Intelligence failures: A Second World War perspective: Operation Barbarossa, June 1941

I recently recorded a lecture for a third-year university class on British intelligence and security during the Second World War. What struck me as I finished this lecture was the question that I posed to the class at its start: critically assess the view did Britain win the secret war? Now the conclusion that hopefully, the students would come to is that yes Britain was highly successful in conducting intelligence operations during the Second World War. However, the nation did suffer some major and embarrassing intelligence failures. This idea of intelligence failure will be the focus for the next series of posts through an examination of some cases from the Second World War.

Intelligence failure is an important and crucial area of intelligence studies and a number of academics since the 1960s have spent their careers researching and reviewing this area. Dr Thomas E. Copeland defines intelligence failures ‘as the failures to anticipate important information and events’. Copeland noted there are a number of different reasons for intelligence failures and ‘they can include organizational obstacles, psychological and analytical challenges, problems with warning information, and failures of political leadership’.[1] Intelligence failings can be placed in a number of different categories: overestimations, underestimations, overconfidence, complacency, ignorance and inability to make connections.   The phrase ‘failure of intelligence’ is not uncommon in the current climate of international terrorism and attacks such as 9/11, 7/7 and the Manchester bombing of 2017 have all been labelled as intelligence failures as such actions were totally unexpected and a surprise to the intelligence officers who were supposed to be working to protect the citizens of their nations.

A classic example of intelligence failure due to underestimation and failure of political leadership was during the Second World War when the Soviet Union was surprised by Nazi Germany invasion, codenamed Operation Barbarossa, in June 1941. This was surprising as all the signs of an impending invasion were clear to be seen. Hitler was amassing 3 million troops along a front that stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, and there had been a significant increase in aerial recognizance flights Hitler was sending over Russia and even a Soviet spy rings operating in London, Berlin, Paris, Bucharest, Tokyo and Switzerland had all provided intelligence about significant Nazi military build-up along the western border of the Soviet Union. Also, Britain had even provided intelligence about the impending attack, and this information had been gained from the interception and deciphering of German wireless communication. This information was passed on Joseph Stalin, but the Soviet leader refused to believe the warnings about a coming Nazi strike. He views the idea of German attack as impossible and plots by the British to deceive him possibly into attacking Germany. Importantly, he underestimated the threat posed by Hitler in the summer of 1941. Afterall at this time, he was allied with Hitler following the August 1939 non-aggression Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and he was in close communication with Hitler. The Germans had informed him and his army commanders that the build-up of forces used the excuse that the presence of approximately 140 divisions in the region was due to keeping them out of range of British bombers prior to the invasion of Britain. Hitler also stated that the build-up of forces was to porrect the recent German conquests in Poland and part of the strengthening of the borders of the Nazi Empire. Also, within the Soviet military leader, there was a culture of secrecy and fear brought on by the vast purges enacted by Stalin during the 1930s that had witnessed hundreds of senior and respected army commander being arrested being enemies of the state and many ended up being executed or imprisoned in Gulags in Siberia. A major target for these purges had been officials who had questioned Stalin’s orders and while there was intelligence that presented the view of potential invasion many officers who were willing to review these reports and possible take action felt it was more prudent to support Stalin’s interpretation of no immediate threat from the Nazis due to fear of potential arrest.  

So, what can be learned from the intelligence failure of Operation Barbarossa? Firstly, there was no failure to anticipate the important event of Nazi invasion – spies working for Moscow had reportedly provided intelligence that showed an attack was imminent and officers may have wanted to review the intelligence, but Stalin’s view of the no-imminent threat from Berlin ruled supreme within the military of the Soviet Union. When Soviet forces would have been preparing their defences for a coming invasion, they were instructed not to do so. While the German misdirection campaign that covered the intentions for Operation Barbarossa was very efficient, the surprise of the attack that caught the Soviets total by surprise could not have been achieved without Stalin’s inactivity. This meant that between June and August 1941, some German forces were able to penetrate 400 miles into the Soviet Union. Stalin was in disbelief at the attack and raged about the lack of pre-warning even though the signs were there beforehand. This case shows that intelligence failings can take many forms and here while intelligence had provided forewarning Stalin’s underestimation of the Nazi threat and failure of providing adequate political leadership contributed to the Soviet defeat in the summer of 1941.

[1] Thomas E. Copeland, Fool Me Twice: Intelligence Failure and Mass Casualty Terrorism, 2007.

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Jonathan Best

I historian of modern British history. In particular my research has focused on the activities of British secret services during the twentieth century, particularly during the two world wars and the early decades of the Cold War. In addition to this my current research has also examined the history of British spy fiction with a particular focus on the British spy novel between the late Victorian era and the 1960s. This interest is fueled by my personal passion for the secret world of espionage, intelligence, clandestine operations both fictional and factual.

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