On June 21st 1941 Hitler unleashed Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia. Operation Barbarossa was the largest invasion in history up until that time. The Germans assembled 2.1 million troops, 11,000 tanks, 14,000 artillery guns and over 3,500 warplanes in 3 large Army Groups that stretched along a 2,000 km front, from the Baltic Sea to the Balkans.
Army Group North was tasked with capturing the Baltics (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) and then driving hard onto Leningrad (St. Petersburg).
Army Group Centre had the toughest fight; they were to smash through Soviet front-line defences and drive east to Moscow, overrunning eastern Poland, Belarus and nearly 1/3 of European Russia in the process.
From Romania and Yugoslavia Army Group South was to fight its way into the Ukraine, capture Kiev and then drive to the Don River, thus protecting Army Group Centre’s southern flank.
The whole process was to be a repeat of the stunning Blitzkrieg victories that Germany had enjoyed the year before, when France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Greece and Yugoslavia had all been conquered in only a few weeks.
Hitler was so confident of an easy victory over the Soviet Union that he had boasted to his uncertain Generals “All you need to do is kick in the door and the whole rotting structure will come crashing down!”
In a way he was right. Stalin’s purging of the Army had removed the most capable of the officer staff and replaced them with political cronies. The Red Army was demoralized and had suffered appalling casualties at the hands of the Finns the year before (the Winter War: the Soviets attempted to invade Finland and were repulsed with over 100,000 dead. Eventually they settled on a thin strip of Finnish land and never attempted it again). Soviet equipment was second-rate and corruption among the supply and logistics commands was rampant. Russian soldiers sometimes went without food or warm uniforms because quartermasters behind the lines were pilfering the supplies and selling them on the black market.
So on June 21st when Barbarossa got underway the Germans were able to break through the Soviet borders with little difficulty. In the North the Balkans were quickly overrun (in Lithuania the citizens welcomed the Nazis as liberators, cheering on the streets while girls threw flowers to the German panzers). The Soviet northern defences melted away in the face of the massive German army group.
In the south the German invasion of the Ukraine didn’t go as smoothly. At first Army Group South was able to surround and destroy 200,000 Soviet troops, but another million retreated into Kiev and the Germans were forced to fight house-to-house and hand-to-hand, a type of battle that rendered the panzers (tanks) and the Luftwaffe (air force) useless. Kiev took over 2 months to wrest from the hands of the Soviets and the city was destroyed in the process.
German troops fighting in the Ukraine
In the centre the Germans experienced some stunning successes. At Minsk, in Belarus, an entire Soviet Army Group was surrounded and forced to surrender. 630,000 Soviet soldiers went into captivity (of which less than 2,000 survived). Then again at Smolensk, in western Russia, the Germans surrounded and destroyed a further half-million Soviets. Army Group Centre was driving hard onto Moscow by the end of August 1941.
So surprising and shocking was the German invasion that Stalin himself retreated to his dacha (country home) and didn’t emerge for 10 days. When he did he was moody and despondent and his aides had to constantly cheer him up.
Behind the Wermacht (German army) came the SS, Hitler’s fanatical para-military organization. A reign of terror ensued over the conquered Russian lands as all perceived opposition was ruthlessly wiped out, men and women taken into slave labour, the elderly and weak and sick were shot and, for the large Jewish population of western Russia, there was the Holocaust.
The SS had established ‘Special Action Groups’ of heavily armed squads of troops in armoured vehicles to roam the country side and murder Jews. It is unknown how many Jews were killed by these Special Action Groups but 1 million is a conservative estimate. To the west of Kiev at a place called Babi Yar the SS murdered nearly 90,000 Jews. The people were loaded onto the back of military trucks and driven out to a ravine. There they were forced to undress and stand at the precipice where they were then shot with rifles and machine guns. Men, women and children all went into the ravine at Babi Yar.
All throughout occupied Russia villages burned, civilians were raped and murdered and brutally beaten and families were torn apart.
Meanwhile the German offensive continued with terrifying speed. Hitler had become concerned with the slow progress in the Ukraine, however, and ordered the Central Army Group to turn away from its drive on Moscow and help out in the south. Kiev fell in September and the Germans laid siege to Odessa.
Then the Central Group was allowed to resume its offensive on Moscow. By early October the Germans were only 200 km away from the Soviet capital. By mid-October they were 100 km away, but that’s when the autumn rains began. Most of the roads in Russia at this time were dirt and gravel. The long columns of heavy tanks, trucks and millions of marching soldiers had ruined the dirt roads. When the rains started these roads became quagmires. Trucks and tanks alike bogged down and soldiers sank up to their knees in mud. Quickly-constructed airfields became too muddy for planes to take off and land. The 1000-mile long supply train, from the industrial bases back in Europe to the front line, became almost impossible for trucks and trains to move on. The German advance on Moscow came to a muddy stop.
It was at this time that Stalin emerged onto the Kremlin reviewing stand on Red Square, looking more determined and confident than he had during the summer, and made an historic speech, imploring the Russian people to defend the motherland to the death, not for, as he said, Communist ideals or their political leaders but for their children, mothers, wives, husbands, homes and everything they had to love in the world. The citizens of Moscow (mostly women as all the healthy men had been drafted into the Red Army) rallied and started setting up defences in a ring around the city. Sandbag barricades were erected in major streets. 20-foot deep anti-tank ditches were dug. Bunkers were built out of logs and mud. Millions of miles of barbed wire was strung up. Mines were laid. And all the while it rained.
