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About the German Invasion of the Soviet Union

Gerd R. Ueberschär

Barbarossa, German codename for the invasion of the USSR which took place on 22 June 1941 (see Map 14). Launched by Hitler in violation of the existing non-aggression treaty with Stalin, it was designed to provide the Reich with 'living space in the East'. The German dictator had advocated the conquest of the USSR as early as 1924 in his book, Mein Kampf. At the same time, the campaign was to lay the foundations for the expected conflict with the two Anglo-Saxon powers for primacy as a world power and to free Germany of the economic warfare the Allies were waging against it.

The first operational studies for the invasion of the USSR were started as early as the summer of 1940 and corresponding map exercises took place that autumn. Finally, Hitler was briefed on the results of both on 5 December 1940, and even at this early stage the first serious differences became apparent. It was a question of deciding whether the main thrust was to be directed against Moscow or the two flanks in the north and south of the field of operations. Hitler wanted the forces to wheel north and south from the centre after piercing the enemy line; the Army High Command (OKH) favoured Moscow as the point of main effort.

As a basis for operations, Directive No. 21, Operation BARBAROSSA, and the Army High Command Deployment Directive were issued on 18 December 1940 and 31 January 1941 respectively. Their objective was 'to crush Soviet Russia in a swift campaign' which involved rapid offensive operations to destroy Soviet troops located in the west of the USSR. The OKH assumed that it would be able to defeat the Red Army west of the Dvina-Dnieper rivers. Subsequently, both the Donets basin, important to the war economy, in the south and Moscow were to be seized. However, the question of how the war was to be terminated after reaching the 'line Volga (Astrakhan)—Archangel' if the Wehrmacht did not succeed in destroying the Red Army west of the Dvina and Dnieper remained unanswered.

After Hitler had ordered the invasion of the Soviet Union on 20 June 1941 by issuing the codeword DORTMUND, the German formations launched a surprise attack on a wide front between 0300 and 0330 hours on 22 June 1941. With almost 3.6 million German and other Axis soldiers, around 3,600 tanks and over 2,700 aircraft, the largest force in European military history, crossed the border with the USSR between the Baltic and the Black seas. Under the overall command of Field-Marshal von Brauchitsch, it was organized into three army groups—North, Centre and South (commanded by Field Marshals von Leeb, von Bock, and von Rundstedt)—and three tactical air forces (commanded by General Alfred Keller, Field Marshal Kesselring and General Lohr).

The assault by the 153 divisions succeeded. It had been delayed at least twice and opinions differ among scholars as to whether the postponements were caused by the German intervention in Greece or for other reasons—a late thaw was probably a prime cause—but Brauchitsch's troops were able to pierce the Soviet frontier positions and conduct their operations according to plan. The Luftwaffe achieved air supremacy over the theatre of operations within the first few days. The Red Army formations in the western military districts, comprising about 140 divisions and 40 brigades totalling about 2.9 million men, 10-15,000 tanks, some of which were obsolescent, and 8,000 aircraft, suffered heavy defeats. The Soviet High Command was surprised by the force of the German assault. Despite numerous warnings by his agents, Stalin had not reckoned with such an attack by Hitler at this time, expecting instead a new political reconciliation of interests with Berlin.

The German invasion marked the beginning of a rapacious war of annihilation and conquest in which a scorched earth policy was employed by both sides. Hitler intended a 'ruthless Germanization' of the occupied eastern territories, conducted with great severity. Orders violating international law, such as the Kommissarbefehl, the order to execute all Red Army political commissars, and the 'Barbarossa jurisdiction Decree', which exempted German soldiers from prosecution if they committed a crime against any Soviet civilian, meant a departure from traditional military conduct for the Wehrmacht. At the same time, Einsatzgruppen were to carry out the murder of Jewish and Slav elements of the population.

When Stalin had regained his composure after this embarrassing surprise, he called upon his people to mount a 'relentless struggle' against the German intruders. On 3 July he proclaimed the 'patriotic war' against the Germans, calling for scorched earth actions and partisan warfare behind German lines.

As a result of the military successes of the first few weeks, Hitler and OKH expected a swift campaign with the victory parade taking place in Moscow as early as the end of August. OKH was already occupied with new, large-scale operations against the industrial region in the Urals. Hitler ordered that Moscow and Leningrad were to be razed to the ground; their inhabitants were to be annihilated or driven out by starvation. These intentions were part of the 'General Plan East'. Drafts for a future settlement and regional planning in the East were hastily drawn up. They envisaged gigantic resettlement schemes involving more than 30 million inhabitants who were to be exchanged for 'German and Germanic' peoples.

