The young infantryman Adolf Hitler conceived a pathological
hatred for Bolshevism after talking to some of the troops who
had returned from the Eastern Front when Lenin and his followers
overthrew the Tsar and negotiated a separate peace with Germany.
During the 1920's Hitler and the National Socialist German
Workers' Party (NSDAP) were in the forefront of anti-Communist
demonstrations and street fights throughout a Germany torn
spiritually apart by the swingeing provisions of the Treaty of
Versailles which the victorious Allies had imposed in 1919.
Hitler was jailed for his part in an attempt to overthrow the
government of Bavaria (the so-called 'Beer Hall Putsch') and
while in prison set out his racial and ideological theories in
Mein Kampf. After he was elected Chancellor in 1933, Hitler
blamed the Reichstag fire on the Communists in order the seize
absolute power and legally turn Germany into a one-party
|PRELUDE TO SLAUGHTER
His hatred, moreover, was not just directed against Communists,
it was directed against the Russian people themselves, whom
Hitler regarded as Untermenschen (sub humans). For the first
time, Hitler's army represented the beginnings of what Dr Joseph
Gobbels' propaganda would trumpet as a true 'European' force,
which would ultimately number Finns and Frenchmen, Danes, Dutch,
Belgians, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Italians, Rumanians and others
all united in a common cause, the total destruction of
Hitler had discussed the Soviet threat with his generals in
January 1940 and begun thinking seriously about an invasion of
Russia as early as July, buoyed up by the sweeping successes of
the German army in Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and France
over the previous two months. However, it was not until 18
December 1940, that he put his concept on paper in Fuhrer
Directive No.21. This said that 'The bulk of the Russian army
stationed in western Russia will be destroyed by daring
operations led by deeply penetrating armoured spearheads.
Russian forces still capable of giving battle will be prevented
from withdrawing into the depths of Russia. The enemy will then
be energetically pursued and a line will be reached from which
the Russian air force can no longer attack German territory. The
final objective of the operation is to erect a barrier against
Asiatic Russia on the general line Volga-Archangel. The last
surviving industrial areas of Russia in the Urals can then, if
necessary, be eliminated by the Luftwaffe.' However, in the wake
of the Battle of Britain, more than one German officer privately
expressed his doubts at the Luftwaffe's capability.
In 1940-41, the Russian army was totally unprepared for war. In
1937, fearing an army coup to depose him, Stalin had used the
secret police, the dreaded NKVD, to arrest and execute scores of
high-ranking officers and hundreds of their subordinates, from
Marshal Tukachevsky, the leading Russian exponent of modern
armoured warfare, downwards. This purge left the Red Army bereft
of many of its most skilled and experienced officers, whereas
the German officer corps included some of the most talented
soldiers of the twentieth century. Moreover, in 1940 the Russian
army's new heavy KV-l and medium T-34 tanks were not yet in
production, whilst older designs would be been no match for the
German Panzer Ills and IVs, despite their numerical superiority.
On top of this, Russian fighter aircraft were obsolescent
compared with the German Messerschmitt Bf-109, their most modern
design being the Polikarpov 1-16 'Rata' of 1934 vintage, which
had already shown its ~ inadequacies when faced over Spain by
the fighter pilots of the German Condor Legion.
RED ARMY ROUT
The Germans had other advantages which contributed towards
Hitler's confidence that an invasion of Russia would be over in
a matter of weeks. As they had shown in the campaigns of
1939-40, German command, control and communication systems were
superior to those of the Western Allies, and they were
immeasurably superior to those of the Red Army. Russian
communications were predominantly by field telephone, radios
being in very short supply and those that existed being
extremely unreliable. In 1941 only company commanders in the
Soviet tank regiments had radios, having to communicate their
orders to the other vehicles by means of semaphore flags! The
poor state of the Red army had been revealed during the Winter
War of 1940-41, when the Russians invaded tiny Finland who gave
them a bloody nose and held them to a negotiated settlement.
Despite these shortcomings in the Soviet forces, it had never been
Hitler's intention to wage a war on two fronts. Even a former corporal realised
that this was a natural recipe for catastrophe. He had not believed initially
that France and Britain would honour their guarantees and go to war, however
belately, over Poland. But they did, and Germany won the campaign in the West
even though the English Channel proved too great an obstacle for it be brought
to its logical conclusion.
Then Mussolini, Hitler's Italian ally, who was rapidly proving
more of an encumbrance than a help, forced the German army to
become envolved first in a campaign in North Africa, then in
Greece and Yugoslavia. Hitler had hoped that Spain would join
the Axis and lay siege to Gibraltar, thereby denying the Royal
Navy access to the western Mediterranean, but Spanish leader
General Franco did not wish to get embroiled in battle with
Britain so soon after the civil war which had devastated his
country and finally backed down at the beginning of December
So, plans for the invasion of Russia were laid with an unsubdued
enemy on the back doorstep, meaning that 60 divisions of troops
were, in effect, wasted in maintaining the security of Norway,
France, the Low Countries, Greece and Yugoslavia, while one of
Germany's most capable generals, Erwin Rommel, was stuck at the
end of an overstretched and inadequate supply line in Africa
with his two elite divisions.
