‘Exercises’ on the Russian border

German artillery on exercises in eastern Austria, then part of 'Greater Germany', summer 1941.

The assembly of the largest invasion force ever, consisting of nearly 4 million men on a front 1,000 miles long could not possibly be concealed. Nevertheless all manner of fictions were invented to explain the build up for Barbarossa, however implausible they might seem to those involved. As it turned out Stalin chose to believe these stories, even as he received numerous intelligence reports that a German invasion was imminent.

The fiction was maintained even within the German army just two days before Barbarossa was launched. Siegfried Knappe was in an artillery regiment on the border with Russia:

“Gentlemen,” Raake said, “study this map carefully. We must determine the best position for our guns in the event of an attack on Russia.”

We stared at him, speechless. We had a friendship treaty with Russia, and we were at war with England. Things were not adding up.

“Why would we attack Russia?” I asked. “It is just an exercise,” Raake said. “A hypothetical situation.”

We studied the map and, with Raake, determined the best positions for the guns of each battery. We then went out and found the positions assigned to us. It could have been just another exercise, but none of us really believed that. We did not have orders to move our guns into the positions, only to be familiar with our assigned locations and ready to move our guns into them.

This had formerly been the border between East Prussia and Poland, but now that Germany and Russia had divided Poland between them it was the border between East Prussia and Russia. The Russians had created a no-man’s-land on their side of the border by removing everything that was there in order to provide an unobstructed view. Then they had installed a barbed wire fence and sentry towers to keep watch.

There were no changes on our side; rye and potato fields, as well as patches of birch and fir trees, almost bordered the fence.

Schumann, Witnauer, and I were then summoned to Raake’s office again. Raake looked very serious and tense this time. “You are each to send a work detail of men in civilian clothing to load three hundred rounds of ammunition for your guns into farm wagons and take the rounds to your assigned gun positions,” he said. “Your men are to look like farmers doing farm work, and your ammunition is to be camouflaged after you unload it.”

We did not look at each other. It was evident that we were going to invade Russia even though we had a friendship treaty with her.

“When are we going to invade, Major?” Schumann asked. “It is only an exercise, Schumann. A purely hypothetical situation. But we have to make it look as real as possible.”

See Siegfried Knappe: Soldat – Reflections of a German Soldier, 1936-1949

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