On 22 June 1941, seventy years ago yesterday, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, beginning one of the most bloody struggles in human history. In terms of the number of men and materials committed, the casualties sustained (military and civilian), the development of fresh technologies and its grand strategic importance, the war between Germany and Russia was the Second World War. Everything else - the Pacific, D-Day, the Battle of Britain - was a mere sideshow (which is not the same as saying that they were unimportant or irrelevant, and indeed they were vital in many ways, but the scale of the war in Eastern Europe was considerably vaster in scale and scope).
The war in the east is relatively little-known in the UK and USA. The Cold War led to a general playing down of the Russian contribution to the Allied victory in the war for several decades, something that was only lifted with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent opening of the Soviet historical archives. Since then a lot of work and research has been done, ultimately proving that the war in the east was considerably more titanic and horrific than even first thought, as the Soviets themselves had downplayed their own colossal losses during the conflict. In WW2 overall, somewhere between 50 and 70 million people were killed. Of those killed, at least 27 million died in Russia alone, and even that figure is probably low-balling it. That's not counting the millions of German soldiers who died fighting on the eastern front, or the hundreds of thousands of German civilians killed in the Russian counter-invasion of Germany during the closing months of the war. All-told, around half and possibly considerably more of the total casualties of the conflict were incurred in this one theatre. To put the scale of things into context, at the battle for Kiev alone, the Russians lost more men killed and captured than the United States lost in the entire war. At the Siege of Leningrad alone, the Russians lost more lives than the USA and UK incurred combined in the entire war.
These numbers, to Western eyes used to discussing with horror the thousands killed in the bombing of Coventry or on the beaches on D-Day, are almost impossible to comprehend. Russia was only able to withstand and bear them only because it was in the grip of a regime as brutal and possibly even more cynical than that of the Nazis themselves.
In WWI, Russia, France and Britain fought against the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires. Russia invaded Germany from the east but was halted at two huge battles (at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes) and thrown back. Over the course of three years, the Germans pushed deep into Russian territory. After the Russian Revolution, Lenin sued for peace, giving up a huge amount of territory in western Russia to the Germans. When Germany was defeated in turn by Britain, France and the United States, it had to give that land back to the Soviet Union and cede even more territory to an independent Poland, something that rankled. Germany was a small, over-populated state squeezed in by surrounding European powers. The idea of having open spaces to live in, particularly the vast, lightly-populated fields and plains of the Ukraine not that far to the east, was very attractive. In his 1924 book, Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler made a great play of this idea, calling it lebensraum ('living space') and making it a cornerstone of Nazi ideology and German political and military aims.
Under Lenin and then Stalin, the Soviet Union was under no allusions that Germany presented a long-term threat. Stalin instituted a series of policies to modernise Soviet agriculture and industry, transforming it from a backwater to an industrial superpower in just over a decade of constant - and extremely costly - effort. With the threat of a new war growing through the 1930s, Britain and France attempted to forge a new alliance with Russia, similar to the one that was in place in 1914. The Soviets were open to the suggestion, but pointed out that in order to attack Germany, they would need to cross Poland. The Polish government vehemently opposed this, fearing they'd be occupied-by-proxy if millions of Soviet soldiers crossed through their territory. The severity of this argument reached new heights in 1938 at the Munich Conference, when Chamberlain used the threat of a Russian attack to try to coerce a peace agreement from Hitler. The outcome of the conference was the effective partition of Czechoslovakia and France standing down from its prior commitment to defend Czechoslovakia with military force. Stalin was furious, believing that this was a betrayal of Czechoslovakia.
Stalin instead pursued a plan for a separate peace with Hitler, culminating in the August 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact, in which the two diametrically-opposed regimes agreed to a close alliance. The cynicism of this move shocked the world, and was soon put into practice when the two powers jointly invaded Poland and carved the country up between them. Britain and France went to war regardless but Germany, with no need to worry about its eastern frontier, was able to bring its full might to bear against them, defeating and conquering France and driving the British army from the continent.
