This was the German grand strategic invasion of the USSR (22 June/2 October 1941).
More than four million Axis troops, with 600,000 motor vehicles and 750,000 horses, invaded the USSR along a 1,800-mile (2900-km) front in the largest invasion in the history of warfare. Triggering what the USSR called the ‘Great Patriotic War’, this vastly ambitious, or as events were to prove over-ambitious, operation resulted directly from Adolf Hitler’s all-consuming desire to conquer the Soviet territories as embodied in the ‘Generalplan Ost’ concept. The launch of this undertaking marked the start of the decisive phase in deciding the ultimate victors of World War II. The war that resulted from the German invasion of the USSR led to huge casualty figures: 95% of all German army losses between 1941 and 1944, and 65% of all Allied military casualties in the whole of the war.
Named after Frederick I Barbarossa, a mediaeval Holy Roman Emperor and a leader of the 3rd Crusade, the invasion was ordained by Hitler on 18 December 1940 in his Führerweisung Nr 21, which laid down a start date of 15 May 1941. For a number of reasons this start date could not be met, and the invasion therefore began on 22 June 1941: this delay of more than five weeks was to have momentous consequences. At both the operational and tactical levels the Germans secured resounding successes and thereby occupied some of the USSR’s most important industrial, agricultural and raw materials areas, most especially in Ukraine. Yet the German offensive lost its momentum and was then halted on the outskirts of Moscow, and was then driven back to the west by a Soviet counter-offensive without taking the Soviet capital. Never again were the Germans in a position to undertake simultaneous strategic offensives along the entire Eastern Front. The Soviet forces had thus repelled the Germans forces’ greatest effort, and therefore Hitler did not achieve the huge victory he had expected, but the USSR’s military, economic and political position nonetheless remained dire.
The failure of ‘Barbarossa’ led Hitler to demand more operations along the Eastern Front, but all of these eventually failed.
‘Barbarossa’ was the largest military operation in history, measured in terms of the manpower committed and the casualties suffered, and its failure was the decisive turning point in the history of the German Third Reich. Most importantly, ‘Barbarossa’ created the Eastern Front, to which more forces were committed than in any other theatre of war in history, and along and behind this front took place some of the largest battles, greatest casualties, worst atrocities and direst conditions for both the Germans and the Soviets: all of these had a huge impact on the course of both World War II and as a direct result the subsequent history of the 20th century.
In 1941 the German forces took prisoner more than three million Soviets. These were not accorded the protections laid down in the Geneva Conventions governing the conduct of war, and the majority of these men therefore did not survive to the end of the war: many died of disease, but most succumbed to starvation as they were deliberately worked to death without adequate rations.
Hitler’s determination that Germany must conquer the USSR had its origins in his past, when he became convinced that communism was an evil that must be extirpated completely, together with the nation which had brought it to practical fruition in the first quarter of the 20th century. Quite separate from this overtly political determination, there was also the fact that Hitler also saw the USSR as being peopled by Slavic ‘subhumans’ whose destruction would free this vast land, with all its potential in terms of agriculture and raw materials, as Lebensraum (living space) for the expanding ‘Aryan master race’.
It was as early as 1925 that Hitler suggested in Mein Kampf, his political testament, the need for Germany to invade the USSR, asserting that the German people required Lebensraum and raw materials, and that these were to be found most readily in the territories to the east of Germany. In Mein Kampf Hitler averred that it was the destiny of Germany to turn to the east as it had some 600 years earlier, and also that the end of Jewish domination in Russia would also be the end of Russia as a nation. Hitler also ‘prophesied’ the inevitability of war against pan-Slav ideals, a war in which victory would lead to a German permanent mastery of the world. In pursuance of the aims laid down in Mein Kampf, it became a key element of Nazi policy to kill, deport or enslave the majority of Russian and other Slavic populations, and to repopulate with Germanic peoples the land the Slavs had previously occupied. This was the background against which the ‘Generalplan Ost’ was conceived and later implemented.
Before World War II it was generally believed that in a war with the USSR, the German army would attack through the Baltic states toward the north-east, and the German navy would seize Leningrad from the sea. The general assumption was that possession of the whole of the Baltic basin would satisfy Hitler, who would therefore not repeat the mistake of many earlier military adventurers in attacking Moscow.
Hitler was well aware of the dangers with which such a campaign bristled, and of the total disasters to which King Charles XII of Sweden and Emperor Napoleon I of France had come in their campaigns against this monolithic state. He was also aware of the dangers inherent in the waging of war on two fronts, and indeed had averred that he would never fall into this trap.
On 23 August 1939 Germany and the USSR signed a Treaty of Non-Aggression. This agreement, otherwise known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and agreed only days before Germany’s ‘Weiss’ (i) invasion of Poland that triggered World War II, was a cynical arrangement that gave Germany a free hand to invade Poland from the west and seize the western two-fifths of that country, and the USSR a similarly free hand to send its forces into eastern Poland and seize it even as the German invasion had persuaded Poland to commit most of its forces against Germany and thereby denude its eastern marches of the forces otherwise deployed there. A secret protocol to the pact outlined the agreement between Germany and the USSR to divide the border states between their respective spheres of influence: Germany and the USSR would therefore divide Poland between themselves, and Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland were defined as falling within the Soviet sphere of influence.
Even though the secret protocol was not known to any but the senior leaderships of Germany and the USSR, the overt details of the pact came as a great surprised the rest of the world because of the two parties’ mutual hostility and conflicting ideologies.
The pact also resulted in the establishment of reasonably strong diplomatic relations and an important economic relationship between Germany and the USSR. During 1940 the two countries signed a trade pact whereby the Soviets received German military and industrial equipment in exchange for raw materials, such as oil and grain, to help Germany circumvent the British naval blockade that prevented maritime deliveries from other nations.
Even so, Germany and the USSR were each singularly suspicious of the other’s intentions. After the signature of the Tripartite Pact of 27 September 1940, which created the Axis arrangement between Germany, Italy and Japan, Germany began efforts to draw the USSR into the pact. After negotiations in Berlin on 12/14 November, Germany presented a proposed written agreement for a Soviet entry into the Axis. The USSR proffered a written counterproposal agreement on 25 November 1940, but Germany made no response to this. As the interests of the two countries began to cause friction in eastern Europe, there emerged the greater likelihood of armed conflict, although Germany and the USSR did reach agreement in January 1941 on border and commercial matters to resolve several ongoing issues. These dealings and arrangements were useful to Germany as they bought time for the preparations for ‘Barbarossa’ were driven forward.
The reputation of Iosif Stalin, the Soviet leader, was a contributory factor in the German justification of the ‘Barbarossa’ invasion and the German faith in its success. During the late 1930s many competent and experienced Soviet officers had been killed in Stalin’s ‘great purge’, leaving the Soviet forces weakened in leadership capabilities at all levels. The Germans often placed considerable emphasis on the brutality of the Soviet regime as they targeted Slav populations with anti-Soviet propaganda. The Germans also claimed that the USSR was preparing to attack Germany, and that ‘Barbarossa’ was therefore a pre-emptive measure.
In the summer of 1940, at a time of a German crisis in the availability of raw materials and a potential collision with the USSR about territory in the Balkans, it seemed that an invasion of the USSR, later if not sooner, seemed to be Hitler’s only solution. While no concrete plans had yet been developed, Hitler revealed in June that the victories in western Europe finally freed Germany’s hands for the real task of settling with Bolshevism despite the fact that many of Germany’s military leaders told Hitler that the seizure and occupation of the western USSR would be more of a drain on than relief for Germany’s economic situation.
Even so, Hitler remained confident that the the defeat of the USSR would bring in its train a number of other benefits including the relief of the labour shortage within German industry by the demobilisation of many soldiers; the development of Ukraine as a reliable source of agricultural products and raw materials; the improvement of Germany’s geo-political situation by using the conquered USSR as a source of forced labour; the further isolation of the UK; and the sourcing of more of Germany’s oil requirements from the great fields on the western side of the Caspian Sea.
It was on 5 December 1940 that Hitler received and approved the military plans for the invasion of the USSR, and fixed their implementation for May 1941. On 18 December, Hitler signed Führerweisung Nr 21 and ordered the German high command to complete the planning for an operation now codenamed ‘Barbarossa’ in which, Hitler stated, that the German armed forces must be prepared to crush the USSR in a rapid campaign starting on 15 May.
The final plan was based on the assumption that Germany would be victorious if it could destroy the bulk of the Soviet forces in the area to the west of the Zapadnyi Dvina and Dniepr rivers. This was an assumption that would prove to be fatally wrong less than a month after the start of the invasion, and was based on a number of egregious errors in the German high command’s assessment of the current situation in the period from June 1940 to June 1941. These errors included the fact that the high command was poorly informed about the USSR, and especially its economy and military; as a result of a poverty of accurate information, German thinking about the USSR was based upon traditional German stereotypes of Russia as a backward ‘Asiatic state’ without the strength to stand up to a superior opponent; an assessment of war with the USSR that was blinkered by a very narrow military viewpoint that gave inadequate consideration to important political, economic and cultural factors, and almost no consideration of the fact that Soviet industrial capacity might exert a major influence on the outcome of a German/Soviet war; the belief that while the average Soviet soldier was courageous and sturdy, the average member of the Soviet officer corps was little more than contemptible; the belief inculcated by the success of ‘Sichelschnitt’ that the German armed forces were to all purposes invincible; and the belief that the defeat of the USSR was in effect predestined, and would be accomplished in a period of between six and eight weeks.
During December 1940, in an address to the Soviet military leadership, Stalin made mention of Hitler’s references to an attack on the USSR in Mein Kampf, and told his generals that they must be constantly ready to meet and defeat a German invasion, and also that Hitler thought the Soviet forces needed four years to ready themselves for war. In such circumstance, therefore, Stalin said that the Soviet forces had to be ready at a time considerably before this, and that he would to seek to delay the outbreak of war for another two years.
In the autumn of 1940, a number of senior German officials sent Hitler a memorandum detailing the dangers they believed to be inherent in an invasion of the USSR, and concluded that Ukraine, Belorussia and the Baltic states would become not major assets for but additional economic burdens on Germany.
Hitler totally ignored the warnings and fears of senior officers and economists, and told Generalfeldmarschall (soon Reichsmarschall) Hermann Göring, head of the Luftwaffe and a major figure in Germany’s plan for the exploitation of conquests in the east, that while many men on all sides constantly raised economic misgivings against war with the USSR, from this time on he would not listen to such talk. This was passed to General Georg Thomas, who had been preparing reports on the negative economic consequences of an invasion of the USSR unless it was captured intact.
From March 1941, Göring’s ‘Oldenburg’ plan detailed the manner in which the Soviet economy would be broken up for Germany’s benefit after the completion of the USSR’s defeat. The urban populations were to be starved to death, thus creating an agricultural surplus to feed Germany and allowing the urban population’s replacement by a German upper class. In the summer of 1941, the Nazi ideologist Alfred Rosenberg suggested that conquered Soviet territory should be administered as Ostland comprising the Baltic states and Belorussia extended eastward by about 310 miles (500 km), Ukraine enlarged eastward to the Volga river, Kaukasus comprising southern Russia and the Caucasus region) Moskowien comprising the Moscow metropolitan area and the rest of European Russia, and Turkestan comprising the central Asian republics and territories.
At the heart of Nazi policy was the destruction of the USSR as a political entity to create the Lebensraum that would greatly benefit future generations of the ‘Nordic Aryan master race’.
As it was developed toward its definitive form, ‘Barbarossa’ came to combine a north-eastward drive toward Leningrad as the birthplace of Bolshevism, an eastward drive to take Moscow as the symbol of the Soviet political system, and a south-eastward drive to take Ukraine and the oilfield areas in the south beyond Ukraine. However, there was disagreement between Hitler and his generals as to which of these three axes and objectives should have priority and therefore where the German armed forces should focus their offensive energies.
While planning ‘Barbarossa’ in 1940/41, Hitler had on many occasions repeated his stricture ‘Leningrad first, the Donets Basin second, Moscow third’. Hitler believed that Moscow was not of great importance in the defeat of the USSR, and instead believed that victory would follow from the destruction of the Soviet forces to the west of the Soviet capital. This later led to dispute between Hitler and several senior officers who believed that decisive victory could only be delivered at Moscow.
Hitler was impatient to start his long-desired destruction of the USSR, and was convinced that the UK would sue for peace once the British had appreciated the consequences of the German victory over the USSR, which was the real area of Germany interest.
Hitler had grown overconfident as a result of the rapid German successes in western Europe and the evident ineptitude of the Soviet forces as revealed in the ‘Talvisota’ winter war of 1939/40 with Finland. Hitler therefore expected victory within a few months, and saw no sense in preparing for a war lasting into the winter. This meant his troops lacked adequate warm clothing and preparations for a longer campaign when they began their attack.
It was, among other things, the current stalemate in Germany’s war with the recalcitrant UK at the end of 1940 that paved the way for the Führerweisung Nr 21 of 18 December that was based on the assumption Germany was now in a position to deal with the USSR in a rapid campaign of Panzer movement to encircle the Soviet forces, which would then be annihilated by the German infantry formations as the Panzer forces swept on to the next victory: the outline plan for ‘Otto’ were thus transformed into the detailed plan for ‘Barbarossa’.
Hitler appreciated that the Soviet forces were vast and could indeed call on relatively limitless reserves of raw manpower, and it was for this reason that he had seen fit to use the so-called Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact of August 1939 to placate Stalin with offers of matériel aid and eastern Poland if the USSR would stand idly by while Germany undertook its ‘Weiss’ (i) campaign in western Poland and later its ‘Gelb’ (finally ‘Sichelschnitt’) campaign against the western European nations should this latter prove necessary.
But by 1941 Hitler had become convinced of the effective invincibility that his substantial (and, perhaps more importantly, well-equipped and battle-experienced) forces, with a useful proportion of mechanised and motorised formations as well as Panzer divisions, provided and that these could comprehensively defeat the Soviet armies, which the German intelligence apparatus had revealed to be demoralised after Stalin’s purges of the late 1930s, lacking in tactical expertise as demonstrated by the USSR’s reverses against Finland in the ‘Talvisota’ campaign of 1939/40, and equipped almost completely with obsolescent weapons. Hitler foresaw that he could deploy against the USSR some 145 of this 205 divisions, including 19 Panzer and 12 motorised divisions, though the bulk of the German forces would still have to rely on horse and foot transport for this fast and extensive campaign, which the army high command anticipated might be over in 10 weeks. That Hitler was also confident that the campaign would be completed in short order is attested by the fact that he could easily have bolstered the forces on this new Eastern Front by another 10 divisions drawn from the 38 in the West and the 12 in Norway, but chose not to do so.
To face these German forces the Soviets could call on about 12 million men under arms or available as reserves for a strength of some 160 infantry divisions, 30 cavalry divisions and about 35 armoured or motorised brigades.
In armour and aircraft strengths the Germans were quantitatively inferior but qualitatively superior, though their planners failed to appreciate that the Soviets had new and considerably more advanced types of tanks and warplanes under final development, and would be able to produce these capable types in vast numbers and in short order.
Hitler had ordered Generalfeldmarschall Walther von Brauchitsch’s Oberkommando des Heeres (army high command) to begin considering the ‘Otto’ invasion of the USSR as early as 21 July 1940, and since that time the initial thinking had progressed through a lengthy development phase. Oddly enough, though, given the professionalism of the German army’s high command, the plans were never fully completed, especially with regard to the ultimate stop line envisaged for the offensive, which glibly (and fatally) assumed that Soviet resistance would end once Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev, the three largest cities to the west of the Ural mountains, had fallen to the Germans, together with the Soviets’ main industrial areas in the western USSR.
Planning without any real geo-political and strategic object in mind, the Oberkommando des Heeres first came up with a plan for a two-part major offensive directed by Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ at Moscow via Smolensk and by Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ at Kiev, with Kharkov as a follow-on target. These major thrusts would be covered by two subsidiary flanking offensives, that in the north directed through the Baltic states and Belorussia at Leningrad, and that in the south from south-eastern Poland, north-eastern Hungary and north-eastern Romania directed at Kiev through the Ukrainian agricultural heartlands. It was anticipated that the northern main force would then drive to the south from Moscow to link with the southern thrust at Kharkov for an offensive to the Volga river at Stalingrad.
War games revealed major operational deficiencies in this scheme, which was thus altered to place greater emphasis on the northern thrusts, in which a weakened Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ would take the Baltic states and Leningrad and a new but stronger Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ would take Moscow before exploiting to the east and north toward the Volga and Arkhangyel’sk respectively. Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ would have a strengthened flank in southern Ukraine and would concentrate on Kiev, only then exploiting eastward to Kharkov and Stalingrad.
