Operation Barbarossa – Invasion of the Soviet Union Operation Barbarossa (German: Fall Barbarossa, literally “Case Barbarossa”), beginning 22 June 1941, was the code name for Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II.
Over the course of the operation, about four million soldiers of the Axis powers invaded the USSR along a 2,900 km (1,800 mi) front, the largest invasion in the history of warfare. In addition to troops, Barbarossa used 600,000 motor vehicles and 750,000 horses. The ambitious operation was driven by Adolf Hitler’s persistent desire to conquer the Soviet territories as embodied in Generalplan Ost. It marked the beginning of the pivotal phase in deciding the victors of the war. The German invasion of the Soviet Union caused a high rate of fatalities: 95% of all German Army casualties that occurred from 1941 to 1944, and 65% of all Allied military casualties from the entire war. Operation Barbarossa was named after Frederick Barbarossa, the medieval Holy Roman Emperor. The invasion was authorized by Hitler on 18 December 1940 (Directive No. 21) for a start date of 15 May 1941, but this would not be met, and instead the invasion began on 22 June 1941.
Tactically, the Germans won resounding victories and occupied some of the most important economic areas of the Soviet Union, mainly in Ukraine. Despite these successes, the German offensive stalled on the outskirts of Moscow and was then pushed back by a Soviet counter offensive without having taken the city. The Germans could never again mount a simultaneous offensive along the entire strategic Soviet–German front. The Red Army repelled the Wehrmacht’s strongest blow, and forced an unprepared Germany into a war of attrition with the largest nation on Earth. Operation Barbarossa’s failure led to Hitler’s demands for further operations inside the USSR, all of which eventually failed, such as continuing the Siege of Leningrad,Operation Nordlicht, and Operation Blue, among other battles on occupied Soviet territory.
Operation Barbarossa was the largest military operation in history in both manpower and casualties. Its failure was a turning point in the Third Reich’s fortunes. Most importantly, Operation Barbarossa opened up the Eastern Front, to which more forces were committed than in any other theater of war in world history. Regions covered by the operation became the site of some of the largest battles, deadliest atrocities, highest casualties, and most horrific conditions for Soviets and Germans alike—all of which influenced the course of both World War II and 20th-century history. The German forces captured over three million Soviet POWs in 1941, who were not granted the protection stipulated in the Geneva Conventions. Most of them never returned alive. Germany deliberately starved the prisoners to death as part of its “Hunger Plan”, i.e., the program to reduce the Eastern European population.
In August 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact in Moscow known as the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. A secret protocol to the pact outlined an agreement between Germany and the Soviet Union on the division of the eastern European border states between their respective “spheres of influence”: the Soviet Union and Germany would partition Poland in the event of an invasion by Germany, and the Soviets would be allowed to overrun the Baltic states and Finland. On 23 August 1939, the rest of the world learned of this pact but were unaware of the provisions to partition Poland. The pact stunned the world because of the parties’ earlier mutual hostility and their conflicting ideologies. The conclusion of this pact was followed by the German invasion of Poland on 1 September that triggered the outbreak of World War II in Europe, then the Soviet invasion of Poland that led to the annexation of the eastern part of the country. As a result of the pact, Germany and the Soviet Union maintained reasonably strong diplomatic relations for two years and fostered an important economic relationship. The countries entered a trade pact in 1940 by which the Soviets received German military equipment and trade goods in exchange for raw materials, such as oil and wheat, to help the Nazis circumvent a British blockade of Germany.
Despite the parties’ ostensibly cordial relations, each side was highly suspicious of the other’s intentions. For instance, the Soviet invasion of Bukovina in June 1940 went beyond their sphere of influence as agreed with Germany. After Germany entered the Axis Pact with Japan and Italy, it began negotiations about a potential Soviet entry into the pact. After two days of negotiations in Berlin from 12 to 14 November 1940, Germany presented a written proposal for a Soviet entry into the Axis. On 25 November 1940, the Soviet Union offered a written counter-proposal to join the Axis if Germany would agree to refrain from interference in the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence, but Germany did not respond. As both sides began colliding with each other in Eastern Europe, conflict appeared more likely, although they did sign a border and commercial agreement addressing several open issues in January 1941. Historian Robert Service avows that Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was convinced that the overall military strength of the USSR was such that he had nothing to fear and anticipated an easy victory should Germany attack; moreover, Stalin believed that since the Germans were still fighting the British in the west, Hitler would be unlikely to open up a two front war and subsequently delayed the reconstruction of defensive fortifications in the border regions. When German soldiers swam across the Bug River to warn the Red Army of an impending attack, they were treated like enemy agents and shot. Some historians believe that Stalin, despite providing an amicable front to Hitler, did not wish to remain allies with Germany. Rather, Stalin might have had intentions to break off from Germany and proceed with his own campaign against Germany
to be followed by one against the rest of Europe.
German Invasion Plans
Stalin’s reputation as a brutal dictator contributed both to the Nazis’ justification of their assault and their faith in success; many competent and experienced military officers were killed in the Great Purge of the 1930s, leaving the Red Army with a relatively inexperienced leadership compared to that of their German counterparts. The Nazis often emphasized the Soviet regime’s brutality when targeting the Slavs with propaganda. They also claimed that the Red Army was preparing to attack the Germans, and their own invasion was thus presented as a pre-emptive strike.
In the middle of 1940, following the rising tension between the Soviet Union and Germany over territories in the Balkans, an eventual invasion of the Soviet Union seemed to Hitler to be the only solution. While no concrete plans were made yet, Hitler told one of his generals in June that the victories in Western Europe finally freed his hands for his important real task: the showdown with Bolshevism. With the successful end to the campaign in France, General Erich Marcks was assigned to the working group drawing up the initial invasion plans of the Soviet Union. The first battle plans were entitled Operation Draft East (but colloquially it was known as the Marcks Plan). His report advocated the A-A line to be the operational objective of any invasion of the Soviet Union. This goal
would extend from northern city of Arkhangelsk on the Arctic Sea through Gorky and Rostov to the port city of Astrakhan at the mouth of the Volga on the Caspian Sea. The report concluded that this military border would reduce the threat to Germany (and the Third Reich) from attacks by enemy bombers.
Although Hitler was warned by his general staff that occupying “Western Russia” would create “more of a drain than a relief for Germany’s economic situation”, he anticipated compensatory benefits, such as the demobilization of entire divisions to relieve the acute labor shortage in German industry; the exploitation of Ukraine as a reliable and immense source of agricultural products; the use of forced labor to stimulate Germany’s overall economy; and the expansion of territory to improve Germany’s efforts to isolate the United Kingdom. Hitler was convinced that Britain would sue for peace once the Germans triumphed in the Soviet Union, and if they did not, he would use the resources available in the East to defeat the British Empire.
