Despite Stalin's efforts to mollify Hitler, Germany declared war on the Soviet Union just as 180 German divisions swept across the border early on the morning of June 22, 1941. Two million Nazi troops, supported by forces from Romania, Hungary and Poland, took part of an offensive called "Operation Barbarossa" named after medieval Emperor Frederick Barbarossa of the Holy Roman Empire, a leader of the Third Crusade in the 12th century. Explaining why he decided to invade the Soviet Union, Hitler said, "What one does not have, but needs, one must conquer." He also said it was necessary to destroy Slavic culture.

Operation Barbarossa was the largest attack in history. It involved 3 million troops and entered Russia and the Ukraine along a 1,800 mile front stretching from the Arctic to the Black Sea. The unprepared Russians had only 110 divisions and German army ate up Russia, winning won every battle for 15 months until they stalled and ultimately defeated at Stalingrad (fought from August 1942 to 1943).

The German blitzkrieg nearly succeeded in breaking the Soviet Union. Caught unprepared, the Soviet forces lost whole armies and vast quantities of equipment to the German onslaught in the first weeks of the war. By November the German army had seized the Ukrainian Republic, besieged Leningrad, the Soviet Union's second largest city, and threatened Moscow itself.

Among the German objectives were the grainfields of the Ukraine and oil fields of the Caucasus. The Baku oil fields in present-day Azerbaijan were at the peak of their production in World War II. They fueled the Soviet war effort and were kept going largely through the work of women because so many men were at the front. These oil fields was one of the main goals of Hitler's thrust into the Soviet Union. A wartime home movie of Hitler’s birthday showed the fuhrer eating a piece from a cake with words BAKU written in chocolate cream and declaring, “Unless we get it, the war is lost.” The Allies were prepared to bomb the fields to keep them out of German hands and charges of dynamite had been set by the Russians themselves. The drive towards Baku ended with Stalingrad. The Germans got as far as Mozdok, 600 miles north of Baku. “Shortage of petrol,” Field Marshall Rommel lamented. “It’s enough to make one weep!”

Book: “When Titans Clashed” by David Glantz and Jonathan House (University Press of Kansas).

Red Army and Their Weapons

When the Nazis invaded Russia in June 1941 their forces outnumbered the Soviet forces by a margin of 3 to 2. A month later, even though the Soviets had lost hundreds of thousands of men their force was equal in size to the Germans. From then on the Red army kept getting bigger and the “Wehrmacht” smaller. At the height of the eastern front war, Soviet troops outnumbered the Nazis 5 or 10 to 1. In all the the Red Army assembled 400 divisions against Germany's 160.

The Red Army's strengths included T-34 tanks, superb artillery and a device called the Katyusha rocket launcher, also known as Stalin Organ. Its greatest weakness was its lack of leaders. In the Great Terror purges of 1937-38, three out of five marshalls, 13 of 15 army commanders, 110 or 195 divisional commanders, 220 of 406 brigadeers and countless other officers were executed under Stalin's orders for alleged treason.

Some historians have argued that Katyusha rocket launchers allowed the Russians to turn the tide against the Nazis. These multiple rocket launchers delivered explosives to a target area more quickly than conventional artillery. They had a lower accuracy, required a longer time to reload and were more fragile than conventional artillery guns, but they were inexpensive and easy to produce. The Katyushas of World War II were the first self-propelled artillery mass-produced by the Soviet Union. They were usually mounted on trucks. This mobility gave the Katyusha (and other self-propelled artillery) another advantage: being able to deliver a large blow all at once, and then move before being located and attacked with counter-battery fire. [Source: Wikipedia]

Describing the fighting near Berlin in mid-April 1945, Norman Norris, a British POW at a German camp, recalled: "To soften up the German opposition for a further advance, the Russians now employed a remarkable weapon, the “Katusha”, or 'Stalin Organ.' This was a mobile rocket ramp which fired off an amazing number of projectiles. They put a long line of them across the fields, wheel to wheel, and at the drop of a hand poured what seemed to be an endless rain of fire into the retreating Germans."

Russian soldiers were given a daily “commissar’s ration” of 100 hundred grams of vodka. Some Russians insist this ration—not Katyusha rocket launchers—is what allowed the Russians to turn the tide against the Nazis.

