|Part of the Eastern Front of World War II|
German soldiers advancing, June 1941
|Commanders and leaders|
3.8 million personnel
7,200 artillery pieces
2.68 million personnel
7,133 military aircraft
|Casualties and losses|
Total military casualties:
Total military casualties:
|^a Finland was a co-belligerent that launched its own offensive on 25 June; it was not a member of the Axis powers, and the Finnish offensive was coordinated with, but distinct from Operation Barbarossa. However, Soviet losses resulting from the Finnish offensive are included in the totals.|
Operation Barbarossa (German: Unternehmen Barbarossa) was the code name for Nazi Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II, commencing on 22 June 1941. Over the course of the operation, about four million soldiers of the Axis powers invaded Soviet Russia along a 2,900 km (1,800 mi) front, making it the largest invasion in the history of warfare. In addition to troops, the Germans employed some 600,000 motor vehicles and between 600–700,000 horses. The operation was driven by Adolf Hitler's ideological desire to conquer the Soviet territories as outlined in Mein Kampf ("My Struggle"). It marked the beginning of the rapid escalation of the war, both geographically and in the formation of the Allied coalition.
Prior to the invasion, the two countries had signed political and economical pacts for strategic purposes. An invasion of Russia was authorized by Hitler on 18 December 1940 for a start date of 15 May 1941, but this would not be met, and instead the invasion began on 22 June 1941. Operationally, the Germans won resounding victories and occupied some of the most important economic areas of the Soviet Union, mainly in Ukraine, while sustaining heavy casualties. Despite these successes, the German offensive stalled on the outskirts of Moscow and was then pushed back by a Soviet counter offensive without taking the city. The Germans would never again mount a simultaneous offensive along the entire strategic Soviet-German front. The Red Army repelled the Wehrmacht's strongest blow and forced Germany into a war of attrition, which it was unprepared for.
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.
Barbarossa was the largest military operation in world history in both manpower and casualties. Its failure was a turning point in the Third Reich's fortunes. Most importantly, the operation 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 the subsequent history of the 20th century. The German forces captured millions of Soviet prisoners 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", aiming to reduce the population of Eastern Europe and then repopulate it with ethnic Germans.
- 1 Background
- 2 German preparations
- 3 Soviet preparations
- 4 Order of battle
- 5 Invasion
- 6 War crimes
- 7 Aftermath
- 8 Historical significance
- 9 See also
- 10 References
- 11 Sources
- 12 External links
Racial policies of Nazi Germany
As early as 1925, Adolf Hitler declared in his political manifesto and autobiography Mein Kampf ("My Struggle") that a war against Russia would acquire Lebensraum ("living space") in Eastern Europe to ensure the survival of Germany for generations to come. Nazism viewed the populations of Eastern Europe as Untermenschen ("sub-humans"), ruled by "Jewish Bolshevik conspirators". Hitler in Mein Kampf said Germany's destiny was to "turn to the East" as it did "six hundred years ago". Hitler continued to vaguely make references to Lebensraum in both written statements and public speeches.
Before and during the invasion of the Soviet Union, German troops were heavily indoctrinated with anti-Bolshevik, anti-Semitic and anti-Slavic ideology via movies, radio, lectures, books and leaflets. Following the invasion, Wehrmacht officers told their soldiers to target people who were described as "Jewish Bolshevik subhumans", the "Mongol hordes", the "Asiatic flood" and the "Red beast". Nazi propaganda portrayed the war against the Soviet Union as both an ideological war between German National Socialism and Jewish Bolshevism and a racial war between the Germans and the Bolshevik, Jewish, Gypsies and Slavic Untermenschen. German army commanders were equating the Jews as being the major cause behind the "partisan struggle". The main guideline policy for German troops was "Where there's a partisan, there's a Jew, and where there's a Jew, there's a partisan." Many German troops viewed the war in Nazi terms and regarded their Soviet enemy as sub-human.
