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Old 9th April 2007, 14:59
Dénes Bernád Dénes Bernád is offline
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Join Date: Dec 2004
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Dénes Bernád will become famous soon enough
Historical Text on the Origins of WW2 on the Eastern Front - Peer Review Requested

Below is a text I intend to include in my upcoming book on the air war on the Southern flank of the Eastern Front (June-October 1941).

I would appreciate any comments.
Thank you.


* * *

The Road to the German-Soviet War
- by Dénes Bernád, 2007

Most historical studies – published both in the East and West – still regard the German-Soviet confrontation during World War Two – the largest armed conflict in the history of mankind – as an aggression committed by the up-surging and bellicose Germany against a militarily unprepared Soviet Union, which was first surprised, then overwhelmed by the unexpected onslaught of the Wehrmacht. However, in view of new information that surfaced in the past couple of decades, from previously inaccessible sources, it appears that this outdated view of the origins of the giant armed clash on the Eastern Front cannot be realistically sustained any more in a scholarly and apolitical contemporary study.

It now appears that the opening act of the Eastern Front was neither an unprovoked aggression by pugnacious ‘Nazi’ Germany, nor a legitimate, pre-emptive strike of a ‘clever’ Hitler. It was rather the outcome of a parallel gear-up for a total war by two totalitarian regimes, led by similarly thinking and planning dictators, who acted quasi-independently of the other, with the final scope of annihilating the other side by force.

Despite the non-aggression pact – proposed by the signing parties to be valid for ten years – signed by the foreign ministers of the USSR and the IIIrd Reich – Vyacheslav M. Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop, respectively – on 23 August 1939, pact that surprised many, as well as divergent diplomatic moves, both sides actually prepared fervently to attack the other.

On 18 September 1940, the Soviet Chief of the Stavka (short for Shtab verkhovnogo komandovanya, or General Headquarters), Army General Kirill A. Meretskov, and the People’s Commissar for Defence, Marshal Semyon K. Timoshenko, prepared a war plan that envisaged attacking the IIIrd Reich, in form of a giant pincer, starting from Byelorussia and Bessarabia, respectively. Hitler and his generals did not sit idle, either. Despite the vague directions given much earlier by Hitler in his ominous Mein Kampf, and other political pamphlets of the National-Socialist Party (NSDAP), by 1940 there was not clear cut, detailed German military plan to attack the USSR.
In mid-1940 – approximately at the same time with the similar Soviet war plans – Hitler assigned the OKW (short for Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, or the Armed Forces High Command) the task to prepare detailed plans for the eventuality of an anti-Soviet war. Simultaneously, both sides initiated the relocation of troops closer to the other state’s current borders. The Soviets amassed men and matériel to Byelorussia, Western Ukraine, and the newly acquired territory of Bessarabia, while the Germans transferred troops to the conquered Poland, and also moved ‘instructional troops’ to the allied Rumania. Parallel to these military movements, both sides also acted on the diplomatic front as well, in attempt to deceive and outmanoeuvre the other. This travesty had little success, however.

Hitler decided to actually go to war against his Reich’s giant Eastern neighbour following the Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov’s visit to Berlin in mid-November 1940. He signed ‘Directive 21’ – code named personally by him as ‘Operation Barbarossa’ probably to stress the idea of a “crusade against Bolshevism” – on 18 December 1940. It was ordered that all war preparations to be commenced immediately, and be concluded by 15 May 1941.

On the opposing side, Stalin did not make up firmly his mind as of yet, and instructed his general staff to work on further stratagems. However, his actual attack timeline was apparently way behind Hitler’s. Stalin actually hoped that Hitler will loose many months in fighting the Western Powers, allowing the Soviets to catch up in building the Red Army and preparing it for war. Stalin regarded the period of enforced peace after the Hitler-Stalin pact as an opportunity to build up and reorganize the Soviet military while Germany was busy in the west. The occupied areas of Finland, the Baltic states, Eastern Poland, Belarus, Bessarabia, no less than the forward-deployed troops, were seen as a barrier behind which this military preparation could be accomplished. Moreover, Stalin was absolutely convinced that Hitler would attempt nothing until he had resolved his conflict with Great Britain. He was encouraged in this preconception by a well-orchestrated German deception operation. When the head of Soviet military intelligence, Lieutenant-General Ivan I. Proskurov, explained Stalin already in August 1940 that Germany could not successfully invade Great Britain, he dismissed him (he was executed in October 1941). Stalin did not want to see the true situation as, at that time, his army needed at least a year to be ready to attack his de jure ally. Thus it was that Stalin was able to ignore the massive military build-up on his borders, and to dismiss every warning of a German attack as disinformation or provocation, right up until the early morning of 22 June 1941.

