Operation Barbarossa (Unternehmen Barbarossa) was the codename for Nazi Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II that commenced on June 22, 1941. Over 4.5 million troops of the Axis powers invaded the USSR along an 1,800 mile front. The operation was named after the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa of the Holy Roman Empire, a leader of the Third Crusade in the 12th century. Barbarossa was the major part of the war on the Eastern Front. The planning for Operation Barbarossa started on December 18 1940; the clandestine preparations and the military operation itself lasted almost a year, from the spring of 1941, through the winter of 1941.
The operational goal of Barbarossa was the rapid conquest of the European part of the Soviet Union west of a line connecting the cities of Arkhangelsk and Astrakhan, often referred to as the A-A line (see Führer Directive 21 for details). At its conclusion in December 1941, the Red Army had repelled the strongest blow of the Wehrmacht. Hitler had not achieved the victory he had expected, but the situation of the Soviet Union remained critical. Tactically, the Germans had won some resounding victories and occupied some of the most important economic areas of the country, most notably in Ukraine. Despite these successes, the Germans were pushed back from Moscow and were never able to mount an offensive simultaneously along the entire strategic Soviet-German front again.
The failure of Barbarossa resulted in Hitler's demands for additional operations inside Russia, all of which eventually failed, such as continuation of the Siege of Leningrad, Operation Nordlicht, and Battle of Stalingrad, among other battles on the occupied Russian territory.
Operation Barbarossa remains the largest military operation, in terms of manpower, area traversed, and casualties, in human history. The failure of Operation Barbarossa resulted in the eventual defeat of Nazi Germany and is considered a turning point for the Third Reich. Most importantly, Operation Barbarossa opened up the Eastern Front, which ultimately became the biggest theater of war in world history. Operation Barbarossa and the areas which fell under it became the site of some of the largest and most brutal battles, deadliest atrocities, terrible loss of life, and horrific conditions for Soviets and Germans alike - all of which influenced the course of both World War II and 20th century history.
During the Nuremberg Trials in 1946, Sir Hartley Shawcross announced that in March 1941 in addition to administrative divisions previously created the following divisions in Russian East were planned:
Nazi policy aimed to destroy the Soviet Union as a political entity in accordance with the geopolitical Lebensraum idea ("Drang nach Osten") for the benefit of future "Aryan" generations in the centuries to come. Also the A-A Line would give Hitler's Nazi Empire reach to the Ural Mountains.
The Führer anticipated additional benefits:
The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had been signed shortly before the German and Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939. It was ostensibly a non-aggression pact but secret protocols outlined an agreement between the Third Reich and the Soviet Union on the division of the border states between them. The pact surprised the world because of their mutual hostility and their opposed ideologies. As a result of this pact, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had reasonably strong diplomatic relations and were important trading partners. The Soviet Union supplied oil and raw materials to Germany, while Germany provided technology to the Soviet Union. Despite the pact, both sides remained strongly suspicious of each other's intentions, and as both sides began colliding with each other in Eastern Europe it appeared that conflict was inevitable.
Hitler had long wanted to conquer western Russia in order to exploit what he saw as its untermensch (subhuman) Slavic population. He had signed the pact simply for (mutual) short-term convenience. In addition to the territorial ambitions of both Hitler and Stalin, the contrasting ideologies of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union made an eventual conflict between them likely.
Stalin's reputation contributed both to the Nazis' justification of their assault and to their faith in success. During the late 1930s, Stalin had killed or incarcerated millions of citizens during the Great Purge, including large numbers of competent and experienced military officers and strategists, leaving the Red Army weakened and leaderless. The Nazis often emphasized the brutality of the Soviet regime when targeting the Slavs with propaganda.
Operation Barbarossa represented a northern assault towards Leningrad, a symbolic capturing of Moscow, and an economic strategy of seizing oil fields in the south, towards Ukraine. Hitler and his generals disagreed on where Germany should focus its energies, and so Barbarossa was largely a compromise of these views. Hitler considered himself a political and military genius. In the course of planning Barbarossa during 1940 and 1941, in many discussions with his generals Hitler repeated his order: "Leningrad first, the Donetsk Basin second, Moscow third." Hitler was impatient to get on with his long-desired invasion of the east. He was convinced that Britain would sue for peace once the Germans triumphed in the Soviet Union, the real area of Germany's interests. General Franz Halder noted in his diaries that by destroying the Soviet Union, Germany would destroy Britain's hope for defeating Germany.
Hitler was also overconfident due to his rapid success in Western Europe, as well as the Red Army's ineptitude in the Winter War against Finland in 1939–40. He expected victory in a few months and did not prepare for a war lasting into the winter; his troops lacked adequate clothing and preparations for a longer campaign when they began their attack. The assumption that the Soviet Union would quickly capitulate would prove to be his undoing.
In preparation for the attack, Hitler moved 3.5 million German soldiers and about 1 million Axis soldiers to the Soviet border, launched many aerial surveillance missions over Soviet territory, and stockpiled materiel in the East. The Soviets were still taken by surprise, mostly due to Stalin's belief that the Third Reich was unlikely to attack only two years after signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The Soviet leader also believed that the Nazis would likely finish their war with Britain before opening a new front. He refused to believe repeated warnings from his intelligence services on the Nazi buildup, fearing the reports to be British misinformation designed to spark a war between the Nazis and the Communists. The spy Dr. Richard Sorge gave Stalin the exact German launch date; Swedish cryptanalysts led by Arne Beurling also knew the date beforehand.
