Operation Barbarossa and Mission Command:
A Historical Reaffirmation of the Merits of Auftragstaktik
Daniel J. O’Connor, Major, US Army
The topic of mission command has become a common topic in American military thought recently. Due to the generally increasing velocity of modern combat and the constant need to evolve methods, it is a fitting time to reexamine historical examples in an effort to better plan future doctrine. During the early days of the Eastern Front in World War II, the Nazi Army made a bold push for Moscow aiming for the complete destruction of the Soviet military. The Soviets, through a series of serious blows and defeats nearly witnessed a complete collapse before the Nazi aggression. While the Red Army eventually was able to go on the offensive and the war was won by the Allies, this view of the period as an unequivocal Soviet victory is problematic. Arguably the Soviets survived due to, among other things, actions outside their control. Even more perplexingly, they survived, in large part, due to their ability to sacrifice huge tracts of territory and quantities of manpower to buy time. However, this does not diminish the fact that the Soviet Union had to “make extraordinary, inordinate efforts to stop the victorious advance of the Wehrmacht.”
Several ways of understanding Operation Barbarossa, the German codename of the operation, exist. This period covers the invasion on 22 June 1941, to the end of the Battle of Moscow on 5 December 1941. It was at this point that the Soviet Union was at its low point of the war, but also the moment that they turned to the counteroffensive. Historians generally point out a few specific reasons for the eventual failure of Operation Barbarossa, and the eventual success of the Soviet Union in pushing the Wehrmacht out of Soviet territory and eventually claiming victory in World War II. These reasons are generally the delay in the beginning of the invasion, poor logistical lines, and a German failure to properly assess their enemy prior to beginning the operation. While these reasons are all important, this paper argues that there is another way of viewing the campaign; one that falls within the human dimension. And this cause is paramount to the others, going to the very core of military training in both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.
A high volume of analysis has been done on this period, by German, Russian and American sources. To get the most well-rounded view of the topic, this paper will draw from all three. Further, military doctrine and manuals from all three countries, as well as the discussion on military doctrine can provide excellent background to better understand the logic and reasoning behind decisions. A general background of Russian and German military doctrine will be given, followed by analysis of its use during Operation Barbarossa, which will flow into a summation of the importance of the German approach to mission command, decentralized battle, and its merits in the context of modern combat; all concepts which have found general acceptance by analysts, academics, and military minds alike.
The Soviet view of war.
The arc of Soviet doctrine’s development is complicated and at points tumultuous and was forged by several violent conflicts, revolution, and unique civil-military relations. In the late Imperial period, Russian military minds were unimaginative, uncreative and risk averse. This is illustrated well by the example of Aleksey Kuropatkin, who was held responsible for the Russian defeat by the Japanese at the Battle of Lyao-Yang in 1904. Kuropatkin, on preparing for the battle, remarked that he believed that over half of the Russian force should be kept in reserve, to ensure any contingency could be prepared for. This stands in strong contrast to modern military thought that generally advocates for the massing of force at the decisive point in battle, rather than waiting to mass force with a reserve. The noted expert on Soviet military affairs, Richard W. Harrison notes that Kuropatkin was not just cautious in his preparations for the Russo-Japanese War, but that this reflected his entire outlook on war. This was not an isolated case, but simply an illustrative example of the baseline from which Soviet doctrine was built.
Following the embarrassment of the Russo-Japanese War, the immense suffering of World War I and the tumult of the Russian Revolution, the Soviet military conversation began to deal with Operational Art, a concept that filled the gap between the tactical and strategic levels of war. This idea is important to Soviet thinking during World War II, as it supports the idea that an army generally is not destroyed in a single engagement, and more likely, the destruction of the enemy naturally includes several smaller engagements, leading to the greater strategic result. However, it also presumes a much more protracted struggle with the enemy and stands in opposition to the German idea of blitzkrieg, or lightning war, involving highly mobile forces, seeking swift fulfillment of the strategic goal.
