German success hinged on the speed of advance of 154 German and satellite divisions deployed in three army groups: Army Group North in East Prussia, under Field Marshal Wilhelm von Leeb; Army Group Center in northern Poland, commanded by Field Marshal Fedor von Bock; and Army Group South in southern Poland and Romania under Field Marshal Karl Gerd von Rundstedt. Army Group North consisted of 3 panzer, 3 motorized, and 24 infantry divisions supported by the Luftflotte 1 and joined by Finnish forces. Farther north, German General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst's Norway Army would carry out an offensive against Murmansk in order to sever its supply route to Leningrad. Within Army Group Center were 9 panzer, 7 motorized, and 34 infantry divisions, with the Luftflotte 2 in support. Marshal von Rundstedt's Army Group South consisted of 5 panzer, 3 motorized, and 35 infantry divisions, along with 3 Italian divisions, 2 Romanian armies, and Hungarian and Slovak units. Luftflotte 4 provided air support.
Meeting this onslaught were 170 Soviet divisions organized into three "strategic axes" (commanding multiple fronts, the equivalent of army groups)—Northern, Central, and Southern or Ukrainian—that would come to be commanded by Marshals Kliment E. Voroshilov, Semen K. Timoshenko, and Semen M. Budenny, respectively. Voroshilov's fronts were responsible for the defense of Leningrad, Karelia, and the recently acquired Baltic states. Timoshenko's fronts protected the approaches to Smolensk and Moscow. And those of Budenny guarded the Ukraine. For the most part, these forces were largely unmechanized and were arrayed in three linear defensive echelons, the first as far as 30 miles from the border and the last as much as 180 miles back.
The German plan called for three phases in which they hoped to achieve three broad objectives: the destruction of Soviet armed forces; the capture of political and industrial centers; and the occupation of coal, iron, and agricultural centers in the Ukraine and Caucasus. Phase one called for Nazi ground forces, supported by air, to drive deep into Soviet territory and encircle and destroy Soviet forces west of the Dvina-Dnieper Line while disrupting supply lines and creating maximum chaos. Phase two objectives were the seizure of Leningrad, Moscow, and the Ukraine to prevent political-military direction and economic support to the Red Army. In Phase three, the Wehrmacht was to advance to and hold the Volga-Archangel Line.
Initial Soviet defensive plans differed, but the primary defense in all was to position the bulk of forces along the perceived path of any German attack. The differences in the plans came from disagreements over the exact direction of the assumed main thrust. One concept held that the principal German attack would occur in the north, whereas another prepared for the main attack in the south, into the Ukraine. For whatever reasons, none considered the center of the front toward Moscow as primary. Soviet leader Josef Stalin believed the assault would be launched toward the Ukraine and Caucasus because of the agricultural and mineral resources there. Consequently, final General Staff plans were developed for the Red Army to defend against a southern main thrust.
Whatever the direction of any German attack, Stalin counted on a repeat of the stalemate of the Western Front of 1914 to 1918 or at least a campaign lasting a year or more. Soviet planning estimated that any war between Germany and the USSR would last a minimum of three years. Critical to ensuring the ability of the Soviet Union to fight a protracted war would be denial of the eastern Ukraine to the Germans, which is why so much Soviet armor was positioned forward in June 1941.
Stalin refused to believe Soviet intelligence reports that German forces were massing on the western approaches to the USSR. He also rejected Western warnings with detailed information of the impending Germany attack. He received a reported 100 Western warnings but dismissed them all as efforts by the Western powers to involve the Soviet Union in the war. The German ambassador to the Soviet Union, Count Friedrich von Schulenberg, who opposed war between Germany and the Soviet Union, even informed an astonished Vladimir Dekanozev, the Soviet ambassador to Germany, that Germany would invade. Reportedly, Stalin informed the Politburo that "disinformation has now reached ambassadorial level."
Although Stalin had utilized the respite of the Soviet-German Non-aggression Pact period to improve war stocks and develop military industries, he ultimately resisted fully mobilizing the Red Army for fear that doing so would provoke Hitler. These factors, plus the self-inflicted decapitation of the Soviet armed forces in the 1937 purges that liquidated 40 to 50 percent of the senior officer corps, left the Red Army unable to prevent the Wehrmacht from achieving tremendous initial victories.
Hitler had ordered that preparations for the invasion of the Soviet Union be complete by May 15, but the assault did not actually occur until June 22, almost the very day that Napoleon Bonaparte had begun his invasion of Russia in 1812. Heavy spring rains in eastern Europe were the most important factor in the delay, as the panzers needed dry, hard ground for an advance across a country with few roads. Also, it took more time than anticipated to assemble the invasion force of more than 3 million men, the largest in history. Motor transport had to be allocated, and the Luftwaffe was also slow to build forward airfields. Moreover, units taking part in the campaign in the Balkans had to be relocated and refitted.
Despite all the German preparations, there was a great disparity in military hardware. The Luftwaffe, still waging operations against Britain and also supporting the Afrika Korps (Africa Corps) in North Africa, was forced to keep 1,150 combat aircraft in these theaters. Thus, only 2,770 combat aircraft were available against the Soviet Union. Arrayed against them were 18,570 Soviet aircraft, 8,154 of which were initially in the west and the bulk of them tactical aircraft of sturdy basic designs, including the excellent Ilyushin I1-2 Shturmovik ground-attack aircraft.
