|Part of the Eastern Front of World War II|
German soldiers advancing deep into the Russian interior, 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 625,000 horses. The ambitious operation was driven by Adolf Hitler's persistent desire to conquer the Soviet territories as outlined in Mein Kampf. It marked the beginning of the pivotal phase in deciding the victors of the war.
Prior to the invasion, the two countries had signed political and economical pacts to strengthen their relations. 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. 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 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", aimed 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 Historical significance
- 8 Aftermath
- 9 See also
- 10 References
- 11 Sources
- 12 External links
Racial policies of Nazi Germany
As early as 1925, Adolf Hitler suggested in his political manifesto and autobiography Mein Kampf that he would invade the Soviet Union, asserting that the German people needed to secure Lebensraum ("living space") to ensure the survival of Germany for generations to come. Nazism viewed the Soviet Union (and all of Eastern Europe) as populated by sub-humans, ruled by "Jewish Bolshevik conspirators". Mein Kampf said Germany's destiny was to "turn to the East" as it did "six hundred years ago". Accordingly, it was stated Nazi policy to kill, deport, or enslave the majority of Russian and other Slavic populations and repopulate the land with Germanic peoples. 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".
Before World War II, observers believed that in a war with the Soviet Union, Germany would attack through the Baltic states while the Kriegsmarine (Navy) would seize Leningrad from the Baltic sea. They assumed that possessing the entire Baltic basin would satisfy Hitler, who would not repeat Napoleon Bonaparte's mistake of concentrate all his forces and energy on taking Moscow. Some historians also believe that a decision to invade Russia was premeditated, based on Hitler being afraid of having to fight a war both against the Western allies and against the Russians in the East. This preventative war would allow the Germans to avoid making the same mistake they had made in World War I.
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 split Poland if an invasion were to occur, and Russia would be allowed to swallow 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. The Soviet Union offered a written counterproposal agreement on 25 November 1940, 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. 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 own 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 during 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. German propaganda claimed the Red Army was preparing to attack them, and their own invasion was thus presented as a preemptive strike.
In the of 1940, when German raw materials crises and a potential collision with the Soviet Union over territory in the Balkans arose, an eventual invasion of the Soviet Union looked increasingly 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 told Hitler that occupying Western Russia would create "more of a drain than a relief for Germany's economic situation" the Führer anticipated additional benefits. These additional benefits included the labor shortage in German industry could be relieved by demobilization of many soldiers, Ukraine would be a reliable source of immense agricultural products, forced labor under German rule would vastly improve Germany's geostrategic position and overall economy, and the Allies would further isolated, especially the United Kingdom.
On 5 December 1940, Hitler received the final military plans for the invasion which the German high command (OKW) 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 met. The plan for Barbarossa assumed that the Wehrmacht would emerge victorious if it could destroy the bulk of the Red Army west of the Western Dvina and Dnieper rivers. This assumption would be proven fatally wrong less than a month into the invasion.
According to a 1978 essay by the conservative 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 was ignored as a factor, 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 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. Another German official 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 was always raising economic misgivings against a threatening war with Russia. From now on I'm not going to listen to any more of that kind of talk". This was passed on to General Georg Thomas, who had been preparing reports on the negative economic consequences of an invasion of the Soviet Union—that it would be a net economic drain unless it was captured intact.
Beginning in March 1941, Göring's Green Folder laid out details of the Soviet Union's proposed economic disposal after the invasion. The entire urban population of the invaded land was to be starved to death, thus creating an agricultural surplus to feed Germany and allowing the urban population's replacement by a German upper class. In 1941, German Nazi-ideologist Alfred Rosenberg suggested that conquered Soviet territory should be administered in the following Reichskommissariate:
|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||
Operation Barbarossa was to combine a northern assault towards Leningrad, a symbolic capturing of Moscow, and an economic strategy of seizing oil fields in the south beyond Ukraine. Hitler and his generals disagreed on which of these aspects should take priority and where Germany should focus its energies; deciding on priorities required a compromise. While planning Barbarossa, 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. This belief led to conflicts 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 was impatient to get on with his long-desired invasion of the East. He was convinced Britain would sue for peace, once the Germans triumphed in the Soviet Union, the "real area of Germany's interests".
Hitler had grown overconfident in his own military judgement from the rapid success in Western Europe and the Red Army's ineptitude in the Winter War against Finland in 1939-40. He expected victory within a few months and therefore did not prepare for a war lasting into the winter. This meant his troops lacked adequate warm clothing and preparations for a longer campaign when they began their attack..
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 meant very little was done. Stalin also believed Hitler would be likely to finish his war with Britain before opening a new front, and he refused to believe repeated warnings from his intelligence services on the Nazi buildup, fearing the reports to be British misinformation designed to spark a war between Germany and the USSR. 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% 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 luftflotte (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 said they must always be ready to repulse a German attack, and that Hitler thought the Red Army would need four years to ready itself. Stalin was remembered saying, "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. Mikhail Tukhachevsky, a prominent military theorists in tank warfare in the interwar period, lobbied the Kremlin for colossal investment in the resources required for the production of weapons in mass quantities. In 1930 he forwarded a memo to the Kremlin, 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. 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 12,782 were in the five western military districts that directly 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.