After the war began, the Nazis issued a ban on sexual relations between Germans and foreign slave workers. There were regulations enacted against the Ost-Arbeiter ("Eastern Workers") which included the death penalty for sexual relations with a German person. Heinrich Himmler in his secret memorandum Reflections on the Treatment of Peoples of Alien Races in the East dated 25 May 1940 outlined the future plans for the non-German populations in the East. Himmler believed the Germanization process in Eastern Europe would be complete when "in the East dwell only men with truly German, Germanic blood".
The Nazi secret plan Generalplan Ost ("General Plan East") which was prepared in 1941 and confirmed in 1942 called for a "new order of ethnographical relations" in the territories occupied by Nazi Germany in Eastern Europe. The plan envisaged wholesale removal of the majority of the populations of conquered counties with very small differing percentages of the various conquered nations undergoing Germanisation, expulsion into the depths of Russia, and other fates, the net effect of which would be to ensure that the conquered territories would be Germanized. It was divided into two parts; the Kleine Planung ("Small Plan"), which covered actions which were to be taken during the war, and the Grosse Planung ("Big Plan"), which covered actions to be undertaken after the war was won, and to be implemented gradually over a period of 25 to 30 years. Verification of the belief in German ethnic predominance is discernible in official German records and by pseudo-scientifically validated articles in German periodicals at the time, works which covered matters like "how to deal with alien populations".
German-Soviet relations of 1939–40
The Soviet Union and Germany signed a non-aggression pact in Moscow in August 1939, known as the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, shortly before the German invasion of Poland that triggered the outbreak of World War II in Europe, which was followed by the Soviet invasion of the Eastern part of the country. A secret protocol to the pact outlined an agreement between the Third Reich and the Soviet Union on the division of the border states between their respective "spheres of influence"; the Soviet Union and Germany would partition Poland in the event of an invasion, and Russia would be allowed to overrun the Baltic states and Finland. The pact stunned the world because of the parties' mutual hostility and their conflicting ideologies. As a result of the pact, Germany and the Soviet Union had reasonably strong diplomatic relations and an important economic relationship. The countries entered a trade pact in 1940, in which the Soviets received German military equipment and trade goods in exchange for raw materials, such as oil and wheat, to help Germany circumvent a British blockade.
Despite the parties' ongoing relations, each side was highly suspicious of the other's intentions. 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, Germany presented a proposed written agreement for a Soviet entry into the Axis. On 25 November 1940, the Soviet Union offered a written counterproposal agreement to join the Axis if Germany foreclosed acting in the Soviet's sphere of influence, to which Germany did not respond. As both sides began colliding with each other in Eastern Europe, conflict appeared more likely, although they signed a border and commercial agreement addressing several open issues in January 1941. Some historians also believe that Soviet leader Joseph 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 as well as 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, as 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, also claiming that the Red Army was preparing to attack them, and their own invasion was thus presented as a preemptive strike.
In the summer of 1940, following the rising tension between the Soviet Union and Germany over territories in the Balkans, an eventual invasion of the Soviet Union increasingly looked like Hitler's 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". Although German generals warned Hitler that occupying Western Russia would create "more of a drain than a relief for Germany's economic situation", the Führer anticipated additional benefits, like the demobilization of entire divisions to relieve the acute labor shortage in German industry, Ukraine becoming a reliable source of immense agricultural products, forced labor under German rule vastly stimulating Germany's overall economy, and the expansion of territory to improve Germany's geostrategic position which would further isolate Britain. Hitler was convinced Britain would sue for peace, once the Germans triumphed in the Soviet Union.
On 5 December 1940, Hitler received the final military plans for the invasion which the German High Command had been working on since July 1940 under the codename "Operation Otto". Hitler, however, was dissatisfied with the Otto version and on 18 December issued Directive No. 21 which called for a new battle plan, now codenamed "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, but this would not be met.
