Operation Barbarossa was the “Crusade against Communism” that Hitler had been long waiting for and meticulously planned for since he wrote Mein Kampf during his jail time in Landsberg Prison. The epic and final battle between Nazism and Bolshevism had to end with a single winner, it was a matter of survival for both ideologies.
Both Hitler and Stalin stressed the importance of this titanic clash through their own propaganda machines, the winning nations of this titanic clash would not only be the sole survivor, but it would also become the next superpower in the world. After the failure to win the Battle of Britain, Hitler focused on his ideological enemy, the Soviet Union.
Advisors and senior military leaders warned the Fuhrer of the danger of a war on two fronts, but he hoped that a very good planned Blitzkrieg offensive would bring the end of communism forever. Hitler ordered his generals to draw up a plan for the invasion of the USSR.
The idea of the Barbarossa plan was to inflict a crushing defeat on the Red Army and take over the USSR using blitzkrieg tactics in a few months. The name of the plan was given in honor of the famous emperor of the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation – Frederick Barbarossa (1122-1190). As we all know, Hitler badly underestimated the strength of the Red Army and their will to fight to the end.
Instead of a lightning campaign, the Wehrmacht and the Third Reich entered in a long and costly war of attrition which led to their final demise.
In this article we present you 50 interesting facts about Operation Barbarossa, from relevant statistics to decisions and most important battles:
OPERATION BARBAROSSA: background, strategy, objectives, leaders.
- The original code name was Operation Fritz, during the planning it was renamed 2 times, Operation Otto and finally Operation Barbarossa on December 18, 1940, when Hitler issued Directive no 21.
- Hitler first presented his intention to invade the USSR on 21 of July 1940 to field marshall Brauchitsch, then he officialized the plan on a meeting with his generals at Berghoff, 9 days later, on July 31
- During the same meeting with his generals at Berghoff, Hitler stated about the invasion of the Soviet Union:” Britain’s hope lies in Russia and the United States. If Russia drops out of the picture America, too, is lost for Britain, because the elimination of Russia would tremendously increase Japan’s power in the Far East. Russia is the Far Eastern sword of Britain and the United States pointed at Japan . . . Russia is the factor on which Britain is relying most. Something must have happened in London!. . With Russia smashed, Britain’s last hope would be shattered. Germany then will be the master of Europe and the Balkans. Decision: Russia’s destruction must therefore be made a part of this struggle. Spring 1941. The sooner Russia is crushed, the better.”
According to his own words, Hitler believed or at least tried to induce the idea, that the invasion of the USSR was an alternate route for the final victory against Great Britain.
- From the planning phase of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler and his generals made it clear that this invasion was not an ordinary military operation. For the Fuhrer, it was the long-awaited crusade against Bolshevism which he saw as a creation of the Jews.
- Hitler’s Generals followed blindly all his orders regarding the fate of Jews or Soviet people from the future USSR occupied territories. On March 27, 1941, field marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, made it clear that all troops must be made aware that this is “a war between 2 races”. On May 2 commander of the 4th Panzer Group, Erich Hoepner, in his orders states: “The war against Russia is an important part of the German people’s battle for existence. It is the old fight of Germans versus Slavs, the defense of European culture against the Muscovite-Asiatic flood; and the repulse of Jewish Bolshevism. This war must have as its goal the destruction of today’s Russia and for this reason, it must be conducted with unheard-of harshness.” Similar battle orders were sent by other German commanders as well.
- German high-altitude reconnaissance planes flew over Soviet territory more than 300 times in the weeks prior to the invasion. At the same time, German spies and German-backed Ukrainian guerrilla movements infiltrated the Western part of the Soviet Union during the spring of 1941.
- All non-essential personnel from The German Embassy in Moscow were evacuated on 16 June 1941 and before June 21 all German merchant ships left the Soviet-controlled ports.
- Stalin erroneously considered that if he provided the war machine and the German economy with the necessary raw materials, the danger of invasion would be at least delayed for some time. Thus, in the 18 months before the Nazi invasion, the USSR supported Nazi Germany’s war effort with two million tons of petroleum products, 140,000 tons of manganese, 26,000 tons of chromium, and many other supplies. Even a few hours before the great German invasion, supply trains were still crossing the Soviet-German border.