On 5 December 1940, Hitler received the final military plans for the invasion on which the German High Command had been working since July 1940 under the codename “Operation Otto”. Hitler, however, was dissatisfied with these plans and on 18 December issued Führer Directive 21, which called for a new battle plan, now code-named “Operation Barbarossa”. The operation was named after medieval Emperor Frederick Barbarossa of the Holy Roman Empire, a leader of the Third Crusade in the 12th century. The invasion was set for 15 May 1941, though it was delayed for about 7 weeks in favor of further time for preparation because of the war in the Balkans and bad weather.
According to a 1978 essay by German historian Andreas Hillgruber, the invasion plans drawn up by the German military elite were coloured by hubris stemming from the rapid defeat of France at the hands of the “invincible” Wehrmacht and by ignorance tempered by traditional German stereotypes of Russia as a primitive, backward “Asiatic” country. Red Army soldiers were considered brave and tough, but the officer corps was held in contempt. The leadership of the Wehrmacht paid little attention to politics, culture and the considerable industrial capacity of the Soviet Union, in favour of a very narrow military view. Hillgruber argued that because these assumptions were shared by the entire military elite, Hitler was able to push through with a “war of annihilation” that would be waged in the most inhumane fashion possible with the complicity of “several military leaders”, even though it was quite clear that this would be in violation of all accepted norms of warfare.
In autumn 1940, high-ranking German officials drafted a memorandum on the dangers of an invasion of the Soviet Union. They said Ukraine, Belorussia and the Baltic States would end up as only a further economic burden for Germany. It was argued that the Soviets in their current bureaucratic form were harmless and that the occupation would not benefit Germany. Hitler disagreed with economists about the risks and told his right-hand man Hermann Göring, the chief of the Luftwaffe, that he would no longer listen to misgivings about the economic dangers of a war with Russia. It is speculated that this was passed on to General Georg Thomas, who had produced reports that predicted a net economic drain for Germany in the event of an invasion of the Soviet Union unless its economy was captured intact and the Caucasus oilfields seized in the first blow, and he consequently revised his future report to fit Hitler’s wishes. The Red Army’s ineptitude in the Winter War against Finland in 1939–40 convinced Hitler of a quick victory within a few months. Neither Hitler nor the General Staff anticipated a long campaign lasting into the winter, and therefore adequate preparations, such as the distribution of warm clothing and winterization of vehicles and lubricants, were not made.
Beginning in March 1941, Göring’s Green Folder laid out details for the disposal of the Soviet economy after conquest. The Hunger Plan outlined how the entire urban population of conquered territories was to be starved to death, thus creating an agricultural surplus to feed Germany and urban space for the German upper class. Nazi policy aimed to destroy the Soviet Union as a political entity in accordance with the geopolitical Lebensraum ideals for the benefit of future generations of the “Nordic master race”. In 1941, Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg, later appointed Reich Minister of the Occupied Eastern Territories, suggested that conquered Soviet territory should be administered in Reichskommissariates (“Reich Commissionerships”).
German military planners also researched Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia. In their calculations, they concluded that there was little danger of a large-scale retreat of the Red Army into the Russian interior, as it could not afford to give up the Baltic states, Ukraine, or the Moscow and Leningrad regions, all of which were vital to the Red Army for supply reasons and would thus have to be defended. Hitler and his generals disagreed on where Germany should focus its energy. Hitler, in many discussions with his generals, repeated his order of “Leningrad first, the Donbass second, Moscow third”; but he consistently emphasized the destruction of the Red Army over the achievement of specific terrain objectives. Hitler believed Moscow to be of “no great importance” in the defeat of the Soviet Union and instead believed victory would come with the destruction of the Red Army west of the capital, especially west of the Western Dvina and Dnieper rivers, and this pervaded the plan for Barbarossa. This belief later led to disputes between Hitler and several German senior officers, including Heinz Guderian, Gerhard Engel, Fedor von Bock and Franz Halder, who believed the decisive victory could only be delivered at Moscow. Hitler had grown overconfident in his own military judgment as a result of the rapid successes in Western Europe.
The Germans had begun massing troops near the Soviet border even before the campaign in the Balkans had finished. By the third week of February 1941, 680,000 German soldiers were gathered in assembly areas on the Romanian-Soviet border. In preparation for the attack, Hitler had secretly moved upwards of 3 million German troops and approximately 690,000 Axis soldiers to the Soviet border regions. Additional Luftwaffe operations included numerous aerial surveillance missions over Soviet territory many months before the attack.
Although the Soviet High Command was alarmed by this, Stalin’s belief that the Third Reich was unlikely to attack only two years after signing the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact resulted in a slow Soviet preparation. This fact aside, the Soviets did not entirely overlook the threat of their German neighbor, as well before the German invasion Marshal Semyon Timoshenko referred to the Germans as the Soviet Union’s “most important and strongest enemy” and as early as July 1940, Red Army Chief of Staff, Boris Shaposhnikov, produced a preliminary three-pronged plan of attack for what a German invasion might look like, remarkably similar to the actual attack. Since April 1941, the Germans had begun setting up Operation Haifisch and Operation Harpune to substantiate their claims that Britain was the real target. These simulated preparations in Norway and the English Channel coast included activities such as ship concentrations, reconnaissance flights and training exercises.
“We only have to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.”
The postponement of Barbarossa from the initially planned date of 15 May to the actual invasion date of 22 June 1941 (a 38-day delay) occurred for a number of reasons. Most importantly, an unusually wet winter kept rivers at full flood until late spring. The full floods could have discouraged an earlier attack, even if it was unlikely to have happened before the end of the Balkans Campaign.
The importance of the delay is still debated. William Shirer argued that Hitler’s Balkans Campaign had delayed the commencement of Barbarossa by several weeks and thereby jeopardized it. He cited the deputy chief of the German General Staff in 1941 Friedrich Paulus, who claimed the campaign resulted in a delay of “about five weeks”. This figure is corroborated by both the German Naval War Diary and Gerd von Rundstedt. Antony Beevor names a variety of factors that delayed Barbarossa, including the delay in distributing motor transport, problems with fuel distribution, and the difficulty in establishing forward airfields for the Luftwaffe.
The Germans deployed one independent regiment, one separate motorized training brigade and 153 divisions for Barbarossa, which included 104 infantry, 19 panzer and 15 motorized infantry divisions in three army groups, nine security divisions to operate in conquered territories, four divisions in Finland and two divisions as reserve under the direct control of OKH. These were equipped with about 3,350 tanks, 7,200 artillery pieces, 2,770 aircraft (that amounted to 65 percent of the Luftwaffe), about 600,000 motor vehicles and 625,000–700,000 horses. Finland slated 14 divisions for the invasion, and Romania offered 13 divisions and eight brigades over the course of Barbarossa. The entire Axis forces, 3.8 million personnel, deployed across a front extending from the Arctic Ocean southward to the Black Sea, were all controlled by the OKH and organized into Army Norway, Army Group North, Army Group Center and Army Group South, alongside three Luftflotten (air fleets, the air force equivalent of army groups) that supported the army groups: Luftflotte 1 for North, Luftflotte 2 for Center and Luftflotte 4 for South.
