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Germany launches Operation Barbarossa—the invasion of Russia

Germany launches Operation Barbarossa—the invasion of Russia

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On June 22, 1941, over 3 million German troops invade Russia in three parallel offensives, in what is the most powerful invasion force in history. Nineteen panzer divisions, 3,000 tanks, 2,500 aircraft, and 7,000 artillery pieces pour across a thousand-mile front as Hitler goes to war on a second front.

Despite the fact that Germany and Russia had signed a “pact” in 1939, each guaranteeing the other a specific region of influence without interference from the other, suspicion remained high. When the Soviet Union invaded Rumania in 1940, Hitler saw a threat to his Balkan oil supply. He immediately responded by moving two armored and 10 infantry divisions into Poland, posing a counterthreat to Russia. But what began as a defensive move turned into a plan for a German first-strike. Despite warnings from his advisers that Germany could not fight the war on two fronts (as Germany’s experience in World War I proved), Hitler became convinced that England was holding out against German assaults, refusing to surrender, because it had struck a secret deal with Russia. Fearing he would be “strangled” from the East and the West, he created, in December 1940, “Directive No. 21: Case Barbarossa”—the plan to invade and occupy the very nation he had actually asked to join the Axis only a month before.

READ MORE: How a Secret Hitler-Stalin Pact Set the Stage for WWII

On June 22, 1941, having postponed the invasion of Russia after Italy’s attack on Greece forced Hitler to bail out his struggling ally in order to keep the Allies from gaining a foothold in the Balkans, three German army groups struck Russia hard by surprise. The Russian army was larger than German intelligence had anticipated, but they were demobilized. Stalin had shrugged off warnings from his own advisers, even Winston Churchill himself, that a German attack was imminent. (Although Hitler had telegraphed his territorial designs on Russia as early as 1925–in his autobiography, Mein Kampf.) By the end of the first day of the invasion, the German air force had destroyed more than 1,000 Soviet aircraft. And despite the toughness of the Russian troops, and the number of tanks and other armaments at their disposal, the Red Army was disorganized, enabling the Germans to penetrate up to 300 miles into Russian territory within the next few days.

Exactly 129 years and one day before Operation Barbarossa, another “dictator” foreign to the country he controlled, invaded Russia–making it all the way to the capital. But despite this early success, Napoleon would be escorted back to France–by Russian troops.

Watch the launch of Operation Barbarossa, the German Wehrmacht invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941

NARRATOR: 3:15 a.m., June 22, 1941 - The German Wehrmacht invade the Soviet Union. Operation, code name Barbarossa, is launched. At 1,600 kilometers, it is the longest front in history. More than three and a half million German and allied soldiers are in active combat, supported by artillery, air force, and tanks. The German propaganda declares the offensive as a pre-emptive strike, for which the Soviets are unprepared.

GERHARD GOERTZ: "They even came out in their night shirts and started shooting. They were taken by complete surprise."

NARRATOR: A Non-aggression Pact between the two dictatorships is officially in force. Only one year earlier, the Soviet Foreign Minister paid a goodwill visit to Berlin.

WEEKLY NEWSREEL: "In the new Reich Chancellery, Molotov was welcomed by the Führer for a long discussion."

NARRATOR: At the same time, secret preparations for Operation Barbarossa are in full swing. Soviet Russia is to be crushed in a swift campaign, according to the German plan of attack. In May 1941, Moscow displays its strength at a Military Parade. Stalin has long been warned of the planned German offensive. But he does not believe Hitler will dare to attack. Only a few weeks later, German fighter planes dominate Soviet air space. Despite clear warnings, the Red Army is not ready for action. The invaders are confident of victory. Along a broad front, the Wehrmacht occupies the Ukraine, White Russia, and the Baltic States. During the battles of those first months, the defenders suffer enormous losses. In 1941 alone, over three million Russian soldiers are captured by the Germans. The majority of them die in the POW camps as intended.

HERBERT BAIER: "Our superiors told us time and time again that the Russians were subhuman, uneducated, so the Russians were given short shrift. And we were also told that we'd be home by the end of December, in time for Christmas."

NARRATOR: Hitler and his generals conduct a war of destruction, in violation of international law. General Field Marshal Keitel prepares a batch of criminal directives. One of them, the so-called Commissar Order,directed Communist Party officials to be shot immediately upon capture for all the world to see.

WILLI HANISCH: "I was there and saw with my own eyes how the commissars were picked out and just shot right there on the street."

NARRATOR: The Wehrmacht also conducts man-hunting raids on the Jewish population.

WILLI HEIN: "They were dragged from their homes and led away and had to bring along their spades and dig their own graves. And then the military police just shot them."

This Day In History, Hitler Invaded The Soviet Union (1941)

On this day in history in 1941, Hitler ordered the invasion of the Soviet Union. This was despite the fact that the Nazi and Communist governments had only signed a non-aggression pact some two years earlier. The invasion of Russian was codenamed Operation Barbarossa. The invasion force was huge over 3 million German troops were employed. Some 6,000 tanks and 2,000 aircraft also involved. The Germans advanced on a broad front from Finland to Rumania. Hitler was a lifelong and fanatical anti-communist. It is widely believed that he had long intended to invade the Soviet Union, despite the non-aggression pact. Hitler was especially concerned about Stalin activities in Rumania. He had ordered his forces to take over some of that country and Hitler believed that he also wanted to seize the oilfields in the country. Hitler saw this as a threat to Germany as it relied heavily on the Rumanian oil fields.

