The German war machine rumbled across the Soviet Union’s border in the early morning hours of 22 June, 1941. The German launch of Operation Barbarossa caught the Soviets by surprise. The two nations had signed a non-aggression pact in the days before the German invasion of Poland in 1939. The two nations had worked in conjunction during the invasion of Poland, with the Soviets annexing the eastern portion of the nation whereas the German regime annexed the western portion of Poland. While the two sides remained on relatively amicable terms prior to the German invasion, both the Soviets and Germans remained wary of each other.
While the Soviet Union had a substantially larger force than the Germans, the decade of terror wrought by the Soviet regime had greatly reduced Soviet military’s readiness. Stalin’s purge of the military had ousted a significant portion of the Soviet military leadership, leaders who would have been vital during the initial German invasion. The Soviet armor forces were also inferior to the German tanks. The Soviet T-34’s and KV heavy tanks could match the German armor forces, but so few were deployed along the lines initially that the Germans were easily able to overwhelm the Soviets. The Soviets also suffered mechanical issues during the initial phase of the invasion, with pivotal reinforcements breaking down before even making it to the front lines.
The Germans launched a three pronged offensive against the Soviet s, dividing the invasion force into the three important sectors. Army Group North focused their assault against the Soviets along the northern flank of the Soviet lines, driving along the Baltic Sea and through the Baltic States the Soviet Union had annexed just a few short years before. Army Group Center focused their assault against the center formation of the Soviet defensives, pushing into the Belorussian theatre. And finally Army Group South focused on the southern Soviet defensive line along the Black Sea and the Ukrainian theatre. In the three army groups, the Germans and their Axis forces assembled over 3.5 million troops. The Soviets were only able to front a little over than 2.5 million troops to counter the onslaught and the overwhelming power of the German blitzkrieg offensive quickly made haste of the defending forces, driving them back hundreds of miles into Soviet territory.
Despite the dire consequences of the German offensive the Soviets were eventually able to turn the tide, launching significant counterattacks against all three German Army Groups. In Stalingrad, Moscow and Leningrad the Soviets held their ground. Despite significant German efforts to take these three locations, the Soviets were able to hold their ground. From these epic stands the Soviets were able to formulate their counteroffensive which would eventually lead to the downfall of Nazi Germany. In the end the war on the Eastern front would take the lives of 26 million people and would lead to the rise of the Soviet Union as a world superpower in the aftermath of the Second World War.
Look for more information regarding the history of Operation Barbarossa and the war on the Eastern Front in the upcoming World at War issue #43 with the article “Battle of Kiev, 1941” and join the conversation on Facebook!