- According to marshal F.I.Golikov, head of the GRU( Main Intelligence Directorate) in 1941, before operation Barbarossa 5000 enemy agents have been captured while trying to pass the frontier, the numbers of agents killed at the border in April 1941 increased 30 times compared to the previous year.
- British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, learning about the secret plans of Germans from the messages intercepted and decoded by the English secret services, sends a warning to Stalin about the imminent invasion of the USSR on April 19, 1941. Stalin decided to ignore the warning, considering it an attempt to jeopardize the Soviet-German relations.
- During the planning phase of Operation Barbarossa in December 1940, Hitler declared the importance of capturing the capital city of the Soviet Union that: “Moscow is of no great importance.” The Fuhrer and his advisors mistakenly believed that the communist regime in the USSR was so fragile that the Wehrmacht’s initial victories would lead to street riots, recreating Russia’s desperate situation from 1917-1918. Relying on this assumption, the first seriously underestimated Stalin’s control over the party apparatus and Soviet society, and last but not least, they underestimated the Red Army’s mobilization capacity and resistance.
- Operation Barbarossa required the Wehrmacht to vanquish the largest military force in the world and ultimately advance to a depth of 1,750 kilometers (1,050 miles) along a front of over 1,800 kilometers (1,080 miles) in an underdeveloped theatre of military operations whose size approximated all of Western Europe. Hitler and his military planners assumed that Blitzkrieg’s tactics will produce a quick and decisive victory and planned the campaign accordingly.
- According to Directive no 21, issued on December 18, 1940, after the destruction of the Soviet forces in Europe, the last objective for the Wehrmacht was to establish a massive line of defense against “Asiatic Russia” along the Volga-Archanghelsk alignment. Once this defensive line was built the Russian forces and industry would be constantly kept in check by the Luftwaffe until they decided to surrender.
- German secret operations also contributed to the hesitation of the Soviet forces and lack of reaction. The planned invasion of Great Britain, codenamed Operation Sealion, was used as a diversion, for Operation Barbarossa. Regarding the large accumulation of troops on the border with the USSR, the Germans informed their Soviet counterparts, stating that it was an operation to trick the British Secret Services, in preparation for Operation Sea Lion. Even the Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, contributed to this great disinformation operation. An article in a Nazi newspaper from June 1941 still mentioned the imminent start of Operation Sea Lion.
- Because of the invasions of Yugoslavia, Greece and airborne operation to occupy the island of Crete. On the last day of April 1941, Hitler decided to postpone the invasion of the Soviet Union, initially scheduled for May 15. It is now when 22 June 1941 is set as the new date for the start of Operation Barbarossa.
- Within the Nazi leadership, there was an unrealistic optimism. Joseph Goebbels, the German propaganda minister, wrote in his diary on 16 June 1941: “The Fuhrer estimates that the operation will take four months, I reckon on fewer. Bolshevism will collapse like a house of cards”. Hermann Goring, Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe, and Hitler’s chosen successor had made a similar statement: “with the entry of German troops into Russia, the entire Bolshevist State will collapse”. Heinrich Himmler, chief of the SS, dismissed the real strength of the Soviets by simply saying that it represented: “no threat”.
- According to a report of the quartermaster-general, Major-General Eduard Wagner from October 1940, the supplies for Operation Barbarossa were not enough to reach neither of the campaign objectives: Moscow or Leningrad. It was calculated that for an army of more than 3 million soldiers, 500.000 motor vehicles, and 600.000 horses, the fuel supplies were enough only for a rapid advance of 700-800 km. Ammunition and food were enough only for the first 20 days after the invasion. This calculation resulted in a possible advance of only 500 km. Once the Wehrmacht crossed this logistical boundary, 2 of the following scenarios were possible: the German army will have to rely on captured supplies in order to continue the advance or wait several weeks and prepare for a long war of attrition.
- The Nazi solution to the food supply was the “Hunger Plan”, by intentionally starving 30 million Slavic people from the occupied USSR territories, high Nazi officials like Himmler and Goering hoped that this will solve 2 major issues: first the food supply in the short term, and in longer-term, this would have paved the way for the German colonization plan of the Eastern territories.
- The German plan for a quick victory was based in part on the assumption that most of the Soviet population had enough of Stalin’s oppressive regime and will welcome the Wehrmacht troops as liberators. At the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, when everything seemed to be going according to plan for the Germans, this opinion did not seem far from the truth.