Hitler saw a threat to his Rumanian oil supply, upon which his war machine was dependent. At first, he ordered two divisions to Poland to ensure that Stalin did not seize the oilfields. However, Hitler began to expand the operation and soon he ordered his General Staff to organize an invasion of the Soviet Union. At the time, Hitler was not engaged in any fighting in Europe and dominated the continent from France to Finland. Hitler was convinced that Britain was holding out because it had a secret agreement with Russia and Stalin. In December 1940 he issues a directive calling for the invasion of Russia. However, Hitler was acting very erratically and had only invited Moscow to join the Axis a month earlier.

The invasion of Russia was to be delayed. It had originally been intended to invade Russia in May. However, Italy, Germany&rsquos main ally, suffered a defeat in Greece and this forced Hitler to divert forces to the Balkans. This was to be regarded as a costly mistake in hindsight.

German tank in Russia (1941)

When Operation Barbarossa was launched it caught Stalin and the Soviet government by surprise. The Soviet Army did not receive orders on how to respond to the invasion for some time. The Soviets had ignored earlier warnings- Churchill had warned Stalin, that the Germans planned an attack.

German soldiers with a burning Soviet tank

The Germans attacked from the land, air and sea. The Luftwaffe was able to destroy some 1000 planes in the air and on the ground. The German panzer divisions used Blitzkreg tactics and they devastated the Russian forces. The Red Army put up a heroic defense but they were disorganized and soon, forced into an all-out retreat. In the first day of Operation Barbarossa, the Germans had pushed some 50 miles into Soviet territory.

The Germans continued their advance with great success for several months. They captured or killed hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers. The advent of winter slowed their advance and the Red Army stopped them before the gates of Moscow.

Operation Barbarossa And Germany's Failure In The Soviet Union

In August 1939, as Europe slid towards another world war, Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression treaty. The Nazi-Soviet Pact came as a complete surprise to other nations, given the ideological differences between the two countries. It ushered in a period of military co-operation which allowed Hitler to ignore western diplomatic moves and invade Poland. Stalin's forces then attacked from the west and completed the subjugation and partition of the Polish state. For the next year and a half Germany also benefitted economically from the arrangement, with Russia exporting grain and oil in return for manufactured goods.

Soviet cooperation allowed Hitler to expand his plans for European domination. In May 1940 the Blitzkrieg rolled westwards and France was conquered in six weeks. But peace with Russia would not last. Hitler had always wanted to see Germany expand eastwards to gain Lebensraum or 'living space' for its people.

After the fall of France Hitler ordered plans to be drawn up for an invasion of the Soviet Union. He intended to destroy what he saw as Stalin's 'Jewish Bolshevist' regime and establish Nazi hegemony. The conquest and enslavement of the Soviet Union's racially 'inferior' Slavic populations would be part of a grand plan of 'Germanisation' and economic exploitation lasting well beyond the expected military victory. Regardless of recent economic and political co-operation, the Soviet Union was regarded as the natural enemy of Nazi Germany and a key strategic objective.


On 18 December 1940 Hitler issued Führer Directive 21, an order for the invasion of the Soviet Union. The German military plan called for an advance up to a hypothetical line running from the port of Archangel in northern Russia to the port of Astrakhan on the Caspian Sea – the so-called 'A-A line'. This would bring the bulk of the Soviet population and its economic potential under German control.

After a five week delay while operations in Greece and Yugoslavia were completed, Operation 'Barbarossa' - named after the all-conquering Medieval Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I - was launched on 22 June 1941. Over three and a half million German and other Axis troops attacked along a 1,800-mile front. A total of 148 divisions - 80 per cent of the German Army - were committed to the enterprise. Seventeen panzer divisions, formed into four Panzer Groups, formed the vanguard with 3,400 tanks. They were supported by 2,700 aircraft of the Luftwaffe. It was the largest invasion force to date.

The German forces were split into three army groups, each with a specific objective. Army Group North was to head through the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia and take Leningrad. Army Group South would attack into the Ukraine towards Kiev and the Donbas (Donets Basin) industrial region. Between them, Army Group Centre's objective was Minsk, Smolensk and then Moscow itself. Hitler expected these all to be attained in approximately ten weeks.

The Soviets had massed large forces on their western frontier, but they were under orders not to provoke the Germans. Although mistrustful of Hitler, Stalin did not believe that he would attack so soon, despite the ominous German build-up and a stream of intelligence warnings. He had some 5 million men available immediately and a total of 23,000 tanks, but the Red Army was still unprepared when the Germans struck.

The Germans got off to a good start, with the panzer groups quickly pushing towards their objectives and Russian forces falling apart in confusion. They were greatly helped by the Luftwaffe's bombing of Soviet airfields, artillery positions and troop concentrations. The Germans quickly established air superiority. On the first day alone 1,800 Soviet aircraft were destroyed, most of them on the ground. Army Group North, under Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, plunged towards Leningrad, with General Erich Hoepner's Panzer Group 4 in the lead. Russian forces in this sector were thinly spread and the panzers covered 500 miles (804 km) in three weeks. By mid-July they were only 60 miles (96 km) from their objective.

