The initial German invasion of the Soviet Union was known as Operation Barbarossa. It began on June 22, 1941, after months of delay and years of planning. The general goals were to gain more land for Germany, control the oil fields of Azerbaijan, and exterminate Bolshevism—the radical Communism that Vladimir Lenin had installed in Russia during the Russian Revolution. Moreover, Hitler wanted to exterminate the “racially inferior” Russian people from Leningrad, Moscow, and the rest of the western USSR while pushing the rest of the population eastward beyond the Ural Mountains.
Despite the fact that the USSR was far larger than Germany both geographically and militarily, Hitler believed that the country would collapse quickly, after a brief show of German force. The German advance was organized into three main thrusts: one through the Baltic region, toward Leningrad; one through central Russia, toward Moscow; and one to the south, toward Kiev and the Black Sea coast. This resulted in a front line nearly 1,000 miles long, which necessitated a gargantuan Axis force of approximately 4 million soldiers, 3 million of whom were German. Although Hitler hoped to complete the operation by the onset of winter in late 1941, Germany’s conflict with the Soviet Union would continue for most of the war.
Much like Hitler’s previous invasions, the attack on the USSR began by air and concentrated on Russian frontline airbases. The Soviet Union had a substantially larger, though less modern, air force than Germany, and destroying it was crucial to Germany’s success. The German attack began in the predawn hours of June 22 and continued without letup nearly all day. Though estimates vary significantly, the USSR lost between 1,200 and 2,000 aircraft—approximately one quarter of its entire air force—the first day. Most of these aircraft were destroyed on the ground, parked at their airbases. Over the next week, the Soviets lost an additional 2,000 to 3,000 in battle. The setback was devastating and would take the USSR a long time to overcome.
The German attack caught the Soviet military completely off guard, and its forces were not positioned to respond effectively to the attacks. In its confusion, the Soviet high command issued contradictory orders, and Soviet premier Joseph Stalin hesitated before ordering decisive action. In the meantime, German forces advanced quickly across the Russian countryside. In little more than a week, by July 1, the Germans had pushed 200 to 300 miles into Russia and captured the major cities of Riga and Dvinsk in the north, Minsk in the central region, and Lvov in the south.
Even prior to the invasion, Stalin had made several decisions that severely weakened his country’s ability to respond to the German threat. First, during his infamous purges of the 1930s, Stalin had most of the Soviet military leadership murdered or sent to labor camps in Siberia. Because this group included many seasoned officers, Russia’s military leadership in 1941 was much less experienced than it had been only five or six years before. Second, Stalin had resisted early recommendations by his military leaders to mobilize forces along the western border or to take steps to protect air bases from attack. Stalin’s motives in this matter have never been clear.
Despite these setbacks, the USSR still put up a formidable fight. Unlike most of the enemy forces that the Germans had encountered in western Europe, the Soviet troops tended either to retreat or fight to the last man—not surrender. Within days of the invasion, the Soviets organized small partisan groups and “destruction battalions” and sent them behind enemy lines to interfere with German efforts in numerous ways.
On July 3, Stalin ordered the Soviet army to implement a scorched-earth policy and either destroy or remove all useful supplies or facilities before retreating so that these resources would not fall into German hands. The Russians thus destroyed roads and bridges, burned fields of crops, and demolished or emptied many factories. Some major factories were even disassembled and moved eastward out of danger. The scorched-earth policy was effective and hindered the advancing German armies.
Although Britain and the United States were wary of Stalin and Russian Communism in general, the idea that the entire USSR might fall to the Germans was unacceptable. Within days of the invasion, Britain began providing Stalin with intelligence information gleaned directly from secret German transmissions that Allied code breakers had cracked and continued to read on a daily basis. In early July, the British also intensified their bombing of Berlin and other major German cities in an effort to force Hitler to recall some of the Luftwaffe forces back to Germany.
By late July, the first allied shipments of military supplies began reaching ports in the northern USSR. These shipments from Britain and the United States continued to grow significantly and included large numbers of aircraft and tanks, as well as food and medical supplies. From August 10–14, Churchill and Roosevelt met onboard a ship off Newfoundland and together laid out an extensive plan for providing large-scale assistance to the USSR.
By early September 1941, German forces had moved deep into European Russia, within easy reach of the major cities of Kiev and Leningrad. On September 10, Hitler decided to concentrate on the invasion of southern Russia and the Ukraine, hoping to gain access to the region’s economic resources, which included the wheat fields of the Ukraine, the citrus farms of the Black Sea coast, and the oil fields of the Caucasus.
On September 12, Hitler ordered the northern forces to cease their advance on Leningrad. Rather than enter the city, they were ordered to hold their current position, encircle the city, and slowly starve it to death. This strategy would allow several German tank divisions in the Leningrad area to be diverted for use in the south. Thus began the famous 900-day siege of Leningrad.
With more German troops available for in the south, the Ukraine collapsed quickly. After the Germans captured nearly half a million Soviet troops outside Kiev, the Ukrainian capital fell on September 19.
Hitler originally planned for the campaign against the Soviet Union to take six weeks. Although the Germans did initially make very fast progress, the farther into the USSR they traveled, the more things slowed down. In the meantime, summer turned to autumn, bringing a constant, miserable mix of rain and snow. During October, the roads turned to mud, effectively halting the German advance. By November, snow covered the ground, and temperatures were so cold that they interfered with the operation of equipment. German soldiers, still in summer uniforms, succumbed to frostbite and hypothermia in large numbers. Hitler nonetheless ordered them to continue.
