Book Review by Lindsay Gudridge: Operation Barbarossa and Germany’s Defeat in the East by David Stahel

David Stahel has conclusively demonstrated that there is more to learn from the history of World War II. His first published work, a revised version of his doctoral dissertation entitled Operation Barbarossa and Germany’s Defeat in the East, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2009.  This work is not another single volume “comprehensive” work describing the entire campaign conducted by Germany and its allies and their invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. Instead, the author restricts his narrative to describing the planning and preparation of the offensive and the crucial first six weeks of the campaign, roughly the period from 22 June 1941 to the middle of August. He also distinguishes himself from other historians by primarily focusing on the plans and actions of Army Group Center, the largest and most powerful of the three German formations and that force most directly focused on the critical task of defeating the mass of Soviet forces to permit the seizure of Moscow.  

Army Group Centre drew its strength from possessing that most vital component of blitzkrieg, multiple formations of tanks, motorized infantry, and artillery. Organized into two panzer groups they exceeded in numbers the total motorized forces possessed by both Army Groups North and South. each possessing one group. Army Group Center was the center of gravity possessing the capability to engage Soviet forces in battle as far in the west as possible to clear the way for the eventual attack on Moscow and the collapse of Soviet resistance.  Stahel develops his narrative by focusing on this force to illustrate the significant initial success achieved in the accomplishment of operational objectives measured by the seizure of territory, prisoners taken, and Soviet casualty counts. What clearly distinguishes Stahel from other writers is his nesting of this supporting narrative into the overall analysis of the planning and developing action of the concept of operations.  

Where Stahel distinguishes himself from other historians and their prior works is that his framework enables an analysis comparing the attainment of objectives and assessing these against the corresponding loss of critical military capabilities measured not just by casualty figures, but also by consumption of supplies and loss of vital equipment in the motorized formations damaged or destroyed in combat. It becomes clear that the supporting infantry armies arrayed on the flanks and the sustainment formations attempting to keep pace with the surging motorized forces inevitably lag further and further behind. This thorough reporting Stahel presents, unlike so many historians who preceded him, clearly highlights and acknowledges the diminishing capability of Army Group Center to achieve its primary objective to seize Moscow. The conclusion of Operation Barbarossa  illustrates the degradation of warfighting capabilities and drives home the planning failures and military defeat that would come about in the remaining five months of 1941.

Kiev 1941 begins where Barbarossa ends, with Adolf Hitler’s strategic guidance to develop and execute branch plans based on the emerging environment and opportunities presented by the isolation and likely capture of Leningrad by Army Group North, and the potential to encircle the formidable Soviet armies defending the bread basket and natural resources of the Ukraine in Army Group South’s area of operations. The German forces all along the front had already advanced between 300 and 475 kilometers in the initial weeks of the campaign and were overdue for an operational pause to permit the lagging infantry formations and sustainment columns to catch up. The German leadership was forced to reassess and reframe the operational environment. Stahel describes the decision making process in gratifying detail. The German commanders remained fixated on the prize they felt Moscow represented, while Hitler recognized the prestige of seizing the city of Lenin in the north, and the valuable strategic potential of the strategic resources of the south. The German generals argued for a renewed and reinforced drive on Moscow. Hitler overruled them and directed operations in the north and south that would divert attention from the main objective and the capture of Leningrad and the defeat of the Soviet armies in the south and seizure of the strategic resources in the Ukraine.

  As with Operation Barbarossa, Kiev 1941 clearly and completely details the planning considerations of the principals, presents the eventual decisions, and relates the operational narrative against the backdrop of the overarching concept of operations. Delays had occurred in massing forces in the south due to required operations in the Balkans, which also possessed the less capable support provided by Axis allies lacking significant motorized formations. When hostilities began, Army Group South also confronted more successful Soviet forces better able to execute their own mobile operations. He further highlights the failures in sustainment, the institutional shortcomings and strengths of the opposing forces, and their principal operations. He then compares and contrasts the successes and failures with the impacts on the German sustainment situation. More German military successes at the tactical level, however these decisions lead to the virtual halt of Army Group Centre, its loss of one Panzer Group to support Army Group South’s operations, and the additional burdens placed on the reorientation of most of the German theater of operations result in the further losses in the mobile forces critical equipment to maintenance, supply, and enemy action making the seizure of the grand prize of Moscow less and less likely.

Throughout both books, David Stahel challenges the conventional western wisdom of the narrative of superior German forces led by their brilliant operational commanders were defeated more by the amateurish Adolf Hitler intruding on military decision making than by the generals’ own failures in planning and their moral failure to prevent a war that Germany was not capable of winning. He cites their failing to properly prepare for war and to provide the extensive logistical support required.  Throughout, Stahel makes use of both German accounts of the war and the public release of important Soviet-era documents released in the nineteen-nineties and that lead him to show that the seeds of the inevitable German defeat in the East were apparent in the midst of the German initial successes in June and July of 1941. By the time of the great German victories in the battles of encirclement in the east, the Soviet defeat in the east was no longer achievable.  By the time Kiev fell in September of 1941, even the victorious generals could see the eventual inevitability of defeat unless urgent decisions were made and additional support, that did not exist, were committed to the gamble to take Moscow before the snows fell that autumn. David Stahel’s second book, Kiev 1941, is a worthy successor volume to his masterful first book Operation Barbarossa and Germany’s Defeat in the East.