Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Panzers, Beans, and Bullets

This wargame explains how Russia really stopped Hitler.

By , a defense writer.
German infantrymen folllow a tank toward Moscow in the snow in, 1941 during Operation Barbarossa, Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union. The image was published in. Signal, a magazine published by the German Third Reich. Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images
German infantrymen folllow a tank toward Moscow in the snow in, 1941 during Operation Barbarossa, Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union. The image was published in. Signal, a magazine published by the German Third Reich. Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images

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Even 80 years after a fateful Sunday in June 1941, when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, questions still abound. Why did the invasion come so close to victory before faltering? How did Russia turn catastrophe into a triumph that made the Soviet Union a superpower for the next 50 years?

Whatever the answer to these questions are, there is no question World War II transformed the world we live in. Eastern Europe was redrawn, leaving contested borders, bitter feelings, and smoldering conflicts from Poland and Ukraine to Chechnya. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, glorifying the Great Patriotic War isn’t just commemoration of 27 million dead Soviet soldiers and civilians but also a political lifeline. The T-34 tanks that drove from Moscow to Berlin—and now clank through Moscow’s streets on Victory Day parades—are a reminder of what Russia once was and what nationalists hope Russia might be again.

Yet when more than 3 million German and German-allied troops surged across the border on June 22, 1941, many expected Operation Barbarossa to be a walkover. “Bolshevism will collapse as a house of cards,” predicted Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. An embarrassingly large number of U.S. and British experts agreed, mindful of then-Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s officer corps purges and the Red Army’s incompetent performance against tiny Finland in the 1939 to 1940 Winter War. An unending series of Soviet military disasters in the summer and fall of 1941—including the killing or capture of 650,000 Soviet soldiers at Kyiv—only reinforced that opinion.

Even 80 years after a fateful Sunday in June 1941, when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, questions still abound. Why did the invasion come so close to victory before faltering? How did Russia turn catastrophe into a triumph that made the Soviet Union a superpower for the next 50 years?

Whatever the answer to these questions are, there is no question World War II transformed the world we live in. Eastern Europe was redrawn, leaving contested borders, bitter feelings, and smoldering conflicts from Poland and Ukraine to Chechnya. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, glorifying the Great Patriotic War isn’t just commemoration of 27 million dead Soviet soldiers and civilians but also a political lifeline. The T-34 tanks that drove from Moscow to Berlin—and now clank through Moscow’s streets on Victory Day parades—are a reminder of what Russia once was and what nationalists hope Russia might be again.

Yet when more than 3 million German and German-allied troops surged across the border on June 22, 1941, many expected Operation Barbarossa to be a walkover. “Bolshevism will collapse as a house of cards,” predicted Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. An embarrassingly large number of U.S. and British experts agreed, mindful of then-Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s officer corps purges and the Red Army’s incompetent performance against tiny Finland in the 1939 to 1940 Winter War. An unending series of Soviet military disasters in the summer and fall of 1941—including the killing or capture of 650,000 Soviet soldiers at Kyiv—only reinforced that opinion.

But the red banner flying over the Reichstag in May 1945 proved the experts wrong. And a new computer wargame helps explains why.

War in the East 2, from publisher Matrix Games, is as titanic as the conflict it depicts. (Full disclosure: I was an unpaid alpha tester of the game for a few months.) Across a digital map divided into a grid of 45,000 hexagons, German and Soviet players control more than 6,000 divisions, brigades, and aircraft squadrons. War in the East 2—an expanded upgrade of the original 2010 edition—even has a 520-page manual, bound in hardcover like a college textbook.

The game is a number cruncher’s dream, tracking everything from the number of operable tanks and trucks, to the combat and administrative competence of individual generals, to whether sufficient raw materials are reaching arms factories. Although War in the East 2 actually isn’t super difficult to play (the computer’s artificial intelligence handles a lot of the details), to say this is the definitive simulation of the Eastern Front may not be an overstatement.

The game demonstrates how Germany, arguably the most military proficient nation during World War II, was able to achieve astounding victories in the summer of 1941. Battlefield success in the game depends on factors like morale, combat experience, troop fatigue, and the skill of their commanders. Because the Germans have better troops and commanders in 1941, they can chew up the Soviet armies, forcing the Soviets to hastily commit unprepared reserves, which in turn get destroyed in a vicious cycle.

So what went wrong? How could the Nazi war machine fail to defeat Russia when it had conquered France in just six weeks? War in the East illuminates the fatal flaw in the German plan. Arrogant in their perceived superiority and imbued with the Nazi belief that sheer willpower could compensate for material weakness, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and his high command didn’t expect supply to be a problem.

Yet as the saying goes, and as historians like Martin van Creveld have explained, “amateurs study tactics, but professionals study logistics.”