Moreover, Hitler after having to pull Mussolini's chestnuts out
of the fire in Greece and then deciding to invade Crete, caused
a delay to the start of Operation Barbarossa by 5-6 weeks. This
delay was to produce disastrous results when 'General Winter'
clamped down on unprepared German troops who had largely
believed their leader's propaganda that the campaign would be
another short one, comparable to the sweep through France.
MILLIONS MASSED IN
The Germans built up their forces in great secrecy, explaining
away the volume of troop movements by saying they were simply
transferring older personnel from front line to reserve
formations. In fact, by the middle of June 1941 they had
assembled 118 front-line divisions in the east, 17 of them
armoured plus a number of security divisions.
Field Marshal Ritter von Leeb's Army Group North was the the
weakest of the three groups assembled for the invasion. It had
four infantry divisions, three motorised infantry division and
three Panzer divisions in General Erich Hopner's 4th Panzer
Group, with aerial support provided by General Koller's 1st Air
Fleet. Their objective was Leningrad.
Field Marshal Fedor von Bock's Army Group Centre, targeted on
Moscow, comprised 41 infantry, one cavalry, six motorised
infantry divisions, plus nine Panzer divisions divided into
General Heinz Guderian's 2nd and General Hermann Hoth's 3rd
Panzer Groups. In the air, support came from Field Marshal
Albert Kesselring's 2nd Air Fleet.
Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt's Army Group South was the
strongest of the three prongs, for the greatest opposition was
expected to be encountered in the south. It had 52 infantry
divisions, including four motorised and four mountain
formations, 15 Rumanian, two Hungarian and two Italian
divisions, plus General Ewald von Kleist's 1st Panzer Group,
five divisions strong. General Lohr's 4th Air Fleet provided
cover. Their objectives were Kiev, Odessa, the Crimea and
toforce a crossing of the River Dnieper, opening the path to
Rostov and ultimately Stalingrad and the Caucasus.
Opposing these forces the Russians had 160-plus infantry
divisions to deploy, 30 cavalry divisions and some 35 armoured
and motorised brigades. Overall commander in the north was
Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, the armour being commanded by
General Nikolai Kuznetsov. Marshal Semen Timoshenko commanded in
the centre, his tank leader being General Dimitry Pavlov, while
in the south Marshal Semen Budenny's armoured units were
commanded by the very able General Mikhail Kirponos.
One factor the Germans had not taken into account, though, was
the speed with which Russia was able to mobilise its reserves so
that, in spite of enormous losses, the Red Army was able to
muster 400 divisions by the end of 1941, some 12 million men.
The clash of the titans was about to begin.
Just after midnight the Red Army is given orders to come to
combat readiness, although they were still not allowed to occupy
battle positions. At 3:15am, Operation 'Barbarossa' begins with
German and Axis forces comprising 183 divisions (3,500,000 men),
3,350 tanks, 7,184 guns and 1,945 aircraft launching the biggest
military operation in history on an 1,800-mile front from
'Finland to the Black Sea'. Three Army Groups supported by
powerful Panzer armies and Luftwaffe bomber fleets, Army Group
South (von Rundstedt) with Panzer Group 1 (von Kleist), Army
Group Centre (von Bock) with Panzer Groups 2 (Guderian) and 3
(Hoth), and Army Group North (von Leeb) with Panzer Group 4
(Hoepner), go into action against 132 Soviet divisions
(2,500,000 men), 20,000 tanks and 7,700 aircraft. The overall
objective of the campaign is to destroy the Soviet forces in
western Russia by the Autumn and to occupy the European part of
the Soviet Union up to the line Archangel - Urals - Volga -
Astrakhan. By the end of the first day, the Luftwaffe had
destroyed 800 Soviet aircraft on the ground at 60 airfields and
400 in the air. The Red Army along the border seemed unprepared
for the assault and offered only limited resistance, which
allows the Panzer divisions to advance up to 50 miles and maul
12 Soviet divisions.
Army Group North sweeps into Lithuania and White Russia, taking
Vilna and Kaunas. Hungary breaks off diplomatic relations with
the Soviet Union.
Major Russian forces are close to being surrounded in the
Bialystok area by Panzer units of Army Group Centre. Panzer
Group 1 captures Lutsk and Dubno, in what was before September
1939 eastern Poland.
German forces of Army Group North capture Dünaburg in Latvia.
The Luftwaffe carries out raids on Leningrad. Heavy fighting in
the Bialystok area as the German Panzer’s units close the
German forces capture Bobruisk and Przemysl. Hungary declares
war on the Soviet Union and agrees to send troops to help Army
Army Group Centre's Panzer Groups meet to the east of Minsk,
capturing the city and trapping 27 Red Army divisions in a
pocket to the west. Army Group South meets tougher than expected
resistance in its drive through the southern Ukraine.
Russian Defence Committee is formed with Stalin, Molotov,
Voroshilov, Malenkov and Beria.
Army Group Centre continues to constrict the Bialystok pocket to
the west of Minsk. Pilots of Luftwaffe fighter wing JG-51 down
100 Soviet bombers attacking German panzer forces east of Minsk,
with its CO, Oberst Mölders, accounting for 5 of them. German
forces of Army Group South capture Lemberg (Lvov).