Berlin, Germany · December 18, 1940
On this date in 1940 in Berlin, one day before receiving the credentials of the new Soviet ambassador to Germany, Adolf Hitler signed Fuehrer Directive 21, Operation Barbarossa (Unternehmen Barbarossa), thereby initiating the secret preparations and military operations that led to the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. The armed forces of Germany, the directive stated, must be prepared, even before the conclusion of the war with England (which had entered the war against Germany sixteen months earlier), to annihilate the Soviets militarily in a lightning campaign. For that to happen the plan called for the attack along an 800‑mile front stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, using more troops (3 million but eventually swelling to 4.5 million), artillery pieces (46,000), tanks (3,350), aircraft (4,389), and horses (750,000) ever to be unleashed on an opponent.
Operation Barbarossa is important for three reasons. First, it was the single largest land battle in history. Secondly, had Barbarossa succeeded, the Third Reich would have scooped up huge tracts of the Soviet Union’s heavily populated and agricultural heartland, its oil-rich Caucasus, and the greater part of its strategic industries. The Nazis believed that it was only by grabbing the human and raw material and finished resources of a large economy like the Soviets’ could Germany compete, even survive as a great power, against other great economic powerhouses, especially the United States, which for the moment remained neutral in the global competition between Western democracies and totalitarian states represented by Germany, Italy, and Japan.
Thirdly, the botched outcome of Operation Barbarossa marked the beginning of the end for Hitler’s Germany. In German casualties alone, ninety-five percent occurred on Soviet soil between 1941 and 1944. Notable Wehrmacht failures to take major cities like the Soviet capital Moscow, Stalingrad (today’s Volgograd) on the Volga River, and Leningrad on the Baltic coast drove up the casualty count on both sides. Sixty-five percent of all Allied military casualties were incurred by the Soviets either in trying to expel and destroy the Axis enemy or in German POW camps, where most of the three million Soviet prisoners were deliberately starved to death as part of the Hungerplan (Starvation Plan), a policy of mass murder developed concurrently with Operation Barbarossa in order to feed both the invading German Army and the population back home.
Opening Phase of Operation Barbarossa, June–August 1941
Above: Operation Barbarossa, beginning on June 22, 1941, was the code name for Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union. It marked the beginning of the pivotal phase in deciding the victors of the war. During the first few months of the invasion, the Germans won resounding victories and occupied some of the most important economic areas of the Soviet Union. Their Blitzkrieg approach to warfare on the Eastern Front included genocidal practices to decimate a “racially inferior” population through planned mass starvation.
Left: The 3rd Panzer Group under Col. Gen. Hermann Hoth, part of Army Group Center (Heeresgruppe Mitte), rolls through present-day Belarus near Pruzhany, June 1941. Army Group Center, one of three German armies attacking the Soviet Union, encircled Red Army forces around the Belarus capital of Minsk, a key strategic railway junction and a defensive position on the main road and rail line to Moscow, the Soviet capital. During the Battle of Białystok–Minsk, Army Group Center threw back all major counterattacks and breakthrough attempts, killing and capturing 341,073 Soviets and advancing into the Soviet Union so quickly that many observers of the time believed the Germans had effectively won the war.
Right: Soviet equipment that fell into German hands in the early days of Operation Barbarossa. According to Soviet archives, the Red Army lost 20,500 tanks and 21,200 aircraft between June 22 and December 5, 1941. Out of a jaw-dropping 4.7 million Soviet casualties, irrecoverable manpower losses were over 3.1 million, of which over 2.3 million persons were listed as missing in action. German equipment losses were put at 3,827 aircraft and between 2,464 and 2,839 tanks. German manpower losses per army (Heer) medical reports were 802,458 killed, wounded, or missing in action and (according to Red Army reports) 11,000 prisoners of war.
Left: German infantryman in front of fallen Soviet tank soldier and burning BT‑7 light tank in the southern Soviet Union during the early days of Operation Barbarossa, June 1941. Army Group South’s principal objective was to capture Ukraine and its capital Kiev. Ukraine was a major center of Soviet industry and mining and had the good farmland required for Hitler’s plans for Lebensraum (“living space”). The successful operation (the First Battle of Kiev) ran from August 23 to September 26, 1941. Soviet losses were 700,544 overall.
Right: German soldiers with a destroyed Soviet KV‑1 heavy tank near Kaunas, the second-largest city in Lithuania, June 1941. The tank may be one of over 700 tanks destroyed during the Battle of Raseiniai (June 23–27, 1941) by Army Group North, under Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, en route to Leningrad. The result of the battle was the almost complete destruction of Soviet armored forces of the Northwestern Front, which was involved in heavy fighting in the Baltic Republics and on the approaches and the outskirts of Leningrad, the Soviet Union’s second‑largest city.
Barbarossa, the Invasion of the Soviet Union, June 22 to December 5, 1941