Operation Barbarossa - the German Invasion of the Soviet Union

Operation Barbarossa - the German Invasion of the Soviet Union

The German planning of Operation Barbarossa was carried out primarily by a team of officers in the General Staff under the command of General Erich Marcks (head of the Planning Division) in the autumn and winter of 1940. In the background of the plan was a daring concept regarding everything connected with time and space, the quantity and quality of soldiers and equipment, and the dimensions of the political dangers. The program, despite its complexity, was basically simple, and therein was its strength and its advantage. It was well suited to the geographical, economic and military situation, and underwent a process of systematic staff work and battle procedure including war games.

Main points of the program

Barbarossa's strategic concept was to destroy the Soviet state from the Polish border to the Volga in a massive summer strike and to reduce its regions to the status of unarmed colonies where German garrisons would be stationed and managed by Germany. It would then be possible to cut-off or capture, according to needs, the "primitive" territories east of the Volga, the frozen Siberian steppes and the empty forests beyond the Ural Mountains. From those remote areas no Russian bomber could threaten) Germany, a vital factor in considerations. The jumping-off point was in Poland and the line ran was approximately 800 kilometers from north to south, from the Baltic Sea to the Carpathian mountains (in addition there was also an offensive operation from Romania aimed at protecting the oil fields of Ploiesti).

The target line ran approximately 3,200 km from Archangel on the White Sea coast south of Kazan and along the Volga to the Caspian Sea, the farthest objective point being about 2,000 km from the jumping –off point.

The line reached by the Germans in December 1941 stretched from Leningrad in the Finnish Gulf, via Moscow to the Crimea and the Black Sea, only a short distance from Rostov on the Don River. Its length almost 2,000 kilometers and about nine hundred kilometers from the starting line.

It is clear, therefore, that the Germans had been stopped by the Russians about halfway, but in fact it was not so, and they were stopped at the last moment - in the last dugout.

In the spring of 1941, German intelligence reported that the Red Army was concentrated in the west, in Poland, where the armies had met after its conquest. This deployment of the Russians, who had concentrated the Red Army within reach of one swift destructive strike, apparently abandoned the great Russian advantage of maneuverability in the field. The Russians were superior both in quantities and in the quality of weapons. The German plan was based on the information that they had at that time , according to which the general balance of power indicated that the Germans would attack with 150 divisions about 200 Russians; about 3,200 tanks compared to about 10,000 and there would be an unknown advantage (to the Germans) in aircraft. The Germans put their trust in this program on the advantage of training, readiness, on military prowess, staff work, better soldiers, and decisive and quick exploitation of the element of surprise. After the Russo-Finnish war, this seemed a reasonable risk.

Operationally - the Germans expected to break through the defense line on the western border with three parallel massive lightning attacks, two north of the Pripet marshes and one south of them, which would encircle and liquidate the broken Russian forces within a few weeks. Thus, the main part of the Red Army would cease to exist almost from the beginning.

The course of the summer battles, June-August 1941

When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, they operated according to the tactics dictated by Order No. 21(of the High Command) of Operation Barbarossa of 18th December 1940.  Translating it into orders that concentrated most of the German armored and mechanized forces in the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Groups Which later became Panzer Armies within the framework of Armies Group Center of Fieldmarshal Fodor von Bock. This concentration of power was meant to enable tempo and continuity of the ground offensive to Moscow (via Minsk, Smolensk and Vyazma).

On June 22, the Armies Group Center penetrated into White Russia, an area covered with dense forests and a sparse population with few roads.

The advance of the Armies Group Center with the panzer groups in its wings was rapid. In the north, the 4th Panzer Group advanced from East Prussia. Commander of the 3rd Panzer Division and General Heinz Guderian, commander of the 2nd Panzer Corps, wanted to bring together the armored spearheads in the Smolensk region at a distance of 600 kilometers from the starting line. General Franz Halder, Chief of Staff of the ground forces, confirmed this intention, but Hitler thought his commanders too reckless and refused to take the risk. Instead the neighboring forces made contact in the capital of White Russia - Minsk on 27 June.

