World War II: Operation Barbarossa
On The March
Europe Just Before Barbarossa
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 Fall Of Smolensk
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.
Turn Of The Tide
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.
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© 2013 James Kenny