In December 1940 Hitler reviewed the revised Oberkommando des Heeres plan and approved it in principal, though he insisted that Leningrad should the major target in the north, and that after taking Smolensk during the advance of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ on Moscow, some of the formations allocated to this army group should be detached to strengthen the attack of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ on Leningrad. After the fall of Moscow, Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ would now exploit not to the east, but only to the north with the objective of taking Arkhangyel’sk so that the Germans armies would arrive at an undefined stop line running basically south from Arkhangyel’sk to Moscow, the Don river, and Rostov-na-Donu at the Don river’s mouth on the Sea of Azov.
The Germans had begun massing troops near the Soviet border even before the start of the campaign in the Balkans (‘Unternehmen 25’ against Yugoslavia and ‘Marita’ against Greece), whose implementation in the event delayed ‘Barbarossa’ by more than five weeks. By the third week in February 1941, the Germans had positioned 680,000 men on the Romanian/Soviet border. In preparation for the invasion, the German high command deployed 3.2 million German and about 500,000 Axis troops to the USSR’s western borders, undertook a major air reconnaissance programme over Soviet territory, and stockpiled vast quantities of matériel in the east.
The 38-day postponement of ‘Barbarossa’ from the initially planned date of 15 May to the actual invasion date of 22 June in fact resulted from a combination of factors including the diversion of men and resources for the Balkan campaign, logistic failings which delayed preparations, and the effect of an unusually wet winter which had kept many rivers in full flood. Even so, there remains considerable dispute as to whether or not this delay materially affected the outcome of ‘Barbarossa’.
In the period just before the launch of ‘Barbarossa’, the Germans also brought up rear forces (mostly Waffen-SS units and Einsatzgruppen paramilitary death squads) in preparation for swift movement into the conquered territories to counter partisan activity and to begin the process of seizing Jews and other ‘undesirables’.
Despite their best efforts, the Germans could not hope to effect a complete concealment of their concentration in the east. Even so, however, the Soviets were still taken by complete operational and tactical surprise, mostly as a result of Stalin’s conviction that Germany would not attack within a period of two years after the signature of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The Soviet leader also believed that Germany would possess the strategic sense to complete its war with the UK before opening a new front. Stalin therefore steadfastly refused to believe repeated warnings from his intelligence services on the German concentration along the border with the USSR, fearing the reports to be British misinformation designed to spark a war between Germany and the USSR.
There is also a view, supported by the fact that the war declaration act has never been published, that Germany actually launched a pre-emptive attack on the USSR. According to at least one later source, the Soviet forces were preparing to launch their own attack in the middle of July, which may also explain why the Soviet forces were positioned right up against their western frontier as if preparing to undertake an offensive war, rather than in depth as if preparing to to undertake a defensive war.
A Soviet spy in Japan, Richard Sorge, gave Stalin the exact German launch date, and Swedish intelligence also knew beforehand of the date on which ‘Barbarossa’ was to be launched, but Sorge and other informers had previously given different invasion dates which passed peacefully before the actual invasion. In addition, British intelligence-gathering information through the ‘Ultra’ system had been able to warn the USSR of impending invasion several months before 22 June.
The Germans implemented the ‘Haifisch’ (i) and ‘Harpune’ (i) deception operations from April 1941 to add substance to their claims that the UK was in fact their real target. These simulated preparations in Norway and along the south coast of the English Channel were supported by activities such as ship concentrations, reconnaissance flights and training exercises. Some details of these bogus invasion plans were also deliberately leaked.
German military planners also researched Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia. They also calculated that there was little likelihood of a large-scale Soviet retreat deep into the Russian interior as the USSR could not afford to give up the Baltic states, Ukraine, or the Moscow and Leningrad regions, all of which were vital to the Soviet forces for supply reasons and would thus have to be defended.
Despite the low estimate of Soviet strength and overall capability held by Hitler and many senior German commanders, the USSR was by no means weak. The rapid pace of industrialisation during the 1930s had led to a level of industrial output second only to that of the USA and generally similar to that of Germany. The manufacture of military equipment had grown steadily, and in the pre-war years the economy became progressively more oriented toward military production. Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Mikhail Tukhachevsky, one of the prominent military theorists in tank warfare in the inter-war period until his execution on 11 June 1937 in the ‘great purge’, lobbied the Kremlin for colossal investment in the resources required for the mass production of weapons. In 1930 he had written a memorandum pressing the case for the manufacture of no fewer than 40,000 aircraft and 50,000 tanks. In the early 1930s, a very modern operational doctrine was developed and promulgated in the 1936 field regulations in the form of the ‘deep battle’ concept. Defence expenditure also grew rapidly: by 1933 it had grown from a figure of 5.2% in 1913 to 12% of gross national product, and by 1940 stood at 18%.
On 5 May 1941, in a speech to graduates of military academies in Moscow, Stalin declared that war with Germany was inevitable, and that if Vyacheslav M. Molotov, the foreign minister, managed to stave off the war for two or three years that would be fortunate, but that the new graduates had meanwhile to do all that they could to increase the combat readiness of the Soviet forces.
There are differing assessments of the position along the Soviet eastern frontier on 22 June 1941. One estimate claims that the Soviet forces in the western districts were outnumbered, with 2.6 million Soviet soldiers opposed by 3.9 million Axis soldiers, but another estimate gives a total Axis strength of 3.8 million, of whom 900,000 were deployed in the west. Early in July 1941 the Soviet forces totalled slightly more than 5 million men, of whom 2.6 million were deployed in the west, 1.8 million in the Far East, and slightly more than 600,000 deployed elsewhere or under training. These figures, however, can be misconstrued: the figure for Soviet strength in the USSR’s western districts includes only the ‘first strategic echelon’ deployed on and behind the Soviet western frontier to a depth of 250 miles (400 km), and underestimates the size of the ‘first strategic echelon’, which was actually 2.9 million men. The figure does not include the smaller ‘second strategic echelon’, which on 22 June was in the process of moving toward the frontier and was scheduled to be in position reinforcing the ‘first strategic echelon’ by a time early in July. The total Axis strength is also exaggerated: 3.3 million German troops were earmarked for ‘Barbarossa’, but the figure includes reserves which did not take part in the initial assault. A further 600,000 troops provided by German allies also participated, but mostly after the initial offensive.
On 22 June, the Germans possessed a local superiority in their initial assault: 98 divisions, including 29 armoured and motorised divisions, which represented some 90% of their mobile forces, attacked along a 750-mile (1200-km) between the Baltic Sea in the north and the Carpathian mountains in the south. These were faced by NKVD border troops and the divisions of the ‘first operational echelon’ (that part of the ‘first strategic echelon’ positioned immediately behind the frontier in the three western Special Military Districts), and the Germans had a local superiority because they had completed their deployment and were ready to attack about two weeks before the Soviets were scheduled to have finished their own deployment with the ‘second strategic echelon’ in place. At the time, 41% of Soviet bases were located near the frontier, many of them in the 125-mile (200-km) cordon just inside the border. In accordance with directives, fuel, equipment, railway rolling stock and other equipment were similarly concentrated there.
As full mobilisation progressed after the the war had started, the Soviet strength increased steadily. While each side’s strength varied, in general the Axis forces maintained a modest numerical superiority in manpower up to the end of 1941.
By one reckoning, on 22 June the Soviet forces had 5,774,211 troops: these comprised 4,605,321 in the ground forces, 475,656 in the air forces, 353,752 in the navy, 167,582 in the border guard arm, and 171,900 in the NKVD’s internal troops branch. These took the form of 316.5 divisions with 27,500 tanks, 117,600 guns and mortars, and 18,700 aircraft.
In several weapon categories, however, the Soviets had a considerable numerical advantage. In tanks, for example, the Soviets were overwhelmingly superior, with 23,106 vehicles, of which about 12,782 were in the five western military districts, three of which directly faced the German invasion front. The numerical strength was radically offset, however, by poor maintenance and readiness standards, the shortage of ammunition and radio equipment, and the lacked in many formations and units of the trucks needed for the movement of supplies.
Moreover, from a time in 1938 the Soviets had decided on the partial dispersal of their tank strength to infantry divisions in the support role, but after their experiences in the ‘Talvisota’ and their observation of the German campaign against France, they had started to adopt the German practice and organise most of their armour into large tank divisions and corps. This reorganisation had been accomplished only in part by 22 June, largely as a result of the fact that there were not enough tanks available to bring the mechanised corps up to establishment strength.
The German armoured strength in June 1941 was based on about 5,200 tanks, and some 3,350 of these were allocated to the formations involved in ‘Barbarossa’. This meant that the USSR had a numerical tank superiority of about 4/1 to Germany. Offsetting this numerical advantage, however, was the fact that the vast majority of Soviet tank types were significantly inferior to their German counterparts: the two exceptions were the KV-1 heavy tank and T-34 medium tank, but these totalled just 7.2% of the overall Soviet tank strength and were therefore not available in numbers large enough to be tactically significant in the first campaign of the war on the Eastern Front.
The Soviet quantitative advantage in heavy weapons was further offset by the superior training, greater combat experience and higher readiness of the German forces. The Soviet high command and officer corps had been decimated the ‘great purge’ of 1936/38. Of 90 generals arrested, only six survived the purges, as did a mere seven out of 57 corps commanders and only 36 of 180 divisional commanders; the deaths included three of the five pre-war marshals. It is believed that something in the order of 30,000 Soviet military personnel were killed during this period, while large numbers of the personnel who were not executed were deported to Siberia and replaced by ‘politically reliable’ officers. Inevitably this meant that younger and significantly less experienced officers were promoted to fill the command gaps, and by 1941 some 75% of Soviet officers had held their posts for less than one year. Thus the average Soviet corps commander was 12 years younger than the average German divisional commander. Moreover, the political threats they faced combined with their lack of adequate command experience rendered these officers very reluctant to take any form of initiative, and the new commanders also tended to lack the specialised training which was necessary for them to undertake their new responsibilities with any real competence.
With regard to air power, the numerical balance was also tipped strongly in favour of the USSR but, as with the armour, this quantitative superiority was more than offset by a qualitative inferiority of machines and men. The vast majority of Soviet aircraft were technically obsolete, and the poor quality of pre-war training meant that while Soviet pilots and aircrew were able to handle their aircraft under untaxing conditions, early combat rapidly proved that they wholly lacked the ability to cope with combat flying. In parallel with this, the Soviet anti-aircraft artillery branch, like the rest of the Soviet artillery, lacked modern fire-control equipment and techniques.
Most Soviet units were on a peacetime footing, which probably explains why air force units had their aircraft parked closed together and in trim rows rather than in widely spaced dispersal areas and bays, and this made Soviet aircraft extraordinarily easy targets for German pilots in the first days of the conflict.
It is also worth noting that before the German invasion Soviet pilots were expressly forbidden to shoot down German reconnaissance aircraft, which made several hundreds of incursions into Soviet airspace in the months preceding the launch of ‘Barbarossa’.
One of the factors which most severely afflicted the Soviet resistance against the German invasion was a severe shortage, if not a total lack, of modern warplanes. Insofar as fighters were concerned, the Soviets were equipped with very large numbers of obsolete aircraft, such as the Polikarpov I-15 biplane and Polikarpov I-16 monoplane. In 1941 much superior monoplane fighters, such as the Mikoyan-Guryevich MiG-3, Lavochkin-Gorbunov-Gudkov LaGG-3 and Yakovlev Yak-1, were starting to come off the production lines, but even these were not, at first, the equal in terms of all-round performance to the Messerschmitt Bf 109F or the Focke-Wulf Fw 190A, of which the latter first reached the front in September 1941. Of the Soviet aircraft, few had radio equipment, and even when present these equipments were not reliable.
The perceived poor performance of the Soviet air forces during the ‘Talvisota’ campaign had served to increase the Luftwaffe’s confidence that the capabilities of its pilots and aircraft were altogether superior to those the Germans would encounter over western Russia. The Soviets had started to make considerable improvements in the standard of flight training their pilots received, but this effort had been planned to create a more effective air arm in time to meet a German invasion no earlier than 1942. Thus in June 1941 the standard of Soviet pilot training was extremely poor. While an order of 22 December 1940 had instructed that flight training be accelerated and shortened, but so poor was the order’s implementation that on 22 June the Soviets had 201 MiG-3 and 37 MiG-1 fighters ready for operations, they had a mere four pilots trained to fly them.
In overall terms the Soviet forces, and most especially the army, were widely dispersed and almost totally unprepared, and very large numbers of formations and units were separated and without the transport they needed to concentrate. And while the Soviet ground forces rightly prided themselves on the numbers and quality of their artillery, these guns and howitzers lacked adequate ammunition with which to fight all but the most fleeting engagements. In common with other branches of the Soviet military, artillery units often lacked the transport move their guns.
Tank units also lacked training and logistical support, and their maintenance standards were poor. Moreover, units were committed to combat without any arrangements for refuelling, ammunition resupply and personnel replacement. Often, after just a single engagement, even those units which had not been destroyed were rendered ineffective for lack of fuel, ammunition, replacements and any repair capability. The army was also involved in a major reorganisation of its armoured units into large tank corps, which further added to the disorganisation.
Thus while the Soviet forces seemed, on paper, at least equal to the German forces, the front-line reality was altogether different inasmuch as inexperienced in not incompetent officers, lack of much essential equipment, a total insufficiency of motorised logistical support and poor training combined to render the Soviet forces totally inferior to their German opponents.
In August 1940 British intelligence had begun to receive hints of a German plan to invade the USSR only a week after Hitler informally approved the plan for ‘Barbarossa’, and warned the USSR of this fact. Stalin distrusted the UK, however, and believed that the warning was a merely a ploy to draw the USSR into a pre-emptive attack that would trigger a two-front war and thereby ease the German pressure on the UK. During the spring of 1941, the Soviet intelligence services and US intelligence also provided several warnings of an impending German invasion, but Stalin also chose to ignore these.
Stalin did in fact acknowledge that an invasion was possible and made significant preparations, but was wholly unwilling to do anything which might provoke Hitler. Stalin also appears to have placed an ill-founded confidence in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
Thus the Soviet forces along the border with Germany were not placed on full alert and were sometimes even forbidden to fire back without permission when attacked. A partial alert was implemented on 10 April, but in overall terms the Soviet forces were completely unready for the massive blow that fell on them on 22 June.
This should not be construed as meaning that the USSR had only very limited forces along its border with Germany, for in fact the USSR had deployed huge forces along this possible front line. These forces were very vulnerable however, for the reasons mentioned above, and also as a result of changes in their tactical doctrine. During 1938 the Soviet army had adopted, largely at the urging of General Leytenant Dmitri G. Pavlov, head of the Directorate of Tank and Armoured Car Troops. This new doctrine laid it down that the Soviet army would adopt a linear defence tactic in which the infantry divisions, each reinforced by an organic tank component, would dig in to form heavily fortified zones.
Then in May and June 1940 the German army, with massive tactical air support, totally destroyed the French army in a matter of only six weeks. Based on information which was signally incomplete, the Soviet analysis of events, based on limited information about ‘Sichelschnitt’, arrived at the conclusion that the French military collapse was attributable to reliance on linear defence and lack of armoured reserves.
The Soviets therefore decided not to repeat the mistake of relying on a linear defence, and instead to group their infantry divisions in massive concentrations, and bulk of their armoured forces into 29 mechanised corps each with a minimum of 1,031 tanks. In the event of an invasion from the west, therefore, the German armoured spearheads would be cut off and wiped out by the mechanised corps, which would then co-operate with the infantry armies to drive back the German infantry during its vulnerable approach march without massive armoured support. The Soviet left wing, in Ukraine, was to be enormously reinforced and thus be able to execute a vast strategic envelopment: after destroying Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, it was to swing first to the north-west and then to the north-east through Poland and thereby reach the strategic position to fall on the rear of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’. With the complete destruction of the encircled German army thus inevitable, there would follow a Soviet offensive into the rest of Europe.
Immediately after the German invasion of the USSR, Hitler promulgated the idea that the USSR had made extensive preparations for an offensive war in Europe, thus justifying the German invasion as a pre-emptive strike. Some credence has been given to this notion by the discovery of a document, authored by General Georgi K. Zhukov (chief of the general staff from 14 January 1941) and signed by General Major Aleksandr M. Vasilevsky (head of the operations directorate of the general staff) and General Major Nikolai F. Vatutin (chief of staff of the Ukrainian Front) suggesting a secret mobilisation and deployment of the main strength of the Soviet army along the western border under the cover of training. This operation was proposed as the means of isolating Germany from its allies, most importantly Romania and its oilfields, which Germany needed to conduct the war.
