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Operation Barbarossa

Operation Barbarossa (Unternehmen Barbarossa) was the German codename for Nazi Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II, which commenced on June 22, 1941. It was to be the turning point for the fortunes of Hitler's Third Reich in that the failure of Operation Barbarossa arguably resulted in the eventual overall defeat of Nazi Germany. The Eastern Front which was opened by Operation Barbarossa would become the biggest theatre of war in World War II, with some of the largest and most brutal battles, terrible loss of life, and miserable conditions for Russians and Germans alike. The operation was named after the emperor Frederick Barbarossa of the Holy Roman Empire.


German preparations

Allegedly, the Germans feared the Red Army was making preparations to attack them, and it was thus presented as a preemptive war. Readers of Hitler's Mein Kampf ("My Struggle") should however not have been surprised to see him invade the Soviet Union. In that book, he makes clear his belief that the German people needed Lebensraum ("living space", i.e. land and raw materials), and that it was to be looked for in the East. It was the stated policy of the Nazis to kill, deport, or enslave the Russian population, whom they considered inferior, and to recolonise the land with German stock.

Before implementing Operation Barbarossa, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were nominally on friendly terms, having signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact shortly before the German and Soviet invasion of Poland. It was ostensibly a non-aggression pact in which the Third Reich and the Soviet Union had agreed how to divide the border states between themselves. The pact surprised the world because of their mutual hostility and their opposed ideologies. But Hitler had long wanted to conquer western Russia in order to exploit its untermensch Slavic population. So the pact was simply for (mutual) short-term convenience, and the Nazis had no qualms about breaking it.

Stalin's own bloodthirsty reputation made the Soviet Union a tempting target for the Nazis. During the late 1930s, Stalin had killed millions of people during the Great Purge, including large numbers of competent and experienced military officers and strategists, effectively leaving the Red Army weakened and leaderless. The Nazis often emphasized the brutality of the Soviet regime when targeting the "inferior" Slavs in their propaganda.

Operation Barbarossa was largely the brainchild of Hitler himself. His general staff advised against fighting a war on two fronts. But Hitler considered himself a political and military genius, and indeed at this point in the war he had achieved a whole series of lightning victories against what appeared to be insurmountable odds, while the generals wanted to prove that they were needed at all. First, his brashness and willingness to take risks, combined with the discipline of his troops and the Blitzkrieg tactics, had won him the Sudetenland and Czechoslovakia with hardly a struggle, then Poland, Denmark and Norway with only slightly more trouble. Then he achieved the rapid collapse of the French armies by slashing through Luxembourg north of the Maginot Line pocketing large numbers of Allied troops, then south to the Swiss border. The northern pocket collapsed and fell back on Dunkirk. The forces of Britain, driven from French soil, held out in the home country because of their naval superiority and parity in air power. Unable to force Britain's capitulation - though vacillating toward an invasion - lacking sufficient naval assets and a strategic bomber force, Hitler, impatient to get on with his long desired invasion of the east, managed to convince himself Britain would sue for peace once Russia was knocked out of the war. This policy proved to be catastrophic for Hitler's Germany: Operation Barbarossa completely failed in December 1941, the same month war was declared against the USA. Within six months the strategic position of Germany had become desperate, for German military industries were unprepared for a long war.

We have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down
— Hitler

Hitler was overconfident due to his rapid success in Western Europe, as well as the Red Army's ineptitude in the Winter War. He expected victory in a few months and did not prepare for a war lasting into the winter; troops lacked adequate clothing. He hoped a quick victory against the Red Army would encourage Britain to accept peace terms.

