Operation Barbarossa – The Beginning

I wanted to write about the battle of Stalingrad today but then I realised that unless there is a background on the strategic situation preceding the battle, the importance of the battle itself would not be apparent. So we will start off today by taking a look at Operation Barbarossa.

Frederick Barbarossa (Red Beard) was a charismatic King of Germany who united the German Nation in the 12th century. Legend says that Frederick is still asleep in his mountain retreat (like King Arthur, Merlin, Ogier the Dane etc) and awaits the end of days when he will rise again and restore Germany to its ancient glory (or lead the fight of Christendom against the AntiChrist, depending upon which legend you believe). Thus it was appropriate that when Hitler decided to create an eastern front by attacking the mighty Soviet Empire, he decided to name it after the legendary savior of the German empire.

Hitler in his Mein Kampf talks about Lebensraum or “Living Space”. He believed that the Aryan race needed extra space for growth and that this space can be found in the East at the expense of the Slavic people. Due to this ideology posited by Hitler, the western allies had a belief that all the Hitlers rhetoric prior to the World War were directed against USSR and that in case of opening of hostility they can count on Stalin providing the eastern front. These calculations were dashed when on the morning of the fateful day of 24th August, 1939 Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and German Foreign Minister Joachim Ribbentrop signed what came to be known as the Molotov Ribbentrop pact. The treaty in addition to all the secret protocols on dividing up the then independent countries of eastern Europe into the Russian and German sphere of influence also established a pact of nonaggression between the two countries. Thus when Poland, France, Netherlands, Denmark etc had to bear the brunt of the Nazi Blitzkreig, there was no eastern front to relieve the pressure.

Joseph Stalin, the supreme leader of USSR was a paranoid leader. This paranoia resulted in him carrying out the Great Purge, in which most of the senior officers of the Red Army including the popular Marshal of the Soviet Union Mikhail Tukhachevsky, whose strategy of Deep Operation was later used with great effect in the Battle of Stalingrad. Purging of the military leadership (30,000 officers were either killed or deported to Siberia) led to the militray being deficient in strategic and tactical capabilities. In the end it is not just the numbers that win the war. It is also the men and the thought that goes behind it.

Operation Barbarossa had the objective of capaturing Leningrad, Moscow and the oil rich regions of Baku in southern Russia and the food basket of Ukraine.

The German war plan consisted of three Army Groups:
  • Army Group North (Leeb): Moving Northwards and capturing Leningrad.
  • Army group Center (Bock): Drive through Smolensk, ending with capturing Moscow.
  • Army Group South (Von Rundstedt): Ukraine, Kiev, ending in the oil rich Caucasus.

Army Group Center included Heinz Guderian‘s 2nd Panzer Group. Guderian is famed as the father of Blitzkrieg. Guderian was among the few military leaders (Ernst Volckheim being another German Colonel) who realised the potential of armored concentration in punching through enemy defenses. Mikhail Tukhachevsky was another such military officer. But his getting executed during the Stalin’s Great Purge made it sure that it was the Germans who had the advantage when it came to tactics.

On the Soviet side, the Army was organized into military districts, which were later transformed into Fronts as the hostilities commenced. At the start of the operation, Germans had slight superiority in numbers (1:1.3) while the Soviets had almost 3.8:1 superiority in tanks and 2.6:1 in aircraft. To give a perspective, the total number of troops committed were 75,96,651 (German 4,306,800, Soviet 3,289,851) compared to Indian active troops currently of 1,4i4,000, Tanks 19858 (German – 4,171, Soviet – 15,687, Indian Army – ~5000), Artillery pieces 102,388(Germany – 42,601, Soviet – 59,787, Indian Army – 3,200 missiles are not included), Aircrafts  15,926(German – 4,389, Soviet – 11,537, Indian Air Force – 1,306).

The Operation started on the early morning of 22nd June 1941,. On the very first day of operation, Luftwaffe destroyed over 2000 aircrafts of the Soviet Air Force losing just 35 of their own! By the end of the third day around 4000 Soviet aircrafts were destroyed with Luftwaffe gaining complete air superiority.

I will not go into the details of how the battle proceeded but by the end of the year, German Army Group Center had view of the Kremlin spires (though they could never capture the city). Later on the Soviets counterattacked in the winter offensive and regained much of the land lost.

Casualty:

German – 250,000 killed, 500,000 wounded, 25,000 missing, 2,093 aircraft destroyed, 2,758 tanks lost
Soviets – 802,191 killed, 3,000,000 wounded, 3,300,000 captured, 21,200 aircraft destroyed, 20,500 tanks lost

This Day : 69 years ago

Battle of Denmark Strait

World War 2 is one of the few subjects about which I have read a lot. From Hitler’s War (David Irving) to Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (William Shirer), in addition to numerous documentaries and movies on the same. It has colors and facets and it has stories. It is like a huge web which contains smaller intricate patterns which as a whole it becomes something far more horrible and at the same time far more beautiful than the individual. World war is a story of individuals and masses. It is a story of the worst and the best in a man. It is a story of cowardice and courage, of Quislings and of Ultra. Each little battle can on its own become as glorious as the Battle of Waterloo. Both side of the conflict exhibited courage, strategic initiative and spunk. I will try to take a look at some of those conflicts and look at how some of the battles proceeded. It is foolish to cover all the aspects and hence I would only go into the details superficially. Readers are requested to go through the Wiki articles which are at present the main source for these blog posts. I will try to include details from other sources as much as I can.
The first battle that I will talk about is the Battle of Denmark Strait between the Royal Navy and Kriegsmarine. A Little Background first, starting with the German command structure.