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, the economy or 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 a 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 produce a gain for Germany. Hitler disagreed with economists about the risks, and told his right-hand man Hermann Göring, the chief of the Luftwaffe, that everyone on all sides were always raising economic misgivings against a war with Russia and that he would no longer listen to that kind of talk. 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, and did not anticipate a long campaign lasting into the winter, and therefore adequate preparations, like warm clothings, were not made.
Beginning in March 1941, Göring's Green Folder laid out details for the disposal of Soviet economy after conquest. The entire urban population of the conquered territory was to be starved to death, thus creating an agricultural surplus to feed Germany and urban space for 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 the following Reichskommissariate ("Reich Commissionerships"):
|Administration of conquered Soviet territory by Alfred Rosenberg|
|Reichskommissariat Ostland||The Baltic countries and Belarus|
|Reichskommissariat Ukraine||Ukraine, enlarged eastwards to the Volga|
|Reichskommissariat Kaukasus||Southern Russia and the Caucasus region||
|Reichskommissariat Moskowien||Moscow metropolitan area and the rest of European Russia||
|Reichskommissariat Turkestan||Central Asian republics and territories||
While planning Barbarossa, 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". 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 judgement from 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 in February 1941, 680,000 German soldiers were stationed on the Romanian-Soviet border. In preparation for the attack, Hitler moved more than 3.2 million German and about 500,000 Axis soldiers to the Soviet border, launched many aerial surveillance missions over Soviet territory, and stockpiled war materiel in the East. 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. Since April 1941, the Germans had begun setting up cover operations to add substance to their claims that Britain was the real target. These simulated preparations in Norway and the English Channel coast with activities such as ship concentrations, reconnaissance flights and training exercises.
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 Soviet 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 had to be defended.
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 due to a combination of reasons. Namely, the Balkans Campaign required a diversion of troops and resources which hampered preparations and an unusually wet winter that 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.
The Germans deployed one independent regiment, one separate motorized training brigade and 153 divisions for Barbarossa, which included 138 divisions (104 infantry, 19 panzer and 15 motorized infantry divisions) in three army groups, 9 security divisions to operate in conquered territories, 4 divisions in Finland and 2 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 horses. Finland slated 14 divisions for the invasion, and Romania offered 13 divisions and 8 brigades over the course of Barbarossa. The entire Axis forces, deployed across a front extending from the Arctic Ocean southward to the Black Sea, were organized into Army Norway, Army Group North, Army Group Center and Army Group South, alongside three luftflotten (air fleets—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 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 USSR to the Volga with the aim of controlling the oil-rich Caucasus. 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. 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 have won the border battles and destroyed Red Army's forces in the forward area.
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 that Hitler believes 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".
Despite the estimations held by Hitler and others in the German High Command, the Soviet Union was by no means weak. In 1930 Mikhail Tukhachevsky, a prominent military theorists 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 very 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: in 1933 it had reached 12 percent of gross national product, from just 5 percent in 1913, and by 1940 it stood at 18 percent.
During Stalin's Great Purge in the 1930s, 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 appointed in 1935, only two survived Stalin's purge. 15 out of 16 army commanders, 50 out of the 57 corps commanders, 154 out of the 186 divisional commanders and 401 out 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 and ensure 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. However, by 1941 about 80 percent of the officers dismissed during the Great Purge had been reinstated. 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 by 1941, that was also because of the rapid increase in creation of military units, and not just because of the purge.
The Soviets held a clear numerical advantage in tanks that numbered more than 20,000, of which about 11,000 were in the western military districts that faced the German invasion forces, which had about 3,350 tanks. Hitler later declared to some of his generals, "If I had known about the Russian tank's 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 T-34 and KV-1, were not available in large numbers early in the war, and only accounted for 7 percent of the total Soviet tank force. Furthermore, during the late 1930s, the Soviets had partly dispersed their tanks to infantry divisions, but after their experiences in the Winter War and their observation of the German campaign against France, they had begun to emulate the Germans and organize most of their armored assets into large armored divisions and corps. This reorganization was still only in progress and incomplete when Barbarossa commenced. The Soviet numerical advantage in heavy equipment was thoroughly offset by the superior training and readiness of the Wehrmacht.