The Provisional Field Regulations for the Red Army of 1936 marks something of a high point for Soviet military thinking prior to World War II. In this manual several concepts that are familiar to modern armies are presented, to include the massing of forces at the decisive point of battle. This went hand-in-hand with a further change in the way the new Red Army operated, and the adoption of “a strategy of destruction, which posited the defeat of the enemy’s forces by the overwhelming application of military power.”
The preceding discussion would likely lead to the belief of the Red Army operating as a strong modern force when Hitler invaded in 1941. However, this fails to take in to account Stalin’s purges in 1937-38. The purges effectively drained the expertise from the Red Army, but it also instilled a culture of fear in the military, at a time when the Wehrmacht was preparing and executing the invasion of Poland, gaining real combat experience. As Russian academic Andrei Kokoshin notes, the purges led to consequences in the psychological climate in the Soviet armed forces and a lowering in the intellectual component of the military. Thus, the Soviets of 1941 defended themselves with a force deficient in original thought and initiative due to fear of retribution for not following every command to the letter.
One final concept that needs exposition is the Soviet concept of correlation of forces. The Soviets viewed the world - and combat as an extension - as the sum of many forces. It was believed that by carefully calculating the sum of all these forces, the outcome of any situation could be predicted. Far from being an hypothetical thesis, this concept for decades was viewed not as, “some kind of abstract formula, but a tangible reality.” This idea pervaded all aspects of Soviet society, to include the military, with tactical manuals espousing it as doctrine. Correlation of forces, while not officially used to this day, still has a profound effect on how Russian military officers think and act, showing just how important the idea has been to the formation of Russian officers. To Russian military minds, anything that cannot be calculated and controlled is a threat and should therefore be eliminated immediately. Correlation of forces is just one more concept that directly conflicts with how the German military conceived of war.
The German view of war.
The way Germany conceived of war stands in almost direct contrast to how the Soviets conceived of it at the beginning of Operation Barbarossa. The very basis for Hitler’s decision to attack the Soviet Union was based on the oft-misunderstood concept of blitzkrieg. It was believed that by attacking the Soviets quickly, not only would Germany gain the element of surprise and the initiative, but the Soviets would be quickly destroyed or forced to capitulate. This was a major reason why Hitler was not concerned with opening a second front in his war. This massing of forces, in an attempt for decisive action is the polar opposite of the above discussed Soviet themes of Kuropatkin’s failures in the Russo-Japanese War, the development of Soviet operational art before World War II, and the move towards massing forces at the decisive point of battle, all of which had faded following Stalin’s purges.
It is important to note the earlier development of German military theory, from its Prussian predecessor and specifically from the celebrated operational thinker Helmuth von Moltke. Moltke espoused many of the precepts that were later adopted by Western militaries and specifically the German military. Moltke held true the ambiguity of war when he wrote, “no calculation of space and time can ensure victory in this realm of chance, mistakes and disappointments.” From this, it is clear that the very basis for how the Germans conducted war would be opposed to the Soviet methods of offering resistance.
One weakness that both the Soviets and Germans shared was a failure to develop their defensive capabilities at the operational level. The Soviets still subscribed to the theory of deep operations, developed under Soviet military commander and theoretician VK Triandafillov which was inherently offensive, even though they officially had a defensive doctrine at this point. Glantz and House, in their seminal book on this period, note that Germany suffered from a similar neglect, but as they were on the offensive during the opening of the Eastern Front, this weakness did not show itself until the following winter. However, as this paper argues, the most important difference in how Germany and the Soviets conducted war was in the distinct personality allowed to leaders on the battlefield. This is best viewed through the varied ideas of creativity, initiative, and commander’s intent.
The Germans utilized the concept of Auftragstaktik, or mission-oriented tactics, to gain the initiative in battle. The foundational idea was that by outthinking the enemy, one could act faster than the enemy and gain the initiative in battle. The strength of this concept versus the Soviets is clear when considered in light of the Soviet concept of ensuring success through establishing and maintaining “a system of tightly centralized control over the combat and supporting forces at each level of command.” Moltke can once again help to understand this notion within the framework of commander’s intent; an extremely important idea in the study of modern combat.
