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World War II: Operation Barbarossa

(June 22, 1941)

In December 1940, Hitler issued a directive outlining the planned (since July 1940) attack on Russia, which was labeled Operation Barbarossa (it was originally called Operation Fritz. Hitler changed the name to refer to Frederick Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor who had set out to conquer the Holy Land in 1190). In the first phase of the attack, the German army was to engage the main Soviet force as close to the Russian border as possible and destroy it before the Red Army could withdraw to the vast interior and establish a defensive position. The second phase aimed at establishing a front along the north-south line running from the Volga River to Archangel. German forces were to be divided into three strike forces, one which would attack north, in the direction of Leningrad, a second in the south would move against Kiev, and the center force would be directed toward Smolensk, with Moscow as its ultimate target.

The army and the air force enthusiastically supported Hitler’s decision to invade the Soviet Union. Few people dared challenge the Fuhrer’s judgment, but Admiral Erich Raeder, the navy commander-in-chief, warned Hitler that it was a mistake to take on the Russians before finishing off the British. Raeder offered Hitler several alternative plans, but could not dissuade him from his dreams of colonizing Russia and seizing its resources. Even as Hitler was planning his campaign to destroy the Soviet Union, he entered into a new agreement with Molotov on January 10, 1941, in which the Soviets offered economic concessions to the Germans. It was all more ironic because Hitler had refused to respond to the Soviet request to join the Tripartite Pact.

Hitler’s original plan called for the invasion of Russia to begin on May 15, but logistical problems and the need to rescue Mussolini’s forces in Africa and the Mediterranean forced a postponement. When the Blitzkrieg finally came, the Russian people were surprised; however, Stalin had ample warning of the German attack.

A variety of intelligence sources relayed information to Stalin that an invasion was imminent. Richard Sorge, his spy in Tokyo, who had access to the German ambassador’s messages, sent word of the date of the invasion. Both the British and Americans passed on a variety of warnings and details about German troop movements. However, Stalin could not be persuaded that Hitler would turn on him and did not want to provide an excuse for him to do so. He continued to ship strategic materials as agreed in his economic treaty with Germany up until the moment Wehrmacht troops crossed into Russia.

At 4:15 a.m. on June 22, 1941, the Luftwaffe began to bomb Soviet naval and air bases, destroying roughly one-quarter of the Russian air force. Before the Russians had time to react, the German army began its three-pronged attack across the nearly thousand-mile front. Within a week, Hitler’s allies had also declared war, leaving the Soviet Union alone to fight Germany, Romania, Italy, Finland, Hungary, and Albania.

Germany attacked Russia with more than 3 million soldiers. They had more than 3,000 tanks, 2,500 aircraft, 7,000 artillery pieces, 600,000 motor vehicles, and 625,000 horses. The Romanian army contributed 250,000 men and the Finns 500,000. Initially, the Soviets had 2,500,000 men and another 2,200,000 in reserve to defend Moscow and other key cities. The Red Army had more tanks and planes than their enemies, but with the exception of many of the tanks, the equipment was obsolete or inferior.

The Russians were aided by Roosevelt’s decision to provide them with equipment according to the terms of Lend-Lease. Americans were not anxious to help the Soviets. The majority were fiercely anti-Communist and feared that providing equipment and arms to the Russians would reduce the amount available to the British. On the other hand, the public was equally if not more opposed to the Nazis and wanted to see them defeated. In retrospect, critics argued this aid should have been conditioned on Soviet behavior and commitments. Stalin, however, was unwilling to bargain, and the Allies made no great effort to extort concessions from him. From March 1941 until October 1945, the United States provided the Russians with 15,000 aircraft, 7,000 tanks, 350,000 tons of explosives, 51,000 jeeps, 375,000 trucks, 2,000 locomotives, 11,000 rail wagons, 3 million tons of gasoline, and 15 million pairs of boots. Britain contributed another 5,000 tanks and 7,000 aircraft.

No one knew it yet, but this titanic struggle between Adolf and Joe would become the key to the outcome of the entire war. For the next four years, most of the fighting would be on the eastern front, and more people would die in those battles than in all the others combined.

Sources: Bard, Mitchell G. The Complete Idiot's Guide to World War II. 2nd Edition. NY: Alpha Books, 2004.