However, right from the start, Hitler planned to betray the pact. His goal was the lebensraum which could only be gained from Russian territory, the annihilation of the Slavic people (whom he considered to be sub-human), the extermination of the millions of Jews living in the Soviet Union and Germany's acquirement of Russia's immense oil reserves and other natural resources. To this end the Red Army would have to be destroyed. Emboldened by the unexpected success of the blitzkrieg tactics used against Poland and France, Hitler gave the order on 18 December 1940 formally confirming that Germany would invade the Soviet Union no later than May 1941.
The Russians knew that the Germans would turn on them, but Stalin believed that it would not be for some time. He believed he had until 1943 before the Germans would be ready to mount a war against him and that Germany would not launch a war in the east with Britain still undefeated in the west, so whilst the Red Army began making preparations to defend against an invasion, there were not very far-advanced by the time the spring and summer of 1941 rolled around.
As it turned out, the Germans were unexpectedly delayed by unfolding complications on their southern front. Britain landed significant numbers of troops in Greece to aid that country against an Italian offensive, whilst a massive uprising in Yugoslavia threatened to destroy Axis influence in that country. Hitler had to break off a number of forces earmarked for the Russian operation to put down the revolt and retake Greece (as well as taking Crete to stop the British using it to reinforce their Greek bridgehead). The importance of this delay has been debated at length: the weather conditions on the frontier between Germany and the USSR were atrocious for much of May 1941, and a delay into June would likely have been warranted anyway.
During the countdown to the conflict, the Germans began moving immense numbers of men and material eastwards. They established three huge Army Groups along the frontier, and sent significant numbers of troops north to Finland to bolster the Finnish army there. These movements could not escape the attention of Stalin, but Stalin remained convinced that Hitler would not invade Russia as it would mean a two-front war, something Hitler was as ideologically opposed to as he was in favour of war with the Soviets. Stalin was not aware that Hitler had convinced himself that Britain, whilst still in the fight, was effectively neutralised and besieged, and thus could play no further significant role in the conflict. Stalin instead became convinced that Hitler was bluffing in the hopes of winning further economic and political concessions from the Russians and would not be convinced otherwise, even when plans for the invasion fell into Russian hands and multiple Russian agents in Berlin and elsewhere reported that the German military and politicians were openly discussing the coming invasion.
As such, on the evening of 21 June 1941, the Red Army was unprepared for combat. Its divisions and formations along the frontier with Germany were under-strength and in some cases under-equipped. They were not in a line of battle, and some divisions were scattered over dozens of miles. They'd even been warned that Germans might stage 'provocations' for political purposes and they were not to fire back if fired upon by the German forces.
At Nuremberg, various Nazi officials and generals suggested that they knew the attack on the USSR was foolhardy and that they tried to argue Hitler out of it. For the most part, this was untrue. The German military had a very poor opinion of the Red Army following Stalin's purges, which had left most of the officers dead and the new officers untrained and untried. The Red Army's showing against Finland in the Winter War had been shambolic at best, the Russian victory only coming about due to overwhelming superiority of numbers. Russian equipment also appeared to be inferior to the Germans, most notably with regard to aircraft. This opinion was shared elsewhere: analysts in Washington and London both believed that the Russian state was so rotten it would collapse if a German invasion was successful and not quickly repelled. On the eve of the war, the Germans had near-total expectations of a swift and stunning victory.
At approximately 2am on 22 June 1941, the German military launched an assault on the Soviet Union that was unprecedented in scale and scope. Over 3.3 million men crossed the frontier, backed by thousands of aircraft and tanks. The Luftwaffe launched huge air raids on Sevastopol and other Russian cities in the south of the country, whilst the German navy had mined the Baltic Sea and Gulf of Finland, throwing Russian shipping into chaos. The generals and political leaders in Moscow flatly refused to believe an invasion was happening, and it was some hours before the reality sank in. At this point Stalin, apparently so shocked by the invasion that he'd been rendered near-insensible, went to ground for several days, leaving the Soviet leadership unsure about what action to take.
