Intelligence failure, the case of “Operation Barbarossa” Petros Katopodis


In the early hours of 22 June, 1941, the German high command set off the “Operation Barbarossa” and launched an enormous attack against the Soviet Union, across the whole front from Baltic to Black sea, that caught the Soviets by surprise. This attack was the beginning of a series of deadly clashes between the Red Army and the Nazis, that made the Eastern front the bloodiest battlefield of the 2nd World War. The “Great Patriotic War”, as called by the Russians, causing huge casualties. Recent studies estimate that Soviets had 43 to 47 million civilian and military casualties,[1] when about 80 percent of the Nazi losses in the whole war were on the Eastern front. This quota can be translated in approximately 6 million soldiers killed, imprisoned or missing in action for the Axis.[2] The reasons why the Soviet Union wasn’t able to predict and be prepared for operation Barbarossa are still debatable among scholars and historians, yet the most solid explanation seems to be the mindset of Joseph Stalin, the head of Soviet Union.[3] This paper examines briefly how the Soviets were caught by surprise by the German attack, a case which is considered to be a clear intelligence failure and tries to assess whether Stalin has in fact the responsibility for this. Since intelligence failure refers to poor performance of intelligence capability,[4] we cannot really blame intelligence services in case they did their job properly but the state leadership decided to ignore them. Having said that, this paper tries to prove that the Soviet intelligence services managed to predict successfully the Nazi attack and thus there is no case of intelligence failure.[5]



Maintaining powerful intelligence organizations was a key component in the Russian political mechanism, even though it was mostly used for domestic surveillance. Until early 1941, intelligence was responsibility of the mighty People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), but in February 1941 some of NKVD’s components were separated from the Commissariat and became independent. One of them was People’s Commissariat for State Security (NKGB), which became the main instrument of gathering and analyzing intelligence domestically and abroad. NKND may focused mostly in domestic surveillance but it bequeathed to newly formed NKGB a well-functioning and quite extensive international network of spies.[6]

This network included very capable spies in London, Berlin, Paris, Bucharest, Switzerland, Tokyo and also in Moscow inside several foreign diplomatic staff.[7] So, it is quite clear that there were extremely good capabilities for Soviet Union to be informed about Axis’ plans. The first German preparations for war in the Eastern front started shortly after the occupation of France. This didn’t go unnoticed from the Soviet spy network and in the fall of 1940 the first reports regarding Hitler’s intention to attack the Soviet Union arrived. Reports kept coming and their number was increasing alongside with the increase of the Nazi divisions in the Eastern front. The total number of the reports, warning for an upcoming German attack, rose to over 150 by 22 June, 1941.[8] However, the Red Army was still caught by surprise.

Stalin didn’t believe that the Germans were planning to attack because he considered the capitalist powers of the West as his main opponent and also was the whole time in touch with the Germans, which reassured him that there wasn’t any plan for attack and everything else was just a conspiracy theory led by Great Britain. Furthermore, Stalin believed the Germans also because he thought that Hitler wouldn’t want to open another front before defeating Britain.[9] The Nazi leadership used a series of excuses to cover the presence of approximately 140 divisions in the Soviet-German borders. They insisted that the divisions were there in order to be out of range for the British bombers until the final invasion to the British Isles and as a cover for the Nazi operations in the Balkans. They also allowed the Soviets to “eavesdrop” several fake German reports, which underlined that Great Britain was the only foe Nazis were focused on.[10] All these actions can be considered as elements of a Nazi deception plan in order to keep “Operation Barbarossa” off the Soviet “radar”. But even a deception plan is not capable of causing a total absence of defensive measures against an enormous military force, which was exactly the case prior to the Nazi invasion against the Soviet Union.

Stalin seemed to believe everything Germans said at this time and he didn’t even ordered the Soviet troops in the Soviet-German borders to take defensive positions in order not to provoke the Germans. Someone may suggest that the success of “Operation Barbarossa” in surprising the Soviets is owed to the German misdirection plan, which is mentioned just above. But the German misdirection plan is not enough to justify the lack of action from Stalin. That’s because the Soviet spy network kept sending reports about a German attack and, at the same time, there were approximately 140, fully mobilized, divisions in the Soviet doorstep. According to those data any German misdirection plan couldn’t succeed without Stalin’s inactivity. Due to the Soviet regime, there was of course a direct relationship among Stalin and NKGB but People’s Commissariat was functioning on its own under the general command of Vsevolod N. Merkulov, not Stalin. So NKGB did actually a good job until June 1941, when Stalin was so convinced no attack was in plans, that several high ranked officers of NKGB in Moscow started in June 1941 also to overlook some obscure spy reports and support Stalin’s opinion because they feared that they may be accused as enemies of the state.[11] This is an element that could justify a case of intelligence failure, but these reports were limited in number and at the same time there were many more, which were warning for a Nazi attack, so they didn’t seem to be a crucial factor.

