The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

How Germany lost the War in 1941

by Ann Bourdin

Curtain raiser address to SAMHS Jhb branch in March 2013

We are all brought up on fiction - as readers, and as viewers of both film and TV, and most narrative fiction (the sort we all enjoy) has beginnings, middles and end, with climaxes, conflicts and a final resolution underpinning the storyline.

So, when some of us become historians, we try to impose the same structure on real events, and the result is also fiction, even though it purports to be otherwise.

One of the great narrative temptations, for the military historian in particular, is the turning point - the moment when the pendulum swings, and the tide, which was running in one direction, turns and goes the other way.

So all histories of wars suffer from this problem and there is great competition between the practitioners of military history writing, for their own chosen turning point, including the denigration of any rival who chose a different one. It is a game they all play, and tonight I am going to play it too.

I hesitated to attempt WWII, since there are in our audience both students of that period and survivors of one or other aspects of that conflict. Nevertheless, I am going to take you all on with MY turning point, which. I must emphasise has as much and as little validity as any other previously propounded.

For WWlI, the favorites at the starting gate are Dunkirk, when the Germans failed to continue their onslaught on the last remaining enemy: The Battle of Britain, when the Luftwaffe lost control of the skies: Pearl Harbour when the Americans came in, and the Invasion of Russia, which brought into being that fatal problem of the war on two fronts.

Tonight I shall set the cat among the pigeons by choosing one of which you probably have never heard
a) To prove I know my stuff (the fatal pride of all writers and speakers) and
b) To create a new talking point on WWII

If I were a practicing historian, such a novel presentation would attract notice, kudos and perhaps an advance on a future publication. But I am, fortunately, an amateur and can take these considerations as sport - to the chagrin of real historians and, I hope, the delight of tonight's gathering. For I shall argue, cogently I believe, that MY turning point is novel, believable and possibly true. So here we go.

I shall argue that the turning point revolved around personality clashes, resulting in fateful delays, which cost Hitler the war.

Germany under the Kaiser had had a military class, the Junkers, who were much more than a purely professional army. They were all brought up with the same ethos, the same values and were certain that, as a class, they were an essential partner in the state machinery. This worked well enough when the head of state accepted this vision and sharing of power, but when the head of state became Adolf Hitler, who had never risen from the ranks in the old army, and who had a view of a Germany serving only his ends, the split between the political hierarchy and the military one, became critical.

Hitler needed a professional army to carry out his conquests, but he disliked and despised the senior members of that arm, both collectively as a class, and often personally as individuals. And they feared him. Like all totalitarian regimes, power came from dividing opponents one from another, and Hitler was initially very successful in achieving his aims, because of the blindness of the Wehrmacht, and partly because he gave them the military glory they all craved, and which was the rationale of their existence.

However, they seem not to have taken into account the fact that far from being the other half of the state, they were now only one quarter of it, with a resultant loss of influence. Hitler had the party, which had its own press, control of education and local government, the Hitler Youth and other paramilitary organisations. Then there was the SS, which included the Gestapo, the SD assassination cadres, the Central Security Office (euphemism of note) and the Waffen SS. Then Goering had his own empire, which covered the whole of the airforce, the production capacity which supplied it, and was direct of the Four Year Plan.

So, if push came to shove, Hitler had a highly armed police, an airforce and ground organisation, and a regional administrative machine. As the war progressed, the stresses and strains would shatter the body politic, exacerbated by the personal animosities, one to another, of Goebbels, Bormann, Goering and Himmler.

Therefore, any demands made by the army for control of military policy or strategy, were relatively easily turned aside, not least because the generals themselves disagreed and were rivals.

It had all begun with the Deutschland Agreement in 1934, when the two sides, Hitler's and the Army's, made a pact with the full intention by each to double-cross the other. Hitler was better at this than the army and by 1035, he had gained ascendancy. While the army hesitated over its response, Hitler offered them a temptation and a diversion ,which fully occupied them professionally and ensured that they kept out of politics - he declared military conscription and general rearmament, which would keep them busy and led them to believe that they had won.

It was during this period that Hitler changed the badges of rank to include a swastika - which grew in prominence as the old German eagle diminished, and the new fealty oath, sworn to by every soldier, which read
"I swear before God to give my unconditional obedience to
Adolf Hitler, Fuhrer of the Reich and of the German people,
Supreme Command of the Wehrmacht, and I pledge my word
As a brave soldier, to observe this oath always, even at
Peril of my life."

By 1937, Hitler was able to dismiss the War Minister, Blomberg, for marrying a prostitute, the Fritsch, the Command in Chief, for unnatural vice. Altogether, 16 senior generals were dismissed and another 44 were transferred. All these changes were humiliating and pressurizing, but the final blow came in February 1938 when the army became officially subordinated to the OKW, so that the state structure became like this. Thus the army lost control of all strategic matters, plus many logistical points and technical improvements (e.g. new weapons) So there was no Chief of Staff Committer, or Joint Chiefs, as with the Allies.