In November the rains stopped and the cold weather set in. The muddy roads and airfields froze and the tanks were able to move again. The Germans resumed their advance on Moscow.
The Red Army, however, had had time to reorganize after the disasters of the summer and the Germans faced increasingly stiff resistance the closer they got to Moscow. It took nearly a month to advance 50 km, as Red Army units refused to surrender or retreat and fought to the death. Every inch of ground was bitterly contested and between October and December the Germans lost nearly 10,000 troops in fighting against the Russians. Despite these losses they continued to battle their way eastwards.
By early December forward German units could see the spires of the Kremlin through their binoculars, and the women of Moscow could hear the booming of the heavy guns in the distance. There was fear in the city. Details of German atrocities behind the lines had been heavily circulated by the Soviet propaganda machine and everybody knew what life under the Nazis would entail. The Russian government evacuated the city to Samara in the south (although Stalin stayed in Moscow).The entire world waited with bated breath to see if the Russians could hold Moscow.
Then the German blitz on Moscow began. Day and night German bombers raided the city. Just like in London the year before, the citizens were forced to sleep in the metro stations at night to get away from the bombing. 20,000 Moscow citizens died in the blitz.
By the first week of December the Wermacht was only 20 km to the west of the city, but they would get no further. The cold weather that had at first allowed the army to move again soon turned into a freezing Russian winter. It was also one of the coldest winters in 40 years. The Germans were neither equipped for nor experienced with such winters. 5-foot snow drifts and -40 C temperatures bogged the Germans down. Soldiers’ fingers stuck to their metal triggers. Tank crews had to light fires under their engines because the gas lines had frozen. By mid-December over 100,000 German soldiers had been taken out of action by frostbite. There was a pneumonia pandemic. More men died by cold than by Russian bullets.
The Russians, meanwhile, were accustomed to such weather and chose this moment to strike back. Stalin transferred Marshall Zhukov, who had been leading the defence of Leningrad, to take over the defence of Moscow. Zhukov was one of the few high-ranking officers who had survived the purges of the 30s. He was educated at Russian and British military academies and had a good reputation for being an able commander, respected by his troops.
Zhukov transferred the Siberian divisions from the border with Manchuria to Moscow, using the Trans-Siberian railway. These hard troops were excellent winter fighters. They were all from towns and cities east of the Urals and had a warrior’s natural instinct. Zhukov also deployed the T-34 tank for the first time. This Soviet tank was able to operate in all weather conditions, had wide tracks for traction in the snow, a large 72mm main gun that could punch through German tanks, and sloped armour which made German shells ricochet off it rather than explode head on. The T-34 was rugged and easy for crews to maintain in the field. It was also incredibly easy and cheap to produce and any factory could be converted to T-34 production. It would go on to become the most mass-produced tank of all time and one of the definitive symbols of World War Two, much like the American Jeep or the Japanese Zero fighter.
As the German army hunkered down in front of Moscow to ride out the winter, Zhukov struck with his Siberians. 1.2 million Russians, with 10,000 tanks and 8,000 heavy artillery guns, hit the Germans to the north and south of Moscow. At Tula, in the south, the Russian artillery barrage that preceded the attack was so heavy that an entire German division was wiped out. When the white-clad Siberian soldiers charged into the town they found nothing but rubble and corpses.
In the north the German lines held but increasing Soviet pressure caused them to fall back. Zhukov’s plan was apparent; he would attempt to encircle Army Group Centre and wipe it out (as the Germans had done at Minsk and Smolensk). German commanders were able to see the trap in time and, in the midst of a vicious winter, started to retreat to avoid being encircled. The Russians pressed on.
They liberated villages which had endured the Nazi occupation. They found mass graves and bodies hanging from telephone poles. All the healthy young women had been taken off to Germany as slave labour and “breeding Slavs”. There is a famous picture of a Russian soldier holding a crying babushka in his arms, while the bodies of her family lay at their feet in the snow. In one village the Russians came across a big, snow-covered ditch filled with infants, some of whom were still moving. As the Germans retreated from Moscow they grabbed children from the villages and used them to give blood transfusions to wounded German soldiers, throwing the bodies into a ditch once they were drained.
By January Zhukov had driven the Germans back 100 km, but the Germans fell onto prepared defensive lines and the Soviet advance stalled.
Moscow had been saved and the Nazis pushed back. The Battle of Moscow ranks as one of the top ten bloodiest battles in history. All told, nearly 1 million soldiers from both sides lost their lives. A further 500,000 civilians were killed or died in Nazi concentration camps. It was an extremely strategic victory as the entire German advance; northern, central and southern, came to a halt. It was the first German defeat of the war, and it lifted the spirits of Russians everywhere as the battle proved that the Germans could be beaten. It demoralized the Germans as it showed them that conquering Russia would not be as easy as they had been promised. For the peoples of occupied Europe, who had been living under the Nazis for over a year, the Battle of Moscow brought hope that one day they would be liberated.
Marshall Zhukov was made a ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’ and awarded the Star of Lenin. The Germans would not resume their offensive until the following spring, this time with a goal towards capturing the Caucuses and driving into the mid-east oil fields. The Great Patriotic War would last for a further 3 and a half years.