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 direc­tive stated that Germany’s armed forces (or Wehr­macht) must be pre­pared, even before the con­clu­sion of the war with England (which had entered the war against Germany 16 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 Seas, using more troops (3 mil­lion but even­tually swelling to 4.5 mil­lion), artil­lery pieces (46,000), tanks (3,350), air­craft (4,389), and trans­port horses (750,000) ever to be un­leashed on an oppo­nent. On the eve of the 1941 inva­sion Hitler told mem­bers of the Ober­kom­mando der Wehr­macht (German High Com­mand): “Your armies will shatter the Rus­sian colos­sus. It will be a hard fight. The Asia­tics are cruel and cunning, but you will meet them with a deter­mi­na­tion as hard and cold as ice. Only one people will come out of this alive—our people.” He forecast a German victory inside three months.

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 time being remained neu­tral in the global com­pe­ti­tion between Western demo­cra­cies and total­i­tarian states represented by Germany, Italy, and Japan, which formed the principle Axis Powers.

Thirdly, the botched outcome of Operation Bar­ba­rossa marked the begin­ning of the end for Hitler’s Germany, mili­tarily, geo­polit­i­cally, and eco­nom­i­cally. The utter vast­ness of the Eastern Front stretched the Wehr­macht to the breaking point with serious logis­tics prob­lems, weather-related issues (heavy rains followed by arctic cold), lack of win­terized equip­ment, and a huge ero­sion over time in criti­cal war matériel, person­nel strength, and home front morale. In German casu­al­ties alone, 95 per­cent occurred on Soviet soil between 1941 and 1944. Nota­ble Wehr­macht fail­ures to cap­ture and hold the Soviet bread­basket of Ukraine and seize major centers of popu­la­tion and indus­try like the Soviet capi­tal Moscow, Stalin­grad (today’s Volgo­grad) on the Volga River, and Lenin­grad (today’s St. Peters­burg) 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 Axis enemy forces or in German POW camps, where most of the 3 mil­lion Soviet pri­soners were delib­erately starved to death as part of the Nazis’ Hunger­plan (Star­va­tion Plan). Devised by the Minis­try for Food and Agri­cul­ture in Decem­ber 1940, the plan to mass mur­der Soviet com­bat­ants and civil­ians alike in order to feed the invading German Army as well as the popu­la­tion back home was devel­oped con­cur­rently with plan­ning Oper­a­tion Barba­rossa. Although food rationing in Germany had been intro­duced as early as August 1939, starting in April 1942 rations and options across the major food groups (grains, meat, fats, and dairy) were repeatedly cut ever more sharply as the nation’s Eastern Front mis­for­tunes rapidly accel­er­ated. By the end of the war bread and pota­toes accounted for over 90 per­cent of German consumers’ daily intake.

Opening Phase of Operation Barbarossa, June–August 1941

Opening phase of Operation Barbarossa, June–August 1941

Above: Operation Barbarossa, unleashed in the early morning hours of June 22, 1941, was the code­name for Germany’s inva­sion of the Soviet Union. The high-stakes gamble marked the end of the Nazi-Soviet Non­aggres­sion Pact of August 1939 and the start of the pivo­tal phase in deciding the vic­tors of the war in Europe. Germans of every stripe reveled in the moment: their nation con­trolled of all of Europe from the Pyre­nees to the Soviet fron­tier, a sit­u­a­tion vir­tually unpre­ce­dented in his­tory. During the first few months of Oper­a­tion Barba­rossa, when the Wehr­macht’s three-prong Russian cam­paign was wildly popu­lar inside and outside the armed forces and the Soviet Union appeared headed for col­lapse, Germans won resounding vic­to­ries and occupied some of the most impor­tant econo­mic areas of that coun­try. Germany’s Blitz­krieg approach to war­fare in the East included geno­cidal prac­tices to deci­mate the “racially inferior” Slavic pop­u­la­tion through planned mass star­va­tion, after which German immi­grants would be encour­aged to resettle and exploit the rich agricul­tural and mine­ral resources of the emptied and con­quered areas for the benefit of the Greater German Reich.

Operation Barbarossa: German armored forces in Belarus, June 1941Operation Barbarossa: Captured Soviet equipment, 1941

Left: The 3rd Panzer Group under Col. Gen. Hermann Hoth, part of Field Marshal Fedor von Bock’s 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 Byelo­russian (Belarus) capital 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 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.

Operation Barbarossa: German infantryman, southern Soviet Union, 1941Operation Barbarossa: German soldiers with destroyed Soviet tank near Kaunas, Lithuania, June 1941

Left: German infantryman in front of fallen Soviet tank solder and burning BT‑7 light tank in the south­ern Soviet Union during the early days of Opera­tion Bar­ba­rossa, June 1941. Field Marshal Gerd von Rund­stedt’s Army Group South’s princi­pal objec­tive was to cap­ture Ukraine and its capi­tal Kyiv (Kiev). Ukraine was a major center of Soviet indus­try and mining and had the good farm­land required for Hitler’s plans for Lebens­raum, or living space. (Pflanzen­raum, or growing space, for gaining new agri­cul­tural and mine­ral resources to exploit along with increased coloni­za­tion possi­bil­i­ties would have more accu­rately explained the German notion of Lebens­raum.) The success­ful encircle­ment of Soviet troops in the vicin­ity of Kyiv (the First Battle of Kyiv) ran from August 23 to Septem­ber 26, 1941, and was the the greatest feat of arms in the history of warfare. Soviet losses were 700,544 men.

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.

History Channel’s Operation Barbarossa, the Invasion of the Soviet Union, June 22 to December 5, 1941

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