The Soviet Armed Forces in the western Soviet Union was outnumbered at the start of the invasion, with about 3.8 million of the Axis in the Eastern Front in June 1941 facing about 2.6–2.7 million Soviets in the western Soviet Union, and an overall Soviet force of 5.3–5.5 million. The Red Army was dispersed and thoroughly unprepared when invasion commenced. Their units were often separated and lacked adequate transportation. 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 refueling, ammunition resupply, or personnel replacement. Often, after a single engagement, units were destroyed or rendered ineffective. 
|1 January 1939||22 June 1941||Increase|
|Guns and mortars||55,800||117,600||110.7%|
Prior to the invasion, the Soviet Air Force (VVS) was forbidden to shoot down Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft, despite hundreds of prewar incursions into Soviet airspace. The Soviet Air Force 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 of these were deployed in the western military districts. However, Soviet aircraft were largely obsolete, and Soviet artillery lacked modern fire-control techniques.
In 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. But Stalin's distrust of the British led him to ignore their warnings, believing it to be 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. Stalin acknowledged the possibility of an attack in general and therefore made significant preparations, but decided not to run the risk of provoking Hitler. He had an ill-founded confidence in the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, and suspected the British of trying to spread false rumours in order to trigger a war between Germany and the USSR. Russian spy Richard Sorge also gave Stalin the exact German launch date, but Sorge and other informers had previously given different invasion dates which passed peacefully before the actual invasion.
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 argument, 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.
Order of battle
|Axis forces||Soviet Forces|
At around 3:15 am on 22 June 1941, the Axis Powers commenced the invasion with the bombing of major cities in Soviet-occupied Poland, and an artillery barrage on Red Army defences on the entire front. 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: "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 while allowing a stunned people to absorb the shattering news. Stalin addressed the nation for the first time since the start of the German invasion on 3 July, and just like Molotov's announcement, he 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, "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 colleagues, "before three months have passed, we shall witness a collapse of Russia, the like of which has never been seen in history".
The contribution of Germany's allies would generally not make itself felt until later. Though the Stavka was alarmed by reports about German troops approaching the border and had, at 00:30 am, warned the border troops that war was imminent, only a small number of units were alerted in time. At around 7:15 am, Stalin issued NKO Directive No. 2, which announced the invasion to the Soviet Armed Forces, calling them to attack Axis forces wherever they had violated the borders and launch air strikes into the border regions of German territory. But the Kremlin effectively had no accurate information on the real scope of the German invasion nor the scale of the disaster that was befalling the Soviet forces in the border area. At around 9:15 pm, Stalin issued NKO Directive No. 3, which now called for a general counteroffensive without any regards for borders.
Luftwaffe reconnaissance units worked frantically to plot troop concentration, supply dumps, and airfields, and mark them down for destruction. The Luftwaffe reported to have destroyed 1,489 aircraft on the first day of the invasion. 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. The Luftwaffe reported the loss of 35 aircraft on the first day of combat. For the first three days, the Germans reported to have destroyed over 3,100 Soviet aircraft. In reality, Soviet losses were likely higher, as according to Russian historian Viktor Kulikov some 3,922 Soviet aircraft were lost in that time period. According to archival reports in the war diaries of the German High Command, by 5 July the Luftwaffe 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. The Luftwaffe achieved air superiority in all sectors facing their army groups, and they would maintain it throughout the course of Barbarossa.
