Barbarossa – remember the Yugoslavs

72 years ago today, the German army invaded Russia in what was termed ‘Operation Barbarossa’, named after Frederick Barbarossa, a mediaeval Holy Roman Emperor. This was the biggest invasion ever seen in history, before or since.

They started more than a month later than originally planned, because Hitler had spent most of April invading Yugoslavia. He invaded Yugoslavia because in March, a coup had deposed the cabinet that agreed to join the Tripartite pact with Germany, Italy and Japan. Hitler took this coup as personal insult and decided to teach the Yugoslavs a lesson.

Why is that important? Because the winter of 1941 was one of the worst in living memory. Despite making huge advances and capturing millions of Russian troops, the Germans were expecting quick victory and were unprepared. The rains came early in October and turned everything to mud, which slowed their advance. Then just as they were poised to take Moscow, temperatures fell to minus 40-odd below zero and everything froze. The Germans were still wearing summer uniforms, and it was so cold they had to light fires under the tanks to thaw the oil before starting the engines. They failed to take Moscow, and over the next four years, lost the whole war in the face of determined Russian defence and counter-attacks.

If Hitler had ignored the Yugoslavian coup and launched Barbarossa a month earlier, he would most likely have taken Moscow, possibly Leningrad too, and while that wouldn’t have ended the campaign, it would have made it a lot harder for the Russians. Every road and railroad went through Moscow, so holding onto it meant the Russians could get their reinforcements over from Siberia and into battle.

More people died on the Russian Front than in all the other fronts of the war combined, and it was truly there that Hitler was defeated (not in Normandy as many American game manufacturers would have us believe), but we should remember that it was the courage of some Serbian military officers who led the coup in Yugoslavia that led to the fatal delay.

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