Adolf Hitler had convinced himself by December 1940 that England lay prostrate before German air power. November had seen the worst of the air attacks; acres of England’s cities were reduced to rubble. Hitler believed she would never rise again to threaten Germany.
Before invading Poland, Germany signed the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, securing the eastern border of Germany. Limited trade, mostly on the part of the Russians, was part of the agreement. But everyone involved knew that it was a measure on both sides to buy time. Ideologically, both nations despised the other. Hitler had devoted much of Mein Kampf to his believe in the menace of Communism. Nazism was against everything Communism stood for.
Part of the operational planning of the German high command involved a possible invasion of the Soviet Union. On July 21, 1940, a month after the fall of France, Hitler summoned Generalfeldmarshal Walther von Brauchitsch and instructed him to plan for an invasion of the Soviet Union.
The bad blood between the two countries began to be evident during Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov’s Berlin visit of November 12-13, 1940. Molotov pressed the Nazis to honor their treaty obligation to distance themselves from Finland. Hitler dropped tacit suggestions to look towards Asia and not Europe for the expansion of Soviet interests and power.
The High Command developed plans for an invasion as part of their routine operations. First called Fritz and then Directive 21, Hitler seized on the idea of invading Russia and issued the directive, renaming it Operation Barbarossa in honor of Frederick I, the twelfth century Prussian King who was prophesied to rise from his grave and restore Germany to world power. Operational orders were given in January 1941.
The plan called for a ten-week campaign that would start on May 15, 1941. But events around the world changed the plan; the Afrika Korps landed in North Africa in February; Yugoslavia, a supposed ally of Germany, threw back the offer of German assistance; and Italy needed help to conquer Greece.
The invasion was pushed back five weeks to June 22. Almost everyone knew it was coming except the Red Army soldiers about to meet the onslaught. Josef Stalin was warned by his intelligence services. The buildup of German forces on the Soviet line in Poland was obvious, and even the British warned Stalin, but he stubbornly refused his commanders permission to prepare defenses. Trainloads of iron ore left Russia bound for Germany even hours before the invasion. This came out of a long-standing Russian ideological belief that war should be fought on the enemies’ soil, and a misguided hope that the invasion could be stalled if Hitler was not provoked.
Hitler was not going be dissuaded, however. Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goering and Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, among others, tried to convince Hitler that significant gains could be made politically. Goering felt the Luftwaffe would be taxed trying to attack England and Russia at the same time; Ribbentrop saw the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact as the crowning achievement of his career. The Wehrmacht Generals that would carry out the operation wanted an all-out drive on Moscow. Hitler, in a uncharacteristic show of orthodox military strategy, insisted on a three-pronged, broad frontal assault on three major areas before driving on the Soviet Capital. The German military attachÈ in Moscow was alone in the belief that Soviet industrial capacity beyond the Urals was underestimated.
Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH), the German High Command on the Eastern Front, massed the greatest army ever assembled to invade the Soviet Union. One hundred forty-eight divisions (114 infantry, fifteen motorized, and nineteen panzer;) 67,000 German Norwegian garrison troops and 500,000 Finns; and 150,000 Rumanians were recruited to take up the invasion. A total of 3,050,000 men, 7184 artillery pieces, 3,350 tanks, 2,770 aircraft, 600,000 vehicles, and 625,000 horses (one quarter of the Wehrmacht was horse-drawn) were arrayed in three prongs aimed at the Soviet Union. Generalfeldmarshall Wilhelm von Leeb’s Army Group North attacked through Finland and Poland, targeting the Baltic States and Leningrad. Generalfeldmarshall Fedor von Bock’s Army Group Center leapt from Poland and East Prussia against Minsk and Smolesk. Generalfeldmarshal Gerd von Rundstedt’s Army Group South left from Czechoslovakia for the Ukraine and the Caucasus Mountains.
Ten thousand tanks and 2,300 aircraft operated by 2,300,000 men stood against this coiled armada. While most of the equipment was old or obsolete, the Soviet T-34 and KV-1 heavy tanks were better than the Germans’ best. Unlike the Germans, who were flush with success and experience, the Red Army was quixotic. It was surprised by the resistance of the Finns and the failure of its junior officers in 1939, but smashed the Japanese in a border dispute in China.