Army Norway was to operate in far northern Scandinavia and bordering Soviet territories. Army Group North was to march through the Baltic states into northern Russia, either take or destroy the city of Leningrad and link up with Finnish forces. Army Group Center, the army group equipped with the most armour and air power, was to strike from Poland into Belorussia and the west-central regions of Russia proper, and advance to Smolensk and then Moscow. Army Group South was to strike the heavily populated and agricultural heartland of Ukraine, taking Kiev before continuing eastward over the steppes of southern USSR to the Volga with the aim of controlling the oil-rich Caucasus. Army Group South was deployed in two sections separated by a 198-mile (319 km) gap. The northern section, which contained the army group’s only panzer group, was in southern Poland right next to Army Group Center, and the southern section was in Romania.
The German forces in the rear (mostly Waffen-SS and Einsatzgruppen units) were to operate in conquered territories to counter any partisan activity in areas they controlled, as well as to execute captured Soviet political commissars and Jews. On 17 June, Reich Main Security Office (RSHA) chief Reinhard Heydrich briefed around thirty to fifty Einsatzgruppen commanders on “the policy of eliminating Jews in Soviet territories, at least in general terms”. While the Einsatzgruppen were assigned to the Wehrmacht’s units, which provided them with supplies such as gasoline and food, they were controlled by the RSHA. The official plan for Barbarossa assumed that the army groups would be able to advance freely to their primary objectives simultaneously, without spreading thin, once they had won the border battles and destroyed the Red Army’s forces in the border area.
In 1930, Mikhail Tukhachevsky, a prominent military theorist in tank warfare in the interwar period and later Marshal of the Soviet Union, forwarded a memo to the Kremlin that lobbied for colossal investment in the resources required for the mass production of weapons, pressing the case for “40,000 aircraft and 50,000 tanks”. In the early-1930s, a modern operational doctrine for the Red Army was developed and promulgated in the 1936 Field Regulations in the form of the Deep Battle Concept. Defense expenditure also grew rapidly from just 12 percent of the gross national product in 1933 to 18 percent by 1940.
However, during Stalin’s Great Purge in the late-1930s, which was still partially ongoing at the start of the war in June 1941, the officer corps of the Red Army was decimated and their replacements, appointed by Stalin for political reasons, often lacked military competence. Of the five Marshals of the Soviet Union appointed in 1935, only Kliment Voroshilov and Semyon Budyonny survived Stalin’s purge. Tukachevsky was killed in 1937. Fifteen of 16 army commanders, 50 of the 57 corps commanders, 154 of the 186 divisional commanders, and 401 of 456 colonels were killed, and many other officers were dismissed. In total, about 30,000 Red Army personnel were executed. Stalin further underscored his control by reasserting the role of political commissars at the divisional level and below to oversee the political loyalty of the army to the regime. The commissars held a position equal to that of the commander of the unit they were overseeing. But in spite of efforts to ensure the political subservience of the armed forces, in the wake of Red Army’s poor performance in Poland and in the Winter War, about 80 percent of the officers dismissed during the Great Purge were reinstated by 1941. Also, between January 1939 and May 1941, 161 new divisions were activated. Therefore, although about 75 percent of all the officers had been in their position for less than one year at the start of the German invasion of 1941, many of the short tenures can be attributed not only to the purge, but also to the rapid increase in creation of military units.
In the Soviet Union, speaking to his generals in December 1940, Stalin mentioned Hitler’s references to an attack on the Soviet Union in Mein Kampf and Hitler’s belief that the Red Army would need four years to ready itself. Stalin declared “we must be ready much earlier” and “we will try to delay the war for another two years”. As early as August 1940, British intelligence had received hints of German plans to attack the Soviets only a week after Hitler informally approved the plans for Barbarossa and warned the Soviet Union accordingly. But Stalin’s distrust of the British led him to ignore their warnings in the belief that they were a trick designed to bring the Soviet Union into the war on their side. In early-1941, Stalin’s own intelligence services and American intelligence gave regular and repeated warnings of an impending German attack. Soviet spy Richard Sorge also gave Stalin the exact German launch date, but Sorge and other informers had previously given different invasion dates that passed peacefully before the actual invasion. Stalin acknowledged the possibility of an attack in general and therefore made significant preparations, but decided not to run the risk of provoking Hitler.
Beginning in July 1940, the Red Army General Staff developed war plans that identified the Wehrmacht as the most dangerous threat to the Soviet Union, and that in the case of a war with Germany, the Wehrmacht’s main attack would come through the region north of the Pripyat Marshes into Belorussia, which later proved to be correct. Stalin disagreed, and in October he authorized the development of new plans that assumed a German attack would focus on the region south of Pripyat Marshes towards the economically vital regions in Ukraine. This became the basis for all subsequent Soviet war plans and the deployment of their armed forces in preparation for the German invasion.
In early-1941 Stalin authorized the State Defense Plan 1941 (DP-41), which along with the Mobilization Plan 1941 (MP-41), called for the deployment of 186 divisions, as the first strategic echelon, in the four military districts of the western Soviet Union that faced the Axis territories; and the deployment of another 51 divisions along the Dvina and Dnieper Rivers as the second strategic echelon under Stavka control, which in the case of a German invasion was tasked to spearhead a Soviet counteroffensive along with the remaining forces of the first echelon. But on 22 June 1941 the first echelon only contained 171 divisions, numbering 2.6–2.9 million; and the second strategic echelon contained 57 divisions that were still mobilizing, most of which were still understrength. The second echelon was undetected by German intelligence until days after the invasion commenced, in most cases only when German ground forces bumped into them.
At the start of the invasion, the manpower of the Soviet military force that had been mobilized was 5.3–5.5 million, and it was still increasing as the Soviet reserve force of 14 million, with at least basic military training, continued to mobilize. The Red Army was dispersed and still preparing when the invasion commenced. Their units were often separated and lacked adequate transportation.
The Soviet Union had some 23,000 tanks available of which only 14,700 were combat-ready. Around 11,000 tanks were in the western military districts that faced the German invasion force. Hitler later declared to some of his generals, “If I had known about the Russian tank strength in 1941, I would not have attacked”. However, maintenance and readiness standards were very poor; ammunition and radios were in short supply, and many armoured units lacked the trucks for supplies. The most advanced Soviet tank models – the KV-1 and T-34 – which were superior to all current German tanks, as well as all designs still in development as of the summer 1941, were not available in large numbers at the time the invasion commenced. Furthermore, in the autumn of 1939, the Soviets disbanded their mechanized corps and partly dispersed their tanks to infantry divisions; but following their observation of the German campaign in France, in late-1940 they began to reorganize most of their armored assets back into mechanized corps with a target strength of 1,031 tanks each. But these large armoured formations were unwieldy, and moreover they were spread out in scattered garrisons, with their subordinate divisions up to 100 kilometres (62 miles) apart. The reorganization was still in progress and incomplete when Barbarossa commenced. Soviet tank units were rarely well equipped, and they lacked training and logistical support. Units were sent into combat with no arrangements in place for refueling, ammunition resupply, or personnel replacement. Often, after a single engagement, units were destroyed or rendered ineffective. The Soviet numerical advantage in heavy equipment was thoroughly offset by the superior training and organization of the Wehrmacht.