The Germans invaded in three formations. Army Group North, under General von Leeb, advanced northwards through the Baltic States towards Leningrad. With the Baltic States recently conquered by the Russians, the natives welcomed the Germans and assisted them in identifying collaborators and providing intelligence on the Red Army's positions. Army Group Centre under Field Marshal von Bock invaded on a north-easterly axis towards Minsk, whilst Army Group South under Field Marshal von Runstedt advanced to the south-east towards the southern Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula.
Virtually the entire Russian air force was obliterated in the opening salvos of the attack: five thousand planes were destroyed in the first week, most of them on the ground. This allowed the Luftwaffe to concentrate on attacking Red Army formations on the ground, pounding them almost unimpeded. This was blitzkrieg in its purest form, across a territory so huge that the Germans could employ it to staggering levels. The aircraft would hit the enemy formations first, sometimes devastating them with few to no losses taken, before German Panzers and ground troops went in in waves, encircling and surrounding thousands of Russian troops at a time and forcing them to surrender. This process was repeated again and again, quickly and efficiently.
German progress was impressive: nine days into the attack, the ancient Latvian capital of Riga fell. Less than a week later Minsk fell, with 290,000 Russian prisoners taken. On 10 July the Finns, backed up by German reinforcements, crossed the frontier and retook the Karelian isthmus, cutting off Leningrad from the north. The German forces at Minsk then moved out and took a relieving Soviet army by surprise, encircling it and capturing an additional 394,000 soldiers. By 5 August, Smolensk to the north-east, halfway between the frontier and Moscow, had fallen. In mid-August Stalin vowed to Churchill that the Soviet Union would never surrender Kiev and would defend the ancient Ukrainian capital to the last drop of its blood. Instead, it had fallen by 19 August, with more than 650,000 Red Army soldiers taken prisoner. Sevastopol was under siege soon afterwards. On 27 August Army Group North reached the outskirts of Leningrad and began establishing siege lines around the southern side of the city, whilst the Finns cut off the city from the north.
Eight weeks into the invasion, the Germans had inflicted incredible losses on the Russians: millions of Russian troops had been killed, wounded or captured and millions more civilians had been killed, wounded, captured, put under occupation or forced to flee. The Russians had lost thousands of tanks and aircraft. Riga, Minsk, Smolensk, Kiev, Leningrad and Sevastopol, some of the greatest cities in the Soviet Union, were in enemy hands or under siege.
The Germans were pleased by their successes, but now started noted what these victories had cost them. German losses were higher than anticipated, due to the fanatical zeal of the Russians in fighting to the last man (as the Russian commissars had made it clear that any soldier who surrendered was a traitor and any who retreated would be shot), meaning that sometimes each enemy force had to be exterminated in its entirety, rather than simply convinced into surrendering once it was surrounded, as had happened in France and elsewhere. The Germans were also concerned that they had badly underestimated the strength of the Red Army: they had expected to face 200 enemy divisions but had counted well past 360. Finally, the Germans' much-vaunted technical superiority had been matched by the Russian deployment of rocket artillery batteries, the katyushas, which were easily mobile and extremely deadly. Even more of a shock was the Russian deployment of the KV-1 and T-34 tanks, which completely outstripped anything in the German arsenal. Stories of it taking several Panzer IVs to stop a single T-34 abounded, and only the extremely piecemeal nature in which the new Soviet tanks were deployed stopped them from becoming a bigger problem.
In addition, the swiftness of the German advance had left tens of thousands of Russian partisans behind the German lines, and these partisans now proved to be a huge nuisance, disrupting supply convoys, waylaying reinforcements and destroying infrastructure that the Germans urgently needed to keep the front line moving. Essentially, by the late summer of 1941 the Germans had expended their initial momentum and inertia and were becoming bogged down, especially at Leningrad and Sevastopol.
