In the fall of 1940, following the Luftwaffe's failure to drive the Royal Air Force from the skies over Britain, Adolf Hitler ordered plans drawn up for an invasion of the Soviet Union. He postulated a quick, three-month-long campaign. "You have only to kick in the door," he told Field Marshal Karl Gerd von Rundstedt, "and the whole rotten structure will come tumbling down." Defeat the Soviet Union, he reasoned, and Britain would have to sue for peace.
Overconfidence marked German planning. The Germans had little accurate intelligence on the Soviet Union, including few adequate maps. They also had little concern for the impact on the fighting of winter weather and little understanding of the influence of the great distances and how these would render blitzkreig, at least as it was practiced in Poland in 1939 and against France and the Low Countries in 1940, wholly impractical.
German resources were certainly inadequate for the task that lay ahead, and in the Soviet Union, Hitler's strategic overreach at last caught up with him. On 22 June 1941, the German army deployed 205 divisions, but 60 of these were in garrison or fighting elsewhere: 38 in France, 12 in Norway, 1 in Denmark, 7 in the Balkans, and 2 in North Africa. This left just 145 divisions available for operations in the east. The Germans invaded the Soviet Union with 102 infantry divisions, 14 motorized divisions, 1 cavalry division, and 19 armored divisions. In addition, they deployed 9 divisions to maintain lines of communication as the invasion progressed. There was virtually no strategic reserve. Finland, Romania, and Hungary supplied perhaps 705,000 men in 37 divisions.
The disparity in military hardware was even more striking. 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, leaving only 2,770 combat aircraft available for use against the Soviet Union. By contrast, the Soviets had 18,570 aircraft, 8,154 of which were initially in the west. The bulk of these were tactical aircraft. Germany had 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 T-34 was the top tank in the world in 1941.
The German invasion plan called for three axes of advance. Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt's Army Group South of four armies (one Romanian) and one panzer group would drive on Kiev and the Dnieper in order to destroy Soviet armies between the Pripet Marshes and the Black Sea. Field Marshal Fedor von Bock's Army Group Center of two armies and two panzer groups was to strike east, taking Smolensk and Moscow. Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb's Army Group North of two armies and one panzer group would thrust north, capture Leningrad, and pin the Soviet forces there against the Baltic Sea. Finland would act in concert with the Germans, reentering the war to reoccupy the Karelian isthmus and threatening Leningrad from the north. Farther north, German Colonel General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst's Norway Army would carry out an offensive against Murmansk in order to sever its supply route to Leningrad.
Hitler had intended to invade in May, but circumstances caused him to put off the attack until late June. In the spring of 1941, German forces invaded Yugoslavia, went to the rescue of Italian troops in Greece, and drove British forces from Crete. In the process, Hitler secured his southern flank against the possibility of Allied air strikes during the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Historians have argued about the impact of this on delaying the invasion of the Soviet Union. In any case, rainy weather and appalling road conditions in the western USSR imposed delay. The tanks required firm, dry ground.
The invasion began at 3:00 a.m. on 22 June 1941, the longest day of the year, with only two hours of total darkness. The Germans and their allies moved into the Soviet Union along a 2,000-mile front and achieved complete surprise. The bulk of the Red Army's western forces were in forward positions, where they were cut off and surrounded. On the first day alone, 1,200 Soviet aircraft were destroyed, most of them on the ground. Within two days, 2,000 Soviet aircraft had been lost. Within five days, the Germans had captured or destroyed 2,500 Soviet tanks. And within three weeks, the Soviets had lost 3,500 tanks, 6,000 aircraft, and 2 million men, including a significant percentage of the officer corps.
Army Group North broke through frontier defenses, wheeled left to trap and destroy many Soviet divisions against the Baltic, and appeared to have an open route to Leningrad. Meanwhile, Army Group Center, with the bulk of German tanks, attacked north of the Pripet Marshes, completed two huge encirclements, and destroyed vast amounts of Soviet war matériel while taking hundreds of thousands of prisoners. But unexpectedly strong Soviet defenses slowed the advance of Army Group South to Kiev, the Crimea, and the Caucasus.
This development revealed a great problem in German invasion planning. The chief of the General Staff, Colonel General Franz Halder, and many senior generals wanted to concentrate German resources in the center for a drive on Moscow, with supporting movements to the north and south. A thrust there would mean a shorter front, and its advocates believed that Moscow was so important that Soviet dictator Josef Stalin would commit many troops to its defense and thus make it easier for the German army to locate and destroy the remaining Soviet military formations before the onset of winter. But Hitler was fixated on taking Leningrad and, more important, the vast resources of the Ukraine. The compromise solution was to make a decision after the pause in August to refit and rest.