Kriegsmarine or the German Navy was one of the three branches of German unified armed force, The Wehrmacht. The German Armed Forces (Wehrmacht) was organized into Heer (Army), Kriegsmarine (Navy) and Luftwaffe (Air Force). Waffen-SS (Armed SS), though a part of the Nazi party was under operational command of either the OKW (Oberkommando Der Wehrmacht – High command of Wehrmacht) or the OKH (Oberkommando Der Heer – High command of the Army).

Naval Units:
Naval ships are generally divided on the basis of how big they are and how powerful they are. Battleships were the most powerful, most heavily armored ships of the Navy. They were generally the flagships of the navy with much reputation associated with them. In current Navy parlance, only American Aircraft Carriers come close to the status associated with the Battleships of World War 2. Battleship armor were based on the standard that the guns similar to the ones on board would not be able to punch a hole through it. Thus engaging a battleship in battle was not something that other ships would consider a prudent idea. Also, the prestige that goes with a battleship made it difficult for them to operate far away from their home bases as sinking of a battleship would cause a huge hit on the morale. Thus even though they were almost invincible, they were rarely used in battles but whenever they did enter in one, it would become defining moment. Battlecruisers were warships less armored and less powerful than the battleships but were faster and thus were suitable to provide convoy protection and chases. Cruisers, Destroyers, corvettes and frigates were other varietes of ships that were smaller in size and less powerfully equipped.
Washington naval treaty and the London Naval Treaties put a limit on the size and tonnage of the warships that could be built, but eventually as the world descended into chaos in the 30s, the terms of these treaties were broken.

Battle of Denmark Strait:::

The belligerents: Home fleet of the Royal Navy and Kriegsmarine

Warships:
 Kriegsmarine: Bismarck class Battleship – Bismarck, Admiral Hipper class heavy cruiser – Prinz Eugen
 Home Fleet: King George V class Battleship – Prince of Wales, Admiral Class Battlecruiser – HMS Hood (Flagship of the Home Fleet)

Commanders : Bismarck – Admiral Gunther Lutjens, HMS Hood – Vide Admiral Lancelot Holland

Background:
For the German Navy, destroying the convoys headed UK was one of the primary objectives. To reach the North Atlantic where they could target the convoys, the German ships have to either navigate the heavily defended and narrow English Channel or go North and through the sea lanes between either the Greenland and Iceland or between iceland and UK. This sea lanes, the so called GUIK lane, has huge importance in Northern European Naval strategy as they provide access to North Atlantic. During the Cold War, preventing a breakthrough by the Soviet Navy through these chokepoints into the North Atlantic was one of the primary objectives of the Royal Navy.

The lead up to the battle:
On the night of 18-19 May 1941, Bismarck and Priz Eugen left the port of Gotenhafen on their fateful journey through the Denmark strait. British Ultra intercepts had given them advanced information on the possible attempt by the German ships to escape to the Atlantic.
On the 23rd of May, British Heavy Cruisers HMS Suffolk and Norfolk spotted the German ships but had to soon retire to safe distance after being outgunned by Bismarck. The cruisers continued to follow the ships. In the meantime, the Home Fleet had dispatched HMS Hood and Prince of Wales from their home base in the Scapa Flow towards Iceland on 21st May in order to intercept the German ships.

The Battle:
The situation came to a head on the morning of 24th May, (69 years to the date) at 0530 hours. Prinz Eugen’s hydrophones detected the two British ships and they were sighted at 0545 hours. At 0549, Holland ordered both the British ships to attack the lead German ship (Prinz Eugen) assuming it to be the battleship Bismarck. Holland soon realized his mistake and the orders were ammended. After the first salvo, the German ships opened fire on the lead British ship (Hood). At 05:59:30, HMS Hood fired its fifth salvo and began a 20 degree turn to port (left side). At 06:00, HMS Hood was stuck by a shell from Bismarck. This was followed by a huge jet of fire and an explosion of the ship’s magazine. Within three minutes, the pride and the flagship of the Home Fleet sank with 1,415 men on board including Admiral Holland. Only three men survived.

Thus within 11 minutes of commencement, the battle of Denmark Strait was over. The remaining British ship, Prince of Wales was struck multiple times by the German ships and had to retreat due to various malfunctions. The German ships, did not give chase to Prince of Wales as they were also having various technical difficulties, in addition to having standing orders to avoid direct confrontation with the British Navy whenever possible.

The aftermath:
British public were stunned by this defeat and the Admiralty mobilized all available warships to search and destroy Bismarck.
Prinz Eugen had moved on towards the Atlantic while Bismarck started towards one of the German bases on the French coast for repairs and refuelling.

On 27th May, Bismarck was scuttled by the Germans after getting pounded by the British force consisting of Battleships Rodney and King George V, cruisers Norfolk and Dorsetshire and other destroyers and frigates. Aircraft Carrier Ark Royal, had earlier disabled the rudder of the Bismarck using its outmoded biplane, Swordfish, thus making it unmanoeuverable. At 1039, Bismarck sank. 1995 of the crew of 2200 died with the ship including Admiral Lutjens and Captain Lindemann.