OPPOSITE A Panzer III fords a river during Operation Barbarossa in the summer of 1941 one of the 3,000 Axis tanks forming the armour component of the greatest military invasion in history.

The German invasion of Russia

David Porter analyses the largest military invasion in history.

This is the second article of a two-part feature on the German invasion of Russia. Click here to read the first part.

Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia, evolved from General Marcks’ plan of August 1940, which prioritised the destruction of the bulk of the Red Army in Belorussia (modern Belarus) and the capture of Moscow.

This plan was heavily amended in successive studies, with Hitler downgrading the importance of taking Moscow in favour of capturing Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and the Ukraine. As finalised, the objectives of the three army groups were:

  • Army Group North was to advance from East Prussia through the Baltic States and join with the Finns to take Leningrad.
  • Army Group Centre’s initial operations from its concentration areas around Warsaw were intended to clear the traditional invasion route to Moscow as far as Smolensk, before swinging north to support the attack on Leningrad. After the city was taken, the advance on Moscow was to be resumed.
  • Army Group South, including Romanian and Hungarian divisions, was tasked with taking the rich agricultural lands of the Ukraine and clearing the Black Sea coast.

The overall aim was to trap and destroy the bulk of the Red Army in a series of encirclements in western Russia, before finally securing a line from Archangel to Astrakhan.

The invasion’s chances of success depended on the 19 Panzer divisions concentrated in four Panzergruppen, which also incorporated the 14 motorised divisions. These were to form the cutting edge of the German offensive and had the daunting task of cutting through the massive forces that the Red Army could deploy in European Russia, which totalled perhaps 170 divisions, including up to 60 tank divisions and at least 13 motorised divisions.

OPPOSITE A Panzer III fords a river during Operation Barbarossa in the summer of 1941 one of the 3,000 Axis tanks forming the armour component of the greatest military invasion in history.
A Panzer III fords a river during Operation Barbarossa in the summer of 1941 one of the 3,000 Axis tanks forming the armour component of the greatest military invasion in history.

Most of these units were deployed close to the frontier. The accepted explanation for this has been Stalin’s obsession with securing his newly conquered territories. German wartime claims that they invaded to pre-empt a Russian attack have almost always been dismissed as crude propaganda, but this view has been challenged as new material has emerged from Soviet archives.

Zhukov’s plan

One of the most significant of these documents is the plan formulated by Zhukov in May 1941 on his appointment as Chief of the Soviet General Staff. The introduction to the draft plan stated that:

In view of the fact that Germany at present keeps its army fully mobilised with its rear services deployed, it has the capacity of deploying ahead of us and striking a sudden blow. To prevent this, I consider it important not to leave the operational initiative to the German command in any circumstances, but to anticipate the enemy and attack the German army at the moment when it is in the process of deploying and before it has time to organise its front and the coordination of its various arms.

Zhukov proposed a pre-emptive strike by 152 Red Army divisions (including 76 tank divisions and 44 mechanised divisions) against the Axis forces assembling in German-occupied Poland. While this may have been no more than a contingency plan, it was consistent with the Red Army’s deployment in June 1941, and it is at least possible that Stalin really was intending to make just such an attack.

The Russian battlefield

Except in urban areas, paved roads were extremely rare. Even in 1941, there were only four all-weather, hard-surfaced roads in western Russia.

Most main routes were dirt roads, which were just about adequate in dry weather, although the immense amounts of dust raised by heavy traffic clogged engines and imposed a heavy maintenance burden on transport units of the Panzer and motorised divisions.

RIGHT A simplified plan of Operation Barbarossa which almost succeeded, thanks to the massive self-inflicted wound of the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s.
A simplified plan of Operation Barbarossa which almost succeeded, thanks to the massive self-inflicted wound of the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s.

These units were already struggling to maintain a bizarre inventory of trucks looted from all over Europe to compensate for the inadequate production of German vehicles. As late as 1943, 1st Flak Corps fielded 260 different types of German vehicle and 120 different types of foreign vehicle. Ironically, most German infantry divisions, which relied on horse-drawn transport and artillery, actually had better sustained mobility in these conditions.

Even moderate rain rapidly turned dirt roads into deep mud, severely limiting the mobility of both sides. In the entire area of Army Group North, there were only two all-weather roads capable of taking heavy traffic, while all other roads were weather-dependent.

Generalleutnant Bork felt that the Minsk–Moscow road was the only one in European Russia constructed and maintained to Western standards.

