Operation Barbarossa was the codename for the invasion of the Soviet Union by the Axis forces. The operation was named after Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa, the leader of the Holy Roman Empire, one of the leaders of the 12th century crusades.
Hitler cannot be accused of being alone in his desire to close accounts with the Bolsheviks. He held his last great military conference before the invasion at the Reich Chancellery. There, not a single one of his Generals complained that Hitler’s intention would lead to the initiation of a potentially dangerous war on two fronts. Thus, they followed in the footsteps of the preceding conflict, in which they all, without exception, had fought and had been defeated less than a quarter of a century earlier.
An incident through which Hitler could have been discouraged from his intention to invade Russia was the strange flight of the vice president of the Nazi Party, Rudolf Hess, to Great Britain. Hitler feared that Operation Barbarossa might be compromised. Hess landed on British territory with the intention of making peace with the British, who, however, did not accept his offer. Rudolf Hess spent the rest of his life in prison.
In a long conversation with Goebbels at the Reich Chancellery, Hitler told him that it was essential not to repeat Napoleon’s experience in Russia. During this sincere and detailed discussion, the two worked out the ideological and military details of the Russian campaign. Operation Barbarossa would only last four months, and Bolshevism would ‘collapse like a house of cards’. Geographical limits were not imposed on the operation: ‘We shall fight until Russia’s military power no longer exists.’
The planning of the operation lasted several years. The goal of Operation Barbarossa was the rapid capture of the European part of the Soviet Union. This would be carried out in three principal directions of attack. The first attack route was a northern assault towards Leningrad, a symbolic capture of Moscow and an attack in the south, towards the Ukraine, to capture the oil fields in the region.
The Soviets were taken by surprise by the German attack, since Stalin thought it would happen later. The leader from the Kremlin believed that the Third Reich would not attack the Soviet Union until the British were defeated, to avoid fighting on two fronts.
Even though the war had begun almost two years earlier, the Red Army had not yet managed to group together its 39 armored divisions. It chose, rather, to distribute them evenly amongst the infantry divisions. The Red Army thus demonstrated that it had learned nothing about the dynamics of the new German methods of warfare. Still, even since the Great War, the Russian Generals had gained much more experience than their counterparts in other countries. They had fought the Whites in the Civil War, the Poles and the Japanese in the interwar period, and the Finns in the Winter War.
The unfavorable placement of the Soviet army is all the more inexplicable when it is considered that Barbarossa was the worst-kept secret of World War II. Stalin received no less than 80 warnings about Hitler’s intentions during the 8 months preceding the operation. Even so, Stalin continued to believe that the Germans were simply turning up the pressure and that Churchill was a cheater who was trying to pick a fight. In Stalin’s view at that time, Churchill was spreading disinformation in order to provoke a clash in the east, to save Great Britain from an eventual defeat.
The operation began at 3:15 am. The surprise was total. STAVKA, the General Headquarters of the Soviet Armed Forces, ordered the border troops to be alerted. Only a small number of Soviet troops were put in alert in time due to the fact that the Wehrmacht troops were moving fast. The initial shock was due to the large number of Axis troops invading the Soviet Union. The Luftwaffe reconnaissance elements worked at a frenzied pace. They were marking the places where enemy troops, supply positions and Soviet airports were concentrated, so that they could be destroyed.
Stalin’s total failure to anticipate the invasion was clear from his incredulous reaction, even after the attack had begun. Zhukov called him at 03:30 to inform him of the attacks. All the general could hear on the other end of the line was heavy breathing, so he had to repeat himself and ask: ‘Did you understand me?’ Again, he was met with silence. When the Politburo met at 04:30, Stalin was pale and seemingly incapable of understanding that Germany had declared war.
After the first 4 weeks of the campaign, Hitler realized that he had underestimated the Soviet forces. The German troops ran out of provisions. Operations stagnated for a period while waiting for new supplies. Hitler now believed that he could win the war by destroying the Russian industrial centers in the north and the south. He ordered the Panzer formations making up Army Group Center to be split up. They would be sent to strengthen the front in the north and south, thus suspending the advance towards Moscow. In the south, one of the principal objectives was the capture of Kiev.