It has also been suggested that Stalin planned to use Germany as a proxy against the west. In this concept, Stalin aimed to further Hitler’s aggressive plans against other European nations, and then to exploit the resulting weakness of these nations to facilitate a Soviet drive into western Europe. It was for this reason, therefore, that Stalin provided significant material and political support to Hitler, while at the same time preparing the Soviet army for the ‘liberation’ of all Europe from Nazi occupation. According to this point of view, ‘Barbarossa’ was a German pre-emptive offensive which capitalised on the Soviet troop concentrations immediately on the 1941 borders.
As it finally emerged from the lengthy German development process, ‘Barbarossa’ was as a triple-axis offensive designed to take the three major cities of Leningrad in the north, Moscow in the centre and Kiev in the south before the onset of winter, and to destroy or capture the bulk of the Soviet field armies (now estimated at 155 divisions, but in fact totalling 230 divisions of which 170 were within operational distance of the Western Direction) by the use of large-scale enveloping movements.
The Direction was a strategic/operational command and control echelon, comparable with the Western nations’ army group, established by the Soviets to direct the operations of groups of fronts and fleets. Directions were employed primarily during the first year of the war in the strategic defence. After 1942, the Soviet high command occasionally formed temporary headquarters under Stavka representatives, most notably Marshals Sovetskogo Soyuza Zhukov, Vasilevsky and Semyon K. Timoshenko, to co-ordinate the operations of several fronts (groups of armies) in especially complex or important situations. The first directions were created on 10 July 1941, facing each of the German strategic axes in ‘Barbarossa’.
The North-Western Direction, commanded by Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Kliment Ye. Voroshilov, co-ordinated defensive operations along the Leningrad axis from 10 July to 27 August 1941, after which it was disbanded. The Western Direction defended the approaches from Smolensk to Moscow from 10 July to 10 September 1941 under Timoshenko, and was then re-established under then-General Zhukov from 1 February to 5 May 1942. The South-Western Direction existed from 10 July 1941 to 21 June 1942. Its first commander-in-chief was Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Semyon M. Budyonny, who proved unequal to the task and was removed in September 1941 and replaced, only after an interval, by Timoshenko.
(The Stavka established a fourth direction in 1945 as the Far East Direction that existed between 30 July and 20 December 1945 under Vasilevsky, as the strategic/operational command for ‘Avgust Buri’ against the Japanese.)
Thus the 26 divisions (including three Panzer and three motorised within Generaloberst Erich Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe) of Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ (Generaloberst Georg von Küchler’s 18th Army, Generaloberst Ernst Busch’s 16th Army and the 4th Panzergruppe) would be supported by Generaloberst Alfred Keller’s Luftflotte I in its drive through the Baltic states to encircle and not capture but rather wholly destroy Leningrad. The opposition was found by the 34 divisions (including four tank) of General Polkovnik Fyedor I. Kuznetsov’s Baltic Special Military District or North-Western Direction (once the war had started the North-West Front) containing General Leytenant Vasili I. Morozov’s 11th Army (two infantry and one mechanised corps), General Major Piotr P. Sobennikov’s 8th Army (two infantry and one mechanised corps) and General Major Nikolai E. Berzarin’s 27th Army (three infantry corps) with General Major Ivan S. Bezuglyi’s V Airborne Corps (three airborne brigades) as front reserve.
The 49 divisions (including nine Panzer and six motorised within Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 3rd Panzergruppe and Generaloberst Heinz Guderian’s 2nd Panzergruppe) of Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ (Generaloberst Adolf Strauss’s 9th Army and Generaloberst Günther von Kluge’s 4th Army as well as the 3rd Panzergruppe and 2nd Panzergruppe) would be supported by Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring’s Luftflotte II in its thrust toward Minsk, Smolensk and ultimately Moscow. The opposition was found by the 34 divisions (including eight tank) of Pavlov’s Western Special Military District or Western Direction (once the war had started the West Front) containing General Leytenant Vasili I. Kuznetsov’s 3rd Army (one infantry and one mechanised corps), General Leytenant Konstantin D. Golubev’s 10th Army (two infantry, one mechanised and one cavalry corps), General Leytenant Aleksandr A. Korobkov’s 4th Army (one infantry and one mechanised corps) and, as front reserve, General Leytenant Piotr M. Filatov’s 13th Army which could call on four infantry, two mechanised and one airborne corps.
Some 57 divisions (including 14 Romanian and two Hungarian as well as five Panzer and three motorised, the last two types within Generaloberst Ewald von Kleist’s 1st Panzergruppe) comprised Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, whose major formations were Generalfeldmarschall Walter von Reichenau’s 6th Army, General Carl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel’s 17th Army (including General I Triedy Ferdinand Čatloš’s Slovak Expeditionary Force and Altábornagy Béla Miklós de Dálnok’s Hungarian Gyorshadtest, or Mobile Corps), General de corp de armatâ Anton Dumitrescu’s Romanian 3rd Army, Generaloberst Eugen Ritter von Schobert’s 11th Army (including Generale d’Armata Giovanni Messe’s Corpo di Spedizione Italiano in Russia) and General de corp de armatâ Nicolae Ciupercă’s Romanian 4th Army as well as the 1st Panzergruppe. This southern grouping would have the considerable weight of Generaloberst Alexander Löhr’s Luftflotte IV for geographically the largest task, that of taking Lwów and Kiev. The defence was found by the 45 divisions (including 16 tank) of General Polkovnik Mikhail P. Kirponos’s Kiev Special Military District or South-Western Direction (once the war had started the South-West Front) containing General Leytenant Mikhail I. Potapov’s 5th Army (two infantry and two mechanised corps), General Leytenant Ivan N. Muzychenko’s 6th Army (two infantry, two mechanised and one cavalry corps), General Leytenant Fyedor Ya. Kostenko’s 26th Army (one infantry and one mechanised corps) and General Leytenant Pavel G. Ponedelin’s 12th Army (two infantry and one mechanised corps), and the eventual 26 divisions (including four tank) of the Odessa Military District (once the war had started General Polkovnik Ivan V. Tyulenev’s South Front) containing General Leytenant Aleksandr K. Smirnov’s 18th Army, General Polkovnik Yakov T. Cherevichenko’s 9th Independent Army (three infantry, two mechanised and one cavalry corps), and in reserve two infantry and one airborne corps.
Excluding the far northern ‘Platinfuchs’, ‘Polarfuchs’ and ‘Silberfuchs’ undertakings by General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst’s Norway-based Armee ‘Norwegen’ (two corps) supported by Generaloberst Hans-Jürgen Stumpff’s Luftflotte V and aimed at securing north Finland and taking Murmansk in northern Russia, the main weight of the German forces was composed of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ to the north of the Pripyet Marshes that divided the German offensive, and it was expected that the more determined Soviet resistance would be found in this sector, though the main weight of the Soviet defences was in fact located south of the Pripyet Marshes to defend the vital agricultural and industrial regions of Ukraine.
It is an ironic fact that neither the Germans not the Soviets entered on this campaign, the greatest in history when measured in terms of the numbers of men and the extent of territory involved, with any definite overall strategic concept.
The Soviet dispositions remain something of a puzzle. Initially, there appeared to be few if any preparations for a defence in depth or for delaying actions to draw the Germans deep into the USSR before major counterattacks and even counter-offensives were undertaken. Thus vast masses of Soviet troops had been concentrated close to the frontier as if for eventual offensive action, which was probably Stalin’s longer-term intention.
The Führerweisung Nr 21 of 18 December 1940 had emphasised the need for the USSR to be crushed in a ‘lightning campaign’. The bulk of the Soviet armies in the western USSR was to be destroyed in place, to prevent any organised retirement into the vastness of the USSR’s interior. With this accomplished, the Germans would then launch a rapid pursuit up to the general line provided by the Volga river, Kazan and Arkhangyel’sk.
Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, advancing to the east in the area to the south of the Pripyet Marshes, would make its main effort toward Kiev in a strategic envelopment designed to cut off all the Soviet forces in western Ukraine before they could escape across the Dniepr river.
Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ would make the main attack up the traditional invasion route from Warsaw to Moscow via Smolensk, utilising its two Panzergruppen to envelop and destroy the large Soviet forces massed on its front.
Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ would destroy the Soviet forces in the Baltic area and then advance on Leningrad.
Finally, in the extreme north, German and Finnish forces (4.5 and 20 divisions respectively) would operate toward Murmansk and the railway linking Murmansk with Leningrad and Moscow, while the main Finnish strength advanced on Leningrad from the north.
Beyond these initial missions, Hitler and his military commanders remained in profound disagreement. Hitler’s chosen objectives were largely political and economic: Leningrad, whose destruction would enable the Germans and Finns to link, and would turn the Baltic into a ‘German lake’; Ukraine with its wheat and coal; the industrial Donets basin; and finally the Caucasian oil fields. All of these would have been valuable conquests for an isolated Germany, but there were large Soviet armies which had first to be brought to battle and destroyed.
The German generals’ solution was an offensive aimed straight at Moscow, the city which was the political centre of both the USSR and communism. It was also the centre of much of the Soviet armaments industry and the centre of the Russian railway system. For these reasons, the generals felt, the Soviets would commit the best of their forces to the defence of Moscow, giving the Germans the opportunity to destroy it in a relatively short period of aggressive fighting.
No definite agreement was ever reached, and as a result the German advance was frequently directed on a day-to-day basis as Hitler vacillated and called upon his intuition. Hitler had increased the number of Panzer divisions, although mainly by reducing the tank strength in each division and thus reducing such formations’ capability for sustained combat. At this same time, Germany’s armament industry was still operating at little more than peacetime tempo. Production of non-essential civilian goods continued, and Hitler refused to increase tank production. Moreover, many factories were being diverted from army to navy and air force work in preparation for the new offensive against the UK which was to follow the swift destruction of the USSR.
Meanwhile, the German navy and much of the German air force were still engaged with the British, and Hitler would therefore have to fight what had had always said he would avoid, namely a two-front war. This was a vast strategic error, and one that was compounded at the operational level by the delay imposed on its start by Hitler’s belated decision to invade and defeat Yugoslavia and Greece in ‘Unternehmen 25’ and ‘Marita’ before turning Germany’s attentions to the defeat of the USSR.
A particular oddity of the campaign which now began was the fact that the USSR, despite its enormous intelligence system and regardless of warnings supplied by the UK and others, was taken completely unawares by the German onslaught. Although many Soviet units rallied quickly and fought stubbornly and well, many of the higher Soviet headquarters appear to have lost control of the situation suddenly confronting them. The Soviet formations opposing Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, however, fought dogged and partially successful delaying actions, and the counterattacks of Potapov’s 5th Army to the south from the Pripyet Marshes were especially effective.
Germany’s invasion of the USSR had four phases, of which the first three (the frontier battles, the battle for Smolensk, and the battles for Leningrad and Kiev) were ‘Barbarossa’ proper (22 June/2 October) and the last was ‘Taifun’ (i) against Moscow (2 October/5 December).
At 03.15 on 22 June German warplanes bombed major cities in Soviet-occupied eastern Poland, two hours after the codeword ‘Wotan’ had been issued to begin ‘Barbarossa’. The surprise which the Germans gained was total, even though the Stavka, which had become alarmed by reports that Germans formations and units were closing up to the border, had at 00.30 ordered that the border troops be warned that war was imminent. In fact only a few units had been alerted by 03.15.
Germany committed some 3.2 million troops to the undertaking, either immediately or as reinforcements and replacements as the campaign continued, and this German strength was bolstered by about 500,000 Romanian, Hungarian, Slovak, Croat and Italian troops largely in the south, and large numbers of Finnish troops in the north. Though much of the Soviets’ forward deployments and major concentrations in the western USSR had been pinpointed in the months before 22 June by German aerial reconnaissance, Luftwaffe reconnaissance units now flew intensively for on-the-spot plotting of troop concentration, supply dumps and airfields marked for immediate attack and destruction. The Luftwaffe was also tasked with the annihilation of Soviet air power. This was not achieved in the first days of operations, despite the fact that the Soviets had concentrated their aircraft in huge groups on the permanent airfields, which were ideal targets, rather than dispersing them on field landing strips. The Luftwaffe claimed to have destroyed 1,489 aircraft on 22 June. As commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, Göring felt that the figure was probably exaggerated and ordered the figure to be checked. As German officers picked through the wreckage on Soviet airfields overrun on the first day of ‘Barbarossa’, they found that the Luftwaffe’s figure was in fact an underestimate, for they found more than 2,000 wrecked Soviet aircraft were found. The Luftwaffe lost 35 aircraft on the first day of combat.
The Germans claimed to have destroyed 3,100 Soviet aircraft in the first three days of ‘Barbarossa’, but in fact the Soviet losses were far greater (3,922 aircraft according to one source). Thus the Luftwaffe swiftly secured total air supremacy over all three sectors of the front, and maintained this superiority to the end of 1941. With the threat of Soviet air intervention thus removed from the balance of power equation, the Luftwaffe was now able to devote large numbers of its fighter and bomber Geschwadern to supplement the efforts of the dedicated ground attack and close support units in direct support of the the ground forces.
von Leeb’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ was opposed by Sobennikov’s (from 30 June General Leytenant Fyedor S. Ivanov’s 8th Army and Morozov’s 11th Army in Soviet-occupied Lithuania, and here the Oberkommando des Heeres had ordered the 4th Panzergruppe, with some 600 tanks, to drive at the junction of the two Soviet armies. The 4th Panzergruppe’s objective was to cross the Niemen and Daugava rivers, which were the two largest obstacles in the planned German advance to Leningrad. On the first day, German armour crossed the Riemann and penetrated 50 miles (80 km). Near Raseiniai, the German armoured spearhead of 245 tanks was counterattacked by almost 800 tanks of General Major Aleksei V. Kurkin’s III Mechanised Corps of the 11th Army and General Major Nikolai M. Shestopalov’s XII Mechanised Corps of the 8th Army in the Battle of Raseiniai. It took the Germans four days to encircle and destroy the Soviet armour, which was poorly co-ordinated and also lacked any fuel and ammunition resupply capability. By the end of the first week the two Soviet mechanised corps had lost 90% of their strength. The 4th Panzergruppe, which comprised General Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s XLI Corps (mot.) with two Panzer and two infantry divisions and General Erich von Manstein’s LVI Corps (mot.) with one Panzer and three infantry divisions, then crossed the Daugava river near Daugavpils. The Germans were now within striking distance of Leningrad. Then the poor situation of the German armour persuaded Hitler to order the Panzer formations to hold in their present positions until the slower-moving infantry formations of the 16th Army and 18th Army had reached them.
The arrival of the infantry formations took a week, and this afforded the Soviets an invaluable breathing space in which to improve their defences along the banks of the Luga river and, to their rear, on the south-western approaches to Leningrad.
The Soviet position at this time had also been made more complex by the start, on 22 June, of an anti-Soviet uprising in Lithuania and, on the following day, a declaration of Lithuanian independence. Some 30,000 Lithuanians, supplemented by ethnic Lithuanian deserters from the Soviet army, engaged the local Soviet forces. As Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ moved farther to the north-east, armed resistance to Soviet rule also broke out in Estonia. The battle for Estonia ended on 7 August, when the 18th Army reached the southern coast of the Gulf of Finland.
von Bock’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ comprised the 2nd Army, 9th Army, Guderian’s 2nd Panzergruppe with General Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg’s XXIV Corps (mot.), General Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s XLVI Corps (mot.), General Joachim Lemelsen’s XLVII Corps (mot.) and an infantry corps, and Hoth’s 3rd Panzergruppe with General Rudolf Schmidt’s XXXIX Corps (mot.) and General Adolf-Friedrich Kuntzen’s LVII Corps (mot.), together with powerful rear, reserve and headquarters elements. Opposite Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was the West Front with the 3rd, 4th, 10th and 11th Armies.
The Soviet armies occupied a salient which jutted into German-occupied Poland with the Soviet salient’s centre at Białystok. To the east of Białystok was Minsk, the capital of the Belorussian republic and a communications (especially railway) nexus of strategic importance. The task of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’s two Panzergruppen, striking from Suwałki in the north and Brest-Litovsk in the south on the army group’s flanks, was to meet at Minsk and thus cut off the formations of the West Front for piecemeal destruction. The 3rd Panzergruppe broke through the junction of the North-West and West Fronts in the north of the salient, and crossed the Riemann river, while the 2nd Panzergruppe crossed the Bug river river in the south. As the Panzergruppen attacked, the 2nd Army and 9th Army struck directly at the centre of the Soviet salient, pinning the formations in front of them and eventually encircling large numbers of Soviet troops at Białystok.
