October 29, 2012


Operation Barbarossa: Phase One  (June 22, 1941 – July 3, 1941

At 3:15 hours, Sunday, June 22nd, 1941 Operation Barbarossa was launched. Over three million German troops invaded Soviet-occupied Polish territory, bombing major Polish cities. The military campaign was supported by over 500,000 Axis troops from Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia, Italy, a major army division from Finland and a division of Spanish Falangists.

June 22, 1941 Moscovites listen to news that Germany invaded Soviet Union
The Soviets were taken completely by surprise, and ill-prepared for the onslaught that awaited them. By the time reports finally reached the Soviet military staff it was too late to reinforce the few troops that were already stationed at the border.

During the preliminary phase of Operation Barbarossa, the Luftwaffe virtually decimated the Soviet air force. Over 2,00 Soviet aircraft were bombed into oblivion while the Luftwaffe lost only 35 aircraft. German estimates however were conservative. According to Russian historian Kulikov, Soviet losses were considerably higher at 3,922 destroyed aircraft.

Soviet Soldiers Parade June 1941
June 1941 Soviet soldiers ready to leave for the front - not expecting the worst

Army Group North

The 4th Panzer Group was given the mission to advance towards Leningrad.  To do so they would have to overcome two major obstacles, the Neman and Daugava Rivers which lay in their path.  On the first day, German troops crossed the River Neman reinforced by 600 tanks, and succeeded in penetrating 80 km (50 miles) inland.  When the Germans reached Raseiniai, they were met with fierce Soviet counter-attack.  Over 300 Soviet tanks of the 3rd and 12th Soviet Mechanized Corps exchanged fire. But after four days of fighting, the Soviets had run out of ammunition and fuel and were easily encircled and destroyed by German troops. The Soviets had lost 90% of its strength by the end of the first week.

German tanks advance Operation Barbarossa June 1941

From Raseiniai the Panzers crossed the Daugava, located there Daugavpils, and within striking distance of Leningrad.   At this crucial juncture, Hitler suddenly gave the order to hold their position. Apparently the infantry formations had fallen behind and it would be more than a week before they could resume their advance.  In the meantime, this delay gave the Soviets ample opportunity to build a stronger defence around Leningrad as well as the banks of the Luga River.

Operation Barbarossa Army Group North enter  pine grove near Leningrad-Oct 1941
 Operation Barbarossa Army Group North enter pine grove near Leningrad-Oct 1941

To complicate matters for the Soviets, the Lithuanian anti-Soviet Uprising began on June 22nd, proclaiming independence the very next day.  Over 30,000 rebels clashed with Soviet forces, as ethnic Lithuanians in the Red Army abandoned their posts to join the rebellion. Meanwhile, as German forces progressed further to the north, other uprisings broke out against the Soviets in Estonia.

Kovno June 1941: Lithuanian nationalists carry out massacre of Jews right under the watch of the Nazi SS.   At the start of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, SS units rolled into town and goaded anti-partisan leader Klimatis to turn his rebels against the Jews to exert punishment against the "Jewish enemy".

Army Group Centre 

German troops faced four Soviet armies, all which occupied a salient that projected right into German-occupied Polish territory.  The objective of AG Center was to reach Minsk and prevent the Red Army from an escape route from the salient.  The 3rd Panzer Group succeeded in breaking through the junction of two Soviet fronts located north of the salient and proceeded to cross the River Neman.  The 2nd Panzer Group crossed the Bug River in the South.  While the Panzers attacked, the infantry attacked the salient and succeeded in encircling the Soviet troops at Bialystok.

Operation Barbarossa 1941 Army Group Centre
Operation Barbarossa - Germa  Army Group Centre

The Soviets did not know what hit them.  At first, Marshall Timoshenko did not perceive the severity of the attack, and ordered Soviet troops to immediately launch a counter-attack.  It failed due to lack of coordination, ammunition and communication. The supply and ammunition dumps, and communication lines had been destroyed.

Zukov ordered the Red Army to launch an offensive "to encircle and destroy the enemy grouping near Suwalki and to seize the Suwalki region by the evening of 26 June" and "to encircle and destroy the enemy group invading in Vladimir-Volynia and Brody direction" and "to seize the Lublin region by the evening of 24.6".  The Soviet tactic failed miserably. German troops succeeded in destroying the Soviet units.

By June 27 Panzer Groups 2 and 3 rendez-voused at Minsk and advanced 320 km (200 miles) into Soviet territory - virtually a third of the way to Moscow.    Between Minsk and the Polish border, the remainder of the 32 Soviet was completely encircled, as well as eight tanks, and motorized cavalry and artillery divisions.

In the above photograph: Soviet partisans executed by German soldiers September 1941. The war of annihilation would claims millions of civilian deaths.  Photograph from: "Kiev 1941: Hitler's Battle for Supremacy in the East" written by David Stahel, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2012. 

Operation Barbarossa 1941 German soldiers making fun of their hanged victims

Army Group South

The German troops faced three Soviet armies in the south however resistance was much stronger due to more capable Soviet command.  German infantry launched attacks while the 1st Panzer group charged its tanks through the Soviet 6th Army in the attempt to capture Brody.   On June 26th, over 1,000 tanks of the five Soviet mechanized corps launched a massive counter-offensive on 1st Panzer Group.  It was among the most ferocious battle of the entire military campaign, lasting over four days.  Though the Soviet troops were able to inflict heavy losses on the Germans, in the end the German army prevailed.

From then on, the Red Army had to assume a defensive strategy, and faced a withdrawal under severe attack.  The VVS, the Soviet air fleet had lost 1,561 planes over Kiev.  Though Hitler scored his first huge victory, it did not auger well over the long run.  He had drawn away German forces that had been allocated for the advance towards Moscow.  As a result the entire mission was placed in jeopardy, delaying German progress by 11 weeks.

According to General Kurt von Tippelskirch, 'The Russians had indeed lost a battle, but they won the campaign".


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