Germany deployed some 6,000 tanks, the Soviets 23,140 (10,394 in the west)—and even in 1941, the Soviets possessed some of the best tanks of the war. Their BT-series and T-26 were superior in armor, firepower, and maneuverability to the German light PzKpfw I and II and could destroy any German tank. Similarly, the Soviet T-34 medium tank and KV-1 heavy tank were superior to the PzKpfw III and IV and indeed any German tank in June 1941.
The German attack began at 3:00 a.m. on 22 June 1941, the longest day of the year, with only two hours of total darkness. Soviet forces were taken completely by surprise. German panzer and mechanized divisions easily broke through the defenses and were deep into Soviet territory by nightfall. Striking Soviet air forces within range, the Luftwaffe, in one day's operation for all practical purposes, gained air supremacy over the operational area. Army Group North took Kaunas in one day and reached the Dvina River after four days, then rolled into Riga on 29 June. Not until they reached new Soviet defensive positions south of Pskov on 8 July did the Germans encounter stiff resistance.
The progress of Army Group South was slowed by numerous natural obstacles, which allowed Soviet forces to withdraw in a more orderly manner and even to counterattack occasionally. The southern army group advanced along three lines: the Lublin-Kovel-Lutsk-Zhitomir-Kiev line; the Przemysl–L'viv (Lvov)–Vinnitsia–Dnieper River line; and a third line from Romania to Odessa and Dnepropetrovsk. Soviet forces avoided German encirclement attempts in this southern zone until Uman, where, in early August, over 100,000 men were encircled and surrendered, along with 300 tanks and 800 pieces of heavy artillery.
The most spectacular results were achieved by Army Group Center. It reached the Dnieper River by 6 July, where it encountered increased Soviet resistance. Before arriving there, however, one column took Vilnius on 24 June and then headed for Minsk, where it joined the second column that had come from Brest-Litovsk. On 27 June, the two columns met to surround a large number of Soviet troops around Grodno and Bialystok, provoking the surrender of 320,000 men, 3,000 tanks, and 2,000 pieces of heavy artillery. Even with stiffening resistance, Soviet forces could not prevent the Germans from crossing the Dnieper on 9 July and seizing Smolensk on 16 July, where they captured another 300,000 prisoners.
Phase one of barbarossa seemed a success. Despite increased resistance, Wehrmacht forces appeared to have open roads to Leningrad, Moscow, and Kiev after capturing nearly a million Soviet troops and killing countless others. Phase two of the German plan, however, proved more difficult to achieve for several reasons. Soviet defenses were stiffening because the initial shock of invasion had worn off and an additional 5 million men in reserve forces had been mobilized and thrown into the breach. In addition, Hitler and his generals had been debating the best course of action for phase two, and the objectives continued to change. The generals believed the army should concentrate on securing Moscow because it was the Soviet capital and a vital communication and industrial center. It offered, they believed, the best chance to destroy the Soviet armies. Hitler, however, at first thought the priority should be the seizure of Leningrad and a linkup with the Finns; then, the Germans and Finns together should clear the Baltic and open a sea line of communications. But by mid-August, Hitler had changed his mind and directed the main effort to focus on the Ukraine and Caucasus in order to gain the resources of those regions, relegating both Leningrad and Moscow to secondary priority. He even directed the other two army groups to yield forces to reinforce Army Group South.
Phase two finally began with an assault on Kiev, which fell to the Germans on 19 September and netted 650,000 additional prisoners. Then, fall rain and mud slowed the German advance in the south. Movement toward Leningrad also slowed, partly because of increased Soviet resistance but also because Hitler conceived a new plan. This plan, known as Operation taifun (Typhoon), called for Leningrad to be encircled, put under siege, and starved into submission; the Crimea, the Donbass, and the Caucasus were to be taken for the coal and oil resources that would be gained for Germany's use.
The new plan accorded the highest priority to the encirclement and capture of Moscow. Previously transferred panzer forces were now to revert to Army Group Center, and operations were to commence on 30 September. In the drive on Moscow, the Germans took Orel on 3 October, and 17 days later, around Vyazma and Bryansk, they captured 665,000 Soviet prisoners. But again, fall rains and mud, increasing Soviet resistance as the Germans neared the capital, and an early drop in temperature to well below zero ground the German advance to a halt.
Some success was had elsewhere. Leningrad was nearly surrounded, and the Crimea was taken along with Odessa, Karkov, and Rostov-on-Don, but these achievements were short-lived when, along the entire front, the Soviets opened their first major counteroffensive in early December 1941.
Because the strategic objective did not change, it can be argued that Operation barbarossa continued for the entire period of Germany's strategic advance, from the surprise attack on 22 June 1941 until the assault that stalled before Moscow in November. However, the commencement of Operation taifun, with its change of operational focus and main objectives, technically ended Operation barbarossa. Arthur T. Frame
Clark, Alan. Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict, 1941–45. New York: William Morrow, 1965.; Deutscher, Isaac. Stalin: A Political Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.; Erickson, John. The Road to Stalingrad: Stalin's War with Germany. New York: Harper and Row, 1975.; Salisbury, Harrison E. The Unknown War. New York: Bantam Books, 1978.; Werth, Alexander. Russia at War, 1941–1945. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1964.; Ziemke, Earl F., and Magna E. Bauer. Moscow to Stalingrad: Decision in the East. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1987.
Arthur T. Frame