World War II: Operation Barbarossa

Updated on May 20, 2014

On The March

German Panzers moving through Belarus in June 1941.
German Panzers moving through Belarus in June 1941. | Source

Europe Just Before Barbarossa

Prior to the invasion of the Soviet Union, the Nazis had conquered virtually all of Western Europe in just over 12 months.
Prior to the invasion of the Soviet Union, the Nazis had conquered virtually all of Western Europe in just over 12 months. | Source

Introduction

The largest military operation of all time, codenamed Barbarossa (‘Red Beard’), got under way on the 22nd June 1941. It would see the German Wehrmacht achieve its most spectacular victories. It did not lead to ultimate victory, however, and the Red Army would storm Berlin four years later.

Hitler had placed the greatest emphasis in his plans for the capture of Leningrad- the USSR’s second city and primary naval base- and the clearing of the Baltic States. Yet he had allocated the least number of troops, some 26 divisions to Army Group North under Marshal von Leeb. As a consequence, Leeb’s advance was slow and it was not until September that his exhausted troops managed to cut off Leningrad from the rest of the USSR. And instead of a swift capture of the great city, a long and ultimately fatal siege ensued.

Operation Barbarossa In Colour

Ukrainian Victories, Rostov Setback

Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt’s Army Group South- 41 divisions, including five panzer and 14 Romanian divisions- were entrusted with the vital task of taking the Ukraine. With its abundant grain fields and the industrial might of the Donbass region, it was a prize that was much needed.

Unfortunately for Rundstedt, however, the South-western Front, the strongest of the Soviet army groups, offered fierce resistance, led ably by its commander General Mikhail Kirponos. As a result, Army Group South was able to advance only slowly and deliberately. Nevertheless, the panzer forces of Army Group Centre intervened, converging on the 10th September with those of Rundstedt’s panzer's east of Kiev.

Three massive Soviet armies (Fifth, Twenty Sixth and Thirty Seventh) were now trapped in and around Kiev. Kirponos died trying to escape the German trap and a staggering 665,000 of his men were captured.

On the 30th September, the 1st Panzer Group attacked and had, by the 6th October, trapped much of the Soviet Southern Front in a large pocket in southeast Ukraine. Two armies (the Ninth and Eighteenth) were destroyed, yielding 100,000 prisoners.

The German advance continued towards Rostov on the Don River, which was captured on the 20th November. However, the Soviet High Command (Stavka) launched a vigorous counterattack with three armies against the by now overextended German lines. By the 29th November, this strategically located city was back in Soviet hands and the Germans had narrowly escaped an early version of Stalingrad.

The Ruins Of War

The ruins of Minsk, capital of Belarus which was destroyed by the Germans in July 1941.
The ruins of Minsk, capital of Belarus which was destroyed by the Germans in July 1941. | Source

The Fall Of Smolensk

The fall of Smolensk was the last major obstacle preventing the Nazis from marching on Moscow itself.
The fall of Smolensk was the last major obstacle preventing the Nazis from marching on Moscow itself. | Source

Advance Of Army Group Centre

When Napoleon had invaded Russia in 1812, he ultimately reached Moscow but still did not achieve victory. Hitler’s generals- especially Fedor von Bock, the commander of Army Group Centre- believed that the Soviet Union would collapse if Moscow was captured. Here, as in the south, the Germans scored some major successes. A string of armies were trapped inside the Bialystok salient and in a vast pocket west of Minsk, yielding 300,000 prisoners. Stalin had the Western Front’s commander, General Dmitri Pavlov, fired and shot upon his return to Moscow for his failures. His place was taken by Marshal Simeon Timoshenko, an experienced and hard-headed commander.

The Red Army continued to suffer catastrophic reverses, however. Smolensk, the gateway to Moscow, fell on the 16th July. Stalin was now determined to block the German advance, and a series of counterattacks were launched by the Western Front armies, costing them another 300,000 men and 3000 tanks. Among the Germans, the feeling spread that with each success they were no closer to victory and that the Red Army’s reserves were inexhaustible.

Hitler, who did not share his ‘generals’ views, diverted most of Army Group Centre’s panzer divisions to take part in the battle for Kiev. For more than a month, the Central Front of 496 miles remained unchanged, giving the Red Army invaluable time to prepare its defences. General Andrei Yeremenko had three armies (30 divisions) at Bryansk, and Timoshenko had six armies with 55 divisions at Vyazma. Incredibly, all those forces had been either wiped out or captured by October.

