Picture: 123RF/Václav Mach
Picture: 123RF/Václav Mach

Just before dawn on June 22 1941, the German military radio intercepted an exchange between a Soviet forward unit and its army HQ. “We are being fired on. What shall we do?”

The Red Army was under German attack – Adolf Hitler had launched his invasion, which Paul Johnson, in his book A History of the Modern World From 1917 to the 1980s, maintains was the most fateful act of Hitler’s career. It destroyed the Nazi regime and its leader, and brought Soviet totalitarianism into the heart of Europe, Johnson says.

It was a gamble that might have succeeded, Johnson writes in the “Watershed Year” chapter, “but Hitler grievously underestimated Russia’s military power”. 

Half an hour after the Soviet chief of staff, Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov, had received the reports of German air attacks, he telephoned Joseph Stalin at his villa near Moscow where the dictator lived, worked and ate, sleeping on a sofa.

Johnson says there was nothing at the end of the line “but a long silence and heavy breathing”. Eventually Stalin ordered the general to go to the Kremlin and get his secretary to summon the Politburo.

When they met in the afternoon, Stalin was sitting “pale and silent with an unlit pipe in his hands”.

Johnson points out that by noon 1,200 Soviet aircraft had been destroyed on the ground. At the foreign ministry, Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov received a declaration of war from the Nazi ambassador. Apparently Molotov “asked piteously if Russia really deserved this”. Johnson says according to Nikita Khrushchev’s account, “Stalin gave way to hysteria and despair”.

Not that Stalin did not have ample warning. Even Winston Churchill had sent him specifics of an impending Nazi attack. There were also warnings from his own people. According to Johnson, Stalin became furious when such advice was offered. Those who did offer such advice did it in “fear and trepidation”.

Johnson says: “It seems strange that Stalin, who trusted nobody else, appears to have been the last human on earth to trust Hitler’s word.”

Johnson suggests it could have been a case of wishful thinking. After all, the neutrality pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union “was of enormous benefit to Stalin”.

By mid-1940, Stalin had recovered much of the territory Russia had lost in World War 1. He had destroyed the structure of Eastern Poland and in the spring of 1940 he had 15,000 Polish officers murdered at Katyn. But as Johnson suggests, the murders could have been encouraged by the Gestapo, which the NKVD worked closely with until June 22 1941.

It is said that Stalin rejoiced at Germany’s triumph over France. He quickly reorganised his own 13,000 tanks on the German pattern.

At the time, Churchill’s ardent wish was for the Germans to hurl themselves upon the Soviet Union. And his greatest fear was that Hitler would make the Middle East his next target.

Germany had to come to Benito Mussolini’s aid because of his incompetence and greed when he invaded Greece in October 1940, Johnson writes. The Greeks, assisted by the British, repulsed the Italian invasion. Britain then opened an offensive in Libya in December that year, capturing Benghazi in February 1941. 

Johnson says “a furious Hitler” went to assist the Italians. The Afrika Korps was sent to Libya under General Erwin Rommel, who, Johnson says, “moved with terrifying speed”. The British were pushed back into Egypt.

As a result of setbacks suffered by the British, at the end of May Cairo, the Suez Canal, the oilfields of North Iraq, Persia and the Gulf, and the sea and land routes to India were beginning to look vulnerable, Johnson says.

Hitler committed only a fraction of his forces to his southern venture. And, as Johnson says, “his successes [were] achieved at an insignificant cost”.

At the same time, Germany’s ally Japan was planning an assault in the Far East.

British Naval and military forces were thinly spread over a vast area at the time, Johnson writes. From what we know now, the Germans could have passed through the Suez barrier and on into the Indian Ocean.    

Admiral Erich Raeder and the naval High Command apparently begged Hitler to launch a major push at the Middle East, which Johnson says was well within the German capabilities at the time.

At that time Hitler had 150 divisions plus most of the Luftwaffe collected in Eastern Europe. And as Johnson points out, barely a quarter of these forces would have been enough to drive through to India.

But Hitler “rejected the glittering opportunity”. Instead, Johnson says, Hitler clung to his views that the real war, the real war he always intended to wage, was against Russia.

That was why, within a few days of France’s capitulation, Hitler began planning the Russian campaign.

Apparently, his original plan was to launch the campaign that autumn. In December 1940 he took the final decision to strike, ignoring the pleadings of his generals who pointed that the whole of the dry season from early May onwards would be needed to defeat the Russians before the snows came.

The snows came before the Germans could capture Moscow.

Johnson sees the opening of the Russian counter-offensive on December 6 1941 as the point where Hitler lost control of the war. Since he marched into the Rhineland in 1936 until then he had dominated world politics. But now he “was the servant of events rather than the master”, Johnson writes.

Five days later Hitler took a decision which Johnson describes as “of such insensate folly as to stagger belief”: on December 11 he declared war on America. But in early 1942, Hitler admitted to the Japanese ambassador that he was not sure how to defeat the US. The ambassador was not too sure either, Johnson writes.