Many Latvians and Lithuanians, as well as significant numbers of Ukrainians and other nationalities, were at least cooperative if not enthusiastic about the change of regimes. Unwilling to take any risks, the Soviets evacuated nearly half a million ethnic Germans from Western Europe and sent them far to eastern camps. This move was done in order to prevent them from fraternizing with the invaders.
- The USSR could rely for defense on the forces of the following 5 Fronts(army groups): North; North-West; West; South-west and South. North Front’s main task was to defend the Baltic states and Leningrad from German and Finnish offensives. The North-West; West and South-west fronts will face the three main German Army Groups. The South Front’s mission was to prevent the enemy advance on Oddessa. The Soviet fronts at the beginning of Operation Barbarossa were led by the below commanders:
Northern Front: General Colonel Markian Popov
North-western Front: General colonet Fyodor Isodorovich Kuznetsov
Western Front: General Colonel Dmitry Grigorevich Pavlov
South-western Front: General Colonel Mikhail Kirponos
Southern Front: General Colonel Ivan Tyulenev
- When a German soldier with Communist sympathies defected on 21 of June 1941 to the Soviets, he told the Red Army soldiers that his unit was ordered to attack next day. This information didn’t cause any major concern. Stalin, instead of believing that an imminent attack was near, ordered that the German desertor to be shot, because he was spreading fake news.
OPERATION BARBAROSSA – Involved forces, equipment, battles
- According to pre-invasion reports of the German forces, the Soviet army’s total strength in the Western Provinces was an estimated at 150 divisions. In case of war, the Soviets according to German intelligence could mobilize only 50 divisions to replace the losses. In reality, the Germans greatly underestimated the Soviet force’s capacity of mobilization, by August 1941, 200 new Red Army divisions were already deployed to replace the losses.
- Between, 1937-1940, Stalin, paranoid, believing in the existence of a huge conspiracy against him, ordered the execution of almost all senior officers of the Red Army, the overwhelming majority of the junior officers would also share the same fate.
The result was the following: three out of five Marshals of the Soviet Union, all eleven deputy defense commissars, the commander of every military district, 14 out of 16 army commanders, 60 out of 67 corps commanders, 136 out of 199 division commanders, and half of all regimental commanders.
In total, it is estimated that about 40.000 qualified officers were arrested, this figure representing 50% of the total, and another 15.000 were shot.
The pace of purges was slowed in 1939, but it was not the end.
The disastrous campaign against Finland in the winter of 1939-1940 was another excuse for Stalin to continue executions and arrests. The consequences of this campaign would be seen in the early stages of Operation Barbarossa.
- At the start of Operation Barbarossa, the Red Army had 23,767 tanks at its disposal. Many of these were produced during the previous two five-year plans (12,000 T-26s and 3,000 of the BT series). Even though these were light tanks, they were equipped with 4.5 caliber guns, capable of penetrating even the best armor of the German Panzers (52 mm) from 100 meters.
- The spearhead of the mighty German offensive was represented by the 4 panzer groups: Panzergruppe 1 was led by Ewald von Kleist, Panzergruppe 2 was led by Heinz Guderian, Panzergruppe 3 was led by Herman Hoth and Erich Hopner was leading Panzergruppe 4.
- Without a doubt, Mark III, StuG III, and Mark IV, which together numbered some 1,673 armored vehicles, represented the elite of the German tank force.
- By comparison during the blitzkrieg campaign in France, the Wehrmacht used only 12 panzer divisions, in USSR the number increased to 17, also 13 motorized divisions will support this great offensive operation.
- The total strength of the German panzer divisions at the beginning of the blitzkrieg against France in May 1940 was estimated at 2445 tanks of various types. For the success of Operation Barbarossa, the strength of these divisions had to increase rapidly as a result of the emphasis on mobility. The German war industry was to achieve this goal, in the last 6 months of 1940 the average production of tanks was 182 units per month. Production in the first 6 months of 1941 would increase to an average of 212 tanks of various models. By 22 June 1941, the combined figure for all tanks in the four panzer groups used in Operation Barbarossa reached 3,505. From a total of 21 Panzer divisions in the summer of 1941, two divisions were deployed in North Africa. The other two divisions were in the process of reorganization and re-equipment and could not be used immediately in front operations. As a result, at the start of operations on the Eastern Front, only 17 panzer divisions remained available for service.