Milan Vego, of the US Naval War College points out that the commander’s intent is of vital importance to larger military operations. Thus, in Operation Barbarossa and World War II as a whole, commander’s intent should be seen as paramount. Moltke notes “diverse are the situations under which an officer has to act on the basis of his own view of the situation… Most productive are his actions when he acts within the framework of his commander’s intent.” From this, it can be seen that the idea of initiative (acting on one’s view of the situation) was highly valued within Prussian and German military circles. Further, soldiers trained in this way were prepared to “feel more comfortable in unsure, dangerous and insecure scenarios.”
This theoretical framework is further reinforced by the 1906 German Infantry Regulation that, in no ambiguous terms, places great importance on leaders acting on their initiative to gain the upper hand in battle. The idea was even more clearly stated in the 1933 Field Service Regulations, which stated that the conduct of war depends on “free, creative activity [which] makes the highest demands of the personality.”
Several analysts have rightly understood the meaning and use of these ideas. John Nelson, in an article from 1987, took extensive note of the spirit of these regulations when he says that commanders were expected to “give subordinates general directions of what was to be done, allowing them freedom to determine how to do it. This approach, it was felt, would stimulate development of the ‘thinking leader’ (Nelson’s italics).” The Nazi General, Günther Blumentritt, shortly following the war, noted that Germans understood that a good leader made a rapid estimate, adopted a sound decision and executed decisively. A commander of that era remarked that no other army in the world granted such freedom to commanders, down to junior officer and even soldiers. This was viewed as the key to success. From the preceding examples derived from German regulations and analysis of German actions, it can be seen that German military thought included a drive for leaders at all levels to be prepared to make decisions in the absence of detailed orders, while always keeping the commander’s intent in mind.
This decentralized model of conducting war and stands in direct conflict with the Soviet model. AA Svechin, one of his era’s most forward military thinkers, and unsurprisingly, one of the officers purged by Stalin, noted the shortcomings of the Soviet model, examining the Russian performance in the Russo-Japanese War: “The Japanese, using the German mission-oriented tactics… seized the initiative… That spirit was too often lacking in Russian officers.” Svechin’s contemporary GS Isserson, fared better during the purges. However, his approach to decentralized battle is much more along the party line. On operational art, he writes:
“It is evident that such art does not proceed from isolated acts of organizational creativity…Modern operational art now approaches a kind of soundly-based concrete system… Contemporary operational art confronts the urgent necessity for regulating methods of organizing and conducting deep operations with exactness and within limits prescribed by regulations.”
Clearly the (surviving) Soviet military talent was not in a place to mount a creative, decentralized defense of their territory on the eve of the Nazi invasion with general thinking that directly opposed that of the Germans and their heritage of rejecting solid rules and systems in place of talent and a view of war as art.
On 22 June 1941 Nazi Germany initiated its assault on the Soviet Union. While many books have analyzed the differences in manpower and equipment and their relative power at the beginning of the conflict, their comparison does not reveal a clear projected winner. While Hitler had the element of surprise and his strong Panzer units, the Soviets had a massive standing army, strong military-industrial complex and were fighting on their home turf. In fact, Vice Admiral Kurt Assmann, in an article from 1950, had some difficulty laying a decisive advantage on either side. This suggests that all things being roughly equivalent, the major difference in the early battles lies within the human aspect of the fighting. However, this is further illustrative of mistakes by the German side, as it would be unlikely for Hitler to have conducted such a bold attack if he did not feel he held the decisive advantage. This seems to be backed up by Swedish researcher Lennart Samuelson, who makes the reasonable claim that if Germany had better intelligence on the level of military-industrial development in the Soviet Union, it may have been a deterrent to their invasion.
Hitler and his top generals had laid out possible reactions to the invasion. They felt that the most likely course of action would be for the Soviets to offer resistance, which they felt confident they could quickly defeat, due to their excellent training, wartime experience and superior operational art. They concluded the most dangerous course of action would be the Soviets retreating further into Soviet territory. This would be an issue for the Wehrmacht, as it would nullify the advantage of the blitzkrieg. Stalin, for his part, thought it unlikely that the Nazis would try to attack the Soviet Union. Upon being briefed on the threat, Stalin noted, “Hitler and his generals are not such fools to fight on two fronts at the same time, which is what broke their back in World War I.” It is not difficult to see the issues on both sides. The Germans read the enemy’s plans incorrectly; to use the Soviet term, they had miscalculated the correlation of forces stacked against them. Stalin, however, was willing to offer up millions to slaughter and have thousands of square miles of fertile farmland damaged for the ultimate goal of survival of the Soviet Union.