In preparation for the attack, Hitler moved 3.2 million men to the Soviet border, launched many aerial surveillance missions over Soviet territory, and stockpiled vast amounts of material in the East. Yet the Soviets were still taken by surprise. This has mostly to do with Stalin's unshakeable belief that the Third Reich was unlikely to attack only two years after signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. He also was convinced the Nazis would probably finish their war with Britain before opening a new front. Despite repeated warnings from his intelligence services, Stalin refused to give them full credence, fearing the information to be British misinformation designed to spark a war between the Nazis and the USSR. The German government also aided in this deception. They told Stalin that the troops were being moved to bring them out of range of British bombers. They also explained that they were trying to trick the British into thinking they were planning to attack the Soviet Union, while in fact the troops and supplies were being stockpiled for an invasion of Britain. It has been established that communist spy Dr. Richard Sorge gave Stalin the exact launch date; also Swedish cryptanalysts led by Arne Beurling knew the date beforehand. As a result of all this Stalin's preparations against a possible German invasion in 1941 were halfhearted.

The strategy that would defeat Russia was never discovered. Hitler, OKW and the various branch high commands did not have a unified plan going in. Their strategy never got beyond the organization of three separate army groups assigned to capture specific regions and large cities of the Soviet Union once the invasion began. Army Group North was assigned to march through the Baltics, march into northern Russia, and either take or destroy the city of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg). Army Group Center would take the straight line to Smolensk, and ultimately Moscow, marching through what is now Belarus and through the west-central regions of Russia proper. Army Group South was poised to strike the heavily populated Ukraine region, taking Kiev, continuing eastward toward the steppes of Southern Russia, all the way to the Volga River and Stalingrad. Logistical planning relied heavily on wishful thinking. Then to top it all off, Hitler routinely interferred in operational matters. For all the harm the invasion caused to Russia, Germany failed to deliver a knock out blow. From at least September 1941 Germany was unable to replace 100% of the manpower losses on the Eastern Front. The Wehrmacht would continue to be dangerous right up until they lost Operation Citadel.

Soviet preparations

Coming into the 1940s, the Soviet Union was by no means a weak country. Rapid Soviet industrialization in the 1930s had resulted in industrial output being second only to that of the United States, and equal to that of Nazi Germany. Production of military items grew steadily, and in the pre-war years the economy became progressively oriented toward military production.

In 1941 the Soviet armed forces outnumbered their German counterparts by a great margin. Although the actual figures remain classified even today, estimates are that the Soviet Union had from 4.4 million to nearly 5 million men in arms at the inception of Operation Barbarossa. It could field about 24,000 tanks against the German 3,350. However, the Soviet numerical advantage was more than offset by the superior average quality of German planes (and even tanks) along with the much superior training of German forces. The Soviet officer corps and high command had also been decimated by Stalin's Great Purge (1935–1938), during which almost all experienced Red Army officers and generals were executed or shipped to Siberia, replaced with officers deemed more "politically reliable."

As a result, although on paper the Red Army in 1941 seemed at least the equal of the German army, the reality in the field was far different; incompetent officers, as well as partial lack of equipment, poor quality of equipment, insufficient motorised logistical support, and poor training placed the Red Army at a severe disadvantage when facing the Germans.

One area of exception to this rule was the T-34 tank, which was coming into service with the Red Army in 1941. The T-34 was a revolutionary tank design, setting new standards for maneuverability, firepower, and armor protection. It came as a rude surprise to the German army in 1941, and the T-34 remained arguably superior to any German tank all the way until 1943. However, few T-34s were at the front in 1941, the crews of those that did exist had received little training, and early versions of T-34s had regular engine and drivetrain breakdowns. Therefore the T-34 was not a significant factor in the opening months of Operation Barbarossa.

Soviet propaganda in pre-war years, of course, invariably stated that the Red Army was very strong and could easily defeat any aggressor.

