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Operation Barbarossa

Russian infantrymen advancing in a sector on the Eastern Front
Russian infantrymen advancing in a sector on the Eastern Front

On 22 June 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Codenamed Operation Barbarossa, it was the largest military operation in history, involving more than 3 million Axis troops and 3,500 tanks. It was the logical culmination of Hitler's belief that the German 'master race' should seek 'lebensraum' (living space) in the east, at the expense of the 'subhuman' native Slav people, who were to be exterminated or reduced to serf status.

Planning for Barbarossa had begun over a year previously, in the wake of Germany's stunning success against the western allies in France. The triumphalism that followed this victory, combined with widely believed reports that the Soviet armed forces were weak and deficient (evidence came from defeats by Finland in 1939) led to great optimism in the German high command, with Hitler declaring, 'we have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.'

Caught by Surprise

The Soviet Union was unprepared for the onslaught that came in June. Stalin refused to believe mounting evidence that an invasion was being prepared, and so his armies and air force on the frontier were caught by surprise. As in their earlier victories, the Luftwaffe quickly gained air superiority and helped armoured columns and motorised infantry punch holes through the Soviet front line. Barbarossa had three primary objectives – the Baltic States and Leningrad in the north, Moscow in the centre, and the economic resources of the Ukraine and southern Russia in the south. This led to a division of focus for which Hitler and his generals were later to be widely criticised.

Initially, all went well for the Germans, some units advancing 50 miles on the first day, although resistance was fiercer than expected in the south. With Stalin personally intervening to forbid generals to retreat, large Soviet forces were encircled and destroyed or taken prisoner. 250,000 were lost in a massive encirclement around Minsk at the end of June, 180,000 were taken prisoner at Smolensk, while the Red Army suffered 500,000 casualties at the Battle of Kiev in September.

Underestimating the challenge of Russia

But despite the enormous casualties they had inflicted, the Germans had failed to land a decisive blow. They had underestimated both the resources of the Soviet Union and its willingness to accept massive losses. Now the German offensives were running out of steam, as front-line units halted for resupply and replacements. At a crucial phase of the operation, Hitler insisted that the panzer divisions of Army Group Centre, which were advancing on Moscow, were diverted to overcome resistance in the north and south. With this achieved, the drive on Moscow resumed on 2 October, codenamed Operation Typhoon. Ten days later German units were within 90 miles of the Russian capital, but stubborn Soviet resistance and heavy German casualties, combined with heavy rain which turned bad roads into rivers of mud, slowed the advance to a crawl. By the beginning of December, German troops were within sight of the spires of Moscow. However, a massive Soviet counterattack, using fresh units brought in from the East, supported by T-34 tanks, drove the Germans back. As the Russian winter set in, German offensive operations were abandoned.

Operation Barbarossa was one of the decisive moments of the war in Europe. Despite enormous losses in territory, men and weaponry, the Soviets had fought on, and survived. They would face fresh German offensives in 1942, but as the immense manpower and resources of the Soviet Union were brought into play, time was on their side. The Eastern Front would become a graveyard of the German armed forces, as men, tanks and aircraft were thrown into an increasingly unwinnable conflict.