The Soviet Air Force (VVS) held the numerical advantage with a total of approximately 19,533 aircraft, which made it the largest air force in the world in the summer of 1941. About 7,133–9,100 of these were deployed in the five western military districts, and an additional 1445 were under naval control.
Historians have debated whether Stalin was planning an invasion of German territory in the summer of 1941. The debate began in the late-1980s when Viktor Suvorov published a journal article and later the book Icebreaker in which he stated that Stalin had seen the outbreak of war in Western Europe as an opportunity to spread communist revolutions throughout the continent, and that the Soviet military was being deployed for an imminent attack at the time of the German invasion. This view had also been advanced by former German generals following the war. Suvorov’s thesis was fully or partially accepted by some historians, including Valeri Danilov, Joachim Hoffmann, Mikhail Meltyukhov, and Vladimir Nevezhin, and attracted public attention in Germany, Israel, and Russia. However, it has been strongly rejected by most historians of this period, and Icebreaker is generally considered to be an “anti-Soviet tract” in Western countries. David Glantz and Gabriel Gorodetsky wrote books to rebut Suvorov’s arguments, and most historians believe that Stalin was seeking to avoid war in 1941 as he believed that his military was not ready to fight the German forces.
At around 01:00 on 22 June 1941, the Soviet military districts in the border area were alerted by NKO Directive No. 1, issued late on the night of 21 June. It called on them to “bring all forces to combat readiness,” but to “avoid provocative actions of any kind”. It took up to two hours for several of the units subordinate to the Fronts to receive the order of the directive, and the majority did not receive it before the invasion commenced.
On 21 June, at 13:00 Army Group North received the codeword Düsseldorf, indicating Barbarossa would commence the next morning, and passed down its own codeword, Dortmund. At around 03:15 on 22 June 1941, the Axis Powers commenced the invasion of the Soviet Union with the bombing of major cities in Soviet-occupied Poland and an artillery barrage on Red Army defences on the entire front. Air-raids were conducted as far as Kronstadt near Leningrad, Ismail in Bessarabia, and Sevastopol in the Crimea. Meanwhile, ground troops crossed the border, accompanied in some locales by Lithuanian and Ukrainian fifth columnists. Roughly three million soldiers of the Wehrmacht went into action and faced slightly fewer Soviet troops at the border.
At around noon, the news of the invasion was broadcast to the population by Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov: “… Without a declaration of war, German forces fell on our country, attacked our frontiers in many places … The Red Army and the whole nation will wage a victorious Patriotic War for our beloved country, for honour, for liberty … Our cause is just. The enemy will be beaten. Victory will be ours!” By calling upon the population’s devotion to their nation rather than the Party, Molotov struck a patriotic chord that helped a stunned people absorb the shattering news. Within the first few days of the invasion, the Soviet High Command and Red Army were extensively reorganized so as to place them on the necessary war footing. Stalin did not address the nation about the German invasion until 3 July, when he also called for a “Patriotic War … of the entire Soviet people”.
In Germany, on the morning of 22 June, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels announced the invasion to the waking nation in a radio broadcast with Hitlers words: “At this moment a march is taking place that, for its extent, compares with the greatest the world has ever seen. I have decided today to place the fate and future of the Reich and our people in the hands of our soldiers. May God aid us, especially in this fight!” Later the same morning, Hitler proclaimed to his colleagues, “Before three months have passed, we shall witness a collapse of Russia, the like of which has never been seen in history.” Hitler also addressed the German people via the radio, presenting himself as a man of peace, who reluctantly had to attack the Soviet Union. Following the invasion, Goebbels openly spoke of a “European crusade against Bolshevism”, but omitted the terrible fate that awaited Jews in allied and friendly countries.
The initial momentum of the German ground and air attack completely destroyed the Soviet organizational command and control within the first few hours, paralyzing every level of command from the infantry platoon to the Soviet High Command in Moscow. Moscow not only failed to grasp the magnitude of the catastrophe that confronted the Soviet forces in the border area, but Stalin’s first reaction was also disbelief. At around 07:15, Stalin issued NKO Directive No. 2, which announced the invasion to the Soviet Armed Forces, and called on them to attack Axis forces wherever they had violated the borders and launch air strikes into the border regions of German territory. At around 09:15, Stalin issued NKO Directive No. 3, signed by Marshal Semyon Timoshenko, which now called for a general counteroffensive on the entire front “without any regards for borders” that both men hoped would sweep the enemy from Soviet territory. Stalin’s order, which Timoshenko authorized, was not based on a realistic appraisal of the military situation at hand, but commanders passed it along for fear of retribution if they failed to obey; several days passed before the Soviet leadership became aware of the enormity of the opening defeat.
Luftwaffe reconnaissance units plotted Soviet troop concentration, supply dumps and airfields, and marked them down for destruction. Additional Luftwaffe attacks were carried out against Soviet command and control centers in order to disrupt the mobilization and organization of Soviet forces. In contrast, Soviet artillery observers based at the border area had been under the strictest instructions not to open fire on German aircraft prior to the invasion. One plausible reason given for the Soviet hesitation to return fire was Stalin’s initial belief that the assault was launched without Hitler’s authorization. Significant amounts of Soviet territory were lost along with Red Army forces as a result; it took several days before Stalin comprehended the magnitude of the calamity. The Luftwaffe reportedly destroyed 1,489 aircraft on the first day of the invasion and over 3,100 during the first three days. Hermann Göring, Minister of Aviation and Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe, distrusted the reports and ordered the figure checked. Luftwaffe staffs surveyed the wreckage on Soviet airfields, and their original figure proved conservative, as over 2,000 Soviet aircraft were estimated to have been destroyed on the first day of the invasion. In reality, Soviet losses were likely higher; a Soviet archival document recorded the loss of 3,922 Soviet aircraft in the first three days against an estimated loss of 78 German aircraft. The Luftwaffe reported the loss of only 35 aircraft on the first day of combat. A document from the German Federal Archives puts the Luftwaffe’s loss at 63 aircraft for the first day.
By the end of the first week, the Luftwaffe had achieved air supremacy over the battlefields of all the army groups, but was unable to effect this air dominance over the vast expanse of the western Soviet Union. According to the war diaries of the German High Command, the Luftwaffe by 5 July had lost 491 aircraft with 316 more damaged, leaving it with only about 70 percent of the strength it had at the start of the invasion.
On 22 June, Army Group North attacked the Soviet Northwestern Front and broke through its 8th and 11th Armies. The Soviets immediately launched a powerful counterattack against the German 4th Panzer Group with the Soviet 3rd and 12th Mechanized Corps, but the Soviet attack was defeated. On 25 June, the 8th and 11th Armies were ordered to withdraw to the Western Dvina River, where it was planned to meetup with the 21st Mechanized Corps and the 22nd and 27th Armies. However, on 26 June, Erich von Manstein’s LVI Panzer Corps reached the river first and secured a bridgehead across it. The Northwestern Front was forced to abandon the river defenses, and on 29 June Stavka ordered the Front to withdraw to the Stalin Line on the approaches to Leningrad. On 2 July, Army Group North began its attack on the Stalin Line with its 4th Panzer Group, and on 8 July captured Pskov, devastating the defenses of the Stalin Line and reaching Leningrad oblast. The 4th Panzer Group had advanced about 450 kilometres (280 mi) since the start of the invasion and was now only about 250 kilometres (160 mi) from its primary objective Leningrad. On 9 July, it began its attack towards the Soviet defenses along the Luga River in Leningrad oblast.
Ukraine and Moldavia
The northern section of Army Group South faced the Southwestern Front, which had the largest concentration of Soviet forces, and the southern section faced the Southern Front. In addition, the Pripyat Marshes and the Carpathian Mountains posed a serious challenge to the army group’s northern and southern sections respectively. On 22 June, only the northern section of Army Group South attacked, but the terrain impeded their assault, giving the Soviet defenders ample time to react. The German 1st Panzer Group and 6th Army attacked and broke through the Soviet 5th Army. Starting on the night of 23 June, the Soviet 22nd and 15th Mechanized Corps attacked the flanks of the 1st Panzer Group from north and south respectively. Although intended to be concerted, Soviet tank units were sent in piecemeal due to poor coordination. The 22nd Mechanized Corp ran into the 1st Panzer Army’s III Motorized Corps and was decimated, and its commander killed. The 1st Panzer Group bypassed much of the 15th Mechanized Corps, which engaged the German 6th Army’s 297th Infantry Division, where it was defeated by antitank fire and Luftwaffe attacks. On 26 June, the Soviets launched another counterattack on the 1st Panzer Group from north and south simultaneously with the 9th, 19th and 8th Mechanized Corps, which altogether fielded 1649 tanks, and supported by the remnants of the 15th Mechanized Corps. The battle lasted for four days, ending in the defeat of the Soviet tank units. On 30 June Stavka ordered the remaining forces of the Southwestern Front to withdraw to the Stalin Line, where it would defend the approaches to Kiev.
On 2 July, the southern section of Army Group South – the Romanian 3rd and 4th Armies, alongside the German 11th Army – invaded Soviet Moldavia, which was defended by the Southern Front. Counterattacks by the Front’s 2nd Mechanized Corps and 9th Army were defeated, but on 9 July the Axis advance stalled along the defenses of the Soviet 18th Army between the Prut and Dniester Rivers.
In the opening hours of the invasion, the Luftwaffe destroyed the Western Front’s air force on the ground, and with the aid of Abwehr and their supporting anti-communist fifth columns operating in the Soviet rear paralyzed the Front’s communication lines, which particularly cut off the Soviet 4th Army headquarters from headquarters above and below it. On the same day, the 2nd Panzer Group crossed the Bug River, broke through the 4th Army, bypassed Brest Fortress, and pressed on towards Minsk, while the 3rd Panzer Group bypassed most of the 3rd Army and pressed on towards Vilnius. Simultaneously, the German 4th and 9th Armies engaged the Western Front forces in the environs of Białystok. On the order of Dmitry Pavlov, the commander of the Western Front, the 6th and 11th Mechanized Corps and the 6th Cavalry Corps launched a strong counterstrike towards Grodno on 24–25 June in hopes of destroying the 3rd Panzer Group. However, the 3rd Panzer Group had already moved on, with its forward units reaching Vilnius on the evening of 23 June, and the Western Front’s armoured counterattack instead ran into infantry and antitank fire from the V Army Corps of the German 9th Army, supported by Luftwaffe air attacks. By the night of 25 June, the Soviet counterattack was defeated, and the commander of the 6th Cavalry Corps was captured. The same night, Pavlov ordered all the remnants of the Western Front to withdraw to Slonim towards Minsk. Subsequent counterattacks to buy time for the withdrawal were launched against the German forces, but all of them failed. On 27 June, the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Groups met near Minsk and captured the city the next day, completing the encirclement of almost all of the Western Front in two pockets: one around Białystok and another west of Minsk. The Germans destroyed the Soviet 3rd and 10th Armies while inflicting serious losses on the 4th, 11th and 13th Armies, and reported to have captured 324,000 Soviet troops, 3,300 tanks, 1,800 artillery pieces.
A Soviet directive was issued on 29 June to combat the mass panic rampant among the civilians and the armed forces personnel. The order stipulated swift, severe measures against anyone inciting panic or displaying cowardice. The NKVD worked with commissars and military commanders to scour possible withdrawal routes of soldiers retreating without military authorization. Field expedient general courts were established to deal with civilians spreading rumours and military deserters. On 30 June, Stalin relieved Pavlov of his command, and on 22 July tried and executed him along with many members of his staff on charges of “cowardice” and “criminal incompetence”.
On 29 June, Hitler, through the Commander-in-Chief of the German Army Walther von Brauchitsch, instructed the commander of Army Group Center Fedor von Bock to halt the advance of his panzers until the infantry formations liquidating the pockets catch up. But the commander of the 2nd Panzer Group Heinz Guderian, with the tacit support of Fedor von Bock and the chief of OKH Franz Halder, ignored the instruction and attacked on eastward towards Bobruisk, albeit reporting the advance as a reconnaissance-in-force. He also personally conducted an aerial inspection of the Minsk-Białystok pocket on 30 June and concluded that his panzer group was not needed to contain it, since Hermann Hoth’s 3rd Panzer Group was already involved in the Minsk pocket. On the same day, some of the infantry corps of the 9th and 4th Armies, having sufficiently liquidated the Białystok pocket, resumed their march eastward to catch up with the panzer groups. On 1 July, Fedor von Bock ordered the panzer groups to resume their full offensive eastward on the morning of 3 July. But Brauchitsch, upholding Hitler’s instruction, and Halder, unwillingly going along with it, opposed Bock’s order. However, Bock insisted on the order by stating that it would be irresponsible to reverse orders already issued. The panzer groups, however, resumed their offensive on 2 July before the infantry formations had sufficiently caught up.
During German-Finnish negotiations Finland had demanded to remain neutral unless the Soviet Union attacked them first. Germany therefore sought to provoke the Soviet Union into an attack on Finland. After Germany launched Barbarossa on 22 June, German aircraft used Finnish air bases to attack Soviet positions. The same day the Germans launched Operation Rentier and occupied the Petsamo Province at the Finnish-Soviet border. Simultaneously Finland proceeded to remilitarize the neutral Åland Islands. Despite these actions the Finnish government insisted via diplomatic channels that they remained a neutral party, but the Soviet leadership already viewed Finland as an ally of Germany. Subsequently, the Soviets proceeded to launch a massive bombing attack on 25 June against all major Finnish cities and industrial centers including Helsinki, Turku and Lahti. During a night session on the same day the Finnish parliament decided to go to war against the Soviet Union.