The Russian forces that remained encircled west of Minsk included the 3rd and 10th Soviet Armies and parts of three other armies totaling 290,000 prisoners.

Although surprised by the power of the German offensive, it had been taken into account in the Russian assessment that their defense might fail in the first stages of the invasion. However, mistakes in military thinking turned these failures into unprecedented defeats. It seems that Stalin suffered from temporary depression (or illness) before returning to himself (July 11). Even the Operations Department of the General Staff in Moscow was housed in unsuitable buildings and lacked reliable communication with the frontline command headquarters. The Red Army was based mainly on a telephone line with the wire attached to telephone poles and was completely unreliable under combat conditions. The Soviets had few wireless communications sets, and their codification systems were so complicated that it was almost completely impossible to use them.

By relying on this system of communication, the Russian officers quickly lost control of their forces even at the highest levels. The combat intelligence available to the commander of the Western Front, General Dimitri Pavlov, in White Russia was so flawed that he learned of his encirclement only after the Germans announced it on their news broadcasts. He was tried by a military court and executed. He was replaced by Marshal Constantinovich Timoshenko – victor of the Winter War against Finland - as commander of the Western Front. Such harsh measures were taken in part because of the lack of understanding of the real causes of the first defeats and of Stalin's attempt to blame the inefficiency of the commanders in the field. The Red Army, despite its relatively good equipment and the large number of tanks and planes, usually lacked the proper training and experience in mobile warfare in 1941.

In most cases, the forces fought to extricate themselves from encirclement, and sometimes they succeeded, but failures in command and the enormous sacrifice of equipment and manpower in the first few months, in the attempt to stem the flow of German progress, made it even easier for the latter.

After the completion of clearing the Minsk pocket in early July, the Armies Group Center continued its offensive with the 4th Army (under the command of General von Kluge), which now  had under its command the two Panzer Groups of Hoth and Guderian. The 9th and 2ndArmies, which followed the armor, secured its wings and cleared the area. In contrast to the Minsk operation, it was now necessary to secure more and more exposed and extended wings, while in the south there were no longer the impenetrable Pripet marshes. In the north, the German Army Groups lacked sufficient armor to cover the wings.

In the meantime, the German engineering corps began to replace the railway lines with the European standard (or, in the meantime to use captured wagons and locomotives). The supply units had to make – do with supplying the armored spearheads by means of trucks transporting the supplies from warehouses that were getting further and further away from their bases of origin.

Even though the German infantry had tried to walk 50 to 60 kilometers per day, it had become increasingly difficult to close the growing gap between it and the panzer forces. This affected German progress because serious battles were always dependent on the regular strength of infantry divisions.

Despite the Soviets' efforts to reinforce the western front in Smolensk, they were unable to stop German progress. In general, the Soviet forces collapsed in the face of the German armor, with individual officers finding themselves in the situation of collecting stragglers and improvising new lines of defense.

As it advanced over a wide area, Hut's 3rd Panzer Group arrived in Vitebsk in mid-July and passed further north of Smolensk; Guderian's Second Panzer Group crossed the Dnieper in Mogilev on July 10. The Russians counter- attacked desperately the German flanks and even reoccupied Rogachev on the Dnieper on July 13. However, the Germans generally defended their flanks well and entered Smolensk on July 16.The 16th and 20th Soviet Armies were trapped west of Smolensk and attacked eastwards through the town whilst the other west front forces tried to extricate them The Germans held fast and completed the clean –up of the Smolensk pocket on the 5th August taking about 300,000 Russian prisoners.

Bock's Army Group Center, in two enormous pincer operations destroyed the Soviet armies that defended White Russia and took 600,000 prisoners. This was large scale successful "Blitzkrieg" German confidence in their victory grew larger and larger and they believed they were nearing the end of the campaign.  