Army Group Centre, under Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, also made rapid progress. By 28 June Panzer Group 2, led by General Heinz Guderian, and General Hermann Hoth's Panzer Group 3 had encircled three Russian armies and captured over 320,000 men in the Bialystok-Minsk pockets. The two panzer groups then pressed ahead, linking up on the far side of Smolensk on 27 July in another double envelopment. Two more Russian armies were trapped and destroyed, and another 300,000 troops taken prisoner.

Army Group South, under Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, had the furthest to go and his attack also faced the stiffest Soviet resistance. Most of the Russian armour was on this front. But by early July von Rundstedt had pushed out beyond the pre-1939 Polish frontier. General Ewald von Kleist's Panzer Group 1 was slowed by Soviet flanking attacks as it headed for Kiev, the capital of Ukraine and key to the coal-rich Donets Basin. On 8 August the Germans surrounded two Soviet armies, capturing 100,000 men in the Uman pocket, and reached the Dnieper River. The naval port of Odessa on the Black Sea was also besieged.

Up to this point all seemed to be going well, the only major problem being the time needed for the infantry to catch up with the panzers and mop up pockets of Russian defence. But Soviet resistance was now stiffening, despite catastrophic losses. A German salient around Yelnya, south-east of Smolensk, was recaptured in a costly but successful counterattack.

Meanwhile, Army Group Centre's supply situation was becoming critical. Hitler decided to halt the advance on Moscow and reinforce Army Groups North and South. Hoth's Panzer Group 3 was sent north to support the drive on Leningrad while Guderian's tanks were despatched to help Army Group South take Kiev. The German High Command protested vigorously. The panzers were only 220 miles from Moscow. But Hitler regarded the resource-rich Ukraine as more important. On 21 August he ordered that the conquest of the Crimea and the Donets Basin be given priority.

The Soviets were completely fooled by German moves. Five Soviet armies were trapped in a vast salient around Kiev. As usual, Stalin refused to sanction a withdrawal before the pocket was sealed. By the end of September Kiev had fallen and over 650,000 Russian troops killed or captured. The Germans pushed along the Black Sea coast and into the Crimea, laying siege to Sevastapol. In October Kharkov fell, but by now the Germans were exhausted. The fighting had severely depleted their ranks and supply lines were stretched to the limit. For now, the southern front stayed where it was. In the north too, German forces had reached their limit. In September, with the aid of their Finnish Allies, they cut Leningrad off from the rest of Russia, but lacked the strength to take the city. Instead, Hitler ordered that it be starved into submission. The epic siege would last 890 days.


Hitler now decided to resume the battle for Moscow. On 2 October he unleashed Operation 'Typhoon'. He believed the Russians had been fatally weakened and lacked the strength to defend their capital - one more push would see it fall and victory would be his. But the Red Army had been reinforced. Almost a million Soviet troops were in place, although they had few tanks and aircraft left. A multi-layered ring of defences had been thrown around the capital and its citizens had been mobilised. The German offensive was carried out by a reinforced Army Group Centre, comprising three infantry armies and three panzer groups - 1 million men and 1,700 tanks. However the Luftwaffe was weak after over three months of sustained operations. And the weather was beginning to turn.

Once again the initial assault was a success. The panzer divisions stormed ahead and over 600,000 Russian soldiers were captured in two more huge encirclements near the cities of Bryansk and Vyazma. The Russians were down to about 90,000 men. But as they reached the approaches to Moscow, the German formations slowed to a crawl. Autumn rains had turned the dirt roads into rivers of mud. It was the Rasputitsa - the 'quagmire season' - and wheeled and horse-drawn transport became hopelessly stuck. The Germans chose to temporarily halt operations.

In mid-November, with the temperature dropping and the ground now frozen hard, the panzers attempted a final pincer attack around Moscow itself. The delay had given the Soviets time to bring in further reinforcements, including reservists and troops from Siberia and the eastern borders. The northern German pincer was the most successful and got within 12 miles of the city. German officers could see the Kremlin buildings through their field glasses. The Germans also tried attacking in the centre, along the Minsk-Moscow road. On 2 December a reconnaissance unit got within 5 miles of Moscow. Though tantalisingly close, this was the limit of the entire advance. The depleted German units were exhausted and frozen into inactivity in the deep snow.

On 5 December the Soviets launched a surprise counter-offensive. The Germans were forced into a retreat, despite Hitler's call to defend every foot of ground. Guderian and several other senior generals who advised withdrawal were sacked. The Russians succeeded in crushing various German formations in encirclements of their own. The Luftwaffe struggled to operate but performed vital work ferrying supplies to cut off units and harrying the Russian advance. Army Group Centre was pushed back up to 150 miles from Moscow. A furious Hitler dismissed the commander-in-chief of the German Army, Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, and appointed himself in his place.

Watch the invasion unfold

Watch the invasion unfold


Operation 'Barbarossa' had clearly failed. Despite the serious losses inflicted on the Red Army and extensive territorial gains, the mission to completely destroy Soviet fighting power and force a capitulation was not achieved.

One of the most important reasons for this was poor strategic planning. The Germans had no satisfactory long-term plan for the invasion. They mistakenly assumed that the campaign would be a short one, and that the Soviets would give in after suffering the shock of massive initial defeats. Hitler had assured the High Command that 'We have only to kick in the front door and the whole rotten edifice will come tumbling down'. But Russia was not France. The shock value of the initial Blitzkrieg was dissipated by the vast distances, logistical difficulties and Soviet troop numbers, all of which caused attritional losses of German forces which could not be sustained.