Having fielded officers who were certain to tell Stalin only what he wanted to hear, together with having an ill-founded confidence in the non-aggression pact, Stalin was led to believe that the position of the Soviet Union in early 1941 was much stronger than it actually was. In the spring of 1941, Stalin's own intelligence services made regular and repeated warnings of an impending German attack. Stalin's belief in his officers and military strength was so strong that he and his general staff, although acknowledging the possibility of an attack in general and making significant preparations, decided not to run the risk of provoking Hitler. Consequently, the Soviet border troops were not put on alert (and even forbidden to fire back without permission when attacked), and they were simply not ready when the German attack came.

Still, further back enormous Soviet forces were massed at the western border in case the Germans would attack nevertheless. These were very vulnerable however due to changes in the Red Army's tactical doctrine. In 1938 it had adopted, on the instigation of general Pavlov, a standard linear defence tactic on a line with other nations. Infantry divisions, inforced by an organic tank component, would dug in to form heavily fortified zones. Then came the shock of the Fall of France. The French army, considered the second strongest in the world (after the Red Army), was defeated in a mere six weeks. Soviet analysis of events, based on incomplete information, concluded that the collapse of the French was caused by a reliance on linear defence and a lack of armoured reserves. The Soviets decided not to repeat these mistakes. Instead of digging in for linear defence, the infantry divisions would henceforth be concentrated in large mobile formations. All tanks would also be concentrated, in 31 gigantic Mechanised Corps, each larger than a German Panzer Army . Should the Germans attack, their armoured spearheads would be cut off and wiped out by the Mechanised Corps. These would then cooperate with the infantry armies to drive back the German infantry, vulnerable in its approach march. The Soviet left wing, in the Ukraine, was to be enormously reinforced to be able to execute a strategic envelopment: after destroying German Army Group South it would swing north through Poland in the back of Army Groups Centre and North. Then the complete annihilation of the encircled German army would be inevitable, followed by the triumphant liberation of Europe.

The attack of June 22

On June 22, 1941, the Axis Forces attacked. The operation encompassed a total troop strength of about four million men, making it the biggest single land operation ever. The surprise was complete, stemming less from the timing of the attack than from the sheer number of Axis troops who struck into Soviet territory all at once. Aside from the three million Germans, the attacking force also included 250,000 Italian, 300,000 Romanian and several hundred thousand troops from other allied Axis nations. Arrayed against them were 4.5 million Red Army troops, including 2.3 million in the western border regions at the time of the invasion.

While being initially successful the Germans ultimately ran out of time — by the time they reached outskirts of Moscow in early December, the Russian winter set in. It is often proposed that the fatal design flaw of the operation was the postponement from the original date of May 15 because Hitler wanted to intervene against an anti-German overthrow in Yugoslavia and British advances against Mussolini's Italy in Greece. This cut five weeks off the already short Russian summer. However, this was just one of the reasons for the postponement — the other was the late spring of 1941 in Russia, compounded by particularly rainy weather during June 1941 which made a number of roads in western parts of the Soviet Union impassable to heavy vehicles. During the campaign, Hitler ordered the main thrust that had been heading toward Moscow to be diverted southward in order to help the southern army group capture Ukraine. This move delayed the assault on the Soviet capital, although it also helped to secure Army Group Center's southern flank. By the time they turned their sights on Moscow, the fierce resistance of the Red Army, assisted by the mud following the autumn rains and eventually the winter snowfall, ground their advance to a halt. Thus they were prevented from much further gain.

In addition, resistance by the Soviets, who proclaimed a Great Patriotic War in defence of the motherland, was much fiercer than German command had expected it to be. The border fortress of Brest, Belarus illustrates that unexpected tenacity: attacked on the very first day of the German invasion, the fortress was planned to be captured by surprise within hours. Instead, German forces and the Soviet garrison kept fighting bitterly inside the besieged fortress for an entire month. Meanwhile, on the main front, ever more Soviet conscripts were thrown into suicidal assaults against German positions. Thus, bloody fighting at Smolensk, located on the road to Moscow, delayed the German offensive for several weeks. German logistics also became a major problem, as supply lines became very long and vulnerable to Soviet partisan attacks in the rear. The Soviets carried out a scorched earth policy on any land they were forced to abandon, in order to deny the Germans the use of food, fuel, and buildings on occupied land.