In their expectations that the Germans were going to continue towards Moscow, the Russians concentrated more armies and counter- attacked them stubbornly during August. When Army Group Centre went on the defensive, the Russians concluded that they had achieved victory.

But the explanation was different. The North and South Army Groups could not conduct classic pincer operations like Minsk and Smolensk because they did not have enough armored and mechanized troops. These army groups had only one arm because they each had only one Armored Group (compared with two in the Central Army Group). The task of the Army Group North under the command of Field Marshal Ritter von Leeb, was less complex

Its assembly areas were in East Prussia and the Baltic population was hostile to the Soviet government. In any case, the muddy, forested land provided only a few areas of manoeuver. This land and the lack of armor prevented Army Group North from attaining such impressive achievements as the Army Group Center - it had only the 4th Panzer Group under the command of General Eric Hoepner. Nevertheless, in this Front too the Germans managed to overcome the Russian defenses easily and crossed the River Dvina on 26 June. Then they advanced into Estonia and across Lake Peipus in mid-July.

The Army Group South was less prepared and was given the most complex mission. Originally, the German High Command had planned a pincer attack centering around the Kiev region, but in mid-March 1941, it was decided that the Army Group would change its method of attack and instead of executing a pincer movement it was to carry out an encirclement movement towards Kiev.

This decision was made because of the number of armored formations - only 5 divisions - in Army Group South and their state of readiness. These formations were not entirely fresh after the campaign in the Balkans. The Rumanian 4th Army, that was to attack Bessarabia in the southern wing, was completely lacking modern equipment and weapons, including armor and anti-tank guns. Moreover, the Rumanian border had to be well defended in order to prevent the Russians from hitting the Ploiesti oil fields.

On the other side of the border, the Soviets deployed the maximum and best fighting forces and their strongest formations in the Ukraine, anticipating that the main invasion effort would take place there. This Russian plan was most logical for several reasons. First, the concentration of industry in the Don basin was of similar importance to the concentration of German industry in the Rhine region. About 60 % Russian coal and about 30% of its iron were produced in this area.

In addition, invasion of Ukraine could cut off Russia from the big oil fields of Baku on the Caspian Sea, which at that time produced 70% of the country's oil. What made the situation even worse; the population of Ukraine was hostile to Soviet Russia and may well help the invader. Finally, Ukraine's open fields and featureless terrain provided the best maneuvering space for armor in European Russia. For all these reasons, the Russians were sure of their estimation that the main German effort would be in Ukraine.

Fieldmarshal Gerhard von Rundstedt, commander of Army Group South planned to attack south towards Kiev in order to seize a bridgehead on the Dnieper River for future operations, while depending on the impassable territory of the Pripet swamps on its northern flank.

Von Schubert's 11th Army in Rumania was to await the success of this operation and then to move quickly into Ukraine as the 4thRumanian Army advanced towards Odessa. As the actual operations developed, General Ewald von Kleist, commander of the 1st Panzer Group, advanced systematically, encountering small units of Russians, whom he defeated on his way to Zhitomir, about 160 km from Kiev on July 9, working cooperation with the Reichenau's 6th Army. When the 11th Army crossed the Prut River and entered Bessarabia, Kleist's deep breakthrough began to endanger the Russian armies that were still deployed along the borders of Poland and Romania. But in this sector General Kirponos the Russian Commander of Kiev ordered an immediate withdrawal.

The Soviet Fifth Army, under the command of General Potapov, organized itself to make a stubborn defence backed by  the Pripet marshes  and skillfully attacked  the northern German wing.

The combat of this particular army had a particular influence on the subsequent direction of the campaign by the German High Command. Except for the initial withdrawal, most of the 6th and 12th Russian Armies, about 20 divisions in total, were encircled on 2 August in the Uman region. With the liquidation of the Uman pocket, about 103,000 prisoners were captured.

