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History lesson: Invading Russia Is A No-No

Napoleon in burning Moscow by Adam Albrecht, 1841
Napoleon in burning Moscow by Adam Albrecht, 1841 (US Public Domain)

The month of June is very significant to the Russian people. And it should be. On two different occasions, over 100 years apart, two dictators with huge egos thought they could attack Russia and crush it with massive battle campaigns.

The first time occurred June 24, 1812, when the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte with over 600,000 troops crossed the Russian border through Poland. The French called it the Russian Campaign: the Russians, the Patriotic War of 1812. Either way, it was part of the historic Napoleonic Wars that so many of us had studied and continue to study in school. Napoleon’s main purpose for invading was to cut off the Russians and their leader Tsar Alexander I from trading with Britain, thereby pressuring the English to sue for peace. Taking the route through Poland was Napoleon’s idea for keeping on their good side, thus convincing the Polish that he was preventing them from falling to the Russian wrath.

Napoleon pushed his Grand Armee through Russia, winning minor battles, including a major one at Smolensk in August. The Russians then set the city ablaze, and retreated east, further into the interior, with Napoleon hot on their tails. Along the way, Russian Cossacks practiced Scorched Earth policies: burning villages, towns, farms, and crops. These actions prevented the French from living off the land, forcing them to rely on a stretched supply line that subsequently failed them. Under these terrible conditions, many starving French troops had to leave their camps at night and scrounge for food, whereupon Cossack patrols either captured or killed them.

On September 7, Napoleon engaged the Russians at Borodino, 70 miles west of Moscow. The ensuing battle was the largest and fiercest clash of the Napoleonic Wars. The French won a costly victory with many of its high-ranking officers dead or badly injured, consisting of 47 generals. Napoleon lost 35,000 soldiers: the Russians, 40,000. Once again, the Russians retreated east, scorching as they went. Napoleon and his battered and depleted army entered Moscow a week later and were shocked to find the city vacant and many sections in flames. Napoleon remained in Moscow for a month, hoping that the Tsar and his representatives would drop by for a chat and finally capitulate. But they didn’t.

Napoleon and his now not-so-mighty army headed southwest where they engaged the Russians at the Battle of Maloyaroslavets. Following this, the Russians once more sought to drop back. Now, Napoleon and his boys were in deep you-know-what. Barely hanging on, they were exhausted, and without food or proper winter clothing. Their horses were in even worse condition than the troops. As the winter set in, Napoleon began his retreat west. The Cossacks never let up on the French, attacking their flanks on several occasions during the withdrawal.

By the time the Grand Armee had left Russia behind, its morale was at its lowest. They were badly whipped and down in numbers to less than 30,000 troops: the others either dead from starvation, frost bite or battle wounds, or taken prisoner where they were never seen again. It was the turning point in the Napoleonic Wars and it spelled the end of Napoleon Bonaparte’s power in Europe.

One hundred and twenty-nine years later, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler had the misguided notion that he could take what Napoleon so miserably failed at capturing in the previous century. On June 22, 1941, nearly two years into World War II, the German Wehrmacht launched what was codenamed Operation Barbarossa, the massive invasion of the Soviet Union on an 1800-mile front stretched from the Arctic Ocean to the Black Sea. It had been Hitler’s dream to invade the Soviet as proposed in his book, Mein Kampf, written two decades earlier. By the way, the attack was named after 12th century Emperor Frederick Barbarossa of the Holy Roman Empire.

Barbarossa was the largest invasion force in the history of mankind. Engaged were four millions soldiers in 140 divisions of which 17 were Panzer units and 13 motorized; 600,000 vehicles and 625,000 horses; 7,100 guns, 3,300 tanks and 2,770 Luftwaffe aircraft. It was Blitzkrieg at its scary best, more terrifying than what had been unleashed on Western Europe earlier in the war. The assault began at 0300 hours; by noon the Soviets had lost over 1,000 aircraft. The Germans moved fast and furiously with precision across the vast country.

German attack of Russia, June, 1941
German attack of Russia, June, 1941 (German Federal Archives)

Similar to Napoleon’s campaign, the Russian Red Army fought battle after battle, then kept retreating in order to stretch the enemy’s supply line. And it worked, as it did in 1812. In addition, the German engineers had to deal with a different gauge of rail tracks in Russia for transporting their equipment and troops. It took valuable time to make the changes along the way that could have been used elsewhere. In October, when the rains came, the Germans pushed on, more slowly than before. Then winter arrived in mid-November: a brutal one at that. The cold temperatures froze guns, vehicles, and soldiers. Not equipped for this, the Wehrmacht still managed to fight their way to within 15 miles of Moscow by December 2, where the majestic Kremlin spires--home to Communist dictator Joe Stalin--could be spotted through German binoculars. They were that close. Some reports spoke of Stalin fleeing east from the capital with his entourage.

Three days later, the well-armed, reinforced Red Army--500,000 strong--with warm military clothing drove the Germans out of the Moscow suburbs with a steady counterattack. By the end of the month, the Germans had already lost 830,000 Eastern Front troops (killed, wounded, captured or missing-in-action) since the June debut. It was the turning point for Hitler’s Nazi Germany. After that, it was all downhill for the German Wehrmacht, as the Russian Red Army slowly and methodically took the German army on, punching them all the way back to their final stand in Berlin, 1945, with the German’s most-humiliating defeat being at Stalingrad in 1942-43 where they lost a total of 745,000 soldiers.

According to the original Barbarossa plans, Hitler had wanted to attack Russia in mid-May, 1941. Had he accomplished that, he might have taken Moscow before the winter had set in. It would have been a different war after that. And what if Napoleon had attacked earlier than he did in June, 1812?

In summation, Napoleon and Hitler shared a lot of similarities related to their attacks on Russia. They both began in the month of June. They moved fast, almost too fast for their own good. Both times Russian troops retreated and burned everything they could, as the enemy marched deeper into the interior. And, most important, Napoleon and Hitler were done in by the Russian winters, a time of year they were both unprepared for. Furthermore, attacking Russia was truly the beginning of the end for the two of them.

And…such is ego.


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