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 Adolf 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 theater 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 (1122–1190).
Mein Kampf (My Struggle) was a book written by Adolf Hitler, which spelled out his political ideology, National Socialism. Readers of Hitler's screed should not have been surprised to see him invade the Soviet Union. In that book, he made clear his belief that the German people needed lebensraum (living space), an idea that was used to justify the expansionist policies of Nazi Germany, 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 to be inferior, and to colonize the land with German stock.
The Hitler-Stalin Pact, or Nazi-Soviet pact, was a non-aggression treaty between the Soviet Union and the Third Reich. It was signed in Moscow on August 23, 1939, by the Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov and the German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop.
A few days later, Hitler attacked Poland on September 1, 1939. Britain stepped in to honor its allegiance to Poland and gave Hitler an ultimatum: If he did not withdraw in the next two days, Britain would declare war on Germany. World War II had begun.
The Nazi-Soviet pact lasted until Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941, when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. 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. Indeed, at that point in the war, he had achieved a series of lightning victories against what appeared to be insurmountable odds.
Hitler was overconfident because of his rapid success in Western Europe, as well as the Red Army's ineptitude in the Winter War against Finland (1939-1940). He expected victory in a few months and did not prepare for a war lasting into the winter; soldiers 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 2.5 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 completely by surprise. That had mostly to do with Stalin's unshakeable belief that the Third Reich would not attack only two years after signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. He also was sure the Germans would finish their war with Britain before opening a new front.
Despite repeated warnings from his intelligence services, Stalin refused to give them credence, believing the information to be British misinformation designed to spark a war between the Nazis and the U.S.S.R. 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.
The ultimate strategy Hitler and his assistants in the German high command decided upon, involved 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, into northern Russia, and either capture or destroy the city of Leningrad.
Army Group Center would take a straight line to 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.
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 second only to that of the United States, and equal to that of Nazi Germany. Production of military items grew steadily, and in the prewar 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 five million men in arms at the inception of Operation Barbarossa. However, the Soviet numerical advantage was more than offset by the superior quality of German tanks and planes, along with the superb training of German forces. The Soviet officer corps and high command also had been gutted by Stalin's Great Purge (1935–1938), during which nearly all experienced Red Army officers and generals were executed or shipped to Siberia, then replaced with officers deemed more "politically reliable."
As a result, although the Red Army in 1941 seemed on paper at least the equal of the German army, the reality in the field was far different; incompetent officers, as well as lack of equipment, poor quality of equipment, and poor training placed the Red Army at a severe disadvantage when facing the Germans.
One exception 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 clear up to 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 frequent engine and drive train breakdowns. Therefore, the T-34 was not a significant factor in the opening months of Operation Barbarossa.
Soviet propaganda in prewar years invariably averred that the Red Army was strong and could easily defeat any aggressor. Having fielded officers that 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 gave 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 refused to consider the possibility that the warnings were true. Consequently, no significant preparations were made by the Soviet armed forces, and they were simply not ready when the German attack came.
The attack of June 22
On June 22, 1941, the Axis Forces attacked. The operation encompassed 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 such other allied Axis nations as Bulgaria. 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 they were initially successful, the Germans ultimately ran out of time — by the time they reached the outskirts of Moscow in early December, the Russian winter had 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. That cut five weeks off the already short Russian summer. However, it 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. That 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 defense of the motherland, was much fiercer than that German command had expected it to be. The border fortress of Brest, Belarus, illustrates that unexpected tenacity: Approached on the very first day of the German invasion, the fortress was to be captured by surprise within hours. Instead, German forces, and the Soviet garrison inside the besieged fortress, fought bitterly 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 extremely 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 those setbacks, however, often destroying or surrounding entire Soviet armies and forcing them into surrender. The battle for Kiev was especially brutal. In mid-October, Army Group South seized control of the city and took more than 650,000 Soviet prisoners. Kiev was later awarded the title Hero City for its valorous defense.
Army Group North, which was to conquer the Baltic region and eventually Leningrad, advanced as far as the southern outskirts of Leningrad by August 1941. There, fierce Soviet resistance stopped it. Since capturing the city seemed too costly, the German command decided to starve the city by a blockade, beginning 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.
The reason that the Soviet Army was so badly defeated in 1941 was simple: They did not expect the German attack and were not prepared for it. Even worse, the largest part of the Soviet Army was concentrated at the German–Soviet border, and so was overrun and destroyed in the first hours of war. Initially, numerous Soviet units also were hampered by a stand-and-fight order from Moscow, which left them vulnerable to German encirclements, a lack of experienced officers, and bureaucratic inertia.
The decisive climax of Operation Barbarossa came when Army Group Center advanced within sight of the spires of the Kremlin in late 1941. It was as close as they would ever get, for Stalin's troops defended Moscow ferociously in the Battle of Moscow, and drove the Germans back into the frozen wastes of Russia as winter advanced. Not surprisingly, the bulk of the counteroffensive was directed at Army Group Center, which was closest to Moscow. Moscow later also received the honorary distinction of Hero City.
The main cause of German failure was faulty planning. The objectives of Operation Barbarossa were quite unrealistic from the beginning. The start of the war was the most favorable for Germans as they took Russians by surprise and destroyed a large part of the Soviet army in the first weeks. And even in those favorable conditions they failed. Victor Suvorov in his book Suicide
has argued that, even if the Germans had met no resistance at all, still their troops could not move fast enough to meet the objectives of Operation Barbarossa on time.
The broken German forces were eventually driven by Soviet armies all the way to Berlin.