The Stavka at first failed to grasp the vast extent of the catastrophe that was breaking on the USSR. Timoshenko, chairman of the Supreme Military Council of the Red Army and from 23 June chairman of the High Command, ordered all Soviet forces to launch a general counter-offensive: with the necessary supply and ammunition dumps destroyed and the3 Soviet communications network totally collapsed, the attacks were totally unco-ordinated and therefore pre-ordained to the failure that then resulted. Zhukov signed the infamous Directive of the People’s Commissariat of Defence No. 3 (Zhukov later claimed that this was only under pressure from Stalin), which ordered the Soviet forces to start an offensive. He commanded the troops ‘to encircle and destroy the enemy grouping near Suwałki and to seize the Suwałki region by the evening of 26 June’ and ‘to encircle and destroy the enemy grouping invading Vladimir-Volynia and Brody direction’ and even ‘to seize the Lublin region by the evening of 24 June’. This manoeuvre could not succeed, and the further disorganised Soviet formations and units were soon destroyed by the Germans.
The Battle of Białystok-Minsk, known to the Soviets in its two primary phases as the ‘Belorussian Border Defensive Battles Operation’ (22/25 June) and ‘Belorussian Strategic Defensive Operation’ (22 June/9 July) was thus the core of a German strategic operation by Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ in the first stage of the frontier battles which started ‘Barbarossa’, and lasted from 22 June to 3 July. In this battle the Germans first encircled the Soviet forces around Minsk, then defeated all Soviet counterattack and breakthrough attempts failed, and finally destroyed the trapped formations, allowing the Germans to take prisoner very large numbers of Soviet troops and advance farther into the USSR at a pace so swift that some believed the Germans had effectively won the war against the USSR.
The task of von Bock’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was to attack eastward from German-occupied Poland along the axis from Białystok to Smolensk via Minsk and thus drive straight toward Moscow. Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ included two infantry armies (Strauss’s 9th Army and von Kluge’s 4th Army) and two Panzer groups (Hoth’s 3rd Panzergruppe and Guderian’s 2nd Panzergruppe). The two infantry armies totalled 33 divisions in eight corps, and the Panzergruppen totalled nine armoured divisions, six motorised divisions and one cavalry division in six corps, five of them armoured. The army group’s reserve was von Weichs’s 2nd Army. As noted above, Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ had the air support capabilities of Kesselring’s Luftflotte II.
Opposing Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was Pavlov’s West Front with Kuznetsov’s 3rd Army, Korobkov’s 4th Army and Golubev’s 10th Army along the frontier. Filatov’s 13th Army was held as part of the Stavka reserve, and initially existed only as a headquarters without assigned forces. All together, the West Front had 25 infantry and cavalry divisions, 13 tank divisions and seven motorised divisions.
The Soviet disposition in Belorussia was based on the operational and tactical concept of an aggressive response to a German attack, carrying the war into German-occupied Poland, but this disposition suffered from weakness along its flanks as a result of alignment of the line of demarcation between Germany and the USSR following the division of Poland between these two nations in 1939. The forward placement of both the German and Soviet forces in a double-bulge position, with the Soviets two westward-facing salients (one in the centre to the west of Białystok and the other in the south between Lwów in the north and Chernovtsy in the south); and the Germans three eastward-facing salients (one in the north to the north of Suwałki, one in the centre to the north and south of Brest-Litovsk, and one in the south to the north and south of Jassy (Iași). This made it possible for each sides to attempt a double envelopment. It was the Germans who undertook it successfully, severing most of the West Front’s forces from other Soviet fronts in a twin encirclement centred on Białystok and Navahrudak, the latter to the west of Minsk.
On 22 June the armoured balance over the entire sector held by the West Front favoured the Germans, who were numerically inferior but technically as well as tactically far superior. Generalleutnant Hans Freiherr von Funck’s 7th Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Horst Stumpff’s 20th Panzerdivision of Schmidt’s XXXIX Corps (mot.) had 494 tanks including 288 with 37-mm guns and 61 with 50-mm guns, Generalleutnant Joseph Harpe’s 12th Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Otto von Knobelsdorff’s 19th Panzerdivision of Kuntzen’s LVII Corps (mot.) had 448 tanks including 219 with 37-mm guns and 60 with 50-mm guns, Generalleutnant Hans-Jürgen von Arnim’s 17th Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Walther Nehring’s 18th Panzerdivision of Lemelsen’s XLVII Corps (mot.) had 420 tanks including 99 with 37-mm guns and 187 with 50-mm guns, Generalleutnant Erich Brandenberger’s 10th Panzerdivision of von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s XLVI Corps (mot.) had 182 tanks including 125 with 50-mm guns, and Generalleutnant Walter Model’s 3rd Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Willibald Freiherr von Langermann und Erlencamp’s 4th Panzerdivision of von Schweppenburg’s XXIV Corps (mot.) had 392 tanks including 60 with 37-mm guns and 207 with 50-mm guns: the Germans thus deployed 1,936 tanks including 666 with 37-mm guns and 630 with 50-mm guns.
On the other side of the front line the Soviets the 29th and 33rd Tank Divisions and 204th Motor Division of General Major Dmitri K. Mostevenko’s XI Mechanised Corps had 414 tanks including 20 T-34 and KV vehicles, the 4th and 7th Tank Divisions and 29th Motor Division of General Major Mikhail G. Khatskilevich’s VI Mechanised Corps had 1,131 tanks including 452 T-34 and KV vehicles, the 25th and 31st Tank Divisions and 208th Motor Division of General Major Piotr N. Akhliustin’s XIII Mechanised Corps had 282 tanks including no T-34 or KV vehicles, the 22nd and 30th Tank Divisions and 205th Motor Division of General Major Stepan I. Oborin’s XIV Mechanised Corps had 518 tanks including no T-34 or KV vehicles, the 14th and 18th Tank Divisions and 1st Motor Division of the VII Mechanised Corps had 959 tanks including 103 T-34 and KV vehicles, the 13th and 17th Tank Divisions of the V Mechanised Corps had 861 tanks including 17 T-34 and KV vehicles, the 27th and 36th Tank Divisions and 209th Motor Division of General Major Mikhail P. Petrov’s not fully formed XVII Mechanised Corps had 63 tanks, the 26th and 38th Tank Divisions and 210th Motor Division of General Major Andrei G. Nikitin’s XX Mechanised Corps, not yet fully formed, had 94 tanks, and the independent 57th Division had 200 tanks. The Soviets thus deployed 4,522 tanks, but only 592 of these were modern types able to operate effectively against the German armour.
The Soviet northern salient jutting into German-occupied Polish territory, with its centre at Białystok, was an essential element in the Oberkommando des Heeres’s planning for ‘Barbarossa’. Behind Białystok, from the German point of view, lay Minsk, which was a key strategic railway junction and a defensive position of the main road and rail communications with Moscow.
Also caught in the German operation was part of the 11th Army of the North-West Front. In the north, the 3rd Panzergruppe attacked, cutting off the 11th Army from the forces of the West Front, and crossed the Niemen river. in the south the 2nd Panzergruppe crossed the Zapadnyi Bug river and by 23 June had penetrated some 37 miles (60 km) into Soviet territory. The objectives of the two Panzergruppen were to meet to the east of Minsk and prevent any Soviet withdrawal from the encirclement. Operating with the two Panzergruppen to encircle the Soviet forces, the 9th Army and 4th Army cut into the front of the salient, beginning to encircle the Soviet forces around Białystok. On 23 June, the 10th Army attempted a counterattack in accordance with pre-war planning, but failed to achieve its goals. On 24 June, Pavlov ordered his operations officer, General Leytenant Ivan V. Boldin, to take command of the VI Mechanised Corps, XI Mechanised Corps and VI Cavalry Corps, totalling four tank, two motor and two cavalry divisions, for a counter-attack towards Hrodna to prevent the encirclement of the Soviet formations near Białystok. This attack failed with heavy losses, although it may have allowed some units to escape the western encirclement toward Minsk.
In the evening of 25 June, the XLVII Corps (mot.) penetrated between Slonim and Vawkavysk, and this compelled Pavlov to order the withdrawal of all the Soviet troops in the salient behind the Shchara river at Slonim to avoid encirclement. Most formations could not break contact with the Germans, however, and as a result of loss of fuel and transport those which did manage to break out had to withdraw on foot. This Soviet withdrawal opened the southern approaches to Minsk.
On 27 June, after five days of combat the pincer of Guderian’s 2nd Panzergruppe and Hoth’s 3rd Panzergruppe closed to the east of Minsk. The two Panzergruppen had advanced 200 miles (320 km) into the western USSR and almost a third of the distance to Moscow. by any standards this was a stunning military achievement.
On 28 June, the 9th Army and 4th Army linked at a point to the east of Białystok, thereby splitting the encircled Soviet forces into two pockets: in the west was the smaller Białystok pocket containing the 10th Army, and the larger Navahrudak pocket containing the 3rd and 13th Armies. Ultimately, in 17 days the West Front lost 420,000 of its 625,000 men. On 26 June Minsk the Germans took Minsk, the capital of Belorussia.
A second Soviet counter-attack by the XX Mechanised Corps and IV Airborne Corps also failed to breach the German encirclement, and by 30 June the pocket had been completely closed. The German forces surrounded the remnants of 32 infantry divisions, eight tank divisions and many motorised, cavalry and artillery divisions, and eventually destroyed or took prisoner most of the 3rd, 10th and 13th Armies and part of the 4th Army, in total about 20 divisions, while the remainder of the 4th Army fell back to the east and the Zapadnyi Berezina river.
Throughout this time the aircraft of Luftflotte II had been instrumental in the destruction of the West Front, decimating the Soviet ground forces and destroying 1,669 Soviet aircraft for the loss of 276 aircraft destroyed and 208 aircraft damaged. It should be noted, though, that after only a week of fighting the total serviceable strength of Luftflotte I, Luftflotte II and Luftflotte IV had been reduced to just 960 machines.
The Soviet troops trapped in the gigantic pockets continued to fight, and the their operations to end this resistance resulted in considerable German casualties. Many Soviet troops nonetheless managed to escape the encirclement as the German infantry formations’ lack of motor transport considerably slowed the completion of the encirclement. Eventually 290,000 Soviet soldiers were captured, most of them dying within a matter of months as a result of the appalling conditions in the German prisoner of war camps, and 1,500 pieces of artillery and 2,500 tanks were destroyed, but 250,000 Soviet troops managed to escape.
The rapid advance to the east created the possibility for the German forces to advance quickly and against minimal resistance towards the Smolensk ‘land bridge’, from which an attack directly against Moscow could be contemplated. The speed and relative ease of this initial success also created the impression in the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht that the war against the USSR was had already been won just days after its start. Despite this feat, Hitler blamed the Panzer generals for leaving gaps in the lines, and for their own part the Panzer generals were deeply frustrated as, for almost a week, their advance to the east had been stopped while they closed the pocket and waited for the infantry to come up with them. The Panzer generals feared, with some justification, that the momentum of the armoured offensive would be lost.
Pavlov and several member of the West Front’s staff recalled to Moscow, accused of the intentional disorganisation of the defence and retreat without defeat in battle, and were soon executed by the NKVD for ‘cowardice’ and ‘failure to perform their duties’. Their families were repressed, and the executed men were ‘rehabilitated’ only in 1956. One man who did survive was Pavlov’s operations officer, Boldin, who had been cut off by the German advance at a forward headquarters in the first days of the invasion and subsequently fought his way back to Soviet lines with more than 1,000 men six weeks later.
Hitler had believed that the Soviet army would collapse if his armies could destroy the bulk of the Soviet forces to the west of the Zapadnyi Dvina and Dniepr rivers. After the victory at Minsk, however, as Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ reached these two rivers, it encountered another five Soviet major formations in the form of the 16th, 19th, 20th, 21st and 22nd Armies. Of these, the 16th, 19th and 20th Armies were quickly encircled and eventually decimated in the vicinity of Smolensk, while the other two were severely weakened. But these successes came at a very heavy cost to the Germans. According to Generaloberst Franz Halder, the chief of the Oberkommando des Heeres general staff, by 2 August Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ had lost 74,500 men and received only 23,000 replacements since the start of the campaign. Later still, by 28 August, Halder recorded that the Panzer divisions of the 2nd Panzergruppe and 3rd Panzergruppe had only some 45% of their establishment strengths, with von Funck’s 7th Panzerdivision with worst affected with only 24% of its normal strength.
Opposite the northern half of von Rundstedt’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, which extended over more than two-thirds of the entire Eastern Front, were four formations of Mikhail P. Kirponos’s South-West Front, namely Potapov’s 5th Army, Muzychenko’s 6th Army, Kostenko’s 26th Army and Ponedelin’s 12th Army. In this part of the theatre the Soviet commanders reacted more quickly and effectively than their counterparts farther to the north, and the Germans therefore faced more determined and effective resistance right from the start of the campaign.
The German infantry armies struck at the junctions of these armies while the 1st Panzergruppe pushed its spearhead of 600 tanks right through the Soviet 6th Army with the object of taking Brody. It was here that there took place the single most decisive battle of the southern part of ‘Barbarossa’, namely the Battle of Brody (otherwise known as the Battle of Dubna, Battle of Dubno, Battle of Rovno and Battle of Rovno-Brody) involving 750 German tanks and 3,500 Soviet tanks. This was an armoured clash fought between General Eberhard von Mackensen’s III Corps (mot.) and Kempf’s XLVIII Corps (mot.) of von Kleist’s 1st Panzergruppe and five mechanised corps of Potapov’s 5th Army and Muzychenko’s 6th Army in the triangle formed by the towns of Dubno, Lutsk and Brody in Soviet-occupied eastern Poland between 23 and 30 June 1941. Although the Soviets inflicted heavy losses on the Germans, they were outmanoeuvred and suffered enormous tank losses. The combination of German armoured skill and air superiority combined with poor Soviet logistics and the total breakdown of Soviet command and control to ensure a German victory despite overwhelming Soviet numerical and technical superiority. The Battle of Brody was one of the most savage armoured engagements in the opening phase of ‘Barbarossa’, and at the same time one of the largest tank battles of World War II.
The 1st Panzergruppe had been ordered to secure the Bug river crossings and advance to Rovno and Korosten with Kiev as its strategic objective. The Panzergruppe deployed two of its three corps forward and advanced between Lwów and Rovno in an attempt to cut the railway line linking Lwów and Kiev, thereby driving a wedge into the junction between the 5th and 6th Armies.
Kirponos’s South-West Front had received signally incomplete intelligence on the size and direction of the German attack, and was surprised when the Stavka ordered a general counterattack on the authority of Zhukov, the Soviet chief-of-staff. Most of the front’s staff were sure that the Soviet strategy would be to remain on the defensive until the initial confusion following the start of ‘Barbarossa’ had become clearer. The general orders of Zhukov’s Directive No. 3 were that while the 12th and 26th Armies of the South-West Front maintained a strong defence along the border with Hungary, the 5th and 6th Armies to their north were to undertake concentric attacks in the direction of Lublin, utilising at least five mechanised corps and the front’s aviation assets, in order to encircle and destroy the group of forces German advancing along the sector of the front between Vladimir, Volynski and Krystynopol, and by the end of 24 June to have taken the Lublin area.
By the end of 22 June, Zhukov was travelling to the headquarters of the South-West Front at Tarnopol, together with Nikita Khrushchev, the former head of the Organisational Department of the Ukrainian Communist Party’s Central Committee, to ensure the implementation of these orders.
Six mechanised corps, with more than 2,500 tanks, were to be grouped to take part in the planned concentric counterattack through the flanks of the 1st Panzergruppe, thus paving the way for a pincer movement from the north and south, by the 5th and 6th Armies respectively, to meet to the west of Dubno in order to trap elements of the 6th Army and 17th Army on the northern flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’. To achieve this, General Major Dmitri Ryabyshev’s VIII Mechanised Corps was transferred from the command of Kostenko’s 26th Army, positioned to the south of the 6th Army, to that of Muzychenko’s 6th Army. This Soviet regrouping brought together essentially all of the South-West Front’s mobile assets against the base of von Kleist’s thrust toward Kiev. The primary German infantry formation on this sector of the front, General Viktor von Schwedler’s IV Corps of von Stülpnagel’s 17th Army was advancing to the south-east with the objective of cutting the railway line linking Lwów and Kiev.