The Advance on Moscow
The German generals now urged Hitler to move decisively on Moscow with Army Group Centre and take the city. Originally, Moscow had been labelled as a secondary target at best, its capture or destruction desirable for political and propaganda purposes, but militarily valueless. This was a questionable decision by Hitler, since Stalin (now back in the saddle following his initial breakdown) was directing the entire war effort from Moscow. Capturing or killing him, or forcing him to flee the city, would effectively decapitate the Red Army and be of military value. However, Hitler was somewhat obsessed with the story of Napoleon (he had visited Napoleon's tomb in Paris after the French surrender and had said it was the finest moment of his life) and in particular with his war with Russia, when Napoleon had taken half a million troops to capture Moscow, succeeded, but then forced to retreat by a bitter winter which killed most of his men before they saw home. Hitler, rather uncharacteristically at this stage of the war, dithered, and lost valuable days and weeks before he finally ordered the assault on Moscow.
The time lost proved critical. It wasn't until 2 October, with the temperature already starting to fall, that Army Group Centre began its advance. Initially it was business as usual, with the Germans taking another 650,000 prisoners at Vyazma and Bryansk. Soviet resistance stiffened, and the pace of the German advance slowed. In mid-October huge rainfalls turned the area the Germans were crossing into a miasma of mud and rain. By mid-November the mud had frozen, which allowed better progress, but it also brought new problems. The Germans lacked proper winter clothing, and the fuel in their trucks was freezing solid overnight, meaning they could only be started by soldiers lighting fires underneath their vehicles to thaw them out.
Nevertheless, the army approached the outskirts of Moscow. The plan was to entrap the city in a classic pincer movement, with Guderian advancing southwards to Tula and Reinhardt north to the Moskva River. The two armies would then turn and meet beyond Moscow. Unfortunately, the weather made the plan unworkable. Temperatures hit -20 C at the end of November. By 5 December, Guderian was reporting -30 and Reinhardt -38. The German forces were essentially frozen solid and could not advance. Hitler, fuming, was forced to call a temporary halt whilst the generals debated whether to try to press on, stay where they were, or try to withdraw to a safer line.
These discussions were quickly rendered moot. On 6 December the Red Army launched a major counter-offensive. The Germans were completely taken by surprise, convinced they had driven back all of the Red Army units in the area. They were not aware that Stalin had received intelligence from his top agent in Tokyo that the Japanese were about to launch a huge offensive against Britain and America in South-East Asia and the Pacific, leaving them no forces to menace the eastern Soviet frontier. Taking an uncharacteristic gamble, Stalin withdrew tens of thousands of fresh troops from the Soviet Far East and shuttled them to Moscow. Under the command of the formidable General Zhukov, these forces reformed into two wings and launched their counter-thrusts, their soldiers equipped with winter clothing (and, where necessary, skis) and their already-superior tanks operating with fuel that didn't freeze.
The Germans suffered their first major reversal on the eastern front, but not easily. The Germans fought hard, giving ground only when absolutely necessary. On 15 January 1942 Hitler authorised a withdrawal to a stable line 90 miles from Moscow and repulsed Russian attempts to breach it. Never again would an attack on Moscow be attempted, for the next year's campaign Hitler's attention turned to the southern front...and a city on the distant Volga called Stalingrad.
Operation Barbarossa was over. The Germans had killed over four million Red Army soldiers, but lost more than a million men themselves in the process. They had taken millions of Red Army troops prisoner, killed millions more Russian civilians and expended vast amounts of resources, only to find the Russians still capable of raising fresh armies and still capable of mounting huge counter-offensives. Hitler's hopes for victory diminished even further when, twenty-four hours after the Russian counter-offensive began, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, drawing the United States into the war. In possibly his most demented decision of the entire war (but it has tough competition), Hitler chose to declare war on the United States four days later, sealing his own doom by pitting Germany simultaneously against the two greatest economic powers in the world.
Seventy years on, Operation Barbarossa remains one of the largest military operations in history (strong arguments suggest it is still the biggest single military incursion of its kind) and the turning point of the Second World War. Without it, and if the Germans had never attacked the Soviet Union, the shape of history would have been very different indeed. The fact that it remains obscure amongst the general population of the UK and USA remains stunning.