The Germans set up deception operations, from April 1941, to add substance to their claims that Britain was the real target: Operations Haifisch and Harpune. These simulated preparations in Norway, the Channel coast and Britain. There were supporting activities such as ship concentrations, reconnaissance flights and training exercises. Invasion plans were developed and some details were allowed to leak.
The strategy Hitler and his generals agreed upon involved three separate army groups assigned to capture specific regions and cities of the Soviet Union. The main German thrusts were conducted along historical invasion routes. Army Group North was assigned to march through the Baltics, into northern Russia, and either take or destroy the city of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg). Army Group Center would advance to Smolensk and then Moscow, marching through what is now Belarus and the west-central regions of Russia proper. Army Group South was to strike the heavily populated and agricultural heartland of Ukraine, taking Kiev before continuing eastward over the steppes of southern Russia all the way to the Volga and the oil-rich Caucasus.
Hitler, the OKW and the various high commands disagreed about what the main objectives should be. In the preparation for Barbarossa, most of the OKW argued for a straight thrust to Moscow, whereas Hitler kept asserting his intention to seize the resource-rich Ukraine and Baltics before concentrating on Moscow. An initial delay, which postponed the start of Barbarossa from mid-May to the end of June 1941, may have been insignificant, especially since the Russian muddy season came late that year. However, more time was lost at various critical moments as Hitler and the OKW suspended operations in order to argue about strategic objectives.
Along with the strategic objectives, the Germans also decided to bring rear forces into the conquered territories to counter any partisan activity which they knew would erupt in the areas they controlled. This included units of the Waffen-SS and the Gestapo who specialized in crushing dissent and capturing and killing opponents.
|January 1, 1939||June 22, 1941||% increase|
|Guns and mortars||55,800||117,600||110.7|
In 1941, the Soviet armed forces in the western districts were outnumbered by their German counterparts, 2.6 million Soviet soldiers vs. 4.5 million for the Axis. The overall size of the Soviet armed forces in early July 1941, though, amounted to a little more than 5 million men, 2.6 million in the west, 1.8 million in the far east, with the rest being deployed or training elsewhere. Moreover, on mobilization, as the war went on, the Red Army gained steadily in strength. While the strength of both sides varied, in general it is accurate to say that the 1941 campaign was fought with the Axis having slight numerical superiority in manpower at the front.
In some key weapons systems, however, the Soviet numerical advantage was considerable. In tanks, for example, the Red Army had a large superiority. It possessed 23,106 tanks, of which about 12,782 were in the five Western Military Districts (three of which directly faced the German invasion front). However, maintenance and readiness standards were very poor; ammunition and radios were in short supply, and many units lacked the trucks needed for resupply beyond their basic fuel and ammunition loads.
Also, from 1938, the Soviets had partly dispersed their tanks to infantry divisions for infantry support, but after their experiences in the Winter War and their observation of German Blitzkrieg tactics against France, had begun to emulate the Germans and organize most of their armoured assets into large, fully mechanized divisions and corps. This reorganization however was only partially implemented at the dawn of Barbarossa, as not enough tanks were available to bring the mechanised corps up to organic strength.
The German Wehrmacht had about 5,200 tanks overall, of which 3,350 were committed to the invasion. This yields a balance of immediately-available tanks of approximately 4:1 in the Red Army's favor. The best Soviet tank, the T-34, was the most modern in the world, and the KV series the best armoured. The most advanced Soviet tank models, however, the T-34 and KV-1, were not available in large numbers early in the war, and only accounted for 7.2% of the total Soviet tank force. But while these 1,861 modern tanks were technically superior to the 1,404 German medium Panzer III and IV tanks, the Russians in 1941 still lacked the communications, training and experience to employ such weapons effectively.
The Soviet numerical advantage in heavy equipment was also more than offset by the greatly superior training and readiness of German forces. The Soviet officer corps and high command had been decimated by Stalin's Great Purge (1936–1938). Of 90 generals arrested, only six survived the purges, as did only 36 of 180 divisional commanders, and just seven out of 57 army corps commanders. In total, some 30,000 Red Army personnel were executed, while more were shipped to Siberia and replaced with officers deemed more "politically reliable." Three of the five pre-war marshals and about two thirds of the corps and division commanders were shot. This often left younger, less experienced officers in their places; for example, in 1941, 75% of Red Army officers had held their posts for less than one year. The average Soviet corps commander was 12 years younger than the average German division commander. These officers tended to be very reluctant to take the initiative and often lacked the training necessary for their jobs.
The number of aircraft was also heavily in the Soviets' favor. However, Soviet aircraft were largely obsolete, and Soviet artillery lacked modern fire control techniques. Most Soviet units were on a peacetime footing, explaining why aviation units had their aircraft parked in closely-bunched neat rows, rather than dispersed, making easy targets for the Luftwaffe in the first days of the conflict. Prior to the invasion the VVS was forbidden to shoot down Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft, despite hundreds of pre-war flights into Soviet airspace.
The Russian war effort in the first phase of the Eastern front war was severely hampered by a shortage of modern aircraft. The Soviet fighter force was equipped with large numbers of obsolete aircraft, such as the I-15 biplane and the I-16. In 1941, the MiG-3, LaGG-3 and Yak-1 were just starting to roll off the production lines, but were far inferior in all-round performance to the Messerschmitt Bf 109 or later, the Fw 190, when it entered operations in September 1941. Few aircraft had radios and those that were available were unencrypted and did not work reliably. The poor performance of VVS (Voenno-Vozdushnye Sily, Soviet Air Force) during the Winter War with Finland had increased the Luftwaffe's confidence that the Soviets could be mastered. The standard of flight training had been accelerated in preparation for a German attack that was expected to come in 1942 or later. But Russian pilot training was extremely poor. Order No 0362 of the People's Commissar of Defense, dated 22 December 1940, ordered flight training to be accelerated and shortened. Incredibly, while the Soviets had 201 MiG-3s and 37 MiG-1s combat ready on 22 June 1941, only four pilots had been trained to handle these machines.