At a conference on 16 July, Hitler was already distributing the spoils. He said it was obvious that the Third Reich would never again leave the conquered regions of the USSR. He stated that the main objectives of German occupation policy were: 'firstly to rule, secondly to administer, and thirdly to exploit'. In order to implement this policy against all opposition by the inhabitants, 'a simple solution' was recommended: the best way to pacify the conquered territories was 'to shoot dead anyone looking askance'. In addition, Hitler intended to have the Jews in the conquered eastern territories and throughout Europe systematically annihilated. Accordingly, on 31 July, Goring gave the instruction to make 'all preparations necessary' for a 'total solution to the Jewish question in the German sphere of influence in Europe'.

Despite the initial large-scale battles of encirclement at Bialystok-Minsk and Smolensk, it became apparent that the Germans were mistaken in their low opinion of the Soviet military potential. The Red Army's will to defend and readiness to perform remained unbroken. With increasing frequency, the Wehrmacht had to ward off vigorous counter-attacks. In August, Goebbels and Hitler admitted that they had 'obviously underestimated completely Soviet striking power and, above all, the equipment of the Soviet Union'. They were forced to realize that Moscow had succeeded in creating a new industrial base in the far east of the country, which enabled the Soviet leadership to make good very quickly the heavy materiel losses in the battles of encirclement. Despite severe losses of personnel, materiel, and terrain, the Red Army defended stubbornly and with growing skill. In this way, it was able to prevent the rapid conquest of Leningrad, Moscow, and the industrial region in the Donets basin as planned by the Germans. German logistics in the hinterland were also hampered by partisan actions following Stalin's appeal. Another reason for difficulties in the bringing-up of supplies was that the Germans had failed to provide sufficient materiel and transportation for lengthy, force-consuming operations.

After the victory at Smolensk, Hitler reverted to his old concept of concentrating the main effort on the wings. He ordered his forces to wheel south and north in order to capture rapidly the regions in the Ukraine and around Leningrad containing raw materials and industries vital to the war effort; Army Group Centre was to go on to the defensive for the time being. As a result, the Soviet forces before Moscow gained time for fierce counter-thrusts and for the development of new defensive positions. On the other hand, the completion of the encirclement of Kiev on the southern sector of the front at the end of September was an overwhelming success for the Wehrmacht. Hitler was convinced that the military strength of the USSR was now exhausted. For this reason, the advance to Moscow was to take place after all, in order to capture the city, before the onset of winter. However, the Germans had great difficulty in bringing up the most urgently required replacements for this new attack (TYPHOON). With no more strategic reserves, the offensive strength of the German divisions was bound to diminish thenceforth.

Late in September, the attack on Moscow was launched by Army Group Centre with six armies or panzer groups, supported by one tactical air force with three air and antiaircraft artillery corps. In an address on 2 October, Hitler called this operation 'the last large-scale decisive battle of this year'; he said it would 'shatter the USSR'. He placed particular stress on the idea of a European 'crusade against Bolshevism'; all the nations of Europe, he went on, saw this struggle as a combined action to 'save the most valuable continent of civilization'.

At first it looked as though Hitler's predictions were to come true. In the course of the massive twin battles of Briansk-Vyazma, Army Group Centre was able to encircle and capture almost eight Soviet armies. Hitler was already busy working out the details of the planned destruction of the Soviet capital. However, the Soviet forces quickly managed to construct new defensive positions and bring up fresh forces. In addition, the onset of muddy weather hampered the mobility of the German troops and favoured the defenders. In the period that followed, both sides suffered from the difficult autumn weather conditions. However, for the German side, the effects of the weather on the supply situation, which was already strained, were devastating.

Nevertheless, in mid-October the Army High Command decided that the attack on Moscow was to be continued towards Vologda in the north and Voronezh in the south. However, after initial penetrations, the Red Army's resistance stiffened noticeably, with the result that the advance by the German formations came to a standstill. By bringing up new formations from Siberia and the Far East (where by now it was apparent that Japan was going to attack southwards and not into the USSR) and by activating militia divisions and battalions of labourers recruited from the population of Moscow, the Moscow leadership was able to reinforce the defensive front. Just how seriously the Soviet leaders took the threat to Moscow is shown by the relocation of most government, party, and military authorities to Kuibyshev, 800 km. (500 mi.) away on the Volga, from mid-October onwards. In addition, about a million inhabitants of Moscow were evacuated, the Kremlin was prepared for demolition and Lenin's coffin was removed from its mausoleum and taken to a safe place; but Stalin remained in Moscow. When German panzer formations conquered Mozhaisk on 18 October, thereby penetrating the Moscow defensive position, Stalin declared the capital a fortress. Moreover, the Kremlin dictator exhorted the units marching to the front straight from the traditional military parade commemorating the 24th anniversary of the October Revolution to withstand the impending threat with all their might.