Finland was divided into two operational zones. Northern Finland was the staging area for Army Norway. Its goal was to execute a two-pronged pincer movement on the strategic port of Murmansk, named Operation Silver Fox. Southern Finland was still under the responsibility of the Finnish Army. The goal of the Finnish forces was, at first, to recapture Finnish Karelia at Lake Ladoga as well as the Karelian Isthmus, which included Finland’s second largest city Vyborg.
On 2 July and through the next six days, a rainstorm typical of Belarusian summers slowed the progress of the panzers of Army Group Center, and Soviet defenses stiffened. The delays gave the Soviets time to organize a massive counterattack against Army Group Center. The army group’s ultimate objective was Smolensk, which commanded the road to Moscow. Facing the Germans was an old Soviet defensive line held by six armies. On 6 July, the Soviets launched a massive counter-attack using the V and VII Mechanized Corps of the 20th Army, which collided with the German 39th and 47th Panzer Corps in a battle where the Red Army lost 832 tanks of the 2000 employed in five days of ferocious fighting. The Germans defeated this counterattack thanks largely to the coincidental presence of the Luftwaffe’s only squadron of tank-busting aircraft. The 2nd Panzer Group crossed the Dnieper River and closed in on Smolensk from the south while the 3rd Panzer Group, after defeating the Soviet counterattack, closed on Smolensk from the north. Trapped between their pincers were three Soviet armies. The 29th Panzer Division captured Smolensk on 16 July yet a gap remained between Army Group Center. On 18 July, the panzer groups came to within ten kilometres (6.2 mi) of closing the gap but the trap did not snap shut until 5 August, when upwards of 300,000 Red Army soldiers had been captured and 3,205 Soviet tanks were destroyed. Large numbers of Red Army soldiers escaped to stand between the Germans and Moscow as resistance continued.
Four weeks into the campaign, the Germans realized they had grossly underestimated Soviet strength. The German troops had used their initial supplies and General Bock quickly came to the conclusion that not only had the Red Army offered stiff opposition, but German difficulties were also due to the logistical problems with reinforcements and provisions. Operations were now slowed down to allow for resupply; the delay was to be used to adapt strategy to the new situation. Hitler by now had lost faith in battles of encirclement as large numbers of Soviet soldiers had escaped the pincers. He now believed he could defeat the Soviet state by economic means, depriving them of the industrial capacity to continue the war. That meant seizing the industrial center of Kharkov, the Donbass and the oil fields of the Caucasus in the south and the speedy capture of Leningrad, a major center of military production, in the north.
Chief of the OKH, General Franz Halder, Fedor von Bock, the commander of Army Group Center, and almost all the German generals involved in Operation Barbarossa argued vehemently in favor of continuing the all-out drive toward Moscow. Besides the psychological importance of capturing the Soviet capital, the generals pointed out that Moscow was a major center of arms production, the center of the Soviet communications system and an important transport hub. Intelligence reports indicated that the bulk of the Red Army was deployed near Moscow under Semyon Timoshenko for the defense of the capital. Panzer commander Heinz Guderian was sent to Hitler by Bock and Halder to argue their case for continuing the assault against Moscow, but Hitler issued an order through Guderian (bypassing Bock and Halder) to send Army Group Center’s tanks to the north and south, temporarily halting the drive to Moscow. Convinced by Hitler’s argument, Guderian returned to his commanding officers as a convert to the Führer’s plan, which earned him their disdain.
On 29 June Army Norway launched its effort to capture Murmansk in a pincer attack. The northern pincer, conducted by Mountain Corps Norway, approached Murmansk directly by crossing the border at Petsamo. However, in mid-July after securing the neck of the Rybachy Peninsula and advancing to the Litsa River the German advance was stopped by heavy resistance from the Soviet 14th Army. Renewed attacks led to nothing, and this front became a stalemate for the remainder of Barbarossa.
The second pincer attack began on 1 July with the German XXXVI Corps in conjunction with the Finnish III Corps to recapture the Salla region for Finland and then proceed eastwards to cut the Murmansk railway near Kandalaksha. The German units had great difficulty dealing with the Arctic conditions. After heavy fighting, Salla was taken on 8 July. To keep the momentum the German-Finnish forces advanced eastwards, until they were stopped at the town of Kayraly by Soviet resistance. Further south the Finnish III Corps made an independent effort to reach the Murmansk railway through the Arctic terrain. Facing only one division of the Soviet 7th Army it was able to make rapid headway. On 7 August, it captured Kestenga while reaching the outskirts of Ukhta. Large Red Army reinforcements then prevented further gains on both fronts and the German-Finnish force had to go onto the defensive.
The Finnish plan in the south in Karelia was to advance as swiftly as possible to Lake Ladoga, cutting the Soviet forces in half. Then the Finnish territories east of Lake Ladoga were to be recaptured before the advance along the Karelian Isthmus, including the recapture of Vyborg, commenced. The Finnish attack was launched on 10 July. The Army of Karelia held a numerical advantage versus the Soviet defenders of the 7th Army and 23rd Army, so it could advance swiftly. The important road junction at Loimola was captured on 14 July. By 16 July, the first Finnish units reached Lake Ladoga at Koirinoja, achieving the goal of splitting the Soviet forces. During the rest of July, the Army of Karelia advanced further southeast into Karelia, coming to a halt at the former Finnish-Soviet border at Mansila.
With the Soviet forces cut in half, the attack on the Karelian Isthmus could commence. The Finnish army attempted to encircle large Soviet formations at Sortavala and Hiitola by advancing to the western shores of Lake-Ladoga. By mid-August the encirclement succeeded and both towns were taken, but many Soviet formations were able to evacuate by sea. Further west, the attack on Viborg was launched. With Soviet resistance breaking down, the Finns were able to encircle Vyborg by advancing to the Vuoksi River. The city itself was taken on 30 August, along with a broad advance on the rest of the Karelian Isthmus. By the beginning of September, Finland had restored its pre-winter war borders.
By mid-July, the German forces had advanced within a few kilometers of Kiev below the Pripyat Marshes. The 1st Panzer Group then went south while the 17th Army struck east and trapped three Soviet armies near Uman. As the Germans eliminated the pocket, the tanks turned north and crossed the Dnieper. Meanwhile, the 2nd Panzer Group, diverted from Army Group Center, had crossed the Desna River with 2nd Army on its right flank. The two panzer armies now trapped four Soviet armies and parts of two others.