The march on Moscow, codenamed Operation Typhoon, was unleashed early in the morning of the 2nd October in brilliant sunshine. Army Group Centre numbered a million men in 77 divisions with 1700 tanks and almost a thousand planes.

Five days later, General Hoppner’s Fourth Panzer Group cooperating with General Hermann Hoth’s Third Panzer Group had trapped Timoshenko’s six armies in a massive pocket in and around Vyazma.

Soviet Propaganda

A Soviet poster proclaiming in Russian: 'Let's Defend Moscow!'
A Soviet poster proclaiming in Russian: 'Let's Defend Moscow!' | Source

Turn Of The Tide

Soviet troops supported by tanks in the midst of their counterattack against the Germans in December 1941.
Soviet troops supported by tanks in the midst of their counterattack against the Germans in December 1941.

The Battle Of Moscow In Colour

The Battle Of Moscow

On the 9th October, Hoth and Hoppner linked up with Guderian’s panzer forces, trapping the Third, Thirteenth and Fiftieth Soviet armies north and south of Bryansk. Leaving only a minimum of troops to seal up the pockets at Vyazma and Bryansk, the Army Group’s panzer groups aimed for Mozhaiska and Tula. These pockets were eliminated by the 14th and 20th October respectively, leaving eight armies destroyed. The yield was as massive as at Kiev- some 673,000 prisoners, more than 1000 tanks and 5000 guns.

Despite torrential rains that turned the roads into quagmires, the Germans had covered two thirds of the distance to Moscow by the middle of the month. Finally, Soviet morale snapped. On the 16th October, law and order collapsed in the capital, a million of its citizens fleeing for their lives in the ‘Great Flight.’ Only a policy of shooting to kill by the NKVD (Soviet Secret Police) stemmed the panic and prevented further looting and chaos.

In early November, the weather turned colder, enabling the Germans to advance again across frozen and hard roads. But it was soon too cold with temperatures of minus 21 degrees C and a new commander had appeared on the Soviet side, General Georgi Zhukov, who had already saved Leningrad and was now planning a counterattack against the exhausted Germans. By the 18th November, Zhukov had 21 rested, fully equipped and battle hardened Siberian divisions ready to be unleashed against Bock’s army.

The German plan was for a frontal assault with 36 divisions while the three panzer divisions encircled the Soviet defenders around Moscow. On the 27th November, the 2nd Panzer Division was just 14 miles from the capital and could see the spires of the Kremlin palaces through the haze.

Bock’s Army Group now held a front almost 600 miles long with a mere 60 divisions. The crawling offensive came to a halt on the 5th December when temperatures plunged to a bone chilling -35 degrees. That same day Zhukov ordered General Konev’s Kalinin Front to attack, and the following day his own Western Front went on the offensive.

The attack took the Germans completely by surprise, and over the next two months the Red Army held the initiative on the Central Front. Hitler gave orders that there was to be no retreat and this probably saved Army Group C from a complete collapse.

The failure of Typhoon spelled the defeat of Barbarossa. In the long run, the Soviet counterattack sounded the death knell to the German Nazi Reich as well. Two days after Zhukov began his offensive, the United States entered the war, and Hitler’s defeat was now only a question of time.

Questions & Answers

    © 2013 James Kenny

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      • Nick DeGeorge profile image

        Nick 

        4 years ago from Gilbert Arizona

        As we have numerous history buffs the best documentary series ever made on WWII is called Battlefield you can view the episodes for free on YouTube the episode pertaining to this article is called The Battle of Russia

      • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

        James Kenny 

        4 years ago from Birmingham, England

        Well, I have to say that I'm glad that this hub has ignited a good old intellectual debate. Thank you very much for your input guys.

      • JPB0756 profile image

        Robert A. Joseph 

        4 years ago

        Thanks for responding. Sure, some Lithuanians, Slavs and Georgians were conscribed, but actual Russians, like Aryans, were blond, blue eyed and shot on sight. My fellow javelin thrower in college was first generation U.S. Russian. I heard first-hand of "The Great Patriotic War."

      • Thief12 profile image

        Thief12 

        4 years ago from Puerto Rico

        JPB0756, re: Germans recruiting Soviets, maybe it wasn't widespread, but at least from what I've read, several country regions of Western Russia, what is now Ukraine and Belarus, etc. were pretty much left to their own by the USSR, which had lots of residents angry at Stalin. But yeah, it probably wasn't a huge amount of people.

