For 1942 Hitler planned another Blitzkrieg campaign in Russia. However, its scope, aims and overall goals were very different from those of Operation Barbarossa. For a start the German army was incapable of a strategic offensive across the whole of the Eastern Front. Despite its great victories, the Wehrmacht had taken a severe battering at the hands of the Russians in 1941–2. By March 1942 the Germans had suffered casualties of 1.1 million dead, wounded, missing or captured, some 35 per cent of their Eastern army’s strength. Only eight out of 162 divisions were at full strength and operational capacity. Some 625,000 replacements were needed to bring the Eastern army back up to scratch. The army’s mobility was severely impaired by the loss of 40,000 lorries, 40,000 motorcycles and nearly 30,000 cars, not to speak of thousands of tanks. Of the 180,000 draught animals (mainly horses) also lost as a result of enemy action, only 20,000 had been replaced by March 1942.
The only realistic option was an offensive on a single front. Hitler’s attention focused on the southern front and on the quest for oil. In the Transcaucasus, the area deep in the south of the USSR centred on the Caucasus mountains, were the oil fields that supplied 90 per cent of Soviet fuel. Hitler had both short- and long-term motives for wanting to seize these oil fields. Denying the Russians their oil was one short-term aim; another was the desperate need to increase oil supplies to Germany and its Axis allies.
In the longer term, Hitler needed the means to fight a prolonged war of attrition against the Allies on a multiplicity of fronts. A long war was clearly the only prospect in Russia, and Hitler worried increasingly about the implications of the entry of the United States into the conflict. American economic and military power had been crucial in swinging the balance against Germany during the First World War. He was particularly concerned about the danger to his Festung Europa (Fortress Europe) of an Anglo-American invasion of France. Although that invasion did not take place until June 1944, in mid-1942 it seemed a matter of months rather than years away. German predominance, if not outright victory, had to be established on the Eastern Front before the Allied invasion of France. In that event Germany would be faced with the prospect of a two-front land war in Europe, which it would inevitably lose. This was the background to Chief-of- Staff Halder’s statements in March 1942 that the ‘war will be decided in the east’ and ‘only through the possession of that territory [Transcaucasia] will the German war empire be viable in the long-term’ (Boog et al, 2001, pp.844, 860). Hitler agreed. In June 1942 he told his generals ‘if we don’t get to Maykop and Groznyy [Soviet oil cities in Transcaucasia], I shall have to pack up (“liquidieren”) the war’ (Goerlitz, 1963, p.155).
A thrust to the Caucasus offered other economic advantages. If the Germans did succeed in occupying Transcaucasia, including the Azerbaijan oil capital of Baku, an important Allied supply route to Russia would be cut. Anglo-American supplies shipped via the Persian Gulf would be forced to make a huge detour through Kazakhstan in the Soviet central Asia. A German advance south would involve occupation of the Donets Basin (the Donbas) – the mineral-rich industrial heartland of the Ukraine – and conquest of the fertile lands of the Don and Kuban rivers. Again, denial of these resources to the Russians loomed large in Hitler’s calculations.
Finally, Hitler was anxious about the security of the Rumanian oil fields in Ploesti – the main supplier of the German war machine. These oil fields had been attacked a number of times by Soviet bombers. Damage was light but the potential for a destructive air campaign was clear. ‘Now in the era of air power’, Hitler had said in January 1941, ‘Russia can turn the Rumanian oil fields into an expanse of smoking debris . . . and the very life of the Axis depends on those fields.’