World War II: Operation Barbarossa

On June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany, together with some of its Axis allies, launched an invasion of the Soviet Union, codenamed Operation Barbarossa. Adolf Hitler expected a swift victory, but after initial success, the grueling operation dragged on and ultimately failed due to strategic errors, severe weather conditions and the strong Soviet resistance.

German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact

In August 1939, Germany signed a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union, in which both nations agreed not to engage in any military action against each other for the duration of 10 years. Due to the bitter history of the two nations, the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact came as a major shock to the world, and disappointed Britain and France, who had signed their own agreement with Nazi Germany, but it was violated with the German invasion of Czechoslovakia earlier in the year.

Hitler planned to diffuse an existing defense treaty between France and the Soviet Union and ensure that the Soviets would stand in support when Germany invaded Poland. The pact included secret proposals to divide Poland into spheres of influence, with Germany occupying the western part, and the Soviet Union the east.

Hitler Advances Towards the Soviet Union Invasion

Following the Nazi invasion of Poland, on September 3, 1939, Britain, France and Poland declared war on Germany. The Phony War came to an abrupt end when Germany launched its ‘blitzkrieg’ (lighting war) with the invasion of Norway in April 1940, followed by the invasion of Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Luxenberg in early May 1940.

With the defeat of France, and Britain standing alone against Germany in Europe, Hitler focused his efforts on his main goal, Germany’s expansion to the east. This would require defeating the Soviet Union and annexing its territories, especially the resource-rich Ukraine, and repopulating them with Germans. Their ultimate objective included the eventual extermination, enslavement, Germanization and mass deportation to Siberia of the Slavic peoples, creating more Lebensraum (living space) for Nazi Germany.

On 18 December 1940, Hitler issued the order, Führer Directive 21, for Nazi Germany’s planned invasion of the Soviet Union. Codenamed ‘Operation Barbarossa’, after the medieval Emperor Frederick Barbarossa of the Holy Roman Empire, the invasion was planned for 15 May 1941, but was postponed for over month due to further preparations required. The invasion would launch with German troops advancing along a line from the port of Archangel to the southern port of Astrakhan on the Volga River.

June 1941: The Launch of Operation Barbarossa

With high hopes following the success of the blitzkrieg in Western Europe, Hitler anticipated a quick victory. Operation Barbarossa was launched on June 22, 1941, with the invasion of the Soviet Union by over 3 million German and axis troops along an 1,800-mile-long front. It was Germany’s largest invasion force of World War II and one of the most powerful invasion forces of all time.

Despite receiving numerous warnings, Joseph Stalin did not believe that Hitler was truly planning an attack. As a result, the German invasion caught the Red Army completely unprepared. A three-pronged attack on Leningrad, Moscow and Ukraine gave Germany a huge advantage over the numerous but undertrained Soviet troops. The Luftwaffe shot down over 1000 Soviet aircrafts on just the first day of the attack.

It was a successful start as German forces advanced quickly along the front, taking millions of Soviet troops as prisoners. The Einsatzgruppen, or SS paramilitary death squads, moved coincidingly, pursuing and killing thousands of civilians, mainly Soviet Jews. Hitler’s orders for the operation included the Commissar Order, which permitted the instant execution of all captured enemy officers. Many Soviet prisoners of war (POWs) were also executed immediately upon capture, which was another violation of international laws and war protocols.

Operation Barbarossa
German troops swept across the Soviet Union’s western borders.

German Forces Attack Moscow

Despite making territorial gains, German forces suffered significant casualties as the Soviet resistance proved to be much stronger than initially anticipated. By the end of August, despite German panzer divisions being only 220 miles from Moscow, Hitler delayed the attack on the Soviet capital, much to the protest of his generals. Instead, Hitler ordered his forces to focus on Ukraine to the south.

By the end of September, Kiev was captured by the Wehrmacht. In the north, with the help of Finnish allies, German forces successfully cut Leningrad off from the rest of Russia, but they were unable to capture the city itself. Therefore, Hitler ordered a siege on Leningrad, to starve the city into submission. The siege lasted around 872 days.

Operation Typhoon, the German offensive against Moscow, was launched by Hitler in the beginning of October. The delay had enabled the Soviets to significantly strengthen their defense with around 1 million soldiers and 1,000 T-34 tanks. Following an initially successful assault, the muddy road conditions, known as Rasputitsa, halted the German offensive just outside Moscow, where they were met by the newly strengthened Russian defenses.

In the middle of November, Panzer divisions made a final attempt to surround the city, reaching within 12 miles of the city. However, with help from Siberian reinforcements, the Red Army resisted the attack, halting the German offensive indefinitely as the harsh winter arrived. Furthermore, in early December, Soviet forces launched a surprise counterattack, forcing the Germans to retreat.

Operation Barbarossa

Why did Operation Barbarossa Fail?

Despite Germany’s territorial gains and the heavy losses suffered by the Red Army, Operation Barbarossa failed in its principal objective: to force the Soviet Union to surrender. Even though Hitler blamed the weather conditions for the failure of the Moscow attack, the whole operation lacked thorough strategic planning. Relying on a rapid victory, the Germans did not set up adequate supply lines to overcome the tough terrain and large distances. The Germans also hugely underestimated the strength and numbers of the Soviet resistance.

Fighting on the Eastern Front was not yet over. In June 1942, Hitler ordered another major offensive against the Soviet Union. Due to similar difficulties, it also ended in failure, with the Battle of Stalingrad serving as a turning point in favor of the Allies in World War II.