According to historian Alan Taylor, the Soviet Armed Forces in the western military districts were outnumbered at the start of the invasion, with 2.6 million Soviet soldiers versus 3.9 million for the Axis. The historian David Glantz reports 3.767 million as the total force of the Axis in the Eastern Front in June 1941, opposing 2.68 million of the Soviet Union that were in the western military districts, and an overall Soviet force of 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.
Soviet offensive plans
Immediately after the German invasion of the USSR, Hitler put forward a thesis that the Red Army made extensive preparations for an offensive war in Europe, thus justifying the German invasion as a pre-emptive strike. This thesis was reiterated in the 1980s based on the analysis of circumstantial evidence. Thus it has been found that Marshal Georgy Zhukov drew up a proposal (signed by Aleksandr Vasilevsky and Nikolai Fyodorovich Vatutin) suggesting secret mobilization and deploying Red Army troops on the Western border, under the cover of training. This proposed operation aimed to cut Germany off from its allies, especially from Romania and its oilfields that Germany needed to conduct the war.
According to Viktor Suvorov, a former Russian intelligence agent of the Cold War, Stalin planned to use Germany as a proxy against the West. Stalin aimed to fuel Hitler's aggressive plans against Europe, and only after the countries had fought each other, and exhausted themselves to some extent, would the USSR make their move. For this reason Stalin provided significant material and political support to Hitler, while at the same time preparing the Red Army to "liberate" the whole of Europe from Nazi occupation. Suvorov saw Barbarossa as a German pre-emptive strike that capitalized on the Soviet troop concentrations immediately on the 1941 borders. Meltyukhov, however, reject this part of Suvorov's theory, arguing that both sides prepared for an attack on their own, not in response to the other side's preparations.
Although this thesis has drawn the attention of the general public in some countries (Germany, Russia and Israel) and has been fully or partially supported by some historians (Vladimir Nevezhin, Valeri Danilov and Joachim Hoffmann) the idea that Stalin was preparing an attack in 1941 has not been accepted by many Western historians.
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. 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 that 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.
At around noon on the day of the invasion, the news of the invasion was broadcast to the population by Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov:
Today at 4 o'clock in the morning, without addressing any grievances to the Soviet Union, without a declaration of war, German forces fell on our country, attacked our frontiers in many places, and bombed our cities – Zhitomir, Kiev, Sevastopol, Kuanas and others... an act of treachery unprecedented in the history of civilized nations... Our people's answer to Napoleon's invasion was a Patriotic War...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!
— Vyacheslav Molotov
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. The invasion did not come as a surprise to Stalin but he was completely astounded. 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".
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!
— Joseph Goebbels
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".
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, 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 Kriegstagebuch des Oberkommandos der Wehrmacht), by 5 July the Luftwaffe had lost 491 aircraft with 316 more damaged, leaving it with only about 70% of the effective 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.
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 River Dnieper 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 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 Centre's tanks to the North and South, temporarily halting the drive to Moscow.
By mid-July, below the Pinsk Marshes, the Germans had come within a few 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 River Desna with 2nd Army on its right flank. The two Panzer armies now trapped four Soviet armies and parts of two others.
For its final attack on Leningrad, the 4th Panzer Army was reinforced by tanks from Army Group 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 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.
They remembered what happened to Napoleon's Army. Most of them began to re-read Caulaincourt's grim account of 1812. That had a weighty influence at this critical time in 1941. I can still see von Kluge trudging through the mud from his sleeping quarters to his office and standing before the map with Caulaincourt's book in his hand.
— Günther Blumentritt
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. Operation Barbarossa was over, marking the start of over three more years of costly, large-scale warfare on the newly-formed Eastern Front.
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 orchestrated 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.
In the camps there were no army huts. They lived in foxholes. Everyone had to dig their own. Each morning a special squad collected the corpses ... 30 to 40 of them, that was normal.
— Boris Kostinski, Soviet prisoner of war
Organized crimes, pre-planned before Barbarossa, against civilians, including women and children, were also carried out on an industrial scale by the Germans and local supporters. Special SS killing squads, like the Einzatsgruppen and Reichssicherheitshauptamt, murdered tens of thousands of people, especially Jews and Communists, in conquered Soviet territories. Several other thousands were shipped to Germany to be used as slave labor. By the end of the war, approximately 60 percent of all Soviet POW's were killed in German captivity.
Operation Barbarossa was the biggest and one of the fastest military operations in human history. More men, tanks, guns and aircraft were committed to the inferno 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, with 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.
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. This offensive failed just as Barbarossa had; the Germans again conquered vast amounts of land, but failed to achieve their ultimate goals when they were 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. It ended with the total destruction and occupation of Nazi Germany in May 1945.
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