      • JPB0756 profile image

        Robert A. Joseph 

        4 years ago

        Hitler loathed the Soviet Union and feared the U.S.; he hoped that the U.K. would ally with him. Know Adolf, and you know the war. Read F.W. Wintebotham's book and you, too, shall see.

      • Reizach profile image

        Reizach 

        4 years ago from Phoenix

        Operation Barbarossa is one of those things that invokes the same incomprehension in me as when I try to think about the distance to the Moon in relation to the center of the Milky Way. The numbers are to large for the human mind to grasp with any sort of real understanding. The loss of life in a single week of heavy fighting is...well...there isn't words to actually do it justice. The most massive single campaign in the history of mankind of course, but surprisingly unknown in the US, as I suppose this is because it happened to the dreaded Soviets so who cares.

        It was very interesting to me when I was reading Guderian's memoirs when he was finally relaxing with a sigh after the successful yet risky all out ride through France that he then thought the war was over. France had been brought to its knees, and the obvious course of action now was to give France back in exchange for a favorable peace with Britain. And to his horror, Hitler decided to keep fighting. Guderian knew this would mean a fight with Russia was now certain and that the Wehrmacht was most likely not up for the challenge. Not to mention the rest of the world. Yet little more than 2 years later his battered panzer formation is within an hours walk of the Kremlin, fascinating.

        The war on the Eastern Front from beginning to end was the zenith of industrialized slaughter. Your post was very informative, thanks for putting it up.

      • JPB0756 profile image

        Robert A. Joseph 

        5 years ago

        I recall a great hatred between foes, as each employed a "scorched earth" policy. Not much recall on eager Soviets wishing to switch nor Germans that would allow them even to pistol range. Maybe a different war.

      • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

        James Kenny 

        5 years ago from Birmingham, England

        Thank you very much Thief, and thanks for that golden piece of info. Just goes to show once again how different things could have been if Hitler has listened to logic, rather than his own warped mind.

      • Thief12 profile image

        Thief12 

        5 years ago from Puerto Rico

        Great hub. Very informative. Voted UP and Interesting. Also, belated congrats on HOTD.

        Also, to add to the subject, another of Hitler's mistakes was that he refused to recruit Soviet residents from the countryside as he advanced towards Moscow, capturing them instead. Lots of Soviet residents weren't that happy with Stalin and would've been eager to join an opposing force. Plus, the Nazis would've been thankful for the extra manpower.

      • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

        James Kenny 

        5 years ago from Birmingham, England

        Yes I agree with you Alastar. Similarly if he had listened to his generals, he could have destroyed the British Expeditionary Force in 1940, and also, if he hadn't have switched tactics in the Battle of Britain and stuck to bombing airfields, he would have eventually bombed the RAF into submission, thus allowing him relatively easy access to the British mainland. It's amazing to think how different things would be on the basis of the decisions of just a few men.

      • Alastar Packer profile image

        Alastar Packer 

        5 years ago from North Carolina

        Very fine hub on Barbarossa, Mr Kenny. You know I've heard it said Hitler's underestimation of Russia ruined his chances at empire, his underestimation of the USA dug his grave. If he had listened to his top generals and headed straight for Moscow history as we know it would be far different. What are your thoughts?

      • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

        James Kenny 

        5 years ago from Birmingham, England

        Well, sometimes I wonder if it would have been better if Churchill had got his way. Both Hitler and Stalin were monsters who glorified in irrational genocide.

      • JPB0756 profile image

        Robert A. Joseph 

        5 years ago

        If Churchill had had his way, Germany and Russia would have destroyed each other; F.D.R. liked and respected Stalin. No Soviet Union, otherwise.

      • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

        James Kenny 

        5 years ago from Birmingham, England

        Thanks David. Well yes, but Stalin wasn't exactly altogether there if you know what I mean. I'm sure I remember reading that Churchill was more fearful of Stalin's intentions as Hitlers.

      • UnnamedHarald profile image

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        A History Hub of the Day! Awesome! And, as usual, very well-written, JKenny. We Americans sometimes find it difficult to admit that the land war in WW2 was predominantly between the Germans and the Russians. Even after the US entered the war, it was the Soviets who took the brunt of the fighting for another 2 1/2 years. Uncle Joe truly believed the Germans would not attack, despite the British constantly warning him of Hitler's intentions.

      • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

        James Kenny 

        5 years ago from Birmingham, England

        Thank you very much. Glad you liked it.

      • profile image

        conradofontanilla 

        5 years ago

        I can see more clearly why Stalin grumbled during the Tehran conference in february 1945 saying that the west delayed the Normandy landing to bleed Russia. However, Stalin could have been lulled by his secret non-aggression pact with Hitler before Hitler rolled over Europe. While the west tried to appease Hitler, led by Chamberlain, Stalin was cooling on his hammock.

      • JPB0756 profile image

        Robert A. Joseph 

        5 years ago

        Excellent presentation, full of facts, too; superb work. You've earned a follower. I will only begin, and finish with a series of Hubs...hopefully, by saying the war was decided from the beginning. Have you read anything by F.W. Winterbotham? My Dad was with the O.S.S., and MacArthur during the Occupation, so perhaps differing views are tantamount to this. Thanks for a fun time, see you soon.

      • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

        James Kenny 

        5 years ago from Birmingham, England

        Thank you John.

      • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

        James Kenny 

        5 years ago from Birmingham, England

        Thank you very much Rema.

      • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

        James Kenny 

        5 years ago from Birmingham, England

        Thank you very much.

      • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

        James Kenny 

        5 years ago from Birmingham, England

        Thank you very much.

      • John Sarkis profile image

        John Sarkis 

        5 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

        Kenny,

        Excellent hub. Voted up and sharing!

        Congrats on winning HOTD!

        John

      • maxoxam41 profile image

        Deforest 

        5 years ago from USA

        Russia was not Poland. Its superficies, its weather were apparently not taken into consideration by German tacticians. Another mistake also was the fact that Germans privileged the Blitzkrieg and probably thought the same as for Russia, it all conduced to their demise.

      • pstraubie48 profile image

        Patricia Scott 

        5 years ago from sunny Florida

        Thanks for providing all of the detail about this event. It is always so interesting (albeit a little frightening too) how events can occur that change history. So much happened during that time that if it had happened a different way surely would have ultimately changed our history.

        Angels are on the way to you ps

      • remaniki profile image

        Rema T V 

        5 years ago from Chennai, India

        Hi James,

        I hardly visit hubpages these days but when I did today, I was pleased with what I saw, so came right here to read this great hub and congratulate you. A well-deserved HOTD. Very interesting hub and informative too. Thanks for the knowledge. Cheers, Rema

      • Oscarlites profile image

        Oscar Jones 

        5 years ago from Monroeville, Alabama

        good history lesson. what of the 200? million Russians it said "never returned?" Interesting also to hear that the war tide turned when us Americans showed up. Actually a rich history of USA / Russian relations. but such war. it seems in retrospect that all of life was centered around war.

        I did not realize how big these armies.. the sheer number of soldiers.

      • Aneegma profile image

        Merida Craze 

        5 years ago

        I wish I read this back in school then I would have passed my History exam. Nicely written!

      • CMHypno profile image

        CMHypno 

        5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

        Congratulations on HOTD! Very interesting, well written hub. We don't seem to hear as much about the war on the Eastern Front as we do in Europe and the other theatres of war, so thanks for the information

      • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

        James Kenny 

        5 years ago from Birmingham, England

        Thank you very much Elias. Appreciate it.

      • Elias Zanetti profile image

        Elias Zanetti 

        5 years ago from Athens, Greece

        Excellent historical writing and such an interesting hub! Many thanks, Kenny!

      • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

        James Kenny 

        5 years ago from Birmingham, England

        Hi Nell, yes my granddad was in the war, as an artillery gunner, and he said exactly the same thing. I remember him telling me that if Hitler had listened to his generals then the Germans would have won the war easily. He also told me that Hitler's arrogance cost them the war in the East, because he believed that he could beat the Soviets before the onset of the winter. That's why they didn't have any proper winter clothing. Thanks for popping by.

      • Nell Rose profile image

        Nell Rose 

        5 years ago from England

        My mum always told me that the Germans made a fatal mistake because of the freezing cold weather my mum was a sergeant in the raf, my dad was in the army in Arnhem and my uncle flew a lancaster bomber, so we got all the history from them, this is great, so well detailed, voted up!

      • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

        James Kenny 

        5 years ago from Birmingham, England

        Thanks very much Mel. Glad you liked it.

      • Mel Jay profile image

        Mel Jay 

        5 years ago from Australia

        Really well written informative hub, thanks for the information, Cheers, Mel

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