When the barrage opened on the morning of June 22, 1941, Red Army units were slow to react. Officers radioed for permission to fire back. Tanks numbering in the hundreds were knocked out of action by superior tactics backed by superior morale. The Red Air Force was destroyed on the ground.
Only seven Red Army divisions opposed Army Group North as it swept down from Finland. Quickly the Baltic states fell, and the populations celebrated the German columns marching in, thinking they were their liberators. By July 1 Army Group North reached the Dvina River. Army Group Center moved around the north edge of the Pripet Marshes and encircled first Bialystok and then Minsk by the second week. 290,000 prisoners were taken in this operation. Army Group South was marching on Kiev despite heavy rains.
Stalin was paralyzed by Hitler’s betrayal of the Nazi-soviet nonaggression Pact and by the destruction and did not react to the crisis in time. While he sat in Moscow paralyzed by the rapid advance, the Red Army was bleeding to death. Across a huge front of 1400 miles, the Germans started advancing rapidly. The Red Army fought fiercely partly out of fear of being shot for cowardice and partly because they feared a German occupation. But many Soviet units were deployed badly and their commanders would not mount a mobile defense for fear of the firing squad. The Germans destroyed Russian units and rounded up large numbers of prisoners.
OKH believed the Russians could not sustain this level of casualties. On July 3, Colonel General Franz Halder announced that the Germans would encounter only token resistance beyond the Dnieper and Dvina Rivers. Hitler concluded that the Russians had lost the war.
As the Germans advanced as much as twenty miles a day, the Red Army slowly began to reorganize in the face of the enemy. On June 30, Stalin appointed himself the head of the State Defense Committee, and assumed all political, military and economic power in the country. On July 10, the Russians also split their forces into a three-group command structure, designated Northwest, West and Southwest Forces. These were nothing like the Germans’ Army Groups, since their officers lacked the expertise or authority to direct large-scale operations. Each border military district was converted into a “front” which was the largest effective command the Russians could coordinate.
For the first time, the Russian people heard the voice of their leader. Stalin addressed the entire country on July 3. He welcomed aid from the West and proclaimed a scorched-earth policy, denying the Germans everything and calling for the Russians already under occupation to fight hard against the invaders. He also appealed not only to communist ideals but to Russian nationalism.
Throughout July and August, the Germans continued to advance. Army group North planned to launch their final drive for Leningrad on August 10. Army Group Center took its two panzer groups out of action for a refit on August 8 after capturing 138,000 prisoners in one week. Army Group South destroyed twenty Soviet divisions that were trying to escape across the Dnieper. On August 25, units from two Army Groups surrounded 665,000 Red Army soldiers who were 150 miles east of Kiev.
The Finnish Army reoccupied their 1940 border on August 31 and was within 30 miles of Leningrad. Leningrad was cut off on September 8. Hitler transferred Army Group North’s armor south for a drive on Moscow.
The Germans were surprised by the Red Army’s equipment, especially the T-34. German 37mm and 50mm guns could not even dent the T-34 sloping frontal armor. Guns of 105mm had to be employed to stop them. As a stopgap measure, the Germans retooled and mounted captured Russian 75mm guns on Panzer pzkpfw I chassis.
On September 8 Hitler had decided to concentrate his forces on Moscow. His generals believed the Soviets would bring together all their remaining forces to defend the capital, and there the decisive battle could be fought.
For six weeks, the men of Army Group Center were rested and refitted. A first-class unit, within two weeks of engaging battle, it had completed three large encirclements near Bryansk and Vyazma. Six hundred sixty-three thousand prisoners of war were taken. The population of Moscow went to the outskirts of the city and dug antitank ditches.
This action ended the first phase of the War in the West. The Soviet Red Army lost some 3,000,000 killed and millions more captured. Colonel General Alfred Jodl, Chief of operations for Oberkommando des West (OKW), predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union in the near future.
Two perennial allies of the Soviet Union were beginning to be felt by both sides. Torrential rains turned the roads into quagmires, slowing the advance on Moscow. “General Mud” had slowed Napoleon in 1812, and it slowed the German advance in 1941. The second was the expansive Soviet territory. The great distance the Germans had to travel began to extend their supply lines over great distances. Partisans, first disorganized and cut off, then later with plainclothes officers of the Red Army, began to harass these supply lines. Without enough soldiers to protect the supply lines and fight the main engagement, the Germans used innovative means to protect trains and columns advancing to the front. Still, the guerrillas were a constant threat.
