In June, 1940, as the German Wehrmacht thundered through France, Adolf Hitler ordered OKH, the German General Staff, to prepare a preliminary plan for the invasion of the then Soviet Union. Interestingly, OKH, on its own hook, had already begun such planning. As a series of plans were developed, and put before him, Hitler began inputting his own requirements for the plan. What had started as a limited offensive in the northern, then central area of the U.S.S.R evolved into an attack along an 800 mile from that would rapidly expand to 1,200 then 2,000 miles in width.
Hitler was primarily concerned with crushing the U.S.S.R, but also with seizing two areas, Ukraine and the Donbass [and, henceforth, Kiev], and the industrial areas around Leningrad. While Moscow was on his radar, it was not a primary objective for him. It WAS, however, the OKH Chief of Staff, Franz Halder, and for the Commander in Chief of the German Army, Field Marshal Walter von Brauchitsch's chief and one might say only objective. So while telling Hitler one thing, they planned another.
Both Hitler and his generals agreed the first order of business was to destroy the Red Army as close to the Polish border as possible. The remnants would then be pursued eastward, and to Hitler's way of thinking, the drives to the north and south could commence. But Halder and company had different plans. The deployment of the German [and Allied] forces is instructive. For the drive on Leningrad, OKH assigned two infantry armies, and one Panzergruppe [later Panzer Army]. They were to be augmented by the Finns, attacking from the north. In the South, Field Marshal Karl Gerd von Rundstedt commanded three infantry armies, one Panzergruppe, and a Romanian Army. In Army GRoup Center, however, Field Marshal Fedor von Bock deployed three infantry armies and TWO Panzergruppen. It was clear that von Bock understood from Halder and Brauchitsch that Moscow was the primary objective for the campaign.
Initially, when the attack went in, the Germans were operating on a continuous front [except in the south where geography had the Germans attacking from two directions]. Very soon, however, the front between AG Center and AG South was split by a truly vast swamp, know as the Pripyat Marsh, and AG North's main axis of advance diverged to the northeast. Any problems, however, were initially obscured by the stunning series of victories the Wehrmacht pulled off. Minsk was taken in less than two weeks. AG North breached the Soviet lines and the Panzers covered over 50 miles in a day. But in the south Rundstedt was impeded by his split front, poor geography [a series of rivers ran across his front on his right], and after some open terrain, the Pripyat Marsh was on his left. And he was facing an opponent who was very god, General. Kirponis. So progress was slow. And then, as they say, the wheels began to fall off.
The Germans started the campaign on an 800 mile front, with a small force of reserves. Within weeks they had added 400 miles to the breadth of the battlefield, and had taken heavier than expected casualties [the Red Army wasn't the French]. The roads on the maps were goat tracks, and the Germans were forced to re-lay all the railroad tracks because the Soviets used a different track gage. That slowed getting supplies and reinforcements to the front. Additionally, the Germans had doubled the number of Panzer divisions after France by halving the number of tank regiments per division. The problem was the 'soft' vehicles. The 3rd Panzergruppe's supply and transport trucks included substantial numbers of French vehicles, and requisitioned civilian transport. The parts inventory for re-supply became nightmarish., further straining the supply system. So did the feed. horseshoes, etc. for the over 600,000 horses the Wehrmacht brought into Russia [90% of the German Army's infantry and artillery relied on horse drawn equipment]
As the diverging campaigns developed, several problems began to show. First, the Red Army hadn't been destroyed. The encirclements weren't working, since the infantry, marching on foot, had to march some 40 miles a day, and fight daily, while the tankers, being tankers, wanted to continue driving on, despite orders. And Hermann Hoth [PzGrp 3], and Heinz Guderian [PzGrp 2] were experts at that. Result: They abandoned encirclements to drive on before the infantry came up, and the Reds escaped. Second, AG North's tank force was too small to encircle the Red Army units to their front, and AFG North was too small to effectively achieve its objectives rapidly. And third, AG South was lagging behind. They were nowhere near Kiev, and while doing yeoman service, PzGrp1 [Ewald von Kleist] was simply incapable of carrying out all the tasks it faced, e.g., forcing a crossing of the Dnieper, and driving east to Dniepoprotvsk . Meanwhile Hitler began to interfere more with operations, demanding PzGrp. 3 strike north to help AG North, and inquiring about Rundstedt's [an experienced and highly efficient commander] lack of success in the South.
It all came to a head in July - August. Hitler flew to Smolensk to arbitrate a dispute among his senior commanders, specifically Rundstedt and Bock. Rundstedt wanted help. He was facing over 700,000 Soviets behind a good defensive line, the Dnieper. He wanted some of Bock's panzers diverted south to help break the stalemate. Bock, of course, wanted to continue the drive on Moscow, which he understood had been the principal objective all along. Bock was supported by Halder, Brauchitsch [no surprise there], Guderian and Hoth [tankers WILL BE tankers]. Rundstedt was supported by Kleist, his Army commanders, and by two of Bock's Army commanders [they had a right flank some 300 miles long.
There were several results of that meeting. First, Hitler finally realized the depth of Halder's and Brauchitsch's duplicity. Already distrustful of the generals, the distrust deepened [when he relieved Brauchitsch in December, he replaced him with himself]. Second, he ordered Guderian south, resulting in the Kiev encirclement, which bagged over 600,000 enemy troops, and led to the seizure of Kiev, the Donbass, Kharkov, and AG South's attack on Rostov on the Don.
Hitler finally agreed to the attack on Moscow that September, after Guderian re-deployed north. Why? His two economic objectives [geographically, at least] had been attained. Germany occupied Ukraine. Leningrad itself was under artillery fire from a besieging German force. But the Germans struck too late. Rundstedt was driven out of Rostov, and despite Hitler's orders to the contrary retreated to defensive positions on the Mius River, where he repulsed the Red Army all winter [though not personally. He was relieved in December]. After spectacular successes at Vyazma and Bryansk, the German drive faltered some 18 miles from Moscow. Ill-equipped for the Russian winter that enveloped them, supported by a supply system incapable of doing its job, failed by the hubris of its leadership, both civilian and military, the Wehrmacht was ripe for the unexpected Soviet counter-offensive of December 6th. The fought, broke and retreated. For the first and only time a "Stand and Hold" order from Hitler had a positive result. But the myth of German invincibility was shattered in the Russian snow.
Could the Germans have won Barbarossa? No. But they could have come closer. Halder and Brauchitsch's overstrengthening of AG Center meant that AG North and AG South would never have quite enough resources to accomplish their mission. The chaotic supply system guaranteed that at some point, probably when it was needed most, it would fail. The German economy, unable to produce the masses trucks, and other vehicles needed to fully, or more fully mechanize, the German Army, meant there would be two German armies, the 10% fully mobile, and the 90% horse drawn, and walking on foot. And that meant a campaign over the distances of the U.S.S.R's depth and width was going to be at the pace of the German Landser. The closeness to success the Germans attained is largely due to the almost superhuman efforts of the German infantry.
The war on the Eastern Front went on for 4 more years. The Germans were bled dry. And it all went back to three cities, two plans, and one epic failure.