In the opening hours, the Luftwaffe destroyed the Western Front’s air force on the ground, and with the aid of abwehr troops operating in the Soviet rear paralyzed its communication lines, which particularly cut off the Soviet 4th Army headquarters from headquarters above and below it. On the same day, 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 Pavlov's order, on 24–25 June the 6th and 11th Mechanized, and the 6th Cavalry Corps launched a strong counterstrike towards Grodno in hopes of destroying the 3rd Panzer Group. However, the 3rd Panzer Group had moved on, with its forward units reaching Vilnius on the evening of 23 June, and the Western Front’s armoured counteroffensive 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 counteroffensive was defeated and the 6th Cavalry Corps' commander captured. The same night, Pavlov ordered all the remnants of the Western Front to withdraw to Slonim towards Minsk. Subsequent smaller counteroffensives to buy time for the withdraw were launched against the German forces, which all failed, and on 27 June the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Groups met near Minsk and captured the city the next day, effecting the encirclement of almost all of the Western Front in two pockets—one around Białystok and another west of Minsk.
On 3 July, 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 stiffened. The delays gave the Soviets time to organize a massive counterattack against Army Group Center. Its 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 attacked the 3rd Panzer Army with 700 tanks. The Germans defeated this counterattack with overwhelming air superiority. The 2nd Panzer Army crossed the Dnieper River and closed on Smolensk from the South while the 3rd Panzer Army, after defeating the Soviet counterattack, closed on Smolensk from the North. Trapped between their pincers were three Soviet armies. On 18 July, the Panzer Groups came to within sixteen kilometres of closing the gap but the trap would not snap shut until 26 July. When the Panzer Groups finally closed the gap, 300,000 Red Army soldiers were captured. Even so, liquidating the pocket took another ten days in which time 100,000 Red Army soldiers escaped to stand between the Germans and Moscow.
Four weeks into the campaign, the Germans realized they had grossly underestimated Soviet strength. The German troops had used their initial supplies without attaining the expected strategic freedom of movement. Operations were now slowed down to allow for resupply; the delay was to be used to adapt strategy to the new situation. Hitler had by now lost faith in battles of encirclement as large numbers of Soviet soldiers had escaped the pincers. He now believed he could defeat the Soviets by economic damage, 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.
Fedor von Bock, in overall charge of Army Group Center, and almost all the German generals involved in Operation Barbarossa, vehemently argued in favor of continuing the all-out drive towards 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 as well as 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. But Hitler was adamant, and issued a direct order to the talented panzer ace Heinz Guderian, bypassing his commanding officer von Bock, to send Army Group Center'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 kilometers of Kiev. The 1st Panzer Army 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 Army, 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.
For its final attack on Leningrad, the 4th Panzer Army 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 Army had penetrated to within 30 mi (48 km) 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 9 September, Army Group North began the final push which within ten days had brought it within 7 mi (11 km) of the city. However, the advance 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 starved into submission. Deprived of its Panzer forces, Army Group Center had 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. These attacks drew Hitler's 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 on its attack on Moscow.
Before it 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 savage battle ensued in which the Soviets were hammered with tanks, artillery, and aerial bombardment. After ten days of vicious fighting, the Germans claimed over 600,000 Soviet soldiers captured. Actual losses were 452,720 men, 3,867 artillery pieces and mortars from 43 Divisions of the 5th, 21st, 26th, and 37th Soviet Armies.
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 2 October. In front of Army Group Center was a series of elaborate defense lines, the first centered on Vyazma and the second on Mozhaysk.
The first blow took the Soviets completely by surprise as the 2nd Panzer Army, returning from the South, took Oryol which was 75 mi (121 km) South of the Soviet first main defense line. Three days later, the Panzers pushed on to Bryansk while 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 673,000 Soviet prisoners, bringing the tally since the start of the invasion to three million. The Soviets had now only 90,000 men and 150 tanks left for the defense of Moscow.