At the start of ‘Barbarossa’, the German armoured strength was based on a mix of Czechoslovak and German tanks, as well as smaller numbers of captured French and British tanks, in addition to vehicles supplied by the largely collaborationist Vichy French regime. The logistical and technical problems associated with tanks of so many origins were exacerbated, so far as German armoured strength was concerned, by the fact that almost half of the German tanks were obsolescent if not actually obsolete PzKpfw I and PzKpfw II light tanks. Of the 4,000 or so armoured vehicles available to the Germans, therefore, only about 1,400 were of the newer PzKpfw III medium and PzKpfw IV battle types. Then in the first few hours of the invasion, German commanders who had been confident in their total armoured superiority, were deeply shocked to discover that some Soviet tanks were immune to all the anti-tank weapons currently in service with the German army.
During pre-war exercises, Guderian had pointed out that on their own, tanks were very vulnerable to infantry attacks: in order to destroy an isolated tank, infantrymen needed merely to manoeuvre around to the more vulnerable sides and rear of the tank and, from these positions, either destroy the drive sprocket gear, thereby immobilising the tank, or simply climb on top and drop a grenade down the turret hatch, which was never locked to ensure that a quick escape could be made in the event of a fire. The tank could then be destroyed at leisure. Furthermore, Guderian also noted that tanks lacked the heavy-calibre guns needed to knock out reinforced concrete bunkers and heavily fortified positions, a task which could therefore be achieved only by heavy artillery or pinpoint air attack. While the dispersal of tanks among infantry units solved many of the tank’s weaknesses, it also negated all of their strengths. Therefore, German military theorists concluded that to reach their full potential, armoured units had to be concentrated in unitary formations and integrated with mobile artillery, mobile infantry and close air support. Lastly, Guderian concluded that for maximum, utility all armoured vehicles had to be equipped with radios so that each tank commander could pass on tactical information and also receive the orders which allowed tanks to co-operate effectively with each other.
At the beginning of June 1941, the Soviets had in inventory more than 10,000 tanks, though the vast majority of these were technologically obsolete or more modern but tactically inadequate light tanks such as the T-26 and BT-7. The frontal armour of the T-26 and BT-7 was just 15 and 22 mm thick respectively, which offered virtually no protection against any anti-tank weapon at any range. The defensive limitations of Soviet tanks were compounded by the fact that, in offensive terms, poor design meant that most Soviet shells shattered, rather than detonated, on contact. More modern equipment, such as the T-24 medium tank, KV-1 heavy tank and improved shells, were only just beginning to emerge in useful numbers from production lines in Leningrad, Kharkov and Stalingrad, and were therefore not available in anything approaching the numbers required to check, let alone drive back, the German advance.
During the interwar years, far sighted military theorists such as Tukhachevsky came to similar conclusions as Guderian about the tank in modern warfare. Cavalry experts such as Budyonny were in great favour with Stalin, however, and Tukhachevsky was executed on 12 June 1937. Budyonny believed that the tank would never replace the horse in warfare, and existed only to support the infantry in breaking through strongpoints. As a result, Soviet armour was dispersed widely throughout infantry divisions during the 1930s. Then came the shock of the success of German armour in bringing about the fall of France in May and June 1940. Surviving armoured warfare theorists such as General Major Konstantin K. Rokossovsky were quickly and quietly reinstated into their positions (in November 1940 Rokossovsky was switched from command of the V Cavalry Corps to the IX Mechanised Corps) and began to group tanks into concentrated formations with all possible speed. However, by June 1941 this process was barely half complete, so many of the 10,000 Soviet tanks were still dispersed among infantry divisions on the eve of ‘Barbarossa’. This ensured that even if the Soviet army had a unified command structure, many of its armoured units and formations still had to be committed on a piecemeal basis.
At full strength, a Panzer division had between 150 and 200 tanks which required fuel, ammunition and, most notably, spare parts; their crews also needed food. To provide for these logistical requirements, each Panzer division was therefore supported by 2,000 trucks. Each Panzer division also possessed its own organic artillery and infantry support. The incorporation of infantry in the Panzer division, rather than tanks in the infantry division, resulted from the fact that German tactical doctrine was based on infantry support for the armour rather than armour support for the infantry: in the Germany army, therefore, it was the tank which led, Furthermore, German doctrine stressed the importance of the cross-training of soldiers so that they could undertake the roles of other men as required: tank crews were trained in artillery roles, infantry as tank crews, etc. Most importantly, tank crews were also trained as mechanics, giving them the skills to undertake field repairs of broken equipment.
At Stalin’s insistence, no defensive preparations had been made in the USSR before June 1941. This meant that ammunition and supply dumps were not concealed, and their locations were known to the Germans as a result of the latter’s air reconnaissance effort in the months before the start of ‘Barbarossa’. Compounding the problem was the fact that Stalin strictly forbade any Soviet unit from opening fire on reconnaissance patrols, and the overall result was that the combination of air and ground reconnaissance had allowed the Germans to identify all major command posts, airfields and supply dumps in the Soviet border areas. The result of Stalin’s orders was that all of these key points and installations were destroyed or heavily damaged by air raids in the opening hours of the war.
Another significant factor was that Soviet tank crews were not mechanically trained and were therefore largely incapable of maintaining or repairing their machines. As a result, simple mechanical problems meant that large numbers of Soviet tanks were abandoned as they approached the field of battle without having fired even a single shot. Then units which did manage to reach their assembly areas with useful numbers of tanks found that the supplies they needed had either been destroyed or moved to another location without the relevant armoured unit being informed of the fact. After receiving orders to attack, and now out of fuel or ammunition, the crews of these Soviet tanks responded to their orders by blowing up their own vehicles and retreating, and large numbers of tanks were therefore lost in this way even before battle was joined.
Compounding these logistical difficulties was the fact that each Soviet tank division had some 300 to 400 tanks but was supported by only 1,500 trucks: thus while the Soviet truck/tank ratio was in the order of 3.75/1, the German truck/tank ratio was in the order of 10/1. Within hours of the start of ‘Barbarossa’, it had become clear that it was the Germans rather than the Soviets who had got their ratio right.
On 22 June, the armoured balance between Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ and the South-West Front reflected that between Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and the West Front inasmuch as the Soviets had a decided numerical superiority that was more than offset by their qualitative and tactical inferiority.
In von Kleist’s III Corps (mot.), Generalleutnant Friedrich-Wilhelm von Rothkirch und Panthen’s 13th Panzerdivision, Generalleutnant Friedrich Kühn’s 14th Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Erich-Heinrich Clössner’s 25th Division (mot.) had 296 tanks including 42 PzKpfw III and PzKpfw 38(t) vehicles with 37-mm guns and 140 PzKpfw III and PzKpfw IV vehicles with guns of 50 mm or greater calibre, in Kempf’s XLVIII Corps (mot.) Generalleutnant Ludwig Crüwell’s 11th Panzerdivision, Generalleutnant Hans-Valentin Hube’s 16th Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Sigfrid Henrici’s 16th Division (mot.) had 289 tanks including 47 PzKpfw III and PzKpfw 38(t) vehicles with 37-mm guns and 135 PzKpfw III and PzKpfw IV vehicles with guns of 50 mm or greater calibre, and in von Wietersheim’s XIV Corps (mot.) Generalleutnant Alfred Ritter von Hubicki’s 9th Panzerdivision, SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Joseph Dietrich’s SS Division (mot.) ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’ and SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Felix Steiner’s SS Division ‘Wiking’ had 143 tanks including 11 PzKpfw III and PzKpfw 38(t) vehicles with 37-mm guns and 80 PzKpfw III and PzKpfw IV vehicles with guns of 50 mm or greater calibre, giving the 1st Panzergruppe a total of 728 tanks including 100 PzKpfw III and PzKpfw 38(t) vehicles with 37-mm guns and 355 PzKpfw III and PzKpfw IV vehicles with guns of 50 mm or greater calibre.
On the Soviet side, the South-West Front deployed six mechanised corps. In Potapov’s 5th Army Rokossovsky’s IX Mechanised Corps (20th and 35th Tank Divisions and 131st Motor Division) had 316 tanks including no T-34 and KV vehicles and General Major Semyon M. Kondrusev’s XXII Mechanised Corps (19th and 41st Tank Divisions and 215th Motor Division) had 712 tanks including 31 T-34 and KV vehicles, in Muzychenko’s 6th Army General Major Andrei A. Vlasov’s IV Mechanised Corps (8th and 32nd Tank Divisions and 81st Motor Division, of which only the first was involved in the Battle of Brody) had 300 tanks including 100 T-34 and KV vehicles and General Major Ignatyi I. Karpezo’s XV Mechanised Corps (10th and 37th Tank Divisions and 212th Motor Division) had 749 tanks including 136 T-34 and KV vehicles, in Ponedelin’s 12th Army General Major Aleksandr D. Sokolov’s XVI Mechanised Corps (15th and 39th Tank Divisions and 240th Motor Division) that was not involved in the Brody fighting, and in Kostenko’s 26th Army Ryabyshev’s VIII Mechanised Corps (12th and 34th Tank Divisions and 7th Motor Division) had 899 tanks including 135 T-34 and KV vehicles; the front’s reserves included General Major Nikolai V. Fedlenko’s XIX Mechanised Corps (40th and 43rd Tank Divisions and 213rd Motor Division) and Kurkin’s XXIV Mechanised Corps (45th and 49th Tank Divisions and 216th Motor Division) that was not involved in the Brody fighting. The South-West Front thus had a total of 3,429 tanks including 443 T-34 and KV vehicles.
The Soviet air forces assigned to the South-West Front adhered to the pattern typical of the other fronts involved in ‘Barbarossa’, and lost most of its aircraft on the ground as a result of Stalin’s refusal, despite intelligence of an imminent German attack, to allow Soviet forces to be placed on alert. The forces allocated to the South-West Front were the 19th and 62nd Bomber Divisions, 44th and 64th Fighter Divisions, 14th, 15th, 16th, 17th and 63rd Mixed Divisions, and 36th Defence Fighter Division. Within these the 17th Fighter Regiment, for example, was caught on the ground and had been almost wholly destroyed by the third day of the war. The remainder of the regiment, comprising only 10 Polikarpov I-153 biplanes and one Mikoyan-Guryevich MiG-1 monoplane, fell back to a reserve airfield near Rovno. Even so, the Soviets sent their surviving aircraft to support the offensive.
The air battle over the Brody fighting resulted in very heavy Soviet air losses. Oberstleutnant Günther Lützow’s Jagdgeschwader 3, part of General Kurt Pflugbeil’s IV Fliegerkorps, shot down 24 Tupolev SB bombers on the first day, and just 20 of the initial 251 SB bombers were left. German losses were also heavy, with 28 aircraft lost and 23 damaged. The efforts of the Soviet air forces were not without effect, however, as the South-West Front’s air force flew 523 sorties between 22 June and 24 June, dropping 2,500 bombs. The Luftwaffe’s nearly complete air superiority was to be a major factor in breaking up the Soviet counterattack.
The Soviet attack that led to the Battle of Brody combined the six mechanised corps under the command of the 5th Army in the north and the 6th Army in the south. Under 5th Army command were the IX and XIX Mechanised Corps deployed to the north-west of Rovno and the XXII Mechanised Corps to the north-east of Lutsk, and under 6th Army command the VIII and XV Mechanised Corps deployed to the south-west and north-east of Brody respectively, while the IV Mechanised Corps deployed between Sokal and Radekhiv on the left flank of the XV Mechanised Corps. The plan called for these forces to assemble and begin offensive operations at 22.00 on 23 June, 36 hours after the start of ‘Barbarossa’, in an attempt to catch the Germans off guard and before they could solidify their position by bringing up reinforcements from the rear in support of their fast-advancing 11th Panzerdivision.
The task of the Soviet corps commanders was rendered very difficult by constant Luftwaffe harassment, loss of communications, lack of transport and the movement of large numbers refugees and retreating soldiers, and this made it difficult for the counterattacking forces to assemble at their jumping off points. While communication between the front headquarters and the individual army commands was generally adequate, communication with front-line formations and units was seriously flawed as it depended on the local telephone and telegraph network: German sappers, air attacks, and Ukrainian nationalist guerrillas had targeted this network with considerable success. Thus many Soviet front-line commanders were thrown onto their own resources, with a decidedly adverse effect on the efficiency of Soviet command and control. In one instance, the commander of the 41st Tank Division of the XXII Mechanised Corps, for lack of orders reflecting the current situation, moved his division to the assembly point for his corps at Kovel which had been ordained in the pre-war plan, and thereby moved his division away from the fighting. Another huge problem was the lack of transport for the infantry elements of the mechanised corps. Many of these divisions had only part of their full transport establishment, and were therefore motorised in name rather than actuality. Individual corps commanders therefore had to improvise solutions to assemble their entire strengths.
Rokossovsky resorted to the commandeering of 200 trucks from the district reserve at Shepetivka, but even so had to mount much of his infantry on tanks. Even then, most soldiers had to move on foot as the trucks were carrying critical munitions and supplies. In one case, pieces of heavy artillery belonging to the XXII Mechanised Corps were left behind for want of the tractors to pull them. Fedlenko marched his XIX Mechanised Corps forward in two echelons with the tank divisions far in advance of his lagging infantry, which meant that his armoured units reached the battlefield without infantry support. Ryabyshev reported similar problems in his VIII Mechanised Corps, for his artillery was towed by tractors which were so slow that they delayed the movement of the entire column. Complications of this type were compounded by the Soviet leaders’ apparent inability to assess an appropriate axis of attack against a German salient growing rapidly to the east. Between 22 and 24 June, the VIII Mechanised Corps received three different locations for its assembly point: the original order came from the front command, a second from the 6th Army command, and a third, on 24 June, from the front command. As a result the corps crossed its own path and backtracked several times before finally arriving at Brody.
These and other problems meant that the time scheduled for the start of the operation was delayed by six hours to 04.00 on 24 June. By the time this decision was made on the evening of 23 June, barely 48 hours since the start of ‘Barbarossa’, the 11th Panzerdivision, with the 16th Panzerdivision following it, had already penetrated some 40 miles (65 km) into Soviet territory. The 13th Panzerdivision and 14th Panzerdivision were well their way up the road to Lutsk with the objective of reaching the Styr river on 24 June, and the 44th Division, 298th Division and 299th Division were moving up to consolidate the gains made by the Panzer divisions. Even with the delayed schedule, the Soviet counterattack began on a piecemeal basis as the entire Soviet force could not be brought into position until two days later. The IV, VIII, IX and XIX Mechanised Corps were still on the march, and supporting infantry corps were even farther away. Kirponos’s chief-of-staff, General Leytenant Maksim A. Purkayev, argued against the South-West Front’s political officer, Corps Commissar Nikolai N. Vashugin, on this point but Vashugin and Zhukov prevailed: the attack would begin without delay. Only two tank divisions of the XV Mechanised Corps in the south and a single tank division of the XXII Mechanised Corps in the north were in position to begin the attack on 24 June.
The 10th Tank Division was part of the XV Mechanised Corps, and on 22 June its forward battalions recaptured Radekhiv from the German infantry, losing two tanks. On the following day it faced the 11th Panzerdivision, destroying 20 German tanks and losing six T-26 and 20 BT tanks before pulling back in orderly fashion for the lack ammunition. On 26 June the division destroyed 23 German tanks and an infantry battalion near Radekhiv, losing 13 T-26 and 12 BT-7 tanks.
Commanded by Karpezo, the XV Mechanised Corps had 749 tanks, all obsolete T-26 and BT vehicles. As a result of inconsistent orders, the corps spent the battle moving chaotically in the triangle bounded by Radekhiv, Brody and Busk, and with the exception of the two engagements of its 10th Tank Division was not in combat. On 7 July it reported in Berezovka, some 190 miles (300 km) from the former border, with just less than one-tenth of its establishment tank strength.
On 24 June the XXII Mechanised Corps, commanded by Kondrusev, attacked toward Vinnitsa. Five days later the corps reported it had just less than one-fifth of its establishment tank strength. On 1 July one regiment mad an unsuccessful attack toward Dubno, and 15 days later its strength was down to only 4% of establishment.
On 26 June Fedlenko’s XIX Mechanised Corps attacked toward Dubno from the north, but just failed to reach its objective, and by 29 June had only 32 of its original 453 tanks left.
Ryabyshev’s VIII Mechanised Corps finally arrived on the scene on 25th June, and on the following day attacked in the direction of Brody-Berestechko against elements of the 11th Panzerdivision. Despite haphazard arrangements and other problems, the Soviet attack gained a measure of initial success, catching the Germans on the move and outside their prepared positions, their tanks sweeping aside hastily arranged German anti-tank positions manned by motorcycle troops attached to the XLVIII Corps (mot.).
