“When the attack on Russia starts, the world will hold its breath” Hitler
In June of 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union during Operation Barbarossa. The Germans had the largest invasion force in history with about 4 million men in the attacking force. They attacked along a 2900 mile front, with about 600,000 vehicles and another 600,000 horses.
The initially obliterated the unprepared Soviet Red Army and took nearly 5,000,000 prisoners, most of whom never lived thru captivity. Nearly 3.3 million Russian prisoners died in captivity under the German rule, who regarded them as lesser human beings.
And when the Germans did attack, Josef Stalin was in a quandary of his own making. He had purged the Red Army in the late 1930s of nearly every effective leader in the military. Between 1937-39, Stalin obliterated his own High Command to preserve his own hold on power. The Soviet High Command did not owe their positions of power to Stalin, therefore they must be removed. And that he did. Three out of five Marshals, 11 deputy commissars of defense, 13 of 15 Army commanders and every military district commander including all of the naval and air force commanders were shot or disappeared without a trace.
Combined with a modernization program that wasn’t yet completed, the Soviet Union couldn’t have been more unprepared for war with Germany as she was in June 1941. The old cavalry officers ran the army, they had aligned themselves with Stalin during the Revolution and now enjoyed favored status. Discipline was rigid, harsh and based on fear. So, the key of any military force, initiative, suffered mightily. Absolute adherence to orders was the rule of the day.
Yet the Red Army was massive. In June of 1941, they had 151 rifle divisions, 32 cavalry divisions, 38 mechanized brigades and a fleet of 12,000 aircraft. The navy consisted of four fleets and three flotillas.
One area that Red Army was quickly modernizing in was their armament industries. They had the year before begun fielding, albeit in very few numbers the very good KV-1 and the outstanding T-34. Both fielded 76mm guns and were easily a match for anything the Germans would throw at them in the summer of 1941. In the air, the Soviets began building the excellent ground-attack aircraft, the IL-2, the “Sturmovik”.
For the Germans, the pact with the Soviets was always seen as temporary and one of convenience. Hitler had never wavered from his belief that the “Russians would have to be dealt with” when discussing it with his generals. The summer of 1940, the time was ripe but for the holdout of Great Britain,
The German blitzkrieg has smashed the armies of the French, Belgians, and Dutch as well as the British Expeditionary Force. But instead of suing for peace, Britain was fiercely holding out and that would throw his plans into a holding pattern. But the plans, which took many months were finalized and the troops slowly eased into position for the attack which was to begin at 0300 on Sunday, June 22, 1941.
Barbarossa: June 22, the longest day of the year, where the Germans attacked from the Baltic to the Carpathians and absolutely stunned the Russians who were taken completely by surprise. The German troops consisted of three major army groups. Army Group North under Field Marshal Ritter von Leeb, Army Group Center under Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, and Army Group South Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt.
In the German Army Group Center, progress was very quick. The Russians had no cohesion or organized defenses. Most of the bridges over the Bug River were captured intact. The Germans were surprised by the lack of the Russian preparedness.
The massive fortress at Brest Litovsk was taken by June 26. The Luftwaffe, conducted early air raids of the Russian airfields inflicted horrible losses on the Red air force and had air superiority over the battlefield.
The Germans had surrounded a huge pocket of Soviet troops around Minsk. It took until July 9 to clear the pocket but by then, Army Group Center had destroyed 22 infantry divisions, 3 cavalry divisions, seven armored divisions and six motorized brigades. The Germans also captured 2500 tanks, 1400 guns, 250 aircraft and 300,000 men.
The Russian bombers far from the frontier had escaped the early German raids and in accordance with their rigid doctrine took off for the front where they were savaged by the German fighters. Over 500 were shot down. In the first two days of fighting, the Russians lost 2000 aircraft.
In Army Group North, the Germans moved around Leningrad and determined to take it to stop the Soviet fleet, they were stopped and were forced to lay siege to it. It would prove to be a very long and bloody one on both sides.
Drive to Kiev, Army Group South’s Offensive in Ukraine: As the German armies smashed across the endless steppes, Hitler switched the focus from the drive on Moscow, despite the insistence of his generals, to the wheatfields and industries of Ukraine. The battle of Kiev was the largest disaster in the history of the Red Army and yet when the battle was over, the Red Army was still intact and remarkably getting stronger.
With half of Army Group Center swinging around Kiev, Army Group Center moved out from their bridgehead across the Dniepr. It took until September 16 to encircle the Red Army forces around Kiev, but once they did, they hammered the Russians with tanks, artillery, and air attacks.
The vicious fighting left the Soviet troop concentrations smashed. The Germans took nearly a quarter of a million prisoners. Total losses for the Red Army were 452,720 men and 3,867 artillery pieces. After Kiev, the Germans moved into the Crimea where the Soviets counter-attacked with the 9th and 18th Armies. The Germans encircled them and annihilated both. The Red Army lost another 106,332 men captured, 212 tanks destroyed or captured in the pocket alone as well as 766 artillery pieces of all types. The death or capture of two-thirds of all Southern Front troops in four days caused the collapse of the Soviet left flank. This allowed the Germans to capture Kharkov on October 24.
Germans Close on Moscow: Despite the horrendous losses, the Russians still had 83 divisions in the defense of Moscow. But only about a quarter of them were effective fighting forces.
The Germans once again encircled four Soviet armies around Vyazma, the 19th, 20th, 24th and 32nd Armies. And the disastrous results continued. Another 500,000 men taken prisoner. This left Stalin with just 90,000 men and 150 tanks to defend Moscow.
But the Russian weather began to smile on them, in October the rains came and turned the roads into seas of mud. The German tanks with their narrow tracks had trouble navigating the morass but the wider tracked T-34s were able to maneuver easily. This coupled with the German supply lines, stretched to the limit across the vast areas of the Soviet Union was slowing down the advance.
This caused the Germans to halt the advance in order to reorganize. This brief respite was a welcome one to the Soviets. Their intelligence confirmed that the Soviets had nothing to fear from the Japanese on their eastern borders, so they shipped 30 fresh divisions from Siberia to the defense of Moscow. They also added 1000 tanks and 1000 aircraft.
When the ground hardened due to the arrival of cold weather in November, the Germans renewed their attack. They crossed the Moscow canal in an attempt to encircle the city. German reconnaissance elements got within 15 miles of Moscow where they claimed they could see the spires of the Kremlin in the distance.
Another German advance recon unit captured Khimki and a bridge over the Moscow-Volga Canal, just 5 miles from the city. That would be as close as the Germans would get. The first blizzards then hit. The Germans were ill-prepared for winter, the bad weather grounded the Luftwaffe and the stretched supply lines limited any offensive action the Wehrmacht attempted.
Fresh troops poured into the Soviet sector from the east. Their troop strength had swelled to 500,000 men. They launched a massive counter-attack during the Soviet Winter Counter-Offensive. The combination of the winter weather,, stretched supply lines and the fresh troops which it seemed the Red Army had an endless supply, turned the tide. The Red Army pushed the Germans back 100-250 km back from Moscow. The Battle for Moscow was a Soviet victory.
The hope for a quick victory over the Soviet Union was dashed. The Germans lost 830,000 men since the invasion. They were now locked in a battle of attrition with a foe with a seemingly limitless supply of men and material.
Hitler then committed a complete blunder by declaring war on the United States shortly after Pearl Harbor. Now America’s industrial might would be facing the Germans on the Western Front while the Soviets would push them from the east. It was a battle they could not win, as time would play it out.
For a detailed account of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, I highly recommend the book, “Barbarossa, The Russian-German Conflict, 1941-1945” by Alan Clark
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