The German government now publicly predicted the imminent capture of Moscow, convincing foreign correspondents of a pending Soviet collapse. On 13 October, the 3rd Panzer Army penetrated to within 90 mi (140 km) of the capital. Martial law was declared in Moscow. Almost from the beginning of Operation Typhoon, however, the weather had deteriorated. Temperatures fell while there was a continued rainfall, turning the unpaved road network into mud and steadily slowing the German advance on Moscow to as little as 2 mi (3.2 km) a day. The supply situation 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, who were in a far better supply situation, time to consolidate their positions and organize formations of newly activated reservists. 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 came over 1,000 tanks and 1,000 aircraft.
On 15 November, 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 the 5th, 16th, 30th, 43rd, 49th, and 50th 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 22 November, Soviet Siberian units, augmented with the 49th and 50th Soviet Armies, attacked the 2nd Panzer Army and inflicted a shocking defeat on the Germans. However, 4th Panzer Army pushed the Soviet 16th Army back and succeeded in crossing the Moscow canal and began the encirclement.
On 2 December, part of the 258th Infantry Division advanced to within 15 mi (24 km) of Moscow, and could see the spires of the Kremlin, but by then the first blizzards of the Russian Winter had begun. A reconnaissance battalion also managed to reach the town of Khimki, only about 8 km (5.0 mi) away from the Soviet capital, and captured its bridge over the Moscow-Volga Canal as well as its railway station, which marked the farthest advance of German forces. The Wehrmacht had not been equipped for winter warfare. The bitter cold also caused severe problems for their guns and equipment. Furthermore, weather conditions grounded the Luftwaffe from conducting any large scale operations. Newly created Soviet units near Moscow now numbered over 500,000 men, and on 5 December, they launched a massive counterattack which pushed the Germans back over 200 mi (320 km). By late December 1941, the Germans had lost the Battle for Moscow and the invasion had cost the Army over 830,000 casualties in killed, wounded, captured or gone missing in action.
The Soviet Union had not participated in the Geneva Conventions and therefore their troops could not rely on the protection the Conventions guaranteed soldiers during times of war. Hitler called for the battle against Russia to be a "struggle for existence" and accordingly authorized crimes against Soviet prisoners of war. He issued the notorious Commissar Order, which called for all political representatives taken prisoner at the front to be shot immediately without trial. German soldiers both willingly and unwillingly participated in these mass killings. An estimated two million died of starvation during Barbarossa alone; nothing was done for their survival.
Organized crimes against civilians, including women and children, were also carried out on an industrial scale by the Germans and local supporters. Under the command of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt, the Einsatzgruppen killing squads conducted large-scale massacres of Jews and Communists in conquered Soviet territories. Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg puts the number of Jews murdered by "mobile killing operations" at 1,400,000. Several thousands were shipped to Germany to be used as slave labor. By the end of the war, approximately 60 percent of all Soviet prisoners of war were killed in German captivity.
With the failure of the Battle of Moscow, all German plans of 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.
Nevertheless, despite this setback, the Soviet Union had suffered heavily from the loss of large parts of its army and industry, allowing the Germans to mount another large-scale offensive in the July 1942, codenamed Case Blue, now directed towards the oil fields of Baku. Again, while the Germans conquered great expanses of Soviet territory, they failed to achieve their ultimate goals when they were decisively defeated at Stalingrad. By then, the Soviet war economy was fully operational and was able to simply outproduce Germany, which was not prepared for a long war of attrition. The war ended with the total defeat and occupation of Nazi Germany in May 1945.
Operation Barbarossa was the biggest and one of the fastest military operations in human history. More men, tanks, guns and aircraft were committed than had ever been deployed in a single offensive. The invasion opened up the Eastern Front, the largest theater of World War II, which saw titanic clashes of unprecedented violence and destruction, and more than 26 million deaths. More people died fighting on the Eastern Front than in all other fighting across the globe during World War II. A total of 75 percent of the entire German military participated in Barbarossa.
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