The Germans soon discovered that primitive roads led to increased fuel consumption. Fuel requirements had been estimated at 250,000 tons per month, but it was found that 330,000 tons were needed. Although large stocks of Red Army petrol were captured, it was almost all low-octane fuel that could not be used in German vehicles.

The hard-pressed German pioniere units – combat engineers – were also heavily committed to work on bridge repairs, as the majority of Russian bridges were rickety wooden structures that needed significant strengthening to take military traffic.

ABOVE German troops cross the Soviet border at the start of Operation Barbarossa.
German troops cross the Soviet border at the start of Operation Barbarossa.

Given the state of Russia’s roads, its railways formed an exceptionally important part of the transport system, but one which posed a further problem for German planners, as the lines were broad gauge rather than the standard gauge of the rest of Europe. This meant that they were unusable unless either converted to standard gauge or sufficient serviceable Soviet engines and rolling stock could be captured.

Even when tracks had been converted, it was found that German locomotives could not cope with the extreme temperatures of Russian winters. General Raus noted that 70% of them broke down during the winter of 1941/1942.

This had a dire effect on combat capability. In November 1941, Second Army and Second Panzer Army failed to take Tula when their logistic support collapsed after only two of their authorised 18 daily supply trains arrived.

The invaders had to contend with fortifications, too. Those of the Stalin Line ran for more than 1,240 miles, covering the pre-1939 Soviet border from the Baltic to the Black Sea. It comprised over 3,000 defensive strong-points, including forts, machine-gun and anti-tank positions, emplaced tank turrets, and observation and command posts.

Had they been properly manned and maintained, these defences could have imposed a significant delay on the German advance, but they were largely ineffective, as much of their weaponry had been removed for installation in new fortifications further west, sometimes referred to as the Molotov Line. This was intended to cover the Red Army’s assembly areas in the newly occupied territories, but it was still incomplete when Operation Barbarossa began, and was rapidly overrun.

Operation Barbarossa begins

The invasion was launched on 22 June 1941 by almost 3,700,000 Axis troops with 3,000 tanks, 7,000 guns, and 2,300 aircraft.

Snapshots of war: artillery observers, an anti-tank gun, a Panzer formation, and German infantry in action during Operation Barbarossa. Note the vast steppes of much of Russia. The enormous distances involved were a key factor in the outcome of the 1941 campaign.
Snapshots of war: artillery observers, an anti-tank gun, a Panzer formation, and German infantry in action during Operation Barbarossa. Note the vast steppes of much of Russia. The enormous distances involved were a key factor in the outcome of the 1941 campaign.

They faced at least 3,000,000 Soviet troops, with 11,000 tanks, up to 33,000 guns, and 9,000 aircraft in the five Western Military Districts. Total Red Army manpower was roughly 5,500,000, with a further 12,000,000 reservists being mobilised.

However, equipping this mass of manpower was another matter. There were 23,000 tanks in all, but many were obsolete and no more than 14,700 were operational. The Red Air Force could theoretically call on a total of roughly 19,500 aircraft, but again the bulk of these were obsolete and serviceability rates were abysmal.

The German offensive achieved almost complete surprise. The Luftwaffe caught much of the Red Air Force on the ground and destroyed 2,000 aircraft in the first 24 hours for the loss of only 35 bombers. By the third day of the campaign, the Axis had achieved air supremacy and the Luftwaffe was able to concentrate its efforts on supporting the ground forces.

The Panzergruppen quickly broke through the Russian lines. General Hoepner’s Panzergruppe IV destroyed the Soviet 3rd and 12th Mechanised Corps before driving through the Baltic States as the spearhead of Army Group North’s advance on Leningrad, which was under siege by 8 September.

Panzergruppen II (Guderian) and III (Hoth), leading Army Group Centre’s advance, pulled off a spectacular encirclement east of Minsk that had trapped about 30 Soviet divisions barely a week after the invasion began. These units were destroyed by the following German infantry divisions over the next three weeks, while Guderian and Hoth raced on to trap a further 21 Red Army divisions around Smolensk in mid-July.

Far away to the south, Kleist’s Panzergruppe I, attached to Army Group South, thrust deep into the Ukraine, advancing to within 12 miles of Kiev by 11 July after decimating clumsy Red Army counter-attacks.

Approximately 6,800 Soviet tanks were destroyed or captured between 22 June and 8 July 1941, compared to 400 German AFVs. With the Germans inflicting this sort of loss ratio (17:1!), it was hardly surprising that many foreign observers believed that the Red Army’s collapse was only a matter of time.

The technical balance

By mid-July, Russian losses were staggering, including perhaps 8,000 AFVs, 4,500 guns, and 610,000 prisoners. The Soviet Air Force had been virtually wiped out, losing almost 6,000 aircraft.