The surprise of the initial attack allowed the Wehrmacht to move quickly through the border lands and occupy huge swaths of Soviet territory. The Soviets offered limited resistance. Lithuania was taken in the first few days, with Latvia following by the first week of July. Eastern Poland and parts of Ukraine were also quickly seized at little loss to the Wehrmacht. Particularly illustrative of this initial phase is the example of Lieutenant General Aleksandr Korobkov (4th Army). Before the main attack began, German Special Forces, dressed in Soviet uniforms parachuted in and set about “cutting telephone lines, seizing key bridges and spreading alarm and confusion.” Although the General made attempts to contact his superiors, he was unable to receive any orders, nor was he able to issue orders to his subordinate units. In rather Soviet fashion, Korobkov chose inaction, was unable to maintain control over the situation and the Soviet 4th Army was destroyed in battle shortly after. For his lack of action, Stalin had Korobkov arrested, sent to military tribunal, and executed. Far from an isolated incident, executing generals responsible for frontier defense was a way for Stalin for deflect criticism.
This example is a powerful one as it displays several weaknesses at once. First, Korobkov was a product of the same system that had purged so many military leaders. It is likely he would have greatly feared making significant tactical decisions without the authorization of his superiors. An absence of decision and inactivity was the result. Second, it is worth taking note that Korobkov may have been in a lose-lose situation. If he had mounted a sizeable counterattack, he may have failed, which would have drawn Stalin’s ire doubly for tactical failure and for acting without authorization. Thirdly, and most importantly, Korobkov and his subordinates were not used to operating with tactical freedom, like the Germans were. This skill set was not a part of their leadership style, so they could not utilize it in their time of need. This made German success in this phase of the operation nearly assured.
Defense Commissar SK Timoshenko issued Directive Number 3 the evening of the first day of the assault, ordering an immediate counteroffensive. In many cases, commanders passed these orders on, even though they knew that a counteroffensive was not possible. However, they feared retribution if they contradicted the order in any way. Here again, several key points can be seen. First, in a decentralized form of combat, the subordinate would be charged to not only inform their higher command of the impossibility of the order, but also to propose an alternative. Second, by simply passing on an order, despite knowing it will not be accomplished, failure and inaction are the result. And third, under the tenets of Auftragstaktik, the subordinate command should assess the situation, create a viable plan, and execute it. Thus, the inaction that transpired was a likely outcome, with the communication required for alternatives, extremely unlikely. All of this factored into the result of the Germans retaining the opportunity to accelerate the pace of combat beyond what the Soviets could handle. In this case, as in the previous example, the “abject obedience required of the officer corps to the Party, and hence to the state conditioned passive acceptance, by the officer corps of the bloodletting that ensued.”
This trend continued as the Wehrmacht pushed their advantage, and by December 1941 the Wehrmacht had conquered about 500,000 square miles of Soviet territory, had inflicted several million casualties and were ready to take Moscow. The Soviets by this point had essentially lost the entirety of their regular armed forces. Glantz points out that many of the initial defeats resulted from lack of practical experience and confidence, due to the purges. While this is a fair observation, the claim can be taken a step further. The very lack of experience and confidence that the Red Army leadership suffered from was a direct result of a system that punished initiative and creativity and a government that expected quiet compliance, rather than innovation.
This point marked something of a high watermark for the Nazis. The Wehrmacht was almost euphoric, and the general consensus was that “Moscow was about to fall like a ripe plum, and perhaps the entire war would all be over before Christmas. However, tension had been rising between Hitler and the OKH (The German Army High Command) over the main thrust of Barbarossa. Further, as the seasons changed, the Wehrmacht was not outfitted to fight and win in the cold Russian winter. The Nazis had completely overstretched their supply lines, making the logistical situation precarious for the Army. And perhaps most dramatically, in December 1941, Hitler took direct command of the armed forces. One can easily see how the preceding list of issues completely negated the possibility of the Wehrmacht conducting the mission in a decentralized manor.
