Although Hitler turned his attentions to attacking the Soviet Union after failing in his attempts to break Britain, the Germans were in an extremely strong position in the summer of 1941 and carried a sense of invincibility.
They had secured the Balkan states and Greece, from where the British were forced to withdraw, with little effort over the course of April. Crete was taken, despite a greater level of Allied and local resilience, over the following month.
These events also served to divert Allied attentions in North Africa, where they may have otherwise capitalised on the German preoccupation with south-east Europe at that time.
Operation Barbarossa was a huge undertaking that offered Hitler myriad opportunities. He believed that the defeat of the Soviet Union would force American attentions towards a then-unchecked Japan, in turn leaving an isolated Britain obliged to enter peace talks.
Most important to Hitler, however, was the prospect of securing large areas of Soviet territory, including oil fields and the Ukrainian bread basket, to supply his eagerly anticipated post-war Reich. All the while, this would provide the opportunity to erase tens of millions of Slavs and ‘Jewish Bolsheviks’ through ruthless starvation.
The German plan was aided by Stalin’s refusal to believe that it was coming. He was reluctant to entertain intelligence that suggested an impending attack and so distrusted Churchill that he dismissed warnings from Britain.
Although he agreed to bolster Soviet western borders in mid-May, Stalin remained adamantly more concerned with the Baltic states through June. This remained the case even when German diplomats and resources rapidly disappeared from Soviet territory a week before Barbarossa began.
Through inverted logic, Stalin retained greater faith in Hitler than his own advisors right up to the point of attack.
Hitler’s ‘war of extermination’ began on 22 June with an artillery barrage. Nearly three million German troops were assembled for the advance along a 1,000-mile front that joined the Baltic and the Black Seas. The Soviets were totally unprepared and communications became paralysed in the chaos.
On the first day they lost 1,800 aircraft to the Germans’ 35. Summer weather and a lack of opposition allowed panzers to race through the satellite states, followed by masses of infantry and 600,000 supply horses.
Within fourteen days Hitler saw Germany as being on the verge of victory and reckoned that conquest of the huge Russian landmass could be completed on the timescale of weeks rather than months. Limited Soviet counter-attacks in Ukraine and Belorussia during the first two weeks at least allowed most of the arms industry from these areas to be transferred deep into Russia.
As the Germans progressed, however, the front widened by several hundreds of miles and although Soviet losses were as high as 2,000,000, there was little evidence to suggest that further causalities could not be absorbed long enough to drag the fighting into winter.
Invasion also mobilised Russian civilians against their natural enemy. They were partly inspired by encouragement from a reawakened Stalin to defend Russia at all cost and felt freed from the uneasy alliance that had been formed with the Nazis. Many hundreds of thousands were also forced into service and lined up as cannon fodder in front of the panzer divisions.
The Red Army, meanwhile, offered greater resistance to their German counterparts than the French had done the year before. 300,000 Soviet men were lost at Smolensk alone in July, but, through extreme bravery and the prospect of execution for desertion, surrender was never an option. Stalin insisted that retreating forces were to ruin the infrastructure and territory they left behind, leaving nothing for the Germans to benefit from.
Soviet resolution persuaded Hitler to dig in rather than speed on towards Moscow, but by mid-September the ruthless siege of Leningrad was underway and Kiev had been obliterated.
This reinvigorated Hitler and he issued the directive to advance towards Moscow, which had already been bombarded by artillery guns from 1 September. Cold Russian nights were already being experienced by the end of the month, signalling the onset of winter as Operation Typhoon (the assault on Moscow) began.
Autumn and winter
Rain, snow and mud increasingly slowed the German advance and supply lines could not keep up with the advance. Provisioning issues that partly resulted at first from limited transport infrastructure and by Stalin’s scorched earth tactics were exacerbated.
Soviet men and machinery were far better equipped for the Russian autumn and winter, with the T-34 tank showing its superiority as ground conditions worsened. This, and the sheer volume of manpower, delayed the Germans just long enough in their advance on Moscow, the environs of which were reached by the end of November.
By this time, however, winter was taking its toll on the Germans, of whom over 700,000 had already been lost. A lack of appropriate oil and lubricants meant that the aircraft, guns and radios were immobilised by plummeting temperature and frostbite was widespread.
Relatively speaking, the Soviets had no such problems and although over 3,000,000 Soviets had been killed, irrecoverably injured or taken prisoner prior to the Battle of Moscow, a vast pool of manpower meant that the Red Army was constantly renewed and could still match the Germans on this front. By 5 December, after four days of battle, Soviet defence had turned into counter-attack.
The Germans retreated but soon the lines became entrenched, with Hitler refusing to replicate Napoleon’s withdrawal from Moscow. After a promising start, Operation Barbarossa would eventually leave the Germans stretched to breaking point as they fought the remainder of the war on two formidable fronts.