The winter gave the Soviet armies a new advantage, as they were far better prepared to fight under such conditions. Moreover, reinforcements from the Russian Far East arrived in large numbers, while the tanks and planes sent from Britain and the United States were finally entering combat. German intelligence was unaware of these reinforcements, leaving the German troops in for a nasty surprise.
As the Germans approached Moscow, they encountered row after row after row of trenches and ditches reinforced by barbed wire. Since late October, thousands of Russian civilians had dug more than 5,000 miles of trenches by hand all the way around the city. On November 27, 1941, these trenches finally brought the German advance on Moscow to a halt, less than twenty miles from the Kremlin.
Overwhelmed by a strong Russian defense, frigid temperatures, and constant harassment by Russian partisans behind the lines, the Germans became mired. In just three weeks, they lost 85,000 men—the same number that they had lost over the entire Barbarossa campaign up to that point. During the first week of December, the Germans slowly began losing ground, and the Soviets managed to push them back for several miles. Although the Germans still did not retreat, on December 8, 1941, a directive issued from Hitler himself instructed all German troops in Russia to shift from offensive operations to defensive.
Most historians would agree that Hitler’s decision to invade the USSR was one of the main reasons that Germany lost the war. German forces were tied up in this conflict for years. It drained Germany’s resources, hurt morale, and diverted its military presence from western Europe, ultimately making it possible for British and American forces to invade France in 1944.
Germany’s failure in Russia was the result of several gross miscalculations. Hitler underestimated how long the operation would take, how hard the Russians would fight, how successful Russian partisan actions would be, and how quickly and effectively the Allies would come to the Soviet Union’s aid. Hitler also failed to comprehend how difficult it would be to maintain control of such a huge territory or how poorly prepared the German military was for fighting in Russia’s climate.
The scope of the devastation that occurred in the Soviet Union during World War II is poorly appreciated in the West and indeed hard even to fathom. Germany carried out the invasion with a brutality rarely seen in human history. Twenty million people died in Russia at the hands of the invaders—a total that includes soldiers fighting on the front, Jews who were singled out and murdered in Russian towns, local government officials, and millions of ordinary Russian citizens who were killed with the same calculating methodology. One of Hitler’s specific goals for the invasion was to substantially reduce the overall population of the western Soviet Union to make more room for the Germans whom he intended to move there. The scale of the killing was so great that even some members of the German death squads became overwhelmed by the grotesqueness of their orders.
After the stalemate near Moscow over the winter of 1941–1942, Germany shifted the focus of its invasion force to the south, where it had already captured most of the Ukraine, and sent most of its troops across the southern Russian steppes. On July 27, 1942, these forces crossed the Don River and made for the industrial center of Stalingrad. Yet another prong of the German offensive was heading even farther south, into the region of the Caucasus Mountains. In the meantime, resistance by Soviet partisans behind the German lines continued with increasing success.
The Germans reached the Volga River on August 23, 1942, to the north of Stalingrad, and made ready for an all-out assault on the city. On the same day, hundreds of German bombers struck Stalingrad with enough ordinance to set off a firestorm, and the Volga itself caught fire after the burning contents of local oil reserves spilled into the river. Approximately 40,000 residents of Stalingrad died during the initial assault. Encouraged by the early success, German commanders believed that Stalingrad would be a quick victory. As it turned out, it would become one of the deadliest single battles in history and would last for six months.
Within days, the German army entered Stalingrad, where Soviet forces were waiting. Both Stalin and Hitler had forbidden their troops from retreating under any circumstances. For months, the fighting moved street by street, block by block, and the city was gutted to a skeleton of its former self as the Germans launched repeated air raids involving up to 1,000 planes at a time. On the ground, troops from both sides took cover in bombed-out buildings, tanks roamed awkwardly through rubble-strewn streets, and Russian and German snipers hid in the ruins and tried to pick off enemy soldiers.
Stalin ordered thousands of additional Soviet troops from other regions to be amassed to the north of Stalingrad and sent the majority of Russia’s military aircraft to the city’s defense. Meanwhile, the Germans surrounded the city from the west, trapping the Russian defenders inside the city. The Germans failed to gain control of the Volga River, however, and the Russians were able to send in food and supplies via that route.
As the autumn of 1942 waned, the German army faced its second winter in Russia. The Germans attempted to bring in supplies for the winter, but powerful Soviet air defenses combined with vicious snowstorms proved too much of an obstacle. On November 19–20, the Russians launched two new offensive actions from the north and the south, which eventually surrounded the entire German Sixth Army. The German commander on the scene, Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus, requested permission to break free and retreat to the Don River. Hitler refused and ordered him to fight on, even as food and supplies were running out.
On December 12, Germany launched Operation Winter Storm in an attempt to rescue the trapped army, but the action failed. The Sixth Army struggled on as its soldiers slowly starved. At the end of January 1943, Paulus decided to defy Hitler’s orders and surrender. By February 2, all remaining German forces at Stalingrad had given up to the Soviets.
Historians estimate that approximately 2 million people died in the Battle of Stalingrad, more than 800,000 on the German side and 1.1 million on the Soviet side. After the battle, little of the city itself remained, and it would not be reconstructed fully for decades. Despite the catastrophic losses, the Soviet victory stood as solid proof to the world that the Third Reich was not invincible.