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  • WW2 Myths: Forgetting General Winter April 5, 2016

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

    stalingrad survivor

    Today a bit of WW2 cobblers: the myth that the German High Command in 1941 forgot that there was a winter in the Soviet Union; thousands of German soldiers on the road to Moscow would be immobilized by ‘General Winter’ and have to face -20 or -30 degrees with nothing but lederhosen. Now as it happens the 1941/1942 winter would be a particularly bitter one for the Germans: many of them were clothed inadequately, though not for the reasons normally given. Let’s start with the following catalogue of disaster, starting with perhaps Hitler’s greatest mistake, the decision to attack Stalin, in the first place.

    22 June 1941 Germany invades the Soviet Union;

    late September, German troops begin to experience quagmire season (Rasputitsa) and their vehicles advance more slowly;

    27 November 1941 the German Quartermaster General warns that the German army was not ready for a Russian winter (with the obvious implication that the winter was beginning);

    19 December 1941 Goebbels appeals on radio in Germany for winter clothes for the troops, harvesting almost 80 million items of clothing from the Reich.

    Looked at in this fashion, the ‘myth’ seems to be textbook. Germans froze without proper winter clothes: and they, in fact, did. But what is at issue here is not whether men died of the cold in inadequate clothing but the reason for the lack of clothing. It had nothing to do with the Germans not planning for winter. Indeed, the 1941/1942 was not even a particularly bad winter in the Soviet Union: it simply beggars belief that the German General Staff could be this incompetent over such an obvious issue.

    There were two problems behind the Russian campaign. First, there was a belief, shared by Hitler but also his generals, that the Soviet Union was ‘rotten’ and that it would collapse in a sorry heap as soon as it was kicked hard. The Germans based this ‘timber’ view partly on ideological fantasies (they could not take a Communist society seriously) but also on the Soviet Union’s appalling performance in the Winter War against the Finns. Now, the Soviet Union was a deeply unpleasant society, but it was not rotten and it would not be bullied down. Second, the General Staff had decided to put certain logistical problems about the campaign to one side, problems that had been though clearly signalled. Given the lack of compatible railroads (a different gauge) and given problems of supply in a land with sub-German infrastructure (ahem) it was understood by planners that the German army would blitzkrieg for perhaps a month and then be slowed down by a lack of fuel and a lack of food. This problem was ignored, perhaps because of the conviction explained above, that the Soviet Union was supposed to commit an act of spontaneous combustion when it experienced a real war: the Soviets were supposed to last a month against ‘real’ men.

    The German success against the Red Army was perhaps, in the first stage, even more complete than its generals might have expected. But Soviet society proved much more resilient, maybe partly stiffened by fear of the homicidal maniacs who were liberating them. In any case, as the frontline Soviet army collapsed, the Germans rushed forward but had to keep fighting because communist society was continuing to operate against them and a second, and a third Soviet army was forming far away: the ultimate nemesis for the Wehrmacht. At this point the logistical considerations that had been pushed away before started to become critical. The Germany army was spluttering forward, with tanks constantly waiting for infantry and supplies to catch up. Then, the army was distracted by the terrible fall mud; then the temperatures started to plummet, increasing mobility as mud froze but adding to general misery and those supply issues. At this point the Germans would have dearly loved to bring forward warm clothing and they had clothes in their depots, but faced with a bullets-gas-clothes menu: they prioritized in that order. In other words, the disaster in the east and men with fingers and eyelids falling off wasn’t caused by bad meteorologists or insane generals: it was caused by a poor assessment of the Soviet Union and a misunderstanding about how long its defeat would take. The distinction is worth making because the general staff were guilty of wishful thinking not rank stupidity. The result though was the same.

    Not the least incredible thing about Goebbels’ broadcast is how late it came: the clothes, of course, would take a long time to reach the men because of the supply problems mentioned above. The regime had waited, probably because it was worried about losing face: Goebbels broadcast is the first where the Nazi leadership admit (albeit tacitly) that Germany is in trouble and it is more apology than appeal.

    Other thoughts on missing clothes: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    30 April 2016, KMH A few thoughts off the top of my head: The original idea was to attack Russia on May 15; it actually began on  June 22. This delay significantly reduced the chances for a quick victory due to favorable weather. The Germans, probably influenced by WWI, greatly underestimated the potential conscripted manpower of the Soviet Union. Stalin deliberately raided the hinterlands for the non-Russian minorities and put them in the front lines for cannon fodder. In contrast, the Tsar relied primarily on Russian troops. If the Germans had treated their millions of Soviet Union POW’s as human beings they could have added them to their own forces. Stalin wasn’t loved everywhere, especially in the Ukraine. Instead the POW’s  were butchered and  starved to death as a plan to reduce the population of Eastern Europe and make room for German settlers. The artificial gasoline derived from coal that the Germans used separated into its components at the low temperatures of the Russian winter, making it useless unless it could be heated up.