German planning for Operation Barbarossa, the attack on the Soviet Union, began in September 1940. Hitler made his objective clear: despite the German-Soviet pact of 1939, he wanted the utter destruction of the Soviet Union. In retrospect, Barbarossa has to be considered fatally flawed, but based on information available to the German planners in the fall of 1940, after the sequential fall of every country Germany had targeted, they had every reason to expect that Barbarossa would be another Blitzkrieg success.
Operation Barbarossa begins with German troops crossing Russian bordere, 22 June 1941. Photo: Hassadar.
Today in WW II: 27 Nov 1942 Operation Lila: German Army units reach Toulon, on the Mediterranean coast, to capture the Vichy French fleet based there. More↓
The success of Blitzkrieg in Western Europe gave rise to immense optimism in German military and political circles. Hitler looked eastward and assumed that Stalin's Soviet Union would fall as easily as his western conquests. In addition, the Soviet Red Army had been stalemated by the relatively small Finnish Army in 1939, so could be expected to fall rapidly to the three million man assault force of Barbarossa. The unprepared Soviets were further weakened by Stalin's brutal purges of Russian officers and by the ineptitude of those remaining.
On 6 September 1940, Colonel-General Franz Halder, Chief of Staff of the Army, directed the preparation of plans which were ready by late November, including war games indicating the limits of the forces and logistics needed to support such a massive operation. In early December, Halder discussed the plan with Hitler, who refused to decide whether the basic objective should be Moscow or Leningrad and the Ukraine. This lack of strategic direction haunted the operation, but Halder and OKH (Oberkommando des Heeres, the Army High Command) were confident that Russia could be defeated.
Operation Barbarossa was finally launched on 22 June 1941, with three Army Groups (North, Center, South) consisting of nineteen panzer divisions, 114 infantry divisions, fifteen motorized divisions, plus Finnish, Rumanian and Hungarian units, a force of more than 3 million soldiers, 3500 tanks, 7200 artillery pieces, 2000 planes and three-quarters of a million horses. The initial results of the largest attack in history went according to plan; the Blitzkrieg tactics of 1939 and 1940 once again succeeded. The panzer columns plunged deeply into the Soviet interior as the Red Army fell back despite desperate efforts to stem the advance. The Soviets reeled, near collapse, seemingly as helpless against the German Blitzkrieg as Belgium or France the year before.
The three German axes of attack operated in tandem. The northern axis drove toward Leningrad. In the center the objective was Moscow. The southern axis moved toward the Ukraine, and from there the Crimean peninsula and the Caucasus region. The Germans destroyed one Russian unit after another and impounded large numbers of prisoners. However, the OKH had badly miscalculated the Soviet strength. Overcoming the Red Army's tremendous losses, the Russians were able to mobilize ever more troops and throw them into the battles, actually increasing in strength as the summer of 1941 progressed. In the region around Smolensk, Soviet counterattacks and tenacious defense delayed the German Center Army Group offensive and forced the redeployment of significant forces from the other axes of advance.
The Russians also perfected the art of removing industrial equipment -- even whole factories -- ahead of the German advance, to be installed safely to the east where production of war material for the Red Army grew rapidly while leaving nothing for the Germans to appropriate.
The front defending Moscow was pierced by mid-August 1941, and the German armored columns were poised to begin the drive toward the Soviet capital. But Halder and OKH realized that the three pronged attack (Leningrad, Moscow, Ukraine) against the unexpectedly large Soviet opposing force was spreading the German front far too thin. The basic question that had been raised the previous winter now had to be decided: was Barbarossa's prime objective Moscow or the Ukraine? Halder and the commanders in Army Group Center argued for an immediate thrust to Moscow, taking advantage of gains, momentum and weather favoring the Germans at that moment. But Hitler chose a maneuver that would drive south to the Ukraine and envelop some 500,000 Russian troops in the Kiev pocket and Odessa. At the same time, the drive north would capture Leningrad, followed with a complicated operation from all sides to outflank and then capture Moscow.
The German Drive Stalls Before Moscow
The Ukraine operation, which did capture large concentrations of troops and materiel, was declared a great victory, but a greater strategic error had been made. The way to Moscow had been open in August, but the German armies would now have to contend with reinforced Soviet defenses. The German forces were split with insufficient striking power directed toward Moscow. Even worse, the delay meant the Russian winter was much closer. The time lost in the Ukraine could not be regained.
The attack toward Moscow resumed by Army Group Center at the end of September 1941 (Operation Typhoon). Initial progress was excellent, renewing German hopes that Moscow could be taken before the onset of winter. But the German advance ground to a halt as autumn rains turned the unpaved roads into quagmires, stopping all movement. The Russian's "scorched earth" policy denied local replenishment and irregulars (partisans) attacked all along the supply lines from the west, creating shortages of fuel and ammunition. As the weather grew colder, the Germans found themselves deep inside the Soviet Union with dwindling supplies and with uniforms and equipment intended for mild weather.
In early November, over the objections of field commanders, Hitler ordered a final drive on Moscow to begin at once, a 'final effort of willpower' to crush the defenders of Moscow. On 15 November 1941 a new offensive was launched, attempting to swing around Moscow to the north and seal the rail supply lines from the east. Heavy winter weather began on 19 November slowing the advance, nonetheless the Red Army was again driven back. By 2 December forward German units were in the suburbs of Moscow and German panzers came to within 18 miles (30 km) of the city. But winter deepened with temperatures dropping well below zero (F). The mechanized Wehrmacht found its engines would not start, wheels would not turn, artillery would not fire. Supplies could not reach the German troops and they began to eat their dead, frozen horses. An epidemic of frostbite and exposure deaths struck the ill-clad Germans while the Russians, accustomed to such weather and prepared, were scarcely affected.
The Soviets mounted a heroic defense of Moscow assisted by civilians building fortifications and barricades, while Army reserves were brought in from the east. The discouraged Wehrmacht discontinued their attacks and planned to remain in position until better weather returned. The Reds denied them that chance with a 5 December counterattack, as Marshal Georgi Zhukov hurled his forces at the frozen Germans, opening gaps in their lines, pushing them back as much as 175 miles (280 km) west by the end of December, eliminating the immediate threat to Moscow. By 31 January 1942, the Wehrmacht had suffered more than 900 thousand casualties out of the 3 million soldiers in action.
Fighting in the Soviet Union would continue for years, but Operation Barbarossa was over, a colossal failure. The limits of Blitzkrieg had been revealed and the Wehrmacht's invincibility was discredited. The attack by Japan at Pearl Harbor on 7 December brought the U.S. into the war and the long, slow defeat of the Axis had begun.
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