Operation Barbarossa

Before World War 2, the spectre of Bolshevik domination had haunted Adolf Hitler since 1917. Now he was about to attempt the ultimate conquest - the destruction of the mighty Russian bear within its own lair.The genesis of Operation Barbarossa (codenamed after the great twelfth-century German emperor Frederick Barbarossa) Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union-can be traced back to the battlefields of the Western Front in 1917-1918.
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.

In 1923 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 dictatorship.

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 Communism!

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.

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 1940.

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.

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.

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Timeline Date Timeline Description
22/06/1941 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.
24/06/1941 Army Group North sweeps into Lithuania and White Russia, taking Vilna and Kaunas. Hungary breaks off diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union.
25/06/1941 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.
26/06/1941 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 pocket.
27/06/1941 German forces capture Bobruisk and Przemysl. Hungary declares war on the Soviet Union and agrees to send troops to help Army Group South.
28/06/1941 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.
29/06/1941 Russian Defence Committee is formed with Stalin, Molotov, Voroshilov, Malenkov and Beria.
30/06/1941 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).