Hitler's input has been heavily criticised, not least by his generals at the time. Moscow was always a more important objective to the German High Command than it was to Hitler, who was more concerned with destroying Soviet field armies and capturing vital industrial resources. His switching of the main thrust from the central front to Leningrad in the north and Ukraine in the south was to an extent militarily sensible given the weakness of Army Group Centre after the Smolensk battles and the threats to its flanks. Indeed, the diversion actually worked in the Germans’ favour since it surprised the Soviets and resulted in the destruction of huge Soviet forces around Kiev. But it also threw away Germany's only real chance of outright victory.

The early capture of Moscow would have had an undeniable psychological impact and may have been the tipping point. Guderian in particular believed that using the panzers in traditional encirclement battles played into Russian hands and gave them chances to bring forward fresh reserves. He had advocated an all-out drive on the capital. But when Hitler resumed the assault with Operation 'Typhoon' it was too late. The German Army was now fatally weakened, the weather had worsened and Soviet reinforcements had arrived.


German intelligence failures played a large part on several levels. The Red Army had been viewed with distain, especially because Stalin’s purges of the late 1930s had removed thousands of its officers - albeit temporarily in most cases. Its poor performance against the Finns in the winter of 1939-1940 also encouraged the Germans. Soviet industry was deemed incapable of producing modern weapons. Most importantly, Russian troop numbers and fighting strength were continually underestimated, so that despite the losses inflicted in early encirclement battles, the Germans always faced yet more reinforcements. The High Command had only considered the Soviet western army groups in their planning, and the presence of reserve forces and uncommitted formations in the Russian interior or on the eastern borders were disregarded. Even after Operation 'Typhoon' ground to a halt in early December, the Germans still chose to believe that the Soviets had nothing left to stage a counterattack.


While the Germans underestimated the military potential of their opponents, they also exaggerated the capabilities of their own forces, most significantly the four Panzer Groups. The panzer divisions were the principal weapon of Blitzkrieg and at that time were far superior to the Soviets in training, leadership and tactical ability. But they were relatively weak in numbers and equipment.

German tank strength had been halved in 1940 so that the number of divisions could be doubled. Over half the tanks committed to 'Barbarossa' were obsolescent light tanks and Czech-built models, rather than the more capable PzKpfw III and IV. And there were virtually no reserves available. Hitler had so far refused to fully mobilise the German economy and so weapons production was inadequate. Even in mid-1941 only 250 new tanks were being built each month, insufficient to properly equip the army on the eve of a major new campaign, or keep up with the inevitable mechanical and combat losses. Hitler even chose to divert some of these to France and other theatres, when the demand was greatest in Russia.

The vast majority of the 10,000 or so Russian tanks facing the Germans in June 1941 were light BT series tanks or obsolete T-26 models. Huge numbers were destroyed in poorly planned and executed counterattacks. But Soviet tank development and production was already superior to that of the Germans. A new generation of tanks had entered service, namely the T-34 and KV-1. The T-34 in particular was a major leap in tank design and came as a complete shock to the Germans when it was first encountered in July 1941. It had sloping armour - which effectively doubled its strength - and a powerful 76.2mm gun. Its reliable diesel engine gave it a good range and turn of speed, and its wide tracks could cope with mud or snow. Russian industry was already gearing up to turn it out in huge numbers.

Less than a thousand T-34s were available at the start of 'Barbarossa' and most were squandered in piecemeal actions by half-trained crews. But the Red Army could absorb significant losses of equipment as well as men. The mass mobilisation of Soviet industry had been set in train, which included relocating vital tank, aircraft and munitions factories eastwards to the Urals. This huge logistical undertaking was already bearing fruit. It meant that despite the early defeats, the Soviet Union was far better prepared for a long war than the Germans, whose own production of tanks and other weapons would be feeble by comparison.


Logistics was another hugely important factor in the German defeat. No matter how fast or far the fighting formations advanced, they were dependent on timely supplies of fuel and ammunition. This became an ever greater problem as the army progressed deeper into Soviet territory and further away from its own railheads. Not only were the distances much greater than they had been during the French campaign, but the Soviet transport infrastructure was much poorer. German engineers struggled to convert the Russian railway gauge to one which their own locomotives and rolling stock could use. Meanwhile the multitude of lorries and horse-drawn wagons in which the supplies were transported were forced to negotiate Russian dirt roads, which became virtually impassable after prolonged rain.

The debilitating effects of the weather and terrain were not properly taken into account when planning the campaign. The numerous forests, marshes and rivers slowed the advance during the summer. The autumn Rasputitsa and the onset of the brutal Russian winter brought it to a halt during Operation 'Typhoon'. Tank and vehicle lubricants froze as temperatures plunged to record lows. Winter clothing supplies were held up in Poland, as fuel and ammunition took priority. If anything symbolises the failure of 'Barbarossa' it is the image of inadequately equipped German troops shivering in the snows before Moscow.