The Red Army was dispersed and unprepared, and units were often separated and without transportation to concentrate prior to combat. Although the Red Army had numerous, well-designed artillery pieces, some of the guns had no ammunition. Artillery units often lacked transportation to move their guns. Tank units were rarely well-equipped, and also lacked training and logistical support. Maintenance standards were very poor. Units were sent into combat with no arrangements for refuelling, ammunition resupply, or personnel replacement. Often, after a single engagement, units were destroyed or rendered ineffective. The army was in the midst of reorganizing the armor units into large tank corps, adding to the disorganization.
As a result, although on paper, the Red Army in 1941 seemed at least the equal of the German army, the reality in the field was far different; incompetent officers, as well as partial lack of equipment, insufficient motorised logistical support, and poor training placed the Red Army at a severe disadvantage. For example, throughout the early part of the campaign, the Red Army lost about six tanks for every German tank lost.
In the spring of 1941, Stalin's own intelligence services made regular and repeated warnings of an impending German attack. However, Stalin chose to ignore these warnings. Although acknowledging the possibility of an attack in general and making significant preparations, he decided not to run the risk of provoking Hitler. He had fielded officers who were likely indeed to tell him only what he wanted to hear, so that he believed that the position of the Soviet Union in early 1941 was much stronger than it actually was. He also had an ill-founded confidence in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which had been signed just two years before. Last, he also suspected the British of trying to spread false rumours in order to trigger a war between Germany and the USSR. Consequently, the Soviet border troops were not put on full alert and were sometimes even forbidden to fire back without permission when attacked — though a partial alert was implemented on April 10 — they were simply not ready when the German attack came. This may be the source of the argument cited below by Viktor Suvorov.
Enormous Soviet forces were massed behind the western border in case the Germans did attack. However, these forces were very vulnerable due to changes in the tactical doctrine of the Red Army. In 1938 it had adopted, on the instigation of General Pavlov, a standard linear defence tactic on a line with other nations. Infantry divisions, reinforced by an organic tank component, would be dug in to form heavily fortified zones. Then came the shock of the Fall of France. The French Army, considered the strongest in the world, was defeated in a mere six weeks. Soviet analysis of events, based on incomplete information, concluded that the collapse of the French was caused by a reliance on linear defence and a lack of armoured reserves.
The Soviets decided not to repeat these mistakes. Instead of digging in for linear defence, the infantry divisions would henceforth be concentrated in large formations.Most tanks would also be concentrated into 31 mechanised corps, each with over 1000 tanks - larger than an entire German panzer army (though only a few such corps had attained their nominal strength by June 22). Should the Germans attack, their armoured spearheads would be cut off and wiped out by the mechanised corps. These would then cooperate with the infantry armies to drive back the German infantry, vulnerable in its approach march. The Soviet left wing, in Ukraine, was to be enormously reinforced to be able to execute a strategic envelopment: after destroying German Army Group South, it would swing north through Poland in the back of Army Groups Centre and North. With the complete annihilation of the encircled German Army thus made inevitable, a Red Army offensive into the rest of Europe would follow.
A study by Russian military historian Mikhail Meltyukhov (“Stalin's Missed Chance”) supports the claim that Soviet forces were concentrating in order to attack Germany. However, he rejects the statement that the German invasion was a pre-emptive strike: Meltyukhov believes both sides were preparing for the assault but neither believed in the possibility of an attack by the other side. Other Russian historians who support this thesis are Vladimir Nevezhin, Boris Sokolov and Valeri Danilov. In key points this argumentation is similar to the interpretation of German historians Werner Maser and Joachim Hoffmann.
The now published Zhukov proposal of May 15, 1941 called for a Soviet strike against Germany. Thus the document suggested secret mobilisation and deploying Red Army troops next to the Western border, under the cover of training. Although generally believed to be a mere draft disapproved of by Stalin, the above mentioned historians have argued, that — given Stalin's concentration of power — the thesis of Soviet generals pursuing a line independent of Stalin's and composing an invasion plan must have been extremely improbable. Moreover, it is argued that the actual Soviet troops concentration was near the border, just like fuel depots and airfields. All of this was unsuitable for defensive operations. (Maser 1994: 376–378; Hoffmann 1999: 52–56)
Suvorov presents a piece of evidence favoring the theory of an impending Soviet attack: the maps and phrasebooks issued to Soviet troops. Military topographic maps, unlike other military supplies, are strictly local and cannot be used elsewhere than in the intended target. According to Suvorov, Soviets were issued with maps of Germany and German-occupied territory, and phrasebooks including questions about SA offices — SA offices were found only in German territory proper. In contrast, according to Suvorov, maps of Soviet territory were scarce. Notably, after the German attack, the officer responsible for maps, Lieutenant General M.K. Kudryavtsev was not punished by Stalin, who was known for extreme punishments after failures to obey his orders. According to Suvorov, this demonstrates that General Kudryavtsev was obeying the orders of Stalin, who simply did not expect a German attack.