The Soviets, during the Nazi approach to Moscow sought to buy time by offering minimal resistance, allowing time to raise a larger defensive force. Their ample territory allowed the Soviet the option to conduct a delaying action, so they could utilize their massive population and mass mobilization techniques to reinforce the Red Army. It is particularly important to note that this strategy is directly out of Svechin’s playbook – at this point, dead only three years – in that “the most economical way of stopping an offensive without exhausting our last forces will be backwards leaps.”
The Soviets knew that if “they could deny victory to the aggressor in the short run and turn the lighting war which the aggressor expected to win into a protracted struggle, if the Soviets could finally bring to bear their entire national resources upon the struggle, then the aggressor would have lost the advantage.” This appears the decisive factor that allowed the Red Army to “win” the Battle of Moscow, foil Operation Typhoon, and then go on the offensive. The Germans indeed, noted their considerable surprise that the Soviets were able to rehabilitate units using techniques of mass employment. Field Marshall Ewald von Kleist noted after the war that the main factor in the German loss was that the Soviets continued to give ground instead of allowing themselves to be drawn into a decisive battle. The Soviets were able to continually reinforce their army to the immense frustration of the Wehrmacht. Moscow was the first major loss for the Wehrmacht and marked the turning point of the war for all involved, even though it would be almost another three years before the war would wrap up and Nazi German would be forced to capitulate.
This paper is not necessarily advocating that Nazi Germany “lost” Operation Barbarossa, although they clearly failed to convert their several tactical victories into operational success. However, it is conversely difficult to see Barbarossa as a success for the Soviet Union due to the massive casualties it wrought on their territory. While Operation Barbarossa and in particular, the Battle of Moscow marked the turning point of the war for the Soviets, it should not only be viewed as a victory, but also as something much more complex. It showed the inferiority of Soviet military doctrine to that of Nazi Germany, vis-a-vis fighting a war of doctrine vs. Auftragstaktik.
The German concept of Auftragstaktik and the general ability to allow leadership freedom at all levels was a major strength of the Nazi Wehrmacht. However, this became a strength they scarified later in the operation due to disagreements on the operational thrust, authoritarian oversight of operations, overstretched supply lines, and weather-related issues. It was also a strength that the Soviets began to utilize in a limited way by quickly raising, assembling, and deploying troops into battle, essentially out of desperation. While there are many factors to consider regarding the outcome of Operation Barbarossa, the human dimension appears to be chief among them.
The concept of Auftragstaktik has been shown to be a very strong one, and one based on a framework of “proper leader character, sound methodology… and enlightened senior-subordinate relations.” This is recognized in arenas that vary geographically and temporally, with the most successful solution regardless of a commander’s skill being a decentralized form of battle. It is worth noting that Auftragstaktik survives today in many forms. Even the German military still respects the idea, with Lieutenant Colonel Jens Küster writing in 2015 that “opportunities to take decisive actions must be seized and exploited swiftly and violently. At all levels, immediate action without reference to high authority is the key.” In an era when the general velocity of combat has accelerated so much, due to vastly improved technology and training, a decentralized concept of battle is vital. Auftragstaktik allows the acceleration of war beyond the enemy’s capability to adapt. Aspects of leadership like personality, quick wits, and an ability to adapt, while not prized by the Soviet Union, must be fostered by modern militaries seeking to operate as top-tier armed forces.
Naturally the concept can be taken to illogical extremes, which the crafter of doctrine needs to be cautious of. The proper employment of mission command requires the trust of the government, and senior commanders, and the ability of subordinates to assess, mitigate and accept risk. This should be kept in mind while a new generation of military doctrine is being developed. It should be remembered that the quick victories by Germany in Operation Barbarossa, could so easily have carried the day, had no other uncontrollable (and some very human) factors hindered the German success.
 While the Soviet Air Forces and the German Luftwaffe had their part to play in the campaign, this paper is specifically concerned with analyzing ground forces (the Red Army and the German Wehrmacht).
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