Perhaps the most important reason of all for the defeat of Operation 'Barbarossa' was the tenacious resistance of the defenders. The Germans completely underestimated the Soviet will to fight. Hitler's announcement that the war in the east was one of 'annihilation' and Stalin's astute call to defend 'Mother Russia' rather than his own regime gave the ordinary Russian soldier - no matter how coerced or badly led - every reason to battle to the death. Hitler's infamous 'Commissar Order', which sanctioned the execution of all captured political officers, also stiffened Russian resolve. The Russian soldier was found to be a hardy and implacable foe, and quickly gained the respect of the majority of German front-line troops. No western enemy would come close to the Soviets in sheer staying power.

Despite the failure and huge losses of 'Barbarossa', Hitler launched another major strategic offensive in June 1942, this time towards the Caucasus mountains and the oil fields of Baku beyond. Morale was still generally high and German forces maintained the capacity to inflict further massive losses on badly handled Soviet formations. In fact 1942 would be an even worse year than 1941 for the Russians. But the factors that caused 'Barbarossa' to fail now conspired to doom this new enterprise as well. As the German columns advanced across the seemingly infinite spaces of the steppe towards their distant objectives, including a city named Stalingrad, the victory in the East that had once seemed so certain receded even further from sight.

Operation Barbarossa: Hitler’s Failed Invasion of the Soviet Union

On 22 June 1941, German forces began their invasion of the Soviet Union, nearly 129 years to the day after Napoleon Bonaparte had done the same. Like the French dictator before him, Adolf Hitler hoped to subdue the enemy quickly and secure an outright victory within a matter of weeks.

Planning for the invasion had begun over a year prior, after Germany’s swift conquering of France in mid-1940. Codenamed Operation Barbarossa, the German’s assembled the most powerful invasion force in history to take on the Red Army, involving some 3 million troops, nearly 150 divisions (80% of the German army), 600,000 horses, 3,500 tanks, 2,500 aircraft and around 7,000 artillery pieces, along with 30 divisions of Finnish and Romanian troops.

As German forces began piling up on the Soviet border, both the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt warned the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin an attack was imminent. Stalin was not so sure, believing it unlikely that Hitler would break the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact they’d signed just two years prior.

The Germans only had ‘to kick in the door’ and the whole ‘rotten structure’ would come crashing down

When the German forces poured into Soviet territory, divided into three offensives across a 1,800-mile front, a demobilised and disorganised Soviet army was caught on the back foot. Within a matter of days, the Wehrmacht had advanced hundreds of miles into Soviet territory pushing back badly trained and poorly led Soviet troops, seemingly confirming Hitler’s belief that the Germans only had ‘to kick in the door’ and the whole ‘rotten structure’ would come crashing down.

Hitler believed the Soviets to be his natural ideological enemy and intended to conquer the country, enslave or exterminate the ‘subhuman’ native Slavic people, exploit the country’s vast resources and ultimately provide his ‘master race’ the Lebensraum (‘living space’) they needed.

What if Operation Barbarossa had never happened?

As the German tanks rolled deeper into Soviet territory, behind them came the Einsatzgruppen, SS paramilitary death squads tasked with eliminating any civilians who had failed to evacuate further east. Targeting Communists, intellectuals, gypsies and Jews, the Einsatzgruppen conducted mass killings on the Eastern Front, including the war’s most notorious at the ravine of Babi Yar near Kiev, where over 33,000 Jews were massacred.

The German ‘Hunger Plan’ to seize food from the Soviet Union and provide it to their own troops led to the starvation of millions of civilians. Over 3 million Soviet POWs would also die in German captivity during the course of the war.

In the early weeks of the invasion, things looked promising for Hitler’s forces and his initial target of victory within two and a half months was looking likely. The Luftwaffe was able to quickly gain air superiority, destroying over 1,000 Soviet aircraft on the first day of the campaign. The Wehrmacht exploited this advantage to their favour, helping the ground forces smash through Soviet front lines and race across the USSR.

Read more about: Battles

What was the worst military decision in history?

The three German army groups each had their own objective. Army Group North was to advance through the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia and capture the strategically and ideologically important city of Leningrad. Army Group Centre was to capture Minsk and Smolensk before marching on the Soviet capital Moscow, whilst Army Group South was to capture the economic resources in the industrial south of Russia and Ukraine.

By mid-late summer, Army Group North had reached Leningrad, Army Group Centre was closing in on Moscow and Army Group South was making slow but steady progress towards Kiev. Hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers had either been captured or killed.

However, fortunes for the Wehrmacht were about to change. Unable to inflict the final blow to Leningrad and with Army Group South starting to stutter, Hitler ordered Army Group Centre to reinforce both Groups, calling a temporary halt to its own advance towards Moscow.

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How Russia Won the Battle of Stalingrad

The delay enabled the Soviets to bring in reinforcements to Moscow, including over a million soldiers and a thousand T-34 tanks. Men, women and children began digging multiple defensive lines around the city the Germans would soon discover the true grit and determination of the Soviet people.

By September, although Kiev had fallen and progress was being made in the South towards Crimea, Leningrad in the north had turned into a siege, one that would last 872 days. Army Group South then ground to a halt as it laid siege to the Black Sea port of Sevastopol. Hitler’s attention turned back to Moscow.

Operation Typhoon, Germany’s strategic offensive on Moscow began in October and would last just over three months. It would end in Soviet victory.

Dogged Soviet defence and heavy rains halted the German advance on Moscow as roads devolved into rivers of mud. Soviet counterattacks kept the Germans at bay and as the Russian winter set-in, a final Soviet push sent the Germans packing from the region. Moscow had held and German offensive operations were put on hold.