However, none of this is conclusive evidence of Soviet plans for a strategic attack on Germany, especially since Soviet doctrine emphasized the offensive at the operational level, even if the country was strategically on the defensive.
|Germany and Allies||Soviet Union||Ratio|
|Divisions||166||190||0.87 : 1|
|Personnel||4,306,800||3,289,851||1.3 : 1|
|Guns and mortars||42,601||59,787||0.7 : 1|
|Tanks (incl assault guns)||4,171||15,687||0.27 : 1|
|Aircraft||4,389||11, 537||0.38 : 1|
Staged from Norway a smaller group of forces consisted of:
Numerous smaller units from all over Nazi-occupied Europe, like the "Legion of French Volunteers Against Bolshevism" (Légion des Volontaires Français contre le Bolchévisme), supported the German war effort.
On Zhukov's orders immediately following the invasion the Northern Front was formed from the Leningrad Military District, the North-Western Front from the Baltic Special Military District, the Western Front was formed from the Western Special Military District, and the Soviet Southwestern Front was formed from the Kiev Special Military District. The Southern Front was created on the 25 June 1941 from the Odessa Military District.
The first Directions were established on 10 July 1941, with Voroshilov commanding the North-Western Strategic Direction, Timoshenko commanding the Western Strategic Direction, and Budyonny commanding the South-Western Strategic Direction.
The forces of the North-Western Direction were:
The forces of the Western Direction were:
The forces of the South-Western Direction consisted of:
Beside the Armies in the Fronts, there were a further six armies in the Western region of the USSR: 16th Army, 19th Army, 20th Army, 21st Army, 22nd Army and the 24th Army which formed, together with independent units, the Stavka Reserve Group of Armies which was later renamed the Reserve Front nominally under Stalin's direct command.
At 3:15 am on Sunday, June 22, 1941, the Axis attacked. It is difficult to precisely pinpoint the strength of the opposing sides in this initial phase, as most German figures include reserves slated for the East but not yet committed, as well as several other issues of comparability between the German and USSR's figures. A reasonable estimate is that roughly three million Wehrmacht troops went into action on 22 June, and that they were facing slightly fewer Soviet troops in the border Military Districts. The contribution of the German allies would generally only begin to make itself felt later in the campaign. The surprise was complete: though the Stavka, alarmed by reports that Wehrmacht units approached the border in battle deployment, had at 00:30 AM ordered that the border troops be warned that war was imminent, only a small number of units were alerted in time.
The shock stemmed less from the timing of the attack than from the sheer number of Axis troops who struck into Soviet territory simultaneously. Aside from the roughly 3.2 million German land forces engaged in, or earmarked for the Eastern Campaign, about 500,000 Romanian, Hungarian, Slovakian, Croatian, and Italian troops eventually accompanied the German forces, while the Army of Finland made a major contribution in the north. The 250th Spanish "Blue" Infantry Division was an odd unit, representing neither an Axis nor a Waffen-SS volunteer formation, but that of Spanish Falangists and Nazi sympathisers.
Reconnaissance units of the Luftwaffe worked at a frantic pace to plot troop concentration, supply dumps, and airfields, and mark them for destruction. The task of the Luftwaffe was to neutralise the Soviet Air Force. This was not achieved in the first days of operations, despite the Soviets having concentrated aircraft in huge groups on the permanent airfields rather than dispersing them on field landing strips, making them ideal targets. The Luftwaffe claimed to have destroyed 1,489 aircraft on the first day of operations. Hermann Göring, Chief of the Luftwaffe distrusted the reports and ordered the figure checked. Picking through the wreckages of Soviet airfields, the Luftwaffe's figures proved conservative, as over 2,000 destroyed Soviet aircraft were found. The Germans claimed to have destroyed only 3,100 Soviet aircraft in the first three days. In fact the Soviet losses were far higher, some 3,922 Soviet machines had been lost (according to Russian Historian Viktor Kulikov). The Luftwaffe had achieved air superiority over all three sectors of the front, and would maintain it until the close of the year, largely due to the need by the Red Army Air Forces to manoeuvre in support of retreating ground troops. The Luftwaffe would now be able to devote large numbers of its Geschwader (See Luftwaffe Organization) to support the ground forces.
Moscow at first failed to grasp the dimensions of the catastrophe that had befallen the USSR. Marshall Timoshenko ordered all Soviet forces to launch a general counter-offensive, but with supply and ammunition dumps destroyed, and a complete collapse of communication, the uncoordinated attacks failed. Zhukov signed the infamous Directive of People's Commissariat of Defence No. 3 (he later claimed under pressure from Stalin), which demanded that the Red Army start an offensive: he commanded the troops “to encircle and destroy the enemy grouping near Suwałki and to seize the Suwałki region by the evening of June 26" and “to encircle and destroy the enemy grouping invading in Vladimir-Volynia and Brody direction” and even “to seize the Lublin region by the evening of 24.6” This manoeuvre failed and disorganised Red Army units, which were soon destroyed by the Wehrmacht forces.
On June 27, 2nd and 3rd Panzer Groups met up at Minsk advancing into Soviet territory and a third of the way to Moscow. In the vast pocket between Minsk and the Polish border, the remnants of 32 Soviet Rifle, eight tank, and motorized, cavalry and artillery divisions were encircled.