The VIII Mechanised Corps then split, some of its elements remaining with Ryabyshev and the others amalgamating into the group commanded by Polkovnik Nikolai K. Popel, the military commissar of the VIII Mechanised Corps. This group had about 300 tanks, including no less than 100 examples of the modern T-34 medium and KV heavy tanks. On 27 June, Popel’s group surprised and defeated the rearmost units of the 11th Panzerdivision and recaptured Dubno, which was a road crossing of strategic importance. This was the most successful Soviet action of the battle, as it severed the lines of communication to the 11th Panzerdivision, which was the German spearhead. This success was wasted however, as it was not exploited by the Soviet command, which failed to communicate effectively with Popel and also did not provide supplies or reinforcements. The group therefore halted and waited in Dubno, thereby losing the operational initiative. By 28 June the Germans had regrouped, and Popel’s group came under attack by elements of Henrici’s 16th Division (mot.), Generalleutnant Ernst Hammer’s 75th Division, two other infantry divisions, and Hube’s 16th Panzerdivision. Encircled in Dubno, Popel’s group defended the area until 1 July, when it retreated.
Ryabyshev’s group had 303 T-26 and BT tanks. On 28 June, in an attempt to follow Popel, it met and attacked Generalleutnant Oskar Blümm’s 57th Division and Hammer’s 75th Division, as well as elements of Hube’s 16th Panzerdivision, but its attack was unsuccessful and the group quickly retreated. On 1 July Ryabyshev reached Tarnopol with 207 tanks. The VIII Mechanised Corps saw no further combat at this time, and moved to Koziatyn, where on 7 July 1941 it had just 43 tanks left to it.
Vlasov’s IV Mechanised Corps was the strongest Soviet armoured force in Ukraine, having a 313 T-34 medium and 101 KV heavy tanks in total of 979 tanks. The corps reacted only slowly to orders and failed to assemble for attack. The most it achieved was on 28 June, when it secured the XV Mechanised Corps’s line of retreat against German infantry threats. Despite the fact that it neither attacked nor was attacked, the corps reported on 12 July that it had only 6% of its KV tanks, 12% of its T-34 tanks and just 4% of its light tanks.
Other than these, there were no other significant Soviet counterattack efforts in the Battle of Brody. The effect of the Soviet hesitation and command confusion of 27 June on the outcome of the Battle of Brody and of the German attack into Ukraine is hard to determine. When the Soviet forces took Dubno and cut off the leading edge of the main German attack, Kirponos thought that the same German attack threatened to outflank and encircle the Soviet forces attacking from the south. This led him to order a halt to the offensive and a general retreat in order to shorten his front. After a debate with Kirponos and his staff, Zhukov quickly countermanded Kirponos’s order, and instructions for a renewed attack were issued two hours later. This caused still more of the confusion that was symptomatic of the Soviet command at the Battle of Brody. Commanding the IX Mechanised Corps attacking from the north, Rokossovsky refused to comply on the grounds that his corps was so so signally outnumbered that he decided instead to meet the Germans in prepared defences. Commanding the VIII Mechanised Corps to the south, however, Ryabyshev complied with the order and resumed the attack.
Ryabyshev seems to have agreed with the opinion held by Zhukov at the time that had the attack been pressed aggressively and without delay, the Soviets might have been successful. However, subsequent events seem to vindicate Kirponos’s position, which was that the attack was premature and would destabilise his effort to solidify the South-West Front’s line. Shortly after the Soviet counterattack had been routed, Budyonny was given overall command of the combined South-West and South Fronts. Disaster unfolded at the Battle of Uman and 100,000 Soviet soldiers were killed or captured and another 100,000 wounded when three Soviet formations, namely the 26th, 12th and 18th Armies, were encircled after Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ had renewed its attack by pivoting south from the positions it had achieved during the Battle of Brody, an outcome of which Kirponos had warned in his arguments with Zhukov about the wisdom of the counterattack at Dubno.
The battle between the 1st Panzergruppe and the Soviet mechanised corps was the fiercest of the whole German invasion, lasting four full days. The Soviets fought furiously and crews of German tanks and anti-tank guns were appalled that the new T-34 medium tank was effectively immune to the effect of their weapons, as too were the new KV-1 and KV-2 heavy tanks. What saved the Germans at this time was the destruction of the Soviet logistic system by German air attack, which deprived the Soviet armour of essential fuel and ammunition.
The German bomber wings, namely Major Hans Bruno Schulz-Heyn’s Kampfgeschwader 51, Oberstleutnant Otto Höhne’s KG 54 and Oberstleutnant Hans Korte’s KG 55, flew many low-level and heavy attacks against Soviet ground targets. In one of these attacks the headquarters of the XV Mechanised Corps was destroyed, and Karpezo, the corps commander, was wounded. The Luftwaffe destroyed some 201 Soviet tanks in this area.
The Soviet corps were mishandled badly while being concentrated into large powerful groups, and German troops were therefore able to isolate and destroy individual formations and units. At the same time German aircraft roamed over the battlefield and was able to prevent the Soviet infantry from reaching the armoured forces they were to have supported. Ultimately, however, it was to the lack of adequate planning and co-ordination that the failure of the Soviet counterattack to meet at Dubno must be attributed.
The 1st Panzergruppe was nonetheless severely battered in the battle, losing many of its tanks, but emerged in a condition still allowing it to undertake decisive operations. The Soviet forces took severe casualties, rendering most of their formations non-operational. This defensive success enabled the Germans then to continue their offensive, even if it had been delayed substantially by the tenacity of the Soviet counterattack. The VIII Mechanised Corps was so badly depleted that the Stavka disbanded its headquarters and reallocated its remaining assets to others of the South-West Front’s formations.
With the counter-offensive’s failure, the last significant Soviet armoured strength in western Ukraine had been decimated, and the Soviets decided to go over to the defensive as they concentrated on effecting a strategic withdrawal under severe pressure. The Soviet air forces lost 1,561 aircraft over Kiev, whose result was a great operational victory which Hitler believed was a strategic victory. Whatever its local implications as a German operational or strategic success, the Soviet counter-offensive had served to draw German forces away from an early offensive against Moscow, and had delayed farther German progress by 11 weeks.
By the end of the first week of ‘Barbarossa’, each of the three German army groups had achieved its major campaign objectives. However, in the vast pocket around Minsk and Białystok, the Soviets were still fighting, and the reduction of the pocket was causing high German casualties and, as it was impossible for the Germans to maintain a tight ring round the trapped Soviet formations, many Soviet troops were escaping. The estimated Soviet casualties were in the order of 600,000 killed, wounded, missing or captured.
Halder summarised the German achievement in the opening phase of ‘Barbarossa’ as the accomplishment of the objective of shattering the bulk of the Soviet army on the western side of the Dvina and Dniepr rivers, and that the campaign against the USSR had been won in the space of two weeks. Events were to show how far wide of the real mark Halder’s opinion was.
On 3 July the second phase of ‘Barbarossa’ began as Hitler allowed the Panzer formations to resume their eastward offensive after the infantry divisions had come up with them. The first major clash of this second phase was the 1st Battle of Smolensk from 6 July to 5 August by the Germans, and from 10 July to 12 September according to the Soviets’ larger estimation of the battle. The scene was set in this part of the front allocated to Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ by a torrential storm typical of Russian summers, which slowed the progress of the German armour and thereby provided the Soviets with the opportunity to bolster their defences.
Fought in an area some 250 miles (400 km) to the west of Moscow, the 1st Battle of Smolensk was the first major undertaking of ‘Barbarossa’ to impose a significant delay on the advance of the German forces into the western USSR. By a time early in July the Germans had advanced some 310 miles (500 km) into the USSR without major difficulties in the mere 18 days that had elapsed since the start of ‘Barbarossa’. The battle was fought primarily between the 2nd Panzergruppe and 3rd Panzergruppe of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and elements of the Timoshenko’s West Front, General Leytenant I. A. Bogdanov’s (from 30 July Zhukov’s) Reserve Front, General Polkovnik Fyedor I. Kuznetsov’s (from 1 August General Leytenant Mikhail G. Efremov’s) Central Front and General Leytenant Andrei I. Eremenko’s Bryansk Front.
In this battle the Soviet 16th, 19th and 20th Armies were encircled and destroyed just to the south of Smolensk, though significant numbers of the 19th and 20th Armies’ men managed to escape the pocket.
Albeit a huge temporary success for Hitler, the German losses in terms of men and matériel during this lengthy battle were very large and, in combination with the two-month delay in the offensive toward Moscow, proved decisive for the Soviet defeat of the Germans at the end of the Battle of Moscow, otherwise ‘Taifun’ (i), three months later in December 1941.
After its initial defeats in the frontier battles of the first phase of ‘Barbarossa’, the Soviet army had made efforts to reorganise itself as a more effective force, and also undertook several measures to ensure a more determined resistance. A new defensive line was established around Smolensk, and to command in this area Stalin allocated Timoshenko, whose forces were strengthened by the transfer of five armies out of strategic reserve. Timoshenko was to use his forces for a series of counter-offensives to blunt the German offensive. The Germans were not aware of the increase in Soviet numbers and capabilities they encountered Timoshenko’s somewhat revitalised strength on the battlefield.
Facing the Germans along the Dniepr and Dvina rivers were stretches of the ‘Stalin Line’ fortifications, which were held by Filatov’s 13th Army of the West Front, and General Leytenant Pavel A. Kurochkin’s 20th Army, General Leytenant Fyedor I. Kuznetsov’s 21st Army, and General Leytenant Filipp A. Ershakov’s 22nd Army of the Stavka reserve. Another formation, General Leytenant Ivan S. Konev’s 19th Army, was forming at Vitebsk, and General Leytenant Mikhail F. Lukin’s 16th Army was arriving at Smolensk.
To the Soviets, the 1st Battle of Smolensk, which was actually a campaign in its own right, was a multi-phase effort whose component elements were the ‘Smolensk Defensive Operation’ of 10 July/10 August), ‘Smolensk Offensive Operation’ (21 July/7 August), ‘Rogachev-Zhlobin Offensive Operation’ (13/24 July), ‘Gomel-Trubchevsk Defensive Operation’ (24 July/30 August), ‘Dukhovshchina Offensive Operation’ (17 August/8 September), ‘Yelnya Offensive Operation’ (30 August/8 September) and ‘Roslavl-Novozybkov Offensive Operation’ (30 August/12 September).
The battle pitted about 430,000 men and 1,000 tanks against the Soviet grouping of about 581,600 men excluding reserves. Before the Germans could start their own offensive on Smolensk, the Soviets launched their pre-emptive counter-offensive. On 6 July, the 20th Army’s VII and V Mechanised Corps began the attack with an establishment strength of 1,545 tanks, of which perhaps only 700 were capable of combat, near Lepel. The result was a disaster, as the offensive headed squarely into the anti-tank defences of von Funck’s 7th Panzerdivision and the two Soviet mechanised corps were effectively destroyed, with Luftwaffe warplanes playing a major role in the German success.
On 10 July the Germans started their own offensive when, to the south, Guderian’s 2nd Panzergruppe was committed to a surprise attack across the Dniepr and overran the opposing but weak 13th Army. By 13 July Guderian’s forces had passed Mogilev, in which several Soviet divisions were trapped. Guderian’s spearhead formation, Generalleutnant Walter von Boltenstern’s 29th Division (mot.) was already a mere 11 miles (18 km) from Smolensk. Meanwhile Hoth’s 3rd Panzergruppe had also launched its offensive farther to the north, Stumpff’s 20th Panzerdivision establishing a bridgehead on the eastern bank of the Dvina river and threatening Vitebsk.
As both the Panzergruppen continued its drive to the east, the 16th, 19th and 20th Armies faced the prospect of encirclement around Smolensk. From 11 July the Soviets tried a series of concerted counterattacks: the 19th and 20th Armies struck at Vitebsk, while the 21st Army and the remnants of the 3rd Army attacked against the southern flank of the 2nd Panzergruppe near Bobruysk.
Several other Soviet armies also attempted counterattacks at the same time in the sectors of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, apparently as part of an overall Soviet attempt to implement the pre-war general defence plan. However, although the Soviet attacks managed to slow the Germans, their results were so marginal that the Germans barely noticed them as a co-ordinated major offensive/defensive effort, and the German offensive therefore continued without significant hindrance.
Meanwhile, the 3rd Panzergruppe drove to the north and then to the east, in parallel with the more southern effort of the 2nd Panzergruppe, and took Polotsk and Vitebsk. The 7th Panzerdivision and 20th Panzerdivision reached the area to the east of Smolensk at Yartsevo on 15 July. Farther to the south the 29th Division (mot.), strongly supported by the 17th Panzerdivision, broke into Smolensk and cleared most of the city except the suburbs, and there followed a week of severe urban combat as Lukin’s 16th Army made repeated attempts to retake Smolensk. Guderian expected that the offensive would continue toward Moscow, and therefore despatched the 10th Panzerdivision to establish a bridgehead on the eastern side of the Desna river at Yelnya, and cleared that as well by 20 July.
This preparatory bridgehead became the objective of the ‘Yelnya Offensive Operation’, which was one of the first successful Soviet counter-offensives of the war.
This objective was 32 miles (50 km) to the south of the Dniepr river, and therefore some distance from Smolensk, where the Germans were attempting to destroy the trapped Soviet forces. The Führerweisung Nr 33 of 14 July had meanwhile shifted the axis of the main German effort away from an immediate attack on Moscow to the sector farther to the south where Kiev was being encircled, and von Bock was waiting impatiently as he wished Guderian’s 2nd Panzergruppe to strike to the north and link with Hoth’s 3rd Panzergruppe so that the Soviet resistance in Smolensk could be brought to an end as soon and as cheaply as possible.
In the north the 3rd Panzergruppe was moving more slowly, for the terrain in which it was operating was swampy, rain was still a problem, and the Soviets were fighting with a grim desperation to escape the trap which was starting to envelop them. On 18 July, the armoured pincers of the two Panzergruppen came within 10 miles (16 km) of closing the gap, but Timoshenko entrusted Rokossovsky, newly arrived from the Ukrainian front, with the assembly of a stop-gap force, and this managed to halt the 7th Panzerdivision’s advance even as it was being continually reinforced, thereby temporarily stabilising the situation. The open gap allowed a number of Soviet formations and units to escape, and these were then pressed into service to hold open the gap so that other formations and units could escape.
The Soviets transferred additional troops from the newly formed 24th, 28th, 29th and 30th Armies into the Smolensk area, and it was the Soviet plan that these newly created formations would, immediately upon arrival, begin a major counter-offensive against the German forces around the Smolensk area from 21 July. This new Soviet effort further taxed the overextended Panzer forces, which had to cover a large area around the perimeter as their supporting infantry had yet to arrive. The Germans were greatly aided by the poor co-ordination and logistic support of the Soviet armies, which were checked even as the Germans forces continued to close the encirclement. The Soviet attacks continued to 30 July, when the Germans finally repulsed the last of them.
Finally, on 27 July, the Germans spearheads linked to the east of Smolensk and thus closed the pocket, which contained significant parts of the 16th, 19th and 20th Armies. Under the leadership of the 20th Army, however, as many as 100,000 Soviet soldiers succeeded in breaking out of the pocket in a determined effort a few days later, assisted by the ongoing Soviet offensive efforts along the Smolensk front line. In the end, about 300,000 men were taken prisoner when the encirclement was subsequently re-established and the pocket eliminated by 5 August. For the loss of 100 to 200 tanks, as well as significant numbers of men, the Germans killed large numbers of Soviet soldiers, captured still larger numbers of them, and also destroyed between 1,350 and 3,000 tanks.
Despite the fact that the Battle of Smolensk was another severe Soviet defeat, this German victory possessed a number of strategic implications. For the first time, the Soviets had tried to implement a determined and co-ordinated counter-offensive against the Germans on a major sector of the front, though the major imperfections of the Soviet planning and execution in fact caused their defeat to be more costly than it might otherwise have been. Even so, the increasing level of their resistance showed that the Soviets were not yet defeated, and that the Blitzkrieg toward Moscow would not be easy. This exacerbated a division between the German political leadership and military high command. The military leadership, in the form of Generalfeldmarschall Walter von Brauchitsch and General Franz Halder, the commander-in-chief of the army and the chief of the Oberkommando des Herres’s general staff respectively, together with front-line commanders such as von Bock, Hoth and Guderian argued against the dispersal of the German armoured strength and for a narrow focus direct on Moscow. Hitler reiterated his belief in the lack of importance of Moscow and strategic encirclements, and ordered a concentration on economic targets such as Ukraine, the Donets basin and the Caucasus, and more tactical encirclements to weaken the Soviets still further. As a result, the German offensive effort became more diverse, leading to the battles at Kiev and Uman which were further German victories but also cost the Germans vital time, men and matériel before the strategy was once again altered, this time to concentrate on Moscow, in ‘Taifun’ (i), as the military leadership had recommended some weeks earlier, and gave the Soviets additional time to prepare the defences of the capital.