Stalin rallied his people for The Great Patriotic War with cries to defend ‘Mother Russia’,

Whilst Hitler blamed the weather for the failure of Barbarossa, the Axis powers fell short for a multitude of reasons. The Germans had failed to prepare for a longer campaign and logistical problems meant that vital supplies, including winter clothing, did not reach the front lines. The further they progressed into Soviet territory, the further they stretched their inadequate supply lines, which struggled to cope with the harsh weather and difficult terrain.

The Germans also underestimated the determination of the Soviets as well as their numbers. Stalin had more reserves than German intelligence had anticipated and Hitler’s declaration that the war in the East was an ideological one of total annihilation only stiffened the resolve of the defenders, who might have capitulated had the Nazis come as liberators instead of conquerors. In the end, Stalin rallied his people for The Great Patriotic War with cries to defend ‘Mother Russia’, strengthening the Soviet will to fight to the bitter end.

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What if Stalingrad had fallen?

The Soviets also managed to successfully dismantle and relocate via train around 1,500 large factories to the Urals in the east, enabling their industry to continue pumping out vital resources and armaments for the remainder of the war.

Hitler was now fighting a two-front war, making the failure of Barbarossa one of the key turning points of WW2. A year later and with Hitler now in personal control of the German Army, another summer offensive was conducted – Operation Case Blue. This time the target was the oil-rich fields of Baku in Southern Russia as well as the Soviet city of Stalingrad.

German supply line issues along with heavy Soviet resistance meant that for a second straight year, Hitler failed to knock Russia out of the war. What’s more, the German’s suffered the entire loss of the Sixth Army, their most battled hardened unit, at the Battle of Stalingrad (late 1942 to early 1943). The bloody urban conflict not only cost the lives of 2 million soldiers and civilians but it represented the furthest point the Germans would advance into Russia.

The following summer in 1943, the Germans again launched another offensive operation against Soviet forces, Operation Citadel. A short-lived Soviet offensive after Stalingrad had led to the creation of a large salient (an outward projection in a battle line), protruding into German territory. At the centre of the salient was the city of Kursk.

Hitler hoped to retake Kursk in the summer of 1943 and recapture the initiative on the Eastern Front. The Soviets were aware of Hitler’s plans and hunkered down at Kursk, creating defensive belts around the city. The world bore witness to the largest mechanised battle in history as two sides equipped with a combined 8,000 tanks squared off during the Battle of Kursk. Ultimately, Soviet defences held strong and the German's failed to retake the city.

Read more about: Battles

The Battle of Kursk: the largest tank battle in history

The subsequent Soviet victory meant they had seized the strategic initiative on the Eastern Front and would hold onto it for the remainder of the war. From that point onwards the Germans were on the retreat, a retreat that would take them all the way back to Berlin.

By the time Germany officially surrendered to the Allies on 8 May 1945, 80% of its casualties during WW2 had come on the Eastern Front, which equated to more than three million lives. It’s estimated that around 18 million Soviet soldiers and civilians lost their lives during the Eastern Front.

This Week in History – Germany Invades the Soviet Union 1941

In 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union shocked the world with a non-aggression pact. Adolf Hitler had long viewed the decision to fight on two fronts in World War I as Germany’s biggest mistake.

Hitler had long seen the Soviet Union as an enemy, calling for an invasion of the Soviet Union in his book, Mein Kampf. His fear of fighting a two-front war, though, prompted him to try to secure a non-aggression pact, especially after the reaction to the annexation of Czechoslovakia in the spring on 1939.

The plan seemed to work. His spring 1940 invasion into Western Europe succeeded, bringing the fall of France and the Low Countries. German U-boat wolf packs were successfully attacking convoys to the United Kingdom. The Britain and its Allies were in desperate straits, even with America providing Lend-Lease support of weapons and equipment to fight Axis forces.

As the summer of 1941 approached, Hitler was ready to turn on Russia. The initial plan to invade in May was delayed by the need to help Mussolini take Greece and Crete. As a result, on June 22, 1941, the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa – the invasion of the Soviet Union with over three million troops. What was thought to be an easy victory instead fell short less than 20 miles from Moscow, and turned into a war of attrition.

Ultimately, England also held out, and Hitler soon found himself facing what he feared the most: A two-front war.

The Invasion

With 134 divisions at full fighting strength and 73 more divisions for deployment behind the front, German forces invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. The invasion began less than two years after the German-Soviet Pact was signed. Three army groups attacked the Soviet Union across a broad front. These groups included more than three million German soldiers. The soldiers were supported by 650,000 troops from Germany’s allies (Finland and Romania). These troops were later augmented by units from Italy, Croatia, Slovakia, and Hungary. The front stretched from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south.

For months, the Soviet leadership had refused to heed warnings from the W estern powers of the German troop buildup along its western border. Thus, Germany and its Axis partners achieved almost complete tactical surprise. Much of the existing Soviet air force was destroyed on the ground. The Soviet armies were initially overwhelmed. German units encircled millions of Soviet soldiers. Cut off from supplies and reinforcements, the Soviet soldiers had few options other than to surrender.

As the German army advanced deep into Soviet territory, SS and police units followed the troops. The first to arrive were the Einsatzgruppen. The RSHA tasked these units with:

  • identifying and eliminating people who might organize and carry out resistance to the German occupation forces
  • identifying and concentrating groups of people who were considered potential threats to German rule in the Eas t
  • establishing intelligence networks
  • and securing key documentation and facilities.