With the failure of the Soviet counter-offensives, the last substantial Soviet tank forces in Western Ukraine had been committed, and the Red Army assumed a defensive posture, focusing on conducting a strategic withdrawal under severe pressure. By the end of the first week, all three German Army Groups had achieved major campaign objectives. However, in the vast pocket around Minsk and Bialystok, the Soviets were still fighting; reducing the pocket was causing high German casualties and many Red Army troops were also managing to escape. The usual estimated casualties of the Red Army amount to 600,000 killed, missing, captured or wounded. The Soviet air arm, the VVS, lost 1,561 aircraft over Kiev. The battle was a huge tactical (Hitler thought strategic) victory, but it had succeeded in drawing German forces, away from an early offensive against Moscow, and had delayed further German progress by 11 weeks. General Kurt Von Tippleskirch noted, "The Russians had indeed lost a battle, but they won the campaign".
On July 3rd, Hitler finally gave the go-ahead for the Panzers to resume their drive east after the infantry divisions had caught up. However, a rainstorm typical of Russian summers slowed their progress and Russian defenses also stiffened. The delays gave the Soviets time to organize for a massive counterattack against Army Group Centre. The ultimate objective of Army Group Centre was the city of Smolensk, which commanded the road to Moscow. Facing the Germans was an old Soviet defensive line held by six armies. On July 6th, the Soviets launched an attack with 700 tanks against the 3rd Panzer Army. The Germans defeated this counterattack using their overwhelming air superiority. The 2nd Panzer Army crossed the River Dnieper and closed on Smolensk from the south while the 3rd Panzer Army, after defeating the Soviet counter attack, closed in Smolensk from the north. Trapped between their pincers were three Soviet armies. On July 26th, the Panzer Groups closed the gap and 180,000 Red Army troops were captured.
Four weeks into the campaign, the Germans realized they had grossly underestimated the strength of the Soviets. The German troops had run out of their initial supplies but still not attained the expected strategic freedom of movement. Operations were now slowed down to allow for a resupply; the delay was to be used to adapt the strategy to the new situation. Hitler had lost faith in battles of encirclement as large numbers of Soviet soldiers had continued to escape them and now believed he could defeat the Soviets by inflicting severe economic damage, depriving them from the industrial capacity to continue the war. That meant the seizure of the industrial center of Kharkov, the Donets Basin and the oil fields of the Caucasus in the south and a speedy capture of Leningrad, a major center of military production, in the north. He also wanted to link up with the Finns to the north.
The German generals vehemently argued instead for continuing the all-out drive toward Moscow. Besides the psychological importance of capturing the enemy's capital, the generals pointed out that Moscow was a major center of arms production and the center of the Soviet communications and transportation system. More importantly, intelligence reports indicated that the bulk of the Red Army was deployed near Moscow under Semyon Timoshenko for an all-out defense of the capital. However, Hitler was adamant, and issued an order to send Army Group Centre's tanks to the north and south, temporarily halting the drive to Moscow. By mid-July below the Pinsk Marshes, the Germans had come within a few miles of Kiev. The 1st Panzer Army then went south while the German 17th Army struck east and in between the Germans trapped three Soviet armies near Uman. As the Germans eliminated the pocket, the tanks turned north and crossed the Dnieper. Meanwhile, the 2nd Panzer Army, diverted from Army Group Centre, had crossed the River Desna with 2nd Army on its right flank. The two Panzer armies now trapped four Soviet armies and parts of two others.
For its final attack on Leningrad, the 4th Panzer Army was reinforced by tanks from Army Group Centre. On August 8 the Panzers broke through the Soviet defenses; the German 16th Army attacked to the northeast, the 18th Army cleared Estonia and advanced to Lake Peipus. By the end of August, 4th Panzer Army had penetrated to within of Leningrad. The Finns had pushed southeast on both sides of Lake Ladoga reaching the old Finnish-Soviet frontier.
At this stage Hitler ordered the final destruction of Leningrad with no prisoners taken, and on September 9 Army Group North began the final push which within ten days brought it within of the city. However, the pace of advance over the last ten kilometers proved very slow and the casualties mounted. At this stage Hitler lost patience and ordered that Leningrad should not be stormed but starved into submission. He needed the tanks of Army Group North transferred to Army Group Centre for an all-out drive to Moscow.
Before the attack on Moscow could begin, operations in Kiev needed to be finished. Half of Army Group Centre had swung to the south in the back of the Kiev position, while Army Group South moved to the north from its Dniepr bridgehead. The encirclement of Soviet Forces in Kiev was achieved on September 16th. The encircled Soviets did not give up easily, and a savage battle ensued in which the Soviets were hammered with tanks, artillery, and aerial bombardment. In the end, after ten days of vicious fighting, the Germans claimed over 600,000 Soviet soldiers captured (but that was false, the German did capture 600,000 males between the ages of 15-70 but only 480,000 were soldiers, out of which 180,000 broke out, netting the Axis 300,000 Prisoners of war).
After Kiev, the Red Army no longer outnumbered the Germans and there were no more directly available trained reserves. To defend Moscow, Stalin could field 800,000 men in 83 divisions, but no more than 25 divisions were fully effective. Operation Typhoon, the drive to Moscow, began on October 2nd. In front of Army Group Centre was a series of elaborate defense lines, the first centered on Vyazma and the second on Mozhaisk.
The first blow took the Soviets completely by surprise as 2nd Panzer Army returning from the south took Orel which was south of the Soviet first main defence line. Three days later the Panzers pushed on Bryansk while 2nd Army attacked from the west. Three Soviet armies were now encircled. To the north, the 3rd and 4th Panzer Armies attacked Vyazma, trapping another five Soviet armies. Moscow's first line of defence had been shattered. The pocket yielded 663,000 Soviet prisoners, bringing the tally since the start of the invasion to three million Soviet soldiers captured. The Soviets had only 90,000 men and 150 tanks left for the defense of Moscow.
