I have heard it previously that the Balkans Campaign delayed Operation Barbarossa, but I found out that Antony Beevor wrote in his 2012 book "the Second World War" the following:

Hitler was relieved to have secured his southern flank, but just before the end of the war he attributed the delay in launching Barbarossa to this campaign. In more recent years, historians have argued over the effect Operation Marita had on the invasion of the Soviet Union. Most accept that it made little difference.

Is that the actual consensus among historians? I hold no strong opinions on this. I'm just curious why most historians believe it made no difference, if most do actually believe that.

3 Answers 3


No Delay to BARBAROSSA -- But Significant Implications

Firstly, as a teaser, it is worth pointing out that Hitler himself did quite explicitly blame Mussolini's failures in Africa and the Balkans for undermining his invasion of the USSR, in his famous recorded conversation with Marshal Mannerheim of Finland in May 1942. He made mention of the permanent loss of three key divisions (to Africa), and the disruption and diversion of his airforce and panzer forces, which the Balkan and Mediterranean operations entailed, while they should have been preparing for 'Barbarossa'. He doesn't explicitly say, however, that there was a consequent delay in launching 'Barbarossa', only that he had expected the operation to begin in the spring of 1941, and that the Balkan distraction had been "very unfortunate".

Hitler also took great pains to point out to Mannerheim the fact that the German war machine was a "good weather" force, and that this had caused him to delay his campaign in the West over the winter of 1939-40, despite his desperate desire to move quickly on that front. He also spoke of the difficulties caused by excessive rain for his mobile striking forces, and also their acknowledged unpreparedness for winter combat.

So while we can see from his own words that Hitler was very good at finding excuses for the German failure to conclude the war in the USSR in 1941, your question was, what do historians think?

Historian Martin van Creveld wrote a book on this exact subject back in 1973, 'Hitler's Strategy 1940-1941: The Balkan Clue', which I believe was quite influential in establishing the claim among historians that there was no significant delay to the start of 'Barbarossa' as a consequence of the Balkan Campaigns. In researching this book van Creveld meticulously followed the preparation and positioning of the German military forces in the lead-up to the invasion of the USSR, and found that the scheduling of the re-equipping and training of forces would not have allowed them to be ready for the offensive much earlier than the historical starting point, regardless of the Balkan Campaigns. He shows that units redeploying from the Balkan Campaigns were in fact in position and ready for a start to operations even before the original 16th May 1941 deadline. Many of the forces used in the Balkans were earmarked for reserve, and so were not even required to be in position until very late in the process, and the transportation timetables were very flexible, and had been designed to operate in synchronicity with the Balkan operations.

The real cause of delay, according to van Creveld, was the result of shortages of equipment for key divisions, especially motorized and panzer forces which were to be re-equipped with captured French equipment. Some of these units were still moving forward in late May and early June 1941, and some were moved forward before their equipment had even arrived, with the hope that their equipment would be scrounged from various locations and meet them at their destination. He concludes that this problem alone would have prevented a start to operations in the East before late June 1941, and it had nothing to do with the Balkan Campaign or the weather.

However, the story does not end there...

On 17th March 1941, as British forces were disembarking in Greece in response to German moves into Bulgaria, Hitler made the decision to change the objective of Operation 'Marita', from a limited occupation of northern Greece, into a complete occupation of Greece to expel British forces from the continent. This had the effect of significantly extending the scope of the operation, requiring the use of larger numbers of German forces, for a longer period of time. This threw the synchronization between Operations 'Marita' and 'Barbarossa' into chaos. Forces of 12th Army, required for duty in Greece, which had been earmarked for operations with Army Group South in 'Barbarossa', would simply not be available for the beginning of 'Barbarossa'. This did not cause a delay in the starting date of 'Barbarossa', but it did cause a significant alteration to the operational plan for 'Barbarossa'.

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The existing plan for Operation 'Barbarossa', called for Army Group South to attack into the USSR along two major axes; from Rumania, with 1st Panzergruppe, and 12th Army in support; forming an encircling pincer with an attack from 6th Army and 17th Army from Poland. The loss of supporting divisions from 12th Army due to the expanding scope of the Greek operation, led Hitler to doubt the ability of the southern pincer from Rumania to safely cross the Pruth River, and as a consequence he cancelled the attack from Rumania, and directed that 1st Panzergruppe would support the northern attack from Poland instead, creating a single-axis attack for Army Group South, without the ability to create large pincer encirclements.

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This had significant ramifications for the Germans. In the historical event, the single-axis attack from Army Group South from Poland was hindered and delayed by terrain and stubborn Soviet resistance, which resulted in Army Group South lagging behind as the German Army advanced into the USSR, and exposed the right flank of Army Group Centre. It was this exposed southern flank which so worried Hitler that he diverted Guderian's 2nd Panzergruppe to Kiev from Army Group Centre during the critical month of September, when German forces should have been resting, resupplying, and building up their logistics for the next stage of the campaign. We can only speculate how things might have been different if 1st Panzergruppe had been sent racing across the southern steppes of the Ukraine, instead of winding through the Carpathian valleys, perhaps encircling Kiev from the south and finding itself, rested, replenished and poised in perfect position to continue the advance to Moscow or Rostov at the beginning of September, along with a similarly refreshed Army Group Centre.

