You only have to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down. ~~ Adolf Hitler, June 1941
Not one step back. ~~ Joseph Stalin, July 1942
The Romans, Greeks, Egyptians. Napoleon, Genghis Kahn. Attila. None created quite the chaos that was laid bare in eastern Europe between 1941-1945. On this date, June 22, 1941 – 80 years ago – the most titanic struggle ever recorded in human history began. Hell was unleashed.
Named after Frederick I – Frederick Barbarossa, the Germanic Holy Roman Emperor from 1152-1190 (when he died during the Third Crusades). Drawing from history, as he often did, Adolf Hitler chose “Barbarossa” as the name of the largest land invasion of all time … a war to guarantee “living space” for the German people. A bloody and epic war within a war was about to ensue pitting two of history’s most demonic dictators against each other, Nazi Germany’s Adolf Hitler & Communist Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin.
It can be argued that between 1939 & 1941, the German Wehrmacht [armed forces] was the most powerful military force ever assembled. The Heer [army] was well-equipped & trained. The officer corps had some of the most innovative & bright military minds in the world. Tactically, they had no peer. Then, there were the Panzers [tanks], the heart & soul of the infamous Blitzkrieg [lightning war] tactics. The revolutionary use of the panzers as a spearhead force rather than the traditional manner of using tanks primarily as infantry support shredded their opponents and outclassed every force they faced. The Luftwaffe [air force] featured one of the most deadly fighters of the day, the BF-109, and one of the most profound ground support weapons ever invented, the Stuka dive bomber, whose shrieking air-brakes struck fear into their doomed ground targets. The one undersized force was the Kriegsmarine [navy], though their unterseeboots [submarines, or U-boats] wreaked havoc on the seas. Combined arms warfare took on new meaning in the face of Hitler’s Wehrmacht. In turn, Poland, Denmark, Norway, The Netherlands, Luxemburg, Belgium, France, Yugoslavia and Greece fell before this new military behemoth. [Not to mention Austria, Czechoslovakia and Memel who had been annexed earlier.] The British, too, were routed while aiding both France & Greece. Even the United States had a rather unpleasant first meeting with the German colossus in northern Africa. Italy, Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria joined with Germany & Japan to form the Axis.
As news spread of the new war on the Eastern Front, the world waited and watched with bated breath. Many assumed that the same fate awaited the Soviet Union. But, did it? Despite distressing warnings, the Soviets were indeed at a great disadvantage as the German offensive began. The intelligence went unheeded and the Soviet border guards were taken off-guard. Stalin’s bloody purge of most of the military leadership left a core officer group that was largely untested and inexperienced. The troops were raw and after an uninspiring “Winter War” against Finland, their chances of any significant opposition to the Wehrmacht appeared dismal.
A vastly superior force, operationally dominant in every way at the start, was stretched across an 1800 mile front, from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south. Three great Army Groups. Over 3-million men, 3600 tanks, 3000 aircraft – the best trained & equipped army in the world – with two solid years of on-the-job-training – were about to unmercifully pounce on the hapless Red Army. It seemed a sure-shot romp, and that is all the German high command planned for. It was expected that in a few short weeks it would be over. Most all of Europe, save for Britain and a few trade partners, would be under Axis domination. Eventually, the Wehrmacht would advance over 1,000 miles.
The Luftwaffe destroyed much of the Soviet air force while the planes were still grounded on air fields. Great encirclements of entire armies were achieved. At Bialystok-Minsk, Smolensk, Luga, Kiev, and Vyazma-Bryansk the number of Soviet troops captured ranged from 250,000 to 670,000 per Soviet calamity. In total there were twenty such encirclements. Thousands of tanks and artillery guns were likewise destroyed or captured. However, as summer turned to autumn, it become clear that things weren’t going quite as well as planned. While the Wehrmacht swiftly moved east, many of the men of Army Group Center were keenly aware of the route they were following. In 1812 Napoleon had led his French army on its disastrous foray deep into Russia. In their writings home and in field diaries, they often referred to similarities in their circumstances. There was clearly a sense of foreboding within the ranks of the German soldiers. Avoiding the severe harshness of a Russian winter was becoming to be less and less of a likelihood.
Unbeknownst to the combatants, four such winters lay on the horizon.
Two months in, logistics, hardly a strong suit of the German Wehrmacht, began to take a serious toll. An already poor Soviet road system became a muddy quagmire during heavy rains. Later, it would become a frozen land of ice and snow. Vehicles broke down. Parts and fuel were in short supply. In fact, everything seemed in short supply. Replacement men, arms & ammunition, medicine, horses, food for man and beast. Winter clothing was non-existent, after all, this was to be a short, decisive summer campaign. There were, to be sure, great tactical victories, but the further east the vast German armies advanced the more dire things were rapidly becoming. Yet, the Wehrmacht pressed on. The Soviets doggedly resisted.
By September Moscow, though, appeared to be in reach.
It was a mirage.
The Russian colossus…has been underestimated by us…whenever a dozen divisions are destroyed the Russians replace them with another dozen. ~~ Franz Halder, German Army General Staff, August 1941
Moscow will be defended to the last! ~~ Joseph Stalin, October 1941
Germany was a tiny country compared to the vastness of of the Soviet Union. She was deficient in natural resources and had limited manpower. Most significantly, Germany had no oil or rubber … vital necessities for a mobile-based army. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, was rich in oil and heavy metals and , most of all, had almost unlimited manpower. To tilt the scale even further, beginning in 1942, the United States and Great Britain began a massive lend-lease program to supply the Soviets with trucks, tanks, and virtually everything else a military force might need. So it was that Germany had no choice but to win the war quickly or not at all.
Much as the Confederacy of the American Civil War had its “high tide” at Gettysburg, so did the Wehrmacht before the spires of the Kremlin. Not so much defeated militarily as just running – quite literally – out of gas … and practically everything else. In December 1941, the great German offensive foundered and the Russians, bolstered by fresh armies from the far eastern corners of the Soviet Union, counter-attacked. Much like Napoleon’s Grande Armee, the Germans had stretched their logistical support far too thin and the Russian winter took its toll. It was nearly four more years, and many more savage battles, but the Germans were gradually forced back from whence they came, their armies mostly destroyed, and Berlin, though stubbornly defended, finally fell.
Hitler’s “great gamble” had failed. In its wake, more than 20,000,000 people lost their lives, many civilians. It was a carnage like the World had never seen, and hopefully never will again.
The vastness of Russia devours us. ~~ Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt
Growing up in America, when I heard of World War II it was almost always in reference to Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal, D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, maybe Anzio. Rarely was this conflict in the east between Germany & Russia mentioned. While it is true that the US almost single-handedly took care of Japan, and applied pressure on the German Western Front, it was the Soviet Union who was most responsible for the destruction of Nazi Germany. A nation was nearly destroyed during this struggle. The other emerged as a true world power.
Some books on Operation Barbarossa: