Oil could have been one of the driving forces behind Operation Barbarossa. Hitler certainly seemed to lose interest in North Africa and had diverted precious oil and supplies to the East in 1941. That put Rommel in a lose-lose situation. While the Allied tidal wave into North Africa pushed all of Afrika Korps conquests back into a tiny desperate pocket in Tunisia, Hitler began to give up on the oil reserves in Egypt. He felt that the oil from the Caucasus Mountains was already developed into an industrial platform and could easily fuel his war machine. More than likely he had an enemy he hated worse in the east: the Bolsheviks. He felt that at the end of the day the Communists would be his biggest enemies, so striking East and seizing the oil fields of the Caucasus would allow him to kill two birds with one stone. Driven by his master race ideology, he planned a strike in June 1941.
Of course he first had to make sure his southern flank was safe. Hitler controlled the Balkan states of Hungary, Serbia
Romania and Bulgaria. Yugoslavia was pro British and so was Greece. In April 1941 33 Wehrmacht divisions invaded Yugoslavia and destroyed the capitol and the army. In six days, Belgrade surrendered. Athens fell three weeks later. Confident that he would not have to defend against attacks from the rear, Hitler gathered his staff and revealed the bold plans to invade Russia. The plan for Barbarossa entailed three immense strokes into Russia. Army group North would overrun the Baltic States and seize Leningrad. Army Group Center would head straight East and storm Moscow. Army Group South would take the Caucasus and the Ukraine.
I intend to write a lot about Barbarossa, but this event was so big it will take much more research. Barbarossa was the single largest event in human history. It involved roughly 3.2 million Germans under arms, plus 1.4 million Axis allies, plus a million prisoners and a million contract workers, 600,000 vehicles, 600,000 horses and mules and donkeys, 6,500 tanks, 4300 aircraft, and 46,000 artillery tubes, versus 8.2 million Russians, (most in reserve) 40,000 artillery tubes, 15,000 tanks and hundreds of thousands of pack animals.
But that’s a whole other story.
German high command was worried, but silent. Any disagreement was usually met with distain, yelling, or dismissal from Hitler.
At 0315 hours on June 22, 1941, all hell broke loose on a front 1150 miles long, winding around from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. Within two days, the Wehrmacht was 50 miles inside the Russian border. Surprise attacks by the Luftwaffe just about destroyed the Russian air force on the ground. By the end of the month in a gigantic envelopment, Smolensk was captured and 300,000 prisoners were taken.
Of course all this took Stalin by surprise and he was slow to act. He even dismissed early reports that the Germans had advanced in force across the Russian border. Roosevelt and Churchill were ecstatic that Hitler had voluntarily opened a second front and Churchill signed a mutual support contract with Russian foreign minister Molotov. That said,Russian prisoners were piling up at an alarming rate. Of the 3 million taken early on, 2.5 million died in German hands.
At this point Russian resistance began to stiffen. Army Group Center was still 200 km to the east and the Army Group South was bogged down 25 km west of Kiev. Here Hitler made an incredibly bad decision. He diverted half of all his panzer divisions in Army Group Center to head south. Heinz Guderian did not want to help Army Group South break through. He wanted to finish his task and take Moscow. But Hitler had his way and Guderian and Army Group South took 500,000 prisoners around Kiev, destroyed two Soviet Armies, and worse, just a thousand miles to the north Army Group North surrounded and laid siege to Leningrad in an attempt to starve out the residents. It took Lake Ladoga freezing over to allow the Russian defenders to develop it was a secret supply line over the frozen ice. During November 1941 the line separating the living and the dead grew very thin.
Guderian rejoined his Panzer units to join Army Group Center for a planned assault on Moscow by October 1941. By the time the Wehrmacht was on the move for Moscow on the 7th of October, the Russians had already fortified the city. Zhukov was in command of the defense of Moscow and had residents dig a series of deep trenches around the city. He also placed heavy guns in defensive layers that would allow the Russians to offer robust resistance in easily defended cross supporting fields of fire; and if overwhelmed, the Russians gave themselves the leeway to fall back to better positions. On the second day of the attack on Moscow, it rained. The steppes west of the city and the roads into the city became impassable. Nostalgic films show that the Germans had to use donkeys to pull trucks out of the mud. Army Group Center was still 65 km west of Moscow.
Army Group South by now had taken another 100,000 Soviet prisoners in a drive towards the Black Sea. By the 24th of October, Kharkov fell.
Right now, at the end of 1941, the Wehrmacht was about as powerful as it would ever be. The first indications that fortunes were turning was that there was a distinct change in the tone of the once acerbic German high command that was now insistent that the German Army needed rest and resupply badly. Troop strength was down, armored vehicle replacements were not coming in the numbers the Wehrmacht needed to advance and neither were reinforcements. Of course Hitler misaverred the progress in peremptory and impromptu speeches he gave in his command bunker. However something else had come. Something that would eventually kill more Germans than any enemy on the battlefield: the Russian Winter.