For the assault on Leningrad, the 4th Panzer Army was reinforced with tanks from Army Group Center. The German Panzers broke through the Soviet defensive lines. The Germans thus began the siege of the city of Leningrad. The Finns had joined the German invasion enthusiastically. They hoped, in this way, to gain revenge for the defeat suffered in the Winter War. The Finns managed to capture Viipuri, together with a good part of the rest of the Karelian Isthmus, laying siege to Leningrad from the north-west. The second-largest city in the Soviet Union was isolated.
For the German troops to be able to capture Moscow, they first had to capture Smolensk. The city surrendered after an initial stubborn resistance. From that moment, there was no other large urban settlement between the Germans and Moscow. The chief of security in Stavka, Lavrenti Beria, took care of the general panic which took over the capital. He ordered roadblocks on all the roads out of the city. He simply shot those who tried to escape.
Operation Typhoon, the march of the Axis troops towards Moscow, began with the arrival of autumn. In front of Army Group Center was a series of elaborate defense lines. The first line was centered on the city of Vyazma, the second on Mozhaisk. The assault on Moscow was formidable. From the south, via Orel, came the Panzer Group of Hans Guderian. Army II came through Kaluga, and Hoepner’s IV Panzer Group came from Roslavl, via Yukhnov. Army Group Center ensured the main attack. In the meantime, Army Group North was collaborating with III Panzer Group commanded by Hoth, which had come through Vyazma and Borodino.
During the war, relatively few buildings in Moscow were destroyed by German bombing raids. This was due to the size and precision of the Russian anti-aircraft units, and to the anti-bomber cover operations carried out by the fighter planes Ilyushin and Airacobra. The mobile rocket BM13, Katyusha, was used for the first time in the defense of Moscow. This was launched from the back of a truck.
Though at first they were disorganised and often lacked coordination, the Soviet partisans came to be much better equipped and better led. They created serious difficulties for the Axis forces during the entire duration of the war on Soviet territory.
The most dire threats were used in order to prevent the soldiers of the Red Army from surrendering to the Germans. Order no. 227, ‘No step back’, from Stalin, dictated that those who retreated without specific orders, or those who surrendered, must be treated as ‘traitors to the Motherland’. As a result, their families were in danger of imprisonment. There were also cases in which Russian civilians were executed by NKVD units.
The causes of the Soviets’ initial defeat are multiple. The Red Army had not been trained for the attack, and was taken completely by surprise. Due to the purges made by Stalin, the Red Army lacked competent leaders. Most of the new commanders were weak soldiers, but ‘viable’ from a political viewpoint. Hitler and his generals underestimated the military potential of the Soviet Union. In the belief that the USSR would surrender in a few months, the soldiers were not equipped for winter conditions. Thus, Hitler brought about his own defeat. The too-long supply lines also contributed to the failure of the operation.
Due to the fact that the Soviets were taken by surprise by the German attack, the Luftwaffe obtained air superiority in the first week of fighting. Some Soviet airplanes didn’t even have the opportunity to take off, and were destroyed on the ground. Although the Germans dominated the air, they couldn’t use this efficiently to their advantage, due to the vast territory of the Soviet Union.
At the beginning of the campaign, the Luftwaffe first of all destroyed the enemy airports, in order to prevent the Soviets from responding to air attacks with their own planes. The results were devastating. The Soviets lost hundreds of planes which were not able to take off. The Soviet Air Forces, the VSS, were not however completely destroyed. They put up stubborn resistance, and notched up a few successes.
During the battle, the German forces, especially the SS, committed a series of war crimes, both against prisoners of war and against Russian civilians. Many Soviet prisoners were starved to death. Russian civilians were killed in numerous mass executions.
Operation Barbarossa still stands today as the largest military operation in the history of mankind. During the operation, a record number of men, tanks, planes and weapons were used. Approx. 75% of the entire military effective of the German Wehrmacht participated in the operation.