Defense Media Network

Hitler’s Winter Blunder

The call for winter coats for the German armies in Russia

“As long as a single object of winter clothing remains in the fatherland, it must go to the front.”

– Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, Dec. 19, 1941

On Nov. 8, 1941, Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels published an article in the magazine Reich that called for “heavy sacrifices” from the German people in the “hard war” ahead. It was a stunning turnaround from the litany of quick victory predictions and declarations the office had issued since the start of the war. Goebbels underscored the situation with a stark declaration: “You are all involved in this struggle whether you want to be or not. … There is no longer a chance of withdrawing for any one of us.”

This master of bombastic rhetoric then ended with an appeal ominously portentous in its subdued tone: “Let us not ask: when will victory come, but instead see that it does come.” To any but the most hardcore of Nazis, the unspoken message was obvious. The war on the Eastern Front wasn’t going smoothly. What the German people didn’t know was that it was going to hell in a frozen hand basket.

Nazi strategic goals were all based on winning the war quickly. With the exception of England, which remained undefeated, that goal had been achieved in Western Europe. Recalling the Red Army leadership’s incompetence during its 1939-1940 Winter War with Finland, Adolf Hitler was confident of swift victory in the east as well, asserting to his generals, “We have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten thing will come down.” Some generals, particularly those newly promoted field marshals, agreed. Others were not so sure. Almost all made a point of reading Gen. Armand de Caulaincourt’s With Napoleon in Russia, the definitive account of the French emperor’s disastrous campaign.

Halftrack and assault gun, Russian winter

A German army Sd.Kfz. 250 halftrack and Sturmgeschütz III assault gun negotiating the Russian winter, October/November 1941. Often fires had to be lit beneath vehicles to make them warm enough to start, as lubricants turned to ice and engines froze solid. Bundesarchive photo

At first it seemed that, yet again, Hitler’s prediction would come true. The German armies drove deep into the Soviet Union, surrounding and destroying one Soviet army after another. But as the weeks turned into months, and despite crippling losses in land and troops, the Soviet Union defiantly refused to surrender. The invasion’s timetable called for Moscow to be captured by the end of summer. As such, the Wehrmacht went into battle wearing only summer-weight uniforms. The German blitzkrieg literally bogged down in the quagmires caused by the autumn rains. Even when it was obvious that Moscow’s capture could not happen until winter at the earliest, no attempts were made to provide the troops with winter clothing.

As winter approached, conditions for the lightly clad German troops at the front became appalling. Weapons malfunctioned. Vehicles wouldn’t start. Frostbite cases soared. Troops froze to death. Yet, somehow Army Group Center kept advancing toward its goal of Moscow, getting so close that the lead elements were able to see the city’s spires in the distance.

Then, on the night of Dec. 4, Russian Gen. Georgi Zhukov launched a massive Red Army counterattack. The blow stunned Army Group Center and sent it reeling back. At the German Army High Command (OKH) headquarters, its head, Field Marshal Walter von Brauchitsch, resigned. Hitler promptly took direct command of OKH and issued to his field generals in Russia the order, “No withdrawal!”

The retreat, which had threatened to become a disastrous rout, was stopped.

Though Hitler’s order averted that crisis, the other crisis, involving troop welfare, remained. On Dec. 20, 1941, Goebbels delivered an address on German national radio. It was a stirring appeal mixing patriotism and shame. Praise of heroic troops and their sacrifice was contrasted with the comforts enjoyed by the German people at home, who experienced “inconveniences and little curtailments, compared to what our front soldiers have borne daily and hourly, over two years.”

His speech then focused on the Eastern Front. After summarizing the troops’ “superhuman effort” overcoming the heat of the Russian summer and mud of the Russian autumn, Goebbels stated that the troops were in defensive positions “as a safeguard of the homeland.” Finally, after all this sugarcoating he came to the point: “Against heat, the front could hardly protect itself; against cold, only the entire homeland can help our front. Who at home would dare to withdraw his help from this service of unity?”

That help was winter clothing – lots of it. Calling the list the “Christmas present from the German nation to the Eastern Front” it included overshoes, blankets, “any kind of headgear protection . . . furs in all senses of the word … everything of wool is needed urgently on the front and will be doubly welcome.” Collecting began on December 27. When it ended on Jan. 4, 1942, a total of 76,232,688 items had been gathered.

Though Goebbels’ propaganda put the best possible face on it, it was an astonishing admission of the government’s inability to care for an army it had placed in harm’s way.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...