The Germans continued to advance despite these setbacks, however, often destroying or surrounding whole armies of Soviet troops and forcing them into surrender. The battle for Kiev was especially brutal. In mid October, Army Group South seized control of Kiev, and took more than 650,000 Soviet prisoners. Kiev was later awarded the title Hero City for its heroic defence.

Army Group North, which was to conquer the Baltic region and eventually Leningrad, advanced as far as to the southern outskirts of Leningrad by August 1941. There fierce Soviet resistance stopped it. Since capturing the city seemed too costly, German command decided to starve the city to death by a blockade, starting the Siege of Leningrad. The city held out, however, despite several attempts by the Germans to break through its defenses, unrelenting air and artillery attacks, and severe shortage of food and fuel, until the Germans were driven back again from the city's approaches in early 1944. Leningrad was the first Soviet city to receive the title Hero City.

Pre-emptive Soviet attack on Finland

After the attempted Soviet invasion of Finland, that was fended off in the Winter War November 30 1939March 12 1940, the ensuing German invasion of Denmark and Norway, and then the Soviet annexation of Balticum, Finland and Sweden were enclosed by German-held territory in the south, west and north, and Soviet territory in the east. Soviet policies vis-à-vis Finland during the months following the Moscow Peace enhanced a Finnish perception of being seriously threatened by a continued Soviet invasion as soon as the international situation allowed. The Kremlin had also expressed an empathic veto against a defensive union between Sweden and Finland. Hence the Finns saw no alternative but to improve the relations with Nazi Germany: first of all trying to obtain munition that the Third Reich had withheld on transfer to Finland, and later to buy badly needed munitions directly from Nazi Germany. In return, the Germans requested rights to transit troops between Norway and Germany over Finnish territory, which the Finns greeted as a balance to the transitation rights that Soviet Union had pressured after the Moscow Peace, but also as a sign of hope that Nazi Germany would not once again sell out Finland to the Soviet Union. There was also a domestic opinion arguing that the previous policy geared at the League of Nations and the ideologically akin democracies had been put on test in the Winter War — and failed. That opinion gained in popularity, that argued for Finland's choice no longer being between association with democratic peers and submission under dictatorial empires, but at least temporarily had to be the lesser evil of the Russian and German dictatorships. A German hegemony appeared much less of a threat against the national survival of Finland than a Soviet occupation.

At the time of Operation Barbarossa, Finland's defence forces were mobilized and reinforced by five German divisions stationed in the north, allowing Finland to deploy 13 of her 16 divisions along the new border in the south, where a Soviet attack was deemed most likely and also most dangerous, well balancing the seven Red Army divisions stationed in the newly won parts of Finnish Karelia. Despite a Finnish declaration of neutrality, Finnish naval forces had participated in mining of the Gulf of Finland. The Luftwaffe was also granted permission to land in Finland when returning from missions against Soviet targets.

On June 25, Soviet air forces bombed half-a-dozen towns in Finland, thus commencing the Soviet-Finnish Continuation War (June 25, 1941September 5, 1944). This attack is often given as an example of a preemptive attack: If a military conflict with Finland was deemed unavoidable, it might have been advantageous for the Soviet Union to gain initiative at that front.

On June 28 joint Finno-German forces advanced over Finland's northernmost border in direction of Murmansk. The mission was however badly prepared, and stalled half-ways. From southern Finland, a purely Finnish offensive on July 10 was more successful, and resulted ultimately in almost three years of occupation of East Karelia.

