Dawn, 22 June 1941. Well over 3.5 million men, 600,000 horses, 500,000 motor vehicles, 3,500 panzers, 7,000 cannon and 3,000 aircraft – all lay silently stretched out along a front over 900 miles long.
Almost within touching distance on the other side of the frontier was an even larger force; the Soviet Union’s Red Army, possessor of more tanks and aircraft than the rest of the world combined, backed up by a manpower pool of unequalled depth.
As light streaked the sky, Soviet border guards reported that the barbed wire on the German side had disappeared – there was nothing now between them and the Germans. With the fighting in the West still raging, Nazi Germany was about to inflict on itself the two-front its own military had always said would be a disaster.
Day one – the Soviets surprised
Heinrich Eikmeier, a young gunner, would have a front row seat that first day;
“We were told our gun would provide the signal to open fire. It was controlled by stopwatch…when we fired, lots of other guns, both left and right of us, would open fire too, and then the war would start.”
Eikmeier’s gun would open fire at 0315hrs, but so long was the front that the attack would begin at different times in the north, south and centre, given the differing times for dawn.
The invasion wouldn’t only be marked by the crash of gunfire but by the drone of aircraft and the whistle of falling bombs. Helmut Mahlke was a Stuka pilot readying to take-off;
“Exhaust flames began to flicker and splutter in the dispersal points around the edge of the field. The noise of engines shattered the stillness of the night…our three machines lifted from the ground as one. We left a thick cloud of dust in our wake.”
The Luftwaffe pilots flew into Soviet airspace and were amazed at the sight that greeted them, as the Bf 109 fighter pilot – Hans von Hahn – acknowledged; “We could hardly believe our eyes. Every airfield was chock full of row after row of aircraft, all lined up as if on parade.”
As Hahn and Mahlke swooped down, their Soviet opponents were taken by complete surprise, as Ivan Konovalov remembered.
“All of a sudden there was an incredible roaring sound…I dived under the wing of my plane. Everything was burning…At the end of it all only one of our planes was left intact.”
It was a day like no other in aviation history, with one senior Luftwaffe officer describing it as a ‘kindermord’ – a slaughter of the innocents – with some 2,000 Soviet aircraft destroyed on the ground and in the air. The Germans lost 78.
On the ground, German infantry – the landsers as they were nicknamed – led the way. One of them was the former graphic designer, Hans Roth;
“We crouch in our holes…counting the minutes…a reassuring touch of our ID tags, the arming of hand grenades…a whistle sounds, we quickly jump out from our cover and at an insane speed cross the twenty metres to the inflatable boats…We have our first casualties.”
For Helmut Pabst it was his first time in action; “We moved fast, sometimes flat on the ground…Ditches, water, sand, sun. Always changing position. By ten o’clock we were already old soldiers and had seen a great deal; the first prisoners, the first dead Russians.”
Pabst and Roth’s Soviet adversaries were just as surprised as their pilot brethren. A Soviet border patrol sent a panicked signal to their headquarters, “We are being fired upon, what shall we do?” The reply was tragi-comic; “You must be insane, and why is your signal not in code?”
The unfolding struggle
German success that first day was incredible, Erich Brandenberger’s panzers in the north advanced an astonishing 50 miles and were told to “Keep going!”
From the start though, the Germans began to realise that this would be a campaign like no other. Sigmund Landau saw how he and his comrades
“received a friendly – almost frenzied welcome – from the Ukrainian population. We drove over a veritable carpet of flowers and were hugged and kissed by the girls.”
Many Ukrainians and other subject peoples in Stalin’s dreadful empire were only too happy to greet the Germans as liberators and not invaders. Heinrich Haape, a doctor with the veteran 6th Infantry Division, saw another – and for the Germans far more frightening – face to the conflict: “The Russians fought like devils and never surrendered.”