By August, as the serviceability and the quantity of the Luftwaffe’s inventory steadily diminished due to combat, demand for air support only increased as the VVS recovered. The Luftwaffe found itself struggling to maintain local air superiority. With the onset of bad weather in October, the Luftwaffe was on several occasions forced to halt nearly all aerial operations. The VVS, although faced with the same weather difficulties, had a clear advantage thanks to the prewar experience with cold-weather flying, and the fact that they were operating from intact airbases and airports. By December, the VVS had matched the Luftwaffe and was even pressing to achieve air superiority over the battlefields.
For its final attack on Leningrad, the 4th Panzer Group was reinforced by tanks from Army Group Center. On 8 August, the Panzers broke through the Soviet defenses. By the end of August, 4th Panzer Group had penetrated to within 48 kilometres (30 miles) of Leningrad. The Finns had pushed southeast on both sides of Lake Ladoga to reach the old Finnish-Soviet frontier.
The Germans attacked Leningrad in August 1941; in the following three “black months” of 1941, 400,000 residents of the city worked to build the city’s fortifications as fighting continued, while 160,000 others joined the ranks of the Red Army. Nowhere was the Soviet levée en masse spirit stronger in resisting the Germans than at Leningrad where reserve troops and freshly improvised Narodnoe Opolcheniye units, consisting of worker battalions and even schoolboy formations, joined in digging trenches as they prepared to defend the city. On 7 September, the German 20th Motorized Division seized Shlisselburg, cutting off all land routes to Leningrad. The Germans severed the railroads to Moscow and captured the railroad to Murmansk with Finnish assistance to inaugurate the start of a siege that would last for over two years.
At this stage, Hitler ordered the final destruction of Leningrad with no prisoners taken, and on 9 September, Army Group North began the final push. Within ten days it had advanced within 11 kilometres (6.8 miles) of the city. However, the push over the last 10 km (6.2 mi) proved very slow and casualties mounted. Hitler, now out of patience, ordered that Leningrad should not be stormed, but rather starved into submission. Along these lines, the OKH issued Directive No. la 1601/41 on 22 September 1941, which accorded Hitler’s plans. Deprived of its Panzer forces, Army Group Center remained static and was subjected to numerous Soviet counterattacks, in particular the Yelnya Offensive, in which the Germans suffered their first major tactical defeat since their invasion began; this Red Army victory also provided an important boost to Soviet morale. These attacks prompted Hitler to concentrate his attention back to Army Group Center and its drive on Moscow. The Germans ordered the 3rd and 4th Panzer Armies to break off their Siege of Leningrad and support Army Group Center in its attack on Moscow.
Before an attack on Moscow could begin, operations in Kiev needed to be finished. Half of Army Group Center 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 16 September. A battle ensued in which the Soviets were hammered with tanks, artillery, and aerial bombardment. After ten days of vicious fighting, the Germans claimed 665,000 Soviet soldiers captured, although the real figure is probably around 220,000 prisoners. Soviet losses were 452,720 men, 3,867 artillery pieces and mortars from 43 divisions of the 5th, 21st, 26th, and 37th Soviet Armies. Despite the exhaustion and losses facing some German units (upwards of 75 percent of their men) from the intense fighting, the massive defeat of the Soviets at Kiev and the Red Army losses during the first three months of the assault contributed to the German assumption that Operation Typhoon (the attack on Moscow) could still succeed.
Central and Northern Finland
In central Finland the German-Finnish advance on the Murmansk railway had been resumed at Kayraly. A large encirclement from the north and the south trapped the defending Soviet corps and allowed XXXVI Corps to advance further to the east. In early-September it reached the old 1939 Soviet border fortifications. On 6 September the first defense line at the Voyta River was breached, but further attacks against the main line at the Verman River failed. With Army Norway switching its main effort further south, the front stalemated in this sector. Further south, the Finnish III Corps launched a new offensive towards the Murmansk railway on 30 October, bolstered by fresh reinforcements from Army Norway. Against Soviet resistance, it was able to come within 30 km (19 mi) of the railway, when the Finnish High Command ordered a stop to all offensive operations in the sector on 17 November. The United States of America applied diplomatic pressure on Finland to not disrupt Allied aid shipments to the Soviet Union, which caused the Finnish government to halt the advance on the Murmansk railway. With the Finnish refusal to conduct further offensive operations and German inability to do so alone, the German-Finnish effort in central and northern Finland came to an end.
Germany had pressured Finland to enlarge its offensive activities in Karelia to aid the Germans in their Leningrad operation. Finnish attacks on Leningrad itself remained limited. Finland stopped its advance just short of Leningrad and had no intentions to attack the city. The situation was different in eastern Karelia. The Finnish government agreed to restart its offensive into Soviet Karelia to reach Lake Onega and the Svir River. On 4 September this new drive was launched on a broad front. Albeit reinforced by fresh reserve troops, heavy losses elsewhere on the front meant that the Soviet defenders of the 7th Army were not able to resist the Finnish advance. Olonets was taken on 5 September. On 7 September, Finnish forward units reached the Svir River. Petrozavodsk, the capital city of the region fell on 1 October. From there the Army of Karelia moved north along the shores of Lake Onega to secure the remaining area west of Lake Onega, while simultaneously establishing a defensive position along the Svir River. Slowed by winter’s onset they nevertheless continued to advance slowly during the following weeks. Medvezhyegorsk was captured on 5 December and Poventsa fell the next day. On 7 December Finland called a stop to all offensive operations, going onto the defensive.
After Kiev, the Red Army no longer outnumbered the Germans and there were no more trained reserves directly available. 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 30 September 1941. In front of Army Group Center was a series of elaborate defense lines, the first centered on Vyazma and the second on Mozhaysk. Russian peasants began fleeing ahead of the advancing German units, burning their harvested crops, driving their cattle away, and destroying buildings in their villages as part of a scorched-earth policy designed to deny the Nazi war machine of needed supplies and foodstuffs.
The first blow took the Soviets completely by surprise when the 2nd Panzer Group, returning from the south, took Oryol, just 121 km (75 mi) south of the Soviet first main defense line. Three days later, the Panzers pushed on to Bryansk, while the 2nd Army attacked from the west. The Soviet 3rd and 13th Armies were now encircled. To the north, the 3rd and 4th Panzer Armies attacked Vyazma, trapping the 19th, 20th, 24th and 32nd Armies. Moscow’s first line of defense had been shattered. The pocket eventually yielded over 500,000 Soviet prisoners, bringing the tally since the start of the invasion to three million. The Soviets now had only 90,000 men and 150 tanks left for the defense of Moscow.
The German government now publicly predicted the imminent capture of Moscow and convinced foreign correspondents of a pending Soviet collapse. On 13 October, the 3rd Panzer Group penetrated to within 140 km (87 mi) of the capital. Martial law was declared in Moscow. Almost from the beginning of Operation Typhoon, however, the weather worsened. Temperatures fell while there was continued rainfall. This turned the unpaved road network into mud and slowed the German advance on Moscow. Additional snows fell which were followed by more rain, creating a glutinous mud that German tanks had difficulty traversing, whereas the Soviet T-34, with its wider tread, was better suited to negotiate. At the same time, the supply situation for the Germans rapidly deteriorated. On 31 October, the German Army High Command ordered a halt to Operation Typhoon while the armies were reorganized. The pause gave the Soviets, far better supplied, time to consolidate their positions and organize formations of newly activated reservists. In little over a month, the Soviets organized eleven new armies that included 30 divisions of Siberian troops. These had been freed from the Soviet Far East after Soviet intelligence assured Stalin that there was no longer a threat from the Japanese. During October and November 1941, over 1,000 tanks and 1,000 aircraft arrived along with the Siberian forces to assist in defending the city.