Causes of initial Soviet defeats

The reason that the Soviet Army was so badly defeated in 1941 was a German surprise attack for which they were ill prepared. Even worse, a significant part of the Soviet Army was concentrated at the Western Soviet border, and so was overrun and destroyed in the first weeks of war. Initially, many Soviet units were also hampered by Timoshenko-Zhukov's prewar order of non-engaging and "non-responding to provocations", followed by a stand-and-fight order from Moscow (which left them vulnerable to German encirclements), a lack of experienced officers (this claim is contested, though), and bureaucratic inertia.

The initial tactical errors of the Soviets in the first few weeks of the German offensive proved catastrophic. Initially the Red Army was fooled by a complete overestimation of its own capabilties. The Mechanised Corps, far from wiping out the German Panzer Divisions, were ambushed and destroyed themselves. Soviet tanks suffered from an appalling breakdown rate. A lack of trucks ensured a logistical collapse. The decision not to dig in the infantry divisions proved disastrous. Without tanks and lacking sufficient motorisation, they were incapable of waging mobile manoeuvre warfare against the Germans.

Then Stalin issued orders to his troops not to retreat or surrender, resulting in a return to static linear positions which the German tanks still easily breached, again quickly cutting supply lines and surrounding whole Soviet armies. Only later did Stalin allow his troops to retreat to the rear wherever possible and regroup to execute a defence in depth. More than 2.4 million Soviet troops had been taken prisoner by December 1941, when German and Russian forces fought in the suburbs of Moscow.

Still the fact that the Soviet Union was able to defeat Germany, even after losing a large part of its population, industrial potential and agricultural lands, proves that the Soviet Union was not weak and Soviet commanders were sufficiently competent.

However, all this caused a shift in Soviet propaganda attitudes. Whereas in prewar years it stated that the Soviet army was very strong, already in the fall of 1941 it began to tell people that the Soviet army had been weak, that there had not been enough time to prepare for war, that the German attack had come as a surprise, etc. All this continues to be preached in Russian schools today (with the extra embellishment that Stalin's purges of 1930s have destroyed the best officers). At the same time, almost everything concerning the Soviet army in 19391941 remains secret even today, many years after the war's end.

A possible alternative explanation is given by Viktor Suvorov in the book Icebreaker.


The climax of Operation Barbarossa came when Army Group Centre, already short in supplies because of the mud in October, was ordered to advance to Moscow; forward units came within sight of the spires of the Kremlin in early December 1941. It was as close as they would ever get, for Stalin's troops, well supplied, defended Moscow ferociously in the Battle of Moscow, and drove the Germans back into the frozen wastes of Russia as the winter advanced. Not surprisingly, the bulk of the counter-offensive was directed at Army Group Center, which was closest to Moscow. Moscow later also received the honorary distinction of Hero City.

With no shelter, few supplies, little winter clothing, chronic food shortages, and nowhere to go, German troops had no choice but to wait out the winter in the frozen wasteland. The Germans managed to avoid being routed by Russian counterattacks but suffered heavy casualties from battle and from exposure — Operation Barbarossa had failed.

The war on the Eastern Front went on for four bloody years. The death toll, according to more than a dozen credible Western and Eastern sources, included about four million Axis and nine million Red Army battle deaths (including POW's murdered on both sides), and 20 million Soviet civilians who perished as a result of extermination campaigns against Jews, communists and partizans, casual massacres, reprisal killings, diseases, and (sometimes planned) starvation. Stalin deported Soviet soldiers who had surrendered, German POW's and entire nations suspected of collaboration to the labour camps. The horrible losses in the Eastern Front were perhaps a major cause of the Cold War, as the war-ravaged Soviet Union kept tight control over much of Central and Eastern Europe, partly to discourage new potential invasions from the West.

Causes of the failure of Operation Barbarossa

The main cause of German failure was faulty logistical planning. The objectives of Operation Barbarossa were quite unrealistic from the very beginning. The start of the war was the most favorable for Germans, as they took the Russians by surprise and destroyed a large part of the Soviet army in the first weeks. When these favorable conditions gave way to harsh conditions of the fall and winter they failed. Viktor Suvorov in his book "Suicide" has argued that, even if the Germans had met no resistance at all, their troops still could not have moved fast enough to meet the objectives of Operation Barbarossa on time.

