“When Operation Barbarossa is launched, the world will hold its breath!”
In the early hours of June 22 1941 the largest and most ambitious land invasion ever mounted was unleashed. Its code name was Operation Barbarossa.
Involving some 4 million men, 3,600 tanks, over 4,000 aircraft, and 46,000 artillery pieces, German and Axis forces attacked the Soviet Union along a 2,900 km front from the Baltic in the north to the Black Sea in the south. Hitler’s grand ideological project of colonising Eastern Europe, granting the German and German-speaking peoples Lebensraum (living space), destroying in the process the degenerate and inferior Slav peoples, Untermenschen, while crushing the threat posed by ‘Jewish Bolshevism’ to his vision of a racially pure Aryan Europe was underway. From the outset it was to be a war of annihilation in which millions would be slaughtered.
Stalin had been warned that Hitler was planning an invasion. Under no illusions about the motives of the fascist dictator, the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact, signed two years earlier between both countries, wasn’t so much a pact cementing friendly relations between two rival powers as a temporary deferment of future hostilities. Soviet strategy in signing the pact was to buy the time necesssary to prepare for the inevitable war to come, while for Hitler it was motivated by the desire to avoid a repeat of the military blunder committed by Germany in the First World War in fighting a war on two fronts. The pact with the Soviet Union allowed the Nazi dictator to focus on France and the West before turning his attention to the East.
The Soviets had good reason to fear being isolated by the imperialist and capitalist powers of Western Europe. The policy of non-intervention that both France and Britain followed during the Spanish Civil War had left Moscow in no doubt that the allied camp was soft on fascism and the explicitly anti-communist objectives that lay at its heart. Further confirmation of the accommodation of the West to fascism from the point of view of the Soviets came with the signing of the Munich Agreement between Germany, Italy, France and Britain in September 1938, ratifying Hitler’s annexation of the German-speaking region of Czechoslovakia, the Sudetenland, without the agreement of the Czechoslovakian Government.
The Soviet Union had a mutual military assistance treaty with Czechoslovakia at the time of the annexation of the Sudetenland, as did France, leading Stalin to the draw the logical conclusion that the West was now actively colluding with Hitler in his expansionist aims in Europe and that the ultimate aim of the parties involved in the Munich Agreement was a future attack on the Soviet Union. It was out of this concern and the desire to split the fascist and imperialist powers involved that the Soviets signed a non-aggression pact with Germany a year later.
The most controversial aspect of the pact was the secret agreement between both countries to carve up Eastern Europe into spheres of influence. This resulted in the Soviets invading and annexing the Eastern half of Poland two weeks after Germany had invaded and occupied the Western half of the country, which brought Britain into the war. Further Soviet annexations of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and other states on its Western and Southern periphery followed. With these, Stalin was motivated by the desire to create a defensive buffer against the possibility of invasion from the West, while Hitler was intent on moving closer to his long held obsession with destroying the Soviet Union and everything it represented.
Convinced that Hitler wouldn’t attack until he’d first defeated Britain, the Soviet leader calculated that if the British managed to hold out through the summer of 1941 the Germans would not be in a position to commence hostilities against the Soviet Union until the spring of 1942 at the earliest. However, aware that the Soviets were rearming at a furious rate, in addition to training up a new officer corps that was left decimated after Stalin’s purges of the Red Army throughout the 1930s, for Hitler the earlier an invasion was mounted the better. As he told his generals during the planning stages for the invasion, “We only have to kick in the front door and the whole rotten edifice will come tumbling down.”
Hitler’s confidence was buttressed by his belief in the ability of his U-boats in the Atlantic to starve the British into suing for peace after he’d abandoned tentative plans and preparations for an invasion in 1940, thus removing the fear that was prevalent among his generals of exactly the two front war that the Nazi dictator had vowed never to become embroiled in. Moreover, the US was still to enter the war and was not yet a factor.
The truth is that Hitler turned his focus to the East almost as soon as France was defeated. Britain, whose empire he admired and wanted to replicate in Europe, was never a priority.
The scale of Barbarossa was matched by its audacity. German and Axis forces were split into three component parts – Army Group North, which would secure the Baltic, Army Group Centre, which would drive towards Moscow, and Army Group South, whose remit was to drive into and secure the coal and oil rich regions of the Ukraine and Caucasus. The primary focus of the initial German advance was the destruction of the Soviet forces arrayed against them, which would be effected by a series of giant encirclements in some of the most outstanding feats of military planning and manoeuvre ever undertaken.