On October 13 3rd Panzer Army penetrated to within of the capital. Martial law was declared in Moscow. Almost from the beginning of Operation Typhoon the weather had deteriorated. Temperatures fell while there was a continued rainfall, turning the unmetalled road network into mud and steadily slowing the German advance on Moscow to as little as a day. The supply situation rapidly deteriorated. On October 31 the Germany Army High Command ordered a halt to Operation Typhoon while the armies were re-organized. The pause gave the Soviets (who were in a far better supply situation due to the use of their rail network) time to reinforce, and in little over a month the Soviets organized eleven new armies which included 30 divisions of Siberian troops. These had been freed from the Soviet far east as Soviet intelligence had assured Stalin there was no longer a threat from the Japanese. With the Siberian forces would come over 1,000 tanks and 1,000 aircraft.
They remembered what happened to Napoleon's Army. Most of them began to re-read Caulaincourt's grim account of 1812. That had a weighty influence at this critical time in 1941. I can still see Von Kluge trudging through the mud from his sleeping quarters to his office and standing before the map with Caulaincourt's book in his hand.
On November 15 with the ground hardening due to the cold weather, the Germans once again began the attack on Moscow. Although the troops themselves were now able to advance again, there had been no delay allowed to improve the supply situation. Facing the Germans were six Soviet armies. The Germans intended to let 3rd and 4th Panzer Armies cross the Moscow Canal and envelop Moscow from the northeast. 2nd Panzer Army would attack Tula and then close in on Moscow from the south. As the Soviets reacted to the flanks, 4th Army would attack the center. In two weeks of desperate fighting, lacking sufficient fuel and ammunition, the Germans slowly crept towards Moscow. However, in the south, 2nd Panzer Army was being blocked. On November 22 Soviet Siberian units attacked the 2nd Panzer Army and inflicted a defeat on the Germans. However, 4th Panzer Army succeeded in crossing the Moscow canal and began the encirclement.
On December 2 the 4th Panzer Army had penetrated to within of Moscow, but by then the first blizzards of the winter began. The Wehrmacht was not equipped for winter warfare. Frostbite and disease caused more casualties than combat, and dead and wounded had already reached 155,000 in three weeks. Some divisions were now at fifty percent strength. The bitter cold also caused severe problems for their guns and equipment, and weather conditions grounded the Luftwaffe. Newly built up Soviet units near Moscow now numbered over 500,000 men and on December 5 they launched a massive counterattack which pushed the Germans back over 200 miles. The invasion of the USSR would cost the German Army over 250,000 dead and 500,000 wounded, the majority of whom became casualties after 1 October and an unknown number of Axis casualties such as Hungarians, Romanians and Waffen SS troops as well as co-belligerent Finns.
In addition, resistance by the Soviets, who proclaimed a Great Patriotic War in defence of the motherland, was much fiercer than the German command had expected. The border fortress of Brest, Belarus illustrates that tenacity: attacked on the very first day of the German invasion, the fortress was expected to be captured by surprise within hours, but held out for weeks (Soviet propaganda later asserted that it held out for six weeks). German logistics also became a major problem, as supply lines became very long and vulnerable to Soviet partisan attacks in the rear. The Soviets carried out a scorched earth policy on some of the land they were forced to abandon in order to deny the Germans the use of food, fuel, and buildings.
Despite the setbacks, the Germans continued to advance, often destroying or surrounding whole armies of Soviet troops and forcing them to surrender. The battle for Kiev was especially brutal. On September 19, Army Group South seized control of Kiev, and took 665,000 Soviets prisoner. Kiev was later awarded the title Hero City for its heroic defence.
Army Group North, which was to conquer the Baltic countries and eventually Leningrad, advanced as far as the southern outskirts of Leningrad by August 1941. There, fierce Soviet resistance stopped it. Since capturing the city seemed too costly, German command decided to starve the city to death by a blockade, starting the Siege of Leningrad. The city held out, despite several attempts by the Germans to break through its defenses, unrelenting air and artillery attacks, and severe shortages of food and fuel, until the Germans were driven back again from the city's approaches in early 1944. Leningrad was the first Soviet city to receive the title of 'Hero City'.
In addition to the main attacks of Barbarossa, German forces occupied Finnish Petsamo in order to secure important nickel mines. They also launched the beginning of a series of attacks against Murmansk on June 28, 1941. That assault was known as Operation Silberfuchs.
The initial tactical errors of the Soviets in the first few weeks of the Axis offensive proved catastrophic. Initially, the Red Army was fooled by a complete overestimation of its own capabilities. Instead of intercepting German armour, Soviet mechanised corps were ambushed and destroyed after Luftwaffe dive bombers inflicted heavy losses. Soviet tanks, poorly maintained and manned by inexperienced crews, suffered from an appalling rate of breakdowns. Lacks of spare parts and of trucks ensured a logistical collapse. The decision not to dig in the infantry divisions proved disastrous. Without tanks or sufficient motorisation, Soviet troops were incapable of waging mobile warfare against the Germans and their allies.
Stalin's orders to his troops not to retreat or surrender resulted in a return to static linear positions which German tanks easily breached, again quickly cutting supply lines and surrounding whole Soviet armies. Only later did Stalin allow his troops to retreat to the rear wherever possible and regroup, to mount a defence in depth or to counterattack. More than 2.4 million Soviet troops had been taken prisoner by December, 1941, by which time German and Soviet forces were fighting almost in the suburbs of Moscow. Most of these captured Soviet troops were to die from exposure, starvation, disease, or willful mistreatment by the German regime.