The general situation at the beginning of August was clearly in favor of the Germans, although they had not yet reached any strategic target, not Leningrad, not Moscow, nor the Donets Basin. Their impressive military success was mainly in White Russia, they won all the major battles, conquered the Baltic countries, took control of the highway to Moscow, which passes through Smolensk, and approached Kiev. The Baltic Sea turned into a German lake and, according to all reports from the front, the picture as seen by the German High Command - that Germany had won again in the war within three weeks and now had only to deal with destroying pockets of resistance.

Of course, this tremendous progress required human sacrifice, loss of equipment and machine amortization. A break was necessary for the purpose of stabilization that lasted until mid-August. This halt fitted in to the original German schedule.

During this period of operational halt the Wehrmacht deployed from the Baltic to the Black Sea. It reequipped itself and repaired its equipment while upgrading equipment.

The turn southward, August-September 1941

On July 19 and 23, the German High Command issued instructions for further operations. Hoth's 3rd Panzer Corps was transferred to Army Group North and was given the mission of advancing towards the northeast, to sever the supply routes between Moscow and Leningrad and to advance in coordination with the 4th Panzer Group towards Leningrad. The mission of Guderian's 2nd Panzer Group which was transferred to Army Group South was to participate in the destruction of all Russian forces west of the Dnieper River. Army Group Center after having its armored forces detached was to continue its advance east only with infantry and to mop-up the area already occupied.

At the time of the operative stop, it became obvious to the Germans that they had already counted 360 Russian divisions (compared to the initial estimate of 200) and by August, they had already suffered 260,000 casualties.

In mid-August, the Germans renewed their offensive. Army Group Center captured Gomel and Army Group South reached the Dnieper. These achievements created a huge pocket around the deployment.  Because of differences of opinions in the German High Command regarding the direction of the continuing attack, Hitler personally ascertained that the attack by the two Army Groups would not stop on either side of the pocket until all the Russian forces were surrounded including the Fifth Army north of Kiev.

Following the orders of Hitler, a large-scale encirclement operation was launched in Western Ukraine on August 25. The Second Army and Guderian's Second Panzer Group attacked south from the direction of Gomel, crossed the Desna River and quickly penetrated the 21st and 40th  Russian Armies Front. As for Guderian, his progress was harassed by dangerous counterattacks on both his flanks. Thanks to the respite they were given in early August which enabled them to overhaul their armaments and to rest  the troops, Guderian's armored divisions were almost completely operationally fit. At the same time that Guderian advanced southward, Kleist's 1st Panzer Group broke out of its bridgehead, east of the Dnieper- northwards with the intention of linking up with the forces of Guderian about 250 km east of Kiev.

In the meantime, the German Sixth Army attacked the Soviet Fifth Army, first crossing the Dnieper and then the Desna Rivers. As on many times in the past, so now the reaction of the Russian High Command was delayed as were the orders to withdraw. The Russian commanders in the field were still involved in requests to receive confirmation to retreat and approval to retreat was still pending. When the forces of Guderian and Kleist joined forces in Lokhvytsia on September 16. The huge pocket of Kiev contained the Soviet Fifth Army, which had for so long blocked the advance of the Army Group South -along with the 21st, 26th, and 37th Armies, and parts of the 38th and 40th Armies, a total of 665,000 prisoners. This great tactical success seemed to be a strategic victory in those circumstances.

Parallel to "turn south," the Germans and their Finnish allies joined forces against Leningrad in the north-- One of the objectives that received a high priority in the instructions of Operation Barbarossa. At the end of July, the 18th German Army stood on the banks of Lake Ilman. However, the muddy, forest-covered soil was unsuitable for armored operations, and the Hoepner Panzer Group encountered many obstacles. South of Lake Ilman, in the Starayaa-Russa region.The Russian counter-attack was so powerful that  that the German High Command decided to move the 39th Mechanized  Corps from the 3rd Panzer Group northwards. When these reinforcements arrived, Von Leeb's Army Group began an offensive in August. The 18th Army captured Novogrod and advanced toward Tikhvin in a difficult terrain, facing increasing resistance. The 16th Army reached Demyansk near the hills of Vladi in early September.