By early 1941, both sides feared their war plans could be crossed out by the other; therefore, they sped up the build-up of forces, while keeping an apparently diplomatic façade towards each other. The German High Command finished detailing the anti-Soviet war plans in early February 1941, with hostilities to actually start by late spring. The war was predicted to be over in less than half a year, counting on the military and morale collapse of the USSR. Hitler, like Stalin, was a victim of his own preconceptions. But, in contrast to Stalin, he was ill served by his intelligence services, as were most Western governments in regards to the USSR. In mid-1939, the British and French military intelligence specialists did not believe that the Red Army could crush the Wehrmacht. The only confidence was in the Polish Army, which was the "sole, real opponent to the German Army". In fact, almost everybody out of USSR thought that, after Stalin's purges, the Red Army would disintegrate when faced with a powerful invasion of the country. When Hitler met Antonescu on 12 June 1941 (i.e., ten days before ‘Barbarossa’), the self-styled Rumanian Conducător told him that the Red Army would collapse very quickly, as the population wanting to be liberated…
The Germans overestimated their own capabilities, as well as they underestimated the Soviet combat force and its capacity to resist an overall attack. The first paragraph of ‘Directive 21’ stated that: “Soviet Russia is to be crushed in a quick campaign, before the end of war with England”.

Stalin and his marshals lagged behind with their preparation. In January 1941, a major command war game took place with the participation of a handful of important Soviet military leaders. The details of this command-level drill were further refined in May 1941 by the new Chief of General Staff, Army General Georgi K. Zhukov, and Marshal Semyon K. Timoshenko. Stalin himself held a far-reaching speech at the Kreml, on 5 May, declaring, among others: “The Red Army is a modern army, and a modern army is an offensive army”, which clearly was at odds with the USSR’s official defensive policy. It has to be said, however, that the Soviets’ war preparations appear to be somewhat lesser in scope than the Germans’, not envisaging to conquering the entire IIIrd Reich, only the occupied Poland, Eastern Prussia and most of Rumania, while Hitler intended to occupy the whole European area of the USSR.

In the meantime, Soviet war production also had geared up to full steam, simultaneously with the mobilization of manpower. Germany, too, built up its forces on the Eastern areas that were under Berlin’s military or political control. Both sides tried to conceal their real goals, by attempting to outmanoeuvre the other side on the diplomatic arena, and to hide the strategic movements of their troops towards the common borders. Neither side truly believed the other one would actually attack beforehand. Both Moscow and Berlin relied on the effect of a surprise attack, followed by an envisaged quick victory.

In mid-June, the Red Army had overall superiority over the Wehrmacht and the small Axis allies in almost all military aspects. The ratio was approximately 1.1:1 in manpower, 3.6:1 in armour, 2.5:1 in aircraft, and 8:1 in artillery to the Soviets’ advantage (it has to be noted, however, that the dry figures are somewhat misleading, as the majority of Soviet aircraft and armour was obsolete to the day’s military standards. A much lesser percentage of the Germans’, and somewhat more of the Axis allies’ war matériel could be considered obsolete. Also, the majority of the German soldiers and aircrew had built up combat experience in the previous war years, which cannot be said of most of the Soviet soldiers and flyers – except of those who fought in Spain, Finland, Mongolia and Manchuria, and were still active in VVS). Nevertheless of its numerical superiority, the Red Army was still in full build-up on 22 June 1941, and thus was caught by surprise, when the Wehrmacht and its Rumanian ally struck Sunday at dawn, at 3:15.

The Reich’s Small Axis Allies Join In

On 26 June 1940, the Soviet Foreign Minister, V. M. Molotov, demanded Rumania to cede Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina – incorporated into the country some 21 years earlier, a move Moscow never acknowledged – within twenty-four hours. This demand came at a hard time for Rumania, who was isolated internationally. France – Rumania’s traditional ally – had been defeated, while Great Britain, another supporter of Rumania, was under siege. Hitler declined to intervene in the dispute, as under terms of the German-Soviet pact, Bessarabia was within Moscow’s sphere of influence. Therefore, abiding to the ultimatum it could not refuse, two days later Rumania ceded these territories to the USSR.
This significant territorial loss further increased tensions between the two countries. Armed clashes on the new frontier along River Pruth became regular, on ground and in air, too, as detailed later on.