Early Fighting in the Invasion of the Soviet Union

In Operation Barbarossa, the “Blitzreig” into Russia achieved all its objectives at first. By December 1941, Panzer divisions had swept through and overrun the Ukraine, the Soviet Union's most productive agricultural region, and stood poised outside Leningrad and Moscow. On November 20, the captured Rostov, the gateway to Caucasus oil fields. Hitler easily took the Ukraine and was heading for the oil fields in the Caucasus when he was stopped in Stalingrad.

The fighting in Russia was in many as brutal, ugly and primitive as the most horrible battles in World War I. The weather foiled Germany's Blitzkrieg tactics and much of the fighting was in the form of bloody stalemate battles of attrition. Between 1941 and 1945, some 20 million Russian people and 3 million Russian horses died. In Byelorussia every second family was wiped out.↨

There were an estimated 6 million German and Russian casualties in the first 15 months of fighting in the eastern front and that was before the fiercest battle—Stalingrad had even begun. Stalin employed scorched earth tactics. The Soviets destroyed grain, railroads and whole towns before the German advance.

The Russians used dogs with backpack trained to climb under Nazi tanks and blow them up. The world's largest gun (with a caliber of 31½ inches) was used by German forces in the siege of Sevastpol in July 1942. It was 141 feet long, weighed 1,481½ tons, was operated by a crew of 1,500 and fired 5.3-ton projectiles up to 29 miles.

Fighting in the Ukraine and Belarus

The Nazis quickly overran the Ukraine and entered Kiev in August 1941, capturing about a half million Red Army troops there. In World War II, Ukraine was overrun twice: first by the Nazi and then by the counterattacking Red Army. Ukraine was controlled for more than two years by the Nazis, who were seeking the “Lebensraum”. Ukraine lost 7.5 million people (about 20 percent of the population), including four million civilians who were killed and 2.2 million that were taken to Germany to work as laborers. Many cities, towns and villages were devastated.

Much of western Ukraine was part of Poland at the beginning of World War II. The region was the area that Stalin claimed in 1939 after making the Molotov-Rippenstop Pact with Hitler. Historians believe that of Hitler had supported independence for 40 million Ukrainians in the Soviet Union, it would have been hard for Stalin to stop him.

Belarus was also overrun twice: by the Nazi and counterattacking Red Army. The Nazis quickly overran Belarus during Operation Barbarossa despite a heroic stand at the Soviet garrison and entered Minsk in June 1941. Belarus was controlled for three years by the Nazi. Belarus lost 2.2 million people—a quarter of its population—in World War II. A total of 209 of the 270 major population centers were ruined. Minsk was leveled. Only 50,000 people remained there.

Germans Bog Down

By the end of 1941, however, the German forces had lost their momentum. German movements were increasingly restricted by harsh winter weather, attacks from bands of partisans, and difficulties in maintaining overextended supply lines. At the same time, the Red Army, after recovering from the initial blow, launched its first counterattacks against the invaders in December. To ensure the army's ability to fight the war, the Soviet authorities moved thousands of factories and their key personnel from the war zone to the interior of the country — often to Central Asia — where the plants began producing war matériel. Finally, the country was bolstered by the prospect of receiving assistance from Britain and the United States.

Western Russia at first glance looks like an invaders dream. Leningrad, Moscow and Kiev are all located on a 600-mile-wide flat treeless plain that never rises above 500 feet. But looks can deceiving. Two great Russian rivers—the Dnieper and the Niman flow through the region and their meandering tributaries combine to form 40,000-square-mile Pripyat swamp which the German army went north to avoid.

After a lull in active hostilities during the winter of 1941-42, the German army renewed its offensive, scoring a number of victories in the Ukrainian Republic, Crimea, and southern Russia in the first half of 1942. Sevastopol was leveled by a 248-day German siege. Unexploded mines are still being removed today.

Russian Cold and Mud

The winter of 1941-42, the fist winter after the Nazi invaded, was among the coldest on record in Russia. Describing the fighting in Russian cold the German infantryman Benno Zieser wrote: "The icy winds of those great white wastes which stretched forever beyond us to the east lashed a million crystals of razor-like snow into our unshaven faces, skin now loose-stretched over bone, so utter was the exhaustion, so utter the starvation. It burned the skin into crumpled leather, it lashed tears from the sunken eyes from which over-fatigue could scarce be kept open, it penetrated though all uniforms and rags to the very marrow of our bones."

