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.