There is a kind of mythological component when people talk about invading Russia in the winter. A lot of people imagine Hitler, rashly deciding to invade the northern country during the coldest time of year, just as Napoleon had, and their asses getting handed to them by both the terrible cold and the Russians who seemed to thrive in it. This idea of “General Winter” defeating the invaders has been shared time and time again. There are elements of truth to this narrative, but it is a gross oversimplifications with some base misunderstandings on how things worked.
Dr. Allen F. Chew, of the Combat Studies Institute in the U.S. Army, wrote a paper labeled “Fighting the Russians in Winter: Three Case Studies.” In it, he rejects these myths.
The Russian winter defeated Napoleon, as every Frenchman knows. It also defeated Hitler, as most Germans know. Many Americans share that “knowledge” — which is false in both cases! Those popular myths illustrate the uncritical acceptance and perpetuation of rationalizations designed to obscure the fact that those ‘invincible’ Western military paragons were humbled by the ‘inferior’ Russians.”
What is Chew getting at? Well, partly that: of course there is no way the inferior Russians could ever defeat the powerful Germans in combat, so it must have been the winter. Whether solely blaming the winter was a political campaign aimed at saving face or just a social justification for the loss, Chew does not say. Either way, it seems that many were unwilling to admit their other shortcomings, coupled with the fact that the Russian military itself was a force to be reckoned with, winter or not.
First of all, both Hitler and Napoleon invaded Russia in the summer. Operation Barbarossa, the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union, began on 22 June, 1941. Napoleon’s Army kicked off his Russian Campaign on 24 June, 1812. It would be impossible to construe either of those as “winter” in any way. However, it is important to recognize the fact that both of these campaigns ended in December.
As Chew corroborates, the harsh Russian winter was certainly a contributing factor to the defeats of France and Germany in these endeavors. He says that “there is no denying that snow and severe frost contributed greatly to the magnitude of their subsequent problems and casualties.” However, “Hitler’s plans also miscarried before the onset of severe winter weather; he was so confident of a lightning victory that he did not prepare for even the possibility of winter warfare in Russia.” He goes on to point out that a staggering amount of casualties were sustained before the winter hit. Specifically, 734,000 casualties in the first five months, starting in the summer months and moving into the fall.
Regarding the German plan: As Chew suggests, Hitler’s entire campaign in many countries was all based on the principles of blitzkrieg, which translates to “lightning war.” To oversimply it, this means attacking with overwhelming forces and shattering the enemy in a short period of time — a contrast to the long, drawn out campaigns one might often see elsewhere. However, Hitler hinged a lot on his blitzkrieg, especially in the case of the Soviet Union. This was arguably his greatest strategic blunder. The whole reason the conflict stretched into the harsh, unrelenting winter was because of his dependence on this strategy working in the first place. So, while the final blow was likely the brutal winter months, the devastation was simply because he underestimated the Soviet forces. The number of casualties in the months preceding winter speak for themselves.
Regarding Napoleon’s plan: This campaign was more complex and Napoleon’s initial intentions were not exactly conquest in the strict sense of the word. Still, he wound up taking Moscow successfully, but would end up ordering his retreat. The withdrawal of his forces didn’t begin in December — that was when it was completed. The order was given in the middle of October, before the Russian winters would really have their way with them. Chew points out that Napoleon lost half of his 378,000 man army in the first eight weeks of his invasion, during the summer. However, during their retreat, the Russian winter was a huge contributing factor in regards to their mounting casualties during their retreat, and the horror stories of enduring the cold have been passed down ever since.
And so, like with many myths attempting to explain a historical figure’s seemingly rash or stupid actions, the truth is much more complex — even more complex than this basic rundown here. For every factor stated above, there were likely ten more contributing to them.
But let’s look at the Mongol invasion of old Russia, known then as Kievan Rus’, which is located in modern east Russia, Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine and Poland. When it came to winters, it was very much the same. How did the winter affect this 13th century invasion? How did “General Winter” purge out the foreign invaders?
Well, it didn’t.
They used the winter to their advantage, as much as they could anyway. In the coldest months of early 1241, the Mongols realized all the rivers were frozen, so they promptly crossed them into what is now the middle of Europe. This wasn’t the first time (nor was it the last) that they would use rivers this way. They would pull out after that, but would return later and secure a decisive victory for themselves. This second, successful push would begin late in the year when it was already terribly cold, but the Mongols were well equipped for the winter, unlike many of the later armies that would enter and expect to have the war over and done with by summer’s close.
Featured image courtesy of the Associated Press.