German military intelligence, meanwhile, underestimated Soviet military strength. In December 1940, it had estimated 150 Soviet divisions in the western USSR; by June 1941, that estimate had grown to 175; and now, in late summer, German intelligence concluded the Soviets still had 250 divisions, despite huge losses in the fighting. Moreover, Soviet soldiers did not give up when surrounded. Nazi racism and German violence made them realize that capture meant death, and so, many Soviet troops fought to the last bullet and attempted to break free rather than surrender. And the vast distances and onset of a severe winter posed tremendous logistical challenges for German army planners because their army had only a small mechanized/motorized force and largely relied on human and animal muscle power. While leaders at home prepared for the Soviet collapse, troops on the front lines gained a grudging respect for their Soviet adversaries.
In August, the Germans paused, and Hitler ordered the tank units of Army Group Center to help with the attack on Leningrad and to complete the encirclement of Soviet forces defending Kiev. Finally, in October, Army Group Center began Operation typhoon, the attack on Moscow. By November, it had come close to success, but few tanks were still operational. There was little fuel, and the men lacked winter clothing in one of the coldest Soviet winters of the twentieth century.
During the fall campaigning, Stalin prepared to defend Moscow. While troops defended a series of lines on the way to the capital, Moscow's citizens were organized to construct antitank ditches and concentric defenses. Secure in the information that Japan would not take advantage of Soviet weakness and intended to move into South Asia, the Red Army brought divisions from Asia and, having studied German tactics, prepared a counterblow against Army Group Center. On 5 December 1941, the Soviet attack began, stunning the tired, cold, and hungry German troops. Some German generals wanted to retreat all the way to the preinvasion borders, but Hitler insisted the troops remain in place, and his resoluteness and the limited capacity of Soviet logistics helped stem the Soviet winter offensive. Then came the spring thaw and a temporary lull in the fighting.
The relative force ratio had changed in a year of fighting. A summer, fall, and winter had weakened the German army to the point that it no longer had the striking power it possessed a year before. Meanwhile, the Red Army, encouraged by its winter victories, was preparing to take the offensive in 1942.
Hitler believed the Soviet state could not afford another year of manpower losses like those in 1941. He believed that if German forces could drive a wedge between the Dnieper and Don Rivers, using the Volga River as a shoulder, they could interrupt Soviet supplies moving up that great and broad transit way and fight their way to Soviet oil resources in the Caucasus region and the Caspian Sea. The German army's High Command estimated it would need 80 new divisions to replace losses and to provide the striking power for a summer offensive, but Germany could only supply 55 divisions. Hitler promised 80 divisions and obtained troop contributions from reluctant Romanian, Hungarian, and Italian allies, but it was unclear how these troops would perform in the desperate fighting conditions of the Eastern Front. To meet the requirements for mechanized equipment, the German army refitted Czech tanks taken in 1938 and French tanks seized in 1940. Consequently, the German supply system had to carry spare parts for literally hundreds of truck models and tens of tank models, greatly complicating logistics. The Soviets had no such problems. Finally, the panzer units had to move fast enough to fight around defenders and once again surround and capture huge numbers of Soviet troops. Otherwise, the Germans would have to travel as much as 1,200 miles from the offensive's jumping-off point to reach the most productive oil-producing area around Baku.
The Soviets struck first. The Red Army launched an attack in the southern front that coincidentally exposed its flank to Germans massed for the drive to the southeast. Stalin initially refused to end the attack, and losses were heavy. The German summer offensive that finally began in late June 1942 never captured the vast numbers of Soviet soldiers as in 1941. Moreover, Hitler kept reassigning units and thereby violating the principles of mass and economy of force. He sent key elements of the Eighteenth Army on the Crimean Peninsula north to Leningrad; he routed and rerouted the Fourth Panzer Army; and by September, when it was clear that Germany could not achieve its overarching goal of seizing the Soviet oil fields, he ordered the Sixth Army to batter its way against three defending armies into Stalingrad.