With the ground hardening due to the cold weather, The Germans resumed the attack on Moscow on 15 November. Although the troops themselves were now able to advance again, there had been no improvement in the supply situation. Facing the Germans were the 5th, 16th, 30th, 43rd, 49th, and 50th Soviet Armies. The Germans intended to move the 3rd and 4th Panzer Armies across the Moscow Canal and envelop Moscow from the northeast. The 2nd Panzer Group would attack Tula and then close on Moscow from the south. As the Soviets reacted to their flanks, the 4th Army would attack the center. In two weeks of fighting, lacking sufficient fuel and ammunition, the Germans slowly crept towards Moscow. In the south, the 2nd Panzer Group was being blocked. On 22 November, Soviet Siberian units, augmented by the 49th and 50th Soviet Armies, attacked the 2nd Panzer Group and inflicted a defeat on the Germans. The 4th Panzer Group pushed the Soviet 16th Army back, however, and succeeded in crossing the Moscow Canal in an attempt to encircle Moscow.
On 2 December, part of the 258th Infantry Division advanced to within 24 km (15 mi) of Moscow. They were so close that German officers claimed they could see the spires of the Kremlin, but by then the first blizzards had begun. A reconnaissance battalion managed to reach the town of Khimki, only about 8 km (5.0 mi) from the Soviet capital. It captured the bridge over the Moscow-Volga Canal as well as the railway station, which marked the easternmost advance of German forces. In spite of the progress made, the Wehrmacht was not equipped for such severe winter warfare. The Soviet army was better adapted to fighting in winter conditions, but faced production shortages of winter clothing. The German forces fared worse, with deep snow further hindering equipment and mobility. Weather conditions had largely grounded the Luftwaffe, preventing large-scale air operations. Newly created Soviet units near Moscow now numbered over 500,000 men, and on 5 December, they launched a massive counterattack as part of the Soviet winter counteroffensive. The offensive halted on 7 January 1942, after having pushed the German armies back 100–250 km (62–155 mi) from Moscow. The Wehrmacht had lost the Battle for Moscow, and the invasion had cost the German Army over 830,000 men.
With the failure of the Battle of Moscow, all German plans for a quick defeat of the Soviet Union had to be revised. The Soviet counteroffensives in December 1941 caused heavy casualties on both sides, but ultimately eliminated the German threat to Moscow. Attempting to explain matters, Hitler issued Directive N. 39, which cited the early onset of winter and the severe cold for the German failure, whereas the main reason was the German military unpreparedness for such a giant enterprise. On 22 June 1941, the Wehrmacht as a whole had 209 divisions at its disposal, 163 of which were offensively capable. On 31 March 1942, less than one year after the invasion of the Soviet Union, the Wehrmacht was reduced to fielding 58 offensively capable divisions. The Red Army’s tenacity and ability to effectively counter-attack took the Germans as much by surprise as their own initial attack had the Soviets. Spurred on by the successful defense and in an effort to imitate the Germans, Stalin wanted to begin his own blitzkrieg campaign, not just against the German forces around Moscow, but against their armies in the north and south. Anger over the failed German offensives caused Hitler to relieve Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch of command and in his place, Hitler assumed personal control of the German Army on 19 December 1941.
The Soviet Union had suffered heavily from the conflict, losing huge tracts of territory, and vast losses in men and material. Nonetheless, the Red Army proved capable of countering the German offensives, particularly as the Germans began experiencing irreplaceable shortages in manpower, armaments, provisions, and fuel. Despite the rapid relocation of Red Army armaments production east of the Urals and a dramatic increase of production in 1942, especially of armour, new aircraft types and artillery, the Wehrmacht was able to mount another large-scale offensive in July 1942, although on a much reduced front than the previous summer. Hitler, having realized that Germany’s oil supply was “severely depleted”, aimed to capture the oil fields of Baku in an offensive, codenamed Case Blue. Again, the Germans quickly overran great expanses of Soviet territory, but they failed to achieve their ultimate goals in the wake of their defeat at the Battle of Stalingrad.
By 1943, Soviet armaments production was fully operational and increasingly outproducing the German war economy. The final major German offensive in the Eastern theater of the Second World War took place during July—August 1943 with the launch of Operation Zitadelle, an assault on the Kursk salient. Approximately one million German troops confronted a Soviet force over 2.5 million strong. Following the defeat of Operation Zitadelle, the Soviets then launched counter-offensives employing six million men along a 1500 mile front towards the Dnepr River as they drove the Germans westwards. Employing increasingly ambitious and tactically sophisticated offensives, along with making operational improvements in secrecy and deception, the Red Army was eventually able to liberate much of the area which the Germans had previously occupied by the summer of 1944. The destruction of Army Group Centre, the outcome of Operation Bagration, proved to be a decisive success; additional Soviet offensives against the German Army Groups North and South in the fall of 1944 put the German war machine into retreat. By January 1945, Soviet military might was aimed at the German capital of Berlin. The war ended with the total defeat and capitulation of Nazi Germany in May 1945.
Operation Barbarossa was the largest military operation in human history — more men, tanks, guns and aircraft were committed than had ever been deployed before in a single offensive. The invasion opened up the Eastern Front of World War II, the largest theater of war during that conflict, and it witnessed clashes of unprecedented violence and destruction for four years that resulted in the deaths of more than 26 million Soviet people. More people died fighting on the Eastern Front than in all other fighting across the globe during World War II. Damage to both the economy and landscape was enormous for the Soviet Union as approximately 1,710 towns and 70,000 villages were razed.
Operation Barbarossa and the subsequent German failure to achieve their objectives changed the political landscape of Europe dividing it into Eastern and Western blocs. The political vacuum left in the eastern half of the continent was filled by the USSR when Stalin secured his territorial prizes of 1944–1945 and firmly placed his Red Army in Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the eastern half of Germany. Stalin’s fear of any resurgence of German power and his distrust in the former Allied powers contributed to Soviet pan-Slavic initiatives and a subsequent alliance of Slavic states. Historians David Glantz and Jonathan House reference Operation Barbarossa’s influence not only on Stalin but subsequent Soviet leaders, claiming it “colored” their strategic mindsets for the “next four decades” and instigated the creation of “an elaborate system of buffer and client states, designed to insulate the Soviet Union from any possible future attack.” As a consequence, Eastern Europe became communist in political disposition and Western Europe fell under the democratic sway of the United States, a nation uncertain about its future policies in Europe.
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