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World War II Europe: The Eastern Front

The Invasion of the Soviet Union

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World War II Europe: The Eastern Front

Fighting in Stalingrad, 1942

Photograph Source: Public Domain
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Hitler Turns East

Stymied in his attempt to invade Britain in 1940, Hitler refocused his attention on opening an eastern front and conquering the Soviet Union. Since the 1920s, he had advocated seeking additional Lebensraum (living space) for the German people in the east. Believing the Slavs and Russians to be racially inferior, Hitler sought to establish a New Order in which German Aryans would control Eastern Europe and use it for their benefit. To prepare the German people for an attack on the Soviets, Hitler unleashed a broad propaganda campaign that focused on the atrocities perpetrated by Stalin's regime and the horrors of Communism.

Hitler's decision was further influenced by a belief that the Soviets could be defeated in a brief campaign. This was reinforced by the Red Army's poor performance in the recent Winter War (1939-1940) against Finland and the Wehrmacht's (German Army) tremendous success in swiftly defeating the Allies in the Low Countries and France. As Hitler pushed planning forward, many of his senior military commanders argued in favor of defeating Britain first, rather than opening an eastern front. Hitler, believing himself to be a military genius, brushed these concerns aside, stating that the defeat of the Soviets would only further isolate Britain.

Operation Barbarossa

Designed by Hitler, the plan for invading the Soviet Union called for the use of three large army groups. Army Group North was to march through the Baltic Republics and capture Leningrad. In Poland, Army Group Center was to drive east to Smolensk, then on to Moscow. Army Group South was ordered to attack into the Ukraine, capture Kiev, and then turn towards the oil fields of the Caucasus. All told, the plan called for the use of 3.3 million German soldiers, as well as an additional 1 million from Axis nations such as Italy, Romania, and Hungary. While the German High Command (OKW) advocated for a direct strike on Moscow with the bulk of their forces, Hitler insisted on capturing the Baltics and Ukraine as well.

Early German Victories

Originally scheduled for May 1941, Operation Barbarossa did not commence until June 22, 1941, due late spring rains and German troops being diverted to the fighting in Greece and the Balkans. The invasion came as a surprise to Stalin, despite intelligence reports that suggested a German attack was likely. As German troops surged across the frontier, they were quickly able to break through the Soviet lines as large panzer formations led the advance with infantry following behind. Army Group North advanced 50 miles in the first day and soon was crossing the Dvina River, near Dvinsk, on the road to Leningrad.

Attacking through Poland, Army Group Center initiated the first of several large battles of encirclement when the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Armies drove around 540,000 Soviets. As infantry armies held the Soviets in place, the two Panzer Armies raced around their rear, linking up at Minsk and completing the encirclement. Turning inwards, the Germans hammered the trapped Soviets and captured 290,000 soldiers (250,000 escaped). Advancing through southern Poland and Romania, Army Group South met stiffer resistance, but was able to defeat a massive Soviet armored counterattack on June 26-30.

With the Luftwaffe commanding the skies, German troops had the luxury of calling in frequent air strikes to support their advance. On July 3, after pausing to allow the infantry to catch up, Army Group Center resumed their advance towards Smolensk. Again, the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Armies swung wide, this time encircling three Soviet armies. After the pincers closed, over 300,000 Soviets surrendered while 200,000 were able to escape.

Hitler Changes the Plan

A month into the campaign it became clear that OKW had badly underestimated the strength of the Soviets as the large surrenders had failed to end their resistance. Unwilling to continue fighting large battles of encirclement, Hitler sought to strike the Soviet's economic base by taking Leningrad and the Caucasus oil fields. To accomplish this, he ordered panzers to be diverted from Army Group Center to support Army Groups North and South. OKW fought this move as the generals knew that most of the Red Army was concentrated around Moscow and that a battle there could end the war. As before, Hitler was not to be persuaded and the orders were issued.

The German Advance Continues

Reinforced, Army Group North was able to break through the Soviet defenses on August 8, and by the end of the month was only 30 miles from Leningrad. In the Ukraine, Army Group South destroyed three Soviet armies near Uman, before executing a massive encirclement of Kiev which was completed on August 16. After savage fighting, the city was captured along with over 600,000 of its defenders. With the loss at Kiev, the Red Army no longer possessed any significant reserves in the west and only 800,000 men remained to defend Moscow. The situation worsened on September 8, when German forces cut off Leningrad and initiated a siege that would last 900 days and claim 200,000 of the city's inhabitants.

The Battle of Moscow Begins

In late September, Hitler again changed his mind and ordered the panzers to rejoin Army Group Central for a drive on Moscow. Beginning on October 2, Operation Typhoon was designed to break through the Soviet defensive lines and enable German forces to take the capital. After initial success that saw the Germans execute another encirclement, this time capturing 663,000, the advance slowed to a crawl due to heavy autumn rains. By October 13, German forces were only 90 miles from Moscow, but were advancing less than 2 miles a day. On the 31st, OKW ordered a halt to regroup its armies. The lull allowed the Soviets to bring reinforcements to Moscow from the Far East, including 1,000 tanks and 1,000 aircraft.

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