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News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. Or follow me on Twitter @Balkan_Dave
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Wednesday 18 January 2023

Barbarossa: How Hitler Lost the War

 This is Jonathan Dimbleby's bestselling study of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. This isn't a military history of the campaign but rather a focus on the grand strategy, including the broader political, economic and diplomatic contexts. If you are looking for the detail of military operations - this isn't the book for you.

As the title suggests, his thesis is that the Eastern Front broke the Third Reich on the battlefield. The seeds of that defeat were sown in Hitler's decision to launch Operation Barbarossa and his increasingly incoherent micro-management of the campaign.

There is a lot of context, 133 pages before a shot is fired. This covers the wider war before the summer of 1941, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and the reasons for Hitler's decision to invade. This is often portrayed as inevitable because of Mein Kampf, Lebensraum, and the clash of ideologies. However, Dimbleby rightly teases out the nuances that by no means made war inevitable. He also reminds the reader of the extensive commercial and military exchanges between the two countries before and during WW2. At the very least, the timing of the campaign was brought about by competing interests in the Balkans. It was the breakdown in negotiations in November 1940 that led to the Fuhrer Directive to invade. Where I beg to differ with Dimbleby is his view that the Balkan campaign delayed Operation Barbarossa. Modern studies point to the weather that summer and the fact that few of the divisions used in the Balkans were required for Barbarossa. 

The thorny issue of why Stalin ignored the warnings from the British, and his own generals, that Hitler was about to invade is well covered. Stalin distrusted the British and Churchill, in particular, for sound reasons from his perspective. Gabriel Gorodestsky's groundbreaking study, using Soviet and German archives, is excellent on this. Moreover, the Soviets had few allies in the British establishment besides Stafford Cripps, who had been dispatched to Moscow. One minister openly said he 'hoped the Russians and Germans would exterminate each other.' 

He also briefly touches on Hitler's broader strategy, including an attack on Turkey (Operation Gertrud) to catch the Middle East in a pincer movement. But, as ever, Hitler understood the economics of war better than military strategy.

The savagery of the war on the Eastern Front is graphically covered in the book. Few of the three million Soviet prisoners survived the war, civilians were routinely killed, and their villages burned down. The Holocaust may not have started on the Eastern Front, but it was implemented there with grim barbarity. This was not limited to the SS. The Wehrmacht was complicit throughout the campaign.

A critical military decision was the focus on Moscow. Championed by key generals, but Hitler vacillated. By the time that show got on the road, winter and the lack of preparedness struck the German soldiers. Important though this was, it was the failure to understand Soviet resilience and the scale of their resources in manpower and manufacturing that was the fundamental failure of Barbarossa. The Germans lost a million men, and the Soviets around 4.5 million. However, the Soviets were growing in strength by the end of 1941, while the Germans could not replace those losses with equivalent manpower. 

While the book focuses on grand strategy, the individual stories are preserved. Dimbleby uses personal accounts from both sides to illustrate the attitudes and horrors of this conflict. It is an excellent read and reaches the correct conclusions. It was on the killing grounds of the Eastern Front between June and December 1941 that the fate of Nazi Germany was sealed.

Some of my 28mm Soviet command figures.


  1. Nice review.
    I wonder if, from a wargaming perspective, we tend to root for the underdog (much like wanting the Confederates to do well in ACW games). I suppose, in both examples, victory eventually went to the side with MORE - more recruits (I almost said “men” but quickly realised the Soviet Union made considerable use of females) and more industrial manufacturing capacity.

    1. Yep, I have an entire squad of Bad Squiddo women Soviets!

  2. Great review- a book I think I'd like. I'll await finding a cheap copy.



    1. They don't come cheaper than your local library, which is where I picked up mine.