Axis air supremacy allowed the Luftwaffe to mount unopposed bombing sorties, which disrupted many Russian counter-attacks before they got under way.

On the technical level, the majority of Russian AFVs were far outclassed by their German counterparts. Very few Red Army vehicles had radios, which reinforced the Soviet tendency to stick rigidly to detailed orders regardless of rapidly changing battlefield conditions, whereas radio command and control allowed the Panzers to rapidly concentrate to defeat their clumsy opponents. Hapless Red Army tank crews soon found that the signal flags on which they were supposed to rely were almost impossible to read accurately under combat conditions.

The burning of villages and the murder of civilians were typical of Barbarossa a campaign fought with medieval ferocity.
LEFT & ABOVE The burning of villages and the murder of civilians were typical of Barbarossa a campaign fought with medieval ferocity.

The thinly armoured BTs and T-26s, which formed such a high proportion of the total Russian tank strength at the beginning of the campaign, were vulnerable to almost all German tank and anti-tank guns at normal battle ranges. In contrast, the Soviet 45mm, in both its anti-tank and tank-gun versions, could penetrate only the up-armoured Panzer IIIH/J and Panzer IVE/F at point-blank range.

The three-man turrets of the Panzer III and IV, which allowed the commander to concentrate on command duties, also gave them a distinct edge in tank versus tank actions against most Red Army AFVs with their two-man turrets, in which the commander was distracted by having to act as gunner or loader.

This picture of Panzer superiority was only marred by the relatively few encounters with T-34s and KVs, both of which were formidable opponents. Apart from the few Panzer IIIs armed with the 50m L/60 gun, the T-34’s sloped armour was almost invulnerable to all German AFV weapons except at point-blank range, while the KVs could only be effectively countered by 88mm Flak guns or medium artillery.

Even the short (L/30.5) 76.2mm gun of the early T-34s and KV-1s was capable of dealing with contemporary Panzer IIIs and IVs, and it was soon replaced by a 76.2mm L/41.2 with significantly improved armour-piercing performance.

Fortunately for the Panzerwaffe, many T-34s and KVs were destroyed in air raids or captured on their rail transporters while moving up to the front, and others were abandoned after breakdowns or having run out of fuel when their supply columns were destroyed.

Stalin’s response

The run of German victories provoked characteristically drastic action from Stalin. In early July, he had General Pavlov, the commander of the Western Front facing Army Group Centre, arrested and shot, together with his chief of staff and chief signals officer.

This warning was reinforced in the next few weeks by the restoration of the ‘dual command’ principle, under which each unit’s political commissar shared authority with its CO. All too often, the effect was simply to saddle hard-pressed COs with political officers whose fanaticism was only matched by their military incompetence.

At times, senior officers must have wondered if the Germans or the commissars posed the greater threat – as when Corps Commissar Vashugin took command of a counter-attack by a reinforced tank division from 4th Mechanised Corps and led it into a swamp, losing the entire formation in the fiasco.

The loss of Ukraine

The easy victories led to Hitler’s increasing interference in all aspects of operations, with devastating consequences for Germany’s chances of victory. Despite Army Group South’s success at Uman in early August, where 20 Russian divisions were surrounded and destroyed, he ordered the suspension of the advance on Moscow so that Guderian’s Panzergruppe II could be freed to turn south to help complete the conquest of the Ukraine.

Kleist’s Panzergruppe I was ordered to strike north-eastwards to link up with Guderian and encircle Kiev. The Russians were caught off-balance and their frantic efforts to reinforce Kiev only increased the losses when the city’s defenders were surrounded on 16 September.

Over the next two weeks, they were subjected to constant air and ground attacks before the final collapse, in which the Germans took 665,000 prisoners, 880 AFVs, and 3,700 guns.

This victory allowed Army Group South to complete the occupation of the Black Sea coast as far east as the Crimea and the Sea of Azov, although the heavily fortified naval base of Sevastopol held out until the summer of 1942.

Saving Soviet war industries

The Axis advance threatened the armament factories concentrated around Kharkov and Leningrad. Fortunately for the Red Army, pre-war industrialisation of the Urals and central Asia had provided a measure of reserve capacity well beyond the reach of the invading German forces. The trains that brought troops to the front were used to evacuate key factories to safe areas such as the Urals, Siberia, and Kazakhstan, far from the front-lines.

Soviet industry on the move: the vastness of Russia enabled the wholesale relocation of vital war industries beyond the Urals.