Army Group South still managed to encircle Sevastapol by November. Rostov fell on November 20, but in their first successful counteroffensive, the Russians took it back by the beginning of December. Army Group Center advanced on Tikhvin and took the town on November 8, but again mud bogged down the attack, and the Russians attacked on three sides. By the middle of December the Russians forced them back to Volkhov.
Everybody knew that the key to the war was Moscow. Stalin was still in a panic when German reconnaissance units advanced on Moscow’s outskirts in November. But “General Winter,” the Russians’ other ancestral ally, froze the Germans’ equipment in the mud. Army Group Center Commander von Back argued for a winter advance, despite questions of whether or not to wait for the spring to advance on the city.
The Germans’ supply issues were becoming critical. Like the Americans in Belgium in 1944, the length of their supply lines meant that winter uniforms had to sacrificed for food, ammunition and fuel on the trains and supply wagons. The German Armies before Moscow were fighting in December 1941 with the same uniforms that they had in the summer. With only 40 miles between von Bock and the Soviet capital, the Germans had only a few days of good weather to complete their occupation of Moscow.
The capital was in terror. Armed troops tried to keep order and prevent a mass evacuation. Stalin himself left the city. But by December 5 Heinz Guderian, hero of France and commander of the panzer spearhead from the South, reported that his troops were exhausted and could not continue. The German general charged with taking Moscow, Colonel General Heinz Reinhardt, said he could only hold if the Russians did not attack.
Stalin feared that the Japanese would attack his East flank if he withdrew his troops there to fight the Germans. The Siberian units were snow-equipped, battle-experienced, and ready for combat. But Stalin did not bring them over to the European front until Richard Sorge, the Soviet spy in Tokyo, revealed the Japanese plans to attack the Western powers in the south Pacific.
Meanwhile, the German front-line units were reporting previously unrecognized Red Army unit designations in radio transmissions and POW debriefings. Clearly the Soviets were rebuilding the Red Army, and initial reports of its size were wrong. OKH took these reports in stride and stuck to their assessment that the war would be over soon.
In fact, the Red Army was rebuilt under three powerful generals that would fight through the entire conflict. At dawn on December 6, the Red Army counterattacked along three fronts that intersected Moscow. General Georgi K. Zhukov’s West Front, the Kalinin Front under Colonel General Ivan S. Konev, and the Southwest Front under Semyon k. Timoshenko exploded in artillery fire and the great counteroffensive began. The Army Group commanders and Brauchtisch resigned after clamoring for Hitler to permit a retreat. They all went off to retirement, and Hitler took command personally. He was growing tired of the professional military men and wanted to motivate the troops with the knowledge that he was personally commanding them. On December 18 Hitler ordered that all units were to fight to the death. Without proper plans for defense, or even the ability to dig into the hard frozen Russian soil, the Germans could not mount an effective resistance.
On January 15, 1942, Hitler authorized the first German retreat of the war. Army Group Center moved its line 85 miles to the West of Moscow, not far enough to escape the growing danger of encirclement. A gap 160 miles wide tore open the German lines between Army Group North and Army Group Center. One hundred thousand German troops were surrounded in February and supplied by air. A year later this convinced Hitler to believe Goering’s claim that he could supply the Sixth Army besieged at Stalingrad.
The Red Army did not have the military ability to complete the encirclement of Army Group Center. By mid-February the Soviets had lost the momentum, and both sides used the early spring to stabilize their lines while the rains and mud prevented serious operations.
Stalin and Hitler had something in common: they took complete command of their armies, limiting their generals’ range of mobility without specific orders. Two totalitarian leaders made the war take on their own personalities. More and more, nationalism and ideology described the mission of each side as the total destruction of the other. The soldiers of both sides began to regain their confidence in their own abilities and that of their absolute rulers.
On April 5, Hitler outlined his spring and summer plans to his subordinates at his Eastern command post in Rastenberg, East Prussia. While units of Army Group North would attempt top link up with the Finns and knock Leningrad out of the war, the major offensive would be in the south. Its objective was a city named for the Soviet leader, and both sides would pour the life’s blood of their army into its streets.
Stalingrad was the key to the oil-rich Caucasus. First, Army Group South would take the Crimea, then they would advance on the city. It would be the battleground that would break the power of the Third Reich.