So while there was no overall delay to the start of Operation 'Barbarossa' due to the Balkan Campaign, there were potentially far-reaching ramifications due to the diversion of key units from the planned attack. Given the effect this had, we can also perhaps revisit Hitler's criticism of Mussolini to Mannerheim in 1942, and see it as perhaps not as entirely self-serving as might have been assumed.

Hitler's Strategy 1940-41: The Balkan Clue (1973) -- Martin van Creveld
Kiev 1941 (2011) -- David Stahel
English Transcription of the Hitler-Mannerheim talk


It didn't influence Operation Barbarossa significantly. What stopped the German advance? The tenacious defence of the Red Army. When the Germans kicked in the door, the house didn't come down crashing as they expected.

Among other factors, the Rasputisa, or the muddy season. That is actually not one, but two seasons:

  • The autumn rains, when roads become impassible - which greatly hindered the German advance. We know about this one.
  • The spring thaw, when roads are equally impassible - which made a much earlier German advance impossible. Most people tend to forget this part.

I stress much earlier, as a couple of weeks wouldn't have made any difference in the outcome of Barbarossa. It could only have influenced the invasion if the Yugoslav - Greek operations were never implemented. Which was not possible, due to the spring thaws.

One could argue the Germans had to wait until the Russian roads were dry enough to drive over. They might as well use the army for something more useful, which they did.

That spring Rasputisa season is what most people tend to overlook.

You also have to look at the loss figures of the German army during operation Barbarossa. Yes, they captured millions of POW's. Destroyed heaps of military equipment. But it wasn't a walk in the park! German loss figures were dreadful as well. Halfway towards Moscow all active reserve units had been used up. Second line units had to move forward to make up for the losses.

Yes, the USSR lost terribly. But they made the German fight for every meter of Russian soil. It wasn't winter - nor mud - that defeated the Germans, but the Red Army.

Had Operation Barbarossa started earlier, the results would have been almost the same: huge losses for the Red Army, and equally bad losses for the German army. One could argue more troops that didn't invade (and consequently died, were wounded or had to be used for occupation in) Yugoslavia - Greece could be used. Which is correct, but doesn't offset the losses of Germany significantly.


Unlikely, because Germans were stopped by casualties and unexpected Soviet resistance

It is a well known fact that original date for the start of Operation Barbarossa was May 15th, 1941. It was delayed for 38 days, finally starting on June 22nd, 1941. Possible reasons could be Invasion of Yugoslavia (6–18 April 1941) , simultaneous invasion of Greece (lasting until April 23rd on mainland, but until June 1st on Crete) and unusually long rasputitsa or mud season during the spring of that year do to the floods. All of these reasons have some merit. Operations in the Balkans did tie up large number of German troops (over half-million with accompanying armor, artillery and air support). Although this ended before the end of April, those troops would have to be relocated, resupplied and rested for the invasion of USSR and this was unlikely until May 15th. On the other hand, rasputitsa truly did slow down operations almost to a halt in spring of 1942, 1943 and 1944. But it also had effect on operations in autumn of 1941, 1942 and 1943.

However, there are some things to consider. Germans didn't plan to prolong fighting in Soviet Union deep into autumn of 1941. In fact original plans called for destruction of main part of Red Army in few summer weeks in encirclement battles, then proceed virtually unopposed deep into Soviet Union (Arkhangelsk–Astrakhan line) . At first it looked like the plan is working. General Halder, chief of staff of OKH, wrote in his diary on July 3rd, 1941 that the war is already won.

But then some things happened. July was bloodiest month for Wehrmacht so far in the war, August was even worse. Much was debated about Hitler's directive No33 that deprived Army Group Center of its two Panzer Groups. But in reality it was a forced decision. Already in mid-July of 1941 Germany could not sustain attack on all three axis of advance (North, Center, South) . Despite suffering heavy casualties, both in North and South Soviets still held Leningrad and Kiev respectively. In the Center, enormous Battle of Smolensk was developing. Panzer Groups in the center would have to be rested and resupplied and then decision would have to be made where to employ them. Hitler didn't want to repeat Napoleon's mistake of going after Moscow while leaving Kiev and St Petersburg in enemy hands, so he opted for strategy of first resolving situation at the flanks (plus gaining economic resources of Ukraine) before going to Moscow. Despite this, Germans could not take Leningrad. Siege begun on 8th of September, while the weather was still good, but Germans could not take the city. In the south they had more success and captured Kiev, and latter in the autumn Kharkov, but could not take whole of Crimea.

In any case, Germans resumed their offensive towards Moscow on October 2nd (according to some sources 30th September if you count in initial preparatory battles ). Despite beginning of aforementioned rasputitsa, at first Germans did have a lot of success. In fact, although mud did slow down the Germans, they temporarily suspended the offensive only from 31st October to 15th November. In the end, onset of winter and freezing of the ground initially helped the Germans but they didn't have enough strength to capture the Moscow. Their offensive ended in early December just as temperatures started dropping bellow -20C .

What could we make out of all this ? Weather in Russia (USSR) is what it is. Considering advantages and flaws of German war machine, they certainly preferred warm summer weather over anything else. But despite initial success, even in those summer months they failed to achieve their objective of forcing decision about the whole war. Considering actual war record, there is no doubt that Germans would have to run into mud and snow at some point, no matter the starting date of their invasion. Had they started earlier, they would probably complain that they were stopped by mud in the beginning and mud in the end. But reality is that Soviet Union was simply formidable foe they could not topple in a single blow. War became war of attrition, one that Germany could not win.

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