By the time the invasion got underway, it was five weeks behind schedule, due to the diversion of military resources to the Balkans for the German invasion of Yugoslavia. This was mounted in response to a coup by Serbian military officers that succeeded in toppling the Nazi puppet government led by Prince Paul with a less pliant alternative. Regardless, Hitler was so confident that the Soviet Union would be defeated before winter set in that the five week delay was not deemed important. His judgment on this was destined to be proved catastrophically wrong.
As for Stalin, his determination to ignore the repeated warnings of his vast international espionage network - the most famous member of whom was the legendary Richard Sorge in Tokyo – that the Germans were preparing to invade in the summer of 1941 would return to haunt him. A personal warning to Stalin from Winston Churchill that the German forces massing on his Western border were about to invade also went unheeded, with Stalin of the belief that Churchill and the British were trying to push him into a war with the Nazis in order to relieve the pressure on them.
Soviet weaponry and military hardware in many categories more than matched its German counterpart at the time of the invasion, in particular artillery and tanks. Soviet industrial output was second only to the United States and was on a par with Germany. What the Soviets lacked was advanced aircraft, communications systems, sufficient training (especially of pilots), and the integration of armour with infantry and aircraft to match the German tactical formations. At the time of the invasion the Soviets were rapidly modernising to catch up, especially after the fall of France, where German blitzkrieg tactics contrasted sharply with the static lines of defence that were employed by the French. But these reforms were still to be completed by June 1941. Again, Stalin’s purges of the Red Army officer corps throughout the 1930s had reduced Soviet fighting capacity significantly, though by the end of 1941 a new tranche of top quality senior and mid level officers had emerged to fill the gap.
Marshal Tukhachevsky (pictured right), the most high profile victim of Stalin’s Red Army purges, was an early advocate of motorised warfare, with advanced ideas on how modern battles should be fought. But his reforms met with resistance among his fellow officers, especially his theory of ‘deep operations’, which placed a priority on striking deep behind enemy lines in armoured thrusts to destroy his supply lines and logistical capability. With Tukhachevsky’s execution in 1937 the concept was dropped, only to be reintroduced after the disaster of the 1939-40 Winter War against Finland.By the time of Barbarossa the theory had been reintroduced, but even the most advanced theories and military tactics are rendered redundant against an invasion of the scale and ferocity of Barbarossa when your armed forces are not prepared to meet it.
The extent of Soviet unpreparedness is reflected in the fact that in terms of the size of military forces that faced one another across the Soviet’s Western border, German and Axis forces only marginally outnumbered their Red Army counterpart. However, Soviet forces had been placed on a peacetime footing.
In terms of military hardware, the Germans had 4,389 aircraft compared to the 11,537 that were available to the Soviets (though a large proportion of these were obsolete) with 4,000 tanks compared to over 15,000.Early German successes were nothing short of astounding. By the 17th day Army Group Centre, led by General von Bock and comprising the main thrust of the German invasion, had taken over 300,000 prisoners, destroyed over 2,000 Soviet tanks, 1400 artillery pieces, and decimated Soviet aircraft, mostly while they were still on the ground, while driving towards Minks and Smolensk, preparatory to destroying the Soviet armies facing them in giant encirclements. Army Group Centre’s overriding objective was Moscow, but Hitler’s fateful decision to divert Panzers from von Bock to Army Groups North and South seriously delayed the push towards Moscow and allowed the winter to take its course and bog down the German advance, subsequent to it being turned back at the gates of Moscow by a massive Soviet counteroffensive beginning on December 5 1941.
By now the Red Army had regrouped and was benefitting from the effective leadership of men such as Zhukov (pictured right), Konev, Rokossovsky, and Vasilevsky. Stalin, unlike Hitler, wisely allowed his generals to prosecute the war without undue interference after first setting the military objectives. This was to prove a key factor in the eventual soviet victory.
Another key factor was the heroic role of the Soviet people themselves. As a result of the previously mentioned Soviet annexations, and other harsh measures implemented in the border states, not forgetting Stalin’s crude approach to the national question overall, the arrival of German troops was initially welcomed by large sections of the population in the regions and Baltic States affected.
Indeed, but for the resulting atrocities committed by the special SS Einsatzgruppen units that followed in the wake of the regular frontline Wehrmact units, the Germans would have benefitted greatly from the resentment that existed in these regions to Soviet policies. Instead the mass killings, torture and wholesale murder of civilians the SS carried out resulted in the spread of Partisan groups, which played havoc behind German lines throughout the war. Even so, there were still those who actively collaborated with the Nazis, joining the ranks of specially organised Waffen SS units such as the Latvian, Estonian and Tatar Legions and the Kaminski Brigade. These units were mostly assigned to anti-Partisan operations and were involved in some of the most brutal atrocities committed in Nazi occupied territory.
