On 22 June 1941, German forces began their invasion of the Soviet Union, nearly 129 years to the day after Napoleon Bonaparte had done the same. Like the French dictator before him, Adolf Hitler hoped to subdue the enemy quickly and secure an outright victory within a matter of weeks.
Planning for the invasion had begun over a year prior, after Germany’s swift conquering of France in mid-1940. Codenamed Operation Barbarossa, the German’s assembled the most powerful invasion force in history to take on the Red Army, involving some 3 million troops, nearly 150 divisions (80% of the German army), 600,000 horses, 3,500 tanks, 2,500 aircraft and around 7,000 artillery pieces, along with 30 divisions of Finnish and Romanian troops.
As German forces began piling up on the Soviet border, both the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt warned the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin an attack was imminent. Stalin was not so sure, believing it unlikely that Hitler would break the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact they’d signed just two years prior.
When the German forces poured into Soviet territory, divided into three offensives across a 1,800-mile front, a demobilised and disorganised Soviet army was caught on the back foot. Within a matter of days, the Wehrmacht had advanced hundreds of miles into Soviet territory pushing back badly trained and poorly led Soviet troops, seemingly confirming Hitler’s belief that the Germans only had ‘to kick in the door’ and the whole ‘rotten structure’ would come crashing down.
Hitler believed the Soviets to be his natural ideological enemy and intended to conquer the country, enslave or exterminate the ‘subhuman’ native Slavic people, exploit the country’s vast resources and ultimately provide his ‘master race’ the Lebensraum (‘living space’) they needed.
As the German tanks rolled deeper into Soviet territory, behind them came the Einsatzgruppen, SS paramilitary death squads tasked with eliminating any civilians who had failed to evacuate further east. Targeting Communists, intellectuals, gypsies and Jews, the Einsatzgruppen conducted mass killings on the Eastern Front, including the war’s most notorious at the ravine of Babi Yar near Kiev, where over 33,000 Jews were massacred.
The German ‘Hunger Plan’ to seize food from the Soviet Union and provide it to their own troops led to the starvation of millions of civilians. Over 3 million Soviet POWs would also die in German captivity during the course of the war.
In the early weeks of the invasion, things looked promising for Hitler’s forces and his initial target of victory within two and a half months was looking likely. The Luftwaffe was able to quickly gain air superiority, destroying over 1,000 Soviet aircraft on the first day of the campaign. The Wehrmacht exploited this advantage to their favour, helping the ground forces smash through Soviet front lines and race across the USSR.
The three German army groups each had their own objective. Army Group North was to advance through the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia and capture the strategically and ideologically important city of Leningrad. Army Group Centre was to capture Minsk and Smolensk before marching on the Soviet capital Moscow, whilst Army Group South was to capture the economic resources in the industrial south of Russia and Ukraine.
By mid-late summer, Army Group North had reached Leningrad, Army Group Centre was closing in on Moscow and Army Group South was making slow but steady progress towards Kiev. Hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers had either been captured or killed.
However, fortunes for the Wehrmacht were about to change. Unable to inflict the final blow to Leningrad and with Army Group South starting to stutter, Hitler ordered Army Group Centre to reinforce both Groups, calling a temporary halt to its own advance towards Moscow.
The delay enabled the Soviets to bring in reinforcements to Moscow, including over a million soldiers and a thousand T-34 tanks. Men, women and children began digging multiple defensive lines around the city; the Germans would soon discover the true grit and determination of the Soviet people.
By September, although Kiev had fallen and progress was being made in the South towards Crimea, Leningrad in the north had turned into a siege, one that would last 872 days. Army Group South then ground to a halt as it laid siege to the Black Sea port of Sevastopol. Hitler’s attention turned back to Moscow.
Operation Typhoon, Germany’s strategic offensive on Moscow began in October and would last just over three months. It would end in Soviet victory.
Dogged Soviet defence and heavy rains halted the German advance on Moscow as roads devolved into rivers of mud. Soviet counterattacks kept the Germans at bay and as the Russian winter set-in, a final Soviet push sent the Germans packing from the region. Moscow had held and German offensive operations were put on hold.
Stalin rallied his people for The Great Patriotic War with cries to defend ‘Mother Russia’,
Whilst Hitler blamed the weather for the failure of Barbarossa, the Axis powers fell short for a multitude of reasons. The Germans had failed to prepare for a longer campaign and logistical problems meant that vital supplies, including winter clothing, did not reach the front lines. The further they progressed into Soviet territory, the further they stretched their inadequate supply lines, which struggled to cope with the harsh weather and difficult terrain.
The Germans also underestimated the determination of the Soviets as well as their numbers. Stalin had more reserves than German intelligence had anticipated and Hitler’s declaration that the war in the East was an ideological one of total annihilation only stiffened the resolve of the defenders, who might have capitulated had the Nazis come as liberators instead of conquerors. In the end, Stalin rallied his people for The Great Patriotic War with cries to defend ‘Mother Russia’, strengthening the Soviet will to fight to the bitter end.
The Soviets also managed to successfully dismantle and relocate via train around 1,500 large factories to the Urals in the east, enabling their industry to continue pumping out vital resources and armaments for the remainder of the war.
Hitler was now fighting a two-front war, making the failure of Barbarossa one of the key turning points of WW2. A year later and with Hitler now in personal control of the German Army, another summer offensive was conducted – Operation Case Blue. This time the target was the oil-rich fields of Baku in Southern Russia as well as the Soviet city of Stalingrad.
German supply line issues along with heavy Soviet resistance meant that for a second straight year, Hitler failed to knock Russia out of the war. What’s more, the German’s suffered the entire loss of the Sixth Army, their most battled hardened unit, at the Battle of Stalingrad (late 1942 to early 1943). The bloody urban conflict not only cost the lives of 2 million soldiers and civilians but it represented the furthest point the Germans would advance into Russia.
The following summer in 1943, the Germans again launched another offensive operation against Soviet forces, Operation Citadel. A short-lived Soviet offensive after Stalingrad had led to the creation of a large salient (an outward projection in a battle line), protruding into German territory. At the centre of the salient was the city of Kursk.
Hitler hoped to retake Kursk in the summer of 1943 and recapture the initiative on the Eastern Front. The Soviets were aware of Hitler’s plans and hunkered down at Kursk, creating defensive belts around the city. The world bore witness to the largest mechanised battle in history as two sides equipped with a combined 8,000 tanks squared off during the Battle of Kursk. Ultimately, Soviet defences held strong and the German's failed to retake the city.
The subsequent Soviet victory meant they had seized the strategic initiative on the Eastern Front and would hold onto it for the remainder of the war. From that point onwards the Germans were on the retreat, a retreat that would take them all the way back to Berlin.
By the time Germany officially surrendered to the Allies on 8 May 1945, 80% of its casualties during WW2 had come on the Eastern Front, which equated to more than three million lives. It’s estimated that around 18 million Soviet soldiers and civilians lost their lives during the Eastern Front.