By a time only four weeks into the ‘Barbarossa’ campaign, the Germans had finally come to appreciate how greatly they had underestimated Soviet strength and resolve. The German troops had used their initial supplies without attaining the expected strategic freedom of movement, and operations had to slowed to allow resupply. This delay was also used by the Germans to adapt their strategy to the new situation that had now become evident. The key to this change of strategic heart was the fact that Hitler now no longer believed in the utility of encirclement undertaking as large numbers of Soviet troops always managed to escape the through the arms of the pincers.
Hitler now believed that the defeat of the USSR could be encompassed by the infliction of economic damage, largely through depriving the Soviets of the industrial capacity they needed to continue the war. The revised German strategy was therefore directed at the seizure of industrial centre of Kharkov, the Donets basin and the oilfields of the Caucasus in the south, and the speedy capture of Leningrad, a major centre of military production, in the north; the seizure of Leningrad, Hitler believed, would allow the German forces to link with the Finnish forces to the north of the city. von Bock and almost all the senior German military leadership involved in ‘Barbarossa’ argued strongly for a continuation of the all-out drive toward Moscow, whose capture would be an immense psychological blow to the Soviets. The generals also emphasised the fact that Moscow was a major centre of arms production and the heart of the Soviet communication and transportation systems. More importantly, intelligence reports indicated that the most of the strength remaining to the Soviets was now deployed to the west of Moscow under Timoshenko for an all-out defence of the Soviet capital.
But Hitler was adamant, and issued a direct order to Guderian, bypassing von Bock, to divert the armour of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ to the north and south, temporarily halting the drive to Moscow.
By mid-July and to the south of the Pinsk marshes, the Germans were within a few miles of Kiev. The 1st Panzergruppe then headed south while the 17th Army struck to the east and trapped three Soviet armies, resulting in the Battle of Uman (15 July/8 August). In this German and allied forces encircled Muzychenko’s 6th Army and Ponedelin’s 12th Army to the south of the city of Uman during the second phase of the offensive operations by von Rundstedt’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’. The battle was fought within the context of the Soviets’ Kiev defensive operations between elements of the South-West Front, who were defending the bridges over the Yuzhnyi Bug river and the strategic railway linking Odessa and Smolensk, and elements of von Kleist’s 1st Panzergruppe in western Ukraine during the latter’s advance toward Crimea.
The Soviet forces were supervised by Budyonny’s South-Western Direction, which included Kirponos’s South-West Front. In the Battle of Uman the 12th Army’s headquarters and many of its formations and units were able to evade the encirclement as a result of the porosity of the German net, itself the result of the German infantry’s inability to reach the area in time to complete the full closure of the cauldron, Both Soviet armies were later disbanded, and the troops who did mange to escape were incorporated into other units. The Battle of Uman was among the largest of the Axis encirclements executed against the Soviets.
As noted above, during the first weeks of ‘Barbarossa’ Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ had advanced rapidly to the east, in the process capturing Lwów, Tarnopol and Vinnitsa, and destroying the four mechanised corps which Kirponos used in the counter-offensive which ended in the Battle of Brody. By 29 June the German advance had been temporarily halted, but the Soviet forces were too exhausted to consider an offensive, and therefore used the lull in which to effect a retreat. With the failure of the Soviet armour counter-offensive against the 1st Panzergruppe, Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ then continued its eastward advance and came within a few miles of Kiev by a time in the middle of July. Budyonny then attempted a counter-offensive from the area to the north of Uman in the direction of Berdichev to prevent the 1st Panzergruppe from cutting his lines of communication. However this counterstroke failed to make contact with significant German armoured forces, which in fact passed only some 32 miles (50 km) to the east of the Soviet concentration as the Germans continued their offensive. All that the counterstroke achieved, therefore, was the further exhaustion of the Soviet formations’ ability to retreat more rapidly than the Germans could advance, and in the middle of July German troops cut the railway at Talnoye and other bridges over the Gorny Tikich river, and soon after this the bridges over the Sinucha river.
On the eve of the battle that resulted in the destruction of yet more Soviet forces in the area of Uman, the vast majority of the Soviet forces were severely depleted after the tribulations of their retreat from Soviet-occupied Poland under heavy German ground and, especially, air assault. Indeed, the Soviet mechanised strength had been reduced virtually to a single amalgamated corps after the Brody counter-offensive, and the motorised infantry were now fighting as as standard infantry.
The Axis forces were the mechanised formations of the 1st Panzergruppe, which had suffered significant loses in matériel but retained a considerable combat capability, and Vezérõrnagy Béla Miklós’s Gyorshadtest (mobile corps), and the large infantry formations of von Reichenau’s 6th Army and von Schobert’s 11th Army and General de corp de armatâ Petre Dumitrescu’s Romanian 3rd Army, which attempted to advance from the west to meet the armoured troops in the area to the north of Crimea, which was the the initial strategic objective of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’. These forces totalled some 400,000 men and 600 tanks.
The Soviet forces were the 6th Army (the reduced VI and XXXVIII Corps, and the remnants of the IV and XV Mechanised Corps, the remnants of the V Cavalry Corps, and the remnants of the 4th and 6th Fortified Regions), the 12th Army (the reduced XIII and XVII Corps, the remnants of the XVI Mechanised Corps, and the remnants of the 10th, 11th and 12th Fortified Regions), and elements of the 18th Army. These forced totalled some 300,000 men.
It was on 10 July that Budyonny was given overall command of the Soviet forces operating in the South-Western Direction that was created to co-ordinate the operations of the South-West Front and South Front. Budyonny had 1.5 million troops under his command for the defence of the two strategic sectors of the front in the area of Kiev (37th and 26th Armies), and of Vinnitsa and Uman. As soon as he assumed command, Budyonny was advised of the continued three-axis offensives by Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ deep into the breach created between the Kiev sector’s 26th Army and the 6th Army to its south as the 1st Panzergruppe drove a wedge between two Soviet sectors of the front (to the south of Kiev and the north of Vinnitsa), seized Berdichev on 15 July and Koziatyn on 16 July. von Stülpnagel’s 17th Army advanced to the south of Uman and Schobert’s 11th Army to the north from the Romanian border.
The Stavka and the South Front’s headquarters wrongly assumed that the Germans were striving to reach the crossing of the Dniepr between Kiev and Cherkassy in pursuance of continued operations toward the Donets basin, and underestimated the danger of encirclement that faced the 6th and 12th Armies. On 28 July the South-West Front and South Front were ordered to prevent the Germans from crossing the Dniepr river, and to retreat only toward the east. This lost the the Soviets the opportunity to avoid the possibility of encirclement by retreating to the south-east.
As they approached each other, the Axis forces compressed the two Soviet armies by which they were faced into an ever-decreasing area, with the two armies’ combined headquarters in Podvisokoye.
On 2 August, the encirclement was completed by the junction of the 1st Panzergruppe and advanced elements of the 17th Army. This encirclement was reinforced on the following day by a second junction as Hube’s 16th Panzerdivision met the Gyorshadtest. By 8 August, the Soviet resistance had generally ended with the remnants of 20 divisions of the 6th Army and 12th Army trapped. German post-war sources claimed that about 103,000 men, including the commanders of the 6th and 12th Armies, four corps commanders and 11 divisional commanders, and the overall Soviet losses are believed to have been 203,000 men (including 100,000 killed or wounded), 317 tanks and 858 pieces of artillery.
As the Uman pocket was eliminated, the tanks of the 1st Panzergruppe turned to the north and attacked toward Kiev with the object of aiding the 2nd Panzergruppe in closing another encirclement around that city. The task of reaching the area north of Crimea was, for a time, left to the infantry armies: this was the first of many occasions on which Hitler changed his mind about the strategic objectives allocated to the various German army groups.
The Stavka seized on the respite offered by the 1st Panzergruppe’s diversion to the north to re-establish its front using Cherevichenko’s 9th Coastal Army (Independent) and either re-forming the destroyed armies or bringing into the line two reserve formations, namely Vlasov’s 37th Army and the 56th Army, from the interior military districts, with Ryabyshev’s 38th Army eventually left to hold an over-stretched sector of the front in front of Kharkov.
As noted above, the 1st Panzergruppe had turned to the north and crossed the Dniepr river. Meanwhile the 2nd Panzergruppe, diverted to the south from Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, had crossed the Desna river with the 2nd Army on its right flank. The two Panzergruppen met at Lokhvitsa and thus trapped four Soviet armies and parts of two other armies.
To the north, von Leeb’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ continued its advance toward Leningrad, its primary objective. von Leeb’s plan called for the capture of the city straight off the march. Then Hitler’s recall of the 4th Panzergruppe, which Halder had persuaded the German leader would be better used in farther to the south to bolster the drive of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ on Moscow, von Leeb had to take the city under siege after reaching the shores of Lake Ladoga, while also attempting to complete the encirclement and link with the Finnish forces on the Svir river to the east of Leningrad.
At this time there were Finnish forces to the north of Leningrad between the northern shore of the Gulf of Finland and the western shore of Lake Ladoga, and German forces operating to the south of the city. Both the German and Finnish forces had the goal of encircling Leningrad and maintaining an effective blockade of the city to cut all communications with the city and prevent the city’s defenders and population from receiving any food or supplies. It was the German plan to use food, or rather the shortage of food, as the chief weapon against Leningrad, and German scientists had calculated that the city would reach starvation after only a few weeks.
On 27 June, just five days after the start of ‘Barbarossa’, the council of deputies of the Leningrad administration organised civilian ‘first response groups’, and in the following days the whole of Leningrad’s civil population was warned of the imminent danger to their city, and more than 1 million civilians were mobilised for the construction of fortifications, which took the form of several lines of defences. In the south one of the fortified lines extended from the mouth of the Luga river, on the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland to the west of Leningrad, to Chudovo, Gatchina, Uritsk, Pulkovo and then through the Neva river; another defence line passed through Peterhof to Gatchina, Pulkovo, Kolpino and Koltushy. In the north the defence line against the Finns was the Karelian Fortified Region, which had been maintained in the northern suburbs of Leningrad since the 1930s, and was now returned to service. Some 120 miles (190 km) of timber barricades, 395 miles (635 km) of wire entanglements, 430 miles (700 km) of anti-tank ditches, 5,000 earth-and-timber emplacements and reinforced concrete weapon emplacements, and 15,535 miles (25000 km) of open trenches were constructed or excavated by civilians. Even the guns from the cruiser elderly Aurora, credited with firing the first short of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, were moved inland to the Pulkovo Heights in the area to the south of Leningrad.
The 4th Panzergruppe took Pskov, just to the south of Lake Pskovoye, after its swift advance from East Prussia through Latvia, and reached the area of Luga and Novgorod, within operational reach of Leningrad, before being checked by a determined Soviet resistance. Despite the fact that 350,000 of its foot-weary infantrymen were still trying to catch up, the 18th Army forced its way to Ostrov and Pskov after the Soviet forces of the North-West Front had retreated toward Leningrad. On 10 July, both Ostrov and Pskov were captured and the 18th Army reached Narva and Kingisepp, from where the north-eastward advance on Leningrad continued from the line of the Luga river. This effectively created siege positions from the Gulf of Finland to Lake Ladoga, with the eventual aim of isolating Leningrad from all directions. The Finns were then expected to advance along the eastern shore of Lake Ladoga.
On 6 August Hitler had repeated that his order of priorities was Leningrad first, the Donets basin second and Moscow third. By this time Finnish intelligence had broken some of the Soviet military codes, and was therefore able to read Soviet low-level communications. This was particularly useful to Hitler, who constantly requested intelligence about Leningrad. Finland’s role in ‘Barbarossa’ had been characterised in the Führerweisung Nr 21 of 18 December 1940 as having the task, in co-operation with the advance made by the northern wing of the German armies, of pinning the maximum Russian strength by attacking to the west, or on both sides, of Lake Ladoga. The last railway connection to Leningrad was severed on 30 August, when the Germans reached the Neva river. On 8 September, the road to the besieged city was severed when the Germans reached Lake Ladoga at Petrokrepost (Schlüsselburg in German), leaving just a corridor of land between Lake Ladoga and Leningrad which remained unoccupied by Axis forces. The Luftwaffe began its bombing campaign against Leningrad on 8 September, when the attack caused 178 fires.
On 21 September, German high command considered the options of how best to ensure the destruction of Leningrad. The idea of taking and holding the city was immediately discarded as it would have made Germany responsible for food supply to a very large population, and the option which was adopted was a siege and bombardment of the city, thereby starving its population. The Germans also decided that early in 1941 to enter the city, if the Finns had not already done so, remove those still alive into inner Russia or into captivity, wipe Leningrad from the face of the earth by means of demolitions, and transfer the area to the north of the Neva river to the Finns. On 7 October, Hitler sent a further directive signed by Alfred Jodl reminding Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ to accept no capitulation.
By this time the drive on Leningrad involved Both German and Finnish forces. The German forces of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ comprised von Küchler’s 18th Army (General Walter Kuntze’s XLII Corps with two infantry divisions and General Albert Wodrig’s XXVI Corps with three infantry divisions), Busch’s 16th Army (General Werner Kempf’s XXVIII Corps (mot.) with one Panzer and two infantry divisions, General Kuno Hans von Both’s I Corps with two infantry divisions, General Christian Hansen’s X Corps with three infantry divisions, General Walter Graf von Brockdorff-Ahlefeldt’s II Corps with three infantry divisions and, under 9th Army control, General Georg Lindemann’s L Corps with two infantry divisions), and Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe (General Friedrich-Wilhelm von Chappuis’s XXXVIII Corps with one infantry division, Reinhardt’s XLI Corps [mot.] with single Panzer, motorised and infantry divisions, and von Manstein’s LVI Corps [mot.] with single Panzer, Panzergrenadier, motorised and infantry divisions). Finland deployed Eversti Einar Mäkinen’s I Corps with two infantry divisions, Kenraalimajuri Taavetti Laatikainen’s II Corps with two infantry divisions, and Kenraaliluutnantti Karl Lennart Oesch’s IV Corps with three infantry divisions.
For its final attack on Leningrad, the 4th Panzergruppe was reinforced by armour diverted from Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. On 8 August, the German armour broke through the Soviet defences. The 16th Army attacked to the north-east, and the 18th Army and the Forest Brothers (Estonian guerrillas) cleared the country and advanced to Lake Peipus. By the end of August the 4th Panzergruppe had penetrated to within 30 miles (50 km) of Leningrad. Farther to the north, the Finns had driven south-east on each side of Lake Ladoga and reached the Finno/Soviet border of 1939.
On the other side of the front lines were the Soviet forces of Popov’s North Front, with the 7th Army (two infantry and one militia divisions, one marine brigade, and three motorised infantry and one armoured regiments), the 8th Army (X Corps with two infantry divisions, XI Corps with three infantry divisions, and three independent infantry divisions), the 14th Army (XLII Corps with two infantry divisions and independent elements in the form of two infantry divisions, one fortified area and one motorised infantry regiment), the 23rd Army (XIX Corps with three infantry divisions and independent elements in the form of two infantry and one motorised divisions, two fortified areas and one infantry regiment), the Luga Operational Group (XLI Corps with three infantry divisions and independent elements in the form of one armoured brigade and one infantry regiment), and the Kingisepp Operational Group (one tank, two infantry and two militia divisions and one fortified area); there were also other independent elements in the form of three infantry divisions, four guard militia divisions, three fortified areas and one infantry brigade). Of these, the 14th Army and 7th Army defended Murmansk and Ladoga Karelia respectively, and were therefore not involved in the initial stages of the siege of Leningrad. The 8th Army was initially part of the North-West Front and had retreated through the Baltic states, and was transferred to North Front on 14 July. On 23 August the North Front was divided into Popov’s Leningrad Front and General Leytenant Valerian A. Frolov’s Karelian Front, as it had become impossible for a single front headquarters to control all the operations between Murmansk and Leningrad.