Despite the failure of the Axis to achieve Barbarossa's initial goals, the huge Soviet losses caused a shift in Soviet propaganda. Before the onset of hostilities against Germany, the Soviet government had stated that its army was very strong. But, by the autumn of 1941, the Soviet line was that the Red Army had been weak, that there had not been enough time to prepare for war, and that the German attack had come as a surprise.
Viktor Suvorov gives an alternative explanation in his Icebreaker. The larger and better equipped Soviet armed forces, according to Suvorov, were preparing their own surprise offensive against Axis forces, targeting especially their oil supplies in Romania: Suvorov's sources suggest that July 6, 1941 -- two weeks later than the actual German invasion -- had been set as the start of Soviet Operation "Thunderstorm". Russian historian Boris Sokolov, exploring pre-war Soviet planning, also concluded that after the German invasion on June 22, 1941, the Red Army undertook counterattacks within the framework of the planned offensive and that the subsequent defensive operations of the Soviet Army, in view of the absence of pre-war defensive plans, were merely improvised: hence the initial gigantic defeats.
With no shelter, few supplies, inadequate winter clothing, chronic food shortages, and nowhere to go, German troops had no choice but to wait out the winter in the frozen wasteland. The Germans managed to avoid being routed by Soviet counterattacks but suffered heavy casualties from battle and exposure.
At the time, the seizure of Moscow was considered the key to victory for Germany. Historians currently debate whether or not loss of the Soviet capital would have caused the collapse of the Soviet Union, but Operation Barbarossa failed to achieve that goal. In December 1941, Germany joined Japan in declaring war against the United States. Within six months from the start of Operation Barbarossa, the strategic position of Germany had become desperate, since German military industries were unprepared for a long war.
The outcome of Operation Barbarossa was at least as detrimental to the Soviets as it was to the Germans, however. Although the Germans had failed to take Moscow outright, they held huge areas of the western Soviet Union, including the entire regions of what are now Belarus, Ukraine, and the Baltic states, plus parts of Russia proper west of Moscow. The Germans held up to of territory with over 75 million people at the end of 1941, and would go on to seize another before being forced to retreat after defeats at Stalingrad and Kursk. However, the occupied areas were not always properly controlled by the Germans and underground activity rapidly escalated. Wehrmacht occupation had been brutal from the start, due to directives issued by Hitler himself at the start of the operation, according to which Slavic peoples were considered an inferior race of untermenschen. This attitude immediately alienated much of the population from the Nazis, while in some areas at least (for example, Ukraine) it seems that some local people had been ready to consider the Germans as liberators helping them to get rid of Stalin. Anti-German partisan operations intensified when the Russian army units which had dissolved into the country's large uninhabited areas re-emerged as underground forces, which intensified under the repressive policies of the German armies. The Germans held on as stubbornly as possible in the face of Soviet counterattacks, resulting in huge casualties on both sides in many battles.
The war on the Eastern Front went on for four years. The death toll may never be established with any degree of certainty. The most recent western estimate of Soviet military deaths is 7 million that lost their lives either in combat or in Axis captivity. Soviet civilian deaths remain under contention, though roughly 20 million is a frequently cited figure. German military deaths are also not clarified to a large extent. The most recent German estimate (Rüdiger Overmans) concluded that about 4.3 million Germans and a further 900,000 Axis forces lost their lives either in combat or in Soviet captivity. Operation Barbarossa is listed among the most lethal battles in world history.
The Soviet Union had not signed the Geneva Convention (1929). However, a month after the German invasion in 1941, an offer was made for a reciprocal adherence to the Hague convention. This 'note' was left unanswered by Third Reich officials.
Parallels have been drawn with Napoleon's invasion of Russia.
German war planners grossly underestimated the mobilisation potential of the Red Army: its primary mobilisation size (i.e. the total of already trained units that could be put on a war-footing in short time) was about twice as large as they had expected. By early August, new armies had taken the place of the destroyed ones. This fact alone implied the failure of Operation Barbarossa, for the Germans now had to limit their operations for a month to bring up new supplies, leaving only six weeks to complete the battle before the start of the mud season, an impossible task. On the other hand, the Red Army proved capable of replacing its huge losses in a timely fashion, and was not destroyed as a coherent force. When the divisions consisting of conscripts trained before the war were destroyed, they were replaced by new ones, on average about half a million men being drafted each month for the duration of the war. The Soviets also proved very skilled in raising and training many new armies from the different ethnic populations of the far flung republics. It was this Soviet ability to mobilise vast (if often badly trained and equipped) forces within a short time and on a continual basis which allowed the Soviet Union to survive the critical first six months of the war, and the grave underestimation of this capacity which rendered German planning unrealistic.
In addition, data collected by Soviet intelligence excluded the possibility of a war with Japan, which allowed the Soviets to transfer forces from the Far East to the European theatre.
The German High Command grossly underestimated the effective control the central Soviet government exercised. The German High Command incorrectly believed the Soviet government was ineffective. The Germans based their hopes of quick victory on the belief the Soviet communist system was like a rotten structure which would collapse from a hard blow. In fact, the Soviet system proved resilient and surprisingly adaptable. In the face of early crushing defeats, the Soviets managed to dismantle entire industries threatened by the German advance. These critical factories, along with their skilled workers, were transported by rail to secure locations beyond the reach of the German army. Despite the loss of raw materials and the chaos of an invasion, the Soviets managed to build new factories in sufficient numbers to allow the mass production of needed war machines. The Soviet government was never in danger of collapse and remained at all times in tight control of the Soviet war effort.