In the course of the fierce fighting, there was an intensification of the ruthless conduct of war on both sides. Special inflammatory orders and orders of the day issued by German commanders revealed their willingness to play a part in Hitler's war of annihilation, based on racial ideology, against the USSR. This also applies to the assistance they gave to the campaigns of terror and murder conducted by SS units against the civilian population in the conquered territories. However, not all German officers accepted or morally supported this involvement in the executions of Jews as easily as was expressed, for instance, in the army orders issued by Generals von Reichenau, Hoth, and von Manstein. They called upon their soldiers to make 'the merciless extermination of alien insidiousness and brutality' the goal of their struggle.

At a conference chaired by the Chief of the General Staff, Halder, on 13 November 1941 at Orsha near Smolensk, the differences of opinion of the German staffs concerning the continuation of the operations became apparent. Given the exhausted condition of their units, the field commanders were opposed to further attacks. On the other hand, Hitler and OKH decided to resume the offensive and, by making a supreme effort, risk an attempt to conquer Moscow. This 'final effort of willpower' was regarded as decisive in the effort to vanquish the already teetering Red Army. The Germans staked their all on one throw.

Once again, they were able to drive the Red Army back. The German panzer formations came to within 30 km. (18 mi.) of the city. By the end of the month, however, German offensive strength was exhausted, and the attack came to a standstill. The Quartermaster General, Edward Wagner, stated: 'we are at the end of our personnel and materiel strength.'

Early in December, the German panzer armies finally had to discontinue their attack. They hoped that this would be followed by a lengthy breathing-space until the next spring, for the German Army was not adequately equipped to fight a winter war. On 5/6 December 1941, however, the Red Army launched a surprise counteroffensive which broke through the weak German lines, with the result that large gaps appeared in the front and it seemed that several German formations might become encircled. As the Germans were not able to withdraw reserves from any other theatre of war, the Eastern Front threatened to collapse. Only a few days later, on 15 December, the Soviet authorities were able to return from Kuibyshev to Moscow.

Although the German front commanders several times demanded the withdrawal of the troops, Hitler refused and ordered instead that not an inch of ground was to be surrendered. Over the next few days, several Cs-in-C and generals were replaced or dismissed by him or asked to be relieved of their command. On 19 December 1941, Hitler assumed the additional function of C-in-C of the army from Brauchitsch, making an example of those who were to blame for the defeat. But while Hitler was forced to realize that his military concept had failed, the looming disaster before Moscow was overshadowed by the surprise Japanese attack on the US fleet at Pearl Harbor on 7 December. In keeping with earlier assurances, Hitler entered the war against the USA on Japan's side.

By the end of December, the Red Army had finally eliminated the threat posed to Moscow by the German divisions. The Wehrmacht had been repelled up to 280 km. (175 mi.) from Moscow and had suffered heavy casualties. BARBAROSSA had failed. At the same time, the myth of invincibility of the Wehrmacht, which had grown accustomed to victory, was shattered. By 31 January 1942, it had lost almost 918,000 men, wounded, captured, missing, and dead—28.7% of the 3.2 million soldiers involved. The Wehrmacht never recovered from these heavy personnel and materiel losses. The Red Army, too, suffered heavy casualties. By the end of 1941, 3.35 million Soviet soldiers had been taken prisoner by the Germans, but the USSR had not collapsed militarily. The Red Army's victory before Moscow also considerably enhanced the politico-military importance of the USSR. The successful warding off of the German attack—before Lend-Lease had started on a large scale—strengthened the morale of the Red Army and the Soviet population. It also enhanced the international reputation of the USSR, which on 1 January 1942 was a major co-signatory of the United Nations Declaration.

For Hitler's political objectives, the defeat before Moscow was a serious setback, an indisputable failure of the blitzkrieg concept. Hitler's plans and aims for Lebensraum and its rapacious exploitation had also failed totally. Subsequently, Berlin had to fight the war against the Soviet Union at the same time as it was fighting the UK and the new enemy, the USA. It was now a question of how long the Third Reich and its Axis partners would be able to withstand the superior resources of the Allied powers.

Bartov, O., The Eastern Front, 1941-1945: German Troops and the barbarisation of war (London, 1985).

Boog, H., et al., Germany and the Second World War, VoI. 4: The Attack on the Soviet Union (Oxford, 1994).

Clark, A., Barbarossa. The Russian-German Conflict 1941-45 (New York, 1965).

Erickson, J., The Road to Stalingrad (London, 1975).

from The Oxford Companion to World War II. Copyright © I.C.B. Dear and Oxford UP, 1995.

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