By August the Finns had advanced to within 12.5 miles (20 km) of Leningrad’s northern suburbs along the line of the 1939 Finno/Soviet border, threatening the city from the north. The Finnish forces were also advancing through East Karelia, to the east of Lake Ladoga, and threatening the city from the east. The Finnish forces crossed the pre-‘Talvisota’ border on the Karelian isthmus by destroying the Soviet salients at Beloostrov (Valkeasaari in Finnish) and Kirjasalo, thus straightening the front so that it ran along the old border near the shores of Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga, and those positions closest to Leningrad still lying on the pre-‘Talvisota’ border. The Soviets claimed that the resistance of the Karelian Fortified Region had halted the Finnish advance by September, although in August Finnish troops had already been ordered to halt after reaching their objectives, of which some lay to the south-east of the pre-‘Talvisota’ border. After reaching their objectives, the Finns their advance on the Karelian isthmus and started to redeploy troops to East Karelia. For the next three years, the Finns were content to hold their positions, and therefore made little in the way of a direct contribution to the battle for Leningrad. The Finnish headquarters rejected German pleas for air attacks against Leningrad, and the Finnish ground forces advanced no farther to the south than Svir river in occupied East Karelia some 100 miles (160 km) to the north-east of Leningrad, which they had reached on 7 September. To the south-east, the Germans captured Tikhvin on 8 November, but failed to complete their encirclement of Leningrad by advancing farther north to join with the Finns on the Svir river. On 9 December, the ‘Tikhvin Offensive Operation’ by General Kirill A. Meretskov’s Volkhov Front forced the Germans to fall back from their Tikhvin positions to the line of the Volkhov river.
On 6 September General Alfred Jodl, the chief of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s operations staff, visited Helsinki with the task, which was unsuccessful, of persuading Sotamarsalkka Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, the Finnish commander-in-chief, to continue the offensive. In 1941, President Risto Heikki Ryti declared that that the aim of the ‘Jatkosota’, as the Finns called the Continuation War as co-belligerents rather than allies of the Germans, was the recovery for Finland of he territories lost in the ‘Talvisota’ and gain more territories in the east to create a ‘Greater Finland’. Thus all that the Germans and the Finns could do was to maintain maintained the siege from the south and the north until January 1944, but the Finns undertook little if any systematic shelling or bombing of Leningrad.
However, the fact that the Finnish forward positions were only some 21 to 22 miles (33 to 35 km) from the centre of Leningrad, and might at any time resume their advance, complicated the Soviet problem in organising the defence of the city. At one point Popov could not release reserves opposing the Finnish forces to be deployed against the Germans because they were needed to bolster the 23rd Army’s defences on the Karelian isthmus. In fact Mannerheim called an end to the Finnish offensive on 31 August, when the Finns had reached the 1939 border. Greatly relieved by the fact, Popov was then able to redeploy two divisions to the German sector on 5 September.
The Finns later obviated Beloostrov and Kirjasalo salients, which threatened their positions on the coast of the Gulf of Finland and to the south of the Vuoksi river. Kenraalimajuri Paavo Juho Talvela and Eversti Eino Iisakki Järvinen, the commander of the Coastal Brigade responsible for the Lake Ladoga sector, proposed to the German headquarters the blocking of Soviet supply convoys steaming across the southern part of Lake Ladoga. The Germans therefore created an international naval detachment, including the Italian 12a Squadriglia MAS, under Finnish command and the Einsatzstab Fähre Ost under German command. These naval units operated against the supply route in the summer and autumn of 1942, the only period the units were able to operate before the advent of the winter freeze then forced the removal of these lightly equipped units, and changes in the front then made it impractical to re-establish these units later in the war.
Voroshilov’s Leningrad Front (until the start of ‘Barbarossa’ the Leningrad Military District) included the 23rd Army in the northern sector between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga, and the 48th Army in the western sector between the Gulf of Finland and the Slutsk–Mga position. Also in this area were the Leningrad Fortified Region, the Leningrad garrison, the forces of Vitse Admiral Vladimir F. Tributs’s Baltic Fleet, and the Koporye, Southern and Slutsk-Kolpino Operational Groups
By September 1941 the Leningrad Front’s ground communications with Meretskov’s Volkhov Front had been cut, and the defence of Leningrad was now based on sectors held by four formations: the 23rd Army in the northern sector, 42nd Army in the western sector, 55th Army in the southern sector, and 67th Army in the eastern sector. The 8th Army of the Volkhov Front had the responsibility of maintaining the logistic route to the city in co-ordination with V. Baranovsky’s Ladoga Flotilla. Air cover for the city was provided by the Leningrad Military District PVO Corps and Baltic Fleet naval aviation units. The defensive operation to protect 1.4 million civilians was part of the Leningrad counter-siege operations controlled by the Andrei A. Zhdanov and Aleksei A. Kuznetsov (chairman and deputy chairman of the local party organisation) together with Voroshilov.
By 8 September, the German forces had largely surrounded the city, cutting off all supply routes to Leningrad and its suburbs. Hitler now ordered the final destruction of Leningrad with no prisoners taken, and on 9 September Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ began the final push which within 10 days brought it within 6.25 miles (10 km) of the city. However, the advance over this last distance proved very slow, and also very costly in terms of casualties. Losing patience, Hitler now ordered that Leningrad should not be stormed but rather starved into submission.
Unable to press home their offensive, and facing defences of the city organised by Zhukov, the German and Finnish armies laid siege to the city for 872 days.
The German artillery bombardment of Leningrad had in fact begun in August 1941, increasing in intensity during 1942 with the arrival of new equipment, and was further increased during 1943, when several times as many shells and bombs were used as in the year before. The artillery effort was supplemented by bombing, and the German shelling and bombing killed 5,723 and wounded 20,507 civilians in Leningrad during the siege.
For the city’s defence to function over any length of time, it was vitally important for the Soviet forces to establish and maintain a route over which a constant flow of supplies could be delivered to Leningrad. This route was effected over the southern part of Lake Ladoga and the corridor of land which remained unoccupied by the German and Finnish forces between Lake Ladoga and Leningrad. The movement of supplies across Lake Ladoga involved watercraft during the warmer months and land vehicles driven over thick ice in winter. The security of the supply route was ensured by the Ladoga Flotilla, the Leningrad PVO Corps, and route security troops. Food was thus delivered to the village of Osinovets, whence it was transferred and transported for more than 28 miles (45 km) via a small railway to Leningrad: this route was also be used to evacuate civilians from the besieged city. However, this was still in the future, and the city’s civilians and their defenders literally starved in complete isolation until 20 November 1941, when the ice road over Lake Ladoga first became operational.
This ‘Road of Life’ was extremely dangerous, for there was a constant risk of vehicles becoming stuck in the snow or sinking through broken ice caused by the constant German artillery and air bombardment. Even so, the lifeline thus created did bring military and food supplies into the city, and evacuated civilians and wounded soldiers.
Deprived of its armour, Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ had meanwhile remained static and was subjected to numerous Soviet counterattacks, of which the most notable was the ‘Yelnya Offensive Operation’ that inflicted on the Germans their first major tactical defeat since the start of ‘Barbarossa’. These attacks caused Hitler to refocus this attention on Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and the offensive against Moscow. Thus the 3rd Panzergruppe and 4th Panzergruppe were ordered to break off their assault on Leningrad and move south to support Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ in its ‘Taifun’ (i) offensive against Moscow.
Before this latter could be started, it was necessary for the Germans to complete their operations in the area of Kiev, and operations in this area became the 1st Battle of Kiev, which lasted from 23 August to 26 September, and effectively ended ‘Barbarossa’ proper. So called by the Germans, the 1st Battle of Kiev was known to the Soviets as the ‘Kiev Defensive Operation’ (7 July/26 September), and the German success in this undertaking created a massive encirclement of Soviet troops in the vicinity of Kiev. This was the largest single military encirclement of history. Almost the whole of the South-West Front was trapped, and the Germans claimed to have captured 665,000 Soviet troops. As with other encirclement operations of ‘Barbarossa’, however, the Kiev encirclement was not complete, and small Soviet groups (including the headquarters of Budyonny, Timoshenko and Nikita Khrushchev, the last the communist party chairman in Ukraine and a political commissar) managed to escape the cauldron days after the German pincers had met to the east of the city. Kirponos, the commander of the South-West Front, was trapped and killed while trying to break out. Kiev was an unprecedented disaster for the Soviets, for it was larger by a considerable margin than the Minsk defeat of June and July.
On 1 September the South-West Front had between 752,000 and 760,000 troops (850,000 including reserves and rear area personnel) 114 tanks, 3,923 pieces of artillery and mortars and 167 combat aircraft. The encirclement trapped 452,700 soldiers, 64 tanks, and 2,642 pieces of artillery and mortars, and of the trapped personnel scarcely 15,000 escaped by 2 October. Overall, the South-West Front suffered 700,544 casualties, including 616,304 killed, captured or missing during the 1st Battle of Kiev. As a result the 5th, 21st, 26th, 37th and 38th Armies (comprising 43 divisions) were essentially destroyed, and the 40th Army was also hit very hard. Like the West Front before it, the South-West Front had therefore to be rebuilt. Kiev itself was liberated in November 1943 during the 2nd Battle of Kiev.
After the rapid progress of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ through the central sector of the new Eastern Front, there came into existence by a time late in July a huge salient around the junction of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’. Almost the whole of the South-West Front, positioned in and around Kiev, was located in this salient and, it lacked mobility and armoured strength as a result of its defeat in the Battle of Uman, this front nonetheless still posed a major threat to the German advance and was the largest single concentration of Soviet troops on the Eastern Front at that time.
On 3 August Hitler postponed the drive on Moscow in favour of the southern part of ‘Barbarossa’ and the capture of Kiev. On 12 August, however, a supplement to the Führerweisung Nr 34 of 30 July was issued, and this was a compromise between the thinking one the one hand of Hitler, who was sure that the right strategy was the elimination of the Soviet salient on right flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ near Kiev before the drive on Moscow was resumed, and on the other hand of Halder, von Bock and Guderian, who continued to advocate an advance on Moscow as soon as possible. The compromise required the 2nd Panzergruppe and 3rd Panzergruppe of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, already redeploying to aid Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ respectively, to be restored to Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, together with the 4th Panzergruppe of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’, as soon as they had achieved their objectives. The three Panzergruppen, under the command of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ were then to spearhead the renewed advance on Moscow. Halder and von Bock were at first satisfied with the compromise, but their optimism rapidly dissipated as the plan’s operational realities were seen to be too challenging.
On 18 August the OKH submitted to Hitler a strategic survey about continued operations on the Eastern Front. The paper logically and convincingly pleaded the case for the primacy of the offensive toward Moscow, arguing once again that Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ were strong enough to accomplish their objectives without any assistance from Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. The Oberkommando des Heeres also emphasised that there was time left before the onset of winter for only one decisive thrust against Moscow.
Hitler rejected the proposal on 20 August as his priority was to deprive the Soviets of their most important industrial areas and to capture these for the benefit of Germany. On 21 August Jodl issued an Oberkommando der Wehmacht directive, which summarised Hitler’s instructions, to von Brauchitsch. This directive once again stated that the most important missions before the onset of winter were to capture Crimea and the industrial and coal regions of the Donets basin; to deprive the Soviets of the opportunity to obtain oil from the Caucasus; and, in the north, to encircle Leningrad and link with the Finns. Among other instructions, it also laid it down that Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was to allocate sufficient forces to ensure the destruction of the ‘Russian 5th Army’ (as Hitler called all the Soviet forces in the salient) and, at the same time, to institute preparations to repel Soviet counter-offensives in the central sector of its front. Halder was dismayed, and later described Hitler’s plan as ‘utopian and unacceptable’, concluding that the orders were contradictory, that Hitler alone must bear the responsibility for inconsistency of his orders, and that the Oberkommando des Heeres could no longer assume responsibility for what was occurring. However, Hitler’s instructions did accurately reflect the original intent of the ‘Barbarossa’ directive, and the Oberkommando des Heeres had been fully aware of this since the original directive’s inception. Halder offered his resignation and also advised von Brauchitsch to do the same, but von Brauchitsch refused, stating Hitler would not accept the gesture and that no change could be effected. Halder then withdrew his offer of resignation.
On 23 August Halder met von Bock and Guderian at Borisov, and then flew with Guderian to Hitler’s headquarters in East Prussia. During the meeting that then followed between Hitler and Guderian, at which neither Halder nor von Brauchitsch was present, Hitler allowed Guderian to make the case for the drive on Moscow, but then rejected his argument. Hitler claimed his decision to secure the northern and southern sectors of western USSR were ‘tasks which strip the Moscow problem of much of its significance’ and was ‘not a new proposition, but a fact I have clearly and unequivocally stated since the beginning of the operation’. Hitler also argued that the situation was even more critical because the opportunity to encircle the Soviet forces in the salient was ‘an unexpected opportunity, and a reprieve from past failures to trap the Soviet armies in the south’. Hitler added that ‘the objections that time will be lost and the offensive on Moscow might be undertaken too late, or that the armoured units might no longer be technically able to fulfil their mission, are not valid’. Hitler reiterated that once the flanks of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ had been cleared, especially the salient in the south, he would permit the army to resume its drive on Moscow in an offensive which ‘must not fail’. In fact Hitler had already issued the orders for the shift of Guderian’s Panzergruppe to the south. Guderian returned to his command and began the southern thrust in an effort to encircle the Soviet forces in the salient.
The bulk of the 2nd Panzergruppe and 2nd Army were detached from Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and also sent south. Their mission was to encircle the South-West Front in conjunction with the 1st Panzergruppe of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, which was thrusting from from the south-east.
The Panzergruppen made rapid progress. On 12 September the 1st Panzergruppe, which had now turned north and crossed the Dniepr river, surged from its bridgeheads at Cherkassy and Kremenchug, and continuing to the north cut across the rear of Budyonny’s South-West Front. On 16 September the 1st Panzergruppe established contact with the 2nd Panzergruppe, which was advancing to the south, at Lokhvitsa, 120 miles (195 km) to the east of Kiev. The South-West Front was now trapped, and Budyonny was relieved by order of Stalin on 13 September. No successor was named, leaving the troops to their individual army, corps and divisional commanders.
The fate of the encircled Soviet armies was sealed. Without mobile forces or an overall commander, the Soviet armies were unable to plan any break-out. The infantry of the 17th Army and 6th Army of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ soon arrived, along with that of the 2nd Army, which was on loan from Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and marching in the wake of Guderian’s armour. With the aid of the two Panzergruppen, the three infantry armies began the systematic process of reducing the Soviet pocket. The encircled Soviet armies did not give up easily, and a savage battle in which the Soviets were bombarded by artillery, tanks and aircraft, had to be fought before the pocket was finally overcome. By 19 September Kiev had fallen, but the encirclement battle still raged. After 10 days of heavy fighting, the last remnants Soviet troops to the east of Kiev surrendered on 26 September. The Germans claimed the death or capture of more than 616,300 men, although these claims included a large number of civilians suspected of evading capture. The actual losses admitted by the Soviets were 452,720 men and 3,867 pieces of artillery and mortars from 43 divisions of the 5th, 21st, 26th and 37th Armies.
Guderian’s diversion to the south allowed the Germans to destroy the entire South-West Front to the east of Kiev during September, inflicting more than 700,000 casualties, including 84,240 wounded, on the Soviets even as the Soviet forces to the west of Moscow conducted their futile and costly counter-offensive against the German forces around Smolensk.
After this Kiev diversion, Hitler belatedly launched ‘Taifun’ (i) in October, only to see his offensive falter at the gates of Moscow early in December.
For all practical purposes, ‘Barbarossa’ ended at the end of September after the German forces had reached an essentially north/south lines extending from the south shore of Lake Ladoga to the east of Leningrad to Novgorod, Ostashkov, Yartsevo, a point just to the west of Bryansk, a point mid-way between Lokhvitsa and Kharkov, Poltava, Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporozhye and the north coast of the Sea of Azov near Melitopol. By this time planning and preparation were in full swing for ‘Taifun’ (i), in which a single-axis offensive was finally to replace the three-axis offensive of ‘Barbarossa’.
It has been claimed that had Hitler launched ‘Taifun’ (i) in September rather than October, the Germans would have captured Moscow before the full onset of winter and thus avoided continued offensive operations in the winter of 1941/42, which was one of the bitterest on record. However, there is greater validity in the counter-argument that had Hitler launched ‘Taifun’ (i) in September, Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ would have been faced by the dire task of penetrating deep Soviet defences manned by armies which had not been compelled to squander their strength in fruitless offensives against the German to the east of Smolensk. Furthermore, Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ would have embarked on the offensive with an ever-extending and vulnerable right flank, and in the best reckoning would have reached the approaches to Moscow after mid-October, just as the autumnal rainy season was beginning and making the going all but impossible. In the event the Stavka saved Moscow by raising and fielding 10 reserve armies which took part in the final defence of Moscow, the counterstrokes of December 1941 and the counter-offensives of January 1942. These armies would have gone into action regardless of when Hitler launched ‘Taifun’ (i). While they first checked and then drove back the German offensive short of Moscow as the ‘Taifun’ (i) actually developed, they would also have been available to do so had the Germans attacked Moscow a month earlier. Furthermore, if the latter were the case, they would have been able to operate in conjunction with the undefeated force of 600,000 or more men of the South-West Front on the over-extended right flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’.