The desperate battle for control of Stalingrad, a major industrial city on the Volga, captured the world's imagination. Stalin was as determined to hold his namesake city as Hitler was to take it. The fighting was a block-by-block, house-by-house, and room-by-room affair, with the Soviets sometimes defending from across the river. As Lieutenant General Vasily I. Chuikov's Sixty-Second Army held, the Soviets prepared a massive counterstroke, building up armies of troops and many tanks and artillery pieces against the weakly defended flanks held by Romanian and Hungarian troops. On 19 November, in Operation uranus, the Soviets attacked and quickly broke through. Within days, the Soviet pincers met at Kalach, and more than 300,000 German troops were trapped. The German commander, Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus, did not attempt to break out, and Field Marshal Erich von Manstein failed to break through and relieve Sixth Army. With only three divisions, Manstein managed to get within 35 miles of the trapped Sixth Army but could move no farther. German troops held on until the end of January, when 90,000 survivors marched off into captivity. The long battle did at least provide time for the Germans to extricate forces that had penetrated deep into the Caucasus.
The Soviets then followed this great victory with a winter offensive, but eventually, their goals outran their logistical capacity, and there was the typical pause forced by the spring thaw in 1943. As summer approached, Hitler approved a plan to pinch off a huge bulge in German lines north of Kharkov near Kursk, destroy Soviet armies trapped there, and restore the balance on the Eastern Front.
The Germans postponed the attack on the Kursk salient, Operation citadel, again and again into May, June, and eventually early July. Hitler wanted more of the new models of heavy German tanks, especially the Tiger, but as Germany delayed, the Soviets acted, bringing up reinforcements and constructing extensive, deep defenses, including wide belts of minefields, that were up to 60 miles deep. They also positioned reserve armies on the shoulders of the bulge and additional tanks and artillery behind them. Finally, on 5 July, the long-awaited attack began. Although German units made little progress in the north, the attacking force from the south bludgeoned its way forward. But on 10 July, British and American forces invaded Sicily, clearly threatening to drive Italy from the war. This invasion forced Hitler to end the offensive at Kursk—the greatest tank battle in history.
Within a few weeks, the Soviets began their late summer offensive in the south, which they followed up with a winter offensive that drove German forces out of the eastern Ukraine and trapped German troops on the Crimea. As the spring mud in 1944 brought the usual pause in operations, the German lines stretched from near Leningrad in the north, and along the southern edge of Army Group Center, the lines curved inward. The Soviets achieved a great tactical surprise, as they fooled the Germans into expecting a summer attack against positions in the Ukraine. The Soviets then repositioned their tanks and artillery and prepared for a massive offensive against Army Group Center in Operation bagration, which would coincide with the Allied invasion of France. On 20 July 1944, the Soviets struck, and within weeks, they had largely destroyed Army Group Center. The Soviets followed this up with attacks to end the siege of Leningrad and to expel German troops from all Soviet territory. Pausing in the center before Warsaw—which allowed the Germans to destroy the Polish underground army that had joined the fighting—Soviet forces moved into the Balkans, as Romania and Bulgaria desperately sought to avoid Soviet vengeance.
The end was drawing near, and the Soviets continued to advance. One axis aimed at Berlin while the other struck through Hungary. By January 1945, the Soviets had secured most of East Prussia, and in the south, they were at the gates of Budapest. In April, they brought up supplies and reserve troops for the final drive into Germany proper. The Germans conducted a desperate defense of Berlin, using old men and young boys, and the Soviets took huge casualties as Marshal Georgii Zhukov and Colonel General Ivan Konev fought for the honor of liberating the city. In late April, Soviet and American troops met at Torgau on the Elbe, and several days later, Soviet forces occupied Berlin while Hitler committed suicide in his underground bunker. Finally, on 7 May 1945, Germany signed a surrender document that went into effect on all fronts the next day. The Eastern Front had absorbed the lion's share of German military resources from 1941 onward, and the Soviet ability to stave off defeat and then achieve victory there was critical to the war's outcome. Charles M. Dobbs and Spencer C. Tucker
Carell, Paul. Hitler Moves East. Boston: Little, Brown, 1964.; Carell, Paul. Scorched Earth. Boston: Little, Brown, 1970.; Clark, Alan. Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict, 1941–45. New York: William Morrow, 1965.; Glantz, David M. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995.; Hoyt, Edwin P. Stalin's War: Tragedy and Triumph, 1941–1945. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2003.; Werth, Alexander. Russia at War, 1941–1945. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1964.; Ziemke, Earl Frederick. Stalingrad to Berlin: The German Defeat in the East. New York: Dorset Press, 1986.
Charles M. Dobbs and Spencer C. Tucker