However, this aspect of the war notwithstanding, the scope and effectiveness of the national mobilisation of the Soviet people was remarkable, exemplified by the extraordinary feat whereby entire armaments factories were dismantled in the face of the German advance, transported to the rear and reassembled and production resumed, in many cases before the roofs were even fitted.
Stalin’s decision to abandon the language and Marxist nostrums of international class struggle as the motive force of the Soviet war effort, while controversial from the perspective of ideological purity certainly proved successful in its objective of fomenting national unity. The Soviet leader reintroduced national symbols of Russian patriotism, utilising the imagery and mythology of famous Russian military victories and heroic figures from the nation’s history, figures who prior to the war had been suppressed as relics of the country’s feudal and Tsarist past. He reopened churches and reintroduced the insignia, pageantry and military etiquette that had been banned within the newly established Red Army after the October Revolution. Nazi barbarism came as the logical conclusion to the failure of the international working class to stem the rise of fascism in Europe, and with this barbarism intent on a war of annihiliation in the East, Leninist received truths had been rendered redundant.
Crucially, Stalin decided against abandoning Moscow along with the rest of the Soviet government as advance units of the German Fourth Army reached the outskirts of the city. Instead, he staged a public review of fresh Red Army detachments that had arrived to join the defence of Moscow a day before the Soviet counteroffensive began, thus bolstering the morale of the troops and the Moscow citizenry in the first instance, then, when the news reel footage was shown throughout the country, the entire population.
Yet another heroic dimension to Barbarossa and the four years of unremitting war and destruction it presaged were the Arctic Convoys (pictured right and below). Beginning in August 1941, and continuing all the way through to May 1945, merchant ships from North America and Britain, protected by British, US and Canadian navy escorts, braved the extreme weather of Arctic Russia and treacherous sea routes while vulnerable to attack from German U-Boats, aircraft and surface ships, to transport crucial lend lease supplies to the Soviet Union. In total around 1400 merchant ships made the journey, out of which 85 were lost along with 16 ships of the Royal Navy. With each convoy involving the near certainty of attack, extraordinary courage was required on the part of the seamen and sailors who took part in what was one of the most dangerous operations of the entire war. The thousands who took part and those who perished were indeed among the bravest of the brave of the Allied war effort.
Even after the supplies delivered by the convoys were no longer vital to the Soviet war effort, they were continued at Stalin’s personal insistence for their positive impact on Soviet morale and symbolic effect.
Consequences of Soviet victory
The huge loss in men suffered by both sides, but especially the Soviets, was testament to the stakes involved. Hitler and his fellow Nazi ideologues were proved wrong in their assertion that Stalin was so unpopular his armies would crumble. Instead, the entire country mobilised to an extent unparalleled in modern history to defeat the Nazis. The vastness of the country certainly was a factor in the inability of the German invasion forces, at the time consisting of the most formidable and battle hardened troops in the world, to defeat the Soviets. The speed of the initial German advance stretched supply lines beyond breaking point, which combined with the dreaded Russian winter by the end of 1941 had left the German offensive bogged down and vulnerable to counterattack. Yet even while being forced to retreat the Germans put up fierce resistance, as befitting what had become for them a war of survival.
But even with factors such as the vastness of the country and the brutal winter weather taken into account, nothing should be taken away from the role of the Red Army in breaking the might of the German war machine. In the words of the German Army Chief of Staff, General Franz Halder, speaking in August 1941: “The Russian colossus…has been underestimated by us…whenever a dozen divisions are destroyed the Russians replace them with another dozen.”
Seventy years on epic conflagrations such as The Battle of Stalingrad; The Battle of Kursk; The Siege of Leningrad; and The Battle of Kiev continue to evoke strong emotions and awe among military historians, amateur and professional alike, with good reason.
The events spawned by Operation Barbarossa shaped the world for decades to come. If Hitler had succeeded there is little doubt that the war would have dragged on far longer than it did with an even greater loss of life. Fascism would have descended like a black shroud over the whole of Europe with untold consequences for the entire world. Britain would have been hopelessly isolated and left struggling to hold out even with the entry of the United States into the war later that year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. The huge natural resources available to the German war machine in the event of a successful conquest of the Soviet Union would have given it a massive boost. Strategically the Germans would have been able to link up with the Japanese and help them with materiel and desperately needed oil for the war in the Pacific. Too, Axis allies such as Italy, Rumania and Hungary would have emerged stronger and more emboldened in their attachment to the fascist cause.
This is why it is true to state that, notwithstanding the terrific role and part played in the war by the Western allies, without the huge sacrifices made by the people of the Soviet Union, fascism in Europe would not have been defeated.