Alexander Werth, a correspondent for the BBC in Russia in World War II, described Russia in February this way: "In the morning it had been only minus 20°, and then it was minus 30°, then minus 40° and finally minus 44°. One has to experience 44° of frost to know what it means. Your breath catches. If you breath on your glove, thin films of ice immediately forms on it. We couldn't eat anything because all our food—bread, sausage and eggs—had turned into stone. Even wearing “valenki” [felt boots] and two pairs of woolen socks, you had to move your toes all the time to keep circulation going. Without “valenki” frostbite would set in, and the Russians had no “valenki”...Your only real ally, apart from clothes, on such occasions, is the vodka bottle. And bless it, it didn't freeze, and even a frequent small sip made a big difference." [Source: “Russia at War 1941 to 1945" by Alexander Werth, 1964]

The Germans suffered terribly in the cold, but what really did them in militarily was the “rasputitsa”, a twice yearly "liquefaction of the steppe" that occurs throughout the Soviet Union during the spring snowbelt and the autumns rains, bringing everything to a halt. The “rasputitsa” in the spring of 1941 was particularly long, delaying the German invasion a couple of critical weeks, and the one in the following autumn postponed the advance on Moscow because Nazi tanks literally sank into a quagmire and couldn't be moved. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

Red Army Soldiers in Winter

Describing a the Red Army on the move Werth wrote: "Between two streams of traffic, there was now an irregular wall of snow that had been thrown up there by wheels and hoofs. Weird-looking figures were regulating the traffic—soldiers in long white camouflage cloaks and pointed white hoods; horses and still more horses, blowing steam with ice round their nostrils, were wading through the deep snow, pulling guns and gun-carriages and large covered wagons; and hundreds of lorries with their headlights full on...and even camels pulling sleighs—several of them stepping sedately through the deep snow as though it were sand." [Source: “Russia at War 1941 to 1945" by Alexander Werth, 1964]

"To the side of the road an enormous bonfire was burning, filling the air with clouds of black smoke that ate into your eyes; and shadow-like figures danced around the bonfire warming themselves; then others would light a plank at the bonfire, and start a little bonfire of their own, till the hole edge of the road was a series of small bonfires. [Ibid]

Many Russian soldiers tried to escape the front by injuring themselves. A nurse, whose job it was to determine if a wound was self-inflicted or not, told Time: "I had to make reports on the size of the wound, the distance of the weapon from the wound, the seriousness of the would. Sometimes the boys wound shoot each other in the arm, leg—somewhere that wouldn't maim, but would get them out of this gruesome war. If I identified such wounds, the boys were taken off and shot...I was known for my precision.”

Battle of Moscow

On October 10, 1941, Gen. Zhukov assumed command of the Moscow defenses. He mobilized 250,000 Muscovites—75 percent of them women—to dig ant-tank ditches outside he city. In December 1941, the Germans stalled about 40 miles outside of Moscow. Stalin evacuated his government from the city and set up operation 800 kilometers to the east at Kuibyshev on the Volga River. The Germans entered Moscow but the brutal winter kept them from achieving their military objectives and doing as much damage to Russia as they were capable of doing, had the weather been more cooperative.

In December 1941, with their back against Moscow, Soviet troops launched a vicious counterattack that helped turned momentum in the war in their favor. The 32nd rifle Division advanced so quickly they got stuck way behind enemy lines and were surrounded by well-armed German soldiers and were hit with a barrage of machine gun, mortar and tank fire. Only 10 to 20 percent of the division’s estimated 14,000 troops survived.

Describing Moscow in December 1941, New York Times correspondent C.L. Sulzberger wrote: "We motored through the silent streets. The first great counter-offensive was on, and one by one towns began to fall—Klin, Volokolamsk, Kalinin, Mozhalsk. The Nazis, whose spearheads had driven almost to the capital's famous Khimke Watertower, were beating their way back through drifts, and hampered and harried by fur-clad infantry ,by partisan bands who were emerging from the forests, by Dovators famous cavalry and by guns and again more guns."

"Moscow was still a free city," Sulzberger wrote, "but it was pinched, grim, cold and silent. More than half of its residents were gone—it's men in armies, its officialdom to eastern centers, its women and children to the Volga and Siberian havens. Above all there no children." It is estimated the Smolensk-Moscow campaign of 1941 claimed the lives of 1.5 million people.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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