But the generals were timid by Hitlerian standards (who wasn't?) and simply protested, albeit feebly. They would continue to do so about everything from the Anschluss onwards, and were proved wrong at every turn. They were loathe to enter the political arena, since fundamentally they despised all civilians. For most, the only outlet was work, which gave a quality to German staff work unequalled by any other army.

And the successes kept coming, so that the Generals were bathed in glory and received gifts and decorations aplenty. But in many cases, they were too easily given and this created yet another tension between Hitler and his generals. For instance, Von Runstedt was made a Field Marshall for the fall of Paris, which was a walkover, and he knew it.

Now we must turn to Russia, where my turning point lies, and here we see a totally new situation both for Hitler and the Army. This was no easy victim to be overrun in a matter of weeks, the distances were too great for that. But more worrying were the sheer numbers of Russian soldiers.

However, everyone, on the allied side and the German, thought that the purges executed in the late 30's had emasculated and demoralised the Russians to the point where they looked an easy target. Not enough was then known of their military equipment or mobility to make the kind of judgements hindsight would lend. And everyone underestimated the basic Russian willingness to die for Mother Russia.' Perhaps there is a significance in the fact that Germans had a Fatherland, and the Russians a Motherland - who knows?

This [map] is what the fronts looked like on 22nd June 1941, and this is Hitler's declaration on that day
"'Weighted down with heavy cares, condemned to months of silence, I can at last speak freely - German people! At this moment a march is taking place that, for its extent, compares with the greatest the world has ever seen. I have decided again today, to place the fate and the future of the Reich and our people, in the hands of our soldiers. May God air us, especially, in this fight."

Typical overblown Hitlerian rhetoric, yes, but he was not wrong about the size and scope of this conflict, although he could not know how much he had over-extended himself finally. So, the die was cast, and the Russians were surprised.

It is not my intention to rehash the Russian campaign, nor is my turning point here. I aim to show that Hitler's gigantic gamble could have succeeded, except for my turning point. For my turning point revolves round personalities, and now we must meet them.

Plus four independent Panzer gruppen under
  1. Kleist
  2. Guderian
  3. Hoth
  4. Hoepner
This disposition of forces had been very fruitful in France and Poland previously, and there seemed no reason to change it. These formations looked on the map as if the targets were Leningrad, Moscow and Kiev, followed by Odessa, but the battle orders specifically stated as the objective of these attacks (the) destruction of the bulk of the Soviet Army, located in Western Russia by bold operations involving deep penetrations by armoured spearheads, and prevention of the withdrawal of battleworthy elements into the Russian interior.

It all began with this classic Clausewitzian strategy being followed, so that by 20th July (a scant month into the campaign) this line had been reached, more than halfway to the 3 physical objectives of the great cities. The panzers thrust forward, while the infantry mopped up behind. But mopping up in Russia was a bit like The Sorcerer's Apprentice, the more you mopped, the more water appeared in the form of seemingly endless Russian soldiers.

So, although the front looked very promising, there were worrying pockets of Russians littered all over the central sector. The roads were also distressingly poor, dusty and narrow, and the German wheeled transport which supported the army, and especially the tanks with ammunition, fuel and spares, could not keep up. It was a long way from reliable depots.

By 8th August, there was a lull, and a conference was called with Hitler and all the commanders. The Wehrmacht (never Hitler men) hoped to wrest from him both freedom of action and the wherewithal to fight it, but he cleverly interviewed them one by one, ensuring that their rivalry would lead to conflicting demands. Then he announced that the centre under Bock was to remain in place and the North and South wings were to push on to the cities of Leningrad and Odessa, and swing round to meet east of Moscow, thus entrapping all of Russia's fighting capacity.

None of this suited the generals and tank commanders one bit. Bock would be denied the glory of taking Moscow, while Leeb would get Leningrad and von Rundstedt Odessa, and the worrying shortage of materiel, worried them all. But Hitler worked in concepts, not details, and any criticism of the vision was deemed pusillanimous - only to be expected of his uncooperative generals. Their personal rivalry, which he had exploited before to get his way, now came back to bite him.

They dithered and argued and sent messages to Hitler about various aspects of the plan, but for 19 perfect campaigning days of good weather, they DID NOTHING, and this, ladies and gentlemen, is my turning point.

Had they been able to continue the central thrust, they could have had Moscow, with what results we cannot see, or if they had wholeheartedly embraced Hitler's plan, they could have taken Leningrad before winter.

But they did the one fateful thing which allowed Timoshenko time and space to regroup and make a plan - they stood still. And the results of that, make up the history of the rest of the war on the Eastern Front.

And so the failure in the East as essentially a military failure, so that the state, which had lived by the sword, would die by it. The fundamental cause was the tension between the OKH (the army) and the OKW under Hitler's control. While the military operations had been everywhere successful, each could ignore this, but once the military campaign took strain, the political chasm widened.

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