In mid 2000s some Russian historians expressed the opinion that Stalin’s inactivity wasn’t result of his trust for Germans, but at that time Stalin was in fact in attacking position, not a defensive one.[12] That’s because the Soviets were planning an attack against the 3rd Reich and they didn’t respond to the German deployment at the Eastern front in order not to reveal their plans. Actually no one can rule out that the Soviets were in fact thinking to attack the Nazis, but it is quite certain that they weren’t planning to do so at that time for two reasons. First, the poor performance of the Red Army in the “Winter War” against Finland and, at the same time, the superior victories of Nazis in the Western Europe convinced the Soviet High Command and Stalin, that the Red Army wasn’t ready yet to face the Germans.[13] Second, the most reasonable time for the Soviets to attack, either against Germany or against capitalist Britain, was after the end of the War among the Axis and the Allies in order for them to be as tired and vulnerable as possible. In any case, the fast advance of the German forces inside the Soviet Union, when the “Operation Barbarossa” began, showed the Red Army was far from ready to conduct any kind of major aggressive operation.

To sum up, this paper tried to examine the way the Soviets were caught by surprise from the Germans with the “operation Barbarossa” and verify whether there was indeed a case of intelligence failure or there were other factors that explain the Soviets being unprepared. First of all, the Soviet Union had at its disposal a very capable international network of spies which was able to identify the Nazi’s intention for an attack. In fact, Soviet intelligence managed to predict the attack, but the Soviet leaders never gave the order for the army to be prepared. Furthermore, we cannot give a lot of credit to the Nazi misdirection plan, because the Germans did try to hide their intentions for an attack but the presence of such a big number of Nazi soldier in the Soviet borders combined with the Soviet intelligence reports were more than enough for Stalin to see through Hitler’s claims. Based on these, we can conclude that there is not after all a case of intelligence failure, but a case of political failure since the crucial factor of the success of “Operation Barbarossa” was Stalin’s inactivity. At first, the Soviet spying network did a good job in gathering an amount of information about the “Operation Barbarossa”, which should be enough for the Soviets to be ready to face the attack. But when these reports reached the decision-making level, where Stalin was in charge, he rejected them as a British effort of disorientation and provocation of a German-Soviet war in order for Germany to distract its attention from the front against Britain. In conclusion the Soviet leader failed to examine objectively the information provided by NKGB and remained attached to his beliefs, resulting in the Soviets to be totally unprepared when “Operation Barbarossa” went underway.



EDITOR: SOFIA TZAMARELOY Intelligence Research Team Coordinator.

[1] Richard Overy, Russia’s War: A History of the Soviet War Effort, 1941– 1945 (New York: Penguin Publications, 1998), p. 288

[2] Catherine Merridale, Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939– 1945 (London: Faber and Faber Limited Publications, 2005), p. 8

[3] The term “mindset” in this paper refers to a set of conclusions, assumptions and suggestions which had formed the way Stalin perceived everything internationally and domestically. For example, Stalin, influenced by the communist dogma, believed that the capitalist powers of the west wanted the occupation of the Soviet Union and the defeat of Communism far more than the Nazis. After all, Soviet Union and Germany successfully negotiated and singed the “German–Soviet Nonaggression Pact” on 23 August 1939.

[4] Dwight E. Trafton, Intelligence Failure and its Prevention (Newport: Naval War College, 1994), p. 6

[5] Intelligence failures occur when intelligence services commit mistakes during the process of gathering, analyzing, evaluating and reporting information. These mistakes might happen due to many kinds of reasons. For example, poor cooperation among different agencies or different departments of the same agency, insufficiently trained intelligence analysts or a successful misdirection plan from the enemy. The list goes on and on, but certainly no one can suggest that there is a case of intelligence failure when the intelligence services do a good job but state leaders decide to overlook their warnings. Richard J. Aldrich, Security Studies edited by Paul D. Williams (New York: Routledge, 2013), p. 238

[6] Uri Bar- Joseph & Rose McDermott, Intelligence Success and Failure (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), p. 61

[7] Ibid. p. 66

[8] David E. Murphy, What Stalin Knew? The Enigma of Barbarossa (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), p. 120

[9] Richard Overy, The Dictators: Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia (New York: W. W. Norton Publications, 2004), p. 55

[10] Joseph & McDermott op. cit. p. 70-72

[11] Murphy op. cit. p. 87

[12] Constantine Pleshakov, Stalin’s Folly: The Tragic First Ten Days of World War II on the Eastern Front (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publications, 2005), p. 27

[13] Merridale op. cit. p. 27