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.