the Atlantic through greater advances in technology than that of Germany and with notable intelligence victories as well. Germany’s surface fleet had also been largely destroyed or put out of effective action. Whatever British reverses there may have been in Greece and North Africa were, in the context of the wider war, of far less importance than the crucial battle being played out in the Atlantic.
And Britain alone was out-producing Germany in terms of tanks and aircraft as well as food. Unlike Germany, Britain preferred to keep British men and women in their factories; productivity per person was, as a result, far higher than that of Germany.
So could the Allies have won the war without Russia? Well, had Germany never invaded the Soviet Union, the answer is yes, they almost certainly would have done – eventually. What set back both Britain and the USA in their quest to smash Nazi Germany was the subsequent invasion of the the Pacific and South-East Asia by Imperial Japan, but that was not a factor in June 1941 when Germany went to war against the USSR; in fact, Japan did not decide to attack Britain and the USA until the autumn of that year. It was a major blow for the Allies, required an enormous dispersal of resources despite the agreed Germany-first strategy, and prompted reverses on the ground and in the air for Britain at a time when the initiative was just beginning to turn in its favour.