Eighty years ago, on 22nd June 1941, Germany launched a massive attack against the Soviet Union, code named Operation Barbarossa. Hitler believed that this attack would play a key part in the eventual outcome of the war. He was right, but not in the way he thought…
In Mein Kampf, published in 1925, Hitler said that if Germany was to be secure for future generations she needed Lebensraum (living space), and that he intended to provide this by invading the Soviet Union. Racial policies developed by Nazi Germany described the population of the Soviet Union (along with the rest of Eastern Europe) as non-Aryan untermenschen (sub-humans) ruled by Jewish Bolsheviks, it was therefore Hitler’s plan to kill, enslave, or deport the Slavic and Russian populations and replace them with Germanic peoples. Despite this plan for the east, Hitler wanted the early aggressive focus of his war to be on western Europe and so, in August 1939, he signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union in which the countries agreed that they would not take military action against each other for ten years and, secretly, also agreed to divide eastern Europe between themselves including the partition of Poland. Stalin was willing to sign the Pact because he had conducted a number of purges in the army in the late 1930’s in which three-quarters of his senior officers had been shot or imprisoned leading to a drop in efficiency and morale in what had been the largest and one of the most technologically advanced armies in the world. The Pact would give him time to reorganise. The world was stunned to hear of the agreement between the Soviet Union and Germany. How could two such diametrically opposed countries reach such an agreement? And what did it mean for the rest of the world? The answer to that was swift in coming when Germany invaded Poland on 1st September 1939.
After Hitler’s swift victory in Poland the USSR annexed the eastern part of the country and, reassured by this, Stalin entered into a trade deal with Hitler in which the Soviets would provide raw materials (oil, wheat etc.) to Germany in return for military equipment and trade goods. Stalin was convinced that his military strength was far superior to Germany’s and so felt secure in the Pact, particularly as Hitler appeared to have his attention firmly focussed on the west.
By the middle of 1940, with tensions between Germany and the USSR rising in the Balkans, Hitler decided that once his victories in the west were complete, he would turn east to defeat bolshevism. He couldn’t invade Russian with pro-British Yugoslavia and Greece presenting a threat to his south so, on April 6th 1941, Germany invaded the Balkans. Victory was swift with Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia, falling on 12th April, and Athens also captured in less than three weeks. With his southern flank now safe the way was clear for Hitler to initiate Operation Barbarossa – his attack on Russia. Hitler believed that pushing into Russia along a line from Archangel in the north to Astrakhan in the south would create a buffer to protect Germany from Soviet bombers whilst also providing forced labour as there was a shortage of workers in agriculture and industry in Germany. Hitler believed that victory against the USSR would be swift and that Britain would then seek peace; if Churchill did not, then Hitler would be able to call on the vast resources of the Soviet Union to defeat the British Empire.
Hitler did not like the first plan drawn up for the push eastward so a new plan, named Operation Barbarossa, was put together. Many high-ranking Germans thought that an invasion of the USSR would create an economic burden on the Reich rather than being a benefit, but Hitler would not listen and the attack was launched on 22nd June 1941. At that time Russia had military strength in the region of 5.5 million men with a reserve force of 14 million in the process of being mobilized. This was a vast number, but units were dispersed and transportation lacking; on the positive side, the Soviets had 33,000 artillery pieces which far outnumbered the German resources. With 20,000 tanks Russia also outnumbered Germany’s 6,000; though not as modern or powerful as the German panzers they were still a formidable force. Yet Hitler was convinced that his superior weaponry and speed would defeat the Russians before their massive numbers could overwhelm his troops.
Hitler believed that victory over the USSR would be swift, as had been his victory over western mainland Europe. At 3.15 am 22nd June 1941 more than 3 million German and Axis troops swarmed across a 1,800-mile-long front. The Luftwaffe had total domination of the air and targeted Soviet airfields as the ground attack began. The Germans crossed the River Bug on the border between Russia and Poland and their panzers made rapid progress, reaching more than fifty miles into enemy territory in just two days. The Russian counter-attacks were badly organised and easily defeated, with tens of thousands of Soviet soldiers taken prisoner – Stalin had been caught off guard as he still did not believe that Hitler would invade. With a three-pronged attack – north towards Leningrad, south towards Ukraine, and towards Moscow in the centre – German panzers gained a quick advantage; in the first three days the Soviets lost 3,922 aircraft whilst the Luftwaffe lost only 78, and millions of Soviet soldiers were taken prisoner. Following the army came the Einsatzgruppen (SS death squads) who began to wipe out civilians, particularly Jews, as well as execute captured enemy officers and many prisoners of war. The ‘Hunger Plan’ was also put into place – creating a food surplus to be sent back to Germany by deliberately starving the conquered populations.