- Only 73 divisions were classified as capable of “any offensive action” at the beginning of operations on June 22, 1941, according to an internal document of the German army.
- In practice, this led to an advance at the pace of a march, with some 625,000 horses employed to draw guns and supplies
- After the defeat of France in 1940 Germany’s army was initially to be expanded from 120 to 180 divisions, but by the eve of Barbarossa, it jumped to some 209 divisions. As a result, availability of motor transport for the divisions had both shrunk as a percentage of the pre-war total and been heavily concentrated into the new panzer and motorized divisions.
- By the beginning of August 1941, a total of 195 German and Allied divisions were deployed in the Soviet Union, by the end of the month, the number increased to 201 divisions, from a total of 329 at that time. (Michael Linch).
- Soviet field armies operated some 32,900 guns and mortars of all calibers over 50mm, while the whole Red Army together possessed the enormous figure of 76,500 guns and mortars over 50mm.
- By comparison, the Germans could deploy only 7,146 artillery pieces along their whole front.
4,760 light artillery pieces, 104 army AA guns (88mm), 2,252 heavy artillery pieces, and 30 super-heavy high/low angle guns.
- At the start of the campaign, the Luftwaffe estimates of the Soviet Air Force in the European theatre were set at 5,800 aircraft with only 1,300 bombers and 1,500 fighters classed as fully operable.
- The Finns supported Operation Barbarossa with 14 divisions and the Rumanians contributed 4 divisions and 6 brigades to the effort, backed up by another 9 divisions and 2 brigades.
- On the first day of the invasion, the Luftwaffe attacked over 66 enemy airfields and crippled 1,200 Red Army Air Force airplanes, most of them didn’t even manage to take off. The German aviation lost only 35 aircraft. In the first week of Operation Barbarossa, the Luftwaffe destroyed another 4000 Soviet fighter planes, gaining the much-needed air supremacy.
- Most of the Soviet forces from the Western Provinces were trapped by the Wehrmacht forces in skillfully executed pincer movements: 320.000 Red army soldiers captured in the Bialystok-Minsk pockets; other 300.000 Soviet soldiers were taken prisoners by the end of July after the siege of Smolensk; on the 8 of August the Germans surrounded another 100.000 Soviet troops; by the end of September when the encirclement of Kyiv was completed the Soviet Army lost another 650.000 troops.
- In the first 18 days of combat, the German Army Group Centre advanced 600 km, occupied all of Belorussia, and inflicted 417, 790 casualties on the Western Front. The equipment losses of the Western Front were also huge: 4,799 tanks, 9,427 guns, and mortars, and 1,777 combat aircraft.
- The first three weeks of dramatic fighting also proved costly for the Northern Front led by General Colonel Kuznetov. The German Army Group North, led by von Leeb, advanced 450 km, capturing most of the USSR’s Baltic Republics. During this time, Northern Front lost approximately 90,000 soldiers, 1,000 tanks, 4,000 guns and mortars, and over 1,000 combat planes.
- The battles in Ukraine clearly showed that the Wehrmacht Panzers were not invincible and offered many Soviet commanders such as Rokossovsky the first lessons about modern mechanized warfare. Despite relative successes, the Southwestern Front suffered heavy casualties in both man and material: 24,154 soldiers (killed, captured, missing), 4,381 tanks, 5,806 artillery units, and 1,218 fighter planes. The strategic situation has also worsened for the Red Army; The Wehrmacht was getting closer and closer to Kiev
- On June 27, two German panzer groups, linking forces east of Minsk, turned against the 300,000 Russian troops caught in the trap, 50,000 of them in Minsk itself. In the ensuing battle, tens of thousands were killed. Almost all the rest were taken, prisoner. Their fate was to be terrible: beaten, starved, denied medical attention, refused adequate shelter, shot down if they stumbled during endless forced marches, few of them were still alive a year later.
