World War Two: The Eastern Front Part 2

Part 1 / Part 3 / WW2 / Origins of WW2

Barbarossa: The German Invasion of the USSR

On the western front Hitler found himself at war with Britain. This wasn’t what he wanted: Hitler’s targets were Eastern Europe, to crush the communism state and give his German Empire lebensraum, not Britain, with whom he had hoped to negotiate a peace. But the Battle of Britain had failed, invasion looked impractical, and Britain was staying belligerent. Hitler had been planning a turn to the east even as he was planning the invasion of France which he hoped would allow full focus on the USSR, and spring 1941 became the focus. However, even at this late stage Hitler was delaying as he was completely confused by Britain, but it became apparent to the Nazi regime that Russia was interested in territorial expansion too, and wanted not just Finland, but Romanian territory (threatening the Romanian oil the Third Reich needed), and Britain was unable to re-open the western front any time soon. The stars seemed to have aligned for Hitler to stage a quick war in the east, believing that the USSR was a rotten door that would collapse when kicked, and he could seize the vast resources and move the focus back to Britain without facing two fronts.

On December 5th 1940 an order went out: the USSR was to be attacked in May 1941 with Operation Barbarossa. The plan was for a three pronged invasion, taking Leningrad in the north, Moscow in the centre and Kiev in the South, with the Russian armies that stood in the way quickly surrounded and forced into a surrender, and the goal was to seize everything between Berlin and a line from the Volga to Archangel. There were objections from some commanders, but German success in France had convinced many that the Blitzkrieg was unstoppable, and optimistic planners believed this could be achieved against a poor Russian army in three months. Much like Napoleon two centuries before, the German army made no preparations for having to fight in the winter. Furthermore the German economy and resources were not solely dedicated to the war and to the crushing of the Soviets, as many troops had to be held back to hold other areas.

To many in Germany, the Soviet army was in a bad state. Hitler had little useful intelligence on the Soviets, but he knew Stalin had purged the officer core, that the army had been embarrassed by Finland, and thought many of their tanks were out of date. He also had an estimate of the size of the Russian army, but this was hopelessly wrong. What he ignored was the massive resources of the full Soviet state, which Stalin would be able to mobilise. Equally, Stalin was ignoring every and all intelligence reports telling him that the Germans were coming, or at least misinterpreting dozens and dozens of hints. In fact Stalin seems to have been so surprised and oblivious to the attack that German commanders speaking after the war accused him of allowing it to draw the Germans in and break them inside Russia.

The German Conquest of Eastern Europe

There was a delay in launching Barbarossa from May to June 22nd which is often blamed on having to aid Mussolini, but the wet spring necessitated it. Nevertheless, despite the build-up of millions of men and their equipment, when the three Army Groups surged over the border they had the benefit of surprise. For the first few weeks the Germans poured forward, covering four hundred miles, and the Soviet armies were cut to shreds and forced to surrender en masse. Stalin himself was deeply shocked and suffered a mental crisis (or performed a piece of daring cunning, we don’t know), although he was able to resume control in early July and began the process of mobilising the Soviet Union to fight back. But Germany kept coming, and soon the western portion of the Red Army was soundly beaten: three million captured or killed, 15,000 tanks neutralised, and the Soviet commanders at the front panicking and failing. It looked liked the Soviet Union was collapsing as planned. The Soviets massacred prisoners as they retreated rather than have the Germans ‘rescue’ them, while special squads dismantled and moved over a thousand factories eastwards to resume arms production.

With Army Group Centre having the most success and nearing Moscow, the capital of the Soviet Union, Hitler made a decision that has been labelled fatal: he reassigned Centre’s resources to aid the other Groups, particularly South which had been slower. Hitler wanted to gain the maximum territory and resources, and this meant crushing Moscow and possibly accepting surrender when holding key regions. It also meant securing flanks, allowing foot soldiers to catch up, supplies to be bought up, and conquests consolidated. But this all needed time. Hitler may also have been worried about Napoleon’s single minded pursuit of Moscow.

The pause was fiercely objected to by Centre’s commanders, who wanted to keep their drive going, but their tanks were wearing out and the pause allowed infantry to arrive and begin to consolidate. The diversion allowed the encirclement of Kiev, and the capture of a vast number of Soviets. Nevertheless, the need to re-allocate reveals that the plan was not going smoothly, despite the successes. The Germans had several million men, but these could not deal with millions of prisoners, hold hundreds of square kilometres of territory and form a fighting force, while German resources could not maintain the tanks needed. In the North, at Leningrad, the Germans besieged a city of half a million troops and two and a half million civilians, but decided to let them starve to death rather than fight through the city. In addition, two million Soviet soldiers who had been rounded up and put in camps died, while special Nazi units were following the main army to execute a list of perceived enemies, both political and racial. The police and army joined in.

By September many in the German army realised they were engaged in a war that may well have been beyond their resources, and they’d had little time to put roots down in the conquered lands before moving back. Hitler ordered Moscow taken in October in operation Typhoon, but something crucial had happened in Russia. Soviet intelligence had been able to brief Stalin that Japan, who was threatening the eastern half of the empire, had no plans to join Hitler in carving up the Soviet empire, and was focused on the US. And while Hitler had destroyed the western Soviet Army, now eastern forces were transferred freely to aid the west, and Moscow was stiffened. As the weather turned against the Germans – from rain to frost to snow - the Soviet defences hardened with new troops and commanders – such as Zhukov – who could do the job. Hitler’s forces still got to twenty miles from Moscow and many Russian’s fled (Stalin stayed put in a decision which galvanised defenders), but Germany’s planning caught up with them, and their lack of winter equipment, including no antifreeze for the tanks or gloves for the soldiers, crippled them and the offensive was not just stopped by the Soviets, but pushed back.

Hitler called a winter halt only on December 8th, when his troops had been stopped. Hitler and his senior commanders now argued, with the latter wanting to make strategic withdrawals to create a more defensible front, and the former banning any retreat. There were mass sackings, and with the cream of the German military command ejected Hitler appointed a man with far less ability to lead: himself. Barbarossa had made major gains and taken a vast area, but it had failed to defeat the Soviet Union, or even come close to the demands of its own plan. Moscow has been called the turning point of the war, and certainly some high ranking Nazis knew they had already lost because they could not fight the war of attrition the Eastern Front had become. Part 3.


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Wilde, Robert. "World War Two: The Eastern Front Part 2." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Wilde, Robert. (2023, April 5). World War Two: The Eastern Front Part 2. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "World War Two: The Eastern Front Part 2." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).