Army Chief of Staff Keitel took the advice of his deputy chief Alfred Jodl and had decided in June 1941 not to have soldiers pack winter gear because it would send the message that they would not be home by the end of the year.
Well, they weren’t. And now they had no real winter clothes.
By December 4th, 1941, Army Group North could see the golden domes of the Kremlin across the flat plain. Commanders decided not to launch an offensive. Rather they would surround and starve and lay siege to Moscow. Later in the month, a spy informed Stalin that Japan would not invade Manchuria, because it had other secret plans. Two days later Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. America entered the war, primarily against Japan that was the clear aggressor. Stalin new that Japan would have to probably need to use all its troops in reserve for an American invasion. He felt he could now begin staging the millions of Soviet soldiers in Manchuria into the Russian front. By the time Army Group Center regrouped and attacked Moscow, the Wehrmacht didn’t know that there were a half million fresh Soviet troops, with winter wear, white camouflage and T-34 tanks hiding behind the lines.
On the 5th of December 1941, the Russians burst out from behind the lines and staged a massive two-pronged counter attack
that took the Germans quite by surprise. The T-34s easily handled Panzer Mark IVs and Mark IIIs. The Russians seemed to have ten men behind every Russian the Germans shot dead. This group of Russians didn’t retreat. They fought savagely and for the first time since the invasion of Russian The Germans fell back in stunned retreat. The counterattack did not end for seven days. It was so shocking that Hitler convened regional commanders to discuss the setback. In typical fashion, he said there would be no retreat.
So, Japan attacked the United States and during the contentious political discourse between nations Hitler declared war on the United States, and we would prove to be one of his biggest enemies. Plus, Germany was running out of fuel. So a desperate thrust into the Caucasus was in the plans. First, however, the Crimean peninsula had to be wiped clean of Bolshevik resistance. Then the military apparatus to get Caucasus oil to Germany would be staged from Sebastopol. Hitler used his gigantic rail car borne siege guns and huge artillery concentrations to force Russians away from Kharkov and to pound the defenders of Sebastopol into submission.
On June 28th, 1942, Army Group B joined Army Group A along the Don River and assaulted the city of Rostov. Then the two corps advanced to the Caucasus oil fields. On the way to the oil fields, Army Group B, the German 6th Army under General Von Paulus was ordered to take the town of very little strategic importance. The town was Stalingrad.
Army Group A went ahead to the Caspian Sea and there found fierce resistance. They also discovered that most of forward oil fields within range of the Panzers were all scuttled. Bad news for the diesel hungry panzer divisions stuck deep within Russia.
On August 12th, 1942, Von Paulus took his 6th Army over the Don and surrounded and laid siege to Stalingrad in a bloody, merciless struggle. Stalin refused to allow Russians to leave Stalingrad. He knew that an empty city would be easier to capture. The Germans began the siege with massive artillery bombardments that went round the clock, followed by aerial bombardment. The result of the bombing campaigns was that the steel reinforced concrete buildings mostly still stood, but the dust and rubble and holes in the walls made it difficult for tanks to maneuver in and perfect platforms and dark windows for snipers. The Russians communicated and moved through the sewers. On the 4th of October, Von Paulus moved 6th Army into the city and immediately bogged down. The advance was measured in cadavers.
The Russians reinforced the Red Army in Stalingrad with 14,000 artillery guns, 1000 aircraft and 800 tanks and 1,000,000 infantry. On November 19th, in 1942, the Red Army counterattacked in a pincer movement and cut off Von Paulus. Hitler ordered him to fight to the death to the last man. He did allow Model to try and breakthrough the envelopment from the West, but the Soviets nipped the breakout in the bud. The 6th Army was caught in a ring that they tightened everyday. It was called the Kessel, or cauldron. Thousands of Germans were starving and dying of disease inside the Kessel. Goering insisted that he could supply all the 700 tons of resupply to the 6th Army it needed every day. Turns out he could barely put 80 tons a day in the air during the harsh winter storms stiffening resistance, and deteriorating runways. By then, the Wehrmacht in Stalingrad was defeated as a fighting machine. Men froze to death or died of pneumonia, typhus, or dysentery, or starvation.
The German high command knew the situation was desperate. However, no Field Marshall had ever surrendered. So Hitler promoted Von Paulus to Field Marshal hoping to keep him from giving in. When he was down to 100,000 freezing, starving, disease ridden men, he turned himself in.
The defeat of the German 6th Army was the first corps level defeat of a modern Wehrmacht. Of the 95,000 men taken prisoner only 5,000 ever made it home. It was, as they say, the beginning of the end.
Sources: Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict, 1941-45. Alan Clark. 2003. William Morrow.
When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler (Modern War Studies), Jonathon House, David Glantz. 1998. University of Kansas.
BARBAROSSA: The First Seven Days; Nazi Germany’s 1941 Invasion of the Soviet Union , Will Fowler, 2004.