The Soviets reacted by reorganizing their command and control structure, and by putting fresh armies into the campaign. The Karelian and Northwestern fronts were directly subordinated to the Soviet High Command (Stavka) in Moscow through a new command echelon called the Northern Zone, to which General Georgi Konstantinovitch Zhukov was sent to command in September. Leningrad became the first major command that made Zhukov the most famous Russian general in the war. On July 10, the Karelist army of Finland attacked in the worst conditions in which the Russians found themselves south of Leningrad and quickly repulsed the 7th and 23rd Russian Armies back across the border of 1939. The Finns went on the defensive only 50 kilometers north of Leningrad.

The Germans urged them to cross the Svir River east of Lake Ladoga and join forces with Army Group North or alternatively to attack Leningrad from the north. However, the Finns refused to involve themselves in an attack on Leningrad and stopped immediately south of the Svir River. When they had achieved their war objectives (the territories taken from them during the Winter War), the Finns did not advance any further. Nevertheless, they also did not conduct any negotiations with Russia as they expected its imminent defeat.

In northern Finland, General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst, the conqueror of Norway, commanded an army of two corps. On 29 June, the Mountains Corps attacked the Petsamo region towards the important port of Murmansk, while the 36th Corps attacked Sala. Due to the extreme climatic conditions and thick cover, the Norwegian Army (from November called the Lapland Army under the command of General Edward Dietl) never had any serious achievement.

On September 8, the 18th German Army stood on the banks of Lake Ladoga, severing the land connection to Leningrad.

On September 10, the 31st Panzer Corps captured a commanding ridge about 12 km south of the city, affording direct observation, but then the Corps was returned to the control of Army Group Center and the offensive in that sector was ended. The 18th Army which was the main siege force around the city adopted the method of attrition by shelling but lacked, for some time the necessary heavy artillery . The German Air Force, too, was forced  quickly to stop its bombardments of the city due to  transferring its efforts to Army Group Center. The German High Command's plan was starve the city's population (instead of feeding them after its capture). Although the blockade was not perfect and the Russians continued to supply Leningrad via the frozen Laduga Lake, the city became a heavy burden on the Russians until its liberation in 1943.

At the end of September, according to the German Armed Forces High Command, Russian losses amounted to 2.5 million people, 22,000 field guns, and 18,000 tanks. How many more losses could the Russians absorb in such a magnitude?

Reasons for the failure of the German offensive

1. The vast expanses of Russia prevented the Germans from carrying out pincer movements around the Russian army and achieving strategic goals.

2. Although 2.5 million soldiers were killed in the Red Army by the end of 1941, it did not break. It used the method of "scorched earth" (retreat with the destruction of anything that could benefit the Germans). Under its courageous commanders, it formed stable defenses and even launched a counter-offensive in late 1941.

3. Hitler appointed himself head of the army, because his generals did not accept his views. They wanted to concentrate their efforts on Moscow. He made fateful strategic mistakes and refused to approve a withdrawal even at the cost of destroying his forces.

4. Stalin, despite being a cruel tyrant, managed to arouse the Russian people and kindle patriotism.

5. The Soviet reserves, the population of the entire Soviet Union, was so large that soldiers poured continuously into the fronts, with the German army being without large reinforcements was becoming weaker and weaker.

6. Russia succeeded in transferring its arms factories outside the range of the Luftwaffe, thus enabling the Russian army to receive large quantities of weapons.

7.  "General Winter" which checked Napoleon also checked Hitler. The low temperatures caused physical and morale difficulties for the German soldier, which were unbearable. There was a complete lack of equipment for the winter, and the ordinary soldier was not used to such weather conditions. The rifles and machine guns did not fire because the oil froze. Engines went silent, the oil froze, and the tanks stuck in the deep mud. The lengthening of the columns in the deep penetration into Russia delayed emergency supplies. On the other hand, the Russians had experience in coping with the cold and the snow.

They had suitable winter equipment and units specializing in winter fighting caused many casualties among the Germans.