The invasion- preparation

The Germans were now ready to launch the greatest invasion in human history. It was more ferocious than the campaign of Changezi Khan or the sweep of Alexander the Great. The Germans massed 150 divisions totaling roughly 3,000,000 men. These included 19 Panzer divisions, 3,000 tanks, 7,000 artillery guns, and 2,500 aircraft. A further plus point was 30 divisions of Finnish and Romanian troops. This was the biggest and most powerful invasion in the military history of the world. Adolf Hitler was sure that the Russian state would collapse like Poland and France in 3 to 4 months and he made his calculations accordingly.

The Russians had twice the number of troops but they were not mobilized as the Russians were not expecting an attack. The Russian Army had not been mobilized despite Marshal Zhukov&aposs request to Stalin to declare at least a partial mobilization. When the attack came it was like a sledgehammer that took Stalin completely by surprise and resulted in the capture of almost 5,000,000 Soviet soldiers. Almost 90% of the soldiers who were taken POW were allowed by the Germans to starve to death.

This week in Jewish history | Nazis launch ‘Operation Barbarossa’, a turning point in WWII

On 22 June 1941, Nazi Germany launched a surprise invasion of the Soviet Union, named Operation Barbarossa, after Frederick Barbarossa, who sought to establish German predominance in Europe centuries earlier. While the Nazi German forces eventually pushed to the outskirts of Moscow within five months, their failure to quickly defeat the Red Army forced the Nazi regime to continuously fight a war on two fronts, and is viewed by many as the crucial turning point in the war in the favor of the Allied Forces.

Nazi Chancellor Adolf Hitler invaded the Soviet Union less than two years after the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a treaty of non-aggression between the Nazis and the Soviets, and began preparing for the attack months before in the winter of 1940. On 18 December 1940, Hitler signed Directive 21, the first operational order to invade the Soviet Union. With more than three million Nazi German troops assembled for the attack, the invasion on 22 June is considered one of the largest military operations in the history of modern warfare.

It also marks the beginning of the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question." On the front lines were members of the Einsatzgruppen, who are known for their role in the systemic murder of Jews on Soviet territory, and who would subsequently open the “Holocaust by Bullets,” which would claim the lives of more than two million Soviet Jews.

While hundreds of thousands of Jews were able to flee the Soviet Union before Nazi Germany’s invasion, millions fell to the hands of the Nazis. In the first nine months of Operation Barbarossa, the Einsatzgruppen killed more than a million people, the majority of which were Jewish. Victims were often led to forests and abandoned buildings where they were forced to undress, hand over their valuables and then led to large pits where they were shot. More than 30,000 Jews were killed at Babi Yar in Ukraine in just two days, on 29-30 September 1941, in the single largest massacre of the Holocaust.

Several days into Operation Barbarossa, Nazi Germany’s air force destroyed more than 1,000 Soviet aircraft and the Nazi German forces had penetrated approximately 300 miles into the Soviet’s territory. The Nazi Germans were optimistic that the operation would be over soon. General Franz Halder, the chief of staff for the Nazi German Army High Command, wrote in his diary, "I think I am not exaggerating when I say that the campaign against Russia has been won in 14 days."

By December, it had become clear that operation would not be over soon, and the war had turned into a war of attrition. Nazi Germany’s failure to quickly capture the Soviet Union, was in large part due to the Soviet Union’s large army, which had grown to 8 million soldiers by December, despite losing many soldiers. Halder wrote, "It stands out more and more clearly that we underestimated the Russian colossus." If the Nazi Germans destroyed a dozen Russian divisions, Halder wrote, "then the Russians put another dozen in their place."

According to many historians, the consequent turning point was the Battle of Stalingrad , after which the Soviet Union retook the southwestern city of Stalingrad and had captured nearly 100,000 Nazi German soldiers. The battle, which occurred from August 1942 to February 1943, is regarded as one of the largest, and bloodiest engagements in modern warfare.

Germany launches Operation Barbarossa—the invasion of Russia

Lt Col Charlie Brown

On June 22, 1941, over 3 million German troops invade Russia in three parallel offensives, in what is the most powerful invasion force in history. Nineteen panzer divisions, 3,000 tanks, 2,500 aircraft, and 7,000 artillery pieces pour across a thousand-mile front as Hitler goes to war on a second front.

Despite the fact that Germany and Russia had signed a “pact” in 1939, each guaranteeing the other a specific region of influence without interference from the other, suspicion remained high. When the Soviet Union invaded Rumania in 1940, Hitler saw a threat to his Balkan oil supply. He immediately responded by moving two armored and 10 infantry divisions into Poland, posing a counterthreat to Russia. But what began as a defensive move turned into a plan for a German first-strike. Despite warnings from his advisers that Germany could not fight the war on two fronts (as Germany’s experience in World War I proved), Hitler became convinced that England was holding out against German assaults, refusing to surrender, because it had struck a secret deal with Russia. Fearing he would be “strangled” from the East and the West, he created, in December 1940, “Directive No. 21: Case Barbarossa”—the plan to invade and occupy the very nation he had actually asked to join the Axis only a month before.

Operation Barbarossa

Operation Barbarossa was the name given to Nazi Germany’s invasion of Russia on June 22nd 1941. Barbarossa the largest military attack of World War Two and was to have appalling consequences for the Russian people.