Even more astounding to the invaders than the strength of Soviet resistance was their discovery of weaponry superior to their own, as they came up against huge KV tanks, and the even more advanced T34.
“There wasn’t a single weapon that could stop them…in instances of near panic the soldiers began to realise that their weapons were useless against the big tanks.”
Nevertheless, superior German training and leadership at the tactical and operational levels enabled the newly named Ostheer – East Army – to rapidly advance towards their objectives. Those objectives were the destruction of the Red Army and the capture of Leningrad (now St Petersburg), Belarus, and Ukraine, to be followed by a further advance to the very edge of European Russia, some 2,000 miles away.
The German plan to annihilate Stalin’s forces envisaged a series of massive encirclement battles – kessel schlacht – with the first one achieved on the Polish-Belarus plain at Bialystok-Minsk.
Red Army anguish
When the two panzer pincers met in late June, a pocket was formed containing unheard of numbers of men and masses of equipment. To widespread German astonishment the trapped Soviets refused to give up;
“…the Russian does not run away like the Frenchman. He is very tough…”
In scenes that could have been scripted by Dante, the Soviets fought on. Helmut Pole recalled “…a Russian hanging in the turret of his tank who continued to shoot at us as we approached. He was dangling inside without any legs, having lost them when the tank was hit.” By Wednesday 9 July it was over.
The Red Army’s entire Western Front was wiped out. Four armies comprising 20 divisions were destroyed – some 417,729 men – along with 4,800 tanks and over 9,000 guns and mortars – more than the entire Wehrmacht invasion force possessed at the beginning of Barbarossa. The panzers had advanced 200 miles into the central Soviet Union and were already a third of the way to Moscow.
Kiev – another Cannae
Worse was to follow for the Soviets. To defend Ukraine and its capital, Kiev, Stalin had ordered a build-up like no other. Well over 1 million men were positioned on the Ukrainian steppe, and in one of the boldest operations of its kind, the Germans launched another encirclement battle.
When the exhausted pincers joined up on 14 September they enclosed an area the size of Slovenia, but once more the Soviets refused to throw down their arms and meekly enter captivity. One horrified mountain trooper – a gebirgsjäger – gaped in horror as
“…the Russians attacked across a carpet of their own dead…They came forward in long lines and persisted in making frontal charges against machine-gun fire until only a few were left standing…It was as if they no longer cared about being killed…”
As one German officer noted;
“(the Soviets) seem to have a wholly different concept of the value of human life.”
The Waffen-SS officer, Kurt Meyer, also saw Soviet savagery when his men found murdered German soldiers; “Their hands had been fastened with wire…their bodies torn to pieces and trampled underfoot.”
The German response was just as savage, as Wilhelm Schröder, a radio operator in 10th Panzer Division, noted in his diary; “…all the prisoners were herded together and shot by a machine-gun. This wasn’t done in front of us, but we all heard the firing and knew what was going on.”
For the best part of a fortnight the Soviets fought on, losing 100,000 men, until the remainder finally surrendered. An incredible 665,000 became prisoners of war, but still the Soviets didn’t collapse.
The Germans had no choice but to continue the trek eastwards through “…fields so vast they stretched to all horizons…Truthfully, the terrain was a sort of prairie, a land sea.” Wilhelm Lübbecke recalled it with antipathy;
“Battling both stifling heat and thick clouds of dust, we plodded countless miles…after a while a kind of hypnosis would set in as you watched the steady rhythm of the man’s boots in front of you. Utterly exhausted, I sometimes fell into a quasi-sleepwalk…waking only briefly whenever I stumbled into the body ahead of me.”
In an army where only 10% of its soldiers rode in motor vehicles, that meant marching beyond the limits of human endurance. As one landser recalled; “…we were just a column of men, trudging endlessly and aimlessly, as if in a void.”
Barbarossa Through German Eyes: The Biggest Invasion in History is written by Jonathan Trigg, and published by Amberley Publishing, available from 15 June 2021.