At 3:15 am, June 22, 1941, the Germans and their allies unleashed an attack all along the western border of the Soviet Union. Coordinated attacks ran from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea; with objectives extending all the way to the Volga, it was one of the most ambitious campaigns ever launched. Code named Barbarossa, after a medieval Emperor who led his armies east during the Third Crusade, this operation marked the decisive shift in the war in Europe.
Hitler had long envisaged a war with the Soviet Union, but had no specific plans for it until the September 1940. Certainly, he saw German destiny as pointing to the east, but even after the fall of France he still had an unbeaten foe in Britain. The Soviets, too, had been busy since the conquest of Poland, seizing the Baltic States and strategic portions of Finland and Rumania. Concluding that the time had come to deal with the Soviet threat, Hitler ordered plans for an invasion.
Geography was always a major problem in the plan. In addition to the sheer scale of operations, planing was also complicated by natural obstacles, most notably the Pripyet Marshes in Byelorussia. Hitler preferred to attack the flanks in the north and the south, while his generals argued in favor of a direct attack on Moscow. The final plan, accepted in February, called for three army groups, one tasked for Leningrad, one for Moscow, and one for the Ukraine.
To carry out this attack, an enormous force was assembled just west of the Soviet border. Adding the forces contributed by Germany’s allies, more than three and a half million men were gathered, with 3600 tanks and 2700 planes in support. Significantly, German preparedness did not extend to such details as woolen coats and cold-weather blends of oil; the Germans were counting on a speedy resolution to the war, with the bulk of European Russia in German hands by the end of the year.
The Soviets, too, were preparing for war in the summer of 1941, although the exact character of that war remains debatable. To date, the Russian government remains elusive on questions of the composition of its forces along its western border; former Soviet intelligence analyst Viktor Suvorov has argued quite persuasively that Hitler was right in fearing Soviet designs. Suvorov has presented a compelling picture of the Soviets planning a very similar attack on the Germans; the Soviet reversals of 1941 are due to the absence of defensive plans and to the accumulation of equipment that serves very well under offensive conditions, but poorly in the defense. To use two examples, tactical bombers and fast, light tanks are devastatingly effective in the attack (as the Germans themselves demonstrated), but of little use in the defense (as the Soviets discovered to their chagrin).
It is well attested that Stalin was warned about the German build-up; for some reason, he chose not to believe that these reports signaled an attack. Some argue that Stalin was counting on the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact to protect him; Suvorov contends, instead, that Stalin understood that any invasion must survive at least one winter, and his spies assured him that the Germans were not prepared for winter fighting. Whatever his motivation, Stalin directed his army’s build-up without reference to German forces, and it was not an inconsiderable build-up. Conservative estimates suggest nearly 3 million soldiers near (indeed, very near) the western border. The number of tanks involved range from 10 to 15 thousand, and Soviet planes are estimated around 8,000.
Such numbers suggest that there is something to Suvorov’s position. The Germans had grossly underestimated the Soviet numbers, and even with strategic surprise, they had no right to expect the level of success that they actually experienced that summer and fall.
Whatever the reason, Soviet forces were completely unprepared to repel the German invasion. The Germans gained control of the air in a matter of days, while fast-moving armored columns isolated large pockets of Soviet forces. The first units of Army Group North reached Leningrad in a mere four days. Prisoners were taken on a grand scale.
Hitler believed that his assessment of the Soviets was proven true, and many of his officers were relieved to see the rosy predictions come true. In July and August, Hitler ordered Army Group Center to hold back, diverting troops to bolster the efforts in the north and the south. This effort assisted in the capture of Kiev, but afforded the Soviets valuable time to fortify Moscow before Hitler again ordered a renewed attack on the city. More ominously still, German successes inspired some to behave as if Russia were already occupied territory, including SS groups making improvised attacks on Jews. For their part, the Soviets added to the savagery with scorched-earth tactics and violence against their own people. Surrender was equated with treason, and the family members of captured soldiers were made to suffer for it, while retreat in battle was punishable with immediate death.
By October, the course of the campaign was tied up in two great sieges subject to worsening autumn weather: Leningrad and Moscow. The siege of Moscow lasted three months; that of Leningrad, thirty months. Neither city fell, with the severity of the winter compounding a host of other problems, including the inability of the German logistical network to keep up with the advance. For their part, the Soviets were able to reinforce the besieged cities, and the arrival of Siberian troops at Moscow just when the privations of winter became most acute to the Germans was most telling. Marshal Zhukov launched an attack at Rostov on December 6, and conditions compelled Army Group Center to retreat from Moscow. This effectively ended the Barbarossa campaign, although the war was far from over.
Few campaigns are as hotly debated as Barbarossa. Some believe that the Germans could have met their goals if only they had invaded a month sooner; others contend that its failure demonstrates the inherent weaknesses of the blitzkrieg theory. Such arguments are largely unsatisfactory. For the Germans to have achieved their goals, rather more than a month of summer weather would have been necessary. Not only were Moscow and Leningrad to fall, but also extensive tracts of land further east, and all of it had to be controlled before winter.
Conversely, it is not that the blitzkrieg style of attack was intrinsically flawed. It was very successful for the Germans in the summer, still close to the German logistical bases. For that matter, blitzkrieg tactics served the Soviets very well throughout the war. The failure of Barbarossa is not the failure of blitzkrieg, but rather its flawed application.
Blitzkrieg depends upon the exploitation of rapid attacks. As long as the logistical base permits this, successes can be dramatic, and this had been the German experience. The Germans expected the Russian campaign to be no different, but it was. The battle zone was an order of magnitude greater, and it lacked the kind of road and rail networks that hastened transportation in Poland and France. The distribution of fuel and ammunition, the evacuation of the wounded, and the replacement of damaged equipment became colossal undertakings. The Germans were more than capable of making blitzkrieg-style attacks, but they were incapable of taking full advantage of them after September, 1941.
After a short recovery, the Soviets too used blitzkrieg tactics, but they were better able to exploit their successes. They shared the same problem with roads, but with the Trans-Siberian Railroad behind their lines, they enjoyed a better rail system, and they had fewer logistical problems to overcome. They had oil in the Caspian Sea area; their tanks were produced in factories in the Urals. Moreover, consideration simply wasn’t taken for such niceties as the evacuation of the wounded. The Soviets made do with less in the way of logistical expectations, and so they performed far better in those endeavors they did make.
The Barbarossa campaign was costly for both sides. The Germans lost more than 900,000 men in this phase of the war alone, including those missing or captured. The Red Army lost more than three million men to capture in the same period, and this was just the beginning.
Dear, I.C.B. The Oxford Guide to World War II. Oxford, 1995
Fowler, Will. Barbarossa. Barnes & Noble, 2006.
Suvorov, Viktor. The Chief Culprit: Stalin’s Grand Design to Start World War II. Naval Institute Press, 2008.
Wheal, Elizabeth-Anne, Stephen Pope and James Taylor. A Dictionary of the Second World War. Military Book Club, 1990.