- Hitler’s Barbarossa crusade began in spectacular fashion. Employing Blitzkrieg tactics, his panzers thrust up to 600km (360 miles) into the Soviet heartland in the first three weeks of the war, gobbling up most of Belorussia and large segments of the Baltic region and Ukraine. The Wehrmacht demolished the Red Army’s first strategic echelon, encircled and swallowed up the bulk of the Western Front west of Minsk, and reached the Dnepr river along the Moscow axis. In the process, it tore the heart out of the Red Army, inflicting at least 747,870 casualties, including 588,598 killed, wounded, or missing, roughly one-sixth of the Red Army’s June 1941 strength, and eliminating 10,180 Red Army tanks and 3,995 aircraft. By any measure, this victory was indeed both unprecedented and astounding.
- Shocked and furious at the initial successes of the Wehrmacht, Stalin decided to retire for a few days to his dacha near the Kremlin. Following this decision, there was a power vacuum in the USSR. On June 30, following a Politburo decision, a Party delegation visited Stalin at his dacha.
At the sight of the delegation, it is said that Stalin, afraid that he would be arrested, collapsed on his chair. On the contrary, the delegation led by Molotov and Mikoyan informed him that he had been appointed to lead a new mechanism for coordinating the war effort.
- Between the start of Operation Barbarossa and November 1941, the Soviets managed to relocate 1,500 factories, of which 1,360 were connected with the arms industry. The plants were moved, piece by piece, to Siberia and Central Asia. Approximately 1.5 million freight cars were used in this process. It took the Soviet industry almost an entire year to reach the production levels before the German invasion, so the desperate battles of 1941 were fought with existing war material, which could hardly be replaced.
- At the start of Operation Barbarossa, the Waffen-SS forces numbered a total of 160.405 troops, out of which only 100.000 were the actual combat force.
- The success of Army Group Center was astonishing. Hoth and Guderian’s panzers advanced 700 km in the first 6 weeks of the campaign and Moscow was only 350 kilometers away from their forces. This was the perfect moment for the decisive battle against the Red Army, but Hitler wasted his opportunity with one big mistake. On August 22, after a month of indecision, Guderian and his tanks were ordered to march South to help Army Group South to capture Kiev and the economically important region of Ukraine. The capture of Ukraine may have contributed to the acquisition of resources for the German war economy, but in the long run, it missed a great opportunity for the decisive blow was missed.
- The Great Battle of Moscow, considered by Soviet historiography to be the most important and greatest battle of the campaign, can be divided into two major stages:
1) between September 30 and December 5, 1941: Red Army troops fought fiercely defensive battles against the Wehrmacht
2) between December 6, 1941, and April 20, 1942: Soviet troops went on the counter-offensive, managing to eliminate the danger of occupying the capital.
- According to Georgy Zhukov, by the end of the Battle for Moscow, the German Army lost more than half of a million soldiers, 1.300 tanks, 2.500 artillery pieces, 15.000 trucks of various models.
- Following the great victory of the Red Army in the Battle of Moscow(Army Group Center was forced to retreat 200 km), Hitler dismissed all commanders considered by him responsible for the failure: W.von Brauchitsch, Feodor von Bock, Gerd von Rundstedt, Walter von Leeb, Heinz Guderian, Erich Hoepner, C.H von Stulpnagel. Instead of designating a successor for Bauchitsch, Hitler considered himself capable of personally taking command of all German armed forces.
The defeat of Nazi Germany at the Gates of Moscow meant one thing for the German War Machine, the Blitzkrieg strategy in Russia failed, the short campaign of 3-5 months for the conquest of the USSR has now become a brutal war of attrition for which the Third Reich was now prepared. Even though Hitler will try to replicate the blitzkrieg strategy in the following year against Stalingrad, practically the fate of the war was decided at the Gates of Moscow in the winter of 1941. From now it was only a matter of time before the final collapse of Nazi Germany. Hitler’s “1000 year Reich” will only last 12 years.
- Andrei A. Kokoshin; The German Blitzkrieg Against the USSR, 1941, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, 2016
- Charles Winchester; OSTFRONT Hitler’s War on Russia 1941-45, Osprey Publishing, 1998
- David M. Glantz; Barbarossa, Hitler’s Invasion of Russia 1941, History Press Ltd, 2001
- David Stahel; Operation Barbarossa and Germany’s Defeat in the East, Cambridge University Press, 2011.
- David M. Glantz& Jonathan M. House; When Titans Clashed How The Red Army Stopped Hitler, University Press of Kansas, 2015
- Jacques de Launay; Les grandes décisions de la Deuxième guerre mondiale, Vol I, Edito-Service, 1975