The massive evacuation programme put 300 armament factories temporarily out of production, but draconian measures quickly restored output. Beria, the head of the NKVD, was appointed to the State Defence Committee (GKO) with responsibility for armament production and ruthlessly used the millions of prisoners in the Gulag as slave labour.

Operation Typhoon

As it became clear that the Kiev pocket was doomed, Hitler ordered Leningrad to be blockaded and starved into surrender, in order to free resources for a renewed attack on Moscow.

Both Army Group North and Army Group South had to be stripped of most of their Panzer units for the new offensive. Guderian’s command was redesignated Second Panzer Army and launched the drive on Moscow (code-named Operation Typhoon) on 30 September, while the other two Panzergruppen began their attacks two days later.

BELOW LEFT Street fighting in the Ukraine during Operation Barbarossa.
Street fighting in the Ukraine during Operation Barbarossa.

Both sides were now feeling the effects of three months of fierce combat. The Red Army’s massive losses forced the concentration of most of the surviving armour in tank brigades with a nominal strength of 93 tanks in a single tank regiment, plus a motor-rifle battalion. By September, even the paper strength of these units was down to 67 tanks, although very few had even that many.

On the other side of the lines, the Panzer divisions were in better shape, but their tanks and other vehicles were in need of major overhauls after covering thousands of miles across country or on appalling dirt roads. The infantry divisions (which had virtually no motor vehicles) were exhausted by the epic marches needed to keep up with the rapidly advancing Panzers. But all were buoyed up by the sheer scale of their victories and the thought that Moscow was now within reach.

The Panzergruppen quickly broke through the Russian lines, and by 9 October had pulled off two more major encirclements, one between Smolensk and Vyazma, the other around Bryansk. These netted a total of 657,000 prisoners, 1,241 AFVs, and 5,396 guns, and opened the road to Moscow.

As early as 6 October, a new factor began to help the Red Army’s defence of the capital when the first snows fell. At first, these rapidly melted, turning the roads into thick, clinging mud that slowed the German advance and increased the already alarming rate of breakdowns. Hard-pressed Luftwaffe transport units were diverted to drop tow-ropes to supply columns floundering along mud-clogged roads.

Despite this, on 14 October Hoth’s Panzergruppe IV captured Kalinin, cutting the Moscow–Leningrad highway and the main north–south railway. This sparked a temporary panic in the capital, and it was lucky for Stalin that the German airborne forces were unable to exploit the situation following their heavy losses in the assault on Crete.

By mid-November, sharp frosts froze the thick mud and restored the Panzers’ mobility, allowing a renewed drive on Moscow. During the next two weeks, the Germans came tantalisingly close to taking the city. Panzergruppen III and IV swung north of Moscow, breaching the Volga Canal defence line on 28 November, while away to the south Guderian’s Second Panzer Army had taken Stalinogorsk and cut the capital’s main railway link with the south.

General Winter

By 4 December, leading German units were less than 30 miles from Moscow. Then plummeting temperatures finally brought the advance to a halt.

It was so cold that guns could not be fired after oiled parts froze solid and fires had to be lit under vehicles at night to prevent their engines freezing. Very few German units had proper winter clothing, and cases of severe frostbite soared, rapidly exceeding the number of combat casualties.

The Russians were equipped and trained for winter warfare; the Germans were not. The onset of winter signalled the strategic failure of Barbarossa.
The Russians [LEFT] were equipped and trained for winter warfare; the Germans [RIGHT] were not. The onset of winter signalled the strategic failure of Barbarossa.

Red Army equipment was far less severely affected by the intense cold and deep snow. The T-34 was fitted with a compressed-air starting system that could operate even in the temperatures of −28ºC, which were not uncommon that winter. The wide tracks of the KV-1 and T-34 gave low ground-pressure, which allowed them to operate far more easily in deep snow than German AFVs with their narrower tracks and higher ground-pressure.

The overall losses on both sides were staggering and will probably never be known for certain. German casualties may well have totalled 800,000, plus 2,300 AFVs. These figures were dwarfed by the enormous Russian losses, which included roughly 3,000,000 prisoners, 20,000 AFVs, and 25,000 guns.

Operation Barbarossa had only just failed, but that failure had a major impact on the course of the entire war, as Germany was now trapped into fighting a war on several fronts.

The situation was worsened by Hitler who, on hearing of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, chose to declare war on the United States, adding its enormous potential strength to his existing enemies. It was going to be a long war.

David Porter worked at the Ministry of Defence for 30 years and is the author of nine books on the Second World War, as well as numerous articles for Military History Matters and other magazines.
All images: WIPL