Operation Barbarossa was based on a massive attack based on blitzkrieg. Hitler had said of such an attack that

Three army groups attacked Russia on June 22nd 1941. Army Group North, led by von Leeb, Army Group Centre, commanded by von Bock and Army Group South commanded by von Rundstedt.

Army Group Consisted of?

Army Group North
XVIII Army led by von Küchler

IV Panzergruppe led by Hoepner

XVI Army led by Busch

Totalled 20 divisions and Luftflotte I

Army Group Centre

III Panzergruppe led by Hoth

IX Army led by Strauss

IV Army led by von Kluge

II Panzergruppe led by Guderian

Totalled 51 divisions and Luftflotte II

Army Group South

VI Army led by von Reichenau

I Panzergruppe led by von Kleist

XVII Army led by von Stülpnagel

Hungarian Army Corps (Carpathian Group)

III Rumanian Army led by Dmitrescu

XI Army led by von Schobert

IV Rumanian Army led by Ciuperca

40 divisions 14 Rumanian divisions Hungarian Army Corps and Luftflotte IV.

Russia was defended by four army units. Though Russia had a large army, the purges had wiped out a considerable part of the army’s senior commanders.

11th Army led by Morosov

27th Army led by Berzarin

Totalled 26 Divisions including 6 armoured ones.

10th Army led by Golubev

4th Army led by Korobkov

Totalled 36 divisions including 10 armoured ones.

6th Army led by Muzychenko

26th Army led by Kostenko

12th Army led by Ponedelin

Totalled 56 divisions including 16 armoured divisions

Totalled 14 divisions including 2 armoured divisions.

In total, Germany amassed 117 army divisions for the attack excluding Rumanian and Hungarian units.

In total, Russia amassed 132 army divisions for the defence of the ‘motherland’, including 34 armoured divisions.

Plans for the attack on Russia had been around since 1940. It is now thought that Hitler lost interest in the Battle of Britain as he was far too focussed on his desired attack on Russia.

The first version of the plan was done by Marcks in August 1940. He envisaged a massive attack on Moscow – his primary target. He also wanted a secondary attack on Kiev and two masking attacks in the Baltic towards Leningrad and in Moldavia in the south. After Moscow had fallen, Marcks wanted a drive south to link up with the attack on Kiev. The attack on Leningrad was also a secondary issue.

The next version of the plan was completed in December 1940 by Halder. He changed Marcks plan by having three thrusts a major one against Moscow, a smaller attack on Kiev and a major attack on Leningrad. After taking Moscow and Leningrad, Halder wanted a move north to Archangel. After Kiev had fallen, he envisaged a drive into the Don/Volga region.

The third and final variant was Hitler’s plan which he codenamed Barbarossa. This plan was constructed in December 1940. For Hitler, the primary military activity would take place in the north. Hence Leningrad became a vital target as did Moscow. His drive in the south was confined to the occupation of the Ukraine to the west of Kiev.

The attack started at 03.00, Sunday morning June 22nd 1941. In total the Germans and her allies used 3 million soldiers, 3580 tanks, 7184 artillery guns, 1830 planes and
750,000 horses.

“It is probable that history will regard June 22, 1941, as the apocalyptic date of the military calendar. No military plan of the scope of Operation Barbarossa had ever before been launched, for never before had techniques of organisation, transport, and communication been available on such a scale.”Barry Pitt

The initial attacks involved numbers never seen before – and the success rate must have even taken Hitler by surprise even if Hitler had proclaimed:

“We have only to kick in the front door and the whole rotten Russian edifice will come tumbling down.” (Hitler)

By Day 17 of the attack, 300,000 Russians had been captured, 2,500 tanks, 1,400 artillery guns and 250 aircraft captured or destroyed. This was only in the territory attacked by Army Group Centre. To any military observer, the Russian Army was on the verge of a total collapse and Moscow seemed destined to fall.

In fact, the German advance had been so fast that it had compromised the whole army’s supply and communication lines. The Army Group Centre paused on the Desna but it was still thought that it was only catching its breath before moving inexorably on. However, it was now that the German army was compromised by its own leader – Hitler.

He ordered that the Army Group Centre’s Panzer Group led by Guderian should move south-east on to Kiev. 1 Panzer Group was also ordered north. This took away from the Centre group two of its most potent fighting forces. Guderian was very angered by this order but Hitler had always proved himself right in the war, so why argue with the Führer? Who, in fact, had the courage to oppose Hitler?

Hitler had recognised that his most difficult decision was what to do after his forces had broken through the Stalin Line – move north, south or continue east?

The mechanised sweeps north and south had the same massive success as the initial assault on June 22nd. Masses of Russian prisoners were captured and vast quantities of Russian equipment was destroyed. But the orders of Hitler had one dire effect – loss of time. The delay was such that the impact of the winter occurred before the Germans had reached the objectives set by Hitler. Very few in the German Army were equipped to cope with the cold and the army, so used to advancing, found itself very much affected by the freezing temperatures. A war of movement as seen so much in June/July 1941 became an attack blighted by freezing weather that would hinder any army let alone one so ill-prepared for such weather conditions.

Watch the video: Operation Barbarossa: Hitlers Invasion of The Soviet and Battle of Moscow - Animation (August 2022).