This was well understood by the German supply units even before the operation, but their warnings were disregarded. The entire German planning was based on the premise that within five weeks the German troops would have attained full strategic freedom due to a complete collapse of the Red Army. Only then would it have been possible to diverge all logistic support to the fuel requirements of the few mobile units needed to occupy the defeated state. However, they had underestimated the primary mobilisation size of the Red Army by half. Early August new armies had taken the place of the destroyed ones. This fact alone implied the failure of Operation Barbarossa, for the Germans now had to limit their operations for a month to bring up new supplies, leaving only six weeks to complete the battle before the start of the mud season, an impossible task.

And even if the Germans had fulfilled the original plan, i.e. reached the Arkhangelsk-Volga line, it probably would not have ended the war. The Soviet Union still had vast reserves and industrial bases in Ural and Siberia, so the war could have continued for a long time.

There were also many minor causes, such as the cold and mud, but they all stem from the Germans' unrealistic assumption that they could finish the war during the summer.

German troops were mostly unprepared for the brutal Russian cold. Germans were not equipped with adequate cold-weather gear, and some soldiers had to pack newspapers into their jackets to stay warm. To operate furnaces and heaters, the Germans also burned precious fuel that was difficult to re-supply.

German infantry and tanks stormed 300 miles ahead in the first week, but their supply lines struggled to keep up. Russian railroads could at first not be used due to a difference in railway gauge. The result was a game of catch-up: a surge across the abyss, and then a wait for supplies. The long convoys of slow-moving vehicles were also favorite targets of Soviet guerrillas. Low on oil, Hitler diverted his troops south from their drive to Moscow and into Ukraine, where they seized economic capitals, like Kiev, Donetsk, and numerous oil fields. There, the troops waited for supplies to catch up, bringing winter ever closer.

That autumn, the terrain slowed the Wehrmacht’s progress and eventually brought them to a stop. The ground in Russia was either a very loose sand in the summer, a sticky muck in the fall, or an impassable snow during the winter. In the autumn, when the Wehrmacht resumed their march on Moscow, their tanks, infantry transports, supply trucks, and other wheeled vehicles were paralyzed in the thick mud. The German tanks, which were not designed for cold climates, had narrow treads that gave little traction in the mud.

Weapons also were in terrible shape. To load shells into a tank’s main gun, frozen grease had to be chipped off with a knife. Automatic guns only fired one shot at a time. Only grenades worked properly, and when soldiers could actually pull out the pins, they were a favorite method for suicide.

Supply lines struggled through the harsh Russian terrain — paths were few, railroads could not be easily used because the gauge was different than that in Western Europe. Although the army powered ahead at first, supply lines stuggled to keep up and were lightly guarded. Trucks, especially those that broke down, were easy targets for guerilla forces. Lack of supplies significantly slowed down the Blitzkrieg, and the invasion often halted to wait for trucks. The gasoline needed just to make it through the muck was almost as much as the trucks could carry, making the troops’ gasoline shortage even worse.

Nevertheless, the cold and mud was only part of the story. After initial disasters, the Soviets started to organize fierce resistance. The Battle of Smolensk (1941) halted the blitzkrieg for nearly two months, from July to September, just enough time to give a chance for the mud-and-cold factor to come into play.

Parallels have been drawn with Napoleon's invasion of Russia.

See also

Further reading

  • Erickson, John. The Road to Stalingrad. 2003, first 1975.
  • Hoffmann, Joachim. Stalin's War of Extermination, 1995 (german: "Stalins Vernichtungskrieg"; revisionist german author who favours the arguable opinion that Hitler anticipated a Soviet attack - commonly used by the Nazis to justify "Operation Barbarossa")

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Last updated: 08-27-2005 22:44:12
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