Compared to the lavishly equipped U.S. Army of World War II, the German and Soviet armies faced a logistical nightmare. Although the United States and Britain held an abundance of Detroit-made trucks to haul supplies, the Germans and Soviets were always short of vehicles, and the ones they had were quickly devoured by Russia’s primitive roads. While armored units were fully motorized, Germany and Russia’s poor infantry relied on horses to haul artillery and supplies. For them, World War II was more like World War I (what historian Omer Bartov has called the “de-modernization” of the German army in the East) and only a short step away from French leader Napoléon Bonaparte’s ill-fated invasion of Russia in 1812.

Hence, both sides on the Eastern Front relied on railroads to move troops and supplies. Armies tended to move along routes where there were railroads to supply them, but even then, logistics were difficult. Compared to Western Europe and North America, rail lines in Russia were sparse and wider than European tracks, which meant the Germans had to re-lay them as well as repair Russian scorched-earth damage to rail yards.

It’s one thing to read about these issues in a book or a family game like Risk, where players can cheerfully march their armies from Britain to Australia in a single turn if the dice go their way. But the wonderful feature of a well-designed historical simulation is by stepping into the shoes of decision-makers, you appreciate their dilemmas and mistakes.

Want to maneuver your armies around the map like German Gen. Erwin Rommel or U.S. Gen. George Patton? In War in the East 2, leaving your troops with empty bellies and gas tanks is always a bad idea. The game features a detailed logistical model that tracks supplies by the tons. (Yes, the tons, although the computer does most of the bean counting). Fuel, ammunition, and food are transported along rail lines to depots, where they are distributed by truck and horse-drawn wagon (and a limited capacity for aerial resupply). But railroads have a limited capacity; the rail lines actually change color on the map as their capacity is quickly overloaded. That leaves trucks, but there aren’t enough of them. And the more trucks that travel through Russia’s forests and swamps, the more trucks that break down. (Yes, the game tracks broken-down and repaired vehicles.)

This is devastating for all mechanized units, for which gasoline is life. But especially so for the Germans in 1941, who relied on their fast-moving panzers to encircle and pin the Russian armies until the foot-slow infantry moved in the for kill. Without gas, the tanks can’t perform their bold maneuvers.

This isn’t a problem at the start of the game as the Germans begin their offensive from well-stocked bases in East Prussia, Poland, and Romania. The panzers conduct deep thrusts to surround Soviet frontier armies as Army Group Centre easily captures Minsk. Meanwhile, Army Group North is nearing Leningrad and Army Group South drives on to Kyiv.

Soon the armored spearheads reach Smolensk, Russia—the mouth of the open terrain “land bridge” that beckons as a highway to the Kremlin. Yet it is then the Wehrmacht, the Nazi’s armed forces, feels the cruel bite of logistics: The nearest functioning railhead is hundreds of miles behind, and there aren’t operable trucks to supply the panzers while also sustaining 3 million soldiers spread across a front line 2,000 miles long.

Logistics may sound as fun as doing your taxes, but it actually presents a fascinating challenge. In War in the East 2, players can prioritize supplies for some units over others. But who should get those supplies, the trucks, and the handful of railroad repair units? Just like the Allied armies in Western Europe in 1944, there are only enough supplies to fuel troops on one portion of the front while the rest must halt.

And every day the German armies pause is one more opportunity for the Red Army to regroup and dig in. Soviet troops may be battered, but they are operating near their supply bases, and they can take advantage of every forest, swamp, city, and river to delay the invaders or make sudden forays to cut their supply lines. If they succeed, October rains will immobilize the invaders until a great blizzard in 1941 offers a revenge 40 degrees below zero.

For historians and armchair generals, the what-ifs of Operation Barbarossa have always been irresistible. The biggest question: Could the Germans have taken Moscow if they concentrated all of their forces on a single knife-like thrust to the Soviet capital? War in the East 2 suggests this strategy would have been a disaster: There simply wasn’t the rail and truck capacity to mass forces for a Moscow-only offensive.

These are more than mere what-ifs. Post-war Western views of the Soviet Union were colored by self-aggrandizing accounts by German generals who claimed they could have conquered Russia “if only Hitler had listened to me.” Yet the German invasion plan was mostly conceived by those same generals. As War in the East 2 demonstrates, Operation Barbarossa was a poorly conceived plan fatally compromised by unrealistic assumptions about logistics—and antisemitic beliefs that the “Jewish-Bolshevik” Soviet state would collapse with one quick blow.

To suggest it was only logistics that saved the Soviet Union would be wrong. To the shock and fury of the Nazis, Soviet soldiers fought bravely—even suicidally—and with growing skill. But as the game shows, it was not Soviet valor and self-sacrifice alone that stopped Hitler’s invasion in 1941. The Soviets benefitted from bad German planning and were able to utilize traditional Russian advantages of time, space, terrain, and climate.

Ultimately, Operation Barbarossa was the beginning of the end for the Third Reich. As this computer wargame shows, it is here Hitler’s grandiose invasion plan ran out of gas.

Michael Peck is a defense writer. He is a contributor to Forbes Defense, editor of Uncommon Defense, and senior analyst for Wikistrat. Twitter: @Mipeck1

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