The vast distances involved in the Soviet Union combined with the difficult terrain meant that the initial swift advance by the Germany forces began to slow; Hitler had also underestimated Soviet troop numbers for, even with the terrible losses they had already suffered, the Russian will to fight a patriotic war of defence was strong. Meanwhile in Britain, Churchill was relieved that the country was no longer standing alone against Hitler’s Reich, and said that any enemy of Nazi Germany was a friend of Britain’s no matter what their political differences in the past. He sent a mission to Moscow to sign a treaty of mutual assistance, although there was little Britain could do to help Russia apart from sending aid by sea.
It might have been possible for Germany to push on to victory – the Centre Army Group was only 200 miles from Moscow – but Hitler made his first big mistake by delaying the push on the capital in order to reinforce his troops in Ukraine to the south, where Kiev was eventually taken by the end of September. In the north the Germans surrounded Leningrad, although their forces were not strong enough to take the city which was then besieged for 872 days. Conditions in Leningrad were horriffic with very little food getting into the city – over 11,000 people died in November and more than 3,700 died of starvation in a single day in December – but the city refused to surrender.
Hitler’s diversion of troops to the south and failure to continue the push towards Moscow in August meant that rather than completing Operation Barbarossa by the autumn there was still a long way to go when the Russian winter set in. The Soviets had had time to re-enforce the capital with the civilian population digging defences around the city, but it was the weather, not these defences, which were to lead to disaster for the Germans. On 8th October it began to rain, bogging down the enemy advance in a sea of mud. A combination of the stiffening of Russian resolve and the rain meant that by the end of October German Army Group Centre was still 50 miles from Moscow.
Because he had been expecting a swift victory Hitler had not equipped his troops for winter weather and the advance slowed. By 4th December the leading units of the Central Army Group were just nine miles from Red Square, but temperatures plunged overnight meaning that weapons froze, tanks would not start, and soldiers suffered from frostbite. Things were so bad that the attack had to be halted on the morning of 5th December with the Germans confident that they would have the final victory in the spring.
Meanwhile Stalin had been anticipating an attack by Japan which had tied up troops in the east of the Soviet Union; when he was assured that no attack was forthcoming more than 30 Divisions began moving west towards the attacking Germans. Half a million soldiers well-equipped and well-trained in winter fighting were soon in the area around Moscow. As the Germans halted their advance on 5th December the Russians launched a savage attack against them and the Germans were forced to fall back before a force they had believed were on the point of defeat. The Russians continued their counter-attack for the next seven days. The German push towards Moscow became a war of attrition on the part of the Soviets, and Hitler’s first defeat of the war.
Operation Barbarossa inflicted huge casualties on the Soviet Army and there were great territorial gains, but it failed to achieve Hitler’s primary objective – to force the capitulation of the Soviet Union. Hitler blamed the winter weather for this, but the key reason for defeat was that he had assumed Germany would win a quick victory so there was no long-term strategic planning, no preparations for a winter war, and inadequate supply lines. On a more fundamental level, Hitler underestimated the strength of the Russian will to resist when called upon to defend ‘Mother Russia’, in fact his own actions increased the Soviet determination when the treatment of POW’s and the civilian population became known. The failure of Operation Barbarossa was not the end of the fighting in the east, another massive German offensive took place in June 1942, but this met with similar obstacles and similar failure – the prolonged Battle of Stalingrad being a decisive factor.
During Operation Barbarossa about three million personnel of the Axis powers invaded Russia (in comparison only around 400,000 Allied troops took part on D Day – 156,000 troops landed on the beaches of Normandy with a further 250,000 in air and sea support), with 600,000 motor vehicles, and 600,000 horses for transport. Not only did the operation open up a new front geographically, but it was also responsible for the Soviet Union joining Britain as an ally. The eastern Front saw some of the world’s largest battles, highest casualties, and most horrific atrocities perpetrated against a civilian population. Approximately 5 million soviet combatants were taken prisoner during the years of Germany’s Russian campaigns, 3.3 million of whom were either shot or starved to death. The civilian population was systematically starved, whilst mass shootings and gassing operations murdered over a million soviet Jews.
Far from giving German people the Lebensraum that he had promised, Hitler’s pre-emptive and possibly unnecessary attack on the Soviet Union played a significant part in his losing the war four long years later.