The Germans treated Soviet prisoners with brutality and exhibited cruelty toward overrun Soviet populations. The effect of this treatment instilled a deep hatred in the hearts and minds of the Soviet citizens. Hatred of the Germans enabled the Soviet government to extract a level of sacrifice from the Soviet population unheard of in Western nations.
The Germans underestimated the Soviet people as well. The German high command viewed the Soviet soldiers as incompetent and considered the average citizen as an inferior human being. German soldiers were stunned by the ferocity with which the Red Army fought. German planners were amazed at the level of suffering the Soviet citizens could endure and still work and fight.
A further reason for the German defeat was the underestimation of Soviet technical capacity. While most Soviet equipment at the beginning of the war was vastly inferior to the technically advanced German equipment, this gap was made up for as more advanced designs reached production. While the average Soviet conscript remained woefully under-equipped, Soviet weapons, such as a the PPSh series submachine guns, and the T-34, proved more than a match for their German counterparts. The T-34 tank in particular was a huge distinguishing factor between the early campaign and later Soviet counter-offensives.
This was well understood by the German supply units even before the operation, but their warnings were disregarded. The entire German plan was based on the premise that within five weeks the German troops would have attained full strategic freedom due to a complete collapse of the Red Army. Only then would it have been possible to divert necessary logistic support to the fuel requirements of the few mobile units needed to occupy the defeated state.
German infantry and tanks stormed ahead in the first week, but their supply lines struggled to keep up. Russian railroads could at first not be used due to a difference in railway gauges, until a sufficient supply of trains was seized. The railroad tracks and convoys of slow-moving vehicles were also favorite targets of Soviet partisans, although partisan activity was still low in 1941. Lack of supplies significantly slowed down the blitzkrieg.
The German logistical planning also seriously overestimated the condition of the Soviet transportation network. The road and railway network of former Eastern Poland was well known, but beyond that information was limited. Roads that looked impressive on maps turned out to be just mere dust roads or were only in the planning stages.
The German forces were not prepared to deal with harsh weather and the poor road network of the USSR. In autumn, the terrain slowed the Wehrmacht’s progress. Few roads were paved. The ground in the USSR was very loose sand in the summer, sticky muck in the autumn, and heavy snow during the winter. The German tanks had narrow treads with little traction and poor flotation in mud. In contrast, the new generation of Soviet tanks such as the T-34 and KV had wider tracks and were far more mobile in these conditions. The 600,000 large western European horses the Germans used for supply and artillery movement did not cope well with this weather. The small ponies used by the Red Army were much better adapted to this climate and could even scrape the icy ground with their hooves to dig up the weeds beneath.
German troops were mostly unprepared for the harsh weather changes in the autumn and winter of 1941. Equipment had been prepared for such winter conditions, but the ability to move it up front over the severely overstrained transport network did not exist. Consequently, the troops were not equipped with adequate cold-weather gear, and some soldiers had to pack newspapers into their jackets to stay warm while temperatures dropped to record levels of at least -30 °C (-22 °F). To operate furnaces and heaters, the Germans also burned precious fuel that was difficult to re-supply. Soviet soldiers often had warm, quilted uniforms, felt-lined boots, and fur hats.
Some German weapons malfunctioned in the cold. Lubricating oils were unsuitable for extreme cold, resulting in engine malfunction and misfiring weapons. To load shells into a tank’s main gun, frozen grease had to be chipped off with a knife. Soviet units faced less severe problems due to their experience with cold weather. Aircraft were supplied with insulating blankets to keep their engines warm while parked. Lighter-weight oil was used.
A common myth is that the combination of deep mud, followed by snow, stopped all military movement in the harsh Russian winter. In fact, military operations were slowed by these factors, but much more so on the German side than on the Soviet side. The Soviet December 1941 counteroffensive advanced up to in some sectors, demonstrating that mobile warfare was still possible under winter conditions.
When the severe winter began, Hitler became fearful of a repeat of Napoleon's disastrous retreat from Moscow, and quickly ordered the German forces to hold their ground defiantly wherever possible in the face of Soviet counterattacks. This became known as the "stand or die" order. This prevented the Germans from being routed, but resulted in heavy casualties from battle and cold.
Stalin deported German POWs to labour camps. Ethnic groups were also deported en masse to the east. Examples include: in September 1941, 439,000 Volga Germans (as well as more than 300,000 other Germans from various locations) were deported mainly to Kazakhstan as their autonomous republic was abolished by Stalin's decree; in May 1944, 182,000 Crimean Tatars were deported from the Crimea to Uzbekistan; and the complete deportation of Chechens (393,000) and Ingushs (91,000) to Kazakhstan took place in 1944 (see Population transfer in the Soviet Union).
Germany's inability to achieve victory over the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa opened up the possibility for Soviet counterattacks to retake lost land and attack further into Germany proper. Starting in mid-1944, the overwhelming success in Operation Bagration and the quick victory in the Lvov-Sandomierz Offensive led to an unbroken string of Soviet gains and unsupportable losses for the German forces. Germany would never again mount a successful attack on the Soviet Union. Operation Barbarossa's failure paved the way for Soviet forces to fight all the way to Berlin, cementing the ultimate fall of Nazism and Germany's defeat in World War II.