On the political front, during the same time period, tensions in Bucharest increased to a boiling point. In the wake of massive anti-government protests in opposition to the territorial losses, King Carol II abdicated in favour of his son, Michael I, on 6 September 1940. On the same day, the young new king asked General Ion Antonescu to lead the country, assigning him unlimited powers. The general, who declared himself Conducător (i.e., Leader), decided to form a new, one-party government with the far-right Iron Guard (a.k.a. "The Legion of the Archangel Michael"), and declared the Kingdom a "Legionary State". All other political activity has been banned. On 23 November 1940, Antonescu signed in Berlin the ‘Tripartite Pact’, following the arrival of the German Military Mission to Rumania from 12 October on. These Wehrmacht troops were sent to train the Rumanian army and air force, as well as to protect the vital Ploieşti oilfields and refineries. Later on, they would become the spearhead of the sizeable German armed force that would strike the USSR next June. By March 1941, a total of 680,000 German troops were stationed in Rumania.

On 14 January 1941, in Berlin, Hitler revealed to Antonescu his general plan to attack the Soviet Union. The Führer asked for full co-operation of the Rumanian armed forces. Antonescu enthusiastically agreed, fuelled in part by the wish the recover the territories lost a year earlier and in part by his anti-Communist convictions. Both sentiments were largely shared by most of the Rumanian officer corps and political élite. The Rumanian armed forces were thus unhesitatingly committed by the Rumanian dictator to the “Anti-Bolshevik Crusade”. In exchange for his unequivocal support, the ‘Conducător’ asked for Hitler’s help to destroy the Iron Guard, in order to have free hands to prepare his Army for the imminent war. Rumania became the only ally of Germany, which took active part in the anti-Soviet campaign from the very first day of war. Rumania also committed, by far, the largest military resources to the anti-Soviet campaign among all of Germany’s allies.

In contrast to Rumania, Hungary did not have any territorial claims against its big Eastern neighbour. The differences between Budapest and Moscow were rather ideological. Hungary’s Regent, Vice-Admiral Miklós Horthy – a highly decorated, experienced veteran officer and battleship commander of the Austro-Hungarian Navy of W. W. 1 – was a fervent anti-Communist, as was most of the Hungarian officer staff. Hungary was the first power to adhere to the ‘Tripartite Pact’ on 20 November 1940. However, this was not enough to persuade Budapest to join Berlin in attacking the Soviet Union.
Initially, Hitler did not count on Hungary’s participation in the upcoming war either. Hungarian troop build-up at the country’s North-Eastern borders, dully observed by the Soviets, were more of a precautionary role than other. It was an unexpected incident, the bombing of city of Kassa (now Košice, Slovakia) on 26 June, which triggered Hungary’s entrance in the anti-Soviet war. Next day, war with the USSR was officially declared. With it, Hungary became the last of the small Axis powers to join in the “Anti-Bolshevik Crusade”.

Tiny Slovakia, a newly created state on the ruins of Czechoslovakia following the German occupation of the Czech Lands in March 1939, signed the ‘Tripartite Pact’ on 24 November 1940. However, President Monsegnior Dr. Jozef Tiso committed his country only reluctantly to Hitler’s aggression against the big neighbour, inhabited by fellow Slavs. It was mostly done as a ‘thank-you’ to Hitler for helping create the Slovak state.
The Slovak government began its preparation for war with the Soviet Union already in March 1941. There was a massive propaganda campaign to persuade the population that the war against bolshevism is vital, and that only the victory of the IIIrd Reich will assure the perpetuation of the Slovak State. The Slovak Army also planned ahead, so the decision to join the Wehrmacht in attacking the USSR came promptly. Accordingly, Slovakia declared war on the Soviet Union already on 23 June, the second day of the war.

Although Mussolini’s Italy declared war on the Soviet Union already on 22 June, alongside Germany and Rumania, it did not commit troops to the new front from the onset. Later the summer, a few Italian volunteer pilots did fly several combat missions over the southern front, which will be briefly noted.

Finally, Bulgaria – another Slavic nation with close historical and cultural ties to Russia, and thus the Soviet Union – although signed the ‘Tripartite Pact’ on 1 March 1941, managed to remain neutral in the Soviet-Axis confrontation, until Soviet troops reached its frontiers in early September 1944. Nevertheless, Bulgarian warplanes on coastal patrol service did pursuit occasionally Soviet aircraft swaying into Bulgarian airspace.
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